Wednesday, 2 September 2015

23km du Mont-Blanc...

We arrived in the Alps exactly a week early on the Saturday before the race, having rented a small apartment in Argentiere from some friends. It might be 'compact & bijou' but very comfortable and ideal as a base for outdoor stuff. This is the view from the balcony

I like Argentiere, its not as bustling as Chamonix and you can be on the trails in 5 minutes. With a ski lift, a woodland walk ideal for the dogs, and both Petit Balcons (the lowest level mountain walks) just a short walk away. Chamonix itself is just a 10 min train ride too. 

I had already decided that the day after we arrived I was going to run the first half of the 23km course at a fairly easy pace as a test run.
The cut off time had been nagging at me. I was almost sure it was generous but I needed to see what sort of performance I was looking at; could I take it easy? was I going to be close and have to push it? I needed to find a balance between gaining both time AND energy for the second half.
So with my full race day kit on (for practice), I headed out to catch the train to Chamonix in the early morning. Not many people about. (Apart from a couple of posh blokes in full Lycra bike kit bemoaning the commercialism of the local area and "of course it never used to be this crowded". . .)
I brisk walked to the para gliders landing field where the start was going to be, it was quite a cool morning. I took a few deep breaths and a sip of water, and started running. Very slowly I might add, I was under no illusions about how the altitude was going to affect me, and also didn't want to push it before the race.
I deliberately didn't look at my watch until I reached the road crossing past Tre Le Champ, but was pleased to see that I had reached it in 1:50 which was well under the checkpoint cut off time of 2.5 hours, and I hadn't pushed it as much as I might be tempted to on race day, which was very encouraging as it meant I would have time in the bag for the second half, which was undoubtedly going to be harder!
A group of hikers asked me what i was training for, was it the marathon? No the half, I said, quite far enough! I started a slow jog back in the direction of Montroc train station, thinking about the following Saturday.

The train whistle interrupting my thoughts made me realise I was going to miss my train back to Argentiere and the next one was in half an hours time. I didn't really want to go back the way I had come, but then remembered there was a shorter river route back. Couldn't be that far could it? And in fact it wasn't, just 15 mins and pretty much all downhill, who needs the train anyway? 

Nic was due out to Argentiere the following day, she was flying out to meet us and come and support and also spectate the other races, and spot some trail running celebs; there was always the chance Kilian was going to be there somewhere!

In the next few days after she arrived we did a bit of altitude hiking, including a via ferrata climb up some ladders, and a couple of small jogs just to keep the legs ticking over.  I stupidly overworked my calves on the first hike up Le Pecleray, and for a while it was touch and go that they might recover in time, so we kept the hiking fairly mild after that.

Come the Thursday it was time to register and collect my number from the race 'expo' which was like a temporary construction in the middle of town. You have to take your race pack (backpack or waist pack) with you so they can check you have the compulsory kit list, and tag it as well (presumably so you don't ditch it halfway or something?)
The only thing on the list i didn't have was a 'personal cup' but managed to pick up a cute little lime green collapsible one in a shop just outside the race expo before going to register :-)

They are quite strict in registration. Every item on this list has to be shown and ticked off. (spelling is not mine!)
  • Mobile phone.
  • Stock of water minimum 0,50 liter. (well they only needed to see the bottle!)
  • Waterproof jacquet windproof.
  • Whistle.
  • Survival blanket.
  • Personnal cup
To that I also added, gloves, a lightweight pull-on hat, a small first aid kit, and some gels and dried fruit & nuts. (although obviously they didn't need checking!)

The very efficient but nice lady ticked my list, issued my number (which had my name and country flag on), tagged my waist pack, and asked what size tshirt would fit me. Medium as it turned out. (I put it away to wear after the race, I know its just superstition but it feels like bad luck to wear pre-race issued shirts beforehand)

Friday was supposed to be a rest day, but we wanted to go down to Chamonix and see the start of the Vertical KM in the middle of the town and hopefully see some of the brave 80km runners arrive, so we took a slow walk via the petit balcon. On the way who should we meet but GB runner Robbie Britton and his partner Natalie White walking their dog Rosa. They were both going to be running the 23km too, but a lot faster than me! Of course I asked if I could have a photo :-)

Its pretty clear when you arrive in Chamonix just before the Mont Blanc Marathon Weekend, that this is serious trail running territory.

From the abundance of Salomon kit walking the streets, to the stringy whippet like bods lounging in the cafes, you know you are where the action is about to take place.

