Gathering a total of 5500 runners for a cocktail of 4 different ultra trail races, The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc confirmed it's rank as the world's toughest event of its kind. The weather remained the master in the mountains: for this 9th edition, runners were greeted by the full array of meteorological conditions: intense heat, thunderstorms, drenching showers, high winds, thick fog, sub-zero temperatures, snowy passes and a finish under a clear blue sky.
The expected storm hit Chamonix Friday afternoon and delayed the UTMB start to 23h30 instead of the usual 18H30 and forced the organizers to modify the route on the Swiss side, sending runners down to Martigny and up to Forclaz. All these factors combined to create a unique edition that will be remembered as the toughest UTMB of all time.
Since last year's stopped race, the organizers made it mandatory that all runners carry gloves, a warm hat and full body shell clothing in order to be better prepared for real mountain weather. This year that gear came in handy.
At 23:28pm, 2300 athletes turned their headlamp on and took off in the dark under heavy rain for the adventure of their life. To provide better service, the Petzl headlamp assistance booth was moved to Les Contamines (instead of the usual Les Chapieux) and stayed busy all throughout the night. As the day started, runners got a short glimpse of clear sky before the showers started up again.
By daybreak, the leaders had already reached the Col de la Seigne only to be greeted by fresh snow on the Italian ground. Later, on the way to Cournayeur, the sky suddenly cleared and the the vision of the majestic Mont Blanc in a fresh white shroud encouraged the runners to keep on going.
Solidarity in the spirit of trail running
Saturday evening: as Kilian Jornet was about to cross the finish line, way back on the trails a second night was falling on hundreds of runners still in the race. A strong wind rose and temperatures plummeted below 0 °C. On the climb to the Grand Col Ferret (2537m), a fierce segment with 1100m of positive gain, the real spirit of ultra trail running could be felt.
After 24 hours and about 100 km of running in harsh conditions, lack of sleep, aching legs, battered knees met doubting soul. In trail running, solidarity is the rule. Halfway up, a Japanese woman collapsed on the trail and vomited, and a Spanish woman runner instantly stopped, offering help and even proposed to walk back down to the Arnuva checkpoint with her. The Japanese runner proudly stood back up, pointed the top, and tried to explain that she'll keep going. In the end, the two agreed to stay together.
Later on, just below the pass, another runner dropped off the trail to take a break. His fellow competitors put the the man back on his feet and "pushed" him up to the pass where a medical checkpoint was waiting. In the steady flow of headlamps that snaked up the mountain, a man stopped and sat down, admitting that he was falling asleep while walking. He decided to take a break so he didn't wonder off track. He ended up teaming with another runner and both agreed to keep an eye on each other.
After the grand Col Ferret, there is a long descent in Switzerland to la Fouly then Champex where a major assistance checkpoint awaits the runners. An underground nuclear shelter greeted them with hot showers, a warm meal, massages and bunk beds.
There again, Petzl offered headlamp assistance, spare batteries and replacement lamps. From then on the track was modified going down to better weather in the town of Martigny instead of climbing straight up to Bovine.
The toughest race ever
On Sunday morning, a clear blue sky and a warm sun provided a new motivation for those still in the race to give it their all to the finish.
The streets of Chamonix, every runner's ultimate goal, were packed with cheering spectators. Many passed the finish line hand-in-hand with family and friends. The closing time was modified to past 9:00 PM. And as another night fell, Chamonix welcomed the last finisher: Dominique Diffine for this toughest edition of the race.
At that time, only 1137 people completed the tour, less than half of 2363 starters.
Slide show on the race
|1 - Kilian Jornet Burgada||1 - Elisabeth Hawker|
|2 - Iker Karrera Aranburu||2 - Néré Martinez Urruzola|
|3 - Sebastien Chaigneau (Petzl Team)||3 - Darcy Piceu Africa|
|1 - Emmanuel Gault||1 - Virginie Govignon|
|2 - Adam Campbell||2 - Claire Price|
|3 - Nikolaos Kalofyris||3 - Catherine Dubois|
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