100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée 03/10/2020 Race Report

Friday 02 October 2020

Having done 150 hours of training, run 1,017 km and climbed nearly 20,000 meters of elevation over 4 months, we arrived in Argeles sur Mer in the rain. We were already feeling a bit of trepidation of what was to come tomorrow morning, so the constant downpour didn’t help. We just hoped that the météo would be right for a change and that tomorrow would be a bright and warm day. We had also just heard that the runners who had started this morning from Font Romeu (the 100 miles race), were battling rain, snow and freezing conditions. It was so bad, that some of the back of the pack runners were forced to abandon after 58km as mountain rescue felt it was too dangerous to go on.

After settling into the apartment (kindly borrowed from Alex’s parents) we decided to go and pick up our bib numbers. We did have the option of picking them up in the morning, half an hour before the race started, but that was just too stressful to think about so off we headed to Arles sur Tech, a 40 minute drive away. Because of COVID and the rain, it was all a bit of an anticlimax when we got to the sports hall. Mask-up, gel your hands, line up, keep your distance, get your bib number and then drive home 40 minutes. What, no goody bag?! I’m always partial to some freebies 😉. 

100 Miles sud de France - La Traversée
It's getting real

We ate in the apartment and checked and re-checked our kit about 10 times. Bill even filled his camel pack, but I was too scared in case it leaked overnight and then I’d be REALLY panicked in the morning. Then it was lights out by 9:30pm with our alarm set for 2:45am.

Saturday 03 October 2020

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
En Route to Arles Sur Tech

Somehow getting up at 2:45am felt not so bad. The adrenaline and excitement filled us with “wide awakefullness”. After forcing down a banana and yoghurt we headed out the door feeling calm. Normally before a race there is always that stress of feeling you must use the bathroom but this time, we knew that we would have plenty of time in the forests. We walked 20 minutes to the bus pickup point and before we knew it, we had arrived at Arles sur Tech. 

It was all a bit chaotic at Arles but I finally got my goody bag 😊 (a piece of cake, some jelly fruits and a non-technical t-shirt) and then it was off to drop off our bags which would be transported to the finish line in Argelès sur Mer. The bag hall was also one of the control points for the runners who had started yesterday and already they had taken over the hall. It looked like a war zone. Runners wrapped in foil blankets, runners draped over tables and chairs with glazed eyes and others looking like they belonged in a zombie film. So not really an encouraging scene for us just about to start on our adventure.

After a quick pre-race briefing, we were suddenly off running. There was a moment’s panic when I lost Bill amongst the folly of 233 excited gazelles all around. Bill and I had done all our training together and we also decided to race together. For us, it wasn’t about a finish time (although we thought we could do it in 19.5 hours), but about finishing and enjoying the challenge.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
Climbs that go on and on

We started immediately with a 4km climb of over 618m. It was interesting running in a mask but by the first km, most had taken theirs off. We felt strong and we marched up the forest hillside along with everyone else. It was still dark and I put my new lithium ion batteries to the test. They were super bright and I felt really secure as they lit up the forest paths. The landscape was really varied from forest trails, rocky paths and lots of ups and downs but all in all it was going well. I had turned off my heart rate monitor and all sounds on my watch so as to maximize the battery. In a way that was quite refreshing as I could just concentrate on what I was doing and not stress about anything else. The only time planning we had done, was to get to Le Perthus (40km) in 9 hours and La Vallée Heureuse (60km) in 14 hours.

The food/drink stops were every 10-15km and once Bill had discovered that they were serving vermicelli soup and cheesy pasta, well we had to stop at each one for a meal! Our regime became, sugar snacks and Tailwind nutrition endurance fuel to drink en route and salty food at the aid stations. The route markings too were excellent and not once did we get lost. It was a question of following the red ribbons situated every 200m which had reflective strips for when it was dark.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
More Soup

Once daylight arrived, it really was quite magical. The views were fantastic and you really felt free and alive up in the mountains. By now the runners had really spread out, so we were just about on our own. The highest point we reached was at 18km - the Roc de Frausa at 1417m - and we even crossed into Spain for a few kms. We managed to stop for photos (someone even called us “tourists”!) and also stopped for Bill to pick me up whenever I fell. I really need to stop doing that!

