Trail Running: One Runner's UTMB Experience

Trail Running: One Runner's UTMB Experience

The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, better known as simply UTMB, has become an ever more iconic and mythic European ultra race.

It’s definitely at the top of a whole lot of runners’ bucket lists. UTMB is an ultramarathon mountain race that starts in Chamonix, France and circuits Mont Blanc. It’s one of the most famous and, some say, competitive trail ultras in the world. The 106 mile (171 kilometer) race route passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland before finishing back in Chamonix and has a total elevation gain of 32,940 feet (10,040 meters). Runners say that, unlike most trails in the U.S., the trails around Mont Blanc seem to approach vertical. “They’re not much into switchbacks, I guess,” says Adam Krett, an ultra runner from Seattle, Washington.

As we launch our first two trail running shoes, we wanted to talk to someone about running UTMB. So we caught up with Adam to hear about his experience in the 2023 edition of UTMB which was held in late August. He talks about his running journey from a cold start in his mid thirties to a running wedding to finding a love for trail running and ultras, UTMB, and his anticipation for Vimazi pace-tuned trail shoes. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Stunning scenery along UTMB courseSteep trails and stunning scenery at UTMB 2023. (Photos by Adam Krett)

Vimazi: Tell me a little about yourself.
Adam: I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and went to school at Central Washington University. I’m a graphic designer and art director. My wife’s a writer. We have two kids. We have a dog, too. We like to travel. Often the travel is connected with running.

We even had a running wedding. It was in Snoqualmie. We sort of took over an 8K race with our wedding party and family. My wife was in a sporty white tennis dress and I was in all black golf shorts and polo so we could run and still look the bride and groom part. The race finished at the local high school track where we had an alter set.We said our vows after finishing the race and then dashed off to run a half marathon in Dubrovnik, Croatia for our honeymoon.

Adam Krett before the start of the 2023 UTMB Adam Krett at start of the 2023 UTMB

V: When did you start running?
A: I ran a little bit of track in my last two years of high school. At the time I thought that anything over 200 meters was long distance. I turned out for the track team in college for part of a season, but I was a mediocre college sprinter, and in spite of working hard, I was too slow.

It was actually much later in life I picked up running again. I was around 38 years old and started dabbling in running “longer distances.” I was going through a lot stuff in life and I got a wild thought to try a half marathon. It seemed ludicrous at the time. It represented a commitment to something big in a moment where I had lost a bit of my direction. I had been partying a lot and stopping for a month to train for the half seemed like just the ticket. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it—run a half marathon and stop drinking for a month. Honestly, I thought I would run the half marathon—or try at least—and that would be it for running. One and done.

As fate would have it, about that same time I had started dating my wife, and she was a big runner. She supported the idea, and then proceeded to crush me in that first half marathon. That added some motivation, but so did the idea of a healthier lifestyle. My drinking had become unmanageable and I wanted a change. My family, friends and running were an integral part of my recovery – stretching out for over 13 years of sobriety.

One running thing led to another, and soon I was running about a half marathon a month. As a gift to myself for my 40 birthday I ran the Rock n Roll Marathon. It was a great experience. After that first marathon I kept wanting more—more running and more marathons. A few years later I got a qualifying time for Boston. So, I suppose by then I was officially into running.

V: How did you get into trail running?
A: I’d blame it on a short documentary about the Leadville 100, and I just couldn’t look away. It had me hooked. So I found a local 50-mile trail run. I trained for it and ran it. I became slightly obsessed with longer distances and trail running. I dove deeper into it and took fitness and run coaching classes and became a part-time personal trainer.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Leadville. I signed up for the Mountain Lakes 100 Miler, to experience the distance. The 50-miler I did was one thing, but a 100-miler is something completely different. I had no idea what I was doing. But I cooked up my own plan for how to train for it. I finished that race and ran it in just over 22 hours. 

V: What do you love about trail running?
A: The trail running community is the best. So supportive and friendly. Plus, it’s been a wonderful complement to my recovery. It’s a place to put my focus, and there’s something deeply therapeutic about trail running. I prefer it over running out on the streets—enjoying the beauty and tranquility.

Sometimes, the big hills are intimidating, for sure, but there’s a different sense of accomplishment whether you grind up to the top for 20 or 30 minutes, or an all-day adventure. For me, it’s different than the feeling you get in road running. Challenging yourself on the trails is immensely gratifying. I like to call the hilly trail running “brutiful.” 

Sunset on the mountains near the start of UTMBRunners at sunset in the "brutiful" 2023 UTMB race

V: Tell me about some of your favorite runs and races.
A: One of my favorites is the Mount Si Ultra 50-miler. I’ve run it so many times it’s hard to keep track. I love the small community, family feel, it’s never overcrowded, and it feels so home grown. It was my first ultra, so I have a soft spot for it.

After a lot of work I made it to the start of the Leadville 100. What an awesome race! I missed the cutoff time at 62 miles, but I’d love to go back sometime. It’s a great story how that race has helped revitalize the town. Climbing up to Hope Pass, which is the highest point of the Leadville 100, is other-worldly. It’s so beautiful up there – not to mention hard to breathe!

I’m also a big fan of all the smaller races around the greater Seattle area. Like the Grand Ridge 50K, beautiful singletrack, basically right in our backyard. I’ve spent a lot of time running around the Snoqualmie Valley area, Tiger Mountain, and up the Palouse to Cascade Trail to the Snoqualmie Tunnel. Those are some of my favorite runs.

V: I saw you ran the White River 50 this year. How was it?
A: It was good. I ran the White River 50K rather than the 50M because UTMB was only a few weeks later. The weather was in a good spot. Great race with good hill climbing, wonderful views and nice descents. It was a good training push three weeks out from UTMB. I practiced using my poles the whole time, which is almost mandatory on the UTMB course.

