Race Report: Jurassic Coast 100 Miler

The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.

I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.

Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.

The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.

2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.

Relive ‘JC100 mile’

Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.

Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.

Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset

The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.

Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Specatators along the route

On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.

 

Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.

The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion. 

The view from the trail

The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.

The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.

I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.

Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.

As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.

Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.

Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.

No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.

Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.

After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime. 

As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.

The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.

Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.

More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.

After 100 miles, 60 of which we’d pushed through together, we’d made it onto Exmouth seafront.

Somebody taking a breather with a view.

Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.

The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.

After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.

Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy

I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.

Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces

Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.

As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.

A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.

Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.

Jurassic Coast 100 Mile Results

Race Report: UTMB: CCC 2017

UTMB. Probably the one event that even non-trail runners stand a chance of having heard of. However recently it had been well-known for many of the wrong reason including a controversial open letter from the organisers of Hardrock 100 lamenting the fact that they were asked to pay for inclusion in UTMB’s qualification process.

Cue lots of negative discussions on social media. UTMB/ITRA is a racket. It’s not real ultra-running and is more like a giant traffic-jam/human centipede. Ignore the circus and concentrate on more authentic events. I’m not getting into that though, you can read the other side of the story in ITRA’s response to the accusations.

It’s not that simple though. Regardless of which side of the argument you sit, if you’ve ever been in Chamonix at the end of August you will be left in no doubt that the atmosphere is second-to none. I had been there two years ago and watched a friend complete the UTMB event and was swept up in the carnival atmosphere that took hold of the town. I decided there and then that I wanted in on that action and that being stabbed by the odd trekking pole might be a small price to pay.

The UTMB-proper (171km with 10,000m of elevation) is currently beyond my reach, not least because I haven’t run enough qualifying races but I’ve also never run further than 86km. I did however find that getting enough points to enter the CCC was definitely much more attainable so last December I entered the race lottery and to my surprise, managed to snag a place.

Although the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, Chamonix) is the ‘little sister’ event of UTMB, it is fair to say that it’s a serious ultra marathon in its own right. For the most part it covers the last two thirds of the UTMB with a few deviations and at over 100km and 6,000m of elevation it’s certainly not an easy cop out.

So this was my ‘A’ race for 2017, and after a recent DNF in the brutally steep 80km du Mont Blanc earlier in the year I was determined to be well organised, fully on form and run a smart race this time.

The weather would definitely help this time – after two straight years of blazing blue skies and high temperatures, I arrived to pick up my race bib in a grey and wet Chamonix being drenched by a light but consistent rain. The amazing mountain backdrop was hidden behind battleship-grey clouds.

The start line in Courmayeur

On the Friday morning I took the organised bus from outside my rented apartment in Argentiere, through the Mont-Blanc tunnel and into Courmayeur on the other side and was greeted by cool temperatures, sunny skies and thankfully no rain – perfect ultra-running weather.

However we knew it wouldn’t last as the forecast for the later stages of the race was for very cold temperatures up high and more rain, possibly snow. A last minute text from the organisers arrived as I was waiting at the start line, explaining that the final section between Col des Montets and La Flégère had been rerouted to avoid Tête aux Ventes – I was unsure whether this was a good or a bad thing.

The course profile of the CCC

2,150 lined up on the start line and I had previously heard lots of horror stories about huge queues as the race hits the first narrow trails so I was keen to get reasonable to the front. The race was divided into three pens which would leave at 9am, 9:15 and 9:30 respectively and I was in the second pen.

The excitement and anticipation was building – large crowds had turned out and were very enthusiastic. Most ultras I run start at 4am so local support is usually less lively. Media helicopters buzzing overhead and an energetic PA announcer building up the enthusiasm of the crowd in three languages all contributed to a feeling of being part of something big – and then the starting gun went off, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise playing as we ran through the town of Courmayeur to cheering crowds and ringing cowbells.

Leaving Courmayeur and heading to the first forest trails

A route through the town meant that we got to soak up the atmosphere for a couple of KMs, and also had the benefit of thinning out the crowds before we hit the narrower trails.

The traffic jams never really materialised – the first climb was almost a vertical mile up to the Tête de la Tronche in the first 10km or so, ensuring most mid-pack runners would take it easy so we soon set into a steady pace. Maybe I was feeling fresh and enthusiastic but the first climb really felt good, and didn’t seem anywhere near as steep as it looks on paper.

Pretty soon we were over the top and running down into the first aid station at Refuge Bertone. There was no need to hang around so I quickly filled up with water, grabbed some chocolate and dried apricots and headed out onto the lovely runnable section of 7km to the next aid station.

Leaving Refuge Bertone

This next section was wonderful – rolling hills of single track with sweeping views of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc. The weather continued to be cooperative and stayed cool and sunny – pretty soon I arrived at the next aid station at Refuge Bonatti, 22km into the race.

