Let’s play the comparison game between two of the most iconic trail-ultras in the world:
The Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in California, USA
The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc starting and ending in Chamonix, France.
First off, it should be noted that for most years the UTMB is closer to 106-108 miles in distance (about 170km) whereas the Western States 100 is more or less exactly 100-miles (about 161km). Is this because the French don’t care about the Imperial system and instead favor the Metric system like pretty much the rest of the entire world? Probably not!
The loop course of UTMB simply starts and ends at the same line in downtown Chamonix while and it circumnavigates the massive 15,774’ (4808m) Mont Blanc in a logical fashion. Along the popular trekking route one crosses over into Italy and Switzerland as well.
Views along the UTMB course after crossing into Italy
In contrast the Western States route is a “point-to-point” course running from the ski slopes of a Lake Tahoe resort to Placer track in Auburn, CA. So we have a slight distance in length. But who really cares about an extra 10km when you’ve already run 100-miles?!
Probably the most glaring difference between these two events would be their difference in elevation profile. Western States has considerably less climbing and is actually a net downhill run. UTMB has equal amount of uphill and downhill of course…and apparently much more of both!
See these respective elevation profiles from data pulled from Strava:
The UTMB course (about 33,000’/10,000m of climbing!)
The Western States 100 course (about 18,000’/5486m of climbing!)
Many snobby “mountain athlete purists” might actually say that Western States is not a “mountain ultra” at all but more of a “flat road buffed out trail” kind of venue. Some like to compare the elevation profile to a more exaggerated Boston Marathon because it trends significantly downhill. Kilian would probably say it’s a “flat road race.” And honestly there is a lot of truth to that when you consider these elevation profiles side by side. However, “Flat and non-technical” means as a runner you are actually obligated to run fast! Consider the respective CRs for women and men are 16 hours and 14 hours at Western compared to the much longer durations of 22 hours for Women and 19 hours for Men at UTMB.
From running these longer ultras we also know that many variables can throw a wrench into one’s race plans, execution and (what is usually) a fairly dramatic slow down in pace. One of those glaring factors is weather; specifically, how hot the average temperature is on the Western States course during the middle of the race. Temperatures in the exposed, dusty “canyons” along the hilliest miles of the course often reach around 100F degrees (37.8 C) in the sun at Western. The heat is a distinguishing characteristic of Western States most years – whereas it usually is not even close to being that hot at UTMB. That being said, UTMB has another set of challenges in the fact that with the evening start time even the speediest of runners must endure a “ full night in the mountains” reaching altitudes of over 8,000’ (2438m) across the Alps during that time. Often snow, rain and fog can add another layer of complexity to navigating high alpine passes in the dark. Furthermore, the next day and afternoon of running has shown drastic temperature swings with much warmer and sunny temperatures as the top runners navigate the final marathon of the race heading back down to Chamonix.
Which challenges are harder? What event requires more grit? Well, we’re experienced enough to say: “pick which way you like to suffer the most 😆!” Having run in (and finished) both events we can honestly say that both can be very hard and it might actually depend more on your personal strengths and weaknesses as a runner….both mentally and physically! But if you want to see what others in our community are saying about these courses, check out our Message Board thread and join in on the discussion HERE.
Keep on trottin’!
-The MUT Running Team