Saturday, 21 July 2012

3rd time lucky

July saw my third attemp at the Chamonix Marathon.  After last year's blistering heat and too-fast start, which saw me running 12 mins slower than the previous year, I said I was taking a year off that race.  Then I went and won a free place in a draw, which I was not allowed to give away, so I couldn't waste it!

The Chamonix marathon was my first ever marathon - not an easy one to start with you might think, with it's 2500m ascent, 1500m descent and finishing at an altitude at 2000m.  But it's where I live and I managed to gradually build up from the hilly half-marathon to full distance over a couple of years.  As with many other races of this ilk, it's got increasingly popular, so when I attempted to enter back in 2010 it was already full 2 months earlier than the previous year.  I continued to train for the event and sneakily managed to swap bibs with another girl who had decided to pull out the day before.  I had no expectations and only hoped to get round.  There was a 9hr time limit and I knew that most of my friends took around twice as long to complete it as they could a flat marathon.  It was very hot, 30 degrees plus, which does not agree with me on most days, let alone when I'm trying to run in the mountains.  It was a very tough race, but I was happy to get round in 7hr46.

Year 2 saw me, or so I thought, training smarter rather than harder.  I was so excited about doing the race again, convinced that I would smash my previous time, but that excitement led me to go off far too fast at the start and totally run out of steam way before the tough final 10km section.  It was even hotter that day too, most of my supporters were flagging just watching in the heat, so I really struggled.  I barely managed to run the later sections where I had targeted an improvement on the previous year and dragged my sorry arse over the line 12 minutes slower.  I was totally gutted.  I had been convinced I'd be faster, I had trained so much harder, so surely it was a done deal?  I know now that my lack of race experience showed that day.  I sprinted the first few kms, using up too much energy too soon, then didn't take on enough fuel until it was too late.  I bonked on one of the tough later ascents, trying desperately to get more fuel in and somehow managed to carry on, albeit at a snail's pace.  I announced at the finish that there was no was I was going to do the race again the following year.

This year was different.  Despite not feeling faster or more confident than the year before, my training had gone well - running through the winter, the Annecy marathon 10 weeks beforehand, more interval work, more hills and group training with faster ladies.  I was trying not to get my hopes up after last year's disappointment, but I felt good in the lead up to the race.  Another big difference for me was the weather.  The day before the race was super-hot, but on race day the forecast was for lower temperatures and some rain.  Bingo!  I had also re-evaluated my fuelling, gear and pace, in light of other races.  My main concern was making sure I did not repeat the errors of year 2 and not to put too much pressure on myself.  Don't think there was much chance of that with many big boozy nights out a couple of weeks before!  Oops.

The marathon weekend is a favourite of mine in Chamonix.  The town comes alive with visitors, the weather is usually boiling and there are plenty of races to spectate.  New last year was the vertical kilometre - a 'sprint' from the town centre to the top of the Planpraz cable car, directly under the lift, with an ascent of 1000m.  The race takes part on Friday evening with runners leaving at 1 minute intervals, a big screen showing the finish line and this year some big names, including Anna Frost and my favourite boy, Kilian Jornet.  Saturday is for the Cross, a 23km shorter version of the marathon, plus the 10km race.  Every year we have visitors coming to try their hand and I love supporting them and my local friends in their respective races.

5am on Sunday meant porridge with raisins, nuts & honey, final weather-friendly kit decisions, mixing my Torq drink and trying to keep the nerves at bay.  We leave home soon after 6am, amazed to see loads of people running into town to the start.  It's cool, but not as cloudy as expected, so I have dressed in summer kit with the mandatory waterproof in my pack.  We meet up with friends, all eager to get going, but looking nervous.  I am feeling surprisingly good.  By the time we line up ready for the start at 7am, I am excited and really looking forward to the day.

My strategy was this - to take it really easy over the initial, fastest 15km of the course between Chamonix and Vallorcine, take it steady on the uphill slog to the Aiguilette des Possettes, try not to fall over on the steep downhill to Le Tour where any rain could make it slippery, run all the flat and downhill sections between Montroc and Flegere and hope to have something left in the tank to get to Planpraz.  I had packed cereal bars, dried bananas, Clif shot blocks, sesame snaps, 1litre of 6% mix Torq in my Camelbak, pledged not to eat any of the random things they have at the stations that I wouldn't usually eat on a run (saucisson, cheese, manky melted chocolate and prunes) and to drink coke whenever possible (sounds odd I know, fizzy drink while running, but all my running pals swear by it too).

7am, the music is pumping out into the town centre and we're off.  We run through town to the cheers of hundreds of bleary-eyed spectators, out towards le Praz and up to Lavancher.  I resist the urge to zoom through the woods as per last year and take it really easy.  There are usually a few bottlenecks due to the narrow path, which can be quite frustrating when you know it's a runable section, but it wasn't too bad.  I made it to Argentiere and Montroc very slightly slower than expected, but knew I had to conserve energy rather than hammering it to make up a few minutes.  In reality I was comparing my time to a training run that actually started a bit closer, so I was right not to panic.

