La Grande Traversee des Alpes 2006

From Thonon-les-Bains on Lac Leman to Menton on the Mediterranean Sea
August-September 2006
Written by Marcy Beard
Photos by Serban Chiurlea, Andreas Vischer, Sylvain Canon and Team SOMFY,
Jean-Claude Richard, John Beard, Marcy Beard

As part of our 7-month tour of Europe, John and I were on the lookout for races that would take us to interesting places (preferably in the mountains) while not requiring much in the way of gear. When we heard about the GTA, a 2-week ultrarunning stage race from the top to the bottom of French Alps, we knew we had to try it.

We have completed expedition adventure races and two 100-miler ultramarathons, but we have never tried a stage race of any type, and we have never raced for more than 10 days straight. Nor have we ever tried to run 600 kilometers in such a short timeframe. The idea of being able to rest and refuel each night sounded very nice. The main question was how to recover enough to run another mountain marathon the next day.

The course started at the lake near Geneva and rose quickly into the Alps, heading over mountain passes and dropping into valleys, following ridgelines and taking us through alpine fields. Every day promised amazing new scenery, if only we would have the energy to lift our heads and enjoy it. This is one of my very favorite places on earth, so I was thrilled to get a chance to see more of it, and hopeful that I would make it through all 14 days in order to see everything the GR5 had to offer.

The race followed the GR5 ("Grande Randonee number 5") trail for most of the distance, until the end where we veered off from the route going to Nice and instead followed the GR52 to end up at Menton. We also took a detour through the Parc de la Vanoise instead of going around it, a favorable route choice in my opinion. The trail had all sorts of faces, from easy jeep road to fun single-track, from muddy cow pasture to rocky mountain path. Most of it was runable and not too technical, so the main thing determining our speed would be our strength of climbing and descending.

Speaking of speed, I don't have a whole lot of it. I was hoping to go fast enough to make the daily cut-offs (10 or 12 hours depending on the distance) without overly exerting myself. The main goal was to not make mistakes - to stay hydrated and fed, not to get sunburned or blistered, and to stay on trail as much as possible. I was hoping to use my endurance and map-reading skills to get by. John is significantly faster than I am, so his goal was to keep from starting too fast for the first couple of days and to figure out what pace he could sustain over such a distance.

The race organizers provided a place to sleep each night in a gite or a refuge, typically group housing in bunk beds. Each place would feed us dinner and breakfast, then the GTA folks would meet us once in the middle of each day's run with drinks and snacks. We carried additional food and liquids, and also stopped for water at various points along the course. Part of the challenge each night was to study the course and figure out where to get water the next day, and how much to carry at a time. Our bags were transported for us to the next stopping point, so we didn't have to carry much during the run.

We brought some SPIZ (energy drink powder) with us to France, but had only enough for one serving per day. I am learning to eat solid foods on the run, especially when running an easy pace, so I was on the prowl for some good chocolate chip cookies to bring in bulk to the race. I was happily surprised to find Chips Ahoy in Zermatt (our last stop before returning to Grenoble to get ready for the race), so we bought all 7 boxes on the shelf. Some powdered Gatorade from Verona, Italy, a 2-bottle waist-pack from Chamonix, some honey gels and Gu from London, and a post-run protein drink from Grenoble, and we were ready to go.

August 26, Pre-race day

We took a train to Thonon and a taxi to the camping place. We were sharing a small trailer with two other runners, Philippe and Jean-Claude (I think). We had enough room to spread out our gear and prepare for the morning. I chopped up some large Pepperidge Farm cookies into quarters, then realized I only needed to cut them in halves, so I guess I just have to eat 2 quarters every half an hour, which I proceeding to explain to John. He stared at me and said, "Do I know you?" I guess I was a bit nervous about getting started.

We did packet pickup and met some of the other runners, then went to a reception at the mayor's office. I'm not sure the point of that, but if it helps promote the race with the local communities then what the heck. Back to the camping place for dinner. We got to know Philippe, the main organizer, and his assistance Philo. Anne the doctor and Magali the nurse were also there, and we would meet Christophe the masseur later. Philippe introduced all of us runners at dinner, and everyone seemed very friendly. John pegged one of them, Stephane, as the man to beat. The only other woman racer, Isabel, was running only the first three days just to try out this type of event. There was one team, SOMFY, with one or two runners each day switching off relay-style. One man was running only the northern half, and two others would join us later to run in the south. All told, 21 people started the race the next day, with 17 individuals intending to run the entire distance.

It rained that night, and we were glad we were not doing the Tour de Mont Blanc that weekend in the snow. Time for bed.

August 27, Day 1: Thonon-les-Bains to La Chapelle

GTA photo

Everyone piled into the minivans to head for the starting line by the lake. Several of us touched the lake water, hoping to finish in the sea in 14 days. It was a quiet start, just a walk up to town and then an easy group run for several kilometers. Philippe didn't want us to get lost right off the bat, so he came with us up to the water stop. We ran out of Thonon and up to some nice dirt trails in the woods. We started seeing red and white GR symbols, and Bram (the race veteran who had run the GTA both of the previous two years) pointed many of them out to his friend Andreas who was running the GTA for the first time. We also had some good views of Lac Leman.

GTA photo

GTA photo

I didn't really like having to keep up with the group for the first hour, even at the relatively slow speed. It's difficult to stop for a cookie or to pee, and I guess I just prefer my own pace. We went through the woods and up some gentle climbs, then finally we got to a steep section. Apparently Philippe said "go!" because people just took off up the trail. John chatted with me for a bit and then went on ahead, and soon I was alone and happy (except I always prefer having John with me, but I certainly wouldn't want to hold him back).

I refilled my bottles in a fountain and made a half serving of SPIZ. This was the day to work out the details of my organizational systems (how to carry the cookies, Gatorade powder in film canisters, SPIZ baggies, tissues/TP, and trash). I started using the map at intersections. After going up the wrong road for an extra 10 minutes, I decided the map was invaluable enough to carry in one hand at all times instead of stashing it in the waist pack. A mean dog ran out at me, boy I hate that. A bit of screaming "Non!" at the dog and I got by him.

My climbing felt slow today. I was the last one to the ravitaillement ("ravito", or water stop), but there were still about four others there when I arrived. There were nectarines on offer, yum! I tried putting Coke in one bottle but eventually determined that all the excess fizz was causing too many problems to make that work. I followed Isabel and a couple others up through the woods and up a long, wet, muddy cow pasture. There was a hose on the ground - I had the strange thought, "are they watering the cow fields?!"

I stopped at the top of a rise to drink my SPIZ and was about to start running again when Isabel appeared from the small peak ahead. Apparently that was the wrong way. I found the trail and we ran together to chat for a couple minutes before she took off again. The next climb up to the ridge was extremely steep, up a ladder of tree roots. I'm not sure but I think that could be the steepest place on the GR5, or maybe I was just really tired already. The ridge at the top was wonderful and I could see through the clouds down the huge drop to the fields below. Many people had a bit of trouble following the trail through a sheep field, which seemed odd, as though the trail had been recently rerouted? I strayed too close to the electric fence wire and got a nasty shock - how rude! I muttered something about the stupid idea of putting a sheep fence right on our path, and moved on.

