Saturday, September 16, 2023

Marcel Krebs UTMB OCC 2023 Race Report and why Chamonix is such a magic place!

Article by Marcel Krebs 

picture by Sportograf


Having watched the UTMB 2022 first hand, I was immediately struck and decided that I had to do whatever it took to participate in one of these epic races in 2023. Following the event on the live stream during prior years was awesome, but being there live in Chamonix was an experience on another level.

It turned out that it would become an exciting journey which culminated in an unforgettable finish in Chamonix. Read on to learn more about the UTMB finals in Chamonix and the pros and cons of the UTMB World Series around the globe with their finals taking place in Chamonix. Find out if I would do it again and would recommend that you participate too, even though there is some debate about the UTMB company itself.

picture by Sportograf


  • Epic atmosphere in Chamonix during the week of the finals

  • Large (and still growing) number of qualifying races around the globe which are worth experiencing even if you do not plan to go to the finals one day

  • Wide range of different distances, terrains and climate zones

  • Awesome media coverage for a lot of World Series events and especially the World Finals in Chamonix


  • Even though organizing such large events for sure is rather complex, there is still room for - actually pretty simple - optimizations regarding structured planning of shuttle buses, communication of procedures etc.

About the author

Marcel is an avid trail runner from Germany who is increasingly discovering road racing. He just smashed his PR on the half marathon distance in Berlin (1:32) and his Marathon PR in Hamburg (3:17). Besides this, he loves racing on the trails in events like the UTMB World Series culminating in the finals in Chamonix (OCC) which he finished in 09:09h in 2023. 

In addition to his fascination for running shoe innovations, Marcel is also enthusiastic about technical gadgets of all kinds. Follow him on IG for the latest news on his testing pipeline and much more (

Qualification & Lottery

The first step to make the dream of participating in one of the UTMB World Finals come true is to qualify for them. While some folks complain that the qualification process has become quite complicated, I don't really share this verdict. 

Once you grasp it, it is in fact pretty simple. First and foremost, you have to gain a valid UTMB index in your race category (20k, 50k, 100k or 100M). In simple terms, you have to show that you are eligible from an athletic standpoint to participate in the UTMB finals. 

In addition, you have to collect running stones, which work as lottery tickets for the World Finals (and potentially for the Majors, the continental championships in the future) as there are much more applications for each race than open spots.

picture by UTMB

You can learn more about the qualification process HERE.

Having participated in the UTMB World Series events in Istria, Salzburg and Nice in 2022 (each in the 50k category) I had earned a total of 6 running stones for the lottery. Finishing a 50k race of the World Series awards you with 2 running stones and doing so in a Major rewards you with the double amount. This made me quite optimistic for the lottery draw which took place early January 2023. Even though I afterwards learned that a lot of people were drawn in the lottery with only one or two running stones, I did not have any luck with my 6 running stones. After the first disappointment was over, I decided to get a charity bib to make this dream come true and do something good at the same time.


Training and preparation

After qualifying, almost 9 months remained to get in shape for the OCC, which covers a distance of approx. 55 km and for me an even more demanding almost 3500m of vertical gain. 

Living in pancake flat Hamburg and working in a demanding job, it was clear that getting ready for the OCC would require some thoughtful preparation. Therefore, I stepped up my volume from month to month and even more importantly, gradually increased the vertical gain during my training runs. 

For the last three months prior to the event I purchased a training plan from Two Peaks Endurance which is the - according to my opinion - leading trail running coaching company in Germany (no affiliation, paid full price for all services). Learn more about them here (German) or just drop them a line here if you are interested in their coaching services which are also available in English. 

picture by Sportograf

At the end of May, I participated in my first race of the UTMB World Series. Trail d’ Alsace in France was a race which was well organized and sold out quickly even though it took place for the first time ever. 

The event took place in beautiful scenery and perfect weather, it also played pretty well to my strengths as it was a runnable course even though the total elevation gain was more than 3300m. This made me kind of optimistic for the OCC which also has a comparable amount of vertical.

