the Mont Blanc Marathon
by Kingsley Jones, Icicle Chamonix head UIMLA guide
Mont Blanc mountain marathon is a monster. It's a normal
marathon in length (42 kilometers and 195 metres), but,
and this is the BIG but, there are over 2500m of vertical
height gain, and over 1500m of height loss. In terms of
hills in the UK, that's the equivalent of running up Ben
Nevis twice, and down Scafell Pike twice, and then the
matter of the marathon distance as well. It's no wonder
that this amazing endurance race attracts runners from
all over the world, and over 1500 people start each year.
This year saw record numbers, and perfect weather. I had
never run this race before, though I had run around the
mountains above Chamonix for years, but as the Alpine
guiding season had started nearly a month before, I had
many vertical kilometers of ascent training already done.
A couple of Tour du Mont Blanc trips had also helped,
and I was confident of pacing myself well, and moving
efficiently over the terrain. Also, knowing the route
really well was a great morale boost.
This mountain marathon is designed to be semi-autonomous,
in that there were only a few drinks and food supply stations
along the route, so almost all the runners carried small
backpacks with extra water, snacks, and energy gels. Due
to the height variations, most were also carrying lightweight
Still, even though I was happy I had the right kit, I was quite
nervous as I walked through the streets of Chamonix at 6am towards
the start line, in front of the tourist office. As I arrived
there were already hundreds of people there warming up, chatting
and looking anxious, in equal measure. The sky was clear, and
it was going to be a hot day.
the 7am start time approached, more and more runners arrived,
until there was hardly space to move. The event organisers gave
a briefing, and then the announcer got the crowd going with
Mexican waves and other similar group encouragements. The atmosphere
was great, and my nerves disappeared. On the balconies overlooking
the square, sleepy eyed hotel residents came out to see what
was going on, and to cheer us on our way. As the clock struck
seven, we were counted down to the start. The runners surged
forward, then realised that 1500 people can't start running
without creating a traffic jam. As we left the square, and turned
up the hill past the Bistro de Sport, we were able to start
running as the street widened to allow people to set their own
the road side people rang cow bells, and cheered as the
runners passed them, and for a refreshing change after
all those training runs, as we crossed road intersections,
the police stopped the traffic as 1500 thundered past.
Soon we reached the turn for the sports centre, and by
now I was threading my way through the pack a bit to set
my own pace. At the micro brewery someone next to me said
we had done the first kilometer. So, only 41 to go! The
route then followed the nordic cross country ski tracks
up the valley towards the village of Le Bois. Overhead
a helicopter hovered very low, to get film footage of
passing Le Bois, the trail starts to make its way uphill
to Lavencher, and at the first sign of a steep incline
some people started speed walking, then running on the
flatter sections. Still there were a lot of runners very
closely grouped, and so the changes of speed caused a
few minor collisions. As the path to Lavencher got steeper
and more rocky, a few people started tripping over, getting
poles out, and slowing down. I got past the key offenders
and as the track topped out at Lavencher, we were rewarded
with a flatter section.
is an Alpine village, as if forgotten by time, and the
route threaded its way through the narrow alleyways and
streets, slowing the pack down to walking pace in places.
Soon the alpages were reached, and as the run got onto the upper
section of the Petit Balcon Nord, I was able to get into a good
rhythm and run at my pace. The path was narrow but good running
underfoot, though the odd tree root has to be jumped over. By
now the pace had begun to settle down a little and there were
less changes of position. Then the path made its descent into
Argentiere, and the path became more rocky. Soon the nordic
ski trails were picked up and then we crossed under the Pierre
à Ric home run ski piste, and made our way through the
tracks to the old centre of Argentiere. As we entered the village,
there were hoards of supporters cheering us on, and best of
all, the first drinks stop.
grabbed a cup of water and also a cup of coke, then ran through
the old village, with the wooden balconies jutting out over
the road. A sharp turn right, and the route made its way up
hill to the first major incline, the ascent to the hamlet of
Le Planet. The track was narrow and the pace slowed to a fast
walk. I was using my poles by this stage, and they helped power
me up the hill. Fortunately the hiking guiding had come into
play, as the uphill was easy, but as the path was so narrow
there were few overtaking opportunities. Anyway, soon the plateau
was reached, and as I ran through Le Planet and along the gently
ascending track, I felt good. Then it was down to the left and
across the small wooden bridge and steeply up into the village
road crossing, and then up the path to Tre-le-Champ and
upwards to the Col des Montets. The runners had really
started to spread out, and as I crested the col, I was
rewarded with the nice long descent towards Le Buet. It
was quite surreal running past all the classic meeting
points for walks that I lead clients on each day, but
with the great local knowledge, came a realisation of
how far I still had to go. I had passed the third distance
mark, and had taken under two hours. The only catch was
that I had only climbed 600m out of 2500m. The descent
to Vallorcine was long, and I knew I wasn't descending
very quick, but the hill climbing was still to come.
