“This course isn’t a race, it’s an adventure!” I exclaimed to Caine Warburton and Marcus Warner as we sat at 2500m above sea level along the route to Col de la Terasse, looking at the valley below as the clouds were moving in above us. I had arrived in Chamonix a week prior to the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships worried about how I would fare against the best mountain runners in the world. But suddenly, I didn’t care! I just wanted the opportunity to experience more of these beautiful surroundings. It hit me that moments like the one I was currently experiencing were what it’s all really about.
As a result, I had a relatively restful night’s sleep before my alarm went off at 2am before the race. I do admit, I felt somewhat out of place slipping in behind last year’s UTMB winner Xavier Thevenard on the start line, yet my nerves remained calm. As the race commenced, the course immediately turned uphill. Personally I found this made it easy to regulate my pace as the gradient ensured I really noticed it if I tried to push too hard.
It wasn’t long until I found a comfortable rhythm running along with Emilie Forsberg and Caine Warburton. For the most part the first half of the climb was quite runnable. However, it was dark and I was only using a small head lamp to save on weight and so would often hike any remotely rocky bits to play things safe. I ended up just in front of Caine and Emilie but could also hear that Blake Hose had joined our conga line.
As we cleared the tree line, Mont Blanc rose triumphantly behind us on the other side of the valley, with a faint blue tinge to her snowy features. As we climbed many switch backs towards the summit of Brévent that faint blue glow turned to a vibrant purple, to orange to red and I had to force myself to watch the trail rather than this reflected sunrise.
Near the top, the path became quite rocky and the sound of spectator’s cow bells pierced the air. As soon as we commenced our first descent in the snow, Caine came flying past me appearing to be on a mission to use his downhill prowess to pick up a few places. I was quite content to keep the intensity low and save myself for later and was one of the few to refill both their water bottles at the first 10.8km checkpoint. I saw Blake also zoom by the aid station tent while I was in there. I figured that pretty much ruled out my chances of running with either of them for a while.
The descent continued for a little bit before turning uphill once more. I could tell that those in front of me were pulling away a little bit on the downhills, but I would hold my own against them (or even gain on some) when heading back up. But for the most part I focused on the mountain rather than the other runners, revelling in the simple fact that I was there. I had kept it fairly quiet in the lead up, but only 4 weeks prior I had required surgery on my right knee to clean out debris from a particularly nasty fall. I was less than a centimetre away from badly damaging tendons, which had been a harsh reminder of how fickle these opportunities can be.
On the rocky descent to the valley below my patience was tested as several more European runners passed me as they danced down the slope. I reminded myself that it was the final descent that mattered. I would be grateful for the decision later.
This was the first checkpoint at which I saw the ANZ team (i.e., those who were either supporting or racing the marathon on the Sunday). Some of the European Hoka guys were also there since they were crewing for Caroline Chaverot, and seeing so many familiar smiling faces lifted my spirits even more. Jo Brischetto helped me dump my flasks of Tailwind into my bottles (thank you Jo!) before setting off towards what I knew would be the ‘technical’ part of the course.
It was on this next climb that earlier my moment of revelation with Marcus and Caine had occured and I had been looking forwards to being reunited with it ever since. Slowly but surely, I started passing some of the runners who had bombed downhill past me not much earlier as we made our way up the rocky mountain slope. I made sure to exercise great caution when on the chains or crossing flowing water since I figured the 10 sec I might save from recklessness wasn’t worth the risk of falling this early into the run.
Half way up the climb we emerged at a dark soiled plain with a stream running through the middle of it. Up ahead I could see Caine’s distinctive green and gold Compressport R2 calf sleeves (which was totally my idea!) but there were still several other runners between us.
After more rocky scrambling we hit snow, which was actually quite firm as it seemed to have frozen over. I found my Rapa Nui’s were great for hiking up the steep snow and was making up places quickly. Eventually I even caught Caine and offered some words of encouragement. It was only then that I realised I must have been hiking very strongly as Caine told me he was feeling really good. I could see Blake not too far up ahead but he was almost out of sight by the time I reached the summit.
