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UTMB preview: can Jim Walmsley win?

After last year's cancellation, UTMB is back and the field is loaded with the world's top ultrarunners

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc Course

UTMB makes its return to the French Alps as the world’s top ultrarunners embark on the peak of Mont Blanc. This race is considered to be the most competitive ultramarathon in the world and draws the top trail runners to Chamonix to take part in the event. 

What makes UTMB so special is its setting upon the highest mountain in Europe. The route takes ultrarunners through the Alps and three countries: France, Italy and Switzerland. Along the journey, runners will take on 171.5 kilometres and over 10,000m of elevation gain at an altitude of between 2,000 and 6,000 metres. 

UTMB, first held in 2003, has expanded into a full week of festivities with eight races, two of which, the CCC and TDS – are themselves among the most competitive trail ultras in the world, but UTMB remains the crown jewel of the ultrarunning festival and on August 30th will find its champion.

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While the 2021 UTMB men’s field is loaded, three ultrarunners stand out as clear favourites to win: Jim Walmsley, François D’haene, and Xavier Thévenard. 2019 defending champion Pau Capell had to withdraw following his knee surgery in July.

Jim Walmsley at the Western States 100. Photo: Wil Matthews

Walmsley is known to fly in the mountains, and the UTMB course is similar to the terrain he’s been training on in Colorado. However, the three-time Western States champion hasn’t had much success on very mountainous 100-milers; he DNF’d in 2018 and finished fifth on this course in 2017. 

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France’s D’haene has been the top men’s 100-mile mountain runner in the world over the past decade. He has dominated UTMB in his three appearances, winning in 2012, 2014, and 2017, and he won this year’s Hardrock 100, breaking both Kilian Jornet’s clockwise and counter-clockwise course records.

Thévenard, like D’haene, also has three wins at UTMB, in 2013, 2015 and 2018. He was fourth in 2017 and second to Capell in 2019. Thévenard has also won three different UTMB festival races, CCC in 2010, TDS in 2014, and OCC in 2016. He has had seven straight strong runs in Chamonix, and no one in the elite field has had as much success on the course as Thévenard.

Montreal’s Mathieu Blanchard will chase a position inside the top 10 at this year’s UTMB. He was 13th in 2018 and 10th at the CCC a year later. 

RELATED: Kilian Jornet misses UTMB by one point

The women’s race isn’t shy of big names, with some of the most talented runners from a variety of different disciplines. Previous UTMB champions Courtney Dauwalter and Beth Pascall will be the favourites in the field. Dauwalter is the defending champion, and her previous win in 2019 has given her plenty of grit to push through the tough situations runners will face at UTMB. Pascall dominated the field and won at the 2021 Western States 100, running a controlled race during hot conditions. Pascall has been fourth and fifth at UTMB in 2018 and 2019, but with her current fitness and performances this year, she is the favourite. 

Canada’s Ailsa Macdonald will be competing in the women’s elite field at UTMB. Macdonald was first at the 2020 Tarawera 100 miler in New Zealand, and sixth in the 2019 CCC race in Chamonix. Macdonald has had a large training block for UTMB, adding in 1,000-2,000m of elevation gain into her long runs to prep her for the climbs she will face in the Alps. 

You can follow UTMB starting on Friday, Aug. 27. here