Headlamps moved below me like an electric snake on the mountain. The snow-covered summit of Mont Blanc loomed in the distance across the valley, illuminated by moonlight. An ibex stood close by, silhouetted against the dark blue morning skyline.
The sun was rising and I was ascending the first climb of the Mont Blanc 80k skyrunning ultra course in a lead group of 10-15 runners. The trail was steep, rising 1,200m in the first 7k, but I was running light and easy. I was only in the first hour of a 10-plus hour race around the mountains of the Chamonix valley, but I already knew what the outcome of the day would be.
The Mont Blanc 80k took place just four weeks after the IAU Trail World Championships, where I placed sixth. That was, at the time, the furthest and toughest race I had ever attempted. It was a tall order to follow up that accomplishment with yet another incredibly difficult race.
In the weeks between the two events I did my best to relax and let the training come back gradually. As my legs recovered I could feel the strength that the World Championships had given me. I was training with a sense of confidence that I’ve never had before. I could tell that something big was in store for me in Chamonix.
Once the sun rose the Rhône-Alpes were revealed. At 20k the lead group contained 8 to 10 runners and I found myself running just off the lead. We traversed north up the valley and I chatted to Catlow Shipek and Andy Symonds.
I enjoyed the views from above the tree line but always kept an eye on the leader. With an advertised vertical gain of over 6,000m, I wanted to be patient before taking first position. Still, it felt like we were jogging and I was ready to make a move. It was only a matter of time before I turned up the effort and made a push for the win.
In the next 20k the course climbed and descended dramatically. We trudged up snow fields high above tree line and plummeted down rocky single-track trails. I’d learned a lot from the World Championships and knew I had to save as much as I could for the last 20k but my patience was growing thin.
On the penultimate big climb I decided to really start racing. I picked up some food and water from my awesome crew of Natalie White and Robbie Britton at the 45k mark then proceeded to take the lead. This was far less conservative than I have raced in the past, but knowing that I had run a similar race just a month earlier gave me the confidence I needed to go for it.
The course once again climbed high above timber line and we were treated to amazing views of Mont Blanc and the valley below. Just as I started to string out my lead I found myself off course. I suddenly went from holding a 3-minute lead to facing a 4-minute deficit. I had to regroup and focus on bridging the gap -this was not how I was going to lose the race.
I put my head down and once again closed in on the leader. On the next downhill section I regained the lead and really let my stride open up. Over the next 16k I gained a 20-minute advantage.
From the final aid station we climbed another 1,120m up to the largest glacier in France, Mer de Glace, and then descended back into Chamonix on a seemingly endless set of switchbacks through the forest. The day had become hot and the course had thoroughly taken its toll on my body but I kept pushing. By the end I had opened up a 30-minute lead on the second place runner.
As I ran into the centre of Chamonix, I had a deep sense of satisfaction -not just for the win but for the way that it played out. I’ve never come into such a competitive race with so much confidence in myself. I think that my mindset was one of the biggest contributing factors to winning this race. Even when I went off course I didn’t panic because I truly believed in my ability to win the race. I sometimes underestimate the power of a positive mental outlook, but this race was a big reminder of just how important it can be.
My winning time was 10hrs 31mins for a course that, given my detour, was closer to 86k than 80k. Franco Colle (Italy) was 2nd in 11hrs 03mins and Andy Symonds 3rd in 11hrs 42mins. I ran, as I did in Annecy, in the bright pink women’s RACE ULTRA 270 shoes (size 40). They once again proved to be the perfect mix of grip and comfort on such a long technical race, and even garnered some admiration from my fellow competitors out on the course. After the last two races they have certainly become my shoe and color of choice.