Plains, trails and automobiles
3.00am isn’t normally a good hour to be getting up at! But when one is offered the opportunity to be part of a mountain race relay squad – in Annecy, France – alongside the British Fell running champion, the winner of this year’s Zergama SkyRace
…and the winner of the 2009 LAMM, a few hours sleep deprivation is something that any runner would surely forgo.
The call came from Saab Salomon team manager Tim Lloyd, and went something like this, “Hi Matt, I’ve got some good news”, “You’re running the Annecime 80km mountain running race, as part of a team, Anna Frost isn’t able to run, so you’ll be running with Andy Symonds, Ricky Lightfoot and Rob Hope – okay!”. There isn’t really an answer to that, is there?
My running ‘career’ ended around 15 years ago. I’m now a plodder, I’m not fit to speed lace their Salomon Speed Cross 2 shoes. Still, running one of the best mountain trail races in Europe, with some of the best racers in Europe, at one of the most beautiful locations in Europe, was surely going to be a treat, and one that the editor of MST wasn’t going to turn down.
The concept of Annecime is quite simple – 80km tough kilometres in the surrounding hills and craggy mountains of Lac d’Annecy. The options are solo, ½ solo (40km) and a relay race. The Saab Salomon Outdoor Team had chosen to enter two teams, both competing in the relay races – a quick jaunt before the squad embarked on its summer training week in the Italian Dolomites, just to get them in the mode.
The 80km was broken into 4 legs, roughly 21, 19, 22 and 18kms each and I was to run the ‘easy’ second leg, with Tim Lloyd, who was part of the second relay squad. All pretty straight forward then.
As some of the solo participants at Annecime are known to take in excess of 18 hours the race starts in darkness, at 3.30am. The sight of hundreds of runners with head torches, like glow-worms, climbing away from the centre of Annecy into the initial forested climbs is one to behold and is in complete contrast to the afternoon finish in glorious sunshine and temperatures in the late 20’s.
Ricky and Tom Owens blasted off on leg one and by the top of the first mountain had minutes on the third placed team – the French marshalls were by all accounts heard to be calling them the “crazy British”. During this early morning foray I was dusting of my racing shoes, doing some mental stretching and being thrown around in the back of the team bus being driven by the 2008 WMRA GP champ, Anna Frost.
Frosty is as good a driver as she is a mountain runner, but sat in the back seat of a minibus at 4.30am, whilst trying to stuff an energy bar in my mouth, wondering how the hell I had got into this situation, meant that I was getting a little peturbed. No, let’s face it, I was nervous. Nervous because I was in a ‘champion’s sandwich’ (no pressure there then!), nervous because I hadn’t run anything like the length of run I was facing for some considerable time.
So, after a few minutes wandering around Les Chevaux, trying to find transition point one, we parked up the van and jumped out just as first light was appearing over the mountains – breathtaking. Still, no time to admire the views, I had to get in the ‘zone’, a bit of tooing and froing with Tim, a few hand shakes from Anna and Matt Gilbert and we were ready for the task ahead. No sooner had we done that than we saw a couple of head torches emerge from the dawn light – Ricky and Tom drifting down the tarmac descent majestically. A quick zapping with the electronic timing guns, swap the numbers and an apprehensive dash was on, as Tim and I ‘jogged’ off through Les Chevaux.
Now, we had been informed by race officials to follow the red arrows on the road, and the Salomon race tape whilst on the trail and mountain – simple really. That is until you hit the first intersection and there are two arrows, one straight ahead, one to the right! Okay, executive decision time, we drifted right. Mistake number one.
The valley-floor running at 5.15am was pretty stunning, and incredibly peaceful, “I’ve never been in the lead in a race before”, said Tim, mistake number two. We had, little did we know it, taken the wrong route, after barely 1km! Blissfully unaware Tim and I pounded the tarmac for fully 6km, at which point the lack of arrows became a real concern, the lack of runners behind also made us wonder.
A further 500m and we were sure that we had taken the wrong turning – angered and disappointed from a team perspective, we started to retrace our tracks. The 20km leg would have been hard enough, but with a possible 10km added to it? We needed a lift.
As luck would have it a car approached after some two minutes of running, and a very obliging local French guy, fully trusting of a couple of sweaty Brits in shorts, allowed us to hop into the back of his Renault. Thank you we thought. A further 2 minutes and we discovered that we weren’t the only ones with directional difficulties. First a Solo runner, turning the French air blue with expletives. We guessed he had made the same judgement as us and were glad that we couldn’t really understand his ranting. 200m on and another bunch – there were gonna be some angry runners out there.
We arrived back at the road junction, thanked out French saviour and set off back on-route, having lost fully 35 minutes. Tim (being a far more accomplished climber than I) sprinted off. I was happy to let him go and concentrate on what lay ahead for me. I hadn’t run further than 18-20km for years, and I was facing an accumulative 26-7km, in the French Alps. Merde!
