Sunday, 28 July 2013

Trail Verbier Saint-Bernard - a kick up the backside

6th July saw my first major race of the season and my only long race prior to the Ultra Trail CCC in August - the 61km Trail Verbier St Bernard Traversee.  Training had gone well, or so I thought, and although I wasn't feeling super-strong I knew I had run that distance twice last year and not struggled at all.

Nikki, Alan & I drove the hour from Chamonix to Verbier the night before the race, staying in the town's old nuclear bunker-come-hostel underground below the Sports Centre.  The online reviews were terrible, but for 25CHF per night including breakfast, helpful staff and  free entrance to the gorgeous indoor & outdoor pools, it was way better than expected.  We turned down the offer of 'horse' for dinner and ate a massive bowl of pasta in town before packing our bags and getting some shut eye in our triple bunk 50-bed dorm.  The next morning everyone seemed to have set their alarms for 6am and after breakfast we walked through town to get the bus to the start line, 1 hour away in the pretty village of La Fouly.  It was a glorious sunny day which promised to be very hot.  The start line atmosphere was as highly charged as usual and after bumping into my neighbour Francoise and downing a strong coffee, we were ready to go.

We headed uphill right from the start, gently winding up a valley at first, then cutting up onto the hillside.  It felt very similar to some of the Chamonix ascents I am used to, but which admittedly I had done none of this year.  I found it tough right from the start, puffing and panting up the hills where previously I would have been zipping up them.  Nikki and I were sticking together, but I couldn't keep up with her.  The first climb was a big one, up to 2700m at the Col de Fenetre, which was way higher than I had been since my pneumonia and I could really feel the altitude, for the first time in my life.  We started to see snow, heading into it, past a beautiful glacier-blue lake and onwards uphill.

The Col de Fenetre also revealed the next shock of the day - the scary, long, deep snow descents.  We had been warned that there was a lot of snow on the course, but the organisers seemed very proud that they had managed to preserve the route, mentioned at the briefing that there were ropes on the course to help us over the snowy bits and did not make it clear how hideous they might be.  We tried at first to run, but it was deep, steep and almost impossible to stay upright.  Others had started sliding down on their bums and it seemed the only other option.  There was a single, thin rope that finished a few meters down the slope.  I tried to hold onto it and inch down, but it was impossible to keep hold of the rope without gloves and I didn't fancy slicing my hands open.  So I let go and let gravity take me, trying to slow my speed with my feet and poles and trying not to crash or be crashed into by anyone.  I am a big fan of sledging, but not without a sledge!  It was ice-cold on my bare skin and my flimsy running shorts did little to protect me.  The bottom of that descent could not come quickly enough.

Thankfully it wasn't far from there to the first control point and aid station at Grand St Bernard.  Despite only being 13km in, I was already struggling.  My stomach was playing up, causing me not to eat enough and I just had no energy.  I had a few bites to eat, went and changed into my longer running tights (in preparation for more snow) and headed off again.  There was another ascent to the Col des Chevaux, followed by 2 more horrible long, snowy descents.  By the third one we were so pissed off and our buttocks in such pain, we just wanted it to stop.  That final descent was the worst one, so steep it was terrifying trying to get across to the middle of the 'piste' to find the best route down, and so many massive boulders en route, sticking out of the snow.  It was almost impossible to check your speed, without risk of injury.  By the end we had ice-rash on our buttocks and the early signs of frost-bite in our fingers, which took several hours to dissipate.  Utterly ridiculous and, I felt, totally irresponsible of the organisers to allow.

I was broken by the time I got to the 27km aid station in Bourg St Pierre and really wanted to stop there, but after a big bowl of pasta and a toilet trip to try and sort out some nasty chaffing(!), I knew I should carry on.  I was miles from the finish, it was more hassle than it was worth to stop and there was no way Nikki would let me anyway.  It was boiling hot and the start of the long ascent up to the Col de Mille had virtually no shade.  The terrain was easy-going mountain trails, but again I couldn't keep up with Nikki.  This seemed to be a never-ending col: when you got to the top of the high point on the horizon, there was always another in the distance.  It was soul destroying.  Finally we got there and right at the very top the sun and heat gave way to cloud and cold.  I was coughing a lot by this stage and had to have a puff on my inhaler at the aid station which caused a first aider to rush over and ask if I was OK.

