Recently I watched the YouTube film, Long Shorts.
The story in the film follows the 2021 season of two professional ultra runners, Francois D’haene and Courtney Dauwalter. They are two of the best ultra runners in the history of the sport.
Part of the film covers the biggest and most famous ultra race in the world, the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc. UTMB, as it is known, begins and ends in Chamonix, France. Beginning in downtown Chamonix, the race then goes over a lot of big mountain trails to Courmayeur, Italy. From Courmayeur, the race goes over more big mountain trails to Champex Lac, Switzerland. In keeping with the theme, the race then goes over even more big mountain trails back to Chamonix. The circle route is about 106 miles and has about 33,000 feet of climbing and 33,000 feet of descending. UTMB is the biggest and most famous ultra race in the world because it generally has the deepest and most competitive field among pro runners. It is not known for being the hardest race in the world from a physical standpoint, although it is certainly one of the most difficult. It is however, probably the most difficult race for the pros because of the depth and quality of the field.
For the sake of clarity, an ultra running race is any race that is greater than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The categories of ultra are generally, 50 kilometers (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (63 miles), and 100+ miles. There are any number of ranges in the ultra category, so not all races fall into the above categories. Some races might be 28 miles, or for the truly umm, inquisitive runner, 200+ miles.
In order to enter the UTMB, a person must first prove themselves in a number of other races, some of which also have to be 100 miles or more. Once a person has accumulated enough qualifying points, they can then enter the lottery for a slot in the UTMB. Nearly 20,000 people each year enter the lottery for one of 2,500 slots. Professional runners also need to have a certain number of qualifying points, but they do not have to enter the lottery and can generally be in the race as long as they have qualified.
After watching the film, I decided it would be a good method for showing my relatives a small part of the area where M and I live, as well as some of the trails where we typically run. In the process of watching the film with my relatives, it became very clear that they had no idea what UTMB was, or any concept of the type of trails which are considered normal for running. As far as I could tell, the only thing any of my family members got out of the film was that mountain trails are dangerous, scary, and full of all manner of obstacles waiting to cause bodily harm.
A common refrain among my relatives upon seeing one of the trails featured in the UTMB was, “Wow! Look at those rocks!”. Other common phrases from family members were, “you could break an ankle!” and “that looks dangerous!”. Little did they know that ankles are not at the top of the list of concerns when trail running. How to survive to the top of the next hill without experiencing cardiac arrest is more of a concern.
Though the particular trail that my family members saw and thought of as dangerous is rather rocky, and therefore difficult, it is not uncommon amongst trails in the mountains. In fact, thousands of people, from little kids to people 70+ years old, climb the same trail featured near the end of the film every day during the summer. I think that people who are completely unfamiliar with trail running believe that trail runners are happily frolicking about on grassy hills like those seen in the movie, The Sound of Music. If that were the case, we’d all be professionals. Instead of happily frolicking, most trail runners typically look like they can barely put one foot in front of the other and are wondering if they have enough strength to breath in and out one more time. Or they are wondering how far they have to go to the nearest toilet.
Compared to road running, where stepping in a pot hole because you weren’t paying attention is among the greatest dangers, trail running is a minefield. Not paying attention while trail running could mean falling off a cliff, tripping on a rock, twisting an ankle, scraping your hands and knees, running into a tree, running into a tourist, pushing said tourist off a cliff, being bitten by a dog, snake, bear, tourist, trampled by a moose, or horde of tourists. In fact, it is fairly normal to come back from any trail run with blood on yourself or some other injury. I won’t even get started on trail running during the winter, which can involve post holing up to your waist, avalanches and tourists on skis.
I was hoping that my family members would see the film and remark about how beautiful the area is, or make a comment about what an amazing accomplishment it is for the people running UTMB. No. Instead, I got questions about running in the dark, running in the wind, running in the rain, running in the cold, running in the morning, running on a Saturday, running with other people, running with the bulls, running next to the cows, sheep, sheepdogs, shepherds, cow poop, sheep poop, dog poop, and poop poop. The answer to all those questions is, yes, you run with, or during, or through, all those things. Except the bulls because that is for crazy people.
None of my family members are runners, so maybe that is why they didn’t quite understand the film I showed them, or why it is that I and so many others run. Running makes you feel good. Running a lot and running a really long way can make you feel even better. Even if you don’t feel better, at least you’ve accomplished something real by moving yourself, under your own power, from one place to another. Accomplishing something real always makes you feel good.
My family members were not wrong in their assessments that trail running can be dangerous. It certainly can be if one is not present, particularly on the more technical trails. As long as you are cautious though, and remain present and aware of your surroundings, trail running is fun and beautiful.
As for M and I, we are getting ready to run during the most dangerous time of year…tourist season.
Go out and be consistent.