Great running between the Bertone and Bonatti refuges

 

Still enjoying great weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc

Fantastic trails for running

 

 

 

 

I knew that the climb to Grand Col Ferret was going to be tough, so I sat down and had a bit of a rest, powered by some of the delicious pasta soup handed out at all the large aid stations. It was only when I looked at the map that I realised there was still another 5km of running to Arnouvaz before the climb started.

Climbing towards the Grand Col Ferret – the wind increased and the temperature dropped meaning the layers started to go on.

As the race approached the Col Ferret it was obvious that the great weather wouldn’t last – forbidding clouds in the distance towards Switzerland suggested I’d soon be adding layers and waterproofs.

Zero visibility and freezing wind at the Grand Col Ferret

The climb itself only took just over an hour but the difference between the top and bottom was pretty stark. I’d added a waterproof layer to keep out the wind, and gloves but arrived at the summit with my hands so frozen I couldn’t collapse my trekking poles to stow away for the descent – thankfully one of the medics at the top was happy to help.

What followed was 1,500m of continuous descending into the Swiss side of the race, with a brief stop at La Fouly for more water and food. The amount of supporters at La Fouly was impressive, and it gave a great boost – I remember leaving the food tent and running through a tunnel of kids high-fiving on the way out.

I was planning to meet Amy at Champex-Lac, the first aid station that allowed help from crews and about the only one where I would visit at a sensible time (the others were Trient and Vallorcine). She was tracking me on the official app and I seemed to be on track for getting there a little before 8pm, which meant I was pretty close to the 22 hour pace I was aiming for. However leaving La Fouly and heading down into the valley we were soon on asphalt roads, which I thought would just link some trails, but we ended up running around 10km like that. It meant that, helped by some friendly encouragement from a fellow Brit I was running with, we were soon running 5.30min/km pace which meant getting to Champex-Lac early.

It turned out that the route had been diverted because of landslides caused by the recent bad weather. It was a welcome repreive from the technical trails but meant that I had to phone Amy to get her to start the one-hour drive to Champex early.

On the approach to Champex-Lac the rain really started to come down strong and the deeply rutted, muddy forest trails were quite depressing to negotiate in the falling darkness, perhaps because I knew that I was so close to a change of dry clothes and some moral support.

The curse of being a mid-pack ultra runner meant that the aid station tent was absolutely packed with runners and their associated crews. This made it difficult to lay out kit on the long bench tables but Amy managed make sure I went through all the right checks, helped me get into dry and warm clothes and also brought me a steaming hot flask of freshly made pasta and potato soup.

Freshly fortified with pasta and potato soup, in dry clothes and waterproofs ready to tackle the night section after Champex-Lac at 56km

Leaving the aid station I was shocked how cold my muscles had got, and running out of Champex-Lac was more of a hobble, despite the best efforts of the supporters who were yelling encouragement. It was almost a relief when the pavement gave way to steep forest traila and I was able to focus on climbing rather than running at any particular pace.

The latter half of the race comprised of three big climbs – none of them quite as large as the first two, but significant, in the dark and in the pouring rain on tired legs. I mentally broke it down to just powering on through to the next big aid station and actually found the climbing to be straightforward – my legs were still feeling good.

Taking refuge at La Giète

On the long climb up to La Giète it became evident that this was going to be a long night. The heavy rain was turning the already saturated ground, trodden by the shoes of hundreds of other runners in the last few hours into a boggy quagmire. In parts the trails were rocky, and we could use these for some traction, but the clay-like, light-brown mud was oozing down the mountain between the rocks like gravy. We finally made it to La Giète, where a small barn on top of the mountain, lit up and playing techno music offered some shelter and hot soup.

It was a case of rinse and repeat for the next few hours as we descended to Trient, restocked, climbed more monstrous, muddy mountains and slipped and slided our way back down into Vallorcine.

The descents were getting treacherous and despite using trekking poles and took at least a couple of falls but thankfully they didn’t cause any problems.

Refuelled at La Giète and ready to go back outside to face the elements

By Trient, certain body parts had begun to chafe and I ammused the staff at the medic tent by asking if they had any cream, although I couldn’t remember the name in French so had describe it. I’m sure not for the first time that evening, the medic handed me a tube of anti-frottissement cream and pointed towards the bathroom; I soon anti-frottisée’d parts that will remain nameless and was able to resume the glamour of an ultra marathon at one in the morning.

At Vallorcine, the last major aid station it felt like I was almost home but there were still 19 more kilometeres to run, and the temporary notices on the walls made it clear that the new route, bypassing the Tête aux Vents was not necessarily going to make things easier. Leaving the aid station the next few KMs seemed much gentler than the profile on the course map suggested and I made pretty good pace, setting into a rhythm on good, relatively dry roads.

Refuelling with hot soup at one of the aid stations

After a while though the paths got ridiculously technical, with huge knotted tree roots and large rocks strewn across the path which made mincemeat of our tired legs and frazzled, sleep-deprived brains. The real sting in the tail came two-hours on from Vallorcine, with a 250m descent on the same horrible paths, only to be faced with over an hour of yet more climbing up to the ski station of La Flégère. The elevation amount wasn’t particularly huge, but the trail just seemed to go on forever and was a real destroyer of morale.

