Shona-Stephenson-Trail-Running-Swiss-Alps

Skyrunning – The Mt Blanc Marathon

by Shona Stephenson on July 24, 2013

It was a chance of a life time to represent inov8 in the Skyrunning 2013 Series in Mt Blanc Marathon, Europe. Who would have thought that anyone would want an Australian who has never run through snow before to represent them at a Skyrunning 2013 event? The Skyrunning 2013 Series is notorious for being extremely tough and technical events with massive elevation gains and sometime losses.

The Skyrunning 2013 Races are located all over the world first starting in Spain Zegama 42km, France Mt Blanc Marathon 42km, USA Pikes Peak 42km, Switzerland Matterhorn Ultra’s 46km, Italy Lissome Extreme Sky Race 23km.

There is an Ultra Series including Transvulcania Ultramarathon 83km Spain, Andorra Ronda dels Cims 170km, Ice Trail Tarentaise 65km France, Speed Goat 50km Utah, Ultra Race of Champions UROC USA. Plus there is Vertical Climbs in Russia, Spain, France, Greece and Italy.

The Skyrunning Series 2013 events are run at Altitude when possible. The Mt Blanc Marathon has 2511 elevation gain and 1490 elevation loss. The Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 course profile was not going to play in my favour. The highest pass is 2511. My asthma will always be an issue and I just was not sure if my training would be enough. I had been training in an Altitude gym to boost my red blood cells and to figure out the most effective way for me to breathe whilst at altitude.

I was feeling pretty fresh. I sadly sat out of my favourite NSW Trail Event the Glow Worm Tunnel Marathon and my most loved speed session the Sydney Trail Series Winter Race 1 to allow for my body to fully recover before my European Campaign. I did not really feel “Race Ready” after my Achilles tear. I felt like I needed a bit of a adrenaline hit.

My awesome athlete manager Natalie White from inov8 offered me to “race” for the use of a better word the Vertical 1km 2 days before the Mt Blanc Marathon 2013. I decided that this was an awesome chance to get rid of some pre-race nerves, stretch my legs and have a bit of fun.

I am not a climber at all, but racing is not all about winning. It’s about pushing your boundaries and getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that you would not normally do. The thought of a vertical Km made me feel sick in my guts. I spotted the vertical climb course trail whilst arriving into Chamonix. I felt totally out of my depth The course towered over the town 1km up over 3.5km in length. It was monster. No matter how you were going to make it to the top it was going to hurt. Even if you were not “racing” it. I was also there to represent inov8 when and where ever possible so if there was a race being run and they needed a female to run it I was going to run it for them. I looked at the Vertical 1km as a fun warm up and an introduction to racing in the Skyrunning Series 2013. My time for the Vertical Km also suggested that so did my outfit too. I wore an inov8 Wrag as a boob tube for fun. I think I ran the vertical km in about 56 minutes…not sure it was not a time I was really proud of. I was 19th Female.

 

The Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon

I was felt really nervous before the start of the Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon 2013. I knew I was going to have to pull out the big hard yards to make it into the Top 10 Females in the World.

On the morning of the Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 I woke got dressed had some liquid fuel, went to the bathroom took 2 imodims, taped my ankles and I was pretty much ready to jog to the start line.

 

Shona Stephenson

Strength, Power, Drive- I was going to have to have perfect technique to be competitive at the Mt Blanc Marathon

Committed- It’s an inov8 “catch cry”

Fix Your Mind and Your Body Will Follow- I believe in this whole heartily. You can’t be a negative person and so well as an elite athlete.

Go Get Them Tiger, some of my mates say this to me before a race.

Opportunity, make the most of every chance you get.

Focus, I have a habit of getting distracted by other runners when I am racing. On a few occasions I have totally forgotten that I am racing.

 

I arrived at the start line for the Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 and the 2000 strong crowd has already arrived. Spectators were everywhere and the music was pumping. The vibe was insane and I tried to soak up the atmosphere. This was just so cool.

The only way for me to get a good start of the Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon was to head straight to the front of the gathered runners. I just could not help myself I decided that I’d line up on the front line for fun and wave and pose for some pics. It was pretty ballsy move. I looked so relaxed but really I was freaking out inside. I am really good at coping with stress that way. Plus I was not going to miss an opportunity of running off the front of the pack in my first ever European Marathon.

