We arrived in Chamonix on Thursday 22nd June as Warren was to take part in Friday’s Vertical Kilometre race before we both embarked on the Marathon on Sunday. I have never been to Chamonix before and this is certainly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Chamonix rests at the base of a valley with the Red Mountains on one side and Mont Blanc Mastif on the other.
Warren registered for the Vertical KM (with an overall distance of 3.8KM / 2.4 miles) and was given a start time of 16:15 hours. The start was a time trial, with the slowest going first based on each competitors estimated time. The first mile was runnable with a slight incline, but nonetheless took 17 minutes, the second mile was nothing short of brutal with non stop climbing and with the aid of ladders, ropes and a lot of scrambling, took a total of 33 minutes. Finishing in a time of 1 Hour and 1 minute, that was the perfect prep for a mountain marathon in less than 36 hours time, NOT!!
Following Warren’s massive achievement the day before, Saturday was a day of rest and a little sightseeing before the marathon. There is actually so much to see and do but we wanted to limit ourselves, because after all, we were there to race a mountain marathon. We visited the Mer du Glace (sea of ice) which is an ice cave, as this is something we have never seen anywhere else on our travels. There was a 20 minute train ride up the mountain, then 5 minute cable car down towards the ice and then just to keep things easy for me and Warren the day before our race, 448 steps down to the cave entrance. Taking the 448 steps back up to the cable car gave me the first real idea of how different it is to breathe at altitude. I’ve been running up mountains in the Lake District but nothing compares to the dizzy heights of the Alps. Having visited the cave in the morning we spent the rest of Saturday relaxing back at the Chalet as I prepared my Harrier nails. The plan was to have an early night but I have to say I have never had such a restless sleep before a race. Warren was fast asleep from early on, I was too hot, then I was too thirsty, then I had an ache in my leg, all of which was in my head making me more frustrated and less able to sleep.
Our Chalet in Les Pelerins which is about a 25 – 30 minute walk into the centre of Chamonix were the race starts in front of Saint-Michel’s church. We were up at 5:50am and out the door by 6:20am. That gave us 40 minutes to trot into town, we had to jog into town as the bus service doesn’t start early enough for the race. We got about 1/2 a mile down the road when Warren pointed out we had not put any sun lotion on. It had been hot the last few days and even though it was cloudy and drizzling it was forecast to brighten up around midday. Only one thing for it, yes thats right, Warren was to run back for the sun lotion whilst I waited with his pack. I couldn’t possibly go back, that would be too long a warm up and at least I didn’t make him run back with his pack on. Warren returned with the lotion about 9 minutes later and we jogged on to the start with about 10 minutes to spare. As Warren pointed out, “Well that’s my marathon turned into an ultra,” having now done a 2.5 mile warm up, talk about melodramatic, anyway I just didn’t respond.
Warren took the lead, jumping over the barrier so that we started at the front, in and amongst the Pro’s. With over 2,000 runners the queue tailed back around the corner past were the eye could see. He always manages to get me near the front which means a clearer start and avoids all the jostling which everyone knows can lead to a trip. The music was blaring and the crowds were out in force, cheering all their friends and family, the atmosphere was immense.
The Count down from 10 didn’t help my nerves, I mean what is wrong with a simple, quick 1, 2, 3 go. The pause between each number felt like forever as now I just wanted to go. Trois, Deux, Un and we were off, through the streets and then across into the woods and a shout out, go Karen, go Warren, I glimpsed Carol and Richard and then they were gone. Through woods it was undulating, nothing too severe and an 8 and 9 minute first 2 miles but I knew what was to come, Warren had made sure I knew, he wanted me to be prepared. Along the edge of a busy road the heavens opened but it was still warm and the rain was welcomed by all. This marathon lulls you into a false sense of security with a nice and easy rolling first 11 miles. But then the climbing starts with a 4 mile ascent of over 1200 meters. Once we stared climbing it felt like forever, up and up into the clouds, you could see in front of you but nothing more, the beautiful scenery from the days before had vanished into thick grey haze.
