Race Report: Trail des Balcons de Châteauvieux

When: Sunday, 17th August 2015
Where: Châteauvieux, Haute-Alpes (05), France

Another Challenge Trails 05 race – this time south of Gap in the hills around the lovely village of Châteauvieux. I didn’t see many old castles, but then I was too busy running up and down steep hills to pay much attention.

The race start

The race start

 

There’s a writeup from the race organisers (in French) on the official website. 135 runners started the 22km course with the usual selection of mountain-bred speedgoats. It was a warm, but not too hot day and there were no enormous climbs, just constant, undulating trails which made it hard to get into a rhythm but made for some punchy racing.

 

After the start, and a loop around the village which helped thin out the ranks before we hit the trails, the race climbed up into the rocky, lunar landscape you can see in the pictures above and below. The gravel was loose and quite often there were large ruts to jump down, over or climb up which made for some interesting running.

 

Looking back across the valley at the runners behind me, making their way down the cliff edge. Unusually for a French race there was safety netting in place!

Looking back across the valley at the runners behind me, making their way down the cliff edge. Unusually for a French race there was safety netting in place!

 

Out of the Coté de Grosse Pierres (hill of big rocks – the early Provencale settlers had more pressing concerns than imaginative place names), we got onto more traditional terrain – plenty of forest single track and rutted trails – shade from the sun and plenty of technical descending.

Out of the rocks and into the forest - running along the 'balcons' the race is named for.

Out of the rocks and into the forest – running along the ‘balcons’ the race is named for – great views.

 

Again, as I’m becoming used to racing in France – this was another faultlessly marked trail. No navigation was needed, I just had to follow the markers hanging from trees or on rocks which meant I could concentrate on the running.

Heading back to the finish more or less the way we came. Nasty hills for tired legs – the climbing crag of Ceuse can be seen on the left shrouded in cloud.

 

After a few meandering loops of the balcons, the race came back to the rocky landscape we saw at the start, and more or less retraced it’s steps. It was here I noticed there were a few nasty hills to contend with, which helped me pull back a couple of places as other runners who had gone out ahead started to tire.

VIRB Picture

 

Catching and overtaking another runner in the last couple of KMs - always satisfying to chase someone down, especially if they've passed you earlier in the race which I think this guy had.

Catching and overtaking another runner in the last couple of KMs – always satisfying to chase someone down, especially if they’ve passed you earlier in the race which I think this guy had.

 

VIRB Picture

 

I managed to get home in 31st place in a time of 2h12’26” – pretty much as expected and fairly happy with the result.

Other runners crossing the line in the main village

Other runners crossing the line in the main village

 

 

Race details on Strava

Race Report: Trail des Passerelles du Monteynard 2015

South of Grenoble lies Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet, a huge artificial lake created in 1961 after EDF dammed the Drac river to create a hydro-electric power station. Long and narrow, and bordered on all sides by mountains, it’s great leisure destination and popular for kite and windsurfing. In 2007, two Himalayan-style suspension bridges, or passerelles, were constructed to give an awe-inspiring, if vertiginous crossing over the Drac and Ebron rivers. It’s these passerelles that form part of a 57km race, and give it it’s name.

There’s a great video of the race below:

Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet in the distance, taken during the race. The view is looking west, and you can see the famous Mont Aiguille, at quite an oblique angle, in the far distance on the skyline to the right.

Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet in the distance, taken during the race. The view is looking north-west, and you can see the famous Mont Aiguille, at quite an unusual angle, in the far distance on the skyline to the right


I’ve been to the lake many times, hiking over the bridges and taking our kayak onto the water, so when I saw that a series of races were taking place I signed up to the Trail des Passerelles du Monteynard. There’s a few options on offer; 13km, 15km, 25km, 35km, and 55km. I signed up for the 55km event (actually 57km on the day when the roadbook was published) figuring that this would be a good mid-season test.

Waiting on the west bank of the lake at Treffort, for the boat to come in and shuttle us across to the start.

Waiting on the west bank of the lake at Treffort, for the boat to come in and shuttle us across to the start.

I live about an hour south of the lake, and since the race started at 6.30am, and also started on the opposite bank to the finish, where I would leave my car, necessitating a boat crossing, I had to set my alarm for 3.30am in order to make it on time. At least I wasn’t going to hit tourist traffic at that hour.

For the past few weeks, the French Alps have been suffering under an oppressive heatwave, and this hadn’t abated for this race – warnings were sent out by the organisers stating a minimum 1.5L reserve of water per participant, and asking runners to look out for signs of disorientation and dehydration in their fellow competitors. At 5.30am, waiting for the boat, it was already climbing up into the low 20s.

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Race start at Savel, on the opposite side of the lake.

