Beyond the elite athletes are thousands of other brave runners who take on the mountains around Chamonix during the 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. One of them was Salomon’s 32-year-old Marketing Manager for Alpine Ski Boots, Cyril Espalieu, who finished in 116th position overall, completing the race in an impressive 29 hours, 23 minutes and 1 second. Cyril told us what it feels like for an everyday athlete—albeit a really fast one—to take on the UTMB.
Interview by Tim Sweeney
Describe the feeling of arriving in Chamonix after running for 29 hours up and down the mountains in rain and snow.
Well, it was midnight, 10 hours after leaders, so I thought it would be only my family there. But UTMB has a checkpoint 1 kilometer before the finish so the guy on the loudspeaker was warming up the crowd for my arrival and people were banging the blockades. It seems so loud because you have been running alone in the quiet darkness for so long. It gives you this enormous feeling. You go around the square and the greeting from the people was huge. It was much more intense and lively than I was afraid it would be.
For how long had you been imagining that feeling at the finish line?
I was really focusing on not picturing that moment too early. In my mind I wanted to divide the challenge into a large number of small challenges, like 10-20 kilometers at a time. I really started thinking about the finish line moment when I arrived in Chamonix, when I was on the road and knew nothing could happen to me, like a twisted ankle or getting lost, because that could happen even five kilometers from the finish.
And then it was a celebration or were you too tired?
Somehow when you arrive, you do nothing of what you planned. You’re just so happy it’s over. I fell into the arms of my wife, but I wasn’t even seeing her really, because my eyes were so blurry. When she was talking I could understand it was her, but it seemed unreal. In the next seconds you realize you don’t have to think anymore about your pace or ranking and that’s a great feeling.
What did you think about during the race? Did your mind wonder all over the place?
What is crazy is that your relationship to time is totally different. When you are running those kinds of distance, one hour flies by. You realize you’ve spent one hour just letting your mind wander from what you see around you to the music in your head to the name on the bib of the guy in front of you. Except for moments when the race takes you back down to earth, like when you have pain somewhere or it’s cold. Those are wakeup calls. You don’t feel boredom at all. You are at peace with what you are doing. Most of the time it’s super silent, and listening to that is huge. Of course you will have people you are on the same pace and you start talking to each other, and that person can be from anywhere in the world at UTMB. Most conversations last two or three questions like, “Do you want to pass?” or “Can I pass?”. And sometimes it’s more in-depth. Then you might see each other later in an aid station. But there is a huge respect between the runners because we are all struggling. If I come in one place in front of you, who cares.
You said you have no real running background as a kid in Paris, so how did you decide to take on the UTMB?
I started running in my twenties and did a marathon in less than three hours in November of 2012. After that, I said, “OK, the road era is over and now I will switch into trail running.” In early 2013 it was clear for me that the end game would be UTMB; that was four and a half years ago, but I wanted to take my time getting to the ultra-distance length. I started by doing 20 km trail races and then in 2014 I did a 40 km race. In 2015, I went up to 80 km. Based on that, I registered for the 2016 UTMB, but I didn’t get a number in the lottery. Finally, I got a bib for 2017. I was always cautious of going from 80 to 100 to 120 km, but the longer distances I was going, the more I liked it, especially running at night and discovering how to manage myself.
In May, you did the 110 km Maxi Race of Annecy here in Salomon’s hometown. I assume that was all part of the plan to be ready for UTMB?
For sure that was done with purpose. I was going to see if I could manage an ultra and see how competitive I could be. The fact that it went very well gave me confidence.
You and your wife have a very young baby at home. How did you manage the training around family and job?
My philosophy about training is that trail running is a sport but it’s not my job. I try to sneak in some training runs where I can put them. I don’t follow a plan that I put ahead of other priorities. I might run at lunch or in early morning, but I will cancel a run if there is a work or family priority. I try to do it on an intuitive basis and to listen to my body. But I also stay active, doing a variety of sports. I have learned from experience that if I do any activity too often, I get injured. So I cycle a lot and playing football—soccer to Americans—also helps. Those three things build my fitness.
Any advice for people who might want to ramp up their running to longer distances, even a 20 km or 42 km race?
I did the full course with friends earlier this summer over four days staying in huts, and that was very helpful. Having done that saved so much mental energy during the race. Because if, at some point during the race, what you see on the trail doesn’t reflect what you think you’ve seen on the map, you can get angry very fast, especially when you are not in your best place mentally. So having run these places before really helps set you at ease. You are spending less time looking at your watch and checking kilometers and you are not as stressed when you are trying to see the next aid station.
You said you train on a more intuitive basis. So how did you train for this distance?
Many people think you need to do 120kms to do a race like this. It’s not the case. By doing one race of 110 kms and then some long days of 30 kms you build a healthy and active lifestyle. And I try to do one big day every month or every two weeks, but not much more than that. What is clear is that the experience of races and knowing your hydration and equipment—footwear, clothes, poles—is a huge driver of how you can feel over such long distance. Having tested how that will all work on long runs over and over makes a huge difference because what works in 30 minutes of running doesn’t always work after five hours when it’s five degrees.
And are you happy with how fast you ran the race?
Top-200 was what I was aiming for and I ended up 116th, so it’s a huge satisfaction. I had one really difficult time around 125 km in Champex. It was pouring rain around 2 p.m. on Saturday and I was freezing and thinking, “Wow! I have 45kms to go!” I could barely walk after the aid station. My father and brother-in-law really encouraged me for the first few steps. From a muscular standpoint, I knew I was not cramping, and I was confident my legs would come back; I just wasn’t sure when. Your muscles get super stiff, but before they can be flexible again, you have to warm them up, so I was trying to get them running so I could ask more from them. It finally happened, but it took a while. So I had 15 km of tough times where I questioned if I would make it, but I was in control for the rest so my suffering level has remained acceptable. My plan is always to try to run all the downhills, all the flats and any uphills that are not more than a 10 percent gradient. Even if I feel good, I walk any hill steeper than that. After 125 kms, that rule was gone and I was walking every uphill!
And in that moment, the support must have made a huge difference in you finishing the race.
Absolutely, the feeling of all the support both onsite with my family and friends and the people on the course, and then online, too, was amazing. I was checking my phone for messages at every aid station and the force that it gives you to get a message of encouragement is huge. In the end, you don’t do it only for you but the people that started following you as well. You don’t want to let them down. You want them to be proud of you. And then with the media support on the UTMB site where people could follow along and share the experience, you start to get treated like some sort of hero when all you have done is put one foot in front of the other.
S/LAB Sense Ultra shoes (2 pair, with a shoe change just after the halfway point)
Bonatti Pro Waterproof Jacket (“That was important!” he says.)
Bonatti Waterproof Pant (“For the heavy rain and when running the Grand col de Ferret, where I ran through a snowstorm.”)