Chamonix, sweet Chamonix
I am starting this post with a quick introduction and then it will be straight into the race report itself.
Mont Blanc Marathon kicked off my long distance and ultra 2016. It also marked the start of my epic 3 in 3 Summer! Three bucket list races in three months – next up Lakeland 50 at the end of July and then back to Chamonix at the end of August for TDS.
MBM (for sake of ease) also represents my first attempt at running and racing at altitude and on ‘proper’ mountains. I also have the race to thank for bringing me back to the Alps for the first time since 2011 and for my introduction to Chamonix, oh sweet sweet Chamonix!
I won’t go on and on about Chamonix and in fact I will leave it at this: I love the place. From the moment I set foot in the town I felt at home and I felt like I’d found somewhere about as close to perfect as I will ever find! I really cannot wait to get back to the town itself and the region.
Now, onto the race report!
I set my alarm for 0445hrs as the race was due to begin at 0700hrs. I thought I might not like the early start so much but I was up and full of energy by 0500hrs – I was showered and dressed in full race kit by 0515hrs and breakfast and pre-race ablutions taken care of by 0545hrs. I really felt that I was off to a great start and was feeling very calm but excited to get out and experience my first mountain marathon.
Bag drop was quick and simple. The weather, which had promised to rain, was surprisingly clear and warm for 0615hrs! From bag drop it was straight over to the start line to stand around and consider warming up – I decided against it in the end and just soaked in the atmosphere and the conversations going on around me in French, English, Spanish and Japanese.
0km – 10km (AS1 – Argentière)
At 0700 on the dot the race began. I had lined up near the front so that I could try to get out ahead of the crowd and avoid queueing on subsequent single track climbs!
The race begins by winding through Chamonix Centre and out onto the Nordic ski trails. The crowds were out, the cowbells were clanging and it felt good to be on the move at a pretty decent clip. After a couple of klicks I fell into step with an Englishman who had been staying at my hotel – we didn’t talk too much and in the end I felt I may be going off a little too fast so I dropped back and told him I’d see him for a beer afterwards. He finished in 6:08 so not too far in front of me as it turned out.
Once on the trails the climbs and switchbacks begin. Obviously, what goes up must come back down so I had my first real introduction to the southern and central European method of descending pretty early on. To put it mildly, the method is to basically throw yourself forward and smash your quads as hard as you dare! I lost a fair few spots early on as I tried to figure out a way to keep up without damaging myself too early on in the race (and because I had to stop for a pee on a pretty steep descent).
Argentière aid station seemed to appear pretty quickly and I didn’t even stop to check out what was on offer. I was running strong, happy and hydrated so I just continued on and laid out my intention to those I passed that I was there to race! I was feeling really buoyant and the supporters on the trail into the AS and out of the AS were fantastic.
10km – 20km (AS2 – Vallorcine)
As I approached the 16km mark I was feeling totally in control of my race and, although I knew it was early days, I was pleased that my race plan seemed to be working out exactly as I had hoped! I had been carrying my folded poles/sticks in my hands for the first 10km but as soon as we hit the first real, long (hands on thighs kinda deal) ascent I extended them and they stayed that way until I crossed the finish line.
I found my technique really quickly with the sticks in hand and I really began to enjoy the climbs as I was catching quite a lot of people and only losing a few spots on the corresponding descents. By the end of the race I was so glad I had taken the sticks along because they really do make a difference!
During this section towards Vallorcine I began to repeat my mantra of the day: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” and that’s how I intended to make my way through the rest of the aid stations. So, as I rolled into Vallorcine, I had made sure that both of my bottles were empty and that I had eaten my trail bar as planned.
[nb: My nutrition strategy consisted of eating 1 whole trail bar before reaching Vallorcine and then eating another over the rest of the race. This was combined with a sachet of Tailwind at every aid station – I managed to empty my Tailwind bottle before all but one of the Aid Stations and it really worked for me.]
The descent into Vallorcine was fast and smooth which was a pleasant surprise as I was expecting something far more technical – I was less than surprised to find later that this was pretty much the final non-technical descent of the race! I arrived to the, by now, familiar and welcoming sounds of French cheering and the ringing of cowbells. I stopped at the large water butts placed at the edge of the tented area and calmly but quickly refilled one bottle with water and the other with Tailwind/water. Once this was completed I walked quickly to the food table. At the table I squeezed a segment of banana into my mouth, put another in the pocket of my shorts along with an orange segment and then as I began to lengthen my stride put another segment of orange in my mouth.
Smooth and fast, in and out of Vallorcine in around 3 minutes and onwards to the biggest and most formidable climb of the day!
20km – 30km (AS3 – Col de Posettes)
From Vallorcine you gently ascend out of the village until, suddenly you find yourself not so gently switchbacking steeply out of the valley and up towards the Aiguille des Posettes! From the aid station at around 21km and 1280m you head up to the high point of the race at around 2200m at somewhere near the 27km mark – 900ish metres of climb in the space of 6km is unheard of in the UK but I wasn’t feeling at all phased by the idea!
As I said, at this point I was relishing the climbs and I gave myself the task of fast hiking and overtaking as many people as I could comfortably manage on this climb to AS3! I really, really enjoyed this section and, along with the final 3km this was my favourite part of the race. Every time I slowed on the ascent to take on water, Tailwind or some trail bar I managed to remember to lift my head and to look around me – the views did not disappoint and the scenery was amazing. It was a real boost to be passing people who I suspect use the area as a training ground and to exchange some friendly words with them in French and English! I made my way through the field over the section.
By the time Col de Posettes aid station appeared we had climbed into the clouds and the fog. I was surprised to find that I’d managed to clear my bottle of Tailwind and most of my water bottle! I was also very surprised and extremely happy to arrive at AS3 feeling great. I repeated my tactic from AS2 and was on my way with a jaunty “Merci Beaucoup” to the aid station volunteers in around 3 minutes. Off I went, on my way to the summit with a spring in my step…and a rising apprehension in the pit of my stomach as the terrain became rockier and more technical!
Towards the summit and over the top there was still snow to pass by. Thankfully it seemed that the few hundred runners ahead of me had trudged a fairly clear path but it was still a novelty and a slight worry to be traversing the slippy, mushy snow at altitude and heading towards my first ever running descent from a mountain summit. At this point I began to understand completely why everybody holds Killian Journet in such high esteem – whilst I half jogged, half stumbled and half jumped down the rocky, rooty and muddy descent he would have been there flying along like it was a flat road on a summer evening!
The descent took a long time but as we descend to slightly smoother trails below the fog and cloud line, I began to feel more comfortable as the views of the valley below opened up. I quickened my pace and did my best to stay with a group of pretty quick descenders that consisted of two Belgians, three Frenchmen, an American and an Italian – I only know the nationalities of this particular group because I stuck with them, swapping places (and consequently seeing their bibs with national flags) from around the 26km point right into AS4 at Tre le Champ.
[nb: As you may have noticed above, there wasn’t much talking along the way. Obviously, during road marathons this is normal but at most UK trail races from marathon and above I’ve found that people are generally quite talkative. I don’t mind this but I must say I preferred the European way! Maybe it’s just MBM (sure I’ll find out in August) but everybody seemed really focused on the task and determined to race!]
30km – 32km (AS4 – Tre le Champ)
I remember coming off the mountain descent and the route seemed to descend more gently into the valley and through some small villages. At the 30km point I was expecting to see and/or hear the AS at Tre le Champ and as we ran through a small village I thought we were there. This turned out to be a ‘false summit’ of sorts as Tre le Champ turned out to be a further 2 or 3km on. In the back of my mind I began to think that if AS4 was slightly out of position then might it be the case that AS5 may be further along than expected. Surely, I said to myself, if that is the case we may well end up running a fair few klicks past 42km…this thought came to haunt me a little later on but at the 30km point it was just a fleeting moment of contemplation.
I soon got back to task as I realised I might be able to make my transition through AS3 a bit quicker if I stopped at a communal village water trough as a couple of French runners seemed to be doing just ahead. I sidled up to the trough, unscrewed the caps of my bottles and gulped down as much as I could before refilling one with water and one with Tailwind/water. I took the decision at this point to use my reusable cup to drink some of the cold, refreshing water along with taking a couple of bites from my trail bar. The water was so refreshing that I decided I’d also wash my face and hands before setting off again!
A couple of interesting klicks later and we approached the Tre le Champ aid station. The approaching klicks were interesting because they were on a fairly fast, technical descent which just outside the aid station put a few of us runners face to face with a very large cow blocking the main trail! I heard the cowbell before I saw the cow and thought we’d reached the station…I made a quick diversion and followed a couple of runners off onto a small animal track that led around the cow and back to the main trail! A quick check back and I saw two runners trying to navigate their way past Daisy by talking to her – not sure how that went because as we emerged from tree cover the aid station was just ahead so I picked up my pace.
Passing through the village the support was out in force and lying on grassy verges in the sun applauding runners – I noticed a couple of runners in front of me didn’t seem to acknowledge the support so I slowed a little, smiled at the crowd and gave them a bow. This was the best thing I could have done because everybody started to clap, cheer and call out my name (which was printed on my bib) and so I ran into the aid station beaming! This stop was quicker than before as I had just filled my bottles a couple of klicks before but I decided to stop and refill my half empty water bottle anyway – the temperature was rising at this point in the day and I was guzzling water like the elixir it is. After the water refill I repeated the same smooth, slow (but fast) transition through the aid station: bananas, oranges, “Merci beaucoup” et Au Revoir back onto the trail and back up onto the mountain tracks…
32km – 37km (AS5 – La Flégère)
Without a doubt this was the toughest section of the day for me! As predicted my thought from earlier in the day that quite possibly aid stations were not quite where they should be came to haunt me throughout this particular stretch.
The weather was getting warmer and we began to ascend out of the valley and up towards La Flégère on pretty open and steep trails. On some sections there was tree cover and a cool breeze but as soon as the sun was in full or partial view the heat was telling. Two klicks out of AS4 I found that my water bottle was almost empty and I knew I would need to manage the rest of the section on warm Tailwind. Although I use the ‘unflavoured’ sachets they most certainly do have a taste and texture quite apart from water – once they liquid gets warm it is not the most pleasant thing to drink. So, unfortunately, from around the 34km mark I pretty much stopped taking on calories and fluids!
As you know, calories and fluids are what sustain a hard endurance effort. However, I couldn’t bear to take more than a tiny sip of Tailwind at a time as it was making me feel slightly sick and I couldn’t eat any trail bar because it was too dense without water to wash it down so naturally I began to feel quite tired and lethargic during the early part of the climb to AS5. I knew it was going to be a long climb so I reasoned with myself that as long as I kept on moving as fast as I could on any ‘flat’ sections I would be able to rally past this period of lethargy and stomach pain. I just kept repeating my aid station mantra of ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ on the climbs and then increased the pace whenever I felt like I could – basically at this point the plan was to just keep moving! In races past I have had troubles like this but usually the lethargy and/or pain is compounded by negative thoughts and stories. This time around these thoughts were at a minimum and I think that was pretty much down to the scenery and to my very focused mentality. Granted, every so often I did begin to wonder when AS5 might appear and began to dwell on the fact that it was certainly not going to be at the 35km mark but as quickly as the thought appeared I pushed it to one side and kept on!
Funnily enough it was a short, sharp descent that provided the spark I needed to pull myself out of the struggle. I had spent most of the day looking forward to the climbs but for some reason on this particular descent I thought I would give my legs a turnover and found myself gaining places and passing people who had passed me earlier in the climb and during my internal battle! At the bottom of the descent we began what I knew would be a long, steep climb along on forested switchbacks – the opportunity to get into some decent shade was very welcome and I began to gulp down my Tailwind and chew furiously on my trail bar as I set off up the mountain trying to put some space between me and the people I had just passed! It was during this section that we crossed a beautiful waterfall and mountain stream. The power of the falling water was incredible and I took the time to stop, douse my visor in the fresh water and to wash my hands, face and hair – it was so tempting to fill my bottles with the water but as nobody else around me was doing so I figured it wasn’t safe! After a minute or so of rest and contemplation I set off again at a quicker pace and with a smile on my face.
To say this was a long climb certainly is an underestimation and gives it no justice. It took an age to get from around 35km up to La Flégère aid station at 37km but as soon as we broke tree cover and hit a rocky, exposed slope and the La Flégère came into sight I knew it was time to dig deep and power up towards cold water, fresh fruit and the final stretch to the finish! By the time I rolled into the aid station I was very thirsty but absolutely buzzing and feeling energised – I had passed a lot of people on the way up the slope and the cramping in my quads that had been plaguing me for around 15 minutes suddenly abated. I took a little extra time here to compose myself and I doused my visor in freezing water from the water butts, refilled my bottle and those of some people around me whilst I gazed out over the mountain below and behind me – only on the way out of the aid station did I begin to contemplate the mountain still remaining in front of me!
38km – 45km (Finish)
Leaving La Flégère I knew that I was heading towards the finish line and that this would likely appear at around 45km instead of 42! This was not a source of discontent for me and I actually began to feel this might play to my advantage as I am more used to running ultra-distance than marathon distance.
As you leave AS5 you drop down onto open, exposed singletrack that countours around the face of a rocky slope. This section, along with the first 5 or 6km of the race, could be described as fast and flat and I took full advantage of the fact. I locked into a rhythm and tucked in behind a runner – nobody was behind me for a long time and after about a kilometre the track widened enough for me to pass the runner in front. At this point I felt the presence of other runners and a quick check back confirmed that there were some pretty quick guys bearing down on me! I attempted to go with the quicker pace but soon felt that I might regret that decision so I dropped off a little, let them pass and vowed to catch them on the final climbing section to the finish.
The singletrack opened out eventually into broken scree and we turned a corner to find a very steep, fairly dangerous descent that required us to hold onto chains and rails bolted onto the mountain side! Thankfully this section was very short and there was a marshall at the top and the bottom to ensure a bit of extra safety. I was grinning the whole way down here and I could see that after the flat section we had just left behind the final ascent was about to begin! The final ascent began gradually and so I held onto my poles and did my best to keep up a fairly decent pace with a mixture of careful, short steps and some rock hopping before this became an untenable strategy and out came the poles once more. I was determined to catch those who had ran from view on the previous section and equally determined to lose as few places as possible from here, at around 42km, until the finish. I did a quick watch check at 42km and saw that I had hit exactly 6:15 which was initially my B-goal for the race! I had abandoned the A-goal when I arrived in Cham and saw what faced me – I wasn’t quite ready to put it all on the line and go for 5:45 when I had zero Alpine or altitude running experience…
Anyway, I digress. Back to the final 3km! After seeing 6:15 on my watch face my brain suddenly decided that I could manage a final push over 3km and get over the line in 6:30. What my fairly tired brain hadn’t taken into account was the fact I was on a very steep gradient, I was very hot and I was running/hiking at altitude. At the time none of that mattered to me though and I began to push on as hard as I could. Again we broke tree line and found a line of supporters about 2km from the finish line at the top of rocky, runnable descent. I was encouraged along by a Frenchman who was counselling me over about 100m of climb on pole technique and then as I crested the climb an English family cheered me on and gave me a real boost on that final descent – I caught and passed around 5 people on this section and as the descent levelled out and began to climb again the feeling that the end was near began to build!
The crowds became more numerous and the support and noise they created meant that even if I had been feeling totally broken I would have been able to keep on moving up the slope no matter what! Although at this point I was feeling pretty tired I was by no means broken and the racing spirit took over as I fixed my eyes on whoever was in front of me at any given moment and put in the effort to level with and then pass them – it was hard work trying to pass people with a confident look and then to keep on moving at a decent clip but I managed it…until at the top of the last steep incline my right quad suddenly went into a spasm of cramp and I had to stop for a brief moment…someone in the crowd shouted my name and encouraged me to turn around and to keep moving upwards but backwards! Whoever that person was, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU! It was invaluable advice because as I turned around I found the view behind me was spectacular and that the nearest competitor to me was not moving as fast as I think they might have liked – the spasm subsided almost as quickly as it appeared and I turned, dug my poles into the ground, fixed my gaze on the finishing arch and propelled myself forwards at a jog which became a run.
And then, all of a sudden, I had crossed the finish line and was greeted by friendly competitors, cold beer, cold water and a feeling of immense satisfaction!
What a race. Well worthy of any runner’s Bucket List and now ticked off from mine. I know this much, I will return at some point in the future. But, right now, I am immensely proud of my first Alpine and altitude running/hiking performance and this will sustain me when the going gets tough at many races to come.
Peace & Blessings