After retrieving my race number and dumping my free t-shirt and the rest of my race pack with the bag drop people I boarded the boat. It was only as we disembarked that I noticed I was about the only person without a timing chip on my shoes. I hadn’t seen this mentioned anywhere in the documentation and was in such a hurry when I got my race pack that I missed it – this was confirmed by the race organisers – oh well, I just wouldn’t get an official time or any race splits – too late to worry about it now.

Race countdown, my Garmin playing up and not getting a proper satellite lock and a shuffling run out of town – so far, so normal. We were essentially running out of a holiday resort during the peak of the tourist season so the support at the start was pretty good, but pretty soon we found ourselves climbing up into the hills and away from civilisation.

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It was still fairly cool, and I felt good so it was a challenge to try to dial in the pace – I knew it was going to be a long day with humid conditions and temperatures forecast to hit 35ºC by lunchtime.

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The Chemin de Fer de la Mure

Great views of the lake running along the Chemin de Fer de la Mure

Great views of the lake running along the Chemin de Fer de la Mure

Along the eastern edge of the lake is an old coal-carrying railway, the chemin de fer de la Mure, which was repurposed as a tourist train, but is now sadly out of action due to a landslide destroying part of the track in 2010. However this gave us the opportunity to run along the tracks, through the tunnels and get some amazing views as we did so.

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The first few climbs were not too challenging, and pretty soon I’d racked up 25km of distance before running into another well stocked aid station at Avellans, but before that we got to run through the old mineshafts – a discontinued mineral mine, now open as  a museum – it was lovely and cool, and all too brief before we were back out into the blazing sun.

Running through the old mineshafts

Running through the old mineshafts

After a brief descent, it was time to tackle the first nasty climb of the day, a long slog up to the Col du Sénépy. Luckily it was fairly shady for the first two-thirds of the way up, but once we got above the treeline the heat was intense. Some of the climb was steep enough to need fixed ropes as well.

Climbing up to the col du Sénépy

Climbing up to the col du Sénépy

The view from the top was fantastic, and I could see all the way to the Col des Aiguilles that frame the backdrop to my house in the valley of La Jarjatte.

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Windy and barren, but still very hot we picked our way through the trails. I didn’t get any pictures but during the run down into the aid station at the col, myself and two other runners were joined by several cows from a nearby herd that rather than getting out of the way, ran alongside us for several hundred meters – it was a like a very slow, mini-Pamplona.

The aid station at the Col du Sénépy was idyllic – an old shepherd hut with a local springwater being sprayed into the air to provide in-situ cool showers for runners, and lots of food and drink laid on. This couldn’t take away from the fact that what lay ahead was an organ-shaking, hot and dusty descent of around 900m – this was where I really started to feel the effects of the heat.

Reaching the bottom of the descent, a good hour or so later and I was beginning to suffer – the village hosting the aid station had a fountain, and volunteers were filling bottles with springwater and spraying hoses at runners. I sat in the shade under an awning, draping a water-soaked Buff over my head for 10 minutes to try to cool down, before heading back out again.

The passerelle in the distance, spanning the Drac river

The passerelle in the distance, spanning the Drac river

Feeling slightly refereshed I headed out again, only to start getting cramps on the climb up to the first passerelle.

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Crossing the first passerelle

There was a strictly-enforced walking-pace only on the bridges, otherwise they could start swinging wildy – it was especially windy up there too. I don’t think too many people were feeling like running by that point anyway.

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After crossing the second bridge, and reaching the aid station I suddenly felt overwhelmed with stomach cramps and nausea. This passed after a while and so I embarked on the final climb of the day, only for the nausea to come back – with less than 7km to go, I decided to bail out.

This is the first time I’ve ever quit a race – I missed the cut off at 60km in my first ever ultra-marathon, but this time I knew that if I pushed further it wasn’t going to end well.

I’m disappointed, and keep replaying why I overcooked it. Did I go out too quickly? I don’t think so – I made conscious effort to keep the early pace easy. Did I not drink enough? I’m pretty sure I did – 4.5L of water with electrolyte tabs (plus extra at aid stations). Was I not habituated enough to the heat? Well I thought I was – I done a couple of 30km training runs in the previous couple of weeks in 30º+ temperatures.

Judging by the queues at the medical tents, and the huge number of abandonments it was obvious the weather played a part. This summer has been unusually hot for the French Alps – thankfully we’ve had thunder storms in the last couple of days to bring a bit of relief.

The event itself was wonderfully organised and supported, and I’d recommend this to anyone. The support was great and scenery and running environment was phenomenal. The event clashes with another race I’d like to do, so maybe I won’t be back next year, but I’ll definitely be back.

 

Race Report: Trail EDF Rousset

Where: Lac de Serre-Ponçon, Haute-Alpes (05), France
When: Sunday 7th June 2015

It was a wonder I ever made it to the start line of the Trail EDF Rousset, since I’d managed to add it to my training calendar for the wrong week, expecting it to be the following weekend. Luckily my wife noticed and reminded me which is a good job, as it was a fantastic event that I’m hoping to come back and do again next year.

