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Wednesday, August 31 2011

A week of ultramarathons (behind my PC)

It's been a good week, following events unfolding in Chamonix.

I didn't realise how much fun it would be to follow the PTL live GPS coverage. I was mostly following Team Green, but it was rather entertaining to see other teams getting away from the original path. Sometimes it seemed to be planned (shortcut the Mont Rogneux like us last year). Sometimes not. Sometimes they gave up... Sometimes it was clearly a GPS mistake ("Pierre qui roule" rolled down to Milano, before coming back on track). Sometimes it looked like some had forgotten to give back their beacon: "Team du Risoux" ended up in the Jura, not far from the eponymous mountain range :) Easier than running it!

It's been sad to see Jon dropping from the TDS, Andy, Flip, and Jez from the UTMB. But so goes it during tough events like those.

It's been good to see Börkur flying through the super tough UTMB this year. First delayed start to 23:30 to avoid the storms. Then extended via Martigny while the race was on to avoid a dodgy section near Catogne. It must have been tough to take this news en-route... And all that in a visibly cold, misty weather, with snow on the ground.

Well done to you guys, you made me want to do it again! Or not...

Ultra armchair runner

Friday, August 19 2011

Yet another last week-end of August

For the second time since 2005, I will not be in Chamonix on the last week-end of August :( It feels a bit strange.

All the best to you all who are going to start running on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. I envy you (kind of). Andy, Börkur, Eoin, Jez, Jon, Phil, Philipp, and Shirley, I will follow you online.

Unlike here in London, the weather in the Alps seems rather warm and dry at the moment, so perfect running conditions so far. Have a great run!

And for a little warm up, listen a few times to this before the UTMB/CCC/TDS and this before the PTL.

Ultra nostalgic

Monday, May 9 2011

PTL Frequently Asked Questions

A few runners have asked me detailed information about the PTL lately, probably because of the lack of insider information available in English. Therefore I have decided to gather a few questions and answers based on my participations in the PTL in 2009 (unsuccessful) and 2010.

Last update: 22/06/2011

General

Q. Why do runners drop out?
A. I stopped in 2009 because of a kidney pain, but I guess other runners would be more likely to stop due to tendinito-musculo-skeletal injuries. Time limits have also been shown to stop a few teams. Gastric problems, which are very frequent on the UTMB, are however less of an issue on the PTL due to the slower pace allowing better digestion.

Q. What would you change if you did it again?
A. Not too much on the logistics, really. Last year was pretty well managed I think. I would carry some water disinfection tablets and pack more varied food. And train more in the hills, obviously!

Q. Did you run or power walk it?
A. The PTL was a super-hike for us. We ran the first 8km to Les Houches, then some downhill sections on the first day... and that's it! Well, until Leo tried to leave me behind on a really fast (or so it seemed) finish line sprint.

Eating and drinking

Q. Was there any food/water available at the refuges? How much did they cost?
A. It was around 15 euros for the refuges as far as I remember. There was food and drink in refuges we went to, but I know some might stop serving food during the night.

Q. Did you carry all food for full event (other than bag drop food) or did you try purchase food as you passed through villages?
A. We probably had just enough food in total (including drop bags) for the full event. So we carried at most a third at a given time. But we purchased (a lot of) food on the way, from refuges, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, ... We also used some food available at some checkpoints (Petit Saint-Bernard, Morgex, Champex).
After two days, we started to get bored of our food, and it was also good to get a hot meal and sit down from time to time. It helps a lot, both physically and mentally. This was particularly true when facing bad weather in Grand Saint-Bernard, and even more with the unexpected (to us at least) refuge at Col de Balme. Without this one, we would have probably not finished on the same "day".
So I would definitely recommend to be opportunistic with food.

Q. What food did you carry?
A. We prepared a total of 18 mini-meals containing each: parmesan, saucisson, bread, nuts, snikers, chestnut spread, ie. real food. That is 3 meals per day per runner for 3 days. We also had various other bars around.

Q. Where and how often did you refill your bladder with water and what was your total water carrying capacity?
A. I had 3 liters: a 2L bladder and a 1L bottle. The bottle is useful to refill from small streams. Otherwise we would refill in refuges, restaurants, fountains, etc ... We also refilled once from an underground canalization manhole, which was slightly odd. I can't remember exactly how often we refilled, but I remember that the section down to Morgex was rather problematic, with nearly no water to be seen for hours, in the middle of a sunny day. In 2009, it was the way up after Morgex which was completely dry. So be prepared for this valley!
If I was to do it again, I would take disinfection tablets to deal with this situation, which would allow to drink from cow dung infested stagnant puddles (if there is any).

Q. What is the limit of in terms of water filthiness that would stop you from drinking it?
A. Well, it all depends how thirsty you are... You can end up pretty thirsty on the PTL, and we have drunk from relatively stagnant water and/or with potential cattle grazing around, which I would not do in normal conditions.

Q. Did you carry a stove and pot? Was it useful if you did, or if you didn't would you carry one next time?
A. We did not carry stove and pot, and I would not change that. It's too much weight for little gain, as you can get hot food from restaurants/refuges from time to time anyway.

Q. How many bag and/or food drops, and where?
A. In 2010 there were two drop bags: at Morgex and Bourg Saint-Pierre. That might change, though.

Sleeping

Q. Was it necessary to book the refuges in advance, or did you just turn up at the door and hope for the best? How did that work out for you?
A. For the first refuge (Deffeyes), we called a few hours ahead to book because we anticipated that most runners would try to reach it for their first night, would it be at 8pm or 3am. We assumed that for the next nights, runners would probably spread up. I am not sure it was entirely necessary. In 2009 we just turned up. I think the best solution is probably to call them when you know roughly when you are going to make it, ie. 6 hours beforehand.
I was dubious when I heard runners had booked a refuge for every night before leaving. You might know in which refuge you are going to sleep on the first night, but for the next 2 or 3 ones, it's going to be rather difficult to predict were (and in what state) you will end up at what time. Plus other factors, such as bad weather for example, might mean you'd prefer to have a nap earlier when rain's pouring outside, and then run by night when the sky clears up later... So you really have to be flexible with your schedule to maximise your chances to finish.
The dorms in Bourg Saint-Pierre could not be booked, but were free. Some people arrived after us and could not find a free bed. Rooms in the nearby hotel could be booked I think.

Q. Did you carry a full tent or just an 'emergency shelter'? If so, what make and model did you bring? Did you use it?
A. In 2009 we carried a LifeSystems Bothy 4-6 emergency shelter (we were three of us). We used it only once during training and hated it (there's cold condensation everywhere, and it's suffocating), so we did not use it during the PTL.
In 2010, we carried a Terra Nova Laser Photon tent (we were a team of two). It is very small for two, not amazingly comfortable, but manageable if you are very tired. Having a tent you know you can actually use adds a lot of flexibility: you can stop when you really need it (tiredness, weather, ...), not only when you happen to pass by a refuge/hotel.

Route and navigation

Q. Is the path exposed? Is it very different from the UTMB?
A. The path can be exposed at times, but that is not the case in general. In our case, the ridge at Pointe de Drône was rather hairy, especially with the wind and rain. It's a bit of scramble, but equipped with cables and chains. The ladders near Chéserys were a bit exposed too. I guess these are only a few short-ish sections that can be managed even if you don't like aerial paths too much.
Exposure aside, the underfoot conditions are different from the UTMB. There are easy paths, but there are also quite a few boulder field crossings, tortuous ridges, river in 2009, snow slope in 2010, etc...

