Sunday, September 2, 2018

TDS 2018 (part 3 of 3): these Alps are tough!

Finally getting a break to write this race report, while sitting on a TGV for Paris. It's Saturday afternoon, 3 days have passed since the TDS race, Xavier Thevenard just won his third UTMB (his Wikipedia page has an impressive record of achievements), taking an amazing revenge on the mishap at Hard Rock a few weeks ago where he was going to win with a comfortable margin but got disqualified for meeting his crew 2 miles after an aid station. What an amazing way to save his season by benefiting from a debacle across the other favorites.
A few (!) words on my TDS then, for this third and last episode. In my previous two posts, I mentioned that, while being ready from a logistical standpoint, I felt grossly undertrained for such a beast. Why had I decided to sign up for this event then? First, as it is customary in the ultra world, it was many months ago, in January if I recall. Second, I did it because my ITRA ranking guaranteed me an entry, something too good to pass on with such a tough lottery to go through otherwise. Then, I had great intention to do some good hill training in the meantime. But the year turned out differently, and, apart for some hilly ultras in the Spring most of the 2,200 miles I ran so far in 2018 have been on flat ground...

But I was still glad and willing to be part of this amazing week and international event, knowing that it was going to be hard but resolute to cover what I thought were 100 kilometers before I discovered a few days before the race that it was closer to 122 kilometers (plus 7,300 meters of cumulated climb). To tell you how well I was actually (not) prepared psychologically...

I was also excited about getting an elite status, especially after what happened 2 months ago where I completely missed the start of the 90K of Chamonix, where I could have also started at the front, instead of the very back...

With all this excitement, I had a rough night and hadn't even slept 5 hours when my alarm woke me up at 2:40 am. My shuttle was set for 4:15 am and, when walking a mile to the bus stop, I was stunned to hear at 4am from a Japanese runner, that the shuttles and the start got delayed by 2 hours, apparently because of the bad weather on the Italian side while the weather forecast was indicating a sky as clear as on the French side of Mont Blanc; that was weird. Anyway, I walked back to my apartment after this false start. I learned later that most runners had received a text message on Tuesday afternoon, announcing the delayed start as well as a detour after Bourg-St-Maurice, suppressing about 500 meters of brutal climb. Seems like foreigners who had entered their number according to the international standard, prefixing our country code with a + sign, should have entered 00 instead. You would think that the organizers had figured that out after several years of mass notification, or at least double the notification with an email...
At least, with an 8 am start, we won't have to start with our headlamps. The weather was indeed gorgeous on the other side of the tunnel, the assurance of a warm morning. Here is the moon and the clear sky over Courmayeur:
I got to the start line at 7:40 and tried to get in the elite corral, only to learn that, while my bib was lower than some of the elites, my ITRA ranking was now too low to get in. Damned! I started to walk along the start area now packed with more than a thousand runners and walked back to try again. Same rebuttal at 7:50 it was now time to find a solution. I asked some runners in the back if I could hop over the fence and got denied twice. At the third attempt, back in the pack, 2 Frenchmen accepted to let me in when I told them my story... I'm very grateful to them, we were probably in the top 400 runners at least.

Not to far from the start line...
 The rear view of an infinite sea of runners...
The first mile is actually down through Courmayeur so the start looked like a sprint or a corrida where we were trying to escape bulls set free on the streets! I was fearing we would end up on a single track on the other side of the valley, but, as opposed to the treacherous trail we take to get into Courmayeur in the UTMB race, we were climbing to Col Chécrouit Maison Vieille on a wide service road/ski track. Much better than the climb to Le Brévent in June, phew!

The climb was quite steep and almost everybody was using poles but I decided that mine were solidly attached, that I would only get them at Lac Combal, mile 10. It took me almost an hour to get to Col Chécrouit (only 7 km!). I was probably already 15 minutes behind the leaders, but I could care less because I couldn't go faster or breath more. From there, it was a single track indeed but the pace was good and the climb to Arête du Mont-Favre gave everybody a good sweat, so much that I had already drunk my bottle of GU Brew when I got to Lac Combal. The next aid station was 13 miles away, so it was important to refill anyway. As planned, I got my poles out there, and it helped a lot in the next steep climb to Col Chavannes. I stopped there to admire the 360-degree views and snap a few pictures.

