The Grand Trail du Lacs was another amazing European mountain running adventure. I spent a day in Annecy first and then headed over to Bourget du Lacs on Saturday afternoon (both are in the mountains in southwestern France). Annecy matches old world charm with a crystal clear lake and big, jagged mountain peaks. Lac du Bourget is the largest natural lake in France and just a bit west of Annecy. From the higher peaks, they boast tantalizing views of the Alps in the distance.
Both were very romantic spots filled with French couples being … well … French. Sadly (and much to the confusion of my charming little hotel in Bourget du Lacs), I was just a dude by myself getting ready to run for a very long time and didn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical tourist. I had a particularly hilarious exchange with my hotel about checking out at 4 in the morning. I think I was also the only person to ever stay there without a significant other, without having dinner in their two star Michelin restaurant, and without eating any breakfast. To be honest, this all made me very much miss Jen, Liam, and Connor. I was appreciative for the opportunity to run this race (and a huge thanks to Jen for watching the boys for a week), but I would much rather have been spending time with them!
The race started at 5am right in the middle of town. It looked like it would be a beautiful day, and despite being a bit worried about fighting a cold, I was excited for the adventure that lay ahead!
This was the day before in Annecy. Yeah, it is a beautiful place.
Miles 0 – 8.3
The race would ultimately circumnavigate the entire lake. The first 8 miles looked flat and fast as we hugged the lake and worked our way towards the first mountain section. I knew the name of the game here was to conserve energy, stay relaxed, and make sure my stomach stayed happy. Running a few minutes faster here would be irrelevant with the mountainous 38 miles to come.
I intentionally avoided the front of the pack and after a slow start began to work my way past people. I was running very, very easily and pleased to see I was running mid 8 minute miles. Maybe the fast 10 mile race a week before made the faster flat running seem easy? Sure, we’ll go with that.
I was a bit surprised that miles 6-8 actually had steep terrain on trails as I thought all 8 miles would be flat and easy. But no matter, I chugged up a big climb and then went flying down into the mile 8 aid station. I skidded to a stop as they needed to scan my race bib, which is maybe a first in an ultra? I blew past the aid station and was on to the mountains feeling fresh as could be.
Ok, so just picture sucks. But you can use your imagination that there is a supermoon illuminating mountains and lakes.
Miles 8.3 – 20.7
So this race has 12,500 feet of climbing over the 46 miles, and all of that climbing really happens over 40 miles. On paper this makes it a very steep course. Then I was quickly confronted with the reality that there was actually a lot of flat running throughout the race, so the climbs and descents were actually super steep and interspersed with flatter, easier stretches. I’d say most of the elevation change was well north of 20% grade and no joke.
The climb out of mile 8.3 was a steep grind, but I felt good and enjoyed it. I passed people on the way up and used the slower pace to take in some calories and fluids. Down by the lake there was a low cloud layer, but soon we climbed up out of the clouds. This made for an amazing experience and unbeknownst to me, it was a super moon! Higher up on the mountain, we had the most incredible views in the middle of the night of the lake and the mountains on the other side of the lake lit up by a huge, bright full moon. I really can’t describe this experience, and this type of thing is a big reason why I am drawn to these kind of adventures. When else would you be on top of a mountain in France in the middle of the night with a supermoon illuminating the largest lake in France and stunning mountain peaks?
We had some rolling hills and then hit the downhill to the aid station. I had a great time on this descent as the last bit of night held on, and I rolled into the 14 mile aid station loving life. With a brief refuel, it was go time again.
We had some rolling terrain here as the sun came up and then hit a steep climb up to the summit of a mountain. As we came to the top daylight was breaking, and the views were breathtaking with a low cloud layer and mountain peaks and rays of sunshine up above. We descended partway down to climb an even bigger peak.
Then it was truly game-time in the race, and we hit a monster descent that plunged down the mountain. The average grade was over 25% for thousands of feet of vertical, and the trail was littered with wet leaves and rocks. Usually in European races this is where it seems like I am standing still and people start blowing by me. But this time was a bit different. I was flying down and holding pace well with fast Europeans. I was at the edge of control, but it was so much fun careening down this mountain with my arms flailing wildly and legs turning over as fast as I could.
