Part One: The story of the first edition of UTMB, Krissy Moehl, and the trail around Mont Blanc.
Excerpted from, The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB.
AUGUST 30, 2003. 4:00 A.M.
Throughout August 2003, newspapers around the world were talking about the intense heatwave that had gripped all of Europe. It was, incredibly, the hottest summer since 1540, and France was hit particularly hard, with more than fourteen thousand fatalities attributed to the heat. In some areas of the country, temperatures remained at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a week.
Back home in Seattle, Washington, a young American trail runner named Krissy Moehl was packing for a new European trail race. Reading the news, Moehl wasn’t particularly worried about the weather. She packed lightly.
Twenty-five years old, Moehl had just discovered trail running and was part of a new pro team called Montrail, a bilingual portmanteau of “Mont” and “Trail”: “Mountain Trail.” The trip was a honeymoon, in fact—a wedding gift to Moehl and her husband from Montrail company CEO Menno Van Wyk, who was excited by the idea of this new race around Mont Blanc. Moehl would take part, as would her husband Brandon Sybrowsky, who was also on the Montrail Team.
Moehl and Sybrowsky arrived in Chamonix on Thursday evening, just two days before the race. On Friday morning, she looked out of her bedroom window. Craning her neck, she saw the snow-covered summits. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ The severity of the vertical profile was a big reality check.” There was a hitch, too: the longest race Moehl had ever run was 100 kilometers. This race was another 50 km longer, with much more climbing, and on more technical terrain. It would test her limits.
Later that Friday, the weather flipped as a cold front raced across Europe. The temperature plummeted, clouds moved in, and it began to rain. Moehl went to a shop in town and purchased gloves, a beanie, and a lightweight rain shell. Weather forecasts were ominous. “They were predicting a crazy storm the night of the race,” she said.
That Friday, Safety Director Pierre Faussurier called a meeting of his team. The forecast was not improving: driving rain, snow, and high winds were in the offing. They made the decision to eliminate a 2,665-meter-high pass called Col des Fours, which would have been the highest point on the course. Instead, runners would descend to the French hamlet of Les Chapieux. It was a course change that would stick for all ensuing editions. What would happen out on the course? Poletti and others knew it was humanly possible to run around Mont Blanc in one go—but for how many of the more than seven hundred starters? For the race organizers, it was an open question. Taking a cue from a race Michel Poletti had participated in the year before, the group proposed three official finish lines: Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, and Chamonix. Moehl, for her part, wanted to go the distance. “I’m pretty stubborn,” she explained.
The weather in Chamonix at 4:00 a.m. on August 30, 2003, was miserable. Skies were overcast and rainy, and the wind howled through town. On the higher elevations of the course, 1,000 meters above town, snow was falling.
Among those at the starting line that day were other notable participants, including a thirty-three-year-old Nepali who had relocated to Switzerland eight years earlier, Dawa Sherpa. Sherpa, a high-mountain guide who had spent seven years in a Buddhist monastery, had run a few trail races in the Alps, and was a friend of both Catherine and Michel Poletti. Sherpa already knew parts of the course, having run from Champex-Lac to Trient as part of the Tour du Mont-Blanc Ultra Marathon relay back in 1996. Also at the starting line: Christopher “Topher” Gaylord, an American who was representing a new marquee sponsor, The North Face.
Several of the volunteer organizers were at the starting line on the day of the race, most notably “The Three Musketeers,” as Catherine called them: Michel Poletti, René Bachelard, and Jean-Claude Marmier, the retired head of France’s mountain troops. Bachelard planned to stop in Courmayeur, but Poletti wanted to go the distance. And Marmier? “Jean- Claude,” remembered Catherine Poletti, “was not going to stop.”
You would think the start would be the easiest part of running 100 miles around Mont Blanc, but it’s arguably the most dangerous. Wildly cheering spectators line the street, and the barricades barely keep them from spilling into the fast-flowing stream of runners.
Then there are the trail-running poles. Katie Schide calls it a “polenado,” a tornado of pointy carbon-fiber poles. At UTMB, nearly all runners bring them, and many start with them in hand. So close to others, it’s easy to get stabbed, poked, or simply tripped up by the dreaded polenado.
From time to time, a few runners fall here, and one or two have ended their UTMB before it has even really started.
For the first kilometer, there is always a little-known runner out front. He—and it is always a he—seeks the attention of the crowds and the chance to be immortalized in the iconic start photos, perhaps relishing the idea of leading thousands of runners out into the mountains.
