UTMB 2019 – The World’s Summit of Trail Running We caught up with our CEO after his second completion of the iconic ultra marathon, the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB) 2019. See the interview here. Hi Paul, so what's the UTMB? My immediate answer is that it is the one race that seems to keep sucking me in. Its a 171km trail running race around the Mont Blanc Massive in the Alps with over 10,000m of elevation. It has become the iconic race that almost any long distance trail runner aims to complete, and it is hard...really hard.
Why oh why would you do that?
As you know, I'm a big believer in the link between physical health, the mountains and mental health. Ultra running tests every aspect of your health and takes you to the edge of your physical capacity allowing ones mental stamina to take over and get some brain exercise. My mind is at its clearest when I'm running, allowing me to take a break from the noise of life and provides an opportunity to clear the metaphorical cache of data that builds up. Overcoming adversity in the mountains really helps to train the brain for overcoming difficulty in daily life, be that at home or at work and makes me more resilient in the face of tough times.
You did it last year didn't you? So why again this year? Haha yeh! I did do it last year which was such a huge thing for me because it took nearly three years to qualify and get a place through the ballot. UTMB 2018 was the culmination of three years of preparation, multiple 100 mile races to qualify and loads of strength training, not to mention the hours and hours of running. I wanted to beat my 41hr time from 2018 so I took the plunge to give it another go. To be honest, I didn't expect to get a place for 2019. When I applied I was still on a high from finishing Oman by UTMB in November 2018, where I was one of only 44% of runners who finished the 80 something mile course, and felt super strong as we approached 2019.
What did you do for your UTMB training this year? Its been a busy year already and I really struggled to balance starting the business and training whilst also completing my international mountain leader (IML) qualifications. I managed to get plenty of time on the trails whilst in the Chamonix Valley but I neglected my strength and conditioning work and paid for it during the race. Running a lot simply isn't enough when it comes to training for UTMB. The whole body gets beasted over the 171km so strengthening connective tissue is critical. I'm sure that skipping that has been one of the key contributors to the stress fracture in my left foot. I'm sure John, my trainer, from Hampshire Fitness is shaking his head as he reads this.
Stress fracture sounds like it could have ruined the race? Yup, it nearly did but during these kind of races I manage to get into a mindset that helps me run through some of the pain, a 'mountain mindset' you might say. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Lol I think the pain started just after Courmayeur in Italy at the half way point. Until then I was feeling really strong and felt like I might beat my time from last year. I'd started the race with a good friend, Lucja Leonard, and we were both feeling really ready when we set off. I think I knew that I was pushing too hard too early and wasn't taking my gap in training into consideration. After Courmayeur the wheels started to come off. I could barely run and was just shuffling along. Once at the Bonatti hut I was really feeling the pain and my energy was really low.
How far in were you at this point? About 21hrs and 90km done so still 80km to go and around another 20hrs at that current pace. I nearly gave up there and then. Thankfully Lucja arrived at Bonatti Hut just as I was contemplating the rest of the race. It turned out that she too had been struggling during the first half and hadn't been able to keep any food down. It was so good to see a friendly face at that point and it lifted me immensely. We decided to run together and that was how it would stay for the next 20 hours.
You've previously talked about how important running your own race is and that you find running with others really difficult. How was it running with Lucja? That's true, I find that running with other people is really difficult because each runner tends to be physically and psychologically at different highs and lows at different points and can be really disruptive to one's flow. That said, running with Lucja was fantastic and we seemed to complement each other really well. She was super fast going downhill and helped me maintain a sensible pace through the foot pain, and I set and managed the pace uphill so that we kept progressing upwards. Having a running buddy through the second night helped us both through the hardest part of the race. We'd both finished the Oman by UTMB in 2018 and had talked about the problem of hallucinating during the second night. Having someone else around helps to stop the mind wondering into that zone.
How was the weather? Oh my god! Amazing until we descended into Switzerland where the heavens opened and we found ourselves in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm high up on the mountain. The trails turned into rivers and everyone was soaked to the skin within 5 minutes. Lucja and I paused at some yurts to consider the situation but we could feel the atmosphere from other runners who had decided to give up. A rest here would have ended the race for both of us so we decided to push on despite the torrential rain and get off the mountain. Being high up in a lightning storm is very dangerous and so we slithered our way down the mud until La Fouly. We later learnt that a huge land slide happened after we left that checkpoint, leaving support crews stranded there. That rain definitely ended the race for a lot of runners, I think there were over 1000 people who pulled out of the race. What kept you both going? Our support, my wife Lucy is a long suffering support crew and has shivered in the checkpoints waiting for me many times and knows what I need before I do. She is a legend and manages to keep smiling even after 40 hours of driving around the Alps trying to be at checkpoints before me, I couldn't do it without her. Lucja's husband, a very accomplished ultra runner, and their dog Gobi (as in Finding Gobi) were also at the checkpoints for Lucja along with our friend Jana, a Salomon ambassador and amazing runner. Seeing them all at the checkpoints was a huge morale boost. The other support along the way from all sorts of people really helps too. Social media messages, friends popping up along the route and even random people shouting your name "allez Paul" makes the hairs on your neck stand up. Sam and Nikki from The Adventure Running Company were with everyone else for our final leg back into Chamonix. They had pompoms and cowbells which was a bit surreal yet awesome at the same time but the high from that support soon faded as we hit the last big climb to Tette Aux Vents ready to descend to Chamonix, by now we both knew we'd finish.
You were quite emotional when you crossed the finish last year, how was the 2019 finish? Wow......... It is something else! As you get close to town, there are more and more people on the trail shouting encouragement and the adrenaline carries you for the final few km. When we got into town the crowds were cheering and we were running through a sea of people. Lucy and the rest of the crew met us to run the last few hundred metres across the finish so we finished as a team. The sense of achievement is amazing. That finish line feels so far away, because it is. Pushing yourself through 171km over the Alps takes its toll on your body and mind in so many ways that its hard to explain. Crossing the finish line is the culmination of so much hard work that the relief is overwhelming.
So, what about that stress fracture? Well, it's been six weeks of no running and I'm going crazy but it seems to be healing well so I'm sure I'll be back in the hills soon. Its been great to catch up but I have to ask, what's next? Loads of plans. The business is going from strength to strength and that is fuelling my ambitions. The focus is now on finishing my guiding qualifications along side the various contracts we have secured. Last night I registered for the Mont Blanc 90km race next June and I'm aiming to get to 100 miles in the Endure 24hr race at Reading, it's a 5 mile lap to do as many times as possible in 24hrs. I got to 90 miles a few years ago so I plan to beat that. Beyond that, in 2020 we’ll be launching our Leadership courses and even looking to expand our operations into South Africa so its a busy year ahead.
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