The packing list for the UYN Vertical Courmayeur Mont Blanc Trail Race: Running shoes; check. Sunglasses; check. Running vest; check. Climbing helmet… Check?!
The northern Alps village of Courmayeur, at the base of Mont Blanc, recently hosted one of the more outrageous trail running races in the Alps: the UYN Vertical Courmayeur Mont Blanc. The weekend’s series of events included two races, each departing from the center of Courmayeur and scaling much of the steep mountainside of Mont Blanc or, as it’s known on this side of the range, Monte Bianco.
The first race was Friday’s K1000 Vertical Kilometer. With 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of elevation gain in 7.2 kilometers, the racers ran then speed-hiked up the Courmayeur side of Mont Blanc to reach the finish line at the mid-station of the Skyway Monte Bianco tram system. To make things even more interesting, the race organization decided to have a start time of 9:00pm. This meant that the trail was lit up with a line of headlamps as competitors switchbacked their way through the trees lower on the course. Run the Alps Ambassador Mike Ambrose and summer editorial assistant Jordyn Milbrath both powered their way through the dark to the finish line of the K1000.
The second race was the K2000, which took off from the village center at 7:30am on Saturday morning. Not only did the K2000 retrace the entire vertical kilometer course from the night prior, it also continued up the side of Mont Blanc, en route to Pointe Helbronner, 2,220 meters (7,283 feet) above Courmayeur. After reaching the mid-station, 1,000 meters above the start, participants dropped their trail running poles and picked up climbing helmets, which were mandatory for the second half of the race.
Why the need for helmets? Simple. The terrain got even steeper and more technical on the second half, and runners– though at this point they were probably best categorized as “speed hikers”– scrambled their way over boulders and up fixed ropes to reach a ladder that led into the Pointe Helbronner summit station. There, after running up some metal steps to reach the open panorama deck, runners crossed the finish line to an up-close view of Mont Blanc. With the finish at an altitude of 3,462 meters (11,358 feet), the race truly finished in the sky, looking down on the glaciers of Mont Blanc. Run the Alps staff and friends Mike Ambrose (yes, he raced both the K1000 and the K2000), Giles Ruck, and Chase Willie competed in this race to the sky.
We asked the Run the Alps crew what each of them thought about their experience, and our general consensus was this: it was one of the coolest races we have ever done. Here’s what they each had to say:
Run the Alps Ambassador Mike Ambrose
Taking part in the K1000 and K2000 was truly a magical experience. On Friday night, the town of Courmayeur and the hillside just above town lit up as runners made their way up the vertical kilometer. We were greeted with cheering fans and relief as we ran the last flat stretch to the finish. The race was steep and challenging, and the energy of the crowds was just as empowering as the race was difficult.
On Saturday, on little sleep and a lot of excitement, I gathered in the crowded starting area for the K2000. Retracing our steps from the night before, we began our first of two back-to-back vertical kilometers. Approaching 1000m of climb, this time in the daylight, it was easy to be both inspired and intimidated by the next 1200 meters of trail, hillside, and rock in front of us. I was feeling really tired from the night before but pushed on the best I could. Approaching the scramble and more technical part of the course, the race really comes alive. You feel the mountain, this time with your hands, as all 4 points of contact are used to navigate the steep vertical ascent. I got my first glimpse of how high I climbed as I watched a rock whiz past the course and tumble into the pile of rocks below. Looking down I was so impressed by this course, this mountain, and the competitors around me. On the final push to the finish line, I saw Mont Blanc in the distance, and realized how high we actually were. Approaching 3,462 meters, I knew the glaciers of eternal snow would soon be present. After a small climb up a ladder, and a race up some metal stairs, we were greeted by the modest finish line overshadowed by the highest mountain in Western Europe.
It was easily the most incredible race I have ever done.
Run the Alps Editorial Assistant Jordyn Milbrath
This race is both incredible and unique!
Starting around 9pm on Friday, the villagers of Courmayeur gathered in the center of town, leaving their shops and homes to cheer on runners as they headed off on the K1000. Having never raced a “VK” before, much less one that started at night, looking straight up the mountain to see a small light that was the mid-station where we were supposed to run seemed like an insane task. Not entirely sure what I had gotten myself into, I took off in what felt like a sprint for the first mile or so through town.
As the trail began to climb, the runners’ speedy pace through town came to a humbling halt with a short backup at the first switchback… now I understand why everyone went out so fast at the beginning– position was important as the trail funneled into single track! With the clacking of poles unravelling and the dim line of headlamps making their way up the switchbacks, the race had just begun. Everyone’s heads went down to stare at their own shoes and focus on placing one foot in front of the other, powering their way up the mountain. With competitive runners making their own trail by going straight up the mountain instead of taking the switchbacks, there were two lines to choose from on our way to the finish. After choosing the direct line and pushing hard up the steep climb, there was finally a flat stretch that lead to the finish line. It felt freeing to finally let my legs go and run as I danced my way to the finish. This race was unlike anything I have ever run before, and I would encourage anyone looking for something new and exciting to give this event some serious consideration.
A huge thank you to the race directors and all of the volunteers that helped make this race so very memorable. It was by far one of my favorite races that I have ever ran.
Run the Alps Editorial Assistant Chase Willie
I don’t think I’ve stopped saying, “That was so cool!” since the end of this race. The K2000 was more than a race for me; it was an adventure in the mountains. The idea of running from Courmayeur’s village center to the top of one of the higher peaks surrounding the valley is so special. It was an unforgettable experience. I caught myself smiling throughout the race, laughing to myself as I looked up at the line of racers ahead, trudging directly up the mountain with no regard for the switchbacking trail next to them. “Oh boy…” I said, as I picked up my climbing helmet at the halfway point and set off for the more technical second half. Scrambling through loose rock and fixed ropes, I quickly learned why climbing helmets were required. Competitors above me were often pushing loose rock downhill. An occasional rock would cartwheel down the hill towards me, once or twice even bouncing between my legs as I powered up.
I love running. More generally, I love the purity of moving through the mountains on my own power. With the scrambly second half, I needed to use my hands as well as my feet to get up the technical terrain, which made this such a fun and special experience. I’ve never had a smile so big during a race in my life.
The finish line was a cherry on top of an already unbelievable event. Mont Blanc was so close, I thought, “why don’t we just continue up to the summit before heading back down?” The glacial fields of the Massif stretched out below us, and we could look across to see the top of Chamonix, France’s Aiguille du Midi. We had run as high as we possibly could have without needing technical gear for glacial travel.
This was so cool. If you enjoy positive elevation gain, scrambling (perhaps even rock climbing) and summiting peaks, this race should be at the top of your list. I know that I’ll be back.
We are grateful that we could participate in this remarkable set of races. Thank you to Carmela and Gigi for organizing such an incredible event and helping us research this story.
For more information on the UYN Vertical Courmayeur Mont Blanc, visit this link. We hope to see you there!