L'Echappee Belle

28th / 29th August 2015

When I didn't get a place in the UTMB draw in January 2015 I remembered Ross and Catherine Litherland saying that this race would suit me down to the ground and so looked it up. The website  gave it as being 144km with 10,900m of climb and the photos showed it being rocky as in Glyders / Grey Corries / Scafell type rocky. I entered and was accepted straight away with no points or lottery to go through! Great I thought.

Throughout spring I concentrated on the Bob Graham record which I attempted and achieved in April. You can read all about that on my Bob Graham Record and Team Inov-8 blog. In preparation for the E'Chappee Belle I contacted Ross Litherland who pointed me to his blog -  L'Echappee-Belle-2014 which was very informative. I also stalked him on a couple of races asking questions constantly about terrain, checkpoints, kit, food and timings. Ross and Catherine were both very helpful and I am grateful to them.

From the information I gleaned I knew that it was slow rocky terrain and that the checkpoints were usually 3 /4 hours apart so I would need to refuel on the move constantly. I would also need shoes that would protect my feet from the rocks so after looking  at a number of shoes - Brooks Cascadia, Scott Kimbalu,  Inov-8 Race Ultra 290's. I chose the Inov-8's as during my practice runs I couldn't feel any rocks through the sole and they had good toe protection. I went for a size larger than usual as I know my feet swell considerably when hot. 

My friends Charmian Heaton and Steve Wathall offered to support me as they were already on holiday in France at that time. After the UTMB where I suffered from lack of my choice of food on the latter 30 miles I knew this would be beneficial to me and as it was allowed by the race organisors we formulated a plan.

Physical training over the summer seemed to go well; instead of doing the 10Peaks Xtreme as I had in 2014 but subsequently   thought I didn't recover in time for the UTMB, I entered the 10Peaks Long and had a very good run coming 3rd overall. I was also improving on various fell race times while feeling strong. My last long race of 33 miles was The Long Tour of Bradwell and it was a very hot day. I tried to maintain a steady pace and keep hydrated but it went disastrously wrong when I got debilitating cramps and felt very dizzy. I also lost concentration and followed the wrong markers losing me 10 minutes. It was not the final reassurance I was looking for. After a week of farm work I decided to run another much shorter fell race and although I could feel that my legs were tired I had a very good run and achieved a personal best. That was better !!!

I studied the weather forecast for Vizille and Aiguebelle for a couple of weeks and knew it was going to be hot - 30 to 35 C in the valleys. Thunderstorms pass over the area from time to time but none were forecast in the week of the race. Oh well. As the race started on Friday morning at 6am my plan became to set off steady and try not to overheat or exert myself in the hottest part of the day, then to use the cooler temperatures overnight to cover as much ground as possible before slowing down again on Saturday afternoon. Ross had done 34 hours but because of a lightning risk the runners hadn't ascended the peak of Belledonne which he thought added an hour. Catherine did 40 hours. So I had a rough target of 35/36 hours. 

Flyer2015HD-3.jpg (469704 bytes)This is the profile of the race and as you can see there are some massive climbs - the main ones being Montagne de Tigneux and Col Moretan which are both mid race. There is also long gaps between checkpoints in the latter stages of the race with the longest being Super Collet to Val Pelouse at 5 hours.

I flew out on the Tuesday 25th August but the flight was delayed by 2.30 hours which was frustrating. At least I bumped into runners at Manchester Airport so that passed the time away quickly. On arriving at Geneva though I had missed the bus to Crolles by minutes and had to beg the driver of the next bus at 3pm to let me on. I was so pleased to eventually get discharged off the bus however was abandoned at a random location outside town. Charmian came to my rescue though and collected me. I had booked a campsite midway between the start and the finish which was very low key and lovely - http://www.camping-savoie-escale.com/ . I reccied the last section of the race route on Wednesday and collected Jean Brown. Thursday was spent registering (only an hour) and packing. I was very worried about the heat and also my ability to stick to my plan. I really didn't want to suffer as I had in the UTMB in 2014. 

I decided to wear my Inov-8 base layer with my Raidlight shorts mainly because I really like the pockets. On my feet I wore Injinji socks and my Inov-8 Ultra 290's. After much deliberation I used the larger Inov-8 Race Ultra 10ltr pack rather than the 5ltr as although I could get everything into the smaller pack it felt rather solid on my back and I thought it would rub me. I also preferred being able to easily add more food / extra clothing if necessary. Plus I could attach my Mountain King Trail Blaze poles easily to the back of the pack. 

