Saffer, Dale Biagio, tackled the 171km UTMB, and lived to tell the tale ...
What is the UTMB?
The UTMB is 1 of 7 races that take place over a week in Chamonix. It is the main event of the Festival of Ultra Running that takes place in the little Alpine town. It is THE biggest ultra running event in the world.
In facts and figures, it is a non-stop race that covers 171km, climbing and descending, a total of 10 000m+, in the Alps around the highest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc.
You run across 3 countries: France, Italy and Switzerland.
What that description doesn’t tell you however, is that it is a nonstop suffer-fest of climbing and quad destroying descents. With VERY few sections of nice runnable sections (for me at least).
I said it quite a few times already, disregarding the distance of the race, 171km (the furthest run I have previously done was 108km), it is an extremely tough event.
I have been working towards this Bucket List race for the last 5 years since I first saw a video of the INCREDIBLY beautiful mountains and valleys and did not think it would EVER be possible for a mortal like myself.
I am not a natural runner, one of those that puts on a pair of takkies, and leaps effortlessly like a gazelle from foot to foot.
I’m one of those buffalos who has to work for every kilometre, so the thought of myself one day running 100km, never mind 171km seemed impossible, but something that I wanted and started to work towards, but I’ll skip ahead to the race.
The organisation of the event is honestly the best I have experienced and involved thousands of volunteers.
The registration, the medics (yes I visited them twice), the checkpoints and food points were second to none!
The race starts in Chamonix at 18:00, unusually late start for me and although I did try, didn’t manage a nap before the race, so went into the race being awake for 12hours already.
A lot of runners have said it is one of the few races runners cry at the start instead of at the finish and it is easy to understand why.
Just to GET to the start of the UTMB is a big achievement, to complete enough races to qualify and then make it through the lottery is years of training and racing.
Then you are FINALLY there, in the BEAUTIFUL valley of Chamonix standing with your race gear and pack, a little terrified and a lottle nervous.
The music and atmosphere of the start is electric and there are THOUSANDS of supporters.
The start is obviously very slow with 2600 runners winding their way through the narrow Chamonix streets. Luckily the first 8km to your first water point in Les Houches (where my amazing supporters, my wife - Tash, sister - Mia and daughter - Ava were waiting) is flat and on a pretty open road.
This is also the last flat you will see for the next 160km 😂.
The support from spectators was something I doubt I will ever see again, every single person you pass in every town cheers you on with “Allez, Allez, Bravo!”. Running through towns, past houses at 2am where there are people offering runners water and support. (Even a few pubs offering beers, I reluctantly had to pass)
Your first climb starts then, about 700m up and then 900m down, it is a small taste of the non-stop climbing and descending that you will go through for the rest of the race.
The checkpoints are very well organised and stocked and a bit different to what I have previously had: A variation of salami, cheese, bread, chicken soup, crackers, chocolate, cake, coke, energy drink, water, coffee and tea is what each major stop has. The soup with noodles was great and later in the race, it was the only thing I could look at without wanting to be sick.
The scenery was just incredible, photos don’t do the scale of those mountains justice!
My favourite part of the race, was the first morning at about 58km in. After climbing for what felt like most of the night, (Those who have done SkyRun, it was like doing Bridal Pass twice!) (You also pass 100s of sleeping runners along the sides of the trail, but I didn’t want to sleep) I eventually got to the French/Italy border. Fortunately, no passport checks at 2516m above sea level.
The sun coming up over the valley and mountains is something I will never forget.
How does a guy from Pretoria end up here? Absolutely breathtaking!
After a few more climbs, you then descend, and descend, and descend into Courmayeur, the half way point! (78km done!)
I did the descent a little bit too quick I think, (I knew my family would be waiting for me, because by the time I ran into the Checkpoint my quads felt a little bit wobbly.
I was ecstatic to see my sister and Ava waiting for me on the sideline, after some hugs my sister told me Tash was waiting inside the Checkpoint.
I walked into the chaotic checkpoint, spotted Tash waving to me, indicated to her I was going to grab some food before joining her. I gave her a big sweaty, HAPPY hug and plopped down on the bench.
My wife, having done this before, lied and told me I looked good and started to help me change my clothes and force feed me, before shoving me out the door with some tough love. (I had spent longer than I would have liked there, about an hour).
*Side note: Thank you Wifey for the fantastic work you did, changing the batteries in my headlamps, filling up the food in my pack and literally cleaning my 78km feet with wet wipes!
After leaving the halfway, morale raised, you climb about another 800m, just to get you back in the groove again.
It was REALLY hot at this point and I was falling asleep on my feet under the blazing sun, stumbling a few times, (emotionally, this was my lowest point of the race ...) so I lay down in the cool of the shade, set my alarm for 15 minutes from then and fell STRAIGHT to sleep.
I woke up 10 minutes later and felt great so I got up and carried on, A LOT cooler.
Just before nightfall, there was a sudden storm at the top of Grand Col Ferret (101km), freezing rain, small STINGING hail. I whipped on my rain pants, fortunately I had put on my jacket while climbing as it gets cold very quickly when you above 2400m, but was SOAKED and freezing for a long while, struggling to use my hands at all, feeling miserable but as always, the mountains show you who is boss up here.
Always respect them.
(One of the mistakes I made of the race, I swopped my waterproof, very warm gloves at the halfway with my thinner ones)
Many runners were in the medic tent with space blankets on at the next checkpoint, obviously had it rougher than I did.
This is were my problems started, I wanted to wait until the next checkpoint before changing my wet socks, and there must have been some sand in there too (WEAR GAITERS!) as my feet were shredded by the time I swopped them for my spare dry socks, so I had many blisters by the time the second night came.
The second night I also started having extremely vivid, sleep deprived hallucinations and for most of the next morning too.
Nothing horrible fortunately, most of them I knew weren’t real immediately and some were so real, I could actually HEAR them, before realising they weren’t actually there when I got a bit closer or had a second look.
What amazed me the most was the detail in them, but you acknowledge that you having them and you keep on going.
I had a great opportunity to sleep when I got to La Giete (137km), you walk into the checkpoint and it is pitch dark in there with many cots and sleeping runners (my whole body said SLEEP!), but I wanted my blisters looked at, and the medic said it would be best if I carried on to the next major stop Trient, where there is a podiatrist (142km, what is 5km between friends?)
So I put on my big boy pants, filled up my water and limped on.
By the time I reached Trient, my blisters were so big I had named them and we had developed quite a friendship.
The extremely efficient medics there put an end to that though, with a very careful examination and treatment of my feet. (Which included injecting of each blister with iodine, yes it was as painful as it sounds).
The medic kept telling me to lie down, but I couldn’t because if I did my eyes closed and I was asleep immediately.
I hobbled out and started sleep climbing to the next check point, very weird thing that, climbing as hard as you can and falling asleep while doing it.
Fortunately, on the downhills, my screaming quads and feet kept me awake. 😀
When I had finished climbing and descending the second last climb of the race, I hobbled into the medic tent again, had my feet treated again and had the blood behind a toenail released, counting my lucky stars my feet didn’t look like the guy next to me.
I walked around the checkpoint looking at all the food and drink but could REALLY not bring myself to have anything, I had felt nauseous for a few hours and even looking at water would make me gag.
I met up again with a Polish runner I had spent the majority of the second night with and the conversation really helped keep us awake and together we set off at a leisurely pace to our final climb, very much dreaded because of the incline and how uncomfortably difficult it is.
We climbed it at a leisurely pace, thinking we had a LOT more time than we did … maths on sleep deprived brains doesn’t always work out well.
Together we worked out that we had a lot of time left to make the next Cut-Off at La Flégère (163km).
When we got to the top, we asked the nearest official how long to La Flégère, “1 hour” Cool, we had 2hours to make it.
After about 30min, we asked another, “1 hour”, we began to worry a bit.
We then reached a checkpoint, thinking it was La Flégère, we were all smiles, but we were wrong, we still had another 3km to go and the official there said MINIMUM 1.5hours to get there!
We had less than 30min left…
Adrenaline and panic fuelled, I set off on a sprint, I was NOT going to be that guy with a complicated story on how I didn’t finish with only a few km left!
We passed many runners, some crying, who had given up making the cut off; one I managed to get moving when he said there was no time, I said “For F#$! sakes TRY!” and continued my sprint, he said OK, and followed us. Still very happy I managed to change one persons race.
I honestly felt like I was flying on that terrain, I was probably only moving at a nice slow jog, but it didn’t feel like it on those legs and I was terrified of not finishing my race because of a silly miscalculation
I walked into the checkpoint with my fist up in the air (emotional high) but completely SPENT from the sprint…
From there after a quick refuel, I took my time with the last 8km, moving at a very slow walk on my jelly quads and ACHING feet down, descending all the while into Chamonix, knowing I had enough time, but my slow pace caused a LOT of stress for my family, wondering what was wrong.
Buoyed by the huge cheering crowds (no really, there were crowds of people lining the street, high fiving and cheering for the back of the packers like me, really special) I ran further into town, where my family was waiting, a hugely emotional moment for me.
After some much needed hugs, I grabbed my daughters hand and ran, with my wife and sister, the last couple of hundred metres (pretty sure it was a kilometre…) to the finish line.
Such an amazing moment ... even typing this brings back so many great emotions.
Thank you to all for the many messages of support, to my friends and family and most of all my wife, who has helped me through the MANY, MANY training hours and supported me through all of the time away.
Lessons Learnt and other tips:
Get a coach, gives you a lot of confidence knowing what you are doing is the right thing! (Huge thanks to Coach Neville and all the wealth of knowledge and support from his group of runners!)
Strength train! Something I have always neglected and wish I didn’t up and down those mountains!
When choosing your registration time slot, choose the Thursday, the queue was dramatically shorter than the Wednesday!
If you going to be running for a bajillion hours like me, squeeze a few more naps in! Stumbling around half asleep is not helping. I think 1 more 15min nap for me would have been perfect.
Just because it is hot, doesn’t mean the weather won’t change to freezing in a moments in the mountains... Always have your gear ready to put on quickly.
Carry 2 pairs of dry socks.
Don’t try do maths on a rotten brain.
Enjoy it, those mountains are extremely special and something I will treasure for many years to come.