Trail des Aiguilles Rouges

So what is it about Chamonix races ? Everything has to be extreme and difficult – well, that’s how we like it here!

This weekend I volunteered to help out at the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. This is a 54.4km trail race (mountain race, actually), which has 3674m of positive height gain and 3624m of descent with an official time limit of 13 hours (winners were expected to complete the course in around 7 hours).

The winner this year overall was Dawa Sherpa of Nepal (now living in Switzerland), who did not disappoint the organizers after finishing in 6′ 47″. He also was 2nd place in this year’s North Face Ultra Trail, held only one month earlier. Obviously he had a very good recovery. The 2nd place finisher was well known French runner Vincent Delebarre in 7′ 18″ (the two men finished in reverse order the prior year with Delebarre winning and Sherpa coming in 2nd).

Women trail runners were not quite as well represented in the race, with no very big name women enrolling and the top woman finishing a bit slower by percentage of the winner’s time than one generally finds women finishing in trail races these days. The winner of the woman’s category in 9:35 was Sylvie Negro (prior year’s winner of the female category), and she was 58th overall. Last year, only 39 women enrolled, and this year the number increased to 73 so that is a very good increase at least in overall participation. But a somewhat disappointing turnout of top women athletes compared to the men’s representation, in my opinion.

The majority of the field indeed was made up of French runners – probably owing to two factors. First the race is only marketed in French on their website, and secondly the race is only 2 years old. This year enrollment was down compared to last year, although in the end more people started this year’s race (less than 400 started last year due to very bad weather and snow on the course). A small handful of Swiss, Italians, Brits and Americans (most of the Brits and Americans being locals anyhow) made up the rest of the field.

This year, 573 runners started in Les Houches at 5am (the course is limited to 600 runners due to passing through the nature reserve so this was a good turn out at the start line). At the end of the day, 458 runners finished the course, with the last one coming in at nearly 8pm – a good 2 hours after the official course cut off time. Only 384 runners finished within the original cut off time of 13 hours.

In miles and feet that is 33.8 miles and 12,054 feet of height gain. So it’s a bit longer than a marathon but a lot tougher in terms of climbing – not to mention that this is done on rough mountain trails. It counts for 2 points towards earning the 3 points required to enter yourself in the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc trail race (166km 9400m uphill), or it alone will gain you an entry into the North Face Ultra Trail CCC race (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix), which is a 98km race with 5600m uphill. Both races are held the same weekend at the end of August each year starting in Courmayeur and Chamonix. Both races now require pre-qualification due to their popularity.

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More post CCC blather …

Yes, still on a high from finishing better in the race than I’d hoped. Three days afterwards (I finished on Saturday AM so had Sunday/Monday to rest) I climbed the Cosmiques Arrete, and yesterday (1 week to the day after the start of the race) I climbed 2 peaks in the Aiguilles Rouges – the normal ridge route of the Index (Arete sud de l’Index) and the Mani Puliti route on the contreforte de la Gliere. Two very very easy (ridge climb in the 4+ range and face climb with 5b max) but 6-7 pitch routes in 1 day. I did them in my mountaineering boots – I just got some new Garamont Tower GTX boots that I adore. No problem climbing 5b in the boots – felt very secure and am sure I could climb probably up to 6a in these things.

I had to get something to replace the Asolo light summer hiking boots which I completely wore out on the Tour des Combins a few weeks ago – they are a few years old and hands down were the most comfortable pair of hiking boots I’d ever had but I wore off the heels and the Gore tex leaks like a sieve – absolutely water attractors now, not at all water proof anymore. I may still try to get those re-soled to hike when it’s dry out as they are great for comfort but not climbing. I decided to get a hybrid boot and replace two boots at once. My previous mountaineering boots never fit me properly – they were purchased years ago because they were on sale and I had at least 2 inches in front of my toes making them absolutely impossible to use for climbing, but they were 100% crampon compatible. The new ones take a balin at the back, but a strap at the front. Luckily Black Diamond makes Sabretooth crampons for the hybrid boots so the combo of the Garamont boot and the Sabretooth crampon should make them pretty much ‘do everything’ boots for all I care to do around Chamonix; likely they’ll even go for Mt Blanc as long as I have gaiters and it’s not too far below zero when I do it.

