The North Face Ultra Trail and CCC

Why I like Ultra marathons:

1. Old people win (Marco Olmo 2nd time winner of the 163km race is 59 years old!)

2. Women can win (last year, a woman won scratch the CCC 86km race)

3. When you just ‘finish’ people think it’s an amazing feat, even if you ran slowly (like I do)

4. You get to find and pop blisters on your feet for the next 3 days – just when you think you found the last one, another one appears hidden under a callous.

You can see the results of both races online here.

The video here is from the 2004 UTMB and gives a good overview of the atmosphere of both races (the talking is in French but the images are universal). Dean Karnezes appears briefly in this one, along with Corinner Favre and promising adventure runner Xavier Puthod who died later that year in a tragic climbing accident when his rope got stuck during a rappel on the Grepon, and he made a mistake in trying to transfer to another anchor.

This year, I didn’t train as hard, but was keeping up with my pace from last year and didn’t feel bad at all – I thought I’d save a bit for the end and maybe even run a bit faster than last year. Until I hit the climb at Bovine (literally). I managed to slip off a wet tree root on a very high step and smashed my shin bone on one leg and hyper extend the back of my knee on the other leg. This didn’t bother me for another 20km or so, until I got to a rest area and sat down a bit too long. Then my knee started to bug me on the downhills and I had to hobble down from Les Tseppes into Vallorcine and again from the Col des Montets into Argentiere. However, when I hit the descent (gentle at least) into Chamonix from Lavancher, I recognized I was close, it was my old running trail, and I somehow gritted my teeth and ran the last 4.5km into town.

The French like this not giving up at the end thing. They’d cheer me, while saying nothing to the people who were walking as I passed. I was not going to get a good time or anything like that, but showing ‘bon courage’ is seen as a good thing, and worth encouragement, while those who take the easy way and decide to walk are simply ignored.

The weather was good this year, but a little too good. I didn’t wear all the layers I took in my backpack, which meant I carried a lot of weight around the course for nothing this time. But last year I’d gotten so cold that I was paranoid about the same this year. Also I did not eat but 2 of the 8 power bars I’d carried. More weight I didn’t need to carry. I should have ditched them somewhere along the route. I couldn’t choke them down after the first 30km. My stomache felt much worse this time around, and I’m not sure why. I felt better with my eating regime in training that is for sure.

At any rate, for the first time in my life I ate cheese while running (by the time I got to 60km the thought of eating more sugar made me want to heave) which is something I could not have imagined doing ever before (in fact last year the thought of that made me ill). I was not sure what it would do to me, but I knew I could not eat meat and I had to have something that was not sweet and that contained protien. Strangely, instead of making me vomit, it must have coated my stomache or something and I felt much better. Cheese and Tuc crackers. Two things I entirely avoided before the race (dairy and wheat) in the end made me feel bettter. Well, they didn’t have the choice of rice crackers…..

Better train harder next year and maybe I won’t need to worry so much about the food thing – just will get it done faster and not need to stop and eat so much. We’ll see. It’s hard to spend so much time training in summer, when there are other things I’d like to do like climbing. I am half thinking of spending every other year training for an Ultra trail, and on alternate years just doing shorter trail runs and climbing more. Will have to think about it. The other part of me wants to train harder and try the big race. I am tired of all the acquaintences who refer to this one as ‘the fun run’ ? when talking about the 86km race. Around here, go big or go home is the rule. And the 86km race is therefore just a ‘fun run’ compared to the ‘real’ race of 163km.

In the big race, I had high hopes for one of the Americans, a sort of personal hero as he’s a vegan Ultramarathoner. Unfortunately Scott Jurek pulled out because his legs didn’t feel 100%. I personally thought he had more class than that. I mean the guy was in 14th place when he decided to retire it and it seemed well – like he wimped out. Oh well. I don’t run at that kind of level so what can I say – I have no idea what it feels like but I still have to think it’s an ego thing when you are not injured and you quit – is it because you know you can’t win ? Is that what it’s all about then? I do have more admiration for runners that win sometimes and other times just say ‘yep today I got beaten’ and at least finish the race they started and I thought Scott was like that. But I guess not. Maybe it’s a stupid judgement, but I wanted to see him cross the finish in my home town. Karl Meltzer also pulled out a little further in, and I am not sure why so all the top favorites to win who had big ultramarathon racing pedigrees went out with a wimper.

