On June 26, I placed 3rd at the Marathon du Mont Blanc, my highest finish yet in an international competition. Going into the race, I felt a podium could be done if things shook out right during the race. But after a pretty big tactical error 10 miles into the race, I found myself 7 minutes back and a handful of positions from a podium finish. While I think fitness played a role in my ability to make up ground on the four women ahead of me, I believe fueling played an equal, if not more significant, role. So here it is, a play-by-play of my fueling plan for Marathon du Mont Blanc, with a dash of race plays.
** I must preface that I still have a lot to learn, which is nowhere near perfect. I am also not a professional in any field relating to Nutrition. However, I am a person who puts as much work into their nutrition plan as any other part of their training. And while I am not a nutritionist professional, it is a topic I am very passionate about. Oh, and I love racing to my best ability, and Nutrition is a vital part of that**.
It wasn’t until last year that I began planning my race nutrition based on aid stations. This was because I mostly ran races under 3 hours and didn’t think I needed to plan my fuel intake as much. But after diving into it last year, it is a key component of all my race plans. For this race, we had three aid stations, all at critical parts of the race.
- Aid Station 1 - Le Tour (KM13) - Before our steepest climb
- Aid Station 2 - Vallorcine (KM23) - After our steepest climb
- Aid Station 3 - La Flégère (KM34) - Before our last descent of the race
Knowing these were the aid stations, I wanted to eat enough calories before Vallorcine so I could pick up more calories before our longest and hottest stretch of the race. While the distance was only 1k longer than the distance between the first two aid stations, I estimated the running time would be longer due to terrain, point of the race, and intensifying heat.
To ensure I consumed calories during the first 23km, I used the first 2 Aid Stations as ‘checkpoints’ to ensure I was eating. I made it a goal to consume whatever I started with or was given to me by the next Aid Station. To help me do this, I planned out my calories accordingly, as seen in the chart below.
I believed this would be the most ideal plan, but I knew there would still be race day variables that could affect my ability to consume this many calories/carbs.
Race morning, I drank half a cup of coffee and ate oatmeal. The oatmeal never goes down easily, due to nerves and excitement, but I have started enough races in my career where I regretted not eating breakfast beforehand, so now I religiously eat something even if it’s tough. Because I drink coffee, I make it a point not to have caffeine in my first allotment of calories. Caffeine has a strong effect on me, so if I drink coffee, am amped for a race, AND have caffeine to start a race, I feel like I can’t breathe 😅 so no caf for me to start, but it comes in my second batch of calories.
The race began, and the weather was pretty nice and cool. As soon as the gun went off, I started eating my first set of calories, this was my top priority in addition to navigating the positioning. By 8k I managed to eat my first 500 calories and drink both my waters. I even pulled out my flasks and carried them once I was done so I would be ready to drop them. There are a few photos of this, and I think it’s hilarious because, looking back, that wasn’t my brightest moment as I carried them for nearly 25 more minutes. Anyways, I won’t be doing that again.
With the first aid station coming up and part one of my nutrition plan executed, I was feeling good. I dropped off my empty flasks to Jess and picked up my next batch; another liter of water and 750 calories.
As I headed into the climb, I was a little off the podium spots, but I could see them. I also was in step with my friend Caitlin which gave me confidence we were in a good place. I felt strong but also was taking strong notice of how the ladies looked in the first group. At that moment, I felt like I could close the gap if I needed to, but the climb wasn’t the place to do that. I continued to make eating the priority, and by the top of our ‘big climb,’ I had consumed another .5 liter of water and about 300 calories, bringing my total to 800 calories by 1:45 into the race.
Now, this is where things got interesting.
As we approached the descent, I told myself not to hammer down in order to proactively save my legs. But it appeared very quickly everyone else had the opposite plan, to make their big move on the downhill. The damage was done pretty quick, and by the time it hit me, I had gone from 4th to 7th, and a gap of maybe 90 seconds turned into 6-7minutes from the leaders.
