On returning from a two week holiday in Morocco I received an email confirming I had been selected for the Australian team for the World Trail Challenge. To be accurate I was the only member of the team and the only person who put in a nomination for the event, but I was told that my previous performance's where of a sufficiently high standard to warrant selection. So having just turned 40 I had achieved something that for many years thought would only ever be a dream – to represent my country in my chosen sport. This thrill was tempered by the fact I only had 6 weeks to train for the event and in the middle of that 6 weeks I had the 100km World Championships. Not exactly much time to prepare for an event that involved 68km of running up and down highly technical mountain trails with 3500m of ascent and descent. This is the same ascent/descent as climbing Mt Everest from base camp! However the chance to represent your country doesn't come around very often so I couldn't refuse
I wasn't as well prepared as I have been for other mountainous ultra's. Normally I spend a lot of time running up and down trails, getting my legs used to the extra load that comes with running downhill. Having the confidence to run down hills fast involves training the legs to be able to react quickly to changes of direction, having the ability to slow down quickly to avoid overshooting a bend, having the strength in your feet and ankles to cope with rocky, uneven tracks and be able to leap over rocks, tree roots etc with the confidence that you'll clear the obstacle and land safely.
Even doing all this I still lack the essential ingredient to become a really good downhill runner on technical trails – being fearless. All the good fell runners have no fear, they can switch off the brain and trust the legs. It's like downhill mountain bikers, they love the adrenaline that comes with pushing the descent right to the edge of their capabilities without the constant thought that if they fall they could break several bones. My mind always says if you fall now you could tumble down that slope for several hundred metres and surely injure yourself. Despite this I managed to remain competitive in mountainous ultras as I may not be great a running down very technical slopes but I am good at running down slopes that aren't so steep , so I usually manage to make up any ground lost when the slope levels off a bit.
Going into the race I had no idea what kind of time I should aim for and I find aiming for a position is always counterproductive as you can never control what other people do so I had to think about what kind of goals to set for the race.
What criteria do we use to decide if we have had a good race or not? How do we know if we should be pleased with our performance or disappointed? For some it is the position they finish or the time they do, for some it might be just to finish but for many it's a bit more complicated than that especially for the ultra-runner..
I have several criteria . If I can finish a race without injury affecting my performance is one factor. This might seem strange to any of you reading this who run shorter races but in an ultra a little niggle or sore spot that wouldn't affect you in a half marathon or marathon can force you to a painful limp after 50 miles. Next is having control over my body for the whole of the race. During an ultra the body starts making very obvious signs it wants to slow down or stop, if I can control and override these signs making my body do what I want it to do not what it feels like doing is very rewarding.
I also derive a great sense of satisfaction in finishing races strongly. If I can push hard right till the end of a race rather than have to really struggle and slow to a shuffle or worse still a walk means that I've raced the whole course. Sometimes in a race you go into “just get to the finish” mode rather than trying to get to the finish as fast as possible. If the aim was just to finish then speed wouldn't matter, but it is a race after all so finishing strongly and racing the whole course is always a goal.
During any race you always have good and bad patches, how I deal with those bad patches often decides if it's been a good race or not. Sometimes the bad patches can overwhelm you and you lose the sense of racing for a while and go into survival mode. If I can get through the bad patches by staying strong mentally and continue to race throughout these patches then I know I'm doing ok.
Last of all and certainly not least is did I enjoy the whole experience , whether that's because of the scenery, the atmosphere, support along the race, other competitors camaraderie or just the challenge of the race itself, if I don't enjoy it then whats the point.
So with those thoughts in mind I arrive in the Serre Chevalier Valley in the French Alps near the Italian border at the town of Le Monetier les Bains . As it is the World Championships an opening ceremony complete with a parade of nations was organised. Being from Australia and as there was nobody representing Antiga, Andorra, Angola or any other country with letters starting before Au I was first in line. So carrying the Aussie flag with a great sense of pride I lead the other nations through the small town to the presentation area, watched mainly by athletes friends and family and a few bemused locals. I can only imagine what it must feel like to do this at an Olympic games!
A few speeches follow and then I head back to the hotel for an early night.
Rising at the ungodly hour of 3.20 am I have my liquid breakfast and get myself ready. I am a little nervous as to how my body will cope. After the 100km race 3 weeks ago one of my groin muscles has been a bit sore, it felt ok in my last training run but that was only an hour so I'm not sure if it will hold up for 68km and my knee had been a little sore after doing a stairs session. A sore knee wasn't a good thing to have when the race involved 3500m of downhill. It feel ok warming up so I hope it will get me through the race.
It is still dark when we set off at 5am. The first section of the race is a “gentle” 11km path which follows the valley floor rising approx 400m . Usually my legs feel great at the start of a race but today they feel like they would be happier lying on a couch. I feel like I am working much harder than I should be for a race this long and am worried if I feel this bad at the start how am I going to feel at the finish. I am getting passed by quite a few people which doesn't fill me with confidence either. I take a mental time out and tell myself to forget everyone else just focus on running my own race. Slowing the pace just slightly I gradually start to find a rhythm. A quick check of my body reveals my knee feels ok as does my groin so all good so far. My biggest fear is if either of these become so bad during the race that it forces me to walk or even worse pull out. I am representing my country and I want to give a good account of myself.
