26th June 2015
Mont Blanc Marathon 80km
82 km, ascent between 5628m – 7735m, highest point 2645m
When I first shared this race profile, a comment I received was, “don’t worry, it only looks like that because they have squeezed it on to one page. It won’t be that steep”. I can tell you now…the third climb honestly felt that steep to me! They actually had spotters at the summit ensuring we were taking the right route and calling out below when a rock was dislodged and sent hurtling down to the runners below.
I haven’t done many 50 mile races but this must rank up there as one of the harder ones on offer. With a cut off of 24 hours and some serious climbs, it really does test you (photo below from organisers, the rest are my own)
I was alone on the start line this year so I made sure I got into town with just a few minutes to wait around before we set off to Brevent at 4am. I started much further back than I had intended and annoyingly was stuck in almost stationary congestion for 15 minutes or so half way up the climb. That was not the worst of my problems though. Almost immediately after we started, I noticed I was feeling nauseous. I hoped to shake it off but the higher we climbed, the worse it got. By the summit I was actively preventing myself from being sick. This part of the race has some stunning views, particularly as the sun rises and shines onto Mont Blanc.
I continued through the first aid station and headed to Flegere. I came off the trail at this point and found a nice hidden spot behind the telecabine to be sick (ultra’s are not glamourous but I draw the line at being sick in front of people if I can help it!) Then I sat and tried to organise myself. I had one ginger nakd bar which I took a tiny mouthful of, hoping the ginger might settle my stomach and waited for a few minutes. It was already getting warm and I was starting to panic about how sick I felt and whether I would be able to stomach any food. My breakfast of two bananas, at least what was left of it, was going to be working hard for me at this rate.
Eventually, I gathered my kit and set back off again. For the first time ever, I had decided to use poles (in preparation for UTMB) and I was hugely grateful to have them. They took a significant amount of weight from my legs which I really needed to preserve. From this section, I managed to run most of the flattish parts and the decent into Buet. This is a large aid station with lots of support, food and even a sports massage and recovery area. I was quite far back in the field and a lot of runners were sat around eating and looking rather pained. Knowing that the ‘pointy’ climb to Col de la Terrace was coming up, I decided to get out of there as quick as possible. Having eaten nothing but a few nibbles of my ginger bar, I managed a slice of bread and some coke but still felt disgustingly sick.
The next hour or so was fairly gentle and included a really lovely trail through the woods and alongside a river. Before long though it opened onto an exposed trail were I could see the Terrace in the distance, looking snowy and distant. I marched on and settled into a pathetically slow climb to the summit, stopping periodically to catch my breath.
At the top I managed another piece of bread but had run out of water with at least an hour to go until the next aid station. I fell here on some rocks, my only fall of the day luckily, but it reminded me that however tired I felt I had to remember to keep my feet up. A large section of this descent was snowy and so slippery that the majority of runners around me decided to slide down on their bums. Wearing a white and presumably see through when wet Salomon short, I opted for a faintly ridiculously looking attempt at ‘telemarking without ski’s’ to get me down.
Coming into the next aid station Emosson, I started chatting to a runner who looked very sorry for himself who told me he was thinking of dropping. He then mentioned that we were probably going to miss the cut off for the aid station. Although I’m not a quick runner, I’ve never really had to worry about cut off’s before and that really shook my confidence and worried me. I ran to the next station and grabbed some coke and a few pieces of orange before setting straight off again, determined to pick up some time. I had hoped to run this descent (we had climbed this way in the 80km two years previously) but it was wet and the combination of crumbly mud and tree roots made it hard to get into a rhythm. By the time we came out into the valley at Chatelard, I felt completely exhausted. I still felt sick and exasperated that I had reached 42km, just over half way, so late in the day. As we all had our kit checked for head torches, phones and emergency blankets, I started to wonder whether my very tired body and mind were going to make it to the end this time. I can handle injury and even push back against tired and sore legs but feeling sick and devoid of energy – it is hard to describe but you can’t aggressively fight it, you just have to accept it and try to stay positive.
The climb to the next aid station at Les Jeurs went by in a blur. The field had thinned out here and I was still feeling sick but also very empty. I had some more bread and a vegetable bouillon; they call it soup but it’s basically like drinking a salty stock. I walked off still drinking it but I remember it hitting the pit of my stomach and feeling like it was going to come straight back up again (sorry, a grim image I’m sure!) This was the second to last climb and if felt like slow motion. Everyone around me seemed to be feeling it. I would follow someone for a few minutes, then they would step to the side to have a break and I would go on. Then I would have to stop and someone else would go on. I was so hungry. Then, just before the last little climb to the summit, a song came on my iPod which perfectly matched the rate I was trying to walk. I put it on repeat probably 10 times and willed myself up.
