Saturday, 7 September 2019

UTMB 2019

This would be my third run at the utmb, after a dnf in 2016 and a 16th place in 2017. In my mind I wanted to improve on those two previous runs and ideally get a top ten position... But ultra running is a bit of a gambling process, with which runners can associate as much joy as they can deception and frustration... At the utmb, never count your chickens before the eggs have hatched!

Here's how this year's great-big-silly-walk went for me, split into six stages:

1. The start and the "warm up" run to Contamines
The start is just nuts. This year I found myself positioned on the start-line right behind two moustache-clad Americans. These guys have a bit of a reputation! I joked to Xavier that this was not ideal positioning, - they were not necessarily the most conservative runners to follow on the rolling trails down to Les Houches,... He reassured me that at least we'd very quickly have plenty of space in front of us. True.
2. A night in Italy
The weather was perfect this year. Which meant we could go right through the night wearing just a singlet. No faffing around with jackets and gloves! The night section takes you through some remote valleys of Italy, and it's a joy to experience. Legs are still good at this stage, and it's quite unique to run all night long, under the stars. At times it's not easy to differentiate between the headtorches further up the hillside and the stars above. Where is the limit between land and sky? I spotted a shooting star on the way up Col de la Seigne. I presumed that wasn't a flying runner, although it could have been Pau Capell?..
3. Dawn breaks and we wake to sore legs
When the sun rises it's spectacular. The first rays of light illuminate the southern flanks of Mont Blanc. However, it's also at this stage, approximately 100km in, that my quadriceps started to communicate that they'd already been going for 12-hours, - would it be much longer? The reply I gave them was "yes"!
4. The last 3-peaks marathon
When you arrive in Champex it feels like you've got the bulk of the course under your belt. It's here that you can entertain thoughts of finishing. That said, it's still a long way to go - about a "normal" trail race distance left, in fact. The difference being that you're starting these last 45km / 3000mD+ with a warm-up jog of approximately 125km / 7000mD+. Which makes for a rather long warm-up. So now a game of psychology commences.. Your legs tell you they hurt. You try to think of something else. Your legs tell you they hurt. You try to persuade yourself that it doesn't matter. Your legs tell you they hurt. And it goes on like this for around six hours. And this is the essence of ultra running!! :-)
5. The finish
Oh wow, what a nice feeling! All that agony is well worthwhile after all! 22+ hours of blood, sweat and tears for 5-minutes of high-fiving!! haha! No, seriously... The finish line in Chamonix can be an emotional one. And I can see why. Running (and walking) one hundred miles is one hell of a feat, and it sure feels good to complete that challenge. It's a scary and an ambitious thing to contemplate, running all day long (or for some people - two days long), so to get round is understandably highly satisfying! In any case, I was happy to make more of a success of it on this, my third attempt at the distance. Enjoy the moment (because tomorrow you'll be in pain again)!
high-fiving into Chamonix, in 5th position / photo: jan nyka
6. The aftermath
Ultra-running is a very faffy version of running. What's particularly appealing about running is its simplicity. Shoes, vests, shorts,... go! Ultra-running is a different kettle of fish. This year I improved my feeding strategy by integrating ham risottos, sweet-potato and roast chicken purées, rice puddings,... and these I conveniently housed in my soft flasks. Which was all very well and nice and practical... until it comes to washing up!!

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Gran Paradiso

The Royal Ultra Skymarathon Gran Paradiso goes by a rather long name. But that's not the only thing with makes this race stand apart!

Starting on a damn at 2000m of elevation, you go straight up the mountainside, immediately gaining another 1000m. Crampons are compulsory going over the col, which is cool on the up, but a bit messy on the rocks going down the other side!

The race course then proceeds to go up and down, along a bit, but mainly up and down, until you've cumulated 4000m of elevation on your watch. At which point you drop down to the lake-side finish in Ceresole Reale.

Sky running is about running at altitude. And that's one of its excellent defining attributes! But living at sea-level and racing straight up to 3000m can make your head feel at a little light :-)

I loved this race and I felt quite strong most of the day. Other than some patches of altitude light-headedness, it was only my dodgy right quad which was impinging my progress over the rocks, snow and grassy pastures of Gran Paradiso National Park.

It's been six years now that I've been running with this oddness in my right leg. Most of the time I try to ignore it and don't talk about it, but at Gran Paradiso it was very much present, and more annoying than usual!

