One Dirty Magazine

Eden—Is Chamonix the Trail-Running Capital of the World?

Situated beneath Western Europe's tallest peak and with two of the world's top races bookending the summer season and hundreds of miles of spectacular trails in its backyard, this medieval enclave is a trail runner's paradise.

Doug Mayer August 28th, 2018

Eden—Is Chamonix the Trail-Running Capital of the World? A runner passes by Lac Blanc, in the Aiguilles Rouges. Behind, the Bossons Glacier on the Mont Blanc massif. Chamonix is 5,400 feet below, in the valley between. Photo by Tristan Shu.

Rounding a sharp bend 2,000 feet above Chamonix, France (3,396 feet), this morning’s rush-hour traffic slams to a stop. “Dieu!” “Whoa, watch out dude!” “Merda!” Commuters from a variety of countries hit the brakes.

This is a different kind of traffic jam, though—we’re not on the RN205, the road that climbs for 20 kilometers to Chamonix, before disappearing into the Mont Blanc tunnel toward Italy.

We’re stopped, instead, on the town’s 3.8K “Kilomètre Vertical” trail-running route, which switchbacks over 70 times steeply upwards for 960 meters from Place du Triangle de l’Amité, in the heart of the old village.

Ahead, a tourist appears to be sightseeing, looking across at the glaciers and granite spires, or aiguilles, for which the region is famous.

Pardon!” “Excusez-moi!”

Like cyclists swerving around an accident, the runners find their way around a hiker, frozen with vertigo and clinging to a rebar step cemented into a chunk of rock. Some veer left, leaving just barely an inch of soil between one foot and 50 feet of air—a move with all the risks of free-solo rock climbing.  Most offer help, with an empathetic look or a, “Je peux vous aider?!” (“Can I help you?”)

It’s the kind of moment that takes place routinely in Chamonix, where a passion for trail running, a vertiginous topography and few if any regulations combine to create a trail-running scene unlike anywhere else in the world.

Chamonix’s “VK” tops out with a single transformative step. Runners grab the railing at the Planpraz gondola building, pulling themselves up to safety. Around a corner and up a few more steps, a grassy plateau leads to a café.

Trail runners Hillary Gerardi and Derek Strom luxuriate at Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille, after the uphill push from town. Photo by Kim Strom.

To an American sensibility, the infrastructure can feel jarring, even inappropriate. But a warm croissant and a café au lait later, it’s hard to argue that they’re not onto a damned fine routine here. The view, looking across the valley to snow-capped Mont Blanc, a half-dozen glaciers and jutting granite spires, is one of the best in Europe.

In the still morning air, conversations mix.

Il faisait beau ce matin, non?” (“It’s a lovely morning, no?”) … “Fuck, these people do that every morning?!” … “Never been on a Strava route with Kilian and Max King before.”  French. Americans. Ubiquitous Brits. Tourists, locals and the wannabe locals known as “saisonniers.” Some appear to have been moments away from calling for a rescue. Most look fatigued but content. And, because it is Chamonix, there are always a few whose bright compression tops are impossibly free of sweat.

One by one they dissipate, gondola rides taking them down to the town of 10,000 that swells to over 40,000 during summer race weekends. It’s all part of the start to another day in Chamonix, which just might be the world’s capital of trail running. But it is not without growth pains.

Trail Running in Ascendance

Chamonix is having a moment. For hundreds of years, the town at the base of 15,781-foot Mont Blanc has been renowned as the birthplace of alpinism. Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard made the first ascent of Western Europe’s highest peak in 1786. Since then, the outdoor sports have only gotten more daring. Thirty-five years ago, it was extreme-skiing personalities like the rainbow-mohawked Glen Plake who dominated the scene. More recently, hang gliding, paragliding and base jumping have taken turns in the town’s spotlight.

It is trail running, though, that is steadily in ascendance.

Electric energy at the 2017 UTMB start. Photo courtesy of UTMB.

“There are many events throughout the year,” says the local Club des Sports President Fred Comte. “There’s Cosmo Jazz Festival, the Climbing World Club, the Khandahar alpine ski race. They bring in tourists, but not like trail running.”

