We trotted up to the marshalls who offered us the choice of English or French for the instructions that came with the maps. After collecting the English bundle we ran on another 20 or 30 yards to before stopping to get out the maps, and find the map and instructions for stage 1. I found the map labelled “sheet 1” and Gui and myself quickly got to the task of locating ourselves on the map (at the start), and finding out where we should be heading. Beside us, at the end of the track we were standing on, a steady stream of teams were carrying on forwards, leaving the track to cross a ravined river.
This should be very easy, particularly with two very experienced AR navigators working together, but it was proving to be anything but! We just couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on with regards to our location on the map, and why everyone was heading the direction they were. A minute or two later a real character of AR, Antonio from the spanish Bimbache race, came over to us to check his thoughts on what he was seeing on the map, and was highly amused to find that we were even more confused than he was. He laughed and pointed out that we were looking at the wrong map! There were two maps labelled “sheet 1”. D’oh!
Getting out the right map the picture became a little more clear, particularly upon realising that the shortening of the stage meant that rather than doing a long loop we would instead be going up the “down” route to checkpoint 4 and returning the same way. It was then we also realised that all the teams who had been crossing the ravined river had got it wrong, and we should in fact be heading straight up the valley on a path immediately to our left.
Gui quickly went to the front and set out a fast steady pace, with the rest of us following behind. We weren’t particularly happy to be so far back down the field at this point. We overtook a series of teams on the track as we ran up the gentle uphill slope. There were a few confused looking teams out on our right on the other side of the river. As the hill steepened upwards the dawn’s light steadily increased, and the temperature started increasing. I was stating to remember parts of the valley from time here 12 years ago.
After an hour or two of ascent we reached a marshal at the bottom of a big cliff where the track wound its way up. We were instructed to make sure to have our climbing helmets on, and to have our double lanyards ready for use. I had already got everything in place, as I reckoned it was the easiest way to carry the gear around, but we lost a few places again as my teammates changed into theirs. We then made out way up the steep section of track up the cliff to the Sele hut. There is permanent via-ferrata type cables in place, along with temporary ropes placed by the race. Nobody on any team was bothered using their lanyards with these for additional safety, and instead climbed as quickly as possible. At this point some people were audibly beginning to suffer with the altitude and the high pace.
The next section was much flatter as we made our way on the deposited moraine of the retreated glacier towards the bottom of the Sele glacier itself. We arrived there to find a cluster of teams gearing up for the glacier. We started the same process ourselves, taking off our trekking shoes and putting on our climbing boots and crampons, taking out the rope and fixing ourselves to it in our self-allocated positions (myself, Thomas, Camila and Guy, from the front). Gui and myself took an ice tool each.
The initial part of the glacier was nasty rock over ice terraine. It wouldn’t be long taking the edge of the newer crampons. We were going up at a hard steady pace, but still got overtaken by two teams. As we climbed I could really feel the effort, as the thinner air at altitude made breathing a much harder effort. After about half an hour we escaped the rocky zone and were to be on pure ice and snow for the rest of the climb. We overtook one or two teams as we maintained our pace. Above and to my right I could see the red glow on the high mountainous rocky faces from the morning sunshine, even though we were still in their shadow. Not long afterwards we broke into the direct sunlight, with a noticeable increase in the effective temperature. We could now see the full route ahead up along the length of the glacier to a mountain col. We cheered on the leading teams as they passed us heading back down the valley again.
We were moving very well over the snow and ice, considering that two of the team had never glacier walked before. There were a few interesting passages through crevasse fields to be negotiated, and then it was back to the steady hard breathless uphill climb. Addidas Terrex passed us heading back down, and commented that they were taking things relatively easily. That was obviously because there was a minimum time allowed for this section of 7:30, so there was no point in flogging the team to be faster than that. As ever, Addidas Terrex seemed to be racing smarter than most other teams.
As the rocky col got closer and closer the snow slope increased even more in its angle, and I made one last push from the front to overtake one more team before hitting the rocks above the glacier for the final climb to the col. Everyone made it safely through this tricky (with crampons on) section and we arrived at our first control point. Thomas punched the control and I took the opportunity to lose a few layers of clothes, now that the sun was heating up everything nicely. We reckoned we had arrived to the checkpoint in about 30th place, which meant we’d managed to improve our position by 18 places since the start.
