Saturday, August 27, 2016

Race report: Orsières - Champex - Chamonix

The starting area in the main square of the small Swiss town of Orsières was crowded even though it was nearly 40 minutes till the race was due to start. Having already queued for the restroom for 30 minutes, eaten all my pre-race snacks, applied sunscreen, shed all my extra layers and deposited my drop bag, I simple stood around, watching people and feeling stupid for not having anyone to talk to. 

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Nervous selfie near the start in Orsières

As time passed, the square became more and more packed. People pushed passed me, moving forward towards the starting arch. I guessed I was somewhere roughly in the middle, which I thought was probably just fine. Don’t go out too fast! I reminded myself. As the crowd grew, the noise around me escalated, with people jabbering to each other in numerous languages. They were competing to be heard over the boom of disembodied voices through the loudspeakers. The speakers reminded us of how the UTMB races united France, Italy and Switzerland, and how this was our moment!

It didn’t feel like my moment. For the first time I understood how farm chickens, stuffed into barns so tightly they can barely move, feel. I was ready to fly this coop!

Finally - finally - the start signal went off, and the crowd shuffled forward as one. I was a small cog in a big machine, with no choice but to move at the pace dictated by the masses. After passing under the start arch, the shuffle became a jog, and soon we were trotting through the streets of Orsières. All the school children in Orsières stood line up along the streets, waiting to be high-fived by passing runners.

I passed out of Orisères and started on the first climb on a steeply graded dirt road. Many people got their trekking poles out, but given how crowded it still was I considered this a dangerous proposition. I felt stressed, like I wanted to pass lots of people and charge up the climb. Looking at my heart rate though, I knew that this seemingly slow pace would probably prove quite wise. I would wait until the race stretch out a bit to worry about passing people!

At the top of the climb the first rays of sun touch me, and I steeled myself for the heat to come. As the road descended, the field of runners stretched like a Slinky. I let my legs roll along at what I felt was a casual pace, but I was passing people left and right. I was starting to suspect I should have pushed for a place further forward at the start.

After the initial descent, the course hit a paved road and started climbing once again. I passed through a bucolic Swiss mountain village, the name of which I do not know, but which I call ‘the Village of More Cowbell’. Cowbells, large and small, rang out through the hazy morning, cheering us on. I couldn’t help but smile. It might be crowded, but this race had energy.

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The elders of the Village of More Cowbell.

Soon the road veered off onto single track, mercifully in the shade. However, technical, steep areas in the narrow trail caused traffic jams, and the conga line of people was moving so slowly it was sometimes literally standing still. I started to get irritated at the organizers who had decided to pack this many people onto the course, but reminded myself that it was still early and I would be able to pass people later.

I rolled through the aid station in Champex, stopping only to snag some Reese’s peanut butter cups out of my pack. I was glad I had filled my water bladder to its max and thus didn’t need to fill yet, saving time. There was a long runnable section after Champex, which I spent passing people, before the grade steepened and threw us into another climb. We climbed around a valley, first on the shady side and then in the exposed sun. I remembered this particular section of the trail vividly from when I mountain biked the TMB. The climb was much easier without the added weight of pushing a 12 kg mountain bike up the hill!

I focused on not working too hard in the hot sun, drinking water and enjoying the view. I had certainly earned it.

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Beautiful views on the way up to La Giete.

As we approached the top of the climb, the trail flattened out and the landscape opened up out of the trees. I hear the chunk-chunk-chunk of rotating helicopter blade, and saw the source of the noise swoop passed me. There was a camera man filming us from the helicopter. I threw my hands in the air and cheered, not sure how I felt about a helicopter up there but marvelling at the absurdity of the whole situation.

I stowed my poles as I reached the top of the climb and started to run the descent. There was a water station a few minutes down the hill, but feeling my pack I decided I could to fill water at the big aid station in Trient. I bounced down the descent, passing people left and right and generally having a great time. I was drinking more water than I had gambled on though, and ran out just above the hotel at Col de Forclaz. I didn’t see a spigot obviously available at Col de Forclaz, so I decided to suck it up and go without water down to Trient. 

The downhill from Forclaz to Trient probably took less than 15 minutes, but my mouth grew dry from the lack of water, and I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake in not filling up my water bladder up on the mountain. At Trient, I saw Audun for the first time. He had ridden a rental road bike from Chamonix to spectate.

“You look great!” he exclaimed, “How do you feel?"

“I feel fine, but I’m out of water,” I said seriously, “Where is the aid station?!” I had another flight of stairs to climb before I got water.

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Arriving at the aid station in Trient. Photo by Audun

I sat down for the first and last time at the aid station in Trient, slurping a bowl of too hot noodle soup. I needed the salt, I reasoned. I also took of my t-shirt and dunk the whole thing in the water trough, trying to stay wet and cool. I met Audun at the far side of the aid station, and we walk together a little ways down the street before I bid him farewell. I had another mountain to climb.

