There are two big race weekends in Chamonix, France every year for ultra running, the Mont Blanc Marathon weekend in late June and UTMB week in late August. Bookends to the big mountain ultra-running race season in Europe, both events feature races of varying distances that take runners into the mountains in and around Chamonix. My “A” race for 2019 is UTMB in late August, a 170km race around Mt Blanc that climbs over 10.000m and draws thousands of racers every year, including top professional runners, from across the world. I had heard of the Mt Blanc 90km race, the longest race of the Mont Blanc Marathon weekend and figured it would be a great training race with its 6.000+m of elevation gain over the course of the 90km on some of the same trails featured in UTMB. While its sister event the 42km Mont Blanc Marathon is generally the more competitive of the races during this week, the 90km race still draws over a thousand runners every year including many top professionals. It is also known as one of the toughest ultra-running races in the world given its exposed paths, technical trails and numerous snow crossings at altitude. A heat wave in France during this year’s race made it only that much tougher.
- Salomon S/Lab boxer, shorts, jersey & belt
- Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 shoes
- Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra Vest 5
- Suunto Ambit 3 Peak
- Black Diamond collapsable sticks
- Petzl Bindi headlamp*
- 500ml soft flasks x2
- Humma gels x10**
- Emergency Blanket (mandatory)
- Phone (mandatory)
- Extra 1 Litre Reservoir (mandatory for this year’s race because of the heat)
- Back-up lamp (mandatory)
- Cup (mandatory)
- Waterproof jacket (mandatory)
*The mandatory checklist requires you to have a headlamp with backup batteries. To reduce weight, I opted for the Petzl Bindi headlamp (which doesn’t have detachable batteries but weighs a mere 35g) and stashed an emergency headlamp with my blanket to serve as my backup. The combined weight was much lighter than going with a typical headlamp and spare battery combo. Note, however, this only gives you enough light for a few hours of darkness, which I figured would be enough for the two hours of darkness the morning of the race (0400-0600) and potentially another hour of darkness in the evening if I was still out on the course after sunset.
**After stomach cramping at Transvulcania, I decided to go with gels over Tailwind. They worked well (no stomach cramping) but I was down on calories midway through the race to the end, which hurt performance. Nutrition and fueling is still a work-in-progress.
Unlike Transvulcania a month prior, I felt prepared for this race. Overall, my running time increased by about 10% in the 4 weeks prior to the race compared to the 4 weeks prior to Transvulcania, while my elevation increased by about 40%, helping my confidence going into the race. While there is not a lot of elevation in Girona, thankfully I was able to mix in 1-2 long runs per week in the Pyrenees (Queralbs and Maçanet de Cabrenys) along with my regular runs from Girona. I arrived in Chamonix on Monday prepared mentally and physically and with a few days to relax, prep my gear and preview parts of the course.
The race started at 04:00 in the morning on Friday so I didn’t sleep much the night before the race. In fact, one drawback of arriving so early to the race and having so much free time meant that most nights I couldn’t fall asleep, awake with excitement and anticipation for Friday’s race start (I was ready to go!). No matter, I’m sure most people were in similar situations the days leading up to the race, and the morning of when I syncronized multiple alarms to sound off at 5 minute increments starting at 01:45 in the morning – enough time to eat, have a cup of coffee, get dressed, double-check all your mandatory gear is in place in your kit, use the restroom and walk to the start line, which thankfully for me was only a 5 minute walk from where I was staying. I got to the start line around 03:30 before the corral was packed tight and was able to squeeze through the backlog of runners up to the front just behind the partitioned section designated for the pros. I still think one of the coolest things about running these races is you can line up next to the top professionals in the world.
The streets slowly came to life as we sat there with other runners making their way to the start line along with spectators, friends and family of the runners. An lively and abnormally awake older gentlemen with a cow bell stood just in front of the start line wearing a very “French” looking farming hat that drooped around his head as he rang his cowbell to bring us all to life as we sat there tired and focused on the 90km we were about to run. As we approached the final seconds to 04:00, the older man disappeared and the announcers took to the speakers for a brief runners’ meeting. Shortly thereafter, the corral of 1.000+ runners, now standing at attention, pushed and squeezed forward to the start line as the countdown in French began and with an “un” we were off.
