We (my wife Catherine and I) had convinced ourselves over Christmas last year that we would secure a place at the UTMB as we both had a coefficient of 2 for 2014. Therefore we had started to prepare mentally for a long race at the end of August. However that didn’t happen, so on the night we found out we had a manic evening trying to find something else at that time of year.
We found 3 options:
First to be dismissed was Tor des Geants for the following 2 reasons. Running wasn’t going to be my only focus in 2014 (we had a 2 week holiday in the Pyrenees booked that meant I would still be doing a lot of cycling up until July) and that I’ve never done anything that long before ( I was worried that my feet could actually survive >100 miles. They have always been really, really bashed by the end of just a hundred). So anyway the Tor des Geant was out for this year, but ever say never and all that.
Ultra Tour des 4 massifs only in its 2nd year, (not that this is a problem) with 100 miles and lots of climbing looked like a possible. One thing that put me off however was that it circumnavigates Grenoble meaning that it crosses the valley 4 times. The altitude is low as it crosses the valley and therefore it could get very hot – I’m not very good in the heat and the valley is quite wide in places and I’m rubbish at flat running.
So that left L’Echappee Belle (EBHH) with 90 miles and 11,000 metres of climbing on a south to north route. Ok it’s not a 100, but once we watched the video from last year we knew this would be the one. I knew nothing about the Belledonne Massif but the route looked like a proper traverse on proper high mountain paths. It was just the thing for a couple of fell runners. So we did the easy bit and put entries in. We booked flights, hired a car and booked some very nice accommodation in Les Allues, which was 20 minutes from the Aiglebelle finish.
I’ve got to go all the way back to 2010 when I last completed an actual hundred. That time it was the Wasatch 100 in just under 26 hours and we’d trained the whole summer for it. Since then I’ve not run for more than 20 hours. I’d failed to complete the Lakeland 100 in 2013 as I simply hadn’t done enough running; training for the Fred Whitton and 2 weeks biking in the alps had prevented me from pounding my legs. So this year I put in a bit more effect. I completed the Fellsman, Old County Tops and 10 Peaks Lake District races. However a 2 week holiday to the Pyrenees including the Etape and loads of other cycling, did mean that I’d not done as much as I would have liked; so I crammed a few extra races in during August (the Borrowdale and the Long Tour of Bradwell).
With the Long Tour of Bradwell (LTB), we both really struggled and with it only being 33 miles and only taking 6 hours, we were both really worried that the trip to France would be a waste. However the LTB 2nd half is pretty flat (as I said before I’m rubbish at flat running, infact we both are) and when I checked the profile of EBHH there was probably more flat running in LTB than there would be in the whole 90 miles!
Having never visited this massif previously, we studied the photos and films that had been produced from the previous year, therefore we had some idea that this was going to be hard from the common use of words “micro-trail” from last year’s completionists. We did manage a little reccie but only the last 5 miles, however that always proves useful.
So the race. It’s starts at 5.30am but you have to get yourselves to the finish for the bus journey to the start for 4am. So it was up at 2.30am! That was tough, however much preferred to an evening start time. We started from just outside a sports hall so there were plenty of toilets and they provided a bit of breakfast too (tea, coffee, bread, jam etc). Although the first climb was in the trees, I’d decided it would be light in a short time so I opted not to start with my headtorch. Maybe that was the reason for me having such a bad start. I just couldn’t get my breathing right, I seemed to slip every time I tried to put in a bit more effort. Catherine on the other hand fully charged up and was off up the hill. I did finally settle into a pace but it was loads slower than everyone else and I slipped down the field. Maybe it was the dark or the dread I held as I realised what I was actually doing. It took me until it went light to get going. Although I was happy that I didn’t panic, as I think I could have easily done, as there was still a long, long way to go. I caught Catherine just going into the first checkpoint so it was nice to run together for a km or so.
It wasn’t until a couple of kms after checkpoint 1 that we broke from the trees and I started to realise what the terrain was actually like. The path crossed a small rock band and dropped to a stream, then straight up the other side. It felt more fell race than ultra-race. A smile slowly spread across my face, I was starting to get into it. We then ran under Le Grand Sorbier and I remember thinking this is amazing but it’s still quite low, I wonder what it’s like up there; I soon found out.
