St Lary Patou Trail, a three day running festival in the French Pyrénées, is being held his year for the fourth time. St Lary Patou Trail consists of a vertical kilometer (5 km total distance), the 18 km Trail du Mouscade, and a sky marathon, 45 km with 3560m ascent. New this year is the French Pyrénées Patou Trail, a 5-day stage race which includes the vertical kilometer and the sky marathon in addition to three new courses.
Yesterday all the runners arrived at Toulouse Airport, and since there were only six of us in total, and three of each sex we realised we would all get on the podium just for showing up. Yay! After dinner and receiving our bibs and lots of free goodies (French berets of course, t-shirt, buff and ajacket!) we went to bed to rest before the first stage.
Initially announced as an 18k, it turned out be more 10k-ish. A soft start to ease us into mountain running? Maybe not….
At 9 am we set off from the hotel in St Lary to the trailhead were the first stage started. We were standing in a parking lot on a steep hillside, looking at a not too technical and not too steep trail going up into the mountains. Having never run a race shorter than a half marathon before, and never been in the Pyrénées, never done a stage race longer than two days, nor done much running at altitude before I had no idea what to expect. Should I treat it as a race, or as a training run with a group of friends? Give it my best effort, or hold back in the first few stages to preserve energy for the vertical kilometer and sky marathon later in the week? Ten seconds to ten, as Viriginie counted down to the start, I decided to go all out. That is what you do in a 10k, is it not? And that is why I have never raced this distance, preferring the relative comfort of the various marathon distances to the redlining-all-the-way run-till-you-throw up 10k.
I had studied all the course profiles before travelling to France, but as we started the first stage I could not remember what the profile for the first stage looked like. We were going uphill, but would there be any flat sections where I could catch my breath and make good time? It did not look like it, the trail just kept going uphill, becoming steeper and more technical. I was in the lead, with Pasquale from Italy hot on my heels, and then Alan (Swiss-Italian), Sara and Nicola (also Swiss-Italian). Claudia had decided not to run. After running uphill for 1 kilometer I admitted to myself it was time to employ the ultrarunning tactic of powerwalking up the hill. My heart rate was already well into the red zone, I was feeling slightly dizzy, and I was regretting my decision to bring water instead of sports drink. Was it the altitude, had I opened to hard, or was it tiredness from the travelling the day before? Or was this just how a 10k is supposed to feel? I did not now, but I was glad when Pasquale passed me so I could employ the copycat tactic instead of thinking for myself.
For the next couple of kilometers we alternated running and walking, doing most of the latter, both of us breathing hard. I looked at my watch, and realised it could turn out to be a long day out on the trails, despite the short distance. Usually I bring far too much food with me on races, but now it seemed like I had brought a foolishly small supply, only two gels. Luckily, just as I had started visualising myself running out of food and glycogen, and crawling on all fours to the finish, the course flattened out somewhat, we crossed a stream, and there was Daniel, one of the organisers, waving at us from a shed where there was a mini-buffet of drinks and baby food (apple puré, which seems to be a firm favourite with runners around here). A glass of cola later I was caffeinated, hydrated and sugar boosted, and ready to go on.
Another stream was crossed, on the other side of which was a herd of beautiful, caramel-coloured cows with calves. …and very sharp looking horns. Whether it was the fact that we were running towards them or Pasquale’s red that scared them shirt I don’t know, but the leader of the herd got up and lowered her head, pointing those sharp horns toward us. We quickly desided to leave the path and go round in a big circle at a sedate pace.
After that nice little adrenaline boost the path continued uphill, but smoother underfoot now. Having worried about whether I had enough food and drink I now decided that the glass of coke at 3k would do me for a while, I would take one of my gels when one hour had passed, saving the other one for when I needed it. And then suddenly, after about 4k, we passed through a gate and the trail was going down instead of up. The low hanging clouds had prevented us from seeing the how far we had left to climb, so reaching the top came as a surprise. This was probably for the best, as we were kept blissfully unaware of how steep the moutainside was and how far we had left. Although the clouds prevented us from seeing the mountaintops and the bottom of the lush green valleys it added drama to the surroundings, and I admit to pretending to be in a scene from Lord of The Rings for part of the race. It also meant the temperature was perfect for running.
The trail kept going downhill, a narrow stripe of hard packed soil with a steep descent on the left side, where putting a foot wrong would mean a seriously twisted ankle, over grass, through cool mountain streams. We passed another herd of caramel cows, laidback ones this time, and then Claudia was there taking pictures, and Luc made sure we stayed on corse when the path forked.
After lots of running on grass and hard pcked soil the trail suddenly became more rocky and technical. I had noticed that my newish shoes, today being used for only the second time, were a bit slippery on a similar uphill section in the beginning. Now I started struggling with my footing again, and at one point was stuck on a big rock in the middle of a stream, not being able to move in any direction without doing a Bambi on ice routine. Pasquale was a gentleman and waited for me, and we contined running together. As we ran over a concrete bridge over a river my legs turned to jelly. Thank goodness there were no long flat sections, we immediatly started climbing uphill on tarmac, as it seemed like my legs were now programmed to go either uphill or downhill, but refused to work on flat surfaces. My watch said we were coming up to 9k, was it 10 or 12k we were doing today? Nevermind, nearly there. We ran through the parking lot were we had started earlier in the day, and then continued downhill on an old farm road towards the village of Aulon. One more uphill, and then a tractor blocked the way. Had we turned down the wrong street? We stopped, unsure, but when we squeezed past the accidental road block we were just a few meters away from the flag marking the finish. We ran up to the flag together, and got the same finishing time. 10,2 km in 1 hr 22 min 06 sec, 686 meters of ascent, 853 meters of descent, and the fastest kilometer being covered in 4 min 19 sec.
Nicola was the next to come running down the hill, much to everyones surprise (the other five runners and Jean Christophe, the organsier, all met each other during Run Iceland in 2013), a minute and a half later Sara and Alan together, losing to Nicola after having lost the trail and Sara having fallen on the downhill section.
One stage down, four to go, and from the café where we were rehydrating in the afternoon we had a view of the course for stage 4, the vertical kilometer.
Something to look forward to, but first, a visit to Spain.