Feb 18, 2010

The Chamonix uphill le Vert a l’Envers

Every February our friends at the EMHM, or the Ecole Militaire de Haute Montagne stage in my opinion one of the most difficult vertical night races. The course is 870 meters of elevation gain and runs right up the famous Kandahar downhill course route, yes the idea does defy common logic.The course is painful and steep, so much so that at two points during the event competitors take off skis and boot-pack up the route. Last night as I was suffering up the first of the two portages I kept thinking to myself, “I watched Bode Miller soar over this drop a few years ago and now I am hiking up it.” He might be the wiser.

Julie, Yann and Nuno

This year the race was delayed a few minutes allowing for added stress at the start and roughly 170 racers tried to stay warm before the final call including female ski mountaineer legend Laticia Roux (who won by a commanding six minutes). Fifteen minutes before the start of each night race,  competitors strip their outer layers, pack them in a pack and throw them into a snow-cat which will travel up the course to ensure warm clothing for sweaty racers at the summit.

After the build-up it was a rather anti-climactic start (I can never actually here the start, just see the front line moving) and halfway through the first steep climb we had to navigate a steep ledge leveling out and crossing a cat track before heading straight back up the piste. I was curious why on the way up the cat couldn’t just hit that part and smooth it out. Grooming is not compulsory at these events, in fact its a non occurrence. The first portion of the course I kept my head down relying on my arms and watched a few other racers fail on the icy, skied-off surface. When navigating steep, icier sections its best to keep the weight on the balls of the feet, activate the stomach focusing on core strength, and taking smaller steps while preforming a strong pole plant along side the skis. Easier said than done and once you start to slip backwards, its hard to regain footing.

Julie coming into the finish

New this year the course was marked with elevation gain markers, I am not sure if I was thrilled to know how far I had to go or not, might be best to suffer in ignorance. I know its helpful for pacing but this event is all about survival in my book. At one point I saw the 400 meter mark and thought, really? that’s it??

Brava, Julie!

The race concludes at the actual start house of the downhill and it is a sideways battle across the fall line into the gatehouse. I finished, a mediocre performance but pleased to have made it up the difficult course once again and chalked it up to good training needed for a later start on the ski mountaineering season year. End of season will be my time to peak so for now its all about miles in the bank and ditching my hacking cough companion. We definitely need to break up.

After the no pain, no gain part, we skied down headlamps lighting the way to have a lovely meal organized by the EHMH in Les Houches at l’Espace Olca. Wine was served along with pasta and apple tart. Chamonix’s newly formed Club du Ski Alpinism was in full force with thirteen racers clad in our new red (for men) and pink (for women) suits. A special shout out to Julie Siniciali who having just started ski mountaineering last year broke the mythical one hour mark crossing the line in 57 minutes and placed 13th at the French Individual Championships last weekend. Julie is a nurse in Chamonix and manages to train and race alongside her demanding work schedule. She is a true inspiration with all she has attempted and accomplished in such a short time. For a full set of results click here

Brava Julie, and thank you Carron for the great photos!

Julie, Nina and Lyndsay at the French Individual Championships, the Tour du Grand Veymont

Feb 10, 2010

The Gastlosen Ski Mountaineering Team World Cup

This past weekend I chalked up another “first” in my ski mountaineering career. My teammate Nina and I traveled to Jaun, Switzerland to compete in the initial team World Cup race of the season, the Gastlosen. After the famed Patrol des Glaciers, the Gastlosen was the second most popular race in Switzerland and no less than 1500 people would be joining us on the start line.

The race had a few different categories, the World Cup, Swiss Cup, and the shorter, more user-friendly B course. Course A for the elite traveled up some 2300 meters across 20 kilometers. Best part? A six kilometer downhill to the finish. We like the downhill.

The weather was iffy at best. It had been snowing a great deal and the start was delayed…a few times. Fortunately we had been put up in hut-like communal accommodation with other World Cup teams near the start of the race. Once on course, visibility was minimal but the snow on the descents made the up all worthwhile. My favorite descent took us down a narrow rocky couloir and again I was reminded of how hard core European courses can be.

