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It’s the last week of August and Yassine Diboun finds himself back in Chamonix, France once again.
There’s something about this hallowed place, he says, that, if you’re a trail runner who’s fortunate enough to visit here once, there’s a good chance you’ll want to return to challenge yourself on its rugged mountain trails again and again.
Diboun, a 42-year-old personal trainer, running coach, corporate wellness advisor and Columbia-sponsored trail runner from Portland, Oregon, is one of 10,000 runners who have converged on this legendary mountain town to compete in one of the seven challenging mountain running races associated with the 171-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) race through portions of France, Italy and Switzerland
While trail running and ultrarunning have roots in many places and cultures around the world, the Haute-Savoie region in the Alps of eastern France seems to have been one of the authentic birthplaces of modern mountain running. Framed by the enormous Mont Blanc massif range, the Chamonix valley has embraced the act of moving swiftly over steep mountain trails with purpose for decades.
That’s been especially true since the inception of the UTMB and the weeklong festival of adjacent race held annually during the last week of August.
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“I love coming here because I feel like a worker among workers who are coming from all corners of the world to meet here and converge in this special area to challenge themselves,” says Diboun, who completed the UTMB in 2017, returned in 2019 to run the 101-kilometer CCC race and is back to run the 145-kilometer TDS race this week.
“In my two previous experiences, those were among the most difficult races I’ve ever done, and they led me to question my life choices and thought maybe I’m not quite cut out of this kind of stuff,” Diboun says. “Then again, I keep coming back and I sign up for an even more difficult one. And this is why we do this sport. We like to challenge ourselves as we move through the mountains.”
This is why we do this sport. We like to challenge ourselves as we move through the mountains
The annual UTMB festival of trail running kicked off on August 23 with the 40K MCC race from Martigny, Switzerland to Chamonix. That’s the newest and easiest race of the bunch, but with 7,545 feet of elevation gain over the span of 24.8 miles, it’s hardly easy. But that menacingly difficult vibe that’s inherent to the UTMB can be found in every event throughout the week and almost all of the trail running routes in and around Chamonix.
As the MCC was winding down, competitors in the 300K PTL were just getting started. That 186-mile event for teams of three includes an unfathomable 98,000 feet of elevation gain on a mostly unmarked course.
Next up after that is the TDS race that starts in Courmayeur, Italy, on August 24 and sends runners on a grueling, 90-mile clockwise journey with 24,000 feet of gain around the west side of Mt. Blanc and back to Chamonix. After a 15K kids race in Chamonix on August 25, competition will ramp up over the next three days with the OCC (34.8 miles from Orsières, Switzerland to Chamonix), the CCC (63 miles from Courmayeur to Chamonix) and finally the vaunted UTMB (Chamonix to Courmayeur to Chamonix).
There are about 100 American runners competing in Chamonix this week, including Jim Walmsley, Tim Tollefson, Jason Schlarb, Andrew Miller, Courtney Dauwalter, Kaytlin Gerbin, Magda Boulet, Kate Schide, Brittany Peterson and Hillary Allen in the UTMB.
“This place is very unique and special in terms of the grandeur of the mountains and the valley has endless trails,” says Seth Swanson, 42, a North Face sponsored trail runner from Missoula, Montana, who placed fourth in the UTMB in 2015. “I’m happy to be in the TDS because it’s a new adventure and a new challenge. It’s a mix of emotions where you’re totally in awe of the beauty and the awe to get out there, but once you’re out there on the trials, it’s like, ‘oh man!’ and when the reality kicks in when you realize these are big climbs that we just don’t have too much of in the U.S. It’s kind of a balance between excitement and intimidation. It’s pretty awesome.”
Chamonix, Trail Running Capital Of The World?
Chamonix has increasingly been a mecca for international trail runners since 2003, when Catherine and Michel Poletti staged the original UTMB for 722 intrepid runners eager to circumnavigate the 15,777-foot Mt. Blanc summit that towers over the region. That the race doubled in size the second year even though only 67 runners (or 9.2 percent) completed the course the first year was a testament to both the extreme challenge it presented, but also a nod to the region’s mountaineering legacy and its inherent collective ambition to try to reach new heights.
“Chamonix is an incredible place,” says Allen, 32, of Boulder, Colorado, who has lived part-time, trained and raced in the region for several years. “Everybody here is a trail runner, but it’s like, ‘what else do you do?’ Have you climbed Mt. Blanc? Been on the glaciers? Or all of the steep spires around town? It’s really motivating to do some epic trail running in Chamonix, but then also to aspire to the alpinism that was born in this valley. Trail running has been really common here for a long time, but it was originally because it was a way to train and prepare for alpinism. And for that reason, I almost feel like an amateur trail runner here.”
I almost feel like an amateur trail runner here
Allen, who placed second in the women’s TDS race in 2019, is a professional trail runner for The North Face, but it’s important to note is that most of the runners in Chamonix this week are amateur runners who are taking on the same challenges as elite runners like Diboun, Allen, Walmsley and Dauwalter. That includes Glenn Steckler, a 56-year-old wine, spirits and coffee distributor from Telluride, Colorado, who is in Chamonix for the first time to run the TDS race.
“It’s my first time in Alps and that’s a dream come true in itself,” Steckler says. “The mountains here are very rugged, very dramatic and while there are similarities to home in Colorado for me, this is definitely its own thing. This is awe-inspiring and it reconnects you with a newness of it all and an appreciation for the mountains. I think when I drive back into Telluride when I get home after this trip, I’ll have a renewed energy for my hometown as well.”
Steckler’s dream for several years, like a lot of trail runners around the world, has been to run the UTMB. But the UTMB has been increasingly more difficult to enter as demand has grown with increased notoriety. Steckler cashed in the qualifying points he worked hard to collect knowing he’d have better odds in the lottery to get a spot in the TDS.
It could be harder — or at least slightly more complicated — for everyday trail runners like Steckler to get back here in the coming years. There will be an entirely new qualifying process for UTMB coming in 2022. Instead of the ITRA points qualifying system and the Ultra-Trail World Tour that has existed for the past several years, next year will see the start of the new UTMB World Series. (Some of the previous UTWT events, however, will be part of the new World Series.)
To qualify for a place at the UTMB World Series Finals in Chamonix, runners must compete in at least one of the 30 UTMB World Series Events or one of the three UTMB World Series Majors, where they can collect Running Stones for use in the lottery or be rewarded for their performance with direct access. Men’s and women’s champions will be crowned for each of the three key distances of the UTMB race week in Chamonix: the OCC (50K), CCC (100K) and UTMB (100 miles).
A new partnership between UTMB and Ironman also signals the end of what had been a key role of the International Trail Running Association: that of maintaining a point system that served as the gatekeeper for UTMB qualification and entry.
The full UTMB World Series calendar will be announced between the end of September and the start of December — including several UTMB World Series Events and one UTMB World Series Major in the U.S. In the meantime, eight leading, international events are already confirmed across Europe, Asia and Oceania, including: Val d’Aran by UTMB (Spain), Thailand by UTMB (Thailand), Panda Trail by UTMB (China), Gaoligong by UTMB (China), Tarawera Ultramarathon by UTMB (New Zealand), Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB (Australia), and Mozart 100 by UTMB (Austria).
“We will turn the page at the end of this year and we will champion a new UTMB world for next year, but Chamonix will remain the key place in the world for mountain running,” says UTMB Group managing director Frederic Lenart, who formerly served as the general manager of the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race. “Here in Chamonix we have all of the ingredients for it, and it’s what we want to duplicate in the World Series races in the most iconic places with all of their unique specificities but also to add something amazing when you run there.”