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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The official race results are online here.