The climb from Trient went up to the high point of the day, Catogne, at a little over 2000 meters. I got my poles back out, and focused on drinking lots of water, snacking, and moving at a sustainable pace. It was a race going at a snail’s pace, and although I was still passing people I was doing so at a crawl. We were in the true heat of the day now, and lots of people stopped to take breaks in the meager shade provided by trees along the switchbacks

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Crested the high point of the day in Catogne.

At Catogne, I was handed a bottle of water and immediately dumped to whole thing over my head. I was feeling the heat, but not as bad as I feared. So far, I wasn’t dizzy and I felt strong uphill, but even more downhill. And it was time for another big downhill, this time to Vallorcine. I let my mind go and my legs go faster, and even passed some mountain bikers as the trail zig-zagged through the forest. As I popped out of the trees and saw the village of Vallorcine appear before me, I heard cheers. There were people lined up on the way into the village, spectating. I gathered the energy of their enthusiasm and used it to propel me towards the aid station.

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Keeping up the pace coming in to Vallorcine. Photo by Audun

In the aid station, I spent a few minutes cooling off in the water trough and snacking before heading out. Looking at my watch, I knew there could only be a few kilometers left until I hit Trel le Champ and the final 14K of the course which I had run with Audun two days previously. It was nice to know I would be on familiar terrain.

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Cooling off - the right way - in Vallorcine. Photo by Audun

The next kilometers were the worst. The course coming out of Vallorcine was a gradual climb towards Col de Montets, across grassy fields in the unrelenting sun. I forced myself to alternate between walking and running. The course dovetailed the road, and Audun kept cycling up the road to pop up at various moments.

“This part is aweful,” I told him, “I feel terrible."

“You’re walking way faster than everyone around you though!” he remarked. This was true. Many people were moving at zombie-march pace, while I was still power hiking.

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Downing a gel at Col des Montets. Photo by Audun.

Still, when I came over the top of Col de Montets, the landscape opened up into a spectacular view of the Mont Blanc massif. I threw my hands up into the air and smiled. This is what I am here for! I thought. I hit the final climb towards La Flegère hard, pulling my poles out of my pack and pushing up the trail. I didn’t want to leave anything behind on the course.

For the first time all day, I wasn’t in a line of people dictating the pace. I found it almost comically difficult to set the pace on my own. I would be moving fast, then start to feel dizzy and wonder if this was sustainable for another hour of climbing. I would slow down and laugh at the glacial pace of my legs.

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Out with the poles, headed for La Flegère. Photo by Audun

The trail climbed 200 vertical meters before diving down the most technical descent all day. I knew this was coming, though, and launched myself off rocks and roots with my poles. As the trail started to climb again, the final 400 vertical, I started to feel the heat get to me. Would I actually faint if I kept pushing? I wondered through my dizzy haze. I drank more water, and thought about the Central Governor, a theory in exercise physiology that says that pain is actually your brain limiting your body in order to protect it, rather than your body telling you it is near its limit. Was I near my limit? I didn’t dare go any closer, and so kept drink water and moving at a steady, slow pace. For the first time all day, a few people were passing me.

The final climb to La Flegère was on a murderously open ski slope. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of the beautiful descent to come. I knew I could crush it. I stowed my poles as I crested the top, and stopped briefly at the aid station to down some energy drink. I was surprised to see how many people were actually sitting down in the aid station tent. Come on! I thought, only 7K to go, and downhill to boot! No use stopping here!

I began descending, once again passing people, but my joy was brief as the oh-so-familiar pain of side stitch dug itself into my stomach. Why? I wailed to myself, This part is supposed to go fast! But I made myself breath, and slow down slightly, and soon enough the side stitch disappeared. This time I had beat the demon.

I positively flew down the hill, and found Audun at the begin of the final paved kilometers to Chamonix Centre. 

“My watch died back there,” I told him, “So this last part isn’t going to be on Strava. Guess I should just stop now!” I was of course joking, and accelerated passed another runner. In the corner of my eye, I saw the runner drop, crumpling to the pavement. What had happened? Audun stopped to look after him though, and I figured there was nothing I could do, so I ran on.

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Finding my stride in the final Ks to Chamonix. Photo by Audun.

Faster and faster I went, through a blur of streets with volunteers pointing the way. I felt really good - I was running with a stride similar to my 10K race pace - and when I saw the finish line I sprinted with every ounce of muscle fiber I had left. I passed one more person on the final sprint to the finish, before jumping over the finish line.

9 hours. 15 minutes. 24 seconds. It was over.

I was 28th out of 317 women, and 215 out of 1231 finishers over all. Nearly 200 people dropped out along the way. I moved up 700 places from the first to the final checkpoint. Great success? I think so. But I have to learn to start further forward!

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Recovery - the right way - at our campground outside of Chamonix. Note the strategically placed bag of potato chips. Photo by Audun.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From Paris to Chamonix

It’s the day before the OCC, and I’m in Chamonix doing what I do worst: waiting. It’s hot in the valley, at least 25 degrees in the shade, and I’m anticipating struggling with the heat during the race tomorrow. Follow me live during the race (starting August 25 at 8:15am CET) by clicking this link and entering the bib number 9383 in the search box in the left corner.

