Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

tom mbmOn Friday, June 26, 2015, two alarms woke me simultaneously at 2:30am. Though I was tired and had only slept a few hours, I forced myself out of bed, brewed up some espresso and started sawing a baguette in half. I emptied a package of salt into a glass of clementine juice and drank it. Just after three, I clicked on my headlamp and headed out for a jog. I shuffled along deserted streets, past the normally bustling Aiguille du Midi cablecar terminal and up a dim path that would be the same final metres I would spend on trail in what would be a thirteen hour day.

C’est le Mont Blanc 80K, et je suis stoked.

Since CCC last year I’d wanted to return to Chamonix and apply the lessons I’d learnt in that race to another one with the intention of performing and placing better. For months leading up to this race I’d been training on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, doing 900m vertical repeats, faster and faster, to prepare myself for the task of climbing big hills again and again and again.

1The race began with a short uphill sprint on pavement before funneling everyone onto narrow singletrack. Knowing that once we left the streets and hit the trail each runner would more or less be locked into position until we reached the top of the first climb, I wanted to get in front of as many people as possible as early as I could. It was my aim to avoid a repeat of my race last year when I waited in line for three hours to climb a hill that should have only taken one.

The sprint up Les Moussoux was smooth and I managed to pass a number of people without exerting myself too much. We soon funneled into positions that we would hold until the top of Brevent, my face nearly buried in the heels of the sneakers in front of me as we plodded up the path. After about an hour, the first runners breached treeline. A kaleidoscopic sunrise filled the sky, spilling pastel shades across the face of Mont Blanc and allowing us to stow our headlamps. One hour of headlamp running, not too shabby, I thought, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it again.

2 3 6 After topping out on Brevent, we skidded through lingering snow and heavy choss littering the descent to Planpraz. I ran straight through this aid station without stopping, continuing my traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges uninterrupted. I had plenty of food which I intended to consume while running, so I wouldn’t need to stop until Buet at Km 26. The run across Brevent was fun and descending the precarious stone staircase to Col des Montets brought back memories of stumbling up this nearly third-class pitch in the middle of the night — cold, wet and miserable — during CCC last year. 10I pulled into Buet at Km 26, not so much to eat but to poop, which I didn’t successfully accomplish. While waiting for the outhouse, however, I managed to eat one small sandwich which was probably practical for the slog ahead. I waited about two minutes until I’d finished my sandwich, then said screw it and left the aid station.

So began the second big climb of the day to Col de la Terrasse, thirteen hundred vertical metres above us, then a descent into the snowy basin that drains into Emosson Lake. Out of the many challenges we faced during this race, I’m sure this section stands out for many runners as one of the toughest, with the added perk of being followed immediately by one of the funnest.

11The ascent began innocently. Gentle switchbacks meandered up the hillside amid a lush and pretty forest. I came upon a pinecone-rich area, gathered some in my arms and achieved in thirty seconds what I’d waited two minutes at Buet to do. I continued slogging and thought I had a good pace until first- and second-place female finishers, Mira Rai and¬†Hillary Allen jogged past and I hissed, “How the fuck… are these girls running… up this hill… right now?!”

When we broke out of treeline, the scenery became incredible, with epic views of the Aiguille Verte and Mont Blanc looming behind us. The wide switchbacks started to narrow and snake up the scree of a giant bowl towards a rocky saddle high above us. Churning through scree in my sneakers, in the blistering heat of the sun — my specialty, I said.

12 13It is often said that ultrarunning isn’t much of a spectator sport, and to the race volunteers atop 2600m Col de la Terrasse we must have looked like racing snails struggling through the dirt then freezing once we hit the snow. However, I felt like the fastest snail in our little snail arena as I picked off runners staggering, debilitated by the heat, the steepness and sustainedness of this climb.

Our paces were slow to begin with but all became slightly slower once we hit a ramp of snow leading up to a notch in the col where immense steps had been chopped, making our task of climbing it much easier. The terrain at the top of the pass was practically scrambling and we relied on arms and handholds to support us through loose rock as wobbly legs couldn’t be trusted on this section alone. The safest route through the final scramble was very deliberately marked as a fall in this area could possibly mean breaking a bone or potentially worse.

