UTMB - The Home of the Ultra Running Community

Possibly the biggest trail running event in the world, so what's it really like?

Callum Robinson
By Callum Robinson

27/09/23

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The UTMB is probably the biggest event in the world on the trail and ultra running scene, with thousands of runners descending to Chamonix in France in late August each year. With so many the top athletes, 13 different races to choose from, group runs, talks, workshops and many top brands showcasing new kit, its a week long celebration of running!

 

 

 

We caught up with Marie Cheng, Lewis Ferguson and Christian Quick who all spent time out in the Alps for UTMB this year.

 

 

What makes the UTMB so special?

 

In the trail running circles, it is quite possibly the biggest trail running event globally.  Even if UTMB isn’t quite your cup of tea or you don’t see yourself as that type of runner, I think you would be hard pushed to find trail runners who haven’t at least heard of it! 

 

Photo credit: Rich Gill 

 

UTMB week is crazy, there is so much to do, too much in fact and too little time to do it all so you need to pick wisely!  From shake out runs, to talks from the athletes, different brands on display in the Ultra-Trail village, opportunities to head out on the Alpine trails and of course the 13 different races that go on during UTMB Finals Week.  It is just a big celebration of running! - Marie 

 

This was my first time in Chamonix. I have been watching this iconic event though social media platforms over the last 4 years with the intent of getting out here to watch the races in person and finally got the chance this year. There are so many parts that attracted me to this event and it’s hard to choose, but I would have to say the main reason is just to soak up the atmosphere and buzz that is around the town and not just the races themselves. Also, it gives you the opportunity to see the top athletes in the sport that I love to compete in and also to watch many of my friends compete in their individual events too. - Lewis

 

The atmosphere of the start was incredible I had goosebumps, it felt like the entire town had come to watch. All the runners on the trail was so friendly, lots of different nationalities and languages but we all seemed to communicate flawlessly whether it be letting a faster person go past or seeing if someone is ok after slipping. The spectators on the route were so fun.

 

Most shouting "ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ" which I've only ever seen on tour de France so it made me feel quite special haha. There was one guy with the biggest cow bell I've ever seen. Coming to the finish was amazing, I picked up abit of speed and began over taking people which the spectators seemed to enjoy. Then getting to the gantry and seeing my mates Lewis and Heidi there was a welcome site. - Christian

 

What is the atmosphere and running community like at UTMB?

 

 

 

I’ve been to Chamonix a number of times, typically in the Winter and I’ve never really seen an atmosphere quite like it.  I’d say it’s amazing but also overwhelming at the same time to be around so many runners in the same place!  Interestingly when we went to visit the gantry on the first day, the start/finish area is actually a lot smaller than it looks on tv and on photos! - Marie

 

 Photo credit: Rich Gill

 

Luckily, I was able to share this race journey with a few good friends of mine which was amazing but also like all trail races the atmosphere is just amazing, standing on the start line in Courmayeur and listening to all the chanting before the race was incredible. - Lewis

 

This was my first time in Chamonix, I've been aware of UTMB for a long time now and always thought what an amazing atmosphere it looked. The surrounding beauty and the crowds it draws in looked incredible. Even if I never ran a UTMB race I always wanted to go just to be there and to soak it all in. - Christian

 

 

What sort of training did you do in the lead up to the race?

 

Photo credit: Marie Cheng

 

The OCC race is 55km with over 3000m of vert, so a lot of my training tends to involve long runs with quite a lot of elevation and on mountain/hilly terrain.  I have also been training consistently (albeit with short breaks/running downtime) in two years so on average my weekly distance is approximately 50k+ but my monthly elevation is typically a minimum of 2000m+. 

 

Also the climbs in OCC (and on many mountain races in the UK) are long, which means not even the elites will be running these but rather walking efficiently and quicker up the hill – power hiking!  So a lot of my training also encompassed power hiking. - Marie

 

 Photo credit: Heidi Rogers

 

So, for me this was a slightly shorter race that I would normally compete it but none the less my training didn’t really change, I was running around 60-80km per week on average in the weeks leading up, trying to get in as many of the sessions in the hills to prepare me for all the vert I would be running. - Lewis 

 

 

My training was quite laid back in all honesty. I hopped on the vert.run app because they were in partnership with UTMB and had training plans specific for each race so I followed that. Because I was on the ETC (15km) race, it wasn't as much long runs as I'm used to. More so hill reps, and 1-2 hour easy runs. But I threw in some strength training as well as my cycle commute. - Christian

 

What were your favourite parts or aspects of the race?

