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Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

The following was authored by Vikram Singh, an all-around great person to be around with. Besides running ultras, he has shown great improvements as an athlete and as a person. He won the Marisol Mendez Volunteer of the Year and Most Selfless Teammate awards at this past year’s QDR Club Night Gala event, and those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing who he is. Read about his upcoming dream race and cheer him on in August 2019!


I don’t know how long I’ve been counting trail markers to pass the time. I had hoped that there was a quantified distance between trail markers so I could figure out exactly how much farther I had to go. I had been dragging my feet for the last few hours, barely feeling like I could walk. I knew I would make it to the finish but at my current rate, I knew I wouldn’t finish in time for the final cutoff. “Running 100 miles is impossible. It’s too long,” I concluded. This was the first race I ever trained for, the first race I followed a  training plan for. It still wasn’t enough. Runners who I had passed in the first quarter of the race were now passing me, around 88 miles in. The “good job” type of encouragements, commonly said when runners meet each other in ultras, turned into “hang on”. I was mentally defeated, it felt like my body was gone and I had accepted that I couldn’t make the final cutoff–that this would count as a Did Not Finish (DNF) at the Mountain Lakes 100.

I had used all the mental tricks, warm thoughts, and mantras I had prepared as pickups in tough times. Now, I was in survival mode. I knew that if I quit at an aid station, in the middle of a forest in central Oregon at the Mountain Lakes 100 race, I could get hypothermia. I had been in such a situation the year before in 2016 when I quit at mile 55 in the same race. I ended up spending time shivering in front of a heater, covered with a blanket for two hours after I stopped running trying to get warm. If I wanted to stop, I had to wait with volunteers for their shift to end, hike to a bail out point and then have a volunteer drive me to the start. The easiest way to get through this ordeal was to finish. 

In the nick of time, as I was leaving the final aid station before the finish at mile 97, a man told me that Martha wanted me to finish. Martha was one of the top female finishers of the Volcanic 50k, a race I did two months earlier and whom I got a chance to talk to after that race. She was volunteering at this race and she made sure to cheer for me whenever I saw her early in the race. From that small connection, I now had a reason to forget about DNFing and start trying again. After hours of feeling like I could barely walk, I started running.

On September 24th, 2017, after 29 hours, 47 minutes, I crossed the finish line of my first 100 miler, with just 13 minutes before the final cutoff.  I went through hours of gastrointestinal (GI) issues, running alone through the night, quads blowing out, and then shin splints to finish the race at last place. I didn’t realize at that point but the race also gave me a valuable 6 points towards a race called Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). 

Qualifying races

In early November 2017, I decided to look up if I qualified for this European race called UTMB. The race follows the Tour du Mont Blanc trail around the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. I’m not sure at what point I became aware of the race but the idea of running through the beautiful Alps had always been appealing. To my surprise, I found out that I was one point off qualifying for the lottery taking place in January of 2018! I earned 14/15 points in three trail races. I needed a race with 4 points to replace one of my 3 point races to get to 15. I basically needed to finish a 50 miler with some significant elevation gain. I immediately decided to see if I could find a race to make up the difference.

Ultra-running, simply defined as running longer than 26.2 miles, covers many branches and races that are drastically different from each other. From multi-day stage races in some of the harshest environments of the world, to looped timed courses (6 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour), to autonomous mountain crossing with no trail markers or aid stations, to last “man” standing types of events where competitors keep repeating a loop every hour till there is one person left (the only finisher). Of the many branches, the most popular and growing branch is mountain running. While Western States 100 could be considered the equivalent of the Super Bowl of ultra marathons in the United States, UTMB is considered the Olympics of ultra marathons. The race attracts some of the world’s best runners and the number of participants, crowds, media, and sponsors is unrivaled compared to any other ultra in the world.

I ended up signing up for McDowell Mountain Frenzy, a 50 miler outside of Phoenix, Arizona in early December to earn my spot in the lottery. To earn a spot in the lottery, you had to earn a total of 15 points within 3 races in the past two years. Races have to pay a fee to be considered for UTMB points so not all races give points. The points system applies to all runners, even professional and sponsored athletes need to get the necessary points. Gorges Waterfall 100K (which I did in the Spring of 2017 to help prepare for Mountain Lakes 100) gave me 5 points; Mountain Lakes 100 gave me 6 points, and McDowell Mountain Frenzy gave me the last 4 points. (Note that for 2020, the requirements to get in the UTMB lottery have been reduced to 10 points within 2 races).

I entered the lottery for the 2018 race but didn’t get in. Lucky, race results and points are good for two years and I qualified for the 2019 lottery without having to seek additional UTMB point races. Since I didn’t get in 2018, I also got two entries for 2019 (if you don’t get in the second year you get automatic entry the third year as long as you have the points). I entered the lottery again for 2019 using my 2017 races. On January 10th, 2019, I learned that I won the lottery for the UTMB race!

