It’s a blustery, rainy 27th of August 2010. The crowd around the church in Chamonix is large. It includes 2300 runners, family, friends and spectators. We’re packed in like sardines and their is no division between runners and spectators. Has no one thought of barriers? Everyone is waiting for the start of the 2010 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Standing in the crowd, eighteen months of pent up thoughts and emotions are brewing up inside me. When will the stupid false motivation broadcast by the organizers stop and when can we finally get this thing on the road…? Good golly – Vangelis… I can’t stand Vangelis!
Finally – it’s 1830 and we’re off – sort of… If you’ve been to Chamonix you know that the streets are narrow, particularly the one that runs down from the church through the city. Although the street is cordoned off it seems to take forever until the 2300 runners actually start running. But this is all cool. The crowd is going crazy and you feel like a rock star.
With the start we’re off on what I feel will be an unprecedented adventure. Within the limits of the next forty-six hours we are going to pit ourselves against 166KM of trails, mountains, the weather and each runner’s personal baggage. I’m fired up!
We reach Chamonix’s city limits and head off onto the trails at a smooth, light clip. Everything I think I’ll need over the next forty-six hours is on my back. The temperature is cool and a light drizzle has started again. Many runners stop to don their rain gear – I’m going to wait a bit longer – a cool drizzle is no problem. As we jog along in a mass we reach the first hills towards La Charme. This is going to be good… Shortly after one of the early support stops I decide to stop, don my parka and unpack my hiking polls – it is after all going to be a long night.
By now the sun has gone down, the rain continues and we continue to move up hill as a silent group. At last we’ve reached the crest and are headed back down into the darkness. The rain has turned the ski slope we’re on into a slip and slide. I fall on my ass at least twice, curse, regain my composure and continue to move down. In the distance I can hear the announcer in Saint-Gervais and because he’s speaking French and is still some distance away I imagine that he is calling the runners out by name as they enter the first large rest area at kilometer 21.
After finally leaving the single track mud trail we were on we now enter a small road where I’m able to stretch my legs out a bit. This feels great. I pull up alongside a Frenchman. We exchange pleasantries and he tells me that the race has been canceled. What!?! The race has been canceled? I can’t believe that and tell him that I think that’s only a rumor. In fact, we should start our own silly rumor… The UTMB has been canceled because of rain. Come on!
The country path we’re on quickly turns into a village street and I can really stretch my legs out. This feels great. The noise of the announcer is getting closer and I’m looking forward to a bowl of soup, some salami and cheese… Upon arrival in Saint-Gervais I cross the timing mat and am pulled up by a race volunteer who yells something at me in French. I reply, “J'ne pas parler le Francais”. She then tells me that the race has been canceled. Unh!?! The race is canceled? WTF!?! I continue to walk through the rest area and attempt to gain some additional information. Chaos reigns. No one has a clue what is going one… My disappointment is huge. WTF!?!
Up to the start of the UTBM the organization was simply fantastic; runners were made to feel like professional athletes - it was very cool. 21 kilometers into the race the organizers stopped the event as it had been raining all day and the trail was obstructed by mud slides. (On the surface a good safety call.)
After standing around for what seemed forever and trying to piece things together from other runners and volunteers one of the organizers announced that the race was definitively over and that there would be no restart; runners should turn in their bibs and time chips starting at 1000 the next morning. We stood around in the rain waiting for the organizers to recover us back to Chamonix via train and bus. On the bright side, standing around talking to people I met some pretty cool people.
Now the disconcerting creeps in...
At some point during the course of the night the organizers, after certainly taking several heated calls from their sponsors decided to "restart" the race on Saturday at 1000. This "restart" would be 98KM versus the full 166KM, but it would be a "challenging and exciting event."
Meanwhile we had traveled by train and bus back to Chamonix. I arrived back in town at about 0125 and went back to the sports center where I had dropped off my race drop bag to pick it up. I picked up my bag and headed back to our campground to take a shower and get some sleep. No one at the sport center mentioned that a “restart” was planned and I should consider leaving my bag...
The organizers decided to officially publish the race restart via mobile phone text message. Several SMS with the weather and other crap were sent out over the course of Friday night. When after waking up at about 0700, I found that I had an SMS that arrived at 0420 which said that "Buses for Courymour depart at 0630 limited to 1000". I had no idea what this message meant and disregarded it. This note was apparently the official notice that the race was going to restart and that runners should check in at 0630 to be moved to Courymour to start the new race. How the 1000 runners were going to be selected from 2300 registered runners was pretty easy since no one understood what the message meant unless you had a manager along that was actually in contact with the race organizers, or you decided to stay up all night.
According to the organizer's rules the organization reserves the right to delay the race two hours due to weather or environmental conditions. After that point the race must be cancelled and runners refunded (It cost me 160 Euro to get registered plus the associated travel and billeting costs (we camped)). The organizer must have been aware of the bad weather the day prior to the event and it rained all day and all night Friday into Saturday. It becomes obvious that it was simply too much of a financial risk (refund runners money and losses by the major sponsors) to cancel the race so in my mind the organizers intentionally started and then stopped the race.
Was it the right call to stop the race? Yes, absolutely - the trail was blocked and could have seriously imperiled the safety of the runners.
Was it wrong to restart the race? Yes, from my perspective as an amateur athlete absolutely. It's kind of funny that all of the pro-athletes except for one were able to compete during the restart. According to one of the race blogs I’ve been following, the one professional athlete decided that the UTMB was BS. His manager knew of another race in Italy and they took off to compete in it.
The race organizers have made no official statement regarding their decisions or plans for reimbursement or preferential registration in 2011 for those runners that were unable to participate. The major sponsor is heralding the event as a major success... Go figure!
I keep going back and forth about whether I want to sign up for the race in 2011. On the one hand the UTMB is a world class ultramarathon. There are only a few races as significant. On the other hand I don't like the way things continue to unfold. It's not about the money - I'll get over that. It's about the cavalier and perceived attitude of the organizer and their sponsors. Frustrates me...
So here we are a week later… I’ve been frustrated most of the week and only made it out to run four times. I’m leaving the UTMB alone for the moment and concentrating on other events. We’ll see what unfolds over the course of the next months and weeks.