While sitting in the aid station at the top of the climb I chatted to a couple of other runners who were all cursing the organisers and expressing disbelief in the last section. However the good news was just 8 more KMs and aroun 1000m of descent to the finish.

The descent had its technical sections but generally got better the further I descended and this last section only took around an hour. It had the added bonus that it was starting to get light, and I got to view Chamonix down in the valley below, framed with the always-amazing sight of the Mont Blanc massif, freshly dusted with snow from the previous night poking out from amongst the clouds.

Chamonix and Mont-Blanc on the final descent down from La Flégère

I was dreading a long run-in through Chamonix but the trail joined the town just near a hotel I’d stayed in before so I knew it wasn’t long to the finish line. What’s more, my legs actually felt (relatively) great despite almost 22 hours of running. In fact I was minutes away from beating my (admittedly arbitrary target) so I picked up the pace, passing a few people hobbling into town).

On the way in I was surprised to see Amy a few hundred metres from the finish, and she actually had to yell at me to slow down while she ran round to the finish line to take a picture – I still managed to finish in a time 21:58:32, 854th place overall and 267th in the veteran male category V1H.

A bit dazed and confused at the end

 

I’m really happy with my result – since the first goal was to run a good race and finish under the cutoff time of 26:30. Looking at my placing throughout the race, I started off quickly (due to not wanting to be caught in traffic jams), stayed ranked around the mid 900s in the middle of the race and managed to claw back another 100 or so places. I didn’t set the world on fire but it was my first 100km distance, and considering how poor the terrain was in the latter half of the race I can’t complain. On the other hand, the cool conditions probably helped since I have a tendency to suffer from the heat in ultras.

A moment of reflected glory on the podium.

The race organisation was superb, with well stocked aid stations at regular intervals but what really stood out for me was the support of the crowds. In all three countries there were so many enthusiastic supporters in the towns and villages, at all hours of the day and night, and even up on the sides of remote trails in atrocious conditions.

I genuinely enjoyed the event and this has only made me think that the the full UTMB should be on my tick list one day.

 

Race Report: Montée d’Oule/La Bombarde

My local running club, Club athlétique Veynois put on a double-header race every April. La Bombarde is the 10km road race that I’ve run several times, but they also host an (almost) Vertical KM race called Montée d’Oule, that climbs Mont d’Oule on the outskirts of Veynes in the Hautes-Alpes.

Montée d’Oule

Mont d’Oule rises 850m above the town of Veynes in the southern French Alps and has a panoramic view from the top. Since the path to the top is barely 3km long, the average gradient is almost 30% so its a very steep slog.

The start line with competitors leaving in 30 second increments

The start line with competitors leaving in 30 second increments

The race began at 5pm and took the form of a time trial, or contre-la-montre, with competitors setting off in 30 second increments.

I decided to travel light and ditched my pack and water bottle and just attempted this with trekking poles. Almost immediately my throat was like sandpaper as I gasped for air. The afternoon was hot and sunny and the air was dry.

I managed to overtake about three people in front of me, and was only overtaken by one other person (who in my defence was half my age) who came trotting past as if this was a warm up for Parkrun.

The gradient doesn't look steep here but the effort and oxygen-debt is plain to see.

The gradient doesn’t look steep here but the effort and oxygen-debt is plain to see.

A sub-40 minute time was my goal, based on nothing more scientific than a quick look at last year’s results. I succeeded, getting to the top in 39’02”, 21st overall and 5th in my category.

A competitor making it to the summit finish - his face says it all really

A competitor making it to the summit finish – his face says it all really

It was definitely worth it for the view. The panorama showed the Vercors, the nearby Dévoluy range, the snow-capped Ecrins as well as the foothills of Provence.

The view from the top of Mont d'Oule

The view from the top of Mont d’Oule

After admiring the view, a short trail led down to drinks and food.

Much needed food and drink at the top of the mountain.

Much needed food and drink at the top of the mountain.

Race results for Montée d’Oule 2017

La Bombarde

Nearly all my running is on trails these days but I’ve run La Bombarde two out of the last three years as I’m curious to see what my 10k PB is. It’s being getting steadily quicker over the years but that was when I didn’t prepare for it by running the Montée d’Oule the night before.

I guess it was therefore inevitable that I would break that trend and my time of 39’26” was my slowest ever but I was still happy with it. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I though the race started at 11, got up at 9.15, checked and realised it was a 10, dashed into the car and made it to the start line with 2 minutes to go. No warmup, no breakfast. Not recommended.

The finish line of La Bombarde

The finish line of La Bombarde

The combined time for both races was enough to get me onto the age-category podium for runners of both races. I’m not sure it was a large pool of potential runners though!

