Wednesday, 14 September 2011

TNF UTMB 2011 - Spectating/Crewing for Hal Koerner

I finally got back home yesterday after a long trip to Europe, mainly to see the most famous mountain ultra in the world - the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 103 miles (before any course changes) and over 30,000ft of ascent/descent makes for one of the hardest races around...and also one of the most competitive.

I wanted to check it out in advance of racing it myself since this type of event demands respect. You don't just turn up to this and expect to finish at all, never mind finish well, without doing hard work in the mountains first. And part of that for me was to do my homework and see the whole course and what the runners put themselves through.

Plenty of people have written up their reports which include a lot more detail that I could, since I was only able to get into a handful of checkpoints with the group of TNF employees helping Hal out (official TNF blog posting from Nichol, another of the crew members, is here and Hal's own account is here). A few good blogs include Geoff Roes, Joe Grant, Scott Jurek and Nick Clark even though none of these guys finished, despite being in excellent shape (definitely another reminder the race isn't easy). irunfar also covered it in detail (with Bryon running and unfortunately DNFing too) with plenty of links to all the relevant info.

The race started five hours late at 11:30pm due to a delay by the organizers to miss a storm but it was still raining heavily for the first night. The start was more similar to a city marathon start with everyone packed in tightly and crowds so deep that the best view was on the big TV screens set up near-by. I know people talk about the electric atmosphere but I was a little underwhelmed and it seemed more annoying than as something that added to the experience. But I only say that because the start is fairly narrow so most people are limited to a shuffle through the streets of Chamonix. The heavy rain probably took a bit away from the fun too.

From that point on I was surprised how much the field spread out and even at 21k in at the first checkpoint the lead pack was small (Kilian and Seb Chaigneau were in it). Obviously the steepness of the climbs and ascents meant that the leader's fast pace was too much for some who'd normally be fine sticking with leaders early on. I suspect that some of the elites also ruined their own races by pushing too hard early on to stay in touch with the locals. More so than at most ultras, but I have no idea who did go too fast through the cold night given how many people did have to drop.

By the morning we were at almost halfway in Courmayeur in Italy and the lead pack of four (which stayed the lead pack all through, although Miguel Heras dropped near the end to reduce it to three) came through, then Mike Wolfe close behind. The other top Americans and Brits were further back and many stopped at that point. But Lizzie Hawker was storming through near the fastest men and well ahead of the rest of the women.

Hal came through close to Lizzie but wasn't running very fluently and needed some time to change and freshen up before he got going. Unfortunately his competitive race was basically over at this point and the rest of the time would just be a slog-fest to finish. There was only so much the crew could do and each checkpoint we saw him at from there it was just about trying to warm him up and make him comfortable since his legs had just had enough.

I really thought Hal would drop at some point, especially after seeing him come into La Fouly in Switzerland at almost two thirds of the distance completed. He'd been moving slowly and had to walk most of the section up to there, then could only really walk on any type of terrain after that. But it was inspiring to see him grind out a finish when it clearly wasn't his day. That seems to be what the race is mainly about for almost everyone, but for someone aiming to be at the front, it takes a huge mental shift to just aim to finish, no matter how long it takes (and it took almost 39 hours, compared to Kilian's winning time of 20:36).

The course was changed mid-race to avoid ice/mud-slide or something like that. It wasn't very clear and I'd have to say that the communication of the organizers to runners was generally not up to the standard of an event of this size. You'd have thought they'd have learned from last year, but it seems there's still more improvements they need to make. In general, though it seemed to be well organized to at least the standard of Western States, if not to the same ridiculously high standard as other European mountain races but they have the advantage of being shorter. However, if you want to see the same type of scenery without having to be super-humanly fit then the Mt Blanc marathon at the end of June is a great option and really blew me away when I did it a few years ago.

It was a terrifying, yet inspiring event with great athletes pushing themselves to their limits. The scenery isn't too bad either. I'd then hoped to do the whole UTMB route over three days at a gentler pace but had to turn around on day one due to my legs feeling too sore after Waldo 100k the weekend before. Instead I beasted myself up some of the steepest climbs in and around Chamonix to cover about 65 miles in those three days instead but still with 25,000ft of climb. Just another little reminder to myself about how hard the terrain there is.

Now some pretty photos of mainly France around Mt Blanc:


A guy near the top 10 approaching La Fouly, Switzerland

Overlooking Chamonix

Chamonix and Mt Blanc

Mt Blanc

Halfway up the Aiguille du Midi

Lac Blanc

Aiguille du Midi

Tower at Aiguille du Midi

Bridge at Aiguille du Midi

Crossing from France to Italy on a cable car

1L beer mugs always look great in photos - feels like the hobbits having a pint

Amy in the middle of a roundabout in Courmayeur, Italy. Odd.

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