Within the UTMB - Part I : Before the race

08 Mar 2010 08:00
Jean-Loup Fenaux
Focus on a race

This is the first part of Laurent Thézé’s report of this participation in the North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® 2009.

The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc

The first time I did the UTMB was in 2007. I started full of confidence with a fast start, then a drop in energy and the third part marked by double shin splints so I withdrew.

My second effort in 2008 I was worried because of a previous race with blown quadriceps, probably from not enough training. I didn’t want to tear them again and dropped at Champex.

In 2009 I thought I would try one of the shorter races, but at the beginning of March I found there were still some places open.

Credit : North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc®


My preparation after the 2008 effort can be divided into three sections.

  • September to December, take it easy: after 3 weeks of recovery, 5 weeks of increased training, then a marathon at the end of October (Lausanne); 5 weeks with two cross-country in November, with no special training, then at the beginning of December, a long trail race (Origole, 75 km D+1900m at night in muddy undergrowth), followed by a 50 km night off-road in Paris, and no training for the rest of the year.
  • January to April 2009, base training and a marathon goal: starting in January with two X-C and a 10 km, a 14 km off-road and two off-roads of 45-50 km in February, half-marathon at the beginning of March (Rambouillet) and a 115 km off-road at the end of March, then the first goal of the year: Senart marathon May 1. Workouts by month: 207 km, 17:06 time; 302 km, 29:13; 404 km, 40:32; 240 km, 22:08
  • From May to August 2009, main goal was long trail runs: mid-May trail training (deer trails, 50 km D+1200), short trail run early June (Rosny, 17 km), second goal of the year: Grand Raid du Mercantour June 20 (mountain run 102 km D+6600m, reduced to 82 km D+5600 because of snow), trail run 22 km early July; 3rd goal: Ultra Tour du Beaufortrain 17 July (mountain trail 102 km D+5000m, stopped at 30 km, D+2200 because of snow), 3 days of cross/mountain, another 3 weeks of training and 2 weeks of tapering before the UTMB. Not much tapering, except since April frequent regular up and down the stairs of the 28-storey tower where I work. Monthly tally, including cross/races: 265 km, 33:36; 173 km, 25:41; 253 km, 35:32; 149 km, 22:15 (up to 27/08), paradoxically less than the beginning of the year because of tapering before and recovery after long races.
  • Objective and strategy

    My objective is to conquer this course. To finish, naturally, but humbly recognizing the extent of the effort and mastering many factors. The goal of mastery precedes the performance, even if this is the desired goal. It includes nutrition and digestion to provide the necessary energy, which presumes you want to eat, and a digestive system which is working; the ability to resist fatigue and sleepiness; to keep running until the end; complete the downhills with quadriceps trained to deal with the many long descents, avoiding any and all injuries; and especially to get through the inevitable fading, with a will and a desire which overrule the moments when you tell yourself all is lost and it’s not worth continuing.

    The days leading up to the race I prepare a timetable, using Remi Poivert’s web site, ‘softrun.fr’:www.softrun.fr, which gives timing for each stage, based on a reasonable 36 hours with a 34-hour option, reflecting my times in 2007 and 2008. I plan to have this schedule with me so that during the race I can confirm my relative progress in those discouraging moments when I think I’m slowing down and losing time.

    UTMB valley
    Credit : akunamatata


    Although last year I prepared my own powder based on Caloreen and fructose, it didn’t work on the UTMB, with digestion and energy problems after ten hours, and in my spring marathon I made a mistake in gel & water; this year I developed and tested a nutrition plan based on the Ergysport energy powder, which has the advantage of guaranteeing the appropriate amount I can handle.

    In order to manage my water and nutrition intake, and to carry with me the amount of powder I need without weighing myself down, I calculate the amount of water and powder between each nutrition post based on my expected time of 36 hours, taking 50 cl per hour and 40 g per litre. I prepare ahead of time bags with the precise amount of powder, marked for each stage, indicating the required amount of water which I will measure with my water cup. I will start off with what I need to reach Courmayeur, where I will pick up the rest in the bag which the race staff will bring.

    This plan allows a steady supply of water and digestible nutrients so I don’t use up my reserves too quickly. Since 20 g per hour doesn’t seem enough, I plan to rely on the nutrition posts for bananas, noodle soup and pasta. And I will carry for backup a small bottle of pure maple syrup, two packages of sesame crackers and several glucose lozenges, all tested in my training runs.


