Race Report: Jurassic Coast 100 Miler

The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.

I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.

Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.

The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.

2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.

Relive ‘JC100 mile’

Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.

Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.

Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset

The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.

Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Specatators along the route

On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.

 

Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.

The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion. 

The view from the trail

The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.

The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.

I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.

Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.

As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.

Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.

Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.

No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.

Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.

After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime. 

As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.

The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.

Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.

More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.

After 100 miles, 60 of which we’d pushed through together, we’d made it onto Exmouth seafront.

Somebody taking a breather with a view.

Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.

The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.

After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.

Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy

I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.

Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces

Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.

As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.

A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.

Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.

Jurassic Coast 100 Mile Results

Race Report: UTMB: CCC 2017

UTMB. Probably the one event that even non-trail runners stand a chance of having heard of. However recently it had been well-known for many of the wrong reason including a controversial open letter from the organisers of Hardrock 100 lamenting the fact that they were asked to pay for inclusion in UTMB’s qualification process.

Cue lots of negative discussions on social media. UTMB/ITRA is a racket. It’s not real ultra-running and is more like a giant traffic-jam/human centipede. Ignore the circus and concentrate on more authentic events. I’m not getting into that though, you can read the other side of the story in ITRA’s response to the accusations.

It’s not that simple though. Regardless of which side of the argument you sit, if you’ve ever been in Chamonix at the end of August you will be left in no doubt that the atmosphere is second-to none. I had been there two years ago and watched a friend complete the UTMB event and was swept up in the carnival atmosphere that took hold of the town. I decided there and then that I wanted in on that action and that being stabbed by the odd trekking pole might be a small price to pay.

The UTMB-proper (171km with 10,000m of elevation) is currently beyond my reach, not least because I haven’t run enough qualifying races but I’ve also never run further than 86km. I did however find that getting enough points to enter the CCC was definitely much more attainable so last December I entered the race lottery and to my surprise, managed to snag a place.

Although the CCC (Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, Chamonix) is the ‘little sister’ event of UTMB, it is fair to say that it’s a serious ultra marathon in its own right. For the most part it covers the last two thirds of the UTMB with a few deviations and at over 100km and 6,000m of elevation it’s certainly not an easy cop out.

So this was my ‘A’ race for 2017, and after a recent DNF in the brutally steep 80km du Mont Blanc earlier in the year I was determined to be well organised, fully on form and run a smart race this time.

The weather would definitely help this time – after two straight years of blazing blue skies and high temperatures, I arrived to pick up my race bib in a grey and wet Chamonix being drenched by a light but consistent rain. The amazing mountain backdrop was hidden behind battleship-grey clouds.

The start line in Courmayeur

On the Friday morning I took the organised bus from outside my rented apartment in Argentiere, through the Mont-Blanc tunnel and into Courmayeur on the other side and was greeted by cool temperatures, sunny skies and thankfully no rain – perfect ultra-running weather.

However we knew it wouldn’t last as the forecast for the later stages of the race was for very cold temperatures up high and more rain, possibly snow. A last minute text from the organisers arrived as I was waiting at the start line, explaining that the final section between Col des Montets and La Flégère had been rerouted to avoid Tête aux Ventes – I was unsure whether this was a good or a bad thing.

The course profile of the CCC

2,150 lined up on the start line and I had previously heard lots of horror stories about huge queues as the race hits the first narrow trails so I was keen to get reasonable to the front. The race was divided into three pens which would leave at 9am, 9:15 and 9:30 respectively and I was in the second pen.

The excitement and anticipation was building – large crowds had turned out and were very enthusiastic. Most ultras I run start at 4am so local support is usually less lively. Media helicopters buzzing overhead and an energetic PA announcer building up the enthusiasm of the crowd in three languages all contributed to a feeling of being part of something big – and then the starting gun went off, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise playing as we ran through the town of Courmayeur to cheering crowds and ringing cowbells.