On through Tre-le-Champ, over the Col des Montets and down through le Buet is my favourite part of the course.  The trail is easy going and the views towards the mountains breathtaking.  I popped behind a rock for a wee and somehow managed to get my ipod cable wrapped around my knickers, which took a bit of sorting out!  I saw my friend John and then Helen, a first-timer who was clearly struggling with her fuelling.  I was expecting to see my husband Andy in a few kms at Vallorcine, so told her to hold on and we'd get her an emergency re-hydration drink.  We got to the refreshment station where I drank coke, ate some dates and topped up my Camelbak.  When Helen opened hers it was still full - a clear sign that she wasn't taking enough fuel on.  We put energy powder in there and headed off.  Luckily Andy was where I'd hoped he would be, so we retrieved the pre-mixed bottle of re-hydration salts and Helen downed it.  I have to admit I was really concerned about her at that point as she seemed a bit delirious and I thought she might have gone beyond the point of no return, but she's very determined and amazingly pulled it back.

From there the route goes straight up a steep hill, through the woods and spits you out onto a ski piste, where the track widens and winds up to the Aiguilette des Possettes.  I was munching on alternative snacks of Shot Bloks and dried bananas and it seemed to be working a treat.  The next drinks station had a jolly man with an accordion and stunning views towards the Mont Blanc Massif.  The weather had been warm up to this point and luckily the rain had stayed away, but it was starting to cool down and cloud over.  I met Helen at the top of the Posettes again, who stuffed her rubbish into my bag - charming!  What was wrong with your own bag Helen?!  She still seemed a bit out of it.  I knew she was faster than me, so was happy to have her in my sights and I think that focusing on her took my mind off things.  The route down from the Possettes is pretty treacherous - steep, rocky, lots of steps cut into the hill, numerous first aid posts in case of accidents - and at one point a lady fell hard, right in front of us, which brought things home a bit.  I found the descent slower than last year, although actually I was faster!  I think we were more bunched-up, so the lack of space between runners made it feel slow.  By the time we got to Le Tour, I was feeling tired, but my quads felt relatively OK and I got back to Montroc ahead of time to see my work colleagues supporting me.

At the Tre-le-Champ refreshments I saw Helen again and Nikki also caught us up.  It was great to see the girls and we all filled up our Camelbaks with water and more powder.  The guitarist stationed there started belting out 'Highway to Hell', which seemed very appropriate with my least-favourite part of the route coming up!  Helen scooted off and we all dispersed again, up towards Flegere.  This section is uphill with some enjoyable undulating parts, which I was happy to be able to run for the first time in 3 years.  I passed the area where I had bonked last year, feeling OK and definitely far cooler than before.  The tough, steep slog up to the Le Trappe ski lift passed much faster than expected, a section where I usually want to sit down and give up, so I was chuffed to be feeling so good.  The weather started coming in and it was very misty when we emerged from the trees.  Another quick slog up the piste to Flegere and I was at the final drinks station.  This was the first point when I realised I was making good time.  It was 6hr20, I had done the final section in 1hr10 last year, so surely that meant I could make 7hr30?

So I went for it.  I barely stopped at the refreshments and decided not to bother to put my coat on, as a lot of other runners were doing.  That was a good call as they all seemed to change their minds after a few minutes and stop to take them off again!  It was only raining lightly and it was actually really refreshing.  I went as hard as I could, running all the downs and flats, stomping the ups.  I came out of the last tree section, onto the last downhill, knowing that I could make 7hr30 if I kept this up, there was only the final uphill left and I knew it wasn't far, but I really wasn't sure how long it would take and the mist meant I couldn't see the last ascent or the finish line, only hear it.  I stormed up the hill and before I knew it, I could see spectators, my friends and the finish line!  I ran over the line in 7hr21, a whopping 25mins off my PB.  I was elated, grinning from ear to ear.

Helen & John finished just ahead of me, Nikki came over the line (and burst into tears!) soon after, so we all finished within 10mins of each other.  It was fabulous to all be there together, all very happy, with Nikki & I smashing our previous times - she knocked 45mins off!  I was leaping about like a madwoman, still felt relatively OK and actually think I could have gone a little harder or further.  But my training and strategy had paid off, the weather had been kind and I was in a totally different place at the finish to both of my previous attempts.

Looking back at the race now, I am very happy with how I approached it, everything went according to plans and comparing my splits to the previous year I made up most of my time in the later half of the course, so think my strategy was spot-on.  Who knows what enabled me to make such improvements but it must be the mix of good training, cooler weather and fuelling that worked.  For me having liquid carbs in my Camelbak rather than having to rely on solids & gels, both of which tend to get harder to digest as the race goes on, was a big change.  But also having my friends around me, taking the pressure off myself and enjoying the day was a real plus.  My recovery has also been easier than previous years and I ran 20km just 2 weeks after.  I could still barely breath at that point last year!

So onwards and upwards.  My next race is the 58km semi-Trail de Ticino on 4th August.  Further than I've ever run before.  Bring it on.