UTMB: Chasing the Finish Line

Photographer Alexis Berg spent 20 delirious hours chasing the front of the pack at this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, perhaps the most prestigious ultramarathon in the world. Here’s a recap of the bleeding edge of the race, as seen through his lens.

This 170km course encircles its eponymous mountain, passing through three countries, crossing multiple 2,500 meter mountain passes and gaining over 10,000 meters of elevation. This year the race took place in the rain, cold and snow, under the eyes of an unprecedented number of spectators.

The male field in this year’s race presented an especially elite pack. The biggest names in the European scene toed the line alongside the strongest American runners. French favorite Francois d’Haene, winner of the 2014 UTMB, would show down with Tim Tollefson, the top placed American last year, with a third place finish. And that’s only scratching the depth of the field. American hotshot Jim Walmsley was racing for the first time, but after a season filled with course records he was gunning for the win. The 2016 winner, Xavier Thévenard was on the list. Dylan Bowman was in peak condition after taking a work sabbatical to train in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains all summer. A single name, however, was on everyone's lips: Kilian Jornet. After a hat trick of victories in 2008, 2009 and 2011, he’d been absent from the big show for 5 years. But the Catalan remained a great favorite and the man to beat.

Confidence


Jim Walmsley only has two speeds: standing still and going full gas. Although he has never won a 100-miler, his confidence is immense.

"I want to be at the top of this sport, I want to win the UTMB.” – Jim Walmsley

On August 20th, Tim Tollefson set the course record on the Grand Col Ferret, a mythical segment that leads to the highest point of the UTMB at 2517 meters above sea level. The next day, Jim Walmsley took up the challenge and completed the 745 meter climb in 41 minutes, 3 minutes faster than Tim.

"I like transparency. If I feel strong, I say it. And that's also why I put everything on Strava. Of course, this is my first time here, I know I don’t have the most experience. But, I think I ran the most miles on the course last month." – Jim Walmsley

After spending the month of July in the mountains of Colorado, Jim Walmsley arrived at Chamonix in early August.

"The first time I previewed the course, I ran it over the course of four days. I had my eyes on my GPS, but I still missed some sections." - Jim Walmsley

Ready to Rock

Friday morning, the organizers announce two modifications of the UTMB course. They predicted snowfall and negative temperatures at night. A technical segment called The Limestone Pyramids was removed, as well as the final passage by Tête aux Vents. A handful of kilometers were lost, but the great battle would still take place.

The sun came to greet the runners a few minutes from the start. Chamonix became electrified. At 6:30 p.m., the race went off with an unforgettable clamor.

Jim's Game

From the start, three men stand out. Francois d'Haene, already imperturbable. Kilian Jornet, who enjoyed streaming the first 30 minutes of racing from his phone. And Jim Walmsley, who seized the CR on the first climb up Delevret.

The American descended at his own pace and arrived at the first aid station two minutes ahead of Kilian. In front of an incredulous audience, Jim calmly posed for the photographers. "It's going too slow," he laughs. "It's going too fast," replies Kilian, when they leave together, smiling.

Headlamps On

The day ends. And the rain suddenly falls.

At the Contamines aid station (31 km), the runners are guarded as they prepare to face the night.

The Race Picks Up

The first one to Courmayeur, the big aid station at the halfway point, is Jim Walmsley. The American attends to his feet and, once more, he patiently waits for Francois and Kilian. It still seems easy and in the Grand Col Ferret, Jim distances the Spaniard in the company of the Frenchman.

At the top it's almost -10°C, but the race is just heating up. Before the start, Jim already had a bad feeling about this treacherous pass. "I hate the section towards La Fouly,” Jim said. “There’s this really narrow singletrack. We can’t race there."

The descent into Switzerland is indeed fatal to the American. He loses 6 minutes on François d'Haene and will debate abandoning the race at the next aid station.

The Land of Giants

On Saturday morning, the sun rises on snow-capped peaks. The skies start to clear as the rays thaw the icy air.

Over 16 hours into the race, there remains only two runners in contest for the victory. The two greatest of all time. In the lead, François d'Haene remains unfaltering and Kilian is about 15 minutes behind.

The entire trail running community has its eyes riveted on this final confrontation, with one question on it’s collective mind: Can Kilian make a comeback?

François the Great

The possibility of that comeback seemed doubtful when the two passed Vallorcine. Kilian Jornet is unable to close the gap and it remained stable around 15 minutes. Finally, in 19h01m54sec, François d'Haene won his third UTMB. A historic victory that ties him with Kilian for the most UTMB wins ever.

"Even on the final descent, I couldn’t believe it. I almost fell to the ground, I was convinced that anything could happen." - François d’Haene

"Francois has always showed class over long distances. He deserves this victory.” - Kilian Jornet

"In a race of 100 miles, what counts is what happens in the last 50 kilometers." - Tim Tollefson

After finishing third in 2016, Tim climbs the podium again, with a new personal record under 20 hours (19:53:00).

"This podium is like a dream. But the first American victory on this course remains elusive. We're going to get back to work and come back year after year until we have it.”- Tim Tollefson

Xavier Thévenard finished fourth. Behind him, a runner crosses the finish line overcome with emotion. At the brink of an abyss a few hours earlier, Jim Walmsey remains on the verge of tears for a long time. His plan had failed, his stomach broke, his legs dropped. He had fallen, but Jim got up.

"I've had ups and downs. I'm especially happy to have bounced back, that my stomach started working again. But this isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem. I'm looking for a solution.” - Jim Walmsley

After the dust settled, six of the top ten overall finishers at this year’s UTMB shared their race on Strava – or at least as much of the race as their watch batteries could handle. Give these guys some kudos!

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Conversation:

  • bnwri

    Unreal. So inspiring. Thanks for documenting and sharing this with the rest of us.

  • Jalal

    Great story telling – Well done Strava – We all love UTMB

  • where’s girls?

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