Living like a monk for the UTMB

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Earlier this year, for a feature published in the current issue of Trail Running, regular contributor Damian Hall told us how (and why) he is preparing for this year's UTMB

My name’s Damian and I have a UTMB problem. I first did the 105.5-mile Alpine race in 2015 and it blew my mind. Everything was bigger than any race I’d done before. The mountains were bigger; with never-ending climbs leading to ouchy descents. The crowds were bigger; the start was like a rock festival, the finish was like the London Marathon but just for me, and crowds lined the course, ringing cowbells long into the night. And the competition was bigger; from Kilian Jornet to Francois D’Haene, Tim Tollefson to 2018 Western States 100 winner Jim Walmsley, the 2,5000 runners included the very best in the world.

After my first UTMB, where I placed 29th in 26 hr and 41 min, I instantly wanted to do it again. 

I wanted another hit of glorious pain and infectious goodwill (my legs felt differently, but they tend to whinge). The next 12 months passed too slowly. 

I returned in 2016 and placed 19th in 25hr 12min. An improvement, but I was still fatigued from running the 630-mile South West Coast path in 11 days. I thought twice would be enough, then I could move on to other races. But like a teenage holiday romance, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

Last year I was bolstered by my best ever training block, and had fellow inov-8 ambassador Nicky Spinks crewing for me – you can’t feel sorry for yourself when the Double Bob Graham record holder is in front of you, and when she tells you to eat, you eat. Irunfar.com labelled 2017’s UTMB “the best field ever assembled for a trail ultramarathon”, so I’d have taken 12th place (in 22hr 32 sec, on a slightly shortened course), 1st Brit and 1st vet beforehand. However, I finished just 15 minutes from the top 10 and any other year my time would have been in the 10 fastest. Plus, I was briefly in the hallowed 10th spot but let it slip, which has haunted me ever since. I thought three UTMBs would be enough. It wasn’t. I can’t get it out of my head. 

I love Ann Trason’s quote that running 100 miles is like living a year in one day, and I go through the full gamut of emotions during the race. I want those feelings again. I want to feel the desperation, the fear, the gratitude, the dawn turning Mont Blanc pink, all that cheese, the cowbells, the return to Chamonix’s welcoming embrace.

It’s rare that Brits get into the top 10 at UTMB. In the last nine years only two – Jez Bragg and Ryan Smith – have managed it. I got undeserved attention from last year, but I’m uncomfortable with being applauded for placing 12th. I want a placing I can be really proud of, but the odds are against me.

The people I’m trying to race are mostly full-time runners, younger, faster (several have sub-2:20 marathons), childless, and they live and train in big mountains. I live and train in the Cotswolds, 

I have two young children, support my family as a freelance journalist, and I’m quite old (42) and relatively slow (2:38 marathon).

The fact I’m a clear underdog gives me a buzz. If I get everything right, in both my training and racing, and opponents make mistakes, then I have a chance. But I do have to get everything right, so this year my training is even more monastic than before. 

I’m pretty boring anyway – all I ever talk about is running. But from now till Friday 31 August I’m going to be even duller. I’ll have no time for social life or social occasions (I’ll miss a family wedding). Every moment is geared towards the Big Dance.

That means four-hour round trips twice a week to the Brecon Beacons – where the climbs are less than half what they’ll be in the Alps – to power-hike up and run down lumpy stuff. I’ll do some Snowdon reps too, and travel to Chamonix to run the UTMB course over three days to condition my legs. 

I’ll continue working with movement specialist and technique coach Shane Benzie from Running Reborn, who's really improved my descending and overall form. I’ll do regular strength workouts and weight-vest hikes, daily foam rolling and dynamic exercises, and see personal trainer and sports therapist Matt Holmes regularly to pre-empt against niggles. And I’ll be going to bed at 10pm every night to maximise rest and training adaptations.

I’ve given up booze (I don’t have any friends left to drink it with anyway). I’ll eat fridge-loads of fruit and vegetables. I’ll chat to sports dietician Renee McGregor if I have any nutrition queries – such as, 

if a 1kg tub of Meridian Cashew Nut Butter only lasts me two days, is that so healthy it's unhealthy? 

There are so many things we can all do when we’re not actually running that will improve us as runners. Don’t wear restrictive shoes and try to have good posture when sitting and standing. 

Rest and sleep are key parts of training, too. Maximise them with a comfy bed, dark curtains and no screens in the bedroom. 

My good friends Matt and Ellie Green from Summit Fever Media are making a film about this year’s race, called Underdog. It adds some pressure, but it’s welcome pressure. Plus it’s another chance to talk about UTMB. Because whenever I mention it around my wife and kids, I’m rightly told to shut up and stop being boring.

■ Learn more about Underdog at: summitfevermedia.com/underdog-film

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