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

Race Report: FestiTrail d’Autrans

Saturday 8th December 2018

Looking back on 2018 I’m very satisfied with what I’d class as a successful year. I avoid any serious injury, and completed my two main A races, including finishing my first ever 100 mile distance attempt. 

After finish the TDS in August, the autumn is always a time when I take it easy. Not only is it time to wind down after my main late-summer goal, but it’s also the start of the hunting season and my local trails become like a war zone where drunk, semi-literate blokes in orange-fluro take the edge off the fun of taking to the trails.

I always like to pick a couple of short local races though to see out the end of the year, and this year I picked the FestiTrail d’Autrans. The main reason is that we’re in the process of buying a house in a village just down the road so I wanted to check out my new local running scene.

The race is part of a large mountain film festival that takes place in the alpine village of Autrans. It’s part of the Vercors plateau and has it’s own ski area, including the ski jump used for the 1968 Olympics hosted by nearby Grenoble. The climb to the top of the ski jump is something I’ve know from previous ultras that have taken in the area, and we’d be climbing it again as part of this race.

Early December is always a bit of a lottery in terms of snow cover, and this year the season has got off to a slow start. We’ve had a few dumps of the white stuff in the Alps but we’ve had long periods of cold, clear, anti-cyclonic weather which have kept the trails dry. However the day of the race was hovering around freezing, with sleety snow falling for most of it which made the conditions slippery and muddy.

Although the weather was miserable if you weren’t running, the town was full of spectators and buzz, obviously helped by the wider festivities taking place. Registration took place in a large, well-heated sports hall and wasn’t as chaotic as usual despite several hundred runners. The race pack contained my bib, a good quality technical t-shirt and passes for the hot post-race meal, as well as free entry to the film screenings later that day.

As well as the main 20km race, there was also a relay version of the race, with everyone running the first 7km which would loop back into town, and the relay racers would switch with their partners to run the remaining 13km. This made for a large mass start, with perhaps 500 of us heading out of town through the narrow streets. The organisers helped manage what could have been carnage by having us follow a car for 500m or so before being able to put the hammer down and run out of town.

After a few KMs of running through boggy fields we reached the trail climbing up the ski jump, then a forest run down the other side. This set the tone for most of the race – lots of muddy snow and some slippy descents. It was more like a British XC race than an Alpine race, but lots of fun.

Running into the finish I was pleased to come in under two hours, giving me a position of 58th. I was hoping to place a bit higher but I guess I’m getting older and there’s lots of mountain goats running these races in the Alps.

Race Report: Trail des Cimes du Buëch 2016 – 42km

May 22nd, 2016
La Faurie, France

The Trail des Cimes du Buëch is now in its third year, and I had ran the 2014 and 2015 versions which comprised of a quick 17km circuit with some amazing views. This year the 17km version was included in the Challenge Trails 05 competition, but on top of this was added a 42km mara’trail event with nearly 3000m of climbing.

The race profile - getting hard as it goes on

The race profile – getting hard as it goes on – the last climb at 36km was exceptionally steep

I entered the event at the last minute because I’ve been recovering from a torn calf muscle which stopped my training for around a month, so I was keen to take this one easy and use it as a test to see how much fitness I still had left.

The first third of the race takes in most of the original 17km, and I know from experience that its a hard climb, although rewarded with some amazing panoramic scenery. The latter stages of the race are also pretty hilly though so I was careful not to go out too fast.

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

As every year, the race starts at the football pitch in La Faurie

Only 38 runners lined up at the chilly start, but there was a good atmosphere and pretty soon we were off. The tough climb at the beginning was everything I expected, followed a by a rocky, technical descent.

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The weather was warm and sunny, but as the race went on the wind really caught up. The photo above shows a climb about two-thirds of the way in and an enormous wind blowing from the south was actually blowing me off my feat as I climbed up onto the ridge. My cap had to be lashed to my trekking poles otherwise it would be half way to Lyon by now.

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After 35km I was starting to flag, but the last climb although not the biggest definitely felt the toughest. After a hot and tiring climb the descent off the other side was technical and very tough on the legs.

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Top of the final climb, with the finish in the distance

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Back down in the forest on the final run in.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

Cheese and Coke at the finish.

 

Race Report: Bayard Snow Trail 2016

With the exception of ultra marathons with early starts/late finishes, I’d never really done any night racing so I was looking forward to this evening trail race on the snow trails of the southern French Alps.

I had some eye surgery at the beginning of the year which meant I had to take it easy on physical exercise for a few weeks. The upshot is that I’m only getting back up to fitness and so I wasn’t expecting great things in the first race of this season, the Bayard Trail Snow Race near Gap.

My pre-race warmup, consisting of standing around the firepit chatting to my mate Manu.

My pre-race warmup, consisting of standing around the firepit chatting to my mate Manu.

I’d also forgotten how hard racing was. 90 minutes of full one exertion with no opportunity for micro-rest like on training runs where a little fiddle with your shoes, or a drink of water gives you a small chance to get back some breath.

The full moon rising above the mountains of the Ecrins

The full moon rising above the mountains of the Ecrins

This was the first edition of the Bayard Trail and its part of the Challenge Trails 05 events that I competed in last year so I fancied getting stuck in, especially since my goal this year is to run longer stuff so I might do less of the shorter, sharper races. To be honest the organisation wasn’t the best – first of all despite having registered online a few days before, I had to queue along with all the people registering on the day. Why don’t race organisers (I know some do) have separate lines for ‘on the day’ entry?

Lining up at the start

Lining up at the start

Anyway, because of the enormous lines (I think there were around 150 racers) the start of the race was delayed 20 minutes. Luckily there was a huge fire pit to keep warm by as the sun dropped and the full moon came out.

Race profile

Race profile

Eventually we were ready to race – the course consisted of two loops, with one of them done twice. The total distance was around 16km with 400m of vertical. It was undulating rather than steep with some quite punchy changes in gradient that made it difficult to keep a rhythm. Upshot, it was tough going.

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After the typical fast jostling for a position at the start I settled into somewhere around a third of the way down the course and pretty much kept position, maybe losing about 10 places around the duration of the race.

The biggest thing that struck me was how little scenery you see. Despite being entirely on snow, with clear skies and a full moon, using a headtorch meant my night vision never got established and all I ever saw was the trail a couple of metres in front of me. There was a nice view over the town of gap, with the city lights twinkling in the valley below, but for the most part it was a fairly monotonous race.

Fellow racers climbing the hill behind me, with the lights of Gap below in the background

Fellow racers climbing the hill behind me, with the lights of Gap below in the background

At least the race meant I got some points in the bag for the Challenge Trails 05 competition.

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There were a couple of ravito stops during the race but I never took advantage – at the end however was a bowl of the hottest noodle soup I’ve ever had in my life.

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Race Report: Trail de la Traversée des Aiguilles

The skyline above my village is recognisable by the distinctive shape of the Col des Aiguilles, the pass that connects the La Jarjatte valley with the Dévoluy range of mountains. It’s this col that gives the name to last Sunday’s race so this race felt pretty local to me.

Unfortunately, despite just being a few KMs as the crow flies, it was nearly an hour as the Volvo drives, such are the vagaries of Alpine roads. Still, being able to leave the house at 7.30am felt like a lie in compared to some other races I’ve had to get up at an ungodly hour for.

At only 16km, the Trail de la Traversée des Aiguilles was the shortest in the Challenge Trails 05 series, but with almost 1,000m of vertical it wasn’t going to be easy. Despite autumn being underway in the Alps, it was a beautiful weekend and Sunday morning was perfect for racing, with cool temperatures (that soon warmed up when the sun came out) and dry conditions.

A sea of cloud in the valley below in Dévoluy, taken from the Col du Festre, warming up before the start of the race

A sea of cloud in the valley below in Dévoluy, taken from the Col du Festre, warming up before the start of the race

 

The bib number collection was inside a small cafe on the Col du Festre, which was pretty crowded but had the added advantage that they served a great espresso. Pretty soon we were ready to start, and all 120 runners were off.

I’d had a couple of days off during the week while I recovered from a cold, and during my first run back on Friday I felt knackered and really struggled on the hills, so took it easy on Saturday. I had the illusion of feeling fresh, but pretty soon had to dial it back in.

The route climbed first to the Cabin de Rama, a refuge I had passed before on a training run so the early trails were familiar. Soon however, we headed up to the Col des Aiguilles where after some great running in the lower, flatter sections, it soon got very steep.

The flatter sections heading towards the col - the running here was fast and fun

The flatter sections heading towards the col – the running here was fast and fun

 

With the Col in site, the race leaders were starting to descend back down into the valley towards the rest of us. Despite running flat out on technical ground, most of them were full of encouragement to those of us slogging up the steep slope with cries of “Allez-allez!” and the odd “bravo!” chucked in for good measure.

The cairn marking the top of the Col, and the border between the Drome and Haute-Alpes departements. When I got to the top, I could see my house down the other side, just 4km away, but still had 9km to run to complete the race.

The cairn marking the top of the Col, and the border between the Drome and Haute-Alpes departements. When I got to the top, I could see my house down the other side, just 4km away, but still had 9km to run to complete the race.

 

At the top of the Col, a marshall marked out race number to prove we’d made it – a quick glug of water from the drinks table (fair play to the marshalls for dragging water up to the top – even a 4×4 couldn’t get up there) and it was time to descend.

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This was probably when I should have put my iPhone away and not worried about trying to get some pictures. It doesn’t look too steep in the picture above but behind the guy in blue climbing upwards, it drops away quite steeply (which is why you can’t see the lines of other runnres). I overcooked it a little bit and had to stop myself running away out of control.

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After the Col there was another steep climb but some nice traverses in between. Back at the Cabine du Rama we retraced our steps a little bit, and I got lost at one point, leaving the trail after I missed a marker, and it was only when I saw another runner up above that I realised I’d gone wrong. I climbed up the side of the hill to rejoin the trail, managing to fall flat on my face in the process and defiitely lost one, maybe two places that I wasn’t able to make up.

A couple of KMs before the end, the race routed into and through a barn which was full of lambs

A couple of KMs before the end, the race routed into and through a barn which was full of lambs

 

Anyhow, I got myself back to the finish in just under 2 hours – 31st place.

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.

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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.

 

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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.

profile

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.

trail_ridge

ridge

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.

results

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

Piolit_finish

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

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