The descent was much easier than the climb, and a lot more enjoyable. It wasn’t long before we were gently running down the glacier. That’s not something I’d ever done in my mountaineering days! Getting through the crevasse field was a little trickier on the way down, but we still managed to pass one team. The trot slowed back to a walk when we reached the rocky section and the shaded steep walk back down to the end of the glacier, where we took off our glacier gear and packed it back into our backpacks.
We knew that there was a minimum time to complete this stage of 7:30, so there wasn’t too much point in working hard to get the finish before 1:30pm. Gui and Camilla reckoned it would still be good to have a little “free” time to rest at the transitions, so we carried on at a steady trot.
The long descent was very pleasant in the midday sunshine with a fine view out over the alpine valley ahead towards Ailfoide. Gui, Camilla and myself were enjoying the nice steady pace. However Thomas was a little out of sorts by his own standards and had to take a few walking breaks on the way down.
We arrived back to a transition field packed full of teams of adventure racers waiting for 1:30pm so that they would be allowed re-start and access their gear boxes. We checked in with the transition staff and were given an updated course note. We settled down to rest in the shade and I got out the maps to work out what was coming up. The combination of course notes was again quite confusing, but Thure Kjaer, one of my friends from the Danish Skandia Salomon team helped me out by pointing out the course note was describing an extra hiking section that had been plonked into the middle of the next mountain biking section. This was to make up for the shortened glacier trek.
We had about half an hour of rest, and then all the teams naturally lined up near the transition boxes as half one approached. The transition staff gave the all clear and everyone sprang into action. Glacier gear was packed away into the high mountain boxes, never to be seen again on the race. The rest of the mountain gear was packed into box-A, and we changed into our cycling gear again (a simple shoe change in my own case). We brought the boxes down to the gear trucks for loading, and then with the all clear cycled out onto the second stage of the race.
A fast furious cycle past the hot-air balloon and down a campsite road took us back to the main road we had cycled up. This time we were not allowed use the road, but had to use a trail on the other side of the river that would take us two or three kilometers down to new transition in a campsite at the next village down the valley. The trail quickly turned into a nice tight singletrack trail that was good fun to mountain bike.
I was leading out the team as the primary navigator on this section, with a large map-board attached to my handlebars. I knew my teammates were all good mountain bikers and trusted that they would be able to keep pace, especially since I was stuck behind a hesitant rider from another team. There were a few bike carries over river bed crossings, and the trail turned into very loose rocky double track. It then turned sharply left with a quick nasty climb, before heading steeply down a very technical descent with I just about managed to ride. At the bottom I stopped and waited for my teammates
Gui and Camilla appeared quickly enough, but there was no sign of Thomas. We waited two or three minutes, and one or two teams passed by as we did. I decided to head back up the trail to find out what was up with Thomas and started pushing my bike back up the hill. A minute or two later Thomas appeared, and said he had crashed on the loose rocks, with his front wheel wiping out, and had hurt his ankle a bit in the crash.
We set off again, but Thomas was having great difficulty riding his bike, particularly on the technical sections. He couldn’t put any weight onto his sore foot, and that was making technical descents impossible, but he kept trying. Another crash on a sharp descending turn caused him to scream in pain and left him lying in a heap beside the trail. I picked his bike up and put it beside the trail. Thomas gave himself the best of his painkillers from the first aid kit. We all waited to give them time to kick in and to give Thomas’ leg a chance to recover.
However even after 5 or 10 minutes it was still too painful for him to be able to cycle such a technical trail. so he set off walking his bike down. After a little discussion he got out his walking poles so that he could simply concentrate on walking down to the transition, whilst I pushed the two bikes down the hill. A few minutes later we stopped so that Gui could strap up and immobilise Thomas’ ankle to see if that would help. While that was going on the leading teams were passing us walking uphill in the opposite direction as they headed out on the trek.
Seagate were powering along in the lead. Our friends in Tecnu were doing impressively well in about 4th place. Camilla started amusing herself by asking the passing teams if they’d like a nice cold coke (it was very hot in the southern French afternoon sun)!
Eventually we were going again, and Thomas did his best to make his way down the hill on into the transition. At this stage everyone’s metal focus on the race had changed. We had moved from actively racing for position to get towards the front of the field to simply staying in the race and doing whatever was necessary to get Thomas back in action.
The race doctor was at the transition. As he checked Thomas over the rest of us discussed all the possibilities and options. We were in agreement that we would fight to stay in the race, no matter what speed we were capable of as a team. My own personal feeling was that Thomas had probably broken his ankle and if that was the case he wouldn’t be able to carry on. His injury looked very similar to my broken ankle from last year.