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Mug shot today after bib pick-up.

Usually, my vacation weeks are a struggle to cram in as many hours of outdoor sports as possible into my days. This time around, it’s a little different. The OCC, my big race of the season, is this Thursday (tomorrow!), and I’ve taken the whole week off. Not wanting to tire myself out too much in the days preceding the OCC, Audun and I elected to go to Paris for a long weekend before heading to Chamonix for the big race. Sightseeing is relaxing, I reasoned. 

We hit the ground running, arriving in Paris after an early flight that had us up at 5am. Luckily I had done some restaurant research before arriving, and we had a refreshing brunch at Treize before heading for the Louvre. The crowds at the central pyramid gradually diffused as we made our way through the cavernous warren of an art gallery. For me, the Louvre is not about its most famous pieces, like the Mona Lisa. It’s about the countless lesser-known works that provide a brief window into the past. I make it my mission to find the neglected corners, devoid of the throngs of camera-wielding tourists lazer-focused on checking off the next piece of art on their todo list.

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Me and the aforementioned throngs of tourists near the Winged Victory of Samaranth. Photo by Audun

This time, Audun and I found solitude in the newly instated gallery of art from America, Africa and Oceania (yes, that’s a lot to fit into one room!). Here wooden carvings depict people with strangely elongated limbs or grotesque, mask-like facial expressions. These works are a far cry from the primped portraits of the Renaissance artists most prolifically displayed at the Louvre, and they offer a glimpse into cultures that I can’t even pretend to understand.

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Audun imitates the Art.

I had ‘museum legs’ after three hours, and conceded that being a tourist is not the relaxing thing in the world. We met our German friends Stefanie and Andreas for dinner and a little too much red wine in the 3 arrondissement. They had just moved from Paris to  Versailles, and I decided visiting them was a good excuse to live out my Marie Antoinette fantasies for a day.

There are crazy lines to get into the palace at Versailles, but based on the recommendation of a helpful lady at the Versailles tourist information, we entered the enormous grounds via a back entrance and took in Marie Antoinette’s estates first. 

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Le Grand Trianon. Yes, this is just a ‘small’ summer home on Versailles scale. Photo by Audun

It started raining as we wandered around Marie Antoinette’s little hamlet, a fake village where she could escape the stresses of being queen of the world and pretend to be a milkmaid. We retreated to our friends’ apartment for an indoor picnic lunch before heading back to enter the palace. In the afternoon, the lines were much shorter, just as predicted by our savior at the tourist information office. Score!

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Self portrait in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Later than evening we went in the Eiffel Tower. The security at prominent French landmarks has become extremely stringent as a result of the Bataclan and other terrorist attacks. I don’t necessarily think that going through two metal detectors to go up the Eiffel Tower makes me safer, but it definitely indicates a city on high alert. Predictably, Audun and I took the stairs up to the second viewing platform of the Eiffel tower, just in time for sunset and views of Paris by night.

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Photograph of me photography the Eiffel tower. Photo by Audun

The next morning, our last day in Paris, we rounded off the sightseeing with a morning run to the Arc de Triomphe, along the Berges of the Seine, and to Notre Dame. After two days of jelloid museum legs, it felt good to stretch them out properly again.

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Notre Dame in the morning

One of our last stops in Paris was Holy Belly, a hipstery brunch place that totally lived up to the hype, although we had to stand in line for 20 minutes to get a table.

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Audun enjoying pancakes with eggs, bacon, mushrooms and sirup. Not a typical French breakfast, but a delicious one!

We spent the afternoon taking the train to Chamonix. Even though this is my fifth time in Chamonix, the view straight up to rocky spires and enormous blue glaciers spilling out to forests never ceases to inspire. I’m so excited to race through that landscape tomorrow, no matter how it goes!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Cycling in the French Alpes, part 1

In the last week of June, Audun and I jetted off to Geneva for a week of cycling in the region where I learned to love road biking during my exchange year in France. This is the story of that week.

Day 1: Geneva. Mileage: 0

It’s always a nuisance to lose baggage when travelling, but especially so when that baggage consists of two bicycles and your entire vacation plan consists of riding them. A baggage workers’ strike stranded our bicycles in Brussels, and we were left hanging in Geneva, possibly the most expensive city in the world. Knowing that our travel insurance would help us out, we enjoyed a leisurely day seeing the sights in Geneva, wondering when (or if!) our bikes would arrive.

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Jet d’eau divides the sky in Geneva

Day 1: Aix-les-Bains - Grenoble. 83.7K, 2279 vertical

The next morning, we still hadn’t received any information on the status of our missing bikes, so we decided to go back to the airport to find someone to yell at. To our surprise, our bikes were in fact already at the airport waiting for us! The tracking website was just useless at giving us updated information. So we turned on a dime and sped back to our hotel to repack and catch the next train to Aix-les-Bains. Originally we had planned to ride out of Geneva, but luckily we could just take the train to make up for the lost day.

