Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

The hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far. That’s how Dr. Darian Smith, a local chiropractor, described Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which is one of the world’s most difficult endurance races at 106 miles through the Alps in France, Italy and Switzerland, with 30,000 feet of climbing and 30,000 feet of descent. The race was held on August 30 and September 1.
Darian, who is a seasoned ultra-runner, was first introduced to Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc while hiking the trail with his wife, Nicole, on their honeymoon in 2016.
“She brought up the idea to run the race,” he said, adding that having lost their daughter Ava Marie to a stillborn birth later that year fueled his quest even more. “It was fun seeing people training when we were there. It got my wheels turning – if I started the process of qualifying for the race, at some point I could come back.”
While it took Darian and Nicole nine days to complete Tour du Mont Blanc hike, racers are expected to complete it much faster.
“My goal was to complete it in 25 hours, but it took me 36 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds,” he said.
After doing several other difficult ultra-races, Darian said he accumulated enough points to put him in the lottery system for Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. To earn points, Darian competed in Georgia Death Race (74 miles), Burning River (50 miles), and Mogollon Monster (100 miles), which together gave him 15 points – enough to enter the lottery.
“It can take three to five years to get picked out of the lottery and I got picked my second year. After two years, you have to get new points,” he said, adding that 2,500 people are allowed into the race each year.
After learning that he was picked to attend the race, Darian said he was worried he might have to go alone because their daughter they thought it would be a lot of their daughter, Josephine, who will be two at the end of December. He also had a hard time finding friends to make the trek to Europe. Luckily, at the last second, his best friend and fellow-ultra runner Jamie Gaspari, as well as his dad and his dad’s wife Vickie were all able to go with him.
“All three of them had crewed me in other 100 milers, so they knew what to do,” he said.
Darian said Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is held during what people call the Sommet du Monde of trail running, which is a weeklong festival of trail running, and getting the best trail runners of all disciplines – marathon running, fast packing, trail running, Nordic skiing, ski mountaineering – all trying to conquer the course.
“It’s one of the hardest races in the world, and I just wanted to be a part of it,” he remarked.
Darian said training for Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc wasn’t as easy as before, now having a daughter. He trained by running at Pilot Mountain, on the treadmill and running small hills over and over again. He also ran and mowed the lawn in a weighted vest and did weightlifting with Josephine.
“I had to get up at 3 a.m. many mornings to run and run during lunch, and I still only peaked at a few hundred-mile weeks and only averaged 15,000 feet of elevation a week.
Once in Europe, Darian and his crew stayed in Chamonix, France where the start/finish was located.
He noted that Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a loop around a mountain range.
Darian explained that on the night the race began it was in the 50s and a little rainy.
“We started in the middle of town in a narrow alleyway with thousands of people cheering us on,” he said. “Then, we were led to a greenway system out of town and then started climbing a ski resort hill. It went from 3,500 to 6,000 feet pretty quickly. That’s how it was. You were either going straight up or straight down, and I think that was my undoing.”
Darian said he started the race toward the back of the crowd and because it was so steep, he strained his quadricep muscles on the downhills.
“I had trained for the climbing, but not the descending,” he said.
Darian’s goal was to complete the race in 25 hours; however, when he got to Courmayeur, Italy where his crew was at mile 55, he had arrived much later than he had planned.
“I took it easy from there on out with a (new) goal of just being able to run the rest of the way,” he explained.
Then came the section between Courmayeur and La Fouly, Switzerland where he had to climb the Grand Col Ferret, translated as the Big Ferret Pass.
“It’s the most beautiful part of the trail because you’re climbing out of forests into high altitude pastureland and tundra at one of the highest points of the race, close to 9,000 feet,” he said, adding that he had views of Mont Blanc and glaciers. “Then, we had an almost 10 mile continuous steep downhill and by the time I got to La Fouly, my legs didn’t work anymore and I had to sit down.”
While in La Fouly, Darian saw his crew there, but because they weren’t at a designated aid station, they couldn’t help him. The next stop was mile 73, which was seven miles away in Champex Lac.
“I barely made it those next seven miles and when I got there, I had to lay down and get stretched out, which was very painful,” he said. “After taking some aspirin, drinking some coffee and being there for an hour, I got back up, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to run anymore so I walked the last 35 miles.”
Fortunately for Darian, he wasn’t the only person struggling, and would have someone to finish the race with.
“After Champex Lac, I kept running into Aaron Saft from Asheville. We ran into each other at the aid station and he asked if we wanted to walk it in together,” he shared. “Having Aaron there was fun. We knew each other from other races, but we’d never really talked.”
Darian said even though they couldn’t run, he and Aaron power hiked the last 35 miles.
“It was very painful walking downhill with blown quads,” he expressed, as he mentioned how happy he was to reach the finish line. “Normally, it would have been emotional, and it was, but I just wanted it to be over because I’d never done anything that hard.”
Darian estimated that during the race, he easily burned over 15,000 calories, and consumed an interesting mix of food including trail mix, salami, cheese, baguettes, chocolate, soup, Stinger waffles and energy gels, and had coffee at every aid station. He said the coffee was what kept him going.
“I just repeated that mix at every aid station,” he said, noting that there were about 10 aid stations throughout the race. “I finished it all off with a cheeseburger at the end.”
Of all the things on the trail that were available to runners, Darian said the most interesting was wine, which he didn’t drink.
Because of the possibility that runners could get stranded or hurt along Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, each runner was required to carry a backpack, weighing six pounds, with certain gear, including a passport, money, warm clothing, water proof clothing, emergency blanket, emergency whistle, neck gator, collapsible cup, hiking poles, two-500 milliliter water bottles, and 800 calories of food.
Darian said along with the beautiful views during the race, he also saw a few animals, including marmot and birds of prey.
“One of the coolest things we saw was an ibex, a large mountain goat with big horns. It walked right out in front of us as we did our last climb,” he said.
He added that along the 106 miles, he climbed eight mountain passes, which became exponentially harder, and hiked through two nights.
After the race, Darian spent some time enjoying the area and eating lots of food. He even found a restaurant, named Josephine.
He mentioned that the day after the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, he went on a leisure mountain bike ride with an eBike.

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