Saturday, 27 July 2013

Trans d'Havet 40km 2013

Initially our plan was to head home after the two races in Canazei, Italy, (Vertical Kilometre and Skyrace) but Brian always kept the option there for me to stay back to race the Trans d'Havet 80km, +/-5500m which was also the European Skyrunning Championship Ultra event. As it turned out I had an extremely good offer to stay around (for which i am hugely grateful for) and so Brian dropped me off at Recoaro Terme, Italy before heading of to Venice to catch our original flight home. Recoaro Terme was a small village outside of the race hub at Valdagno which didn't have any accommodation although it is a bigger town. More on this later.
Getting a lesson in descending from the Europeans. Photo Philipp Reiter.
I wasn't left totally on my own before the race. I was soon joined by some good company to spend the rest of the week with in the form of Ian Corless, Philipp Reiter, Martin Matthes, Lauri van Houten, Marino Giacometti and the lesser known Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg. Hanging out and running with these guys was a lot of fun. The trails we were running on were very different to those I'd been spending my time on since arriving in Europe. The Alps had been very green and cool. This part of the Dolomite mountains that the Trans d'Havet trail passed were dry and hot. It was like running in summer back home. I loved it. I loved it even more knowing it was winter back home.
Checking out the area with Ian Corless. Photo Philipp Reiter.
Having run some of the course in the week prior to the event I was expecting the race to be run at a moderate pace. The course seems to be going either up or down and there were no long sections that were flat. The trail consisted mostly of loose dry dusty rocks which could catch you out if you weren't paying attention. The weather forecast for race day was for hot dry conditions which would make the run that little bit tougher.
Course recce. Photo Philipp Reiter.
The Trans d'Havet 80km race had another crazy European start time of 1am. It was complicated further by the fact that briefing would be at 10:30pm followed by a trip in a bus to the start line a couple of kilometers away. I thought I was all prepared for the logistics but apparently not. As it turned out, I left my hotel room to meet up with my lift, who had already departed. I wandered around for a bit but couldn't find anyone to give me a lift to race central or the start line. I gave Ian Corless a message, pretty much asking for HELP. Ian wasn't my savior that night, but he did suggest that I turn up later in the morning for the shorter marathon distance (40km in this case) which traverses the last half of the 80km course.

Later that morning after a restless sleep, I managed to track down Martin Matthes who was registered to do the marathon and together we traveled to race central. At the registration desk they were a little confused as to why I had registered for the 80km (which I should have already been running) and was now registering for the 40km. I was a bit embarrassed to say the least. They must think Australian's are crazy. So after receiving a new race number Martin and I boarded the bus and headed to the start line at Pian delle Fugazze. At least I was going to race today.

The marathon course measured 40km with 2500m of climbing and starts halfway along the Trans d'Havet 80km course. It was also in the same area that I had been running in the days leading up to the event so I was confident as to what lay ahead. The bus drove up the mountain side and deposited us up top, so all the big climbs on the course had been removed. It essentially became a downhill race. The field for this race wasn't particularly big, so when the race began I wasn't swamped by a crowd of over enthusiastic runners. With the late start time of 9am and the warm morning temperature everyone seemed to be content to start off conservatively.

Trans d'Havet 80km Course Profile.
The first kilometre was all on road which allowed us to spread out a bit before we hit the single trail. Martin was in front and as the field stretched out was soon out of sight. I was surrounded by runners who had all ground to a walk and I joined them power walking up the first steep climb. I passed the leading female in this session and thought to myself if I stay focused maybe I can keep this poison. It was really heating up and I was grateful for the sections of shaded trail as the next section that I had trained on is all exposed. The climb seemed to be getting steeper and steeper, but with all the switch backs it allowed me to run bits of the climb.

