Thursday, April 26, 2012

Looking back on St Jacques...

Race organizer Patrick Bonnot gave us a wonderful and cheerful send-off at last night's awards dinner. (The French really dine in style, an art which seems to have been lost in our anglo culture. Every evening we had delicious, plentiful, freshly cooked food served at a leisurely pace; nice aperatifs, wines, cheeses, desserts.)

So I have my shell, finisher sweatshirt and very sore feet to prove that I just ran 450 miles in 12 days. Today I experience the joy of doing absolutely nothing except eating and sleeping in a real bed. The race was a difficult one for me given the conditions we faced - cold, rain (and thus mud!), and wind. I confess to being a fair-weather runner. But the scenery, companionship of runners & volunteers, and the sheer history of what we passed through was unforgettable. I will forever be on the lookout for more of these trail signs!

I thank my French friends for their warm welcome, and apologize for my dilapidated French. And also thanks to my new Dutch friend Bram who made the wise and insightful comment that you should not spend more time running each day than you would expect to spend at work. Ultreia!!

Location:Place Floquet,Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port,France

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Final stage to St Jean Pied de Port

It's done, and what a difference a day makes! The blister pains receded overnight, and once again normal running was resumed. It never ceases to amaze me that major issues can be overcome by a stubborn refusal to quit.

The day was warmer, quite sunny and very windy, and I have to say I enjoyed it - keeping up with the "fast boys" for the first half, then enjoying a solitary scenic coast into the splendid finish line, the ancient ramparts of St Jean:

Tonight will be a nice celebration and a night in a hotel with clean sheets and towels. Ah, the little things we take for granted!

Location:Route de Caro,Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port,France

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Stage 11 to Navarrenx

Today's stage can be divided conveniently into thirds.

The first third comprised very cold temperatures, driving heavy rain, gale force gusts of wind, and of course the by now customary rivers of mud. Without risk of hyperbole, it was misery.

The second third was heralded by a brief appearance of the sun. Patrick had thoughtfully laid on pizza at the aid stations, and many wonderful slices were consumed to restore warmth and energy.

The final third was miserable for me for a whole new reason - blisters! They had started yesterday, due to some foot swelling aggravated by constant moisture and mud. The best I could do for the final 8 miles was to limp along with my new best friends, my ski poles. (The best 39 euros I ever spent!)

Hopefully I'll be able to sort out these issues overnight, and be able to limp to tomorrow's finish line in St Jean Pied-de-Port still in seventh place. After the struggle which was today, I'm ready to be done. But still, it has been a wonderful and unforgettable experience with fine runners and benevoles.

Location:Avenue de France,Navarrenx,France

Monday, April 23, 2012

Stage 10 to Arjaqc

The day started chilly as usual and later became very (head)windy. But within the first five miles, we were greeted with the most amazing sight - the snow covered Pyrennees lining the horizon:

After toiling every day for more than a week to get to this point, it was a very moving moment. I reflected on the early pilgrims who went from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostella, and wondered what trepidations they had as they saw these huge masses looming in the distance.

The day was a mix of runnable roads and industrial quality slip'n'slides. Here's just one typical example to give a flavor - river in the middle, ankle deep clay either side, and thorny brambles framing the whole affair:

All shoes and socks will have to be disposed of as soon as Wednesday's last stage is past. Just two 40-mile stages to go!

Location:Chemin de Longy,Arzacq-Arraziguet,France

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stage 9 to Nogaro

What a day! Patrick said at the pre-race briefing that it'd be 40% mud today. He was spot on, and here's a shot of my shoes to prove it:

Luckily I took my new ski poles for their first outing - they saved my life! It rained heavily and repeatedly, and the path became a quagmire of epic proportions.

The 40-mile stage ended in another first for me - in a bullring! I guess this part of Gascony still practices this "sport", but at least it's the bloodless kind here:

I was only lost once today, as I left the unfortunately named town of Condom. Spotting the trail signs is often pretty tricky here, especially with fatigue, rain, barking dogs, and a hundred other distractions.

Four runners have abandonned thus far. I'm tired but uninjured, and so fairly confident I can stagger through the last three days.

