What it’s like to run the UTMB – a review


Trois, deux, un, GO! A sea of 2,543 runners start moving through the iconic starting archway in Chamonix. Emotions are running high through the field of runners taking on the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) – of which 40% will not finish.

The streets are lined with thousands of supporters all cheering us on and the sheer volume of people means we’re walking for the first 500m. I savour the moment, as it gives me a chance to high five friends and soak up the atmosphere, hoping it will spur me on during the moments of darkness to come.

Welcome to the UTMB

UTMB, the big dance, the ultimate pinnacle of mountain ultra racing in Europe. 106 miles with 10,000m of vertical gain and loss – more than Everest – with a 46.5hr cut-off. It departs from Chamonix at 6pm on Friday 30th August running to Italy and through to Switzerland, before making it back to Chamonix. Hikers normally take 9-12 days to complete the route. To even apply to run you need to complete a certain number of qualifying races in an allotted time during the qualifying period – which is basically three kick-arse races in 12 months prior to be valid. Then you go into a ballot, so after applying for three years in a row I finally got in.

I’d experienced FOMO the last two years of watching the race – online one year and in person last year – and now it was my turn to take part. Since finding out for certain I was on the list in Januar,y my mind and training was focused towards this race. I’d trained consistently since May, finding it hard to get going in the early part of the year due to the ongoing winter and snowy conditions in Chamonix making it difficult to get on the trails as early as I would have liked.

My big preparation race was Gran Trail Courmayeur in the middle of July and I was filled with confidence from completing this event, which spurred me on to really give a strong final push in the six weeks leading up to race day. I’d focused on running 50-60 miles per week with 5,000-10,000m per week ascent. One session I wish I’d done more of was downhill repeats, which I felt was really beneficial in building leg strength and sharpening up my downhill running technique as well.

Getting started

‘Don’t go out too hard’, was the advice from Dion and try as I might to control myself I found myself in Les Houches a little faster than I would have liked, but I felt good. It was encouraging to see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd there to spur me on for the first big climb. It was still light and I’d hoped to reach St Gervais before needing a head torch, but I had to give in and put this on for the last 15 mins before getting there. The checkpoint was crazy; a mad rush of runners all squeezing in to replenish and I was glad to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Climbing into Les Contamines-Montjoie, I thought back to this point three years ago. It was on this section I’d decided I was pulling out; I didn’t have the emotional, mental or physical capacity to carry on after having run #500kin5days only four weeks prior; compounded by the fact that Dion was in China having just found Gobi, which had caused insurmountable levels of stress and anxiety. This year I was stronger, and Dion and Gobi would be out on course to support me, but first it was time to see my first crew of the race with friends Jo and Jana waiting for me once I squeezed my way through the rugby scrum that was Les Contamines-Montjoie checkpoint, where pizza and warmer night clothes awaited me with hugs and cheers.

My chest started to tighten as I began the climb up Col du Bonhomme. I was finding it hard to breath and with every attempted breath I felt more and more nauseous. Eventually I succumbed to the discomfort, and sat on the side of the trail and eventually threw up. I felt a bit better afterwards and my chest didn’t feel as tight, so as much as it was a blessing it also meant I’d lost valuable energy.
The runners started to thin out after the climb, which was a relief as it was so congested. The night was long and it took me much longer than I’d hoped to finally reach Courmayeur, the halfway point.
Lucja Leonard at the UTMB

Into the second day on the mountains

It was shaping up to be a warm day and I was roasting in long tights and a long-sleeve top, so I was super keen to see Dion, Gobi and Jana at the checkpoint and get out of those clothes. Dion and Gobi met me just outside and ran the last 300m in with me, as only one person is allowed inside the designated checkpoints. It was great to see them and it really lifted my spirits.
Feeling fresh and energy restored it was time to try and crack on; still 50 miles to go! Zoe decided to sit and have a gel before the next climb to Bertone, so I pulled ahead to keep moving. I was pleased to see my friend Paul when I reached Bertone, and we decided to head out together from there. It was nice to have some company as I hadn’t really had anyone to talk to along the way, so it helped pass the time. It was a long stretch to reach Arnouvaz where I was surprised to see Dion, Jana and Gobi waiting. This wasn’t a support spot so they could only say Hi, but it was great to see them again.