Race results for La Bombarde 2017

Race results for Le Defi d’Oule (combined events)

Race Report: Ultra Trail de la Motte Chalancon 2016 – 86km

Its been a few years since I’ve run a ‘proper’ ultra so I was looking forward to getting a long distance race under my belt in 2016. Through social media I found out that a new race had been created fairly close to me – the Ultra Tour de la Motte Chalancon.At 86km and 4,500m of height gain it was a simialr profile to past ultras, and I thought it would be a good test to see if I could set myself up for some longer stuff later in the year.

I booked into a hotel at Remuzat, about 10 minutes drive from the start line and headed to the bib collection. I was a bit early so had to hang around and despite a few teething problems with the pickup process everyone was friendly and welcoming. Grabbing my goodie bag (Buff, a jar of local honey and some discount vouchers) I headed back to the hotel to eat my pasta, arrange my kit and get an early night,

It feels odd to set your alarm for 2.50am, but that’s what I did, and was successfuly up, changed and out of the door by 3.30am, managing to park in La Motte Chalancon and get to the start line just about in time.

The problem with 4am race starts is that nobody in their right mind wants to get up and at that time and watch 100 lunatics head off into the dawn at a very slow pace so consequently in a lot of races there’s not much crowd support. This was no different but the organisers made a big effort, playing music and having the marshalls burning red flares as we ran our way through the streets of the town.

We soon left the town and headed up the first climb – the usual strung out line of head torches as everyone settled into a rhythm. There’s never much to see and with the low cloud from the storms we had been having still clinging to the mountainsides, the view was fairly dull so I just got my head down and followed the feet of the runner in front.

The middle of July in the Provençale French Alps is hot. Luckily however, after day after day of 35ºC blue skies the rains came and the cooler weather arrived meaning the conditions were much cooler. It was still warm enough at the 4am start to run in t-shirt, and I liberally applied the SPF50 at the start, but hopefully heat stroke was not going to be a significant issue.

Unfortunately the downside to this was that at the top of the first climb after a couple of hours on the trail, we didn’t really get to see much of a dawn – just a murky twilight but gradually the views got clearer and clearer.

Up in the gloomy clouds at the top of the first series of climbs was a welcome aid station

 

I didn’t have any support crew at this race, so there was no opportunity to eat anything I either couldn’t carry mysef, or find at the food stops. Although the race was only 86km, it really would have helped if there had been the opportunity to leave a drop bag. I tend to find that French races don’t really offer this unless we’re talking about the very long events (e.g.. 100 milers). Since the weather forecast was poor, and I couldn’t carry all the food I wanted, being able to leave a change of shoes and some food at the halfway point would have been a big benefit.

As a result, I stuffed about a dozen energy bars and 8 or 9 gels into my race pack and figured I would take my chances with the aid stations. Unfortunately the food choices at the aid stops weren’t amazing (crisps, cheese, salami, crackers, apricots etc, with soup at later stops) so I probably ended up eating too many of my energy bars and gels, meaning I took on way too much sugar and I started getting digestion problems after about 60km.

 

The weather forecast predicted a fine morning with possible thunder storms in the afternoon, and the morning did turn out to be perfect running conditions, and after 8 hours I’d reached almost 50km into the race and got three or four major climbs out of the way. Just after mid day, at the highest point of the race, the heavens opened and huge globs of heavy rain came heaving down. This was quickly followed by enormous cracks of thunder and lightning – being on top of the highest mountain in the area was quite a terrifying place to be so I headed into the descent as quickly as possible.

Although we had clouds and thunderstorms the temperatures were still in the high 20s so a chance to cool off in a stream was very welcome.

 

Although I had a rain jacket, the undergrowth was suddenly so wet, that my feet and shorts were soon soaked from running through the bushes on the way down. At the bottom of the descent, which took maybe 90 minutes, I found myself in Remuzat, site of my hotel, and making my way into a barn to a loud round of applause (as all the runners got) from the assembled volunteers.

The barn was dry and warm, so I was able to at least change into a pair of socks from my pack, although they were pretty wet anyway. The organisers were holding back the runners because the ongoing storm was making it dangerous to head up the next mountain. We could hear lots of sirens as the gendarmes and fire service rushed by in the street outside – although I don’t believe it had anything to do with anyone involved in the race.

By this point I was starting to feel very sick. I really didn’t want to eat, and had barely eaten an energy bar in the last two hours. I forced myself to drink some of the noodle soup but that was about all I could face. After 20 minutes or so we were given the all clear but I think I wouldn’t have been too upset at that point if the event had been cancelled.

The rain had stopped and the sky seemed to be brightening up, although there were still distant rumbles of thunder. Getting moving again was difficult – I was cold and shivery and couldn’t get moving smoothly – my limbs felt stiff and the run along a river bank trail was difficult to get back into the swing.

Even worse was to come – the ‘trail’ moved sharply upwards, following the route of a waterfall. Streaks of orange paint showed the way, because we weren’t following a trail for most of the time but were simply crawling up slick rocks.

