Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Hillary Ultra, NZ 2017

I first familiarised myself with The Hillary Ultra, NZ trail back in 2015 as part of my focus on the Skyrunning Oceania Series. That time I travelled alone and managed to finish in a time of 9:57:45 for a new course record. The following year my good friend Gill Fowler raced The Hillary Ultra. Prior to heading off to race, Gill and I discussed the course and I encouraged her to get my course record as I thought she could lower it further. Unsurprisingly Gill did lower it to 9:55:52. As Gill’s time was so close to mine I thought that there was the possibility of taking 1 or more seconds off her time this year.

For this year's race Brian accompanied me to Auckland as he was entered into the 34km run. Both of our goals for the event were very different. Mine was to run strong for the entire 80kms, his was to enjoy the scenery and to just finish. We were both fortunate enough to again stay with Brian’s Aunty Bev and Uncle Jack in Auckland. It is always good to stay with them as they are both very active people and are considerate of runner’s requirements (rest, diet, sleep, preparation, relaxing, napping, recovering, etc) as Bev is familiar with the marathon distance having done many road marathons before.

Photo from Arataki Visitor Centre. The Hillary Ultra Trail is somewhere in that forest.
The day before the event, Brian and I attended race registration then headed up into the hills of Waitākere Ranges Regional Park to the 80km start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. The only other time I had been here was for the start of the 2015 race, which was prior to first day light. I naively thought, at the time, that the race started at first light and so I missed out on the impressive views of the bay, dam, Auckland and surrounding dense forest. This time in daylight I took the opportunity to enjoy the views and wander around the visitor centre which proved a nice way to relax prior to the next morning’s early start.
Pre-race nerves.
Having Brian with me this time round meant that I could sleep in until 4:30am before we had to get up and head directly to the start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. This year I had with me a good head torch, something that I had overlooked last time. The race start was the usual affair, with a short but humorous race briefing by race director Shaun Collins, followed by the gathering of runners under the inflatable start line arch, before we headed off in darkness along 80kms of The Hillary trail. A brief countdown proceeded the start, then it was a short moderately paced run up through the visitor carpark which allowed for self-seeding to occur and avoided any hostile jostling prior to the single track through the first of many forest sections.

The first of many kauri dieback prevention foot wash stations.
Running through the dense forest is an unusual experience for me. The bush I run in at home is sparse and you can see for a fair distance into it, even with a head torch. The forest along The Hillary Trail, in comparison, is very dense and it is difficult to see much further than just a few metres. Occasionally my head torch would pick up a glint of reflected light and I had no idea if it was a beady eye from an animal or just a droplet of water, either way it kept me distracted while running this night section.
A runnable ascent.
After about half an hour of running the sky above started to get some colour in it. Gradually the light from my head torch became less effective as the day dawned. By this time we were well and truly into the race and had covered much undulating terrain. Through these early stages of the race I found myself running pretty much by myself as the field had already spaced itself out around me. At the first aid station, Huia, at 14kms, I was told I was 7th overall which is unusual for me to be so far up the field this early on.
Hands-on-knees technique is very effective on steep hills.
The first climb after Huia marks the start of the "big" climbs for the day. At around 360m ascent over 3km the first climb is steep but semi-runnable. The trail zig-zagged through lush forests, but after about half an hour of climbing the forest starts to open up and revealed a view of the ocean which only got more spectacular as the trail ascended. Near the top there is a permanently fixed chain to help runners up the last steep incline that revealed an amazing panoramic view. Memories from last time I raced here in 2015 kept resurfacing and I remembered stopping at the top briefly to take in the beauty and it did not disappoint this time either. Down below I could see the next check point  at Whatipu (24kms) and another runner ahead. I caught that runner, Tom Ennever, at the aid station, and we continued to run together for awhile until I dropped him on the following climb, but he soon caught up again. On this climb I found two other runners. One of them, Nathan Bycroft, ditched his fiend and joined my bandwagon on the ascent. Nathan and I continued to run together pretty much the rest of the race. It was good to have some company and we used each other to set the pace and keep each other honest.   
Descending is a form of controlled falling.

When I'm running with other people I imagine that the gap between us is bridged by a rubber band. This "rubber band" is a metaphor for the mind's ability to keep my body within a reasonable distance of the person I want to follow. In this race, following Tom and Nathan, I allowed this rubber band to stretch out a little by letting them stride out on the flatter terrain, but I lifted to close the gap in order to pace off them. The furthest I let that rubber band stretch was when they would be a few bends ahead on the trail, but most importantly they stayed within sight meaning that I didn't let that rubber band "break". As soon as that rubber band breaks it is difficult to be able to mentally and physically lift the pace again to catch up. It is a technique I use in training runs and races alike and the results are remarkably consistent.

