THE HISTORY OF THE ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT BLANC

IN AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BEFORE THE CANCELLATION OF THIS YEAR’S RACE, WE SPOKE TO UTMB FOUNDER MICHEL POLETTI ABOUT THE JOURNEY SO FAR

THE HISTORY OF THE ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT BLANC

by Trail Running |

Inspiration can come in many forms: a fabulous race, incredible scenery, achieving the impossible. A mountain or two? Perhaps miles of crystal-clear lake shoreline to run along? Michel Poletti picks up his laptop and turns it to his living room window to show me his surroundings and answers all those questions in an instant. The view has it all and is more than enough to get you reaching for your trail shoes. It turns out, if you live in Chamonix in the French Alps, all you need is literally on your doorstep. Snow-clad mountains surround him on all sides, and amazing looking trails wind their way to the distant summits.

“I’ve been running these trails for more than half a century,” Michel laughs. To be precise, it’s 53 years since Michel discovered the beauty of long-distance running in the mountains as a teenager. But, perhaps more significantly to the trail running community, it’s been 17 years since he turned the inspiration that he experiences on a daily basis into an event that is deservedly mentioned in the same sentence as the Olympics, the World Cup final in football, or the Super Bowl in America. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, or ‘UTMB’. As a trail runner, those four letters will never fail to send a shiver of anticipation up your spine.

In simple terms, it is just another race; one that takes you from the town square in Chamonix around the Mont-Blanc massif, which the area is so well known for, crossing three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) along the way, before finishing back in Chamonix after roughly 170km and 10,000 metres of vertical gain. More than 10,000 competitors gather every year to take on one of the seven distances offered in the final weekend of August, ranging from 45km to 300km.

So that’s the nuts and bolts. A long run in the mountains starting on a Friday night, running through all of the next day, and if you’re the winner, finishing in time for tea on Saturday evening. Or, the more likely scenario for the majority of runners taking part, Sunday brunch. But it’s so much more than that. Just to spend that weekend in Chamonix is incredible. To run is simply stunning. It’s very much a festival, but one with that all-important underlying feeling that to even make the startline in Chamonix is nothing short of incredible. It’s an achievement with a capital ‘A’.

A flying start

Michel spent most of his youth either cross-country skiing or mountain running in the summer. And it was cross-country skiing that first fired his enthusiasm for long distances after he took part in an 95km ski event in Norway. As a runner, he explored a few longer events, training for just two months, for instance, for a 140km race in the Pyrenees. He was hooked and spent the next few years driving around France ticking off the classics like the Festival Des Templiers, a scenic 78km event that is France’s oldest trail race. But every time he drove home to Chamonix, overlooked by the magnificent Mont Blanc, he began to wonder: ‘What if?’

“You’re always met with the same view of the mountains, so my wife Catherine and I started to think it would be amazing to see this view at the end of a race,” he explains.

It turns out there had once been a road running event that used some of the local trails, but that had folded. So, he and his fellow Chamonix running club members decided the time was ripe to create an event where, in Michel’s own words, “We can simply enjoy the trails.” Simple.

Memorable moments

From such a simple start – in essence, it wasn’t so different to your local running club putting on an event – things have grown incredibly, but always with one central philosophy. “We aim use of our love of the mountains to not only have a direct economic impact on the territories in which the races are hosted, but also to contribute to a better world,” says Catherine, the UTMB group president. “By respecting nature, showcasing and protecting beautiful natural environments, highlighting cultural diversity and encouraging a diverse range of runners on the trails from across the globe.”

It’s probably helped by the fact that Michel not only organised the race from day one but also insisted on taking part for the first seven years of the UTMB. With every trail running icon taking part, to ask Michel what his stand-out moment has been is perhaps a question too far. After all, the list of amazing moments is almost as long as the event itself. “Well,” he smiles. “Finishing the first one was obviously an incredible feeling, but for me perhaps my best personal memory was from 2005, running a little bit with Britain’s Lizzy Hawker, who was in her first ever trail race. She had seen an advert for the event while visiting Chamonix and had decided to give it a go. I managed to complete 3km of the route with her, before she ran away to her first of five victories.” The story goes that Lizzy hadn’t even owned a pair of trail running shoes 10 days before the event.

He pauses, recalling the moment they ran together on the path that snakes by the Bertone Mountain Refuge, an Alpine path directly out of the tourism brochures. The mountain looms large above you, while far below pristine meadows cover the valley floor. “But of course, it was pretty amazing when Marcos Olmon won in 2006, and then again in 2007, aged 59 and 60. And then when Kilian Jornet won the following year, at just 20 years old.”

It’s that range of experiences that perhaps best explains why trail running as a whole is just so popular. Truly, it’s never too late to start, and truly it’s a sport that welcomes everybody with open arms. “There have been other sports in the past decade,” Michel says. “But they’ve all peaked, while trail running continues to grow.”

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