Mad Dogs and Englishman

Well, it wasn’t quite the midday sun but it was definitely hot enough at 11am to make me think twice. Summer is definitely well underway in French Alps, the flies are out and the farmers are making hay while the sun shines.

I was out with our Border Collie, which are a notoriously heat intolerant breed so he struggled a bit despite me stopping at few cold streams along the way.

I need to get training for the heat in preparation for my upcoming ultras, but it might be a good idea to leave the poor old dog at home.

Combe Obscure Loop

I was spared dog-walking duties on Saturday morning so took the opportunity to go for a longer and more adventurous run than usual. Starting off down the valley through the forests as far as the Mougious waterfall (below). Rather than turning around though, I took the steep ascent (300m in about 15 minutes) up the left hand side.
Cascade de Mougious

It was a lung-busting climb to the top, as the path is pretty steep (a good 45º) but getting to the top is worth it. There is a sheep pasture up there, although being north facing there is still too little grass for it to be used. The shepherd’s old caravan and patio set was still up there though, but looks like it had had a tough winter.

The pasture at the top of the Mougious
Looking back down into the valley from the top of the waterfall.

From here, the trail followed one of the logging tracks into the trees, and traverses the forest-covered mountainside. The terrain is quite tough, boggy and rocky.

The logging road heading into the trees
After a few hundred metres, the trail turns off the road and gets onto proper forest single track. When I’d done this route in the past, I’d missed this turning and ended up descending into a gully and picking my way through rocks all the way down to the river.
The trail soon starts to get better
Perfect trail running conditions

This was where the running started to get really good – basically several KMs of forest single track traversing the mountainside, with occasional views into the valley. After I while I neared the top of the of the local ski pistes – and managed to get spooked by some pretty weird animal noises – I’m thinking it may have been the local wild boar.

Exiting the forest at the top of the ski piste – pretty much downhill from here.

Here’s the GPS data from Garmin.

Local Ultra Marathon

I just found on Facebook a posting for an Ultra Marathon (51km) up the Pic de Bure, the large mountain on which our closest large ski resort (Super Dévoluy/La Joue du Loup) is situated.

As the crow flies, this is only about 10km from my house, so I’ve gone ahead and entered the race as I really need an intermediate ultra before I trry the Ultra Trail du Vercors (85km) again in September.

Since we got a dog I’ve been struggling to get the long runs in – I go out running most days with the dog but tend to have to limit them to under an hour, and with a dog, on this kind of terrain, means I don’t get much more than about 8km under my belt at a time.

Anyhow, the Pic de Bure ultra should help focus the mind a bit, and better still I should be able to get a few recce runs in before the event.

Running with a Dog

On Tuesday, we travelled over to Valence in the Rhône Valley and took ownership of a 12 month old Border Collie called Eric. His previous owner, an 84 year old man had recently died and he was being fostered. We’ve been on the lookout for a Border Collie for some time, checking on the puppies available on noticeboards at the vet, but Eric came through a friend of a friend and so we took the plunge.

Eric – ready for a run?

One of the attractions for me of a Border Collie was to have a dog that can come out into the mountains, and run for long periods over rough terrain, or hike all day. However, coming with a years worth of ‘baggage’, he’s got a lot to (un)learn so we’re keeping him on a leash for now.

I took him out yesterday for his first proper run. I did a short run up to the Mougious waterfall which he took in his stride. A couple of hundred metres shy of the waterfall, a deer shot out of the forest and across our path – Eric went crazy and tried to bolt after him, which pretty much vindicated my decision to keep him leashed.

Post-deer chasing Eric on his way home

The biggest problem I found was running with a short leash. I think the natural driving/herding instinct in a Border Collie means that he weaves from left to right a lot, and running with a short leash means I keep running into the back of him.

As usual, the internet is a helpful place and I’ve been given a lot of advice on running with dogs. I’m ordering a leash that will attach to a belt so I can run hand’s free and have a little more give when he stops or speeds up. I’ll review it on here when I’ve had chance to try it out.

Grand Ferrand Traverse

Location: France, Rhone-Alpes, La Jarjatte
Summary: Mountain trail, moderate effort

At the end of our valley is the largest mountain in the area – the Grand Ferrand. At 2,758m its not the biggest in the Alps, but at over a vertical mile above our valley floor, it presents quite a challenge to the aspring trail runner, and has quite an imposing presence over the end of the valley.

The Grand Ferrand on the approach – still early morning and not much sun.

All year I had been running along the trails at the end of the valley, and up into the foothills of the Grand Ferrand, only to be turned back by too much snow. My run on Friday morning was meant to be just another 10km jaunt, but to my surpise I found the snow had melted enough to allow me to get up above the treeline and onto the mountain proper.

Strictly no sheep or shepherd bothering
A waterfall up the Grand Ferrand

Rather than run up to Lac du Lauzon, I decided that I would traverse across the face of the mountain and head towards Col de la Croix, which passes the local sheep pastures, and then descend down into the forest and create a loop.

Since this was early spring, and very few hikers had made this route yet, after taking the branch I immediately lost the path and ended up scrambling up through rough undergrowth until I came out over a ridge and onto the steep, grassy pastures of the Ferrand.

