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The world’s most important trail race is driving forward—pandemic or not—and despite a tough year across the board, it seems to only be gaining steam.
While many races struggle to fill their 2021 entry slots, that was not a problem for UTMB, Chamonix, France’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—now six races from 40 to 300 kilometers, all of which take place during the final week of August in the legendary mountain town at the base of Mont Blanc. Despite a year off due to the global pandemic, interest in the race series remains very strong.
For the 16th time in a row, the UTMB races have sold out, with 10,000 runners slated across all the races. With the pandemic continuing to complicate international travel, the event’s mix of nationalities has shifted, with more participants from within Europe and fewer from China and Japan. Despite the long-haul travel involved, U.S. interest in UTMB continues to grow, up slightly to 338 participants.
The UTMB organization is contemplating a number of changes this year, including a streamlined bib pickup system and wave starts with a few hundred runners in each block. Runners will have to wash their hands on their way into aid stations, with social distancing and masks being de rigeur. Shared food bins will be a thing of the past, and it’s possible runner assistance areas may be altered or eliminated.
Despite the global uncertainty, 2021’s marquee race around 15,774-foot high Mont Blanc looks to be among the most competitive trail races ever, on a par with 2017, which some observers have considered the most stacked trail race in the history of the sport.
Despite the global uncertainty, 2021’s marquee race around 15,774-foot high Mont Blanc looks to be among the most competitive trail races ever, on a par with 2017, which some observers have considered the most stacked trail race in the history of the sport. That year, France’s Francois D’Haene edged out Catalonia’s Kilian Jornet by 15 minutes, and Spain’s Núria Picas won in a down-to-the-wire race, edging out Switzerland’s Andrea Huser by under three minutes.
How did such a strong field coalesce? “It was really just organic. We didn’t do anything specific to make it happen,” says UTMB’s Press Officer, Hugo Joyeux. One example is a post by three-time UTMB winner D’Haene, who asked on Instagram, “Who’s coming back to take part in the party? I’ll be there!” D’Haene went on to tag his top challengers, gently teasing them into showing up at the starting line next to the Mayor’s office in the old part of Chamonix this August 27th. Most are in, with Jornet notably absent as he continues to reduce his trail-racing schedule to focus on mountaineering objectives.
The USA’s top runners didn’t need a social media ribbing from D’Haene to add the race to their calendars. Starting for the women will be Courtney Dauwalter, aiming for a second consecutive UTMB win, along with Katie Schide, Kaytlyn Gerbin, Brittany Peterson and Stephanie Howe. Schide, second in the CCC race in 2018, and 6th in the UTMB in 2019, currently lives in the south of France, in the maritime Alps region, and is easily the most experienced European racer among the U.S. women’s elite entrants.
“UTMB reliably draws the most competitive field of the year,” says Schide. With top runners coming out of an usual pandemic year-plus, Schide is eager to go head-to-head. “Time trials and personal challenges are fun, but racing is where I’m really able to find the absolute limits.”
The U.S. men’s delegation is equally competitive—with a dose of angst added, too. In 18 years, no American male has ever won UTMB. It’s long since started to be a topic of discussion. Flagstaff, Arizona’s Jim Walmsley has started UTMB twice, finishing fifth in 2017 and dropping out in 2019, while Tim Tollefson, from Mammoth Lakes, California, has had four starts, with two third-place finishes. In 2018, he took a serious fall, fileting a quadricep—yet he still managed to run another 90 kilometers before having to drop. The wound ended up requiring eight stitches. The following year, he showed up at the starting line feeling ill, and eventually dropped.
About 2021, Tollefson says, “It’s going to be another barn burner,” revealing that comparisons with others toeing the start line has been something with which he has struggled over the years. “Contrary to what most may believe, anxiety over who is or isn’t in a field has tormented me historically,” he explains. “Insecurities over training, fraudulent thoughts of belonging, self punishment and disrupted sleep were commonplace.”
For Tollefson, that mix of emotions has added up to sleepless nights and high levels of stress. This past year, counseling has offered him a better perspective. In addition to the usual training, he’s working on “becoming mindful in life and believing that the quest to become the best version of myself—which is not dependent on the love, acceptance or applause of anyone else—is the ultramarathon worth mastering.”
“I left the Chamonix valley in 2018 full of anger, guilt and shame. What brewed over the next 12 months was a toxic cocktail of unchecked emotions and coping strategies,” says Tollefson. “No matter how much I lied to myself and others, I simply did not want to be there.”
The pandemic was a blessing in disguise for Tollefson, allowing him time to focus on the internal work he needed to do. “I left the Chamonix valley in 2018 full of anger, guilt and shame. What brewed over the next 12 months was a toxic cocktail of unchecked emotions and coping strategies,” he says. “No matter how much I lied to myself and others, I simply did not want to be there.”
How will he feel, arriving in Chamonix valley this August? “For the first time in years, the thought of being back in the valley, truly present, is beginning to excite me.”
