Lloyd Belcher, our photographer in 2015 and 2017, is coming back in 2018. This time he is leaving the cameras behind and this is why! Good luck Lloyd!
“I’m very fortunate that I have a job that I enjoy and it takes me to some beautiful places around the world. But don’t be fooled, it’s bloody hard work. However, I’d rather put in the hard hours in the mountains than lecturing and marking undergraduate papers which is what I used to before changing careers. One of the most scenic races that I have worked on is the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. I first worked on this race in 2015 and I was struck not only by the beauty of the landscapes that I was shooting images in, but also the rugged terrain that appealed to the runner in me. I ran a lot of miles on the course while shooting the race and saw how rugged and challenging that the course is. While shooting UTMR 2017 and seeing a lot of the course again, I decided that enough was enough and this is a race that I will have to run. So for UTMR 2018, I will leave the cameras packed away somewhere as I have registered to run the 100km. See you out there.”
Lloyd Belcher, Lloyd Belcher Visuals
The climb is more than Everest from sea to summit, and fortunately the distance is much shorter than bay of Bengal to Everest’s top. But the comparatively short 169km on mountain trails with over 11,000m of climb and descent, all at an average altitude of around 2200m, is going to feel very long. Especially alone.
After three Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu “mail runs” (319km, 62 hours), a tour of the Annapurna circuit (circa 220 km, crossing a 5400m pass), the Manaslu Circuit (162 km, 5160m pass), and a recent birthday ~120km turn around the ring of hills around the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, Ultra Tour Monte Rosa race director Lizzy Hawker is well practiced in this genre of attempting Fastest Known Times (FKT), or Only Known Times, or simply long, hard solo journeys with little sleep that, realistically, few other people are capable of doing.
At the time of writing, Hawker is eight hours into her run and hike, according to her tracking device, she’s on the long hike up from Zermatt to Theodul pass at 3300m. In clear weather, the view towards the Matterhorn is a treat. The view away from the Matterhorn is a treat too for that matter.
Views aside, why is she doing this? “I need to have done this myself a couple of times before I can send people out to do it for themselves,” she says, adding, “albeit in an easier context of a race – aid stations, security, dropbags, supporters and co-runners etc.”
Hawker has probably completed the Tour of Monte Rosa more times than anybody else.
“Yes, you can say I’ve done it many times over two long days [as UTMB training], and more recently as a training camp in four days, but this is the first nonstop attempt.”
Beyond this, to make arrangements for the race, she has found it easier just to go on foot and take cable cars to visit the race’s guides, checkpoint teams and hoteliers. To drive to each checkpoint one by one would take 17 hours (857 km) or 13 hours (636 km) for this year’s shorter 116 km course starting in Cervinia.
Regardless of this experience on the Monte Rosa trails and experience of ultra long foot journeys, Hawker says, “I’m actually surprisingly apprehensive given the number of times I’ve run that distance, run through the night etc. it’s the not knowing what my body and mind are going to do, or how I will react or deal with it. I’m kind of caught between the known and the unknown. I know the route so well, but doing it in one go without support is something different.
“The [period] before is harder, once started then everything else falls away and it’s just a journey. It’s nice to focus on something, to make a journey from start to finish and kind of suspend the everyday.”
If she completes it without problems, then she says, “as a bonus it will make a soft target for next year’s competitors to go for!” She will also be able to judge how demanding a challenge it is. It is harder than the tour of Mont Blanc, given the greater elevation change, longer climbs and the more technical trails. “I’ve estimated it will take runners 20% longer to complete,” says Hawker.
There are many things that could thwart the non-stop goal of course, bad weather being one. Another is a very busy race director’s inbox as the next race approaches, just five weeks away.
True, Ultra Tour Monte Rosa is only in its second year as an organized running event, but the long-distance hiking route around the Monte Rosa massif has been trod by people for quite a while previous to this. Wild and high and ridiculously scenic as it is, it’s punctuated by signs of habitation—vestiges of ancient paved paths and isolated villages—all along the way. Rather than marring the wilderness, these manmade landmarks only add to the variety and historical context of this unique trail.
