My First Taste of Skyrunning

Vertical km

Thanks to Ian Corless for the image

So, a week after the Samoens Trail tour race where I was happy with what I believed was a little progress over the previous race, it was my home race. Skyrunning was coming to town! The Mont Blanc Marathon weekend consisted of a 80km race on the Friday, a vertical km in the afternoon, some smaller races on the Saturday and the marathon on the Sunday. The vertical km and the marathon races were both Skyrunning races, meaning that some of the worlds best trail runners would be fighting it out meaning there would not be any decent positions for me!

Since arriving in Chamonix I have been learning about the fantastic selection of inspiring races that are out here. I soon realised that a lot of them were already full or filling fast. Soon after a little panic, I had entered a few races and plans were made. Not long after I realised that over four consecutive weekends I was booked up to run the Samoens Trailtour, followed by the Chamonix marathon weekend, then Paul Bennett was flying over to do a full UTMB recce over 3 days and finishing with the Ice Trail Tarentaise at Val D’Isere. Hmmm, not the best bit of planning was my initial thought, but then after a little thought I realised that this was similar to some chunks of running I have done in the past, and then it would give me an enormous boost in not only fitness but confidence. I am aware that it is a slightly risky method because of potential injury, which is why I plan on doing no running in-between events. To be stronger I must rest. Back to what works best for me.

So, I had a choice to make. Should I do my usual and go for the biggest event i.e. the 80km, or do the rather novel for me vertical km and the marathon? Well, after my vertical km experience in Morzine a couple years earlier, I was willing to try again, and I also wanted to be a part of a Skyrunning race. Decision made! The shorter stuff. I knew come race day I would have race envy for the 80km race but I couldn’t do them all. And there would always be next year when the 80km was also going to be promoted to a Skyrunning race.

There were a few Brits flying in for the weekend and we were planning to meet up when they arrived which was nice. It feels really nice when people turn up at your home town and are really buzzing with the excitement of just being there. How can anyone not love the mountains!? We all registered then met up in town for a coffee. Most of the guys were doing the 80km, except Claire Shelley who had chosen the same races as me. We all parted our way as the 80km runners were starting at 0400 the next morning. Me on the other hand was going to get a sleep in for once!

That evening when I got home I looked online at the 80km route to see at what sort of time the lead guys would be coming by Argentiere. It would be quite a novelty rolling out of bed and walking five minutes up the track to watch super fast lead guys racing by. The website had GPS tracking for who the Skyrunning federation considered the fastest runners so I could lay in bed and actually wait till the lead guys were close. When they were around 30 minutes away we strolled up the trail and started the large climb that twists it’s way up through the trees that only a matter of weeks ago were cloaked in a quiet layer of fresh snow. The contrast now was complete. The sun was strong and forcing it’s way through the heavy tree cover in shafts of light. We found a spot on a switchback and sat waiting. Soon the two front runners, both Salomon guys, power walked past looking like they had just started an hour ago, not nine. Just incredible. After the first two, there was a big gap to third place. We then made our way back home.

The vertical km was the first on my menu for the weekend and it began at 1600 that day (Friday). It was a time-trial so competitors would be starting individually at 30 second intervals. With the slowest first and Kilian Jornet last as he won it last year. We could basically pick our start time depending on what our predicted finish time would be. Claire started at around 1620 and by this stage Israel had met up with us and had decided to start at around 1800. I was going to be off 10 mins later at 1810. It was all a bit frantic at the start line so I wandered off and bought some cherries and found a quite spot to sit in the sun and eat them. I had run the km a few times now with my fastest being 50 minutes, so I had targeted under 50 minutes and less importantly a top 50 position. You have to dream!

Soon my time was up, time to sprint up a very steep hill! I wished Israel luck and watched him dash up the road. Soon I was being told that I had to start next. I was planning to start five minutes later, but it didn’t really matter. I think they just wanted there to be as few gaps as possible. I stood on the line watching the clock tick down 30 seconds… 20…10…5 4 3 2 1 GO! The first vertical 100m was on road and there were lots of people cheering at the side of the road. As pretty much all races I run, my game plan was minimal. Today it was to try not to sprint off with excitement and blow up quickly, and to hit my top limit and hold it there for the whole thing not getting caught up in the chase. Within 5 minutes I was certainly at my maximal output and had arrived at the start of the trail that worked its way up the stupidly steep hill. The view up was quite bizarre with a snake of runners zig-zagging their way laboriously underneath the the telecabin.

