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Thursday, June 23 2011

It's all about water

On Saturday, I ran my last long training session, a nice 64km on the Thames Path. Despite my muscles being relatively tired, the pace was adequate, and most importantly, I felt generally strong.

I was greeted by a rather powerful thundery shower from the start, leaving me soaked for the remaining 6 hours. To make sure I didn't dry up on my way back, a spring tide forced me to run in the overflowing Thames.

It was also an opportunity to test the MSR SweetWater filter in real conditions. It took me about 10 minutes to filter 2.75L of water, including unpacking, setting up, and repacking. In terms of taste, let's face it, it's like drinking from a swimming pool, but it's reassuring in a way. I hadn't intended to use my water bladder, but the provided filter adapter just happens to fit well on it, and the refilling worked pretty well. In the light of this experiment, I've decided to take a water bladder and a bottle (for various additives such as rehydration sachets) on the TSQ. With 3L of water, I can run up to 4 hours if it's hot, and more during the night. I guess it's a matter of trading off between the the time to filter, and the water weight to be carried.

All in all, the water element was rather keen on communing, with or without my consent, which is a good omen.

Now, it's relative rest, increased nutrition and hydration for the next 7 days.

Ultra water power

Wednesday, June 1 2011

MSR SweetWater Purifier

I have finally decided to buy an MSR SweetWater purifier, hoping to increase my water consumption on the run. Indeed, the all-in-one bottles previously tested involve squeezing and sucking hard on the bottle, which has been proven rather irritating after a while. With a pump-based system, once the water has been purified and transferred into a regular container, drinking should be effortless.

The MSR SweetWater Purifier works in four stages:
  • Stainless steel prefilter to avoid clogging by larger particles
  • Silica depth microfilter against protozoa and bacteria
  • Activated carbon against chemicals (and foul taste)
  • Sodium Hypochlorite (ie. bleach) against viruses (and any filter-dodging bacteria)
MSR SweetWater Purifier
MSR SweetWater Purifier

As you can see from the picture, it is more fiddly than the all-in-one bottles. At 400g, it is significantly heavier too. The water is pumped mechanically through the prefilter and the intake hose, then passes through the main microfilter/carbon and gets out into another hose which can be connected to a container. Sodium Hypochlorite is added later, with a 5 minutes dwell time. If there wasn't a need for chemical addition, I would definitely try to hook up permanently the output hose onto a hydration bladder. In this case, I wouldn't even need to take off the bag to pump water in. But how can I easily add the bleach? I was thinking to use a syringe/needle, but all that gets very fiddly. Suggestions welcome!

As for the speed, I managed to filter tab water at 1.5L/min, but it'll be slower with more turbid water. After bleaching, the water didn't taste much of chlorine, which is definitely a big bonus.

Ultra pump

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


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.


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

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


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.


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




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.


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

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.

ShoesInov8 Flyroc
PantsM&S (2)
SocksKalenji run 900 (+ 1 spare)
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
BuffHardmoors 110
TentTerra Nova Laser Photon Elite
Sleeping bagQuechua Ultralight S10
Altimeterin Leo's GPS
Pocket knife
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
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.

Friday, July 16 2010

TSQ equipment and food list

This is the exhaustive equipment and food list I have carried with me on my Thames Source Quest attempt.

  • shorts (Raidlight/Ufo)
  • T-shirt (Hardmoors 55)
  • socks, underwear
  • shoes (Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra)
  • Buff (Hardmoors 110)
  • spare long sleeve T-shirt (Millet)
  • backpack (OMM Classic Marathon 25L)
  • purification bottle (Aquapure Traveller)
  • 45 route cards
  • time table + small pen
  • first aid:
    • Compeed
    • Ibuprofen
    • Paracetamol
    • 2 disinfectant wipes
    • 2 rehydration sachets
    • 2 Coalgant
    • Vaseline
  • head torch
  • hand disinfectant
  • survival bag
  • whistle (on the bag)
  • tissues
  • mobile phone
  • Muvi Atom camcorder
  • ID
I'm pretty happy with this equipment list.