We arrived in time to see the leaders in the 80km arrive which was excellent timing. It was great to shake the hand of 'the mad frenchman' aka Sébastien Chaigneau, such a nice chap, and a privilege to see ultra trail running Nepalese sensation and newcomer Mira Rai finish as first lady (supported by her friend and mentor Lizzy Hawker)

Seb relaxing post race
Mira celebrating the finish straight
Then the vertical KM was about to start. There was a lot of build up involving loud music and an overenthusiastic compère on stage. An amusing moment was when a priest came out of the nearby church and stared intently at the stage until the volume was turned down!

Killian was not listed on the entrants list but that nice Mr Britton had informed us that he was running, and the general buzz of excitement soon proved him right. We nearly missed Emily Forsberg leaving the Start (runners leave at timed intervals), but they were leaving the main attraction until last. He stood in the start tent with folded arms and just waited. Then.....he was off!

So fast! (taken on my phone so poor quality)
The vertical KM is short but punishing: 3.8km of zigzagging trail rising 1000m from the streets of Chamonix to the Planpraz cable car station. I say trail but the trail eventually gives way to a mix of via ferrata and rocks. Killian must have been taking it easy as he finished in 6th place in 36:03 (!)

yes really up that path!
So, Saturday dawns.
The realisation hits me that its now my turn *gulp*
Early start, early porridge, early nerves.
My waist pack was ready the night before so only the water bottle to fill up.
Kev was driving me to the start to save time, we thought we were early but it was clear as we approach the woods before the start area, its clear the available parking is filling up so we park quickly by the road and walk through the woods instead.

The start area is already busy! I'm beginning to think that somewhere there must be an 'amateur start area' as everywhere you look there are the aforementioned whippets with their Salomon packs milling about. On closer inspection though I spot a few nervous runners like me, who are also wondering if they are in the right place, and yes, I realise we are, but a more serious feeling trail running event I have never been to. Nearly everyone has a full running pack, calf guards, buffs, arm warmers and other kit and I only have a waist pack; I start to worry, have I underestimated this race or has everyone else overcompensated?

Anyway practicalities need to be dealt with and I see there are a line of race loos (typical of an alpine area they are wooden not plastic!) but I sneak off to the posh proper flushing loo hut next to the woods instead :-)

Lining up (nearer the back than the front, I'm under no illusions) I spot a few more British flags on numbers and we exchange a few words of mutual encouragement. Kev and Nic wish me luck then go off to be near the front and get some pics.

The lady on the microphone asks everyone to listen to the race briefing, which is luckily in English as well as French. They ask us to make sure we keep our kit with us at all times as there may be spot kit inspections, tell us about the cut offs, and then start the countdown which we are all encouraged to participate with. "Dix, Neuf, Huit. . . . . . .Trois, Deux, Un,", and with the snow topped mountains as a backdrop, we're off, but then I laugh as the opening bars of 'Hells Bells' by AC/DC reach my ears! By the time we go through the start gantry I'm singing along '
I'm rolling thunder pouring rain, I'm coming on like a hurricane, my lightning's flashing across the sky, you're only young but you're gonna die. . . ' epic start to a race I must say :-)

We are eased into it via the first 2km which rise gently only 40m through the park trails and the woods, across the river and round the helistation, then the trail starts to rise, at first not too bad but then I have to walk (taking the opportunity to have a gel) as it gets steeper and zig zags up another 150m until we are at alt 1200m by 4km

At this point the trails are still wide which is good as they are pretty crowded! Although I have been overtaken by many people (not really a surprise though) I'm quite pleased that I have caught up with and overtaken a couple of people who are paying the price of trying to run up the hill.

As we reach 4.5km ish we emerge onto the road above the village of La Lavancher, and instead of taking the small path through the houses as I expected we are directed down the wide road route through the village, this offering a chance to just cycle the legs over downhill and overtake a few more people (some of them are serious looking and are taking it easy, so my confidence wobbles a bit as i worry they know something I don't, but then I remember I must always run my own race).

Mind you as we go past the little toilet hut coming out of the village I realise I have to take advantage of the facilities, so any overtaking I have done is soon cancelled out! I brisk walk/jog the rest of the slope up through the fields

By about 6km we are into the woods, possibly my favourite bit, as the petit balcon nord undulates through trees, and over a few rocks and lots of tree roots. Any long uphills I power walk, but most of it is great for running through and skipping over rocks, and although its getting narrower I manage to nip past a few more people (probably the same ones as earlier!) especially if they're nervous of uneven ground.

