Trail running like you’ve never seen before – UTMB is a sensory overload of adventure
Picture this: It’s just past 9 pm on a crisp summer evening, nestled at the base of a rugged hiking trail in the picturesque French Alps. Normally, this spot is a haven of tranquility, where you can savor the serenity of nature, breathe in the pure mountain air, and gaze up at a night sky studded with countless stars.
But not tonight.
The thumping beats of house music reverberate through the air, crimson flare smoke clouds the atmosphere, and a man, who could easily pass for a character auditioning for “Nightmare on Elm Street,” revs up a chainsaw with an almost maniacal grin on his face.
With bulging eyes, a face drenched in sweat, and an eerie smile, he fuels the chainsaw to its limits, letting petrol drip to the ground as fumes fill the air. This bizarre scene unfolds amidst a throng of thousands lining the trail at Notre Dame de la Gorge, just outside the quaint town of Les Contamines-Montjoie.
Hundreds of spectators clang cowbells like children with new toys, while others rely on the sheer power of their applause. Everyone is roaring with encouragement. Fortunately, the chainsaw-wielding gentleman has left the blade at home.
Amidst this cacophonous tunnel of noise emerges Courtney Dauwalter, a grinning force of nature and arguably the greatest female ultra-runner in the world. She’s 20 miles deep into the grand spectacle known as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).
Welcome to the UTMB, a race so monumental that it’s been likened to the World Cup, Tour de France, and Super Bowl of running, but these comparisons barely scratch the surface.
The UTMB covers a staggering 106 miles, commencing and concluding in the charming town of Chamonix, while traversing through three different countries—France, Italy, and Switzerland. This epic journey circumnavigates Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe.
But distance is only half the story. Runners must conquer a mind-boggling 10,000 meters of elevation gain, which comfortably exceeds the height of Mount Everest. They also face temperature extremes, from sub-zero cold to scorching 30°C heat, all while tackling conditions typically reserved for skiers in these alpine regions. It’s no surprise that helicopter search-and-rescue insurance is mandatory.
The race follows a popular hiking route that typically takes 10 days for trekkers to complete. However, elite runners at UTMB complete this grueling circuit in under 20 hours. For the rest of us mere mortals, there’s a generous two-day window to finish the loop.
Earlier this month, 2,689 athletes from 81 countries embarked on one of the most challenging endeavors of their lives. Sadly, more than a third of them did not make it to the finish line, and many of those who did were left physically and mentally drained.
Jez Bragg, the only male British winner of UTMB in 2010, fondly describes it as “the perfect journey.” He adds, “I love it to bits.” Four-time winner and trail-running legend Francois d’Haene chimes in, saying, “What is magical is that the winner and the finisher can have the same feeling – ‘Wow, we made it.'”
There are countless remarkable aspects of UTMB, but let’s start with the scenery. Chamonix, nestled in a narrow valley and surrounded by towering peaks and breathtaking glaciers, is a dramatic spectacle in itself. However, the race takes it up a notch with stunning vistas of the snow-capped Mont Blanc.
As if the breathtaking scenery wasn’t enough, the scale of UTMB is mind-boggling. For comparison, the second most prestigious 100-mile trail race in the world, Western States in California, limits its entry to fewer than 400 runners. In Chamonix, over the course of a week, 10,000 individuals participate in a series of races leading up to UTMB, with the assistance of 2,500 volunteers from all over France and beyond.
The atmosphere at UTMB is nothing short of legendary. Streets in Chamonix are lined with cheering crowds five-deep. The electrifying scenes at Notre Dame de la Gorge are repeated in countless other villages along the route. Fans even camp out in the remote corners of the UTMB course in the middle of the night to cheer on the runners, who appear as little more than moving headlamps. British runner Tom Evans, who finished third in 2022 and is among the favorites this year, aptly describes it as “completely bonkers.”
But it’s not just the atmosphere that sets UTMB apart; it’s also the caliber of the field. American ultra-runner Dylan Bowman, who finished seventh in 2017 and now hosts the Freetrail podcast, asserts, “It’s the most competitive race of the whole year, and they’re all in the shape of their life.” Despite his impressive triumph at Western States in June, Evans admits that UTMB is still the one to win. Women’s UTMB champion in 2022, Katie Schide, succinctly states, “You don’t use UTMB as a training race.”
Combine all this with the fact that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the event, add in a healthy dose of drama courtesy of the organizers’ slick promotional and marketing machine, and you’ve got UTMB, which, as Bowman aptly puts it, is “orders of magnitude bigger than anything else” in the world of trail running.
Trail running, in essence, involves running off-road, often traversing hilly terrain, with UTMB’s hills dwarfing those of most other trail races. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports globally, and Chamonix, known for hosting the 1924 Winter Olympics, is widely regarded as its summer home, at least in Europe.