The Piha checkpoint is the starting point for the 34km runners, of which Brian was one of them. When I arrived there was no one there which meant that I’d missed the start of the 34km race, so in my mind, Brian became a hare and I was a fox. Not often do I get the chance to chase him down, this would be a first under race conditions, so I relished the opportunity this time round.  From the Piha checkpoint the trail makes its way onto, then along, the beach through the tidal zone of dense black sand. After a kilometre of flat sandy beach running, which took a toll on the legs, the trail heads back into the forest. It wasn’t far up the hill before I came across the tail enders of the 34km pack. They were pacing themselves early and I managed to pass with ease on the single trail, in pursuit of the next 34km runner ahead. I continued this process for the remainder of the race, always keeping Tom and Nathan within sight.
Sometimes I had to take my eyes off the view and focus on the trails.
The following checkpoint was at Bethells. I arrived as the 16km runners were being briefed prior to their race start. I didn’t waste much time at the checkpoint refuelling as I wanted to put as much distance between me and the “fresh” 16km runners as I could. As all runners (80km, 34km and 16km) finish at the same finish line in Muriwai, this last section of trail from memory was going to get crowded. I made it about 1km along the trail before the 16km leaders caught me. They were setting quite a pace and treating it as a sprint. I managed to take advantage of these 16km runner’s movements and pass a few 34km runners. It was a nice change from having to call out “passing” as I’d been doing for the last 15 or so km’s.
Near the top of the second big climb from Bethells I came across Brian, sitting down on the grassy slope. He was looking pretty exhausted and wasn’t in much of a hurry to move. I told him to get a hurry on, but I could tell the interest wasn’t there. He passed me the car keys along with some motivation, that I was on record pace if I just continued running strong. Brian’s pretty good with his stats, and I trust what he says, so I used his words as motivation to run on and potentially give the record a nudge.
In between crowds on the coastal track from Piha.
 The single trail, which winds in and out of the coastal cliffs, was by this time becoming pretty crowded with energised 16km runners and exhausted 34km runners all passing and being passed alike. Occasionally I’d get called a “speedy” 16km runner, which at times I felt like correcting them saying that I was an 80km runner, but by this time my energy was reserved purely for running.
Always happy to finish.
Crossing the finish line outside Muriwai Surf Life Saving Club was a tremendous relief. The whole day I'd been focused with my running and to finally stop running was a massive relief. I stopped the clock at 9:56:56, just 64 seconds off Gill's course record, but a 49 second PB none the less (bloody long way to run for such a small PB in my honest opinion). It's not the first time I've missed out on a course record by mere minutes in an ultra. My primary goal in races is to always finish, which I did, so I'm happy. Now it was a matter of filling in a few hours while I waited for Brian to finish his sight seeing tour. One stand out feature of New Zealanders is how friendly they are and it was easy to strike up a conversation with people at the finish line while I waited.
Shaun Collins, The Hillary RD, and the hand made trophy.
I'm glad I made the decision to return to The Hillary. It's good to see how the event has grown. Personally I think that the views in the first 50kms of the course are some of the best, but that is still not enough motivation to get Brian to step up to the ultra.

The Hillary Course Profile


It is a good feeling when you can rely upon the same gear again and again knowing that it fits well and performs superbly.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle 500ml
The Hillary Course Map

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Hounslow Classic Ultra 2016

For me the lead up to this year's Hounslow Classic Ultra (68km, +/-4500m) had been some what relaxed. After my efforts at the BUFF Epic Trail and lingering leg issue I wasn't sure if I should register for the Hounslow Classic. Consequently I bided my time and left it quite late to enter the ultra distance race.
Running off Lockleys Pylon. Aurora Images.
The weeks between the BUFF Epic Trail and Hounslow Classic I continued to run as I usually do, racking up my usual mileage on the trails. There was no intensity in these runs and I enjoyed a lot of them with my people friends and my fury friends. The issue I had with the leg from my European trip remained but I was able to avoid aggravating it during this time. Better still, was that I hadn't committed to run yet and I didn't feel depressed about my casual lead-in to the race. I still managed however to get onto the Hounslow course regularly on weekends and familiarise myself with the steep descents (more like drops) and ascents (more like climbs).
The descent off Du Faur Head (Lockleys Pylon side) down to Blue Gum Forest. Training Run.
My commitment to finally register for the ultra came from a number of decisions. The year was still far from over, though Christmas decorations have already started appearing in the shops. I didn't want to end the year without doing one more event. So far in 2016 I hadn't done an ANZ Skyrace. Brian wanted to help out Mountain Sport by sweeping the shorter 21km course, so we were likely to be up at the event anyway. I had no other race lined up for the foreseeable future, so could risk aggravating my leg before having a proper rest period afterwards. So after weighing it all up I committed to the challenge of competing in Australia's toughest ultramarathon, as appointed by
The tree bridge crossing Govetts Creek at Blue Gum Forest. Training run.
Although the preceding week to the race was a short week due to the Monday being a public holiday, I made it seem even shorter by heading up to Katoomba after work on Thursday night. It's always an awesome feeling to sleep in Katoomba knowing that you are already at your destination and that the travelling is already done. I found it so relaxing that I risked sleeping the whole of Friday away. Once I finally managed to motivate myself, I travelled up to Allview Escape, Blackheath, which was this years event race hub. The uninterrupted views from this location gave runners and spectators spectacular view of the Grose Valley. The lawn at Allview Escape extends to the top of the escarpment from which there are direct lines of sight to many of the course's prominent features, such as Evans Lookout, Junction Rock, Pulpit Rock, Lockleys Pylon and the Pinnacles, the course's halfway/turnaround point. Each of these locations were tantalisingly close (within 8kms as the crow flies) but would take many hours of concentration and hard work to reach.

