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UTMB 2019 - A Team’s Journey and Insight

Welcome back to the second part of my UTMB round up. In case you missed the previous blog, here is a recap of the UTMB race series:


The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) takes place every year at the end of August in Chamonix, France. Once a year, 10000 runners descend to the picturesque town and surroundings for a week for what is the ‘Mecca’ or the ‘Super Bowl’ of trail running. Over the week, the town hosts a serious of races that suits every trail runner’s appetite.

It’s my third time participating in the event, TDS (2016, 2019) and UTMB (2018). What keeps drawing me back is there’s always trail related events going on during the week and if you don’t fancy partaking in the events, the mountains and trails are very accessible. There’s also a large contingent from the community that travel just for the weeks events, even if they’re not racing you’ll find them cowbell in hand ready for support and crew duties. It’s dangerous even to pick up grocery as you’ll bump into someone and end up being dragged up the VK Climb(Vertical Kilometre Climb)- it’s happened.

Ever wondered what it takes to run the races from the series? This year, I reached out to my European ASICS FrontRunner team members; Lucja, Meryl and Christof to find out more about their UTMB journey, from the lead up through to post-race. It was great working with them on this as the experiences were so varied from first timers, repeat offenders, mid packers, speed demons etc . A big thank you for taking time out to share your stories and insight. 

Name: Lucja Leonard
Nationality:
Australian
Team: ASICS FrontRunner France
Which race did you do: UTMB
Qualifying races for UTMB: Leadville 100, Transgrancanaria125, Oman by UTMB
Dream Race: WSER
Instagram: @runningdutchie
Shoe of choice: Asics Gel Trabuco Pro

What was the biggest / furthest / highest race you did priory to this?

Oman by UTMB was the longest time on feet even though it was only 137k but super technical and had 7,500m of elevation gain and loss that was early December 2018, then I did Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km with 6,600m which was brutal as well!

What on earth made you do your race?

It’s been a 3 year dream to do since I first came in 2016 and DNF’d UTMB. It’s the iconic ultra of Europe so it had been on my bucket list. 


What was going on in your head when you found out you was successful in the ballot?

I already knew I’d be in as it was my 3rd year applying so it wasn’t a surprise but I was super excited to get the email as well just to make sure. My head was full of big plans of how to train and how exciting the whole process was going to be.


What did you do in preparation and what challenges did you encounter for the race?

I stepped up my training to include a lot more vertical and time on feet. I worked on improving my downhill running by doing downhill repeats as well as uphills. The main challenges are normal life, work getting in the way of training and definitely weather. Winter lasted long so it wasn’t until May I was able to start getting back into vertical training because there was too much snow. I’m living in Chamonix, and I moved here as part of improving my mountain running.


What part did you struggle most with the race and what was the stand out moment?

I really struggled with the climb up Col du Bonhomme as I had a really tight chest and had to vomit a few times so I was really struggling which was not great so early on in the race.

Stand out moment has to be the last section from Flegere, the support along the route all the way into Chamonix was out of this world and entering the town I felt like a super star, a winner!

If you did come back, what would you do differently?

I would do more speed training, and focus on more running as I’m just too slow in my opinion. I’d eat better and try to get a bit leaner so less weight to drag up the mountains. And work more on my running form/technique to become more effective.

Serious question, would you come back? 

I’ve no desire to do it again only because I have a list longer than my arm of amazing races to do so I’ve finally ticked this off and don’t need to return. Plus I live in Chamonix so for me I can enjoy the route more running on it as I please.

What’s the piece of kit you can’t do without?

For UTMB definitely my Black Diamond Poles, couldn’t have made it without them.

What one piece of golden advice would you give to anyone who is looking at upping their running and into something as challenging as this?

Don’t under estimate the challenge ahead, so train hard to race a bit easier 

Which races can our readers expect to see you in the next year?