Somewhere outside of town, perhaps after the Gaillands cliff where novice climbers practice their moves on a top-rope, the vibe shifts. There’s room to breathe, the fans are few and far between, and the runners begin to settle into a pace that they hope to hell will work for the next twenty… thirty… forty or more hours.
For kilometers 2 through 10, UTMB is practically playful, like the easiest beginner’s trail race course one could find. A wide gravel track rolls gently alongside the Arve River as it meanders down the valley to the village of Les Houches. Here, the valley says “au revoir” to the runners, as they head up the first ascent, 690 meters to the grassy pastures at Col de Voza. It will be on average about 38 hours before the runners reach the Chamonix valley again. Although all runners need to have finished at least one 100-kilometer trail race to register, at least 30% of them will drop out before the finish line. UTMB is a different beast.
After the climb, it’s a speedy, easy run down a wide track to the village of St. Gervais, famous for its support of the race. While dwarfed by the numbers in Chamonix, the spectators at this mountain town at the meeting point of the Chamonix and Les Contamines valleys make up for their smaller numbers with their boisterousness. It’s UTMB’s first aid station, and already the pack is spread out, with slower runners coming in as the blanket of darkness begins to settle over the mountains. Once through the aid station, a rolling dozen kilometers brings runners to a critical moment in their UTMB experience: Notre Dame de la Gorge.
Here, where a chapel has stood for a thousand years, UTMB gets down to business. If the race has been almost carefree for the 35 kilometers since Chamonix, it now gets deadly serious. A 1,200-meter climb awaits, culminating in one of the course’s more challenging high traverses at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. This is why runners come, for the challenge, and to see what will remain as their veneer starts to get ripped away. If their mind is in the right place, their answer to the course is, “Okay, UTMB, bring it on.” If it’s not, they’re getting scared.
But there is one last moment of conviviality. Each year, the locals build a bonfire at Notre Dame de la Gorge. Génépi, the Alpine herbal liqueur made from the plant of the same name, is passed around. There’s singing, cheering, and smiles as the steep climb up the old Roman road begins. In 2022 HOKA installed a LED tube that raised some eyebrows.
The once-packed horde of runners is now an elongating serpent, wending its way out of the forest, along farm roads, and finally onto a technical single-track above tree line. Thousands of headlamps weave and bob, illuminating the course for kilometers. The spectacle is dramatic, the kind of scene that causes most runners to stop at some moment during the climb to take it all in. On the ground, conversations have ended, oxygen fully dedicated to the work at hand. There is grunting, sniffling, sighing… the sounds of muscle-powered work.
On average, in the mountains, the temperature drops 6.5 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 meters, or about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit per thousand feet. Scientists call this the adiabatic lapse rate, and it is one of the drivers of mountain weather, leading to clouds as air rises and cools. For UTMB runners reaching the rocky traverse at Col du Bonhomme, it often means it’s time to stop and don a wind shell, hat, and gloves.
By this time, it is completely dark, and the sun won’t rise again until 6:30 a.m. In fact, elite runners will run almost half of their race in the dark. Many of the less elite will see the night twice. Though lamps shine brightly along the course, running at night is a solitary activity. There is just the sound of one’s breathing, and vision is limited to a dancing cone of light on the trail ahead. Enough attention is required that the mind ceases to wander, and as the hours pass, running becomes a meditation of sorts. Occasionally, objects passed on the periphery surprise: a signpost, a bench, a shepherd’s hut, perhaps even a racer sorting gear or quietly taking a time out.
In poor weather, getting across the traverse between Col du Bonhomme and the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme can be dicey. The sidehill traverse is rocky and uneven, and the terrain affords no shelter from the vagaries of the mountain weather. Forward progress can be slow. In time, though, the trail eases onto pasture, ending with a cruisy descent to the aid station at Les Chapieux—even if the notoriously sharp rocks that jut up require undivided attention. Here, the US runner Tim Tollefson fell in 2018. One of the world’s best and well beyond tough, Tollefson managed to run for another 90 kilometers with blood slowly draining from a wound that would later require ten stitches.
It’s hard to imagine that the remote mountain outpost of Les Chapieux, home to a few dozen houses and two mountain inns, was once on the front line of World War II battles. Here, in a fierce battle on August 15, 1944, French resistance fighters ambushed a German convoy. UTMB runners pass, most of them unaware of the stone-built machine-gun emplacements in the side of the hill and the plaque just a few meters away commemorating Le Combat des Chapieux.
UTMB rolls onward up a lush valley alongside the Torrent des Glaciers, where it’s not unusual for one’s headlamp to flash upon sleepy cows lying in adjacent pastures. A steady, smooth climb to the French–Italian border at Col de la Seigne comes next. Were it daytime here, runners might see all the way to Grand Col Ferret, still hours away on their journey.