The Hounslow Classic Ultra is an out and back course, which is far from boring. The course sees runners drop in and out of the Grose Valley four times. Each descent and subsequent ascent is unique in its own way and just as much concentration is required going down as it is going up, though going up definitely takes longer to do. The technicality of the terrain is a good leveller bringing those who can run fast back to those that can run the technical trails, with the biggest advantage given to energetic hikers. 
Andrew Layson (Berowra Bushrunner President) and me before the ultra start.
Come race morning we were greeted with perfect weather that revealed the gorgeous views that would accompany us runners throughout most of the day. Even though I've seen the view hundreds of times before, I'm still mesmerised by it. Unfortunately I wasn't at the start line to gaze, but to race, and when we all finally headed off the pace was sensibly dictated by eventual race winner Loughlinn Kennedy. After a short section of fire trail to allow us to self seed, we dropped down onto the single clifftop trail and followed it towards Govetts Leap, last years race hub. I found myself running close to the ever cheerful Lou Clifton. Race previews had ousted local girl Lou as a potential podium finisher and rightly so as she is having a stellar year on the ANZ Skyrunning circuit with strong results. Even though this was a race and technically we were competing, we still managed to keep a pace where we could run together and chat like we would during a training run. It was really quite enjoyable to be able to do this on the trails with a friend.
The start line at Allview Escape, Blackheath, is spectacular.

The well formed clifftop trail continued past Govetts Leap along to Evans Lookout carpark, then around to Neats Glen before starting the first big descent down into the Grand Canyon. Arguably one of the most picturesque walking tracks in the Blue Mountains, the Grand Canyon track slowly deteriorates the further you descend. There are sections that are well landscaped, then there are sections that have succumbed to land slips. All this is easily traversed but care needs to be exercised. As the trail started to become more technical I stuck to a pace that was comfortable for me. My conversation with Lou ended near the landslide section where I passed her then started to edge ahead. Once at the bottom of the Grand Canyon I followed the level single trail and the river down to Junction Rock, which marked the start of the days first big ascent back up to Govetts Leap via Rodriguez Pass. Joseph Dorph caught me at this point and took off out off sight. I'd spend the rest of the day trying to catch him. This ascent up to Govetts Leap gets steeper and steeper, starting with a gentle grade which turns into more frequent series of steps which in themselves get steeper and steeper, before arriving at the base of a vertical cliff and a trail which cuts across its face. On the ascent I caught and passed Jason Martin, but not before having a brief chat. Ahead I could now see Joseph, whom I knew I could catch and over took him at the falls. Joseph stayed right behind me all the way to the top. None of this happened quickly as the motion of running changed to a jog, then hands on knees power walk until finally reaching the top. I had a long day ahead and there was no use going out too hard at this early stage of the race.

Lou Clifton and I having a chat while running through the Grand Canyon track.
After completing the first big ascent and reaching Govetts Leap, the route retraces the clifftop track back to the race hub at Allview Escape where I met up with Brian to refuel. This first loop (21km) took me 2hrs 36mins to complete and was just a warm-up for what was to come.
Coming back to the race hub. Junction Rock is in the valley below. Ben Duffus.
I left the check point before Joseph and it wasn't long before he caught up again and we ran together for a while until Pulpit Rock where he left me for good. This next section of the course around to Perrys Lookdown is really the only runnable section of the trail as it follows a reasonably well graded dirt road. It's one of the few opportunities for the faster runners to stretch their legs and not be hindered by rocks, tree roots, branches, tourists, shrubs, etc. I was expecting to be passed by runners along this section, especially since I have a habit of slacking off when running by myself, but even with my relatively slow pace I managed to keep my position in the field.

The "runnable" part of the course between Allview Escape and Perrys Lookdown. Scott Hawker.
Most of my training runs on the course occurred between Perrys Lookdown and Lockleys Pylon. The two points are only 5kms apart, however between them is a 600m descent down to Blue Gum Forest then another 600m ascent back up the other side. This section of trail provides one of the best training grounds in the Blue Mountains for vert vs distance. On the climb up to Lockleys Pylon I could feel the effects of the Spring sun on my body. The day was reasonably warm and much of the trail up to Lockleys Pylon is exposed. The usual energy I have at this point on my training runs was starting to diminish and my lackadaisical training routine for this race was starting to show. Shortly after reaching Lockleys Pylon I was passed by Loughlinn Kennedy and Danny Garrett travelling in the opposite direction. They looked like they were running on top of each other and neither were relenting. Both these guys were leading the race and were on their return journey towards the finish line. Joseph was the next person I saw, in third place, on the out and back which meant he must have over taken a couple of runners. The 3km run out to the Pinnacles, turnaround point, was becoming a chore. I could feel my feet starting to become heavy and although the trail was reasonably flat, the exposed rocks were hampering my stride. On a few occasions I felt that my issues from the BUFF Epic Trail were preparing to make a come back, but I felt that I couldn't go much slower else Lou would surely have caught back up to me.
The volunteers at the Pinnacles checkpoint were very helpful.
The return journey from the Pinnacles back to Perry's Lookdown took 9mins longer than the out journey. At the time it felt like a lot longer as I was sure that I slowing down. As I'd passed Lou between the Pinnacles and Lockley Pylon on the return journey I knew where I sat in the field relative to everyone else. I didn't want to reduce the intensity, but at the same time I could still feel the weather sapping my energy. My nutrition plan was out the door by the time I was back at Perrys as I was finding it difficult to force food down. By the time the sun finally started to abate on the return journey to Allview Escape, the effects on my nutrition had done its damage. Solid food was no longer an option and I was left to my trusted cordial.
Sean Greenhill (RD) checking that I was alright before heading out on the last loop.
The final descent back down from Govetts Leap to Junction Rock was slow going. The spring in my step had gone. From Junction Rock there was just one more substantial climb back up into Grand Canyon. There wasn't much running going on along this section. My movements were coarse and I felt like I was in a hike-a-thon. At the back of my mind I wanted to finish the course in daylight and I used this as my motivation to keep going.

