Quietly they get out of bed, shuffling through their hotel rooms. Grabbing their shorts, socks, tops, jackets, headlights and running shoes. They stumble downstairs, towards fresh coffee and croissants. Half an hour later, the dining room looks like a war zone. But outside the night is still. Stars in a black sky, vague mountains appear in the first light. Around 30 runners gather in front of Esprit Montagne, a hotel in the Chablais Mountains in the French Alps. Their faces look tired but their eyes express great expectations. At 4am they’re off. Headlights move towards the dark mountains and no one knows what the day may bring, apart from adventure.
This is the Esprit Montagne Invitational – a race, yet so much more. The man behind it is Alke Staal (the surname means “steel”, which suits the blond giant, almost two metres tall). Originally from the Netherlands, at the time of writing he had owned the Esprit Montagne for nine years. He has always had a huge love for sport, and the mountains in particular, but never became a pro himself. “It’s fascinating to see people living for their sport,” he explains. For the fourth edition of the race, he has invited around 50 runners to his hotel in the Alps. For a whole week, they are welcome to train, eat, sleep, laugh – and eventually race together. Although around half the runners are not even attempting the 80km race, which includes 9,000m of ascent. The course is known for its “Alke-trails” – trails that do not really exist, only in Staal’s head and in his race. Think of steep screes, traverses, tiny ridges and big rocks. In a nutshell: the road less travelled. “I do a lot of hiking in these surroundings,” he says. “And whenever I see a peak or a lake I’d like to go to, I use the map to figure out how to get there. Sometimes that means following a trail. And sometimes it means just heading in a certain direction. I like it when the runners have to think for themselves.”
Staal’s sense of adventure also means that the course isn’t marked. The runners get a map with the course drawn on it when they arrive at the hotel, so everyone can study the route and explore parts of it in advance. Runners who run well but have no sense of direction will have to stick with others – or get lost and wander the Chablais for ever.
Seen from the ridge, the runners ploughing through the snowfield below look so small. They come a little closer every second. Thomas Dunkerbeck, Dutch champion ultra-Skyrunner and winner of the Dead Sheep 100 in Wales, knows he wants to be the first to reach Staal, who is awaiting the runners at a very steep and slippery climb with a fixed rope. Rain pours down as Dunkerbeck, an excellent navigator, climbs up quickly and jumps over the ridge for the downhill. Huub van Noorden is the runner-up, rushing down to keep up with the number one – he’s the kind of runner who would get lost here. One by one they all get up that rainy ridge, some steady and smiling, others almost paralysed with fear. They are hugged, cheered and sent on their way with a handful of wine gums. Down the mountain and straight up the next one, while the wind plays with their wet hair.
The runners who aren’t in the race help out at the aid stations. “In the first EMI, there wasn’t much of a plan for aid stations at all,” Staal remembers. “I figured that the runners could fill their water bottles at waterfalls and farms and they could get food at the mountain huts. Exactly how I did it myself while designing the course.” During the hot and sunny 2015 race, Stall arranged to meet the runners with some extra water, while a supporter arranged a cola station for extra fuel. The next year more aid stations popped up and now the runners are well-fed: supporters bake pancakes and Staal delivers pizzas to the aid stations. Runners who drop out put on some dry clothes and then head to the aid stations too, to welcome their friends and provide them with food, gear and jokes.
Most of the runners have abandoned the race. The weather turned brutal 12 hours in; thunderstorms and hail on the ridge were tricky, to say the least. Jeroen Krosse slid down the mountain and decided to call it a day, together with his teamies. Dunkerbeck is still leading, on his own now since Van Noorden gave up owing to stomach trouble. (Although after pancakes at the aid station, he went back on the course to keep Dunkerbeck company for a while.)
The EMI is, as the name implies, only accessible by invite. Staal: “It’s my party and I invite whoever I like. As a fan, and organiser of the nationals in Skyrunning, I know who’s hot and who’s not. And that means I keep an eye on Dutch and Belgian athletes who are performing well, as well as young talents. The young ones won’t run the whole race, but it’s an opportunity to meet experienced runners and mingle in the trail-running scene.” There’s also a third category: runners who don’t perform excellently but fit so well in the group that they add to the spirit of the EMI. And why, oh why, would anyone be offering this to 50 runners for four years consecutively? For the love of this sport and the shared passion of the athletes. That’s it,” Staal smiles. “Athletes like Thomas and Kaj [Derks] are welcome year round to come over to train; it’s a sponsorship. Since there are no mountains in the Netherlands, I invite them here for some good training sessions.”
At the beginning of December, Staal sends out his invitations. “It’s an honour, really,” says Kaj Derks, first finisher of the EMI in 2015. “We are like-minded people. All of us want to know whether we can run the whole loop and be back before Friday night’s barbecue.”
Anne Kirschenmann, female winner in 2018, adds: “The first time we didn’t know each other at all and now a whole community has been built. I’ve met people here that I can’t imagine living without. The first year I cursed Alke for being such a peak-bagger; we had to tag the peaks and go back down the same way. It took some time to get used to that mindset, but the course is actually brilliant.”
People gather in the hotel car park. Everyone is checking the GPS trackers on their phones, awaiting Dunkerbeck. “He’s almost here now.” His best friends are here, his wife and his two daughters. He wanted to finish the course one hour faster than in 2017. “I think you can run two hours faster,” Staal said before the race. And that’s exactly what Dunkerbeck has managed to do. After 16 hours and 51 minutes the slender athlete approaches the hotel, downhilling faster than ever, with Snow Patrol on his headphones. He wants to make it back within 17 hours; it’s his way of thanking Staal for everything he does for these runners. As he makes his way up to the car park, Dunkerbeck’s wife and daughters run with him. The runner sits down on the pavement, exhausted. But his eyes are shining: he has won the race for the third time. Whoever thinks he’s going to be in bed for the next three days is wrong: Dunkerbeck is up almost all night watching his friends cross the finish line. The EMI is run best by endurance athletes who know their way around the mountains. Most of the finishers are mountain athletes rather than the best actual runners. This race is not really about running; it’s all about making your way from start to finish – hiking, eating, scrambling and yes, sometimes running. “It gives me joy to see people run their asses off in these mountains,” Staal grins. “Of course it would be great to see 30 people going for it and finishing the whole thing. But most important to me is that every athlete gets back safe and sound.”
The EMI Invitational ran from 2015 to 2019; at the time of publishing, there is no date announced for another edition.