Saturday, July 15, 2017

Montagn'Hard 107K 2017: tamed that beast, finally!

More than 5 weeks without posting, how sloppy is that for a blogger aiming at weekly updates... I feel really bad about it but at least it's not that I've been injured, I certainly did run in the meantime, 338 miles actually. As a matter of fact, I wrote two articles which I didn't dare to post as I was coping with extensive travel, a few family events and a few demanding situations at work, and needed a break from the social networks pressure. Anyway, I'm back as I'm taking a real vacation in Africa and here is a special race I have to talk about first, La Montagn'Hard.

We are so spoiled in California with our smooth trails, great weather and runnable hills. We even label our local Grand Prix 'MUT' for Mountain and Ultra Trail but, in comparison with the Alps, the word mountain is way overstated and misleading.
I actually ran this event 4 years ago but, unprepared to run through the night, I had picked the option to drop to the 60K distance, instead of the 107K. This year, as I'm in UTMB thanks to my ITRA ranking which allowed me to bypass the lottery, I really wanted to finish, with several other goals in mind: to test my fitness on these insane slopes, experience an ultra with a backpack filled with mandatary equipment, and, a first for me, run with poles.
Ah, these poles, how much I thought of them this year! First thing we did when we got to Chamonix was to stop by le Vieux Campeur in Sallanches to buy a pair of Leiki poles. I was actually going to pick the Black Diamond ones based on a few recommendations but I got mesmerized by the convenience of the straps of the Leiki model. As for the length, the store rep advised for 120 cm.

On Monday before the race, I went for a short trial run below Planpraz, above Chamonix. Just 6 miles, but it takes for ever on these tricky and steep trails. I went for a longer loop on Tuesday, 12 miles including a climb up to Le Brévent (2,500m). In the switchbacks below Bel Lachat, I badly twisted my right ankle. This happens often and I'm so lucky to have super flexible ankles but, this time, it was so painful that, to avoid falling toward the valley, I turned toward the slope and fell on a rock, first with my left hand. The whole fall probably lasted less than a second but I can remember each step of it: after the pain in the ankle, I felt a terrible pain in my fingers, then I let go, falling on my right knee and heavily on my head, ouch! While assessing the damages, I was surprised that my sun glasses, which dropped on the rock when I hit it with my head, weren't even broken, no scratch on the glass, just on the frame. I felt lucky about that but what about my body...? The head was hurting but there was no blood, phew! (It's particularly important for me not to bleed as I'm on blood thinner since last year's TIA.) Just a small scratch on the knee. And my ankle seemed okay. As for the fingers, they hurt really bad but I was pleased by the fact they could still move. With that, I went on very carefully with the few downhill miles to return to Chamonix. Here are the corresponding two 3D flyover animations by Monday and Tuesday (worth checking in particular if you don't know Relive yet. Although their wintery conditions satellite maps don't work so well for a July run...)

I know, I should have been tapering (e.g. not running at all), but I had to test the poles. Actually, I was satisfied with the help they provided both in the steep uphills and downhills but I felt I could benefit from longer poles and I did buy a second pair on Friday, 130 cm-long this time (the shopping spree also included the purchase of the super bright Petzl Nao+).

Meanwhile, as I was finally tapering on Wednesday, my 3rd and 4th left fingers doubled volume and turned blue, yikes!
I went to see a doctor on Thursday in Arrgentières, a few miles farther up in the Chamonix Valley. First challenge was to remove my wedding ring before the x-ray: while it ended being very painful, the doctor's 15 years of ER experience were essential to avoid cutting the ring, phew! Long story short, the third finger looked ok on the x-ray but a small bone fracture was apparent on the fourth. 

Thankfully, the doctor was a trail runner himself and prompt to mold a cast around my finger and give me the go ahead for the race, yeah!

I was so relieved it was a go, I think the incertitude helped me setting reasonable expectations.

Here am I with Race Director, Olivier Tribondeau, at the bib pickup on Friday afternoon.
On Saturday morning, I woke up at 2 am after sleeping only 4 hours and we left the apartment in Chamonix at 3:45 to drive to St Nicolas de Véroce. I was actually the next to last runner to get into the corral at 4:50 am, just in time to listen to Olivier's pre-race briefing.

I let a bunch of fast runners pass in the first section which consisted in half a mile on the main road, the smoothest surface we'll have on the entire course, furthermore downhill, leading to a fast start similar to Way Too Cool. After that, we got right away on our first wall of the day, and everybody started power walking. It was still dark and I had lost sight of the front runners but I estimated I was around the 20th position. We were not supposed to use poles in the first 4 miles but that didn't prevent a few runners holding theirs to use them (I had fixed mine on the back of my Ultimate Direction pack.)

