Last weekend John and I traveled east of Annecy to a ski resort village
called La Clusaz. The mountains around us were really pretty in the Friday
evening sunset. Rain fell most of the early morning, but stopped while we
were getting gear together. I put on sunscreen just in case, and indeed the
sun greeted us later in the day.
The race was a 2-day stage race called the "Raid Altitude". We would camp in the hills Saturday night, but they brought up our tent/sleeping bag/food, etc. We thought we were taking good advantage of this by bringing extra clothes and a second thermarest, but when we got up there we saw people drinking liters of Coke and apple juice, and our tent was not the highest one for once.
The race started with an orienteering relay in town. At the stroke of 10 a.m. I grabbed our aerial map and analyzed it while walking in the general direction of one of the 12 points. I had to find 6 (and only 6), return and hand off the map, and then wait while John cleared the rest.
I went for the closest point, then the two near our car, then another 3 on the north/east side of town. Lots of small hills to climb, but the overall distance was short, and 20 minutes later I hustled back to the center of town and John took over. He sped through the 6 points in the higher hills south of town and was back in 15 minutes, putting us at about the 6th or 7th team out of 80 to finish this part.
Then we were "off the clock", so we walked to the bikes and rode them up the hill to the bottom of one of the many ski lifts around town. We would ride THREE of them on Saturday, isn't that funny? They loaded our bikes and we followed in the next chair. At the top, we got ourselves oriented, beeped the e-punch, and were off racing again.
The first checkpoint was below the main jeep road, apparently accessible by a small hiking trail. We got to the trail turnoff, and I looked doubtfully at it. It was muddy, rocky, narrow, and not rideable by me (although the team ahead of us was giving it a go). I did try, but immediately slid sideways. We went to plan B, which involved staying on the jeep road and jumping down on foot to the CP.
As soon as we took off, we saw the real trail, and it was even more narrow and less rideable, so we kept going, wondering where that muddy logging road would take that other team... At the right spot we left the bikes and climbed/slid down the steep slope through the pine trees. John's nav was spot-on, and we hit the lower trail at the checkpoint. My legs responded well on the uphill climb out, and soon we were back at the bikes.
Teams were coming back the other way as we continued on, so we felt pretty good about our route decision. More jeep roads, up and down, then a singletrack trail through an alpine meadow where several teams came up behind us. We let them by and followed them to the next discipline, paddling/running.
They used a small lake for this, with one person running around the lake and the other paddling around buoys (or "bouées"). The boats were solo whitewater kayaks, so it was an easy decision to put John in the boat. I trotted around the pond, watching John paddle with a group of guys, and we stayed about even the whole way around. One guy had the misfortune of tipping over, I'm sure he didn't enjoy that swim or subsequent effort to get the boat to shore so he could get back in.
We were back on the bikes as more teams poured in. John continued the good navigation along the trails and through the woods, and then we were at the start of the CO (course d'orientation). We downed a SPIZ while jogging down the road, way down the hill to find the next CP near a small chalet in a field.
We tried to locate the trail that was supposed to exit the side of the field, while watching a couple other teams take a jeep road that was obviously not what we wanted. Without wasting time, John towed me uphill through the trees until we came across the actual little trail, then we continued climbing switchbacks to the little pond/marsh at the top.
Heading to the next CP, we were joined by several other teams. John picked a good route that went around the nose of the hill instead of over the top, but the small road confused us as it went down and up unexpectedly. Two teams of guys stopped and debated while we conferred and then headed onward. Finally we came out at the large field we were looking for, found the next CP/chalet, and started back toward the bikes.
After a pretty little traverse through the pines, we were back at the bikes, saddle up! Next goal: get down the hill to the paved road. I rode my brakes but mostly stayed on the bike down the steep trail, until we hit a rocky patch at the end where I walked. (Which reminds me, we need to change out our brake pads...)
Another team accompanied us on a sailing downhill on a real road. Too soon we were back on a small trail that quickly turned into tight switchbacks. I ran with my bike, hoisted it down some log stairs, and then we came to a stop at the next transition.
This section was called "X-vertical", but we didn't need harnesses or gear, so we had no idea what that meant. Turns out there is a huge slab of rock, possibly granite, several hundred meters across and going up the side of the hill. Cool! We picked our way up the rock face, through small trees and bushes, more rock scrambling, a good couple hundred meters up until we found the CP and a great view. Very nice.
Then we were on a trail, finding CP 10 and starting toward CP 11. In the area of CP 11, everyone was looking every which way and not finding the checkpoint. We used the trail intersection, pacing, scouring the woods, and could not find it either. Finally I was heading back toward John when 2 guys ran toward me/in the direction of CP 12. I asked, and they said they had found CP11.
