Last year, I had the immense pleasure to join Karine, Bruno and Pascal (Blanc) from Team Lafuma, for a 5-day recognition or discovery of the trail of the Tour du Mont Blanc. I was excited to learn what Bruno’s plans were for this year and even more excited when he informed me that Scott (Jurek) was joining the group this July, a group otherwise formed of only runners from Team Lafuma, and engaged in this year’s UTMB edition.
For the non insiders, Scott (Jurek) is dominating the ultra world. At least he has dominated it for the past years (there are some new kids coming like the Skaggs brothers and Anton Krupicka), mostly in the US (e.g. 7 consecutive wins at Western States, a course record set at Hardrock, a win and course record at Badwater) and even in Greece (2 wins at the Sparthatlon). Yet, Scott remains very approachable and I am always thrilled to see him at races in California. Scott is the ambassador of the running brand I picked, Brooks, so that provides one more topic to discuss and connect.
Scott has some unfinished business on the UTMB course. Last year, after winning Hardrock in July despite twisting his ankle two days before playing soccer, and to keep some stamina for his second participation at the Sparthatlon, he decided to drop at Courmayeur (50 miles or 80km, so halfway). He did not know much of the course, and discovered some hidden practices of the European runners. This year will surely be different. First, UTMB will be his first big and long race of the season, before the Sparthatlon and the 24-hour world championships with the US team in Korea in October. Second, he is spending the whole summer in Europe, 5 weeks in France, staying several weeks at Karine and Bruno’s, sharing the same sponsor, Green Magma. Last but not least, Scott will surely know the course in great details at the end of this week. Last week, he completed the entire loop in three days, with North Face’s European manager, UTMB’s sponsor and US trail running elite, Topher Gaylord, who lives in Italy. This week, he will complete the loop again in 4 days with Karine and Team Lafuma. 200 miles in 7 days, many miles of rocky and tricky sections and many many feet of cumulated elevation.
I was in Annecy on Sunday for a family reunion in a fancy restaurant on the lakeshore. Unfortunately, I only had Monday off before having to fly back to the US this Tuesday after almost 4 weeks in France (part of it for vacation with the family in Normandy, Brittany and Fontainebleau as you might have read in my previous posts). As much as I did not want to miss this new opportunity to train with such nice (and elite!) runners, the plan was down for me to run with the group for the first day before Agnès and the boys drop me in Geneva to catch the TGV for Paris in the evening. When every minute counts in a day mostly spent running.
We gathered in Chamonix at 8am. It takes some logistics to get such a 12-runner group around the Mont Blanc. Fortunately, Bruno is an expert in setting such training camps up. After some introductions, including to Topher (Gaylord) and his wife, Kim, who came to see us at the start (I just recall now that Topher passed me at Miwok, running with Jon Olsen, back in May), some time to split the bags among the two follower cars, a few group pictures, we left Chamonix at 9:30. The weather was perfect, sunny and already hot. So much better than last year when we got hit by a storm and heavy rains on the first night and had to shorten our first stage by half past midnight at Notre Dame de la Gorge (35 kilometers) instead of the planned 70 kilometers.
Our first stop was in Les Houches to get some water from the fountain. This is still one thing which amazes me the most on this course, that is the ability to get pure and fresh drinkable water from many fountains and springs all along the course. Hope this lasts for many years. The group stretched on the way up to La Charme and reformed before the steep downhill to St Gervais (a new section which I described to Scott as “quad killer”, surely for a reason given how the run ended up for me in the afternoon, see below). Refilled our bottles in the town of St Gervais before getting back on the trail along the torrent.
Running in such an informal setting was a great opportunity to catch up with Scott. Work (he can provides coaching online and with his voice over IP equipment even when he travels, but he shuts his physical therapy business down during his summer racing season; he also provides advisory services on shoe design for Brooks, already working on the 2010 models); family (so so); running (his racing and training, comments about the results of major races, the new comers like the 22 and 23-year old Skaggs brothers and 24-year old Anton Krupicka). We also talked about the typical European ultra running topic of the running poles (see last year’s post for more details). After seeing Topher using poles and flying on steep up hills last week, Scott decided to give them a try this week and this month. Too soon to know if he will be using them or not, we will see at the end of August (most of the group was using poles, but me with my two hand bottles…).
