High Trail Vanoise- 67KM 5,400m DE D+ 10/07/16
02:45 my alarm goes off. I didn’t get much sleep but I bolt out of my bed and spring into action. All of my running gear is packed and my choice of clothes is neatly laid out and ready for action.
Dressed, cup of tea, salami sandwich, lube up, sun block 50 x twice (take no chances!), last minute faff and I’m ready, well almost. I have an overwhelming desire for another cup of tea, it’s 03:35 and I need to leave before 03:45, what’s the point? Without further ado I quickly make my brew, 03:40. I decide that I haven’t got time to enjoy it so I look around for something to put it in to take it with me. I take an empty scrunched up water bottle out of the bin, perfect! With my sandwich in one hand and my bottle of tea in the other I head out of the door, 3:46. It’s cutting it fine but I’m calm and composed as I head to the Place des Dolomites where the start is located.
As I walk I’m feeling proud of myself, everything has gone perfectly clockwork so far, that’s until I see all the other runners rolling into the start pen with their head torches, running sacks and poles. POLES, s**t, where’s my poles? In my smug bottle of tea moment, I’d put my poles down to pick up my tea, (insert expletives x 100 here)! I’m not mentally or physically strong enough to do this beast without poles! 03:52 and I’m running back to my apartment, how could I have swapped my poles for tea, idiot!!! I grab my poles and head back to the start line, the adrenaline’s pumping but I’ve got a few minutes to spare!
At the briefing yesterday when they said there would be a kit check before the race I though ‘Yer, right, as if that’s going to happen!’, I was wrong, the kit check was duly taking place and rightly so! I though the race was going to be the hard bit, not getting to the start line!!!
There’s about 200 people ready for the off (166 I later learn), every single one of them look like lean mean running machines. I feel slightly intimidated but know I can hold my own. The count down begins from 10, and 9 seconds later we’re off…..
It takes less than an hour before we reach patches of snow, some of it’s firm but mostly it’s slushy and hard going. We’re soon on a small col by a ski station and as we turn the corner a beautiful piece of single track trail snakes across the mountainside, perfect. I’ve got a couple of keen racing snakes on my heels but I’m going well and motoring around the mountain. That is until I go over on my ankle! Aargh, BUGGER BUGGER BUGGER, I limp to the side of the path and let them go. They ask if I’m okay as they pass by but they’re gone before I can reply. It’s only a rolled ankle and it’s happened many times before in races. I know the score, 2 minutes of pain, 10 minutes of awkwardness then it’ll be tender but ok to carry on. I limp off and continue my race but not at the speed I’d like to be doing. I try and recall how far it was back to the last marshal, just in case it’s worse than I think!
As we head higher the snow patches become ski slopes and a race marshal recommends that we put our snow spikes on. Looking at what lay ahead I wasn’t going to argue with him.
We passed the Funicular de la Grande Motte just as all the staff were spilling out for a day working the ski lifts and pistes (yes, Summer skiing/snowboarding) and could clearly see our first and highest objective at 3656 meters, La Grande Motte. There’s a refreshment station here so I take a moment to soak the surrounding in. As I look towards our peak I can see tiny specks heading up the snow. But these specks aren’t on the mountain itself, there on the ski slope heading towards it. This gives me some aspect/realisation as to how far and high it is away from me!
Higher up as we we’re leaving the main ski slope on a single track snow plod I could see the runners above on the arête where the snow and mist was blowing over and around them. I still had only my vest on and thought it wise to cover up for that bit!
As we headed upwards a rocky crag barred our way. Luckily a gully with a fixed rope was in place to help us onwards. Once on the top our number was zapped and we were instructed to put our poles safely away. I was intrigued as to what lay ahead that we couldn’t use our poles for! My curiosity was soon answered when I came to a cliff face below me with ropes hanging over! The friendly marshal at the top gave me reassuring instructions in a stern voice. It’s a shame I didn’t understand a word he said but I got the gist of it which including danger and death! There was about 20m of scrambling down aided by ropes, to me it was ok but I could see how a novice could easily be freaked out and become crag-fast (stuck)!
I haven’t really run any distance downhill fast in the snow but it’s not that hard. Most of it was over your ankles but now and again you could go knee deep! This was great for icing my dodgy ankle I thought.
When the snow finally petered out we were on a downhill winding stony road. In the winter this would be an excellent red cruise back to Tignes before après apéritifs but today it was a dull grind.
After Tignes we went back upwards on nice single track that brought us to open meadows. This was fantastic running, let this continue for many a kilometer I though, I could run this all day. Well, it was great while it lasted but then we were treated to a traditional downhill forest zigzag fest that spat us out at La Daille.
