I could hear cowbells ringing, lots of them. An then fireworks, or maybe gunshots? I was confused, had I overslept and missed the start of the Patou Trail St Lary sky marathon? Were the sounds I was hearing the sounds of spectators cheering the runners? Or maybe it was the organisers’ way of waking up the runners? I asked my sister and roommate Sara if she was hearing the same as me, to confirm I was not dreaming. She was. I looked at my watch. 4.30, so I had not missed the 7 am start. I went out onto the balcony but saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the empty hotel garden and buildings in the predawn twilight. I went back to bed and tried to sleep, but felt suddenly nervous and nauseous at the thought of the sky marathon. I had entered by default, by signing up for a week of running in the French Pyrénées without really checking the courses beforehand. The French Pyrénées Patou Trail was meant to be a training week to prepare the North Dows Way 100 in August, but during the week I had come to understand that the organisers had high expectations of me in the Sky Marathon. I heard them talking in French about a top 5 place amongst the women and top 30 overall. So I did not just have to get through the course, I had to race.
At 5.15 I managed to get down some breakfast, despite still feeling sick. I was joined first by Pasquale, my running buddy from the previus stages, then Nicola, Alan and Sara. We ate in silence on our last day of running together.
Jean Christophe gave the race briefing to the 400 or so runners standing outside the St Lary Town Hall at 06.45, but I was unable to hear or understand much. I only had one race tactic – stay as close to Pasquale as possible. As we started running through the streets of St Lary I immediatly lost him from sight. New tactic: start at the beginning, and keep going until the finish. My goals for the race were as follows. A: finish in around 7 hours, which I hoped would be a podium finish, given that last year’s female winner finished in 6.50. B goal: 8-10 hours. C goal: run, walk or crawl, get to the finish.
After running on the road through and past Vignec for about 2,5 km we did a sharp left turn and started ascending on a trail leading up to Grascouêous, a cluster of old barns on beautiful green pastures high up on the mountainside. From there we were to run across the mountain over to Pla d’Adet, and then back down to the bottom of the valley, crossing over to the village Tramezaguïes and Vallée du Rioumajou, ascending to Lac Consaterre, a lake high up in the mountains (2358m altitude). Then, finally, we were to ascend steeply back down to St Lary again (approx 850m altitude).
Despite the early hour, then sun was not fully up and there were still a few clouds drifting around in the valley, and despite the trail being shaded by trees, sweat was already pouring off me on the first ascent. We were moving upwards in a single file, and I was copying what the runners in front of me did, and only spending energy on passing if I saw gaps opening up beween the runners in front of me. I was breathing heavily, like all the runners around me, and my heart rate was higher than what seemed sustainable for 7 hours or so of running.
As we gained height we got a fabuous view of the valley, I made sure to look over my shoulder a few times not to miss this. Then the cluster of barns appeared above us, and the first ascent were nearly over. The first food station was situated here, and I helped myself to some banana pieces and topped up my water bottle. I had intended to eat hourly, but had not yet managed to eat any of the the gels or energy bars in my pack. I decided the banana and a few sips of energy drink would do for the moment, and continued running.
The course flattened out, and it would have been possible to go at quite a decent pace if we had not been so tired. So instead of running we shuffled along the trail, the band of runners elongating on flat stretches and descents, and contracting again as soon as we were ascending. The surroundings were beautiful, green grass, blue skies, and a view of the next valley with tall snowcovered mountains.
Despite barely lifting my feet clear of the ground I started passing runners and moving up the field. I caught up with another female runner and then spent the next half hour passing and being passed by a friendly bearded guy. He tried to talk to me a couple of times, but though having remembered more and more of my school French during the week I was not able to converse very much. I am normally very chatty during races, but this Sky Marathon was a very introverted race (we all seemed to have taken a vow of silence, I did not hear much chatter around me either).
There were two more aid stations on this section of the race, between which we were following the Mouscades Trail and the course profile was like a roller coaster. The last of the two aid stations were situated at the very top of the ski lift, where I had feared the Vertical Kilometer would end 36 hours previously. I was told I was sixth female, and what awaited now was a long, long descent. Running downhill on trail, my main weakness… I still had not managed to fuel properly, which did not help matters. The descent was indeed the stomachjiggling and quadsbreaking type, and the first part turned out to be on loose scree. Then we were at Pla D’Adet, following the course from Friday, only this time doing a vertical kilometer downhill.
