by Aoife Callan
“The Mountains are another world: they are less a part of the planet and more a separate kingdom, unusual and mysterious, where the only weapons for adventure are willpower and love”
Gaston Rébuffat “Snow and Rock “1959
Nothing can prepare you for the spectacle that is Marathon du Mont Blanc. The marathon is just one of the events that take place during the 3-day trail running festival, held in one of the Meccas of the sport; Chamonix. The festival includes a youth marathon, a 10k, 23k ,42k, 90k, a 17km night run and of course the notorious KM Vertical (3.8km). Over 10,000 runners representing 80 nationalities arrive in Chamonix for the weekend, creating an incredible atmosphere. Seeing is believing.
The little town of Chamonix has hosted the event every June since 1979, when Georges Costaz (who has himself taken part in one of the races every year since the beginning) established the festival. The events attracted some of the world’s most remarkable mountain runners; like Kilian Journet, who ran the 42k on Sunday 1st July and after returning from injury, still managed to win the race in sub-4 hours. Also running were Thibaut Baronian (who I also lined up with in the Gaelforce mountain run in March) and Sage Canaday – whose YouTube Channel I am huge fan of- to name but a few. The race had a hugely competitive field in both male & female categories, and to say I was on the start line with some of these guys is an incredible feeling.
It’s very rare to have the perfect race build up, and even more rare to have the perfect race-especially when it comes to the unknown, a course that involves 2,780m of height gain and 1,750m of decent as well as being relatively new to mountain running. I was forewarned that nothing in Ireland will prepare you for the climbs in the Alps. Now it’s safe to say I never shy away from a challenge, but on arriving in Chamonix and just looking around at the incredible mountains surrounding me, I did feel a bit overwhelmed and a little apprehensive. Thanks to an Ultra in the Mournes at the beginning of the month, I was also going into this race with a grade 2 ankle sprain, which required an X-ray just 3 weeks previous. I hoped I wasn’t asking too much of myself this time.
As a result, I was lucky to even be on the start line. So, I went into the race wanting to embrace the experience, just to finish rather than race it, and to take in the incredible atmosphere and spectacular views with a smile; after all, I may never get the opportunity again. Entering the race involved pre-registering in October 2017, and a lottery system was used to decide the lucky (or unlucky, depending on the way you want to look at it) participants in early November. Of course, I was one of the lucky ones!
The race started in the centre of Chamonix at 7am. The eager competitors started arriving from 6am onwards, so I got into my start position at 6.30am, learning from previous race reports that the first 6-10 km is the widest and flattest. Therefore, a good start to avoid bunching was part of my race plan. The elite athletes joined us about 10 minutes before the start for our race briefing. This involved a run-down of our mandatory kit (which all competitors had to carry to avoid a time penalty) as well as a warning about inspections, which we were told could be carried out at any of the aid stations. What I found funny was that this inspection was actually carried out at the end of the race, when I was asked to present my emergency blanket on the one day you would never have needed it- with the temperature hitting 32° in some of the valleys!
The countdown started on the clock and as 7am hit, we all headed off together to the sound of AC/DC’s Hells Bells. The buzz from the supporters was indescribable, and in that moment, I was running through the narrow streets of Chamonix, not knowing if I wanted to cry or burst out laughing.
The course winds its way up the valley over some relatively small hills for the first 10k. I started out a little too fast for my legs liking and seeing as I had very little running done in the previous 3 weeks, my legs and injured ankle felt very stiff. To be honest I felt like they went into shock, but I tried to relax as much as I could and slow things down. I learned from experience it takes me a good 8-10k to relax into a comfortable stride, so I hoped the same would happen today, or else it was going to be a very long day out.
Thankfully I did manage to relax; however, from 10k onwards the course starts to head into narrow forest paths and begins to get congested, so the pace slowed down dramatically. I reached my first pit stop as I arrived at the village of Vallocrine 18k in, which was fully stocked with an assortment of meats, local cheeses, cake, fruit (dried and fresh), jellies and water (sparkling and still), manned by very friendly and helpful volunteers. I was feeling pretty good at this stage and didn’t hang around too long at the station, so I refilled my water bottles, added my Tailwind to my water (which replaced gels as my energy source) and headed off again. After Vallocrine is where the real climbing began. Coming out of the town I was met with supporters lining the first hill on either side, ringing Swiss cowbells and shouting “Allez, Allez, Allez Oh- Fee!!” (this is how my fans decided to pronounce my name, which was on my race number!). A lot also mistook the Irish flag to be the Italian one, so I was getting a lot of “Allez, Allez Allez Italia!!” as well! However, I was quick to correct them with “Je suis Irlandais! “(I knew my Leaving Cert French would come in handy at some stage!). After that, the crowd started to thin out and we were left to tackle the 941m climb to Aiguille des Posettes. We were greeted halfway by an aid station, and a one-man band banging out some Elvis tunes on the back of a trailer. I was still feeling pretty ok at that stage so just refilled my water. I made sure I was fully stocked, feeling the heat of the late morning starting to intensify.
