Friday, June 21, 2019

Samoens Trail 2019

Subtitle: Close,  But No Cigar

Our Mission

The mission that Marcus and Agata chose to accept was a 92 kilometre run in the Rhone-Alps, France.  Nothing special distance wise, however in that distance we would be expected to climb 6200 metres and descend a similar distance.  Now that is really tough.   Here is the checkpoint list:

All That Training
Due to our neighbourhood home in England being mostly flat we have had 0 altitude training in 2019.   We do aim for at least 1 hour and sometimes upto 3 hours of exercise daily so we had to make use of our base fitness level to allow us to complete the course. And complete it within the checkpoint cutoff times too.

Apart from general walking here is what happened in the week before the race

The Recce

We arrived to Samoens 2 days before the race.

Definitely not Agata's idea, but Marcus insisted on a pre race anti taper race recce intensive hiking session.  At Samoens itself.  We chose a 20km section of the forthcoming race, and it was tough!

The ascent seemed to continue forever and it was a sign that the real race would be gruelling, and we did not even know about the snow then!

00 Start 04.00 Samoens, Saturday 

And so it was another early 02.15 wake up call that got us prepared for our 07.00 start at nearby Samoens on Saturday June 15th 2019.

We started at home with a traditional porridge breakfast and then drove to the start with our already packed halfway bags each with replacement food, clothes and shoes.

There were hundreds of competitors and we started literally from the very back!  We had already tested the first 3km of the course and realised it would be very narrow and hence slow.  It was!

On courses like this; you either start from the front, and maintain a fast pace or resign yourself to walking with very slow people until the course widens up.

Since we wanted to be sure not to hold others up, keeping right at the back was the most polite position.

01 Golesse  14.1 km

The first stop came and went. The best was being able to take off our head torches as it became light. We did not need to fill with fluids here.

Once the initial thin path out of Samoens was finished the path widens and allowed us to start trying to advance thru the field of runners.

In general our secret strategy is that we always run on a flat section no matter how short it is.

Next Les Lagots and Refuge de Bostan

02 Le Cret  20.77 km

Agata took on fluids whilst Marcus was proclaiming that his 1 litre of bladder would last and last.  Since the temperature was a modest 10 degrees or so this was not difficult, not much drinking for me.

On the test hike 2 days previous, I drank 400 ml of Energy soaked fluid in 16km whilst intensive hiking in baking sunshine.  So 1 litre should keep me going to at least 30 km ...  I hope.

03 Refuge de Folly 24.5 km

Soon after Refuge de Folly the snow started.  And unfortunately it was not just a few metres, or a few hundreds of metres.  We are talking kilometres of snowy and slippery paths.

Without poles we were both in an impossible situation.   Worse,  Marcus' Salomon shoes were for dry trails and on worn soles without any remnants of grip.  It was literally hours of agony.

Traversing long stretches of angled snow is particularly dangerous because one slip can lead to a slide down the snowface and it would take you hours to get back up as you would first have to stop and then inch your way back up.

Agata with better gripping Saucony trail shoes was continually encouraging me and I was very grateful.  She kept repeating: "After the mountain peak the other side will be snow free"

So after more than 1 hour we got to the peak.   Combe aux Puaires. Over the peak and .... MORE SNOW, MORE SNOW

My heart sunk into my stomach.  But we had to keep going.  The number of times we had shouted to each other:  Why didn't we bring Poles then?

As good citizens we continually stopped to let others (with poles who were always faster) pass, this just made our progress even more pedestrian.

Past the peak we had some new challenges though: Idiots and tobogganing.    Basically on some steep down sections, especially with our low traction we were forced to simply sit on the ground, legs forward and slide down the mountain.  The stopping control is diggin in your heels and to a lesser extend elbows.

This technique was committed to by others who came crashing into us and we were lucky that their, gun ho and careless attitude did not result in any injury to us.

04 Refuge de Vogealle 31.7 km

Unhappy in the Snow

 Arrival here was perhaps the lowest point of emotion for the race.   The snow had not finished but I felt that surely it could not last much longer.

