The Ice Trail

I had never heard about this race until earlier this year when Richard Felton from the excellent Profeet in London (who I am an ambassador for) posted on Twitter a link to it. It is a race that has only been around for two years. The first year it was shortened due to the weather and last year there was plenty of snow and very low temperatures. The Ice Trail Tarentaise starts and finishes at Val D’Isere which itself is just shy of 2000 metres. The route stays above 2000 metres almost all the time and is over 3000 metres a few times with a maximum height of 3600 metres. I think that this will be the highest I will have raced at. The race stats are fairly standard for the Alps, 65km with 5000 metres of ascent. This alone is of course brutal and hardly a course for knocking out a personal best, but it seems like this is roughly the standard out here. What is not so standard is the fact that it is so bloody high and this of course means that it will be living up to it’s name and will be providing plenty of snow and ice, especially after the particularly snowy winter that has left so much more snow than usual at these heights.

A few weeks before the event, Richard contacted me asking for advice on how to get there. I said to just sort out flights and I would pick him up and we would go there together. Makes a lot more sense. He arrived on the Friday and stayed at mine overnight. The next day, we left for the 3 hr drive. Lou came too with her mountain bike to check out the trails somewhere new. I am not the keenest driver but of all the places to be driving in the world, this is pretty good! Maybe a little dangerous as I briefly took in the huge panoramic views. It was floating around 30 celcius for most of the journey. I took solace in the fact that the temperature would be lower at the heights we would be running at.

Once at Val D’Isere, we parked up and went out to try and get registered. After walking around a little confused, we soon saw the big sign we somehow missed previously and followed it into the hall that was the registration area. This was very simple and quick and we then made our way over to the start / finish are for 1730 where the obligatory briefing was. This was one of the longest I had ever experienced in French and English. The French guy would rabbit on for ages and then the Scottish (?) chap would speak for about a minute! This continued for ages. I was starting to think that maybe this was going to be tougher than the event itself! What I learnt was that 60% of the course was under snow and that it was very dangerous. We then went about a mile out of town to where our apartment we had hired was. Time to eat and faff with kit and clothing.

The start time was 0400 the next morning so we decided that our alarms would be getting set for 0230. That didn’t leave to much room for sleep, but I wasn’t really fussed as I never really notice the tiredness due to the excitement and I was really excited about this race. All the more for the fact that it was another Skyrunning event.

Richard and I both had Leki micro sticks with us and were undecided whether we should take them for the race as both of us were inexperienced. I had spoke to Simon Robinson who is the distributor for Leki poles in the UK for his advice. He was not sure whether it would be a good idea to give them their maiden voyage at such an event, but after the briefing stating how much snow and the climbs we would be facing, we both decided to take them. I was excited to try them out. I just hoped that I wouldn’t just end up carrying them for most of the way due to not being able to use them effectively.

Just before the off we were given a quick bag check to make sure we had everything that was listed as obligatory and then with headlamps donned, we were off. As to be expected for a Skyrunning event attracting some of the best mountain runners of the time, the pace was hot but I had my now usual plan for the Alps which is to run my own race and to try to escape hitting the wall! Simple you would think. Once through the town we begun to climb. I knew from a quick look at the profile that the first 20 km would give me a 2000 metre ascent, so I was in no rush. This was a slow and steady climb. I felt pretty good as I marched my way up. There was a slight drop into and through Tignes. There were a few people out cheering us through and also some people on their way home from the night before, looking a little worse for wear, but still cheering us on rather excitedley. Once I was out of town I begun to climb again. This time on a wide access track. I could see ahead a long snake of runners and wondered whether I could see the front or whether they were already further up the mountain out of view.

I had been using my Leki poles almost all the way so far and now I was on a long drag of a hill they were tip-tapping away. I was enjoying them. It felt good to be using them and it felt like it put me in a more upright position and therefore a better posture. There was still a long way to go yet though so I wasn’t ready to make any conclusions just yet. I soon noticed that up ahead, the path became covered in snow and everyone was stopping to put on their Yaktrax. This was actually a rule for this section of the course so the event was sponsored by Yaktrax. I had with me my trusty Kahtoola microspikes which had served me well in all sorts of difficult conditions so quickly stretched them over my shoes and was onto the snow which was very steep and crunching my way upwards straight away. There was no need for my Petzl to be on now, so I pulled it off and stashed it in my side pocket. We kept climbing and climbing till eventually I could see what was our first high point the Grande Motte.It was such a long way up and the string of people ahead shrunk till they could not be seen due to the massive scale of this climb.

I raced through a cp grabbing some dried fruit and drinking some coke quickly. The rest of the way was really steep piste which couldn’t have been done without spikes. I say the rest of the way, but the piste doesn’t quite make it to the top, but we had to, so we finished off on a narrow path in the snow with some rocky sections with fixed ropes. Once on the top though the morning views were just beautiful. I wanted to sit and take it in which I would have had it not been a race, but this is business. The descent!