In fair weather, UTMB diverts from a downhill cruise to take in Pyramides Calcaires, a challenging extra 1.6 kilometers that puts the UTMB course climbing over five figures. These bonus meters are the first to be dropped if the weather threatens, however.
From here, the course relents. There’s a downhill cruise past Rifugio Elisabetta, a popular stop for Tour du Mont-Blanc hikers with a reputation for hearty polenta and fresh blueberry tarts. Perhaps the only truly flat section in the entire course is next, a Roman road alongside Lac Combal. It’s a chance to run carefree, though for most UTMB runners, this section becomes a personal war against circadian programming. Eyelids become heavy, brains foggy. But because of their experience qualifying in earlier long-distance races, runners know it will not last. In a few hours, the first rays of light will hit their retinas, their brains will acknowledge the reality of a new day, and they will find renewed energy.
After a brief climb—and only in a race like UTMB can 457 meters be considered brief—UTMB relents again, presenting runners with a rolling downhill cruise to Maison Vieille. At this well-known aid station, Giacomo Calosi and his staff pass the night dishing out bowls of pasta to runners who are now starting to split into the only two groups that matter: those who will finish and those who will not.
The highest gravity location—by which I mean, the location that tempts runners to stop and makes it hardest for them to get going again—comes next, after a dusty and steep descent to the race’s almost-midpoint in Courmayeur. “Get in and get out,” top US runner David Laney once told me, and it’s good advice. With its cots and offers of free massages, the enormous aid station at the Dolonne sports center, just across the Dora Baltea River from town, has a way of luring the undertrained into pulling the bibs off their shirts and falling into a deep sleep.
Most continue, however—up the steep 816-meter climb to Rifugio Bertone, along the smooth, rolling balcony past Rifugio Bonatti, and down to the valley aid station at Arnouva. “Don’t look up,” a fellow runner once told me here, and he was right. Grand Col Ferret looms above, and even if your race is going as planned, it’s hard not to feel gut-punched as your head cranes upward in search of the climb’s end.
In time, though, runners finish the smooth switchbacks to the Col, perhaps noticing the slightly thinner air. Federico Gilardi or one of his team cheer them on, down the fastest part of the UTMB course, running past herds of cows and sheep. Runners often go faster than they should here, and the results of cutting loose become painfully apparent in their quads at the next aid station, in the Swiss village of La Fouly.
Here, as is true at aid stations all along the course, cameras and timing mats record runners’ passage for friends and family around the world. Soon, as they run downward alongside the Dranse de Ferret River, the cliffs of the Mont Blanc massif on their left, they may receive texts from far-flung supporters.
Rare stretches of pavement come next, tenderizing quads that have already endured 112 kilometers through the Alps. At this point the runners are more than halfway done in terms of distance and vertical, if not of time. But it’s still far too early to get confident about seeing Chamonix again, for there are four big climbs yet to come.
The first leads up to Champex-Lac. Many UTMB dreams end here, in the huge tent where pastry chef and bakery owner Léon Lovey is still the “Chef de Poste.” As runners leave, UTMB officials might stop them for a gear check, asking to see a rain shell, or the two required headlamps, since for many participants the next section brings a second sleepless night. That second nuit blanche is likely to be much harder than the first, as a frontal cortex miswired from lack of sleep and fuel generates fantastical thoughts and quirky hallucinations. At this point in the race, during my first UTMB, I thought I was on a rescue mission with friends in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Ten years and 5,900 kilometers mentally off base, the fantasy helped pass the hours.
Next comes a widely vilified section of the course—a rocky, endless-feeling, charmless climb on rock-strewn farm tracks. Here, it’s hard not to think of Winston Churchill’s advice: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” In two hours, runners reach the pasture gate above Bovine, signaling the start of the long descent to Trient, a Swiss village of just 145 inhabitants nestled down, down, down in the deepest of troughs in the wrinkled fabric that is the Alps. Fortunately, Trient during UTMB is a rowdy party scene, and lucky runners may hear the band playing long before they arrive at the famous pink church just a few meters from the aid station.
Runners must dig deep and find some energy here, because getting out of Trient involves 785 meters of climbing—all of it steep. After another hour, in the high pastures of Catogne, they might begin to dream of friends, family, and maybe even a bottle of champagne in Chamonix. But they know better. There are still 23 kilometers to go, including one of the hardest climbs of the race.
