So here it is. The day I have thought about for so long. I would try just about anything to make it to the end of this stage, to reach goal #4 and to give myself a shot at finishing the GTA once and for all.
My ankle was still stiff and sore in the morning, but I hoped it would loosen up. With any luck, John's adjustment of my shoe would keep the problem from getting worse. I kept the laces loose today, just in case that would also help.
Philippe was aware just how long this stage could take, so he had decided that a couple runners would start at 6:30 a.m. Group 1 and part of group 2 would start next, then the rest of group 2 plus group 3 would round it out. Various people made their own grouping decisions, including most of group 1 who decided to start early. That left me and Henri looking around at most of group 2 at 7 a.m. Well, I guess Philippe finally found a way to move me into group 2, where I would stay for the last three days - too funny!
Fellow runners cheered us on from the gite windows, then we were off down a short drop to cross a creek. I followed Bram and Erwin, getting a feel for where I might fit in the mix of things. They took off up the other side and I didn't see them again. Vincent and Sylvie followed me as I worked through the initial "warm-up" of my ankle. It seemed to be doing OK, thank goodness, so I pushed up the hill at my normal speed-walking pace.
I would just like to pause for a sincere "thank you!" to John for fixing my foot problem. That likely saved my race, for which I will be forever grateful.
We climbed out of the creek basin and into the upper part of the valley. Vincent continued to take very nice photos, even though some of them now included me:
Vincent and I went back and forth and chatted a bit. We passed by a sheepherder's hut and through a huge herd of sheep. I could not believe the amount of sheep shit we had to walk over - that's all there was, boulders and sheep shit. And sheep, of course. No patous, though.
I passed a few group 1 runners including Antoine and Nathalie, Serge, and Claude. It was fun to greet people along the trail, and everyone seemed in good spirits. Sylvie was in sight below me, but I wasn't too concerned. As long as I didn't fall apart, she could beat me at a stage or two and nothing would really change. Just need to make sure I don't fall apart!
We climbed over to the Col de Crousette below Mont Mounier, then across to another ridge for the highpoint of the morning.
Two things of note: This is that last place I had felt good during the 2006 race, so it was a special moment to reach this spot again. Also, Vincent took an awesome photo of me here - see the picture at the start of this report. Thanks Vincent!
The next section was a really, really long (2000 meters net) descent, interrupted by a short climb and traverse in the middle. If I could make it to the bottom, I believed I could finish the whole race. So here goes...
It started fine, as many things do. I ran down a barren hillside on a gentle slope.
I said hello to Christian J as I caught up to him, the last group 1 runner to pass. I heard a "whoop!" behind me and figured either Laurent or John was close on my heels. It turned out that both of them were back there, looking great but both definitely in a competitive mood. It's always fun watching two speed demons duking it out.
My knees were in such better shape than last time in this section, so I really enjoyed an easy drop toward a small valley below.
A huge "patou ruckus" brought my attention to a nearby hillside. It appeared that a hiker had allowed her dog to frolic near some sheep, and the patou was going nuts. I didn't stick around to see how that turned out, but made a mental note never to be as stupid as that hiker.
I made my way toward the short but steep climb. I saw a couple runners ahead of me and behind me, but I wasn't really thinking about competition today. It was all about the downhill. But first, one fun little uphill.
Not long after, I was up in the next field. Well, that was easy.
A couple of young patous started barking and I looked over to see that they were guarding an empty pen. OK puppies, you're doing great with that guarding job, just stay there and make sure no one gets near the empty pen. And they did, so I decided they were rather cute.
The run across the field was long and smooth. I felt fine but knew enough to temper my enthusiasm. The hard part was getting closer.
I found the refuge at the other end of the field. It was empty except for a stray patou sniffing around. He seemed pretty harmless. I filled a SPIZ baggie and popped an ibuprofen, then headed toward the steep drop that marked the entryway into to next valley above the Tinee River.