As I entered Vallorcine I passed a few surprised looking
walkers, who had had their tranquil Alpine morning walk
ruined by hundreds of runners already, and I knew there
were many more on their way. At the village was the first
refreshment stop, and as well as the drinks, I grabbed
a few slices of saussison, and ate them as I headed over
the first timing line. Then the hill started. Very steeply
at first, then still very steeply. Oh well. I looked at
my altimeter watch and saw my ascent rate as 15m per minute.
That was fine, so 900m an hour, which was bang on my target
ascent speed. The hill was brutal, and when I started
to question my sanity, it slackened off and I regained
a good steady pace again.
was walking this section, and those with the poles seemed a
lot more comfortable. People were stopping everywhere, completely
drained, and resting on rocks. All the first section had been
run in the shade, but as I got higher, I emerged above the treeline
and into the sun. The track widened and was hot and dusty. A
group of supporters urged us on, calling out our names from
our race number dossards, and the ringing of the cow bells they
had brought, pushed us more. A group of friends just behind
me were chatting to each other as they climbed. How did they
have the breath? It annoyed me that they could talk. I couldn't
contemplate it, so pushed harder and broke into a run again
until I reached the Col des Posettes.
knew that there was a water stop here, but it was tucked out
of sight, and I almost stumbled over it as I turned towards
the Aiguilette des Posettes. Another two cups of drink, and
another for good measure, and I started on my way upwards. The
col had marked the half way point, and time was going OK. The
final 200m of ascent towards the summit of the Posettes really
hurt, as expected. Then again, in a UK context, this was the
same as running a half marathon distance, then ascending the
height of Snowdon from sea level in an hour straight afterwards.
the summit approached, I was rewarded with amazing views of
Mont Blanc ahead, as you can see in the photo above. Even though
the ascent had been hard, this was payback time, and I felt
great. On the top one of the race officials scanned us through,
and then the steep descent began. Several people fell and twisted
ankles, so I took it really steady, and went at my pace. I let
over twenty or so people past me, but my pace was good and I
was letting my legs get their strength back. Towards the bottom
of the mountain, the route descended into the forests, and the
shade was nice and cool. Then it was a sharp left turn towards
the village of la Tour.
ran into the village, and again several race staff were
there pointing out the way. I dunked my head in the water
trough in the old village and then made my way past the
Chalet Alpin and on the river track back towards Montroc,
that I had run through about three hours before. I checked
with my race timing sheet, and saw that I still had over
45 minutes on the maximum
time, as Tre-le-Champ was the first cut off point. Here
there was a good drinks stop, but the first aid tent was
full of people being treated for all sorts of race injuries.
Onwards. I ran up to the crossing into the Aiguilles Rouges,
and spectators cheered us through. Only 11km to go, but
definately the hardest ones!
The trail narrowed, so overtaking was hard, and the group
was tired. We passed through the forest and over several
streams, for about five kilometers, then the fun really
started. The path zig-zagged steeply upwards, and again
people were dropping out on every corner to snatch a few
gasps of breath. Eventually I could see the base of the
Flegere ski area cable cars, and knew that there was about
20 minutes to reach the Flegere hut, which was the next
race cut off point, if the maximum time was exceeded.
I had slowed a lot in this last section, and tried to
push on as quick as I could to guard my margin of time.
Fortunately the track widens at this point to a jeep track,
so overtaking was possible.
I was above the treeline, the sun beat down hard, and I was
tired and hot. The long pull up to the Flegere hut hurt, but
as I reached it I saw that I had increased my time margin. I
grabbed at the drinks and downed as much as I could, then rounded
the corner to get scanned by the race official. Only six kilometers
to go, and I could see the Planpraz cable car across the valley.
At that stage it seemed a lot further than that, but after the
pain of getting up the hill to Flegere, this section was relatively
flat so it felt like I was floating.
guy I was running with at this stage was fading, and that
spurred me on. After the steep rocky section, with metal
steps in the rock, the track finally widened, and I ticked
off the familiar landmarks in my head; the avalanche wall,
the split rock, and zig-zag, then the final steep corner,
and the slog up to the finish was just ahead. Three corners
to go. The rubble jeep track was steep and long, but nothing
was going to stop me crossing that line now. I was still
going well, and pushed round the last corner and towards
As I approached the line I saw my wife Sarah, and dog
Maximus, cheering me on. Max tried to jump the barriers
to welcome his dad home. I had expected to feel ready
to collapse at the end, but other priorities were in my
line of sight. The race finishers were all treated to
a free beer by the MBC (Chamonix micro brewery), and once
someone had put a medal around my neck, that's where I
was headed! Sarah had done a sterling job providing a
race finishers pack of sandwiches, drinks, and even a
bottle of champagne. Genius.
a quick rest, we got the cable car back down to Chamonix.
Job done. And the result? Well I took 7 hours 59 minutes
(compared to the winning time of 4 hours 5 minutes). I
had been aiming for 8 hours, so not a bad pacing effort.
I do it again? Definately.
did I feel after the race? Amazing, and I went for a decent
hike in Italy the next day, so the legs clearly weren't too
bad. Would I recommend it? Absolutely 100%. If you love the
mountains, relish a big challenge, enjoy the group atmosphere,
and want to undertake the toughest mountain marathon in Europe,
then this is the one for you. I'm signing up for next year.
See you out in the mountains soon!
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