Leaving Courmayeur and heading to the first forest trails

A route through the town meant that we got to soak up the atmosphere for a couple of KMs, and also had the benefit of thinning out the crowds before we hit the narrower trails.

The traffic jams never really materialised – the first climb was almost a vertical mile up to the Tête de la Tronche in the first 10km or so, ensuring most mid-pack runners would take it easy so we soon set into a steady pace. Maybe I was feeling fresh and enthusiastic but the first climb really felt good, and didn’t seem anywhere near as steep as it looks on paper.

Pretty soon we were over the top and running down into the first aid station at Refuge Bertone. There was no need to hang around so I quickly filled up with water, grabbed some chocolate and dried apricots and headed out onto the lovely runnable section of 7km to the next aid station.

Leaving Refuge Bertone

This next section was wonderful – rolling hills of single track with sweeping views of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc. The weather continued to be cooperative and stayed cool and sunny – pretty soon I arrived at the next aid station at Refuge Bonatti, 22km into the race.

Great running between the Bertone and Bonatti refuges

 

Still enjoying great weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc

Fantastic trails for running

 

 

 

 

I knew that the climb to Grand Col Ferret was going to be tough, so I sat down and had a bit of a rest, powered by some of the delicious pasta soup handed out at all the large aid stations. It was only when I looked at the map that I realised there was still another 5km of running to Arnouvaz before the climb started.

Climbing towards the Grand Col Ferret – the wind increased and the temperature dropped meaning the layers started to go on.

As the race approached the Col Ferret it was obvious that the great weather wouldn’t last – forbidding clouds in the distance towards Switzerland suggested I’d soon be adding layers and waterproofs.

Zero visibility and freezing wind at the Grand Col Ferret

The climb itself only took just over an hour but the difference between the top and bottom was pretty stark. I’d added a waterproof layer to keep out the wind, and gloves but arrived at the summit with my hands so frozen I couldn’t collapse my trekking poles to stow away for the descent – thankfully one of the medics at the top was happy to help.

What followed was 1,500m of continuous descending into the Swiss side of the race, with a brief stop at La Fouly for more water and food. The amount of supporters at La Fouly was impressive, and it gave a great boost – I remember leaving the food tent and running through a tunnel of kids high-fiving on the way out.

I was planning to meet Amy at Champex-Lac, the first aid station that allowed help from crews and about the only one where I would visit at a sensible time (the others were Trient and Vallorcine). She was tracking me on the official app and I seemed to be on track for getting there a little before 8pm, which meant I was pretty close to the 22 hour pace I was aiming for. However leaving La Fouly and heading down into the valley we were soon on asphalt roads, which I thought would just link some trails, but we ended up running around 10km like that. It meant that, helped by some friendly encouragement from a fellow Brit I was running with, we were soon running 5.30min/km pace which meant getting to Champex-Lac early.

It turned out that the route had been diverted because of landslides caused by the recent bad weather. It was a welcome repreive from the technical trails but meant that I had to phone Amy to get her to start the one-hour drive to Champex early.

On the approach to Champex-Lac the rain really started to come down strong and the deeply rutted, muddy forest trails were quite depressing to negotiate in the falling darkness, perhaps because I knew that I was so close to a change of dry clothes and some moral support.

The curse of being a mid-pack ultra runner meant that the aid station tent was absolutely packed with runners and their associated crews. This made it difficult to lay out kit on the long bench tables but Amy managed make sure I went through all the right checks, helped me get into dry and warm clothes and also brought me a steaming hot flask of freshly made pasta and potato soup.

Freshly fortified with pasta and potato soup, in dry clothes and waterproofs ready to tackle the night section after Champex-Lac at 56km

Leaving the aid station I was shocked how cold my muscles had got, and running out of Champex-Lac was more of a hobble, despite the best efforts of the supporters who were yelling encouragement. It was almost a relief when the pavement gave way to steep forest traila and I was able to focus on climbing rather than running at any particular pace.

