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I arrived 2 minutes before the time set by the organisers. At 4 p.m. they asked us to be in the tent to the right of the stage, one hour before the award ceremony. For this edition I am one of the first 10 runners to cross the finish line
It’s a dream rekindled and (re)fulfilled, which I worked on for another 4 years after my 2nd place in 2018. At the time I thought I would give up running but it made me want to come back at least one more time. I had years where I deepened the lessons offered by ultramarathoning, suffered from dehydration in 2019, too little training in 2021 and in 2022 I was back in my best ultra form since I started. Experienced and trained enough to put in a good showing.
In the awards tent it was a shock to see the best runners on the planet, Kilian, Mathieu, Tom Jim, Zach, , Benat, Arthur, Jonas, Thibaut in the same place for the first time. The fact that I was in that tent, at that moment, with the same intention, to get on the podium was such a momentous event that it would be sad to pass it by without writing about the experience. I think every one of the 2765+ runners that were at the start would love to spend a minute in that tent, to ask each of them at least one question.
So much went through my head that I didn’t share much with any of them but I get a wave of gratitude and goosebumps thinking I was there with them.
On a cold and wet November day in 2021 I was between Pico Ruivo and Pico Arreiro on the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. This trail is one of the most beautiful running trails in the world. However, as beautiful as it is technical. It’s a continuous show of steep rocks and uneven steps that are burning your feet and turning your stomach upside down if you run too hard.
I was in the MIUT race, at kilometre 72 and I did something I don’t often do during a race: I looked back.
Not a kilometre in, I see a runner walking up the uneven steps with giant strides, leaning forward, almost hunched over by the incline. I felt hunted. Running with his hands on his knees, he caught up with me within 10 minutes. Me alongside him, I seemed to stand still. I took a step to the side and was amazed at his strength, the strength and intensity of the effort and how well he handled it. His breathing was ragged, but he didn’t seem to mind that. If I had been his prey, I certainly wouldn’t have escaped with my life.
I was inwardly glad he was on a shorter run, watched in awe as he advanced through the high cliffs as if he were some kind of mountain spiderman.
The athlete who had overtaken me was Thibaut, and he was to win the 70-kilometre race at MIUT. Pau Capell had come second. Two months earlier he had won the CCC with a course record, one of the revelations of the UTMB that year.
This year he came 10th in the UTMB, his first 100-mile race. He suffered for more than 12 hours because he couldn’t eat or drink water, adjusting his pace to close the loop and reach the finish. It took a lot of mental strength, a lot of concentration to accomplish this seemingly trivial task of putting one foot in front of the other.
In the tent, I get up from my comfy chair to congratulate him and shake his hand for his resilience during the competition. It’s hard to quantify suffering in an ultramarathon, but I think out of the top 10 Thibaut suffered the most to get to the finish line.
@Thibaut, I would have loved to hear more about your race and the suffering it went through like a hot knife through butter.
After finishing a competition I like to have at least one beer. That’s what I did at the UTMB. I was wondering, what other athletes do that? I didn’t even get that thought out of my head when Maria tells me that Jonas Russi is looking for me to talk to me. I knew he finished ahead of me but I didn’t associate his face with his name.
I was at the back of the start/finish gate when he came up to me with a big smile, happy that the race was over, a beer in his hand and confessed that he ran with me in mind on the last stretch, he was afraid I would catch him. That’s what he did at Lavaredo too, two months ago. I wasn’t overtaking him on either race but I’m glad to see someone at the finish with whom I can toast a glass of beer.
Jonas is one of the most sociable and charismatic people I have ever met. He has custom Italian but I see he does his postings in German. In the tent of those who were going to take the podium he is the link, the person who asks the most questions, to everyone and congratulates everyone. He’s annoyingly charismatic and had just finished 8th in the world’s most popular mountain running race. You could see the contentment and happiness on his face. A year ago Jonas had come 2nd in TORX, it seems August-September is when Jonas counts his trophies.
@Jonas, I’d love to have a few beers and share our stories accumulated so far in the ultramarathons. I wonder who would fall under the table first?
Training plans, race tips,
On the ascent from Cural das Freiras to Pico Ruivo, at the first MIUT I attended, I met Arthur for the first time. He had started the race a bit hard and told me to overtake him as I had a better pace. It was 2019 and we were both at our first competitions outside our country. We were both going to finish in the top 10. Since then Arthur came 3rd at TDS in 2021 and kept dreaming of the UTMB. I watched him from the shadows as I do with many runners and was proud of his progress. He seemed to be getting more and more experienced and would use his knowledge in this UTMB.
Three days before the race we met at an Altra team meeting and with a smile on his face, in a sweet French accented English he wished me all the best at the race.