For next year it looks like for the first time you will need qualifying points to even enter the CCC race again … the previous 3 years you did not need to qualify to enter that race, only the UTMB. I guess the high drop out rate this year (plus number of people who wanted to do the race but could not) convinced the organizers to set up a new system of pre-qualification for all the races. I qualify to do whatever I like – CCC or UTMB since I did the CCC for the past 2 years and always have finished, and on top of that for extra measure my Course des Templiers (assuming I finish it) will put me up to the points required in just 2008 alone (to do the big UTMB). I don’t think I want to do the UTMB however … I just don’t think I have the time commitment to put into training for a race of that length. I know I can do 98km and 5600m + on 2 days a week of running (and do OK) but I do know that I cannot do 166km on that kind of training regime. Considering that I like rock climbing and hiking equally to running, I can’t imagine giving those up to simply train only to run. But I am glad they are putting in a points system for both races. I have to wonder how some people trained. There are guys posting to the forum on the UTMB site saying they trained 5 days a week, with a 6 hour endurance run each week and DNF’d due to the heat. I find that ‘encroyable’ and basically do not believe it.

When you train for a long race like that, just ‘running’ is simply not enough. As someone pointed out if you run 21km 5 times a week and think it is preparing you for a long endurance race, all you will end up being is a good 21km runner. You MUST train up to at least 1/2 the distance that your race will be, at least one time, at most 1 month before the event, then taper. By this I mean, if you are doing a 98km race you must run at least 50km in one day about a month before the race, even if it is very slowly and takes much longer than you expect your race pace to be. You simply must run that type of distance. If you do not, your body will not be prepared for the ‘time on feet’ required to complete the race. Some of the best things to do in this regard are things such as long mountain days – for example 10 hour days on the feet scrambling/climbing or hiking — this type of endurance to ‘keep going physically even when hungry/tired etc.’ on your feet is really important when doing endurance racing. Writers more expert than I estimate you can about double your distance each long endurance run if you allow sufficient recovery times between the longest runs. The time in between might be 2-3 weeks btw. This is OK for this type of running! Overtraining by running uselessly for 5 days a week at shorter distances gets you nothing but trained for shorter distances. If your race is going to take more than daylight to complete you must also train to run at night. So many runners seem to not do this and then be surprised. I ended up replacing my lighting system after trying to run 21km in my mountaineering headlamp when I realized that to run faster, I needed a wider beam so I could see where to place my feet much sooner at night. Your pace at night will slow to a crawl if you do not pay attention to this type of detail.

I started out the season running slowly for 21km uphill twice as my long runs. Then I did a 26km uphill race. A few weeks later I did 42km, and a couple of weeks later I did a weekend where I ran 2 back to back marathons in the mountains ON THE COURSE at altitude. I ran at altitude as often as I could as well. I didn’t train often, but when I trained I trained well and with purpose.  When I walked or hiked, I hiked hills and concentrated on climbing technique and climbing quickly as possible while walking … pushing myself into a hard-breathing sweat even on ‘casual hikes’. I then did a multi-day mountain tour with a heavy backpack on at altitude, speed hiking all the cols which were close to 3000m (a good 700m higher than the altitude of the race itself). I carried things like books and camera gear in my pack, knowing that building up the leg muscles this way with 7-9 hour mountain days would be good for the endurance a few weeks later. Red blood cells take about 2 weeks to get created after you go to altitude … after I did that tour I went back up high several times in the week before the race. It worked, apparently. Recently I went up the Aiguille du Midi (3800m) to do a climb at over 3400m and I didn’t even get short of breath …

I also take iron now. I used to not take supplements of iron because my blood tested in the ‘normal’ range for iron in the blood and because iron pills blocked me up — but my reserves (ferritin) level was that of an infant consistently and I read a lot of information about slow metabolism that suggested that this was a link in that slow down of the metabolic process. So now I take either Floradix (French iron/mineral/vitamin liquid plant-based supplement) or an iron-enriched spirulina capsule (neither of which constipate like ‘typical’ iron tablets do … and additionally are much more bio-available) and have been doing this for about a year now – it’s made a huge difference to my energy levels at altitude. Also I discovered I have to take magnesium while living here … if I do not, I get brain fog which mimics depression and it also causes weight gain because I tended to eat to try to compensate for the lack of clarity/tired feeling I got. I also cut out wheat completely from my diet. No pasta nights for me before races.

And I have lost since my heaviest weight before last November, a total of 8kg (nearly 18lbs, or 1 stone 4lbs) – I am now 65kg. I did this by a combination of not eating so much food at a serving, cutting out sugar and honey completely (including replacing sugar for tea/coffee with fructose), eating nearly no carbohydrates that were refined or even whole (ie no rice, pasta, bread of any type during most serious stages and only eating whole grains before long endurance runs) and reducing the amount of fruit in my diet at the points where I really wanted to lose weight. I tried for some time to lose weight (3 years?) and nearly gave up … I exercised a lot but it would not come off until this past November when I tried the South Beach concept, with the idea that potentially I had either thyroid or some type of pre-diabetic condition.