I soon found some friendly faces. I chatted to my inov8 Team Mate Olli. I find chit chatting to people at the start line calms my nerves. ( After the event Olli said that me being so calm and chilled out calmed his nerves too). Just before the start of the Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 I asked my inov8 Team Mate Olli Johnson turn on my iTunes on my phone so I could listen to Swedish House Mafia.

 

Shona Stephenson At The Mt Blanc Marathon

Shona Stephenson At The Mt Blanc Marathon

I could not hear the count down with music in one ear and the crowd was going mental. I took off when the group took off and found myself running with the lead blokes for about 50m before I put the breaks on a bit. The crowd was insane. It was 5 people deep in some places. I had never raced in front of a crowd so big. The French love their mountains and their mountain running.

After 1km I looked down at my watch and noticed my Heart Rate was pumping at 174 beats per minute. Slow down Shona I said to myself, and I ease off a bit.  The elevated heart rate surprised me because I was not even puffing. I guess it was just pure adrenaline rushing through my body and I was in “Flight” mode running scared

I was soon passed by Stevie, Emilie, a French and a Spanish girl and when I hit the first climb another female runner past me. Come on Shona, not blow up but lets try not to lose any more places. This is a world class field and you have not even see Anna Frost pass you yet. I ran through the streets of Chamonix high fiving the crowd and generally having a ball. I was soaking up the joyous atmosphere and thriving on it. I love a big crowd. It always lifts my sprits.

To be totally honest with you the first 5km of the race was a blur. I can barely remember any of it. I had the music pumping, the crowd was cheering and I was just running to my cadence and my breath.

About a km later when the trail narrowed and followed the ridge through the pine forrest I was soon caught by Anna.

“How are you going?” Anna kindly asked.

“Always good”, I cheerily replied. We were on the first major climb and I was a sitting duck as always. It was hands on knees steep climbing. My calves were burning, my quads were screaming at me. I was trying to activate my glutes so I could stand up straight and breathe. I ran 100 on and then gave myself a break of 20 steps. I ran 100 steps and gain. I then decided that I would run all the trails and only walk the switch backs.

About 1km later I was soon past and caught by a Spanish Girl and a few hundred meters later I was past by another. I dug deep and told myself that I would catch them all back.

At the 10km mark the track soon widen and we were shot out onto the streets of Argentiere. I decided that I needed a gel and water. I was testing out the new inov8 Race Vest for the first time ever and whilst replace the gel flask into the front pocket Lost the new 250ml gel flask on the road. I did not realize until 500m later. I dare not stop and I just kept going, knowing that there would be aid stations up ahead. But this 250ml was meant to be part of my minimal 500ml water supply. I needed to find a water bottle fast so I did not get disqualified or worse dehydrated.

By chance I spotted Ben an inov8 Team mate on the road about a 1km later. I asked him to lend me his water supply. Ben saved my life and happily gave me his water bottle he was holding. Phew. I was not going to suffer hydration now. Lucky.

The trail widened and I could spot Anna Frost climbing 200m ahead of me. Come on Shona keep her in your sights. My quads seemed to have warmed up. My glutes started to fire and I was able to rest my calves. I concentrated on my knee drive forward. I did my best to keep my chest up and I was no longer loosing meters to Anna.

I made a deal with myself that I could only walk the switch backs and I had to run the straights. My Swedish House Mafia Album had finished so I counted out a tempo all the way up to 100 and I found that as the climb got longer I started to gain on those ahead of me. I was working hard but not too hard. I knew there was a grueling up hill finish ahead of me and I must save some energy for later.

As the climb went on the view became more amazing. The Skyrunning Mt Blanc Marathon is set in Chamonix amongst the French Alps. I had sweeping views of the mountains, snow fields, glaciers. This was awesome. I was loving every minute of it. I just embraced the beauty of the scenery and enjoyed myself I was having a ball.

The track soon narrowed and the vegetation became alpine. I was soon running though small snow fields. Whoooo Hoooo. This is amazing. I’m running on snow in a race who would have thought. This is great. Towards the top of the climb that was the Aiguilles des Possettes I was given a quick pat down mandatory gear check by two old blokes on the side of the mountain. This amused me. This was the fastest and most inappropriate way to get check for gear. But hey this is France. They do it differently over here. With my pat down done I was off and power walking and running up to the top of the 2201M Climb. At the summit I spotted Florian our German distributor of inov8 Shoes. He was filming the inov8 Team as they ran to the Summit. He followed me for a few hundred meters before I took flight and flew down the other side. This was my strength, massive technical single track descents. Attack. I’d past over the 21km mark.

