Sunday, 24 July 2016

Sky Running World Champs / Buff Epic

Last long training run before the UTMB. Well that was the idea - but the thing about 105km races in the heart of the Pyrennees that go more up 'nd down than they go flat is, well, they kind of rip you to pieces no matter how "easy" you try to approach them!
Here is a completely non-exaggerated race profile! :
So, yes, the idea was to use this race as a long day in the hills, - a real leg strengthener on a beautiful course - and also to use it to practise ultra-eating and ultra-poling. So I ate as much as I could during the 13 hours, and I did something I've never done before - yes I raced with er, poles - SORRY !!! I know, I understand if you're now instantly unsubscribing from my blog. Truefully I couldn't personally bear to use them on the first climb, for fear of blinding the poor bloke behind, in the long snake of runners going up and out of Barruera. But I'm not going to deny that they were pretty useful later on. At the end of the day, if you're out for 13+ hours on very steep terrain then you are going to be race-walking a fair bit, and this is where poles are handy. This and to prevent people overtaking you on the latter stages of the race: - good luck if you want to overtake me now!! :
So my "steady away" tactic went generally really well. Luis Alberto broke away off the front around 40km in. I let him go, rather than trying (and most certainly failing) to chase - that guy is strong! Then I got into a nice, steady pole-kind-of rhythm. And there was no sign of anyone behind, perfect. That is until the last summit. As I crested the final peak I glanced back to see the blue vest of Javier Dominguez, a Spanish runner who's known for his fast finishes. Oh no!! Back into race mode! So there was no choice but to bomb down those last 15km to the finish line! That I did. And I think it's the reason why my legs are so sore today!!
But anyhow I held off any last-minute charges from behind. And I didn't even have to use any pole-spinning barrier techniques to do so :-)
Chuffed to get round this course in one piece. It's a monster! What a difference from the undulating, wide trails of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail four weeks ago! But after all, this is Sky Running, and the "Sky" bit means real mountains and the rough and narrow paths that navigate them. Well, that's one difference!..
Here's the results. Now it's time for some holidays in the Pyrennees :-)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Lavaredo Ultra Trail

