Trail des cretes du Chablais

After our winter in the Trois Vallees ski area, Lorna and I are now spending the summer in Chatel, in the Portes du Soleil area. It’s a great ski area, but more importantly at the moment a fantastic summer area. We’ve settled in to our little apartment (read bedsit), which for seasonnaire accommodation is actually pretty huge. As soon as we arrived I started to dream of running around the stunning mountains and ridges surrounding Chatel, and after about two weeks of living here I even found a race to enter! The first of many I hope, and even better it was supported by Scott, so it must be good! Here’s a quick blog about it…

“Trail des cretes du Chablais” translates as “Trail of the ridges of the Chablais region”. There were three races on offer, an 18km (1200m ascent), 42km (2900m ascent), and the monster “Le Contrabandier” race, with 5600m ascent over 76km. I don’t think I’ve ever actually entered a race with more ascent. The route would take us from Chatel south towards and then over the Pointe de Masse, then to the Tavanuese region, before turning north to the village of Abondance for the main checkpoint and roughly halfway point. From Abondance at about 900m we would ascend the Cornettes du Bise at 2432m, then a few more ups and downs before the final climb to Morclan and the gradual descent back to Chatel.

Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately the weather did not want to play. The two weeks before the race were really really wet. At the end of our winter season the running in April had felt like summer, but now I felt like we’d receded back into winter. Each morning the clouds would fill the valley, perhaps occasionally rising during the afternoon but only to turn into a spectacular storm for the evening. Fantastic to watch, not great for ensuring snow-clear summits… To cut a long story short, the organisers did a fantastic job to give us a course to race round. The 76km became 69 (though as work prevented my attendance at the briefing I didn’t know this till Abondance!), and the 5600m became 5000. This still sounded plenty as I stood around in the centre of Chatel waiting for the 3am start. Everyone around me looked lean and fast, and like they were born with batons in their hands. Mine felt heavy and awkward, I’d only run with them once so this would be a baptism of fire!

Nervous selfie at 2:45
It was great to get started. The race had quite a presence in the village with its big marquee and inflatable finish line, and quite a few people came out to cheer us off, all the way up through the village. Some of them even looked sober.

The NASA countdown now appears to be standard in European races!
After the small tarmac start section we headed out on a little trail contouring around the French / Swiss border ridge and then dropped down to the main road, very close to where Lorna and I live. Then up the other side and the first climb began… I was in a group of about 10 at the front, but as we climbed I felt I was working hard and dropped back slightly, wondering if it was too soon after the Peak district trigs. I went to strap the batons on, immediately hit a man behind me in the balls and had to apologise. It seemed rude not to let him past me, so that was another place lost and I was about 15th. This felt a sensible place to be though I was not feeling particularly sprightly, so I plodded on and tried to get some of the race under my belt.

The first section to Abondance, which turned out to be about 32kms, had some utterly spectacular sections. Due to the re-routed course we did a fair bit of high level traversing rather than ascending the planned summits, which for safety reasons had been roped by the organisers. This meant in one case an incredible traverse of 200m or so across a very steep snow slope, kicking steps whilst holding on to a fixed line, following a line of headtorches beneath the towering summits above. It was at this point that I realised that there is a very specific set of skills required for racing at this level in the Alps – and all that core strength and balance Stu Hale keeps telling me to work on would suddenly be very useful. I tried to go fast across these technical sections but I just couldn’t, I was wearing a pair of brand new Scott Kinabalu Enduro but kept slipping and nearly launching myself rapidly towards the valley floor. The guys around me made it look so easy! I’m not sure if I lost places on these sections but I certainly felt I’d worked harder than, and lost time to, those around me. After about 3 and a half hours, a village appeared in the valley below me, which surprised me. It turned out to be Abondance, where I’d not expected to be for another hour and a half. At the checkpoint in the village I discovered the new distance of the race, and learned that the second “half” was further with more climb. I had arrived not feeling too great, but after a good helping of Alpine checkpoint food (mostly cheese, dried sausage and coke) I set off with renewed vigour! I’d also realised on the final descent (yes, it took me THAT long), that perhaps some of the speedy runners who I’d now lost sight of in front of me were running the relay, meaning that they were only going to Abondance where they’d hand over to their partner for the second half. This obviously meant I wouldn’t be racing them, which was great, but meant that I now had no idea how many people were ahead of me.

The climb from Abondance started on the road, up through the famous Abbey and eventually out onto trails leading towards the Refuge d’Ubine, and then the col of the same name, and finally via a ridiculously long snowy traverse in now zero visibility to our revised high point on the Cornettes du Bise (about 2100m of the 2400m summit). The traverse was very memorable, but at the time VERY frustrating. I was running through fog, able to just see one of the little pink marker flags stuck in the snow from the previous one, constantly traversing and climbing up to my right, with an unknown drop off to the left. Every so often I’d cross an area which had avalanched during the winter and have to pick the route through snow and rock debris. The frustration came from my slow progress, again due to technical inability! Finally I was descending, and it soon became apparent that sliding on my bum was the quickest way down. A relay runner on Team HOKA came past, able to ski on his shoes rather than having to bumslide like me. It wasn’t that much faster, but probably a lot more comfortable.

Eventually the route turned south again and after dropping from the high mountains through some fantastic areas, and some refuges I certainly plan to visit again, our route was joined by those of the other two races. This meant that after being alone for at least 3 hours I was joined by loads of other runners. I now knew the finish was not too far, maybe 15kms, and was keen to press on and get there. I felt pretty good and ate the last of my four gels on one of what felt like it should be the last little climb. However each time I thought this there would be one more. None of them were big, but after a race of huge ups and downs, these 100m or so ascents felt harder and harder!

All three races were now together and the trails had finally given in to the weather. There was a LOT of mud! Grip became a distant memory and everyone just tried to remain upright whilst heading broadly downwards. On the final descent to the Super Chatel area I gave in and let gravity take its course, bum sliding on gravel-y mud hurts even more than on snow! I now felt great though and was passing runners from the 42 and 18km courses. After a totally brilliant race the final descent was unfortunately a contrast to the beauty and solitude of early sections, the narrow trails were a couple of inches deep in mud and everyone was either in the way or stuck behind someone… I was really trying and one over ambitious overtaking manoeuvre ended up with me flat on my face in the mud, now completely covered and with one of the bloody batons half way down the hill to my left. I gathered it up and resigned myself to a time just over 10 hours. It didn’t matter though, given how crap I’d felt earlier in the race I was pleased to be finishing. I’d learnt a lot and hoped I might manage a top 20 position.

Up there!
Finally the finish line was in sight, then, as it always does, it ended. My time was 10:10:33, which turned out to be enough for 9th place. The winner took about an hour and a half off that though, which shows where I need to be aiming for. Congratulations to everyone who completed any of the races this weekend, and a huge thank you to the organisers for working so hard to put on a race for us. It was just possible to run in a t-shirt, but the marshals on the high mountains looked freezing so Merci Beaucoup to them, and thanks for keeping an eye on us over the roped sections. I can’t wait to work on my alpine running skills and hopefully run this race again next year.

Brilliant marshals and checkpoints
Thanks very much to my employers (Alpine Quests – the best chalet company in Chatel by miles!) for allowing me the morning off, to Scott for sorting out the entry and for making such great shoes that I could wear them out of the box for this race and not end up with any damage to my feet at all, and to Accelerate for continuing to support and coach me despite my international wandering.

Walter returns


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