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In Chamonix, France, The Trail Racing Never Stops (Well, Almost Never)

The Mont Blanc Marathon series started in 1979 with the 23K distance, making the it one of the oldest trail races in the Alps. 

It’s early morning, 1,400 meters above Chamonix, France, and Club des Sports Director Fred Comte couldn’t be happier. He is smiling broadly, cheering on trail runners. Only, they aren’t running. Most are sliding—glissading is the technical term—down a series of steep snowfields over which one of the hardest trail races in the Alps is now taking place. One by one, the 701 racers slip and slide on their way down to more traditional trail-racing terrain. Trail-running poles are de rigueur on this technical course with 6,020 meters of climbing and descending, and this section is aggressively destroying them, the sound of carbon fiber breaking punctuating the alpine morning. 

The 90K race is just one of seven trail races that take place over three days each June in Chamonix. Courses also include a short, gruelingly steep 3.8-kilometer-long Vertical Kilometer that features chains bolted to the rocky route, and a 10K, 23K and 42K marathon-distance race. There’s even a night race on the alpine Balcon Nord above town. All of it is powered by Club des Sports, a vibrant non-profit association that supports more than 27 sports clubs in the valley that range from ski mountaineering to Jiu Jitsu. Funds from the race support the work of the club and its 14-member professional staff. This past weekend, nearly 600 volunteers helped make the races happen.  The series started in 1979 with the 23K distance, making the “Cross du Mont-Blanc” one of the oldest trail races in the Alps. 

Global pandemics aside, each year the Mont Blanc Marathon series brings about 40,000 runners and supporters from 85 countries to the valley.

In the trail-racing world, Chamonix is best-known for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which this year will celebrate its 18th edition. The race series recently announced an ambitious expansion plan in partnership with the Ironman brand. While UTMB represents the pinnacle of trail racing in the world, there’s lots more happening in this trail-running-crazed town, much of it is at a very high level with broad international appeal. Global pandemics aside, each year the Mont Blanc Marathon series brings about 40,000 runners and supporters from 85 countries to the valley. (This year’s overall visitor numbers were understandably lower, though exact numbers were not available. The races had participants from 50 countries.) 

 

In 2020, for the first time ever, the Marathon du Mont-Blanc races were cancelled, along with UTMB’s series of races, and virtually all other events. This year’s races very nearly suffered the same fate. During the spring, France passed through another pandemic-induced lockdown. Facing French regulations that limited numbers and enforced an evening curfew, the Club des Sports shifted the races forward into July. It was a change that brought the race into sync with France’s lowering Covid infection rate, growing vaccination numbers, and phase-out of restrictions, ultimately allowing the international event to go forward. Not all runners could adjust to the shifting timeline, however, and this year’s races had 5,422 participants, compared to 10,164 in 2019. 

For U.S. trail runners, this year’s 90K race featured a dramatic story from pro trail runner Hillary Gerardi, a local favorite. A native of Vermont, she and her mountain-guide husband, Brad Carlson, have spent the last decade living in France, the last four in Chamonix. For Gerardi, the 90K—this year’s actual course was 85K due to a Covid-altered course that skipped a short section in neighboring Switzerland—was her first big race back, post-Covid.

“Getting back to high-level racing after a long break is always tough,” she noted. “It can be hard to get into the right headspace and you’re always a little unsure of where you’re at in your training.” Chamonix valley’s epic race course added another complicating factor. “This time I added the uncertainty of doing a race format that is much longer than what I’m used to doing. There was a lot up in the air.”

Gerardi took the lead right from the start. But, for over 11 hours, Italy’s Giuditta Turini was never far behind, closing on the downhills while Gerardi stretched the lead on the multiple tough climbs out of the valley. 

Diligent in her training, Gerardi also has the mental focus needed to tick off big wins. “At the start, everything went into one or two boxes: what can I control and what can’t I control? I tried to stay positive.” Months of training behind her, it was time, Gerardi said, “to trust the process.”

