Tobias Mews
Tobias Mews | Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Telegraph Men, 12 Sept ’13
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Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Telegraph Men, 12 Sept ’13

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Telegraph Men, 12 Sept ’13

TelegraphMenLogoPublished on Telegraph Men on 12 September 2013.  Read the original article here.

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc: my uphill battle with the world’s toughest mountain race

‘Who’s absolutely barking mad idea was this?’  Utterly shattered, I was collapsed in a chair at the refreshment post in Courmayeur.

‘Well it certainly wasn’t mine,’ my girlfriend Zayne replied, averting her nose whilst helping to remove my sweaty and rather smelly running top.

The rhetorical question was hardly surprising.  It was almost five in the morning and for the best part of 12 hours, I’d run 78 kms non-stop throughout the night.

Telegraph Men_UTMBGlancing  around me, I saw that I wasn’t the only one looking as if they’d done ten rounds with Mike Tyson.  The room was beginning to resemble a battlefield casualty centre, awash with ultra runners sporting dazed, vacant stares as loyal and anxious wives and girlfriends (as well as the odd husband) dabbed their foreheads with wet wipes, all the while encouraging them to try and eat something.

Haggard faces contorted into occasional winces of pain as runners tried to stand up and walk, only to promptly sit back down again.  With an average age of 43, none of them are likely to forget the cardinal rule of ultra running, ‘Thou shalt not spend too much time at refreshment posts, lest your muscles seize up’.

Thirty minutes later, sporting a fresh change of clothes and new head torch batteries, I hobbled out of Courmayeur, cursing myself as I too had forgotten this basic rule.    At least now, the sun would soon be rising and daylight would make the trail a little easier, but this was small recompense for the fact that I wasn’t even half way.   Far from it.

Starting at 4.30 on Friday afternoon, with Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise blasting out over the loud speakers, I couldn’t quite take in the enormity of the challenge I had set myself.  I was in uncharted territory.  Until now, I’d never run on a mountain trail at night, let alone run for 12 hours.    And knowing that the sun would set again, before I might get some rest back in Chamonix, was a scary thought.  In fact, if I was lucky, I still had at least 19 hours ahead of me.  I say lucky, because,  the vast majority would be out for much longer, well into their second night.

The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or UTMB as it’s more commonly known, follows one of the most popular walking routes in the world.  During the summer months, more than 25,000 people attempt to circumnavigate the gigantic snow covered mound of rock that is the Mont-Blanc massif.  About 168 kms in length with 9600 metres of crippling ascent – and descent –  the Tour du Mont-Blanc passes through France, Italy and Switzerland and takes an average hiker 7 to 10 days to complete.  We had just 46 hours.  In a normal year, just half of the 2300 runners will be able to wear the coveted The North Face gilet that says ‘Finisher UTMB,’ awarded to those who complete the course.

This fact was reverberating around my head when I set off that afternoon, in the company of my friend, ultra runner and two-time UTMB finisher Danny Kendall.  Although we had the ambitious aim of finishing within the 30 hour mark, we both knew that many an experienced runner has come a cropper in what’s regarded as the world’s toughest mountain trail race, often reduced to what is worryingly referred to as a ‘death march.’

Sprained hamstrings, twisted ankles and torn Achilles will do a mighty fine job of bringing any runner’s dreams of finishing to an agonising halt.  However, these injuries are secondary to what happens in your mind.

The UTMB is one of a small number of races that has the ability to push you so far beyond the limits of your self imposed expectations, that in the end, you won’t even know yourself.  It is a major element of what makes the UTMB so magical, alongside the majesty of the mountains, the camaraderie from your fellow ultra runners, the loyal support of friends and family and overwhelming enthusiasm from the crowds cheering you on throughout the day and night – all of which will leave you humbled by the experience.

I’ve twice run across the Sahara Desert in the Marathon des Sables.  I’ve swum in the freezing fjords of the Norseman triathlon, the world’s toughest iron distance triathlon, in order to earn a black finisher’s t-shirt.  I’ve run along virgin trails in the Jungle Ultra marathon in Peru.  I’ve mountain biked 800 kms across South Africa’s Western Cape in the Cape Epic.

But never have I felt such overwhelming pride on reaching the finish of the UTMB, my first hundred miller, and putting on that red gilet that says ‘Finisher UTMB,‘ 31hrs34 minutes after I had left the previous day and in 173rd position.  It was the proudest moment of my life!

UTMB Facts


Where: Starts and finishes in Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France but passes through Switzerland and Italy.

Established: 2003

Entry Cost: €160

Distance: 168kms, 9600m of ascent/descent.

Difficulty rating: 5/5

Number of competitors: limited to 2300 runners

2013 Winning time: 20:34:57 by Xavier Thevenard (new course record)

Tobias’s time: 31:34:52 (position 173)

How to enter

Now in it’s eleventh edition, the UTMB has become the most popular ultra marathon in Europe.   So popular, that despite strict entry criteria, they still have to turn down half of those applying for one of the 2300 slots.  With the emphasis being on semi-autonomy, the race organisers insist on runners completing a number of qualifying races, to ensure want to know that everyone has a chance of finishing.

Next year’s UTMB starts on 29 August 2014.  To enter, you must first collect 7 points from a maximum of 3 qualifying races completed between 1 Jan 2012 and 31 December 2013.

The pre-registration period is between 19 December 2013 and 6 January 2014 with a €50 deposit.  The ballot results are announced on 15 January 2014. If you are ‘lucky’ to get a place, you then have 13 days to question your sanity, pay the remaining fee and tell your wife that you’re going to be training a lot over the next 8 months!

Unlike many of the mass participation road marathons, there is no prize money for coming first in this self proclaimed ‘race of superlatives’.  The prize, regardless of our position, is the coveted The North Face gillet that says ‘Finisher UTMB’ awarded on the finish line.

Tobias Mews

Adventure Sports Journalist, Filmmaker and Athlete