I was recently in Chamonix for the UTMB series of events. I have to be honest, I have avoided Chamonix at the end of August for the last few years… The whole UTMB extravaganza just feels too overwhelming, there is no escape. So, I have chose to either have a holiday or work on smaller races.
This year I was asked by adidas to work on the event, documenting the experience of their Terrex Team as they prepared to tackle all of the events the UTMB offer, the exception coming with the crazy long PTL.
Working for a brand brings a whole new perspective and experience to an event like UTMB. Instead of chasing multiple runners over multiple locations, my priority would be to follow the favourites within each of the respective races – OCC, CCC and TDS. The UTMB would also be raced and followed by the whole Terrex Team but due to a prior commitment, I would skip the big loop around France, Italy and Switzerland.
UTMB needs no introduction, the series of races have arguably become a flagship for the sport. As UTMB has grown, so has the demand for people to race and for media to cover the event. This brings a whole set of challenges, especially for media. As a brand, adidas were required to pay a fee to allow myself and the film crew access to certain areas of the race, for example aid stations and finish line, and thus we could capture certain required images and also have the license to use them. UTMB provide live coverage of the event and it must be said, they do an incredible job using a helicopter, runners and mountain bikes to cover much of all the race routes. It is quite an incredible logistical problem and in addition, they provide live commentary with an ever-changing group of people providing on the spot analysis of the race. You can pretty much follow every race, start to finish live.
adidas and the UTMB
The team arrived in Chamonix one week before the UTMB main event and I arrived on the Monday. This meant the YCC started Tuesday, TDS Wednesday, OCC Thursday, CCC and UTMB starting Friday. You can do the math, that means long days, early starts, late nights and little sleep.
As a team, adidas had rented one huge chalet that would host the whole team, the hashtag #oneteam being a very important motto and ethos not only during race week but it is a hashtag that the team is using to bring the whole Terrex ethos together. It is very much ‘all for one, one for all!’ The chalet had two chefs who provided meals for the entire team and in so doing, dietary needs could be looked after and the need to try to find a restaurant in Chamonix was removed.
A team physio, Dave, was literally ‘hands-on’ everyday from morning to evening to keep the whole team in top condition. In the words of Team Manager, Robert, ‘without his immense treatments, day and night, someone like Luis may well have not raced!’
I am fortunate, after years covering races, I was well acquainted with much of the team; Luis Alberto Hernando, Sheila Aviles, Dmitry Mityaev, Ekaterina Mityaeva, Tom Evans and so many more. This always makes my job easier as to work closely with athletes, particularly in race week, there has to be trust and respect.
I was working alongside the adidas film crew who have been working on the Terrex brand for some time. A great group of guys who know how to work hard, laugh hard and find the time for a beer at the end of the day, no matter how long it may be. Big shout for Rapha, Andy, Patrick, Yannick and then man stuck to an editing stool, Bene. We had a separate chalet as the hours we work are not ideal when athletes are trying to sleep. Meal times were a family affair though and the athlete house was our hub for the week starting with an 0800 breakfast as and when applicable.
Behind the scenes is always fascinating. Looking at apparel, shoes and new development it was clear to see that adidas’ commitment to trail and mountain running is huge. They had specifically designed waterproof jackets and trousers for the team that complied with UTMB rules while still being light and packing small.
Athletes such as Yngvild Kaspersen and Tom Evans (Yngvild 2nd at Pikes Peak and Tom 3rd at Western States) were flown into Chamonix to be part of #oneteam even though they would not race. It was clear that adidas’ commitment to bringing everyone together is a high priority.
A signing in the UTMB expo allowed fans to get close, chat and get a signed photo from Tom, Luis, Holly and Sheila. The buzz was incredible.
Post the signings, we took Tom in to the mountains for a photo shoot. The most ransom moment of the whole week… A couple just married saw Tom, recognized him and then came for a wedding photo! The groom was running UTMB.
Over the course of the week, racers and non-racers would each continually give up their time to crew, support, follow and cheer on the team. A prime example being Ekaterina crewing for Dmitry during TDS to a stunning 2nd place. Two days later, Ekaterina would run UTMB and place 4th while Dmitry crewed her.
Filming and photographing brings its own challenges of long drives, big hikes and a relentless pace that leaves one drained and exhausted by the end but high on emotion. It’s always a tough call on who to follow? Many of the races had more than one adidas runner participating but from a story and media perspective, we would have to make decisions in advance. The TDS for example, our emphasis was on Dmitry. For CCC, Luis Alberto Hernando was our primary story. Needless to say, it’s incredible when it all comes together, Dmitry placed 2nd and Luis won CCC. To be able to see the journey unfold at close quarters and tell the story is quite special.
