Tribal gathering

How Chamonix became Europe’s trail-running capital.

Every year in late August the French Alpine town of Chamonix is taken over by a distinctive tribe. They are the ultrarunners, who can be spotted by their hyper-developed quadriceps; technical shirts bearing the names of obscure but punishing off-road races around the world; and high-end, specialist trail shoes, GPS watches, windcheaters and backpacks.

Initially they are content to pad around town, or to do light recce runs on the trails nearby. But they are here for bigger game - the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which was set up in the early 2000s by local runners, and has become one of the most prominent fixtures on the global trail-running competition circuit. 

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About 700 runners took part in the first UTMB, back in 2003, following the 170km Tour du Mont Blanc hiking path, which circumnavigates Mont Blanc, passing through three countries. Now, the UTMB is a week-long event that includes five races and attracts a total of almost 8,000 runners. The 170km circuit of Mont Blanc remains the marquee race, and retains the UTMB name. But the program of races over the UTMB week now also includes the 55km OCC, 101km CCC, 119km TDS, and the 290km PTL team event.

Each year, 2,300 runners take on the flagship UTMB race, which starts in Chamonix, crosses into Italy, and then into Switzerland, before returning to the finish line in Chamonix. The gruelling route rises to altitudes of 2,500m, and includes a cumulative climb of 10km. Hikers typically take seven to ten days to complete the circuit of Mont Blanc, on which the UTMB route is based, but the cut-off time for runners is 46 and a half hours. The fastest runners finish in less than 20 hours.

Of course, trail running in the Chamonix Valley extends beyond UTMB. The trail-running scene here got underway in the late 90s, and has been growing strongly in recent years. Other local trail races include the Mont Blanc Marathon, the Trail du Tour des Fiz, and the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. The tourist authority is keen to encourage the further growth of the sport - and more trail-runner visitors - and has set up facilities such as La Vallee du Trail website, which publishes details of trail-running routes and events.


But the UTMB is the highlight of the season. And the men’s field for UTMB 2017 - the 15th edition of the race - was the best ever assembled for a competition of this type, according to the trail- and ultra-running website, Kilian Jornet, the Spaniard who has won UTMB three times, and Frenchmen Francois D’haene and Xavier Thevenard, with two wins apiece, lined up alongside US stars Jim Walmsley, Sage Canaday, and Zach Miller. The women’s field saw the return of the 2016 winner and runner-up, France’s Caroline Chaverot and Switzerland’s Andrea Huser. Camille Herron, who won the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa earlier in the year, entered the 101km CCC race within UTMB.

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If the tribe that descends on Chamonix each year for UTMB has a leader then it is Jornet, who first won UTMB in 2008 at the age of just 20, and won again in 2009 and 2011. Jornet already had several remarkable achievements under his belt in the 2017 season, including the fastest-ever ascent of Mount Everest, and wins in the Mont Blanc Marathon, Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, and in the Hardrock 100-miler in the US - the latter win coming even though Jornet dislocated his shoulder about two-thirds of the way through the race. Despite the strength of the UTMB 2017 field, Jornet looked to have the edge over his rivals.


The UTMB race got underway at 6:30pm on September 1st, in cold and rainy conditions. By about 40km, Walmsley, D’haene, and Jornet had formed a leading group. At times, Walmsley was five minutes ahead of the other two, but apparently held back so that he would not have to run alone through the night. As the night progressed, the runners endured snow and hurricane-force winds. After the 100km mark, Walmsley and D’haene began to break away. But Walmsley also began to suffer from the cold as well as from blisters, and had to take long breaks.

D’haene held onto the lead and took the win in front of an enthusiastic crowd lining the streets of Chamonix, in a record time of 19 hours and 1 minute (though the course was shortened slightly due to the weather conditions). Jornet took second place in 19:16, and American Tim Tollefson was third in 19:53. That puts D’haene and Jornet on an equal footing, with three UTMB wins each, and sets the scene for a dramatic battle for supremacy next year.   

Useful websites and other resources - event website for UTMB - event website for Mont Blanc Marathon - event website for Trail des Aiguilles Rouges - event website for Trail du Tours des Fiz - website and mobile app with details of local trail running routes - website run by Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourism Office, with local information and details of services for visitors - lodge offering accommodation for runners


Chamonix Mountain Adventures, Hilary Sharp, Cicerone, 2013 - guidebook about hiking, running, climbing, and mountain biking in Chamonix

Photos - Florian Franceschini, Matt Reed