Trail Running on the Quiet Side of Mont Blanc: The Story of Valle d’Aosta Trailers
Across the Alps, trail running is on the rise. Amid the growth of the sport, there are hotspots here and there. Chamonix, with all its races and beehive of trail running activities, is best known. But others exist, from Grindelwald, Switzerland to Grenoble, France.
And in Italy, under the shadow of Monte Bianco, the town of Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley have their own lively trail running scene. Here, trail running has its own unique vibe. It’s a bit more low-key and informal than sometimes hyperactive Chamonix.
It’s hard to trail run here and not realize that quietly powering much of the activity is Valle d’Aosta Trailers, known as VDA Trailers. Developed initially to support UTMB Mont-Blanc’s Italian section from Col de la Seigne to Col Grand Ferret, the organization has steadily evolved over the years. Today, VDA Trailers organizes a wide range of races, from world-famous races like Gran Trail Courmayeur and Tor des Géants, to more locally oriented events such as a theme-costume trail run, which in past years has included Star Wars and Woodstock costumes. (Warning: with 18km of distance and 1400 meters of climbing, Arrancabirra is more than just a fun run!)
Run the Alps recently sat down with Erica Motta, Head of Communications for VDA Trailers, to find out more about this organization powering the Aosta Valley trail running scene. We met at the VDA Trailers office, a homey building just a few feet from the Courmayeur Sports Center. Here’s what she had to say.
Run the Alps: Take us back to the beginning of Valle d’Aosta Trailers. How did the organization begin?
Erica: It all started in 2006, when the Mayor of Courmayeur asked sports people here in Courmayeur if they could help organize the Italian section of the UTMB trail race. For the first few years of UTMB, the Mayor’s office had organized volunteers, and it was simply becoming too much work for them.
The group of people that came together created a company called Courmayeur Trailers, to help manage the Italian part of UTMB, from Col de la Seigne to Grand Col Ferret.
All of the meetings took place in this office!
Run the Alps: UTMB Mont Blanc has since added other races that go through Italy; was Courmayeur Trailers part of that, too?
Erica: Yes– as UTMB grew, so too did the role of Courmayeur Trailers. They helped manage a new race called CCC and, later, TDS. Of course, now we know these two races well.
Run the Alps: The first edition of UTMB Mont Blanc was 2003. This was right around when trail running was really beginning to take off here in the Alps and especially Chamonix. Was the situation similar in Courmayeur?
Erica: It was. Around that time, trail running was growing in Italy. Our new group also had members who simply liked to trail run, too. Skyrunning was here. There was Becca di Nona, a famous one. There were also short competitions of 10 or 15 km. So, there was already something happening, but not long distance trail runs like today.
In the beginning, there were a lot of people who started discovering the mountains for hiking. Then, some of them started to run! There were a lot of regular people just starting to trail run. Here in the Aosta valley, we have Bruno Brunod, who is in Val Tournenche. (Editor’s note: Bruno Brunod is one of the original “sky runners,” and established many records, including a speed climb of the Matterhorn from Cervinia, Italy. Says the legendary himself, Kilian Jornet, “To me and all the rest of mountain runners, he is God.”) He’s still around at a lot of races.
Run the Alps: When did all those fun Aosta Valley races begin?
Erica: Well, the first one was Trail Valdigne. That started in 2007. Valdigne was the first 100 km race entirely within Italy.
The course started here in Courmayeur, then went to Pres St Didier, Morgex, and La Salle. So, it passed through a number of small villages. Then, it finished in Courmayeur. This race lasted for five years.
Then, in 2012, Courmayeur Trailers launched Gran Trail Courmayeur. Trail Valdigne was renamed and became part of this event. (Editor’s note: The event now consists of three races, 30, 55 and 100 km.)
Run the Alps: We have to ask about Arrancabirra, another event VDA Trailers organizes. It sounds like a blast– a costume race through the mountains to celebrate the end of the trail running season, is that right?
Erica: Yes, Arrancabirra came after Gran Trail Courmayeur. Arranca means struggle in Italian, and of course Birra is beer. So, it’s like you are struggling with your costume along the trail, stopping to drink beer.
After a season of trail running, Courmayeur Trailers wanted a party. This was an event for the volunteers who worked on all the trail races. It was just a big party with hundreds of people and it exploded! Every year it changes. People just showed up dressed up… then themes started. There was a Lord of the Rings theme one year, then Star Wars. We also did a Woodstock theme. One year we had a Couples theme. I came with a friend as a cord and wall electrical plug. We won!
The coolest costumes are the ones that involve carrying something; since it’s 18km long, that’s really challenging. Ermanno Pollet is the creator of Arrancabirra. He’s the crazy, creative one on the team!
Run the Alps: That sounds like so much fun! Now, let’s talk about Type 2 fun… that is, fun that is only fun after the event, because it’s painful! Tor des Géants. When did that come along?
Erica: The test edition was in September 2009, and we had our first edition the year after. But to make it happen, we needed another kind of organization– a company that could offer liability protection. That’s when Courmayeur Trailers became a club, and VDA Trailers was launched as a professional business.
