Sunday, September 27, 2015

UTMX Course Preview: 10 days out from my favorite race of the year.

Taper Time

  Once again I've fallen of the blogging horse. And once again the excitement surrounding Ultra Trail Mexico draws me back to the keyboard. It's taper time, the last long runs are over, so I'm going to crack a beer and write up a course preview for the first-time runner.

Looking for expert advice from an expert runner?

Stop reading.

  However, if you are curious about the race from the point of view of an average runner with an elite level of enthusiasm for this race, you might find something you can use here.

   UTMX is absolutely my favorite trail running event of the year: A 100 kilometer tour of a stunning area of Hidalgo, beginning and ending in the center of the Pueblo Magico, Huasca de Ocampo. Highlights of the race include a climb up into the Sierra Navajas a descent in the Canyon de Metztitlan, a crazy river crossing at the bottom of Ahuacatitlan, and much, much more. UTMX is the trail run that throws a bit of everything at the runner. It's not the most technical race or the race with the most climbing or highest elevation, but it's a must-run course for anyone who loves mountains and trails: completely unique; completely awesome.
  Ultra Trail Mexico continues to cement itself as the Mexican Ultramarathon. And the ultra world abroad is taking note: the 2016 edition of UTMX will serve as a qualifier for the 2017 Western States 100. Additionally, it continues to be a 4 point qualifier for UTMB. But even for those who don't give a damn about Western States or UTMB, UTMX is its very own world class event.

Cerro de San Miguel Approach: last long run

Tireless Training Partner (Never complains, Never shows up late)

UTMX 100 Preview for the first-time runner
   What follows is my preview of the course for anyone running UTMX for the first time. I'm no expert runner; I am a certified plodder. Therefore, the preview will be most relevant for the middle to back-of-the-pack runner who will run the last part of the course in the dark. For reference, I finished the race in 17:34 last year. The front-runner finished in 10:43, and the final finisher came in just a few minutes over 19 hours, the official cut-off time for the race.

A few suggestions to start:

The race starts fast. Too fast. It's hard not to get caught up in the excitement, but keeping the effort easy early will pay dividends when you are climbing up from San Sebastian 70 kilometers into the race.

Start with a good head lamp. After some road running, the earlier trail is slippery and technical at times. It would be easy to fall here and have an early end to the race. Nothing is gained by passing people here. It's a 100 kilometers folks, there will be time to make your move.

See the moron (006) who thought he didn't need a headlamp? Don't do that it UTMX, which starts an hour earlier than this race...
Photo: Martin Forstmann (Fotografixmexico)....Martin will be at UTMX taking photos.

•There are several stream crossings and your feet will get wet early, and they will stay wet for most of the race. Don't waste your time trying to keep them dry.

•Section one of the race is what I call the "mountain marathon" section. Lots of single-track, and climbing for the first 21k.

•At the 40k aid station (first option for a drop bag) you are close to ending the "mountain marathon" portion of the race. Last year I put my drop bag here and changed my shoes, which was probably a mistake: there is a stream crossing shortly after the aid station. Also, this is a little early to need a drop bag. When you arrive at kilometer 69 drop bag option, you will wish you waited.

•The "mountain marathon" ends when the trail dumps out onto a paved road heading slightly downhill. For the next 10k or so the course is exposed, flat and runnable. It's easy to get lazy here, but stay focused as it's a great place to make good time and get a few kilometers under your feet quickly. This open-country, flat transition ends at the Peña del Aire. Fuel up here, and if you have friends or family who are following the race, this is the best place to have a crew meet you at an aid station, as it's easily accessible by car and a popular tourist spot. If you aren't running, try the zip line (tirolesa): it's awesome and freaky.  This area provides stunning views of the canyon which shouldn't be missed.

I could post a photo of the Canyon here, but why bother: photos don't do this place justice.

•The descent into the Canyon: no way to describe the run down into the canyon: you are just going to have to do it yourself. No matter how shitty you feel at Peña del Aire: take the time to recover and don't even considering abandoning your race here, as you'll miss the best part.

