Monday, July 29, 2013

On Rhus Ridge with my GoPro

I have been contemplating changing camera for a few months as my Canon PowerShot appears a bit tired of "running" miles in rugged conditions and I had quick looks to the versatile action movie cameras such as the GoPro or the Sony Action Cam. For Fathers' Day, and breaking this indecision, my sons surprised my with a gift certificate for a... GoPro! It arrived this week so I was excited to put it at work on the trails. And what a better opportunity than our monthly group run from Rhus Ridge?

This Saturday morning, I first dropped Greg at school at 6 am where he met 2 other classmates and his new yearbook teacher to carpool to a yearbook summer camp in Sacramento this weekend. Thanks to this early duty, I was at the Rancho San Antonio parking lot earlier than usual and left the car around 6:25 am. It always amazes me to see these parking lots almost full already at such an early time, with hundreds of people on the trail. At least it was daylight although we were under a thick layer of fog still covering the Valley and this side of the hills.
I passed one runner and one hiker on my way to the Windmill Pasture at the top of the steep Rhus Ridge hill. I went down the hill toward the entrance to meet with whomever was able to make the group run this July. I ran into Charles (Stevens) who was hiking and said that, although he had left a fw minutes before 7 am, he didn't think there will be others joining that time. We hiked up together and I learned that Charles had another blood clot at Ohlone last May and was still enduring severe back pain. I learned so much about ultra running from Charles upon joining the Stevens Creek Striders, it makes me sad to seem him now struggling and frustrated for not being able to run. But at least he is still out there enjoying our nearby trails for a serious hike up to Black Mountain! And it was worth the effort of powering through the fog for some aerial and sunny views at the top!
Solo I then went for this 29-mile loop, stopping here and there to take a picture or a movie on order to give you a better taste and feel of trail running than the still pictures I've shared over the past 7 years in this blog. Speaking of pictures, the GoPro doesn't shoot only movies but pictures too with such a wide angle that it's challenging not to get your own shadow in the picture!

Going through the Palo Alto Foothills park, I met Frederic (Garderes), an alumni of the same engineering school I attended in France and a fervent reader of my blog. Frederic is an ultra runner too. He ran his first 50-mile at Quicksilver in May and will run the Dick Collins Firetrails one in October. We talked about running, gear, work and family.
He went on the section I was just out and reported in the evening on Facebook that he saw a rattlesnake. I'm not surprised as this is where I saw one, coiled in the middle of the trail, last year. At the park headquarters, there is actually one live kingsnake, a snake which was dubbed this way because it eats other... snakes... including the dangerous rattlesnake!

Besides the rattlesnake, the hazards on this trail are rock/land slides (I always run this trail like it was the last time as it is so damaged)
and I like this "Bee careful" sign as well which says it all:
Overall, it was a good run to test the GoPro. With the wide angle, not quite a fisheye but close, the pictures are "interesting", let's interestingly distorted. Not having the optional camera back as a feedback loop, it is hard to anticipate what will be in the frame of the picture, adding a surprise and anticipation component to photographing like we had before the digital world. Anyway, see my Picasa album for more pictures from this run (about 60) with a few comments.

As for the movies, I shot at 960 pixels x 30 images/sec and I must say I'm not very happy with the result. Sure, there is the way to hold the camera and I didn't have one of these optional devices to attach the camera to a strap around your chest or head, or at the end of a pole, but I find the result rather "chopped", not smooth at all. And, the few minutes I shot this Saturday are worth 1.5GB so that's not practical to upload from an airport...

Great running week otherwise with 93 miles added to the log, right after the 62 miles at the aborted TRT last weekend. And I'm now on a long flight to Bangkok through Tokyo... Talk to you next time from Thailand then!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tahoe Rim Trail 100: how far in paradise... and hell?

It was just my first attempt at this 100-miler but it has been quite a long story leading to it already. Last year, we were out of the country again with the family for Western States so Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) was the only other 100-miler in our ultra Grand Prix. First I didn't think I was going to be back on time for the race but, once I was able to secure a flight for the week leading to the event, I rushed to register despite being quite far down the waiting list. I also registered for both training runs which occurred mid June, the weekend I broke my shoulder. Early July, I was still hoping, or let's say dreaming, of racing it, but that was out of question from a medical standpoint. So long for the 2012 edition, end of the first episode...

