Operation UTMB was a half a decade goal for Majo Liao. She was able to cross the UTMB finish line last September 3, 2017 owing to her preparation, her will and the overwhelming support of her family, friends and the trail running community. Majo is now the first ever Filipina UTMB finisher.
Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB)
100 miles, about 10,000 meters of elevation gain and unpredictable weather condition. That’s what stands between a participant and the finish line for UTMB. Running 100 miles takes years of preparation. Majo sharpened her skills and built her endurance by joining local ultras in the country. She’s one of the top women runner in the long distance trail ultras for several years now. UTMB is her coronation as the first ever Filipina finisher of the UTMB in Chamonix, France. Let’s get to know more of the journey and her triumph with our 1 on 1 interview with Majo.
PT: Why did you join UTMB?
Majo: It was a long time dream. They said that it is the world cup of ultrarunning and a race of superlatives. I wanted to see and experience it myself. Plus not so many Filipinas are joining the race, so gusto ko din magrepresent sa amin and to show that we can also do it.
PT: How long have you been preparing for UTMB?
Majo: I’ve been preparing for UTMB, I think since I’ve joined ultra running so that’s 4-5 years now. I’ve seen a couple of videos of UTMB since then and I’ve said to myself that I will do that before I reach 30.
PT: What was your training plan?
Majo: Honestly, I do not have a very structured training plan like other athletes. For UTMB, I combined training plans from athletes and modified/customized it based on my capacity and availability. I do not have a lot of time to train so I adjusted accordingly. Siguro years of joining races and experiences also helped in the preparation. I incorporated different strengthening and conditioning workout c/o UPM rockstars and PerX and did some Pilates (c/o Laarni of OneLife Studio) and yoga in between.
PT: How did it feel when you qualified for UTMB?
Majo: Super happy. Haha I discovered that I was qualified few days before my birthday, so sobrang saya talaga niregaluhan ako ng Universe ng ganun. hehe
PT: What was your goal entering UTMB?
Majo: The main goal was to finish the race. I’ve set a goal time pero secret nalang yun since di ko rin naman naachieve. I knew that it will be hard plus the days before the race, nakita na namin yung forecast that it will be cold and possible snow fall. So that time kinabahan na ako lalo since it is my weakness. Coldness really bothers me. Hehe
PT: How did it feel when you reached Chamonix?
Majo: The feeling was unbelievable at first. First time ko kasi lumabas ng Asia and di ako makapaniwala na nandun na talaga ako. Noon nakikita ko lang yun sa mga videos and pictures but that time I already set my own foot. Sobrang thankful ako sa mga taong tumulong para makarating ako sa Chamonix.
PT: How did it feel when you were in the starting line?
Majo: Nakakagoosebumps!! Lalo na nung nagstart na sila magpatugtog ng music and they started clapping their hands to the beat. First time to see A LOT of participants in the race. I was positioned on the side kasi hindi kami pumunta ng early kaya sobrang dami nang tao nun. I still can’t believe na nandun na talaga ako kasama ang different nationalities around the world. Ang saya din tingnan sa monitor dun yung mga elites na idol na dumadating sa startline. 😛
PT: What was your toughest part in the race?
Col de la Seigne
Majo: Hehe parang marami to but isa sa naging challenge ko during the first part of the race after passing through Col de la Seigne (km50+), naubusan ng battery yung headlamp ko. That’s around 2-3am and snow started to fall at the peak. Sobrang lamig nun and when I was running downhill, I was really praying na umabot sa aidstation yung battery kasi ang hirap magpalit in the middle lalo na di mo na mafefeel yung fingers mo.
But unfortunately namatay sya, so I had no choice but to stop. I really had a hard time changing because I felt so cold and ang hangin pa. Hindi ko mapalitan ng maayus yun batt. Haha pero after few minutes (actually nagtagal ako ng slight dun), napalitan ko na sya so I continued running to Lac Combal. That time I already have pain in my knees on steep downhill and so I slowed down pababa.