8km sees us onto the ski paths behind Argentiere, across the big wooden bridge and we are at the next lot of zig zags up, this one a bit more serious. There are quite a few spectators lining the last corner, ringing cow bells, and shouting 'Allez, Allez' then we leave them behind, and i soon drop to a walk (chance of another gel)
A few people are complaining about the climb! I'm wondering what they were expecting? At the top of the climb we almost hit alt 1400m but then start to descend through fields and along small roads into the village of Le Planet, then we drop steeply down a road section, once again a chance to let the legs cycle and get a bit of speed up! This was probably my fastest km over the whole race, I think I actually hit a pace of 4:32 a km for a few seconds!

Slight uphill now approaching a bridge crossing a ravine, and we are running next to the train bridge and then to Montroc station, there are more spectators, and a group of people dressed as smurfs of all things? a small boy smurf clapping us spotted my english flag and said in his best english accent 'go get your cup of tea!'

There are a few more spectators around the train station (which I notice is getting a facelift, bout time too!) and then we pick up the trail just above the train tunnel and I am back to walk/running as it feels steeper than it looks, and I'm feeling a bit tired now, but then we are above Tre le Champ and the first aid station!

I spot Kev and Nic and the dogs waiting beyond the aid station (they have driven up from the start) and perk up a bit and wave.

Kev has managed to capture the moment!
I take the opportunity to fill up my water bottle from the huge self service water barrels, even though i haven't drunk a lot, as by now the sun is coming out and its getting warmer; I might need a full bottle before i reach the next aid station.

The aid stations are well stocked, there are cut up bananas, oranges, cake, savoury crackers, squash, coke, sweets, and lots of it. I realise now why we have to carry our own cup as there are no plastic cups here! I guess they don't want to risk anyone dropping cups all over the mountain which is sensible really, and I wonder why we don't have this in the UK on some of the trail races? I make sure i have some banana and a bit of salty cracker and drink some coke (covering all the bases!) then run to get a hug from Kev

Nic walks with me to the road crossing bridge. Its a steep climb!

I check my watch as we reach the bridge (at nearly 12km) and it says 1:46 I am pleased to see, not far under my practice time but hopefully this means I will have a bit of energy left for the hilly bit.

"Good luck mate, see you at the finish" says Nic, and then I am up the steps and over the bridge and heading for what I know will be the steepest and most technical climbs yet, approx 300m climb over about 1.5km followed by the most technical descent of around the same. 

The trail up is very hard work, there is no chance of running, you have to walk, even if I physically could have run, at this point the trail is fairly narrow and we have to go up in single file for most of the way. I have taken another gel at this point and I find that I am not feeling too bad and in places I want the person in front to go faster (even though we are all walking) they are not walking fast enough and I wish I could go past, but I have a dilemma as I don't know what the etiquette is and whether it would be frowned upon to try to get past.
However a precident is made for me as at convenient zig zag points there are spaces to pass if you are quick and several people overtake me and slot in front. (I also learn the correct thing to say is "pardon, excusez-moi" as you pass) So I decide to go for it.
When i need to pass someone I pick my moment, then quickly hop up rocks to pass them and then walk again. I am finding to my amazement I can do this quite a few times.
Then we reach the top, and I know whats coming! My second favourite bit, the rocky descent back down 300m again.

I didnt have a camera with me, but I found this video on youtube someone else had taken (not during the race but you get the gist) on this section.
(please note it starts just after the top and the relevent bit finishes at 1:30, not worth watching much after that)

I actually have fun on this bit and descend as fast as I can, jumping, hopping, using my hands like a bit of mountain parkour.
There were a few people having trouble with their Hokas not liking this section, and I managed to get past a few here as well.

When we get to the bottom we are nearly at 15km, only 8 to go. But I know that it is not going to be an easy 8km as the finish is another 600m higher, and we have a total of around 700m of ascent to tackle.

The next km is not too bad, in and out of a few trees, but narrow, gradually up but some undulations so I manage to run some of it. We go over two wooden bridges, one over an amazing waterfall. Before the start Nic said to me, try and remember where you are and look up once in a while; so that's what i did; I stood by the waterfall for a moment and had a good look all around at the amazing view.

Now i found I was getting tired and there was not much overtaking being done, especially when we hit 16.5km and suddenly we are going up, and up, and don't stop for a km and a half until we reach Flegere. The first section is zig zagged but once the trees open out you have a great expanse of just bleak sloped hillside which is really relentless and soul destroying. It really seemed to be taking it out of everyone, even the Salomon clad whippet type peeps, so i didn't feel bad about walking and taking a few rests. I did attempt my 50:50 jog/walk technigue but it wasn't possible to keep it up, and so a just walked the rest of the way up. The sun was out by now and I had drunk most of my water so I thought it a good job I topped up earlier. I took the opportunity for another gel also.