When we got to the top of the climb it opened up to some lovely views across the valleys and we soon descended into some paddocks that led us to our first aid station (7km) and the beginning of the next mega climb. This was the toughest part of the race. My pace had been slowed to around 20min/km. The grade of the ascent was so steep I kept slipping backwards but so was everyone else. It was hard work me, it must have been harder for those doing the 80kms. When we got to the top we were teased with a slight down hill before another huge climb to the next aid station. From this point most of the hard work had been done and it was mainly a 30km run downhill with are few shorter climbs thrown in. This downhill section was beautiful running and the views were amazing. We stayed up high undulating and weaving around the mountains for around 16km before starting to descend towards the finish line. The descent was steep and rocky and every time I looked down it seemed I was no closer to the bottom.
There were some flat sections to run. Photo by Alice Maddalena.
The trail eventually spat us out onto the road where the marshals informed me I only had 6km to go. I really noticed the heat increasing the lower I got and I think other runners did as well as I found some lying in the little water troughs that are outside some peoples homes. Knowing that I didn't have far to go I resisted the temptation to cool off and kept going. I picked up the pace just to ensure I held my position all the way to the end. I was greeted at the finish line by Martin who was waiting to take me home.

I was happy to finish in a time of 4:52:44. I think I managed to run all the frustration and some of the disappointment out of my system before finishing. Martin did well finishing in a time of 4:28:04 and bagging 4th place in the process.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Dolomite Skyrace 2013

The Dolomite Skyrace was another race format that I hadn't experienced before. It is a 22km trail run,  this time on the other side of Canazei, Italy, to the VK, broken up into a 1750m climb over 10km followed by a 12km decent back down towards the finish. This particular race was also doubling as the European Skyrunning Championship for this particular format.

Prior to the race Brian and I had done a course recce on the first part of the course (uphill section). From what I had seen of the course didn't particularly fill me with confidence. There is one part of the course that climbs a sketchy scree slope which had large patches of snow on it up top (from the same snow fall that resulted in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race being rerouted a month earlier in a region not far away). We got to the top of the climb and I was disappointed to see large tracts of snow extending out to the highest part of the course,  Piz Boe at 3152m. You could see that the race organisers had started to cut a trail through the snow, but it didn't fill me with confidence looking at it. I wasn't ready to face the rest of the course so much to Brian's relief we both turned around and took the cable car down to Passo Pardoi then retraced our steps back down to Canazei. 
Sketchy scree slope with snow at the top and Rifugio Forcella Pordoi.

I went to prerace briefing where they informed us that all was well on the trail (English translation seems to be much shorter and to the point compared to Italian, French and Spanish). Runners were told to expect snow up top. We were also encouraged to take gloves to help us use the ropes that had been installed on the course. Runners wishing to use poles could pick them up at the bottom of the sketchy scree slope (Passo Pordoi) then deposit them at the top (an option that a lot of people took up).
Start line.
Come race day I was pleased to have recovered from my first VK two days prior. The start of the Skyrace was a mass start with the elites again placed in an advantageous place at the front of the field, a bit like First Class with airlines.  When the race started I was startled by the speed at which the field took off. It was something more akin to a flat road race. As I'm a slow starter, and runner in general, I quickly got shuffled back in the pack.
The climb was similar to the VK, just on a larger scale. We quickly excited Canazei and its streets to follow a short section of gravel fire trail before crossing a timber bridge over the river and then the wide grassy ski runs. This is pretty much the trail up to Passo Pardoi (Brian met me here and let me know that I was 11th girl), where we cross the road and then start the climb up the sketchy scree slope. The climb up this section was a bit crazy. There were switchbacks up the slope which I had taken on my recce, but this was race day and people were intent on just getting to the top any which way. Some made a bee line straight up, others followed the switchbacks and more still did a combination of both (which was me). At the top of the climb race officials had made a snow tunnel for us to run through which was quite novel. The tunnel must have been of quality construction as there were spectators standing on top. My previous apprehension about this part of the course was replaced by the excitement of the race and I followed the long line of runners in front of me towards the highest part of the course, Piz Boe.
Passing through Passo Pardoi
The climb up to Piz Boe involved some rock climbing but at the end of the ascent it was as though I was on top of the world. After a quick refuel at the refreshment table it was mostly all down hill. I'd made top 10 by this part of the race, but I was about to have a lesson in descending steep technical trails. Coming off the mountain we followed another sketchy scree slope which had defined switchbacks in it,  but like before it was caution to the wind for most runners and they just let gravity take over. The way most people ran past me is best described as a controlled fall. I lost two positions on this section and that is where I remained for the rest of the decent down the grassy ski slopes, gravel fire trail then paved roads of Canazei to the finish line. 

