Running and Bitter Blood

I have decided to join my 3rd running training group (for a town of only 30,000 people I think we have a least 5 which is pretty cool). This one is the CMBM – Chamonix Mont Blanc Marathon. They were hard to get a hold of – they used to be part of the Club des Sports of Chamonix, but political disagreements meant the two organizations are now separate (but still on ‘friendly’ terms) and they have no website anymore (there is one for the race, but not for the training group). In fact, reading the race site I would have no idea a group of people existed to train together for this event. But I’d heard rumours, and then confirmed them by asking around.

I already go to a group based in Les Houches (meets on Saturdays), and run with 3 other women every Friday.  The CMBM running club were also the originators of the Chamonix Mont Blanc Marathon, (now mostly organized by the Club des Sports with participation from the CMBM) which is a largely uphill mountain marathon along with a completely uphill half-marathon (this is a yearly event and their 10k was my first foray back into racing 3 summers ago) and a 10k ‘introductory trail run’ as well as a children’s fun run. They also participate in organizing the North Face Ultra Trail, the new Trail des Aiguilles Rouges and something called the Monstre Dure which is done for charity and is a very good excuse for running hill repeats … it’s a how many times can you run up the ski hill and back in x hours kind of event.

So this running group focus is going to be on long distance mountain trail running, which is my thing right now. I knew of them before but was a bit intimidated to join them for whatever reason (image that they are all greyhound slim 6 minute mile ultra marathoners speaking incomprehensibly fast French or something sat in my mind for about a year and made me reticent to seek them out). In fact they are a diverse group, with older and younger members, with some quite seriously competitive amazing atheletes (Vincent Delebarre, a previous winner of the North Face Ultra Trail and top finisher in this year’s Trail des Aiguilles Rouges) and others in their 50s and 60s who are there regularly and just keeping fit. The CMBM meets on Wednesdays and seems to first of all be gigantic in comparison with the other groups I run with already (30 people showed up in the pouring rain last Wednesday) and secondly it’s the only one which is an ‘official’ French association.

In France, if you create an ‘association’ you can run it (not for profit) with a bank account and membership fees as well as a ‘charter’ explaining your purpose, tax free without a whole lot of hassle. This is how this club is organized. The other advantage is that since it is an officially registered sports association, once you join you must go for a medical exam, and then you are given an official licence(number) as a club racer. This allows you to easily use this number to register for races here in France (or elsewhere), which famously all races (even 5 and 10Ks) seem to require a ‘certificate medicale’, without requiring you to go in and get another check up or copy of the certificate every time you want to join a race.

So today was my day for the medical. Another cool thing about France. Guess what – the check up was free. Not because of French social security (they never asked for my Carte Vitale) which would have been cheap anyhow (my last one was €26) but because the checkup was run by a doctor associated with the running club, who works at ENSA – L’Ecole Nationale de Ski et Alpinisme (which is the place in France to become a mountain guide or ski instructor). My guess is they are using the data gathered for statistics they keep on athletes in general.

The exam took about 25 minutes and consisted of being weighed (my least favorite bit), measured for height, some odd analysis of my body position (you stand up on a box with a mirror at an angle underneath and he checks if you have spinal curvature issues, bowlegs etc.), a measuring of resting blood pressure and pulse, an electro-cardiogram and a VO2 max test done in ‘submaximal’ fashion (they have a treadmill and mask there but I get the impression this was only used for elite athletes in training) using a stationary bike with a heartbeat monitor. This was a 12 minute test with graduated ‘watts’ of effort required, all while cycling at the same medium rate of 60-70 turns/minute.

The verdict was that for my age (in my 40s) I had excellent endurance (from my cardiogram – not sure what they look at there as I did not get a copy of it), a decent resting pulse (67 which I think is down from when I started distance running a couple of years ago – I think it used to be around 75), my blood pressure was good (120/65), and I had an OK VO2 max of 40 (this factored in not only the numbers from this sub-maximal bike test but my sex, age and worst of all my weight which is my weakness). Well – on some sites any number over 38 for my age is considered ‘superior’ but I look at this in comparison to competitive athletes (78 for Joan Benoit) and will stay with judging it as ‘OK’. 

In conclusion I was told the measurements were all very good save one thing – “Vous etes trop lourde. Est-ce que vous avez mal aux genoux?” – My rough internal translation – “Good lord, you are a fat ass – do you have problems with your knees?” No, not at all I told him, in the 2 ultra marathons I’ve done with 4500m of uphill (14,670ft) my favorite part continues to be running the downhills as fast as I can. OK I was told, you are in excellent shape for endurance, but it would be best if you can lose some weight.

I mentioned I’d been to a well-recommended dietitian ‘plusiers fois’ (this brought a sympathetic ‘tut tut’ and ‘oui, c’est dur‘ from the skinny blond woman assistant as if my failure was from lack of trying) who told me she had ‘given up’ on me and could do no more for me, after about 10 months of appointments and blood tests and diet changes, while I trained for my last ultra, keeping a food and exercise diary religiously and following the dietary changes she recommended – when this made no change in my weight even after running the Ultra Trail race, she gave up on me.