Trail EDF Rousset Serre Ponçon 2015 from Vincent Kronental on Vimeo.

The Course

Lac de Serre-Ponçon is an enormous artificial lake in the Haute-Alpes, just east of the town of Gap. I’ve been there a few times and we’ve taken our kayak out onto its beautiful blue waters in the summer. The lake is created by the damming of the Durance and Ubaye rivers that flows down from the Alps, and provides irrigation and hydroelectricity to the surrounding area. Needless to say its a dramatic and scenic location for a trail race.

The course profile - around 1,600m of cumulative elevation over 32km of trail

The course profile – around 1,600m of cumulative elevation over 32km of trail

Along with the main 32km race, with around 100 participants, a shorter 22km race, and an 8km hiking race were laid on using parts of the same course.

The Race

The hail stones from the previous evening didn't give me a good feeling about the course conditions, but I needn't have worried.

The hail stones from the previous evening didn’t give me a good feeling about the course conditions, but I needn’t have worried.

The race started at 8am, and is a good 90 minute drive from my home, so I had to get up at 4.50am to give myself enough time to get there and collect my race number and warm up for the start. The day before was exceptionally hot, followed by a huge thunderstorm that brought huge hail stones raining down on us. When I left my house early on Sunday morning there were still piles of hail stones everywhere.

However, out on the race course, although more thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon, the course was dry and the biggest danger of the day was going to be dehydration and sun stroke.

The race began at the huge artificial EDF dam, and after the start we followed tarmac roads for a couple of KMs before kicking up into forest trails. There was quite an interesting traverse through an eerie moonscape of scree and pointy rocks before heading up into the forests (and shade) again.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

The first 5km was just a warm up and passed pretty quickly, finishing with a short, fast descent into the first aid station where I grabbed some food and took in an energy gel. We were at the lowest point of the race, and the for the next 5km were going to have to climb the best part of 1000 vertical metres up to the top of Mont Colombis – definitely the main challenge of the day.

The long, hard climb up Mont Colombis

The long, hard climb up Mont Colombis

It was actually less daunting than I expected – for the first 75% of the climb the forest trails consisted of steep, but manageable switchback and I was able to keep a decent pace going – it was just simply a case of keeping the effort consistent and trying not to blow up – getting to the top would still only be less than half way through the race.

The tough, upper sections of Mont Colombis

The tough, upper sections of Mont Colombis

The average gradient of the whole climb was 19%, so it made sense that things were going to get harder near the top and it certainly did – ramping up to 30% in places – the path turned to loose rock and it became more of a scramble. At least somebody had started to paint Tour de France style slogans to encourage us to the food stop at the top.

 

Beautiful trails up on high, with the Lake in the distance below

Beautiful trails up on high, with the Lake in the distance below

 

There was still plenty of racing still to do, but at least with the exception of 3 small climbs, we were mostly running downhill. The race course joined the 22km section too, so I now found myself running through a lot of steep, rutted single track on a much more crowded course, but there were plenty of overtaking opportunities.

In places the course opened up to some spectacular scenery, although the speed of some of the descents made it hard to appreciate. The sun was out and the temperature was rising though the main concern was getting to the finish.

Kicking up dust on the latter half of the race

Kicking up dust on the latter half of the race

Just a couple of KMs from the finish, a couple of race volunteers where pouring buckets of water over the heads of racers – this was very welcome and I made sure I got a good dousing, but I was surprised they were doing it so close to the finish. Then as the road turned and trail stepped up into the forest I realised why – just when we were all completely ready for the finish, we had another very steep climb. It was probably no longer than 1km, with maybe 75m of ascent but placed at the end of the race like that it was a tough one to deal with.

The final, fast decent into the race finish down by the beach

The final, fast decent into the race finish down by the beach

It was soon over however, and all that was needed was a final, technical descent down a rocky path to the race finish at the beach of the lake. Encouraged by lots of tourists and other spectators, this was quite fun, and before long I was crossing the finish line in 25th place in a time of 3h35’45’.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

Full results

Strava Data

Race Report: 2nd Trail des Cimes du Buëch

Where: La Faurie, Haute-Alpes (05), France
When: Sunday 24th May 2015

The Trail des Cimes du Buech is a short trail race now into it’s second year. I ran the first event last year and was pleased to place 6th, but lining up on the start line this year I realised that word had got round, and some serious competition had turned up. This was confirmed when I bumped into eventual race winner Gael Raynaud on the start line, who would eventually obliterate the course record in 1h22’39”.

