Middlebury College alum wins major ultramarathon in French Alps
The epic ultramarathon UTMB, or Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, is held the last week of August each year in Chamonix, France.
Think the Tour de France, but for ultra trail runners.
The setting is ideal, with a start and finish line in the picturesque town in the French Alps.
The running distance: 106 miles, including a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain.
And the fastest female runner to finish the race this year? That’s Middlebury College alumni Katie Schide, who spoke to Vermont Public's Mary Engisch about her victory. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Engisch: Let's hear a bit more about you first. You're originally from Maine, but you attended Middlebury College. And then I understand in the summertime, you worked lugging dozens of pounds of supplies to the huts in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I'd love to know about how those settings — those specific places on the planet — informed your life as an ultra runner.
Katie Schide: Yeah, I think growing up firmly rooted in New England definitely gave me a lot of mental strength — especially with some of the seasons that we face in Maine and Vermont, New Hampshire. And also just a love for the mountains that went beyond only when there's good weather or perfect trails. I think runners and hikers that find their base more on the East Coast really have kind of a tougher mindset and, I think, a greater appreciation for the outdoors.
Some of those trails, especially in the White Mountains, are rocky. C you describe a little bit about what what it was like growing up hiking around there?
I think growing up, I didn't realize how technical the trails are in the Northeast. I didn't really fully comprehend that until I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 2014, just after graduating from Middlebury, and then coming to the Alps. After that, I could see that "Oh, wow. Actually, those trails that I grew up on are quite technical." But at the time, they were really just normal.
Do you ever come and make it back out to New England?
Yeah, normally I tried to come back at least once a year. Obviously, COVID made it a bit more complicated for travel and for kind of moving around, but I'll be back again in November.
Well, take us to Chamonix for a second for this particular race. I understand it's an international trail running mecca — it's like a destination for so many ultra runners. While you're in the race, what does it look like and feel like? What does it smell like and sound like?
It's an interesting race because you pass actually through three different countries, and through a lot of different landscapes. So the beginning of the race, you're really passing through the town, more in streets and bike paths. And then you pass through a ski resort, and you still don't really feel like you're in the mountains. And then as the sun sets you kind of enter the more real mountains. A lot of the paths are quite traveled by the summer. And there's a lot of agriculture in the area. So there was quite a bit of cow poop, just like Vermont. You're definitely in the mountains. But because there's so many villages, you're always kind of passing close to something familiar.
And for the UTMB, the course length is over 100 miles, and you're running overnight, right?
Yeah, that's correct.
What kind of toll does that take on your body?
It's an interesting feeling to kind of start this huge undertaking when you feel like you should be going to bed. Running through the night is actually not the hardest part. I find that the early morning is really hard, because that's when everything kind of starts to catch up with you. So around sunrise or just before sunrise is really when the fatigue from that night begins to set in, at least for me.
Wow. What's the recovery like, then?
It's hard because every time it's a little bit different. This year, I feel so much better than I expected. I think part of that is, of course, mental. Like it's nice to finish and have this great result. You're still kind of on this high. So I think that travels downstream to the rest of the body as well. But I think it's also important to respect how how big this race or adventure was. And I know that in my core, I'm still pretty fatigued. So I don't plan to do any more racing this year. But I would say at least like a month until your body kind of comes back to normal.
Can you tell us about the list of must-have things that you pack and that you run with?
For UTMB, there's actually quite a long list of required gear that you have to have with you at all times. So that includes a whole change of clothes, essentially long pants, long T-shirt, and then full waterproof top and bottom, hat, gloves. Some safety items like a whistle, extra headlamp.
So we're not running too lightweight here. Actually, we have quite a lot of stuff in our bag. And yeah, I do actually typically run with a lot of that stuff anyway, just because when I'm training in the mountains, I want to be sure that if something happens I can deal with it. Typically running with a backpack. Will definitely always have an extra layer with me. Maybe that's the New Englander in me — always ready for the weather to change.
You just mentioned that you're you're training in the mountains, and wearing a backpack just in case. But how do you train for this particular distance?
It's not a typical endurance sport. So there isn't a ton of research actually on like, what is the best training? Or the the correct way to do things? People come to ultrarunning with really different backgrounds. I feel like before I really got into the sport, I thought it meant you had to just run for hours and hours every single day. But it's more about choosing the times when you want to run for hours and hours. And then also balancing that with times where you are not running that didn't really focus on resting.
In this particular race, the UTMB, you started out leading and then fell 40 minutes behind. And then you made up that time to win. What was your strategy to get that done?
There wasn't much of a strategy. I really started the race just saying that I wanted to run fast when I felt good, and to just respect myself and my feelings when I felt bad. Because in such a long race, you know that you're gonna feel bad at least once. So I just kept moving, essentially. I honestly wasn't that positive in the moment in my head. But somehow I made it to the next point. And yeah, just kept running by feel and following my feelings.
Just hearing you talk about the race and all the challenges that it posed, I'm hearing all these life lessons. And it's making me think of this recent research I heard that elite athletes, they're wired completely differently. And data even shows that elite athletes can focus on a goal in the near distance, and that can help overall performance and also help reach much longer distances.
Is that a strategy you use? And how might that approach as an athlete translate to goal setting or goal reaching in everyday life?
Yeah, I think that's really true. Honestly, when I was mentioning this kind of low patch that I was having, I was of course disappointed because I had given up the lead. I felt really bad. I didn't really know what to do.
But I had remembered the goal that I had set for this race; I've been saying for many months now that I wanted to finish the race in the daylight because I knew that finishing in the daylight would put me in kind of a finishing time range that I saw that I was capable of. And so that was really the goal. I told myself, "Finish in the daylight. Finish in the daylight." So I was having a super low moment. Even though I knew okay, three more girls are gonna come up behind me and pass me, I still am in good timing and I know I can still finish in the daylight — even if that means I have to keep moving really slowly. But I think it kept me moving because I could just focus on this goal that I had set for myself and kind of eliminate the others, like ranking or getting an exact time.