UTMB – Vanished Without a Race

Two weeks ago, Rob and I flew to Chamonix, France, to run our second Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  It was the biggest race of our year, Rob’s birthday race, and the only one we’d invested with so much effort.  We’d carefully scrimped vacation all year long from our jam-packed racing schedules, patiently navigated the months-long-multi-step race entry process, dutifully lined up all the airline, hotel, and car logistics needed for two weeks there (one to sleep up before and one to recover and play after), and for months had crammed all the hill training we could manage into our workouts.

Why all the effort?  The easy answer is that it’s 100 miles of the most beautiful scenery I can imagine, but the deeper answer is that it’s the only race that makes me run above myself.  Yes, finishing any 100-miler is a absolute high but after 40 100-milers (and at the risk of jinxing myself) I’m confident I have the determination and ability to finish most other 100s within the cutoff time, even if the day doesn’t go well or something unexpected happens and I have to walk it in.  UTMB is different.  The course is physically tough enough all by itself, without setting tight cutoffs to artificially create a challenge, to send my doubt-meter solidly into the “Can I Finish?” range.  For me, UTMB is an honest match to the experience and ability I’ve attained.  It stretches my body and mind closer to it’s limits than probably any other race and if you’ve ever attempted something like that in your life, you know how indescribably rewarding that is.  Just trying brings life to Life.

So by the time race day rolled around, I couldn’t wait.  I was dying to run, to see the mind-bogglingly-beautiful course again, and to set some of the nagging little mistakes I made last year right.

All that said, the post that follows is different than my usual because the race was cancelled.  Before you proceed, there are two things to keep in mind.  First, I’m writing this as a runner AND a race director, which may give this a different perspective.  Second, if you want to skip the gory details (there are many) there’s a nice, tidy Conclusion at the end and I won’t be at all offended.

To understand the story, you have to know that the UTMB stages not just one race but four over the course of the weekend:

  1. UTMB: 103 miles with about 9,400 meters of height gain, starts from Chamonix, 46 hours maximum, 2300 runners.
  2. CCC: 61 miles with about 5,600 meters of height gain, starts from Courmayeur. 26 hours maximum, 1800 runners.
  3. TDS: 69 miles with about 6,700 meters of height gain, starts from Chamonix, 31 hours maximum, 1200 runners.
  4. PTL: 149 miles, 18,000 meters of height gain, starts from Chamonix.  This team event is different from the three other events and has its own regulations.

WHAT HAPPENED (aka, The Gory Details)

First, comes my timeline.  This is how I experienced the event.

January – July

I periodically received e-mailed UTMB newsletters from info@autmb.com containing information, reminders and encouragement for the participants.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rob and I arrive in France.  We drive to Chamonix the following day and spend the next days sleeping and doing some easy running and walking on nearby trails that won’t aggravate Rob’s unhappy Achilles’ tendons.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

11:00 pm – The PTL starts.  Our friend, Julian Pansinot and his teammate Leo are in the race and we get to talk to them shortly before.  We’re intruigued with the longer distance and multi-day aspect of this race and begin tossing around the idea of moving up to it next year.

Friday, August 27, 2010

2:13 am - I receive an e-mail from Comité d’Organisation de The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (info@autmb.com) stating “Attention, weather conditions planned during the race: rain, wind and cold.  Provide the necessary equipment” in five different languages, including English.  We had been checking the weather and already expected rain and colder temperatures on Saturday.  Rob does not get the e-mail.

10:00 am – The CCC starts in Courmayeur, Italy.

4:30 pm - Rob and I deliver our drops bags to the gymnasium and stop by the pasta dinner.

6:30 pm - UTMB starts as an off-and-on rain begins.  Even wet and going slow, I’m comfortable in a sleeveless shirt and shorts up the first climb from Les Houches.  I only add a jacket and hat on the very top of the first climb, the hat mostly to cushion my headlamp.  I am carrying all the required gear including my cell phone, which is required in order to get emergency texts and to be able to send emergency texts/calls.

9:30 pm - Though we are still on the course and don’t know it yet, the race is cancelled.

10:19 pm - On the outskirts of St. Gervais, 13 miles into the race, a kind French runner gets my attention and tells me the news (“Madame, c’est fini”).  I don’t understand at first – we’ve barely started and weather conditions are not perfect but certainly not bad.  I ask him to make sure it’s correct and he says it’s due to a landslide in Italy.  In a mix of French and English, his group and the two of us shake our heads and agree “What can you do?  A landslide is impassable.”  Rob and I take the rest of the downhill into St. Gervais easy.  En route, I post the cancellation on my Facebook page.

10:30 pm – We arrive in St. Gervais.  Someone is making constant announcements on the loudspeaker, but in fast, blaring French and I can’t pick up a single word. There’s no food left except dark chocolate, no directions, and none of the three officials/volunteers I stop to ask can tell me what I’m supposed to do.  It looks like they’ve opened a nearby building for the runners – half are inside the glass building and the other half are outside wandering around the aid station.  Since there is no direction from the aid station, Rob and I walk to the glass building and meet an English runner outside who tells us there’s a rumor about re-starting the race on a shorter course of some type, but says it’s just a rumor.  None of us know where to go to get it substantiated so we part.  Rob and I go inside and run immediately into Georganna Quarles and Mark Nassi, fellow Americans.

10:32 pm - Lisa Stranc Bliss confirms Mark Godale’s posting of a rumor of UTMB cancellation on Facebook.

