Thursday, 8 September 2016

Summer 2016 and the UT4M- it's long you might want to get a cup of tea

When my entry to the UTMB did not work out this year I decided to turn the disappointment to a positive and continue the pattern of finding a new long race in France each summer. I was keen to enter one that had options for Bob too and one that was not linear to avoid the transport issues. Ut4m seemed perfect as it starts from Grenoble (an area we like) and had the xtrem of the main big race, a challenge option to do it over 4 days with a different massif on each day and other options too. It was billed as 160km with over 10,000m of climb and their ads said it was tougher than the UTMB.

In fact it got longer and longer until it was virtually 170km and had just over 11,000m of climb - so even better value for money! I bet Jon Steele had been helping them, to plan. Bob entered the Challenge which does the whole route but over four days. He thought this would be easier but now knows different.
Looks quite small on the map!
Grenoble is a fairly big city and surrounded by mountains - Chartreuse to north, Vercors to west, Oisans to south and Belledonne to the east. We had visited two of the areas before but not to run so it would be nice to explore. Entry was easy and no points were needed. Most on their web and FB page was translated into English as were the regular email newsletters. With an early start I would only have one night of running (which I prefer) unless things went badly wrong .
We built our holiday around the event and arrived in Grenoble early. We did the Via Feratta again, explored by bike and found the free parking out at the university, sussed out the start and the tram links, had my bike stolen and then left to recee various pieces of the route and get used to the heat. We found Bob's first start in Vif and moved on to Laffrey. We explored back towards Vif and found what would be his first big climb but took a few wrong turns on the descent to Laffrey. We also explored beyond Laffery and found a fair bit of the route would be partially shaded as the drops from each massif and the links tend to be on lower ground.
Straight down and back up the other side
We moved on to Riperoux and both got a little intimidated here by the enormous descent and more importantly the climb to the Arselle plateau and up to Croix de Chamrouse.
Arselle plateau
The climb was steep and over 1600m. We made it to the top and Bob, knowing I was disappointed that the next section for me would be in the dark on race day, agreed to continue up to the Croix.
 From the plateau it was still up but through beautiful scenery in the mountains on single track trails and past loads of lakes. The view from the top was awesome and I could see almost the whole route I would run, GULP.
Croix de Chamrouse into the Belledonne
It was an enormous day and perhaps not wise for Bob who would be running just a few days later. A quick spell on a camp site to remove the sweat and then back to Grenoble for Bob to register.
Nice idea- all the entrants 
By driving to Vif Bob would avoid the mega early start of the coach transfer although it was still dark when the moved into the start pens.I had the luxury of going back to bed for a bit before moving the van to Riperoux and meeting him at the end of his first day. I drove the van very carefully and was crawling at maybe 5-10 mph but did not actually STOP at a sign as there was nothing coming. Unfortunately the gendarmes were watching and pulled me over. The young guy was sympathetic and would have let me off with a warning but not his partner. A 90 euro fine, gutted.
Arriving at Chalets de Barriere
Once in Riperoux I walked up to the Chalets de Barriere CP to wait for Bob.

