Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is the biggest trail race on Earth spanning 166km climbing 9,600 meters. The very best converge on Chamonix in search of glory, but what does it take to finish in the top 5 at UTMB?
On the 1st September I watched the UTMB in awe, as pre-race favourites Killian Jornet, Jim Walmsley, Tim Tollefson and Zach Miller DNFed. The limelight fell on those who failed to finish, but I am more interested in those who triumphed, I am fascinated by the underdog.
In search of answers I tracked down Damian Hall, a Father, coach, Ultra Runner and 5th place longshot. Damian didn’t grow up at altitude, star in his local track or cross country team and didn’t run seriously until 2012. Even then, Damo finished his first marathon dressed as a toilet. So how did he do it?
I definitely loved dashing about as a kid. I always loved being outdoors, climbing trees and getting unrecognisably muddy. I was okay at cross-country in school, but always preferred to run with a ball at my feet. It wasn’t until later in life I got serious about running.
In 2011 after seven years living and travelling abroad I felt a bit unfit, so signed upto Bath Half Marathon. I finished in 1 hour 40 minutes and absolutely loved it. I then did my first marathon the next year dressed as a toilet. I pestered the Outdoor Fitness editor to let me write a story about it and he (thanks Jonathan) called my bluff, sending me on my first Ultra-marathon instead. I just adored all that glorious agony.
I totally fell in love with the Sport from that first race; the scenery, the camaraderie, the sense of achievement and all that cake. I was soon signing up for my first 100K, first 100-miler and the Spine Race. I got coaching quite early, which helped a lot and I’m naturally competitive.
I remember being desperate to get into the top 30 in a trail marathon and I finished in the top 10 in my second Ultra. In a nutshell, the more I ran the better I got at it. But I never expected to run at this level, I’ve even represented GB in 2016, which was pretty surreal.
Damian stepped up from local races, to national and finally the big stage racing three consecutive UTMB’s before his 2018 attempt, placing 31st, 19th and 12th respectively. Year on year progress mirrored his hard work and an accumulation of endurance both physical and mental.
I’ve always been cautious with high volume training, but I did notch up some 100+ mile weeks this time and more importantly several weeks of 20,000ft vertical climb, including a couple at 35,000ft. But there’s lots more to quality training than that; it’s what you eat, how you sleep, strength work, high-intensity sessions, working on the mental side, injury prevention and so on. I was trying to compete with full-time athletes, so I pretended to be one myself, for a time.
I found a sample training week from Damian’s Strava activity, just 7 weeks prior to UTMB. One week later Damian jetted off to France, for a mammoth week of recce runs.
Monday: 16 miles – 11:43min/mi – 5,136ft elev gain
Tuesday: 8.8 miles – 8:09 min/mi – 818ft elev gain
Wednesday: 22.6 miles – 11:26 min/mi – 8,884ft elev gain
Thursday: 11.7 miles – 8:36 min/mi – 1,224ft elev gain
Friday: 9.4 miles – 9:14 min/mi – 2,009ft elev gain
Saturday: 10.7 miles – 8:29 min/mi – 1,405ft elev gain
Sunday: 26 miles (trail race) – 8:00 min/mi – 3,445ft elev gain
The better you train, the easier the races feel. I found that first Spine Race pretty painful physically, but now whenever things feel tough I ask myself if it’s as difficult as that and the answer is invariably no, I’ve got no reason to be a wimp. I haven’t DNFed yet. My one GB appearance was pretty miserable due to cramps, but psychologically it’s a huge blow to think of letting your team mates down or even your country.
Training in the Brecon Beacons has played a part in this. I live in Wiltshire, just outside Bath, so its a three to four hour roundtrip but for UTMB and other mountain races it’s vital to get the legs conditioned. Also the weather out there is often foul, which is great mental prep.
The most important factor in my development has been hard work and mindset, because I enjoy the hard work. I enjoy hurting. I enjoy being out in foul weather. Few things are better than running long distances in lumpy places, are they?
After seven years of conditioning both mind and body, Damian achieved his dream of a top 5 finish at UTMB. It all began with a 1hr 40min half marathon. But the most telling stat lies on Strava, year to date (11th September) Damian has clocked 2,769 miles, climbing 514,921ft in 471 hours.
Often we miss the hard work, we fail to see the dedication and years of practice, sometimes it is easier to assume talent played its part. But its clearly not the case here. If you would like to follow Damian Hall catch him on Facebook, Instagram or Strava by clicking the links. If you would like coaching by Damian get in touch via his Facebook page.
A quick thanks to Andy Jackson for some fantastic photography.