Tour du Mont Blanc run: From Chamonix to Les Contamines
I confess I was a little nervous about running the first stage of the Tour du Month Blanc from Chamonix to Les Contamines-Montjoie, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France.
Despite reassurances from Run the Wild founder and guide Simon James that I would be just fine, I was anxious about the distance (27km) and the ascent (total 1549m). Then there was the descent (1412m), which I knew could be equally brutal, especially on my sore knees.
Simon had, of course, asked me a few questions about my running history and ability. This was to make sure I would cope with the route. It would be foolhardy to take people without the right fitness and experience on to a high level, long-distance mountain route. (It would be unenjoyable to be cajoled into something you were not capable of, too.)
But still I worried I would hold up other people in the group… And that I would be too exhausted to really enjoy it.
As it turned out, the day of running was absolutely fantastic.
7 reasons why TMB day one went well
- Run the Wild believe in “exploring places… not running races”. This meant the pace was kind and there were plenty of opportunities to stop for a breather, to eat snacks and to take photos. We even stopped in at a refuge cafe for a can of cola.
- The aim is to set a steady pace, rather than try to be the fastest. We walked up the hills (what a joy!) and ran along the flat sections and the descents.
- Simon offered excellent mini technique sessions in how to efficiently ascend and descend and how to use our poles.
- Yes, we used running poles! Many long-distance trail runners do this and although I am not a keen pole user i did find them to be a great aid in the Alps.
- The views were so stunningly distracting that many kilometres seemed to rush by without me even noticing.
- The chat was interesting and diverting. I had joined two other runners who would go on to complete the full 170km Tour du Mont Blanc over six days and it was enjoyable to chat with them as we ran/hiked.
- Doing something totally new in a fabulous landscape boosts your energy and gives you the ability to run further and higher.
What is the Tour du Mont Blanc?
A world-acclaimed high Alpine route, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a challenging hike (or run) over 170km (105 miles) and 10,000m (32,808ft) of ascent. It circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif and heads through three countries. The mountain scenery is consistently spectacular.
How to complete the TMB
Walk the route. There are plenty of companies offering guided or self-guided trips. They will also assist with booking your accommodation and transferring your luggage each day. (Note: In the summer months the TMB can be very busy and accommodation can be hard to book yourself.) Most people take 10 to 12 days to complete it.
Run the route: Just like walking the route, only a bit faster. This means you can complete it over a shorter period, for example six or seven days. I enjoyed my time with Run the Wild.
Run the ultra: The Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc takes place every September. You’ll need to train a lot for this one.
Bike the route: There are mountain biking versions of the Mont Blanc route.
Walk or run a section: If you only have a few days, or just one day, you could choose to walk a shorter section of the TMB. Run the Wild, for example, can arrange to guide you on a day or two day outing.
Stage 1: Running the TMB
Meeting in Chamonix for a 9.30am set-off the conditions already looked perfect with a bright blue sky, although it promised to be pretty hot for a Scottish runner. I said hello to Gillian and Al, who were starting the full TMB route that day.
We were expected to bring our own rucksack of essentials (Simon instructed: “Keep it basic and light because conditions will be good.”) I carried a lightweight waterproof jacket, a lightweight long-sleeved base layer, buff, water in a hydration bladder and snacks. Lots of snacks!
It was a lovely touch to have Run the Wild provide a lunch of a huge and delicious tuna and salad sandwich, crisps and cereal bars. I took only the sandwich because I had my own snacks.
The start was a church in Chamonix centre, Saint-Michel, where the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc begins. From there we trotted gently through the already busy Chamonix streets and towards an off-road trail headed for the village of Les Houches.
Chamonix is at an elevation of 1035m and I was sure this was affecting my breathing in the early stages but that might simply have been because I was trying to chat as I ran! The pace was perfect; not too fast and not too slow. Already I began to feel more relaxed and to believe I would manage the distance.
Both Gillian and Al are from Northern Ireland and they looked fit. It turned out that Gillian is something of a high achieving amateur athlete and it was clear she would easily manage the day’s route – and the rest of the week. She could probably do the UTMB!
The trail to the village of Les Houches actually descends by a total of about 25m, although there are plenty of mini ups and downs. It was a beautiful woodland route that traverses the lower valley and the shade from an already hot morning sun was welcomed.
Simon took the opportunity to show us how to efficiently ascend with poles and also when to walk (again, for efficiency over the planned long day).
It was a pleasant rhythm and because I usually do shorter runs and aim to run all the way, I enjoyed the gentler pace on the uphills. It’s all part of a strategy to be able to go further for longer and how to best pace this and find the required energy.
