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.

Been Trail Runnin’

A better cure for bitterness than chocolate is to run until you drop. Well, not in my case but, yeah – run a lot. Skis are back in the ski locker, and it’s time to do the clothing exchange of winter for summer stuff in the drawers and wardrobe. So for 2 weeks I’ve been running again – suddenly gone from 0 to 60 on the running thing now that the lifts are shut and the envie for ski touring has gone out of my system, with the arrival of green leaves on the trees and tulips and forsythias blooming around us. 

Last Saturday started with my first official run of the season (I ran a few times over the winter with the dogs, but mostly in hiking boots and totally unplanned – last official run was Dec 18 in Val Ferret during the 21km snow race put on by the Trailers de Courmayeur) . So I did one of those annoying bleep tests to test V02 max, and I guess winter ski randonèes and ski mountaineering at altitude worked because I scored higher on my V02 max at the start of this season than I did at the end of last – 9.1 shuttles followed by a 40 minute jog on a fairly flat area. I thought I’d done worse than on previous tests, but when I looked at actual records – 43.43 V02 max on sites I found with Google, this puts me in the ‘superior’ catagory for women, even if I was 13 years old, which is nice to know. However, it only puts me in the ‘good’ catagory for men of my age – apparently there is a huge sex difference in V02 max capacities.

I followed that by running from Chamonix to Argentière and back (16-17km with about 450m uphill), walking the uphills, via Lavancher as my first ‘long slow run’ of the season. It’s the earliest in the season I’ve done a run that long, and it did take 3 hours 16 minutes (but that was with breaks for meeting 4 friends on the trails on the way up and back). Felt quite good that I could manage it for my 2nd run of the season, especially as I’d done the first run only the day before. Took the dogs for their first long run of the season as well – was a bit of a shock to their systems I think and one threw up his breakfast when we got back to the car while I was stretching in the grass — so today when we went again they had a big dinner the night before and no breakfast and they did better. It was also cooler today – misty and rainy, which I am sure helped.

Also last Wed eve I attended a Chamonix Mont Blanc Marathon club training (first time I’ve been able to arrange my schedule to join the CMBM training sessions) – 1 hour of trail running with 45 mintues of it as hill efforts, followed by a BBQ. There were about 30 pretty fit looking people out for the training and since we were on a loop I have no idea where I fit in exactly. I was lapped by about 4 or 5 guys who were super fit, and 1 girl – so hopefully didn’t do too badly. But it felt really hard – the effort bit was running down a long hill, down past 2 flags, up 1, down 2 more flags, up 1 – so you constantly were turning and sprinting uphill. Very tiring. Did another training session on Saturday – fast 1 hour run to Vaudagne with a fast downhill and some trails some road – felt very strong. Followed the very next day (today) by a 2nd run to Argentière. I accidentally took the higher trail up to Lavancher so did a bit more height than last week anyhow, and in general it was a faster pace with less rests – about 2.5 hours, so probably yes, a bit faster overall than the previous Saturday but I did start closer to the Flegère rather than town center which probably saved 15 minutes overall. I also didn’t run into any friends today, since it was rainy.

Next week’s goal for the long run is to go to Le Tour (about 23km round trip) … want to try something a bit longer. Or to start maybe at the Grandes Montets or Lavancher and go past Le Tour and climb up the Charamillion lift line to get in some height gain. Then possibly to do an overall uphill race next Sunday in Sallanches – 12km with 1100m height gain to push the hill work and pace a bit since it seems the distance should be within my grasp already. You can sign up on the day of (it’s a small race) so I will leave the decision until le dernière moment since we will have visitors in for a week when that race happens.

Can’t decide yet whether to go for the Cross du Mont Blanc or the Mont Blanc Marathon on the 28th and 29th of June … will see how I feel after the run to Le Tour next week. But so far am pretty pleased that I have had a strong start to my running, and not lost as much running fitness over this winter as feared.