Monday, July 28, 2008

UTMB training with Scott and Team Lafuma

When I was a kid, and a boy scout, Lafuma was a no-brainer for buying our camping gear. Years later, actually a few years ago, Lafuma diversified, adding a line of ultra and trail running gear (shoes, apparel and accessories). Karine (Herry), whom I met at last year’s Western States, finishing 12 minutes behind her, quickly became Lafuma’s ambassadrice. With her husband and coach Bruno, providing amazing pictures from around the world to showcase the Lafuma products in high quality catalogs. Photo credit Bruno Tomazyk:

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.

A premiere for me: seeing Scott taking pictures!

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:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Fontainebleau: the South TMV 50K

TMV stands for Tour du Massif à Vélo. Literally: the tour around the group of mountains, by bike. Kind of a strange trail name for a 50K with less than 300 feet elevation variance between the highest and lowest points. But that's how the locals call the trail on the maps and guides of the Forêt Domaniale de Fontainebleau. Actually, the forest is also know for rock climbing. Again, not much vertical ascent, but great technical climbing on numerous large sandstone boulders. A bouldering site renown internationally.

And a forest of more than 100 square-miles with hundreds of miles of trails, the nirvana for recreational runners and bikers. All that less than one hour-drive from Paris and even accessible by train (you can board with your bike in Paris, the ride is 40 minutes). In addition to being listed by UNESCO as one of the world biospheres, like the San Francisco Bay, the Fontainebleau forest carries a rich cultural heritage and history, having provided inspiration to many famous artists (painters, photographers, writers, poets) such as: Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Camille Corot, Jean-Francois Millet and Théodore Rousseau (école de Barbizon), Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Chateubriand, Victor Hugo, Jules Michelet, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Gustave Flaubert, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anatole France, Emile Verhaeren, Guy de Maupassant, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust and André Breton.

My Picasa photo album (with comments!) is far from being as artistic as all the famous paintings which saw the light in this area, nor as picturesque as the one of my pilgrimage around Mont Saint Michel. Rather, it is targeted toward the runners, hikers and mountain bikers, to give them an overview of the trail. Needless to say, taking more than 150 pictures and stopping at every corner to check my progress on an approximative map, I had a slow run on such a flat course: 5h30, more a hike than a training run. Interestingly enough, this is the time that the guides give as an indication for the whole tour, on a bike!

Here is the overall and detailed itinerary as recorded by my Garmin 205:
  1. Google Maps (no download necessary)
  2. Google Earth (need to install Google Earth)
There are really hundreds of trails through the forest. In most areas, trails may be straight for as long as 3 miles, crossing at junctions and forming stars on the map, in the same organized and urbanized way as the avenues in Washington, D.C. (sharing the same French background or inspiration...). In some other areas, the trails are convoluted and the trail markings hard to follow. Overall the trails are mostly sandy and provide a very soft and comfortable terrain for the joints.

My preferred spots were successively:

An impressive and lengthy aqueduct:
The viewpoint of the Chief Inspector, with infinite views over the forest:
The fairies' pond:
The cross of St Herem, commemorating the meeting between Napoleon I and Pope Pie VII on November 25, 1805:
The site of the canyon of Franchard (le gorges de Franchard) with the famous sandstone boulders:
Also, at le site de Franchard, a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary (1948-1998) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), an organization so important as we are facing the sustainability challenge, yet which I had never heard about:
The forest headquarters of La Faisanderie, where I could finally find some water after 26 miles:
Last but not least, the castle of Fontainebleau, showing so much history and memories of numerous kings and military leaders:
This run on Saturday was my 5th ultra since we started our own Tour de France, 2 weeks ago; after our stops in Normandy and Brittany. I was back to work on Thursday and Friday and will work in Paris all week before heading to our next and last stage in Annecy and Chamonix. With the hope of running again on the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) course with a few of my ultra heroes: Karine Herry and Scott Jurek. Stay tuned, I am myself waiting and anxious to hearing back from Bruno about which section they will be training on the only day I have available, Monday 28th.