Location:Impasse des Cordeliers,Nogaro,France

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stage 8 to La Romieu

A birthday stage for me today! Race director Patrick's delightful teenaged twin sons presented me with a gateau religieuse at the finish - apparently a birthday tradition here. Loved it!

The course today started with a pleasant flat run for 10 miles along the Tarn canal towpath. Then it was back to muddy paths and roads. The last few miles were quite taxing, with headwinds, hills and the mileage on our legs. Wisteria is in full bloom at the moment, and seems to drip from every building:

The finish line for today's stage outdid all others - the Collegiale in La Romieu, a typically splendid building dating back to the twelfth century. We finished in its cloister:

Four days to go, and as usual by this stage I'm ready to be done. But celebrating a birthday with thirty European friends - both old and new - in an ancient building is decidedly cool.

Location:La Romieu,France

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stage 7 to Moissac

From last night's gite - the ever-present image of St Jacques:

During this morning's pre-race briefing, the word boue had come up more than once. My rusty French had wrongly thought that boues were cobblestones. Well, I was epically incorrect - la boue is in fact mud. At least a third of today's 43 miles was a sheet of slippery, cloying clay. The spring rains have turned the slippery slopes into semi-vertical ice rinks. At a couple of points today, forward progress became totally and almost hilariously impossible. It felt like mud wrestling but without an opponent. I had cleverly left my ski poles - which would've come in mighty handy - in my suitcase.

But when actually running was possible, I felt surprisingly good today. The weariness of the previous couple of stages seemed to desert me, and I ran strongly and fresh - at least between mud baths.

At the end of a long stage, we arrived to a big gym with warm showers. Life is good.

Location:Avenue de l'Uvarium,Moissac,France

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stage 6 to La Rosiere

Last night's dinner was poignant and very moving. Our gym was next door to an old peoples' home, and we were invited to dine there. We were greeted by Mme la Directrice, who was brimful of cheer and personality as she served us Kir, wine and a great meal. But sitting in the margins of our dining room were a few of the poor elderly residents who had nodded off after their meals, and had to be woken and then escorted back to their rooms in various states of confusion. The contrast in vitality between these folks and the runners was so stark - I hoped that each of them had led a good and active life before ending up in such a sad but caring place. Remember to live every day...

So today was another great day in the Lot valley. Despite a few very heavy showers, we kept mostly dry. The path was very stony and/or muddy for miles which made for some tough going - here's just a typical sample:

Aid stations were great as usual - today as well as soup and sandwiches I tried the white wine on offer - very acceptable. Towards the end of the 40-mile stage, we passed through Cahors. Amazing sights (like this ancient bridge over the Lot) were on offer, which I'd like to have seen more of:

Tonight we're luxuriating in a gite (like a hostel, with real beds and ensuite facilities). Grande luxe indeed!

Location:Chemin du Pech de Gadal,Labastide-Marnhac,France

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stage 5 to Cajarc

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

OK, so today started very positively. As I'm in the "fast group" - just - I got to luxuriate in an 8am start, well after the peloton had headed off into a downpour at 7am. The heavy rain causing miles of calf-deep mud on the trail? No worries. A pleasantly short 54km course (only 5 miles more than a marathon) - very agreeable. A glass of Languedoc Shiraz at the penultimate aid station - first rate. A few moments of sunshine to help separate the downpours and dry out soggy clothing - a big merci for that.

Now lying in my sleeping bag trying to warm up on my slowly deflating air mattress - no Mr In-Between here! Just one week to go. This is such a wonderful part of France to visit on foot. Today we ran past dolmens so ancient that they made churches dating back to 900AD look modern. The sense of history here is overwhelming at times.

Location:Rue de la Cascade,Cajarc,France

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Stage 4 to Livinhac

Apart from a very chilly start, we enjoyed beautiful sunny skies and good temps as we got through our longest stage of 69km (about 43 miles).

The first part of the day took us along the lovely Lot - here's a sample of it at Estaing:

Then we made our way down to the ancient pilgrim stopping point at Conques. Unbelievable sights, made even nicer by an almost total absence of tourists.