At Transvulcania, I started in the front with the pros and stayed with some of them for the first few kilometres but paid a price for it soon after that. I decided to start out “easy” for this race and make steady progress over the course of the race rather than going backwards, my goal to finish strong and in a best-case scenario finish in the top 50. This strategy made sense on paper but didn’t account for the fact that the flatness and “easy” kilometres for the first 2-3 kilometres preceding the 1.400m ascent up single-track to Brévent at 2.471m (this being the longest climb of the race). Unfortunately for me, others did take this into account such that when the race started, almost everyone shot out like a bullet to make the most of what these “easy” kilometres would offer. After dropping probably 50-100 positions in the first kilometre I decided to match the pace of the people around me so I wouldn’t lose any more positions, while making sure I remained relaxed didn’t put out too much effort. While I left the start line somewhere in the top 50, by the time we made our way onto the single-track to start the first big climb of the race, I was back around 150th place – not part of my plan.
When we hit the climb, my legs ready for some “powerhiking” (a term ultra-runners like to use to spice up what others might call “walking,” albeit as fast as you can uphill). Unfortunately, many of the people who gassed it out of the start (and pushed beyond a comfortable pace?) were now catching their breath and slowing. I spent the next 60 minutes passing people anyway I could up the climb, which made for some interesting and exciting moments in the dark on a single-track trail with a fairly steep reveal to the side of the trail. While it was a lot of fun passing so many people in the moment, unfortunately, it was not super efficient. In these types of races you want to be as efficient as possible and expend as little energy as possible and there I was jumping around people left and right (looking back I would have started out fast and held my position from the start to the single-track). After about an hour of this, as the sun began to rise over the Alps, I had moved my way up to about 50th place and could finally start to relax, calm down and focus on my own race. I knew we had a long way to go and I needed to settle in for a long, hot day as the temperatures were unusually warm and were expected to exceed 36 degrees Celsius. There were a few snow crossings as we approached Brévent at 2.471m before starting our first descent down to Planpraz. I didn’t use my sticks on the ascent but pulled them out for the snow to be extra careful I didn’t slip and twist a knee or ankle. There was a fair amount of glissading the first few hundred meters of the descent but soon after the snow cleared and we could open it up as we made our way down to Planpraz. I tried not to bomb the downhill too fast and instead maintained a comfortable effort. I came into the Planpraz aid station at kilometre 12,6 in a little under 2 hours elapsed time from the race start in 54th place.
From there, we continued a descent for another few kilometres before some “up and down” sections (basically mini ascents/descents), a climb to Tête aux vents at 2.133m and then a long descent to Le Beut at 1.347m at kilometre 27,7. The first 27,7 kilometres to Le Beut I would say are the intro part of the race. At this point, you’ve completed a cumulative of 1.862 of climbing and 1.562 of descending, out of a total of 6.220, and have ticked off 27,7 of the 90 kilometres of the race. I really think you need to get to this point feeling fresh and relaxed. The hard part is definitely to come, and this year, given how hot it would get in the afternoon, I think it was even more important. I arrived to Le Beut in 44th place at 03:58:29 elapsed time from the start. Since I wasn’t carrying many calories on my person, I took my time here to eat as much as I could before leaving. I also used this time to regroup a bit mentally knowing that what awaited were 2 massive back-to-back climbs and descents, followed by an even more massive climb and descent that would bring us into Le Tour at kilometre 62,7. I knew these next 35 kilometres – from Le Beut to Le Tour – would be the biggest, most crucial part of the race. My goal was to maintain consistent, steady effort, to survive, and to see what I had left in my legs and body for the remaining part of the race.
I am glad I went into this part of the race thinking it was going to be brutal, because it was: it took me 01:10:25 to do the first climb of 600m over the 6,5 kilometres from Le Buet to Loriaz; 00:28:43 to descend the 725m over 4,4 kilometres to La Villaz; 01:13:10 to do the next climb of 684 meters over the 5 kilometres to Emosson at kilometre marker 43,6. For perspective, race winner and professional runner Xavier Thevenard did these same sections in 00:52:09, 00:21:06 and 00:55:15, respectively, gapping me over 45 minutes in these 3 sections alone. Not only were the climbs steep with loose footing in sections, they were also exposed to the sun, especially the last climb to Emosson, where you could feel the temperature rise with step you took uphill. To make matters worse, the Emosson aid station was completely without shade given the time of day we arrived, and it was hot, ~36 degrees Celcius or close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with not a cloud in the sky. A lot of the runners here were stopped with their crew, this being one of the aid stations crew could access by car. I did what I could to cool down (ate watermelon, threw water on my face, etc), tried to get in calories via Coke and whatever energy drink they had available, filled up my water flasks and then headed out. I was there a bit longer than I wanted, probably somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. If I was an 8 out of 10 at Le Beut in terms of how I was feeling overall, I was now a 4 out of 10 because of how hot I felt. I left Emosson in about 50th place in a little under 7 hours total elapsed time from the race start.
