My road to the 2021 UTMB possibly began ten years earlier in 2011 on a thru-hike of the 600 kilometer Alpine stretch of the GR-5 from Lac Léman to Nice. My wife and I were young adventurous parents, hauling our 20-month-old son across endless passes in a backpack, getting routinely pummeled by vertical gain, weather, and sketchy camping options as we traversed range after range heading south. By the end of the trip we were not deterred nor scared away by the steep and physical mountains – rather our curiosity had been piqued and our love affair had begun with these massifs of limestone and granite. We started coming back to the Alps as much as we could, first every other summer, and then every summer, and finally moving here for a spell in 2022. I tell everyone that will listen; these mountains have a way of grabbing your soul and not letting go. They are special, majestic, and proud; they are like no other mountain range on the planet.
The severity and difference between the Alps and even the larger ranges in the United States is immediately apparent to many Americans when they come over to race. I was lucky when I ran UTMB in 2021 in that I had a copious amount of time to train on the trails, and by the time I hit the start line I knew every kilometer of the course. I realize this is a luxury that most people don’t have, which begs the question: how can you prepare for running in the big European mountains before coming over for the first time? I’ve tried to synthesize some of the main differences in five categories below.
Europeans have a different psychological approach to trails than many Americans are used to. In the Alps, trails have historically been used to connect Point A to Point B, linking small, remote villages using the same walking path that has literally been used for thousands of years. If you have to walk from one village to the next, you’re naturally going to take the route that’s shortest in distance, even if it means heading straight up a seemingly impossible grade to a col covered with sketchy scree and exposed on both sides. If the other option is to walk all the way down the valley, around the corner, and back up again, your choice is immediately clear.
I hear a lot of Americans throw around the phrase “Europeans don’t believe in switchbacks”, and in many cases that’s correct. The trails in the Alps are steep. Much steeper than any trail that most Americans have access to in the States. If you’ve spent time in places like the Sierra Nevada, you might be accustomed to trails that were built relatively recently and designed with a maximum grade in mind to support the constant travel of livestock trains and crews. There’s no such limit on grades in Europe, and trails encountered on a normal basis will often exceed a 20% grade for a sustained period of time. To head out on these trails without poles is asking for trouble, and unless your name is Kilian or François, you’re not running up these climbs.
Not only are the trails in the Alps steep, but they can be technical too. I have spent most of my running career gliding over the comparatively smooth and buttery trails of the Bay Area in California, where we are blessed with paths so gentle that they can often be tackled in road shoes. In the Alps, trails are routinely so rocky and narrow that they are unrunnable to us mere mortals. To be honest, these aren’t even considered “technical” trails here, they are just the norm. There are also aerial sections described as “passages délicats” that can contain steep and scary exposure, ladders, cables, and ferrata embedded in the rock. In general you won’t find long sections of these during the more mainstream races, but they will often pop up in creative routes or more local events. It’s all about perspective, really – I made the mistake once of describing the Tor des Géants course to an American runner as not being technical, and then they were shocked when they got over and realized how steep and rocky it was. And yet the trail is entirely on the Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2 large hiking trails through Aosta valley, has no ferrata, nor is ever really exposed. By local standards, it’s far from a technical trail.
The good news? In general, even the high passes of the Alps lie at a lower elevation than the passes encountered in American classics like Hard Rock or Leadville. The highest pass during UTMB is around 2,500m (8,250 ft) and even the highest pass during TOR is at 3,300m (10,900 ft). While altitude can still certainly be a problem, it’s really the steepness and ruggedness of the terrain that you should spend your time preparing for.
How do you do that if you’re preparing to come over here for the first time? I try to get my athletes to mimic the terrain as closely as they can. Unless you’re living in the dead flat Midwest, you should have access to something nearby that is steep and rocky, even if it’s a short climb up a local park knoll. Get out there on that terrain and practice. Bring your poles, bring a full pack, and work on moving efficiently up and down that terrain. If you can get to longer and higher terrain then absolutely make it a priority to get out there. Even a few sessions on similar trails can prepare you both mentally and physically for what you will encounter in the Alps.
Training wise, it’s hard to get more value for your time than by doing simple hill repeats. Targeting a threshold effort of RPE 7-8, do 4-6 minute repeats on a hill and jog back down for recovery. If you can find a stretch long enough I like to continue climbing even during my recovery time – practice “floating” up the trail while still being efficient enough to bring your heart rate down and get some rest. It’s great if you can also match terrain during these repeats, but it’s also perfectly fine to do these on a firetrail or even road if that’s all you have. The goal is to build fitness and strength while training your mind to sustain an uphill push.
