80km of Mountain

I was at the water trough in the centre of town next to the Maison des Guides. I drank plenty of the amazing cool water and then dunked my head in to wash the thick layer of salt that had formed over the previous three hours of blissful, sun-filled Chamonix trail running at it’s best. I had left home in Argentiere heading straight up for just over 1000 metres to Lac Blanc, from there I traversed westwards to La Flegere before continuing across to Plan Praz which is the finish point of the Mont Blanc vertical km race which would be held in a few days time. I then dropped down the fast but slightly technical trail just across from the vkm route. Which bought me to the glorious head dunking in the centre of town as hundreds of holiday makers sauntered around enjoying the warmth of the sun.

It was here that I assessed how fatigued I was. The sun was battering me and I was quite tired but not too bad really. From here I planned to head up to the plan des auiguille which is another vertical km in climbing then head across to Montenvers, drop down to Le Bois then back home. This was my last big run before the upcoming Mont Blanc 80km. I had predicted around 5hrs for this circuit. My predictions are generally fairly good, but this time I would be around 2 hrs out! As I headed up the climb out of Chamonix, the storm clouds where gathering and dull and distant rumbles of thunder where threatening to head in my direction. I hadn’t eaten yet and so decided to grab my emergency bar out of my waist pack. My energy levels were dipping. As I unzipped the pouch I remembered that I had eaten it a few days previously and not replaced it. My hand rummaged around slightly panicky hoping my memory had failed me, but no, for once it was right. Well as you can imagine, the next 4 hours turned into a death march and on returning home I was utterly spent. Not my finest race preparation!

It was 0330. I was alone and pacing around the same square with the trough in that I had recently dunked my head into. As the time ticked on more and more runners were approaching from around every corner, some alone and others in groups. I had rested as much as life would allow since my last run and I felt ok. I was starting to feel like the last year of living in the mountains was having a strong effect. Mentally I felt very strong. I knew the majority of the course and it was a real beast. But there were to be no major suprises for me. My descending was not the finest out there but it was no longer destroying my quads. I was excited to get going. With over 6000 metres of ascent and plenty of technical terrain to deal with this was going to be a major challenge and it was shorter than what I consider my stronger distance. My usual priorities were in place : Enjoy, finish and cross the line feeling like I could give no more. The first was a given due to the location, and if the second happened then the third would be pretty much guaranteed as I knew there would be no easy way round this course. It was going to be the toughest 80km of my life yet!

Our numbers had our countries flag on which is always a nice touch as you can easily spot fellow countrymen. Shortly before the off a Brit squeezed through the ever thickening gaggle of nervous runners towards me. He introduced himself (Name forgotten I’m afraid) and we squashed a running resume conversation in the final 10 minutes before the off. I had placed myself around mid way in the pack. This is starting to become a habit with Alpine races. I like the fact that there will be many people ahead who I will probably pass, but the slower more controlled start that was forced on me prevents me from going too hard on the first section which I have learnt is often a large climb and where the last thing I want to do is blow a gasket before I’ve even peaked the first climb.

As the infectiously excitable Euro start was in full swing, I shouted best of luck to my new friend, The countdown wound it’s way down and then we were off. The first part of the climb is the short road section of the vertical km. If you have ran this or seen it, you will know that it is rather steep and I was soon telling myself to stop running and begin my power walk. I may as well start now as this was going to get well used today! Within 5 minutes I could see the snake of headlights ahead going left and fading into the trees as the climb to Bellachat began in earnest. Whenever the slope eased a little I would run and if it was wide enough I would pass runners, trying to keep the accelerations as smooth and minimal as possible so as not to turn the whole thing into a sprints session. Sure enough I was steadily passing lots of runners and as I did I wondered whether I would see them again during the race. I was feeling in control and enjoying the climb. The chills I had felt while waiting on the startline had been replaced by heavy sweating as I worked consistantly hard with the slight glow in the sky that was the beginnings of a beautiful day.

I felt good as I climbed the final section of zig zag path before the Bellachat refuge. We had climbed around 1200 metres so far and ahead there was a further 300 that would take us up to Brevent. This was a fun section which is a little rocky and technical in places but mostly runnable. My head torch was not needed now so I gratefully pulled it from my head and stuffed it deep in one of my bags side pockets hoping that I wouldn’t be needing it later that day. As I bounded along the first harsh rays of the sun appeared up ahead from behind the Aiguille des Chardonnet. It was just perfect and really gave me a little extra bounce to my run, though I knew this would be shortlived. The weather forecast was for a warm sunny day, so with my generally poor history of heat during long runs, the sun could very well soon not be such a source of joy, but for the time being that was certainly not on my mind.

