(The Gear Loop) - Over 170km and 10,000 elevation gain, running through three countries where conditions can change from hot to so cold that you’re traipsing through the snow. Ultra trail races are undeniably tough and the UTMB Mont-Blanc is arguably one of the toughest to complete.
The picturesque resort of Chamonix has played host to the ultra endurance race for almost 20 years now, attracting the biggest names in the ultra running game, who put their bodies and minds to the gruelling test.
It’s a race that takes over a town that sits at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, where the locals and passing tourists cheer each and every runner as they edge closer to the finish line. Whether that’s in the light of day or the early hours of the morning.
Whether you’re thinking about going to see some of the best ultra runners in the business up close in scenic surroundings, or you fancy putting your own running skills to the test, here’s what you should expect from making that trip out to see the UTMB Mont-Blanc..
Racing all week
The UTMB is the pinnacle race of an entire week of trail events, so whether you land at the beginning or the middle of the week, you’ll also be able to catch one of the other eight races that make up the UTMB Mont-Blanc.
Each race differs in terms of distance covered, the number of participants and how participants gain access to the event. For the UTMB, unless you’re an elite athlete, you’ll need to have acquired at least one Running Stone, which is secured by completing a race on the UTMB World Series Circuit. You’ll also need to have a valid UTMB Index to enter, which is an assessment of your performance level as a trail runner compared to other trail runners.
There are other races that may be slightly easier to secure a place in. The TDS, which is a 145km race that takes in two countries and has a maximum running time of 44 hours, will offer race registration to the first brave souls that sign up when registration opens. But that also requires having a valid UTMB Index.
There are also team races and shorter distance race options, such the YCC, which is a 15km course with up to 1,200 meters of elevation gain. A Mini-UTMB also takes place for children aged 3-14 to take part in.
Getting a good view
While Chamonix is the UTMB Mont-Blanc hub - and gives you the best opportunity to see runners running through the town as you wander around or sip a drink at a bar - you can venture out in your own transport, hike or jump in a cable car to get to a much higher vantage point and see where runners are tackling much steeper climbs.
However, although mant races begin at the Place du Triangle de l'Amitié, events like the TDS and the 100km CCC race actually start in Courmayeur, a skiing resort in northern Italy. Plus, the main UTMB and team PTL races take runners through Switzerland, France and Italy, so if you’re planning to follow the action, you’ll want to think about smart and easy ways to travel around and then get back to the finish in Chamonix.
Mapping and navigation app Komoot along with Suunto have put together a good collection of iconic spots - all suggested by previous UTMB winners - to make sure you get a good view of the action from different parts of the route.
Pack for all conditions
Just as the runners need to weigh up what kit to pack, spectators need to carefully consider their kit bag too, as the conditions can quickly vary depending when and where you’re going to soak up the action from.
While the UTMB 2022 week was largely a sunny affair and good for shorts and t-shirts this year, gain altitude and get closer to those Mont Blanc mountains or hike around Courmayeur and the temperature can quickly start to drop. Make room for both summer and winter gear, like hats, gloves, sunblock and sunglasses. There’s always the chance of some rain too, so packing waterproof jackets and trousers is something worth doing as well.
Some of the most memorable race-viewing happens at night, where head torches can be the only source of light to help guide runners along the route. Spectators can play their part by throwing out some light from their own head torches. The runners appreciate it.
Do your own thing
When you walk around Chamonix, or if you make it to Courmayeur, you’ll instantly notice that not everyone is there to take in the UTMB action. That’s because they’re trekking, hiking and tourist hotspots in their own right.
If you don’t want to spend all of your time watching other runners being active, you can get your legs powering up climbs and take in those spectacular views minus the walking poles.
If you’re based in Chamonix, then there’s both flat or more technically varied terrain you can do your own running on that takes in some of the course and sees runners head back into the town to finish. Head right out towards Les Pecles and the terrain is flatter and more covered to protect you if the sun is beating down. If you want to tackle some elevation, you can tackle a climb of over 3,000 ft at Chemin de La Pierre À Ruskin.
For those that prefer an assisted climb, you can grab a cable car to Aiguille du Midi, which is about a ten minute walk from the centre of Chamonix and lands you at the highest cable car in France.
It whisks you from Chamonix to le Plan de l'Aiguille in 10 minutes and along with the change in temperature as you get closer to the snowy mountain range, you might spot the odd climber or two taking the more challenging route up. Ticket prices start at €69, so they’re not cheap, but you do get views from all angles and the chance to eat at a restaurant with the mountains as a backdrop, while seeing how your body reacts to the increasing altitude.
The ultra-runner’s view on UTMB
If you’re someone who’s thinking they'd like to start building up the trail legs to take on the UTMB, what does it actually take?
Harry Jones is an ultra-runner, sponsored by Hoka, who finished 15th at the UTMB in 2019 with an impressive time of 24:03:53. He has also won several UTMB World Series events, and at this year’s UTMB, laced up his pair of Hoka Tecton X to aim for a top five finish, but had to unfortunately withdraw from the race.
Prior to approaching the start line, Jones stayed in Tignes to help get his body adapted to the high altitude, sleeping higher up the mountain to make things more comfortable when it came to getting to those ultra-altitude passes on the course. He offered some advice for UK runners on how to help get in good shape for the UTMB.
"If you get the opportunity to run in any of the UTMB races, you really have to be organised, with your training and what you expect to do in your training and where you want to be in the lead up to the race," Jones told us.
"Really try to think far ahead and plan some training camps. If you live in the UK, maybe try to make a long weekend somewhere like Snowdonia or Scotland. Somewhere where you can get access to the bigger climbs. Obviously, if you've got the funds or the time to be able to get somewhere like the Alps, or or anywhere where there’s big Alpine trails to build up to its, that’s really beneficial."