On Karine’s side, we talked about her difficult beginning of the season with a 3.5-inch tearing in her calf. We both ran the Saintélyon back in December 2007 with issues in our calves but her problem turned out to be much worse than mine which got fixed after a 3-week rest before resuming training for my Costa Rican Coastal Challenge. For this reason, she DNF’ed at the French nationals of 24-hour at Brives, beginning of May, and did not get qualified for the world championships in Korea in October, because of the lack of understanding of the French Track & Field Association. Too bad, France has lost one great leader and chance to win a medal… Karine has fully recovered and, with less racing this year, seems in much better shape than last year. It will be interesting to see another Nikki-Karine duel or rematch on August 30th.
I left the group in Les Contamines where they were having a full lunch (lasagnas!) before finishing up the stage at Les Chapieux, after passing the pass (Le Col du Bonhomme). Because of the travel (train) constraint –and it is well known that SNCF is always on time and does not wait for you— my timing was tight with Agnès picking me up at 3:30 at Notre Dame de la Gorge. I arrived there, km 35, by 1:50 and, despite starting feeling a weird pain in my right quad, decided to climb at least up to the chalet of La Balme, km 39. The pain was not getting better there but I could not refrain from continuing for 2 kilometers more, toward the pass. The 7 kilometers down turned to a martyr with the quad burning, right above the knee. Not good for this Saturday’s Skyline 50K, let’s see how it evolves after my 12-hour flight back to SFO this Tuesday… When I was almost down, I saw the rest of the group starting the ascent, the perfect occasion to say bye to them before leaving. Bruno has actually set up a tracking mechanism by satellite so you can follow the progression of the group on the web during the rest of the week (Tuesday-Thursday). Check out the Spot product (I had asked for a trial at the Coastal Challenge but my letter remained unanswered – Karl Meltzer is also going to use the same product to offer the tracking of his speed attempt on the Appalachian Trail in August).
I met Agnès and the boys almost on time (3:38 pm), and we drove to St Gervais where we stopped for a shower at the public swimming pool. Left for Geneva at 4:30 and we were at the train station in Geneva by 6pm to meet our friends Galina and Georges before I got on the train, on which I am writing this post.
A big thank you to Bruno for accepting me, such a stranger, into this group, and just for one day. To Scott and Karine for remaining so approachable and nice despite their amazing ultra feats and careers. To the rest of Team Lafuma with which I had nice interactions throughout the day. Good luck to all for UTMB 2008, that your hard work brings you a deserved success! To the follower car and RV. And to Agnès for organizing this escapade on the UTMB course and my pick up at Notre Dame de la Gorge.
I will not be running UTMB again this year. I had put my all my bets on Western States (I still think that one 100-miler a year is good enough), skipped the UTMB lottery, and have now registered for Rio Del Lago 100-mile at the end of September in California (hope most of the fires will be over by that time). Now, on the same weekend as UTMB (August 30th), I plan on running the French Nationals of road 100K. In Sologne, on a flat and 100% asphalt course, which will be a new thing for me (I am taking it easy though, not planning on training too hard on the specifics of this format).
Oh yes, I really enjoyed this day. Every minute of it, and even the pain! It was so special on the running side, my second job… As for my first job, that was also a very special day with the public announcement that IBM plans on acquiring us by mid December. 850 employees on ILOG’s side, 391,000 on IBM’s, this has some flavor of David and Goliath… After 21 years (I joined the company in 1987, I was the 7th employee then), I very much feel like the company hit the wall, the same way we can hit the wall in marathon by mile 20. Or 21… And decide to DNF. But I am not a quitter (even when asthma kicks in!), so I feel we still have a lot of unfinished business. However it seems now impossible to avoid the ineluctable and resist to this change. When an elephant is playing and moving our cheese (see the book Who Moved My Cheese). An International Business… Machine…
Have a great week, all!
PS1 - See more (86!) pictures with comments, plus two clips, in my Picasa album.
PS2 - List of this week training camp participants:
JEAN CLAUDE BANFI
JUAN MANUEL CALERO
HERVE GIRAULD SAUVEUR