11:00 pm - Lisa posts on Facebook, “Spoke with Tim again from Les Contamines. He said official said mud bad but race actually canceled due to 80 mph winds on Bonhomme. 400 runners were stopped at LesC, the rest back at St Gervais. Runners are in a big room trying to stay warm. Busses coming at some point. St. G runners being bussed back first. Will be awhile..”

11:02 pm - Facebook is my only source of information.  I respond to Lisa’s response on Mark’s Godale’s thread, asking “Lisa – where are you? Were in St Gervais…no info.”

11:05 pm – Lisa replies back “Susan, I spoke with Tim. I’m at the hotel. He’s in Les Contamines trying to get warm. He said St. Gervais runners will be bused back to Chx first. He said race official said 80 mph winds on Bon Hommes.”  Georganna, Mark Nassi, Rob and I wander outside.  Georganna calls her husband about a ride for the four of us and during her conversation, we spot a bus off to the side that looks like it’s got runners on board.  The driver says “oui” it’s going to Chamonix so the four of us get on.

11:08 pm - Lisa posts on Facebook that Tim says “there is talk that runners MAY be able to run CCC (if it goes) or something…”

11:09 pm - On the bus to Chamonix, I reply back to Lisa, “Ok…we found a bus…full of rowdy runners. Headed to Chx. Tough evening. Thanks for the help!!!!!”

11:22 pm - I send an email to my family and friends saying the race was cancelled due to mudslide in Italy and 80 mph winds on a pass, and that we’re on the way to Chamonix, trying to figure out if there is a Plan B, and that we don’t have a hotel room.

11:23 pm – Lisa replies back to my original cancellation post on Facebook with, “Sorry Susan.  But as you say, it is what it is.  Get dry and warm, sleep well.  Run another day.  Hugs.”

11:29 pm - While on the bus, I read Lisa’s comment about a revised race and post “lisa, we heard the same rumor about CCC. Any truth to it? Hard to find English speakers and my French is awful. I’m interested (Rob’s not :) .”  (Rob had been nursing a chronic achilles’ tendon injury).

11:32 pm – While on the bus, I send an e-mail to Jon Steele, a friend of ours from England who was ahead of us at St. Gervais.  We didn’t see him there and have no idea where he is and if he caught a bus in all the mess.

11:40 pm - Our busload is dropped off by bus in Chamonix.  Georganna and Mark Nassi say goodbye and head toward their hotel, we head toward our car.

11:50 pm - Stop at a lone food place that’s still open and get sandwiches and drinks.  We walk the few blocks to our hotel and see only a few people out.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

12:00 am - The TDS is supposed to start, but we don’t find out later in the day it is cancelled before it’s begun.

12:01 am – Lisa replies back to my question about a revised race with “I don’t know, Susan. No official word. There’s a press conf in Chx about now, but I’m not there. Tim is on a bus to there now. I’ll post if I hear anything.”

12:00+ am - Rob and I get to the hotel and ask for a room.  The man at the front desk laughs and says there aren’t any rooms in Chamonix because of the race cancellation.  We ask to get a room the following night and go out to sleep in the car in the parking lot across from the hotel.

12:20 am – I reply back to Lisa, “We’re in the car for the night…no hotel room so no way to hear news. Thx – let us know if you hear.”

1:30 am – Though we do not receive it, an SMS is sent to some UTMB runners to notify them the new, fake UTMB is starting in Courmayeur at 10:00 am.  Rob, Lisa Bliss and Tim Englund, Jon Steele, Georganna Quarles, Mark Nassi, and I among others, never receive it.  I received SMS messages from others while in Chamonix, so I know the service works on my end.

1:31 am - After trying unsuccessfully for some time to access TNF and UTMB websites on my Blackberry to find out what’s going on (kept getting timed out), I e-mail friends at home to ask them to see if they can find any info from the press conference.  I tell them we need to know where/when to turn in our chips and numbers, where/when to get our drop bags, and if there’s a plan to bus us out to Courmayeur tomorrow (from where, what time?).  I tell them “we’re essentially blind, there’s no official anything (certainly nothing I can understand) and this would really help.”

1:38 am - Lisa Stranc Bliss says she just got back from meeting Tim.

1:47-1:57 am - Two friends in the States says there’s NO official news on the website and that they’ll keep checking.

1:59 am - One of the friends sends a photo of TNF blog site that says “Catherine Poletti, race organizer (in white) just explained that due to extreme weather conditions and the removal of markers on the most difficult part of the course (reasons still unclear) they have decided to cancel the race. All the 2300 runners are now being brought back to chamonix by train and buses. They are now looking into a possible new race starting from Courmayeur on sunday.  New information will come on this in 1 or 2 hours.”  This is curious because missing markers is a new reason and there is no mention of the original mudslide reason.  I can be ready on Sunday, and am reassured enough to relax and get some sleep.  We can get more information tomorrow in town or online when we check in to the hotel.  I “like” TNF on my Facebook page, since this is clearly where to go for the most current info instead of the race website.

2:10 am – It’s hard to find a time when this happened but comments here and there online suggest this is when the CCC was stopped.  Some runners have finished, some have not.  Weather is given as the reason for stopping it.

2:14 am - Lisa Stranc Bliss posts a reply to me on my UTMB Facebook thread, “…we are considering just running toward Vallorcine tomorrow (but not early).  Would love to go together if you want.  I heard (I think it was the North Face blog?) that the race organizers MAY hold a 1/2 UTMB from Coumayeur on Sunday.”

2:24 am – I reply back to Lisa “rob says we’ll prob skip run tomorrow in hopes of catching 1/2 on Sunday (think he’s still worried about Achilles). What time of day do you think you’ll run?”

