Running the World’s Biggest Trail Race

Whitefish’s Craig Hertz competed on the international stage at the ‘Tour de France of mountain running’

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish’s Craig Hertz runs through the night at the 2017 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 110-mile endurance race that passes through the mountains of France, Italy and Switzerland. Courtesy Photo

Never before in trail-ultramarathoning has a field been stacked with the competitive depth that defined the 2017 edition of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 103-mile mountain race that nips into portions of France, Switzerland and Italy while testing runners with more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain and a variable mix of alpine weather.

Known as the “Tour de France of mountain running,” the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) draws thousands of athletes from 90 different countries to compete on an international stage that begins and ends in Chamonix, France, where endurance mountain sports enjoy a fanatical following that tends to stupefy American ultra-runners accustomed to low-key finishes and lonely courses.

Despite its booming popularity, trail-ultramarathon running is still something of a niche sport in the United States, where permitting requirements on public lands often cap participation.

Conversely, European mountain-running events attract raucous throngs of spectators who line the course, banging cowbells, drinking wine and noshing baguettes, cheese and salami.

Earlier this month, a local resident joined the star-studded lineup at the 2017 UTMB, placing in the top 10 percent of finishers even as he finished some 14 hours after the winner crossed the finish line.

Craig Hertz is a 31-year-old bike mechanic at Glacier Cyclery and Nordic and, as he proved with his recent finish at UTMB in 33 hours, 44 minutes and 50 seconds, an outstanding mountain endurance athlete.

But rather than boast about his respectable finish, Hertz chooses to focus on the little things that color what he calls the “Super Bowl of mountain running.”

“It was unreal over there,” Hertz told the Beacon in a recent interview. “The race started and it was about a half-mile before I could start running there were so many people everywhere. It was like the running of the bulls.”

UTMB features a suite of mountain races of various distances, but the centerpiece is the 166-kilometer circumnavigation of Mont Blanc, beginning and ending in Chamonix, where the fanfare sustains a fever pitch of excitement for days.

There is no prize money awarded, and while this year’s winner finished the loop in under 20 hours, the majority of runners require between 30 and 45 hours to reach the finish line.

To prepare for the event, Hertz trained by running trails in and around Glacier National Park, the Swan Range and the Great Bear Wilderness, linking trails together and tacking along as much vertical gain as possible. His peak weekly mileage hovered between 70 and 80 miles, but that’s including 15,000 to 20,000 feet of climbing.

One memorable 32-mile run began at Packer’s Roost, topped out at Swiftcurrent Lookout before dropping down to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier, back to the lookout and down to his car.

“I think that was my pinnacle training run,” he said. “Running around Glacier was a great way to train for UTMB because there are pretty much identical elevation profiles. Most of the race is at an altitude between 3,000 and 8,000 feet, so it’s very similar.”

Hertz said his training regimen set him up well physically for the race, but nothing could prepare him for the cultural experience.

“People are just extremely passionate about their endurance sports. It’s rooted in the culture of Europe, especially in the Alps, where everyone is really healthy and runs, hikes and climbs in the mountains every day,” he said. “Every little hamlet town the race passed through, there would be walls of noise and people cheering. I don’t know how many high-fives I gave to little kids. We’d be climbing up a mountain pass at 3 o’clock in the morning and it would be snowing, and at the top of the pass there were spectators drinking wine and cheering. It is a very passionate mountain culture.”

Aid stations along the UTMB course are unlike those at races in the U.S., featuring baguettes, salami, cheese, and soup as opposed to candy and pretzels.

Hertz said he hit a rough patch about 35 miles into the race after consuming too many calories at an aid station, but bounced back.

A high point came when he rolled out of the aid station in Champex-Lac, Switzerland, where he was able to see his support crew — his father, Craig Hertz, and girlfriend, Shayla Paradeis.

“Seeing them was a big boost, and I felt really recuperated afterward, like I hadn’t done anything,” he said. “My legs felt fresh and I was clicking off some decent miles, which was pretty cool. It didn’t last, but it felt great at the time.”

Hertz doesn’t have any other races on his itinerary, but in November he and Paradeis depart for New Zealand, where they plan to through hike the 3,000-kilometer Te Araroa trail that traverses the country’s two main islands.

“That will be my first time through-hiking, but Shayla is really experienced so I’ll just chase after her,” Hertz said with characteristic humility.