However, it soon turned out that there was some more hard work to be done.

Almost two months before the World Finals, I already saw some training progress, but still did not feel that I was fully prepared to really race over such a distance and vert.

How right I was with this concern soon became clear when I took part in the European Majors of the UTMB World Series in Val d' Aran. Their PDA race was comparable in distance and vert, but the terrain was very technical - probably the most technical one of all UTMB World Series events. 

To make a long story short, it was a great event, but I was just not able to handle the very steep and technical uphills which for the first time ever made me walk the following downhills as there was nothing left in my quads after those extreme uphills.

Regarding the upcoming OCC, this taught me a valuable lesson and I really ramped up my training of vertical gain even though this meant endless hours of gym work on the threadmill during the hottest time of the year. During the same period, the training plan also had scheduled a significantly higher training volume, to which my body fortunately adapted to quite well. 

I also trained with my race gear and figured out what nutrition would work best during the OCC. In fact, this work had already started in Val d' Aran and was optimized during my long runs on the weekends, an approach which I can highly recommend. 

The last two weeks before the event went by without any complications. While a lot of runners complain about not being calm enough for the taper period, I really enjoyed this time as the hay was in the barn and some logistics for the big UTMB World Series finals had to be clarified before our trip to Chamonix.


There is a lot of talk in the trail running community about the question if it is good or bad that the UTMB Group has such a great influence in trail running. This especially holds true since IRONMAN became one of the minority shareholders. In this regard probably everyone has their own opinion. What can be said for sure is that by communicating more transparently and clearly, UTMB Group would do themselves a big favor. This holds true not only regarding the organization itself but also regarding the logistics around the events of the series.

This would also help to prevent pre-judgements based on missing information. For example, I consider it pretty impressive that the Polettis did not take a cent out of the company when they sold a minority stake of their company and also refused a lot of offers by demanding that only a minority share would be sold. 

As far as the organization of the World Series and especially the Finals are concerned,  hiring a sophisticated and skilled project manager (to deal with things like shuttle buses, releasing information in the correct order and at the right time) could solve a lot of the organizational issues. 

Some examples:

  • Shuttle bus tickets were available several weeks before this fact was officially announced and the precise routes were announced even later when the first shuttles were already sold out. 

  • There was also big confusion, if the mandatory gear would be checked upon bib withdrawal which would have been pretty easy to prevent.

  • Even at the info point in Chamonix the staff only had "best guesses" regarding the routes of the OCC bus, since there was a difference between the schedule and the bus map. 

picture by HOKA

The bib withdrawal itself was pretty quick and well organized. It was also a nice "bonus" that there was the opportunity to take a photograph with one's bib in front of a Mont Blanc  with scenery thanks to HOKA, one of the main sponsors of the UTMB World Series.

As far as the aid stations during the race are concerned, they were well organized and the volunteers very helpful. Nonetheless, UTMB decided to switch to Sodastream this year to reduce the use of plastic. In fact, it was basically black water with almost no sparkling bubbles and a taste barely similar to Coke. This was unfortunate, since many runners crave sparkling beverages especially during the last kilometers.

Apart from the Sodastream experiment, there was a wide range of food available such that the nutrition and drinks were overall more than adequate for such an event.

What really stands out in a positive way regarding the UTMB races and the World Finals in Chamonix is the awesome live coverage. Countless drones, (professional) camera runners, mountain bikers and operators in the headquarters bring an unforgettable experience to the screens. These impressive feeds were commentated in six languages and broadcasted not only via online live streams but also via more and more TV stations. 

picture by UTMB

EXPO and atmosphere in Cham

One of the things which sets the UTMB World Series in Chamonix apart is that the professional athletes walk around in the streets of Chamonix and most of them are quite approachable. 

My girlfriend Saskia with German athlete Kimi Schreiber from the adidas TERREX team who placed 13th in the OCC

We saw the first well known pros already at the Expo and had nice chats with them and took some pictures. 

