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Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 2014 Race Report


I don’t usually cry during ultras, or any other time for that matter but I cried three times during the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc in the French alps at the end of August 2014. The race is 168km with almost 10,000m of ups and 10,000m of downs and I have been dreaming about it for the past three years..
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The first time I cried was on the start line. Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise rung out over the 2,300 runners assembled in the small square in front of the old church in Chamonix and I had a moment where I closed my eyes and realised I finally here. The thousands of hours of training and racing over the past three and a half years had led me here. This was where belonged. The training and competing let me qualify and luck made me beat the odds in the lottery and get in. Little did we know that over 800 of us would not finish the race..

The rain starts pouring down and the race start is a blur of thousands of spectators lining the streets for several km. All shout “Allez Allez, Bravo Bravo!” and want high fives and slap you on the back. The town is at boiling point, built up by the races over the past three days and this is the main event, this is the UTMB.

We cross a forest and people are still lining the trail cheering. Runners are already relieving themselves in droves on the side of the trail.

These first 8km to Les Houches is on fast and undulating trail. It is the flattest part of the whole course and is quickly dispensed with. Les Houches fly by with barely time to drink some (to my dread) Pepsi (not Coke) but it seems ok and I fly on to the first of many, many climbs. The climb to Le Delevret is easy, mainly firetrail. The descent however follows the downhill skiing slopes and is a steep mudfest due to the thousand runners who’s gone before and I’m luck to only fall over once.

The darkness falls and headlamps come on. The fog is so thick I see better without it. In a little over three hours I reach Saint Gervais to the sound of a samba band and I dance into the aid station. These volunteers are having a party and the whole town is invited. I change into a wool top and put my jacket on properly. It’s still raining.

The 10km to Les Contamines is easy. As I reach the city it again reminds me of a street party. It’s almost 11pm and people still line the streets doing high-fives and cheering you on. The music is infectious and I ham it up for the audience dancing my way out of the aid station.

This is where the climbing really starts. We climb steadily to the La Balme aid station. I’ve been running for a little over six hours, it’s past midnight and cold. I have problems regulating my body temperature and as soon as I stop I’m cold and shaking uncontrollably. I decide to take in some hot soup and stay close to the big bonfire as I put on my Devold wool long johns and close up my rain jacket over my wool top. I decide to get going and I quickly heat up as I start the long steep climb to Croix du Bonhomme at over 2,400m. Luckily I feel none of the issues with altitude, perhaps due to the slow pace and low intensity. In the days prior to the race I caught the cablecar to the summit of Aiguille du Midi (3,800m) and it was a real eye-opener. The rapid ascent gave the body very little time to adjust and I felt dizzy and uncomfortable for the first half hour. Some people couldn’t handle it and sat, head in hands, in the middle of the stairs, trying to get their bearings. I was lucky enough to bump into one of my trail running idols, Emelie Forsberg on one of the lookouts and cheekily asked for a photo with her (in Swedish of course). She asked what I was running and that she was doing KIMA in Italy the following Sunday. Turned out she was actually skiing and camping at 3,800m for the next few days as preparation.

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Back in the race, the drop into Les Chapieux is steep but relatively easy. I hear some runners asking the aid station volunteers where they were..

The next leg is to the top and over Col de la Seigne (2,507m) and is 15km with about 1000m ascent. The climb takes over two and a half hours. The first part is relatively easy on bitumen, however the last and steepest part is all on trails. One of the things I wanted to see prior to entering this race was the line of headlamps snaking its way up mountains. The climb to Col de la Seigne is spectacular as you can see hundreds of runners zig-zagging their way up the mountain, almost forming a perfect moving Z-shape on the mountain. As I reach the top, I turn around and can again see hundreds of little lights moving rhythmically towards me. It was a moving and beautiful moment.

The top marks the border of France and Italy and I descended into Italy as dusk brakes and reveals the amazing mountains of the Mont-Blanc massif towering over me to my left. Ahead is a narrow valley full of small lakes, surrounded by mountains and I am in awe of the beauty of this landscape.

The aidstation at Lac Combal was quickly dispatched with in twilight and I continued towards what is truly the most amazing part or the course.

I couldn’t have timed this better as the light brings out the beauty of these mountains. The (relatively) short climb to Arete du Mont-Favre is just spectacular and definitely the most beautiful part of the course as I climb it just before daybreak. It is the only climb in which I took a break to just enjoy the view and take in the scenery. I recognise this part from one of the promo videos from the past years and let me tell you, it is more spectacular in real life. Looking up the trail I see the magnificent jagged peaks around Mont-Blanc and just as I reach the peak, the first rays of sunshine hit me and my energy is renewed. A helicopter flies overhead and I cheer and wave.

