Imagine a parallel universe with trail running at its center. A spiderweb of singletrack extends in every direction from downtown. A color-coordinated running getup with hydration vest passes for business casual. Kudos are dispensed not on Strava, but liberally and loudly in person.
Even the rough, cobblestone streets seem designed to help you hone your footwork. You’re a trail runner. Your neighbors are trail runners. The mayor is a trail runner.
This off-road utopia exists, and it’s Chamonix, France, during UTMB Week.
“It is heaven,” says Charley Radcliffe, a Chamonix local. “I mean, Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Massif is a Mecca for running. If you want a quick hit, go get on the VK. If you want to run an iconic trail, why not test yourself on the 23K or 42K Marathon du Mont Blanc courses?”
“Chamonix has a rich history,” says David Laney, 30, of Washington, a three-time UTMB runner who has placed 3rd and 4th . “You can read about it, watch videos or buy French cheese, but UTMB should really be experienced.”
This year, from August 26 through September 1, over 40,000 runners, crew and spectators experienced UTMB during the week-long festival known as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. There are six UTMB races, ranging from 40K to 300K. Each race hosts upwards of 2,000 runners and winds through the Chamonix valley around the Mont Blanc massif, hitting France, Italy and Switzerland.
Chamonix is a small French town whose vertiginous surroundings attract all sorts of mountain athletes and tourists. At 3,400 feet, the petit ville sits at the toe of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the European Alps, at 15,781 feet. The town has long been a hotspot for mountaineering and mountain culture since Cham locals Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat first scaled Mont Blanc in 1786. In recent years, it has since become a testing ground for trail runners. Take Kilian Jornet’s blistering roundtrip run of Mont Blanc in just under five hours in 2013!
“UTMB week in Chamonix is totally crazy,” says Katie Schide, 27, who placed sixth at this year’s UTMB, in her 100-mile debut. Schide is an American runner who lives in Switzerland and France, making inroads in the sometimes-difficult-to-infiltrate European trail scene. “There are people in running vests and trail-running shoes everywhere, speaking tons of different languages, but all excited about the same thing.”
This hyperbolic celebration of mountain endurance is thanks to the entrepreneurial and omnipresent UTMB® and UTMB® International. UTMB and UTMB International are run by Catherine and Michel Poletti, who also serve as the UTMB’s race directors. In an interview with Trail Runner contributor and Chamonix resident Doug Mayer, Michel laid out UTMB’s future.
“Our goal is to have several races on each continent that will be called ‘Something by UTMB.’ Maybe three or four in China, one in Japan and one in Korea. It will be a pyramid to UTMB China, and it will all lead here to Chamonix.” Just hours before the UTMB’s start gun went off, a new UTMB event was announced in Spain.
The UTMB® has grown into an international race organization that hosts competitions on practically every corner of the globe with a semblance of a runnable trail. UTMB entries have increased almost 70 percent in the past three years. This year, 26,000 runners vied for 10,000 spots on the start line of UTMB festival races.
This spring, UTMB announced a new, two-track system for runners to qualify for its lottery. Racers can qualify through the good old-fashioned lottery, where they collect enough points through just two qualifying races. 100-mile races usually provide five points, whereas a tough 50K might provide three. Runners need 10 points to qualify for UTMB, but only four to run the 50K OCC.
Looking to rack up the 10 points required to enter the UTMB lottery in one fell swoop? Simply run one of the UTMB-branded races and you’re in. Perhaps the desert sands and ancient ruins in Oman by UTMB® will tickle your fancy. Get a taste of the Orient on foot in Gaoligong by UTMB®. Or, even Argentina’s Ushuaia by UTMB®. It feels like every continent will soon be colonized by trekking-pole-wielding spandex-clad conquistadors.
The United States represents an obvious hole in the UTMB map. A patchwork of land-use policies and permitting procedures typically prevent races from allowing more than a few hundred runners, making it hard to hold a UTMB-style event. Events can still apply to be qualifying UTMB events through ITRA, or the International Trail Running Association. ITRA functions similarly to the Boston Athletic Association, which selects the races that qualify runners for the Boston Marathon. Many races have refused to participate, and have spoken out against ITRA’s pay-to-play system, where events foot the bill (a minimum of 100 euros) to get certified so that their runners can collect points.
