‘’Trois…Deux…Un…’’ and we were off!
The start of the Mont Blanc Marathon 26.2 miles through and over the Mont Blanc valley. We were about half way within the crowd of runners slowly shuffling towards the inflatable start line. It took about four minutes to get over the line; unfortunately ruining my plan of an inadvisable starting sprint just so I could say I overtook Kilian Jornet…we can dream.
Within about ten minutes we had gone through the town and out onto the trails. As with any race when you’re planted in the middle you have to wait until the competitors start to spread out before you can settle into your own comfortable race pace. With a steady incline up until km 5 the first of fifteen climbs started with a vengeance. Everyone has their own tactic for tackling the ascents, some stride, some sprint hard others pad soft and fast, from the start Gary and I had decided to stick to the ultra-runners dictum ‘if you can’t see the top, walk’. So we pushed on through the first few climbs taking it nice and steady knowing the worst was still to come.
One thing I noticed very early on was the amount of runners with trekking poles! I can understand why you would use them (they take some of the weight off your legs and help you add extra power on the inclines from your arms) but they could be damned annoying. On the wider tracks that’s fair enough but when it narrowed down they were a pig to get around as they stuck out either side. This was compounded with people who had obviously bought them, without knowing precisely how to use them, ending up angling them both sides and blocking any overtaking runners (also providing limited aid to the runner concerned). Equally as harrowing were those who didn’t collapse them when on the flat and ran around like extras from Zulu, I’m sure I was stuck at least twelve times by people not watching what they were doing.
We were soon down into the first town hating the return to concrete but loving the reception waiting for us as we approached the water station at Lavancher. Even though I was carrying a two litre bladder it was good to get a cup of cold water to cool the blood. No sooner had we left than we were climbing again on our way to the loop which designated the split between half and marathon courses at Argentiere. Crossing the bridge we glanced down at the raging water below wondering at the majestic power of nature and our struggle against it. We had just passed an incredible sight, a charity team for a French children’s hospice had rigged up a wheelchair/stretcher and had a team of four runners pulling a young disabled lad over the course, he was loving it! Everyone cheered as they went past wishing them luck.
Luckily the next section had a good bit of undulating downhill allowing us to recharge our batteries and chat with some of our fellow runners on the way. I think everyone was glad of the rest and the support from passing motorists honking and shouting encouragement from the parallel road. I’d pulled a little ahead of Gary at this point and could hear drums in the distance as I approached Vallorcine and the first food stop. It was like a huge party! The track came out into a large field where the runners were met with a quartet of excitable kettle drummers, the whole of the village and a huge line of tables covered with food! There was fruit cake, sauscison, energy bars, fruit, coke, nuts…and that’s just the table I stopped at. I’ve never been at a race where they offer food before and must admit to grabbing a little too much and feeling a little sluggish after Gary and I set off again.
From here the work really began! We rounded the corner only to see almost a wall of mountain, Aiguillette des Possettes, 2201m (857m higher than ‘The Ben’)…and we had to climb it. Gary turned to me ‘’you do realise we paid someone to let us do this!’’ The race slowed to a crawl as a long line of runners slogged up the switch-backs. It was time to dig deep, keep calm and carry on. I was glad of my South Downs training, which even allowed me to start overtaking. Gradually the path cleared as we approached the summit and passed the cable car (now why hadn’t we thought of that). We stopped at the Col water stop to stock up and grab a glass of coke (flat coke is a long distance runners best friend, a good shot of sugar for a quick shot of energy) whilst enjoying a very French accordion player complete with beret. After a few minutes of scrambling we were on the summit absolutely flabbergasted by the views to either side of the ridge, the worst was over…which was only brought into stark contrast when we heard that Kilian Jornet had just finished and we were only just over half way!
The descent was great; I revelled in the challenge of finding my footing as I bounced off rocks on the way down. My minimalist shoes really helped me to keep a loose style and speed up, passing loads of people on the way down (though those using trekking poles for the downhill (!) were getting really annoying). It was great feeling the altitude drop away as I ploughed downhill. I even spotted the ‘robo-cam’ high overhead, a camera attached to a remote control helicopter which was filming for the race video. The route now swung back into Argentiere where the crowds were still out offering encouragement, we were met with cries of ‘Anglais!’ which led me to wonder whether we were that obviously English… until I remembered the union flag I’d pinned to my race bag! Straight away we began the climb back out onto the northern side of the Chamonix valley, stopping off at the second food station to let Gary catch up again. I was starting to chafe quite badly so had to duck behind a cabin with the Lanocane to make the next stage bearable. I had however learnt from Vallorcine and didn’t take as much advantage of the free food.
By this time the sun was rapidly disappearing as the predicted cloud layer descended on the valley. I was glad of my merino as we plunged into the damp mists pushing up the steep forest paths. We’d managed our effort quite well by this stage and crept up the rankings as we passed others who’d slowed to a trudge. The hardest but most exciting parts of this stage were when we crossed the bolder fields springing from one rock to the other whilst being painfully aware of the sheer drop to our left. Luckily the organisers had got the local mountain rescue posted at the danger points. We hit one point where there were three of them out in the drizzle helping runners over a set of steps which had disappeared (vibram doesn’t grip well in the wet, worse luck), though one had the foresight to hide in a dry alcove and smiled as we ran past.
The last twelve km were a struggle purely because we could not see anything ahead of us and had to trust our gut in judging the effort required. The final hundred metres up to the last aid station were nearly vertical with a crowd on either side shouting the competitor’s names as they clawed up. ‘’Bon courage Mathieus!’’ ‘’Yay Garee!’’ We’d gotten used to the French pronunciation of our names. It reminded me of my pilgrimage to Santiago where I ended up being called Max most places because not many of those I met understood Matt.
Five km to the finish, we could hear the loud speakers! From the pictures we’d seen all we knew of the finish was that it was uphill after a sharp left turn. The sounds and cheers were getting definitely getting closer, a left turn!’’ Is this it?’’ ‘’One more push!’’ ‘’Damn, wrong turn!’’ This happened a good five or six times before the crowds started to appear out of the mist. This is it, it’s within our reach. I turned to Gary, ‘’let’s finish strong, got enough for a sprint finish? Over the top to win!’’ The crowds roared in our ears, our legs burned, we were out of breath pushing to the max! The medals are in view, our pace quickens, the burn, the feeling of success as we cross the line… now where’s that beer tent?
1529 & 1530 out of 2,030 entrants, 1,749 of which finished.
Job Done! - 8 hours, 2 minutes, 03 seconds
Matt - Rohan Winchester