I have been here in Argentiere for over two weeks now and already a poster in a sports shop had caught my eye. It was advertising the Trail de Gypaete. There are three distances, 28km, 42km and 72km with an extra category of relay 72km (teams of two). I had to try out the 72km as it had a beefy 4200m of ascent so would be a big test for me being the first race since the Likeys Beacons ultra back in November, but I don’t really count that as I was still in a real mess from Trans-Europe. I was quite nervous about it as I knew that it would be a painful affair, especially as my endurance is still pretty poor. I believe that the suffering is far easier to deal with if you have experienced any recently which I hadn’t!. I have pushed myself in the mountains recently, but nothing compares to the pain that is created in the race situation.
As you can imagine, I have been out running a few times since our arrival here. I can’t help but just want to run straight up the nearest mountain and then bomb back down. This is all incredibly exciting, but I was aware that I needed to go out for some longer stints to up the endurance a little, and because, well, going long is more my thing to be honest. I am sure that the occasional slog up the local mountain won’t be doing any harm though! I went out for a 5.5hr run one day with around 2000 metres of ascent and went around 30km. The distance covered here is roughly half what I’m used to covering back in the UK over the same time period. This is of course partly down to the amount of ascent, but at the moment, the snow is slowing me down lots because it is difficult to run in, but also because one minute you will be on the trail and the next the trail has disappeared. This followed by plenty of head scratching and back-tracking. Thankfully, this doesn’t irritate me in the slightest. In fact, I am finding it quite a lot of fun! Maybe it’s the novelty of it all. Either way, as much as I enjoy travelling fast on foot, it doesn’t seem to be a necessity for me to have fun. I just want to have the beauty and the excitement and there is plenty of that here.
So, as much as I am feeling quite fit and strong, my endurance, as previously mentioned, is a little to be desired. Things can only improve, especially as I am now exclusively running in the mountains. No flat, and barely any tarmac (none if I can help it). As the race got closer, so the weather forecast became more and more British. Plenty of rain was coming and it was supposed to be raining for the whole day. The course was also slightly modified as the trail was still impassable due to snow! So, not only was this going to be a tough day because of the hilly nature of it, but the conditions were looking to be epic. The photos on the race website looked incredible with large mountain views. I think I will not be getting this.
I drove down to Cluses the night before the race to register and decided to stay the night in town as the start was at 0500. It had been moved 30 minutes forward to give people a better chance of finishing due to the worsening conditions. It was raining when I awoke, and as I stood around in the sportshall I could hear it beating against the roof. I wasn’t bothered though. It was only a bit of rain. The briefing was in French, so I had no idea what was said, then shuffled out into the rain in the dark where we stood around waiting for the start. I had on my Petzl Nao headtorch, a cap to keep the rain out of my eyes, shorts, t-shirt with arm warmers and a windproof gilet. On my feet I had on my feet my now trusty Salomon Mantras. I didn’t think these would be ideal for the muddy conditions, but unbelievably I had nothing better! Blimey, I need more shoes.
We were off. The first three km were along the river. The pace was pretty sharp as to be expected, but I was not biting. I was not here to race anyone other than myself. That would be challenge enough. I soon was running beside Anna Frost who was running the first 40 km as she was in the relay. Somewhere up ahead Kilian Jornet was running too. As soon as we were done with the flat section, we were immediately directed into the trees. Even at the bottom of the mountain the visibility was bad. There wouldn’t be any panoramic views today. Immediately things went from fast and flat to slow and very slippery. My shoes were struggling with this amount of thick mud. The trail was already a mess, so I felt for the guys at the back. The climb was beautiful as it wound its way up through the trees. It didn’t take too much time for me to resort to sticking my fingers into the gloopy mud to give me a little extra purchase on the steeper sections. There was going to be no staying clean today.
The initial climb was over 900 metres in ascent. This coupled with the mud equated to me being very tired as a downhill began. As much as I generally thrive with bad conditions, I heard a little voice in my head pleading for less mud. Soon I was cruising a slippery downhill, and suddenly burst out from the trees and into a field. The footing was off camber and it was still raining. I knew what was going to happen but was going too fast to avert it. My feet slid away from me and I hit the deck quite hard. It didn’t hurt me, but knocked the wind out of me a bit and I fell on my plastic cup (you have to carry one in most European trail races), shattering it. Bummer, I liked that cup for some reason. I got it when I did the vertical km in Morzine a couple of years ago. I was up and running again straight away. I had already forgotten the cup as I concentrated on staying upright.
I soon was off the trails and passing through a small village to the first cp. I stopped briefly and ate some dried fruit, grabbing a second handful as I lurched off. I was aware of how exhausted I was already. My pacing was going to be the deciding factor for the day. Also, I wanted to make sure that if I was going to have a bad section, that it was not caused by under-eating. There is nothing more irritating.