GTA photo

Isabel was still visible ahead of me through the next climbs and descents. The scenery was turning into Alps now, very pretty! I stopped briefly to put a band-aid on one of my heels. I tend to wear out the fabric inside my shoe heel, so we ironed on some preventative patches as we have in the past. However, I found that this patch was too small and was causing rubbing of its own. Eventually we just tore the patch off, and my heels were fine. Anything to prevent blisters!

We started seeing hikers along the way. As I tried to find the intersection with the right turn to La Chapelle, a bunch of hikers tried to get me to cut across the cow pasture toward the col. Idiots! Buggers! I finally saw the intersection sign below me and dropped down to it. The whole field was muddy and wet.

The trail took us up to a col and then down a nice drop to a refuge where I filled up with water. I saw a group, perhaps runners (?) going up the last hill. I guess I wasn't so far behind after all. I found Eric (Isabel's husband) on the uphill. He was out of energy, but I told him that we had lots of time, no problem. The final long downhill was partly on muddy and slippery grass. I tried hard to keep my balance but finally fell on my butt and got dirty. Sigh. Eric came by, which I appreciated because then I could stop to pee.

On the way down I lost the trail markers. I saw the trail across the creek, so I climbed back up for about 10 minutes to return down the correct trail. I decided that next time I would follow 1) the map, 2) the red and white markers, and/or 3) signs saying "GR5 that way ->" (as I had done in this case). And if they don't match, I will pick the one I like best!

I finally made it down to La Chapelle d'Abondance where John was cheering for me from the gite balcony. Yay! I was the last one in today. And I was pretty muddy, like everyone else. The gite had a free laundry service, wow! It was a wonderful place, lots of room, good food. I took a shower and prepped for Day 2. The dinner was fun, we talked and laughed a lot. It was Rene's birthday so we sang for him and got to share some cake.

John had a fun first day. Initially he ran with me and we chatted, then he moved on ahead. He and several others had some challenges following the trail markings, so everyone was learning what to look for and how much to rely on the markings vs. the maps. Other than that, no troubles, just an easy first leg for John.

Day 1 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2700 meters
John's time: 7:50 (8th place)
Marcy's time: 9:28 (17th place of 17 full-course runners)

August 28, Day 2: La Chapelle to Samoens

The runners were divided into two groups based on our placing. I, of course, went with the slower group starting at 7 a.m. John got to wait an hour before starting with the faster runners. I never understood why that group never slept in, but I guess they were all ready for breakfast as soon as they could get their hands on it. It was great having help from John every morning, in any case!

The morning of day 2 started off easy. Philippe (the race director) accompanied us to hang some flagging tape at the less obvious parts of the trail. We started down a short road run, then immediately began our first climb. I found my natural spot behind everyone else and took my time. Partway up the hill I heard voices behind me, and it turned out that Philippe and four others had taken a wrong turn down below. We said "Re-bonjour!" and I stepped aside to let them attack the hill again.

I found some wild raspberries on the way up, very exciting. I pretty much have to stop for berries on the trail under most circumstances, although in a race situation I have to try to limit myself to one or two at a time. At the top of the hill I found cows in a muddy field, then the col, then another field with indistinct trail markings. Philippe added some flagging to help us, but I still cut downhill too early. I stopped for a map check and saw the runners of my group on the road below, so I headed down and relocated the trail. As I headed up the road across the way, I looked back to see the 8 a.m. group steaming down the hill. John trotted by in the lead - fun!

As I stopped for water at a farmhouse, Stephane ran by. Not long later, a big group of runners came by while I was walking and eating a cookie. We had easy navigation and running, heading up into some low clouds. More runners came by, including Bram, Andreas, and Serban. And then John again... what? He had taken a wrong turn, what a bummer. Bram is the reigning "king of variants" in previous years, hopefully John wasn't looking to take that title from him.

At the top of the col, we moved into Switzerland, cool! On the other side was the ravito, at a refuge. It was chilly, so I hurried to eat and drink a bit and prepare a half serving of SPIZ. Philippe was there with several other runners. They pointed out John who had taken off like a shot, and Andreas remarked that John really loves to run!

Philippe and I chatted briefly up to the next col, then I stopped to drink the SPIZ and Philippe hurried ahead. It was neat looking down into Switzerland at the col. I followed the map and signs along a long, winding trail over to the Col de Coux. On the last little climb up to the col I saw a runner ahead of me, then more runners coming from behind...? A group had gotten lost in Switzerland, at least John wasn't among them. Hi again, Philippe et al!

GTA photo

After everyone passed me on the downhill after the col, I was alone again. The last climb to the Col de la Golese was a bit tough and tiring. On the final long downhill to Samoens, Isabel finally chased me down (she had been in the group that was sidetracked earlier). We finished with a rather long run through town, and then the day was done. And I wasn't the last one in today, with the SOMFY runner, Daniel, and Dominique behind me on the course.

John had finished fine, but never caught back up to the lead runners. We had a quiet night in a room with Dominique, and we slept well.

Day 2 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2130 meters
John's time: 6:18 (7th place)
Marcy's time: 8:21 (16th place of 17 full-course runners)

August 29, Day 3: Samoens to Les Houches

Mornings are hard. I eventually learned to stay sitting on the bed while getting dressed, putting on sunscreen and Hydropel, and preparing my waistpack. That required less energy, plus I could stay out of everyone's way. Time for breakfast, and then with any luck I would still have time to rest and review the maps again before the start of the run.

This morning we ran back through Samoens, and it was like watching a comedy of errors as my fellow runners tried every way possible to avoid the real trail. I stopped arguing with them and just ran, sometimes ending up in the right spot where I could yell at people to come back on track. It was nuts.

GTA photo

We ran along the river on an entertaining trail, with ladders and huge rocks. Awesome. Above the town of Sixt we started climbing, and I was with Isabel for a while. We passed a humongous waterfall, and the wind sprayed mist across the road. Wow! Further up the mountain there was another amazing waterfall dropping over green grass and bushes, almost like it had just been released from above and was pouring over the hillside.

GTA photo

GTA photo

John, Stephane, and the SOMFY runner came by as we worked our way up the long climb. At the first plateau, Isabel and I did a bit of route finding to stay on the trail over a beautiful creek, then we found a chalet where we filled up with water. The rest of the 8 a.m. pack came past on the way up to the Lac d'Anterne. I followed them around the lake, and the beauty of the creeks and waterfalls and jagged peaks around us was stunning. Then it started softly snowing and I honestly had tears in my eyes. Or maybe I was just emotional from being under stress.

