History made: All-American victory at the UTMB

The UTMB sees its first ever American winner and a new course record

courtney dauwalter wins utmb

by Kate Milsom |
Updated on

This year sees the 20th edition of the iconic Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc (UTMB), where runners take on the immense feat of circumnavigating the mountain via the 171km Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix.

The race itself requires runners to climb a total of almost 10,000m elevation, with peaks of up to 2,400m altitude. Elite runners can expect to finish the race in between 19-25h, while most people on course will be aiming to finish within the 46h30 cut-off.

A competitive field of the world’s best ultra runners gathered under the iconic arch in Chamonix on Friday afternoon. The men’s race favourites included the likes of France’s Matthieu Blanchard, who took second place last year, and Hoka athlete Jim Walmsley, who was lining up for his fifth attempt at UTMB victory, having DNF’d twice on the route.

Tom Evans took up the mantle of the best British hope for the win, after a strong season which saw him take the tape at the infamous Western States, he also placed third in last year’s race. Record holder Kilian Jornet was not in contention, having picked up an injury earlier in the year.

In the women’s race, American ultra running legend Courtney Dauwalter returned to Chamonix where she set the course record in 2021. Having already both won and rewritten the record books for Hardrock 100 and Western States, Dauwalter has her eyes set on being the first person to ever win all three ultra marathon giants in one year.

18:00: The race begins, goodbye Chamonix

UTMB startline
Credit: Kate Milsom

The start of the race sees an astonishing 2688 runners set off from the start line in front of the iconic St Michael’s church in the town centre. After the immense fan-fair of the crowd, the runners stretch their legs along the initial section alongside the Arve river towards the nearby village of Les Houches.

Famed for starting out fast, American favourite Walmsley does not disappoint, immediately taking the lead in the first hour of the race alongside Swede Petter Engdahl and Evans. Meanwhile, Blanchard remains in the thick of things, with Dauwalter only five minutes back from the main pack. Placings this early in the race are almost arbitrary though, with so many variables in play along the 171km course.

19:45: All smiles in Saint Gervais

Saint Gervais UTMB runneres
Credit: Kate Milsom

Runners are broken-in gently with the first 690m ascent of the Col de Voza as they say goodbye to Chamonix valley until their return a day or two later. A smooth downhill to St Gervais brings the runners past the half-marathon mark and to the first aid station offering food, drink, first-aid, and toilets.

French marathon champion Duncan Perrilliat takes charge at the head of the race, with Emma Pooley from Switzerland starting off strong as the first woman ahead of Dauwalter. Their hopes are short lived though as the two both go on the DNF later down the line.

The night has truly set-in now as the runners make their way to the first checkpoint at Les Contamines where assistance is permitted on the route. Here, runners meet their families and friends supporting their efforts and perform the practised rituals of peeling off sweaty socks, donning windproof running shells, and switching on headlamps.

22:00: The rocky Roman of Notre Dame de la Gorge

Runners at Notre Dame de la Gorge
Credit: Kate Milsom

After a rolling few kilometres under the cover of darkness, the trail slopes slowly upwards guiding runners to a key section of the route – the old Roman road of Notre Dame de la Gorge. A chapel marks the spot where the first of the four major climbs of the race commences, as runners ascend a dizzying 1200m up to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme.

They’re not alone though, it’s pitch-black at by this time, but cheering supporters line the narrow, rocky route with cowbells and booming music, marking the start of the longest continual vertical climb of the race. With each step upwards the temperature drops, the effects of which runners will likely only fully feel once they start the descent down to the remote mountain outpost of Les Chapieux at 50.7km, and the promise of a hot meal.

23:00 Chapeau to those at Les Chapieux

notre dame de la gorge light tunnel
Hoka light tunnel at Notre Dame de la Gorge (Credit: Kate Milsom)

A Colorado local, Zach Miller is no stranger to the altitude and vertical climbs, taking over at the front and pushing the pace alongside Walmsley and Evans, who are all within 20s of each other.

Once one of the front lines of World War Two, Les Chapieux now stands in rolling pastures which runners make quick work of, driving onwards up the valley alongside the Torrent des Glaciers to the French-Italian border at Col de la Seigne.

