Mar 27, 2009

Living the Dream - Quito to Ushuia by Mountain Bike in 128 Days. Guest Post by Benedicte Maillard


I had been dreaming about traveling to South America for over 10 years. One day I received an email from my Irish friend Sean: he had spotted an advertisement in the magazine ‘Outsider’ for “The Andes Trail”, an 11,000 kilometers (7000 mile) mountain bike race from the Equator to the end of the world – Ushuaia, Argentina.  I was not able to sleep that night. I was so excited to contemplate the idea of realizing my dream and crossing five countries (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina) on my mountain bike! After a couple of months of preparation and long negotiations to get sabbatical time off work, I was “free to go” and landed last August in Quito (Capital of Ecuador) with 2 other “Xtremepaddies” friends (a slightly mad group of outdoor lunatics).

Torres del Paine, Chile

We were about to start one of the most amazing adventure of our lives! 107 stages that would bring us down the spine of South America across five countries, down into the Ecuadorian jungle, up over the high mountain passes of Peru, across the Bolivian Altiplano, down into the Argentinean Pampas and following the Carrera Austral into the southern part of Chile, one of the least populated and remotest places on planet Earth.

Benedicte and friends in Bolivia

The cycling in Peru proves tough going with average climbing of 2,000 meters per day. After each stage we look forward to our one day off a week – just enough time to rest the legs and get ready for the next mountains! The rewards for over climbing were the amazing views over the Andes (we climbed up to 4850m – as high as the Mont-Blanc!) and unbelievably long descents – we even had an incredible 70km wrist numbing descent! Being at over 3000meters altitude for over a month and cycling every day does catch up with your body. The inevitable happened on my way to Cusco when I got very sick. Cycling when you are unable to eat anything or even drink water is no fun and I did indeed ask myself for a moment, “Why am I doing this?”. It is during those moments that the support of your mates makes a real difference. I would never have made it to Cusco on my own. I got there thanks to my teammates.

Peruvian Andes

Our highlight in Peru was the UNESCO world heritage site of Machu Picchu. We enjoyed hiking and climbing the peaks or Wayne Picchu and Putucusi which is ascended by a series of old shaky wooden ladders some over two hundred feet long!

After 7 weeks winding through the Peruvian Andes and along Lake Titicaca, we reached the largest salt plain on planet Earth - the Salar de Uyuni. It unfolds in front of us like an ocean of white snow, salt, ice. We cycled 120kms across this vast and surreal place, enjoying the complete silence: no wind, no car, no animals, no nothing.

Benedicte playing on the salt fields

In Bolivia, most people living in homes built from mud bricks with sheets of corrugated iron for the roof; running water and electricity are not standard commodities for everyone. Even with my broken Spanish, the connections with the locals were very enriching. Children were very excited to meet “gringos” and always wanting to try our fancy bicycles. Adults were very interested about our motivations behind this bike expedition, our cultures in Europe and North America, our families.

The Lake District, Argentina

We continued our cycle through the canyon lands of Northern Argentina and down into the very famous Seven Lakes District. The sceneries are stunning, we stop almost each kilometer to take a picture of another crystal clear bright blue lake.

By the end of November, we wind our way along the shores of Lago Argentina into the town of El Calafate and discover another stunning nature wonder: the Perito Moreno glacier, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

We were anxious to reach Patagonia, the Southern Part of South America, very famous among cyclist for strong winds. During the days with the wind in our back we reached a speed of over 50km/hour; as compared to 12 km/hour during the days with strong headwind. During those days, we did a lot of group biking, where 2 people take turns to go at the front of the group to shield the riders behind from the wind. We enjoyed even more the delicious Argentinean steaks after such physical days (over 10 hours cycling some days)! After crossing the Chilean border, we pedaled into the Torres del Paine National Park: a small paradise.

After 4 months, 5 countries, 60 to 160 flat kilometers per day,  100 vertical kilometers climbing and cycling in temperatures varying from -14C to 40C, we reached the ‘fin del Mundo’ in Ushuaia, the Southernmost City on the Planet.  I was very proud to be the only woman to complete the entire trip (I even earned the new nickname “The Iron Lady of France”!) and to be on the podium! The Xtremepaddies held up well with 1st, 2nd and 4th places in the race! Even though it was more of a bike expedition than a race, with each other’s support we did keep times of each days stage and it was quite fun to race through the months!