The latter half of the race comprised of three big climbs – none of them quite as large as the first two, but significant, in the dark and in the pouring rain on tired legs. I mentally broke it down to just powering on through to the next big aid station and actually found the climbing to be straightforward – my legs were still feeling good.

Taking refuge at La Giète

On the long climb up to La Giète it became evident that this was going to be a long night. The heavy rain was turning the already saturated ground, trodden by the shoes of hundreds of other runners in the last few hours into a boggy quagmire. In parts the trails were rocky, and we could use these for some traction, but the clay-like, light-brown mud was oozing down the mountain between the rocks like gravy. We finally made it to La Giète, where a small barn on top of the mountain, lit up and playing techno music offered some shelter and hot soup.

It was a case of rinse and repeat for the next few hours as we descended to Trient, restocked, climbed more monstrous, muddy mountains and slipped and slided our way back down into Vallorcine.

The descents were getting treacherous and despite using trekking poles and took at least a couple of falls but thankfully they didn’t cause any problems.

Refuelled at La Giète and ready to go back outside to face the elements

By Trient, certain body parts had begun to chafe and I ammused the staff at the medic tent by asking if they had any cream, although I couldn’t remember the name in French so had describe it. I’m sure not for the first time that evening, the medic handed me a tube of anti-frottissement cream and pointed towards the bathroom; I soon anti-frottisée’d parts that will remain nameless and was able to resume the glamour of an ultra marathon at one in the morning.

At Vallorcine, the last major aid station it felt like I was almost home but there were still 19 more kilometeres to run, and the temporary notices on the walls made it clear that the new route, bypassing the Tête aux Vents was not necessarily going to make things easier. Leaving the aid station the next few KMs seemed much gentler than the profile on the course map suggested and I made pretty good pace, setting into a rhythm on good, relatively dry roads.

Refuelling with hot soup at one of the aid stations

After a while though the paths got ridiculously technical, with huge knotted tree roots and large rocks strewn across the path which made mincemeat of our tired legs and frazzled, sleep-deprived brains. The real sting in the tail came two-hours on from Vallorcine, with a 250m descent on the same horrible paths, only to be faced with over an hour of yet more climbing up to the ski station of La Flégère. The elevation amount wasn’t particularly huge, but the trail just seemed to go on forever and was a real destroyer of morale.

While sitting in the aid station at the top of the climb I chatted to a couple of other runners who were all cursing the organisers and expressing disbelief in the last section. However the good news was just 8 more KMs and aroun 1000m of descent to the finish.

The descent had its technical sections but generally got better the further I descended and this last section only took around an hour. It had the added bonus that it was starting to get light, and I got to view Chamonix down in the valley below, framed with the always-amazing sight of the Mont Blanc massif, freshly dusted with snow from the previous night poking out from amongst the clouds.

Chamonix and Mont-Blanc on the final descent down from La Flégère

I was dreading a long run-in through Chamonix but the trail joined the town just near a hotel I’d stayed in before so I knew it wasn’t long to the finish line. What’s more, my legs actually felt (relatively) great despite almost 22 hours of running. In fact I was minutes away from beating my (admittedly arbitrary target) so I picked up the pace, passing a few people hobbling into town).

On the way in I was surprised to see Amy a few hundred metres from the finish, and she actually had to yell at me to slow down while she ran round to the finish line to take a picture – I still managed to finish in a time 21:58:32, 854th place overall and 267th in the veteran male category V1H.

A bit dazed and confused at the end

 

I’m really happy with my result – since the first goal was to run a good race and finish under the cutoff time of 26:30. Looking at my placing throughout the race, I started off quickly (due to not wanting to be caught in traffic jams), stayed ranked around the mid 900s in the middle of the race and managed to claw back another 100 or so places. I didn’t set the world on fire but it was my first 100km distance, and considering how poor the terrain was in the latter half of the race I can’t complain. On the other hand, the cool conditions probably helped since I have a tendency to suffer from the heat in ultras.

A moment of reflected glory on the podium.