It was only when I really cut out carbohydrates and sugars entirely for 3 weeks (at a time while my husband was thankfully gone so I could have in the house only what I was allowing myself to eat and avoid temptation) that the weight started to come off. I believe I have what is referred to as ‘syndrome X’ or ‘pre-diabetic’ condition where the body simply loses the ability to properly process carbohydrates in the adrenal system and simply stores them as fat nearly immediately due to over-consumption of refined starches and sugars in our diet that over time damages and overloads the adrenal system. It was very difficult to do for the first few weeks, but once the addiction to sugar and starch had been cut, it became easy enough to keep up with the regime. I also increased protein of both vegetable and fish sources, but still will not eat anything but line caught tuna or wild salmon … farmed salmon makes me want to vomit it is so fatty. I try to snack on protein – nuts, soy yougurt or soy protien bars(supposedly too fatty to allow weight loss) rather than chips, bread, toast, fruit etc.. or fresh fruit, not dried if protein is not around.

I felt this weight loss weakened me in early season most definitely (I placed very low in the uphill 1/2 marathon in June after losing a bunch of weight) but I decided to keep losing the weight until end of July, and then to eat normally in August (I allowed back into the diet brown rice before long runs, or potatoes or sweet potatoes but NOT white rice, and I will never allow back wheat). I stopped drinking beer anywhere (hard to do at the micro-brewery but it worked) and only would drink red wine or clear alcohol such as eau de vies or vodka. Now my body seems to have figured out how to burn fat better, and I do not need as many carbs to run. I am OK having a meal with a large portion of brown rice before a big race, and a few slices of whole rye flatbread (the kind that tastes terrible unless toasted because it is flat as a board and very heavy).

I still need to lose another 3kg I reckon to be at my most fit weight, so I hope to lose this in September, and again go into a maintenance regime for October before the Templiers. I am really happy with the way my body looks again, which is a great side outcome. I am being flirted with by guys in their 20s and 30s, I get eyes following me now when I walk around in bars and it feels good. I love the look of my leg muscles now … I have not had thighs this muscular and with lack of fat since I was in my early 20s (or maybe teens??) – my legs are hard all over, not squishy. It feels great. It feels sexy. I am able to wear the clothes I arrived in Chamonix with in Y2K … which is a wonderful feeling after having fallen into a depression for a couple of years with the whole failure of the health of my husband and subsequent collapse of our relationship …

This year – one of the happiest summers for me so far in Chamonix since maybe 2003, the last time I had decent climbing partners in town. I have done more sports than in ages it seems, and feel confident again about my own abilities. Doing so many things on my own such as running solo back to back entirely self-sufficient marathons in the mountains really gives you a sense of who you are again, and a sense of confidence that only comes when you really earn it from real work, not puffed up ego or hope. I do think it would be great to have a lover again rather than just friends to do things with in the mountains. Orgasms are another great way to lose weight 😉  Unfortunately I will never think of Louise Attaque in the same way again … got to get over that a bit.

North Face CCC done done done! And not even bitterly

OK I only have time for a short but satisfying quicky post before I am off to climb something up the MIdi tomorrow with a friend …

Did the North Face Courmayeur Champex Chamonix race Friday/Saturday, and did it in style to my surprise. Felt great through the majority of the race, and finished an hour and a half faster than I thought I’d go … nothing like underestimating your own abilities to make yourself ecstatic for several days after 🙂

It was 98km and supposedly 5600m of uphill, though my watch counted 5500m of uphill. . . anyhow, what’s a hundred meters one way or the other over 98km ?

Close to 50% of the pack dropped out of the race. The weather was sunny and dry and hot – after having been cool and fall-like for the previous few weeks, it warmed up again with a vengance especially for the race. I never had muscle cramps before but started to get the sensation that my calves could sieze up at any moment while running in the heat of the day so I did not push it too greatly but on the other hand I did not relax either – kept a steady somewhat pushed but not mental pace. A few glasses of fizzy magnesium filled mineral water (yes, in the Alps we get mineral water, choice of fizzy or flat at our rest stops, thank you!) sorted me out and then when night arrived, I picked up the pace. At the big stop at Champex at 55km my legs were not feeling at all tired and I felt strong, so kept it up. I got tired about 1/2 way up the last climb and the last descent was more of a ‘death jog’ but apparently I still managed to pass people and gain some places back on the way down.

I finished in the top 10% of the women who started the race and top 30% of all racers. Note that close to half the pack dropped out. 2033 people started the race, and only 1241 finished in the alloted time limits. I was only annoyed that the mayor of Chamonix did beat me by 1 hour … so I need to try to do it even faster next year to beat his time 😉 . I do think it’s realistic for me to cut 1/2 to 1 hour off my time still if I find motivation to work harder next year or find a good training partner (I trained completely alone this year except for perhaps 4-5 sessions with one or another of the 2 clubs I belong to). I really didn’t train in an organized fashion for the race (though the training I did was quality and of the right type and timing at least; I think I didn’t train enough) and if I did that I’d place in about the top 20 women which would really jazz me.