From Aix-les-Bains, our ride for the day was the classic ‘Trans-Chartreuse’ route I rode on several occasions during my year in Grenoble, but this time in reverse. It was an ambitious day given our noon start, but we were revving with pent up energy from our day spent waiting.

 

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The mountains in Chartreuse are totally different from Alpes. They come from a sort of limestone plain that was tilted upwards and broken up as the Alpes rose up. 

I was on a brand new bike, a Genesis Datum that I bought in May. Despite having all new components, on the first day I discovered an ominous grinding sound in my bottom bracket, and halfway up the Col de Granier, an oil leak from my hydraulic disk breaks.

While the bottom bracket noises were annoying, the hydraulic oil leak lost me the use of my front brakes. During the short but steep descent from Col de Cucheron, I started to worry about the even longer descent to Grenoble in our future. I felt like I had no control, only being able to brake with my back brake. As we swooped through St Pierre en Chartreuse, salvation came in the form of a bike shop. This bike shop happened to be open, even though it was 6 pm on Sunday afternoon. Not only that, but the proprietor happily drove 15 min to the mountain bike center where he serves bikes to pick up the tools he needed to bleed my breaks, and happily did so for only 10 euros. I was amazed at his generosity and elated to have working breaks again.

 

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My favorite bike mechanic in France. Seriously.

With my brakes in order, we tackled the final climb to Col de Porte before rolling down 1000 meters to Grenoble. I felt an eery sense of homecoming, like I had lived there in a past life or something. I still knew my way around, and all the houses and shops were still in the places I expected them to be, but all the people I associate with living there (other exchange students, or french students who have now graduated and moved) are gone.

Day 2: Grenoble - Die. 131K, 2594 vertical 

The next day we started the day with steaming bowls of coffee and crusty bread at my favorite breakfast place in Grenoble before heading for another climb I did numerous times during my exchange, the long road up to St Nizier de Moucherotte. Le Moucherotte mountain gazed down at us during the climb, the solemn sentinel of the Vercors. 

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The rocks that make up Les Trois Purcelles, a well-known climbing route, above me on the climb to St Nizier.

After entering the Vercors, we took the road down the west side of the massif through Les Gorges de la Bourne. The road winds past limestone cliffs, sometimes so narrow that the road is carved through them, other times opening into a wide panorama. It was a long, gentle downhill, during which we gradually lost all the elevation we had spent the morning gaining.

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Audun blends in with the scenery in Gorges de la Bourne

After lunch in charming Pont-en-Royans, it was time to tackle the second big climb of the day: Col de la Machine. Now I was venturing into uncycled terrain. My friend Roddy had spoken warmly of Col de la Machine, but I had never gotten around to doing it, given that it was half a day of riding from Grenoble just to get to the base.

A sign pointed us in the right direction, and we starting the brutal climb in what was now the heat of the day. I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about; we were climbing steeply through the forest, with occasional glimpses of the flatland Drôme region spread out below us. We were also surprised to see no other cyclists and just a handful of cars, mostly trucks, on the road.

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Looking back at the flatlands from the road up Col de la Machine

As we approached the top of the climb, we started looking at Google Maps and realized that there were two roads up Col de la Machine. From the top of the Col we could see the other road, which cut dramatically through more limestone cliffs and was clearly much more spectacular. Having just climbed 800 meters, we weren’t about to turn around ride back down, but I was disappointed that we had ridden the wrong road up the Col. There will be other views, I told myself.

After the final climb of the day to Col de la Chau, we had well over 2000 vertical meters and nearly 100 km in our legs. It was time to rip the descent down to Die. From the top, the road took us through a sharp tunnel. As I pedaled out of the darkness on the other side, I was caught by a gust of wind that nearly threw me off my bike. I put my foot down, blinked and gasped in awe at our descent laid out before us. The road zigzaged steeply under moonscape-like limestone features. In the distance a hazy view of rolling foothills spread as far as we could see.

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The descent to Die.

We soared down to Die, elated to have finished our first really long day.

Day 3: Die - La Mure. 85.3K, 1846 vertical

The next day was supposed to be a kind of easy day before we hit the Alpes for real. This was hill country though, and there was still a big climb on the schedule. Up Col de Menée we went, and I soon began cursing the absurd idea that this day would be easy. 

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Grass-covered hills surrounded the hot, dusty climb to Col de Menée

From the top of Col de Menée, we were treating to views of Mont Aiguille, one of my favorite features in the Vercors skyline. Meaning ‘Mount Needle’, this monolith jabs at the sky, defiant. I have never climbed it but had admired many times on hikes.

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Audun and Mont Aiguille

Near Clelles, we decided it was time for lunch, only to find that all of the shops in Clelles were closed for lunch. Of course! We backtracked to a snack bar we had seen, and managed to order two whole (but tiny) partridges with an accompaniment of ratatouille. Only in France!

The rest of the day I was hot and bothered and just wanted to get to La Mure. I sweated and cursed myself for designing this hilly route all the way up the last hill to our destination for the evening. And tomorrow we would be climbing in the real Alpes...