I was pretty happy with my performance and finishing 12th in 2:50:53. The competition was strong and the racing was at a furious pace. The downhill technique used by the people around me (presumably all European and skiers) was impressive and something I think I could work on.

James Stewart and I at the finish.
James Stewart again joined me as the other Aussie in this race. He wasn't 100% committed to running the event the night before but woke up ready for the challenge and so joined me on the start line in the morning ready to race. He managed to get to the top of the course without being chicked, but like me got a lesson in descending. Overall James did well finishing in 2:40:24.

After I got cleaned up I went down to presentation. As the announcer started calling names he read my name out. Surely not, but yes, apparently for this race the extended podium was extended to top 15. Luckily I had washed my hair.

Below us a YouTube clip showing highlights of the Skyrace. I even made an appearance at 2:30 into the clip.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Dolomite Vertical Kilometer 2013

The next race in my 2013 'Living the Dream' trip was the Dolomite Vertical Kilometer (VK), which also doubled as the European Skyrace Championship in that discipline. I was attracted to this event for a few reasons; it is a style of race that I have not done before, it goes higher than any race I have done in Australia, it is short but very steep and I get to test myself against some of Europe's best.
In the lead up to the event Brian and I stayed at an Austrian town called Schruns, nestled in an alpine valley just shy of the Swiss boarder. The mountains around Schruns were big like most of the mountains I had seen so far in the Alps, but to my luck there was a good place to practice my straight mountain climbing skills in the form of the Europatreppe 4000. Essentially this is a series of 4000 steps running almost continuously up the side of a mountain following a now disused pipeline. The total climb is 700m and the stair does it in 1.35km of distance,  with grades of up to 86% (I didn't know what that was,  but I do now having climbed it). My first attempt was 32min. The following day I returned and  did it in 31min. Not a great improvement,  but it was better than my first attempt and I now had a feeling of what this vertical kilometer was likely to be.

 Halfway up Europatreppe 4000 looking back towards the start at the bottom.

Europatreppe 4000: all the stats, which do not make it any easier.
Turning up to Canazei, Brian and I started scoping out the slopes trying to identify where the VK will be held. On the day before the event we went in search of the start area,  which wasn't all that hard as it was already marked with a little yellow sign and if that wasn't a big enough giveaway then we only needed to follow the procession of runners with really long poles. As the race would be held less than 24 hours away I promised Brian that I would walk it,  but not necessarily stick with him. I got to the top in a casual time of 55min. I wasn't particularly disappointed with this effort. On this attempt I chose a shoe which didn't have much grip, I wasn't being pushed, didn't have poles (don't use them, don't have them and they are more likley to be a hindrance to both me and the people around me if I started using them for this event). I descended off the lofty heights of the VK course feeling confident that I could possibly do 50min, going off my improvement from the Eurotreppe 4000.
The afternoon before the VK it started to rain, a lot. I was wondering how the course would stand up to the downpour. At the race briefing they informed us that there would be start waves with groups of runners going off at 4 minute intervals. The last two groups would consist of the elite VK runners.
Come race morning the skies had cleared and it was a beautiful morning for trail running. We were organised into start groups based on our bib numbers. While we were being organised a guy with an Aussie accent comes over to me and asks if I was Beth. It turns out that there would be another Aussie in the race in the form of James Stewart from Canberra. After our brief introduction I wished him good luck before watching him line up in wave 1 an then heading off up the mountain in a flurry of poles. Looking around it appeared that I was the only person without poles. No, I lie. I did spot a few people without poles, but that was because their poles were on the ground or being held by friends who already had their own pair of poles. Well poles aren't mandatory equipment but neither are shoes and everyone had shoes on. Perhaps you needed poles for this type of running?

