Tuesday, July 02, 2013

An Intro to Skyrunning at the Marathon du Mont Blanc

It’s not enough, I need more 
Nothing seems to satisfy 
I don’t want it, I just need it 
To live, to breathe, to know I’m alive
- Stinkfist, Tool

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of returning to the mountain mecca of Chamonix, France, to join 2,000+ trail runners for the steep and gorgeous Marathon du Mont Blanc. This challenging 42k trail run is breathtaking (in more ways than one!), making it a worthy addition to the Skyrunning Series and a perfect place for the inaugural 2013 Team inov-8 Athlete Retreat. Thanks to great weather, camaraderie, and a chance to witness some world-class performances, it exceeded all expectations!

Words fail to capture the magical aura that exudes from Chamonix, and ever since visiting here for UTMB last September, I have felt its gravitational pull. There’s a deep familiarity to this place that fits my soul like a missing puzzle piece, and from the moment I arrive, the surrounding massifs embrace me with powerful arms that both protect and dare me to adventure up its walls. I am not alone, and recognize the constant smile and upward gaze from “mountain people” of all corners of the globe, filling local sidewalk cafes with afternoon espresso/beers, new friends, and multilingual stories of morning adventures. Running, hiking, climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, unique combinations thereof, Chamonix delivers on any alpinist adventure we dare to conjure. None better than the 7,000'+ of climbing in the Marathon du Mont Blanc with my mountain brothers and sisters...c’est magnifique!
(The views in Chamonix are hard to beat!)
My jet-lagged body arrived at Chamonix just as Team inov-8 was finishing up participating in the Vertical KM Ascent, a brutal 3.8km length/1km vertical race that was one of four events taking place this week (there was also a new 80km ultra, a 10k, a 23k Cross event, and the Marathon). Inov-8 Global Team Manager Natalie White, a star trail runner in her own right, had athletes arriving from all over the world, including Australian Brendan Davies (winner of TNF100k Australia, and 5th at TNF Mt. Fuji this year), German star Florian Reichert (1:09 half marathoner, and Swiss Alpine 21k champ), UK fell running champion Oli Johnson, Australian star Shona Stephenson (2nd at TNF Mt. Fuji, 3rd at TNF100 Australia), Colorado’s Alex Nichols (2nd at Pikes Peak Marathon last year, 5th at the Sky Games, and famed filmmaker of Indulgence), UK star Anna Lupton (multiple winner at UK’s famous Three Peaks), Wales mountain running star Sarah Ridgeway, and more trickling in throughout the week. Brendan, Florian, Shona, Oli, and Inov-8 PR Guru Lee Proctor all threw down for the Vertical Ascent, with Florian clocking a ridiculously fast 38 minutes, just four minutes off the winning time. Inov-8 media expert Dave MacFarlane edited the footage within hours and put together this fun video:

Back at the rented chalet, I was greeted with welcoming smiles from other inov-8 marketers and designers who presented the biggest bag of inov-8 gear I have ever seen. YES!!! The retreat is already a success! Shwag hag gloating aside, it was nice to have access to all the inov-8 experts and learn the how’s and why’s behind new products and improvements, plus get a chance to give first hand feedback. I was particularly stoked for the new RaceUltra 2.1 waist pack and SS 120 running shorts (coming soon!), both of which were comfortable enough in test runs to make the cut for race day.
("Here are a few products for you to test"...I literally cried I was so excited)
I also had a chance to understand more about inov-8 and their 10-year growth story, clarifying a lot about recent product and marketing moves in the U.S. For example, did you know that inov-8 didn’t proactively position products into CrossFit in the US, but that CrossFit fanatics embraced the brand's commitment to stripped down performance, driving US sales up nearly 80% in one year? Pretty amazing. A far cry from the “inov-8 is abandoning trail running for CrossFit” concerns that I had heard from folks back home interpreting the new marketing material. In fact, inov-8 has never been more committed to trail running, and is actually cutting back the product line in more casual shoes to make room for new products like the RaceUltra vests, new shorts, jackets and shells, and improvements to some of their classic fast minimalist trail runners. These Athlete Retreats sure are handy for building up ambassadorship and knowledge!
(inov-8 expert Florian talks about the pose method while Talk Ultra's Ian Corless listens in...not a bad backdrop, eh?)
(Runners learn about new products and running science in between trail excursions)
It was also nice to have some time to shack up with a bunch of crazy trail running nuts as we explored Chamonix together. Chez inov-8 donned dirty gear with pride throughout the chalet, as informal group runs happened every couple of hours in between presentations on nutrition, Pose Method, shoe materials, clothing design and manufacturing, marketing strategy, worldwide athlete demographics, plus plenty of peer advice on how to help families cope with trail running addictions (ha, ha). Honorary team member Dave James Tsakanikas and the chefs of the group kept us full with delicious healthy food and a fair amount of Belgian beer and Swiss chocolate. Such a throwback to the college days! I could have easily done this all summer long, but we had more immediate goals on our mind – the Marathon du Mont Blanc was Sunday morning. Time to get the game faces on!

