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Completing the UTMB Dream

When Marie and Romain first got in touch with Camino Coaching nearly two years ago the request was for support in an 80KM trail event planned for 9 months ahead and importantly a plan to train better and stay injury free.

Re-reading that original enquiry email it's not evident whether there was already a UTMB masterplan!

For anyone that doesn't know UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) has become the mecca of Trail-running. It's a set of trail races that takes place at the end of August every year in the stunning French Alps. These races start with very manageable entry level mountain races like the 24 mile MCC through to OCC (55 KM), the world-class TDS (146KM and considered by some to be the toughest), 100KM CCC and the blue-ribband event UTMB - 172 KM + 10,000 metres elevation

Key Facts:

  • First held in 2003 with 67 legendary finishers

  • You need to qualify for UTMB

  • Over 2300 runners started the 2023 race

  • This year there were nearly 1000 runners who DNF (Did Not Finish)

  • Winning time is often around 20 hours

  • Ultimate cut-off is 46 hours 30 minutes

Many consider the UTMB one of the dream ultramarathon trail races. It's not the type of race to take lightly - you will want to be competent in the mountains, be capable of looking after yourself in night-time trails (so good navigation skills), proficient in all types of weather, be able to eat well whilst moving and ultimately have the resilience to keep moving when the mind and body are screaming at you to say 'enough is enough'.

Back to Marie and Romain.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Looking back on things now Marie and Romain have really taken the time to progress in a class way. Start with distances that feel manageable and then increase them race by race. Look at the challenge level of a race and start with ones that allow you to practice new skills and then when you have them only then look to take on highly technical terrain. Each few months they would naturally seek out events that offered new challenges and we would set about adding new elements to the plan to accommodate these and help the guys up skill and evolve.

From Festival des Templars (48 KM) to Trail Terra Volcano (80KM), then Côte d'Azur by UTMB (100km) and then races likes UTS (Ultra Trail Snowdonia (100KM) before setting sights on UTMB.

More than anything it's been a real joy coaching Marie & Romain - they absolutely love the trail playground that they find themselves in. The races are just La Cerise x

Truly grateful to 'live the UTMB' experience with them both and for their thoughts on their races. If (like us) you fancy taking part in future UTMB races and are curious to know how to train for them - get in touch.

Over to Marie & Romain.

Step by step:

- We started pretty strong and maybe a bit fast, it sure felt great to see all this training paying off. I’m relaxed, enjoying it to its fullest - the uninterrupted side lines of people cheering runners is astonishing

- We just go with the constant flow of runners until contamines at km32, everyone is pushing a bit harder than they should, climbing about 650m+ an hour, this drops as the race goes on…

- We keep going up towards La balme where I layer up - top and bottom - before our first big ascent to Col du bonhomme which we reach at 4am

- This first night feels very cold, we get thin hail in col de la seigne (2500m+) - I can’t find my beanie so I used my buff instead, covering my mouth and nose when it got really cold (felt like -5). Around 6:30am we had a totally magical moment with a wonderful pink sunrise on top of the highly technical Pyramides Calcaires summit

- We push hard in the downhill to courmayeur which i know will take a toll on my knees and quads but it allows us to cover decent ground - that’s the first 80km of the race done in 17hrs, right on target! The Courmayeur aid station is warm and comforting and, confirming it is in Italy, it even offers pizza to the runners. Before I get to eat I immediately go see a podiatrist so they can help me re-tape my feet, then I get a full change of clean clothes from my drop bag, I don’t change shoes since the Genesis were great during the entire recce - later i regretted this decision

- It’s 11am and I’m surprisingly feeling very fresh when we head out to take the uphill to refugio Bertone and onto the Balcons with its wonderful sights of Mont Blanc from the east side - the sun comes out from the clouds and starts shining bright

- We lay down for 5mns at refugio bonatti with our legs up ahead of a steep downhill to Arnouvaz where I felt my knees were clearly reaching the end of of what they could withstand, oh well, we’ll see!

