Marathon du Mont Blanc 2022
I was watching a replay of the stream of coverage of the 2022 Marathon du Mont Blanc the other day and was struck by two things: how well a couple of Africans performed and how the race (ie the podium positions) changed throughout the 42km event. The event has over 2500m of height gain, is based in Chamonix, and is now part of the Golden Trail World Series.
The race was eventually won by Jonathan Albon (centre, UK), from David Magnini (left, Italy) and Ruy Ueda (right, Japan). But I am here to have a look at two African-born competitors, Elhousine Elazzaoui (Morocco) and Robert Pkemboi (Kenya, sometimes Robert Pkemboi Matayango).
Let’s look at how the race panned out for the two Africans. These notes are taken from a second skim watch of the live stream, and relative positions on the course are usually in time elapsed:
After 30 minutes of mostly flat running three runners had got away. Robert Pkemboi, Petro Mamu Shaku (Eritrea) and Juan Carlos (Mexico) were trying to get a a decent break going. As the course started rising Jonathan Albon picked them up, and these four ran together for ages. After the highest point (Col des Posettes at 19.5 km) Carlos was dropped. The remaining three were together after 2hrs 4mins, then Albon broke away around the 2-20 to 2-25 mark. From 29.5km onwards Davide Magnini seemed to have tracker problems, as did a couple of others. At this time Elhousine Elazzaoui seemed to be 4th and Ruy Ueda (Japan) 7th (although quite difficult to tell from the footage). Then at around 35km the leaders were shown as: Albon, Elazzaoui, Shaku, Baronian (France) and Pkemboi. Still no sign of Magnini, but Juan Carlos had dropped out. After 3-06 Elazzaoui was 3 mins behind Albon, and Magnini was up to 3rd, with Ueda up to 4th. Pkemboi was seen walking briefly. At 3-18 the leaders were Albon, Elazzaoui, Shaku, Pkemboi, Baronian, and Ueda (Magnini seeming to be not in top 10, although that was because of tracker malfunction). Then the stream suddenly at 3-20 shows that he is in second. Not much further changed.
The final top 6 were: Jonathan Albon (U.K., lives in Norway) 3:35:20; Davide Magnini (Italy) 33:39:41; Ruy Ueda (Japan) 3:40:42; Elhousine Elazzaoui (Morocco) 3:43:19; Thibaut Baronian (France) 3:47:27; Robert Pkemboi (Kenya) 3:50:44. Albon was at front for much of the race, Elazzaoui moved through in the second half, and Pkemboi faded after his fast start, but held up well in the end.
So what do we know about the two Africans? [Credit: the internet]
Elazzaoui is a son of the desert, born in the Berber tribe of southern Morocco. As a boy, having to contribute to the surveillance of the camels, he would ask his father to let them go far away so that he could run and get them back (barefoot). In March 2017, he moved to Switzerland where he now trains and competes in the major international mountain races, including vertical kilometres.
For more about Elazzaoui see: https://en.everybodywiki.com/Elazzaoui_Elhousine
Pkemboi is part of a project for Kenyan athletes to participate in mountain running (Sky Runners Kenya), created by Octavio Perez. He pulled together a group of runners who had run mountain races in Kenya. Perez says, ‘the idea came to my mind when Kilian Jornet started doing some road races. I thought; If Jornet is capable of doing great things on the road, what would Kenyans be able to do in mountain running? After a lot of turning my head, I prepared some workouts in Iten [Kenya] with several runners there.‘
All of this reminds of something that Sarah Rowell said to me when I interviewed her at the end of last year (for my upcoming book on pioneer women fell and mountain runners). Sarah now spends time supporting the development of international mountain running. ‘I recently joined the WMRA Council as it was a role I felt I could contribute to. My ambition is to see a proper mountain style relay at the Olympics. Two men, two women, over say a 20-minute course, which I think would be better than cross country. The more mountain running becomes mainstream the more in some ways it moves away from its roots. The top runners are earning a living from it. I would like to see them getting the plaudits they deserve. Now we are seeing the Africans coming in, and increasingly winning.’
The Africans will do it if it is financially advantageous for them. The way they get in is through their agents. When you know what the top ones are earning doing marathons it tiers down. They are starting to look at mountain races. At the World Mountain Champs there have been a podium runners from Eritrea before now, and from Kenya too. Personally, but I may be proved totally wrong, I think if you have a course with a technical descent then that helps even things up. Classically you will see the best European descenders can often outdo some of the Africans. By Europeans it is normally the Spanish, Italians and the Brits. In my own way I was always a much better descender than climber.
Postscript: Elazzaoui and Pkemboi placed 4th and 5th respectively in the Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon back in May, also part of the Golden Trail Series (an event won by Kilian Jornet, with Davide Magnini a fine second, after they had gone neck and neck for much of the race).
For my earlier thoughts (from 2017) on African mountain runners see: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/future-of-fellmountain-running-are-africans-set-to-take-over/
And for a postscript on that blog post see: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/postscript-on-african-dominance/