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Mont Blanc Marathon
Friday 26th June 2015
Neil W

Mont Blanc 80km – how hard can it be?

Four things make it hard: distance, inclination, terrain and altitude. But the weather was nice. If a bit hot. Starting in Chamonix (altitude 1085m) at 4am, the 80km contains 4 major climbs, each of about 1300m up and down. To put it in context, there’s only one mountain in the UK that even reaches that altitude!

The early start from the town centre meant a rubbish night’s sleep, headtorches on, and a rather crowded file of 1090 runners with their flappy trekking poles up the narrow paths of the first climb to le Brevent cable car station at 2461m. First through trees, then scrub, and finally the exposed rock of the summit in the early light of dawn, the rising sun in the clear sky providing a panoramic view of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Simon and I had set a modest target of 16 hours because, after all, “you could walk it in that”, and if that proved too ambitious, at least the early start meant that we should be back by the end of twilight at 10pm. After all, you really don’t want to be stuck out on the mountains on your own in the dark. But ... the first ascent time was 2hr33 against my 16hr schedule of 2hr05. And although it was slow and busy, it certainly wasn’t easy and the drop in air pressure was obvious.

There then followed a wide but steep and rocky descent down the black slope to 2000m and then the balcony path to Flegere. It was a relief to do some actual running with the promised spectacular views and over the next 54 mins I picked up 200 places. Incredibly, this was still slower than the 51 mins required on the increasingly implausible 16hr schedule. And so it progressed – the 800m descent to Le Buet at 1338m left me 45mins off schedule, with a niggling worry that the downs probably shouldn’t hurt so much at this stage. And now it was getting hot – time 9am, ah, that’s not good.

So, schedule abandoned, I headed for cooler temperatures – but only by going up again. The Col de la Terrasse is the second and hardest of the climbs, getting progressively steeper until we hit the snow line at just over 2000m. The comfy Asics road shoes were utterly useless for this bit, but the last 300m of ascent was straight up the cliff so there was nowhere for the snow to settle! It wasn’t a technically difficult climb but hands were definitely needed and tired legs / dizzy heads made the sharp rocks look a little more menacing.

After 7hr30 of “running” and 34km covered I received a cheery “Bienvenue a Suisse” from the marshals at the top of the Col. Yes we had now run from France out of the Chamonix Valley to Switzerland, but having climbed up to 2615m through the snow, how do you get down again on the other side? Now the slippery road shoes proved their worth as (very) short skis, and when that failed, as it often did, the lycra shorts made an effective toboggan. We whooped and laughed our oxygen-deprived, delirious way down until the snow ran out and we were forced to run again, reaching the Emosson dam at 1980m. At 39km we were now just under half way in 8hr25, thinking I could quite happily go home now and call that a good day’s work. 64 others had the same idea to make up the 151 DNFs thus far.

Another 81 made it only as far as the next 3km, the abrupt descent down to Chatelard at 1115m hammering any last resilience out of tired quads. The usual rules of time and distance were ceasing to apply, the 7km from Emosson to Les Jeurs (down 800m into the stifling heat of the valley, then back up 600m) taking just over 2 depressing hours. The descents were now offering no speed, only pain and muscle fibres frayed to the point of failure. My stops at the aid stations were getting longer and longer and the kit check point, to verify that I was still carrying a working headtorch with spare batteries, was an ominous sign. The next 5km to the Col des Posettes (via the Tete de l’Arolette at 2322m) took another 2 hours.

I shuffled towards the aid station Le Tour after 13hr30 and another 30 minutes of 20-25% descending. What a relief to see Alastair, Carla and Mark as they initially tried to run alongside me before realising that wasn’t going to happen; then they fed me, cooled me and restocked me with calories and morale while I stared blankly in contemplation of the next 6 hours. After 55 official km (Simon’s Garmin measured 62), the waiting buses proved too tempting for many, with another 93 calling it a day at this point.

It was now approaching 6pm, with no chance of making it home in daylight, but the 25 minute stop had perked me up and as the air cooled, there now followed a wooded section, steady downhill with a few small climbs, with a wide soft surface and the next 10km passed in a (relatively) quick 90mins. Some small strategy changes appeared to pay dividends, namely lots of walking – running the steeper downs was trashing my legs so I had to keep stopping on the ups – by reducing the damage I was able to keep going for longer when climbing. Also it might sound (and look) daft but getting your head up, looking around and smiling at being able to play in such a beautiful location really does help. Smile yourself happy.