I was also able to sit down with François d'Haene for a video interview at the Salomon Chalet which you can find here. We talked about his race predictions for the UTMB and of course his new signature collection for Salomon (You can find our English review of the new S/Lab Ultra here)

A few days before the OCC, I also met with Stian Angermund at the ASICS Trail Camp where he talked about the new FUJI Speed 2 (RTR YouTube of the ASICS presentation of the Fuji Speed 2 here,  RTR review coming up soon).

You can also meet the Pros at numerous events organized by their teams and sponsors and it is possible to make use of each opportunity for shake out runs, morning yoga, product presentations and so on. 

At the EXPO you can also discover new products from countless brands and meet fellow trail runners from all over the world.

Race Day

We were in the comfortable situation that the shuttle bus stop was located just a short walk away from our hotel. The alarm clock rang punctually at 04:00 am. Damn early for me personally, but quite normal for such an event. 

From now on, it was a matter of functioning and implementing the previously meticulously worked out plan step by step. 

Every move was clockwork and I was very happy that my girlfriend could accompany me to the start line and then take the shuttle bus to selected aid stations. The opportunity for companions to follow their runners via shuttle buses was something I have never seen in a race outside the UTMB World Series. Even though some logistics around the shuttle bus service could be improved for next year’s edition, this service seemed pretty unique to me and therefore deserves special praise and mention. 

After numerous stops and a largely quiet ride, we arrived in Orsieres at about 06:45 am in perfect running weather. Now it was still a good 1.5h to bridge until the start. Fortunately, we found a cafe very close by, as the arrival was really very timely and there was no shelter or anything like that on site except for a few portable toilets. 

Understanding that a timely arrival to the start area is vital, the organizers could consider in subsequent years to let the arrivals take place a little later, especially since we were by no means the first to arrive and we had also found optimal weather conditions. That’s an issue with all World Series events I took part in so far: Very early arrival at the start line with little or nothing to do. 

The advance preparation for the race as described above went smoothly and in a positive sense. Come race day it paid off to have gone through every step and every piece of equipment in detail beforehand. The volunteers were also helpful and very friendly. The drop bag was handed in quickly and without any problems.

Following the signs to the start, we ran right frontally into the first start wave and initially positioned ourselves at the side of the road to follow the start of the elite. It would have been more sensible to lead the starters from the back of the field, but we had the opportunity to watch the start of the Pros as a side effect.

Afterwards we continued on our way to make the second start wave and were led around the starting area in a semicircle. Here runners of the second start wave mixed with numerous companions and starters of the third wave, which led to some confusion and crowding. Again, this could have been easily avoided with entry controls for each start wave and appropriate way markings.

Since I already knew similar situations from other races, I got a little creative and found my way into my designated starting block. Here I happened to stand next to a lucky guy who was running his first ultra and had snagged his starting spot with just one Running Stone. But that's the point of the lottery.

A few minutes later the atmospheric start of our wave took place. It was a real goosebumps experience to see (and hear!) not only the numerous companions, but also the whole town took part in the event and expressed their enthusiasm, not least by the jingling of numerous cowbells. Whole school classes stood at the roadside and cheered on the runners, which I have never experienced at any other race.

This was probably also a reason why many runners started the race much too fast! Although I was at the upper end of my target pace and heart rate range, I was overtaken almost non-stop during the first kilometers up to the first climb. Fortunately, Stian Angermund, who was to win the OCC in the end in an outstanding time of 

04:42:40, had pointed this out to me a few days earlier and urged me to be patient. 

I took these words to heart and already at the first climb towards Champex Lac I started to slowly but steadily pick up runners who had overestimated themselves at the beginning. 

After the fiasco in Val d' Aran I had set my target time very modest and wanted to stay under 12 h which was only possible if my uphill improved significantly compared to Val d' Aran. Secretly, I had a time of sub10 h in my mind based on my result at the Trail d' Alsace by UTMB in spring, but in Alsace the uphills were much more runnable and the distance shorter. But one can dream.

