Ultrarunner Niki Hurst on overcoming the epic Ultra Trail Mont Blanc
The legendary race in the French Alps changes people
In 2015, when Squamish runner Niki Hurst began ultrarunning there were two races that dominated the conversation when the subject with fellow runners turned to lifetime goals and difficulty and, yes, pain: the Western States Endurance Run and the legendary Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, the holy grail for mountain-loving trail trotters
Just a few short years into her running career, Hurst has already crossed one of the endurance races off her to-do list, if a bit ahead of schedule. And in so doing, learned a lot about who she is and why she runs.
UTMB, a single-stage mountain ultramarathon of epic proportion, was held in the French Alps earlier this year, and Hurst was there toeing the line with some of the best runners on the planet including the likes of Courtney Dauwalter, who won the women’s race.
“UTMB has kind of just been lingering in my mind. Lingering is a fair word, I was never consumed by the goal of UTMB by any means. I didn’t select my races in order to qualify, I selected my races for the adventure of them first and foremost,” she says, during an interview a week after she completed the race and had some downtime to reflect.
“I threw my name in the hat. I forgot all about it until the acceptance email came and I was confused. What do they mean I got in? No one gets in on the first try…. Well shit…. I guess I am going to France.”
Prior to UTMB, Hurst had never run in a world-class event and had only run one other 100-miler in her career. But, to her sizable credit, she and her running partner Christen set a “Fastest Known Time” on a trail called the North Coast Trail, which she still counts as her biggest achievement to date.
UTMB offered a new and unique challenge for the young runner.
“For me, the sheer number of runners from all over the world was a huge mental challenge,” she says. “I enjoy the solitude and calmness of the mountains, so to have over 2,000 runners on the course and never have that quiet peace that I enjoy to connect to my surroundings and find my own pace was very difficult.”
She also had the added pressure of the lead-up to the event, which is unique as in ultrarunning circles there isn’t really any race that is a bigger deal. People talk, ask questions, even the local radio station was talking about Hurst heading over to France to compete. For a reserved runner, it’s a lot to handle.
“I was worried that that pressure would make it difficult to make safe choices out there,” she says. “On the second day, in particular, I really had to work to bring the race back to being for me, not for the people following along back home. I had to focus on my reasons for being out there and block everything else out.”
This isn’t a sport people get into for fame and fortune. Ultrarunning is about the journey. For Hurst, the race presented new athletic challenges to be sure, but some of the hardest things to overcome were utterly personal.
Hurst has strived to balance the demands of training with her family. She has a six-year-old daughter named Callie and a two-year-old step-daughter named Indy. Getting up at 4 a.m. to train in the heavenly mountains that surround her hometown is one thing, but heading overseas to France for three weeks was something entirely new and different.
“I think I have a good balance between being present for them while also demonstrating that I have my own goals that I work hard to achieve. Leading by example,” she says. “But for UTMB I was going to be away from my six-year-old for three weeks and I would be missing her first week of Grade 1. This was really, really tough.”
Some tear-filled trans-Atlantic Skype calls aside, Hurst channelled her children to provide motivation for her running once out on the course.
“Those little girls were a huge source of motivation for me,” she says. “I have to believe that there is so much value for those girls in seeing the people they love achieve incredibly difficult things.”
The rookie UTMB runner got some good advice about not giving in to the moment and being overwhelmed by the spectacle of it. After all, the only other 100-mile race she’d run was the Fat Dog with three people clapping at her 4 a.m. finish. But, once out on the course, it’s a race like any other. She broke it down to mountain up, mountain down, village, repeat. And in so doing, found her pace.
“The distance and the terrain are so vast that sometimes it just doesn’t seem possible,” she explains. “But if you focus on the smaller chunks, whatever that needs to be for you at the moment, it’s much more manageable mentally.”
Once she crested that last mountain, her cloud lifted and she knew she would finish and now she could just enjoy the last leg before the finish line.
“I was pretty delirious on the last climb and don’t remember most of it,” she says. “But when I got up into the alpine and the reality that I was going to finish hit me, the fog started lifting. I was ready to really embrace the hurt and move over the mountain top and descend quickly. I was ecstatic.”
During the final push, Hurst caught up with another North Face runner and they decided to finish the race together.
“This was perfect for me. Having someone to share the moment with, even though we ran all of 7km together, was just what I needed to remove the overwhelming nature of that finish line and really enjoy it,” Hurst explains. “I was humbled by the people cheering and ever so grateful for the encouragement. As I came down the final stretch what came into focus was my partner waiting at the finish line and to be able to experience the hype of the finish line while running towards him was quite a moment to try to take in.”
After 171 kilometres (100 miles), 10,040 metres of elevation gain, six summits, three countries, in a time of 44:34:10, Hurst finished the race. But she’s still processing what happened and what it means in the greater scheme of things.
“It’s UTMB, and I finished it, in relatively good shape, and nothing can take that away from me. So, ya, it was good,” she says. “It’s been a week-and-a-half and I am still grasping for the words. There was nothing about UTMB that was within my comfort zone: I don’t speak the languages, I was unfamiliar with the terrain, I didn’t have my running partner, it was very public before I even started the race. And yet, here I am on the other side of it all, a changed person. My realm of possibility is expanded yet again and the value of that in every aspect of my life is not something easily put into words. It was hard, and I did it. So, ya… it was good.”
Hurst spent the following two nap-filled days at a spa on the Italian side of the Alps enjoying the scenery and eating “a silly amount of food.”
“It was perfect,’ she says.