I was recently given the amazing opportunity to visit Chamonix and watch the famous Ultra Tour de Mont-Blanc (also refereed to as the UTMB). This was all thanks to Mountain Hardwear and Columbia, who are the presenting partners of the event. They organised the trip for me to experience the event and all that surrounds it. I must admit, I didn't know much about the UTMB before hand, as I have only just discovered the world of running on something other than a tread mill. So as you might imagine, I was more than a little shocked when I read up on what the event entailed. I was even more shocked when I though they had intended on me running in one of the races! After being reassured that this was not the case, I immediately relaxed and was excited to learn more about the event.
I found out that the UTMB is an one of the most prestigious events for trail runners from all over the world, and consists of 5 routes, 3 countries, 7 valleys, 71 glaciers and 400 summits! Each year the elite of the trail running world find themselves in Chamonix alongside 8000 other runners keen to participate in one of the event's 5 races. Each event is run in one stage, at one's own speed, but within a time limit.
The main event, known as the 'queen of the course', is the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc) which is around 170km, in semi autonomy and with about 10,000 metres in height gain. Once you've taken a moment to lift your jaw up off the floor, you will be even more astounded to know that the runners only have a maximum of 46 hours and 30 minutes to complete the race. What would take us common mortals 6 or 7 days walking to complete, the UTMB trail running winners can run this between 21 and 26 hours! Yes another jaw dropping moment. This out of the ordinary challenge passes through three countries; France, Italy and Switzerland. For ultra runners that don't feel ready for something so extreme, there are 'easier' routes to run. Please note - I laugh as I write the word 'easier'. By no means are they easy.
The CCC (Courmayer-Champex-Chamonix) is around 101km, in semi-autonomy, with about 6,100 metres height gain, and with a maximum time allowance of 26 hours and 45 minutes. The TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) is around 119km, in semi-autonomy, with about 7,200 metres in height gain, and with a maximum time allowance of 33 hours. The OCC (Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix) is around 55km, in semi-autonomy, with about 3,300 metres in height gain, and with a maximum time allownace of 14 hours and 30 minutes. The PTL (La Petite Trotte a Leon) is a little different as it's run in total-autonomy in teams of 2 or 3 runners. It's about 290km with about 26,500 metres in height gain, and with a maximum time allowance of 151 hours and 30 minutes. For all the routes, runners need to know how to face climatic conditions which can be very difficult due to the altitude.
All of this background information is interesting to read, but what it doesn't show, is the atmosphere at these events. That is so much harder to describe. I can't say what it feels like to run one of these races, but when you see the exhausted runners pushing themselves to cross the finish line, I can only guess by the mix of determination, relief and happiness on their faces, that it was totally worth it. From a spectators point of view, it's was an amazing thing to be part of. Seeing the streets full of people cheering encouragement for their friends and family is very heartwarming. Especially watching as the runners young children ran through the finishing line with them. As the finishing line was right in the centre of Chamonix, the locals were working away or relaxing with a coffee. But as soon as a runner came through the street, everyone would stand up and cheer. This was continued all day and night while the races where ongoing. It was a touching sight to see everyone stand by them. I didn't know any of the runners but that didn't stop me from becoming part of the crowd, cheering on every runner that went by. Being among the sounds of music, clapping, cowbells and cheering was extremely uplifting.
And if watching the the UTMB wasn't enough, I was taken on a 7 hour hike through the mountains to Lac Blanc lake, enjoying picturesque views over the Mer de Glace glacier, the Grandes Jurasses and of course the famous Mont Blanc. Just hiking through part of the race routes at that altitude in the intense heat was a challenge. I have so much respect for those who ran it! During the hike I got the chance to test one of Mountain Hardwear's best selling packs, the Rainshadow 26. You can read my pack review here.
I would just like to say another huge thank you to Mountain Hardwear and Columbia for such an great experience. It has definitely inspired me to start trail running, though I don't think I will be able to run the UTMB any time soon!