I was heading into Marathon du Mont Blanc with the mindset that it would be the most serious and competitive run of my career thus far. Many believe that Golden Trail Series races are the most competitive of the marathon or shorter trail races around, they are ‘the only races that count’. Having not done one before, where did this leave me as a trail runner? At best in the ‘still needs to prove himself’ category.
So, for me this was serious…and I took it seriously. I trained especially for this race, planned specific training races and sacrificed more fun training for more specific sessions. I generally became more of a stereotypically focused athlete than I have ever been before.
Having built the race up like this in my head I wasn’t so much nervous that I wouldn’t win, more that I wouldn’t do myself justice, or at worst, embarrass myself and be proven a fraud. To make matters worse training had gone really well, I had worked on my biggest weakness, uphill speed, and could see the improvement in training. I even believed the course suited me, so to not execute how I thought I could would have been very disappointing.
The route is near enough exactly a marathon and climbs around 2500m. It can be split cleanly into 4 parts. The first, an undulating but gradual climb from the start in Chamonix up to Le Tour – 13km 700m climb. The second is up and over Posettes – 10km with 700m climb then 900m descent. The third a mixture of climbs and small descents to Flegere – 11km with 1000m of climb. The fourth a flat section before the final descent back to Chamonix – 8km 800m descent.
The start didn’t feel fast but then I think that just meant I was in for a good day. Wanting to run my own race I ended up between the leading pack and the favourites such as Magnini and Bonnet behind. On the small climbs I would drop back a little, on any small downhills I would catch up a bit.
Coming into the first aid station I was feeling in control but could already tell that the fresh feeling in the legs had faded and stuff was about to get real. To do the next climb and descent well would make or break my race, but I had the plan to take the climb controlled and not burn too many matches. After only a minute Remi comes flying by and I say to myself ‘ok, forget the plan, let’s give it a go’. So, the effort level went up and I managed to climb well, again some 50m behind the lead pack but not losing the minutes I thought I might.
Rolling off the top I figured no one would keep with me on the descent. I didn’t push too hard wanting to save the legs a little but surprisingly enough, I wasn’t alone. Rolling into the second aid station I was together with Robert Pkemoi Matayango and Mamu Shaku Petro.
This was the point that I wanted my legs to feel ‘ok’ even after the climb and descent as there was still half the race to go, but they felt like crap. Quads hollow and calves twinging, almost cramping…not good. But then what was I to do, I just figured I would try to hang onto the guys for as long as possible.
So, all through the next gradual climb and flats I stuck behind them waiting to be dropped. We hit the first of the final two climbs and I went back into climbing mode trying to bounce my way up without resorting to hiking…somehow, I started to stretch-out a gap. This never happens, I don’t drop people at the start of climbs. Up I go, down the next descent and up again to the final aid station and I am still leading. At the aid station I am told I have a 3+ minute gap! So now it was mine to loose, I just had to finish it off.
Trying to use the smart part of my brain as opposed to the emotional one I tried to keep my effort smooth and controlled but I still went through small spurts of speed where I convinced myself that the time gap must be a lie. Finally descending after the flat section, I am most aware that I don’t want to do anything stupid…nearly down I come to a switchback with 4 guys standing there, one with a bike and a camera for the live stream. I look up, see them, catch a toe, and am sliding headfirst towards them. Picking myself up I was just a bit scratched and had a right calf that was locked with cramp. Figuring it would loosen up I continued heading down and finally reached Chamonix, the amazing crowds and the long-awaited finish line.
Crossing the line, I laid down, looked up at the clouds and a few planes moving across the sky and breathed a sigh of relief. It was over and the race could not have gone any better.
Great photos by: Jordi Saragossa, Philipp Reiter and Martina Valmassoi.