After the first “gentle” section finished the climb to Galibier at 2579 metres begins. It is a steady climb that gradually reveals the most magnificent views along the valley. The sun is still hidden behind the mountains behind me but the intial darkness has turned into a pale blue light. It is going to be a nice day by the looks of it.
It is too steep a climb for much running to be done so power walking is the go. I am starting to feel better and better as the climb continues. After a hour or so the refuge de Galibier comes into view at which the first aid station is situated. A quick drink and off I go again. Here is where the climb gets interesting, it goes from being steep to almost vertical. It follows a narrow “path” which is steep enough in places to warrant using your arms to help pull you up!
At the top of this climb the summit is reached and the views are breathtaking. The sun has risen above the mountain range and illuminated the valley and rows of mountain peaks in a 360 degree panorama. A truly stunning sight. I have a quick stop here to get my sunglasses out of my backpack and whilst I do take the opportunity to take a few photo's. I had debated with myself whether to take a camera or not. I knew the scenery was meant to be superb but this was a race. In the end I decided to take it and if an opportunity arose where I was stopping for another reason such as getting sunglasses, clothes, etc out of my pack then I'd take a photo. I wasn't going for first place so 15 seconds lost in taking a photo won't matter.
As the old saying goes – what comes up must come down. The first descent and the first real test of my knee. I set off nervously downhill. Just 5 days ago my knee was still sore running down the hills in Hampstead heath which dont even compare to this. Will it cope?
The first descent is ridiculously steep on a very narrow path that changes direction frequently. I am slow and am passed a lot. I have no confidence in my ability to run quickly and safely down this and don't want to risk falling. I carefully make my way down until finally the path evens out a bit and I can start striding out, I begin overtaking some of those who passed me earlier. My knee feels ok and I am starting to feel more confident about the challenge ahead.
The descent is long and very steep and I am quite happy to get to the bottom of it in one piece. I run hard when I can and take it carefully when I have to. Running along another valley the course heads towards the next climb. It is a narrow path that is strewn with randomly placed rocks just waiting for the opportunity to trip me up. Sure enough it does. One minute I'm running along, next minute I'm lying flat on the ground. I pick myself up quickly and begin running again before the person behind me even has a chance to overtake. Checking my injuries as I run I noticed a chunk of skin missing on my right palm , no problems there – you don't run with your hands, there is also some blood running down my shin and my knee is sore. Not so good. Still there's knee pain and there's knee pain, time would tell if it would stop me from running or merely be an annoyance.
The path gradually climbs as it follows the valley. I am running along a very narrow track that is surrounded by high grass that makes it difficult to see where your feet are landing and even more difficult to see any rocks to avoid. I narrowly avoid being tripped over at least half a dozen times as I run along here. I'd done a lot of road running in preparation for the 100km race 3 weeks ago and when you run on roads there are no obstacles to lift your feet over so I'd developed a low foot lift which is very efficient running on roads but not so good running on rocky paths. My toes would catch on a rock and I'd go stumbling forward, getting the leg through just in time to stop me falling over only for it to happen 50 metres further on. I am very glad to finish this section. The route follows a popular trekking route and as I run by a few popular bivouac site a few heads peakd out of tents to see what the hell is going on.
The next climb begins and looks like it is a series of switchbacks on a well made path. Unfortunately the route avoids the well made path and switch backs and takes the more direct route - straight up. I start to struggle as I reach the top of the climb, feeling very lethargic and heavy but notice no-one else looks any better. A few people are passing me but I also pass a few people so I cant be going that badly. It is the altitude having an affect. I am breathing a lot heavier than I should be for the speed I am going and by the sound of everyone around me so are they.
Finally the summit is reached and a glorious blue alpine lake comes into a view. It is a magnificent sight and I have to stop and take a photo. Not strictly in the rules I'd set myself but it was so beautiful I can't help it. Running around the lake and heading downhill I am feeling pretty pleased with myself. Two mountains down only one to go and the knee feels ok despite the fall.
The sun is warming up and I am drinking plenty. I didn't refill my water bladder at the last aid station so I hope I have enough to make it to the next one. There are only three on the whole course so they are well spread out. At the top an official calls out something in french about the next aid station and I think he says another 10 minutes but my French is poor at the best of times. The descent is runable , just , and I do my best to maintain a good pace. Treading that fine line between out of control and in control. After what is a lot more than 10 minutes the course reaches a plateau and the next aid station finally comes into view. I refill my water supplies and have a couple of cups of coke and head off.
Before long I start climbing again. I thought there was a fair bit more descent to go but obviously I am wrong. This climb is similar to the last, just as steep and just as long. I keep looking ahead to see where it finishes and it takes a long time before the top finally comes into view. The day is quite warm by now and when I cross any streams I dip my hat in it and cool myself down. I love these conditions, to be in the mountains and have a beautiful blue sky, sun beating down on you and be cooled by the crystal clear icy cold mountain streams is a perfect day out for me. I may have been suffering on this climb but I was really enjoying myself also. You cant complain too much when you have scenery like this all around you.
