Ultra trail du Barlatay

The quest for UTMB qualification points continues, with 4 ‘new’ points available for completing the Ultra Trail du Barlatay, an 87km course featuring 5400m of ascent and a few mountain summits. This race is relatively local to me, starting and finishing in the small hamlet of L’Etivaz- to some home of a fine Swiss Cheese (“L’Etivaz is a classic alpine cheese, with a smooth, creamy texture and a strong taste with hints of fruit and hazelnut. It is prized by cheese lovers everywhere”), to others nothing much more than a road bend between the Col des Mosses and Chateau d’Oex. I was not running alone in this one, with work colleague and more experienced ultra-runner Thom joining me on the 11pm start line.

Starting so late was a weird one, Friday involved a lot of sitting around, trying to nap and keeping the feet up- the Olympics helped here- until finally we scooted across a couple of cols in the car to get to L’Etivaz. As the night drew in, we duly faffed with kit, and nervously watched to see how many of the 100 or so participants had opted for the earlier 9pm start to give themselves a better chance of beating the time cut- quite a lot it turned out. This was an interesting choice to have to make: run for 2 more hours in darkness and potentially avoid wetter weather on the following afternoon, or go for more daylight running, possibly soaked through. When we lined up at 11pm, it seemed to be the minority of us who had gone for the later start.

As the ‘elites’ (as we were kindly called by the announcer) headed off, Thom and I quickly realised that we could not match the pace of the fastest runners, letting them slip away in the first couple of kilometres, watching head torch after head torch disappear around the bends, never to be seen again. Behind us was one runner, and the threatening “dindindindindindin” sound of a following motorbike- kudos to the rider, he must have liked the technical trails!

After a brief separation, Thom and I ran together for the first 20km or so, across moonlit cols and past still lakes, the only clue that water was there a feeling of blackness and the odd torch reflection. After the Col du Pillon, we started climbing what had looked like a nice contouring path to above Les Diablerets, and I lost Thom as he changed batteries in his lamp. Now alone, I worked on my rhythm and ticked along the actually viciously undulating path, muddy sections of which were a hint of things to come. The night was glorious: clear and inspiring, and as I looked across the valley I could see the head torches of the 9pm starters beginning the ascent of La Palette, some 2 hours ahead of me.

The drop down into Les Diablerets was brutal on the legs, but nothing a restorative slurp of coke at the first aid station couldn’t fix, and soon it was on to the longest climb of the race from the heart of the town to the summit of La Palette. The first section went well enough, and before long I was at the top of the Isenau gondola; what then followed was a wall-like ridge with a precipitous drop either side, with the wind picking up on the summit.

As I dropped down the other side, my Petzl Nao torch started blinking three times at me- a sign that the battery was going to die. This was surprising as I had set it to last 10 hours, and here I was only 6 hours into the night… After a muddle to change batteries (or not as it turned out- my 2 AA spare batteries were not much good in a torch that needs 4 AAA ones…) the lamp switched to a reserve mode I had no idea even existed, giving me just enough light to make it to dawn. I did have a Petzl e-light in reserve, so it would not have been a total disaster, but perhaps cost me 10-15 minutes of stoppage time.

The long night was coming to an end, but the next phase of the race was deeply confusing; as I looked across the ridge there were head torches sprayed everywhere- I knew I had to climb  La Pare, but had somehow miscalculated the scale of the climb in the middle of the ridge- the Cape au Moine. Oh well, one foot in front of the other and soon we were rewarded with a truly stunning sunrise to the East- this was a spectacular place to witness this and it lifted the spirits immensely as the route took a sadistic turn up incredibly steep grass slopes away from the footpath.

I hurtled back down to Isenau in daylight for an aid station stop, being rewarded with my drop bag and a fresh pair of trainers. The weather was due to take a turn for the worse, and had I had them, this was the perfect place to switch to mud shoes. Alas, my current trainer rotation is big, but in my quest to find the perfect ultra shoe, I had neglected to diversify into shoes that can excel in the mud- something like the Inov-8 Mudclaw or Salomon Speedcross.

There was a good bit of running to be had around the contour to the foot of the Pic Chaussy climb, and then it was up again, this time through the huge metal avalanche barriers above the hamlets below. Making my way through some of the 9pm starters was heartening, and as we dropped down the other side I had the faster runners from the 46km race coming through to push the pace on a bit.

As we descended into Les Mosses, the heavens opened and the story for the final third of the race began to unfold. The trails soon turned to a sloppy mix of mud and cow poo, with bogs galore and descents greasier than a fry up in a truck stop cafe. As the grip disappeared, so did my chance of a sub-15 hour time, and the final circuitous tour of Mont Chevreuils became a painful slog up and down undulations that would have been a doddle in the dry.

The final aid station deep in the woods was a huge morale booster. Having been on my own for some time, just seeing other people was somehow comforting, but these volunteers went above and beyond- one guy held my poles, another filled my bottles and I was being served coke by someone else. As I turned to climb the mud away from them, they erupted into a roar of: “allez allez Steven” along with applause and whoops, driving me to the edge of an emotional breakdown before I quickly pulled myself together and got my head down for the last bit of climbing.

Mud, mud and more mud later, and I entered the muddiest section of the course dropping from the main road just below La Lecherette into the river valley heading back up to L’Etivaz. About 300 people had already been that way in all of the race formats that day, turning the trail into a 3 metre wide strip of churned up slop. There was little point trying to hop around the worst of it, better just to plough on through the middle, the mud trying to suck my shoes off every other step. As I turned right for the last kilometre to L’Etivaz, the trail improved, and it was finishing sprint time only to find Thom waiting at the finish, who I learned had pulled out at Les Mosses due to knee pain.

My final time was 15 hours 21 minutes, nearly 4 hours behind the winner. Being a bit of a data geek, I calculated that I was 34% slower than 1st place, actually a 2% improvement on my 36% behind the winner in the TVSB16- I’ll take that! It was 16th place overall, 13th in category.

Final thoughts: This was actually a great course, any mountain race is going to get sloppy in the wet, I just need to improve on running in it and to get some new mud trainers. The night start is a novelty and leads to serious sleep depravation, but the sunrise up high was epic. Having completed two alpine ultras this summer, I’m still highly motivated by the ‘project’ and the game now is about chipping away at those times- I’m sure that kit alone (trainers and the head torch issue) could have saved me 45minutes to an hour, the rest might come from improving the descents on tired legs. Not now though, now is for a week of solid eating and gearing up for the start of the next academic year at work.

Apologies for the lack of images, I thought about getting the phone out a few times, but decided to just savour the moment instead and push on. So far there are some pics of the event here.

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