Literally a brief water refresh and toilet stop and then a check that in all that mountain snow sliding; our clothes and packs were not torn.  All seemed well, so time to continue.

Sure enough about 30 minutes later we had just loose rock.  No Snow. What a joy that is after slippery snow and no traction.  Strange how relative it is right!

Onward to Fond de la Combe

05 Le Pelly 41.5 km

We ran into Le Pelly in high spirits having made 8km in the last hour, this substantially made up for our necessarily poor progress on the previous snowy sections.

Onward to Praz de Commune

06 Salvagny  52.48 km

The good news is that we arrived at just past 14.00 and the cutoff was at 16.45.  A good 2 hours early meaning that since we were now going faster than many  (snow section gone!) we felt that things could only get better.

Fantastically hot sun greeted us and there was a party atmosphere at the food tent.

We spent a productive 35 minutes at the mid point refuelling and changing our clothes with the contents of our halfway bag that we had prepared earlier and that was transported here for us.

Agata and I both decided eventually to keep the same shoes on but merely change socks.

Marcus decided to lighten the rucksack as much as possible.  I took out my Waterproof trousers and any additional food or gadgets, even headphones. Just kept the mandatory kit like whistle, Smartphone, headtorch, blanket and 100% waterproof jacket.

In view of what happened next we have wondered if we had just been faster turning around here, whether we'd have got past the next mountain section .

We now begin the climb to Refuge do Grenairon on the route that we practised just 2 days ago.  We were gaining on everybody.  Not a single person overtook us and we think we moved our race position up by at least 40 places.   What happened next then was a particular bitter pill to swallow ...

07 Refuge do Grenairon

If I told you that being stuck in an increasingly sweaty chalet with over 40 other runners for hours, without food or water, but out of the thunderstorms was the absolute worst part of the race, I hope you believe me.

It was worse than the treacherous snow section I can tell you....

As I approached the refuge a competitor in front was being commanded into the Refuge.  Agata and I had been here 2 days earlier in blistering Sunshine.  Now thunderclouds were outside and the race was now officially halted but not yet cancelled.

 I tried to sneak past the official because I knew that the following route down is actually on a stony road, partially covered with trees and not a technical path.  However bad the weather you could descend this.  Even in a Thunderstorm.

But the Security marshall was 100% strict.  NO, you must stop here and enter the Refuge

After about 20 minutes I stopped the Watch.   The race was officially terminated and worse, for our safety we were not allowed to leave

 We did have some extreme weather but after it passed and over 1.5 hours we were still being held hostage in the Refuge and being told not to leave.

The official reason is that other competitors were stuck on the track to the Refuge and they wanted everybody to arrive before working out the next move.

Whilst we wanted them to arrive safely we still feel that we should have been allowed to get to the next checkpoint at Cascade du Rouget and then retire there.  But no.

For about the last hour we had our jackets on waiting to leave.  It was hot and sweaty and no attempt was made to provide refreshments or food.  Grumpy I was, Agata was more sanguine and kept me in a good mood by smiling.

My further comments are: Bad weather was predicted and mentioned at the race briefing.  The contingency IMHO should have been to stop competitors and at this refuge and at least make them welcome with at least refreshments, food and heating, not just bare shelter.

08 Towards Cascade du Rouget

Over 2 hours later more than 40 sweaty runners including ourselves set off together towards Cascade du Rouget.  We would turn off before and get onto a bus near Salvagny that would finally take us back to the start. So the next points Sales, Col Pelouse, Lac de gers, Roux, Bemont  were officially cancelled.

09 Samoens

After a 7km hike, which turned into a bit of a run / sprint  (runners trapped in Refuge now stretching their legs) we got back to Samoens on the bus.

The race was officially over and although there was a ticket for a inclusive Pasta party our hearts were not in it.  We simply had to find our Halfway Point bags and then walk back to our car.  Another 1.5 km away :-) 

It was so very sad and disappointing.  