Race goodie bag, including a free beer - although considering it wasn't even 11am on Sunday morning by the time I finished, I declined the offer

Race goodie bag, including a free beer – although considering it wasn’t even 11am on Sunday morning by the time I finished, I declined the offer

The course is pretty simple and takes in the Cimes in the area, the mountain ridges and peaks that give a great panoramic view over the surrounding mountains. Just short of 17km, it’s mostly uphil for the first 7km, before taking you along a ridgeline giving great views, and then plunging you into a steep and technical descent followed by some fast downhill running on 4×4 tracks. There’s a few undulating forest tracks in the last couple of KMs as well.

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104 racers lined up under the starting banner and headed off at the 9am start. The weather was kind – clear blue skies and the ferocious winds that had been battering the southern Alps for the last few days (invigorating as the race director posted on Facebook) had thankfully dropped.

104 runners set off from the race start at La Faurie. Photo credit http://traildescimesdubuech.blogspot.fr/

104 runners set off from the race start at La Faurie. Photo credit http://traildescimesdubuech.blogspot.fr

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Like a lot of these races there’s a bottleneck straight after the mass start, in this case we exit the football pitch where the race starts, cross a road and then straight over a narrow bridge so it’s quite important to get to the front. From then on the route crosses a few fields and then kicks up to some steep forest tracks for a couple of kilometres before opening out to show great views over the pays du Buech.

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The day quickly became quite warm, and the climb up to the summit was hard, but the aid station with food and drink at the 7km mark was very welcome. Another short climb and a fantastic run along the ridgeline gave out to a very steep and technical descent into the forest, which then eased out into rutteed 4×4 tracks. This meant a consistently fast, hard downhill for nearly 10km – a real quad-killer.

Running back over the bridge into the finishing straight. Photo credit http://traildescimesdubuech.blogspot.fr

Running back over the bridge into the finishing straight. Photo credit http://traildescimesdubuech.blogspot.fr

I rolled in with a time of 1h45’01”, over a minute more quickly than last year but it was only good enough to manage 15th place, showing how the popularity, participation and competition level of the event had dramatically increased – it thoroughly deserves to do so as its a great, well-run, friendly event on a fun but demanding course – I’ll definitely make this a yearly outing.

Strava Data

Race Results

Download full race results here.

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Race Report: Marlborough Downs Challenge

Where: Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK
When: Sunday 10th April, 2015

We’re on holiday in the UK at the moment, down in Oxfordshire so I looked around for a race nearby and found one – the 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge.

The Race

The Marlborough Downs Challenge started in 2003, and comprises of a 33 mile ‘ultra’ route and a shorter 20 miler course – they both take on much of the same terrain, which is in and around the Marlborough Downs of Wiltshire, rolling, undulating hills of chalky clay, iron age relics, white horses etched into hillsides and old Roman roads.

The MDC is now part of the Runfurther Ultra Championship series so attracted a fairly large field of runners. As a ‘short’ ultra-marathon it’s a perfect introduction for people who haven’t ran more than 26 miles before, and although it was hilly there was nothing in the profile to worry anyone since I would call it ‘punchy’ rather than steep.

The course profile - or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

The course profile – or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

 

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

With an emphasis on self-navigation, the race organisers only lightly signposted the route, in just a few places near the beginning and couple of other areas. However runners were supplied with turn by turn route directions and downloadable GPX track and were expected to find their own way over the course.

It didn’t help then, that after having spent ages plotting the route online over an OS map, printing out and laminating a roadbook, I then proceeded to leave all of this at home! I still had the route directions however and decided that there would be safety in numbers on enough of the route to be able to find my way around the course.

The race started off fairly gently – all my races this year have been 10-20km, and so are usually off at lightning pace with lots of shoulder barging, but this was much more serene bearing in mind even the winner would be on their feet for the next 4 hours. After 3 or 4kms I found myself dropping back from the lead group of about 6, into a smaller group with two other runners – we were 200m behind the leaders and maybe the same ahead of middle pack behind.

After 5km we entered West Woods, which this time of year was full of bluebells and was looking pretty scenic – I even managed to grab a few pictures as the terrain was good (if boggy in places) and I was really getting into a good rhythm. Suddenly we exited the woods and one of my companions looked into the distance down the valley where we expected to see the lead pack to see nobody. Looking at our maps and directions we realised we had overshot a turning and ran almost a mile in the wrong direction. Once we had finally backtracked to the correct (unmarked) turn, we rejoined main group at the back of the field.

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells - I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn't taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells – I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn’t taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

By this point the trail narrowed and overtaking was difficult in the boggy ground as we ran through glades of pungent wild garlic. I started to pick my way through the field but resigned myself to the reality that I wouldn’t be placing highly, even with over a marathon of distance still to run I’d lost at least 20 minutes on the lead group.

