Last weekend I lined up for the fourth and final race of my first ultra season, the ‘Défis du Jublié‘, on paper the easiest of three UTMB qualifying races that I had targeted. At 60km and with an advertised 3000m of vertical ascent it looked like a walk in the park compared to the epic Trail Verbier St Bernard earlier in the summer.
The course starts in a small Swiss town called St. Maurice, famous for it’s 6th century Abbey, and indeed the race is held on the ‘Chemins bibliques‘ a series of footpaths in the district that the race aims to promote.
My condition going into it was not great; work had been taking it’s toll with many weekend commitments, and I was nursing a few injuries. The first is what I suspect to be tendonitis on the inside of my right ankle, perhaps a niggle from a sprain earlier in the season. The second was that both big toe nails finally gave up on me in September and fell off; where the left one had been re-growing there was significant pain as it decided whether it wanted to to grow inwards or outwards.
To manage the tendonitis I took a week of total rest and then a tried a period of cross training on the road bike after a failed attempt to ramp training back up, and this was probably just what my body needed after cranking out a couple of big summer ultras. For the toenail problem, I read that soaking it in warm water several times a day helped the nail and skin to separate, and thankfully this worked wonders, with the pain finally subsiding two days before the race. They still don’t look very pretty though.
The hard facts (well, Strava) showed that I had only managed one run over 3 hours in the 8 week period since the Super trail du Barlatay, and I was averaging just a few hours a week of training. The hope was that by putting in a good early season of work, and in completing the long summer races, I had a good enough base to fall back on- avoiding total burnout was now the priority.
In terms of kit, I had opted for the Inov-8 Race Ultra 270 shoes to cope with the mix of trail and road, and compared to the new Inov-8 Trail Talon 275s I had recently bought and my other go-to ultra shoe, the Salomon sense pro, the 270s had the most generous toe box for my recovering toenails to wriggle around in. The Salomon sense 3 vest has just about lasted the season although will need replacing as it has lost most of it’s stretch, and I once again opted for the S-lab exo twin skin shorts having had zero issues in the big races so far. I opted for poles and was glad I had them on some of the uphill, but to be honest this was one race that I could have done without them.
Race day arrived, with a 7am start in the shady side of the Rhone Valley. Having got used to sunrise in my south-facing mountain home, the darkness for the first hour of racing caught me off guard and I looked on with envy at those runners who had thought to start with a headtorch. Given the shorter length of the race I had decided to go faster than usual and try to hang on to a good position throughout. I couldn’t quite tell how many were ahead of me in the dark, but I had a feeling I was on for a top 10 after the first climb to Vérossaz. Here the trail tucked up under the Cime de l’est of the Dents du Midi before popping out into Mex and the long, technical down hill back to the valley below. Three runners came past me here (I still have work to do on the downs…), but never got much of a lead as we hit the flat, and by the time we began the endless switchbacks up towards Salvan I had made my way back through them, leading a small pack up to the village at the top.
Here my strategy of not really stopping at the aid stations worked well- I filled my bottles in fast flowing water fountains in every village and had taken stacks of food with me- so where I breezed through, others were re-fuelling and stopping for a few minutes longer.
I was surprised by how much running was on road higher up on the course, where we kept on climbing to Les Marécottes before a long but fairly gentle fire track ascent to Finhaut. It was after Finhaut that the route took a dramatic turn towards the technical, plummeting down into the steep-sided valley of the Trient river on a rocky trail, before heading straight back up the other side on steep trails and steps towards the main road linking this part of Switzerland to France. We covered 1km on this road with no pavement, doing battle with fast cars and indeed in my case a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre that nearly wiped out the runner in front of me.
It was at this point in the race that I started to feel some niggles: fatigue from the steep climb but more worryingly cramp in my right calf muscles- perhaps compensating for the tendon issues and almost certainly because of my poor training period ahead of the event. I had to stop and stretch it a little, but soon the course changed to a most welcome descent along a fire track that saw the pace rise to below 5 minutes per km on the gentle gradient. This was the pattern of the next portion of the race: fast downs all the way alongside the Trient river valley with a bit of lovely undulating footpath in the middle of it.
We came out of the woods just above Vernayaz sooner than I expected, and made the final descent to the Rhone Valley floor. I was very much on my own now, and the long road straights to come revealed nobody in front of me, and nobody behind, so I braced myself for 13km of flat road running knowing that I was unlikely to gain or lose position. I had thought that this would be an easy end to a 60km race, but in truth it was hellish. the combination of the hard surface, a headwind and cramping calf muscles meant that the fast finish I had been dreaming of never really materialised, and was replaced with several forced stops to stretch.
The road did eventually end, and after a very pretty detour through some maize fields on the outskirts of St. Maurice I found myself coming down into the town behind the train station, and across the finish line next to the Abbey. My time was 6 hours 54 minutes, good enough for 9th place overall, my first top-10 in an ultra. According to my geeky excel percentage calculator, this was also a big improvement on how close I was to the winning time, showing that either I’m progressing well or that the competition was worse!
This race wraps up the season for me, a season where I have loved the challenge of a new project, asking my body to respond once again to new and different training stimuli. I have the points to put in a UTMB entry and now enter the lottery for next year’s race, and I’ve also entered the Trail Verbier St Bernard again- it was so well run and had such an epic route! If I don’t get the UTMB place then this becomes the ‘A’ goal for the 2017 season: to see if I can knock a couple off hours off my 2016 time.
The next chapter is to go beyond just finishing ultras to push on towards faster times, but right now it’s all about enjoying a late autumn with a few cold beers, some trails on the mountain bike and before long a winter of cross country skiing and ski-mountaineering…