The full UTMB race is classed by many runners as the very pinnacle of achievement. It’s kind of like the final destination that all ultramarathon roads eventually lead to. Certainly all mountain ones anyway.
To qualify for the UTMB, runners have to accrue a certain amount of points from successfully completing other ultra and marathon races. It is only once they’ve reached the appropriate number of points that they are allowed to enter.
That is a good way of ensuring anyone who does make it the holy grail of the running realm is experienced enough and well acquitted enough to at least give the race a good go.
Jacek Cieluszecki has certainly been through his fair share of monstrous races on his path toward the UTMB. That includes the Jurassic Coast 100km Ultra which he completed and won back in June.
With the route across the South West Coast Path incorporating over 9,000ft of elevation and with most of his race being conducted at night, it was the toughest and most brutal challenge Jacek had ever faced.
He’d also completed the 7 Valleys 100k in his native country of Poland which featured a gruelling route over some of the nation’s highest mountains.
On top of that, he’d taken on several marathons with high elevation including the Dorset Ooser, the Portland Coastal, the Purbeck Marathon and the Scott Snowdonia.
The culmination of all those brutal races was the opportunity to compete in the showpiece event on the grandest stage of them all. It had been a hell of a journey to get there but it was all worth it to compete in the full UTMB. After all, it’s the race that dreams are made of, right?
The route of the full UTMB is 170km in length and features over 10,000 metres of elevation. It starts off in Chamonix and loops around the high mountains of Mont Blanc before eventually finishing back in Chamonix.
Being set at such a high altitude of over 2,500m makes it incredibly tough to get enough oxygen into the lungs to maintain optimum performance. Plus the increment weather conditions in the high mountains provide a uniquely testing environment, with wind, rain, cold and snow all likely to be encountered along the way.
It was indeed a daunting prospect but Jacek was ready to give it his best shot. He’d successfully completed the OCC race at the UTMB in 2017 and the CCC in 2016 so he had some idea of what he was letting himself in for. The OCC was 56km from Orsieres to Champex to Chamonix.
The CCC is 101km with 6,100m of elevation, going from Courmayeur to Champex to Chamonix so that’s a little closer to what JC could expect at the full UTMB. The 170km route of the full UTMB race was still going to be taking it up a notch though.
When the day of reckoning finally arrived, Jacek was good to go. He did mention his partner Ela, who had come out with him to support him, that something wasn’t quite right but he assumed it was just pre-match nerves and adrenaline running through his veins. With an event of such magnitude, that was probably not uncommon amongst the competitors.
Once he got going, Jacek felt okay to begin with. He wasn’t feeling on top of the world, but equally, he wasn’t in a bad way either. He was moving at the steady pace, knowing that the tendency amongst many of the participants is to start way too fast.
The first five miles were predominantly either downhill or on the flat so it that helped to ease Jacek into the race before the real climbing started on mile six. He was then heading up a very steep slope until mile 10. Then it was a steep descent for the next four miles.
From mile 14, it was on the ascent, all the way up to mile 28. The race had started at 6pm so it wasn’t too long before night fell. It was during the night that Jacek began to feel worse. He was coughing from time to time but he was still okay to continue and wasn’t overly worried at that stage.
Some steep descending followed over the next four miles before he was back on the ascent, up to the highest point of the race at 8,000ft. He was now 40 miles in.
After 12 hours of running, Jacek arrived in Courmayeur in Italy, where there was an aid station at 81km. Ela was waiting for him there. In hindsight, he perhaps should have stopped there but after a brief chat with Ela, he replenished his stock of gels and water and he was back on his way.
After around 10 to 15km later, it started to get noticeably harder for JC and from that point on, he experienced more lows than highs. He had a headache and his cough was becoming more and more evident. His body was tired after such a long effort and he was forced to slow down quite considerably.
To add to his woes, the sun had come up as well and it was turning into a hot day. A few hours later he arrived at Champex-Lac, an aid station in Switzerland, just over 80 miles in. Ela was there again and after discussing it with her, Jacek decided to abandon the race.
His UTMB battle was over, having covered 126.62km in 21 hours 17 minutes and 19 seconds. His elevation gain stood at 7,310 metres. It was a shame to have to call it quits after coming such a long way but the fact of the matter is, there was still well over a marathon left to go on extremely tough terrain. That would have taken him another six or seven hours to get through.
It was a difficult decision but when he looks back on it now, Jacek still feels he made the right call. Above all, health and wellbeing is the most important thing and to put that at risk by continuing would have been foolish. He had to look after his own best interests.
Only 1,556 of the 2,543 runners who started the UTMB managed to successfully complete the full 170km course which gives a good indication of just how tough a race it is; mentally, physically and emotionally.
To complete it, even the most accomplished of athletes would at least need a clean bill of health. Jacek didn’t have that luxury. It is frustrating to think that, had he not been suffering from the virus, he most likely would have made it to end. But it just was not to be on this occasion.
In truth, to get as far as he did, running over 80 miles and climbing over 23,000ft, is a minor miracle for someone who isn’t feeling well. Most people would have thrown the towel in long before that. But Jacek is a fighter. He stuck it out for as long as he possibly could and that kind of spirit, courage and determination speaks volumes about the character of the man.
All the training he put in and the huge effort expended during the race was not all for nothing though. Everyone who makes it to a checkpoint in the UTMB gets put down in the results. And rightfully so as well. It’s an achievement just to make to the first time check. In fact, it’s an achievement just be in the race.
Even though he abandoned in the end, Jacek made it through 18 of the 25 points in total and the time he did it in put him in 1,620th place so he was still almost half way up the leader-board.
More importantly though, he will have gained vital experience. The UTMB is the type of race where, the more times you do it, the more you learn and the better you can acquit yourself next time round.
This isn’t the end of the UTMB dream for JC, that’s for sure. He’ll be back again one day to face it again. Whether it will be next year, that is still to be determined, but one thing is certain and that is that Jacek won’t give up until he’s conquered it.