Was it wise to run the 23km du Mont-Blanc race with 1600m of elevation gain less than a day after running the Vertical Kilometer (3.8km with 1000m elevation gain), especially after not doing stellar at the VK? I didn’t know, but once more it was a challenge that would get me out of my comfort zone.
After the less than stellar Vertical Kilometer race and retreating to bed at 9pm, I slept uneasily and had nightmares. I then got rudely awaken at 5:30am by my alarm, probably in the middle of a deep sleep phase. Hôtel de L’Arve graciously offered an early (6am) breakfast for race participants. After the third cup of coffee, I was fully awake.
Start (1000Hm) to Tré le Champ (1385m)
At 7:15 I walked to the nearby start at the Aire des Parapentes. I deposited my drop bag and since there were lots of people already, I lined up in the start area straight away (without any further warm-up) to make sure I’d be in a decent position for the mass start. I didn’t want to be stuck behind too many slower runners on the initial kilometers; which were said to be fairly level and therefore would allow decently fast running on fresh legs.
We set off at 8am. The first few kilometers were on wide forest paths, which was warranted because there were over 1700 runners at the start and it took a while for the differences in starting line position and optimal pacing to sort itself out. Due to the decent amount of space on the early kilometers, this proved to be quite easy. I tried to keep my heart rate in check at the beginning, but gradually it crept up from 150, to 160, to high 160s. I tried not to have it go over that, since I didn’t want to burn all my energy too soon. I was hoping for a 3:30 to 4:00 finish time; and the race would be a very unpleasant experience if excessively high heart rate made me burn out after just one hour.
Gradually, the trail started to climb. I switched to hiking on steeper parts but still ran the straight parts and downhills – like everyone around me at that point.
After the first uphills followed a quick downhill, and we briefly ran on pavement again as I passed the first timing mat (4.9km into the race) in Lavancher after 33 minutes; in 431st place (of about 1700). The next kilometers were more undulating in nature. After passing Argentière (8,7km in) there was a short but steep climb. It was only about 125m of elevation gain, but it nicely foreshadowed what was still to come. Everyone around me walked this, and so did I.
After 12km we went through Montroc and hit the first aid station in Tré le Champ. My intermediate time here was 1:24, not too bad considering the fact that we had already hit close to 600m elevation gain by this point. My race position had worsened a little, at #461. The aid station was quite busy, with lots of people intent on refueling as efficiently as possible. The organizers had set up a large water barrel that I used to self-refill my water bottles – I’m not sure if it was supposed to be used by runners or only by aid station workers to refill the cups; but it certainly was quite efficient to refill my water reserves. Both 0.5 liter soft flasks I was carrying were empty, so I refilled them completely and also had 2-3 cups of Coke.
Tré le Champ (1385) to Béchar (1691m) to Flégère (1865m)
After the aid station, we crossed the road (the D1506 heading into Switzerland) over a clever temporary bridge that ensured runners didn’t have to meddle with cars. And then, about 1 hour and 30 minutes in, I hit the first killer of an uphill. It was only about 300m in elevation, but quite exposed to the sun. Temperatures were high by now, and there was little shade. As if climbing in the heat wasn’t enough, the trail narrowed considerably; meaning it became much harder to move around slower people. I felt that I was moving a little bit more efficiently than some others, but every gain in position was hard-earned because you had to watch out for an opening where you could safely pass them. Since it’s in everyone’s best interest to use the most efficient part of the trail, that means if you want to pass someone you need to take a slightly worse route, at a faster pace than them. It’s no big deal to do it once, but becomes quite tiresome if you don’t want other people’s pace to restrict your own forward progress. The majority of people walked the entire uphill, with just a handful of people still attempting to run past. Needless to say that my average pace suffered. I recorded my slowest KM so far, at a whopping 17 minutes.
Fortunately, every trail that goes up ultimately needs to head back down again, and after about 25 minutes of climbing we did reach Béchar (14km, 1691m), and were looking at a fairly technical downhill. Over the course of the next 1.5km, we’d lose around 250m of the elevation we’d only just gained. I got passed by a few people here, and saw a few people slip and fall. Every fall was almost immediately followed by the preceding or following runner inquiring whether everything was OK. I slipped once and landed on my rear, but with no ill effect.
