The town at the base of Europe’s high point, 15,771-foot tall Mont Blanc, has long been the world’s epicenter for extreme mountain sports. Now, though, trail running is taking its place alongside climbing, backcountry skiing, parapenting and BASE jumping. Behind trail running’s rise to prominence are two of the world’s most famous trail race series, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Marathon. There’s also a local trail-running club, now in its 30th year, and the professional Club des Sports that provides critical infrastructure.
And there’s Chamonix Mayor, Eric Fournier. Chamonix’s charismatic mayor is a strong ultra-trail runner.
In 2009 and again in 2011 he ran the 100-kilometer long CCC, the “little sister” of the UTMB, which runs from Courmayeur, Italy to Chamonix. He ran the OCC, which starts in Orsières Switzerland and ends in Chamonix, in 2014 and 2015. He’s ticked off a variety of other trail races in the Alps, too, and has plans to run the notoriously rugged and wild 120-kilometer long TDS in the coming years.
Fournier, 52, is the embodiment of the town he oversees—stylish and trim, exuding energy, even in middle age. Born in Chamonix, he grew up in the upper valley ski village of Le Tour, within sight of ridges that mark France’s border with Switzerland. His father, a high mountain guide, died in an accident when Fournier was just 12 years old. He’s been Mayor since 2008, and was re-elected for a second six-year term in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote. We spoke with Fournier at his office, whose balcony overlooks Place du triangle de l’amité, the iconic start and finish for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
How did you start trail running?
As a family, we’d go high up into the Mont Blanc range, looking for crystals. We’d run out onto glaciers, and over easy rock scrambles. If we didn’t find what we were looking for, we’d just keep running. The rhythm turned out to be similar to what one does today trail running.
Trail running takes place in safer areas than we traveled, but the physical effort is similar. I was used to long days running in the mountains, going up and down with a lot of weight to carry. It very much complimented what I had been doing for a long time.
The first time I ran CCC was 2009. I had only practiced trail running for 45 minutes!
That’s not typical training. How’d it go?
I ran the 100k easily!
You’ve been in these mountains your whole life—how is it different to be running them versus hiking them?
Yes. For me, it has opened up a new world. I love the atmosphere, the feeling of running at night, the friendship and peacefulness that come with it all. The strong link to my past in the mountains means a lot to me, too.
Why do you think Chamonix has become so popular with trail runners?
There are several reasons. First, the range of possibilities is extraordinary. I have a pretty good knowledge of the area, but I still find new trails I haven’t run! There are so many paths, different levels, different kinds of trails crossing one another and making loops. As runners, we always have new trails to discover.
Second, it’s an activity that goes along with the identity of Chamonix. It’s totally compatible with our valley, its history and there is a lot of open space. Trail running is in sync with nature, and it matches the town’s image.
Chamonix is ambitious. It’s our goal to really become the world capital of trail running.
The races are big business. The June Marathon du Mont-Blanc and UTMB race series bring something like 50,000 trail runners, friends and family to the Chamonix valley. Do you worry about impact?
It’s a good question. Welcoming people to the valley is part of Chamonix’s DNA. Our job is to improve the conditions. We’ve spent a lot of money on public transportation.
We know how to handle the 7,000 trail runners coming for UTMB. We have a lot of tourist infrastructure. When it comes to those big events at the end of June and August, I think we have reached maturity and that we shouldn’t try to make them bigger. The number and diversity of races is enough. We have also reached technical and organizational maturity. We’ve developed real expertise with regards to managing the trails and the safety of participants.
I think we can take advantage of our experience with these events to rethink the future of tourism and to create innovative ways of welcoming and handling tourists throughout the year.
How do you manage the impact?
Here’s one example. I’m Vice-President of “Espace Mont Blanc,” an organization of cross-border cooperation that includes areas in Italy and Switzerland. It works in the same region covered by the UTMB. One thing we’ve done is to work on improving the trails of “Col du Bonhomme” where the route hasn’t been clear. We select backup trails in case of bad weather, and develop strategies for how to preserve the trails for the long run. There’s a real partnership between the actors of trail running here—the Club des Sports, UTMB, the managers of natural parks and the town.
We shouldn’t see trail running as a harmful activity. We need to find the right solutions to reduce impacts. I wouldn’t say the same thing if we were talking about having ATVs in town. That doesn’t have a place here. Trail running is an activity that fits. It’s our job to find the right ways of supporting it. That’s our responsibility.
What does the future hold?
I think we still have possibilities waiting to be explored, such as expanding trail running year-round. It makes me very happy to see that trail runners come to Chamonix all year long and not just for major events.
We need to work on the way we welcome people here in the valley, and develop skills and equipment. We already work with hotels and other hosts, like trail running professionals. For instance, the Tourist bureau has created specific packages for trail runners, including flight, hotel and a trail running guide. That’s been good. We want to be attentive to the specific needs of trail runners and make it easy for them to stay in Chamonix.
What’s next for your trail-running plans?
I really want to run TDS next year. It’s so beautiful—maybe the most beautiful trail race, in my opinion.
How has the growth of trail running changed Chamonix?
It’s opened a new way to appreciate the mountains that is relatively easy and fun. A few years ago, your only choice was to wear those big shoes and lift a heavy backpack. Trail running is light and quick
Trail running is also a very creative sport. Trail runners are always pushing themselves to find new ideas, new trails, new ways of doing things.
Personally, I like to see the happiness created by trail running, surrounded by the landscape we have here. It’s very satisfying.
—Doug Mayer lives in Randolph, New Hampshire, and leads the trail-running tour company Run the Alps.