Item Q.KCal/ug/uKCalg
SiS GO gel 10 90 70 900 700
Creme de marrons 4 200 85 800 340
Elevenses 4 204 50 816 200
Snikers 10 296 58 2,960 580
Bounty 5 268 57 1,340 285
Tuc 2 783150 1,566 300
mini Babybel 12 61 20 732 240
hazelnuts 2,000 300
rye bread 2 985500 1,9701,000
Total 13,0843,945

Plus 4x750ml water bottles for the non-tidal Thames section.

In the event of a further attempt, I might take a bit less food. Indeed, the bag was rather heavy and I don't think I would have eaten it all. For example if I just remove 5 gels, one creme de marrons and one rye bread, I would end up with about 3kg and still 11,500Kcal, increasing the overall energetic density from 3.32 to 3.8KCal/g.

Ultra food.

Tuesday, April 20 2010

Hiking boots vs trail running shoes

I've been hill-walking and hiking as far as I can remember, and have been wearing hiking boots for that purpose (nearly) as far as I can remember too. It's always been quite obvious to me: on rough, unstable terrain, you need good ankle support and decent grip. I would believe people hiking in trainers to be unaware of the risks and rather foolish.

But things started to change in my mind after my first UTMB in 2005. Indeed, I came to realise that I had actually covered the entire length of a long-distance alpine hiking path wearing trail running shoes, whereas I would have never hiked it in trainers. The fact I was running as opposed to hiking doesn't change anything to the risks associated with wearing inappropriate footwear. If anything, it's even worse as you go faster, by night and sometimes in extreme fatigue. And what about fell-running on the PTL or in North Wales? Was that foolish? Probably not, it's just a matter of knowing how to use the ground in the mountains: fell running shoes' grip is as good as most hiking boots, and if you're careful on foot placement, there's little risk of injury.

On the other extreme, I saw loads of people wearing hiking boots on the grassy hills of Seven Sisters on the south coast a few weeks ago. It might be slightly hilly, but the ground is really soft and smooth all the way. Ironically, I was walking in trail running shoes on that day :) . So why bother with heavy leather hiking boots if not to be seen as a hiker? Maybe to feel like a hiker?

Indeed, we've already discussed on this blog the fine line between running and hiking, to which I should add mountaineering. I believe this fine line is more a matter of state of mind than actual speed. And it looks like wearing a specific type of shoes has become a way to materialise this state of mind rather than a technical necessity: "I wear hiking boots to show and to convince myself that I'm not 'just' having a Sunday stroll: I'm hiking". L'habit ne fait pas le moine (you can't judge a book by its cover).

In general, when people get "serious" into some kind of activity, they tend to go a bit over the top in terms of gear (sport equipment brands do help). Hiking/mountaineering boots were invented at a time when sport shoes were non-existant by people requiring extra grip and protection to progress in truly tough environments. But with the range of lighter trail shoes available nowadays, I'm not convinced hiking boots provide any significant advantage on easy-going paths, might they be long-distance such as the Tour du Mont Blanc, let alone Seven Sisters.

Now that I've got a range of running shoes for every situation (road, trail, fell) on top of my hiking boots, I'm tempted to re-evaluate what footwear is really adapted for each outing, based strictly on the actual route technicality and not on the denomination of the event (stroll, marathon, hike, trail run, ...). That said, I'm not sure in what sort of context I should wear my hiking boots any more. Apart from bogs and snow, I don't see much scope for them. Fell running shoes are much lighter and will do as well otherwise.

Has wearing a specific type of shoe become a (self-)statement more than a necessity?

Ultra shoes

Monday, March 1 2010

New pair of shoes (Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra)

With such a name, these shoes can only be good (although there are also the "Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra GTX", which must be amazing) :) . I bought these trail running shoes on Saturday and tried them straight away on a 29km run the next day. That might not have been a brilliant idea, as I came back with a massive blister under my left arch. I hope this is only a first-use issue...
Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra
I needed something intermediate between my road running shoes and the Flyroc in order to replace my beloved Asics Gel Orient that carried me on 3 UTMB. The Flyroc are a bit too hard on the concrete (and get worn out pretty quickly on hard surfaces). The Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra is a classic trail running shoe, pretty lightweight, without too much cushioning. As for the grip, it's not too bad on wet grass (although I was expecting a bit better), but not so good in deep mud. I can now wear the following:
  • New Balance M1062 for the road and hard paths (next: Vienna Marathon)
  • Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra for the easy trails (next: Cambridge Boundary Run)
  • Inov8 Flyroc for the mud, technical trails and off-path (next: Hardmoors55)
  • Vibram Five Fingers for the fun
Obviously, with experience and practice you can still fly downhill without the need of a massive grip, but it nevertheless makes things easier when you're tired.

