Annually, almost one-third of Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) participants face the heartbreak of a "DNF". In 2023, professional runner Juuso Simpanen joined their ranks due to injury. We sit down with him to uncover the story behind his untimely exit.
Roughly 2,600 runners take on the 171-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) every year, but almost a third record a “DNF” (Did Not Finish) beside their name. While regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious trail running races, it is no walk in the park.
The course features a challenging ascent of 10,000 meters, traversing Italy, Switzerland, and France, and puts even seasoned trail runners to the test. In 2022, Juuso Simpanen made his UTMB debut and completed the race in just under 24 hours, placing 31st.
His goal for 2023 was to shave 90 minutes from his previous time, but an injury during the final weeks of training would see him painfully withdraw at the 127-kilometer mark. A few weeks later, Aonach sat down with him to analyze what happened and how the recovery was going.
How have you handled the disappointment of not completing the race?
It hasn’t been fun. My previous DNF was seven years ago, so I haven't had recent encounters with disappointment. I think I’ve coped well. I've sought out various distractions, such as spending time with my family at the summer cottage, cycling, and enjoying the last warm days in Finland.
I've consciously tried to minimize thinking about what happened, even though it's important to me. I invest significant time in training, preparation, and race-related contemplation. However, our baby arrived three months ago, which has kept me occupied and served as a welcomed diversion.
Could you describe the nature of the injury that ultimately led you to stop the race?
About three-and-a-half weeks before race day, I began experiencing discomfort in my right calf muscle. I took some rest days, but the pain persisted. Unfortunately, I lacked the patience to rest adequately and resumed demanding workouts. I wanted to take advantage of the three weeks leading up to the race, which is crucial for intense training.
Two weeks before the race, I completed my last strenuous workout. However, the pain intensified, leading to a significant reduction in my running. I did some cycling and cross-training, still clinging to hope that the issue would resolve itself.
Following the race, I underwent an MRI, which revealed the initial signs of a stress fracture in my shinbone. It would have been much worse if I had kept going to the finish. While I'm not thrilled about having to withdraw, it was undoubtedly the right decision to prevent further harm.
Did you ever have any doubts about starting the race with the injury?
The worst time was after the last hard training session, about two weeks before the race. During that time, I did my best to rest, and there was some improvement in the last few days. Although I knew it wasn't fully healed, I held onto hope that I could complete the race. I planned to push myself as far as possible and assess the situation from there.
It worsened during a 20-kilometer continuous downhill at around the 100k point. It didn't feel comfortable taking any running steps downhill. It was an easy decision in the end to stop running.
Unfortunately, things worsened during a continuous 20-kilometer downhill stretch around the 100-kilometer mark. Running downhill became increasingly uncomfortable, and the decision to stop running was easy. I could have walked to the finish, but I didn't have the patience to walk.
How long did you debate with yourself about whether to stop or not?
It was almost the whole race. Even in the initial kilometers, running didn't feel right, and I had to reduce my pace right from the beginning. There was a hint of pain right from the start, making the run far from enjoyable.
Did you use any pain medication to manage the injury?
No, I refrained from using NSAIDs. UTMB rules prohibit their use within 24 hours of the race start and during the competition. Additionally, taking pain medication could be detrimental if it masks the pain, potentially leading to further damage if I push my legs too hard.
How did your support crew play a role in deciding whether you should stop or go on?
I always tell my crew before a race to keep me going and get me to the finish line, and they tried to keep me going this time, too. And I appreciate that. However, I ultimately decided to withdraw because I realized that my condition wouldn't improve, and pushing through could have caused more harm.
With hindsight, is there anything you'd wish you'd done differently?
There are many things. Firstly, when I noticed the signs of pain, I could have been more proactive by taking additional rest days and promptly addressing the issue. In hindsight, it's possible that a 7-10-day break could have resolved the problem, but it's hard to say for sure.
Secondly, during the first week, I made some errors during my training in the mountains. It was overly strenuous. Looking ahead to next year, I plan to adopt a more gradual approach during the initial week, focusing on acclimating myself to the extended uphill and downhill sections. This should be gentler on my legs, allowing them to adapt more effectively.
So, you are already planning to run the UTMB 2024?
While I have yet to finalize my race calendar for 2024, if things go as planned, I intend to participate in the event next year and the future. There is room for significant improvement, and I aspire to contend for a spot in the top ten. However, I must learn from my past mistakes to avoid repeating them.
I don't work with a conventional coach; I have a mentor with whom I exchange ideas and receive training guidance. We discussed this morning, and he has committed to helping me avoid overtraining. Given my passion for training and racing, I quickly became overly enthusiastic about both pursuits. With his guidance, I aim to strike a better balance.
I still have one 100-mile race scheduled for the end of this season, and I'm looking forward to participating and performing well in it.
Finally, have you learned a hard lesson on listening to your body?
Yes! It's essential to listen to your body. Moving forward, I will react to all the minor pains and niggles and make necessary adjustments. I understand that I can't simply push through and expect things to work out for the best.
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