We spluttered out of a final chute onto a road, and I realized this jolly good time had taken more than a bit out of me. My legs were wobbly, and I was not feeling as good as one might like with a very long way left to go! I took it easy over the next couple of road miles to the next aid station and didn’t worry too much about getting passed. I knew I had to get my legs back under me before worrying at all about pace or position.
We came up to the next aid station that was mere feet from the lake, and I was definitely ready to refuel and gather myself for the next part of the course.
Above the clouds with dawn breaking.
Wow, I look tired here. Maybe because I woke up at 4am and was still jetlagged and exhausted from hopping across Europe?
Climbing up, up, up
We'd drop down first and then ascend the peak in the middle left
After the screaming descent. Not a bad spot for an aid station!
Miles 20.7 – 37
So far I had executed the race pretty well. I was in 72nd place (out of about 300) at mile 8, and I had moved to 54th by mile 14. I felt pretty worked over at mile 21, but knew what needed to be done.
After some food and moving a bit more slowly for a while, I started to come around. The next 3 miles or so were easy / flat running, and I started moving fast. My goal for mile 21 had been about 4 hours, but I managed it in 3:53, which was great. If I could hit a bit over 5 hours for the mile 25.2 aid station, I’d be a happy guy.
After 3 miles I felt fantastic and figured I’d be super fast into the next aid station. Then for no apparent reason we turned off a perfectly good trail and went up an insane, steep non-trail through the forest. We basically were climbing a sheer cliff covered in wet moss. Fortunately, my race in Germany last year prepared me for such delightful detours, and I push on hard and passed a few people as they grumbled in French.
We finally got to the top of this beast and started a descent down to mile 25.2. I was let loose and was flying down as I ran past someone saying something in French. Up to this point literally everyone spoke only French, and I did my best to get along. As I ran past this guy, my brain slowly registered “slippery, careful, and attention”. I didn’t quite follow but threw on the brakes just in time to avoid tumbling down a big pile of steep rocks. I used the via ferrata (iron cables) to progress down and once past the madness continued the push into the aid station.
Despite the crazy end to the last section, I was here in 4h50min, which was awesome. I was in 42nd after having been in 54th at mile 14. I quickly refueled again and was on my way.
I mentioned that I didn’t always feel so great during some previous sections. Well I felt fantastic at this point. I had beaten my best expected time to this point and felt full of energy. Up to this point it was about conserving energy, but now I decided it was time to go hunting and pick off people.
I left the aid station and starting running uphill. I took a brief detour after missing the trail, but fortunately some kind runners called me back. Over this next section, many running the 75km solo started slowing down. But with the solo 34km starting right after I left the last aid station, I quickly had people running the shorter race catching up.
I used this as motivation and pushed hard on this stretch. I was able to keep up pretty well with those who just started and had fresh legs. I pushed on to the aid station at mile 32, and we had a big steep grind up to town. I had hoped to arrive around 11:30 or 11:40 and was pleased to arrive before 11:15. This aid station looked like a medieval town up on top of a mountain and was an awesome place to pass through. After that we enjoyed some great stretches with views of the lake and then hit some steep climbs and ascents.
I was hurting by now but kept moving fast and pushing hard. After the quick last stretch I figure I would be happy with arriving at the next aid station by 12:30. I worked the climbs and descents and kept pacing off the 34km runners. I tried to balance moving well on this section while saving something in the tank for the next tough section. I was super happy to arrive at the next aid station at 12:18. Miraculously, I had moved into 22nd place, passing 20 runners in the last section. I grabbed food and fluids and was quickly on my way to try and conquer the rest of this beast, which would undoubtedly be the toughest stretch.
This was after the climb coming out of mile 25 aid. Just your casual French castle here. Clouds were also burning off.
Ok, so maybe some clouds weren't burning off yet.
Getting higher up and more views as we made our way back down the lake.
Miles 37 – 46
The next section was very hard on paper. We had a 3,000+ foot climb in less than three miles followed by a huge descent in 5.3 miles. I was optimistic and started pushing hard up the climb. It quickly became insanely difficult. It was just so, so steep and was a 40% grind up through forest trails. It would be a monster of fresh legs and was just plain mean for the last part of the course.