Along the top I was just running from marker to marker in the snow, trying to look for a route carved out by the faster runners. At one point I couldn’t see the next marker so continued in the direction I had been heading and suddenly found myself on the wrong side of pile of rocks with no markers in sight. After a minute of panic I ran back towards the last marker I had seen and then suddenly saw the next one further down the mountain. Having realised the foolishness of my mistake, I told myself that I would always make sure I had found the next marker before I continued running.
My little blunder had given Caine an opportunity to catch up with me and I was quite relieved to have a friend to run with to aid with navigation. Almost as soon as Caine came along beside me, my right foot burst through the layer of ice and snow and I managed to roll over my shoulder and pop straight back up onto my feet, ready to continue our descent. Caine initially seemed worried but then laughed when he realised I was ok.
I thought we must have missed a marker when suddenly the next flag appeared below us on the other side of 5m drop. But the distinct evidence that other runners had slid down the steep drop off made me quickly realise that we would have to do the same. Unsure how best to approach the task, I simply jumped and put my gloved hands under my backside for some protection. It got me down the slope safely though because I was only wearing my Ronhill running shorts I did have a slight graze on my backside.
A little bit further along, the descent steepened once more, but this time it continued for hundreds of meters. Things were about to get fun! To be honest, it was obvious neither Caine nor I had any clue what we doing, other than hoping for the best. On the fly we attempted to work out whether it was more efficient/stable to try to run or to ski. I think we both quickly discovered that falling over wasn’t the fastest option! After several near misses with Caine, I figured out that if I targeted the softer looking snow and dug my heels in then I could run with a long loping stride (I figured my Hokas would save my quads from this high impact technique!). Eventually we reached solid ground but I was actually a little sad for that special experience to have ended.
As we wound our way along a section of rocky single track, I spotted Jason Schlarb (who I met earlier at the registration) up ahead. I was wondering what we were doing catching up to him while a family of chamois appeared up ahead. This was actually my first encounter with these beautiful creatures and I watched on enviously as they pranced down the rocky slope.
The three of us entered the 40.6km checkpoint pretty much together and Caine inquired about our current placing. When the response was “tenth”, I actually didn’t believe them and figured that they must have missed several runners.
Soon Marcus Warner appeared on course, shouting out encouragement before a short climb involving chains. When asked as to how I was feeling my response was that “I’m still warming up!” In hindsight that probably sounded a little over confident but it was the truth; I was only just starting to get going! Quickly, I pulled away from Caine going up the chains.
The next section of running along the top of the range was one of the most scenic experiences I’ve ever had. The flowing single track didn’t require as much concentration as some other sections, so I could afford to stare a little at the snow covered mountains across the valley. It was yet another special moment the course had granted me.
Along the descent into Vallorone, Kilian Jornet shouted encouragement while perched upon a rock by the side of the track. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had run there as a warm up for the vertical kilometre in the later afternoon!
Coming into the 49.1km checkpoint a man held up 9 fingers at me. I knew what that meant. The guy at the last checkpoint hadn’t miscounted! Soon, I was again greeted by the ANZ team and Hoka guys and after quickly refilling my bottles with Tailwind I set off with Caine now only a few meters behind me. Suddenly, the flatness of running through the valley ended when the course turned steeply up the side of a grassy paddock. I couldn’t help but smile; a steep power hike was exactly what I felt like!
During one of the more runnable sections, James Kuegler came running in the opposite direction and informed me that there were 4-5 runners only a couple of minutes ahead and that apart from Blake, none were looking too fresh. On the other hand I was still only starting to feel warmed up and for the first time started counting off how many places I might be able to pick up. For the first time I dared to dream of making it into the top 5.
As the climb continued I started to reel in the other runners. 8th place, 7th place and suddenly I could see Blake up ahead in 6th. We neared the top of les Posettes and Mont Blanc loomed into view behind it. Beautiful! “Just one more hill left!” I shouted to Blake as we made our way along the rocky track. At the summit I was informed that Phillipp Reiter was only a couple of minutes ahead and I enthusiastically began my descent.
I don’t know which was more spectacular at this point: the view of Mont Blanc or the joy of the technical descent. I kept in mind to save a little for the last climb and descent but I was genuinely surprised at how fresh I was still feeling. I was having so much fun!
As I entered Argentière, some of the ANZ team were waiting, cheering us on. I passed Phillipp as we ran through the carpark although less than a minute later I took a wrong turn through the street and ever the gentleman, Phillipp was quick to call me back on course. As we left the town, there was a mandatory gear check and I was grateful the layout of my pack made it so quick and easy to show all my gear.