Well it was a mission getting to the start, but it was well worth it!!
My original plan was pretty simple and on paper it looked pretty efficient and non-stressful. Drive 45 minutes to Marseille, jump on a plane to Venice, pick up a hire-car to finish off with a 2-hour drive up into the Dolomites. I'd be there in no-time! Well that's what I thought...
French air traffic controllers however had different ideas! Somewhat annoyed by the unthinkable idea of relaxing working regulations - you mean you want to change something, you want to evolve the law?!! - they did what all good French workers do - SHUTDOWN! 
So, as I packed my little suitcase on Wednesday evening I got an email and a text message from the airline saying that "regrettably my flight had been cancelled". Great! So I had a dilemma: find another way of getting there, and most probably risk more strike disaster, or ditch the entire plan and stay at home and chill. After chatting it through with a few friends and Carole (my wife), I took the plunge and purchased a second flight, a less direct one and a much more expensive one, but one that would only add a couple of hours to the original travel plan. So late on Thursday morning I set off from home to Marseille Airport. Plan B involved a short flight connection in Lyon, and this is where plan B turned into plan C. A 30-minute transfer, a last-minute gate change and some confusing sign-posting meant that I missed the Lyon-Venice flight. My bag made it on board, but I didn't. So now I got quite annoyed! At the Air France ticket desk I was offered two options - 1. go home, or 2. take a late-evening flight to Bologna - "it's only a couple of hours south of Venice!" To be honest I was ready to call it a day. Pretty wiped out to start with (sleep deprived from organising RunLagnes last weekend) and not really feeling in particular race form, I was really quite keen on the idea of going home, chilling with the kids and getting some sleep! However Carole thought I should go for the Bologna option! And so Plan C kicked in, and half a day later I found myself in a very random hotel half an hour up the road from Bologna. As you do.
And there I slept. For 10 hours. I just hoped that that was going to be enough to make up for some of the recent deprivation! A breakfast and a few hours in the car and by early afternoon on the Friday I finally made it to the beautiful town of Cortina in the heart of the Dolomites. It was a nice sight to finally see that start line! I picked up my race number, filled my bag with a dozen gels and some drinks flasks with a little energy powder, and then tried to get some more z's. Ten hours last night was apparently enough however, because there was no way my brain was switching down! Oh, the joys of 11pm starts! You lie there trying as best as you can to nod off, but it's just not natural and at best you might get a few minutes of sleep. Going through your mind at this point are thoughts such as, "what a silly thing to do", "why the heck did I sign up for this", "I think I'll stick to shorter races in future", etc...
But once you get going it's ok, right?! Off we went at 11pm. For the first 10km my concerns of general fatigue and non-freshness were confirmed, I had heavy legs and I was convinced I was going to struggle to get to the end of this mighty 120km. But the thing about ultra-running is that it's so damn long that these feelings can change, all experienced ultra-runners know this! Good patches and bad patches. So plod on and see what happens. Up and over the first climb the front end of the race was together in a big group of about 30 runners. On the way down I looked behind to see an impressively long snake of headlamps weaving down the switchbacks through the forest.
And at about twenty to thirty kilometres in I started to feel a bit better. We hit some downhills and then some mud and I quickly found myself off the front of the field. "I like downhills and I like mud", I thought to myself. (You see I live in France, but I keep some of the British fell-running DNA :-)
Coming out of the muddy section I couldn't see anyone behind me, - I think I must have built up a couple of minutes lead. Well that wasn't the plan! The idea had been to go with the flow for at least half to three-quarters of the race, and then reassess and attack if feeling good. At three hours in I was already off the front. Oh well, travel plans can change, so can race plans!
Keeping it relaxed I got into a really good groove. With a bit of Pink Floyd and some other classics in the headphones I was really enjoying the course. The terrain was really runnable, mainly big wide paths, but the views were incredible. The Moon was big and it lit up some of the gigantic mountain cliffs that the Dolomites are famous for. Now this is worth not going to bed for! Remember this next time you're lying in bed in the afternoon wondering what the hell you've let yourself in for!
Several hours later I was still feeling good and my lead had obviously expanded as there was absolutely no sign of anyone behind. But I had no updates on the course, so I could only guess and hope that the gap was big! I had been thinking on the go that if I could get to about the 80km mark with legs not too damaged then the last 40km should be doable, even if a bit of "grin and bear it" was required. On the map the last section looked like the most spectacular in terms of scenery, so I judged that this would help pull me through and distract from any leg pain. And funnily enough it was with about 30-40km that my legs started to tire. Well I'm at least three-quarters of the way through - nearly there! This kind of logic works in shorter races, but does it transfer to ultras, when a quarter of the race is still as long as any "normal" race distance? The race I organised last weekend was shorter than what's now left, and many told me it was too long!
With twenty or so kilometres to go I was told I had about a 15-minute lead, which was nice to know! So I steadied off a little and focused on just getting to the finish, with no major bonks, cramps or falls! The last downhill felt quite long, with my legs starting to tire - but what do you expect?! But it was all so worthwhile - changing travel plans, missing a night's sleep, etc. - to roll down Cortina highstreet and break that finish-line tape first!
Here's the top ten. An international field! But is that first guy European?! He certainly thinks so!
Now, let's hope the travel home goes smoothly :-)