From Emosson there was a short climb before a 818 meter descent over 4,2 kilometres down to Châtelard village. I was slow on this descent and happy that only 4 people passed me on this section given how slowly I felt I was moving. I was even more happy to find an unexpected fountain at the bottom prior to the aid station that I could use to refill one of my soft flasks and to douse my face and shirt with cold water. This would become a common theme for the rest of the race: get water whenever and wherever you can (!) be it community fountains in the towns in the valleys or rivers and streams up in the mountains (while it is typically illegal and grounds for disqualification to receive aid outside the designated aid stations, given the extreme heat at the race we were told at the morning race briefing that we could get water wherever we could find it). I checked into the aid station at Châtelard village in 54th place in 07:43:51 elapsed time from the race start and feeling better than I did at Emosson, having been able to cool down a bit on the descent through the woods and with the water from the village fountain as well as at the aid station. I would say I was back to a 6 out of 10 in terms of how I was feeling as I left the Châtelard aid station and set out to begin the second biggest climb of the day, from Châtelard at 1.150m elevation to Tête de l’Arolette at an elevation of 2.333m (note: because of snow the race was re-routed slightly so we didn’t fully make it to the top). This climb started out in the woods, and while it was steep it was a relief to not be in the sun. I passed a couple people who were sitting down, visibly hot and who had succumbed to the heat. They had water so not much for me to do other than to hope that wouldn’t be me sometime soon. I “powerhiked” this section with a female Hoka runner who looked like she was probably also a 6 out of 10 (she would eventually finish 5th in the women’s division and 33rd overall). It took me 01:23:09 to reach Catogne at kilometer 53,6 and 00:30:49 to reach Col des Posettes at kilometre 57,7 for a combined time of 01:53:58 to cover those 9,9 kilometres and 1.173 meters of ascending and 356 meters of descending from the Châtelard aid station to the Col des Posettes aid station. Again, for comparison, Xavier the race winner had a combined time of 01:24:15 over this same section. I remained in 55th place at Col des Posettes in a total race time of 09:37:49. From here we began a 554 meter descent over 5 kilometers to Le Tour at kilometer marker 62,7. It was a big goal for me to get to this point. I knew that if I could make it there I could somehow manage to get to the finish line.
At Le Tour, you are ~70% through the race in terms of distance and elevation gain/loss, so it’s a big mental win to get here. Unfortunately, I had heated up again on my way to this aid station and spent a couple extra minutes in the sun for a mandatory gear check (everyone has 1 mandatory gear check; mine happened to be here). Thankfully the aid station just after the gear check was fully shaded, and I “lingered” here for a while. To be frank I was pretty out of it. Since my mind wasn’t fully “with it” I didn’t know exactly what I needed (salt, water & liquid calories) so I stood there for a bit as the aid station volunteers offered my a variety of foods and drinks to help bring me back online (after the finish, a spectator would approach me who saw me at this aid station and was ecstatic and surprised I finished the race given how badly I looked there). I felt like I was again a 4 out of 10, but in reality was probably more like a 2 or 3. I stayed here for about 10 minutes, which is the longest I think I’ve ever stayed at an aid station. Thankfully, the volunteers were awesome and helped get me out on my way.
It took me 05:02:55 to complete the remaining 28,8 kilometres and the 1.756 meters of ascending and 2.171 of descending that accompanied that distance. I managed to cool down and while it stayed hot for the next few hours, was able to regulate my temperature enough to not overheat (I remember at one point laying down directly into a stream that crossed the running trail to cool down). Another runner and I spent most of these kilometers together, keeping each other company even if we didn’t do much talking. At one point he missed a place to refill water so I gave him some of mine so he wouldn’t have to turn around. Later on he returned the favor by giving me some much needed salt tablets and ginger chews. This last section of the race – some 5 hours for me – felt more like a long meditation than a run. I didn’t have much left in the tank so to speak, so for me, it was really about going deep inside and putting my body and effort on a cruise control effort that would get me to the finish. My feet were also torn up by this point from being wet most of the race (everyone was in the same position here) so it was difficult to give it all I could on the downhills – my feet just hurt too much and my legs had no energy left. The last descent of 1.425 meters from Plan de l’Aiguille at kilometer 83,7 to Chamonix at 91,5 was as painful as the final descent of Transvulcania, which is the most pain I’ve ever felt ever. I was simply trying to survive, which was a bummer because other runners definitely had enough left in their feet and legs to at least go down at a decent pace. I got passed by 4 or 5 people in this section, which was a bit demoralizing. By this point I was now repeating the mantra “no craving, no aversion” in my head with each and every step forward I took, both “craving” that the downhill would soon be over and very much “averse” to this not happening soon enough. This section had quite a bit of large rocks and roots which made footwork here even more important, and more challenging given what little energy I had in my legs. Eventually, however, the sounds of traffic began to grow louder and louder as I got closer and closer to the valley floor. The descent felt like it would never end until all of a sudden, with a few quick and steep switchbacks, it did! I can’t describe the combination of excitement, joy and relief I felt at that moment other than those feelings moved through every part of my being knowing that the descending was finally over and only a couple kilometres of flat runnable asphalt stood between me and the finish line.