Xtremepaddies on the Podium

What have I learned from this amazing experience? A major lesson about happiness thanks to the amazing Andean people we met along the way.  And that if you wish success in extreme challenges, make perseverance your best friend and always have fun doing it. My personal goal was to cycle every kilometer of this race, and standing second place on the podium was the icing on the cake.

“Life is not the dreams you have, but the dreams you realize”.

The next edition of the Andes Trail begins in August 2010! More details available on the Bike-Dreams website  – Bike Dreams is the Dutch company organizing the Andres trail fully supported race.

If you want to read more about the Andes Trail, check out Benedicte’s blog of the event http://theandestrail.blogspot.com/ or watch the ten minute video YouTube Preview Image. Future plans for Benedicte? She dreams of a repeat performance through Africa. Brava Benedicte!


Mar 23, 2009

Pierra Menta 2009 Part Deux

Photo courtesy of skimountaineering.org
Le Grand Mont. Photo courtesy of skimountaineering.org

We had heard rumours for two days but the briefing Friday night confirmed it - due to the heavy snow and avalanche danger for the spectators we would not be climbing the famous Grand Mont, but instead the Petit Mont. It was a huge disappointment somewhat mitigated by the forecast for more incredible weather. Day three called for 2550 meters of climbing with two technical sections in which we would need to clip into fixed lines with a via ferrata set up attached to our harness and automatic locking caribiners. This stage was the most famous of the four bringing thousands of spectators ready to tail-gate to the summit. Not your ordinary tail-gaters, these devoted fans woke at five to take the cable car and skin the remaining hour or so to the summit one carrying accordion and one a portable stoves to the summit.

Photo courtesy of Katie French

This morning we filled our pockets with GU and PowerBar Gels. Vanillia was our favorite, the least offensive and both brands offered a more liquid substance that was easier to choke down. We set our watches to remind us to eat every thirty minutes. I had a system - the clean gels in one pocket, then I transferred the folded up wrappers to the other. Inevitably the sticky stuff got everywhere. We also brought part of an energy bar, although harder to chew when totally wasted, after four hours you need some sort of food with sustenance. The weather was forecast to be very hot, so on went the Buff under the helmet to keep the sweat from getting in our eyes.

Heading up le Petit Mont
Heading up le Petit Mont

Stage three started with a very steep 588 meters on groomed piste. As we got closer to the first transition a spectator skied past and shouted, “the people, they are waiting for you.” Even though we would not climb the Grand Mont, thousands of people waited along the course with food and vin chaud (hot mulled wine) Constant cheers of “Go Obama,” and “YES YOU CAN,” greeted us as we passed. “GO GO GO,” was another favorite. The transition areas were packed with people screaming and running along side us and pushing us along, not unlike the Tour. Friends from the very newly founded Chamoinx Club de Ski Alpinism came to cheer, as well as Nina’s husband Michael who met us on different parts of the course offering constant encouragement. The second climb brought with it no less than ninety conversions (kick turns) up a forested slope. When we finally reached the technical rock section racers were bunched up waiting to navigate the ridge.

We pushed on as quickly as we could in the chaos of arms and legs and held our position. The course had us running up a rocky ridge, next through some deep snow, and back up another ridge to the final descent 1450 meters through steep terrain to the finish. We loved the down, it was our favorite part and where we gained as much as five to eight minutes on other teams - if only we were as good on the uphill part as we are on the down!

Photo courtesy of Katie French

This time we had plenty of food left over and felt the best of the three days having held a steady pace on course for just under five hours. Famished, we headed straight to lunch and ate with some of our Swiss friends, Nicolas and Severine Combe. Both incredible athletes, and kind enough to give us endless advice, it made me feel better to see they seemed as tired as I was (although coming in quite a bit faster, Severine placed second, and Nicolas placing 21st overall).

