The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible — Arthur C. Clarke
Day one started well — we’d worked out the tram system the day before and so got to the start line in plenty of time. We spent some of that time taking photographs and saying our farewells, and I was definitely feeling relaxed and ready to go. The first 5km were very flat and a good time to warm up the legs and get into a nice easy rhythm, ready for the forthcoming ascents.
Ascending St Nizier du Moucherotte seemed relatively straightforward. All of the time I kept thinking of the training runs I’d done that were much harder (even if not of the same length). So my ascents of Kokoda track in Mt Coot-tha, or Chainsaw on Camp Mountain, any of the 30% grade breaks I’d done all gave me plenty of mental comparison with things that I’d achieved. One of my comparison points is of ascents of Camp Mountain (so a 1000m climb is like doing 5 Camp Mountain ascents) and that worked well for the first 40km. The St Nizier du Moucherotte checkpoint was at the top of a ski jump, and I have great admiration for anyone who does the jump and then climbs the stairs back to the top with skis — those stairs were very steep and seemed to go on for a very long time!
From St Nizier to the top of Moucherotte itself was another 600m of ascent in quite spectacular scenery. Watching the trails of people on the ascent winding their way to the top was quite awe inspiring, and it was good to reach the top. The first couple of kms of descent weren’t much fun (lots of loose rock) but I enjoyed the rest of the run down to Lans-en-Vercors for my first checkpoint with support crew. Peta and Paul did a great job of sorting me out by topping up bottles and making sure I was ok.
From Lans-en-Vercors was the walk up to Pic St. Michel, and then the descent into St. Paul de Varces. I don’t really remember too much about this bit other than the stop at St Paul de Varces, where there was a fountain with fresh cold spring water, so a great place to drench my hat, fill my bottles and have a refreshing cool drink. I’m not really sure how I forgot a 1500m descent but clearly things weren’t too painful at that point. There was a lot of relying on poles to manage the descent, whether using them to hop over obstacles or push myself around corners, but looking at my timings, the descent wasn’t very runnable (11:00/km for 200m descent is pretty slow!) so I obviously had to take some care.
There was a small hill (Montagne d’Uriol) between St Paul de Varces and Vif but it wasn’t significant in itself and then there was the downhill to Vif, which was actually quite pleasant (one of the few enjoyable downhill sections). Then a 3km flat run through Vif in the beating sun, around 29 degrees with no shade, meant I was hot and drained by the time I reached the Vif checkpoint. On arriving at Vif it was great to see Peta and Paul, and I looked a right state in the heat, but between us all we managed to sort out my feet and hydration. Were I doing the UT4M Vercors 40, I could have stopped here, and perhaps been very happy.
From Vif the trail went up 100m to the level of the train line above the town and then back down to cross the Drac, where Peta and Paul passed me in the car and shouted encouragement. Then it was over Col de la Chai, via the village of Saint-Georges-de-Commiers. That village had a lovely water trough with a push button tap — so fresh cool water on demand. One of the defining monents of the climb to Col de la Chai was the stop at another water trough, where everyone stopped to wet their hats and cool their heads and top up their supplies. I’ve never seen a race where cool water was such a premium and so useful at the same time (the temperature was around 29°C so this isn’t too surprising)! From Col de la Chai it was a relatively straightforward and pleasant descent to Laffrey.
From Laffrey we went over Grande Cuche and down to La Morte. The descent to La Morte was that it was nominally a 166m descent, but just before we got to La Morte there was a 100m climb. This was unexpected and annoying but the final descent into the village was enjoyable. We had mandatory kit check at La Morte, which only got annoying when they started checking for different things to what the sign said at the station. Again Peta and Paul were heroes, and provided me with hot stew, it was nice to have some actual food (Tailwind works really well but can get a bit samey). They provided me with all the things I needed for the planned next five hours. I switched from cap to headlamp, and also put on the arm warmers. I was an hour behind schedule at this point but that was fine (and given 100m of extra ascent and descent adds another 9 minutes to my schedule, it’s easy to see how that kind of thing adds up).
From La Morte was perhaps one of the most difficult climbs of the day, up Pas de la Vache, nearly 900m of ascent. By this time it was dark and I could sometimes see the lights far above me. It looked pretty difficult, to say the least, the lights were so high! As always, one foot in front of the other, again and again, for 4km. In addition to the usual reflective tape there were occasionally burning logs or flaming torches (can’t imagine that getting signed off in Australia!). In the end the climb took 1h45, which wasn’t too much slower than predicted. At the top it was a lot cooler, and the arm warmers and even waterproof jacket came in useful at various points from here on in.
Unfortunately my watch ran out of battery shortly after Pas de la Vache, so I don’t really have a clear idea where the time went compared to schedule, but I arrived at Lac du Poursollet at 00:30 and I recall not really enjoying the descent too much. One of the people at the aid station saw the Australian flag on my race number and said “Oh, an actual Australian, they’ll be so excited to have you, not a fake Australian like me” — so I explained that I was no more Australian than him! He helped me with my bottles and told me where I was in relation to cutoffs (7 hours buffer) and told me that the descent to Riouperoux was very hard and that I should take care and take it slowly.
From Lac du Poursollet we went over Pas de l’Enviou, which was another climb that felt a lot bigger than it was (but probably wasn’t any bigger). The route from there to Chalets de la Barrière was a bit more runnable but there still seemed to be a lot of ascents in what was supposed to be a 2km downhill section and it definitely felt a lot longer than 2km. After filling my bottles I wished I’d brought along some gloves (which weren’t mandatory).
My final section that night was down to Riouperoux — 5km of descent down rocky, slippery, screey switchbacks. I didn’t feel able to run almost any of this section, and on one of the times I did try running my left foot slipped off the path and I somehow tumbled onto my front, bashing my left thumb against my walking pole, hitting my face on the ground. My right knee felt a little niggly as a result but it could have been a lot worse. The biggest knock was probably to my confidence which was already pretty bad on the descents. For a lot of the descent I could see the lights of Riouperoux in the far distance below and it just felt like it took a really long time — even when we got to the road at the bottom of the hill, it must have been another km to the checkpoint!
I was so glad to reach the checkpoint. It was 4:30am, 4 hours after my planned arrival time. By now my phone had run out of battery too, I had a portable charger in my drop bag (but no phone cable). I had a look around all the laptops in the checkpoint and saw one that had a sign “Laptop not for public use” but also a cable coming out of it that fit my phone. So I used the cable to charge my phone next to the laptop (so that whoever’s laptop it was knew I wasn’t stealing the cable) and charged it enough to send some texts to Peta to let her know to come to Riouperoux the next morning. I wasn’t sure at this stage that I wanted to continue, but wanted to talk to her first before making any final decision. I then bunked down on the floor of the rest room to grab three hours sleep, having put on my fleece and long trousers to keep warm, and even then wrapping myself in the blanket.
Continued in part two…