Ridge Report: One Runner's UTMB Journey

Ridge Report: One Runner's UTMB Journey
Regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world, and one of the most scenic, the legendary Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc® (UTMB) is a 106 mile ultra-marathon with 32,940 feet elevation gain, that takes racers through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps around Mont Blanc in August. Ridge Merino athlete Andy Clark finished in 30 hours and 20 seconds, coming in at 96th out of 2,347 runners.

Andy's partner, Shannon, also an ultra mountain athlete, sat down with him to find out about his journey to the UTMB.

 Andy rocked the Minaret Socks for his UTMB warm up run.

Shannon: Hey Andy, lets get this started, where are you from? 

Andy: I grew up in Wanaka, New Zealand and now live in Crowley Lake in the Eastern Sierra.

Shannon: Those are awesome places! Have you always been a runner?

Andy: Not at all. As a kid I was obsessed with ice hockey which is a pretty obscure sport in New Zealand. My claim to fame from my hockey career was making the NZ national under 12 team. After that I got into snowboarding as a teenager and in my early 20’s. Through snowboarding, I was lucky enough to get to travel around the world competing in different events. The snowboard dream ended when I broke my back, which caused me to have balance issues and numbness in my lower legs for over a year.

Shannon: So how did you get into running?

Andy: I had been exposed to endurance sports for the majority of my life with my Mum and her friends competing in multi-sport events in New Zealand, like the Coast to Coast. Personally, I was way late to the party. I never ran in high school except for once a year in the school cross-country. After school, I had occasionally dabbled in running to try and keep myself fit, but I only started running more consistently when I was roped into doing a half marathon around 2015. It was pretty hilarious. I was training for a while in some DC boots (yes, actual boots) that gave me terrible blisters. I remember being stoked when I ran four miles without stopping. Somehow I ended up getting second in that first half marathon, and the hook was set. 

Shannon: There is a big difference between a half marathon and what you are doing now. How did you get into the longer distances?

Andy: To me, increasing distance seemed like the logical progression to running rather than trying to get faster at the same distance. Even though that first race was on trails, I decided I wanted to try and run one of the big marathons, so I set my sights on qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Getting into that race is kind of a funny story. I found myself a training plan online and trained like crazy for the Santa Rosa Marathon, which was a Boston qualifier. When race day came along, my whole strategy was to stick with the pacer the event had organized to run at a Boston qualifying pace, I didn’t look at a course map or anything. Somewhere in the early miles of that race the pacer took a wrong turn and led a bunch of us off the course. By the time we all realized the mistake, I was well behind qualifying pace. I was gutted. The next day I went online and entered another marathon in Utah two weeks later and got my qualifying time. I ran Boston in 2017, and with that checked off, I had no more desire to run on pavement. After that, I ran a 50K trail on the Northern California coast with hardly any people and beautiful scenery. That's when I knew, for me, trail running was where it’s at!

Shannon: Trail running is definitely more scenic and enjoyable. So tell us about what it took to get into the UTMB.

Andy: UTMB is one of the most competitive races in ultra running. It starts and finishes in Chamonix, France and follows the Tour Du Mont Blanc hiking trail in a ~106 mile/171km loop around Mont Blanc through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Along with the distance it also has close to 33,000 feet/10000m of climbing. It's definitely the most challenging race I’ve ever done!

There are a couple of ways to get into UTMB, most of the top ultra runners in the world get invited and the rest of us have to qualify, then have our names drawn in a lottery to actually race. Qualifying for me involved choosing races here in the U.S. that had UTMB qualifying points assigned to them. In 2018, I qualified by running the Canyons 100k, Castle Peak 100k and the Bear 100, but did not get drawn in the lottery to race. In 2019 I ran Castle Peak 100k and the Bear 100 races again, but again did not get my name drawn in the lottery. Because I qualified but had not gotten through the lottery in 2018 and 2019, I got an automatic entry for 2021.     

The UTMB route winds through the picturesque countryside of the Alps.


Shannon: Did you have a specific goal for the race?               

Andy: Around 2,500 people get to race UTMB each year, and I saw one statistic that said around 39 percent of them on average drop out of the race without finishing, so my number one goal was to finish. I would have loved to finish under 30 hours but it was hard to know what's realistic, having never seen the course and factoring in the mountain weather conditions. Some years it has been really hot and other years there’s been rain and snow. 

Shannon: What's different between UTMB versus races in the U.S. that you've done?

Andy: There are definitely some pretty major differences. Most ultra races in the U.S. have a pretty small number of entrants, like 500 or less. UTMB has 2,500. Another big difference is the huge amount of steep climbs and descents that are pretty unique to the Alps. Also, because UTMB crosses the borders of three countries, I had to carry my passport during the race, which was a first. The EU aid stations are also different with bread, cheese and meat. Another thing is the organizers of UTMB have an extensive list of required gear that you have to carry for the entirety of the race, and they have random checks to make sure you have it on you. 

Shannon: What do they make you carry?

Andy: There’s a lot. They have a basic requirements list, and depending on the weather, there is a hot/cold gear requirement list, in addition. 

This is the basic gear list:

Cell phone
2 lights/headlamps and spare batteries for both
Survival blanket
Waterproof jacket and pants
One meter long bandage
Extra food
Minimum of one liter of water
Portable cup
Warm top - for this layer, I used the Ridge Merino Aspect top
Pants/leggings - I wore the Ridge Merino Aspect full length bottoms

The route takes racers through a number of varying climates, nothing the Aspect Quarter Zip can't handle!

Shannon: Wow! You really were prepared for all types of weather conditions. Congrats on racing in the UTMB, what an accomplishment!  


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