July 2012

Back to the Alps

Getting dragged around the Alps on a bit of elastic was one of the low-lights of last year. With ‘the other half’ working in Grenoble for most of July, it was a good excuse to head over again and DIY it.

As a non-French speaking, slow-moving, vegetarian I decided to stay in hotels in the valleys (no rushing to make it to refuges for a dinner I couldn’t eat most of). This meant a couple of long days, but also more comfortable accommodation, with no snoring!

The 1st challenge was working out which of the 3 St. Gervais I wanted a train ticket to. And the 2nd was working out how to get to ‘St. Gervais’ from ‘St. Gervais Les Bains Le Fayet’ train station which is actually in Le Fayet (and 300m lower in altitude). Day 0 was a gentle stroll up the valley to Les Contamines. With my Run24 niggles still niggling, walking to loosen my legs up seemed like a good plan. Since this stretch is mostly not on the main TMB route, route-finding was a bit tricky in places. I’d done this section twice before, but hadn’t paid too much attention to where I was going (at UTMB itself the route was marked, and on the training camp last year I was desperately trying to keep up with the person in front). It was generally uneventful though, apart from some evil insects biting me through my shorts. As I settled down for the night the forecast storm arrived, but at least it was due to clear over night.

When my alarm went off at 6, it was surprisingly dark and there was a loud roaring noise. Sticking my head through the curtains it was still bucketing it down. Not the sort of weather you want for crossing multiple 2500m passes. I checked the weather forecast again. It was now forecast to clear by mid-morning, so I donned my waterproofs and headed off.

By La Balme (where the first hikers were beginning to stir) I was soaked. It was easing off though and by the top of the Bonhomme, after a bit of snow and hail, it had stopped. The climb itself had seemed a lot easier than before, but at least part of that was hitting it fresh rather than with 25+ miles already in my legs. The descent to Les Contamines was every bit as unpleasant as I remembered though... After a brief stop to buy a baguette for lunch, remove layers and add suncream it was off over Col de la Seigne. This descent was better, but on one of the snowfields still lingering on the route I decided a controlled butt-slide was better than risking falling.

The views from Arete Mont Favre were stunning and I saw loads of marmots, including a couple of babies. Down to Col Checruit it became clear that my rucksack was far too heavy for running. Largely due to the miscellaneous electronic crap I was carrying: a GPS (why? the route is largely marked), a spare phone (why? I was also carrying two chargers) and an international plug adapter (why? ‘because normal plug adaptors don’t fit the sockets at the theory division at CERN’, ‘but you’re not visiting CERN. you’re attempting to run around Mont Blanc!’). And my knees were objecting. Going down the steep decent to Courmayer was agony, and the blister on one of my toes burst as I hit the outskirts of town. And to add insult to injury the tail end of an ultra was passing through Courmayer and I kept having to explain (in sign language) to marshals and supporters that I wasn’t taking part.

Next morning I felt a lot fresher and the climbs to refuge
Bertone and Grand Col Ferret were no problem (apart from the frustration of getting stuck behind a pack of walkers moving excruciating slowly at one point). Initially I’d been worried about making it to Champex before the hotel check-in closed at 8. But it quickly became clear that the cut-offs after Courmayer are significantly more generous, and even with very little running I was going to make it in time. Having failed to find an open supermarket in Courmayeur I was surviving off of a packet of biscuits from Day 0. At the supermarket in La Fouly it was therefore time for a mega-picnic.

Along the flat-ish section to Issert I realised the tongue of my left shoe had moved and was irritating my ankle. So I stopped and adjusted it. 5 minutes later it was back in the same place. And this routine repeated itself for the next hour or so. I was tempted to throw my shoes in the river. But going barefoot didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Eventually I managed to ignore it and made it to Champex. After a brief rest I decided to go out for dinner. And discovered that my ankle had swollen up and walking was painful. Was this game over?

By the next morning the swelling had gone down a bit, and I’d worked out how to lace my shoe to keep the tongue away from my ankle. So I decided to head to the base of Bovine and see how it felt. After a couple of mile (and having watched the bus to Osieres station go past, and wondered whether I should be on it) it eased off. My memory of Bovine was a nightmare of clambering over rocks (and for the past 2 years I’ve had at the back of my mind ‘how am I going to get up that with 75 miles in my legs’). But it was far, far easier than I remembered. Literally as if someone had removed the rocks.  The descent into Trient was almost pleasant, and the climb to Catogne was fine too. But the decent into Vallorcine was never ending, with the trail indicators seemingly lying about how far it was.

Another mega-picnic and it was off to Le Tetes aux Vents. Here the only problem was the constant stream of day hikers come the other way... The traverse to La Flegere seemed never-ending, with a series of hidden dips. And the fun really began with the descent into Chamonix which went on and on and on (and took me longer than the cut-off for this section).

After that I was seriously considering getting the train back to St. Gervais. But next morning (after a lie-in and getting my 14 euros worth at the hotel buffet breakfast) I felt perkier and decided to complete the circuit on foot, arriving back into St. Gervais a little under 96 hours after I left. Not bad for a route which takes the average hiker 7-10 days. But at the end of August I’ve got to do it less than half that time...