To be continued.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, August 8, 2016

Race report: Tromsø Skyrace

It all started with missing Hornindal Rundt. I had been looking forward to doing a race in the beautiful Norwegian mountains. The day before the race I was packed and ready to go, but then Audun suddenly got sick, and not only did I not want to leave him alone for the weekend, I also didn’t want to do the 7 hour drive to Hornindal on my own. So my race at Hornindal Rundt ended before it even started. 

So last Sunday I was toodling around on the computer and I realized that Tromsø Skyrace, which has also been on my bucket list for a while, was one week away. Then I realized there were still available places for the ‘mini’ (only 28K!) Skyrace. Before I knew it I had signed up and bought plane tickets to Tromsø. At two and a half weeks out from the OCC, this was the perfect opportunity to get in a final long, hard run and test how my training was working.

I didn’t taper leading up to Tromsø Skyrace, just did a regular training week and then took a rest day on Friday. On Thursday, the day after a particular nasty hill interval workout, I started to develop a sore throat. Oh no. I am NOT getting sick! I told myself. Not this weekend! Races breed hypochondria though, and by Friday night I was sure I would wake up with a fever on race morning. There was nothing I could do about, so I went to bed crossing my fingers that my usually stellar immune system would pull me through. Saturday morning came, and although the itch in my throat hadn’t gone away completely, I definitely wasn’t sick.

After I picked up my bib, I milled around the hotel where the race start and finish was, nervously eyeing other runners. As it always the case, I was sure everyone looked fitter and more experience than me. My friend Solenne, who was also racing, showed up and we discussed gear choices and race expectations. I didn’t get race nerves as bad as I sometimes do; I had very little goals for the race other than to enjoy it, practice eating while racing and run smart.

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Me and Solenne just before the start of the race.

Soon enough we were lining up for the 11 o’clock start. A cheer rippled through the crowd of racers as the 10 second countdown began. We set off, and I try to settle into a comfortable pace for the first, flat kilometers across the bridge from the island that makes up Tromsø city to the mainland, where we would climb Tromsdalstind.

I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor, mostly because my strap has been acting up lately. I also thought it would be good to ‘run by feel'. Can I sustain this for five hours?  I kept asked myself. I thought maybe I had started a little fast, but knew that the pace would change as soon as we hit the first climb, so I rolled with it. Cars flew by us and sections of the bridge vibrated in time with my footsteps, sapping the energy out of my stride. 

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Racers crossing the bridge at the start of the race.

After the initial fast kilometers, the little yellow course marking flags lead the pack of races to a trail. The grade steepened, and I quickly transitioned into an efficient power hike. I was amazed to see how many people were still trying to run, even though I was going just was fast as them by power hiking. The trail climbed steadily through the spring-green forest, with stands of lush purple monkshood flowers dotting the trail. Passing people was hard on the single track, so once I found the back of a group going at a good pace, I concentrated on staying on their heels.

As the trail steepened, I started to think about the carbon fiber trekking poles strapped to my pack. I’ve been practicing with them on my long runs lately, and they have proved useful on sustained uphills and technical downhills. No one around me was using trekking poles, was it not appropriate? I felt my glutes stinging as I was forced to take big steps up the rocky trail. This is ridiculous, I’m certainly not going to carrying my trekking poles for the whole race! I thought, and whipped them out. They proved to be a godsend, and I found myself passing people on the final stretch to the aid station at Fjellheisen. 

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Singletrack on the way up the first climb to Fjellheisen. 

I snacked on a Clif Blok at the aid station, and grabbed a couple of Clif Bars to go. I ripped open a Cherry Chia as I continued up to the hill towards Fløya, determined to view this race as an eating contest and practice chewing on the go. The combination of trekking poles and Clif bar proved awkward, so I manoeuvred both trekking poles into one hand as I chewed. I could see the trail up to Fløya snaking above me, dotting with racers. As I climbed, I was incredibly happy to be there, just doing it. This is my element, I thought, moving through the mountains. Road racing is a fun challenge, but this is really what I’m good at. 

After topping out at Fløya, the race course rolling along a ridge, and I could see Tromsdalstind, the peak of the race, in the distance. Rather, I couldn’t see the top, as this was shrouded in clouds, but I could see the tell-tale curve of the mountain, a behemoth waiting for my arrival. Spread out below me was the fjord and distance mountains on Kvaløya island. Despite the rather grey weather, it was breathtaking. Many hikers were spread out along the trail, ringing cowbells and cheering for the runners. I tried to smile and thank all of them.

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The view from Fløya.

After a second small top at Bønntuva, the trail descended on well-groomed trail. I let my legs go, but without really pushing the pace, and I soon found myself being passed by several racers. I felt out of practice on this sort of rolling, fast downhill. I’ve been mostly training on very technical terrain lately, where leg speed doesn’t matter nearly so much as balance and choosing the right line. Let them go, I thought, Save it for the climb. You are going fast enough. 

