UTMB 2022 171km / 10,000m of elevation.
The UTMB is one of the epic ultra races and is set in Chamonix, France. The race circumnavigates the beautiful Mont Blanc and starts at 6pm on a Friday in late August. Runners have 46 hours and 30 minutes to complete the race. The UTMB is a lottery and in order to enter you have to have gained points from other eligible races*. The UTMB attracts elite ultra runners from across the globe. Kilian Jornet, Jim Walmsley, Katie Schide and Marrianne Hogan were just a few of the elites at the UTMB this year.
The UTMB race has been on my wish list for the last 10 years, ever since I finished the Marathon des Sables back in 2010. A friend of mine in the UK, Abi, always said she would come out when I ran it and naturally she was one of the first people I contacted when I found out I had made the lottery for the race in late January this year.
My goal for the UTMB was to finish. I initially wanted to podium for my age group but I found this pressure was making me feel stressed and the fun had gone out of my running. So I took a step back and focused on just finishing and enjoying the process of training. These long races really start around 90km in so I wanted to see how the race turned out with a view to pushing if things were all going to plan.
A few weeks before the UTMB I concentrated on mental strength sessions which would help me complete the run. I ran through all the things that could go wrong, but then had a plan on how I would fix them. I thought through as many situation as I could. This paid off as I think the UTMB was one of the best races I have run.
Just waiting for the UTMB 2022 to start
1. My approach to training for the UTMB 2022.
I was accepted into the 2022 UTMB at the end of January and as it was still ski season, I continued with backcountry skiing to help build endurance and strength for climbing. I strength trained focusing on some weakness. I know some elite ultra runners do not strength train, but as an older athlete research has shown it is so important. Having torn my right hamstring in 2020, strength training was key to my recovery. I worked on (with the guidance from @evolvedsport and @fortiusrehab) leg strength, lateral movements and glute work, as well as strengthening my shoulders.
I know my body can manage up to 140k a week so I did not do more than this. I did one hard followed by one easy week as I found my recovery was not going well with two hard weeks. Most of the research is on young male collegiate athletes about training protocols where they recommend 3 hard to one easy week. I have found this too much for my body and therefore I have adapted my plans to work for me. One hard to one easy week seemed to work well, particularly considering all the other things I wanted to fit into my life. So if you are finding that 2-3 hard weeks are tough on your body and recovery, look at reducing it down to 1-2 hard weeks plus recovery / easy week. It is key to do what is right for you and your body.
During my hard weeks I aimed to spend as much time on my feet as I could. I would do endless dog walks to increase my daily distance, complete either a speed session at tempo or threshold pace. The following hard week I would do some form of hill repeats. I did one strength work out during these weeks and added in some short recovery yoga to help keep my body moving.
In easy weeks I would run at an easy perceived effort of 5/10 and I included short sets of strides or hill speed repeats. I completed two strength workouts during these weeks.
The longest run I did to prepare for the UTMB was Rockwall which took us just under 11 hours. I also ran a couple of Sinister 7 legs for some teams. Recovery was key after these long efforts so I reduced the intensity and effort a few days after these runs.
From the end of January to the week before my race I completed 2500km and 63,000m of elevation. My clients often get fixated with the key "one long run" but as a run coach I encourage my athletes to appreciate and understand that one run will not make the difference. Athletes need to consider the overall training load and the achievements over the last few months versus this "one" key long run. On long runs I encourage my athletes to work on self management tactics, nutrition and pacing etc.
I tapered for about 2 weeks where I reduced down the volume considerably but kept up the intensity of my runs.
Throughout my training I regularly saw my athletic therapist to keep my body in check. I did have a couple of injuries which I worked on managing the best I could. They did not blow up in the race which was fabulous!
2. Nutrition - what a work in progress this is!!
I can not stress how important nutrition is for pre, during and after your training and your race. It can be make or break. I must admit this is one area I find really hard as I have difficulty in eating during long events. I have to focus myself to eat the volume I need to perform to the level I want. It is a work in progress!
After any training session I got into the habit of immediately having a glass of chocolate milk. focusing on getting 5-7g of leucine into my system to help with muscle synthesis. I then would aim to have a good meal within 2 hours.
