On 29th July 2016, Lizzy Hawker completed a full tour of Monte Rosa solo, to “test the course”. Here is what she wrote back then in answer to five questions about the route.
You started at the same time as the race will start next year, so passed around the route as a mid pack runner would. What should they look out for – what are the major challenges the Monte Rosa course will present to them?
A mid-pack runner will reach the top of the first climb out of Grächen and be onto the high balcony path of the Europaweg as dawn breaks. On this FKT I was alternately under and within a bank of cloud. But if it is clear then the alpenglow on the Weisshorn before sunrise will be something special to see. This balcony path runs across spectacular wild terrain high above the valley floor.
The major challenges of the route are just the relentless ascents and descents, the exposure to alpine conditions (the weather at 3300m might not be the same as low in the valley) and the isolation of some stretches of the route.
What difference does it make to do this distance and elevation change alone without the support of race infrastructure?
The full tour is pretty tough, whether racing or making an FKT. But there are a few differences. Firstly, when doing an FKT there is no support if something goes wrong or if you make a misjudgement. You have to be confident that you can rely on your own ability and experience. The Alps are not a true wilderness area, of course, but you still have to be confident with your level of risk. Then, food and drink can be a challenge. I made a foot trip around the race route the week before my FKT because I had some meetings with the mountain guides and some other logistics to fix. I took the opportunity to hide a couple of things under rocks and leave a few bags with friends along the way. I think I deposited three pairs of socks and a miscellaneous variety of food in plastic bags. It wasn’t very thought through, just a last ditch attempt to prepare in case I did try the FKT. In the event, I didn’t pick up some of the stuff, thinking I’d be quicker just using the local shop/coop, and much of the food I’d deposited wasn’t really what I felt like eating after X tough hours on foot.
In Alagna I was lucky a friend waited until 11pm to meet me. And in Macugngaga a hard night meant I passed through at breakfast time instead of during the dead hours of 3-4am. However you put it, when you make a ‘more-or-less’ unsupported FKT you have to be running well enough within your comfort zone that you can make choices and decisions. You have to be able to look after yourself and push yourself onwards, otherwise everything falls apart. Conversely when you make the same journey within a race situation, yes the route is just as difficult, but there is infrastructure in place to support you.
What was the hardest part of the 37 hours for you and why?
The hardest part of the 37 hours for me was the night. Training since Lavaredo has been all or nothing and sleep has been insufficient. So whereas in the past I have comfortably gone through two nights and then had a tough time with the third nightfall, this time the first (only) night was difficult. That and getting myself out of the door to begin with to start the journey with no witness and no reason why other than curiosity.
What is your prediction for the fastest elite men and women’s times for 2017?
30-32 hours for the women, 26-30 hours for the men
What one piece of advice would you give to someone consider entering for the 2017 ultra?
Don’t arrive short on sleep! This does of course depend on family and work commitments but starting with a sleep deficit will make the night hours extra tough. You need to be well trained but well rested. Beyond that the only thing I would say is enjoy it. It is a wild and beautiful mountain journey and it will push you further than you think is possible, physically, mentally, emotionally.
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.