Friday, 5 September 2014

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc Race Report - No Obvious Major Mistakes, Just Disappointment!


For the last six years I have been racing trail ultras.  And for the last four years I have been writing race reports here on UltraStu.  Well tonight's UTMB race report will be my last ultra trail race report for a while, as I am having a break from ultra trail racing.

I have used my race reports as part of my TOTAL training, where I have spent much time analysing my race performances in order to learn and strive to improve.  Over the last six years, I feel I have developed as an ultra trail runner, with some performances I consider being quite exceptional, whereas others have been at times disappointing.  It is just a little unfortunately that my 28th and final ultra trail race during this period of my competitive endurance racing 'career' ended up being a Did Not Finish (DNF)!  Tonight's race report should be a lot shorter than usual, as with there being no immediate upcoming ultra trail races, the need to learn to improve isn't so paramount.  So here goes!

The 168km UTMB was my number one race for 2014, having previously raced it in 2009 where I finished in 22nd place in a time of 26:29:13, and in 2011 where I DNFed at Courmayeur after 78km.  It is an amazing event, and having decided at the end of 2013 that 2014 would be my final year of ultra trail racing prior to a break, it seemed the ideal ultra trail race to finish on.  (I will come back to my decision to have a break either at the end of this post, or in a separate blog post).

My racing during 2014 had been rather mixed.  It started back in March at the Steyning Stinger Trail Marathon where I had my first ever DNF in a trail marathon after taking a fall in the mud resulting in a 'locking up' of my right leg.  During my next race in April, the 61 mile Fellsman, I ran very poorly and finish in a disappointing 20th place.  I quickly 'threw in' a trail marathon into my race schedule two weeks following the Fellsman to boost my confidence, which worked with a strong run at the Stroud Trail Marathon to finish in a close second place.  The South Downs Way 100 miler in June followed with although a fifth place, finishing in a time of sixteen and a half hours, overall I wasn't happy with my performance.  Fortunately, I managed to produce a pleasing run at the Montane Lakeland 50 at the end of July where I finished in fourth place in a very strong field with it being the British Ultra Trail Championships.  So coming into UTMB I was expecting a strong showing.

Having DNFed at UTMB in 2011 mainly as a result of getting into a negative mental downward spiral, I was well aware of the need to get the non-physical preparation right.  Establishing ones race goals I have particularly found difficult this year, and this I guess is part of the reason why I am having a break from ultra trail racing.  My goal for this year's UTMB wasn't a specific finish time or finish place goal, but more a goal of when I finished I hoped to be able to reflect back on the race and feel that I had maintained 'racing' for the entire 168km.  Obviously the intensity of racing a 168km mountainous race is lower than racing a flattish 100 miler, or a 50 mile race, however, I had the aim of wanting to maintain the race focus for the entire race.  Back in 2009, although overall I was pleased with my run, I felt that I had stopped racing at Vallorcine, which was at around 23 hours.  In 2014, could I manage to 'race' the entire route?  If I could, then a pleasing finish time would result, which I expected would be quicker than 2009, somewhere between 25:15 - 26:00 hours.  So I had a 'perfect' race time expectation of 25:15 - 26:00 hours, and formulated a schedule for the 24 timing checkpoints based on 25:15, but this wasn't the race goal.  As explained the race goal was to maintain a race level intensity, and try not to 'slacken off'.  Usually quite achievable for races lasting up to say nine hours, but for a 25+ hour race???

On a warm sunny Friday afternoon, although interrupted with a heavy shower just five minutes before the start, 2434 runners get underway. It doesn't take me long before I am in clear space and able to run at the pace that feels right.  Around the first two kilometres are on road before running along a undulating trail which is plenty wide enough to allow two runners to run side by side.  During the first 8kms before we start the first climb at Les Houches, it is all pretty comfortable, and there is brief chatter among the various British runners whom I am running near including Jez Bragg, Andy James, Robbie Britton, and Dan Lawson. I didn't have any plan to run with the other Brtish runners, it just seemed that we were wanting to run at around the same pace, probably around 200 - 300 metres back from the leaders as we go through the first drink station at Les Houches.

