Last Sunday, August 29, concluded a week of trail running action at the 2021 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) races held in Chamonix, France. UTMB week includes an alphabet soup of trail races of different distances, including the YCC (4, 8 & 15 km), MCC (40 km), OCC (56 km), CCC (101 km), TDS (145 km), PTL (302 km – teams of 3 runners), and the grand 170-kilometer finale that begins Friday night, the UTMB.
For 2021, the races attracted top American runners including defending UTMB champion Courtney Dauwalter, 2-time top 4 finisher at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Brittany Peterson, 2019 World Long Distance Mountain Running Jim Walmsley, World Mountain Running Championship team gold medalist Hayden Hawks, World Mountain Running Championship junior team silver medalist Maria Dalzot, and former US Mountain Running Team member Josh Eberly just to name a few.
I spoke with Josh Eberly about his experience running the OCC (Orsières to Champex to Chamonix), a 55-kilometer point-to-point course that takes runners from Orsières, Switzerland to the finish line in Chamonix, France. Eberly has run numerous trail races across the United States, represented the United States at the World Mountain Running Championships and NACAC Mountain Running Championships, and is the head coach of the Trail Running Team at Western Colorado University. This was Eberly’s first UTMB experience.
In the following interview Eberly shares with us how his race unfolded, tips for racing “across the pond,” how European trail races compare to those here in the US, tips for young runners and much more.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] Was this your first experience racing at UTMB?
[JOSH EBERLY] The UTMB races are equal to the Super Bowl of races and have always been the top bucket list item for me. I am very fortunate and grateful to have had the support of adidas Terrex. So this experience was not a “normal” one by any means. The adidas Terrex Trail Running Team provided all the necessary resources for their athletes.
They rented out Chalets, eight weeks in advance and provided them to their athletes. This gave the athletes a chance to come over to Chamonix anytime beforehand to get adapted and have the ability to specifically train on the course. Not only did they provide living quarters for the athletes, but also provided a professional chef catering service for every meal, a physical therapist for treatments, and also transportation.
I was fortunate to go over a week early, which was just long enough for me to get adapted and over jet-lag. The adidas slogan is “Only the Best for the Athlete”, and to be honest, it was just that.
[TAYTE] Was this the longest trail race you’ve run? Was it the hardest?
[JOSH] No, I have run a 100k in Hong Kong, several 50-milers in Leadville, Colorado, and a handful of 50ks over the years. As for the hardest, I wouldn’t say it was the hardest, but with around 12,000 feet of vertical gain within 55 kilometers, I would say it was a solid seven out of ten.
[TAYTE] You mentioned this was “not the race you planned for.” What were your expectations going into the race and why did things not go as planned?
[JOSH] My A-Goal was top 10 and B-Goal was top 20. So, yeah [finishing 65th] was not the race I planned for at all. My fitness was very high going into this race. I nailed many intense marathon workouts and was happy with that. After knowing what to expect upon looking at the course profile, I really made a priority to get in a lot of “up and down” training in. I have known from the past that downhill pounding can really impact or derail your race if you don’t do this correctly in training.
So, after all of that, you would think things would have gone better. However, after reality hit me in the second steep downhill of the course, I started to feel my quads. I climbed the next mountain and then started the decline, and really was not able to pound the legs anymore. The engine and energy was great, however, if your quads/legs are spent, then that is a tough thing to overcome.
So, after that I just tried to do the best I could to turn my mindset into the positives. Getting to the finish line and living in the moment was a huge positive for me. It’s easy to just drop out when things are not going your way ( of course if you are injured, that is a different story ). I think the tougher part is to not be afraid to show your insecurities and poor performances.
Realizing that the experienced and top elite runners go through this can show others that it is okay and life goes on. Your results are not a direct reflection of your fitness. This stuff just happens, and it was unfortunate that I traveled all the way to Chamonix to have this happen. I took about 3 hours after the race to have my own “pity party.” Then, I again, changed my mindset and moved on.
Looking back at the mistakes I made whether that was in the race or in training, I made sure to put this in my journal, so I wouldn’t repeat the same for the future. Yes, even at my age (40), I am still learning a lot about this sport. In hindsight, I should have introduced steeper and longer ups and downs to mimic this in my training.
It was definitely my mistake and I thought the moderate grade of up and down training with the high level of my current fitness would be enough to have a solid day without compromise. The positives of the race were that my nutrition and fueling was spot on.
My shoe choice of “adidas Terrex Speed Ultra” was another positive. The comfort and moderate aggressive tread made my feet happy. Usually with a big run with a lot of vertical gain and descent, your shoes/feet can get pretty messed up from the slipping and moving around. This was not the case this time.
[TAYTE] This year there were some impressive times in the mens’ OCC race. 2019 Trail World Champion Jonathan Albon set a new course record and the top four men all went under Stian Angermund’s 2019 winning time. Did the aggressive racing of these front runners affect your race? Did you ever feel you were in a position to make moves on the leaders?
[JOSH] Honestly, I always heard stories of the start of these races going out so fast. However, for the OCC this year, it was very moderate and I felt very comfortable being in the top 30ish at that pace. Never was there once where I felt I was really pressing on the gas at the beginning. The moderate hills of the first part felt very comfortable to me.
The impressive part of these top guys is their downhill running ability. Running at such a great speed for long downhills is a great skill to have. To have these guys run in the low five hours is pretty neat. I think there was a lot of built-up energy that was a result from a year of no racing in 2020. The ability to have more consistent training blocks is what I think the main component is for these fast times.