My right Vastus Medialis (the inner bit of muscle near the knee) was weak and weird from the start, making foot placement tricky on an already challenging course. On the ups, it feels heavy and almost a bit numb to lift, and on the down I don't have the same confidence I used to have that the muscle will hold out, correctly absorbing my downwards motion. Every step on the left is fine, every step on the right is timid and apprehensive. The weakness in the Vastus Medialis then moves around the adjacent quadricep muscles before pulling hard on the hip flexor, where I often now get tendonitis.

But no complaining! Enjoy the scenery!
(sometimes easier said than done)

As the hours passed I pulled through from 12th in the early stages of the race to 5th by the finish. Steady progress, "assisted" perhaps by a slow start due to the odd quad. Some of the other runners bonked quite spectacularly on the last climbs! Not always a joy to observe, but nice to pull back a few places :-)

I did spend a lot of the day mulling over which sort of running I should now be best doing. I've always taken pleasure in mixing it up - it's one of the reasons I love running: you can do all kinds of circuits, from grassy fells to rocky mountaintops, through muddy trails, long, short, ultra-long, fast, slow, nordic walking !... The sport of off-road running is a mess as federations and brands fight for control (and often money), but it does mean there's a lot of variety out there to choose from!

Since the beginnings of this strange leg thing I've mixed up my ideas and annual race calendars between rolling trails, ultras, techy sky races,.. partly in search of the discipline which might be the less restrictive for my right quad. Ultras were the obvious choice as beyond 10+ hours of forwards motion everyone's bodies are so utterly destroyed that what's a funny right quad to all that! I figured that if you're sufficiently smashed up, a weak quadricep is eventually absorbed by other problems. This is half true. But in any case, sky running is more fun, right!

Enough complaining. It's still incredibly good fun to spend time in these places, running over these spectacular courses. Good leg or bad leg, nothing beats a morning running through paradise, and being joined by the kids for the last 100m.

(My son is not sponsored by Nike ;-)

Recovery is so easy in the mountains. Lakes are good.

Snow-melt rivers are even better!

Next stop, a nordic walk around Europe's highest mountain :-)

Monday, 29 October 2018


La course en 6 étapes :

1. Le départ
Le ciel est noir mais les frontales de 2500 coureurs,
la fumé rouge et la musique forte crée une certaine ambiance !

2. La nuit
Les 24 premiers kilomètres vont vite.
Les frontales zigzaguent le long d'une piste forestière.
On ne croise pas grand monde par là.

3. L'aube
Dans la montée après Peyreleau le ciel noir est percé par des éclats d'orange.
Les falaises, les blocs et les tours de rocher sont dessinés par de la nouvelle lumière,
non-seulement de la frontale, mais aussi du début du jour.
C'est un moment magique.
Quel bonheur d'évoluer sur les sentiers à ce moment là.
Les jambes sont encore bonnes et le paysage est merveilleux.

4. Le dernier tiers
Au bout d'un certain temps de course le corps s'épuise.
Idéalement ça arrive juste avant l'arrivée,
mais plus typiquement c'est quelque part dans la deuxième moitié du parcours.
Vers le soixantième kilomètre ma cuisse droite, qui se plaignait toute la matinée,
a fini par bloquer. Le muscle était dur, raide et il ne m'était plus possible d'avancer à la même allure.
Il n'y a plus que deux heures à parcourir,
mais on sait que ce sera les deux heures les plus dures.

5. La montée au pylône
Les trois dernières montées sont les plus raides.
C'est un moment de souffrance pour beaucoup.
Les coureurs ralentissent.
Je n'avais plus les jambes fraîches comme avant,
mais j'ai constaté que les autres n'étaient pas mieux !
On continue comme on peut, l'arrivée approche.

6. L'arrivée
La dernière descente n'est pas du goût de tout le monde.
Elle est raide, boueuse, jamais facile.
Je l'aime bien !
On sent presque l'aligot et les saucisses cuire dans la tente d'arrivée.
Cette arche en bois marque la fin d'une belle matinée de "trail".
Je termine 4ème, doublant plusieurs concurrents dans les 7 derniers kilomètres.
Le passage entre 60 et 70km avait été dur. J'étais un peu déçu et irrité d'avoir eu la cuisse coincée, plus que d'habitude, mais ce moment de déception est finalement compensé par une bonne fin de course, passant de 9ème à 4ème en peu de temps. Il faut jamais rien lâcher à la fin ! Mais c'est plus facile à dire qu'à faire parfois !

