Words and Photography by Simon Freeman

This story first appeared in issue #7 of Like the Wind

“It had been a busy day. In fact it had been a busy week. We had come to Chamonix for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and to launch the sixth edition of Like the Wind. After spending a few days running around the mountains, staying in refuges, we’d returned to the epicentre of the UTMB to be part of the carnival atmosphere that fills the town for a week.

But now we were almost alone. It was inky dark, some time close to midnight. We strolled beside the river Arve as it rushed towards the centre of town. Mist rose from the water as it tumbled over rocks, constrained by tall concrete walls. We could feel the river’s piercing iciness although the mountain air, even at that late hour, was not too cold. Every so often we would see another UTMB finisher running towards us, around a kilometre of the 166km mountain trail race remaining. These were the very best mountain runners, finishing only a handful of places and a couple of hours behind the winner.

As we left the bustle of the town centre further behind us, we walked beside the grey concrete walls of the Centre Sportif Richard Bozon, a fine example of functional 1970s architecture. A double door was propped open and, as if peering into Ali Baba’s cave, we glimpsed a treasure trove of gold. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow bags, arranged in neat rows, covering the floors of the gymnasium.

We poked our heads inside and one of the guardians of the treasure glanced up from the book he was reading, smiled and invited us in. We were drawn into the warmth and the light, taking in the sight of the drop-bags of every runner in the UTMB.

At the start of most races – whether a local 10km or a globally famous mountain ultra – there is a “bag drop”: somewhere to deposit some warm clothes, worn to the start and required at the finish, along with all manner of other paraphernalia that runners take to races. In the case of the UTMB the bags are taken first to a mid-way point, so runners can change shoes and socks or pick up some extra food, before being taken to the finish. With almost 2,500 runners in the UTMB alone, organising the bags is a huge logistical feat. This is where men like Jean-Michel and Daniel come in.

The night we met him, Jean-Michel looked amazingly fresh for someone who had no doubt only snatched moments of sleep during the past week. He organises a team of 30 volunteers who receive, transport and redistribute more than 10,000 durable plastic bags to tired and emotional runners over the course of the week. He has been volunteering his time at the race for the past 10 years.

“I love it here. I take a week off, and I come with my camper van. I sleep just outside the bag drop hall, in my van, as I don’t want to miss any of the action. It’s 30 of us just in Chamonix. We also go and help on the Italian side. It’s quite a large operation making sure we get the right bags for each race to the right place at the right time, and back here before the finish.”

The UTMB passes through France, Italy and Switzerland and the volunteers come from all around the great mountain chain that the runners circumnavigate.

“It’s funny,” says Jean-Michel. “Before the race, there was no reason to have a connection between the people from Italy, France and Switzerland – despite the geographic proximity and all the things we have in common – the food, the culture… there was no such thing as a community. Now there are so many things happening around the race, so many volunteers’ meetings, that you end up having a meeting in Switzerland with the Swiss team, then a month after go to Italy to talk about the Courmayeur logistics, and then we get them to come to Chamonix for the last briefing. A lot of us are now friends; it’s created a nice little multi-national community around the race.”

Of course in some years, wet weather has meant that after the runners have changed at the mid-point, the volunteers have to transport thousands of bags full of wet kit through the mountains back to Chamonix.

“I can’t put into words the smell that comes out of certain bags sometimes,” reflects Jean-Michel. “It’s quite something. Some also don’t have a hotel – they come to race for 48 hours or more, so we’re left with all their belongings – keys, wallet, everything – so we feel a big responsibility towards all our runners.”

Perhaps the reason these men and women volunteer at the UTMB is that they see all aspects of the race: the good and the bad, the inspiring and the heartbreaking. Everyone comes in to the bag drop at some point. “We see so many people from all over the place – and it’s funny how some countries seem to be so much more passionate about their trip here, or about their running – some just exude enthusiasm. The Japanese, the Spanish – but did you see the flags? It’s not actually fair to say ‘the Spanish’ – often it’s the Catalans and the Basque, don’t call them Spanish! Also we get to meet the family – there was a lady supporting her husband and she was driving around in her old camper van with the two babies in the back, and she was telling us how the brakes started failing her on the descent from Champex – what a wife, who’d do that for her running husband! And I love chatting to the kids as well. Ask them if their dad is a good runner and they invariably thump their chest in pride and say: ‘Yes, he’s very good.’”

Jean-Michel’s love for the race and the people who challenge themselves is evident.

“Did you see the first woman finish? We saw her run past and she had her little daughter with her. We’re a good kilometre from the finish and the little one was already running and she ran all the way to the finish, she must have been five or six.”

But perhaps, as with the tale of the Forty Thieves, it is the humble runners – the Ali Babas – who keep Jean-Michel and his team coming back year after year to look after the cave of gold. “Our role is great because we do get the time to interact with the runners here at the bag drop. There was this family: this guy came to get his bag and he had his two kids in tow, and they were wearing their medals from the ‘mini-UTMB’ – with great humour, the Dad beamed and said: ‘Two finishers out of three is not that bad.’”

Words and Photography by Simon Freeman

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