Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Grand Raid de Pyrenees and summer 2017

We set off for the continent  little later in August than usual but the plan was the same- one big race in France, lots of heat and sun, some good mountain walks and then either via ferratas or climbing or both. I am trying to find a different 'big' race each year as it seems time is running out as age catches me up and there are so many I want to do. The problem is I like some I have already done and so also want to return to them. This year the problem was solved when the GRP offered a new longer ultra as part of their 10th anniversary.
The red profile was ours!
Instead of 170km we would do 220km and with about 13,000km so I could go back as it would be a different course! Bob was going to do the 80km again and hope that this year they would not cut his course 15km from the end due to thunder and lightning.
Sleepy Vielle Aure before the racers arrived
It was a long drive all the way through France in rather damp weather but by our first day in Vielle Aure, the tiny village that hosts the race, the weather was back to hot and sunny. After such a terrible time at the LTofBradwell I was more than a little anxious about the event. My foot was better than it had been but still sore even just walking barefoot on a hard surface. I tried to calm myself with the belief that we would be out for 40-50 hours and that this would mean a fair bit of walking and jogging which doesn't seem to trouble my foot so much. I also seem to have developed a skill and fast stomping/walking up big hills even if my running is not up to so much now. With almost a week to go before the race the village was very quiet. We parked up on the lane by the river and slowly and steadily more vans arrived over the coming days. I guess at this time many would suggest tapering but I was far too excited and anxious to do that. On our first day I explored a very steep climb up and onto the final ridge and then found an easy way back down. It reassured me a bit - my foot was no worse and I loved being out in the heat. The second day Bob and I set off to do the first and final sections of the race. I was interested to have some idea of target times for the first few places up to the Col de Portet and we both wanted to see what the new finish from that Col would be like. From Vignec to Granges de Lias was just as I remembered it.
Granges de Lias
Then the continuing climb up to Les Cabanes actually seemed easier. I was happy plodding up to Cabane des Tortes and then it suddenly gets very steep so I set myself a time limit and got my head down. That would be the first big climb of about 1450m done.
Merlan from Col de Portet and then Neouvielle National Park

 Today I lay in the sun and waited for Bob. He had taken a wrong turning and so was some time.
Col de Portet looking at first high part of route
At least in the race it would be well marked. The final section of the race back down to Vielle Aure was new to us but we both thought it was  a great route - nicely runnable along the ridge, a short steep section down to Soulan and then a very easy path back to Vignec before a final few km along the river path.
Our final ridge (not the road)
With fresh legs we both imagined running hard down this last section in the race- yeah, right.
Hey this will be great running- not after all those miles
We had a day exploring the other side of the valley and found a wonderful mountain walk and then a fourth day stomping up a steep climb to the summer pastures.

In between there was a fair bit of ice cream and a few beers.

The Sunters arrived and we met up for coffee and a chat. Albert like me had entered the longest race, the others would do the 80km Tour du Lacs like Bob.
I spent most of Wednesday relaxing and faffing before registration at 3pm and then handing in three drop bags at the end of the afternoon. The race briefing was in French but I followed most of it and the RO always does a question and answer bit for non french speakers at the end. The forecast was for gales on the 'new' highest bit of our course and there was already talk of holding the lead runners for a couple of hours. The forecast was a little more mixed than when I raced two years ago but it would be mostly dry and hot.
Dark as we left the van
A 6am start meant we would have very little  running in real dark this year so I opted not to bother with a torch for now. The first section is on lit roads and then on the big track from Vignec I knew other runners lights would be more than enough for half an hour or so.
Things getting lively in the square
It did still feel chilly to me though as we congregated in the village square. I found Albert but then we lost each other when we went in search of toilets. The race limit was 800 but only 500+ had entered this long ultra. It makes it small and friendly, all the atmosphere but none of the shoving.
Nervous smiles
I assumed he was ahead of me at the start but in fact he started very gently and in fact I never saw him at all. When I arrived at our highest point later on the Pic du Midi I was told he had dropped out with injuries.

