Race Report: Ultra Trail du Vercors 2019

It’s strange how things sometimes have a circular feel to them. On Saturday 7th September I found myself lined up at 5am in Lans-en-Vercors, back where it all started, and where fingers-crossed it should all continue.

I’ve only been running seriously for just over 10 years, and for the first few years of that time I was pounding the streets of London during my training runs, rarely managing more than 20-30 minutes around Highbury Fields. However, back in 2010, after finally ticking off a road marathon, and a couple of trail races I decided to try my hand at a proper mountain Ultra.

So I entered the inaugural event of the 86km Ultra Trail du Vercors, and had my sea-level-living, flatland-born amateur arse handed to me on plate. I made it as far as the 60km checkpoint before being mercifully told by marshals that I’d missed the cutoff barrier and wasn’t allowed to continue. The combination of heat, vertical pounding of the legs and overall distance meant that I was in no state to continue anyway.

I vowed to complete it one day, and came back to successfully make it round in 2013, and since then my ultra running has developed further to the point where I’ve crossed the finish line on 100km and 100 mile races.

So coming back to run 86km didn’t seem like too much of a challenge when looked from the perspective of a decade of accumulated training and race experience. However I was keen to do this year’s race because, like that day back in 2010 the race start/finish was in Lans-en-Vercors, and after living in the Alps permanently since 2012, about 90 minutes drive from there, we’re finally moving house to live in that very same village in a few weeks.

After failing to get entries to the UTMB and L’Échappée Belle, I decided that this race would make sense to keep maintaining my momentum. It’s been a year of easy training and racing – the mileage has been slower and my two A events, the Trail des Passerelles du Monteynard back in July plus this one, where shorter than my usual big races.

Still, you can never underestimate an ultra-distance event, and with 4,500m of vertical, technical terrain, even 86km would be a challenge.

Early morning start in Lans-en-Vercors

The 5am start was chilly, so dressed in a long-sleeved mid-layer and rain jacket I set off along with 450 other hopefuls. The first section, between Lans and Villard-de-Lans included a 1000m climb up to Pic St-Michel from where we were treated to an amazing view off the edge of the Vercors over the urban sprawl of Grenoble. I got there just before sunrise but you could just make out the Belledonne and Chartreuse massifs, and I could also see 50km away the two mountains just behind my current house, the Tête de Vacheres and Garnesier.

Climbing towards Pic St-Michel
The climb up to Pic St-Michel lit by torches.
View over Grenoble
The view from Pic St-Michel looking down on Grenoble, with the Belledonne (right) and Chartreuse (left) ranges in the background.
Descending towards Villard-de-Lans
Headtorches in the distance on the technical descent down towards the first checkpoint at Villard-de-Lans (17km).

There wasn’t time to hang around though – it was windy and cold and there was a fast technical descent down into Villard where the first food stop would be, 17km into the race. I knew the trail as I’d recced the course with Stuart back in the summer. I was feeling good, having covered the first 17km in a little over 2,5 hours and although I knew I was probably going out too fast I didn’t see the point in hanging around at Villard, so I just filled up my flasks with water, stowed my headtorch and carried on for the next climb to Méaudre. Although it didn’t look much on paper, this section was incredibly steep in places as it didn’t take any recognisable trail, rather it traversed its way through the forest using dry gullies, filled with leaf litter, pine cone and broken branches.

Approaching Villard-de-Lans
The approach to Villard-de-Lans (17km)

The small town of Méaudre is beautiful but I always associate it with the end of my first ever attempt to run this race where I DNFd but this time I was over the climb from Villard and into the town in just over an hour. A quick scan of my timing chip, a handful of peanuts from the aid station and I carried on through keen to tackle the next section to Rencurel where I would stop, rest and replenish before tackling the race proper from the 40km mark.

Passing through the aid station in Meaudre.

In the previous evening’s race briefing, the mayor of Lans-en-Vercors extolled the virtues of running on the approach to Rencurel and this was a part of the Vercors I’d never visited. However he was right – the steep, technical trails winding up and down the gorge faces were amazing, although it meant by the time I made my way into the main aid station at Rencurel my legs had taken a battering.

Rencurel was buzzing with support, and since it was around 11am the temperature was rising so I changed, refuelled and rested for a few minutes before heading back out on the slog over to Autrans.

Showing off the tan/dirt line during the Rencurel stop where access to a drop bag was possible at the 42km mark (just under half way).

After Rencurel, things got a little tougher as I knew I had been making decent time, but also had to be mindful there was still a long way to go. The route climbed and descended again into Autrans, the last major town we would pass through before the finish which was still around another 30km away.

The road between Rencurel and Autrans
Food stop at Gève

After Autrans the trail went through some beautiful forest trails as it wound it’s way up to the refuge at Gève. Many of these trails were familiar to me as I’ve raced locally the FestiTrail d’Autrans and Le Sentier des Ours. In winter many of these are XC ski trails but rather than follow the gently gradients we took a more direct, and steeper route before getting to Gève.

Here the timing system was down so marshals were taking down numbers the old fashioned way with pencil and paper. There was quite a party atmosphere and still plenty of support.

Support at Gève

The next couple of hours fall definitely into the ‘not fun’ category. The trail climbed up to northern end of the Vercors massif, offering amazing view over towards Lyon, but the trail was horrendously technical. The going was slow and frustrating as we climbed over mossy boulders and awkward rocks that threatened to snap ankles if you didn’t pay attention.

View off to the northern edge of the Vercors – the river Isère and to the right is the urban sprawl of Grenoble
Occasional great views, but very tough and slow terrain.

Finally the cailloux which were doing such a good job at sapping morale began to become less of a problem and we found our way onto the upper grassy slopes of the plateau at La Molière. Once we had made our way through the grazing cows there was the final food stop to take advantage of.

There’s food and water at the other side of those cows.

The best thing about the Molière aid station however was the fact that I now knew I was on the home straight. I’d run up here a few times in the past, in fact its just 5km or so from our new house and I knew that we had a shortish ridge run, then a long descent through the forest and finally breaking out into Lans-en-Vercors for the final push to the finish line.

This seemed to give me a bit of psychological boost which helped me catch up an extra 20 places, before finally arriving at the finish in 14h49m58s, 118th out of 295 finishers (98 DNFs).

I enjoyed the race and loved supporting what is a great event in stunningly beautiful area. I certainly wasn’t at my fittest this year but I think having an easy year this year made sense.

As ever, I went out strong, wavered in the middle and clawed back some spaces. I need to learn to be a little bit more consistent. My position for the various checkpoints were 90, 64, 88, 111, 122, 138, 120 , 118