TAKING IT TO THE MAX
ULTRA-RUNNERS TACKLE A GRUELLING AND SPECTACULAR RANGE OF FOOTRACES IN THE FRENCH ALPS, JASON HENDERSON REPORTS
Coverage from one of the world’s most scenic ultra-distance trail running events in the French Alps
IT IS 4.30am on the banks of
Lake Annecy in the HauteSavoier region of south-east France and several hundred ultra-runners are gathering for the start of the 2018 MaXi-Race trail race.
Quietly they take their position on the start line ahead of the 5am start time.
It is still pitch dark and a long day lies ahead of them as they nervously adjust their small rucksacks and make sure their drinks are topped up and head torches are switched on.
As the gun fires, a red flare lights up the start area and chants of ‘Allez! Allez!’ set the runners on their way. The opening strides are on the loose sand on the edge of the lake but soon the runners will rise up into the steep footpaths that surround the picturesque town. Annecy is best known in athletics circles for staging the European Cup in 2002 and 2008, plus the IAAF World Junior Championships in 1998. But on the last weekend of May this year it was taken over by ultra trail runners. In France they are called ‘traileurs’ and on May 26-27 they took part in one of the biggest distance running festivals of the year – the Salomon Gore-Tex MaXi-Race in Annecy.
Around 8500 traileurs from 50 different countries descended on the venue as they tackled a variety of gruelling races. There were 11 events in total with the most difficult and prestigious being the 117km ultra and the 85km MaXi-race, while there was also a 42km marathon – all of which involved several thousand metres of elevation as runners weaved through the mountains overlooking Annecy.
With some races setting off before dawn, the runners soon experienced hot conditions once the sun came out and temperatures hit the mid-20s as the traileurs tackled one of the most scenic and demanding footraces on the calendar. They enjoyed great support on the trails, too, from spectators ringing cow bells and shouting in Tour de France-style.
The 117km and 85km races started at 1.30am and 5am respectively, with competitors carrying liquid, energy gels and safety provisions like a whistle, mobile phone and emergency blanket. Many were also armed with trekking poles – a popular accessory for traileurs – to help climb the never-ending hills
and to reduce impact on the joints during downhill sections.
The 117km ultra included 7360m of vertical gain and was won by Francesco Cucco of Italy in 15hr 1min 8sec from runner-up Fabrice Couchoud of France, who finished just over half an hour behind.
A further 18 minutes behind, meanwhile, female ultra-runner Mimmi Kotka of Sweden produced one of the performances of the entire weekend when she finished third overall after overtaking a number of tiring male runners in the final miles.
“Beautiful but really crazy and – typical of races in France – very technical,” said Kotka, a former winner of the CCC and
TDS races that are part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc week in August.
The 85km MaXi-Race was won in dramatic style by Germain Grangier of France, while his girlfriend and inov-8 teammate, the US ultra-runner Katie Schide, took victory in the women’s section.
Grangier was several minutes behind leaders Vincent Viet of France and Jordi Gamito of Spain at one stage before surging through in the final kilometres to cross the finish line in Annecy in 9:31:13.
“Crafty like a fox, I stayed right behind Vincent and Jordi,” explained Grangier. “After waiting for four hours, I picked up the pace. My goal was to win! I had one difficult half-hour, but after watching them battle back and forth for first place, I decided to be patient and wait, and I won on the final descent.”
Schide clocked 11:04:17 to beat Camille Bruyas and Maryline Nakache of France as one of Britain’s leading ultra-runners, Jo Meek, finished fifth female and first masters runner.
“I’m in disbelief that we pulled off this double win in such a deep field of runners,” said Schide, “and especially proud of Germain, who ran an incredibly smart race, making up a five-minute gap in the last 18km to win by seven minutes.”
After finishing just outside 12 hours, Meek described it as “technical, beautiful and challenging,” with the Winchester runner adding: “It was the baptism of fire I had expected after coming off the road racing season and on to the trails. My body needs a little more conditioning I think but the mind is strong!”
In the 42km marathon, Thibaut Garrivier of France negotiated the 2650m of vertical gain to finish first man home in 3:53:15 with Marie Perrier of France first woman in 4:50:18.
Ultra trail running is increasing dramatically in popularity with events like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in August in nearby Chamonix now a huge event.
Such is the demand, entries for the ‘UTMB’ are not easy to get and require building up lots of points for completing other ultra races simply to apply to enter. But if you want to race in the Alps in more of an entry level ultra event then the MaXiRace offers a range of distances for most levels of ability, all of which takes place in one of the world’s most scenic running locations.
The MaXi-Race series hits Sicily next on July 20. For more information see maxi-race.org
Ultra-running traileurs often use poles to help on the hills in European
The hilly terrain around Lake Annecy provides a spectacular backdrop for runners
Race distances for all