You may not be up for racing in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, but you can still run the course and enjoy the view (and other French indulgences) along the way.
During downtime before dinner, 6,400 feet above the Italian village of Courmayeur, we are ensconced in a corner of the Bonatti Refuge, named for Italian climbing legend Walter Bonatti. We relax over glasses of local wine as our guest, Patagonia trail runner Chloë Lanthier, talks biomechanics and fields questions from our rambunctious, all-woman group. A majority of us hail from Colorado, and our ages range from early 30’s to 50. The atmosphere is lively and cheerful and the women probe Chloë’s deep knowledge: “How can we run faster down technical terrain?” “Is training by heart rate effective?” “What’s it like, racing in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc?” Chloë answers honestly and simply as steaming dishes of meat, cheese, lentils and pasta appear before us. Here at Bonatti, no one goes to bed hungry.
Early the next morning outside the hut, lead guide Alister Bignell shares the quote of the day, which foreshadows the climbing looming above us. The route, part of the famed Ultra-Trail du Mount-Blanc running race, will ascend the valley and attain our high point of the trip, 8,323-foot high Col Grand Ferret. On the other side, Switzerland’s green pastures and picture-perfect views await.
Alister’s invitation to start trail running is always, “Shall we…?” Our posse of tough and cheerful women respond eagerly and slip into a rhythm along the dewy, meandering dirt path.
It’s a trail runner’s playground. Single track carries us past breathtaking panoramas with bucolic grazing pastures in the foreground, the rugged peaks of the Mont Blanc massif in the background. At times, the rolling terrain of Val Ferret makes trail running seem effortless. Soon, though, our heart rates climb during the steady, hour-long climb to the col and the Swiss border. It’s a tough push.
Running this fabled mountain route unveils a constantly changing storyline of rough stony paths, single tracks that hug the mountainside, and forests that provide escape from the sun. Village pit stops arrive in sequence: La Fouly, Champex, Trient. Each time, we refuel, indulging in cold drinks and fresh baguettes, often with jam, butter, cheese or ham. As we near the end of their journey, we grow stronger. So much stronger, in fact, we realize we will be in Chamonix sooner than planned, so we stop for a leisurely lunch, eeking out a final Alpine view before making the winding descent into civilization.
What follows is a joyous downhill to the valley floor. The excitement feels electric as our eager group of women approach the outskirts of the legendary alpine city-village of Chamonix. Within minutes, we will find ourselves at Place du Triangle, in Chamonix’s old village. Yes, our vibrant group of trail running women has completed the entire 165-kilometer route of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc: Chamonix back to Chamonix, ringing the massif and racking up 9,600 meters of climbing. It is, by any measure, an exceptional moment in our lives. runthealps.com