A couple of sections had via ferrata wires or fixed ropes in place and were necessary as losing your step could have ended badly. Some sections even had fixed ladders, but the rest of it was steep, stepped, slippery rocks.

Finally topping out on an undulating plateau, were still picking our way through slick rocks which made running difficult and dangerous and I cursed the organisers several times. However the biggest problem was that I was simply bonking – I’d taken on so little fuel in the last few hours that I was in danger of not being able to reel it back in.

I sat down on a rock and had a little word with myself – forced down an energy gel and almost vomitted. I think it would have been better if I had. That was basically the pattern until at around 10km to go, I got to the final aid station. A bit more magic soup and some words of encouragement from the organisers and were back out for what should really be a simple 10km, mostly downhill run to the finish.

Although my energy reserves were sapping at this point, I actually found the downhill single track quite easy and fun, and was able to keep a good pace, catching a few groups in front who had been way out of sight earlier. However we ran through some very claggy fire roads and the clay-like mud stuck to the soles of my shoes and wouldn’t shed, adding a lot of extra weight just when I needed it least.

Descending back towards La Motte Chalancon, there were a couple of (by now very swolen, fast running and silty) river crossings and a what seemed like never ending run through the streets of the town.

Just before 7pm I made it across the finish line with a time of 14:58:06, getting 44th (out of 84 starters) place. A small ceramic medal, and a finisher’s gilet were awarded at the end, and a complimentary meal at a local restaurant was available, although was so cold and tired at the end I just headed back to my hotel.

Overally this was a great race. The course was challenging with some exceptionally steep climbing in places. The organisers and volunteers were superb as is always the case with French races and the scenery is breathtaking despite being spoilt somewhat by the weather. On top of that, the race was worth 3 of the old style UTMB entry points (or 5 of the new ITRA points). I would definitely do the race again although there are so many other events on my bucket list that I’m a bit spoilt for choice.

Race Report: Trail des Cimes du Buëch 2016 – 42km

May 22nd, 2016
La Faurie, France

The Trail des Cimes du Buëch is now in its third year, and I had ran the 2014 and 2015 versions which comprised of a quick 17km circuit with some amazing views. This year the 17km version was included in the Challenge Trails 05 competition, but on top of this was added a 42km mara’trail event with nearly 3000m of climbing.

The race profile - getting hard as it goes on

The race profile – getting hard as it goes on – the last climb at 36km was exceptionally steep

I entered the event at the last minute because I’ve been recovering from a torn calf muscle which stopped my training for around a month, so I was keen to take this one easy and use it as a test to see how much fitness I still had left.

The first third of the race takes in most of the original 17km, and I know from experience that its a hard climb, although rewarded with some amazing panoramic scenery. The latter stages of the race are also pretty hilly though so I was careful not to go out too fast.

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

Only 38 runners lined up at the chilly start, but there was a good atmosphere and pretty soon we were off. The tough climb at the beginning was everything I expected, followed a by a rocky, technical descent.

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The weather was warm and sunny, but as the race went on the wind really caught up. The photo above shows a climb about two-thirds of the way in and an enormous wind blowing from the south was actually blowing me off my feat as I climbed up onto the ridge. My cap had to be lashed to my trekking poles otherwise it would be half way to Lyon by now.

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After 35km I was starting to flag, but the last climb although not the biggest definitely felt the toughest. After a hot and tiring climb the descent off the other side was technical and very tough on the legs.

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

 

Gear Review: Brooks Cascadia 11

Brooks Cascadia 11
Price: €140

Brooks Cascadia are well known as an all-round, comfortable trail shoe that is slowly but surely improved year on year. In fact I’ve been a big fan of them ever since I got into trail running and bought my first pair of Cascadia 7s. This reputation for reliability took a battering last year – the online forums and discussion among runners was awash with tales of problems – the mesh of the upper coming away and exposing holes.

Version 7, 8 and 9 of Brooks. Each pair gave me around 1500km of harsh trail running without any problems.

In fact I suffered the same problem – after only 50km of running, holes started to appear and by a couple of hundred they were wrecked.

Horrible rips in the upper – a common problem with early version 10s

After contacting Brooks, they replaced the pair without question, stating that:

We realise that our Cascadia 10 model is not as durable as the 9 and has inherent weak point in the upper between the two areas of the 3d fit print material which is designed to give structure of the shoe without utilising stitching. In most cases the problem does not transpire into a full rip but I can see from the pictures you have provided yours have fallen victim to this.

The new pair I received was fine, and after 600km shows no sign of ripping.

So this week I was in my local running shop, the amazing Endurance Shop in Gap. The staff were as friendly and informative as usual and while I was actually looking for a new race pack, I noticed the new Cascadia 11s. The shop assistant told me that they had needed to return 25% of the pairs they had sold of the version 10, but that the new pairs were very good and all of the issues had been fixed. I tried a pair on, went for a quick test run outside the shop, and then bought them.

