It had been a full on few weeks back at home so I was glad to eventually touch down in Geneva, just a short drive away from Annecy. I spent a nice few days relaxing pre-race with the local town getting pumped to hold a whole host of races the coming weekend, from a Vertical Kilometre to the ‘big one’, 86km around the lake taking in all the local peaks; 2 races were being run on this course: the World Championships of Trail Running – the best in the business representing their country, the olympics of long distance trail running; and us mere mortals, running in their wake!
I went out for a short jog up one of the local hills on the Thursday before the race, and rapidly realised these hills were slightly larger than those resident in the South of England. Although the North Downs are spectacular, they’re not quite alpine mountains.
The night before the race a couple of friends were flying out after work to join me, in a very selfless gesture, and bag a long weekend away at the same time. They ended up arriving at 0130 after a delayed flight, so I ended up having breakfast before a bit of a nap, shortly followed by coffee and action time!
The race village was alive with excitement, especially for 4 in the morning, with music playing and head torches bobbing about in the dark. After many pre-race nervous/excited pee stops we were penned in behind the start line for some final pre-race announcements. My french isn’t great, but I pretty much made out them saying “don’t fall off any mountains”, then counting from 10-1 and we were off!
With a huge surge of adrenaline and excitement 2000 runners started making their way from Annecy’s lake through the pre-dawn traffic-free streets packed with supports making all sorts of “Allez Allez!” encouragement.
As we started making our way up the first mountain we could see down into the valley with street lights lighting up the cities. It was stunning; a clear star-studded sky above and towns in darkness below only lit up with small street lights.
I was only wearing a running vest, shorts and small pack but was sweating already…today would be hot.
Dawn broke as we made our way up this ridge towards the summit of the first hill, and the path was lined with excited supporters with cow-bells. I’d never been in a race with such great support before. I hit the first aid station and was amazed by the spread laid on at the top of a mountain for us. Soup, bread, cheese, crisps, coke, fruit…all sorts. I picked up a few bits and shot through keen to keep moving. Needless to say I spent much more time in these feed stops later.
It was as I was negotiating the pretty steep never-ending descent off this mountain that it hit me; it was pretty obvious in hindsight looking at the elevation profile, but this race really was nothing but straight up and straight down pretty huge mountains. I was loving it, but my legs were really not cut out for this. The last race I had done (T60 Night Race) was 60 miles along the Thames, with about 2 metres elevation gain. This had 5300m elevation gain and loss. Thats like running up Mt Kilimanjaro, pausing briefly at the top to enjoy the view, then running back down again in time for dinner. This was going to be epic.
I saw my friends for the first time going into the half way point after they’d had a lie-in that morning, and had missed me at one of the water stops as I was a little ahead of schedule. Lazy buggers. The schedule was really a huge amount of guess-work, as I had no idea how much these mountains were going to take out of me. Chris and Simon were amazing all day. Well all weekend really. They also nicely surprised me by turning up in scrubs and face masks of my face…which is bad enough as it is, let alone when blown up even bigger.
I felt great flying through the party village at half way, and started powering up the next mountain. This was when it hit me. After only about 7hrs of running, it felt like a train hitting me with this almighty tiredness. The sun was out in force cooking me, and these hills were sapping every bit of energy from me. Even ‘runnable’ flats were technical trails requiring immense concentration. Long uphill drags were interspersed with short vicious downhills annihilating our quads.
This was by far the hardest section of the course, the 3rd leg, as it seemed to have 3 peaks condensed into one section. We were climbing higher and higher above the valley, treating us to stunning views and immense leg-sapping gradients. I was amazed at the support from the locals; I could hear cheering and cow-bells ringing as we approached false summits and mountain passes. I could hear especially dedicated group of cow-bell ringers as I approached a technical section high up, only to realise it was a herd of mountain goats. I felt like they were laughing at me, making light work of this outrageous terrain. I briefly wished I was a goat; funny what running does to you at times.
As we descended this epic 3-summit mountain I was dipping my sun-visor into every glacial stream we passed to try and cool me down. We ran over a very short section of glacier at one point, and I was tempted to throw a snow-ball from the sheer novelty of it. I’d better get out of that habit before we go to the Arctic…
By the time we hit the penultimate town I was starting to pick up and feel better. This mammoth task which only an hour ago felt a little overwhelming suddenly became very possible again. My ankle had briefly complained and locked up on a steep downhill, then set my back off into a spasm, and both of these had calmed down now, as if to tell me that was I was doing was indeed quite silly on a background of no hills.
Summiting the final mountain felt amazing, and although I was knackered, I felt so close to the end. Signs at the top showed ‘6km to go’…touching distance. It may be 6km of technical steep downhill, but I was going to give it everything I had left to get in under 13hrs. I had 45minutes to do it in, normally a breeze, but this was going to require some brute force to get my lead legs on side to let me fly down the mountain.
On the first part of the steeper downhill I had some very talented local females making light work of the trail dancing down ahead of me, which evened up a little when it became slightly less steep and slightly less technical where my brute force and ignorance approach allowed me to open up and hammer down the trail as hard as I could.
We popped out at the bottom next to the lake, a moment I’d been imagining for a long time now. I felt as euphoric as I’d been expecting, with the streets lined with supports, my legs and body just felt more exhausted than in those daydreams. A final big effort over the last kilometre and into the finishing chute by the lake. 12hrs 48. 175th. It felt great to have finished something that had properly challenged me with such big climbs for a lowlander, and to have done it in a respectable time. That was until I got hit by a crippling wave of nausea which reduced me to a gurning limping mess, missing all the post-race treats available at the end.
Thankfully this didn’t last too long and was relieved by my friends getting me a coke (simple solution?) swiftly followed by a recovery beer and pizza.
Overall it was a great experience. This race, with pretty bad prep, had made me really struggle and suffer, which made completing it all the most satisfying. It is miles apart from what I’ll need to do to get to the Pole, but a good lesson that these low moments do not go on for ever, and when they pass, achieving becomes all the more rewarding.