On long runs I would aim for 200 calories per hour or 50g of carbs. Research is now suggesting nearer 100g of carbs per hour, mixing a combination of glucose and fructose as the absorption pathways for each are different, therefore maximizing the amount of calories that can be consume per hour which obviously helps to improve endurance. In order to achieve this intake, athletes need to practice slowly increasing their carb volume during their training.
I do know from other long races that I can tolerate soup, fruit and coke. This time I replaced the coke with Ginger Ale to help my GI and it was great.
3. Mental strength.
There is a saying that an ultra race is 90% mental and then 10% mental. You can be at your peak physical fitness but if you have not spent time working on your mental strength, then it could off set you during a race.
I wanted to push myself in the UTMB but the distance and the massive climbs made me nervous. I decided to focus on finishing. As with any ultra, it is a process and if you can complete each stage, be patient, and accept things can go wrong, the finish line will eventually turn up. Also with any long race it actually starts about 90k and once I had broken the race down into segments I felt it became manageable. I knew if I could make it to Champex-Lac at 125k, I would finish as I thought (!!!!) most of the hard work would have been done by this point.
I often got anxious thinking about the race, but when a couple of friends said to me that no one was pushing me to do this and it was my choice to accept the entry in the UTMB. I found this grounding and it helped me focus on being positive.
I was excited to see what the beast or angel (as a friend suggested) would look like. This refers to the pain that you experience when you have been moving for so long. This pain cave gets to a certain point but never gets worse. I was intrigued by it and wondered what it would look like and how I was going to control it.
I worked hard on mediating, breathing and focusing being in the moment and this worked well. I knew if I could get into this state or "flow" then I would finish. I aimed to re-directing negative thoughts. As soon as these came up, which they do, I worked on accepting them but turning them into positive thoughts. If I could feel positive in the UTMB, then I could pay attention to getting into the "flow" of moving forward, eating and drinking regularly. I would then become self absorbed and think of nothing else apart from putting one foot in front of the other.
Attitude was another area I practiced. I worked on smiling and enjoying myself in long runs. There is research to show if you can smile, then endorphins are released and consequently you feel better and are more positive and therefore performance improves.
Finally I had a list of people I did not want to let down. They included my sons, James, Abi, friends and clients. We are good at letting ourselves down, but when it comes to letting others down, we are more reluctant to do so. I remember what my eldest son said to me last year when I pulled from a race and those words helped motivate me to keep moving forward.
4. Prep before the UTMB
We arrived 5 days before the race was due to start and I ran everyday doing short easy runs. The day before the UTMB I ran a short 2k with strides and generally I felt great.
I made sure I was prepared the day before the race so I did not need to think too hard on the Friday. I aimed to eat as often as I could and sleep as much as I needed. The day of the race I got up around 9am and went back to have a nap around 12.
My focus was on keeping calm and being ready to enjoy the race and the spectacle I had heard so much about. The weather forecast looked ok, which was also great news.
5. The UTMB 2022.
The start of UTMB 2022.
I know this may sound bizarre but I can not remember much of the UTMB. I had worked on getting into a flow state and focusing on simple things such as to keep moving forward. I found I was not phased by much in the UTMB. Even during the last climb, which was horrible, I remember looking up and seeing the lights of runners going on for ever; but rather than panic I told myself "keep putting one foot in front of the other and the top will come" so I did just that.
The UTMB is unique. It is a spectacle. One of the epic ultra races. The UTMB begins at 6pm in the centre of Chamonix, France. It had rained slightly and became very humid. I recall looking around and seeing the anticipation and nerves on runners' faces. The elites were announced and came to the front of the race. The pre-race music boomed around us and you could feel the tension in the air. Then the count down started and we were off.
Running through those streets was so much fun. It was like a big party. Everyone was cheering and the numbers of people supporting and watching was amazing. I remember a friend telling me not to stress about over taking in the first few km, so I did try and relax back a bit and work on getting into a rhythm. I ran through the first Check Point (CP) and it was onto St. Gervais where Abi and James were waiting. It was truly a party atmosphere here with music blaring and bars packed with people.
Moving on through this CP we started to climb ( I think). I remember looking in front of me and so many people were drenched in sweat. I had taken some salt tablets early because of the humidity at the start.
