The Ultra Runner’s Travel Guide to the UTMB
And so the biggest race in trail ultra-running, UTMB or the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is over for another year and was touted as one of the strongest line-ups ever. It was won in the end by Frenchman Xavier Thevenard, who quietly netted his third UTMB win. By introduction it is a race over 105 miles and 10,000+ meters of ascent around the Mont Blanc massif. It captures hearts, minds and imagination. The most competitive fields of elite runners toe the starting line and the entire town comes alive for one week a year, to celebrate trail running.
But you don’t have to go to Chamonix to take part in the UTMB trail running festival, after all, the trails are open year round. I say year round, of course, they have one hell of a winter, with ski slopes from the valley floor and ski mountaineers enjoying the alpine peaks year round.
So what do you need to know before you go out to what for many, is becoming the global epicentre of trail and ultra-running?
Geneva airport is one of the easiest locations to fly to and it’s not absurdly expensive to fly or transfer from, with dedicated buses travelling throughout the day and night to the centre of Chamonix (i.e. easyBus) . A 75 minute trip, they are regular, inexpensive (as little as €15 one way) and take the stress of travel out of your hands.
Of course, many will drive and some may opt for the train. If you’re driving, Chamonix is a busy place with lots of parking restrictions, accommodation with parking is highly recommended.
In the valley, there are regular buses up and trains. You can get a pass for free bus travel in your accommodation (make sure to ask) and they unlock much greater exploration opportunities. The valley may look small on google earth or maps, but given the undulation, it soon becomes a lot longer than you think.
This comes down to your budget. You can glitz it up in expensive hotels, opt for affordable, or hostel. My go-to option is Airbnb. Book far enough in advance and you can find real gems, much cheaper than a hotel, with living areas and full kitchens. If you’re planning on big days in the mountains, make sure you have adequate space and facilities for relaxing.
Now, this is where you can quickly rack up a bill. Being in the mountains, a tourist hotspot and with the exchange rate, it’s expensive. On my recent 9 day stay, I spent €145 over the period, including a few meals out. How did I keep my living expenses down?
Supermarkets. Choose accommodation with a kitchen and you can eat well, healthily and maximise your running fuelling/recovery without blowing the bank. Fresh fruit and meats are plentiful.
Being in the mountains, especially the Alps, don’t go leaving the waterproofs and thermals at home. The weather can change rapidly. Plan not to use them, but bring them out. Hiking poles (cheat sticks for the Lakeland 50/100 crowd) are really worth your time. They will save your legs and enable you to run bigger days back to back. If it’s good enough for the locals and elites, it’s good enough for you.
Sun cream, trust me, always put it on. The valley sits over 1000m in elevation, the higher trails, 2000 meters and you can go higher. The sun is stronger, the air thinner, the time it takes to burn much less. Lifesystems Mountain Sun Cream is designed to last for hours and for elevation.
Of course, the usual kit is required, and worth bearing in mind won’t need really aggressive trail shoes, due to the trail network of rocky, hard-packed trails.
However, be sensible with how much you pack. You can do a weekend or long weekend on hand luggage. I took a 100L haul bag, full of running and casual clothes and used 10% of what I dragged around the airport and town on my back. Using the laundrette or washing machine at your accommodation is a wise move. Fresh kit and less stink in your room.
The Trail Network
It is vast. You can get a taster on the Chamonix site but, your best option is to invest in maps. The trails are sign posted at key junctions and once out of the trees, visibility can be exceptional. However, the weather can change and to have complete freedom to explore, a map is recommended.
Now, don’t be concerned about your ability. There are low level trails and you can catch a cable car to 2000 meters which gives you access to the high mountains. For those wanting a challenge, you can run on trails from the valley to the mountains. Above all, the trails are rocky and steep. Worth a visit to north wales, the lakes or Scotland if you want to get some practice in beforehand.
Chamonix is a mountain town, the home of alpinism. It is steeped in history and you will see trail runners, mountain bikers, paragliders, base jumpers, ski and snowboarders….. every type of mountain sport you can think of. It is pro mountain pursuits and you will not look out of place walking down the street in split shorts, vest and pack. The restaurants on the whole won’t turn you away coming straight off the mountain and it’s a very chilled place.
If I’ve wetted your appetite and you want to find out more, there are running guides in the valley, heaps of forum posts, websites and you can also find me on Instagram.