We traded places with a few runners, me passing in the uphills, with others passing me in the downhills. With my finger fracture and the memories of my shoulder fracture of 5 years ago, I was much more careful in the downhills and, this Saturday, my #1 goal was clearly to avoid a fall so I could meet my #2 goal, finish!

Like 4 years ago, Agnès was at the first aid station, Les Toilles, at mile 9.5.

Then at Bionassay, mile 16.

I forgot to ask her for the sun screen and had to ask a couple hiking around Mont Blanc for some as we were getting in the blazing sun before the Col de Tricot. Like 4 years ago, I freaked out in the rocky descent from the pass, still remembering the bad fall on the butt I experienced back then. This time, I used the poles to stop my progression when I felt I was going too fast, and use them as 2 additional legs to increase my balance (or palliate for the lack of it). I was so good at slowing down that I got passed by 4 runners before the Miage aid station. We had covered 1/3 of the whole distance (21 miles) but the biggest climbs were ahead so I decided to stop for a few minutes to refuel with some chicken broth, Pepsi, potato chips and pieces of banana. Beyond this, the food offered at the aid station was very different from our open buffets in California: ham, cheese, dry apricots, cashew nuts; I wasn't so inspired by these, and was glad to run on the Vespa and GU gels I had brought with me.

Agnès was also at the road crossing at Tresse, with Sandrine, the wife of Sylvain, another runner. They spent hours waiting for us while crewing, many opportunities for them to chat!

Agnès mentioned that she might meet me at Porcherey so that motivated me to push the pace on the steep uphill leading to this checkpoint at mile 30. The temperature was now over 90F so I stopped at every creek to cool down. Thanks to a super efficient use of the poles I was very pleased to power hike with ease and passed 4 runners on the way. Agnès wasn't at the aid station finally and I stopped for close to 15 minutes to recover from the tough climb. As a matter of fact, we were not done but had to keep climbing in the direction of the highest point of the course, Mont Joly and, again, I was so happy to have poles this time. At the aid station, the volunteers warned us about a turn that the lead runner missed, continuing to the top of Mont Joly like the course used to go tough the previous years. But, this year, we first had to go down to Megève before climbing back again to the ridge. That climb was so steep I almost fell backward twice, that would have been pretty bad. Half way in this dangerous climb, I caught up a runner who was suffering from cramps and informed me that I was now in... second place! He told me about 4 runners going the wrong way, but still, I had no idea I moved up so much. Being in 2nd place by 60 km was really exciting but I knew much more climbing was ahead, including running by night. Besides, since I dropped at 60K 4 years ago, I didn't know what type of trail was ahead.

Another M50-59 (our age group is called V2H in France, for Veterans 2 Hommes), and local runner, JC Matthieu, was the first to pass me in the long downhill to the main checkpoint called Les Tappes.

It was slightly more than 10 miles between the last aid station, Porcherey, and Les Tappes and I have to admit that I bonked in that descent, to the point that I was walking even downhill and got passed by 4 more runners just before Les Tappes. I stopped for close to 25 minutes there, drinking several cups of soup, several cups of coke, eating some pasta and I even laid down on a cot for 8 minutes.

Like the previous aid stations, and all of them actually, the volunteers were super helpful and concerned about our health. I've never received so many solicitations in an ultra race to stop and get some rest (a couple of times at Michigan Bluff on the Western States, and at Tahoe Rim Trail too but that's about it). And I took advantage of it this past weekend, to the point that I must have spent a few hours overall in aid stations, versus a few minutes in my typical ultra races, a huge difference for the average pace.

I saw Agnès again at Notre Dame de la Gorge where we had planned on meeting at the aid station, which I was expecting from the documents found on the race website but didn't exist after all.

I grabbed a second headlamp, more GUs and Vespa, ate a couple of the chocolate chip cookies I had bought on Friday, fearing I'd not find my usual food at the aid stations. I was still experiencing a low but was more determined than ever to finish this time, even if it meant running through the whole night. The path along the road was smooth and flat, yet I wasn't inclined (!) to run it. It quickly turned to a very steep uphill anyway on which I had pleasure to power walk with the help of my poles. I passed one runner in the climb (Jeremy, from Lyon, whom I had chatted in the morning, complimenting him for wearing Brooks Cascadias). And I got passed by 2 runners in a very tricky field of lose stones before the next aid station, Le Bolchu, at mile 47. There I stopped for another 20 minutes or so. I was feeling better than at Les Tappes, yet with a rather short breath and I was also worried about getting a potential blister and taped my toes before any damage fortunately.