The hike-a-thon back up the Grand Canyon track. Ben Duffus.
It was a huge relief to emerge from the darkening Grand Canyon track and see that there was enough daylight to get back to Allview Escape. The weather had changed while I was in the canyon and the sun had been replaced with a cold heavy air as a cold weather front had come through. Along the clifftop track I was forced to start running in order to keep myself warm, such was the sudden drop in temperature. To my disappointment the cold air had brought a light fog that now concealed the view. At least I got to enjoy it earlier in the day when I was fresher and could afford lifting my eyes up from the trail. Now in my exhausted state my eyes were firmly focused on the trail ahead.
Yes Sean, those mountains look much bigger from my perspective. Maggie Jones.
After 10hrs 24mins I finally made it back to Allview Escape for the fourth and final time that day, 1st female and 4th overall. The final loop had taken me 44mins longer than the first time. I felt spent. I apologise to Sean Greenhill, Race Director, for not being more accommodating in his finish line interview, but to be honest all I wanted to do was have a spew, and I didn't think that it would be appropriate to do it in front of everyone. On the bright side, it is amazing how good you can feel after purging the system.
Hounslow Classic Ultra Podium. L-R Lou Clifton 2nd, me 1st, Lucy Bartholomew 3rd, Danny Garrett 2nd, Loughlinn Kennedy 1st, Joseph Dorph 3rd. La Sportiva Australia.
For anyone looking at a stand out Skyrunning event that is different to anything on the Australian trail running scene then this is my pick. It has big climbs with technical trails that reward runners with more technical running ability over those with flat out speed.
I found it easier to carry the food rather than consume it. Aurora Images.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva H9eadband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap

Saturday, 23 July 2016

BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes 2016

The third and final race of my 2016 European trip was the BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes, Spain, which also doubled as the biennial Skyrunning World Championships. This three day event had vertical kilometer (VK), 26km, marathon and ultra races on offer. I'm a big fan of the longer "value for money" type of events so chose the ultra with its 105km, +/-7950m. What I didn't anticipate was how much "value" I was to get on the mountainous ultra course.
BUFF Epic Trail course profile.
Two weeks prior to the BUFF Epic Trail I raced in the High Trail Vanoise VK and Petit Parcours races in the French Alps. Their purpose was to help me acclimatise to the altitude and big European mountains. Following the High Trail Vanoise event I travelled with Mum, Dad and Brian down to Spain to check out the BUFF Epic Trail ultra course prior to race day. Firstly we spent a few nights in Taull (Vall de Boi ) to check out the first big ascent and last big descent of the ultra course. We then moved to Espot for a few more nights where we checked out the middle part of the ultra course. Although these recce runs were short in distance, they generally involved a VK up out of the valley which was a lengthy exercise, but each effort was rewarded with gorgeous Pyrenees view and the occasional bird of prey sightings. I often wondered if they were circling Brian on his way up the mountain side to meet me. All up we managed to check out about half the ultra course, but as it turned out, these sections were the easiest parts of the course.

Prior to the "business end" of my trip we all drove to the Spanish Costa Brava coast where we spent a few nights in the white washed coastal town of Cadaques, Spain. It was a refreshing change from the mountainous regions we had been in for the last two weeks. The change in location also minimised the temptation to overexert myself before the big race. Essentially I had nothing else to do but sit back and soak up the suns rays while enjoying the Mediterranean views.
Tapering may as well be enjoyable. Cadaques, Spain.
When we returned for the BUFF Epic Trail, the race hub village of Barruera in the Vall de Boi valley, had transformed itself into a trail running mecca. A number of temporary structures had been erected for the event. This seemed to attract a myriad of trail runners, like moths to a bright shining light. Everyone seemed to be busy doing something somewhere.  It was a big change from the quiet little village I had visited just a couple of days earlier.

The VK kicked off the long weekend of Skyrunning races. While spectating the start I managed to catch up with a few of the Australian and New Zealand Skyrunning team members. It was good to meet some new faces and catch up with others. During our discussions they relayed to me that the ultra course had been modified. As confirmed during the prerace briefing, a 10km section of the course was to be "neutralised". From what I could gather, permits were not granted for this section of the course. The solution was for us to traverse this section of trail as "day hikers" and a percentage of our overall time would be deducted. All very confusing, but the general consensus was that the race would go ahead regardless.