Up above the treeline on the Grand Ferrand

I realised I was too high for the trail that cuts across, so decided to head across the slope and descend until I found it. The slope was a good 50º and quite slick with the morning due so going was tricky. I was busy watching down the mountain and at my feet, until I caught a glimpse of movement and looked up the slope to see a Chamois running towards me. It suddenly saw me, and startled, ran away for another 100m before looking back at me. I managed to snap a picture with my phone but it does no justice to these amazing animals – I was struggling on the terrain and it was running around as if it were on the flat.

One of the Chamois that live up high on the Grand Ferrand

After descending down another couple of hundred metres I found the trail, which was pure trail running Nirvana, high above the treeline, with a fantastic view back down the valley into La Jarjatte.

Finally found the trail that traverses the lower part of the mountain, with fantastic views back down the valley.

Into the sheep pastures, which in a month or so will be full of flocks, guarded from wolves by Patou dogs.

Wild flowers growing along the trail
The pastures that will be full of grazing sheep in a couple of months
The descent back into the valley

Still Too Much Snow

I’ve only been running in the French Alps for a couple of months, and so far I’ve not ventured up high as the weather has been poor and there’s too much snow. However we’ve had a few weeks of fine, warm and sunny weather, and all of the snow has gone from valley level. Looking out of my office window, I can see the Grand Ferrand, the largest mountain in the area, and an ultimate goal.

However I figured the whole vertical mile to the top might be a bit much for now, so I set my sights a little lower, and decided to aim for the shepherd’s cabin at Le Fleyrard. This is about 500m up the mountains, and marks the upper limit of the treeline. From there, there is a track that traverses the front of the mountain, leading to the sheep pastures, from where it is a downhill run back into the valley via the Col de la Croix.

Le Grand Ferrand, on approach. Its looking remarkably snow-free on the pastures above the treeline.

I started the run at the end of the day, and the 4km run along the valley, along the river Büech was a joy. Late in the day, the sun was setting creating a great effect as the sun caught the trees and the snow.

Even in the valley, sheltered places still had a lot of snow, which had repeatedly thawed and refroze, making running tricky.
The snowbank above the trees covers what is another sheep grazing pasture in the summer. It feeds the Cascade de Mougious, a steep waterfall that I should be able to run up from about May onwards.

As I headed to the end of the valley, I passed quite a few walkers coming off from a day’s hike on the mountain.

The trail along the valley floor forks left. It’s 1.7km to the cabin, and about 300m of vertical.

Egged on by a few ‘bon courage’ from passing hikers, I managed about another 300m of vertical before I had to turn back because of too much snow. Descending in thigh-deep, crusty snow was even tougher than climbing, and I got stuck a few times and took the odd tumble.

I reckon another 2 weeks and I’ll be able to get up past the Fleyrard shepherds cabin and up onto the Grand Ferrand proper.

First Ride of the Year

Since moving to France, both my road bike and mountain bike have been sat still in packing boxes in our barn. This week was beautiful sunshine, warm days and dry roads, but work commitments made it impossible to get out. Bad weather was on its way (heavy snow) Sunday, so I took my chance and headed out to the local hamlets to at least get some KMs into my legs.I’m seriously glad that I did, as time had dulled my memory about how bloody hard cycling is. It was pleasant, but windy day which made even the few flat sections tough. It’s stating the obvious but being in the mountains, everything was either uphill or downhill.

The quiet roads around Mas Bourget – only the odd barking dog and bemused local to bother me – not a Kent white-van-man in sight!

Close to 25km was enough for now, I’ve got my sights set on tackling the Col de Grimone which is the nearest local decent ride. I seriously hope that I’ve got a problem with my heart rate monitor though, as my maximum heart rate was clocked at 254bpm!

A bit of pootling around the villages and its back home. However, the 5km back up the valley to the house is surprisingly sustained, and quite tough considering its only 100m in elevation.

The last hill before home

Spring Run

Since moving to France, and despite now living in a trail running Mecca, I’ve completely neglected to get out recently. So after working three 18 hour days in a row, and the weather being beautiful, warm and sunny all week I forced myself to get out for a lunchtime run.

It had been a few weeks since I last ran the trails at the end of the valley, and back then the weather was below freezing, and we’d had a lot of snow so the cross-country ski trails were hard packed and made for good, consistent running. However, we’ve had 3 weeks of sunny days, and temperatures up into the 20s, so the snow has been melting fast.

XC Ski Trail through the forest

After a slushy start at start of the ski trails, once I got off the main road I found that the shade from the trees had protected a lot of the snow. A bit icy in places but generally good to run on.

Warm and Sunny

After getting to the end of my normal trail at the Cascade de Mougious, I felt a bit ambitious and climbed up the start of the trail up the Grand Ferrand. I was on the wrong side of the river, but a partial snow bridge was still intact so I was able to jump across and head up the trail. South-facing, it was mostly clear of snow apart from patches on the left, but on the right, lizards were basking in the afternoon sun.

Heading up the Grand Ferrand

A couple of hundred metres of vertical height gain, on rocky, technical terrain was about all I could manage. Especially since my heart rate monitor was telling me I was hitting 95%. Probably time to turn around and call it a day.

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