I left the last valley floor aid station at Les Bois (65km, 1082m) just after 7:45pm. Probably for the first time in 8 hours, I was sure I was going to make it, but all time targets had been abandoned for the simple goal of picking up that medal. I hung on to the back of a French group making the steady, eerily quiet, climb up towards Montenvers as the light started to fade. At 1600m a cafe owner had laid out urns of tea for the competitors, my group chose this option while I pressed on, determined to finish the last climb. The trail had became increasingly wild with boulders and ladders making this an unattractive prospect in the dark. Eventually I emerged above the trees and was rewarded with a rarely taken close-up view of the Mer de Glace (the large Glacier that snakes down towards Chamonix) as the sun was setting. The deserted Montenvers train station at 1900m signalled the end of the steep part of the climb at 70km.

It was now 9:30pm and time for the headtorch to go back on. Mentally this was a tough moment but helped by the thought that I only had a 1hr traverse to the Plan de l’Aiguille Hut at 2178m followed by the descent back to town. I could see the hut about 30 minutes after leaving the train station, it was just round the next corner. Or maybe the next one. Or the one after that. And so it remained while the silhouette faded completely into the gloom and became a single orange star on the horizon, a necessary stop on the way to the multitude of welcoming orange stars twinkling in the valley. What kind of an idiot would be out here on these rocky trails in the dark? There were plenty of downward holes the headtorch couldn’t hope to illuminate, so nothing more than walking pace would be sensible.

Eventually, at 10:50pm I hit the hut and knocked back a couple of energy drinks. All things considered, I was feeling quite good but looking forward to getting it over with. The trail zigzagged down the 1100m to Chamonix at about 15% and, lacking the precipices of the traverse, looked runnable, so that’s what I did, passing group after group of joggers/walkers, who readily stood aside to let the crazy foreigner fly by. It was all going so well for about 30 minutes, until a momentary distraction/hallucination (I think there was a deer staring at me from behind a tree, honest) caused my left foot to catch on a rock and down I went. Over the side of the path was good as it was softer there, but I still came to a sudden halt on a large granite boulder. After a few seconds to recover my breathing and confirm all my extremities could be wiggled, I set off again, perhaps a little more gingerly initially, but soon back up to pace. The pain in my ribs will hopefully fade before the memory of running a mountain descent in the dark, so I don’t regret my choice. [update – 2 weeks later, still sore, but still buzzing!]

Finally, after an hour of downhill running (6km apparently...) I popped out of the woods by the edge of town with just 1km to go. Amazingly I could still keep running on the flat tarmac and Mark, Carla and Graeme spotted me as I turned onto the main street of Chamonix, finishing just as the town square clock showed midnight. Total race time 19hr59! Can’t wait to see the WAVA rating for that one.

Simon’s story was similar to mine over the first half – only 20 minutes behind at halfway, but fuelling issues took their toll in the second half and he was forced to start the final climb from Les Bois at 10pm when it was already dark. Another hour lost from a trail technique called “not getting killed” in the dark and a 2hr descent brought him home, significantly less broken than me, at 3:23am, a total time of 23hr23. We talked before the race about how tough it must be to start the final climb when you’re on the outskirts of town and could easily walk home in 15 minutes, we never imagined that one of us would have to do it!

Some stats for you; 1296 entered, 1090 started, 701 finished. Finishing this, especially at a first attempt, is something of an achievement regardless of time. However, the winner took 10.5 hours, so clearly there is some room for improvement. I’ve never done a race when I’ve been closer to the cutoff than the winner, and here by some margin. Running ability is pretty much irrelevant compared to mountain conditioning and experience, both in short supply in Cambs.

Alastair’s and Claire’s absences from the 80km finish can be explained by their races the following day. Alastair was first up, producing a magnificent 16th place in 2hr27 as he worked up 200m in the 5km from Flegere to the finish at Plan Praz significantly faster than we had descended the previous day. Claire then topped this with 4th lady in the 10km (3rd FSEN) to earn a podium finish in 49 mins!

Sunday brought the marathon and the hottest weather of the weekend. Mark was on his own for this one and was on course for 5hr 30 until the peak of the Aiguille des Posettes at 22km. However, the descent proved damaging and after this he finished in 6hr33, the 7am start ensuring that the last hour was in the hottest sun of the day.

Everything about the event was immaculately organized, the course markings were clear as day, even at night, and the live tracking technology http://mbm.livetrail.net worked flawlessly to help spectators find their spectatees, and to help competitors work out where it all went wrong afterwards. Would I recommend it? Without hesitation. Would I do it again? Err, no. Well, maybe...

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