After a downhill sweep which guides runners through to Italian soil at Rifugio Elisabetta, there comes the only flat section of the course, another Roman road this time alongside Lac Combal. Here, runners start feeling the effects of the sleepless night, but sunrise is just around the corner. After a brief 457m peak, runners eagerly make the dusty and steep descent to the oasis that is Courmayeur.

2:35: Brief respite at Courmayeur

aid station st gervais example courmayeur
Fruit on the menu at St Gervais aid station (Credit: Kate Milsom)

Almost at the half-way point now, Courmayeur is a haven for tired runners needing to refuel and refresh for the long day ahead. Cots for a quick kip and massages are on offer, along with support and hot food.

Both Walmsley and Miller hurtle through, each only stopping for a couple of minutes. They’re followed by Engdahl but there’s no sign of Evans. Eventually reports come through that no one has spotted Evans on the descent, and supporters later find out he’d been taken to hospital after encountering some cramping issues on the course - his UTMB hopes are over.

After the crowds at Courmayeur, runners continue for a further 45km, still under the cover of darkness for the lead runners. Some gentle undulation through the balcony trail takes them up to Rifugio Bertone and Bonatti, through checkpoints at Arnouvaz and La Fouly. Leading the charge, Miller pushes Walmsley to his limits all the way down to the glittering waters of Champex-Lac.

08:20: The breaking point at Champex-Lac

Champex Lac
Credit: Kate Milsom

After a mere few minutes at the aid station at Champex-Lac where both complete a shoe change, Walmsley catches Miller just as they pull up to rare stretch of tarmac path alongside the lake. Just three major claims stand in between them and the awaiting crowd in Chamonix. When later asked about the turning point in his race, Walmsley recalls this moment: “I knew if I was close on the last three climbs, I could probably take time back.”

Almost two hours later, Dauwalter pulls up to the same station. Initial race leader Pooley has withdrawn, leaving an hour gap betwen Dauwalter and Chinese athlete Fuzhai Xiang. Dauwalter's now running her own race. She looks confident, a permanent smile etched onto her face... yet looks can be deceiving.

“The entire second half of the race was really, really hard. My body was not wanting to run any more and my stomach was really finicky," said Dauwalter in a finish line interview. "So I almost lost my lunch on the streets of Champex Lac!”

10:03: ‘Forclaz for Courtney’

Courtney fans at Col de la Forclaz
Credit: Kate Milsom

After a rocky climb to above la Giète, runners make their long descent into the small Swiss village of Trient. But before they can get there, they must first traverse the alpine pass of Col de la Forclaz. A break in the trees uncovers the high clearing (1147m), where hordes of supporters gather, most in fancy dress. This year, a different spirit has taken hold of the spot, from which any other day of the year a hiker would admire the view down to lake Annecy in the valley below.

Earlier in August, a satirical French trail running blog who name themselves ‘Les Genoux dans le Gif’ (gifs about knees) had sparked the idea of a crowd fan gathering for Dauwalter, in the same style as Thibault Pino’s corner on his last Tour de France - a moment of extreme crowd energy. In their Instagram post, they encourage fans to bring ‘disguises, inflatables, Dauwalter masks, and US flags.’ Since Dauwalter's known for brushing her teeth several times during races, several supporters are dressed as toothpaste and toothbrushes.

At this point, only 30km separates runners from the finish line, with another steep 785m climb along the pastures of Catogne bringing them back down across the border to the French aid station at Vallorcine. Only those in a really bad state drop out of the race here, within touching distance of Chamonix. These final few kilometres are led by Walmsley, who widens his lead on Miller from 10 to 20 minutes, while Daulwalter has a comfortable 40min lead ahead of Germany’s Katharina Hartmuth.

13:37: Chamonix at last

Jim Walmsley wins UTMB 2023
Credit: Kate Milsom

Far ahead of predicted schedule, Walmsley finishes the final 800m descent from La Flegere back into the Chamonix valley. Crowds line the streets and crossing into the town, he can already hear the rising roar of hundreds of cowbells. With the finish arc in view, he slows to a walk and savours the final moments as he crosses the line in a time of 19:37:43. Years of training and sacrifice with one sole goal in mind, and today he has achieved it.