The second major milestone was on January 1st as registration opened at midnight on New Year's Eve. We were at our friends in Incline Village actually and went to bed before midnight. By chance, I woke up at 4 am and checked the website, just in time to grab one of the last slots. That says a lot about how famous this event became in a decade, the 100-mile distance having been added to the original 50K and 50-mile event in 2006. As the Race Director, George Ruiz, reminded us during the briefing, TRT has been named one of the top 10 bucket list races, worldwide, by Outside magazine.

That being said, you could think that I had done my homework, or outdoorwork for the matter, and came to train on the course. Unfortunately, between work, international travels and a lot of (good) racing this year, I wasn't able to squeeze anything. I only had the website instructions plus some tips from fellow Quicksilver teammates to try visualizing the terrain, quite a virtual and theoretical exercise... Not to mention that the weather conditions vary significantly from one year to another, from cold and snow on the course to super dry and hot as this year.
The briefing in Carson City on Friday afternoon gave us a hint on this heat wave. Actually, on the way to the Legislature Building, we stopped by Spooner Lake where I ran 4 miles to and passed Spooner Summit to test my right hip. Last weekend, we were in Chamonix and I had a bad fall right on that hip (running vertically...). The two days leading to the race, my muscles were still so painful that I didn't know if I was even going to toe the start line. The 4-mile test run was conclusive, the faulty muscles being sufficiently on the side not to alter my stride. However, I was amazed as how thirsty I became for just 4 easy miles in this thin, hot and dry air. For those who don't know the area, the TRT course elevation spans from 6,500 to 9,000 feet, that is 2,000 and 2,750 meters, quite high elevation. And humidity gets as low as 10%, a dryness I only experienced before in Saudi Arabia.
With that, the Race Directors, as well as the Mayor of the Carson City, voted one of the top runners-friendly city in America by Runners' World, gave us ample warnings about hydration, George Ruiz citing dehydration as the number one reason for dropping at this event.
We started at 5 am. It was still dark but many runners didn't wear a headlamp, so I left mine to Agnès and sort of piggy-backed on some of the front runners who were lighting the way. Thankfully, the trail to Marlette Lake is really nice and smooth. Unintentionally though, I ended up in 6th position on the uphill single track. It felt so good to be running in the coolness of the early morning, and the pace seemed ok anyway as the slope wasn't too pronounced. However, I was worried to be running just behind Chikara who is known for blazing fast starts (and finishes!). I was now in third and we had lost sight of Joshua Brimhall.
I didn't know Joshua (M26, Nevada) but, from the look, I had a sense that, with Chikara being 29 years younger, I was playing in the kids yard, and likely going out too fast.

I got at the first aid station, Hobart, in 1:03. That would have been an ok pace if the station was indeed at mile 6.2, but my GPS gave 7.3 instead which I believe is right as it had all the other distances correct. In other words, the cumulative distances before the Diamond Peak lodge were off 1 mile with Diamond Peak indeed at mile 30. I changed GPS at the turnaround and had the same 7.3-mile distance for Hobart, so I'm quite positive. Anyway, thanks to the early start and good pace, we ran most of the first 12 miles up to Tunnel Creek #1 (the 100-mile course goes through the Tunnel Creek aid station 6 times!). Agnès was there already, after a 1-hour hike (3.5 miles, 2,000 feet elevation gain) carrying my drop bag. She had enjoyed great views of the sunrise over Lake Tahoe on the way up.
I started the Red House loop at 7 am, still on Chikara's heels. Here we are, flying down the Red House loop with Brett Rivers taking pictures (Brett is an elite ultra runner and owner of the San Francisco Running Company):
I lost sight of Chikara at the bottom of the loop, right before Red House where the station was just opening. The following section has the only flat and non technical mile of the course and it was gorgeous to run in the shade at 8 min/mile for a short while. I was back up to Tunnel Creek by 8 am, a 6 mile/hour pace. Agnès, Todd and Janet were at the top of the hill to cheer me up.
I got my bottles refilled again as I remembered there was a long section ahead of us through the meadows. I stopped at Bull Wheel, 3 miles later, to fill my water bottle up and realized I hadn't drunk much of it. The next 2 miles still had some rocks to climb or hop over and a few mountain bikers to cross, although not too bad in the early morning, then a few miles through the meadows before the turn for the long 4.5-mile downhill to the Diamond Peak lodge. George Ruiz had warned us to save our quads in this one and there were still a few rocks here and there which slow me down anyway with my new fear of falling, so I wasn't pushing. Yet, I was speechless when Bob Shebest, the eventual winner, flew by me in this section, building a 3-minute gap in less than 3 miles.
Greg, Todd and Janet had just arrived at the lodge when I got there at 9:51. 3 minutes after Bob and 8 minutes behind Chikara. I got my bottles refilled and drank a cup of Coke, but, after such a long stretch, and before the insane hike back up Bull Wheel (1.8-mile, 2,000 feet elevation gain on a sandy ski run), I should have drunk a full water bottle to rehydrate. I must say that I appreciate the green and sustainability idea of carrying a folding plastic pocket as a cup, but, beyond saving paper cups, that makes drinking at the aid station really challenging and messy. Well, better getting used to it if that's becoming the new ultra norm...