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The shoe seemes to be a narrower, more snug fit than previous versions. While I’ve found this an added bonus (I felt previous versions sometimes would let my feet slide around, especially when full of water) as it gives extra security and a more confident feeling when running. Others with wider feet might find this a problem, so I’d recommend trying before buying even if you’ve used previous versions of the shoe.

Brooks boast “trail-specific technologies that add a layer of protection” including a ballistic rock shield to protect your feet from debris and stones on the trail. The upper consists of Element Mesh, that Brooks say as well as being breathable, is also more durable and should avoid some of the unfortunate problems encountered with the version 10s.

There’s a 10mm drop, which I find just the sweet spot for long runs.

 

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I’ve since been out for a few runs in them on my local trails here in the French Alps. This time of year each run can throw in a mixture of loose gravel paths, mud, ice, compacted snow, meltwater stream crossing and slick grass – usually all on the same run and so good testing conditions for an all-round shoe.

For the first 50km of running I was getting some heel rub on my left achilles, but this seems to have sorted itself out. The shoes feel stable and give plenty of grip, although as in previous versions are pretty rubbish on greasy rocks (but then most stuff is). The poor handling in greasy/wet conditions is down to the durable rubber compound used in the outsole, the benefit of which is the longevity that Cascadias are known for – each pair I’ve had I’ve run 1000 miles in and the last thing to show wear was the sole.

The inner and outer edges of the upper are waterproof, where joins the outsole. This means splashing through shallowish puddles or running in snow doesn’t get your feet wet, but the upper still stays breathable. I’ve also made a few freezing stream crossings and can attest that the water drains out quickly and your feet warm up again in no time.

Conclusion

Overall, Brooks seem to have redeemed themselves from the disaster of the Cascadia 10s. Only time will tell if the problems with the upper will reappear, but so far so good. The shoe remains stable and reliable, with traction that offers a good compromise between grip and durability. I will still grab a more aggressive shoe for shorter, faster, more technical runs, but the Cascadia remains my go-to, default shoe and my favourite for long ultras.

Race Report: Bayard Snow Trail 2016

With the exception of ultra marathons with early starts/late finishes, I’d never really done any night racing so I was looking forward to this evening trail race on the snow trails of the southern French Alps.

I had some eye surgery at the beginning of the year which meant I had to take it easy on physical exercise for a few weeks. The upshot is that I’m only getting back up to fitness and so I wasn’t expecting great things in the first race of this season, the Bayard Trail Snow Race near Gap.

My pre-race warmup, consisting of standing around the firepit chatting to my mate Manu.

My pre-race warmup, consisting of standing around the firepit chatting to my mate Manu.

I’d also forgotten how hard racing was. 90 minutes of full one exertion with no opportunity for micro-rest like on training runs where a little fiddle with your shoes, or a drink of water gives you a small chance to get back some breath.

The full moon rising above the mountains of the Ecrins

The full moon rising above the mountains of the Ecrins

This was the first edition of the Bayard Trail and its part of the Challenge Trails 05 events that I competed in last year so I fancied getting stuck in, especially since my goal this year is to run longer stuff so I might do less of the shorter, sharper races. To be honest the organisation wasn’t the best – first of all despite having registered online a few days before, I had to queue along with all the people registering on the day. Why don’t race organisers (I know some do) have separate lines for ‘on the day’ entry?

Lining up at the start

Lining up at the start

Anyway, because of the enormous lines (I think there were around 150 racers) the start of the race was delayed 20 minutes. Luckily there was a huge fire pit to keep warm by as the sun dropped and the full moon came out.

Race profile

Race profile

Eventually we were ready to race – the course consisted of two loops, with one of them done twice. The total distance was around 16km with 400m of vertical. It was undulating rather than steep with some quite punchy changes in gradient that made it difficult to keep a rhythm. Upshot, it was tough going.

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After the typical fast jostling for a position at the start I settled into somewhere around a third of the way down the course and pretty much kept position, maybe losing about 10 places around the duration of the race.

The biggest thing that struck me was how little scenery you see. Despite being entirely on snow, with clear skies and a full moon, using a headtorch meant my night vision never got established and all I ever saw was the trail a couple of metres in front of me. There was a nice view over the town of gap, with the city lights twinkling in the valley below, but for the most part it was a fairly monotonous race.

Fellow racers climbing the hill behind me, with the lights of Gap below in the background

Fellow racers climbing the hill behind me, with the lights of Gap below in the background

At least the race meant I got some points in the bag for the Challenge Trails 05 competition.

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There were a couple of ravito stops during the race but I never took advantage – at the end however was a bowl of the hottest noodle soup I’ve ever had in my life.

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Problems with Brooks Cascadia 10s?

I’ve been a big fan of Brooks Cascadia trail shoes ever since I got into the sport. I’ve owned a pair of 7s, 8s and 9s and done 1000 miles of rough trails in each pair before retiring them, and even then they still had life left in them. Needless to say I was pleased, so when 10s were released in the Spring, I simply ordered a pair without even thinking about it.

