- John travelled to Belledonne to play with the big boys
- It was hard
- There were lots of very scary big hills
- He DNF’ed – timed out after 22 hours
“I’m fine. Seen some amazing stuff and had an adventure”
With that text message to my long suffering wife Helen, my attempt at running L’Echappee Belle ended. Timed out after 65Km and 5400m of climb. It was dark and cold as I ran belatedly into the aid station of Le Pleynet. I was met by an apologetic volunteeer who informed me that I had missed the cut off and my race was over. “C’est bon” I replied trying to smile to show my acceptance of my fate, or should I say failure.
See, that’s the thing about an adventure, the outcome is not predictable. It wouldn’t be an adventure. if the outcome was guaranteed
L’Echappee Belle has been on my bucket list for a while. It is a 150K race across the Belledonne Massif in France.with 11400 metres of ascent and descent. II was attracted both by its reputation for difficulty and the nice convivial vibe it manages to convey. in it’s communications.
I had entered the race in 2020 and had to withdraw due to covid travel restrictions. I entered again this year fully expecting things to be back to normal, wrote it off when things deteriorated, then 3 weeks before race day managed to find a combination of transport arrangements and paperwork which could get us to the start line.
A flight to Geneva via London, overnight in Geneva, morning train to Chambery, check in to hotel, train to Aiguebelle, pick up bib, put up my tent in the park, walk to the pasta party, see Helen to the train back to Chambery, climb into my tent and pack my drop bag and race pack.
After all of the logistics and excitement of travelling in a Covid world, I was slightly disturbed at the feeling of having stopped. Here I was in my tent, on my own, about to do something hard and amongst the nerves and excitement the responsibility of having to do this weighed quite heavily. Alarm set for 2:45 and I tried for a few hours sleep. At 2:00 am the runners for the first wave started stirring. I started panicking about what time my bus left. Eventually, reassured that it was indeed 3:30 I snoozed some more then dressed and walked the 200 metres to the gymnasium to await my transfer to the race start in Vizille.
The journey by coach to Vizille near Grenoble was uneventful despite the bus driver having to stop and ask for directions.
The start itself was quite low key, set in a park by the Chateau of Vizille. There was something of a comic moment just before the start when the generator failed leaving the announcer speechless and the inflatable arch drooping limply onto the heads of the front row of runners.
With the minimum of fanfare the race started with a flat kilometer through the park to the start of the climb. It was only 6am, but was already very humid and after a few minutes my shorts were soaked with sweat.
I was sweating and panting as I attempted to power up the first steep climbs, yet I could hear singing coming from behind me! One of the runners had a Ukelele strapped to his hiking pole and was playing it while singing popular French songs as he made his way up hill. He had a lovely singing voice and at times it echoed off the surrounding hills. Sometimes others would join in and sing along. He continued to do this for the whole race! Meanwhile I continued to gasp and pant as we got higher and higher.
Despite the lung busting climbs, the first 10 miles were, as promised, mostly runnable. A mixture of alpine trails and ski access roads. It still managed to climb nearly 5000 feet before it arrived at the ski domain of Arselle and the first checkpoint.
With covid regulations in place we were offered the choice of sweet or salty and then presented with a brown paper bag containing a breakfast of our choice
Into the hills
There is something quite special about the early mornng light in the high mountains. Invariably it is the mountans on the other side of the valley which turn golden first as the sun rises in the sky, while your fingers still nip from the cool morning air. The air somehow feels thin and there is a stillness to it, broken only by the sound of cow bells starting to ring in the alpage and the flickering haze as the air heats in the distance.
The sun was up, I had covered the first section of the race fairly well and despite all the travails of the last 18 months here I was, in real French mountains, eating cheese and sausage for breakfast as if I had never been away.
To La Pra
From Arselle, the trails continued upwards, steadily becoming rougher and more technical as they climbed. Vistas were opening up with views all the way to Grenoble behind and the high mountains emerging in front. I was moving comfortably, the sun was out, the trails were good, the hills were big and the views were glorious.
As we climbed the Col de L’infernet and Col de la Botte, the first hint of doubt started to enter my head. Despite feeling comfortable and climbing well, people were starting to pass me and I made a little mental note that this was a bit odd.
By the time I arrived at Refuge de la Pra the sun was splitting the sky and the temperature was well into the high twenties. I was melting. I took a while to eat and drink before heading out once more. Again, I was slighty concerned that runners were arriving at the refuge that I knew had been far behind me. Still, apart from being very hot, I was feeling fine and still optimistic about what was to follow.