2:27 am - Lisa replies “Probably sometime around noon but we’ve got no plans. :) Just drop me a note in the morning to see what’s up. Depends on the weather too, I suppose. We all should be going to bed now! Kinda hard to unwind after expecting to be up all night.”

2:28 am - A friends e-mails that the UTMB website just updated with the following note, “Race organizers have just informed us that tomorrow morning at 9 they will inform runners if there is a chance to continue the race. See you tomorrow!”

2:30 am - Lisa posts, “And one last thing. This just in but I don’t know if it’s reliable. A friend just posted it on my wall. Sounds like that would be near impossible to pull off for the morning. I mean, it’s already morning! Anyway, from Mikaël Turchetti: “a new CCC will be setup tomorrow, departure from Courmayeur 10:00am, 1500 runners, you will receive an SMS”

2:32 am - I tell Lisa, “A friend just emailed that there will be an announcement at 9 on whether to let runners continue. Hm.”

2:37 am - Lisa replies, “Hm. We’re definitely not wanting to do one of the “new races” if it’s tomorrow, though maybe Sunday.”

2:41 am - I send to Lisa, “Race organizers have just informed us that tomorrow morning at 9 they will inform runners if there is a chance to continue the race.  See you tomorrow!”  I turn my phone off to conserve batteries since I don’t have a car charger.

2:43 am - Lisa asks back, “are they sending SMS? i don’t have my phone with me. What’s the source? Announce at 9 that the race is tomorrow or SUnday?”

2:50 am – After no reply from me, Lisa posts “going to bed now. finally tired. drop a line if you want. i’m sleeping till i get up. :)

5:31 am - I wake up and check email, see Lisa’s last post and reply, “We are sleeping as long as possible too. That last post was the last update I could find. Been raining all night so far – glad we’re not out there.”

5:33 am - To the same thread, I add, “I haven’t gotten an SMS yet! A friend found that announcement on a web site. Think that means 9 Saturday for the announcement about running Sunday.”

~8:45 am - I wake up in time to find info on the 9:00 am press conference, check the Blackberry, and happen to notice the following that Mauricio Herrera Cuadra posted earlier on FB at 3:40 am this morning, “#wtf RT @iRunFar: replacement CCC (98km #UTMB sister race) to replace UTMB tomorrow morning. Bus leaves at 6:30 am! Game on!”  The CCC is the 100k companion race to the UTMB that follows the last 100k of the UTMB course.  I am in shock.  Why didn’t we know?!?  A race this morning?  In an hour?  Can we get there?  Is it possible?  How?  If we drive, what do we do with the car and how do we get back to it?  Has the forecast changed?   What about our drop bag with our other gear that’s in Courmayeur – is it there, do we get it back, and what if we need to swap gear?

9:02 am - I post on Lisa’s Facebook wall, “Did you see Mauricio’s post? They bused people to Courmayeur at 6:30 am to run the CCC? WTF? How the hell were we supposed to know?!? No email, no SMS. Now I’m pissed.”

9:30 am - Get to the hotel and wait in the lobby for our room to open.  I ask a Frenchman in the lobby with a UTMB chip still on his wrist if he got the text.  He seems surprised I’m asking – yes, he got the text but decided he couldn’t do the revised race for logistical reasons.  Once in the room, I check the iRunFar website, UTMB, Facebook, and TNF sites.  There is no updated info anywhere.  I can’t tell what’s going on or where to look.  There is no one source of information.

9:33 am - TNF posts on Facebook, “UTMB TO RESUME AT 10AM It is now confirmed: the race starts again, this time from Courmayeur, taking the CCC course (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix), ie 98.5 km to 5618 m of positive ascent.The race will be reduced to 1300 runners, but by now it is difficult to know whether all the numbers will find takers and who will start among the favorites.”  Rob and I panic, trying to decide if we can make it there in the car, wondering how the 1300 runners were chosen, if it’s restricted to 1300 runners, if more are trying to get in, and whether we would even be allowed to start if we went.  I scramble to find some information online, and fast.

9:57 am – We don’t have enough time to get to Courmayeur.  I am devastated.  There is zero information, SMS or e-mail, from the race. I post on Facebook, “looks like we got screwed. I never got a text or an email. This is from TNF on FB: “The North Face UTMB TO RESUME AT 10AM It is now confirmed: the race starts again, this time from Courmayeur, taking the CCC course (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix), ie 98.5 km to 5618 m of positive ascent.The race will be reduced to 1300…”

10-12 pm - In searching for any information on what happened, I run across an online report in Ultrafondus (the European equivalent of Ultrarunning Magazine) that sets the stage for the new fake race with, “Thus, within a few minutes, the more determined of the TDS and UTMB participants, up to 1500, will take a new start.”  This is the last straw for me.  Who are they to say I am not among the “more determined?”  I am extremely determined and I would absolutely have run if I’d known in time.

12 pm - Not finding any information and by now much too late for the fake race, Rob and I meet Lisa and Tim at the finish line, which is still up for the fake race, to try turning in our chips, since this is where we did this last year after the race.  It is surreal.  Volunteers take our chips but there’s no information on the cancellation, no apology,  no recourse.  It is as if turning in our chips now, before anyone even finishes the fake race, is a perfectly normal thing to do.  While waiting, we meet a dazed English runner who tells us the 100k CCC race was cancelled midway through today when some runners had finished and she was at Les Tete aux Vents with only 10k to go in the race.  We had not heard this and the news makes no sense, since this is the exact course the fake UTMB is using this morning, only hours later.  Tim and I agree to be interviewed on camera by a european magazine reporter, who knows that not everyone got the text message about the fake race.  When the interviewer asks on camera if I got the text, I reply “no, I didn’t.”  When he asks if I would have run the revised race I answer, “Absolutely, I came here to run and I wanted to see the course.  I wanted to run.”  It’s a good feeling for someone to at least recognize our situation and ask.