Ultra Salomon XA Pro 3D

Thursday, January 28 2010

SPT 10 & 100

I've received my Wonde Proud SPT10 and SPT100 last week. These two devices, or personal trackers, are not much more than a GPS and a mobile phone bundled together. They can be programmed to send out GPS positions every time or distance interval through SMS or GPRS. Indeed, I'm actually writing a software platform for real-time runners tracking. More on that later!
SPT10 & SPT100

Ultra tracking

Monday, September 7 2009

Vibram Five Fingers (part 3)

Last week-end, I carried on further tests with the VFF (see part 1 and part 2 for introduction and previous tests).

Trial 6: Canoeing
On Saturday I went canoeing on the Wey River around Farncombe, Surrey (between Guildford and Godalming). I think this is one of the activity at which the VFF perform very well. They've got enough grip to handle wet surfaces and obviously you're not afraid to get them wet. Which means that you feel more free to mess around, jumping from one boat to another or to trees, walk in the water, climb ropes hanging around, ... Nothing to do with barefooting and gait correction, but comfortable and very good fun!

Trial 7: Climbing on sandstone
On Sunday I went climbing at Harrison's Rocks. I originally brought the VFF for approach walks as they're well suited for trail walking and are very light, which means less burden when clipped on the harness during climbing. But at some point I decided to try them on relatively easy routes. Because of their weak arch support (to say the least), they're not suited for edging and as discussed earlier, their grip is not worth my climbing shoes'. On sandstone however, where the grip is poor anyway and smearing is fundamental, they are actually usable for easy-ish warm up routes. Because they're more flexible (and comfortable) than conventional climbing shoes, they sometimes allow to push into the rock with a more optimal angle, counter-balancing their weaker grip.

Ultra thin soles 3

Monday, May 18 2009

Vibram Five Fingers (part 2)

After the initial "unit" tests (read the first part), I tried the Five Fingers in more varied contexts.

five fingers

Trial 4: hill walking
First I went for a stroll on the coast near Eastbourne. As I started to get used to the concrete, the section in town was not so much of an issue any more. Good to have friends walking a couple of meters behind as well to collect the reactions and comments from people in the streets. Some said they were cool :) . The grassy rolling hills rendered a good sensation. The grip was decent enough to climb trees. I didn't hesitate to walk a bit in the sea, which would be less tempting with conventional shoes. Round pebbles are fine, but sharp ones are not very comfortable to step on. Therefore I'm not sure I'm ready for rocky mountains with them. Last but not least I got sunburned on the top of my foot...

Trial 5: indoor climbing
Then I went climbing indoor at Craggy Island. I obviously didn't expect anything from the Five Fingers on routes with tiny footholds, as my big toes would have to support my whole weight. So I tried a couple of easy routes on which smearing (ie. pushing into the wall instead of relying on footholds) might have been useful. Again, the general feeling was good, you can sense very well the shape of the foot holds. But the grip is really poor compared to my climbing shoes soles made by... Vibram. You really have to push orthogonally the wall when you smear, slipping otherwise.

More opportunistic tests in part 3.