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Racers descending from Bønntuva on smooth singletrack

Sure enough, soon we were climbing again, and I found myself catching all of the men and women who had blow passed me on the downhill. We were now on the start of the real climb to Tromsdalstind, and looking down I could see many racers spread out behind me. I spotted a familiar Salomon skirt a little ways down the hill and wondered if it could be Solenne, who I hadn’t seen since the first flat kilometers of the race. It took me a couple of backwards glances to verify that this was indeed Solenne; there were a lot of people decked out in Salomon on the mountain! 

The woman just ahead of me had a Salomon racing vest, with a patch proclaiming her to be from Scotland sewn on the back. She was holding a good clip uphill, and I decided to let her set the pace up the hill. I kept thinking I should talk to her, given that I was hard on her heels, but all the words just stayed in my head for some reason. “You know, this reminds me of the hill race I did in Scotland last year!” I wanted to say. Instead, I gnawed on my second Clif bar, realizing I would need all of my hands and my wits about me for the impending descent.

We ascended into the layer fog that lay on top of Tromsdalstind. It grew colder, and several people around me stopped to put on jackets. I didn’t want to spend time putting on a jacket just to stop and take it out later, though, so I resisted. For the first time I was glad I was racing in long tights rather than shorts. I think the tights kept me just warm enough not to have to put on a jacket. Still, I wondered if I was being stupid, obstinently refusing to wear a jacket.

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 On the rocky climb to Tromsdalstid

The trail flattened out as we approved the top, although it was so rock-strewn most people choose to walk. There was a steep drop into a foggy abyss on our right side. Soon I saw volunteers in the distance. I had this idea I would stop on top and take in the mountain, but the volunteers were yelling, “Go! Go! You guys are doing great!” The loud cheering filled me with a rush of adrenaline, and I bolt from the summit like I was Kilian Jornet himself.

The upper part of the descent was super technical, and I was glad to have my trekking poles. I used them like extended arms, placing them below me and jumping from rock to rock. I passed several people, but I could hear one guy and his set of trekking poles click behind me. 

“Don’t break a leg here!” I joked to my male shadow.

“I’ll try not to break a leg anywhere,” he countered. Rule #1, I reminded myself, is never fall on the descents!

We were some of the faster downhillers, so I was surprised when I heard a British voice saying “Excuse me!”. I turned around, and a man in Salomon gear flew by my like I was standing still. My jaw dropped; how could anyone go that fast on this terrain? I did some math and realized that this must be the frontrunner of the full length, Hamperokken skyrace. Soon enough, another couple guys flew down the mountain in chase mode.

The trail continued to drop steeply on loose grave interspersed with boulders. I soon out ran the guy behind me, and continued down at full tilt, determined to pass more people. As I neared the bottom of the descent, I spotted one more girl I thought I could catch, and focused on speed up just a bit more. I had started to reel her in when I slide and then stumbled, rolling my ankle. 

A rush of adrenaline shot up my ankle, reminding me momentarily of the feeling I had when I broke that same ankle in 2008. Expletives flashed through my mind. I never fall on descents! That is Rule #1! Stupid, stupid! I thought for a moment my race might be over, but waited to assess the damage until the mask of adrenaline peeled away. I waited for pounding pain to come, but it never did. Gingerly, I put pressure on my right foot.

Hmm. I could walk at least. I began walking down the hill, and discovered that my ankle was actually fine as long as I landed with my foot pretty straight. If I landed sideways on a rock, the supporting tendons grumbled disapprovingly. But absolutely, under no circumstances, could I afford to make the same mistake again. Luckily I was at the bottom of the technical part of the descent, and soon enough trail traversed a blessedly soft grassy valley below Tromsdalstind.

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Testing out my foot in the valley below Tromsdalstind. Photo by Dominik Briselat.

I began to jog carefully, watching each and every foot placement. I was getting passed again, but at least I was moving forward. I would finish this race. A couple of people asked if I was OK. One girl told me how amazing she thought my descent of the technical section was. “It was like you were flying!” she exclaimed. 

“Yeah, well that was until I rolled my ankle because I was going stupid fast!” I told her, with just a tinge of bitterness in my voice.

We were below the ridge we had ascended and below the fog, and the scenery was absolutely stunning. A whole rainbow of greens made up the landscape: the pale yellow green of lichen, the rich green of moss, the leafy green of grass and the shimmering green of stunted birch trees. Veins of rich exposed brown followed the curves of the ridge above us, the most colorful two-tone landscape I’ve ever seen.

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Amazing landscape descending from Tromsdalstind. Photo by Daniel Lilleeng for Tromsø Skyrace.

We dropped onto muddy doubletrack, and the markings abruptly leads us steeply upwards for the ultimate climb back to Fjellheisen. I looked at my watch, and ascertained that if the race was 28 kilometers long, at it was 5 kilometers from Fjellheisen to the finish, we could only have 1 kilometer left before we got to Fjellheisen. Then I started to look at the time. Holy crap! I thought. At this rate I’m going to be finishing closer to 4 hours than 5!