Today, Chamonix annually welcomes more trail runners than either climbers or skiers. Nicolas Durochat, the Director of the Office of Tourism, concurs: “Trail running has seen the biggest growth. You can run through forests, up high mountains, next to glaciers, along pastures. There’s a rich alpine history, and lifts to access it all. Is Chamonix the trail running capital of the world?” Durochat posed the question to himself, then paused. “I’m sure of it.”

No matter runners’ speed or level of competitiveness, Chamonix’s topography is a major draw for trail runners from around the world. The 30-kilometer-long narrow valley snakes its way northeast to the Swiss border at Vallorcine. Both sides are lined with peaks. The relief is so dramatic, so sudden, you need to crane your neck above sharply tilted forests, then a notch higher above the rocky alpine zone, to see the snow-covered summits.

“You look up and you see Mont Blanc,” says Tim Tollefson, 33, of Mammoth Lakes, California, who finished third the last two years, in Chamonix’s 170-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. “Then you look up on the other side and you’re towered by VKs in every direction.”

The 119-kilometer TDS has 23,625 feet of climbing, and is considered the most technically challenging of the UTMB series of races. Photo courtesy of UTMB.

Glaciers are visible from the valley floor. Glance up towards Mont Blanc at any given moment and you’re likely to see a jumble of house-sized blocks of ice tumbling down into the forest. Above, the seracs lead to smoother snowfields, and higher still the Mont Blanc range, with its dozens of famous aiguilles, whose aesthetic lines have drawn climbers in the days since Balmat and Paccard.

To the north, the Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve seems tame by comparison. Its razor-sharp granite ridges and pinnacles top out at a mere 9,728 feet—over 6,000 feet lower than Mont Blanc’s summit. With hundreds of routes, this side of the valley is a rock climber’s mecca.

Winding through it all are 350 kilometers of trails, from gentle forested singletrack like the Petit Balcon Sud, to the airy, cabled route that climbs over 5,000 feet to La Jonction, the meeting place of the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers. Worlds collide here—a jumbled sea of ice crashing in slow motion into the rocky ground underfoot.

Get Your Race Face On

Every month or so, races ratchet up the trail-running tempo in town. The valley is home to 20 trail races spread across nine different events. The season is bookended by two of the most famous trail-running events in the world: June’s Mont Blanc Marathon and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) at the end of August.

Strom and Gerardi rest their quads. The faint, green vertical stripe in the background is Chamonix’s Vertical Kilometer. Photo by Kim Strom.

The Marathon weekend began 38 years ago as the 23-kilometer Cross du Mont-Blanc, one of the oldest trail races in the Alps. Now, it takes place over a long weekend and includes seven events, ranging in distance from the Vertical Kilometer to a 91-kilometer race that zigzags between the valley and alpine terrain, incorporating just under 20,000 feet of climbing. The venerable Cross du Mont Blanc continues, but the marathon has stolen the limelight as the marquee event. Collectively, the seven races lure 40,000 participants and supporters. Anywhere else, the marathon would be enough to put a town on the international trail-running circuit. Here, though, it’s just a warm-up.

Throughout the summer, there’s a steady drumbeat of other events: twice-weekly training with CMBM, the local trail-running club, and even a two-person relay, the Relais Nocturne. The 8.6-kilometer course twists through the old village on a 720-meter loop.

The season culminates at the close of August with a nearly week-long collection of ultra-distance races, finishing with the world’s most famous ultra, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Starting in Chamonix, the race encircles the Mont Blanc massif, passing through the corner of Italy and Switzerland en route back to town.

Trail racing in Chamonix is unique in the world. “In Chamonix, they truly get it,” says Tollefson. “They totally respect what you’re doing. They know circumnavigating Mont Blanc is a transcendent experience.”

Maartje Bastings and Derek Strom relax outside Saint Michel’s church, the historic starting point of most trail races in Chamonix. Photo by Kim Strom.

For Tollefson and others, it’s a place where trail runners can feel right at home. “There’s no, ‘Oh, you’re crazy!’” he says. “It’s like being at trail summer camp for adults. That’s a fun thing to be a part of.”

