45.859157 N 6.798293 E - Mont Blanc, France

UTMB: The Race That Transformed a Sport

Trail Running

Photography by: Alexis Berg
I like to photograph landscapes - little people in big places. But when it comes to a project like a book, I prefer to focus on peoples' stories.

Over the past 20 years, many of the world's best trail runners have lined up at the start of UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc). For ten of those years, Alexis Berg has been photographing the race, following athletes at both ends of the field as they attempt to complete what has become, for many, the most prestigious event in ultra running.

As athletes prepare for the twentieth anniversary of the race, Alexis Berg is releasing his own unique perspective on it in La Course en Tête (in English: UTMB - The Race That Transformed a Sport), a series of interviews and stunning photographs that highlight the evolution of UTMB - and the sport of trail running as a whole.

"I've been wanting to write a book about UTMB for a long time," Berg reflects as he prepares for the 2023 edition of the race. "There are just so many stories to tell.

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"For La Course en Tête, we interviewed all of the past winners. They were long interviews - we didn't want to just produce an overview of these people, we wanted to go deeper into the race, the athletes, and the sport.

"We believed that, by talking to the 22 winners from the past 20 years, we can give people an insight into how the sport has evolved. We know that UTMB has changed running in many ways, and, for us, this book was a way of telling the recent history of ultra running and ultra trail events."

UTMB and the Evolution of Trail Running

From relatively humble beginnings back in 2003, UTMB has established itself as one of - if not the - premier trail events on the calendar. What started as a 106 mile / 171km trail race that followed the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc has now become an eight-day festival of racing that attracts over 10,000 runners to Chamonix, France every August.

From the 186 mile / 300km PTL (team race) to the 9-mile / 15km ETC, UTMB offers an array of races to suit athletes of all ages and abilities. But it is the eponymous UTMB that is the highlight of this festival.

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A tough, technical course that takes in three countries and features more than 32,600 feet / 9,963m of elevation gain, simply getting a spot on the start line is almost as challenging as the race itself. With strict entry criteria that mandate qualifying events followed by a highly competitive lottery system, every one of the 2,500 athletes who start the race has a guaranteed trail running pedigree.

It is unlike almost any other trail race around the world. And that is by design.

"From the very first race, the organisers had the ambition to change trail running," Berg reflects. "The sport wasn't organised, there were no big events with big start lists. Now, they have over 2,000 runners on the start line. They have television, helicopters covering the race, and support events. This sport has evolved, and UTMB has changed it."

What makes a UTMB winner?

While UTMB has undoubtedly changed the sport of trail running, during his time talking with previous winners, Berg was keen to understand if the type of athlete who wins the race has also changed.

"Between interviews, we were constantly having discussions about the similarities and differences amongst the winners. We were trying to understand what makes someone extraordinary on a specific day.

"These are all extraordinary people, but they are all very different.

"When you look at the 22 winners of UTMB, there are a lot of 'mountain people' in there because it is a mountain race. Even though the sport has changed, and more recently, we are seeing a lot of runners from track and field who are very fast, they do not usually win the race. The ones that win UTMB are mountaineers."

But while these athletes are undoubtedly unique, there is one theme that Berg believes connects them: "When they won the race, they were not there only to win it. They were trying to finish, but they didn't need to win. To succeed at UTMB, you need to be free from the pressure of winning.

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"A lot of them, and I found this interesting, had failed at UTMB - had had a DNF, or they didn't perform as they had wanted to in previous races. A lot of them said that they found a way to win when maybe they had an injury, or they hid from everyone before the race and didn't say that they would run - they just had less pressure.

"It's increasingly the case that there is so much pressure around the race that the winners find a way to run their own race."

Runners at night. Photography by: Alexis Berg

A Unique, Reclusive Champion

Throughout the process of writing La Course en Tête, Berg spoke to many impressive athletes. But there was one who he found particularly fascinating: Colette Borcard. Borcard won the 2004 edition of UTMB, having little - if any - ultra running experience. And following her win, she somewhat disappeared from the ultrarunning 'scene'.

"It was the most mysterious name we had on our list - nobody knew her," Berg reflects. "We really struggled to contact her: the UTMB organisers hadn't heard from her for years; I asked all the runners I knew, and nobody knew her. In the end, I found an article with the name of someone from her family, so I sent them a message on Facebook. They answered, and they gave me the number of her husband because she doesn't have a phone. When I called him and he said 'okay' I said that I would be there in two days to make sure we didn't miss her.

"So we went to Switzerland, and it was amazing - she is so far from the sport right now.

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"And her story - I won't tell everything because the interview is in the book - but she hadn't run any ultras before running UTMB. She was a specialist in la course de montage (mountain running) - in Switzerland they have a tradition of short, fast 15-20km races [9-12 miles]. She came from that background and decided at the age of 40 to run UTMB in the second year of the race. She trained without having run during the night. She had never run with poles - and she won."

As UTMB gears up for another year, Alexis Berg has a busy week ahead of him. The release of La Course en Tête is a major event, but he will also be photographing the race - a sleepless 24+ hours that will see him hiking and running some 12-18 miles (20-30km) as he tracks the leaders racing through France, Italy, and Switzerland.

They are athletes at the pinnacle of their sport, all looking to add their names to the list of 22 previous winners of this career-defining event. All with their own unique stories to tell.

La Course en Tête is currently available for pre-order.

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