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
Roc de France/Frausa - 18km

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

Over the course of the next 30km we kept passing or being passed by the same few runners. One was an older woman of about 70 wearing a yellow jacket and sometimes a grey felt hat. She said that this was her fourth year of doing La Traversée and we suddenly felt real amateurs. Despite being 70, she would scamper down the technical descents with ease and so was often overtaking us, but on the flats and the climbs we were stronger and would overtake her. Throughout a lot of the race, it became a game of cat and mouse and so my objective became to beat “yellow jacket”.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

Our first big milestone was Le Perthus (40km) also marked as a “Base de Vie”. We arrived only 8 minutes behind schedule so felt chuffed. “Yellow jacket” was just behind us. The only disappointment was that the 100 milers were given a lovely warm village hall to recover in, whilst us 80km runners were given a garage and a couple of plastic chairs and boxes to sit on. They did however offer soup and pasta and bounty/mars bars 😊.

We left Le Perthus feeling refreshed and ready to attack the second half of the race. However, things did not go quite as planned.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

Our next big milestone was to get to La Vallée Heureuse (60km) in about 5 hours and before it got dark. We knew it was going to be tough though, as a couple of weeks earlier we had gone on a reconnaissance and I had decided that technical trails were not for me. A bit too late to decide that as here I was about to embark on a nightmare descent into the valley. The first 12km were mostly uphill and went reasonably well although we started to get cold as we climbed towards Pic Neulos.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
Pic Neulos

Then what followed was 3 hours of stress. It was 8km and 1150m of downhill. The path was narrow, rocky, tree roots, boulders and everything that I am not good at tackling.

We had done it on our reconnaissance but somehow it seemed longer and harder today. Every few minutes I was asking Bill, like a child on repeat mode, “Are we nearly there yet”?

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

“Yellow jacket” managed to overtake us on this portion and unfortunately, we were never to see her again. We were also passed by many of the 100 milers who had been on the trail for nearly 36 hours and yet they were bounding and skipping down the slopes like gazelles, whilst we picked our way carefully, trying to find a rock that didn’t wobble.

My left calf decided too that it didn’t really like this technical part, so decided to protest every now and then. Plus, my super-duper expensive lithium batteries chose to dim into non-existence when we still had 5km to go. This meant we had to run (take that as a shuffle/crawl) sharing the light from Bill’s head lamp. I did have spare batteries but wanted to save them for what we had been told would be the most dangerous part of the course, still to come.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

What a relief to finally get to La Vallée Heureuse (it ironically means Happy Valley) but a bit disappointing to find a rather sad looking tent with hardly anyone there. I kind of wanted someone to shout and say “Well done you made it and you are alive”, but instead we were greeted with the familiar “let me beep you in please”. I must say though, that the volunteers were fantastic. Every single one of them greeted us with a smile and encouraged us on our way as we left their often somewhat basic little den.

100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée

So 20km to go and we were an hour behind schedule if we wanted to arrive in 19.5 hours. Just as we set off both our watch batteries died so now it was a question of guessing how much distance we had done although we did still have our phones to see the time. I did have my Stryd (my Stryd review) though and I knew that would be picking up all my stats even if my Garmin had decided to pack up. 

At this point I changed my headlamp batteries as we were now about to tackle the hardest descent.
We had heard people talk about it being very, very technical but didn’t know much else apart from the fact that it was called “La Descent de la Mort” (the descent of death). Yippee - not!!! We had tried to do it during our reconnaissance a couple of weeks ago but had been turned back by some very unfriendly looking bulls. Cows and bulls were now on my radar and at one point I heard the familiar tinkle of cow bells echoing in the darkness, so we certainly didn’t want to hang around. I remember Adharanand Finn in his book ‘The Rise of The Ultra Runners’, talking about hallucinating during his race and seeing rocks that he thought were cows. Well, he was not hallucinating! We too found ourselves at one point surrounded by huge white rocks which tuned out to be half sleeping cows who eyed us with precision.