12:49 pm - TNF Facebook site posts a video of it’s runners with the description, “The elite leads by example. In the front line, The North Face athletes are mobilized to take the 10 am departure from Courmayeur for this UTMB second version.”  There’s no mention of the UTMB runners who didn’t get to run.  It appears from the race website that the CCC was indeed cancelled and the other companion race, and we find out now that the TDS was stopped before it even started.  The TDS would have 1200 runners, so if they all the start the revised race, this only left 1100 spaces for the 2300 UTMB runners.

Afternoon - We see Jon Steele.  He didn’t get the race text either.  He saw some people in the lobby early that morning getting ready to go run what sounded like a revised course but wasn’t in shape to join in.

Evening - I see the first runner finish with complete the fake race with full fanfare of music, lights, applause from spectators, and continual, high-energy announcing in French on the loudspeaker.  It’s as if the cancellation never happened though there are fewer spectators than I remember for our finish last year.  Later in the hotel, I check the TNF website – lots of pub on TNF winners of the fake race, no more on the cancellation and nothing mentioning runners not receiving the SMS.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

9:42 am - Get an email from Georganna – she didn’t get the text about the fake race. Neither did Mark Nassi.

12:00 pm - Rob and I meet Jon Steele for coffee, and are joined by an acquaintance of his from Iceland who did get the SMS.  We discussed the dwindling prizes given at this race over the past few years and the race’s symptoms of a growing focus on money.

Afternoon – Rob picks up our drop bags from the gym where we dropped them off before the race on Friday and he says they are all still lined up like they were never even sent to Courmayeur.  This would make sense if Tim was able to pick his up from the gym early this morning on his way back into town.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I discover a way to translate the UTMB website Forum and immediately find a rambling, defensive post from C. Polletti, the UTMB course director, which can be boiled down to “we are just people and are not perfect and you unhappy runners need understand us and think of the volunteers and sponsors.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

12:38 pm - We have yet to receive any information from the race committee and it has been more than sufficient time for the race committee to get organized and communicate with the runners.  Since we are leaving the next day, I decide to give race organizers the benefit of the doubt and send a simple e-mail to the address Rob says he has sent questions to earlier in the year and received prompt answers (info@autmb.com).

Afternoon - While shopping in Chamonix on our last day in town, Rob picks up the “UTMB Sunday” version of the Endurance Trails four-page “magazine.”  It contains mostly color photos of the winners and a small section in reduced font in English at the back called “Five questions for race control.” The first question asks the reason for the cancellation, and the answer given by whoever is quoted is a vague statement about “possible weather.”  It doesn’t mention wind speeds or mudslides or missing markers.  In addition to the other conflicting information in the answers, it states that…

  • “We did send an SMS to this effect to all the contestants at 1:26 pm, for a Start on the following day programmed for 10 am…Unfortunately, if we controlled the sending of the SMS, we did not control the reception of the messages, which depends on each operator.  Which explains how certain athletes had either not receive or received this message late…”
  • On the question “Why did you only use the SMS to warn the contestants about the resumption of the UTMB?” the answer says “In emergency case, this is best way to get in touch quickly with all the runners as the mobile phone is part of their obligatory equipment.  This is the way used between Thursday night to inform them about the rain and cold conditions forecasted.”  This is flat-out wrong – that information was sent by e-mail instead.
  • For the question, “Why had you not pre-planned a fallback itinerary on the tracks of the UTMB?” the answer is, “Quite simply because there isn’t one.  You cannot claim to have done the Tour du Mont Blanc if you do not pass by the Col du Bonhomme or the Col de la Seigne, for example.  So strictly speaking there is no fallback course for the Tour du Mont Blanc…”  This conflicts with the fact that they are calling the fake race, which is only about 51 miles instead of the full 103 miles, the UTMB and TNF calls it’s runners who won the race, the winners of the UTMB.

Friday, September 3, 2010

10:56 am - I receive two emails from Maindru Photo the official race photograph company wanting me to buy photos of myself in this year’s race. There are actually three shots (as my mother asked, “what was there to take?”). I also receive their e-mail addressed to Rob for his photos too. Yet I still haven’t received anything from race organization.  Amazing on both accounts.

HARD TO BELIEVE

Since TNF-UTMB hasn’t sent anything to participants (or to me, anyway), I’m left speculating on my own to try to make sense of it.  These are the nagging things that don’t add up right.

Runner Safety

As a runner, a race director, and someone who spends part of my professional life determining the causes of accidents and problems and how to avoid them, I’m the first to support erring on the side of runner safety, but the following makes me question this as the real reason the race was cancelled:

