Here at Sports Tours International we love providing fantastic trips to some of the world’s best running events for our customers to enjoy. Sometimes, we even get our trainers on and have a go ourselves. One of our team and keen fell runner, Ross, ran the 2018 Marathon du Mont Blanc and thoroughly enjoyed the race. In this blog Ross tells us about his experience of running this iconic race. So over to Ross…
The UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) might be Chamonix’s most famous series of trail running races, but there is another and they started life way back in 1979*. Marathon du Mont Blanc races are not only easier to get into but also easier to complete! (Although they are still a very tough set of races.)
*The actual Marathon du Mont Blanc was first held in 2003 although the event, albeit with a shorter 23km race, has been run since 1979.
Visit Chamonix to race or support someone who is racing, during the end of June (Mont Blanc Marathon) or at the end of August (UTMB), and you’ll quickly feel part of the world’s trail running family. Once you’ve experienced one of these events, the thought of missing out the following year can be too much to bear.
I’ve quite a long history with the Chamonix valley and it has nothing to do with skiing. When I first discovered the great outdoors in the early 00’s I walked the Tour du Mont Blanc in the summer of 2003 and then returned to have a go at climbing Mont Blanc the following summer. I never managed it as we had 10 days of terrible weather and only 12 days to make an attempt! So while there was a blizzard on Mont Blanc we ran instead and having never run on alpine trails before, (all my off-road running had been in the Peak District or the Lakeland Fells) it was a great experience.
I was then lucky (or unlucky) enough to see a video of the 2005 UTMB. There and then I decided I wanted to do that so much! So I successfully trained for and completed the 2007 UTMB. Wow, what an experience and the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point in my life. Because of this experience I became absolutely addicted with European trail running and the UTMB. I made the pilgrimage again in 2008 (unfortunately my first ever DNF), 2009, 2011 (TDS) and 2012 (bad weather course). I’d only missed 2010 because I was on the other side of the world. My final outing to date was in 2015 and almost straight after that I completely swapped running for riding (a bike).
Early this year I realised that I really missed the fell racing scene in the UK and I really missed the trail races in Europe. Time for a mini come back!
So what to do? There was absolutely no way I could return to UTMB, never mind the distance, I had zero ITRA points!! I then remembered, I have friends who go out to Mont Blanc Marathon every year, so I asked them why. They gave me exactly the same reasons as to why I kept returning to the UTMB. It has tough challenging routes (across distances from 90km to 10km plus kids races), a fantastic inclusive atmosphere, the opportunity to be in the same race as the world’s best trail runners, amazing support, Chamonix is a fabulous setting and if you don’t go you are going to feel like you are missing out.
So my wife and I did the easy bit and entered the Vertical Kilometre (VK) and the Marathon (42km). Now time for the running and race plan to make sure we’d get to the start line as race fit as possible. So we got straight back into Long and Super Long fell races in the Lake District and I slowly started to feel like a runner again.
We arrived in Chamonix on Wednesday evening before the race weekend and went straight to our favourite restaurant (Omeletterie La Poêle) for tartiflette. It felt exactly like the first night when coming for the UTMB with hundreds of fit looking runners in couples, families and groups everywhere, all here to compete (or to support enthusiastically). It was the same exciting beginning to our running holiday with the bonus that the tartiflette was even better than previous years!
Thursday we were straight out to recce the VK climb as we’d never been up that way before. Once at Plan Praz we reversed the Marathon route to La Flegere and then relived the final descent of the UTMB back to Chamionx. It was great to be back! I’d definitely recommend having a look at the VK course, even if you take the cable car to Plan Praz and descend the route for a couple of hundred metres before returning to the top, climb the sections with the iron steps and cables. It’s nothing to worry about, but seeing it for the first time mid-race isn’t recommended.
Probably the most switchbacks I’ve done in 1000m!
Hanging around on Friday for the start on the VK is much easier than waiting for the UTMB, however the individual starts and your face on the big screen as you line up are a bit of a shock. However the VK is an amazing experience and it doesn’t matter how fast you are, I’d recommend it to everyone. Just to be part of it and experience an uphill only race, with a cable car back down is a great event to participate in.
On Saturday we decided to rest the running legs by biking up to Lac d’Emosson which the Tour de France visited in 2016. It’s also a checkpoint on the 90km du Mont Blanc and when we looked towards Chamonix from the lake it looked a very long way away (Kudos to anyone who’s completed that!) It was super hot on the climb, however I always believe the more you push yourself in the heat the better you acclimatise to it (as long as you are able to re-hydrate).
Race day: It’s an early start – 7am. But it’s one you are thankfully of, if it’s hot (which it was – at least the first 17km along the valley are cool as the sun isn’t up yet). It’s a great atmosphere on the start line and one that I actually got involved in! For once I wasn’t worried about conserving energy for a day and a half of non-stop running! For a fell runner the first 17km to Vallorcine are flat and therefore too fast (and if I’m honest a little bit boring). But once you leave the border town, the route is amazing as it’s almost always either going up or going down – just like a fell race! It’s important not to burn too many matches over to Le Tour as once you reach the Aiguilles Rouges it’s always a surprise just how rough it is (descending is almost as slow as ascending!). Also make sure you fill both bottles in Le Tour as the next climb can be super hot.
Once on the Aiguilles Rouge, it’s really important to keep drinking and eating in the heat, especially if you feel sick. It’s also worth being prepared for the distance to move much more slowly than during the rest of the race. It’s hot and rough, and therefore covering distance takes much longer. Plus my Suunto tracked 27.2 miles, so it’s a full mile longer than I expected! I loved the descent before the climb to Flegere, it was pure rocky fell running and something that I always really enjoy. Getting to Flegere is a big achievement and although you can’t quite light the afterburners yet, you are finally getting near the finish.
I found the last couple of miles really hard (as most do, I think) as the gradient is one you’d probably easily be able to run on any training run, but at the end of this race I couldn’t, I was definitely shuffling/walking. The spectators and supporters start to become more numerous across the final combe, so it’s nice to get some cheers and the hard work on this side of the valley is finally rewarded by one of the best trail race finish vistas.
At the finish there is free artisan beer, which actually still tasted good from a Salomon soft flask (which I used as they only had tiny cups), the medal is pretty cool and the cable car straight back into Chamonix which means a short walk back to the hotel is most welcome. It’s a tough event, we were absolutely spent and could only manage a stagger to the local take-away pizza place that evening. It’s a really tough race, but then when I look back on my races the toughest always seem to be the best! Overall we had a fantastic weekend, but will I return next year? I still don’t have enough ITRA points for UTMB so I think the answer is yes, but perhaps the 90km next year.
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