Q. Were there snow patches to cross?
A. There was one major one last year indeed, going down from the Pas de Panaval. It was equipped with a fixed rope by the organiser, who was visibly a bit worried about us.

Q. Did you use a GPS?
A. Yes, this is fundamental if you don't know the route, even if you are a good navigator. By night and potentially bad weather, when you might be very tired and not fully with it, the last thing you want is to start meandering around and getting lost. Loading the track provided by the organisation and planning spare batteries is strongly advised.

Q. You say in your blog that at some stage you lost GPS coverage (and many others seem to have experienced the same). Did this happen more than once or was it just a particular area and if so where was that?
A. As far as I remember it was mostly in the Comba Bella. But generally, when you have steep slopes around and/or dense forests, the signal gets significantly degraded (even if your GPS receiver tells you the accuracy is good). You just have to deal with it. That said, the route is changing every year...

Q. What type of maps the organisers provided you with? Were they paper copies strip maps of the route and did they also provide a GPS download map of the route? To get a GPS map of the route would involve buying a section of France, all of Switzerland and all of Italy which would cost hundreds of pounds.
A. The organisers gave us a paper copy of the maps in a waterproof-ish folder. It was pretty much the same as the one provided online, at the exception of a few minor last minute changes. We had already printed them on tough paper beforehand anyway, so we left the ones they gave us in the drop bags.
They also provided a GPS track of the route and a set of major waypoints beforehand. Some guys from Garmin were on-site to help runners at the briefing. I have to say that it was a bit fiddly for us. Two versions of the track were available: low and high resolution. The low resolution seemed pointless, and the high one had too many points for our GPS device. So I had to write a script to segment the high resolution track into a dozen shorter tracks.
You don't need to buy the maps for the GPS. Following the track on the GPS and on the paper maps simultaneously is good enough. I think that's what most runners did.

Equipment and clothing

Q. Did you use poles?
A. Yes! I couldn't even think to do it without poles. They drive power out of your arms both up and down hill and relieve (a bit) your quads and knees. They also help a lot with balance (or the lack of it). Leo and I realised 10km before the finish line that we couldn't even walk properly without them, as we had relied so much on them for the past 200+ km. I used a pair of Leki Makalu Tour, which might be a bit on the heavy side, but have been proven robust enough to handle me.

Q. Did you use a very powerful head torch? Did you use a hand torch as spare?
A. No, I used a Petzl Myo XP, which is good enough if your sight is not too bad. More powerful ones use a lot more batteries I think.
I carried, but did not use a Petzl Tikka as spare, as opposed to a hand torch. A hand torch is supposed to give you a better depth perception since the light comes from an different angle than your line of sight, making more visible shadows. However, I never understood how it can be used in combination with poles.

Q. Did you wear your waterproof jacket over the bag?
A. No, this would be a bit difficult, since my waterproof jacket is relatively snug fit, and the bag was not that lean. However, we used ponchos as an extra layer of protection. It makes a difference if you're in the rain for a long time, and the bag can easily fit underneath.

I hope this is useful. If you have any more questions, feel free to post them hereafter as comments.

Ultra PTL feedback

Monday, February 14 2011

Giro di Sicilia 2010

I am still recovering from the PTL to some extend. A new-grown toenail replacing the one lost during the event is now slightly in-grown. I've already stopped climbing a while back. And now it looks like I'll have to take it easy on the run too... With the Hyde Park Relays and the Cambridge Boundary run planned in 2 weeks. Grumble, grumble...

To occupy myself and change my mind, a few pictures from the Giro Di Sicilia with Valentina last Autumn. The route is available on GoogleEarth or GoogleMaps.

Ultra idle...

Monday, December 13 2010

Energy gels vs saucisson

When talking about sport nutrition, I sometimes get the feeling that I'm seen by some as an energy gel aficionado. I can't deny that I've tried and compared 21+ energy gels (and counting), nevertheless that doesn't mean I'm eating exclusively gels during ultramarathons (neither, to make things crystal clear, do I eat exclusively energy gels when not running). In fact, I'm currently slowly taking my distances with the all-gel diet during ultramarathons.

A lot of runners on their first UTMB, including myself, have been be a bit surprised to find saucisson, ham and cheese amongst more typical biscuits, fruits and chocolate at the food stations. This is actually not as irrational as it could look at first.

In races up to marathon-type distance, most runners tend to privilege relatively fast acting energy sources, ie. carbohydrates, that must be ingested frequently. The idea is to reduce the load on the stomach and to absorb only ready-to-use energy. A constant supply of relatively high glycemic index (GI) food tends to reduce the usage of alternative sources of energy, such as fat, by the body. As a consequence, the blood sugar level is tightly linked to the food intake and any deviation in the eating pattern might lead to hypoglycaemia, from which recovery might not be quick nor easy. Nevertheless, given the relatively short length of a marathon, it is usually possible to keep to a decent eating pattern.

However, things are significantly different during ultramarathons for a number of reasons. First of all, it's much more difficult to keep to a regular eating schedule for a variety of reasons, and in particular:
  • lazy stomach due to poor blood flow, constant motion, and circadian cycle alteration
  • loss of focus due to the duration of the event and lack of sleep
Secondly, runners might have to carry a large amount of food if not fully supported, and most gels have a poor energetic density (energy-to-weight ratio). For example, I started with 4kg of food during my attempt on the TSQ. This was composed of only 700g of gels, against 1,400g of chocolate/cereal bars and a significant 1,800g of cheese, bread, nuts, etc... The gels accounted for 17.7% of the total weight, but only for 6.9% of the energy! Conversely, the hazelnuts accounted for only 7.6% of the weight, but for 15.3% of the energy. And thirdly, in longer races, energy is usually burned at a slower pace.

I have decided to compare 3 top-ranking gels (SiS Go, Torq, Honey Stinger) against 3 more traditional types of food selected by Leo for the PTL (Parmiggiano, saucisson, and peanuts), ordered in this table by decreasing energy-to-weight ratio:

NameEnergyProteinCarbohydateSugarFat SaturatesSalt
UnitKCal/100g%%%%%%
KP salted peanuts59027.59.95.349.08.81.3
Parmigiano Reggiano39033.00.00.028.420.81.8
Mini Peperami (salami)37925.01.50.030.012.33.6
Honey Stinger3240.078.478.40.00.00.3
Torq2530.063.921.30.00.02.8
SiS Go1300.032.81.50.00.00.0


1. Digestion speed

I think their is an advantage at privileging food that takes longer to digest, as this will ensure a more constant energy supply. A repetitive supply of fast assimilation food (sugar) is more risky, as a crash is likely to happen if you are not be able to eat properly at some point of the race. Proteins have a similar energy density than carbs but take longer to digest, because they must be broken down by enzymes. Fat also takes longer then carbs, as they need to be dissolved and broken down. Both can be used to balance the energy intake over time. On this front, parmiggiano, peanuts, and salami are clear winners.

2. Ease of digestion

The SiS Go are definitely the easiest food to digest, with Torq and Honey Stinger not far behind, although a bit too sweet to take more than two or three at once. Fatty food are a bit harder to digest.