After lunch I, hit the repeat button: cold dunk, eating, drinking, napping and massaging. I got lucky and got a female therapist that gave me a full forty-five minutes. We had a last dinner team dinner with U.S. crew, and when they passed the cheese plate, we even allowed ourselves just a bit of wine to complete the taste.

Team dinner
Team dinner

The final day of the race is traditionally a bit shorter ranging from 1500-1800 meters. This year it was 1700 meters with a first long ascent of 1150 meters. The climb dragged on and we could feel the week’s efforts. Picking a steady pace we put our heads down and literally put one foot in front of the other, finally rewarded with one of the best descents of the race, dropping over a steep slope that had an inch of sugar snow on top combined with an amazing view. The second climb consisted of a steep skin, a portage in heavy spring snow, and finally an interesting run down a rocky ridge. Even on the last descent the Pierra Menta does not disappoint. First we skied a powdery 500 meters, stopped short and ran up a boot-pack fifty meters skis in hand, then skis back on for the remaining 1000 meters to the finish.

Crossing the final finish

Crossing the line in spite of feeling sluggish, we closed the time gap on a few female teams ahead of us. One team finished fifteen minutes ahead of us day one, and the last day we were a minute behind. Sari and Monique had the best day of the four finishing in fifth place for the day, and seventh overall. Kudos to Pete and Carey for 38th place, Brendon and Jared for placing 82nd, and Brad and Jason finishing 117th. Just to finish this monster is impressive. Nina and I were happy with 8th for the day and 8th overall. We noticed the race official taking down our bib number in the finish area. Concerned (we thought maybe we had been given a penalty) we inquired why. He explained it was for a special classement, un bonne suprise.

Elated after our second successful Pierra Menta
Elated after our second successful Pierra Menta

Leaving the finish area which had unbelievably become a party scene compete with beer and wine, we headed up to say goodbye to our hostess and drove down to the farewell lunch held in Beaufort. It was a last chance to hang with the team before they headed back to the states. The awards ceremony started with a tirage, or a raffle and four members of the U.S. team scored huge pieces of Beaufort cheese - still not exactly sure how they got them back to the states!

Brendon enjoying the spoils of France
Brendon enjoying the spoils of France

The awards began with the junior racers and in French tradition involved lots of talking. During the presentation I was chatting to Sari when a member of the Pierra Menta board took the microphone and began speaking English - which should have been my first clue. I tuned him out as we chatted a about Xterra and other races until I heard him announce our name and bib number. Nina and I had been given the Spirit of the Pierra Menta award, or the Miss Pierra Menta Award for embodying the spirit of the race.

Monique with more cheese

A group of journalists had been following a few teams and awarded us the honor as we looked like we were having fun, being courteous to other racers and smiling the most…little did he know I smile when I am in pain, really more like a grimace. The judges also wanted to recognize the U.S, as well as females, for taking part and becoming more involved in the sport of ski mountaineering. Last year the award went to the Swiss team of Severine Pont-Combe and Gabrielle Magnenant. We were called on stage and presented with pink Pierra Menta t-shirts and asked to stand on the podium. I was thinking to myself so THIS is what it feels like to stand on the top step! I thought we would maybe get a sparkly sash, but no dice.

The Miss Pierra Menta Award
The Miss Pierra Menta Award

Brava to everyone who completed the Pierra Menta, and way to go USA for making the trip across the pond - so nice to have an actual team experience! Thanks also to Katie French and Ian Anderson for their awesome very early morning cheer-leading. After two years of trial and error, as well as baptism by fire racing in Europe, Nina and I are excited to finally be progressing. Next up for us is the three day World Cup Tour du Rutor, and after the technical high alpine race the Tropheo Mezzalama. As for the Pierra Menta 2010? we will just have to wait and see if three times really is a charm.

Big race deserves a big finish!


Mar 19, 2009

Pierra Menta 2009 Part One

I can’t believe how fast the season is flying by. We have had some great successes (and some serious buzzkills) of late including finishing on the podium for the Chamonix uphill, and for me, winning my very own uphill in Grachen, Switzerland, 1300 meters of up and up to just under 3000 meters. It was the most amazing sunset I have ever seen probably heightened by the pain hallucinations.

