Friday 02 October 2020
Having done 150 hours of training, 1,017 km and nearly 20,000m 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.
|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
|En Route to Arles Sur Tech|
|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 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.
|Roc de France/Frausa - 18km|
We left Le Perthus feeling refreshed and ready to attack the second half of the race. However, things did not go quite as planned.
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”?
“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.
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.
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 had however 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.
|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 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. We even managed to run the last 5km towards the port and then along the sea front to the finish line under the big red arch.
We had planned this 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.
Result: 21h33 de course 82km 4000 D+.