The finish is just 'there'.
I lined up in wave 5 as dictated by my race bib (these really were race bibs,  not just a race number). I placed myself at the back of the group, out of respect for those around me who all looked like seasoned VKer's. My expectation for this race was to just beat my time from the day before and try my best. In another flurry of poles my wave started on up the hill. I gave Ian Corless a wave as I ran past him chasing the others ahead. He seemed to look concerned and gave me a sense of urgency, something I'm unfamiliar with given my style of running. I soon caught and passed the second last runner in my group then the next and so on.

The VK course starts in a farmers paddock. The race organisers were kind enough to have mowed it prior to the race. From the start area the trail goes up, up and up. Firstly following a narrow strip of mowed grass and wild flowers on a cambered upward slope. The wild flowers quickly give way to pine trees as the hill gets stepper. There was a small bit of downhill in this section where we lose maybe 1m of elevation,  however this is brief and isn't repeated again on the course. The trail narrows as it ascends up through the pines to a narrow dirt trail. In sections this trail has foot holes cut into it to help with the ascent. Without these foot holds you would just slip on the grade. In other sections temporary stairs had been constructed using branches from the surrounding pines. As the trail continues to ascend and the pines start to thin out there are rocky outcrops that require negotiation. These would have been easier if it was just rock instead of the layer of dirt which covered them. It was also around this section that the marmot burrows started appearing. I wonder what the marmots thought as a few hundred runners with poles (me excluded) came running, tapping and panting past their front door? The pines finally gave way completely to grassy alpine slopes and a wonderful view across the valley Val di Fassa. The top section of the course is a little deceiving as the trail goes to a sadle between two grassed rocky outcrops in which the race organisers place a large blow up arch. Unfortunatly this arch is not the finish. The finish is further up on one of the grassed rocky outcrops.

1000m above Canazei.
During the race spectators had lined most of the course. They yelled,  screamed, rang cow bells and even gave runners a push from behind. It was great to have this level of support on a trail run.
I was happy the way I paced myself for this run. I started conservatively and spent the whole ascent overtaking people who were clearly tanked. My shoes clawed at the ground and held firm. I ran with gloves to help pull and push me up hill using anything within reach; rocks, trees, even grass. Don't get me wrong in thinking it was easy. It was far from an up hill walk in the forest. My breathing was labored, but under control. My legs were burning. I was pushing on both my knees with every upward step. I absolutely loved it.
As I neared the finish I could see another girl ahead of me who started in my wave. I closed in on her and although we were both very close at the end I finished a whole 9 seconds behind her. At the finish gate I grabbed a recovery Coke from the refreshment table then checked my time on the live timing TV screen that was rigged on the side of the steep slope. My time was 43:53, second behind the girl that finished just ahead of me from my start wave. James finished in 42:51 and was looking good sitting amongst the fast guys, at least that was the way it remained until the elite VK runners started their ascent. The elite men started first with the elite girls starting last. I watched the first girl (Antonella Confortola) come across the finish, then a full two minute wait for the second girl (Emelie Forsberg) then more girls started trickling over the line. James went and checked the TV screen again then came back and informed me that I'd finished 6th female. I was pretty happy with my performance, far exceeding my initial expectations. Plus I was just 52 seconds from second place, so it was a tight contest.
James Stewart and I at the top waiting for the Elites to arrive.
That afternoon I was presently surprised to find out that my exertion wasn't particularly taxing on my body. Everyone I had spoken to regarding the VK said that I'd recover in time to run the Skyrace in two days time. I'd placed a lot of trust in other people's faith and was glad that they were right.
In reflection I don't know if I could have gone faster in the VK, particularly on that course which is almost entirely power walking. Perhaps if I'd started with the elite girls they would have fought harder for their positions, and possibly me mine. Apparently poles give you a distinct advantage when climbing but that requires skill, technique and some upper body strength. I suppose the only way to find out is to give a VK another go!
I would highly recommend the VK race format to all my running friends. It is a worthwhile experience that just about every trail runner/walker is capable of competing. It is less about speed and more about determination.

