Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Montagn'Hard: amazingly hard!

Etant donné que la majorité des participants était Francaise, je vais ajouter un peu de français après mon traditionnel compte-rendu en anglais... Given 99% of the race participants were French, I will add some French prose at the end of my usual report in English...

Having focused on the Pacific Association Grand Prix these past 7 years and traveling all over the world, I very rarely race in France. I did train in France a lot but I have not participated to even the Paris Marathon or the UTMB (Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc) yet. Last year, as I was preparing for the Tahoe Rim Trail record attempt, one race caught my attention, La Montagn'Hard, but the date wasn't fitting our super tight yearly vacation schedule in Europe. Instead, I registered to another challenging trail race, the IceTrail Tarentaise, which is by the way occurring this coming weekend and part of the high profile SkyRunning series. Unfortunately, I broke my shoulder 3 weeks before and, fortunately, the race director was very accommodating and offered a refund. This year I was able to get Agnès to squeeze La Montagn'Hard into our European "tour" and I signed up for the full version, the crazy 100K / 19,000 feet option! Especially crazy being just two weeks before my upcoming participation to the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile...

As usual, Agnès reminded me before the start that my first goal was to have fun. And not kill myself before TRT... ;-) With that, I was still really hoping to run the whole course although I knew too much about the possibility to drop to the shorter 60K distance. La Montagn'Hard exists in two versions: the 100K, or 107 kilometers actually, with 29,000 feet of cumulative elevation (8,800 m), that is the eight of Mount Everest (!), and the 60K with "only" 16,500 feet of ups and downs. To put things into perspective, the 100K has almost has much cumulative elevation than UTMB which runs over 168 kilometers (31,500 feet) whereas TRT 100 has 20,000 feet and Miwok 100K 8,700 feet, that is 3.5 times less. Here is the course profile provided by the race website, with the vertical scale in meters, not feet!
The long briefing got us to start 15 minutes late, which was perfect from a day light standpoint as this allowed us to start without our headlamps (which we still had to carry in our backpack though as part of the mandatory equipment). After about 300 yards running on the road we switched to the first very steep climb which forced all of us to start walking. Hard already... For the 7 miles to the first aid station, I did pass a dozen of runners, both in the steep climb and subsequent very runnable downhill.
I entered the aid station in 6th position and passed a handful of runners there as I didn't stop to refuel. I left the station with Alexandre Haytine, the eventual winner,
and Francis Gillet who informed me that there was only one runner ahead.
Francis was taking it easy because he very much knew what was ahead and, for the next 10 miles, he provided great insights on the course. Francis had run 147 kilometers at a 12-hour event a few weeks before (91 miles!), that told me a lot about how important it was to listen to him about the pace (my PR at 12-hour is only 128K/80 miles...). We climbed to the top of the Prarion together and more or less down to Bionnassay but I got a few yards behind in the névés of the Col de Tricot.
Right after the pass, I encountered my first major hurdle and challenge of the day, a steep and technical downhill to the Chalets de Miage. The rocks were so irregular that I was almost paralyzed by my fear of falling. I was going down so slowly that I got passed by a handful of runners who were just hoping or flying from one rock to another. I was both embarrassed by my lack of skills and amazed at the grace they were running down. I was leaning backward so much that I did slip and fall once, on my butt and side, slightly twisting my knee. We had not run 20 miles yet and I was already fed up by the rocky trails, that didn't look good... In addition, leaning backward and spending energy to slow down in the down hills put a lot of stress on my quads and hamstrings so I already started contemplating the 60K option...

