Race Report: Marathon du Mont-Blanc (42.2km, 2730m+ / 1700m-)

“How do you know a runner has done a marathon? – they’ll tell you”. So here I am to tell you about my very first marathon. And because I like a good challenge, I didn’t just pick a flat and boring road marathon but an iconic race in the mountains with plenty of elevation gain and loss.

Race prep

In 2017, I ran the 23km Cross du Mont-Blanc. When mid-October came around, and with it the lottery draw for the 2018 edition, I contemplated whether I was ready to step up to the full marathon distance. Six month out of a race, you think anything is possible. But what would life be without challenges, so I entered and a few weeks later got the email confirmation that I’d successfully made it through the lottery.

I now had more than half a year to prepare for what would be my longest race yet. I increased my monthly running volume, starting at 150km in November and 218km in December; but then had trouble moving beyond 200km in subsequent months.

I had picked the 34km Urban Trail in Luxembourg in April as my big preparation race, which went well. The distance was only 8km less than a marathon, and even though the elevation gain was nowhere near what would await me in the Alps, I was confident I’d be able to close that gap with 2 more months of training.

What happened instead was that I did a lot of photography in the spring; which burned a lot of energy that I was dearly missing in May and June. Throughout May, I was still able to motivate myself for smaller local races (Südstroum Trail 12k and Berdorfer Laf 10km) which went quite well (I set a new 10km lifetime PR); but I did not manage to do many real long runs beyond the 2 hour mark. June was especially bad. I only covered 100km the entire month; mostly in relatively short running commutes to and from work. Instead of doing long runs on weekends, I spent my weekend time either behind the camera or on the couch without any energy to do anything.

The saving grace was that through all of this, I was able to stay injury-free. So when July 1st came along, I was still optimistic that the comparatively large volume of work I’d done in winter and early spring would get me across the finish line.

While I was in Chamonix, I also did the Vertical Kilometer race. This being my fourth participation in as many years, it is almost a tradition by now. The race didn’t go amazing, because what’s true for marathon prep is also true for a short but explosive mountain climb: both require specific preparation that I did not do enough of.

Race start at 7am

On race day, I had set my alarm to 5am, and by 5:20 I was sitting in the breakfast bar of my hotel (Hotel de l’Arve). By 6am, I was outside. My wife joined me as I dropped off my warm clothes, and then by the time we were back at the starting line at 6:25am a sufficiently large amount of runners had lined up already. I thought it was prudent to join them rather than risk being stuck at the end of the queue later on. Spending the next 35 minutes stuck in between people and not being able to do any warm-up whatsoever had its drawbacks, but later on I would not have to wait for 2000 people to get across the start line before crossing it myself. In specific numbers, 2369 people had assembled at the start line; and I would guess that maybe 300 or 400 people were in front of me.

When the gun went off, we started moving fairly quickly as the elites went around the first corner. Their pace was even more ambitious than the one that was set by the people around me. The first few hundred meters on Rue Joseph Vallot were very crowded, not just because of how packed the starting field was but also because of spectators lining the sidelines. Basically, the entire width of the street, including sidewalks was occupied.

Despite the congestion at the start, my watch recorded a 5:14min/km pace on the first Kilometer. I tried to control my heart rate and not reach unsustainable levels while still in Chamonix, so I was getting passed left and right despite going as fast as 4:15min/km at times.

After almost exactly one kilometer on pavement, we reached the Club des sports de Chamonix building and my shoes hit dirt for the first time. By now, things had settled down a little. I tried to maintain a pace of slightly over 5:00min/km here, which caused my heart rate to gradually inch up to around 165bpm.

The first hour of the race was the same gradual climb that I’d already raced on the previous year when doing the 23k. Despite moving at a slightly higher heart rate than I had wished (around 165), I welt like I was moving efficiently. I pushed on the more gentle parts and restrained myself on the steeper climbs. On the rare occasions where we headed downhill, I attempted to keep pushing and not let my heart rate drop too much.

