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Racing 100 Miles: Why It Is Not About the Running

“I guess from the start many people really thought I was crazy. Crazy is as crazy does!” laughs Hong Kong resident and mum Jeanette Wang. Crazy is a phrase that comes up pretty often when discussing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) a 105-mile race around Mont Blanc that is, arguably, the most revered ultra race in the world. Requiring participants to climb roughly 34,000 ft., which is more than the height of Everest, it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. But is it really crazy?

It wasn’t that long ago that people thought marathons were crazy, but nowadays revealing you’re training for a marathon is generally met with encouragement not incredulity. 100 miles, on the other hand, is another story. It’s pretty unbelievable to the average person that this could be anyone’s idea of a fun challenge. However, for increasing numbers of people, the challenge of running 100 miles, and more specifically UTMB, has an almost magnetic appeal. Despite the hours of training, and intense mental and physical endurance that it requires, UTMB is their dream.

What motivates them? “Sometimes I ask myself that question. There is always some point in each training cycle when you ask yourself, is it really worth it?” says first time 100 miler, Ian Lye.

An Inauspicious Start

It turns out that becoming a 100 mile aspirant doesn’t require that you’re born with a love of running. In fact, quite the opposite. “I didn't enjoy it from the start. Actually my secondary school in Singapore was in the famous shopping District, Orchard Road, so I used to skip training a lot and just go to Orchard Road and have McDonald's and just hang out at the shopping mall!” explains Jeanette.

“I hated it,” echoes Ian. “I couldn't understand how people could enjoy going out for a run for no reason.”

Even for a professional athlete the ultra distance was, at first go, a particular brand of craziness. “When I finished it, I was like that was one and done. I was like I am never doing that again. That was really stupid. I'm just watching everyone come in and I'm like why are people torturing themselves like this?” says elite athlete Amy Sproston.

The Call of the Mountains

There is no getting around the fact that running 100 miles is going to hurt. And, although there are longer, hotter, and hillier races out there the UTMB course does seem to exact a unique toll on participants’ bodies. The trails in the Alps are notoriously technical and, contrary to what you might imagine, the huge amounts of descent are the true killer - runners’ quads get so sore they have to walk downstairs backwards for weeks after the race!

UTMB is also unusual that the race kicks off at 6pm meaning the runners basically head straight into a night in the mountains. The first of two nights out there for the majority of the field. A daunting prospect on familiar roads, a frankly terrifying one on the side of an unfamiliar mountain.

“Maybe it is because we are not challenged enough in our daily lives that we need to create these artificial challenges to overcome,” says Amy. While most of modern life is centered around minimizing discomfort, running 100 miles really does seem to be the exact opposite. However, while it might seem like participants are drawn to the discomfort of UTMB like moths to a flame for Ian, Jeanette and Amy it doesn’t seem like the promise of discomfort is a part of the appeal of UTMB. While they accept it as part of the journey, it is more an inevitable hurdle that has to be overcome in order to achieve their goals, as opposed to an inherent motivator.

“Having chased this dream for 5 years I definitely want to see it through whatever,” says Ian. “And no matter what the discomfort may be, how many hours it may be, it will not compare to the pain or regret of having dropped out when I didn't have to.”

Tough Going

So what does motivate participants if they’re not all just pain junkies? What makes 100 miles the dream? For both Ian and Jeanette, who are proud parents, their children are important sources of inspiration. “Before I had my daughter I think I was motivated just by glory to finish,” says Jeanette.

“After I had my daughter in June 2014 I think a lot about her now. I kind of have her voice in my head and it motivates me to keep going because the faster I finish the faster I see her.”

Ian takes visual aids along with him that will remind him of his daughter during tough times. “This year I brought along one of her little LEGO toys that will fit in my vest to serve as a visual aid if I really feel like I want to stop. I just look at it to be reminded of her,” he says. “I spoke to her a little bit before I left I said to her "will you let Daddy take your little lego man? I'm going to UTMB?" She was reluctant at first, she said 'no no' but then she gave it to me and said ‘OK take it’[...] I'll take that as a sign that I'm doing this for her.”

Finish Lines

After up to 46 and a half hours on the course, participants arrive in Chamonix, a trail running haven nestled in the Alps. To wander around Chamonix during UTMB is to feel like you’ve encountered some kind of strange cult, the only condition for joining being a liking for brightly coloured lycra and incredibly toned quads. But what is truly incredible about Chamonix during UTMB is the passion and fervour of the crowds. Talk about the endurance of the participants, the supporters cheer for hours making sure every runner feels like they’re a superhero.

The crowds are certainly magical, but you get the impression that, for many of the athletes, they’d still be out there even if nobody was cheering. “When it comes down to it and you've stripped that all away, that hubris away, I think I'll be really satisfied with coming into that turn, the shoot down to the church, 5 a.m., 6 a.m. even if there's nobody there, that would mean a lot to me,” says Ian.

The crowds, the mountains, the discomfort are all reasons that could be proffered up for why running 100 miles makes sense. But none of them truly hit the spot. “It's hard to describe,” says Jeanette.

“If you ask anyone who finishes the race it's a feeling and only if you've crossed the finish line in such a long race can you understand what the feeling is. You can't put into words.”

It seems that, like the single-minded focus of running down a mountain, the relief of seeing the sun starting to rise after a night out on the course, and the unbelievable fatigue after more than 24 hours of racing the reason for doing it in the first place is beyond words. There is something that drives people to seek out a thing so hard, so emotional and raw that they can’t explain why but that thing defies explanation or articulation.

“Last year I finished at 5 or 6 a.m. there is nobody there, probably 10 people total, a bit anticlimactic,” recalls Ian. “But that moment was mine alone. I didn't want to share it with anyone, it was just mine alone to look up into the sky, into the darkness and I was just thinking, I've done it. It's happened. It's no longer a dream. It's reality. And I just sat in the tent by the finish line for an hour just trying to soak it all in.”

UTMB, like the mountains it crosses, and the darkness it runs through, remains its own, special kind of indescribable mystery.