Monday, 6 June 2016

Trail des Maures 2016

Petit saut dans le Sud-Est pour un weekend dans le Var ! Avec à l'agenda : châteaux de sable et baignade à la mer, une piscine à Collobrières attirante mais toujours un poil fraîche, de la glace au marron, un trail, du soleil et quelques bières - au marron aussi. Quoi de mieux pour se dépayser en 48 h ?!
J'avais participé au Trail des Maures en 2015 et j'en avais gardé de bons souvenirs. Après un départ du village mené par une cavalière, on plonge des le cœur de la Forêt des Maures et ses collines non-hautes mais raides et surtout sauvages. Il n'y a pas grand monde qui passe par là ... !
Pour la première longue montée on a couru ensemble avec un habitué du soleil et une star locale, Julien Navarro.
Mon idée était de maintenir un bon rythme mais sans forcer sur les pattes. Je ne voulais pas me mettre dans le rouge (et c'est justement facile de bien exploser sur ce genre de parcours !). Je gardais donc en tête mon prochain objectif important, le Lavaredo fin Juin, et pendant la course je me demandais si ce serait possible de courir à la même vitesse sur 115 km.. (la réponse est non, je pense !)
Aujourd'hui les jambes répondaient bien et c'était facile d'avancer de façon décontractée. J'ai pu profiter de la nature sauvage du parcours, même si cette année je n'ai pas pu croiser d'ami sanglier sur mon chemin (comme l'an dernier).
Atmosphère relativement fraîche au départ, au bout de trois heures de course le soleil commence à se manifester ! - donc voilà ma joie de croiser ma femme et nos enfants avec des gourdes de rechange ! :
(pour info, sur 4h15 j'ai bu 1l de TorQ et 0,5l d'eau)
Et une heure et demie plus tard, encore mieux que de l'eau - une bière à la châtaigne ! Les organisateurs ont tout bien compris ! J'ai du attendre 0,2s avant que cette boisson si rafraîchissante soit confiée à ma main droite :-)
Et voilà pour la photo du podium :
Et les résultats : Finalement je me surprends un peu à réduire mon chrono établi l'an dernier d'une dizaine de minutes.
Ma prochaine course est donc le Lavaredo. Un 115km dans les Dolomites fin juin.
Certes ils sont forts en glace les italiens, mais connaissent-ils celle au marron ?!

(crédit photos : F Mourgues)

Sunday, 22 May 2016

TGL 2016

Après avoir récemment participé à quelques grandes courses à l'étranger, rien de mieux que de "couper" avec une bonne course à la Provençale - le Trail du Grand Luberon. Départ à Cabrières d'aigues, à quelques petits kilomètres de l'autre coté du Luberon de chez moi.
En ayant fait quelques unes maintenant, je suis assez convaincu que toutes les courses du Challenge de Trails de Provence sont excellentes ! : en termes de parcours, d’ambiance et souvent pour le climat aussi !
Et par chance quasiment tous ces jolis villages de départ ont leur propre fontaine d'eau - rien de mieux pour rafraîchir les pattes après quelques heures de hot trail !
J'étais bien sûr très content d'être monté en haut du podium de cette belle course, et d'avoir pu en profiter pour faire un petit coup de publicité pour RunLagnes ;-)
Ma prochaine compét sera surement elle aussi un trail à la Provençale, avant de rebasculer sur du long lors de la Lavaredo fin juin...

bonne fin de weekend !

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Transvulcania 2016

For fun I do this kind of thing..
"Indeed we might have our own, very different definitions of pleasure", said the trail runner to the overweight tourist in a secluded hotel in the Canary Islands.

On a lighthouse, a sandy climb, some high-up volcanic cruising, one hell of a drop and the capital of home-straight high-fiving, Los Llanos.

At the pointy southern end of the island of La Palma there lies a handful of small and extinct volcanoes as well as acres and acres of banana plantations. Nestled amongst the lava and bananas is a rather posh hotel. And on the Friday night before the Transvulcania ultra marathon this hotel divides its guest book between the regular pot-bellied German contingent and the annual influx of more boney, but equally ravenous mortals. The (mainly) German tourists choose this destination as it responds to their definition of a state of happiness and pleasure. This is fun: Isolated from the rest of the world in air-conditioned walls with comfortable mattresses, deck chairs, palm trees and swimming pools, sunshine and an infinite spread of food. Is this heaven?

What shall I do with my day?
A few kilometres down the road from the hotel there's a lighthouse, El Faro. Here another breed seek their own, somewhat different, version of normal pleasures. At the lighthouse the scene is usually remote, desolate, windswept. But at 6am on Saturday, to the sound of extremely loud pumping music, El Faro hosts one and half thousand trail runners. An energetic spaniard with a cowboy hat, who goes by the name of Depa, jumps around a lot and then counts down from ten, at which point one and a half thousand gps watches are simultaneously activated and three thousand colourful trail shoes commence their pitter-pattering voyage north, away from the lighthouse and the sea and up a long sandy slope. And when we say long we're talking in hours. The first easily accessible aid station being at 24km, two and a half hours (for the front runners) of volcanic sandy and gravelly footpath later.

