La Grande Traversee des Alpes 2008 Race Report - Day 1

August-September 2008
Thonon-Les-Bains to Menton, France
Written by Marcy Beard
Photos by Jean-Paul Louis, Christian Debonnaire, Erwin Borrias, Vincent Minier, Hans Lachmann, and John Beard

In 2006 we discovered the joys of stage racing in the Alps. We also discovered the pain of running long downhills day after day, and I discovered the disappointment in having to stop racing because of it. I knew if I had the chance to try again, I would return to Lac Leman to see if I could finish the full 14 days and run down the final mountain to the Mediterranean Sea.

The GTA was not held in 2007. Philippe Delachenal, the race director, organized the 4th edition this year with the caveat that this would be the final time. We certainly could not pass it up!

As is our tendency, we tried to learn from the first go-round and improve our preparation. Much of the 6 months prior to the race was spent seeking out mountains to climb and run down, in Hawaii, Montana, and Colorado. I learned to use trekking poles going up and down the hills, and both of us used them (plus bike gloves) during the entire GTA. As much as we love running downhill fast, we decided it was more prudent to rein ourselves in during the race and focus on the uphills if we wanted to make up time.

In addition, I listened intently to advice on the Ultra list, losing over 10 pounds and adding mile repeats to my training plan. I tried weekly knee exercises to strengthen the supporting muscles. We decided to take glucosamine before and during the event, at the suggestion of a friend. I took one ibuprofen each night during the race to reduce inflammation. And finally, we brought a couple quick-activating cold packs with us (since it's not easy to find ice in Europe) along with an assortment of pain relievers just in case.

In order to accommodate the trekking poles in both hands, I had to forgo my normal handheld bottle. I switched to a Camelbak bottle system with a drinking tube (easy to fill and clean), with an additional Nalgene bottle for capacity. We tested and approved a Nathan Reactor race pack that would serve as a replacement to my small waist pack and John's large Salomon pack. We each brought an extra pair of running shoes this time! Plus we made a couple minor changes like pinning our race number to our packs instead of our shirts, to eliminate re-pinning for laundering. Experience said that eliminating even a tiny daily task would save a lot of energy over 2 weeks.

Some things we carried over from 2006: SPIZ in baggies (adding an extra half-serving per day), Gatorade powder, chocolate chip cookies for me, Gu's for John, MP3 players (now upgraded to iPods), GoLite jackets for the coldest days, post-run protein drink powder, and highlighters for the maps.

We flew into Geneva a couple days early and took a train to Crolles (near Grenoble) to relax and visit with French friends. Lovely weather, great company, and excellent food - a very nice way to start our month in Europe.

Saturday August 30 - Prerace travel
Crolles to Thonon-les-Bains

After getting a ride to Lyon on Saturday afternoon, we found Philippe, the GTA van, and several fellow runners including Sylvie, Gilles, and Rodolphe. From there we had the fortunate opportunity to head to the finish of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). The UTMB is a 100-mile circuit of the big beautiful Mont Blanc, starting and finishing in Chamonix. Dawa Sherpa is a friend of Philippe's, and he finished in 2nd place overall - wow! It was awesome to see the huge crowds around the finish line. Unfortunately we missed Dawa finishing (but we did cheer the 4th place runner in), so we got back on the bus and headed up to Thonon-les-Bains on Lac Leman.

John and I checked in, greeted a couple folks that we knew (Hi Bram!!), and enjoyed our first dinner "on the trail." We found our two-bedroom trailer, shared by Toni and Maria from Germany. Maria had completed the GTA previously, so I was sure she would be a strong competitor. This was a good reminder to focus only on my race and not try to compete with the other women. Last time I was the only woman running (or attempting to run) the entire way. This time I would be joined by Sylvie, Maria, Claude, and Nathalie. Christiane and Helene were signed up for the first week only.

We did a quick prep of our packs, then it was time for bed.

Sunday August 31 - Day 1
Thonon-les-Bains to La Chapelle-d'Abondance
45 km, 2700 meters climb

The day started with a short bus ride to the Thonon train station. I'm not sure why we didn't start at the edge of the lake this year, but John and I both wanted to touch the lake water in order to say we had run all the way from the lake to the sea. We had a bit of time, so we jogged downhill/north and attempted to navigate to the water. It turned out to be quite a ways down. After getting our fingers wet, John towed me back up the steep part (yeah I know, I cheated!) and after a few twists and turns in the maze of buildings we found the train station again. Just in time for a couple pre-race photos and a headcount.

Then we were off like a herd of cows, or something. The first half of today's stage was really just a warm-up. We would all run our own pace but then meet up at the middle aid station (called a ravitaillement, or "ravito") and the real race would begin there. Philippe wanted us to have a chance to get used to the GR5 trail markings and our maps before releasing us into the wild on our own. Philo Rossier ran at the front to add pink spray markings at intersections, while Cyril ran at the back as a "serre-file" or course sweep.