The race organisation was superb, with well stocked aid stations at regular intervals but what really stood out for me was the support of the crowds. In all three countries there were so many enthusiastic supporters in the towns and villages, at all hours of the day and night, and even up on the sides of remote trails in atrocious conditions.

I genuinely enjoyed the event and this has only made me think that the the full UTMB should be on my tick list one day.

 

Race Report: Trail Gapen’cimes 2015 – 55km

I almost didn’t get to run this race. As you may or may not know, the French insist on seeing a signed medical certificate from your doctor before allowing you to race. Every year I go to my GP, she checks my pulse and blood pressure and then signs my note. It lasts for a year and I can supply photocopies to race organisers with no problem – in fact I’ve run 8 races in France this year with the same form.

GAPENCIMES 2015 from AIR libre on Vimeo.

The Gapen’Cimes series of races took place over the weekend of 3rd/4th October, with the 55km/3000m Edelweiss race being on the Sunday. Since the race would start at 6.30am, and the start was at least an hour from my home I decided to pick up my race bib on the Saturday, since we had to be in the city of Gap, where the start/finish was, anyway.

The course profile - pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

The course profile – pretty lumpy with the climbs getting progressively higher.

When I went to collect my race number I was told that the regulations had changed, and my medical certificate had to explicitly state that not only was I am fit to run a race, but that I was fit to run ‘in competition’. Sadly, my certificate didn’t say that. It was only after the race staff tracked down my doctor, and had her email them an attestation that I would be OK, that they would let me enter.

Bib collection on Saturday - like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn't straightforward

Bib collection on Saturday – like most things in France connected to paperwork, it wasn’t straightforward

If I’d left this to 6am on Sunday morning I wouldn’t have had chance to do this, so I’m very glad I decided to try to save myself some time.

On Saturday afternoon the south of France was being deluged by huge storms, some of which sadly claimed the lives of several people down on the Mediterranean coast as tunnels and underground carparks were swamped and people were washed away by flash floods.

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather - here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

The runners on Saturday had to contend with some terrible weather – here they are completing the shorter courses in the middle of a huge storm

Up in the Alps things weren’t quite so bad, but the rain was torrential and violent lightning storms flashed and rumbled long into the night. It was announced that although the weather would be fair on Sunday, the route would altered as many of the trails had washed away and for the safety of runners and marshals, some of it would have to be rerouted. The race start was also postponed to 7am.

I woke up on Sunday morning thankful to not hear the rain pounding on the windows. Driving towards Gap, there were still lightning flashes in the distance but thankfully it stayed dry.

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

Running through the early morning streets of Gap

300 runners assembled in the Parc de la Pépinièrein the centre of Gap. The pre-race briefing explained that the new route wouldn’t add any significant distance to the expected 55km, but to groans from the crowd of runners it was announced we would have an extra 300m of vertical to climb on top of the usual 3000m.

A quick gear check, countdown, and we were off. Running the through Sunday morning streets of Gap (a small town of perhaps 30,000 people, but one of the largest towns in the area) to the occasional applause and encouragement. The local police were holding the (admittedly light) traffic to allow us to run unhindered to the outskirts, and after a few KMs we were on trails heading up to the mountains of the Haute-Alpes.

For this race, and for the first time ever I was using a pair of trekking poles (or cheating sticks as they’re rather sneeringly referred to in the UK). I’ve never really used them before, but for the next couple of years my aim is to bag a few more ultra distance events with a view to getting to a 100 miler. I’m not sure if the use of poles made a positive difference but they certainly weren’t a hinderance.

The early stages of the race

The early stages of the race

I’d say that at least 70% of runners were using poles, and since we’d had so much rain the many streams that we had to cross had been transformed into raging torrents, they were a big help when crossing. The first couple of streams, we were able to gingerly pick our way over the rocks, but our feet still got soaked so myself and many others decided it was better off to just run through, get the feet wet and hope they dried out in the sun.