The last stretch to the finish is something I will never forget as hundreds of people on the streets of Chamonix cheered and clapped for me as I made my way into town and toward the finish line, their collective excitement pushing me faster and faster to the finish. Thankfully I still had some flat running left in my legs! Several kids ran up to me for a “high-five” and in the busier sections of the street the crowd of people would literally part just as you approached, making just enough room for you to get through as they cheered you by. It felt like something out of the Tour de France and it’s something that I will never forget and will forever be thankful for – their genuine joy and excitement for me and the other runners making their way through Chamonix.
I crossed the finish line in 15 hours, 21 minutes and 52 seconds, a little over 1 hour off my target time of 14 hours, but in 50th place overall and 25th in my division, which I imagined as the best-case scenario for me at this race. Of the 1.003 runners who started the race, only 555 finished, a testament to the difficulty of the race and this year’s unprecedented heat. Overall, I was proud of my performance and thankful for the experience. I finished safely, learned a ton, feel like I’m one big step closer to being ready for UTMB, and most importantly, left with wonderful memories that will stay with me for quite some time.
Reflections & Takeaways
- Descent Speed. I am very slow! At least compared to runners over here. Basically, if it was a descent of any meaningful distance, I was getting passed and would have to wait for a climb to make up positions. To put a finer point on this, in comparing my times to the race winner Xavier, I was ~32% slower than him, on average, on the uphill segments, but almost 50% slower than him on the descents! That was a lot of lost time. I think a lot of this had to do with “learnings” early on in my ultra-running days when I heard that going too fast on downhills would blow out your quads and expend all your energy, leaving you with nothing for the ascents. So in training I never focused on descent speed or technique and treated them as recovery times. The truth I think now is a bit more complicated. While descents do put a lot of strain on your joints and muscles, good form can minimize this (for me that means taking smaller, quicker steps to keep my weight as centered as possible versus longer steps which isolate most of the weight and force in my quads and calves). More importantly, and what folks over here make the most of, is the free energy (gravity) available on the descents. To take advantage of this and to still have energy for the ascents, you have to incorporate downhill work into your training. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, as the more seriously you tackle descending in your training, the higher the risk of injury, either from falling or general impact, but the truth is if you want to get faster on the descents, it has to be a meaningful part of your training plan. This will be a big focus heading into UTMB.
- Nutrition! I got lazy here and thankfully a cycling friend gave me a friendly kick in the rear and told me I need to get this dialed in. After Transvulcania I decided to separate my liquids and foods after a lot of stomach cramping from the Tailwind I had mixed into my water. The truth is I need to figure out how to get in 200-300 calories per hour and need to train my tummy to handle that load to maintain my energy levels over the course of a 24 hour race. Anything less and my energy levels will drop by quite a bit. The key is getting the calories I need while not over-hydrating (when it’s cool out, say at night or early in the morning, and you aren’t sweating) or under-hydrating (when it’s hot out, your sweating a lot and you need extra fluids). Decoupling your food from your drink allows you to manage both separately, but getting in 300 calories of solid food and having the energy to digest it can be quite tough – especially if that hour is during an uphill segment when you have an elevated heart rate and are using all the energy you can to keep your legs moving. I’m experimenting now with a super concentrated Tailwind mix in a 250ml soft flask with 400-500 calories that I can sip on over the course of a 2 hour period and mixing that with solid food on the descents when I have the extra energy to digest it. The liquid calories are easy to digest while the potent concentration ensures I don’t chug too much at once for thirst purposes but instead rely on my water supplies for hydration.
- Overall Volume & “Vert.” I don’t think there is anyway around the volume and vert game for preparing for these longer-distance races, especially UTMB with its 10.000 meters of ascent and 10.000 meters of descent. A big focus will be increasing my weekly volume (targeting 20-30 hours a week) while mixing in workouts into longer runs. This also means lots of vertical to not only improve my descent speed but also to prepare my feet for the pounding they will take over a 24 hour run. By the end of the Mont Blanc 90km my feet were so sore it was everything I could do to just run. Between the volume, vert and barefoot hiking with Andrea, I’m hoping my feet won’t be the limiting factor and that my overall fatigue level will decline more slowly over the course of the race. The fact is everyone slows down over the course of the race, the question is who slows down the least and how gradual is the slowing.