We tried to head over to the Sella Ronda for another World Cup event in the Dolomites, but due to extreme snowfall it was canceled. We ended up at the a hotel on top of the closed Passa Pordoi experiencing some similarities to the movie “The Shining.” No REDRAM, but lots of snow and few people.

Passa Pordoi - Chiuso.

Disappointed after eight hours in the car and no race, we drove home and participated in a race closer to home, the Swiss Team Championships, L’ Integral du Rogneux near Verbier, Switzerland. After a small technical difficulty at the start putting us in last position, we battled back up the 2000 meter climb and down the same amount in great snow to arrive in a respectful seventh place out of twenty-two teams. What’s up next? We decided to return for round two of the pain game, the Pierra Menta (or Pierra Mental if you prefer).

On y va, nous sommes pretes (translation - Bring it!)

For the second year in a row we headed back to Areches/Beaufort. Known as the Tour du France of ski alpinism, the PM covers 9700 meters (31,800 feet) of elevation gain and one hundred kilometers (62 miles) of distance over four days of racing. This year the event was was given World Cup status and we were happily joined by five other American teams, female Team Nike adventure athletes and dynamic racing duo Sari Anderson and Monique Merrill, COSMIC founder and US Ski Mountaineering Team coach Pete Swenson and Carey Smith (who had a kidney removed in December, this guy is nails), Brendon French and Jared Inouye, Brad La Rochelle and Jason Mc Gown.

Team USA

The check in was fairly uneventful as opposed to long lines the year before. We caught up with friends and got to know our fellow Americans while we waited. Gifts this year included a vest with the famous image of the Pierra Menta logo (some sort of 80’s skier in a weird mute grab move) -

and a Pierra  Menta ski bag - what a score! Perfect to carry to races while intimidating the other competitors. New this year was a fancy system for timing. The DAG system had upgraded and now consisted of a silver sticker placed on top of the helmet. Last year many of the larger pieces taped to ski tips had become dislodged. Nina quickly corrected the volunteer who put number 208 on our helmets, we were bib 203. That would have been interesting as 208 was Corinne Favre and Magali Jaquemon, some speedy French female racers. A good switch for us, but maybe not for them. The last step is the best, getting the bright yellow PIERRA MENTA 2009 sticker adhered to the skis, right next to the purple ones from last year.

DAG timing system

The Pierra Menta is all about getting into a routine and recovering. We stayed at the same place as last year in a little apartment above town with a charming French land-lady who looked after us. As it was located separate from the eating area we bought our own breakfast supplies and ate each morning at home, mostly cereal, butter, toast, honey, fruit and yogurt. I needed my coffee, Nina her tea. Wake up each day was around 5:15-5:30 am as the start times varied from a very early 7:00 to 7:15 am. Monique, queen of getting up early year round had been told the race start times were at ten, and had been dreaming of her time in Europe to sleep in - she was very pleased no one told her until she arrived!

Home sweet home

After we went over the course profile for the day (Nina wrote the climb elevations on a piece of tape placed on her watch) we geared up with the proper kit and left the apartment. Our warm-up was a twenty minute skin to the start during which there were numerous bathroom stops and checking and re-checking packs for all necessary equipment. Day one heralded 2600 meters of elevation gain and was changed due to the tremendous amounts of heavy, wet snow received the week before. The sky was a cloudless blue and we lined up according to category, World Cup in front, and then the men’s teams by bib number for four lines in total. Each racer got half a hug from the referee as they entered their area. “Bon,” (good) he would say as he heard the beep signaling each avalanche beacon was on. Each line had a bit of space in between groups which was quickly eliminated when the tape was dropped for the start and the rear racers moved forward pushing everyone together in a tight huddle. The referee barely started us with a partially audible call and away we went, thirteen female teams of two and a whopping one hundred and sixty teams for men. Not sure why the discrepancy this year, last year there were twenty-one female teams and many women in Switzerland were turned away in the selection process. Not the best way to promote women in the sport.