Grand Col Ferret
Majo: Another one toughest was during the climb in Grand Col Ferret. Since narecon naming yung part na yun before utmb on good weather, nakita ko kung gaano kaganda yung section and kung gaano din kalamig ang hangin sa taas ng Grand Col and so during the race, I felt so worried kasi when I was running towards that section, it was already covered with clouds/fog. I knew that it be very cold at hindi nga ako nagkamali.
When I arrived in Arnouva (km95), it was raining already. I was a bit off my target time and super bothered na ako sa lamig. Before we leave the AS, it was already mandatory to wear the waterproof pants. I asked the marshal about the snow, and she said it’s been snowing up there the whole time. Lalo ako naworry and may lag time pa nga noon kasi nagiisip talaga ko kung anong gagawin ko. Haha
I called Aldean to ask for some help, and he said that I should pass the peak before sunset because it would be much colder after that. Kayang kaya naman that time kasi maaga pa naman yun and so I picked up myself and started moving. The first part was steep so we had slow time moving because of the rain and steepness. It started to rain and I can feel stone like drops hitting my face. Naisip ko nga kung hail na ba yun and I think it really was. The strong wind welcomed us with open arms kaya grabe din ang wind chill. We were moving slow but no one was stopping, no one was also talking. One thing I observed, Europeans are focused when they are running/racing.
Nung nareach ko na ang peak, it was already covered with snow. Nagfrfrost din mga stones and plants. I didn’t stay long, after they scanned my bib, I ran downhill as fast as I can to regain the heat. Sinabi ko sa sarili ko nun, kinaya mo yun. By hook or by crook, tatapusin mo to and I asked the mountain Gods and the Universe to give me extra strength. Ganun pala ang feeling ng winter. Hehe
PT: What was your favorite part of the race?
Majo: My favorite part aside from the views along the course, are the Aid stations and the community where the course was passing through. Halos lahat ng AS parang my party! Lalo na sa first part ng course, the community was so welcoming. There was loud music, a lot of people are cheering and a lot of food. Kahit sobrang late na din or madaling araw at malamig, marami pa din ang nagchecheer sayo. The race is a big part in their community and ang saya makita and experience yun.
PT: What was your lowest moments in the race? How did you get past it?
Majo: Since cold was really my weakness, low moment ko yung time na nilalamig ako sa Lac Combal and Grand Col. Luckily, my mandatory gears protected me from all of those but my body cannot fully adopt to coldness kaya siguro naubusan ng energy. Lowest moment sa last mountain La Flegere where I really slowed down. I got past it by thinking that I didn’t reach that far just to give up. I was really looking forward to see Aldean, Benj, Carla and Sandi in Courmayeur and Champex. Iniisip ko nun na di ko sila pwede paghintayin ng matagal. Haha and I was thinking of all the people who helped me to be there. I cannot fail them. They all believed that I can do it and so I should too.
Describe the climbs and descents of the race.
Majo: Long climbs and descents! The climbs there range from 5-20km and most are switch back. There are sections with steep gradient and some sections are runnable if you have really strong legs.
How was the weather like in the race?
Majo: Super cold. The forecast said a -9C but some said that it dropped to -15C. I think the whole time it was below 10C even during day time. Even the Europeans felt cold. Natimingan lang na nagbad weather sa race day because previous days naman maganda ang panahon and other editions have good weather too. In fairness sa forecast nila, it was accurate and so it really helped for preparation ng gears and mentally.
How did you manage your Race Nutrition?
Majo: I used Tailwind for my nutrition and I ate in the AS, mostly cold cuts and crackers lang ang kinain ko. Plus soup sa ibang AS. All the AS ha same food kaya ang laking tulong na that I have a crew and they brought me rice and adobo and soup. Sobrang pasalamat ko talaga sa kanila.
First 50 Kilometers
Majo: Fast and runnable. Majority ng first part are wide trails so wala talagang bottleneck. Going to 50, eto na yung start ng climb sa mga highest sections ng course and nagstart din ang snow. The longest climb was also here – almost 20k from Saint Gervais to Col du Bonhomme.