The rain continued to fall, and the underfoot conditions remained terrible. There was some improvement as we climbed higher again and were soon in the snow. As you will probably know though, snow isn’t exactly the easiest of things to run through either. The climbs were long and numerous and I was sliding around so much that I was red-lining almost all the time. I was also falling a lot. In-fact, I had kind of accepted the fact that I would probably be back on the deck within ten minutes of the previous fall. Although the day was turning into a total grind for me, and a little voice was begging for smooth, dry trail, the rather twisted side of me was revelling in the incredibly tough conditions. What a reintroduction to trail racing! As I fell in the mud again and again, I struggled to find a clean part of clothing to wipe my perpetually running nose on and was quite aware that I was probably just smearing mud all over my face in the process. I no longer cared. I now embraced the mud.
I was soon running through a small town towards what I knew was the next cp at 42 km. This was a major cp as the relay teams changed over here, plus the two shorter races began from here. I had beaten the start of the other races so there were lots of runners running up and down the road looking very bouncy and clean compared to my tired and bedraggled self. I pushed my way through the crowd of runners to get to the table to get some food. More fruit and some sausage was had, along with a nice sweet cup of French tea (weak with no milk). I ran off down the road, and soon I was alone again in the glorious mud. I had no idea how long it would be till the shorter races would start so kept looking behind for the clean lead runners to catch me up.
I was on a technical climb with some cables that were permanently fitted to aid climbing the harder sections, when I heard the first of the clean runners quickly approaching from behind. I was not even attempting to run up this section, but this chap managed to run past with relative ease. There was a short gap before two more guys sped past, and then a few more. One chap slid on some snow directly in front of me and his plastic cup popped out. I shouted out to him and pointed to it, but he looked at it, waved to me and continued. I had gained a nice new unshattered cup. Yes!
After the initial rush of 10 or so runners, it slowed down a bit. I was feeling pretty low on energy, but my moral was still high. I was surprised by the mud situation, but I wasn’t too surprised with my bad spell. I just need a few more big days in my legs and this will hopefully not happen so easily. It will pass though. I held onto that point and pushed on. On one descent I saw a photographer ahead. As I reached him, I realised that I was being directed off the trail down the side of the mountain. It was open with no trees and was super slippery. I could see why the photographer had positioned himself here. I probably spent more time on my backside on this 200-300 metre descent than on my feet. It was sort of fun, but I was glad to reach the bottom.
I have been to the Glastonbury festival a fair few times, and I have been there during some very muddy times wading around in what I thought was every mud you could possibly get, but this was something else! There was the wet stuff, the thick gloopy stuff that threatens to suck your shoe off with every stride, the stuff that makes ice look grippy and every variation in-between.
After trudging up a long hill into the cloud again, I stopped briefly at a cp for another sweet tea, Then it was back into the climb. The cloud around me got colder and colder and soon I was running through snow. My hands were cold as my gloves were soaked from the rain and constantly falling. I knew that I wouldn’t be up this high for too long though so it was fine. Within half an hour I was descending through the lush green countryside, warming up again quickly.
As I got closer to the finish, so my energy levels grew. I was now overtaking some of the runners in the shortest (28km?) event which certainly helped. I remembered that the finish was a massive descent down from the mountains back into Cluses. I descended as fast as my weary body and the mud allowed. It was great fun pushing myself here. I could see the town appear below me, and I watched as it quickly got closer and closer. I now was running strong on those reserves that always seem to be there no matter what happens. I overtook a few runners as I made my way through town and was soon directed into the finish area. My time was just below 10hrs 50mins. I had managed to finish in 18th place which I was actually quite chuffed with. There were 109 finishers all together. A fantastically tough but enjoyable day in the hills. The event was really well organised. I could shower at the end and have a meal which was better than what you’d get in some restaurants! The entire course was heavily marked making it impossible to get lost, and the amount of helpers was just incredible. All very Centurion Running like. Saying that, I think if they are all like this, which I get the impression they are, I may miss the races with navigation and less support, but I suppose I can still get that kick from doing big non-race runs.
My next race is the vertical km at the end of the month which should be a great experience. I also entered a race called the Ice Trail Tarentaise which is at Val D’Isere a couple of hours away. It is a short 65km but squeezes in over 5000 metres of ascent so should be a killer.
It has really warmed up here in the last couple of weeks, and the summer has certainly arrived with the river being very swollen because of the rapid melt that is taking place. It is an incredible thing to witness. Seeing the difference from day to day, as the rivers swell, the snow disappears and the new green shoots spring up everywhere is one of the most beautiful things I have ever been lucky enough to see.
I feel like I belong in the mountains. The feeling is stronger now that I am here too. I am so happy I had the courage to actually make the move. I just need to make it work now.