Saturday, 4 July 2009

Taster for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – Mont Blanc Marathon, 2009

After the disappointment of the 100k not going to plan the week before, I had one more June race to fit in. I’d not given the Mont Blanc Marathon much thought since it was just another race on my route to 100 marathons (number 98, in fact), but in the days coming up to it, I started to get excited.

I’ve not done many mountain races but have loved every one of them and this promised to be a great course with fantastic views of the tallest mountain in Europe. As I found out a few days before from the profile, it had more climbing than I’ve ever done before, with 2,500m (over 8,000ft) of ascents. And these mainly come in two patches – a 1,000m section from 18km (11 miles) and another towards the finish. So when I got to Gatwick for the early Saturday flight and met up with another Serpie runner, Rob, I knew I was in for a treat as well as a tough challenge.

A few hours later we’d flown into Geneva in Switzerland and got our bus connection to Chamonix in France. It was a scenic drive and less than 90 minutes so it was only midday when we checked into the hotel. Mont Blanc towered over us with rugged glaciers dripping off it like an ice-cream cone. The valley was reasonably warm but overcast so we hoped that the predicted thunderstorms would hold off.

The rest of the day was lazy with a visit to the expo and the buffet with unlimited alcohol. Rob took advantage of this to a greater extent than I did, but we both got a good feed and needed to walk it off.

That evening I had a light jog along the river while Rob had a nap due to our early start (and probably the beer). But it was an early night to get ready for the 7am kick-off on the Sunday, which was 6am, UK time.

The morning weather was much brighter and we walked to the start to hear over the loudspeaker that the forecast was for a great day. That’s good for scenery and photos but the heat is an issue with all the sweaty, exhausting uphill hikes. However, it’s preferable to thunderstorms which would create rivers in the tracks and make it even harder to force the body higher and dangerous on the way down. That might be relatively easier for the runners with a multitude of walking poles, but not for us.

Once we got going, Rob and I jogged slowly together, intending to take it easy and save lots of energy for the mountains. However, I knew that the first 18km were basically runnable, although there were bound to be some small sections of walking due to the gradient. So I had a plan in my head to not go too easy up to that point or I’d get stuck in a huge queue of people walking slowly up the 1,000m climb. I also didn’t intend to race the marathon and to just use it as a training session for the Davos ultra marathon a month later. That meant I was trying to not get too tired, although it doesn’t matter how slowly you go in mountains as it’ll always take a toll.

I lost Rob after about 10 minutes and jogged in the shade of the mountain, enjoying the views from bottom of the valley. It was surprisingly cold in the shade and I could see everyone’s breath turning to steam. I wanted to get as far as possible in the more comfortable weather and aimed to miss the heat of the full sun on the big climb, if possible.

Then I bumped into Dan Afshar, another British ultrarunner, and chatted to him for a bit. He was training for Davos as well as his main event, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). This 166km (103 miles) race in August circumnavigates round Mont Blanc, going through France, Switzerland and Italy in a non-stop route under a 48-hour cut-off. At 9,600m of ascent it was almost exactly equal to four times the Mont Blanc marathon. That’s a mind-blowing challenge given that I was to find out that day that the 2,500m of climbing would make for the hardest marathon course I’ve ever attempted.

Even this early on, I had seen enough of the area to know that I’d want to race there again. And I don’t like to shy away from a challenge so the UTMB had started to etch its way on to my ‘must do’ list. But the main focus on the day was to get through the mere marathon distance in one piece and love every second of it. I was on track, but wasn’t sure how I’d fare on the unrelenting hills after not doing much hill training, except for the undulating Comrades marathon (1,400m of ascent and 1,900m of descent over 89km).

By the second water station at almost 18km I was cruising and psyching myself up for the huge effort ahead. I had my Camelbak full of energy drink but intended to take on a lot of fluids during the race as well as eating from the later water stations to add to my gels.

Then the big uphill came along, with a turn off the dirt road on to a single track. I saw the competitors ahead of me in a never-ending line of walkers. Some we resting hands on thighs to ease the climb and some used their poles to ease the burden on their calves. It’s certainly an interesting feature of mountain races that sections like this are very slow and that overtaking almost happens in slow motion. The stronger uphill athletes clearly moved through the field and since I was only around 100th of the 1,500 starters, I was also able to overtake the whole way up.

Most of the path was through forest until it got higher and we came through the trees. I looked at my Garmin watch constantly to see what altitude I had reached, knowing that the bottom was 1,200m and the top was just over 2,220m. I promised myself a rest after 500m vertically, but at that point there was a brief respite and I had a half km of flatter then slightly downhill running. So that counted as a rest and I aimed to have no stops whatsoever.

