You don’t need to go too far In the trail and mountain running circles to hear the 4 letters of UTMB being mentioned.
It is seen by many as the keystone to the sport and an icon of an industry.
A lifetime goal for thousands to complete and a place that the worlds best want to shine amongst the Alps.
But as with most things, it came from humble beginnings.
Back in 2002, a group of 9 friends placed the event on the world calendar.
Little did they know that they had given birth to a humble giant that would help change the world of Trial running forever.
This is their story, this our story. This is the UTMB.
Welcome to the World
As you walk down the streets to the start line you cant help but be amazed by the sheer diversity of the runners.
It seems like every nationality, age and gender are represented.
All with a single goal, all heading to those now famous of arches set across the Place Triangle de l’Amitié in the heart of Chamonix Mont-Blanc.
87 different countries in all partake with a total of 2600 runners in the main event.
It is a dramatic location with Mont Blanc towering up across the skyline, glaciers flowing down from the summit and wild jagged rock faces leading you into green lush forests to the township below.
A wild ragging river flows fast, splitting the town with a grey/blue tone, as the mass of glacier water passes by.
This is the Start
It is just before 6 pm on a Friday evening and the moment has arrived, the months and years of training complete, the sacrifices made and their reward just about to be savoured.
The crowd swells to capacity as the final words of encouragement are given.
All of a sudden, at the front of thousands of runners a single women, barefooted, set in a white robe appears and dances in front of them.
As a symbol like a white dove, purifying their way.
The calm before the storm, soon she was gone. Disappeared into the crowd.
And then so too the runners flew through the town to huge cheers and emotions.
Both raw and amplified as the sounds echoed through their hearts and the streets.
This starts a 170km journey through three countries and into the night.
Towns become aid stations
As you follow the runners into the dark it is clear that this is no normal race.
Each town it passes through, no matter its size, location or time of day, is hosted by passionate and forever engaging people.
From the lively downtown of Saint- Gervais (pictured above) where the aid station is lined with rows and rows of supporters.
Onto the fires alite amongst the setting sun at Notre Dame de la Gorge.
To the Maison Vieille Hut set in the misty hills (Pictured below)
Where the runners pass in the dead of night, welcomed by the owners ringing their cow bells and a group of musicians that played into the small hours.
Music being played throughout the night
Everyone cheers support and connects with this race.
It is more than a race, it is a pilgrimage, a place to come and celebrate their beliefs in the unbelievable.
A place to challenged themselves.
It was their Mecca.
Mont Blanc is the UTMBs Mecca.
The Night Runners
4 am in the Alps and the low lying mist falls below us as we make our way up in the mountains.
The blue haze of the sky reflects across the white ice peaks and valleys of Mont Blanc beside us.
All along the horizon flashes of light signal out like stars in the sky of runners travelling through this majestic landscape.
These words are used not to give a sense of grandeur to some uninspiring story but to try an relay in some small part of the magnitude of this place and of this race that we find ourselves in.
Already 11 hours into the race and the first sign of daylight flowers through.
It brings with it an underlying feeling of hope that is present in all the competitors you pass.
The view alone puts an extra stride into even the tardiest of runner.
As we made our way back along the ridge we had the ability to just enjoy being amongst this amazing landscape.
Here are some moments I captured from this unique section of the race.
A Race of Heart and of Heartache
Walking around the Aid station at Courmayeur we were face to face with the middle of the pack runners.
17hrs into the race, 77km into the 170km and the hottest part of the day.
A sweltering 27 degrees Celsius around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The aid station covered 2 floors and was the size of a very large gymnasium.
Table after table covered in runners.
Each one a unique portrait of their journey so far.
And each with many mountains, physical and mental still to climb.
Because of the huge course distance and elevation, along with the exceptionally warm conditions, 42% of all the runners dropped out of this year race, including many of the top elite runners.
This is a huge percentage and gives a real indication of the true toughness of this event.
But still so many more took a stand and headed off into the midday sun to continue their battle, their journey with the giant.
And their reward is some of the most amazing trail running environments on the planet.
Each step brings them closer to their ultimate goal, to step across that finish line in Chamonix and to complete the UTMB.
Taking that single step across the line represents a journey of so many thousands of steps before.
Image below captures Ludovic Pommeret winning the 2016 UTMB.
]As we followed this race we experienced so many individual stories unfold.
One man ran from the front, for over 130km, dogged in his determination and absolutley intent on winning the race, he did not achieve his goal but on his way he did gained respect from every single person that saw him.
This is Zac Miller, a true example of the trail running spirit.
image: Zac Miller on the final climb, still pushing to the very end
The last official finisher of the UTMB came in at 46hrs and 42 mins, some near 25 hours after the winner passed the finish line
They were brought on stage and given one of the biggest cheers of the event.
Shown below The last finisher of UTMB on the podium with the women and mens winner.
And this moment symbolises all that the UTMB stands for.
It stands for equality and the respect for other people, yourself and the environment that we all live upon.
It shows that anyone finishing this race deserves our admiration and our applause
And that fundamentally we are all here for the same reason.
To overcome the great obstacles and enjoy the great beauty life has to offer.
This an event that is a true giant in scale but truly humble in its intent.
We shall return!
Below is my video of the 2016 UTMB Event
“U Take Me Back” is an intimate look at the landscape and people that shape the UTMB Ultra Marathon.
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