I hiked the crazy hill focusing on my footing to avoid sliding in the lose sand at each step. And sipping water while trying to keep my breath in this strenuous effort. An extreme challenge both physically and mentally, especially when that was your first time on the course and you realized that you had to hike such a wall at mile 80 again... I was glad to see Brett Rivers taking picture at the top of the hill, a sure indication we were almost at the aid station. With 200 participants on the 100-mile and the same on the 50-mile, the tiny aid station was way more busy than when I first got through. Due to the remoteness of the station, although I don't understand why it isn't possible for a 4x4 to haul something up there from the lodge when you see the access road to Tunnel Creek and Red House, the station is only meant to be a water stop. Yet, there was some limited food thanks to the hard work of the volunteers, but no ice. The 3 miles to return to Tunnel Creek #3 were not too difficult except for the rocks of course and the hundred of runners we had to cross on the single track. I can't thank them enough for stepping on the side to let the front runners go in addition to giving us encouragement. With the elevation and the effort, I was barely able to whisper a "sorry," "thank you, "keep it up" or "good luck" I hope I didn't offend anyone (the same for Tunnel Creek #3 to the finish/turnaround and my 2nd Hobart-Tunnel Creek).
Agnès was still at Tunnel Creek for my 3rd passage and I stopped for a few minutes, trying to recompose myself especially on the hydration side, with the very limited capacity of a dusty plastic pocket to drink from. With the rocky trails and the climb from Diamond Peak my average pace was now 10:20 min/mile and I was just slowing down when thinking of all the miles ahead now that I had discovered the course and terrain in the first loop. I passed quite a few 50K runners on the way back to Spooner Lake although I did walk quite a few of the uphill sections myself. Still no sign of the 50-mile runners who started 1 hour behind us. Not feeling so good, I was enjoying a succulent mini smoothie when a 100-mile runner, John Fitzgerald (yes, another local and 26-year "kid" ;-), rushed in the aid station, stressed that he went so fast through Tunnel Creek that nobody had noticed. I finished drinking and eating a few bits and left, expecting to see him quickly in the next miles. To my surprise, no sign of him as I passed through Snow Valley, the aid station manned by the Boy Scouts at 9,000 feet, nor when I stopped at Spooner Summit where I was in a dear need of iced water.
I reached the 50-mile turn-around still in 4th place, in 9:02 (2:02 pm). With John on my heels There had been some reshuffling at the top. Joshua came at 50 mile in a blazing 7:53 with a 31-minute gap on Bob, now in 2nd place, with Chikara 20 minutes behind.

Agnès and Greg were there to assist me but I had hard time focusing as I experienced something which never happened to me in my 85 previous ultra races, over-volunteering...! I wasn't feeling so good, having missed water twice in the first loop, and I know I was dehydrated for the simple fact that I had peed only twice in 9 hours. The scale was indicating 126 pounds, just off the 130 pounds at the check-in, 130 at Tunnel Creek #2 and 128 at Diamond Peak, so not too bad but still something to work on.
And one volunteer kept giving me all sort of advice which prevented me to listen to my mind and body, or even to look at what I had in my drop bag. As a result, I lost a lot of time and even left the station without mu Gu2O supply for the 2nd loop, not good... I told Agnes that I was not going to walk a lot and it was going to take me at least 3 hours to get to Tunnel Creek, instead of the 2 hours in the morning. She had planned on only meeting me at mile 80 but I said that, at this much slower pace, I needed her, and especially my headlamp, at Tunnel Creek.