I had friends who also placed very well (way above me) and am quite happy that everyone I personally knew that entered either of the 2 races did finish and finished well. I think people who got caught out were either top athletes who pushed it too hard in the heat or got unlucky, or the inverse – people who did not manage the heat well, didn’t eat the right foods, manage liquids or train for enough speed (considering the time barriers were shortened this year, walking the course was not really an option anymore!).

I did suffer some nausea at the end of the race – too many caffeine Power Gels I think. The EA Fit protein bars I took sat really well however, so I will use those again and I think I will limit the gels to non-caffeine ones until after night fall next time. I would love to get hold of some Cliff Shots but they are simply not available here in Europe yet and my supply ran out while ski touring this past winter … !!! We even enquired with the company if WE could distribute them … but no.

I consumed 5 Power Gel caffeine (last one was minging), several crystallized ginger cubes (great for nausea!!!), 3 EA Fit protein bars, 2.5 liters of Green Magma-ized water (over time), alternated w/plain water in my pouch at each filling station. Those were the things which I carried for myself. And at the stops I consumed Coke (I never drink it outside of races!!!), fizzy mineral water high in magnesium/calcium, tea with sugar, cheese (yeah very wierd but I have found that cheese while racing actually helps my stomach stay calm and keeps energy constant since there is damn little other vegetarian protein available), saltine type crackers, orange slices, banana slices and Maxim sports drink. I also carried about 2 handfuls of nuts/dried fruit/ and 4 spelt cookies but never felt like eating those.

In the big race, the UTMB, the drop out rate was 53%, but on the other hand the winner – Spainiard Killian Jornet – set a course record. He is already well known in the ski mountaineering world as the winner of the Pierra Menta, arguably the hardest ski mountaineering race. Dawa Sherpa, first winner of the first UTMB came in 2nd place. Unfortunately a lot of the really top runners dropped out this year – Marco Olmo, last year’s winner dropped out at Vallorcine, Scott Jurek dropped out just before Bovine due to an inflamed knee, Nikki Kimball (woman’s winner last year who absolutely rocked) also dropped out, as did Vincent Delabarre and race organizer Michel Poletti and many many other top athletes (and many normal runners as well of course … )

Next Ultra trail race I am training for … Course des Templiers October 26th …

Shoes – Salomon XT Wings (awesome – no complaints – well designed shoes)

Gaiters – Quechua (thank god someone makes these or I’d spend so much time taking off shoes and dumping out stones!!!) – they worked OK but I forgot to loosen them as my legs swelled at the end of the run and have sore outer calves to thank for it.

Tights – totally need to be replaced. I run in very non-technical crappy Reebok 3/4 tights that do not dry fast and are a bit heavy. On the books for next week is a new purchase of better running tights for racing.

Shirt – used the Salomon shirt I got in another earlier trail race – a sleevless loose very light mesh as I knew it was going to be hot.

Long shirt – used at night Helly Hanson ski underwear! Stayed warm when wet, worked like it should.

Wind/Rain breaker – Quechua trail running (orange) – cheap and perfect. Love this article from Quechua.

Sac used – 17 liter Quechua. Definitely being replaced!!! For the 3rd year I used this I have scabs on my back from being rubbed raw. First year I taped 2 spots I thought were worst and got sores outside of that area, then 2nd year didn’t tape at all (forgot about issue) and got bloody. For some reason I forgot about the problem entirely over the next year and forgot to replace the bag (mind you I train with the bag all the time on trails … it’s just that the problem really only seems to happen at over 42km and I don’t do training runs much longer than that so rather forget). This time I knew there would be a problem but I thought taping ‘properly’ this time would solve it. Now I just have a very large square line of scabs around where the tape edges were. It works great for training on shorter trail runs and doesn’t cause problems then (under 42km) but for longer stuff I need a bag that sits higher off my big butt so that my lumbars do not get rubbed raw when my ass moves it as I run, shoving the bag back and forth across my back. The default of this bag is that it is very low-sitting which feels quite comfortable stuffed full of gear, but when you start to run faster or run for longer times it really hits at an area where you (as a girl at least) are going to have some swinging action.

 Found a very high-sitting Salomon trail running bag today that seems to have all the stuff I want, and is kind of like a vest in front so you don’t lose the quick access to gels (this is why I did like the Quechua bag for the 2 ‘wing pockets’ on the front of the hip belt that easily held gels.  So I will try it out while I train for Templiers and see how it is … off to the factory near Annecy next week to get this and the tights that I want at a niiiice discount thanks to some well-placed friends. One potential default I can see in the Salomon one is rubbing the arms as I swing them on the vest thingy … hopefully October with long sleeves it won’t matter ? Will see.