The familiarity with the course from Friday’s race and Saturday’s hike turned out to be an advantage, I really needed the bathroom and had noted a few convenient places the day before. That taken care of the rest of the descent back down to the valley floor was marginally more pleasant, but my quads were feeling more and more like jelly and I was becoming worried that in a short while I would not even be able to stand on my legs any longer. By now I had also more or less given up on eating anything, deciding that I would have to try to drink my calories instead. At least my running pack felt like it was sitting looser on my back, indicating that the amount of sports drink I had brought with me was decreasing.
Just before the village of Tramezaguïes I started meeting runners walking in the opposite direction, and I was reminded that there were a relay race in addition to the full sky marathon. In the relay two persons ran a half each, and the exchange was at Tramezaguïes. Had I worn myself out trying to match the pace of runners only running half the distance?
As I climbed the path up to the check point I did not feel as if it was possible to run another half marathon, and certainly not one that was even more strenuous than the half I had just completed. Virginie had told us that runners used on average one hour more on the second half. If the finish line had been at Tramezaguïet I would have been very happy. My plan was to take my time at the check point, resting for ten minutes or so in the shade, but then the guy in charge of timekeeping (I was introduced to him during supper a few days earlier, but cannot remember his name) came over and told me beamingly that I was third female (confirming that several of the runners around me must have been participating in the relay, since I had been sixth at the previous CP). Luc (aka «The Terminator» due to his resemblance to Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies, and the fact that he was closing the Tremazeguïet CP at noon, «terminating» the slower runners) gave me a glass of cola and encouraged me to eat (I managed two pieces of crisps). Another volunteer helped me top up my bottle and bladder with my quota of water. Then I started uphill again, after just a few minutes at the CP, heading towards Lac Consaterre. My watch showed that I left the checkpoint after 3 hours and 15 minutes, if Virginie was right I should therefore be at the finish after about 7,5 hours.
Soon after I started feeling nauseous, and I was almost hoping I would start vomiting so that I had an excuse to head back and withdraw. However, I knew that the nausea was due to lack of food and therefore fixable, and that vomiting not necessarily means withdrawing, I finished the Isle of Wight Challenge after vomiting blood last year. I also thought of Sindre, whom I met during Ecotrail Oslo, for inspiration. After running with the elite in the beginning of the race he had started feeling poorly, but he was determined to finish even if he had to walk the rest of the way (I met him approximately 30 km before the finish). I had commented that the fact that he was finishing the race when he no longer had a chance of placing highly showed he was a true ultra runner. Ultra runners get to the finish, so I forced down a packet of shot bloks and told myself to keep putting foot in front of the other. Start at the start, then keep going until the finish.
There were not other runners around me at this point, and I took advantage of this and the cover of trees and stopped and rested frequently with my hands on my knees. I was passed by a few male runners, all of whom were really nice and tried to encourage me to speed up, but I was beyond caring about placement or finishing times.
In the Rioumajou valley we left the trail and followed a gravel road for a while along a flattish section that even had a few downhills. I was almost annoyed by this, as I felt compelled to run again and I knew that any altitude lost at this point soon would have to be regained. I was right, the trail snaked off into the woods again, and then we were out of the woods and could see the mountain tops and the gradient of the slopes above us. It would have been a breathtakingly beautiful sight had it not been for the scattering of runners marching zombie-like uphill far, far above me.
At the beginning of that final (or so I thought) ascent I had started feeling more energetic, and needed fewer and fewer breaks. I started catching up with and passing the runners who had passed me not long before, then starting catching runners who had been in front of me all day, including one of the other females. Did that mean I was now in second place? As I caught a group of runners in front of me I decided to fall in behind them, rather than pass. They were going slower than my current speed, but matching their pace meant I needed fewer breaks.
The view back down the valley was amazing, the sun was shining and insects were humming. Beside the path were big, flat rocks, and I thought that if this had been a hiking trip we would have stopped here for a break, sitting on those rocks drinking coffee and eating chocolate while enjoying the view and the sunshine. Instead the zombie march continued.
Despite the fact that I could see runners in front of me, my brain refused to believe my eyes. We could not really be going all the way up to the top, that was just impossible. Then I started seeing runners to my left, now actually running properly, following a trail along the side of the mountain. I was relieved, that probably meant that those people I could see moving towards one of the summits were mountaineers, not runners. When a guy with the clipboard told me to keep right, keep ascending, I was at first confused. Then I realised that we were going all the way to the top before running down the same way to this fork in the trail. It was after this out and back stretch we were to follow the flatter trail returning to St Lary.
As I started the final push to the top Pasquale came running downhill, cheering me on and giving me a high five. I think I also caught up with my running partner from Pla d’Adet earlier in the day at this point, but it might have been on the descent. He smiled and welcomed me back, so I guess he must have liked having me around despite my silence.