GTA photo

I had to put on my Go-Lite jacket to keep my arms warm, but that certainly was all that I needed as long as I kept moving. I was to learn a lot about the effectiveness of minimalist packing that day. We went over the col and down a steep trail to a refuge for food and drinks. The tables were set up inside, and it was incredibly hot in there. I couldn't stand it for very long, so I headed out with Isabel and we started down the hill.

Then Isabel realized she had lost her roadbook, which contained the maps of the trail. She wasn't confident about following the markings without a map, and I completely understood that assessment. We were going to travel together, but she went on ahead when I stopped to pee, and I didn't see her again on the way down the hill. I stopped to drink some SPIZ at the bridge, then started the long, long climb up to col du Brevent.

Now this climb was not anything particularly special - it started at 1600 meters and topped out at 2400 meters, not the highest or longest or most technical climb we would do. There was a traverse in the middle, and nowhere was it too steep. But for some reason it kicked my butt. Exhaustion was building up and I just couldn't climb with any speed at all. When I got to the final switchbacks for the last 300 meters of ascent, I was moving slower and slower.

Then the clouds rolled in and I couldn't see how far I still had left to trudge. Every time I thought "maybe that's the top", there were more rocks above me. Wind blew and the snow started again - not so pretty this time. I started wondering if I would need to find a lift down to Chamonix from the top. It felt like I was borderline getting myself into trouble. Finally I had to stop to eat a cookie, so I crouched in a semi-sheltered cirque to get mostly out of the wind. I just had no energy.

Not five minutes later I popped out at the col, and Isabel popped out from behind the stone monument there! She had been waiting for me because she wasn't sure which way to head. Sorry to keep you waiting! She said "No worries" and we took off through the rocks along the ridge.

We crossed the ridge together, climbing up frozen ladders and clambering over big rocks. It would have been really cool if not for the driving snow. But I wasn't going uphill any more and the route-finding was something to focus on. Plus I think the responsibility of helping Isabel gave me a renewed sense of purpose, and I liked her company.

GTA photo

We both ran in shorts and light jackets, but it was enough, especially with a hat or Buff and gloves. A group of hikers in full snow gear passed us, and then we heard them burst into hysterical laughter. Well, at least someone is being entertained. We came around one corner and were presented with a lovely panorama: Chamonix, glaciers on the opposite slopes, and... clouds covering all trace of Mont Blanc and the beautiful massif. "Normalement, c'est magnifique!!"

We finally found the Refuge de Bel Lachat on the other end of the ridge - heaven! We stopped to use their bathroom, get water, eat, and warm up. The folks inside stared at us, but at least Isabel could explain (in French) more easily than I what crazy thing we were doing.

Let's go! We started the long downhill, shivering for a while. The snow switched to rain and we reached the trail that John and I had been on earlier in the year. I led Isabel without looking at the map. The trail was fast and easy, just a long ways down. Above Les Houches we found ribbons that Philippe had placed, and I started collecting them since I was pretty positive we were the last ones on the course. Finally, after 10 hours, we made it to the finish line - hugs all around! Tough day.

John had stayed in the lead group until the final downhill, when he let them bomb on down while he took it a bit easier. He had no problems staying on the trail today, so our pre-scouting paid off for both of us.

I was now officially exhausted. John helped me while I showered, prepped, ate, and poked a hole to drain a toenail blister. I lay on the bed and checked my heart rate. I could hear it in my ears, which is strange in itself, but it also sounded fast. Get this - 90 beats per minute, when normally it's around 60. John's read 60, when normally his is 40. Wow, what an interesting phenomenon. The good news is that after today our heart rates would begin recovering.

Day 3 Distance: 48 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2730 meters
John's time: 6:14 (3rd place)
Marcy's time: 10:00 (17th place of 17 full-course runners)

August 30, Day 4: Les Houches to Plan de Mya refuge

I was so tired this morning. Ooph. The first climb above Les Houches was so slow and difficult, I could not believe it. A local dog ran out barking at me, annoying dog. Big construction trucks kept going by, annoying dusty trucks. I was out of breath at normal exertion levels - this is not good. At the top I ate a cookie and grinned at the people inside the train that was stopped there (and could you move the train out of the way, please?). Finally - downhill! Aahh. I knew this trail from our scouting trip, which is always nice. Down to a creek - ooh, I don't remember the bridge being broken. That made for an interesting creek crossing.

The small hill on the other side felt like nothing. I started running on the jeep road at the top, feeling good. The trail went up and down a bit, through little towns, and along sweet, relaxing forest singletrack - my favorite kind of trail. Down to the main road and along the road toward les Contamines (the ravito for today). I ran/walked up the road, then there was John, yay! Time for our daily morning kiss.

Stephane followed by about 30 minutes and caught up to me at the water stop - he wasn't happy about the trail markings or something. After the ravito I went back and forth with Daniel, making our way up a path along a pretty creek. Surprisingly, Bram and Alexandre were the next runners to come by. It was always interesting watching the goings-on of the 8 a.m. group each day.

GTA photo

We started up another long uphill, and Serban ran by looking really good. On up to a refuge - with a WC, excellent! Plus water for SPIZ, so I took a brief break there. The train (Aldo, Guy, Jean-Michel and usually Alexandre) passed me there, taking a quick break themselves to eat something. Next was a good climb up to the col du Bonhomme, and I was feeling better about the climbing by this point.

Andreas and Rene came by at last. It turned out that Andreas had fallen and sliced his little finger up good, so he had gotten medical assistance at the ravito, and Rene was staying with him to be sure he was OK. They led the way up the switchbacks, then I saw them again at the col in the fog - in fact, I didn't realize who it was until they passed me again, as they had stopped to bundle up. I put on my Go-Lite jacket, but never really got cold that day.

GTA photo

Through the fog I headed for the col de la Croix du Bonhomme. The path was covered in parts by crunchy snow, very funny. Along the way I met some English-speaking folks who asked about the race. Many of the hikers along the whole way would already know about the race by the time they saw me, because Philippe and other racers would chat with them. So the hikers ("touristes") would have time to think up specific questions for me - sometimes it was bewildering to have a complete stranger greet me familiarly and ask "so how far are you running today?" or "where did you come from?"

There was sunshine at the col! Glory be. I started across the Crete des Gittes and suddenly encountered major wind, whoa! I stopped behind some rocks to regroup, eat, drink, and pee. OK, here we go, out to the next windward section, aiming for the part that was sheltered again. Wind! Calm. Wind! Calm. Over and over. Very funny! I saw some hikers waiting behind rocks (for what?). I glimpsed Andreas ahead and followed him down the last hill.

GTA photo

We were now in one of the places where the Raid World Championships came through last year, and we had crewed a team for the race. Now I was looking down the valley instead of up it, awesome. I have great respect for their speed down these hills and what they went through on foot!

Finally I reached the road and climbed the short way up to the Refuge de Mya, our stop for the night. Phew. It was hard, but definitely a better day, and a real turning point for me as far as the climbs went.

