Standing in front of the church in the centre of Chamonix, looking up at the sun setting on Mont Blanc. Breathing slowly to control the nervous energy. Waiting. Trying to make a personal space in a crowd of more than two thousand runners. Wired bodies and minds, tense, yet totally still. All poised to cross the start line. Ready to run into the night. Preparing for whatever the next two days will bring. Nervous, yet calm.
Then suddenly, running down the main street in a blur of cheering home crowds, hearing that haunting soundtrack that marks the start of every Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. And just running. Running, walking, crawling a full lap around Mont Blanc. For nearly two days, broken beyond broken but still putting one foot in front of the other. And all the way, feeling the support of the thousands of people involved in this incredible race. Not daring to imagine what it feels like to finish. Just once in a lifetime …
Long distance runner or not, it’s easy to see why the UTMB is legendary in trail running circles. One of those seemingly unachievable ticks for the bucket list, alongside The Hardrock 100, Badwater Ultramarathon and the Marathon des Sables, finishers of this race are awarded ultimate trail community respect, whatever their time. The UTMB has captured the imagination of runners all over the world, who flock in their thousands just to run on Chamonix’s trails and test their bodies and their will in the ever present shadow of Mont Blanc.
Now in its fourteenth year, this epic race crosses into three countries: France, Italy and Switzerland - a 170km/ 104 mile circuit around Mont Blanc with a staggering 10,000m+ of altitude gain. Taking place at the end of August, the whole mountain community in all three countries comes alive with runners, supporters, film crews, medics and an army of thousands of volunteers.
Places in this ultimate suffer-fest are highly coveted. On paper, it’s a race for super-humans, including Spanish Salomon runner Killian Jornet and The North Face’s British athlete Lizzy Hawker, both multiple winners of the UTMB. The fastest athletes cross the finish line in an unbelievable 19-20 hours, while the back of the pack are still on their feet after 2 nights and 2 days, non-stop.
American ultra runner Scott Jurek is a seven times winner of the Western States 100, author of Eat and Run and holder of the Appalachian trail record. Even as one of the US’s top ultra runners, he seriously underestimated the UTMB. Whilst he’s gone on to eventually complete the race it took him four attempts before finally crossing the finish line.
But trail running in Chamonix is about so much more than the UTMB. The town and its network of mountain paths have deservedly earned a reputation as a running Mecca, and not just for elite athletes. Quite simply, Chamonix is one of the best trail running destinations in the world; combining jaw-dropping beauty, varied terrain, easy accessibility, altitudes than are easily acclimitised to and unforgettable charm. But most importantly trail opportunities for ALL levels of runner.
Over the summer months and run up to the local trail running events such as the Mont Blanc Marathon, UTMB and Trail des Aiguilles Rouges events the Chamonix valley has an incredible, if not unique, vibe of ‘all about running’: shops dedicated to trail running, people of every nationality out and about the main street pre or post training in their running kit, all carrying small packs and poles! It’s as if the world of trail running gravitates towards Mont Blanc for an annual pilgrimage! And yet due to the thousands of kilometres of trail available in and around Chamonix, once out in the mountains it all still feels peaceful.
Broken down into bite-sized chunks, the route of the UTMB (or its sister race, the 103km CCC – Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix) can easily be an achievable holiday goal for runners of all abilities. With daily distances of 20-30km on mixed mountain terrain, and relaxed nights spent - actually sleeping - in charming mountain refuges or rustic alpine hotels; completing the route of this epic race is a realistic goal for runners of all levels.
Tracks and Trails offer trail running holidays for runners of all abilities. If you are new to trail running or want to simply ‘feel’ the unique vibe of running in trail running ‘mecca’ of the world then join one our Alpine Trail Running Camps
If you would like to run point to point then look at our 4-6 tours including the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail.
Running is so perfectly simple – if it’s good weather, all you need are your shoes, t-shirt, shorts, socks & you are ready to step out the door!
Modern day runners might see their GPS watch or mobile phone as their next ‘must have’ item. But on the whole running has never needed to be a kit intensive sport. However should you decide to run longer distances, especially in the mountains, then the kit requirements become more extensive but essential.
