Il faut que votre plat soit conséquent pour pouvoir retirer votre dossard sinon vous devrez aller acheter autre chose à la boulangerie du coin… A dimanche pour l’éclate de l’année!

Your dish must be substantial to be able to collect your bib otherwise you will have to go buy something else at the local bakery… See you Sunday for the highlight of the year!

Gaspard, UTM Race Director

I first learned about the Ultra Trail du Môle (UTM) in 2023 when I saw it pop up on a bunch of local runner’s Strava feeds. Before they added titles and pictures I thought some people had just gotten together to do silly things on the Môle, a well known and hard to miss local training hill on the side of the autoroute between Genève and Chamonix in the French Alps. But no, it turns out this is an actual sanctioned race event, an official gathering of people doing silly things on the Môle, that occurs on the first Sunday in May every year.  When I asked some local traileurs about it the answer was always the same;  it’s trop trop dur, mais avec une bonne ambiance.  I needed a little something to motivate me to transition out of skiing and kick my running season into gear, and so on a whim I signed up.

Bonne ambiance is an understatement – this race is super local and hella cool.  It starts with the entry fee – 18 euros if you bring a potluck dish to share, 25 euros if you don’t.  There’s one aid station at the halfway point, full of all of the Coca-Cola, strong cheese, and cured meats you can handle.  Poles are not only authorized, but highly recommended.  And this sucker is steep – Over +3200 m/10000 ft of vertical gain in 35 km / 22 miles. Don’t forget that around these parts the beginning of May is considered an early season race – in fact, up until 48 hours before race day the Môle had been covered under fresh snow thanks to a week of stormy spring weather.

Le Môle, as seen from Mont-Saxonnex

I received more pre-race emails from the RD Gaspard than I have perhaps ever received before a race.  They contained useful information, for sure, but the main point of most of them seemed to be to repeatedly warn us that if we showed up with a bag of chips or a bottle of juice for the reduced potluck price, he would turn us away and send us directly to the local bakery to purchase something more substantial.  In his final email he informed us that there would be an optional water refill point at kilometer 27, that may or may not have water.  He then signed it by saying “See you Sunday for the highlight of the year.” He meant it too.

Don’t let the cheap prices and grassroots feel fool you – this is a real race!  Sponsored by Decathlon, as well as some other local establishments, there were hundreds of runners and even more volunteers smiling and cheering all along the course sporting very fresh looking UTM fleeces.  The trail was ridiculously well marked, and somehow traced a 35km route up, down, and all around the Môle only repeating itself for a few hundred meters on the summit spine.  

Maureen kindly drove me down for the 7:30 start, even though she’s out of running commission for a few more months after successful ACL surgery in April. I had wussed out of the potluck contribution, frankly a bit scared by Gaspard’s repeated warnings, but in retrospect I regret not bringing a plate of home baked cookies to accompany the plethora of savory tartes piling up near the bib collection table. I grabbed my no-frills number, literally just three digits on some reinforced bib paper, and queued up in the long bathroom line trying to escape the rain that had just begun to come down. The forecast called for unsettled rainy weather for the first part of the morning with mild promises to start clearing around mid-day.

While waiting for the pre-race briefing and start I was approached by some locals, including a guy who often stayed with his brother-in-law in Mont-Sax and knew the local trails quite well. We had emailed together after he found my PTL race report from 2022, and I was happy to meet his brother-in-law, who it turns out was the person responsible for stringing up some ropes across a local ravine on a seldom used route to climb up to Lac Bénit that I had just been exploring with my buddy Oisin. He informed me that we shouldn’t use the ropes that we had used, that he had installed some better ropes just a bit below where we crossed the ravine. This was welcome knowledge because I do recall Oisin telling me “don’t pull too hard on this one, it’s not very stable” as I hauled myself out of the ravine on a steep sketchy cliff, undoubtedly pulling a bit too hard. Despite often feeling like I don’t know many people here, seeing these two mecs in line made it all feel a bit more like home.

Don’t pull too hard!!!

We took off for a “warm-up” loop of 6km, perhaps intended to spread the field out a bit before the climb, perhaps just because, why not? I found a groove on the first climb up the Môle, despite it sprinkling just enough to keep things interesting and add to the mud that had been forming all week.  The trails were mostly covered by about 10cm of cow shit-consistency mud, clay, and well, cow shit.  It was sprinkling steadily and while it was warm down low the temperature began to drop as we neared the 1800m summit for the first time, causing most of us to put our extra layers on and bundle up a bit. I didn’t stop at the top, as I was freezing and the peak was socked in with clouds and fog. The descent was treacherously slippery and people were on their butts a good amount of the time as we worked our way down and headed off the backside of the peak. We passed a few pirates enjoying their rum and enthusiastically cheering us down the descent, and they declared that despite being in the back half of the pack I was the “deuxième barbe noire!” of the race. 