It took me about 1:50 to cover the 7 miles to Hobart and I was out of water at least 2 miles before getting to the aid station. There, I caught up with John again. I believe 1 other runner had passed us during our stop at the turn around. I was still climbing (or crawling) faster than John but he was a much better descender, plus he had a pacer. He wasn't feeling good at Hobart and I left first after drinking some soup and Coke. John and his pacer passed me again a couple of miles later. At that time, we were crossing many runners heading back to either the finish (50-milers) or turn-around. Again, despite being all tired, they were cheering up, what a nice sport ultra running is! Half a mile before Tunnel Creek #4 I met teammate Jim Magill who told me he was feeling slightly better after a tough morning when he couldn't hold fluid especially in the climb up to Bull Wheel. He also told me that another of our teammates, Jeremy Johnson, had just dropped at his Tunnel Creek #3, leaving our team captain, Marc Laveson without his runner to pace. It was Jeremy's first attempt of the distance, he had surely picked a very tough one. I saw him as I entered the aid station and he quickly left after, seizing the opportunity of a rare shuttle down to Incline Village.

I entered the aid station with 3 things in mind: hoping to see Agnès with my Gu2O pouches, almost ready to drop as even walking became painful, but decided to give a try to a 30-minute rest on a cot, something I never took the time to experiment before but that I heard was working eventually. Unfortunately, Agnès was nowhere to be found, and therefore not my drop bag either. Noe Castanon was very helpful and offered to give a call to Agnès who was on her second power hike to the station today. With other great views on the lake.
She arrived 20 minutes later, after having dropped Greg in Incline Village. The last-minute plan then was for Greg to drive to Diamond Peak later in the evening to pace me on the 5 miles from Diamond Peak to Tunnel Creek #6, miles 80-85. And Agnès was considering walking the remaining 15 miles to the finish with me. While I was touched by this last minute pacing plan, the thing I like the most in ultra running is... running, not walking... So, by the time Agnès joined me at Tunnel Creek, I was feeling better physically after 3 cups of soup and one can of Coke, yet I had pretty much decided in my mind that I wasn't up for 13 or so more hours of painful walking through the night, going down to Red House, then up, then the long loop to down to Diamond Peak, then the insane climb to Bull Wheel, then all the rocky and rolling sections back to Hobart, then the climb to Snow Valley and more tricky rocks on the remaining 10 kilometers to the finish. Not that far into the dark side of hell... My GPS was displaying 62.1 miles, covered in 12 hours, good enough of an accomplishment for me this weekend although not worth any belt buckle.

In 86 ultra races since 2006, this is my 4th DNF.I'm disappointed of course of not having finished but, given that I had no plan and a very limited knowledge of the event and course, I don't regret my decision at all. My only frustration is that it has quite a few similarities with what happened to me at Rio del Lago 100-mile last year: first part of the race in the lead and not carrying extra water between aid stations in the heat. As Einstein once said: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results... Oh well, isn't ultra running a bit about insanity...? ;-) Besides, no two ultras are really the same.

A glimpse of heaven,,, a taste of hell is the Tahoe Rim Trail tag line. This is great advertising, not false at all! For me, discovering the course on the first way out up to Diamond Peak #1 was the glimpse of heaven. Great running, I enjoyed every bit of it. But the taste of hell started rather too soon in the day with the Bull Wheel climb. And, with the subsequent dehydration, that taste became sourer and sourer, to the point that Agnès's mantra took over, as she often reminds me that I'm doing ultra for the fun of it, not to spend too much time on the hell side... ;-)

One of the Tunnel Creek volunteers, Jennifer, from Reno, gave Agnès and I a ride back down to Incline Village. If this is a long climb for the crews, that's also a tricky and long one in a 4-wheel drive and I can't imagine how it must be with a trailer to haul all the aid station supplies! Upon our return to our friends' in Incline Village, I soaked my legs in the Lake and felt a bit ashamed to enjoy a comfortable bed by 9 pm when a few of my teammates were still battling on the course. Amy Burton finished 5th woman in 27:38. Mark Tanaka in 29:35 and Yujun Wang in 31:47. 3 finishers our of our 7 starters. The sad part of the story is about Jim: he reached the turnaround at 9:45 pm and was first told that he had missed the cut-off time by 5 minutes. 30 minutes later the Race Director came to him saying that the cut-off was actually 10:30 pm so he had 15 minutes to keep going. But the psychological damage was made by that time and Jim dropped. It's hard to keep track of everything when everybody is getting tired (runners and volunteers)... 3 out of 7, slightly below the 57% finisher rate (118 finishers/207 starters). As a statistic, I'd be interested to know who made it to the finish without a pacer (or safety runner as the race website calls them), as I believe this makes a huge difference on such a course.
Overall, this is an outstanding event: the views of the lakes (Tahoe, Marlette) and mountains are amazing and worth stopping here and there to print them in your mind. There is a good variety of trails, from technical, rocky and sandy ones to others in the shade of woods or exposed on the ridge. The event has its roots in the local ultra running community. And the course profile is super challenging, both physically and mentally. What can you expect more?

