Manuel Merillas and Sheila Aviles Castano claimed a double victory for Spain in the men’s and women’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Orsières-Champex-Chamonix (OCC UTMB).
Merillas was involved in an eventful back-and-forth with fellow Spaniard Antonio Perez, while Castano impressively chased down the American runner Allie McLaughlin who had opened an early, seemingly insurmountable lead.
British runner Robbie Simpson held firm throughout the 55km race to finish third in the mens, one back from his second place in last year’s event.
Men’s race – Cramp undoes Perez pursuit
It was from Trient, with the climb to Col de Balme ahead, that the men’s race truly began.
The 10km between the points is a gruelling climb of nearly 1000km, and the race soon became as chaotic as the landscape promised.
Over the climb, Merillas emerged as the leading man. He demonstrated incredible speed uphill, climbing from fourth to emerge on top of both the mountain and the race.
Another Scarpa athlete and Spaniard, Antonio Perez, also leapfrogged opponents to find himself in second.
Perez steamrolled down the hill in pursuit of Merillas. Along paths and through forests, he headed to Argentière, but would not reach the town before the leader.
Heralded by shouts of ‘Allez’ and even a few ‘Vamos’, Merillas passed through the town to a chorus of cow bells ringing and hands clapping.
Pausing briefly to fill up with fluid, he soon headed off again. Ahead of him lay his final climb, the next checkpoint at La Flegere, 5km in front of him and 800m above.
If he could fly up the mountain as he had done to Col de Balme, he would be in a strong position to defend his lead down the final stretch to the finish at Chamonix.
But behind him came Perez. About six minutes ahead of third placed Robbie Simpson, he had been only a minute behind Merillas at Argentere.
As the two climbed, the leader was soon in view of the pursuing Perez and, quite literally in his crosshairs, Perez pulled the trigger.
He passed his Scarpa teammate as they ascended through the tight forest paths, but it was far from a fatal blow.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. So hard had Antonio pushed to take the lead, his body betrayed him. Merillas made one last push, taking the lead again. Antonio attempted to respond but, dramatically caught on camera, he exclaimed as he collapsed to the floor with cramp.
In a show of great determination, he got himself back up and continued his race, but there was no hope of catching Merillas now.
To a roaring Chamonix crowd, Merillas crossed the finish triumphantly, claiming first in an incredibly hard-fought race.
Two and a half minutes later, briefly embracing the winner before collapsing over the line, Perez claimed a well-deserved second, with Simpson carrying the Scottish flag with him as he finished third.
Women’s race – Castano claims close win
While the men’s race was always tight until the final stretch, the women’s race initially seemed as if it would be far less manic.
The US runner Allie McLaughlin broke early, far ahead of her closest rival even by Trient.
As she left the town she looked comfortable, even briefly turning her attention to the camera and sticking her tongue out, such was her confidence.
When she reached the next checkpoint at Col de Balme, asking the volunteers to direct her straight to the water tank before beginning her descent, she had a lead of around five minutes.
But, bursting forward from the pack from fourth to second, a challenger emerged. Sheila Aviles Castano came storming from the chasing pack to pursue the American, continuing to close the gap on McLaughlin checkpoint by checkpoint.
By Argentiere the gap was just three minutes and on the way up to La Flegere she made her move, just as Perez had done on Merillas.
But unlike Perez, there was no faltering from Castano. She went past McLaughlin, who was soon caught by Nuria Gil Caprera and Dani Moreno as well, and did not look back.
She pushed and pushed, at one point stumbling and falling on her way down towards Chamonix. But nothing, no stone or cramp, was going to stop her now.
As she crossed the line, she collapsed before bowing to the to the crowd, who rightly celebrated her ovation-worthy performance.
OCC at UTMB Results
Thursday August 25, 2022 – 55km
1. Manuel Merillas (ES) 05:18:29
2. Antonio Martinez Perez (ES) 05:21:01
3. Robbie Simpson (GB) 05:24:00
4. Arnaud Bonin (FR) 05:29:05
5. Paul Mathou (FR) 05:31:36
1. Sheila Aviles Castano (ES) 06:10:16
2. Núria Gil Caprera (ES) 06:16:03
3. Dani Moreno (US) 06:17:05
4. Kimber Mattox (US) 06:22:05
5. Toni McCann (ZA) 06:24:45