Somewhere around here, in a spot unknown to runners, they cross without fanfare back onto French soil, running down through magnificent pastures that they can only barely grasp are, in fact, quite beautiful. The aid station of Vallorcine awaits, and it’s not advisable to drop here unless you literally cannot make forward progress. Those who DNF (“did not finish”) under the tent in Vallorcine are truly in crisis, perhaps unable to keep food down, or injured and incapable of even a gentle jog. Everyone else—walking wounded included—knows they are closing in on one of the greatest accomplishments of their lifetime. Of course, there are many reasons that runners stop. Injuries are the most common, including blisters so severe they make walking nearly impossible. Others suffer from rounds of vomiting that drain every calorie available just when it is most needed. Rarer are more serious conditions, like the massive drop in salt levels known as hyponatremia that can lead to unconsciousness, or bouts of quasi-hallucinations triggered by two nights without sleep.
Next comes a deceivingly uphill 3.7 kilometers. It might seem flat, but the steady grade is cruel enough that a few of UTMB’s top runners have dubbed it the “asshole hill.” It’s mean-spirited, allowing for no rest before Col des Montets, a quick road crossing, and what just might be the hardest climb of a runner’s life.
On any other day, the passage into the Réserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges would cause anyone to stop and stare. Even though Route D1506 between Argentière and Vallorcine passes through this high valley, it’s a wild spot. In winter, avalanches sweep off the steep walls, closing off the high pass. Ibex and chamois watch over the terrain, cached amid the cliffs and boulders. At this point, though, runners may be further into the pain cave than they have ever found themselves, in a remote and dark corner where it’s too fatiguing even to say hello to the enthusiastic hikers cheering them on. These hikers might smell of fresh deodorant, while the runners passing them stink of sweat and dirt. But the runners run on, doing what they first learned to do: put one foot in front of the other and not fall.
Here, elite runners push themselves as hard as humanly possible. David Laney of Bellingham, Washington, who has had multiple podium finishes at UTMB, describes his experience like this: “It’s a feedback loop. It’s a sort of nuclear fusion. I take the discomfort, and I channel it into pure energy. Energy becomes more energy, and it all goes towards running harder. It’s not like it doesn’t hurt, though. It’s extremely painful.” It was in this location, during the 2015 edition of UTMB, that that fusion almost spiraled out of control. The Alps on that race day were scorching hot. Laney, who a few months later would be crowned UltraRunning Magazine’s Ultra Runner of the Year, worried that he was developing heat stroke. “I thought to myself, this is how you die,” he remembered later. Where the trail crossed a small creek, Laney lay down in the water, face first. “People were staring at me, wondering if I was okay.” Laney recovered and went on to finish third. At the mandatory drug testing for top finishers, he passed out.
Eventually, though, the climbing tapers out at Tête aux Vents, with—other than a token climb to Flégère—the work finally done. Below, the Chamonix valley is at your feet. Runners might allow themselves to dare imagine the finish line. The sounds, the crowds, the applause, one’s name being called out. If they have any energy to spare, they can look up at Mont Blanc, now in its full glory. (If it’s daytime, and there are no clouds.) After a stop at the final aid station, all that remains is a woodsy 8-kilometer cruise into town.
For many runners, this is a time to reflect. After dozens of hours, they may find themselves deeply introspective, even if the thoughts are not coherent or well-formed. Soon, they begin to comprehend, it will be time to return to the mundane world below. To try to explain this experience to their families, however hard it may be. After all, they’ve just come back from a world most people cannot even imagine.
It would be convenient to say that all runners returning to Chamonix at the end of UTMB share the same experience. But the reality is, the experiences are different and sometimes markedly so. Some arrive in the middle of the night, greeted by small but enthusiastic throngs of friends. Many find new energy, perhaps the result of what physiologists call the “Central Governor Theory.” This theory states that the brain controls the sense of fatigue and manages the body to avoid a catastrophic outcome. But as runners make the final turn onto Rue Vallot, they are done, for all intents and purposes, and their brains know it. They turn the exhaustion off. Runners can now run fast without courting disaster. And many do.
And then, incomprehensibly, suddenly, somehow, they have done it. It is happening. They hear their name announced. They see friends, spot a look of wonderment in their eyes. Perhaps they look down, not quite ready to meet the stares of others. Tears might be forming. Their UTMB is over.
That, in a few pages, is what it is like to run UTMB.
But nearly everything was different back in 2003, except for the most important thing. Save for a few revisions here and there, the trail was still very much the same, as was the physical and mental challenge it presented.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the first edition and all that followed was the simple reality that the outcome on that morning in August 2003 was anything but certain.
Excerpted from, The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB.