A visit to the 'Mecca' of trail running

If you fancy taking on one of the biggest challenges in trail running, check out international runner Holly Rush's description of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, which she took part in last year

Credit: Pascal Tournaire/UTMB

Credit: Pascal Tournaire/UTMB

Living in the beautiful Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon, which sits on the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Avon, just nine miles from the city of Bath, I consider myself pretty lucky. Our little town ticks every box in terms of the ‘best place to live’ competition. But, for me, there is a place that goes one better: Chamonix.

Chamonix is best known as one of the most famous ski destinations in the world. Each year, people flock from far and wide to ski its famous peaks and glaciers, enjoy the stunning scenery and soak up the cool vibe. It was also, in 1924, the first venue for the Winter Olympics. As well as the winter scene, Chamonix enjoys a vibrant and busy summer season, and never more so than towards the end of August, when the town hosts one of the biggest mountain ultra races in the world.

The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc circumnavigates the majestic Mont Blanc, covering 171km, more than 10,000m of ascent, and climbing passes of 2500m-plus. In excess of 2300 people start the event and have a maximum of 46hr 30min to complete the gruelling race, which passes through three countries: France, Switzerland and Italy. As well as the UTMB race, there are now many more races to try your hand at, including the affectionately known ‘little sister race’, the CCC, which I took part in this year. This is a mere 101k, starting in the Italian town of Courmayeur and continuing on the UTMB course to finish in Chamonix. There’s also the OCC, which is the ‘baby race’ (just 57km, cough, splutter!); the TDS, which is a slightly more technical 120km race around the mountain, and finally the ‘crazy people’ race, the PTL, which takes on a large tour of the Mont Blanc (290k and 26,500m ascent), involves high routes with no markings, and must be completed in teams of two or three. It's a seriously tough race, which takes on rough, technical and mentally demanding mountain terrain. 

Because the five races are spread over the week, the town is transformed into a trail-running Mecca. Thousands of people from all over the world descend on the little town, not just to take part in the races but to also help the crew, follow the competitors, or merely soak up the atmosphere. The coffee shops, restaurants and bars are transformed into bustling hangouts for all the cool runners, with their trucker caps, ultra beards and running dogs. Even the hounds look cool with their matching ruffs!

During the week of the race, it’s hard not to get carried away with meeting up with friends and making new ones. There is so much to see and do; the event village is a hive of excitement, with lots of running gadgets to buy and try, and all the elites signing items of clothing and talking about their race plans.

Once the races finally kick off, the atmosphere starts to change into a feeling of anticipation. Lots of people head out on to the course to watch the lead runners or their loved ones run through the many checkpoints. This involves lots of late nights and early mornings, but there are always loads of people at the finish line, which winds its way through the centre of town. Around Saturday lunchtime the town multiplies in size as the UTMB winner is due to arrive. The theme from Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise is pumped out on loudspeakers, and the crowd start ringing cowbells and banging the advertising boards. By Sunday afternoon the last of the runners have arrived and the town is full of hobbling, gilet-wearing runners enjoying a gelato or a beer. Each one saying 'never again' … until the next year.

The 2018 UTMB festival takes place on August 27-September 2.

This article appeared in the December/January issue of Trail Running