The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
As I mentioned in my introduction to the race, UTMB is categorically hard to predict. Adding to speculative difficulty, as we were told at the race briefing this evening, is the fact that 50 runners out of the total 2,000 could possibly place in the top 10, which is pretty much unheard of in any other major ultra. With three-time winner Kilian Jornet not racing this year, UTMB is open for the taking.
Here’s a quick look at a few of the top contenders. I hesitate to separate the fields, but for the sake of categorical breakdown, here it is:
THE MEN'S FIELD
Jez Bragg (The North Face/U.K.): Definitely among the favorites to win, Bragg knows the course and is ready to race under any conditions (he won the abbreviated version in 2010 when the race was cancelled due to a mudslide midway through).
Iker Karrera (Salomon/Spain): All I can say about Karrera is that he finished second to Kilian Jornet last year, by 8 minutes and 47 seconds. It’s fair to predict he’ll do quite well this year.
Sebastien Chaigneau (The North Face/France): Seb Chaigneau is quickly becoming a legend around these parts, finishing second to Jornet in 2009 and third in 2011. Currently recovering from knee surgery after a very bad fall, he still has some noticeable injuries to contend with, but he’s predicted to do quite well, regardless.
Nemeth Csaba (Arc’teryx/Hungary): One thing that can be said for UTMB is that it helps to be a veteran. With at least five top 10 finishes—second in 2006, fourth in 2011, fifth in 2004, seventh in 2009, and eighth 2008—Csaba knows what to expect from the course, including how to adapt in the case of random mid-race changes. Though his place among the elites is questionable this year (his finishes have been pretty inconsistent this season), he does have some solid experience racing with the front of the pack.
Mike Foote (The North Face/U.S.): Foote’s a good friend, so I’m somewhat biased, but even bias can’t argue with numbers. A relative unknown in 2011, the Montana-based runner surprised everyone by snagging the top American finish (eleventh overall). His understated course record at the Bear100 in 2010 and recent course record at Wyoming’s Bighorn100 both speak in his favor, and if there’s one thing I know about Foote it's that the worse the conditions, the better he runs.
Luke Nelson (Patagonia/U.S.): He’s definitely fast, but newer to 100s and a bit of a wildcard among the group—particularly considering the Idaho-based athlete is known to be equally invested in ski mountaineering (meaning less winter running training). That said, Nelson certainly has the endurance to do well as indicated by his American Ski Mountaineering national championship.
THE WOMEN'S FIELD
Helen Cospolich (The North Face): Breckinridge-based Cospolich consistently finishes in the top 10 of just about every race she enters. The Colorado awful weather/altitude training is definitely to her advantage, as is a knowledge of the course (this is Cospolich’s second UTMB—she placed sixth in 2011). And as her husband, who’s crewing for her, will likely attest, she’s as ready as she’ll ever be.
Krissy Moehl (Patagonia/UltrAspire): Moehl maintains a solid record of consistently smart racing and has also held the UTMB women’s course record since 2009, which makes her both the woman to beat and the subject of a fair amount of reverence around these parts. She’s already been running hard this summer taking on Western State and Hardrock within a month of each other (finishing fourth at both) and it’s no small thing to tackle three of the hardest 100-milers in three months. But Moehl is known for pushing the boundaries of distance running. And while she may not finish among the top ladies (elite marathoners really only run two major races a year—a body can only handle so much), she’ll likely run a solid race straight through. And she’ll be smiling the whole time.
Rory Bosio (The North Face): Typically dressed in neon leggings with a personality to match, 28-year-old Bosio is definitely ready for the distance, having placed fourth at Western States100 in 2010, fifth (but with a faster finish) in 2011, and second in 2012. And while it may be her first time racing in the Alps (Bosio’s home base is Tahoe, California), she seems to know what she’s in for. Last I saw her, she was headed off to cook sweet potatoes to eat on the course. If she’s in any way nervous, she sure isn't showing it.
Lizzy Hawker (The North Face/Switzerland): Introspective and entirely dominant on burly mountain trails, Hawker may be set to finish somewhere among the top 10 men, and maybe break Moehl’s course record while she’s at it (she came within four minutes last year). Though Hawker cut back her race season this year in order to recover from lingering injuries, friends and competitors consistently refer to her as one of the best mountain runners in the world today—male or female. Baring catastrophe, she’ll be up front with the boys from the very start.
Nerea Martinez (Salomon/Spain): Martinez finished second to Hawker at last year’s UTMB, albeit almost three hours behind. But she’s had a good season thus far and she knows how to run in the mountains. If she doesn’t blow up early (Martinez has a tendency to go out hard) she could potentially close some of that gap this year.