The following downhill to Alperta was really cool and I managed to log a few sub 8-minute mile on the rocky service road. And I also enjoyed the climb to Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, the border between Italy and France. When I got there though, I had emptied both my bottles again so I stopped for a while to refill as well as get a couple of cups of soup and Coke. While there, a storm hit the large tent we were under, I felt bad for those who got caught in the heavy rain before or after this aid station. I first put my rain jacket on and packed to get going again but then I saw many other runners putting their waterproof pants on as well, so I did that too. The problem is that I'm so unused to changing like this, that it took me quite a while and, when I left the station, it was barely drizzling for a mile, then the rain stopped and I got really too hot and wet under these layers. I stopped on the side of the trail to change in an ad hoc manner, imitated by half a dozen of other runners. 10 more minutes lost, after about 30 at the aid station...

The weather was sunny again and I had a good descent to Bourg-St-Maurice at mile 31 (51K). That being said, with all this downhill, I was starting feeling a blister forming under each of my big toes, so I stopped again for a while at this key station. Taping my toes at the medical tent, refilling my bottles, getting a couple of cups of soup, and enjoying quite a few slices of dry sausage.

Ron Guttierez, a fellow ultra runner from San Francisco, had run TDS last year and was in CCC this week (he took 5th in his/our age group!). Here is what he had to say about the course:
“From the start in Courmayeur to Bourg St. Maurice the TDS course is a little harder than Ohlone 50k.  Then the 2,000-meter climb that follows is off the charts.  The last one Tricot is also ridiculous.  Even the last 8k is gradually uphill.  Reaching Chamonix will never feel so good.”
I was warned that the second half would be tough... Although, the new course looked much easier that the original one.

The revised course with the gradual climb, between Bourg St Maurice (km 51) and the Cormet de Roselend  (km 70)

The original course profile:
After such a long stop in Bourg St Maurice then, I felt much better and I even switched on my phone to let the (Facebook) world know that I had a rough day in the mountains but I was resolute to finish this race! In such high and positive spirit, I literally attacked the next section, remembering that we were not getting on a detour much less difficult than the original course. I passed about 50 runners in the next 20 uphill kilometers to the Cormet de Roselend.

As a matter of fact, I ran most of the last 3 miles on the uphill road, rushing to reach the station before the sky fell on us. It turned to such a dark grey, we were sure to get some heavy rain again.

Still feeling my big toes burning, I made another stop at the medical tent to retape my feet. During the 15 minutes required by that, the tent started shaking and the speaker announced at least one hour of rain. Leveraging the only drop bag we had on this course, here, I decided to change, then put on my rain gear again. With the refill, I spent about 50 minutes in the station and, after all this time, the rain turned to a light drizzle but I wasn't ready to get drenched while we were now getting into the night at 9 pm.

The climb to Col de la Sauce got quite muddy and the poles really helped controlling or stopping the sliding. On the other side of the pass, we got into a technical descent which I recognized from my two Montagn'Hard races. All the bad memories came back and broke my mental, getting me down to a super careful and slow pace. I did slide hundreds of times in the next 3 miles but managed not to fall. As I approached a section where a faster runner had yelled "Beware, slow down" I did slow down even more and got distracted by a gal who slipped and fell just behind me. That made me fall too, very unfortunately on my left pole. The bad wasn't that bad except that the pole broke and that is very bad on such a hilly and muddy course! Ironically, I had put in my drop bag a pair of spare poles in case, but they were 6 kilometers behind now...

I continued through the rocky and slippery section for a few yards, with one pole, only to fall again, this time heavily on my right hip, pivoting so much that my head ended up down the trail. I had much trouble moving and getting up, so much that the four runners behind me stopped to provide assistance. I left them quite puzzled when they saw the American flag on my bib but heard me swearing both in English and perfect French! ;-) I told them I was ok, but, in my mind, I decided that was enough and I was going to drop at the bottom of the descent, at La Gittaz. But, first thing, I had to get there, it was still about 2 miles away and, with all this mud, in the dark, it was going to take another 20 minutes or so.