The ultra trail, including the neutralised section, is 105kms. The lowest part of the course is the race start/finish town of Barruera at 1100m elevation. From here it is all up with four major ascents and descents accumulating in +/-7950m of elevation change. The highest part of the course is just under 3000m elevation, which I was hoping would not disadvantage me after my earlier acclimatisation in France. I had done as much as I could to be ready for this race and all that was left to do was the race itself.

Come race morning I once again lined up with the well styled European trail runners in the predawn light. There was just enough light to see without a head torch, but by the time we all started running I found myself jostling for position next to someone with a light. The pace was quite fast to start with. Much faster than I was prepared to run. After the first few kilometres the trail switched from following the relatively flat trail up the Vall de Boi valley, to ascending up the steep alpine slopes on the route's first big ascent (+1000m). The earlier enthusiasm of the other runners around me was quickly reeled in and the pace dropped dramatically to a mix of power walking and a slow jog where the grade allowed. This pace was much more sustainable and more to my liking.

Upon reaching the top I followed the other runners over the pass and started the  long runnable descent down to the village of Senet and the first crewed checkpoint beyond at Refugi Conangles (22.9kms). I'd done this leg of the course with Brian so knew what to expect and how to approach it. I was only a shorty way down the descent before a sharp pain quickly developed from my left glute down my left hamstring. Since arriving in Europe I'd had what felt like a deep bruise in my left glute. I suspect it was from sitting for too long on the airplane seats. It hadn't been restricting me on my previous runs, but just incase I'd been taking it easy where possible and had a few massages, but seemingly it wasn't enough. Now that the dull sensation had emerged as a noticeable pain I reigned in my pace, stepped off the trail and started walking. Almost as suddenly as the pain had appeared it started to fade. I tried lifting the pace back up to a run again, but the pain re-emerged. I spent the next hour finding that point where discomfort became pain as most of the field that was behind now started to trickle past me.

The less technical section of descent down to Senet.
In previous ultras I'd occasionally come across some pretty talented male runners during races. The fact that I'd caught them was an indicator that they were not having a good day. The guys that stand out most in my mind were those that managed to compose themselves and soldier on to the end, sometimes repassing me before the finish line. It's these guys whom I admire, who don't look for excuses to pull out, regardless of the expectations placed upon them by others. I've often wondered if under the same circumstances would I retire during a race. I've never seriously considered DNF'ing (did not finish) during a race, but I was now. I felt that my time of reckoning had arrived.

The remaining kilometres to Refugi Conangles checkpoint were slow and uncomfortable. I was able to jog the flats and ascents with some discomfort, but it was the descents that were causing me the most grief. I arrived at the checkpoint where Mum, Dad and Brian and been waiting for me. The look of sympathy on their faces said it all and I didn't have to tell them that something was wrong. Brian asked if I was alright. "Yeah, I'm OK". No, not really, but what could he do? I explained as best I could how I felt. Brian asked if I wanted to pull out or continue on. He reinforced that he, along with Mum and Dad, would support me either way. I stood there thinking about my options and what I wanted to do. We'd worked and saved hard to afford the trip over to Europe. I had trained hard to get myself ready for this race. Although I've had a few DNS's, I had never DNF'd a race before. My race might have been done, but my run (jog) was far from over. I refilled my bottles and replenished my pockets with food before announcing that I'd continue on. I was in a bit of discomfort, probably too much for this early stage of the run, but I was prepared for a long day and a long night on the trail. 
Brian restocking my supplies before I departed Refugi Conangles.

