Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc: A Dream for a Runner
When pro climber and skiing instructor Denisa Šulcová found out that she was pregnant with her first daughter, she did not think of giving up being active for a second. Instead of her usual training routine, she started running regularly to keep fit. So while preparing for a new role as a mother, she gradually became fit enough for her first half marathon. She is now one of our fastest female ultra trail runners and also represented Slovakia in the infamous French race UTMB® in 2017, where she finished its CCC® section in the 44th place. What an amazing woman.
Ultra trails are some of the most demanding races when it comes to the terrain. What can people expect?
In a classic marathon, you usually run on tarmac. And the race elevation is low. But when you enter an ultra trail race, be prepared that this is a run through some of the toughest terrains. You are running along hiking trails in the wilderness. For example, the Slovak race Tatranská šelma has some extremely steep sections set in a rocky terrain and granite. There are often hundreds, if not thousands of metres of elevation gain.
Do you need some special equipment for ultra trail races?
Absolutely. Each race has its own list of mandatory equipment. Every runner is checked before the start of the race or can also be checked anytime during the race. Failing to bring the required items will disqualify you from the race immediately.
We carry a small backpack that looks like a vest with the usual equipment: a water bottle, first aid (must include a space blanket, bandages, disinfection and plasters), a map (or a mobile with GPS service), a head torch, waterproof jacket with a protective hood, some cash, your ID and according to season or weather forecast you can also bring gloves or a hat. Trekking poles are optional, but they can come in handy especially in the steep sections and for people who have weaker knees or a history of knee injuries.
Every runner also packs his/her own food provisions and snacks according to their individual needs. You need to make sure you have enough energy between the pit stops.
What do you pack?
I always carry a tube of Powergel and a couple of muesli bars. The Powergel looks like a tube of toothpaste (some even taste like one) and contains all necessary vitamins, minerals, sodium and a magnesium supplement to boost your energy.
Would you recommend to run along the whole trail before the racing day and get more familiar with it, especially for a first-timer?
Tatranská šelma Ultra follows the tourist hiking trail in High Tatras and along the way you run through a couple of popular mountain huts. There are some pretty amazing views. I grew up in High Tatras so these are my mountains, it's to my advantage that I know the terrain very well.
But of course every year, there are first-time runners and international runners who enter this race for the first time. I think it's wise to study and familiarise yourself with the map as part of your preparations. You need to know exactly where to turn left or right, otherwise you can get lost and lose precious time with finding your way back. Plus if you know the track well, you can better plan your liquids and food consumption.
I am an amateur runner with little experience in marathons. Do I even qualify for such a demanding race?
It's possible, especially if you have a history of running and this is not your very first race. But to begin with an ultra trail, no matter how hard you've been training, is a silly thing to do.
Your body might carry you through the race alright, but you'll pay the price later in the form of extreme fatigue or injuries.
I'd recommend regular training sessions and taking it one step at a time - first run a half marathon, then a marathon and only after that sign up for an ultra trail race. It's always a good idea to have a qualified coach or at least consult your training plan with one.
Photo: Michal Tomko
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - UTMB (166 km / 9,400 m)
One of the most challenging ultra trails in Europe that attracts thousands of runners to the Alps each year. The start is in the city of Chamonix and the race winds its way through France, Italy and Switzerland, passing magnificent views of the Mt.Blanc range. In 2017, Denisa competed the "little sister of the UTMB®", the CCC® with the length of 101 km. Her time 18.48:46 was the best of all Slovak female runners and landed her the 44th place in the female runners category.
Tatranská šelma Ultra (50 km / 3,000 m)
This unique ultra trail race brings the runners to the test in the rugged terrain of High Tatras. The limit is 200 contestants who are invited to run across magnificent mountain ranges and valleys, finishing the race off in the steep section through granite and rocks. Denisa won in female category in years 2014 and 2015 and finished on the 4th place in 2016.
Nízkotatranská stíhačka (105 km, 5,740 m)
The NTS ultra trail race that is taking place each year in the Low Tatras is one of the qualifying races for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
When did you start competing in ultra trails?
