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The UTMB through the Eyes of its Creators—Part 1

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Going on this week in Chamonix, France, is the largest gathering of trail runners in the world. More than 30,000 runners, family and friends are in the famed alpine valley for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the iconic 170-kilometer trail race that travels through France, Italy and Switzerland on its way around Mont Blanc. The event bills itself as the “Sommet Mondial du Trail,” or World Summit of Trail Running. Since its inception 16 years ago, UTMB has expanded to include six races, from the brand new 40-kilometer MCC to the 290-kilometer epic PTL.

Trail Runner Contributing Editor Doug Mayer, who lives in Chamonix, conducted several interviews with the UTMB founding team of Michel Poletti, 63, and his wife, Catherine Poletti, 65. He interviewed them separately on three occasions.

From its inception in 2003, UTMB was quickly embraced by mountain runners. Seven hundred runners started at the first edition, with U.S. ultrarunner Krissy Moehl winning for the women. Today, UTMB is an international brand, as the organization seeks to promote UMTB-franchised races on every continent. Their growth and development has not been without controversy, however, as some observers question their rationale and policies.

We’ll present this wide-ranging discussion in two parts.

Running around Mont Blanc, before the UTMB

Let’s start before the beginning—the beginning of UTMB, anyway. There were other races around Mont Blanc before UTMB, right?
Michel: There were. But they all used roads as much as possible, because the idea was to go as quickly as possible around the range.

The first race around Mont Blanc was a three-stage race organized in the 1980s by extreme skier Sylvain Saudan. It was mostly on roads, however.

After that there was the Tour du Mont Blanc relay. It was mostly organized by our local Club des Sports and grew to as many as 40 teams of seven runners—about 300 runners total, from France, Italy and Switzerland.

Why did it stop?
Michel: It stopped due to the Mont Blanc tunnel fire. [The Mont Blanc Tunnel is a vital infrastructure link in the region, connecting Chamonix, France, with Courmayeur, Italy. A tragic fire in 1999 caused the tunnel to be closed for three years.]

When the tunnel reopened, Club des Sports tried to organize the race. But, they didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the project. Only one or two teams wanted to do the race, and they cancelled it in 2002.

Catherine Poletti in front of the UTMB office with Doug Mayer, left, and Michel Poletti (right). Photo by Neve O Hagan.

A Genesis Moment

So, how did UTMB come about?
Michel: In September 2002, I bumped into the president of our local trail-running club, CMBM, Rene Bachelard, in Place du Triangle de l’amitie. [The famous starting point of UTMB and arguably the most photographed spot in trail running, the triangular plaza is a symbol of the friendship between France, Italy and Switzerland.] He was agitating for the race. “It will be a good race!” he said. “We’re here in Place du Triangle, and the race is a symbol of the friendship of our three countries. We need to do it!”

Each time we’d meet in the streets, he’d tell me the same thing. I met him three, four times. It was always the same story. Finally I said, “OK, OK! We’ll organize a meeting.” The first meeting took place that month in Chamonix.

So it was you three who really started the UTMB?
Catherine: And Jean-Claude Marmier. He played a strategic role in the UTMB. He was a great alpinist. He put up several new routes, and he founded the alpine division of the French army, the  GMHM, or Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne. He directed several Himalayan expeditions and started the Piolet d’Or. [To this day, the Piolet D’or, or Golden Ice Axe, is the most prestigious award in alpinism.]

In the beginning, it was really just four of us:  Réné, Jean-Claude and the two of us. Jean-Claude said: “You need to be finding partners. You need to trademark the brand, you have to do this, you have to do that.” It was Jean-Claude who pushed us, so that today we have the means to live. He taught us how to talk to partners, how to organize the race. He pushed us to make smart choices. [Marmier passed away in 2014 in the mountains, while marking the PTL race course.]

What did you know about trail running at that time?
Michel: A few of us knew about ultrarunning. But, we had no idea about trail running or ultrarunning in the U.S. Nothing. We didn’t know about Western States or Leadville.

But we did know about La Réunion. [The Grand Raid, also called Diagonal des Fous, is a brutally tough 162-kilometer ultra that takes place each year on the island Réunion.] None of us had been to it, but we knew it was a big success. So we were pretty sure it could be a success organizing an ultrarunning race around Mont Blanc. No more stage races, no more relays. This would be a real ultrarunning race, on trails.