The trail opened up from forest to rolling downs which made overtaking easier, and also navigation because it was possible to see a couple of miles ahead and see the rest of the race snaking their way across the countryside.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The weather continued to be overcast and windy, and a light drizzle blew in across the hills but it never rained, meaning it was pretty ideal for running and getting dehydrated was not going to be a problem.

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

9 or 10 miles into the route, the course split off to the north for the 20 mile runners, where the rest of us continued west. We would rejoin the 20 mile course in another 17 miles or so.

 

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

After descending off the downs, we ran into the small town of Bishops Canning where we had a few other navigational changes, and I teamed up with a runner who had done the course a few times to negotiate the changed route for this year. We eventually found our way onto the canal towpath, where a long stretch flat track continued into the market town of Devizes where I counted bridges until reaching the next checkpoint.

Some company while running along the canal towpath

Some company while running along the canal towpath into Devizes

 

After leaving Devizes, the route climbed some fairly steep hills, climbing up towards distant radio antennae that seemed to take forever to reach. More undualting terrain and we then arrived at the Cherhill White Horse, and Lansdowne Obelisk.

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Cherhill White horse on the left, and the Lansdowne Obelisk on the right

By this point though, I’d already run a marathon distance so wasn’t really interested in admiring the scenery (besides, there are loads of white horses in the hillsides in this part of the world, and this one was only cut in 1780, as opposed to the bronze age carving at Uffington White Horse that I’m much more familiar with) and so continued to press on to the Beckhampton checkpoint where the 20 mile route rejoined our route.

Running through Avebury, I caught a glimpse of the stone circle. There was lots of support with people cheering and clapping in the town (a nice pub on the road and lack of rain probably helped) despite a little girl asking me why everyone was clapping.

The final run in to Marlborough was fairly uneventful, and I clocked my finish time at 5 hours 51 minutes, so considering the extra mileage (36 miles in total – 58km) I was pleased to get under 6 hours.

All finishers were awarded with a hand made mug from the local pottery.

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

Overall I enjoyed the day – it was good to get out and do fairly long run on terrain that wasn’t too technical so wouldn’t wipe me out for days to come. The checkpoints and food stops where well run, and the marshall generally fairly encouraging. There were shower facilities at the finish (in the local leisure centre) and a meal for all finishers although I headed home quickly.

My only criticism, and one of a lot of people on the course was the lack of course markings. I realise that it was made clear in advance, and in fairness the directions where pretty accurate. However I think it detracts from the enjoyment to have your head stuck in a route book, following it each few hundred yards like an in-car sat nav – I much prefer to be able to take in the scenery, chat with other runners and generally enjoy the event without worrying too much about taking a wrong turn.

However, that said, I knew what I was getting myself into as did everybody else – and getting lost was my fault, and finding my way back was my responsibility. I would recommend the event to anyone who hasn’t yet done an ultra but wants to step up from marathon distance – its good intermediate step before plunging into 50 milers.

Strava Data

Offical Results

Full results of 33 mile race

Full results of 20 mile race

Video: Trail Run Across Grand Ferrand

I recently picked a Garmin Virb Elite action camera and took it for a trail run on my local mountain with Amy. The camera is good fun and the form factor makes it easy to carry around. It also has a ‘burst mode’ photo feature which allows you to take pictures even while you’re taking video, which was much easier than getting the phone out.

Photos

Here are some of the pictures I took while on ‘burst mode’. The wide angle distortion looks odd in places, but works well in others.

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Race Report: La Bombarde 2015 – 10km

I only run one flat, competitive 10km race per year, and it’s this one – La Bombarde. Organised by Club Athlétique Veynois, where they have a whole weekend of racing starting on Saturday with a straight up vertical race of Montée d’Oule, and culminating with the 10km on Sunday.

This year was the 9th edition and saw 193 runners compete in an event which was also a qualifying event for the 2016 Championship of France so there was quite a strong field of runners.

Since last year I’d managed a 10km PB, I skipped the vertical race to stay fresh and have another crack at a decent time. The weather was perfect, the crowd support and race organisation excellent, so all I had to do was run fast for 38 minutes which I pretty much managed to do.

A new PB of 38:35 – and feeling very knackered so straight home for a roast lamb dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lining up at the start of the race

Lining up at the start of the race

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More photos from the official club website.

 

Race Report: Trail des Contreforts de Piolit, Haute-Alpes, France

After my first race a couple of weeks ago in snow and fog, I was looking forward to a drier and brighter run in the southern Alps, and last Sunday’s Trail des Contreforts de Piolit didn’t disappoint. The race was 17km of pretty much straight up then straight down racing along the foothills (the contreforts) of Le Piolit in the Haute-Alpes of southern France.

