Notes from an ultra runner: 17 things learned at Mont Blanc 90k
Gayle Tait is an ultra runner from Lanark. She is 43 and has two children aged 10 and six. She is a part-time personal trainer and fitness instructor and started ultra running in 2013. She has now completed 14 ultras, including the West Highland Way Race and three ultras in the Alps.
Gayle recently took part in the Mont Blanc 90k, the longest in a series of seven races known as the Marathon du Mont Blanc, held over a weekend in June in Chamonix. It includes 6100m of ascent.
The 90k race starts at 4am on the Friday morning and is designed to give runners the experience of seeing a sunrise over the Mont Blanc massif.
The overall male and famale winners were Sylvain Court and Mimmi Kotka respectively.
Two other Scottish ultra runners did extremely well. Donnie Campbell was third overall and his wife Rachael was sixth female. Gayle finished 28th female and 12th female vet.
The 90k is the longest of the races but the 42k is the highest profile of the races because it’s now part of the Salomon Golden Trail Series.
Kilian Jornet again won the 42k, while Ruth Croft was first female.
Entry to the 90k race is a straightforward ballot system for acceptance and there is no direct qualifying criteria but the race organisers set a benchmark on a runner’s race evaluation (ITRA) points and recommend that anyone falling below a certain points level will be unlikely to finish the race within the time barriers.
What Gayle learned while running the Mont Blanc 90k
1 Much of the race takes place at more than 2000m, so altitude is a real consideration for exertion level.
2 Despite being well within the ITRA points limit, the Mont Blanc 90k time barriers still felt like they could easily slip away if things didn’t go exactly to plan.
3 Never again will I rest easy near the back at a start line of a busy Alpine race. Yes, there may be a long way to go, but the potential for getting stuck on narrow trail in the early stages is too great and it means your pace may well be dictated by those in front, which can mean that missing cut-off times is a real risk.
This happened in the Mont Blanc 90k because the start is on a narrow singletrack up Le Brevant and this meant that everyone had to go at the pace of the person in front. There were 1100 runners on the start line.
4 Don’t let your anxieties get the better of you. Although I became anxious at the start of the race that I wouldn’t make the cut-off due to the long line of people on Le Brevant, I felt as though my race got better and better.
I ate well, climbed strongly and descended really well. I picked up places in every stage of the race and that boosted my confidence.
5 The climb up to Emosson dam was the toughest of the race. It was steep and, at times, very technical in the full heat of the day.
6 There will always be rewards for tough challenges in these races. The views were amazing and at the top of that tough climb to the dam there was the jaw-dropping sight of the blue-green lake.
7 I might have complained to my coach Paul Giblin over recent months that my descending skills were not quick enough but in the race I felt good descending. So the practice did pay off.
8 When you’re in races in the Alps, you cannot relax and rest on the ego of your performances in Scottish or UK ultras. They are very different. Just because you have been a runner who’s never been remotely close to a cut-off time in a race in the UK does not mean it can’t happen in a race in the Alps.
9 Everything takes longer than you expect and calculating distance versus pace won’t do you any good if you hit a very technical part of terrain or get stuck on a narrow part of trail behind other runners moving slower than you.
10 Don’t be fazed by the difference between what the “elites” can do and what you are capable of in any race, but especially in the mountains.
The relatively slower pace can play tricks with your mind. You convince yourself you’re not doing well because you would normally run a particular pace per mile.
In reality, just getting finished in some of these races is a massive achievement for those of us in the non-elite categories. Drop out and “timed out” rates in these races can be significant.
11 Attitudes towards what YOU see as the purpose of a checkpoint and what other runners see can be very different. It would be easy to take the “relaxed” approach of some runners and sit and have a picnic.
But a lot of time can be wasted doing this and it means if things go wrong when you’re back out on the course, you may have little time in hand as a margin for error before the next time barrier.
Get in, fix your pack and supplies, eat, drink and get out! It’s not a party, even though the bands that are playing might make it feel that way!
12 A positive mental approach, staying calm and working consistently throughout the ultra race served me well and I hope I can carry these forward into other events. Things will go wrong, but choosing how you deal with these during the race will be absolutely key to whether you finish – and how much suffering you endure to get there.
13 The inevitable bad patch in the race came on the climb from Le Bois up to Montenvers. Another technical, rocky climb, I allowed myself to suffer a bit with nausea and lightheadedness. What’s the saying? Pain in an ultra is guaranteed, suffering is optional.
So I quit the suffering at Montenvers, sorted my head torch etc for the final part of the race and set my sights on a sub-20 hour finish as I knew a sub-19 hour had slipped away.
14 The final descent into Chamonix is long and tortuous so I was delighted to emerge at the road at the bottom in 19.45 knowing I just had to do the run around town as fast as I could and a sub 20 was in the bag.
15 The crowds in Chamonix, in the bars and in the streets, as I ran through were amazing.
16 Never forget how amazing your support team is. The race was made pretty special by support from a few amazing people, before, after and along the way.
17 Don’t normalise! This thought process will play havoc with your self-confidence and perception of what you’ve achieved.
The Scottish ultra running community is fantastic. Many friendships are made and established for life because of it. Ultra friends will come and help you in races and support you if things don’t go to plan.
But remember to also surround yourself with friends who are not part of that community and they will remind you that what you are doing is not necessarily normal and that not everyone is out doing the same thing.
Sometimes we need to de-normalise it in order to remind ourselves what a special experience it is to be able to do these events.
- Many thanks to Gayle for her many helpful tips and advice taken from the Mont Blanc 90k race.
- Permission to use the photos was given by Gayle.