Briefing on stage one

A few minutes into the start the crowds mellowed out and we could start using our poles. For the first hundred meters or more we kept them into our sides to prevent accidental stabbings and from possible breakage, broken pole, no race. I also monitor my skins carefully, its very easy to get one stepped on and ripped off. The course took us up about 150 meters with an immediate transition to a short downhill, transitioning again to a larger uphill in hopes to spread everyone out. Day one the track was snowy and grippy and the descents were in great condition. We flip-flopped with a few teams near us and we found we felt a little tired, I was mentally cursing myself for doing L’Integrale just four days before. The third climb was the largest, 915 meters. Here we hit our stride and gained back some lost time. Passing two female teams on an amazing descent, we again threw on skins for a fifty meter up that redirected the last descent to the finish. First day done, we had placed 8th out of the thirteen female teams. Our fellow Americans Sari and Monique came in a bit behind after Sari gutted through a nagging stomach issue that has been a recent issue for the endurance athlete.

Lyndsay and Nina pushing with the Mont Blanc in the back

The finish tent felt a bit like a Turkish bath with all the steam pouring off the racers. We grabbed some coke and cake and took stock of everyone around us - did they feel as worked as we did? The mood was a little less tense as day one had been successfully completed and everyone had an idea where they might stand for the next four days. However, places were separated by minutes and anything can happen in the next stage. Recovery was now the name of the game. The walk back to our home away from home doubled as our cool down. We signed up for our daily massages on the way (three thirty minute massages are included with the race fee, sweet!) We filled the tub with ice cold water and timed each other (while jamming to the new U2) aiming for five-ten minutes in the frigid drink, followed by a hot shower. The cold is thought to contract the blood vessels and serve also as an anti-inflammatory, and the immediate exposure to hot dilates the blood vessels flushing out the lactic acid and waste built up during the three hours of exertion.

Transition time

Next, its eat eat eat and drink drink drink. Constantly drinking recovery drink (I live for Hammer Nutrition products) and eating even if you don’t feel like it. After getting cleaned up, we walked down for lunch chatting to other racers about the days events. Most agreed the first day had been a mellow course for the Pierra Menta, not super technical and a nice warm up for bigger days to come.

Nina and I headed up to our massages, but no spa image here. Rather fourteen tables in a small, humid room. We really got to know some of our fellow competitors and their unfortunate underwear choices. I think the therapists were relieved to work on some females for a change. Returning to the apartment, it was my favorite time- nap time - till dinner and discussion of the following days stage. Last, arranging all gear in the order it needs to be put on in the morning (I am not the brightest bulb at 5am) and into bed before ten and lights out. The guys upstairs who were racing were rather loud, and I reminded myself that many of these teams call this event their vacation and have done it anywhere from seven to fourteen times.

Done with day two

My phone rang with Swiss precision at 5:15 am. My boyfriend heralds from Saas Grund, Switzerland, but works in Canada in the winters. He called to wake us up each morning before he went to bed. “Wakey Wakey are you ready?” was a lot of excitement to take that early in the day, and I asked him to call back in thirty minutes at which point he could then ask how ready I am to be up and at ‘em and give ‘er my all. Today’s stage was brutal. 2750 meters of elevation gain over thirty-three kilometers and seven separate uphills. Ouch. We decided to use elastics today to keep us together and give one another a boost if need be. At the least the elastics kept us together and kept other racers from getting in between us.

Pete and Carey at the start

Five hours and some fifteen minutes later we completed stage two with around fifteen transitions. The courses are not perfect, often you invest energy into getting ahead of teams and having good placement, only to have that advantage erased when reaching a technical section in the forest and having to wait in a long line. It’s all part of racing in Europe, sometimes being aggressive helps, other times its just too dangerous. Temperatures were high and we ran out of food causing a small slowdown towards the top of the last climb. Powering through it, we vowed to carry twice as much food tomorrow, and maybe even some Coke in a small bottle. Today we finished ninth, but due to time gained the day before still stood at 8th place by less than a minute followed by Mona and Sari - who felt slighly better the second day. Two more days to go.