The temperature had really turned up a few notches and you could see it in everyone’s stride as they arrived into the feed station. I took one of the two chairs available right by the food. As usual I wasn’t hungry, but I forced down a couple of cups of noodle soup followed by a few orange segments all washed down with two cups of coke. Water bottles refilled and I was off feeling great again. That was until I got 200 meters away and realised that I’d left my poles behind (again!)!
Two weeks prior to this race I’d ran the Mont Blanc Marathon 80km and thought I’d tackled the toughest of steep hills, I was wrong. This path up to the Passage de Picheru was an absolute monster of a climb. I was thankful of the mini feast I’d had below because I wasn’t sure how long I could keep trucking up this hill. Every time you thought it’s just over the brow there, you were crushed with another incline that seemed to go on forever. My heart beat matched that of someone flicking through a deck of cards, my breathing was labored and heavy but I was smiling like a Cheshire Cat.
What goes up must go down and down I went. More snow and slush but it took the pounding off the feet for a while. I could see Lac de la Sassière down below where more refreshments were waiting.
I still had my gloves stuffed down the front of my running shorts from when I’d summited the Grand Motte. I’d only notice them once they’d slipped beyond my groin area, so I’d quickly grab them and pull them higher up and swear to put them in my rucksack the next time I stopped.
At this point runners were few and far between. Even though Steph had texted me updates, I hadn’t looked at my phone so I had no idea where in the field I was. At a very rough guess I would said I was in the top half judging by where I started and who I’d passed or been passed by!
After the lake we followed a rocky path upwards that wasn’t too steep, oh joy. The descent on the other side wasn’t drastically steep but this forced you to run at a good pace in the very hot sun. Had this been a shorter run this descent would have been fantastic but not today!
I landed in La Fornet knowing that I’d broken the back of the race. One more major climb to do then it was all-downhill…. or so I thought!
As the marshal zapped my number I headed for the shade of a bus shelter, the last few hours in the blistering sunshine had really taken it out of me. As I sat there cooling down I was joined by another sun struck runner. I asked him how many kilometers it was to the finish. He shuck his head and I thought he was trying to tell me that he didn’t know or he didn’t understand me, when I rephrased my question he looked at me and clearly said ‘it’s over, we’re timed out’ in a French hacked off tone! It took a few seconds to sink in, ‘timed out’, I’ve never been timed out of a race in my life. I didn’t even know what the cut off points were but I was sure as hell that I hadn’t been slow on the course!
I headed out of the bus shelter where there were about 10 other runners all very annoyed at the situation. I asked around and eventually found an English speaking person that confirmed we had all been timed out and a mini bus was waiting to take us back to base. I walked away in disbelief, all the other runners were up in arms and babbling on in French, none of which I could understand apart from the disappointment and anger in their voices. I slowly resigned myself that that was it, rules were rules and I didn’t make the cut. I went and sat by the minibus as there were more runners than seats by now.
I put my poles away, stopped my Strava and pulled out my mobile to give Steph the disappointing news. Just as I was about to call I noticed a change in attitude by the bus stop, something had happened. I put my phone away and headed over to see what had changed. There were a few less runners than before and I soon learned that because of the difficult conditions prior they were going to extend the cut off at this point by one hour, game on…
I slogged up to ski station at the Col de Iseran and made the cut off by 10 minutes. The marshal vaguely pointed his finger towards the hanging valley and gestured that the next section went around it. It didn’t look too bad as long as we didn’t have to go to the top of those mountains in the far distance and along that wild ridge. An hour later we were scrambling up rocks and scree in a fairly vertical manner. The guy in front of me missed a marker and was heading towards a point of no return. A quick call and his bacon was saved!
It soon became apparent that those mountains and that wild ridge were exactly where we were heading, so be it. This was real mountain territory, steep, loose, hard to follow path, despite being very tired I was in my element. All those Mountain Mondays were paying off good style. My lungs and heart were still rapidly functioning thus causing a standing break every ten or so minutes.
On the way to topping out at Aiguille Pers (3386m) on the French/Italian border I followed an awesome ridge with a massive drop into Italy on the left and steep snow/scree to the right. This wasn’t just running this was true Alpine mountaineering! After being zapped by another epic marshal I had a lot of downhill snow (again) to get back to the col. I knew that after the col I had a bit more uphill before I could have access to the other side via a tunnel where my village lay and the end of my epic race.
