UTMB: A Fanfare for the Common Runner

UTMB is a brutally challenging race, but the race-week hype, world-class competition, and global party vibes have a way of making every runner feel special

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Tina Pedersen had just run 171km (106.5 miles) around the Mont Blanc massif. Sweaty, wet and exhausted, her top concern was where her youngest son had wandered off among friends and family who were watching the race.

As she was running through the packed streets of Chamonix, France, on Sunday morning with only about 200 meters to go before the finish of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), only two of her three sons, 10-year-old Casper and 7-year-old Zachary had immediately emerged from the edge of the course lined with cheering spectators to run with her to the finish.

The 44-year-old Swedish ultrarunner who lives in London was about to let running partner Emilie Fuller of New Zealand go on to the finish line without her when she spotted her tiny blond-headed 3-year-old Alfred.

“He was looking in the window of the toy store!” said Pedersen, who is an airline pilot for British Airways. “I had to find him so we could all finish together.”

With her three sons leading the way and Fuller alongside them, Pedersen made the final triumphant jog through the village and down the Place de L’église to cross the UTMB finish line for the first time after 40 hours and 40 minutes of running.

Tina Pedersen
Swedish trail runner Tina Pedersen was greeted by sons Casper,10, Zachary, 7, and Alfred, 3, at the UTMB finish line after almost 41 hours of running and hiking on the 171.5km (106.5-mile) UTMB course through parts of three countries. (Photo: Brian Metzler)

A Life-Affirming Golden Hour

When it comes to trail running, UTMB is a one-of-a-kind international experience that epitomizes the zeitgeist of ultra-distance running in the mountains.

Not only does the course send runners on a dastardly loop around 15,777-foot Mont Blanc, with nearly 33,000 feet of vertical gain, but it also brings together the deepest field of the year, with more hype and media attention—including comprehensive coverage and commentary via livestream—than any other event in the world by far.

While UTMB is an epic, championship-caliber race up front, it’s also an extraordinary life-affirming challenge for everyday runners from around the world.  The race begins for everyone in the Chamonix’s packed pedestrian village at 6 p.m. on Friday night and sends runners on trails through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland before returning to France and back into Chamonix via the LaFlerge ski area. It reaches a crescendo of excitement as the winners—this year Kilian Jornet, 34, of Spain (19:49) and Katie Schide, 30, of the U.S. (23:15)—return to town the next afternoon.

But long after several dozen elite runners complete the loop around Mont Blanc, age-group runners continue to endure the grueling climbs and punishing descents of the course and a second night of running through the dark to make their own glorious finishes in Chamonix. With a 46-hour, 30-minute cutoff and a field of 2,300 runners, it means a seemingly endless string of everyday runners who work 9-to-5 jobs continue to stream into the village through the wee hours of Sunday morning and late into that afternoon.

It’s like the golden hour at the Western States 100, only longer and more prodigious—and where finishing arm-in-arm with family members or carrying a country flag is the norm. Simply put, the energy and excitement of Chamonix—not to mention the rugged terrain of the Alps—is unparalleled in the trail running world, especially for amateur athletes.

“It’s a bucket-list race for me, and it was amazing,” says Anthony Steeno, 42, a pharmacist from Traverse City, Michigan, who finished in 39:29. “It’s just a different experience compared to anything we have in the U.S. and a culturally different experience, too. I met runners from the Czech Republic, France, England and New Zealand. And I spent the last stretch of the race running with a guy from Paris and learning about where he lives and trains.”

Tony Steeno UTMB
Michigan trail runner Tony Steeno celebrates his 39-hour, 29-minute UTMB finish with his wife, Stacey, and his sons Evan, 13, Colin, 9 and Nicholas, 6. (Photo: Brian Metzler)

And it’s not just the UTMB race and it’s not just in Chamonix. There are eight races during the week leading up to UTMB, ranging from 15km to 290km, that start or pass through a dozen total cities and villages with more than 10,000 total runners from 105 countries, and, of course, each with huge vert. There were more than 900 or so American runners this year, by far the largest contingent of participants from the U.S.

“If you’re a trail runner, you can’t beat the experience and the buzz that’s going on in its town when UTMB is here,” says Gabriel Matyiko, 43, Sharptown, Maryland. “I have watched every video on YouTube about this race to try and get an idea of what it’s all about, but there’s nothing that prepares you for being here and the feeling you get in town. It’s on a different scale entirely and hard to put into words. You have to experience it.”

Matyiko, who owns a house-moving business, has run a lot of ultra- and sub-ultra trail races in the U.S., but this was his first trip to Chamonix for UTMB. He suffered some stomach issues early in the race, so he had to manage his fueling and hydration as well as the 11 massive climbs and descents on the course. But he persevered through bouts of vomiting and napping, and it eventually cleared up. He said ran the final 15 to 20 miles without any issues, eventually crossing the finish line in Chamonix with his wife, son, and two daughters.

Aside from the challenging course and stunning mountain views, he said he also appreciated the cultural aspects of the event. That includes both the immersion into the multilingual vibe along the route and the eclectic aid station fare that includes local meat, cheese, bread, pastries and cappuccino from the local towns that set up their own party-like atmosphere to greet and support runners.

“When you are running a race in America,  you have the mindset that everyone is going to speak English and that’s obviously not the case here,” he said. “I was prepared for it and know you have to make the best of it. But it’s fun because most people at the aid stations and along the course are trying to figure it out just by looking at you and seeing what flag is on your bib.”

Qualifying for UTMB 2023 and Beyond

Next year’s UTMB—as well as the 100km CCC race and 56km OCC race during the UTMB festival—will require runners to qualify by collecting “Running Stones” that amount to lottery tickets for those events via the new 25-race UTMB World Series. The UTMB organization has partnered with the Ironman Group to expand the worldwide series of qualifying events, which so far includes the Speedgoat Mountain Races and Canyons Endurance Runs in the U.S. More races are expected to be added soon.

The idea is that runners participate in regional or destination races to earn the chance to run in Chamonix. The new setup is loosely modeled after the Ironman triathlon series of events that culminates every October in a world championship event in Kailua-Kona.

“For the average runner who is running through two nights on this course and you can’t see what’s ahead of you in the dark, you think you’ve gotten to the top of a mountain and all of a sudden you get there and your see a line of headlamp lights in the distance going up an even higher mountain,” Steeno says. “It’s the same when you’re going down. You think you’ve gone down to the bottom of a climb but there’s a point that it seems like you’ll never get there.”

But more than 1,800 UTMB runners—and more than 8,000 total runners—from all walks of life did get there, fulfilling an epic quest that, for many, has been years in the making.

“I tried it the first time in 2016 and failed, so I had some unfinished business,” said Tony Holt, a 46-year-old school teacher from Newcastle, England. “It was really tough, but I got it done.”

This article first appeared in Outside Magazine