Food and Aid Stations
Ahhh, French, Italian, and Swiss cuisine – widely considered to be some of the best in the world! Fine cheeses, delicious bread, al dente pasta, bottomless gelato, and bowls of fondu… okay, now get that out of your head because you’re not going to be eating any of that during your big run. The truth is that for many Americans the food options on course are one of the biggest challenges.
Aid stations in US races don’t look like aid stations anywhere else in the world. Even the smallest American trail race probably has someone with a connection to one of the big nutrition companies, and the aid stations are stocked with products from Gu, Clif, Tailwind, Skratch, or Spring. On top of the high tech fueling options, there’s usually an all-you-can-eat buffet of both salty and sweet snacks – salted potatoes, chips, PB&Js, quesadillas, grilled cheese, gummy bears, M&Ms, hard candy, granola bars, and the like. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
That’s all great, but you won’t find that kind of food racing in the Alps. European aid stations are, in general, pretty minimal and bare bones. They will have plenty of calories to get you through (if you’re used to eating that kind of food), but will usually be lacking in the diversity that Americans are used to. A typical aid station in a long endurance event in France will have crackers, salami or cured meats, some hard cheese, and maybe broth or noodle soup. In Italy you’ll likely be able to score a bowl of mediocre pasta (the same pasta that you’ve been eating for the past two days, keep in mind) or some oranges and pound cake. For hydration there is usually water, always Coke, often coffee, sometimes beer, and rarely electrolytes. Throw in the fact that you might not speak the same language as the wonderful volunteers serving you, and you can start to see the recipe for disaster.
I can’t tell you how many runners I’ve seen travel over here and expect to be able to cruise through the aid stations and grab their favorite flavors of gels along the way, only to get their entire nutrition plan trainwrecked when they have to start eating salami and pounding flat soda. So what’s the solution? Know what you’re getting yourself into, and prepare ahead of time.
You should start training on similar food to what you will be eating from the aid stations a few months before your event. For my athletes that are running UTMB, I have them head out with crackers, salami, and cheese in their loaded packs during their peak training cycles the months before. If you can get used to digesting a hunk of fatty meat on your long training runs, you’ll be more easily able to digest it during the second night of your race. It turns out that this type of food is actually great to run on – it’s packed with calories in a very small volume – but if you’re used to the normal pure sugar stream in American races it will definitely take some time to transition. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re going to have an even tougher time over here, so be prepared to carry even more of your own food along the way.
Remember you don’t have to only eat from aid stations, of course, but make sure you bring your preferred nutrition with you. While food and electrolyte options in the sports stores are getting better in Europe, they are still often quite more expensive and lack the diversity of flavors you might be used to. If you have gels that you know work for you, bring them along! You’ll need to carry them with you along the way, and meter out stashes for your drop bag locations to keep you going around the loop. Do the same with electrolytes, although if you can get to the point where you can fuel yourself on Coke you’ll never go thirsty in the Alps. Personally, I never drink Coke outside of a race or long effort, but it’s hard to beat when you’re starting to fade and need a bit of sugar and caffeine in one dose.
One final difference between European aid stations and their American counterparts is that there are often less stops in the Euro events. Back in the day when UTMB evaluated courses for their point system in the lottery, they would often deduct points from big American races because the aid stations were too numerous and too close together. It’s not unheard of to go for 3 or 4 hours between stops in the Alps. Usually you can carry enough food for that stretch, but in the middle of a summer heat wave water capacity can become a real issue.
Luckily these mountains are dotted with the ubiquitous water bassin, a spring or river fed water trough often flowing with some of the best tasting water you’ll ever drink. Americans are often a bit sketched out by these on-trail water fountains – are they safe to drink from? Will we get sick? The answer is: it depends. In general, these bassins are safe to drink from unless they are specifically labeled “Eau non potable” (even then that can just mean that the water is not routinely tested, but safe to drink). Many of these bassins source their water from a pipe that’s routed high above the trail, and the natural habitat of grazing animals, to pull water from a source much higher up. Sometimes they are piped directly from a spring. If you have a characteristically weak stomach, or are uncomfortable drinking from natural water sources, an easy solution is to carry a portable water bottle filter such as a BeFree. This will not only allow you to drink from the bassins safely, but will also allow you to fill up at more wild sources such as rivers or lakes along the way.
