ASICS FrontRunner, Brendan Lombard recently returned from a pilgrimage to Chamonix and the proverbial pinnacle of trail running, Ultra Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). He ran CCC and it was a powerful, yet humbling experience for the South African trail runner.
“It’s an event which attracts the best of the best in the sport - the stars… The absolute best runners come to Mont Blanc every year to test themselves against one another and of course, the elements and the mountain,” Brendan says. “The event is so iconic –– it's like a pilgrimage of sorts –– which is definitely on every single trail runner's bucket list,” Brendan explains how the whole town of Chamonix comes to a standstill during the event and everything is pretty much geared toward the hosting of UTMB. “It is huge, I wish I could explain how big but it's also very overwhelming for a South African to be there where our scene over here is nowhere near as big as a European scene.”
Here are some of his thoughts:
ON THE DEPTH OF THE FIELD
I like to compare it to back home in South Africa where have, maybe, 10 guys on a start line who are fast and can go for the win in Europe –– at UTMB specifically or any of the UTMB races –– there you are like one in a few 100 fast guys. Even if in South Africa you might be a big fish in a small pond, in Europe you're a tadpole in the ocean. The field is extremely deep, and all the elite runners are capable and fast, so one feels out of depth. You don't stand on that start line as confident as you would back home. You rather stand on that start line, extremely overwhelmed and you don't know what to expect.
ON THE SCALE OF IT ALL
Simply put, the mountains there are way bigger than what we have here at home. To put it into some context, Table Mountain sits around 1000m above sea level, and Mont Blanc is close to 4500m above sea level. While yes, sure, we don't summit Mt Blanc but it's a bit too high for that, we do get pretty high, I think we topped out at about 2700m above sea level and the climbs there are far more aggressive than what we have here back home. The gradient and steepness of the climbs are gnarly, it's massive and it's tough to try and replicate that here in training because we don't have that. And the way the Europeans climb, they climb crazy fast, it's really hard for us to keep up with the way that they can climb. To put it into even more perspective, even the downhills –– specifically in my race the CCC –– we had an 18 km descent from the peak and that destroys your legs from all the pounding down the mountain.
ON THE ELEMENTS
When you're higher, you are exposed to far more of the elements. We had torrential rain, and single-digit temperatures and we ran into the night with only a headlamp to sort of guide your way, your peripheral vision almost becomes obscured when you're fatigued and you can only much see your feet and a few meters in front of you, so it's quite wild.
ON BEING SUCCESSFUL IN EUROPE
I believe that as elite athletes, one would have to spend considerable time in Europe, prepping in big mountains. In my opinion, there is nothing in South Africa that can fully prepare you for the Alps. The Alps are just on another scale and as one of my teammates puts it quite nicely, he believes you get continental Europe and then you get the Alps. What we as South Africans do is we train in Franschhoek, up and down Mont Rochelle which is the closest we can get to replicating where one will be running, but in my opinion, it's not fully possible to prepare fully for UTMB there. Of course, if you are just a runner looking to finish, and for the experience, you can get away with training there, but as a high-performance athlete, I believe one has to spend time there and this is evident where we have seen certain South African athletes excel at UTMB after spending time there preparing for the race.
ON THE MENTAL ASPECT
In the CCC, you run through three countries in a day. We ran through Italy, Switzerland and France and one could see how the trails changed when you cross borders, as per se. It was a gnarly experience, I am going to head back as I have unfinished business there, I have now learnt many valuable lessons as to how to be prepared (or rather, better prepped) next time and be successful in terms of what my version of success is - we have a lot of learning to do if we are to be successful in the Alps.
I by no means had a successful race, my body gave in at around 30kms and I experienced vomiting and sort of patches that looked like blood in my urine. I was sort of contemplating pulling out and managed to muster up whatever I had to tell myself to finish and what I got to experience was the race from a different perspective — perhaps of the more average runner –– and seeing what they go through. I think it's completely two different ways of taking on an event like UTMB where someone runs for performance and another runs to finish. They both have their uniqueness and for me, it was pretty cool to see it from a different perspective and to get to share the miles with other people. But next year we'll go back with a better and more ambitious goal, knowing exactly what I have to do to do it successfully.
- Learn more about what it takes to be successful in Europe from Matt Healy