Cruising into the finish and fighting with some guys in orange suits who REALLY wanted to beat us (think skiercross on the way down), we had to take off skis and run the final 100 meters. Nina and I crossed the line and headed over to the control to have our gear checked. Before I even caught my breath a blond haired woman carrying a clipboard called my name. Thinking it was something to do with the control I started to take the items out of my pack until I finally understood what she was explaining. She was an employee of antidoping.ch. I had been chosen for a random drug test. I had an hour to give the sample and would be accompanied by a chaperon until I could do so. Doping unfortunately is becoming more and more popular within the sport of ski mountaineering and national athletes licensed by the ISMF (International Ski Mountaineering Federation) are now being subjected to random tests to keep the playing field level.

My chaperon was a younger woman who was not thrilled with her job but was very professional. Wanting to get the whole thing over with I agreed to try right away (rookie mistake) and headed back into our accommodations to the dopage (doping in French) area where I was told to wait before “making peepee” as they kept saying.

Photo courtesy of www.skimountaineering.org

When it was my turn to enter the room I had to sign some official papers. Next I chose my own container and cut it out of the sealed plastic. After a bit more explanation we headed off to the bathroom. En route I passed some of the other teams who had finished much earlier than we did. I smiled as I walked past and mused they must be thinking that if I was doping, I should certainly get my money back cause it was not really working!

So into the bathroom we went and yes both of us crammed into the stall. It took me awhile to de-layer and peel off the suit. Guess what? After racing for three and a half hours it is not easy to produce the size sample they need. I had downed a bottle of water but nothing was happening, My chaperon thoughtfully turned on the faucet to help. I felt like a little kid again.

After a few more somewhat embarrassing moments I knew it wasn’t gonna happen. I showed her the sample I had managed and she shook her head, it was not enough. Back to the dopage room we went where I had to sign more forms indicating this was a provisional sample and I would have to come back and try again.

In the meantime I asked if I could change out of my race gear. She said of course but accompanied me to my room while I changed. I desperately wanted a hot shower but realizing she would have to shower with me my desire faded.

Back outside the dopage room I took my seat this time armed with three bottles of water and sports drink. I drank while I chatted to Florent Troillet, one of the Swiss masters of ski mountaineering. He was waiting his turn as were a few others. Some would smile sheepishly with their specimens in hand as they passed.

I sat for about an hour until it was my turn again. I was starving and not feeling so well and really ready to give a good sample and get out of there. I was successful upon my second attempt and handed her the container thinking it was over and done with - nope. The dopage room had small styrofoam containers sealed with special tape and marked with numbers. She told me to pick one and note the number. Next I opened the container (almost like a beer cooler) and found two small glass bottles with the corresponding numbers on them. I was told to make sure all matched.

Once confirmed, I was told to fill the first glass container up to the fill line, pouring the rest into the other container. I assumed this must be the A and B samples I had heard so much about. After sealing them tight I put them back into the case and taped the lid shut. More papers to fill out and she asked if I was taking any medications. My first instinct was to say no and then I remembered I had taken a decongestant the night before as I was fending off a cold. Memories of gymnasts and skiers who could not perform at the Olympic Games popped into my head. I wrote down what I had taken and wondered if due to my ignorance I had just messed up my season. I would find out in three weeks time.

We arrived home later that night and I took a look at the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Prohibited List and breathed a sign of relief. I had only taken a simple cold medication and was in the clear. Some cold medications like Sudafed PE contain a ingredient called pseudoephedrine that acts as a stimulant and has been shown to prove beneficial to competitors in threshold doses. The drug had been on the monitor or watch list for the past few years and this year was placed back on the prohibited list. Interestingly enough, to purchase Sudafed PE in the states you have to show i.d and sign a sales log due to the fact that it plays a key role in producing methamphetamine. Other things I recognized on the watch list were common items like simple caffeine and ephedra.

All in all the experience took about an hour and a half. Now I am not even going to attempt to make any kind of comparison between myself and Lance Armstrong, but I do have a new appreciation of what he goes through when he is tested randomly a gazillion times each year. While it was not the most pleasant thing to deal with after an event, I now understand the procedure and am thankful they are closely monitoring the sport and reminding athletes to play fair. I am also happy that I took the time to educate myself so as not to make future mistakes, it would have been a bummer to accidentally ruin our 7th place finish.

Monday morning rolled around and I woke with a bit of a cold perhaps due to staying cold for so long after the race. Lesson learned, next time I am taking the chaperon into the shower.