The pressure didn't ease, however, when the new Live Trail app, which UTMB uses to track runners and offer numerous functions for companions as well, told me with little sensitivity that with my UTMB index a finish time of 09:29h was realistic. A target time that I had not even envisioned in my wildest dreams. But now that it was in the room, it was of course also in my head, which did not make the pressure less, especially since I knew that family and numerous friends would follow my run.

The section up to Champex Lac was characterized by runnable trails to stretch out the field and some doable and comparatively short uphills. Here the hours of - and in these moments often hated - treadmill training paid off, so that I could even overtake runners on the uphill and on the downhills - my great strength - and I could already make up numerous places.   

picture by Sportograf

This trend would fortunately continue on the upcoming sections of the course as well: In the downhills I gradually worked my way forward and - this was new - in the uphills I not only hardly lost any places, but was also able to work my way forward quite often, even if much slower. After the experience in Val d' Aran, where every walker would have passed me at the speed of light, this was a real sense of achievement for a midpack runner like me.

Therefore in the downhill to Trient I flew in a fit of euphoria! Shortly after Champex Lac my predicted arrival time of my Garmin PacePro plan had settled at around 09:30h almost exactly on the forecast of the LiveTrail app.

At the aid station in Trient, my girlfriend Saskia was waiti

Physical support by companions is not allowed at the OCC, however, the psychological support was also much more valuable and I was very happy that she had made it to Trient in time despite the spontaneous change of the bus departure time.

As in almost every race, and even more so in every ultra, a high is followed by a low. 

And this came much faster than expected on the long and steep climb after Trient. For the first time in this race, slight memories of Val d' Aran were awakened, because for the first time I could not push through the uphills energetically (by the way, the LEKI Ultratrail FX.One Superlite poles proved themselves again very well here! German RTR review here) and even had to take two short breaks. 

However, these lasted only a few seconds and the other runners had a similar or even worse situation, so that the loss of places was kept within narrow limits. Emotionally, however, this was a real test of maturity, because in Val d' Aran, after a similar climb, the power had completely escaped from the quads, so that I could no longer run even the downhills. 

picture by Sportograf

Fortunately, the hard training of the last eight weeks had paid off. After surviving the climb, the fairly straight last section to the next aid station at the Col de Balme already ran much more smoothly, even if it was anything but easy.

After a very short break I literally flew along the subsequent well runnable section with many downhills. Here it was very windy and comparatively cool, which did not bother me, but was further evidence of how important the mandatory equipment is, because many runners resorted to warmer layers of clothing. 

The section down to Argentière was a real highlight in many respects. My legs had digested the previous climb well and it was a pleasure to "simply run" through the beautiful nature and make up numerous places. 

At this point it became clear once again how important it is to choose the right shoes for such an event. I raced in the HOKA Mafate Speed 4 (RTR Review here (English) and here (German)) and was pretty happy with this decision. The Mafate Speed 4 is not only excellently cushioned, but also offers excellent grip thanks to aggressive lug design and Vibram outsole. This allowed me to go full throttle even in muddy downhill passages which other runners carefully walked. Because of the shoe’s wide base, it was also quite stable even during the more technical sections of the course.

Arriving in Argentière, an energetic atmosphere awaited the runners. Already, before the aid station, numerous acquaintances recognized me and cheered me on. Unfortunately, I was totally in the tunnel, but it was still very good, especially when I saw Saskia beaming with joy at the aid station a short time later. 

After a few routines I left the aid station to tackle the last long climb up to La Flégére.  

In the meantime, the predicted finish time had even been reduced to 09:15h. A welcome buffer, which I would need for the challenging last section of the race. 

The climb was quite long and comparatively technical. An energetic final push through was now no longer in the cards. My quads were too tired. At this point, the field was already stretched out and most of my fellow competitors seemed to not feel any better, so that even in this section the place losses were limited. The last 200-300 meters up to La Flégére were mostly on a wide gravel road. I completed this section exclusively on willpower  with the prospect of a finish time that I would not have dared to dream of just a few days before.