I started running regularly during my first pregnancy as a way to keep fit, since I could not do as much climbing or bouldering. I fell in love with running and soon enough I entered my first half marathon, then my first marathon. I was so happy with my results. I've always dreamed of running an ultra trail race, but never felt like I was ready for such a demanding race. Being a pro climber, I am aware of all the risks that come with such a race if you don't have a good preparation for it.
In 2013, I ran my first ultra trail race - Piros 85 (88,6 km/3,500 m) - the results of my hard work started to show. That gave me the confidence to enter other races.
Is it allowed to walk the steepest parts of the race or would that disqualify a runner?
It's allowed. You run through the easier parts and downhill and do a fast hike up the steepest hills. Each race has a time limit for completing it that is calculated according to the best results of the previous year.
What really matters is your will and stamina. Finishing the race - because you not only fight the challenges of the hard terrain but also what is happening in your body and head. Pushing through the pain and finding the energy to keep fighting is what matters.
Was it difficult to enter such a prestigious race such as UTMB®?
Having the opportunity to compete in the renowned UTMB® was a great honour for me. Even to get qualified is not easy. First, you have to collect enough points from other races within the last 2 years before the registration date. Then your name has to be drawn in the lottery that takes place each January. Every year there are thousands of applicants, which means more registered runners than the limit of the race.
So this race is really just for the experienced runners?
Exactly. The qualifying races, list of which is published on the official UTMB® website together with the points you can collect by finishing them, are all over 100 km long. The number of points relates to the level of the race. Each runner can combine these races as they wish. For example, when I finished Nízkotatranská stíhačka, I earned 4 qualifying points.
The point system is a very good system if you ask me. After all, it's in the best interest of both the organisers of UTMB® and runners to be well prepared for such an extreme race. By securing that only seasoned runners enter, the number of injuries and accidents can be lower than if they accepted everyone.
Was this the highlight of your ultra trail career or do you have other goals?
Finishing the CCC® race on UTMB® last year was a dream come true, especially because I got drawn in the lottery only the second time around.
How different was it when you compare it to the races we have in Slovakia?
It's an incredible and uplifting feeling. Like seeing your favourite band live. You only get to experience such things once or twice in your life. I went there not to get great results, but to be part of a renowned race. Also, at that time I wouldn't say I was in my best running condition, I've had some health issues. So finishing the race was a great accomplishment for me and something I am proud of.
What parts of the race were the most challenging for you?
The race has an elevation of 6,200 metres, which is approximately five times running up and down Slavkovský štít. So it can be a real struggle. It gets even more difficult when the weather is not right or you get "a runner's stomach" which are digestive problems marathon runners can experience. Last year, we had snow and heavy rain. But I've always been stubborn, so when I make up my mind, I push through.
You ran almost 20 hours. How do you stay energised during such a long run?
There are smaller and bigger "pit stops" where your crew waits for you with new clothes and food. I came to Chamonix with a group of my good friends including Matúš Vnenčák (one of the organisers of Tatranská šelma) who all supported me. They were just amazing. Serving me soups and pasta, cheering me when I needed it.
How does the body endure such long runs?
You need to carefully monitor how much you drink and what's your energy intake, every few kilometres. For example, I take a sip of water or a bite every 30 minutes or so. Especially the last bits can get exhausting and you can forget about doing it. So many runners finish the race on the verge of a physical breakdown, they are completely exhausted. The fastest ones are superhumans in my eyes, they deliver such incredible results.
What happens to the body after the race, do you just do nothing but relaxing for weeks?
It's different for everyone. The most important thing is to eat a lot and rest in the days following the race. The body needs to recover and restore after such performance. It is said that after a marathon, your body needs approximately 4 weeks to restore the muscles. And after such an extreme race, it takes even longer. As for me, I felt extremely exhausted the whole week or two after the race and was always hungry as a bear.
What is the next race on your schedule this year?
I am taking a break from competing this year. I am focusing more on climbing again. I still run regularly, but that's more of a training plan for getting stronger and faster in climbing. I want to continue where I left off after my two daughters were born. Now that they are older, it's possible for me to spend a whole day outdoors, climbing and bouldering, which is what I love the most.
Denisa Šulcová is a pro climber and ultra trail runner. During winter seasons, she works as professional ski instructor and freeride camp guide in High Tatras. She organises the International Mountain Film Festival in Poprad. Denisa is a proud mom of two girls. She lives in Poprad.