Sunday, 27 September 2015

A “Finish”, or not a “Finish”, that is the Question

Trail des Aiguilles Rouges, 27 September 2015

I am not really sure what I should say to those who ask me whether I finished the 2015 Trail des Aiguilles Rouges (TAR) in Chamonix.  On the one hand I know that I completed the course, and that the official results list me as finishing with a time of 11 hours 57 minutes, a ranking of 353 out of 642 starters.  But on the other hand I also know that I missed the cut-off time at Planpraz (after 18.5km) by four and a half minutes and so was officially disqualified at that point.  It might seem harsh, but those are the rules.  Just because I decided to continue on the course “unofficially”, and just because, for some reason, the marshal neglected to remove my electronic timing tag, does that mean I should claim the finish?  I will leave you to make your own decision.

Trail des Aiguilles Rouges, worth it just for the scenery
The Trail des Aiguilles Rouges had been on my bucket list for some time.  Being set in my “mountain home” of Chamonix, I knew the scenery and trails would be extraordinarily beautiful, and the very steep terrain is exactly the type that I prefer.  It is not a long race – listed at 50km, although my GPS recorded 53km – but over 4,000m of vertical ascent is packed into that short distance.  The race is arranged by the Chamonix Mont-Blanc Marathon association, and uses much the same logistics as the UTMB races held a month previously – needless to say it was brilliantly organised and managed.

I had managed to convince two friends – James and Anthony – to join me in my attempt at the TAR, with the plan being that our wives would come out for the weekend in Chamonix and that the ladies would enter the 15km, 1,200m P’tit TAR on the same day.  Sadly our team of six was reduced to four when James needed a major operation, and Sarah, my wife, damaged her ankle ligaments whilst training in Chamonix earlier in the summer.  As it turned out, Sarah and James made the perfect support crew, and it would not have been possible without them.

642 eager starters in Place de l'Eglise
It was therefore with some relief that Anthony and I stood at start line in the Place de l’Eglise, Chamonix, at 4.30am, fit and raring to go.  Following a short jog through the (mostly) sleeping town, the course then gave us a sharp taste of what was ahead with 11km of almost continuous climbing straight up 1,400m to the Lac Blanc in the Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges.  It was a slog that took us 2 hours 45 minutes, but with the sublime views of the sun rising over the Mont Blanc Massif to distract us, the time actually seemed to pass quite quickly.  I will never forget standing at Flegere, a rosy pre-dawn glow rising over the mountains, a 4km long trace of headlights clearly marking out the trail up to Lac Blanc ahead of us, and shooting stars zipping overhead.  And people ask me why on earth I do this?

Chamonix wakes to the dawn sun on Mont Blanc
So what went wrong and why did we miss the cut-off time at Planpraz?  First, with its steep gradients and altitude, to compete well on this course I believe you need to be comfortable climbing at pace. Anthony had certainly put in the work in training, but I think much of his running had been comparatively flat. In contrast, my 75km race in The Lake District in June, plus a week training in Chamonix in July, had put some serious vertical into my legs.  This made a massive difference. 

The climb from Combe Lachenal to Col de Glière
Second, we certainly misjudged the timing of the section before the missed cut-off. Not only were we slow climbing but we failed to make up time on the flat and downhill. We lost a lot of time on the flat section between Col de Glière and Col de Lac Cornu.  The recent snowfall that remained on the north facing slopes had been polished hard and icy by the 600-plus pairs of feet that had passed ahead of us, making safe progress over the large boulders in the scree slopes extremely slow. 

Anthony at Col de Glière
Third, we did not manage our pace well, and given that I knew the route better, I must take responsibility for this. I should have realised that we were tight on the cut-off and pushed us on harder at an earlier point. We only missed the cut-off by four and a half minutes – such a small amount of time in the context of a 12 or 13 hour race  and I am sure that if Anthony had got past Planpraz he would have made it to Servoz and probably even the finish. I had the next 7 hours to contemplate and regret that oversight. 

