TAK­ING IT TO THE MAX

UL­TRA-RUN­NERS TACKLE A GRU­ELLING AND SPEC­TAC­U­LAR RANGE OF FOOTRACES IN THE FRENCH ALPS, JA­SON HEN­DER­SON RE­PORTS

Athletics Weekly - - News - PIC­TURES: @CQUINTARD

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

moun­tain races

The hilly ter­rain around Lake An­necy pro­vides a spec­tac­u­lar back­drop for run­ners

Race dis­tances for all

abil­i­ties: MaXi-Race

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