John won the stage for the first time today, which was exciting for both of us. He wasn't pushing too hard nor getting too competitive about it, so we figured that would bode well for the next few days anyway.

GTA photo

The refuge was memorable - it was cramped but cozy. Andreas got his finger stitched up while everyone hovered over him and took pictures, until Magali told the crowd to back off so she could concentrate. We had some delicious polenta for dinner, then we celebrated Anne's birthday with a cake and singing. The eggs and milk were so fresh, I will always remember what that tastes like. The refuge had only one bathroom, so that required some patience on our part. Ah, the fun of mountain refuges!

Day 4 Distance: 40 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2550 meters
John's time: 4:56 (1st place)
Marcy's time: 7:59 (16th place of 17 full-course runners)

August 31, Day 5: Plan de Mya refuge to Rosuel refuge

In the morning the lights went out, and Bram started singing "Bonne Anniversaire!", very funny. We ate breakfast by headlamp and kept warm next to the stove. I think it was here that one of my shoelaces broke, so John helped me re-lace and retie it. The other shoelace and at least one of John's did the same thing later, but we were able to keep them in service. The thin "pull-tight" laces on the latest Salomon shoes are weaker than regular laces, but they certainly tie and untie much more quickly.

Today would be a shorter day, with a huge downhill in the middle. The skies were clear, a beautiful morning. We started with an easy trail that wove up and down and around above Lac de Roselend. I helped Jean-Claude and Daniel catch the trail at a switchback in the road, and we watched other runners who had continued down the road, going way too low and having to climb back up to the trail.

My climbing was much better this morning, finally! I had energy and I loved the trail that weaved through and over big rocks. This time I stayed with everyone on the climb, a major accomplishment for me. At the top we reached the col de Bresson and sunshine, yay! The SOMFY runner told me that guys ahead of him were heading the wrong way, and I looked over to see a bunch of runners traversing instead of descending. I called "RENE!!!" and waved them back. Too much yelling today.

The downhill trail was easy and fun. A marmot jumped up and scared me with his shrill whistle, yikes! Rene and Magali ran by first, looking strong. I stopped for water at the refuge and took off before anyone else arrived. The next section was a long, smooth downhill on a dirt road where John and then Stephane and Aldo came by.

GTA photo

Lower down we all had route-finding difficulties, but a group of us found a lower road to follow around to find the GR5 again. Strange problem, I'm still not sure where the actual trail went. Then there was a long, steep drop to Valezan, and I pulled ahead of a couple runners, then I passed Andreas who was having problems going downhill. That reminded me to take it easy on the downhill stuff!

We dropped straight down through town, then down some more to Bellente, for a total descent of 1700 meters. I saw some red and white panties hanging from a tree above the trail - a GR marker?? After crossing the river we followed a paved road for 2 kilometers to the ravito for the day. Here the train finally passed me, moving slowly but steadily.

I had a good ravito stop, taking in Coke and food, putting energy drink in my bottles, and getting water for a SPIZ. There was one last long uphill left for the day. It started on road, then moved to a steep trail through the woods, finally finishing with a long gradual uphill on nice trails. Andreas and I went back and forth through this section, while Serban came walking smoothly by. I kept checking the map so I could gauge my progress and not get discouraged at the time it was taking to get to the end. Finally I found the paved road that led to the refuge de Rosuel - yay! It was exciting to do well today, to have a short day so we could recover that evening, and to stay on trail the whole time.

GTA photo

John ended up running with Stephane and Aldo at the end, after Stephane suggested that they let Aldo finish with them because Aldo is a good friend of his. So they all came in together for a tie for first.

Rosuel refuge was my favorite of the whole journey. The rooms were large, everything worked well in the bathrooms, and the food was incredible. The chef cooks for the French cross-country ski team, so he knows what's up with feeding athletes. I almost asked if I could order and pay for another salad, it was so good. And after dinner we had a wonderful, quiet sleep.

Day 5 Distance: 38 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2020 meters
John's time: 4:58 (tied for 1st place)
Marcy's time: 6:41 (12th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 1, Day 6: Rosuel refuge to Pralognan

John showed me his black and sore toenail on his big toe, so I suggested draining it with a pin. I wouldn't expect anyone other than endurance athletes to understand the fun in draining toenails... That seemed to help, and it didn't bother John for the rest of the race. Then a couple weeks later the toenail fell off, cool!

GTA photo

Today is Vanoise Day, and I was very excited (as you can see in the photo!). John and I had hiked here a couple years earlier, and we were enthralled by the scenery and the glaciers, plus we knew the trails quite well. Things are always easier when you have a good idea where you will be going. Plus it was beautiful enough to take your mind off of what you are doing.

GTA photo

GTA photo

My first climb was solid, and although I started at the very back I ended up passing Philippe and I think Jean-Claude and Gerard by the top. On the other side I followed the trail around and down instead of cutting straight down on the ski slope. The latter method had been approved by Philippe, and most of the crowd did this. The trail was out of the way, so I figured I might have been passed by a bunch of people by the time I reached the ski town of Val Claret at the bottom.

In general, many European runners cut switchbacks, and some take even worse shortcuts, which is completely opposite what we learn in the US. I stuck with my plan to always stay on the trail, and actually no one came out ahead of me except Gerard. John hiked by me on the uphill, yay! He had followed the trail down too. I stayed with a group of runners up to the col de la Leisse and chatted with them at the ravito at the refuge up there. There was Orangina, yum.

GTA photo

GTA photo

The next long gentle descent followed a creek down a gorgeous valley. I was alone on this long path down to the bridge, except for a brief warning growl from a patou sheepdog. They had actually escorted John through their herd of sheep in a much more threatening way, but apparently they were used to seeing runners by the time I got there. I walked by the sheep and moved on.

GTA photo

GTA photo

We had a lot of sun today, but it was still cool up at the 2000-meter elevation. I had a good last climb up to a plateau, and I watched Bram and Andreas on the trail below me. Across the plateau it was hard to run very much amid the rocks on the trail, so I did a run/walk thing for a while. I jumped over to a refuge to get more water, and greeted Bram when I returned to the trail. He was looking good today.

GTA photo

The last descent was long and rocky, with lots of hikers. Magali had hiked up to take photos, cool. I hopped stones across the Lac des Vaches, my favorite lake anywhere, I think. Getting down the rest of the way was difficult. It was steep and I was starting to hurt on the downhills. Some big stairs towards the bottom were tough, and I ended up using a railing to hop gently down them.

GTA photo

I ran through the little town of Pralognan to the finish line where John greeted me. He had a great run today, finishing well ahead of the rest of the field, yay! I sat and ate chips while we waited for Andreas to finish, then we were shuttled to our gite for the night. We had our own room, hey cool! The meal was good and I was feeling OK, although I wasn't sleeping as well at this stage. Daniel told us he had to stop because he was going too slowly, so he would be leaving tomorrow.