 I stuck to my plan of a reasonable start but did not let myself get carried away and so I arrived at all points to the Col de Portet within about 5 mins of my plan. I lost a few places with a toilet break at Merlans ski restaurant but caught some by being more efficient at the food stop. I still hadn't seen Albert but was settling into the rhythm and finding myself running within a group of a dozen people over the next few hours.
Bob at Merlans on his race- thanks Albert
Having said that with only 523 on the start line we were spread quite thinly along the trails. The next section from Merlan past lakes and through high mountains is beautiful. The Col de Bastan came quite easily and then it was a largely downhill section towards La Mongie and the ski resort. I say mostly downhill beacuse there was about 200m of climb. I felt I was running well (for me) and enjoying myself. There was a young Italian girl in a very distinctive pink skirt running at the same sort of pace and this helped me to push hard. The supporters at La Mongie were incredible- the noise they made with cheers, clapping and cow bells was deafening. It was now hot and sunny so there were dozens of people out watching and I have to say they made us feel such starts that it was quite emotional. I refilled both water flasks but in all the excitement I forgot to go inside for food. Not a serious mistake as I was carrying plenty but it made me think about concentrating.

  As I left La Mongie and began to contour and then climb to the Col de Sencours I started dipping my cap and buff in streams to keep me cool. I was overtaken by a small number of runners who had obviously had a very conservative start here but I did also pass a few others flaked out on the side of the path, sitting in the shade of rocks etc. By the time we got to the Col it was roasting.
Col De Sencours from above- Albert again
 It is only 7km up to the Pic du Midi and back but there is little shade and no food or water at the top. I made sure I had both before I left the Col. This is the only out and back section in the race but it gives you a good opportunity to see the lead runners and also to check out who is in front of you and by how much. The first lady came racing down and must have been in the top 15 or so (she finished 10th) but it was some time before I saw the second lady. I was sure I also counted a third lady but apparently I was wrong and the marshall on the summit insisted I was third with the young Italian girl not far behind me.
Albert's photo supporting the 80km race
I got a lovely surprise at the top as Michelle and Abbie were shouting support. It seemed rude to rush off so I stopped for a short chat. At this stage my foot was more than bearable although I was worried about the descent on a stony track.