Within 100M I’d caught and past Anna Frost and the Spanish Girl who had both past me on the last climb. I was totally clueless about how slippery the rocks can be and I took my life into my own hands racing down that descent. I slipped a few times but recovered quickly. Cool I was in 6th place (I later found out that was I was doing was really dangerous after more training in the mountains, I’ve fallen over countless times since).  But this is my strength, I had gravity on my side, sometimes the faster you go the more traction you have, it was extremely fun and I was making the most of the free ride the mountain was giving me. I was racing and when you race you take more risks than what you would in training.

I kicked it and flew past as many people as possible and used the descent to my advantage. The view was amazing. The trail was narrow single track or steps, boulders, rocks, mud and I was loving the roller coaster. My adrenaline was pumping and I was flying along the trails. My trusty inov8 X-Talons served me well. This was the best fun. After about 10km of descent I’d run out of water and food. I was now totally reliant on the aid stations to get me the final 10km home because I’d lost that gel flask earlier in the race.

I ran through Le Tour asking the locals where the next aid station was and they informed me it was 3ks away. Bugger. I was looking at every creek I was passing wondering if I should fill up or not. Come on Shona it’s only 3 ks away you can make it there.

My Nutrition and Hydration of a Hammer Expresso Gel every 30min plan went out the window at the 10km mark when I lost my 50% Gel 50% Water 250ml flask. I only had 5 gels on me, which I would last me for 2.5 hours. This was the Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 this race was going to take my around 5 hours. I was 1/2 my nutrition plan worth of gels short. I was happy that I was not stressed by this problem. I am experienced enough now to know what I can and can’t eat at the aid stations. I knew that I was going to have to take on some extra nutrition at Le Tour was when I started the to take on coke at the aid stations.

Coke is not like gels. You get an immediate rush then a big slump. I would usually consume gels with coke if I am low on fuel but this was all I could take on board at the aid stations. Everything else had wheat, gluten or peanuts in it. I also did not feel like eating bananas whilst running at such a high intensity either.

I kicked it on out of Le Tour feeling pretty fresh and I started the climb. Come on Shona it’s only 8km to go. You would not even go for a 8km run. The gradient got steeper and steeper. Before long I was reduced to hands on knees climbing again as the trail snaked it’s way back towards Chamonix and towards the 2016m elevation at the finish. I was starting to cramp in my groin and my asthma was starting to kick in.I was digging deep into my lungs and my asthma was taking over. I’d been spitting the entire way white phlegm out of my lungs but I was losing the battle now. I  stopped and had some ventolin and I tried to calm down. I was now starting to cramp in the back of my rib cage. With 6kms to go I was past my Anna Frost who informed me that there was some descent to look forward to coming ahead which was really nice of her and a few hundred meters later I was caught by the Spanish Girl. I dug deep and refused to let them both get away from me.

Shona Stephenson

Girls After The Race

The gradient got steeper as the trail widen to a grey gravel access track and I pushed on up to the final aid station. I was in pain and I was cramping. I asked the volunteers for some electrolytes and it took the French Speaking Volunteers some time to figure out what I was asking for. Finally my water bottles were filled and I was off and running again. I dug deeper and spotted the Spanish girl. For the next 4km we fought it out for position. I’d pass her on any technical trail, the scree slopes, snow, mud, tree roots,flat an slight descent and she’d pass me on the climbs.

We respected each other and I was probably scaring the crap out of her with my breathing. She kept looking at me weirdly as I past her. I was willing to dig deeper if needed. I was really gasping to get as much air in as possible. It was hurting my ribs I was trying to hard to get enough oxygen in so I could hold on to 7th position. I was wheezing now. Groaning and crying. But there was not much more to go I could make it to the end. I was hurting so much. One French runner who kept catching and passing me kept saying “It’s okay, you’ll be okay. Calm Down.”

