UTMB 2021 Preview

I’m currently in Chamonix preparing for the most competitive ultra trail race in the world… the UTMB. If my ageing brain has got it right, this will be my 8th time to give this race a go. The record so far is 3 finishes, 3 DNFs, followed by a return to finishing, in that unusual sequence.

The Chamonix valley, taken from the Aguile Du Midi
The Chamonix valley, taken from the Aguile Du Midi

The UTMB is now a massive festival of trail running organised around the original 170km race. Helen, my wife, took part in, and successfully completed the OCC 58km race yesterday. Multiple friends of min were caught up in the TDS, the gnarly 140km race, where unfortunately an experienced Czech runner fell to his death. This was the first fatality in the history of the UTMB races.

The UTMB itself is looking like it will be another phenomenal race this year, with the deepest elite field assembled this year. In the men’s race the list of elite runners spans multiple pages. At the top of the pile is the very interesting showdown between Jim Walmsley, who is probably the fastest runner in the race, having won the western states this year, and come with a sliver of breaking the 100lm world record, versus Francois D’Haene who is probably the best mountain ultrarunner in the race, having won Hardrock this year. There are many other runners with the potential to win as well, including a few past winners.

If anything the female race is even more interesting. Again the duel between the top two ranked runners is a fantastic prospect. Courtney Dauwater is one of the best known and most popular ultra runners on the planet. She is a phenomenally talented runner across multiple sub-genres of ultrarunning, and is the defending champion. Beth Pascal is running at her best ever at the moment. She had a dominant victory in the western states to truly announce herself onto the world stage. But her breaking of the Bob Graham round record had already shown just how good a runner she has become. I was lucky enough to witness one of Beth’s early career victories back in my first Spine race, where she literally stormed to the win by miles. Beth is currently taking a career break from being a practising doctor to concentrate on trail running. Again, this has the potential to be a great duel. My heart is backing Beth here, and so is my head!

I won’t be anywhere near threatening the head of the race. My first target is to add to my finish list rather than DNF list. My PB here is 24:44, but that was quite a few years ago and now that I’m in the over 50s category (V2 in UTMB terms) I probably lack my former speed to do that sort of time. I did manage around 27 hours two years ago, so I’m hoping to replicate something in that ballpark. Of course, weather and ground conditions will also influence timings.

I’ll be targeting to do as well as I can in my V2 category. According to the ITRA rankings I’m ranked number 5 in this race, which gives me a good shot at getting near the V2 podium. Last year’s winner (by miles) is back, and he is only ranked number 2. The number one ranked runner is a very impressive multiple winner of the fabulous Tour De Geant race. So no lack of depth of talent in this category either.

There is also good depth to the Irish contingent in the UTMB. This will be the first go at the UTMB for some great upcoming Irish runners, including my fellow Columbia athletes Gavin Byrne and Brian Buckley (who is also a fellow Corkonian). They’re both superb runners and should be in front of me if they have good days. Kerryman Joe O’leary has been putting in some interesting mountain running FKTs in the last year. Fellow Corkonian Brian Hutchinson has been on an impressive improvement curve and could do very well indeed this year if he has a good day out. I’ll be aiming to focus on my own race (and V2 race), and let the internal Irish race fall however it does.

We’re not wearing trackers, but there is excellent race coverage on Livetrail at https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/utmb. My race number is 253.

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