Monday, June 27, 2016

Marathon du Mont Blanc: the other huge ultra running party in Chamonix

6 races, 65 nations represented, 7,000 trail runners, what an ultra party! And it was this weekend, and I was in Chamonix, what a great opportunity! Yet I didn't race, oops!

Of course, this has to see with my stroke of March. As soon as our summer plans started taking shape in February, I had applied for a preferential entry which I was eligible for but got the reply a few days after the incident. While the medical investigation was in full swing, I was already wondering if I could run again, even more so racing again. As the various tests kept coming back negative, I started forming hopes again but Agnès put that race on the not-negotiable list (I wanted to run the grueling 80 km which has more than 6,000 meters of cumulative elevation!). Besides, I would have had to get the medical release required to race in France which was unlikely back in March in the midst of that medical investigation.

Fast forward 3 months and I'm actually very glad I didn't enter. While the weather was amazing for that race, on the hot side as a matter of fact, and missed a huge storm which stroke a few hours after the last runner got in, I was able to test some of the hills and, like on the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc), these are some very serious trails! Not only am I behind in my hill training compared to my best years but the thing I'm mostly struggling with are the rocks and roots which make even hiking up difficult and tiring. No wonder most of the trail runners here use poles and that also explains why most of us, Americans, struggle in races in the Alps: much harder physical and mental challenge!

Back to the title, the event started a few years ago with the marathon distance and, given the popularity, added a few shorter distances and an ultra, the 80 km (50 miles). Another highlight of the weekend is the explosive 'kilomètre vertical' (vertical K) which consists in climbing 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in the shortest time possible (the trail follows the straight line of the Plan Praz gondola!).

I was able to run the first part of the 80K course which starts with a big climb to the Brévent via Bel Lachat, that is 25% of the total cumulative elevation in less than 6 miles (11% of the overall distance)! Quite a warm-up to wake you up, better taking it easy given what's ahead in the race!

I left at 8 am, that is 4 hours after the start of the race (4 am) and it was already quite warm. To my surprise though, I discovered there was still a lot of snow on each side of the Brevent and I wasn't well equipped with my road running Brooks Launch shoes, oops!

Thankfully I wasn't racing as it took me 2 hours and 10 minutes to reach the top which the top runners get to in 1:20... But, for a change, I also took the time to enjoy the breath taking views of the Mont Blanc on the other side.

I've never seen so much snow on the Brevent this late in June, there was so much that you could have skied almost down to Plan Praz! It was good that the snow was transforming with the heat, that helped keeping my sliding under control. Yet, I never took so much time to get down to Plan Praz from the top and I was putting so much on the brakes that my quads got quite tired afterwards. Good hill training though but my hope to catch-up with the tail of the race (1,000 runners in that race!) had faded away. I made it to La Flégère where I decided to run back to Chamonix on the rocky ski run (another steep descent on the brakes some quad strength training!).

The next day I stayed mostly in the bottom of the valley and ran up to Col des Montets and Vallorcine, along the Arve river. Between the melting snow and glaciers, and the heavy rain of the weekend, I was impressed with so much water flowing from everywhere, with hundreds of creeks and falls merging into the raging Arve toward Genève and the Rhone river. You probably have to live in a dry region like California nowadays to realize the blessing of such an abundance of fresh water. Let's enjoy it while it lasts, but be appreciate for it to be more respectful of our planet and reverse the course of global warming.
On Saturday night at local friends' house, I met Laurent, one of the 80K finishers. It was great to get some first hand insider tips about that race which he ran three times and this gave me even more respect for the level of difficulty of trail races in the Alps. Once I'm done with my local Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix (year 10 this year!), I know where in can turn my energy to...! ;-)

Running in Scotland #5: Callander and the Great Tossachs Path

Callander is one of the doors into the famous Loch Lomond and the Tossachs National Park, not far from Glasgow and Edinburgh. For us coming from the Northwest and finishing our tour in Edinburgh, it was an exit  of that park where we spent our last night in Scotland this time. We actually entered the park in Tyndrum and drove down along the whole West shore of Loch Lomond, the largest pool of freshwater in Great Britain (by its surface).

If you visit the area, make sure to get this map, it shows 8 major trails:
  1. John Muir Way Cycle Path
  2. West Loch Lomond Cycle Path
  3. West Highlang Way (the one passing by the bottom of Ben Nevis and finishing in Fort William)
  4. Rob Roy Way
  5. Three Lochs Way
  6. John Muir Way (not the same I ran on from Edinburgh!)
  7. The Cowal Way
  8. The Great Trossachs Path

It's that last one that I ran 13 miles on, Saturday morning before driving to the airport. A few steep and long hills but a super smooth trail on the 6.5-mile section from Callander to Brig 'o Turk, with great views over Loch Venachar.

We had stopped by Loch Katrine on our way to Callander on Friday afternoon and walked along the Loch for a couple of miles of asphalt so it seems that this trail is very runnable overall. All in all it covers 30 miles from Callander to Inversnaid on the shore of Loch Lomond.

Great way to conclude our trip. As you can see from this post and my previous ones in that series, Scotland offers hundreds of miles to hike or run. Most of them are hilly though. In Scotland, they don't talk about hikers but... hill hikers! Likewise, this is an amazing place to do some serious... hill running. Highly recommended destination then, rain or shine!

By the way, here is a brochure available for free at the many Scotland Tourist Offices, which has a few pages on each region from an hiking standpoint. Some good information to help you plan although most of the highlighted trails are walks a few miles long.

Of course, there is a lot of information available on the web too and I hope these posts help you planning your own tour of the West Highlands!

Again, I highly recommend visiting Scotland for its amazing trail running opportunities but also very welcoming people! And, hopefully, they will decide to remain in Europe...