I woke up early on race day (thank you, jet lag!) to find Brendan and Alex searching online for a Western States 100 live update, at this point only a few hours in progress. Our race starts in less than 90 minutes, and they are checking on States?!? These are truly my people! As the rest of the team came in for coffee and Nutella toast, they fired off questions to all of us. How is fellow Team inov-8 member Yassine Diboun doing (on his way to M9!)? Where are Timmy, Hal, and Nikki? Is Nick Clarke crushing it? Did Rory go out fast? Is Mike Morton still in the mix, over a decade after winning? They knew the names as well as any States loyalist, and could tell just by the splits if somebody was having a great day, even though none of them have done the race....yet. ;-)

(Runners pack the city center)
We did our final gear checks, thanking the weather gods that our ~40-70 degree day was not nearly the rock oven hell of our Auburn compatriots. I was feeling good as I warmed up, although still only at about 85% since nursing a cycling injury the last month (although to be honest, the root cause was likely too much hard road running in April/May…who, me?). My Strava pals already knew it, but I’ve spent more time in the pool than on the trails in the last four weeks, only recently feeling worthy of racing again. Ah, c'est la vie! Since I wouldn’t at my peak shape, I lined up with the masses rather than sneak my way into the front, while the rest of Team inov-8 took their rightful place in the front row alongside the Skyrunning elite. The starting corral was the same center of town as UTMB, except we would be taking a left towards Argentiere, instead of a right toward Les Houches. At 7am, we were off!

(And we're off!)
(Running through the cobblestone streets as the clouds burn off)
(Bonjour, Chamonix!)
The first few miles cut through the cobblestone streets of Chamonix to some grassy fields and wide trails near the river. I immediately regretted lining up so far behind, as most of the folks in places 800-1200 were donning hiking poles at chatty-Cathy speeds, making a day of it. Every opening to pass had me charging past 20-30 people through wet grass, and my Garmin chimed as each surge took me over my aerobic pace. Good thing I knew some French – “Pardon! A la droit! A la gauche! Bon courage! S’cusez! Allez, allez!” - what is the French phrase for I'm-a-lame-ass-sandbagger again?

(Locals go triple wide...a la gauche!!!)
(Plenty of space to stretch out in the early miles)
(The single track is fast!)
I did pass up a few Team inov-8 members, as Sarah Ridgeway, Natalie White, and Anna Lupton were also working their way through the masses. I got a picture or two of Natalie, only realizing later that I was speaking in French the whole time and she didn’t recognize me! How strange that I forgot to use my native tongue. And there were so many GoPro-donning photojournalists on course today, I was just another snap-happy lunatique blending into Natalie's adventure. The mountains transform us all in mysterious ways!

(Sarah says hi as she charges up the hill)
(Climbing through the forest)
(Anna Lupton is easy to spot...if you're going to put a logo on a smoking hot runner, that's the place to do it!)
(Natalie chases down the boys as we enter town)
(Just another photo-crazy stranger, Natalie!)
By Argentiere (mile 6), I had caught up to the top 200 runners, and was among people doing a 7-8 min/mile over everything (mostly without poles, thank god). We steered our way through the cute little townships, which were at once familiar (kids lining up for high fives, lots of bells and cheers) and unfamiliar (10-foot clowns, brass bands, and brushing your arm against moist cow noses). There were only a couple of fully-stocked aid stations, but they were bountiful with “real” food, Coke, iced tea, and various goodies. The aid station at Vallorcine (mile 11) had a big blue bowl of sausage and cured meats, and just as was trying to figure out how one would eat it, the guy in front of my grabbed a handful of greasy goodness and shoved it into his mouth. Now THAT’s what I call a Paleo diet! Mountain style, of course, with no silverware required.

