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: 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.

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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).

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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

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