The descent was runnable at the top, but quickly steepened which made progress slow.  In total we dropped 1400m over 10km and the beautiful sunset turned to dusk as we rolled into the aid station at the 49km point in Lourtier.  I had already decided that if I made it here I would stop.  I wasn't enjoying myself - I hadn't been all day - I was lacking in energy and motivation.  The station at Lourtier was poorly organised and they didn't seem to have much food left, clearly because we had taken so long, but it was still disappointing.  Nikki had done an amazing job to stay strong and keep me going, but this meant we had taken much longer than expected and we were right near the back of the field.  Then somehow, after a desent rest and patching up of feet, I decided to continue.  We were 12km from the end, surely I could manage that, even if I just walked it all?

It was dark by now and getting cold, so it was on with the thermals and headtorches.  It wasn't long before I wished I had listened to my head and quit at Lourtier!  Basically the path went straight up a long, steep hill - the equivalent of a vertical km over 5km.  Initially I had to keep stopping while Nikki pumped me full of gels and I got my breath back, resting frequently.  Then I seemed to find my rhythm and started stomping onwards and upwards.  It was yet another ascent of endless finishes that never came and it took us hours to reach the top at 2200m.  I have to admit it was slightly comforting finally seeing Nikki looking as knackered as me!  Suddenly we were freezing and had to put on all of our layers, using the patio heater and toilet hand-dryers to attempt warm ourselves further.  My headtorch had old batteries and the beam had been fading on the way up, so I changed them for new ones and we headed off, desperate to keep moving and warm up again.  Nikki decided to follow suit and change her batteries soon afterwards, but somehow didn't manage to change them all, so her beam was pathetic and she had to run in front of me, using my torch to light the way.  It was good knowing that this was the last leg of our journey, but again the descent was steep and seemed to go on forever.  Finally we stumbled into Verbier at 3am, a whopping 17 hours after we started.  There was no energy left for a shower and after collecting our warm clothes, we collapsed into our bunks.

I was absolutely over the moon and amazed that I finished that race and had the lovely finisher's t-shirt and less-lovely shredded-buttocks to prove it.  It was the first time in years that I truly did not enjoy a day's running.  A few weeks later and I'm still not sure why it went so badly, but suspect it was a culmination of several things: not enough training (3 months total since illness), weak lungs after pneumonia, unhappy stomach leading to not enough eating en route, tough conditions, or maybe I was just having a bad day?  What I do know is that I would not have made it round without Nikki believing in me, pushing me to continue and being ever so patient.  I must have been a total pain in the arse to run with!  We spent time analysing things the next day while lazing at the outdoor pool and in the jacuzzi, so it wasn't all bad!

Next is the CCC and I have to admit that Verbier knocked the wind out of my sails and gave me a bit of a rude awakening.  I have been training hard again for 2 weeks but only have another 3 weeks to get myself into some sort of reasonable state.  Nikki and I have to face facts that it's not my year and that she may have to leave me behind in order not to miss the time barriers herself - she is so strong and must not fail because of me.  But I am doing everything possible to try and stop it from coming to that.  Back-to-back weekend training runs are boosting my confidence again, intervals and hill work are attempting to address my speed issues and I'm working on my breathing in the pool, trying to push my lungs and boost their capacity.  I'm even planning on some altitude training at the Aiguille du Midi.  I honestly don't know if I will finish the CCC, but I am proud to even make it to the start line this year and if I do finish, that would be a bonus.


  1. I bet plenty of people dropped out of that race because of the conditions alone - never mind having had pneumonia only a few months previously! 17 hours is a horrendous amount of time to keep your legs moving and your head together but you did it! Both of you! XXX

  2. 26% did actually! That makes me feel better.

  3. Well done to finish Sam, it sounds really tough. I can imagine how tough that last big climb felt. Hope the CCC goes better and can't wait to read about it.