3. Energy-to-weight ratio

There is a wide range of energy-to-weight ratios amongst the energy gels, ranging from a poor 1.3KCal/g with the water-packed SiS Go to a decent 3.24KCal/g on the sugary Honey Stinger. The bottom line using pure carbohydrates is 4KCal/g. Proteins also provide 4KCal/g. The only way to increase this ratio is to rely on fat, providing a great 9Kcal/g. And that is why nuts rank so high: with half of fat, they reach nearly 6KCal/g. Cheese and salami only do marginally better than the gels because the fatty energy boost is compensated by a higher water content. Obviously, as previously mentioned, olive oil and lard being composed of 100% fat, they reach the highest edible ratio, with 9KCal/g.

4. Other nutrients

Nutrients might not be fundamental during a marathon, but the salt losses by perspiration can be great during an ultramarathon. It is necessary to replace them to avoid cramps and other body dysfunctions. Actually, I have a very common craving when running ultra, that is of a bacon sandwich. I assume this is the way for my body to tell me "I need salt, mate". Salt and other minerals are naturally present in traditional foods. Energy food users will find salt and other minerals in some gels, and in specific products such as SUCCEED and Perp.

5. Pleasure!

Eating gels for 30+ hours is not an option. At least not for me! I know some people managed to run the UTMB on gels and energy drinks only, but I don't think I could do it. A bit of solid feels good in the stomach and maybe even more importantly in the head. Unless my stomach is grumpy and the SiS Go gels would be the only option, there is no doubt that the parmiggiano and the sauccisson would be more attractive. This is worth considering in a context where eating might not be obvious and where anything bringing the mood up is welcome. Also, it is clear that food variety is equally important. I was a bit fed up with the peanuts-saucisson-parmiggiano trio diet towards the end of the PTL.

Now, all that is a bit of science, a bit of experience, and a bit of gut feelings (literally). Don't trust my conclusions. Try new running food, make your own decisions, and report them here!

Ultra food contest.

Wednesday, October 20 2010

Post PTL 2010 thoughts

If September has been pretty quiet on the blog, it's because it's been pretty quiet running-wise too! I've not run a single kilometre between the PTL and the beginning of October.

The recovery took quite a while, and I was still very tired for about 10 days after the event. This shows how deep down the fatigue was buried inside me. For about two weeks, I followed a high protein, high fat, and generally high calorie diet. I felt like I was never completely full, no matter how much I ate.

Leo reckons he lost 10 pounds (4.5kg) in the adventure! I've not weighed myself neither before nor after the event, so I'm not sure about the impact on my body, but I guess it's similar. Assuming this weight loss was only fat, with an efficacy around 3,500 KCal per pound of fat, this is a mere 35,000 Kcal overspent! The good old Naismith's rule estimates the equivalent flat distance of the PTL to 238+18000/120=388km. Considering an expenditure of 1 KCal per kilo of body mass per kilometre run, with Leo weighing about 70kg, that is a total energy loss of 27,160KCal. I'm not including the normal daily expenditure, which I hope was covered by what we ate. This is not too far off the overspent 35,000 Kcal... At least, the same order of magnitude.

No one seemed to have noticed that I concluded the PTL report with "Ultra hike". The fact is: the PTL was a super-hike, at least for us. We basically ran the first 8km to Les Houches, a few times downhill on the first night and day, and then not much until the final sprint. I guess you can probably still say you "run" the UTMB. Although 160km in 35 hours leads to an average speed of 4.6km/h, in practice you probably walk at roughly 3km/h uphill and run at 10km/h downhill (*). Whilst strictly speaking you run only half the distance, I guess you can still say it's a run. As for the PTL, even removing all the stops, it took us about 80 hours for 238km ie. 3.0km/h. Uphill and downhill speeds are probably around 2km/h and 5.5km/h respectively.

I'm also wondering how long you can last with that kind of routine, ie. sleeping 4 hours per night and being on the paths the rest of the time? It feels like it would be possible to go further. I know there are always longer races than the one you've just done, but I feel like adding more distance or ascent by running for example the Tor des Geants would not really bring anything significant. It's a bit like trying to run 13km when you know you can run 10km. I'm not saying I won't try longer races though, I'm just saying it will be more for the pleasure of the event than the challenge.

And finally, looking back, I'm still really surprised (and glad) how well it went given the extremely poor training regime I followed beforehand...

Ultra contented

(*) Yes, the average of 3 and 10 is 6.5. But assuming the same distance is covered uphill and downhill leads to an overall speed of v=2vuvd/(vu+vd), in our case 4.6.

Friday, September 3 2010

PTL 2010

There we are, a full PTL report, seasoned with a selection of live tweets by Leo and myself and pictures from Leo's camera. Tweets are formatted like this:

Julien | D-2 arrived in chamonix under the sun. nice view on the mont-blanc!

I hope you have time to read. The ascents are reported from the split time table and the split distances are taken from the most recent route description.

Before the race

In order to be more efficient at the drop bag points and on the move, we decided to pre-pack some mini-meals in resealable bags instead of taking bulk cheese, saucisson, and bread. We finished packing them in the hotel room, which could see up to 54 bags plus various bars lying around at some point... An external eye would probably have wondered what was going on. See the end of this article for more details.

Julien | H-27 packed 18 mini-meals: parmesan, saucisson, bread, nuts, snikers, chestnut spread


3 mini-meals = 1 full day

Whilst walking in Chamonix, we bumped into Susan and Rob, two great American ultrarunners who I already met at the inaugural Hardmoors 110 back in 2008. At the time, Rob had already run 530 ultramarathons... I'm not sure what's the count today, but I guess it must be over 600. They were both philosophical as I knew them, and Rob confirmed to me that life is a bit like an ultramarathon: you have to take it slowly to enjoy it and make the right decisions to be happy.

Julien | M-45 double espresso next to the starting line



Stage 1: Chamonix (France) - Rifugio Deffeyes (Italy)

Just as last year, the start was given on Tuesday at 22:00 on the Place du Triangle de l'Amitié in Chamonix (1035m). Whereas the "official" UTMB soundtrack is Vangelis - Conquest of Paradise, the PTL one's is The Last of the Mohicans. Just as last year too, the supporters definitely outnumbered the runners (74 teams).


Ready to go!

The first kilometres were no news to all UTMB runners, with the relatively flat way to Les Houches before the ascent to the Col de Voza (1653m). In order to delay a bit the more technical sections, the organisers added the ascents to the Chalets du Truc (1719m) and Tré-la-Tête (1970m) before reaching La Balme (1706m). It was really a pleasant start, with a beautiful full moon. A bit cold at times, though.
A few teams started to get a bit lost in the woods before La Balme. A recurrent issue all along the event!
The more serious business started with the Col d'Enclave (2672m), a slightly technical ascent in a boulder field, that was tackled by daylight this time. The sun started to warm us up at the Col, where a runner decided it was the perfect time to light up a cigar :)
Generally speaking, I was surprised not to feel too bad overnight as I usually do.

Julien | Sunrise at col enclave after lovely night with full moon :) feeling generally good but a bit tired


Sunrise and breakfast at Col d'Enclave

We then went all the the way down to Les Mottets (1870m) and up again for Col de l'Ouillon (2612m). So far so good. We got into a general rhythm, with Leo leading most of the way up, whereas I would typically go down first.