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The descent to Col Checrouit is easy and runnable and I just enjoy the view. There is a choir singing at the aid station. I quickly move through towards Courmayeur, the spiritual ‘half point’ of the race, although little did I know the latter half would take me so much longer.. I can see Courmayeur from the aid station and the descent is brutal – It drops over 700m in less than 4km on tight switchbacks and I feel my quads and knees start to go despite doing my best to mix up my descent – going sideways, moving feet to the left, to the right, but the muscles are spent. On the way down I see an elderly gentleman with a white beard and a camera just cheering on at the side of the trail. He looks very familiar but I can’t remember who he is.. I finally reach the bottom and get to the aidstation.

I’m not sure if my family is meeting me here but I can’t see anyone and decide to get my drop bag (the only one for the whole race) and settle down. I spend a fair bit of time, changing clothes and socks, eating pasta and tucking in my Smash (a Norwegian salty chocolate covered corn snack that’s full of energy).  I’m now 17 hours into the race and still hoping for a sub 40 hour finish..

Feeling invigorated I exit the aid station and bump into Tom Landon-Smith, the race director for TNF100 in Australia that I met the day before and we have a chat.

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The climb out of Courmayeur is almost as bad as the descent - in less than 5km it climbs over 800m to Refuge Bertone. It looks like the next leg will be mostly flat – it isn’t. It’s only 7km to Refuge Bonatti and it takes me almost 1.5 hours. I can feel fatigue setting in. At Bonatti I take a long awaited dump and try to deal with some bad chafing I’ve been dealing with for the past few hours. The next leg is beautiful and undulating but he drop down to Arnuva is difficult as my knees start protesting when I run down hills. I have my first real bad moment at this point – I doubt my abilities. I’m getting closer to the cutoff than I’m comfortable with and as far above me as I can see, people are climbing this massive mountain up to Grand Col Ferret, it’s so steep and I can’t understand how I’m supposed to get up and over it in time..

I finally decide to just get on with it and settle in a slow grind behind an Italian. We get into a rhythm and keep climbing and to my amazement by the time one hour has passed we’re almost at the top and I can see the tents that mark the border to Switzerland. It is amazing what the body is capable of and I gain a new appreciation for my glutes and hamstrings, they can just grind down a gear and go on forever. As long as I am fuelled they’ll keep firing.
The drop to La Fouly is long and the sounds of hundreds of cowbells ecko through the valley. I think we’re nearing the aidstation. I finally realise it’s a big herd of cows moving on the far side of the valley..

Running into La Fouly I see a familiar figure, my stepdad! I can see his profile a mile away, being skinny, white haired and almost two meters tall he’s difficult to miss. We walk briskly towards the aid station discussing what I need. Heidi (my three year old daughter) and mum finally greet us. Heidi has brought me flowers and it’s so wonderful to see them again after over 25 hours of running. We decide to meet at the next aid station where they can give me the stuff I need. The only problem is that it’s 14km away.

The beginning of the next leg is downhill and I try to push so they won’t have to wait too long for me.. Before long my knees and quads say stop and I’m reduced to a quick hike. I message them and tell them it may well take me three hours considering the over 500m climb at the end.

Towards the end of the downhill I have my biggest scare of the race. I think I’ve stopped sweating. My body feels weird but I can’t put my finger on it so I go through a checklist:
  • Is it Rhabdo? No, I’m not cramping and moving fine.
  • Is it hyponatremia? No I haven’t been overhydrating and I’m not peeing enough. I’m not swollen. If anything I’m probably a little dehydrated.
Having relieved my worst fears I take stock – I’m moving fine, I’m not dizzy, I can concentrate and I’m hydrating and eating well. I put it down to fatigue and sleep deprivation (I’ve now been up for 37 hours straight and covered over 120km). I decide that the next climb will be the decider. When I start climbing I quickly realise I’m in better shape than most of my fellow runners, many fall over and struggle to find a foothold in the steep climb. I also find out that I’ve definitely not stopped sweating.. After a climb that seems to go on forever we finally reach the town limits and are directed over a road and back into the forest.. Some runners are about to give up at this point and some seem hypothermic. Luckily we arrive in Champex-Lac as the second night commences.