It is almost guaranteed that during an ultra something will hurt, eventually. I often find in ultras that the brain can only focus on one source of pain at a time. The level of pain is relative to what else is hurting in the body at the same time. If something hurts more then that becomes the minds focal point. My logic for continuing on was that the discomfort I was feeling at the moment was restricting my running but wasn't preventing me from continuing on (jogging, hiking, walking). There was always the possibility that something else would start hurting more and that I might be able to lift the pace a little. This might sound a little strange, but I'm sure that ultra runners can relate to it one way or another.
Heading up into the clouds.
The section of trail beyond Refugi Conangles was all new to me. I hadn't made it this far in my recce runs. The trail ahead and what it holds would be my reward for continuing along the route. I was still well in front of the sweeper (if there was one that is) and I wasn't last, though I felt like I wasn't far off. The trail headed up the mountain behind the refugi, into the low lying clouds. The climb was massive (+900m), which was a predominant feature on this course as there were a few big climbs. There were few sections that could be considered "flat", though there were sections where the grade on the ascents slackened off and became runnable. Unfortunately for me the runnable sections proved to be of little advantage. At the top of this next climb I could spot the first of the perched lakes, for which this region (Aiguestortes and Sant Maurici Lake Nation Park) is renowned. There are over 200 lakes in this area and the course was about to run past many of them.
The alpine lakes were spectacular and there were so many of them.
The checkpoints on this course were reasonably well spaced. As my crew could only get to two of the checkpoints (Refugi Conangles, 22.9kms and Espot, 71.0kms)) I was dependant upon the provisions supplied by the race organisers. As time in the checkpoints was no longer a concern for me I found myself gazing at the array of food and beverages on offer. I'm not sure if it was the altitude or what, but I definitely had an increased appetite. I found myself filling my pockets with food, along with two handfuls, before departing the checkpoints. I never eat this much at checkpoints, but if my body wanted it then I was happy to oblige.
Part of the trail down to Espot.
Shortly after departing the Colomers checkpoint (47.9kms) I arrived at the start of the "neutralised section". A marshal was there to ensure that our race numbers were hidden before we continued on. The course markings disappeared along this section of the course and we were instead flowing a string of marshals who marked the way for us. Prior to arriving in the Pyrenees for my course recce runs I'd loaded the ultra route onto my GPS watch. The one million waypoints had been reduced to ten thousand in the process, which led to some confusing interpretations of the route during the recce runs, especially when there was no trail in sight to follow. I'd slowly got used to it so knew what to expect if I had to rely upon it. Now, running with a watch for the first time in a race for many years, I was glad to have the add reassurance that I was on the correct route, even though there was little chance of getting lost.
Walking into Espot with mum.
At the end of the "neutralised section" I was once again on familiar trail as it descended down to Espot. I'd done this long descent with Brian and knew how runnable it was, however I had left my running legs way back at the 5km mark. Meeting me at the bottom of the descent at the Espot checkpoint was Mum, Dad and Brian. Although it had been almost 9 hours since we had last seen each other it looked like they were relieved that I'd finally turned up. Brian let me know that I'd made up 43 positions since we last saw each other. I don't remember overtaking any where near that number of people, so most of them must have been DNF's. This checkpoint was by far the biggest to date, and was housed in one of the village hotels. Laid out along one wall of the hotels dining room was a smorgasbord of food. I was like a food obsessed dog, starting at one end of the room, eating my way to the other end. I have never been so hungry in my life, but like I said before, I needed to listen to my body.
Espot was an awesome checkpoint with delicious food and a change of socks.
It was 6:20pm by the time I left Espot for the biggest and longest climb of the day (+1300m). Last light for this part of the world was just after 10pm and I was keen to make use of all the natural light as I knew that my pace would drop substantially when using my head torch.
Almost at the top of the final "big" ascent.
By the time the sun set I was on new trail. I hadn't made it this far on my recce runs and it was disappointing to be missing out on what I'd heard were spectacular Pyrenees vistas. When it gets dark there are a lot less distractions for the mind and it is easy to focus on those parts of the body that are hurting. My leg was still causing me a discomfort, though dropping the pace had helped considerably. However, being out on the trails for this long meant that other parts of the body were hurting just as much, like my toes from all the rocks I'd kicked. I tried to block all of this out and just focus on my headlight illuminating the trail ahead.
View of the final descent from the last pass. This is Brian on one of our recce runs.

Summiting the final pass of the route I was once again back on a familiar trail. I'd done this section with Brian and even in my exhausted state of mind I was eagerly looking out for familiar landmarks to count down the last few kilometers. I emerged from the trail onto a road at a small aid station manned by volunteers and anxious crew, one of which was mine. I almost didn't recognise them. I initially ignored them until they awoke me from my daze. By this time I was a girl on a mission. I wasn't looking for a distraction, just the finish line so that I could say that I'd conquered this epic run. I slowly counted the villages off the lower I got down the mountain, Taull, Boi and finally Barruera, again with its long awaited finish line.

Arriving in Barruera was a huge sense of relief. I had initially set out with, what I thought, a realistic expectation. Early on in the race my goals had to be reassessed, taking into account my current circumstances. I then stripped away my earlier expectations and just focused on the single goal of finishing. So after almost 22hrs on the trail I finally made it across the finish line with the official time of 19:46:06, to the applause of maybe a dozen sleepy spectators/support crew. 

Looking back at what I'd done, I am glad that I had decided to continue on. I felt then, as I do now, that had I DNF'd then I would have regretted it. There would have been this nagging voice questioning, "what if?". Though it might have been a long uncomfortable and arduous task, I can confidently say that I have an answer to a question that I didn't have to ask myself. To end on a positive, I've now completed a full course recce of the BUFF Epic Trail.
I ran the last few hundred metres to put on a show for the assembled crowd.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap
BUFF Epic Trail route (neutralised section "missing").

Sunday, 10 July 2016

High Trail Vanoise, Petit Parcours, 2016

The second race I'd entered in the High Trail Vanoise weekend of races was the Petit Parcours (Medium Race) located in the gorgeous French Alps town of Val d'Isere. The name of this event is somewhat misleading, as are a lot of French words when you don't know the language. With 39km, +/-3200m through the French Alps, there is nothing "petit" about this course. The climbs are big and intimidating, along with the altitude and technical nature of the terrain. All up, it was the perfect lead-in race for the upcoming Skyrunning World Championships in a fortnights time.
High Trail Vanoise Petit Parcours.
Unlike the High Trail Vertical Kilometer (VK) course two days prior, I'd be taking this race more seriously. I wasn't chasing a time or a result. I was participating so that I could acclimatise and get used to the long steep ascents and descents. There is no comparison between races in Australia and this race. The mountains are huge, the grades are seriously steep, the terrain is as technical as they come and a large portion of the course is run at an altitude, where if you are a "low lander" like me, is really noticeable. 

