Competitive trail running is booming right now. Literally, right now in Chamonix, France.
More than 10,000 trail runners have traveled into this hallowed mountain sports town this week to compete in one of seven races associated with the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc or UTMB. But it’s not just the numbers that demand attention, or that these events are among the most competitive and most challenging trail races in the world — it’s also the prestigious atmosphere that surrounds the weeklong event that makes it compelling.
“Chamonix is the best mountain running destination in the world and the race organization has put together what is easily the most important event in the world for trail running,” says elite-level American runner Dylan Bowman. “From a racing point of view, there is nothing that compares to the depth of competition in every one of the races here. And when you combine all of that with the atmosphere around the village before, during and after the races, it’s essentially a recipe for the Super Bowl of ultrarunning.”
When to watch the UTMB: 5 p.m. local time in France on Friday, August 26 (11 a.m. ET)
Top men will take 20-21 hours. Top women 23-24 hours.
Here’s a rundown of what’s happening and why you’ll be glad you tuned in.
UTMB: Trail Running’s De Facto World Championship
Although five races have already been completed this week, everything centers around the original UTMB, a 171-km race that sends runners through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland as they circumnavigate the Mount Blanc massif. That race got started in 2003 by Catherine and Michel Poletti, who believed that the fast-growing sport of trail running should have an epic event that would challenge all levels of runners, inspire competitors to immerse in nature and create a competitive, championship-like setting.
It not only grew quickly, it also helped globalize the sport and made Chamonix the place to be for long-distance trail runners who wanted to compete at the highest level. With a combination of a deep international field, moderately high altitude, long stretches of technical terrain, 10 wickedly steep climbs and descents and a taste of three countries and cultures, the UTMB has annually provided a global benchmark of competitive mountain ultrarunning. For the past 15 years, it’s been a de facto international championship for ultra-distance trail running.
This year’s UTMB will begin at with stacked men’s and women’s fields made up of runners from more than 35 countries. The evening start means all runners will run non-stop through the night — and for some two nights — on their 106-mile journey around Mt. Blanc. Along the way, they’ll pass through more than 10 villages where they’ll encounter thousands of cheering spectators and aid stations stocked with typical race fueling and hydration products, as well as local meats, breads, cheeses and, of course, cappuccino.
In the women’s field, America Courtney Dauwalter, who is the defending champion after her dominating victory in 2019, and Beth Pascall of the UK are the top contenders. But Maite Maiora of Spain, Regana Debats of the Netherlands and Camille Bruyas of France, as well as other Americans Kate Schide (who lives full-time in France), Brittany Peterson, Hillary Allen and Kelly Wolf could also crack the top 10.
On the men’s side, it figures to be a battle between three-time champions Francois D’Haene and Xavier Thevenard of France and U.S. stalwart Jim Walmsley, a three-time champion of the Western States 100 trail race in California and fifth at UTMB in 2017, and fellow American Tim Tollefson, who has twice finished third in the UTMB.
While four U.S. runners have won the UTMB women’s race a total of six times (Krissy Moehl, 2003, 2009; Nikki Kimball 2007; Rory Bosio 2013, 2014; Courtney Dauwalter, 2019), no American man was won UTMB and only a handful of U.S. men have finished on the podium.
“We’re still banging on the door trying to get into the party,” Walmsley says. “It’s exciting, but it’s not simple. You’re not just going to show up and have success here in long races on the first try. You have to do your homework and get some experience to have a chance because you really have a deck stacked against you.”
You can follow all of the action of the UTMB on the event’s livestream site, which includes live video, expert commentary and live runner tracking.
The UTMB Community Vibe
One thing that’s inherent in trail running is the community vibe and supportive camaraderie that’s perhaps born out of a shared sense struggle and the willingness to dig deep against the common competitor of the natural features of the course. While that can be felt in small local trail running groups around the world and small but iconic races like the Hardrock 100, Leadville 100 or Western States 100 in the U.S., it’s also present in these massive races in Chamonix and walking through Chamonix’s quaint pedestrian village or the race expo.
“The trail running community is blown up here in Chamonix, times 100,000 of what it is at Hardrock or Leadville,” Dauwalter says. “But it has the same feeling of a family reunion and that makes it very special. You meet people and you have this instantly like you have a connection.”
Many icons of the sport can be seen in the village or at the expo after doing pre-race shakeout runs in the days prior to the race. That’s somewhat the antithesis of marathon running or track and field, where the elite competitors can seem like untouchable superstars. But in trail running, elite runners tend to support and encourage each other and are generally quite approachable when they’re not racing. While UTMB favorites Jim Walmsley and Francois D’Haene will be going head-to-head in the race, they’ve also become good friends based on past experiences. In mid-July, when D’Haene ran to a course-record victory at the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, Walmsley was one of his pacers.
That community vibe is embellished by the thousands of spectators lining the streets of Chamonix to see the runners off at the start and to greet the top finishers of every race like the conquering heroes they are accompanied by the dramatic soundtrack of music, most notably “Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis.
“It’s a goosebumps atmosphere. There is nothing like it in trail running,” Bowman says. “When you see the winner come into Chamonix when it’s packed with people in the village is a memorable, life-changing kind of thing. There are people cheering for the finisher deep into the night, and then you go to sleep, wake up and you come back the next day and you cheer for people who have gone through two nights who are equally heroic as they do everything they can to reach the finish line. It’s a special part of the sport and unique how it happens in Chamonix.”
A Glimpse of Trail Running Heaven
Is this heaven? No, it’s Chamonix. This earth is full of great places to run trails and compete in ultra-distance races, but Chamonix is one of the world’s most revered places for the culture of the sport. With a long history of adventure and endurance sports, this mountain hamlet offers seemingly endless trails to run — most of them with very steep sections — that extend to mountain ridges that crisscross the Haute-Savoie region and extend into Switzerland and Italy.
The valley floor is situated at about 3,400 feet above sea level, but the tall mountains above reach 15,777 feet at the summit of Mont Blanc. While the trails produce thigh-burning challenges, the scenery is so awe-inspiring it can take your breath away.
“It’s my first time in Alps and that’s a dream come true in itself,” says Glenn Steckler, 56, from Telluride, Colorado, who was in town to run the 145-km TDS race on Tuesday. “The mountains here are very rugged, very dramatic and while there are similarities to home in Colorado for me, this is definitely its own thing. This is awe-inspiring and it reconnects you with a newness of it all and an appreciation for the mountains. I think when I drive back into Telluride when I get home after this trip, I’ll have a renewed energy for my hometown as well.”
Shorter and Longer Races
While the UTMB is the marquee event, it’s not the only race that matters. As interest in the original race grew early on, organizers added additional races both shorter and longer in distance, ultimately offering seven races from 40 km to 300 km.
If you want to get up really early you can watch the next most competitive race on tap, the 101-km Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix race, aka the CCC, which was added in 2005 as an alternative to UTMB. It begins Friday morning at 9 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) in the exquisite Italian village of Courmayeur and sends runners on a 64-mile journey two-thirds of the way around the Mt. Blanc loop back to Chamonix, climbing and descending more than 20,000 feet as they go.
The top contenders in the men’s field include: Stian Angermund (Norway), Thibault Baronian (France), Jared Hazen (U.S.), Matt Daniels, Andreau Simon Ayermich (Spain). Ruth Croft (New Zealand), Yiou Wang (U.S.) Azara Garcia de los Salmones (Spain), Dominika Stelmach (Poland) and Amanda Basham (U.S.) should be in the mix at the front of the women’s race.