Day 6 Distance: 43 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2080 meters
John's time: 5:37 (1st place)
Marcy's time: 8:26 (14th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 2, Day 7: Pralognan to Valfrejus

We were shuttled back to the finish/starting line in town, then we ran back by the gite. Hi y'all! The first half of the stage was a long walk uphill, an ascent of 1400 meters. I had a lovely morning in the shade, feeling good and taking it easy. It was our last short day, so I was going to make the most of it. Near the top I detoured to a refuge for water (I'd rather go an extra couple hundred meters instead of carrying the extra weight up the hill). During my detour I missed John coming by, but I did manage to relay a message via Philippe explaining where I was so he wouldn't wonder about me.

GTA photo

I barely saw Bram as he came speeding by - what got him going today? The landscape near the top of the climb was odd - all barren and rocky. I saw some animals, possibly bouquetins (ibex). Stephane came along, but he was hurting today, I think with a thigh muscle problem. I reached the top, the high point of our 2-week journey, 2796 meters. Woo hoo!! Jean-Michel answered "woo hoo!" from just below, cool. It was a great view, well, gotta go.

GTA photo

I picked my way down the steep part, passing Stephane, then I ran through a pretty meadow. The train cruised on by, then Serban. Serban let me take his picture (he took a ton of photos every day, I'm not sure how he managed to do that). My knees started aching, so I took a sit-break for a cookie and an ibuprofen.

GTA photo

It was sad to leave the Vanoise park, and I told a "you are exiting the park" sign as much. I looked up to see hikers ahead of me wondering why I was chatting with a sign; oh well. I worked my way down to the ravito at Polset. There was a nice man there with food and water, but no energy drink this time. I ran on, by some hikers, to find a steep trail down to Modane.

This trail went on forever. I tried it backwards (Andreas had suggested this for steep ski slopes), but I only succeeded in making myself laugh while not making any progress. Ow, ow. Finally I reached the bottom. I tried to get water out of a public fountain, but the water stream was hard to reach, odd. I bought an orange juice and Kit Kat from a boulangerie where the lady looked at me oddly. I should have actually gotten more liquids, as I had to nurse my juice up the next hill. The day was getting pretty hot.

I following Philippe's markings uphill, under the Autoroute, through the woods to the road. We climbed road switchbacks for a ways, and I found that I enjoyed alternating running/walking up pavement on an easy grade. Soon we returned to trails, crossing a little creek, although the water was too far down to refill my bottle.

GTA photo

Next the trail took me under a church (?), very pretty. I saw a faucet coming out of a wall by the woods, that seems odd. But it was a working faucet, so I got some backup water. No matter, I should be almost there - through the town of Valfrejus, out the other end, more road, finally found our place, yay!

John had raced well again today, while Stephane had to pull out. That was disappointing, as John was getting close to Stephane in the standings and probably would have soon passed him. Now John was the overall leader by default, without anyone near his speed to compete with.

We were rewarded with pasta as an afternoon snack, then some good spaghetti for dinner. It was a very nice afternoon of rest, phew. The night was a bit more difficult, as I needed an ibuprofen to calm my aching knees so I could sleep. Plus Gerard was in our room, and he is quite the snorer. I got out my earplugs, which worked great even though I could no longer hear my watch alarm...

Halfway done!

Day 7 Distance: 38 kilometers
Elevation gain: 1930 meters
John's time: 4:21 (2nd place behind the SOMFY runner)
Marcy's time: 7:04 (15th place of 17 full-course runners, ahead of Stephane who didn't finish the stage and Daniel who didn't start it)

September 3, Day 8: Valfrejus to Montgenevre

Today is a long day, our first since day 3. I'm ready. It started nicely, with a quiet and shaded climb up to the col de la Vallee Etroite. With the hotter weather, I started really enjoying the cool and dark mornings. As I trotted along a dirt road toward a farm, I saw a guy working on a fence, and he looked like Nigel Aylott. As I got closer, obviously it wasn't him, but I had to ponder that one for a while. Can you hallucinate even when you are getting enough sleep?

GTA photo

It was beautiful around the col and a gorgeous run down the other side, down to a creek and a bridge. I saw tons of Italian hikers and said "Buon giorno" a few times. At some point one asked me a question in Italian and I had to shrug and smile apologetically as I ran by. One week of language school can provide the recognition of the language, but I'm not quite ready for a conversation.

I stopped for water and a SPIZ at a refuge, then helped John and a SOMFY runner figure out the trail direction off the road. It's always fun to see my husband in the morning, a daily date. The second climb was nice, and most of the 8 a.m. herd came by here. Werner looked particularly strong. It was starting to get hot, so I wet my hat and head in lakes, creeks, and fountains whenever possible.

The second descent was long and hot, a bit tough. Finally I reached the road and started the hot run over to the ravito. On the way a couple Italian cyclists came by, saw me with a race number, and one said "numero quatro" while the other said "(something, something) Grande Traversee des Alpes". Too funny.

The folks at the ravito asked me if anyone was behind me, which bugged me - I didn't think so, but how can I say that for sure? I wouldn't want to be wrong and be responsible for someone not having the ravito there for them. Stephane helped me with my bottles and told me to forget it, just run my own race. Thanks!

The next climb was 400 meters up in the shade, piece of cake. Next was a long run around a huge cirque by some very cool rock formations. We were on the GR5B part of the time today, and it was a good detour. It was sometimes a small trail, a bit steep and with big drops on one side, but mostly OK and runnable. I passed a hiker who wasn't happy about all the runners coming by him today on this narrow trail - sorry dude, at least I think I'm the last one.

GTA photo

I went over a small col and then started down the other side. I could see the big wide valley across the way, my final climb. Not much around here, dang remote. Oh, and we had just run a short ways in Italy, that was cool. Just over the col I found shade and a tiny creek where I soaked my hat and shirt. Next was a steep, steep drop down a ravine, but actually the little steps down the rocks went OK.

At the bottom I found a cold little "torrent", thank goodness. I took off my waist belt and sat right down in the water for about 10 minutes. I used the time to fill and treat the water in my bottles, eat a Honey Gu, and to get to the point of actually being cold. Yay!

I started slowly up the long valley, trying to not overheat. I freaked out a little bit, thinking about being out there all alone, no hikers around, no possibility of help for quite a while. Finally I decided I had no business being there if I couldn't handle it psychologically. After that everything was OK. I saw marmots up close, which was really neat. I saw a glider from a distance.

GTA photo

The final climb to the col de Dormillouse wasn't too steep, then I followed the trail along a short run to the final col, col de la Lauze. Supposedly we were going to do a detour involving a climb and traverse along the high ridge to the right - but the race markings said to descend directly from the col. Thank goodness, because I thought I was going to run out of water on this last section in the heat. I actually had to sit (in the "shade" of the little sign at the col) to consider the implications and how happy I was not to have to do the detour.

