Words James Mackeddie/Damian Hall – Images © Inov-8 / Matt Brown
Last year I chased Damian Hall around the alps, following his race at UTMB to a then best 19th place. Not one to settle, he made the journey back to Chamonix to take the race on for a 3rd time, in a year where the field was billed as the greatest/deepest ever and nature threw some challenges in to make it one to watch.
I caught up with Damian to get find out more about his 2017 UTMB.
So Damian, 12th home and 1st Brit against a field being touted as the greatest in UTMB’s and possible ultra running racing as a whole. How does it feel compared to 2016?
Frustrating, to be honest. I was 10th for a bit, just after Champex Lac (about 125km in) and I should have been able to hold onto that. But I ran out of puff and it’s going to haunt me for a while. Top 10 is everything at UTMB. That said, satisfaction is growing and people are incredibly kind about it. In a way 2016 was more enjoyable because though result was less impressive, the process was more satisfying. Starting slowly and moving consistently through the field. But this year was incredibly exciting, with the weather, the calibre of runners and the crowds were bigger than ever. It’s an amazing event every runner should experience. Especially if you like cheese. Or weird gilets.
© Inov-8 / Matt Brown
You are no stranger to the course or the race, having placed 31st in 2015, 19th in 2016 and now 12th in 2017. The above displays a real commitment and drive to improve between each race, has this been your main obsession since you first crossed the line in Chamonix?
Thank you. I used to be obsessed with the Spine Race, but UTMB replaced it. Every year I think doing it one more time may help me get over it, but it doesn’t work. It’s just the biggest and best race there is. I can’t bring myself to tell anyone how often I think about it, or watch videos about it. It’s not healthy behaviour. If UTMB was a person, I’d have been locked up by now.
With a course change and bitter weather this year, how did you adapt and overcome the conditions? Last year many withdrew in the heat and the cold claimed many victims at the weekend.
The weather was wonderful this year, perfect for us Brits, drizzle and wet fog. I’ve struggled in the heat before, and trained a lot more for high temperatures this time. So naturally it snowed on us. We had an SMS the morning of the race telling us to expect -9˚C, but it wasn’t that bad at all. The secret to staying warm is to keep moving well. Good kit helps too of course and it’s great to be working with Inov-8.
Getting the balance between protection and weight is a conscious battle when packing for any race or mountain run. Did you opt for heavier weight clothing, in the knowledge of the wet and cold conditions?
I did change my kit the morning of the race, after getting that text; I took full tights and a thicker waterproof. But on my top half I only ever wore a short-sleeve Inov-8 merino wool baselayer (which are well ace btw) and the new Inov-8 Stormshell (ditto – superb protection and features for the weight). My mitts only went on twice. I’ll usually carry the lightest possible kit, but I’m glad I was panicked into carrying more. You’re more relaxed, knowing there’s a spare warm layer in your pack.
Outside of kit choices, was there anything you did majorly different in the race?
I had three things hindering me in 2016: an Achilles niggle, fatigue from running the 630-mile South West Coast Path and a cautiousness because the Trail World Championships were two months later. This year those barriers were all gone. Plus I had the classic British weather on my side, a better training block, more belief (partly from an enjoyable race at Lavaredo in June) – and, best of all, I had the Legendary Nicky Spinks crewing for me. She’s like Jesus. She can magic chips out of thin air. #nickyisjesus She also had a spat with staff who were allowing crews for better-known runners to set-up, but not her. And did a 1km sprint with my bag full of nosh from a car stuck in traffic. Plus you can’t really complain about a chafe or snagged finger nail to Nicky Spinks can you.
We’ve seen you spending many hours in Snowdonia and Brecon, accumulating miles and metres gain. Would you say these sessions helped prepare you the most for the long climbs and descents in the Alps?
I’m lucky to be coached by Ian Sharman and my mileage wasn’t big compared to many of the people I was racing, mostly in the 70-90 miles/week area. It’s vital to prepare for the specificity of the course and for UTMB that means big ascents and descents. I can get to the Brecon Beacons in a three-hour roundtrip, so I’d do that weekly. And I visited Snowdon once, because it’s the only place I know of in this half of the country where you can do a 1,000m climb or descent. I also worked on my descending technique with Shane Benzie from Running Reborn. I did a fair bit of strength work too, thanks to my sadistic physio Matt Holmes (http://www.pettemeridespersonaltraining.co.uk/). You must have strong legs for UTMB or it gets ouchy early.
Was there a defining moment in the race for you?
It’s always the finish. To share that with my two children, without falling over or puking up, was magical. Though they didn’t enjoy the British weather as much as I did while they waited. “Do we have to do UTMB every time we come to France?” asked my son.
Jornet, D’Haene, Tollefson, Walmsley, Thevenard, Capell, Grinius, Laney, Cannady and Symonds are a few of the many names that caught the headlines leading into UTMB. Was there a large pressure, knowing so many, including yourself, had the potential to place well?
To be honest, though I had some of the guys from Inov-8 out there to help me, I felt very little pressure. Only what I put on myself; to improve, to make the sacrifices I’ve asked of my wife and family count for something. The more star names there were, the less anyone would focus on little old me. My number/ranking was 84 and there were more than 50 runners there with higher ITRA rankings. So it’s satisfying to sneak past a few of them. Although, my ranking will be higher now, which will make that more difficult next time. Darn it. I didn’t think this through…
Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist and GB ultramarathon runner. He’s supported by Inov-8 and Contours Trail Running Holidays (https://www.contourstrailrunningholidays.co.uk) and you can find more of this type of hogwash at http://www.damianhall.info and on Twitter @damo_hall.