Croix de Belledonne
I was excited to tackle the next section. We were heading to the Croix de Belledonne, the highest point on the course. We were into the red zone. The race organisers provided a very thorough course handbook and helpfully gave each segment a colour coding. Red = Difficult and the terrain had been red for some time. This was a big climb over difficult terrain and I was beginning to feel the effects of being at altitude.
The trail up to the cross was relentlessly stony, punctuated by the crossing of some large snow fields. Whenever you see videos of elite runners crossing snow fields it looks like effortless fun as they free wheel down the slope. As I soon discovered, it is much harder than it looks. With the heat of the day melting the surface my crossing looked more like a penguin on roller skates.
The summit of Croix de Belledonne is a narrow sharp ridge topped with a large wooden cross. At nearly 10,000 feet this is the highest point in these mountains. There is a full 360 panorama and I was very fortunate to be there on a fine day with stunning visibility.
It had taken much longer than I expected to get here, but I was feeling quite pleased with mself to have ticked this one off. I paused to take a few pictures, but conscious of the passage of time and the slightly wobbly head I was getting from the altitude I made my way down from the summit.
some views from the top
The Black Zone
If Red = Difficult then Black = Very Difficult. The descent over Col de Freydane was horrendously Black. Going downhill is supposed to be easy, the way you make up time. Unfortunately the descents were so difficult and technical that I was probably slower going downhill than I was going up. I have become progressively slower and more cautious descending on technical terrain as I have got older. A combination of aging joints and a desire not to die has made me ever more tentative. This was the descent which just kept on giving .
Steep dirt zig-zags and narrow rocky ridges skirtied the edge of a glacier. These were followed by a buttock clenching traverse across the face of a vertigo inducing scree slope. Throw in the effects of the scorching heat and the slight altitude wooziness and this was quite a challenge.
I couldn’t help but agree with a French runner who was having an equally torrid time descending while telling me “les descentes sont dures, dures! dures! merde, merde! merde!”
The downs and ups continued. I was moving very slowly. Jean Collet is a tiny refuge perched on the edge of hill pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was mid afternoon and blisteringly hot when I arrived there. I ate a little, and ducked my head in the large water trough.
Eat, drink, move, repeat
I had been going for 10 hours at this point. I had reached that stage in an ultra when you stop noticing the passage of time. When you are just existing, totally absorbed in the moment. Eat, drink, run, hike, climb, swear, and repeat. Time has little meaning because the only thing which matters is the next step.
My heart sank when I realised I had misread the map. I had been expecting a descent from Jean Collet down to Habert d’Aiguebelle. First there was another 800 metre climb over yet another difficult Col, before a long technical drop of nearly 1100 metres to Habert D’Aiguebelle. It was starting to get dark when I finally arrived there.
A few runners were in the checkpoint when I arrived. It was obvious the volunteers were starting to pack up for the lond drive down the mountain. It was now dark and darkness brings with it doubt. A few runners were dropping out here.
A big part of me wanted to stop here, accepting that I was not going to make the next cut-off. As I vascilated, a french runner who was similarly dithering in the dark asked me if I was going on. “Yes” I replied. “Merde” says he, visibly disappointed. Resigning himself to the night he switched on his torch and headed out the checkpoint and up into the darkness.
There was nothing for it but to go on.
I wasn’t injured and had travelled a long way to be here. There was still 30 minutes until the cut off time. I owed the race the respect of keeping going. There was a chance I could make up time and arrive at Le Pleynet life base an hour inside its time barrier. This would let me get a proper meal and a short rest before heading out again. Yet, it was dark, the mountains were very big, the paths narrow and I was alone. Accepting that I probably wouldn’t make it, I decided to set off on the next section.
This was not a heroic decision, in some ways the brave decision would to have been to accept my frailties and abandon here. With reluctance and resignation I zipped up my jacket, turned up my light and headed out into the darkness.
Col de la vache was the next destination. With a short section of relatively easy going I soon caught my French colleague and we made an unspoken pact that we would maybe just stay together. Not that either of us was uncomfortable being in this unforgiving place in the dark on our own. Not a bit of it. Maybe it was just a coincidence that each time one of us stopped for breath the other also stopped.
