Kilian, Mira, Alex and 21,000 others: Chamonix’s Skyrunning Weekend

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Mira Rai, the young Nepali runner, is being interviewed. Her gentle face is radiating an infectious smile. She looks incomprehensibly fresh after winning Chamonix’s 80-km Continental Skyrunning Championships just moments ago with a new course record of 12:32:12. Her nearest competitor, Spain’s Anna Comet Pascua, didn’t see the finish line for another 22 minutes.

Place du Triangle de l’Amitié had been filled with the dull roar of hundreds of trail runners enjoying a party-like atmosphere. But, as Mira spoke into the announcer’s microphone, this historic square in Chamonix fell very nearly silent. The clink of glasses would have felt like a sharp interruption. We were experiencing a moment in trail running history. Even for casual tourists, it couldn’t have been too hard not to sense that this was a special moment.

An exuberant Mira Rai rounds the corner and heads for the finish line in the Skyrunning 80 km. Photo courtesy of Infocimes, ©Pierre Raphoz .

An exuberant Mira Rai rounds the corner and heads for the finish line in the Skyrunning 80km. Photo courtesy of Infocimes, © Pierre Raphoz .

Mira answered softly in broken English. “It is my best day!” She beams. The French announcer misunderstands. “It’s her birthday!” Mira looks confused and laughs. “No! I said best day!” The linguistic awkwardness injected a light-hearted moment into the drama of the moment.

A few minutes later, US trail runner Alex Nichols walked through the crowd, largely unnoticed. He won the men’s Skyrunning race in 10:31, just six minutes off the course record. Later in the afternoon in Place du Triangle, Kilian Jornet took his turn in the Vertical Kilometer. Starting at 4 p.m., runners set off every thirty seconds for what US mountain runner Max King called, “Thirty-seven minutes in the pain cave.” (To be fair, most participants spent another twenty minutes beyond Max, churning out lactic acid at a rate many of them may never experience again.)

And.... they're off. Racers depart Chamonix for the mountains in the Marathon du Mont-Blanc

And…. they’re off. Racers depart Chamonix for the mountains in the Marathon du Mont-Blanc. Photo courtesy of Infocimes, © Pierre Raphoz.

Kilian went last on that steamy first day of Skyrunning races. Smiling as he ran up Rue Mollard, he high-fived kids who lined the start of the course. This was going to be a leisurely run for the world’s most accomplished mountain runner. Sandwiched between a 23-hour traverse from Chamonix to Courmayeur, Italy, and an evening photo shoot that went far into what would be a warm Alp night, he had other things on his mind. Besides, why rush? In 2014, he set a course record, 34:18. What’s to prove?

Cheering fans had lined the VK course all afternoon to see arguably Chamonix’s most adored athlete cruised upward to the finish at Planpraz. And, one by one, cowbells that had echoed along the steep path fell silent, and the first day of Chamonix’s Skyrunning races came to a close. Kilian, by the way, turned in a time of 36:03, good for sixth place. When you have one of world’s highest-recorded VO2 max, you can kick back and still land in the Top 10.

As the sun went down over the Brévent, this town had already seen more trail running drama in one day than many other international trail running hotspots get in a decade. And the there were still four races to come.

And everywhere you turned, in every corner of Chamonix valley, there were trail runners. Recreational runners from dozens of countries. Elite athletes from China to Canada. Friends and family cheering, supporting, perhaps dreaming of their turn. Salomon and Scott were de riguer. Not wearing trail running shoes could trigger a sideways glance. So, why are you here?

US runner Max King cruises along L'Aiguillette des Posettes at the Marathon du Mont-Blanc course. Photo courtesy of Infocimes, © Gaetan Haugeard.

US runner Max King cruises along L’Aiguillette des Posettes at the Marathon du Mont-Blanc course. Photo courtesy of Infocimes, © Gaetan Haugeard.

As the weekend progressed, Chamonix maintained a party-like atmosphere. In Place du Mont Blanc, dozens of vendors hawked everything from the latest sport cameras to race course tattoos. Back in Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, a huge screen showed tightly edited clips of the races, interspersed with commentary from trail running cognoscenti. Kilian. Emilie. Francois. Announcers gave breathless play-by-play in English and French, one event to the next, day after day. Congratulations to Mira! Spain’s Anna Comet Pascua is still on the course, coming into the village… Starting in minutes, the Kilomètre Vertical…Are you ready to run the Chamonix Marathon?! Say what you want, the race producers here know how to amp up the intensity. For the start of the Marathon, Sunday morning at 7 a.m., the fire-you-up bass line of AC/DC’s Hells Bells rang out, shaking the centuries-old buildings downtown. The cognitive dissonance alone would be enough to want anyone to run hard out of town.

I was one of those 2,000 runners in the crowd that marathon morning. 42km and 2,730 meters of climbing later, I was at the finish high up at Planpraz, my endorphin-addled brain trying to sort out what just happened. At every ravitaillement, or aid station, an infectious energy greeted runners—along with more than a few confounding scenes. (Was that really a guitarist in panther-striped Lycra, belting out Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong, the ’90s hit from Spin Doctors, early in the morning at the Argentière aid station? Were the crowds really so big up at Le Tour, that I had to dodge my way through the gauntlet? Were little kids lining up to high-five me, a mid-pack recreational runner, at the finish?)

The marathon had its share of drama. A mere 5km from the finish, France’s Cedric Fleureton raised and crossed his arms at the Flégère aid station. The leader for most of the race, he was… done. The day had been too hot, the pace too fast. Fleureton walked to the finish, claiming sixth. US runner Max King, unsure of his position, didn’t realize until the finish that he had landed one of his best European trail race results ever— a hard-fought third.

Up at the high alpine meadow of Planpraz, thousands of runners and friends relaxed in the sunny pastures, a happy mixture of sweat, mud, and smiles. A few meters away, parapenters walked off the pasture and into the sky, the Mont Blanc massif looming across the valley.

There were other races that weekend, too. The 23-km Cross du Mont Blanc. A 10-km race around the valley. And no fewer than three races for kids, ranging from 800 meters to 3km. Every few hours, it seemed as if a starting gun was going off.

Onlookers cheered finishers for the last kilometer of the Mount Blanc Marathon. Photo © Gaetan Haugeard, courtesy of Infocîmes.

Onlookers cheered finishers for the last kilometer of the Mount Blanc Marathon. Photo © Gaetan Haugeard, courtesy of Infocîmes.

The weekend leaves most first-time participants wondering, “Did that just happen?” But it did. And it will happen again next year, too. The recipe works, after all: a diverse, flash-mob of a trail running community. Some of the world’s best mountain terrain. And many of the world’s top runners pushing hard for a place on the podium.

The characters and stories will be different next year, of course. But it’s hard to imagine much difference, otherwise. This valley loves its trail runners and, as long as that stays true, as June comes to a close each year in the Alps, the Chamonix Skyrunning weekend will be the place for them to be.

Race Results

Chamonix’s Vallee du Trail web site

Skyrunning’s 2015 Report from Chamonix

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