Conquest of Paradise
UTMB’s flair for drama is typified by the tendency to blast its operatic theme song at every start line and finish line and at seemingly random intervals in between. Conquest of Paradise (the real name!) has been repurposed from its original role as the titular song in Ridley Scott’s film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise (again, real name!), a dramatized version of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world starring Gérard Depardieu. The lyrics, which are Pseudo-Latin nonsense, roughly translate to: “In the night afoot, in the night found many mines thereabouts. For them they dominated.” If that leaves a sour, somewhat colonialist taste in your mouth, it might cheer you to know the UTMB’s theme song has also been championed by the Portuguese Socialist Party as its rallying anthem.
The atmosphere is aggressively festive and thoroughly branded. A rainbow of sponsored pennants hovers above downtown Chamonix, and some trail elites are covered in such a corporate kaleidoscope of logos that they look more like NASCAR athletes. You may see the robin’s-egg blue of a COLUMBIA (the event’s title sponsor) banner draped across a remote Swiss chalet. “The passion and commitment of the Polettis and the UTMB community is contagious,” says Joe Boyle, Columbia brand president, “and we are proud to be associated with such a special event.” Notably, a whopping 80 of Columbia’s diverse international team ran UTMB’s various races this year.
Runners accustomed to the hardscrabble American trail scene might balk at the sheer size and festival atmosphere at UTMB. There are fewer land-use regulations, which make for larger races. The start of the UTMB looks like a compression-wear conga line that stretches the length of Mont Blanc’s shadow. The vibe is like an athletic event and more like Carnevale for endurance athletes, where debauchery is traded for carbo loading, adequate rest and more group runs than you can shake a fresh baguette at. There’s also some debauchery. There’s a noticeable difference in the sartorial choices of American and European runners.
“In Europe, people are more likely to be wearing nicer, running-specific clothing, and often a full outfit that matches in some way,” says Schide. “In the U.S., it’s more of a free-for-all of tie-dye, ‘well-loved’ clothing.” At her first European race, Schide noticed the matching ensembles of her European counterparts and assumed they were professional runners. She trotted to the back of the corral, only to spend the first several miles of the race trying to pass her compression-clad competitors. “Turns out looking good does not directly translate to speed.”
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc starts in Chamonix and circumnavigates the entirety of Mont Blanc. The 106-mile course takes many runners, which the UTMB organization adorably mistranslates as “trailers” (another unfortunate mistranslation referred to the top three female runners as “wives”), the full 46.5 allowed hours to complete.
“At the core, trail running attracts the same community of people across the world,” says Schide. “It’s people who love being outside and exploring in the most simple way.”
The course winds around Mont Blanc’s base, through France, Italy and Switzerland. The trail is dotted with tiny alpine villages that double as rustic aid stations. It feels like running through the background of The Sound of Music, but with way, way more cowbell. On one run, I saw a man playing an alphorn, a long, wooden instrument most often seen in Ricola commercials.
“When we entered Saint Gervais, I thought I would go deaf from all of the cheering,” says Schide. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced during a race.”
UTMB superfans could tune into the race’s live coverage—in five languages—of all six races. For the bigger events, like TDS, CCC and UTMB, e-bikes and runners equipped with GoPros follow the leaders of the race. I can barely watch any sporting event, not even the Superbowl, not even for the commercials. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the shaky, Blair Witch-style filming at UTMB. What does Xavier Thévenard eat? How does Hillary Allen assemble her poles so fast?
Footage of ultra heroes eating, drinking and mostly running were projected on a jumbotron in Chamonix’s main square for cheering crowds. It was like being in Chicago for the 2016 World Series, but everyone is a Cubs fan. “Look at how quick he got through that aid station!” said the announcer. The crowd applauded with admiration.