As I stopped at the checkpoint to refill my bottles for the penultimate time, Blake caught up with me and so we left the checkpoint together. I soon had a small lead on Blake, which was quickly lost when I made another wrong turn running through town streets (I seem to have a lot of trouble navigating through French towns!). Luckily Blake was close enough that when I shouted out to him, I was able to get back on course by following his voice (in an act of good sportsmanship/mateship he had also briefly stopped so I could see him around the corner).
After catching back up to Blake we ran together for a little more, both excited by the prospect of having just one more up and down to go. However, by the time the climb up to le Montenvers commenced, I had pulled away from Blake and could now see Mike Wolfe up ahead.
I told myself that this was what I had been saving myself for and resisted to the temptation to power hike and instead ran most of the climb. As I passed Mike, he simply said “Go get them!” I didn’t actually think he was being serious as I figured the guys running for the podium were probably at least half an hour ahead. Instead I focused on maintaining my rhythm and enjoying this climb with such stunning views.
Near the top the course became quite scrambly and technical. I was glad for the excuse to hike a little as I was also starting to get thirsty in the heat of the day. I finally took off my gloves that I had been wearing all day, moved my scarf from around my neck to my wrist and opened up my shirt to cool off. I was relieved when I saw the cable car as I knew that meant I would soon be able to grab some extra water.
I was content that I could no longer see Mike and was actually feeling quite good after the couple of cups of water at the checkpoint. When I was informed that third place was now only 3 minutes ahead, the fire was lit. It was time to step things up a notch!
I took off along the Grand Blacon Nord with keen intent. Not even the spectacular panorama of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc region could distract me now! Around every corner I was looking out for third and as the Aiguille du Midi cable car came into view, so too did Clement Petitjean.
Hikers out on the trail were shouting out encouragement as I hopped along the rocks drawing ever closer. Just before the refuge I finally caught Clement and prepared myself for the final descent. I felt great and I was ready.
There was no more holding back this time; only enough caution to avoid any unnecessary mishaps. Not once did I look back. I had practiced this descent a couple of times in the week prior and had visualised a moment like this. Down I flew, loving every step but also hoping that I was pulling away (I wanted to avoid a sprint finish if at all possible!).
Even when I reached the cable car carpark at the bottom, I didn’t let the intensity drop. It wasn’t until I was running through the packed streets of Chamonix that I could tell by the crowd’s cheers that there was no one within 100m of me. But now the overwhelming support of the whole town willed me ever faster towards the finish line. I lost myself in those final moments as I made my way through the finishing straight and 10:52:33 of mountain running ecstasy climaxed as I crossed the finish line.
Ultimately most of the joy I was feeling was stemming from the fact I had just experienced over 80km of the most beautiful mountain trails of my life, and felt wonderful for the whole day. The fact I finished in third place at the Skyrunning World Championships simply provided me with an outlet with which to celebrate this. There were hugs and high fives with friends and strangers alike and I proudly draped the Australian flag around my shoulders.
It wasn’t long until Blake crossed the line in 6th place in 11:14:26 and then Caine in 9th place in 11:31:32. We were ecstatic to have three Australians in the top ten! This in itself was far more satisfying than any individual result. I hope it also encourages some of the European runners to come try racing Australia…clearly it isn’t THAT flat 😉
Thank you so much to all my friends, family and sponsors, as without out your constant support, amazing experiences like this one wouldn’t be possible. Thank you also to the Skyrunning Australia and New Zealand Federation for giving me the opportunity to run in this event in the first place. This adventure into European Skyrunning has been a real eye opener for me and has left me more enthusiastic than ever!
4 thoughts on “80km du Mont Blanc – Skyrunning World Championships 2014”
Congratulations Ben! That was one hell of a race. ‘Sad’ that I stayed up late to ‘watch it’ live on Twitter. Perhaps we should recommend Mt Cootha as a training venue to some of the serious European mountain runners? Perhaps they couldn’t handle the climbs?! Look forward to watching out for your next adventure in the mountains. Especially keen to find out how you are going to train for big snow covered descents over here!
Fantastic race report Ben and really well done! It is a truly beautiful part of the world.
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