 The Start at Chamonix with Anton Krupicka (Headband) Directly Behind

The first climb up to Le Delevret is always a quick climb in relation to the other nine climbs.  I am working at a good level, not too high, and slowly watch the British runners move away.  I am totally fine with this as the intention was to start that little bit easier than I did back in 2011, where possibly it was just that bit too quick!  As I pass through the timing point at 1739 metres elevation (Les Houches was 1012m) I aren't aware of my position, but at the time I guessed that it would be somewhere between 50 - 70th place.  Although I wasn't really focused on a finish position, and even with the expectation that the standard of the field at the front would have improved since 2011 and 2009, I do recall feeling reasonably happy with where I was positioned.  The actual race results later show that I passed through in 71st place, in a slightly quicker time of 1:24:42 when compared to 2011 (1:25:30, 31st place).  The other British runners at this point were not in sight, having passed in the following times (places): Andy 1:21:33 (39th), Jez 1:21:56 (44th), Dan 1:22:22 (50th) and Robbie 1:22:48 (53rd).

During the First Climb

Passing Through the Le Delevret Checkpoint

The descent down to Saint Gervais is a little slippery due to the heavy rain that had started half way up the first climb.  I take it a little easier than usual being aware that back in 2011 I experienced substantial discomfort on the descent into Courmayeur.  I therefore don't get negative as around ten or so runners overtake me.  The results later show that during the forty minute descent I dropped from 71st to 83rd place.  There is a great street party atmosphere in Saint Gervais even though it is raining, and I really make the most of the positive energy and find myself high-fiving many children.

The next section along to Les Contamines is a gentle climb with the occasional short steep sections thrown in.  Including a new hill immediately prior to Les Contamines which probably adds around an extra minute or two to the race time in comparison to 2009 and 2011.  As mentioned above I had produced a 25:15 split time schedule.  I didn't have the split times written down, but I did decide to remember three of the times, these being at Les Contamines (31km), Courmayeur (78km) and Champex-Lac (124km).  I arrive at Les Contamines feeling really good, having seemed to have found my comfortable place within the field, with there being minimal changing of race position during the last hour, and I notice on my watch that I was pretty well exactly bang on my schedule time which was 3:15 at this checkpoint.  The results later show I arrived at 3:14:29 in 84th place.  The other Brits were still out of sight: Andy 3:04:19 (36th), Jez no time recorded, Dan 3:06:01 (41st) and Robbie 3:06:06 (43rd).

All is going to plan, and again I soak up the positive energy as I make good progress up to the next checkpoint at La Balme.  Up to this point of the race all had been going well.  I had felt that I was maintaining a good race pace appropriate for a 25+ hour race.  I was staying within the moment, and had been really enjoying the race, even though it had been raining now for three hours, although it had just stopped prior to La Balme which was pleasing.  I was aware that I was significantly lower down the field than I had been in both 2009 and 2011, and that I was behind the other leading British runners, but I was totally happy with all of this.  At this point I was achieving my goal of maintaining race focus, which I knew would produce the performance I would be happy with if I could simply continue to enjoy the present moment.

La Balme is at an elevation of 1698 metres, so we had already climbed quite a bit from the lowest point of the race route at Saint Gervais of 815 metres.  The next checkpoint was at Refuge Croix Bonhomme at 2439 metres.  It is during this portion of the race when things started to go wrong.  I start feeling tightness within my chest, and start to have trouble breathing.  I try to focus on the amazing surroundings, the stars above which are beginning to come out as the clouds disappear, the amazing trail of head torches behind winding up the mountain, but the discomfort from my chest is getting worse.  I have no choice but to ease off the pace in order to get to the top. 

I finally reach the checkpoint, and then try to maintain a quick pace on the descent.  I find it difficult to keep the pace up, with breathing problems with the tight chest.  I get to the Les Chapieux checkpoint, having descended 886 metres feeling pretty 'rough', after 6:30:32 of racing, now in 116th place.  Whereas back at Les Contamines I had been less than ten minutes behind the leading Brit Andy James, due to the difficulties I had experienced on the climb and descent I was now 44 minutes behind Andy!  (Andy 5:46:31 (28th), Jez 5:51:57 (41st), Dan 5:58:08 (53rd) and Robbie 6:05:16 (69th).

I decide a longer stop than usual is needed to try to recover.  For some of the checkpoints the time is recorded for entering and leaving the checkpoint, and the results show that I spent eight minutes at the checkpoint.  The next few miles are reasonably flat or at a gradient which is just that too steep to run, but easy to walk quickly up.  I begin to feel better and begin to relax as I start chatting to a runner from Japan, Aki.  I don't usually talk that much whilst racing, but I was cautiously getting back into race mode after the previous chest tightness prior to the checkpoint break, so I was able to chat a little bit. I guess we walk/run along together for around an hour, and I start to feel confident that I have got the 'bad patch' out of the way so soon into the race, so I start to look forward to increasing the intensity and gradually moving myself back up the field. Unfortunately around halfway up the long climb to Col de la Seigne (2507m) the tight chest and difficult breathing returns.  Again I try my best to remain positive and to 'push through', but I have to reduce the intensity, and the pace substantially drops and it seems to take forever to reach the top.