Following that, the descent began. It featured approximately 800m of extremely technical terrain, sharp rocks, tree roots, and narrow winding paths. This is when I started to fear for my ankle, the nervousness making my body tense up. Each step was vibrating up through my body, and my fear wasn’t helped when we were stopped by a marshal. We were held up as a helicopter was airlifting a runner off the mountain, which made me even more apprehensive-and worse, it created more congestion on the route down, with runners all around overtaking me at high speed. This made it hard to concentrate on simply not falling head over heels or worse, going over on my ankle again.
I was never so glad to get to the bottom. I could feel now that my knees, ankle and hips had taken a serious beating. I hit the aid station at 30km and took a little while longer here, refilling my bottles and make sure I had enough fuel. I was really beginning to feel the heat and so seemed everyone else. Looking around me I saw a lot of fellow runners filling their hats with water and throwing them over their heads to cool themselves down! I was delighted to have my cap to do the same thing. I gathered myself again and headed off to the cheering and clapping of the supporters, and I have to say the crowds really made you feel like some sort of superstar. So, I tried to at least look like a superstar as I passed by!
I reached just over 31km in under 5 hours, which I was relatively pleased with. A quick glance at my watch showed an elevation gain of just over 1600m, showing I still had 1200 m to climb in the final 11k! This deflated me a little as I did secretly hope for a sub 7-hour finish, maybe even closer to 6 and a half hours in my own mind. I knew this was just not going to happen now, as the heat was really beginning to take effect.
The last 12.5km of the course (which ended up being 43.85km by the time I stopped my watch) was mostly uphill over rocky terrain. From reading a previous race report I had learned that the course was in fact longer than the 42km so I was prepared for the little bit extra, but it still tested everything I had- both mentally and physically. The heat was relentlessly beating down, and even the most bronzed competitors were taking refuge in any shaded areas they could find. I assumed they were used to this heat but obviously not. It was hard for me not to stop too, but I decided to grind it out as I knew how difficult it would be to start going again if I did. Any bit of stream or river we came to was like an oasis; thronged with people filling hats, bottles, anything to cool us down.
After the long climb to the last aid station at La Flegere, we were greeted with volunteers pouring water over our heads. At this stage I rang my brother Oliver, who was waiting for me at the finish along with my parents, Clara, my sister and her boyfriend. I let him know I was at around the 37km mark and that I was ok, but that I would be a lot longer than expected. I had to try my best to hold my composure on the phone to him, but the sound of a familiar voice made me lose it a bit. His stern words of encouragement made me settle again, while also making me realise how close I was now to finishing. Now more than ever I needed to hold it together.
I set off again with a buzz from some cola I had at the aid station, but this wasn’t to last long. The last few kilometres were on the incredibly narrow hiking trail leading up to La Plan Praz. At times I could hear the music getting closer, and I could feel the sense of relief. I looked across hoping I would see a finish, but instead I only saw a queue of people climbing the trails. My heart sank again- where was the finish?! My watch* hit 42 kilometres with no end in sight. I had to stay alert, as part of the last few kilometres contained dangerously steep drops as you ran around the winding narrow trails- not an easy task when you’re almost delirious from heat and fatigue.
I reached the patches of snow at the top and thought surely the finish had to be close now, with supporters gathering either side. I started running again, and sure enough around the next corner the Salomon gantry was just ahead, with the sound of enticing drums and upbeat music thumping out. Energy sprang back into my body and somehow, I managed to look like I had a strong finish to get in under the 8 hours – 7.57.43 being my official time, ranking 956th out of 2,300 and 90th in my age category- Female Senior.
Crossing the finish line, I was delighted to see my support crew, and judging by my mum’s embrace I think she was very happy to see me too 😊
Would I do it again? – Absolutely. However, it was the toughest race I have ever done; it took me 3 hours just to complete the final 13km, which was basically more hiking than anything else. Unfortunately, Ireland will just not prepare you for the climbs in the Alps, so if I were to get an entry again I would have to re-adjust my training, in particular more training on technical descents.
That being said, it was still the most fantastic experience, and hopefully I will get the opportunity to experience it again; at least now I will know what to expect.
*Don’t talk to me about my watch! As I finished, my watch decided to restart before it gave me a chance to save the run at all. Now any fellow runner will know of the addiction we have to our watches, so, I found myself wondering what was worse; The trials and tribulations of having actually ran the Mont Blanc Marathon, or the realisation that my watch thought I had not run it at all…