Friday, July 6, 2018

90K of Chamonix: crowded alpine ultra running is another sport

90 kilometers per the race name, or even 91.5 km according to the organizers, just over 2 marathons, how hard that can be? Even with 6,200 meters of cumulated elevation, or 20,300 feet, these are just numbers. No, really, the only real indication of toughness and difficulty was that the course consisted of trails over Chamonix-Mont-Blanc! Then you know it's going to be technical. Moreover when you realize this is Killian's playground...
That poster was at the expo and the bib pick-up and back pack checking was almost desert at mid day, no line at this point!

Back to the course, I've ran these trails enough over the past 30 years to know better, these aren't trails for me to compete anymore. Since I fell on a trail over Lake Tahoe and broke my shoulder, the fear of falling in the technical downhills takes over my love for speed. The good news is that we had plenty of steep uphills in this event to make up for slow downhills. Starting with the hardest climb of the day, right off 4 am, to the top of Le Brévent.

4 am, what an early start! At least, after 10 days in Europe (France, Poland, Spain, Germany, France), I wasn't suffering from the jet lag anymore. Yet, I went to bed at 7 pm but, after an hour, I couldn't fall asleep so got out of bed to finish a blog post on my 4 days in Krakow. With that, I slept for less than 4 hours and woke up all sweaty, already racing in my mind on that first climb. Agnès came with me at the start which was at the same spot as UTMB. I tried to get in the corral near the start line but couldn't and, as a disciplined American, went to the back of the pack instead. 1,150 registered runners, that's a big pack.
While the previous picture shows the elite corral from Agnès' vantage, here was my view of the start line, from the church stairs, really on the wrong end...
It took me almost a minute to cross the start line, then another 100 meter before I could even run.

Agnès' video of the start:

At that point, I rushed and passed maybe 600 runners. I rushed because I knew there won't be a way to pass on the single track up to that first summit, Le Brévent. Oh my, I didn't get disappointed by the conga line which formed for these first 10 kilometers. Quite a few times, we actually got to a stop, for instance to allow folks with poles to pass over a fallen tree. Right off the bat the pace was oscillating between 20 to 25 minutes a mile, yikes! One of the runners in the line mentioned that I was lucky because we were still in the first third and it was even worse behind.

There was no way to pass anyway so better enjoy the company and the slow start. And the full moon!
I met and chatted with Sean Blanton, the Race Director of the Georgia Death Race and 10 other trail races in the Atlanta area. Here is the conga line, still quite dense after 9 kilometers!

I actually followed Sean as we were approaching the top of Le Brévent, trying to pass a few other runners struggling on a névé, and I tripped, falling on a sharp rock of granite with my left forearm, ouch! I was ok but, with my blood thinner, a big bruise got quite bloody. It wasn't time to lose more spots in the line so I didn't stop.

After the summit, we had to run or slide in the snow for maybe a kilometer of steep downhill. Many runners passed me as I was already extra cautious to avoid another fall that early in the race. After the snow I flew down the ski track down to Planpraz and starting passing other runners again. We were only at mile 8 but I did grab a cup of soup as I was already 2 hours and 40 minutes in the race and lost quite some sweat in this warm weather.

I kept pushing in the next section, to the point that my adductors got painful by mile 10, reminding me of the cramps I got at Miwok 100K in May. Oops, what about the remaining 50 miles and 15,000 feet of elevation to come?! I slowed down a bit but more importantly paid more attention to running more economically while passing over the rocks and roots. That worked and I had a good climb over La Tête au Vent and Le Col des Montets.

On the way to the Col des Montets, we had the joy to see an ibex, less than 5 meters off the trail, that made my early morning!

I was very happy to see Agnès waiting at the second major aid station of Le Buet (km 28, mile 18).

With all the uneven footing, a blister annoyed me under my right big toe so I stopped to put some cream on it, asking Agnès to bring me some tape at the next aid station, mid course (Emosson). I drank more chicken broth and a dozen slices of salami before getting back on the course for the the next two brutal climbs. It was only 9 am but quite hot already, which wasn't too much of a problem for me as I prefer heat to cold.

On the way up to La Loriaz, I chatted with a runner from the Haut-Doubs who had done this race 2 or 3 years ago. Last year he destroyed his ankle when his foot slipped between 2 rocks as he was running downhill and he lost a year. One more excuse for me to be over cautious on these technical downhills... He also warned me about pacing myself to keep enough energy for the second half...

Some of the trails were so soft and smooth that I couldn't prevent myself from picking the pace up a bit. I had waited for the hardest climb of the day, to the dam of Emosson, to use my poles and I was very pleased about the relief they provided to my legs, going up. As a matter of fact, while I now find myself ridiculous with my downhill hike in the technical sections, I think I could teach a few how to best use poles. Well, just relaying what I actually learned from Guillaume Millet's book "Ultra-Trail - Plaisir, Performance et Santé", and his video tutorials in particular.