  • It thundered and rained earlier in the day and the river was up in Chamonix, so the conditions were not new.  The absence of meaningful rain in the hours before the race was an improvement and the rain that started with the race was intermittent.
  • I’ve run 100s in much worse conditions – Massanutten when the trails were streams, two Superior Sawtooths started in thunderstorms, an unexpected high-altitude thunderstorm at altitude at Bear, and runners crossing 12,000’ Hope Pass at Leadville in hail and snow, even a 50-miler in 102 degrees in humid Memphis.  Undesirable conditions happen all the time.
  • This is not unusual weather for the area.  It rains and snows in these mountains all the time.  In fact, it rained and snowed when Rob and I ran another trail later the next week – we just layered up a little with the same gear we carried in the race.  The odds of having perfect circumstances in the mountains over several consecutive days every year are effectively zero.
  • PTL runners were out running their race the entire weekend – most finished Sunday – in the same area and conditions and their race was not stopped.
  • Even at the back of the pack when most other runners had already run down the hill, the descent into St. Gervais wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  The mud was slick on the steepest part of the descent but everyone we saw was able to walk/jog it down in good time.  I assumed the rain would slow us down, especially with Rob’s bad achilles tendon, but we actually arrived in St. Gervais a half hour earlier than last year.
  • I was running comfortably in a sleeveless top and running skirt, was damp from the earlier rain, but only needed to don my jacket and hat at the top of the climb between Les Houches and St. Gervais.  I was comfortable in this even after we stopped in St. Gervais.
  • The race website and all the literature you get continually emphasizes the potential weather conditions.  The runner safety handout given to every starter says “Even if we are in summer, sudden changes in the weather conditions can occur, their consequences can be redoubtable about two thousand metres…At the end of August, the temperature can drop to -1- degrees C, snow or hail can fall abundantly, and one can get lost in fog despite comparatively comprehensive way-markers.  And it can also reach more than 30 degrees C.”  It goes on to describe the precautions and safety measures to take in each case.  The conditions I experienced were not remotely this extreme and calling them “apocalyptic” is laughable.  They were nothing more than I’ve done on countless ordinary training runs and many races.
  • We received an e-mail Friday morning that warned of the weather, so we were prepared for rain and cold.
  • We’re required to carry mandatory gear, including “cell phone with option enabling its use in the three countries (put in one’s repertoire the security numbers of the organization, keep it switched on, do not hide one’s number and do not forget to set off with recharged batteries), protective raincoat for bad mountain weather, running trousers or leggings (at minimum pedal pushers), cap/bandana, survival blanket…”  Rob and I were prepared – we take mountain running seriously.  I remember the huge TV screen at the race start showing the front line of elite runners, wearing singlets.  Were front runners packing so light (ultra-light jacket instead of a heavier waterproof jacket) that they weren’t prepared for the conditions they were supposed to?  For example, Karl Meltzer said in a pre-race interview that, “The difficulty is carrying alot of stuff that is completely unnecessary, like my phone. I think it’s silly to carry stuff we don’t need.”  Something similar to this happened at the Mt. Mitchell 40-miler a couple of years ago.  Or did they tell officials they didn’t want to run in these conditions or couldn’t turn in a good performance and refuse to run so the race was changed for them?  This kind of thing happens in other sports.
  • The race is heavily marketed as “extreme.”  There is plenty of information on the website and in race literature about the extreme nature of the event and what to do if this or that circumstance occurs.
  • Apparently, three runners died in a similar race this year, which was given in the press conference as part of the reason for canceling UTMB.  If this were the case,  it would have been prudent for race directors such as those at UTMB to already have a concrete Plan B ready so the same thing didn’t happen in their race, especially when dealing with such a high number of runners.
  • If weather didn’t look good, why not just delay?  Race rules say it can be delayed for two hours.

Canceling a 46-Hour Race After Only 3 Hours

  • Nothing had changed for the worse weather-wise.  From where we were, it was actually better because the rain had stopped while we were climbing up from Les Houches.
  • There are rumors that the fine print of the race refund policy includes a statement that if the race is cancelled, race organization does not have to refund money, and that this is the reason the race was started, then stopped so quickly.  Shop keepers in town that we talked to heard the same rumor and were not surprised – this is apparently common practice in town when the ski lifts know they will cancel for the day and wait until 12:01 pm to do it so money does not have to be refunded.
  • In Rob’s 573 ultras and my 117 combined – that’s 28 years and 13 years of running ultras, we can only recall having one ultra we entered ever cancelled – the year Western States 100 was cancelled due to forest fires on the course and it was not even started.  We’ve heard of two others, but Rob also ran one 50k in Birmingham that regrouped after an overnight tornado to run loops in the same park.
  • A mudslide on Col de la Seigne was the first reason given, which is why so many runners including me accepted it so easily – what can you do?  Then vague statements about possible weather, then missing markers, which is extremely odd – did someone go out in weather we weren’t allowed out in and remove the markers?  If this was the case, why not delay the race and re-mark?  Use the chip timing to figure the end finish times.  All the volunteers are already in place.

The SMS Text

  • Of five people I personally know in the race, none got the SMS message about the “new” fake race.  The five of us have between us French, English, and American phones, with corresponding service.  Blaming our service for the fact that we and many other participants never received the message is not likely to be correct.  Race organization’s sending of the SMS is the one commonality in that electronic transaction.
  • SMS is the race’s plan for emergency messages, which is why we are required to carry cell phones on the course.  Race information states, “it is essential for your own security that the organisers are able to contact you directly if necessary or that you can contact the race HQ if you need to.  For this reason a mobile/cell phone is obligatory for everybody with the “international” roaming option active throughout the race and that the battery is charged and turned on.”  If it failed so miserably in this case, this is a serious failure in the race’s safety plan that has to be addressed before next year’s race.
  • All of us received the Friday morning e-mail message about the weather.  So why not the SMS?  Was this a way to whittle the 2300 UTMB starters down to get to the 1300-runner number for the fake race?