I had it in my head that if we were heading for Col de la Vache then this section might not be too hard as cows aren’t renowned for climbing mountains.
Indeed after an hour or so we ran into the cows. Literally. Head down, ploughing up the hill, we looked up to see a large flat tan coloured side of cow straddled across the path. Cue some cow whispering and eventually this big docile lump was persuaded to relocate to another part of the hill.
High up in the blackness of the sky some lights twinkled. Head torches. No way! My heart sank. They were so high and so far above me it seemed impossible to get up there. Yet there was nothing for it but to go forward. It did cross my mind to turn round and head downhill. While I wrestled to reject that ignominious route, I knew it wasn’t possible because by the time I got back down the checkpoint would have been closed.
Onwards and upwards was the only way out of this predicament.
Not all hills are equal
There were three different types of uphills to reach those lights miles above me in the dark sky
Hundreds of metres climbing up steep boulder fields. Boulders which are stacked randomly like some Giant alpine toddler has tipped his box of toy bricks in a pile. The boulder fields while difficult were the least frightening.
Yes there was a chance of breaking your leg if you slipped and caught your leg in one of the gaps between boulders. And yes, every step up involved balancing on a jauntily stacked rock, some of them the size of a small car.
If you fell you might get a bit smashed up, but at least you could be reassured by the fact that boulders would stop you falling all the way to the bottom.
Grassy slopes which are so steep, that if you look over your shoulder you feel you are going to fall backwards.
Sometimes just for added interest, a dirt path would be worn in the grass. Little more than a sheep or goat track and of course made super slippy by the small stones and dust crushed under the feet of runners and hikers.
Just when you were coming to terms with the slope, a small climb or step up would be thrown in for good measure. Too high to jump or step, it usually required searching for a handhold in a tuft of grass or juniper bush.
These climbs must be safe. I haven’t heard of anyone falling down on this race. They are definitely best experienced by moving. Momentum seems to be the most reassuring way to ascend them. Moving slowly or worse standing still gives you the wobbles and reminds you that you can see a long way down behind you and that is never a comfortable feeling.
The rising traverse
There seems to be a bit of a formula for crossing these mountains. Usually you head for the Col which is the low point between two mountains. Low is relative. Unfortunately, the col is often at the top of an extremely steep section of mountain which is just too precipitous to sensibly climb.
The usual way seems to be that you climb up the side of the mountain on one side of the col and then take a rising traverse across the face of the Col to the side of the mountain on the other edge of the Col. This rising traverse tends to be on a path somehow cut into a scarily steep slope. The path will be anywhere between one foot to three feet wide.
Now life gets complicated.
Your rational brain says this path is flat with no great obstacles so you can run across it without any problems. Your irrational brain is screaming that the hill is so steep that if you put your arm out you can touch it. Below you might be 1000 feet of scree. If you slip there is nothing to grab on to so you are going all the way to the bottom. There is of course no reason to slip unless you make a mistake. The more you worry about it the more tense you become. The more tense you become the more you are likely to make a mistake. Vicious circle.
Pulling up my big boy pants
Everyone else has managed this successfully, therefore there is no reason I can’t do it. This became my safety blanket as I climbed through the darkness. Don’t think, just concentrate on the next step. Almost by surprise, I looked up and realised I was looking at the feet of the volunteers who were on top of the col.
I had made it to the lights. The ladies who were stationed here were set up with their sleeping bags. They were obviously settled in for a long night. They greeted me cheerfully and then pointed out a line of head torches rising high into the sky on a mountain far away on the opposite side of the next valley. It was simultaneously one of the most inspiring and terrifying things I have ever seen.
The night fears
More immediately terrifying and only 30 metres away was the drop down the other side of the Col. I paused to eat an energy bar and to give the runners behind me a chance to catch up so that I wasn’t entirely on my own on the descent. Unfortunately I had climbed too strongly, there was no-one coming so I would have to do this on my own. Very gingerly I set off while trying to look nonchalant as I waved to the volunteers.
As I pointed my torch over the edge of the Col, the beam picked up a very sketchy path heading steeply down. I knew this was not going to be good. It is a strange feeling. You sense you are outside your comfort zone. It isn’t outright fear, but it is a highly developed awareness of the risks you face and your own responsibility for managing them.
I guess it is bit like standing on the edge of a bungee jump (not that I will ever do that). You don’t like the situation you are in, you know that the chances of coming to harm are actually very small, but you are still anxious about doing it.
