IWe run uphill for over an hour climbing this narrow mountain path when we pass through some trees. This must be the top, I think, hopefully, as we crest the pass. But alas, rising on the other side are more massive mountains, and snaking out of their midst, like a line of ants, are the tiny dots of the runners ahead of us.
“Putainswears the French runner behind me. I know exactly how he feels. The 170km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is the most famous trail race in the world. In the fast-growing sport of Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) running, it’s the big one, the Super Bowl of the sport. For one week at the end of August every year, the town of Chamonix in the French Alps is completely taken over by ultra runners and their supporters. Any unsuspecting visitor arriving in the area would be bewildered by this strange world of short shorts and small backpacks and super fit people they wandered into.
During UTMB Week – which serves as the culmination of the all-new UTMB World Series – approximately 10,000 runners compete in seven different races of varying lengths. I’m here to run the CCC 100km race, which starts in Courmayeur in Italy and follows a route around Mont Blanc, climbing more than 6,000 meters of ascent along the way, through Switzerland, before finishing in Chamonix.
Why would anyone want to run that far? It’s a good question. On one level, participating in these races is an adventure in the wild. By walking such long distances, you can explore some of the most remote corners of these incredible mountains. Sure, you spend a lot of time looking down at your feet, but every time you look up, the scenery takes your breath away.
But it is also a struggle. Despite my intention to run primarily to enjoy the experience, once we start I push hard and finish in under 20 hours, an arbitrary goal I set for myself before the start. You can choose to go slower, of course, but it doesn’t really make things any easier, as it just means you’re out there running for longer. So I decide to embrace the inherent competitiveness of the event and put on my skates. I can then spend the rest of the weekend relaxing and enjoying the unique atmosphere of Chamonix during the UTMB week.
It’s convenient that my hotel, La Folie Douce, is so close to the finish that after finally arriving in Chamonix in the middle of the night, I can return to a hot shower and a blissfully comfortable bed. The next morning I spend a few heavenly hours stretched out by the hotel’s outdoor pool with a stunning view of the mountains looking a little unreal in the morning sunlight, like a huge Athena poster backdrop.
Chamonix also has plenty of great places to eat – an essential part of the post-race recovery process – from fine seasonal French cuisine at the Mont Blanc Hotel, the town’s oldest, most elegant hotel, to hearty Soul Bowls and vegan burgers at the Bighorn Bistro (favorite haunt of much-loved elite ultra runners).
Once I feel recovered, I head back into town to sit outside a cafe and cheer the last UTMB runners home, each one creating a wave of noise from the crowds as they pass. For more than 100 miles and for up to 48 hours, they run up and down mountains, without sleep, and the effort is etched on their faces. Having done a race myself, I feel a connection with every runner that passes, and every time it brings a tear to my eye to see them so close to finishing their epic journey.
For more details about UTMB Mont Blanc, go to utmbmontblanc.com. La Folie Douce has rooms from £90 per night (lafoliedoucehotels.com)
Running high: Other mountain trail events to challenge yourself
To qualify for the UTMB races in Chamonix, you must compete in at least one of the 25 UTMB World Series events, where you can collect “running stones” for the UTMB race lottery. Entries for the draw open in December. Here are five of the best UTMB World Series events to consider.
Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Italy The serene rocky monoliths of the Dolomites play host to this long-standing race on the European mountain running calendar every June. Starting late in the evening from the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo – host city of the 1956 Winter Olympics – the race is superbly supported, with large crowds lining the streets to cheer you on your way. Best of all, when you’re in Italy, you can feast on endless pizza after you finish the race (lavaredo.utmb.world).
Speedgoat Mountain Races, USA Held in July on the slopes of one of the largest ski resorts in the United States, Snowbird in Utah, the Speedgoat 50k takes runners up grueling climbs, over challenging, rocky terrain and through the breathtaking scenery of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. With the entire course over 2,300 meters, this is one of the toughest mountain races in the US (speedgoat.utmb.world).
Ultra Trail Snowdonia (UTS), Wales The UK’s only race in the UTMB World Series, the UTS follows challenging trails and traverses hairy ridges, reaching the most notable peaks in the north of Snowdonia National Park. Although the series of races – over 50 km, 100 km and 165 km – take place in July, good weather is, of course, not guaranteed (snowdonia.utmb.world).
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico After crossing the Sierra Madre Mountains, this race takes runners through forests and agave plantations, into the jungle and finally along the beach to the beautiful bay of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Taking place for the first time in October 2022, the longest race of this new event is 100 miles, while there are also shorter options of 100 km, 50 km and 20 km (puerto-vallarta.utmb.world).
Doi Inthanon, Thailand This race takes place in December around Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Doi Inthanon National Park is famous for its waterfalls, remote villages and sunsets – if you do the 170km race, you’ll run into at least one sunset and maybe even two, depending on how fast you are (inthanon.utmb.world ) .