Monday, 8 October 2018

Trail de Saint Didier 2018

Le Trail de Saint Didier s'est inscrit dans mon calendrier comme le rendez-vous habituel qui marque le début d’automne ! Avec quatre participations maintenant, c'est la course à laquelle j'ai le plus participé en france (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018). Quatre participations, mais jamais le même parcours ! Et bien que la course se déroule à deux pas de la maison, tous les ans les organisateurs arrivent à nous sortir un bout de chemin que je  n'avais jamais vu auparavant ! Et cette année ils ont été encore plus loin, en créant de nouveaux passages (ou en ouvrant des vieux trucs quasi-fermés) sous les falaises sous Venasque par exemple, et en rajoutant en bonus quelques belles descentes très raides, sur la roche de la Croix de St Gens ou dans la boue de Camp Long. Bref, le parcours était un vrai régal !

La croix de St Gens

Mon idée été de me servir de ce trail comme une dernière sortie moyenne-longue et moyenne-rapide avant mon prochain objectif (les Templiers), et aussi de profiter d'une belle matinée avec ma famille et des amis traileurs locaux sur des sentiers trop beaux à une poignée de kilomètres de la maison.

Confirmation comme quoi il y avait de la boue !

Pierre-Hugo a la malchance de devoir se mesurer à Elliot en sprint !

L'un des passages les plus secs et roulants !

Courir dans la boue - ça donne le sourire !

Le parcours

Monday, 17 September 2018

Glencoe Skyline

credit photo : Skyrunner World Series

Seven and a half years it’s been now, since we left the lush-green Scottish central belt for the piercing-blue skies of Provence. And over those seven years I’ve only been back a handful of times and usually to see family, not to run over fells. So it really was great to round out my mini Skyrunning season with a weekend trip up to Glencoe. Shane and all the race organising team have managed to pull together a perfect Skyrunning event in the uk, with a level of technicality that’s spot-on. Hard, steep and rough, but not too silly either! The Glencoe Skyline has joined Tromsø and Kima as the unofficial triple combo of ultimate skyraces. These are the real ones - the ones that get you high, over summits, along ridges, off paths. And all three of which I’ve had the fortune to attend over the last six weeks. Not a bad schedule to “get back into it” after some months off following injury!

credit photo : Tom Owens

Unfortunately for the first time in the event’s history the weather conditions were not suitable for releasing two-hundred runners onto the Aonach Eagach - a sensible decision given the wetness and windiness up on the Munro summits - so the B course was enacted on the Saturday afternoon before the race. That said the B course is still a good one, it still incorporates some proper hills and some gnarly climbs. But it didn’t half feel like a sprint racing over three hours and forty-five minutes compared to the more habitual six or seven hours!
credit photo : Ian Corless

Fully aware that race would not be an “ultra jog”, but rather an intense confrontation between the Spaniards, Scandinavians, Americans, Brits,... attending, I went straight into a relatively high gear and tried to go with the flow at the front end of the field.

credit photo : Tom Owens

It went pretty well all in all, just one tame descent in the middle cost me a few minutes and resulted in me loosing touch with the top three, definitively. I was no doubt more at ease throwing myself down steep slippery slopes when I was based in Scotland and practising such antics on a more regular basis. But hey! - you can’t have it both ways - the sunshine overhead and slippery wetness underfoot! Back to France now and time to get in shape for something more undulating, relatively flat even, some might say...

credit photo : Skyrunner World Series

Full results here :

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Kima 2018

Back to Kima after a 6-year break. Too long!
This race really is one of the best! The course is just amazing.
The start has a big climb and the end a big descent. The in-between middle section involves traversing seven short but steep passes, nearly all of which are equipped with ropes or chains, and often you're better off holding onto them! Between theses passes you navigate your way through a 20km boulder field! The skill is not in being a speedy runner, but more in having the capacity to continue moving forward at a semi decent rate whilst constantly searching out the next red flag and choosing which of the rocks in front might be best to put your next foot on.

The start was a bit of a shambles and very unprofessional from the athletes' point of view: we were called to the start at 6am, at which point an announcement was made confirming the full race route and the scheduled start time of 630. Great. So we all checked in, got our gps equipment and warmed up. At 625 everyone was lined up and raring to go. At 655 we were still there. In our T-shirts, getting cold, with no announcement having been made. At 7am over the tannoy we were told that the race route would still be the original one, but that the start had been delayed until 8am. So having spent more than half an hour standing in the cold, back to bed everyone went!
It turned out that there had been some uncertainty about the maintaining of the full route, and delaying the start until 8am would hopefully allow most of the ice on the sketchy bits to melt. So that was all a good thing. It was just a shame it was so badly organised and the athletes were treated so poorly. This sport still isn't that professional it would seem...

