Fell (Trail) Running in the Alps - The Gapencimes Trail Race

Posted 04-10-2011

A long time ago, before children and when I lived in the UK, I used to fell run. I even once did the Saunders Mountain Marathon and came an amazing last out of the 40% of actual finishers. It was a particularly bad weather one!

Since I have been living in the French Alps where I am surrounded by fabulous trail running routes in all directions and am blessed with great weather pretty much all the time, I have hardly done any! "Why?" I hear you say, "It is criminal to neglect this beautiful sport with such amazing opportunities on your doorstep!". Work and children, work and children, pregnant, work and more children, work and children.....!

Anyway, this April, a colleague told me about the Gapencimes trail race in October, actually in the hope that I would create a trip around it and attract lots of British competitors. I never got round to creating the trip but the little flame burning away in my heart was re-ignited and I made the decision that I would do it! There are three routes,, The 'Breche' 12km with 750m of ascent, The 'Cretes ' 25 km with 1250m of ascent and the 'Eidelweiss' 48km with 3000m of ascent. I set my heart on the Cretes!

The training started slowly with short, flat runs and gradually increasing to longer runs with more and more ascent and descent. I got to know the mountains around Gap intimately and my passion for trail running just got stronger and stronger! It's not like fell running in the UK, the trails are generally dry and rockier. There is no falling in peat bogs but you sometimes need gaiters to keep the scree out! The mountains are steep and technical, the views are spectacular, there is abundant wildlife and flowers and hardly any people. I've seen chamois close up, startled a wild boar out of it's sty and seen roe deer bound in alpine meadows on my runs.

The summer was a bit of a training disaster as work became a 7 day a week affair and by September I was exhausted and unfit! But thanks to Maryanna, my fantastic running friend, and some negotiated time off from looking after the children, I got back training. Maryanna dragged me up the Pic du Bure - 2 hours of uphill! We did St Maurice - 700m of steep ascent and one fateful day decided to do the Gapencimes Cretes 25km trail route to test it out.

Of course it was the only day of hideous weather in the whole of September. It started well, a wet but still pleasant run down the canal and steep but slippery ascent up to the Cuchon. Then the wind and the rain took hold and as we negotiated the ridge, we found ourselves stopping every five minutes to add a layer, remove a layer, eat, drink.... we got colder and colder and the weather got worse and worse. Eventually we got so cold we had to abandon the route and head back to the car. A total of 4hrs and 22 minutes of endurance later we were sitting glumly in the car. This was not looking good for the race which apparently we should be aiming to do in 3 hours!

The 2nd of October arrived and convinced we were going to be snails, we told our supporters to give us a good 31/2 to 4 hours (and that was being optimistic) before coming to look for us at the finish line. Our objective for the race - participate, enjoy, finish without injury and stick together!

The start was at Charance and with 600 competitors and their supporters there was a real buzz in the air. It was a beautiful day, but hot and I am not good in heat. I looked around at the competitors in the hope of gleening some last minute tips... long or short running leggings, poles or no poles, running sacks or belt, cap or headband....? Okay, water is going to be important, despite 3 refreshment stops, the full 2 litre camelback was a must which meant rucksack. And after my Pic de Bure experience I opted for poles and a cap! I caught a snippet of conversation about long leggings being good for supporting muscles and that clinched my decision to change my new short ones that kept riding up for my tried and tested comfy knee lengths despite the heat!

At 8:45 we were called into the starting pen and Maryanna and I jostled for a spot not too near the front (didn't want to get run over by the pros) but not too near the back either.

At 9:00 the whistle blew and we were off! It was tricky trying to run with so many people and very frustrating not being able to get a pace. Gradually it thinned out and the route took us around the lake and then along the Gap canal. Large wide pistes and reasonably flat for about 6 km. It was perfect warm up territory and we eased into our running pace gradually overtaking the odd person and of course being overtaken ourselves by others - positioning for the climb!

All of a sudden the climbing started and the trail of people above us like ants swarming up a mountain were in walk mode. Out came the poles and we tried for a fast walk rhythm but it was impossible with the amount of people in front and not good for the pace to keep speeding up to overtake and then slow down. So we succumbed to the plod up and maybe this was a good thing anyway to conserve energy for later.

But the competitive spirit was starting to stir and I was sure we could go faster without burning out. As soon as it flattened out we sped up and overtook and gradually one by one managed to get behind some people with a pace more like ours. And then Maryanna called me, her face white, she announced she was feeling unwell. Maybe we were going too fast. We stopped and discussed what to do, and of course saw all the people we had carefully manouvered in front of come past us. I was torn between wanting to support Maryanna and wanting to get our position back. Maryanna decided to head down and abandon the race. So I carried on alone.

I wanted my position back so I started again carefully overtaking people and trying to keep a good pace. It was spectacular on the ridge, and there was a slight breeze which kept the body temperature perfect. Running high up on a mountain ridge with views to the Ecrins and beyond really was dream running territory. I even saw some Eidelweiss. I missed Maryanna - I knew she would have loved this. Further along there was a musician playing the flute, just sat on the ridge in the sun - beautiful.

Finally I got back behind the same person we got to before we stopped and I was on form. I knew I could go faster and that the majority of the climbing was done. I again thought of Maryanna hoping she was okay. I'll do a good race for her, I thought, I wanted her to be proud of me to make all the training worth it!

Just at the col there were people cheering us on with horns and tambourines. It was a fantastic ambiance.

There was a steep technical descent and I remembered Marayanna's words "Let yourself go, don't hold back!" and I went for it. I left the people I was with and it felt so good overtaking one person after the other.

The Col de Gleize refreshments was a welcome short stop with a bit of banana and juice, but tactically meant I let the girl with bunches just in front of me get a lead. After the col de Gleize it was a wonderful rolling descent in the trees and along the side of the mountain. I went for it, trying to catch up the girl in front of me. I needed a wee and felt a blister start on my left foot. Should I stop? No, I'll just get past the next person. I'll get past that girl and then stop. My competitive spirit was in full force and the wee and blister would have to wait. In fact it made me go faster. The quicker I got down, the quicker I could go for a pee and sort out my blister. I knew the skin had come off and I felt the burning every step. But it didn't matter, I was running fast and felt fantastic.

The sound of the finish line could be heard through the trees as I approached. I hadn't caught up with the girl with bunches but had passed several others including my neighbour who lives for running. I imagined my children waiting for me at the finish line, 'allez maman, allez maman,' they would chant. I couldn't wait to see them.

Just at the finish, a man ran past me. Oh no you don't, and I put on a sprint. We drew. But my children were no-where to be seen :(

I looked at my watch - 3 hours and 18 minutes. Fantastic.

Priorities were wee and blister and find Bernard, my children and Maryanna.

Bernard was just arriving, having listened to my 31/2 but more like 4 hours estimation. We met and I called Maryanna who had another story to tell! "I am in the red cross tent, but not for what you think...!" She had in fact decided to carry on and had got up to the ridge and was aiming to catch me up. But just on the ridge, she slipped and twisted her ankle. Whisked off straight away on a quad with cold sprays and ice packs, she was waiting to be taken to the hospital.

But she was pleased with my time. Next year we'll go for it properly!

And after such an inspirational run, we have now managed to get some trips together - yey!!! Have a look at our Gapencimes Trail Race Package

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