I’m returning to HURT 100 after a DNF this year, it’s possibly the toughest 100 out there with a 70% DNF rate, then my name will be in the hat for WSER which the ballot result will then work out my calendar. Hoping to do Javelina Jundred next year too.



Name: Christof De Schaepmeester
Nationality: Belgium 
Team: ASICS FrontRunner Benelux
Which race did you do: UTMB
Qualifying races for UTMB: Diagonale des Fous - Transgrancanaria - Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Dream Race: Western States Endurance Run
Instagram: @christof_de_schaepmeester
Shoe of choice: ASICS Fujitrabuco 7 + ASICS Fujitrabuco PRO


What was the biggest / furthest / highest race you did priory to this?

Grand raid Reunion - Diagonale des Fous: a 165km ultra trailrun with 10000m of positive elevation in a tropical environment on very technical terrain.

What on earth made you do this race?

I got inspired after supporting a friend during his CCC in 2015.

First I thought it would never be possible to do a 100Km run in the mountains, it looked amazing and only reachable for super humans.

But with every run I did the distance was growing, I tried a marathon, did a 50km, a 70km an 85km ultra trail and in 2017 I finished the TDS, my first ultra-trail over a 100km.

From that moment, I started believing it would be possible to finish the UTMB as well.

For me it is the challenge to find out of what I am capable, a way to explore and to search my limits that’s what keeps me going.

What was going on in your head when you found out you was successful in the ballot?

I was very excited and happy, a dream came true. The year before I had a negative result, so I desired it for a while already. You can’t imagine how many times I crossed that finish line in my dreams.

What did you do in preparation and what challenges did you encounter for the races? 

I started my preparation back in January, building a good base with endurance training. (running & biking)

And not to forget, Hill repeats, over and over again...

From April/May I started to do some trailrunning races in preparation: Xtrails Vosges 75k - Transvulcania 75k - Ultra trail di Corsica 110k and some smaller events in the south of Belgium. Always looking for as much elevation as possible. During the summer I also went twice a week to the Alps to train in the mountains.

I was lucky I could finish my preparation without injury’s, or maybe my 4 core stability sessions a week had something to do with that.

The hardest part was doing my weekly 1000m+ hill repeat sessions on a 30m high hill nearby my home, let’s say it takes some commitment and dedication.

What part did you struggle most with the race and what was the stand out moment?

I was already suffering after only 10km, I guess it where the nerves and stress (finally it was the big day) that caused some stomach issues.

Actually it never went well during the first 90km, I was really disappointed in myself, I thought I wasn't gonna make it and I almost accepted that I reached my limits that day. I lost my faith and that’s very hard to overcome.

The game changer was a thunderstorm, suddenly I was distracted, focused on the weather instead of my failing.I picked up a higher pace because I was a little scared for the lightning and I wanted to get of that mountain as fast as possible. The storm lighted a fire inside me that kept me going for over 40 km. Suddenly I realized that it wasn't that far anymore, I was feeling better and I was going to make it. My faith came back and I started believing again I would do it.

In the final hours I had some difficulties with the lack of sleep but I knew I was running towards success and that kept me going until the end.

The stand out moment was the support of 2 Frontrunners from Dubai during the final descend to Chamonix. I didn’t knew other Frontrunners where there and suddenly 2 amazing people give me the right support at the right time, there enthusiasm is the reason I entered Chamonix with a big smile on my face, At first sight we didn’t realize we where both Frontrunners but once we realized there was a spark and there it was… the amazing team spirit between frontrunners all over the world. I can’t describe the feeling of it but for sure it’s a moment I will never forget!

If you did come back, would you do differently?

I would start my preparation later (February/March) because I had the feeling I was already over my top.

Also I would try to keep the pressure away and live to it in a relaxed way (that's easy to say)

Serious question, would you come back?

For 165km I was saying never again, but in the last 5 km I changed my mind.

What’s the piece of kit you can’t do without?

Hard to say, probably my Garmin Forerunner 945

What one piece of golden advice would you give to anyone who is looking at upping their running and into something as challenging as this?

