What’s the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc?
For Canadian runner Quan Sim, it’s “fear.”
On Sept. 1, 2,300 ultrarunners will take on the daunting 171.5K race around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, that begins and ends in Chamonix, France. Known by its shortened name, UTMB, the single-stage mountain race is considered one of the most famous, and toughest trail races in the world, with 10,300m of ascent and multiple passages at more than 2,550m above sea level.
The 49-year-old now calls nearby Geneva, Switzerland home, but this is will be his first-time at UTMB. Quan is one of the few Canadians racing in 2017. He says his training is “unorthodox” and relies heavily on racing himself into shape. His race-count for 2017 is currently at six including four mountain/trail marathons, one trail half-marathon and one ultra.
“You question everything, like how much time you have to live.”
Quan works for the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations. He’s lived in Europe since 2003, moving from Ottawa, and around the same time began making major lifestyle changes. What prompted the changes? It began with eating Indian food that turned into a lengthy stomach ache that just wouldn’t go away. Originally thought to be appendicitis, Quan later learned there was a tumour on his appendix and he underwent an operation in December of 2003.
“Obviously getting the news, it puts life into perspective,” he says. “You question everything, like how much time you have to live.” Quan adopted several new lifestyle choices in the following years, one of which was running. “I did nothing before taking up running,” he says. “I was porky, so to speak. I watched too much TV and didn’t enjoy the outdoors enough. Now, it’s important to get out.”
The European resident discovered that he gained entry to UTMB on Jan. 12, 2017, as did other runners who applied through the lottery. Race entry is qualification-based and unlike the Boston Marathon, it’s not time-dependent. Rather, UTMB has an extensive list of eligible races where runners gain points with the difficulty of the race rated on a scale of 1-6. To be eligible for the UTMB lottery, a runner must have at least 15 points from a maximum of three races in two years preceding participation. Points-scoring Canadian events include Ultra-Trail du Harricana, Fat Dog, Sinister 7 and The North Face Endurance Challenge in Ontario.
The ultramarathon first humbled Quan on the Eiger, after he was pulled off course for missing a time checkpoint. “I learned a lesson in taking these races seriously,” he says.
The 100-miler has a cut-off time of 46.5 hours. (UTMB 2017 is technically 106 miles or 171.5K.) The race passes through France, Italy and Switzerland.
Quan says the toughest race he’s done to date is the Eiger Ultra Trail, a 101K that climbs 6,700m in the Bern region of Switzerland, which he’s started, and finished, on multiple occasions, including the most recent edition on July 15. The ultramarathon first humbled Quan on the Eiger, after he was pulled off course for missing a time checkpoint. “I learned a lesson in taking these races seriously,” he says.
The Eiger is a five-point race for UTMB qualifying. Quan is also familiar, in part, with the Chamonix terrain. He’s done the Marathon du Mont Blanc, won in 2017 by Kilian Jornet, whom Quan hopes to meet at the 2017 UTMB. Plus, Quan did a four-day training camp on the course to familiarize himself with what he will be going up against come the beginning of September.
Quan’s goal for his first 100-miler? Simple. “Finish in less than 46.5 hours,” he says.