I met James and Abi at Les Contamines around 10:30pm and they got me sorted, replaced my food and fluid. It was complete chaos at this CP but I had made the cut off with plenty of time to spare. I did say that I had struggled a bit during this first 31k, but both James and Abi were brilliant and got me replenished with supplies and out again to face the next section of the UTMB. In 50k, 11 hours, I would see them in Courmayeur, Italy around 9:30am if things had gone to plan.
I was on my own again for the night. The only parts I really remember here was a very remote CP where it was cold, a guy throwing his guts up on a climb and sunrise as I came down from the Col de la Seigne. This was spectacular. The tiny CP slowly got closer, the sun came up and started to warm my cold body and I had the most amazing black sugary coffee in the world!
Running into Courmayeur was beautiful. The cobbled streets were reasonably quiet and then the noise increased as I approached the CP. James and Abi were there cheering. It was fabulous to see them after a long night.
My plan was to take a bit more time here so I could eat and re-set myself for the second half of the UTMB. I ate some real food, change shoes (feet/toes were awful by now) socks and clothes. Then I was out again. I would not see my crew until Champex Lac in 11 hours. I knew if I made it here I would finish as most of the hard work had been done. (Little did I know about the last three climbs although I had been warned!!! The last one was horrible!)
I think the section from Courmayeur, Italy was stunning. I do remember seeing the climbs I needed to complete. But yet again, I told myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That was all I needed to do.
I can't remember Champex-Lac but I arrived here about 8:30pm. The one thing I do recall is I think I may have struggled to eat pasta and thrown it up. James' comment was simply "You're fine, you threw up nothing." So off I went again.
Trient was a bit of a party and I arrived here around 12:30am Sunday 28th. I had been going over 30 hours by now. It was here James and Abi told me that I was 55th lady and 2nd for age group. I had planned on sleeping for about 10 minutes at Trient but this inspired me to get back out there as quickly as I could. So that is just what I did.
I saw James briefly at Vallorcine around 3am and apparently told him I hate climbing and they (the climbs) are all the same, I go up some ***t and then come down ***p. He ignored me but did text the group chat about this!
I do remember the last climb because this was awful. I recall looking up and seeing headlamps way above me and thinking OMG. However, this voice in my head calmly said "keeping putting one foot in front of the other and the climb will end and you will get to the top". So I did. No panic, no fear, I just kept moving forward. The top of Les Tetés aux Vents was a rough boulder field. I could not move quickly and stumbled so many times.
Sometime after sunrise I overtook the lady that was in first place for my age group and tried to push. But my legs did not respond. I crossed over the man-made bridge and headed into Chamonix. I thought I would be emotional but the first lady in my age group caught me so I had no time to think.
This was one thing I had not prepared for was trying to out race someone after you had climbed 10,000m and run 171km. I felt so slow!! I heard James and Abi calling encouragement as I turned a corner and I went too early.
The sprint to the finish of UTMB 2022!
I wanted to embrace the experience and think through what I had accomplished. But I was racing!! This was ridiculous! We headed into the finishing chute side by side and I slowed down to walk. I wanted to think through my journey and embrace the moment. I wanted to be in the here and now and remember the atmosphere of the finish. I wanted to be grateful for all the support and belief I had from my friends and family. Ultra running is about the whole journey and what you have been through together in the 171km not racing for 618th position.
So I stopped and I walked across that line. And the first thing I saw was James in tears and Abi clapping and I remember thinking "why is he crying?" (Lack of sleep most likely!!)
It was an amazing and unbelievable race. I loved it. I did not truly experience my "beast" as it never arrived.
UTMB 2022 took me 37 hours 48minutes and 6 seconds, 2nd in age group by 3 seconds, 620th overall and 46th lady. It was amazing and I loved every minute of it.
My thanks go out to so many people for their help, support and belief in me. And knowing that I had so much support from around the world was unbelievable.
I did raise over $1700 for Free to Run which is an organization to help empower women and children in conflict zones. It is a great charity and fun to work with. Thank you to all those who sponsored me.
I would also like to thank Chris Broderick and Asics Canada for their support with shoes and clothing. The Asics Trabaco 10s and Fujitrabaco Lites were amazing for the UTMB giving me excellent footing for all the gnarly climbs and descents. Fortius rehab, in particular Charné Goosen, for keeping me moving and Drew Robinson of Evolved Sports for helping me climb those mountains so well.
* The entry process for the UTMB has changed now so I would check the website to see how to enter.