Since its inception in 2003, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) has been universally considered one of the most difficult running races on the planet. And with good reason—it sends runners on a grueling 104-mile circumnavigation of the highest mountain range in Western Europe on a relentless course that includes roughly 60,000 feet of vertical gain and descent on the way back to the finish line in Chamonix, France.
With a combination of moderate altitude, long stretches of technical terrain and 10 wickedly steep climbs and descents through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland, it tests runners’ physical, mental and emotional endurance in what is annually one of the most competitive fields of trail running in the world.
“The amount of vertical is pretty crazy,” David Laney, a 26-year-old from Ashland, Ore., admitted after racing in the UTMB for the first time. “Yeah, it’s a pretty brutal course, but it’s an amazing course, too.”
The same can be said to some degree for each of the other four races held in conjunction with the UTMB. Although slightly less competitive and prestigious, the other events, which range from 50K (31 miles) to 300K (186 miles), feature rugged, village-to-village courses with unforgiving changes in elevation. Combined, the festival of races is the biggest trail running event in the world, with more than 7,200 participants and many thousands of race supporters, volunteers and spectators all around the course.
This year’s 13th annual UTMB—yet another epic battle of attrition, especially because of hot, sunny conditions that peaked with temperatures in the 80s—produced numerous compelling storylines, starting with the dominating wins from French runners Xavier Thévenard and Nathalie Mauclair.
Thévenard joined a select group of runners who have won the race more than once, crossing the finish line Saturday afternoon in Chamonix amid thousands of screaming fans and the blasting of the race’s adopted theme song—“Conquest of Paradise”—after 21 hours and 9 minutes of running. Mauclair, who works full-time as a nurse, received an equally exuberant reception when she crossed the line with a commanding victory in 25:15, becoming the second French woman to win the marquee race.
But one of the biggest stories coming out of Chamonix was the statement Laney and several fellow Americans made by clogging the podium of the UTMB and the 101K Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) race.
Laney’s tenacious third-place performance in the UTMB—a smartly executed race in which he started conservatively and moved up the entire way—was one of the very best ever by a U.S. runner in Chamonix. Although he had been as far back as 10th near the halfway point, he caught fellow American Seth Swanson, then in third place, with about 2 miles to go on the final descent into the village.
Swanson, 36, of Missoula, Mont., was the runner-up at this year’s Western States 100 in California on June 27 and had been keeping the pressure on Spain’s Luis Alberto Hernando in the race for second place over the previous 20 miles or so. When Laney arrived from behind, the two chatted briefly about how stoked they were to know two Americans would finish among the top four in Chamonix.
“I asked him how far up Luis was and he said somebody told him 2 minutes, someone else said 5 minutes,” Laney said. “I said, if it’s 2 minutes, lets go for it and if it’s 5 minutes, let’s be smart and just get to the finish line. So we started ripping down that final section because we thought we might catch him.”
Although Swanson—who is sponsored by The North Face—took a tumble on the final descent, he and Laney kicked to the finish like they were in a 10K road race and closed the gap on the hard-charging Spaniard. Hernando finished in 21:57:17, followed by Laney—a member of the Nike Trail Elite team—about two and a half minutes later and Swanson 30 seconds after that.
“Seth Swanson and David Laney ran text book UTMB runs,” said Topher Gaylord, the American runner with the best track record in Chamonix, having finished second (2003), sixth (2005) and 11th (2008) in the UTMB. “There was so much attrition—and American attrition too—but those guys were hanging back, running their race, never having a sense of urgency in the early sections, and that’s key in this race. In the second half, especially the final 25 miles, they were awesome.”
Laney, who placed eighth at the Western States 100 in June, turned in an epic performance despite being a bit under the weather all week and suffering from a bloody nose at times during the second half of the race. He said his plan was to run the first 50 miles as easy as possible and then move up from there if he could.
“The leaders started off at a 6-minute mile pace and I dropped back. Even if this was a flat 100-miler, there’s no way I’d be running 6-minute pace,” said Laney, a 2:17 marathoner who will run in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles next February.
Prior to the race, Laney wrote “M.I.T.” on the back of his left hand, an acronym for “Mind in Trail” and a personal reminder to keep his head in the game.
