Meet Xavier Thévenard: UTMB Mont-Blanc®’s Most Accomplished Runner
Well known among the European trail running community, On athlete, Xavier Thévenard is less of a household name in the US and elsewhere. But he should be. He’s the only runner to have won each of the major UTMB Mont-Blanc® races, and he has won UTMB itself three times.
Passionate about endurance sports, running, mountains and nature, the landscapes of the Mont-Blanc massif have always attracted him. They are not far from his home, either – Xavier lives in France’s Jura region. A deeply committed environmentalist, Xavier practices what he preaches.
His trail racing career has not been without its challenges either. In 2021, he was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which he continues to battle.
We’re pleased to offer this exclusive interview with one of the Alps’ most adored trail runners.
Xavier won’t be racing a UTMB Mont-Blanc race this year, as he continues to work to return to full health. Everyone at Run the Alps wishes the best to this wonderful ambassador for the sport, and we all hope for his return in the days to come.
You can follow Xavier here.
Original interview conducted in French by Run the Alps guide Astrid Renet in the Spring of 2023 for The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB®.
Xavier on UTMB Mont-Blanc® Races
2010 was the first time that I participated in a UTMB race. I ran the CCC, and won. Above all, my decision to race was about the environment. The Mont-Blanc massif has always attracted me. I came to the CCC to discover the landscape. I did not know the route stretching from Courmayeur to Champex to Chamonix, but I knew I would not be disappointed, because I had spent time in the Alps. I am in love with endurance sports, running, mountains, nature, and the fact that the UTMB Mont-Blanc races are close to home, only a 2-hour drive away, is good for my carbon footprint. I can even go to Chamonix by bike– but I haven’t ridden to the start of a race! As a native of the Jura, I often see breathtaking views of the entire Mont-Blanc chain from the crest of my home mountains. That view pulls us in and we want to go to the higher Alps.
Mont-Blanc has a certain power. It attracts you. This grandiose massif is known all over the world. It’s almost mythical. It makes you dream. It’s a magical environment of glaciers, rivers, and pastures. The race is something unique in all the world, crossing the borders of three countries, France, Italy, and Switzerland, and traveling around the highest mountain in western Europe. The event brings together and unites many nations.
I Never Imagined Winning UTMB
The UTMB Mont-Blanc series races that I have won are spread over nearly ten years, between 2010 and 2019. During this period, trail running evolved a lot. We’ve seen more elite runners coming into the sport.
My training was more advanced between 2015 and 2020 because the level of competition was higher. For example, with my 2010 training, I’m not sure I would have a good result today. I think there is not too much difference between the preparation for a CCC, TDS or a UTMB because they are all “ultra” formats. This requires many hours of training in the mountains with portions of plenty of climbing and descending. As for the OCC, it’s a little different because it’s a shorter format, so you have to add more intensity. OCC was special for me. I didn’t come to win it – I did it to prepare for the Mount Fuji Ultra Trail the following month. For me it was training, a secondary race, so I ran the course feeling somewhat detached, relaxed, and I didn’t worry about my result. Maybe that’s why I won… I had no pressure. I was also coming back from a month in Colorado, having done Hardrock, so I had good acclimatization.
Each runner has their own way of approaching an ultra. I tend to think about what I should do to be as efficient as possible: that is, how to manage my pace, nutrition, hydration, and with an overall goal of having as much fun as possible during the race. We know that is not easy. Ultras by their very nature are long. There are periods of suffering. The goal is to suffer as little as possible. You can achieve this through good management.
I don’t think about rankings. I never considered winning UTMB. I established a time I thought I would be able to achieve, and then I tried to do everything possible to achieve it, respecting my times and my rhythms and managing myself as well as possible. If I can do this, often a good result follows.
That’s what suits me. Aiming for first place doesn’t work for me. I find it counterproductive. What I like about ultras, is that it’s a race against yourself before being a race against others.
UTMB Mont-Blanc: Favorites
It is clear that UTMB Mont-Blanc is a worldwide success. This race series attracts many followers and a lot of journalists. There is both good and bad in the race’s popularity. When there is a lot of media attention, there is a lot of emphasis put on labels: words like “elite,” “outsider,” “amateur,” “favorite.” As athletes, we spend a lot of time doing interviews, during which we rehash situations and our status: “What result are you hoping for?”… “Did you come to win?”… “You won three times, how do you see the race?” I like to escape and this type of discussion, for me, I find it lacks logic. If I have too many interviews in a row, I can forget who I am.
