Thinking of running a marathon? Shona and Katie have just completed ANOTHER one and because marathons are a bit boring, they decided to run one in Chamonix. Chamonix is beautiful but – not flat. Not even slightly. And that makes Shona and Katie heroes in our view! You can read all about their epic challenge here:
Marathon du Mont Blanc
This year I wanted to take on a couple of challenges to raise money for a great charity called Jamie’s Farm. I love spending time in the mountains and trail running so I decided to sign up for a marathon in the French Alps. The Marathon du Mont Blanc is a big deal in the trail running calendar attracting some of the very best mountain runners from around the world (alongside decidedly more average runners like me). The race includes 3,000m (that’s 10,000 feet!) of height gain over 42km and is known for its steep, uneven, rocky descents, lung busting climbs, and narrow paths with vertigo inducing drops that would make a mountain goat tremble. Why I thought I could give it a go I have no idea!
After a friend and I secured places in the ballot we threw ourselves into six months of training, which involved many long runs in the Surrey Hills, hill sprints and of course countless sessions of BootCamp with the gang at LemonBody. I worked up to about 3-4 sessions a week in the final weeks before the race and found all the exercises with weights particularly helpful to build up strength in my legs and core. Ideally we would have done more training at altitude, great though Box Hill is, it doesn’t prepare you for the reduced oxygen levels of the Alps!
This was going to be hard enough in average weather conditions but thanks to a pretty obnoxious heatwave across France, race day temperatures were forecast to get up to the late thirties. Arriving in Chamonix a few days before the race, we wandered about town in the scorching heat and began to get very apprehensive about what was to come.
At the Start Line
On the day of the race, we gathered at the start line at 6am together with 2,344 other runners who were shouting along with the countdown clock excitedly in French. Before we knew it we were off, running past huge crowds of supporters in the centre of Chamonix and then making our way through woodland alongside a fast moving river at the base of the valley. It took a while for me to get into a rhythm and control my breathing properly but as soon as we hit the first incline, my legs told my lungs to quit whining as they had far worse to contend with! We continued on undulating terrain for the next few kilometres, staying on forest paths or crossing wide meadows surrounded by looming mountain tops – all the time in the shade and enjoying the cool of the morning. When we arrived at the first rest break at 17km, my legs were feeling good but the terrain was about to get much tougher. We said goodbye to friends who had been supporting us as due to the inaccessibility of the rest of the route we wouldn’t see them until the end, and began the 4km climb to the top of a peak called Aiguillettes de Posettes, knowing we had to gain over 1,000 metres (3000 feet) in height to get there.
At the base of the mountain there was a noisy group of drummers helping everyone to keep moving as runners snaked up the mountain. There were big crowds of supporters too, pushing everyone on with encouraging shouts of ‘allez, allez, allez’! The pace was slow and the path narrow, and it was impossible to overtake so we gradually trudged up the wooded path with the drums and cheers getting more distant until there was no noise but the eerie sound of hundreds of people breathing heavily around us. We continued this winding path for some time and as we reached the edge of the woodland to continue up a rocky track to the summit we were hit by the full blaze of the sun, it was still early but already the temperatures were unbelievably hot. The blissful shade and cool air were over! The remainder of the ascent in the sun was tough and we were very relieved to eventually get to the top.
Nearing the top of Aiguillettes de Posettes
At the summit we quickly forced down as much food and drink as we could manage and began the long descent into the valley. Naively, I was looking forward to this bit, a nice long cruise downhill I thought. I hadn’t anticipated on the sun beating down on our heads and the terrain being so dusty, hard and uneven underfoot which made a fast descent pretty hazardous. Some of the rocky drop-offs in the path were so big I had to get onto my bum to jump down them, it was all a bit of an effort and we weren’t able to gain nearly as much ground as I thought we would at this stage.
After a lot of swearing and near ankle breaks we eventually got to the bottom and arrived at a little village where the locals were cheering and enthusiastically throwing water over our heads from nearby water tanks. We only had another 10 kilometres to go and I was feeling tired but in fairly good shape. Then followed undulating trails until we reached the beginning of the final steep ascent to a peak named La Flegere. This was the hardest 8 kilometres I have ever experienced. The heat was unbearable (temperatures had reached 37 degrees!) and there were long periods where we were completely exposed to the full intensity of the sun. I was drinking so much water (by the end I drank nearly 8 litres) but was continually thirsty. Every time we saw a stream or a waterfall we and other runners were throwing ourselves into the water, filling our caps up and putting them back over our heads. Exhausted looking racegoers were dropping out all the way up, sitting down to put their heads in their hands and desperately find a corner of shade somewhere. It was brutal! Halfway up I completely ran out of water and I knew we had another 45 minutes or so until the final rest stop so I was just going to have to get by without. After what felt like an eternity we eventually reached the aid station where kindly volunteers gave us cold sponges and poured water on our heads and I was finally able to quench my thirst.
The last 5 uphill kilometres were a daze, consisting of narrow paths winding round a wide valley with very steep drop-offs. I had little control over my weary legs so it was a miracle I managed to stay on the path as I tripped and stumbled all over the place. When we began to hear cheering from the finish line from the other side of the valley it was hard to keep emotions in control, we were desperate to finish, every time someone shouted my name or words of kindness I felt teary – which was not helping hydration levels! Finally we reached the brow of the hill and saw the winding track up to the finish line. It was great to see our friends and they ran a short way cheering us on until the final 20 metre steep ascent to the end. I’ve never been more relieved to finish a race. We wanted to do it in 6 or 7 hours but in the energy zapping conditions, 8.5 was the best we could manage – joint 1,474th out of 2,344 of the world’s best trail runners – we did ok. It was the toughest race I’ve ever taken part in but the atmosphere was amazing and the scenery stunning. I’m obviously never going to run again … but then again it would be great to try it when there wasn’t a heatwave so. So maybe next year!
Thank you to LemonBody for sponsoring me and to all those wonderful people who helped me exceed my target funds to give to my chosen charity; Jamie’s Farm.
Captain Felix Deer joined the Army in 1985 and served in a number of Training Officer roles, qualifying as a Unit Fitness Officer in 1986. Since leaving the Army in 1994, Felix has sold property, built houses and flown airliners for a living, but has always maintained his keen interest in Fitness.