Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ice Trail Tarentaise - Altispeed 2013

My entry into the Ice Trail Tarentaise Altispeed race wasn't exactly planned. Brian had entered me into three races prior to our departure to Europe. My first race, Lavaredo Ultra Trail (LUT), was shortened from 118km to 85km due to late snow falls. Following the LUT Brian and I discussed the idea of doing another race to 'make up' the race distance I had lost due to the altered course. We looked at a Skyrace, the Ice Trail (65km, +/-5000m, highest point 3653m) in Val d'Isere, France, which looked pretty extreme (for an Aussie girl that is). It was 64km long, run at altitude, had snow and even ice in the form of a glacier. The distance didn't concern me, although I had come to discover that distance in the mountains is negligible, it is time spent covering the distance that is all important. It was the altitude, snow and ice that concerned me most. Just about all my running is done between sea level and 1000m. I've only previously raced above 2000m at LUT and Western States. My experience running in snow had been limited to a few kilometers at Western States and more recently at LUT. The Ice Trail had a shorter version called the Altispeed (32km, +/-2500m, highest point 3386m), but although half the distance it still looked to be a challenging course. Brian and I had a friend, Marcus Warner, entered to do the Ice Trail, and to fill in our holiday we decided to head towards Val d'Isere to check out the area and even spectate at the event. After a few red wines, Brian took my interest in the event as being serious so quietly disappeared to enter me online in the Altispeed.
 
Altispeed course profile.
The week before the Altispeed race we stayed in Annecy, France, checking out the area and meeting up with people. We had the opportunity to chat with a few runners who were running the Ice Trail and others who had experience in this type of racing in snow and at altitude. The conversations I had concerned me and generally went along the lines of;
Runner: "Have you run on snow or ice before"
Me: "No."
Runner: "I would suggest you use poles to help with your stability when running on the snow."
Me: "I've never used poles before."
Runner: "Never?"
Me: "Never."
Runner: "OH........"
To say that these conversation made me a little nervous and concerned is an understatement.
The trail up to Tunnel des Lessieres
The Thursday before the event we arrived in Val d'Isere and met up with Marcus in the afternoon. Marcus had arrived a few days earlier so when we arrived he drove us straight up to Col de l'Iseran, +2770m, to start acclimatising. Col de l'Iseran would be one of the checkpoints on the two courses (Ice trail and Altispeed). From here we followed the race trail up the hill through the snow to the Tunnel des Lessieres at 3000m elevation to start the acclimatisation process. Marcus explained the science behind it while I sat down and enjoyed the view.
Acclimatising with Marcus Warner, me, Brian Cardelli
The following day Marcus had another adventure lined up for us. This time we would head up the valley to Refuge du Prarinod, then beyond up a hill until we reached an elevation of over 3000m. The start of the run followed a narrow valley before opening up to a wide grassy valley. It was here that Marcus and I decided to run up a random slope. It started off OK but quickly got steeper. Marcus stopped at about 300m of vertical climbing and I continued on a little further. We both descended on our backsides. A little further on we passed the refuge, then climbed the hill behind up into the snow. Marcus was kind enough to give me some pointers about traversing snow so I spent this time practicing. On the decent we stopped by the refuge to have a light lunch.
Acclimatising on the French/Italian boarder. Acclimatising with Marcus involves a lot of either standing and chatting or sitting and chatting. No arguments from me. It seemed to work.
Race day soon arrived and I lined up with the other runners at the start. I wasn't paying much attention to the pre-race announcements, as they were all in French, when I heard my name being called out.  I'm not sure what was said but I found myself being pushed towards the front and there I stayed briefly before the start, when I quickly got swamped by all the other runners. The first section of the run followed the road up the valley. The grade wasn't particularly taxing but after a few kilometers we quickly turned and the climb began. We climbed up out of the valley following a dirt trail with grassy slopes either side. The climb went for a while and by the time I had reached the top of the first section I'd passed the lead girl. From there we climbed further into the snow. I used my newly honed snow running skills to get to the top of the climb where we joined up with the runners doing the Ice Trail. From this point on we shared the same course until the finish line. We crested the first climb, Col des Fours (2976m), then started the decent down the other side where Brian said he would be waiting. As he promised he was there waiting for me. As I approached he gave me encouragement and we both started running up the tarred mountain road together. Other guys around all started walking on this road section, but I was determined to run as I was sure my efforts running in the snow had allowed the girls behind to close the gap. It didn't take very long for Brian to drop off and start walking too.
Photo courtesy of Ian Corless, iancorless.org
The road section was soon over and it was back to climbing the mountain proper. This next climb would take me to the highest point on the Altispeed course, Aiguille Pers at 3386m. The climb was a little surreal. The grade was too steep to run, so everyone around me was walking. As we were ascending there were skiers descending beside us on groomed slopes. Also the more I climbed the more labored my breathing became. I remember thinking to myself that this was the whole reason for coming to Europe, to run in races that are completely different to what I had run before, and that is exactly what I was getting.  
Aiguille Pers at the top middle.

The decent was pretty easy compared to the climb and I could feel my breathing improving as I went. The trail skirted around the side of a mountain, then over a few small hills before arriving at the final checkpoint, Col de l'Iseran. There was a big crowd gathered, whether because of the race or because it was a place of interest, either way it was good to get the cheers. Brian was there again cheering me on and letting me know how I was doing. The last big climb was up to the Tunnel des Lessieres, a section that I was familiar with. I knew now that I could finish strong and hold my position to the end. The climb was short, compared to the two previous climbs. When I reached the other side of the tunnel I was surprised to see the trail just drop off in front of me. There was no gentle grade down. I watched a guy in front of me start running then drop onto his bum and slide down. Obviously this was a genuine technique so I followed suite. This bit of sliding was over too quickly, and the trail veered off in a different direction so it was back to running in the snow, over another small hill, more snow, then grassy slopes towards the chairlift. The trail followed the chairlift down the hill, though less direct, with a series of switchbacks down to the valley floor and the town centre.
Tunnel des Lessieres.

I was happy with my finish time of 4:01:49. I went into this race with no expectations other than to finish. I hadn't seen much, if any, of the course. My technique and confidence on snow is next to nil. I can say that having completed the course I do feel more confident running on the snow. I also think that doing the short race was a smart move as my time at altitude was limited, minimising any effects I may have had otherwise. Just before presentation concluded Marcus Warner staggered across the finish line in 13:57:41, perfectly timed to take a photograph of the mens Ice Trail podium for his Ultra168 post.
I'm glad the MC answered his own questions because I didn't understand a word.

Below is a short video showing what parts of the trail was like. I'm in there at about 3:01. My climbing skills are just like everyone elses however I do have a unique technique when it comes to descending on snow.


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