At the top, now with no one that close in front or behind, a cheerful chap who was scanning our numbers shouted out that I was 25th women. Not exactly the most exciting place but he seemed to be genuinely happy for me and I wondered whether I ought to try and run a bit. Probably going purely on adrenaline, I managed to run the descent into La Tour. I knew that there was a flattish section between here and the last stop before our final ascent and I vaguely remembered that it was quite quick. Unfortunately, it turned out to be neither quick nor flat. I was alone, it was starting to get dark and having used what felt like all my remaining energy on the climb down to La Tour, I felt awful. I started to walk flat sections. At one point I saw what I thought was a dog running in the trees, but it turned out to be a stump. Then I thought some cars were moving towards me but they were parked. Everything inside of me seemed to be giving up. When I finally arrived at Les Bois, it was dusk and I sat down to look at our final climb to the Mer de Glace. I waited. I rang Kris to see what his opinion was. He asked me if I could run with anyone but everyone else looked in their own world. I waited. Then I decided to go. I grabbed some orange slices and black coffee and walked slowly out of the aid station.
After a minute I realised that I hadn’t put my head torch on and it was actually dark now. Scolding myself for being so stupid, I took my pack off and fumbled around with the torch. Then I saw two girls run past, chatting in English. Quickly I grabbed my kit and caught up with them. I asked if I could tag along, knowing how much safer it would be if I was with someone. It turned out they had made the same decision themselves and had paired up from the previous aid station. I was so relieved. Emma, Muriel and myself kept talking and ended up with a reasonably good pace on as we climbed up to the glacier. With the darkness and slight tunnel vision from my head torch, I started to feel quite poorly again but the conversation forced me to push it aside. Having company was amazing and I am so grateful to the girls for allowing me to hitch along with them.
We made the second to last aid station with time to spare and after another slice of orange and a quick sit down, we headed towards Refuge Plan Aguille. I had also remembered this section to be fairly quick and flat. In fact, it went on for ages. We could see the lights of Chamonix below but frustratingly climbed higher and higher towards the aid station. We passed two injured runners and minutes later the medical crews running urgently back towards us with stretchers. My head torch started to flicker and fail. It all felt a bit desperate and our conversation stopped. Then finally, we made the refuge. It was quite cold now, 1.15am and we all felt completely exhausted. We made our way down the descent with a string of runners behind us, Emma leading the way. Half way down, her legs started to ache. Unbelievably this was her first ultra (brave lady!) and although she asked us to go, we both stayed with her and walked to the bottom. It took us nearly two hours in the end but as we stepped out of the woods and into town for the final 800 meters or so, everything seemed to lift. Kris was waiting for me, as was Emma’s partner. We picked up our pace, we started to run, people started to cheer – particularly when they realised it was three girls running in together. We turned the corner to the finishing gantry and ran through holding hands. 23 hours and 12 minutes. 576th out of 1093 starters which is ridiculous considering my time. This was my first experience with stomach issues on a race and I hated it. I hate feeling sick and I can now understand why people struggle so much with it. Thankfully, with the help of two fabulous ladies, I managed to get to the end. My legs felt surprisingly good the next day but I was absolutely starving and have been eating for Britain since then!
If you have made it this far…please, please consider donating to Julia’s House here – https://www.justgiving.com/hungryrunner/ No matter how hard and horrible that run was, imagine how you would feel if you had a really poorly child. Imagine how amazing it would be to have somewhere to go with your child. Julia’s House does that. They are dedicated to helping life-limited children and their families and really need our support to run both their Dorset Hospice and build their new hospice in Wiltshire. Thank you 🙂
Number at the start : 1093 of whom 79 women (7.23% of those starting)
Number of finishers : 702 (64.23% of those who started) of whom : 46 women (6.55% of finishers ) (58.23% of those who started)
Total number of abandonments : 391 (35.77% of those who started)
Montrail Bajadas (yet to fail me- please can these be stocked in the UK!!)
Compress Sport Calf Guards
Salomon S-Lab 12 Pack
Black Diamond z-poles
Last minute Helly Hansen Visor