The race profile - pretty much straight up and down with a few bumps here and there. The route was extended to 17,3km

The race profile – pretty much straight up and down with a few bumps here and there. The route was extended to 17,3km

The race has been going for five years, and based in La Bâtie-Neuve between Gap and Chorges, this was always going to attract a large and strong field of mountain runners and this year didn’t disappoint. 300 runners signed up for the main event with another 200 running a smaller 6km version.

Finding my way to the event was slightly problematic – I just rocked up to the town assuming there would be event signposts, but it wasn’t really clear where the race was. I saw a guy in running gear walking into a building full of people filling in bits of paper so followed him – and almost ended up voting in the French local elections. After sheepishly getting some new directions I soon found my way to the local college that was hosting the event and picked up my race pack and got ready.

The weather was perfect for racing – blue skies and temperatures in the low teens with little wind – a perfect Spring day in the Provençal Alps.

As with all of these events there’s usually a big bottleneck as soon as the race hits the trails so I positioned myself reasonably close to the front of the start line hoping not to get stuck too far back. As soon as the gun went off everybody sprinted and jostled – I nearly went face-first into the tarmac after 500m as somebody clipped my heels at full speed but I just about managed to stay on my feet.

Edging to the front of the start line to avoid the trail bottlenecks in the first KM

Edging to the front of the start line to avoid the trail bottlenecks in the first KM

After about 800m we started to hit the trails and the going got steeper. Although the the trail was mostly dry, this time of year there is still a lot of snowmelt in places and some patches were boggy and due to the crowded trails it was difficult to avoid much of this meaning feet got wet and muddy quite early on.

An easy section, so I was able to take a photo. The trails were much more technical in places but that wasn't the time for whipping out my phone.

An easy section, so I was able to take a photo. The trails were much more technical in places but that wasn’t the time for whipping out my phone.

There were two ravito (food) stops serving water, Coke and other drinks, as well as bananas, chocolate and dried apricots. For such a short race this seemed more than necessary but it meant I could race carrying nothing but a couple of gels, that I could then wash down with water at the aid stations.

The aid stations were frequent and well stocked for a race of this size

The aid stations were frequent and well stocked for a race of this size. Photo courtesy of www.traildescontrefortsdepiolit.fr

The going underfoot was dry and gritty in places, and mixed with the boggy conditions earlier on I was getting blisters on my feet – I was wearing my new Brooks Cascadia 10s which I’d only put about 30km into previously, so this made the descent painful as it was quite technical and steep.

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Photo courtesy of www.traildescontrefortsdepiolit.fr

 

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Gaël Reynaud (right) who was the eventual winner, beating the course record with a time of 1:14:30. Benjamin Rouillon (left) got 2nd place just under 2 minutes behind. Photo courtesy of www.traildescontrefortsdepiolit.fr

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Photo courtesy of www.traildescontrefortsdepiolit.fr

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The last couple of KMs were fairly undulating and I was able to make up about 4-5 places by passing a few people who were starting to blow up. The final 800m into the village and the finish line had some good crowds and still plenty of cheering going on despite the winner having crossed the line 15 minutes earlier, which helped motivate me to the finish. I eventually crossed the line in 1:33:57 – quite some time behind the winners but I’m quite happy with the result considering the strength of the field.

Overall it was a well organised and exceptionally scenic race – with plenty of food stops, plus a meal for all finishers it was also good value.

Results

Pl. # Name Club Sx Cat Time Avg Par cat.
1. 282 REYNAUD Gaël Team Optisport-Uglow M SEH 01:14:30 13,85 1
2. 184 ROUILLON Benjamin club des chats M SEH 01:16:33 13,48 2
3. 194 MANSOURI Saïd M SEH 01:16:33 13,48 3
4. 185 BARBE Geoffrey club des chats M ESH 01:17:02 13,4 1
5. 271 HALLEUMIEUX Christophe GHAA M V1H 01:17:53 13,25 1
6. 258 BAILLY Quentin Team Endurance Shop Gap M SEH 01:19:10 13,04 4
7. 7 BRUNEL Thomas CA Pézenas M SEH 01:19:32 12,98 5
8. 190 RANCON Maxime CS SERRE CHEVALIER M SEH 01:20:18 12,85 6
9. 17 ARVIN-BEROD Alexis M SEH 01:20:28 12,83 7
10. 251 MESTRE Bruno AC Digne M V1H 01:20:39 12,8 2
48. 82 CHAFFEY James   M V1H 01:33:57 10,98 16

Full race results can be found on the GeniAlp website.

Challenge Trails 05

I was keen to enter this race since it’s part of the new Challenge Trails 05 ‘league’ system. 10 trail races in the Haute-Alpes (05) departement this year, between 16-32km are scheduled, with a points mechanism where the winner is awarded 600pts, and then each finisher afterwards is awarded a decreasing number of points. The best 5 finishes of the year are taking into account on the overall leaderboard. It seemed like a good way to add some motivation and to find some local races for me.

