Part 2: The story of the first edition of UTMB, Dawa Sherpa's incredible finish, and the legacy that continues today.
Excerpted from, The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB.
“It was,” Michel Poletti tells me, recalling the first edition, “a dream come true.” It was also Poletti’s father’s eightieth birthday, and his son David’s sixteenth. At the briefing the day before the race at Chamonix’s Centre Sportif, the group wished the elderly Poletti a happy eightieth. “It was quite emotional,” Poletti said.
As the racers gathered, so did the spectators. Krissy Moehl began to realize how different the vibe was in Europe. “In the US, it was all very homegrown. Everyone racing would have just one degree of separation. Races were organized out of someone’s garage. Here were over seven hundred racers and—even for this first edition—spectators lining the street at 4 a.m. In Europe, even then, trail racing was a spectator sport.”
Race director Catherine Poletti gave a simple countdown through a microphone. There was no music and not much fanfare when, a few moments after 4:00 a.m., 722 runners set off into the darkness, wind, and rain, headlamps glowing, turning left onto Rue du Dr. Paccard and heading out of town. Volunteers who had been at the start line raced to their cars to get to the checkpoints along the first 30 kilometers of the race course.
Catherine Poletti was left behind with two radios, a Nokia flip phone, a laptop, and several volunteers. “We felt very alone at the start line,” she remembers. “There were just a few of us.”
For the next forty hours, she remained on the bridge, sheltered under the bus stop booth and a 10×10-foot tent that served as the race’s main control point. Using a homemade database designed by Michel, Catherine entered names and locations of runners as they were radioed in from around Mont Blanc.
For Moehl, despite the stormy conditions, the race started well. She connected with a German runner, Ludwig. The two spoke in Spanish, their one shared language, during the long hours on the course. The beginning was fast. “It was cruisy,” she said. But at Notre Dame, Moehl hit her first real challenge. “It was steep and bouldery and really hard.” The storm wasn’t letting up. Moehl recalls cinching the hood of her new Patagonia shell tight around her face.
Despite the fierce weather, Moehl clearly remembers the spectators who braved the storm. “I was moved by the number of people outside, cheering us up the long climb in the early morning hours, in that downpour!”
One element of the race involved something she hadn’t experienced in US trail races. “Runners were cutting the switchbacks, running straight down the descents. I remember wondering, ‘Is that okay?’”
Along the way, Moehl encountered another surprise to her US trail running sensibilities. “I had been used to M&Ms, potato chips, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Coke… and here, volunteers were handing out dried fruit, dark chocolate, huge hunks of cheese, and pieces of a baguette. There was even a wheel of raclette!”
Dawa Sherpa’s race had, by and large, started off well, too. From Col du Bonhomme, he stayed in the lead, but like everyone else was battling steady rain, sleet, hail, and high winds. “I remember at the aid stations, the volunteers were taking shelter behind boulders, trying to stay out of the weather,” he said. The simple aid stations offered water and sometimes broth.
Poletti also remembers crossing the 2,479-meter Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. The volunteer there was hiding behind a cairn, trying desperately to stay warm while welcoming runners and recording bib numbers. “The weather, it was insane,” said Sherpa. The tempest continued for another 15 kilometers to the Italian border at Col de la Seigne. “Finally, once we were in Italy, the weather started to improve.”
Ahead of Poletti, on the other side of Mont Blanc, Dawa Sherpa later ate a bowl of pasta in Courmayeur. Further along, in Champex-Lac, Sherpa was told that the second runner was an hour behind him. He stopped in the old military bunker the organization had requisitioned for the race, eating two bowls of pasta as he got a massage. Thirty minutes later, he quietly left Champex-Lac. Sherpa ran into the night, the weather moderating slightly until rain started again at Les Tseppes, high above Vallorcine. Sherpa liked the weather. “If I have a choice between sun and cold, I prefer the cold,” he said. “I can keep my energy up.”
At around 10 p.m. on Friday night, eighteen hours into the race, Catherine’s radio came alive with reports that Dawa Sherpa was pulling into the aid station in Vallorcine. She announced the news. Unsure how long the run would take down the Chamonix valley from Vallorcine, she was perhaps a bit optimistic. “Dawa Sherpa… he’s arriving!”