But then the fun started. I have never, ever climbed a longer, steeper, rockier path than the one out of Conques - and I've trekked to Mt Everest base camp! But the view from on high was worth it, at least in retrospect:

It's very nice to be done for the day, in a spacious gym with hot showers. Another day - the longest! - done. Smiley face.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stage 3 to Espalion

Another day of "firsts".
At 5:15am we were woken by race director Patrick, who told us to go back to sleep until 7am as the weather was so bad. Then at 7am, he announced that we would be running shorter today - only the last 20 lower altitude miles of the course. The wind was howling and the snow drifting. Trying to navigate icy, stony, muddy tracks in the dark in such weather would've been reckless folly.
So we cooled our heels until 10am, and then took a bus to the midpoint of the race. Visibility was terrible, and the roads a sheet of ice. As we disembarked, the wind and frigid temperatures were astonishing. The first couple of miles were really nasty, but as we descended to the River Lot, things gradually returned to normal.
Here's the historic church at St Come d'Olt. Its spire wasn't designed thus; apparently some dodgy lumber was used in its construction many centuries ago:

The next "first" around the corner from the church was the last aid station, and a little celebratory vin rouge with my friends Gerard and Nicole. It would've been rude not to.

So now we're all recovering in a truly tiny municipal hall. Very close quarters, but so it goes. Back to a full day's work tomorrow! But the view at the finish line - mountain topped by ruins - is amazing:

For those who care, the race is being easily and brilliantly led by Jean-Jacques Moros (France) and Carmen Hildebrand (Germany). They seem to navigate the most treacherous vertical, rocky terrain with the grace of a startled mountain goat. My style is more wounded water buffalo that's been seized by a crocodile. I dropped a place to seventh in the rankings today (could the wine drinking partially explain that?), but there's still a very long way to go. Thus far, zero abandons.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stage 2 to Aumont Aubrac

At 6:30am when we started from St Privat, our headlamps lit up the sight of a little sleety precipitation. The weather went downhill from there as we went uphill and more uphill. Sleet turned to snow at the higher elevations, with bitter winds swirling it about in every direction. It was a fairly wretched 40 miles, especially for Patrick and the aid station volunteers who provided warm food and drink every 10-15kms. I was reminded of running in northern Norway in 2009, as was Roger (another Trans Euopean finisher) with whom I ran most of the day. Except today was also incredibly stony and muddy for good measure! As the snow started to drift and coat the road signs, my big fear was missing a turn. There were a couple of tricky bits, but we made it through without serious mishap.

No photos today due to the near whiteout conditions, but here's the latest weather picture in Aubrac. It is depressingly accurate:

More of the same in the offing for tomorrow, I believe. C'est la vie!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Stage 1 to St Privat d'Allier

As we were still digesting our desert and coffee, we were herded off to the cathedral steps which were to serve as our start line. Here's race director Patrick Bonnot getting the ducks in line:

Hail started to fall as we waited for 3pm (a nice touch from the Almighty?), but we were all dying to get started whatever. Apart from a couple of brief snow showers, the weather held but was quite chilly. The scenery was superb, the course well marked, and the volunteers tremendous.

Here's a shot of our destination for today, St Privat. Like all these rural villages, just ancient and picturesque.

For once, I managed to run sensibly on day one. It was very hilly in places, and muddy, but the last 5K was a wonderful downhill cruise. A few barky dogs along the way today, but didn't need protective ski poles!

Things get more serious tomorrow with a 6am start and 40 very hilly miles. Holiday's over!

Pre-race nutrition

Only in France could one be served a delicious, huge three course meal less than 90 minutes before the start of a race:

Wonder how those green lentils (a local speciality) will settle in my stomach in a couple of hours?

Location:Le Puy En Velay

Friday, April 13, 2012

One day to go

It was a depressingly foggy, cold morning first thing. The thought of "two weeks of this" was not good - but as I headed out for a final long walk after breakfast, the mists cleared to a cold but sunny day.

I headed to the first part of the St Jacques trail and climbed out of Le Puy for a couple of kilometers.