So we were up at 3.15am and off to the start at 5am. It was dark but warm already. There was nothing to do at the start but go to the toilet! At 5.45 we were funneled into the start area with our numbers scanned. I stood with Jean Brown and waited. There was a long briefing in French, then some music but nothing too loud or overbearing. It felt lovely to be part of a low key, friendly event. There wasn't any pushing and plenty of room to mingle. The countdown began and then off we went. The pace was easy, people were chatting and I was pleased to be running. I was determined not to be competitive but it was hard. I distracted myself by fiddling with my headtorch and succeeded in pulling the strap apart! It was soon fixed and I was on my way again. After a short road section there was a long track but I walked when the gradient was uphill. We wound our way up through a forest while it slowly got light. The terrain was easy paths and soon we reached CP1 where I saw Charmian waiting for me. I had a fruit salad and took some energy powder then continued into the building to see what refreshments were like. There was a good selection of cheese, bread, small meaty pellet type things, coke, orange and fruit. I took banana and a cup of pasta soup. The lady wanted to add more water to the soup but I intended carrying it so much to her dismay I wouldn't let her add any. 

Leaving the CP I was walking along sorting out the food and adding energy powder to my water when Jean came passed. I ran with her for a while then decided I was going too fast and should eat instead so let her go. We soon came to a long steep hill and I passed Jean again. Summiting the Col de la Botte the views spread out in front of us and I stopped to admire them. It was just magnificent. This is proper fell running I thought. I was really enjoying the rocky terrain but being careful not to go too fast. Approaching CP 2 La Pra I was bang on schedule at 11.30am but as I looked at my schedule I realised I had made a mistake thinking that Charmian was going to meet me here. It was in fact not until Pleynet at 6pm that I would see her again. I was gutted as I hadn't picked up enough food but after giving myself a good telling off ran through what food I had and just thought "Well I need to get more from the CP's then". I ran into the CP and collected two bananas and some more soup as well as drinking quite a bit of coke. Jean came running in right behind me and we left together. I actually still had quite a few bars and crisps etc so made myself eat them. It was getting warm but we were climbing upwards to Belledonne. I climbed well and was pleased we were allowed to the summit. It was interesting watching the runners coming down a few 100m away. The views were getting better and better and I wished Steve was here. The terrain and the views were reminding me of when we hiked in Colombia on the El Cocoy Circuit. At the summit I thought we had to go round the cross so carried on passed the marshalls. A runner called me back and we ran off together. I was finding that the men were faster descenders than me so let them passed when they came up behind me. We lost the markers on the initial descent but soon found them again. Getting back to the col it was nice to give people encouragement. There was a contour path that was very narrow and a lady runner was being helped across it. I was just loving it as it was so like fell running. We climbed again then dropped to Lac Blanc.  Then a long contour to CP3 Jean Collet. I heard a shout and Charmian was there with her Steve!! I told them I loved them and dived into the bag that they had brought. It was such a lovely surprise. I took a lot of food and energy powder with electrolyte. I drank the coke and spent a few minutes eating as I knew the next section was a long one and it was getting very hot. I left feeling very happy. 

It was extremely hot climbing and although I had said I wasn't going to over exert myself it was hard to slow down when lifting my legs up over such huge boulders. I tried to though as I didn't want to suffer the repercussions later. I lost time on my schedule but was happy with my progress. My feet were swelling but overall I was ok. I went through CP4 Pas de la Coche and although it was an Express there was still soup so I collected another one. I was using gels but also eating the odd Brunch bar as well. I was concerned I wasn't hydrated though but water was lacking. Climbing Col de la Vache was just roasting. At least it was a zig zag path but I just ended up puffing my way up it pausing at the top just to admire the view before descending. I couldn't get my breath back though even on the descent and so stopped for a gel as I had run out of proper food. It tasted so good that I had another one. Running along the Les 7 Laux there was a photographer and I grinned at him. Later I found out that was Akunamata. The route kept descending but I was getting stomach cramps from eating too many gels at once and was distracted by the pain. I tripped and had a horrible moment when I thought I was going to face plant the rocks. Somehow I twisted and landed on my shoulder instead. Shaken I jumped up. There was blood from my elbow and knee, my shoulder hurt and my thigh had a taken a whallop. But I was ok and my stomach ache had gone! I descended more carefully after that. I looked forward to seeing Charmian and getting my drop bag with lots of food in it at Pleynet. As I was running in I also decided to get some Bio Freeze for my shoulder and some Sudocream for the sore areas.