GTA photo

I have surprisingly little to say about this first part of our long journey. We ran through the streets of Thonon, chatted a bit and got to know other runners, followed people, headed into the countryside, took bathroom breaks at our leisure, and mostly kept each other from getting lost. At least that's what we assumed. Somehow Antoine was with us for part of the morning but didn't make it to the ravito with the group. Cyril unknowingly passed Antoine who must have been off-route at the time. We unfortunately didn't find this out until that evening.

It was a beautiful morning for easy running. John followed along on his map to get used to the 25k:1 scale. The color copies of IGN maps were a huge improvement over the 62.5k:1 route maps from last time. We ran through woods, along dirt roads, through small towns with curious locals. A bunch of us stopped to refill water at a fountain in Reyvroz, and John and I mixed up some SPIZ.

During a downhill run to a river crossing, a couple runners took little shortcuts instead of following the full switchbacks. So it begins. John and I were well aware of the tendency of some European runners to chose routes that more direct instead of staying on the main path. I cannot complain nor condone, as it is a much bigger question along the lines of trail running "culture" on different continents. We had decided to watch and make note, while doing what we believed was right. Mostly out of respect for the trail, if nothing else. This turned into a bigger discussion over the two weeks, in fact mostly among other runners while we Americans tried to stay out of it except for one incident that I'll mention later.

So we went on, blocking a barking dog en masse (safety in numbers!), climbing up a steep section and heading through farm fields. I found some raspberries, my first wild berries of the race. I had been strangely proud of my "wild berry trifecta" last time, so this was a good start at a repeat. And also - yum! A bit of road running and soon we could see the hill where the ravito awaited. The beginning of the Alpine mountains were starting to look closer as well.

GTA photo

It was great fun being "off the clock" for a few hours. On the climb up toward Chevenoz I practiced with my trekking poles and focused on taking it easy. I had a series of goals for this race, based on my 2006 experience, and the first one is as follows:

Goal #1: Make it through day 3 without being completely exhausted.

Not getting out of breath during the untimed portion of day one was a good start. We made it to the ravito and gathered to eat crackers, chocolate, cheese, and orange slices, and drink water and Coke.

GTA photo

We got together for a group photo, while no one did a head count or notice that Antoine was not among us.

GTA photo

Finally it was time to start for real! During our easy morning run, it had not been obvious who the fastest runners were. But here's a hint:

GTA photo

Someone did a countdown, then we were off! Good luck everybody!

I knew the next section had a great deal of uphill. The ravito was at about 1000 meters elevation and we were going to top out at 1900 meters further along the way. I was ready for the initial steep section. I watched Sylvie and Maria push on ahead. Holding myself back from chasing someone up a hill has never been too difficult for me. We were a mass of runners striding up a steep slope and through a small gate into a field. I spent some time going back and forth with Christiane - her pace didn't change much even when the slope went from steep to gradual and back, while mine was more dictated by the terrain.

The surprise of the hour was an incredibly steep climb up a jeep road in the woods. Somehow I had completely blocked that memory from my brain. I passed Hans going up this, both of us probably wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

GTA photo

Then we were in the cow pasture that I remember. It was quite a joy to be able to look at the scene ahead of me and know exactly where the trail went. This was not the case the entire race, obviously, but certain key places had been burned into my brain and this made it easier to relax and concentrate on my form, my breathing, my water/food planning, etc.

I also found a certain stride, at least once some of the steeper spots were past. I felt strong and certain. I was enjoying the experience of the first day back in the Alps in two years (I love the Alps!). And the view back down to the lake was just lovely.

GTA photo

Somehow I caught up with Maria and Toni, and Maria motioned me to go ahead. I kept pace with a couple other guys but then realized I was too much into "competition" mode and needed to dial it back. So I entertained myself by showing off whenever anyone had a question about which way to go. Why, it's this way, of course. Talk about finding ways to bite yourself in the butt later.

After a nice set of short downhills and uphills, we entered the woods to start a longer climb. I stopped for a cookie break, knowing that now was not the time to run out of energy. A couple runners went on ahead. I knew what was coming: Perhaps the steepest, gnarliest climb of the whole 14 days. At least in my memory that's what it was.

So I came out into a field and followed an electric fence toward the trees. The trail turned upward and the tree roots started. At first I was wondering what the heck I had been so worried about. Then I turned a corner and saw the "wall of roots" that I remembered so fondly. This time I made it up with little effort, yay for trekking poles! Of course, the trail kept climbing and climbing, and eventually I realized that yes, this was a tough little bear of a climb. I think I said that out loud, maybe not with those exact words.