[TAYTE] Many American runners who travel to Europe to race trails say the experience is quite different and more challenging. How many times have you competed in Europe and what have been your experiences with how it compares to trail racing in the US?
[JOSH] Yes, it is so true that Europeans see the Mountain/Ultra/Trail athletes differently than the Americans. I am sure it has a lot to do with how they all grow up. Watching and respecting these endurance athletes are a very cultural habit that they share. It is very neat to see the amount of people and fans out there. I have been over to Europe around ten times, and I’m always impressed with the competition, races and the fans that are involved.
The race courses and terrain is a big difference as well. In America, it seems like most “trail races” have a less aggressive feel to them. Over in Europe, they implement some gnarly hills, mountains and or terrain within every race. I have said this before, American race directors are most likely to make a course around a rock, where the European race directors would go right over the rock. The experience is still always so humbling. No matter what shape you are in, you get faced with an entirely different field of competitors. It is a very great thing to experience when you are young, so you don’t get too full of yourself in your own bubble.
[TAYTE] Following the race online, I thought the crowds and atmosphere of UTMB seemed so exciting. What was your experience being there at the event?
[JOSH] The experience of UTMB was amazing. The checkpoints/aid stations were always a highlight for me. That is where you get to see some familiar faces (my adidas Terrex team) and it seems like everyone is cheering for you, regardless of where you are from or what place you are in. The finish line they have set up is probably the most epic finish line I have ever witnessed. They run you around the town a bit and then have this 200 meter finish lined with thousands of cheering fans. I always thought it was cool in pictures, but I can’t even explain the feeling of experiencing it.
[TAYTE] As the head coach of the Trail Running Team Western Colorado University, what is one piece of advice you’d have for younger/college-aged runners about racing at UTMB? Would you ever consider taking your university’s team to race at UTMB or in Europe?
[JOSH] UTMB is one of the most amazing trail races in the world. The timing of this race is at the end of summer for us or the beginning of the school semester for the kids. We don’t have any mandatory or required practices over summer, so it would be very tough to personally have each of my athletes train specifically for this race without proper leadership and or coaching.
It would be different if this was at the end of Fall. We would then have proper time to build up appropriately for the respected distances. I wouldn’t want to have anyone not prepared in such a high profile race. It is always in the preparation where we build our confidence to get us to each starting line.
This year in the 145 km TDS, there was an athlete from the Czech Republic that fell off of a cliff and died. My thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to his friends and family. This was a very sad event that occurred and left me thinking about this the entire week I was there.
The one piece of advice I would give to anyone training for any of the UTMB races would be to try to mimic the profile as much as you can in practice. The ascents and descents over there are very steep. Take the time to travel to these places around your training area to mimic this as much as you can. It’s almost like running down and back up the Grand Canyon every week. To build up the stimulus in your quads is very important.
The other advice would be to any younger, high schooler who wants to pursue trail running to connect with me by email at email@example.com. At Western Colorado University, our Mountain Sports Trail Running program has had a lot of success. I feel very confident that if you come through my program for four years, you will be very prepared for the Trail/Ultra running circuit after graduation!
[TAYTE] Is the UTMB event something that has potential to attract youth runners or is it geared toward more experienced runners?
[JOSH] I think the latter. I honestly didn’t see too many “younger” athletes over there. I feel like this UTMB event shouldn’t be considered as an entry level race. I feel that as you earn your ITRA points throughout the years, you build a good base or layers to what to expect. However, for the younger athlete’s that want to pursue this ultra/trail running career, I feel it would be such a great “eye-opening” experience for them to see what the very best has to offer. If the opportunity comes knocking, make sure to jump on this, you won’t be disappointed.
[TAYTE] UTMB is the largest and arguably the most important trail race in the world. Do we have any races in the US that compare to the UTMB experience?
[JOSH] It’s a tough thing to replicate because most races have limits based on their permits that they receive from local, state and federal land management agencies. A race like Javelina Jundred is an exception. This course doesn’t go up and climb mountains or pass onto any protected forest of BLM land. It is just a flat 20 mile loop, so it is easier to bring in higher numbers for this race. The experience is pretty neat— a bit different as it seems like a big party rather than a big “endurance epic” event.
[TAYTE] Would you like to see a race more like UTMB in the United States?
[JOSH] The more I think about it, I feel that it is a special and unique experience on why we (Americans ) go across the pond to race in Europe. I like having variability in races, fans, competitors and race courses. If we had too many of these UTMB-styled races, then it would be less special to go over there.
[TAYTE] Would you race at UTMB again? Would you run the OCC or choose a different distance?
[JOSH] I would love a “redemption!” I’m sure what race I would opt for. I feel the natural thing to do would be to go longer. However, it would be nice to do the OCC again. I would know exactly what and how to train for it now.
[TAYTE] Is 105 mile UTMB a goal for you at some point in your life?
[Josh] The UTMB race has the largest percentage of dropouts compared to any other race (based on size). I think a lot of people, including myself in this trail running ecosystem would love to compete in this race. It’s always great to have lifetime goals and who knows what will happen in the future.
[Editors Note: Courtney Dauwalter won the UTMB. Hayden Hawks finished 5th in the OCC. Maria Dalzot finished 12th in the OCC. For complete 2021 UTMB results visit their website.]