I now had to reverse the route for a short way which meant a slippery little connection section to the top of the piste and straight back down to the cp. This was actually quite nice as I saw everyone who was behind me working hard as they slowly marched up the piste. Near the bottom I saw Richard who was looking good. I wondered if we would see each other again before the end. Very possible with my new habit of badly hitting the wall during races. He was looking strong too so anything could happen here. Once at the cp, I stopped for a minute and made sure I took on plenty of fluid and food and walked off with two handfuls of fruit. The descent was long and the snow was really difficult to run on in places as it was hard and lumpy making footing awkward to say the least.

It was good to finally be off the snow and back on trail for a while. I removed my Kahtoolas and continued to the next cp. It was a lot warmer now as the day progressed but was pleasant rather than unbearable. I guessed that 1000 metres down in the valleys it was probably at the unbearable level, well for me anyway.

The trail was fun and undulating now for quite a way which allowed lots of running. I was again being gifted with blue skies and amazing visibility. Then I begun to climb again. This time it was the col de la Rocheure. I was again in the snow and feeling tired but good. This is a fun course and equally challenging. I was guessing I would be out for around 11 hours but I was happy with that. The col was short but very steep. I seemed to be going ok compared to those around me. More sliding and skating around on the snowy descent ensued which was partly fun but a little frustrating as I wasn’t great at it whereas some people seemed to be very at ease with the snow leaping and sliding in almost full control looking far more relaxed than me and going plenty faster! I was guessing that they were skiers. I have got myself some skies for the winter so hopefully I will get a little better in the snow by next year.

The next climb was again snowy (I think their briefing of 60% snow coverage was pretty accurate) and even steeper. Thankfully there were some half decent steps kicked into the snow meaning I just needed the energy to get up there rather than having to kick steps which can be laborious. The Leki’s were getting tonnes of use now and I really appreciated having them with me. I had pretty much decided that it was wise to have them. When I wasn’t using them they were no real bother carrying them one in each hand parallel to the ground. It did mean that my hands were always full but it was worth it for sure. The next food stop was at Refuge du Fond des Fours. I was pretty exhausted here but it was only how I expected to be feeling at this stage and I felt in control. To stay that way, I drank plenty of fluid here and ate what I could stomach.

Next up on the menu was the last real crushing climb of the day, the Aiguille Pers. It was super steep and the footing was slate sticking up in sharp ridges that you wouldn’t really want to fall on and around that plenty of loose slate. This climb was hard. Soon I saw that runners that were ahead were flying towards me back down the suicidal slope. Hmm, I wasn’t too sure I was looking forward to that descent! As I sweated myself higher and higher towards the top, I eventually crossed the snow line. The top was a welcome sight, where I stopped briefly to adjust my bag before beginning the sketchy descent first through the deep snow which I kept sinking into up to my waist and coming to a very rude standstill! Once out of the soft but difficult snow it was on to the equally difficult and slippery but not so soft trail.

I relaxed as much as I could down the hill and was soon on good running trail again. I was tired now but knew I was coming to the end. I soon saw ahead the next cp which was situated at the famous cycling Col, the Col de l’Iseran. I was feeling a little queezy again so was struggling to find foods I thought I could cope with. Now for a shorter climb but with a nice steep sting at the end that took us up to the tunnel des Leisseires a 3 metre round tunnel about 30 metres long through the top of the mountain to take you through to the valley beyond. It was dark and dripping with melt water and a little surreal. Out the other side was a very slippery steep snowy descent that I did about 50% of on my backside! From there on the descending eased off and after 10 more minutes of deep snow I was back on hard dry dusty trail. I knew that I was heading down now from the heights of the high mountains and would not be running in the snow again today.

I kept heading down and down. I looked at my watch and realised that I was going to be finishing very close to 11 hrs. I then saw a long way below me Val D’Isere. That was a lot of descending left to do! I was following some mountain bike trails down which was nice but then got directed straight down the steep mountainside! My knees were feeling a little tender before this, and this certainly wasn’t helping matters. I must practice more the really steep descents. Down and down I dropped till finally I was running through the town. It was really hot and people were sat out on the grass having picnics and sunbathing. I crossed the line in 11:05. Lou met me there and told me I had come 39th which I was very happy with. I had struggled but I hadn’t hit the wall. Mission accomplished!

We later discovered that Richard had been timed out and the frustrating reason was that he had got caught behind a woman who panicked on the part that drops off the top of the Grande Motte near the start. They wouldn’t let him pass along with some other guys for an hour and he just couldn’t make it back up! I really felt for him especially as he had flown over specially for it!

I was happy with my result. but on the bigger scale, I was really happy that the past four weeks of races and the recce had all gone quite well with no hitches. I have no more races booked up now before UTMB so things could calm down a bit.

It would be nice to race some more but I can’t really afford it and there is so much I would love to do in my home valley! I still have so much more to explore and that is free! I would like to run to Zermatt in Switzerland over three nights and bivvy out every night, and plenty of other things. I’m sure winter will creep on me soon than I expect and then running will probably come to a standstill and the skis will take its place. Not a bad thing I’m sure!

Happy running


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