The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and its sister races are drawing more Americans than ever.
Something special is happening on the trails of the in the Alps this week—and a record number of American runners are participating in it—but nothing like it will ever likely happen in the United States.
The 12th annual Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), the epic 168K (104-mile) trail race that circumnavigates the highest mountain range in Western Europe, begins on Friday at 11:30 am ET in Chamonix, France. It’s the fifth and final race during the week that annually celebrates the pinnacle of trail running amid the rugged mountains and breathtaking scenery in parts of France, Italy and Switzerland.
By the time the final runners cross the finish line of the UTMB on Sunday morning in Chamonix, nearly 7,500 runners hailing from 77 countries will have trod some of the steep, rugged trails that circle Mont-Blanc massif and its namesake, 15,782-foot peak that towers over the region. Included in that mix are more than 180 American runners—an all-time high for the event that has grown dramatically since its inception in 2003.
“The race is so spectacularly beautiful,” says Rory Bosio, a 30-year-old pediatric nurse from Truckee, Calif., who won the women’s race last year and became the first woman to finish in the top 10 overall with her seventh-place finish in a record-shattering time of 22 hours, 37 minutes and change. “The scenery is amazing and the whole atmosphere here is 10 times what it is in the States. We have great races and a lot of great runners, but the general public actually knows what trail running is over here and they identify with it.”
Bosio became the third American woman to win the race, following in the footsteps of Krissy Moehl (2003, 2009) and Nikki Kimball (2007). No U.S. male runner has won the UTMB, but several have fared quite well, including Topher Gaylord (2nd in 2003), Mike Wolfe (2nd in the rain-shortened 2010 race), Timothy Olson (4th in 2013) and Mike Foote (three times finishing in the top 11 since 2011).
While elite American runners have been running in the event since the start, the last few years have seen an influx of passionate age-groupers from the U.S. challenging themselves on the ridiculously difficult terrain. A record 108 U.S. runners are entered in the UTMB, a race with more than 30,000 feet of climbing and descending. As trail running continues to grow by leaps and bounds stateside and many of the biggest races are becoming harder and harder to get into, more and more American runners are traveling overseas to race in some of the biggest and best races in Europe and Asia.
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The men’s field is once again stacked with talent. Those expected to challenge 2012 UTMB champion Francois D’Haene (France) and Luis Alberto Hernando (Spain) include several top Americans. Among them are Olson, a two-time Western States 100 winner who returns after his fourth-place finish from a year ago; two-time Leadville 100 champion Anton Krupicka, who challenged for the UTMB win last year before dropping out with a hamstring problem two-thirds of the way through the race; Foote, who was fifth in last year’s UTMB, and two-time Western States 100 winner Hal Koerner. Other top Americans in the men’s UTMB field include Michael Wardian, Neal Gorman, Dakota Jones and Jason Schlarb.
In the women’s race, Bosio is again one of the favorites in the women’s race, but she’s likely to be tested by Nuria Picas (Spain), last year’s runner-up, and Nathalie Mauclair (France), who was third at California’s Western States 100 in June. Another top Ameircan, Ashley Arnold, the 2013 Leadville 100 champion from Boulder, Colo., is running the UTMB for the first time and could be a contender too.
Like any other ultra race in the world, there’s no telling what can happen out on the course in the mountains. Unlike any other race in the world, the UTMB starts in front of massive crowds in Chamonix, sends runners up and down 13 mountain passes and through 19 communities in three countries before finishing on village streets lined with cheering pedestrians back in Chamonix. Only a handful of North American races come close to the rigorous climbing and descending of UTMB, but most runners believe even Colorado’s Hardrock 100 comes up short.
“There’s nothing like UTMB in the world,” says Olson, who finished 13th in this year’s Hardrock 100 amid some serious suffering. “It’s a spectacular to be a part of and amazing to be with all of these runners and people that are so much a part of the sport. As for the race, you go out there and race smartly and see what you have after 100K [62 miles]. That’s where the race begins or ends.”
Aside from the UTMB, there are also 38 Americans in the 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) race that begins Friday at 3 a.m. ET on the Italian side of Mont-Blanc and includes 19,000 feet of climbing. About 20 U.S. runners ran in Thursday’s 52K (32-mile) Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix (OCC), a new race with 10,000 feet of elevation change that began in Switzerland and ended in Chamonix. The 119K (74-mile) TDS race (called the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) included 17 U.S. runners, while six more were entered in the 309K (192-mile) four-day team race known as the la Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL).
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The U.S. has plenty of great ultra-distance trail races and many have drawn top international stars and a handful of foreign age-group runners in recent years. But most people close to the sport doubt anything close to the magnitude of UTMB could ever be staged in the U.S.
The No. 1 reason is because of the stringent permitting processes in the U.S., but also because of a lack of financial support. In the U.S., prestigious ultra-distance races like the Western States 100 (360 runners) and the Hardrock 100 (140 runners) are limited to tiny race fields because of land agency and municipality permits. Hosting a technical mountain event with a village-to-village course and as many as 7,500 runners, even if split over five races, seems almost impossible in the U.S. Instead, race directors who want to develop bigger events in the U.S. have found partnering with existing permit holders (like ski resorts) makes more sense than trying to plan a course over numerous sections of federal, state and local land. (Organizers of the Ultra Race of Champions 100K attempted a village-to-village type of race last year in Colorado with some success, but the course for this year’s UROC 100K is entirely situated at Copper Mountain ski resort.)
The North Face is the primary sponsor that underwrites the UTMB, but there are nearly 50 other sponsors that contribute goods, services and money to the event. Plus, each of the 19 communities along the courses support the races and local people come out in droves to support the runners and volunteer. Getting that kind of sponsorship and public support has been difficult for U.S. races.
“I would love to see it in the U.S., would love to see more people getting out there to run or to watch,” Olson says, “but it’s definitely different here.”
Although the event is not televised in France, it is being broadcast online for the fourth straight year via livestream feed at ultratrail.tv. This year is the first time it will feature two versions, one in French and one in English.
“Could this happen in the U.S.? I don’t know,” Bosio says. “I just don’t know if the general public would be as interested as it seems to be here. It’s fun to come here and experience this, but then again I love how it is in the U.S. too. If every race was like this with all of these runners and this much hype, it might turn me off of trail racing.”