Bon appétit!

The descent went well enough, and I was feeling pretty good despite having run a very minimal amount this Spring, trying to eek the final days of a snowy April out on the slopes instead. I got to the aid station on the back side and was happy to see the requisite cured meat and cheeses, dried fruit, chunks of chocolate and sparkling spring water. I pounded some Coke, ate some ham and cheese, and took off on the steep backside climb back up to the summit.  This was new territory for me – while I was very familiar with the front side of the Môle, I had never ventured onto the back side and really had no idea what was ahead. For some reason (perhaps my long gap between races over the winter) I was thinking “oh, this will feel just like the first climb”…  and boy was I wrong.  Up until this point I had subscribed to the theory that as long as you are power hiking, it’s impossible for your heart rate to get up too high.  I even tried to tell myself this as I watched my HR approach my threshold as I struggled to maintain a 20 min/kilometer pace.  I hadn’t done anything requiring this exact mental focus in a long time, and my mantra quickly evolved from “breathe, climb, breathe” to “just keep f$#king climbing”.  I told myself a couple times “You finished PTL – you can finish the Ultra Tour du Môle!”, but there were definitely points where even that was hard to believe.  The good news was I had nowhere to go – literally the only way out was up.

It’s hARRRRRRRRRRRd work cheering all these runners on, but these guys were the right men for the job.

I was relieved when I realized we were only climbing back to 1600m, not the summit at 1800m, and I was even more relieved to see the aforementioned pirates again! They were in such a jovial mood by this point in their rum supply that they agreed to a selfie with me as they rattled off what I could only assume were bad pirate jokes in French. While I knew in my head that we would be descending back down to 1200m before the final climb I had no idea it would feel as bad as it did until I started heading back up.  I had gotten behind on calories and had run out of water by this point, so I slammed back-to-back gels for 550 quick calories (yeah they were the big Spring ones, only expired by a year or so) and then started hoping there would be water at the “optional” water point.  It wasn’t where I was expecting it, but there were two OG locals serving up some water at some point later on the final climb, and I obliged.  They asked me “Vous venez d’où?” to which I replied “Mont-Saxonnex” and they started busting out laughing – “You weren’t born in Mont-Saxonnex!” they admonished me in French.  Of course, I admitted, I’m from California, and told my story which they got a kick out of.  When my bottles were full they heckled me some more and then told me to say hello to Mont-Sax when I got back home – they loved that place.

After reaching the summit for the second time there was just 5km of descent between me and the finish line and I wasn’t feeling pressed for time at all.  I wasn’t setting any speed records out there, but given the fact that I’ve been seriously struggling with my asthma and breathing for the past few months, the fact that I could actually get air during the race and finish it up on very little training felt like a major win.  I descended with my new friend from Annecy, who was training for the long version of the Trail du Gypaète this year, and had to periodically stop to let his quads un-seize from cramping.  We cruised into Marignier just in time to see the awards ceremony for the fast runners that had finished hours before us, and I met Maureen while devouring some of the savory quiches that were still piled up under the potluck tent.

I was elated to be on the top for the second time

I had no idea what to expect when heading out for some silly laps around the Môle, but I can now say that this race had a bonne ambiance and much more. It felt like a bit of a unicorn in the modern trail racing world, where the drive always seems to be pushing things to become bigger and more expensive while showering the runners with swag and junk that they won’t actually ever use. I appreciated this event because it was a legitimate, well-organized race – it wasn’t a fat-ass, or some casual affair – but a smoothly run event stripped from all excess that often deters from the actual experience. They can’t be making a ton of money off the thing, if any at all, and so it really took on the air of a community gathering instead of a stop on a multi-continent race circuit or a loop that people were just trying to check off before heading to the next thing on their list. The staff, volunteers, and participants all took their outing very seriously, while also smiling, waving, and eating some extra saucisson along the way. It was a perfect start to my 2024 season of running, and all I can say is that if you ever find yourself in the Arve Valley at the start of May, and you’d like to get showed up by some locals on their training hill, you best show up in Marignier with a large, cheesy quiche in your hands, poles on your back, and a big smile on your face.

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1 Comment

  1. Keep writing! ✍️ It’s our way to travel along with you and breathe in some of that Alpine air as we enjoy the beauty of the background.🥰. Wyn

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