Shaun Stewart Races the UTMB

Shaun gives us a brilliant insight into running in the most iconic trail race in the world, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. He is the first Donegal man to ever take part in this elite challenge.

What is the UTMB and what made you want to race it?

It’s a trail running race that takes place annually on the last weekend of August in the Alps, following the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland. It has a distance of 171 kilometres (106 mi), and a total elevation gain of around 10,040 metres (32,940 ft). It is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world and is the most competitive with more than 2,500 starters including the best elites from around the world. I first saw the race on Eurosport back in 2013 and thought it would be something cool to try and as I got into trail running, I soon realised that the UTMB is the pinnacle event of the sport. It’s quite difficult to get an entry though, you must accumulate qualification points in order to apply and then it’s a lottery process as there are so many runners wanting a place. I started the process in 2014, racing all over Europe, increasing my race distance and gathering the necessary qualification points.

What was your training like before UTMB?

For a race like the UTMB you have to dedicate at least six months or more in preparation for the milage and elevation gain. This involves not only running but a lot of strength work so that you don’t get injured. Most of my running was done in Ards Forest Park and on Muckish and the Seven Sisters. In a normal week I would run six days, sometimes twice a day, averaging around 100km to 150km with about 3000-5000 meters of elevation gain. A lot of my training was at a steady pace and the longer runs at weekends would be in the hills with my race pack so that I was conditioned to carrying the extra weight that would be required on race day. I would often do repetitions of Muckish, going up and down 3-4 times to try and simulate the demands of the steep mountains in the Alps.

What was your longest training day?

The longest session I did was just over 6 hours in the mountains, covering the Seven Sisters course over and back. This was at the end of a big week so I had run about 150 kilometers that week with 6000m of elevation gain. Anything longer causes too much fatigue and it takes me too long to recover, you’re better building up the layers over time.

Did you do any races in preparation?

I only raced at Gaelforce mountain run in Galway where I finished third. It’s a short race around 30 kilometers but it’s over tough terrain and it was a much faster pace than I was training for. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have raced it as I picked up a couple of niggles which hampered my training for 2-3 Shaun Stewart crossing the line with fellow Irishman Gavin Byrne 5 weeks after. I had planned to run the qualifying race for the national team but decided to skip it so that I would be fresh for UTMB. Where does the race start and were you familiar with the route at all? The race is based in Chamonix, France. It’s a beautiful village situated at the base of Mont Blanc; the place is a paradise for trail runners, mountaineers, paragliders and every other outdoor sport you can think of. I’ve been there three times for races in the past and a few family holidays, so I know the area well. In 2014 I travelled over with my parents to race the OCC, which takes in the last 54km of the UTMB course and I absolutely loved it, finishing 20th overall. After that I decided that I would work towards doing the full lap of Mont Blanc and the 171km distance. I returned then in 2017 to run the CCC which is the last 100km of the route and finished 53rd, so the only part of the route I was unfamiliar with was the first 80km.

What were your expectations for the race?

It was my first time running 100miles and the UTMB so I had to be careful that I gave the distance and course the respect it deserved. The main thing was to finish and try as best I could to enjoy the experience, I knew that it was going to challenge me physically and mentally, but I also knew I had been preparing for this not only in the months leading up but in the previous years when I was trying to qualify. I had a target of sub 30 hours, which would normally mean a top 100 position, so this was a realistic goal going on my previous results but I was also aware that a lot can go wrong over 100 miles so I wasn’t getting too hung up on split times.

How did the race play out?

The race starts in Chamonix town center at 4pm, so you are already awake for eight hours before the race starts. The crowds that turn out to see the race are massive, like the Tour De France of trail running. On my way to the start line I met a couple of other Irish lads who I knew and who are strong runners, we sat together on the start line in the baking heat as the atmosphere grew and the nerves kicked in. The first 8km of the race follows a river and is nice rolly trail, I decided I would go out very steady and not get carried away with the fast pace at the start. I spent some time running with Dubliner Gavin Byrne and Corkman Brian Buckley, who were running at a similar pace and are specialists over this distance. The first major climb is up a ski slope to 1800m and although it is not super high it is enough to bring on a headache as I didn’t allow myself a chance to acclimatize to the altitude pre-race. Once over the top I descend into Saint Gervais where spectators line the road into the first check point and a chance to refill water bottles and grab some fruit and sweets. The next checkpoint is at 30km where I got to see my crew and good friend Lonan O’Farrell for the first time, with a bag full of spare clothes should I need anything and my own food and drinks to keep me fueled. At this point I’m slightly behind my target times but I’m feeling good and pacing myself as I Shaun in the Alps. put on the headtorch for the night ahead. The next 14km is a 1200m ascent up to Col du Bonhomme and I am moving nicely before I drop down to the Chapieux feed station and meet Brian again. We leave together and run for a bit chatting before he powers on ahead towards Col de la Seigne and the 960m climbing in front. This climb goes on forever and there’s a cold wind blowing off the snowfields around Col du Pyramides at 2565m so I layer up and wish I had packed a heavier pair of gloves but all is good and the head ache is easing. The next section goes smoothly and I move steadily down the descent to the beautiful Italian village of Courmayeur. I arrive into the feed station at 80km, Brian and Gavin are both there and we share a quick word and each set off just before sunrise. Gavin catches up with me and we climb the 816m together, the views on this section are stunning but it’s doing little to mask the fatigue building up in the legs. After 100km the tough climb up the Grand Col Ferret goes well but it is very cold with the wind chill and I need to layer up, one hour later and on the other side of the mountain I am basking in 25 degree heat! Then there’s a long 21km 1800m descent and the legs are suffering now and I’m starting to shuffle downhill. I make it to the next checkpoint and Gavin is there, it’s starting to feel like groundhog! The temperature is hot now and I’m chewing salt tablets to starve off any cramp, my head and stomach are good but the legs are shot so I power on the ups and shuffle the downs. Myself and Gavin keep passing each other so we agree to run together, no point yo-yoing each other when we can benefit from the distraction of each other’s company. We meet with Lonan again and start to smell the finish line, only 30 odd kilometres to go. We drop down the ski slope into Vallorcine and are met by Galway man Gavan Hennigan who lives in Chamonix cheering us on, before heading for the final 860m climb in the dark. Once up top I can see the lights of Chamonix below and we spend the next hour descending in zig-zags, making it into town after midnight. There’s a great Irish crew waiting at the finish and finally 31hrs24mins later we cross the line.. lap of Mont Blanc complete. Tired, beat up, satisfied.

Were you happy with how it went?

Overall I have to be happy, I had a fairly uneventful race, I paced it well and did everything I needed to do to finish 128th in my first UTMB. I think I could run it in around 28hours and place inside the top 80 if I had another crack at it.

Is the plan to return again in the future?

I hope to in the next couple years but I have to gain entry again so it could take me a few years to get back. It’s a big commitment and you need to allow time for everything else so it can be demanding on myself and the family. I would approach my training slightly different too, running less frequent but with longer weekend runs carrying a weighted pack.

What are your racing plans for 2022?

I have nothing set in stone yet but I hope to return to some multisport and adventure racing. Last year was spent running so I’m keen to get back on the bike and kayak. I plan on racing the Coast to Coast Ireland and hopefully the Seven Sisters Skyline. I would like to thank Lorcan Roarty (Wild Atlantic Camp) and Steve Sweeney from Errigal Campers for their support over this past year