At the top is another gorgeous alpine lake view. This is offset of the sight of the path climbing high off in the distance. I grab a gel from my backpack to give me a bit of a boost for this final part of the climb, take a quick photo and set off again. The route is very narrow and contours around the lake on a very steep slope crossing snow in several places. It is essential to watch where I am going because a slip whilst wouldn't prove fatal would probably end my chances of finishing.
( Look closely on the left hand side you'll see a few runners crossing the snow. The pass is high up on the left)
After what seems like hours I can hear the sound of music and people. Must be the top., but where? I scan the horizon and can see no break in the mountain wall in front of me. As I get closer I can see the path start to be enclosed by rocks and a tiny gap appears at the top, that must be the pass. Sure enough it is. I am very glad to reach the top and amazed that are where spectators and officials at this isolated location, the Col des Beraudes at 2899m.
Now comes the descent. The first part is so steep that there is a rope bolted into the cliff face for people to hold onto to help descend safely. After that it is not much better and I am concentrating intensely to make sure I don't fall. Finally the slope evens off slightly and I can relax a little and get back to some decent running. My knee and groin still feels ok so I set off as hard as I can on the gradual descents. It is a long descent, rocky and steep in places so is hard to get into a good rhythm. I want to look up and take in the surrounds but every time I do a stumble on a rock so unfortunately I have to focus on the ground just in front of me.
(That faint path heading down from left to right is the "easy" part of the descent)
One thing is puzzling me, I know there a three big climbs and three aid stations and I thought the last aid station was before the last climb but I've done three climbs and only had two aid stations. I couldn't have missed an aid station so does that mean there is still another climb to go? Time will tell.
The path eventually drops out of the stark alpine environment through trees and pastures and I hear people clapping , either it's the finish or another aid station. Deep down I know which one it is. Sure enough the last aid station comes into view. Maybe the last aid station is after the last climb. I think it is 10km to go from the aid station or was it 15?
Filling up again I set off on a nice undulating path along a river, pushing a good pace and still feeling strong. My knee is sore but not more sore than the rest of my body so it is not effecting me. This is the flattest section of the whole course but it doesn't last long and before long we are heading up again. “Last climb before the finish” someone yells out encouragingly . Does that mean it's a big climb or last small climb followed by an undulating run to the finish? The climb leaves the river , ascends through a forest, then onto the high pastures to the refuge. Great all down hill from here I think. Wrong! It keeps ascending and ascending all the way back up to 2427m! I really struggle up the last bit, the combination of being on the go for 8 hours and the altitude affecting me. The good news is that despite this I am passing people and no-one is passing me. Everyone is suffering.
Finally the top is reached as someone yells out “8km, all downhill to the finish”. The path is steep at first but gradually levels out slightly and I am able to stride out and pick the pace up. Knowing it is all downhill and how far it is to go means I can really push the pace now. Just when I'm starting to enjoy myself again the path gets more technical, steeper, and more rocks which slows me down.
Rounding a bend I see the path heading uphill again. I thought it was all downhill! Fortunately it doesn't last long and a well paved 4wd track appears. Perfect! I can stride out without fear of falling down a steep slope or tripping over a rock. I set off and pick the pace up. My knee hurts now but it doesnt matter. It's not going to stop me this close to the finish. I start catching and passing people. As soon as I've caught one person and look ahead and set after the next one. I look down the valley and try and spot the town where we finish. It still looks a long way down.
The path narrows and descend a steep switchback through a forested area. It is still ok to run down I just have to watch the corners. I descend below the tree line and still cant see the town and the valley floor still looks a long way off. The enjoyment of running at a good pace is starting to wear off and I'm looking forward to the finish line now. With the excitement of picking the pace up I haven't had any of my carbohydrate drink for a while and feel myself starting to run low in energy. It cant be far to the finish now surely?
After what seems like ages I reach a path that looks vaguely familiar . It's the same path we set off on this morning. The question is how far along the path am I? I'm really starting to run low now and the desire to walk is increasing exponentially. Really should have had another gel and I wouldn't feel like this. I know I cant be too far away so tell myself that regardless of how far away the finish is you're running hard all the way to the finish no matter what.
The path follows the river and I know just after a bridge crossing the river the finish is barely 100 yards away. I see a bridge with the sponsors banners on it, maybe that's it? No , different bridge. Not far ahead is another bridge, maybe this is it? Again no. Finally I recognise the right bridge and I know the finish is just around the corner.
I am smiling both on the inside and out. It's been a long day – ten hours and 24 minutes to be exact , I have no idea what position I'm in and I don't really care. I've had a great race. It's been more difficult than I imagined and more enjoyable. Stunning mountain scenery and a course that took me well outside my comfort zone has made for a very rewarding day. I couldn't be happier. I know I could have gone a lot faster if I'd had 6 months to train specifically for it but I didn't so there is no point thinking about what could have happened.
I savor the run up the finish straight, enjoying the applause of the crowd and the thrill of the achievement and finally cross the finish line.