The Bear Went Over the Mountain.... And Back to Chamonix

| No Comments


Two days ago I ran the Marathon de Mont Blanc. The best word for this experience is humbling. There is always something humbling in the experience of a human being facing off against a mountain. And there is definitely something humbling about crossing the finish line of a marathon after eight hours of effort. Most importantly, though, was the thoroughly humbling experience of feeling myself carried through the toughest portions of this race by the love and support of my wife and my running brothers and sisters of Run Dem Crew. While it was my Vibram-clad feet that covered the actual distance, it was the strength that I drew from my supporters that kept those feet moving. So maybe I should start again...

Two days ago Suzanne, my fantastic wife, along with my amazing extended Run Dem Crew family (which includes my Energylab BTS coach and training partners) carried me to the completion of the toughest thing I have ever taken on in my life, the Marathon de Mont Blanc. I am humbled and honoured to have had this opportunity. And I am deeply thankful to all of you who were there with me in one way or another along this journey.

When Barbara, my coach, first suggested this race to me I took one look at the altitude profile, and thought her mad. Then she promised that if I signed up she would run it with me, and would help convince some others to join us. Well, that didn't quite work out. I registered, but everyone else waited too long and found the race filled up. Suzanne tried to talk the organizers into opening up a couple of additional spaces, but they were unyielding. Then I thought about forfeiting my entry fee and not running. Or dropping down to a shorter race. Then I got stubborn. I decided that I was going to do this. I was wrong. In the end, we did it (and y'all know which of you I mean when I say 'we' right?).

I can't possible give you a blow-by-blow account of this race, but let me see what I can do to give you a feel for the experience. The day before the race was cold and pouring rain. Very uninspiring. Sure the weather said race day would be warm and sunny, but could I trust it? I spent some amount of time fretting about not having the right clothes, and even contemplated going shopping (always a dangerous temptation in Chamonix anyway). Fortunately race day dawned clear and warming. I had a quick breakfast, grabbed my pack, and went out to the start area (conveniently just a block from our hotel). Found the bag drop, and wandered back to await the official signal. About ten minutes before the start they mistakenly announced that we had to carry a liter of water, and I panicked, sending Suzanne back to the hotel for a bottle so I could top up. By the time she returned I had confirmed that in fact I just needed half a liter, and calm was restored.

Finally the race kicked off. Across the start line, through the main portion of town, and out into the woods. The first ten miles are mostly gentle hills, lots of forest, some small towns, a few stretches of road. Easy to get into a rhythm and cruise along, although nowhere near my road pace. The first ten miles took a bit over two hours, and thus lulled one into a false sense of progress. Because just after the twelve mile mark comes The Climb. A little over 5K to climb over 920 meters. That's close to the equivalent of climbing Scafell Peak (the highest point in Wales). This took me slightly under two hours. The whole race, by the way, is the equivalent of climbing both Scafell Peak and Ben Nevis (the highest point in Scotland). While Killian Journet may run up this portion of the trail, us mere mortals resorted to power hiking. At this point I got out my trekking poles and engaged in the toughest bit of hiking I have ever done. At the top I took a breather, ate a flapjack, and took some pictures. I also checked in on Twitter, got an amazing outpouring of messages of support, and posted a quick update. Then put my pack back on and started down.


The naive might think that one would gain lots of time on the descents. That had certainly been my thought going in. Got that one wrong. The descents were incredibly challenging. Widely varied terrain. Lots of rocks. Some number of drops of close to two feet. Steps made out of logs (covered in slippery mud!). Tough brush. You name it, we had to deal with it. I actually slipped down a few times, fortunately quite slowly. Finally the descent levelled out and dropped us at the next refreshment station. That was 6K losing about 850 meters of altitude, and taking close to an hour. I took on some more water. Ate some orange pieces. Drank a little Coke. And got a vital infusion of encouragement both on Twitter and via texts from Suzanne. By this point I was feeling quite battered, and really needed the encouragement to be able to keep going.

The next stretch wasn't as physically difficult, but was mentally very challenging. Starting out feeling somewhat worn down, and definitely feeling the affects of altitude, and going right back into another large climb, this time a mere 530 or so meters of ascent. This stretch took close to two hours. To go about 10K. That climb ended up at a refreshment station at Flegere. I had needed several stops along the way to stop and breathe in lots of extra air to get enough oxygen into my system. And I was just about out of water when we hit the aid station. Not a good feeling. I happily topped up my reservoir, ate some more oranges, had a bit of fruitcake, and a little more Coke. And got one more vital infusion of Crew Love over Twitter. That short break to sit down and read my messages completely changed me from feeling battered and worn to feeling ready to go and finish this race off.