Believe you can do it, set your goals and simply work your ass off to achieve them.

Everything is possible.

Once you actually are in the race keep believing when it gets really hard, know that it will get better again, it always does somehow.

Which races can our readers expect to see you in the next year?

I hope to be successful in the lottery for the Western States Endurance run.

As I already finished TDS & UTMB, I am thinking to go back to Chamonix for the CCC or PTL.



Name: Meryl Cooper
Nationality: British
Team: ASICS FrontRunner Dubai
Which race did you do: CCC
Qualifying races for UTMB: Grossglockner 75K and Ultra Trail Cape Town 65K
Dream Race: MIUT
Instagram: @meryl_runsultras
Shoe of choice: ASICS Fujitrabuco Pro

What was the biggest / furthest / highest race you did priory to this?

I had ran 86K in Dubai as part of a 70K race! The race course was meant to be a 35K loop which you did twice. The loop was sadly a few kilometres over in measurement and we also got lost whilst doing the 1st loop.

What on earth made you do this race?

I was very inspired seeing fellow Brit Tom Evans run CCC the last two years.

What was going on in your head when you found out you were successful in the ballot? 

Yeah, the entry process was crazy as somehow I managed to qualify for an elite spot with my two races from last year. When I entered my name it popped up with a message saying that I had a spot so I was very lucky to find out on the same day I entered. To be classed as ‘elite’ for a race, for the first time, was really special.

What did you do in preparation and what challenges did you encounter for the races? 

Dubai is a little flat so I knew if I was to do well in CCC this year I had to get training in more elevation. As soon as the school term finished I flew back to Scotland and straight away was out in the Cairngorms doing 4-6 hour runs with 1500-2000m elevation gain. I also went to France (Font Romeu) and did some altitude training from late July onwards. I had trails on my doorstep so it was an incredible block of training. I did a route reccy too (I actually did the whole UTMB course in 4 days) which was so helpful and the company I did it with the ‘Trail Running Movement’ taught me so much about pacing, nutrition and using poles.

What part did you struggle most with the race and what was the stand out moment?  

I had a good race and I actually didn’t have any real, major struggles. The stand out moment was getting to Champex Lac which is the point in CCC where the race really begins. This was where I also got to see Warrick (my boyfriend and ASICS team mate) who started giving me information. I was so pumped from here onwards after learning I was just outside the top 20 at this point with still another 6 hours plus to go and I was feeling pretty fresh still!

If you did come back, would you do differently?

I was lucky to have 7 weeks off work (school holidays) before the race so I was able to get my training, nutrition, acclimatisation and rest pretty much to plan. I would race differently though and take more of a risk now that I have the experience of running a 100K. I played it a little too safe this year.


Serious question, would you come back?

Definitely. I think I have a place next year already with my points from races and I have very big ambitions for this race in 2020 

What’s the piece of kit you can’t do without?

My cup!


What one piece of golden advice would you give to anyone who is looking at upping their running and into something as challenging as this?

Be smart with your training! Gradual progression is key (and takes time). There are no shortcuts and jumping to ultra training and races will only get you an injury – no prizes! I would work with a coach in order to get the best out of yourself. I would also prepare well for an ultra so you can really enjoy yourself on the day!


Which races can our readers expect to see you in the next year?

I still have two to come this year with Cappadocia 64K in October and UTCT 100K at the end of November. Next year… possibly Madeira Island Ultra Trail, definitely Transvulcania and definitely CCC again! I also volunteered last weekend at Skyline Scotland and to race one of the 3 races at that event would be really cool.

Name: Alan Li
Nationality: British
Team: ASICS Frontrunner UK
Which race did you do: TDS
Qualifying races for UTMB: Ultra Trail Monte Rosa and Lavaredo Cortina Trail
Dream Race: Western States Endurance Race
Instagram: @ultralan
Shoe of choice: ASICS Gel-FujiTrabuco 7

What was the biggest / furthest / highest race you did priory to this?

