Two years ago, we stayed in Chamonix for a couple of days while en route to Zermatt for the World Long Distance Championships at the Zermatt Marathon. Coincidentally, we were there the same weekend of the Mont Blanc Marathon. The excitement buzzing through the valley and the inspiration of watching the racers finish the 80km race in town was so special that I wanted to be a part of it. This year we made that happen.
This was our third time traveling to Chamonix, so even though I was going to a foreign country, I felt comfort going to a familiar place. The weather when we arrived was super warm for us Pacific Northwesterners – mid-8o’s. That sun is just so hot if you’re not used to it.
Two days after we arrived and two weeks before the race, we ran 16 miles of the Mont Blanc Marathon course as part of a 20-mile long run. One week before the race we ran the 10-mile loop that included the daunting climb up to Col des Possette. Our first impressions were that the course was much more technical than we had first thought, but still nothing too crazy (especially for Europe).
The climb (3,000 feet in 3.5 miles) was not as bad as I had anticipated and, after studying splits from racers past, set a goal of placing in the top 10. To be honest I really wanted to be one of the ten women standing on the awards stage. With 9,000 feet of climbing and 5,000 feet of descending in 26 miles it was not going to be easy, but I felt confident that this was a realistic goal.
The day before the race I got called to the laboratory next to the hospital to get my blood taken for doping control. I was so honored to take part! I stood in line behind Kilian Jornet. No big deal. As an aside, I just got an email today from the lab saying that my cortisol levels were especially high and that maybe this was race anxiety, but I should still share this information with my doctor. This stressed me out.
The night before the race a front came through changing the weather dramatically. Now I was anticipating rain for much of the race and hoped it wouldn’t be too bad at 6,000 feet. I started out the first four miles clicking off splits that were similar to my tempo run 10 days before. I was feeling good, running calm and relaxed, completely under control sitting in 5th position. Right before the climb to Possette, there was a downpour. The men around me were all stopping to put their jackets on, but I figured it would pass through quickly and knew that we wouldn’t be up on the ridge for long. And, come on, I live in the Pacific Northwest−this is nothing! The rain did let up, but left me soaked and in a cloud with zero visibility making a chilly traverse across Possette. The descent off the mountain is super technical with rocks and stairs made of slick wood logs. These technical parts are usually my weakness but after practicing on Chuckanut Ridge this Spring I was pleased that I only got passed by two men and I even passed one myself.
I always take GU when I’m racing and have never had a problem. When I took my first GU of the race, I noticed it didn’t appeal to me as it usually does and had a harder time getting it to go down. I didn’t think anything of it, and attributed it to breathing hard at elevation. But each sequential GU kept getting harder and harder.
When we finally bottomed out, I felt off. I didn’t have the same composure. There is a road crossing at 19 miles where they put a temporary overpass made of scaffolding two-stories high. This is where the wheels fell off my bus. Looking back on the pictures, Tad told me that in this spot I look sick and pale with a caved in face. I started the long climb up to Flégère, but could only run a few steps, then I’d have to bend over. I suddenly felt so nauseas and had such an incredible thirst. Unfortunately, there was no aid until the top of Flégère. I have never felt such sickness in a race. I was really struggling and still had so far to climb to get to water. I don’t even like to drink from the same bottle as Tad, but here I was asking random people on the side of the trail and other racers for water. I started getting passed by other women until I was clinging to the 10th spot.
When I finally got to the Flégère aid station, the top of a 6,000 foot peak, it was completely socked in and I became so cold I started shaking violently. The med staff saw me and pulled me into the medical tent and made me lie down on a cot. They brought me some Isostar sports drink and wrapped me up in an emergency blanket. One of the men even took his jacket off and covered me. They rubbed my hands together and made me tea to try to warm me up. They checked my temperature which had dropped significantly. Smartly, this race has a mandatory gear list for all racers which includes a cell phone. They were able to get me wi-fi (“wee-fee” as they called it) so I could call Tad. With his usual spectating plan of driving and running side trails he had followed my progress and was aware I had lost some spots when he last saw me at 21 miles.
He was down in the valley in line to take the gondola up to meet me at the finish hoping I was holding on to that top ten podium spot. I explained I was sick in the medical tent so he drove to Les Praz and took the gondola up to Flégère. He got to the top, looked in the medical tent and saw two cots, one empty and one holding jackets and a space blanket. I was so bundled he didn’t even notice the lump under the pile was me. Tad said to call it a day and come back down the mountain in the gondola, but after the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Slovenia last year, there was no way I was not going to finish. I asked how long I could lay there and still finish. I had three hours to get it together, so I laid there for about an hour and started feeling better. I thanked everybody for helping me and walk-jogged the final 5k which took a little over an hour. Tad jogged the first half mile with me to make sure I was okay to finish and then turned around and went back down the gondola at Flégère. This meant that I was alone at the finish. I am usually so hard on myself, but in this moment, I felt so proud. I took a selfie and got my yearly cup of coke. By this time the clouds lifted and the sun came out so I sat down for a bit and enjoyed the view before taking the gondola back down.