Anyhow, the whistle was blown at 810am (!) and 200 runners finally left the village of Val Masino, starting with a climb of around 2000m. The first 7km are on tarmac and concrete, so that goes quite quickly, but that's only the warm up, right?! The fun starts shortly after.

My right quad has unfortunately been having a bit of a rough time of it recently, feeling more dead-legged and responding less well than it can do at better times. So I wasn't able to get into a good rhythm on the climb, nor on the rocky section that followed higher up, simply because I can't control my right leg like I can my left. This was a bit frustrating as I was feeling pretty fit, but nonetheless I tried to enjoy the scenery, cos you don't get to run or race in such cool places every day of the week!

My 7th place is satisfactory, and it was good to run a couple of minutes faster than I had done back in 2012, but it was a bit annoying to still feel like I had a fair bit of energy in the tank at the end of the 50km loop. Oh well, hopefully I'll be able to put that to use on some other mountain or footpath later in the year...

Race video :

Top 9 (full results here)

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Tromsø Skyrace

The chilled-out fjord and mountainscape around Tromsø

It's been a few years since I've done one, but in many respects it was like being back at a village fell race in the north of England! An all-round no nonsense, no faff, no frills, low-key event! Down by the waterfront at the Edge hotel you pick up a number, four safety pins and a box of tea, and that's it - you're ready to go! At the prize giving late on Saturday afternoon the top three men and women climb onto the wooden podium, and Kilian hands out beer mats with drawings of moose on them. And then off you go for a pizza and a few beers. The job's a good one! There's nothing complicated going on at the Tromsø Skyrace, - you're here to run over some quite spectacular mountains, and the focus is 100% on the enjoyment of that experience. You choose your own gear, you drink out of streams, and you look after yourself as you would on any other long day in the hills. Out on the course the terrain reminds me of some of the wilder spots in Scotland. Ruggedly beautiful. And made doubly atmospheric by the fact that you are only afforded a limited number of glimpses at the surroundings, at what lays ahead, what’s above or below. It was claggy! And as we ran through the low cloud you'd spot the odd grouse, a mouse, some rocks, some water and some more rocks.

Striding down the easy early grassy slopes

I ran with Jon Albon up to the top of the first summit, Tromsdalstinden. It was actually pretty easy running all the way up there (for real!), but the descent off its back side was less so! Closer to vertical than flat. Again, much more akin to fell running than the world of French trail running that I frequent these days. The approximate direction we were to take (straight) down the mountainside was outlined by a few small red and yellow flags. The exact line you take is each runner's call to make - there's certainly nothing resembling a path down there. Perfect - no annoying switchbacks!

The surprisingly steep first downhill

I was feeling pretty good running and chatting with Jon up to this first summit, but it turned out that I wasn't in the perfect descending mindset. There are days and times when I'm more willing to throw myself down a hillside than others. My eyes clouded up with water, blurring my vision, and my head wasn't properly focused on the task ahead, and as such Jon quickly left me behind and a couple of other runners also caught me as we ran, slid and skidded down the slippery south-eastern slope of Tromsdalstinden.

In comes the clagg, out comes the jacket

1200 vertical meters later and we were at the bottom of the other side of the first big hill, through an aid station and ready to run (walk) up the next one. Cody's dad, Paul, handed me a couple of gels, some energy drink and a snickers bar, and off we headed, up the other side of the valley. It's easy to measure the time gaps to the runners ahead when you're going up, using landmarks like large boulders, or.. large boulders, of which there was no shortage! And I was happy to see that despite my seemingly disastrous first descent, I wasn't actually too far off the pace. I was running in fourth position, about five minutes behind Jon and two minutes behind Pere and Dimitry. I thought I climbed pretty fast up to the ridge, but according to my "precise" boulder-stone timing, I didn't manage to gain any ground on the guys in front on that stretch. And by the time we got up onto the infamous ridge the clagg was down again, to the extent that you could only see a few hundred yards ahead. Shame really - the views we missed are quite sublime, - from what I've seen in photos from previous years! Instead we'd have to make the most of the cloud-shrouded ambiance! It's not every day that I run through these kinds of landscapes and I have to say that I really do enjoy it, which is of course the reason for partaking in this sport in the first place. If you're not enjoying your chosen activity, it's generally a good idea to go do something else. Right! And I'm also convinced that the more you enjoy running across rocks and ridges the faster you can do it. So, smiling is a key ingredient to speed, ok!

