Alesia Trail’s ultra race, the 51 km Vercingetorix
The most fulfilling dreams are always built on longterm planning. If you really wish to achieve something spectacular, you need to work your ass off. You need discipline, determination and dedication. This year marks five years since we finished our first marathons in Valletta and Athens respectively. That, in fact, were our first races ever. A year earlier I myself could hardly have run three km in a single set, much less a Swedish mile (10 km). 2013 has seen Jakob & Jakob complete, together and separately, six (!) races with a seventh and final one to go in New York in November. As you know, next year’s big event will hopefully be the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the classic and most famous European ultra where the competitors run around the Mont Blanc massif, starting in Chamonix and circling around the mountain counter-clockwise via Italy and Switzerland before returning to France. But in order to be eligible for the lottery to participate, you need seven qualification points. We were in possession of six points and meant to win our final point in France.
So it was that I found myself with Jakob and dad in a rented Mitsubishi heading north along the E25 towards Lausanne, Switzerland. After a lovely lunch with our friends the ballet dancer and her husband – nicknamed Gruyère – we drove away towards France once again and later that evening found ourselves in Leynes, a lovely little French hamlet in Bourgogne, where my cousin Dot, her friendly husband – let us call him Bocuse – and their delightful baby daughters live. Jakob knows the area well since he spent a couple of weeks here last summer in order to help with the region’s annual Vendange (the harvesting of wine grapes). Rumour has it that he managed to charm the only two girls in the local pub despite having the severe disadvantage of not speaking their native tongue. Figuratively speaking, of course. Literally, he managed their native tongues very well. Or so the rumour goes.
Mr Bocuse has the coolest job in the whole wide world. He’s in charge of wine bottle etiquettes in his uncle’s company. In Bourgogne. Can you imagine the wines he has access to? Suffice it to say that our filthy Slovak and Polish fingers were not allowed inside his private wine cellar at any moment during the evening, despite our best efforts at persuasion. Which isn’t to say we didn’t sample some truly exquisite wines and delicious food. I cannot for the life of me recall what we had for dinner, but the taste of the wines was carved into my memory in intricate detail. And I do remember that it was heavenly fare. Going to bed at 01.30 we were proud of our warm-up for our 51 km ultra race the day after next. When in France, well… do as the French do.
The next day, we drove off towards Alise-Sainte-Reine after an exquisite lunch of duck. We had arranged to meet up with Jakob’s girlfriend miss M next to the statue of the Gaul chieftain Vercingetorix, where all the races of Alesia Trail would start the following morning and where we were supposed to pick up our starting numbers. This year’s Alesia Trail was the fourth of it’s kind, celebrating the great battle of Alesia where the combined Gaul army of Vercingetorix almost beat Julius Caesar’s Roman army in September 52 B.C., thus coming very close to changing the course of history. This year there were several races, first and foremost the mighty Vercingetorix – the ultra race of 51 km and 1800+ vertical metres which would give us our sorely needed qualification point for UTMB, should we manage to finish it within the time limit. There was also a 34 km race, a 24 km race and the final race l’Oppidum, a 16 km trail of 500+ vertical metres that I had convinced my dad to participate in.
We met up with miss M in the little village of Alise-Sainte-Reine and continued up the hill towards the enormous statue of Vercingetorix right by the starting line. Serious and moustachioed, the seven-metre tall statue was commissioned by Napoleon III in 1865 and has an inscription attributed to Julius Caesar on it’s base:
- Gaul united,
- Forming a single nation
- Animated by a common spirit,
- Can defy the Universe.
Impressive words, and respectful. Dad joined the queue for the 16k-race and Jakob and I went right up to the lady sitting below the 51k-sign. As in Verdon, not a single one of the race officials spoke any English. And why should they? According to the official race statistics, we were the only participants from outside of the region (as well as a few from the immediate neighbouring countries Belgium, Luxemburg, Holland and Switzerland). After having picked up our starting numbers we drove in search of the little village where we were to stay for the night. The four of us had dinner in a small but friendly establishment off the main shopping lane, taking a care not to overindulge ourselves in the local vintages.
After a night of fitful sleep and a hasty breakfast of bread with jam and croissants, we gave miss M a farewell hug as she had a plane to catch further south. Driving through the grey and impenetrable mist of early dawn, dad remarked that this race would be his second one. Ever. Not having run a single competition with a starting number since Athens marathon almost five years previously, dad was understandably a tad flustered. Nevertheless, he soon warmed to the occasion and was smiling with anticipation. It was his first trail race after all and with a height difference of 500+ m it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Jakob and I donned our backpacks over our wind jackets and headed off towards the starting line where an enthusiastic Frenchman was seriously dispensing sage advice about the route. In French, of course. We caught the words “dangereux” and “attention”, but were otherwise blissfully unaware about the details of the dangerosities. Dad wished us luck and before we knew it, the countdown had finished and we were once again off, starting our third ever ultra. A veritable baby compared with Marathon des Sables and Trail du Verdon, but still.
