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UTMB: A Close Encounter with the World’s Wildest Trail Race

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UTMB Trail Race

Trail running like you’ve never seen before – UTMB is an assault on the senses in every sense of the word.

Picture this: It’s just past 9 pm on a cool summer evening at the base of a steep hiking trail in the French Alps. A place where you’d normally savor the tranquillity of nature, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and gaze at a sky adorned with more stars than you can count. But not tonight.

Instead, the air is pulsating with house music, a crimson haze of flare smoke hangs in the air, and a man who could have auditioned for “Nightmare on Elm Street” is revving a chainsaw with a maniacal grin on his face. Yes, you read that right. Welcome to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), the biggest, most famous, and wildest trail race on the planet.

As the chainsaw-wielding character leaves his blade at home (thankfully), thousands of people are lining the track at Notre Dame de la Gorge, just outside the charming town of Les Contamines-Montjoie. Some are shaking cowbells like toddlers with new toys, while others rely on the power of applause. Everyone is roaring encouragement. Amid this cacophony, a grinning Courtney Dauwalter strides through, 20 miles into the race, cementing her status as the greatest female ultra-runner in the world.

But UTMB is more than just a race; it’s an epic journey. Covering 106 miles and crossing three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland), it circumnavigates Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain. The distance alone is awe-inspiring, but it’s only part of the story. Runners must conquer a staggering 10,000 meters of elevation gain, deal with temperatures ranging from sub-zero to scorching, and face the unpredictable mountain weather. Helicopter search-and-rescue insurance is even mandatory!

This race follows a popular hiking route that usually takes 10 days. Elite runners at UTMB complete it in under 20 hours, while mere mortals have a more generous two days to finish the loop. Earlier this month, nearly 2,700 athletes from 81 countries embarked on this grueling challenge. Surprisingly, more than a third didn’t make it to the finish line, and many of those who did arrived as physical and mental wrecks.

UTMB isn’t just about the race; it’s an experience like no other. From the breathtaking scenery of Chamonix, nestled in a valley surrounded by towering peaks and glaciers, to the sheer scale of the event, UTMB is in a league of its own. Chamonix, widely regarded as the summer home of trail running in Europe, hosts over 10,000 people during the week of races leading up to UTMB, with the help of 2,500 volunteers.

The atmosphere is legendary, with crowds lining the streets of Chamonix and creating riotous scenes in villages along the course. Fans even camp out in remote areas to cheer on the runners, resembling nothing short of moving headlamps in the night. It’s a race where the quality of the field is unparalleled. “It’s the most competitive race of the whole year, and they’re all in the shape of their life,” says American runner Dylan Bowman.

And this year marks the 20th anniversary of the event, adding an extra layer of excitement. The drama and spectacle, masterfully promoted by the organizers, make UTMB “orders of magnitude bigger than anything else” in trail running, according to Bowman.

So, what is trail running, you might ask? It’s essentially running off-road, typically involving challenging terrain, and it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Chamonix, known for hosting the 1924 Winter Olympics, serves as its summer hub in Europe.

The UTMB start line in Place de l’Eglise is a sight to behold, with runners crowding the square in their colorful gear, eager to tackle this incredible race. Shops close before the start, and spectators reserve their spots hours in advance, some even climbing statues for a better view. The atmosphere is electrifying, and the anticipation is palpable.

As Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” fills the narrow streets, the tension soars, and when the starting gun fires, the runners, including the elites and amateurs, sprint off at a pace more suited for a 10km race, trying to avoid bottlenecks as the road narrows.

UTMB is not just a race for the athletes; it’s also a race against oneself. Winners receive a cash prize, but the race is about much more than that. It’s a test of one’s limits, a journey into the pain cave, and a chance to explore the incredible capabilities of the human body and mind.

Jim Walmsley, a trail-running legend at just 33, has a storied career with numerous victories, including a course record at Western States and the 50-mile world record. However, UTMB has eluded him so far. He moved to a village near the race route, hoping to increase his chances. “I really hope Jim can win it. For him, it would be so nice,” says fellow trail-running great Francois d’Haene.

This year, with Kilian Jornet, widely considered the greatest trail runner of all time, absent due to injury, it might be Walmsley’s best shot at victory. His dedication to the race is evident in his move and his determination to conquer UTMB.

Zach Miller, another iconic figure in trail running, is known for his aggressive racing style. He’s one of the most popular figures in the sport, and his love for UTMB is clear. Miller’s unique approach is to run hard from the start and hope to hang on, making him a fan favorite. His love for the race goes beyond the competition; he travels in a Breaking Bad-style bus, handing out free doughnuts and ice lollies at races.

As the race unfolds, the world tunes in to watch UTMB through an impressive live stream, complete with drones, helicopters, and even runners and e-bikers filming the action. This level of coverage and attention speaks to the race’s growing global appeal.

Yet, as UTMB grows in stature, it faces criticism for losing some of its grassroots charm. The introduction of a qualification process has led some to believe that the race is becoming too commercialized. Entry fees, travel costs, and the race’s location in one of Europe’s most expensive resorts have also raised concerns.

Despite these challenges, UTMB remains a unique and awe-inspiring event. The stories of triumph, personal growth, and sheer determination that emerge from this race are a testament to the human spirit. As Courtney Dauwalter aptly puts it, “Any time we’re given the opportunity to try something difficult or crazy, we should absolutely take it.”

UTMB isn’t just a race; it’s a celebration of the extraordinary, a testament to the power of community, and a reminder that, sometimes, the most incredible adventures are found in the mountains. Whether you’re a trail running enthusiast or simply curious about the limits of human endurance, UTMB is an event that should be on your radar.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about UTMB Trail Race

What is UTMB?

UTMB stands for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a challenging trail race that covers 106 miles and circumnavigates Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

Where does UTMB take place?

The race starts and finishes in Chamonix, France, and passes through three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland.

How tough is UTMB?

UTMB is known for its extreme challenges. It includes 10,000 meters of elevation gain, varying temperatures, and unpredictable mountain conditions.

Who participates in UTMB?

Athletes from around the world, both elite runners and dedicated amateurs, participate in UTMB. It’s considered one of the most competitive trail races.

What makes UTMB special?

UTMB offers breathtaking scenery, a unique atmosphere with enthusiastic crowds, and a challenging course that pushes runners to their limits.

How can I watch UTMB?

You can watch UTMB live online in multiple languages, thanks to drone, helicopter, and runner/biker cameras.

What’s the history of UTMB?

UTMB started as a small event in 2003 but has grown significantly. It’s now a major trail running race with thousands of participants.

Are there environmental concerns?

UTMB has faced criticism for its environmental impact and sponsorship choices, but organizers are working to address these concerns.

Why do people run UTMB?

Participants are motivated by personal challenges, testing their limits, and the thrill of exploring nature’s beauty through trail running.

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