A special thank to Agnès for all the driving, hiking or Nordic walking, waiting, sweating, worrying, photographing, cheering up, refilling, carrying (moving drop bag), waking up at 3:30 am and driving back to the Bay Area so I could write this post in the car before returning to work this Sunday evening... What a life crew you are! :-)
A sincere thank to the volunteers who man these very busy aid stations, most of them seeing the runners go through 4 if not 6 times! No wonder why it's so challenging to keep the webcast updated, and I can't even imagine how hard it was for people to crew a few years ago when there wasn't any webcast at all! You would think that a 100-mile on a 50-mile loop is easier to organize and manage (the even added the 100-mile distance only a few years ago), but it leads to super busy stations, many runners going in all directions through stations, many runners on the same sections, and aid stations opened for more than 30 hours! Kudos to George Ruiz and his team for producing such a major event on the ultra scene and offering us, ultra runners, an even bigger challenge to measure us against. A beast which guarantees... a glimpse of heaven... a taste of hell...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Running vertically: Chamonix' Kilomètre Vertical

While this is trail running, it is a very different type of running, if not crawling. And nothing to see with ultra running: Chamonix' Kilomètre Vertical course is only 3.8 km long (2.4 miles) for an elevation gain of, well, 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet.
Greg wanted to give it a try, hiking the course with Agnès, and, despite the need to taper before the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile next Saturday, I couldn't resist to going up there.
I started near the Balmat monument/statue and did trot all the switchbacks until about 300 meters of elevation gain, when I had to alternate running and hiking to catch my breath. While the trail is not going straight up, literally, the very steep hill under the gondola (téléphérique de Plan-Praz), the switchbacks are very short, and very steep (course picture from the race website).
After about 800 meters of this grueling hiking regimen, you get to a section which includes ladders, cables, metal steps sealed in giant rocks and of course a few roots here and there and slippery sections to make it a real mountainous experience. After all, we are in the Mecca of mountain climbing!

The finish is near the paragliding take-off area. It took me 52 minutes and 20 seconds to cover the distance which I thought was pretty good until I saw this year's race results. The winning time was 34:34 and 52:20 was the 140th time this year! Of course, I wasn't pushing as hard as if I was racing but still, that's a significant gap.

Not pushing too hard, I actually decided to continue and climb up to the top of Le Brévent which I reached in 1:22 (2,525m). For that additional half kilometer of vertical climb, the only difficulty was all the snow on the service road to the summit. I've never seen so much of it that late in the year, this has been a great year for the glaciers, slowing down a bit the effect of global warming. Running in the snow on the way back was really cool and actually much easier than running on lose rocks which this section usually abounds of. I was back to the paragliding take-off area in 1:40. From there, I missed the start of the trail I usually uses and crossed under the take-off, across grass and rocks, making a bad and painful fall on my left side. My elbow and hip hurt and it took me 55 minutes to get back to Chamonix, taking a much longer and less steep trail than the vertical kilometer one. Bummer but nothing broken fortunately, I should be fine for TRT this Saturday. Another reason to taper and not take risk just one week before such a long race...

PS: as of Thursday, my hip is still quite painful, suspense for Saturday...

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!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Running in Corsica #2: Calenzana - Galeria (Mare e Monti North)

Please check my previous post for a few words of introduction of my stay in Corsica and this series of articles. If you visit the area of Calvi and you like running or hiking, there may be a major reason, the GR 20. As I stated a couple of weeks ago when I ran on the GR 223 around Granville, GR stands for Grande Randonnée or Chemin de Grande Randonnée. The GR 20 is a famous destination which crosses Corsica vertically between Calenzana to the North and Conca to the South of the Island. About 200 kilometers of tough, rough and technical trails which usually take 15 days for hikers to cover but which Killian Jornet ran in a record 32 hours and 54 minutes in June 2009! The GR 20 has its own website,
Now, Calenzana is also the start of another trail called Mare e Monti (Tra Mare è Monti in Corsican), literally Sea and Mountain, which shares the first mile with the GR 20 before turning right toward the Mediterranean Sea. There are actually two Mare e Monti trails, North and South, and three Mare a Mare (see to sea) trails crossing the island horizontally (North, Central, South). The trail between Calenzana and Cargèse is the Mare e Monti North and typically takes 10 days for hikers to cover.