“It was a great course. The uphills were very hard and some of the downhills were too,” he said. “I had been practicing my technical running all summer to prepare for this. Usually I can run 2 or 3 miles pretty hard downhill, but then my quads make me slow down. But today I was just on … the flow was just so smooth out there.”
In the women’s race, Darcy Piceu, a Hoka One One athlete from Boulder, Colo., turned in another strong performance in Chamonix, finishing fifth in 28:38, while first-timer Stephanie Howe, a North Face-sponsored athlete from Bend, Ore., who finished third at the Western States 100 in June, was eighth in 30:16. Nicole Studer, 33, from Dallas, finished 13th among women in the UTMB in 31:21.
While three U.S. runners have won the UTMB women’s race a total of five times (Krissy Moehl, 2003, 2009; Nikki Kimball 2007; Rory Bosio 2013, 2014), only seven American men had finished among the top five prior to this year. Gaylord and Brandon Sybrowsky tied for second in 2003, Mike Wolfe was second in the rain-shortened race of 2010 and Mike Foote was third in the rain-shortened race of 2012.
Prior to Laney and Swanson, the best combined American UTMB effort since the inaugural race (which had just 67 runners) was the 2013 race, in which Tim Olson and Foote placed fourth and fifth respectively (followed by Bosio at seventh overall). Jason Schlarb placed fourth overall last year.
The efforts of Laney, Swenson and Piceu came on the heels of American dominance in the CCC race, a 63-mile event that covers about two-thirds of the UTMB course from Courmayeur, Italy, to Champex, Switzerland and back to Chamonix. That race has six major climbs and descents and about 20,000 feet of total vertical gain.
In that race, which started on Friday morning, American Zach Miller of Colorado Springs won in 11:53, followed by his Nike Elite Trail teammate Tim Tollefson of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., in second at 12:06. Meanwhile, Magda Lewy Boulet, a Hoka One One-sponsored athlete from Oakland, Calif., a 2008 U.S. Olympic marathoner and the 2015 Western States 100 champion, placed 17th in the CCC race and second among women in 13:17, about 22 minutes behind winner Ruth Croft of New Zealand. Meredith Edwards, an American ski mountaineering racer who splits time living between Wilson, Wyo., and Chamonix, also turned in a strong CCC race, placing 73rd overall and eighth among women in 16:00.
Miller, 26, and Tollfeson, 30, went out with the leaders from the start and were the first to charge over the Grand Col Ferret, the steeply switchbacked 8,169-foot pass between Italy and Switzerland. From there, Miller took a slight lead, only to have Tollefson catch up at about the 31-mile mark in Switzerland. But for the final 25 miles or so—and especially after crossing back into France with about 13 miles to go—Miller was untouchable.
“It’s definitely one of the hardest races I have ever done. In the afternoon it got so hot … it was really hard,” Miller said. “At one point, I was thinking, ‘Why do we do this to ourselves?’ I was really kind of miserable. But then once the sun started to go down and it cooled off, my body turned and I felt great. Over the last two climbs, I just put my head down and crushed it.”
Tollefson said he had tried to mimic the course in training in the mountains near Mammoth Lakes, but it was the length of the race (which turned out to be 5 hours longer than the longest run he’d ever done) and the heat that caused him the most trouble. He said he struggled quite a bit with cramping legs in the final 25 miles.
“I was tempted to drop out on the climb out of Champex (at about mile 36),” Tollefson said. “(Martin) passed me and he did it so smoothly that it was kind of demoralizing. My legs were cramping quite a bit and my right calf seized up on me and I fell over into a bush. I was mentally distraught and was ready to be done, but then I saw the fourth-place runner come up from behind me in the distance so I took my time and ate all of the food and drank all of my fluid on the way to the next aid station and I started feeling good by the time I got there. I had held on to third at that point, so I thought, ‘OK, you’re feeling better, you might as well attack it.'”
Tollefson caught Martin on the final climb and then put 10 minutes on him in the final 10 miles of the race to earn his spot on the podium alongside Miller.
In the 50K Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix Race on Thursday, American Dylan Bownman, a North Face-sponsored athlete from Mill Valley, Calif., placed ninth in 5:49, 38 minutes behind winner Marc Pinsach Rubirola of Spain.