What it Takes to Train for a Marathon in the Swiss Alps

On August 27, I’ll be running a marathon that will see me cross the border from Switzerland into France at the Col de Balme, a mountain pass in the Alps resting at about 7,200 feet of elevation. That high alpine pass accounts for only a portion of the overall 7,545 feet of elevation gain through which I’ll huff and curse during the course of a multi-hour trail run.

utmb race
UTMB/Instagram

OK, to be honest, the race in which I’m participating is not a true marathon. The 40-kilometer distance works out to a bit more than 25 miles, so it’s just over a mile shorter than a true marathon. But most marathons don’t take place on mountain trails. Most don’t involve the potential for scorching sun or driving rain, bitter cold with snow, or winds so powerful they can knock you off course. The races at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), the “World Summit of Trail Running,” that take place annually in the summertime in Europe? Yeah, all that and more may well happen.

My race, the newly added de Martigny-Combe à Chamonix (MCC), is a 40-kilometer run that will host about a thousand amateur runners. The main event, the UTMB itself, is a 171-kilometer slog in which some 2,300 of the best trail runners on Earth will grind their way through misery toward victory. And I say good luck to them. I’ll be thrilled just to finish my little jaunt in one piece and within the 10 hours allotted. It’s a lot shorter than most of the other races taking place this August and early September, but this will be no walk in the park. For some perspective, the basic kit that every participant is required to have on his or her back includes:

  • Survival blanket
  • Whistle
  • 100 cm self-adhesive bandage material
  • Whistle
  • Waterproof raincoat
  • Flashlight
  • Water

And more. When you get to the recommended but not required list, it includes trekking poles for dealing with snow and ice, a knife, a GPS unit, and so forth.

When some colleagues of mine who work for Columbia Sportswear, the main sponsor of all UTMB Mont-Blanc events, contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d like to run in the new MCC event, I said yes without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve done plenty of hiking and climbing and I run several times a week, so I figured training up to the level of an alpine marathon wouldn’t be all that much of a challenge, right? Well …

Over the past couple of months, I’ve run when I could and covered more miles on each outing, but the duties of family, work, travel, and all the rest have made the training a tough balancing act indeed. Fortunately, Columbia has outfitted me with some excellent gear and gave me access to some of the premier trail runners out there.

In the course of the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to Amy Sproston, a Columbia athlete who was ranked as the top American female athlete at UTMB 2017; Bill Hoffman, an accomplished trail runner and marathoner who didn’t even start distance running until age 40 but now competes all over the world; and Joseph McConaughy, a runner who broke the unsupported (i.e. amateur) speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail in 45 days,then set the fastest known time record for the Wicklow Round, a 65-mile ramble across a remote swath of Ireland.

All three runners had unique bits of advice, but there was a common theme: Train, dammit. Train. 

All three runners had unique bits of advice, but there was a common theme: Train, dammit. Train. McConaughy recommended versatility in my training — road runs, steep trails, and leg exercise all combined — adding that one needs to “really focus on trying to get that long run in at least once a week.”

Sproston counseled me to treat much of the steeper uphill “like hiking” and saying I should “not always be running on the uphill, [not if I] want to finish without injury.”

And Hoffman recommended using a “marathon training program” that had me logging “at least 40 to 50 miles a week, minimum.”

Each also had their own tricks of the trade. McConaughy told me that one of his favorite high-protein mid-run foods is none other than cooked chicken. Why eat energy bars packed with all sorts of ingredients when the simplest protein is pure muscle, right? Sproston relayed the importance of good waterproof gloves. Bill Hoffman counseled me to keep varying run distances and speeds.

running steven john tm
Steven John/The Manual

So, I’m outfitted with great gear and I’ve gotten lots of sage advice from experienced, accomplished trail runners. And that’s great, but here’s the problem: I’ll have nothing to blame if I don’t run a good race. No “It was those awful shoes!” or “If only someone had told me how to train for this damn thing!”

I’ll have nothing to blame if I don’t run a good race.

Am I up to 40-plus miles per week? Um … not quite. This week, I’ll log somewhere in the mid-20s. Next week, I’m going for at least three seven-mile runs, and one day I’ll push for the teens. I’ve started doing more squats, and I always take the stairs. And in the training process, I’ve lost five pounds I didn’t necessarily intend to cut but that my shanks aren’t missing, either.

With just a few weeks left before I hop on a plane headed for the Alps, I’m adding more miles to my runs, working out my legs on days when I can’t log the miles, and steeling my mind for the coming anguish. The good news is that I’ll have an entire 24 hours after the MCC to recover before I put back on my journalist hat and cover the 121-kilometer TDS race, an experience which will be assisted by a bus but that also involves several miles of hiking to get to various vantage points, then to the finish line ahead of the 1,600 runners signed up for that day-long adventure.

Let’s be honest here: I’m not going to place first. But I don’t think Columbia Sportswear expected that when they invited me along. What I am going to do is run the best damn mountain marathon of my life, and I promise I’ll strip off any branded gear if I’m slogging across the finish line at the back of the pack.

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