I paid for it in 2017 at the UTMB when there were all the former winners: Kilian, François, Jim, all big favorites. I kind of forgot why I was on this starting line, what I was running for, and what motivated and energized me. I came off the startline with them at a pace and management that was not mine at all. As a result, I suffered, and had a long slump during the race. I limited the damage because I came fourth.
These are the side effects of a high-profile event like UTMB Mont-Blanc. You have to succeed in not forgetting who you are. You need to refocus and get back into your bubble immediately after all the interviews.
The good side of things is the recognition that such a race brings for the runners. It opens a lot of doors. We talk a lot, we meet new people, it creates new opportunities for us. The way forward expands and opens up in front of you. It helps to advance your life path.
Ups and Downs
I experienced a lot of emotions with my three victories at the UTMB, and my wins at TDS, the CCC and the OCC. Sharing these moments with loved ones and family is intense, and we create and then leave with lots of stories that we get to relive. If everything lines up, we get to experience great moments filled with positive energy.
I have so many highlights. Crossing the finish line of the UTMB with a victory is just an incredible moment. And during the race, when we’ve already run 120km and have moments that all sort of blur together, you still remember the friends on the side of the trail who were encouraging you. These are powerful experiences.
Other times have been more difficult to manage. In 2017, I had some tough times. At Col du Bonhomme, for example, I was really not feeling well and at Grand Col Ferret, it was very cold and I was not dressed warmly enough.
What keeps me going through tough times? I remind myself that I decided to be here. I know that hard times will pass. I try to press, press, press. It’s difficult when our brain tells us to stop, it is in the red zone, and it only wants us to stop the pain. We have to manage to ignore all that. We need to manage to find the energy to overcome the mental difficulties. I tell myself I have invested a lot, I must not stop. Better feelings will return. I tell myself that I am not unhappy. I can find a chair, have a bite to eat, see my friends at an aid station… and with this moment I can maybe try to push a little more and hold on. I know it’s going to be fine, that “better” will come back, so I’m patient. I let the hard moment pass.
But, overall, there are more good times than bad times. That’s why we go back, right?
It’s the Simple Things that Save Us
Every year there are more people on the UTMB course. Once again, I think that this enthusiasm can be positive, in the sense that I hope that people who come to a race like the UTMB see the beauty of the landscapes and that somehow it makes them aware of the fragility of its biodiversity. I hope they become refocused on things that are essential such as nature, sport, and feeling good about one’s body.
These simple things are what will save us somehow. We can see that our consumer society is harmful to the environment and is burning up the planet. UTMB and trail running generally are a two-sided coin. In practice, it’s very simple. All you need is a pair of sneakers and shorts. Yet, it also models excessive consumption, if we choose to equip ourselves with the latest outfits and follow the latest trends. This over-consumption is harmful. We need to take a close look at it, because we know that it is harming us with global warming and the collapse of biodiversity. So, to me, this enthusiasm is good and bad. We need to seek out a balance.
I’m in No Mood to Give Up
Living with Lyme disease, I went through a year that was not easy. What I like is being outside, being in nature, and practicing sports. Biking, skiing, or running. So if I can do that, that’s great.
I’m not in the mood to give up. Today, I am training for a balanced sense of good fitness. Performing well in competition, that’s another thing. In competition, I just am not sure what’s possible now. I will test myself to see where I am. There’s still a lot of improvement to be made. Lyme is a rather sneaky disease with ups and downs, but I think I am on the right track. I don’t know exactly where I am with it all. I am optimistic by nature, and rather confident, but I keep a little reserve so as not to be disappointed if I have a relapse.
Le Petit Prince
The little Prince? I was given this nickname because I’m not very tall, I think (laughs). Ludo Collet gave it to me. There you go. This nickname doesn’t bother me because the Little Prince is quite modest and low-key, and corresponds to my character traits, I think. Discreet suits me. As long as I’m not the king, it’s fine with me. (laughs)