The race was not, however, 28K as advertised. The muddy doubletrack oscillated its way uphill for another 4 kilometer. Most people around be looked pretty tired, but I felt pretty strong. My long days hiking in steep mountains this summer were paying off. I passed a number of people on the climb. Two girls whom I had chatted with earlier remained elusively in the distance, going just as fast as me.

There were dozens of people milling around the aid station at Fjellheisen. I took one look at it, and decided that the eating contest was over for the day. I blew threw the aid station, determined to finish the last 5 kilometers strong. I ran down the descent, taking small light steps and extra care to place my feet just so. I kept expecting someone to come and pass me, but I was all alone for the whole descent. Near the bottom, I fold and stashed my trekking poles as fast as I could. They had served me well for twenty-odd kilometers; now it was time to run.

Arriving on the pavement was harsh after so many beautiful trail kilometers. Still, it was easier on my rolled ankle because I didn’t have to watch my footing. I followed the course markings to the bridge, put my head down and dug deep for the last remnants of speed. After the bridge, I weaved through flocks of oblivious tourists crowding the docks before I could finally see the red arch of the finish line. And there he was! The Kilian Jornet! He had a camera out, and was taking my picture! I sprinted and jumped over the finish line, smiling at what had been a grand day out.

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Finish line photo with Kilian Jornet. My fancy tights rocked the race.

I finished in 4:23:36, 12th out of 99 female finishers (results here), absolutely thrilled with my performance. I talked to a physiotherapist at the finish line, and she bandaged up my ankle and predicted a full recovery for my race at the OCC in three weeks. Two days later, the ankle is looking pretty good. I’m ready to race strong in Chamonix (and next time I won’t fall!).

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Post-race feet.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Adventures in dog owning, volume 2

This year like last year, Audun and I watched our friends’ dog, Presta, while our friends were on vacation. This time though, dog watching was tinged with sadness. My parents dog, Sebastian aka Ralph, was recently put to sleep. Ralph was the dog I grew up with, and it’s really sad to know that he is gone. The best way to commemorate him, though, is to do with another dog what we always used to do with him: go on grand adventures together.

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Ralph and I on Runde island, ca 2008.

So Friday afternoon, Presta, Audun and I set off to the Rondane mountains. We pedalled the dirt road into Rondvassbu on full suspension mountain bikes that sagged under the weight of the camping gear on our backs.

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Audun and Presta biking the road the Rondvassbu

My ambitious plan for the weekend was to attempt the ‘Rondane 2k Marathon’, which is all the 10 peaks in Rondane over 2000 meters. This loop is approximately a marathon in distance, but with well over 4000 meters of climbing, including lots of time off trail on loose rocks and in technical terrain, is not your typical marathon. I’ve wanted to attempt this for a while, and it seemed like a good training weekend for the OCC, which was coming up in 6 weeks (even less now!). With all the vertical, I see the OCC as more of a race in power-hiking, and so I figure it was time to hone my skills.

The alarm rang at 5:30 the next morning, and we were off by 6:15. Presta had spent part of the night snuggling in our joint sleeping bag and was confused at the early wake-up at first, but became enthusiast when she realized we were going hiking.

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Presta and I are ready to go at early o’clock with Veslesmeden in the background. Except you can’t see the mountain at all.

Unfortunately, a thick layer of clouds blanketed all the surrounding mountaintops as we powerhiked up the trail towards the first peak, Veslesmeden. I hoped that the clouds would clear, but instead it started to rain. I shrugged it off, not that easily deterred, and still willing to keep going. After Veslesmeden comes a technical off-trail ridge traverse though, so I was hoping it would clear by the time we reached the top.

Soon it was raining hard enough that I had all my rain gear and gloves on. As we climbed higher on the mountain, the temperature dropped and the rain turned to snow.

“This is so not what I had in mind!” I thought, finally allowing myself to get frustrated about the conditions. The weather forecast, after all, had predicted some rain during the night which was supposed to clear off into a sunny day. Clearly the weather forecasters' definition of day is a little different than mine.

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Cold conditions on the way up Veslesmeden. Yes, this is Norway in mid-July.

As we climbed higher, the conditions were growing more exposed and I could see that Presta was getting cold. I wanted to push to to the top of Veslesmeden, the first peak, a least, but it soon became clear that none of us were really equipped to be out in these conditions all day. We bailed, and headed back down to the tent to warm-up and regroup. On the way down, we met a couple of groups on the way to the summit as well as two guys who said they were attempting the Rondane 2k marathon as well. I wonder how their attempt went; maybe they know the route better than me and were more confident in their off-trail route finding abilities in the fog. {Strava data here}

Back at the tent, poor cold Presta became overjoyed at the discovery of all the dry, warm things inside and proceeded to rub herself on all of them. I wrapped her in my sweater and we all crawled in our sleeping bags for a nice morning nap.

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A refreshing morning nap in the tent.