As the path opened out I had views of the mountains which were now showcased beautifully from the higher vantage point. There was another water station at 22km and it was just 200m vertically from the highest point. My legs were feeling fine and so was I so the helicopter which kept circling and filming overhead got plenty of waves from me. The last section of the climb was much rockier and also got steeper. I was clambering over the rocks rather than power-walking. But the pure blue sky was a perfect backdrop for the snow-capped peaks which surrounded me. It had been annoying to be behind runners using poles (or not using them and just letting the points jut backwards with every step). Those runners didn’t seem to care that they might accidentally spike other people with their over-extended arm movements and I had to dodge jabs a couple of times from oblivious Frenchmen.

At the top, I took in the achievement of getting there, but used the flattened terrain to speed up. But there’s one thing better than the scenery. What might that be? The chance to run downhill along rocky paths like a maniac, of course. Of all the types of running, downhill over difficult terrain has to be my favourite. You can let yourself go and just fly down, but you have to concentrate completely because you need to see the ground far ahead to plan your route. There’s the adrenaline rush from the speed and the risk, but that risk is completely in your control...unless your legs are so tired that they buckle or don’t respond quickly enough. I wasn’t close to that issue, but it made me think (after I’d got to the bottom, since I had no time to think about anything else while careering down the path) what it would be like to try the course at night or near the end of the UTMB. I don’t know how difficult to would be but I’d love to find out. Of course, in a race that long there’s no benefit to pushing the speed on the way up or down as the game is to conserve energy and strength, but it still intrigues me what it would be like.

I was into the business end of the race with the last 15km, roughly. My body felt ok, but I could tell that the fast run down the mountain would hurt the next day (as it did) due to absorbing so much impact in the quads. I’d been overtaking people non-stop since I’d left Rob near the start, but the field was more spaced out in the latter stages. It gave me something to focus on as I pushed through the undulating section of course.

The sun beat down to make it extremely hot and every extra positive gradient made me sweat even more. I knew that I had a significant climb up to the finish as I’d reached the low point of 1,400m and the finish was at 2,000m. Also, I’d already gone through my slowest marathon time and was still a fair way from the finish. One thing this proves is that this race is the hardest marathon I’ve run, although I’m fitter than I used to be so I didn’t find it an ordeal and was able to enjoy every second.

After a significant steep section in scorching sun I reached the last checkpoint where some Brits cheered me on since they recognised that Serpentine is a London club. I was relieved to have more water and other drinks and downed a few before grabbing some food and eating it without even chewing.

I still had some more climbing to do but I soon heard the PA system from the finish line, which echoed round the valley. I kept up a forced power-walk and my calves were sore, but very bearable. I noticed how the very steepest sections had a very immediate effect on the calves but that the majority of uphills felt tough but ok. There was a short downhill which lost about 50m of elevation but instead of this being a welcome release, I was annoyed that it meant I had to climb another 50m back up before the finish. I often start to resent easy downhills when I know there’s a target height I’m going towards since they just undo some of the effort I’ve put in to get to where I was.

Like everyone else, I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line and then I saw it ahead, but maybe 100m above me. I’d never had such a hard end to a race, but at least I was within spitting distance of relaxing and just enjoying the view. One final push and I even forced a sprint finish, although it would have been the slowest one in any race I’ve completed. The finish line and area behind it had hundreds of spectators cheering everyone on. In fact the whole course had had much larger crowds watching than I’d expected. But once I crossed the line I headed straight for the shaded refreshments – heaven.

The view from the finish area was the best I’ve ever seen in a race and I was glad that I’d have a chance to take it all in while waiting for friends to finish. What an excellent race and what a perfect location. Hard as nails but so very rewarding. They even had beer at the finish.

I managed 25th in 4h43m and even the winner didn’t break four hours. Rob came in just under six hours and commented it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but after a few beers he seemed to be recovered. All that was left was to take a few photos, take the cable car 900 vertical metres down to Chamonix and enjoy the free buffet with even more free booze.

Apart from relaxing back at the hotel, we just had the trip back to Geneva and London to fit in on a jam-packed day. But it wasn’t rushed and it was very easy, and even relaxing, to fit in so much just over a Saturday and Sunday. I’d recommend it to anyone, although it helps just a tad if you’ve done some running and hill walking. I had a 5k race the next day and knew I’d need a lot of rest after such a tough race so that’s what my mind switched to on the plane well as the UTMB.

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