First, it's clear that running speed does not play a major role. The last one to arrive in Chamonix on Sunday 21:14 PM was Dominique Diffine from France. His time was 45 hours and 45 minutes. That averages 16.16 min/km for the distance of 169.9 km. In other words, a comfortable walking pace of 3.7 km/h. One would think that anyone could do this. However since most of these seasoned runners could not accomplish this, there must be other reasons.
By the way, Chamonix Meteo has some fine videos, including some of the last finishers. Age or gender does not seem to play a big role in finishing ability. For example, Roland Poly won the 60-69 year age category with 34 hours 18 minutes - and he placed 125th overall. Daniele Rolland won the same age category for females with 44h 42min.
Probably the answer is a combination of:
- general health and fitness
- endurance (it's a long way around Mt. Blanc, even if you walk - tourist hikers take about 10 days for the tour)
- gear (there is a list of compulsory gear, but still the quality and quantity of gear varies a lot among competitors - I heard that some extremists carry extra small sizes of clothing just to shave off a few grams!)
- nutrition (energy), hydration and mineral balance
- mental/mind/thinking (like many ultra runners have said, it's 90% mental, and the rest depends on your head - most runners have to keep going through 2 nights)
- weather (it can be freezing/cold and hot/humid and changes can be rapid too)
- DNS : 9 competitors did not start in Chamonix
- Delevret (14.00 Km cum. distance, 948 m cum. ascent): 4 DNFs
- Saint Gervais (21.30 Km, 993 m): 41 DNFs
- Les Contamines (31.10 Km, 1544 m): 109 DNFs (incl. Nicolas 'Hoka' Mermoud, 3rd in UTMB 2007)
- La Balme (39.20 Km, 2110 m): 3 DNFs
- Refuge Croix du Bonhomme (44.70 Km, 2897 m): 1 DNF
- Les Chapieux (50.00 Km, 2909 m): 66 DNFs
- Col de la Seigne (60.40 Km, 3915 m): 15 DNFs
- Lac Combal (64.90 Km, 3922 m): 53 DNFs
- Arête Mont Favre (68.90 Km, 4389 m): the only control point with no DNFs!
- col Checrouit (73.40 Km, 4406 m): 14 DNFs
- Courmayeur (77.70 Km, 4406 m): 233 DNFs (Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes - they both happened to have a bad day)
- refuge Bertone (82.40 Km, 5215 m): 23 DNFs
- refuge Bonatti (89.60 Km, 5444 m): 9 DNFs (Dakota Jones, Topher Gaylord)
- Arnuva (94.60 Km, 5564 m): 203 DNFs
- Grand Col Ferret (98.90 Km, 6332 m): 2 DNFs
- La Fouly (109.60 Km, 6521 m): 283 DNFs, more than any other point! (Bryon 'iRunFar' Powell)
- Champex (123.70 Km, 7106 m): 103 DNFs (Bib No. 1 Jez Bragg down)
- Martigny (137.40 Km, 7831 m): 18 DNFs, this is the aid station that replaced the one that was "destroyed by the storm". Many participants have reported that they were not informed/aware about this course change, however the organizers sent a text message about this during the race, and according to the rules you must carry a mobile phone that is turned on.
- Trient (145.20 Km, 7911 m): 17 DNFs (Nick Clark, and Miguel Heras, who incredibly lead the race on four different occasions and stayed in top 6 the whole way, until his wheels came off here big time!)
- Catogne (149.90 Km, 8617 m): 4 DNFs
- Vallorcine (154.90 Km, 8631 m): 15 DNFs
- Argentière (161.20 Km, 9552 m): 6 DNFs (incl. Fabien Courrier, who still had 4h12min to walk the remaining 8.7 km - he must have hurt really bad)
- Chamonix (169.90 Km, 9586 m): the previous DNF numbers add up to 1,231, so 7 more must have DNFd along the way to Chamonix to make the total 1,238 DNFs.
In the end it's difficult to say who can finish and who will DNF. For example in the photo below, which is taken 8:20 AM on Saturday morning after 44.7 km of running on Refuge Croix du Bonhomme at an altitude of 2,443 m, there are 10 competitors more or less visible. This is a still from the video with mountain goats (I guess that's what they are watching/photographing), which was featured in my previous post. Can you tell who made it to Chamonix and which one/ones DNFd?
The answer: numbers 3249 (in Arnuva) and 2145 (in Courmayeur) DNF'd (5th and 8th from the left). The others finished in 40-45 hours. It's mind boggling to think that most of these people did ultimately beat a world class ultra trail runner like Miguel Heras - who had passed this mountain top over four hours earlier, and was moving twice the speed of these ordinary runners until he crashed totally.
I think Lizzy Hawker gave one of the most comprehensive answers ever towards explaining 'the magical side of trail' after crossing the finish line first in Chamonix despite an agonizing hip injury:
"My first trail in 2005 was here. Each race is never the same and you have to do them with great humility. You can be betrayed by bad weather conditions, your mental or your organism. And it could have happened to me at la Fouly when my hip was really aching. I took analgesics, but the most relieving was my team support. From that I could feel some alchemy, which gave me strength to go on. That is the magical side of trail. Your first opponent is always yourself. You have to search for the limits. Before the race I thought to myself that I would have to run with passion and courage, and indeed that is what helped me to cross the finish line."