The soaring notes of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis fill the air. Tightly packed spectators, squeezed on to the narrow streets, crane for a better view.
At the start line, athletes shuffle from foot to foot. Lean and muscled, they run hands over their kit, a final, subconscious check before the hard miles ahead. The atmosphere crackles with anticipation.
Behind the buildings, on either side of the valley, steep, forested mountains race upwards at unforgiving angles. At the top, razor sharp Alpine ridges strike out in all directions. The hulking mass of Mont Blanc’s Bossons glacier hangs just past the tree line, a tangle of rock and ice.
“Trente secondes,” the countdown begins. Race favourite François D’Haene from France, tall and composed, starts his watch. Jim Walmsley, the hotly tipped American, looks around one last time. Then they are off. The crowd erupts in frenzied support and 2,300 runners pour through the centre of Chamonix and out towards the Italian border.
If mountain sports have a spiritual home anywhere in the world, it is in Chamonix. Its dramatic peaks and glaciers began attracting international tourists in the 18th century, the Compagnie des Guides was created in 1821, it hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and in 1955 inaugurated what was then the world’s highest cable car. Today, its streets are lined with flagship stores for the most fashionable adventure brands. Skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, hiking, paragliding — the valley is an adventurer’s paradise.
But it is in the last week of August that Chamonix is arguably most alive, when it hosts the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc — an awe-inspiring 106-mile (171km) run through three countries around the Alps’ highest peak that has become the world’s premier mountain race.
Little-known outside the world of ultra-running, this year, even with mask-wearing and lingering coronavirus restrictions, the event welcomed 10,000 runners and 100,000 spectators. As well as the flagship UTMB, there are six further events, creating a weeklong festival of running in which amateurs rub shoulders with the world’s best.
“This is the de facto world championship every year,” Tim Tollefson, who finished third in 2017, tells me when I meet the elite runners in the manicured gardens of the Hotel Mont Blanc the night before the race. “The best runners from around the world descend on Chamonix every end of August and this is the result.”
In the UTMB, competitors cover the equivalent of four consecutive marathons, ascending 10,000 metres over a dozen climbs, comparable to reaching the summit of Everest from base camp three times over. The top 100 or so will take about a day, power-walking the steepest sections and running everything else. For the rest, it’s often a matter of putting one foot in front of the other for as long as they can — in the case of slowest finisher, almost 48 hours.
Founded by local couple Michel and Catherine Polletti, just over 700 people started the first race in 2003 and only 67 completed the circuit. Michel, 66, ran the UTMB every year until 2010. His wife, Catherine, has never been a runner but describes herself as “the conductor of the orchestra” for what has become a commercial behemoth with sponsorship deals and partnerships that have grown in tandem with the boom in endurance sports in the past two decades.
At the ultra-running “village” that is built for the week, global brands such as Garmin, CamelBak, Vibram, Leki, Hoka and Salomon hawk their high-tech wares. Earlier this year the family sold a minority stake to Ironman Group, owner of the successful triathlon series, to support an international expansion of UTMB races. But Catherine is eager to stress the efforts her team has made to maintain the “spirit” of the original event — one of community and inclusivity.
The 2021 race cost €280 to enter and the male and female winners took home only €2,000 — a tiny pot compared with the six-figure prizes available at some on-road marathons.
“The UTMB is for everyone,” she says. “The elites want to win . . . but more than 99 per cent of the people are here for their own life, their own objectives.”
And nowhere is that spirit more evident than on the course, where weekend warriors share the race with world class athletes and thousands of spectators — including me — embark on their own journey, following the runners through France, Italy and Switzerland and lining the route wherever they can.
“It’s like our Tour de France,” says my guide, Laurent Langoisseur, as we pull out of Chamonix and head west towards the picturesque village of Les Contamines-Montjoie, where the leaders are expected at about 8pm after 31km.
Born in Normandy, Laurent came to Chamonix as a young man, abandoning a comfortable career on France’s unionised railways for his love of the mountains. Now 55, he works for the ski patrol in the winter, as a hiking guide in summer, and over the next 24 hours will help me chase the race, by car and on foot, through the night, across borders and rocky mountain passes.
He drops me in the village while he moves our car further down the valley. The festivities have already started. Children walk the busy streets with their parents, a brass band is in full swing and diners pack the terraces at restaurants serving raclette and other Savoyarde favourites.
Whereas in road marathons streets are closed and barriers erected, much of the UTMB route is on open paths, so I soon follow the runners out of Les Contamines-Montjoie along a gravel track that snakes through forest on the valley bottom for about 5km to the start of the first 1,000-metre climb.
A Spanish runner passes me, so light on his feet I can barely hear him. He’s followed by Courtney Dauwalter, from Colorado, a favourite for the women’s race, smiling and unmistakable in her trademark baggy shorts. Not for the last time, a small boy, this one with a gapped-tooth smile and golden hair, mistakes me for a competitor. “Bravo monsieur,” he says, before I can tell him the truth.
I meet Laurent again just as the path begins to steepen at Notre Dame de la Gorge, the site of a 13th century church, rebuilt in 1699, where for hundreds of years travellers prayed for safe passage across the 2,400-metre mountain pass that lies ahead, the Col du Bonhomme.