Making progress in the dark
Regardless of my hesitation, it wasn’t possible to stay where I was so, I had to go down. As always with these things it wasn’t too bad. After a few hundred metres the path improved significantly, and with the cool of the night I was able to move more briskly.
Risk brings rewards. The sky cleared and the stars were spectacular. I hooked up with a small group of runners and as we made our way along the side of a high valley we could head a Patous barking in the distance. The Patous are the dogs which live in the mountains to guard the sheep from predators.
More ups and downs and finally moving quite well passed another mountain rescue post with a big bonfire. The organisation of the race is excellent. They have rescuers at the top and bottom of each difficult section who check the runners off as they go through. I smiled when I spotted their bottles of wine chilling in the glacier fed water trough ready for the end of ther shift.
A false dawn
My spirits lifted as I realised I was only a little over 10K to the life base at Pleynet. As quickly as they were lifted, my spirits were quickly dashed when I spotted one of the yellow alpine waymarkers. Le Pleynet 2h 40m. Even allowing for me covering the ground faster than that there was no way I was going to make the cut off. It started to drizzle and then began a horrible damp rocky descent which seemed to go on for ever.
4 am came and went. I was outside the time barrier. I ran as best I could, passing quite a few runners trudging in who all looked at me as if to ask why bother when you are outside the time.
Le Pleynet arrived and I joined the small throng of cold tired runners waiting for the 5:30 am bus back to the start.
My adventure was over prematurely. I had failed.
With hindsight I can look back and say that I had the most fantastic adventure. After 2 years of Covid enforced absence, I had made it back to France and the big mountains that I love.
I saw some amazing scenery, discovered new places and tested myself physically and mentally, I loved every minute of it, even if some of it was type 2 fun.
The race itself has a wonderful community feel to it, quite old school, but is also meticulously organised. As a challenge it is as hard as they come, in some stunning locations. Despite my sometimes over dramatic recollection of some of the more challenging sections, the safety on the race is very thorough. I tip my hat to the countless volunteers who spent whole nights perched up at 2500 metres on narrow Cols to look after runners. I do think if you are used to those sort of mountains the race becomes a little easier, but it will never be an easy race for anyone.
As much as I had a great adventure, I didn’t go just to have a fantastic adventure. I went to try to finish a race and in that regard I was found wanting.
Coming to terms with a disappointing performance is difficult. Lots of supportive and well meaning friends say “Look at what you achieved”. Unfortunately I struggle to accept this. I didn’t achieve what I set out to do, I didn’t finish the race therefore I didn’t achieve.
I didn’t make it through the time barriers, therefore I was too slow, and failed to do what was required of me.
In some respects failing is Ok. I think it is important to acknowledge your failures. It dents your pride and self-esteem a little but it just means that I failed in this test. As with any test in life you have two choices. You can accept that it is too difficult and go do something else or you commit to taking that test again and with the benefit of experience redouble your efforts to succeed.
The biggest frustration of having a disappointment in a race like this is that you can’t just try again. You need to recover first and then you need to wait a whole year before you can try again. That means a whole year of commitment, focus and training which you may or may not be able to do.
So why did I fall short?
My training had gone well, and even though covid restrictions had impacted on my race focus I still had enough miles in the bank to see me through this. So what are the options?
- The race was just too hard for me? Possibly. The race is indeed right at the top end of the difficulty, scale but I have run enough hard races to know that I should have been able to complete.
- I am just too old for that sort of race. Again this is entirely possible. Covid has robbed us of two years of competing. When you are young 2 years is nothing. As you age, 2 years is a big chunk of the time you have left in the sport and enough time for a big deterioration in your physical ability.
- Environmental factors. Arriving on race day meant I wasn’t acclimatised. It was extremely hot which is never good news for a Scot. A lot of the race was spent at altitude. Before lockdown, being a fairly regular visitor to the Alps I had quite good altitude acclimation. This time I definitely felt the slowness and fuzziness of spending nearly 25 miles at around 2500 metres.
My strong suspicion is that altitude and heat were the biggest culprits, though there remains the strong possibility that I am just over the hill!
I have one more big race left this year. It will be a real serious test because of its hills and technical terrain. Crucially it isn’t at altitude so that will rule out that variable. If I finish, then I will almost certainly have another bash at L’Echappee Belle. If I don’t finish then it is off to the knackers yard for me.