Chamonix, France, is ground zero for mountain running—and its vibe is spreading around the world.
While running down a rocky trail below a gondola that leads to the Aiguille du Midi—one of the higher points of the Mont Blanc massif mountain range high above Chamonix—I come across three men sitting on some large rocks.
They’re clad in mountaineering gear and heavy-duty hiking boots and have large backpacks with crampons dangling to the side. As I slow down to pass them, it appears they’re snacking on cheese and baguettes and one of the men is pouring wine into a tin camping cup. “Bonjour!,” they say, though not quite in unison, as they nod and smile.
I return the greeting with an inflection that makes it obvious I’m a tourist and continue on my way to an overlook to view the Mer de Glace glacier. Somewhere along the way, I realize the chocolate chip energy bar I devoured earlier didn’t come close to satiating the hunger pangs that have been building on my two-hour run.
An hour later, while sipping un café noir and nibbling on a fresh croissant outside the Le Gouthe coffee shop on the pedestrian mall in center of Chamonix, and still in my running gear, I realize why this quaint village in the heart of the French Alps is such a special place.
Below the massive peaks and brilliant glaciers that loom above the valley, Chamonix oozes mountain culture, an authentic blend of tenacity, togetherness and a zeal for adventure that’s palpable among many of the hearty patrons walking in and out of the outdoor stores, restaurants and shops on the square.
Embedded in that culture is a shared sense of humility, a collective understanding that recreating in the mountains—no matter the sport—is about the experience of the journey and a respect for the natural environment. Pursuing the monumental challenges found within the Mont Blanc massif and developing a lasting connection with the mountains and your fellow adventurers have long been part of Chamonix’s raison d’etre.
Whereas the American style of trail running has mostly been influenced by road running infused with perhaps some latent hippie subculture tendencies and a newfound joy of escaping to the high country, mountain running in Europe, and especially in Chamonix, is largely connected to its centuries-old mountaineering and long-distance hiking roots. That’s not to say there isn’t hardcore trail running throughout mountainous regions of the U.S.—there is—it’s just that the adventurous vibe and sense of comradeship among other mountain sports participants is woven into the fabric of life in Chamonix.
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As such, with mythically steep mountains and rugged, historic trails, neither short nor easy runs really exist in Chamonix. If you’re going out for a run, more than likely you’re going to be out on the trails for several hours and endure massive vertical gain and descent. Power hiking and the ability to cross glacial ice are crucial skills. And that’s why a lightweight hydration pack, collapsible trekking poles and a windproof shell are mandatory gear, along with plenty of sunscreen—and perhaps some fresh brie and a baguette to go with your usual assortment of energy bars or gels.
Because of its close access to the highest points in Western Europe, Chamonix was one of the world’s original mountain sports hubs, becoming known for mountaineering and skiing in the late 1800s. It hosted the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924, but by the 1970s many other mountain towns had gained more prominence. Chamonix regained its status in the late 1980s as one of the centers of the new freeskiing movement in the winter and all types of climbing and hiking and running in the summer, says Nicolas Mermoud, a renowned French mountain runner.
“There is no place that compares to Chamonix in terms of the prestige of the mountains. Maybe Zermatt, but that’s about it,” says Mermoud, one of the co-founders of Hoka One One running shoes who formerly worked for Salomon, a French mountain-sports gear manufacturer. “The trails have been there for centuries. They weren’t initially there because of running. They were there as a way to get to the next valley.”
It’s not that trail running was invented in Chamonix, but it’s certainly been one of the world’s most engaging places that has helped redefine it—especially in the past decade or so. Mountain running races have existed throughout Europe for more than 50 years in some fashion or another, although for much of that time races were, like in the U.S., primarily small and regional in nature.
By the late 1990s, as ultrarunning started to grow in the U.S. and attain a glimmer of mainstream appeal while the team-oriented endurance sport of adventure racing expanded from its French roots, the definition of trail running began to morph. With the advent of lightweight durable trail running shoes, suddenly anything was possible, and the mountain trails around Chamonix became the ultimate proving ground.