One very big light and many tiny ones
A few hours into the race, the sun has now risen and you're left to navigate along the top of a crater ridge you now find yourself atop of. It's dry and moon-like.

Blankets of clouds below on either side mask out everything but yourself, the runners around you and the jagged mountain top. It's surreal. Quite a contrast to much of the world we left behind below. But it's the version of normal pleasure that I seek and share with many of the equally minded participants. It's really quite magical up there. And with light legs and a trained body, skimming across this landscape is better defined as an experience of relaxation and pure joy than one associated with pain or any stress of competition. When all these elements click for me it results in the best races, in terms of the enjoyment factor and hence why I do this sport and participate in these kind of races, as well often also culminating in the best competitive result. Yesterday I once again totally revelled in the ridge run along the top of La Palma, but the legs weren't quite at the level to really let loose completely. At times I forced myself to run though climbs where I might have otherwise more naturally slowed to a walk. I'd pulled though from top twenty early on to forth by the beginning of the ridge. There was also the prospect of catching a non-descender over the latter section of the race, a factor never to be discarded by a fell runner approaching 2k of downhill! (It wasn't to be though - leg's too trashed!)

Running free on the moon

Fifty-two kilometres into the Transvulcania adventure the runners reach the high point of the race at 2420m, Roque de los Muchachos. The mountaintop is peppered with half a dozen very round and very white observatories. And at that same summit another, but more temporary, white dome houses several million calories worth of energy gels and runners' support crews ready to distribute them.
A bite to eat and a drink and it's down down down. 2420m of down. Now here's a recipe for a leg trash! First off it's forest trail, then rocky paths and then the stoney zigzags down to Tazacorte Port to finish by the sea. Normally Tazacorte is probably best defined as a peaceful kind of seaside town. Once again it's time to change the ambiance for a day! For the Transvulcania ultra marathon the loud-speakers are pumping, garden hoses are turned into make-shift run-through showers and all locals are on a mission - to basically get as excited as they deem possible. So as a runner it's easy to feel that you're at the finish down here, what with all this incredible ambiance. But no getting carried away now! There's 5km of river bed then steep and winding cobbled track left to devour first. But it's worth it. Because once the upward facing cobbled zigzags have been negotiated you're left with two kilometres of pavement which demotes the excitement down in Tazacorte to of somewhat a sideshow. If there is a world record for high-fiving I expect it gets beaten once a year every year, in the town of Los Llanos. The population of the island has just doubled and simultaneously gathered on the town's Main Street to form a long tunnel of noise all the way to the finish line. And it's quite good fun to run through.

The high-five highway of Los Llanos

So voilà why I like this race. The course and the atmosphere of the Transvulcania ultra marathon fit my criteria for known pleasures :-)

Top 20 results

[Thanks Ian Corless for the pics]

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Transgrancanaria race report

Below is my account of the race. I rarely write race reports, so it may be of no interest. And sorry, in English only this time.
(désolé, cet article sera seulement en anglais)

So this year I'm having a go at this ultra running thing. It seems to be pretty fashionable at the moment, and after all you should never judge something until you've tried it! And that includes funny looking vegetables kids! Perhaps the image I had painted of ultra running as being a bit long, slow and painful was a rash judgment? Prove me wrong?! Hence my plan to take an inside look and have a go at some "proper long" races in 2016, to see how they go, whether they're enjoyable and also to see how competitive I can be at them.

Round one of the 2016 ultra testing plan was to be the Transgrancanaria. It seemed like a good choice since it has a reputation of being a magnificent A to B route, traversing the island and its high-points, the distance is long, but not silly long for a season kickoff, and finally it had announced a top quality lineup of international ultra athletes - a good opportunity to test the legs against some confirmed experts in the discipline.

