Brutal. That would be the one word summation of the Trail de Cerces of Serre Chevalier, France. Although I am relatively new to ultramarathons, I can clearly state that the 2009 Merrell Sky Race/IAU World Trail Challenge was the most difficult endeavor I have ever gone through. I knew going in that it would be very hard and have many unknowns. My biggest concern was the altitude that we were to be climbing to. I know to those who live in Colorado it may not be that high, but to a native of Brockton, MA it was very high. The fact that I was to reach more than two times the altitude I would reach in training should have told me that it would be problem.
Upon arriving in Turin, Italy and being driven south into northern France and the valley of Serre Chevalier, I was feeling very nauseous, dehydrated, and sleep deprived from the 30 hour trip from Oregon. This was to morph into general gastro intestinal distress for the two days prior to the start of the race and kept me in out of the bathroom day and night. Needless to stay I would start the race dehydrated....never a good thing. However, it was great to meet the only other person representing Team USA...Ben Nephew who was there with his wife and son. It often helps to have someone to talk to leading up to an unknown event such as this. Ben and I managed to run (in reverse) the last couple miles of the course by climbing up part of the final decent.
The alarm went off on race morning at 2:30AM but I was already awake having just gone to the bathroom (again). With the race start at 5:00, I wanted to make sure I was up and around and fully awake. The IAU World Trail Challenge competitors assembled at the front of the 1000 plus open field competing in the Merrell Race Across The Sky, one of the largest in all of Europe.
Almost immediately after the race start
ed, I was nearly impaled by the ski poles of a French women that were falling off her pack (poles must be attached to pack for the first 11k). Upon clearing that obstacle I was off near the front. After a short stint on the road, we entered a trail head that snaked through to the outskirts of town. It was dark and hard to see where you were going, so I initially stayed close to the one guy who had a headlamp. After a couple of minutes, I found my self in the lead and was fine to just run in the the front. Once we got out of town and up into the hills there was quite a large lead pack of 20-30. I settled into the pack and tried to find a sustainable rythym, but the pack quickly spread out. I took my first Powergel at 45 minutes and started the first major climb of the day up to the Col de Galibier. Almost immediately my heart rate went through the roof and shortly after I realized that I had to pay attention to it. This meant that I had to start my walk/run much earlier than expected. This is not a problem because I trained this way and knew it was to be long day of climbing. What shocked me was how many people kept running at that sort of effort and how many people were going by me. What ran though my mind was..."there is no way I am gonna run all the way up the Galibier, so why not listen to my heart rate and run efficiently". Little did I know that the fun was just beginning and would continue all day.
I honestly don't remember much about the climb up the Galibier. I remember my heart rate being at its max and trying to run when ever possible. The wind had also kicked up, so I threw on my light jacket to stay warm. Prior to reaching the summit we hit the "Refuge de Galibier" or Aid Station 1 at 19k and 8,366 ft.
I topped off my Nathan Hydration Bladder....adding water to the orange Gatorade that I started with and noticed that I had not taken in that much fluid. Not good! Once leaving the AS, we still had to get to the peak by way of another steeper 500 ft. climb. The summit of the Galibier (8,789 ft.) was by far the highest I had ever been in a race. The grade of the climb was also the steepest I had yet to experience....atleast until later in the day. Needless to say it was great to reach the top of this famous peak (a la Toure de France). At this point I welcomed the downhill...and it dropped quickly. The technical nature of the course become evident while making my way down this first decent. I felt I was moving ok but was still getting passed regularly. Among those going by was a young Swede I got to know Rickard Seger, who would finish 16th (good run Rickard!). The terrane was made up of many steep descents with large loose rocks on uneven surfaces. Don't get me wrong, I like rough downhill but this just seemed a bit more than I was used to.
The next climb began at 28k and would take us up to the Col de Rochilles (8,188 ft.). I would have to say that from this point until 50k of the course is the hardest part... where all of the difficult factors of the race really come into play. The altitude, the climbing, the descending technical terrane, and the lack of Aid. I also realized, after climbing to the Rochilles Summit, descending to the "Chalets de Laval" 39k Aid Station (6,692 ft.), that I was very dehydrated. I was not drinking hardly any of the Gatorade in my hydration bladder. I needed water! I opened and emptied the 3/4 full 2L bladder, filled it with just water, drank two cups of Coke and headed out. On to the beast that is the Col des Beraudes (9,498 ft.)
The epic climb to the highest peak of the course was a steep ~2,800 ft. ascent in less than 2 miles. This alone would have been hard enough but there were times when the trail either did not exist or was 6 inches in diameter, was on patches of snow, and/or was one step away from a shear drop of hundreds of feet down the mountain. Now being days removed from this, as usual, the difficulty becomes diminished. However, the fact that time seemed to move in slow motion, I will never forget. My neck became very sore from keeping my head down to follow the pick dots painted on rocks to indicate the trail to follow. Looking up was something I did sparingly, as taking your eyes off the trail seemed to be very dangerous and catching a view of where I was headed seemed to be cruel and unusual treatment of myself.
Mentally I told myself if I could get to the top of this climb, I could finish this course. Approaching the summit the runners were pushed upward by the music of a Frenchman playing an accordian at the summit. Going over the summit of the Col des Beraudes I realized why this event is called a "Sky Race". As the term goes.. I felt like I was at the top of the world. After being directed across the brief ridge top by 5-6 volunteers I was welcomed by a man pointing toward a rope attached to the mountain. This rope dropped over the edge and down into a crevas of sorts made up of a sharp rock face with a rope descending down 20 meters. Holding on to the rope and walking backwards prove to be quite easy. After a super steep 1k decent we turned back up running on a bed of rocks, both large and sharp, to the Col du Chardonnet (8,654 ft.).
Finally at 45k, began the 8k (~1,900 ft.) decent down to the last aid station. By this time, I had been able to consume a good amount of water along with my regular schedule of gels (one every 30 min). There were stretches of good technical running on this section and I was able to catch a few people. At the same time, I was also getting lower back and abdominal pains (muscular) most likely caused by the nature of the course and breathing so hard/long at altitude. I would
periodically take 2 S! Caps which seemed to help with this. Arriving at the 53k "Refuge de Buffere (6,811 ft.) Aid Station, I was in a better place mentally. For the first time a volunteer grabbed my Hydration Unit and filled it with water for me, while I threw down 2 cups of Coke and emptied my trash. Noticing runners strewn about on the ground (dropouts), I headed out for the final 15k waving and thanking the large crowd that had gathered to cheer. On this 3k flat section, I quickly caught and passed a runner and closed in on another with poles whom I had been going back and forth with all day. At 56k, we began the final ascent of the day through forested trails, then alpine meadows, and finally barren ridge top. Reaching the top of the Col de Buffere (7,962 ft.) at just over 8 hours into the event, I realized I had not gone the bathroom all day. Definitely dehydrated! Soon after I was again out of water.
The final decent back into the valley of Serre Chavelier was one of the fastest parts of the course. Unfortunately, my left tibialis anterior tendon at the ankle was not allowing me to run that well down hill. This final 8k would take more than an hour and without water. The good news is that I finished without a fall or getting lost.
What an experience! Sometimes the most difficult experiences can be the most rewarding and educational. I finished 21st (9:08:53) in the IAU World Trail Challenge Competition and 66th when including the open field. Thanks to Team Canada for allowing me to hang out with them in Turin, Italy...we had a great time!