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High Trail Vanoise 70k, 5400m+

We are these beings, moving up like glow beetles on a black expanse of night. The utter insignificance of our choosing to bring ourselves to this point, at whatever speed, makes my head spin. Think of how many hours all of us have spent in our lives preparing for moments in the cold morning, shouted at by a loudspeaker; watched by the yet invisible mammoths of stone and ice that will still be here when the sun has risen above them and melted the snow and our rubber into the rocks; still here when our legs no longer work today, and in 20 years; still here when even our great grandchildren are wind and soil.

I’m here because I very much want to be. I crave this insignificance enough that I seek it out at every opportunity. I search the shared solitude that comes with finding a way to breathe my racing heart into the indifferent world, to push off of the ground that falls away behind me for hours and hours. To be able to voluntarily suffer, exist in movement on the side of a mountain, is a privilege and a need. And to end that pain is also something I search out.

Working hard at moving fast in the mountains is not more noble than any other distraction (though in my humble opinion it may be less destructive than some). Great or awful, the goings on of any life are random. Taking time every day to plan workouts, to run, to train, to stretch, to hydrate, to refuel takes many hours of effort and dedication, all of which gives me the illusion of control.  I am the boss. There must surely be some adage that says we are the makers of our destiny. I have never once believed that, but training hard certainly gives that comforting illusion.

Many events in my own life – as well as observing the world around me – have assured me quite clearly that most of what happens is simply chance, luck (good or bad). We are never deserving of what happens to us. We just exist. I know that.

So what High Trail Vanoise (HTV) reminded me was not that I am not in control: I already knew that. It showed me something about preparation. There are many details to consider, and I completely disregarded one key factor: the altitude.

I have raced three times at altitude, and two of them were some of my best performances in ultra mountain races. What I forgot, was that I was also living at altitude when I did those events. From the moment the horn went off for the start at 4am I was reminded that 2 kilometers in the air there is less available oxygen (and at 3600m there is even less).

The first kilometer I ran in the front group, but very quickly realized I was working extremely hard. I fell back to probably 35th or so as I found a rhythm. It was dark. The mountains were just a little darker than the sky. The back of my throat was too dry for the speed I was moving. After a couple of kilometers of gradual uphill, the trail kicked right up. As we turned into the first switchback, I looked behind me to see the line of over 300 headlamps marking our trail through the dark, down, down, until they disappeared around a rock.

The sun came up and we were still traipsing up a glacier at over 3000m. The obligatory spikes came in handy as the gradient was by this point much too steep to go up “sans” major slippage. My head was pounding, the air was thin, and every time someone skied by on the fresh corduroy under the sun, I asked myself politely what the fuck I was doing here. Then I remembered.

After watching the leaders on both sides of the knife-edge of control as they came barrelling down the glacier at the edge of the world, their feet sinking in past their ankles to the ice below, eventually I got my turn, and it wasn’t pretty. I fell probably four of five times on my way down that glacier, already half an hour behind the leaders at less than 15k (to give you some perspective).

Once I found some rhythm and a bit of steadier (but still very soft) knee-deep snow, I really sped up and started to catch people as I ski/ran down the ~35% slopes to the aid station in the sky, and further to the wet access road. Then I stopped catching people and began to pound the further 5 or so kms to Tignes, around the lake in the sun, past the golf course and the gawking tourists (most of them quite encouraging. There it kicked up again, and there, that rolling terrain at altitude, that terrain that truly kicks my ass. I have a hard time keeping a good rhythm on here, and the grupetto of runners just ahead of me opened a gap on me. But thanks to the long descent through a pine forest, just technical enough, I closed the gap and caught the three or four runners just before the aid station at La Daille.

The next 4km had 1000m+, what is called a vertical kilometer or “VK” and here I found a rhythm leaving the village again and could begin to pick a couple of people off (really just the ones I had caught before the aid station) , keeping my eye on them above me as the pine forest made way for the switchbacks and the infinite hot sky.