So through checkpoint 2 and up towards Croix de Belledonne. However due to a lighting risk we were actually directed passed it (It was out and back to the summit so probably made it 30-40mins shorter). I worked hard to the col and was looking forward to the run down, time to get some speed up. Towards the top the trail disappeared and I was boulder hopping. As I went over the col it was the same boulders, so downhill hopping was required. I quickly found that these downhill sections where going to be as tough as and not much quicker than the ups. I pushed on though as I was really enjoying myself, this was proper rough running and I was leaving some runners behind who were using their poles on the boulders! A point about poles; I’ve gone from not using them, to using really light ones, to using the best poles I can lay my hands on. Although I never use them for going down; in my opinion they just slow you down as you have 2 more legs to place before you can move forward.
I was feeling good and was in and out of checkpoint 3. I was continually passing runners; this was good as I’d dropped so many places at the start. The temperature was rising and the climbs were starting to get very difficult with all the boulder hopping uphill. I passed one runner who had stopped completely and was sat down; I was beginning to understand how he was feeling. Every mile was having to be really hard fought, (down as well as up and of course there was no flat bits); this was starting to look like the equivalent of a 90 mile Ramsey Round! The cloud came in on the last section to checkpoint 4 and it was getting slightly difficult to follow the way. Just after checkpoint 4 I actually stopped and got the roadbook out just to check; I wish I’d held my nerve as there was a full family of supporters over the next rise. Even although I should have realised from the roadbook, I was expecting the format to be like other hilly Ultras; climb over the col, descend then repeat. The beauty with EBHH is that it is a proper traverse. So it’s a long time between checkpoints and a long time up high (there’s some stat like 40% of it is over 2000m, I’d guess that that’s way, way more than UTMB). Over Col de la Vache and I thought the checkpoint has to come soon. I pushed too hard down to the lakes, it was seriously technical and by the time I got off the boulders I could tell I was paying for this. My feet were starting to pay too with all this boulder hopping! Down past both lakes and down into the Fond de France valley, I was tried and in need of a few minutes as I hadn’t stopped (apart from to fill my water bottles) at any of the checkpoints. I thought I could see a marquee but as I got closer a French family of supporters were clapping and pointing up a hill. I understood “cinq km”; damn still a way to go, I thought I was there. The route went all the way around the head of the valley, but I was able to hear the music coming from the tannoy system at the checkpoint. I passed another runner who looked like he was struggling, I again felt tried but managed to down a gel and push on while making the most of the downhill sections.
This main aid station complete with drop bags is not actually at half way, it only just after 60km and at over 14 hours (I can’t quite remember exactly) I started to realise that this was going to be long, very long. It wasn’t like I was having a bad race (I’d just made it into the top 30), the terrain is so difficult it just takes a long time to cover it. So I had about 20 mins at this checkpoint, mostly changing my socks and putting on sun cream. I managed to down a chocolate milk, then some soup and I grabbed more trail food. I needed to get going. So down the hill, into the valley. At this point 2 or 3 runners came flying past me like they were running a 5km, I thought “my god” am I really that slow. I gave chase the best I could and then slowly accepted that I couldn’t keep up, there’s still a long way to go so I’m sure I’d catch them on the hill. I suddenly realised that the relay, which had also started at the same time as us, were changing runners at Fond Du France so no wonder those with fresh legs were taking off down the valley! This was probably the fastest piece of running on the whole route.
As I hit the next climb, I started to feel sick; damn, I’d neglected to eat for the last 2 or 3 hours before Fond du France and it was caught up with me once I’d started to over compensate and chuck food down at the checkpoint. Just at the tree line I puked big time, everything up. I got to a little checkpoint (there were several of those on the way round) where I was offered tea. I added sugar so I managed to get a little energy. Then over another little climb then all the way down to the next checkpoint, at least I was still moving ok on the downs.
Into the woods, it was slippery and dark so head torch on, I caught three relay runners who had slowed down. I went straight past and they sped up to stay with me. I then realised why they had slowed; because there lights were rubbish.