As the first runners close in on the UTMB finish line, Chamonix verges on out of control. A cacophony of “Allez-allez-allez-allez” rises from the thousands of spectators who line the final 500 meters through town. Some of them drum the large, cardboard sponsor signs attached to barricades. Others wave flags from France, Italy, Spain and the United States. There is no more dramatic moment in trail running in the world than the finish of UTMB.

At the 2017 finish, Francois d’Haene beat Kilian Jornet by 15 minutes. Tollefson came in 36 minutes after Jornet. In the final steps down Place de l’Église, outside the mayor’s office, top finishers bask. They high-five fans, bow to the crowd, taking their time to absorb it all.

For Tollefson it was “pure elation. I was reflecting what I was seeing in the fans and spectators’ eyes,” he says. “They’re so happy to see these individuals come through, I couldn’t help but return that by celebrating with them. It was a joint experience.”

“Can we do the Tour du Mont-Blanc?!”

“I was a big pain in the ass! It was the fall of 2002, and I kept bugging everyone, ‘Can we race the Tour du Mont Blanc?’” says René Bachelard, holding court about the genesis of UTMB.

Indeed, the UTMB might never have come to pass were it not for Bachelard, now 86. Outside of Chamonix, few know of his role in the creation of the race. Lithe with nimble gestures, Bachelard would be tagged as the trail runner in this crowd—except that, well, in Chamonix, that describes nearly everyone. Despite his slight stature, a charismatic, incisive persona keeps everyone rapt.

“Mountain running was new to me,” he explains. (Bachelard started trail running at age 60, four years after retiring as a general in the French Army. He retired to Chamonix five years later.) “I knew it was possible for one person to run all the way around Mont Blanc. I had been looking through the archives of the Club des Sports, and read that two friends had done it in around 25 hours.” Indeed, in August 1978, two local climbers, Christian Roussel and Jacky Duc, used a combination of roads and trails to run around Mont Blanc in 24:45, without support.

Early efforts at organizing a race around Mont Blanc met with mixed results. For five years beginning in 1987, French skier Sylvan Saudan organized the Super Marathon du Mont-Blanc, a three-day stage race around the mountain. At about the same time, another event, the Mont-Blanc Maratour, offered teams of seven runners the chance to run around the range in four stages. Next came the Tour du Mont-Blanc Ultra Marathon, a four-stage race. To speed the trip, organizers used roads as much as possible. Considered elite events, they never quite captured the imagination of the wider running public.

In 1999, everything stopped. A catastrophic fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel effectively cut transport between Courmayeur, Italy and Chamonix for three years.  The reopening of the tunnel in 2002 allowed Club des Sports to restart the relay, but efforts fell short and the event was cancelled.

During the fall of 2002, the current UTMB Technical Director Michel Polleti, who co-leads the races with his wife, Catherine, met Bachelard in the streets of Chamonix multiple times.  “It was always the same thing!” Michel says, laughing. “René would say, ‘We need to do something! It’s a good race! We need to find a find a way to make this race work!”

Poletti eventually agreed, a meeting was organized and planning got underway.

“We said, ‘Forget the roads!’” says Polleti, “And no stage race, no relay. We wanted a real ultra on the trails. So, we designed a trail race.”

The 2017 UTMB included runners from 87 countries. Photo by Alexis Berg.

None of the nine trail runners present at that September organizational meeting at Chamonix’s Hotel Fauciny knew much about ultra races, however.

“We hadn’t heard about Western States or Leadville,” says Poletti. “But we had heard about La Réunion.” The race on the French island of Réunion, known as Diagonal des Fous, had already captured the attention of French trail runners. The race—still going today—was so popular with locals in the early 90s it was hard for trail runners from mainland France to even enter.

UTMB’s first edition came a year later, in September 2003. The first race entry came with the start of the new year. It was an auspicious sign. The organizing committee had wanted 300 participants. They got over 700.

René Bachelard was one of them. “I decided that I wanted to try it. I had never run more than 23 kilometers—only the Mont Blanc Cross. But I said to myself, ‘I’m responsible for this existing, I should probably do it.’”

He ran to Courmayeur, the first of three finish lines participants could choose. (Later options were Champex, Switzerland, or the full loop to Chamonix.)

“I arrived in Courmayeur and was pretty surprised. I thought it was a pretty good race! Michel also thought that people liked it and that we should continue with it,” he says.

