The Spirit of UTMB

An insider’s look at what makes The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc so special.

By on August 30, 2013 | Comments

“Traversing the ridges in the wee hours of the morning and listening to the cowbells in the distance provided the opportunity to gather inspiration from within, to dig deep, to push through the sleepiness that ensues with darkness, and to find motivation in the simple process of putting one foot in front of another.” –Krissy Moehl in Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons >by Bryon Powell

It’s the morning of August 30 in Chamonix. The runners in each of La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS), and Courmayeur Champex Chamonix (CCC) have all departed on their respective endeavours. So the town is a little quieter than it has been for the previous five days.

Ultra-Trail du Mont-BlancNow just The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’s (UTMB) runners and racers remain, waiting for their 16:30 start time. Many will be trying to rest and conserve their energy for the challenge that lies ahead. Others will still be prowling the town’s streets, unable to suppress their nervous energy. All, of whatever ability and however well prepared, will feel some trepidation about the 168k journey with 9,600 metres of vertical that awaits them. We now know from Run or Die that even Kilian Jornet, who makes each mighty effort look so utterly straightforward, is riven with the same concerns and problems as the rest of us; but we also know that he is particularly well suited and prepared to respond to and overcome those challenges.

In each of the years 2010, 2011, and 2012, I have journeyed to Chamonix to participate in the amazing festival of ultrarunning that has taken place the final weekend in August these last 10 years[1]; twice for the CCC and last year for UTMB. I plan to return and run the TDS at some point, and hope to get an entry with two good friends for the PTL in 2014. This year I will see the races from a different perspective, helping Meghan and Bryon cover UTMB for iRunFar.

I love Chamonix. For me, it is the greatest mountain town on the planet. Zermatt doesn’t even run it close. The people who live here adore mountains and their own mountains in particular. So many people are actively involved in all aspects of mountain endeavour that, even with the ludicrous number of visitors, the beating heart of the town is always sensed, pulsating just below the surface. I have visited many times these last 20 years or so and approaching by road, my heart rate starts to accelerate as I approach Saint-Gervais and know that my first peek at Mont Blanc is just minutes away. Geoff Roes wrote in his ‘race’ report back in 2010:

“I don’t know that I would ever want to live in this town but it is certainly a really special place. I used to think that we had some towns in the U.S. where people are really into outdoor recreation (Boulder, Moab, Bend, all the Colorado mountain towns, etc), but Chamonix makes all of these places seem like they’re filled with a bunch of couch-riding, overweight Americans.”

Monsieur le parapente, Le Mont Blanc behind

Monsieur le parapente, Mont Blanc behind. All photos by/courtesy of Morgan Williams unless noted.

For the week before UTMB, the town is even more lively than usual as more than 5,000 trail runners gather in the town and close by. The bulk of these people come for the TDS, the CCC, and the UTMB. Around 90 teams of two or three take part in the PTL, a bewitching behemoth of an event involving around 300k with 24,000 metres of vertical, at least six days in the mountains for most. But 2,300 of those people are gathering for UTMB.

The atmosphere in the build-up to the races is something to behold. Adam Campbell caught the fevered mood well in writing about his second place finish at CCC in 2011 [broken link removed]:

“It is not a pristine mountain experience, but rather, it’s a spectacle of the sport of mountain ultra running. I happen to like this aspect of the race. For a sport that is often niche and very grassroots and an activity that I spent a vast majority of my time doing alone, almost everything about the race is an over-the top, at times kitschy, experience; a true celebratory event.

“All week long, the town of Chamonix is abuzz with runners nervously and anxiously waiting around, strolling the cobblestone-ed streets, their necks kinked up at the peaks and glaciers that loom over town, eating carb heavy foods, whispering rumours about the weather and course changes, debating who will win, wondering whether they have done enough training and if their bodies and minds are up to the task, comparing gear choices and buying the latest and lightest gear options available at every shop in town. As all the best mountain ultra runners from across 62 countries descended upon Chamonix for that last week in August, it became the hub of world mountain ultra running.

“Once the races kick off on Monday, the town is awash in the cacophony of the crackly voice of the race announcer and overly dramatic canned music blaring over the main square and a nervous energy permeates the crowds. The streets are lined with sponsor laden barricades, and big screen TVs, spread across town, play moments of the race on repeat, or show live splits of races underway, as crowds gather around, mesmerised by the self-induced suffering that is happening on the trails and peaks around them.”

This maybe not an atmosphere that would appeal to seasoned Hardrockers, but it is something well worth experiencing.

2011 UTMB start at 11 p.m.

2011 UTMB start at 11 p.m. Photo: Maindru Photos

What is it that makes this race so special, and that attracts such a wide following from all parts of the world?

Mont Blanc is Western Europe’s highest mountain, rising to 4,808 metres, so a race that encircles such an iconic mountain[2] was bound to excite the imagination of trail runners. A circular route has elegant simplicity to it, as does the regular crossing of high cols to move from one valley to another. And the route passes through France, into Italy, through Switzerland, and finishes back in France. It really feels like a journey. ‘Pilgrimage’ is perhaps too strong a word but certainly there is an historic and spiritual dimension to the race route that appeals to many who wish to take part.

The scenery is fabulous, and at times enough to make you stand and gawp. Some would say that the first 30k or so through to Notre Dame de la Gorge is a touch pedestrian, and I wouldn’t disagree. But for many, much of this section is done in the dark and thereafter, the succession of wonderful scenic treats just keeps on coming. The Col du Bonhomme and Refuge de la Croix de Bonhomme, the Col de la Seigne, Grand Col du Ferret, Bovine, Le Catogne, La Tête aux Vents; names replete with mountain history, ancient routes for local people to pass from one valley to another. With the earlier start time this year, the first dawn will likely catch the fast ones around Grand Col du Ferret and the slower runners around Col de la Seigne.

View south from Col de Croix de Bonhomme

View south from Col du Bonhomme.

My favourite part of the course is the gentle, descending section from Arête du Mont Favre to Col Chécrouit above Courmayeur. This traverse trail sits high above the Val Veny, the ground drops away left, steeply into the valley and the view across the valley is dominated by the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc. Most striking of all is the needle-like spire of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, the image of which has been burned into my mind as the most iconic on the course. The inspiration provided by such breathtaking natural beauty has inspired many runners to press on in the face of significant difficulty.

Aiguille Noire from near Elisabetta

Aiguille Noire from near Elisabetta.

And despite the relatively gentle start and the lower-level section from La Fouly to Champex-Lac, there are huge climbs and descents that will chew you up and spit you out without compunction.

The race retains an egalitarian feel that, coming from the British, amateur, fell-racing tradition, strongly appeals to me. Whilst there are trophies for the leading finishers, there are no cash prizes and every finisher is awarded the same prized race-specific finishers gilet. Yes, there are qualifying races, but the lottery is just that (no overt rules giving preference to multiple or prior-year finishers), and the latest lottery gives an enhanced chance of success for the two years following a negative-lottery result.

The no-pacers rule is another feature that appeals to people like me for whom such restrictions are commonplace; indeed for most European runners and racers, the concept of semi-autonomy in the mountains is the only way we know to race.

Only three times in the first 10 years did UTMB runners run the advertised course, because of  the weather. To some this is a negative. But to me, whilst I can’t quite regard it as a plus, it certainly isn’t a negative. One of the reasons I take part in events in the mountains over such long distances is to bring some uncertainty into my running life. I want there to be some doubt about the outcome when I toe the line. I want to test my adaptability and my flexibility to respond to the challenges that running 70 or 100 miles brings. And if I get a few curve balls from the weather or the course on the way ’round, so be it. It all adds to the challenge.

Ultra volunteers are almost without exception amazing people. I don’t believe that UTMB stands head and shoulders above any other great trail ultra in this regard, but a few features do stand out. The support and encouragement of the volunteers is exemplary and as good as any I’ve experienced. The volunteers do the same jobs year after year and it is great to see the familiar faces in the same locations, and be recognised on your journey around the mountain. Best of all, they appear well-briefed and ready to perform their allocated duties. In the 2012 UTMB, after a grim night of running in snow, hail, thick fog, and rain, over trails which were entirely new to me (because of the re-routed course), I arrived at the Bellevue checkpoint not long after dawn, after another big, muddy climb. Being British, I was still in shorts when all round me were muffled up against the weather and cold. On arrival at Bellevue, I was anxious to press on, not least because the aid station at Les Houches was but three miles and 3,000 feet below. I was taken gently by the shoulders by a lady volunteer who quizzed me on a number of things with me replying in a mixture of English and French in response to her questions in both languages. It was only later that I realized that I had been ‘checked’ as a result of arriving pretty much half naked after a foul night, and then allowed to proceed when it was clear all was well. I often wonder if Gary Knipling got the same treatment when he passed through a while later; he was the only other person I saw proceeding into that foul night in shorts!

Tête Aux Vents with Mer de Glace and Dent du Géant behind

Tête Aux Vents with Mer de Glace and Dent du Géant behind.

Speaking as someone who has run two CCCs and one UTMB, the very best feature of these races is the support runners receive around the course. Geoff Roes again, from his 2010 UTMB report:

Mike Wolfe and I ran through St. Gervais together (about 12 miles into the race). You wind through town for almost a mile and the entire way there are people lined up shoulder to shoulder cheering, jumping up and down, and overflowing with excitement about the race. It’s unbelievable. Small children. 80 year old folks. And everyone in between. If you have run through St. Gervais in the UTMB you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t I really don’t know that any words can explain it.”

Geoff has it right. He again wrote:

“…but what was even more amazing to me were all the people out in the more remote areas of the course. This is a very social event in the small villages here. There are stretches where you run through neighbourhoods and almost every home has people sitting on the front steps or up in the balconies and they are all cheering with genuine enthusiasm. In the U.S. it seems like many people would be annoyed by the clamour and disruption of having 2,300 runners race past their front door. Here though it seems like these people have such a deep and genuine respect/regard for all the racers. I kept thinking about how I wished I had the time to stop and make sure each of them knew how deep and genuine respect and regard I had for them.”

And Geoff only ran 20 miles of a 100-mile race!

I know exactly how Geoff feels. It is the same every year. After my 19-hour run at CCC in 2011 in vile weather (something of an achievement for me) I wrote in a race report for the Ilkley Harriers AC website:

“As always, the local people really made the races, cheering us on in all sorts of obvious but also bizarre places at often odd times of the day and night. My abiding memory is of the 4 or 5 families who came out of their homes in the dark night and pouring rain on the climb to Col de la Forclaz to feed and water the runners. This climb was one of the revised sections so they had little notice of our passing. Their simple kindness and understanding of what is taking place in and around their towns and villages is moving and inspiring. I can’t wait to return.”

The re-routed climb from the outskirts of Martigny to Col de la Forclaz was the climb that did it in for Nick Clark in the 2011 UTMB. (I’ve met Nick and helped organise his mid-winter attempt on the Bob Graham Round in the English Lake District so am aware of his character and toughness; so no disrespect is intended in that comment at all.) I can add a little more to that story now. Outside one house, I came across a small table sheltered by a large sun umbrella. It was very dark and raining heavily, the start of a huge alpine thunderstorm. On the table were some plastic glasses, a jug of water, and sliced fruit. Next to the table was a little elderly lady, who by all rights should have been fast asleep. Like others, she had heard about the change of course and resolved to do what she could to help the runners. I took a drink and some fruit. After I had finished drinking, she looked me straight in the eye and spoke to me softly, “Courage, monsieur, courage.” Her kindness and those words were with me for the rest of my race and provided the strongest infusion of determination to make it to Chamonix. Those words, and her look, are still with me today. Jennifer Pharr Davis and other long-distance hikers in the U.S. describe unexpected gifts on the trail as ‘trail magic;’ I’ve experienced plenty of trail magic at the UTMB races.

The communities through which this race travels are full of people who have run in these races, and who will be running in any year. The locals have a deep understanding of what is involved in completing these races and how much time and energy has been committed to preparation. They almost certainly have family members who have run or are running. They are genuinely willing each and every runner to make it to their chosen finish line. It is a truly supportive environment in which to run and race.

Chamonix, as the start and finish of the UTMB and the PTL and the finish of the TDS and the CCC, remains a touch manic throughout race time. In my first run at CCC, I was halted by the organisation at Vallorcine after 80-plus kilometers because of the shocking weather. In 2011, I finished around 5:15 a.m. and there were plenty of people lining the streets in Chamonix. Last year I finished in the middle of the afternoon and the centre of the town was packed. Like every runner, I received a fantastic welcome from the assembled throng. Yes, I know that’s my ego satisfied, but it is a great feeling for a mid-packer to receive such a welcome.

Morgan Williams - 2012 TNF UTMB - Finishing

The author finishing the 2012 TNF UTMB.

Having watched all the various races finish over my three years at the events, I know that the biggest welcomes are reserved for those who have been out on course for the longest time. The time limit for UTMB is 46 hours, so those who arrive between 12 noon and 14:30 on Sunday will receive the biggest ovations this side of the winners. And if a PTL team should finish around that time, the welcome will be truly deafening.

La Rousse

La Rousse

These races are all about emotion; from the competitors (UTMB is the only race where I have come across people in tears just before starting to run), from their immediate families and supporters, from the volunteers, but most of all from the thousands who come out to support the runners in all these races in their effort to complete their own personal challenges. William James wrote, “beyond the extreme of fear, fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never knew we owned; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” UTMB and its sister races have provided the environment for many people to push through their own obstructions and realise their goals, to complete the process of self-examination and self-discovery that lie at the heart of why so many of us choose to run so many miles in the mountains.

“It’s not about money. It’s not even about suffering or redemption. It’s about discovery. It’s about finding one’s path. It’s about using experience in life to shape something completely different. That’s the art of living.” –Scott Jurek in Why We Run by Robin Harvie

I cannot leave the subject of UTMB without paying my own small tribute to AJW’s Taproom. The village of Les Houches houses the Brasserie du Mont Blanc which produces a range of fantastic beers with water drawn from high on the slopes of Mont Blanc. The three classics are La Blanche, a weissbeer, La Blonde, which speaks for itself and my own favourite La Rousse, an amber-coloured beer, deeply complex and coming in at a hefty 6.5%. And you can find it in 660ml bottles. Santé!

[1] A book and DVD recording the first 10 years of the race is available from the race organisation.
[2] For a history of climbing Mont Blanc and other major achievements in the range, see Savage Snows: The Story of Mont Blanc by Walt Unsworth, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1986 (if you can locate a copy!).

Morgan Williams
Morgan Williams is a fell and mountain runner who lives in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in England. He is a member of Ambleside AC and member number 371 of the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club, where he acted as Secretary for 13 years. His first fell race was the 1984 Langdale Horseshoe and since then he has run anything from the Wasdale Show Fell Race (2.4 miles, 2,300 feet of ascent) to UTMB. He is a former Secretary of The Fell Runners Association, which manages the sport of fell running in England and served for a decade as a trustee of the John Taylor Foundation for Young Athletes, a grant-giving charity. These days he runs when the fancy takes him.