•At the bottom of the canyon the original course had several river crossings which were eliminated last year as the river was too high. With the rain we've had this year, I imagine this years's course will avoid the river crossings again.

•There is some climbing at the bottom of the canyon. This doesn't look like much on the map, but it will feel like a significant climb when you have 60+kilometers on your legs.

•After some incredible singletrack through the bottom of the canyon including a run through a "cactus forest," the trail turns into a stream: you follow the river to the San Sebastian Aid station at kilometer 69.5. This is the second drop bag option.

I would recommend using the San Sebastian drop bag option.* Last year I used the earlier option at kilometer 40, but when I got to San Sebastian the sun was low in the sky and my feet were cold and wet. The guy next to me was changing into dry socks and dry shoes and I really, really wanted to be that guy. I almost asked him if he had extra dry socks he would give me, but was too ashamed to do so. In your drop bag here you should have: long sleeve shirt, extra headlamp (or batteries), dry shoes, dry socks, tights and a rain jacket. You won't need the tights and you may not need the rain jacket or the long sleeve shirt, but these are required items after 5:00pm. *If you aren't certain you will arrive at kilometer 70 in under 12 hours, you will need to carry these items with you from the start or use the 40 kilometer drop bag option. 

After a quick shoe change, you now have the long march up the road out of the Canyon. If you started the race conservatively, you will pass some folks here. At the top is another aid station (Mirador, kilometer 75). Here the course flattens out a bit before arriving at the entrance of Ahuacatitlan. At this point the course heads straight down on the steepest grade you will see all day. Last year this is where it started getting dark for me, and at the bottom of this canyon there is the fiercest river crossing of the race. Fortunately, it is roped with volunteers on both sides to make sure you don't get swept down the river... or to at least notify your family if you do...

•After the river crossing, the course heads up a steep, serpentine climb that is not easy to follow at night. This is the last significant climb of the race. Once again, a good head lamp is essential here. In fact, I'd consider bringing a small, light handheld flashlight as well. For those of us in the back of the race, the final half-marathon of the race is crucial because of the added challenges of navigating at night.
 I would recommend:
      •an excellent headlamp and possibly even an additional flashlight
      •study the map of this section carefully.
      •if you have time on Friday scout out the area where you will cross the Presa. If you are just about to enter the Prismas Balsaticos take a right on a dirt road, and the Presa will be on your right. Look for course markings and check out where you will be running. I lost some time last year trying to navigate this at night.

   •The end of the course is a bit of a blur for me, but at some point after the presa crossing you will be back on the pavement: WARNING: you might think you are going to follow this road straight into the center of Huasca and the race finish, but the course cruelly turns to the right, sending runners down some side streets before emerging 100 meters or so in front of the finish line.


some final tips

•look carefully at the required equipment list. Especially if you think you might finish in the money: the first two runners last year were disqualified for not carrying required equipment. Predictably, there was some pissing and moaning about the decision, all of which could have been avoided if everyone checked out the race website, which is crystal-clear. Or attended the pre-race meeting, which was also explained the rule.

•It's a long race, but it's not a 3 week expedition. There are ample aid stations. Know where they are and what they will have (see website).  Carry what the race requires and carry what you will need, but put the extras in your drop bag. You will see some folks running with giant packs, stuffed full. What are they carrying? Why?

•Attend the pre-race meeting. Last year there were some minor course changes and these were announced at the meeting. Also, they handed out a turn-by-turn description of the race. THAT PIECE OF PAPER WAS INVALUABLE. Bring it.

•If possible, take work off Friday and go up on Thursday or early Friday morning. Anything to avoid leaving DF on a Friday night of a quincena.

•Pay close attention to course markings and study the maps. The course is well-marked, but it's also a complicated course and it's easy to miss a turn if you are deep into your fantasy about being Killian Jornet winning Hardrock.

•And don't hesitate to sign up for next year's race immediately. I'm betting that the 2016 race will sell out in a couple weeks. 

•Enjoy: It's the best race of the year!


  1. Excelentes recomendaciones y sinopsis de lo que es el Ultra Trail de Mexico

  2. Great review. I'll study again next year, prior to the race = )

    Let me share yo mine, for the 50km race: