Ever since she first started running, back in 2011, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or the UTMB as it’s more commonly known, had been on Linn Erixon Sahlström‘s bucket list.
In fact, she already had two failed attempts of finishing behind her, the first of which was in the full UTMB race, which is over 100 miles long, back in 2014. That time she was forced to abandon after completing 120km of the 166km course.
Her second attempt was at the TDS race two years ago when she retired due to heat exhaustion. A lesser person might have been put off by those disappointments but not Linn. It only seemed to make her more determined to come back and give it another shot.
In this year’s TDS race, her focus was purely on finishing and nothing else. Her objectives were for a good day out, meaning 24 hours. Anything less than that would be a bonus. In all honesty though, anything would work as long as she crossed that darn finish line and got that four year monkey off her back.
Due to a knee injury she sustained during her 100 mile race at the beginning of June this year, her running had been kept to minimum and more focus was put on rehab, or prehab, as she calls it. She’d had a three week period of logging high mileage, but that was all.
She just needed to get really ‘mountain strong’ and thus mountain training in the gym was a priority. That was in addition to interval sessions on the curve (a horrible non-motorised treadmill).
As a precaution, she had an ultrasound scan on her knee and it came out clear, which put her in the right headspace, knowing she was going into the race fully healthy.
She knew that altitude and downhill running would be the biggest ‘ouch’ factors as she had been unable to get over to the Alps beforehand to get any training in. Instead, she spent some weekends along the Jurassic Coast in the hunt for elevation.
Four days before the race, she arrived in Chamonix in a bid to at least give herself the chance to acclimatise a little bit. Fortunately it only took a couple of easy trots in the mountains to get those quads fired up and to get the lungs prepared for what was coming.
The full name of the TDS race is Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie and the distance was originally billed at 121km, with 7,300m of elevation to negotiate.
The route follows the ‘Grande Randonnée’ paths crossing through the Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and Aosta valley countryside. Of course, being part of the UTMB, the course includes numerous high altitude sections of up to 2,600m.
On race day, the start was delayed by two hours due to bad weather conditions. This set the tone for the race as the threat of thunderstorms and lightning could easily put the race in jeopardy.
The organisers decided to change the route slightly to avoid the high passage under the weather-front. This meant that the crux of the race, the 2000m climb from Bourge St Maurice, was re-routed and the runners were taken into a less exposed area with 100m less elevation, but with added distance to the final mileage.
The start of the race carries with it a very special ambiance as the runners set off from the centre of Courmayeur. Linn set off slowly, knowing it would pay off later in the race. She allowed herself be held back by the queues that arose already from the first climb out of Courmayeur.
She knew from previous experience that the ‘real race’ starts at the climb up from Bourge St Maurice around 55km, so she wanted to conserve her energy for that.
In her previous attempt, Linn had gone out too hard and it was just too hot. In this year’s race it was also a hot morning so she was determined to take it very easy since she tends to struggle when running in the heat.
At the first checkpoint, the Col Checrouit Maison Veille, 6.8km in, she was in 1,099th place. Then by the top of the first mountain, Artête du Mont-Favre, she had climbed to 987th. She was only 11.4km into the race and had already racked up an elevation gain of 1,337m.
It was then down to Lac Combal, 15.3km in, where she arrived at in 2 hours 52 minutes, moving up to 920th place. From there it was up to the highest altitude point of the entire race, Col Chavannes, at 2,593m. After just over four hours of running she was now in 896th place.
The climbs had gone well and the first 20k had been a nice steady warm up for Linn. On the descent down from Col Chavannes though, she took a tumble and hit my knee. Although the incident actually happened on a flat section, it served as a staunch reminder to run with caution on the downhill.
It is far too easy to smash your quads early in these mountain races, just because you feel good over the first marathon distance. Many people swished by Linn at an insane pace and she found it hard to let go of the competitiveness as they passed her. It is a patience game though and everyone must run their own race.
By the next checkpoint at Col du Petit Saint Bernard, 36km in, Linn had climbed to 811th place, arriving in 6 hours 21 minutes. Her elevation gain now stood at 2,475m.
Making the decision to slow down considerably on the very infamous descent down to Bourge Saint-Maurice, Linn knew that what would follow was the nemesis for her last time round. Many people did not follow this approach though and that would come back to haunt them later on.
That said, by the time she got to the bottom, she’d still gained some more places, moving into 747th position. She was now 51.3km into the race and had been going for 8 hours 20 minutes.
The new route from Bourge diverted slightly from the original climb and was less exposed to the weather, but nevertheless, it was still steep.
Linn was familiar with some parts of the route during her time there two years ago, so she eased into a good uphill pace. To her surprise she started passing a lot of people.
Like the previous time, runners were now sitting by the side of the trail, trying to catch their breath in despair, cursing themselves over their smashed quads and causing themselves to become fatigued. Linn knew that feeling only too well, as she had done the very same thing two years ago.
