Thursday, 30 August 2012

Holidays and the Italian Job

View from outside apartment
A couple of days rain forecast here in Zermatt, so no excuse now for getting down to what will be my only post for August. I'm never quite sure how interesting this stuff is, but at least it provides a record for me to look back over from time to time, something I'm sure I would never do without the discipline of actually writing my thoughts down for the blog. Anyway, back to Zermatt in the rain, this same weather front will affect the start of the UTMB race on Friday, so commiserations to those involved. For what it's worth, the improvement is due to start Saturday morning, so for those still flogging up towards the Flegere on Sunday, it may well be plenty hot enough for you by then!

But for me here and now a bit of rain's not a problem. I just love it here in the mountains whatever the weather. We have a small apartment on the hillside a few minutes walk from the village (including 110 steps on the way back!) and are just enjoying a bit of walking and of course some beer and rosti. Along with Chamonix and Val d'Isere, Zermatt is one of the Alpine places where I have spent many weeks over the years (I even climbed the Matterhorn back in 1981) and I always look forward to coming back.

While enjoying the holiday, I'm still looking forward to going round to Courmayeur at the end of it for my biggest event of the year, the Tor des Geants, which starts at 10am on Sunday 9th September. This promises to be something of a different experience from my last race, a 50 mile "sprint" round the Lake District a month ago.

This will be the third running of the event, and not many Brits have competed in it to date so it's difficult to get a real feel for what it will be like. The statistics are fairly simple: it follows the trails Alta Via 2 then Alta Via 1 in an anticlockwise loop around the Aosta valley, and is 330km (just over 200 miles) long, with a vertical ascent of 24,000m (about 80,000ft), and you have 150 hours to complete it.  The course is divided into 7 sections by 6 valley bases; you are provided with a large drop bag which follows you round the course and which you can access at each valley base. It's a continuous event, you choose where/when you want to rest or sleep  - at the valley bases (noisy places by all accounts), in mountain refuges (2 hours max stop allowed), or on the hillside if that's your thing. I think there will be about 11 hours of darkness each night by then.

It's been difficult to know how to train for the trip, but I started by coming to terms with how continuously steep it is. Mark Barnes, one of the few people I know to have had a go at it, said he expected at least some flat bits along valley bottoms, but there weren't any. A blog I read by an American entrant said at one point something like " there was a hundred yards or so of level trail at this point - I mention this because I don't remember any more of it any where else".  Using a "feet of ascent per mile" comparison, I could see roughly how the TDG compares with races that I have experience of:

West Highland Way  -  147 ft/mile
Lakeland 100  -  219 ft/mile
UTMB  -  286 ft/mile
TDG  -  390 ft/mile

So the TDG is not only seriously long, but it's seriously steep. Dauntingly so, perhaps, but it does change the game in one significant way  -  you have to go SLOWLY.  So right from the start I decided that I will only run (or rather jog!) when it is actually easier than walking, and I have trained with this in mind. Since the West Highland Way in June I have covered about 25% less mileage than in previous years but have managed to average around 11,000 feet of ascent a week. Hope it's enough! I could have done more but I do this for fun, and while (for example) a better training day in the Lakes might be laps on Skiddaw, covering all the tops in the Grasmoor group was a much better day out.

The other advantage of going slowly is that you can eat and digest proper food in reasonable quantities, so if you can keep the muscles and joints in reasonable condition, the engine should stay fuelled much better than in a "normal" ultra.

At the Gornergrat top station
The TDG goes quite high. The UTMB touches 2500m at three points, while the TDG goes well clear of this on a dozen or so occasions, including the 3300m Col de Loson high point, so I'm using some of my time here in Zermatt to get a bit of acclimatisation in. Yesterday morning I walked up to the Gornergrat, about 1500m above the village; at 3100m it's still not the Col de Loson, but gets you in the right sort of area. I'm intending to walk up to the Hornli Hut on the Matterhorn later this week which is at 3260m.

During the BGR attempt in the Lakes back in July, I was chatting to John Malcolm about the TDG and he asked whether I had a strategy for the race; at the time I confessed that I didn't have a clue. Well, since then I've read a few race tales, had a think, and fixed on a plan. Of course it may not survive the first day but you have to start somewhere. As the race starts at 10 in the morning, I've decided to carry on through the first night without stopping. In all probability I'll still be too caught up in getting under way to sleep even if I tried, so I'll hope to get through to the second valley base at Cogne before my first major stop. After that I'll hope to get into some sort of rhythm and stop for 4 or 5 hours each day to regroup. I'll be happy to finish at around the 144 hour mark. 150 seems generous but I'm sure it isn't, judging by previous years' results. On top of this, my only simple rules will be

- go SLOWLY. Don't climb at a pace that I can't keep up all day
- don't be too enthusiastic on the descents. My quads are better than my knees, so I can afford to indulge in a bit of work to soften the footfalls
- stay near the back of the field for at least the first 48 hours, even if it feels very slow. Looking at previous years splits, these times are easily fast enough to get round, and the cut-offs are generous (unlike those near the start of the UTMB!)
- take warm clothes for the nights, this is September at 10,000ft.
- fix any problem immediately. I'm sure this is not an event where you can "hang on".

I've one or two niggles of course;  I've  a knee that starts to stiffen on a long descent, an Achilles that needs taping, a hernia due to be fixed in October, and PF in one foot which flares up sporadically, so I'm not bombproof but then who is? I'm as well prepared as I'm ever likely to be and looking forward to getting to the start line. Watch this space.


Börkur said...

Good luck mate!

Subversive Runner said...

Good luck, Andy. Don't forget to take your cap.

Silke said...

That sounds like an epic adventure! Good luck. Enjoy the experience. :-) Looking forward to your report. Silke

Flip said...

wow , All the best mate.

mdn said...

Fantastic post,best of luck with the challenge ahead. I remember reading about this last year & thinking 'one day'. What an adventure.
Mark (we shared a lift back from Wasdale to Keswick in the summer after the boys BGR attempt).