As it was I flew down and grabbed more food and drink before heading off to more mountains, cols and lakes. This area is not quite a rocky or rugged so I found some grassy paths to run on. It does have some high cols tho - Col de la Bonida at 2302, plus d'Aoube and Bareilles at over 2200 before two small er cols lead to the ski area of Hautacam. I was now racing and keeping an eye on third place. I had good company through the Lac Bleu area and I arrived at the CP happy. I was determined to look after my feet so in between soup, cheese and other food I shook out my socks and shoes. I wanted to be well fuelled for the next few miles as much  would be downhill and even some on a road. The initial path down through fields was wetter than two years ago and nice and soft for my foot but the road and then track started to make it sore. At least this time I knew where to expect the Pierrefitte CP. Last time as we got close to the valley floor I thought it was soon, only to find that there is a big loop and some climb to avoid the town roads.
This was our first drop bag aid station. I washed my feet, changed my socks, and ate. Sadly I struggled with the pasta but I did manage soup and some solids.  I restocked my own supplies of food- threw out the home made flapjack that I just didn't fancy but took more cashew nuts and mint cake. Strange the things we decide to like! I also took off a sweat drenched shirt and sorted my sack ready for the first night. First lady was about 2 hours ahead of me at this point and I had been going over 14 hours. My Italian friend caught me here and we set off together up Turon de Bene. Before long it was dark enough for torches and I was on my own but with other lights in sight. No CP up here this year which got me confused for a bit. Our new route set off down through trees to Estaing. It was not an easy path in the dark with trip hazards galore. The men got ahead until the terrain improved. Arriving at Estaing I ate but suddenly felt tired. I tried to figure out what to do about sleep. To wait until Cauterets seemed daft as it would then be light but if we ran through two nights I would need some sleep. I lay on a camp bed and tried to relax. It was too noisy and I was too wired. I eventually slept for 10 mins or so in a 30 min rest. I set off again into the dark and now it was very misty with steady drizzle. Not great for torch light even with flourescent streamers marking the way. Before the Col d' Iheou we had bunched into a small group of six although on the long drop to Cauterets we soon spread out again. Some time in this bit the sun came up and the drizzle stopped. I arrived at the CP still 3rd lady. I grabbed my drop bag and tried to get organised. Changing my socks I found a small blister and the bottoms of my feet were a bit mashed. A kind Kine man treated both and they soon felt good. Clean socks but I stuck with the same shoes as my foot seemed to be finding them OK. I left without my poles but luckily realised only a few paces beyond the door.The new day really lifted my spirits and I tried to find out where the lead men were and what was happening to the gales and the race route. I was assured we were doing the full 220km but very soon it was clear that we were not. Instead of heading south into the Gavarnie and some seriously big mountains and technical trail we were sent east. I was disappointed but also relieved. Apparently they had held the leaders for two hours before deciding to cut that section - partly because the gales did not stop up there and partly I think because they were worried at how few were going to finish (200 had already stopped by the time they came to leave Cauterets). I didn't know it at the time but my Italian friend stopped there too. I had seen her arrive looking much more jaded than I expected.
I had run well on day one, survived the night but I was now starting to struggle. My foot was bearable but a new issue developed. A cramping ball of discomfort and then pain under my left ribs. I tried folding and stretching to ease it and even took some rests. I was very frustrated but struggling to run even downhill. At least the views were good and we were now so spread out that very few runners came past me.  Nearing the valley floor I looked for the town of Luz. Hmm, it was some miles further along the valley. It meant a roller-coaster of paths along the valley-side. I could not believe how many little climbs there were; the town after all is in the valley bottom. I should have realised that my loss of humour meant I needed food but I was too tired. It was a relief to stagger into Luz and find our third drop bags. I changed socks again and then decided to change shoes. I am not sure why really as although they did have more cushioning the others were doing OK. I faffed and tried to eat and managed some but really I wanted to be on my way. I could remember the next few miles from two years ago and set off alone. The rest had eased my rib area pain (for a while) so I cracked on while I could. Climbing onto the hillside I was sure I saw a pink skirt and this made me even more determined. I would NOT be overtaken now.  By Barreges I was tired but happy to have done some faster miles. It didn't last. As I left the town I wished I had a few euros for an icecream but had to content myself with blackberries and billberries once I was on  the hill. The refuge de la Glere was over 1600m above Luz so we had been steadily climbing for some time and it was getting steeper. The soup was wonderful but the pain was now really slowing me up. I tried lying down, stretching, hunching but nothing worked so there seemed little to do except get on with it. Rock hopping up to the Hourquette de Mounicot took my mind off all else for some time. It was brutal but beautiful. Without a marked route it would have been very tricky. Another climb to the Hourquette d'Aubert at 2488m meant we were on the final stretch (sort of). This was the edge of their National Park the Neouvielle. Dramatic peaks and splendid views really helped. The path became more runnable and soon the big lakes came into view. I had hoped to run this section, especially when we hot the tarmac downhill but in the end it was a real struggle. The men I was with pulled away and it took me until the CP at Oredon to ctach them and then only because they ate more and spent more time at the CPs than me. I had it in my head that we now just climbed over a ridge to Merlans and then that was it; Col de Portet and down. Ha ha. IN fact it took me about two and a half hours and towards the end of this time I was convinced I was in some Escher parallel universe where all paths went up and up but never got anywhere. Heading up the ski piste to Merlans we were suddenly exposed to the winds. Even here it was gale force and had blown some of the tapes away and was knocking me about. Perhaps they were wise to chop the course. I stopped to put my cag on and staggered into the CP. I did not want to sit and seize up  but kept having food pressed on me. Climbing to the Col de Portet was hilarious as the tapes had been blown away and people were fanned out widely. I went off course but then found the big vehicle track and stuck to that. I had really been looking forward to the ridge run as it is wide and grassy. I did the best I could. The drop to Soulans was tough and my fight had gone. I knew I would not be caught now and I knew I could not catch the second lady. I ambled down to the village, stopped at the fountain for water and then continued down to Vignec.  I was determined not to blow it and fall at this stage and let myself believe this caution allowed me to wimp out of trying hard. Poor mental strength. It did mean that I reached the river path in a reasonable state and was able to jog back to the finish and look ridiculously fresh as I ran up the red carpet.
Bob was not expecting us back until after he had started in the morning and he needed to sleep before his race anyhow. I sat in the square chatting and had a very thorough wash in the fountain.
so many lights in the square it felt like midday
I then had to explain to marshalls in poor french at 2am that this was so I did not disturb my husband too much as he would be getting up at 4.30 ready to run.

