Mathieu Blanchard savors his “totally unreal” duel with Kilian Jornet
We left him on Saturday in Chamonix in a real sprint after 171 km of a crazy race. Heroic runner-up to the unbeatable Kilian Jornet on the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Mathieu Blanchard achieved the unprecedented feat, like the Catalan, of going below the 20-hour mark during the ultra highest in the world. Two days later, this former engineer, who only discovered trail running in 2016 after moving to Montreal, was still on his little cloud when confiding in length to 20 minutes.
Memories full of memories, like the preface to his next book successfully negotiated on the finish line with Kilian Jornet, the 35-year-old runner, ex-candidate of Koh Lantacome back to this hands and hands which held the entire trail world in suspense, and even beyond, due to a historic live broadcast on television.
How do you really feel, two days after having traveled, for 19:54, this mythical tour of Mont-Blanc (171 km and 10,000 m of elevation gain)?
Like last year, I feel surprisingly well, with only a few minor aches, which are nothing on the scale of the intensity of the race. For the rest, I completely lost control of all the requests, between the media and social networks. It’s nonsense, I don’t know how I’m going to get out of it (smile). In three days, when my endorphins will drop, I expect a backlash and a little depression.
The post-race can be so disturbing?
Yes, because since August 2021 and my third place here (behind François D’Haene and Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz), I’ve been waiting for this UTMB 2022. It’s a very intense year for me because every time I go to train since January, I have been thinking of the UTMB. My life revolves around this race, whether it’s through my podcast or the book I’m writing, which should be out in January. I decided to leave Montreal to set up on purpose in the mountains in the spring. I’m obsessed with this race, it’s too limited. And there, it’s over, so I know I’m going to feel a void, a huge hollow in my life. I no longer have a performance objective so I no longer have any reason to train hard. But I’m lucky enough to be a serial adventure entrepreneur, so I managed to get attached to another project very quickly.
Can we imagine resorting one day when we complete such a crazy deadline?
Yes, but it really won’t be for performance. In October, I have to participate in the 30th anniversary of the Diagonale des Fous in Reunion for a relay race (4 x 37 km) with a team of adventurers from Koh Lanta. It should allow me to put on the sneakers for the first time in the context of a race. Then I will embark on the Half Marathon des Sables in Jordan (70 to 120 km) with my little brother Lucas, who has had his leg amputated, for a project around inclusivity. On the competition side, I plan to stay on this high of the UTMB to focus on preparing for next season.
We can already imagine that you have planned to aim for the only step of the podium that you miss in Chamonix in August 2023, right?
It’s still too early but with the weather on Saturday, it’s obvious that I have the ability to win the UTMB. It will be the 20th anniversary of the event in 2023. I want to register, and if there is neither Kilian (Jornet) nor François (D’Haene), I would go. But if there is one of the two, it will be without me.
Could you now plan your goals for the season according to the program of the two favorites in the discipline?
Let’s say that I’ve been to the UTMB three times and I would also like to discover other very high-level races such as the Western States and the Hardrock 100 (in the United States), or even the Diagonale des Fous. Even if it means returning to Chamonix, I would like to maximize my chances of victory. I have the humility to say that François and Kilian are better than me and always will be. I could of course beat them, as I almost did on Saturday, but my chances of victory remain limited when one of these two aliens is on the starting line. Other athletes are extraordinary, but they scare me less.
How were you able to improve your 2021 time by 1h17, and even by 4 hours that of 2018?
I don’t really have the answer yet. I have to try to analyze all of this as best I can. For 19 years, UTMB experts and geeks had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to take less than 20 hours to complete the UTMB. So going for that barrier is totally unreal for me. What is paradoxical is that I started my season quite late by starting to run in March, with a fourth place at the MIUT in Madeira (115 km in April). Then I finished 5th on the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (121 km), at the end of June in Italy, with a weakened ankle after a sprain three weeks earlier. I felt in loss of confidence and not at the top physically. I even considered dropping the UTMB when I saw my cat preparation. From July 15 to August 15, I worked very hard in the Alps, but a block of one month is normally not enough. I wonder if there was something magical, a mental transcendence when I caught up with Kilian on Saturday.
Did you realize that he was considering giving up, due to Jim Walmsley being 15 minutes behind, before you caught him at km 120…
Yes, I arrived like a rocket and I saw that he was quite reduced. It’s still a competition, so if it had been another runner, I would have told him “good luck” and then I would have drawn. But there, it was Kilian Jornet, the person who introduced me to trail running. My first trail movie, my first trail book, it was him. It’s such an inspiration for me that I didn’t at all want to pass him by saying “I’m overtaking you, too bad for you”. I have so much respect for this guy that I didn’t even dare pass him when I came up to him. I asked him if I could help him. He told me he had a little slack and I encouraged him to hang on behind me and then take stock at the next pit stop in Champex. Then we gave ourselves the common objective of going to hunt Jim [Walmsley] whose lead was diminishing. A new race started for him when we caught up and immediately let go of Jim around km 135.
Did you imagine arriving together in Chamonix as your duel was then tight with Kilian Jornet?
No, we wanted to live until the end hands and hands which amused us. He took a few minutes ahead of me on the climb and I closed that gap on the descent. On the descent before the last refueling stop at Vallorcine (km 150), he disappeared behind me at one point. I don’t know what he did, but I thought he snapped. I saw myself heading for victory at the UTMB. I was starting to think about my celebration upon arrival. My imagination was short-lived because 5 minutes later, he was on my feet again, that one (smile). Then he gave everything for me to put a monumental tile out of ravito. I was afraid of exploding following him so I let him go.
Since Saturday, have you ever regretted having relaunched Kilian Jornet, as he himself admitted?
No, I’m super proud of this moment. I see my career as an ultra-trailer as a long-term project and I stay in my place, very humble. It shouldn’t be for me this time, that’s how it is. I’m progressing and I can’t regret not being first: it’s Kilian Jornet in front of me, he has an intelligence for sport and an extraordinary connection with his body. So to be second, only 5 minutes after him, is like a victory for me.
This second place with a time under 20 hours allowed you to show that your 2021 podium was not due to chance, and that you should not see yourself as an ex-candidate of “Koh-Lanta”, right?
From my third place last year, I was seen as a trail enthusiast and no longer as a reality TV candidate. It’s true that sometimes until then, I was disappointed that people stopped me more in the street to Koh Lanta only for the trail. Afterwards, in all sports, we often see athletes who are the perpetrators of the coup of the century before disappearing. To establish its credibility, it must be confirmed, and this UTMB allowed me to blow up my impostor syndrome that I had last year.
Did this first broadcast on the L’Equipe channel, Friday and Saturday, change a lot of things for trail running in your opinion?
Yes, it was huge because we touched people who knew nothing about trail running. Mr. and Mrs. Everybody found themselves on their couch to zap and fall on this unknown sport, and they saw an incredible spectacle. I must have received 50,000 messages on my Instagram box and many thank me for the great sporting moment that we offered on television. It’s the very first trail competition to be broadcast live on TV, it’s great for our sport.
And L’Equipe, like the UTMB, were very lucky that this scenario took place, because usually, we get serious c….. in front of the UTMB (laughs). In Champex, at km 100, mass is often said, with 1 hour difference between everyone. There, there was suspense almost until the finish. We didn’t play an actor’s game for TV, be careful (smile). In Chamonix, it seems that the world revolves around the trail because it’s crazy there. But it’s a niche sport and it allowed us to discover our passion to the general public. I think it’s a turning point for our sport. It will have a major impact in the future.
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