I managed my descending speed and used the poles as usual. It seemed to take a long time to reach the sharp bend in the trail I was looking for. Pascal and Sylvain passed me, then a SOMFY runner. Without an hour and a half head start on group 3, it wasn't so easy to hold them off. Especially when I was into "speed management" mode. No matter, the important thing is to get down this mountain.
Following markings through a field, I got some directional help from a man who asked what race we were running. I called out "la Grande Traversee des Alpes" but I don't imagine that meant much to him. He still had a pondering look as I ran off.
I found a dirt road, avoided some construction trucks, and settled into a nice easy pace. It was a long gentle downhill slope, a good place to eat a cookie and take a mental break. We got a bit of drizzle on us, nothing too wet or too long.
Gilles coming down the road:
A GR5-marked trail led down to the left, so I jumped over to it. David appeared out of nowhere, apparently looking for the next trail marker. I led the way along a rocky path below the main road. Christian D, Bernard, and Gilles passed me about this time, bombing down the hill and looking strong.
David and I leapfrogged our way more cautiously down toward the little town of Roure. I am not a fan of Roure. Nothing against the town itself, but the GR5 takes a cobblestone route straight down through it, and I'm not a fan of steep downhills on cobblestone. David and I worked together to figure out the turns, with some help from the locals, and then we were below Roure and starting the final descent.
So here it is. The location of my 2006 demise, the final portion of the descent, the last 600 meters down to St Sauveur-sur-Tinee. The bottom was visible from Roure, but there was no way I was looking down there.
One thing at a time. One switchback, one road crossing, one meter, one step at a time. No, my memory had not failed me. This is one bitch of a descent. It wasn't the steepest nor the longest, but it WAS an aggressive grade with smooth-packed trail and very few step-downs to help take the pressure off my knees. And it was at the end of a 2000-meter downhill effort.
My biggest mistake was probably not taking a second ibuprofen in Roure. I had been doing so well at that point, I didn't think I would need it. Well, the descent got more and more difficult and my knees started protesting loud and clear. Ow, ow, OW, OW. I cannot believe this is happening again!
I stopped for a cookie. I went downhill backwards. I leaned on my poles. I took my time. No matter what, I was getting down this stupid thing under my own power. Occasionally I had to sneak a glance down to the bottom. Yep, it's getting closer. Nope, I'm not there yet. Sigh.
I passed the spot where I had been picked up by the van last time. That was a moment of minor triumph. It didn't make my knees hurt any less, but I felt better somehow anyway. And you can be happy that I won't be referencing the 2006 race as much anymore! From here on out, it's all new territory.
OK, well, long story long, it hurt and I struggled, but eventually I made it down. I would love to say that I celebrated, but I was actually in shock. Shock that after everything, I still hadn't solved the problem of the Roure-St Sauveur descent. Shock that my knees might have actually given out again and that the next 2.5 stages were going to be a living hell. Shock that I had actually MADE IT to the ravito on my own this time!
I made my way slowly to the food table where David and I shared a look that seemed to say "oh my god, can you believe that?" I told Xavier, the doctor who was helping out, that I made it down this time, and he said I was better trained. No, I replied, I just had more time to work with this time. Time is good, he agreed.
And time now to get going again. I needed to pay attention to the markings a lot closer since I had not seen the rest of the course before. The pink GTA and red/white GR5 marks were easy to follow, taking me out of town and up the start of the next climb.
The trail turned steeply upwards, and I reached confidently with my poles to begin powerwalking. That's when I got the next shock - my legs were dead, simply out of gas. What the heck?? Even now, three months later, I can still reproduce the expression of disbelief that I'm sure crossed my face. What a day.
OK, again, one step at a time. I shortened my stride and focused on getting everything back under control. Surely I just needed some food to digest and my legs to adjust to the change in direction. And that is what happened. Gradually, ever so slowly, I worked my way up the hill. The trail turned less steep, I gained a bit of momentum, and I started feeling better.
