‘Grand Trail’ Excerpt: UTMB

[Editor’s Note: Grand Trail: A Magnificent Journey into the Heart of Ultrarunning and Racing is a coffee-table book that looks into the core of our sport via photos and words. Frederic and Alexis Berg intimately and beautifully portray the races, people, emotions, and landscapes of trail and ultrarunning. In celebration of this week’s UTMB, the 15th edition of the event, we are republishing Grand Trail’s UTMB chapter. The following excerpt is republished with permission of VeloPress from Grand Trail by Frederic and Alexis Berg. See more at velopress.com/grandtrail. Enjoy!]

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Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’


Course: around Mont Blanc, Chamonix
First edition: 2003
Distance: 106 miles
Elevation gain: +32,808 feet
Date: last weekend in August
2015: won by Xavier Thévenard (France) and Nathalie Mauclair (France)

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Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

Going a full circle round Europe’s highest peak, passing through three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland) and taking in about 10 passes, including four at altitudes of over 8,200 feet. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is the world’s most famous long-distance footrace and the one that draws the most entrants—and an ultra that more than deserves every superlative. Each year brings a starting lineup of 2,300 competitors to Chamonix, famous as the global capital of trail running. If this race has become such a legend, it is also because of the unavoidable element of chance in the mountains, which can shatter your dreams and involves a legendary degree of risk. Mont Blanc lends the UTMB an awesome and unique backdrop, but it is also the determining factor that lays down its iron law. Several editions have been disrupted by the unforeseeable force that can deliver snowfall after a hot summer’s day, send lightning zigzagging across the sky after 10 consecutive cloudless days, or turn serene mountain pastureland into a deadly trap. Steered by Catherine and Michel Poletti, the UTMB, first run in 2003, is held every year on the last weekend in August. The pioneers, including the Polettis themselves, wanted to cause a stir in the area to extend the summer tourist season, which generally ended on August 15. No one had any idea that, in no time at all, Chamonix would be seeing tens of thousands of people flocking to the UTMB, which now includes four races in addition to the ultra.

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Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

The course

The start is given late in the afternoon, in front of the church right in the center of Chamonix, where the 2,300 runners gather together, like so many anxious multicolored dots. In an indescribable state of turmoil, the procession sets off on the grand tour in a counterclockwise direction. Night falls as they reach the first difficult sections, the Col du Bonhomme; dawn heralds the Col de la Seigne, Italy, and the extraordinary sight of the glaciers trickling down Mont Blanc. After Courmayeur, marking the halfway point, the Grand Col Ferret is the last pass, a shade under 8,200 feet of altitude. The final 25 miles are like a waking dream, experiencing the finishing line at Chamonix, where every finisher receives a rousing welcome, be it day or night.

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A fun moment at 6,500 feet. Despite tiredness and niggling injuries, there is always a stream to cross, roots to step over, a rock to climb, some fresh challenge to moving forward. Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

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A backward glance toward the valley. Already 62 miles covered. Is the Franco-American Joe Grant looking at the way he has already come in order to find the strength to make it to the finish? Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

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Two runners on the horizon, looming up in the blue dawn sky radiating over the eternal snows. As the start is given late in the day, 2,300 tiny lights twinkle all night long. Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

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The copper skin of the mountains, the enchanted sky, the skyline of peaks and trails. The incredible beauty of this circumnavigation of Mont Blanc is anything but foreign to its worldwide success. Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’

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Photo: Alexis Berg from ‘Grand Trail’