Reaching the next checkpoint at Cret Bettex in just under 11 hours, Linn had now moved up to 613th in the standings having covered 61.9km. Her elevation chart was now up to 3,609m.
The climbing then continued to Cormet de Roselend at 70.4km and she was now up to 558th place with a time of 12 hours 21 minutes. She’d now climbed 4,145m of vertical and wasn’t even at the top of that peak yet.
Feeling strong on the climbs was a significant factor for Linn throughout the race. It was something that had previously been her weakness and was now turning out to be her strength. This was largely thanks to the strict but awesome rehab/prehab routine concocted by the Mastermind DC and her coach Shelley Davies.
Throughout the night the runners faced torrential rain and hail, thunderstorms and lightning and very, very slippery rocks and muddy, cowpat ridden trails.
The TDS is THE most technical race of them all in the UTMB week. Linn has run all of the UTMB routes, including the CCC, and the difference in the technicality of the TDS is very evident.
She had her new La Sportiva Mutant shoes on and saw others slipping around in their Salomons, Hokas and Altras. She felt like a solid tractor making my way through the challenging surfaces. Luckily she managed to stay on her feet and did not suffer any injuries throughout. Once again, she puts that down to her excellent cross training regime.
When she reached La Gittaz, at 78.5km, she had climbed to 425th in the standings after 14 hours and 24 minutes of running. At the next checkpoint, 82.1km in she was up to 406th place with a time of 15 hours 21 minutes. Her elevation gain had now gone over 5,000m.
It was then onto Col Du Joly at 89.6km, with Linn now moving up to 371st place, arriving in 16 hours 50 minutes. A long descent then followed down to Les Contamines Mont Joie.
That was near enough 100km done and she’d been running for almost 18 and a half hours. She was now up to 337th place and taking names all the way through.
The night section through the overhanging rock was a highlight for Linn, as well as magical forests and the band of head torches in the distance showing the way of the race under the star struck sky. It was a truly epic journey that had been almost perfectly executed by Linn.
Admittedly, she did make some elementary mistakes though, the biggest of which was her micro fuelling strategy. Although she is generally good with this, she somehow forgot about it. The feed stations were great and she had no trouble with macro fuelling myself, taking in rice, soup, bread and cheese.
Those in-betweeners though, meaning the quick refuelling every 45 minutes, did not happen, perhaps due to loss of concentration. Linn was simply too busy making sure I would cross the finish line in one piece, which is understandable since it was very slippery and gnarly terrain.
A further 1,124m of climbing up to Col de Tricot followed over the next 7km. This last incline from Les Contamines was infamous as well as a crux. It was a wall that literally seemed like a vertical where gravity would pull you down to earth to the point where you would literally fall backwards and roll down if you moved too slow.
It brought the total elevation again up to a staggering 6,507m. Linn was now in 312th place with a time of 21 hours 6 minutes. It was mostly all downhill from that point on.
Reaching Bellevue at 111km, she was up to 310th place with a time of 22 hours 10 minutes. It was then a 4.6km descent down to Les Houches bringing her up to the 115.6km point in the race. This was the penultimate checkpoint and the finish was almost in sight. She’d now been running for 22 hours and 53 minutes and with just 7.8km left to go, she looked on course for a sub 24-hour finish.
Due to the lack of micro fuelling though, Linn had lost a lot of energy and the last stretch from Les Houches into Chamonix took far too long for my liking.
With nothing left in the tank, it was a long drag and that last 7.8k felt like a marathon. She was overtaken by 7 people in that time, which was frustrating but she knew she would finish and ultimately that was her main goal. Equally, she knew she would reach her 24 hour target, so there was no reason to sprint that last sector.
The last few kilometres in Chamonix town were bliss. People were awake as it was 8am in the morning, cheering the runners on and to finally see the finish line was so emotional and such a relief for Linn.
When she finished, Linn fell into to her partner’s arms and her first words were that she did not want to run anymore. It was a sure sign that she’d absolutely given everything on that day. Obviously the following day she was looking into what she could do for her next race.
Finishing with an official time of 24 hours 1 minute and 9 seconds, Linn was 38th placed women out of 169 that completed the race. She was also 7th in her age group and 311th overall out of 1,800 runners who took to the start-line. 1,328 of those made it to the finish, with 470 or so DNFs.
Due to the change in course, the race was slightly longer than the original 119km route and instead ended up at 123.4km. The total elevation gain was 6,791m.
This year also happened to be super competitive, since in any other year, 24 hours would have secured Linn a top 20 place in the women’s field. That aside though, she reached my goal and felt so strong for so long.
The only flaws to work on really were her lack of energy in the last 20k or so and the clothing issue, where she was constantly putting water proofs on and taking them off again.
It goes without saying that Linn was very happy with her performance. To run in the mountains is always a very humbling experience and these mountains in particular are very unforgiving. I
t is a weird kind of love and hate relationship that Linn has with the mountains but ultimately, it is always worth the effort. The next goal for Linn is to do another mountain ultra race this year so she can qualify for the full UTMB.