Stay tuned for part two……

Sari and Mona all smiles at the finish tent


Mar 07, 2009

The Steber Women take Zermatt

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Zermatt with the Steber family, Martin, Jennifer, Isabel, Paul, and Sarah. Having never actually skied in the ski area of Zermatt (only down from the Haute Route and the PDG) I was very excited for a proper ski holiday.

The Steber Family

Rudolf Pollinger, a Zermatt Valley local was our stellar guide for the trip and in spite of the challenging weather had a new itinerary planned each day. The week started out with heavy snow in the forecast, so I drove over from Chamonix late Monday night before most of the storm hit to get out of dodge before the passes closed.

Lyndsay, Isabel, Paul, Rudy, and Sarah

Zermatt is located in the heart of the Swiss canton, Valais. The drive is about one hour forty-five from Chamonix to Tasch, where all non-local traffic and must stop and park in a modern parkhaus with easy access to the train. Zermatt is only accessible by train for tourists - they run like clockwork every twenty minutes. I met the Stebers at the Whymper House, part of the Schwiezerhoff hotel. They had rented a newly refurbished apartment for the week, complete with pool and spa, love it!

Isabel in the deep, age 11

The first day due to the storm much of the mountain was closed, Zermatt looked like the hundreds of postcards for sale in all the shops with two feet of snow on the chalet roofs dotting the hillside. Martin, Rudy and I went for a quick skin up to Sunnegga, about 650 meters. After a nice ski down the spa was definitely in order. Evening activities included catching a very old school film done in the fifties about all work and play in Zermatt at the Vernissage bar/cinema/gallery located in the heart of town.

Photo courtesy of ski-zermatt.com
Photo courtesy of ski-zermatt.com

Day two, fresh powder! But very windy and cold up high, negative thirty at the top of the Klein Matterhorn (3880m), and winds close to fifty kilometers per hour. The high cable cars were closed and Matterhorn itself was hidden in cloud and plumes of snow were being blown hundreds of feet into the air off the high peaks. We skied some lovely off-piste runs from the Blauherd lift off the back down to Findlen and here I have to give kudos to the Steber women, all three handled the challenging terrain like professionals.

Sarah rockin’ the off-piste, age 6

A foot of fresh sat on top of a slight crust layer making it a little challenging - these girls were all over it! Sarah, age six, asked me if I was skiing of piste when I was her age. I told her that was a definite no, I don’t think I had even left my foot local mountain Buck Hill, 300 feet of vert built over a trash dump (but does boast the likes of Kristina Koznik among others).  After a few runs we changed sides and headed over to the Schwarzee area for some lunch the Simi Restaurant. Zermatt by far has the most amazing on-mountain restaurants, over forty to chose from!

Jennifer showing us how its done

Day three again the weather alluded us, so Rudy decided we would go for a snowshoe along one of the five walking paths set aside for foot traffic accessible by valley floor or by the Gornergrat train. We were out about an hour through a forested path up to Grundsee for a nice lunch, and then descended down a steep mogul slope to access the train and return to the hotel, again followed by a swimming and sauna session.

Rudy and Sarah ready to roll

Friday dawned sunny, windy and the coldest day by far. Upper lifts were again closed due to dangerous temperatures. Everyone bundled up and we skied most of the day, with a short break for some sledding. I was very impressed with everyone’s love for skiing, and enthusiasm for all the activities planned (especially Isabel who had to deal with my poor steering ability on the sled).

It takes heart and a true love of skiing to be out in frigid temperatures. Brava Jennifer, Isabel, and Sarah. (Paul and Martin too, but we are a go-chick site:) Special thanks to Jennifer for organizing the entire trip and facing everything with nothing but a great positive attitude!

Jennifer’s towing service to the rescue!


Mar 02, 2009

Trail des Aiguilles Rouges

Nina and I are currently preparing for our next World Cup event, the Sella Ronda. The race will start in the evening and circumnavigate the famous Sella Ronda ski route around the Dolomites in Italy. We are finishing up some intervolt training and feel strong. Part of our improvement this year stems from the fact we trained through the summer and fall with a variety of activities, namely mountain running. Below details one of the harder races I have done to date, but that I have to thank for my current fitness and improvement.

