The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, (UTMB for short) is one of the pinnacle events of the ultra trail running circuit and the showcase event of the year for the French mountain town of Chamonix. Giving spring’s often long-lingering snow time to disappear, it’s held in late August and draws in thousands of people from across the world, many just to watch those dedicated enough to get to the start line. Competitors must plan for years ahead to get a coveted spot on this iconic race, completing other events to collect points, before entering a multiple-times oversubscribed ballot draw.
The course, which changes only very slightly each year, winds for about 170 technical kilometres through high mountain passes and follows meandering rivers in deep carved-out valleys. Climbing and descending over 10,000 m through France, Italy, Switzerland and France again, it can be thought of as one rather large, high-altitude and anti-clockwise loop around the highest peak in the European Alps, Mont Blanc.
When race day finally arrives, the 2000 or so runners waiting nervously on the start-line will have a little under 48 hours to complete the entire route. For the few, only victory is good enough, with winning times hovering around the 20 hour mark for men and 26 hours for women. For the masses, simply hobble-running over the finish line with any time to spare is a dream come true.
We decided to run in the footsteps of these world class athletes and attempt the UTMB over four days. The route would take us from ‘C’ to ‘C’: Chamonix to Les Contamines, then onto Courmayeur and Champex, before the final stage back to Chamonix. With the minimum kit for long days of high mountain trail running and daytime snacks bulging from our backpacks, we set off from the starting point at l’Église Saint-Michel de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. With legs fresh and spirits high, we didn’t have too long to wait before the first leg-burning ascent.
As we climbed up Le Chemin du Delevret, the clanging of cowbells in the green hillside pastures soon replaced the din of La Route Blanche dual carriageway that dissects the Chamonix valley. Racing down the other side and into the town of St Gervais we felt like trespassers as we followed grassy paths through communal back-gardens of old stone houses that dotted the hillside. Focusing on each slow step up and each longer stride down, our minds were forced into full concentration. Being present meant being deep in meditation.
Each day contained many of these moments of pure joy in its simplest sense, and most of these involved running very fast down very big mountains. Leaving France behind, and climbing high above and beyond Courmayeur in Italy, we found ourselves on the “other side” of Mont Blanc, now looking up at Monte Bianco, very unfamiliar in its angles and shadows. Here we tore along undulating trails, under cool shaded pine trees, across alpine meadows filled with an explosion of wildflowers in deep blues and bright yellows, reds and white. The air was filled with buzzing insects and crickets, a chorus that increased in volume and intensity as we ran past - our own cheering crowd.
During one very memorable day, whilst refilling our water bottles at the Bonatti mountain hut and gulping down a quick lemon soda, we took a moment to look back and saw shining glaciers spilling down over exposed rock and eagles soaring on the high mountain thermals. Paradise indeed.
We had other moments where all we could was laugh. Ahead of one long climb through up to Le Col des Pyramides Calcaires we were forced to take shelter from claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. Spotting a gap in the quickly forming chimeric clouds, we made a dash. Soon though, the squalls of rain had increased in frequency and intensity and it was time to get our waterproofs on. Except Luke’s jacket was not in his bag.
A dire situation often breeds creativity. Before long Luke had his goretex poncho of sorts, with each arm stuffed into a leg of Hazel’s waterproof trousers. As we reached the top of that climb, the winds continued to pick up and the lightning storm started yet again. Tearing down the mountain path on the other side, we ducked inside a tiny valley cafe just in time to wait out the worst of the storm, looking absolutely ridiculous.
As fatigue set in late in the days and draped over our bodies like a heavy blanket, the mental battle began to outweigh the physical. The technical terrain underfoot demanded ever-increasing concentration to avoid tripping on a rock or root as we wound our way down from one mountain pass to the valley below. Straining our eyes in the falling light, we kept our minds sharply focused on the immediate task of dodging trip hazards, ignoring the screaming urge from our bodies to stop. And sure enough we’d get down to the valley safely each evening, wondering quite how we’d managed.
This interplay between mind and body is something that lures us back to endurance sports again and again. Struggling - wanting to stop, feeling exhausted and completely drained - and yet managing to find reserves to get over the line provides a deep, deep sense of satisfaction. Stepping out of the daily rhythm of life and into something as free and intense as long distance mountain running is a great reminder of our own strength of mind and builds confidence in our own abilities. Of course having a clear end goal helps too. For us on the UTMB, having a cosy mountain hut and hearty meal waiting for us at the end of each day helped keep us moving for the last few hours of each day.
On the final climb before the descent into Chamonix we shared the mountainside with a strong, graceful ibex, standing ahead of us silhouetted against the skyline. We stood quietly looking back at it and taking in the peaceful evening, awestruck at its nimble and effortless footwork; a pertinent reminder of who’s more at ease in these unforgiving mountains. After one final long descent we arrived exhausted and elated back down to bustling Chamonix and at the church where we had started four days earlier. Pizza time.
Thinking back over just how far we’d run and climbed during those past four days we felt a whole new level of respect for those who run it as one stage. And somewhere inside us both, a spark of curiosity started to flicker...
We spent the autumn of 2018 collecting enough points to enter the ‘CCC’ (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) or ‘little sister’ of the UTMB. It’s still a fairly big little sister, at 101 km and 6,100 m of climb.
Fast forward on a few months to January 2019 and Hazel was lucky enough to get a spot, with entries more than three times oversubscribed. Luke now has the even tougher task of being support crew in August as Hazel will run for 24 hours straight, covering a distance that took us two days in 2018.
It’s a new challenge for both of us. Usually we run ultra events together, sharing the experience and helping each other through the inevitable lows. This time, we’re on our own: Hazel in the CCC and Luke in a 100 mile race in June, where he’s aiming to collect those points to enter the CCC ballot again.
So is the UTMB next? Well, let’s just see how this summer’s running goes first. Whatever happens, we can’t wait to be back running in the mountains.