 

 

The atmosphere was insane at both the start and finish line, but the views and trails were just incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it and it was the highlight of the race for me. - Lewis

 

The race start is pretty special, it’s a little surreal that you start in Switzerland and run to France on the race!  Also the views, the climbs are tough to get there, but being surrounded by snowy peaks and alpine huts is pretty cool! - Marie

 

There's so many aspects of it I loved. The town of Courmayeur where it was based is beautiful, me and Lewis had some really good coffee pre race at a cafe, the views along the route were next level. Never ran a race like it, just stunning mountains wherever you looked. Also the water stops were all natural water springs which were ice cold, they went down a treat. - Christian


What was your game plan going into the race?

 

My game plan was just to take it nice and easy at the start and hike the big climb in the first 8km and then run the downs and flats as best as I could. Nothing too complicated. - Lewis

 

My game plan was to just enjoy myself. It was more to get a lay of what the terrain is like for when I hopefully go back to do one of the UTMB final races. Also get a feel for the logistics, although would be a lot more to organise if I was to do one of the bigger ones but just to see how it's organised by them in a way too. - Christian

 

 

What were the biggest challenges and how did you take them on?

 

 

 

The OCC race doesn’t go majorily high, with the highest point being around 2000m so whilst you don’t typically get altitude sickness or too badly affected, you still do get an altitude effect!  This tends to manifest in terms of slightly heavier breathing and everything is just a little more hard work.  I’ve been at altitude before a number of times so know how this would typically feel, and on race day it was more a case of just being aware that there may be an effect and slowing it down when I needed to.

 

I have also been carrying an ongoing foot issue (now diagnosed by the physio as posterior tibialis tendonitis!) and was concerned it would flare up majorly on the race. It did flare up around 15k in, after the first big climb. It was frustrating in the sense that it meant some of the flats and downhills were just much slower than what I wanted, however it’s also trying to manage it and adapt on the go and mentally trying to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I also followed my race nutrition plan religiously which gave me so much energy on the upper part of my body that semi compensated mentally for the feet and leg issues that I had! - Marie

 

The biggest challenge for me was the altitude, we climbed up to about 2000m above sea level and having never run at that height before it definitely took me by surprise. I dealt with it by just reducing my effort making sure that I was breathing effectively to get as much oxygen into my lungs as I needed. - Lewis

 

The biggest challenge I think was being organised, I am famously disorganised usually forgetting something important like waterproof trousers or poles. But thankfully this time I made a checklist of everything I'd need and nothing was left behind. - Christian

 


How did you fuel your race?

 

Photo credit: Lewis Ferguson

 

I had planned it out with my coach that I would take on 80 grams of carbs per hour, this consisted of 1 x Electro Energy. I also had the VOOM Fusion Fuel energy drink (Apple & Blackcurrant) in one of my 500ml water bottles and an extra 500ml bottle with just water. Not to mention 20 minutes before the race started, I made sure I had 1 x Caffeine Kick bar to give me that boost off the start line. - Lewis

 

So for the race, I had 2 of the Beta Blast Pocket Rocket bars and another 2 Electro Energy Pocket Rocket bars. Although I only actually needed one of each for the race, it's always good to carry more than you think you need. I then had a Recover Fudge bar for afterwards, which I shared with my mate Lewis because sharing is caring. - Christian



For anyone looking to head out to the UTMB, what would your three top tips be?

 

Marie:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. Similar to my advice on Glastonbury, you will burn yourself out trying to be at everything and see everyone!

  2. Stay a little further out, or at least several streets away from the main Chamonix centre as it can be quite loud especially when the races are on.  Plus if you’re racing you probably want a little respite before race day.

  3. Bring a pack of Yorkshire Tea with you, sorry France but your tea bags are slightly shocking by English standards (think dishwater consistency or at least they have been in the places I’ve had tea at!)!

Lewis:
  1. Book your accommodation as soon as you can as they sell out fast.

  2. Plan your trip in advance as to what races you want to see throughout the week, as it does get busy around the finish line etc.

  3. Learn some basic French as it really does help, thankfully I had friends that were able to help me out. Hahaha!

 

Christian:
  1. Go out there and recce. Not just for the terrain or route but also to acclimatise. Chamonix itself is 1000 meters above sea level so when you climb an additional 600 meters or more so in your race, you really have to take into consideration you may suffer from altitude sickness.

  2. Prepare to spend a lot of money. Chamonix is a tourist town all year round. You will be paying a lot for food and drinks. 

  3. Don't forget to take it all in. It's such a beautiful part of the world, it's easy to purely focus on the race, putting one foot in front of the other or the person behind you. Just look out at the scenery and take into consideration how lucky you are to be there right at that moment. 

 

Conquering the UTMB Film

 

UTMB have put together a brilliant hour long film on conquering the UTMB, you can tune in here:

 

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