John wasn't so lucky, because he and Thierry arrived at that point first, and Gilles (the course marker) had not done a sufficient job in undoing the markings up to the ridge. So he and Thierry got in some extra elevation and distance, which was adjusted in their race times after Philippe found this out.

The last descent was still difficult, but not a big problem for me. I came off the course last today for the first time since day 3, but I survived. John did more than survive, he thrived with another 1st-place day.

We had our own room again which I completely appreciated. I wasn't as thrilled with the dining room - a huge place with a bunch of people crowding around the buffet, pushing for food, not standing in line, etc. That annoyed me, but our room was awesome. I needed ibuprofen again to sleep because my knees continued to throb.

Day 8 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 3000 meters
John's time: 6:15 (1st place)
Marcy's time: 10:04 (15th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 4, Day 9: Montgenevre to Ceillac

GTA photo

Today was a bit easier, more of a medium day. We did a "Gilles variant" to avoid Briancon, heading over a ski area and along the next valley. I had a good climb and a solid walk/run through the valley, really enjoying myself that morning. By now the first 2-3 hours each morning were awesome, so easy compared to everything else (including our down time each evening, and especially waking up each morning) - and it's hard to explain why or how. I just went along for the ride and enjoyed it.

GTA photo

I passed Gerard and Jean-Claude along the way, then stopped at a refuge for water. I noticed some lettuce greens and potatoes in the fountain, and proposed a "food day" to Jean-Claude, including the upcoming cols de Peas and Fromage.

GTA photo

The next climb was steep but I was doing OK. John and Werner sped by, as John explained to me that he was having a knee problem on the downhills. Uh oh. The next descent was nice, with a bit of wandering back and forth across the hillsides. A group of hikers saw me and asked if I was the "femme Americaine" - all right, who has been talking?

I saw three of the train runners cut the course completely, not cool. I think Jean-Claude yelled at them about it, and Philippe told us that night that we need to stay on the trail. After crossing a creek the downhill got easier, and Bram ran by. On the last steep downhill on switchbacks, I caught Jean-Claude briefly. Serban came in while we were at the aid station at Chateau Queyras. The chateau/fort is a really neat building, seems like a nice tourist destination.

GTA photo

One climb left, and it started out crazy-steep, yikes! The slope got better, and it was shady for quite a while, so I just worked my way up. I thanked the trees for the helpful shade. On the way up I passed a SOMFY runner who was having a tough day.

Near the top I ran into a navigation question, missing a turn in the trail, but I figured it out and was soon on a long traverse over to col Fromage. From there I could see Jean-Claude (who had gotten off-trail) and the SOMFY guy behind me. Next I actually had a decent downhill run while still trying to take it easy on my knees. Down to Ceillac and the finish!

GTA photo

I sat in the church courtyard and chatted with John a bit. We liked to debrief each day when I came in. John made it to the end OK, finishing just ahead of the guys next in line because of his downhill issue.

Dinner was good, and I tried a little wine for once. Our room was small but comfortable, and we were rooming with Sylvain from SOMFY. Ibuprofen is now a staple in my diet, but I'm still trying to keep my intake to a minimum.

The big problem with the evening is that we found out we would be doing a huge variant the next day to avoid some road running. Instead of a medium-distance day, we would be doing the hardest possible day, with perhaps 3300 meters of climbing. I was NOT happy at all, as this was messing with my psychological preparation and planning. I was quite upset, even crying about it outside in the dark. I knew I had to try (even though I was tempted to stay on the GR5 and the original course instead). Blah.

Day 9 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 1930 meters
John's time: 6:27 (2nd place to Werner, who had started with us on day 6)
Marcy's time: 9:28 (13th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 5, Day 10: Ceillac to Larche

The Day of the Variant. I decided to "protest" by walking and taking care of myself to get through it with the least damage possible. I took Otis (for listening to audiobooks) and laughed hysterically at This American Life's "The Cat Came Back" episode on the way up the first hill, trying not to disturb Gerard and Jean-Claude too much with my giggles.

In the next field Gerard yelled at a patou dog to leave us alone - thanks Gerard! There was no water at the hebergerie, oh well. Next was a steep climb up a rocky traverse and up to a small peak. Some people bypassed the course markings leading us up to the actually peak, which was annoying. Gilles had marked "Mont Blanc" with an arrow so we could see it way off in the distance, that was cool.

GTA photo

GTA photo

I saw the train and Werner as we started down the steep and narrow trail on the other side. I was moving slowly. Bram and Serban came by. I moved through the woods, listening to Freakonomics, a good book. I finally heard and then saw John coming - he was having serious knee problems on the downhill but he was still pushing hard on the ascents. We came to the refuge together and talked while filling water bottles, then he took off.

The next climb started out nice, near a waterfall and then into a big valley. Then it got hot, boom. I saw one sheep in the creek. I found what looked like a springs, I hope, where I filled a bottle. Further on I found the one and only rock to sit under for shade while I treated the water and ate a cookie. It was a long, slow climb.

GTA photo

I went way around a flock of sheep that was huddled in shade in cliff bands. I wanted to avoid any possible patous, but actually saw them coming toward me anyway. Luckily they were very calm dogs who mostly ignored me. A nice wind was blowing at the col, ahh.

The descent was long AND steep (I thought it was only supposed to be one or the other). Then it turned into crazy-steep and slippery with loose rocks. I had a ton of problems getting down this hill, the worst downhill of the race. I moved slowly, studying each bit to figure out how not to fall or slide. And I could see the ravito truck on the road all the way down, which was frustrating.

GTA photo

Finally I got down there, jeez. Dominique was there, as he had decided not to do the rest of this stage. Stephane and Gilles helped me with food and liquids, I grabbed some extra peanuts to tide me over, and then Stephane ran with me a bit. I asked him to tell Philippe that I was fine, just moving slowly from the heat and stuff.

The start of the next climb was steep, then after the town of Fouillouse it turned into a nice pretty trail. The cloud I had ordered finally showed up, yay! More clouds, then rain. Ooops, not quite what I had wanted, but OK. I didn't have a jacket or any covering with me for once, but the rain felt great the whole time. It was so cool, literally.

Then the thunder and lightning started. Oh dear. I was drenched. I filled a water bottle in a creek, then climbed up to the first col and toward the storm. As I was dropping down into the plateau on top there was a HUGE BOOM very close to me. I started running down, fast, trying to get lower quickly. There were peaks all around me, but I couldn't be sure that would protect me.

A bit more lightning, then the rained slowed and the storm drifted off. Finally I just had to stop for a pee break, a (wet) map check, and a cookie. I hope Otis still works after it got a bit wet. Then - sunshine!

I had a nice walk up to the second col, with big marmots whistling at me. I reached the col de Mallemort - well, it wasn't too bad, and I wasn't dead, so I renamed the col "Bienvie". Nearby was a big abandoned fort, interesting. I was psyched that the col was at the first opening above me, not anything higher up.

GTA photo

The drop on the other side was steep, and I could see Larche, but I knew it was a long way down. Slow and steady, no big knee problems for now. Finally I made it down (last today), and Philippe and John met me on the trail. Then the rest of the gang came outside from eating dinner, giving me a huge reception - wow! That really touched me.

Then the "gite angel" gave us our own room away from the crowded dorms, which was very sweet and for which I will be eternally grateful. Dinner was good. Map check for tomorrow, then to bed. I wasn't prepped for the morning before bedtime for the first time, but John would help me get ready tomorrow.

Speaking of John, he finally had enough problems today that he lost time on the train that was running a couple hours behind him in the overall standings. He went to Anne for help, got some good painkillers, and started using trekking poles. Here's hoping that would work! For now he was still in front.

Day 10 Distance: perhaps 50 kilometers
Elevation gain: around 3300 meters
John's time: 9:24 (10th place of 17 full-course runners)
Marcy's time: 13:00 (14th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 6, Day 11: Larche to Roya

Four days to go. John was a big help getting me ready and set to go. The morning was nice and cool as usual. It was a lovely walk/run up the road, and I stayed with other runners for a while. The climb up the valley into the Mercantour park was beautiful - I loved the lakes and the breeze and the shade. Sigh.

GTA photo

GTA photo

GTA photo

I had a good climb up to the Pas de la Cavale. There was scree on the descent, but only for a short bit, no problem. It was an easy run down to a creek where I got water and treated it. I saw Mary Jo of SOMFY, Dominique, and Gerard there. On the next short climb I saw John (yay!) and the train. John was holding strong.

GTA photo

GTA photo

I took the map-labeled route on the other side instead of following trail markings, taking Mary Jo with me. On the way down the vans showed up and we saw Philippe, Magali, Christophe, Anne, and Stephane, cool! Dominique called it quits there and caught a ride. I got water in a tiny town. While Mary Jo and I were filling bottles, Bram ran up and dunked his whole head in the fountain.

On the other side was a long, easy climb. I drank a SPIZ on the way, then started listening to Otis. That sure made time go faster, and I think a good strategy would be to bring audio books for the second part of each day when things get difficult. The next climb was easy. The next descent was hot and my knees started to hurt. Mary Jo started to get a bit annoying here - "Where do we go? Why are we going this way?"

GTA photo

The ravito was in the town of St Dalmas-le-Selvage, where we could sit in the shade. Christophe asked about the holes in my shoes, and I told him I had other shoes but I didn't want to risk changing to them (they were road shoes instead of the trail shoes I had worn the whole year). The holes weren't really bothering me, anyway. We ate and refilled, then headed out.

The next climb was nice, and I chatted with Mary Jo on the way up. The next descent, down to St. Etienne de Tinee, was really long, a big problem for me. My knees hurt a lot now, so I took it slow and let Mary Jo go ahead. But she was back like the cat at the bottom, trying to figure out where to go and asking for help. Her problems - blisters, low energy - I just didn't want to deal with them when she was running only this day and I was on day 11... her best line was "I'm not feeling so great, because I have the flu". Well, what are you doing here then?

We went through town together and I found the only available fountain where we could fill our bottles and I could put a SPIZ together. It was a steep climb up to Auron, a ski town, but I found my stride and worked up a good sweat. Actually I was thinking about beating Jean-Claude today for some reason, although he ended up lost and late anyway.

At the top of the hill we were ABOVE Auron, so we would have to descend to cross it before finishing our final climb. Should I have followed that orange arrow I saw back there? I sat down, a bit depressed. Mary Jo came along and tried to chat me up, which just bugged me more, then she crowded me while running down the road. Argh! What did I do to deserve this? Can I mentally get myself together?

We had trouble following the markings through town and missed the water fountain. There was construction and lots of noise, altogether frustrating. Mary Jo just couldn't read trail markers, nor people, very well. She kept following the orange marks even though I was pretty sure by now that they were not GTA race markings.

At one point we saw a big GR mark on a pole pointing upward, plus a trail sign stating "GR5 col du Blandon" to the left - what the heck? We followed the trail sign, and still had a hard time with directions until we finally found a little trail leading into the woods. Sigh. Nice trail, anyway.

Well, except for the orange markings partway up, pointing downhill. We decided we definitely needed to ignore that. Jean-Claude actually followed those marks and ended up back in Auron, major bummer. It was a good climb and we saw a chamois (mountain goat) near "Pointe de Chamois", very nice.

I caught a trail that Mary Jo had missed ahead of me, so I called her back and we made it to the col where we found Anne. Hi Anne! I wanted Mary Jo and Anne to go on ahead so I could work my way down by myself, but they still moved so slowly. My knees hurt tremendously, and I took my time, but it took forever to drop 500 meters. I was in a sorry shape. At the finish, Stephane gave us little bouquets, very sweet.

GTA photo

John lost 19 minutes to Jean-Michel today but he was still in the lead and his knee was doing a lot better, so that was good news. Our pasta dinner was delicious. The beds were comfortable, and my earplugs kept out Gerard's snoring again.

However, both John and I suffered a lot that night. My knees started hurting so badly that I sat up crying, and it took two ibuprofens to get through it. Unknown to me, John was on the toilet all night with an intestinal bug. For future reference, I'd suggest treating all water that you get from lakes and creeks in the Alps - just in case that is what caused this problem of John's. It was a long night and a slow morning at the Roya gite.

Day 11 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2330 meters
John's time: 8:20 (4th place)
Marcy's time: 12:11 (13th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 7, Day 12: Roya to St Martin-Vesubie

The Day of Doom. I wasn't sure I should even start this day, based on the course profile. The middle of the course was a gigantic downhill, all of 2000 meters. I went to breakfast in my casual clothes instead of my running attire. While listening to people talk, I decided that I wanted to climb the trail up to Mont Mounier. This trail had defeated me once before, on a winter training day, when I opted out due to avalanche concerns. Now I would climb it. And somehow get down the 2000 meters to the ravito.

I borrowed poles from Dominique, made sure I was carrying ibuprofen, and wanted to carry the MP3 music player but I forgot (bummer). John stayed in bed until 7:30, so I sent Anne to check on him after the 7 am group took off.

Right at the start it was clear that one of today's SOMFY runners, Ingrid, wanted to run with me the whole day. Mary Jo had told her that I was a good companion and could find trails. Uh, I don't think that is going to work. I have plenty of problems of my own right now, please I need to be alone today.

It was a lovely climb up the valley this morning. At one point Gerard and Ingrid came back toward me saying they thought the trail was higher up, so I climbed up and did a detour around a sheep pen (patou avoidance again). Eventually we all found the right trail going upward, and Gerard and Ingrid moved on ahead of me.

The train came by me, then near the top I saw Werner. He's such a nice, interesting character, and very strong for his age. I was always impressed with his speed. I was so happy to be at the top of this trail! I knew this was the best I would feel for a long time.