One of the biggest climbs of the race, Grand Col Ferret at 2,490m, loomed ahead of us and we were keen to get up and over it before darkness descended for our second night on course. The weather started to close in on us as we ascended, and just as we reached the summit huge claps of thunder sounded and lightning crashed all around us. With big raindrops starting to fall we quickly put on our waterproof jackets and ran as quick as we could – this was not the best place to be in a storm, super exposed and great for attracting lightning.

The raindrops quickly tuned into a torrential downpour and the path became a sloshy mud pit. Waterproof or not we were both absolutely drenched by the time we reached the midway down point of La Peuty. The next section had become diabolical, with the path submerged in ankle-deep water and mud making the downhill quite treacherous underfoot and slow going. We reached La Fouly just on dark; cold, wet and in need of warm, dry clothes, but we still had another couple of hours to get to Champex-Lac to meet our respective crews.

Climbing and climbing

The climb up to Champex-Lac was long and boring, but dry. I got changed anyway as we were now going into the night again so it’s wise to put some layers on. Dion and Jana were armed with fresh pizza and chocolate milk – some of my favourites – both of them acutely aware we were now in the force feeding stage of the race. I also downed a can of orange soft drink, which was so tasty I proceeded to ask them to get me some more for Trient, which laughingly they both told me that at 2am in the middle of the mountains I had no chance! Joined by Paul’s crew, wife Lucy, we all walked out of Champex-Lac together and chatted. We’d see them again in Trient.
Paul and I made an effort to jog the downhill out of Champex-Lac as quickly as we could at this stage of the race before the climb up Bovine. An arduous and rocky climb that was as unrelenting as the last; our headtorches picked up shapes on the sides of the trail – it was runners, sleeping! I’d never seen so many runners taking random trail naps before; they were literally everywhere up the trail. I was feeling it too; my eyes were heavy and the temptation to rest was strong, but I kept shaking my head awake and soldiered on upwards. Paul was struggling too so we kept checking in on each other to make sure we weren’t sleep walking. Reaching Bovine I was renewed; I’d run from here a few times on training runs and I now felt like we were just running home. I knew from here that I would finish and this just filled me with a new-found energy.
We wasted no time at Trient; with only two more climbs to go we could start to smell the finish line and wanted that more than anything. Dion and Gobi met us on the road into Trient and filled our heads with positive motivation. The climb up Tseppes is steep and we paced ourselves with a promise of a short rest stop at the top before flying down to Vallorcine, the last supported checkpoint before the finish.
We arrived half an hour before we were anticipated, so we really did fly! Jana helped me into yet another change of clothes. It was now daylight again, so back into shorts for my fourth outfit of the race. Dion had found me some fresh coffee and a quiche and we were off to tackle the final climb.

Finishing the UTMB

False summit after false summit and the climb is done, but I’m not fooled! It’s still a long way to the final checkpoint, Flegere, which is winking at me in the distance. It’s all downhill from Flegere and the trail is scattered with supporters. Three miles now to the finish and I can feel it; the excitement is coursing through my veins. I can’t stop smiling with intermittent welling up, as the gravity of what I’m about to achieve starts to hit.

I feel like a rock star! The streets of Chamonix are lined with people; they’re all cheering for us. High fives are being handed out left and right, and as we turn onto the Main Street the whole town is one big party. The cheering is so loud; I’m looking left and right as I hear my name being shouted.

Lucja Leonard finishing the UTMB

This was my dream come true; tears well in my eyes as we all hug and kiss and congratulate each other. It was all worth it; the time and commitment it had taken to prepare, with all the sacrifices along the way. I’d been driven to this moment since 2016. That DNF had been weighing heavily on my shoulders for three years; a big monkey on my back that kept chattering away to me trying to convince me I wasn’t good enough to do it.

But I am good enough and that monkey will forever be quiet. Ultras are a team effort, from the time spent training to the actual race, and I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew.

The cold beers in the sunshine together afterwards never tasted so good as we all shared stories of our combined adventures of the past 42 hours.

This is an abridged version of Lucja’s original blog, including more info on the kit she wore, which you can read on her website: https://runningdutchie.org/2019/09/19/monkey-get-off-my-back/

If you liked this article, why not check out Lucja’s reviews of the Hurt 100, the toughest 100 miler too?