One of the early stream crossings - the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken - after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

One of the early stream crossings – the guy in yellow fell in shortly after this picture was taken – after that we all decided it was pointless trying to keep our feet dry

The first checkpoint at Rabou came at about the quarter-way stage – there weren’t many food stops, but they had the standard French trail running fare – cheese, salami, ginerbread cake, chocolate, apricots, crisps, bread flat and fizzy water and Coca-Cola. I availed myself of the food, cleared some grit out of my wet shoes and got moving.

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

A couple of ponies, seemingly nonplussed by the magnificent scenery

As we left Rabou, we climbed higher into the mountains and sun came out – the surrounding countryside was awash with autumn colours and to the northeast we could see the high mountains of the Ecrins national park, and the recent dusting of snow that must have fallen in last night’s storm on some of the lower peaks.

Looking over to the Ecrins

Looking over to the Ecrins

To be honest, most of the race was fairly standard. I deliberately kept myself to a sensible rhythm, aiming to dose out my energy over the course of the race and not blow up. It was hard not to run some of the descents too fast though, as there were some great tracks, including a fairly kamikaze dash through a field of scree which was a lot of fun.

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

A nice easy, grassy descent in the sun

IMG_4927

By the time we made it up the final climb to a spectacular view, I was pretty knackered and little bit dejected at the final checkpoint when I asked a marshal how many had come though and he said “most, maybe three-quarters”. I was sure that I was still in the top half of the race even though things had definitely thinned out. Nobody was passing me in fact I had gained a place every couple of KMs.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

That final checkpoint was just 11km from the finish, and all of it was downhill on fairly easily runnable terrain. However it was the hardest point of the race, and running into the streets of Gap, despite the cheers and applause of random onlookers, and even encouragement from the police holding up the traffic, the run into the finish seemed to take forever.

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

IMG_4938

VIRB Picture

VIRB Picture

IMG_4937

I made it over the finish line in 8h41’37”, placing me 138th out of 297 starters, so in the end was quite happy with a top half finish.
finish

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.

IMG_4053

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.

IMG_4065

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.

VIRB Picture

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.

FullSizeRender 4

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.

IMG_4069

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.

VIRB Picture

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.

VIRB Picture

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: Marlborough Downs Challenge

Where: Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK
When: Sunday 10th April, 2015

We’re on holiday in the UK at the moment, down in Oxfordshire so I looked around for a race nearby and found one – the 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge.

The Race

The Marlborough Downs Challenge started in 2003, and comprises of a 33 mile ‘ultra’ route and a shorter 20 miler course – they both take on much of the same terrain, which is in and around the Marlborough Downs of Wiltshire, rolling, undulating hills of chalky clay, iron age relics, white horses etched into hillsides and old Roman roads.

The MDC is now part of the Runfurther Ultra Championship series so attracted a fairly large field of runners. As a ‘short’ ultra-marathon it’s a perfect introduction for people who haven’t ran more than 26 miles before, and although it was hilly there was nothing in the profile to worry anyone since I would call it ‘punchy’ rather than steep.

The course profile - or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

The course profile – or at least the course that I ran so a few extra hills included for good measure

 

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

Turn by turn directions for the route, although without a map it was difficult to find your place

With an emphasis on self-navigation, the race organisers only lightly signposted the route, in just a few places near the beginning and couple of other areas. However runners were supplied with turn by turn route directions and downloadable GPX track and were expected to find their own way over the course.

It didn’t help then, that after having spent ages plotting the route online over an OS map, printing out and laminating a roadbook, I then proceeded to leave all of this at home! I still had the route directions however and decided that there would be safety in numbers on enough of the route to be able to find my way around the course.

The race started off fairly gently – all my races this year have been 10-20km, and so are usually off at lightning pace with lots of shoulder barging, but this was much more serene bearing in mind even the winner would be on their feet for the next 4 hours. After 3 or 4kms I found myself dropping back from the lead group of about 6, into a smaller group with two other runners – we were 200m behind the leaders and maybe the same ahead of middle pack behind.

