Written by David Lipman
I am sure by now all readers are aware that on May 20th, the UTMB organisation announced that the 2020 edition of the event was cancelled. While disappointing many, this probably surprised none.
In a very swift response to the news, last year’s winner, Pau Capell, has announced he will be running the course solo in an attempt to better his course record.
Note: I will not be discussing the ethics of such an attempt, nor the safety (or possibility) of travel given concerns around COVID-19. I will be looking at aspects of the attempt that I think warrant a look if Pau is to break the record.
Pau has announced he will start at 6pm on the 28th of August, 4 days after the race was scheduled to start, though he is keeping the start time consistent with the event schedule (6pm), presumably in an attempt to ensure the authenticity of the record. Pau will have a support crew, allowing him to utilise all regular refreshment points as per the race’s plans. Given that pacers are not allowed during UTMB, I assume this will be point assistance only, with no pacing.
So, what’s the course like?
171km & 10,300m ascent.
There is very little road to run in the course, with quite a few mountain passes to navigate and some fairly technical trails in parts. The race follows the TMB hiking route loosely, circumnavigating Mont Blanc in an anti-clockwise direction, travelling from France into Italy, Switzerland and back into France.
Why the differences in the course?
Things change year to year for many reasons, the race taking its broad concept from a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc means that it is always similar but with some small variations. Some years have seen weather-related changes with alterations for the safety of runners changing the course, often shortening it significantly.
Time to beat
Time and date thoughts
While I completely understand the decision to keep the time as it was scheduled for the legitimacy of the record, I would love to have seen what moving this may have allowed him to do. On the other hand, shifting the day to a Friday makes sense for availability, though he may regret the trail traffic he encounters.
Sections of note
I think anyone who has seen even still pictures of the start will agree that this is utter carnage.
Chamonix – Les Houches 8km
This section will probably be paced much more conservatively than is usually the case. Last year, was no exception to the blistering pace usually seen through this section with Pau going through in under 32 minutes (yes, sub 4min/km pace). The lack of crowd and adrenaline no doubt means Pau runs this slower than he did last year, I guess the question is whether this time is saved through better pacing or not.
I am certain Pau will miss the insane crowd support that surrounds this aid station. Whether that impacts his performance significantly is another question. The absolute madness of what feels like a rock concert with about 500m of the track lined 3 deep with screaming fans is a must-see (as is the headlight snake behind the leaders!), but I doubt this impacts runners much, given the relative paucity of any significant support and feelings of civilisation entering or leaving the town. Likewise, being only a couple of hours into a race, if anything, this surge of adrenaline may be more harmful than anything, though I could be wrong. That said, during this portion of the race, the runners are usually still at least within reach of each other and I am sure this aspect will be the greater challenge.
This is usually a huge aid station, with all sorts of food and crews buzzing about. Most feel good up to, at least, this point (~80km) but know there is a lot of carnage looming. The combination of time of day (Pau was first there by over 20 minutes last year and still only got in at 12.38am), temperatures that are often extremely low and upcoming course portions make this a point of high attrition, possibly the highest rate on course.
To be fair, Pau only spent 3 minutes in the aid station last year (of which I am sure at least 1 was moving through it), but given the likely time of day when he arrives, I am sure he will either push straight through or have to spend more time to get food, unless he has something organised like a drop bag.
Courmayeur-La Fouly 31km (4:15 in 2019)
This section is what most people cite as one of the hardest if not the hardest of the race, or at the very least encompasses the section or times they cite as that.
It starts with a set of switchbacks up to the Bertone hut well known to runners. Interestingly, this is common to the UTMB course and Tor Des Geants course (at least, for those who have managed to hallucinate their way through to the finish: it is the last section of the 330km race). This 5km stretch climbs about 800m vertically, so is an unpleasant pinch of a climb and sans the beautiful scenery to take your mind off it at the time of day the elites conquer it. This took Pau around an hour last year, and I would suggest he would not be looking for this to change much in either direction.
The next significant challenge in this section is crossing Grand Col Ferret. Race reports from UTMB almost always include mention of this crossing. It is often the worst portion of the race weather wise, as it is one of the highest points of the course and is notoriously windy. Pending time of day (Pau got there at 6am), many runners mention crossing the Col and entering Switzerland as quite emotional with spectacular lighting and it being the 100km mark.
If Pau can stay strong through this section and be on target, time wise, he will be in pretty good shape for his record attempt. There are a few big “ifs” in that statement, particularly given the lack of companions, competitors, and support.
From here, he should get a big boost of energy, given the sunrise and only 4 big climbs left.
Of interest, this is the section in which Killian dropped out post-bee sting in 2018.
Vallorcine-Chamonix 21km (2:24 in 2019)
Being only a short drive away from Chamonix and the best part 18 hours into a race, this “home stretch” can easily become very drawn out.
Those who watched Pau’s efforts last year would have seen him absolutely nail this section. I would suggest this will be a huge challenge in 2020, though. Firstly, the competitive aspects and support mentioned already will be gone. Secondly, it will be hard to improve on his efforts here. I have no doubt he will be fitter and more technically capable, but he really did power through this section, making some technical terrain look very straight forward, particularly descending into La Flegere. The final issue I can foresee is weather. If it is a day like last 2019, this part of the course will be during the hottest portion of the race. Another potential hiccup may be traffic on the trail – portions of this section are well trodden and popular, and without people cogniscent of a race, he could find himself dodging a few hikers and the like.
Looking at Pau’s efforts last year, his splits and how he performed compared to the field, it is pretty clear he was stronger later than the competition. That said, he led or was close to the lead from early on.
Given these facts and the above thoughts on the sections, I would suggest his biggest opportunity is to try to improve his time during “aid stations”, though there isn’t much fat to trim there, or perhaps on the back half of the course (Courmayeur onwards) by staying that little bit fresher in the early stages.
Questions that remain
Will Pau carry all the mandatory gear of UTMB?
While much of the gear is a must, given safety issues, I am sure there is the potential for him to leave the 2nd headlight battery in Chamonix.
That said, my assumption is that he will likely carry this to ensure his record is considered official.
Weather or not?
What will the weather be like? Last year had almost perfect conditions (whatever they are in an ultra), but with any unseasonably hot weather or some storms, all bets could be off.
Will there be live updates?
I would love this to be the case, but it seems unlikely, unless his crew updates his social media, which of course, given the world we live in, is infinitely possible. Though I dare say these will be in Spanish, so you may need your Google translate window open.
Infinitely possible, but not necessarily probable.
The very nature of ultrarunning means that unless Pau had an off year last year, which doesn’t seem to be the case, then even equalling his time will be tough without things like crowd support and competition.
Dr David Lipman is a podiatrist, exercise physiologist and medical doctor who doesn’t make it to trails as often as he’d like, drinks too much coffee and is a big believer in first principles and understanding the basics, in tech and training alike. Contact him on Instagram @dlipman5 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org