Sitting on a low step in front of Église Saint-Michel, I had a limited view of more than 2000 pairs of legs and shoes around me. How many thousands of kilometers did these feet cover before they could stand there. How many hours, how many sacrifices had to be made? I thought about my own training log of a few hundred kilometers since January. Would it be enough? Would my hundreds of hill repeats see me through? I was feeling strangely calm. Like more of a spectator than a participant. Not in an arrogant kind of way, but in a fearful way.
I had just met Meg Mackenzie and Kane Reilly, South African elite trail runners competing in the Marathon and my first thoughts were “WTH, am I in the right seeding pen?! Wait, there aren’t any seeding pens, why am I standing next to these people!” I was super chuffed to learn from Kane that Ryan Sandes had just won the Western States 100 in California. Ryan has been very supportive of the Brandberg FKT, and he put us in contact with Kane as invited celeb competitor, which regrettably didn’t work out for 2017. I promised Meg that we would be sure to get her up to Namibia should we host the event again in 2018, for which she was delighted.
In the months and weeks before Mont Blanc I was trying to visualise myself running the race. With this one, like all my previous big races, I was scouring the internet for articles and information on the race for more than a year. Photos, video clips, snippets, anything that could prepare me for what lay ahead. Except for one blogpost, all I could find were articles and videos in French. The video snippets I saw of the mountainous course looked so hair-raisingly tough that I repeatedly told myself it must be from the ultra trail. Surely the marathon will be easier? And of course, only elite runners were depicted, running and jumping like French mountain goats on narrow trails hugged by sheer vertical cliffs.
Arriving in Chamonix a few days before the race, laying my eyes on the French Alps towering above the quaint little town, I was still in denial. I never got my mind around how to approach and successfully complete the 42 km route with 2700m altitude gain. But I knew I was about to find out first hand all the things I didn’t know and wish I had before taking on such an immense journey.
The start is a hoarded affair
This may be a blessing or a curse, but more than 2000 runners started the race on the same time and in the same place. No qualifier could get you forward or back. Once we left the narrow town streets of Chamonix the course opened up wide enough for runners to pass easily for a few kilometers. I really wish I had pushed harder in the beginning, when it still was relatively easy going and moving space was ample, but knowing what lay ahead I held back and tried to settle into a conservative pace.
By km 8 I thought the field had spread out sufficiently, but it turned out that a narrow, somewhat precarious passing over a low rocks brought hundreds of runners to a slow crawl, and even to a dead stop more than once. Up to that point we were moving quite swiftly on the glorious forest trail, and I thought a little forced resting couldn’t do any harm. Well, now in hindsight, it all added up. I covered this ‘stop-go’ km that was on a level downhill in more than 11 minutes, so a lot of time was wasted there.
The French are lovely
Much contrary to what is frequently said about them, I found (most of) the French very friendly, helpful and well mannered. It was the sweetest thing when a French runner wanted to pass on the narrow trails. Instead of the expected “to your left!” or just “left!” it would be “excusez moi, s’il vous plait” and then after passing “merci!” Much more talking than what I could muster!
The aid stations were a delight. I expected water and perhaps some fruit, but there were so much food and drinks to choose from, it felt like a party! I understand now some runners literally only run with 500ml water in the hand, instead of a whole pack of drink and sustenance like us African mules (or is it just me?!)
Note to self: Please, PLEASE pass the salami next time. Don’t you learn, girl?!
It is a really tough race
Marathon Du Mont-Blanc is an immensely popular and iconic race. We know it is tough, and that is definitely part of the allure, but a person not used to mountain running, like me, may not fathom how tough it really is. To cover a vertical kilometer over a mere distance of 6 km is not normal hill running, it is mountain climbing. My hundreds of hill repeats didn’t prepare me for the challenge that was Posettes. Fitness-wise I felt okay. I could sustain the (slow) effort and easily recover on the flats, but I didn’t train on the sort of gradients that the race dished up, and my body took serious strain.
On the final approach of Aiguillette des Posettes I could feel my left shin throbbing, much like severe shin splints. Extending my foot flat or forward on the downhills hurt even worse. In hindsight now, and judging from the pain still a few days after the race, who knows how the shin would have turned out in the last 1000m of ascent towards the finish.
Moments that take your breath away
Running the Mont-Blanc is like taking a VIP tour of some of the most beautiful spots in the French Alps. You can go at your own pace and gawk at and photograph the stunning scenery for as long as you like. If you study your nifty little temporary tattoo of the route course you don’t need an interpreter you’ll always know exactly where you are, and people even feed and praise you along the way. This is real value for tourist money!