Ultra thin soles 2

Wednesday, April 29 2009

Vibram Five Fingers (part 1)

After a long period of indecision, I've eventually decided to buy a pair of Vibram Five Fingers shoes (sprint model). I guess they can be best described as a pair of gloves for the feet.
vibram five finger

I've been attracted by them for several reasons, so many that I actually feel like I've been naively caught into excessive consumerism by some clever marketing teams :)
  1. Novelty factor and the satisfaction to try something singularly different.
  2. Sensations, following the idea I've developed in "The tortoise and the hare" about seeing every single meter of ground between London and Brighton, I hope to additionally be able to "feel" every meter of ground. It is not clear yet whether I'll be able to run long distances with them or not, but the principle applies to shorter runs too. Gaining extra feeling on the feet will hopefully contributes to this idea in two ways. On a physical level, I hope they will provide an extra source of sensation, just as the Inov8 Flyrock were surprisingly a lot of fun to run with on slightly adverse terrain (sand, mud, snow, ...). On a more psychological level, they might help with the "connection with the Earth" type of feeling.
  3. Injury prevention: there is increasing evidence that modern, massively cushioned running shoes are not necessarily better than their cheaper counterparts, with studies showing that people running in expensive shoes are more that twice as likely to get injured. Cushioning gives the human body the impression that it can land heavily, which inevitably alters the walking/running style way. Whether this is problematic or not is still up for debate amongst sport scientists. Beside, several studies have shown that induced stress on the bones triggers bone growth, which will later delay osteporosis. Now, where is the limit between beneficial stress and harmful shocks is not clear. But after all, the human body was originally designed to walk and run barefoot.
I guess I can only try them in various conditions and see whether they meet my expectations.

Trial 1: shopping at the local supermarket
The first thing I noticed when I went out was that I could very easily tell apart the different kinds of concrete and asphalt I was walking on, which is rather nice. The second thing is that the impact on the heel and on the metatarsals feels fairly hard compared to using typically cushioned shoes. And the third thing is that you don't walk unnoticed - lots of people literally scrutinised them. Some people say they look silly. That said, millions of people have bought the Crocs which look ugly even to my underdeveloped sense of fashion. Personally, I think the Five Fingers look rather funny.

Trial 2: commuting walk
I then decided to walk 5km in them to see how they feel on longer distances. Again, the heel contact is rather hard, unless you try to land mid-foot or even on the toes. However, I couldn't sustain that for very long as I not only looked like I was training for a catwalk, but it's also fairly hard to balance on landing. Towards the end, I started to get blisters under my heels, which is fairly unexpected. Furthermore, I took a couple minutes longer than my usual commuting time, which can be impeded on the shorter stride required to reduce the ground reaction force during the initial heel contact. Walking a bit on the grass in Hyde Park felt so much better than the concrete. I guess humans were designed before the roads.

Trial 3: short run in the park
I then went for a 6.3km short run in the park. At first it felt pretty good, as it's much easier to land mid-foot or on the toes while running than walking. Soon, I managed to bounce on my arches, with my heel barely touching the ground, as if my feet were mounted on springs. That led to a great feeling, just like I was moving effortlessly. The concrete felt rather hard, the grass was nice, and the sand (for the horses) was great. Little by little, though, I started to feel the tiredness in my arches, and when I eventually stopped I thought my calves would seize up - they didn't.

The outcome of these preliminary tests is rather positive, but I don't think I will suddenly change completely my habits and drop all my other shoes for this new pair. I will just gradually replace some (short) training sessions or commuting walks. That should help to strengthen some muscles of the lower legs and feet. And that will diversify even more my running and walking habits, which in my opinion is the best way to prevent injuries. Indeed, variety in running session characteristics such as distance, speed and surface reduces the risk of injuries.

Further tests are to come: hill walking, trail running and maybe climbing, open water swimming and canoeing. I guess they might be more suitable for these activities that do not take place on concrete, although it's hard to guess what their grip will be on wet/muddy terrain.

> Tests continue in part 2 and part 3.

Ultra thin soles

PS: Note that the brand name "Vibram" has nothing to do with anti-vibration insoles as I've heard sometimes. It's derived from the company founder's name, Vitale Bramani.

Monday, August 4 2008

Guildford - Merstham

Yesterday, I went for a gentle 39km hilly jog (about 1000m ascent) on the North Downs Way between Guildford and Merstham (near Redhill) as part for my Hardmoors 110 training. I wasn't very fast (4h30), but I enjoyed it. I think I've taken running a bit too seriously lately, and nearly became stressed about it. I missed this feeling of just running in the hills without any pressure.