I stopped briefly at the aid station to get my water bottle refilled and did pass a few of the runners who had passed me in the down hill. Right after the Chalets de Miage aid station, we went on another big climb. As soon as I hit the slope, my adductors froze on both sides (cramps), something very unusual for me. Thankfully, and I could say almost miraculously, one S!Caps solved the issue within 10 seconds, literally, so well that these cramps never came back. And some more walking did help of course as nobody could trot on such a steep single track anyway. Francis had warned me that the way to Les Contamines was going to be long but his simple word didn't convey half of what I felt indeed in this 11-mile section. I was doing fine in the uphills, not really liking the 20 min/mile pace but at least enjoying the physical challenge. What really killed me is the super technical downhill after the Refuge de Tré-la-Tête.
As the road book says, a "extremely playful" section! Here again, I got passed by half a dozen of runners. My knee was hurting a bit after the previous fall and I definitely made the decision that it was enough, I'll cut it short at 60K, after Les Contamines. I really enjoyed the flat section leading to this key aid station at mile 31 and spent some time chatting with a runner who, just before the aid station, showed me the highest pass we had to head to afterwards, a major difficulty I wasn't expecting at this point. It was great to see Agnès and Greg again at the aid station, after seeing them at the first and second one. I told them about my decision to drop at 60K and they were somehow relieved that they won't have to stay up all night after waking up at 2 am this Saturday morning. I spent 15 minutes to hydrate and eat before the huge climb.
In the climb to Les Tappes, on the way to the pass of Mont Joly, I stopped at every creek to cool off. The slope was incredibly hard (of course) and, despite the relief of knowing it was my ultimate effort of the day, I got passed by 5 runners still going for the whole distance, including Alex Laville (blog) whom I had shared a few miles with in the morning and who had told me that was the longest distance he had ever entered (Alex will eventually drop later unfortunately).
Less than a mile before the bifurcation between the 100K and 60K, I met Jerome Nayrat who was the initial leader of the race but, like me, had now decided to stop at 60K (we both finished in 9:45).
All in all, 58 participants of the 100K race will end up dropping to the 60K distance and only 90 runners completed the whole distance within the 35-hour cut-off, out of the 230 or so starters. Definitely a... hard race!
But a positively amazingly hard event. Upon finishing, I did congratulate Olivier Tribondeau, the Race Director, for the amazing challenge, amazing course marking (I had heard about races with minimal marking but this one exceeded the Californian standards!), amazing organization given the challenging mountainous environment, amazing --as in gorgeous-- views, and even amazing --as in perfect-- weather!
I did thank the volunteers on the way and a few of them thanked me back for having showed up and making their volunteering worthwhile, how nice of them!
I must admit that even the 60K was the most challenging physical experience I've ever been through and I have a lot more respect for all the participants who completed or even entered into such a challenge. Among the leaders, a special mention for Jean-Marc Devey who finished 5th overall in 19:56 at age 56! I had complimented Jean-Marc for running in Brooks Cascadias when I passed him in the first mile and he mentioned that he had read my blog before the race, I was amazed when Jean-Marc flew by me in that "extremely playful" downhill at mile 28, a section I rather found "terribly tortuous...!" Way to Run Happy, Jean-Marc! And a mention to Ultrafondu Steph who had the guts to complete the 60K despite a quads injury.

Despite the amazing experience and some bitter taste for not having met all my goals, I'm not sure I'll be back to fight the new demons who appeared after my shoulder fracture last year. Not worth the risk for one thing, and also because I still like speed too much to enjoy the 15 min/mile average pace I got down to this past Saturday. But I'm really glad to have participated to such a French and European event which gave me even more respect for the quality of ultra runners on the other side of the Ocean. Way to go, compatriots! ;-) If you are an ultra runner, I do encourage you to consider this event which mixes an amazing alpine challenge and experience with the camaraderie of a medium-size event, far from the UTMB crowds.

Without the need for translation as images are worth thousand words, here is a link to my Picasa album containing a few more pictures. And now some words in French for those who don't master the language of Shakespeare...

Chers lecteurs de France, et principalement à ceux qui ont participé à cette édition de la Montagn'Hard, je vous tire mon chapeau pour le niveau physique que représente ce parcours, qui n'a vraiment rien à voir avec le confort de nos chemins en Californie en particulier (il y a des régions plus montagnardes et escarpées dans le Colorado notamment, et puis les Barkley Marathons qui sont encore plus fous et durs que la Montagn'Hard). Ceux d'entre vous qui m'ont dépassé dans ces descentes escarpées, bravo pour votre aisance et grâce pour voler ainsi de rocher en rocher à cette allure, c'est vraiment impressionant! Je ne vais pas traduire mot à mot ce qui j'ai écrit plus haut (la course et le blog ne sont que mon second boulot, comme vous il faut que je retourne bosser...), j'epsère que vous apprécierez au moins les quelques images ainsi que celles de mon album photo sur Picasa. Merci Olivier pour cette organisation très professionnelle et ce dénivellé complètement fou, merci à vous les volontaires pour votre disponibilité tout au long du weekend (et avant et après pour toute la préparation), merci à vous le demi millier de coureurs pour faire ainsi de la Montagn'Hard un 5ème succès, merci à vous les spectateurs pour vos encouragements et merci à vous les officiels de la région pour nous laisser ainsi jouer "dur" sur ces chemins et dans ce décor époustouflant. Continuez d'être au top de notre sport dans le monde!

1 comment:

Big Johnny Burton said...

Excellent report as usual Jean. I must say that I am strangely intrigued by this "extremely playful" downhill technical section. I must run it one day!

Hope you saved a little something in your legs for TRT in two weeks though!

And, did you happen to talk with the gentleman in the AC/DC shirt at all? Is he really such a big fan of the band? Looks like a cool guy to hang out with and have a beer.