- It’s about 3pm when we start ascending Grand col ferret under a scorching sun and no shade to be found, this heat feels so far from the night before, we drink lots and try to stock up on salty food, we break often on the way up to save ourselves for what’s coming next, 1600m of descent over 20km

- On the way down we pass through La fouly and have the great pleasure of seeing Marie waiving at us before we reach the aid station! It’s so great to see her. It’s km120 and I’ve now exhausted all my physical stamina, each step is becoming more painful, blisters are keeping my jaws tight - unexpected support was truly heart warming

- The short-ish 500m uphill to our next big aid station in Champex-Lac feels endless, it’s about 8pm so we put our headlights back on, it still is quite warm - pain is increasing and I’m starting to make up reasons why it’d be okay to DNF the race

- When we get there I head out straight to the podiatrist tent where they try to fix what’s fixable, they’re so nice, some people in the medical tent are really suffering! I then try to sleep for 15mns, this the lowest point of the race for me - I seriously thought about quitting! There are 3 big uphills left - 1 technical, 1 mega steep, and a last surprise one to tête de Béchard (last minute change replacing tête aux vents), and just that first one - called Bovines - feels like an impossible challenge. Marie is mega positive, she doesn’t say anything about my obvious lack of lucidity, my friend Antoine was also mega clear, and she trusted his judgment. In short she managed to put me back on track!

- From this point, all I’m thinking about is the finish line. Bovines doesn’t disappoint, in some places you have to jump from one big rock to the other. And in all the downhills that follow I’m repeating to myself: “pain is data” in the back of my head

- We’re starting to be very tired now when we get to Trient at 3.30am, caffeinated gummies are massively help. To finish this race as quickly as possible we decide to stay less than 15 mns at each aid station - replenish water, carb’ed electrolytes, food supply for 3/4 hours, anti friction cream, and toilets

- From Trient I put some music on in the uphill to Tseppes which helped break the monotony of the climb and gave me a massive energy boost climbing at about 600m an hour - I was flying in a good part of the downhill to Vallorcine, it’s crazy what your body can do when you put all your focus on it!

- It’s almost 7am when we get to Vallorcine, then we head out onto the flat-ish section towards col des Montets, i run as fast Antoine walks, we keep going.

- The massive climb to Tête aux vents has been replaced and we don’t know what’s coming. Well, it wasn’t easy! It took us 1hr to cover 2kms up and down amongst those big boulders and millions of tree roots - so close yet so far. At last we make it out to the ski slope that climbs to la Flegere, jokingly hoping there isn’t a drone filming the anonymes struggling to finish utmb

- Arrived at Flegere we saw on live trail we were ranked 998 and 999 of the race, it’s on! Anyway we had decided we’d run the last downhill, it’s technical but we know it, everyone we come across is cheering all the runners, I can already picture the last 2kms of the race in the city and it’s carrying us forward at a very decent pace all considered

- The arrival in Chamonix doesn’t disappoint, all clapping, cheering, encouraging you and yelling your name, simply the best finish to any race you’d dream of, it’s sunny and warm, we made it! The beer tastes great

Summary Thoughts from Romain on his UTMB race:

- Dry weather conditions overall and against all odds given the storms earlier in the week, I can’t imagine how this goes if you’re wet and cold the whole time

- Antoine and I had the same target and we ended up running the whole time together, I thought he was pulling me and after the race he said thanks for pulling him in the uphills - as he said: teamwork!

- This kind of race is so long (and I can assure you it felt like it) that you go through many different ups and downs, energy levels, mindset, pains and niggles, and in hindsight I can see that you get better by improving how you manage each of these cycles

- And the most important for last, Marie’s support at my lowest low in Champex-Lac just before the 2nd night is the only thing that kept me going - I’m eternally admirative of people who do it all on their own

- I said Utmb was very runnable after my recce, I’d rephrase that today by saying yes there’s less rocks than some other but there still is 10k elevation gain, and not sleeping makes it much much harder than I thought it would

- I love the Genesis shoes but they are not the perfect shape for my right foot, I need to find a better natural fit

- keep improving digestion stuff (how?) and fix my blister issue for good!!

Ideas for next month / year

- full body strength focus for a couple of weeks then start a new running block before boffi fifty on 21 October

- Then marathon prep for Paris early April (maybe ecotrail!)

- Then add uphill training, more distance stuff

We love to ask our athletes to think about their Whys?

When taking on any epic Ultramarathon there will be one or multiple low points. More than anything else you will need to go into your locker and dig out strong reasons why you want to finish this particular event.

We asked Romain about his:

- I’ve thought a lot about my why. In the 24hrs preceding the race it just came to me: I wanna prove to myself that I’ve got the guts to do it.

- With ultra running I take pride in being able to achieve things that not everyone is able to do. And I’m having so much fun doing it!

- I like the process, the focus needed to train and plan each step, the experience of being outside in nature every weekend for training, and in the mountains on race day.

- I like the communion with other runners, you’re rarely alone to achieve this, you meet countless people along the way with a common objective - competition is not so much against others than it is yourself, and if you’ve trained well then you improve.

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Fantastic to read your UTMB story Romain- what an achievement- thank you for sharing- well done- very inspiring- best wishes William

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