The UTMB Experience: A Spectator's View of This Epic Ultra

What if you could get an up-close look at UTMB?

🏃‍♀️🏃‍♂️😲You know...Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc...the epic 106-mile ultramarathon that circumnavigates Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

WeeViews member Casey Koza made the trip there with Will Walmsley to cheer on ultrarunning legend (and Will's twin brother) Jim Walmsley from start to finish.

👉Here's what happened...

Let the UTMB adventure begin...

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel over to Europe to spectate the UTMB, I had...

  • Watched videos
  • Read race reports, and...
  • Had conversations about the race and races leading up to UTMB...

But none of that prepared me for what I would see and experience.

A few things you should know...

  • UTMB =  Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
  • The race starts in Chamonix, France
  • Runners circumnavigate Mont Blanc which has a height of 15,777 feet
  • Elevation gain/decent is around 33,000 feet over 106 miles
  • And the weather conditions are always a little unpredictable

Celebrate success in every sport

  • I have always been a fan of the passion that Europeans show for all sports. 
  • I'm a futball fan and a long-time supporter of Crystal Palace and their supporters.  
  • I also grew up with a professional cyclist, so got to watch him in European races and the mayhem that went on anytime he participated overseas in Europe. There’s not a more passionate and rabid fanbase for cycling anywhere, just watch the Tour de France.  
Ultrarunner Jim Walmsley preparing for the start of Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Casey Koza and Will Walmsley traveled to Europe to cheer on ultrarunner Jim Walmsley at UTMB.

Start: An up-close look at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

I will preface this with the fact that I went to UTMB to watch American Jim Walmsley.

  • I was there with his twin brother who looks nothing like him, Will Walmsley.  
  • As I told Will I’m a fan of sports, not athletes, so I would of went over to watch Jim even if he had been a mid packer (FYI...he's an elite ultrarunner).
  • Why? It’s a goal in my life to travel to any major sporting event, no matter how niche, so this was going to be another bucket-list adventure, and maybe the biggest on my list.
Start of UTMB.

On your mark...get set...go!

The beginning of the race was an experience like nothing else...

  • We were lined up about a quarter mile from the start line and were packed in shoulder to shoulder from people all across the globe.  
  • We happened to be standing next to Andrew Glaze's wife, who is a runner from California. We spotted Andrew due to his jean-short running shorts which our group of friends from Ohio all run in. 

The 6 p.m. start

😃We chatted with her for a bit before the runners set off at 6 pm which is unusual for a race in America, as we like to begin ours before dawn but over here they run through the night.

🏃‍♂️🏃‍♀️As the runners pass by us the roar of the crowd was a wave coming down the street in Chamonix with cowbells and screams deafening the ears, truly something special.  

🚗After we watched Jim go by the first time, we hustled to the car so that we could make it to St. Gervais before the crowds got to big.

UTMB runners pass through St. Gervais.

Runners fueled by insane crowd support in St. Gervais

Thanks to Kim Walmsley and her boyfriend Darwin, we quickly arrived to St Gervais.

This is when I realized just how popular this race is and how insane and passionate these fans really are. 

I expected to walk into an empty town or maybe some family members of runners might be around. 

Not. Even. Close.

The streets were shutdown and again people were lined up along the fences...

  • Chanting
  • Singing
  • Cow-belling

My friends back home were watching. I sent a text to my old friend Mike Friedman about a video with Jim coming through St Gervais. When he saw and heard the crowd cheering on the runners, his response was...

“Dude this is sick!”

He even watched the rest of the live stream. 

😲Other friends were texting Will and I about how crazy the fans were and how they were lined up the whole way from Chamonix to St. Gervais.

This was truly the greatest sporting event I have been to.  

On to Les Contamines- Motjoie...

Will Walmsley and Casey Koza celebrate with UTMB fans hosted by Hoka One One.

Hoka light show + more UTMB fanfare

We arrived in Les Contamines around 9 p.m. after the leaders had already gone through.

But the town was no less passionate than St Gervais...

  • The main street in town was completely shut off.
  • Fans lined both sides of the street. 
  • And they were just as passionate for runner number 500 as they were for the top 10.  

We made our way down to the now infamous Hoka light show which was very well done by Hoka in my opinion...

  • Free beer
  • Free wine
  • Free food
  • Hoka swag

We hung out at the light show for a bit watched the runners come through, cheered them on then made our way back down to the car. 

Catch some Zzzs to see runners in the morning

🛌At this point we decided we would be super close to seeing the leaders come through Cormyeur, Italy, so we decided to go back and take a nap and catch up with the race the next morning in Switzlerland.

