It’s hard to figure out which was more amazing from Sunday’s ASICS Beat the Sun challenge in Chamonix, France: that two relay teams of pro and amateur runners ran 93 miles around the Mt. Blanc mountain range after the sun rose and before it set on Sunday or the fact they finished within mere seconds of each other.
The event is meant to be a celebration of the summer solstice and teams are challenged with running the rugged loop around the Mt. Blanc massif on the longest day of the year. Team Americas, which included runners from the U.S., Canada and Brazil, completed the rugged loop through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland in 15 hours, 3 minutes and 10 seconds, narrowly edging out a hard-closing Team Southern Europe by 4 seconds. The sun officially set 38 minutes later, leaving Team Asia-Pacific (16:52), Team Africa (16:20) and Team Northern Europe (17:10) to finish in the dark.
Weary Brazilian amateur runner Edmilson Dos Santos ran a strong 12K anchor leg for Team Americas and appeared ready to seal an easy victory, but amateur runner Andre van Dorp of the Netherlands was closing fast for Team Southern Europe and just 30 seconds behind with about a mile to go. Joined by teammates Megan Kimmel (U.S.), David Le Porho (Canada), Iaza Feitoza (Brazil), Maria Urso (U.S.) and Elie Silver (Canada) for the final 100 yards or so, Dos Santos officially gave his team the victory amid hundreds of cheering onlookers and then immediately collapsed in exhaustion moments before van Dorp and his Team Southern Europe teammates crossed the line.
“Finishing like that, with the crowd screaming and us breaking the ribbon, it was a dream come true and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” said Silver, a 29-year-old banker from Toronto who’s training to break 3 hours in the marathon this fall. “The concept was absolutely amazing—the idea of bringing amateurs and professionals together. Putting us on a team and forming a strategy and working together to compete against other teams and against the sun I think really achieved the goal of trying to inspire runners. It was amazing.”
Although the event is admittedly a contrived race developed by ASICS trail running experts, it provided a compelling competition with a unique goal as it roughly traced much of the route of the famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc ultra-distance race held in late August. (Keep in mind the solo course record for the 104-mile UTMB race is roughly 20 hours.) While the inaugural event featured two teams of ASICS pro runners from around the world, this year’s event included five international teams evenly split between experts and amateurs.
Racing the sun on the longest day of the year is a unique goal ASICS thinks it can turn into a bigger event to inspire more runners. A version of Beat the Sun could debut in the U.S. in 2016.
RELATED: Racing The Sun in Chamonix
While the Team Americas pros—Kimmel, Feitoza and Le Porho—raced strong, it was Urso, Dos Santos and Silver who were getting most of the praise after the event. Urso, a 39-year-old retired captain in the U.S. Army and a medical science liaison for Smith & Nephew Biotherapeutics, was named the Queen of the Mountain for her uphill mountain running prowess.
“It was a unique kind of race, but it was unnerving because you didn’t know who was going to run well for the other teams during any given leg,” Urso said. “For me, I knew I just had to run as hard as I could and if I could pick somebody off, I know that would gain us a few minutes. That was my goal: catch a runner ahead of me and not let anybody catch me. It doesn’t matter who was out there with you, all bets are off once you started racing.”
ASICS Beat the Sun featured runners from 17 different nationalities, including Pete Jacobs, a former Ironman World Champion. The 13-stage race included 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 has been 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.
Kimmel, a three-time U.S. Mountain Running Team member, ran three legs for Team Americas. She was happy to make up for last year when she and her teammates wound up just 33 seconds short of beating the sunset.
“It was really fun,” Kimmel said. “It was exciting and different in two different ways than it was last year. Last year was probably more intense in the way that there were fewer runners and you were out there racing hard out there all alone in the solitude—and that’s one aspect I ike that about trail running—but at the same time this year’s race with the team was a lot more fun and exciting.”