To refresh my memory of what I was in for, I read my blog from the Ice Trail Tarentaise Altispeed race in 2013. The Altispeed race follows much of the same course as the Petit Parcours. I wasn't sure why the course got renamed and slightly altered, as a lot of information gets garbled in translation from French to English. Prior to the race Brian and I managed to check out limited parts of the Petit course beforehand, along with some higher sections as it had been two years since I'd run above 2000m in altitude. Having arrived in Val d'Isere four days prior to Sunday's race, I was not sure what benefit I got from acclimatising in such a short time frame, but it had to be better than nothing, right?
Made it though gear check.
Come race morning, I arrived at the starting area. The first hurdle of the day was to pass through the mandatory gear check. I was hoping beyond hope that my translation of the mandatory gear list was correct. In broken English the guy checking my gear ran through the items, touching and feeling each item, as a merchant would before purchasing ones wares. The last item to be checked was crampons. My translation app said that crampons were "optional", but apparently this was not the case, they were "highly recommended". After some discussion and gesticulation between the guy checking my gear and the gear checking Captain they let the small English speaking girl through with a waggle of the finger and a shrug of the shoulders. This I translated as " I deserve what I get out on the trail." Was it too late to withdraw?
We are off!
Amongst a gathering of well dressed European trail runners, I started the race behind a silent electric trail bike. We skirted the town of Val d'Isere along a gentle incline as the vehicle trail we were following wound its way around the hillside before descending into the next small village of la Daille (4.0km, +200, -240m), further down the valley. Before arriving at the village, we  were joined by the Grand Parcours runners who were running 67km, +/-5400m. They had started predawn and summited a 3653m glacial peak (Grande Motte) beforehand in the early morning light. Once our trails joined we would run the remainder of our races together as both our courses shared the same trail all the way back to Val d'Isere.
The descent into la Daille.
As we entered la Daille, I was greeted by Mum, Dad and Brian. Brian counted me off as the 6th woman in the Petit Parcours. Our race bibs were slightly different with a blue and orange band, as opposed to the two blue bands worn by the Grand Parcours runners. The first big climb of the Petit Parcours commenced immediately upon departing La Daille. It was almost a VK in its own right. Up, up, up we went. Unlike the VK course earlier we had a defined trail in which to follow. This trail had numerous switchbacks, but the grade of the trail was "douche grade", where running was no faster than power walking. By the top I'd managed to power walk past a few girls. Not to sound degrading, but by this stage most of us were power walking and by passing I mean that instead of me following closely behind them, they were now following closely behind me.

What I thought was the top was not the top. Instead I was greeted by another small valley surrounded on three sides by large scree slopes and towering mountainous peaks above. The ground at this elevation was scattered with large patches of snow. The trail made its way around these patches of snow, but where necessary it traversed the snow, which seemed to occur a lot. In the perched valley, echoing around me in this natural open air cathedral was the clanking sound of rocks as they cascaded down the mountain side to join the rest of the crumbling mountain on the scree slopes below. I've often been told that the mountains are a leaving beast, and now I can understand why.
Almost at the top of the first big climb. This is looking back during a course recce.
The trail took us over the lowest pass in this perched valley, then it was a short but steep descent down the other side towards a hydroelectric dam (Lac de la Sassiere) and another checkpoint (9.4km, +1200, -540m). Apart from the dam wall holding back a sizeable lake, there was little to no sign of human influence, which is what's most appealing about this area and what I love most about the sport. Running in nature is just so simple, and its reward is being able to interact with the natural environment in its purest form.
Lac de la Sassiere. The trail took us to the right, higher into the mountains.
Once at the top of this climb the trail skirted around several 3000m peaks. On paper this stretch around the far side of the mountains looked a lot easier than what it actually was. Up the hill from La Daille, over the perched valley, up around the far flanks of the mountain then the descent into the next village, Le Fornet, to meet up with my crew. Simple, right? The trail however was extremely technical with loose rocks and large sections of snow to contend with. I lost count of how many times I'd fallen over. As I found out after the race, I wasn't the only one to find this part of the trail difficult as even the fastest runners were being slowed by this challenging leg. Along this section of the course I noticed that my breathing was becoming more laboured and I could feel the effects of running above 2500m on my body. I wasn't alone in this feeling, as the other runners around me were also expressing signs of fatigue. The vast majority of the field were French and not many could speak or understand English, so any French words, presumably encouraging, were met with a smile and a nod from me interspersed with the occasional grunt.
Accordion and trumpet players in Le Fornet.
After a -950m descent I finally arrived at the next village, Le Fornet (17.0km, +1550m, -1460m), which is located on the higher side of Val d'Isere in the same valley. It is a cute alpine village and as us runners arrived we were greeted by two musicians, one playing an accordion and the other playing a trumpet. It all made for a very surreal experience as I exchanged my empty flasks for full ones with Brian and restocked my pockets with food. Again, from reading the bibs, Brian informed me that I was sitting in 4th place. From La Fornet it was almost entirely uphill, climbing +1400m to the highest point on the course, Aiguille Pers. I joined a conga line of runners as we followed the trail up through the fur trees, with their smell providing a pleasant subtle fragrance. On the way up I was cheered on by fellow Aussies and La Sportiva Team mates Aaron Knight and Tom Brazier who were also in Val d'Isere to compete in the High Trail Vanoise events. It was good to see them and to receive their encouragement.
The road crossing between Le Fornet and Col de l'Iseran.
Sitting in 4th place on the climb I was thinking about how tantalising close to a podium 4th place was. I hoped that with the race barely half way run perhaps I could snag a podium if I stayed focused for the remaining course. As the fur trees gave way to the flowering alpine meadows I caught sight of, and then passed the girl ahead to attain a podium position. Now instead of chasing a podium, I was motivating myself to keep it.