After 5km we entered West Woods, which this time of year was full of bluebells and was looking pretty scenic – I even managed to grab a few pictures as the terrain was good (if boggy in places) and I was really getting into a good rhythm. Suddenly we exited the woods and one of my companions looked into the distance down the valley where we expected to see the lead pack to see nobody. Looking at our maps and directions we realised we had overshot a turning and ran almost a mile in the wrong direction. Once we had finally backtracked to the correct (unmarked) turn, we rejoined main group at the back of the field.

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells - I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn't taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

Running through West Woods surrounded by bluebells – I really should have been paying more attention to the directions (although in reality I wasn’t taking photos at the point where we missed the turning)

By this point the trail narrowed and overtaking was difficult in the boggy ground as we ran through glades of pungent wild garlic. I started to pick my way through the field but resigned myself to the reality that I wouldn’t be placing highly, even with over a marathon of distance still to run I’d lost at least 20 minutes on the lead group.

The trail opened up from forest to rolling downs which made overtaking easier, and also navigation because it was possible to see a couple of miles ahead and see the rest of the race snaking their way across the countryside.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The trail opened up into open countryside as we climbed higher up onto the downs.

The weather continued to be overcast and windy, and a light drizzle blew in across the hills but it never rained, meaning it was pretty ideal for running and getting dehydrated was not going to be a problem.

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

The rest of the field close behind me as we climbed up onto Pewsey Downs

9 or 10 miles into the route, the course split off to the north for the 20 mile runners, where the rest of us continued west. We would rejoin the 20 mile course in another 17 miles or so.

 

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

Looking south out onto the fields of rapeseed

After descending off the downs, we ran into the small town of Bishops Canning where we had a few other navigational changes, and I teamed up with a runner who had done the course a few times to negotiate the changed route for this year. We eventually found our way onto the canal towpath, where a long stretch flat track continued into the market town of Devizes where I counted bridges until reaching the next checkpoint.

Some company while running along the canal towpath

Some company while running along the canal towpath into Devizes

 

After leaving Devizes, the route climbed some fairly steep hills, climbing up towards distant radio antennae that seemed to take forever to reach. More undualting terrain and we then arrived at the Cherhill White Horse, and Lansdowne Obelisk.

White horse and monument

Cherhill White horse on the left, and the Lansdowne Obelisk on the right

By this point though, I’d already run a marathon distance so wasn’t really interested in admiring the scenery (besides, there are loads of white horses in the hillsides in this part of the world, and this one was only cut in 1780, as opposed to the bronze age carving at Uffington White Horse that I’m much more familiar with) and so continued to press on to the Beckhampton checkpoint where the 20 mile route rejoined our route.

Running through Avebury, I caught a glimpse of the stone circle. There was lots of support with people cheering and clapping in the town (a nice pub on the road and lack of rain probably helped) despite a little girl asking me why everyone was clapping.

The final run in to Marlborough was fairly uneventful, and I clocked my finish time at 5 hours 51 minutes, so considering the extra mileage (36 miles in total – 58km) I was pleased to get under 6 hours.

All finishers were awarded with a hand made mug from the local pottery.

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

A commemorative mug from the local pottery for all finishers

Overall I enjoyed the day – it was good to get out and do fairly long run on terrain that wasn’t too technical so wouldn’t wipe me out for days to come. The checkpoints and food stops where well run, and the marshall generally fairly encouraging. There were shower facilities at the finish (in the local leisure centre) and a meal for all finishers although I headed home quickly.

My only criticism, and one of a lot of people on the course was the lack of course markings. I realise that it was made clear in advance, and in fairness the directions where pretty accurate. However I think it detracts from the enjoyment to have your head stuck in a route book, following it each few hundred yards like an in-car sat nav – I much prefer to be able to take in the scenery, chat with other runners and generally enjoy the event without worrying too much about taking a wrong turn.