In the meantime, have a good week and many happy trails and miles!

Seascapes from the Quiberon peninsula

Our Tour de France continues. After Rouen and Granville in Normandy, we crossed Britanny to visit Agnès' cousins at La Trinité-sur-Mer. Last time we visited this area was in 1997, one year before relocating to California.

On Bastille Day (last Monday, July 14th), I left La Trinité for my 4th ultra in 7 days (two 50Ks in Rouen and 54 miles around Le Mont St Michel). To make the run more interesting, I chose to use as much of the GR (Chemin de Grande Randonnée, a National Trail system) along the coast. The trail could not actually be as close to the coast as this, including sandy sections on the beaches or sections right on the ridge of impressive cliffs.

I lost the GR markings in Carnac and did a loop in the small touristic town before finding back my way along the bay of the Pô. After crossing the Pô, the GR leaves the coast as there is no trail crossing the salt marshes and oyster farms. I crossed Plouharnel and got on the bike path along the highway. As the only access to get on the peninsula, this road is very busy and it is very convenient to have such a path to escape the traffic, a continuous flow of cars, RVs and trailers.
Left the road for the beach at Penthièvre and found the trail (Sentier Côtier) back at the very nice and tiny harbor of Portivy after crossing the narrow isthmus.
Portivy marks the beginning of La Côte Sauvage (literally: the wild coast), which is a kind of National Park (a 10-mile seashore listed in the Patrimoine National).
The trail follows the edge of the cliffs, providing amazing views of the rugged seashore, so characteristic of this littoral. To some extent it reminded me of running along the California Coast between Big Sur and Carmel, except that, here, you run on a trail, not on Highway 1.
Biking, Agnès and Max caught up with me after Plouharnel as I was reaching Carnac (Le Bourg in the background):
42 miles or 67 kilometers. Flat, sunny and amazing views, amazing seascapes 360 degrees around the Quiberon peninsula. A great way to enjoy this region in the South of Brittany. If you have the opportunity to visit you may want to check my itinerary which I posted online:
  1. Google Maps (no download necessary)
  2. Google Earth (need to have Google Earth installed)
The day ended with the traditional fireworks on the beach of Carnac, a colorful and musical show:
The following day I ran 11 miles at a much faster pace (~6 min/mile) along with our cousins, Agnès and the boys, all biking. Back to the house our cousins are renting, running 3 miles with Max after he had left his rental bike.

Last, on Wednesday, I ran 16 miles around the Crac'h river, from La Trinité to Auray and back through the small town of Crac'h.

Next stage of our Tour de France: Avon and Fontainebleau!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pilgrimage around St Michael's Mount

I had planned to call my post "Les 100 kilomètres du Mont Saint Michel" like the "Marathon du Mont Saint Michel" which I have run for the French Nationals (marathon) in June 2005. The marathon was quite an experience with temperatures above 90F (32C). We were about 200 runners in the championship and 6,000 in the open competition and race management had to close the competition after 2 hours allowing only 2,400 finishers that year.

This Friday, I wanted to run the whole way between Granville (the city my mother was born in) and Cancale or La Pointe du Grouin. The whole way around the Bay of Saint Michael's Mount. From Normandy to Brittany. GoogleMaps was giving about 100K by the road but the itinerary included several highways. Whereas a trail was going along most of the shore: the GR 223 and GR 34, two national trails (GR stands for Chemin de Grande Randonnée and you can find them all throughout the French country side with their white and red short stripes markings).
Unfortunately, these trails do not seem to be much used by the locals. Nettles, wild rose bushes, thistles, mud, swamps, many obstacles which bring some fun when walking a few miles but not so pleasant when running more than 50. Needless to say, I almost saw nobody while on the trail. Overall though, it was a very picturesque run and hike with 360-degree views of Le Mont Saint Michel, very much worth its listing on the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Now, I want to see the other Saint Michael's Mount in England... I could have gone the whole 62 miles (100K) but stopped after 53 at Le Vivier-sur-Mer where my crew (Agnès, the boys and my aunt Miche) had been waiting for 1h30 (I was slower because of the trail conditions and the improvised stops to get water, food and hundreds of pictures...). Actually, it was not a bad idea to stop because a big storm hit us shortly after they picked me up, while we were driving up to La Pointe du Grouin (another very picturesque place, see the photo album).

