We left him on Saturday in Chamonix in a real sprint after 171 km of a crazy race. The heroic runner-up to the unbeaten Kilian Jornet in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Mathieu Blanchard has achieved the unprecedented, Catalan-like, under 20-hour time mark at the highest in the world. Two days later, this former engineer, who only discovered trail running in 2016 after moving to Montreal, was still in his little cloud when he trusted the height of 20 minutes.
Memories full of memories, such as the introduction to his next book successfully negotiated the finish line with Kilian Jornet, the 35-year-old runner, ex-candidate of Koh Lantacome back here hand to hand that kept the whole world in suspense, and yet, because of a historic live television broadcast.
How do you feel, two days after the trip, for the 19:54, this mythical tour of Mont-Blanc (171 km and 10,000 m of elevation gain)?
Like last year, I felt good, with only a little pain, which was not on the scale of the intensity of the race. For others, I completely lost control of all requests, between media and social networks. It’s stupid, I don’t know how to get out (smile). In three days, when my endorphins drop, I expect a backlash and a bit of depression.
Can the finish of the race be too bothersome?
Yes, because since August 2021 and my third place here (behind François D’Haene and Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz), I have been waiting for this UTMB 2022. It has been an intense year for me because every time I’m going to train since January, I’m thinking of UTMB. My life revolves around this race, either through my podcast or the book I’m writing, which should be out in January. I decided to leave Montreal with the intention of building in the mountains in the spring. I am interested in this race, it is very limited. And there, it was over, so I knew I would feel a void, a great void in my life. I no longer have a performance objective so I no longer have a reason to train hard. But I was lucky enough to be a serial adventure entrepreneur, so I was very quickly attached to another project.
Can we think of turning to a day when we can complete such a crazy deadline?
Yes, but not really 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. This should allow me to wear sneakers for the first time in the context of a race. Then I will start the Half Marathon des Sables in Jordan (70 to 120 km) with my younger brother Lucas, who had his leg amputated, for an environmental project. As for the competition, I plan to stay on top of UTMB to focus on preparing for next season.
We can already imagine that you are planning to aim for the one step on the podium that you missed in Chamonix in August 2023, right?
It’s still very early but during Saturday, it’s clear that I have the ability to win UTMB. This is the 20th anniversary of the event in 2023. I want to register, and if there is no Kilian (Jornet) or François (D’Haene), I will go. But if there is one of the two, it is not me.
Can you plan your goals for the season according to the program of the two favorite disciplines?
Let’s say I’ve been to UTMB three times and I also want to discover other high-level races like the Western States and Hardrock 100 (in the United States), or even the Diagonale des Fous. Even if it means going back to Chamonix, I want to maximize my chances of victory. I have the humility to say that François and Kilian are better than me and always will be. Of course I can beat them, as I almost did on Saturday, but my chances of victory remain limited if one of these two foreigners is on the starting line. Some athletes are amazing, but they don’t really scare me.
How can you improve your time in 2021 by 1h17, and even 4 hours in 2018?
I still don’t have an answer. I have to try to analyze all this as much as I can. For 19 years, UTMB experts and geeks have concluded that it is impossible to spend less than 20 hours to complete UTMB. So going to that hurdle was just not realistic for me. What is paradoxical is that I started my season late by starting to run in March, with a fourth place at MIUT in Madeira (115 km in April). Then I finished 5th in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (121 km), at the end of June in Italy, with a weak ankle after a break three weeks ago. I feel a loss of confidence and not on top physically. I even thought of dropping UTMB when I saw my cat preparation. From July 15 to August 15, I worked hard in the Alps, but one block a month is usually not enough. I wonder if there is something magical, a mental transcendence when I caught up with Kilian last Saturday.
Did you realize that he was thinking of quitting, because of Jim Walmsley who was 15 minutes later, before you caught him at km 120…
Yes, I came like a rocket and I saw that he was a little smaller. It’s still a competition, so if there’s a runner, I tell him “goodluck” and then I’ll draw. But there, Kilian Jornet, was the person who introduced me to trail running. My first trail movie, my first trail book, it was him. It was such an inspiration to me that I never wanted to let him down by saying “You overtook me, too bad for you”. I have so much respect for this guy that I didn’t even get past him when I got to him. I asked him if I could help him. He told me he was a little slow and I encouraged him to hang behind me and then stock up at the next pitstop at Champex. Then we gave ourselves the common goal of hunting Jim [Walmsley] whose lead decreased. A new race started for him when we caught up and let go of Jim around km 135.
Did you think we would be together in Chamonix as your battle was once tight with Kilian Jornet?
No, we want to live to the end hand to hand which amused us. He was a few minutes ahead of me on the climb and I closed the gap on the descent. On the descent before the last refueling stop in Vallorcine (km 150), he disappeared behind me at one point. I don’t know what he was doing, but I think he suddenly snapped. I see myself on my way to victory at UTMB. I started thinking about my celebration when I arrived. My imagination was only for a moment because after 5 minutes he stood at my feet again, that (smile). Then he gave everything for me to put a monumental tile in the ravito. I was afraid to explode following him so I let him go.
Since Saturday, do you regret relaunching 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 where I am, very humble. It shouldn’t be for me this time, that’s it. I’m improving and I don’t regret not being first: this is Kilian Jornet in front of me, he has the wisdom of the sport and a unique connection with his body. So to be second, only 5 minutes after him, I feel like a victory.
This second place with a time of less than 20 hours allows you to show that your 2021 podium is not due to chance, and that you do not have to see yourself as an ex-candidate of “Koh- Lanta”, right?
From my third place last year, I was seen as a trailblazer and no longer a reality TV candidate. It is true that sometimes until then, I was disappointed that people stopped me on the street Koh Lanta just for the trail. After all, in all sports, we often see athletes who make the coup of the century before disappearing. To establish its credibility, it must be confirmed, and this UTMB allowed me to detonate my impostor syndrome that I had last year.
Does the first broadcast on the L’Equipe channel, Friday and Saturday, change a lot of things for running on the track in your opinion?
Yes, it’s big because we touch people who don’t know anything about trail running. Mr. and Mrs. Everyone finds themselves on their bed to zap and fall into an unknown game, and they see a strange sight. I actually received 50,000 messages in my Instagram box and many thanked me for the great sporting moment we offer on television. This is the first track competition to be broadcast live on TV, it’s great for our sport.
And L’Equipe, like UTMB, is very lucky that this scenario happened, because usually, it will be serious c….. in front of UTMB (laughs). In Champex, at km 100, the mass is always spoken, with a 1 hour difference between all. There, there is suspense almost to the end. We are not playing actors for TV, be careful (smile). In Chamonix, it’s like the world is spinning on the trail because it’s crazy there. But it is a niche game and it allows us to discover our passion to the general public. I think it’s a game changer for us. This will have a big impact on the future.