Words by Sarah Barker
Since I’ve been writing about ultras—not doing them, mind you, just hanging out in cow pastures shaking a bell and talking to people who actually carry themselves over nights and rocks—certain words have taken on a completely new meaning. Words like challenge, exposure, mountain, dinner. Fun.
Take for example, mountain. Having lived all my life in the north central part of the U.S. where one could probably see Canada were there not so many trees in the way, if you climb for more than 15 minutes, it’s a mountain. The environments at the base and the summit are much the same. Mountain in an ultra context means bring the insulated jacket on a clear 70-degree day, so much sky, so little oxygen. See the difference?
My point is—and it’s a relief to know I have one—there is only one place where the many interpretations of words like challenge and fun coexist delightfully, peacefully. And that is Ultra Trail Monte Rosa.
Some hard people’s idea of a fun challenge is 116 kilometers accomplished one right after the other, through the night, eating fast and climbing fast, doing everything fast. Quick quick, push push, Matterhorn, crap this is hard, holy exposure I’ve never felt so alive, the grandeur of the universe, bam, done. (TS Eliot summary)
Others of the same trailrunner tribe think of fun challenge like this: Three carpe diem-full days, one after the other, moving through natural beauty, crossing streams and scrambling on rocks, and an exhaustive sampling of cheeses—swiss, emmental, something bleu, something brie, bit of the chevre—ham, flatbreads, hot tea, cakes of amazing variety, camaraderie and 357 thread-count sheets every night.
Ultra Trail Monte Rosa’s 116 kilometers are tough and varied and ridiculously scenic, and you get your choice of how you’d like to experience that—in one less-than-30-hour (that’s the cut-off) ultra, or three-day stage format. This side-by-side race format is unique in the world of trail racing, and brilliant.
Top ultrarunner Mike Foote called UTMR “absolutely world class,” and last year’s stage race winner Krissy Moehl said that, done as a single-stage ultra, UTMR would be comparable to Hardrock. That’s strong language from people who know their way around a precipice.
Run With Me’s Ari Veltman, who has run just about every trail race on the planet, had this to say about the UTMR course he experienced last year in stages: “The course is a 5-star overall, and in particular, a few sub-categories get a 5++. Stage one was for me easily the most beautiful route I ran to date, and what is amazing is that it keeps changing and surprising you with more and more views as the path winds. I remember on the first day thinking,
Let this not finish, ever,
and then ended up getting myself lost, and adding 9km and another beautiful lagoon to my own route.”
I found the route to be quite varied, from exposed high-altitude routes between snowy tops, and across breath-taking lakes, valleys, ravines, and down to green marshlands, forest-covered treks, and through some lovely picturesque alpine towns.
Yes. Very much a challenging route. Not many patches of just pure running; mostly you are going up or down, and quite technical in a big part – rocks, turns, roots, debris, stream-crossing, …”
While UTMR has enough baroque technical patches, heavenward ascent (7,500 meters), distance, and average altitude (+2,000 meters) to satisfy the gristliest runner, it’s not just a bunch of buffed badasses hurrying through the Alps.
The stage race, and a series of training camps in July and August, make UTMR accessible and doable by badasses who prefer to use cutlery when eating without compromising one moment of heart-thumping challenge or eye-bugging reward.
So Ultra Trail Monte Rosa can mean crushing a fun mountain challenge, and it can mean savouring a fun mountain challenge. Either way, I’d bring the insulated jacket. What about you?