Re-Starting a Fake Version of the Race

  • The SMS announcing the fake race went out at 1:30 am, before the CCC was cancelled on the same course.  If the race was good enough to use for the fake race, why was the CCC, already using that course, cancelled?  If the answer is weather, then how could they assume it would be better hours later for the fake race runners?
  • There’s no clear explanation for why the race was limited to 1300 or 1500 runners.  If all the 1200 TDS runners, who were already in Courmayeur that night, entered the fake race, did that leave only 100 spots for ex-UTMB runners? There is no accounting on how many TDS v UTMB runners ran the fake race.
  • UTMB finisher vests were handed out to finishers of the fake race.  Finishers of the fake race also get three precious points to use toward the eight points they need to apply for next year’s race.  Runners like myself who didn’t receive the information about the fake race get no vest and no points.  We get nothing and aren’t listed anywhere.  It’s as if we weren’t even there.
  • Sponsors and other companies with a stake in the race got their nice headlines:
    • TNF posts headlines about their male and female runners winning “UTMB.”
    • Petzl’s headline declares “All’s Well that Ends Well.”
    • Julbo posts a short blog post that states “The 2010 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race would have had a very different outcome without text messaging…Our friend Bryon Powell at IRunFar.com…writes in his blog, “It took two starts, a couple dozen bus rides, and a few thousand text messages, but Jez Bragg and Lizzie Hawker are the new UTMB champions.”
    • Non-race sponsor Lafuma get to say “‘It’s an excellent result. Three members of the team in the top ten, it means an awful lot to us’ said a delighted Bruno Tomozyk, Lafuma Trail Expert. He announced with pride that Antoine and Jérôme had finished in first place in the Veteran’s race (and where the 2nd and 3rd French competitors across the line). He also announced that the SpeedTrail and MoonRace running shoes had once again performed exceptionally well in difficult conditions.”

Non-Communication

I’ve received no more information or apology or explanation or any other communication from race organizers.  Nothing.  Even though the official photograph company for the race has managed to contact me to buy photos.  That’s inexcusable.  Jon Steele, speaking as a race director, summed up what should have happened best with, “you take care of your runners.”

CONCLUSION

UTMB has all the ingredients to make it my perfect race, BUT I definitely do not recommend it based on my experience.

In the presence of so much contradiction and silence from the UTMB North Face committee, this is the basic conclusion I’m left with: the race committee response considered the runners last.

If TNF UTMB cancelled honestly for what they perceived as runner safety, valid or not, and if the runner was first and foremost in their minds, then why be so insensitive about the fact that many runners didn’t receive the text?  Why gloss over this and omit it from the race reporting?  Why not respond to runner e-mails like mine, even a week and a half after the race?  Why not offer something, ANYTHING to the runners who got chips but could not start the fake race?  And why at least no apology directly to the runners whose entry fee paid for the race?

The only explanation I can imagine that fits is that race management either knew before the race that it they would cancel the race and let us run just long enough to ensure they wouldn’t have to refund entry fees and getting the runners back would be as easy as possible (there are already buses in St. Gervais and Les Contamines for dropping runners); or, they cancelled it because the front runners were too light on gear/complained about conditions and likelihood of injury and they or their crews complained about the conditions.  When the mudslide wasn’t enough of a reason, weather was added, then missing markers.   A hasty fake version of the UTMB was staged to appease race sponsors who had also invested their own runner’s presence (conflict of interest?) and performances at one of the biggest ultras in the world and wanted something to show for it.  Having some kind of “UTMB” finish also gave the race something to show and the  enough publicity fodder to put a positive spin on it all.  The fact that not all runners were given the chance to run was then treated as a minor detail that in the end was immaterial – effectively swept under the rug.  Sponsors like TNF, Petzl and Julco and other companies like Lafuma got their nice headlines and publicity material and will likely be happy enough to sponsor the race next year and send their top runners.

I hope that this isn’t the future of my sport and I also don’t want people to think this typifies my sport.  It’s sad to have to think that races this big enough don’t care about the runners because they don’t have to – they know there will always be more than enough runners wanting to enter the big production to say they have done it.  This year’s race called up my bizarre experience after last year’s race when I went to size up my race t-shirt the week after the race at race headquarters (a chalet in Chamonix) – the woman was totally uninterested in spending her time on this and though I asked her questions, said we loved the race, and thanked her for allowing me to exchange the shirt, she never smiled and never said a word to us.  Rob and I both left shaking our heads because it was such an odd incident and totally opposite to the face the race portrays during race week.  It was as if we got to see the “man behind the curtain” and unfortunately it dovetails perfectly with my experience of the race organization this year.

The personal aftermath has been painful to touch and harder to put into words.  It’s feels like a raw betrayal of getting scammed by a friend you trusted.  Or like highway robbery, left by the side of the road like the bus that dropped us off on the dark side street in Chamonix.

As difficult as it is to have the race I’d trained for, dreamed of, and even started (get snatched out from under me) disappear in front of my eyes, I certainly accept that as a possibility.  Things happen and there’s zero guarantee (or chance) that life is going to turn out the way you plan it.  However, it’s worlds harder to be excluded from the fake race and then have your questions, status, and what feels like your very existence ignored.  Literally overnight, Rob and I went from valued, beloved participants to the untouchable caste – virtually invisible.  Neither Rob, with his 573 ultra finishes, or I, with my mere 117, have ever experienced treatment close to this…or ever imagined it possible.

I only have so many years that I’ll be able to do this, and this year is now lost.  Worst case, I could have used the precious vacation time for other races, or to see my family instead. I can’t afford to lose a year to someone’s foolishness or greed or uncaring.

Would I enter it next year?  I doubt it – we could do the course on our own or do one of the other races like Tor Des Geants in the area – but part of me still hopes the irrational hope that race organizers apologize (is this so hard?) and maybe even come clean with the story.  They could still change my mind.

Right now, there’s only silence.

