Chamonix Vertical Kilometre (VKM) – the Prologue

So there I was, back in March, idly surfing the net when I came across a tweet from @challengesophie (Sophie Radcliffe) about one of her goals for 2015: the Chamonix Vertical Kilometre. Sophie blogs about the route here. I got hooked. Always one for climbing something “because it’s there”, I started to think about doing this – just for fun, no pressure, and certainly not entering for the annual race on the route. (For those interested, the 2016 event is on June 24th.)

Then I got to thinking that if I was going to do this, then I ought to do it justice and aim for a half-decent time. I’d no idea what to aim for – I’ve done plenty of similar mountain walks / runs, but not really timed them. Sophie was aiming for 60 minutes, having done it in 90 minutes on her first recce. And she has a few decades advantage over me in terms of age, and is undoubtedly a lot fitter.  With nothing better to go on, I plucked 90 minutes out of the air, as the time I would aim for. It seemed pretty achievable at the time!

I started to train in the smaller hills in the Jura, close to Geneva, and pondered when to do this challenge. I thought I ought to check it out first by going to Chamonix and “strolling” up it to familiarise myself with the route. So in the middle of July, I headed off to Chamonix.

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The route starts in the middle of the village (at the church) and then follows the line of the Plan Praz telecabine (see photo), ending just above the mid-station. I had thought I’d skip the first km or so out of the village, and just start off when the switchbacks start under the telecabine. But when I got there, I decided that I might as well experience the full route and time it to see how much work I had to do to achieve 90 minutes. So fuelled by a coffee and croissant in the village (not the best nutritional preparation!) I set out up the very steep road that forms the start and hit the switchbacks about 9 minutes in. There was no running after that, just striding as fast as I could.

The first vertical 600m were relatively easy – compared with what was to come. But the route got a bit steeper and my pace reduced.  And soon I decided to take a 5 minute break for a power bar and water. Looking back down, there was a great view of the Chamonix valley and Mt Blanc.

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Thereafter it was a case of just focussing on keeping going, even though my pace was now very pedestrian compared with earlier. Then the route got even steeper, with hand rails and ladders near the top.  Had this section been close to the bottom, it would have been fun – as it was, my legs were screaming at the large steps needed to climb these steep sections.

Finally I reached the cable car station – but there’s another couple of hundred metres to do to reach the end point which is 1000m above the start.  So I managed to break into a jog again, navigating my way through the tourists and paragliders, until I reached what is the “finish line”.

I’d done it! But what was my time? I checked my watch – it read 1 hour 50 minutes. I was slightly disappointed with that – 1hr 40m would have been good.  As it was, it meant I needed to shave 20 minutes off my time to achieve the 90 minute target. But it was a great experience and I headed back down the short hill to the cafe for some well earned refreshment.

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So what next? Well, I clearly needed to be in better shape to hit the 90 minutes mark, and running up a few short hills in the Jura was obviously insufficient to prepare for the VKM. I decided to seek help. As luck would have it, I’d met Charley Radcliffe who has just qualified as a personal trainer and started up The Mountain Foundry, to provide “strength and conditioning training for peak mountain performance”. Charley is also Sophie’s husband, and he did the VKM in just 56 minutes!  It seemed like he was just the one to help me achieve the 90 minutes target.

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So I’m currently in the middle of a 6 week training programme from Charley to get me in better shape for my next attempt – aiming for the start of September. Watch this space!

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