Word spread and spectators started to gather in the pouring rain at the finish line in Chamonix. Catherine wanted to keep them from leaving. With the help of a volunteer announcer, she talked up the crowd for two hours, doing her best to keep onlookers from wandering off into the rain. By midnight, about a hundred people were there, with umbrellas to fend off the ceaseless rain. “I had never seen so many people there… Mayor Charlet, other elected officials… Everyone started to show up. I thought it was incredible,” Catherine Poletti said.
Finally, a few minutes after midnight, Sherpa came into view. Young school kids, out with their parents, ran the final meters alongside him. “Though we didn’t know each other, Karla [Valladares] hugged me,” remembers Sherpa. “We chatted a bit. But mostly, it was pouring rain.”
And so, a little past midnight on August 31, 2003, Dachhiri Dawa Sherpa became the first person to cross the line at the first edition of the Ultra-Trail International du Tour du Mont-Blanc. He had run 150 kilometers with 8,100 meters of climbing in a time of 20:05:59.
Fifteen minutes later, the crowd dispersed into the rainy night, and the finish line was deserted.
Right around this time, Krissy Moehl was pulling into the aid station in Trient, Switzerland. Ludwig stopped to smoke a cigarette and wait for sunrise. He gave his rain pants to Moehl, encouraging her to keep going. From 12:15 a.m. onward, once again, Catherine was alone at the finish line. Partiers emptied out of the local Chamonix bars. For two hours, she waited for the next finisher. Then Topher Gaylord and Brandon Sybrowsky ran in together, tying for second. Poletti gave them tea and draped blankets over them. To this day, their shared finish remains the best of any American male trail runner at UTMB.
Moments later, Catherine’s flip phone rang. It was the volunteers in Trient, Switzerland, 26 kilometers from the finish. “There’s a girl here who’s injured but she wants to keep going. She’s worried about heading off alone, so she’s going with Michel. She’s the first woman. She’s from the US, and her name is Krissy Moehl.”
Moehl was suffering from a cascading series of injuries. She had an inflamed iliotibial band, the result of near-constant hammering on long downhills. That, in turn, triggered her foot flexor to fail on her other leg, causing her to trip frequently.
Michel Poletti was not a lot better off. At the race’s high point, Grand Col Ferret, he had felt defeated, and only got up after another runner started yelling at him to get moving. In Champex-Lac, a few hours later, he had been sick, unable to eat and close to vomiting. The doctor there had tried to stop him from continuing. He was very pale. “I remember climbing up to Bovine in pouring rain. I felt like I was climbing up a river.” From Bovine onward, Poletti was only able to drink Coke. “It was the first time I had Coke in an ultra,” he told me with a laugh. “It was pretty good!” Krissy Moehl was 124 kilometers into the 150-kilometer-long race.
Soaking wet, she juggled maintaining her modesty with taking off her clothes, wringing the water out, and draping them over a nearby heater. She took a few minutes to eat as much as possible.
Ludwig, meanwhile, was done. He decided to stay in the church until sunrise, and later dropped out of the race. Moehl wanted to keep going but didn’t want to run through the night alone. Spotting another runner, she asked if they could head out together. It was Poletti. And so, Michel Poletti and Krissy Moehl headed out into the night together, neither know- ing the other, much less their respective positions in the new world of ultra-distance trail running.
Those next miles were surreal for Moehl. “I remember the cowbells during the night… my brain was not quite hallucinating but getting close. The tones were changing, they were close and far away… It all felt magical.”
Meanwhile, at the finish line, Catherine explained the call she had just received to the two Americans waiting with her. “That’s my new wife,” explained Sybrowsky. “We’re here on our honeymoon!” It was an odd and amusing flipping of partners, and to this day, Catherine jokes about it. “Michel spent the night with another woman!” she told me with a laugh. “But of course, I was there with her husband!”