Julien | 5th summit of the "day" and 2nd above 2600m. sunny and great views

I might repeat myself (see the profile), but from there, we went down a long slightly downhill and boggy section before going up to the Col de Forclaz (2525m). Surprisingly enough, we then went down to the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard (2153m), where we entered Italy. This was also a checkpoint / rest area that was originally set up for the TDS, so we got a bit of free food and drinks and left relatively quickly in a hope to arrive early at the Refuge Deffeyes on the same night. We were the 25th team to check in there. At that point I realised I had got a bit sunburned, but couldn't do much about it.

Leo | Reached petit st bernard moving straight on to refuge to sleep only 2800m summit in between!

The ascent to Mont Valezan (2883m) was not difficult, and we were greeted at the summit by a great sunset on the Mont-Blanc chain. A strong cold wind dissuaded us to enjoy it for too long.

Julien | Mt valesan 2883m 7th and last high point of the day


Sunset at Mont Valezan.

From there, we went down a ridge that seemed endless, and then down a ski track that was anything but pleasant. But the worst was still to come. The navigation at the bottom of the Bella Comba valley was a real nightmare. Obviously, we were tired and eager to arrive and rest at the refuge, but this wouldn't be without fighting for it. First of all, the path was nearly non-existent at times. Secondly, the GPS was really struggling to acquire the satellites when we were in dense forests or nearby steep slopes. And because the reference track was obviously recorded by a GPS with similar shortcomings, the error could be doubled. As a result, it was not uncommon to progress apparently 30m away from the official route. Little by little, we learnt how to interpret the GPS readings, more as a relative motion rather than an absolute position. At each dodgy path junction, a few teams would gather and runners would scatter in all directions until someone had found what was assumed to be the correct route. On top of that, the route meandered so much that I got the impression we were going in circles. This section took us 2 hours longer than expected.
We finally arrived at the bottom of the dreaded final ascent to Rifugio Deffeyes (2509m). I remember this ascent in the fog and in a forest last year. I was quite surprised to realise with this year's clear sky that there was no such forest! We finally arrived at 1am after 27 hours non-stop, lucky to get a hot meal and went straight to bed for 5 hours.

Split: 27:00 hours | 86.1km | +6,186m | -4,725m
Overall: 27:00 hours | 86.1km | +6,186m | -4,725m

Stage 2: Rifugio Deffeyes (Italy) - Saint-Oyen (Italy)

We left the refuge just before 7am, to follow the moraine leading to the Pas de Panaval (3010m). This was actually the highest point we'd reach during the entire event, a fact unknown to us at the time, and due to the later alternative route around the Mont Rogneux.

Julien | Great sunrise at col planaval 3006m - yannick: 11 so far


Sunrise at Pas de Panaval.

Jean-Claude Marmier (event organiser) had attached a fixed rope for us to be safer on the relatively steep snow slope down the col. He actually had spent the night there to make sure we were not doing anything stupid... The way down to Morgex (923m) was really long and hot at first, with a problematic lack of drinkable water on the way. Leo was so desperate to get some that he finally tried to extract a few sips from a half-stagnant filthy "spring", located 50cm away from cow dung...
We got a bit lost at some point, and were not helped by the "jokes" introduced by the organisers in the route description English translation. For example:
070T Path junction to R in the direction of the Pervod ruins (on no account go to the right as this would involve a long detour to reach Morgex).
Should we go to the right, then... or maybe not?
We finally reached Morgex, where we ate a welcome plate of lasagna for lunch and had access to our drop bags. I asked where to find a pharmacy (to buy sunscreen), but because it was too complicated/too far, Mimmo, the local organiser, offered me to give me a lift in his car, which I refused as I didn't want to use any other means of transportation, even if it was to go back to the same place eventually. It was hard to battle against an Italian. When he discovered I only wanted sunscreen, he then took his car to buy me some, and then refused my money in exchange! So a very big thank you Mimmo! It shows a lot of the volunteer's dedication on the route.

Julien | Leaving morgex after lasagna. so far so good

Leo | Top of col fetita moon rising feeling ok heading st oyen looks like tent

We then left for the Col Fetita (2557m), where the night fell, then made our way to the Col de Citrin (2484m), followed by the long way down to Saint-Oyen (1365m). This is one of the slightly boring part of the PTL: there were a few long ways down on forest tracks / roads to reach villages, whereas I would prefer to stay a bit higher up.
Unfortunately, the partner hotel was not open that late in the night (1:30am as far as I remember), so we resolved to bivouac above the village. Leo's Terra Nova Laser Photon might be the world's lightest tent (700g), but it's also quite "cosy" to sleep two... We couldn't move, and I couldn't even fully extend my legs, so I went out of the tent after an hour. After too few hours spent in a generally horizontal position, we decided to carry on.

Leo | Tucked up snug in the worlds lightest, and smallest 2 man tent up in 4 hours

Split: 18:30 hours | 50.6km | +3,050m | -4,160m
Overall: 51:30 hours | 136.7km | +9,236m | -8,885m

Stage 3: Saint-Oyen (Italy) - Bourg Saint-Pierre (Switzerland)

We got "awaken" by a text message from the UTMB organiser for all runners scheduled the same day on the UTMB, TDS and CCC. It was a warning that the weather was not looking good and therefore runners should be equipped correctly. We've heard later that masses of runners bought waterproof jackets at the last minute in Chamonix... We left at about 6am after little rest, for what was to be a short but intense day.

Leo | Not a good nights sleep off we go

We first started with the Col de Barasson (2681m), where we entered Switzerland and where the clouds started to gather. We then had a welcomed early lunch at a restaurant at Col du Grand Saint-Bernard (2469m). They were nice enough to serve us the meal of the day at 10am.


Bad weather gathering at Col de Barasson.

Julien | Early lunch at col grd st bernard. after the sun in italy, the wind and rain in switzerland...

We didn't realise at the time that we went to Saint-Bernard's "restaurant" instead of its "hospice", where a PTL checkpoint was manned and where we would probably have been advised to skip the Pointe de Drône and go straight down to Bourg Saint-Pierre due to the "inclement" weather. Indeed, it was raining quite hard when we started to ascent to the Pointe de Drône (2949m) under the unbelieving eyes of the tourists arrived there by bus. It was only to get worse later, as the wind picked up when we were crossing a section equipped with ladders and chains. It was effectively a via ferrata, as a cable was running along in case you felt the need to be better protected. The wind was particularly bothering, as it flew our ponchos in front of our faces, so we couldn't see were to move our hands and feet...


Via ferrata to Pointe de Drône under wind and rain - we didn't bother much longer with the camera.

We finally reached down the Lacs de Fenêtre (2456m), after following down a hairy ridge. We then went up the Pointe des Gros Six (2873m) under a very strong wind.

Leo | Col de neve de rouse something blowing a gale sunny drowned earlier

As we approached Bourg Saint-Pierre, we noticed a few teams around us, and started to wonder in the back of our minds where they could be coming from as we had been pretty much alone for the last 6 hours. The answer was given to us at Bourg Saint-Pierre (1632m), 19:30. Teams stopping at the Grand Saint-Bernard hospice had been told to follow an alternative route directly down to Bourg Saint-Pierre, avoiding the bad weather at the Pointe de Drône and the Pointe des Gros Six! At that point, we also learnt about a further route modification ahead: we were to shortcut the way up to the Col de Lâne and the Mont Rogneux, as only the 2 first teams went through, and the third one renounced after judging the conditions "dantesque". That's also when we learnt that the UTMB was cancelled.

