Curious to know how to prepare for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, one of the world's most famous trail running routes? Professional runner Juuso Simpanen shares his tips and guidance with Aonach.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious trail running races. Crossing Italy, Switzerland, and France, this 171-kilometer course features a challenging ascent of 10,000 meters, making it the ultimate event in the eyes of numerous athletes.
Last year, Juuso Simpanen made his UTMB debut with the fastest-ever time recorded by a Finnish participant. He completed the course in just under 24 hours, securing a 31st-place finish. His aspiration for 2023 was to reduce his previous time by 90 minutes.
Read how he prepared for the race based on his experience last year and learn how his strategy faltered due to a leg injury leading to his withdrawal after 127 kilometers.
How did your UTMB preparation differ from last year?
Last year, I consumed 60-70 grams of carbohydrates per hour, which proved insufficient to sustain my energy levels throughout the race. I focused on training my stomach to larger carbohydrate quantities as part of my training regimen. I began practicing an intake of at least 90-100 grams of carbs per hour. Initially, I encountered issues like stomach pain and diarrhea during my training runs, but I adapted to this higher intake over time.
On the long training runs, I felt much stronger at the end. Notably, I had increased energy levels during the challenging uphill sections. Additionally, my recovery after intense cardiovascular workouts improved noticeably. Regarding the actual race, I felt strong and maintained good energy levels. Regrettably, I couldn't initially keep the pace I had trained for due to the leg injury. However, the energy and fueling strategy did work, and I intend to stick with that approach.
How did you acclimatize to UTMB’s challenging, high-altitude terrain?
Roughly five weeks before the race, I arrived at my training base in Les Contamines, a small village 20 kilometers away from Chamonix, where the race concludes. This allowed ample time to acclimate to the high altitude, as it sits at an elevation of nearly 1,200 meters.
During the first week, I took it easy during the training runs and avoided high-intensity training because the recovery is not that good at altitude. After a week or two, as my body adapted to the altitude, I began a more standard training routine, ascending and engaging in regular workouts.
However, I learned the hard way that recovery at altitude differs from sea level. I may have pushed myself too hard, leading to a leg injury. For future UTMB races, though, I will stay at an even higher altitude because the average elevation of the race is around 1,800 meters, and it's essential to get used to the high altitude.
What other training did you do to prepare for the UTMB?
During the 2022 UTMB event, a challenging aspect was tackling the steep uphill gradients, so I dedicated my training sessions to mastering them, both in Finland and the Alps. Given that the route included climbs exceeding 20-30% inclines, it often resembles more of a hike than a run.
My most demanding training was two months before the race in North Finland, where we have some 400m-high hills. While not exceptionally high, these hills offered steep gradients that pushed my limits.
About three-and-a-half weeks before the race, I did a two-day long run on the UTMB course. On the first day, I covered nearly 85 kilometers with an elevation gain of 6,000 meters. I slept in a little cottage, and then the next day, I ran over 60 kilometers with a gain of 3,500 meters in elevation.
It was a bit too strenuous because I felt leg pain in the subsequent days. I took a few days of rest, but despite feeling physically fit, I decided to take some risks in the race, and unfortunately, it didn't pan out as I had hoped.
To what extent did you familiarize yourself with the route?
I only did a little route familiarization. About three weeks before the race, I completed one long run covering the final 50 kilometers of the course. This allowed me to become acquainted with the route, refine my energy strategy, and test my gear. Additionally, my Airbnb was located along the race route, so I also managed a few shorter 20-30-kilometer runs on the course.
Did your family support your race preparation?
My wife and infant son joined me in Les Contamines five days after my arrival. They stayed with me until roughly a week before the race, after which they returned home to allow me to rest and recover more effectively. This worked well, minimizing the time I spent away from them.
How did you establish your race pace and strategy?
Nearly all my long runs served as race simulations in the final two months leading up to the race. During these sessions, I used the same gear, energy-fueling approach, and pacing as I intended during the race, making it all feel natural.
Drawing from my experience in the previous year's run, I developed a well-thought-out timing plan for each course section. I analyzed past results, scrutinized the splits at aid stations, and evaluated different race sections.
I decided not to push too hard during the first 100k and follow the planned pace and times. I intended to race only during the final 60-70 kilometers, ignoring my watch and simply running as fast as possible.
What items were included in your equipment checklist?
The UTMB provides a standardized mandatory equipment list that remains consistent yearly. This list encompasses many items, so I streamlined my load. Naturally, I carried a significant amount of fuel but calculated the required quantities between each aid station, with my support crew on standby to refill my bag.
To adapt to the added weight, I carried all the necessary gear on each of my long training runs in the two months leading up to the race. Although I didn't weigh my running vests with all the gear, I estimate it to be around 1.5-2 kilograms. While it's crucial to acclimate to the weight, it's essential to exercise caution, as it can impact the strain on your legs.
Do you have any recommendations for beginning the race?
Everyone starts at the same time, with starting positions determined by world rankings. I was fortunate to secure a favorable starting position based on my ranking. If you want a good starting place, you can arrive early at the starting line, but it's unimportant because the race is so long. Everyone must be at the start at least 30 minutes before the race.
What other ultra-trail races or mountain running events would you recommend to runners looking to build their experience and skills before attempting the UTMB?
The UTMB World Series has many different races across the globe, alongside numerous independent events like the NUTS Ylläs Pallas Trail Run. Set amid the midnight sun of Finnish Lapland, this event offers race distances ranging from 30-160k. It's a beautiful experience.
Are there any memorable moments or highlights you'd like to share despite the DNF?
In April, I met a fellow runner during the ISTRIA 100 by UTMB in Croatia. He secured third place, while I finished fifth. We maintained contact, and I knew he would participate in this year's UTMB. After 25k, we randomly saw each other on the course and ran for about five hours together during the night, chatting. It’s always a good experience making friends with fellow trail runners, and it’s one thing that keeps me going back to those events.
Any parting words of encouragement or advice for aspiring trail runners?
Enjoy the process and not the goal itself. You will achieve your goals if you enjoy it and love what you do. Make it a lifestyle, not just a workout or training, so it comes naturally to your schedule and life.