Williamsport native runs in grueling ultra trail competition in France
It was a bit of a surreal experience for Thomas McNerney as he would run into various towns. As he’d start to run past cafes and bistros, adults and children who were sitting down having dinner would start cheering him on from a far, shouting out “McNerney!”
It’s one thing to be recognized in your hometown. But McNerney, a Williamsport native, was taken back a bit by people cheering him on nearly 4,000 miles away where he didn’t know anyone.
“We’re required to wear a race bib on front of our t-shirts, so it had our names on it. So when you start showing up in town, people start calling you out and it’s kind of disorienting that they know who you are,” McNerney said. “You don’t realize they’re reading it off your bib. It’s hard to explain. It was just magical and kind of nice. All three countries were like that.”
McNerney wasn’t in France for a luxurious trip. He was in Chamonix, France, as part of the Ultra Mont Blanc race, a single-stage mountain ultramarathon that weaves through France, Switzerland and Italy. The course is a daunting one at roughly 107 miles with over 32,000 feet of climbing and descending through terrain.
Competitors have 46 1/2 hours to complete the grueling competition. McNerney finished the race in 44 hours, perhaps even more impressive is he did it on just 10 minutes of total sleep as he witnessed two sunsets and two sunrises while running.
“You just really have to keep pushing yourself to keep moving forward and not succumb to the thought of a warm bed and quit and take the easy road out,” McNerney said.
McNerney couldn’t find the words to accurately describe how beautiful the sights were in the three countries as he ran through secluded areas in forests and mountains.
The race began in France and started south, then east through Italy and north into Switzerland before going back into France, where the race concluded.
“You go from the valley up through the tree line, you don’t really climb the peaks. You kind of go through the saddles, but above the tree line. The views you see are just awe inspiring because there’s nothing that blocks your view point,” McNerney said. “I’m a geologist, so running through this alpine environment was really amazing. I did want to stop and just admire the views and look and study the land forms and features and everything. I tried to take some pictures, but they just don’t do it justice.”
Not just anyone can sign up and run the Ultra Mont Blanc, it requires qualifying through a point system. It’s run by the French and a runner needs 15 points from at least three qualifying races in order to be entered into a yearly lottery.
McNerney wasn’t able to qualify the first year, and had to pre-qualifying by running races again. However once the COVID-19 pandemic happened last year, the race was canceled.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” McNerney said regarding qualifying. “I was able to enter the lottery and I was selected.”
The genesis for running this remarkable race started almost a decade ago when McNerney got together with some high school friends. They were doing various races and trail runs, and it rubbed off on McNerney. Once he started running local races and went on longer and longer runs, he began to veer toward ultra trail running.
With the pandemic going on, McNerney noted that the hardest challenge this year was doing all the races to get into the event and then traveling to Europe.
The Williamsport native generally runs roughly 100 to 120 miles per month and said for training, he supplemented some of that with indoor exercises, strength training and even riding his indoor bike.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, but there’s also the mental aspect,” McNerney said. “Not just the physical aspect of running that far, but you need to prepare yourself for the mental aspect as well.”
Being in the woods running is something that McNerney admitted helps to clear his mind and relax.
“To be in nature and see different view points and different parts of the country while you’re out there exercises (is awesome),” he said.
As to what the most difficult part of the Ultra Mont Blanc was? Well, all of it was he joked.
“The uphill kind of gave me a break to rest, so you don’t have to run as far. The downhills, you know, you don’t want to succumb with the urge to keep running as fast as you can because you don’t want to blow out your legs,” McNerney said. “Downhills are equally as long as the uphills. There’s a lot of restraint you have to have going downhill. Uphill, not so much. You can kind of go as hard as you want.”
McNerney competed in various local ultra running events, including the World’s End Ultra, which takes place in June at the World’s End State Park, and the Eastern State 100 in Pine Creek in August.
“I do spend a lot of my free time volunteering doing trail maintenance and trail work and volunteering my time during those races as well,” McNerney said. “I think that’s important because I’m not just a runner, but someone who helps out behind the scene that puts on those races.”