And still, there was the weather. From Les Tseppes to Catogne, Poletti and Moehl battled snow and wind. “The wind was coming from the west, right into our faces. It was really difficult,” Michel Poletti remembered. On the descent, Moehl’s IT band would not let her run downhill. “Go on, go on,” Moehl insisted. Poletti stayed with her until they reached a ski-area road, from which he knew she could safely get to the next aid station.
That first edition of the race stayed low after crossing the Swiss-French border into Vallorcine, winding its way through the valley to Chamonix. A few kilometers from the outskirts of town, in the village of Les Tines, the reality of his accomplishment started to wash over Poletti. “From Les Tines to Chamonix, I was in tears. It was incredible to be finishing. All of my emotions were pouring out.” During those last minutes, however, Poletti was already thinking about the next edition. Everyone agreed the name of the race was too long and convoluted. On that run into town, he had a simple four-letter acronym in mind: U.T.M.B. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
At 8:31 a.m., Poletti crossed the line into the arms of his wife.
“Like everyone, in my life I had big goals,” he told me. “I wanted to climb an 8,000-meter peak. I was supposed to go to climb Mount McKinley [Denali] in Alaska one year but missed it. This goal… to start in Chamonix and come back to Chamonix, the city where I was born… my land… my country… this was a ten-year dream that came true.”
One hour and seven minutes after Poletti, Moehl came into town, hobbling badly. And it was cold. Moehl was wearing clothes borrowed from volunteers at aid stations. “Honestly, I was wrecked,” she told me nearly twenty years later. “I was a gimpy mess.”
The details of her finish at 9:38 a.m. are not etched in her mind. “I was deep inside my head,” she explained. The race had taken its toll. “I was defeated physically.” But not so much that she couldn’t cross the finish line in a time of 29:38:23, making her the women’s winner of the first edition of what would soon be called the UTMB. The next female finisher, Anne-Marie Bais-Le-Roux, was more than two hours behind.
“The race that day,” said Moehl, “it just beat everyone up!”
Only sixty-seven finishers crossed the line on August 31 in Chamonix. Over seven hundred others either dropped out or settled for a result in Courmayeur or Champex-Lac.
As for the starters that first year? Moehl came back four more times, dropping out twice and winning UTMB once more. In the years that fol- lowed, she went on to set course records around the world, including at Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, and at the 170-mile- long Tahoe Rim Trail. She has raced more than one hundred ultramarathons.
Dawa Sherpa came in second the following year, fifth in 2007, second again in 2008, and in 2012 he won UTMB’s TDS race. He went on to compete for Nepal in Nordic skiing in three winter Olympics, and has run over one hundred trail races.
Topher Gaylord competed in nine more UTMB races, finishing in the Top 10 three times. He raced Western States seven times and the New York Marathon five times, including one race in which he came in third in his over 50 age group. He has run over 75 ultras.
René Bachelard continued to race from time to time, running all the way up to 98 kilometers in the 2009 edition of UTMB’s CCC race. In 2016, at age eighty-four, he finished UTMB’s 56-kilometer OCC race. He raced the 40-km MCC race the following year and broke his shoulder. At age ninety-one, he continues to run. Friends follow him on Strava or on Facebook, where he shares his runs. “I’m not training anymore, but I force myself to get out and move every day,” he told me. “I go at about 6 or 7 kilometers per hour. For you, that’s a stroll. For me, it’s my maximum effort. Motivation is hard. I get tired after about two hours. Fatigue arrives quickly these days.”
Michel Poletti has since run another eighty or so ultras. He has started UTMB another seven times and finished six of them. Three times during various UTMB weeks, he’s run the organization’s TDS course. Overall, Poletti has run nearly forty races in UTMB’s international series, the Ultra-Trail World Tour, and now, the new UTMB World Series races. No person has run more UTMB-associated races. Among UTMB staff, it’s a point of amusement and pride: In the global race to accrue “Running Stones”—UTMB’s term for lottery entries to land a coveted starting line spot in one of the August Chamonix races—no one has more stones than their boss.
Excerpted from, The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB.
Hero Image: 2019, Tête de la Tronche on the CCC, © UTMB – Thomas Bekker