Any race that a helmet is mandatory has to be pretty badass, no?
Well, the Mont Blanc Skyrace K2000 is certainly that. Starting in Courmayeur with 2,200m of climbing over 11km to Pointe Helbronner at an altitude of 3,300m, the only way is up. And Up, and up, and up.
Sold on the idea last year by Doug Mayer – founder of Run the Alps, a trail running holidays and training camps provider – I have been looking forward to this race all summer.
My enthusiasm for the race was a little contagious and it did not take long to recruit a few people from Chamonix to sign up – one or two might have been a little under the influence at the time – as well convincing Fernanda Maciel to work it into her training schedule. I mean, the race is ridiculous, who wouldn’t want to do it?
What is the K2000
Well, no, it wasn’t, actually.
Apart from the fast and flat start, I genuinely enjoyed the whole course.
The race starts in the centre of town, on the pizza and gelato side of Mont Blanc. At 07h30 305 runners set off from town at 1,300m. The start was a pretty much flat 4km to the foot of the Skyway telepherique, the main viewing and tourist lift on the Italian side.
This bit, I’ll be honest, was hell for me. I am not really a runner and have put no work in recently trying to improve that. I like going up – and down, but generally up – and trying to keep up with everyone had me seriously wondering whether I had made a huge mistake in signing up.
After 20 minutes, though, we reached the start of the climbing. Running poles came out and it was now time to hike.
There is a common misconception in trail running about how much running there really is. I’ll let you into a secret: except for the elites, we all walk. A lot!
As a mass start, all runners were still quite close together at this point and I could see the leaders striding up the steep grassy fields to reach the Pavillon, the mid-station to the Mont Blanc Skyway.
Speed is key – this is a race, after all – and so the winding trails and switchbacks on the hiking path, as tempting as they might have been, were out. We were taking the Euroline – heading straight up and cutting all the corners.
Here marks the halfway point, well, nearly halfway point. Having climbed 900m and covered about 8km in 1 hour and 10 minutes we had 3km to go but a massive 1200m of climbing. Helmets were donned to protect from rocks kicked down by runners above, my water bottle was refilled, and I did my best to eat a few slices of orange but my appetite was not really feeling it.
As I set off, I crooked my neck up to take in the steep climb to come and though, as far as it looked, there was a satisfaction that it was finite. The end was up there, I just had to put in the work.
Steep grassy fields soon gave way to moraine and here it was time to ditch the hiking poles as things were about to get interesting. The remainder of the race was going to be heady blend of scrambling, climbing, and a few steps in between.
It felt like here that my experience and background came into play. A few of the stronger runners started to flag with the altitude – we were well above 2,500m now – but also with the terrain. The boulder hopping and climbing is what I spend a lot of my time moving on and so here I managed to start over taking people.
As I started to gain places, however, I saw something I didn’t expect; a runner with a prosthetic leg. Congratulating him on his incredible effort as I passed him something from the race briefing came back to me; on a fuzzy microphone the race director mentioned something about a special relay..
I carried on and soon came across another runner with a prosthetic leg, and then a third. These guys had partnered with other runners on the first half then ran the second half of the course themselves.
The technicality of the terrain was insane but these guys were moving up, one step at a time, not stopping.
Soon the Torino Refuge came into view. A welcome sight, it is a place I have spent many a night for alpine climbs and also popped across on skis from our side of the Massif a few times for high altitude ski touring training.
Step by step, scramble by scramble, the music and the noise of all the finishers and tourists up there got louder. Before long, I stepped onto the decking. With just 80m vertical to go up a final ridge I was hauled over the balcony by two mountain guides and pushed on my way to the finish line.
Ever the unusual race, the final section we ended up running up the stairs inside the lift station until I burst back out into the light and across the line at 3,300m. Runners collapsed on the floor everywhere were coupled with oblivious tourists taking selfies with the stunning south face of Mont Blanc and Dent du Geant in the background.
It was done.
2 hours and 49 minutes since the start line, and 1 hour 39 since the last checkpoint, and I was done.
The land of pizza, gelato, and coffee
I love Italy. Especially the Aosta Valley. In the summer it is home to easy access sport climbing, remote trail running, and the wilder side of the Mont Blanc Massif. In the winter it turns into a skiers paradise coupled with stunning ice climbing. All of this is on a platform of wonderful hospitality, incredible food, and the world’s best coffee.
As the team reconvened, we said goodbye to Fernanda as she (crazily!) ran on to the Bonatti Refuge as part of her training for the UTMB, and we descended the lift. Stopping briefly to dunk our tired feet in an alpine lake, we then headed for our reward pizza and gelato before driving back through the tunnel and home, just 30 minutes away.
I am very aware how privileged I am to live where I do. Now, I just have to keep making the most of it!
Who has a crazy race, plan, or adventure lined up here? I’ll bring snacks!