“Forget the roads!” we’d say.

UTMB: The First Year

So, how did it go that first year?
Michel: People in Chamonix thought we were absolutely crazy. We announced race registration at the end of 2002, and the first entry came in on January 2nd.  We wanted 300 runners and thought 500 would be a great success. Just a few more than 700 started! It was just amazing. Several dozen countries were represented.

That first year, it was hard to imagine running the entire Tour du Mont-Blanc course. So, we set the race up with an option for runners to stop in Courmayeur and in Champex, or they could go all the way back to Chamonix.  The weather was very bad. In the end only 67 of 700 made it all the way to Chamonix. Just 10 percent finished the race.

To what do you attribute that success?
Michel: Running around the top of Europe and crossing through three countries is a big part of it. It was incredible to think that a normal human is able to run such a race. I like to think the job we did is a good part of the reason for our success—we had good communications, for example. But of course, without Mont Blanc, it would not be successful.

In the first years, UTMB was more like 150 to 155 kilometers. Now it’s 170 kilometers. Why has it changed?
Catherine: Each time we increased the distance, it has been for a specific reason. We used to take a route through the mountains to the town of Les Contamines, for example. But Saint Gervais wanted to be more involved and have the race go through their town. So, we modified the course.

Then you added Col des Pyramides?
Catherine: Right. It’s beautiful. It’s now one of the most photographed spots in the race.

So it wasn’t to adjust the mileage?
Catherine: The distance has never been that important as long as we keep it around 100 miles.  It’s the course that really counts.  For us, it’s about making a logical race course.

Downtown Chamonix. Photo by Neve O Hagan.

From One to Five: The Alphabet Soup of UTMB, CCC, PTL, TDS, OCC, MCC

How did one race grow to six?
Michel: Our dream has been always to have the event over a week not just four days, because we always had in mind the Sweden Vasaloppet cross-country ski race. That’s an event that goes from Sunday to Sunday. We want to reach that objective.

Catherine: All of the races that we have created have had a specific goal. In the early days, we had a lot of people who started but then stopped at Courmayeur,  because it was too long for them.  We thought it was really too bad because they didn’t finish the loop and see places like the Grand Col Ferret. So, that gave us the idea for the CCC—to create a race that is a little more accessible. [The 100-kilometer CCC starts in Courmayeur, Italy, and runs to Chamonix, France—roughly, the second half of the UMTB course. Its high point is 8,170-foot Grand Col Ferret.]

Then you added the 290-kilometer epic event, the PTL, in 2008?
Catherine: Right. UTMB and the CCC were getting bigger and bigger and we were losing some of the original authenticity. People were saying to us that it was getting too commercial, that it had lost the spirit of adventure. We wanted something a bit more committing, with the spirit of a team in the mountains, almost like a rope team.

Very quickly, Jean-Claude Marmier took over the direction of the PTL. He had a taste for the  mountains and adventure. The PTL was his battalion, and he guided them.  He would plan each year’s route four or five years in advance.

And the name? It’s funny, The Petite Trot à Leon or “Leon’s Little Walk.”
Catherine: Léon [Lovey, on the founding committee] said, “Well, in Switzerland, we call a hike a ‘trot.’”  So someone said “the petit trot.” I thought that was nice, and since it was Léon that suggested it, we decided to name is “Léon’s petite trot.” We were looking for a name that wasn’t overly serious. We wanted a different spirit for this new race.

OK, UTMB … CCC … PTL. Next comes the 120-kilometer TDS.
Catherine: We wanted a race that was a little more “wild,” because in the UTMB and CCC, we go through several villages. The Beaufortain region near Chamonix is incredible. The region is rooted in history. The route is an important passage—the whole climb to the pass at Petit Saint Bernard and the descent to the village of Bourg Saint Maurice was used by the Romans and the high priests.

The OCC, which starts in Orsieres, Switzerland, goes through Champex, over the border into France, and finishes in Chamonix, started in 2014. How did that come about?
Catherine: The Swiss said to us, “You guys are nice and all, but two races start in France, two start in Italy and we don’t have a start. It’s not fair.” And so the OCC was born. That also allowed us to have an entry-level race. We didn’t imagine, in the beginning, that a 55K would attract people from all over. But it does. It’s a little more accessible and serves as a way for people to get involved.

Part 2 of this interview will be published this Thursday, August 30th.

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