Vertical Kilometer (VK) races are non-existent back home in Australia (+1000m, <5km). We're just not blessed with the topography, or access to areas where one could be held. It was for this reason I sought out a VK course on this latest trip to Europe. I did my first VK in Canazei, Italy on my first European trip in 2013. I found it steep, lung busting and momentarily exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable. I also found it to be not as taxing on my legs as I imagined. When I was planning my 2016 European trip around the Skyrunning World Championships I was looking for events that would justify an extended stay in Europe and be fun to do, but at the same time wouldn't leave me depleted of energy ahead of my goal race at the end of my travels. The perfect combination was found at the High Trail Vanoise races held in Val d'Isere, France. Over the course of 3 days there's a VK, 18km, 38km and 64 km races on offer. They are all run at higher altitudes than I'm used too (1800m up to 3600m) and were two weeks out from my goal race, which would hopefully leave me enough time to recover. My plan was therefore to compete in the VK on Friday afternoon and the 38km on Sunday morning.
I arrived in Val d'Isere on Wednesday before the VK race with Brian and my parents (Jim and Joan) who were all accompanying me on this trip to Europe. The day before the VK, Brian and I decided on a course recce of the VK course. We knew where the course started, on the grassed roof of the aquatic centre, (1800m elevation) and finished high above at the telecommunications buildings (2800m elevation). The route goes straight up the mountain behind Val d'Isere on the Bellevarde Face, loosely following the cable car most of the way. Brian and I started on the vehicle trail which zig zags its way up the hillside under the cable car. Upon reaching the top our watches measured 4.5kms and +1000m, -7m. We had the correct elevation gain, but had accumulated about 1.5km more distance than anticipated. Clearly we had taken the "easy" route up. Race day would therefore be more direct and no doubt more challenging!
As the VK was a bit of fun I didn't bother tapering, so Brian and I spent the morning before the VK checking out the Tunnel on the 38km course. The Tunnel sits at about 2900m, and any extra time at altitude would be beneficial for the longer races still to come. We returned to Val d'Isere in time for lunch and a short nap before my allocated VK start time of 17:25.
This event was the first for a long time where I can say that I had the lowest of expectations for myself going into it. I hadn't race a VK in years, let alone the route. I also had no idea of the competition. In a way it was refreshing. The only expectation I had prior to crossing the start line was to just finish. If I wanted to walk then I'd allow myself to walk. If I wanted to look at the view then I'd take the time to raise my head and look around. This was my outlook before starting. After I started my competitive nature kicked in, along with a whole lot of expectations.
Standing in the starting corral I was lined up with the other runners in our respective starting order. We were all set off in minute increments. As I watched the runner ahead take off on the course, with his poles, I was wondering if I too should be running with poles? There was a big contingent of the field who had them, but then again they probably knew how to use them. To momentarily take my mind off the run, the announcer switched from French to English. I remembered him asking me if we had "big mountains" like this in Australia? No. Am I scared? Yes! He was kind enough to give me an English "3, 2, 1 GO", before I gingerly ran off up the mountain.
For me, the start of the VK was kind of awkward, having only done one beforehand. It is such a short race that it feels like it deserves a sprint start, but the grade quickly kicks up and the only thing to focus on is cadence. I focused on keeping my feet in a regular rhythm, something akin to my heart beat which was rapidly increasing. I also didn't want to slack off because the lower part of the course was very exposed and gives a good view to the assembled crowd below. The guy ahead, who'd departed a minute beforehand was my first and most immediate goal. I also didn't want any girls to catch and pass me. I would allow myself to get passed by the guys as they were in a different category, but at the same time I'd try to stick with them for as long as I could. The runners starting behind me were seeded, so trying to keep in front of them kept me running scared the whole way.
The course had a big mix of trail types along its short but steep length. After the short section through newly mown, but still lush alpine grasses the trail followed one of the steepest service vehicle tracks I've encountered. Not only was this vehicle track steep, but it comprised lots of loose stones and finer gravel. After a few small sections of vehicle trail and several tight switch backs, it was on to single track, with its slightly more direct and steeper ascent. There was certainly no messing about on this course. The trail so far was more direct than the one Brian and I took earlier and I had only gained about 200m in elevation.
As the trees thinned out and gave way to grassed alpine slopes the trail became almost a direct line upwards. The course markings now dotted the open grassy slope in a straight line upwards. There was no trail to follow here, only the course flags. A keen eye was required to avoid stepping on a precariously positioned rock or animal burrow. I took a few glances around and for all my efforts, and what had already seemed an excruciatingly long time, I had not ascended as high as I thought. The higher I climbed up the grassy slope the closer I got to the next section of vehicle trail that would take me to a more gentler grade of trail up to the top of the cable car (+850m). As the grade became less intense nearer the cable car building I tried to go from a power walk to a run. My run at this stage felt like more of an "on the spot" type of jog that you often see runners do at red lights. By this time the faster seeded male runners had started to come through more frequently. Their legs had more power and they easily edged ahead, tapping their poles on the gravel as they passed.
As I reached the cable car building and ascended the short flight of steel steps I was greeted by Dad who had caught the cable car up, along with Mum and Brian. Seeing Dad didn't mean my race was finished. A short section of flat positioned us for the final direct stretch up to the finish line. Ahead I could see the finish about 150m above me, and between me and my goal was a gaggle of exhausted VKer's who appeared to be reaching out for that finish line. There was no distinct trail up to the top. It was a case of any which way you can to reach the finish. The vegetation disappeared the higher I ascended and now the ground was extremely steep and the small stones made it difficult to get traction. My movements at this stage resembled those of a nightmare, where you have the movements and sensation of running, but without actually getting there. My lungs were burning at this altitude and my throat was extremely dry. I joined those around me with arms out stretched, like zombies clawing at the mountain side. I could see Brian and Mum near the finish. Brian was calling out "one more place". I dug deep and focused on overtaking one more person before this VK was over. I over took him and then staggered the last few meters up to the finish line where I needed to be propped up by Mum.
While exhausting myself on the ascent I was thinking what a horrible race this is. How weak my legs were, how difficult it was to breath, how this was pure torture. Then once at the top all I could think about was how much of an achievement this was and what I'd do differently at my next VK race.
For all my effort I ascended the 1000m in 49:01 and 9th female. I was a long way from first, but those girls ahead showed me that VK's are their own special discipline. If I do another VK I'll probably make the effort to learn how to use poles.
Vertical Kilometer - 1000m elevation gain in under 5kms.