My history of Brooks Cascadias - still going strong after 1000 miles of off-road running

My history of Brooks Cascadias – still going strong after 1000 miles of off-road running

So it came as a bit of shock  that after running the Marlborough Downs Challenge, not only did I get the most horrendous blisters, but small tears started to appear on the front of the shoes (it was hardly challenging terrain either). Over the next couple of weeks the tears got worse and worse. I started to notice that other people on the Social Media were experiencing similar problems as well, so I contacted Brooks customer support.

The tear appearing in my new pair of 10s after just 300km

The tear appearing in my new pair of 10s after just 300km

I very promptly received a reply from a very helpful customer support agent who explained:

We realise that our Cascadia 10 model is not as durable as the 9 and has inherent weak point in the upper between the two areas of the 3d fit print material which is designed to give structure of the shoe without utilising stitching. In most cases the problem does not transpire into a full rip but I can see from the pictures you have provided yours have fallen victim to this.

We have rectified this with an improvement on our Cascadia 11 shoe which will be available from January 2016.

Not only that, once I’d supplied proof of purchase information, they were perfectly happy to send me a new pair. I’m also happy to say that since then I’ve done another 300km in the new pair and there’s barely a scratch.

I wish more companies would treat their loyal customers as well as this.

Race Report: Trail Gapen’cimes 2015 – 55km

I almost didn’t get to run this race. As you may or may not know, the French insist on seeing a signed medical certificate from your doctor before allowing you to race. Every year I go to my GP, she checks my pulse and blood pressure and then signs my note. It lasts for a year and I can supply photocopies to race organisers with no problem – in fact I’ve run 8 races in France this year with the same form.

GAPENCIMES 2015 from AIR libre on Vimeo.

The Gapen’Cimes series of races took place over the weekend of 3rd/4th October, with the 55km/3000m Edelweiss race being on the Sunday. Since the race would start at 6.30am, and the start was at least an hour from my home I decided to pick up my race bib on the Saturday, since we had to be in the city of Gap, where the start/finish was, anyway.

The course profile - pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

The course profile – pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

When I went to collect my race number I was told that the regulations had changed, and my medical certificate had to explicitly state that not only was I am fit to run a race, but that I was fit to run ‘in competition’. Sadly, my certificate didn’t say that. It was only after the race staff tracked down my doctor, and had her email them an attestation that I would be OK, that they would let me enter.

Bib collection on Saturday - like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn't straightforward

Bib collection on Saturday – like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn’t straightforward

If I’d left this to 6am on Sunday morning I wouldn’t have had chance to do this, so I’m very glad I decided to try to save myself some time.

On Saturday afternoon the south of France was being deluged by huge storms, some of which sadly claimed the lives of several people down on the Mediterranean coast as tunnels and underground carparks were swamped and people were washed away by flash floods.

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather - here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather – here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

Up in the Alps things weren’t quite so bad, but the rain was torrential and violent lightning storms flashed and rumbled long into the night. It was announced that although the weather would be fair on Sunday, the route would altered as many of the trails had washed away and for the safety of runners and marshals, some of it would have to be rerouted. The race start was also postponed to 7am.

I woke up on Sunday morning thankful to not hear the rain pounding on the windows. Driving towards Gap, there were still lightning flashes in the distance but thankfully it stayed dry.

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

300 runners assembled in the Parc de la Pépinièrein the centre of Gap. The pre-race briefing explained that the new route wouldn’t add any significant distance to the expected 55km, but to groans from the crowd of runners it was announced we would have an extra 300m of vertical to climb on top of the usual 3000m.

A quick gear check, countdown, and we were off. Running the through Sunday morning streets of Gap (a small town of perhaps 30,000 people, but one of the largest towns in the area) to the occasional applause and encouragement. The local police were holding the (admittedly light) traffic to allow us to run unhindered to the outskirts, and after a few KMs we were on trails heading up to the mountains of the Haute-Alpes.

For this race, and for the first time ever I was using a pair of trekking poles (or cheating sticks as they’re rather sneeringly referred to in the UK). I’ve never really used them before, but for the next couple of years my aim is to bag a few more ultra distance events with a view to getting to a 100 miler. I’m not sure if the use of poles made a positive difference but they certainly weren’t a hinderance.

The early stages of the race

The early stages of the race

I’d say that at least 70% of runners were using poles, and since we’d had so much rain the many streams that we had to cross had been transformed into raging torrents, they were a big help when crossing. The first couple of streams, we were able to gingerly pick our way over the rocks, but our feet still got soaked so myself and many others decided it was better off to just run through, get the feet wet and hope they dried out in the sun.

One of the early stream crossings - the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken - after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

One of the early stream crossings – the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken – after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

The first checkpoint at Rabou came at about the quarter-way stage – there weren’t many food stops, but they had the standard French trail running fare – cheese, salami, ginerbread cake, chocolate, apricots, crisps, bread flat and fizzy water and Coca-Cola. I availed myself of the food, cleared some grit out of my wet shoes and got moving.