After the descent, the trail mellowed out a little, on a nice single trail that afforded a nice view over the valley and at the Mont Blanc massif. I was starting to pass a few people on the more level ground. We soon hit the second big uphill of the day, from around 1500m to 1865m. The effect of this second hot climb in the sun was that by km16, my bottles were empty again. I passed two guys who had decided to run in a rabbit costume. I was absolutely roasting and sweating up a storm at this point, and I don’t want to know how much worse they felt. We all had 2 more kilometers to go before the next aid station, and people all around started to complain that they thought we should be there already.
The final part of the climb towards Flégère was on ski slopes, on a gravel road. I was once again able to pass a few people. I hit the 18.4km aid station 2h54 in, at #414; meaning I had passed almost 50 people since the last timing mat. My watch said I’d done 19km already. Once again, I refilled my soft flasks at the water barrel for another 1L of water reserves and drank a few cups of Coke.
Flégère (1865m) to Charlanon (1810m) to Planpraz (2016m)
The next stretch from 18km to 21km was on undulating single trail, on a slight but inconsequential net downhill. The trail was mostly packed dirt and occasionally stony, but overall was quite runnable. I alternated between running and walking, still trying to move efficiently, and overtook a few more people
As we neared the final climb of the day, from 1810m to 2016m in about 2km of distance, my legs were starting to feel toast. Or in other words, I was on the verge of getting cramps in several different leg muscles. With about 1km to go the legs were fully giving up on me and I could feel that one wrong step or one step too fast would have them cramping, which meant I would need to stop and stretch. So instead I power hiked. Needless to say I lost a few positions again as people still used their remaining energy to run across the finish line, while I limped in.
Gradually, the left and right side of the trail started to be populated with spectators encouraging the runners, which made it doubly annoying that I couldn’t muster more than that limping power hike.
After I crossed the finish line, a quick glance at the television set up for just that purpose told me the final tally was #386, and my final time was 03:48:38. So in between the Flégère timing mat and the finish line I did improve 28 more positions; but could have done a little better still if my legs hadn’t cramped.
Still, I was quite happy with my time and race position, considering that the race was 24.4km according to my watch and almost 1600m of elevation gain; while my training outings never even came close to those numbers in the months leading up to the race. So I did better than I should have given my preparation, which in some way I guess is a matter of mind over matter because it was my stubborn head that pushed me forward until my legs couldn’t take any more.
After taking the cable car down to the valley (included in the race fee) I spent the rest of the day in my hotel, only venturing out to get food (twice). My legs were still close to cramping up, and I expected my legs to be toast for the next few days. Combining those two races so close to each other is something that was not ideal given the amount of training I’d done. But my recovery was fairly quick and painless. My left Achilles tendon was a little sore after the race but back to normal overnight. I drove 600km back home on Sunday and on Monday (two days after the race), I biked 38km to work and back. Five days after the race I ran one of my fastest training 10km’s for the year.
What I wore / carried:
- Hoke One One ATR 3 shoes – these worked really well, no complaints.
- Ronhill cargo tights – really like the extra storage space of the 5 stretch pockets
- Icebreaker brief, Under Armour socks
- Under Armour loose-fitting technical t-shirt
- Salomon Advanced Skin 5 Set Hydration Pack with two Salomon 0.5l soft flasks, plus a cheap plastic cup for drinking Coke at aid stations
- The mandatory gear (Rain vest, whistle, Survival blanket) that I didn’t need
- No hiking/running poles, since they were prohibited in this race
- I carried my phone (Samsung S8) in a front stretch pocket on the Ronhill cargo tights. This made it easily accessible for photographs, but also transferred a lot of sweat. Thankfully the phone is water-proof, but the humidity sometimes interfered with phone operation (the phone would switch to selfie mode, which I never wanted, and I’d slide and swear until I got it back to normal landscape mode – I’ve since found out that double-tapping the volume button also works for that purpose).