Anyway, it was another relief to see Agnès at Emosson.

I taped my right feet, took more soup and salami, refilled my bottles (water and GU2O/GU Energy Brew) before getting in the treacherous downhill to Le Châtelard. I can't blame the French for that one since we were on the Swiss side but I have to confess that I really struggled on that descent. I got passed by probably a dozen runners, if not more, and felt particularly helpless.

But, again, on the other side of the valley, I passed quite a few other runners as I was much stronger in the uphills. I even took the time to take a video in the climb, showing the Emosson dam from the other side of the Chamonix Valley:
And, higher, a few pictures as we crossed another névé:

I checked the live cast a few times and could see I was now around 200th overall. On the M50-59 side, I appeared at 26th out of 150 or so entrants, at Le Buet in the morning but then the ranking got completely off (like giving me as 177th in my age group at Le Tour). With the missed start anyway, it wasn't even worth checking as I was completely off the race.

One of my best moments of the race was to fly down from the Col des Posettes (pass) to Le Tour, mostly following Marie Berna who was then on 16th place in the women race.

Chatting with Marie and recounting my epic and disappointing start, she looked at my bib and said: "Oh, 3061, you could have started in the elite corral, they went up to 3199!" At this point, I got both upset and discouraged at the same time. Not as much upset with the lack of communication from the race organization, but with myself for not having checked upon getting my bib. And, at this point, I was quite tired anyway. I kept moving down to Les Bois, the smoothest section of the course, albeit without much resolve.

After seeing Agnès, her brother and his son at Le Tour, I got another moral boost seeing Agnès at the limited aid station of Les Bois, before the ultimate big climb of the day, to the Montenvers train station, over La Mer de Glace.

Again, I passed a few runners on the way up, and was quite pleased to hear that I was in 163rd position at the Montenvers aid station. There were quite a few runners trying to recover there, I refilled my bottles again, took some soup and went on the last section. I had so so memories of that section between Montenvers and Le Plan de l'Aiguille, which I remembered as technical but hadn't realized it was that uphill.

Here is a video of Marie passing me on our way to Le Plan de l'Aiguille:
It was a long struggle, mostly walking and getting passed. I didn't feel in a hurry, confident that I will finish before dark, even if it meant 9 pm, instead of my initial plan between 5 and 7 pm. I spent some time chatting with my friend Michou who was volunteering at this last aid station, the one which remained the longest time of all, for more than 12 hours and as late as 3 am, and at the highest elevation of all aid stations! And, if that wasn't enough, Michou got up again to man that aid station again the following night for the Duo Etoilé (17km night run, 500 2-runner teams)!
A few years ago I had run that section on my own, but in the reverse direction, that is climbing up from Chamonix. Not only was I younger but I didn't fear these technical trails then. This time, I was struggling jogging down these ultimate 6.5 kilometers, especially as the light was dimming to the point that I had to switch the headlamp I had used in the morning, on again.
I have to admit that one of the benefits of being slow was to enjoy a sunset over Le Brévent, a nice symmetry with the sunrise over Mont Blanc earlier that day.

I crossed the finish line just before 10 pm, quite embarrassed and disappointed to finish that late, yet happy to be done and, at least, finish, furthermore without a major fall.

Agnès and Isabelle were there and accompanied me to the medical staff so they could clean my bruise before I showered and went to bed.

13th in my age group, 5.5 hours behind Bruno Lallemand (14th overall!), 3.5 hours behind 3rd place in our age group, really off the competition on this one! And it's not just the hour I lost in the first climb by getting stuck in the initial conga line; I lost at least another hour in the last downhill, and 30 minutes between Emosson and Le Chatelard. With that, I wonder what's going to happen in two months as I'm back for the TDS...

Overall, a very professional organization, especially with such a crowded field. Great marking, not quite the variety of food we have in Californian ultras but still a good mix of sugary food (fruits) and protein (meat, cheese) and fat, the last two I need for my new keto diet. Speaking of diet, it worked quite well again, I just used 7 GU gels as complement. It wasn't for all the slow hiking down the technical sections...

By the way that race was part of a super loaded "Marathon du Mont-Blanc" weekend: the 90K and Vertical Kilometer on Friday, 23K, mini-cross, 10K, Duo Etoilé on Saturday and the 'real' marathon (42K) on Sunday. For, if I'm no mistaken, 5,000 or so participants!

I'll be back again for more suffering then in 2 months, like I need some extra...! ;-)


Anonymous said...

Génial...Bravo...très fiers de toi;..tes parents!

Swedendurance said...

Thank you for the interesting race review