It was almost like everywhere less than 700 meters in elevation had too MUCH oxygen and my body couldn't handle it. Or something strange like that!
During a long climb on an old road cut into the side of a cliff (very cool) I caught sight of David ahead of me. I tried kicking it up a notch, and my body responded favorably. Excellent. I slowly reeled in David, eventually passing him near the top. During the next short descent I stopped to drink my SPIZ and let David go by again.
Working our way down toward the next and final bottom before the finish line, I decided it was Nano time again. We were headed toward a long climb and I felt I was ready for some musical motivation. I passed David one last time, with earbuds in my ears and uphill legs in gear.
One of the first songs I heard made me laugh out loud - "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M.
As some faster songs followed, I got into a rhythm and started making good time. I saw various landmarks that John had told me about, including a tiny canal of water flowing next to the trail. A thought came to me, "You know, a boat is a better way to go downhill." When I'm prepared to run whitewater to avoid going downhill on foot, something is backwards with the world. I started naming other alternative ways to go down a hill - on a sled, in a taxi, on a bike even!
I passed from woods to little town and back to woods again. The GTA markings were excellent so I didn't need to follow along on the map. Until I reached the main road and didn't see a single GR or GTA mark. This was frustrating for a moment, but I found some ambiguous red/white paint on a telephone pole and decided it meant to stay on the road. Further down was another mark, good to go again.
I jogged into St Dalmas and refilled a water bottle in a fountain John had remembered. The GR5 took off to the south toward Nice, but we would switch to the GR52 and aim for Menton instead. I followed Philippe's flagging on a small road that led around toward the final col of day 12.
There was one short climb to go, and I could see the col 200 meters above me. But the road stayed relatively flat as it approached the woods, running out of room for the ascent. This should be interesting.
Sure enough, after a short ways into the woods, the trail turned sharply uphill to make most of the gain all at once. At least I had seen it coming. A bit of mambo from Lou Bega, a bit of push from my legs and arms, and I was at the top. Yay!
I stepped onto the main road just as a couple road cyclists reached the col at the same time. We looked at each other like, "huh, that's an interesting way to come up the hill."
I jogged a short ways on the road, ate one last cookie/ibuprofen combo, and then plunged down the trail for one last 600-meter descent toward the stage finish line at St Martin de Vesubie. I expected this descent to be difficult, but it was surprisingly pain-free. The switchbacks were long and gentle, the trail was shaded and padded with pine needles, and I was a happy camper.
I danced to my music and eventually found houses and pavement signifying that the stage was almost over. But first! One last little descent on a road. Oh, and it's a steep one, that's gonna hurt. After a few steps, I opted for backwards walking. That was much better, so I continued that way all the way to the bottom, even upgrading to light jogging. It wasn't easy to see behind me, but there was no traffic (and no one gawking at me), so I made it work.
I felt great running (forwards) through town, speeding up as I realized that I had done it - I had finished day 12 - I had accomplished goal #4 - I had survived a near-meltdown - I still might make it to the end! There was only one goal remaining:
Goal #5 = Finish the GTA.
John and I had a happy little celebration at the finish line in the town square. There is some footage in our GTA video of me trying to explain what had happened (I didn't know at the time that John was filming us with the GoPro). And John bought me the most delicious Nutella waffle I have ever eaten.
John had an excellent day himself, keeping Laurent in sight and then passing him on the second long uphill. John took the stage by 14 minutes for his second stage win. Nicely done! Overall he was still more than an hour and a half behind, but I'm sure it was fun to win a stage here and there.
We hung out to listen to Philippe and a couple older ladies cheer people in. One lady came over to ask me what I think about when running all day (was it my husband?) - I had to admit it was more the music that motivated me, but having a husband at the finish line was certainly wonderful! :)
John = 6:18:31 / 1st among full-course runners (overall placing = 2nd)
Marcy = 9:11:54 / 10th among full-course runners (overall placing = 11th)