There was a real party atmosphere at Base Vie Station du Pleynet. It was great running in. Charmian was there and I was soon sorted with fruit salads, beans and puree's. I applied bio freeze to my shoulder which reduced the pain. I gathered up more food and got on my way. Jean was about 20 minutes behind me and I hoped she was ok as neither of us like the heat. The route dropped a lot then and I was on my own quite a lot which was pleasant. As I climbed I got my head torch out and it wouldn't work. Trying to see inside a lady runner caught me and shone her torch for me. She was a relay runner thankfully and so it was nice to have company that wasn't competitive. We followed lights zig zagging up. More relay runners came passed giving encouragement to me. In the dark it was just a matter of concentrating on the rocks and running. I liked the drop in temperature. It didn't seem long before I was running into Gleysin. Here I wanted coffee and was made a cup by a lovely little girl however I think the ratio of chicory to coffee was 50/50 as it wasn't very nice. Charmian sent Steve for my flask of coffee and I picked up my poles and visited the loo while waiting. My coffee was nectar and I drank quite a bit before setting out. On the way up Col de Moretan I ate some banana and had some energy drink but it came straight back up. Luckily the coffee didn't reappear; digested already! I dug my Hula Hoops out and ate them. I was enjoying the climb and overtaking a couple of people. About halfway up my pole got stuck and on pulling in out I noticed a rubber base to it. "I don't have rubber bases on my poles" I thought and studied the poles. They weren't mine and weren't anything like mine!!! They were brown adjustable Komperdell and obviously well used and probably someone's favourite poles. I didn't know what to do; I had gone about 2 hours with them. I carried onwards and upwards wondering if I had just ruined someone's race or whether he would just carry on with mine. Climbing was getting hard work and I was puffing a lot. I could hear cracks and bangs like thunder. As I needed to eat I thought I would stop to eat and wait for the guys behind to catch me. I sat on a rock and turned my light out. It was magical. The moon was bright and stars all around. We were in a deep gorge with some huge pointy ridges around us. I heard shouts from above and a spotlight flashed around. I think the marshalls had been watching me climb and were worried as my light had disappeared. When the search light found me it went out; I was ok so they left me to rest. The lights approaching were too slow and I thought I would ask the marshalls what to do. I really didn't want to give the poles up but felt guilty at having them. 

Summitting the col I told the marshall "It is no problem, take them to Aiguebelle" so that's what I did. I knew this descent was supposed to be technical but in the dark it was ridiculous! Huge unstable boulders surrounded a bank of snow and ice. There was a rope but never having used one before I avoided it. A runner said "There is a rope" and took hold of it himself before promptly falling head over heels and really hurting himself. After the snow there was a very steep ridge with more ropes. I was hopping over the ropes when the runner came passed holding the rope in one hand and flying down. I followed his example and it was great. Swopping ropes was iffy but descending was much faster and reassuring. Down we went; everyone that came passed I looked at their poles. But my poles never appeared. Running into a tent I was told that it was CP7 Perioule I was very pleased. They had soup too. I took some and ran off. The soup / pasta combo was working well; I drank the water then had handfuls of pasta every 15 mins. Super Collet would be next with my drop bag and then onto the last two legs. In the dark it was hard to see anything and my head torch flashed- "oh no batteries going" I thought. I dug out my small spare one and put that on my head too. Runners passed me with good lights and I was annoyed at myself for not keeping two good torches. But it was getting light and running into Super Collet I thought I would drop the knackered torch there. More soup, some gels, puree and bars from my drop bag and I was off. This was now a long section but initially on good tracks I was enjoying it again. My shoulder ached and I took my rucksak shoulder strap off it when I could. The climb went on up over the ridge and now I could see Val Pelouse. "Soon be there" I thought although I knew not! Down we went snaking through the woods on small paths, across a stream to a hut and minor CP. Now the climb. It was now mid morning and getting hot. My feet were hurting and climbing just went on for ever. Eventually we turned left and I thought we would contour to the ridge and drop to the CP. But "No" upwards we went, round more rocky lumps, upwards again, down a bit, up again. There was a runner in front of me and he kept stopping so I could see where we were heading. More up, more winding about, bit of down, more up. The path was tiny and hard to walk on. I started cursing the route planner there must be an easier route than this!. On the descents I kept slipping and falling backwards. Then the markers got random and I lost the way a bit. Finally we reached the hut that I recognized from my recce. I cheered up a lot and ran towards the CP.