While wikipedia states that it is less technical than the GR 20, I still found many sections hard to run because of the number and large size of the rocks or roots, or slippery sections of sandy stones, not to mention the narrow trails with thorny bushes scratching your calves and hiding rocks on the trail... As Killian said after his GR 20 record, running on such trails requires extreme focus and Killian even said that it was the hardest thing he had ever done before 2009 which says a lot...
Despite the trail challenges the views are amazing and the vegetation between Calenzana and Galeria is actually quite varied, from very dry areas to sections along refreshing streams. After the first common mile with GR 20, you leave the main trail on the right and get to the Bocca au Corsu pass. The next mile is quite technical then you get on 2 miles of downhill fire road.
While it took me one hour to cover the first 5.5. miles, it took me an hour to climb back the next 3 miles and another hour for 4 other technical miles. I'm really not used to such a 20-minute/mile pace... The last miles to Galeria include one mile on the road before the trail gets back in the woods with low branches, another trick for the backpackers. A last climb gets you to 500 feet over the bay of Galeria for some very nice views of the beach and small harbor.
In 5 hours and 31 minutes of running time, not counting the breaks to take pictures or water from the streams, I covered three stages of the overall trail: Calenzana > Bonifatu (5 hours), Bonifatu > Tuarelli (6 hours) and Tuarelli > Galeria (5 hours). 24.6 miles and 5,600 feet of cumulative elevation.
Of course, I wasn't carrying the 40 or 50-pound backpack which I saw on the a few hikers and I must admit that I would have hard time hiking with such a load on such technical trails on which you basically have to stop at every rock/step, even more so in the steep downhills.
If interested, you can download the detailed route from Garmin Connect, and/or more likely look at the pictures I uploaded onto my Picasa album.

Running in Corsica #1: Lavatoggio - Ile Rousse

After 68 miles in Porto, Portugal (Porto-Gondomar, Porto-Espinho and Porto-Matosinhos), 67 miles in Paris, 60 in Granville, Normandy (GR 223), I'm now in Corsica for a few days, and a much different type of running on tricky, hilly and rocky trails, for some good training before the Montagn'Hard race this coming weekend in the Alps.

I had visited Corsica once, in 1987, and stayed with the family of a friend from Bastia. Back then, I remember having hiked in the maquis and getting lost in the maze of deer trails as we say in California, or rather wild hogs over here. We stayed for 4 days in Lavatoggio, a very small village East of Calvi, at the North West end of Corsica, and 4 days in Santa-Maria-Poggio, 25 miles South of Bastia, on the East side of the island.

Overall, this is an amazing region, with the omnipresent mix of mountainous and sea-shore landscapes and the tiny villages perched on rocky pitons. And, with the strong nationalist spirit and culture of Corsicans, you meet quite a different France than the Continental one...
I did three long runs in the Calvi area, then two shorter ones, over Corte and South of Bastia after watching the 2nd stage of the Tour de France.
This post is about a run from Lavatoggio to Ile Rousse. I realize that there is little chance that you actually stay in Lavatoggio as there isn't even a hotel there, so I'm not going to go into much details about the course. However, if you stay in the area, here is a link to the detailed course on Garmin Connect. Lavatoggio down to Aregno then a steep uphill to the touristic Sant'Antonino, down to Avapessa, all on a single track trail. From Avapessa, I took the very quiet road down to the busier D13 toward Santa-Reparata-di-Balagna and down to Ile Rousse where I met Agnès and Greg at the harbor before their scuba diving baptism with my sister, Marie and her husband Bruno, both experimented scuba and free-divers (apnea).
From Ile Rousse I climbed back and up to Sant'Antonino via Corbara, then down again to Cateri and back to Lavatoggio.
23 miles and 4,000 feet of cumulative elevation. I posted a few pictures (about 70!) in my Picasa album, enjoy the run through this Northern area of Corsica, la Balagne!