Close to the top of the VK the front of the 42k race began to catch me. Just as I watched some fall back to me, I observed them moving smoothly, becoming smaller, until they finally went over the top, again near 3000m. The middle of the race from about 30-45km is a bit of a blur. I was moving fairly well, swiping my foam-fronted trucker hat in the cold mountain streams as I ran by, and forcing myself to eat every half hour or so.

Before feeling the altitude, I thought I could legitimately do this distance and elevation gain in about 10h. As soon as I started in the thin air though, I recalculated. 11h was possible. It would be tight, but possible. And until about 45k, I was just barely on pace. But as I passed the aid station at Col de l’Iseran and started my way up to the next ridgeline, scree field, and finally knife-edged glacier, this is where the altitude hit so hard it smashed my will.

I slowed to a crawling pace. My progress was slow, my breathing was fast, and my heart was racing from the effort. The final kilometer of straight climbing before turning back toward the aid station also offered the most panoramic views. Infinite jagged peaks, sawing into the blue, leaving snow about like sawdust, white and glaring in the sun.

The descent was through steep sometimes knee deep snow with the occasional treacherous drop or boulder. I rode the line of chaos for a bit, but it is a lot of concentration, a lot of energy to do that, and at some point that mental energy flags. I was over 11h now, and I still had 10k to go.

The aid station was packed with runners going up (as I was coming down). Thinking that they were well over an hour behind me and had a heinous climb in front of them made me almost want to vomit or cry for them. The road comes up to the Col, so there were spectators watching as I slipped pathetically in a puddle and fell face first in the only patch of mud on the whole course. What’s a trail race without some mud, right!

The last 10k were a battle of attrition, one that started with a scramble and a fixed rope up a near sheer loose cliff face to a tunnel. Then, it was apparently all downhill. Except that it wasn’t. This broke my spirit again. My legs were actually ok. All the repeats I’ve been doing at my local ski hill miraculously prepared them for the alps. However, so massively past my goals and so mentally broken by the effect the altitude had had on me, I did not move down those last 8k as I should have. More snow, more up hills, and more tourist hikers as we approached the final 3k descent to the finish. There I saw someone in the distance that had passed me on the last long descent. I didn’t have the will to chase. But then out of the corner of my eye I saw someone coming up on me quite quickly. And I thought “common Liam, do this, it’s a consolation, but you can do it!” and so I ran, I flew, I fucking soared down those last few kilometers, solidly dropping the guy who had almost caught me, and catching and passing two runners in front of me as I blazed out into the ski village. I looked at my watch. It read 12h40m as I rounded the corner into the gated area to the finishing arch. One final kick through the pain. One final kick. As I crossed the finish it occurred to me that the ground was the only thing I wanted. I let myself down and panted into the dusty ground as I waited for my heart rate to come down from 180.

“You’re ok Liam, you’re ok. You suffered well.” My friend Julien (my support, chauffeur, cook, jokester, friend extraordinaire) was waiting for me. After some minutes feeling the sensation of stillness, noticing the telescopic zoom lens in my face, hearing the crowd (a crowd at an ultra!! This must be Europe!!) I got up. I laughed, joked, smiled, ate, hugged, and hobbled my way to the shower. Bliss and some solid learning.

 

 

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A change is as good as a…

This will be a round-up of sorts. Let’s start with a race report, before moving on to my rank among the most heinous of Luddites.

I did my last race of the 2018 season at the Bromont Ultra 50 miler on 7 October. A season of injuries and cross training meant that since July I’d been checking in daily with my coach Laura Perry to adjust workouts and manage whatever pain I was feeling. We did a good job at mitigating injury so that I could race, but there is an underlying stress to feeling like you’re perpetually on the brink of injury (or just injured).