15 Responses to “UTMB – Vanished Without a Race”

  1. Scott Mark says:

    What an awful experience! Sorry you guys had to endure that. You would think (naively) that a race of that magnitude would really have its act together, I guess not.

  2. Susan says:

    Scott, we thought the same thing. As I just told someone else, “disappointed” isn’t even close to the right word.

    Susan

  3. Joja Jogger says:

    Wow, that must have been beyond frustrating. Have fun in Minnesota this weekend, you know that Larry appreciates runners. (oh, and say hi to my brother, John, this will be his first time running the Superior Sawtooth 100)

  4. Slightly says:

    I was caught out last year with an ultra in Slovenia cancelled at the last minute after it has already been raining all night. They took my money 10 minute before the start and refused a refund when the race didn’t start. Still other Slovenians showed considerable kindness on the trip including lending me a tent. HOPPING MAD I was ;-)

  5. Al DiMicco says:

    Susan – What an absolutely horrible experience. This was one of the most compelling “race” reports I have ever read and as an ultra runner, I just felt a pit in my stomach the whole time. You will rise above this because runners are good people and you & Rob are gracious examples (considering the awful circumstances). Thanks for taking the time to share this with all of us.

  6. George Reid says:

    Hi Susan.
    Karen and I also trained hard for this race and saved hard to do it and like you it was our focus for the whole year.

    I take exception to you calling the replacement race a Fake UTMB I can assure you that after being up for 26 hours without sleep that starting and completing the new race was no easy feat, It was not as the race should be and nothing like the race I did the year before but to call it fake is unfair to those who competed. Karen and I were both gutted about the whole thing and we are also both race directors but unlike you we will be back and we will finish UTMB again next year. Jon steel was staying with us so I know how he felt.
    The SMS thing was a mess no dought and I feel very sorry for those that did not get the text.

  7. Karen says:

    Hi Susan,
    I’m sorry you feel so mad. I thought this post on someone’s blog who did manage to finish the ccc might help to understand why things were cancelled. Not to be patronising but often when weather isn’t as bad where we are, it is hard to imagine how bad it is elsewhere. I’ve spent so much time in the French Alps I’m so familiar with the weather i know how frightening it can be even with the correct gear and experience. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was call a chopper for help when torrential rain caused the whole mountain to slide around us – we stayed out longer than we should have because making that decision is so hard and resulted in my husband being hit in the head by a falling rock that needed stitches. I’m sure you know all this but it sounds like your frustration is blinding you of that. My experience of the those working and organising races in the Alps is one of concern for the athletes. I’m sure it was a pest not to get the text and I know you’ll have spent quite a lot of money, but remember you still got your holiday and because they cancelled you have the luxury of being annoyed about missing the ‘fake race’ as you call it rather than in a hospital with hypothermia or worse. Perhaps there could have been a better plan B but I’m sure that the organisers did their best under the circumstances. i wasn’t there of course, but these races, the mountains and tourism is their livelihood and they are very passionate about that. Yes an apology/explanation may well be a good idea but at the end of the day your safe and you have another experience in life and adventure to tell!
    http://mds2011.blogspot.com/2010/09/adventure-in-mountains-ccc-98km-part-4.html

  8. Brian Mc says:

    I can understand you being frustrated and this comes across in the negative language you have used ‘fake race’ (no ultra race is ever fake) etc. but to be honest I think the organisers did as good a job as they could have. It looks like the mobile comms didn’t work perfectly and I’d imagine the organisers are looking into that. Jon Steele, a mate, had drunk too much beer so couldn’t run anyway. It would have been irresponsible sending 2500 folk up to 2500m altitude in the dark knowing that course markers were missing, that the snow line was about that level, that there were 80mph winds and mud slides.

    Really sorry you had such a huge trip wasted but I don’t think you have evaluated the situation reasonably.

  9. Tim Englund says:

    Susan, I think this paragraph sums up my feelings (especially my frustrations) very well:

    “I only have so many years that I’ll be able to do this, and this year is now lost. Worst case, I could have used the precious vacation time for other races, or to see my family instead. I can’t afford to lose a year to someone’s foolishness or greed or uncaring.”

    In my case, UTMB was to be the only 100 I’d run this year. I put all my eggs into this basket.

    And to Brian Mc, you’re right, it would have been irresponsible to send runners into those conditions. No one, however, is saying that the race should not have been called off. What’s most upsetting is the way that the restart was handled. Sending the SMS message out to only a subset of the runners was unfair, capricious and unsportsmanlike. In addition to the runners with whom Susan spoke, I met many runners from several countries (none French) who also did not receive the message and, in fact, were not even aware of the restart until I mentioned it.

    I’ll not be going back to UTMB again. There are many other races out there. And while they all have a chance of being canceled, most will, I think, treat their runners with more respect.

  10. JM says:

    I believe that to call the race fake is disrespectful to the competitors who competed in it. Evidently over 1000 people did communicate and found out about the revised race.

    I also think that you relied on technology too much i.e. trying to log on to websites to find out what was going on rather than actually talking to people. I think if a non-english speaker was in the UK or the states for a race then they would learn a basic grasp of the language for their own safety and to further their enjoyment of the event. This may have assisted your plight.

    I appreciate you have spent alot of time and money coming over to compete but your thoughts come over as rather unreasonabe.