Leo | Just arrived bourg st Pierre route changes due to weather

Julien | Today was epic in bad weather on the ridge... We didn't know we could shortcut

We had a very good meal at Hotel du Crêt and proceeded to try to sleep. Because we were one of the last team which had gone through the Pointe de Drône, many teams had caught up with us via the alternative route, and the official checkpoint was really packed with runners. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to secure a place in the dorm, but sleeping was not easy, as it was hot, humid, smelly, noisy and some lights went on and off. As I was trying to sleep, I overheard conversation between a runner and a volunteer:
Runner: But that's completely full!
Volunteer: Well, yes, some people are sleeping longer than expected...
R: There are 200 runners expected here and that's all you have?
V: I'm only a volunteer, I can't change anything about it.
R: But where am I going to sleep then?
V: Well, tent and sleeping bag I guess...
R: What tent and sleeping bag?
V: The ones you have.
R: What do you mean?
V: You must have a tent with you, don't you?
R: (ironic) Oh, really, so now we need to carry a tent?
V: Well, that's in the regulations...
R: What regulations?
V: It's in the compulsory gear list: you must carry a tent!
R: OK, let's not discuss the regulations now.
Julien: ZZZzzzz......

Split: 13:30 hours | 30.6km | +2,528m | -2,285m
Overall: 69:30 hours | 167.2km | +11,781m | -11,170m

Stage 4: Bourg Saint-Pierre (Switzerland) - Chamonix (France)

Leo and I eventually decided to leave once more before the alarm clock went off, on Saturday at about 1:30am, with a bit of hope to finish the same day.

Julien | Leaving bourg st pierre. just heard utmb cancelled because weather. What a shock!

We left under the rain with a few other teams, followed the advised alternative route directly to the Cabane des Mille (2472m), where we stopped for a hot chocolate. A posteriori, I think it would have been safe and possible to go through the Col de Lâne and the Mont Rogneux that night. The weather had calmed down, and we had a fair amount of time ahead of us.
At that point, I started to suffer a bit from the sleep deprivation, as for example my brain was sometimes not motion-compensating my vision. That means that I would see something similar to a hand-held video recorded by someone running. Also, instead of getting an adrenaline rush that would wake me up when I was tripping, I would at the opposite fall into some half-dreaming state for a fraction of second... Weird.

Leo | Cabine de Mille 0500 hot chocolate followed by descent to low point and oxygen

We then went all the way down to Orcières (910m), the lowest point on route, where we bought some croissants for breakfast. If we had done the Mont Rogneux, we would have gone from the highest point to the lowest in one stretch.

Leo | In osiers plenty of oxygen at 800m pity we now have to climb to 2700m but lunch on the way

Easy ascent to Champex-Lac (1466m), where we got an early lunch at the UTMB food station (relatively quiet at the time, as we arrived in between the CCC and the re-routed UTMB).

Julien | Lunch at Champex, 200km. getting ready for the final push. starts getting hard to carry on at times

We then headed towards the Fenêtre d'Arpette (2665m) in the wind, rain, hail, and fog. It was freezing up there, with some ice crystals forming on our clothes. I'm really glad I took a proper Gore-Tex jacket, rather than a so-called waterproof running jacket.

Leo | At top of la fenetra d'arpette great name now look at your fridge that's the view look in it and that's what's coming down, ice


Wind, rain and fog at Fenêtre d'Arpette.

I was feeling quite good that day, and when we reached the Chalets du Glacier (1583m), I couldn't resist to have a try at climbing a nearby boulder :)


Spending a bit of spare energy after 212km.

A good surprise (to us) at the Col de Balme (2202m): there was a refuge serving hot meals. We decided to get diner there before the last push to Chamonix. The refuge looked like it hadn't changed for the last 50 years, with a lot of hand-written signs telling you what you're not allowed to do and quite a few props you would buy at an antique fair. It seemed that most teams had decided to rest before leaving, so we only saw one team for the remaining 7 hours.

Leo | Col de la balm heading into the night hopefully to finish early sun am we'll see

As we passed the border and entered France again, the fog started to dissipate and the view cleared up. I won't say that we had bad weather only in Switzerland... On the way down to Tré-le-Champ (1417m), we were offered a stunning view of the Mont-Blanc by moonlight. Trying to stay awake on that section, we ended up talking non-sense for quite a while, sharing the (mild) hallucinations we had. We also calculated the probability of picking a slug with our walking poles. I just remember that the final result was 1/4000 per step. We then attacked the (fun) section up the ladders through the cliffs of the Chéserys. Leo reckoned it was probably a good think we did it by night, as we couldn't see how far down we could potentially fall...


Up the ladders to La Tête aux Vents.

We were so tired and so used to walk with poles for the last 4 days, that when we arrived at the top of the ladders with the poles packed away in the bags, we could barely balanced ourselves on two legs only :)
Reaching La Tête aux Vents (2130m), we were both in high spirits: we only had 10km downhill to go via La Flégère (1860m), following the UTMB route, which was obviously easier than the PTL. Well, it didn't quite go that way. First of all, we were constantly overtaken by the UTMB runners, and had to pull aside every time. Everything started to be painful. We then entered the forest and went down a relatively bad path (roots and stones) in a dense fog. It was a bit of a nightmare. But we eventually made it back to Chamonix (1035m) at 3:30am, to collect our finisher jacket!

Leo | Chamonix 0333 Sunday am time for bed


Mission accomplished for Two Chameleons!

Jon (Hardmoors organiser) recognised my Hardmoors Buff and was completely ecstatic to see us there. He immediately called Mike M., who was really happy to be woken up at 4am and have a chat with us :) . The full results (PDF) are available online, but some dates are incorrect at the moment (ours in particular).


Showing off finisher jackets after a bit of sleep (not too much apparently).

Split (1): 26:00 hours | 71.5km | +6,079m | -6,690m
Overall (1): 101:30 hours | 238.7km | +17,860m | -17,860m

Post-race

After a bit of sleep on the UTMB camp beds (at least for Leo, I couldn't sleep much for some reason), we managed to find a hotel room surprisingly quickly (maybe because lots of disappointed UTMB runners had left earlier than expected), with a balcony and view on the Mont-Blanc. After a decent lunch, we went to the PTL ceremony, where we got our highly sought after PTL cow bells :)


The PTL 2010 cow bell.

With thousands of runners walking around Chamonix with jackets reading "Finisher CCC", "Finisher UTMB" or "Finisher PTL", you could see people trying to get which category you'd belong to. Being PTL finishers definitely dragged a bit more attention.

Timing

I'm rather happy with our timing, summarised here:
DayTimeDistanceAscentDescent


kmmm
Wed27:0086.1+6,186-4,725
Rest06:00


Thu18:3050.6+3,050-4,160
Rest04:30


Fri13:3030.6+2,528-2,285
Rest06:00


Sat (1)26:0071.5+6,079-6,690
We never felt threatened by the time limit. We spend 85 hours on the move (80 hours removing the 1-hour stops), and 16:30 in main stopovers, of which about 12 to 13 were spend sleeping or trying to.

