Back in January when my running partner in crime Mikko and I received the news that we hadn’t been lucky enough to get into the TDS (a 120k mountain ultra in Chamonix as part of the UTMB), our thinking hats had been firmly on. We’d banked on making the ballot, yet somehow the ultra-gods had decided our fate otherwise. We scoured the internet for a suitable alternative, it had to be just as tough, or tougher. We stumbled across the Grand Raid des Pyrenees, and instantly knew it was for us. The ‘Tour des Cirques’ seemed to fit the bill; 120k of pure and technical trail with over 7,200m of vertical ascent. We knew it would be tough, and the Pyrenees a new experience to previous races I’ve completed in both the Alps and the Dolomites.
The months came and went with training runs, several injuries really hampered some high volume weeks but never enough to dampen my enthusiasm or spirit for this race. All you can do when injury strikes is remain patient, actually do the exercises given to you by the Physio and cross your fingers that it will be fine on the day.
Before we knew it race day was upon us. A 900m stroll down to the shuttle bus which would take us to Piau-Engaly, a ski resort that was to host the start of the 10th GRP. In fact we were actually offered a lift for the final 300m and gladly accepted in true ‘trail runners are a friendly bunch’ fashion. The super chatty Frenchmen in the front, the driver casually puffing a cigarette, warned us. “it’s tough” they said. “the first climb, oo la la…. but save something for the climb at 80k, this is the killer”. We may as well turn around now, we had seen this climb on the map – 2k of vertical over 20km. We figured it would be tough, we just didn’t need to be reminded about it! With that I stuffed down the remainder of a jam sandwich I had in my hand and we boarded the shuttle bus.
The usual pre-race nerves helped to focus the mind, and called our previous months of training to the forefront of our minds. We’ve worked, suffered and sacrificed just to be here. Yet I felt remarkably calm. I wasn’t racing to be competitive, the goal was to finish. Ideally in one piece, but I’d take multiple pieces if it wasn’t life threatening.
We set off and unsurprisingly up, the first climb. The strategy was slow and steady. I have a mantra that I repeat to myself on every ultra, and Mikko and I call it out whenever things start to hurt. “Keep eating, keep drinking, keep moving”. Maybe it sounds too simple, but it works. In fact the legs and body felt pretty good for the bulk of the day. Spirits were high, insta stories were taken and some singing took place. Unfortunately, both ‘Despacito’ and ‘Work from home’ will forever be etched into my brain, even if it was only the chorus for lack of knowing any other words! The weather was oppressive, maybe 30+ degrees and humid. You could feel this increase every time we dropped down from altitude into one of the valleys. We prayed for a climb to take us up into thinner yet cooler air. We got what we asked for, and quickly asked for the opposite. This yoyo of requests to the sadistic race organisers went on all day. They never listened, but we never stopped asking.
We reached CP4 - Gavarnire - at the 50km mark after 10 hours, as darkness began to fall. I was hungry which was a great sign, as I often lose my appetite in warmer conditions. A bowl of pasta drowned in vegetable soup, some bread, crackers, coke and orange segments all went down the hatch. Sounds disgusting, but actually it was a solid feed. The previous 4 aid stations had been stacked with the same fruit cake, dried fruit and bread, so this was a real treat to the palette. We left in high spirits and once again began to climb.
Running at night can be a bit freaky. You can’t see much and when racing this is essentially reduced down to the span of your head lamp. Fortunately we had a small group of us, circa 5 or 6 who ran together for the first climb but quickly split up as pacing strategies failed to sync. Mikko and I were strong on the climbs, rarely being overtaken, maintaining a consistent pace driving our poles to make ground uphill. However, as soon as we hit a decent, the same locals we dropped would come flying past. We put this down to the fact that they were much more adept to mountain terrain and just appeared to have more confidence in their foot placement. Well it sounded good to us, certainly better than “they’re better than us, we can’t descend for toffee”. Whatever works to keep the mind strong I guess!
The night actually passed by without too much drama. The temperature dropped a little which was nice, but was still warm enough for a t-shirt with arm warmers. I replaced my cap with a beanie as we passed through the high point, just below 3,000m. Tiredness was only an issue when on the rare occasions when we encountered some flatter trails, because you can actually switch off a little. Your senses are unsurprisingly sharp when climbing up shoulder high boulders or descending down a scree slope. We crossed one field whilst climbing up to Refuge de la Glère about 20 hours in, and sat on the damp grass to provide some rest bite for the feet and re-fuel. I literally fell asleep as soon as I sat down, waking up assuming that I must have dozed for 10 or 15 minutes. The reality was a 60 second power nap, but this actually really helped to freshen the senses a little, and enough to push on up the climb.
The end of time.
The refuge was reached as the sun came up, and I felt positively dreadful. I often find when I am moving for long periods of time that I lose my appetite, which is a dangerous game. It’s only a matter of time when you stop eating before your body runs out of energy and grinds to a halt. This happened at the 90km mark. In hindsight I know why it happened; I had assumed that with roughly 30km to go we’d reach the finish line in around 3-4 hours. The reality ended up being that from that point, we were still 10 hours from finishing because we hadn’t accounted for the most technical part of the race. A boulder field shortly after this CP meant that our pace slowed to 1 or 2 km per hour, as we slowly picked and jumped our way from rock to rock. It was just a long slog up two further climbs of around 1,000m each in vertical, followed by some sketchy decents- again being overtaken by mountain goat-like locals.
At this point my feet really started to hurt, two heel blisters had burst and I was aware of a toenail having left the building. I was really having to dig myself out of a hole. Thank goodness for my running partner Mikko, because it’s moments like this where you seriously consider throwing in the towel. I know I never would unless my legs fell off, but still the DNF thought is never far off when you’re on struggle street. I ate a Mars bar, and took some paracetamol- 2 things I very rarely take as a plant based athlete, but when times dictate that you need calories to keep moving, you gotta do what you gotta do.
We slowly chipped away at the miles and finally re-joined with the other races. A ski lift station acted as the final CP around 105k near Col de Portet, before we dropped another 1.5km over about 15km to re-discover some sort of civilisation. It was weird seeing other runners, many of whom (including my girlfriend Julia) were running the 40km version of the race. We found ourselves being overtaken by pretty much everyone, which certainly didn’t help morale. This was somewhat balanced out by a few who stopped and congratulated us for having run ‘le cent vingt’, however we could really only muster up a smile for fear of sending our entire bodies into spasm. Time and distance appeared to stand still; beyond every corner was another, every turn a long stretch of trail and we joked about the race that never ends. We prayed for the final km mark adjacent to the river in the centre of Saint-Lary Soulon, but it definitely didn’t come quickly. We finally got what we asked for and somehow picked up the pace for the last km, crossing the line in 31 hours and 28 minutes in the early afternoon humidity to a very enthusiastic French crowd.
The last 100+km race I did was back in April, and was completed in around 14 hours over flattish ground. This by comparison was a different ball game, but we made it. We found out post-race that 50% had DNF’d with the conditions and terrain, and we’d come in the top 20%. I’m forever grateful for being able to run races like this, and the friendships that are forged before, during and after such an experience. Congratulations to Mikko for putting up with my terrible chat for over 31 hours, and to Julia for completing her 2nd trail marathon of the year! I’m constantly inspired by the people around me, not least the ASICS Frontrunner team that I am part of (who are just as insane), and weirdly cannot wait for more of the above over the coming months.
This race will stay with me for a long time. Forever in fact. It was all the things and more that you would expect from such a day in the mountains.