I was the only one that actually stopped at the checkpoint, I managed to keep some soup down and I drank a lot of coke. Then out onto the single biggest climb of the race to Col de Moretan which is 1500 metre of height gain in one go. What a time to come, I was tried and it was pitch black! I started climbing and settled into a pace; it was pretty slow (about 11metre’s per minute) but I just couldn’t seem to sustain anything faster than this; I was obviously fat burning. Above the tree line the cloud rolled in and once I’d hit the rocks/boulders the markers became difficult to find. I caught another runner and we helped each other search for the next marker. It was cold too and I put my windproof on, I remember thinking that if it was raining this would be very difficult. We continued to stumble from marker to marker not always able to see the next one from the last. Thankfully it cleared a little and I could see a few more runners and the col ahead. Wow this was hard. Lots of marshals at the col and on the other side down the permanent snow field! It had started to freeze and I fell over a couple of times, mainly when trying to keep hold of the rope they had put down.
The footprints took a sharp left and then another rope; I slipped again hard and started accelerating, it did occur to me that I really needed an ice axe at this point! I hit a couple of rocks feet first which made me stop. The snow slope then steepened off and there was a traverse across it, this was probably the most dangerous bit. It was nice to get to the boulder field and off the snow, although the boulders were just as slippery as the snow. It was a long way down and a long way to the checkpoint at Perioule. I arrived very tried and in dire need of a sleep – but I arrived with 2 other runners that I’d caught on the decent so I felt compelled to leave after only a couple of mouthfuls of soup as they were leaving. I did manage to quickly texted Catherine to let her know to be careful on the snowfield! Descending into the valley was again very hard work on an extremely technical trail (think at least twice as technical as the La Flegere decent on UTMB – yes the top rocky bit through the woods). I can’t remember eating or drinking anything down there but I managed to keep going although the 2 runners I’d caught were long gone.
Once I started the climb up to the next checkpoint I completely ground to a halt, I was very, very tired and I think I’d used all my remaining energy getting over the Moretan. I had a hard time getting up that climb, I managed to get lost twice therefore I had to retrace my steps to the last marker. I think it was my fault as I wasn’t really paying attention and just trying to put one foot in front of another. I definitely had my low point as it was very dark, very late/early and I was struggling with the thought of having to do another 50km. On that climb I imagined a really nice marquee at the next checkpoint with beds and a fire and lots of lovely food. I had also decided that I was going to drop out here as this whole thing was just stupid, I hated the person (who I’d hadn’t meet) who devised the route and I had nothing to prove so why was I bothering! I finally arrived at the checkpoint to see half a marquee with the wind blowing through, it was cold and I couldn’t linger. Thank goodness for that, there was nothing to keep me there so I had to keep going; only 2 checkpoints to go now.
I climbed to the ridge and again the mist came in and I struggling to follow the markers. Wow it was dark, it was getting close to first light which was always the darkest time. I was getting cold trying to find the way along this ridge. I finally picked up speed getting down to Col d Claran (it was like fell running) and then the descent into the valley was good fun too. At least I was still moving ok downhill. As I popped out of the cloud I could see headtorchs on the other side of the valley really high up, wow I thought, they are a long way away, I could then see the outlines of the mountains around me, it wasn’t clear where this route was going to go. I finally reached the valley and I crossed the river. The climb up the other side started immediately and would last for 800 vertical metres. There was many false summits/cols, however I was at least thankfully it was light again. The views were awesome and it was looking like it was going to be a nice day. I finally got to the path that traversed around to the next checkpoint, there were quite a few supporters on the way down to it. One of the checkpoint staff spoke good English and it was nice to chat for a few minutes. He told me I was doing well and asked me what I thought of the race, I replied immediately that I thought this was the hardest race I’d ever done and I was a finisher of the UTMB and Wasatch 100. He was also a UTMB finisher and he had completed L’Echappee Belle last year. He believed that EBHH was 4 to 5 hours longer than UTMB for most people. He’d finished UTMB in 31 hours (same as me) and he also told me that I’d arrived at this checkpoint almost exactly the same time that he had the year before (30hrs). So I asked his finishing time – it was 36 hours. I wasn’t sure I had another 6 hours left in me!