Walmsley becomes the first-ever American to win the UTMB. “I felt pretty strong all night, comparatively. In Beaufortain, we have steep hills and steep mountains. Really good hiking. So I think that’s where the focus of training’s been. I knew if I was close on the last three climbs, I could probably take time back.” And that's exactly what he did.

With a salute to Walmsley, compatriot Miller sprints across the line some 21 minutes later, in a time of 19:58:58. He'd been leading for much of the race, and feeling strong on the climbs, which he attributes to the huge amount of "vert" training in the months leading up to the race. Rounding off the podium having completed the race of his life was Germain Grangier, affectionately known as 'Serge', in a time of 20:10:52. It's the Frenchman's first time on the UTMB podium, following a DNF the previous year.

UTMB women's podium
Women's UTMB podium winners (Credit: UTMB)

Just over three hours later and the crowds in Chamonix eagerly await Dauwalter's arrival. They're ready to witness history being made today. The ever-smiling, 38-year-old former teacher from Minnesota flies across the line in a total time of 23:29:14. After high-fiving the crowd, she explains what kept her motivated to keep pushing on when things started to unravel.

"Luckily I managed to hold it together and get to the finish line. I’m honestly not sure I would have made it back here without Kevin my husband, and some of my family here crewing. All of the insane fans out on the course today, thank you so much. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. And the volunteers were just the best. Thank you all for helping me get back to Chamonix.”

Zurich-based Hartmuth takes second place after a well-paced race in a time of 24:10:52 and France's Blandine Hirondel comes in soon after in 24:22:50. Dauwalter is meets them on the line and the three share congratulations.

As the day goes on, more and more finishers stream through the winding finishing route through the town, to the cheers of the ever-present crowd. Most runners endure a second night on the trail and still some 40h later, athletes continue to realise their UTMB dreams. In a testament to the extreme nature of the race, a total of 931 elite and age group runners do not finish the course. The UTMB is not an easy event, most athletes will have trained for the distance, terrain and altitude for several years leading up to the race. But even with the training, conditions can be unpredictable on race day, and sometimes things just don't go to plan. But that's the nature of the UTMB!

History is made

courtney dauwalter wins utmb
Credit: Kate Milsom

Dauwalter's historic victory marks the first time any runner has ever won Hardrock, Western States and the UTMB in one single year. Ahead of the race, she voiced how she'd be happy to merely finish the course after her full-on season of racing. But if we know anything about Dauwalter, it's that she's in a league of her own. Never before in ultra trail running history has a woman raced so competitively that she's beaten most of the men's field, in some cases winning races outright. Let's hope Dauwalter is the start of a new age of long-distance running for women.

Equally, it's fifth time lucky for Walmsley, who has placed 4th, 5th and DNF'd twice before on the UTMB course. A long-time dream which saw him up sticks and move to the Beaufortain mountain range that sits next to the Mont Blanc massif, Walmsley has had laser focus on UTMB victory for years. This was his year. He also set a new course record, shaving off 12 minutes from Jornet's 2021 record (though the course was slightly different). Since both Walmsley and Miller finished in under 20h, they've gone down in the history books alongside Jornet as the only three athletes to have ever achieved such a feat.

As impressive as these finishes are, for a further 28h the remaining UTMB runners continued to spill into Chamonix. some of these runners had been on the go for almost two days straight. With most having run through a second night, these runners had been battling extreme heat, cold nights, sickness, exhaustion, injury and hallucinations from the sleep-deprivation. Some with a specific time in mind, but all with the dream to complete arguably the most iconic endurance trail running race in the world. Chapeau to each and every runner.

If you're feeling inspired by the UTMB and are wondering how to get started, why not check out our advice on alpine trail running, how to run your first ultra and our free 12-week ultra training plan.

Thanks to one of the main race sponsors, Hoka, for supporting our presence in UTMB this year. To follow along during and after the race, don’t forget to tune into our Instagram.

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