Once at La Gittaz, I sat down and let the aid station captain that I was dropping and needed to get on the next shuttle. After some negotiation, I realized it could take 4 to 6 hours to get on a shuttle, then down to the wrong valley, having to wait for another 2 or 3 hours for a shuttle to Les Contamines, then wait for another shuttle to Chamonix. The alternative? Continue up to Col du Joly... The captain assured me that he was a runner and the next section was in much better shape than the previous one. Well, as much as I was happy to get to the pass after 3 hours of scrambling over the next 6.5 miles, the trail was actually very muddy too and it was super hard with one pole. Ironically, I reached the pass with Eric, another runner who had broken a pole as well and had as much difficulty controlling the sliding as I had. And, at the Col du Joly aid station, I met another runner who had broken both his poles, but wasn't taking that as an excuse to stop; I’m not convinced how efficient that was, he even had fixed one pole with some tape!

It was now 1 am and I felt lucky to get on a shuttle at 1:30. Contrary to the comfortable shuttles of the morning, that one was a 20-minute bumpy ride down the mountain, to Les Contamines. As bumpy as it was, I felt so much better than having to run the next 10 kilometers of the course to Les Contamines!

Down there, my day wasn't over though. The shuttle for Chamonix came an hour later (3 am), we got to Chamonix by 4 am, where I got my drop bags and walked back to the apartment, crossing a handful of TDS finishers in Chamonix. I slept from 5 am to 12:30 pm and got back to the mill (aka work...) from 3 pm to 1 am.

I just had the time to wash my muddy gear before getting on the phone.
That's a lot of drop bags, isn't it?

I worked on Friday too but managed to run 10.5 miles around Chamonix on Saturday morning, a great way to grieve for this other embarrassing and painful DNF in the Alps. 2 UTMB races, 2 failures, not a great stat. Including 2 Mountain'Hard participations (DNF in 2013, a 3rd place in my age group in 2017) and the Chamonix 90K this year, the Savoie wins 3 to 2 so far.

From the Lac des Gaillands, here is a shot of the rare view we had on Saturday of the Arête du Goûter. With the fresh snow on it, you can tell that the UTMB runners didn't have a much better weather we had on TDS either...
The weather was still very cloudy when I left Chamonix at 2 pm (view toward the Aiguille du Midi). That was 45 minutes before Xavier closed the loop around Mont Blanc (yes, under 21 hours!!).
While the outcome is of a course a big disappointment, many things worked well. First, I still managed to cover 3/4 of the course (90K), including the major climbs, without breaking a bone, phew! I felt strong in the uphills, never bonked, no GI issue (thanks to my keto diet and the Vespa Power supplement, plus one GU gel per hour), no cramping (well, at that slow speed anyway...), I kept my hydration in check thanks to GU Brew and one Succeed S!Caps every hour. But I certainly lost an insane amount of time at the aid stations.

I have to admit that it is so much harder to run in the Alps, compared to the super neat trails we have in California. And I have too much fear of falling in the technical descents, I can't manage to take pleasure in racing here, especially in such a large field. There is also the bruising of the ego, with the feeling of being a Formula 1 race with a clunker car, no pit/crew and such a lack of experience running these hilly trails and in such bad weather conditions (for me anyway). Except when racing here, I never train with a back pack, never train with poles, never train in such weather conditions, what can I expect from racing here then... Just more learning experiences...

I know, all bad excuses, many have finished while going through the same conditions, but they probably had much different expectations, and a better mental preparation. Anyway, it is done, it's already time to move on and keep my eye and mind on the next one. Speaking of which, I just got invited to race a 100K race in China at the end of October, this is super exciting! And, yes, it's on the road, so better get back to some speed, which is the part I like the most in ultra running, and which I miss the most in trail running in the Alps...

Before concluding, and although I doubt any of them will read this post, let me thank the myriad of volunteers who assisted us in such conditions and for many hours, with smiles and encouragement! It feels really bizarre to not seeing one familiar face during an ultra; I knew only one person among the runners, YiOu Wang, but I learned after I dropped that she didn't start, actually. :-(
With that, it was another amazing experience to be part of this world summit of ultra trail running but I'm very much looking forward to getting back to my ultra family in California then, I miss you all!

No comments: