Sunday, 14 October 2012

A spiritual experience?

Despite already running 3 races this year, I decided I wanted to squeeze in another before the season was over.  I couldn't run the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges with Nikki due to work commitments (I had vowed never to run it again last year anyway!), so after scouring the UTMB qualification list I picked Les Défis du Jubilé.  This race in Switzerland was only an hour's drive from home, covered an area I'd never run before and allowed you to pick your own distance between 7 and 71km.  I was really up for trying to increase my longest distance to date so it sounded perfect, plus the race date coincided with the 7th anniversary of my Dad's death and it seemed like a fitting tribute to the man that first got me into running.  Unusually for UTMB points races it was also surprisingly cheap and easy to enter, not requiring sign-up months in advance, so Nikki's boyfriend Alan also signed up less than a week beforehand.

As race-day approached, I felt unprepared and somewhat concerned - I had never run that far before, training had been less than optimal and I had been trying to ignore suspected plantar fasciitis in my left foot.  It had been 2 months since my last race and during that time I had done a couple of decent bike rides but only 2 runs of 20km+, everything else had been short and sweet.  Holidays had meant a lot of eating & drinking (to the tune of a couple of kg) and the week of the race was spent fighting off a nasty cold and stomach bug, so I wasn't sure I'd even make the start line.  However with a couple of days to go I felt well enough to run and, knowing I could bail out easily along the way, I decided  to give it a go.

Alan and I drove over on the morning of the race, catching 3 deer and a badger in the headlights en route.  We made good time to the start at the Abbey in St Maurice, picking up our race numbers (mine was 313 and 13 is my lucky number so an excellent omen I felt!) and rather unusually collecting our medal in advance.  We passed on the option of a commemorative cross to display the medals in, but made sure we had the required map and directions, listened to the pre-race spiel, packed our bags and headed for the start line.  I knew the race was somewhat religious as it followed a route called the 'chemins biblique', with each stage or 'défi' ending at a church, but I have to admit I wasn't expecting the blessing we received from the local priest at the start!

At 7am it was still dark, but we opted not to carry torches as we knew they'd only be required for a short time.  As we headed up the steep woodland path it was tricky to find your feet unless you were lucky enough to be next to someone with a torch, but even then the fallen autumn leaves were slippery after the recent heavy rainfall.  I tried a couple of "let their be light"s to the gods above, but nothing happened!  The short climb soon opened out onto a meadow path and the sky started brightening into the clear, autumn day that we had been promised.  We were treated to snapshots of mountains in the distance as we wound our way up to the first control in Verossaz at 1hr, where they served gorgeous spiced tea.  We headed uphill and into a forest, traversing the hillside and passing numerous waterfalls, to the next control at 2hr in Mex, where I was disappointed to find chocolate was the only snack on offer.

From there there was a steep, slippery descent and I was glad I had decided to carry my poles as they kept me upright on a number of occasions.  The descent eventually bottomed out at control 3 in Evionnaz, where again there were no savoury snacks, only sweet.  I was really starting to crave salt at this point and stupidly was not carrying anything savoury in my bag.  I had decided not to carry too many snacks on this race after my last race, where the food was excellent and I had got to the finish carrying almost all the food I had started with!  I quickly texted Andy to make sure he brought emergency supplies with him to the half-way point and popped a couple of ibuprofen to try and stop my foot from hurting, which was now starting to nag.

After Evionnaz there was a horrible long, flat section, mainly on tarmac.  Less than 20km in and already my feet were not liking the amount of tarmac I was having to cover in my trail shoes.  My legs don't like flat/road-running much and I had to stop for a stretch to ease my tightening muscles.  My stomach was also unhappy with the amount of sugary fuel I was putting into it and was uncomfortably bloated, yet at the same time I felt like I was starting to flag, which is never a good combination with many of hours of running still to go.  We headed upwards on a winding forest path, which finally spat us out onto the road into picturesque Salvan.  At 4hrs it felt like things were changing for the better.  We basked in the sun for the first time, meaning I could remove my gloves, and they had some delicious local cheese and bread at the control, which satisfied my need for something savoury.  My ipod also started playing Ben Howard's "Keep your head up", which made me think of my dear old dad and despite choking up, it really spurred me on.
The beautiful alpine scenery continued, through woodland, via the pretty villages of Marecottes and Tretien and along another stretch of road to the half-way control at Finhaut.  Here I was overjoyed to be met by Andy & Leila with an emergency supply of TUC biscuits and cashew nuts.  The food at the controls had improved, but I still guzzled both and stuffed some biscuits into my bag, swapping them for a couple of other things that I wasn't going to need.  Knowing I was half-way was very motivational and that plus the sunshine and seeing my loved ones really lifted my spirits and helped me to carry on.  I could have done with my emergency back-up bag however, which Andy left at home.  Mental note - remember to buy small tub of Vaseline for next race!