    Equipment must meet regulations, include what is necessary for safety, be comfortable and easy to use, while keeping weight in mind. And of course has been tried out.

    Weather conditions need to be considered: forecast for the week is mild weather, with cold nights, so a light vest should do. At the start I am wearing: Asics Trabucco running shoes, Skyrun Xsocks, no gaiters, Salomon tights, Kalenji underwear, long-sleeved Millet Carline t-shirt, mittens, eyeglasses, Polar S625X watch with heart rate strap and accelerometer, race number attached with two safety pins on a race belt on the waist. Total, 1500 g.

    Leki poles to take out at Houches and keep for the whole race, 438 g.

    On my back at the start: Raidlight Endurance 10 litre backpack, Platyplus 2 litre water pouch, 600 ml water bag, cup in a bag, Mizuno BreathTermo long-sleeved t-shirt, Raidlight Top MP+ jacket, Millet WindStop sleeveless vest, light wool gloves, Buff, Black Diamond ZenixIQ headlamp with 2 spare batteries, second headlamp Petzl Tikka+, no spare batteries, passport, survival blanket, adhesive tape, toilet paper. 1907 g.

    Nutrition: bags of energy powder, 5 glucose lozenges, 2 packs of 3 sesame crackers, small bottle of maple syrup. 565 g and 1500 g water.

    So less than 6 kg in all, two on the body and 4 in the pack, which becomes 3 on the back since the water will drop from 1100 g to zero.

    Bag pick-up is available at Courmayeur. Items used: cap, spare socks, energy powder pouches, anti-friction cream. Not used: sunglasses in hard case, set of spare batteries for each headlamp, spare clothing (shorts, light t-shirt, underwear, light fleece sweater), spare shoes, gaiters, poncho, chamois, extra nutrition.


    I arrive Thursday at Chamonix. I visit the ultra-trail exhibit room, meet some friends, old and new at the UFO booth, and a very interesting talk “How to be an ultra-trail performer” with François Castell, Vincent Delebarre, Guillaume Millet and Jean-Claude Banfi. Topics: mental, VO2max, endurance, muscle strength, nutrition, course organization. In addition to the session given by Guillaume Millet before the Mercantour, I hear, especially on the mental level: make your commitment worthwhile, be aware of your mental processes, be aware of your limits, develop new strategies; also develop mental skills: flexibility, let your mind go or focus, have a backup goal, have a plan to respond to problems; also: training routines, what is important is not what happens but what you do.

    On Friday I pick up my race number, a speedy operation—organization has improved every year—and spend the morning in the ultra-trail room, especially at the race booths. Then I prepare my final meal, have a quick 40-minute nap and finish getting my bags ready.

    I drop off my bag for Champex. The gym which will hold over 2000 bags gives an idea of the amount of organization in progress. When I come out, the waiting line is considerably longer, but the organization is efficient and people are moving along quickly. I go back to the start zone, which isn’t too crowded yet, only a score of racers sitting behind the arch.

    But I don’t sit down because we have a meeting with Gilles in his hotel room, near the start line. There are Clarisse, Gilles, who is going for the sixth time, Damien, Jan, Gilles A. who is a volunteer for the PTL after having finished last year, and Patrick. Four of us leave: Jan, Gilles, Damien and me. We agree to start together, without trying to break away, for a cautious start with the idea of keeping a reserve for the second half of the race. We don’t set a time limit or place to stay together; if someone feels good he can go ahead, and inversely, if someone has a problem he will slow down and let the others go. Weather report confirms good weather, no precipitation—we’re spoiled.

    Time passes quickly in the room, and it’s time to go… We head to the start zone only ten minutes early, no stress. Anyway, we’ll be at the back, no risk of starting too fast or being sucked in by the excessive speed at the front. In this crowd I can’t hope to find my other buddies, Philippe and Jean-Yves.

    As usual, the square is jammed, runners sitting everywhere, supporters hovering over them, spectators on the balconies. The speech at the starting arch finishes, the music by Vangelis raises feelings and pressure. The runners stand up. The long awaited moment is upon us which will unleash the collective tension.

    Within the North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® 2009 :