The undulating paths before I reached the first aid station in Argentière were fun. Despite there being several hundred people in front of me, I felt like I was actually in a race, chasing down people on the generously wide single track that actually allowed position changes with a bit of care.

I crossed the timing mat in Argentière after 58:58. According to race timing the distance from the start was 9km (9.4 according to my watch), and I’d gained 324m of elevation so far. I was in 622th position.

At the aid station, I took the time to refill my flasks – one with Isostar and one with water. Already I could feel that it would be a hot day, and I wanted to stay well-hydrated.

At around 10km or 1h05, we reached a spot that seemed to be popular with spectators. There were easily 50 to 100 and they were doing a good job of encouraging us middle-of-the-pack people.

Beyond Argentière came another climb, and a fairly steep one at that. We went up around 100m of elevation in half a kilometer. Soon after, we passed Le Planet, a spot that offered views of the Mont-Blanc massif to anyone willing to take the time. Unlike most competitors, I actually stopped to take a few photos – memories fade, photographs stay.

Next came a small descent to Montroc, and soon after came the next timing mat at Tré le Champ. Despite feeling that I’d moved well I’d lost more positions. I was now at #694. The 13.3km had taken me 1:31:39. We had climbed 564m by now, which meant there were still 2 entire vertical km of climbing ahead before the day was over.

At around 13.6km I went past the temporary bridge over the D1506 road. This bridge marks the spot where the 23k and 42k courses separate. The 23k course goes straight across, but us 42k runners would only go there later in the day. Instead, I headed on along the road towards Col des Montets which I reached after about 14.4km. From here, there would be about 3.5km of descent, losing about 250m of elevation along the way. Since this was a fairly moderate descent as far as average grades go, I felt confident about opening up the pace a little. I went as fast as 4:28min/km on km17, passing quite a few competitors along the way.

The reward for showing a little aggressiveness in my descent was that when I reached Vallorcine, I had gained a few positions. I was now at #638, meaning I had passed about 50 people on the descent. Overall, I had now been racing for almost two hours (1:57:18) and had covered 17.7km.

At the aid station, I filled my two flasks with Isostar and water again; but decided to not waste any extra time for either solid food or rest; because I still felt quite good and wanted to maintain the positions I’d gained.

Of course that could very well change now, because I was looking at the biggest climb of the day. From Vallorcine, there’s a relentless climb first to Col des Posettes, then Aguillette des Posettes, which is at the same time the highest point of the race.

Straight out of town, a steep single trail heads up a meadow. It was lined on both sides by spectators. The narrowness of the trail combined with the amount of people who were just ahead of me dictated my pace. It was a little slower than I wanted to be going, but on the other hand I was well aware of the distance and required effort that still lay ahead of me so I was happy enough to not push to the limit here.

We were on single trail for maybe 20 minutes, but then the trail opened up. On one hand, this was a good thing because it meant that passing would once again be easier. On the other hand, it also meant that I would be in the sun now quite a bit, at the same time it was really starting to warm up.

The climb here was fairly boring owing to easy footing of basically following a jeep road on a ski descent. I noticed a fellow runner who picked up trash dropped by previous runners. I made a positive comment and we got to talking, before I had to admit that climbing and talking at the same time was starting to be hard. I had to concentrate once more on moving forward efficiently.

About 2:45 into the race, I thought my right knee was starting to give me trouble. I had opted not to carry hiking poles because in my pre-race research I’d identified a large amount of runnable terrain where they would offer no assistance but instead prove cumbersome to lug around. Fortunately, a few half-hearted attempts at massaging the quadriceps muscles while still moving forward proved successful enough. The knee didn’t bug me again for the remainder of the race.

By this point, we’d moved beyond tree line. Ten more minutes, and I reached Col des Posettes. Mont Blanc now came into view, and the trail surface changed from a rocky Jeep path to a dirt single track (or two or three parallel ones) through grassy slopes.

2:56:53 into the race, I went through the Col des Posettes timing point at 1998m of elevation. I had covered 22.3km and was in 620th place. This meant I’d moved up a few more positions.