So, what happened? Well, I don’t know for sure. Was I severely dehydrated? With this much climbing did I underestimate how slowly I should start? Did I have a bug? What could I have done differently? These are all questions going through my head to make note of and learn from for next time.
I honestly got to experience it all. From being treated as an elite, to racing in the top five, to being taken care of by the kindness of strangers, to racing to the finish with back of the packers (which is no different than running up front!). My friend Nikki summed it up best for me: “What an incredible day! To learn how fast you are (first 18 miles), how tough you are (last 3 miles), and how loved you are (Tad and aid station workers) all in one race!” The whole experience leaves me feeling so full of gratitude. The best part about not racing the way I had hoped is I get to return to Chamonix and try again. I’ll be back for you Flégère!
Two days after the race, we rented a car in Chamonix and drove to Varese, Italy to see my family. It is always so special to see them and they treat Tad and me like royalty. I’m still dreaming about the lasagna, risotto, cream puffs…
From Varese, we drove into Switzerland and up and over Gotthard pass where we stopped for an awesome 7 mile run on a trail we found on the side of the road. The rest of the drive up the pass was so nerve-wracking because we were completely in a cloud and couldn’t see two feet in front of the car. With the narrow roads and cliffs, I’m terrified of the cars coming the opposite direction. I had to sit down low in the seat, close my eyes and pray.
The backdrop of Interlaken is the stunning Jungfrau mountain range. The problem with Interlaken is that to get anywhere with a cool view you have to climb. A lot. Or you have to pay to take the gondola. A lot. So, Tad studied the map and found the most obscure and scary road to drive up so that we wouldn’t have to do so much climbing. (I think by the time we returned the rental car imprints of my hands were molded into the dashboard and ceiling.) The trail was absolutely polluted with cow shit. There was just no avoiding it and we had to tip-toe through it to make sure we didn’t slip and fall face-first. Once we waded through that mess, we were treated with unobstructed views of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau Mountains. Truly spectacular, shit and all.
Out of curiosity I looked up what other races were going on in Europe during our visit. One of the many cool things about Europe is that there always seems to be some trail or mountain race going on in every town. About one hour away from Interlaken was the 31st Stanserhorn Berglauf in Stans, Switzerland. This is an 11-kilometer mountain race with 5,000 feet of gain. A true mountain run with zero descent.
On Saturday, the day before the race, I still couldn’t decide if I wanted to run. The weather did not look good and it was going to make for a long day of travel because the town of Stans was the opposite direction of where we needed to end the day. We had to return the car to Chamonix Sunday night, get a shuttle to the Geneva airport, and then a shuttle to the hotel in France, to fly out the next morning. I hardly slept at all, tossing and turning about logistics. I woke up at 5am and still didn’t know if I wanted to race, as it was pouring rain outside. We decided to head to Stans and make the call when we got there. So we drove to Stans, pulled into the cobblestone town square where they were just starting to set up the start banner. We were a little early and luckily found a parking spot meters from the start. I still didn’t know if I wanted to race as I was walking to the registration table. Finally, I thought what the hell, just do it. This is not my normal mode of operation by any stretch so this was a big step for me. We paid 50 francs, and they handed me a number. Nobody spoke English so after a fun game of charades we finally found the bathrooms.
I felt surprisingly good on the warm up given that I had just run the marathon a week before. (I guess it helps marathon recovery when you take an hour nap in the middle!) From the start through the first 1 km (each km was marked) I was about 30 meters behind the lead woman. I didn’t know at the time, but this woman was the course record holder. Half-way up the climb, I was still feeling really good, closed the gap and covered any move that she tried to make. As the race wore on, she started to lose her footing in the closing mile so I figured she was getting tired and as soon as the trail opened up, I would be able to pass her in the last mile and pull off the win.
The problem with not knowing the course and running in a cloud is that I didn’t know exactly where the finish was and couldn’t see anything ahead of me. The final mile continued to be narrow trail that was so steep it was mostly stepped switch-backs. I’m not as efficient on steps and my opportunity to “let ‘er rip” never came. I ended up getting beat by 24 seconds. I’m kicking myself for not making a move earlier, but I’ll know for next time.
What a trip. I think this has been my favorite adventure yet because I grew so much. I feel like every day I was pulled out of my comfort zone and had to embrace being comfortable feeling uncomfortable. My hope is that as I settle back into my every day routine I can hold on to this new growth.
More pictures from my trip can be found on Instagram @mariadalzot.
Thank you to all of my sponsors who help support my dream and to you for reading and following along on the adventure.