The subsequent climb to the pass of Col de La Gittaz was only 3 miles long, but it felt much longer at a 20 minute/mile pace. There were 2 medics at the top who, again, offered a cot but I replied I'd better get moving. I was looking forward to the next descent, to the Barrage de la Girotte, but got really disgusted when I discover that included an intricate moraine, of a difficulty which is hard to describe without a picture. Thankfully, I traverse it with the last light of the day, and also using my poles to keep balance as I was painfully and carefully hoping from one huge rock to another. That also included 3 slippery névés with sloppy snow. I could't imagine the trouble this section must have caused to most of the field having to traverse it in the dark! And I was glad to hear on Sunday that there weren't any accident. (I heard that, last year though, that section had fog over it and the organizers required participants to only go through it accompanied with one or more other runners.)

After this frightening episode, I had lost most of the morning momentum and, although the single trail down to the barrage looked rather nice, I alternated trotting and walking, at a rather low pace. 2 other runners caught up with me at the checkpoint where I took the time to drink a couple of cups of soup again, and a few cashew nuts, trying something new from the buffet, finally. It was 11 pm and when I heard them saying they were planning for 3 to 4 hours to the finish (20 more kilometers), I felt a bit discouraged yet resolute to keep moving to be done with it. 

The Chaffard brothers, Alain and Didier, were faster in the downhill but I caught up and passed them as we got on a smooth fire/service road up to the next pass, Col du Jouly. As I told one of them, that reminded me the trails we are blessed with in California, and I felt compelled to run uphill again. I reached the aid station a few minutes ahead of them but we left together. They didn't have poles so I took off on the steep climb to the top of Aiguille Croche and was expecting them to catchup on the ridge but I was able to maintain enough of a lead to reach the highest point of the course, the top of Mont Joly (2525m), still ahead.

From there, the course was the same as the finish of the 60K I had run 4 years ago but it was dark this time and I was blown away by the technicality of the down hill right after the summit, again, so grateful to have poles this time to negotiate the tricky and slippery rocks on... 4 legs! I kept pushing as hard as I could to now maintain my 12th place, so much that Agnès missed me by 5 minutes at the finish as she finally felt asleep in the car, after midnight. It was 3 am, 22 hours and 10 seconds of running, walking, crawling, struggling, jogging, sweating, trembling even at time, and I was exhausted yet proud of finally completing this very challenging race and learned and acquired so many skills which will be essential for the upcoming UTMB on September 1, 2 and, maybe 3.
Now, while it looks like I'm ready to take on an easier course like the UTMB one, it's much longer and we may have some bad weather, as opposed to the perfect conditions we had for this Montagn'Hard. We shall see.

My GPS had 108 km at the finish (67 miles), pretty close to the advertised 107K. And Strava had 28,296 feet of cumulative elevation, while Garmin Connect was extra generous with 28,956 feet. In any event, quite close to the altitude of Everest (29,029') or K2 (28,251'). Although we did have to suffer from the lack of oxygen with the highest point of the couse being at 8,300 feet.
As I noted above, I had a super positive experience and I have to give a lot of credit to Guillaume Millet for his book including a series of video tutorials teaching how to use poles in ultra mountain running (it's also a book I contributed a section to, 4 pages on ultra running in North America).
While I don't think I'll be back because of the dangerous sections, even to celebrate next year's 10th anniversary milestone, I'm very grateful to Olivier and his team to put such a challenging course up, though. If it was easier, it won't deserve the Montagn'Hard name... ;-) The volunteers were super friendly and supportive, big thanks to them! Unlike my runs in California, I at least took advantage of all the aid stations, spending a considerable time in each of them. 

Agnès drove us back to Chamonix and we slept from 5 to 11 am before I drove back to St Nicolas for the award ceremony, scheduled for 4 pm. As I was parking at the church, at 3:45, I heard my name in the loud speakers and rushed toward the podium area, sprinting the 400 yards as much as my sore legs would let me. I actually got on the podium after the top 2 and top 1 M50-59 were called and here we are, the three older guys who took 7th (Pierre Saucy, center), 8th (JC Mathieu, right) and 12th.
And here are the awards for 3rd place, containing a few of the local essentials: fruit liquor and traditional smoked sausage!
With that, if there is no rain on the UTMB weekend, I feel more ready to affront that beast. I'll surely be checking the weather during the week leading to September 1. In the meantime, here am I in South Africa, where it is Winter. Feels good to run all over the globe again, see you around one of its many corners!

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