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Chamonix, France has been a hotbed of trekking and mountaineering since the 18th century. Early exploits centered on reaching the 15,781-foot Mont Blanc—first summited in 1786—with thrill seekers eventually expanding their quests to include neighboring peaks and mountain flanks.
Snow sports flourished in the cold climate, and Chamonix was host to the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. The town of 10,000 residents has evolved with the times, and tourism continues to flourish almost 300 years later.
Contemporary gear may be lighter weight and higher tech than the wool and leather of early trekkers, but the quest for exploring the mountains around Chamonix remains. Hiking, skiing, climbing and now trail running have secured the hamlet’s place at the epicenter of modern mountain adventuring. And trails first created out of necessity, to hunt for nourishment and to communicate and trade between villages, have become pathways for adventurous runners. Chamonix has 350K of maintained trails in its valley alone. The number increases exponentially when you head across the border to neighboring Italy or Switzerland— traveling to different countries by foot power is an experience not to be missed.
What the Boston Marathon is for road racers, the Super Bowl is for football fans and Wimbledon is for tennis aficionados, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is for trail runners. The 13th running of the UTMB this August includes three countries (competitors run from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France as they circumnavigate the peak), 104 miles, roughly 33,000 feet of climbing, 2,300 racers and more cowbell than most of us will hear in a lifetime.
Qualifying standards for the UTMB are stringent, but in 2014, race officials added a 50K option. Clocking in at just over 31 miles, this distance is difficult but more in the ballpark of “doable.” The Orsières-Champex-Chamonix (OCC) race follows a portion of the route for UTMB, beginning in Switzerland and ending in Chamonix—meaning participants have the opportunity to tread on the same trails as 104-mile racing heavy-weights, while gaining an unforgettable introduction to European mountain running.
Last year, I decided I was up for the OCC challenge. On race day, 1,200 of us fit into the city square of Orsières, the early morning chill forgotten in eager anticipation of the journey to come. Excited locals cheered from windows above the square, while drones hovered overhead in curious contrast to the ancient cobblestones under our feet.
As we ran through town and into the countryside, we found streets lined with cheering schoolchildren, clapping spectators and clanging cowbells. The genuine enthusiasm and legions of spectators persisted at every checkpoint, town and trail junction along the journey. Sporting culture runs deep and local appreciation for those willing to test themselves in the mountains is a time-honored tradition.
Chamonix is quintessentially charming with its café-lined streets and old-world architecture. Persistent rain gave way to blue skies for a stunning race day and panoramic views as surreal as the legions of supporters. Flower-filled meadows (so this is what “Heidi” was all about), uninterested cows, charming hillside cafés and postcard-worthy villages filled the course.
Somehow the scenery improved even more with altitude, and, in a race with almost 11,000 feet of climbing, there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the view. At one point, jet lag threatened to get the best of me, and I momentarily considered a trailside nap on a pillowy patch of moss.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but the OCC, even with its challenging terrain, was the most perfect trail race I’ve run. Swiss-precision race organization definitely contributed, as did the well-marked route.
Perhaps it was running in a stunning location and on routes imbued with history. It was gritty and dirty, but there was an energizing honor in the suffering. And, whenever I started to head down a mental black hole, something special would spur me onward. I soon discovered trailside blueberry bushes in a high alpine meadow, locals ready to run alongside me for a few meters or the ultimate boost of seeing familiar faces at an aid station.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day of running. Of course I had my low moments, but looking back on it, my OCC experience wasn’t about the time on the clock so much as it was the thrill of the experience.
Lardons, cheeses, hard cider, raclette, macaroons, meringues and chocolate may not be your typical pre-race fuel, but everything I sampled was très bon. Running-to-eat vacations have their advantages! Fresh eggs, curries, berries, roast chicken, buttery potatoes and tender lettuces rounded out my gluten-free fueling options. I will admit, however, the baguettes and croissants smelled amazing!