Lining up at Bromont was a relief. I put in a solid (injury free) training block for it, so I felt zero pressure. There’s a mantra: “the work is done, now time to have fun,” which is true, but sometimes hard not to put pressure on yourself when you have put in all that work. I think I was just feeling a deep relief that I had arrived injury free, and would be able to have a mental rest really soon.

I awoke in the darkness of my motel room at 2:30am. I packed up, stuck my head outside, and was greeted by thick fog, misty rain, and about 5C. The gun went off at 3:30am and immediately I could see that I shouldn’t be in the front group. But I gave it a shot anyway, just to see how long I could/should stay up there. It was an infernal pace. And it didn’t stop when we hit the base of the ski hill. We were hammering the muddy single track and I was holding on for dear life through the thick fog. The only thing I could see around me was the ground and the white balls of light of the 6 guys in the group. In any event, the answer to my question was 4.92km. That’s when I said “fuck it,” pulled out my poles, and watched the white orbs disappear very quickly into the inky night.

I was caught from behind by three guys with whom I ran for some 10-15k. Without them, I would have gotten lost. At times you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you for the fog. The one anglophone in the bunch gave us all a tip, to hold our headlamps down low so they actually lit our path instead of blinding us (same concept as foglights on a car). That guy turned out to be Brian Rusieki. If you don’t know who that is, look him up. He’s an ultra running legend. And he showed me that as he turned the screw on the long flat logging roads around the 20k mark. Never saw him again. One thing he said while we were scrambling up some steep rocks was “you Canadians start too fast; most of those guys won’t last.”

I finally found a great pace, and picked up two running buddies, Rich Paddy (an ironman triathlete doing is first 50 miler) and another Brian who was the first casualty of that front group (or, I guess, the second, as I took the honours). The three of us ran and chatted for probably 30k. They would get ahead of me on the runnable roads and double track, and I would set the pace on the steep single track, up and down.

By this point it had cleared: perfect temperature, great trail conditions (if a bit muddy at times – but what’s a trail race without some mud!) While I wasn’t able to eat as much as I had at Black Spur, I was still eating regularly and enough, and feeling pretty good at the 60k mark. So I started to push the pace, and was able to pull away from both my companions on a descent (where I also fell and smashed my knee). I caught two more casualties of the front group, and subsequently got passed by one of them.

Out in the clearing I looked at my watch. I was calculating a 20k acceleration, and a particularly fast final 5k. So I was confused when I saw the finishing arch and my watch only said 76.5k. I finished a bit stronger than I should have, with a somewhat confused smile on my face. Turns out my watch was a little off, and the course was a little shorter than 80k. Something like 78.5k.

I finished in 9:25, 35min faster than my personal goal and good for 8th overall in a pretty stacked field, where Brian Rusieki beat me by only 30 minutes, and the former course record was broken by the top 3. Able to push the whole time, but also be quite comfortable, I think it was a great and rather epic-feeling end to the season. I drove back to the motel, napped for 3 hours, and then packed up to drive the last 3 hours back to Ottawa to sleep in my own bed.

As always, a huge shout out to the race organizers, the town of Bromont, all the volunteers, and to everyone who toughed it out in the mud and rain and fog and cold. A special congrats to Rich for such a strong showing in his first 50 miler ever – top 10, DAMN!!

***

Right after I got home, my new mountain bike arrived – uber excited!!!! I have been riding a lot, resting those running muscles and ripping it (but more just ripping myself) up on the mountain bike trails. Around the same time I got my hands on a knock-off GoPro-type action camera.

I had been taking little videos while mountain biking, and learning how to use the camera. Two weekends ago I participated in a 6h team orienteering event with some friends – what a blast!!! And as I keep telling people: running AND thinking at the SAME TIME is pretty hard! Needless to say, while I do know how to use a map and compass, I wasn’t able to take bearings as quickly as Emil and Evan, so while I almost always knew where we were, I spent most of the 6 hours following Emil’s bearings. A fun mix of “braun” AND brains!