It was hot but good to suss out the path and nice to welcome him.
I then ran ahead and waited in Les Clots to take photos and show him the fountain to cool off in. Down in Riperoux it was very hot and I tried not to look at the climb up the other side.
Wires on the tricky steep rocky bits
 I would be doing it straight after the descent whereas for Bob it would be the start of day 2. Sadly Bob woke feeling awful and missed day 2. He did recover and complete days 3 and 4 which was nice as he started in Grenoble with me on the Friday and finished his Saturday race just minutes ahead of me too.
Job done.
He met his Gold standard but not quite his platinum. Long days on his feet, early starts with buses, late finishes with buses and the heat all took their toll and he now knows the Master , doing the last two massifs would be mentally easier.
I registered on Thursday and used the free tram rides to go back and pack my drop bags (we had 3) and then return to deliver them and to enjoy a pasta meal. The forecast was hot and sunny for Friday but a big storm on Saturday so people were studying the bad weather routes. These were published on huge maps at the event centre and although it meant potentially missing out some of the higher peaks and surroundings at least we knew the event would still continue. The event centre was in the velodrome next to the main stadium and set in a park. The whole of France was still on terror alert and security was high. Race day dawned warm even in in the dark. We rode the tram together and after several toilet visits moved to the start pens.
Excited and nervous
Security had been stepped up! There were armed police everywhere, the army with sub machine guns and we were asked to run together as a peleton through the city to make our safety easier. Every single road was sealed off and had several armed police in attendance. It made for an unusual start.
The first 5km was flat and inevitably faster than many of us really wanted. It was a relief to reach the edge of the city and start the climb up onto the Vercors. We settled into a more sensible pace and got chatting.
Up to the Vercors
Up and up on wide trails and lanes through the woods and out into the open and then just before Saint Nizier and to complete the initial 1020m climb we faced the steps of the ski jump (more evidence that Jon S had been involved). Brutal.
The Vercors scarp
Despite the sun I preferred to be out in the open and really enjoyed the next sections along the top and precipitous edges. Pic Moucherotte appeared complete with little concrete cairn and table d'orientation. There were loads of supporters here and strangely mountain guides and warning signs about the path being dangerous. It was rocky and a little tricky but nothing serious. We descended on Lakeland like paths to a small ski resort where I refuelled and refilled both my water bottles. In the heat I opted for oranges and melon; something I would later regret. The other item going down well was mint cake (Splatcher will be pleased to have a convert). Next stop Pic St Michel but this time just 500m of climb. I was loving it and the views were awesome. The drop down to St Paul de Varces started a bit steep and loose but soon eased, although again there were guides and warning signs near the waterfall. He shouted that we were in the top 50 but I had no idea and did not really care at this early stage. It was also complicated as their were the Challenge runners and those only doing this one massif. A lady (Alexandra) came flying down and it spurred me on to take a few more risks on the path. I kept her in sight all the way to Vif. The fountain in St Pauls was a welcome sight and I joined others dunking my head and arms. This was a mistake. I had forgotten about my watch battery. It had been changed in backstreet Morocco and was fine in the shower but clearly not waterproof enough for full submersion. Coming into Vif on a big wide gravel track I noticed that my watch had failed. Damn. Still I arrived at the CP and our first drop bags only seconds behind Alexandra. Determined to eat well I scanned the tables. More fruit and then from my drop bag a milk shake and a huge sandwich. It took some time and I was envious of Alex having one to massage her legs, one to collect her drop bag and feed her... A third lady arrived (Marjolein) and I decided it was time to go. I knew the next section from our recee. I do not know where I lost Alex but I managed to stay in front despite a very urgent toilet stop minutes out of the village. I concentrated on the climb on a fortunately dry muddy path up through the woods. I knew when I was near the top and also knew there was a fountain there. More plunging. I arrived in Laffrey at 60km as first lady and was soon joined by Marjolein. We chatted as we ate and also spoke to welsh Dominic who sadly bailed at the next CP feeling sick. It was now seriously hot and we were jealous of those in the lake at Laffrey plage. Marjolein and I ran from here to the finish more or less together. She pulled ahead on the first climb but we were back together after the woods and on the climb across the open alp and ski area above La Morte/ Grand Serre.
Above La Morte
About here we started to work together and pushed the pace a bit. We arrived at the CP in the ski resort together and settled in to refill water and eat. I was now keen to avoid too much fruit but managed cheese, bread, chocolate and more. Leaving the village we had the support of a very noisy family with a drum, cow bell and car horn. Another emergency pit stop saved me a little climb. On the wide track we missed a marker on a bend and failed to leave the track. I was a couple of hundred of metres behind so met them coming back to check. It was the only error in the whole 170km of very well marked route.Another relentless climb awaited us. Well over 1000m as we climbed to Pas de Vache on steeper and steeper zig zags.
Spot the zig zags
The scenery made up for it with great views to Thabor and Taileffer.  About now I started wondering where Alex had got to and thinking about the fact that Marjolein and I were first/second ladies.
Petit Taileffer

The rocky ridge and lake Brouffier was a favourite section for me and the hillside after the lake even reminded me of the fells at home - until we dropped into dense shoulder high scrub and then forest.

