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Imagine a parallel universe with trail running at its center. A spiderweb of singletrack extends in every direction from downtown. A color-coordinated running getup with hydration vest passes for business casual. Kudos are dispensed not on Strava, but liberally and loudly in person.
Even the rough, cobblestone streets seem designed to help you hone your footwork. You’re a trail runner. Your neighbors are trail runners. The mayor is a trail runner.
This off-road utopia exists, and it’s Chamonix, France, during UTMB Week.
“It is heaven,” says Charley Radcliffe, a Chamonix local. “I mean, Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Massif is a Mecca for running. If you want a quick hit, go get on the VK. If you want to run an iconic trail, why not test yourself on the 23K or 42K Marathon du Mont Blanc courses?”
“Chamonix has a rich history,” says David Laney, 30, of Washington, a three-time UTMB runner who has placed 3rd and 4th . “You can read about it, watch videos or buy French cheese, but UTMB should really be experienced.”
This year, from August 26 through September 1, over 40,000 runners, crew and spectators experienced UTMB during the week-long festival known as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. There are six UTMB races, ranging from 40K to 300K. Each race hosts upwards of 2,000 runners and winds through the Chamonix valley around the Mont Blanc massif, hitting France, Italy and Switzerland.
Chamonix is a small French town whose vertiginous surroundings attract all sorts of mountain athletes and tourists. At 3,400 feet, the petit ville sits at the toe of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the European Alps, at 15,781 feet. The town has long been a hotspot for mountaineering and mountain culture since Cham locals Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat first scaled Mont Blanc in 1786. In recent years, it has since become a testing ground for trail runners. Take Kilian Jornet’s blistering roundtrip run of Mont Blanc in just under five hours in 2013!
“UTMB week in Chamonix is totally crazy,” says Katie Schide, 27, who placed sixth at this year’s UTMB, in her 100-mile debut. Schide is an American runner who lives in Switzerland and France, making inroads in the sometimes-difficult-to-infiltrate European trail scene. “There are people in running vests and trail-running shoes everywhere, speaking tons of different languages, but all excited about the same thing.”
This hyperbolic celebration of mountain endurance is thanks to the entrepreneurial and omnipresent UTMB® and UTMB® International. UTMB and UTMB International are run by Catherine and Michel Poletti, who also serve as the UTMB’s race directors. In an interview with <em>Trail Runner</em> contributor and Chamonix resident Doug Mayer, Michel laid out UTMB’s future.
“Our goal is to have several races on each continent that will be called ‘Something by UTMB.’ Maybe three or four in China, one in Japan and one in Korea. It will be a pyramid to UTMB China, and it will all lead here to Chamonix.” Just hours before the UTMB’s start gun went off, a new UTMB event was announced in Spain.
The UTMB® has grown into an international race organization that hosts competitions on practically every corner of the globe with a semblance of a runnable trail. UTMB entries have increased almost 70 percent in the past three years. This year, 26,000 runners vied for 10,000 spots on the start line of UTMB festival races.
This spring, UTMB announced a new, two-track system for runners to qualify for its lottery. Racers can qualify through the good old-fashioned lottery, where they collect enough points through just two qualifying races. 100-mile races usually provide five points, whereas a tough 50K might provide three. Runners need 10 points to qualify for UTMB, but only four to run the 50K OCC.
Looking to rack up the 10 points required to enter the UTMB lottery in one fell swoop? Simply run one of the UTMB-branded races and you’re in. Perhaps the desert sands and ancient ruins in Oman by UTMB® will tickle your fancy. Get a taste of the Orient on foot in Gaoligong by UTMB®. Or, even Argentina’s Ushuaia by UTMB®. It feels like every continent will soon be colonized by trekking-pole-wielding spandex-clad conquistadors.
The United States represents an obvious hole in the UTMB map. A patchwork of land-use policies and permitting procedures typically prevent races from allowing more than a few hundred runners, making it hard to hold a UTMB-style event. Events can still apply to be qualifying UTMB events through ITRA, or the International Trail Running Association. ITRA functions similarly to the Boston Athletic Association, which selects the races that qualify runners for the Boston Marathon. Many races have refused to participate, and have spoken out against ITRA’s pay-to-play system, where events foot the bill (a minimum of 100 euros) to get certified so that their runners can collect points.
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