Eastnine Ambassador Alan Li's Experience of UTMB.
Alan Li is an Eastnine ambassador and a bit of a running legend. His speciality is ultra distance running, completing races such as the Dragons Back 315K and the marathon des stables. A couple of weeks ago Alan took on the Prestigious 145K UTMB TDS and documented all about it.
Being based in London, England. The biggest challenge with living on flat lands is finding varying mountainous terrains to satisfy my pursuit for the next big running challenge. This year I took part in the ‘Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc TDS’ (UTMB TDS) in Chamonix, France. Once a year, 10000 runners descend to the picturesque town and surrounding areas for a week for what is the ‘Mecca’ or the ‘Super Bowl/World Cup’ of trail running. Over the week, the town hosts a serious of races to suit every trail runner’s appetite.
The UTMB TDS “Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie" (the footprints of the Dukes of Savoie), covers a distance of 145km and an elevation of 9000 m. Starting in Courmayeur and finishing in Chamonix. Cut off time for the event is 42 hours.
Having already completed the TDS (2016) and UTMB (2018), I said I would never do the races again. However, late 2018 an announcement was released to reveal details of a TDS version 2.0. This was enough to get my attention.
The route had been extended 20km with an additional 2000m elevation. The original TDS had a reputation amongst the running community as being harder than UTMB due to it’s technical climbing. So, being the curious soul I am, I wanted to experience just how much harder the new route is.
Born in Hong Kong, grew up in the deprived area of Tottenham, London, I was always moderately active. As a teenager I stayed out of trouble by playing football, badminton and did some short distance running.
My first race was in 1999, Reading Half marathon in the UK. Through friend’s persuasion, I entered my first 5k in 2005. It was a leg break from football in 2011 that changed my running direction where I gave up football and pursued a life in running adventures.
Starting in the Himalaya and eventually travelling around the world seeking new and challenging running adventures.
I consider myself an ‘accomplished amateur endurance athlete’. Juggling between work, training and life balance. Each week I train 14 Hours. 10 hours running with 4 hours Mobility and Strength and Conditioning. 40 hours of the week is at work where this gives me financial stability to pay rent, put food on the table and fund my adventures. Leaving very little time with the family, the reason why I take 6 week for off season in the calendar. To give back time to my family and also non-running friends.
Having DNF against my name on my last preparation race in Sierra Nevada, Spain. The heat along with not being able to take food down was the major factor I failed to finish the 100km, walking out at 75km, on a highly exposed and technical route I felt was the right decision. I needed to approach the TDS race with precaution and more importantly, respect as we will need to be aiming for a 30 hour finish.
My training back in the UK consisted of travelling to the mountains of Wales in the weekend (an 8 hour journey) and then doing repeats up and down the mountains to make at least 2000 – 4000 meters. Indoor training comprised of weighted box step ups, stretching and mobility. Running, little was needed as there isn’t much long distance running, the furthest is probably 10-15km, so, I substituted the long distance with interval training. Getting the body to change gears after climbs.
A month leading up to the race, I spent 5 days on parts of the race route in France to get used to the terrain, weather and altitude. We spent the days in Les Contamines, France, practising, getting familiar with the route and conditioning with the mountains surrounding the valleys. Having previous race knowledge, the plan was to enter the race conservatively and to preserve the quads for the later stages in the race where it was very runnable. Eat on every hour and sip water every 15 minutes is my race rule.
I carry dry fruit, nuts and gels when racing, though nutrition is a hard thing to get right as stomach, weather or appetite changes with every race.
We lined up at the start line at 3:30am in Courmayeur. The ‘epic motivational’ music signalled it was time to start. By 4:00am we were all moving to escape the start pen. The weather was perfect, overcast in the morning with mist in the mountains, this was a good sign for the day as it kept the runners cool. All I wished for was for the weather to remain like this when we get to Bourg St
Maurice (51km) for the notorious Col de la Forclaz (2300 m) climb.
The race started to plan, keeping everything at a low effort and running the flats easy and being efficient on the long descents. All was going well up until early evening where I started to feel sick and couldn’t keep food down. I was dry heaving whenever I tried putting power into the climbs and any form of running would have triggered it.
Having banked enough time, I adjusted my goals from 30 hour finish to just make it to the finish line. From 70km onward I hiked slowly the up hills as well as the flats and down. As it was going to be a long way until the end, I decided to make use of the checkpoints and stopped off for sleep and food. I spent 40 minutes in one checkpoint and then a smaller 20 minutes of micro napping. It was a correct choice as I was starting to hallucinate. Silhouettes in the woods, dancing skeleton and faces in the rocks. Not this year, I had my dose last year running 38 hours non-stop so I decided to not have to see these this year.
At sun rise, I caught a second wind and suddenly felt stronger. At 110km, I had some food in Col du Joly checkpoint had felt the stomach had settled. I slow jogged to test how much I can push my run and with my relief I felt normal again. I sped up on the descent of Col du Joly into Les Contamines route that I knew very well. There’s a flat part that is runnable into the checkpoint at 121km.
It was an opportunity to tick off the miles quickly whilst also anticipating two more last big climbs of the race. The morning weather was still very cooling so again conditions were ideal.
With 10km to go, it was a sharp descent into Chamonix from the last peak of Bellevue. The legs I saved up was welcoming, a lot of the runners were walking by this point and I was still feeling strong.
Into Les Houche 8km to go, the last checkpoint. The easy part was done, now was a tricky time of the day as it was starting to get very warm. You could feel the heat being absorbed by the tarmac, making the last part of the route not that straight forward. I ended up walking when it was too hot and running when there was shade.
The last straight was running through the main road of Chamonix, here everyone is out cheering, even the patrons of bars and restaurants will stand up and cheer you in. This is my first time getting this welcoming in as both my previous races, I ended up finishing too early in the morning where there wasn’t many supporters. The vibe gives you that extra lift, seeing everyone’s smiles and cheers, hearing your name being called out, everything that was hurting before became less painful.
Crossing the line at 2:33pm on Thursday, taking a total time of 34Hours and 33mins, this was a tough race.
Of the 1785 starters that toed the line, only 1091 of those finished, giving a drop out rate of 39%. Renown for being a much harder race than the UTMB by the running community, the new route is definitely much tougher than the previous edition. It has relentless climbs and doesn’t allow much time for resting. Some of the checkpoints were placed too far apart, as I had a few close calls with running out of water.
The dilemma now for CCC (100km) another race in the UTMB series runners is which race do they go to from there as the old TDS race was the right distance for the progression.
My advise to people who have asked, sign up for the UTMB before going for TDS, it’s less technical and more runnable.
Himalaya 100 2013, India
Le Marathon Des Sables 2015, Morocco
Vibram Hong Kong 100 2016, Hong Kong
UTMB Tds 2016, France
Ultra Tour Monte Rosa 2017 - 4 Stage Race 170 Km, Switzerland
Cape Wrath Ultra 2018, Scotland
Utmb® 2018, France
The 9 Dragons Ultra 2019 - 50/50, Hong Kong
The Dragon’s Back Race 2019, Wales