In fact, just before the last appointment with her, I gave up as well. I went off her diet a month after last year’s ultra and doing more 2 marathons in September, and came in saying ‘j’ai mangée comme un cochon‘ … I’ve eaten like a pig (which was true, I went from a nice 1 egg, 1 piece of German rye with no butter / salad + protein / protein + vegetables (and only allowed starch on training days) diet to one that added back in treats like chocolate squares and more regular doses of rice and potatoes as well as desserts on occaision … and I’d taken a break from my intense running schedule and was running once or twice a week only.

I said this because I assumed I’d have gained tons of weight (previously no matter what I did in diet or increased exercise, the numbers stayed the same – at first she told me to just have patience. Then she was frustrated too.). But again, the scale had not budged. I had gained weight steadily for a few years (20lbs) but now I seem to have stopped but am ‘stuck’ at a too high weight whether I exercise a lot, running marathons and ultras, as well as rock climb or just lay around recovering after a long race and eat a lot. My metabolism is stuck on ‘slow burn’ but on the other hand, there is some set point which I now seem to not surpass. In fact, it’s now over 2 years since my first visit to her before my first Ultra, and many races since then – I found the bloody number was the same on the doctor’s scale (and yes, it was a different scale).

Now the fact that my thyroid numbers and my ferritin numbers consistently over time seem off (in the US my thyroid numbers would say borderline slow and ferritin was showing at less than the amount required for an infant on a consistent basis — but the blood iron levels were always good) did not change my dietitian doctor’s opinion that my metabolism was not to blame (nor did the evidence staring her in the face – my food and exercise diary – I think she must have assumed I was lying). She constantly refused to consider metabolism (ie thyroid) – but finally did send me to one other doctor in Annecy. This doctor was if anything worse and said the same thing but without ever looking at my food/exercise diary and solely looking at blood tests (and again missed any ferritin link, solely using the thyroid panel numbers as defined not using the new redefined numbers recommended by many US physicians).

But this time she suggested perhaps I was pre-diabetic and not properly metabolising carbohydrates – she suggested I take this horrid diabetics medication with loads of side-effects (which I only found by reviewing it on the Internet – she had told me there was no problem with it) as well as that I change my diet to a super high protein low fat no carbs diet (1 lb of protein a day basically over 3 meals (how I was to get this from vegetable sources she was not even thinking about) + only certain vegetables + lots of milk products which I do not agree with either and can’t digest well to boot ) with only 1 tablespoon of carbs allowed per day. This was supposed to sustain me while training for the mountain Ultra marathon? And not damage my kidneys? I simply refused to follow her suggestions – I thought she was bonkers and very condescending in any case, and also really rushed me through her office with barely a glance (answering phone calls while I was trying to explain things to her).

Since this time I’ve been self-medicating by taking vegetable-based iron supplements (as absorbed in specially grown spirulina) and magnesium (a lack of which leads to many of the depression/fatigue/mental fogginess symptoms I had) and this has improved my mental state a lot – but it has not changed my metabolism or other typical low thyroid symptoms that I have. However, my ferritin numbers improved. A recent Swiss study seems to point that I did the right thing in this case. But that study doesn’t do root cause analysis or provide a complete solution either .. Personally I do not like the idea of taking thyroid medication either – and would love to find a natural solution to this issue – so continue to research. I may potentially add Selenium to this mix and see if that helps.

I am convinced that I now need to do something to ‘recharge’ my metabolic system to get it to ‘bouge‘ (move). Rather than relying on rock climbing and fast uphill running/hiking to be my only version of ‘weight training’ (regular climbing partners with the same hours as I have are shorter in supply in the Fall) I am going to start to go to the gym (which I used to do in the states) to lift weights. Once a week (there is only 1 day a week the local gym is actually open at a time I am not working or otherwise engaged). I don’t like exercising indoors anymore, but a lot of people have told me (and articles confirming this seem to appear regularly) that aerobic exercise alone simply does not encourage weight loss. This was not true when I was younger as far as I am concerned, but what the hell – I’ll give it a go.

And secondly, I am strongly considering a rather extreme ‘cleansing’ program I read about on the site – lots of vegetables and then odd things like drinking clay to clean the toxins out of your guts …. My other half will be gone for much of Oct/Nov for training – and this will give me an opportunity to do a drastic thing such as that more easily. I am still deciding as it is quite extreme, and not sure how it will affect my energy levels etc. – but racing season is quieting down (one last race in Lausanne coming up in 2 weeks). Only issue – I will also be going away for a four day weekend with a friend in November (and that will kind of ruin plans for extreme juicing and other rituals required of this ‘Arise and Shine’ thingy). Hmm. But if i am going to do it, now’s the time – once November is past, it will be Noel season and ski season.



  1. Stumbled on this as I was trying to find something to do with CMBC. I’ve had the same feeling about joining a club, for the last three years!! Finally got myself reasonably fit enough I think to join, so I will! Only in Chamonix part time. I’d love to find someone to run with, feel like a bit of a lonely billy !! Ultra trail is too long for me , but had a bash at the Sierre Zinal last summer. Hopefully doing the Bob Graham in the Lakes this june.
    are the spiders from mars references because you like Bowie?


  2. Yes that is what the Spiders from Mars references are about. Ask at the office of tourism if you can’t find out how to get in touch with the CMBM club. They have the contact details, as the club’s website seems to be down.


  3. hi there,

    if you supplement iron it might be wise to ad vit. b12 and vit. C (better but expensive Ester-C).
    You also need to check your blood on regular basis because to mutch iron can damage the lever.

    rgrds Running Tim


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