UTMB/PTL: same weather, different atmosphere...

It's rather interesting to note the difference between the organiser's response to the bad weather and its perception by the runners on the UTMB and on the PTL. The response to the bad weather on the PTL was much more flexible, as there are less runners and they are expected to go through rougher terrain/weather anyway. So it's just a matter of small alterations to the original route on the way. And everyone deals with it. Result: the only happy people on the UTMB forum seem to be the PTL runners.
Given the number of runners on the UTMB, their potential lack of equipment and experience, the organisers couldn't deal with it the same way. They had to stop the race, because even if most runners would go through, statistically something tragic was bound to happen. The UTMB forum is now as active as ever, with debates on whether the race should have been stopped, restarted, the lack of communication, the qualification points, the entry fee, the shuttle bus fee, the photography cost, the finisher jackets, ...
I'm glad I was on the PTL :D

Recovering and moving on

I've only suffered superficial injuries: sunburns, blisters, and scratches. Nothing too serious on the musculotendinous front, neither on the vital organs. I didn't take any medicine either during or after the event, aside from two rehydration sachets (salt and minerals). My right toes still feel a bit numb, though, I hope this is going to get back to normal soon.
A few people mentioned to me there were other similar races out there, like the Tor des Géants (336km +/-24,000m), that Mark is taking on in about a week.

Nutrition

We've tried to be opportunistic and to make the most of places offering food on the way: refuges, UTMB food stations, restaurants, hotels, tea rooms, ... In total we had prepared 9 pre-packed 5-course mini-meals for each of us: 3 in the bag and 6 to be picked up from the drop bag. Each meal comprised (approx.):
"Course" WeightEnergyE/W ratio

gKCalKCal/g
Mixed cashews and peanuts50 3006.0
Parmesan + saucisson 50+50 4004.0
Rye and Soreen bread 50+30 2002.5
Chestnut spread 85 2102.5
Snikers 57 2704.7
Total 37213803.7


Equiment list

Hereafter the equipment we carried along. I'm pretty happy about it, at the obvious exception of the missing suncreen and water disinfection tablets.

Clothing
ShoesInov8 Flyroc
PantsM&S (2)
SocksKalenji run 900 (+ 1 spare)
ShortsRaidlight/Ufo
Breathable T-shirtTNF UTMB 2005
2 Breathable long-sleeve T-shirtsTNF Flight Series + Icebreaker
Long sleeve polar fleeceTNF TKA
Waterproof jacketMillet Gore-Tex
PonchoForclaz 300 light
Long tightsDomyos
Sunglasses
Gloves
Hat
BuffHardmoors 110
 
Sleeping
TentTerra Nova Laser Photon Elite
Sleeping bagQuechua Ultralight S10
 
Navigation
Compass
Altimeterin Leo's GPS
Pocket knife
Road-Bookself-printed
GPS + trackGarmin GPSmap 60
 
Other equipment
PolesLeki Makalu Tour
BackpackOMM Classic Marathon 25L
Water 1L min2L bladder + 1L bottle
2 head torchesPetzl Tikka+ & Petzl Myo XP
Spare batteries
Survival blanket
WhistleOn bag
WatchPolar RS100
Mobile phone
First aid kitElastoplaste, paracetamol, ibuprofen, Compeeds, Coalgan, plasters
Form of ID
Anti-chaffingVaseline + NOK
French and British flags on string
Tissues
Cash150 euros
 
Drop bag
Spare water tank
Clothes: 1 full set + 1 set of underwear
Spare batteries
Spare road book

Ultra hike

(1) Reduced a bit by the Mont Rogneux alternative route.
(2) Precision required by Bastien.

Tuesday, August 31 2010

101 hours later...

This is just a quick update to let you know that Leo and I finished the PTL in relatively good condition after about 101 hours 33 minutes (and 31 wee stops for myself). The first two days (Italy) were really hot and sunny and I suffered from sunburn - the water was scarce at times. The last 2 days (Switzerland) were run in bad weather, very cold, windy and rainy. The organisers had prepared two alternative routes for that purpose, but we learnt too late about the first one, and only short-cuted the Mont Rogneux in the end. We slept about 5 hours at the Refuge Deffeyes, 3 hours in the tent near Saint Oyen and another 4 hours in a dorm in Bourg Saint Pierre. Aside the physical challenge, orienteering was amongst the challenging aspects of this event.

Full report and pictures to follow.

Ultra tired at the end

Friday, August 20 2010

PTL traces on GoogleEarth/GoogleMap

For those interested, I've put together the traces of the 2009 (in blue) and 2010 (in red) PTL route in a single KMZ file. It can be viewed with GoogleEarth or directly on GoogleMaps. A few common key milestones (Chamonix, Col d'Enclave, Col du Petit St-Bernard, Ref. Deffeyes, Morgex, Col d'Arpalle, Fenêtre d'Arpette), but otherwise two very different routes.

Ultra traces

Tuesday, August 17 2010

One week before the PTL

In one week exactly, at 22:00 Chamonix time, Leo and I will attempt the PTL for the second time, as team "Two Chameleons". Teams of two runners are allowed this year and our race number will be 72. It should be possible to follow us on GoogleEarth/GoogleMaps, and I'll probably post a few updates on twitter.com/TwoChameleons. This year the loop will be 240km long for 18,000m of ascent.

Quite a few COs are also running the UTMB this year: Jon, Mike, Borkur, and Jez. Hopefully I won't be able to see them departing on Friday night like last year... So I wish them all the best now!

Ultra nearly ready...

Tuesday, October 20 2009

Post-PTL thoughts

I haven't got too much else to add other than I really want to try it again! It seems like an amazing adventure. But a well-bonded team must be built beforehand. There is already too much uncertainty in the finishing equation, we can't afford to add some more. I certainly don't want to go there and risk a frustrating DNF again. So maybe in 2010 with Leo, although it seems quite late already to find a third runner. Maybe in 2011 with Jon?

Reading some blog reports, it appears that runners among the fastest teams, such as Occitanie Sport Adventure osa and Mord'fin, used a rope to pull each other in the ascents. Or more precisely the strongest climber pulled the weakest one. I'm wondering whether we should consider that in the future as well.

Great pictures from Sven's Finnish adoptive team mate here. Subjective first person video of one of the fastest team, the Belgian "Esneutois Célestes" here. It gives you an idea how the start feels like :) .

The official results are out. The fastest team finished in 86 hours 25 minutes and the slowest in 113 hours 55 minutes, with an average time of 105 hours 02 minutes for complete teams. There are some mistakes (for example Sven finished with the "2 be 3" team just under 102 hours and is reported to have finished in 109 hours). There is a half-surprise as well: a team got disqualified (search 'PTL' in the UTMB forum for more details).
Although it was supposed to be run in teams, it was messy in practice. Some runners withdrew, leaving two runners carry on. Some individual runners joined other teams after their two team mates dropped out (such as Sven). Even weirder, a runner finished without his otherwise finishing team (the 3rd runner of Sven adoptive team). Moreover, some teams finished a partial the loop using sections of the UTMB. A table to summarise all that:

full team2 runners1 runneroverall
full loop 1912652.7%
partial loop 8 3219.4%
disqualified 1

Post-race interview available on Wanarun.

Ultra post-race thoughts.