I left and was immediately climbing again onto the ridge and after some food I seemed to be moving better, the marshal at the checkpoint had spurred me on as I was determined to be quicker than 6 hours. Another climb to Col de la Perche where I received very enthusiastic encouragement from a Marshall. Then along the undulating ridge; again I was moving ok and really hitting the descents. Off Grand Chat to the col and then I was descending to the last checkpoint. Through the trees I swear that I could see the checkpoint, then I thought I could see La Grange (but it turned out to be another town), the route was then in the valley and I completely stopped running, it was hurting too much and I was too weak mentally to keep running. I tried again through the field but my legs were just giving up.
Into the checkpoint and I was the only one there, the staff were very attentive and helpful. I just drank a lot of coke, filled a bottle with coke and off I went to the final climb. I checked my watch and I realised that I could finish in 35 hours so I pushed on as quickly as I could drinking coke all the way. It was still hot and as we were at a much lower altitude I was working hard. Up to the fort, I was hoping I’d see what it was but I was straight on to a road and some flat running where I actually managed to keep going. Turn off the road to the last mini-checkpoint, where I received some extra coca cola. Right downhill all the way and I was still on target for 35 hours so I set off quickly. There was one last climb that was steep that I ran all the way up then it was down to the finish. It started steep and I fell raced down it, thinking I might catch someone. But then it flatten off and I pushed as hard as I could, the traverse lasted longer than I thought but I still managed to race, I was enjoying myself even although everything hurt but it would soon be over and this technical terrain is something I’m good at. Finally I was descending again and I was flying or it felt like that, then all of a sudden I realised that I knew where I was, only 5 or 6 km to go. I kept going and finished all the coke then I spotted someone through the trees – another runner walking, so at least my downhill madness was worth it. I threw myself down any steep bits and I was on the road to Aiguebelle. I tried to keep going on the road too, wow it was hot down here. I looked at my watch and realised I’d slightly be outside 35 hours, not a bad effort, then I looked again and realised that my Maths was completely wrong and I was about the finish in just over 34 hours!
Last spirit across the main road with the claps of the Marshals and supporters ringing in my ears. Into the finish field and then over the line. Thank goodness that was over! Finishers get to ring a massive cow bell while everyone else chaps and cheers. I also remember getting asked about how beautiful I thought it was; I replied that it was so hard I didn’t look at the scenery. That didn’t really come out well at the time; I did look and it is very, very beautiful indeed.
The pork terrine, cheese and bread washed down with coke were fantastic. I then hobbled (It’s amazing that once you stop you get hardly walk, even though I’d been spiriting 20 minutes earlier) to the car and got changed. I then managed a sleep in the park while I waited for my wife to finish (Catherine had been keeping me up to date with text messages). She finished in less than 40 hours and was 3rd lady – a podium finish! It was great to return to Aiguebelle the next day for prize giving where I realised this race is put on by a small group of enthusiasts who absolutely love the Belledonne Massif and they want to share it with others. The last finisher (Frank) was marched to the stage, at that moment I felt very proud to have finished this race and be a mountain runner. I then felt even prouder as Catherine was on the podium to receive her prizes (loads of cool stuff).
Looking back my view hasn’t changed, this is the hardest race I’ve ever done and also the best. This is much more of a wilderness experience than running around Mont Blanc is. You go over cols that see a fraction of the number that Col de la Seigne will and I spent large portions of the 2nd half of the race on my own and we all know we are weak on our own. I’m lucky enough to have a priority entry for UTMB this year, but I’m expecting at some point I’ll wish I was lining up at the EBHH instead. A good way to describe it is that it’s like our own low-key fell races compared to the money making trail races. I would go as far to say that the UTMB is easy by comparison, but of course it’s all relative! So if you don’t get in to UTMB next year don’t despair, enter this and do something far harder and something that will give you much more satisfaction when you finally manage to finish it. Also you get a cotton t-shirt and a small holdall, both of which I’ve used more than all the UTMB Gilet’s that I owe added together! Oh and I’m planning to return in 2016.
Plenty of Rocks!
This years poster – cool again.