Snow, sleet, wind, rain, plummeting temperatures and knee-deep mud combined to make this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) an especially demanding challenge.
The race, which takes runners 106 miles (and more than 32,000 vertical feet) through France, Italy and Switzerland, is a popular testing grounds for the world’s elite mountain runners. This year saw a particularly stacked field, but extreme weather left many runners reevaluating their podium goals and struggling just to finish.
Among the suffering were U.S. runners Kaci Lickteig, Stephanie Howe, Jason Schlarb, Amanda Basham and Sage Canaday, all of whom fell short of their podium goals, but continued to battle through bad weather, injury and mental defeat.
Lickteig, Basham and Boulet Find Strength in Working Together
Kaci Lickteig, 31, of Omaha, Nebraska, was UltraRunner of The Year in 2016, the same year she won the Western States 100. She came into her first UTMB admittedly undertranied, distracted by her grandmother’s ongoing battle with cancer.
“I had dedicated UTMB to my grandmother,” says Lickteig. “I wanted to make sure I finished or made it the absolute farthest I could.”
She started out positive, but by 39K her headlamp had begun to fail, leaving her to scramble up steep scree in wavering light.
“I got frustrated,” she says. “I felt like I was getting nowhere.”
As fog began to roll in, she felt lost and alone. Finally, another light emerged from the misty darkness: Canadian runner Majo Srnik. Srnik joined Lickteig, encouraging and pushing her to the Champex-Lac aid station. Once there, Lickteig rejoined her crew and exchanged a tearful video call with her grandmother.
“When I saw her face, I became emotional and cried knowing that I was going to finish for her,” said Lickteig. “There was no stopping now.”
Meanwhile, Amanda Basham was fighting her own battle. Basham, 27, of Logan, Utah, is relatively new to the trail-racing scene, but had come into the race with podium potential (she won the Black Canyon 100K and Ultra Race of Champions 100K this year). But, as she began the challenging climb up Grand Col Ferret, her legs began to cramp. She knew she needed electrolytes, badly, but her crew didn’t have any. She searched the aid station for the saltiest thing possible, deciding on broth, but it wasn’t enough. Her cramps forced her to walk down the steep descent from Col Ferret to La Fouly.
At first she had been aiming for a top-10 spot. Then, top 20. In the end, she was fighting just to finish.
“I started having a pity party,” she says. “I convinced myself I was dropping at La Fouly.”
Then, while Basham was sitting in the La Fouly aid station huddled under a blanket eating crackers and broth, debating dropping out of the race, Lickteig and Srnik came through, alongside 2015 Western States champion Magdalena Boulet. Together, they convinced Basham to continue.
“We kept each other positive, said encouraging words and made our way one step at a time,” says Lickteig. “UTMB was by far the hardest race profile I have encountered. I can see why so many people are lured to this race. It’s amazing.”
Basham, Lickteig and Boulet struggled on toward the finish line together. After pushing to Champex-Lac, the runners were rewarded with croissants and coffee. Srnik took charge of the group’s morale, ushering them to the finish in around 31 hours.
“UTMB is the hardest race I’ve ever done,” says Basham. “The physical and mental challenges were unreal. I knew it was a beast, but I still underestimated it.”
Stephanie Howe Struggles Through Sleep Deprivation
Former Western States champ and Lake Sonoma 50 course-record holder, Stephanie Howe, 34, of Bend, Oregon, came to UTMB with the ultimate goal of besting her eighth-place finish from 2015. After a year of dealing with an Achilles injury, which had all but prevented her from racing, Howe was amped and ready to compete.
But, like several of her races before, it all came apart in the dark. Howe struggled to keep pace through the night, though she rallied after a stay in the med tent at Lac Combal. The last 20K were tearful, as Howe struggled to put aside her expectations and focus on finishing safely and uninjured.
“I realized that during this time last year, I couldn’t even walk yet due to injury,” she says. “It sort of made me realize that I should be pretty darn happy to be running again, and not worry so much about results.”
Howe pushed through wind and rain for her lowest ever finish—30 hours 29 minutes 17 seconds, good for 145th place.
“If you falter for one moment, the mountain will eat you alive,” she says. “It might take more than a year for me to be myself in the most competitive races in the world. I think 2018 is going to be a good year.”
Jason Schlarb and Sage Canaday Finish At All Costs
After a disappointing and unexpected DNF at the Hardrock 100 earlier this summer, Jason Schlarb, 39, of Durango, Colorado, came to UTMB with the podium on his mind. Unfortunately, he never quite found his rhythm, struggling to push on the uphills and to regain momentum on the technical downhills.
He dropped from the top 15 to the top 40, his legs already toast at 100K. “I told my six-year-old son, Felix, I would finish,” he says. “I wasn’t going to drop.”
The upside was experiencing a vulnerability he hadn’t felt before in a race. “I was able to be fully present with myself, raw and beaten down,” he says. “It’s such a rare and special experience to be so worked and have to persist.”
Sage Canaday was likewise determined to finish the course, no matter how long it took. Canaday, 31, of Boulder, Colorado, who holds (or has held) several notable course records, including USATF 100K Trail Championship, Speedgoat 50K and Lake Sonoma 50, was bent on avoiding another DNF. In 2015, Canaday was in the lead pack when he fell at mile 39. He hobbled to mile 50, got stitches and then limped for another five miles and 3,000 feet of climbing before being evacuated by helicopter.
Canaday returned this year in the hopes of rewriting that history. However, digestive troubles set in early.
Mile 55 near Courmayer, Italy, saw Canaday struggling to keep food down. Canaday power hiked, then he walked and then he shuffled. After managing to swallow some plain French bread at the aid station, he thought about the sacrifices his friends and family had made to get him to UTMB. He thought back to the 2015 race, about how hard he’d worked to return to Chamonix. He thought about all the volunteers spending two nights out in the cold and the rain.
“I was determined to see the whole course and to reach the finish line,” he says. Canaday gutted out a 26:12:06 finish in what he called the most difficult race of his career.
“It is a one-of-a-kind event … so beautiful and so challenging.”