Mont Blanc Marathon 2015 – Paul Highams

So its been a while since I did an article on what I’ve been up to. Rumours that I’d become an indoor boulderer and taken up croquet have been greatly exagerated, but I do go to the Arch more often than Harrisons.

I do like a challenge and something a bit different, 2 years ago I started sking and then last year far too late in life I started my alpine career. I was in Chamonix last August and saw the Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc, a series of races held over 4 days, all of which seemed pretty unfeasable. So before I know it I’ve signed up for the Mont Blanc Marathon in 2015, this has the benefit of not needing any qualification races to take part and is held at the end of June. In the autumn I went to my doctor to get a medical certificate to say I was healthy, he said I was mad but they weren’t asking about that on the form so he signed it and charged me a fortune for the privilege.

I started training in September the plan being to ease in gently as it was 10 years since I’d last done any proper running and then start proper training at christmas. After only a few short runs the right calf was tightening after only 5 minutes running, I tried new shoes but that didn’t help. A few physio sessions sorted it out, but it wasn’t a good start. By christmas I was doing regular mileage in lunch hours at work and a longer run at the weekend, and things were feeling good. My body seemed to be remembering what it needed to do.

My other cunning plan was to mix up the running with skiing, hoping one this would help avoid impact injuries and the altitude from sking would also help. My poor skiing technique means I work quite hard on the downhill, as well as when skinning uphill. All went well through the winter there was only one problem.

The Mont Blanc Marathon, is an ultramarathon but it is only half a mile longer than a normal martahon at 26.7 miles, but it is all on trails, at altitude, and involves most going up and down ridicuously steep hills. You start at the height of Snowdon and go up 3200m and down 2200m finishing at over 2000m. The trouble with living in the south east of england is that you can’t reproduce the elevations. I resorted to running laps of the red mountain biking trail at Bedgebury, it was great overtaking bikers on the uphills and then announcing this was your third lap. But this still was no where near enough hills, I then found a trail that went up and down blue bell hill on the north downs, 8 laps of that added up to nearly 1000m but nowhere near enough still.

Once the ski season finished and the snow melted I was able to run sections of the course in Chamonix and this helped massively, by the end of May I had run all the course in 2 sections, apart from the last 3 miles, and was feeling very good. Then the right calf decided to go on strike again, and started going into spasm after only running small distances, I had to lay off running for the last month before the race, which is a bit long for a taper, and went into the race not knowing if my calf was going to hold out for 1 mile let alone 26.

The Mont Blanc Marathon is held on the Sunday but before that there are some other races, on the friday there are two very contrasting races. At 4am the 50 mile ultra starts, and this includes 7500m of ascent and the same in descent. The winning runners finish in about 10-14 hours, the finish is in the centre of town and the runners have to dodge the shoppers, dogs and children to get to the finish, as the evening arrives more people finish, but the bulk of the runners finish after dark, between 10pm and midnight for many. I got up at 1am and could see the headlights on the balcon nord those runners would finish at about 3am. Starting around 4pm on the Friday is a very different event, the vertical kilometre, the runners set off at 1 minute intervals and race the 4 kilometres, while climbing 1 kilometre. The route follows the cablecar upto Brevent, you can do the maths to work out the gradient! The winning men finish in 33-34 minutes and the women finish in under 40 minutes. Beating 1 hour is the equivalent of a 3 hour marathon, and to make matters worse they have a live feed displayed on the big screen in town so you can’t hide your suffering.

On the Saturday are the half marathon and the 10k, the half marathon climbs 1600m while the 10k is largely flat in comparison. Winning times for the half marathon are over 50% higher than for a flat marathon showing the effects the altitude and the height gain has. We watched the finish of the half marathon and the lead runners looked remarkably fresh, those that finished later were in various states of distress.

Sunday was the marathon, the race starts at 7am, which means an early wake-up, as much breakfast as your body will accept at 5am, and then off to the start to join about 2100 people in the main square. You immediately notice that this is a serious event there are no men in tutus and wigs, and there are no superheros, pantomime horses and rhinos. It is wall to wall compression lycra, physio tape and athletic bodies. The announcers whip up the atmosphere and there is a suprisingly large crowd to wave us off. After a mass countdown we are off, with AC/DC pumping out of the PA system, I set off slowly knowing this is a marathon not a sprint (sic), with my mandatory kit and a sense of optimism. The first few miles went well, the calf felt good and the weather was cool. After about 4 miles you start the first steep climbs, most people started to walk these, some were determined to run but they were going no faster than the rest of us walking and using precious energy. After 10 miles you get a long downhill, where you can get your breath back and as you get to vallorcine you get to the first food station. Now this is france so it’s not just energy drinks and museli bars. There was salami, cheese, fruit, in fact you could have a full 3 course meal and choice of drinks. I refilled one of my half litre water bottles I was carrying and set off to face the biggest single climb on the course.

You leave Vallorcine at 1260m and climb continuously to the summit of the aguille du possettes at 2200m the high point of the course. As you reach the col at 2000m you find a lone guitarist on a flat bed trailer blasting out more AC/DC and rock and roll classics, that helps forget the relentless pounding of your heart and that your breathing sounds awful. What goes up, must go down, and oh boy do you go down, 800m back down a steep rocky arete. This really focuses the mind, a fall here could see you going a long way before you stop. Several people suffered race ending injuries here, from twisted ankles to broken legs. The climb up the posettes and the descent had gone well, but the sun was now high in a clear blue sky and the temperature was close to 30C, after another feed station at 18 miles it was time to start the long steady climb to flegerre, it was nearly all uphill for the rest of the course, and mostly in the sun on hot side of the valley. Not long after starting the climb I got cramp in the right thigh, luckily for me a spectator had some salt tablets and they very quickly helped. The climb up to flegerre is toughest part of the course mentally, mostly uphill, apart from one 200m downhill which is very technical and at that stage of the race not welcomed by your knees and hips, then its back uphill, regaining the height you have lost, there are no spectators on this part of the course and progress feels very slow. Once you get to flegerre you know you are going to make it, there is still another 365m of uphill to the finish and its very rocky, but you can see the finish, then you can here the PA system and see the crowds; and from somewhere your body releases that little store of energy it hides for when you really need it. The cramp came back in both legs and I felt like a footballer at the end of an FA cup final in extra time when you have lie down and have your legs stretched. Finally 7 hours and 23 minutes after starting I crossed the finishing line, collected my medal and my free beer and sat in the sun feeling truly wasted but very satisfied.

So that was the tale of my first ultra marathon and my first trail race, I learnt several useful lessons, next time I’ll use poles, they would have helped on the uphills when I was tired, and that once your heart rate goes into the red zone at altitude it is very, very hard to get it under control again. This was year one of a two year plan. In 2016 I am entered for the Mont Blanc 50 mile ultramarathon with 7500m of ascent and the same in descent, the training starts now, and consists mainly of hills, hills and more hills.