  11. Silke Loehndorf says:

    Hi Susan. I can understand you are still frustrated about the events surrounding this year’s UTMB. But it is a shame that you seem to be so bitter about it. “Fake race” is not the right word for the “revised UTMB” as it was called to my knowledge. It was an ultra race after all and full credit to all those who did run and gave their all in conditions that were better than the night before but still hard. Of course everyone knew this was not what most people had come to do but they were all still out there for over 10 hours at least. And you even say if you had known about it, i.e. you had got the SMS, you would have also ran the “fake race”. I was in Chamonix myself and had friends planning to run the UTMB or TDS, some did, some decided they did not want to and some did not get the message. But why not celebrate those who finished the “revised UTMB”, an achievement in its own in my opinion after all that went on during the night. Of course the finisher gillets could not be changed into Finisher “Revised UTMB” but everyone wearing one knows what went on. And the conditions WERE very bad weather wise and I am sure the decision to cancel a race or stop it of that importance was not made lightly. Silke

  12. tom says:

    I wanted to endorse your comments and share in your frustration and loss of respect for the TNF / UTMB

    I received a text the next morning at 9am when i turned my phone on and was gutted to realise that some people were going to get something purely due to a communication link.

    I own a CCC vest from 2 years ago – I’ve always been proud to wear it. Now I can hardly bear to think of wearing it …… I have little idea what TNF and UTMB will do for 2011 – I’ve little confidence that they’ll do anything for the runners that lost out this year

    I wrote to UTMB immediately once I knew of the fake UTMB “It would have been better to have the entire event cancelled than create an artificial UTMB II – this event was created for people that had close communication with the UTMB organisers. Creating it that has left me feeling even more disappointed as I now feel that I have missed something after the many months of hard work and effort training for UTMB.” I received an apology on the 3rd Sept along with the following comments ……….

    “In such a crisis situation, in the middle of the night and with a very fast evolution of information, communication is extremely difficult to organise. We are aware that many runners and volunteers lacked information, and we would like to apologise for this. We receive very numerous testimonies of support, but we also know that your expectations are great. You will understand that it is not possible for us to answer completely as soon as the end of the event. The passage «at the wrong moment« of this large disturbance is also a clear reminder, that nobody can guarantee that an event, in the mountains, can take place as expected. When registering for it, one also has to accept there is a risk that it might not take place. However, we can already announce that the runners of the CCC® forced to stop their race at Vallorcine or Triente will nevertheless receive qualification points: 3 for those stopped at Vallorcine, 2 for those who were stopped in Triente. The finishers of the UTMB® which restarted in Courmayeur have acquired 3 points. Concerning requests for refunds which have been formulated, all the expenses have to be taken in to account, so it will only be possible for us to answer when we have all the necessary elements. Questions have also been posed concerning registration for 2011; these will also be answered as soon as possible. Thank you for your comprehension and we will be in touch soon. ”

    Clearly the UTMB race committee was under great pressure to please its main sponsor – I have no doubt the main race needed to be stopped, it was dangerous – I’d heard that 3 people died in an ultra race in 2009 in France due to the conditions via hypothermia – but to me it wasn’t right in them putting together a race the next morning – it wasn’t in the spirit of the race nor did it reflect a principled organisation. For them to parade the restart runners as winners of UTMB and adorn them with vests was a sure way to divide the runners – those that knew of the race and those that didn’t. I await to see what UTMB do to support the runners that missed out – I’d like to think they’re sympathetic.

    It would be interesting to see if TNF be involved in the ultimate communication to all of the lucked out 2010 UTMB runners – they must have had a role to play in the re-start (they sure benefitted in its running though no one could have seen that at the time)

    Ultimately none of this really matters as I’ve realised after all my disappointment that I hadn’t really trained so hard just to run 2010 UTMB …… i’d trained because I love running & I’d forgotten that in all my frustration ……

  13. chris scott says:

    Susan – sad to read of your ordeal with a poorly performing event management. sadly, there are just too many low performing events buffed up as “super events” because of history and not because of present or “open” communications about what they’re REALLY about (I’ll be politic and not name the most egregious here). the good news is, there are still several very top contenders for “best in show” who don’t feel the necessity to thump their chests about how good they are; they just are, and their followers stay loyal. shop around beyond the big names… and happy trails!!

  14. Phillip Gary Smith says:

    What an amazing story — more of an ultra fakeout versus an ultra distance. My takeaways:

    You evaluated the situation more than reasonably, unlike one responder’s comment whose reasoning appears to be other planet inspired.

    It appears Murphy’s Law has just become the law of the land in one country.

    If the care of the runners was at the forefront of consideration, then why were runners left stranded, without information, in the cold. That’s my idea of dangerous. On the otherhand, there was plenty of dark chocolate, which earns a few points . . . “When all goes bad, eat chocolate” I read once.

    Of all the dangers I read in your thorough and interesting examination of this event (hey, there’s a movie in this!), the one that seemed a real danger? Doing 50 miles in Memphis with 102 degrees, where humidity probably was more than that. There’s hot, then there’s Memphis hot.

    Now, keep working on collecting those Sawtooth 100 finisher red jackets. Besides the winning hugs you get from Colleen and Larry Pederson, you’re about to get an entire month’s worth to fill out your ultra wardrobe.

    Phillip Gary Smith
    Senior Editor
    Snowshoe Magazine and Trails

  15. Susan says:

    To those of you that objected to my use of the term “fake race,” I would agree that it was indeed a race, it just wasn’t UTMB. That was just the shorthand I used to keep all the details straight. Sorry if this offended anyone.

    To the reader how said I over-relied on technology, sorry but that’s all we had to rely on for the race. There is no “headquarters” location, much less one that would be open at midnight, and race organization emphasizes throughout the race information that they will communicate with you via phone in case of emergency. This is also how they chose to inform runners about the “revised” race.

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