top of page

Ultra-running Summer Holidays - UTMB to UTMR

From the comfort of my sofa in the depths of winter the back to back OCC by UTMB/UTMR ultra combination seemed inspired. The opportunity to ‘tick-off’ another of the UTMB World Series ultra after tackling the CCC in 2008 and 2019 (blog post here), UTMB in 2017 (blog post here) and more recently the TDS in 2022 (blog post here); and return to multi-stage events after my last endeavour in the hot and steamy Sri Lankan jungle courtesy of ULTRA X in April 2019 (blog post here). In reality, the equivalent distance of running from London to Bournemouth whilst scaling the height of fifteen ‘Snowdon’ mountains was an ultra-undertaking and categorically not a ‘summer holiday’.

The OCC by UTMB and UTMR occupy opposite ends of the current ultra-running world. The commercial IRONMAN-isation take-over and controversial new principle sponsor, Dacia the Romanian car manufacturer headlines the UTMB; compared to the laid-back vibes and empty trails of the UTMR organised by the phenomenal Lizzy Hawker. The raise of UTMB furor has escalated in recent years with packed trails 10-15% beyond the race regulations, pole erosion and litter so it’s virtually unrecognisable from its original heritage.

The OCC known as the ‘Swiss little sister’ of the UTMB series was my designated warm-up and ‘B’ race at 55km with only 3,425m ascent. Despite two wave starts the trails are unsurprisingly congested with an endless stream of ultra-runners comparable to a chain of ants that stream out of Osieres, through Champex and into Chamonix. The whole affair is far too short and too fast for me as yet another agile twenty-something mountain goat bounces past. The final 6km descent from Flegere dancing across tree roots as the path twists and turns past Floria into Chamonix is always a relief with the end in sight.

Fast forward five days, arriving in Swiss mountain village of Grachen, the home of the Ultra Trail Monte Rosa (UTMR) is a completely different experience. This event has been on my radar for a while lured by the description of ‘wild spaces, 4000m peaks in every direction and quiet trails…it’s a tough route, high and technical in many places’ (UTMR website). The race organiser; the phenomenal Lizzy Hawker who won the UTMB five times (2005, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012) created the race series (100-mile, four-day multi-stage 100-mile, 100km and 60km) after regularly training in the Monte Rosa region. I’d opted for the more civilised option in order to savour the scenic views during daylight and eat copious amounts of pizza along the way plus work and life in 2023 didn’t offer the space and I couldn’t summon the energy to fully physically, mentally and emotionally invest in a 100-miler; particularly with 11,600m ascent or more importantly descent – sorry knees!

Day 1 – Grachen, Switzerland to Zermatt, Switzerland (38km / 2,500m)

Grachen quickly fades below as the winding forest trails hug the valley sides with an obstacle course of bolted wires, grid steps, tunnels and the spectacular engineering feat of the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge that stretches almost 500m across the Grabengufer of the Lärchberg on the Höüschbiel. Dull thuds echo as I catch sight of rocks the size of dish washers 85m below careering downwards. The magnificent Matterhorn dominates the second half of the route before I descend into Zermatt for apple strudel, coffee and pizza.

Day 2 – Zermatt, Switzerland to Gressoney la Trinité, Italy (43km / 3,000m)

The inky darkness of the start-line is overlooked by the twinkling head torches of alpinists high on the Matterhorn. Light slowly seeps in as another day dawns and the trail winds upwards towards the Theodulgletscher glacier. Briefly pausing to don micro-spikes and mindful to navigate crevice’s the next couple of kilometres pass with the crunch of ice underfoot. After the Theodulpass at 3,295m on the Swiss-Italian border the route descents into a rocky moonscape to St Jaques; next the steep and rocky pass of Colle de Rothorn awaits before the final descent for the day into Gressoney. The picturesque finish-line framed by colourful flowers next to the village church sets the backdrop to cheer fellow runners across the finish line.

