Echappée Belledonne 2016 – A very long walk

Pleynet, 22h30. I’m not known for flexibility and still I’m sitting with my head between my knees. Pondering, outweighing arguments. One argument appears particularly strong. An argument I never even considered would play in any decision-making of this kind.

It’s 4am when the alarm clock rings and less than 2 hours and an hour-long car ride later I’m standing at the start of the Echappée Belledonne in Vizille, amidst some 500 others. It’s definitely not UTMB. No thousands of spectators here. No epic music. Just a countdown and off we are.

Technical problem number 1: my headlight refuses to co-operate. I’m guessing there’s a bad battery in the pack, so no big deal. The sun is just behind the horizon and will bring plenty of light. And heat. Plenty of heat.

After a stroll around the Vizille castle and about 200m of asphalt, we start climbing. First stop is a ski station, 16k in the race and a mere 1300m higher than our starting point. After 16k, we’ve covered more altitude than most Belgian races do in 40k. Still, I feel quite alright. The climb is steep, but I manage to keep a decent pace and slowly move forward in the pack.

But it isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. We pass the 2000m above sea level mark. Still feeling ok. The terrain gets rougher up here. It’s supposed to be colder up here too, but the sun is trying extra hard to compensate for that, and succeeding at it. Luckily, there’s plenty of water coming down from the mountain and we all use it to drink & cool down. I reach the second supply post. 28km in just under 5 hours…

There’s more climbing to do. We reach the 2500m mark. We run into our first snow and a bit later, we have to cross some. All goes well, although I don’t feel as strong as I was just an hour ago. Some other runners are running towards us. Apparently the head of the pack, retracing their steps after reaching the top, on to the next climb. 2700m altitude. I start to struggle. I have to sit down and eat. I have to keep moving! I get up again and push onwards. This is impossible! The last 250m take me forever to overcome.

When I finally reach La Croix de Belledonne, well over 2900 meters, I sit down. Fuck this. The view is amazing and for a moment I forget all about the race. I eat, drink and take some pictures. I’m just going to stay here. But then the urge, the pressure, kicks in again and I get up and start heading down. The descent is as rough as the climb and it takes me quite a while. To Belgian standards, I’m a pretty ok downhill runner. Here, I just suck. I get overtaken by about 30 runners by the time I reach the refuge Jean Collet. I just spent 3 and a half hours over the last 11 kilometers. It’s ridiculous.

Kim is there and I sit down for a while, take my time. I’m well ahead of any cutoff time, but I don’t feel like wasting too much time. I refuel and get on with it. I skip the small tap where a queue is lining up and stop at the small waterfall just 50m further down the trail, where I boy watches me as I try to cool down underneath the water and drink some.

“What are you doing?”
‘Cooling down a bit, and drinking! The water is great!’
“Can you drink the water?”
‘Sure! Let me tell you a secret: the water here is actually the same as the one from the tap. But don’t tell the others’
Eyes as big as the moon stare at me for a moment. I drink some and he joins in.
“Mmmmm! It’s good!”
“Yes! But don’t tell!”

I carry on, smiling for the first time in quite some time. It only lasts a few minutes as the road starts climbing once more. Still, I like the climbing better than the descents. At least I can keep up with the others here, even overtake a few runners. But the ascent gets rougher again. There is no trail, just a big pile of rocks ahead. The climb takes ages, but the worst part is that I know the descent will run over similar boulders and it’ll slow me down heavily. I reach the next supply post, low on self-esteem, low on energy, low on morale, low on just about anything.

And then comes the Col de la Vache, anticipated by the so-called “Sous-col de la Vache”. All in about 1000m of climbing on big boulders & loose rocks, sprinkled with some gravel. I hate it. I hate it and it takes me forever. And when I reach the top of the sous-col and see what lies ahead, I’m through with the whole thing. I start climbing ferociously, but the altitude hits me right in the face at around 2300m. Additionally, the knowledge that the descent will consist of the same boulders & rocks is not helping. I sit down and eat the last energy bars in my pack.

When I get up, the top suddenly seems a lot closer and I push on and reach the top about 20 minutes later. The descent is what I thought it would be: just a big pile of rocks. Somehow, I manage to get through the first part quite fast and a small group forms itself. It’s still mostly walking though. We stick together until it gets steeper again and, who would have guessed, I leave most of them behind.

Darkness falls, but with Pleynet close, I decide to use my backup light and then switch batteries in my good headlamp at the supply post. The ski station pops up in the distance, well-lit. I can hear the speaker welcome runners in the distance. We’re running straight to it now. 500 meters? Maybe even less!

And then we take a turn to the left and the road goes up once more. A sign shows Pleynet at 5k. I lose the last spark of morale and curse the un-announced climb I’m on. Pleynet. The easy way home. I decide to take a shower and a long rest and then decide whether to continue or just call it a day. But for the bigger part, my mind is made up already.

It takes me almost an hour to cover the last 5k and I’m still overtaking other runners. Nobody talks. When asked if everything’s ok, they shrug or grunt. I reach Pleynet and see Kim. It’s hard not to burst into tears when she asks me how I’m doing. I want to quit. I’ve had it with this race.

So here I am. Head between my knees. I try to think things through, outweigh pros and contras, but my head remains absent of any thoughts at all. Just one thing: I’ve had it, I want out. In a last attempt to regain common sense, I take a shower and put on fresh clothes, prepare for the next leg of this monstrous race. To no avail. I grab my stuff and we head for the car.

In the end, I’m hardly disappointed. I wasn’t ready for this, especially when it comes to mental strength. Progress was too slow. The size of the race too big for my head to get around. I had been expecting something heavy, something different, but this, no. And this time, it’s not my body that keeps me from finishing. It’s just that I don’t see the point of continuing.

Negative and depressive as this may sound, I DID have a good time. The weather was more than nice, the views amazing and the mountain water delicious. A humbling adventure. What bothered me the most, however, was the pressure I felt during the race. The pressure to go on. To not waste too much time. To keep pushing hard. And that’s definitely something I’ll have to think through before I undertake any other race of the likes of this one…



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