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UTMB 110km Race Report by Bill Geist

New Mexico ultra athlete Bill Geist participated in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc on August 27. This epic 168km adventure normally passes through three counties (France, Switzerland, and Italy) and contains 9600 meters (not feet) of vertical gain.

Photo: Courtesy Bill Geist

2300 runners from around the world leave the start line in Chamonix with goals to make it back and cross the finish within 46 hours.

This year’s event required late hour modifications and course shortening due to dangerous storms/snow in the higher elevations.

Bill just before the start. (Photo: Courtesy of Bill Geist)

Enjoy as Bill shares his UTMB experience.


I am running down a muddy trail in the rain and see a runner in front of me slip. “Be careful,” I think to myself. Immediately, I am on the ground with my side covered with mud. Yes it is slippery here. “Why I am running this?” and “Perhaps I should just stop at the next aid station”. These thoughts have never before come into my head only hours into a race, usually it takes 10s of hours. It turns out there are a lot of “first” times in this race:

  • First time that I have run for 12 hours in a steady rain
  • First time that I have started a race at 7pm
  • First time that I have ran an ultra with over 2,000 participants
  • First time that I have run in another country
  • First time that I had no clue where on the race course I was
  • First time that I have run a 100km race

When I signed up for the UTMB, I did not image this. I had thoughts of running a hundred miles in nice weather with great views of the Alps and Mount Blanc. I had thoughts of seeing a great sunset followed by a spectacular sunrise. I was looking forward to elegant aid station food such as croissants in France, pasta in Italy, and fine chocolate in Switzerland. I imagined finishing in 32 hours (or more reasonable in 36 hours).

What I got was nothing resembling this. A storm had moved into the area dumping snow on all the high passes the race crossed causing the race directors to change the race course only hours before the start. The race would run at lower elevations and be around 100km in lengths (the actually distance was closer to 110km). The start time was announced for 7:00pm (originally scheduled for 6:30pm)

The start was nothing like I have ever experienced before in an ultra. I was in a mass of runners going through the streets of Chamonix which were lined with spectators multiple people deep. The atmosphere was electric. Cow bells ringing, people cheering in multiple languages, and music blaring.

2300 runners ready to roll! (Photo: Courtesy Bill Geist)

The first ½ mile took about 15 minutes to cover with alternating jogging and running. There were just simply too many runners to get around. On the flats the congestion eased but the runner traffic jams formed on the climbs until beyond the 30 mile mark. And to make matters worse, an hour after the race began, the rain started. With over a thousand runners in front of me, the trail quickly became a mud bog. This continued for the next 12 hours.

The race had become a mental test. With the poor weather and darkness there were no views, often all one could see was fog. The trail was muddy and extremely slippery. In places I thought I could lose a shoe. At the higher elevations the rain changed to snow and at one point there was several inches on the ground. And I had no idea where I was on the course as the maps of the new course were not available until the hour before the race start, certainly not enough time to form a plan even if I could have downloaded them from the internet. The only thing to do was to stay mentally in the game and keep running (or sliding) into the unknown.

There were a few good things about the race. The crowds and spectators along the course were unlike anything I have experienced. I seemed to get a boost every time I went through a town. And they seemed especially happy to cheer me on since I was from the USA (the runner nationality was on the bib). This was a new experience and I enjoyed testing myself against the conditions. With the number of runners, there was always someone ahead to set my sights on and pass.

Being new to the European racing scene, I noticed some difference with this race compared to US races. Some of these may just be the result of the size of the field. It seems many ultras (100 mile distance) in Europe start in the evening. I am still wondering why. The races are followed and supported more by the communities. The races are more regulated. The runners are required to carry certain gear and need a medical check from a doctor to even sign up. Europeans like to carry poles and wear tights. I think I stood out wearing shorts! The aid stations seem to have a lot of cheese and fatty type meats (salami, etc..).

Eventually I made it thought the night and as the ski lightened the rain slowly came to an end.

Photo: Courtesy Bill Geist

The race passed close by Chamonix as it did one short segment on the other side of the town. I could hear the excitement in town and was getting excited to be close to finishing. My watch was showing close to 100 km and we were finally heading down hill to what I thought was the last aid station. But then my fears were confirmed that the race must be longer than 100km as we started to climb again. Time to just grind it out and keep moving to the finish. I began to go downhill again and finally made it to the last aid station. I actually managed to run the last ~6 miles into Chamonix. The finish area was as exciting as the start. The last mile wound around the streets of Chamonix where they were filled with thousands to people cheering the runners to the finish line. I managed to cross the finish in just under 18 hours.

The finish chute!! (Photo: Courtesy Bill Geist)

I was quite happy with my performance considering the evening start and poor weather conditions. Looking back, I am disappointed that I did not run the full UTMB course, but totally agree with the decision of the race directors. Although, the course scenery was probably beautiful, the weather and darkness resulted in almost no views. Under these conditions, I don’t think that I would run this course again. Hopefully, next time I have the opportunity to do UTMB, it will be under more favorable conditions.

More detailed results:

– Bill Geist


A big congrats to Bill on his UTMB adventure and for sharing a bit about his journey with us.

Talk UTMB

  • Do you have any specific questions for Bill about the event or his experience?

 

About the author

Bill Geist Bill Geist is a finisher of multiple trail races at a variety of locations and distances that include the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado. He also had been race director of the Jemez 50 in Los Alamos, New Mexico for the past few years before releasing these duties due to a work stay in Europe.

3 Responses to “UTMB 110km Race Report by Bill Geist”

  1. on 20 Sep 2012 at 8:19 am Jonathan

    I would be totally ticked off if I traveled to the Alps only to run a 100K. The weather is notorious that time of year. As Dakota wrote in his column for irunfar.com the Alps are not always pleasant. Glad you got to experience the mountains. Enjoy your work in Europe! You did a great job at Jemez and glad I got to experience the course. Definitely be back.

  2. on 21 Sep 2012 at 9:25 am David Hanenburg

    Hey Jonathan, thanks for sharing! Maybe they will consider moving the date up to reduce the chance of this (if it’s possible). Disappointing to be unable to run the original event, I would imagine, but a reminder that we are merely a guest on this planet…especially when playing in these majestic mountains.

  3. on 21 Sep 2012 at 10:37 am Bill Geist

    Hi Jonathan,
    I was certainly disappointed to not run the original course. One of the reason why I wanted to run was to see the beauty of the alps. But the organizers definitely made the right choice in change of race course. I have been looking into climbing Mount Blanc and have read that on average the most stable weather is in the end of August and beginning of September. So, I think that this is the correct time of year to run the race but as we all know there can be bad weather any time in the mountains. I think that UTMB has gotten bad luck the last few years. The weather both before and after the race was great, just bad over the race dates.

    Glad that you liked Jemez. See you around.