Gear and Weather
Many runners are shocked the first time they take a look at the mandatory equipment list for a long mountain ultra like UTMB. It can include items like a pair of tights, clear eye glasses, collapsable bowl and cup, and a portable cellular phone capable of staying on for the duration of the event. Not only are Americans often not used to extensive mandatory gear lists, but they’re also not often used to running with such a loaded pack. The mandatory gear list has become the subject of some debate recently, but I fall firmly in the camp that it’s okay to regulate a minimal level of preparedness when heading out into the mountains. Trail running is growing at an exponential rate, and just because a runner signs up for a mountain ultra doesn’t mean that they have mountain travel and survival experience. Whatever your stance on the issue, rules are rules, and you certainly don’t want to risk being disqualified from the race that you worked for years to get into.
It’s important to be aware of the required gear ahead of time and to get your kit together long before race day. Why? Because you need to be training with your full pack on so you’re not trying it out for the first time come the big event. I’m not saying you have to do every single training run with a fully loaded pack, but you should head out at least a couple of times to simulate race conditions, make sure everything fits, and work out any flaws. One of my athletes recently ran a local 25k race with the same kit she is taking to a long and technical 100k ultra. I’m sure she felt like a fool at points running along with a full pack on, but now we both know that her system works and she can carry everything she needs for her A goal race.
We can’t talk about gear in the Alps without talking about poles. Most Americans are not used to running with poles, or at least only employ them in very special situations. I too was blindsided on my first summer spent running in Chamonix. Until that point I had only considered bringing poles on backpacking trips, or in races where the climbs exceeded 20%… and after hauling out of the Chamonix valley on foot day after day, I realized that ALL the climbs in the Alps exceed 20%. I sulked back into the fancy gear shops in town and paid full price for my first pair of Black Diamond Carbon Z-poles.
Seriously though, you will be using poles over here, so you might as well start practicing now. Start using them on both uphills and downhills – it’s good to have a set of collapsible poles that you can easily store in your pack, but most of the time people keep them out for descents too. You’ll want them for navigating the rocky, technical trails, and for taking some of the load off your knees on the way down. I’ve spent full summers where I extended my poles at the start of my first run and didn’t collapse them again until leaving for the airport. You should know how to stow them, however, and it’s a good idea to build your arm muscles up a bit before you hit the really steep stuff. Poles also have the nice side-effect of forcing good climbing form by keeping your upper body upright and allowing you to breathe while rotating your core with each step. Work on keeping a fast cadence, taking short footsteps, and trying to be as efficient as possible.
The second part of this equation is of course the weather, or more accurately the idea that the weather can change incredibly quickly in the Alps. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Sierra and got good at watching a thunderstorm cycle lackadaisically unfold over the course of four days, only to open up and barrage us at precisely 4 PM, long after we’ve got our tent safely set up and secured. Mont Blanc has a few things to say about the weather here, and to say that it can change quickly is an understatement. Mountain locals know that there’s no point in looking at a weather forecast more than 48 hours out, and even that can change at a whim depending on what happens over the next 24 hours.
It’s just plain unsafe to head into these mountains without the proper gear to survive a storm, at potentially cold temperatures, in exposed terrain. Many runners make the mistake of bringing enough clothes to keep them warm while they are moving, but would leave them woefully unprepared if they would ever have to stop. Many racers were left freezing on trail in the middle of the night during the 2021 TDS when the race was halted due to a death on the course. I don’t head out on a long push without an insulating top layer like a micro puffy, as well as insulating bottom layers such as tights, rain pants, or down pants. Ask yourself the question – if you had to stop and wait for help or a rescue, could you stay warm?
So, how do you get ready for this besides getting your gear together and making sure it fits into your pack? To echo the theme thus far, get out there and test it out in conditions as close as you can get to what might actually happen in a race. If you’ve got new rain or insulating gear, deliberately head out into inclemate weather so that you can try it out. This way you’re close to home if anything goes wrong and you know you are returning to a warm shower and comfortable bed when it’s all over. The more you can build good habits during your training, the easier it will be to find success come race day.
One more thing to think about when coming over to the Alps is also likely one of the most exciting. It’s a blast to travel across the world for a race, and maybe even extend your stay to turn it into a general vacation as well. While the travel can be a great motivation for doing races in foreign countries, it’s also important to consider how much of a stressor it can be on you at the same time.