One thing I have to say is that you have to love the European hikers. In the US you too often hear lame encouragement like “you’re almost there” when you are in fact not almost there. In Europe they look you in the eye and solemnly say “have courage” (in French). At this point that is so absolutely the right thing to say and courage is all that can keep you going up this impossible climb. It is also motivating when you are in the depth of despair to see a 6 year old on the same trail you are grinding up. Surely it can’t be that bad if a 6 year old is doing it, right?
I trudged up and was again motivated by passing 34km runners as I climbed. As we kept going up, up, up my body started failing. It was just so steep, and we had come so far. I was losing control of my body and had to really concentrate to keep safe. We hit a via ferrata section, and I really had to focus to hold on to the line and make it across.
The interminable climb continued, and I got to the point where my right quad was spasming and cramping with each step. I can’t say I was surprised. I was pushing really hard, and it was difficult to take in fluids and fuel given how hard I was pushing. But this was really concerning. If I somehow got to the top, I’d still have over 4,000 feet of descending in about 5 miles. Steep descents are brutal on the quads, so I was really getting unsure about how my legs would hold up.
Finally, my shattered body got to the top. The view was just breathtaking. You could see all of the mountains around the lake as well as Mont Blanc and the Alps in the distance. I enjoyed the view and snapped a few pictures. Then much to my chagrin, I had to traverse a while more before getting to the next aid station. It seemed to take forever, and I was in rough shape.
In finally got there and had made it up the brutal 3 miles in 1h20min. It sounds slow and pitiful, but I was honestly really happy with the time here. My legs were quivering, and my right quad was cramping. I was totally depleted after the grinding climb. All that said, I was confident I’d get it done. The real question at this point was whether I could finish in less than 10 hours. With my strong performance earlier on, I had really set on 10 hours as a good benchmark. I very much wanted to make that happen, but I wasn’t sure I could do it.
So I arrived beaten and broken at mile 40. But I know how these things go. You pick yourself back up and figure out a way to go on. I ate a bunch of food including big handfuls of salty peanuts and slugged some Coke. I would have liked to stay longer, but there were only 5.3 miles to go. I knew I had enough in me and set off for the last stretch.
My quads were still shot, and I was getting worried it was going to be a slow finish. The first 1.5 miles was rolling hills. I moved relatively slowly and continued fueling up and piecing myself back together. By the time the downhill arrived, I had starting coming back to life a bit. I launched into the steep descent, still feeling more than a bit shaky. I plunged down the mountain and was making pretty good time on tired legs. I was worried at this point that scores of European downhill running experts would pass me. Just a few 34km runners came by me, and it seemed I was holding my own. As the calories kicked in, I felt stronger and stronger.
I started to haul ass down the mountain and was in pain but thrilled with being able to move so fast. I passed all of the 34km runners who passed me earlier in the descent and then a few others as well. I was flying and managed to make it down way faster than expected with a big push towards the end.
I crossed the finished in 9 hours 40 minutes after having had the perfect race. I started conservatively in 100th or so place and finished in 22nd place among a competitive field. I passed people left and right on the uphills, and unlike every previous European race was able to hold my own and even pass people on the steep, steep downhills.
Fittingly, this race earned me the remaining points I needed to qualify for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I still need to make it through the lottery, but for the first time I feel ready for that challenge. I’m thrilled with how this race turned out and can’t wait for the challenge on the bigger stage if I am lucky enough to make it through the UTMB lottery.
For right now, my quads are totally shot, and I have to quickly get ready to run the Marine Corps Marathon in less than 2 weeks! Regardless it will be good time, and hopefully I can recover enough to have a decent showing after lots of racing over the past 3 weeks.
On the way up the monster climb to mile 40.
There was a via ferrata section towards the end of the grinding climb. Don't look down!
Finally at the top!
You could see the Alps in the distance, which were much clearer in person
We trudged our way up to the knob in the middle and then over and up to where we were here
Happy guy to finally be at the top! Though I will say I did NOT feel as good as I look here.
This was the finish. We descended from way up at the top middle knob, bombing down 4,000 feet in under 5 miles.