It was around mile 76 of 106 that Steve Andersson decided he was done running. It was 2016, and he was three-fourths into the 171-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, best-known as UTMB, a race in the French Alps that is one of the largest and most-celebrated trail races in the world. But Andersson’s day had been rough. With temperatures in the 90s, the 33,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss) had taken a toll on his legs. The sweat had left him so chafed it felt like he was wearing sandpaper underwear.
So he called his wife, Carrie, to tell her he was struggling and might drop out. She said she would meet him at the next checkpoint, then drove two with their three children and waited.
“Watching people come in at that time,” she says. “It was just human carnage. The tent is full of people who are there, but they’re not there.”
When Andersson staggered into the aid station, he told her: “I’m done.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I don’t want you waking up tomorrow and second guessing this.”
He assured her that he was. It was the middle of his second night of running, and he had never been so fatigued. But it was only 12:45 a.m., and the cutoff wasn’t until 2:30 a.m.
“OK,” she said, “but first I want you to lie down for half an hour. After that, you can drop out.”
Andersson laid down on a bench and closed his eyes. This was his second time at UTMB, which is actually seven different races, the main three being UTMB itself, a full circuit around Mont Blanc that passes through France, Italy and Switzerland, and has about 2,300 runners. The second biggest of the UTMB races is the 101-kilometer CCC with 1,900 runners, and the third is the 121-kilometer TDS, with 1,600 runners. Andersson is one of few Minnesotans who have run these races, and to date he’s run all three. He will be on the mountain again Friday, running the CCC.
Tour de France of running
Since they were founded in 2003, the UTMB races have become an international event, drawing 10,000 runners from across the world, and becoming the Tour de France of trail running, with runners passing through small mountains villages lined with cheering spectators.
“It’s a trail runner’s dream,” said Jake Hegge, an elite ultramarathoner based in La Crosse, Wis., who ran the CCC in 2017. “It’s a whole different world. Once you experience it, you’re hooked.”
Andersson grew up in the Twin Cities (except for a stint in Atlanta). Racing was part of those early years. He started out as a bike racer, then ran cross-country in college, and began getting into marathons after college (his PR is 3:04). But after running the New York City Marathon in 2010, he got tired of the big crowds and wanted a change. So, he went to San Francisco to run the North Face Endurance Challenge trail marathon. He loved being on the trails, and the friendliness of the scene.
The next year he did a 50-kilometer race, then a 50-mile, then a 100-mile. Andersson worked in the travel industry, which made it easier for him to travel to races around the country. So by the time he read about UTMB, he knew it sounded like his kind of fun.
“I still enjoy the speed of the road,” he said, “but I really find my heart is on the trails.”
Getting into any of the UTMB races is no small task. Most runners need to accumulate enough points acquired through their results in qualifying ultramarathons to apply to the lottery. The first year, Andersson didn’t get in at all. The second year he got into CCC.
“It was incredible,” he said. “The mountains, the beauty of the landscape. It has the same feeling as the Tour de France, with all those people out there. I was smitten with the course.”
Hegge agreed. “I was at the top of the third big climb, and there’s this little 10-year-old there with his parents. What kind of kid is hiking up this crazy steep mountain to cheer on a bunch of trail runners? People truly embrace it. The whole community gets engaged to cheer people on,” said Hegge, who holds the course record for Superior 100 Mile Trail Race, which he won in 2015.
For Hegge, the path to UTMB was a different. Early in 2017, he and his training partner Michael Borst, of La Crosse, got Facebook messages from someone at the “Ultra-Trail World Tour,” asking them to fill out a profile that would calculate their world tour points, based on their race results. At a certain level these points will win you entry to the UTMB races. When they did, it turned out both ranked high enough to get into the CCC.
The difficulty of getting in the race adds a certain weight to finishing it. Andersson knew this as he lay there at the UTMB aid station at mile 76. He doesn’t know if he slept. He doesn’t know what happened. But when he got up, he felt … better.
Carrie, his wife, was walking over to the officials, but she noticed her husband wasn’t following. It turned out he felt better. They still had 10 minutes until the cutoff. So with a little anti-chafing cream from the medical tent, Andersson blasted down the trail.
“I felt like I hadn’t run yet,” he recalled. “I was running 7:30-mile pace. I ran hard those last 30 miles. I just knew I was going to finish.”
And despite her protests that she didn’t do much, he knows he can’t take full credit for getting to the end.
“My wife saved my race,” he said. “Completely.”
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.