Soon enough we were thundering down a dewy wet and slippery grassy downhill that was so narrow that we scraped our shoulders against the barbed wire guarding the fields flanking the path. Reaching the misty bottom of the valley after a couple of kilometres we almost immediately turned upwards on the neighbouring knoll, diving in under the dark green canopy of birch trees and splotting down each other and our competitors with the brownish mud of the trail. After around 4k or so, Jakob abruptly stopped and started to darken the air with curses with a grimace on his face. Attached to the lateral side of his foot, a wasp was struggling feebly as it tried to dislodge itself from his sock. In the semi-glumness under the leafy trees Jakob didn’t see the wasp until it had stung his foot. Gingerly removing it, he took a few tentative steps and assured me that he was ready to go. In 7k we reached the first checkpoint where we gulped down a few mouthfuls of coke, took off our windjackets and continued on through the picturesque little medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. Waving to one of the photographers we ran along a wall from where there was a beautiful view of the next valley. The sun started to warm our faces as we continued south along the next ridge, walking swiftly and purposefully uphill and trying to run on the flatter portions and downhill. France is a stunningly beautiful country with many different types of landscape, this race featuring rolling farmland divided by wooded hills and ridges, most of them pretty steep. Setting out during the first half-marathon we were wondering how on earth we would possibly accumulate 1800+ vertical metres but the way the trail was run, it soon dawned on us that it wouldn’t be a problem. The track was pleasantly drawn, in places pretty devilishly so, and our only issue with the race was the fact that although it was very well marked, signs of distance run (or, indeed, distance left) were sorely lacking. It wasn’t very clear if checkpoint 2 was supposed to be located at 18k (according to the map), at 20,5k (according to a handwritten sign next to the water table or 22k (according to my – which I later found out – faulty GPS). Leaving checkpoint 2 we sped past the curly-haired lady running in a dress and started one of the more vicious climbs so far. I have to say that the pisteur (the fellow that had laid down the markings) showed clear signs of genius. No only was he an expert in finding steep hillsides in the middle of flat pastures but he also had us running in the shade of huge green oaktrees and birches for the majority of the race, shielding us from the unseasonably hot sun. Running through the Forêt domainale de Flavigny was an absolute joy, jumping over rotting logs covered in emerald green moss lying over the trail and climbing down ropes strung along the steeper of the passages. And the small rivulets we splashed through only served to chill our aching feet from the repetitive lumbering along the forest trails and field tracks.
At long last we reached the final checkpoint at 45,5k (we think…) and were served cookies and crackers as well as a choice of red or white wine. These lovely French races, I say! Jakob was a bit worse for wear and hadn’t provided me with a lot of conversational support during the last hour or so, and I could tell that he was knackered. I was still fully expecting him to change into his usual Terminator-mode during the final 5k and push us up to a furious sprint, but he thankfully very kindly refrained. The final 3k were an exercise in patience as we picked off three runners in a single long sprint up a steady incline back up to the statue of Vercingetorix. Emerging from under the canopy of leaves just 100 metres from the Gaul chieftain we spotted an septuagenarian whom we had been chasing ever since he passed us 5k ago and managed to pass him while giving him a well-deserved pat on the back. 50 m from the finish line we were trailing another hobbling runner who was moving towards the finish. I turned to Jakob and we nodded in mutual understanding as we started our final sprint to pick off this last runner before the finish line. He discovered us a fraction of a second to late and scrambled with his walking sticks in order to beat us to the tape. In the end, he wedged in between me and Jakob placing me in 100th place and Jakob in 102nd, divided by less than half a second.
Now we finally have our seven qualification points for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc! Three of them earned in Gorges du Verdon (108 km, 6700+) last summer, another three points won in Marathon des Sables (231 km) in April and the final one secured here in Alesia. Dad was waiting for us next to the finish with a hug and a smile, proud of his achievement of finishing his first trail race ever. And that in a pace better than our own, he was quick to add! Very well run, dad! After a far too short rest, we settled down in our Mitsubishi for the three-hour drive to Annecy where we would spend the night before flying home to our separate flights. The weekend was concluded in a fabulous way with a delicious dinner at a prime local establishment and celebrated with champagne and a bottle of red.
Next stop: New York City Marathon, 3 November 2013.