At CP9 Val Pelouse there was Charmian with fruit salads - yummy. It's all do able now I thought. Jean was 3rd lady and 2 hours behind me. I came out the CP and headed up the steep hill. Akunamatata was there and walked / ran beside me giving me encouragement. It was nice of him. I was puffing like a steam train but just carried on. Up and along the pleasant ridge we went. Then down and up towards the col. I stopped and tried to put a plaster on my heel which was painful but in the heat the sticky wouldn't stick. I stuck some tape over the plaster too. On the climb to the col the markers were laying on the ground, chewed and bent by cows I thought. I picked about 6 up and repositioned them thinking of runners like Jean and Steve (on the 85km) coming behind me. It distracted me but in the trees it wasn't so hot. We were soon over the col and I thought we would be heading down. But no - once again along a ridge we went going up and over every single little pointless top. As you can tell I was losing the plot a bit! I knew this was probably due to energy levels so got some food and drink down. Since morning I had been well hydrated and since being sick just the once the stomach had worked well. I felt better and smiled at the photographers. The long descent was fiddly then on the tracks quite a few runners passed me. I had been taking it cautiously saving my feet as there was still 3 hours to go. But I sped up and started running properly ignoring the pain in my feet. Running into the last CP10 Le Pontet I stopped for a few minutes knowing that the last 2 hours in the heat was going to be hard. Charmian said some 47km runners had been through; "oh no I thought that's the guys I was chasing no wonder they were so chuffing nimble".

I left quite happy until I realised I hadn't got the food that I had collected. I don't know how as I'm sure I had put it in my rucksak. But that was that. Again I still had crisps and gels and a bar so made myself eat something. There was a steep track to climb and a couple caught me. I was worried as one was a woman but she was a pacer. Her friend was suffering with his quads and we ran together a lot. I was in a lot of pain with my heels and regretted running so hard before. I hoped we would just run together to the finish but the lady had other ideas. I was slow on steep descents and they left me. That fired me up a bit though and I started running the flat bits and trying to stretch out on the easier downhills. I soon caught them and off I went. I had reccied this with Steve but completely forgot huge chunks - it was obvious that we still had a lot of descending to do as the town was minute below us. Got to keep going now though. Down, down, down - some nice rough bits to break up the track and road sections. Men came passed me twice having gone wrong; all were on other courses but it kept me going. I passed an old lady hunched over and she gave me a cheer. I smiled. There had been lots of encouragement from the locals along the way and it was lovely of her. 

I hit the road and ran across the bridge. Now there was just the horrid track round the back of town and the finish. It was soon over - I sped up having spied a runner behind and ran through the finish. The commentator was cheering and there was lots of applause. As soon as I finished I saw stars and knew I had to sit down. After 5 minutes I was strong enough to get up and ring the big cow bell that is the tradition. I had to refuse the free beer though! I had finished in 19th overall, 2nd Lady in 35.34 hours. There were 418 starters and 195 finishers.

Charmian and I went back to the van, I showered and ate a lovely salad before collapsing on the bed. Jean came in 38.04 hours and we cheered her in before driving to Le Pontet to support Steve on the 85km. He was happy and scoffed a tin of beans and a packet of jaffa cakes before heading off to finish 77th in 22.22 hours.

Prizegiving was Sunday at midday. The atmosphere was wonderful; beer was still free and anyone could wander in and nibble at the food. We struggled to understand the prize giving but they passed the Vet prizes down and me and Jean were awarded 2nd and 3rd Lady prizes. As prize giving finished everyone rushed off - back to their jobs we thought but actually the last finishers were coming in and they were accompanied by the winners and all the organisors - which I thought was wonderful end to a wonderful race.