The race doctor worked with Thomas and got the swelling down. He reckoned it was possibly just damaged ligaments. After an hour or two of RICE for his ankle, Thomas was ready to give the next hiking stage a go. We all gathered our gear for the hike together and slowly set off from the transition. Speed was not a priority at this point.
About 10 minutes into the hike at the end start of the first big climb Thomas finally had to conclude that it was going to be impossible for him to go on. He was still unable to put weight on his ankle, and as a result our speed was extremely slow. Thomas was gutted. Possibly the hardest thing to do in Adventure Racing is to be the person who needs to abandon the race. The fact that we all agreed with him that it was the absolutely correct thing to do, and that he had to think of his long-term health didn’t really help him at the time.
WE slowly made our way back to the transition. The Doctor came out to meet us, and Thomas got into his car. He would head off to Briancon hospital for an x-ray.
That left the remaining 3 of us with some choices to make. We quickly decided that we wanted to carry on and complete the course, even though we would be unranked. However being a team of 3 would seem to make the white-water kayak and rafting stages impossible to complete. We also quickly decided that we would be happy to skip the filler-trek stage that everyone was on, as it was just a replacement stage to make up time.
We told all this to Pascal, the race director, who was on-site. He referred it all on to the race jury who would decide our fate. I was handed a phone to receive the result of their deliberations. There was a 3 man team already on the trek (they had started as a team of 3), and we were to wait at the transition for them to complete the trek and then join up with them. That would allow both teams to complete the water stages safely.
There was nothing else to do for the moment except settle down and wait for team 66, the French team of 3, to make it back to transition. The minimum gear requirements varied from stage to stage. On some stages tents and a sleeping bag each were required. But for this one we just needed a waterproof sheet and one sleeping bag for the team. Camila and Gui settled down together with the sleeping bag, and I lay on the waterproof sheet, and we all grabbed whatever sleep we could manage.
In the late evening the first of the teams started arriving back into transition. This was a good opportunity to watch how the top teams operate. First back, unsurprisingly, were Seagate. They transitioned with smooth efficiency. Gui noted that they didn’t sit down at any point. They took just 7 minutes to transition and exit on their bikes, whilst patiently answering all the queries from the watching media throughout. Within 15 or so minutes Quechua and Thule were also in transition. Thule arrived a few minutes after Quechua, but their transition was so much more efficient that the 2 teams existed together.
Addidas Terrex arrived to transition in around 8th position. They were surprised to see me and I filled them in on how I had ended up there. They seemed in good form, and moved through the transition effectively. By now it was nighttime. A lot of the later teams seemed to be having trouble finding the route to the next control. They would exit the transition to the left (as all the lead teams had done), but then arrive back 15 minutes later and head out to the right instead. There was obviously a track somewhere nearby that was hard to find in the dark.
The night seemed to drag on a long time. Doing nothing is about the most frustrating thing to do in an adventure race. This was the reason I was determined to get back out on the course somehow, no matter what the circumstances, rather than just quit the race. Camila and Gui seemed to be sleeping well, but I couldn’t manage it, and hung out near the open fire that the transition marshalls had built for themselves.
Finally team 66 arrived in, and the transition staff explained the situation to them. They cooked up some dehydrated food packs for themselves and we asked a few of the more obvious questions of each other. Two of them had a small amount of English (which was a lot better than my French). They asked if I was a navigator for my team, and on hearing that I was they asked if I would be happy to navigate for the combined team, which suited me perfectly.
When they were finished eating and starting to get ready to cycle out I went over to Gui and Camila to rouse them for continuing the race. However the long sleep seemed to have changed their frame of mind, and they decided they weren’t going to continue on any more. They left open the possibility of joining up for the rafting later (it wasn’t too far away). I was glad of this possibility, since Camila is a raft guide! I then got all the team mandatory gear that they had and put it into my backpack. So team 35, my team, had now been reduced to a one man show, moving along as part of the bigger team 66.
I changed to my bike shoes, grabbed my bike and went back to the French lads to explain that we were now 4. I also explained all the going’s on with teams being unable to find the route from exiting left, so they agreed that we’d take the theoretically more awkward right exit and find the next control from there. And so began what felt like my second start of the race, as part of an all new Hiberno-French team. Let the new adventures begin!