The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) is a group of races held over a few days in early September, traversing around the Monte Rosa massif in north western Italy and ending in southern Switzerland.
The race director is Lizzy Hawker, a trail running legend, with a series of impressive victories on the world stage, including the nearby Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) on five occasions. Lizzy used the UTMR route in her training for the UTMB and, according to Lizzy, it’s 30% harder than UTMB.
What attracted me to this race was that it was a challenging event, in this location, and you could do it over three days (some did the longer 170km route over four days or either as a single stage). The organisers carried your bags to the next village where you would stay that night in a small hotel with a proper cooked meal and a good night’s sleep. That much, luxury.
I did the 3-day event over 116km, with 8100m of ascent and 8400m of descent. Among those numbers, the notable ones are 8100 and 8400. They tell the story of long climbing days and tenderised quads. In fact, they don’t tell all the story, because of the altitude factor. There are three mountain passes to cross of over 2800m and two more over 2600m, plunging down to villages as low as 1200m. This means lowered oxygen levels, which in turn means elevated heart rate, diminished performance and, maybe, altitude sickness.
But it also means impressive views of towering mountains, glaciers that you feel you can almost reach out and touch, alpine pastures with delicate flowers and flowing braided rivers, rock fields made of giant’s dice and trails that cling to precipitous mountain sides that you daren’t look down.
Each of the three days involved a mountain pass, dropping to an alpine village (where there was an intermediate cut off and an aid station), climbing another pass and then down to the final village for the day.
The first was the short day (29km). An opportunity to measure yourself against the conditions, test your equipment and fuelling strategy, experiment with pacing and get used to moving quickly through the mountains. The day was perfect; hardly a cloud in the sky, with just enough breeze coming up the valleys to keep things comfortable.
The mountain passes were marked with Buddhist prayer flags; a sign that this was indeed Lizzy’s race. From those high points, the massif revealed itself with dozens of high snowy peaks stretching into the distance.
It was a fairly comfortable shakeout day with a relaxed cut-off time. The body felt good and there was energy in reserve for the two days to come. We spent the night at the village of Gressoney-la-Trinité.
Being a stage race, there was the opportunity to get to know your fellow runners. We eat a communal dinner at the hotel and breakfast together in the morning. We swapped tales of the day just gone and speculated on the day to come; we questioned those who had done the race before for nuggets of information.
The second day (46km) began with a steep 1100m climb over the first 9km to reach 2900m. The sun had gone, the wind was rising and the temperature fell as we reached the top of the pass. Three layers on, gloves and a warm hat and I was still cold. My numb fingers fumbled with getting food from my pack.
Getting down the hill meant a rise in temperature, but slow going as the technical, twisting, rock-strewn descent allowed few opportunities to establish a regular running pattern. On and on it went, dropping further and further. An Ibex peered at me shyly from behind a rock on the way down.
At the bottom of the hill was the pretty town of Alagna and the next aid station. The Walser people have inhabited these alpine villages for centuries, with the first migrations from Germany going back as far as the 13th century. The Walser have their own dialects and customs, farming goats and cattle for milk and cheese and maintaining gorgeous, flower-filled villages. Now and then, you see wood carved faces, a sign of ancient cultural beliefs.
Now the winter sports industry has a strong presence in this area, with ski lifts running up the valleys out of each of the villages. Still, it’s not very intrusive and you look past to see the vistas around without too much distraction.
The day’s second climb followed a paved path created by the Italian army in the 1920's over the top of the pass at 2700m. Large stones had been hewn from the surrounding rock in a massive engineering effort. The technique to get up the hill was to leap from large stone to large stone as the early gentle gradient of the track became substantially steeper as we reached the top. The temperature dropped again into the low single digits. We were wrapped in mist and my breathing was laboured. The views of the previous day only suggested themselves from time to time when the cloud parted, only to quickly close again.
The steep, technical descent gave way to open fields, as serpentine rivers laced through the valley and a nice, runnable section led to the finish at Macugnaga, still in Italy. I made it in within 40 minutes of the cut-off time.
The third day was slightly shorter than the second day (44km), with less ascending and descending. But it proved to be the most difficult stage for me, mainly because of the conditions and the intermediate cut off at Saas Fee.
The first climb to Monte Moro Pass was another 1500m ascent over 7km to 2800m. Like the day before, the temperature was cold and you definitely felt the effects of the altitude. The golden Madonna at the top of the pass marked the border between Italy and Switzerland. I just wanted to get off the hill, but icy slopes and large boulders acted to slow the descent.
While the intermediate and final cut off times of the previous days hadn’t been that much of an issue, today was different. I was aware there was still some way to go before Saas Fee and the cut-off was six hours. I needed to up the pace coming down the hill and, when I reached the bottom, there was still a 5km incline to reach the aid station. I was working hard and the pace I had to maintain on this uphill sapped my energy. I made it with a few minutes to spare, hands on knees, chest heaving. It would have been gutting to miss it and plenty of good runners didn’t.
Someone said the previous day that, if you met this cut-off, you should make it to Grächen within the overall 12 hours. Although there were no more big hills, it definitely wasn’t over, as I climbed out of Saas Fee onto the Hohenweg path that wound up and down along the high trails above the valley for the next 17km. In retrospect, these narrow trails were fairly treacherous, with drizzling rain now falling and slippery rocks and shifting scree slopes, coupled with fatigue, you were a small misstep away from tumbling down the valley. Progress was quite slow and it was hard to work out how much further there was to go.
Then the path began to steadily descend as we reached Hannigalp aid station. There was 3km to go and I had an hour and a half to do it. I had made it.
Lizzy greeted me as I arrived in Grächen and put the medal and scarf around my neck. My total time was just under 30 hours and I felt great.