A runner near 15,771-foot Mont-Blanc, France; Photograph by Tim Kemple / The North Face

On Friday some of the world’s best ultra trail runners will compete in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), the 103-mile trail race though the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps. The runners’ combined ascent will take them higher than Everest. With flash weather changes from rain to snow to hail, hypothermia is a great concern. Oh, and there is no cash prize.

You’d think a community of athletes seeking such punishing distances in such extreme terrain would be fiercely competitive. But the ultra trail running community is uniquely supportive. The vibe here in Chamonix, France, is bustling with anticipation and camaraderie. 

“We had a great conversation just this evening about how caring and wonderful the ultra-trail community is,” says Krissy Moehl, a two-time UTMB winner. “It is very welcoming, nurturing, encouraging, and supportive.”

The man everyone is talking about is Kilian Jornet Burgada, the 24-year-old Spaniard who has been tearing up speed records this year and has won the UTMB three times, including last year. “ I love the ambiance and the spirit of this race. Crossing the villages with all the spectators smiling, being alone at sunset in big mountains—it is a internal fight, long distance permits you to know yourself better. And finishing is making a dream come true.”

Around 6,000 runners will compete in the four races this weekend, with 2,300 in the UTMB. The top finishers will complete the race in 20 hours, with the rest taking 30 to 40 hours. Huge crowds will come out to support the runners as they pass through mountain towns. And the entire event will be webcast live on http://www.ultratrailmb.com/ starting on Thursday, August 30.

During the race, I will be crewing for Missoula, Montana-based runner Mike Foote, who was the first American finisher last year. He’s been gracious enough to let me tag along as he runs four consecutive marathons through the Alps. Mike’s sister, Rachel, who has supported him on three previous 100-mile races, will be calling the shots.

This year, the UTMB turns ten. And its first winner, Dachhiri Dawa Sherpa, still has the top time of 20 hours, 5 minutes. Will that record be broken tomorrow? Regardless, we know that the runners are here for the world-class scenery, incredible cheering from wildly encouraging locals, and to collectively experience the event with their friends.