An All-Night Run Through the Mountains of Chamonix

When it comes to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, one of the world's most grueling footraces, they say you should always expect the unexpected. And, this year, that couldn't have been more true.

Sep 1, 2012
Outside Magazine

Spectators at the starting gate for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.    Photo: Meaghen Brown

If there's one takeaway from all of the coverage leading up to this year's Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, widely considered the most difficult footraces in the world—including that right here on Outside Online—it's that you always need to expect the unexpected.

In the last last 24 hours, the entire course was reconsidered due to weather (and pretty much redrawn on the back of a napkin five hours before the start, as Dakota Jones of Montrail pointed out). Runners, many of whom have been training for UTMB all year, were told that, A. they'd no longer be running 100 miles—the new course would average out at 104k, B. because of snow, even at lower elevations, the race would stay within the borders of France, and C. the start time would be delayed by half an hour to 7:00 p.m. and, because of the new distance, most of the front pack would be running the entire race in the dark. Organizers recommended four layers for warmth and, based on the forecast, runners could expect consistent rain and snow all night (the forecast proved correct).

Though it's fair to say the energy level took a bit of a nosedive in the hours following the announcement (a few of the top Salomon contenders opted not to start at all), by the time 6:30 p.m. rolled around, and the bizarrely ubiquitous Pirates of the Carribean-esque theme music started up, the excitement built all over again. In fact, the start of the race was like nothing I've ever seen before. Two thousand runners lined up at the starting gate in downtown Chamonix, France, with over 6,000 spectators fighting for space to cheer them on. And there, toward the front with Jez Bragg and Seb Chaigneau, was Mike Foote, standing with the leaders where his late father always thought he should be. Foote's sister, Rachel, who worked as crew on Foote's first hundred and was here again in the same role, was standing next to me when the countdown started. "This is his first race since dad died, " she told me quietly. "He always thought Mike should be up there with those guys."

It's impossible to predict what's going to happen in a race like this. The collective thought bubble over the entire starting gate read something like this: "OK, I'm running just over half the distance I was planning on doing today. Um ... what does that mean? How cold is it going to get, what do I need to eat. Where should my crew be? Do I go out hard?" Well, rule number one for elite athletes at UTMB, is that, yes, you go out hard, if only to avoid being trampled by the 1,900 runners behind you at the starting gate.

François D’Häene came through Les Contamines (30K) in 2:38 with Miguel Heras (who later dropped) and Jonas Buud right on his heels (those are some are fast splits with that kind of elevation shift). Female overall winner Lizzy Hawker went out predictably hard and never reigned it in for a second despite some nagging back pain. The rest is pretty much a gamble. Jez Bragg dropped at St. Germain citing "system issues" (runner speak: stomach problems), Chaigneau dropped at Argentiere (km 93.38) and was apparently rushed to the hospital shortly thereafter (last I heard, it seems he was having trouble seeing. Not a good sign). But for many of the others, their races seemed to get stronger the later and worse things got out there.

D’Haene held a 20- to 40-minute lead through most of the race and crossed the finish line with no real contest in 10:32:36. Mike Foote and Rory Bosio, both of The North Face, each ran steady and fast through the night, picking off runners and picking up the pace over the last 10k. Coming in 16 minutes after second place finisher Jonas Buud, Foote sprinted into third trailing an enormous Montana flag. Best part is, he crossed the finish line not even knowing he'd podiumed (making him the third American ever to podium in this race, after Topher Gaylord and Mike Wolfe). Bosio finished fourth in the women's category.

Crewing a runner, you see a lot of road, a lot of excited spectators (many in costume), and, here in Europe, you drink a lot of espresso. Athletes typically come into the aid stations, tell you what they want, maybe ask what place they're in depending on how far it is into the race, fill water, eat gel, change clothes if they're wet/cold and take off again while the crew packs up to chase them to the next aid station. But there are hundreds of stories from the space that happens in-between aid stations that we never get to see—epic views and tough falls and conversations and slippery terrain and hard climbs and puking on the trail and the camaraderie that builds in the midst of it all. This year, most stories could pretty much be condensed into a single pullquote that sounds something like "cold, wet, and dark."

But UTMB is full of curveballs, and a last-minute, contrived course run entirely in the dark over spooky mountain passes in consistent rain and snow is still a rather epic adventure by any stretch of the imagination (and also an adventure you could pretty much follow in real-time thanks to Twitter- and Facebook-linked bib chips and the teleportation powers of iRunFar's Bryon Powell). And, despite the controlled chaos of the previous day, some pretty amazing things happened out there last night.

In some ways, mountain running is a lot like mountaineering in that way. Athletes approach a race and a trail with expectations and sometimes the conditions—or the course or the body—just don't cooperate. That's not failure. That's adventure. And it's experiences like this year's UTMB—as simultaneously frustrating and unavoidable as it may have been—that definitely keep things interesting. Experiences that force runners like Foote to try his hand at 100k (a distance he's never raced before) completely by accident, runners like Cosplich to think hard about what it means to train for a specific kind of race and then push re-set at the last minute, and runners like Krissy Moehl to keep pushing into the next day because she's committed enough to see something through to the end.

Oh yeah, and it makes recreational runners like myself want to get out there too someday. Yes, it's a bit nuts, but there's something to be said for that level of commitment and respect for the mountains, which is why a lot of these runners got into this sport in the first place.

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