You can find many details about my run through the following resources:
  1. Photo album with comments (175 pictures!)
  2. The detailed itinerary on GoogleEarth (download)
  3. The itinerary on GoogleMaps (no download necessary)
Note that I missed about 1 mile inadvertently stopping my watch in Cherrueix while calling Agnès from a pay phone.

A pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel

Actually, the previous night, I walked with the family to the Mount, what we call in French La Traversée des Grèves. A journey that thousands of pilgrims made to visit this very special place. A place which is just celebrating 1,300 years (!) of history this year, with the Archangel Michael appearing to Saint Aubert in 708 and asking him to build a church on the rock (then Mount Tomb).

A 10-mile round trip through the flat and sandy bay, crossing streams, muddy silt areas and quicksands. From Le Bec d'Andaine to the Mount and back. We left at 5:30 pm and were back just after sunset around 10:30 pm, with a 1-hour stop at the Mount and a few other stops on the way, including Le Rocher de Tombelaine, a natural preserve (on the left on the following picture).
Here again, pictures speak better than words so you can visit my Picasa photo album (207 pictures). With these 10 miles, it made my 100-kilometer count over 24 hours. To, from and around Le Mont Saint Michel. Although I have been visiting Granville every summer for 44 years, I had never spent that much time near this monument. And crossing the Bay by foot was even a premiere for me!
The Bay is not a place to go faster, but farther definitely, very much worth the trip, I promise! Hope you have the opportunity to visit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hello from L'Armada 2008

Farther, faster, a maxim which could well apply to these huge sailing ships, the world largest of their kind. To defend their country on sea or to support international trade, these ships have sailed many miles, the fastest as possible. This is the 5th edition of L'Armada de Rouen, with such an unmatched gathering happening every 4 to 5 years:
  1. 1989: the Sails of Freedom, commemorating the French Revolution;
  2. 1994: The Liberty Armada, for the 50th anniversary of D Day;
  3. 1999: The Armada of the Century;
  4. 2003: Armada Rouen 2003;
  5. 2008: Armada Rouen 2008.
The attendance has grown from 4 to 9 million visitors in 2003! I could enjoy the visit being in Rouen this week to visit my 2 sisters living here and attend a 3-day wedding of one my cousins (including a 5-hour lunch on Saturday from 2 to 7 pm; no, not an early dinner, an ultra lunch!).
On Sunday, I was able to run 25 kilometers in the Forêt Verte in Bois Guillaume, before joining the groom and the bride, their family and friends for a golf game (don't ask for my score, I just play golf once a year...).
Monday was off, from a running perspective with the visit of the Armada in the morning and a tour in Rouen with Greg.
I then ran twice Les Balcons de Rouen, a great 50K course around the North part of Rouen, Rive Droite. This is the course I discovered with Annick, Laurent, Phil and Stéphane in January for what I called a French Fat Ass. With this rainy beginning of July, the trails were almost as muddy as in January. The big differences with our winter run were (1) the leaves on the trees and (2) the crowd on the docks, downtown Rouen, along the large ships. 4h45 and 4h38 instead the 7+ hours of our social run in January.

If you have the opportunity to visit this part of Normandy, make sure to download the itinerary on your Garmin GPS watch (from Google Earth or Google Maps). Some turns and village crossings are tricky, but the loop is really worth, with great views over this city, the city of one hundred bell towers.
More later this week from Granville and the Mont Saint Michel (Mount Saint Michael)...