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Mont Blanc Marathon
Sunday 29th June 2014
Carla Brown

After a good few months training and with much anticipation a few of us made the trip over to Chamonix to take part in various events held as part of the Mont Blanc Sky Running Series at the end of June.

For me and Mark, arriving on Thursday morning gave us the opportunity to squeeze in a little bit more time for croissants, pain au raisins and pizza. We also got a head start with some acclimatisation by spending a few hours at the Agillie du Midi, soaking up breathtaking panoramic views of the Mont Blanc massif and seeing folk trudge off for some serious mountaineering! Having only ever driven through Chamonix in the past, I was blown over. The views were absolutely stunning, the weather was lush and there was just this buzz about the place! I have never seen so many athletic-looking people with calf’s the size of houses and a certain glow that only outdoor pursuits can give you!

The weekend’s itinerary looked super – the 80km challenge was due to start at 3am on the Friday, the KM vertical runners to set off Friday late afternoon, 10km on Saturday and the Cross (14+miler) on Saturday and then the mara on Sunday.

Simon and Maria Brightwell were joining the fun on the Friday and a few of our friends were coming along on the Saturday to compete in the marathon.

The weather forecast had been looking fairly poor before we set off to Luton, so I was preparing myself for the worst. This did mean that packing was slightly more challenging. 6 pairs of trainers between the 2 of us, waterproofs, gloves, caps, camelbacks, running belts….you name it we had it! As we touched down in Switzerland on Thursday I simply couldn’t imagine any storms blowing in – we weren’t it England now!?

The weather was truly glorious for the KM Vertical race on the Friday afternoon. This event, similar to a time trial sees individuals set off at minute intervals. Distance of 3.8 km with a positive vertical gain of 1000m. Me, M and the Brightwell’s looked on in awe as the likes of the Kilian Jornet ran past us at the speed of light to complete the route in 34:18 (puts the difficulty into perspective!) Friday evening saw us enjoy a nice meal in a prime viewing spot to catch the finishers of the 80km event (which started many MANY hours before!) Having caught a glimpse of the first finisher of this particular event (in 10 hrs 25 mins) over lunch earlier in the day, it really did hit home how much these guys and gals had endured. It really did choke me up every time a runner ran in. Whilst we were polishing off a bottle of red and gobbling down our tartiflette more finishers poured in to our cheers, cow bell ringing and hollas!

As the weather forecast got progressively worst, the organisers pulled the 10km and Cross forward to avoid the worst of the storms. Simon waved Maria off on her way and me and M hung around with the many 10km runners (including my parents). The forecast was wrong and the weather held out perfectly. Much to the 10K runners dismay there were several power cuts, wave 1 sent the wrong way along the course, runners disqualified…so much drama! But they eventually got going and the winner came in about 45 mins (again…says a lot about the terrain!) Simon saw Maria being chaperoned to the finish of the cross in a triumphant 4hr09 by some nice Belgium chaps a little later. By the evening she looked as fresh as a daisy and even talking about signing up for the 80km in 2015! Well done Maria! With a vertical gain of 1454m the cross was epic – especially by Cambridge standards!

Half a cow, a tonne of pasta and a few glasses of wine later me, Mark and Simon were suitably fuelled for the morning. Being woken up by the torrential rain in the middle of the night didn’t fill me with confidence about the race ahead. By the time we hauled ourselves out of bed (which was still pretty much the middle of the night) the ground was saturated, the views were non-existent and the temperature had fallen. Throngs of runners had gathered at the start so there was no way of huddling with our pals as we couldn’t find anyone! There was simply no point in warming up - especially as I had been warned that you have to really go for it at the start to pass people and give yourself a real chance on the narrower sections a few miles along!

The marathon - positive vertical gain of 2511m, and a 1490m vertical drop was pretty tough going. The route had however been altered because of the terrible conditions. It does mean that I have to go back next year and do it again! The first section of the race was undulating along the valley, lovely rolling trails, with many sections requiring some concentration in order not to completely stack it….and then we began our climb up towards col du Posettes. At the highest point it felt very exposed, wind whipping around us and my fingers did feel like they were going to fall off despite gloves. On extra steep sections there was no choice but to slow to a walk in single file. Everyone trying to keep up a decent pace, some with poles, most with simply gritted teeth. We started on a long descent shortly after, and unless I wanted Mark to beat me to the bottom of that section I had to get a move on…which meant my body soon warmed up and my fingers and extremities came back to life again! The feed stations along the way were nothing like I have seen before – cheese, cold meats, fruit cake?! It was more like a banquet on the top of a mountain – fruit cake yes please, cheese and meat nahhhhh that for afterwards. More climbing took us up to Flegere where I was really able to perfect my fell runners technique, a few stumbles here and there, expected after 4 ½ hrs on my feet.

The finish is normally in Planpraz but now back in Chamonix due to the weather, which meant the biggest descent of my life. Because of all the rain that had fallen the course was unbelievably muddy and slipperly. The switch backs were steep and with tree roots and rocks as hurdles it was pretty risky running. A few fell victim to these sadly, but we managed to stay on our feet thanks to good choice in footwear (and perhaps a slower pace!) Simon did take a tumble further down along the descent – on a section that was a bit less hazardous thank godness. He put it down to lack of concentration but I reckon it was the promise of a free beer and french buffet that made him take the breaks off! A few sitches later and a time to be extremely proud of – he seemed to be absolutely fine! Having done a few fell races (and spectated on more) I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed by the speed that folk travel down these mountains. I did my best to keep up with them and didn’t I know it on Monday (Tuesday and Wednesday!)

The home straight was along the tarmac and back into town. The crowds were fantastic and we felt like the winners of the race with children high fiving us and people shouting ‘allez allez’ as we sprinted for the line.

Me and Mark came through under target in 5hrs35 with Simon coming in nicely at 5hrs28. An amazing experience and an amazing quad burner!

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