However, that said, I knew what I was getting myself into as did everybody else – and getting lost was my fault, and finding my way back was my responsibility. I would recommend the event to anyone who hasn’t yet done an ultra but wants to step up from marathon distance – its good intermediate step before plunging into 50 milers.

Strava Data

Offical Results

Full results of 33 mile race

Full results of 20 mile race

Race Report: Ultra Trail du Vercors

On Saturday 7th September I ran the 86km Ultra Trail du Vercors – with 4000m of elevation, and some stunning scenery it was my longest run to date. I’m pleased to say I completed the course (280 out of 610 starters abandoned the race) in just over 16 hours.

This was the second time I’d attempted the event, the first time was in 2011 during the inaugural running of this event. Being my first ultra marathon it proved to be a real eye opener – I DNF’d after 60km – the heat, the mountains and inexperience on fueling all contributed to that failure, so I vowed to return to what was a well run event with a few thousand more KMs in my legs and whole load of extra experience.

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The Course

The course is a loop around the Vercors mountains. It takes in four of the major villages, Villard-de-Lans, Lans-en-Vercors, Correncon and Meaudre. Each one of these villages constitutes a major check point roughly every 20km apart. Each year the race starts in a different village, and alternates between a clockwise and a counter-clockwise loop. This ensures that even if you’ve run it before, the course can throw up something new each time.

With over 4000m of vertical gain, this definitely counts as ‘hilly’. There’s also a relay option for teams of 2 or 4, with each person running a quarter or a half of the race respectively.

The Race

This year the race started in Villard-de-Lans, so we drove up on Friday night with our dog Eric, checked into the B&B and went to the race briefing to pick up my goodie bag (buff, t-shirt etc) and then back for an early night. The race starts at 5am so the first hour is pretty much run in the dark – and a significant proportion of people are expected to finish in the dark too so naturally a head torch is obligatory. Arriving at the race briefing I had a flashback to the head torch sitting back at home on the kitchen table – forgotten, and 2 hours drive away. I desperately ran around the village looking for a shop that hadn’t yet closed and managed to find one that sold a head torch. Unfortunately it was the most feeble beam you could ever imagine and I’d have had better luck with my iPhone, but at least I could pass kit check.

For a 5am start there was quite a decent sized crowd to cheer us off, and even up into the first climb people were lining the paths – it felt good to be off after months of training, then the stress of tapering down and trying to avoid injury.

0f758680176911e388ea22000a1f9318_7

At the start line in Villard-de-Lans at 5am

The first climb in the early morning darkness

The first climb in the early morning darkness

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

After an hour of climbing 700m in the dark, with a sea of clouds in the valley below us, we reached the ridge of the Vercors and crossed over onto the other side, to be greated with an amazing sunrise. Looking to the south I could see the familiar peaks of the La Jarjatte valley where I live, cast into an unreal glow of dawn light. There wasn’t time to admire the view though, because the trail flattened out and headed south along a great trail of single track.

Running along the trail at dawn

Running along the trail at dawn

Another 90 minutes of running and we headed back up over the ridge and started the descent into the first major checkpoint at Correncon. From then on, the gradient got a little easier, running in more open country and through fields before reaching Meaudre, nicknamed merde by myself after being the location of my DNF two years ago (but it really is a beautiful village and worth a visit).

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

This time I was in a much better state, and meeting up with Amy and our dog Eric, I was still in good spirits having just run marathon distance, but still feeling pretty good.

At the halfway point in Meudre - Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

At the halfway point in Meudre – Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

By now my Garmin was dead, and after having used Amy’s up to I had to run the 3rd section with no pace or time data. I found this oddly disconcerting. This section was where it really started to bite – moving as it did through the hottest part of the day and with some seriously steep sections – including running along the side of the ski jump in Autrans, site of the 1968 Winter Olympics hosted by nearby Grenoble. I was starting to despise my food, and also trying to balance drinking enough to keep cool, but not over-hydrate.