Run the Alps: Does Courmayeur Trailers still exist?
Erica: It does. These days, it’s a group of trail running enthusiasts coming together socially for fun and to take part in competitions.
Run the Alps: Our impression is that VDA Trailers is a small group of people doing a lot of work. Who is on the staff?
Erica: Allesandra Nicoletti is the President and the Race Manager, Paolo is the Vice President and webmaster, also in charge of timing, Rocco handles the sponsors, Stefano is in charge of Administration, and we have a secretary, Tatiana. And, of course, me. That’s six of us. We work year-’round.
We also have a lot of partners and volunteers!
Run the Alps: An event like Tor, that covers a huge land area, must be expensive to organize. Can you tell us about that?
Erica: It is expensive! Search and rescue is one of our biggest expenses. A lot of people think the rescuers come for free, but we need to pay the region to have Civil Protection services. We pay for the ambulance, communications, doctors, the helicopter, and alpine guides. When you are talking about covering 350 kilometers, it’s one of our biggest expenses. When we put on an event like Tor, we need a security plan. Each year, we develop the entire plan, submit it, and the regional government approves it. It’s the same for all our events. All the medical and technical staff are paid.
Run the Alps: VDA Trailers is a bit of a “family affair,” right? And there is overlap with UTMB Mont Blanc, too, right?
Erica: Right. Courmayeur Trailers goes back to my mom and dad. My dad was a Skyrunner who helped UTMB for years, and one of my sisters worked at UTMB, as well!
We are all really close. We are friends with the Polettis from the UTMB Mont Blanc. (Editor’s note: Catherine and Michel Poletti are the founders and longtime company leaders of UTMB Mont Blanc.) My dad was also part of the zero edition of Tor, when they tested the route, and my mother drove the support vehicle. My father also worked on UTMB’s big PTL run, and would help develop the route each year. He was part of UTMB’s Environmental Commission, too, which is responsible for reducing the environmental impact of UTMB.
Run the Alps: Just as UTMB Mont Blanc is very much in its heart a family business, so too is VDA Trailers. It was started by your parents, and your mom is President. What’s that like?
Erica: It can be challenging, like any family business. But sometimes it’s easy, because I know pretty well what she wants! I don’t actually see my family outside of work, since we see each other at work.
But, of course, I didn’t arrive because I was part of the family. I had a good bit of prior work experience that was relevant. At work, we keep it a professional relationship. Most people don’t know we’re related.
Run the Alps: Today, how would you describe VDA Trailers?
Erica: It has grown a lot. It’s still a non-profit organization, however. Now, we have many partners and volunteers. We have a non-profit association in charge of the volunteers, which was created for legal reasons here in Italy. It was part of our efforts to have a group that helped us not just during the race but also the rest of the year. That was just created this year. We can thank Covid for this new organization. We needed to know exactly who was volunteering where, and that encouraged us to move forward with the organization that supported the volunteers.
Run the Alps: Over the years, what have been the challenges for VDA trailers?
Erica: I think these past two years of Covid have been really hard for us. It was hard to schedule anything. And all of our partners were having problems, too. Some of them are even closing. Getting through one year of Covid was not too bad, but then we didn’t have the income from the races. So, it was tough.
Run the Alps: How do you manage the events on race day?
Erica: That’s all done out of our Aosta offices. There, we have the staff, maps, radio communications, rescue operations, GPS tracking, and so on. The organization is tracking runners. We always know where they are. Allesandra is in charge of that entire operation.
Run the Alps: You must get some crazy calls during the longer races, like Tor des Géants?
Erica: Yes, we get all kinds of calls during the races. Most of what we do get is something like, “I’m lost… I’m not sure where I am.” Allesandra is a mountaineer and she has a really good memory. So, that helps a lot. She can practically say, “Oh, do you see a tree over that way?” And she will know exactly where they are.
Overall, we are finding that the preparation of runners in the longer distances is getting better. In the short distance races, there are still runners who are not so well prepared.
Run the Alps: A lot has changed in trail running in the past 15 years since the organization started. And now, things seem to be changing even more quickly. What do you see coming, when you look at the future of VDA Trailers?
Erica: We are working on expanding the Tor system, with other races in other parts of the world. We’ll add new races and partner with races that currently exist. (Editor’s note: You can read more about the new, five-year partnership between Tor and the Kailas Group, here.)
Run the Alps: And there is a new system to gain access to Tor by doing other VDA Trailers races?
Erica: Exactly. Some of the finishers in our races will be able to skip the lottery for Tor des Géants. (Editor’s note: you can read more about the PAX system, here.)
Run the Alps: Now for the most important question: Do you know what the theme will be for the Arrancabirra this fall? We’re ready to start making our costumes!
Erica: It has just been announced. The theme for this 15th edition is “Jurassic Beer – The Arrancasaur!”
Run the Alps: We’re looking forward to seeing beer-swilling dinosaurs running around Courmayeur!