Traveling to the Alps in Chamonix, France for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® week is a very special experience, especially for trail runners from the United States. It’s like going to the Super Bowl– after only watching high school football. The sheer energy, the huge number of spectators, the whole production and scale of it is so entirely different from a US trail race that it’s simply hard to compare: apples to oranges, mole hills to mountains.
Last year a near-marathon distance, the 40 km MCC, short for Martigny-Combe Chamonix, was added to the week’s roster of races. The MCC is the race organizers’ way of giving back to local volunteers—all 2,500 of them—who make UTMB possible. It’s only open to those selfless souls and others related to the race organization or sponsors in some way. Local residents in the area around Mont Blanc can also take part. Hence the vibe is different: it’s less competitive, more of a celebration of coming together, traveling through the mountains, partaking in common passions and culture.
I toed the line in Martigny-Combe, Switzerland among the thousand-person crowd with Doug Mayer and a small group of Run the Alps staff and friends. We stood together ready to tackle 7,500 feet of climbing and descending over the 26 miles, a far cry from your typical road marathon. A countdown soon ensued and we were off, shuffling out of town in a tight pack, up, up and away, high-fiving children who lined the road and cheered us on.
Most of the climbing came in the first 10 miles, with temperatures rising and sweat pouring freely, as we crested, in succession, Col de Forclaz and Col de Balme. After leaving the aid station at the high point of the course and beginning the descent, the entire Chamonix valley came into view, the soaring peaks and bright-white glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif rising an unfathomable distance above. I stopped and took a picture and got emotional with gratitude at being in that place, participating in that special race.
We descended into the shaded forest below, thankful for a respite from the sun. I waved and smiled and said “Merci!” over and over as people cheered me on, clapping and ringing bells, in the villages of Le Tour and Argentiere and the beautiful, small neighborhoods and houses scattered along the way. I felt immensely grateful as I pushed toward the finish in the Chamonix village center, racing along the cobblestones and cafes. With each step the energy grew, the noise, the concert of cheers and hand claps. I saw friends and familiar faces, adding their voices to the roar, creating the magnificent frenzy for which UTMB® week is known.
The famed, and oft-photographed archway appeared, marking the end of the joyous and challenging journey. I crossed the line, and was quickly embraced by dear friends, excited and eager to hear the details of my day. I sat and shared stories, congratulated other racers, took pictures standing together arm-in-arm. I was reminded then, and yet again, that it’s the people who make the experience.
It’s always about the people.