Sunday, 12 July 2015

Never say never again - Trail Verbier St Bernard round 2

I haven't written this blog for a year.  A marked decrease in my lung function plus an ankle injury lead to 2 DNFs in 2014.  My confidence took a beating as my performance seemed to be going backwards.  I convinced myself I should give up, that running wasn't for me anymore, that my health was being hindered by doing it.  Nobody wants to read about that.

This year didn't start well either.  A winter of persistent chest infections left my lung function at an all time low with no real idea from doctors or specialists what was causing it or how we could fix it.  I continued to run when I could, but even small hills left me out of breath, like someone was sitting on my chest.  I was disheartened, frustrated, angry, scared that things would never improve and that I should just accept it.  When I tried to push through, it hurt.  Not in the 'no pain no gain' kind of way, but real, physical 'this isn't good for me and I could be damaging myself' way.  My lungs were starting to define me, limiting me, stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.  When friends improved, I of course felt happy for them but also quite jealous.  Not because I actually wanted to train as hard as them, but because I felt that choice had been taken away from me.

But I am not willing to accept that this is my lot.  I'm only 42 for God's sake, not 92!  I have years left in me and want to live them to the full.  Anti-asthma and allergy drugs might take the edge off my symptoms a little, but there is definitely more going on in those lungs and if that cannot be cured then there must be something that can at least improve and manage them better, to avoid regular chest infections and further decline in their function.  Recently I approached another doctor who seems to agree with me.  We are trying a few simple things, including some amazing physio from Neil @ La Clinique du Sport, and are seeing results.  For the first time in 2 years there has been a marked improvement in my cough.  I have hope and that is a very important thing for my head.

My running has taken a turn for the better too.  Big hills and long distances still feel a lot harder than they used to do pre-pneumonia, but my breathing has got deeper, helping with inclines and enabling me to train harder again.  I'm running with friends old and new, keeping routes fresh, using chat and laughs as a distraction from tough runs, really enjoying my time in the hills and actually seeing some improvements on regular routes.  I feel stronger, positive, and although I am pretty sure I'll never get back to my previous levels of endurance, I can live with where I am now.

So it's at this point that the Trail Verbier Grand St Bernard reared it's ugly head.  I signed up for it after my last DNF, having done the race before in 2013 with my good pal Nikki.  She dragged me round it, the conditions were ridiculous and I absolutely said never again.  I signed up again because it carries UTMB points (just in case!), is a beautiful course, I wanted to prove that I could do it better, and my friend and fellow lung-issue sufferer Chantelle was up for it.  I mean, it wasn't really that bad last time was it?

The race starts in La Fouly, Switzerland, goes up and down several high mountain cols on technical trails, across wild countryside, through picture-postcard villages and ends up in the alpine town of Verbier.  Training had been going so well that I was super-excited for the race and had pretty much blocked out all the horrible bits from last time.  Race conditions were good, the snow had melted on the trails.  I was ready.  We stayed in Verbier the night before the race, taking the bus to La Fouly in the morning with other runners.  It was going to be a hot day, which didn't suit either of us, but not much we could do about that other than sun-cream up, ensure we took enough fluids and wore a hat.

We crossed the start line with several hundred other runners at 10am, heading up a long tarmac road, into the mountains to the Col de la Fentre then down to the first aid station at the Grand St Bernard pass.  From there it heads back up to the Col des Chevaux, down a long, valley descent to the almost-half-way aid station in Bourg St Pierre.  This first half of the race was hot and sweaty, so we took a few stops to cool off and dip our legs in streams and water troughs.  We met Chantelle's friend Jen, who was our roving support and chief photographer for the day.  Being a runner herself, she knew exactly what to do for us, running around getting coke top-ups and salty biscuits at the click of a finger!

We felt refreshed and good here, although due to the heat we weren't eating as much as we should, but instead relying on liquid-based electrolytes.  It was really hot and the next ascent was long and relentless, affording little shade along the way.  The route to the Col de Mille was tough, with two false summits, and I had a total sense of humour failure after the second.  Seeing the aid station at least another 5km away was more than I could cope with at that point, but Chantelle was kind enough to trick me into eating something and we kept going.  We stopped to help a guy that had the most horrible cramp I had ever experienced - you could physically see the calf muscles spasming as he rolled around on the ground in agony.  We poured cold water on his legs, fed him salts, stretched his legs and another runner offered a miracle gel which Chantelle massaged into his calves.  As he calmed down we left him, telling him that we'd tell the next station to look out for him.  In fact as we left the station some time later, we saw him walking towards us looking like a new man!  At least it had taken my mind off my strop and when we did eventually make it to the aid station we revived ourselves with some excellently salty soup and biscuits.  Salt was definitely what we craved for most of the day due to the heat.  I have no idea how hot it got, but at 7pm and 2500m it was still 26 degrees, so it must have been way above that for most of the race.

The long descent to Lourtier was hard work at the top but got more runnable the further down we got.  We were both suffering from a general lack of solid food by now, feeling bloated and uncomfortable, knowing we should eat but not fancying anything out of our huge bags of food.  We met Jen a few kms before the aid station and she ran down with us, trying to keep us trotting along.  At Lourtier we had more soup, forced down a few solid morsels and energy gels, and donned our headtorches ready for the final stretch.  We trotted off into the night, knowing that the end was almost in sight but that a hideous vertical km stood between us and that end.  The ascent to La Chaux is steep and relentless, switchback after switchback through the trees, with no airflow.  Poorly lungs did not love this section and we were slow and often out-of-breath, taking many breaks and having to go slowly to avoid a meltdown.  Things got a little easier as we came out of the trees into the cool night air, but alas the aid station seemed to have a trick of disappearing the closer we got.  It got really cold at the top just before our arrival, but held off until we got inside before changing into warm, dry clothes.  More soup and we were ready for the final descent.

With only 7km the end was truly in sight, but as per usual it did drag on!  Our knees were starting to feel uncomfortable from all the descending and the route still had a few sneaky uphill sections.  I was desperate to shave a few hours off my previous time, but alas the heat and lung issues had put paid to that.  However, we reached the outskirts of Verbier, trotted through the town to the claps of Jen and other late-night supporters and crossed the finish over and hour faster, so all in all I was still really happy.  I had survived the day, enjoyed the large majority of it and only had one minor breakdown.  Chantelle and I are so evenly paced and is a joy to run with, plus having someone with you that totally understands your lung problems it really reassuring for both of us.

Throughout the day I questioned whether I should continue running such long distances.  I originally got into mountain ultras because although I was slow, I adored hills and could keep slogging away for hours, so I was pushing my distance rather than speed boundaries and I loved that.  Now hills are hard and the more time I spend on my feet, the more tired my lungs become.  Endurance sports are tough in their very nature, but if your lungs perform poorly when stressed, is that a good place to put yourself?  Is that one challenge too far when there are so many other things out there I could choose to do?  I don't know; I love running so passionately and I am sure it will always be a part of my life, but my 60km days could be numbered.  I'll happily run 30 or 40km in training so maybe shorter distances are the answer, or at least races that last a good bit less than 16 hours!  I wasn't ready to admit that last year, but now I am getting used to the idea.  Anyway, my next challenge is the 6-day Transrockies run, 120 miles over 6 days in the Rocky Mountains with my wonderful Neverest girls.  Having never done a multi-day event or been to the States I am really excited to see how it goes.  Maybe that's going to be my new thing :)