8 hours to climb a 563m section of a mountain as many times as possible – how bad could that hurt?
I’d been looking forward to the Ultra Montée Thollon Les Mémises 8 hour race for months for a few reasons. Firstly because we’ve recently seen our long time dream of buying a small apartment in France (in the village) come true, second because it’s the first time I’ve done a local race in France and finally because Ally and I were able to convince two friends to come along and enjoy a weekend running and seeing the area.
Sam and I took on the full 8 hour race while Ally and Louise opted for a more civilised option of lac de Divonne parkrun in the morning followed by the single mass start climb of the mountain (fastest to the top wins) later in the day.
The race format
The UMTLM had a few options but the premise is simple – it’s 563m/1847ft up the mountain for one climb, 4 hours or 8 hours. Those doing multiple climbs get the 6 minute gondola ride back down and start all over again!
To say it’s a brutal course would do it a disservice. At the steepest middle point the gradient reaches as much as 30% and to gain 563m/1847ft of elevation in only 3km is pure mountain running.
The 8 hour race began at 9am with the 4 hour runners joining the course at 12pm and the final mass start for the single ascent beginning at around 4pm so the whole event clock runs until 5pm and for your climb to count you had to make sure you crossed the finish line at the top before the end of the race.
Training and race plans
I had grand plans of doing some specific climbing training on some local hills that although not very long would at least get my legs and calves used to climbing the steep gradient but as usual it seems the more specific my training needs to get, the more my brain tells me I need to do the exact opposite so a 40 mile track ultra in the lead up and no training on the really sharp inclines using poles done.
I’m a big fan of using poles when the terrain is steep but I know if you don’t train with them, the muscles you engage when using them obviously aren’t strong and they can be a bit of a hassle but I figured I know how to use them correctly and I’ve used them in the past so no problem!
There was always the convenience of the aid station at the top of the climb and drop bags so easy to manage changes of gear and food etc during the race if necessary.
Sam and I had registered online and picked up our numbers in the morning, nice and easy since our apartment is only 200m from race HQ and 300m from the start. We had plenty of time in the morning to chill out and enjoy the start of a beautiful day.
It was already warm at 7am and it was clear the temperatures were going to rise beyond 20°C during the course of the race but luckily there’s no need to carry anything other than yourself up the mountain so compression shorts and the trusty Meltham AC vest would do.
At 9am sharp we were off!
I’d seen the previous years results (the first edition of the race) and the winner managed a staggering 13 climbs in 8 hours (7000m of elevation gain!) but 10 climbs would have been top 25 so with no real clue how I’d fare on the course I set 10 climbs as my stretch goal. That would have been 5600m / 18300ft of climbing – higher than Mt Blanc from sea level.
We settled into the second half of the pack from the start and climbed steadily as I hit the top in just over 33 minutes – sweat already pouring off my forehead in the morning sun but happy enough I’d not gone off too fast. I knew for sure my more realistic ascent time would be somewhere around 40-45 minutes which would mean getting to the top, grabbing food and drink from the aid station and eating on the way back down.
I waited a minute for Sam and we shared the gondola back down and repeated the process another two times feeling reasonably strong but ticking over the 2.5 hour mark by this stage and already well into 1500m/5000ft of climbing in less than 10km was wearing.
My €15 Decathlon poles were beginning to annoy and chafe my hand a little bit so I took the decision to ditch them at the end of the 3rd climb and go old-school fell running style with hands on knees to climb the steep sections. It was on the 4th climb without the distraction of the poles that I felt pretty comfortable so I stuck to what I knew because I could also feel the fatigue building in my upper body from the use of the poles and it was something I didn’t need at that point.
All things told, it took about 45-50 minutes to climb and descend the mountain in the first few ascents and this meant that unlike quite a lot of ultras where I find the first half of the race to be a real mental battle (“Why am I doing this when I’ve got another billion hours to go…?”) the halfway point of the race came around pretty quick. The climb only format was also a bit strange physically because there’s zero impact damage accumulating in the legs so while the fatigue and tiredness is very much there, I didn’t feel like there was any real pain building that you inevitably get from multiple hours of time on your feet.