From the top of Brevent the descent is fairly long, quite rocky but fast terrain. I again focused on being as smooth as possible. I knew that, Plan Praz at the bottom of the descent I would be rewarded with my first cp with food and drink. I stopped here and made sure I took on plenty of fluid and lots of cheese and sauscisson. It tasted great now, but I was sure that in 10 hours time I probably wouldn’t be as keen. With the first major climb behind me, and with the gaps between runners ever widening, I was starting to feel as though the race had properly started now and I was comfortable and eager to run to Flegere then Tete aux vents as this section was a good runnable, yet still challenging part which had fine views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif. Not that I needed the motivation, but I was hardly going to push it away!

Although I felt strong along this top section, partly because of my familiarity with it, I was as disciplined as possible and tried not to get carried away as I continued to chase people down and pass them. The temperature was rising rapidly now the sun was fully risen. The heat is often my biggest enemy in races, but we have had a lot of warm weather in Chamonix before the race and I was hoping that maybe I had actually acclimatised a little.

I was passing some people that were already looking a little worse for wear. I fely for them as there was so far left. I could completely imagine that if you weren’t used to the scale of Alpine climbs and descents you could very easily overcook things very quickly. I know as I’ve been there! Once I had hopped along the top section to Tete aux ventes I begun the descent which is also the final ascent on the UTMB. It is a tough final climb for a 100 miler and it is pretty steep with a few technical sections making it a fun descent which I could take advantage of as my legs and feet were still relatively fresh. I really enjoyed bounding down here and felt strong on the technical sections. I smiled half with the joy of the descent and half with humour as I imagined how I would be gingerly descending the final drop of the day back into Chamonix.

There were a quite a few spectators at the road crossing at the bottom which is the Col des Montets. I took in the boost that the cheers and ringing cow bells provided as I crossed the road before the gentle descent down to le Bois. I was all alone here and was really excited as the next section would be the only section of the course I hadn’t seen before. What a great way to discover you local trails! Once at the bottom, I crossed the same road again and was directed onto a path which I had run before when I went up to Mont Buet a month earlier. It is a runnable trail that follows the river upstream. After a while I crossed a footbridge and then I was on new territory. Soon the trail was breaking away from the river and began to slope upwards, gaining steepness as it progressed. I was soon above the treeline and was suddenly feeling the full effects of the hot sun as it’s oppressive heat hammered away at me. The particular geography of the valley also meant that it was perfectly still here so no releif was provided from the cool breeze which I would feel later on. The climb was long and the footpath seemed like it was seldom trod being very narrow. There were rocky sections which demanded use of my hands and some ironwork. All in all this was a fantastic section. I turned a corner and saw that the climb continued for a fair distance as I squinted in the bright sun to see the runners ahead scrambling throug the snow we were now trudging through. With the height gained came cooler air which my sweat dripping body much needed. Considering how hard I was working and the temperature, I was happy with how things were working. I had acclimatised to some extent to the heat.

Once over the top the descent begun down the snow which was turning slushy under the heat of the sun. The running was fun as I slid all over the place as I fought to stay upright. The last section of snow was a gully that was steep and looking ahead I could see runners falling and sliding down on their backsides. Here goes! I tried to glissade with only slight glimmers of success. I fell a number of times before working out that instead of getting back up I should join the backside sliders and make my way down faster and with more control. Such style!

Once I had ‘negotiated’ the last of the snow for the day, it was back onto beautiful rocky trail that was descending down to Lac d’Emosson. The sky was a deep blue and I was thoroughly enjoying this new section though I would soon be back on familiar trail. I was beginning to feel the signs of exhaustion setting in but I had been going quite hard for a number of hours so was not too surprised. The next climb was from Vallorcine straight up to Aiguillette des Possettes which was a vertical km! I wasn’t expecting an easy ride!

I stopped a few times on the long downhill to Vallorcine at river crossings to drink the cold water instead of the hot water in my bottles. One time I dunked my head under to clean the salt from my face. Once on the valley floor I followed the markers and was pulled along by the cheering crowds of spectators which were sat out in the beautiful alpine meadows enjoying the sun. It was good to be in the shelter of the cp tent. I made sure my bottles were topped up with cold water and ate what I could before slowly jogging off to the start of the climb with one handful of cheese and the other full of sausage. I immediately began walking as my first foot hit the slope. The first section is possibly the steepest. Pointless even trying to run this during a race of this length. Let’s see if I can find some sort of rhythm.