At the top was the reward - a ridge run, with a nice breeze and beautiful views. I believe I saw Sylvie up ahead with several people following her. She was carrying a GPS to help with route-finding, which apparently made her pretty popular. Several people made unintentional detours on day one, and I'm pretty sure Sylvie and the gang were not among them.

Up ahead - the first col of the GTA 2008:

GTA photo

On my way towards it, I heard some yelling up in the hills to my right. I never did find out if they were GTA runners or just random hikers making noise.

It was a technical little trail down to a couple lakes and a herd of cows. I started counting "cols to go" in my head and knew there was a good bit of work remaining for the day. Watching hikers coming down and following the red/white GTA markings, I found my way between the two little lakes and toward the col.

GTA photo

After mixing and drinking some SPIZ, I climbed slowly to the top and peeked over the other side. Even though we had all been grouped together not long ago, there was little sign of runners either ahead of or behind me. Ah well, I enjoy setting my own pace and doing my own thing.

GTA photo

The next short section was a traverse to the Col de Pavis. There were lots of rocks on the trail so it was slow going. I greeted several tourists along the way and made the shallow climb to the top.

GTA photo

Going down the other side, I approached a key intersection in the trail. It was important to make the right turn instead of heading back down toward Lac Leman. I'm pretty sure everyone avoided that potential disaster.

GTA photo

However, I managed a mini-disaster of my own. I assumed that my memories would continue to work their navigation magic as I turned to look for the next pass, the Col de Bise. I followed the trail, figuring I could see the spot I should be aiming at. Somehow amid the cow paths criss-crossing the field I missed a trail marking and an actual trail sign. When I finally noticed a little lake below me I decided I better pull out the map. That only helped to confuse me, so I continued on but more slowly.

When the trail took a left turn, obviously not going anywhere close to where I THOUGHT I should be going, I knew something was wrong. I headed off-trail uphill, then got my bearings and started back toward what I now knew was the actual col. Dang that overconfidence. I got in a few choice swear words and probably pushed way too hard to keep from losing any more time. Nice piece of work.

So anyway, after perhaps 15 minutes of futzing around, I made it to the Col de Bise. Maria and Toni were there, and they were surprised to see me. They told me they had taken a couple detours of their own. Together we ran down the hill, me probably still running too hard due to frustration.

GTA photo

I calmed down by the time I got to the chalet at the bottom. Only one more climb to go! I filled my bottles and headed toward it. Maria and Toni followed, although Toni was getting fatigued and seemed to be slowing Maria down a bit. I went on ahead and put my trekking poles in motion.

Slow motion, really. I knew this climb was a good 300 meters up, but had forgotten how steep it was. The getting-lost adrenaline faded along with my pace. It surprised me to be tired already, but then, it was at the end of a pretty long day. I've renamed this climb but I can't include it in a G-rated report. Step, step, step, step, up we go, always up. I tried to stay within my limits and not overdo anything, just get there eventually.

Here's the view from the top looking back toward Col de Bise:

GTA photo

Let's finish this thing up! Anticipating a long downhill, I didn't rush headlong down but instead focused on using my poles to help brake. It would be an acquired skill but I knew it could be useful in the long run. Not far down, where the trail was still in flux (i.e. following cowpaths in various directions), Henri called over that he didn't know where the heck to go. He wasn't in a great mood so we didn't talk much, but I certainly didn't mind him following me since I was pretty sure we mostly just had to go downhill.

I found trail markings and then the dirt road I was looking for. I made a confident right turn across a bridge, then got a bit of help from some picnickers who pointed me toward the trail on the other side of the creek. Here is where I had messed up last time, so here is where I knew the route the best. A nice little run next to the creek, then onto pavement. I dislike pavement. But at least I was almost done for the day.

This part turned out to be shorter than I recalled, so yay for that. I theorized that the downhill at the end of day 2 was the really long one I wasn't looking forward to.

Soon I saw red/white flagging, then the right turn toward the gite (vacation bunkhouse). Philippe was on the microphone welcoming me, saying something about how I was better trained this time. Well, that does it, now I have to finish it :)

John and I hung out to eat and watch the rest of the field run in not long after that. John had a good run, helping a couple guys who had gone off-route, and taking it easy down the hills. He finished in 3rd, behind Pascal and Manu and just ahead of two men named Laurent. Sylvie gained 27 minutes on me, so I figured she would likely win the women's race, and anyway I am not competing. I had been lost longer than John was - now that was a trend I needed to fix! But I wasn't last today, which felt like a good start.

Not such a good start for Antoine. He eventually found his way to the gite later that evening (with Cyril who went back out to find him). He started with us again on day 2 but decided to stop at the ravito in order to recover. He is a great guy, very funny, and he ended up helping Philippe during his days off. And he would come back to run with us again.

Results (timed from the mid-point to the finish):
John = 3:18:02 / 3rd among 26 full-course runners
Marcy = 4:38:02 / 18th among 26 full-course runners