Ultrarunner Killian Jornet takes the lead at UTMB as the course passes through Switzerland.

Killian Jornet takes the lead as UTMB passes through Switzerland

Trient, Switzerland was were we would see the new leader Killian Jornet come though first with Mathiu Blanchard closely behind, as a relative novice to the sport.

  • I liked Mathiu's aid station strategy of hustling right through and putting pressure on Killian.  
  • The fans here were no less passionate and were lined up coming in and out of town.  

Tracking Walmsley via the UTMB livestream

  • We knew Jim was struggling based on what we saw on the livestream. 
  • But by any other human's standards, he was crushing a race 142km in.
  • We did our best to pick his spirits up as only rowdy Americans can do, but the look on his face was pure pain.  

Anything for video, but not that...

As he ran out of Trient the fans once again erupted with cheers of support.

😲I was shocked by how many would run behind the runners to get video of them without the runners seemingly minding a question.

  •  I would later ask Jim about how guys go to the bathroom when the livestream guy is always with them.  
  • Apparently the camera guys are pretty cool and shut off the feed when nature calls. 💩
Jim Walmsley pushing through some rough patches between Champex-Lac and Trient at UTMB.

UTMB runners: Battered and beaten, but still going...

Next stop was Vallorcine a nice small quiet town that doesn’t sit to far from Chamonix. It would be our last stop.  

  • Once again, to no one's surprise, there were fans lined up as far as we could see down the hill and as far as we could see up the hill.
  • Killian and Mathiu came through and Jim was still holding on for third at this point.  
  • At this point they were 153K into the race, and all runners looked battered and beaten, but still moving.

It was really inspiring to see just how far the human limit is and how much abuse the body can take.

UTMB runners scramble down a final 6K rocky and technical descent at La Flegere.

La Flegere: A rocky and technical descent to the finish...

Will and I decided we would climb up towards La Flegere to watch the leaders come down the last descent into Chamonix.  

  • We had gone up a few days earlier on a run ourselves.
  • We had also gone up to watch Jess Brazeau (Jims' wife, Wills sister-in-law) finish the OCC which is UTMBs 55K race.  Jess is an elite and amazing runner and all-around awesome person.  
  • She finished 22nd in a time of 7:13, against the best women in the world, with an amazing performance.

The final descent...

We hiked up about a mile towards La Flegere, and once again people were lined up to watch the top men come down one final 6KM descent of rocky, technical terrain.  

😲The crowd was no less energetic than they were 20 hours ago and no less passionate.  

  • We watched Killian come down, then Mathiu, followed by Tom Evans.  
  • Jim was now in 4th, which as a fellow countrymen I was super proud of. 

You could see the pain all over his body. But he continued on down to the roar of the Chamonix crowd, which can pick up the body in even the worst shape.  

Jim Walmsley grabbed a 4th place finish at UTMB with a time of 21:12:12. And he plans to return...

Passionate UTMB crowd pushes runners to the finish

The finish of this race was the most passionate sports crowd I've ever been a part of.

Crowd comparison...

  • I've been to a Steelers vs. Ravens American Football Championship, with nearly 100,00 fans.
  • I went to the first Pittsburgh Pirate home playoff game in 20 years with thousands of raving fans.
  • Both were amazing crowds full of energy, but neither quite compare to the UTMB finish.

Energized by the UTMB crowd

  • At the UTMB finish, fans were 15-20 deep in places to watch the men and women gut out the last mile of this race.
  • It's something I'll never forget.
  • The fans stayed for hours to watch people finish and give each an ovation when they would pass through Chamonix.  

I was still up on the mountain when Killian Jornet won the race in 19:49:30 and set a new course record.

But we could hear the crowd.

We were there to watch American Katie Schide come across first in the women's race, finishing in 23:15:12.

  • It was yet another inspiring moment of what humans can push themselves to do.
  • We had heard via the livestream that she had struggled a bit earlier, so were pumped to see her pull through and finish with the win.

I have seen the Western States Endurance Run referred to as the Super Bowl of trail racing.

  • If that’s the Super Bowl, UTMB is the World Cup.  
  • There are over 100 nations represented at UTMB.
  • Top elite men and women ultrarunners come to take a crack at the toughest race in the world.  

If you’re looking for an adventure, do yourself a favor and head over to the small mountain town of Chamonix during the UTMB series and have the time of your life, I know I did.

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Casey Koza

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