Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, fig rolls, fruit cake, orange slices, chocolate bars, cakes and sweet things of all varieties, water………………….. no that wasn’t the lunch menu on our trip to France, that was refreshments at the water stations during our Trail Blanch mountain experience last Saturday 22nd Jan. 2006. Liamo reckoned we’d put on weight! And he would have been right if it wasn’t that this turned out to be one of the toughest mounting running (any running!) experiences I’ve ever encountered. If we thought that a nice 20 mile amble through some light snowy tracks was ahead of us when we signed up, we were in for a shock!
Initially 5 of us decided we’d head off to France for the Trail Blanch 2006 32k Snow Race after someone suggested it would be good training for our real test this year, the Tour of Mont Blanc: myself, Tony Kiernan, Eugene Coppinger, Gary Moralee and the aformentioned Liam O’Riain (the last two being from Tallaght AC). My brother Niall (unfortunately another Tallaght AC man) couldn’t resist the lure of some altitude training and he joined the group.
Turned out that a few more were heading over from IMRA and NIMRA and in total 16 of us ended up booked into the home of Irish couple Barry and Sharon Phelan in Ville Franche in the Pyrennees, less than an hours drive from Font Romeu, the race venue. I actually think Liam, Eugene and Gary only signed up for this race in the hope of bumping into ‘Our Paula’, Font Romeu being where she has an apartment and does her altitude training. She never materialised.
Race day approached and we were so well looked after by Barry and Sharon. Home cooking, lots of it, even Liam’s favourite: berry crumble. You can see now a lot of this holiday involved food as well as running!
Race day itself and the conditions were perfect; it was cold and windy in the morning but nothing troubling. Knowing what gear to wear in conditions you’re not used to is always going to be difficult but as it turned out running tights were an absolute essential, as were sunglasses which I had managed to forget but Tony made the ultimate sacrifice and gave me his! Any talk by runners of this being a training run (usually Tallaght Athletes), and just wanting to get around was met with a swift rebuke and a reminder that a race is a race and we hadn’t gone all that way for a training run (Clonliffe Athletes!!).
The race itself began and ended in the ski resort of des Airelles in Font Romeu. If we thought runnning UP a ski slope was bad it was nothing compared to the first severe downhill we faced after only a couple of kilometres. It was slippery and severe and the snow was deep. It didn’t last long luckily and there was a couple of kilometres of hills and flats, most of it runnable. Nothing could have prepared us though for the hour or so of waist deep snow that we encountered in the mid to late stages of the race. It’s a funny sensation when you fall in snow that thick because you put your hands down to stop yourself and your hands keep going through the snow till your face down in the stuff! It was the toughest part of any race I’ve ever done. You were going nowhere but using lots of energy to struggle through the snow. It just seemed to go on and on as each step sank into the snow and you had to climb out from every step.
The course itself wasn’t marked by kilometres and at no stage until I was 2 hours into it did I have a clue how far I’d ran. At that stage I was told I was first woman and also about half way. It was marked by flags on trees and lets just say that no Clonliffe Athlete went wrong or got lost!! You had to wear a chip type thing on your wrist and key it in at every station, like in orienteering but it was electronic.
The last 10k began with a gentle uphill forest trail where we were met in the opposite direction by lots of skiiers. I was about 3 hours gone at that stage and couldn’t take anything on board except water. This meant I was struggling a bit for energy but the trail was so beautiful and scenic and it was a gentle enough hill that it could be enjoyed. For me it was the best part of the course. The last 5 or so kilometres included another ski slope (the button lift looked very tempting and I’m not joking), some more forest trail, some car parks and some gentle but tough hills to get to the finish. It was such a relief to finish. Mentally it was draining as the course changed all the time and you had to adapt the way you ran at each change. The French seemed to be genuinely delighted with the Paddy presence. At all times they were very encouraging and were great at dragging me through the last few tough climbs when all I really wanted to do was stop!!
We all finished well, tired and drained. I was thrilled to win the womens event in 4 hours. I was very surprised and even more delighted when I also got a ‘Queen of the Mountains’ trophy for a time trial stage in the middle of it. Kevin Grogan from IMRA won the M50 and we got some photos with the tri-colour!! Niall Coppinger ran a brilliant 3:32 and the rest weren’t too far behind. If there had been a team prize Clonliffe would certainly have won that too as myself, Eugene and Tony made up a trio!
If anyone is thinking of going next year, it’s a great one to do. There’s an 18k course run at the same time if you fancy a shorter event but it’s still very hilly and tough. Consider staying with the Phelans who you can read about in the last issue of Irish Runner. And you should tag on a few days on at the end for skiing. There were some race-organisational hiccups, lets say, with registration etc, but it paled into insignificance compared to the scenery, hospitality, thermal baths(yes they were great!) and with the added bonus of a bit of altitude training! And just look at what you can eat en route…