Did I mention that it's quite hilly here? There is symbolism everywhere. Note the yellow mark on the right of the picture. Or bigger still:

Then back into town to climb to the top of St Michel d'Aiguilhe, built by Bishop Godescalc in 951AD after his Santiago pilgrimage. An amazing piece of volcanic geology with a chapel stuck on top:

Finally back to the cathedral - tomorrow's start line - to collect my "creanciale" and get it stamped. This is my pilgrim's passport to prove that I've completed the journey:

I said my goodbyes to St Jacques...

and now I'm just about ready to go...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

One ancient town

The initial success of the train journey from Lyon in the last post quickly degenerated. Work on the tracks forced us from our lovely TGV onto a local train, and then to a local shuttle bus. The natives were most unhappy about the 90 minutes it added to the journey. I quite enjoyed visiting about a dozen tiny stations along the headwaters of the Loire. I must say that the countryside is now sublime and anything but flat. It's trying to rain, but can't quite make up its mind. By Saturday, I'm sure it will have decided.

I warmed up my legs with a serious climb up to the cathedral. It's spectacularly old, as are all of its surrounding buildings.

Now I'm taking on some replacement fluids and a locally produced pink recovery drink, with a little (highly recommended) Petit Polignac cheese to keep it company.

Location:Le Puy En Velay

Train vs plane

When did this happen? As a kid, air travel was glamorous; the hoi-polloi were excluded, while the petits bourgeois dressed up in suits and ties before receiving white glove treatment from well-trained, smiling stewardesses (as they were then known). Trains were downmarket and generally the domain of the huddled masses.

Now the position - at least in France - is reversed. Here's my TGV experience today:

Almost empty, polite and friendly staff, spotlessly clean, on time, comfortable, fast...and better still, affordable! A fantastic way to travel. Le Puy, here I come!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Only Lyon

You have to love easyJet and all those other cheapo airlines. When I arrived to check in today, I was told that because my suitcase was 3 kilograms over the limit, I would have to pay an extra £30 ($50). But by moving my air mattress to my carry-on backpack...voila...£0 extra! Same weight, same plane fuel. But despite that bizarre incident, I'm here and very grateful to them for an on-time arrival into Lyon at a staggering low price.

So here's the Rhone, which runs through the centre of Lyon, and then on down to the Mediterranean. A couple of hours' walk around this interesting city was a good antidote to a day crammed into planes, trains and airports.

I particularly liked this piece of art near the town hall. It reminded me of all the early mornings during Trans Europe when I and my fellow suffers lay on gym floors with our legs in the air before each stage, willing the fluid to leave our swollen feet and return to the rest of our bodies.

Tomorrow morning I take another train, this time to Le Puy, and then get ready for things to finally get underway on Saturday. A shopping trip to buy some ski poles is on the agenda for Le Puy. I'm not sure about using them for running/walking, but I've heard that they're useful as a way to keep some distance between runners and snarly dogs along the trail. I've never run armed before - another first.

Location:Rue Professeur Weill,Lyon,France

Friday, April 06, 2012

Excess baggage?

Packing for a stage race is always a challenge. Laundry facilities are usually minimal, so you need enough changes of clothing on hand to avoid a total smelly funk. But at the same time, you can't afford to overpack as airlines and the race organizers have their weight limits. Temps in France are likely to range anywhere from -2C and +25C, so everything from hats and gloves to singlets and shorts will be needed. Hopefully I've got it right - just need to squeeze it all into the suitcase, including my great new kit from the good folks at EnduranceLife.

I'm looking forward to meeting old friends and making new ones next week. Last year's winner and pre-race favorite Jean-Jacques Moros has just had a couple of outstanding performances recently, winning a marathon in 2hr31 and covering 85 kilometers (more than two marathons back-to-back) in 6 hours. I'm well prepared for this event and feeing very good...but not that good! Start slow, start slow.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Two weeks until Ultra Trace St Jacques

After today's run, I spent a happy couple of hours looking at course maps and determining where the big climbs will be.  The answer is: everywhere.  450 miles of some very hilly terrain.  Hopefully last weekend's marathon over the South Downs and some daily mileage now around the Chilterns will be adequate preparation.   I am planning a very slow and careful start.
We've had a couple of weeks of excellent running weather, with skies bluer than I can ever remember in March in England.  Hopefully my travel plans will not get derailed by petrol shortages or industrial action.  Luckily I'm a vegetarian and thus not impacted by Pastygate.  Grandbaby #3 has moved from a March baby to an April one, and is still refusing to put in an appearance.