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

 

Race Report: 1er Trail Blanc de Dévoluy

It’s the depth of winter here in the French Alps and the snow is deep and for most people the race calendar is fairly empty as most people turn to skiing and snowboarding to pass their leisure time. The nearest big ski resort to me however, Super Dévoluy, was hosting a 10km trail race on the local cross country ski trails and so I thought I would take a look to keep some motivation to my training which has fallen by the wayside of late.

Things didn’t get off to a good start as we had several feet of heavy snow overnight, and it continued in the morning meaning the first job was to dig out the car and hope the main roads had been cleared. Luckily the ploughs had been out, and I have winter tyres so even though the usual 45 minute drive took me over an hour, I pretty much got there in one piece.

It was pretty difficult to find the start though, as it was set in a new sports hall that wasn’t signposted yet, so as so often seems to happen to me, I ended up having to run to the start line. Not the best prep but its only 10k – what can go wrong?

 Strava Race Data

Race Photos

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Shivering at the start line

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The first real climb after leaving the XC ski trails

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More climbing in deep snow

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A few stragglers coming in at the finish

Product Review: YakTrax Pro

Product: Yak Trax Pro
Price: €29,90
Pros: Light, fit most shoes (including hiking boots), no spikes but good grip so work across patches of tarmac/rocks.
Cons: A little pricey for what they are, can be a bit awkward to fit

The end of November saw the first heavy snowfall of the winter, with around 70cm of snow falling in 24 hours. With temperatures of -15C it wasn’t going to disappear anytime soon so I decided to try out some YakTrax, one of the many traction devices for feet, available for runners.

 

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My wife has been running in these for a couple of winters and I’d always not bothered – generally when it snows it is deep enough to cause some give and give me traction, but the approach roads to the trails can be treacherous, especially just after the snow plough has pased over and we’ve had a bit of thaw/refreeze action.

I’ve been quite impressed so far though – they don’t seem to help much in deep snow, but the give me confidence on sheet ice, especially on the hills and they don’t interfere with my running action too much. Unlike what I’ve heard about spikes, there’s enough give with every stride to not hammer your quads too much, and they handle running across rocky patches or areas of road where there’s no ice.

The only time I had some problems was one session in quite deep, wet snow and they kept sliding off which was really annoying. However that was one run out of maybe 20 so far this winter so it may have just been down to me not fitting them properly.

All in all they’re a good purchase, much cheaper than dedicated shoes with spikes (eg. Salomon Snowcross) and have the added benefit that they will fit your existing trail shoes. They can also be used on hiking boots if you get a large enough size.

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.