Once at the top relief usually follows on a descent with a chance to catch up and get a quick speedy mile in but not on these descents. A sharp, steep descent, made harder by the bracken, the roots and the rocks all slimy and slippery from the rain. Warren has done this race back in 2013 and this descent had loose ropes on it back then, now replaced by wooden ledges for steps which were caked in wet mud.
It wasn’t long before once again we were on the up. From Vallorcine its a relentless steep climb up to Aiguillettes des Posettes which is 23.3km (approx 14.5 miles) into the race and stands at 2,201meters. Next comes another steep descent and by now the sun was beating down on us but the views were magnificent. At this point and a number of other points during this race there is nothing wrong with slowing slightly to take in the awesome splendour or your surroundings. The zig zag descent was technical, a balancing act between picking up enough speed but not so much that you fall off the edge as experienced by the young man in front of me. As he went round a switchback one foot slipped over the edge followed by his other foot and he managed to spin himself around and grab the long grass holding on long enough for myself and Warren to pull him back up. Going over the edge is unthinkable when there is nothing but the side of the mountain. This made me more cautious the rest of the way down and of course putting on the brakes going downhill I knew my legs would pay for it later.
The bottom of this descent took us down to around 1,250 meters were there was no time to rest, no flat but back up to Le Bechar at 1,691 meters. Once at the top there were more switchbacks on the next descent. In and out of the trees and by now I really needed the shade. The problem with the shade was the tree roots because now I was feeling tired and concentration and focus was in order but left me as I stumbled a few times before ending up on my backside. To be honest everyone knows its rare for me to finish a trail race without falling and I was certainly kidding myself if I thought this was going to be any different.
Then from around 33.5km the course again ascends for over 3km to La Flegere standing at 1,865 meters. This climb was so tough and its fair to say I hit my all time low. The terrain was rocky, the climb was steep and the sun was blazing. I remember asking Warren if this was the last climb and this was a huge mistake because he said “no.” This was one of those moments when you ask a question that really deep down you do not want to know the answer to and as soon as I heard the word “no” I was overwhelmed with emotion. Never during any race or event have I felt that kind of emotion, I honestly thought that I was going to burst into to tears. Then I heard Warren “stop and come here.” He wrapped his arms around me and told me I was doing amazingly and that I was nearly there. He knows I hate to give up, I’m far too competitive and so we set off again up and up to the top.
La Flegere is 36.8km into the race and from this point the race becomes undulating and as Warren kept insisting runnable. Run this bit he kept saying and this was now a run, walk, run, walk, run race. The midday sun was now being felt by all and the more fatigued I got the harder it was to concentrate on running and drinking at the same time but somehow I managed it. Mainly because I had to, I felt that if I stopped now I would not start again.
This race is brutal and this is no more so than towards the end of this race. As we were running the flattest part of this course which is undulating I said to Warren that I felt I was doing more down than up and I wasn’t wrong as the route goes from 1,865 meters down to 1,810 meters. This is all for the final ascent to the finish, yes a punishing final 2.5 km up to 2,016 meters. There were lots of spectators along the final kilometres, all different nationalities and all different ages cheering on every competitor to the finish line.
We crossed the line together hand in hand and collected our finishers medals. We then collected a cup of Mont Blanc blonde beer before meeting up with our family whose support and encouragement make any and every race that bit easier. I could not be happier with my time of 6:55:46 and I’m extremely pleased to have come 639th out of 2,091 competitors finishing 38th in my age category and 52nd female overall.
Hand on heart this is the toughest race I have ever completed and even though it hurt towards the end both physically and mentally and almost reduced me to tears, there is not one second of regret. I have only done 2 previous marathons, both flat and both Manchester last year and this year. So yeah, you may think I’m insane but you only get one life and it should be lived to the full. The magnificent beauty that Chamonix has to offer is unbelievable. For me this was a chance to combine my love of running with my love of nature and the beauty the world has to offer. This is why I love off road running and why I can’t wait for my next challenge. To be continued…………