Many runners are setting their sights on new and exciting races around the world in the wake of the UTMB and World Trail Majors announcements over the past month. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that almost every big running destination has a plethora of local, independent, and grassroots options throughout the season, and the Alps are no different. However, many of these can be hard for non-locals to track down, learn about, and actually register for. I’ve had the privilege of living and running in the Alps for a minute now, and I’d like to share some of my favorite races here that might still be a bit off your radar.
Before we jump in, it’s worth noting that running in a lesser-known international race requires a bit more forethought and planning than running in one of the bigger events on a world series or global tour. Many of these races obviously cater to locals and not travelers; there’s a good chance that you’ll be one of the only foreigners in some of these events, and an even better chance that unless you speak the local language you’ll be communicating with hand gestures and smiles. Luckily it’s pretty easy to point to the cheese and salami you want and hold up an empty cup for a refill of Coke. It’s also worth noting that unlike American races, European races require a medical certificate to be filled out by a doctor and submitted well before race time. Some of the smaller races don’t make this as immediately apparent as the larger ones, so make sure you ask if you are confused as to what is required, because they literally will not hand over your bib on race day if you don’t have all of the paperwork complete! Don’t get too anxious, however, because a bit of discomfort and newness is all part of the experience – embrace the journey, and know that pretty soon you’ll be spending day(s) in the mountains with other folks that love them just as much as you do.
I’ve divided up these suggestions into two categories – races that I’ve done (and would wholeheartedly recommend to a friend), and races that I really want to do (and have been recommended to me by a friend). So pour yourself a shot of strong espresso and check out this list!
RACES THAT I HAVE DONE (AND WOULD RECOMMEND TO A FRIEND)
Races from The Valle d’Aosta Trailer Family
I’ve got to start with an amazing homegrown race organization in one of the most magical valleys in the world – The VDA Trailers from Aosta, Italy, just on the other side of Monte Bianco from Chamonix. For those of you looking for large but still homegrown races in the Italian Alps (and Sicily), the VDA Trailers are your answer. Best known for hosting the ridiculously hard 350 kilometer Tor des Géants in September, they also put on other events throughout the year. We know many of the main organizers and I can truthfully say that they are a small team of good people through and through. Get ready for a full “Italian” experience if you come over for these events – in general they are more laid back, have more pasta and cheese, and are slightly less organized than some of the corporate alternatives to races of this scale. But it’s all good – the people and trails of Aosta will win your heart and have you coming back year after year (or even moving here so you can be a short tunnel trip away!)
Tor des Géants and Tor des Glaciers (Aosta Valley, Italy)
These are of course their most known events, and TOR keeps growing every year both in the number of applicants and the number of runners coming from abroad. Don’t be fooled by the lack of qualifiers needed to get into the lottery – TOR des Géants is a post-graduate level multiday race that requires lots of experience in steep rugged mountains and the ability to persist and grind through challenging conditions for an entire week. Most foreigners that come over to try it for the first time get thoroughly shocked and leave in disbelief that a race can actually be that difficult. Read about my wife’s first go in 2021 here (she’s since finished it two times!)
There’s nothing else quite like TOR, and that likely explains the high rate of return participants each year. There’s also nothing quite like the topography of the Aosta Valley, and this has got to be one of the most steep and rugged “on-trail” events of its kind. The course is extremely well marked, and the aid stations and support crew more than adequate, which all adds up to an accessible first international multiday experience (if there even is such a thing). The even bigger, 450 kilometer TOR des Glaciers is a massive semi-autonomous beast that requires a sub 130 hour TOR finish to qualify for the lottery. Don’t put this one on your list straight away, but if you find yourself cruising back into Courmayeur at a decent clip after your first lap around Aosta, then you might just be Glaciers material.
Gran Trail Courmayeur (Courmayeur, Italy)
“GTC” is the lesser-known counterpart to the Tor festivities that happens the second weekend in July. You might look at its flagship race, the 100k, and think “Ah, that’s a doable distance…” Realize that just because it’s shorter than TOR doesn’t mean it’s any easier! The mountains and climbs around Courmayeur are unforgivably steep as well, and while a 10:00 PM start gives you great practice for sleep deprivation and night running, it can make the second day feel quite long as you’re almost guaranteed two nights out on this course. The shorter options might be a bit more appealing, as GTC offers a 55k and a 30k course as well. The 55k will run like an American 100k, and the 30k like a 50k, so just make sure you have adjusted your expectations (and packed your poles) before coming over.
Cursa Di Ciclopi (Sicily, Italy)
And finally, if you’re looking for a really off-the-radar multiday still in its infancy, check out the brand new 450 kilometer Cursa di Cilopi race across Sicily, now in its second year. This course loops you all around the Eastern portion of Sicily and even up to the top of Mount Etna, a real live active volcano. I was lucky enough to visit Sicily for two weeks this Fall, and I can wholeheartedly say that the island has some of the most jaw-dropping scenery and mouth-watering food that I have ever experienced (and Mount Etna is simply awesome). Would I want to run 450 kilometers across its rugged terrain? Heck no! But maybe you would?!?!
Trail du Tour des Fiz (Passy, France)
If you’re looking for something local and wishing to be likely the only foreigner in a medium scale French mountain race, the Trail du Tour des Fiz might be perfect for you. I finally did this race in 2021 as a tuneup for UTMB that year after getting shut-out for registering too late in previous summers. That’s right, this race sells out, so sign up early if you think there’s a shot of being here the second weekend of July and making it happen. You won’t be disappointed.
