Thursday, October 20, 2016

10/20/16: Grands Trail du Lac Race Report

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.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

9/2/16: Mt Rundle Summit

Ever since arriving in Banff I had been eyeing the tallest mountain in the area.  It looked imposing with steep, jagged peaks that towered 5,500 feet above the valley floor.  It was also impressive on paper with an 8.4 mile round trip trail boasting 23% grade and topping out at over 9,750.  Clearly I had to try it.

Our condo was about 2.5 miles away so the plan was to run there, summit the mountain, run back.  Pretty simple, right?  I started around 7:45 and was treated to local wildlife, waterfalls, and a lower layer of clouds down in the valley before I even got started.  Got to love Banff!

After wandering around the golf course for a bit, I found the correct fire road and soon was on the Mount Rundle summit trail.  With 23% average grade, I was expecting super steep forest trails similar to what I’ve run in the Alps.  It was still a stout climb but was much mellower than I had expected.  I power hiked and ran up, enjoying the views through the trees of the surrounding mountains and valley cloud layer. 

I was bouncing along having a great time and finally decided to check the Suunto watch.  I had gone 3 miles with 2,300 feet of climb.  Not bad under most circumstances, but I did some mental math and promptly got very confused.  So there must be more than 3,000 feet of climbing left but there simply wasn’t enough distance left for the rest of the climbing.  Clearly this must be a much longer out and back than advertised.  No matter. I was making good time and would get it done anyway.

And then – WHAM!!!  I crossed a rockslide and was greeted with a sheer wall in front of my face.  It was a mass of roots and impossible steep forest trail climbing up.  Game on!  The grade was absurd, so I figured it would have to let up soon.  Well it did not.

The trail relentlessly pounded straight up the mountain.  No switchbacks and no mercy.  After forever I checked my watch to discover I had gone only 0.5 miles.  What?!  I looked again and saw I had climbed over 1,200 feet, meaning it was a 47% grade through the trees. 

I trudged up through the tree line and was greeted with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.  I was also greeted with a clear view of the rest of the “trail.”  It looked like a sheer rock face straight to the summit with scree fields, rock and talus everywhere, and not a trail to be found.

I figured I had seen worse in the Alps and trudged on.  In truth I have descended down similar terrain but had never climbed anything this tough. I kept pushing up, wondering if I had lost my mind, and was pleased to see two people above me.  It turned out they were a couple from Germany and Australia, and I pushed past them after chatting but was glad to know I had company on the mountain.  It was also getting very cold and windy, so I finally relented and put on my pullover.

The vertical insanity continued, and I eventually found myself in view of the summit.  The last push was the toughest and steepest.  I struggled to move forwards and avoid falling back with the loose rocks and talus.  Finally, I hit an apex and saw the summit was a short traverse over on the knife edge. I checked the watch and was floored to see that I had covered over 3,000 feet in 1.2 miles for a 46% grade.  The trail was 4.2 miles one way as advertised; my mind was blown.

The view was other-worldly from the top.  I took some pictures and videos, enjoyed an overly well earned PB&J, and tried my best not to freeze to death.

It was a cool perch, but I had to get warm and back to the family.  The first part of the descent was tricky at best.  But in the next stretch I think I finally got the hang of descending down scree.  I basically skied down the rocks and was having a blast.  The stretch after the scree field was actually the toughest.  It was still super steep and all rocks, but there wasn’t much to get a grip on or stop a fall.  I fell here and banged up my leg and elbow a bit but nothing major.

I hit the super steep forest trail and powered down as fast as I could.  My legs were definitely feeling it after descending so much so quickly.  I finally hit the bottom of the steep section and the 3,000 foot 1.2 mile descent.  My legs were shaking, but I knew they’d come around on the less crazy trail.  I motored down the last 3.1 miles in less than 30 minutes and popped out on the golf course.

I ran a few miles to meet up with the family in town.  It was a wild ride, and I am still glowing from the adventure.  Aside from being crazy fun, I also feel like I am slowly improving on the extreme terrain and can do ok on tough courses.

And a huge thanks to Jen for giving me the morning off!  Super happy to have had the chance for this big adventure.    

Leaving the condo.  The summit of Mt Rundle was shrouded in clouds. 

Cascade Mountain in early morning light 

Ran through Banff and crossed the Bow River.  The highest point here is the beast I'll be climbing. 

Bow River Rapids.  Didn't know these were here, so it was a nice bonus! 

The famous Fairmont Hotel. 

Came around the corner and saw a huge elk! 

Since this elk was hanging out around a golf course, I figured it was tame and took a long distance elk selfie. 

Climbing up through the trees and looking out at the low cloud layer in the valley. 

Cloud layer over the town of Banff. 

"The Wall."  After the mellow forest trail this was the real deal.  Hard to get scale, but this was 45%+ grade straight up the forest. 

Starting to break above treeline

Looking down at the town of Banff 

Working the climb hard but loving it! 

The "trail" up the rock / scree field to the summit. 

Looking down the rock field I climbed up and starting to get bigger views 

The route to the top.  I was very happy to see two other souls out here.  It was a nice couple from Australia and Germany. 

Looking down the route up.  You can see the two small dots of the people in the previous pic that I had now passed. 

Looking over at the route up the smaller summit of Rundle, which was less steep than the one I was on. 

Still on the way up and looking over at the spine of the smaller Mt Rundle summit. 

Another view down the route.  I had come up from the bottom and then turned over to where I was now.  It was getting really cold and windy up here! 

View from just short of the summit 

At the top now! 

Looking off the back side of Rundle.  Basically a vertical wall! 

Traversing over to the official summit.  You can see the route I climbed going from bottom left to middle right. 

A bunch of glorious views from the top!  I was very cold but stopped to enjoy a PB&J and revel in the spectacular 360 degree panorama. 

A few views down the backside to the river 5,500+ feet below. 

You could see some big peaks and big glaciers in the far distance that were tough to capture in the picture 

On the way back down.  Good view of the crazy steep descent from the summit.  Basically had to ski down the rocks and brace with the trekking poles. 

Way too happy.  Digging the adventure! 

Looking up the route I descended.  We came down the ridge on the left from the peak in the top right.  I later found out that one should not descend into the gully at any cost.  Glad I didn't!

Navigating down to the tree line.  Took a nice spill on this section. 

Past "the wall" now and moving fast down the last 2,300 feet.  Loving this forest trail. 

Some sweet single track in the sub alpine. 

Back to the valley!  Looking across the golf course to the Fairmont. 

Running back into down and looking up a the summit of Rundle with new perspective / respect. 

 Later in the week we got a great view of the mountain.

You could clearly see the route to the summit for the last 1.25 miles that climbed 3,100 feet.  I outlined it here, which gives you a bit of perspective.