At the Col de I’seran I loaded up on Liptons Ice Tea and a cup of coke. I didn’t have the stomach to eat anything but I was raring to go. A female marshal smiled as she told me that I only had 10 kilometres to go and the cut off was in an hour. An hour to do 10 kilometres was impossible especially when you saw that ascent up through the snow and goodness knows what on the other side. She then said, maybe an hour and a half with another innocent smile. I didn’t see red or frustration, I saw a challenge!
Without a second thought I was on my feet and storming towards the snow line. I hadn’t really had a second wind today, it was just get on with it Douglas, moping around won’t help finish this race. I’d overtaken two guys on the last section and I knew there were two more ahead of me somewhere. Not only am I going to finish this race but I’m head hunting too.
Yet again the snow was mushy and hard going but I was in a rhythm and moving fast. The lethargy in my legs had been replaced with Liptons Ice Tea and I rocketed up the hill. Like all good things it came to an abrupt end. The snow ran out and I was faced with a chossy (bad/nasty/loose) near vertical face climb. The roped sections earlier on were easier and safer than this! It’s no exaggeration to say a slip from here would be to meet my maker! As I wasn’t ready to meet him just yet I carefully moved upwards and picked the best line possible to be met outside a tunnel by two officials and their dog (surely them came from the other side?). Only 8 kilometres to the finish they tell me. The tunnel is about 100m long, I emerge out of the other side ready for the final downhill blast.
There’s no path as such, just a very steep scree slope with the occasional blue rock to follow. I bound down the slope knowing that the finish line lies at the end of this valley somewhere.
Where the scree stops the snow starts. I could see footsteps heading directly down the steepest bit, oh well I thought, here goes. After I few steps I could see a bum shaped groove heading in a straight line. I’d heard about these epic bum slides but had never had the chance to try one. Before I could rationally talk myself out of it I was on my arse and bombing down this slope out of control. I dug my feet in only to give myself a full body spray. I quickly learned that my poles were my friends and by holding them like a paddle I could semi control myself. I recon I did a good half a kilometre in less than a minute, result!
As I composed myself and carried on on foot I spied my quarry about a kilometre ahead of my, they were walking on the flat, I knew with my renewed vigor that I’d be running that bit, not walking.
They dipped out of sight and I pushed on, I knew there was a small lake somewhere ahead and once I passed that, it was a direct route to the finish line. The markers weren’t as often as they had been and I had to pay close attention not to lose them. The pace was good and I reckoned that I’d easily covered more than half the descent. I noticed a marker flag on the side of the snow and two blue dots on the rocky soil above. Here we go again, off the snow and onto an unchartered upwards-grassy slope. Why did I ever believe that there’d be no more uphill after what we’d just been put though?
The hill turned into a grassy ridge and I could see the guys half a kilometre away. This just egged me on to push harder and every time they reappeared they were a little bit closer to me! Just before Lac de L’Ouillette I finally pasted them. To say they were a little surprised was an understatement. I tried to be friendly and make conversation about how close we were to the finish and let’s go together but I could see the tiredness in their eyes and knew there was only one pace that they were doing and that was it!
I left them with a wave and five minutes later at the final timer control point I turned to see them a good distance back but running. Running, but they were dead on their feet almost and now they’re running, oh bugger, this meant that I was going to have to run even faster to stop them catching me up. When running in a pair you can easily spark off each other and muster up enthusiasm to nail a cocky English man on their home turf. I swear there was smoke coming off my shoes as I hurled myself down the steep slope towards the finish. At the first corner I glanced back up the hill to see my competition at the top. For them to catch me now would be nigh on impossible but that didn’t stop me giving it hell for leather down the black (Rhone-Alpes) run to the finish.
As I entered the finishing straight the microphone was booming and a small handful of people cheered me over the finishing line. I shook hands with everyone while telling them that was the best course I’d ever ran ( Steve Mee style!). There were no tears of joy, no sick, no collapsing, no cramp, just an overwhelming feeling of euphoria and tiredness. I was handed my finishers t-shirt (no medal!) and sat for a while to contemplate what I’d just achieved.
The guys I was chasing then being chased by came in 5 minutes after me. I shook their hands and we exchanged stale sweat and pleasantries.
Out of 166 starters only 48 made it to the finish line. I was well chuffed with a hard fought for 43rd place in 16hrs 16mins! The majority DNF’d will only 9 getting timed out.
It was only after my bath I felt a pain in my ankle and my mind was reminded of the early mishap that nearly finished me!!!
If you want a beautiful race high in the Alps with very challenging terrain then this is the race for you!
The official Skyrunning write up about the event by Ian Corless is here- http://bit.ly/HTV2016