Saturday, July 6, 2013

80km du Mont Blanc 2013 race report

To me and thousands of trailrunners Chamonix, France is That Place. The Alpine town by the Mont Blanc massif. The travel destination to go for mountain trail running in the summer.

Danger! This summer there really could have been snowfalls from the roof in Chamonix.
Last fall they announced a new race '80km du Mont Blanc'. So I signed in immediately to be one of the 700 starters on June 28, 2013. After my medical check papers were accepted in November, I was set to go. I'd already finished a 123km race, so how hard could an 80K be? Bring it on!

Col des Posettes in April 2013 - lots of snow on the running course.
What I didn't know is that I would fall and bruise my ribcage in the spring. So I didn't do any long training or run a marathon or a 50K this year like I normally would do. Mont Blanc 80K would be my first race and long run in 2013!

Nobody knew this would be 'the summer that never came' in the Alps. In Chamonix they haven't had this much snow in ten years. And then they got even more snow in June, when the snow was supposed to have been melting away.

A typical misty summer morning at Mont Blanc massif.

It was obvious the race course would have to be changed, but they announced the new course only a week before the start. It was said to be 78km with 6044m of elevation gain.

  • Col des Corbeaux (2602m) and Col de la Terrasse (2648m) were out due to dangerous snow fields. 
  • Instead we would do a figure of eight, the new counterclockwise loop at the top beingVallorcine (1260m) - Col du Passet (1950m) - Refuge de Loriaz (2020m) - Vallorcine.
  • Also after Montenvers, we would do a lower detour to Blaitiere instead of going over Signal Forbes (2198m).
  • To keep the elevation gain above 6000 meters, we had to climb Chalets de la Pendant (1778m) between Argentiere and Le Lavancher.
  • There would be seven aid stations: Planpraz, Flegere, Vallorcine I, Vallorcine II (we would run through the same aid station twice), Argentiere, Les Bois and Montenvers.

The new safer course of 80km du Mont Blanc 2013.
625 starters showed up at the familiar start area in front of the church on early Friday morning. The weather was cloudy, foggy and misty and relatively warm, not cold and windy as the organisers had warned us the night before. The announcer predicted it would rain before sending us up towards the highest point of the course: Le Brevent (2525m). It would be dark until the sunrise at 5:40am, so headlights were turned on.

Le Brevent (2525m, left, light) and Planpraz (2000m, right, dark): our first 80K waypoints
My humble goal was to finish before midnight, which left me four hours to play with just in case. As always happens, some slow plodders sprinted away from the first line at the start and then hit the brakes when the single trail with some minor stream crossings started. I actually thought this forced slow pace was a blessing in disguise. The most common mistake in ultrarunning is starting out way too fast. Everyone knows it, but everyone does it.

However for an impatient dude behind me all that waiting was too much, and he suddenly pushed his way past everyone - until his foot slipped and he silently fell into darkness. Then someone spotted two hands clinging on the trailside, and we dragged his sorry ass back up on the trail again.

Thick clouds can make it hard to see too much even in full daylight.
At the top we ran through many snow fields. It was a bit chilly and cloudy, but there was no wind at all. We caught beautiful glimpses of the sun rising over Mont Blanc massif, while descending towards Planpraz aid station (2000m). My Hoka One One Rapa Nui shoes had a good tight grip on the steep rough snow, but those wearing Salomons and other shoes were slipping all around the glacier uncontrollably. My Mountain King Trail Blaze poles helped me to stay balanced too.

The trails were in excellent running condition on race day. Just a drop of water/snow here and there.
I had a good breakfast at Planpraz, except they didn't have any coffee. We were now at the finish area of the Mont Blanc Marathon to be held on Sunday, and we continued going down the marathon course in reverse along Grand Balcon Sud to Flegere (1877m) , Col des Montets (1461m), Le Buet (1337m) and Vallorcine (1260m). It wasn't all downhill though, there was a lot of climbing as well.

There is a paradise for climbing fools.
The Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve was absolutely wonderful. There were many tourists all around, and when I saw a crowd gathered to look at something, I stopped too. For example, I saw an Alpine ibex couple on a cliff.

I also managed to get lost once in this area, or more specifically the dude I was following missed the inadequately marked U-turn to the right. He went straight left and down a steep slope. I noticed soon there were no course markings and stopped, but the other guy just kept going. Then a head appeared on top of the rock above me and shouted: "Wrong way! Come back!" The front guy missed all this shouting and was just about to disappear behind bushes a couple hundred meters down the scree when I whistled. He stopped and turned, and I waved him to climb back up.

Sometimes I get the crazy feeling that I'm being followed.
I was at Vallorcine aid station already at 9:23am - well ahead of my schedule. The steep challenging uphill to Loriaz (2020m) was the highlight of the course for me. This loop will not be part of the normal 80km course, so this was perhaps a unique chance. I climbed slowly up, a waterfall on my right and an ibex on my left. At Col du Passet (1950m) there was a dam and Lac de Barberine Emosson behind it.