Smile, it makes you go faster

After last year's accident on this slim stretch of ridge, the organisers had installed a few sections of rope, including for the last scramble up to Hamperokken summit (1404m). Here I encountered the front runners on their way down, and again counted that Jon now had ten minutes on me and the other two were just a couple of minutes in front.

The Hamperokken ridge

Now, normally the next bit of the course is basically a big snow-slide down the gully to the ice-blue lake at the bottom, which would have been pretty cool and advantageous for me given the context (I still wasn't in a "downhill day"). Instead, where the snow normally lies we were confronted with the underlying hard stuff, of a much more jaggedy nature. It's a bit like being offered a nice big vanilla ice-cream with an overly generous Chantilly topping, only to be told, "sorry, it's all melted", and the porcelain plate it was to be served on was all shattered and broken into spikey bits; "you can lick that if you like?" So, lick the boulder field we did! It wasn't fast going, and it probably wasn't too pretty to watch. There's a species of penguins I've seen in South America called rockhopper penguins - they'd have made a much better job of this bit of the race than I was doing! So anyhow, I did another below-par downhill, and again got caught by some more runners. By the time we were back down at the valley floor and returning through the same aid station I was back in sixth position and wondering whether that wasn't going to be where I'd stay, unless I could get my act together! But I'd been feeling good on the climbs all morning, so I was still confident of having something left in the tank and hoping to dish that out on the last 1200m uphill assault. I'm sure my in-form climbing was down to the monstrously hilly workouts put in recently at Monte Rosa and subsequently Pierra Menta, - that and the fact that unlike most of the other runners out there I didn't have poles in my hands to slow me down!! No poles, no problem!

Like a fell race!

I was in sixth at the bottom of what is best described as "a beast of a climb". My American teammate Cody was just ahead and running really well, looking good. Just ahead of him was the Spaniard Eric Moya. He had poles and was looking less good. A little further up the hill was Dimitry (the powerful Russian runner). Ahead of him the front two runners were totally out of sight, so presumably had a comfortable enough lead? All in all I thought that if I could nail this climb, I could potentially crawl (literally) my way back up into third spot. So the goal was set: "nail this climb", right! Dimitry had a three-minute lead on me at the bottom and I thought I was going pretty quickly up there, but I didn't catch him until 50 metres after the summit! He was obviously not giving in easily and was apparently as determined to step on the podium as I'd now persuaded myself to be. On the way up, I was telling myself that when I caught him there would be no more fluffy down-hilling skills! I made up my mind that I was not going to be hanging around on this last descent. And hence the 15km battle for third position commenced! And it was full-on until we were back in Tromsø harbour and under that finish arch! On the lower, grassy slopes of Tromsdalstinden I finally got ahead of Dimitry and felt I was building up a bit of a lead, but then there were a few kilometres of gentle incline, gaining a total of about 300m. This is the kind of slope that runners absolutely despise at the end of a long race. The sort of slope where you know you should be running, but you're wasted, your legs are screaming, and you just want to walk it in, please! I couldn't allow myself that option though, - whenever I dared glance behind me, the muscly man and his orange vest was ever present, just a couple of hundred meters behind! To cut it short, I grit my teeth and legged it as hard as I felt I could for those remaining miles, including a short and steep 400m downhill and then two miles of road over the sea bridge and back past the boats and the cruise ship to the more-than-welcome finish-line.

Happy to be back in town

I'm chuffed with the result, - the looong trip to the Arctic Circle had been worth it! This race represents my first return to international competition after my operation in February and a lengthy period off running before and after that. I've been training for about seven weeks now, and niggle free for much less than that. So hopefully with a bit more running in my legs and some regained descending confidence the rest of the season can go from here. It’s great to be back running Sky races too, after a venture into the world of ultra over the last couple of years. I have to say that races like this really do sum up why I run - to spend time exploring wild and wonderful scenery, on foot, at speed.

Tromsø harbour

Thanks to Kilian and Emilie for pulling this race together. There aren't many as good as this. Good job! ;-)

Next stop Kima!

Finish-line podium photo

Top 10 - all results here

Kilian handing out the winners' beer mats
- just need a beer to put on it now!

The race video

PHOTO CREDITS : yourepics / skyrunner world series