Marathon du Mont Blanc & Vertical Kilometre
2 of the best races I have ever done - Marathon du Mont Blanc & Vertical Kilometre
It's now 11 years since I first spent a summer in Chamonix and the French Alps, I loved the place; the people, the scenery, the adventure, being able to sit in the valley and look up at the Mont Blanc and Aiguille Rouge ranges.
I've climbed and skied in and around Chamonix a fair bit since that first trip at 16, despite it being renound for it's beautiful trails I never thought the running could be as good as the climbing and skiing...I was so wrong.
My desire to run the Marathon du Mont Blanc and the Vertical Kilometre came after a "rest day" run on a climbing trip in 2014. 3 hours and 1600 metres of up and down later and I was ashamed that I'd never run in the valley before - As soon as entries for the 2015 Marathon du Mont Blanc and VK opened I entered.
Photo. Running past the Mont Roc train station before the first climb to Col De Montets (Ph. Hilary Larwood)
2015 was the first year a ballot system was used for allocating places to the marathon, the VK was a first come first served system so as an excuse to go to Chamonix I entered this. If I got an unlikely place (1 in 5) for the marathon then I wouldn't do the VK and focus on that instead.
I got a place for the marathon and as any self-respecting runner would, I started to convince myself I'd be able to do both, 1000m of climbing in 2 miles on the Friday night and 26.2 miles and 2800m of climbing at 7am on the Sunday morning.
"just train specifically"
"you don't get DOMS from running uphill" (?)
Of course it's possible to do a VK and marathon in 48 hours and do well in both, look at Kilian. But I'm not Kilian, I'm just some man, I don't have 1000 metre climbs on my doorstep, I work 60+ hours a week, I don't live at altitude, I am not an elite athlete. Where do I start training?
My training is generally pretty flexible, I've a rough idea of the mileage and height gain I need to do, how long my long run needs to be and that I need some speed. To give it structure I thought I'd choose 3 longer races to build up to Chamonix. These helped to break my training into blocks and forced me to have a few easier weeks here and there... very technical!
- Grindleford Gallop (21 miles with some ascent)
- Yorkshire 3 Peaks (23 miles and a bit more ascent)
- The Welsh 1000s (20.5 miles and a respectable amount of ascent)
Image. Marathon du Mont Blanc - ~9706ft ascent
Image. Welsh1000s - ~9066ft ascent
Image. Yorkshire 3 Peaks - ~4749ft ascent
Image. Grindleford Gallop - ~2559ft ascent
I honestly think these races helped set me up so well for Mont Blanc but not just in terms of the distance and height gain. In both the 3 Peaks and Welsh 1000s I struggled massively after 3 hours, my wheels well and truly came off, my head was a mess and was running on low gas. Although mentally demoralising I was learning a huge amount, I honestly think to be good at the longer mountain races experience and knowledge are power (being a good runner is also a useful attribute!).
I'd managed to wangle 5 days off work to go to Chamonix 5 weeks before the race, this was also exceptionally handy. I got the chance to recce the course, run at altitude and drink and eat lots of good food. My brother also joined me for the 5 days, although we didn't run together all that much it was so much fun to sleep, run, eat, rest, run, veg out - repeat for 5 days. I now had some more knowledge and felt a little more powerful. I knew the kit I wanted to use; shoes, socks, clothes, pack and that I wanted to use poles.
The atmosphere in Chamonix over the weekend of the races was brilliant, the town and surrounding villages really embrace the races. 7000 runners descend on Cham and 14000 supporters. The weekend consists of 5 races, Friday is the 80k and VK, Saturday the Cross (1/2 marathon) and 10k and Sunday the marathon.
I was down for a late start in the VK, worried that I'd typed my predicted time in wrong, I could have sworn I wrote 45 minutes not 35 minutes*. The VK is a staggered start, commencing at 4pm a runner leaves every 40 seconds. You're funnelled out of Chamonix towards switchback after switchback and all you can hear are cowbells and the French shouting "Allez Allez Allez!". The aim being to catch the person in front but not to get caught. I got caught by 2 runners but snagged 4 myself. I can't quite put my finger on why I enjoyed the VK so much but I did and can not wait to do another.
The start of both the 80k and marathon are spectacular in their own right. Both starting in the centre of Chamonix, everyone is tucked into the narrow streets, supporters down every alleyway, the excitement and buzz was electrifying.
Any race that starts with Hells Bells by AC/DC is destined to be a success!!
After my poor pacing in the previous long races I'd done, the plan was to go off steady and not give too much too soon. The first 10 miles are actually fairly flat, winding your way up the Chamonix Valley in the trees, there's a few little kicks but nothing outrageous. There's a small warm-up climb over the Col de Montets, I think I was in 80th place at this point, a bit further down than I'd like but feeling happy and strong, I was really enjoying myself! The first and perhaps only major climb comes after 11 miles, a 1000m drag up to the top of Aiguilette De Possettes. It was here that those who pushed to hard too soon started to fade, the climb combined with the 30 degree heat was starting to take it's toll. The views from the 2400m summit of the Aiguilettes are just spectacular, a panorama of one of the best mountain ranges in Europe!
Photo. Mile 17 and actually still feeling remotely good (Ph. Hilary Larwood)
What goes up must come down and it became apparent that the French don't like descending, I honestly think I passed 10-15 people on the descent, I didn't feel like I was hammering it either, again I have a terrible habit of charging downhill to find out I've turned my quads to paste and am good for nothing.
Mile 17 was the point I knew things were going to get tough, there's another big climb, the heat was becoming oppressive and we'd been out for 3-4 hours - There were a few demons in my head, it's usually this point that my head turns to custard and I can't walk in a straight line. Aside from the unpleasant climb up to Flegere this part of the course was my favourite, the trails winds it's way through the trees, you get glimpse of Mont Blanc, the Verte, the Dru and the Midi, the track flows, there are some technical sections followed by open stretches, it really is just a pleasure to run!
Photo. 200m from the finish line. Grinning like a Cheshire Cat on the inside (Ph. Hilary Larwood)
There is however a sting in the tail, a 250m sting which wouldn't usually be an issue but after 2750m of climbing and 25.5 miles this "hill" feels like a mammoth mountain. Thankfully, the support at this stage and throughout the entire race is phenomenal. You feel like a champion, everyone cheering you on, music, cowbells, some french man on the tannoy and a panorama worth running a marathon for.
The stand out aspect of the race was the atmosphere and support along the whole race, I honestly couldn't recommend the races on this weekend anymore. If you get the chance then enter (and worry about the training after).
A huge thank to Hilary and Rachel, Hilary was kind enough to let me and my brother stay with her on our first trip and then put me up again for the race week. They both helped massively on the day and gave me some much needed support.
(Results: If anyone cares... I ran the VK in 48 mins and was 101st and the marathon in 4h48 and was 48th.)
*(after double checking my entry I did write 45).