Wednesday, September 23 2009

PTL equipment list

I thought it might be of interest to give away the list of equipment we used during the PTL. As mentioned earlier, I would add a bottle and a poncho.

Item Details


Clothing
Shoes Inov8 Flyroc
Pants M&S
Socks Kalenji run 900
Shorts
Breathable T-shirt TNF UTMB 2005
2 Breathable long-sleeve T-shirts TNF Flight Series + Icebreaker
Long sleeve polar fleece Red TNF
Waterproof jacket Millet GoreTex
Long tights* Domyos
Sunglasses*
Gloves*
Hat*
Mini-gaiters Raidlight
Buff Hardmoors 110


Sleeping
Bothy bag LifeSystems 4-6
Sleeping bag Quechua Ultralight S10


Food
Water 2L bladder
Tuc, nuts
Rye bread, saussison, cheese
Chestnut spread, cereal bars


Navigation
Compass
Altimeter in GPS
Pocket knife
Road-Book self-printed on tough paper
GPS + track Garmin eTrex Vista Cx


Equipment
Poles Leki Makalu Tour
Backpack OMM Classic Marathon 25L
2 head torches Petzl Tikka+ / Myo XP
Spare batteries
Survival blanket*
Whistle* on bag
Watch Polar RS100
Mobile phone
Digital camera (Sven)
First aid kit paracetmol*, ibuprofen, Coalgan*, Steri-Strip*,
plasters*, Compeeds*, Elastoplaste
Form of ID*
Vaseline
Piece of string* (Leo)
Tissues
Cash 150 euros


The stars * denote the items that have not been used.

Ultra gear

Tuesday, September 1 2009

PTL 2009 (attempt)

Last week I've attempted La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) along with Leo and Sven, forming The Chameleons, team 39. 245km and 21,500m ascent in less than 114 hours. It's a team event with very little support and no ranking. This story obviously only reflects my own point of view and might differ from other members'. Furthermore, I've deliberately omitted a few details related to the team dynamics.
In order to make the story a bit more lively, I've embedded the tweets (*) I've posted during the race straight into the text like this (in a slightly modified order, with original spelling mistakes):

arrived in chamonix. sunny and 28 degrees. mont-blanc looks good :)

A lower-key event

As compared to the UTMB, the PTL is a very low-key event. It's meant to be a more friendly and runners are more free. The rules are very flexible, and it was even suggested to book a 5-star hotel on the way if we wanted to. It's more a very fast hike rather than a run, where a bunch of kids have been left on the loose in the great outdoors :) . Quite funny to see the difference with the UTMB, organised by the same team.

chilling out before the briefing...

The atmosphere during the pre-race briefing was nice, you could ask information on the route directly to the organisers (Jean-Claude Marmier and Michel Poletti), which is pretty cool. There were minor last minute changes on the route, and we learnt that there was eventually no need to take pictures as evidence of walking as a team.

Night start

I was surprised to see a lot of people for the PTL start at 10pm on Tuesday, including Jon, CO and Hardmoors 110 organiser. The supporters certainly outnumbered the runners by a long way! The atmosphere was rather pleasant, much less stressed than on the UTMB start.

on the starting line. it's gonna be legendary!

We started way too fast, cruising at UTMB speed, and the organisers admitted later they were a bit scared by that. Then most teams became more reasonable and slowed down. Very quickly the rain started falling as expected, and kept on pouring until 2am "only" (we expected 2 more wet hours). It was quite funny to see groups of 3 lights moving up La Balme instead of the continuous snake of lights during the UTMB.

steady pain until 2am.felt quite sleepy until a nice technical scramble

i meant steady rain!

Immediately after leaving the regular UTMB path at La Balme, we got a taste of what the PTL is all about on the ascent to the Col d'Enclave: nice scramble up, where it would be difficult to progress without helping oneself with hands (and you know how I hate using hands when hiking/running). Sven felt a bit weak at the Col Enclave, looking pale, hypoglycemia probably, but soon recovered. I reckon I was not efficient uphill that day either as soon as we were above 2500m.

Wednesday

The day was generally cloudy, with a bit more sun in the evening. The route was much more demanding than the UTMB one (and apparently more demanding than last year's PTL too). It's often off path, a little bit of scramble or steep scree here and there, technical boulder fields, river crossings, ... All great fun! GPS trace is compulsory for fast progression. There aren't many flat sections, and some places seem to be little known.
Because of the previous night out running, I often felt sleepy for short periods of time, but nothing too bad. A food point was manned at the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, where we got a bit of hot food for the first time since the start.

just got some hot soup. doing well. spirit is high. might push to morgex tonight

In the evening, an endless boulder field with no path led us the the amazing Bellecombe valley in which lies a superb turquoise lake. Then the mist fell down along with the night, and the ascent to refuge Deffeyes was rather not pleasant. All we could see were three gloomy lights following us at a distance. Anyway, we arrived there at 9:46pm, exactly as planned, got a hot meal and bed.

slept at refuge deffeyes. yesterday was tough with lots of boulder fields. generally ok

Thursday

We left "late" at 4:30am, behind schedule and forgot to plug in the battery pack to the GPS beacon that morning. So we were not tracked until late in the morning, but believe us, we went down on foot! As we woke up, the mist had gone and the stars were shining. The whole day was very sunny, and I got a bit of a sunburn. We got lost on the boulder field down to Morgex, but nothing too serious. Spare bags and a bit of hot food at Morgex made us good. At that point, Sven started to be stressed by time, despite being in the top 15.

leaving morgex behind schedule. bodies and minds tired but fine

We then climbed up 2100m (in the heat) in one go up to Tricony, catching up time, despite Sven's knees that started playing up with a tendonitis. I have to say that I felt physically great on that day. Great view on the Mont-Blanc chain from the Italian side.

just finished a 2100m ascent :) feeling strong. slowly catching up with schedule

Then we slowly went back down to the refuge Bonatti and joined the UTMB path. At that point, things started to get wrong with the team. To put it simply, Leo was not as fast as Sven expected and the latter went increasingly nervous about the time limits. That's only when I realised we hadn't had enough team bonding activities. After a heated argument, it was decided to eat at the restaurant and to sleep in Arnuva, in the UTMB food point marquee, instead of refuge Elena as previously planned. We thought the restaurant bill would be a good omen for team 39:

bill 39


Team spirit

arnuva. still feeling great :D , still late. must work on team management skills :(

My main mistake with the PTL adventure is how I've overlooked the team aspect of the event. I naively thought that if 3 runners say they just want to finish the loop in time it's going to be OK during the race. Wrong! Things are much more subtle than that. I think I was the only one in the team truly believing in that. As a "principal investigator", I failed to manage a team with diametrically opposed expectations and abilities. When I realised things were going pear-shaped, it was a bit too late. During the descent to Bonatti, I thought about enforcing 3 rules to help the team going, but never actually disclosed them:
  1. We started as a team, we'll finish as a team (the only exception being serious injury).
  2. The official language of team Chameleons is English.
  3. I will have the last word in all decisions (though, we must discuss thoroughly all strategic options).
The reason why it took me so long to react is that I believed we would go as 3 equal runners, whereas I was implicitly considered as a team leader by the others. That became clearer when I started to play the buffer between Sven and Leo. Sven admitted later that I should have been giving indications rather than advice. He was definitely right.