The restart of UTMB this summer is welcome news to this Alps tourist hub, which historically welcomes close to 100,000 guests for the race series at the close of each August. When last August’s races were cancelled, the organization refunded 55 percent of the entrance fees for the 10,000 registered runners. The split created grumblings on social-media platforms. Meanwhile, the staff of 30, which includes UTMB’s international races, suffered its own share of disruptions. They began working from home starting with the first French lockdown on March 17th, and didn’t return to the office until this past December. They now operate with 50 percent of the staff in the office—masks required.
In lieu of last year’s races, the organization put on a virtual race series, called UTMB for the Planet, which raised nearly $55,000 for the World Wildlife Fund. The virtual series broadened the race’s participation, with registrants running shorter distances and more than 18-percent participation by women, compared to 15 percent for UTMB’s traditional series. Another virtual series is planned for this year and will be announced in April.
Heading into this year, the UTMB organization has addressed one sore point with many observers, allowing women who become pregnant after entering one of the races to defer their entry. Canadian ultrarunner Stephanie Case, who lives in Chamonix not far from the race’s start and finish, called the organization’s lack of policy into question in a piece in Outside Magazine in 2017. “I’m happy to hear that UTMB has changed its policy,” says Case. “But the organization is behind the curve. UTMB, as one of the most well-known, competitive and prestigious ultra trail races in the world, should be at the forefront of policies to promote inclusivity on the trail—it isn’t.”
“I’m happy to hear that UTMB has changed its policy,” says Case. “But the organization is behind the curve. UTMB, as one of the most well-known, competitive and prestigious ultra trail races in the world, should be at the forefront of policies to promote inclusivity on the trail—it isn’t.”
For those like Case, who would like to see UTMB make more progress toward addressing historic inequities, Catherine Poletti, President of the UTMB Group, points out that, “For several years we have been congratulating exactly the same number of women as men on the podium even though the number of women is much lower in the race.”
Poletti also shows off the company itself as an example. “Within UTMB Group, parity is respected at all levels of responsibility,” she says, reminding critics that, “The presidency is held by a woman as well as the management of UTMB Mont Blanc.” (In addition to Poletti at the helm, her daughter, Isabelle Viseux Poletti, serves as Director of the UTMB race.)
Case, for one, already has next steps in mind. She’d like to see race directors offer more opportunities for women, including dedicated spots and quotas in race lotteries. She cites the U.S.’s Western States Endurance Run as an example of an ultra that is taking steps to promote inclusivity by breaking down barriers for groups that have a history of being discriminated against. Two years ago, Western States created a policy for transgender athletes. “[UTMB] should be doing a lot more to help break down the barriers to entry for women and other underrepresented groups in this sport,” says Case.
One brighter spot are the shorter races in the UTMB series. The 56K OCC, for example, has 25 percent female participation, compared to 15 percent for UTMB. And those races are drawing significant attention, with deep fields. Emily Schmitz, a U.S. runner from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is moving to live and train full-time in Chamonix this next month. She will be running the 101K CCC race, after finishing 5th in OCC in 2019.
“I really loved running OCC, the course is challenging with steep climbs, but also runnable and fast, and those types of races are really appealing to me,” says Schmitz, who will get exactly 45 more kilometers of that terrain at the close of this August. And when she’s not racing, she’ll be taking in the scene. “It’s always exciting to be in Chamonix during UTMB week,” she says. “It’s the biggest ultra event in the world. There’s so much to learn just by being there, watching the other races, and talking to other runners.”
Through it all, UTMB continues its international growth. The parent organization, UTMB International, now owns a controlling share of the Ultra Trail World Tour. Three “By UTMB” races are in the series, and each gives preferential odds in the lottery for the Chamonix races. “We are opening the UTMB brand and its standards without giving up the values that have guided us more broadly around the world,” says Poletti.
The Chamonix-based enterprise has developed into a major international business. The organization recently purchased a dilapidated building in town, renovating it for its headquarters. Over the years, the company and associated affiliates have pioneered app-based tracking of races and live coverage of trail racing, now offered in four languages. It was also closely affiliated with the 2013 founding of ITRA, the International Trail Running Association, which now operates as a fully autonomous non-profit under a U.S. President, Bob Crowley.
For runners starting in Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, it’s still hard to conceive that their adventure will finish in that same location, one or up to almost two days later. It’s one thing that no pandemic will ever take away from the Super Bowl of trail running in the most famous alpine town in the world. And that, right there, is a win.
There is a final change looming for the 2021 UTMB that will impact the feel of the world’s most famous race: with safety in mind, the numbers of onlookers that historically have lined the streets of Chamonix for the race’s memorable start and finish may be limited by local and regional authorities. UTMB will present their plan to those groups in June for a final determination.
For all of the changes, one thing will remain the same. At its core, after all, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is just that—a classic mountain run through three countries, encircling one of the world’s most striking massifs. For runners starting in Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, it’s still hard to conceive that their adventure will finish in that same location, one or up to almost two days later. It’s one thing that no pandemic will ever take away from the Super Bowl of trail running in the most famous alpine town in the world. And that, right there, is a win.