Catalonian adds another impressive victory to his growing resume.
Written by: Meghan M. Hicks
At 11:30pm Central European Time on Friday night, 2,300 runners streamed through The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) starting line in Chamonix, France and into a dark and rainy night. More than 20 hours later, Catalonia’s Kilian Jornet was the first man across the finish line, winning his third UTMB. Along the way, he and the other runners encountered 105 miles of running and over 30,000 feet of both climbing and descending as they circumnavigated Mont Blanc.
The race had an added challenge this year, a cold front bearing rain, snow, wind, and below-freezing temperatures. The storm forced organizers to delay the race start by five hours and to re-route two portions of the course. It also doused runners for the race’s first five hours. The weather left behind a blanket of snow on the Alps’ upper half as well as host of maladies among racers. When the finish line closed on Sunday evening, more than half of the field had dropped.
“My race strategy became a fantastic adventure,” said Jornet the day after his win. He’s referring to the second half of the race, when he ran almost exclusively with Salomon teammates Iker Carrera and Miguel Heras, both of Spain, as well as The North Face’s Sebastien Chaigneau, who is French. “Originally, I planned to race for the course record. But, with the weather and route change, Iker, Miguel, and I decided to stick together. Then, Seb ran with us, too. We were together for nine or 10 hours, and it generated a lot of emotion.”
In the race’s early miles, these four men were spread among twenty or so other elite runners from around the globe, including Americans Geoff Roes, Mike Wolfe, Scott Jurek, Hal Koerner, Nick Clark, and Dakota Jones. Eventually, only Jornet, Carrera, Chaigneau, and Heras were able to maintain pace, and the four men steadily separated themselves from the rest of the field. They ran mostly together, though sometimes spreading out by several seconds or a couple minutes.
After the town of Martigny at mile 85 (on one of the re-routed sections of the course), the foursome began a multi-thousand foot climb. Heras, who had been suffering knee pain for the last 20-plus miles, told the group that he couldn’t keep pace and that he probably wouldn’t finish the race. By Trient at mile 90, where he dropped, Heras was about 10 minutes behind and in obvious discomfort. Jornet, however, had put two minutes on teammate Carrera and about six minutes on Chaigneau. At Vallorcine, another six miles later, Jornet held the same lead.
Spectators at Vallorcine noticed that Jornet, who looked strong and still untaxed by the 96 miles he’d already run, lingered an extra minute or so in the aid station. Even more confusing was that, when the course crossed through the little town of Argentiere at the race’s 100-mile mark, Jornet and Carrera were almost together. When it was said and done, Jornet crossed the finish line in 20:36, nine minutes before his teammate.
When asked about those last miles of the race and why his pace seemed to change rapidly, Jornet said, “After running all day together, I wanted to finish with my teammate. But I also didn’t want Seb to pass us, so I ran hard from Argentiere.” Carrera wasn’t sure that he could hold pace with Jornet’s last, hard charge, “It’s risky to follow Kilian on climbs. I didn’t want to push too far, blow up, and be caught by Seb.” So, while Jornet surged, Carrera maintained an even push that left him solidly in second.
Though Carrera couldn’t know, Chaigneau was slowing a bit in those last miles. After a long day of pushing the pace, he finished 19 minutes back to Jornet and 10 to Carrera in 20:55. “I’m happy with my result. I could only beat Kilian if he had casts on his legs.” Chaigneau said with a laugh, “I’m grateful that the Salomon team set a challenging pace and I’m blessed that Kilian let me run with him for so long.”
Rounding out the top five male finishers of The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc was Hungary’s Nemeth Csaba and Portugal’s Carlos Sa. Montana’s Mike Foote, the first American finisher, crossed the line in 11th place. American elites who persevered through personal challenges included Montana’s Mike Wolfe, who finished in 26th place, and Oregon’s Hal Koerner, who gutted out a 371st place finish. Notable drops from the race included Colorado’s Geoff Roes, Jez Bragg of the United Kingdom, Spain’s Zigor Iturrieta, as well as Scott Jurek, Nick Clark, and Dakota Jones, all of Colorado.
“Sunrise on the Col de la Seigne was special, with the snow, the clouds, the sun, and my friends,” reflected Jornet when asked about the highlight of his race around Mont Blanc. “Maybe this is the future of our sport. Ultratrail is so hard, you have to dig so deep. I learned that sharing it with others makes it so much better.”