Several of the world’s most famous trail-running events take place in Chamonix, France. At each race, an army of volunteers ensures everything runs smoothly, and hundreds if not thousands of supporters cheer on competitors. But one supporter stands out from the rest: Robert Etellin.
Etellin has been involved in the Chamonix trail running scene for years. Now, at the age of 85, he can still be found at every race, cheering on participants with boundless enthusiasm. In his big, floppy hat, he’ll pop up somewhere along the course, ringing his cow bells. Even Kilian Jornet knows his name.
Run the Alps visited with Robert to get the story behind the volunteer who has brought a smile to the face of perhaps 100,000 or more runners over several decades. Here’s our interview.
Robert: So you wondered, “Whose the man with the bells and the hat at all the races?”
Run the Alps: That’s right. Everyone knows who you are… but no one knows anything about you! Tell us a bit. Are you from this region originally?
Robert: Yes, I’m from the Savoie region. I was born in Aiguebelle near Albertville in Savoie, 60 kilometers from Chamonix.
Run the Alps: How did you end up in Chamonix?
Robert: At the end of my military service, I came here to work on the construction of the Mont Blanc tunnel (Editor’s note: the 11.6-kilometer tunnel deep beneath Mont Blanc links Chamonix, France to Courmayeur, Italy). I arrived in May, 1959 and worked on the tunnel until it opened in 1965. I was the 42nd worker to arrive. I started work just when the dynamiting began. There were 600 workers. Eighteen died in the construction of the tunnel. I made some good friends in my time working there. The director of the project came to my wedding reception. I still have an Italian worker’s helmet – we swapped helmets after the work on the tunnel ended!
Run the Alps: You’ve been heavily involved in the Chamonix community.
Robert: Yes, for example, I helped organize a celebration in 1986 to commemorate 200 years since the first ascent of Mont Blanc. Michel Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard started their ascent from Les Bossons, not far from where I live!
I’m very keen to protect this valley, and fight against the air pollution. (Editor’s note: Chamonix’s narrow valley can trap air during temperature inversions, leading to high levels of air pollution.) The pollution is caused by traffic and wood fires. It’s worse in January and December, when it’s colder. I joined demonstrations against the pollution last year. I even met Nicolas Hulot, then French Minister for the Environment, when he came to Chamonix.
A few years ago I was honored to be given the “Medal of the town of Chamonix” by the Mayor’s office, for my volunteering in local events over forty years.
Run the Alps: Have you always been a runner?
Robert: Pretty much. When I was at school I ran track and was selected for the Savoie Championships 1000m at age 16. But then I got more into race walking, which my younger brother, Rémy, competed in. We were both in the Chambery Athletics Club and Rémy did very well with the race walking, making it to the French Championships in Paris to compete in the 10km walk.
After school, I started working on the Tunnel Isère-Arc, part of a hydro-electric dam south of Albertville, in 1949. Working there as a carpenter I got to know a guy called Jean Strunc, who was a miner on the project. Jean worked the night-shift so he could train for race walking during the day. He competed at national level. We’d see him out walking, followed by his wife on an electric bike called a Vélo Solex. She’d be carrying water and snacks. My brother and I started to support Jean with his training, too, sometimes giving him a lift back down to the valley after he’d walked up to the Col du Glandon and Col du Croix de Fer. (Editor’s note: These are some of the highest and most famous road passes in the Alps, at 2000m elevation.)
In those days, the longer races were on roads between major towns, such as Paris-Strasbourg and Paris-Tours. Such races wouldn’t be possible with all the traffic now! One of the longer races in which we supported Jean was the 100km Sion-Lausanne in Switzerland. We followed him on our motorbikes. Then Jean Strunc took part in the 50km walk in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He was an inspiring athlete. He had an impressive lung capacity of 9 liters! We became great friends, but then didn’t see each other while I was in the Army. However, we did work together again several years later – on the Mont Blanc tunnel where Jean was the Head Miner.
Run the Alps: You served in the army?
Robert: Yes. I did my obligatory military service of 21 months, and then was asked to stay for longer, as soldiers were needed for the Algerian War. (Editor’s note: The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. France eliminated required military service in 2001.)
I enjoyed my time in the army, but after the war, I was happy to return to the Alps. I was a changed man for many reasons; my brother Rémy, who was a Sergeant in the Chasseurs Alpins, the mountain regiment, was killed in the war. However, I did enjoy the military experience – I became an Army Corporal and I learned a lot. I was mainly stationed in Bamako, Mali and met so many different people there.
Later, I spent a lot of time in the mountains with my son, Richard, when he was a teenager training for mountain races. I used to go out behind him, to check that he got around his route safely. At first I would speed walk, but then after a few months I started running behind him. I always walked on the descents, though.
It wasn’t until I was 53 that I started competing in trail races. The first time I did the Cross du Mont-Blanc, at age 59, I finished near the end. But I wasn’t last. There were still three people coming in after me!
The next year, I was 33 minutes quicker on the final traverse between Flégère and Planpraz, bringing me to the finish in under four hours – and third in my category! That was a really fun race. In total, I competed in eight Trail Running World Championships. The last event I did was the 2006 Open in Turin, Italy, where I was 3rd on the podium and 2nd for France – in category V4.
Run the Alps: You’re a well-known figure in the Chamonix trail-running scene. Where did you get the idea to go out and support people in your entertaining outfit, ringing bells?
Robert: At the first UTMB in 2003, there were only a couple of hundred runners and not many volunteers. Those who did help out were giving out race bibs or working at the aid stations. Someone commented that it would be a good idea to turn up in an old-style local hat and ring bells, to provide encouragement and entertainment for the runners. Of course, it’s a tradition in mountain races and ski races to ring cow bells to encourage the competitors. This suggestion happened to coincide with my doctor advising me not to enter competitions any more. I was experiencing sleep apnea, which meant that my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Since then, I have used an oxygen tank to help me sleep. So, I stopped running 9 years ago, at age 76, and I started dressing up and ringing bells! Now, sometimes my cousin comes along to join in supporting the runners, too.
Run the Alps: Where will we see you this coming year?
Robert: I’ll be at all the Chamonix sports events. I like to be at the start. Then, I tend to move to the aid stations. It’s been great to encourage my son Richard when he’s been racing too. Wherever I go I have the hat and the bells! I go to more than the trail races, too. I also go to the the Downhill Ski World Cup in Les Houches. I’m at the anti-pollution demonstrations, too.
Run the Alps: You know everyone recognizes you, right?
Robert: I suppose so! Last year I got to meet Scott Trépanier. (Editor’s note: the European Marketing Director for Columbia, UMTB’s lead sponsor.) I saw him on Monday in Chamonix at the start of the PTL trail race. Then on Wednesday, and then we met again a third time on Friday, at the start of the CCC trail race in Courmayeur, Italy. I also said hello to the mayor of Courmayeur, who took part in this race this year. Lots of people recognize me — but sometimes I don’t realize I’ve seen them before!
Run the Alps: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Robert. On behalf of all of us who race in the Chamonix valley, from near and far, thanks for the support! We’ll see you on the trails!
Robert: I will be there with my bells! Thank you.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Richard Etellin for his assistance with this story. We appreciate it! For more on Richard and his guiding services, see here.