I ran as much as I could.
The rocky terrain started to expose itself and the higher I got the more scarce alpine flora became. Just near Col de l'Iseran (highest paved pass in the Alps at +2765m) I was met by Mum and Brian at another checkpoint (22.1km, +2400m, -1460m). The struggle to reach this point was already telling on my body. My lungs were burning and my legs were feeling slow and heavy. There was a very runnable section of trail for about one kilometer before the checkpoint, which in my mind was runnable, but was such a struggle to actually do.
Feeling very small against the mountain on the way up to Aiguille Pers.
Leaving the checkpoint I could see Aiguille Pers ahead, the mountain that marks the highest point of the course at 3386m. From this checkpoint it was almost a complete march to the top. We followed a sketchy single trail which traversed the lower scree slopes of the mountain. The loose rocky terrain was interspersed with sections of snow and the steepest sections had a fixed rope for us to use. I don't believe that my absent crampons would have provided any more grip in the snow than the Akasha's which I was wearing. Also, it appeared that the other runners weren't using crampons either, if in fact they were carrying them. Traversing and climbing in the snow required a special technique, which I seriously lacked. I found that shorter strides with a solid toe kick into the snow proved to be the best technique. Ascending above 3000m was causing me to get a little light headed and I was feeling a little giddy as the climb went on. Every time I looked up to the trail ahead the top seemed to be no closer. The marked trail ran pretty close to some large cliffs and I wondered if it was indeed the correct route. I remember thinking, "surely the race organisers wouldn't send us up there!". Alas, they did. I could see people ahead just above me and a moment of relief started to creep in that I was finally at the top, until my eyes caught sight of a higher peak a little further on. At this point I was having serious reservations about doing this event. It was definitely too late to pull out.
Aiguille Pers is the peak in the middle of photo. Col de l'Iseran in bottom right of photo.
Finally, after reaching the peak of Aiguille Pers, the trail started its descent back towards Col d l'Iseran. Similar to the ascent up the mountain, the terrain interchanged between loose rocks and snow. Descending in the snow was much easier than the ascent. I could stretch out my stride a lot more and I practiced finding that tipping point whereby I could ski for short distances using my shoes. I could also feel my breathing becoming noticeably less laboured the lower I got in elevation. The dizziness I felt earlier also abated the lower I got.
Lots of snow to practice my descending technique.
After this big circuit up Aiguille Pers, I pretty much kept my place in the now strung out field. Upon returning to Col de l'Iseran (30.0km, +3060m, -2125m), Brian said that I'd closed the gap to the girl ahead. He pointed out that she was just 500m ahead and that he could see her in the snow on the ascent up to the Tunnel des Lessieres (31.0km, +3230, -2125m), which marked the final climb of the race. I'd done this short section up to the Tunnel with Brian two days earlier, so I felt confident in pushing a little harder on this final climb. The grade of the trail in the snow was quite gentle, and the few short sections where it kicks up had steps cut into it. I climbed up too and passed through the tunnel then followed the trail down the other side as best I could. In my exuberance to get down I'd overshot a turn by a considerable distance. By chance I looked to my left and saw the markers high above me and some people further along the trail. I was cursing myself for missing the turn as I climbed back up the slope to rejoin the trail. The snow on the other side of the tunnel was a little softer than the snow on Aiguille Pers. There were sections while running over it where even my light weight broke through the delicate crust and my leg quickly disappeared into the snow. Being the final stretch, and mostly downhill, I pushed hard towards the finish.
There was no easy way up to Tunnel des Lessieres. I'm silhouetted against the snow.
Coming down the final slope I could hear the announcers French accent. In fact I could hear the announcer for quite some time as the slope was more of a mountain. The grade of the trail was quite steep and the loose stones meant that I still had to keep my wits. I could see the finish area below, which means that if I face planted those at the finish area could probably see it. My descending technique wasn't pretty. Brian confirmed this when he pointed out the high powered video camera and gigantic screen which was set up at the finish area.
On the big screen in Val d'Isere. Thank goodness I didn't fall over on this section!

Crossing the finish line I was surprised to discover that I was in fact first female in the Petit Parcours. On the final big descent I'd managed to pass the girl ahead, and the girl that Brian through was leading had instead run the Grand Parcours with a Petit race bib. I though things had got lost in translation again, but apparently not. So after 6 hours 53 minutes and 4 seconds out on the course I finally got to sit down and have a rest. I was so glad that I hadn't decided to step up and do the bigger Grand Parcours. Maybe next time though.
Just so people didn't think I was Austrian.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap.

Petit Parcours podium.