Tips on Mandatory Gear for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc
By Stephanie Case
To be successful in a hundred-mile race you need strong legs, mental fortitude, a little bit of luck and a lot of heart. However, you also need the right gear to get you to the finish line.
This is especially true when it comes to competing in the formidable Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). The course takes competitors through three countries, over mountain passes in the middle of the night, across valleys in the middle of the day, through the rain, mud and sometimes snow. If you aren't adequately prepared for any and all contingencies, you will suffer at best and fail to finish at worst.
When I competed in UTMB in 2012, the weather took a turn for the worse, resulting in mud slides, hypothermia-inducing temperatures, rain and snow. Instead of sleeping or eating in the hours before the start as I should have done, I spent that precious time in the North Face store in Chamonix trying to buy all of the warm-weather gear I hadn't bothered to get before. In 2013, I still hadn't learned my lesson. I had bought all of the mandatory kit, but I was still trying to get by on the bare minimum. During the first 30 km of the race, my hydration bladder burst. I was forced to carry two coke bottles through the night until my crew could sort out a replacement.
If I had one piece of advice for UTMB hopefuls, it would be to sort out your gear early and do not cut corners. It might cost more now, but you will thank me later. Here are my thoughts on the mandatory equipment and some tips on essential 'extras' to consider buying ahead of time.
This is not explicitly listed as mandatory gear, but of course you need a comfortable pack capable of holding all of your other kit. I used a Nathan pack in 2012 which I quite liked, but I prefer the the Salomon S-Lab Adv Skin Hydration pack which I used in 2013. It fits well and gives you the option of using a hydration bladder, soft flasks or hard bottles for your hydration. It also has ample pockets for food and zippered sections to keep all of your pieces of gear separate.
You need a waterproof, breathable jacket with a non-detachable hood. Your jacket should have sealed zippers and no sections of mesh that could let in the rain. The race officials can be pretty strict on the requirements, so do not risk failing at race check-in by trying to sneak through an inferior substitute. I love The North Face's Feather Lite Storm Blocker Jacket. It is super light (145grams), easily packable, and meets all requirements.
You can choose whatever system of hydration you prefer – bladder or bottles – so long as you carry a minimum one litre. Salomon soft flasks are popular, but they are only 500ml each – two is enough to meet requirements, but in my opinion not enough to keep you hydrated over those mountain passes. Bladders are more difficult to refill at checkpoints, but if you think you might need to carry 1.5L as I did, they might be the best option for you.
In addition to your hydration system, you are also required to carry a cup to use at checkpoints for coke, tea or soup. The minimum is 150cl, but here's where you want to carry a few extra grams and upgrade to something larger. I saw people trying to fiddle with tiny collapsible 150cl cups at aid stations and they wasted an incredible amount of time going back two or three times to fill up.
I would highly recommend the Sea-to-Summit X Mug. It is collapsible, light and perfect for a good gulp of caffeine or salty soup
I would highly recommend investing in one really bright light to help pick up roots and rocks on the trail, especially on the second night when you are really tired. The Black Diamond Icon Headlamp is 320 lumens, which is significantly brighter than most torches. For your backup lamp, go for the Petzl e-LITE headlamp to keep the weight down. As long as you have enough batteries, you should be able to rely on your first torch option. However, take comfort in knowing that in 2013, UTMB female champion Rory Bosio reportedly finished the race using the light from her iPhone!
This one from The Rough Country is a good option
Check first to see if a whistle is already included on your race pack (it is on the Salomon pack, for example). If not, clip this small whistle on to your pack so that you do not forget it.
Additional Warm Midlayer
Your warm midlayer top should not be cotton and should be suitable for mountain conditions. You can bring two pieces instead consisting of a baselayer and a windproof (in addition to your waterproof/windproof top). I love the Patagonia Capilene 1 Silkweight top as a baselayer
A head buff is a great, versatile option. You can use it to keep the sweat off your face and stuff it away when you do not need it.
I like the Icebreaker Pocket Beanie 200. At just 200 grams, it will keep you warm without weighing you down.
Waterproof gloves that are also light can be hard to find. Check out SealSkinz.
Raidlight makes a great and lightweight trail running pant. I would suggest going as light as possible as they can take up a lot of room in your bag. The only time you will actually think about using these is if you drop out of the race and are stuck waiting for a transfer back to Chamonix (who ever runs in waterproof trousers?)
The food at aid stations tends to consist of a lot of bread, sausage, cheese, so make sure to bring things with you that you like. I brought chips, Clif bars, nuun for hydration and other goodies
Adhesive Elastic Band (100cm x 6 cm)
Advisable But Not Mandatory
Backup Hydration System
If you use a bladder during the race, put bottles in your drop bag or with your crew and vice versa if you start off using bottles. You never know what might happen. As I discovered in 2012, this is one of the main pieces of kit that you cannot afford to do without, so have a plan B in place.
The vast majority of competitors in UTMB use poles. Unless your name is Kilian Jornet, I would highly recommend them. They will help you on the climbs and double as an extra set of 'legs' on the descents when your quads start to scream. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles are fantastic – super lightweight and you can fold them up and store them in your bag if you decide you don't need them on certain sections (hint: you will need them on virtually all sections).
UTMB may indeed be one of the longest, if not the longest, race you will ever run, so prepare to chafe! I use Bodyglide or Pjur.