My best advice is to get in the mindset of embracing the trip (and the race) as a cultural experience. It’s going to all feel very different than what you’re used to (as emphasized in the points above.) That’s okay! In fact, that’s part of why you’re doing this. Embrace the whole journey and know that there will be parts where you are uncomfortable. There will be parts where the food is terrible, you don’t understand what people are saying, you’re jet-lagged and exhausted, lost, confused, or slightly sick… and that’s all part of the experience.
There are definitely lots of ways you can get prepared for the travel aspect as well. You can start with the initial booking and planning of the trip – try to give yourself as much time as you can before and after the race (while still ideally keeping your job at home). Often it’s enough to ask for time off, highlighting the fact that this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you, and it’s a goal that you’ve been focused on for months, and really years, of your life. People respect an ultrarunner’s ability to singularly focus on one mission and do everything in our power to get it done, even while considering us slightly crazy at the same time (both emotions are likely correct). Know that jet-lag is real, and give yourself at least 3-4 days to get prepared for a big effort after landing. Also realize that nobody wants to fly back home directly after finishing a big mountain push, so try to schedule some space on the opposite end as well. Travel is a stressor that affects your whole nervous system – you wouldn’t head into UTMB without tapering, right? So don’t head into it without giving yourself enough time to get settled either.
The second simple thing you can do is to try to learn a bit of the language and culture of the area you are visiting, especially if it’s your first time there. Every place in the world has certain local customs and expectations, and your life will be much easier if you can quickly adapt to these ways. In France and Italy it’s expected to say both hello and goodbye to a group of people when entering a room, aid station, or even passing them on the trail. In Italy you’ll literally hear “Ciao, Ciao!” thousands of times while out on the course. Don’t fight this custom – jump in with enthusiasm!! It looks incredibly rude to be the American that walks into a place and doesn’t even say hi to everyone. Take some time to observe and do your best to fit in, and if something doesn’t work out, just laugh it off and eat some more cheese and salami.
With prevalent access to apps like Duolingo, it’s easy to pick up enough of the host language to at least get through the aid stations and get a bed in the lifebases when you need one. If you like languages or are up for a challenge, commit to really upping your language skills before your visit. One of my friends didn’t know much Italian the first time they did the Tor des Géants, but seriously studied the language before coming back for a second running of the course. He realized that the Italians often got treated better in the aid stations and got quieter beds in the dormitories for sleeping, so he wanted to be able to converse more fluently with the locals. It totally worked for his second go around, and the local Italians were impressed. Not only is it fun to try to pick up another language for a running event, it’s a great way to show respect as a foreigner traveling to a new place.
Ditch the Freedom Feet and Go Metric!
I admit that for years of coming over to the Alps to race and run all summer, I didn’t switch my watch to metric until I ran UTMB in 2021. I eventually realized how silly it was to keep doing calculations in my head and trying to convert to miles of distance and feet of elevation. I remember pulling up topo maps on my phone and then having to divide by 3.3 to figure out how far away I was from the next big pass.
It’s big and scary, but just try it – put your watch in metric during some of your training runs and start getting used to kilometers of distance and meters of elevation. It’s actually not as hard as you think, and you’ll likely find that your brain makes the transition pretty seamlessly after a few long runs. It’s invaluable once you’re over here and on course to be able to reference the course maps and aid station distance charts and know exactly where you are and how far it is to the next checkpoint. Plus, once you switch to minutes/kilometer, you won’t even realize how slowly you just slogged up that 1400 meter climb.
That’s it for the big ideas of how to succeed at a European mountain race in the Alps. Don’t let these differences dissuade you from taking on a big audacious goal like traveling across the world to race. And don’t let the high dollar sponsors and multiyear waitlists of the signature events keep you away either – for every UTMB and Lavaredo there are five even more charming (and difficult) races that you can sign up for and be a part of, often being the only American in the field. If you’re on the fence, just try it! What’s the worst thing that could happen – you DNF and have to spend the rest of your days testing the human limits of consumption of cappuccino and gelato in a charming Italian mountain village….
Mat is currently living in the French Alps preparing for a couple of gnarly local races and one really, really big one at the end of August this year. He loves helping Americans get ready for their big efforts in the Alps by making them eat more salami and crackers than is probably healthy for anyone. Head on over to Flowstate Running to learn more about his coaching and philosophy.
You don’t have to convince me to train on salami!!
It didn’t really get old until day 3. I can’t decide whether we should bring more or less this year!!!