Trailrunning doesn't get any better than this.
The course traversed across Montagne de Barberine to Loriaz on a technical route involving chains to and tiny metal steps to aid our slow passage. I was feeling strong, so I enjoyed it all. A helicopter accompanied some of the runners, probably filming for the live webTV.

It was now warm with lots of sunshine, so I stopped often to cool my head in the mountain streams. Wearing an ice-cold Buff around your neck helps keep you core temps in control. This whole loop took me about 3.5 hours to complete. After resting for a while, I left Vallorcine for the second and final time slightly before 1pm. There were no km-signs anywhere, but I must have covered about 44km at that point. I can certainly run more than a marathon in nine hours, even when there are steep hills involved.

Best weather ever!
Next came the big climb to Col des Posettes (2201m) - the same mountain that was the greatest challenge of the Mont Blanc Marathon. In our 80km race it was just another hill. The path up felt actually quite easy compared to the previous badass climb.

The view from the top was really nice. The path down with old wooden steps was quite difficult for me. I descended carefully because rolling down the hill didn't seem like a fun option. It took forever to reach Le Tour and a couple km more before the next aid station Argentiere. It was a welcome sight.

Arriving in one of the Alpine villages.
I left Argentiere 3:45pm. A lady there had told me it was about 20km to the finish. The route went straight up to Plan Joran cable car station and via Chalets de la Pendant (1778m) back down to the outskirts of Le Lavancher and Les Bois (1080m). This was the last full service aid station. All of this was part of the Grand Balcon Nord trail. After having raced for 14 hours, I left Les Bois at 6pm for the final uphill.

During the tricky climb to Montenvers (1913m) I suddenly felt like I had absolutely nothing left. The climb was easy enough at first, but close to the famous Mer de Glace glacier the going got tougher. There were huge boulders, and I struggled climbing over them, even with the metal ladders in some places. I often found myself standing still like a lost hobo, and people passing me asked if I was ok. I always lied that I was super fine and grinned, but I was starting to get really worried as even slow walking was not going too well.  

Step by step towards Chamonix.
I recalled something I read recently in 'Running on Empty' by Marshall Ulrich. He was attempting the first ever Badwater Quad: running the infamous Death Valley course 4x for a total of about 940km. He was going through a difficult state about half-way through: "...that's where ultrarunners live, in that place where you feel as if there's nothing left, no more energy, no more reason, no more sanity, no more will to go farther. Then you push forward anyway, step after step, even though every cell in your body tells you to stop. And you discover that you can go on."

A great quote from Running on Empty by Marshall Ulrich.
I realized that I was much like Marshall Ulrich now, in That Place. The only thing that mattered was the next step. If Marshall had been able to push forward and finish his enormous challenge in the grueling desert, certainly I could finish this 50-miler in ideal conditions.

Wait a minute, hadn't Ulrich also stressed how essential caffeine was for his performances? Now I must have tossed a couple of Clif Shot Turbo Double Expresso gels in my backpack - my secret weapon for emergencies! With new hope in my eyes, I dug them up asap. These monsters are normally strong enough to wake up the dead, and make their socks roll up and down too.

After the first shot I felt nothing. I took the other one, and after a while I felt better, and my legs starting slowly to move again.

I finally arrived at the Montenvers aid station by the Grand Hotel at 8pm. I had been racing for 16 hours, and I had 8 hours for the final easy-ish traverse to Blaitiere Dessous and then the final downhill to Chamonix.

There was a big red sign on a tree along the way with a picture of falling rocks and the text: "NE PAS STATIONNER DANS LE COULOIR - DON'T STAY IN THE COULOIR." I started to run again.
I came to the last timing post at Blaitiere, which was just a guy with a red tent just before 9pm. There was a standard trail sign saying "Chamonix 1h50". Almost there!

There was a most stunning sunset around 9:30pm, and it got dark gradually. I put on my headlight after running into a volunteer in a dark forest, who suggested me to do so. There sure were a lot of roots and rocks to catch your toes, and the last thing I wanted was a faceplant.

After 18 hours of racing, back in Chamonix around 10pm.
The last kilometers through Chamonix were great. People were in the middle of enjoying their dinners, but they all got up and rushed to the street to encourage and applaud for me. It is truly fantastic how the folks in that corner of the world appreciate modest trail runners. With this fabulous support, I felt great and running was easy again.

I finished a little after 10pm, in 18:08. I'm really happy with that, almost two hours faster than my goal. There was nothing much to eat or drink when I arrived, so I just asked for a glass of water and strolled to my hotel about five minutes away. Even on my way there enthusiastic strangers congratulated me and asked questions like: "Did you really just finish 80km in one day?"
"Yes, I did."
"Was it hard?"
"Yes, very hard."
And so on.

The 80km bling, 80km T-Shirt, 80km shoulder bag, and Marathon plastic cup. 
Miraculously it never rained during the race, although clouds were all over the valley most of the time. I've never seen such a perfect running weather in Chamonix and the trails were in great condition. The next day it rained cats and dogs the whole day though, so we ultratrailers were lucky.

