Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Racer Stories: Dominick Layfield's 2018 UTMB Race Learnings and Gear Report

Article by Dominick Layfield

UTMB 2018
For those of you who don’t follow ultrarunning obsessively.  UTMB = Ultimate Tour of Mont Blanc. A race that does a long (~170 km/106 miles), hilly (~10000 m/30,000 ft gain) loop around Mont Blanc , starting in Chamonix, France, and running though Italy and Switzerland before returning to France. It’s a huge race, with ~2600 entrants. There are longer races, and there are hillier races, but nothing matches the prestige and excitement around UTMB.

After last year’s debacle (in which I got pulled by the race medics), my goal for UTMB 2018 was specifically, unambiguously, to finish the race.  I told myself that I wouldn’t pay any attention to time or position.

Naturally, as soon as the race started, I started to imagine a stunning performance that would stand in stark conflict with my meager training and unfocussed preparation.  But I was quickly and rudely brought down to reality. From the start, my heart rate was too high, my pace too slow, and my body out of sorts. My quads felt shot on the first downhill.  It was immediately clear that if I kept pushing, I would guarantee a repeat of last year’s DNF.

So on to plan B -- which was really the original plan A -- Take it easy and enjoy the race.  And to cut a 27-hour story short, that’s pretty much what happened. I had a phenomenal time, ran with a smile on my face, and finished 50th.  Hoorah!
Obligatory photo from race check-in, on Thursday.
Things I learned (or re-learned) at this year’s UTMB:
  • Going slow.  It turns out that if you ease off the gas pedal, races become a far more pleasurable experience.  Who knew?
  • Atmosphere.  You really have to participate in UTMB (or one of the sister races) to understand how truly magical it is.   Yes, the views are great during the race, but I’m sure there are prettier races. In any case, after you’ve been running for more than twenty four hours, your ability to delight in the scenery is significantly compromised.  What is truly unique about UTMB is the spectators, and general level of energy and enthusiasm. All week in Chamonix, you will find the town full of famous runners, ordinary runners, friends and family, and people full of excitement about running and racing.  The start is particularly unforgettable, but throughout the race you will find crowds unlike anywhere else.  It feels like riding in the Tour de France, with throngs of people cheering and lining the streets of Chamonix, St. Gervais, and many little mountain towns en route.  
  • The Finish.  What I wasn’t able to experience before was the thrill of crossing the finish line. Many ultra-runners dream of running around the track in Auburn at the end of Western States 100.  Now, having done both, I can tell you that the Placer High School track doesn’t hold a candle to running through the streets of Chamonix. Wow. To get some idea of the craziness, check out this video of 2018 4th place finisher, Hallvard Schjolberg.
  • Weather.  Alpine weather is notoriously changeable.  At UTMB the chances are that you will experience this in spades.  The weather forecast will change dramatically in the days leading up to your race.  The weather will change as you travel from one side of Mont Blanc to the other. (For example, at TDS this year, we experienced heavy rain in the Chamonix valley, while the race video stream showed racers on the Courmayeur side running in glorious sunshine.)  The elevation change in all the UTMB races is huge, and conditions will change as you ascend from the deep valleys to high ridgelines. You will put on and remove hat, gloves, mid-layers, waterproofs etc. many times during the race. So keep such items handy (i.e. not deep in your pack), and favor types that are flexible and can be deployed quickly, like a buff, arm-warmers etc.
  • Trail buddies.  As with all long ultras, you’re going to be out there for a long time, and it helps to have a companion.  By a spooky coincidence, on the ascent from Les Chapieux to Col de la Seigne, I ran into the best buddy of a best buddy.  We then ran together, on and off, for the next eight hours. Thank you, Riccardo Tortini, for making the hours fly by in the middle of the race.
  • Lows.  Once I’d decided that I really, really was going to take things very easy in my race, I was hoping this would mean that the entire race would feel comfortable and enjoyable. I was only partially right.  Perhaps three quarters of it felt splendid. But even at reduced level of intensity, a good chunk still felt rough. I experienced a notable low point in the Plan de l’Au climb after Champex-Lac, and fretted that I was facing another seven hours of horrible slog, struggling even to break into a trot on the flats.  But to my surprise and delight, I found on the descent into Vallorcine (~150 km) that my legs and spirit came back to me and I was able to push hard and move quickly all the way to the finish.
  • Downhill Poling.  I used hiking poles for the first time last year, and appreciated having them with me, finding them useful on (the many) long steep climbs.  Late in the race this year, I experimented with using them on the downhills. I won’t debate the complicated pros and cons here, but suffice to say that on tired legs they are enormously helpful on steep descents.  As with steep climbs, the key advantage is in decreasing the peak force required of your quads. Next time (if I ever run UTMB again) I would use them on steep descents right from the start.
  • Goals.  In the late stages of an ultra, it’s often difficult to find motivation.  Doubly so if your original goals have evaporated. At UTMB, since I didn’t have a specific goal beyond finishing, I needed something to focus on.  Somewhere around the descent into Vallorcine, I decided that I would try to finish before dark. I didn’t quite manage that, but it motivated me to push hard for the final 3+ hours to the finish, picking up 17 places.
  • Long Recovery.  I had hoped that taking it easy for most of the race would lead to a rapid recovery.  But no. It would seem that even at reduced intensity, UTMB does a ton of damage to your body.  I’m writing this exactly a week later, and while stairs are no longer a problem, squatting down still hurts my quads.  Maybe I’m just getting old.
Coming into Champex-Lac, Switzerland.  PC: Clint Brown

With Riccardo Tortini, on the ridge after Rifugio Bertone, about 85 km into the race (in Italy).  PC: Julian Jamison

Apparently Riccardo is famous in Italy!