The disaster

We got up at 2am and started ascending the Col du Ban Darray. On a scree slope just under the col (which is pronounced like "banc d'arrêt", ie. "stop bench"), passed half-way at about 128km on the route, my kidneys started to be a bit painful. I can go through a lot more pain if it's muscular or in the tendons, but I reckon I was afraid of the consequences of a kidney failure in a remote alpine area. The first thing I thought about was to stop and lie down there for an hour. That would have been actually the best solution. That's exactly what I should have done.
Unfortunately, as part of a team, things were not that simple. Sven was persuaded that we couldn't waste time and encouraged me to carry on, whereas Leo was more reasonnable and pushed me to come down if things were not feeling right. Earlier in the event, I was bridging the gap between Sven and Leo but as soon as I got my own problem, this fragile balance collapsed. I was torn between my interest and the team's. The decision had to be taken quickly in order to avoid time waste, and I took the wrong one. It's a beginner's mistake to take decisions so quickly in ultra. I decided to go back down on my own to leave Leo and Sven a chance. Despite my insistence, Leo decided to go back down with me, breaking the so-far unrevealed team rule #1. Sven carried on with an Italian team.

going down to arnwva after mild kidney pain :(( sven carries on

I was terribly disappointed I had to go down. I also felt very bad for Leo who went down with me. I was not only responsible for one, but for two drops out... It was weird to see the other teams climbing up as we walked down to Arnuva, where we hitch-hiked to Courmayeur.

back to arnuva. feel better. shouldn't rush this decision but had to for the team to take their own one

Same feeling looking at the runners kitting up for the CCC in Courmayeur, fresh and eager to go when I'm stopping. And again later in Cham' with the UTMB. For the first time I lived the start of the UTMB as a supporter. Jon looked rather happy :) . Definitely worth it if you're in the region at the end of August!

back in chamonix. race doctor said it doesn't look too serious. wish i was back up there...

I recovered quickly and started to wonder whether I had been soft on this decision. I felt physically very good otherwise, I think I could have made it to the finish line. I bitterly regret I didn't take a one-hour pause up there. I should been a bit more selfish and have used rule #3 and taken the pause. After all, we had all waited for Leo and Sven already in the past... I wish I had taken a wiser decision. At least this allowed Sven to finish early, and with a team he appreciated more. Given his generalised tendinitis spread over his entire legs, it's an amazing achievement! Leo and I came back to Chamonix on Saturday night to see him finishing. He didn't look too bad. Congratulations!

sven just finished. congratulations!

Equipment

One thing I'm totally happy with is the gear selection we made (full list). As previously mentionned, the OMM Classic Marathon 25L backpack was a very good choice for the purpose (thanks to Leo). It's fairly waterproof, it features lots of accessible pockets/nettings for cereal bars and chestnut spread pouches, or even wet clothing, and the integrated half-length sleeping mat (Duomat) actually makes a big difference when sleeping on wet grass, despite its very thin design (5mm).
I might add two things to my gear list. I would probably go for a poncho on top of the jacket to protect the bag. I might also take a bottle in one of the netting, as they're much easier to refill on the move.
After finishing, I noticed a massive 5cm-long crack in the sole of my beloved Flyroc shoes. RIP.
The GPS (with the official track and significant waypoints) is definitely required to progress by night unless you're a navigation genius or have recce'd the whole route beforehand.

Thoughts

I should obviously drink more! During the night at Arnuva I was too cold to bother getting up for water. Big mistake! That's probably why my kidneys were not too happy with me...
I think I could have made it back to Chamonix the noble way. And the whole team too. Maybe not in 102 hours like Sven with his adoptive team the "2 be 3", but we could probably have managed something in about 110 hours, as originally planned. After all, we were placed around 12th when I decided to stop, and at least 18 teams finished. As for the team, I think more training all together was necessary to get to know each other better, and all potentially problematic situations should have been discussed beforehand. That way the decisions wouldn't need to be taken in a cold wind at 3am on a scree slope at 2500m, because everything would have been carefully thought in advance.
I feel mentally stronger after this aborted event. This mainly is due to the multi-day nature (although truncated) of the event. You can't just take it as a one-off push to the finish line. You need to think ahead, and be ready to take longer term decisions, you can't simply focus on finishing. It's rather strategic: where to sleep in order to avoid the technical sections by night? How much to sleep to keep efficient without wasting time? The team dynamics also taught me quite a bit on myself.
With Twitter and GoogleEarth, a one-way communication between you and me was established. It's strange to think that people are following exactly where I am when up there... I'm not sure I would like to have real-time feedback, though. What do you think about the experience as a follower?

a big THANK YOU to all of you for the support messages. i'm physically fine, but terribly disappointed

So I guess, I'll try next year, with more team training (and more training in general)... Who knows, it might even be harder!

Ultra disappointed

(*) Originally on chameleons39, renamed for 2010.

Saturday, August 22 2009

PTL live

You'll be able to follow us live by two means.

1. Google Earth
Our GPS position will be updated automatically every 15 minutes via a mobile phone. Check the embedded GoogleEarth version if you are using Windows/Mac and willing to install the plugin, or the standalone GoogleEarth version if you are using an alternative OS. Again, we're The Chameleons, team 39.

2. Twitter
A last minute idea from "the last supper" yesterday. I might send updates from my mobile during the race on http://twitter.com/chameleons39 (*). Don't take it for granted, though. I might not be able to get connection, or simply can't be bothered. But I though it would be nice to update you on our highs and lows as well as the weather and the awesome scenery.

We might only be a mere 60 teams in the middle of a huge mountain range, we won't feel too lonely...

Ultra connected race.

(*) Originally on chameleons39, renamed for 2010.

Friday, August 21 2009

39

That's it, tomorrow the Chameleons are making their way to Chamonix...

We all feel a bit anxious. Not only because it's going to be the longest race we've ever attempted in terms of distance (245km), ascent (21,950m), and time (114hours max), but also because our preparation hasn't been optimal to say the least. The ascent (and descent) is particularly worrying me. Most of my winter and spring has been spent writing up my PhD thesis, which left me with little time for training and a lot of sleeping debt (Leo will argue there isn't such a thing :) ). On top of that, my Achilles tendon wasn't very nice with me the last couple of months. I'm also a bit concerned by tricky off-path navigation during the night.

But let's keep positive, I've been hiking in the Alps. After 3 days of "conditioning", I walked about 80km (+4000m, -5000m) over two days with a relatively heavy hiking backpack over slightly technical terrain. I managed pretty fast ascents and I'm still able to push downhill. So that's not all that bad.

We'll take it easy, as a nice mountain journey, enjoy the views, try to stick to the time limit and make it back all together to Chamonix...

You should be able to follow us on the UTMB website later on. They'll provide a link to a really cool GoogleEarth live team tracking. Every 15 minutes, mobile phone coverage permitting, a GPS position update will be sent automatically. We're The Chameleons, bib number 39. You can already check out the route here. This might go without saying, but this will give you the latest position sent by the team GPS, not my actual current position. I might not carry the GPS myself. Got what I mean?

Ultra ascent challenge

EDIT: I just noticed that 39 is 3 times 13. So if I was superstitious I would say that's one good luck for each of us :)

Friday, August 7 2009

Interview on Wanarun

I've been interviewed (in French) by Mathieu at Wanarun about ultrarunning and my feelings before the PTL.

Ultra blog

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