British ultra-runner says training has been specifically geared toward this week’s big event since winning the Western States in June
For a week towards the end of August or early September every year, the French mountain resort of Chamonix becomes a global trail running hub as runners congregate from all over the world to compete in the the annual Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) races.
While opinions among runners continue to be divided on the influence and growing global outreach of the UTMB operation, what cannot be denied is that some of the world’s best are in Chamonix this week.
This week seven races are being held based around the Chamonix area, the blue riband of which is the UTMB over 171km (105 miles) with 9963m of climbing. The route circles Mont Blanc from Chamonix, France, through Italy and Switzerland, before finishing back in Chamonix with the race starting at 6pm on Friday September 1.
Main UTMB contenders
Eleven of the last 14 UTMB races have been won by three runners – Spain’s Kilian Jornet, Frenchman Francois D’Haene and Xavier Thevenard. None of them are on the start line this year. However, the men’s race does feature nine of last year’s top 10 as well as several up and coming athletes, leaving the race wide open for a new name to top the podium.
Second and third place finishers from 2022 – Matthieu Blanchard of France and Britain’s Tom Evans – both return. Evans is in good form with a win at Western States 100 in June, with Blanchard sixth at that event. But it remains to be seen who has recovered well and regrouped best to cope with the more technically demanding UTMB climbs.
Evans has been posting that specificity in his recent training has been geared towards dealing with the longer climbs.
Speaking to AW from Chamonix he said: “The specificity has been really important. It’s been about getting really strong and sharpening up my skills using poles, especially on the long climbs, as that is where you can make up or lose time at UTMB.”
Asked how he planned to run the race, whether going with whoever sets the pace or running his own race, he replied: “This year it’s going to be more about running your own race. I am super comfortable with the splits I have run.
“Things could also be very weather dependant but I think around 20 hours or 20:15 is what it could take to win this year, if conditions are good. My plan is to go out at a hard but sustainable pace.”
Evans added: “I think my main contenders will be the Americans Jim (Walmsley) and Zach Miller, plus Mathieu Blanchard and a couple of other Europeans also, but in a race like this your main competition is yourself.
“You can only possibly run your own best race, which is what I am going to be trying to do and not worrying too much about what others are doing, but just focusing on running my best possible race.
“UTMB has grown into such a big event and I will have several media commitments pre-race, but I have some breathing and mediation type exercises to help me stay relaxed. The kit is all prepped and I just have to bring the best version of myself to the start line on Friday afternoon.”
One of his main competitors is indeed likely to be Walmsley. The course record-holder for Western States is back for another attempt at the elusive UTMB crown. Previous placings at UTMB have been fourth in 2022 and fifth in 2017. A course record at the Istria 100 mile by UTMB in April showed he had good early season form, though. Since then he has been mostly in Europe training with UTMB as the main goal.
Beñat Marmissolle was sixth last year had a recent second placing at Hardrock 100 just over five weeks ago. How many quality 100-mile efforts can you run in a summer is a topic of much debate just now.
Of last year’s top 10 Hans Namberger of Germany, the Swiss pair of Jonas Rossi and Jean Philippe Tschumi and the French duo of Thibaut Garrivier and Arthur Bouillon have all won or made the podium at prestigious events this year to indicate continued fitness.
Two other former winners Pau Capell of Spain (2019) and Ludo Pommeret (2016) of France are on the start list. Capell has raced frequently and consistently this year in his build up, so should contend. Pommeret at 48 years old and has years of high level experience including fourth in 2021 at UTMB and victory in the 145km TDS event in 2022.
Of the UTMB debutants, Sweden’s Petter Engdahl, winner of last year’s CCC and the recent Eiger Trail stands out as one to watch.
Apart from Evans, British hopes are also good for Josh Wade and Tom Joly. Wade has made solid progress the last two years and this year took the win at the Ultra Trail Snowdonia 100 mile in May, following that with third place at the Eiger Trail in July.
Joly has also been on an upward curve. He had a breakthrough race when representing Great Britain at the World Long Trail Championships at Innsbruck-Stubai in June, where he finished 11th, in a competitive field – and this will be his first UTMB.
In the women’s race Courtney Dauwalter is the stand-out entry. This summer she recorded back to back 100-mile victories just two weeks apart at Western States on June 24 followed by Hardrock 100 on July 7. It begs the question asked earlier, how many quality 100-mile races is a body capable of in a summer?
There is no doubting Dauwalter’s experience and powers of recovery, though. With victories at UTMB in 2019 and 2021, along with a host of other wins in prestigious races, if her recovery has been good she will be hard to beat. If she is anything under par there are several challengers.
Hungary’s Eszter Csillag was fifth last year and third behind Dauwalter at this year’s Western States.
New Zealand’s Ruth Croft, winner at Western States in 2022 and runner up in 2021, could pose the stiffest challenge. Her win at the difficult Zugspitz 80km in June shows she is in good shape to tackle the bigger Alpine climbs too.
Interesting UTMB debutants are Blandine L’Hirondel of France, twice winner of the World Long Trail Championships and CCC winner from last year, and Germany’s Katerina Hartmuth, who was runner-up in the World Long Trail championship in June in Innsbruck.
Canada’s Ailsa MacDonald, runner-up behind Croft at the 2022 Western States but a DNF on her last UTMB attempt in 2021, will be also be one to watch.
Top Briton on the start list is the experienced GB international Jo Meek.
CCC Race – 9am Friday September 1
The CCC (Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix) has grown from a small sister race to become a world-class competition in its own right. With 6000 metres of climb over its 100km distance it is no less a challenge for the intensity it can be run at.
With 2022 winner Petter Engdahl opting for the longer UTMB, last year’s runner up Britain’s Jon Albon will start as one of the favourites. The 2019 World Ultra Trail champion was part of Great Britain’s gold medal winning team at the World Short Trail race in Innsbruck. He also has a host of other impressive wins and podiums over the last five years.
Fellow GB international Harry Jones has been another of our consistent competitors in recent years. He has got in a good block of training since the World Long Trail Championships in June and has hopes of repeating his top 10 placing of 2018.
Italian Andreas Reiterer, second place finisher at the Long Trail at the recent Innsbruck World Championships, should be in the mix.
There is also a strong American contingent including Drew Holman, Eric LaPuma, Dakota Jones and David Laney
In the women’s race, Elsey Davis flies the flag for Great Britain. Following her top 20 placing at the Innsbruck’s world short trail race, she took second at the Eiger Trail 54km in July. It will be Davis’s first race beyond 55km.
Spains Azara Garcia, winner at Transgrancanaria in February, may start favourite, while France’s duo of Audrey Tanguy, part of the French long trail medal winning team in Innsbruck, along with June’s 80km Lavaredo winner Esther Eustache should also be challenging the podium.
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