Racing ‘Round The Mountain at UTMB

By Mario Fraioli

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Tim Tollefson’s stoke was off the charts as he came back into Chamonix. Photo: Kim Gaylord

There’s a sizable subset of this newsletter’s subscribership that’s interested in the sport of ultramarathoning while the rest could care less or just don’t understand the appeal of running for many, many hours over gnarly mountain terrain, all of which is totally fine. But this past weekend’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc festival of races was one of the most exciting endurance events of 2017 and is worth a second look, whether you followed it the first time around or not.

The annual spectacle has become the Super Bowl of the sport. Its headliner, the UTMB, a 104-mile circumnavigation of Mt. Blanc, regularly attracts the world’s top long-distance mountain runners in a party-like atmosphere that puts many major road races to shame. The other races, ranging from 53-119 kilometers in distance, also attract fast fields. There’s nothing quite like it in the U.S., or much of the rest of the world, for that matter. Here’s a pretty sweet sizzle reel of this year’s edition that captures the vibe and appeal of it all.

I’ll leave the full blow-by-blow accounts of the two most competitive events—the UTMB and the CCC—to the on-course experts at iRunFar because I want to ruminate for a bit on the men’s contest at UTMB, which was one of the most exciting running races I’ve ever followed, regardless of distance or discipline. It was a near-20 hour display of tactics, guts and resolve that had me glued to the live tracker (the gold standard in endurance sports, if you ask me) and iRunFar’s Twitter feed.

What was so great about it? For starters, it was arguably the most competitive ultramarathon field in history, featuring three men—François D’haene of France, Kilian Jornet of Spain and Xavier Thévenard of France—who, combined, had won seven of the last nine UTMBs. In some respects, that’s the equivalent of what we’ll see when Eliud Kipchoge lines up against Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele at the Berlin Marathon a little over two weeks from now. Add to the aforementioned trio of European mountain gods a plethora of past podium finishers and many other athletes who had more than proven their mettle at other top races around the world and you had the makings of an off-road all-timer. Even more amazing? It didn’t disappoint.

The race was a dramatic barn-burner from the get-go, as D’haene, Jornet, Thévenard and American Jim Walmsley got after it early and set a fast tempo into the cold, wet, windy night (only Walmsley thought it was slow). Behind them, places shuffled faster than a stacked deck in Vegas as Americans Tim Tollefson (full disclosure: I’m his coach) and Dylan Bowman ran patiently together, methodically moving up through the field until they found themselves in fourth and fifth 100K into the race. By 68 miles, Walmsley began to unravel and sat down to have a few bowls of soup, while Jornet left the aid station ahead of him and gave chase to D’haene with just shy of 40 miles of racing to go. By Mile 75, Walmsley was stopped again, losing more spots, as Tollefson ran himself into the top-three. Meanwhile, D’haene kept pulling away from the superhuman Jornet—the same guy who set two Fastest Known Times on Everest within five days earlier this year, and then won the Hardrock 100 after dislocating his shoulder early in the race—which happens about as often as a total solar eclipse. Fast forward to the final stretch of the race, as D’haene, Jornet and Tollefson held their positions all the way to the finish line in Chamonix, Thévenard and Walmsley both rallied, and battled one another, ultimately finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, while Pau Capell of Spain tried running down Walmsley with a furious sprint in the final 1,500m through town. It was the best runners in the world putting on an exciting show—for 20 freaking hours straight!

A few notable shoutouts, in no particular order:

+ Francois D’haene and Kilian Jornet, two legends of the sport, who showed beyond any doubt why they’re the best in the world. “In ultra trail I think it was the first time we have such a deep competition, but yeah, the finish line here is always incredible,” D’haene said after the race. “Now, one day after, when I remember all those runners at the start line, and I’m the first to cross the line? It’s just incredible.”

+ Trying to keep my own biases to a minimum, Tim Tollefson finishing third here for the second year in row deserves to be recognized and celebrated. He’s the Des Linden of ultra-trail running: a hard-working, humble gamer who let’s his legs do the talking on race day and believes deep down that he has what it takes to eventually win a big one. And while he doesn’t quite have Linden’s taste for whiskey, he sure knows how to enjoy the final few hundred meters to the finish line better than anyone else. To this point I’ve refrained from interviewing my own athletes for the shakeout, but I might make an exception for this one, because hey, it’s my newsletter and I think many of you would find the conversation interesting. In the meantime, here are his pre- and post-race interviews from iRunFar.

+ The American athletes in general deserve a shout. Putting four in the top-10 of UTMB is pretty incredible in its own right. Much respect to Walmsley for rallying himself to finish fifth, Bowman for running strong from start to finish to place seventh, and Zach Miller for battling the entire way to come home in ninth (his second straight top-10 finish at UTMB). The ever-so-solid Amy Sproston of Bend, Oregon was eighth in the women’s race. Hayden Hawks beat a stout field in the men’s CCC, while Jorge Maravilla finished tenth. On the women’s side, Clare Gallagher led three Americans in the top-five. Who said Americans can’t run big mountains?

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.