The steep descent out of Finhaut was not much fun, with lots of mud and slippery leaves on the rocks.  This took us down to the bottom of a deep gorge, where we mud-slid across a couple of bridges before ascending equally as steeply.  The path exited the forest onto the busy pavement-less road at la Tête Noire, on the route between France & Switzerland that I know well, so I made sure I got off the road as fast as I could.  The next section followed a pleasant forest path, winding round the side of a mountain for several km.  The control at La Crêtaz was in a beautiful setting with stunning scenery and views back down to the valley below.  It was manned by some friendly people and I stopped for a chat, knowing I was bang-on my target time and not too pressured to get moving.  The one cut-off I had to make was at the 9hr mark, where you could be stopped from doing the extra circuit which extended the route to 2 points rather than 1.  At 7hr15 I knew I had enough time to make it, bar any disasters.  I was also enjoying the fact that I could now predict my finish time to be approx. 11hrs and counting down how few hours I had left rather than being overwhelmed by the previous enormity of the task made the hours go more quickly.

The next descent was pretty steady until Gueuroz, where it suddenly steepened.  I had been following a guy for some time, who was clearly getting annoyed at having a girl on his tail, but he suddenly disappeared and I never saw him again.  It was steep and tricky going at the time and I am more inclined to think he went the wrong way rather than sped off.  The route markers were generally good, but every now and then they were not quite frequent enough and it was easy to think you had gone the wrong way.  At the control in Vernayaz, the food got worse again, with only apples, oranges and chocolate on offer, although the quality of the chocolate was improving!  There was a short 2km to the next, all-important control in Dorenaz, but as it was all on flat tarmac it really dragged on.  I made the cut-off with over 30mins to spare, but I'd overtaken a few people on that last stretch and didn't want to let them get past me so cracked straight on.  I knew I was slow, but I was determined not to be last.

The next few km of this optional part of the route headed straight up a steep hill and straight back down again.  I struggled with the uphill as I was really running out of energy but couldn't face any more energy drink.  I necked my only gel of the day in the hope that it would give me a boost and made it up the hill in one piece, somewhat faster than I expected given the amount of stops I made.  At the top they stapled a piece of ribbon to your race number as proof that you had done the extra 'boucle'.  I didn't hang around because there were no interesting snacks on offer and the volunteers were smoking like chimneys in their little hut, not what you want to breathe in after 9+hrs of running!  Plus the old guy behind me had caught up again and I needed to get away.  The descent was steep, with a few more sections of tarmac, but I made it to the final control in just under 10hrs.  Here I had done my maths wrong and thought there was only 7kms to go when in fact I was informed it was 10.5kms to the finish.  Definitely not music to my ears.

The final 10km went on forever.  It was flat, mainly on tarmac and my body just didn't have anything left to give.  I treated myself to short walks every now and then but was annoyed because it would push me over 11hrs.  Finally I could see the abbey at St Maurice in the distance and I knew I was going to make it.  I crossed the finish line in 11hrs05 with Alan waiting to greet me and promptly stuffed my face with the complementary raclette on offer.  I could not believe I had done it - 71kms and not a single blister, woo hoo!  Alan didn't do the extra section due to problems with his knees, not wanting to jeopardise his trip to Mt Kilimanjaro next weekend , but had still completed 68km in an excellent time of 8.5 hours.

It was a bit of a strange race.  If you drop out along the way you are still seen to have finished the previous stage, you could stop and start at numerous points along the way, hike it as a family rather than running and technically take as long as you want if you don't want to do it in just one day.  The biblical route was marked with scenes from the bible.  There were certainly a few people I met along the way that looked like they had never run before and yet were convinced they could go the whole 71km - maybe purely down to the strength of their beliefs?!  Fair play to them.

Bar the usual aches and pains following a hilly run, mainly sore quads from the descents, all was well afterwards (update day 2 - not sure I will make it down stairs/out of the house today!).  My left foot was pretty sore, but not as bad as expected.  I didn't enjoy the amount of tarmac-pounding involved and feel like I ran a road marathon in trail shoes, but apart from that it was a lovely route, particularly up in the hills and villages.  I am so chuffed that I managed to go the full distance, that I kept going when I was feeling rough and that my time was not disgraceful.  I think my dad would have been very proud.  However, I have to admit that I really missed the social aspect that I get from running these days.  My last few races have been run with friends and running alone felt, well, lonely.  It confirmed that the CCC is within my reach next year, but I am so glad not to be doing it alone.  I am sure you agree Nikki Barnard!

For now I am going to take it easy, have a few weeks off running and get my sore foot seen to.  It's been a busy summer and I need to get my body strong enough to tackle next year.  That means cross-training for the next few months, to stop talking about strength and core training and actually make it a habit and equally important, to have a rest.  Plus I turn 40 in a few weeks time, so the perfect excuse to hit the cake and wine for a bit.  Hoorah to that!