Photo courtesy of Trail and Run
Photo courtesy of Trail and Run

Last September twenty-seventh I woke at 3:45 am to compete in the Trail du Aiguilles Rouges. The course followed 54 kilometers of trail and 3600+ meters (11,800 feet) of elevation through the beautiful Aiguilles Rouge area bordering the south side of the Chamonix Valley. Four hundred racers paid to play and met for a five am start in the village of Les Houches.

After a quick breakfast consisting of primarily bread, butter, and honey (my favorite), my boyfriend Danny drove me to the start. It was still dark and I chose to run with a lighter weight Petzl headlamp, a buff, a long sleeve base layer and vest by Mountain Hardwear, and Nike tights. I borrowed a Quechua running pack from a friend and it was loaded with water, food, first aid kit,and extra layers that would be required for the temperature changes during the day long event. The front straps crossed high across the chest and had netting for easy access to food, very handy. I had put a little Accelerade in my Camelbak to keep me moving, and also had a pair of lightweight running poles. All gear in tact, I lined up at the start. Danny took a few photos, and with a gunshot we were off running through the streets of Les Houches.

The beginning of the course cut through the woods down towards a village called Servoz. The trail was wet, mossy, and covered in rocks and large roots - a bigger headlamp would have been useful, but always in these events I am considering weight vs. neccesity, sometimes you make the right call, and sometimes you dont! My poles provided excellent support while racers shouted back warnings regarding obstacles and potholes on the trail. Regardless I landed in a few, almost hyper extending my knee. After the first twenty minutes of warming up, I realized I felt good. I had hit my nutrition right the day before, and slept well, and had hopes it was going to be a good day. The difficult conditions and the length of the race encouraged conversation between racers, running in the dark is never easy.

Once in Servoz, we began the first big climb. The baskets of my poles were too small and got caught in rocks and bushes, and I was not sure how I felt about the strap system that velcroed around the hand, good support, but one more thing to mess with. Daylight rose around 7:30 and the view was stunning. We ran along the Lac du Pomenaz up to the Chalet de Moede-Anterne, the first check point and aid station. I guessed I was in the top fifteen for females. Going for some food and coke, I realized I had forgotten my cup! The welcome packet each racer was given a cup for the aid stations to reuse and save plastic. They gave me another to attach to my pack and two minutes later I was back on course.

Refuge Moede-Anterne, first aid station

The next section wound downhill through a run-off area, rocks, serious mud, and wet feet prevailed. I had my phone in my pocket and received a text but was not able to check. It was reassuring to hear the beep, it signaled someone would be waiting at the finish, a needed carrot to pull me along.

Last year’s course conditions leading to the Brevent

At the Pont d’Arlevé, we turned and began to climb part of the GR5 (a famous trail running through Europe) towards the Brevent. I had researched the course and looked at the times completed last year giving me a decent idea of how long it would take for me to complete the course - until a fellow competitor told me last year this section was covered in snow and they had to shorten the course. A-ha. I was going to be out here a bit longer than I anticipated.

Course runs down this valley, and back up the other side to the Brevent, the brown peak on the far right in the distance

Towards the summit of the Col du Brevent, the trail turned to rock and the wind speed increased. The Col sat at 2525 meters (8300 feet). It was sunny and we were rewarded with the first clear view of the Mont Blanc Massive and the Chamonix Valley. I had to remind myself just because I could see the finish, I was far from done. I threw some water on my hands in the aid station. I was careful to eat every 45 minutes and there was sticky gel all over my hands as a result. The sticky ooze had transferred from my hands to my straps and it was driving me crazy. I took the time to clean every sticky thing off before refilling my water.

Photo courtsey of Google Maps

Before exiting the aid station I quickly had a coke (with smile, its my favorite recovery drink) ate a few bananas and ditched a layer since we were finally in the sun, enfin le soliel! I had passed a few women in the transition and wanted to stay out front. Kermit, a women in green, had been gaining on me, I could see her edge closer with each switch back on the last climb. I had been looking, but of course trying not to look like I was looking. I often give the racers on course around me nicknames and use them as a reference regarding my position in the race. If I hang with them, or pass them, I am going okay. If I fade back, I know I am off my previous pace and need to eat, or move, or something. Kermit flew by me on the downhill and I could not keep up. The down is my weakness, my knees protest and the ligaments feel like they are going to snap. I did manage to gain ground between White Shirt and Pink Bandana who seemed to be catching up to me before the aid station. (I later learned all their real names and congratulated them at the finish).

