Monday, 3 September 2012

3rd Time Unlucky for the UTMB

You have to feel sorry for the competitors and organisers of the UTMB race. Bad weather yet again seriously affected the events in Chamonix last weekend. The race is always targetted to start at 6.30pm on Friday evening and run round a 166km course through France, Italy and Switzerland, arriving back in Chamonix to finish, but that hasn't happened now since 2009, the events of the past three years being roughly as follows:

2010:  After a week of beautiful weather, torrential rain hit Chamonix early Friday morning and continued unabated until Saturday. The UTMB started on time but was abandoned after a few hours because mud slides were carrying away the markers on the Col de la Seine, and all the runners were returned to Chamonix. The CCC which had started on time at Friday lunchtime at Courmayeur was abandoned at Argentiere after about 400 runners had gone through because of flash flooding on the Aiguilles Rouges. The TDS, due to start from Courmayeur on Saturday, was abandoned before it was started. This was the first time bad weather had seriously affected the races and the organisers had to do some quick thinking to salvage something of the weekend. In the end they offered a "revised UTMB" race to 1200 of the TDS/UTMB entrants on a "first come first served" basis, starting mid morning Saturday in Courmayeur and following pretty much the CCC course back to Chamonix. I and most of the people I knew there signed on and ran this (after all we had come to Chamonix for a run) in sloppy but not desperate conditions; we all got a UTMB gilet but felt we had missed out on the real event. Of the runners who started out from Courmayeur, 90% finished.

2011: Again after a week of near perfect weather, a cold front was due to come through Chamonix on the Friday. The TDS, starting two days earlier this year, was mostly finished before this hit. The organisers decided to try to let the front go through ahead of the UTMB, and the start was delayed until 11pm, with a warning to runners to expect bad conditions. There was heavy rain all afternoon which carried on for the first four hours of the race, getting everyone completely soaked. The air temperature then dropped rapidly, leading to a near blizzard as I crossed the Col de la Seine, and remained very cold for the rest of the event. The bad weather made the Bovine climb impossible, so an "on the run" course modification took runners on a diversion via Martigny, an addition of several miles and a near 3000ft additional height gain. Many competitors, me included, just couldn't keep warm enough over the higher ground in the conditions, and withdrew. It's a mistake in clothing choice that I won't make again. Of the field that started from Chamonix, 48% made it to the finish; those that did clearly had a fairly epic but ultimately very rewarding experience. Those of us that pulled out just weren't up to the job that year.

2012: And so to this year. I wasn't in Chamonix this time, having deferred  my loss in the ballot into a place for 2013, but was in Zermatt just a few miles to the east, getting similar weather and watching developments in Chamonix via the UTMB and other websites. It was a familiar story, good weather in the preceding few days followed by an adverse change coinciding with the weekend of the races. This year the bad weather came a little earlier, affecting the TDS with very cold snowy conditions for all but the fastest runners which resulted in only 44% of the starters completing the course. The UTMB competitors were initially told to prepare for bad conditions, then later that the course would be modified to avoid the high passes (Bonhomme, Ferret, etc); the course would be reduced to around 100km and would be all in France - effectively around the Chamonix and Contamines valleys. The speed with which this was arranged suggests that the organisers had it up their sleeve as a "plan B" in the event of bad weather - learning from previous years' experiences. With nearly 6000m of climbing this was still a fairly demanding race; it started at 7pm on Friday and was run in by all accounts fairly miserable conditions for most of the way. However, of the 2481 runners that started, 86% of them made it to the finish, though I'm sure it still felt a bit disappointing for the majority.

I don't think it's helpful to try to draw any real conclusions from this. Alpine weather is notoriously fickle and even with all the modern technology it seems difficult to predict the actual effect on the ground that any individual weather system will have. Here in Zermatt the forecast over Friday and Saturday was for "light snow showers" above 2000m, yet when I went for a walk yesterday (Sunday) I found a good six inches at 2500m and nearly two feet at 3000m. In the face of this sort of uncertainty the organisers of the UTMB races have an almost impossible task. Do they let the event go ahead, warn people it will be tough, and accept the sort of drop-out rates that we saw in last year's UTMB and this year's TDS, or do they go for a lower, more manageable course that the majority of runners will complete? A high drop-out rate causes big logistical problems on these courses, with the high numbers of participants and many potential drop-out points very hard to access; getting runners home is a very difficult business. But I guess the ultimate concern will be that letting an event continue in bad conditions may lead to accidents and at worse fatalities. My own view is that the UTMB organisation has done a pretty impressive job over the past three years in treading the fine line between giving competitors the adventure they trained for and keeping them safe. Those of us unlucky enough to have run a "reduced course" were just that  - unlucky.

The background that the organisers have to work against (and to a certain extent one which they have themselves created) is the very accessibility of these races. The entry requirements are low, you can get enough points to qualify for the UTMB without ever having been near a real mountain, and the course marking is such that (until really affected by bad weather) the navigational and general decision making ability required of runners is almost zero. Although "self-sufficiency" is mentioned in the race information, the emphasis for most people is getting away with the lightest possible minimum equipment rather than taking enough to really look after yourself in the hills. These are not criticisms, just observations on the overall style and ambience of these events.

The fourth event in the series, the PTL, has much tougher entry requirements in terms of track record and real self sufficiency. In spite of being longer and higher than any of the other events, it has been much less subject to modification over these past three "unlucky" years. 


Anonymous said...

That looks a very clear summary to me, Andy. Of course you are writing it with the benefit of hindsight, whereas the race organisers have to do some pretty swift thinking 'on the hoof' during the 24 hour period leading up to race start. But they probably have access to the best advice there is regarding the notoriously-hard-to-predict weather and how to react to it.

Will the popularity of these events (UTMB in particular) be adversly impacted by the last 3 years experiences? For many people it is The Big One of the year, and they have spent months of training specifically for it. Might folk go for the GRP as an alternative? So far as I know it had always gone ahead as planned, which must be a temptation.


The Sunday Adventure Club said...

I was amazed they didn't have a 100 mile bad weather course now. After all its the distance the runners have trained to run, throw in some good steep climbs and rugged terrain maybe in a few loops and i'm sure everyone would be happy. 100k is a whole different world. I think it will affect future entries and see a lot more doing the GRP, the 100 in Andorra and the like.

Anonymous said...

My earlier comments above were written from my couch potato perspective. I've since been corrected by Bob "Action Man" Allison who eschews the comforts of the couch in favour of going through the discomfort of actually doing these races and collecting the proverbial tee shirts.

In 2011 heavy winds delayed the start of the GRP by 2 hours. And the high point check @ the Pic du Midi (c 3,000m) was by-passed, thus shortening the route and missing out (arguably) the best bit of the whole route, certainly the highest point of the whole route.

In 2012 bad weather again delayed the GRP start by 2 hours. When it came to the Pic du Midi it seems that the front guys got over. Folk further back seemed to have an option to do it or by-pass it (5 hours time "penalty" for folk who went for the bypass option.) (Bob chose to go up 'n over the top, good man that he is). The end results were subsequently a bit of a mish mash of folk who had done the summit option and those who had gone for the by-pass option, which sounds a bit messy and imprecise.

At the end of the day, though, the GRP race has been "interrupted" by weather in both the past 2 years; and the race organisers have had to do some quick thinking at short notice; so it isn't that different to UTMB after all.