Exit vacation, enter running: How I ran the Mont Blanc Cross

Exit vacation, enter running: How I ran the Mont Blanc Cross

A quiet family vacation turned into a running affair when an Indian decided to compete in the iconic Mont Blanc Cross Marathon in the adventure capital of the world.

By Sanjay Suri

After a couple of inactive years, with no marathons, trail races or swim events, this year finally turned out to be spectacular. I did my first half Ironman in Taiwan and the short course at Abu Dhabi Triathlon and spent tons of time training - cycling down the Gurgaon-Faridabad road, training in open waters and running in Sanjay Van - all in and around Delhi. As you can anticipate, or just take my word for it, training for these sports really eats into family time - especially when one ends up planning logistics and training for 6-8 hrs over the weekend. Once these events were over, I told myself that I’ll resist the urge to do any more events for now and go into maintenance mode so I can spend more time with family. Things didn’t turn out like that though. We were in April and we had planned a road trip in France in the second half of June.

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I had no clue of the places we would visit, other than Disneyland of course which was high up on the agenda for my 5 yr old. So when it came to planning the trip, I just had one request to my wife and friend Bobby who planned the trip. I’d like to visit Chamonix, the adventure capital, even if it’s for a couple days. They obliged with two days at Chamonix fixed for June 27 - June 29th. The rest of the trip was planned around Bourdeau, the Riviera, Paris and of course Disney.

Great, now that the dates were fixed, there was no harm looking for events in Chamonix - I felt lucky since we were there over a weekend. Within spending 2 seconds on the Internet, I couldn't believe my luck! The Mont Blanc Marathon, one of the most iconic trail run events, was to be held over the weekend of 27-29th June. There were a bunch of races scheduled:

Mont-Blanc 80K with an elevation of 6000m
Mont-Blanc Marathon with elevation gain of 2000m
Mont-Blanc Cross, 24K with elevation gain of 1454m (1,865m by my GPS)
Vertical KM, 3.8K with elevation gain of 1000m
Mont-Blanc 10 KM

I quickly went through the options and found The Cross to be eminently doable since “it was only 24K”. The Marathon would be too hard to train for in such a short time - just 45 days - and 80K was unthinkable - having never done an ultra. This was perfect - a world class event had aligned with our schedule and I had nothing to do with that. Just one big downer - these events had got sold out in Dec 2013, within 1 day of the start of registration. Heart broken, I signed up for the 10K which was still open (and thank God for that). The thought of a 10K was not exciting at all but there was nothing I could do about it. Soon there was hope.

The following weekend I happened to meet Gaël Couturier, Editorial Director of The Outdoor Journal. I made a simple connection, Gael is French, he’s an accomplished runner and a journalist. The Mont-Blanc is in France. Maybe Gael could speak to the folks at the Mont-Blanc races and magically get them to swap my 10K race bib for The Cross. I asked, he graciously pursued and the folks at Skyrunning who organize the event obliged. I was going to run The Cross - 24K and 1600m of climbing. The training had to begin.

My training was nothing special - 20K Sunday runs in Sanjay Van which is a forested area in Delhi over 4 weekends, followed by one long run in France a week before the event. That was the minimum I needed to do to survive the race. To really prepare well for a race like this though, one should do at least a few runs up in the Himalayas but I really could not take out the time for any of that.

Race day. As expected, one felt the excitement and the energy at the start line. Most runners were carrying a hydration backpack with nutrition, like gels and energy bars, as well as a thin waterproof shell. Some were better prepared with whistle, thermal blanket, torch and a warm layer as well. A wise thing to do since the weather could change quickly in the mountains. Also there were only 2 aid stations so one had to be well prepared with nutrition.

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There were about 1500 runners in all and it seemed like an even split between men and women. The Skyrunning world championship was also rolled into the same race so one saw elite participants as well as regular guys like me here.

This was an unassuming start. There was background music with rhythmic beats to get the excitement going but it was not overpowering the announcements. The announcements were both in French and English (American to be precise). The kick off was exactly at 7:30am as planned. Off we went.

Even though the distance was not much, I knew this race would be a long one. I thought, a single kilometer could take between 6-12 minutes depending on the elevation. And I was going to take it easy till 16K and only then decide to push hard if I still had leg and lung power. As it turned out, I never had to make that decision as the pace was determined by the fellow runners and we mostly had a single track so it was not easy to overtake or slow down the runners behind.

The first 3K went off very smooth. We had started where the valley was very wide, right where the paragliders land. From there the initial few kms took us on a wide path which was gently undulating. As I would find out later, this was the only time I would use the word gentle to describe anything about this race.

At the end of the first 3 K we came to the base of a climb. I found it surprising that it was a single person track with no room to overtake anyone, even if one had the will. Up till now, the relative position of the runners was the same as at the start. And going forward it would turn out to be the same. This was going to be one of the biggest lessons for me in this race. You need to calibrate your speed and then position yourself based on that at the start. That’s the only way you can run and finish at your optimum speed.

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The climb began and within seconds everyone was hiking up. It resembled a brisk walk at best and I did not spot anyone running. It was going to be like this for the most part of the run. The climb went on for about 2 K after which there was a steep descent followed by a gentle climb. This brought us to the first aid station with a variety of sweet and salty things to nibble and the usual drinks - water, energy drink and coke (with fizz!).

A bit of a descent from the first aid station, got us to a road crossing. Imagine the pain the organizers went through and investment into a temporary bridge to avoid inconvenience to commuters. It didn't seem like a busy road to me. Couldn't they have just done with a sign that said - ‘Expect delays, running championship in progress. Inconvenience regretted’. Things don't work like this over here I guess, there is a clear difference in mindset.

Finally my GPS indicated that the finish should be near. We had left the second aid station and started this endless and very steep climb. With just 500mtrs from the end, I turned the final corner to see the final ascent to the finish. The final climb was about 400mts and seemed like a 45degree angle. I cannot imagine even the elite running it. It would be quite a sight seeing them finish - perhaps some of them can manage to run up?

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I had at the start thought that I could take 4hrs. I finally took 4 1/2hrs.. a minute less I guess. I was happy to finish and headed down using the cable car service to Chamonix. What can I say - it’s a lovely thing to do. Your heart pounds so hard that you are left with no other thought other than can I do this? What am I doing this for? Is this good for my body? What is more resilient - heart, lungs or knees? Is this fun? I don't know if it can be categorized as fun. I think all this falls in a different sphere way beyond words can explain. I would do it again every year if i can plan it!

Feature image © Gaetan Hangeard
Other images © Sanjay Suri

Sanjay Suri is a technology entrepreneur and a consultant/advisor to multiple startups. He has always been a runner and has now taken up triathlons and open water swimming seriously. He can be reached at sanjay.suri@gmail.com