Having lived in Chamonix for 11 years and run and hiked many trails and peaks, I have enough experiences that being over prepared is never a bad thing. Reaching a summit on a beautiful sunny day can very quickly and unexpectedly turn into a downpour. The wind and air temperatures on the cols and ridges can get very cold turning rain to snow and wind stoppers and waterproofs become life saving items.
I realised this when training for the ‘CCC’ UltraTrail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). 100km A 24-hour run through the French, Swiss & Italian Alps. With the benefit of living in Chamonix and having expert advise on tap I can share my tips and advise that will help me pack for the big day.
What you need to take and why?
I’m not concerned about taking the lightest possible wind-stopper, it doesn’t bother me if I haven’t got the latest and greatest lightweight carbon folding poles either. I just want to comfortably complete the course within the cut off time and enjoy the experience!
Although nice to have the super lightweight kit and save a few extra grams finishing for me is determined by whether my training has been enough & appropriate to the course.
So the UTMB CCC obligatory kit list which is required by everyone to carry is extremely relevant and made up of the following items:
· a cup
· mobile phone
· water container (min. 1 litre)
· two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries
· survival blanket
· adhesive elastic bandage
· food reserve
· jacket with hood made with a waterproof breathable membrane which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains
· long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely
· additional warm mid-layer top
· cap or bandana
· warm hat
· warm and waterproof gloves
· waterproof over-trousers
Bex’s Kit List
So we thought it would be useful to share my race day kit & clothing choices to help those preparing for a mountain trail event or ultra.
Ashmei merino carbon running jersey – Simply brilliant bit of kit. Wicks sweat and kept my temperature regulated. The top never rode up and there was no rubbing at all. It was the perfect thing to have next to my skin, no smell after 18 hours and the zip neck allowed me to cool down more when it warmed up and kept my neck warm when it cooled down.
Nike shorts – My favorite pair that I have run in at least 100 times and I thought would be great, however I think for future races I will only wear tight cycling-style shorts (of course without the padding!) due to the ease of other items being able to be worn over the top.
Ashmei merino trail socks – One pair, 24 hours and not a blister or even a hot-spot in sight. Brilliant!
Headsweats visor – Super comfortable, kept the sun and the sweat out of my eyes. And visors make you look like a trail runner… which is important!
Naked Runner sunglasses – Really light weight, the right level of darkness to the lenses and the most comfortable glasses I have ever owned – they never bounce on my nose! Well worth the money.
Scott T2 Kinabalu trail shoes – I had to choose between these and the inov-8 RocLite 315 which I really love running in. I wanted as much cushioning for the 20+ hours I would be on my feet and the Scott’s offered more than the inov-8s. In the race the Scotts were truly amazing: light, cushioned, grippy and just about roomy enough. A good choice for a race this long for most feet!
North Face Base Layer Light (long sleeve) - Necessary when the temperature dropped in the early hours, it was really comfortable giving me enough warmth for the early hours.
Adidas Supernova tights – I put these on earlier than I hoped because I had to change my shorts, due to chaffing from the short’s liner. They were great, but I probably wouldn’t have worn them if I had made a better shorts choice.
Compressports calf guards and thigh guards – The calf guards remained around my ankles until about 50km when my calves started aching. Once I pulled them up, they made my lower legs feel great. Essential kit as far as I am concerned. The quad guards went on at the start of the day and I kept them on all the way round. They seem to support my quads on the downhills, my hamstrings on the uphills and stop any rubbing between my thighs. Another essential bit of kit as far as I am concerned.
Montane gilet – This is a minimalist masterpiece. It is made from Pertex, so it crunches up super small (the size of a tangerine) and keeps the wind completely at bay. I wore this for the start of the race when it was a bit chilly and then later, once the sun went down and I was feeling cold again. One of my favourite items!
Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest Back Pack – It is brilliant thought out, with some great features. I like the fact that it will carry heaps of kit without swinging around. Whether it is full or empty, it fits like a glove. I do have an issue though which is that the finishing is poor – zip pulls have popped off and can’t be replaced. The bungee holding the water bottle on one side snapped.