When I came into Vallorcine, I was full of fuel, ~1250 calories. And while I knew I had a lot of work to do, I felt that if there was anyone who could make up that amount of ground, it was the girl with over 1000 calories in her system. So I dropped my empty flasks and picked up one more liter and took 250 calories from my crew instead of 500; it was a call in the moment I maybe should have done differently, but regardless I took off in pursuit.
The following 45 minutes were a patient yet the nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse. I felt a weight of guilt for letting the leaders get so much time on me on a section I knew I could have attacked more aggressively. But ultimately, that was the past and this was now, and I had 10 miles to get on the podium.
It took about 45-minutes to see the next woman, but when I did, I was relieved and affirmed that my plan, while not the best, could still work. During these 45-minutes, I probably ate 200 calories, so honestly, not that much. But I focused on the calories I already had in me and consciously channeled that food energy to my legs.
After passing the 6th woman, 5th came into view 15 minutes later. And then 4th, 10 minutes after her. I had never moved up an international field like this, and I can only say that it was surreal, as I felt a surge of energy compared to the women I was passing. To me, this was fueling making a difference as I knew the women racing were fit and strong.
After these moves, I finally saw 3rd, in the crux of the final climb, and she was not coming back easily. This was 3:30 into the race, and while I felt strong, I knew I needed one last pick-me-up of fuel if I wanted to run the last downhill well, so I used getting to the La Flégère Aid Station as my goal. Because once I did I would be greeted with my last bit of calories and enough energy to take me to the finish line.
Once at the summit, I grabbed my last bit of calories and consumed half before stashing it away in my vest. I felt like that was the perfect amount and turned my attention to catching 3rd. Once I caught up it took me not once, not twice, but three times to pass her, and once I finally did I ran downhill at a pace I thought would shake her.
I reached the bottom, with maybe a sip or two of calories consumed, bringing me to a total of ~1600cal. But then I hit a slight lull going up the final uphill. Small but oh so sneaky after descending hard for 20-30minutes. I heard some cheers behind me, but I was trying to convince myself it was one of the men I passed. I continued onward knowing I was in the final 3k of the race, but with not even the slightest sound with 1k to go, 4th pulled right next to me and the crowd began to roar.
All I remember thinking was, not today. After not getting on the podium in any of my big races last year, I was determined to make this one different. Within a millisecond my mind switched to ‘leave nothing on the table’ mode, and I ended up covering the last 800m in 2:41. A time that I can do in a workout, but it required much more from me to do that after 4+ hours of mountain racing.
In the end, I finished 3rd, and I have no doubt that my consumption of ~1500 calories had something to do with it.
At the finish, my nutrition breakdown looked something like this.
But, like any race, there is always room for improvement.
The Lessons Learned
- Don’t hold back on the downhills - Haha, but really. I think there was a subconscious lack of confidence that didn’t allow me to execute the main downhill of the race (insert 100 excuses here). When it comes down to it I put myself in an unideal race position that nearly cost me a podium spot. And. while I think my calories enabled me to come back strong, I am curious how my body would have felt with those calories AND being in a better position halfway through the race.
- Take the Nutrition you planned - I keep thinking about Vallorcine and how I left calories on the table. And why? So I could move a little faster? Because I felt good at the moment? Admittedly I think what happened is I had a little stressful moment where I realized how much time I had to make-up and made a game-time decision. While it didn’t affect my race, it also could have given me that last little boost to help me push more of the last downhill. I had been so good through the first aid station, but at this one, I was frazzled. It’s one of those ‘I got away with it this time, doesn’t mean I will next time.’
- Practice in Different Environments - This one is tough since it largely depends on where you live. But the heat was a bit tough for me, and I know it’s going to be hotter when I go back to Chamonix in August to race OCC. Before Mont Blanc, I mostly ran in 50F , but the race got close to 80F for the last 90min. I know that affected my ability to keep eating, and perhaps it played a role in why I didn’t feel the need to grab my extra calories at Vallorcine. Still, regardless, it was a great reminder to practice fueling in different types of weather when and if I can.