I tried to be efficient at the aid station, merely filling up my water flasks and then continuing on my way up. From here on out, a single file of people was running, power-hiking or walking up the considerably narrower trail. The sky was perfectly blue, and not a single cloud was overhead. A helicopter and maybe a drone or two could be heard.

As I increased in elevation, the trail became increasingly rocky. There was nothing that required scrambling, but the terrain definitely awarded people who were able to make efficient route choices.

At about 10:15, I came across a handful of people who had stopped. But it wasn’t because they had fallen or were tired, but because the route allowed a perfect view of both Chamonix down in the valley as well as the entirety of Mont Blanc.

And then came the descent. I’d seen a few Youtube videos of elite runners absolutely flying down this stretch of the race; and while I was nowhere near their level I tried to be efficient and make good use of downward momentum. The conditions were perfect for that: the warm temperatures had dried out every last centimeter of the trail, so there were no treacherous slippery spots.

I passed quite a few people on this stretch that were descending more carefully. I don’t have a lot of pictures from the descent since I’d wisely chosen to put away the cell phone, keep both hands free to balance (and to not have the cell phone flying out of my hand and down the mountain if I were to fall).

By the time I came closer to valley level, the heat definitely began to rise. At some point, I passed a water spout (that was probably not marked as “potable”) near a small hut, and a lot of runners stopped to refill their bottles.

But soon, I reached the next timing point at Le Tour, where I was able to refill from official sources (and get some energy drinks that offered some liquid calories, because by this point I had been pretty bad about consuming any kind of other calories).

It was now exactly 11 o’clock. I’d been racing since 4:00:49 and had covered 28km. My speedy descent (in relative terms) had made me gain quite a few more positions, and I was now at #569. Meanwhile, at the front of the race Kilian Jornet had already crossed the finish line while I still had one third of the race mileage ahead of me.

At this point I still felt fairly good, so I just pressed on. The next timing point was just 3.3km, and it was mostly downhill. This allowed me to cover the distance in just about twenty minutes. For some reason, I took no almost pictures during this stretch. The advantage of running undisturbed by photo taking is that according to official timing (that seems a bit optimistic) I hit an average speed of 9.82km/h during this stretch.

I arrived at the Tré le Champ 2 timing point at 11:20, 31.3km from the start. I had covered 31.3km and was now at #571. And very quickly, I would realize that I’d run out of gas.

At this point, I was back at the road crossing where the temporary iron bridge crosses over the road. After some 8 kilometers of running mostly downhill, going up a man-made stairs felt strange.

In a way, I could almost taste the finish line. From here on out, I knew the route (from running the 23km the year before). It was only 11km, what could go wrong? Well, I’d soon realize.

It was now close to mid-day, and the sun was beating down mercilessly. I’d later see that temperatures in the main valley crossed over the 30°C threshold. There was a considerable climb ahead of me. While there were some trees giving off a little bit of shade, there were long stretches of direct sunlight. I tried to move forward efficiently, but my body was having none of it. I felt devoid of energy, my legs weren’t fresh anymore and I was hot. I did not have trekking poles, and hadn’t missed them for the first 3/4 of the course, but here they would have come in useful to propel me forward.

Instead, I found myself stopping more and more often, moving from tree shade to tree shade; trying to minimize the time I spent in the sun but at the same time having to take a rest to recover from each micro “sprint”.

Needless to say, I was now getting passed very often. It felt like everybody was passing me, and I was seemingly in a much worse shape than everybody else around me. Of course the going was pretty tough, km33 gained 200m of elevation (or 20%).

At some point, I sent off an SMS to my wife on the cell phone, translated: “Dead. 10km left and I have nothing left in me”. She was following the race tracker and replied with some encouragement, arguing that I’d managed to cover 32km so I could also do the remaining 10. Also, she mentioned I was still placed pretty well, and that there were lots of people behind me that were suffering much worse than me.

That single km33 uphill took me almost 25 minutes. My watch recorded a “moving time” of only 21 minutes, meaning I stood still for 4 minutes.