So how did it go? The honest answer is "not entirely as I'd have hoped", but at the same time there are definitely a bunch of positives to pull from the experience. Basically the start was Spanish style: Loud music, crowds, excitement, Highway to Hell. And the rest. I quickly checked with Seth that it was just like the Western States. Once through the initial mayhem, I sat in the pack before working my way through to the front of the race by the time the rhythm had settled down to something that felt vaguely sustainable. So by around 50km I was running with Gediminas and Diego, a minute or so behind an enthusiastic and later-to-explode Aurelien Collet. I was feeling really very good and quite positive about pulling off a good one. But then all of a sudden, at the sixty kilometer mark, my quads completely went to pieces and started cramping up massively. In no time at all I was restricted to walking on terrain where a minute earlier I was comfortably running. So this was a bit massively frustrating at the time and I probably shouted out loud to express my annoyance, to be heard only by the onlooking wildlife of the dark Canarian forest, who were probably already totally baffled by the unusual appearance of a never-ending stream of headlamps working their way up through their normally peaceful territory, in the middle of the night? They probably also wondered why these "ultra trail people" had white lights at the front and red lights at the back. Do they sometimes move in reverse? I can respond on that point to say that that it certainly feels like you're moving in reverse towards the end of the race, and so perhaps it really could be a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of collision. But we're going off subject. The lamps are just a race rule.

Once the cramping and wasted quadriceps had become a part of the picture my race switched from a competitive challenge to a survival exercise. It was a shame, but the reality of the situation. For a while I wondered whether I'd get round the whole thing. Forty miles is quite a long way to run with cramps, I thought to myself. So I plugged on, and decided to see what might happen. Three guys over took me almost immediately, but then I was surprised to find that it was not for another hour or so that the next runner, Jonas Budd, caught me, putting us in sixth and seventh position. And when Jonas did catch me he wasn't really moving much faster. And this is part of the magic of ultra running you see. You can have totally messed up cramping legs and actually you're not necessarily much worse placed than your competitors. No one's bouncing along like a kangaroo after seven or eight hours of running like! So a simple way of describing how to win a race such as this is to master the art of getting as far into the race as possible before blowing a gasket. And then when the gasket does eventually blow the trick is to shuffle along as best you can for the remaining kilometers! Voilà, simple no?

So the final six or so hours were really a bit of a controlled plod. Moving as smoothly and as fast as possible whilst in a state of muscle-mess. I left Jonas behind me at the beginning of the long cobbled downhill at around 40k to go. I even had vague hopes of perhaps catching other blown gaskets up front - you never know. Finally I was only to pass Aurelien who led for much of the race, before blowing big time and subsequently walking it in. So I came fifth. Disappointed, to not have sustained "race mode" for longer, but happy to have got round the damn thing :-)

My legs blowing up early (mid-race) and the cramping, was most probably down to a lack of recent big mountain running. Not enough up and down and therefore not strong enough legs to deal with 7000m being thrown at them. Coming out of the winter is not perfect timing for preparing an early season race, and a slightly dodgy Achilles tendon since Christmas has affected my training too. So I'm treating the TGC as a solid season warm up and a reminder of what needs to be worked on before my next race, the Transvulcania in May, which incidentally should feel nice and short and fast in comparison.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Fontaine = water on your head and under your feet

Pour ce dimanche matin, j'avais prévu une sortie longue, car pour 2016 je vise "l'ultra" (oups, quel choix !..). Mais, comme l'an dernier, météo france avait encore prévu qu'il pleuvrait des chats et des chiens (= raining cats and dogs), et cette fois-ci ils ont eu plus que 100% raison. DONC, que fait l'ultra runner qui n'a pas trop envie de sortir plusieurs heures sous la flotte ? Simple, il prend le départ d'une course locale, voilà ! Comme ça la sortie ira beaucoup plus vite et la course fera quand même une très bonne séance d'entrainement. En plus il faut la faire celle-là, elle est seulement à 3km de chez nous.

So what's next ? La prochaine course et le premier objectif "2016 ultra" sera cinq fois plus longue que la sortie de ce matin. Et ce sera dans les îles Canaries : La Transgrancanaria. Au moins je ne serai pas obligé de courir aussi vite. Faut voir les avantages :-)