Descending down during the Escarpment Trail Run in the Catskills.

The race

Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a single-stage, 106-mile race with almost 33,000 feet of elevation gain. The race is the highlight of a weeklong festival at the end of August (26th until September 1st) in Chamonix, France. The festival also includes six other races, ranging from 15 kilometers to an approximately 300 kilometers relay race. UTMB is considered one of the most difficult foot races in the world yet it attracts more than 2,500 participants. While this number doesn’t seem high compared to road races, this is a huge number compared to your average popular trail race where participants may be capped at 400-500 runners.


100 miles is a daunting distance but it’s the massive elevation gain that’s the x-factor for this race. In addition, the remoteness of the race requires racers to have mandatory gear throughout the race. I will be dealing with twice the elevation gain I have ever done in a race (Manitou’s Revenge is 54 miles with 15,000 gain) and will have to do it with a pack, carrying more weight than I am used to. My experience ascending Mount Elbert, with QDR at Colorado earlier this year, taught me the usefulness of trekking poles in ascending mountains. I have long hesitated to use poles in trail races but 95% of the field uses them at UTMB and the advantage of poles increases with more vertical gain, so I’ll be using poles! The poles will help reduce the workload on my legs and help save strength for later in the race. Hill repeats will be a greater focus instead of track workouts for training. While I could do short hill sprints at Cat Hill and Harlem Hill to develop power, 45 minutes of climbing repeats is more difficult to get in NYC. I will be using some weekend days to get away to the Hudson highlands and Catskills to get vert (vertical gain) more similar to the race.

Speed hiking is another variable to work on. With the elevation gain, it’s not possible to run the entire distance. Hiking muscles are not the same as running or walking muscles. Simply being a good runner would not mean I’m a strong hiker. Practicing speed hiking would allow me to increase my slowest speed which could save large amounts of time towards the later stages of the race. Spending time hiking would also allow me to spend more time on my feet and gain training benefits in a low impact way.

For any 100 mile race, one has to practice running at night. UTMB, itself starts shortly before nightfall so I will be running two nights in the race. Training at night would be even more important this time around. I will be getting up in the dead of night to do a few runs with my headlamp on. NYC is well lit and the headlamp may not help much in illumination but practicing while I’m already tired and getting use to having the lamp on my head will help me be better prepared for the race.

Chamonix, the start and finish of the race, sits just under 4,000 feet and the highest point of the race is 8,323 feet so attitude is not crazy high but might be enough to bother some people. Other than getting there a few days early to allow my body to adjust, I can’t train for this. Items such as altitude tents are limited in their benefits.

I’ll be using a mental strategy similar to what I use during marathons: I will be breaking up the race into smaller, manageable distances, thinking of the race 10k at a time. My focus will be in the present moment. I can’t be questioning if I can make this massive climb or if I can make the next 62 miles. That is destructive thinking (negative thoughts compound over time) and will not help me take care of myself to the best of my abilities. I have to learn to focus on things under my control, not simply the outcome. This requires a consistent and deliberate practice of mindfulness, which I’ll be practicing 10 minutes daily.  

Complicating my training a bit is the Lake Placid Ironman the month before UTMB which forces me to spend half my available time on cycling and swimming. Cycling in particular may be useful as it would help develop the quads–the muscles that get the most impact on running downhill. Another important training tool, a staple of ultra-running, is the back-to-back days with long runs. The run on the second day will help mimic the feeling of running on tired legs.

The aid stations at UTMB are a step above the U.S. counterparts. Most have sport drinks, water, tea, fruit, chocolate, biscuits, soup, other standard race snacks, and lots of dried meat and cheese. Larger aid stations also have pasta and beer! On the other hand, there won’t be gels or salt tablets that U.S. ultras normally have. I might do a few runs after eating French bread dipped into soup to test what works with my stomach.

Looking Forward

This race will be quite different than anything I have ever experienced before.  The communities around the race come out to support the runners which itself will be quite the unique ultra-running experience. Unlike road marathons, ultras usually only attract some volunteers and a runner’s support crew as speculators. People have remarked that the finish line crowd experience is like if you are winning the race. I’m also looking forward to passing by the mountain towns and villages of Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, and Champex, getting cheered by people speaking various languages, seeing the beautiful views of from highest point Col des Fours and the cool views of Mount Blanc, and watching the first sunrise during the race.

For those interested in ultras but not sure if they should take the leap of faith into it, I would start with the “why”. Even with perfect pacing, nutrition, and hydration, the body’s energy levels are unpredictable and hard to explain. You will feel downright awful at some point in an ultra. The longer the distance, the more variables and the higher chances of something going wrong. Expect to reach points where going forward feels impossible but remember your “why” and keep the faith: “it doesn’t always get worse.”  You may be surprised at how your body rebounds in a few miles.

See you out on the trails!

Vikram Singh

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