I thought this was really sweet. I guess he thought I was scared. I did not sound very healthy with my asthma kicking in at the end of the race. There was ice and snow still on the ground, that with the cold wind in my face was setting my asthma off. I caught and soon passed the Spanish girl again and urged her to run on with me. But she refused to give any more. This kind of worried me. Why was she conserving energy? I rolled down the final few hundred meters of descent in so much pain. My ribs were torturing me. Every step inflicted a dagger like pain into my back. I was in tears, gasping and groaning.

A few hundred meters later I found out why the Spanish Girl held back. I heard the music and the MC calling out runners names as they past the finish line. Man they put the finish line at the top of a gruesome climb. FUCK! SHIT. I tried to run it but I was gone. The Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 had sapped everything from me. I tried to power walk pushing on the quads but I was cramping in my groin and I could not longer power walk. I had to run or shuffle which what it would have appeared to be more like. The Spanish Girl past me here and I tried, and tired to get her back. I was then caught by my friendly team Mate Anna Lupton.

“Come on Shona come with me” She urged me on.

“I’m going as fast as I can.” I exclaimed. I had nothing to give. Anna is from the lakes districts in England she has represented England and Great Britain a few times at varied events so she is a real classy runner. I was wondering when she was going to catch me. She told me before the Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 that she preferred climbing to descending. I always expected her to catch me before the end. It was nice to be past by a team mate so close to the finishing line. (Later in the week we decided that we need to do the Trans Alps Together in 2014. The cackling will be heard in the next valley with the two of us in a team together).

Anna past me and I watched her effortlessly cruise up that final climb and I was giving it all I had and I felt like I was going no where.

The crowd soon narrowed over the runners urging us to the top it was like being in the Tour de France at the top of a climb. I was getting pats on my back and cheers the whole way to the top. The next few hundred meters were a blur. I spotted the Spanish Girl cross the line and about 30 seconds or so latter I crossed the line.

I gave the Spanish Girl a big hug and thanked her for the awesome battle, burst into tears and fell to the ground. I was absolutely spent. I had nothing left in me. It was absolute exhaustion. I’d given it my all and I was so proud of myself for finishing 9th place amongst the top mountain runners in the World. I lay in my back and enjoyed the moment while I got my breath back, cried, coughed and had some ventolin. I’d fought my way back from an Achilles tear only 5 weeks earlier and I was mixing it with the best in the world on a race profile that did not play to my strengths. I was in Europe for the first time, in the most beautiful part of the French Alps and I was so proud of myself. Finishing the Mt Blanc Marathon 2013 in 9th position was the one of the best feelings in the world. I enjoyed every minute of it. I had a ball racing in the French Alps.

I found all the females who I’d raced close too, Anna Frost, Anna Lumpton, the Spanish Girl and thanked and congratulated them all. The 10th place female came across the line and I congratulated her and gave her a hug also. She was all alone with no one to help her.   She was bent over and gasping for air too. A minute latter I then spotted another Spanish girl who I shared the bus with from the Geneva Airport to Chamonix cross the line in 11th position and congratulated her also. This was the best feeling. Watching all the runners come in who had just had the same experience as you. Watching their faces, seeing that they too had given it their all.

I soon moved to the chill out area and I had and interview with Lee from inov8 and I was also congratulated by Lauri the Skyrunning Race Director. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. We grabbed a free beer that was running on tap into our commemorative Mt Blanc Marathon Cups and hung out in the sun on top of the world enjoying the view and the party atmosphere that was at the finish line of the Mt Blanc Marathon.

My time was 4 hours 57 minutes. I was totally stoked with my performance.

Team inov8 kicked butt too. We had 3 males in the top 10 and two females in the top 10 also. This was an awesome result from the inov8 international trail running team.

Team inov8 Males

7th Alex Nichols USA 3:48

9th Florian Reichert GER 3:55

10th Oli Johnson UK 3:56

59th Scott Dunlap USA 5:13

Brendan Davies AUS had a tough day at the office. He was cramping badly and spent 40 minutes in an aid station. To his credit the tough bugger got up, left the aid station with another runner who was also suffering and finished the Mt Blanc Marathon around the same time at Scott Dunlap.

Team inov8 Females

7th Anna Lupton UK 4:55 (She caught me in the last 2km)

9th Shona Stephenson AUS 4:57

Sarah Ridgeway Living in Wales born in AUS 5:20

By Shona Stephenson