Narrow, winding forest trails is where I come alive when running. It energises my mind and soul it a way that continous far beyond the run. Although there are plenty of forest stretches on Mont-Blanc, what really stood out for me was the moment when I realised that we cleared the tree canopy and were rising above the tree line. Not only did it feel surreal and really hard core, but the scenery was also so incredibly beautiful.
Running through tiny villages and farms are also incredibly special. People cheer you on with cowbells and calling “allez, allez, allez”. Elderly people smiling and nodding, children clapping and calling your name, these are the moments I collect and store deep in the treasure chests of my heart. On Mont-Blanc there were so many of them, it was impossible to stop smiling.
I did come to realise during this race that the number of variables that you have to contend with on Mont-Blanc doesn’t allow for my normal chill-at-the-back-and-just-get-the-medal training. If I had run my own race, maybe then, although maybe just, but it was hard to sustain my own pace even deep into the race. Tourists that hike up the mountain or ride up with cable cars and slowly make their way to viewing spots share the narrow, precarious trails with tired runners. These are all factors that all the elite and finishers successfully deal with too, but I sure didn’t factor in a buffer for people dodging in my time management plan.
Also, the time limits are severe. I was reckoning that 5.5 hours would be more than sufficient to cover 28 km, albeit inclusive of 1600m ascent and 1100m descent. I was wrong. The slog up from Vallorcine took a year and the weather on Posettes turned dreary. The wind was howling, it was cold and raining and and fog prevented any sort of a view to motivate me. I didn’t even stop to get my jacket out as I didn’t want to waste time. I am not sure how much snot ran down my face before I discovered it and wiped my nose, but I do know that I was really cold and didn’t have much feeling in my hands or face.
DNF (Did not Finish) is a very lonely place
Storming down the mountain towards Le tour I already knew that things were not going too well time-wise, but I kept hoping and believing that I would make the cut-off. I saw the minutes passing too fast, ever closer to the 5.5 hour cutoff but I kept pushing up to the final minute, hoping that there might be a discrepancy in my GPS, that the 28 km mark would magically appear by km 27. Even after the clock struck 12:30 I was hopeful for a miracle, and kept pushing on, passing people in a desperate attempt to outsmart the clock. By then my eyes were already wet as doubt started setting it.
I cleared the forest and I could see the flagging tape and the queue, the timing mat and the stern race official that marked Le Tour. Confusion, fear, denial, extreme frustration… I had to fall behind the three or four runners that was waiting their turn to cross the mat and pass through the gate. Madame Official was standing there with a pair of scissors, like Peter at the Holy Gates, ready to cast the eternal verdict: “Sorry, too slow, off you go!” She cut our numbers, one by one, without so much as a “sorry” or a personal acknowledgement or anything. After I got the cut I was spat out in the other side, still no words from anyone, not a glance or a nod. No water table or any sort of consolation, just a few lonely farts dwindling in a parking lot somewhere in France. Tears were rolling freely and I wanted to be with my family.
Unbeknownst to me, Nico and the boys hailed a taxi and was waiting for me a mere one km up the road from Le Tour. They were ready to cheer me on, Namibian flag waving, like they always do, so patriotically, lovingly and excitedly. Only, I was not to come. We struggled with mobile reception so we didn’t get together until we all got home more than an hour later.
Would I do anything different next time?
At this stage in our family life with our young boys at home with us I love how training for a race, travelling for it and executing it forms a natural part of our journey. Would I put in more or longer training sessions next time? I would say no. I absolutely love running and intend to keep it that way. Would I alter my hill routine to include race specific gradients? You bet. And much as I dislike strength training I might have to work in more squats and lunges too. A little more confidence in my fitness would have come a long way in the initial part of the race when it was still relatively flat and open, but hindsight is 20/20. I completed 2/3 of an incredible race and got more than 100% of the rewards and life experience for it, and for that I remain grateful.
I was running proudly in support of Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia, and while doing so I was joined by many, many like minded people across the world in a virtual race for the same cause. I was humbled and motivated in a way that I NEVER could imagine! Sadly, just like I couldn’t completely reach the goal I set out for on Mont-Blanc, our country lost 8 rhinos to poaching on the very same weekend that all of us came together to spread awareness for their plight. Yes, it hurts deeply. It makes us angry and we tend to feel helpless many times. But I believe that small, unified steps will lead us to emerge as victors in this fight to protect and keep our rhino safe.
South Africans Kane Reilly went on to finish the marathon in 5th place in 04:02:26, while Meg Mackenzie was the 6th lady in a time of 05:15:58, both incredible athletes.