14 16I reached the top of Col de la Terrasse at 9:20am, five and a half hours into the race, astounded by the technicality of the last section, more akin to a scramble in the Rockies than what a “marathon” suggests. Nevertheless, I was now standing astride the rim of vast snowy plateau punctuated by turquoise meltwater ponds and veined by ribs of rock. The idea of this being a “trail running” race had now been thrown out the window: first I had to climb a series of rocky ledges with my hands; now I was about to glissade down a snowfield, most likely not on my feet.

17 18 19The snow was still fairly frozen but a couple inches of slush on top made all of us look a bit clumsy and uncoordinated. I galloped through trenches in the snowpack and skipped along bare stone until everything got channeled into a narrow gorge, like a black hole drawing runners down the slope, careening and sliding with increasing velocity and little degree of control.

20A short bit of downhill jogging soon brought us across Emosson Dam to the aid station which marked the halfway point in the race. I mistakenly filled my bottles with carbonated water (gross), munched another mini sandwich and put in headphones to propel me down the perilous chamois path that comprised the descent from Emosson Dam to Chatelard.

21 23 24I felt like Kilian descending the fucking Matterhorn on the few short pitches where chains and cables were installed for assistance and here I thought to myself, this isn’t a “running” race at all, even on the downhills. The form of locomotion required to move swiftly through this kind of terrain and not tumble resembles, but can hardly be called, “running”. “Goating”, let’s call it.

As I tore through the ski chalet shanty town inbound to Chatelard, a Frenchman shouted at me: “Quarante!” he said. I stopped and said, “Huh?”

“Quar-ante,” he repeated, then signed with his fingers, “Four, Zero”

I got my gear inspected at Chatelard then skipped the snacks to hustle away and secure my forthieth position. The next climb to 2000m Col des Posettes abruptly reared up in front of me and I laid hands to knees and slogged, stopping briefly for water midway, then continuing into the alpine, passing a couple dudes in the process. I began to gain ground on a runner dressed in red whose pace I matched very closely, mine only a little quicker over many hundreds of metres. This runner, Etienne and I would play leapfrog throughout the last forty kilometres of the race, losing and catching each other during our alternating high and low points, strengths and weaknesses on the course.

It was good that we happened to be together once we hit the rolling stretch from Le Tour to Les Bois, otherwise I would never have run it so quickly. Flat terrain isn’t really my jam. This was actually the tamest part of the course, and Etienne pulled ahead, able to maintain a pace my clumsy gait couldn’t support.

I jogged into Les Bois and went for some fruit as Etienne left with a gentle wave. One banana and a half later, I left the aid station amid cheers of “Run, Canada!” and prepared to take on the last big climb of the day to Montenvers overlooking the Mer de Glace.

Cue heatwaves, a desert scene, tumbleweeds, parched bones baking in the sun. Demoralized runners were splayed on the sides of the trail like casualties of war. I remember little about this final ascent besides chugging along on autopilot; painstakingly walking up grades normally easy to jog; repeatedly wiping sweat out of my eyes and wondering when I was going to develop some sort of serious heat illness, convulsing and shivering on the mountainside. All I wanted was to see that goddamn hotel, Montenvers, and thought I would never make it, until suddenly I popped out among gangs of tourists with their mouths agape snapping pictures of the Mer de Glace.

Yay! I had done it, I’d reached the top of the last hill without dying yet still had twenty kilometres left to traverse over rugged, undulating terrain, then had to plummet a vertical kilometre straight down to Chamonix. I pulled into the aid station, it was sandwich time. After a few minutes basking in the cool, shaded brick of Montenvers, I was off, en route to Plan de l’Aiguille.

Compared to the rest of the course, the run across the huge flat stones of the Balcon Nord was easy going and made easier by the prospect almost being done. I pulled up to Plan de l’Aiguille and mimed to the ladies manning the aid tent: “Do we have to go up further?”

No, they said.

“Down now?”I asked.

Yes, they said.

“YES!!!” I exclaimed as I threw myself over the crest of the hill and down the trail towards Chamonix, so far below us it looked like the surface of a planet as seen from space. And here I was about to freefall at terminal velocity from the sky to the earth, trail sneakers screeching.

