Les ultra-trails sont-ils devenus dangereux? That’s the question the front-page headline of the Le Dauphiné newspaper posed when it hit newsstands and coffee shops early Wednesday morning in Chamonix, France.
Has ultra-distance trail running become dangerous? That’s also among the many questions trail runners around Chamonix were asking Tuesday evening, less than 24 hours after a Brazilian athlete was killed during the rugged 180-mile La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) event held as part of this week’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) annual festival of trail running races.
After several high-profile deaths at international ultra-distance races, does the small but fast-growing discipline of mountain ultrarunning have a safety problem? Or was the latest death of a participant in a high-level international event merely the result of an unfortunate accident?
The PTL, which started at 8 A.M. local time on August 22 in Chamonix, is the longest and arguably most challenging of the eight races during the UTMB week’s schedule of events. Teams of two or three athletes maneuver a massive loop through the steep and rugged terrain around the Mont Blanc massif in parts of France, Switzerland, and Italy. The course includes more than 86,000 feet of vertical gain and takes teams anywhere from four to six days to complete.
The 40-year-old victim, who has not been identified by the race organization, was crossing a section of loose, rocky scree with his teammate, who was also from Brazil, when he slipped and tumbled an estimated 30 to 50 feet down the mountain just before 1:30 A.M. The incident occurred at roughly the 23-mile point of the course on an established but remote hiking trail between Col de Tricot and the Refuge de Plan Glacier, high above the French village of Les Contamines west of Chamonix.
Shortly after the runner fell to his death, two members of an Italian team that trailed the Brazilians and were bringing up the rear of the race found the victim’s female teammate in shock and called the event’s emergency hotline to report the incident.
Upon receiving the emergency call, a High Mountain Gendarmerie Platoon rescue team was dispatched by helicopter, but when emergency personnel reached the victim he was unresponsive and declared dead on the scene. The helicopter transported the victim’s body and his teammate to a local hospital. The teammate, who is a veteran of the PTL, was released without treatment and driven back to her hotel by her husband, who was not participating in the race.
It took race officials several hours to inform the victim’s family back in Brazil because the phone number he provided on his race application lacked an area code, according to race officials. The race organization reached out to the Brazilian consulate in France, and eventually reached his family members back in Brazil on Tuesday afternoon with the help of another trail running competitor who had just arrived in Chamonix to compete in a different race on Friday.
Catherine Poletti, co-founder of the UTMB and president of the UTMB Group, said that there was good weather at the location at the time of the incident. A guide rope was available for competitors to assist them along the ascent over the steep section of the route at approximately 7,500 feet above sea level.
“It’s so very sad, but it was an accident,” Poletti told Outside. “When you go into nature for adventure—it may be the mountains, it may be the sea—but all the time there is a risk. We cannot provide something with zero risk. It’s impossible. I think that’s a good thing because when you want to have an experience or adventure, you absolutely need to know where the limits are, what your experience is.”
The weeklong UTMB festival has been called the Super Bowl of trail running because the events routinely draw deep fields of competitors from around the world and feature around-the-clock livestream coverage and commentary. Founded in 2003 with its namesake race, the UTMB attracts more than 10,000 participants in its eight events and serves as a de facto world championship for mountain ultrarunning.
The marquee event is still the original UTMB, which sends runners on a 106.5-mile loop around the Mont Blanc massif with nearly 33,000 feet of vertical gain. Other races include the 90-mile Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS), 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC), 35-mile Orsières-Champex-Chamonix (OCC), 26-mile Martigny-Combe à Chamonix (MCC), 9-mile Youth Chamonix Courmayeur (YCC), and this year’s inaugural 9-mile Experience Trail Courmayeur (ETC).
Unlike the set routes of those races, the course of the PTL changes every year. It is designed by expert mountain guides from France, Italy, and Switzerland, with each group responsible for the sections within their own country. Poletti said competitors apply for the race a year in advance, and a UTMB race committee that includes the course designer vet the runners based on their backgrounds in endurance sports or mountaineering.
This year’s PTL includes 105 teams and about 240 total participants. After the Brazilian runner’s body was airlifted off the course, each team was notified of the death at a checkpoint and given the opportunity to drop out of the race and be evacuated, but every team continued the race, officials said. Poletti said race volunteers and rescue officials will be offered mental health counseling at the conclusion of the event.