On the plus side, I’ve well and truly lost my fear of climbing. A couple of times I was even disappointed to reach the top sooner than I expected! The hill repeats, stair-climbing and weekends in North Wales have done their job. But the descents were a nightmare. Fingers crossed a lighter rucksack, and hopefully no lingering niggles, will help there...


Canal dreaming

With post Run24 niggles stopping me running, my attention has wandered to future goals. A sub-24 100 is the obvious one. And ‘oh look, entries for the 2013 Thames Path 100 have opened and are filling quickly’. So I entered. Being in decent shape in late March is going to be a challenge (the weather and work over winter usually tire me out). But since hill repeats have got me into decent flat shape this year, hopefully I can do it on not too OTT training hours.

And with the slowly growing realisation that while I love running in the mountains I’m better (or less bad at least) at plodding on the flat, a bigger plan is fermenting. The
Grand Union Canal Race had never really appealed to me. 145 mile, in a more or less flat straight line, from Birmingham to London: why?? I always thought I’d do it one day, just to tick the box. But I’m now thinking `how about next year’...

Run 24: another 100 PB!

If wanting to take 13 minutes off my best Haworth Hobble time was delusional, then I’m not sure what aiming to take 10+ hours off my 100 mile PB was...

I held off entering
Run24 until I’d recovered from the Games 100, and then the goal wasn’t so much a sub-24 100 as to see how close I could get to the 100 in 24 hours. Prizes were on offer for the first three women. On google-stalking the rest of the 10 female entrants I discovered that while I was the 2nd slowest over short (i.e. marathon...) distances, only a few of the rest had much ultra-running experience. Hmm. Maybe if I run well I might be able to sneak onto the podium??

As a reformed triathlete, this was also an opportunity to buy some new gear. A tent with a porch big enough for a table, chair and kit boxes. And a SLab 5 litre for carrying snacks  and water so I could minimise stops.

After a busy week at work (including a trip to Grenoble for a PhD viva) I was tired and didn’t really feel up for it. And the first time around the 5 mile loop it turned out to be a little bit more rough and undulating than I expected. So the 100 mile dream goal went onto the back burner. I over-took a couple of women on the first lap but the front end of the womens field were running two minutes a mile faster than me (faster than I can go flat-out on pancake flat tarmac!). I was amazed on finishing my fifth loop to hear that I was in 3rd place. 3rd place after 90+ miles I could believe, but after 25!?

A couple of laps later I realised my left Achilles was sore. “Strange. It’s been years since I had a problem with it.” Then the penny dropped. Timing chip, attached too tight (because
I was paranoid it’d fall off). At the end of the next lap I stopped and swopped it to my right ankle and also topped up my snack supplies. Some of the other solo entrants had parked their cars, or put tables, backing onto the route. But I don’t think I lost much time nipping off course to my tent every 2-5 laps.

The uneven trails meant running in the dark was going to be slow, so I kept pushing while the light lasted. I stopped for  7 minutes at dusk to put on my head-torch and warmer clothes and also ate some potatoes, yoghurt and tinned grapefruit (some of my favourite check-point snacks on the Games 100). I went through 50 miles in 10.22, a 7 minute PB. Possibly not how you’re supposed to pace a 24 hour race.

I kept going ~10-15 minutes a lap slower through the night, with a couple more 5-7 minute stops for yoghurt and grapefruit. Eventually they started tasting a bit weird. Hmm. Maybe eating yoghurt (in particular one I’d opened 3 hours previously) which hadn’t been in a fridge for 36+ hours wasn’t such a good idea...

The first lap after dawn felt pretty good. But then at the 80 mile mark, with my right knee joining my left Achilles in protesting, running the flats was a struggle and I started walking most of them. The sub-24 hour dream goal was slipping from unlikely to impossible. But if I got to 95 in the 24 hours I could go out on a 20th loop and take another big lump out of my 100 PB. So that became my focus.

Overnight the PA had been turned off (to allow relay teams and supporters to sleep), so I had no idea where I was in the field. As I was approaching the start-finish line at the end of my 17th lap the PA started up with an announcement of the leading runners  The first woman had finished her 17th lap about an hour before, but was there anyone between me and her? I held my breath. “And here comes 2nd placed woman, Anne Green...”.

And this is where things started to get very surreal, with overtaking relay runners and spectators telling me I was amazing. Umm, no. All I’m doing is walking and occasionally running very slowly.  And after 90 miles, with my stomach complaining about the gone-off yogurt, I switched to just walking. A 4 hour PB was in the bag as long as I could keep going. And while it was far, far slower and harder than the last 10 miles of the Games 100, I was moving far better than the ‘death-plods’ at the end of my previous two 100s.

I finished my 20th lap in 24.33. By the time I got my 2nd place trophy (my first ever trophy!) an hour later my legs had  seized up so badly I could hardly walk.

As UTMB training, running two 100s in a month is slightly unorthodox (bordering on insane), and I’ve got to hope the niggles heal quickly so I can get back to the hill-repeats ASAP. But it was fun. And at the beginning of the year I’d have settled for 2nd place in a 24 hour race, 3rd place in a 100 and knocking nearly 10 hours off my 100 PB.