Black Diamond Carbon Z-Poles - Not something I wore, but these were not in my pack very much. They are vital! Light, sturdy and easy to stow away thanks to the folding mechanism. I think that poles are essential in the mountains and this model ticks every box. The use of poles helps take the pressure off your legs and back, making very long races feel much more manageable. And the winner of the UTMB used poles, so they must be right!
Suunto Ambit – This is a new bit of kit and I totally love it. The level of accuracy and detail is like nothing I have ever had before and I love the accuracy of the altimeter. The watch is really, really easy to read and the backlight is superb, so it is great for running in the night. Best of all, is the battery life. I had this running for almost the entirely of the 24 hours and 20 minutes that I was running the CCC, with a little break in the middle because I was worried that I’d run the battery flat.
Inov-8 Race Elite 260 Thermoshell – Another great bit of kit. I took this to the CCC as my mid-layer. It is really light and compact, but when you take it out and pull it on, there is instant warmth and protection. I would never venture out into the mountains without this again. During the race, I didn’t need to use it, but I have on other occasions and knowing it was in my pack, was extremely reassuring.
Mountain Warehouse waterproof trousers – Really compact and lightweight and with taped seams, these trousers fitted the bill as far as the obligatory kit was concerned. But they are not breathable, so I’d never consider running in them. They were for emergency use only and thankfully we didn’t have reason to pull them out.
Norrøna jacket – It fits me perfectly, is really comfortable, has useful pockets and pit-vents and is extremely waterproof. It certainly is not the lightest jacket available, but from a cost vs. functionality point of view, it was the best I could get and is definitely small enough and light enough for me.
LED Lenser headtorch – this is the business. It is really bright and whilst it can feel as though there is a bit of a lump on the front of your head, that is easily off-set by the huge amount of light that it provides. In the pitch dark it was perfect & I can’t stress how important the torch needs to be for the night running sections. For both speed & safety.
TORQ Bars – Awesome! I carried a lot of nutrition products with me and I was happy I did. My main sources of fuel were TORQ bars and gels. I had 12 gels and 8 bars (I was basing that on one TORQ unit an hour for 20 hours which is only a third of what they recommend you take, but I couldn’t carry 60 bars/gels and as I would be operating at such a low intensity level, I would be OK just topping up glycogen levels with what I had). I also took ‘pate des fruits’ that are sold to kids in French supermarkets – they are essentially fruit juice and sugar in a jelly-like block. Delicious!
I intended to eat at the aid stations but tried to limit myself to as little fat as possible (that worked for most of the race!). I was eating white bread, a clear broth with pasta that I found at some aid stations, ham and salami. I did eat the odd piece of cheese as I was getting hungry after 18 hours of running! I also had a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce at Champex Lac about half way round.
Towards the end of the race, I had used all my TORQ gels and only had one bar left, as I was feeling a bit worse for wear I sat in the aid station and had three cups of black tea with sugar and three chocolate chip cookies. I felt strong and fabulous after that and whilst I know that was not ideal nutritionally, the psychological boost and the sugar really got me going again.
From a kit and nutrition perspective, that is my experience of the CCC. I think I had just the right amount of gear. The shorts were not perfect, but I know that I still need to learn and improve, there was bound to be one thing I wouldn’t get right. And everything else was really great.I recommend you write down exactly what you train or race with to make packing simple, especially when the pre event nerves kick in and your brain turns to mush!
I certainly won't be making many kit changes for this year…
For those reading this my advice would be to try and test everything! Don't over pack but don't skimp on kit especially if the forecast for an event is not perfect. Most events do check your bags and you wouldn't want to be disqualified for not having something to save a gram!
Test your kit in all weathers and at time of day that you are likely to need it in a race/event be it food, fluid, headtorch or clothing! Expensive doesn't mean it's the best but it's what works for you.
I now know that once my training is complete my kit is already tried and tested so I'm pretty much ready for the start line. Bon trails!