The 2012 North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc: Gary Knipling's Perspective
In coming up with a way to express and share some of my observations and comments about the recent 2012 UTMB in and around Chamonix, France, I will borrow a method used by Anita Finkle to recognize her “top 10” memories/reflections from past runs she has done. Here goes (I’ve gone over Anita’s allotment of 10 — sorry!):
- Language barriers. Several people had offered to help me learn some basic French words and phrases that I might encounter while taking in the UTMB experience. I never really did any prep work in that regard, and I found out I didn’t need to. I spent three days in Paris before going to Chamonix for six days, including the parts of two days for the run. Most French people involved with restaurants, shops, transportation, and tourism knew English very well. I found it quite easy to communicate with people on the street by making eye contact, giving a thumbs up, a smile, and if any further interaction was necessary, a fist bump for good measure. Parisians were much more street-savvy with the fist bump — most locals of eastern France would politely put up an open palm to stop me from hitting them with a soft right.
- Running attire. I had heard that most European trail runners overdress. They do.
- Flags of Countries. I wish I knew Country’s flags (a small replica was on each runner’s bib) as well as dog breeds. Actually, I don’t know breeds very well, either!
- The UTMB runs take over the enchanted town of Chamonix for almost a full week with events, an expo for runners, starts of the different runs/distances, etc. Registration for any of the runs requires pretty much the same gear, equipment, and extra clothing. After I registered for UTMB on Wednesday, a full 48 hours before the start, I wore my red bracelet around the streets of town. Each of the other runs had their own colors of wristbands — TDS, 112 km; CCC, 100 km — but I was especially proud of my red one.
- John Dodds had “set me up” with special pace cards (like he usually does for my century runs) for the planned UTMB course. The card (front and back) was full of information with distances between aid stations in km and miles, elevations at landmarks and aid stations in meters and feet, and cut off times when and where they were. I had actually studied these cards and the course information, and felt confident of knowing as much as I could without ever having been there. When the course and distance was changed six hours before start time, all that changed.
- Tracy had pinned an American flag on the back of Keith’s and my backpacks. I was a little concerned about being labeled the “ugly American”, but several times as runners would pass me, they would say “Americano, Americano,” I believe in a positive way. I never heard a negative comment, but someone could have been lambasting me in one of the many foreign languages flying around, and I never would have known it.
- Mountain fog and mist in the French Alps is the same as Virginia and mid-Atlantic areas, however the mud of the Savoy Valley around Chamonix is much more slippery. On one steep decent into Saint Gervais ~20 km into the run, I fell on my butt three times within 100 yards.
- Humans aren’t the only mammals that jingle cowbells in France.
- With so many types and makes of running attire represented, there was a dazzling array of design and colors of reflective patterns on the backs of rain gear, tights, shoes, etc. Some seemed almost gaudy. I could have joked about it with any American, but I didn’t dare say anything to the UTMB runners for fear of misinterpretation.
- UTMB was the first time I wore a chip timer in any ultra. There were two magnetic strips on the back of our bibs and a single laminated strip placed on the back of our packs. A few of the aid stations in towns had a matted wire on the ground to trigger a count, while at the tops of most of the remote climbs an official with a hand scanner would “swipe” our bibs
- I was glad I had my mangos with me on the run, although I had them tucked away in my pack most of the time. The mangos also served as my 4th suggested layer because of the expected cold and wind at the higher elevations (which never really materialized for me). I was never checked for the 4th layer at an aid station.
- About 1:00 AM Saturday morning on the outskirts of Les Contamines (a major aid station we hit twice because of the altered course), there were four rain-clad drunks on trail right, singing French songs. I “high fived” each of them with the handle end of my right pole as I went by. I was relieved to find my pole still intact afterwards. I believe any of them would have been good recruits for the Club, either as runners, volunteers, or just tailgaters.
- There were over 2300 runners who started in Chamonix at 7:05 PM Friday August 31. It was the night of the blue moon in August, 2012. The full moon was up there but, with the fog and mist and snow, it was never apparent. On the course, I saw only six runners that I knew. I was with Doug Blackford (NC) for over an hour from ~21–31 km. I had met Morgan Williams from Great Britain through Bryon Powell on Wednesday before the start and I was with him and Jamshid Khajavi (WA) for over an hour after Doug moved on. I saw Mark Lewis (CA) ever so briefly at an aid station at ~40 km. And I leap-frogged with Yuki Negoro and Makoto Kitamura a few times from ~50 km to near the finish. Both Yuki and Makoto had Japanese flags on their bibs although they both reside in the US now — Yuki in NJ and Makoto in NY. They have both done MMT in the past few years.
- Trash on the trail. There was so much more fresh trash along the trail than I can ever recall seeing in an ultra run. At first I thought that should be an embarrassment to the European trail runners, but then I realized that UTMB has 8–10 times more runners than most of our events. And, I was running behind probably 70% of that total number. It’s still sad to see that much trash we runners leave behind that becomes the volunteer’s job to clean up –– no matter where we run.
Speaking just for me, I believe I lucked out that the 2012 UTMB was shortened to a long 100 km (some runners GPSed it at ~110 km)rather than the planned 169 km. It was certainly a loss to not be able to run in Italy and Switzerland, and to see some of the beautiful vistas commonly seen on videos of the event. The expected cold weather at higher elevations was not the challenge for me. It was the long, steep, sometimes slippery trails that wore me down. I’m glad I had my poles and I wonder how the ~15% of the field who chose not to use them managed.
The UTMB is a magical running event/experience. When the runners are assembled before the start at the Place Triangle de l’Amitie, it is electrifying. Being among ~2300 runners plus thousands of spectators, hearing the buzz of many languages, knowing no one or VERY few and yet sharing the same hopes and goals with so many is very special. The announcer is speaking beautiful commanding French with the jumbo screen showing winners and moments from runs past. The familiar theme music is loud and invigorating. I couldn’t understand a word the announcer was saying, but I imagined the most eloquent and inspiring and supportive words ever spoken. The clock started counting down from 3 minutes to go to the start. I almost didn’t want that 3 minutes to end. But then it did. And even louder shouts and more energy went through the crowd. Every runner and spectator was respectful of the limited space available to first walk, then shuffle, then jog, then stretch out when wanted. For 5 km, the sides of the road were lined with well wishers. There would be thousands and thousands more during the next 24 hours shouting “Allez! Allez!”, “Bravo! Bravo!”, ringing all shapes and sizes of cow bells, and shouting the eight or nine possible ways to say my first name written in larger letters on my bib.
The UTMB was on!