Scouting the course

We descended down to Belachat area and up and up again towards Plan Praz on the Brevant ski area. Temperatures had risen as I descended, so I rolled up my tights - admittedly not the hippest look I have ever sported. I always wonder how the top racers always look so put together during these endurance events. I ran into a friend, Gen, who was volunteering on course and hoped she would run a bit with me, but she was the tail sweeper of the course and I had to head on alone. In certain racers you are permitted to have friends run with you, in others they forbid it to prevent pacing. She texted me good luck and to stay strong. I passed a couple racing together, the hubby/boyfriend was urging her on, but she was fading and he took her pack as I passed. Finishing the climb up to the Plan Praz aid station, I refilled water, ate and kept moving. Another text from Nina said I was tenth - amazing what technology has done for endurance racing! I was starting to wear mentally and had been out about seven hours.

Setting out again, up and up to the Col du lac Cornu (2414m), the Index on the Flagere area, and the Col Grenier (2461m), very technical climbs and high in altitude. Looking down I could see the finish, and yet still had a few hours to go of difficult climbing, that was the worst part, seeing and running past the finish.I gained more ground on the technical section and could see Kermit and a few other women I had not seen before. I filled my water at the Index and did not shut it properly in my rush to catch up, resulting in water all over my back when I thew on my pack. Waste makes haste. Green tank top was breathing down my neck, and she passed as I took a needed bathroom break. Easy math told me I was now eleventh.

Yup, please take my timing chip

As we neared Lac Blanc, we encountered a new hazard, tourists. They had been offered half price tickets up the cable cars today to cheer and for and deal with tired runners zigzagging on the trails. Most people were incredibly supportive - except one old man who yelled at Kermit to run with more attention - after 9 hours on a steep and rocky downhill, we were doing the best we could. Finally the Lac Blanc and the crushing 2500m downhill to follow. My knees hurt already. Using poles I flew as fast as I could, using timing the placement to take the weight of my knees for a section each step. The route leveled and I ran across back to the bottom of Flagere, stuffed more coke, bananas in my upset stomach and could hear the echos of the announcer at the finish. Again I lost my cup! The volunteers at the aid station just laughed and told me I would have to go back to the last aid station and get it, something that just did’t seem so funny at the time. I had tried to text Danny when I would be done but had done a miserable job and pre-emptive texting and spit out some intelligible text that said I would be done around two - that was not even close to correct as there was still more uphill to come. Around the same time I noticed I broke one of my poles, I thought one felt shorter!

Finish area earlier in the day

Close to the bottom I felt like I HAD to walk, my knees were crying. A fellow male racer who I kept passing and vice versa was actually talking on the phone, he looked at me, muttered something into his phone, and hung up.

“Allez, on y va!” he said as I started to slow to a walk and got behind me encouraging me to run all the way to the bottom. Once there he smiled at me and got back on the phone. I love the people you ecounter at these races, they are a different breed! Another women in blue that I recognized from ski mountaineer racing passed me as though I was standing still. New math, I was thirteenth. That was just fine, this was one of the hardest races I had done and I would be pleased to finish. One last surprise, a small up again and then a descent into a field. I could see Danny taking photos and video - what a great luxury to have him at the finish!

I completed the race in 11:02 in 13th place. It was 4:00 pm and Danny had been waiting camera at the ready since 2:00 to make sure he didn’t miss my finish. He had watched some of the leading men and women cross, each saying. ” Il Etait long et dur,” meaning it was long and difficult, which says it all. The eleven hours seemed like days and a few minutes after the finish I always start to contemplate would I do it again?

Brava to all fifty two woman who completed the course, with Silvie Negro finishing first with a time of 9:35. Congrats also to the men, and to Dachiri Dawa Sherpa with a winning time of 6:47.

Deliriously happy to be done!