The Trail du Tour des Fiz offers a variety of distances that are counted by the number of refuges you pass through to use as aid stations along the way. I did the 64 kilometer / 8 refuge option, but again these are steep kilometers out here – I had a brilliant race and it still took me ten and a half hours to complete the loop. The routes go up through the amazing limestone massif of the Fiz, towering high above Sallanches and Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, and deliver stunning views through really unique terrain, including the Désert de Platé, a barren limestone formation high on top of the plateau. The only real downside to this race is that since being rescheduled a few years ago it occurs on the same weekend as GTC, forcing local runners to make a tough choice. If you can’t handle the double booking of two amazing events, keep in mind that the Tour des Fiz makes a brilliant, slower paced backpacking route as well!
Trail du Gypaète (Marnaz, France)
Sure that sounds great, but what if I want a hyper-local race, something that people just a bit outside of the area might not even know about, you say? Then I’d like to introduce you to the Trail du Gypaète. This one’s got a special place in my heart because living in Mont-Saxonnex it really is my local race and takes runners through the trails that I train on in my backyard. I joke a bit, because it’s actually pretty well known in the region, and some guy named Kílian Jornet even showed up for the 2013 event.
Taking place the first weekend of June, it’s an “early season” race and there can still be snow on parts of the course. The different races take you up, around, and down through the Massif du Bargy, our local limestone formation and spiritual hunk of rock. Just because it’s early season however doesn’t mean that folks aren’t ready – apparently I didn’t do enough Ski-Mo the year I did it, because I was shocked at the fast euro start that turned into a fast euro middle and fast euro finish. I had a blast though, and if you can manage enough French to strike up a conversation you’ll meet some great folks out there excited to romp around the Bargy and its surrounding countryside, while keeping your eyes peeled for the massive vultures known as Les Gypaètes soaring through the skies above.
RACES THAT I WANT TO DO (AND HAVE BEEN RECOMMENDED TO ME BY A FRIEND)
While I can personally vouch for the races and listed above, there is obviously a ton of other options in the area. The following events are on my bucket list that I really hope to experience one day. I know close friends that have been in each one of them and can vouch for the positive experience that they will provide!!
SwissPeaks (Valais, Switzerland)
The SwissPeaks family of races keeps growing every year, and in 2024 they are adding a 660 kilometer (!) offering to their already substantial group of races including 21, 42, 70, 100, 170, and 360 kilometer outings starting the last week of August. This is a grassroots kind of race started in 2017, and literally everyone I’ve talked to that has run it says that it is a must-do event. The 360 km course is a great option to PTL and Tor, the other long multidays at the same time in the area, and likely falls somewhere in between those two in terms of difficulty and support. The course is somewhat marked, but the aid stations and lifebases are more sparse than Tor for sure. At the time of writing there are still no lottery or qualifiers to get into these beasts, so take advantage of being a bit off the beaten path and check it out!
L’Échappée Belle (Grenoble, France)
L’Échappée Belle is a classic French mountain race occurring in the golden period of the last week of August starting from a handful of small towns near Grenoble. It’s been a favorite of François when he’s not in Chamonix that week, and there are three distance options to choose from ranging from 62 to 149 kilometers. From what I’ve heard, it’s a great mix of wild and scenic but also well staffed and supported with local volunteers along the way. Just like any of the races on this list, don’t take it for granted – the headlining 149km event has +11,400 meters of elevation gain, which makes it considerably steeper than UTMB. If you’re searching for a comparable event that week while wanting to avoid the tourist madness of Chamonix, L’Echappée Belle might be just what you’re looking for.
Trail du Petit St Bernard (Bourg-Saint-Maurice, France)
The Trail du Petit St Bernard has been on my list for years as well, however I’m always so exhausted from big loops in August and September that my body’s never feeling ready for it at the beginning of October. It’s a brilliantly organized race, however, and is based in the charming town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, just a stone’s throw from Mont Blanc but far enough from Chamonix to escape the tourists and the madness. I’ve ran parts of the course both in PTL and on training runs, and the routes really capture the wild and technical nature of the area. There are seven different distances offered, with everything from a 5km Vertical K to a 60 km long course represented. There’s even a 35 km “Technitrail des Glaciers” that takes you across some of the coolest aerial and technical passages of the region. If you’ve ever been to the Alps in the Fall then you know that shoulder season is the best season, and the Trail du Petit St Bernard would definitely be worth a trip!
Ultra Spirit (Beaufort, France)
Beaufort is known for its quiet mountains and sumptuous cheeses, and also just happens to be the local training grounds of French trail legend François D’Haene (and some American guy named Jim). Ultra Spirit is an epic creation of François and his wife Carline, and looks kind of like a mountain version of Luis Escobar’s Born to Run festivals (with better wine) that occurs in the second half of September. It’s a three day stage event that takes teams of runners through a 25, 50, and 25 kilometer route each day. To be honest, it looks incredible, and their website is top notch. Check it out, and know that literally no one has ever regretted a running and eating trip to Beaufort, especially when hosted by these superstars!
And that’s what I’ve got for now. Fingers crossed that I can run some of these races in the second category and bump them up into the first sometime soon, and I’ll keep scouring the local mountains for other races and events to put on the bucket list. If you’re thinking of coming over to the big mountains for a race, especially one of the smaller ones listed here, I encourage you to check out my article about racing in the Alps to get prepared. If you want to learn more about how to get ready for big, steep, and technical loops and find out what my coaching services look like, please head over to Flowstate Running and take a look around. And don’t be a stranger – I love to talk running with pretty much anybody, so if you have any questions or thoughts drop me a line!