Runners trickle over the finish line throughout the week. Sponsored professionals sprint to the finish alongside runners just ahead of cutoffs. The races are staggered throughout the week, so that TDS stragglers finish in tandem with CCC winners. Despite the manufactured gravitas and corporate cheer, it’s impossible not to get sucked into the finish-line emotions. People of every age, from every country (actually, 100 countries) demonstrate the same rush of feeling as they complete their run under the UTMB’s giant blue arch.
Spaniard Pau Capell won UTMB this year in 20 hours 19 minutes 7 seconds. That’s averaging 11-and-a-half-minute miles over 31,000 feet of vertical gain. Capell was followed by French fan favorite and three-time UTMB winner Xavier Thévenard and Kiwi Scotty Hawker.
The women were led by Courtney Dauwalter, who completed the course in 24 hours 34 minutes 26 seconds, earning her 21st position overall. She was followed by Swede Kristin Berglund and Spanish Skyrunner Maite Maiora.
If You’re Not First, You’re First
The race organization knows how to play to your emotions. The UTMB race’s podium awards ceremony is timed to coincide with the arrival of the final runner. This year’s final finisher was a Frenchman. A crowd of several hundred spectators erupted with earnest, proud applause as Guillaume Keller raised his fists above his head in triumph, as winner Capell looked on and clapped. He finished in 46-and-a-half hours, a full day after the race’s victor.
The runners’ emotions are sincere, and familiar to anyone who has tried really, really, really hard at something. It’s not an “everyone gets a trophy” thing, more of an “Oh, My God, I Can’t Believe I Just Ran Around That Giant Mountain” thing.
I teared up instinctively when Scotty Hawker crossed the finish line with his three-year-old daughter, Sienna. I teared up again when Courtney Dauwalter ran through the streets of Chamonix as the first female finisher, opera music swelling in the background. I cried again and again as runners embraced family, spouses and total strangers under the blue UTMB arch. No one finished without applause and the offer of a hug from the UTMB volunteers.
Many don’t so much run as shuffle, tears of relief, excitement, pride and exhaustion streaming from their eyes. Limp arms drag trekking poles at their sides.
“I loved taking part in this festival of running,” says Dauwalter, the 34-year old American ultrarunning phenom who surprised no one by snagging the top women’s podium. “Everyone there was so excited about trail running and that was infectious.”
“The first time I was in Chamonix during UTMB week in 2016, I definitely had this feeling of realizing I wasn’t alone in the world,” says Schide. “There are so many other people who share the same passion. That’s what makes this event so special—it brings together a community that is otherwise off running around in the mountains by themselves.”
It’s like the Superbowl of Ultrarunning, if the Superbowl allowed you and your buddies in your fantasy league to compete alongside Tom Brady. Of course an event that’s meant to celebrate a niche sport feels a bit like the Island of Misfit (but also very fit) Toys. It’s an awkward celebration for a community that struggles to celebrate itself; one Chamonix local described it to me as a “coming-out party” for trail runners, saying she finally wasn’t embarrassed to wear her hydration vest to the cafe. It’s a gathering of people who aren’t much for gatherings, a homecoming for people who aren’t attached to a home.
“Seeing people wander around town having just run 100 miles around the Alps is pretty special,” says Laney. As “trailers” hobble around Chamonix in the days after UTMB, they exude the knowing, confident aura of someone who has run to Nirvana, only to return to our earthly realm for the finisher’s jacket and a croissant.
Eager to stretch my legs, I went for a morning run around Chamonix during UTMB week. As I jogged into downtown, people stood up at their cafe tables to applaud me, thinking I might have just finished one of the races. Unable (or unwilling) to reject the encouragement, I smiled and waved shyly.
The UTMB is the World’s Fair of self belief. For a week, you live in a city half populated by people who dream big, and people who will do anything to support you. Perhaps it’s that belief, that anyone, any runner could be, and is great, is what makes UTMB so alluring. Every performance gets a personal podium of sorts. At the very least, you get a nice fleece vest.
All images courtesy of UTMB.
Zoë Rom is the Assistant Editor of Trail Runner.