UTMB in 2018, I spent 38 hours and vowed I will never do the race again. It was 170 km with 10,000 meter elevation. I’ve always wondered how the race would have turned out if I took 30 minutes out for a micro sleep. I suffered in the last 20 km with nausea and couldn’t keep food down. Once I got to the final climb in La Flegere, I walked the descent down into Chamonix as it was pretty much a done deal once you hit that check point.

What on earth made you do this race and was there anyone that made you do it? Has that changed your relationship?

One of my trail buddies Casja, informed me of the new course and convinced me to sign up for it. Well it didn’t need much convincing, to come back out to a new route was more than enough of a justification. The new TDS route had an extra 20 km with an extra 2000 meter of elevation, my thoughts though they made the course much harder, I‘m not going to need more than 38 hours to complete it.

Our relationship is still very good, she smashed her race and did the new course in an incredible time. We still work together in the UK hosting trail runs in the weekends, our next project is to host a map reading and orienteering weekend.

What was going on in your head when you found out you was successful in the ballot?

Getting UTMB in 2018 hit me hard, I was clueless how and where to begin. I wasn’t ready for it at that time. I had to reach out to the community of previous finishers to ask questions and ultimately seek reassurance. This time around, I knew this was going to be a shorter race and it’s a race I’ve done parts of already, so overall I was confident about it and wasn’t fazed.

What did you do in preparation and what challenges did you encounter for the races?

Whilst London isn’t known for it’s mountainous terrains, therefore training was in the form of indoor gym work. I would spend four to five hours on strength, mobility and box work a week. During the weekends, it was a 4 hour trip out to the Welsh mountains for time on feet hikes or a short trip to the southern coast of England for smaller hill hikes but stringing short runs between on the trails and the hills.

What part did you struggle most with the race and what was the stand out moment?

Everything was as planned, starting off conservatively eating regularly. All was going well up to the evening when I started to feel sick. I was dry retching whenever I tried to push on. In the end, to save my race, I ended up taking it easy by walking a lot the course through the night. I worked out by clearing the first third of the route already, I could walk it and still be within cut off.

My best moment was persevering long enough to finally getting the second wind in the last 40 km. I ran everything that was runnable and gained back a lot of time, as I calculated timings if I had walked the rest of the route.

If you did come back, what would you do differently?

I would change my nutrition plan and have more substantial food. Also look at prepping for scenarios where I felt sick by having something to cure the nausea.

Serious question, would you come back?

No, there’s still other big and scary races I want to scare myself into doing.

What’s the piece of kit you can’t do without?

My Suunto 9 Baro watch. I use the map feature a lot for navigation on trail/mountains whilst training . The barometer I use to measure how long climbs are to reach the summit of a peak in races. The 100hours battery life is also handy as I’m toying with the idea of longer distanced races with higher climbs.

What one piece of golden advice would you give to anyone who is looking at upping their running and into something as challenging as this?

You can’t substitute the mountain terrains of UTMB. Just running hills on roads is not enough as you’ll need to find suitable or similar terrains for conditioning. Also, it’s a good way to test kit, shoes especially.

Which races can our readers expect to see you in the next year?

Currently in a bout of off season. But looking to head back to Hong Kong to keep my dragon slaying skills sharp at the ‘9 Dragons Ultra’. Then it’s ‘London Marathon’ followed by ‘Comrades Marathon’(TBC). ‘Lakeland’s 100’ in July and then maybe, just maybe ‘Tor De Geant’ (320km).




As per usual, thanks for stopping by. And big hugs and thank you to Lucja, Meryl, and Christof for sharing their insights. If there’s any questions you want to ask them, feel free to follow, DM or tag them on social media.

The team wore the ASICS Gel-Trabuco 7 and ASICS Gel-Trabuco Pro for this event. Items were gifted by ASICS Europe

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Alan Li

Retail Operations Technical Advisor from London

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Coach: N/A

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