3 I was surprised to catch and pass a couple guys on the final downhill yet another runner dressed in red remained just out of reach, whose speed matched my own almost precisely. This guy is pretty fast, I said, because I thought I was moving pretty fast myself. Over several minutes I struggled to catch Etienne until I was right on his heels: “Don’t worry, it’s me,” I said. “And I don’t want to pass you. You’re going too fast already!”

We finally spotted pavement and remarked how sweet it was to see. Etienne and I bounded out of the forest and off the trail I’d warmed up on thirteen hours earlier onto hard road. Applause came sporadically from random people on the street, then grew consistently as we passed the patios of restaurants and cafes. At last we entered the throngs of people packed into downtown Chamonix, all with the collective aim of watching runners finish, raving and greeting each one like a national hero, like the greatest athlete the world has ever seen.

Etienne and I crossed the finish-line side by side, thirteen hours and twenty-two minutes after departing that very spot. I had done it, I had finished an incredibly demanding race but also achieved what I eventually considered a wildly unrealistic goal of coming in 25th place.

5Last year, in my first foray in European mountain racing, I ran 101km on similar terrain and took twenty-one hours to do it, running all night and finishing in the dawn of a new day. After the pain from that race faded I vowed to try again, and hopefully not take as long as I did the first time.

Now here I was, filthy and barely clothed, sprawled on a sidewalk in Chamonix with sweaty running equipment scattered around me, nursing a cup of warm ale like it was nectar from heaven.

Like my experience in CCC, I’d occasionally entertained the idea of dropping out during this race but there was never any legitimate reason to do so. Sure, the task was difficult, tiring, hot and painfully tedious, but my body had shown its ability to chug along without respite. Leading up to this race, the real fruits of my training had become increasingly mental — mystical even. I still aimed to nail specific distances in specific times, but I achieved more by doing less. I moved faster by reducing my resistance to gravity and speed. I became like the mountains metaphysically in order to overcome them on foot.

Greatest of all was the feeling of having built something of quality, from limited background or resources, mostly curiosity about my abilities and deepening relationship with my environment.

For now, however, my body was trashed, I didn’t give a shit about the mountains and was curious only about my ability to walk four blocks so I could collapse into bed.

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Peep Movescount data for this trip here.

Peep livetrail.net data for this trip here.

Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25

14 aka gigglesI’m wandering back and forth in the French Sector of Geneva Airport, searching for the shuttle company that’s supposed to take me to Chamonix. There’s little time to waste — the moment I set foot inside my rental apartment, I intend to strip down, don running clothes, and dash off into the mountains without a care in the world. At last I find my shuttle (not in the French Sector at all), and we are on our way, flying along at nearly mach one-hundred in our minivan on the highway surrounded by bigger and bigger mountains. That is, until the biggest one of all comes into view, like a gigantic dollop of melted vanilla icecream hovering above rows of black, craggy pinnacles. I gasp: “Le Mont Blanc!

Cham is always a flurry of sensation and experience: mild culture shock; overpowering mountain scenery; fantastic food; and warm people all generally stoked about alpine sports round out the atmosphere. I intended to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter within my first or second day in town but fickle weather kept me playing at lower altitudes. One week isn’t enough time to expect to summit Mont Blanc — unless you get a perfect weather window early in the week — and then rest sufficiently for a demanding ultra a matter of days afterwards.

The moment I arrived (June 20), I sprinted up the hill to check out the first climb of the Mont Blanc 80K. The race begins in town, climbs steeply on pavement for ~5min, then funnels onto tight singletrack that switchbacks past the refuge of Bel Lachat to the summit of Brevent. I knew from my race last year that I didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of people, so I realized that if I could move quickly for five minutes at the start of this race, I’d secure a good position and be able to cruise uncontested for another hour until we reached the top of Brevent.

One notable episode of this run was crossing paths with a burly boucton (ibex), who I addressed in the same manner I communicate with Canadian goats and sheep — by blahhht-ing like a sheep at them. He simply snorted in response. Stuck-up French goats… I descended to Planpraz via the Mont Blanc Marathon route, then back to town underneath the gondi line. Woo! (2h56m/18km/1412m)

3 4 5 6 7 8 10 Screen shot 2015-07-02 at 5.49.09 PM 11 12Day two (June 21), I flirted with ideas of trying to bag Mont Blanc or Mont Buet but the weather appeared rather poopy when I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I didn’t really feel like taking the bus anywhere either, so I just headed out the door intending to slog up to the famous Mer de Glace lookout at Montenvers, then scope out the final part of the course.

