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A weekend of crazy scenes
Was there something in the water last August, when this newsletter was first published? Some magic running potion, perhaps?
There was something in the air this weekend. Some special magic dust floating around that got inhaled by a bunch of runners who then seemingly went on to develop superhuman powers. An inquiry has been launched.
The weekend started on Friday afternoon in Chamonix. It was UTMB time - back after a year’s absence. This is the Super Bowl/Champions League final of ultra running (sorry Western States, Comrades, Spartathlon et al, but it just is). Here they were, the titans, arriving one by one at the start, strutting around like other-worldly warriors: Jim Walmsley, Xavier Thevenard, Tim Tollefson, Beth Pascall, Courtney Dauwalter. If you follow trail running, seeing all these men and women on the same start line, with the epic backdrop of Mount Blanc, the stirring music, a high-wire tightrope walker adding to the charged energy, is just insanely exciting. And standing there among them, with his arms crossed, his poles sticking out of a quiver on his back like a bow and arrow, was the tallest and most feared of them all: François D'Haene.
Bang, they were off, running hard down the rolling first few miles. It was fun watching, and remembering the route from my own efforts there in 2018. As the race went on (over the entire weekend!), the footage kept bringing back wonderful and painful memories.
Up at the front, every now and then a runner would push ahead, but a big group remained the focal point of the action, with D’Haene always to the fore, seemingly the leader of the pack, with the others swarming around him.
That evening I set out for a quick run of my own and found myself channeling his smooth, imposing running form. (I doubt I achieved anything close to it, but I realise I often find myself instinctively trying to mimic the styles of the top runners after watching them run for a while. I should just put Eliud Kipchoge on loop before each run, perhaps.)
As much as a fan as I am, however, I wasn’t going to sit up all night watching people stream through dark aid stations, and following the UTMB live tracker, so I went to bed with that big group still pushing away at the front. My friend Damian Hall, who finished fifth the last time he raced the UTMB, was moving well a little further back in about 20th position - which is actually a fast start for him. In the women’s race, Courtney Dauwalter had a fairly big lead, but my other friend, Beth Pascall, was looking strong in about third or fourth.
I woke up the next morning to carnage, which often seems to be the way with the UTMB. The elite runners push hard, while the mountains stand tall, perilous and imposing. In the TDS race in Chamonix a few days earlier, a Czech runner had died after falling during the race. You don’t mess with these hills, especially if you’re pushing close to your limit.
I logged on to find that Damian Hall was out. Beth Pascall was out. Three-time winner Xavier Thevenard was out. Jim Walmsley was out. Half the leading contenders, it seemed, had dropped out already.
Leading the way, though, and still strutting his imposing style, was François D’Haene. His fourth win in five attempts was pretty much a formality from here.
François D’Haene on his way to victory
Meanwhile, in the women’s race, Dauwalter wasn’t only pulling away, but she was moving through the men’s field like a forest fire. She got up to sixth place overall at one point, before finishing in seventh in a new women’s course record. And grinning all the way.
No American man has ever won the UTMB, despite an annual assault from the best US trail runners. Maybe the trails in Europe are too technical, people wonder. Maybe they don’t run with poles enough. But then Dauwalter comes along and says: Nah, no problem, I take this UTMB thing and chew it up and spit it out. Come on, boys!
I was already fully inspired for my long weekend run, and had had my fill of following ultra races online, when I noticed a few tweets saying that Finlay Wild - a brilliantly named hill runner from Scotland - was on course to break Kilian Jornet’s record on the Bob Graham Round. What!? For 30-odd years the old record by Billy Bland had seemed untouchable, until Jornet turned up and did his thing. But he was a one-of-a-kind. That record wasn’t going anywhere soon. Right?
But Wild is also a formidable mountain runner - those who read The Mountains Are Calling for our book club may remember the chapter on him. In the end he missed the record by six minutes, running the second fastest BGR ever. On Twitter those in the know were saying that his effort was more impressive than D’Haene winning UTMB for the fourth time.
But over in Poland, former casino dealer Aleksandr Sorokin was just getting warmed up. “Hold my beer,” he said calmly to the over-excited ultra running world, as he set off slowly on a rather obscure 24-hour race. No one was really watching or caring at first. But as the miles cranked by, people started to pay attention.
When you ask knowledgeable commentators who is the greatest ultra runner of all time, they don’t say Jim Walmsley or Kilian Jornet or François D’Haene or Ann Trason - incredible as all those runners are. They usually say Yiannis Kouros. “His records are on another planet,” they say - or something to that effect. Set in the 1990s, his 24-Hour, 48-Hour and 6-Day records had all stood un-flustered for so long - with no one getting anywhere near them - that they had begun to gather dust. People had almost forgotten about them, or the fact that someone could even think about attempting to break them. That was until Sorokin came along.
To cut a long story short - since there was no live feed and I wasn’t really aware he was even racing until after he’d finished - Sorokin smashed Kouros’s “unbreakable” record, running an incredible 192 miles in 24 hours. That’s like running SEVEN marathons in 3hrs 16mins, back to back. Or around 60 parkruns - each in 23 minutes - on the bounce. It’s incomprehensible running.
Ally Beaven, who is an outspoken, no-nonsense commentator on the sport, ranked this as the performance of the weekend by a country mile. He had Finlay Wild and Courtney Dauwalter equal second, and D’Haene, for all his imperious dominance, a distant fourth.
And he missed what was perhaps an even greater run … I mean, I’m running out of space here, but on Sunday morning, Yalemzerf Yehualaw of Ethiopia ran like a flaming tornado through Antrim in Northern Ireland to smash the women’s half marathon world record, running 63:43. Considering how many people compete in half marathons compared to 24-hour races, I’m putting this down as the superlative performance of the weekend.
But, and here’s the thing, it’s tucked down at the bottom of this column for a reason. I didn’t watch it. Seeing the results and being amazed by them is one thing, but following the build up to a race live, watching the leaders fly down the sides of mountains in real time, against the epic backdrop of the Alps, hearing the noise at the finish in Chamonix, means that it will be the UTMB performances that live most vividly in my mind. The rest are really just impressive numbers. Without the stirring pictures, the storytelling, the crowds, the noise, it just isn’t the same.
Watching the UTMB finish was particularly moving for me as it brought back memories of those incredible moments when my children joined me, and Tom and Rachel, as we made our way through a still noisy crowd - over 20 hours after the winners had been through! - to finally finish, after everything we’d endured. It brought a tear to my eye, and almost made me want to go back and do it all again. Almost.
Courtney Dauwalter after setting a new course record at the UTMB