Check out the Dolomite Vertical Kilometer video below. The only problem is that the video does not do the course justice. It doesn't capture the cross camber of the course on the grassy slope at the beginning or the steepness of the assent. It does however give you an indication of the effort that everyone puts in to get to the top. You might also see a shot of me at the beginning doing up my shoes.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ice Trail Tarentaise - Altispeed 2013

My entry into the Ice Trail Tarentaise Altispeed race wasn't exactly planned. Brian had entered me into three races prior to our departure to Europe. My first race, Lavaredo Ultra Trail (LUT), was shortened from 118km to 85km due to late snow falls. Following the LUT Brian and I discussed the idea of doing another race to 'make up' the race distance I had lost due to the altered course. We looked at a Skyrace, the Ice Trail (65km, +/-5000m, highest point 3653m) in Val d'Isere, France, which looked pretty extreme (for an Aussie girl that is). It was 64km long, run at altitude, had snow and even ice in the form of a glacier. The distance didn't concern me, although I had come to discover that distance in the mountains is negligible, it is time spent covering the distance that is all important. It was the altitude, snow and ice that concerned me most. Just about all my running is done between sea level and 1000m. I've only previously raced above 2000m at LUT and Western States. My experience running in snow had been limited to a few kilometers at Western States and more recently at LUT. The Ice Trail had a shorter version called the Altispeed (32km, +/-2500m, highest point 3386m), but although half the distance it still looked to be a challenging course. Brian and I had a friend, Marcus Warner, entered to do the Ice Trail, and to fill in our holiday we decided to head towards Val d'Isere to check out the area and even spectate at the event. After a few red wines, Brian took my interest in the event as being serious so quietly disappeared to enter me online in the Altispeed.
Altispeed course profile.
The week before the Altispeed race we stayed in Annecy, France, checking out the area and meeting up with people. We had the opportunity to chat with a few runners who were running the Ice Trail and others who had experience in this type of racing in snow and at altitude. The conversations I had concerned me and generally went along the lines of;
Runner: "Have you run on snow or ice before"
Me: "No."
Runner: "I would suggest you use poles to help with your stability when running on the snow."
Me: "I've never used poles before."
Runner: "Never?"
Me: "Never."
Runner: "OH........"
To say that these conversation made me a little nervous and concerned is an understatement.
The trail up to Tunnel des Lessieres
The Thursday before the event we arrived in Val d'Isere and met up with Marcus in the afternoon. Marcus had arrived a few days earlier so when we arrived he drove us straight up to Col de l'Iseran, +2770m, to start acclimatising. Col de l'Iseran would be one of the checkpoints on the two courses (Ice trail and Altispeed). From here we followed the race trail up the hill through the snow to the Tunnel des Lessieres at 3000m elevation to start the acclimatisation process. Marcus explained the science behind it while I sat down and enjoyed the view.
Acclimatising with Marcus Warner, me, Brian Cardelli
The following day Marcus had another adventure lined up for us. This time we would head up the valley to Refuge du Prarinod, then beyond up a hill until we reached an elevation of over 3000m. The start of the run followed a narrow valley before opening up to a wide grassy valley. It was here that Marcus and I decided to run up a random slope. It started off OK but quickly got steeper. Marcus stopped at about 300m of vertical climbing and I continued on a little further. We both descended on our backsides. A little further on we passed the refuge, then climbed the hill behind up into the snow. Marcus was kind enough to give me some pointers about traversing snow so I spent this time practicing. On the decent we stopped by the refuge to have a light lunch.
Acclimatising on the French/Italian boarder. Acclimatising with Marcus involves a lot of either standing and chatting or sitting and chatting. No arguments from me. It seemed to work.
Race day soon arrived and I lined up with the other runners at the start. I wasn't paying much attention to the pre-race announcements, as they were all in French, when I heard my name being called out.  I'm not sure what was said but I found myself being pushed towards the front and there I stayed briefly before the start, when I quickly got swamped by all the other runners. The first section of the run followed the road up the valley. The grade wasn't particularly taxing but after a few kilometers we quickly turned and the climb began. We climbed up out of the valley following a dirt trail with grassy slopes either side. The climb went for a while and by the time I had reached the top of the first section I'd passed the lead girl. From there we climbed further into the snow. I used my newly honed snow running skills to get to the top of the climb where we joined up with the runners doing the Ice Trail. From this point on we shared the same course until the finish line. We crested the first climb, Col des Fours (2976m), then started the decent down the other side where Brian said he would be waiting. As he promised he was there waiting for me. As I approached he gave me encouragement and we both started running up the tarred mountain road together. Other guys around all started walking on this road section, but I was determined to run as I was sure my efforts running in the snow had allowed the girls behind to close the gap. It didn't take very long for Brian to drop off and start walking too.
Photo courtesy of Ian Corless,
The road section was soon over and it was back to climbing the mountain proper. This next climb would take me to the highest point on the Altispeed course, Aiguille Pers at 3386m. The climb was a little surreal. The grade was too steep to run, so everyone around me was walking. As we were ascending there were skiers descending beside us on groomed slopes. Also the more I climbed the more labored my breathing became. I remember thinking to myself that this was the whole reason for coming to Europe, to run in races that are completely different to what I had run before, and that is exactly what I was getting.  
Aiguille Pers at the top middle.