Just 70 runners had made it back to Chamonix that day, but the UTMB was on its way to becoming the world’s best-known ultra.

René Bachelard, Chamonix’s “Living History” of Trail Running

For both Chamonix and himself, Bachelard’s retirement to the home of alpinism was fortuitous. In the intervening years, he led the CMBM to independence, out from under the local Club des Sports. He served as the new association’s first president until 2007. He inspired the creation of the UTMB. While the Polettis led the new business, named Autour du Mont-Blanc, Bachelard became president of a non-profit association, Les Traileurs du Mont Blanc. The corporate structure was prescient. The commercial company would pay the bills, while the non-profit was responsible for keeping the mission and spirit of UTMB alive. To this day, Les Traileurs is responsible for trail maintenance, mountain stewardship and oversight of charity bibs. It also oversees the 2,000 volunteers who power the UTMB races each year.

“René is one of the guys who made it happen,” says CMBM President Federico Gilardi. “René is the living history of Chamonix trail running.”

Today, the mountain-running club that Bachelard founded is the heartbeat of the trail-running scene in Chamonix. It is unlike any other such club in the world. There are nearly 300 paying members and seven paid coaches. In the summer, three levels of free training are available to members twice a week: a “discovery” section, a trail-running section and a competitive section. In 2012, the CMBM added a youth division, which now has 20 members, the youngest of whom just turned 11.

Through it all, Bachelard has continued to run and stay active in day-to-day events. He remains one of CMBM’s most active members, nudging volunteers on Facebook and showing up at most club events. After more than a dozen years leading Les Traileurs, Bachelard stepped down last year, receiving the title Président d’Honneur. “That means,” he says, “I don’t do anything!”

René Bachelard in the homestretch of the 1998 Cross du Mont Blanc. Photo courtesy of Chamonix Club des Sports.

In Chamonix trail-running circles, there is a heartfelt admiration for Bachelard.  This past year, he received a unique commendation for his many contributions. “They created a race for me!” he quips. The newest UMTB-series race, Martigny-Champex-Chamonix, or “MCC,” is 40 kilometers, with 7,545 feet of climbing. It runs from the Swiss town of Martigny, over the border at Col Balme, before coasting to Chamonix on the gentle Petit Balcon Sud.

“It was for René—though not only for him,” says Michel Poletti. “The main motivation was to find a way to have a better involvement for the volunteers.” MCC gives an entry preference to volunteers and residents of the villages around Mont Blanc.

In UTMB’s 56-kilometer OCC race last year, Bachelard tumbled, breaking his shoulder and requiring an implanted prosthesis. He should find MCC easier going—it’s 16 kilometers shorter, with 3,937 fewer feet of climbing.

A Day in the Life

In a nod to the shifting interests of its visitors, a few years ago Chamonix’s Office du Tourism launched its Vallée du Trail campaign, featuring a website that highlights 20 trail-running routes, up-to-date trail conditions and a companion app. Hotels have joined with trail-running packages. Today, a half-dozen tour operators also offer trail-running trips in the region.

Ca va?” says Claude Quenot, manager of the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille, greeting an arriving trail runner on one of the Vallee du Trail routes.

Pas mal, merci,” says the runner, satisfied with her effort to get there. A good time from town to the refuge is 80 minutes. The 4.8-kilometer route climbs 3,690 feet on twisting switchbacks through forests and across gullies, before ending at the hut.

“Holy shit, check this out!” exclaims another runner.

Inside the red-shuttered mountain hut, Anglophone hikers have discovered one of several reasons why this hut is a popular stop. No fewer than five different fresh tarts, baked that morning, fill a corner table. Today there’s wild blueberry, pear, peach, lemon and mixed berry.

Outside, trail runners and hikers relax in sheepskin-lined recliners with their tarts, coffees and wine disappearing at varying rates.  Over their left shoulders, they feast their eyes upon the snows of Mont Blanc toward the Italian border along the precipitous Arête de la Brenva. Between their feet is Chamonix as if seen from an airplane window. To the right, the French-Swiss border at the grassy 7,201-foot Col Balme.

On the move past La Tête aux Vents, just under 7,000 feet, on the popular South Balcony in the Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve. Photo by Tristan Shu.

