And they're off!
At 6:30pm on August 27, the 2638 runners of the 2010 North Face Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc left the center of Chamonix to begin the long loop around the Mont Blanc massif. As they made their way through the streets a light to heavy rain was falling, which may end up being a defining characteristic of this year's race. With a forecast of rain, cold, fog and snow down to 2000m, this race promises to be quite an experience for the runners of this mythic race.
The trail running world has converged on Chamonix to attempt one of the most impressive ultra races in the world. Starting in this alpine capital, the UTMB makes a 166 km loop around the Mont-Blanc massif, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, with a vertical gain of 9500m. It's takes the fastest runners around 20 hours to complete, while others spend up to 46 hours on the trail. Runners end up spending one or two nights on the trail. Depending on the year, an average of 60% particpants complete this grueling ultra.
In addition to the UTMB, there are several other races that have their own set of difficulties. Shorter but with more vertical gain than the UTMB, the TDS runs for 111km and features 7000m of vertical gain. It starts in Courmayeur and takes the long way to arrive in Chamonix. It takes runners between 14 and 32 hours to complete the race. This year, 1144 racers will line up at the start.
The CCC starts in Courmayeur, passes through Champex and ends in Chamonix. At 98 km it's the 'shortest' race and for many runners, it is their first taste of a Mont-Blanc ultra. It features 5600m of elevation gain and this year it has 2189 registered runners.
Finally, there's the PTL, a 240km race run in teams of two or three. It makes a larger loop around Mont-Blanc and features a walloping 18,000m of elevation gain. Teams must complete the race in no more that 114 hours.
For Petzl, the event started with a public slideshow and discussion about running a night on Thursday, August 26. Paul Petzl, the president of Petzl explained Petzl's role in the development of headlamps and involvement with trail running and the UTMB. Petzl athletes Karine Herry Sébastien Chaigneau talked about the challenges of running at night, sharing several anecdotes and their headlamps of choice. Finally, Boris Bouffay of Petzl's R&D department discussed lighting measurement and technology, giving pointers to help runners choose the right headlamp for them.
Seb and Karine have different strategies when it comes to choosing the right headlamp. In previous races, Seb used the ULTRABELT. But this year he'll be equipped with the MYO RXP - saving weight while still having enough light to see the terrain. "I appreciate the ability to switch from a narrow to a wide beam. The narrow beam really helps keep me on the trail in the fog." Karine, on the other hand, swears by ULTRABELT for all her races. She attributes much of her success racing at night to its 350-lumen beam. It allows her to be more relaxed and focus on the trail.
On Thursday and Friday, the streets of Chamonix were full of runners getting ready for the starting line. Some expressed concern about the deteriorating weather conditions, which will surely make things more difficult, especially on the high mountain passes. Petzl was able to speak to a handful of its sponsored athletes about the races. Below are some photos and profiles of some of Petzl athletes:
This year marks Vincent Delebarre's 8th Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc (166km with 9500m of elevation gain). In 2004, he took 1st place, in 2005 he finished 2nd and 3rd in 2006. He's no stranger to ultra races and has also participated in the GR20 in Corsica, the Tour of the Vanoise (France), the Tour of Toubkal and the Marathon des Sables (both in Morocco). He's 42 years old and was previously a military mountain instructor in Chamonix and now works as a mountain guide and ski instructor. He dedicates his life to trail running and trains racers from all over the world. This training also helps him prepare for his own races.
"My goal this year is definitely to finish the race," Vincent says. "I've had to quit for physical conditions several times, but this year i'm feeling particularly relaxed and well prepared. That's a good sign. Of course, nothing is done yet and the weather conditions can really make the race significantly more difficult."
For him, night running is natural and he feels good and relaxed.
Originally from Nepal, Dawa Sherpa has participated in the all the UTMBs except for one. He took first place in 2003 while facing extreme weather conditions. He's 41 and works in construction in Switzerland. To train, he does long runs every weekend and specifically prepares for the UTMB by spending a week running in the Alps.
Dawa is also an accomplished cross-country skier and represented Nepal in the Torino and Vancouver Winter Olympics. For him, cross country skiing is good off-season training for running ultra marathons.
Running at night isn't his favorite part of the race: "At night I'm on my guard - I'm not afraid but I'm not totally relaxed. I have to manage it, it's part of the race," Dawa says. The hardest part of the UTMB for him is between Les Chapieux and Courmayeur, which is run in the middle of the night.
Toni, 43, is a well-known Spanish rock climber and alpinist. Some of you may have met him at the camping & refuge in Siurana, which he operates with his wife. He spends half the year climbing around the world and putting up new routes. When it gets too hot to climb, Toni starts training for trail running. His regimen is a little different than most - he starts the training season out by mountain biking, which among other things helps him keep his knees fresh.
"Mountain biking allows me to train almost every day and improve my physical level and stay super motivated," Toni says. "Then I come out to Chamonix and check out all sections of the course a couple of weeks before the race."
Toni doesn't specifically train for running at night. The trails around his home are particulary rough. So instead, Toni relies on his mountaineering experience and skills to help get him through the night.
Toni placed 3rd in his age category in last year's CCC. This year Toni is running the TDS (111km, 7000m of positive elevation gain), shorter than the UTMB, but much steeper.
"Passing the finish line of the TDS is going to be very hard. The real race for me will start after the Cornet de Roselend - real mountain terrain - I like that," Toni says. "The hardest part will definitely be the huge downhill (-1350m) section after the Col Joly."
Sébastien Chaigneau, 38, took 2nd place in last year's Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc. In addition, he has an impressive list of other wins: triple champion of the Libyan Challenge (200km non-stop in the desert of Akakus in south-west Libya), double winner of the Mercantour trail and 3rd place at the Diagonale des Fous in La Réunion 2005 (145km, 8500m D+), among others.
As a professional athlete, Sébastien is careful to be as physically and mentally prepared as possible to be a top finisher. He also shares his experiences with others and organizes training sessions for other runners.
Seb has quite a bit of experience with the UTMB, having raced on the course five times. The downhill section of Les Chapieux is critical: "It's technical and intense. Hopefully it will not be too muddy and slippery. It's wise to stay on the track and not cut switchbacks," he adds.
"This could be the year for me; I feel good - perfectly prepared and totally relaxed. Looking at the weather, I know it's going to be a hard year for everyone," Seb continues. "I'll give it my best, while listening to my body."
For Seb, running at night is magic: "Most of the 'daily noise' suddenly disappears and I find my self alone in total silence, relaxed physically but mentally I'm in an intense state of concentration," he says.
Kilian Jornet, the two-time champion of the Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont Blanc has one goal for this year's race: "To fly around the mountain."
In addition to winning the UTMB in 2008 and 2009, he also holds the record for the GR20 in Corsica and has won many ski mountaineering races, including the 2009 World Championships. This year he traversed the entire Pyrenees mountain range in 8 days: 113 hours of running and 42,000m of elevation gain.
Kilian has been running on trails since he was very young and has been racing at an elite level since he was a teenager. In addition to running and ski mountaineering, Kilian also rides road bikes.
"When I run in the wild, I'm looking for a thrill, emotion," Kilian says. "When I run in the mountains I'm primairily testing my limits, feeling the effort, my strength and my personal limitations. It's a feeling of absolute freedom. Trail running is like running in the clouds, running with the wind."