He is a cheerful and charismatic nature but during the race you shouldn’t be fooled by the gentleness in his eyes. At the UTMB he ran an excellent, seemingly flawless race that earned him a well-deserved 7th place. I’m sure Arthur won’t stop here and will dream as boldly as ever.
@Arthur, surely our paths will cross again from now on. Remain unscathed and your progress will be assured.
Madeira is not only the nice place where I got engaged to Maria but also the place where I met most of the really good runners. A paradise of love and running.
Benat set off for MIUT 2021 with the intention of winning the race. About a month, before MIUT he had come 3rd in the Diagonal des Fou on Reunion Island. That gave him enough self-confidence to have this crazy thought.
At MIUT he ran more than 60 kilometers with Hannes Namberger who was to win the race but probably from accumulated fatigue and too little water on the longest climb of the race left him weak, losing a few places in the ranking. Then I overtook him too only because I knew the route very well and saved my strength for the last stretch.
At the awards in MIUT, I exchanged a few words with Benat and he confessed that he still doesn’t have a sponsor and that he made a lot of sacrifices for the last two races.
At the UTMB he overtook me almost at the 100th kilometre when I had a moment of weakness. Somehow he made up for Madeira. I told myself I had enough time to catch up and overtake him. I didn’t manage to do that as he ran great until the end of the race. He was 21 seconds short of stealing Zach Miller’s spot and moving into the top 5.
@Benat, thanks for showing me that you have to treat racing with attitude and have a crazy plan from the start, keep a steady pace until the end and no name is big enough to be overtaken. In my eyes you have become one of the gods.
In 2016 at my first CCC, Zach Miller won the race, I finished 8th. I was looking forward to opening day to go with him and the other top 10 runners on the podium. Zach chose not to come to the awards but to cheer on his fellow UTMB runners from the states. Then David Laney came in 3rd place. He deserved it.
I wanted my podium photo with him from 6 years ago. I saw him, Tim Tollefson and David on Rue du Dr Paccard, main street of Chamonix standing around a bottle of clear liquid (I still don’t know if it was water or vodka) and claimed my photo.
At the time, I saw the top 3 runners as being in a different league. Being made out of a different material, it seemed. Now, the fact that we’ve all been through the same suffering, that we’ve gritted our teeth, that we’ve had close times, makes me think we’re all made of the same stuff: resilience and a strong stomach.
After the awards, I took a break and confessed that I missed him on the CCC podium and urged him to write more often, that he does this as well as he runs.
@Zach, so many people have told me that you and I are alike, both in running style and face. How do you feel about that?
In the tent I see that Jim is free for a second. I have a suitable open liner to open a conversation with him.
Are you learning French faster than you expected? How are you doing with their language since you moved to France?
In a shy, surprised voice, perhaps because I don’t ask him about running, he replies that he understands beginner-level conversations between two people only that context is very important. In a conversation he finds it hard to reproduce words. In short, he does well at the store and the bakery.
Maybe when Jim is fluent in French he will win the UTMB, maybe winning the UTMB doesn’t depend on how well trained you are but how well your roots are embedded in the francophone culture. Then, running the loop around Mont Blanc will feel as natural as going for a baguette and a pain au chocolat post-run.
He certainly has every chance of winning an edition of the UTMB, he has what it takes, ambition, intelligence, mental strength. He’s only one of the best runners in the world, what the hell. I’d like to think we also have a few things in common like passion for running, sacrifice, military background.
@Jim, I hope you meant what you said when you invited me for a few days to come visit, run the hills behind your house and then try to order pastries in French, because I’m going to visit you. By the way, you are welcome to visit Romania, the community here will welcome you with open arms. We have good coffee, craft beer and Ergo’s floor at the house is free.
Tom has improved my running world since first contact. He expanded my universe by showing me the mindset of an endurance athlete. He showed me that I needed to transform from a running romantic into an athlete. That a runner is only as good as their training routines. It transformed me from the first run to the last line “I would love to do another training camp together”. Tom has this power over me to influence me positively, to motivate me and to inspire me.
I remember our training sessions in 2018 with such freshness in my mind, but more than that, it was the discussions over dinner.
What do you want to revive with running? Why do you do all these things so well? I asked him after a few days when I had worked up my courage.
Of course we were training for the world championships but I knew there was more to it. In short he confessed to me that he wanted to be the most versatile runner, “any surface, any distance” To win Western States, UTMB, to qualify for the marathon Olympics, to win the MDS against the Moroccans.
