Imagine having less than two days to run 171 kilometers around the highest mountain in Europe, with an elevation gain of 10,000 meters. That’s the challenge that makes the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc one of the world’s most popular ultramarathons. Runners hoping for a starting number have to meet strict qualifying criteria – and sometimes trust to luck.
At the limits of their endurance, the runners struggle to catch their breath in the village of Courmayeur in the Italian Alps. They are taking a short break at kilometer 80 of the 171-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) ultramarathon. But when their gaze falls on fellow runner Sophie Power, they gasp for other reasons. She isn’t using her break to rest, but is nursing her three-month-old baby at the side of the path. At the end of the race, Power lives up to her name and crosses the finish line with her toddler in her arms. A true test of strength for the mother of two, but one that was willingly undertaken. Why? Because like the World Cup for soccer players or the Monaco Grand Prix for racecar drivers, the UTMB is something of a holy grail for runners – the most prestigious ultramarathon in the world. But what makes it so special?
The race largely follows the Tour du Mont Blanc, a popular hiking trail. The route leads through the Mont Blanc massif, a mountain range in the Alps straddling France, Italy, and Switzerland. Towering 4,800 meters above sea level, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps, and many consider it the highest in Europe. Although Mount Elbrus in Russia is actually 835 meters higher, there is some disagreement about whether it is located in Europe or Asia. But regardless of which peak holds the title – with an elevation gain of more than 10,000 meters, the Mont Blanc trail is no walk in the park. Hikers usually take about ten days to complete the Tour du Mont Blanc. But participants in the UTMB do not have that luxury. The time limit for the ultramarathon is 46.5 hours, meaning the runners don’t even have two full days to complete their circuit of the Mont Blanc massif. And the very best runners cover the trail in roughly 20 hours – less than a single day.
When Xavier Thévenard of France won the UTMB in 2018, he ran the 171 kilometers in 20 hours and 44 minutes. He was one of more than 2,500 runners taking part, and every single one of them had already proven their mettle. Like in the qualifying rounds of the World Cup, participants have to earn their slot in the UTMB, collecting the required number of points by running in qualifying races. If there are more qualifying runners than spots, runners have to hope for the luck of the draw as names are drawn to decide who will get to race. And the runners who actually receive a starting number have to hope that their luck holds during the race as well. Because the weather on Mont Blanc is unpredictable and can quickly make conditions horrendous for the runners. At times they have to fight through snowstorms, contend with torrential rain, or suffer in scorching heat.
During the very first Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in 2003, the runners were pummeled with heavy rain and hail. In the end, barely 70 participants made it to the finish line. In 2012, the course had to be partly rerouted at the last minute when snow drifts and hail showers made the trail through the Italian section of the Mont Blanc massif impassable. And in 2017, weather conditions forced one-third of the runners to throw in the towel. To make things even more difficult, the UTMB is not held in several stages like other ultramarathons, but has to be completed in one go. So the athletes run part of the course in the dark of night, their path illuminated only by their headlamps.
In spite of – or maybe in some cases, because of – the unpredictable weather, each year the ultramarathon through the Alps holds an honored place in the calendars of the world’s top ultramarathoners. Preparing yourself to compete in a race where you don’t know what awaits you adds to the challenge. Kilian Jornet of Spain may have run up Mount Everest twice, but his two victories on Mont Blanc still mean a lot to him today. Because when it comes to running prestige, nothing holds a candle to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc.