If you visit Chamonix, the French mountain town nestled at 1,037m above sea level, in the last week of August, you’ll find yourself surrounded by thousands of trail runners from across the globe. They’re here to run one of the seven races put on by Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) over the course of seven days, culminating in the big one – the ultramarathon itself.
At 105 miles long, looping all the way around Mont Blanc and passing through three countries, it’s not so much the distance that makes it a challenge – although that’s one major part of it. It’s more the five-figure elevation gain over those 105 miles. A total of 10,000m – higher than Everest – results in the ultimate physical test that, for a select group of ultrarunners, is hard to resist.
In that spirit, I was not in Chamonix as an observer: I was there to experience everything the Trail du Mont Blanc loop had to offer by taking part myself.
Aside from the challenge (perhaps ‘ordeal’ is more appropriate) that hovers on impossibility, the Alpine scenery is a major draw. When you’ve been training in the south of England, where the biggest hill nearby tops out at a miniscule 180m, craning my neck at the vertiginous peaks that surround the town makes me feel woozy. What on earth have I signed up for?
Read more on Europe travel:
The route takes runners through France, Italy, Switzerland then back into France. British ultrarunner Tom Evans, who came third in 2022 and sadly had to pull out of this year’s edition at 80km due to a medical emergency, told me before the start that there’s no other race quite like it. “It’s the Super Bowl of trail running. For a week, pro trail runners are treated like A-list celebrities. It’s bonkers.” His favourite part of the race is summiting Grand Col Ferret, at the 100km mark. “By the time we get there, the sun is rising. It’s incredible.”
On Friday afternoon, hours before the 6pm start, I try to stay horizontal in the shade of a hornbeam. My eyes cannot help being drawn to the Mont Blanc massif, the wind whipping puffs of snow off the distinctive granite shards. My anxieties start snowballing. Have I trained enough? Have I chosen the right shoes? Have I eaten enough pains au chocolat?