Finally, I topped out on that climb and… ran downhill again. I’m not sure if I did much running at this point, but at least I was moving. Still, I tried to be careful because the descent, while not overly treacherous, was still not without hidden dangers, mostly because of tree roots or smooth rocks being covered by loose dust and proving to be quite slippery if you stepped on them with too much momentum.

I saw one guy fall in close proximity to me and he didn’t get up immediately. However, there were a few people around him all asking him if he was okay and he replied in the affirmative, so I moved on as well.

After the descent, Mont Blanc came into view again, and would stay as a kind of visible target I would move towards (albeit on the “wrong” side of the valley).

The uphill resumed, and after a while I left behind the trees that had offered some kind of shade in temperatures that were now over 30°C (at least if the Garmin Tempe sensor on my shoelaces was to be believed).

The final climb to La Flégère almost broke me. It was on a ski slope, with absolutely no shade in any direction. Most people around me were moving fairly slowly as well, and many were clearly suffering too.

I crossed the timing mat on the second-to-last timing point at 13:17, 6:17:47 into the race. The last 6.1km had taken me 1h57, and I’d “moved” at an average speed of a mere 3.14km/h. I was now in position #683, meaning that despite feeling like a thousand people had overtaken me it had just been slightly over a hundred.

I was almost ready to call it quits. At this point, I did not know my position in the race, I just felt like I’d done sub-par for very long and had nothing left to give. But I also remembered reading the 2017 Marathon du Mont-Blanc race report by Maria Dalzot where she had suffered a lot getting to Flègère, had spent an hour there and then moved on to still finish. While I’m nowhere near her level of athleticism (and was nowhere near feeling as badly as she described her own situation at that point) I figured that I wouldn’t quit but sit down in the shade and then move on after I felt better.

I had one or two cups of Coca-Cola, and also had one of my soft flasks filled with some more, and then sat down. Surprisingly, within minutes I already felt better. In race terms, it felt like I was wasting eons, but in retrospect if maybe I’d spent a similar amount of time at Tré le Champ just replenishing my energy reserves maybe I wouldn’t have suffered as much on the subsequent climb.

So I left Flégère and compared to the prior climb I felt like I was flying. In reality I was still tired and my feet started to hurt and I couldn’t sustain a run, but km40 had a pace below 10min/km and that was faster than most people around me at that point.

The last few remaining kilometers on a trail called Le Grand Ballon Sud with amazing views of the entire Mont-Blanc massif were hard but rewarding.

My GPS watch was a bit “fast” and I crossed the 42.195km point when the finish line was still quite a bit further on. By this point, my feet and legs and everything were really telling me they’d rather be done. Most importantly, my legs were very close to cramping up pretty much everywhere. I no longer dared running for fear of a leg cramp costing me more time than if I merely attempted to power-walk into the finish. Of course that meant I was passed by the few people I’d managed to pass since Flégère.

Finally, the Planpraz cable car station and finish line came into view. There was still a bit of gradual uphill to do, and it took a bit of restraint to move at exactly the best speed to move forward and at the same time keep my legs functioning without sending me into a debilitating cramp.

Finally, I did a final left turn and could see the finish line. I took out the phone to document that moment, but the screen looked black. I couldn’t see a thing on it.

As I approached the finish line, another athlete nearby almost collapsed and had to be helped across the line. My wife, who had taken the cable car up to come see me arrive somehow managed to miss me because of the distraction that this caused. Since she hadn’t seen me and I didn’t even know she was there yet, I was happy to see that my cell phone still had a little bit of juice left (2%) with “battery-saved” enabled that it was still possible to send off a message and take a few finish line pics without having a bright screen.

So that was my first marathon, and my first marathon finish. It had taken me a whopping 7:24:36 to cover the distance (with 2759m of elevation gain and about 1700m of elevation loss).

My final position was #650. I’d managed to overtake 33 people on the final 5.2km from Flègère. Overall, I was 650th out of 1901 finishers. A further 466 people were ranked “Out of Time” or “DNF” because they either did not finish or finished outside of the allowed time limit.

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