Preparing for the Chamonix Vertical KM – a lengthy preliminary analysis

In late 2014, I signed up for the Chamonix Vertical KM. While my left achilles tendon has not been happy lately (this is a subject that would merit a blog post on its own), I need to start thinking about how I want to solidify my training approach for this challenge. As of today, there are 136 days left until June 26th 2015, or roughly four and a half months.

So what do I know about the race? And what exactly do I need to prepare for?

A vertical kilometer (commonly abbreviated to “KMV” in French) is a race that has competitors climb around 1000m of elevation in a fairly short distance. In this case, the distance is about 3.5km.

Some statistics on grade

There is a segment on Strava that is actually quite helpful in showcasing just what to expect: an unrelenting climb with an average grade of 27%. And of course the thing with averages is that if a part of the climb is less than average (KM1 “only” climbs 150m, or 15%) then that entails that the rest is more than average (KM2 and KM3 each climb over 300m of elevation, the last 0.5 KM tops them all and climbs over 200m).

And while 27% average grade in itself is already an impressive number, if you split the entire climb into 100m segments, you’ll find out that near the end (when you’re already exhausted), there’s four 100m segments where you’re hit with grades that exceed 50%.

Of course this is all just based on reading numbers out of a graph, which itself was recorded by a GPS device that may not be entirely accurate. But even if some numbers are off by a few percent and some of the grades are different in reality than the numbers make them look, there is one thing that is clear: the combined length and steepness of this climb is unlike anything I can find in a 500km span around my home in Luxembourg.

Some statistics on time

In 2014, the winner (Kilian Jornet) ran to the top in 34 minutes 18 seconds. Out of 425 finishers, a solid 275 (about two thirds of the field) made it there in less than an hour. On Strava, as of early February there’s 74 people in the segment leaderboard and again about two thirds (48) are faster than one hour.

I somewhat naively set myself a target of 1 hour. I’m not basing this on any empirical findings or first-hand experience with climbs like this, but rather just a gut feeling of what I feel I should be capable of. After all, without an ambitious goal I think it would be easy to not take the challenge as seriously as it deserves.

Fundamental requirements

I’ve never been a fan of long distance training plans that prescribe specific mileage numbers for each day over the next few months without ever taking into account what else goes on in your life and how well you’re coping with the plan – most importantly, I feel that for athletes like me who have rarely been injury-free, it’s very easy to shovel your own grave when blindly adhering to someone’s plan (or even your own) that has been set in advance.

So rather than write down a 135 training sessions for the next 135 days, this is about coming up with fundamental requirements and then over the next few months making sure I do enough activities that cover those requirements.

1 hour of effort with elevated heart rate

Due to the unrelenting climb of the KMV, one of the bigger challenges for me will be to move efficiently and continuously with a high heart rate; without burning out too soon. However, due to the relatively flat shape of my country, there is no way I can find a continuous climb that takes longer than ten or twenty minutes.

Of course rather than one continuous effort I could do hill repeats (run the same hill multiple times), but with the heart rate dropping on the inevitable descent this wouldn’t simulate a constant effort at high heart rate.

When I did my first half-marathon two years ago, I was actually surprised at how long I was able to move relatively fast while maintaining a heart rate that I definitely wouldn’t have held during a training run. Over the next few months, if other factors (achilles tendon, etc.) allow it, I should therefore enter a few 10km (or more) road or trail races.

Withstand 1000m of elevation gain

Another big factor will be the requirement in physical strength that comes with climbing 1000m of elevation at a fast pace. While I’ve repeatedly hiked up more than 1000m in past years, and also done so quite speedily, I’ve never covered that much elevation in less than an hour.

Aurélien Rey filmed his 2013 run and posted it on Youtube. (Coincidentally, his run took him just over 1 hour, ie. right around my goal time.)

The KMV course will cover a lot of elevation change on switchbacks with uneven footing and require a bit of scrambling; which means that not only do I need to be able to push myself up the mountain with every step, but I need to do it in a fairly irregular way; with steps that are uneven, tempo changes on turns, and possibly with surges that might be required to move past other runners in tight spots. There will also be a few iron boards and ladders to climb up; as well as spots where taking one single step may mean lifting yourself up 50cm.

With the KMV being on a variety of non-technical and technical terrain, training will not be as easy as getting on a treadmill set to 27% incline and only stop moving after the elevation counter hits 4 digits.

I have quite a few options to do hill or stair repeats near work or home. Following the theory that the more uneven the stairs the better, I should therefore seek out older parts of the city with steps made out of natural stones rather than newer stairs that are perfectly uniform.

As for hills, the same applies: the more turns and the more uneven footing, the better. Of course even a hill that climbs in a straight line can be challenging, but that’s not what I’ll face in Chamonix.

In the past, I’ve already done a few different stair trainings. On Kosakestee, a natural stone path that is quite uneven and has stairs that climb between 50m and 60m in less than 200m of distance, I’ve done both running and walking repeats. When running, I could only manage up to 4 repeats so far, so what I did was to supplement those 4 runs with 4 additional walks. Of course over the course of the next months I should probably build that up, and get closer to covering 1000m of elevation. Unfortunately, that will rule out trainings during my lunch break; because there’s just no way I’m able to do that much in about one hour of effort. Fortunately, we’re starting to get longer hours of daylight, so as I ramp up the duration over the next weeks and months I’ll hopefully be able to move those trainings to evenings after work.

Supplemental strength and mobility

Of course even if I’m able to improve my heart rate and get my body used to longer vertical efforts, there’s still another factor I can improve: raw strength and mobility. While raw strength may be improved by weight room training (and more specifically by squats, I’m thinking), or by doing any of the above-mentioned stairs and hills with weighted vests or backpacks; there’s also a case to be made for mobility work (allowing the body to use a full range of motion). No use packing on several kilograms of muscles if I can’t climb up a large stone in the most straightforward manner.

In closing…

I’m not a professional athlete. I’m not even a seasoned hobbyist who does a multitude of races every year and logs 50 miles or running every week. I’ve experienced many occasions of being motivated to do something and then be set back by injuries, work requirements or just generally life getting in the way. Maybe by moving more of the thought process to this blog I can improve my track record at reaching my goals; and maybe along the way provide some entertainment or information.

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