Meeting Up With Aki at the Prizegiving

On the descent I find that if I stay below a certain intensity the discomfort from the tight chest is okay.  I get to the checkpoint at Lac Combal (1964m) actually feeling okay, and with a quick stop are on my way.  As I start the fourth climb of the day, the moment I start to raise the intensity, the discomfort returns.  I have to travel up the mountain at a very slow pace.  I am beginning to feel a bit down.  From the race going so well for the first four hours, now at the Arete Mont-Favre checkpoint (2409m), 10:25:50 into the race, I am having really difficulty.  Not able to race, having to walk the climbs very slowly!

From Arete Mont-Fave there is first a gentle descent to the Col Chercrout checkpoint, then a steep descent to the major checkpoint at Courmayeur.  At first I manage to maintain a reasonable pace, but then shortly before Col Chercrout I begin to feel really rough, and am overcome by a sick feeling.  the tightness in the chest is still there, and now combined with feeling sick, I am not in a great state.  The checkpoint has a few benches to sit on, but no shelter.  I sit down and hope I will quickly feel better.  The checkpoint crew repeatedly check if I am okay and encourage me to make my way down to Courmayeir where the checkpoint is within a huge sports hall with hot food, beds, etc.  I don't know how long I am at the checkpoint, I guess around ten minutes.  As I start making my way down I am physically sick, although not much comes up!  Being sick actually makes me briefly feel better, but it isn't long before I feel really rough again, and I slowly make my way to the next checkpoint.

At Courmayeur, I pick up my drop bag, and make my way into the huge sports hall.  As I take a seat at a table, I find I am seated next to British runner Ed Catmur.  I hadn't actually met Ed before, although had seen him race and was well aware of his many great performances.  It was quite a bizarre moment as I introduced myself.  I was feeling pretty bad, and he actually didn't look that much better. (Ed had arrived at the checkpoint at 5:05am and spent 59 minutes there, before leaving at 6:04am.  So not the quickest of stops!).   I had a chuckle to myself at the thought of supposedly two of Britain's top 100 mile ultra trail runners both looking and feeling pretty rough, sitting down together stationary, not really doing anything, minimal feeding, minimal talking, both probably wondering what were we doing here in Italy at 5:30 in the morning, and for me trying to work out what is the best way forward in this race which although still a participant, I was no longer racing!

The thought of heading back out to immediately take on a 800 metre vertical climb was not appealing.  I knew that based on how I felt and the difficulty I had experienced on the last climb, that it would be very slow progress, and definitely not even close to racing!  My race goal had been to maintain race focus throughout my journey of Mont Blanc.  Due to the tight chest and difficulty breathing I had been unable to do this.  I therefore saw little point in continuing being in the state I was.  Solution? Simple, have a sleep on the secluded mats that were available behind the curtains.  For the first time ever in a race, I take off my shoes, lie down and fall asleep!

I pretty well immediately fall asleep, but stir a few times, realise where I am, and decide more sleep is required.  I'm not sure how many times I re-awake, but after around 2:30 - 2:40 of sleeping I felt that the time was right to get up.  It is around 8:15 am in the morning, and upon waking I feel amazingly good.  A quick breakfast of spaghetti bolognaise and fruit pie, and I am on my way.  I had arrived at the checkpoint in 189th place at 5:31am (11:59:43) and l left exactly three hours and two minutes later at 8:33am.  Meanwhile, just to update you on the progress of the leading Brits, who had all arrived and left before I had arrived at Courmayeur.  Their arrival times and positions were: Andy 9:41:15 (32nd), Jez 9:40:38 (31st), Dan 10:20:32 (65th) and Robbie 10:31:51 (79th).

As I leave Courmayeur, with it now being a warm sunny blue sky day, the intention was to simply enjoy myself on a casual training run along the 90km (56 miles) back to Chamonix.  I had definitely left race mode behind before my lengthy stop!  As I make good progress up the climb, running all the way along the road until reaching the single track though the woods my competitive instinct returns.  I start doing some calculations within my head, and work out that if I have a really strong run, quite possible now having slept and so turned the UTMB into a multi-stage race, then maybe a sub 30 hour finish could be possible.  The thought of achieving a 29:59 finish time was appealing, combined with the prospect of perhaps I could maintain race focus for the 'second day' of the race, and therefore go some way to achieving my race goal.

