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Book Review: “The Race That Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB”

By Brian Metzler

The trail and mountain running season is heating up around the U.S. and even if you’re mostly a road runner, you should check out events like the recent GoProMountain Games, this weekend’s Broken Arrow Skyrace, Leadville Trail Marathon, Salomon Spring Trail Running Series or even the Mt. Washington Road Race. (BTW, Team USA just scored 10 top-10 finishes at the world championships in Austria, including Grayson Murphy’s gold and bronze medal efforts in short and fast mountain races.) But even if you’re not a carry-a-backpack kind of ultrarunner who has any remote fascination about running 100 miles – and look, I don’t recommend it, even though it’s the most fun you can have on two feet! – you should pick up a copy of this new book about the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Chamonix, France. If you liked “Born to Run,” you’ll definitely love Doug Mayer’s new book about Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc: “The Race That Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB”.

What is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, you ask? Well, “UTMB” as it is known in the trail running world, is a rugged 104-mile loop that starts in Chamonix and sends runners on an adventurous through-the-night loop around the Mont Blanc Massif, the highest mountain in Western Europe at 15,777 feet. While sending runners from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to Chamonix, the course traverses 10 highpoints in the Alps. Even though they are low by American race standards like the Leadville 100 (12,600 feet) and the Hardrock 100 (14,100 feet), those European climbs eat up runners’ strong muscles and positive mindsets with steep trails and cumulative vertical gain (32,900 feet).

There are several things that make the race (and the book) fascinating, not the least of which it has been a de facto world championship of ultra-distance trail running for the past dozen or so years. The best ultrarunners in the world have tested their mettle – physically, mentally and emotionally – on the UTMB course, and usually, as the Blue’s Traveler’s song says, “The Mountains Win Again.” But those who have succeeded and won the race have become legends of the sport. Spain’s Kilian Jornet, Frenchman Francois D’Haene and a large collection of American women Krissy Moehl, Nikki Kimball, Rory Bosio, Courtney Dauwalter and Katie Schide are some of the notable runners who have run well repeatedly and won the race. Other American legends, including Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka and Jim Walmsley, have yet to solve the mystery of running in the Alps.

What Mayer does so well is to pull back the curtain and give readers a comprehensive look at the race from its early days before its launch in 2003 to the present day. (Jornet won the race for the fourth time last year, while Schide, who has been living in France while working on a Ph.D in geology, was the women’s winner.) Mayer, an American expat who began visiting Chamonix when he was a twentysomething rock climber in the 1980s, picked up trail running while growing up in New England, but didn’t really grasp the wider context of ultrarunning until he spent several years in Chamonix. Now he’s a two-time finisher of UTMB (and numerous races over there) and operates a running tour business called Run The Alps that helps introduce more and more international trail runners to the majestic Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley every summer. But Mayer has always been a great storyteller at heart and his previous role as one of the producers of the NPR “Car Talk” radio show led him into more journalistic endeavors as he became more immersed in trail running and life in Chamonix.

In “The Race That Changed Running,” Mayer calls upon his long residence in Chamonix, his experience as a trail runner, his many local connections, his knack for telling stories and his passion for spending long days in the mountains to put together a compelling package of information, insight and intrigue about one of the most prominent events in endurance sports. Through candid interviews with race founders Catherine and Michel Poleti, as well as Jornet, Moehl, Schide, Dauwalter and another influential American, Topher Gaylord, Mayer presents the history and the inside stories of the race, and explains how it has grown so fast (the seven-race festival of trail running attracts more than 15,000 runners (elite and recreational runners alike!) during the last week of August) and why some people are concerned about where the race and its international qualifying series (the UTMB World Series) might be headed. This year, the race is celebrating its 20th edition during the last week of August, and with Mayer’s book as a prelude, it will be one of the most exciting week’s the sport has ever seen. Even if you’ll never run the race, this book will make you want to be in Chamonix to catch all of the action live in person. You can get all of the details on Doug’s book here: “The Race That Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB”


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