My 100km race around Mont Blanc

In my opinion, there is no mountain location more inspiring than the French town of Chamonix, which perhaps explains why, a year after watching the world’s best ultra runners around the highest peak of the Alps as a spectator, I found myself back on the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc for my own 100km race.

Interest in ultra-running – usually defined as any foot race longer than 50km – has exploded in the last decade and the UTMB has become a de facto world championship. Founded in 2003, initially as a 106-mile (171 km) race around Mont Blanc, the event has grown into a week-long festival that attracts major sponsors and around 10,000 runners to eight different races, and is now streamed by millions of fans worldwide the world. .

Ultra-running is an unusual endeavor by any definition, and the mountain version can feel particularly grueling. My race, the CCC, is the equivalent of almost two and a half marathons and involves 6,100 meters of lung-busting climbing over treacherous alpine passes.

Launched in 2006 as a shorter version of the original UTMB, usually held the following day, the CCC has evolved into one of the sport’s most prestigious races in its own right – a sought-after challenge for ultra-runners around the world who complete grueling qualifying races and then participate in the lottery to secure your desired spot.

Competitors at the CCC start in Courmayeur, Italy

Competitors at the start of the CCC in Courmayeur, Italy © Paul Brechu

One of the climbs on the course

One of the climbs on the course – often the participants will walk fast uphill, then run on inclines and flats © Thomas Bekker

The result this year at 9 a.m. on the last Friday in August was a sea of ​​nearly 2,000 skinny runners in the latest ultra-trail fashion—psychedelic hats, tight race bags, and futuristic shoes—crammed onto the avenue. in the picturesque Italian ski town of Courmayeur.

Map showing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc CCC race route

The name comes from the three mountain towns that the race connects – Courmayeur in Italy, then Champex in Switzerland and finally Chamonix in France. Locals describe the CCC as a “half-brother” around the famous mountain. The fastest runner, 28-year-old Swede Petter Engdahl, who is sponsored by Red Bull, ran the course in a record nine hours and 53 minutes. Most would need more than twice as much.

Classical music filled the air as the organizers counted us down. Then we were off: a group of runners from 83 countries meandered through the city’s narrow streets like a herd of colorful wild horses.

French runner Blandine L'Hirondel

French runner Blandine L’Hirondel out on the track. . .

French runner Blandine L'Hirondel arrives in Chamonix as the fastest woman

. . . and arrived in Chamonix as the fastest woman with a time of 11 hours 40 minutes

Why people would choose to run hundreds of kilometers in the mountains only to arrive at the finish line almost a day later hungry and broke is still beyond me. In Christopher McDougall’s 2009 best-selling book, born to run he argued that the ability to run long distances was a defining characteristic of human evolution. In the moments during CCC, I saw his essence.

Leaving Courmayeur at the head of my wave of runners, I felt euphoric. The pretty streets of the town turned into a stone path and then a series of narrow switchbacks that climbed over 1,000 meters in a few kilometers to the first pass, the Tête de La Tronche, at about 2,500 meters above sea level.

At the top, I looked back to see a trail of runners zigzagging up the mountain from the valley floor, united in their insane goal.

As the race continued, over five more major climbs, through stunning Swiss villages and into the dark hours of the night, the moments of euphoria became rarer and the suffering began.

As I ran, I made notes to remember the climbs: the taste of cold spring water in a small hamlet on the descent from the 2,537-foot Grand Col Ferret; a view of a magnificent wooden cross in a clearing on the hillside just after the halfway mark; a cheerful French family with a Dalmatian dog who welcomed me to the penultimate clinic around midnight.

The clouds are lifting on the morning of August 26 as the competitors skirt the south side of the Mont Blanc massif
Clouds rise on the morning of August 26 as the competitors round the south face of the Mont Blanc massif © Franck Oddoux

The falls were the easiest to remember: the grueling 700-meter climb to the Swiss-French border after 70 km, when we had already climbed more than 4,000 meters; the sand that dug into my elbow after I hit the broken ground with my tired feet and fell for the first time; the guttural sound of an exhausted runner moaning in the dark.

During the first half of the race, I regularly checked my watch and silently celebrated if I passed another runner. In the second half, miles and position became irrelevant and I focused only on the hypnotic rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other.

They say ultra-running is just as much of a nutritional challenge as running, as you try to replace the calories you burn. At each aid station—there were seven in all—I refilled my water bottles and plundered the salami, cheese, fruit, and chocolate platters set out by the volunteers. The plain penne pasta, served in halves, tasted heavenly. Coca-Cola has developed a new revitalizing power.

When the lights went out and the headlamps came on, I had run for 12 hours and the race entered its most surreal phase. As we descended in the darkness to the Swiss city of Trient, the forest seemed to come alive: shadows moved like people, trees turned into animals.

Until now, aid stations looked like triage tents in a war zone, where zombie runners nursed injured legs and shoved morsels of food into hungry mouths.

A man on a night street raises his arms in triumph as he finishes his race

Tom Wilson crosses the finish line in Chamonix

On the final climb, as I climbed 600 meters up another set of switchbacks to the plateau north of the finish line, I could see little more than a square meter before my feet. Hunched over my hiking poles, I watched the bugs and earwigs scurry beneath me as I climbed up and up.

And suddenly there it was: the bright lights of Chamonix spread across the valley floor.

I still had over an hour to go, but now I felt lighter as I raced over the rocks under the starry sky. The first meters of descent on battered legs were excruciating, but as I approached the 100km pain disappeared and soon I was flying through the city. I crossed the line around 3am after 17 hours and 45 minutes, 476th out of 1727 runners.

Did I enjoy it? This is difficult to answer. Would you do it again? Definitely.

Tom Wilson is the FT’s acting senior energy correspondent

Details

Entry to the CCC (utmbmontblanc.com) costs €189. To enter the draw for a spot, runners must complete at least one UTMB World Series race of 50km or longer (the system is weighted so the more qualifiers a runner has completed, the more likely they are to win a spot in the draw) . For next year’s race, runners must complete their qualifying races and enter the lottery by December 31. The draw will take place on January 10, 2023.

Tom Wilson qualified by completing the Snowdonia Ultra-Trail in Wales in July; he was a guest of UTMB Group.

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