Parts of the TMR have been employed as trade routes since some rough-dressed folks left behind stone tools, so it’s kind of surprising that the whole 100-ish mile circuit wasn’t actually connected for hiking purposes until 1994. As such, the entire circumnavigation is usually an eight- or nine-day itinerary. The route, which has some variants, was designed with both practical logistics and views in mind, so it made perfect sense to follow the existing trail rather than devising something just for the purposes of the race—no need to remake the wheel.
Photographer and writer Alex Roddie hiked TMR in 2015, following in the 1842 footsteps of Professor James Forbes, who Roddie admired. Roddie noted in his blog prior to the journey:
“The Tour du Mont Blanc is a very popular long-distance hike in the Alps, looping around Mont Blanc, but the circumnavigation of Monte Rosa is less frequented. Both routes are approximately 100 miles in length. However, the relative unpopularity of the TMR – and its more severe elevation profile, featuring numerous major ascents and descents – make this route the more serious proposition.
The main challenge here is the brutal elevation profile. … I’ve climbed plenty of 3,000m and 4,000m peaks so am quite happy with climbs like this, but I’ve never done so many day after day before. What the TMR lacks in wildness it makes up for in physical difficulty.”
Starting in Cervinia and proceeding counter-clockwise on the Italian side of the massif, you’ll cross back into Switzerland at Monte Moro Pass, finishing in the umlauted town of Grächen. This year, the route does not include the highest point on the whole circuit, 3,900-some-odd meter Theodul Pass. If you feel cheated by this, you have options for restitution: Sign up for UTMR’s Grachen-Cervinia hike extension, simply keep running from Grachen, or sign on for UTMR again in 2017 when it will cover the full monte. Ha.
While UTMR ultra runners will experience the cultural variations between the Italian, Swiss and small Germanic Walser communities at a brisk clip, there are some clues that can be appreciated at 8-minute pace
If there is pasta at the aid station and the caffe only has milk in it between the hours of 6 am and noon, you’re in Italy.
If there is rosti (a potato fritter) and chocolate on the table, you’ve crossed into Switzerlan
Gressoney la Trinité, Alagna and Macugnaga are traditional Walser communities along the route. If there is beer and ham on the refreshment table, it is culturally sensitive to eat and drink quite a lot.
Words by Sarah Barker.
I was rude and inquired the age of two finishers of the 2015 UTMR. Like most things, Roger and Bridget took my impertinence in stride, shared their experiences and gave some tips. Prepare to be blown away and inspired. In their own words…
“Roger is 70 and I‘m 64. We have only just got into mountain running in the last few years.Last year I think we did 18 running events (about 12 were ultras) and a couple of mountain bike events, too. We both entered the World Mountain Running Championships last year, just for fun. That hurt…a lot!
We are all about the adventure and big open spaces, so what better race to do than UTMR….a new event is always very exciting. It was tough and I swore (quite a lot actually) that I would never ever do it again! But you could feel the love Lizzy had for the area and we found that infectious—she has so much soul. It was just so wonderful, we had to go back again. We’ve signed up for 2016, and have managed to persuade a few friends to do it too.
After the UTMR last year we went along to soak up the UTMB atmosphere in Chamonix and we just found it all too big and impersonal, so doubtful we would consider it, even if we could get in. We were both signed up for Transvulcania this year. I was ill but Roger finished the 84k fun run—he had a strong run. We are both doing the V3K in Wales in a couple of weeks.”
Roger added: “As Bridge said, we tend to avoid big international events— there is often a ballot for places and cost is a factor too, since we have retired in order to have more playtime. We have never enjoyed road running, choosing to run events like 10 Peaks, Lakeland 50, GL3D, Coast2Coast, or simply exploring the moors and hills when we are in the UK, or covering 3500 km on mountain bikes in New Zealand in 2011. That was really the catalyst that resulted in us giving up work for adventure. UTMR 2015 was a perfect opportunity to run in the Alps and Lizzy organised such a good event, we have to return in 2016.”
