Chants of Allez allez! roared excitedly into the air, upheld with a chorus of different languages, and a sea of arms outstretched in applaud as the race count down began. The orchestral boom of supporters alongside the dramatic opening chords of Vangelis – Conquest of Paradise thundering out into the fresh mountain air, the elbow-to-elbow jostling, the nervous shaking out of the legs - from athletes and fans alike. The anticipation bubbling at the foot of the Mont Blanc peaks, as ever, was visceral.
When UTMB descends on Chamonix every August for one week, the small ski resort transforms into a sporting metropolis, more than doubling the population, as fans pour out in their masses to support some of the greatest feats of human performance.
The pinnacle ultra-marathon which concludes the week-long festival of events, famously known in the trail community as the toughest race in the world, circles its namesake, the Mont Blanc massif; 400 summits, 171 kilometres, 10,000 metres of elevation, 71 glaciers, graced by 2300 runners at the peak of their game. This is trail running in a league of its own, and one that only the most audacious dare to conquer. And for those that do, it’s an obsession; a siren call to test your body to its limits, just you, the mountains, and a gritty determination.
It seems only fitting that a backdrop like Mont Blanc - the snow-peppered peaks slicing the skies, the crystalline glacial lakes, the quaint villages tucked away in the mountain’s pockets - beckons the reverence and camaraderie that it does. The top athletes may well be competing against each other for the crown, but rivalry is all but a myth in the massif; friendships are shaped on the mountains, in the darkest hours of the race, in the toughest ascents, in the final minutes - this is where real connections are formed.
Last weekend during the 19th edition of UTMB, Kilian Jarong and Mathieu Blanchard delivered a gripping athletic duet in the final peaks of the race, captivating fans from far and wide, and when Blanchard gained the initial lead to overtake the Spaniard, he couldn’t help but apologise to him for doing so. If ever there was something that summed up the tone of the event, this was it. They may have been fighting for the finish, but it was one that they were going to fight together.
When you strip back the veils of sponsorship, competition and race metrics, moments like this are what sport is all about. It's storytelling in its sincerest form. The entire race is a spectacle, an enthralling performance from start to finish, with chapters, protagonists, plot twists - and it’s the most human story of all. And there’s rich brand lessons to be found in between the lines. People don’t care about brands; they care about what they can do, they care about the connections they help them make with other humans.
A lot has been written about what brands can learn from fandom. Studies have been carried out proving the power of belonging to a community; fans, supercharged by their sense of connectedness to other human beings, of being part of a tribe, being part of something.
But the community of UTMB goes beyond fandom, it’s a reverence for the athletes that’s raw, honest, and human. Tens of thousands of spectators line the streets, following athletes into the mountains, cheering each and every runner on; they’re there with them at the darkest hours of the race, uplifting them in the depths of the night, carrying them through into morning.
In its magnitude, the event transcends sport; it’s a triumphant showcase of nature and human potential, it’s ritualistic in its coming together to champion limitless possibilities, leaving behind the vestiges of magic in Chamonix as it departs for another year.
The brands that can authentically foster the spark of a community, recognising that they are facilitators of potential, the comma of an unwritten story, and enablers of the extraordinary – regardless of their sector – well, there’s no knowing how far it could fly.