I put my head straight back down and embraced the pain that I would be feeling for the next maybe 45 minutes. I slowly started picking people off. Always a good feeling. Although it felt good, I knew that the secret was to run my own race. As soon as I looked up then I knew that I would see loads of runners ahead and the temptation to chase and accelerate would be high but dangerous as any extra no matter how small would be too much. I fought my way up and steadily overtook people. At around 300 metres vertical I started to power walk which was a little experimental as normally I would just run, but I continued to pass people so took strength from it and continued. As It got steeper I continued to pass people. All of the runners I passed where really good about stepping aside to let me pass so I lost no time. It definitely helped to have been up here a few times previously. I knew what was coming.

I knew that the rocky section towards the top was coming that had cables and railings on the rocks to assist on the steeper sections. When I was there, there was no doubt at all that I was fully at my limit. I was treading a tightrope of pain. Be careful! Then there is a section very close to the top that is wide with a railing along the side as it is so steep. Two guys were in front and I needed to pass them so I went out to the side to get around them but here there was of course no railing, and my feet were struggling to get a purchase in the loose stone so I had to use my hands to scramble past. This was too much. I blew and even though I passed the two runners I was cooked! I was forced to slow a little through fatigue. I tried not to panic. My legs were wooden and I felt like I was on top of Everest. 20 seconds later I had recovered a tiny amount and could put a fraction of added effort into it. I passed two more runners and was soon running up the steps to the cable car station. The next two flights of steps were incredibly intense even though they were so short. I was broken. I finally crossed the line stopping my Suunto Ambit. at 45 minutes. Wow! walking a lot of it gained me 5 minutes!

I later discovered that I had got 49th place so I had achieved my objectives by the skin of my teeth! Thankfully the recovery was very quick. No soreness at all like from anything longer. Next morning I felt great and the race wasn’t till Sunday. The Saturday was very wet with heavy rain all day. It could be a tough race the next day! When I woke on the Sunday, the rain had stopped. It was a beautiful looking morning and although the start was cool being at 0700, it was threatening to be a hot one.

Just a t-shirt with my arm warmers on top. I love the arm warmers for races. They supply a surprising amount of extra heat and you can easily roll them down around your wrists to regulate heat. Perfect for races when you don’t want to waste any time. I wriggled my way about two thirds of the way towards the front. There was a 2000 capacity so it was really busy there with poles dangerously flying around all over the place. I felt good and was looking forward to getting going. Music was playing and the atmosphere was building and then we were off.

I knew a fair amount of the course and was aware that the first part up to Argentiere was mostly uphill but relatively gentle and on easy wide trail. This was good as there was no panic to get a good position on the single track. The speed running through Chamonix was fast enough though. I jumped up onto the pavement and passed a few people and escaped the danger of being in a close pack. As we left the town and got onto the trail, things had started to settle a little and gaps were plenty. My pace felt good I thought, but then had to remind myself that I am still most certainly on the steep part of the learning curve when it comes to the totally incomparable pacing in the high mountains. I would push but with a little caution.

Within 50 minutes I was running past my home. How great to be running in a Sky race that goes right past my doorstep! Then I saw Lou stood at the side of the trail. She gave me a cheer as I ran past. I left the woods ran through a rather busy town and then was on the short climb up towards the fantastically named village Le Planet. I was soaked through with sweat already but there were enough water stops to keep me topped up and I had my little bottle of Elete water electrolytes so all should be good.

One of the reasons I wanted to do the Skyrunning events was because I knew there would be a really good atmosphere around the course, and this was certainly true with cow bells frantically being swung and many shouts of “Allez Allez” and “bon courage”. It really helps to get such shouts of encouragement when things are tough.

I was working hard and the day was really starting to heat up. There was barely a cloud in the sky. Maybe if we get lots of hot weather this summer, I will adapt a bit more to the heat, but for the moment it is definitely my achilles heel. A gentle but fairly lengthy climb took us through Tre-le-Champ then up the Col Des Montets. I had to ease off a little up here as I was working to hard and there was a long way to go. My main aim was to not blow at any point. Simple you would think! Once over the Col, we took the non-technical trail down the other side which gave me a chance to regroup a little which was good as I knew that we would soon be on a monster climb. As the trail levelled out at the bottom of the valley I knew that we were nearly there. First a fully stocked cp where I briefly stopped and took on plenty of fluid and some banana and fruit cake. Shortly after the cp I was walking up a steep hill through a field. The climb was roughly a 1000m so I knew there was no rush. Nice and steady is the only way for these races unless you’re one of the gifted few.