I asked Bridget and Roger to share some tips for those who question whether they’re up for the UTMR challenge…
“I would say to anyone who was concerned about the distance that they should do the stage event [rather than the ultra], and if two old duffers can do it, anybody can. The altitude wasn’t really a problem but the right shoes are very important—there is quite a lot of technical stuff and you want to be able to trust your shoes. I would also like to add that you have to know what you are capable of—nothing worse than a panic attack on a route that’s too technical.”
Words by Sarah Barker.
I’ve observed that runners read. This is strictly anecdotal, and scientific rigor could easily prove me wrong, but I find that when runners return from seven or eight hours of scissoring the pins, they like to have a knees up. Because they are obsessive multitaskers, reading ensues. Next day, they’ve got great ghastly miles of thinks about what they read, and the cycle continues.
They might like to read about the Monte Rosa region which they will be trotting through in September, for context. (Thank goodness, we’ve arrived at the point of this missive.) Well, running readers, here’s a very short list of Monte Rosa-related material that will provide at least 116 kilometers of things to think about.
The story of Ulrich Inderbinen, the oldest Alpine guide. Two ways to enjoy this icon of alpinism—in a brief but entertaining Alpine Journal article, or the more thorough biography mentioned in the article, Ulrich Inderbinen: As old as the century. Inderbinen lived and worked around the Monte Rosa massif through the age of 95, passing away in 2004 at age 103. He was known for his professionalism, unerring mountain skills, impeccable manners, and dry humor.
Alone In The Alps, by James Lasdun. This lengthy article that appeared recently in the New Yorker describes the eight-country Via Alpina which actually skirts the Monte Rosa region. But the terrain and unfolding long-distance trail experiences Lasdun relates are very similar to those you’ll find at UTMR. Particularly resonant is this description of the cultural variety in each new valley: “The Rockies may offer wilder wildernesses, but you don’t experience the pleasure of sharp cultural variegation as you move from place to place. In the Alps, it’s still present in the shifting styles of church towers, village fountains, sheepcotes, hay barns. It’s there in the odd bits of language that filter through even if you’re an incurable monoglot like me. (How nice it is to learn that the German word for the noise cowbells make is Gebimmel, and that the Swiss-Romanche word for “boulder” is crap.) It’s there in the restaurant menus: daubes giving way to dumplings, raclette to robiola; and in the freshly incomprehensible road signs, which in Slovenia are clotted with impenetrable consonant clusters, as if vowels were an indulgence.”
Mr Noon, by D.H. Lawrence. Started in 1920, abandoned in 1921, and finally published in 1984, Lawrence’s novel is largely autobiographical. Most relevant to this list is the second part of the book that describes the main character’s elopement and subsequent romantic tramping through the Alps with his lover. Holds promise on a number of levels.
I’d like to point out, I am receiving no kickback for this listing whatsoever: Runner: a short story about a long run, by Lizzy Hawker. If you want to reach way back to the very origins of UTMR, you’ll find the answer here. Lizzy’s love of mountains was planted, nurtured and flowered in the high meadows and craggy peaks of the Monte Rosa massif. You’ll get to know both the UTMR director and the high passes and dark valleys that inspired her—directly applicable, no imagination required.
Words by Sarah Barker
As race volunteers go, you could do a lot worse than Keith Byrne. Super-chipper at dark-thirty in the morning? Eternal summer of the feet? Ah yes, that Keith Byrne.
Byrne’s job at last year’s UTMR was to brief runners in the morning, then scurry quick to the finish line and get that ready, all with minimal direction. Oh, and being more outgoing than the rest of the race staff put together, Keith was nominated to be the MC at the prize-giving, or as he put it, “I got to be the MC.”
One of Keith’s favorite moments was sartorial in nature: “The special guest to start the race was the oldest mountain guide in Gressoney. He was dressed in traditional local clothing and looked incredibly smart. Stood alongside him was myself, in a down jacket, shorts and flip flops. The contrast was immense.”