Les Houches – and up
From Chamonix to Les Houches was around 8km and offered a good warm up. (Many people start and finish the TMB at les Houches.) We took the opportunity to stop to pick up water and have a snack. We walked for a bit as we digested our food and headed towards the first big ascent. It really felt like a very enjoyable outing rather than a beast-yourself high-speed run.
Again, the ascent was done at a walk, using poles. (I could definitely get used to this type of longer-distance hike-running!). As we climbed on a zig-zagging track through glorious lush green pastures filled with wild flowers the views below – and above – began to open up.
I have skied in the Les Houches area and I was sure I recognised some of the views, although the landscape looks so different without snow. It seems so fresh and colourful compared to the winter when it is covered in a deep blanket of plain white snow.
The valley looked so far below us and the high peaks all around were breath-taking. Many were still capped in snow and they shone brilliantly against the blue sky.
The first climb reached at high point of Col de Voza at 1801m. Brilliantly, there was a cafe, La Chalette, and our small group made the collective decision to stop for a drink. It was good to sit down for a bit, although not for so long that we would not want to go again. Never does a can of “full fat” cola taste so good as when you’re on a hot run.
Next came a section of descent, just after we crossed a railway line! Honestly, I didn’t expect to see a train line so high in the mountains! It’s the Tramway du Mont Blanc (also known as the Mont Blanc Tramway) and is one of France’s last mountain rack-rail trains. (There is another, the Montenvers Train in Chamonix). It’s also the highest railway in the Haute-Savoie department of France.
This cog railway winds its way up from Saint-Gervais, via Les Houches, to the Nid d’Aigle (The Eagle’s Nest) at 2,372m.
A down – and another big up
From Col de Voza the route descended and offered long sections of runnable terrain. Steeper sections, especially through woodlands and over myriad tree roots, required care but it was an enjoyable route.
Suddenly we met lots of runners going in the opposite direction. They seemed tired. It’s no wonder, in fact, because they were part of an ultra race taking place that weekend. Some of the runners were attempting to complete the 126km La Montagn’hard with a total ascent of 11,000m.
As we ran past them we offered words of encouragement. At points we were congratulated ourselves by other people, as if we were part of the race. It felt rather odd to be doing a 27km day but knowing that it was small fry compared to what the racing athletes had taken on. I felt humbled.
An impressive river crossing, over a mini suspension bridge, was one of the highlights of the day for me. Although much smaller than the bridge crossing during my Verbier hike, I was thrilled by the huge noise and volume of water tumbling down the mountainside and the brilliant wee bridge that crossed over.
A long descent saw Super Gill and Big Al speed ahead of me (I was suffering with sore knees). As I passed a walker I heard her comment to her guide that it was most likely all the runners were young and definitely not women in their 50s. “Ha! I am!,” I gloated as I ran by.
The route again headed up, winding steeply and zig zagging to the day’s high point of Col du Tricot at 2120m. By now my legs were feeling quite tired but the pace had suited me and I was able to hike fairly consistently uphill as I chatted with Gill.
She told a great story of how she got into running. She was once three stones heavier than she is today – and today she is a slip of a runner. She decided to diet and then began running a little. She became a running addict and now regularly wins and podiums at running races. Her marathon PB is a sliver over three hours. Lately, her favourite running has been hills and trails were she does extremely well.
Gill also revealed it was her birthday. What a great way to celebrate a birthday.
Yet again we enjoy superb views. I always try to remember to stop and turn around to look over my shoulder when going uphill. It can be too easy to focus on the path ahead while there are tremendous views just behind you.
The final descent
The last section was a wonderfully flowing 6km or so towards Les Contamines. The forest path was dry and dusty but it felt so lovely to be in the cool shade of the trees. We joined a tarmac road lower down for the final run to the hotel where Gill and Al would stay before setting off for the next day of their TMB.
The total descent has been 1412m, which explained why my knees and quads were sore.
I wanted to stay with the others and enjoy the rest of the route but I had made other plans. I had to be content to be driven to a train station to ride the railway back to Chamonix. The trains (and buses) are free in the valley around Chamonix if you are staying in accommodation in the area. (Ask for a “guest pass”.)
I now believe I would be capable of doing a full Tour du Mont Blanc with Run the Wild. I would need to put in some back-to-back training days beforehand but I felt like the “journey” pace, rather than a “race” pace would make the route perfectly possible. A run of the TMB is now on my bucket list.
Where to stay?
If you join a Run the Wild running tour accommodation is organised for you. Alternatively, you could choose your own hotel and join a day or two of guided running. I stayed at 2-star Hotel le Dahu in Argentiere. See other runs to do from Argentiere and Chamonix valley of trail running.