This past Labor Day weekend, more than 2,000 elite and recreational runners in eastern France brought new meaning to the term “labor.”
They took part in Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 171-kilometer (that’s a little more than 106 miles) trail running race around the highest mountain in the Alps, battling shifting weather conditions, brutal hill climbs, and high elevation in what is widely considered as one of the most competitive—and challenging—ultramarathons in the world.
Here, a roundup of five interesting facts about the race, its participants, and exactly what makes it so legendary.
1. UTMB is one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world.
Founded in 2003 and considered by many to be the “crown jewel of ultrarunning,” per ESPN, this elite event is held annually with both men’s and women’s divisions. The course circles the entire circumference of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps and Western Europe, according to National Geographic. The trail begins in the French resort area of Chamonix and follows the route usually taken by hikers, according to Reuters.
To register for the race, you must earn a certain amount of points in qualifying trail races. Then, you're entered into a lottery for a spot in the UTMB. Some spots are also reserved for elite athletes according to specific criteria. (Visit the UTMB site for more info on registration guidelines.)
2. It’s also one of the largest.
Per the official race website, around 2,500 runners from around the world participated in the 2018 race, which began on Friday evening and continued through Sunday, making it one of the largest ultra-races of its kind.
3. The course, which traverses through Italy, Switzerland, and France, is both breathtaking and brutal.
Participants tackle 171-kilometers (106-ish miles) with 10,000 meters (more than 32,800 feet) of elevation gain, per the official race website. To put things in perspective, the total vertical gain is greater than the vertical gain climbing Mount Everest, according to the Associated Press. (Though the altitude of Mount Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level, versus Mont Blanc's 15,781 feet.)
What’s more, unlike many other ultra-races of its length, which are often broken into several stages that allow runners to sleep or otherwise rest mid-race, Ultra Trail Mont du Blanc is completed in one single push—making it a "single-stage" race—from night to day to night to day (and sometimes to night again). The fastest runners take around 20 hours to finish, while others may take up to 46 hours, according to the race website. That’s compared to the 10 days it typically takes hikers to complete the circuit, according to National Geographic.
On the route, runners will see “mountain passes, verdant meadows, lush forests, and glacial valleys,” writes National Geographic.
Here’s a look at the stunning daytime vistas, via the official race Instagram page, @utmbmontblanc:
And a peek at the nighttime portion:
4. Race conditions are so challenging that every year, a large portion of the field doesn’t finish—including some of the most elite, experienced competitors.
During the 2017 race, runners faced a barrage of shifting weather conditions, including snow, rain, and hail. These unpredictable elements are why, per Outside, race directors require every runner to tote an emergency blanket, a hat, gloves, and a rain shell.
But bringing the right equipment isn’t always enough. Every year, a significant number of competitors drop out before crossing the finish line.
During this year’s race, conditions were so cold and windy that runners had to deal with temperatures that felt like 14 degrees F, per the AP. By Saturday, a day before the course even officially closed, 582 runners had already dropped from the race, according to Runner’s World, including American elite runners Jim Walmsley, Tim Tollefson, and Zach Miller, and Spanish frontrunner Kilian Jornet Burgada, who placed second in last year’s UTMB. According to UTMB's official website, 782 racers ended up not finishing.
5. This year’s winners hailed from France and Italy.
France’s Xavier Thevenard won the men's event, crossing the finish line in 20 hours, 44 minutes, 16 seconds. This marks his third UTMB victory. On the women’s side, Italy’s Francesca Canepa nabbed first place, finishing in 26 hours, 3 minutes, 48 seconds.
No Americans have ever stood atop the podium in the race’s 15-year history. The highest placing Americans this year included two women: Cat Bradley, who finished eighth in the women's division, and Kaci Lickteig, who nabbed 10th.