I don’t know why it happened. I was doing OK until the guy with the dog came through, and then, all of a sudden, I had a lump in my throat the size of a baseball.
I arrived in downtown Chamonix just in time for the finish of the Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC), the late-August 55K trail ultramarathon preceding the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which is basically the Super Bowl of ultrarunning. A friend was supposed to be finishing sometime in the next hour or two, so I figured I’d head to the finish and wait for him.
If you’ve never seen it, the last few hundred feet of the UTMB events course (including but not limited to the 55K OCC, the 101K Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, and 170K UTMB) is pretty special. Gates steer runners down a winding course through Chamonix, ending under a huge arch in front of the church at the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié. What makes it special are the spectators who line the final few hundred feet of the finish area, drumming on the boards attached to the gates every time a runner comes through to the finish. Friends, family, fans of running, people on their way home from the bar who have stopped to watch out of curiosity—everyone cheers and claps and pounds on the boards (even though the event emcees regularly ask spectators to please just clap instead).
It’s also special because people are cheering, clapping, and drumming for runners regardless of their place in the race. The events of the UTMB are popular—like 1,500 to 2,300 runners in each event popular. So if you spend a half an hour at the finish line, you might see several dozen people come through.
I got sucked in. I didn’t know anyone besides the one person, but I went nuts just like everyone else for all the runners who ran past me through the finish arch. I pounded on the boards, I whooped, I clapped, I cheered, I shot iPhone videos of people I didn’t know and would never meet as they ran past, and I didn’t know why.
OCC runners jogged past, each one clad in different ultra vests and backpacks, each one a different story of how much the race challenged them. Some jogged past with relief on their faces, seeing the arch and an end to almost ten hours of movement through the mountains. Some smiled and screamed and high-fived the lines of spectators as they blew past. Some twisted their mouths and gutted out the final hundred feet, digging deep.
Some runners grabbed their toddlers out of the crowd and ran through the finish. Some ran the final dozen steps holding hands with their street-clothed spouses. Some grabbed the hands of their young children, who ran alongside them, obviously proud of Mom or Dad. I kept it together until a guy stopped 150 feet from the end and grabbed the leash of his dog and then ran through the finish with the dog, who wagged his tail and gazed up adoringly as they finished the race together. I took a deep breath and smiled, trying to choke down the lump in my throat. Where did that come from?
My wife gets emotional every time she watches running, whether it’s Chariots of Fire, the Olympics, or the finish line of a 10K race. I never really understood why until I started doing ultramarathons.
I noticed a couple things at my first 50-mile race: First, aside from the top, say, 15 or 20 percent of runners, it was full of what seemed like pretty regular people (including myself). We weren’t super-athletes, just a bunch of normal people trying something a little harder (OK, way harder) than what’s considered normal. Second, the loudest cheering at the finish line came for the person who got last place in the race—the final person who finished just a few minutes before the 12-hour cutoff time. This is apparently not uncommon.
In the competitive sports world I grew up in, which I assume is like most of America and the world, we cheered for winners. The losing team got polite applause, and so did everyone in second through eighth place in track and field. But certainly not the loudest cheers.
If you’ve ever run a marathon in a city, you’ve probably noticed that people come out to cheer. Not just for the first-place person, but for everyone who passes by. Marathon spectators cheer, offer words of encouragement, and ring cowbells for anyone who’s out there running. If you’re running, this is fantastic. You could be an hour or two behind the person in first place, and total strangers are telling you you’re doing a great job.
If you run through the finish of one of the UTMB races in Chamonix, you must feel like a superhero, with all the applause, drumming, and cheering. I can only speak for myself and the feeling I got from other spectators, but I don’t think it’s fake there—I think most of us are genuinely moved by watching runners giving it hell in the final stretch.
Running, unlike a lot of sports, is almost universal. Most of us have never (and may never) know what it’s like to drain a three-point shot over someone to win a game, or catch a touchdown pass, or tear down an Alaskan spine on a snowboard. But everyone knows what it’s like to run when you’re tired, to dig deep, whether it’s a mile or 100 miles. And when we see someone else doing it, trying hard, we’re moved. And we cheer. We’re not impressed with some athletic skill that we could never imagine mastering ourselves; we’re impressed that they’re out there, gritting their teeth through pain and pushing themselves to go farther and be a little better. And whether they’re in tenth place or 1,500th place, we’re inspired just a little bit. And occasionally, we get a little emotional about it. Which is a wonderful experience.