(10-foot clowns on the course...not sure what else to say about that)
(Big blue bucket of meat...come and get it!)
(A local band keeps things lively)
(Lots of love from the locals!)
The big climb began abruptly from Vallorcine, and was unforgiving from the first few lunges. Hand on quads, we charged 4,000’ ft up into the sky to the Col des Posettes (peaking soon after at 7,200’), droning in the meditative silence of mutually-assured pain. It just…kept…GOING. Luckily the temperature was still cool, and the trails were surprisingly dry for such a wet week building up to race day, so our quick pace brought us to the top within the hour.

(Take a right and go straight up 400 floors to the next aid station)
(Getting above the weather)
(Bliss a le col!)
(It's Spring, Summer, and Winter at the same time!)
(Mud and rocks as we near the peak)
(Aahhh...so that's why the windbreaker is required!)
Just as I felt I was about to die, heaven itself opened up at the crest of the climb with the most mesmerizing terrain. The expanse of mountains, glacier drifts, and green meadows instantly redefined my benchmark of Mother Nature's beauty, stealing my gaze at every turn. As I reached the top of the climb (mile 14) and found our other German Florian (European marketing guru for inov-8, who had gotten up at 5am to hike up here to cheer us on), I had to stop and spend a few seconds taking it all in. I think the pic pretty much says it all…incroyable!

(Am I right? This view is AMAZING!)
The descent was insane, steep enough to require two hands in many sections, and muddy and jagged enough to threaten a life-ending face plant should you catch a toe. That didn’t bother many of the locals who whizzed by me with ease, while my heart rate zoomed to a race-high max (on the descent!) as I did my best to leap down the wet, rocky cliffs. Alex Nichols had warned me to save a little for the last six miles, so I stayed off the red line and let a dozen runners pass, heeding his sage advice.

The hill curbed immediately it the town of Tre le Champ (mile 19), and I was able to turn up the pace again while other runners fueled up and massaged their stiffening legs. Somebody said “cent-quatre-vignt”, meaning I was around 180th place, so I kept count as I passed up the quad-fried and under-hydrated masses. The trails were far more saturated here, and it quickly proved easier to just charge through the creeks and mud rather than try to get around it. Besides, that's part of the fun, right? I focused in on the goal of making top 100, a worthy stretch goal. Plus I could practice counting backwards in French!
(We go south across this bridge this time...we went north at UTMB!)
(Mont Blanc to our left now)
The final miles began in the foothills heading back to Chamonix, then quickly turned into a beast. I realized why Alex was so insistent on his advice to save a little energy for the last section as we powered up 1,200 feet vertical in less than 1.5 miles. Mon dieu! I was still passing people (#122...cent-vignt-deux!), but by the time we approached Flegere (mile 23), my feet and hamstrings were twitching with that you-ain’t-trained-for-this staccato, altering my gait more and more with every switchback. I powered down the water and S!Caps to keep the cramps at bay, but every slip on those wet rocks seized my legs and balled my feet like Shrinky-Dinks. I found myself walking more than I would have liked, and started losing ground to others (including some pole users…hmmm, maybe not so crazy). We could hear the finish line though, so I knew it wasn’t far.
(Hands on quads, push, push, push!)
(Some cows help out at the aid station)
(I never get tired of that view!)
The finish banner appeared in sight about 1,000 more vertical feet over our heads (gulp!), and everyone could smellez le victoire (okay, maybe my French could use some help). I crossed the finish line at the edge of the world in 5:13 for 159th place, wrecked, humbled, and giggling best I could in between deep gasps of mountain air. Absolutely glorious!
(Finish line just a few more HUNDRED vertical feet!)
(A finish line location made for mountain folk!)
(Made it!)
As soon as I got my finisher medal, I heard the cheers of Team inov-8 hanging out on a cliff to my left, already enjoying the beer that was flowing freely from the finish line aid station. What a day they had! Five in the top 10 - Alex Nichols was 7th (3:48), Florian Reichert was 8th (3:55), and Oli Johnson was 10th (3:56), while Anna Lupton got 7th (4:55) for the Women and Shona Stephenson was 9th (4:57). Nicely done, team!
(Team inov-8 gives me a shout out)
(Oli Johnson and Alex Nichols congratulate each other at the finish, while Florian Reichert catches his breath)
(Alex Nichols, Oli Johnson, and Florian Reichert take 7th, 10th, and 8th!)
(Anna Lupton gets 7th, with enough breath to do an interview)
Kilian Jornet won in a course record 3:30, with rival Marco De-Gasperi just a minute behind.  American-residing-in-Italy Stevie Kramer obliterated the Women’s course record by 22 minutes in 4:03, healthily beating phenom Emelie Forsberg (4:23, also under previous course record). Knowing how fast these guys go, I now have a deep respect for anyone who can get Top 50 at a Skyrunning event – it is truly world class! I've got some work to do before Pikes Peak and Zermatt/Ultraks, but now that I've had a taste of Skyrunning, I know how to adjust the training...I think it has something to do with hurling down rock faces while sucking through a straw. ;-)