If you start slowly enough, it’s a lot easier to move up the field….

Leaving Champex-Lac (Switzerland), 125 km.  Love this photo. PC: Clint Brown

Gear notes:
  • Shoes:  I opted for the Hoka Speedgoat 2.  (RTR review)  Same as last year.  These provide bulletproof rock protection at the expense of trail feel.   Not a shoe I’d wear for daily running , but a solid, dependable choice for long races.   While far from a featherweight shoe, these are surprisingly light for the protection they provide.
  • Hydration Pack. My venerable Salomon Adv Skin Set 5.    Nothing fancy here.   Simple, lightweight, with decent amount of storage.   Only real downside are the finicky clips on chest straps.  New version has more pockets than mine, but otherwise essentially identical. I supplemented the hydration vest with a Naked Running Band.  This provides easily-accessible storage for items like hat and gloves, headlamp, etc.  Also a nice way to stow hiking poles. It took me a while to remember that you can rotate the entire thing to bring the pole loops around to the front and see what you’re doing.
  • Poles:  I stuck with the same Black Diamond Z-Poles that I used last year.  The only issue I have with these is that depressing the tiny button to collapse the poles can be hard with numb fingers, or while wearing gloves.
  • Gloves:  I should read my own notes!  I started out with OR Versaliner gloves, and rediscovered that they are (like most gloves) very hard to put on with wet, numb hands.  I ditched the liner part and just used the waterproof shells, which worked fine, but didn’t leave a lot of safety margin if the weather had been worse.  The prudent choice at UTMB would be lightweight mitten shells, which are warmer and easier to put on.
  • GPS watch:  I messed up here.  My plan was to start with a Garmin 935, and then switch to a second watch -- a Coros PACE -- which I would pull out of my drop bag at Courmayeur.  But I put the second watch in the wrong bag, and so didn’t get it until I met Ben at Trient.  The 935 lasted 17.6 hours, so I have about five hours missing from the middle of my race. Strava track of first part, and then finish.
  • Apparel: I wore a limited-edition Twisted Fork race shirt from Militant Hippies.  On top I wore a Salomon long-sleeve shirt, which I took on and off what felt like a thousand times.  On my lower half I wore a borrowed pair of Salomon leggings, cut off below the knee. I normally run in shorts, but a knee-covering layer is part of the UTMB compulsory equipment, and it occurred to me that it was easier just to wear this item than to carry it in my pack.  I used CEP compression socks which worked out just fine, but normally I opt for the separate sock/calf-sleeve combination, which provides more flexibility and is generally a better option.
  • I carried a super light waterproof jacket, the AT/C ultrashell from Inov-8, .  This is literally the lightest jacket available that meets the stringent race requirements for taped seams, breathability etc.  I wore it a few times, and it worked out just fine, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it in heavy, sustained rain. I borrowed a pair of matching trousers that I didn’t wear. 
    Nutrition at UTMB is always something of a lottery.  Because you only get one drop bag (at Courmayeur), you essentially have a choice between carrying a ton of supplies with you, or making do with the quirky variety of food available at the aid stations.  I mostly muddled through with a selection of random stuff that I found at aid stations, which was slightly better than last year. In particular, a carbohydrate drink was consistently available.  Other than that I started with some gels of my own and picked up more at Courmayeur.  For the first time, I used Spring gels, which went down very pleasantly.  Based on this experience, I’ll definitely buy some more of these.  I also used GU Salted Caramel gels and packets of apple sauce.
Dominick Layfield's Bio
Dom lives in Southern California after several years in Park City, UT.  He is an avid trail runner who likes to race.  He holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT, and has worked as a researcher in orthopedic biomechanics. So he knows the difference between a ligament and tendon :-).
In 2016, he raced, among others, the Angeles Crest 100 (2nd place), Scout Mountain 80K (1st place), and Georgia Death Race 68 miler (3rd place).  His 2017 achievement include first place in the dead of winter 2017 108-mile Spine Challenger race in the UK, breaking the course record by an hour, first place in the Quicksilver 100K in California, and 14th at the Western States Endurance Run.

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Anonymous said...

Well, congrats on finishing and participating on a great race. I had planed on fast hiking the TMB this year and even brought the BD distance Z for that trip, had to cancel at the end but since my plan was using them for the uphills and running the downhills being new to running with poles I'm very interested on the technique to run downhill with them. If you have any resources in that regard, a video would be the best, I would really appreciate it. Best regards and congrats again.

Telemarker said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for the kind words. I didn't look at any how-to guides for pole use. I've only ever used poles at UTMB 2017 and 2018. Uphill use seemed pretty straightforward and was intuitive. (It may help that I've used poles extensively for various types of skiing.) It didn't occur to me to use them for downhill until late in the race this year. Again, it seemed pretty obvious and easy to figure out as you go. When encountering a big drop, you plant the poles below the step, and put enough weight on the poles to reduce the load on your legs as you land. I found I got pretty competent at this very quickly. I also started to use the poles (if I hadn't stowed them) to stabilize myself when off-balance. I'd guess you can figure it out quickly as long as you have some steep terrain to practice on.
I ran with Kaci Lickteig for a while at UTMB, and was surprised that she wasn't using poles. She lives in Omaha, and said she has nowhere to practice. Hopefully you live somewhere with hills! Good luck!
-- Dom