Allez en dix minutes?” “Bella corsa!” “Not sure I’ve ever run after two glasses of wine …” Languages, like the borders, come together in Chamonix.

From the refuge, trail runners that overindulged can walk uphill for 15 minutes, then ride the Aiguille du Midi tram to town. More ambitious runners have several alternative routes down, including the Balcon Nord, an above-treeline cruise that contours above the Mer de Glace glacier, passing two more cafes before ending in the valley village of Les Praz.

That’s the Chamonix trail-running routine: caffeinate at a sidewalk café, run hard, eat and drink well, run more. When the sun passes over the towering Aiguilles Rouges, wander the streets, trying to settle on dinner from dozens of choices.

Repeat as needed—or until your quads rebel. For those whose eyes proved bigger than their quads, Pharmacie des Alpes has a window display that’s been in place for years now: a mannequin-turned-trail runner, complete with race bib and vest—and fully clad in nine splints and braces.

A Global Trail-Running Scene

As Chamonix’s trail-racing scene has exploded, and CMBM’s numbers have doubled in just six years, something else has started to happen: Trail runners from around the world are lingering and more than a few have put down roots. Hillary Gerardi, 31, of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is one.

“When I first got here, my neck hurt. It’s that kind of angle,” she says, alluding to the valley’s dramatic topography.

Seven years ago, Gerardi came to France after spending five seasons working for the hut system in New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains. A year ago, she and her husband Brad Carlson, 29, moved to Chamonix. Fluent in French and with a tomboyish spirit, Gerardi is insightful, chatty and quick to laugh. A short and compact stature, combined with a tenacious focus, makes her hard to beat on technical mountain tracks. She’s quickly making a name for herself.

The recently renovated Montenvers refuge, above the Mer de Glace glacier, is also the terminus for a cog train from Chamonix. The site has hosted a refuge since 1795. Les Drus, one of Chamonix’s most famous formations, looms in the background. Photo by PatitucciPhoto.

 

Last year, she ranked fourth in the Sky Classic division of the Skyrunner World Series, and is now sponsored by several European brands. Chamonix is one of Gerardi’s favorite places to run.

“The trails here take you through forests, past little cafes, to incredible views of glaciers and the Mont Blanc massif. There are amazing and long alpine traverses. There are little red lines zig-zagging all over the map. You can run anywhere. You’d have to stay for years to run all the trails.”

Gerardi’s not alone. Also on that list of étrangers are the British trail-running couple of Robbie Britton and his fiancée, Natalie White, who, together with their German Shorthaired Pointer, Rosa, now call Chamonix home. Britton, 31, has finished 3rd in the 24-hour World Championships. White, 35, is a past UK fell-running champion. Both regularly win or place on the podium at competitive races around the Alps.

“Our plan was to come for a summer,” says Britton, “But autumn is beautiful here, and winter’s intriguing. That was a few years ago. We got hooked.”

A number of other top trail runners have decamped in the valley recently, either part or full-time. The list includes the Swedish ultrarunner Mimmi Kotka, Truckee, California’s Rory Bosio and the Canadian runner Stephanie Case.

“It’s an international trail-running scene, year-round,” says Britton.

Even the world’s top trail runner called the valley home for 10 years. Kilian Jornet and his partner, the Swedish trail runner, Emilie Forsberg, lived in Les Houches, at the lower end of the Chamonix valley, later moving up to the quieter village of Argentière, a few kilometers of running away from the Swiss border at Col Balme.

During that time, Jornet ticked off a number of fastest-known times in the area, including running from the St. Michel church next to the mayor’s office to the summit of Mont Blanc—and back—in 4 hours 57 minutes 40 seconds—shaving 13 minutes off a 23-year record. For Jornet, however, all the attention proved too much, and in 2016 he and Forsberg moved to Norway. His celebrity status hasn’t waned since his change of residence. Returning to win the Mont Blanc Marathon last summer, he was mobbed with selfie requests at the race finish.

One result of such talent coalescing is that the level of play is high—very high.