Some other observations he made are:
– Monte Rosa is a mountain paradise that not enough trail runners have ever experienced
– Stage racing is the perfect balance between racing and sheer enjoyment
– Lizzy and her team are brilliant and will do everything in their power to give you the best experience
– If you can’t race but want to be part of this special event, then volunteering is an equally brilliant experience
That really narrows down the number of excuses not to participate in UTMR 2016 now, doesn’t it? I’m going to finish off what Keith has started by saying that he’s pointed his flip-flops toward Cervinia, has taken off work, booked his ticket, and is working on some crowd-pleasing jokes for this year’s prize-giving. Go ahead—try to resist that!
Today is the 1st June already but everything is still possible. Registrations are open until July 1st – sign up now!
Words by Sarah Barker
“All things seem possible in May.”
I might have said that, after a few beers, but naturalist, photographer and writer Edwin Way Teale said it first.
On the face of it, Teale’s quote speaks to the general optimism of spring. But upon further research, I’m startled to discover Teale is actually entreating trail runners to carpe the diem and sign up for the ultimate in communes with nature—Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. This is esoteric stuff—let me explain.
Teale, born in 1899 in Illinois, found his passion early on, at age nine, and shortly after, discovered you can’t just be a naturalist (see also: undergraduate degree in psychology), you have to be a writer, photographer and a naturalist. Very much a fan of Thoreau, Teale also built a log cabin out back of his real house which provided the necessary rustic atmosphere for his writing. But unlike Thoreau, he made his mark via an epic road trip through the US, described in four books—North With The Spring, Journey Into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter. This series won him a Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1966.
Teale loved a journey, quietly observing the small and the grand, and though his death in 1980 prevented him from experiencing the wonders of nature in an ultra race format, one feels his quote about May possibilities is brilliantly prescient.
So yes, all things seem possible in May, but don’t sit around meditating in your log cabin. Sign up and hit the trails, oh children of nature.
Words by Sarah Barker
So, the knee’s acting up again, or there was that frantic spot at work such that your training was reduced to the round-trip hike between desk and water cooler, and, well, you’re a bit unsure of your fitness. And particularly as it applies to the (ridiculously scenic) 116K of Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?
Before you cross into overthinking territory, we’d like to share this pep talk from happy finisher of the 2015 staged edition of UTMR, Wendy Dodd:
“A good point…was that with few exceptions the race was an achievable goal for most entrants. As you know some of the ‘tough’ race organisers pride themselves on a high number of drop-outs, equating this with the ‘quality’ of the race. But to have a race over the TMR with a completion [rate] of 105/118 is exceptional… The stage race and the small numbers made it more enjoyable for me. I think it is a far more scenic route than UTMB [Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc] and I have already got a number of friends interested in it for next year!”
Wow, thanks for that Wendy! Like to point out that completion rate again—105 of 118 people, some of whose knees were not 100 percent during training, took the challenge and are glad they did. There’s something to think about.
RunWithMe creator, editor, and chief bottle washer Ari Veltman signed up for last year’s zero edition UTMR less than a month prior to the event. I recently asked him to share some of his memories, and he pointed me to his Facebook review that starts out, “I have not been asked to write this, and actually the organizers have no idea that this is coming.”
Please note the date on that post is August 26, 2015. So you can read Ari’s completely unsolicited review at the link here, as well as his thoughts that were, in fact, solicited and like a sort of good wine, have aged about 9 months.
“One of the things that captured my attention immediately was Lizzy’s responsiveness and care.
I only found out about the event less than a month before the start, and sent an email through the website to see if it might be still relevant. Someone named Lizzy (I had no idea who she was at the time) answered very quickly, and in the following days was super responsive and helpful. Knowing that someone is there and cares was the first very strong green light I got – and I just knew it was going to be a great event.
If there is one thing that made a deep lasting impression on me, it would be the volunteers.
I have been to a number of races around the world, and the volunteers in UTMR — both locals and runners that came over to participate as volunteers — really made a huge difference. They really cared, and encouraged in a way I did not have the chance to witness in other events. It made the event really special for me. I was actually so thankful for the way they supported and cheered for us that, following the event, I decided I wanted to give back, and participated as a volunteer myself for the first time at the Mount Fuji race.