Having a rest on the way back down sounds great but it’s very much a blessing and a curse. You can eat and drink and sort any kit out on the way down but even a few minutes sat down does nothing for my legs and when the gondola doors fling open and everyone else piles out ready to go again it’s a killer! Still, 5 climbs done and another 4 hours to go and although the initial target of 10 climbs looked very unlikely at this stage 9 was entirely within reach if I just keep moving. Fuelling was straightforward, I used a couple of pouches of Nom Butter and then grabbed fruit and cheese (naturally) from the aid station at the top of each climb.
3 further climbs were ticked off, that middle 1km section at 30% become a hellish nightmare that just stretched on and on in the afternoon sun and heat but this put me comfortably within reach of my revised goal and I topped out on climb 8 with about 1h45 left before the end of the 8 hours so I didn’t really waste any time at the top once I’d said hi to Ally and Louise who also headed down for their single climb start.
I knew I wasn’t going to make 2 climbs in less than 2 hours so I was more than willing to let the last climb take the full time allocation if I needed but to I’d got into a reasonable rhythm and took it easy enough to dip in just below the hour mark for the last one and an elapsed time of 7h16 for 9 ascents.
We hung around at the top until the 8 hour clock ticked over and saw the last runner complete his 10th climb with literally 3 seconds to spare thanks to a gut busting sprint up the last 20m! Chapeau!
Reflecting, I thought I’d done pretty well all things told – first time I’ve competed in a race as extreme as that and I climbed over 5000m/17000ft in just over 7 hours.
When the results came through though, I was blown away to finish 47th out of 95 – the depth and strength of the race was was way more than I’d anticipated and the local runners really showed how it was done on terrain we Brits just don’t really have much of to train and race on here.
Would I do the race again? Absolutely – having now done a couple of track ultras and the King of the Hill 6 hour race recently, I love the no-hassle format of just running and not having to navigate or carry anything. Besides, UMTLM is now a local race for us so we’d be supporting the local running scene in the village where we’re lucky enough to have an apartment. I’d potentially do the 4 hour race next time though, I think I could push significantly harder for 4 hours on that terrain than I could for 8. Might even scrape into the top 30..
Kit wise, there wasn’t really much to do other than turn up although we were lucky with a beautiful spring day in the alps the weather can change quickly and brutally at this time of year even in lower elevations like Thollon so I took full cover, hat, gloves etc despite the race not requiring any mandatory gear and I ran in my now knackered Inov8 x-talon 225’s – a shoe I’ve hated pretty much since I bought it but they’re nearing retirement now and they did a decent enough job but there’s not much comfort to be had.
On a dry day like this one I could have just as easily worn road shoes but again, mountains and weather can be fickle.
Poles were useful but for me ultimately distracting and I used them for only half of my climbs but I am glad I had them as an option and I’d recommend them to anyone doing any mountain running but be prepared to train with them too.
Racing in France?
Getting to this race for us was really easy as we fly from Manchester to Geneva and it’s just over an hour in a hire car (hire from the French side of the airport in summer, it’s less hassle) so you can get there pretty cheaply and do it like we did as a (early morning) Friday – (late evening) Sunday weekend. With the race on Saturday it’s great having Sunday to swim in the lake and generally chill before heading back for the evening flight.
It’s important to note that if you’re racing in France you must have a note from your doctor stating they know of no reason you can’t run. It’s a pain and for pretty much every event a totally unnecessary bit of bureaucracy because they rarely ask for or check it. With a lot of British GP’s these days getting this letter isn’t a free service (usually about £30) so it’s frustrating but they do last for a year if you race elsewhere and while most people suggest just faking one, on balance I felt that if for any reason I had an accident and produced a letter from Dr M. Mouse my travel insurance company would have a field day. Quite often if you’re a member of a running club there’s a doctor who might do it as a favour if you ask nicely.
That was the UMTLM 2018 – Tough, hot, steep and ultimately great fun. I highly recommend it 👍🏔