I soon finished off my sweaty handfulls of Savoyarde treats, washed it down with some still cold water and attempted to zone in to my not-too-fast-but-consistant rhythm. After 15 minutes or so, I realised that my earlier thoughts about this being a tough climb were true. Although I had fared better than normal in the sun, it had still be working it’s black magic on me. The good news was that there was no nausea yet which would be crippling. Although the climb was tough, I was making good steady progress up through the never ending switchbacks. Once up on the Col des possettes and back out of the trees the incline levels off a bit giving you some respite before the final push to the top. I had run this many times in the last year and the familiarity was comforting. I passed a number of hikers here before topping out and geting stuck into the descent which starts out prety technical in places and later switches into fairly smooth trail. My tired legs were not allowing me to descend as I normally do on this trail, but I felt that my progress was good and overall I was in ok shape for this stage.

I passed through a quiet Le Tour. No cp here and the next one wouldn’t be till Argentiere, so I stopped at the fountain and topped up again. The trail from Le Tour to Argentiere was undulating which made a nice chenge. I ran the whole lot but it was a sedate run. There was still a moster climb left so there was no need to be pushing it too hard. I had too save something. As I came off the trail onto the road that ran into Argentiere and more importantly the next cp, I was feeling sluggish. I stopped at the cp and stayed for a couple of minutes as I made myself eat something and regroup. I thanked the crew and walked off stiffly before slowly breaking into a heavy jog. It was nice to run so close to home knowing that the majority of the course had been run.

The trail to le Bois was the Petite Balcon Nord and was again undulating. I was starting to suffer but no-one was catching me up. Everyone was now suffering! At the Le Bois cp I again stopped and forced myself to eat whatever I could and drank a bellyfull of water before hiking off to the bottom of the final climb. This climb takes you to Montenvers train station overlooking the Mer de Glace. It begins with switchbacks through the trees and ends with some steeper stuff through large rocks. This quickly turned into a zombie march. My breathing was short and fast and my heart rate was through the roof as I crawled along at a slugs pace. Amazingly I still managed to overtake a few people on this final climb. There was some serious suffering going on up here!

I was happy and relieved to finally reach the cp at the top here. Stopped and again made sure I was ready for the final push to the finish. First up was a long traverse to the Plan de l’Aiguille followed by the 1km drop down to Chamonix. I got myself into a slow but steady plod and picked up two others.  A Swiss chap and A Japanese lady. I didn’t walk once along this final traverse and because my pace was so slow, I kept checking whether either of the two trailing close behind wanted to path but they said my pace was fine. The consistancy across the top here was paying off as we soon starting passing the odd runner who was suffering a little more. Just before the end of this top section, the Swiss chap dropped off the back and then it was just me and the Japanese lady who seemed to be half my size.

As the final drop into town begun I felt heavy and stiff but soon things eased off a little allowing me to speed up a little. My Japanese friend on the other hand seemed smooth and light on her feet. I stood aside after about 20 minutes and told her to pass. She didn’t want to but I knew she was descending far quicker than I was. Once past I stayed with her for another 10 minutes before the elastic snapped. My stomach was beginning to complain and with each footfall, a hollow pain would echo through my torso. I walked numerous times on the remainder of the down.

I burst out of the trees and started to walk again. There was around a 500 metre walk up to the main road. I’d just walk up to there then run the final few hundred metres to the finish I thought. Just as I was approaching the junction a group of supporters up ahead begun cheering and I got carried away with it and started running. I do love a Chamonix finish. So many people around and everyone cheers you on. It’s such a fantastic atmosphere that for a brief moment a huge grin spreads across your face and the pain is forgotten. I crossed the line, immediately collected my medal and then I needed to sit but as I tried to walk to a free bit of curb, my muscles failed to operate. My feet were dragging across the floor. Jesus get me down on the floor before I drop!

What an incredible race! I absolutely loved it. It was everything I wanted. I had managed to come in at 56th place too. I was really happy with how everything had gone. If you love beautiful and really tough trail then I strongly recommend this one. I rarely repeat races but this just maybe one of them!

Thanks for reading. Happy running.

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