Day 3 - Gressoney la Trinité, Italy – Macugnaga, Italy (47km / 3,100m)

After three days our daily routine is firmly embedded; rise at 04:45; simple breakfast supplemented with Freda’s peanut butter at 05:00; tape feet and finalise kit by 05:40; then head to start line with kit bag for 06:00, start at 06:30 with 1,500m ascent complete by 1,500m. This time heading over Passo Salti towards Alagna we’re greeted by a magical cloud inversion. We’re literally running above the clouds.

The route descends into Walser country where the ancient traditional wooden buildings smell of toasted wood; before heading along an ancient Roman paved pathway where our feet join the footsteps of others walking over stones worn smooth over centuries. Rifugio Crocette offers a brief respite with apple strudel and milky sugary Nescafe coffee as the path snakes seemingly ever upwards to the Turlo pass. Another knee-battering descent into Macugnaga brings the day to a close.

Day 4 - Macugnaga, Italy - Grachen, Switzerland (46km / 2,900m)

The final start-line brings a bittersweet feeling with relief and sadness that there’s only a marathon to go. The obligatory morning ascent to Monte Moro is closely followed by a technical rock-hopping descent with views over the crystal blue Mattmarksee reservoir. Random trail encounters often happen at night through vivid hallucinations though the sight of a kilt-wearing gentleman carrying bagpipes cycling up the hill; then dog toy library in Saas-Fee made me question my mental capacity.

The final kilometres melt away powered again by milky sugary Nescafe coffee rocket fuel and several snickers bars. It was once of those rare running days where everything flows. The holy grail of running. It’s been soooooooo long since I felt this. So long I thought it might have vanished forever. Yet on the balcony trails between Saas-Fee and Grachen I rediscovered the rhythm and the inner rhetoric which had been so mean and loud on Day 2 faded.

Then, far too soon it’s all over. The final descent into Grachen village where the final finish-line awaits. Final gala celebrations with food, beer and recounting tales on the trails with newly made friends. The following day the Alps fade into my rear mirror though there’ll always be a part of me running free.

Recommended Kit

Mutants La Sportiva – Firm favourite trainer for over five years now with high ankle support that also keeps out any pesky stones. Super grippy. Thankfully the team at La Sportiva have resisted any major modifications and hopefully will into the future!!

Cool Wings - Utterly without apology these ingenious creations regularly feature in my recommended kit since tackling IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas circa 2013. When the weather forecast indicates temperatures look set to soar these are my ‘go-to’. My school girl level physics understands the evaporation cooling concept.

Precision Hydration Salt Tablets - Super convenient pill popping hydration solution. After battling for years with sachets or dissolvable tablets I struggle to stomach these tiny white capsules have transformed my hydration strategy.

Top Tips

Creating Memories – Beautiful open trails, stunning Alpine vistas and never-ending running chat. Savour each moment from these events to sustain yourself through the bleaker winter months.

All About Food – Ultra-running and nutrition go hand in hand. Multi-stage events take this to another level. Burning roughly three thousand calories each day from movement alone means refueling during and after each day is essential.

Pick Your Distance – The umbrella ‘ultra’ term covers a multitude of events. Shorter 50km through to 200miler plus with multi-stage events across a range of environments from track to jungle to mountain and desert. If you’re new to the sport experiment with different options to find your sweet spot. I’m not entirely sure what 2024 holds yet…

Post-race Travel - Try to avoid an ultra-drive across Europe the following day in thirty degree heat with front brake warning light; unless you’re keen to get swollen feet and stressed.

Train Smart. Run Happy.

Anna-Marie x

Big thanks as ever to La Sportiva UK athlete team & Precision Fuel & Hydration for ongoing support.

Photos snapped by my dad (Edwards Watson) out on cheer duties during OCC by UTMB and Reik Leiterer by Swiss running buddy at UTMR.


bottom of page