Today (or tonight as it was now dark) we knew when we had arrived at La Descent de la Mort as Bill saw a big warning triangle marked, “DANGER 1km”. Then we really knew we were there when we met Christian. Poor Christian who looked in his 60’s was as white a sheet and frozen with fear. We had spotted him earlier around the course and I had noticed that he looked very pale and almost shocked like. He also had this continual drip on the end of his nose which he seemed too exhausted to wipe off. So, with Christian unable to move and his friend trying unsuccessful to urge him forward, I set off in front with Bill close behind. All I can say is thank goodness it was dark and I couldn’t see what was below.

We had to clamber 1km across and down a rocky cliff face that was really exposed, really high and with nothing to hang on to. I was half expecting a race marshal to jump out with helmets and safety ropes. For me, the only option was to go on my bum, eyes forward. Shuffle, breath, shuffle, breath….. Behind us in the echo of the darkness, I could hear a voice saying “Christian, n’as pas peur” (Christian don’t be scared), which I am sure did nothing to help him.
100 Miles sud de France – La Traversée
Descent de la Mort

I still have no idea how we made it to the next aid station, but we arrived and immediately left although Bill was rather disappointed as he had spotted that it looked rather cozy inside. The volunteer just had time to beep us in and out and to tell us that there was a steep 1 km climb up and down ahead of us. Well she needs to learn what a km is! It was over 2km of VERY steep forest/rocky clambering that had us clambering practically vertically. Every time we though it had come to an end, we could see yet more reflective lights high above us. It just went on and on and what worried me was what was the down portion going to be like. I prayed it would be a gentle and wide forest track, but my prayers were in vain as it was a horrid, narrow, very steep, rocky, lumpy, stony and root strewn gulley and it was all at night.

By the time we got to the last aid station at around 77km, we knew we were way behind schedule, but we knew we could finish and that was our main aim. We were convinced too at this stage, that they had added in an extra 3km (it tuned out to be a bit more) and a few hundred meters of elevation, compared to what the roadbook said. My left calf decided it really had had enough by now, so it became mind over matter. 

Once we arrived at Argeles port it we suddenly found we had no idea where to go. For some reason there were markers but they weren't reflective. We first ended up on a gangway which directed us to a tour boat and then we ended up running round a hotel car park. This was the only time in the whole race that we actually got lost and we wasted 15 minutes trying to work out where to go. However we did mange to run the last 5km towards the port and along the sea front to the finish line under the big red arch.

We had planned the big finish moment in that we would be hand in hand, arms held high, big happy grins as we smiled for the camera. In reality, we held hands, stumbled across the line and there was no camera. There was just a person with a microphone congratulating us and the odd person wandering along the sea front and who probably had trouble sleeping. It was 4am. 

We were directed to a tent to find a few dazed runners and some cheery volunteers. One commented that there wasn’t much food left but he could give us a drink. Lucky we weren’t hungry. We then spied some rather nice race “finisher” t-shirts but were immediately told they were only for the 100 milers….ouch. We were informed though, that the organizers would be sending us a medal and a bottle of wine - in the post!

So, we are now a week post-race and have spent our time dissecting the course. This was certainly the hardest race that we have ever done and although we were not speedy, we didn’t give up. I have decided thought that technical trails are not for me. I was the second oldest female on the course (apart from “yellow coat” who beat me by an hour - so impressive) and maybe there is a reason for that. It was not the distance or time on my feet that I found hard, but more the confidence and the agility with the technical downhills. Christian too found it too much, as he unfortunately abandoned 10km before the end.

Some people congratulated us for running together but to be honest we didn’t want to do it any other way. Bill was brilliant at encouraging me on the downhills and for picking me up off the ground and I encouraged him to push on the uphill and the flat and to not have a 3-course meal in the food stations.

For now, we shall take a couple of weeks off but somehow I can't stop checking out other ultras and seeing which one I could possibly attempt next year. No technical descents though.

The course was meant to be 80km with 4000m of elevation but in fact it ended up being 87.65km and 4110m of elevation. Total time 21 hours 33 minutes. I also found out that I was the second oldest female (yellow jacket being the oldest) so I was quite chuffed that I was able to finish it.