 It was dusk and as we ran through more trees to Poursollet we had to stop and find torches. By the feed station it was properly dark.
One of my favourite bits

Still no sign of Alex and although we didn't know it at the time we had a 2 1/2 hour lead. It was still warm but soup made it easier to swallow real food. The CP volunteers were brilliant and really encouraging.
Lake Brouffier- on our walk down from the Via Feratta
Bob's race had skipped the next section of 'tundra' and thousands of lakes due to a thunderstorm. I didn't see its full glory in the dark but did enjoy it. M had pulled ahead and I ran this section totally alone. A couple of tricky rocky sections and more warnings and then I could see the lights of Chalets de Barriere.
The night is here
The CP staff recognised me from days ago when I waited for Bob. M and I sat drinking soup, eating and chatting. I knew the next drop was 1500m but that the path was quite good. We ran together and kept up a decent pace. It was mentally tough not having the CP in Les Clots or even on the main road. Instead we had to drop to the river and then climb to the next village. Two stages down and two to go. There was food on offer and our drop bags. More chocolate milk and another big cheese and cucumber sandwich, although it was getting harder to swallow this and two cups of soup were needed to help. At this stage we were both given trackers (something that later helped Alex and her team) and we set off up and up towards the Arselle pateau.
but it was dark in my race
Again there were mountain guides on a tricky bit but even in the dark it was dry and safe really.  I knew what to expect here and it helped. I pulled ahead but just before the CP we were together again and joined by Joao. We chatted, got on well and made a pact to run together. The Team. In terms of winning the race this was probably a mistake but it was great to have company. Our shared language was English, we motivated each other, chatted away the dark hours and generally had a good time. The next CP was a small tent on the edge of the plateau. The big storm was forecast and so we were diverted from the main route.

This was disappointing as although it was a climb to the lake and then up onto the high pistes and Croix Chamrouse I knew this part and it was beautiful and reasonable running/ stomping. Instead we treked across overgrown lower pistes and paths that seemed to drop for ever and then climb with no real reason. One was more like a stream bed. It was my low point mentally, Joao was hallucinating and M said she felt she was falling asleep as she walked. At the northern edge of the ski area we found the next CP. We got rather too comfy and chatty- I wished I had a working watch and could keep a better check on myself. I bet the other two got fed up with me asking what time it was. We tried to eat and again soup helped a little. The next section is a blur of little rocky paths, forest and wider tracks. I need to find a way to overcome these low moody bits and make myself eat more and run more. Near Freydieres I was aware we were going rather slowly and as the dawn arrived I upped my pace. Better paths and short sections of lane were leading us down to the valley floor. Joao pulled ahead a little and M dropped behind. We arrived at the valley floor as the rain clouds burst. It was torrential and I stopped to put my cag on for a while. I could see Joao up ahead and pushed hard to catch him. After a very winding route through the village we arrived at the St Nazaire CP. Three sections down and 126km done. Joao was running his first 100 miler and keen to have a decent stop which we also hoped would allow M time to catch us up. I changed my socks and then my shoes. No, worried about mud so changed the shoes back again. Tried to eat but swallowing a sandwich was now really tough going. More soup. I should have just bolted the soup, grabbed some mint cake, gels and taken the sandwich with me. No watch was seriously messing me up. Luckily M did arrive but she then also took ages trying to eat. I now know we spent 40 minutes in the CP!! Seriously bad. I also should have asked the staff if they knew where Alex was - if we had known she was closing the gap would we have tried harder? I like to think so.
One section to go now. The Chartreuse.
From the park and tram ride- The Chartreuse
Another big climb of 1460m to Habert Chamchaude with another 1100m in the rest of the race. As we climbed on fairly well graded paths in the woods the rain started again with a vengence. I kidded myself it was a heavy shower and would soon stop. It didn't and I was soaked. Once we broke out onto the alp and the open I was chilly for the first time. The rain continued and the clay like mud was making the limestone paths trecherous. Even the grassy drop to the CP was lethal. This little CP was heaven. A roaring fire, a change of shirt, more soup.... bad weather meant we didn't need to go up the peak and this time I was pleased. Again we were rather slow in the CP but perhaps it was needed this time. We set off The Team down muddy paths and stuck together now. The pact was firmed up- we would ensure we all finished. Dropping to Sappey I felt I was holding the team up- I hate wet rock and feel timid. The weather improved as we reached the CP - no more cags and we were determined to eat. Suddenly Alex appeared. Joao said I should just GO but I couldn't break our deal and anyway it was now possibly too late. We left as a three and then Alex was pushed out the door by her team and told ALLEZ. She stormed off and we trotted along. Her team were everywhere in the car, even up at Fort St Eynard. The descent from the fort was great and we all ran well (although not as fast as Alex) but then it sort of fell apart a little. Joao had not realised there was another 11km and that it had uphill, even though we could see Grenoble clearly just below us. M was mentally starting to break and her hamstring was sore. We cajoled each other along from the Col De Vence and up high above the Bastille. From here I could smell the finish and it gave me second wind. I knew the big zig zag track down from the Bastille as we had used it after the Via Feratta. We were in danger of dropping M so we slowed. Once on the streets of Grenoble there was a green line for us to follow. It seemed to wander a bit but actually took us the best way- except perhaps for the footbridge and steps which was a cruel finale. Joao and I recalculated our finish time as 34 hours came and went. We agreed it didn't really matter. We tried to hold hands but could not drag M any faster.In the park we grouped and we crossed the line together in 34 hours hrs 31 (although we were so busy celebrating we took several extra minutes before we had our timing chips dealt with.

