Flying to Europe to run a race may seem like an extravagance. And it is, no doubt. But, if trail running is your jam, heading to France to hit the dirt and experience the cult status of European trail running first hand at the Mont Blanc Marathon, in Chamonix, is an inspiring event like no other.
The event, which takes place the third week in June, encompasses eight trail races, including an 80K, a marathon, 15K race for 16-22 year olds, a half marathon, nighttime team race, 10K, vertical K and a kids race for young dirt lovers from 5-15 years old. Even with all of the events, the Mont Blanc Marathon is more than a race. It’s an international celebration of mountain running in a veritable trail playground like no other. And the best part is everyone is invited. There are legions of avid fans lining race courses and crowding the mountain top finishes, an adventure-loving culture, a race village, cheese (so much cheese), wine and some of the most beautiful trails you will ever have the chance to run.
“You experience the French culture and energy around sport, plus it’s the most beautiful course in the world,” says Mike Ambrose, a marketing associate for Salomon, who traveled from Ogden, Utah, to run the 80K. “There is so much fanfare around sport, especially in these mountains. People have such appreciation for it.”
Even if you aren’t running a race (which you should), the spectating is off the charts with mountain top finishes, gnarly climbs and serious on-course battles. Between races, hang out with athletes in the race village or explore the valley’s trails on your own. Hiking up is a popular choice when it comes to trails around Chamonix. Thanks to gondolas, which take care of the ascending for you, down and cross-country routes are also popular choices. Take a break in-between trails with mid-run refreshments at refuges and trail side cafes. If you think a cola or a coffee is good after your run, try one in the middle! The only limit to the options is time and your abilities. For ideas, get a trail map and check in with the folks at Run the Alps for guiding services and suggestions.
However don’t let the sheer beauty of the place fool you. Running in and around Chamonix is serious big mountain running, with rocks, ledges and rapid weather changes. A little preparation goes a long way into making your experience safe and enjoyable. All the events have mandatory gear requirements, so be sure to read the fine print before signing up. Even if you’re having a tough race or run, remember to appreciate the athletic history and splendor of the place.
“I probably had the worst race of my life yesterday, but I cannot wait to do it again net year,” Ambrose says. “When I come here, it brings out every good feeling in me about running. It’s also really easy to be grateful and in the moment at this race, even when I’m dizzy and feeling like shit!”
Where to stay
Airbnb is a popular option in Chamonix. There are plenty of charming hotels as well. Try L’Hélio or Chalet Hôtel Prieuré for their central locations, well-appointed modern rooms, reliable Wi-Fi and in-hotel restaurants and bars.
Where to eat
If you are in the mood for authentic regional cuisine (including LOTS of cheese), an impressive wine list and old-school décor, this is a must visit.
Just outside of Chamonix in Argentiere, this cozy, alpine oasis offers updated interpretations of classic French cuisine made with local ingredients.
What to do, besides run
Mer de Glace
Catch the iconic red Montenvers Train, a rack and pinion railway, in Chamonix. Take it up to Montenvers where you can explore the Mer de Glace glacier. (Fair warning, LOTS of steps are involved.) Enjoy a meal at the Grand Hotel du Montenvers and set out on several hikes. Additionally, if you’re up for it, you can run the 10K back to Chamonix.
Auguille du Midi
Simply riding the cable car to Auguille du Midi is a breathtaking experience. Once you’re there, be sure to take in the 360-degree views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, explore the museum and grab a bite to eat.
Where to get your gear
There are many options for picking up new running gear. Simply cruise through the race village to check out the latest offerings. Or stroll the streets of Chamonix and peruse the racks at more than a dozen outfitters and retail outlets, such as Salomon, The North Face, Columbia, Arc’Teryx, Asics, Patagonia and Mammut.