It was only a short amble back to the van and then I stripped and fell into bed. I woke in a panic at 4.55am thinking Bob had missed his race. I had not heard him get up and go and certainly did not have time to dress and get to his start. Bugger.
I spent most of the next day getting a shower, wandering around in a daze, sitting with my legs in the fountain, cheering on other runners and eating!! My legs felt fine really, not up to a big run perhaps but I could do stairs fine, which says it all really.... should have run more on day 2.

On reflection am I happy with the race. Yes- after LToBradwell I really wasn't sure I would complete the course, my foot behaved better than I dared hope, I made the podium as 3rd F and was 1st FV50, the slow first night in the clag cost me some time and I would not have had the 30 min sleep if I had known we were not going to run a whole second night.
The next FV50 - so made up to get the prize
Given the pain in my rib area I am pleased I stuck at it when it would have been easy to give in. BUT... the race was less than 20km longer than the one 2 years ago and I was over 9 hours longer. Yes, I know I am getting older but that doesn't count.

The winning time was an amazing 26 hrs 26 minutes but only the first 3 men made it in under 30 hours. First lady was fantastic at 35 hrs 22, the 2nd F at 42 hrs 56 and me at 44 hrs 18.
523 started the race and only 299 finished  - quite a serious fall out.

I have no idea if the 220km will be a one off and whether they will revert to the usual length next year or not. It would be nice to go back and do the Gavarnie part but it owuld be tough.
Bob completed his race this time. Unfortunately I had stayed up all day and all evening checking on his progress and then found a friend was up at Col de Portet. They agreed to ring me when his family ran through and I knew Bob would be slower. So I went to bed. Unfortunatley both the friend and I fell deeply alseep so Bob arrived back at the van and I missed him on the finish line. Oops.
Knackered finisher
The prize giving in the village square was great. I love the low key but wonderful prizes here. I got a hoody, sunglasses, a spa day, two night BandB plus a huge bag of wine and local produce.

All this was finished off with an enormous closing buffet where we all ate far too much.

After a celebratory meal with the Sunters we moved on. The village had gone back to its sleepy state and we had mountains and Via Ferattas calling.
I may update this when the official photos are published this weekend.
We found 3 in Spain and then started heading slowly north to make the drive less onerous. I at last got to visit Carcasonne which was lovely.

We never managed to rock climb but we did manage 7 more ferattas including the hardest one we have ever done. I love the high Cevennes and limestone Causse.

Washing in fountains and swim bathing in a lake and camping wild in the van is what I love best (in the hot dry weather obviously). By 10th Sept the weather was changing unless we drove south which seemed tempting but wrong. We had a  very cloudy day in the Puy de Dome area and settled for coming home. A good summer trip.

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