UTMB 2011

» Posted by on Sep 8, 2011 in Blog | 16 comments

“I’ve found in the fells that there is a common purpose, whether I’ve been with a climber getting sheep off a crag, with a fell-runner or even with walking visitors, our bond is our love for these beautiful hills.” ~Joss Naylor


A moment of inattention, an awkward foot plant and I feel that all too familiar surge of pain in my right ankle. I stop on the side of the trail, kneel and hold the pulsating area around my fibula. The pain of the injury itself really isn’t that bad, it has happened to me so many times before, rather what hurts is knowing that the race is most likely over for me. Scott and Hal, who had just caught up to me moments before, voice their encouragements telling me to keep going and to shake it off. Less than two hours in and I’m limping through the streets of St. Gervais. I force myself to keep fluidity in my stride, thinking that maybe by pretending that nothing just happened, it would simply go away. By the time I’m out of the crowds, on to the backyard singletrack, my leg seizes up completely and my lower back starts spasming – not the best scenario when there’s 85 more miles left to run. I peg-leg my way in to Les Contamines, now having difficulty walking, snip the bracelet and with that, it’s over. The decision to not go on was easy in a way since I knew that walking it in from that point would more than likely result in inflicting permanent damage to the ligaments in my ankle.
I sit in the car on the way back to Chamonix, swaying with the nauseating winding curves of the road, the rain pitter pattering on the windshield, overwhelmed by an odd sense of déjà vu from last year’s event. I focus on the pain in my foot and for whatever reason find myself associating it with all the things I don’t like about the event – the insane hype and dramatization of our simple sport, being coaxed into acquiring more and more gear to lug around the mountain yet remaining uncertain what will or will not pass through the checkpoints, helicopters, cameras everywhere, nationalism…all this jumbles around in my head casting a veil oftéléphériques, crowds and noise over Mt. Blanc.
What did I expect though? Had I not injured myself, I’d now be passing over Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and turning a blind eye at all these frustrations. I’d be wrapped up in my little bubble formed by the globe of light from my headlamp, working hard up the hill, floating the downs, wind and snow blowing in my face. Only the running and the mountain would be of concern to me, none of the superfluous show.
Sitting on the couch with my foot in a bucket of ice, refreshing my browser over and over, it’s easy to feel emotional and negative. It’s pointless though to dwell in self-pity and while my race didn’t go as planned it would be a shame to end my trip here on such a low note.
After a few hours of sleep, I wrap the ankle and decide to head over to Champex Lac to follow the front of the race. Just as we arrive, KilianMiguel, Iker and Seb are coming through town. While they are all moving well, particularly for this point in the race, Miguel seems to be struggling with some knee issues. He stops in the middle of the road to hold his knee for several seconds. Instead of leaving him to deal with his injury, the other three runners stop too, patting him on the back and urging him to push on. They let him dictate the pace on the next stretch of downhill and I’m impressed not just by their physical ability, but also by their sportsmanship. All the craziness, hype and competitiveness that surrounds this event, both before and after the race, disappears in moments like this where all that is left is a group of friends sharing a run in the mountains. Kilian brought this up at the finish line as being one of the highlights of his race along with the sunrise on Col de la Seigne. This spirit of friendship and togetherness along with wonder, awe and appreciation for the beauty of the environment that we are in, embodies in my mind the true spirit of the mountain runner. It is that that I choose to take away from my time on Mt. Blanc – not the politics, frustrations and negativity that sap my energy, but the stories like that of Kilian, Iker, Miguel and Seb or Hal and Roch bringing it in after two nights out on the hill, Lizzy flying blissfully all night and day and Darcy making the podium and many, many, more great accomplishments of friends and others, fast and slow.
Sometimes things don’t go quite the way you hoped, but slowing down and taking a step back whether forced or intentional is a chance to gain perspective and I am always thankful for the lessons learned.




  1. Great thoughts and photos Joe. Sounds like you’ve processed the event, mishaps and all, in a healthy light and have a good perspective on it. Hope to catch up with you sometime soon… Any races planned this fall…I’m signed up for the NF50 in San Fran (among a few more local 50k’s)…and I feel I’m finally recovered from White River…took more out of me than I thought it would have, but I feel much stronger now than ever; adaption, slowly, but it’s happening.


  2. Fantastic shots, dude. Onwards and upwards. Make sure the paw is healthy and time to run around a different mountain…

  3. Sorry to hear about the race Joe. It must have been a frustrating experience. But your thoughts are inspiring and what you have taken away from the event nicely overshadows much of the negative talk I have heard post-race. The “smaller” stories that you have highlighted are definitely the essence of the sport.

    All the best,


  4. Fascinating reading and gorgeous photos, Joe.

  5. That’s absolutely what it’s all about.
    Beautiful photos.

  6. Great perspective and great photos Joe. The last line rings very true for me right now. Thanks!

  7. Injuries suck.

  8. “Sometimes things don’t go quite the way you hoped, but slowing down and taking a step back whether forced or intentional is a chance to gain perspective and I am always thankful for the lessons learned.”

    I hope you do not mind but I am going to take this lesson on board…

  9. Great shots Joe and thanx for sharing. Hope you feel better soon. Sending all my blessings.
    If UTMB fits into my work schedule next year I might throw my name into the hat if for the only reason for my Bompa in Europe to see me race. He has never done so and will be 97 next year. Otherwise I think that I will tend to stick w/ the small grass roots races.

  10. great shots and see you in 2012, i’m in priority list. countdown started already !

  11. Thanks for sharing this Joe. TK has got the right label for the link to your site: INSPIRATION. I read this and once again I am reminded of the wonderful people and places that mountain ultras have introduced me to. I’m grateful you have the ability to wade through the disappointment and frustration to come up with these words. They are fuel for a better life.

  12. As always, great photos, Joe. I’m sorry the race didn’t turn out as you had hoped. But you walked away and can race another day. Take care.

  13. Joe, was a shame to see you limp into the 31k checkpoint as I know how you must have been looking forward to this for ages. Despite the shortcomings of the race, there’s no doubt it’s a beautiful course and I hope I see you there again when I (eventually) do the race.

  14. Sorry for the result, but a very insightful reflection on UTMB, as usual…
    A crude but real polaroid of the Chamonix-phenomenon.

    Being part of this year race, I felt partly guilty of putting so much effort and getting so much joy from the media-frenzied circus that UTMB has become. But that mountain, standing still, but alive, has some magnetic power drawing me around her core. In the depth of my second night, I surrended to her, and she might have rewarded me with a beautiful dawn for the finish line. At least, I like to think it this way.

    The Joss Naylor quote is a gem… Hope you got hold of the wonderful photo book that came out last year about the man…

  15. Joe, I’m running the UTMB in 5 days time and am just going back through old blog reports to try and get a feel for the event. Thanks for your honest report. I see you’re a Joss Naylor fan. You may be interested in the charity prints that Joss and I are publishing. They are prints of my painting of Joss. You can see them on my website http://www.mickwren.com. All the best on your future runs. Mick.

    • Good luck on Friday, Mick! Hope the weather holds. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Joss prints. Beautiful work.


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