V: Tell me about the shoes you’ve been wearing on long runs and races.
A: I did have a favorite shoe—the Saucony Peregrine. The fit was right for my foot, and the grip was good. I appreciated the 4mm drop. I could feel the ground when I ran, and I liked that. But I found over time that they made my feet tired. And then they started to hurt.

V: Okay to talk about your injury? Did you try other running shoes?
A: Yeah, I started having trouble with one of my big toes. It’s basically arthritis. It’s painful and makes running difficult, so I needed to try a different shoe. I got a list of podiatrist recommended shoes—Altra, Brooks, Hoka, New Balance. They recommended anything with a ton of cushion. The New Balance shoe did seem to help a little for my toe, but it was SO cushioned that I always felt unstable. In fact I kept falling down.

V: I know you haven’t run in them yet, but from what you know about Vimazi, what do you think?
A: The first thing that caught my attention was that they’re pace-based shoes. It totally piqued my interest. My thinking went like this: If I knew that a shoe was there to support a certain pace, like my pace, then maybe that shoe would support my toe in a better way. Since running has been such a big part of my identity, I want to explore ways to extend my running career. For my toe, the firmer forefoot in the Vimazis is very intriguing. So I’m excited to try out the Vimazi trail shoes.

V: Can you give a description about UTMB?
A: UTMB is a trail ultra in Europe. Very famous. It’s about 106 miles, depending on who’s counting, and starts in Chamonix, France. It’s basically one giant loop around the base of Mt Blanc. The route takes you from France to Italy and Switzerland, then back to France.

There’s about 33,000 ft of climbing. Very steep ascents. I mean there are way fewer switchbacks than in the US. It’s just straight up. You run from valleys into high alpine conditions. The route has a mix of singletrack—some of it really rocky—a tiny bit of road and cobblestone paths. Outside of the beautiful mountains, you run through a number of quaint little towns. The atmosphere is like running the Boston Marathon. The crowds are incredible. Cow bells are a European thing, and they’re everywhere. I loved the energy and enthusiasm. It’s pretty electric.

V: Tell me about your experience in this year’s UTMB.
A: In the run up to this year’s UTMB, I wasn’t able to train consistently enough to really put my sight on a finish line. Just being realistic, which actually does have a place in ultra running! But I had an entry ticket and this was my last shot to use it, so I decided to go for it.

Since I was under-trained, I embraced the idea that I wanted to enjoy the whole experience—the crowds, the scenery, all the other runners, the energy of the whole thing. Every runner there has been on this arduous training and racing program just to get to the UTMB starting line. It’s kind of like a Boston marathon experience in that regard. Everyone’s just so stoked about being in Chamonix at the starting line. The race starts at 6pm, and its just electric. Everyones buzzing. Music playing, cowbells ringing, chanting, then we all get released down the streets of Chamonix. Such a cool experience.

For the first hour of running, there were people lined up all along the way and up the first ascents cheering and ringing those cow bells. All the sounds were echoing across the valley. The scenery is just stunning.

Then the sun started to set, and it got quieter. And even steeper, which I didn’t think was possible. You get into this almost a meditative state. People aren’t talking because of the steepness of the climb. The only sound is the clacking of poles and rhythmic breathing. Time to turn on your headlight and run into the night.

UTMB runners by headlamp before dawnRunning by headlamp just before dawn, UTMB 2023

The cutoff times are more aggressive for the first half of the race so I pushed pretty hard to stay ahead of them. To give you an idea, there’s an overall cutoff time of 46.5 hours, and most runners finish between 35-46 hours. So there’s not a lot of leeway for slower runners like myself.

I came up over the first big climb. This is somewhere between miles 26-31. There was a lot of runoff from snow that had fallen a few nights before. I slipped a couple times, and I tweaked my quad at some point. I was close to 2 hours ahead of cutoff, but I was sick to my stomach, my quad hurt, and as I said I was definitely under trained. I reached the aid station at 32 miles in good shape time-wise, but not so much physically. I stayed there a long time, and I honestly wasn’t sure I could continue.

An aid station volunteer saw me limping around the aid station, and they took me into the medic tent. I was leaning toward dropping from the race. But they give me a quick massage and taped me up in about 15 minutes, and sent me off with 20 miles to go to the Courmayeur aid station. I was like, okay, here we go!

Aid Station on UTMB routeAid station during 2023 UTMB

I watched the sun come up on the peaks, just amazing. It was a tough night, but I was so grateful those medics had encouraged me—well, actually they pushed me—to continue. But when I reached Courmayeur, I knew I was done. Here’s an only-in-Italy moment: They were making pasta with red sauce at the aid station with fresh grated parmesan on it. Never had a better meal!

Pasta meal at Courmayeur aid station during 2023 UTMB raceBest meal ever!

I shuffled for a few hours to the bigger aid station down in the valley. My body was pretty trashed, but I was fine with dropping out. Really, my heart was full. I’d run through two countries, over incredibly beautiful terrain and climbed more than I ever had for that distance. The whole experience was inspiring in so many ways.

V: Do you plan to try running UTMB again?
A: Because of my toe, I went into UTMB thinking this would be my final ultra. But, wow, it inspired me to keep it up for as long as I could. There will be some changes to my training and racing, sure. But the therapeutic aspect of ultra running, what it does for me, I know I’ve got to keep doing it. I don’t know exactly how I’ll be able to get another UTMB entry. But I would love to.

I did a 50 miler this past weekend, so I guess despite my toe issue my desire and love for trail running is still there. So I figure with right time and the right approach, plus a little luck on the entry, I think I can “complete the loop,” as they say, at UTMB.