It is 7am and I have awoken in an Alpine wonderland. Arriving in Chamonix late the night before, I checked into the Chalet Vert et Blanc in the dark, not knowing what dawn had in store outside my window. I sensed it would be exceptional but I hardly expected this.
I am, quite literally, staring at a glacier. Glacier des Bossons, to be exact. I expand my gaze and realize I am surrounded by 360° chin-dropping views of the Alps. Their jagged, snow-covered peaks rising like marbled glass in the distance. I have flown over the Alps many times but never seen them up close. I wonder now what took me so long.
Best known as an Alpine ski mecca and the host to the world’s first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, the resort town of Chamonix transforms into an extreme sports playground in the summer. From hiking famed Mont Blanc to canyoning, mountain biking and paragliding, it’s more a place for the fearless than the feeble. Mountaineer Mark Twight once called it “the death-sport capital of the world.”
I have arrived in France’s adventure capital to attempt an adventure of my own, the Mont Blanc Marathon. What possessed me to attempt a marathon up (yes, I said up) Western Europe’s highest peak? Now that I see it, I suddenly have no idea. Perhaps a moment of irrational athletic exuberance? Possible. It’s been known to happen to me before.
But more on that later, for now I’m completely focused on my wondrous surroundings. My choice of where to stay in Chamonix was partly decided by Trip Advisor (Vert et Blanc takes their #1 spot in town) and partially by the chalet’s own website. When I saw the pictures I simply fell in love with the place.
Renovated 4 years ago by Brits David & Jackie, the chalet has 8 stylish bedrooms each with its own bath. In the summer, it operates on a B&B basis. As I stare out at the magnificent view of the Alps from my window, I realize it wasn’t the view that woke me up. It was the heavenly smell coming from the kitchen downstairs. I know that smell…fresh croissants baking in the oven. It was a divine aroma that would awaken me all 5 mornings of my stay.
My plan for Day 1 in Chamonix was to head to the Sports Centre in town to pick up my race number and then explore a little. The chalet is a little less than a mile outside of town but the walk along a riverside bike trail is the perfect way to start any day. During my stay I really came to enjoy the daily walks into town.
Day 2 – The Mont Blanc Marathon
Sunday morning came early and it’s marathon time! The race start line was a nice easy walk from the chalet and by 7am I was at the start line with 2,000 others and ready to tackle Mont Blanc – or so I thought.
First, a little about the course. I don’t know who designed the Mont Blanc course but I would have really liked to have a few words alone with him after the race. It’s a course clearly meant to challenge even the strongest runner (which I am not – I am a casual runner and I embrace that). Not only is the course mostly uphill, it also climbs to an altitude of more than 7,200ft (2200 meters).
Living in Atlanta, training at altitude was virtually impossible for me. I tried to train for hills as best I could but with many of my training runs taking place in Las Vegas and New Orleans while away on business the past few months that was also a challenge.
So, I worked with what I had and then counted on my previous 10-marathon experiences to get me through the rest – it almost didn’t.
The first few miles weren’t bad as they were somewhat flat with only minimal climbing. But the 3-4 miles approaching the half-marathon mark were torture, straight up to the highest altitude of the race. I’m not kidding when I say at the half-marathon point, I honestly wasn’t sure I could go on. I had to stop every few minutes just to try to control my breathing. My lungs were absolutely screaming and I was feeling nauseous and light-headed. Climbing in the Alps at altitude is for the likes of Lance Armstrong, not me.
All that kept me going was the thought of the extended descent I knew was on the other side of the half-marathon mark. Somehow, I made it to the top. I can’t remember how, I might have blacked out. But the descent that I was so looking forward to wasn’t all it was cracked up to be either.
Yes, I could breathe better with every foot I descended, but the descent was so rapid and steep that the footing was tricky and dangerous. Especially with legs that were already shaky from the climb up. And I hadn’t realized just how hard climbing downhill for several miles would be on my knees. My legs began to hurt in places they’d never hurt before.
Adding insult to injury (or vice versa), about a mile into the climb down, my foot slipped on a loose rock sending me hurtling down the trail at twice the speed of sense. (Of course, if I had any sense would I be here in the first place?) I thought to myself, falling down a mountain…really? Didn’t we just do this last summer? I mean this is sooo Western Samoa. I’ve really got to start working on some original material.
When I stopped sliding, I stood up shakily and took stock of the situation. Nothing seemed to be broken or hurting. Yet there is blood coming from….somewhere. Identify the source. Oh God, my hand! OK, not a big deal, couple of scrapes caked in blood and dirt. Probably just the mark of a true Alpine-marathoner. There was no one else around (at this point in the course, everyone was pretty spread out) and I couldn’t spare any of the little water I had left not knowing where the next aid station was. So, I left the hand as is, considered myself lucky and pressed on. A little more gingerly this time.
Near the end of the descent I came across a lovely little stream with fast-running, ice cold glacier water. I stopped to rinse my hand a little but the dirt was caked in so deep it didn’t do much good. I did, however, use the opportunity to clean the dirt off my legs which at least made me feel a little less like a disaster. And the cold water felt so good it was all I could do not to jump in and splash around a bit. I started thinking about the hot tub on the deck at the chalet and for a moment wondered again what the heck I was doing out here on the side of a mountain while the rest of the town was on vacation.
