Race report: Mont-Blanc Vertical KM 2018 (3.8km / 1000Hm)

Having run the Mont-Blanc Vertical KM the previous three years (2015, 2016, 2017), is there even anything left to say about this year’s edition?

I’ve mentioned the format already – 3.8km of distance, 1000m of elevation. The best male runners manage to cover this in less than 35 minutes, and my own magical barrier seems to be the 1-hour mark, which I’ve previously beaten once and exceeded twice.

As for preparation, it wasn’t as good as I hoped. I was doing fairly well until April. Spring was very busy for me with my second job as a freelance sports photographer. The inevitable result of that was that basically May can be summed up as a low-motivation month where I was burned out a lot of the time (although I did two short races) and June I was ill and only returned back to good health a few days before leaving for Chamonix.

As for gear, I tried to iterate from previous years, making minor changes as my wardrobe changes over the course of the years. I maintained the basic idea of not wearing a running backpack for such a short race. Hoka Challenger ATR 3 shoes, Ronhill cargo tights and a Salomon Agile shirt would do the job quite well.

The starting procedures as defined by the race organizers were more… organized this year. The basic idea was still that of a time trial staggered start spread out over several hours, with the slower runners starting at 4pm and the faster ones closer to 7pm. In 2015 the line-up was mostly random, following broad time windows. In 2016, at the time I was supposed to run nobody was ready to toe the line and the announcer basically had to beg for people to line up at their predetermined start time. In 2017 the predetermined start time could not be kept because there was an onslaught of people that lead to long lines and I waited in the heat for a long time. In 2018 they finally got it right: the starting times were definitive, runners were lined up according to their bib numbers (which were increasing from slow to fast) and you merely had to line up 10 minutes in advance and yet be certain of your spot. As it should be.

At 17:38, exactly the time slot I had been allotted, I set off. The initial meters followed exactly the same route of the two previous editions: up some stairs, passing the church on its right side, up some more stairs, then a right turn into Rue de la Mollard. This is a straight road heading up towards the cable car station, and for someone with my running background it’s a grade that’s right on the limit of still being runable. Past the station, I adapted a run/walk rhythm for a while and then had to admit defeat and definitely switch to power-hiking. All of this happened before I even turned left into the start of the endless switchbacks that mark the middle part of the race.

After a few bends, my watch beeped. 1KM done in 8 minutes. This was mostly in line what I’d done in 2016 and 2017, so I was in good spirits. Supporters lining the course were also contributing to the positive vibe, especially in one bend where a very vocal group had made it their task to enthusiastically cheer on everyone.

Up to here, I had passed one person and had not been passed yet. This was unlike previous years; where there was a bit more immediate competition.

From 200m of elevation gain to 500m of elevation gain, I plodded along. My heart rate was in the low 170s, which was an OK range for me. I could feel that I wasn’t pushing as hard as I was in 2015, but the effort felt easier than 2016 and 2017 when it was much warmer.

But at around 500m of elevation gained, I began to notice that my progress wasn’t quite as efficient. The watch had beeped again with a 2 KM split of 19 minutes, about 2 minutes slower than 2015 but a couple of minutes ahead of my 2016 and 2017 efforts. I’d need to keep going efficiently to maintain my chance of finishing in less than 1 hour.

From about 500 to 700m of elevation, I could sense the impending doom. My legs were starting to feel heavier, and my heart rate was decreasing slowly; a sure sign that my body was entering self-preservation mode. Which, needless to say, is slower than full-speed, guns-blazing mode.

Unfortunately, after about 700m of elevation, the most difficult part of the KMV begins. Here, the narrow single trail first starts getting steeper, and then at around the 800m level, it starts getting much rockier. Whereas the traffic I’d encountered on the first part of the course was much lighter than in previous years, I was now getting passed by at least 10 or 20 people who were markedly faster. Of course, this was also because I’d slowed down a lot. It was obvious that I’d missed my chance to finish in the 50s. I willed myself up the steepest parts, feeling very sluggish and for every competitor that I passed, at least 5 other runners rushed past myself.

After the steep rocky parts and past several race photographers who set up there because of the Chamonix and Mont-Blant backdrop that frame the runners here, it was a comparatively less steep trip over to the Planpraz cable car station. Here, more supporters had taken temporary residence and were cheering on the runners. I didn’t return to running here because my tank was still almost empty and I knew I wanted to save some energy for the home stretch. Past the station, I still remembered last year’s finish line that was all the way around the bend up the next hill; so I was surprised to now see it about 100 or 200m further down. Unexcpectedly with just 50 meters left to go I started running again, but could not sprint. Across the finish line I could see my wife who had come up to cheer on me. After 3 solo trips to Chamonix, it was nice to not arrive surrounded by strangers only, this time.

I crossed the line after 1 hour, 3 minutes and 37 seconds. About 4 minutes shy of my “realistic” goal, and even though the finish seems to be in the same spot than during my 2015 personal best, my perception was still marked by the unexpected “shortening” of the course.

I did the usual post-race routine: get my medal, grab a cup of Coke and then because it was starting to feel a little chilly I retrieved my drop bag and changed into warm clothing before taking the cable car back down towards the valley.

On the way down, I still tried to grab a few shots of the more difficult parts of the race course; but the windows were scratched and the true difficulty of the course still doesn’t come across.

So what’s my verdict? My initial thought was, “the mountain wins again”. I had finished slower than both 2015 and 2017, but faster than the 2016 disaster. In the ongoing goal to finish in under 1 hour, the score is now 3:1 in favour of the mountain; meaning that I reached the goal once (on my first try, at 37 years of age). Am I just getting too old, or has my training not been up to the task? In 2015, I certainly had a better strength base, which I’ve neglected in the past three years.

So will I be back? Time will tell. But I know that I still have a sub-1 hour finish in me, so there’s a big chance I’ll make another attempt.

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