There’s no better illustration of this than the UTMB starting line. Picture all the runners crammed into the Place de l’Eglise in front of the town hall, where not an inch of road is visible amid a sea of colorful running gear and muscles primed for action. Shops shut down before the 6 pm start, perfectly timed for the leading runners to finish during the bustling Saturday afternoon.
Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise,” an operatic soundtrack to a Ridley Scott movie, fills the narrow streets, intensifying the pre-race excitement to a fever pitch before the starting gun finally fires.
“The atmosphere is like nothing I’ve ever experienced—in any sporting event,” shares Bragg. “It’s a unique mix of hype, excitement, and anxiety, even before you’ve left Chamonix. The crowd tries to transfer their energy to the runners, while the runners live in fear of what lies ahead.”
The elite runners, who share the same starting line as the amateurs but secure a spot at the front, sprint off at a speed more suited for a 10km race than a grueling 170km ultra-marathon. “You hear stories of people falling,” says Schide. “So, for the first 800 meters, you’re not thinking about pacing—you’re thinking, ‘Get out and find space.’ You’re just trying not to trip on anything.”
Schide isn’t racing UTMB this year, but she’ll be there in Chamonix to support her friends and soak in the atmosphere. “Chamonix has such a rich trail-running culture,” she says. “During UTMB week, it’s like the whole town is on a running high.”
Once the runners clear Chamonix, they enter a breathtaking wilderness where everything changes. The crowds disappear, replaced by solitude, darkness, and the mesmerizing glow of headlamps cutting through the inky blackness. It’s here, in the silence of the night, that the runners must confront their inner demons and find the strength to carry on.
Make no mistake, UTMB is not just a physical challenge; it’s a test of mental fortitude like no other. “You see people’s souls laid bare in the Alps,” Bowman reflects. “It’s pretty extreme.”
The world of trail running is known for its tight-knit community, and UTMB embodies that spirit. “The camaraderie between the runners is very strong,” says Bragg. “You’re all on this incredible journey together, and you’re all willing each other on.”
Despite the ruthless competition at the front of the race, the shared suffering and awe-inspiring landscapes forge deep bonds between the runners. “Everyone has a shared appreciation of the mountains and what they represent,” Bowman explains. “It’s very uniting.”
The sense of accomplishment upon crossing the finish line is indescribable. After enduring endless ascents and descents, navigating treacherous terrain, and battling exhaustion and self-doubt, completing UTMB is a testament to the human spirit’s resilience.
The finish line is a beacon of hope, where emotions overflow. Runner after runner arrives, some collapsing into the arms of loved ones, others shedding tears of joy and relief. There’s no other race like it in the world, and that’s why UTMB holds a special place in the hearts of all who dare to take on its challenge.
So, if you’re a geek who’s passionate about sports, movies, music, gadgets, and technology, and you’re looking for an adventure that combines all these elements in a spectacular, adrenaline-pumping package, UTMB might just be your ultimate fantasy come to life.
In the world of trail running, UTMB stands as a colossal achievement, a celebration of human endurance, and a thrilling blend of breathtaking nature, competitive spirit, and the indomitable will to conquer the impossible. It’s not just a race; it’s an experience that leaves an indelible mark on all who participate.
So, whether you’re a seasoned trail runner or simply an armchair adventurer, UTMB is a journey worth following, a spectacle worth witnessing, and a testament to the limitless capabilities of the human body and spirit. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll find yourself at the starting line in Chamonix, ready to embark on your own epic adventure through the heart of the Alps.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about UTMB Trail Running
What is UTMB?
UTMB stands for “Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc,” the biggest and wildest trail race in the world. It’s a grueling endurance race that covers 106 miles through the stunning French Alps, passing through three countries and circumnavigating Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain.
How challenging is UTMB?
UTMB is incredibly challenging, not only for its distance but also for the 10,000 meters of elevation gain, extreme temperature fluctuations, and unpredictable mountain conditions. Runners must be prepared for everything from freezing cold to scorching heat.
Who participates in UTMB?
UTMB attracts elite ultra-runners from around the world, but it’s also open to dedicated amateurs who have two days to complete the race. The race has grown in popularity, with thousands of participants and a vibrant running community.
What’s unique about UTMB?
UTMB offers breathtaking scenery, an electrifying atmosphere with passionate fans, and an exceptionally competitive field of runners. It’s often described as the World Cup, Tour de France, and Super Bowl of trail running, but it’s a unique experience beyond comparison.
How has UTMB evolved over the years?
From its humble beginnings in 2003, UTMB has grown into a massive event, attracting worldwide attention. The race organizers have introduced qualification processes and lotteries due to its popularity. UTMB has also faced some criticism for its commercialization and environmental impact.
Why do runners participate in UTMB?
Runners come to UTMB to challenge their physical and mental limits, experience the beauty of the Alps, and be part of a unique community. The race offers a chance to push boundaries, test one’s endurance, and achieve something extraordinary.