The fourth day of running in the French Pyrénées – this time it was real. Instead of a somewhat competetive training run with a bunch of friends we were in a supercompetetive field of almost 100 runners. The female field was not that big, but Virginie, the organiser, assured us that what it lacked in quantity it made up for in quality.
We have been staring up at Pla d’Adet all week, the ski slope which is in view almost wherever you are in the valley. According to the St Lary Patou Trail website it was 4,5 km to the top, ascending nearly 1000m. I had been wondering about the route for days, looking up at it from below it is impossible to see where and how it is possible to run up to the top. Maybe I should have done a little recce hike along the trail earlier in the week, since I had not thought to do so the warm up had to do.
Back down in the village of Vignec, which is just across the river from St Lary Soulan, we waited for the start and I chatted with Sarah who I know from the Vegan Runners facebook group, and her friend Marion. I picked up on the fact that Marion was a former high level cyclist (I found out later she is a former Olympic silver medallist), and also a fellow vegan. A small French girl with a flower in her hair was also pointed out to me – last year’s female winner.
Then, after a speach from the village mayor and a countdown from 8 we started. It was nine in the evening, half an hour before sundown. I expected to reach the top in 1 hour – 1hour 15 min, but I had brought a head torch just in case it got completely dark before finishing. Lesson learnt from Isle of Wight – events do not always unfold as expected.
As we started scrambling up the winding road I was probably in the middle of the field. I was able to run faster than expected, and kept on running when we reached the slightly flatter gravel section. Suddenly I realised I was third female, Marion and Safia-Lise was not far in front of me, and soon I was on Marion’s heels. My heart rate was high, as expected, but my legs felt surprisingly good. I kept waiting for my calves and glutes to start burning, but that did not actually happen at all for the whole ascent.
After the gravel, and after passing through another little village and a grassy section, the path became rockier and steeper. Marion and most of the guys in front of me started power hiking, and I followed their example. Safia-Lise kept running, but did not pull away from us, hiking seemed to be just as efficient as walking. I passed Marion and was now second female. I also had Pasquale, my running partner in the three training runs earlier in the week, just in front of me. Today he did not slow down to let me catch up, he did his best to put as much distance between himself and me as possible.
We had started at 800m above sea level, and was climbing towards 1700. I willed myself not to check the ascent on my Suunto, preferring to be blissfully unaware of how much climbing was left to do. I checked my heart rate periodically, and despite hiking for over a kilometer it stayed in the 160s and I could feel myself breathing hard. Just like on the first day, I felt the effect of the altitude on my normally sealevel dwelling body. As the trail flattened out again somewhat the runners around me started running again, but I was unable to match their speed. Safia-Lise pulled away again.I told myself it was better to maintain a slower pace and conserve some energy, we were only half way, or maybe a little bit further than half way (in the pre-race information the distance was sometimes given as 4,5 km, and other times as 5km).
Even if I had to do a lot of hiking I did not stop once, I kept going onwards and upwards. Every time my heart rate fell below 160 I started running again, and ran until it became impossible to continue.
In the beginning we ran in the cover of trees, higher up the trail zig zagged over more grassy, open landscapes, probably pastures for cattle. Then I could see buildings in front of me, and the summit. My watch also told me it should not be far to go. Marion whizzed past, and some of the men in front of me sped up. Did they see the finish line? It turned out to be a false summit, the course continued along a road, finally a runable surface again, then steeply up over grass. I could see the real summit far, far above. Then we reached another cluster of buildings, but passed this as well, continuing up on the grass, we were now running/powerwalking on the skislope. It was clear that today we would get more distance than advertised, we were well past 5 km, and the summit seemed a long way away still. Then it got confusing, the markers turned left, but the summit was above to my right. The course marshall pointed me to the left, and the other runners turned that way, therefore so did I. Unexpectedly I was running downhill. It turned out the ski resort, and therefore the finish, was in the last cluster of buildings we had passed. I kept running and running, surprised at the speed I was able to muster after climbing uphill for so long, and surprised at how far it seemed to the finish. Then suddenly the sensors beeped, telling me I had crossed the finish line, and my Suunto was telling me the actual distance was 6,5 km.
I had managed to maintain third place, only beaten by two minutes by a local runner familiar with the course and by less than a minute by an Olympic cyclist. I can live with that, especially since this was my first race of this kind. I am used to hilly courses, but usually the hills are stuck in the middle or end of an ultramarathon, and therefore tackled at a much more sedate pace. I managed to keep most of the men behind me as well, finishing 32nd out of the 95 runner who started. I did not catch up with Pasquale however, he beat me by a minute and a half. My time ended up being 54.59, better that expected. Last year’s winning time for females was 1.01, but in previous years the vertical kilometer has started in the middle of the day, not at sundown. I was glad for the change, despite the late hour it was still hot.
Sarah finished a few minutes after me, as fifth female and first in her age category. Then Nicola, Sara and Alan came.
The night ended with a cable car ride back down the mountain with the lights from St Lart twinkling below, and then a picnic in the hotel garden before bed.
The day after, today, Sara and I actually did a half vertical k, ascending 500 meters on the same trail we ran yesterday, but at a much more leisurely pace, taking the time to enjoy the views and have another picnic. Coming back down to St Lary we enjoyed our day off by watching the Mouscades Trail 18km runners coming to the finish line. Marion was competing again and finished fifth, really upset because she had been in the lead, but got lost and ran an extra 3 km.
All the runners looked like they had suffered in the heat, giving us a preview of what to expect in tomorrow’s sky marathon. Tomorrow should be even hotter, according to the forecast…