So whilst Anthony ran down from Planpraz to Chamonix (a 5km, 1,000m descent in itself) where he was met by our efficient "domestiques", Sarah and James, I decided to continue on the course in an unofficial capacity. 

Climb to the Refuge de Moëde-Anterne with the Rochers des Fiz as a backdrop
Driven on by anger at our "failure" and a desire to make the next check point at the Refuge de Moëde-Anterne ahead of the cut-off  thus ensuring that the marshals did not start removing the markers and closing the course on me  I set off on the climb to the Col du Brévent at a pace. I was soon overtaking many other competitors, all of whom were still "in the race", and realised I was feeling pretty strong. I raced down the other side to the Pont d'Arlevé, filling up water bottles from streams on the way  the day was getting hot and I did not want to run dry  and launched myself on the climb to the Refuge, arriving 30 minutes ahead of the next cut-off time. In the space of 10km and 2 hours I had moved from 611th to  541st and was feeling great. Given this I decided I might as well carry on pushing myself and see where I could get to. 

Competitors race past the Lac de Pormenaz on the way to the descent into Servoz
Climbing up past the Lac de Pormenaz
Overtaking on the endless steep and narrow switchback descent into Servoz was not easy. Many competitors were happy to step aside when they heard a faster runner behind them, but getting past large groups chatting away, or runners with headphones often required a gamble with the footing on the precipitous edges of the track. 

I reached the Servoz checkpoint at 8 hours 45 minutes having made up another 93 places. I had suffered blisters from wet feet in a previous race, and after taking a shoe-full in one of the boggier sections by the Lac de Pormenaz, I decided to take preventative action by changing into dry socks at Servoz.  Leaving the check point, I ran through the village and past the surreal sight of hundreds of cows waiting outside the church for their annual "Bataille des Reines", and headed to the last hill of the day. 

The long climb to Prarion
The climb up to Prarion is steep and unforgiving. With an average gradient of 30% and a height gain of 1,250m I knew it was going to be tough. I was by now eying up my original schedule which targeted a finish time of 12 hours. If I were to make that I would have to do the climb in two hours and run down to Les Houches on the other side in one hour or less. It seemed an unlikely target but feeling strong I decided it was worth a final push to see how close I could get. Fortunately the trail though the trees shaded us from the warm sun, and I still had plenty of other competitors ahead that I could use as targets to drag me up the field. Reaching the peak of Prarion at 11 hours I had jumped another 68 places to 380th. Now I knew that a sub-12 hour finish was possible and that knowledge spurred me on for the run down into Les Houches.  Arriving at the finish, I was met by the rest of the crew who had dragged themselves out of their baths to see me over the line – great support guys!

Looking up the Chamonix Valley from the top of Prarion

Sally-Anne and Rachel finishing the P'tit TAR
The girls  Sally-Anne and Rachel  completed the P'tit TAR in 3:59:53,  seven seconds inside a very tough 4-hour cut-off time and they were absolutely delighted. Despite their prior protestations that it was going to be just "a casual walk with friends, certainly no running", when they reached the peak in two and a half hours, their competitive instincts took over and they ran all the way down. Chapeau!

About to collapse over the finish line
The statistics:
  • I “finished” in 11 hours 57 minutes in 353rd place out of 642 starters and 529 finishers
  • My time was just under twice that of the winner (Matthieu Brignon) won came home in an extraordinary 6 hours and 19 minutes
  • I was ranked 40th in my class of males over 50 – the cheek, I was “only” 49 years and 363 days!
  • My GPS recorded a distance of 53km, 4,022m of vertical ascent
  • The equivalent flat distance was over 85km
  • Strava tells me I burned 5,900 calories versus 1,600 consumed in gels and bounce balls
  • Whilst the field was predominantly French, 12 countries were represented with good a showing from Switzerland and Belgium, and 18 Brits

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