“If you come to Chamonix, what you have to understand, and expect, is that someone will always be going harder, faster, longer than you will,” says Gerardi. “It’s like the skiing here. If you follow ski tracks, you might die, because whomever made those tracks might have been speed riding. They might have come to a cliff and launched their paraglider. It’s the same idea with trail running. You can’t just assume that because someone else did it, you can do it.”

Inside the Bubble—and the Kilian Effect

Locals refer to the above phenomenon as the “Chamonix Bubble.” With so many extreme mountain sports taking place every day, the outlandish becomes routine, and it’s easy to become blasé. In a town where nearly every runner seems to have completed the UTMB or is working toward it, trail runners aren’t immune to the effects. With easily-accessible glaciers, eye-popping vertical drops and big-mountain weather, trail runners can and do get in trouble fast. Six have died in the past few years, two of them within a week last August. Max Fabbro, a local mountain guide, was one of the last people to see the first of those fatalities.

“We were 150 meters from the summit, climbing in thick fog and high winds. I was with two Japanese clients and another guide. We had crampons, ropes, ice axes. This guy passes us on the way down in sneakers, with summer trail-running clothes, no crampons, no extra clothing.”

Fabbro and the trail runner traded a few words, and the runner disappeared into thick fog.

“I suggested he pay attention. Two minutes later,” says Fabbro, “He slid 300 meters, then fell 25 meters into a crevasse. He was dead instantly.”

A month after a double-ascent of Mount Everest, Kilian Jornet won last June’s Marathon du Mont-Blanc—his fourth win in as many starts. Photo by Vincent Lescaut.

A brief brush-fire of a controversy ensued, sometimes publically pitting climbers against trail runners. The head of the local mountain-rescue service, PGHM, admonished the choices made by one of the deceased runners. The mayor of nearby St. Gervais issued a list of required gear for climbing Mont Blanc from his village.

Jornet chimed in—first tweeting a photo of himself naked on the 15,781-foot summit to protest the heavy hand of the mayor, then later writing about the decades of experience that enabled him to safely tick off the summit FKT.

As the Numbers Grow, It’s Only Getting Worse

“You’ve got a few people who will see Kilian running up Mont Blanc, and they want to be like him,” says Comte, “but they don’t know the mountains well enough. Kilian has years and years of experience. He knows when to turn around.  He’s got the background of a mountain climber that many other folks don’t have, and they can die. Running up Mont Blanc in sneakers will always be extreme and limited to the people who are capable of going that far, that fast.”

Gerardi learned the risks first-hand. On a visit to Chamonix in the winter of 2012, a misadjusted ski binding caused her to tumble 450 meters down the steep Couloir de Capucin, and land in a crevasse. Remarkably, she was mostly unscathed. The tumble had another fortuitous outcome, too.

“I told myself, I’m going to try something safer, like trail running,” she says. “You need to come with modest ambitions and humility, if you want to stay safe here. Get to know the place. In Chamonix, it’s so easy for your eyes to be bigger than your stomach. Start with modest goals and you won’t get disappointed.”

Signs of Stress from the “Collantes-Pipette” Inundation

For each seasons’ few fatalities and injuries, however, well over 100,000 trail runners spread out on Chamonix’s trails each season, going home only with aching quads and new Facebook cover photos.

While alpinists and extreme skiers will always ply the streets of Chamonix, the town’s transition to trail running seems to be a fait accompli.

“When you walked through town 20 years ago, you would cross paths with mountaineers in big shoes, wearing a harness and all their gear,” says valley resident Philip Plantié, 55, a 10-time finisher of the UTMB, and a member of Chamonix’s CMBM trail-running club for 13 years. “Now everyone is dressed like a trail runner with their vests and hydration tubes.”

Plantié is just one of many who have bridged the valley’s transition to trail running. British-born climber and trail runner Nick Yardley, 53, of Williston, Vermont, is another. Yardley first came to the valley as a teenager in 1982, eager to tick off the classic alpine climbs. He’s since visited over 30 times, more recently to take part in UTMB races. Yardley sees what’s been lost.

French trail runner Xavier Thévenard on the move in the Aiguilles Rouges, during last year’s 80K Mont Blanc Marathon race. Thevenard, 29, is the only person to have won all four major UTMB races. Photo by Gaetan Haugeard.

