Monday, 30 June 2014

Pushed to the limit - Mont Blanc Vertical KM


Vertical KM races push you to your limit. It's usually about 8 minutes before I look at my watch and start doing dubious mental arithmetic to work out how far through the race I was, am or will be at the next corner. Soon after that there's not enough oxygen to dedicate to those thoughts and it becomes a long battle trying to override every screaming muscle that is telling you to stop, keel over and never come near a start line again.

My experience at the Mont Blanc Vertical KM (the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships) was that and then some. It's fair to say I was carrying a bit of athlete baggage into the race. The negative feelings after a poor year of training were magnified as I was repeating the race I did well in last year and I was returning to the sport of Skyrunning that I had left at the end of last year on such a high. Inevitably this combination led to a fairly intense and painful race experience.

The course starts in Chamonix centre and after a brutally steep tarmac section you hit the path under the ski lift to Brevent. The gradient is pretty runnable by Vertical KM standards due to the zigzags and it continues all the way up until about 700m. The crowds were phenomenal - lining the course all the way up the slope and with my name on my bib it all felt quite personal (thanks Basingstoke and Moorfoots!)

Ideally I'd have got through the zigzags in a nice rhythm using up as little mental energy as possible ready for the rock climbing section and final push. However it was never going to be that way: rose-tinted memories of how easily I flew up the slope last year made this year's trudge seem far worse than it was. It wasn't just my legs wanting me to stop, it was my head. There's only so many times I could say 'Shut Up Legs'.
Photo from @LaCaveAJaife

Without wanting to be too melodramatic, there was quite a bit of soul searching going on out there. It's one thing not being fast enough but another to not be strong enough to overcome a bit of pain. I'm not a quitter, am I? Maybe I am? It all started to feel quite important out there, a test of character rather than speed, but maybe it has to in order to convince yourself to keep going.

The crowds reappeared at the top section to watch us scramble through some rocks. It was a little hairy with legs and arms full to their limit of lactic on a gradient so steep it was hard to know where to get the next hold. At least the concentration required for that was so great that the ongoing battle against my legs couldn't continue to dominate every thought.

But the toughest bit of all was coming out through the skilift centre and seeing the finish banner all of a few hundred metres away. The crowds were brilliant but I felt like a snail, barely making forward progress. Everything went into that end-of-race slightly warped feeling - time and distance all feeling longer than they should. I searched every memory of my epic sprint finishes to boost me along and quickly exhausting them, I was left on default - imagining I'm Mo Farah at London 2012. This seemed more delusional than ever as I stumbled across the line in a time about 3 minutes off what I did last year.

Thinking it back through with the benefit of perspective and a bit more oxygen, I can see how those 48 minutes became an intense self-indulgent mess of emotions. All worries and frustrations were over-exaggerated, and the ability to get up a very steep hill quickly seemed to rank far higher on the list of important things in life than it should ever do.

Photo from Ian Corless (Talk Ultra/ iancorless.com)
But that's racing. And it's probably why it is addictive. Whilst my overriding memory of the race is going to be one of pain and disappointment, I'm proud of the way I raced. I've no doubt I'll be recalling these memories in future races. The bar for quitting has been raised that little bit higher.

It shouldn't be a footnote but I do need to thank Arc'teryx for their understanding through all these ups and downs, sending me to these races and supporting me no matter what the result. Thank you also to sister company Salomon (all part of Amer Sports) who have given me race shoes for this year. I can genuinely say that this has made a world of difference after the foot problems I have had.

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