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UTMB Part 1 – The Lottery

I’m not really sure how to start this, coffee helps. I’m sat in my dining room at my wife’s old family table at around 250 feet above sea level in my hometown of Southampton. It’s Friday, the sky is grey and it’s 8.05am. I look out on to the back garden, I can see two houses from where I am sat, the lawn is green and the apple tree is fruitful. There are no mountains here.

This time last month I was preparing to run one of the toughest races on earth, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). The UTMB is a race that covers 106 miles with 10,000 metres of accent (30,000 ft) and traverses three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland). I first heard and saw this race around 4 years ago on Youtube whilst researching climbing Mont Blanc for charity. After seeing the dramatic landscapes and hearing the emotional music attached to many videos and clips of the race I knew it was something I really wanted to do, it properly sucked me in. In 2014 I spent some time walking in the Alps as part of a charity walk and climb of Mont Blanc; the scenery and terrain were stunning. I knew the UTMB was taking part at the same time as this trip, and after finishing a failed attempt to summit Mont Blanc (see blog from 2013) whilst I was back in Les Houches (where the race runs through at about 6 miles), I remember standing there watching and applauding the runners coming through. I really got a taste for the vibe of the race with its amazing support and it being one of the most elite ultra marathons in the world. I had to make it happen to be a part of this event in the not too distant future.

For the UTMB you have to qualify by earning points from other races and then you go into a lottery to get a place so nothing is guaranteed. Plus if you don’t get in on first attempt you have to re qualify by earning the points again, this can take 3 years, by then you will gladly get an automatic place, so it takes time to get in. I’d only ran one marathon before wanting to run the UTMB and that was The Snowdonia Marathon so I guess I’d started with the right kind of vibe to get into it. I should add you need 15 points to enter the UTMB. I ran a few more marathons and my first ultra over the next year and researched and found some of the qualifying races in the UK I could do to earn the points for the UTMB. I had gone from running 10k road races to full on trail runner in less than a year and couldn’t get enough of being out there in the wild, running trails and getting away from the chaos and noise. A company called Centurion Running put on some great events and two of those events are the South Downs way 50 mile ultra and South Downs way 100 mile ultra. Perfect for me as part of The South Downs Way isn’t far from where I live. I remember the 50 miler being fun and exciting and I finished that race strong in 9 hours 39 Minutes which earned me 4 points. A good start then. Then a couple of months later it was time for my first 100 mile race being the South Downs way 100. It started in a city near to where I live, and I’d already done half of it before in the previous 50 miler so it was all good and convenient for me. It was my first race that would take me over the running for 24 hours mark, it was also my first full night of running by head torch so a lot of new experiences were had. I finished the race in a lot of pain, my legs just kind of stopped working at around 80 miles so I hobbled on to the finish to earn the 6 points and came in at 25 Hours 51 minutes. My legs took some time to heal after this and for the first time I sought some professional help and got some advice on strengthening my leg muscles. It was much needed and really helped before the next race.

Me and Wilson After finishing the South Downs Way 50.

The last race I entered that would get me the final amount of points was The Cotswold Way 100 Ultra, a 102 mile race through the beautiful Cotswolds, I’d had a busy summer of festivals but I wasn’t away touring at this time so had a window in my diary. This race would get me the final 6 points to have enough to enter the UTMB 2017 so I took the plunge and paid up for it. The great thing about trail running is that there isn’t that many people doing it compared to road running and the Cotswolds way was a perfect example as there were only 130 or so runners at the start of this race. This race wasn’t easy and the weather was a complete bitch. Torrential rain through the whole night made this a real test of character. I’d teamed up with another runner during the race and if it wasn’t for his navigation system I would definitely have got lost in the fog, I was still running with a Timex stopwatch and didn’t have a Garmin at this point. I was sad to see this runner (Owen I think was his name) drop out with 20 miles to go after going through a hellish night together. I came in at 28 hours 27 minutes and finished this race in 23rd place! Woohoo, that sounds like a great place right? Well only 33 people finished this race, the elements got the better of a fair few souls out there, particularly in a small tent on top of a hill in the wind and rain at 3am when nobody wanted to leave, but I was determined to finish and get the points. I remember I felt fantastic running (very slowly) with Wilson spurring me on into Bath on a sunny Autumn Sunday afternoon with strangers asking what we’d just done and applauding our efforts. My parents had been a superb support team during this race with great encouragement and making sure I got the food I needed as well. So the points were in the bag, accumulated over a few months of intense trail running, two 100 milers and one 50 miler in 6 months done. UTMB Lottery time.

Shattered after the Cotswolds Way 100 in a Costa.

Over the next few months I toured and did some amazing gigs, running a few trails here and there plus the arrival of another baby girl into my life. I entered the UTMB lottery and honestly thought it would take me the 3 years. I was holding off entering all the races I’d previously done though hoping I would get a spot on first attempt, plus its an expensive hobby this and entries aren’t really cheap. Then one grim January day I was driving back from Heathrow on the motorway in torrential rain listening to the album Sirens by Nicolas Jaar. I got in and checked my email and there it was “Résultat tirage au sort / Draw results” in my inbox, I nervously clicked and the words – You have already pre-registered for the UTMB race.

The draw has taken place and we have the pleasure of confirming your registration for the UTMB race.

You must finalize your registration as from 12/01/2017 and before 25/01/2017.

I couldn’t believe it; I’d got in on the first attempt. I cheered loudly, called Wilson, called my Dad and then, Shit! I thought, now I’ve really got a race on my hands, I was nervous and thrilled, the hard work had paid off and I was going back to the Alps for the UTMB 2017!

Sirens by Nicolas Jaar

Good old Timex

Road to somewhere

Training with Wilson in the Snow

All too familiar Scene in the car after a long training run

Beautiful sunrise on the Downs


3 responses

  1. Elena

    It’s a real story with real emotion, I salute you for your courage to take part in the iconic UTMB. It’d be inetersting to know what you experienced during the race and your feelings when you arrived. There is no mountain in S., but there is a mountain in you.

    October 1, 2017 at 3:26 pm

  2. xanphillips

    Great read Dave, you capture well the effort pain and reasoning behind LDR. I should have asked more questions as to why you are running such long distances it all makes sense now. Looking forward to part 2.

    October 2, 2017 at 6:48 am

  3. Pingback: Southampton Rock Singer Runs Marathons Up Mountains. - The Runs and Races Guide

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