As I approached the top something funny happened with the vastus medialis part of my quads, the little f***ers tightened up more and more for every step. Probably a kind of a cramp. However I pressed on, and was greeted by Daniel, who had been helping with all the previous stages, at my arrival at the lake. It was so nice to see him, knowing that the worst was over, however I was probably too tired for my happiness to show on the outside. After helping myself to some mineral water from the drinks station, simply lots of bottles of water thrown into the lake to keep cool, there was another curve ball. Before going back down the mountain we had to do a lap around the lake. Thank goodness it was a small lake!
When running downhill from Consaterre we had the added challenge of runners coming in the opposite direction on the same single track trail. In Norway trail etiquette is for those ascending to give way. I do not know if the unwritten rules are different in France, or if the runners behind me now coming uphill were just too tired to move, but I had to jump off the trail several times to avoid collisions. I was also quite nervous abut my quads, the eccentric muscle work downhill should in theory be even more crampinducing than ascending, but instead it seemed to stretch out the tight bits. On the very, very, very last climb the cramp came back and I had to stop and stretch. Then it was all downhill to the finish. Steep at first, but then the gradient became gentler and both my breath and feet seemed to find their rhythm. It was almost enjoyable. Alas, that feeling did not last long. From then on in the pattern was ten minutes or so of running and feeling ok-ish, thinking I would be able to maintain a steady pace for the few remaining kilometers, followed by a few minutes of feeling absolutely awful and having to stop to catch my breath and suck down some sports drink. The good news was that despite the stops I still managed to overtake a few runners, the bad news was that I was overtaken by two females. One of them had a different coloured bib from me, so I was fairly certain I was still on the podium.
Finally the villages in the valley came into view, but which one was St Lary? Some hikers told me it was not far. Soon after I came to the last drinks station, where it was confirmed that the course was 45 km long and that I therefore had 5 km to go. Most of which was on road, and still going downhill. The time had not yet gone past 6,5 hours, so I was actually heading towards a sub 7 hour finish, despite my struggles with the heat and the altitude.
In the last village on the hillside I dipped my hat in the village fountain, as I had done at every opportunity during the day, this was the last chance to cool off before the finish line. Then I was in St Lary, cheered on by people sitting outsided the shops and cafés i the town centre, and finally I heard the beep from the timing mats. I told Virginie I would never, ever run this race again, and then asked her about my placing. She claimed fifth, but the results lists says 4th, in 6.57., 37th overall. I was 49th overall at Tremazeguïes, so despite fatigue, nausea and cramps I did manage to climb some places. Last year the winning time for females was 6.50, this year it was 6.22. The male winner this year finished in 5.30, an impressive result. Pasquale, my running buddy all week, managed an impressive 17th place, with 6.25.
On the day I was just happy to have finished, almost I week later I am still happy with a third and a fourth place in strong fields, competing against runners used to the heat and familiar with the courses. I also learnt a lot about how my body reacts to heat and altitude, and once again it was confirmed that I am strong uphill but need to work more on running efficiently downhill on trails. What is probably most valuable is that I now have another tough race under my belt which I can refer to when suffering in future races. The hills in the NDW 100 will be nothing compared to the climb to Consaterre. I have also signed up for a 80 km sky race in the Lake District in October (3×3000 by High Terrain Events), where fog and rain are almost guaranteed. Instead of dreading running in wet and cold conditions I am now looking forward to it.
After finishing I headed for the big fountain right next to the town hall, like most of the runners. I waited for Sara for a while, until I realised that standing around in the midday heat when I was already dehydrated and on the brink of heat exhaustion was not a good idea, so I nipped back to the hotel for a cold shower. On the way back to the town I heard my phone beeping. I did not even have to check it to know that it was Sara texting me to say she was finished. While waiting for the Swiss-Italians we hung out in Desmonds, enjoying cold drinks and cheering the runners shuffling/sprinting past us. Nicola appeared first, but then it turned out that he had missed the cutoff below Consaterre, being told he was one minute late and too old to be allowed up to the lake. Alan finished in 9.24, having struggled with back pain. When I asked him if he ever wanted to run this Sky Marathon again he just made a very rude gesture.
When I swore to Virginie that I would never run the Sky Marathon again she just laughed and said «give it two days». She was right… If I do return in the future I think I will make do with the VK and the marathon though. Any complaints I have previously made about too little running during my weeks in the Pyrénées are hereby withdrawn, the sky marathon more than made up for the short first three stages.
PS: That noise we were woken by in early in the morning was most likely the sound of cattle being driven through the town on their way to their summer pastures up in the mountains. There were fresh cow pats lining the roads as we made our way to the start.