There too, I was trying to take some action videos during the event. All this to say, that as I sought to upload all the videos for editing, I accidentally “formatted” the card, thus deleting ALL the (probably sub-par) videos I had taken of friends and myself biking, running with maps through the woods in the rain, and generally having fun outside in the beautiful autumn colours. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to remember those moments like we used to.

 

 

 

Ultra in the sky: running a high mountain trail race in Peru

It was still dark when my taxi rolled up to the start line of the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca (UTCB), just a 10-minute drive from downtown Huaraz, Peru. Runners and race volunteers moved about to the light of headlamp beams in the cold morning, and at 6:30am, just as the sun rose above the ridgeline in the distance, the gun went, and we were off – the start of a 50km day in the mountains. Locals watched from their adobe homes in the dusty streets as runners from all around the world started up toward Lake Churup at 4576m, the course’s first big climb.

Huaraz, nestled in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca among some of South America’s highest peaks, is a world class destination for trekkers, alpine climbers, and trail runners alike. It’s also the backdrop for the UTCB. With distances of 10k, 25km, and 50km, as well as a vertical kilometer race, the event is part of the annual Festival del Andinismo (a mountain sports and film festival).

I ran right near the front for the first 2 kilometers, but quickly realized I was going too fast, and brought the pace down to a comfortable rhythm, something to settle into for the better part of the next seven and a half hours. I was able to stay amongst the top 10 up to the second aid station where the trail really kicked up. It’s an unrelenting (at over 4000m), and just when you think it couldn’t get any more brutal, it does. A long line of runners waited to grab cables installed on the side of the cliff that we reached at km 12, to drag ourselves up the almost shear face. Getting to the lake provided only very temporary relief, and I wasted no time in starting back down the treacherous trail to a road, and aid station 4 at km 18. Aid stations were well stocked with water, Gatorade, Coke, fruit, and chewy candies, though I was only filling up on water and electrolytes (I’ve got a finicky stomach).UTCB1

UTCB2From aid station 4 it’s a few kilometers of single track by a stream and a few hundred meters of well marked bushwhacking to the aid station at km 21. The next 10km or so was a set of switchbacks on a rough gravel road. Tired and feeling the altitude, I didn’t have the legs to run this whole section. Instead, it was a fits and starts sort of affair. The course continues through a high alpine meadow, up an impossibly steep glacial moraine to the race’s last high point at over 4500m. I arrived at km 34, passed over the dyke, took in the jaw dropping views of a turquoise lake and a massive, blinding white glacier tumbling down a mountainside against an emerald sky. I also watched three of the four runners who had passed me on the first descent start making their way down to the finish. That motivated me. I took two photos on my phone, buckled down, and started the chase!

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For safety reasons, all runners must carry a headlamp, thermal blanket, jacket, food, whistle, and base layer – if you you’re missing any of them, you’re disqualified, no exceptions. I had to wait five minutes at the check point while they went through my gear. Getting back on the road to the descent was a mental battle. I had been running, hiking, and scrambling for the last 5.5 hours, my legs were pretty beat up, and the sun was only getting stronger.

Five kilometers on the dirt road, followed by five of some to event’s steepest and most technical descending. Actually running this section required a ton of concentration, and while I certainly didn’t bomb it, I was able to run carefully to the final aid station at km 45, where the road gets steep and you’ve got to go fast. And it hurts even more. I finished strong and smiling, and within 5 minutes of 10th place male.

Having trained at altitude for some months, I was able to enjoy the race and its awe-inspiring alpine scenery. Everyone I met was friendly and supportive, as is the norm in the ultra running scene. As I started my long journey back to Cusco via Lima, I had lots of time to reflect. It’s actually hard form me to envision a better event. Superb race organization, excellent course markings, well stocked aid stations… Combine that with great people, good race preparation and a dose of good luck and weather, and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable experience. I sure hope I’ll be back!