Second 50 Kilometers
Majo: A lot of long climbs and downhill. Nandito din yung first AS na pwede mo imeet yung crew so ang saya makita sila. I was already looking forward on seeing them. The part from Refugio Bertone to Anouva was a bit flat and runnable.
Third 50 Kilometers
Majo: There was a road section going to Champex Lac where I met my crew again. Still lots of climb and downhill and muddy trails going to and after Champex Lac.
Final Part of the Race
Majo: I also considered the last 3 mountains as hardest part of the course since pagod ka na sa kaaakyat ng mga yun. I didn’t had a problem sa first 2 since I slept in Champex Lac. It really helped to regain the energy. The last mountain was really the challenge. The course was rerouted because of the weather and so naiba yung last part na instead na aakyat sa peak, pinaikot nalang kami. It was loooooong and never ending bago makarating sa ski resort. Dun na din ako naubusan siguro ng energy kaya nagtagal din bago makarating ng Chamonix.
The Finish Line
Majo: Full of emotions. Nakakaiyak na from the time na nakababa ako ng Chamonix. Since it was already afternoon, marami ng tao sa town na nagchecheer especially sa finishline area. Super proud moment nung inabot sakin ni Migz yung malaking PH flag and I started to wave it while running to finishline. Epic moment yun na makita nila na PH flag na hawak ko.
Post Race Euphoria
PT:How does it feel after finishing UTMB?
Majo: Haha just like other 100milers. But it was an epic feeling at the finishline. Napatanong ako kung totoo ba to na natapos ko talaga and I raised the flag out there. Yung feeling na high ka pa. haha
PT: Was all the effort and trainings worth it?
Majo: Definitely YES!!! May pagkukulang at some point and I could have done better, but I have no regrets. It was a good fight.
PT: What does it take to compete in a race like this?
Majo: You must really love what you are doing. Kasi hindi ka magtitiis sa hirap or any challenge thrown at you if hindi mo talaga sya gusting gusto. Lakas ng loob and tiwala sa sarili din that you can do it. It was really not a one man team. You need help to succeed and it was also the team who crossed the finishline.
Gain the experience needed. Good thing we have a lot of races here in the PH like KOTM series, CM, RMR which are good training grounds for international races.
PT: Looking back, is there something you’d want to change in your game plan for this race?
Majo: I could have ran faster in the downhills (but my knees are in pain). Race smarter and train more in the cold weather? But just like what I’ve said, we really cannot predict kung anong magiging weather sa raceday and we cannot blame it. Better to train more physically, mentally and emotionally (yes this is included) to prepare us in whatever the nature will throw at us.
PT: Will you do it again? Do you think you can finish stronger?
Majo: If I will be given a chance, yes I would do it again. I think this experience will really help so I can finish stronger in other races. Learning is a continuous process.
PT: Would you reward yourself? What would the reward be?
Majo: Gelato!! And more gelatoooooo!
PT: Who are the people who made finishing the race possible?
Majo: Super dami!! My family and friend who supported me all out. Salomon, Suunto, Tailwind Nutrition Asia and Ahon (Aldean and Ronald) who initiated the fundraising from the shirts, Atty. James and all the people who supported and purchased the tshirt project. Sobrang daming tao ang sumuporta na ni hindi ko kilala ang karamihan, sobrang nagpapasalamat ako sa kanila. BRG, Benj who flew from Paris to Chamonix just to support us and Aldean who supported and planned for this from day 0 to finishline. Sama sama kaming tumawid din sa finishline. Of course, I couldn’t have finished this without the guidance and strength from the Mountain Gods and Almighty.
PT: What’s next for Majo?
Majo: For now I will be resting from running. It’s been a long trail season since February. I’ll do more mountain biking muna as a break. The races for next year are not yet finalized. So now pahinga muna and back to work and school.
It was really a pleasure following your story. You’ve brought woman power to the next level. We are so proud of you and we’ll always keep rooting for you. Rest and recover well Champ.
Photo Credits to Carla Jereza, Benj Termulo and Aldean Lim