But since this was clearly not a productive thought, I pushed it aside and pressed on. The course had leveled out for the moment and I stopped to take in the amazing scenery around me. I figured I was somewhere around the 30k mark (there were precious few kilometer markers on the course which I found very frustrating). So, the good news was I was more than half-way home. The bad news was that I knew that the remainder of the course was a repeat of the earlier climb straight up the mountain.
Seriously, who does this? How do you end a marathon with 8-10 miles of uphill climb at altitude? What exactly are the French trying to prove??? People in the Alps are athletic, I get it. Do we really have to kill ourselves on the side of a mountain to prove it? I started making the slow climb back up but my body was beginning to protest. And my lungs had filed for divorce.
If I’m being completely honest with you all, I was ready to quit at this point. I couldn’t climb for more than a quarter of a mile without stopping to sit on a rock and catch my breath for a minute. It was sheer torture. I was more than 5 hours in and I’d never experienced a feeling of defeat like this in a marathon before. I thought to myself, I’ve finished 10 marathons, I have nothing to prove. Don’t be stupid. Listen to what your body is telling you.
And if quitting had been an option, I seriously think I would have. And I would have been OK with that. I’m a marathoner, not a masochist. But, you see, here’s the problem: I was on the side of a mountain in the Alps. There were no aid stations or help of any kind for miles around. I could have waited for another runner to pass me but they wouldn’t have been able to help either. We were out here all alone. I suppose I could have used my phone to dial the local authorities and have them bring in the helicopter to rescue me but my pride wouldn’t allow that. I really just wanted to hop in someone’s car and have them drive me back to the chalet and be a dear and fetch me a glass of wine. I realized that I had no choice but to press on.
So, press on I did. And it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My legs and lungs were on fire. As I neared the top (and the finish line) every breath was a struggle, every step a small victory. I stopped to catch my breath many, many times. It was the only way I could keep going.
At one point around (probably) mile 22, I heard the helicopter. It was dragging one of those rescue stretcher/basket things and for one brief moment, I hoped it was coming for me. But it wasn’t. Apparently, someone else had decided to call in the cavalry. Can’t say that I blame them.
There were no aid stations on the last stretch to the top (there were only 3 on the whole course) and I thought I’d brought enough water but I hadn’t. I didn’t anticipate how quickly I’d go through it. I rationed it out to the bitter end. My hand had finally stopped bleeding but it was so swollen that I couldn’t make a fist. It seemed like a minor issue compared to not being able to breathe.
When I finally reached the finish line, more than 7 ½ hours after I’d started, I really thought I might pass out with relief. I finally had all the water I could drink and I was hoping to get a medic to clean up my hand. No luck, as the medics were all gathered around some guy on a stretcher and it seemed rude to ask if they could step away from the unconscious guy and put a band-aid on my boo-boo. So, I figured it could wait until I got back to the chalet. The beautiful chalet. Where they have wine….and a hot tub…and croissants…I was dreaming of it at this point.
As I made my way to the gondola station (uphill, naturally) for the ride back down to Chamonix, a police officer noticed my hand and offered to take a look at it. Since I didn’t really want to go back to my very civilized chalet with blood and dirt caked all over me, I was grateful. He retrieved a first aid kit from his Jeep and rinsed off my hand with antiseptic before bandaging it. He was cute…but unfortunately I was in no shape for flirting.
When I made it back to the chalet, I took the longest shower of my life and still couldn’t get all the dirt out of the cuts on my hand. But I did the best I could and then crawled into bed. I woke up starving 6 hours later.
Days 3, 4 and 5 – Recovery Mode
For my remaining 3 days in Chamonix, I was much less ambitious. The chalet had a lovely hammock on the deck and I spent a lot of quality time there. Each day I would awaken to the smell of chocolate croissants, roll out of bed around 9am, spend a few hours checking e-mail or editing photos and then walk into town for lunch and/or dinner before retiring back to the chalet with a glass of wine and a good book.
For those not running a marathon in Chamonix, the #1 summer adventure sport is paragliding. I watched daily as a parade of rainbow-colored parachutes danced effortlessly over the Alpine peaks like colorful birds of prey. Tandem flights are popular with many visitors but I decided I’d had enough near-death experiences for one week and watching from the hammock was more than enough for me.
Whether you come to Chamonix for the extreme sports or just to get away to the mountains for a while, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the Alps in their natural summer splendor. The air is crisp and fragrant, as if everyone is walking around town with an evergreen strapped to their backs. Blending of village and mountains is seamless. Wherever you go, the gargantuan Alpine peaks stand guard in the distance. I have a whole new respect for them.
Before I signed up for this marathon, I’d never even heard of Chamonix. Now I can’t believe I haven’t visited before. There are two things I know for sure: I’ll definitely be back someday and it won’t be to run a marathon.
Next up, a quick stop in Geneva before heading on to Barcelona to meet up with my friend Shannon for our week-long Mediterranean cruise.