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

As we left Rabou, we climbed higher into the mountains and sun came out – the surrounding countryside was awash with autumn colours and to the northeast we could see the high mountains of the Ecrins national park, and the recent dusting of snow that must have fallen in last night’s storm on some of the lower peaks.

Looking over to the Ecrins

Looking over to the Ecrins

To be honest, most of the race was fairly standard. I deliberately kept myself to a sensible rhythm, aiming to dose out my energy over the course of the race and not blow up. It was hard not to run some of the descents too fast though, as there were some great tracks, including a fairly kamikaze dash through a field of scree which was a lot of fun.

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

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By the time we made it up the final climb to a spectacular view, I was pretty knackered and little bit dejected at the final checkpoint when I asked a marshal how many had come though and he said “most, maybe three-quarters”. I was sure that I was still in the top half of the race even though things had definitely thinned out. Nobody was passing me in fact I had gained a place every couple of KMs.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

That final checkpoint was just 11km from the finish, and all of it was downhill on fairly easily runnable terrain. However it was the hardest point of the race, and running into the streets of Gap, despite the cheers and applause of random onlookers, and even encouragement from the police holding up the traffic, the run into the finish seemed to take forever.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

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VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

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I made it over the finish line in 8h41’37”, placing me 138th out of 297 starters, so in the end was quite happy with a top half finish.
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Race Report: Trail de la Traversée des Aiguilles

The skyline above my village is recognisable by the distinctive shape of the Col des Aiguilles, the pass that connects the La Jarjatte valley with the Dévoluy range of mountains. It’s this col that gives the name to last Sunday’s race so this race felt pretty local to me.

Unfortunately, despite just being a few KMs as the crow flies, it was nearly an hour as the Volvo drives, such are the vagaries of Alpine roads. Still, being able to leave the house at 7.30am felt like a lie in compared to some other races I’ve had to get up at an ungodly hour for.

At only 16km, the Trail de la Traversée des Aiguilles was the shortest in the Challenge Trails 05 series, but with almost 1,000m of vertical it wasn’t going to be easy. Despite autumn being underway in the Alps, it was a beautiful weekend and Sunday morning was perfect for racing, with cool temperatures (that soon warmed up when the sun came out) and dry conditions.

A sea of cloud in the valley below in Dévoluy, taken from the Col du Festre, warming up before the start of the race

A sea of cloud in the valley below in Dévoluy, taken from the Col du Festre, warming up before the start of the race

 

The bib number collection was inside a small cafe on the Col du Festre, which was pretty crowded but had the added advantage that they served a great espresso. Pretty soon we were ready to start, and all 120 runners were off.

I’d had a couple of days off during the week while I recovered from a cold, and during my first run back on Friday I felt knackered and really struggled on the hills, so took it easy on Saturday. I had the illusion of feeling fresh, but pretty soon had to dial it back in.

The route climbed first to the Cabin de Rama, a refuge I had passed before on a training run so the early trails were familiar. Soon however, we headed up to the Col des Aiguilles where after some great running in the lower, flatter sections, it soon got very steep.

The flatter sections heading towards the col - the running here was fast and fun

The flatter sections heading towards the col – the running here was fast and fun

 

With the Col in site, the race leaders were starting to descend back down into the valley towards the rest of us. Despite running flat out on technical ground, most of them were full of encouragement to those of us slogging up the steep slope with cries of “Allez-allez!” and the odd “bravo!” chucked in for good measure.

The cairn marking the top of the Col, and the border between the Drome and Haute-Alpes departements. When I got to the top, I could see my house down the other side, just 4km away, but still had 9km to run to complete the race.

The cairn marking the top of the Col, and the border between the Drome and Haute-Alpes departements. When I got to the top, I could see my house down the other side, just 4km away, but still had 9km to run to complete the race.

 

At the top of the Col, a marshall marked out race number to prove we’d made it – a quick glug of water from the drinks table (fair play to the marshalls for dragging water up to the top – even a 4×4 couldn’t get up there) and it was time to descend.

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This was probably when I should have put my iPhone away and not worried about trying to get some pictures. It doesn’t look too steep in the picture above but behind the guy in blue climbing upwards, it drops away quite steeply (which is why you can’t see the lines of other runnres). I overcooked it a little bit and had to stop myself running away out of control.

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After the Col there was another steep climb but some nice traverses in between. Back at the Cabine du Rama we retraced our steps a little bit, and I got lost at one point, leaving the trail after I missed a marker, and it was only when I saw another runner up above that I realised I’d gone wrong. I climbed up the side of the hill to rejoin the trail, managing to fall flat on my face in the process and defiitely lost one, maybe two places that I wasn’t able to make up.

A couple of KMs before the end, the race routed into and through a barn which was full of lambs

A couple of KMs before the end, the race routed into and through a barn which was full of lambs

 

Anyhow, I got myself back to the finish in just under 2 hours – 31st place.

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