UTMB 2014 is less than 50 days away. Now is the right time to ponder over the last build-up trainings and to think over game day strategies. Especially for those racing in Chamonix the first time, or in Europe for that matter, UTMB veteran Joel Meredith is sharing some insights. Joel is an experienced US ultra runner who has raced all over the planet with the Atacama Crossing (250km), the Gobi March (250km) and the recent Lavaredo Ultra Trail (119km) only beeing a small sample of this achievments. More information can be found on Joel’s blog.
Quick Facts about UTMB
The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc circumvents the Mont Blanc on a 168km long alpine mountain trail. The runners have to cover 9600m D+ in the ascent and the same in the descent in order to make their way back to the start an finish line in Chamonix. Approximately 2400 runners meet the qualification criteria and, if they were lucky in the draw, toe the line in the last weekend of August. Our Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc race report can be found here: UTMB 2013 race report
The Road to UTMB – Joel Meredith
Q: Since your last finish at the UTMB in 2013, what have you been up to? How did you structure your build up?
Joel: UTMB took a lot out of me last year. It came at the end of a fairly brutal schedule and I really struggled in my recovery. I’m not someone who likes to just rest, but my body really needed it. I reduced my normal training mileage for the following 2 months and dove into some core strengthening and Bikram yoga as a way to supplement my fitness. By November I was feeling a bit stronger, so I tackled the Mountain Masochist 50-Miler in Virginia, where I had a really solid race finishing in the top 25. I followed that up with an overall win at the Black Toe 12-Hour race in mid-January and a 6th overall finish at the Black Mountain Trail Marathon in February. March was an almost non-running month for me, as my youngest brother and I flew to Nepal and trekked the Mount Everest Base Camp route for 3 weeks. After that break, I started really pushing my weekly mileage up in an effort to prepare both for the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (→ Race Report) and UTMB. I was averaging 200km weeks of quality mileage when I suffered a slight fracture and tear in my right midfoot. I spent the 5 weeks prior to LUT trying to rehab the injury with almost no running. I worked on the elliptical trainer and swam in an effort to maintain fitness, but I definitely lost a step during that time. The foot came around well and allowed me to complete LUT in just over 18 hours and good enough for 74th position.
Currently, I’m recovering from that effort and pushing towards a quick rebuild before UTMB in August. My foot is still an issue, but its rehab seems to be progressing fairly well.
Q: What were the key take-aways from last year’s race?
Joel: UTMB is such a massive event and learning experience. If I had to boil everything down into two concepts, they would be:
- keep it simple
- take your time
These ideas may seem opposite to what most would think, but I think they are both key ideas for success at this race. By „keep it simple“, I mean don’t over think it too much or you will become bogged down in the details. At it’s most simple, this race is about moving through the mountains, from point to point, with as much ease as possible. Study the maps intently and do your proper race prep, of course. However, I see far too many runners becoming so overwhelmed with pacing charts and gear lists that they lose the plot. I have a loose plan going into the race and take only the minimum of gear that is both required and what I think I’ll need. The plan usually has to be tweeked along the way, so just stay fluid and flexible, making sure that you are taking care of your own needs and giving yourself the best possible opportunity to see the finish.
Remember, as Karl Meltzer says, the rabbit never wins! Run where you can, hike when you need to, and keep a steady forward progress going.
The second concept, „take your time“, refers to properly pacing yourself. This is an absolute grinder of a race, so there’s no reason to start out at a sub 6-minute per mile pace (as we saw last year) or to rush through an aid station and risk forgetting something important. Last year, I was guilty of both. Lock into a good pace from the start and focus on trying to maintain that throughout. Remember, as Karl Meltzer says, the rabbit never wins! Run where you can, hike when you need to, and keep a steady forward progress going. When you get to an aid station, take a moment to check yourself out and do what you need to before leaving out. A few extra moments spent eating something hearty or properly fixing a piece of gear that needs attention will not matter in your overall time, but it could mean the difference between finishing and not.
With this approach, I guarantee you will consistently pass others throughout the race and improve your final position.
Q: Any advice for the UTMB novice?
Joel: With regards to the UTMB novice, I would echo the comments above about the importance of pacing and a simplistic approach. I would also recommend being very familiar with the gear they will use, so as to reduce frustrations during the race. One of the biggest pieces of advice I would add is to make sure they have prepared by running several 40-50+ mile training runs before the race and have at least done a few night sessions. This race isn’t something to be taken lightly. Those who do typically don’t get to the finish. Do the proper preparation, then go have fun!
Q: How is racing in Europe different from the US? What do non-european runners need to know before coming to Chamonix /racing the UTMB?
Joel: Few things could be more opposite! Races in the US tend to be very small, down home events with fewer runners and a real family feel and not much fan fare. We show up, run the race, then all sit around and have a burger and a beer together! Very low key. In Europe, it is much more professional with sometimes thousands of runners and huge crowd support. That’s not something we see here in the States. I love both styles! Runners that don’t have that European experience and are coming to UTMB should expect something on a bigger scale than they are likely used to. Everything at this race is BIG: big number of runners, big race expo, big crowd support, big landscapes, big everything. I say that not to intimidate anyone but simply to say that this race is a big deal and it really gets the respect and celebration it deserves from both the runners and the supporters. It’s something every serious mountain runner should experience at least once.
Q: A couple of quick-fired questions – what’s your stance?
Poles vs. Hands-On-Knees?
Joel: I do both, but only use poles in Europe. Ha! No one uses poles in the US, but I can honestly say they’ve made life at a few races much easier for me.
Spandex vs. Cotton?
In the words of my friend Drew, „cotton is rotten!“
Cheese vs. Gummies?
I’ll take a good gummy any day over a good piece of cheese. In the US, it’s hard to get either!
Handheld vs. Backpack?
Just depends on what I’m doing. For a run of 2 hours or less, a handheld works great. I’ve been using a pack a lot lately just because my events all require them and I like to be familiar with my gear.
Pacer vs. Unsupported?
That’s tricky. I’ve both paced and been paced at races and there’s no doubt that it gives an advantage. For that reason, I think I’d have to say unsupported is best. That way, everyone is even. Either you’re going to do it on your own, or you’re not. Simple as that.
Blonde vs. Brunette?
Q: What makes you want to run UTMB again? What’s the buzz all about?
Joel: For me, I’m returning to Chamonix to try and have a better race than last year. The 2013 event was really hard on me. My stomach went out at around 70 km and I couldn’t eat anything through the next 100 km, which made it a complete slog for me. This time, I want to go with a better plan and more experience in hopes of having a race that I can really be proud of, regardless of time or position. It’s more about me proving to myself that I can have a respectable race on that course. It’s also hard to turn down an opportunity to take part in what I think is the biggest stage in ultrarunning. I’m not saying that UTMB is the toughest race out there or anything, but it is without a doubt the biggest stage for our sport. It is a huge ambiance and it’s absolutely incredible to be a part of. I can’t wait to get back in those mountains! Hopefully I’ll be in good enough shape to share a few miles with you this year, Alex. That was something that really helped push me on last year. As the old saying goes, if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.
Thanks for this very insightful interview, Joel. All the best for UTMB and the rest of your racing.