The grip of my newly acquired Flyroc shoes was really good even on sand, but I couldn't test it in damp conditions (wet grass or mud). I also used this run to start trying out some energy gels. Indeed, I've bought a lot of them in order to publish a comparative test later on this blog.

Ultra feeling.

Thursday, July 10 2008

New pair of shoes (Inov8 Flyroc)

I eventually went for the Inov8 Flyroc 345 GTX. The Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra felt generally good, but their sole was a bit too cushioned for me. I'm also a bit skeptical with their fast lacing system: Rachel got them mud-jammed during Tough Guy and they became hardly usable. The Flyroc looks less "techie" but tougher. Just keep it simple!
Inov8 Flyroc 345 GTX
Ultra trail shoes.

Monday, April 28 2008

Profile bars?

Most people strongly recommend the use of profile bars. A minority, however, say they're useless unless you're an elite cyclist (aerodynamic considerations indeed become more important with higher speed) and argue people only mount them on their bike as a statement - "I'm a triathlete".

In the quest to tune my bike into a more efficient, triathlon-like machine, I've therefore tried to adapt profile bars. I finally gave up with the Oval A710 previously installed, as they were too uncomfortable for my arms. I recently replaced them with the Profile Jammer GT, apparently more suitable for long rides. They're higher and feel better in the arms. But I don't really have a good feeling with them: it feels like my lower back is supporting most of my upper body weight (when my forearms should help) and I can't drive as much power from my legs.
Profile jammer
I have a feeling it's because I have relatively long legs and the bike frame is fitted for that. Thus, the handle bars are a relatively a long reach, and the profile bars worsen that effect. The good point if this hypothesis holds is: I'm low enough on the bike and don't really need profile bars. That would make my bike lighter. So profile bars or not? I may try to take pictures of my riding posture to take a decision.

Ultra aerodynamic decision to make.

Sunday, February 17 2008

New trisuit

I've just tried my new Zoot TRIfit trisuit in a (bike + run) back to back session this morning. Felt comfortable, although I'm not used to have the tummy compressed whilst running. I didn't dare wearing it on its own and had a T-shirt on top. I suppose I'd have to get use to it...

Zoot Trifit

Ultra sexy suit.

Friday, January 18 2008

Polar RS800sd

Just as with the Nike + iPod, I got the chance to try out a Polar RS800sd bought for the lab.

It consists of 3 main elements:
  • An ECG belt to get the heart rate through comfy textile electrodes.
  • A foot pod, measuring stride length and cadence, based on inertial sensors (accelerometer and maybe gyroscope).
  • The watch gathering wirelessly the information from the two above and connecting to a PC.
I went running in the park for 6.33km, again without pre-calibration. The watch told me 6.43km, not bad! Only 1.6% error, to be compared with 33% for the iPod gadget...
polar rs800sd
Technically, the main difference between these two apparently similar systems is the foot sensor. The iPod+Nike relies simply on a contact sensor that can't do much more than counting your steps. Therefore sensor calibration is crucial. I wouldn't mind calibrating the sensor once, but every pace change means recalibration! I guess Nike has never heard about interval training and that sort of things.
To test the limits of the Polar, I tried it walking instead of running, and it behaved very well, as I got a very similar error: 1.6% above. I guess I just need to calibrate it once to get near-perfect distance/speed estimation at any pace. I finally performed an ultimate test on the sensor: I ran on a treadmill :) . This tricked the sensor. Indeed, your actual speed is null, whereas your feet are moving. It displayed a 13km/h running speed when the treadmill was set on 15km/h (13.6% off).

You can use their software (PolarProTrainer) to upload your data, view the training calendar, running curves (speed, heart rate, cadence, altitude, ...), evaluate your training efficiency, and even program some exercices to be sent back to the watch. It seems to have loads of functionalities, but the look and feel is not great.

Some Adidas shoes have a placeholder for the sensor (just like the Nike for the iPod one). Better: some Adidas shirts have embeded ECG electrodes for a truly wearable sensing.

On the whole, the iPod+Nike is just a fashion gadget based on the Apple hype, whereas the Polar system (with or without Adidas) is really designed for training. And I swear I'm not paid to write that!

Ultra running sensor.

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