It’s so good to see Morten, my step dad and getting fresh supplies and a charger for my headlamp. I stay for a while and eat and drink and get another cuddle from Heidi.

I run through Champex-Lac and it’s a beautiful little city with small houses adorned in fairly lights overlook a small lake. Some runners have vans set up on the side of the road with their team. As I turn off the road into the forest once again I stop for a leak next to an older French gentleman. Turning around afterwards I can see that he’s also struggling with chafing and he kindly lends me some of his ointment and it works wonders..

The leg to Trient is long at 17km with a lot of ascent and a long descent. About an hour into the leg I hear someone talking to me. Normally in Australia and New Zealand ultras this wouldn’t be very unusual, however in this race, the only people chatting is the people who know each other already. Maybe it’s the climbs or the hard race but people generally don’t talk and when they do it’s either in Spanish or French. Then suddenly there’s this French guy talking to me! His light is poor and because he used normal AA batteries in his Petzl Nao it only lasted two hours. He’s on his backup torch and worried it will not last till the next aid station. We decide to keep company and chat a lot. He’s a musician and has done a few ultras before and as well as crossfit. The final climb to the top is very steep and even the guys with poles are struggling.

At this point I should mention that I elected not to use poles at this race despite 98% of people doing so. I’ve never trained with them and didn’t like the idea of having to carry them the whole race. If I am doing the race again, I will definitely use them. I didn’t realise they can also be used on downhills as brakes which would have helped immensely as well as being a major help on the climbs. Previously I thought they would only be effective on really steep hills – I didn’t realise that ALL of the hills in the UTMB are steep! That said, I did see some runners who really didn’t know how to use them effectively so if I was to use them I would practice with them and learn how to use them properly. They’re not required but they would undoubtedly make the race easier.

The drop down to Trient is long and steep and I can’t move quickly. Luckily my French friend chooses to stay with me. He’s tired and wants to have a snooze. We chat till we finally reach the aid station. He suggests I try to get a massage for my quads. I ask but there’s a wait and I’m keen to get going. The second last climb is coming up. My friend can’t sleep and joins me on the 10k leg which is just up and over a mountain to Vallorcine. 800m of ascent and 900m of descent awaits.

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We join a group of three Spaniards who holds a slow but steady pace. My friend gets impatient and goes on. I chose to stay with them. It’s very slow and steady but I’m anxious not to spend too much energy. The 5.5km climb ends up taking two hours and near the top I overtake them and power on to the top. The fog is thick but I can see a big bonfire ahead. To my surprise my French friend is lounging there trying to sleep. We head down together but I tell him to go ahead and have a snooze at the aid station. The path is very muddy and slippery. One runner has fallen over and others are discussing how to get him down. Further down I see rescuers arrive with a stretcher. Light on the second day arrives but it’s too foggy to see much. I’m now back in France and as I get closer to Vallorcine I have a moment and start humming Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, I can feel it now, I can taste the finishline! The drop into the aid station is very steep and rutted and seems to go on forever.

Finally at Vallorcine I meet up with my French friend and take time to refuel and restock before the final climb. At the last aid station I had a chat to an old French guy who asked me if it was my first time and what I thought. I told him it was tough but manageable and that luckily I had lots of time. He just nodded knowingly and gave me a look of ‘you have got no idea of what awaits.’ I felt there was something he wasn’t telling me..
At this point my legs are so heavy and my calves so swollen that I can’t even lift them over the bench I am sitting on. While my friend finally gets a nap I try to stretch and refuel as best I can. We leave after about an hour and feel ready for whatever the race can throw at us. We’ve already been through so much, it can’t get any worse, can it?

It’s actually a few km before the final climb up to La Tete Aux Vents. At the bottom it’s wonderful to run into Paul Charteris (organiser of the Tarawera 100) and Mike Wardian and we take some photos. Mike informs us we have about an hour’s climb ahead of us, I reply ‘Is that all?’ and we set off. The climb isn’t actually that bad however has many false summits and seems to go on forever. Mike was about 10 minutes off and we reach the top in a little over an hour. From there it’s relatively flat with a lot of boulder hopping which slows us down. We pass a herd of little mountain goats feeding on the side of the trail and they move so lightly and easily as opposed to all of us..

