At the La Potinière café, in Chamonix (Haute-Savoie), Tom, in his twenties, enjoys a cold drink on the terrace in the company of his parents, Christian and Carine, and his uncle Gilles. Around them, many families want to enjoy the last rays of sunshine a few days before the start of the school year. But Tom and Christian have other concerns in mind. In an hour, they will cross the starting line of the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a mixed race of 175 km and 10,000 meters of elevation gain. Like them, thousands of amateur runners take part in the event, giving it a popular and family character despite the presence of the big ultra-trail stars*. For Tom, this is his first participation in the premier UTMB event. At 23 years old, he is the youngest in this edition. His father is participating for the third time. Both are happy to compete together in the legendary race in their region.
Give a taste for effort
This family atmosphere was cultivated from the first years, according to Isabelle Viseux-Poletti, director of the UTMB and daughter of the founders of the circuit which celebrated its 20th anniversary at the end of August: “The event has always aimed to bring together all the people who surround the runners. The UTMB is not only a sporting competition. » To broaden its audience, the UTMB, like many other circuits of its kind, offers seven race formats throughout the week in order to make the event transgenerational.
The children thus have their tests: the “minis” adapted according to age, from 2 years (!) to 14 years. They take place during the week of the event in Chamonix and in several places around the Savoyard town. This year, for the first time, registrations for the minis in Chamonix exceed the 1,000 participant mark. These fun activities also respond to an important issue, according to journalist Guillaume Centracchio, host of the podcast Inside the mind of a runner : the fight against a sedentary lifestyle among young people. “Children function by mimicry,” he notes. If they see their father completing a trail or ultra-trail, they will be amazed and will become interested in physical activity. »
That’s Tom’s whole story. “The turning point came at the age of 14, when I saw my father cross the finish line of the OCC, a 55 km format,” says the young Morzinois. “Mini cars didn’t exist yet, but I wanted to support my father during his shopping to experience the atmosphere inside. In 2016, I started registering for Youth Chamonix Courmayeur, a format designed for teenagers, and I participated four times. » Following his example, the same adventure is perhaps taking shape for the children who are watching the races this year or who are participating for the first time.
“Don’t leave too quickly and remember to visualize the route,” advises the speaker. 24 km from Chamonix on the same weekend, children between 4 and 14 years old are registered for minis ranging from 400 to 1,200 meters in Trient, Switzerland. Krzys and Lisa watch their son Thomek, 6, who is getting ready to start. “He is participating in a competition for the first time,” explains his father. “His older brother, 8 years old, is participating in his fourth children’s race, but he has more of a competitive spirit.” Such valuation in very young children raises questions. “The competitive spirit is not bad in itself”, explains Aline Nativel Id Hammou, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist (read box below) .
“Daily, adults already give children little challenges, like putting on their shoes before the parent, eating their broccoli like a superhero, running as fast as lightning…” Marie, friend of Krzys and Lisa and mother of four children between 5 and 12 years old, agrees: “It’s important to socialize them within the framework of the competition, especially when there is no ranking.” Indeed, all the children wear a number 1 bib. Aline Nativel Id Hammou tempers, however: “Behind the idea of performance, we must ensure a form of pedagogy: what does it mean to win or lose? Otherwise, some children want to win at all costs risk an emotional crisis if they fail.”
Return to the French side, at the 31st kilometer of the UTMB. Tom and Christian arrive at one of the points on the route where assistance is authorized. This is provided by a person designated by the runner to bring him food, drinks or a change of clothes. Father and son chose Carine and a family friend, Céline.
In the tent, where the scent of sweat, tiger balm and hot soup mix, Carine knows her mission: she must help her husband and Tom dress warmly to face their first night in the mountains. “Preparing for an ultra-trail is a lifestyle choice that involves the athlete and their family for several months, comments Isabelle Viseux-Poletti. Running the ultra-trail without assistance is technically possible, but, psychologically, those who benefit from it have an advantage over other runners.” “The presence of family is essential to finish this race,” Tom said before his departure.
Enjoy the parenting experience
Sunday morning, after more than forty hours of effort around Mont-Blanc, the heart of the peloton parades under the finish arch, opposite the Chamonix church. Many are joined by their loved ones. The youngest climb onto the shoulders of the exhausted parent runner. Among them, Julien is surrounded by his wife and his two daughters, aged 5 and 3. “My two sisters, my parents and my niece are there too,” he adds. “From the first thirty kilometers, tendinitis in the knee awoke. My family supported me enormously and that allowed me to push through. » Ten minutes later, it was Tom and Christian’s turn to let themselves be carried away by the applause of the audience. The young man admits that he would have had difficulty finishing the race without the presence of his father: “He was there to temper my enthusiasm! » he jokes. Same observation for Marie, 25, who formed a pair with her mother: “Most of our parents have knowledge of the field which proves valuable for us young people. We must take advantage of their experience. »
A victory all the sweeter for Marie and her mother as they are among only 12% of women to have participated this year in the UTMB (the figure rises to 21% across all seven adult events in 2023). “Racing remains too designed for men between 45 and 55 years old. The organizers talk about inclusion all the time but it is important to make more efforts on parity,” analyzes Guillaume Centracchio. Will ultra-trailing succeed in increasing the taste for competition among girls? Another family challenge.
* Trail running refers to running in one go in the wilderness over long distances and uneven terrain. We are talking about ultra-trail for a competition of at least 80 km.
Follow a runner live
From the beginning of the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc, in 2003, a digital tool was created and developed to allow those close to the athletes to follow them live throughout the forty hours of the race: the LiveTrail. Thanks to the profile created for each runner, it is possible to visualize their passage in front of the fifteen webcams installed on the different routes, and even to “join” them at the stage points thanks to the arrival forecasts.
This year, this device has accumulated nearly 52 million views (compared to 21.5 million the previous year). A sign that trail running is booming, the 2023 edition of the UTMB was broadcast once again on the channel The Team And The Live Team. In 2022, 2.9 million viewers attended the event, behind their small screen.