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 :-)