Doug Mayer, an American who operates the Run the Alps trail running tour business out of Chamonix, said the PTL is closer to a mountaineering adventure than a typical ultra-distance trail running race. Mayer has participated in several events during the UTMB festival of races—including Monday’s MCC—as well as more difficult multi-day events in the Alps and the Dolomites.
“The PTL is really a different beast,” Mayer told Outside. “It requires other skills and it has other types of risks. The very nature of that activity is not something that can be made totally safe. That’s the nature of mountaineering and pushing hard in the mountains. Travel enough in tricky terrain and accidents will happen.”
The race requires all UTMB participants to carry gear that is specific to each distance. The required gear list for the PTL includes a mountaineering helmet, crampons, and a rock climbing harness with a double lanyard rigging system with locking carabiners used on via ferrata routes. The victim was not wearing his helmet, and he was not clipped into the guide rope at the time of the incident, Poletti said.
In its description of the PTL, the race organization informs potential competitors that steep slopes, risk of falling rocks, very narrow trails, scree and snowfield crossing, and the lack of clearly defined trails are all possible at various points on the course. Participants are expected to maneuver in “semi-self-sufficiency” and sleep in huts or established base camps provided by the race organization. The route is not entirely marked and must be navigated by an altimeter, compass, and GPS.
Poletti said the race organization goes to exhaustive lengths to provide participants with every detail about the course and conditions, but maintaining personal safety is the responsibility of each athlete. The Brazilian team was originally registered in the PTL in 2020, but the race was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They intended to return last year, but travel restrictions prohibited them from traveling.
“We have a big job to give to the participants all the information they need,” she said late Tuesday night. “And if they have that, they are able to choose the level of risk they want to take. And if they do not want to take that level or risk, they will do something else. I think it’s also very dangerous to try to make too many rules. If we make too many rules, the responsibility of each person regresses, and then people think they can just ask someone else to be responsible for themselves, and that’s not good.”
There were zero fatalities reported during the first 17 years of the UTMB events, but it has now suffered two deaths in the past two years.
Tuesday’s tragedy occurred a year after 36-year-old Czech runner Ondrej Tabarka died in the TDS, a 90-mile point-to-point solo race on technical trails from Courmayeur, Italy, to Chamonix. And it comes about 15 months after 21 participants in a Chinese ultrarunning race perished after a fast-moving storm brought gusting winds, plummeting temperatures, rain, hail, and snow to the Yellow River Stone Forest of China’s northwestern Gansu province.
Three deaths (two tragic falls and a heart attack) occurred in the Diagonale des Fous, an unrelated French-organized 102-mile race on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, between 2002 and 2012. A French runner died of cardiac arrest at the 2021 Marathon des Sables, the desert stage race that runs through Morocco’s Merzouga dunes.
Hayden Hawks, a 31-year-old professional trail runner from Cedar City, Utah, who is running in the CCC 100km race on August 26, said his heart goes out to the family of the victim, but he knows there is an inherent risk in long-distance trail running in the mountains.
“Every day I put my shoes on and go running in the mountains, there is a risk that I could die,” Hawks said. “It’s kind of a risk that I’m willing to take because I know the love and the joy that running in these mountains and training like this brings to my life. I know that it makes me a better person. I know that it could happen, but I don’t let fear control my life.”
The deaths in the Chamonix events have come at a time when the UTMB organization is undergoing a massive international expansion through a partnership with the Ironman Group. A year ago, the UTMB World Series was announced in which a series of more than 25 races around the world will serve as qualifying events for the UTMB, CCC, and OCC races in Chamonix beginning in 2023. It is loosely modeled after the Ironman triathlon series of events that culminates every October in a world championship event in Kailua-Kona.
The structure of the financial relationship between the UTMB Group and Ironman Group remains confidential, but both parties have an active interest in growing the World Series qualifying system and bringing more people into ultra-distance trail running and, eventually, to chance to qualify to race in Chamonix.
“It’s a tragedy. It’s terrible for the athlete’s family, for the larger community that’s here, and it’s hard to find consolation in all of this,” said Andrew Messick, the CEO of the Tampa, Florida-based Ironman Group. “The course is challenging, but it’s not unsafe. But when you’re racing at night, the mountains are a place where you need to be super careful and not unlucky. When you’re in the high mountains at night, the margin is a lot smaller, and everyone who is engaged in an event like the PTL knows that. And beyond that it’s just terribly sad.”