Running the Mont Blanc Marathon
Article by Kingsley Jones, Icicle Chamonix head UIMLA guide
The 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 trekking poles.
Mont Blanc Marathon poster

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.
Runners gathering before the start of the Marathon du Mont Blanc
As 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 pace.
Kingsley second in this pack Along 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 us all.

After 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. Lavencher 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.
Waiting for starters orders in Chamonix centre
I 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 of Montroc.
Another 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.
Kingsley running into Vallorcine
Everyone 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.

I 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.
Runners approaching the Aiguillette des Possettes 2200m
As 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.
Running the section to Flegere I 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.
As 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.
The 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 the line.

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.


After 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. Would I do it again? Definately.
Crossing the finish line
How 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!
Kingsley
LINKS---Icicle Trail Running Main Page---Icicle Trail Running Courses---Icicle Trail Running Advice Page
Kingsley  resting at the finish with Maximus
 
 
 
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