My hike up to Montenvers was hot and sweaty and I greeted the cool breeze of the Mer de Glace glacier with arms outstretched. I promptly bagged Signal Forbes — at least the part where all the people stop and take pictures — looked around and said, “what next?” I looked up along the broken ridgeline extending from Signal Forbes toward l’Aiguille de l’M and started scrambling. It was very pleasant scampering up huge plates which stayed in place as I hopped and leapt between them, and offered texture via their coating of lichen. Once I reached the “summit”, I continued along the exposed ridge for awhile until I wasn’t really comfortable anymore, then headed back.

This run marked the introduction of my trail buddy/pet goat, Giggles. After marveling for ages at clouds churning off the knifeblade edge of the Drus, and clearing views of the other Chamonix Aiguilles — Grand Charmoz, Grepon and Aiguille de la Plan — we headed down and across the Balcon Nord beneath these brooding towers to get a feel for the final stretch of the Mont Blanc 80K. A trail constructed from huge, flat stones, I found the Balcon Nord pretty conducive for skipping along at a decent pace to the Aiguille du Midi midway gondola station, slash, final aid station of the race, before dropping like a stone back to Chamonix for the finish.

Giggles and I reached the top of Plan de l’Aiguille and were tempted by warm cafe ou lait and stopped to refuel before descending back to Chamonix. (I imagine this was around 20kms and maybe 1300m of climbing, but I didn’t have my watch charged.)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22My “free time” to bag peaks and such in Chamonix was constrained in a merry way by an appointment to visit two friends I know from Banff. Justine and Marion, two French twins, became acquaintances a couple years ago and we quickly became hiking buddies, poring over maps and shooting shit for hours about places to see in the Canadian Rockies. These girls were¬†crazy about backcountry hiking in Canada, and are two of the most driven and competent peak-baggers I’ve ever met. Though the effort of the previous two days hadn’t seemed too extreme at the time, I woke up on day three (June 22) with legs sore — trashed, even — so my appointment to meet up the girls came at the right time. I caught an early bus to the picturesque ski commune of Megeve, where the girls work, and we tore off on harrowing mountain roads to climb Le Parmelan, a long escarpment overlooking Annecy.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14Upon returning from Annecy and its surroundings, I had two days to kill, and while the 700m climb up Parmelan hadn’t been too detrimental, my body seemed to be taking its time to recover and feel fresh again. Hence, I mainly bummed around my apartment; skulked around shops and tried on gear; did a few last minute race things including collecting my bib; sketched the mountains from my balcony; and did typical tourist things like going up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar and visiting the cemetary… I knew from reading Mark Twight’s books what I would find there and wanted to see for myself: a bunch of young kids forever entombed in the massive of Mont Blanc. What I love about Chamonix is its lack of coddling or knee-jerk reaction to the deaths of young alpinists doing what they love. Their loss is profoundly saddening and I teared up reading many of the placards, but what is more inspiring is the celebration and support for individuals who push and challenge themselves in the mountains. That support extends to the cheering that takes place in Chamonix for every single ultrarunner coming in at ten hours, twenty hours, or twenty minutes before cutoff, in the wee hours of the morning.

15 17 18 19a 19b 19c 20With one day left, I didn’t do much besides head up Brevent via the cablecar to seek a little solitude, like Herb Elliott advises before an athletic performance. It was good to be there, clearing my head, condensing some of the thoughts that had been rolling around all week, and just being with the Aiguilles Rouges — the mountain I have the most relationship with here and the first I would have to traverse in less than 12 hours — and the Mont Blanc, so impressive across the way. Chamonix is a special place, and the Mont Blanc massive has an aesthetic and ambiance which can hypnotize and transform one’s psyche. I went home that evening, crushed a jurassiene calzone from the pizza joint next door, packed up my running vest and went to sleep, with two alarms set to 2:30am and thoughts of gnarly mountain races dancing in my head.

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Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25