UTMB or the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc, is the pinnacle of European Ultra Running, if not the world. I was invited by inov-8 to follow their athletes on course, capturing the action in a series of stills. The best way to describe the atmosphere in Chamonix is a carnival, and I spent 20 hours being ferried around France, Italy, Switzerland and back into France, hiking onto high mountain passes and running back down for each shot.
Starting at 6pm, I wrestled for a good start line shot, before jumping into a press mini bus. The entire route was alive with spectators, as we were waved through police road blocks, making our way to exclusive drop off points.
105 miles long, with 10,000+ meters of climbing, up to half those who start wouldn’t finish, with the winner charging round in 22 hours. In contrast, the cut off point for the last finisher was 46 ½ hours.
Loaded up with a mountain of camera kit, hiking into mountains as the sunset was incredible, making way under head torch to checkpoints. As much as this is an endurance event for the runners, it’s similar for the press. Drive to base of mountain, loaded up, hike to location, get shots, run back down the trail, into the van and off to the next location.
It was relentless and very few of us made it to the saddle of the Grand Col Ferret for a magical sunrise, as I put on every layer in my pack, given Italian Mountain Rescue were dressed in down filled onesies! At every moment you pushed, it was a race to make it to the target before the lead runners caught you. And they did.
Seeing first how hard everyone worked was humbling, from the elite who would appear to glide up a climb, to those looking to make the cut off, attacking an ascent with walking poles as if they were ice axes. It never gets easier, you merely move faster or further. The further you were down the field of runners, the greater the expression of pain and suffering was evident on faces.
People put years into qualifying for the race, with thousands of hours of training. Getting to the finish would satisfy the majority, many World Class runners didn’t.
In Chamonix, the crowds were buzzing from the first runner to the last. Throughout the night, the cheers of those who stayed up to see people through carried on. This isn’t so much a race as a celebration of human endurance and mental strength. One day I will get my points and enter the ballot, it’s too good an experience not to try.