 

After meeting up with Amy again in St-Nizier, and being re-equipped with a recharged Garmin the race climbed back up to the eastern ridge of the Vercors to an amazing viewpoint looking out over Grenoble. When I first ran this race, this was our view at dawn and it looked amazing, being able to see all the way up the valley to Mont Blanc, nearly 100 miles away. Unfortunately this time the city and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mid-afternoon haze, and I was keen to get moving, so continued along the trail towards the third stage village, Lans-en-Vercors.

By the time I got to Lans, it was early evening and getting cool. Hot soup was served at the checkpoint and I slurped some down – I was sick of everything I was carrying myself by that point. Some drops of rain were starting to fall and the clouds were looking increasingly threatening as a storm approached. It probably wasn’t the best time to be climbing up to another high ridgeline if lightning was imminent so it was an added incentive to keep the pace up.

Well, it got dark and the heavens opened and I eventually made it into Villard-de-Lans in the middle of a torrential downpour – cold, wet and exhausted but extremely happy to have completed an event that claimed a 30% abandon rate with a time of 16h03’19”. You can see the full results here.

Final Thoughts

Although the UTV is a low key event by the standards of some of the larger French ultra marathons, in just the two years since my first attempt they have been making great strides to improve the already excellent organisation – but at the same time they haven’t lost any of the atmosphere that attracted me back. Running with the middle of the pack, I never found myself short of somebody to talk to, and the scenery is nothing shorts of stunning. The race marshals and volunteers at the aid stations did and excellent job, and there’s plenty of hikers out on the trail to give support.

I definitely plan to be back.

Race Report – Les Drayes du Vercors

On Saturday I ran my first ultra marathon since 2011. Les Drayes du Vercors is ‘only’ 62km, but represented the first big test of the year, and a baking hot mid-June day, and 3,800m of vertical meant it was a tough old day on the trail.

The day before we drove from my home to the fabulous Auberge Collet which would be our base for the weekend. The drive took us through the heart of the southern Vercors, the dramatic Col de Grimone, Gorges des Gats, through the historic town of Die, and then up through the Col du Rousset, giving this amazing view back from the top.

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

The Route

The race comprised several smaller events and relay events, but since I was running the full solo 62km, I would start from La Chapelle-en-Vercors, running in a loop to the southeast taking in two large climbs, before arriving back in La Chapelle after 26km. The race then snaked out to the north along a sustained climb, before plunging down the spectacular cliff faces of Les Grands Goulets. After climbing back up, it was another descent into the valley heading south, before one final climb back into La Chapelle to complete the figure-of-8 course.

The video below, taken by another competitor gives a summary of the full course in a couple of minutes.


Drayes-du-Vercors-2013 par Emmanuel_Bossan

I completed the event in 10:08:27, coming 42nd out of 53 finishers. I’m not sure how many abandons there were but I passed a couple of people who had given up, and we saw one person being stretchered off with what looked like a broken leg.

 Organisation

The event cost only 25EUR to enter, and as such was one of the cheaper long distance races I’ve entered. There was no t-shirt or medal, but a portable rubber cup and survival blanket (both mandatory items on the list) were included. I was slightly disappointed with the lack of any route maps, as the map available on the website was not very good quality. It was also difficult to know how far apart the aid stations were – a list of them with cumulative distance would have been handy.

Start/finish area - end of first loop

However, despite the lack of map, the marking of the course was fantastic, with ribbons, signs and paint marks ever 25m or so. During the course of 62km, I only took one wrong turning towards the end (and it was my fault for not paying attention) resulting in a 200m detour (unfortunately back uphill).

971459_10151748476288060_821970331_n

The aid stations were well equipped and the volunteers were full of encouragement. At the end of the race the local Pompiers offered massages and we were all checked out to make sure we were OK.

Terrain

The route the course took was almost always off-road, with probably no more than 500m of tarmac on the whole of the 62km course. In places this was extremely tough going with some very steep sections. In France we have had quite a wet Spring and there were still some quite boggy sections in the forest too.

Hilly

Other runners