This was an odd one really. I’d marked it on the calender as a maybe race, but it was definitely not a definitely race. It was the week of my 37th Birthday, I didn’t get many presents and as predicted the new GPS watch didn’t turn up – I had to make do with some beer and a second hand book. So I felt like giving myself a treat. “I know” said my internal monologue, “We’ll do another ultra”
“Okay,” I replied, “let’s do it.”
(I realise that it may seem a touch weird actually having a conversation with one’s internal monologue, I’m happy with that, I don’t need help – its all good).
So in order to give myself a really great birthday treat I decided to enter the 50 km version of the Trail des Crêtes. Last year I had a crack at the 24 km race which is held on the same day and follows some of the same course and for the real speed demons there’s also the option of a 12 km.
It was the fourth edition of the race and for the 50 km there were only about 70 starters preparing for the leg aching 3754 metres of vertical climb that lay in wait. (For those that favour old fashioned measuring systems that’s 18.6 furlongs of climb).. I scanned the crowd, something very important was missing, it took me a moment to become fully cognisant – then it suddenly dawned on me… Where were all the girls? There was absolutely no women. This is the only race I’ve ever done without any women! At least I wasn’t going to get chicked today!
“Great,” said the internal monologue, “You stand a real good chance of doing well here”.
“Hmm,” I replied…
Two weeks prior to the race I had caught a bit of a cold, and in an attempt to recover from this I opted to ease off the training for much of the week before the race. I don’t usually bother with tapers so I did wonder if this was a good idea, but my body was definitely in need of a rest that week. In the end my “negative running streak” lasted 5 days, that’s the my longest break from running for two years or so. After my neg-streak I managed a quick run the morning before and decided then that the race was on, but I was wondering really if I had enough training in the bank since my last phatty a few months ago – The Trail des Citadels
Once we were all gathered at the start line the Race Director gave us a last minute briefing. He was worried for our safety due to the combination of low visibility, patches of icy snow and the general cragginess of the course. We had a couple of options available – we could double back on ourselves, effectively turning it to a 30km or have a go at the full course if the weather changed – to his credit he left it for the front runners to make the decision. I was personally hoping for the race to go ahead as planned… It was certainly looking very cloudy from with the tops of the mountains completely bathed in grey…
There was just a few minutes left so I did a quick double check of my gear. I decided to run as minimal as possible, which meant no stupid rucksack. We were obliged to carry 1.5 ltrs of water, a windproof top, whistle, space blanket, phone and emergency food. I packed everything into my trusty Pete Bland waist pack (bum-bag or fanny-pack depending on you inclination) and opted to try out running with two hand held bottles. I recently purchased two Nathan Quickdraws and up until this race hadn’t really gone more than 4 hours in one push carrying bottles. So a test it was to be.
The great thing about the Nathans is that they have a neat little zipped compartment on the strap in which I stowed my phone in one and a fistful of gels in the other. I attached two carabiners to either side of the straps on my pack so I could hang the bottles if I needed my hands free for any higher sections of scrambling.
The race was underway by 7am and we headed out of St Paul de Jarrat on our way in to the mist, up a winding forest track and to the first minor summit -Pic de la Lauzate. This marked the 10km point at about 1800 metres altitude. At this point I was already about 10 minutes quicker than last year when I ran the 24 km route. Perhaps I was running too fast? I was certainly running a lot of the climb, so I made the decision to slow down a little bit for the section up to Mont Fourcat. The summit of Fourcat was roughly another 1.5 km and 200 metres of climb. It’s a beautiful mountain – viewed from the bottom in Foix it dominates the sky and is almost volcano like in appearance. It’s also the the first 2000 metre peak when coming to the Pyrenees from Toulouse so usually attracts plenty of day trippers.
The fog was still plenty thick as I started the push towards the top – I was still hoping for a cloud inversion though and as we came closer to the summit of Fourcat I was not disappointed. It was so good I took a few shots with my mobile…
As you can imagine with views like this after nearly two hours of running I had to stop a while and take it in.