The decent was pretty easy compared to the climb and I could feel my breathing improving as I went. The trail skirted around the side of a mountain, then over a few small hills before arriving at the final checkpoint, Col de l'Iseran. There was a big crowd gathered, whether because of the race or because it was a place of interest, either way it was good to get the cheers. Brian was there again cheering me on and letting me know how I was doing. The last big climb was up to the Tunnel des Lessieres, a section that I was familiar with. I knew now that I could finish strong and hold my position to the end. The climb was short, compared to the two previous climbs. When I reached the other side of the tunnel I was surprised to see the trail just drop off in front of me. There was no gentle grade down. I watched a guy in front of me start running then drop onto his bum and slide down. Obviously this was a genuine technique so I followed suite. This bit of sliding was over too quickly, and the trail veered off in a different direction so it was back to running in the snow, over another small hill, more snow, then grassy slopes towards the chairlift. The trail followed the chairlift down the hill, though less direct, with a series of switchbacks down to the valley floor and the town centre.
Tunnel des Lessieres.

I was happy with my finish time of 4:01:49. I went into this race with no expectations other than to finish. I hadn't seen much, if any, of the course. My technique and confidence on snow is next to nil. I can say that having completed the course I do feel more confident running on the snow. I also think that doing the short race was a smart move as my time at altitude was limited, minimising any effects I may have had otherwise. Just before presentation concluded Marcus Warner staggered across the finish line in 13:57:41, perfectly timed to take a photograph of the mens Ice Trail podium for his Ultra168 post.
I'm glad the MC answered his own questions because I didn't understand a word.

Below is a short video showing what parts of the trail was like. I'm in there at about 3:01. My climbing skills are just like everyone elses however I do have a unique technique when it comes to descending on snow.