But on the other hand, the more showy athlete/author Dean Karnezes finally finished the race this year after having pulled out on his first two attempts in past years. He came in 49th, hardly a poor showing, but he did get beaten by the best and the only American to do a great job and who lived up to her reputation – which was Nikki Kimball. I had not heard of her before this race (I guess she doesn’t get the press coverage that Scott and Dean types do and I am not someone who is a major sports fan in any case that follows this type of thing religiously) but now I will keep an eye on her career – she’s young and who knows how much better she can get.

She was the first woman by a wide margin and broke that record wide open – she was also 19th finisher scratch – a little more training and who knows – maybe we’ll have a woman winning the race next year as happened last year in the CCC race with Corinne Favre!

Also the Americans blog-whined about the race after and seemed surprised that you are not supposed to have pacers or help or lots of drop bags around the course (yes you get 1 drop bag at 86km on the long race, and no drop bags at all on the short one – you must carry everything you need with you, all the way around for that one). I personally like the idea of more self sufficient running, and find pacers to actually be a form of cheating since, well – I mean what is a race like this about if not about finding your own limits and seeing what’s inside of YOU, not how you react to a fresh pacer that meets you half way around the course???

They also had fewer feeding stations this year – I thought that was fine too – I train for the race on long runs w/o support and carrying my own food and water with me so it was not so different during the race (and great to have the variety that was at the aid stations – and this year thank god they finally had a 100% vegetable soup rather than a chicken stock so we vegetarians could have some non-sweet food).  Isn’t self sufficiency what trail running is all about?

On the other hand – last year I had nothing but praise for the organization of the event. I really didn’t have any issues with the food, the stations, the toilets or anything. But this year – a few complaints. Gaia was dropped as a food sponsor – I had really liked their organic sprouted grain bread in the race last year and kind of lived on it. It was replaced with nasty dry non-organic Nature Valley granola bars – yech. And also the traffic flow in and out of the rest stops was really screwed up in a few places. Last year the racers moved in a line in one side of a tent and out the other, getting food on the way and then exiting to continue the run. This year the first stop at Arpnouva where the pack was really still bunched up for the CCC was a dead end tent … and you had to turn around and fight back through all the runners trying to get in to eat in order to get out again after you’d had what you wanted. Pain in the rear and made for some frustrated runners trying to figure out what was going on.

They also seemed to have tightened up security around the stations – it was harder for people to get in to see you at any of the stops than last year. Not sure if they had problems with people being given aid outside the regulations last year or what prompted the change – but I hope they work on the traffic flow issues that resulted. Between that and waiting in long lines for bathrooms (two of the stations were moved and no longer had adaquate toilet facilities) and waiting in line for water refills of your bottles or sacs via sponsor Evian bottles only (with access to the refuge’s normal taps of fresh mountain water seemingly roped off on purpose which I found very annoying) there was a lot of wasted time there in the rest stations no matter how fast you tried to get out. And sometimes a girl just cannot stop in the woods for a pee … she may have other needs!

Anyhoo – I have a few months to decide to do it for a 3rd time in a row, or to skip a year and go for 2009 or what. Registrations for 2008 will not open until probably January (and they usually are full within a day). Already heard from some UK friends who did the full Ultra for the 2nd year in a row that they will skip next year and try a local race – it is a lot to train for and makes you a bit unsociable during the peak training which also happens to be mid-summer when all other folks are relaxing on their holidays and having BBQs – and you show up either not at all or via not drinking and eating all sensibly and going home to bed early to get up the next day for that 5 or 8 hour training run ….

I am now going to start training with a local trail running group meeting on Friday AMs and will work up towards a 1/2 marathon 😉 in September. Maybe I can get my speed up that way. Also we’ve signed up for a short happy trail race in October – it’s the ‘fun run’ Puma Trail that precedes the 67km Course des Templiers (which was already full), so it will give us a taste of that one and it’s only 18km with 850m of uphill – a small burp of a run that is supposed to be over the best parts of the Templiers course, and it will be a nice weekend getaway to the south of France in October. Yeah. And then I can potentially photograph the really good runners doing the longer race the following day. One thing I do miss when I am in the CCC is that I can’t possibly take my good camera with me and capture what happens during either event.

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