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Field Journal

Greater Than The Sum

Greater Than The Sum

The 2016 UTMB®

Written by Tom Hill // Photography by Pascal Tournaire / ©UTMB

It is 9.00am on Thursday morning. Chamonix is still waking up as I walk through the quiet streets. The sun hasn’t yet reached the depths of the valley and the shadows are cool, but there are few clouds in the sky and temperatures will soar above 30ºC later in the day. As I walk past a fruit stall, tourists and locals with baguettes tucked under arms step aside as a lone character makes his way along the main shopping street.

He is running, just. It is more of an uncomfortable, uneven speed-shuffle, but there is a nobility in his motion, more beautiful than the fluid movement of fresh legs. A ripple of applause follows the runner, who is dressed in compression shorts and socks, and is wearing a multi-pocketed pack, water bottles within easy reach, pouches still bulging with energy gels. He raises his eyes, almost timidly. There’s the faintest acknowledgement in his face. A subtle smile and nod. Even a few hundred metres from the finish, there is no energy to spare. I do not know the name of the runner, or his finishing position. He did not win the Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS). Neither was he last. Far from it. It is a story that I would see played out many times in the next four days.

The UTMB – a race so iconic amongst trail runners that it is recognised by its initials. What makes the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc so special? Why has it risen to legendary status when equally tough events have not? Since its inception in 2003 the race has grown from one single, small competition – in scale, if not length – into a week-long festival of running. Five separate races (including the 119km TDS) of varying distances take place, culminating in the main event. There are children’s races, an expo, film night, live 24-hour TV coverage, and any number of smaller parties and sponsor sideshows. Why has this race captured the imagination of so many?

Everyone knows what a kilometre feels like to run. The UTMB has 170 of them in a row. Everest is 8,848m high. Over the course of the UTMB, runners will climb (and descend) nearer 10,000m. It takes the front-runners nearly 24 hours to complete the course; at the other end of the field, competitors will be out for over 40 hours. They will see two sunsets, two sunrises. All will pass through three countries – France, Italy and Switzerland – as they circumnavigate the highest mountain in western Europe. This year, 2,300 crossed the line at 6.00pm on Friday night. Just 1,400 finished.

Greater Than The Sum

Statistics are a useful shorthand to describe the enormity of the event, but they can only convey a tiny part of it. They cannot describe the mental fortitude required to Just. Keep. Moving. over such a distance. They carry no emotion, and neither do they articulate each runner’s story. A number doesn’t tell me about running under the Milky Way, tracing a personal line of light amongst many others. Statistics can’t describe the camaraderie between strangers, friendships made on the trails. A shared water bottle or joke, a simple word of encouragement. They do not tell of the personal battles to make the start line, then to make the finish line. Equally, I can’t tell that story either. I can relate, empathise, draw parallels, but I did not race. Those stories are not mine – not yet anyway.

Mont Blanc is 4,809m high. There are thousands of higher mountains in the world, but what makes Mont Blanc special to me is that the summit is visible from Chamonix town centre. In fact, on a clear day, it is visible from large swathes of the UTMB course. It feels close enough to touch, but for the majority of people who cast their eyes upwards, it is another place. Somewhere to be observed rather than set foot upon.

There are an estimated 2,000 volunteers during UTMB week, and 100,000 supporters and spectators. Enough to fill the biggest of stadiums, watching races unfold on an even greater platform – mountains, glaciers, alpine meadows, high lakes of meltwater, cool forests. Each person has their own story. While they may not be able to step on the summit of the mountain or complete the race, they are participants as much as those with race numbers on their vest.

Aid station workers top up water butts, open packets of salty biscuits, and chop up cereal bars into bite-size pieces. They care for the runners with the attentiveness of new parents. Their job isn’t just to dispense food and water; it is to encourage, cajole, hug. Tired minds are reminded that they need to keep drinking through the heat of a scorching day. Don’t think, just eat and drink and keep moving. As well as the official aid stations, runners pass hundreds of roadside tables each time the trail drops from the high passes down to the towns and villages. Local residents offer bananas and more biscuits, Coke and, of course, more cheers.

Greater Than The Sum Greater Than The Sum
27/08/2016 UTMB 2016 UTMB© UTMB® - photo : Pascal Tournaire

It would be an injustice to describe those who line the course as spectators. Many hike for hours to reach the most remote parts of the course. Calls of ‘allez’ and ‘bravo!’ hang in the air, and eyes occasionally lock between runner and spectator. There are times when the racer appears spurred on by human contact, drawing strength from others. Less often, the runner’s eyes are empty. They are alone, regardless of who is around them, so intense is their internal battle. Others show a flicker of recognition and appreciation, but never distraction from the task at hand.

So, we return to the lone runner passing through Chamonix’s shadowy streets. I continue in his footsteps until I turn the corner and see the finish banner. Come the UTMB start on Friday, and the return of the first runners on Saturday, it will be all but impossible to move down the sides of the course. Now, though, there are just a few supporters. Amongst them I see Catherine Poletti: one half of the husband-and-wife team who are the Race Directors. I’ve met her and her husband, Michele, once before. What struck me then, and strikes me again now, is how they talk about the race. Their race. It is with enthusiasm, yes, but it is more than that. More than pride, more than professionalism. It is with passion.

And it is passion that makes this event so special. The race, the audacity of its scale, the aching beauty of the location, the warmth of the people all contribute, certainly. But, during the next few days I come to understand the passion shown by sponsors, racers, supporters, locals and officials – a tangible manifestation of the great things people can create when given the opportunity.

With thanks to Columbia Sportswear and the UTMB Organisation for their hospitality – Tom Hill // @24Tom
Photography by Pascal Tournaire / ©UTMB