Here’s a nice insight into the 2018 4-day Stage Race from Rebeca Ehrnrooth, part owner of myRaceKit. A Swede living in the UK, she is an outdoor enthusiast and ultra-runner who travels the world for adventures and races. We look forward to welcoming you back in 2019 Rebeca!
In Lizzy Hawker’s book Runner there is an episode where Lizzy has returned to Kathmandu after another monstrous run in the Himalayas. Richard Bull and she are on a roof top, drinking milky tea and stargazing, reflecting over the question: Why do we run? Their answers are philosophical. I ask myself the very same question as I climb Colle del Turlo. Although, my question is highly relevant; the climb is gruesome. My legs are aching. Every time I advance, turning a corner, the climb appears even longer. Do endless climbs exist? I grit my teeth. I follow a piece of advice given in Lizzy’s book, when in doubt, just put one foot ahead of the other.
Turlo, meaning small door in Walser dialect, is a mountain pass that has been in use for centuries, its impressive paved trail is a fine example of medieval labour that was then rebuilt by an alpine military battalion in the 1920’s. My rule during this race was when tired; breathe in and inhale the environment. The views running around Monte Rosa are captivating. There is something magic seeing Monte Rosa from different perspectives. The beautiful surroundings give you a sense of purpose, particularly when you need it most.
A friend of mine introduced me to Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR). I had not heard of the race before, but I was quick to sign up as I adore that part of the Alps having skied and mountaineered there. The race was organised by Lizzy Hawker and Richard Bull; I’m a longstanding admirer of Lizzy and I had previously heard of Richard’s race organising capabilities; thus, the race seemed a brilliant fit. The 170km and 11,300m of ascent didn’t scare me. I opted for the four-day race which had the least onerous entry criteria. At 4,634m, Monte Rosa is the second highest mountain in the Alps and Western Europe. It is located between Switzerland (Valais) and Italy (Piedmont and Aosta Valley). Grächen in Switzerland is the start and finish of the 170km race. Grächen is a picturesque host village displaying warm hospitality towards the runners. The tour takes you from Grächen to Zermatt, Zermatt to Gressoney la Trinité in Italy, from Gressoney to Macugnaga and finally from Macugnaga you climb the almost vertical Monte Moro Pass before descending to Saas Fee and the final stretch back to Grächen.
Ahead of the race, I read that trekkers were recommended to complete the tour of Monte Rosa in about 10 days. The pace of UTMR is more ambitious with a 170km single stage, a 170km four-day stage and a 100km single stage on offer. There are cut off times. If you plan to walk the race at a leisurely pace you won’t make these. The circuit follows many ancient trails that have linked the Swiss and Italian valleys for centuries. It includes larch forests, alpine meadows, balcony trails and a glacial crossing. The course is runnable, but at times highly technical. It connects seven valleys embracing different cultures: the German speaking high Valais, the Arpitan speaking Aosta Valley and the Walser culture with spectacular wooden houses in Otro Valley in Piedmont.
The race organisation is diligent, thoroughly checking the mandatory equipment of all participants. This is needed as the circuit takes you to remote areas. At one point there was almost 25km between aid stations. I ran alone during parts of the race, truly enjoying the solitude and vastness. The climb after Rifugio Ferraro reminded me how small the human is when pitted against the forces of nature as the skies opened and deluged me. At +2,000m, wearing shorts and a t-shirt you get cold immediately and the trails turn slippery. Mountains are inviting but can be treacherous. Safety is paramount for the organising team.
The four-day race include three overnight hotels; the organising team allow runners to send 15kg of luggage on to the next overnight stop, which was much appreciated. Meals are provided and, maybe as expected, the Italian meals were outstanding. The hotels are comfortable and accommodate the runners with early breakfasts. Along the route the aid stations were well stocked and manned by immensely friendly volunteers.
There was sunshine, cloud and rain during the race. In the valleys during the afternoons it was +20C, when crossing the glacier at the Theodul Pass it was minus degrees. A good tip is to bring newspapers which can be used to dry your shoes overnight.
This is a challenging race that takes you to your limits. For the first time, I found myself crying as I reached an aid station out of pure exhaustion. Likewise, I felt sheer, unconditional happiness at the summit of each climb, taking in the extraordinary views. The mountains drain you on energy, but you gain something extremely valuable in the form of enormous, indescribable fulfilment.
UTMR is a surprisingly small race, maybe because it is squeezed in after UTMB week and coincide with the Transalpine and the Tor des Geants. The race feels very genuine and uncommercial with the sole wish of the organisers being for the runners to enjoy their trail experience and nature. This humble attitude showed during the post-race celebration dinner when the master of ceremonies called on Lizzy and Richard to address the runners. The microphone got passed between the pair until they expressed that they were simply happy if the runners had enjoyed the race. It was as if they were almost surprised anyone pitched up to run their race. This race is a hidden gem in the race calendar.
After a last-minute cancellation of the friend who introduced me to the race, I turned up alone in Grächen, however, I became good friends with a German lady I shared a room with. The spirit was incredible across the many nationalities and I was for four days immersed in this big running family, where everyone wanted their fellow race participants to enjoy the race.
So why do we run? In Lizzy’s book Maya Angelou is quoted saying: “You are only free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.” Lizzy concludes that all of those places that belong to no one belong to us all. If we explore them we make them our own.
I experienced Monte Rosa as my own mountain. I enjoyed it so much I’m planning to be back in 2019 – only I intend to run it better.
What you are looking forward to?
I’ve been hearing about UTMR for a few years now. The idea of touring Monte Rosa has always fascinated me, as all wild, technical races do. I am really looking forward to it.
Sono gia‘ tanti anni che sento parlare di questa gara. Fare tutto il giro del Monte Rosa mi affascina molto. Sono proprio gare come qusta, selvaggia, con sentieri tecnici e tanto dislivello che mi piacciono. Non aspetto l’ora di essere alla partenza.
What are the challenges you expect?
I’ve never feared but just respected these kind of races. I am aware it’s about knowing what you are facing and keeping calm in the difficult moments. I expect very “wild” terrain with a lot of elevation. So much fun!
Non ho mai paura di queste distanze ma tanto rispetto. Bisogna sapere a cosa si va in contro e mantenere la calma nei momenti difficili. Mi aspetto un tracciato molto „wild“ con tanto dislivello da fare. Ci sara‘ da divertirsi.
What is your time estimate for this course?
It’s difficult to estimate a time in these distances. Every race has its history. I try to get to the start prepared the best I can, to focus on my feelings moment by moment and to give my best. If I am well I know I can do well.
E‘ difficile stimare un tempo finale su queste distanze. Ogni gara ha la sua storia. Cerco di arrivaci il piu‘ preparato possibile, di concentrarmi sulle mie sensazioni in gara e di dare il massimo. Se sto bene so‘ di poter fare un bel risultato.
What is your best result / moment in trail racing?
The two victories at Dolomites Sky run 131 K in 2014 and 2015. It is a race that I ran on the Dolomites Alta via .1 which unfortunately has been discontinued. However, there is always something special that remains in your heart for every race and this is the reason that makes me keep on going, training, racing.
Sicuamente le due vittorie alla Dolomiti Sky Run 131 k nel 2014 e 2015. E‘ una gara che si correva sull’alta via nr.1 Dolomitica che purtroppo non vien piu‘ organizzata. Comunque c’e‘ sempre qualcosa che ti rimane nel cuore ad ogni gara, in ogni allenamento. Questo e‘ il bello del correre il montagna, questa e‘ la motivazione che mi fa‘ andare avanti.
Grazie per darmi questa opportunita‘. Thanks for giving me this opportunity.
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.