So back in 2010, Bill and I met two adventurous Utah residents while we were traveling in Southern Chile. Todd and Jennifer were friendly, fun, and positive, and we promised ourselves we’d stay in touch with them. Well, we have. This summer, we visited Todd and Jennifer in Park City, Utah and found out that if we’d come a day later, we would have missed them.
They were off to Europe on vacation the day after we met up with them. Todd was planning to run the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc race.
When Todd announced his plans to us, our eyes flew open wide! We knew this was a huge undertaking, and we were excited for him.
I’ve been meaning for months to interview Todd about his experience. And I’m glad I finally got to it! If you’re inclined toward ultra running, Todd will be an inspiration. After reading Todd’s answers to my questions, I’m scratching my head and asking, “Why do I run ONLY 26.2 miles at a time?” Beware of a similar experience.
Facts of the Ultra Trail Mt. Blanc: 105.6 miles on mostly trails through France, Italy and Switzerland/ 31,450 feet of climbing and 31,450 feet of decent (Everest is 29,029 from sea level and most people start the push from base camp at 17,600)/ 8,323.5 feet at the tallest peak/ 2300 runners and 1300 volunteers/ 47% finish rate (out of racers who must have completed a previous 100 mile race in good form)
C. Why did you want to run the Ultra Trail Mt. Blanc?
T. The Ultra Trail Mt. Blanc is for me, and many others, the pinnacle of all 100-mile races. I have always chosen races based on the location and what new challenges it may offer. Most of my races are actually part of a much larger vacation in the region. We had an awesome time riding bikes through the Provence Region of France and drinking wine with our friends for two weeks after the race. I like having an added purpose to a trip and finding a race gives me that satisfaction. Ideas like getting a “PR” never enter into my thought process. The reason I race is to put myself on the starting line. Getting there is the true battle against physical/mental complacency and time constraints of daily life. When I have a race on the horizon I get out when I might otherwise have something else that needs to be done.
C. The Mont Blanc website is a little confusing in terms of how you “qualify” for the race. Is it true that you have to prove your worth for the event by participating in up to two other trail runs of particular difficulty? How did you qualify?
T. Yes, to qualify you must have completed a 100 and another ultra, (race of more that 26.2 miles), in the preceding two years. The UTMB prides itself on being the hardest 100, and with the big name sponsors and professional racers, it has become a “test-piece” in the ultra community. There are two good reasons for this requirement. The first is that even with this requirement, only 50% of applicants get a spot. The second is that the route is difficult and must be done in a more “French” fashion of self-autonomy. Imagine if you chose your first marathon to be run at night in a snow-storm at altitude while carrying 12 pounds of gear–and with only one aid station. And all of this is after being awake for 30 hours even before you start. This would not be the race to test your mettle and neither is UTMB.
I qualified with my great friend and running partner Rob Stafford at the Leadville 100 the previous year. The Leadville course has half the amount of rise/fall of UTMB but is much higher with an average elevation of 10,000 ft. I ran that in less that 24 hours and UTMB took over 40. Are you starting to get it?
C. I think so! And I understand the weather can also be pretty precarious along this course, what sort of weather did you face?
T. The first night was the worst trail condition I have seen in a race. It was raining and the trail/cow pasture with flags and downhills were incredibly slick. I remember holding on to numerous trees on the decent. It snowed and the trail was icy on the passes. The wind blew a bit; post race reports were about 45mph. It got hot in the valleys, and then I was running without a shirt.
C. I read that they had to change the course in 2011 at the last minute because of the weather. How was your course different from what was advertised? Was the course well marked and easy to follow? Did you ever get lost?
A. Yeah, one of the last big sections had a pretty significant detour due to the foul weather. The detour was well marked, but obviously not a proper trail. This detour was one of the biggest mental challenges I’d ever faced in a race. Wow, I got mad at everyone for a while. When I run I am always in control of my mind. I have pain, aches, hunger etc like everyone else, but I usually never let them surface. It’s not a pride thing at all; it’s just what I do. Running partners often complain that I don’t complain. They say things like, “It’s snowing, we’re lost, my foot is cramping and you haven’t said anything negative at all.” This is why I like ultra running. We all have negative thoughts during any run. How you acknowledge them and place them in your mind separates us as either finishers or DNFs.
C. Todd, I know you’re an avid outdoors-man, and someone who has incorporated your athletic pursuits into the daily-ness of your life. Can you talk about why running is so important to you?
T. So here’s my soapbox: I run because I like feeling my body and experiencing mental and physical challenges that we no longer find in daily life. We have been designed for “fight or flight” for tens of thousands of years, and it is only within the last generation that we do not have to use those skills. Now we pay race promoters for the privilege of doing what comes naturally. We are all runners because we had to catch prey and outrun threats to exist. You really have no choice, you are a runner in the very core of your being. We seek out races because we desire that rush to be alive. It matters not the distance. If your toes are on the starting line and you are nervous, welcome to the history of the human race.
C. A huge thanks, Todd, for taking time for this interview and for being a positive inspiration to all of us, now matter how far or fast we run! You rock. Anyone who would like to see Todd and Jennifer’s blog, check it out HERE. For cool YouTube aerial footage of the race, click HERE.
Some pics of Todd’s race