The next stage was a rock strewn descent off the south face of Fourcat, following the race markers but no defined trail, at this point we had our first snow crossing, which was pretty safe and reasonably easy, then the course found a track as it wound its way back down in to the forest and the mist. I found this section of descent and flat ground running pretty easy so decided to open up a bit of a gap between me and a couple of runners behind. After about 4kms and 500 metres descent we arrived at the ski resort of Les Monts d’Olmes. As ski areas go It’s quite petite – only a few lifts but being a ski resort meant road access and at 16km in to the race we had our first decent aid station. I drank some Coke and ate the usual cheese and saucisson before embarking on the climb out of the resort. This section was tough, the climb seemed to last forever and at times there were a lot of snow crossings and decisions to be made as to where the next course marker was. I was over three hours in by this point and it was nice to get a call from Delphine wishing me well and telling me that I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Buoyed up by the call from my girl and the distinct possibility that the sun was breaking through the clouds I continued onwards, it was time for another gel and unfortunately faced with a meager choice in Decathlon I bought some really quite disgusting Powerbar gels. They worked okay from an energy point of view but I found them hard work to get down, they actually felt like they were burning my throat away. Not good.
The course gradually wound its way up to the ridge of Pic de St Barthelemy the highest point of the race at 2348 metres (That’s about 7044 Barleycorns). The path up to the summit was pretty tough work with some nasty sections of snow. There were two sections in particular that I felt really should have had some protection on them – the fall would have been unpleasant to say the least. Erring on the side of caution I fashioned a spike out of the roots of some heather and used it as a pick on the steepest bit of snow.
Topping out on Barthelemy at about the half way point the enormity of this race dawned on me as I looked across the ridge line back to mount Fourcat, it seemed a very long way away.
On the descent I decided to snap a few more pictures as the views were just amazing.
After descending from Pic de St Barthelemy our next peak was presented to us…
Around the 26 km point I realised that I had gone out a touch too fast at the start – my legs were pretty spent, I wasn’t capable of my normal nimble mountain goat descending so I switched to my reserve technique, which I call “The Zombie Stumble.” The name pretty well describes the technique, if you’ve ever seen a zombie flick you’ll know what I’m talking about, I just let myself flop down the hill in a kind of jittering, stumbling, tired and slightly ill looking way. It gets me to the bottom.
So from about that point onwards it was survival mode, and as much as I was enjoying the beautiful vistas it was hard to ignore the proximity to my “pain cave.” It was clear at this point that the course planner had a sadistic streak as we dropped even further down towards the Etang d’Appy – a beautiful mountain lake situated at 1734 metres – only to have to climb back up the other side and rejoin the ridge we just came off. A trip that took me the best part of an hour. Coming back up after the lake I managed to find a bit of pep in my legs and increased my speed a tiny bit on the flat sections. I overtook one runner at this point as I neared the Col de Cadene and the next aid station.
Relieved to have made it to the 30 km point and with only one big peak to go and a platter of nibbles to eat I very quickly began to feel better about the whole undertaking. I wolfed down some cheese and saussion again, and drank some more coke then with renewed spirits pushed the climb to the top of Pic du Han. This is quite a pointy mountain and there was a little scrambling in places. The setup of clipping my handhelds to the carabiners worked well and gave me the added feeling that I was some kind of rock climbing running guru as I made my way to the summit. On topping out I was met by a brave marshal that guided me over the next tricky section of descent. Then there was one last patch of snow to cross and we were back on to a decent path. The ridge undulated a little but I managed to run in places there was one very minor peak left and I was back at Fourcat!
This time all I had to do was contour around Forucat and head directly to Pic de Lauzate (you may remember that from the start) and from there it was downhill on tracks and forest paths. There was one last sting in the tail though, which I remembered from running the 24km race last year. At around the 42 km mark there’s one last climb of 120 metres! The buggers! At this point the heat was getting to me, but I had the race in the bag and mentally I was on top of it. I knuckled down to the climb and then ran as fast as I could on the final descent back to the village. My goal of a sub 9 hour finish just escaped me as I crossed the line in 9hrs15 and was met by the Race Director persoanlly who was dishing out cups of Coke to all the finishers.
In the end I placed 32nd out of 63 finishers and I looked like this…
I was pleased with the Nathan handhelds and only had a little bit of a shoulder ache after the race, normally when I wear a rucksack for this length of time it feels a lot worse – I’m considering getting a race vest soon, but as I don’t already have a mortgage it’d be hard to take out the second mortgage required to buy one of those vests.
Fueling was less thought out than usual – I had my race day staple breakfast of rice pudding banana and cream. I took 7 gels in total – 3 of which were those god awful Powerbar gels – to put it in to context I’d rather be made to watch Die Hard 5 on rotation for 9 hours than eat another Powerbar gel. However I bought 4 Isostar gels which I’d had before so it wasn’t a complete disaster. I supplemented my personal stash with cheese, sausisson and the French favourite – pâte des fruits (think fruit pastels). And of course they had Coke so I drank Coke!
I love Coke.