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Two generations around Mont Blanc

How a father’s journey around the iconic mountain changed his son’s trajectory.

Doug Mayer

August 20th, 2022

8 min read

Hanging on the wall in Ben Yardley’s childhood home in Williston, Vermont was a photo of his dad having just finished a trail race. The year was 2012 and Ben was 20 years old. In the photo, his dad Nick appeared elated, which at first didn’t compute for the younger Yardley. “I’ve always been pretty competitive,” said Ben. “It didn’t make sense. He hadn’t won the race, but he was still beaming.” And it wasn’t just his dad. Everyone else in the photo was incandescent too. Nick, who was 48 years old in the photo, had just completed a storm-filled tenth edition of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 106-mile run around the largest mountain in Europe. Eventually, Ben grew to understand the immense challenge of the UTMB course, the difficult terrain it traverses, and the 33,000 feet of ascent. “That’s what’s cool about UTMB,” he said, “and he had just done it. He had finished it.” Now 30 years old, Ben is among a generation of athletes that grew up watching their parents complete some of the hardest endurance challenges on earth. And, this coming Friday, it will be Ben’s turn to travel the loop around Mont Blanc over the same dirt and rocks his father once dripped sweat and tears on. And crewing him through three countries and around the iconic massif? His dad.

The framed photo of Nick at the finish line of the 2012 UTMB.

That 2012 finish photo didn’t capture a one-off for Nick. Far from it. Growing up in Yorkshire, England, Nick, now 58, took to climbing and often found himself on the rocky spires and glaciers above Chamonix, first arriving in the valley as a teenager in 1982. In the intervening years he would make dozens of such trips — a foreshadowing of sorts. Those long days in technical terrain would serve him well when the starting gun went off for future runs around Mont Blanc. He added trail running to his outdoors activities two decades ago. A single dad occupied by two kids, time constraints forced him to move away from climbing and toward trail running. “I could leave the kids in front of the TV for a few minutes, go out for 5 km, and call myself a runner,” he said. Through much of his childhood, Ben was not part of his dad’s trail running world. “The only tension between us,” Ben said, “was my lack of love for running and the outdoors.” Instead, Ben played video games and street hockey. “I remember my dad called me a ‘city boy.” All of it was made worse by a sister, Emma, who became a badass climber at a young age. Eager to impress his dad and spend more time with him, at age 12, Ben started running. Each week, the two would run a local trail race series together. In those days, it was Nick who was out front. At the time, Ben hated to train, which made their time on trail fun, but not competitive, as Ben struggled to keep up with his father. But he steadily improved over time. This extended to climbing, as well, which Ben had picked up. They had a lot of fun together, pushing each other, on trails and on rock. The combination of climbing and trail running helped Ben during tumultuous years, too. “When Ben was around 16,” Nick said, “He was very lost. Running gave him a lot of confidence in his abilities during a very difficult period.” Through the years, at the Great Adirondack trail race. On the left, Ben at 12, was the youngest ever entrant.
In late 2006, Nick entered his first ultra, the Jay Mountain Marathon in northernmost Vermont, not far from the Canadian border. “I could never beat pure runners on road races,” he said, “but I knew I could move over difficult terrain and I could do long days in the mountains.” He finished the tough 30-mile course in 6 hours, 40 minutes and was hooked. Around that time, he heard about a new ultramarathon that encircled Mont Blanc. But the first reports were not promising. American elites who came to France for the race returned with mixed feelings about the way the Europeans did things. “Most of the Americans didn’t do very well, either,” Nick said. In 2009, he got the chance to check out UTMB in person in his role as CEO for US Operations at sports eyewear company Julbo. He ran the new 100 km race called CCC, during which he didn’t meet a single American. But he loved the new race, which afforded him an opportunity to revisit the very mountains where he had climbed all those years before. He felt in sync with his days doing big alpine climbs. He raced unsupported and suffered through an extremely cold night on the trail, which he reveled in because it brought him back to his days as an alpinist. He noticed something different from his US race experience, too. European fans came out in droves to spectate, and cheered the athletes with incredible energy. “I had never been near anything like it,” he said. “In all the villages I went through, people were clapping and cheering. It was special. I realized that this was the new face of ultrarunning.” When Ben left for college in 2010, Nick filled his free time with more running, pushing further into the ultra-distance world. He returned to Chamonix every August, developing a routine of working the entire week, then racing. “I’m not a guy who likes to cry, but starting UTMB, I had tears in my eyes.” Through 2016, he raced six times: OCC once, CCC twice, and UTMB three times.

Ben in obvious pain after his first 50K at the Vermont 50.

Ben’s first ultra came during college at the University of Vermont, when he ran the Vermont 50. He was just 20 years old. His dad crewed him. Without any idea how to pace himself, the race hurt. “After I crossed the finish line, I was squirming on the ground,” said Ben. But something else happened, he finished first in his age group and discovered he was good at trail running. In the years that followed, father and son bonded during hours on the rugged single-track of northern New England. “It was fun and challenging, and it gave me a lot of time to hang out with my dad,” said Ben. These days, Ben has a newfound appreciation for being born into a family that includes two endurance athletes. (Ben’s mother was a high-level road and mountain biker. His parents divorced when Ben was 6-years-old). They taught him to see suffering as beneficial, an important part of persevering through hard times towards what you want in life. “‘A little suffering is good for the soul,’ is my dad’s oldest saying,” said Ben. That aging photo of his father celebrating at the UTMB finish line was never far from Ben’s mind. Could I finish it too?, he wondered. Since those father-and-son runs, Ben has now accrued years of legit mountain experience. In 2018, he ticked off the first unsupported traverse of Colorado’s Elk Range, a link up of seven 14,000-foot peaks near Aspen. The route is 67 miles long, with 30,000 feet of vert. Much of it is technical and off-trail. In 2019, on assignment for Trail Runner Magazine, he traveled to Chamonix and had a chance to run MCC, a new 40 km UTMB race. During that visit, the 100-mile UTMB event came firmly onto Ben’s radar. “When I ran CCC, I told my dad, ‘Save the champagne for when I finish UTMB.’” Now, this year, it just might be Ben’s turn to spray champagne under the UTMB finish arch. His goals are simple and direct: arrive uninjured and have fun along the way. “I’m looking forward to the journey and some opt-in suffering,” Ben said. “I feel lucky to even have the opportunity to follow my dad’s footsteps at the race, let alone have him there for it.”

6 thoughts on "Two generations around Mont Blanc"

  1. Pingback: UltraSignupNews
  2. Steve English says:

    What a great account of support, perseverance, grit and love. Good on Ben and his mom and dad! Would you recommend the Vermont 50?-Steve

  3. Peter says:

    Thank you for this ❤️
    Best of luck Ben!

  4. Cullen says:

    Good luck Ben!

  5. Nick says:

    thx for the story Doug. As a trail/ultrarunner and father of two young boys, well, it hits home. As a journalist/copy editor/annoying stickler, I can only say that your hyphen game is strong, except in 48-years-old and 30-years-old … should be 48 years old, 30 years old, unless modifying a noun, as in 48-year-old runner, 30-year-old son, etc. Anyway, all the best to the UTMB athletes, I’ll be watching from home.

  6. Andrea Davis says:

    Thank you for sharing this perspective on suffering and character refinement !

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