We ran a total of 58 + 7 = 65km instead of the 92km that we had planned.  We are 100% sure that the last 27km was possible for us and even could have been completed after the Thunderstorms and Hail had passed.  But the race organised said no and in fact had dismantled the course stops to discourage this possibility.


Whenever race legal I always choose to run with Music, but on this course my choices were disastrous.  I chose not to run with a dedicated player but use Bluetooth headphones connected to my Oneplus 6T smartphone  (it has no audio jack).

It all went horribly wrong!

The Smartphone connection to the earbuds was not reliable.  I tried to used the music on the earbud directly, but using a single earbud to listen and the other on charge  (then swap) did not work.  The earbud kept cutting out.  Totally gutted I ran the last 4 hours or so sans music.  Grumpy was I!

Agata used a dedicated (old) Apple iPod Shuffle and wired headphones.   That worked fine.

Logistics and Costs

Because living in the UK we are no longer local to Samoens, and our funds are distinctly finite,  this adventure had to be very carefully planned to minimise costs.   

The biggest sacrifice was that we were encouraged to come over at April 2019 to run the exact course as training, but even with subsidised / free accommodation locally we found that the cost would be about 600 GBP for Marcus and Agata.  This was simply too expensive an extra cost.

So instead this June we have had costs of

2, 92km race entries
7 days hire car from Geneva
BHX to GVA , 2 return flights
Cost of Taxi to BHX and Uber Back from home in Alcester
Food for 7 days
Contribution towards our stay at the Chalet
Kit wear and tear

We think the total cost was about 1200 GBP for both of us.

What Worked
A lot of things went well on this race.  In no particular order

- Running together: Agata and Marcus found it a pleasure.  Whilst we have overall speed differences  (Agata descends more quickly and Marcus can maybe run up steeper ascents) our pace is pretty evenly matched

- The track log loaded onto our Garmin 945 watches, overlaid on the Garmin's basemap was accurate and helpful.

- The signage was excellent.  Every few hundred metres there were red and white plastic strips hung from trees or vegetation.  it was literally foolproof

- The weather was absolutely stonkingly hot, well until the Thunderstorms and Hail :-(

- Agata economised the Flight and Marcus economised the Car rental booking to really minimise our overall costs

- Our good friend Heather, who also participated at Samoens too provided us with accommodation and without her generosity we could not have been here.

- Marcus' ancient 2015 Salomon S-LAB sense trail shoes were brilliant on the wet and stony surfaces.   If they had been new shoes i.e. with some tread instead of none, they might have worked on the snow too.

- Agata's Saucony Koa TR shoes proved excellent on snow, mud, wet and dry surfaces.  Highly recommended.

- Marcus' kit including the Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin vest rucksack and the Inov Stormshell waterproof jacket worked brilliantly.  And the trail pants that Kathy Zimmerman gave me  (swim, bike run) that she got from are just the best for all conditions, even tobogganing in deep snow.


Learning Points and Conclusions

Overall we had a fantastic time on our Samoens trail, but we were deeply saddened that the race was terminated prematurely, and not for example just paused.

We managed to run a total of about 65 km of the course, leaving about 27km untravelled although we did walk part of that a few days after race end.

Our Mountain Race running preparation was not made in April so we had to rely on general fitness to complete the course which we are confident we would have easily have been sufficient to beat the cutoff times had we been allowed to do so.

Post race there is talk of attributing some ITRA (International Trail Running Association) points to our run and we have sent our Garmin tracklog to the organisers.  The ITRA points will help us compete in other Ultras which like this one are not open to anybody who has not reached a certain demonstrated Trail running competence.

Marcus' music was a disaster but that pales into insignificance with the lack of Poles combined with using Trail shoes without tread. A truly awful way to traverse any snowy terrain.  Still, we got past the snow section and were catching back competitors at a tremendous rate before the race was terminated.  Our bad luck.

I feel the organisation of the food and trail marking was excellent.  But the 'what to do in case of bad weather' planning was really poor.

If the Race organisers offer us discounted 2020 entries we are up for it :-)