Monday, August 17, 2015

Bittersweet Barlatay

This weekend I ran in the Ultra-Trail du Barlatay race in Switzerland. I chose this race because I love the area around Les Diablerets. It's beautiful with incredible views of the Alps and plenty of alpine lakes and little Swiss villages.

An old photo from a sunnier day in Les Diablerets.

The length of the race fell into a sweet spot between the ~50km distance races I've done in France this year, some similar length races that I'd like to run later in the summer, and the longer ultras that I'm working towards. At 87km with 5400m of climbing the race was a perfect distance to test out pacing and nutrition and also an opportunity to run through the night (the race started at 11pm).

After the best summer in Swiss history with incredible sunny and hot days the weather changed and summer seemed to end abruptly on Friday morning. The gear requirements were updated, certain sections of the race were listed as zones of mandatory full-length clothing, and potential changes to the course were being considered. As always, the Alps and their temperamental weather would provide a serious adventure.

At the start it was 12C with light rain, but it didn't feel too cold or wet. I started well and settled into a good pace for the first 26km section of the race. I was near the front of the pack and as the terrain became muddy and difficult I pulled away from the other runners. It wasn't super fun to be in the mud and I had a few flashbacks to the week-long mudfest in the jungle. I think this perspective made it a little easier for me compared to the other runners! However, I soon faced my first obstacle of the race: three flashes from my headlamp told me the batteries were running out. I slowed a little because I couldn't see where I was going and settled behind a couple of runners with bright headlamps that gave me enough light to see better. At the first aid station I was within a couple of minutes of the leaders and feeling good.

Lots of slick mud.

With new headlamp batteries and fully loaded with refreshed 32Gi stocks in my pack I left with a mission to catch up those couple of minutes I had lost due to the foolish mistake of not using new batteries. A huge climb right after the checkpoint gave me the opportunity I needed and I moved forward and joined the leaders in the next 10km. There was a dense fog that reduced visibility to about 20m so a group of four of us stuck together because it was easier to find the markings with four sets of eyes. We met a marshal about 800m before checkpoint 2 where he sent us up to one of the highest points of the race on an out-an-back section. This was tough going and the four of us struggled to find the route because of the poor visibility. Nonetheless we made good progress and arrived at checkpoint 2 just about on the schedule I was aiming for. I was feeling strong, motivated and happy to be in the lead group of runners.

Unfortunately V had some bad news for me when we met at the checkpoint: the leader had gone through more than an hour before me. It just didn't make any sense. Then the officials confirmed that the race had been shortened and the runners after the lead group had all been directed straight to checkpoint 2 without running the out-and-back section. While four of us had spent more than an hour climbing into the fog and trying to find our way around the original course, the runners after us had run 800m down a road to the checkpoint. It was disappointing to learn about the mistake yet it didn't impact my race plan. I was still running the original 87km course so I left the checkpoint with the same strategy and ran the most consistent pace I could.

Swiss trails.

From that point onwards I was almost entirely alone until the end of the race. I did meet up with a friend on the course who had started on an earlier schedule (there were two starts for the race depending on predicted finishing time) and we ran together for a while. I started to struggle in the last 20km although I didn't slow too much and ran relatively close to my race plan. It was good to be moving well and heading towards the finish line in good spirits with a lot of positivity. My finish time was 13:35 and my official position was 5th.

Arriving at the finish after 13 hours on the course.

I've come away from this race with some mixed feelings. I was very happy with my performance and the few adjustments I've been making to my pacing and nutrition. I was happy with my climbing and ability to handle the 5400m of ascent. I was disappointed to run one of my best races in quite a while and be put out contention by an error from a marshal that was out of my control. I was also disappointed that the weather meant I couldn't enjoy any of the great views (this race is know as the "race of four lakes" and I only saw one). Overall I did the best job I could with the variables in my control. Some better luck and maybe next time I'll be at the front of the race where I want to be.