It was with great relief I crested the never ending rise, and looked down at the artificial lake just below the cable car station, and I even managed a jog down the shallow slope. Then it was walk again and stagger up the short but steep final up to Flegere and the second and last aid station about 30 mins under the cut off time of 4 hours for this point.

Once again the same spread and all the marshalls manning the aid station are very helpful, and one offers to fill up my bottle for me. I have a little more banana, and coke, but couldn't face anything else, so I know from this that by now I am getting tired and having to push it a little.

I think there's nothing to be gained by hanging about, I may as well get on with it, as there is 'only' 5km to go, 'just a parkun', but what an epic hilly one!

I know from previous hikes that there is a slightly more runnable bit coming up, as the trail undulates and ends up going slightly down for the next km.

There is a technical bit of a rock face down with metal steps bolted in that has some people hesitating, but as I've been down it before it doesn't really bother me and I'm down quickly. This is the only bit of the course apart from aid stations where I have seen a marshall, he is making sure people get down this section safely. He applauds me as I land at the bottom, 'bravo' he says, which i smile at, of course he could just have been taking the piss but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt!

for some reason coming down here put some people off :-)
The next 4km are really just a slog along and slowly up mainly stony narrow trails. There are at least 2 scree slopes to go across then we drop down slightly, go through a small alpine field dotted with large boulders, then up again, through some more trees, then out and up, across a large ski run, and onto a rising narrow rocky track. We are at around alt 1900m and this section is quite exposed.
I pause and take in the amazing Mont Blanc vista; I've got less than 2km to go.

We can actually hear the finish, and the cheering so it spurs me on a bit, I tell a fellow runner to 'Ecouter' (listen), and he smiles.
There has been a couple behind me for a while, him clearly encouraging her as she is having a tough time of it, then he obviously spots the Cerne Abbas giant on the back of my tshirt, I don't understand all he says but get the gist, something like 'look at madame's tshirt there, that should cheer you up', she laughs, I stick my thumb up behind my back and they both laugh - glad to have been of service!

apparently I'm in there somewhere
And we can now just about see the finish, and there's a last short zig zag up, some poor chap is sat down with blood coming from his knee, I ask him if he is OK, but he says he has 'Le Cramp'!( Pronouced 'Cromp', worth knowing the terminology if I am ever if any future French races)

Now there are lots and lots of people lining the route, lots of people 'Allez'ing and 'Bravo'ing and also English voices saying 'Come on love, you can do it!'

I am feeling really hot now, and my hands feel sticky from the last gel, and just there is a random patch of snow i plunge my hands into, which is lovely.
I'm determined to be running when I cross the line, and miraculously there's suddenly a small downhill just before, which I can run down, and which gives me the momentum to go up the other side. I overtake one more person, hurrah!, and then I see Kev taking my picture, and the man with the mic on the finish is saying my name, and I'm over the line, and incredibly I remember to stop my watch!
still smiling!
beyond the finish area
We then get ushered through to collect medals, and a free beer which goes down very well I must say. The man says I can come back for a refill if I want, but one is enough! I meet up with Kev & Nic and the doggies (who i heard later only just made it in time, due to the enormous queue for the cable car up), and hugs all round.

My official finish time was 4:36:24 which I was very pleased with as I was well under the publicised cut off time of 5 hours (although looking at the results some people finished in over 6 hours so they were very lenient!) and there were an astounding 438 people behind me, which really did amaze me, considering my original goal was to finish and not be last :-)
Time to wear that tshirt!

There was a HUGE queue down the cable car as well and I was feeling just a tad tired (surprise, surprise) so rather than stand in it we decided to adjourn to sit down in the outdoors cafe to get a drink and breather. 
Small world though, as we had no longer sat down than someone was calling Kev's name. It turned out to be local Dorset based BAC runner Manol who knew us from some WSR events.
We knew he was running the marathon the next day, but didn't expect to see him among all the runners that were in chamonix that week.
Apparently he was doing a good job carb loading, this is such a great pic i had to include it!

And talking of great pics, I've ended up with the best official race photo ever! I hardly ever buy race photos, in fact I've only ever bought one other in 4 years, but I had to get this one :-)

If you asked me to sum up this event, it would difficult to do so without using such unoriginal words as 'Epic' and 'Awesome'. This was the hardest race I think I have done, but certainly the most amazing. I wouldnt say enjoyable, as it can hardly be called 'fun' but the whole event was an experience hard to repeat without doing it again, which is not quite as easy as it sounds. (travel, medical certificate, accomodation, suitable training etc etc)
But I'd hate to think that this was the last time I did something like this, so watch this space ;-)

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