Food! I just loved the food at the aid stations
It can make such a big difference. I specifically remember making a huge stop at the mid-point aid station of the second day (or was it the third day?). I arrived at this small town in the mountains, and there was this huge buffet table – full of local cheese and ham, sweets and cakes of all sorts. I remember I stopped there for more than 30 minutes, took my time, made sandwiches, had some tea, and made sure I sampled every cake that was there. Took me a while to start running again after that …
The views in UTMR are really amazing
The fact that a course in the Alps has nice views is not a surprise, but I remember being quite amazed that the views kept changing so rapidly, and you kept finding out new amazing views after each turn. This is why when I got lost on the first day, and added another couple of hours to my running I was very happy, thinking I had the chance to get some extra views in for my money. The whole area is just that beautiful, that you are happy to get lost and get a few extra miles in.”
Say celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain opened a restaurant; you’d want to go, right? The guy’s eaten at and written about seemingly every famous restaurant on the planet. He’s an expert on dining. What would be on the menu? What would the atmosphere be like?
If—didn’t happen, but if—guitar god Eric Clapton had put on a summer camp for budding musicians, can you imagine how sweet that would be? Hanging out, playing with other like-minded people, like a big recording session. Goodness, you can almost smell the creativity.
I’m trying to make an analogy, maybe poorly, to Ultra Tour Monte Rosa and The Lizzy Factor. Five-time winner of UTMB, former 100K world champion, crazy FKTs like Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu and Kathmandu valley circuit—it’s safe to say Lizzy is an expert when it comes to mountain trails. So, if she hosted a race that combined all the best from her world of trailrunning experiences—her favourite trails, the most inspiring views, support that’s effective but not obtrusive, the perfect balance between big race festivities and small race intimacy—man, you’d want to run that race, right?
Boom, done! UTMR is Lizzy’s brainchild, it’s got her DNA, her fingerprint. From the location—”I did long back-to-back days on the Monte Rosa route while training for UTMB, and thought, If I was to have a race…”—to the format—both single-stage ultra and three-day stage race—UTMR is all Lizzy, all the time. Running UTMR is like if a trail running legend called up and said, “Hey, I want to show you this nice path.” It’s not even like that: It is that.
Last year’s stage-race winner, Krissy Moehl, spoke to the event’s Lizzy Factor: “I love the idea that this is the course Lizzy trained on [for UTMB]. It shows what a tough competitor she is. As a single-stage ultra, particularly in 2017 when it makes the full circuit of Monte Rosa, this race appeals to runners who love to be challenged, definitely for those looking for adventure—that’s totally Lizzy. She’s always looking for something people will say she shouldn’t do.”
But as tough a competitor as Lizzy is, as much as she inhabits the top ranks of ultrarunning, she’s not elitist. She didn’t want to create a race that could only be experienced by a select bunch of badasses. That’s why UTMR might be the only event out there that offers both ultra and stage formats, so runners who’d rather savour the experience than push push push, who’d rather see all the views, and enjoy the camaraderie can do so. And badasses can be up to their kiesters in challenge at the same time. Wanting as many people as possible to be able to share in her love of mountains—that’s so Lizzy.
Maybe no race director has offered an ultra and a three-day stage format because it’s a logistical nightmare (partners in UTMR race directing, Richard and Jon, are nodding vigorously), but there again—the Lizzy Factor. Doing what people say shouldn’t be done.
Not only did Lizzy dream up the course and various ways to enjoy it, she and her small band of merry men and women implement and manage the whole UTMR ball of wax, from answering emails to marking the course to delivering luggage and giving out prizes. Pretty unusual, right? Most races, especially those as ambitious as UTMR, are handed over to a management company to actually implement. So, runners’ interactions are with an employee of a race management company. If you’ve got a question about UTMR, frequently asked or otherwise, you’ll probably get an email response from Lizzy. So that’s kind of nifty.
Nice to know the master chef eats at her own restaurant, and is right there to chitchat about the duck l’orange, or hiking poles.