After Flegere we started off picking our way downhill, with some stretches of running. Then hit another climb. Just when I was starting to despair that it would be uphill the rest of the way the trail turned and I got in one last stretch of slightly faster movement. Near the end of this stretch I got a huge shout out from Simon Freeman and Julie Kummer who were waiting for me along the trail. Their shout got me up a small incline. I asked Simon if it was about 2K to go. He looked at me, pointed onwards and said 'Free beer, 25 minutes, get in!' So in I got. One last downhill, around a corner. And there is the cruelest part of this course. The last 1.6K includes nearly 200 meters of climb. Thoroughly demoralising. I was pushing on as best I could when Dommy Racer came barreling down with a yell, put a comforting hand on the back of my neck, and told me that Suzanne and Linda were waiting for me right at the finish. Boy did I need that! I just dug in, kept the legs moving, and was so happy to finally see my smiling welcoming committee! Another hundred meters, nothing left in me but just the ability to walk across the line, and then tremendous relief. I got some more Coke, sat down for a bit and chatted with my fabulous supporters. Then went and got some chocolate and beer. Final time: 8:00:25.



The Gear

For this race I ended up using some interesting variations from my usual kit, and I thought it would be useful to talk a little about what I ended up using, and how various items performed. Let's go from foot to head. I wore my Vibram Spyridon (mine are the green ones). Absolutely no complaints. This was the first marathon I ran without socks, and my feet were in pretty good shape at the end. A couple of minor sore spots from stepping on some larger rocks, but no blisters, no bruises. I got asked a lot of questions along the route, mostly of the incredulous 'are you okay wearing those?' variety. My response throughout was to smile and say yes. After over 3500 K my feet are tough. I have zero regrets about running this race in Vibrams.

My running shorts and pants (Britspeak for underwear for my American readers) were my normal Under Armour base layer with a pair of Nike Gyakusou running shorts. Other than some chafing due to my idiotically failing to apply Body Glide to certain, um, areas of friction, no issues here. I like the Gyakusou because they have pockets so I could keep small things such as lip balm handy in case I needed them.

My running top was a brand-new acquisition, the X-Bionic Fennec. The marketing for these is absolutely insane. To sum up, it's a piece of Swiss-engineered bio-mimickry, manufactured in Italy. It's based on the Fennec (Desert Fox) and mimics it's ability to both reflect and efficiently shed heat. And so on. Insanely expensive. But I went from cool morning, to hot sun, to cold mountain top, and my only discomfort all day was my fingers going slightly numb once I had stopped moving (something I have been experiencing more often now that I seem to have misplaced much of my body fat). I will be quite curious to see how I feel the next time I race in heat. Would I have performed better in Vienna in this top? Based on this race I would say yes.

For trekking poles I went with the Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles. I am thoroughly pleased with both this product and with the astonishing level of support I received from Black Diamond. I ordered these poles, and they ended up shipping me a different, slightly heavier, model. When I explained that I needed the poles to train for Mont Blanc, they immediately told me that they would figure out how to get me the correct poles, and told me to not just use the other ones to train with, but to just keep them. I would strongly encourage other runners to patronise this company, they get what is important to us. As to the poles, they were flawless. Very light, never really noticed the difference between having them on my pack or holding them in my hand (the pack seemed the same weight either way). The poles took a fair amount of abuse as I negotiated some of the more intense downhill sections. At one point I actually ended up catching myself with one pole as I was falling. No problem. The poles were super easy to assemble and disassemble. After my supporters, these were my biggest friends on the course.

For a backpack I ended up using an Osprey Talon 22. I'm quite happy with this pack. It took me some number of training runs to figure out how to have it sit right, and where I needed Easy Glide, but once that was sorted it kind of disappeared. I really appreciated the storage options among the various pockets, and found it really convenient to have a pocket on my hip where my phone could live (so taking photos en route was simple). The hydration simple was quite easy to use, and one could easily remove and reinstall the bladder at refreshment stops.

For a watch I stuck with my trusty Garmin Forerunner 610. Enough has been written about this workhorse by others. My main point here is that I had been concerned about battery life going into the race, and was right to have worried. In general I have never had more than an hour of life once I get a low battery warning, and during the race I got that warning about 5:30 hours in. This was with a footpod and GPS enabled, but no heart rate monitor. Fortunately I had planned for this possibility! After doing some research I ended up buying a Duracell USB phone recharger for the princely sum of £10. All I had to do was dig into one of the hip pockets on my pack, get out my normal Garmin charging cable, plug it into the charger, turn the charger on, and wait. The Garmin display goes into charging mode, but it does keep the timer and tracking running. You can just flick the charger off and then back on to check your run status and then go back to charging. And it turns out that having the charger attached to the watch while you are running was completely comfortable. I actually tested this setup on a training run, so I knew it was going to work in the race.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Daniel Maskit published on July 2, 2013 9:28 PM.

Baking the Bupa 10K was the previous entry in this blog.

Blazing Through Berlin is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.