I reckoned that the next 2-3 hours of running were going to be as much mental as physical, and set about pretty much putting my head down and not looking up too much. Fortunately most of the running was to be on GR (Grande Raid) tracks and therefore relatively well trodden, meaning that I didn’t need to do much in the way of navigation.
The next 30-40 minutes passed quite nicely, and to be honest I was running pretty much within myself as we climbed through heavily wooded areas. I picked off runner after runner, still properly angry at what we had done. Still, there was nothing that we could do about it now.
1hr and 30 mins in and I did start to feel a little rough, gel time. I pulled a ZipVit blackcurrant energy gel out of my backpack and gulped 2-3 mouths full, but needed some water. I was sure that the race map had stated 2 water stops – good news. Or so I thought. After the long drag to the top of the first Col a sharp, rocky descent ensued and I was passed by a couple of fast looking guys. Sticks and compression socks (very big in the European scene right now) flailing, I had to take a different route to avoid being speared. Checkpoint one came and went. At least I was on the right route now.
The next ascent was fierce. Definite walking in areas. Though I continued to pick runners off as we climbed to Col 2 (some 11 km in), so must have been going okay. However, I was beginning to feel it at this point, 2 hours of running (including the 30+ minute detour) had passed and I was banking on being almost there by now, not just over half way! The next descent was a technical affair of switchbacks as we descended swiftly into the valley. Second-wind time, I was now feeling good again.
As we hit the tarmac descent for the second time I was striding out, passed another three guys and hit the turn into the trees. “How far?” I shouted at a marshall, “20 minutes” came the reply, okay I thought, head down, push it on. Swiftly passing another 5-6 guys as we twisted our way through some lower-level trails. 2.45 in and I could see a red Salomon shirt up ahead – it was Tim. Added incentive to keep pushing, as I really wanted us to come to Transition 3 together.
I caught Tim relatively quickly, and had this been a ‘race’ situation I would probably have gone straight past, but no, we were all here as a team and we were here for the experience. 3 hours had gone and the third handover couldn’t be far ahead, surely! Mistake number 3. As we hit another descent we had fully 10 minutes of long, straight road running into the handover. 3.05 in and this author blew his plug! It wasn’t a ‘wall’ exactly but I just began to plod, “Push on Tim, I’ll see you at the finish”, it was now just about getting there – it was around 8.30am and the hot Apline sun was already beating down.
1km further and the welcome site of Team masseur Andy Walling. Andy kindly jogged by my side for some 500m, but as he saw my almost blank expression he knew that I would be better off fighting to the finish on my own. He peeled off and left me to run the remaining 500m on my own, though it hardly felt like running by now.
Hooting horns and cheers, it was the rest of the team, elite athletes patiently waiting for a plodder, a bunch of merry men and women that any team member would be proud of. As I vacantly handed over my number to Andy Symonds I tried desperately to get out of the way of other competitors, but the truth was I just wanted to lie down!
Water, water. It transpired that the two water stations that were supposed to have been positioned on the route were not there, at least not that I could see (or fellow competitors). This meant that I had been out there for three and quarter hours without a drink. Luckily life-saver Frosty was on hand. Thrusting water, iced tea, coke, cakes, energy bars, bananas and anything else that was available into my hands, which subsequently ended up in my mouth.
Amazingly I didn’t feel that bad. And some words of assurance that I hadn’t let the team down and had run very well actually, made the recovery that much easier. But, no time to waste, we had to be bundled into the bus and head off the final transition. Tim had handed over to Matt Gilbert some 10 seconds ahead of me, so the Saab Salomon teams were both out there, in contention, and the final hand-overs (to Rob Hope and John Heneghan) were only an hour and a half away.
A few stretches and tales told, and we arrived at the 4th transition to sunshine, music and food, all laid out as only the French know how. Life was good, especially now that my 3 hours in the French Alps was behind me.
After handing over in 7th it was a great sight to see a flying Andy Symonds crest the last bend and hand over to Rob Hope in 3rd, barely 5 minutes down. The win was on. Matt Gilbert had also hammered around the tough third leg to hand over to John Heneghan in 6th, the Saab Salomon Outdoor Raiders’ one-two was on!
Back into the van and off to the Lac, and the sunny and relaxed surrounding of the lakeside finish. Time too, for a lie down and a gentle rub-down from Andy, as we awaited Rob and John. That wait was not to take too long as the sight of Rob roaring to the finish came along some 1hr and 30minutes after the handover from Andy Symonds – amazingly, we had won. Equally superb was John H’s run, only 14 seconds slower than Rob’s, and enough to easily secure second for the second of the two teams.
So there you have it, a gentle sojourn to the beautiful surroundings of Annecy, nestled in the French Alps. An amazing location for an amazing experience – thank you Annecime…