The next day I ran between mile 42 and 52 of the World Championship course. It was a flat and uphill course. On the climbs Tom seemed to continue his easy run started in warm-up, going seemingly effortlessly. My flies were burning and I was trying to breathe even through my ears. I went down to the asphalt and did my personal best for 5 kilometres. Running alongside him I realised that this man can achieve all his dreams, that he was not at all bold in his goals as he seems born for it. His efficiency in running is obvious. Even Maria told me after the UTMB how light Tom was running, at mile 152.
@Tom I’m grateful for your faith in me in 2018, in the running camp, but also before the start of the UTMB when you told me I don’t dream enough, I’m not bold and a top 10 I can easily. Often during the race your words have fueled my glycogen reserves.
Do you have a training camp spot in mind for 2023? Count me in!
After the UTMB, a few hours after things had settled down and I understood how each athlete in the top 10 competed, I sent a single message congratulating one athlete. “Amazing performance Mathieu, amazing” . I knew M.B. would reply to me, he’s done it every time so far.
He doesn’t know that, Mathieu I met for the first time in 2019 between Bonatti and the descent of Arnuvaz . He had a moustache and a brisk pace. After the run I logged onto Strava Flyby to see who I had passed. I’ve had him in my sights ever since and always see what he’s up to. Mathieu progressed steadily, and in the meantime became a celebrity competing in the survivor.
His feat of running the UTMB loop in under 20 hours is impressive. His result tells me that I can do it too, I just need to “steal” the recipe from him.
I feel closest to Mathieu as an athlete. We haven’t been running since we were little kids, we started 10 years ago, we had a top 3 at UTMB (now he has two), our running career started after we signed with a main sponsor.
@Mathieu, I know you’ll be reading this, let me in on the secret to a sub-20 hour UTMB. Thanks for showing us it can be done. Please tell me where to find you for those runs we were supposed to do in Chamonix.
Kilian is the one that will come up in every conversation with your running friends. He changed the game of mountain running. He has changed the game not just through this race but through everything he has done throughout his time in the sport, from getting 3 pairs of Salomon running shoes to now. I don’t know if he set out to do that, but he did. I’m not saying he’s close to a godlike figure but running might split in two for now. Before Kilian and after Kilian.
Kilian currently has 1.3 million followers on instagram and in one form or another I think he has changed the lives of over a million runners, including mine.
9-10 years ago, early in my running career, I had a phase where I was reading every book that was connected to running. Among them were The Ultramarathoner – Dean Karnazes, Eat & Run – Scott Jurek and Kilian’s Run or Die. Now I’m within 10 feet of him, having run the same route and about to stand on the same podium. Ten years ago I was impressed with everything he does through running, now I like to think we have that in common. In the tent, I could ask him almost anything, thank him and congratulate him on everything he has done. I didn’t as I didn’t want to seem like too big a fan. Although I am.
I often ask this question to friends “If you could invite someone to dinner, anyone in the world, who would you invite and what would you ask them?” These days the answer from me would be Kilian. I’m grateful to life and to the moment that I’ve gotten to this point. I didn’t ask him anything because I’d have to take him out to dinner every night for a week to answer all my questions.
@Kilian, if you’re reading this article, would it be weird if I knocked on your door in Norway and took you out to dinner at a nice place close to home (whatever you mean by that) for a story and to sign my books that have been sitting in my library giving me inspiration for so long?
The finish of the UTMB is an extremely exciting thing. In 2018 I had instant tears before the finish line. The thought went through my head that anything is possible and no dream is bold enough. That I had fulfilled a dream I had dreamed of since crossing the finish line of my first ultramarathon
This year I wanted to cross the finish line as quickly as possible, satisfied with a good result and a good place. I didn’t have time to get excited. I saved the tears for later.
The next day, around the same time I crossed the finish line, the winner of the 70+ category, Mr Stan Turcu, was due to cross the finish line. At 74, Mr Turcu did the loop around Mont Blanc in 44 hours 59 minutes and 48 seconds. I was also at his finish line. When he went to get his finisher’s vest I managed to hug him and then I was overcome with emotions and tears.
I got to know Mr Stan better at a workshop, Running School, in Bucharest when he told us more about his dream of finishing the UTMB. I was fascinated by his ambition and determination. We were of different ages but had the same dream.
Since then Mr Stan has been training, planning, dreaming about this race and sitting down more confidently at the start of the competition. He ran, hydrated and ate to close the loop in the time limit, but he did much better than that.
If the top athletes showed us that the limits are in our heads Mr Stan showed us that it’s never too late to start something and see it through. It’s enough to dream, prepare and execute a plan made in years of training.
@Mr Stan Turcu, thank you for giving us this moment and this example. I dared to transpose myself over 40 and tell myself that I will want to do this at your age.