 Strava Data

Race Report: Trail du Dégel – Chichilianne, Isère, France

This year, Les skieurs du Mont-Aiguille have organised the first ever Trail du Dégel, and since it was based in Chichilianne, which is pretty local by my standards, I signed up.

Trail du Dégel – the run of the melting snow, thaw trail – however you want to translate it I was looking forward to my first race of 2015. For the past two weeks the southern French Alps have been blessed with long (and getting longer) sunny days, blue skies and even the wind has calmed down enough to allow some al-fresco lunches and afternoon cross country skiing in a t-shirt.

That all changed on Friday though, dense clouds came in and thick, wet snow continued for the best part of 24 hours freshening up the higher peaks.

Mont Aiguille

Unfortunately I couldn't photograph the iconic Mt Aiguille today, so here's a photo from better days. Courtesy eupedia.com

Unfortunately I couldn’t photograph the iconic Mt Aiguille today, so here’s a photo from better days. Courtesy eupedia.com

Chichilianne is at the foot of the famous Mont Aiguille, a very distinctive 2,085m high mountain in the heart of the Vercors that was credited as heralding the start of the age of mountaineering when it was climbed in 1492 after Charles VIII ordered his servants to climb to the plateau at the top to see what was there (not much really).

However, when I arrived at the start, low cloud and fog obscured any of the surrounding mountains and cast everything in an eerie gloom. At least I’d driven through the area hundreds of times already and seen the mountains in everything from pouring rain, blood-red sunsets and misty mornings.

The usual motley collection of people who think spending two hours running through mud, snow and slush on a Sunday morning is a good idea. A bad photo - there were around 50 starters for the 20km race and the race start organisation was superb.

The usual motley collection of people who think spending two hours running through mud, snow and slush on a Sunday morning is a good idea. A bad photo – there were around 50 starters for the 20km race and the race start organisation was superb.

C'est parti! The race start as both 10k and 20k runners start the race. Courtesy of the race website.

C’est parti! The race start as both 10k and 20k runners start the race. Courtesy of the race website.

The Race

There were two courses, a 10km with 500m of climbing, and a 20km with 1000m of ascent. I opted for the grand trail and registered at the village hall, got my bib number and got ready to run. After a minute’s silence for the recent French sports stars who died in the Argentina helicopter crash, a quick countdown and we were off. The first KM or so was on village roads leading out of Chicilianne, but was quite punchy and the pack soon spread out.  I found myself hanging off the back of a lead pack of about 7 or 8 runners, although it was impossible to work out who was running 10 or 20km, so I tried to find my own rhythm.

Visibility was pretty low (even worse high up) and the compacted snow was hell on the legs

Visibility was pretty low (even worse high up) and the compacted snow was hell on the legs

Pretty soon we hit the trails, and patches of compacted snow on 4×4 tracks – these were slushy and rutted, which meant that your feet would slide everywhere with each step and after a couple of KMs of this, my legs were really getting softened up.

The route took us along the foothills of Mont Aiguille, although the weather still hadn’t improved so you wouldn’t know this by looking up. After 10km the first loop was completed and we returned back into town, and the 20km runners peeled off for the second half – a loop which would climb 600m straight up to the Sommet du Platary.

I didn’t know this, because I hadn’t really looked at the course info or the route – in fact I wasn’t even clear until the halfway point which coloured course marker arrows I should be following (luckily they all went the same way). As we climbed up the mountain the snow got deeper and thicker, and the route got steeper until we were struggling up 50° slopes at times, sliding backwards on muddy patches and struggling to stay upright. I was probably glad I didn’t realise quite how far there was to climb, but it was so misty, and so much snow everywhere that it was quite disorientating and each time I saw a course marker in the distance I thought we were at the summit, only to see the path climb higher and higher.

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1000m of elevation in 20km of running, although most of the climbing effort was in the last third of the race

 

Gandalf at the summit. Don't ask me why. I was too knackered to speak, never mind ask a question in French

Gandalf at the summit. Don’t ask me why. I was too knackered to speak, never mind ask a question in French

Eventually I did reach the summit, and I was able to keep the distance from the chasing pack behind me. One of the race marshals who was stood at the summit was for some reason was in a full wizard costume. Climbing up through the gloom in a state of semi-delirious exhaustion it looked like the grim reaper in the distance coming to finish me off.

It’s a shame that the weather was so bad because this part of the course would have been a spectacular view. I’ve posted some pictures lower down taken from the official website which were taken a few days ago when they were preparing the course.

It was pretty much all straight down after that, but the descent was steep and covered in about 50cm of crusty snow. I just ran down as fast as I could, but the snow was hard enough that if you landed your heel at too shallow an angle you could skid off – too deep and the snow was soft enough for your leg to disappear up to your knee which isn’t recommended when running at full pelt.

