Francois d’Haene runs Jim Walmsley into the ground and leaves Kilian Jornet in his wake to seal third Mont Blanc victory

The most hyped UTMB delivered on expectation as the world’s best runners battled it out until d’Haene set a pace no one could match

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 11:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 10:51am

Francois d’Haene won the 160 kilometre Ultra-Marathon of Mont Blanc (UTMB) for the third time, finishing in 19 hours.

He ran for the majority of the race with Jim Walmsley, from the USA, and Kilian Jornet Burgada, from Spain, as a pack of three.

D’Haene, a Frenchman, forced Walmsley into a pace he couldn’t sustain and then once he had dispatched the American he drew away from Jornet to comfortably take his third title.

The woman’s race was won by Nuria Picas Albets, of Spain, who pipped Andrea Huser, from Switzerland, to the post by just three minutes. Christelle Bard, from France, came in third half-an-hour later, around 50 minutes ahead of fourth place Kaori Niwa from Japan.

Both male and female races were much hyped as the ‘Race of the Decade’ due to their enormous depth of fields.

The course was shortened from its usual 171km because of poor weather, and started awkwardly.

The runners were given a one-minute warning then a 30-second warning as Russian marching songs blared to build the atmosphere.

The runners were expecting a 10-second count down, but when ‘Go’ was shouted, it came out of the blue. The off-guard athletes looked shocked and were cajoled into running by a couple of hand-signals and a few more shouts of “go” from the announcer.

Much to the surprise of the spectators, pre-race favourite Jornet was live streaming as he ran. He filmed for half an hour while occasionally talking to the camera and other athletes until his phone was low on battery.

Walmsley was first into the 21km checkpoint at Saint Gervais. Walmsley is notorious for flying out of the blocks and then eventually crashing and burning. But despite his lead, this did not look like the case on the UTMB. He looked more calm and collected than usual.

Walmsley took his time in the checkpoint, and waited for Jornet to arrive.

Eventually the two left together and it appeared that Walmsley had learnt his lesson and would not push himself until he was ready to make a move later in the course.

D’Haene came into Saint Gervais, but the field had not had time to spread out by that point.

Over the next 50km, the leaders drew away from the other runners. Walmsley, running for Hoka One One, led a distinctive pack of three made up of Jornet and D’Haene, both of whom run for Salomon.

Jornet and D’Haene ran only a few minutes behind the American as fourth place was battled out some distance back.

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The night was bitterly cold and windy. The runners powered through the conditions at altitude in their hard-fought podium positions.

Matt Trappe, director of Walmsley’s Western States film Lighting the Fire, told the Post that Walmsley was looking strong. He speculated that Walmsley was fighting his natural instincts to run into a distant lead. The course had changed slightly so the final stretch was flat.

“That’s good. It plays into Jim’s strengths,” Trappe said. “He’s saving his legs for that.”

The crowd waited with baited breath at Courmayeur on the 75km mark. The atmosphere was palpable as fans waited to see how the runners had faired during their time above 2,000 metres in the freezing dead of night.

The tension manifested itself in a spat between security and support teams. Hoka One One and Salomon both began to set up in preparation for their athletes.

The rules stipulate that support teams cannot enter the runners’ area before their runner arrives. The rule is designed to stop pandemonium when the bulk of the pack begins to arrive.

As a result, the teams thought the rule was arbitrary for the three elite runners, who would appear and disappear before even the fourth runner arrived. But one volunteer in particular subscribed to the idea that a rule for one is a rule for all.

The conflict looked like it might boil over, but it was quickly forgotten when Walmsley sped in to the checkpoint.

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He looked fresh. Any worries that he was repeating mistakes of the past were mitigated when he said he would take it slow and hike the next climb to save his legs.

“Patience. Patience. Patience,” he said half to himself and half to his team.

Walmsley told his support team that he would wait for Jornet and D’Haene. He even said that a one-on-one battle might be good for him.

D’Haene entered, did the absolute minimum and dashed out of the checkpoint. He was barely there for a minute. Walmsley was in the midst of contemplating a longer break when D’Haene’s move galvanised him and he quickly rushed out after the Frenchman, leaving Jornet, who had come in with D’Haene, to rest.

This was when D’Haene began to heap the pressure on Walmsley. He had cast out bait to the American, and Walmsley had bitten. Walmsley’s ‘patience’ was easy enough when he was setting the pace, but not now the gauntlet had been thrown down.

Jornet took his time and followed in third. The trio climbed up to 2,000 meters, and then again up to Col de Ferret at 2,600m, about 100km into the race.

The Col was freezing. The wind whipped across the exposed ridge and the ground was covered with a thick layer of frost.

At around 5.45am, two head lamps began to bob their way towards the Col.

Walmsley was in the lead, but he was being hounded by D’Haene.

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D’Haene was within a metre of Walmsley and stuck to him like a shadow. He could have whispered to the leader, their heads were so close.

As quickly as they appeared up the hill from Italy, they disappeared down the other side into Switzerland, still so close together that they looked joined at the hip.

Minutes later, the experienced Jornet ran up to the Col, biding his time to strike as the leaders wore each other out.

American Tim Tollefson, also in the Hoka One One team, was in a distant group fighting for fourth, but halfway up the slope towards to Col he still looked strong. The cold night hadn’t beaten him, and the sun was beginning to break. There was plenty of the race to come.

By La Fouly, at 109km, it appeared that D’Haene’s move had worked. Walmsley arrived only two minutes behind the Frenchman, but left 20 minutes after him.

Walmsley told his team that if he was going to finish he would need to rest. He drank soup to try and warm up and then left at a slow walk. He looked broken, and quickly slid down the rankings to eighth place.

Walmsley’s insistence on leading the pack had backfired, just as it had at Western States 100 when he failed to finish despite leading for most of the race.

But unlike his previous crashes, Walmsley dug deep. From a seemingly dismal position he conjured the strength for a second wind. And forced his way up to fourth over the next 50km, and eventually finished in a respectable fifth.

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Once D’Haene had dispatched Walmsley he put on the afterburners. Fans had expected the experienced Jornet to make a late move, but by then D’Haene had built an unassailable lead.

He pushed through the final few climbs, and when he reached Col de Montets he was 15 minutes ahead of Jornet.

Jornet was moving well and closing the gap, but with 15km left, a minute a kilometre was a bridge too far.

D’Haene flew past the final Col with energy to spare, and powered on to finish in first place.

He received a hero’s welcome from the local crowd who were ecstatic to see a Frenchman come first.

And then equally ecstatic when the popular Jornet followed in second place 15 minutes later.

The MC speculated who would come in third, Tollefson or Xavier Thevenard, from France.

In reality, Tollefson had third in the bag from a few kilometres out and finished around 30 minutes behind Jornet to a welcoming crowd.

Tollefson had finished third last year as well, and was among the first American males to reach the UTMB podium.

Tollefson was over the moon to repeat his performance and played up to the crowd as he finished. Thevenard followed in fourth a few minutes behind.

Walmsley sprinted in for his fifth place finish. The spectators were used to crowding the final kilometre for high-fives as the runners passed, but Walmsley was shooing them out the way as he came in at a rate of knots, seemingly with no patience left for the festivities.

He was looking over his shoulder as he crossed the finish line and it soon became clear that he was happy to get into the atmosphere but only after he had secured fifth. Spaniard Pau Capell was hot on his heels and finished sixth about 40 seconds after Walmsley.