 

Part of that process was a carefully organized, all-star supporting cast. Two-time race winner Mimmi Kotka lent a hand, as did U.S. runner Katie Schide, who also now lives and races in France. Schide won the race in 2019, Kotka in 2017 and 2018.

“The ability to remain calm and confident is a huge part of maintaining a long effort. Having a crew that you completely trust helps eliminate any uncertainty around aid stations and can really set the tone of the race,” Schide explained. “When someone tells you, ‘Eat this, sit there,’  it’s better if it’s coming from a person you trust!”

In the end, it came down to the last climb—810 meters up to Montenvers, above the iconic Mer de Glace glacier. “I heard Giuditta was running strong. I hit the panic button and pushed as hard as possible to make sure that she couldn’t see me coming through the aid station,” Gerardi recounted. “I think I pushed it too hard. I bottomed out, physically and emotionally.”

“I heard Giuditta was running strong. I hit the panic button and pushed as hard as possible to make sure that she couldn’t see me coming through the aid station,” Gerardi recounted. “I think I pushed it too hard. I bottomed out, physically and emotionally.”

Waiting for her at Montenvers was Mike Ambrose, one of the most knowledgeable and experienced U.S. trail runners based in the Alps. He knew just what was needed.

Said Gerardi, “In my training, I work a lot on positive thinking and affirmations, but at that point my confidence was shot. Mike was there to anticipate my needs and make sure that I could get out there and hammer for the last 15 kilomet4ers.” Refocused and in better spirits, she pushed hard to the finish, ultimately winning by 19 minutes 15 seconds.

 

This past weekend was just the start of the trail-racing series. From late June, there’s something happening nearly every few weeks. Next up, in a little over a week, is the Nid d’Aigle. Part of France’s national mountain-racing series, the course climbs 2,000 meters over 19.5 kilometers, from the base of Mont Blanc to a rocky, alpine finish not too far below the lower reaches of Mont Blanc’s ice and snow. The next day is Argentrail, a 25K race in the village of Argentière, just above Chamonix. Later in the month, CMBM, the town’s 200-member trail-running club will host the annual two-person relay race through Chamonix’s old village. Consisting of six, 750-meter laps per runner, the race starts and finishes in Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, the same location where UTMB’s many races finish. Finally, after the frenzy of UTMB subsides at the close of August, even the town restaurants get into the game, as their most sportif waiters test their speed and balance, racing through downtown Chamonix, silver trays topped with precariously balanced goblets of champagne. Well, most are balanced. More than a few spill and shatter on the cobblestone streets as the waiters race through the course. 

It all ends at the close of September, with Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. A 54K trail race that rotates annually between one of three courses, the “TAR” as it is nicknamed, throws the area’s trail runners a final, hefty end-of-season technical challenge as it wends its way over high cols and along ridges through the Aiguilles Rouges Natural Reserve that makes up the north wall of this steep-sided valley. In recent years, a 16K “P’tit TAR” and 9K “Mini TAR” have also been added. 

After last Friday’s 90K and Vertical Kilometer races, a cold rain settled over the Chamonix valley. But it takes more than dreary weather to dampen the trail-running spirit in Chamonix, and as another edition of the Mont Blanc Marathon series drew to a close on Sunday night, Gerardi—looking remarkably well-rested after what was arguably the hardest trail race of her career—was already lively on her feet, delivering a presentation at Big Mountain, a microbrewery on the town’s pedestrian-only Avenue Ravanel le Rouge. It wasn’t about her recent win, though. Instead, she was joined by her friend, French national ski champion Valentine Fabre. Just three months earlier, the two established a women’s ski-mountaineering record on the venerable Haute Route that connects the town with Zermatt, Switzerland, 106 kilometers away. In Chamonix, whether on snow or rock, and no matter the time of year, the racing never stops.