Later I learned that I was 206th of 470 finishers. Francois D'Haene and Michel Lanne had won (yes they ran and finished together, both in Salomon Team) in 9:45 - wow that's fast! Monsieur Fabien Loup took the DFL (Dead F***ing Last) Award in 24:19.

The spectacular start/finish area in downtown Chamonix with live commentators and a video screen. 
Several runners with a GPS have confirmed that the course was certainly at least 80km, and very likely 82-84km. The official elevation gain estimate of 6044m sounds like being in the right ballpark. Anyway nearly 20,000ft climbing is not bad for a 50-miler - for example, the prestigious Western States 100-miler offers only about 18,000ft total gain.

If you are looking for the world's toughest 50-miler, this might fit the bill! The race organisation seemed surprisingly clueless, considering Mont Blanc Marathon has been going on for years. Of course that only helped to make the race even tougher, so thank you! For example:
  • The bib pickup/obligatory gear checking was possibly the worst I've seen in my 30 years of racing: it should have opened earlier than 14:00 on Thursday, provide different lanes for the 2000 Marathon and 700 80km runners, the volunteers should know what they are doing (now they gave wrong/conflicting information), etc.  
  • Food: please have some pasta/rice party for 80km runners before the race, provide coffee and edible fruits at aid stations (the oranges were ok, but the raw green bananas were inedible), and provide something to eat/drink for the finishers (those in the top 100 told me they were given plenty of various foods/drinks, so maybe they just need to make sure to have enough for all).
  • More time should be allowed for the competitors to upload their medical certificates (there is no need to send a strict email in early November for a late June race, demanding the document by the end of the week - and there's absolutely no need to threaten throwing those out of the race who fail to comply).
  • It would be nice to have km-signs every 5-10 km along the course - even when the course has been changed.
  • Race website should be updated properly, now there was incomplete/confusing information (posting stuff on Facebook is not enough, since everyone is not on FB, and the English website should be updated like the French pages). 
  • The possibility to have a drop bag half-way (in Vallorcine) would have been really nice. 
  • Tip: please go learn how it's done from UTMB in August - it's also in Chamonix! 

To be fair this was the first edition of the 80km race, so let's forgive the organisation. All's well that ends well, and I feel very grateful for all the wonderful volunteers and supporters along the course. And thanks for the excellent course markings, perfect trails and wonderful weather!

PS. Final verdict about Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail running shoes: My toes were still bleeding two days after the race, when I took a shower. That's not good. For this reason alone, I can't recommend these shoes for mountain races. The toebox is too tight, and it will make a mess of your toes in downhills. The fact that the quick lacing system won't keep tight enough exacerbates the problem. This could possibly be avoided by taping your toes before or during the race, but I would rather use shoes with a roomier toebox in the future. I must have wasted good 15 minutes tightening my quick-laces, so it might be a good idea to change to normal laces if you want to save precious race time.

[My original Hoka Rapa Nui review.]


Will said...

wow! great race report trailplodder. I'm having a hard time comprehending 50 miles with 20,000 feet of climbing! With that much snow on the ground, I can't think of a more difficult 50 mile race. You did really well out there, particularly given you limited training prior.

So much for the Hoka Nui's...sounds like a shoe for a flatter course?

Your experience brought back some vivid memories of last years UTMB....altered course, no distance markings, difficult terrain, etc. I think the ultra events in europe are designed to test your mind more than those in the USA. Maybe one day you should consider running here in the US and give you mind a rest?

Thanks for the post....well done all around.

Trail Plodder said...

Thank you very much for your kind words Sir!

RapaNuis have been great on the flat trails that we have here, the toe problems appeared in the steep Alps. I'll run Eiger Ultra Trail in 12 days with Stinson Evos.

I think you have plenty of events in the States that take it to the limit, just in slightly different ways than in Europe. Like the high altitudes of Leadville 100 and Hardrock 100 or the heat of WS100 and Badwater. It sure would be exciting for me to run there, but it would mean long flights more complex travel arrangements. There is also the issue of getting a crew and pacer, which seem to be the norm there. Someday!

Mike Short said...

Another really engaging race report. Thanks for sharing your experiences again. :)

Trail Plodder said...

Hey no prob Mike, glad you're still interested in this sort of races! :)

Unknown said...

Inspirational stuff... Great report and I'd love to be going as strong as you as I advance in years - you put most younger guys to shame!!

Regarding the Hoka One Ones - thanks for the valuable information. Considering running my first ultra next year and thinking about shoe choices already, as you'd expect.

I just found this blog but will be returning for sure to keep in touch with your adventures - if you're ever in the Catalunya region of Spain, come and do some of the events; there are some sweet trails!

Em said...

What a great race report. I'm going to be at the start line for this years 80k. You don't happen to have your timings trace for each point do you? I'm trying to work out goals for each station......hope you're still enjoying your running!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Em! No, I don't have my times, and I doubt they would help you much anyway. Before setting any goals for yourself, you have to understand this is one of the hardest 50-milers in the world. The weather is variable between challenging and bad. They have an alternative course for bad weather, and in my 2013 race they used that course. They said it was only 78km, but all who finished suspected it was well over 80km. So prepare for a hard tough race. Good luck!

Em said...