OK, time to regroup. I realized we were supposed to be looking on the edge of a real field, not just this clearing area with trees in it. We headed further, found the BIG field with the real trail intersection and then found the point. Just a few minutes wasted.
We hoofed it to CP12 and then back to the bikes. We reread the instructions and realized that we were suddenly "off the clock" again, not being timed. This was so we could get back down to town and up the next chairlift - oh, and DOWN the next hill and up the final chairlift - without rushing or pushing people out of the way. Weird but cool!
The downhill into town was steep, full of big rocks, and slippery with gravel. Everyone carried their bikes most of the way. I happened to notice a distinctive horse watching us - he was black but had a blonde mane, and he had an attitude of "hey, what are you doing here?". I called back to John to take a look at Dennis Rodman.
In town, we decided we could use some pastry. We had wanted to buy croissants before the race but ran out of time. Why not now? With our selection of treats, we headed to the chairlift with the bikes. This lift was a small enclosed telepherique which we rode with our bikes.
On the other side we rode down a long hill on dirt roads and then a trail. I tried to stay on the bike as much as possible, and John encouraged me. I even backed up to get back on and ride something that we decided I should be able to. It was slower than most people but good practice for me.
We found the last chairlift, parked the bikes in the overnight bike area, and got on the lift. At the top, we punched a CP to restart our timing and started running downhill. It was a long, open mountain trail, and we cut through the grass in a couple places, arriving 10 minutes later at the bivy location. Yay! We ended the day in 5th place out of 10 mixed teams, about 20-30 minutes behind and ahead of the nearest teams.
It was still afternoon, and we realized we should have packed reading material in our bivy sack. Heck, we should have eaten a late lunch while in town :) Instead we hung out and watched people as we boiled water for pasta and hot chocolate. The organizers also served us noodle soup, then at 7 pm they had a briefing and handed out the maps/info for Day 2 - a big day of mountaineering, ropes, and a long bike ride to finish. We had easily made the cutoff times on Day 1, but I was fairly sure we wouldn't hit the final cutoff on Day 2.
We slept well and for many hours, waking to a gray misting day. The organizers provided hot water for our oatmeal and tea, which we topped off with a half serving of SPIZ. Large bags were loaded onto trucks, then it was time to go! We walked/jogged across an area of rocks and bushes, then across a cowfield and started climbing in earnest.
John towed me up a steep slope to a ridge, where we found CP1, then pulled me up, up the ridge. It was a nice ridge, with a small trail and green, sloping, non-threatening sides. Sheep glanced at us while grazing. Clouds/fog roamed the upper elevations and wind blew in from the valley where we had been sleeping. Then it started snowing, tickling my left ear with little flakes. How odd is that?
More climbing, 800 meters worth in total. Finally John hauled me to the CP at the top, but there was no view, only fog. Time to get going down the other side! A couple volunteers made sure everyone headed in the right direction and not toward the steep cliffs or rock drop-offs. One called "venez à moi" and a stream of racers made their way down sheep paths cutting the steep slope.
Switchbacks led us down through the mist and the guys in front of me kept a slow enough pace that I had no trouble. I sat to down-climb the sharper steps as needed, and occasionally someone would yell "rocher!" and everyone below would hug the hill. We were wearing helmets and looking out for each other amid the bouncing rocks.
Soon we could see another valley, bathed in sun - hey! We traversed on a small path and then started climbing again, toward a col and the promise of scree. I stopped for a bathroom break behind a big boulder and John mixed us some SPIZ. Men climbed past us slowly.
John towed and led the way up the rock slide. The rocks were so stable, it was a luxury after PQ in Colorado. And the climb wasn't too long, just steep. A couple short breathers, more climbing, and we were at the top. Yes.
The other side featured a couloir, a word we had learned in the US but was obviously French. It means "funnel containing loose rocks", as in "stay to the left and get out of the couloir as quickly as possible so you don't get rocks bouncing on your head". The top part was actually an easy/but steeply dropping curvy dirt trail. Time to head down.
Soon we found the unstable rock part, otherwise known as scree. We moved left to get out of the path of most people above us and tried not to dislodge too much crap. I focused on standing straight and finding the favorable small grained pebbles and deep dirt that made scree-walking easy. It was fun! I didn't even need John holding my hand this time! It MUST be easier than the Colorado version.
We found a less-traveled path down and bounded/slid/rode the rocks. Then we found tufts of grass with hidden rocks that got in the way. We tried to keep running without tripping. After a very long way down, we were in a meadow and headed for the road.