The Team had done it. Joao completed his first 100 miler. M and I crossed the line together as planned.

Alex was about 20 minutes ahead of us (having been spotted by Bob being paced at one section- which is not allowed).

 Sebastian made a big fuss of us in the finish funnel and Bob had just finished his race and so was there ready and waiting with his camera after a warning we were close from Sebastian who was watching our trackers.

The rest was a blur- an interview, food, collect T shirt and gillet, collect drop bags and more photos.

Back to the van by tram, a strip wash and a lie down.

We met up again at Prize giving on Sunday and swapped emails etc. It was nice to podium.

They announced M 3rd and me 2nd but we shared my podium spot. Not a bad weekend run- 1st V50, 2nd lady, 24th overall 283/547 finished.

It is hard to believe that I gave away such an enormous lead and I won't get many chances to win a race outright at 55 but do I regret making our team pact? No. My watch failing was probably a bigger factor and I made two wonderful friends. Joao plans to come to England to do a long ultra- maybe the Fellsman? Marjolein and I will try to meet up at an ultra somewhere I am sure.

Lots of lessons learned:
what went well- chocolate milk, running with friends, Scott shoes, comfy clothes, poles for second half, change of socks, calf guards, taping my big toes days earlier, drinking plenty, having energy left to run at end.

But- I was too slow in some feed stations, having no watch was a serious issue, I need a better plan on entry to CPs re what food I want straight away, should have stuffed some food when my mood was low, should have asked about any ladies catching us and maybe will only make a pact near the very end or " yes, if we are still together later".

Comparted to the UTMB and GRP? Tougher in terms of climbs and drops, more single track than UTMB, prefer scenery of GRP but pleased to only be out one night unlike UTMB.

One of the best final meals ever- great food, lots of it and wonderful atmosphere.
So now I just need to plan next year! Monte Rosa? UTMB (as I have double chance)? Echappe Belle? L'Entenard?......


  1. UTMB and xTrem would be a good week.
    Enjoyable write up. How did the trackers help Alex - was it because she(her team) knew they were gaining on you?

  2. My version was the ut4m xtrem ( as not the challenge, master etc). Yes helped Alex as they were able to tell her you have gained 30 mins etc etc, in fairness she still had to run to make up the time and it was my fault I didn't have a worki g watch....

  3. I'm now up to date with your big races having just read the Welsh 10 peaks report. What has happened to all your competition recently - off doing Bob Grahams etc. perhaps?
    Anyway, keep fit and plenty of 3 week rests between races.