It is 9pm but the steep route, first cut into the rock by the Romans, is lined with people. Small fires set by spectators light the way ahead. In one clearing, two families with a gaggle of children have brought along a table and a dinner of baguette, salad, cheese and red wine. The smallest of them swings a bronze cowbell as vigorously as he can. “Allez! Allez!” he shouts, as the runners emerge from the shadows.
We climb a bit further until we have left the crowds behind but then turn back down the mountain to fetch the car and rush from France through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy.
Just before midnight, Laurent and I park again, this time in an empty lot at the end of a winding mountain road, uphill from the Italian ski town of Courmayeur. It’s a clear night and the temperature has dropped so we layer up before striking out for the Maison Vielle mountain refuge at Col Chécrouit, which sits at just under 2,000 metres high and 74km into the race.
Now we are no longer on the UTMB route but heading cross-country under a star-filled sky. At Chécrouit we find a hive of activity. Volunteers lay out food and drink for the runners. Spectators stand around a roaring fire pit sharing sips of Genepi, the alpine liqueur, and updates on the race. I run uphill along the course for about 20 minutes to keep warm. Mont Blanc to my right looks enormous, luminous in the light from the half moon.
When I get back a woman in a sheepskin gilet appears with more cowbells to ring in support. We spot the leaders’ headlamps. More bell ringing, more shouts of “bravo”, more Genepi, and then within 10 minutes the front five runners, including a relaxed-looking D’Haene, have already passed. Laurent suggests I follow them along the route, which drops 750 metres in 4km through a series of tight switchbacks down to the cobbled streets of Dolonne and on to Courmayeur.
In the dark, running fast with a headlamp, it only takes 20 minutes but I feel the pounding descent in my legs for days.
Courmayeur is the approximate halfway point at 78km and a chance for competitors to change clothes and refuel, but the leaders barely stop. At 2.30am Laurent and I are back on the road and heading for the Swiss border. This time we park at the Arnouvaz hut and grab 30 minutes of sleep in the car. Inside, pieces of salami, cheese, fruit, chocolate and cake are spread out on trestle tables. An Italian volunteer tells me watermelon is the snack of choice.
Suddenly D’Haene appears out of the darkness. Having run 95km in a little under 12 hours, he looks more unsettled than before but has a 10-minute lead.
From Arnouvaz it’s a 600-metre climb in darkness to Grand Col Ferret on the Swiss border, the highest point of the race at 2,537 metres. Laurent and I pull on our jackets and head up the path to be overtaken as we climb by Ludovic Pommeret, a French former winner, and the American Dauwalter, who goes on to win the women’s race by over an hour and finish seventh overall. Dauwalter looks so relaxed that later I ask her what’s her secret.
“We’re lucky we get to run 100 miles by choice, so there’s no reason to get your pants in a bunch about it,” she says with a smile.
We hit the top just before dawn in a biting wind. Behind us we can see the headlamps of hundreds of runners, sparkling like a string of fairy lights strung across Italy to France. Race officials are keeping warm in two odd-looking Perspex cabins, so we head back downhill just as the sky starts to lighten and the great rock faces of the famous Grandes Jorasses come into view.
Ultra-runners say the morning brings hope but as we run back to the car, crossing competitors making the climb, it’s clear the night has taken its toll, even for those at the front of the pack.
An hour later, back at Courmayeur as the middle of the pack starts to come through, I am reminded just how punishing this race is. At the cavernous aid station, ragged runners lie on the floor. Others sit at round plastic tables silently picking at morsels of food. One woman washes her partners’ blistered feet with wipes. I ask Tom Johannessen from Norway how the race is going. “It’s going,” he says, but with a lifeless thousand-yard stare.
(Later I check the results and Johannessen came in an impressive 381st out of about 1500 finishers. At least 800 runners, including several elite athletes, did not finish).
With sun high in the sky once more, Laurent and I drive back through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, grab a coffee in Chamonix, then head to the final section of the course where it seems the whole valley is out in support.
At Col des Montets the route crosses a main road then zigzags up a sun-drenched hillside, rising about 500 metres to the race’s final high-point. The rocky path is lined with supporters as far as I can see. I climb about halfway up and sit in the sun, eavesdropping on families’ Saturday morning conversation before D’Haene arrives to rapturous cheers.
He crosses the finish line in Chamonix about 90 minutes later to a hero’s welcome, winning the race for a record fourth time in 20hr 46min, and cementing his position as one of the greatest mountain runners of all time.
Having been up all night and run just a small part of the course I feel frayed, but D’Haene manages to look fresh. When he’s not racing he makes wine in France’s Beaujolais region with his wife and their three young children. Given that, I ask him: why endure the pain of running 106 miles around a mountain?
“You see the sun go down, the sun come up, the moon, all sides of Mont Blanc passing through three countries,” he says simply. “There is something magic about that.”
Tom Wilson is the FT’s acting senior energy correspondent
Tom Wilson was a guest of UTMB Group. Costs to enter one of the seven races in the last week of August 2021 were between €34 and €450 per person. Some races, including the UTMB, require prior experience and for the runner to have accumulated points through qualifying events, details of which are available on the UTMB website. Registration usually takes place in January.
Laurent Langoisseur is a member of the historic Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. Prices for guided hikes and runs in the Chamonix valley, including journeys following the UTMB, start at €230 a day.
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