GTA photo

I started down slowly, learning from a couple runners that John had indeed started the stage. Eventually I saw him and he seemed to be doing OK but not great. The descent was nice, but I could only fast-walk, working with the poles and learning how to use them. After the col des Moulines my knees hurt pretty badly and I checked the map for an alternate route, but that was a no-go.

Next was a 200-meter climb. That felt good! I ran/walked across the field above, thinking that maybe I can do this? I got water and put together a SPIZ at a refuge, and also took an ibuprofen. Starting the long path down, my knees again were unhappy, so I slowed down. It wasn't too bad running down an easy jeep road and down to the village of Roure, but then I reached pavement - yow! Steep drops - ow ow! I was suffering now, trying to use the poles as crutches and moving more and more gingerly. Occasionally I stopped altogether and rested. Man, when it gets bad, it gets bad FAST. I knew that this was end.

Finally I saw Christophe hiking up to look for me. He ran back down to get the van. It was all over, nothing I could do at that point. Drat! Looking back, if I had tried stronger dosings of ibuprofen (instead of one at a time every few hours), that might have helped, although it's hard to say for sure. My knees are still alive to run another day, in any case.

I got a ride to the finish where I waited for John, talked to other runners, cried a bit, ate chips, and drank Coke. Finally John and Jean-Claude arrived, back of the pack. John had lost 3 hours and was no longer in the lead, and he wasn't feeling well, but he made it! Wow. I am so proud of him.

The runners were separated into 2 gites, although it would have been nice to eat together instead. I ate well, as usual, and John was doing a little better. I slept well with earplugs in to block out Gerard's snoring again.

Day 12 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 2330 meters
John's time: 10:46 (11th place of 17 full-course runners)
Marcy's time: Incomplete (13th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 8, Day 13: St Martin-Vesubie to the Refuge des Merveilles

I didn't start this morning, too worried about the long downhill in the middle of the stage. Instead I helped Anne at the ravito. First I helped John get ready and we repacked our bags so we could bring just a small one to the remote refuge for the night. This was unexpected and a bit of a pain. Oh well. On the bright side, originally this was supposed to be a long and difficult stage, but Philippe had taken pity on us and set up a straight-shot route to the next pit stop.

GTA photo

Go John Go! After the start, I drove with Anne up to St Grat where we set up a table and I went to fetch water. John and Igneas arrived first, yay John! I helped runners with bottles and such. Then we cleaned it up, drove to a parking lot, and started hiking up the trail, pulling off red/white trail marking ribbons that Philippe had put up.

GTA photo

We hiked up 800 meters to the Pas de l'Arpette (toward the GR52). I felt so good I left Anne behind. Fog came up and thunder rumbled in the distance. Lots of hikers came by and greeted us. I saw about 6 chamois grazing at the top, cool! I chatted with Pierre from SOMFY who was hiking back down to the parking lot.

Over the col to sunshine again, I picked my way down slowly and easily, relying on the poles. I chatted briefly with a group of Italian hikers. I sang "The hills are alive", and then saw John coming toward me. He had won the stage (!) but fell right at the end and got a gash on his forehead. Nice one!

GTA photo

The Refuge des Merveilles is in such a beautiful spot, with lakes and peaks all around. I wasn't nearly as impressed with the refuge itself. There was no hot water, the dorm rooms were cramped, the bathroom was a mess, we had to eat dinner outside (and it was freezing), and they were stingy with the food. Oh well, it's only for one night, and we sure have been spoiled up to this point! Another bright point - Stephane and friends shared a bit of red wine with me.

GTA photo

John was doing better but still spending more than his share of time in the bathroom. At least there is only one day left, nothing will stop him now. I think we both slept pretty well that night.

Day 13 Distance: About 38 kilometers
Elevation gain: Maybe 2000 meters
John's time: 5:05 (1st place)
Marcy's time: Did not start, but completed the last part of the course (13th place of 17 full-course runners)

September 9, Day 14: Refuge des Merveilles to Menton

GTA photo

There was no way I could attempt this stage - can you say 3800 meters downhill?! Many other brave souls ran it, including Stephane (whose thigh was feeling better) and Guy (who had pulled out at Roya). John looked to be in decent form, although we both knew he couldn't make up enough time to win, even if he felt and ran great.

GTA photo

GTA photo

I cheered on the runners at the start, then sat with Christophe and Dominique for an hour waiting for the 4x4 jeep to take us down the hill. We loaded the jeep, then spent a very bumpy, bouncy hour riding down the hill - exciting! Our driver was some kind of champion offroad driver, for real actually.

We got to "herd" some stubborn white cows that wouldn't get off the road. Eventually some would pull over and let us by, leaving 3 running ahead of us. Two hikers on the road got to experience 3 cows and a jeep barreling toward them - they had quite a look in their eyes. Finally the cows veered off, phew. We went around a switchback, and there they were again! Another switchback, repeat... stupid cows.

At the bottom of the road, after leaving the cows far behind, I noticed a giant heavy piece of a machine with some graffiti painted on it - "ne me voler pas" (don't steal me) - cute. We moved the bags to the van and had another hour ride on roads to Sospel. We arrived just in time to see John running to the ravito - yay! I rushed to help him with SPIZ and bottles.

Then Serban and a bunch of others arrived. It seemed that Jean-Michel and Aldo (in 1st and 2nd in the standings) were motivated to not lose too much time to John today. I rode with Philippe and Dominique down to Menton to set up the finish line. Dang, it was hot down there, with lots of people and cars. I miss the mountains already!

We spent about 30-40 minutes trying to find the end of the GR52 trail (this was a strange lack of organization by Philippe), then I helped with flagging and painting to the finish. Here comes Serban, the winner of the day, wow! He had been chasing Bram (who had gotten a bit lost) and also just wanted to get it over and done with. A strange woman at the finish line did a little interview and kept spouting "look what you can do when you are well-trained" - ? Whatever. She left.

GTA photo

Other runners started calling with their cell phones, having lost the trail somewhere above town. John had run past the poorly-marked turn in the trail too, and he wasn't happy. Andreas was upset. Only Serban and maybe Gerard didn't have trouble with it. John went back up, managing to get to the trouble spot in time to direct Bram and Thierry down the right way, also rescuing a SOMFY runner, then going out to wait for Jean-Claude.

GTA photo

GTA photo

GTA photo

I hung out at the finish while the rest went to the mayor's reception. Here's Jean-Claude - yay! We're all done, way to go! We had a nice dinner reception at the hostel, with lots of laughs and awards for everyone. Then we said goodbye and drove back to Grenoble with Sylvain. It was a late night, but we made it OK. Time to rest!

Day 14 Distance: 45 kilometers
Elevation gain: 1690 meters
John's time: 6:30 (4th place)
Marcy's time: Did not start (last place of 17 full-course runners)

Final results:
John = 3rd overall, in 93:09 total time (1:09 behind the winner, Jean-Michel)
Marcy = did not finish, but credited with first female and 16th overall, also with the desire to try this race one more time if it is ever staged again!

GTA photo