The Awesome Race Route Between Bertone and Bonatti

All Smiles as I Really Enjoy Moving Quickly - Although Walking Here as I Crest the Summit

I make really good progress up to the checkpoint at Bertone.  The next section of the race route from Bertone to Bonatti I remember from 2009 as being probably the most awesome part of the race.  It is early in the morning, along a smooth undulating single track at an elevation of around 2000 metres, and with Mont Blanc off to the left, the scenery is just amazing.  Back in 2009 I ran really quickly along this leg, and again this year I am running pretty fast and absolutely 'fly' past loads of runners.  The 7.2km leg takes me just 58:47 and I move up from 552nd place to 463rd place!  As I run pass the other runners I feel a bit of an 'imposter', in that they are doing a non-stop race, whereas I am doing a multi-stage race after my refreshing 3 hour break.  Many of you may be thinking that taking 58 minutes for four and a half miles may seem pretty slow.  Well just for comparisons sake I will compare my time to the four British runners who way back at Les Houches I was running with, but who are now many hours ahead of me.  Their split times from Bertone to Bonatti and their place at Bonatti were: Jez 60:49 (25th), Andy 62:48 (30th), Robbie 65:41 (70th) and Dan 72:54 (72nd).

Following Bonatti CP the route continues to stay up high before a zig-zagging descent down to Arnuva.  I continue to really enjoy myself running at a good pace, although begin to find it difficult overtaking runners on the narrower track, especially on the descent.  But I still manage to move up from 463rd place to 419th place in a little over forty minutes of running.  A quick refuel at the checkpoint and then it is pretty well straight into the next big climb of 756 vertical metres up to Grand Col Ferret, where we enter into Switzerland.

Slowly Climbing Up To Grand Col Ferret

I start the climb at a good intensity, but within minutes the tightness and discomfort in my chest returns and I start to find it difficult to breath.  I slow down so at first I am running at the same speed as the runners around me.  But then find I have to slow down even more and now are being slowly overtaken by the runners who just previously I absolutely 'flew' past.  I am not very happy.  I try to up the intensity but just can't.  The discomfort from the chest, combined with by now a rather negative state of mind prevents me from doing anything faster than actually creeping!  I decide for a 'time out'.  I move off the track, sit down and simply take a good look at the surrounding scenery.  There are glaciers, amazing sharp edged mountains, grassy fields, rivers, etc.  I think to myself that it isn't really too bad a place to be soaking up the sunshine.  Only problem being is that I was meant to be completing a running race, not just any race, but the amazing UTMB!  I get myself moving and continue my way up the long climb at a very slow pace, but I guess I must have had another three or four scenery time out stops before finally reaching the top.

Through the checkpoint and I was looking forward to the awesome descent I remembered from 2009, that descends from 2527m at the col, down to 1603m at the La Fouly checkpoint.  Back in 2009 I absolutely flew down to La Fouly with the eleven kilometres only taking me one hour and one minute.  Well without there being the urgency of racing, together with feeling pretty down about my inability to run at any pace that increased my breathing rate, it seemed to take forever, which it pretty well was, taking 2:02:27 to get to the checkpoint.  Although again I did have a few time-out scenery stops on the way down, so when I was jogging I wasn't actually going that much slower than the runners around me.

Feeling 'Down' Descending to La Fouly

As I slowly make my way down I decide that I would withdraw myself from the race at La Fouly.  Although the prospect of another DNF wasn't appealing, in reality I had stopped racing back at Courmayeur when I stopped for a sleep.  Over the last six years of ultra trail racing I have really focused on trying to perform to the best of my ability during the races.  My racing has always been about performing, the joy of running quickly, the excitement of being in a competition.  Here, today, due to whatever reason that was causing the problems with the tightness in my chest and the breathing issues whenever I raised the intensity, I was unable to actual race.  Yes, getting all the way back to Chamonix, to complete the 168km journey in itself is a massive achievement.  But for me, having already completed that challenge back in 2009, there just wasn't the same, 'continue at all costs' motivation.  Simply completing the UTMB just didn't mean that much to me.