Mont Aiguille in the distance taken from the Sommet du Platary a few days ago - shame the weather wasn't this good.

Mont Aiguille in the distance taken from the Sommet du Platary a few days ago – shame the weather wasn’t this good.

The Sommet du Platary taken a few days ago. I ran along this route and saw the cliffs, but nothing but cloud beyond.

The Sommet du Platary taken a few days ago. I ran along this route and saw the cliffs, but nothing but cloud beyond.

As the snowy slopes gave way to forest tracks, we hit mushy leaves in amongst the rocks and snow which made the going more treacherous – if I hadn’t had a couple of other runners breathing down my neck I would probably have gone a bit easier.

The trails finally ended and I could hear the cowbells and the PA system at the finish. The final run-in was around 1.5km of tarmac and I was feeling pretty done in by then – my legs were like jelly from the descent. I was in a group of three though so had to keep pushing – I came 2nd out of the 3 by about a metre – there’s noway I was able to do any better than that.

The organisation at the end was great – plenty of typical French race-finisher food: cheese, ham, saucisson, chocolate, bananas, gingerbread loaf and fruit, as well as hot drinks.

I’ve got no ideas as to my overall placing yet since the results aren’t up and I was getting cold so didn’t hang about afterwards. I managed to squeeze into the top 10 (out of 52) with an official time of 2:16:09. Overall it was a great race and good way to blow out the cobwebs for the 2015 season – definitely something I will do again next year. However I’m really looking forward to some warm and sunny races!

Race Results

The official race results are online here.

Grand dégel – 20Km – 1000m
1. 167 SROCZYNSKI Charles M (1.) V1M (1.) URIAGE RUNNING 1:54:19
2. 182 LASSALE Jerome M (2.) SEM (1.) DAC 1:55:13 +0:54
3. 163 MORICEAU Yohann M (3.) SEM (2.) 1:57:55 +3:36
4. 188 RAVAINE Yann M (4.) V1M (2.) 2:00:54 +6:35
5. 175 POIROT Stéphane M (5.) V1M (3.) LES SKIEURS DU MONT AIGUILLE 2:04:52 +10:33
6. 200 PELLOUX TYGAT Romaric M (6.) SEM (3.) 2:06:24 +12:05
7. 173 BELLON Frederic M (7.) V1M (4.) 2:11:38 +17:19
8. 184 MALLET Nicolas M (8.) V1M (5.) ALBERTVILLE TRIATHLON 2:11:49 +17:30
9. 192 FAYARD Jonathan M (9.) SEM (4.) 2:16:07 +21:48
10. 170 CHAFFEY James M (10.) V1M (6.) 2:16:09 +21:50

 

Qumox Fetch dog harness with camera mount

Qumox Fetch Dog Harness with GoPro Mount

It seems that nobody can make a cup of tea these days without filming it on a GoPro so the whole internet can re-live in first-person POV perspective. Recently though, both GoPro and a few other manufacturers have started to release harnesses so that the cameras can capture a dog’s perspective when mounted onto man’s best friend.

I do so much running with my border collie that I thought it would be fun, so A few weeks ago I bought a Qumox Fetch dog harness with a camera mount – there are a few on the market now but this is substantially cheaper than the ones from GoPro, and since it was just a bit of fun I ordered it from Amazon where you can pick one up for around €22.

A few weeks ago before the snow got really I bad I went for a run. You can see the results above but although the harness is good for a bit of fun, it’s not ideal for long periods of use.

Maybe I’m spoiled with the current (non-camera mountable) dog harness we use in general, the Ruffwear Web Master which has served well for a couple of years. The Qumox doesn’t fit very securely, despite me ordering the correct size, and is reliant on a loop of velcro over the front, which after running in the snow for an hour, gets clogged up and stops sticking meaning at the end I had to take the harness off  and run with it.

There is also a metal loop that sits behind the camera mount, which hits against the protective camera casing when the dog runs, creating an annoying noise which means if you’re not planning to overlay a soundtrack this could be a problem.

The main problem with a dog mounted camera is always going to be camera shake – as intelligent as Eric is, I couldn’t get him to frame shots correctly and hold still at all times – when he leaps into a gallop there’s really not much chance of seeing what’s going on – it is only when he’s trotting a steady pace that the captured footage becomes useable. I would expect this to be a problem on all harness however.

Finally, although the camera mounts fairly securely using the standard fixings you would expect after 5-10 minutes of running it is likely that the camera will have slipped forward in it’s mount, meaning it is more than likely capturing images of your dog’s back rather than the view ahead. This needed constant readjustment out on the trail.

Maybe the official GoPro version is much better – it does for instance have a raised mount which should in theory give a better view, but the extra leverage may exacerbate the camera shake.  However it is significantly more expensive so I think I will manage with what I’ve got for the time being.

 

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