While we raced around with cameras, the remaining crew would chase around providing aid and support. Tom Evan’s quite rightly said, ‘I have raced and won CCC, I have also crewed on big races – I know how hard and tiring crewing is.’
But despite the long hours, the short nights and the relentless fatigue, nobody complained. On the contrary. As the week went on and the results came in, everyone was becoming hyped by the experience and results. It was infectious.
But nothing is perfect. Racing is fickle. While racing went well for Dmitry and Luis for example, others had a tough time. It’s here when the #oneteam ethos kicks in. We are all human, sometimes we are ahead and all is going well, other times, things don’t click, for whatever reason. As an athlete, that can be very hard. It takes months to prepare for an event and then on the day, for it not to come together as expected can be hugely disappointing. As one runner said, ‘I have let the team down…’ But the response was unequivocal, ‘You have let no one down!’
Sheila Aviles had stomach issues in OCC, Timothy Olson struggled at UTMB and finally had to withdraw and all along, the support from adidas and the team was 100%.
Holly Page made a last minute decision to run CCC, battled through the first half of the race with terrible stomach problems only to come out of the other side and then race strongly over the latter stages for her first 100km finish. It was a story echoed throughout the whole week, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Being ‘In the arena’ to quote Roosevelt is what the sport of trail and mountain running is all about, ‘ The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.’
Roosevelt in his quote sums up all adidas stand for with the Terrex Team.
A Day at UTMB – Following Luis Alberto Hernando at CCC
Our day started with an early alarm, a quick breakfast and a drive to Courmayeur – the plan to climb to Refuge Bertone and capture early content with Mont Blanc providing a stunning backdrop.
Plans hit a problem from the off with a long wait to get through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Once in Courmayeur it was gps time to navigate a route to the trail head. This was a constant theme of the whole week… Great gps software and gpx route are essential – we could plan to meet the runners as much as possible during a race.
We started our climb later than we would have liked but we pushed the pace – not that easy with a 15kg camera bag! Once there, the weather was perfect, the scenery magical and we knew we were going to get some great content.
For Luis, we were aware we could capture him on the descent, chase after him and then capture him again after he had visited the aid station.
I positioned myself on the descent knowing that I would get a dynamic shot as Luis dropped in front of me taking a left turn with Mont Blanc behind him.
As Luis approached, disaster struck. A ‘runner’ who was spectating ran ahead of him ruining all my ‘pre’ shots. As I shouted for them to get out of the way, they then stopped directly ahead of me, right in the middle of my shot. I had to compromise… shit happens!
I then raced after Luis on the descent and then got to my second spot. This time all was good with clear shots and I then ran with him capturing more content before he raced off around the mountain.
Being early in the day, we decided to wait and capture the other adidas runners who were participating as the time gaps at this stage would not be too great. Later, it would be impossible if Luis ran the race we anticipated! Abi Hall, Macy were looking good but Holly Page was struggling with a bad stomach.
Dropping bag to the car via the twisty descent, we now had a 2-hour drive to Champex Lac. Luis was motoring and now in the lead. Race projections said he would arrive at 1425. Our navigator said we would arrive 1410.
Once again we used gps software to find an access point pre Champex Lac that would allow us to capture content on steep forest trails. Luis arrived like clockwork powering up the climb using poles to keep the momentum.
At Champex Lac he ran the footpath and roads around the lake allowing more opportunities before we went off-piste on a dirt road allowing for one last shot before we would then lose him only to re-connect at Trient.
Trient provided a shot before the aid station and then we drove out of Switzerland and back in to France before capturing Luis on the climb of the Col des Montets – our last opportunity before his arrival at the finish.
Now Luis was motoring and opening up a gap on the 2nd place.
At the finish, myself and Patrick (film crew) waited for Luis in the press area while the remaining adidas team watched the huge screens in the square.
Finally, Luis achieved his coveted UTMB victory. It was an emotional finish. His wife, Nieves, greeted him with open arms. The Terrex team mobbed him as soon as they could… A post-race drug test delaying that process for some time!
Back at the chalet it was time to download the day’s work and release the content.
There is no ‘I’ in team and that was personified during this intense UTMB experience. We all had roles but flexibility is key. Athletes became crew, office workers became car drivers and everyone became a supporter both in a physical and mental capacity.
It was a real pleasure to be immersed with a brand and follow closely the whole process that make a race and team come together. Certainly, the UTMB and Chamonix experience made team bonds stronger.
On a personal note, to leave on Saturday am while the UTMB was underway was hard, especially with Ekaterina running. I have witnessed her growth in skyrunning over the last year’s and then to see her rise to 4th at UTMB not only made me really proud but also a little jealous and envious that I wasn’t available to capture that journey in images…. Next time!
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