by Jim Flint
CHAMONIX, France – Andrew Gilbert is no stranger to adventure. Over the past ten years, the Hardwick ultramarathoner has dined from a select menu of endurance races in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Quebec. His achievements range from Craftsbury’s 15k Black River Beatdown to Stowe’s 50k Catamount Ultra, to the Vermont 100-miler in West Windsor.
Gilbert, 60, has a particular affinity for mountainous trail races with dramatic elevation gain. The courses tend to run through remote wilderness areas. Going the distance tests physical resilience, pacing skill, and the mental resolve to keep moving on tired legs and scant sleep.
In September 2021, he conquered the 122k Ultra-Trail Harricana, held in Charlevoix, Quebec. During 28 hours, two minutes, and 11 seconds on the course, he climbed 13,845 feet. He successfully finished the race just under the 29-hour cutoff time. The Quebec ultramarathon was a training run for his dream event, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in August 2022.
The UTMB is a looping race through the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. The course follows an iconic trail around the granite massif of Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe, rising 15,774 feet above sea level. Popular with hikers, the full trail begins and ends in Chamonix, France. Hikers generally take eight days or more to cover the route.
Nearly 10,000 international athletes come to Chamonix each year to participate in one of the seven UTMB races. Gilbert had done the 120k (75 miles) version of the race in 2018. He finished the course in 29 hours, four minutes, and 33 seconds. At age 60, he knew that the window of opportunity to do one of the longer UTMB races was narrowing.
Gilbert qualified to enter the UTMB race lottery based on his history of completing ultra-marathons. Last winter, he entered the lotteries for three distances. His number was picked for the 145k UTMB. He made the decision to register in January and begin a disciplined training regimen.
Gilbert averaged 40 miles per week during training, with a couple of weeks near 60 miles. He focused on elevation gain by doing long day hikes in New Hampshire and hill repeats at Loon Mountain.
“I had to be efficient, training 12 to 15 hours in a big week,” said Gilbert. “I ran five to six days per week in the mornings. When I was on mountain trails, I hiked, walked, and ran. My longest 20-mile runs were to Cabot and back, from Hardwick, and to Parker Lake. I paced at 9:30 to 10 minutes per mile.”
To prepare for the UTMB, Gilbert entered spring and summer races. These included the Paul Mailman 10-miler (April 16), Runamuck 50k (May 14), Catamount 50k Ultra (June 25), and the Loon Mountain Race (July 10).
Gilbert arrived in Europe on August 18. He took a few days to acclimate. The UTMB race began at midnight, August 24-25. The starting Point was Courmayeur, Italy, a ski valley town.
Of the 1,774 starters, 1,072 went on to finish the race. The ultramarathoners conquered 31,949 feet of vertical gain along the route. By comparison, Mount Everest is 29,032 feet tall. The course ran through alpine passes, ridges, and valleys. In the mountain villages of Italy, France, and Switzerland, thousands of spectators lined the streets to welcome the runners and cheer them on.
“My main job was to survive,” said Gilbert. “I started at the back and let things unfold. Maintaining the ability to eat was critical. I relied on energy gels between the aid stations, spaced five hours apart. I had to monitor my energy and effort levels, keep hydrated, and avoid getting too hot.”
Each runner had a mandatory equipment list which included rain and weather gear. Gilbert wore a vest which held four water bottles totaling two liters. One of Gilbert’s bottles had an inline filter to filter water directly from streams.
“It was very hot and exposed on the toughest part of the course,” said Gilbert. “The weather was beautiful, but it was a long time between relief spots where we could stop to eat more normal food.”
Food at the aid stops included sausage, cheese, bread, cookies, sweet breads, fruit, nuts, and chocolate. “Later in the race, there were broth stations with pasta, rice, and noodles to mix your own carb-broth blend,” said Gilbert. “One person supported us with fresh croissants.”
Gilbert kept moving at night using a headlamp. He had two trail-side naps of six to seven minutes each. Gilbert crossed into the Beaufortain region of France via the mountain pass that Caesar and his Roman legions used to invade Gaul. The ten-mile section with 6,000 feet of vertical gain was the most challenging segment of the UTMB race.
As the race ensued, Gilbert’s body held up well. “I had some chafing issues and abrasion,” he said. “It was painful going downhill on technical sections for a long period of time. One section of the trail was roped. I didn’t fall, and my footing was strong the whole way.”
“My biggest thing was lack of sleep. I still had a big section to do the last night, when I caught up with the two younger guys that I started the race with. The three of us finished together.”
Gilbert crossed the finish line in Chamonix in 40 hours, 37 minutes, and 46 seconds. He averaged 27 minutes per mile, including breaks, for the 90-mile distance.
“I really enjoyed the process, the training, the experience of being out there. We all choose running for different reasons. You learn to be better about navigating problems.”
Gilbert is a software consultant. His wife Andrea operates the Hardwick Veterinary Clinic. The Gilberts moved from Cabot to Hardwick in 2021. Andrew’s favorite runs are on Hardwick Trails and Bridgman Hill Road.
“Hardwick is an amazing place to run,” he said. “What a great resource we have right in town.”