Morgan runs the 23km Cross Du Mont Blanc after being told he would never run again…

I’m very excited to share with you a truly inspiring tale from Upper Wharfedale Runner Morgan who reminds us anything is possible!

I’ll hand straight over to him so you can hear it all in his words…

“In July 2016, I awoke in a hospital bed to be told by a senior consultant orthopaedic surgeon that I had suffered such a serious knee injury in a fall whilst running downhill, I would never be able to return to running.

The surgeon reconstructed my left knee a short while later as an emergency operation. My ruptured ACL and PCL were each repaired with hamstring tendon grafts, the meniscus was repaired, and he stitched up my cartilage “in passing” as this was showing the effects of 30 plus years of running and ultra-running. The head of my tibia was shattered, and a plate and eight screws hold everything in place. Seven months later another plate and 10 screws were used to fix my broken collarbone.

The physical recovery was long (three years) and often brutally painful. Somewhat to my surprise, the moment came when the physios suggested it would be worth having a go at running. The original prognosis did eventually prove incorrect. I live with permanent discomfort and regular flares of pain from the knee but can do most of the things I want to do physically. The injuries do control how much I can run and train. My knee is full of scar tissue. In simple terms, the more impact exercise I do, the stiffer the joint becomes. I tread a fine line.

The mental recovery took longer. It wasn’t until March 2021 that I actively wanted to run as opposed to running because I knew it was ‘a good thing to be doing’. A barrier was finally washed away. With some self-imposed limits (no fell racing, nothing too technical, nothing beyond half-marathon distances) I ventured back into some competitive running. The Settle Saunter, the Wharfedale Half and the Wensleydale Wander all ‘got done’ in 2021. No race time longer than 2 hours 37.

I never imagined that I might return to my great love of racing in the Alps which has mostly been focussed on races within and around the Chamonix valley since the early 2000s. It was a pipe dream. Alison’s plan to celebrate her 60th birthday with an extended 4-week trip to the Chamonix valley, to finish with an attempt to win her age class at the Marathon du Mont Blanc just a few weeks after turning 60, gave me the chance to roll the dice. The lottery gods were kind enough (at a 1 in 2 chance) to secure me a place in the 23k Cross du Mont Blanc race, which I last ran back in the early 2010s.

A little about the race…

The Marathon event is the main event of a long weekend of racing at the end of June. The 42k event has become a classic and forms the only French event in the Salomon sponsored Golden Trail World Series. As a result of over-demand post-Covid Alison didn’t get a spot in the 42k draw (1 in 7 chance). All the charity places for the 42k had also vanished and she had to fall back on a charity place in the Cross, running to support a charity dedicated to the provision of sport for young people in the valley.

My preparation was rudely interrupted when, mid-way through the CRO event from Clapham on 21 May, my ACL became painful giving a weakness in the damaged knee whilst running downhill. We left for the Alps on 31 May so there was no time for serious investigation of just what the problem and solution might be.

The Cross is in its 43rd year and is a serious, classic Alpine mountain race with a distinguished history. It is a beast, with twice as much uphill as down, with the added challenges of altitude and likely warm temperatures. I was going to be out on the course for significantly longer than any effort post-accident.

Here is the profile chart with its 1680 metres of climb and 870 metres of descent:

The next two images tell the story of my run.

24.4k run and walked in a time of 4.26.40. At the first timing check I was 1,594th. By the end of the race, I had gained 647 places to come in the top half of the field. I have had greater changes of position in races. In UTMB 2012, my gain was over 800 places but that was in a race lasting 24 hours plus and where attrition leads to many retirements and casualties. The Cross must represent one of my better examples of a well-paced race.

So, some things went right. What exactly?

  • I was running well rested as a result of the ACL issue and ran perhaps only 5 times in the 3 weeks leading up to the race.
  • I was able to do plenty of hiking. One effort that sticks in the mind was a 3,300’ fast upfill hike in 1 hour 20 minutes on a very warm day. Alison, running, was only 10 minutes quicker.
  • I was able to get up to and over 2,000 metres on a couple of occasions. Racing at altitudes beyond around 6,000’ without some acclimatisation is tough. Not recommended.
  • The weather was hot for a fortnight in the middle of our time away. 35 degrees C was the peak. This heat acclimatisation was I believe significant on race day.
  • We walked or ran all the course, some parts several times. This was important because there were changes from our previous race experiences. I’m no fan of turning a corner to a nasty surprise. And the race included a new to us nasty, technical, rocky and root-strewn descent after km 14.
  • Race tactics. Looking at the profile chart, you can see that the race has two distinct ‘halves’. The valley run out to Montroc at around 12k followed by the more technical climb/descent/climb section to the finish. Doing that valley section twice as gentle runs gave me a clear time goal to arrive at Montroc in good order and ready to push on, hoping to survive the descent after km 14. I arrived pretty much bang on plan. And survived the nasty descent better than I thought possible.
  • It was warm on race day, peaking at around 27/28 degrees C. Historically, this temperature level has had a negative effect on my performance. This year I was able to cope really well and, whilst I was warm, I was passing runners who were patently struggling with the heat.
  • I use trail poles in Alpine races and have done for years. They definitely help my uphill effort and speed.
  • Aid stations. There were just two in the Cross. My experience over the years is that the further back you are in the field, the more these can feel like some kind of social occasion, with local runners chatting with each other and the volunteers and clogging up a smooth transition. I favour a “quick in, quick out’ approach. I focussed on refilling soft flasks as a priority, then grabbed a hunk of cheese and piece of cake (it helps to know what will be available and Alpine races tend to make that clear in advance) and walked out of the aid stations eating as I walked. As soon as the food was down, I was running again. I don’t think I spent more than 1 minute in either aid station. You can pass a lot of people with good technique!
  • Confidence. Once it dawns on you that things are going to plan, and that you are hoovering up places, running becomes much easier.