For the past 10 years, spandex-clad athletes from all over the world have made the pilgrimage to Chamonix for the sole purpose of running 100-plus miles around Mont Blanc in what is widely considered to be one of the toughest footraces in the world: the North Face-sponsored Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). It’s a brutal course—103-ish miles (depending on the weather), through three countries with 30,000 feet of elevation gain, mainly self-supported (in the sense that runners have to carry their own gear and aren’t allowed pacers, though there are aid stations and so-called “life bases” in four villages along the way). In 2010 the race was cancelled due to a mudslide after runners had already been out for 10-plus hours, and last year the course was re-routed mid race when heavy snow damaged a key aid station—a change that added two extra miles. This year the weather is predicted to hold, but temperatures at night will still dip below freezing—and the thunderstorm raging outside right now certainly isn’t something I’d want to be running in, particularly at an exposed 6,000 feet.
Before heading to France, I’d been told that the Europeans, even non-runners, take the sport a bit more seriously. (After all, many Americans often use “crazy” when talking about ultrarunners.) But it wasn’t until I watched a group of kids cautiously ask one of the Salomon athletes for an autograph and the “Salon de l'Ultra Trail” (a.k.a. the 5,500 product tents set up on the town square) started blasting “Thriller” outside my hotel room window at 9 a.m. this morning that I started to get it. Put plainly: This race is a big deal.
The year UTMB was founded, 722 runners showed up to run from Chamonix, France, to Courmayer, Italy, to Champex, Switzerland, and then back to France via the Col do Montets. Only 67 finished, an abysmally low percentage even by ultrarunning standards. Yet, the following year the entry rate doubled and continued to do so until 2008 when the race was capped at 2,000 and sold out within seven minutes of opening. Now, if you want to run UTMB, you’ll have to rack up enough qualifying points (seven) in various pre-season races to earn an entry bid, which means, in some ways, it has become a bit of a who’s who of sponsored athletes, all decked out in team gear and duking it out on mountain passes for 20-some hours.
Still, that hardly makes this race predictable. In 2003, 33-year-old Nepali cross-country-skier Dachhiri Sherpa won, crossing the finish line in 20 hours, 5 minutes. (He still holds the course record.) Last year— the same year that one of The North Face’s top athletes essentially walked the last 25 miles to the finish—the top American finisher was a relatively unknown kid from Montana who employed his best friend as crew and paid his own way to France by selling t-shirts. It’s the unpredictability, the unpredictability that comes with running trails between some of the highest mountains in the world, that is part of the race’s allure.
Over the past few days, Chamonix’s been buzzing with the nervous energy of 2,000 espresso-fueled, hyper-competitive athletes, but there’s also a noticeable measure of camaraderie—not much different from the kind you’d find at a local, small-town race. So many of the runners here race each other all the time, and while the tension is certainly high, it’s a testament to the intimacy of the sport how many of them are still good friends. They know anything can happen out there, and if the last 10 years are any indication, it’s safe to assume that anything will.