Combining aspects of traditional running with the community atmosphere derived from multi-day trekking tours and the push-the-envelope spirit of mountaineering, hearty, adventure-minded mountain athletes began running up and down the region’s steepest trails, even pushing the pace on the long-distance hiking tour that circled the Mont Blanc range.
The 168-kilometer (104-mile) Tour du Mont Blanc trail that circuitously links Chamonix with several mountain villages in France, Italy and Switzerland typically took seven to nine days (or more) to complete via hiking. Mountain runners started covering the entire route in just three days, with a few completing it in less than 36 hours.
But it wasn’t until enterprising Chamonix residents Catherine and Michel Poletti put on the first Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in 2003, that a competitive event around this grueling section of the French Alps became a reality.
However, they never intended it to be like the Western States Endurance Run or other 100-mile races that had gained popularity in the U.S. since the 1980s. Instead, what the Polettis envisioned was an event that would offer an accessible challenge to a wide variety of participants, from elite trail runners interested in covering the course as fast as possible to adventure-minded hikers who would appreciate the journey over one of Europe’s classic trekking routes with similar people from all over the world.
“It’s always been more than just about sport; it’s an expedition and an experience,” Catherine Poletti says. “I think for the same reasons it has attracted people from this region, it has attracted people from around the world. It’s about the culture of the mountain. It’s about experiencing nature and the challenge of the trail first, and racing on the trails second.”
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What the creation of the UTMB ultimately did was take the most grueling type of ultra-distance trail running races—rugged mountain events that pack loads of adventure, self-discovery and personal achievement into the contraints of a weekend—and make them more appealing and accessible to every level of competitor. Colorado’s Hardrock 100 was one of the races that started that hard-core ultra buzz, but the UTMB and Chamonix made it a global phenomenon. The Polettis began to push that vibe (and their brand) even more in recent years with the launch of the Ultra-Trail World Tour point series circuit and dozens of races around the world serving as official qualifiers for the UTMB races.
The competitiveness of the UTMB and the tres cool ambiance of Chamonix have also spawned international trail running stars. Kilian Jornet, the 27-year-old mountain running phenom from Spain’s Catalonia region, has won many races and set speed records on trails around the world, but wining the UTMB three times between 2008 and 2011 is what started his meteoric rise. Americans Mike Wolfe, Rory Bosio, Krissy Moehl, Mike Foote, Nikki Kimball and Tim Olson have also gained attention for their success in Chamonix.
“In Chamonix and the areas around Mont-Blanc, it’s all about the mountain,” Jornet says. “The mountain is strong (in the Alps) and the mountain is moving. It is full of energy, full of life, and when you are in the mountains—whether you are running on trails or you are climbing or just hiking—you feel its soul.”
But perhaps more important than being the pinnacle event in ultrarunning, the UTMB also opened the door to more participants. Although the first race had 722 participants and only 67 finishers, the event now includes five late-August races with a total of 7,500 runners. And, as an indication that rugged ultra-distance running is becoming more accessible, last year 2,434 runners started the iconic 104-mile namesake race and 1,578 finished. (Compared that to iconic races in the U.S. that are permit-bound to tiny field limits, including just 140 runners in the Hardrock 100 and 370 in the Western States 100.)
“It’s changed how people think about trail running,” says Topher Gaylord, an American trail runner who finished second in the inaugural UTMB race in 2003 and has competed in one of the various events almost every year since then.
“It’s a different kind of running—even a different kind of trail running—than most people are familiar with,” says Gaylord, the president of apparel brand Mountain Hardwear, which, along with parent company Columbia Sportswear and sister brand Montrail, is sponsoring the UTMB races in 2015. “That rugged authenticity is starting to influence races and runners in the U.S. and around the world. But there’s still no place else in the world quite like Chamonix.”