During this last climb, the predicted finish time had melted down to 09:31h; the goal of a sub 09:30h finish was thus seriously in jeopardy. However, the fact that my quads had survived the last climb comparatively well gave me hope and if I could run the last kilometers down to Chamonix, I still thought I had a chance of a sub 09:30h finish. 

Whether this was realistic was to be seen very soon, because immediately after the aid station in La Flégére the steepest downhill of the last section of the course was waiting. After a short stop at the last aid station, I went full gas on the subsequent downhill and when I noticed that the quads not only withstood the strain but even felt really good despite the previous uphill exertions, the euphoria was back, and I literally flew towards the finish in Chamonix. The subsequent downhill sections in the forest were unexpectedly technical and I had to let pass other runners, who also still had good legs. But I was incredibly indifferent to that last challenge, because I was far above all my expectations and in the meantime even a sub 09:15h finish was within reach.

picture by Sportograf

The last kilometer in Chamonix is hard to put into words. Thousands of euphoric people who have never seen you before, cheering you on frantically and when I was able to embrace my equally enthusiastic girlfriend at the finish line, a race day that had gone almost completely as planned was finally finished. A later look at the statistics even showed that I had successively made up places between all the course points and had gradually worked my way forward.. 


We spent the next few hours cheering on the following finishers and tackling the final challenge of the day, getting a seat in the valley bus back to our hotel in Argentière. The remainder of the day we just relaxed and followed the live stream.

The days after

Unfortunately, Saskia had fallen ill in the meantime, so we had to cancel our original plan to follow the elite field of the UTMB by car. This and many other events had been organized by the amazing press team of the UTMB. 

A special place

After watching Jim Walmsley (in an unnamed HOKA prototype) fulfilling his longtime dream to win the UTMB as the first male runner from the USA, we were still cheering our German runners and celebrated the outstanding 2nd place of Katharina Hartmuth in the women's race. 

The UTMB once again was clearly the supreme discipline and the main highlight of this awesome week in Chamonix. 

What makes this place special besides the races and the enthusiastic crowds is the fact that pros and midpack runners not only race shoulder to shoulder, but also share the same experiences during the week. 

For me, this was symbolized during our last dinner in Chamonix: At the table next to us Jim Walmsley, his wife and some friends were sitting. If we did not have watched it first hand, we would never have thought that there was a world champion having dinner who had just won one of the most prestigious races in the world after having sacrificed everything during the last two years for just this one event. He was as modest and almost shy as when he passed the finish line. No big allure at all and maybe this attitude is what makes our sport really special.

Outlook & Recommendations

So are the UTMB World Finals worth the hype and will I return to Chamonix? Of course there are many other demanding and beautiful races all over the world, but the atmosphere during the UTMB Finals in Chamonix is really special. The logistical flaws are surely annoying, but most of them can be easily fixed. This fact makes me optimistic that the UTMB organisation might solve them for the next editions.

Overall, the positives clearly outshine the negatives: You will find beautiful - and quite runnable - trails and high stacked fields, but also an atmosphere which hardly compares to any other race I am aware of. Especially along the UTMB course, countless spectators cheer the runners up even lighting up the night with Bengal fires as you know them from soccer stadiums or the Tour de France. 

While the UTMB World Series are often called the Superbowl of Trail Running, the EXPO, the countless brand events and likeminded trail runners make the week in Chamonix also something like a Disney Land for trail runners.  

If you are intrigued and would like to learn more about the UTMB World Series, I highly recommend the documentary 'Conquering Mont-Blanc: the path to UTMB' on the UTMB Facebook page which was just released and can be found here. It follows the preparations and adventures of six international athletes at the first Finals of the UTMB® World Series.

How did you experience the UTMB World Series Finals in Chamonix? If you have not yet been there, do you plan to race there sometime in the future? Please share your experiences and questions in the comments section below.

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Marcel said...


Anonymous said...


Marcel said...

Thank you, Anonymous! It was a really great experience!

Anonymous said...

Fun read.