It takes some time to get over the top to the where the descent starts. I mistakenly think the last point before the descent is La Flegere and take a dump in the bush and call my family to meet me in Chamonix in a few hours.. I then realise I have three more km of undulating and mountainous terrain before the aid station. The sign estimates 50 minutes while hiking. I realise that I have to move to get there in 30 to make sure I’m in Chamonix in time. I pass a fair few people and finally see the large cabin next to the ski lift that’s the aid station. I feel like I’m having déjà vu and I’ve seen this before. I take it as a sign that this is where I’m supposed to be and that I’m on the right track.

The map doesn’t show it but there is actually a little climb up to La Flegere and it’s demoralising as I thought it was downhill from here. I waste no time at La Flegere, I can see Chamonix far below and waste no time at the aid station. I just fill my water bottle and have some Pepsi. Chamonix is only 8km away but more importantly it’s over a 900m descent to get there. It’s really steep in places but I find that my knees and quads have recovered somewhat and I can run or fast hike most of the way. I run literally through a café on the way and people are cheering ‘Allez Allez Bravo Bravo!’

Just before I reach town I see the old man with the white beard I met on the descent to Courmayeur and realise – It’s Kilian’s dad! I recognise him from his videos and it’s definitely Kilian Jornet’s dad! I run over and shake his hand and tell him what an inspiration his son is. He thanks me and congratulates me on completing the UTMB. This is the point at which I realise I will make it. At this point I can fall down with cramps all over but still make it to the finish line. As I escape the forest onto the streets of Chamonix I have déjà vu again, like I’ve seen it all before in a dream..

I have a plan for the final part of the race and quickly stop to change tops, take off my calfguards, sunnies and socks so I’m ready for my little performance at the end..

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The rest is a blur. The town is alive, people are lining the streets and cheering me on. Again I run into Paul from New Zealand, that guy gets around! As I get closer to the end the crowd thickens and everyone cheers and high fives. It makes me feel like a rock star and I cry again. With tears in my eyes I get to the point I organised with my parents and luckily they’re still there. Heidi runs towards me and we embrace. I have one last thing to do. I get up and look at the spectators, they look back, I pretend I’ve forgot something, then I look down at my race bib where it says ‘Bjornar Barefoot Bj Siem’. I pretend to finally realise something and kick off my shoes before in my elation I turn to Heidi and go  ‘Are you ready to run??’ We run together, hand in hand down the finishing shute – people are cheering, the music is blaring, I’m there with my beautiful little girl as planned and finally see the UTMB arch where I set off 44 hours earlier. I realise I’ve done it and let out a final yell! At the finish line I embrace Heidi who seems a bit overwhelmed by all of the commotion. Poor thing, she really didn’t know what was awaiting her.. My parents join us and take care of Heidi as I’m too weak to carry her.
I finally receive my finishers’ vest and the guy is wondering if I ran the whole thing barefoot. I tell him ‘not all of it..’

As I stand there waiting to take my finisher’s photo I suddenly realise what I have just done and I cry again. I’m overwhelmed with pride and joy and an amazing feeling of accomplishment that you only get when accomplishing a dream. I have dreamt of this race since I started running ultras over three years ago and now I stand here at the finish line with a thousand memories and a special feeling that I’ve never felt before. I’ve always thought it was achievable but to actually do it and finish it is an amazing feeling and I can’t help but cry.

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Some learnings looking back
  • Use poles!
  • Train hiking up steep hills and running down
  • Condition and strengthen quads as much as possible
  • Eat every half hour. I had one gel and a few handfuls of my own trail mix (currants, salty cashews and chia seeds) every hour
  • Drink plenty, each section usually takes longer than you think, especially towards the end, eg. I spent 3.5 hours doing 10km.
  • Keep going no matter what. I found that if I just kept climbing without rest I could get into a rhythm and just keep moving
  • Wear more protective shoes. I know it sounds strange for a barefoot runner to say this but over this distance your feet really take a pounding and my big toes are still numb two weeks afterwards. The Inov-8 Trailroc 235 were great for grip and didn’t give me any issues at all, but for comfort the new Race Ultra 270s look good!
  • Finally and most importantly - Enjoy the race and amazing scenery!
This race, the atmosphere and sheer size of it all is just so awesome and it will still take me some time to come to terms with it. The best thing however is the thought just afterwards – I’d do this again, in a heartbeat. Usually after an ultra, running another one is the furthest thing from my mind but after this one I realise I’d happily race this again. That is the power or this race and these mountains and I hope to be back some day..


2 Comments

Awesome experience and great advice, can understand the tears.
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Thanks mate! It still gives me chills.. I'll be back one day! :)
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