It’s the tallest mountain in western Europe, the birthplace of modern mountaineering and home to one of the most iconic ultra races on the planet. Why wouldn’t any aspiring trail runner with a penchant for European culture want to spend their vacation jogging around Mont Blanc?
The object of every runner’s desire is the tmb (Tour du Mont Blanc), a 170-km path that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif, taking in three countries, 17 towns and a baffling assortment of local cheeses.
The first dilemma (once you’ve digested the cheese) is where to start. Logging a total elevation gain of more than 10,000 m, the tmb is commonly tackled in an anti-clockwise direction, beginning in Les Houches, a ski resort 15 minutes by bus from Chamonix. From there, the route curls south and then north into Italy, dipping into Courmayeur, where the temptation to ride on the Aiguille du Midi cable car (the highest vertical-ascent cable car in the world) could eat into your finish time.
Hitting some high mountain passes as it enters Switzerland, the trail ultimately loops back into France, meandering through a sweeping panorama of alpine villages, craggy peaks and flower-carpeted meadows, serenaded by the tinkle of cowbells. To aid navigation, the well-signposted circuit is broken into 11 sections, with eating and accommodation options available at the end of each day in a mix of hotels, hostels and mountain refuges.
Fast hikers usually conquer the distance in eight to nine days. Strong runners can expect to grind it out in three. The tmb’s fkt is a stupefying 19:01 hours, set by fleet-footed French wine-grower and ultrarunner François D’haene in 2017. (D’haene is a four-time winner of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (utmb), a race inaugurated in 2003 that has subsequently become so popular it has had to introduce strict qualification rules. Our advice: skip the queues and go solo.)