“The runners who come to Chamonix—and I’ve talked to a bunch over the years—have little if any real interest in the mountains that dominate the valley,” he says. “The mountains are just a nice backdrop. There is so much history tied up in those mountains, though. It makes Chamonix what it is. Yet, today’s visiting trail runner really has no interest in that side of Cham.”

The dirtbag days just might be in Chamonix’s rearview mirror.

“The average visitor is much more moneyed now,” says Yardley. “They are great folks participating in a great sport, but there’s a lack of risk involved in trail running and I see far fewer 1,000-mile stares when you share a beer.”

And, of course, there are the crowds.

“Chamonix is just overwhelmed during UTMB,” says Yardley. The valley is showing signs of stress under the sea of Collant-Pipette—translated as “Lycra-wearing-and-hydration-tubed runners”—a slightly derogatory French catchphrase.

During last year’s Mont Blanc Marathon, a two-kilometer-long traffic jam formed at the race’s road crossing at the Col des Montets.

The Mont Blanc Marathon races are at capacity. After receiving 20,000 registrations in two minutes in 2016, the Club instituted a lottery system for all but three races.

This year, even with the addition of a two-team night race, Club des Sports turned away 15,000 runners. Qualifying races, something required to register for UTMB, may be in the offing, says Comte, “With 10,000 runners and 30,000 spectators, we’ve reached saturation.”

Everyone is doing their best to cope. The mayor’s office is advocating for improved public transportation in the valley, and hotel guests can now use the system for free. Les Traileurs are looking for ways to make the UTMB races more sustainable, including reducing the use of resources, adding shuttle transportation and carefully managing runners on fragile sections of trail.

The 116-year-old Gare de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. The valley’s rail system is free for both tourists and residents. Photo by Kim Strom.

“We’re working on providing a better experience. Otherwise, it’ll end up being like a road marathon—grab a cup, toss it and don’t talk with anyone. We don’t want that,” says Club des Sports’ Comte. “We want our races to stay fun. At the end of the day, we live here.  We don’t want to ruin the environment because that’s what we love about life here. We’re hyper-sensitive about it.”

Zombie Apocalypse and the Lanterne Rouge

Bon courage, ami!” “You got this. 100 meters!”

While watching the first UTMB finishers arrive in Chamonix is dramatic, a much more poignant moment exists during the race. It’s the multinational Lycra and Gore-Tex zombie apocalypse that happens 25 hours later, as the back of the pack pushes hard to get in under the 46-½-hour cut off for an official result. Despite rigorous qualification standards, a third of UTMB starters drop each year. Most of the crowds are gone as the zombies leave Avenue Michel Croz, turn a corner past the statue of Michel Paccard that commemorates his first ascent and shuffle past the few dozen tables outside L’Atelier café.

Some mumble quietly in their native tongues. Others act as if their batteries have been replaced, and they find a final burst of voltage before collapsing at the finish. They smell of aging sweat and mud and sometimes blood and piss. One runner turns a corner too early, apparently sleepwalking. She awakes to this error only after running into a metal gate. Another is being carried in by four friends, diagnosis … unclear.

Then it happens. A crescendo of cheering slowly builds. The final official finisher appears.

At UMTB, he or she is called the “Lanterne Rouge,” a nod to the red light that adorned cabooses in years past.

The awards ceremony is timed for this moment. The sea of onlookers part and a path forms. The lantern rouge hobbles on stage with the winners, most of whom have finished a day ago.  It’s a coda on one of the world’s toughest ultras.

And, just like that, it’s over.

The crowds disperse, some hobbling badly. Tomorrow, 30,000 people will leave the valley. Just as certainly, before the sun crests the spires of the Mont Blanc massif, runners will be moving through the streets, headed for the mountains. In Chamonix, the trail running never stops.

Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, and manages the trail-running tour company, Run the Alps. This August 27th, he’ll be cheering on René Bachelard during his MCC trail race.

The Ultra-Mayor
Even Chamonix’s popular Mayor, Eric Fournier, is a trail runner—and he’s no lightweight, either. Fournier has ticked off the 53K OCC and 100K CCC race twice. Read about Fournier’s childhood spent exploring on the side of Mont Blanc at trailrunnermag.com.

—This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.

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