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Racing the Sun in Chamonix

Five international teams will try to race around Mont Blanc before the sun sets on the summer solstice.

Megan Kimmel runs a leg of the ASICS Beat the Sun relay around Mt Blanc near Chamonix, France, in 2014. The Colorado runner will anchor Team Americas as it tries to run 93 miles around the highest peak in Western Europe on June 21.
Megan Kimmel runs a leg of the ASICS Beat the Sun relay around Mt Blanc near Chamonix, France, in 2014. The Colorado runner will anchor Team Americas as it tries to run 93 miles around the highest peak in Western Europe on June 21.

Five international teams of runners will battle it out against each other on Sunday in a unique relay race around the highest mountain range in Western Europe as they try to finish a 93-mile loop around the Mont Blanc massif before sundown.

The second annual ASICS Beat the Sun race—held on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year)—will start at sunrise at 5:44 a.m. in Chamonix, France, and the teams will have just 15 hours, 41 minutes and 35 seconds to cover the route and reach the finish in Chamonix before sunset at 9:25 p.m.

The course—which roughly traces the route of the famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc ultra-distance race held in late August—will send 30 runners from 17 countries through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland around the Mont Blanc mountain range. The 13-stage race includes sections of road and trail as short as 2 miles and as long as 12, varying from flat and fast parts to gruelingly steep vertical ascents and technical snow-covered mountain passes.

The event is dubbed “Nautre’s Toughest Challenge,” both because the course has a total of 27,395 feet of elevation gain and descent and because the runners are racing to finish before sunset and not necessarily against the other teams.

“Last year, we had a small idea to create this race and we didn’t know what would happen, but it turned into something really cool,” says event director Mike Brabant, brand manager for running with ASICS Europe.”We felt after the finish of the race last year that we had started something quite special, that it was quite different and it had struck a nerve. And this year is going to be bigger and better.”

The Beat the Sun race was the idea of Laurent Ardito, who manages the ASICS elite trail running team in Europe. Last year in the inaugural event two international teams of elite ASICS runners went head to head, with one team comprised of elite ultrarunners making the cutoff by about 40 minutes and the other team of shorter distance racers missing it by just 33 seconds.

This year the format has been modified slightly to include five teams, each with a mix of three elite and three amateur athletes. More than 10,000 runners from around the world applied for the amateur slots.

“We want it to be nature’s toughest challenge,” Ardito says. “We want it to be about beating the sun, not about racing the other teams. We want to inspire all types of runners about being out there, about being in the mountains.”

Teams will represent Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific and the Americas. The elite runners range from international mountain runner Megan Kimmel of the U.S. to world snowshoe racing champion David le Proho from Canada to to 2012 Ironman World Champion Pete Jacobs from Australia to 1:02 half marathoner Abida Ezamzami from Morocco.

“This is completely different from anything I’ve done, so that’s exciting,” Jacobs says. “But I’m nervous because I’m really competitive and I really hope I can help our team finish before the sun. One of my sections is a very steep trail section, which is a complete unknown for me so I know it will be a different kind of pain.”

Kimmel, a 35-year-old Colorado-based mountain runner, will anchor Team Americas, which also includes American amateur Maria Urso, Brazilians Edmilson Santos (amateur) and Iazaldir Feitoza (elite) and Canadians Elie Silver (amateur) and Le Porho (elite). Kimmel anchored the team that came up just short last year. But, she admits, her team lost a few minutes as one of her Spanish teammates, Genis Zapater Bargues, helped a goat that was stuck in a fence in Courmayeur, Italy.

“It’s really a fun celebration of the sport as much as it is a race,” Kimmel says. “It’s still a race, but this format is a bit more relaxed than last year. Last year was pretty intense for me … in the final section it was full-on running as fast as possible to the finish in Chamonix. For me, the aspect of outrunning the sun was a very legitimate challenge and unfortunately we came up short.”

Urso, who lives near Boston, is a 39-year-old retired captain in the U.S. Army and a medical science liaison for Smith & Nephew Biotherapeutics. She’s run the Boston Marathon nine times (including a best of 3:07 in 2008) and was a member of the All Army Women’s Marathon Team from 2009 to 2012.

“I think our expectations are amateur runners are definitely lower, but I think the fact that we’re all out there running on the same hard terrain kind of equals the playing field a bit,” Urso says. “Running up a steep trail is going to be challenging for all of us.”

The event could expand to include more teams in future years, Brabant says, but it’s not likely the event in Chamonix could handle more than 20 or 30 teams because of the logistical challenges. However, he says ASICS is looking into the possibility of moving the event to a different location around the world starting next year and is considering a location in the U.S.

“We definitely want to move it around to other places in the world,” Brabant says. “It could be in the mountains, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be in a desert and it could be in a city. We think we have a really good idea going with the idea of beating the sun (on the longest day of the year). Our goal is to make it the hardest race that everyone can do.”

Each athlete will be wearing a GPS tracking device so fans can feel close-to-the-action via live athlete tracker at asics.com/beatthesun.