When Alex Nichols ran into Chamonix, France, on Friday afternoon, he received a hero’s welcome—and deservedly so.
As he ventured through the busy pedestrian mall of this quaint village in the French Alps en route to breaking the finish line tape of the Mount Blanc 80K trail race, he was cheered on by people from at least a half dozen different nationalities. Many were runners in town for one of the other four races throughout the weekend, others were a mix of local residents and tourists who recognized the enormity of his accomplishment.
Winning any race in the trail running mecca of Chamonix is a big deal, but winning an 80K event (roughly 50 miles) amid its rugged mountains and the steep competition it draws is an outstanding feat.
“The people and the sport here are amazing, ” said Nichols, a 30-year-old resident of Colorado Springs, Colo., who crossed the finish line in 10 hours and 31 minutes. “People are out there cheering you on all over the course and at the finish line cheering you in. It’s a big-time sport here and it’s really fun to be a part of it.”
RELATED: Chamonix’s Culture of Hard-Core Trail Running
The Mont Blanc Marathon weekend of races is one of the world’s premier trail running events. Each of the five races—a Vertical Kilometer (VK) uphill race and 10K, 23K, 42K and 80K events—sends runners over dastardly steep mountains. This year’s trail runnning festival drew more than 6, 000 runners, including renown stalwarts like Spain’s Kilian Jornet (VK), American Max King (VK, 42K), Switzerland’s Marc Launenstein (42K) and France’s Seb Chaigneau (80K).
The 80K race, which many runners believed was closer to 90K (or 56 miles), included about 20, 000 feet of vertical gain and descent. Nichols smartly ran conservatively over the first half of the course to save his legs and his strategy—and his considerable training at the base of Pikes Peak—paid off.
The turning point in the race came at about the 48K mark on the race’s second to last big climb—a section with about 3, 300 feet of vertical gain in just over 4 miles—when he was finally able to put some space between himself and Italian Franco Colle and Brit Andrew Symonds. Once in the lead, he hammered the downhill to increase the gap and then worked hard on the final climb—3, 600 feet over 6 miles—and abrupt descent to the finish line.
“It was still a struggle on the final climb when I had the lead, but my legs actually felt pretty good, ” he said. “Overall though, it was probably the most difficult race I have ever done. Chamonix is an amazing place. The mountains are very different than the ones in Colorado in that they’re more drastic. They rise in elevation so quickly.”
A handful of other Americans fared quite well in Chamonix, too, including top-10 finishes from Hillary Allen (Colorado, third in the women’s 80K), Max King (Oregon, third in the 42K), Megan Kimmel (Colorado, sixth in the women’s VK) and Kristina Pattison (Montana, sixth in the women’s 80K).
PHOTOS: Mont Blanc Marathon Weekend of Races
For Nichols, the win also reflected his continued rise among the ranks of the world’s best mountain runners. Just a month ago, he finished sixth in the IAU Trail World Championships at the 85K Tecnica MaXi-Race in Annecy, France, and last year he finished eighth in the International Skyrunning Federation final rankings.