(Stevie Kremer and Kilian Jornet, 2013 Marathon du Mont Blanc champions)

(I have a cameo at 1:40 is this video summary - see if you can find my smiling mug!)

We descended on Chez inov-8 one last time for vegi’s, pasta and brews, exhausted from the honor of giving the mountains everything we had today. I marveled at the simultaneous face-to-face and Facebook-inspired conversation that we shared in real-time, celebrating and recording our adventures from around the globe. A sunny day with fellow trail runners in Chamonix may very well be my version of heaven, and I couldn't ask for better company than these trail angels.

(Trail running life is hard, eh Oli?)
My thanks to Super Team Manager Natalie White, the inov-8 marketing team, Skyrunning and the directors/volunteers of the Marathon du Mont Blanc, the good folks of Chamonix, and my fellow amazing teammates for a great weekend…I know in my heart I will see you all again soon!

Gear checklist:

Shoes - inov-8 TrailRoc 255
Socks - Injinji toe socks, original length, with 2XU calf guards
Shorts - inov-8 RaceElite 120 SS (coming soon!)
Shirt - inov-8 race singlet
Pack - inov-8 RaceUltra 2.1 waist pack (coming soon!), w/water bottles (500ml required) and whistle (required)
Windbreaker - inov-8 RaceElite shell (coming soon!) (required)
GPS - Garmin 910XT w/HR monitor
Gloves- some $3/pair University of Oregon bin specials
Visor - my lucky Ironman visor
Hat - inov-8 skull cap
Food - (2x) Hammer Gel plain, (1x) PowerGel Espressso, (2x) Honey Stinger Chocolate Waffles, (1x) salami slice...when in Rome!
Drink/Electrolytes - 66 oz water, 10 oz Coke, 4 oz iced tea, 3 S!Caps


  1. WOW! It looks like an amazing race. I'm so jealous you went to France. How beautiful! And look at all of that gear you got to try out!!

  2. Great post for learning more about this run! That bucket of dead animal is pretty sick!

  3. Awesome stuff. Also, I see that you will be running in Zermatt! I will be there making my Skyrunning debut also (as you may have noted on Strava). If you (or your teammates) are interested in going in on a place to stay let me know. If nothing else lets try to meet up for a beer and talk American strategy.

  4. I saw you in the second video at 1:40! Great post & pics. I'm thoroughly jealous.

  5. Late comments still count right? Thanks for taking us here with you. Enjoyed the heck out of it. Take me with on your next adventure?

  6. Wow! We just discovered your blog and we're blown away with all the beautiful photos that you manage to take while you are running (how are you doing that?! Do you have some sort of camera mounted to your head? What kind of camera do you use?)

    Just when we were thinking that finishing our first Half Marathon was such an accomplishment....ha ha ha
    Oh, well! Maybe someday we could actually do something like this (on a smaller scale). Trail running sounds really cool. It sure looks brutal, but beautiful. - Cheers from Utah

    1. Thanks for stopping by, and congrats on your first half! That is a HUGE accomplishment.

      Definitely try a trail run sometime - it's very different, but I think you'll love the views, people, soft dirt, and a chance to mix up your training. You'll be at Mont Blanc before you know it!

      Camera is Sony Cybershot (see link on right), and I just carry it in my hand. About 1 in 30 photos pan out, but generally there is enough to post!

  7. We were across the mountain in Courmayeur (hiking the TMB) the day of this race and thought of you! The weather the day before was awful, must not have been much fun for people doing the traverse race. What a beautiful place! Congrats on the awesome finish! I'm always blown away by the finishing times you run while simultaneously zipping around as the race paparazzi. (you caught a photo of us at Crystal Springs in Jan)

  8. Very nice pics, thanks for sharing your story !


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