As I enter the checkpoint, I take a quiet seat and spend a few moments observing what is around me.  There is noise and excitement outside with the spectators doing their best to encourage the runners.  Within the marquee it is very quiet.  There are probably around fifteen or so runners quietly feeding/fuelling themselves, but mainly you can see within their eyes that they are really focusing on seeking out the necessary energy to continue on their extremely challenging journey.  I compared myself to the other runners.  Should I really be dropping out?  Many of the other runners look in a pretty poor state.  Many looked exhausted, many looked shattered.  But mostly they looked determined, they have the desire to finish, and therefore are fully committing to doing their utmost to complete what they had started.

Those few minutes simply observing all around me did get me to start questioning whether I was doing the right thing by dropping out.  Apart from the breathing issues when I raised the intensity, apart from the 'feeling down', there was nothing wrong with me.  I knew that it wouldn't be easy, but physically I could jog slowly / walk my way to Chamonix.  I re-asked myself the three important questions:  What do I want?  Why do I want it?  How much do I want it?  And simply finishing the UTMB in order to not record another DNF wasn't the necessary answer to these questions to provide me with the important motivation to continue.

Looking back now, nearly a week later, did I make the right decision to drop?  Although many may see me quitting from the race for no apparent reason apart from 'things weren't going to plan' as really poor, as a sign of weakness, and really disappointing from a runner who has in the past perhaps inspired others.  I acknowledge this, and yes it doesn't really set a good example for others to follow.  But I guess in some ways my decision to quit reflects my overall approach, my overall philosophy that I have tried to maintain during my last six years of ultra trail racing.  This has been to try to really 'live within the moment' during the moment whilst racing.  To really enjoy the racing, to enjoy the journey, and with the destination, i.e. the finish place and time being a bonus.

Throughout my 28 ultra trail races I have focused on the flow, the rhythm, simply the joy of running quickly.  I have tried my utmost not to struggle, not to battle, not to suffer, whilst racing.  Yes, at times I have encountered some really challenging moments during many races when maintaining a quick pace has been difficult.  But I have never interpreted these moments as pain or as suffering.  They have been moments to challenge me, to test my character, to see how I respond.  In some ways these difficult moments have provided the opportunity to remain positive, to control ones emotions and to come out stronger and richer from working through the difficulties.

However, throughout these difficult moments whilst racing, the focus has always been to continue to move quickly.  I am a runner, a racer, and it is this that gives me the enjoyment.  And in pretty well all of my ultra trail races over the last six year, these difficult moments have been brief encounters, as the word suggests, just moments.  So my memories of my ultra trail racing consist of joy, of moving quickly, of feeling good.  To complete this portion of my ultra trail running journey with many many hours of discomfort, of struggling, of suffering, of moving very slowly, for me would not have been the right option.  So looking back now, I am still pleased that for me I made the correct decision.  When I think of Stuart Mills the Ultra Trail Runner, I associate with joy, excitement, moving quickly.  Pain, suffering, struggling has never played a major role within my ultra trail experiences, and for that I am very grateful.

As I started writing this post I was possibly toying with the idea of providing an explanation behind my reasons for having a break from ultra trail racing, but I think that that is best left for a future post.

Time to sign off.  I guess one of my lasting memories from last weekend's UTMB is simply seeing the determination in so many other runners as they persevered along their journey of Mont Blanc.  These runners have truly earned my respect with their ability to do their utmost in order to achieve what they set out to do.
"Challenging oneself is the first important step.  The journey continues with the commitment in order to be fully prepared, and then the joy and excitement of the experience follows.  The sense of accomplishment is a totally personal issue, and only oneself can establish the measure of success in relation to one's own wants and needs."  Stuart Mills, 2014
I wish you all the best as you take on future challenges.  Enjoy.


PS The four other British runners who I accompanied at the start of the running journey all completed the entire circuit of Mont Blanc.  Their finishing times and places were:  Jez 24:14:17 (20th), Andy 24:45:27 (27th), Robbie 26:48:36 (54th), and Dan 28:07:40 (70th).


  1. Still an inspiration to me, you did what you had to do and helped me achieve my area, of coming away with a UTMB Gillet. I for one would struggle to go back and try and have another go at this one.

  2. Good honest report Stu, followed your progress on twitter and I'm disappointed for you that you've had to sign off like this. I guess that it's par for the course with ultras, you never know what will happen on any given day, for me this is part of the attraction!

    Great to follow you for the last few years since we met at the Ring On Fire. You've inspired me to focus on total preparation and although not for me, you inspired me to attempt the run as fast as you can while you can, philospophy

  3. Stu, chest pains = A&E and sharpish. I've learned that the hard way. Might be worth a trip to the docs to explain the symtoms you had, better safe than sorry.

    1. Thaks for your comment. A good point. But all is well. Stuart