Sitting in the garden, behind the house where David Laney is staying in Chamonix ahead of his fourth attempt at the UTMB, he appears to be his usual calm self. But before we start talking about David’s upcoming attempt at 100 miles of mountain trails, he mentions the death of a runner taking part in the PTL, a 300 km race for teams of two or three runners that is part of the week of running here at the de facto world summit of trail running.
The fact that David is so clearly affected by the news, says something about the kind of athlete – in fact the kind of man – that he is. Because David is clearly an athlete who is deeply connected to the culture of running and whilst he is a highly competitive runner – for example finishing 3rd and 4th at previous UTMBs – he is not a ‘win at all costs’ athlete.
The mountains towering over Chamonix, with the Mont Blanc as the snowy-domed pinnacle – make for a hugely imposing backdrop for a race. But David seems unphased. Is he anxious about the upcoming race? “I’m not really anxious,” David says “I’m excited to see what I can do. But preparation has not been great, so I’m not putting myself under too much pressure.”
David explains that his training in June and July – just when he would have been peaking in his preparation for UTMB – was severely impacted by him catching Covid-19. When it is pointed out that there are many stories of athletes having less-than-ideal final weeks before big races – Joan Benoit-Samuelson having knee surgery a few weeks before the first ever women’s Olympic marathon which she won by a big margin, for example – David smiles, ruefully: “I guess we’ll see how I do when I’m not over-trained” he says.
David lives in Washington State, close to the Canadian border in the northwest US. A quick glance at his Instagram account will tell you that his mountain playground contains mountains with the same majesty and trails with the same technicality as the runners in the UTMB will find around Mont Blanc. So apart from his brush with Covid-19, does David feel that he lives in an area that allows him to train for the European Alps? “I actually live a couple of hours’ drive from the big mountains,” David explains “So I drive out there a couple of times each week and the rest of the time I’m on much less mountainous trails close to home.” But with so many weeks spent in and around Chamonix over the years, David has good reason to feel at home here.
For so many athletes, a race of the scale and global importance of the UTMB is understandably their focus, if not for the year then sometimes for their whole running career. So it is perhaps unfair to ask David ‘what’s next before he’s even started the 100 mile circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc. But David is seemingly happy to answer. Actually, he doesn’t have many concrete plans. But says that a 100 mile track race in Arizona, at the end of the year, might be on the cards. That’s right. After 100 miles of rocky technical trails with over 10,000m of climbing, David’s focus could well turn to a race of 363 laps of a track with exactly zero meters of elevation. The race is one David has done before, finishing the distance in 12h 36m 13s in 2021. “It’s great fun,” says David simply. And perhaps that is what characterises David as an athlete and – maybe – as a person. He’s curious about what he is capable of achieving. Competitive but with no lack of compassion. And someone who can get his head in the right place, no matter whether he’s in the mountains or on a track. On that basis alone, David has a great chance of improving on his previous finishes at the UTMB. But it seems unlikely that whatever the result, he’ll allow it to ruin his love of running.