A few hours later, we awoke to the absence of rain pitter-pattering on the tent. I stuck my head outside; it had cleared off some, although the tops of the peaks were still shrouded in fog. Oh well, if I wasn’t going to do the Rondane 2k Marathon I was at least going to attempt a couple more peaks in the region and get some quality OCC training.

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It tried to clear off as we headed up Storronden.

We repacked our stuff and set off towards Storronden, powering passed groups of hikers going at regular speed. We ascended up into the fog again, but at least is wasn’t raining. It took us 1:30 to reach to the top, where there was a suprising lack of wind. 

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On top of Storronden in the fog

After a quick lunch, we carefully descended the pile of slippery rocks that seems to make up most Norwegian mountains. Once below the clouds, the weather was actually quite nice, with some patches of sun. We reached a fork in the trail: one fork lead down the hill, back to the warm tent; the other, back up to another of the 2000 meter peaks, Vinjeronden. I contemplated for a while. I was fairly tired, and didn’t really feel like going for another peak. On the other hand, if this weekend was about OCC training, then it was time to reread rule #5 and go get another top.

Audun and Presta went back to the tent. I ate some peanut butter cups and continued upwards. After some relatively easy terrain through a valley, the trail up Vinjeronden became very steep, so that powerhiking quickly turned into clambering up the wet rock. I had every kind of weather on the way to the top: sun, fog, rain, hail. I think I stopped three times to take on and off my rain gear. In my tired state, I noticed my mood and state of physical being swinging with the weather. In a detached sort of way, I found this rather amusing. 

“Oh look here comes more rain,” I though merrily, “I’m about to feel really crappy again.” I made it up Vinjeronden, and stopped to eat some sour dinosaur candy (I’m clearly on a superfood diet!) before gingerly making my way down to the pile of rock from whence I had come. The sun came out on top of the mountain, as if the mountains were subtly giving me the middle finger. 

“Next time,” I told myself. Next time. {Strava data here}

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Vinjeronden cleared off as I headed down the mountain. I felt like shaking my fist at it.

The next day I had hoped to be up for a mountain bike ride, but it was raining and my quads were completely destroyed from 2400 vertical on wet rock the day before. So we drove back to Oslo to relax.

My sister Zoe flew in on Sunday night, and later that week we received the most enthused visitors in the universe: the Rand sisters Annavitte and Karin, of JMT fame.

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Annavitte and Karin display maximum enthusiasm at 6 am at Gardermoen Airport.

They spent the next couple days sightseeing in Oslo, here pictured on the Opera house roof with popsicles:

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Zoe, Karin and Annavitte on the Opera house roof in Oslo.

Oslo brought out its best weather for us, and we had a lovely evening grilling and slacklining at ‘Paradise bay’ along the fjord. One of the cool things about getting visitors is it shakes up my regular routine. I almost never go downtown in Oslo for example, but it’s quite a nice city actually.

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Sun-bathing at Paradise bay.

Soon enough it was time to head for the mountains, the real reason Annavitte and Karin had flown all the way to Norway. Leaving Audun at home, Zoe, Annavitte, Karin, Presta and I drove to Jotunheimen to conquer Norway’s highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen.

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Maximum enthusiasm below Galdhøpiggen.

It was a bright sunny day as the five of us set out up the big hill. There were, predictably, lots of people headed up as well. There’s something about ‘the highest’ of anything that attracts a crowd.

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Annavitte surveys the scene on the way up Galdhøpiggen. 

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Embracing the beautiful views

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Climbing through the summer snow.

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Presta digs the view of Styggebrean glacier during our lunch break.

It started to get cloudier as we approached the summit, and by the time we were on top of Norway, we could see a storm headed our way. We stopped to snap a few summit photos and pull on rain gear before heading down.

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Selfie with Presta on top of Galdhøpiggen. Note the ominous grey clouds headed our way.

The storm wasn’t nearly as bad as it had looked heading towards us. Once the the rain passed, the sun came out again and we merrily slide down patches of snow on the seat of our rain pants. Presta, who was attached to me at the waist, particularly enjoyed running ahead of me, almost pulling me down the hill like some kind of tiny reindeer.

The next morning, there wasn’t cloud in the sight. Although Presta’s paws had looked a little raw from the long hike the day before, she seemed energetic enough and so I decided to hike a little ways towards Glitterheim hut with the girls before heading back to Oslo. 

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Packing up the camp in the morning sun.

The mellow hike through the valley afforded fabulous views of Galdhøpiggen and Styggebrean glacier.

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Zoe crossing a boulder-strewn river. Yes, this is basically what the trails are like in the high mountains in Norway. Note the lack of trail.

Around lunch time, I spotted turquoise lake glimmering a little ways off trail. It reminded me so much of the lakes in the high Sierras on the JMT that it felt like destiny. We had to go swimming there.

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High Sierras or Jotunheimen, Norway? Hard to tell!

So we did. It was the perfect closing of our JMT reunion weekend. I headed back to my car for the long drive home, thoroughly satisfied with the weekend, while the girls continued on on their adventure.

- The Wild Bazilchuk