Beyond ultra

Community
03/08/2018
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The description is inspiring, extraordinary, daunting, mystifying… 300 kilometers… 5 days of racing for the fastest competitors… Yet despite its scale the PTL® isn’t a race for superheroes; it is a race that strives simply to reconnect with the basic concept of moving through the mountains, unassisted and in teams, far from the madness of today’s ultra trails. If you look beyond the intimidating distance of the PTL®, you will find a spirit of shared adventure, teams of 2 or 3 runners sticking together to conquer a course which changes every year. A wholly unique concept of trail running…

 

« It's not a super ultra… it's not an ultra, ultra UTMB® »,

warns Jean-Pierre Luthi, who has participated in the PTL® eight times… and will be on the start line again this year. Seb Camus, a Columbia-sponsored ultra runner, remembers that “when the first PTL® was announced, I said “what on Earth is this crazy idea?” But as the years go by, I've come to see it as something exceptional. There's the physical commitment, and the team spirit: I just love it.” “It's an adventure race… Adventure with a capital "A", with completely different rules to the other UTMB® races,” adds Michel Poletti, co-founder of the race. As the ultra races (UTMB® or TDS®) become more and more popular, the PTL® – where participants are selected on application – remains completely different.

 Isabelle Juchat of the organization team sums up the unique characteristics of the PTL®: “the course is not waymarked, so the runners navigate with GPS and maps. They must also be fully self-sufficient: there are no aid stations, they refuel at mountain huts along the course. The PTL® is a team adventure. The teams of two or three must stick together during the whole event: the cordee spirit of unerring loyalty prevails. There is no ranking on the PTL®; the only goal is to complete the loop, which is 300 kilometers long with 25'000 meters of ascent.

« authenticity, camaraderie, a taste for adventure »

In the minds of its creators, the PTL® (acronym for the “Petite Trotte à Léon”, roughly translated as “Leon’s little excursion”) was designed to counterbalance the explosive boom of ultra races by offering something completely different. In 2017, Michel Poletti clearly remembers that “in the space of five years, the UTMB® became a major event on the trail running scene. We felt the need to re-center somewhat, to make sure both feet stayed on the ground, and firmly in touch with the values which pushed us to create the UTMB® back in 2003: authenticity, camaraderie, a taste for adventure… That was the main reason the PTL® was created. It had to be different: something not everyone could do, true to the original UTMB® spirit. It isn’t a super ultra, or a super UTMB®; we didn’t want comparisons or superlatives, for it to become a super-ultra-something: we wanted the PTL® to stand on its own. That is how this great race around Mont-Blanc – closer to an adventure race than a true trail – was born.”

Everything is multiplied – equipment, preparation, commitment – in this race which isn’t really a race. Maybe it is better described as a challenge for those who have already explored ultra. “How far you can push yourself, how far you can push your brain to allow your body to keep going?” asks British runner Mark, who is about to take on the PTL® for the first time this year. “For years, the UTMB® was my ultimate goal,” he continues. “And then, after having done it a couple of times and really enjoyed it… I started searching away, I heard about other races. And I saw the guys start the PTL®; I ran with them for the first couple of miles and I was in total admiration of them: the fact that they were going to be out there for five, six days...” His ambition is echoed by his teammate John: the PTL® is the next big test. “I think I've done my best in the UTMB®, and I wanted another challenge. I love the UTMB®, but I wanted more… so Mark and I chose the PTL®.

« We are really off the beaten track »

Perched on a rocky ledge, feet seeking grip between crumbling rock and metal rungs bolted to the wall, we stand far above the little town of Passy. Opposite, Mont Blanc rises from the clouds. The vastness of the Desert de Platée, still covered in snow, appears before us as we reach the summit; a magnificent suspended circus surrounded by jagged peaks. The 2018 PTL® will take runners across this wild landscape. Isabelle Juchat and Michel Poletti, leading the recon expedition to design the 2018 route, check the map before discussing the feasibility of sending the runners up here at night, in potential bad weather, and the possible alternatives. Each year, a new 300-kilometer loop is drawn, meaning that the organization crew must think up and explore new options, new paths, new challenges. “We are really off the beaten track,” confirms Jean-Pierre Luthi, unable to conceal his excitement at taking on new trials and parameters every year. The only fixed point from one race to the next is the start and finish line on the Triangle de l’Amitié square in Chamonix. 

The light filters down through the clouds and highlights the black and white contrasts in the rock faces of the Fiz. Here, the topography reflects and summarizes the race better than words ever could: unpredictable, magnificent, technical… pure, raw mountain. For Eoin Keith, a Columbia long- (and very long) distance trail runner, “the PTL® is a more pure form of trail running. You're not following marked trails, you have to find your own way. It’s just yourself, and the mountains.”


Guillaume Desmurs
Journalist

Guillaume Desmurs is a french journalist working in the outdoor industry. He began his career at the Agence France Presse, then was editor of many ski and mountain magazines in France. He founded the DD & Fils outdoor marketing and communication expertise agency with Gino Decisier. He is the author of several books, makes branded films (including the webserie UTMB Stories with Columbia), won the Jury Prize at the Autrans Mountain Film Festival, hosts conferences and a blog devoted to literature (motsacredit.com).

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