And so up we went. We were in the trees on narrow fairly technical terrain. There were many switchbacks and I was enjoying it. I was passing many people with only one or two passing me. One of which had poles but they were rather unorthodox being a branch from a tree and a piste marking pole. He was strong and I wondered whether he does this in all his races? Disposable poles. Maybe one to try?

I had found some sort of rhythm. It was laboured and possibly a little to high, but I was locked in and was just going to have to see what happens. After around 15 minutes we left the trail and joined a larger maintenance trail which was not as pretty, but certainly as painful. The sweat was stinging my eyes as it constantly rolled down my head. I then saw that we were getting near to the top of the cablecar which signified the top of the steepest section. Once past this I followed the large trail up the col for 5 minutes and then was back on narrow trail heading up to the top of Aguillettes des Posettes at 2200 metres. At the top I was exhausted but ok. It took me a little while to find my downhill legs but soon I was overtaking people who were obviously taking longer to find theirs! Half way down this descent I was passed by the Inov8 runner Shona Stephenson from Australia who was dropping down the steep technical trail as though she was on the road. Within about 15 seconds she was out of sight. I never saw anyone else that day descend at anywhere near the same pace, quite incredible!

At the bottom of the descent I passed rather wearily through Tre-le-Champ again. I crossed the road and was immediately on the uphill climb to La Flegere which I knew. I was really feeling the heat now and knew that I was not going to be able to really push it here. I was on survival mode. The climb was a bit of a struggle to be honest. Anna Frost came past me up here at this point. She was looking strong. I was tending to downhill quicker than her but she certainly was stronger at this moment. I knew that there was a decent cp a Flegere so as I climbed I made the decision to not just rush through but stop for a short while to regroup and drink lots and eat. It wouldn’t be long, but could really help me for the final push. Once I arrived at Flegere I was hugely grateful for my earlier decision and embraced the stop. I used my time well by working my way down the table eating and drinking what I could. Once I felt on the verge of being too full, I turned and was back on my way for the final 5km. I started off with heavy legs and was a little doubtful that I had made a wise decision, but then a few minutes later there was a definite boost in my energy. I suddenly felt a little lighter. I began to pass a few people that had passed me at the cp and soon was really enjoying the trail.

The sky was clear and the views from this area are enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. I grinned again that this was my home. I looked down at my watch. I had made a rough target of beating 5 hours. How achievable this was I wasn’t sure and now I realised that I had around 15 minutes. The trail was undulating to say the least so I realised that I would have to have my work cut out if I was going to drop below 5 hours. As I got closer to the end I could hear the music and the commentator pulling me in.

I knew this section well. The final km or so was uphill and the uphill was a bit of a stinker! I knew this was going to hurt. I began the climb and tried to stay in control. I was above the trees here so the sun was having a last punishing go at stopping me. I was walking as hard as I could, my breathing was almost out of control and as I turned a corner I could see the rest of the trail leading up to the crowds at the top around the inflatable finish gantry. So close and yet so painfully far! I drove hard for the top and crossed the line in 4:58! Brilliant. I collapsed onto a bench as my chest heaved at the oxygen it needed. After a minute, I caught the cablecar down to town and got changed at the car before enjoying the incredible buffet that was provided. I didn’t have any of the free wine there.

I definitely didn’t escape hitting the wall here but I saw it and dealt with it in a fairly effective manner. So although it wasn’t great, I see this as an improvement again over the last race. There is still so much to learn though. I came 101st which was great. The whole weekend was an incredible experience and as you may have guessed by now, I love the fact it’s in my home town.

The rest of my week was to be spent doing no running again as on the Thursday a friend of mine, Paul Bennett would be flying over and on the Friday we would begin a three day recce of the UTMB route. How super exciting! This is how life should be. I just need some money now!

I will write again soon to let you know how the recce went.

Happy running.


2 thoughts on “My First Taste of Skyrunning

  1. Great reading Neil, it was just like I was there running with you !! Perhaps you should consider writing articles for magazines ?? Good luck xxx

  2. Good read Neil, Great approach to the Vertical Km, and well done on your impressive finish. Thanks for the mention too! Was such a great event, and amazing atmosphere in Chamonix, live it up!

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