The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is an extraordinary race. Since 2003 it has pitted the greatest trail-runners against Europe's toughest mountain route. This year well over two-thousand people attempted the 170-kilometre UTMB course. At the invitation of Petzl, we were there to witness it all, from the starting whistle to Pau Cappell's triumphant victory.
It was an exhausting, exhilarating few days . . . and we were just watching!
The true demands of the UTMB only really hit me hours into the race. We had been at the start line. We'd seen the thousands of people snake their way through the crowds, a sea of bobbing faces, some excited, some terrified. It was impressive, and genuinely moving, but it wasn't until I found myself in the mountains, at 4.30am, that I realised the extent of the challenge facing the competitors.
As we struggled up a cruelly steep slope, cursing every step and complaining about missed sleep, we saw lights bounce along the ridgline. This was the runners completing yet another ascent. They had been on their feet for over 8 hours at this point. They had already covered nearly 100 kilometres.
We waited at the side of the trail. Our Petzl hosts, Benoit and Olivier, encouraged each runner with allez allez. We joined in with a very British "well done", or a more Mancunian "go on mate!" A handful of them nodded their thanks, but most stared ahead, unresponsive, lost in their own heads after hours of gruelling darkness.
We consulted the race map and realised that each passing competitor had covered 95 kilometres and almost half of the 10,000 metres of climb. To put that into perspective, Mont Blanc, the mountain around which the race turns, is 4,810 metres high. The UMTB includes a total elevation that exceeds even the height of Everest.
And speaking of mountains, ours revealed itself with the dawn. A ruddy light broke and, as if a curtain had been pulled back, Mont Blanc was suddenly there. Our night hike to Col de la Seigne had taken us directly beneath the mountain without us ever being aware of it. Now it loomed down over the line of runners like a threat yet to come.
Daybreak made a difference to the competitors. Pace increased, strides extended, smiles started to appear. Much of this was due to the route turning downhill after such a long climb, but the arriving morning also seemed to dispel the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
In one of the UTMB's characteristic quirks, dawn brought a series of characters to the route. First we were joined by a pair of bongo players and their dancers. They pounded their drums and danced their sun salutation. Further down the trail a trio of old bearded men played steel guitar before giving way to a harpist. Her music was so enchanting that runners paused to listen. She played Vangelis' 1492, Conquest of Paradise. This classical piece has become the unofficial anthem of the race. You hear it on every radio station, at every start line.
The UTMB, you see, is much more than just a race; it is a cultural event. For one weekend in late August, the UTMB creates one nation from the edges of three. The mountain straddles France, Italy and Switzerland, and the race follows the 'Tour du Mont Blanc' through all three. The winner generally completes the race inside 24 hours, most of the runners will take closer to 40 hours, running through one night and into the next.
The valley towns are dominated by the race. On the Italian side Courmayeur centres around a massive tent dedicated to showing the 24-hour coverage of the race. It is also the start point for the CCC® (Courmayer – Champex – Chamonix), one of the smaller events that makes up the week's roster of races (though at 101km 'smaller' is a relative word). Over the course of the week spectators shuttle back and forth from Courmayeur to Chamonix. This is only a 20-kilometre drive, but when everyone is on the road it can take over two hours.
In Chamonix everyone is wearing running gear, so much so that it is almost impossible to tell athletes and spectators apart. The day is punctuated by cheers as runners make their way down the final straits, completing one of the seven events that make up the full week's programme. This includes the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), a massive 300km race run in pairs over several days. We were lucky enough to see Jasmin Paris and Jim Mann finish together, fresh from their success in the 2019 Spine Race.
The UTMB is clearly the main event, though. This is clear to see from the crowds that gather in Chamonix to watch the race begin. Petzl had found us the perfect vantage point: a first-floor window of Chamonix Post Office.
Below us, thousands of people lined the streets. They cheered and bellowed as each of the elite athletes headed to the start line. Vangelis blasted out from the speakers. Together thousands of people set off into the hills.
We would be back in Chamonix 20 hours later to see the winner make his grand entrance.
After being up since 3.30am we were enjoying some downtime at Petzl's HQ, fully expecting the winner to be hours away. Suddenly walkie-talkies crackled and then we were dashing towards the finish line. Word had filtered through that the forerunner, Pau Cappell, was on course to finish within 15 minutes.
The central plaza was mobbed. We couldn’t get anywhere near the finish line. Instead we watched the big screen as Cappell, followed by the camera team, drew closer to Chamonix. He was less than five kilometres away and running as if none of the previous 165 had touched him.
The announcer worked the crowd, encouraging us all to chant the soon-to-be-winner's name, turning it into a series of small explosions: "Pau, Pau, PAU". Then, the magic happened.
Without provocation, the crowd began to murmur and hum. As the screen showed Cappell entering Chamonix, thousands of voices began to sing Vangelis' 1492. It was quite the welcome.
Cappell turned the last corner and then, smiling, drew to a halt. He ushered the crowd in from both sides, turning the well-defined corridor into a mass of people, and then he ran through them, high-fiving all the way, and crossed the finish line. 20 hours and 19 minutes. Through the night and extreme daytime heat. He threw his arms around his family and then ran back to greet the crowds. After 170km he was still running!
Sadly, flight times meant we had to leave Mont Blanc before we saw any other finishers. In the days since stories have emerged: how Courtney Dauwalter finished in 24 hours, 34 minutes, the fastest woman and second fastest American regardless of gender; how Wong Ho-chung and Joaquin Lopez finished hand-in-hand after Lopez had helped the Honk Kong runner return to the route after he became lost.
These stories are indicative of the UTMB. It's a race that aims to destroy people but ends up bringing them together. I love to run but had no idea that watching a race could be so fulfilling. From the start line fervour, through the night into the tranquil mountain dawn, all the way to the emotional finish: the UTMB is a thing to behold.
We are very grateful to Petzl for giving us the chance to see it.