We ran several hundred yards down the pavement to the start of the via ferrata trail. Non-racers with helmets and climbing gear were getting ready. Via ferrata is a popular spot in France - climbing around on rocks using hand and foot holds, roped into cables to keep you from falling to your death if you slip.
We hiked up to the start, found a few other teams in line, got our harnesses on and were soon away. It was the slowest via ferrata exercise I have done - waiting a minute or two to move to each new section of cable. My fear demon was hanging around somewhere but I kept him at bay. Partway up, the racers exited the via ferrata and the real climbers continued on the iron rungs.
We followed a small, newly-made "trail" through some brush and rocks and around to the top of the rappel. There were people waiting, plus more people piling in line behind us. The line slowly moved downward, and we used the time to down some SPIZ. This wait might be a factor in making the later cutoff times, we mused.
I think we were there for perhaps 40 minutes? Then I got on the rope and backed down the cliff on rappel. I had heard it was 35 meters high and declined to look down or figure out the math except that I had done much larger drops on rope. Still, it kept going down and down, and I bounced my toes off the rocks until I heard a voice in my left ear and my feet touched down.
I got off the rope so John could follow, then we quickly packed up and took off down the trail. Through a field, down the road, through a village, and then we found our bikes at the TA. Time to ride it home. OK, well, neither were we headed toward our car nor Grenoble, and we had a lot left to do, but still.
We walked and then rode back up the hill from Saturday, John towing me and my bike. We greeted a team of 2 women and made our way to the start of the final CO. This time it was a VTT (velo tout terrain) version, AND we could split up for once. We got some hints from one of the people running the CP area, and started up the trail.
We had already decided I would ride directly to the end of the CO and John would get the points. It became immediately apparent that he should take off instead of riding part of it with me. He was going uphill well, I was doing fine at a slower pace, and he had further to go. Since we had two maps, John went on ahead.
I followed the two women and then passed them while they discussed a trail intersection with another team. I saw other people trying to figure out their maps and hoped John had it dialed in. My job was to follow this trail, #36 on the markings, to our meeting spot. The trail was knarly so I mostly pushed the bike.
When the trail dropped into the woods, I hesitated and then backed up to follow bike tracks through the field. The CP was about 500 meters over a rise, at the edge of the field. Much easier to walk through grass than follow the trail down, around, and back up. I arrived to see 3 guys waiting for their teammates too.
While I was mixing SPIZ and studying the map for the last 10K of the race, their partners came running in. Their teammates had brought their bikes here for them, but John told me later that he was fine taking his with him. About 10 minutes after my arrival, John showed up - we were an hour under the last cutoff and about to start the last section for an official finish. Excellent!
There had been plenty of warning of steep and difficult trails in the last 10K. I got more hesitant and started spending more time off the bike except in places that were easy to ride down. Some parts were obviously very technical, while others were marginal. I came to realize that my brain was weary, so much so that it was currently limiting me more than my legs.
After making it through various scary stuff without a hickup, without hesitating over anything, I think I had hit my limit. I knew I could run 10K to the end, even with a bike, so to make it easy - and ultimately faster - I just focused on moving forward as fast as possible. Sometimes on the bike, more often running beside it, I just kept moving.
John was ever-so-patient, and he even found that parts of the trail were not any faster the way he did it - riding for 50 meters, getting off to go over a log, riding a little, stopping to ford a creek... Of course, I'm sure real mountain bikers did this section a whole lot faster than I was able.
We met a couple of these mountain biker racers at one of the CP's, where one teammate had to get off the bike to climb into a depression to punch the checkpoint. John said it was pretty cool. The other racers chatted with the CP volunteer as we left and then came up behind us on the trail so we let them by. The funny thing was that we saw them a couple more times, reaching them as they were figuring out an intersection vs. the map. Then they would ride on ahead. John's nav was excellent all weekend, always keeping us on track.
My legs were now getting tired, especially on the short but steep uphills and the bumpy "trails" across cow fields. Then we'd find a nice easy downhill and my legs would recover. I found that the ability to run down hills with my bike lasted all the way to the end, and my brain thanked me for the opportunity to rest.
Finally we were on the last small trail to the finish, and I wished I was sans VTT so I could just run it. But the trail was carved into the side of a steep hill overlooking a creek way below, so I focused on not putting a shin into a pedal and I just moved forward. We popped out at a parking lot, said bonjour to our car, and rode through town to the finish. Yay!!
We were fast enough on Day 2 to take over 4th place, a worthwhile achievement considering all the running with the bike that I did toward the end. I attribute it to John towing me, our never getting lost, and always moving forward. We had a lot of fun and weren't completely wiped out afterwards. An excellent race in a very pretty area.
Thanks for reading!