Friday, 30 June 2017

Marathon du Mont Blanc 42K

There's something special with long mountain races. I can’t really put my finger on it but they are unique, beautiful, and challenging races with very special atmosphere and most often held in gorgeous places with amazing views. Once you get hooked there’s no turning back.

Mont Blanc marathon was my third mountain race but it was almost two hours longer than those that I’ve done before so it was in another level and I really didn’t know how my body or mind would cope with it. Also the week leading to it was far from optimal and I felt quite weak and insecure before the race. I had flu earlier in the week and hadn’t really got my strengths back. And then just a few days before the travel I got news that my grandmother had passed away and after that I felt like I’d lost all my mental strengths too. I was hesitant whether to travel there at all but I’m glad I did. When you throw yourself into something with full heart and then somehow find strengths to survive from it, you realize that you are actually much stronger than you thought. It gives you perspective, appreciation, and strengths to cope with whatever troubles you may face in life.

Race started at 7am in the middle of Chamonix. We were too many, the streets were narrow, and it was quite chaotic. I was far back in the pack and there were hundreds of slower runners in front of me but I tried not to stress. There was nothing I could do before we came off from the town. After a kilometre streets changed into a trail and I could pick up the pace and start to overtake slower runners. It took while and quite a lot of energy before I found my place in the group and could settle in before the first climb.

Climb to Lavancher (1248m) at about 6k was still quite gentle. Some people started to walk but I ran the whole way. After Lavancher there was a fairly nice flat stretch to the first drink station in Argentiere (1257m) at about 10k. There I realized why I needed to carry a cup. You don’t get anything if you don’t have a cup. Ecological, I understand, but no one told me that! My cup is deep down in my backpack that I have tied tightly around me with no intension of opening it unless in case of emergency. But they have strict ‘no cup, no drink’ policy, so I just pass the station and take a sip from my own hydration pack.

Then we climb up to Coldes Montets at 1465m before descending back to Vallorcine at 1260m. I’ve run the whole way but try to take it steady before the big climb that is waiting for us after the second drink station at 18k. There I stop for the first time, open the ropes of my backpack and search for the cup. Elated I show it to the officials and get it immediately filled. I grab some food too. Now is the time to eat whatever you can get in because we are about to climb almost 1000 vertical meters during the next 6k. That is probably the hardest part of the course and I approach the climb very humble.

I tramp along in the line and settle in for the tempo that people around me are keeping. I feel like I could push a bit harder but I rather spare my strengths than put extra energy in overtaking others. I reassure myself that it’s better to be in a group that is a little too slow for you than being in a group that is slightly too fast. Climb goes well and surprisingly easily. It’s still foggy and rainy and we don’t see much when we reach the top of Aiguilles des Posettes at 2201m. I raise my hands in the air and yell aloud. Runners around me look astonished but I think it’s worth a yell since it’s the highest point of the course and the worst seems to be over. I get an SMS from Sami who tells me the same. The worse is over now. I smile and continue.

Next comes a long descent that is very rocky and technical, especially when wet, and our line stops moving. Some of my fellow runners get really scared and start to walk. I get a bit irritated when the line is not moving. It feels like a waste of time. It’s downhill, it’s free, why aren’t we running? But since it’s foggy and wet, it feels like risking your life in every overtaking. But after a while I get bored and gradually I start to pass slower runners whenever there’s a chance. There are a few stretches between the groups where I can run freely and it’s amazing. I’ve never been very good at descents but now it feels like I’m flying and I’m really enjoying it. We come down to the valley again and I realize that I’ve forgotten to eat. I don’t feel hungry but I try to follow my plan to eat something in every 45min or so.

We pass the village of Le Tour and there are lots of people cheering on the streets. Bravo Riina! Super! Allez Riina allez! Hyva Suomi! Yksi, kaksi, kolme. It’s hard not to smile when you hear it. I’m surprised how great I feel. After all, we’ve been out for 3,5h and climbed about 1700m.

We come to the drink station at 30k and I notice that my hydration pack is almost empty. I know that the rest is mostly upward and it’s hot so I need to stop and take off my backpack once more to get it filled. It takes a while to do that but it’s definitively worth it. I take a few pieces of banana, some crackers, and a handful of salted cashews before heading off to another 300m climb. After climbing up to Le Bechar at 1691m we descend back to the valley at 1400m before the final climb towards the summit finish in Planpraz at 2016m.

It’s getting harder now and I’m feeling more and more tired but it I’m able to keep going all the way up to the last drink station in La Flégère (1865m) at about 38k before my quads start to cramp. I’ve been surprised how well my body has taken it all up to that point. I’ve felt strong and on the last climb I’ve passed about 40 runners so I’m not ready to give up. At La Flégère I stop for the last time, take some salted nuts and coke, and try to shake my quads a bit before I continue. It works and I’m able to continue running. 

The last stretch from La Flégère to Planpraz is fairly nice and runnable with beautiful views of Mont Blanc range and Chamonix valley below. It’s been cloudy, rainy, and foggy most of the way but just when we reach this beautiful balcony path the clouds disappear and the breathtaking views open up. It’s hard to describe but I feel incredibly good considering the exhaustion. Suddenly it’s all very clear. Not just the view but my mind too. Obviously I’m tired and exhausted but I feel alive and happy. I’m still a few kilometres from the finish line but I’ve beaten my demons and I know that I’m going to finish the race. I’m even able to speed up a bit and pass a few more runners before the finish. I reach the finish line far behind women’s winner Megan Kimmel but I feel like a winner nevertheless. After all, I’ve beaten the course and I’ve beaten myself. It’s just a bonus to be 17th among senior women and 22nd overall.

If you read this far you may also want to check this video clip from the event!

Room with a view
Summit finish looming behind the clouds

Start of the race on the day before

An hour before the start. Getting crowded.. 

Summit finish in Planpraz at 2016m

Long last kilometre...
Views in the finish

Made it!