Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

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training camp in the Jura.

Skiwalking in the Swiss Jura. (Photo: Roli Eggspühler)

Coming from North America, I often think that the other side of whatever country I’m in is very, very far away.

Happily, here in Switzerland things are a little closer together. I live in Zürich and while the nearest big mountains are at least an hour away, nothing is very far. Going south or southwest through the Alps takes a few hours, but driving across the Swiss Plateau to the French border is easier.

A few weeks ago I was able to take part in a training camp in Les Cernets, which is on the border with France. Literally, after dropping our bags off at the inn where we were staying, Fabian and I ran up a hill a few kilometers and peered into the European Union. We followed a well-marked trail and there was a small monument at the top of the height of land. Anyone could take this route into France, although of course you have to get into Switzerland first, which is no easy feat.

(Certainly there was no border station on our running trail; even the one on the main road in Les Verrières, the bigger town, appeared to be minimally manned and just waved cars through without stopping.)

The camp I joined was with the Swiss Academic Ski Team (SAS), a group of college and older athletes. Once you are a member (I’m not), you’re a member for life, so a few masters-aged athletes also join us and sometimes kick our butts.

cowsAt camps we train hard, double sessions a day like the pros, but only for a few days. I can’t speak for the others, but for myself, I then go back to work, train fairly minimally, and engage in magical thinking to assure myself that these few days will somehow make a difference come winter…

Ironically, the team doesn’t have any athletes I’ve met so far from the French part of Switzerland. But in an effort for geographic fairness and also to keep things new and interesting, we went there.

We spent three days in the Jura mountains. It’s at the same time remote and not remote; growing up in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, I felt right at home. The area is a mix of farms and forest, with some small homestead always hidden behind the next roll of the hill. But the city of Neuchâtel isn’t far, and in no time at all you are back on the big lake, feeling like you’re in metropolitan Switzerland.

There are a lot of dairy farms in the Jura. We missed, by just a few days, the annual festival where the cows walk from the high meadows down to town with flowers braided around their horns. On the main road you can find an unmanned, automated cheese vending machine with the local wares.

morningThis is the region that absinthe comes from, and you can imagine perfectly how even when it was outlawed, production continued just the same. There are infinite places to hide things and you can’t travel too fast on the country roads. All you need to do is call your neighbor to warn him someone was coming, and he could take care of his materials no problem.

The mascot of the Val de Travers region of Canton Neuchâtel region is a small green fairy, and it is plastered everywhere.

Come to the grocery store! With the absinthe fairy.

Take the train! With the absinthe fairy.

Stay at our hotel! With the absinthe fairy.

Here’s some highway information! With the absinthe fairy.

On our last night we tried some absinthe, which probably ruined our training effect. We stuck to one glass each and, it turns out, did not see the absinthe fairy. Shoot, I’ll have to try some again some other time.

creux du van 1But about that training effect: the Jura is a great place to train. There are tons of trails through the forest, some of which are ski trails. Les Cernets is connected to hundreds of kilometers of ski trails, including a few long point-to-point trails like the 65 k Franco-Suisse loop, where you can do inn-to-inn touring. I can’t wait to come explore in the winter.

Jogging the farm roads in the morning through the fog felt mystical. And in the forest, clearings, bogs, and other areas are given fairy-tale names painted on old, peeling signs.

I was also thrilled to return to Creux du Van, a huge rock cliff formation which I had hiked with a friend in the spring. The closest thing I can compare it to is Cannon cliffs in New Hampshire – if you made Cannon much more even and bent it in a gently arching bowl around the valley. And plopped a picturesque farm and some happily grazing cows on top.

Creux du Van speaks to almost everyone, I think. My housemate told me that being up there, with hundreds of meters of empty space in front of you and birds playing on the wind, gives you power.

Sometimes that kind of phrase can sound woo-woo, but when you stand on Creux du Van, it’s not inaccurate.

rollerskiing 2But that’s not why we came to the Jura. A short drive into France is a rollerski loop at the Stade Florence Baverel in Arçon. So every day we would drive to France to ski.

(Inaugurated in 2009, the venue is named after the French gold medalist from the 2006 Olympics. You can also rollerski around the biathlon stadium in Le Seigne, a bit south in the Département Doubs, but we didn’t check it out. Prémanon, the training site for the French national team, is also only an hour away.)

The center has a nice biathlon range, a few kilometers of paved trails to train on. I would describe it as if John Morton had been given the assignment to design some kilometers of trail, but only given half the space that he’s usually given in North America. (After all, there’s less space for basically everything in Europe.) And, in this scenario he was also denied vital information about the length of classic rollerski shafts.

So it was with some trepidation that I first set out around the course. I’m not a particularly timid downhill skier, but the turns are, umm, very tight – and there’s a pretty decent height differential given the tiny postage stamp of land the center is crammed onto, so you come into them with momentum.

There were posters all over the main building for the French biathlon festivals hosted at the venue. I was trying to imagine mass start or even pursuit racing on such narrow trails with such sharp corners. I pictured carnage. I’m interested to try to find video of how it actually works.

That said, once I’d made a few trips around the loop, I wasn’t nervous and instead the twists and turns just made for super fun skiing. One corner was still a little dicey on classic skis, but on skate skis you can tear around with little fear of serious repercussions, at least if you don’t get tangled up with someone else.

It’s an excellent, and tough, loop for intervals. There’s not much recovery because the downhills are short and technical, so you’re always on your toes. And with limited places to easily pass, it’s good practice for rubbing elbows and making tactical choices in where to use your speed… for instance, before the beginning of the next downhill!

I was a bit sad to go back to Zürich and work, and away from the Jura and Doubs regions which seem to be a perfect playground for training in summer and winter.

paris.

IMGP1540

I’ve been so busy recently. I’m finishing up my research project here in Montpellier, both working in the lab and trying to do my statistical analysis of the results and write it into a paper. As always, I’m dealing with my supervisor being on vacation or otherwise not shouldering her share of the work. I also have to write a proposal for my next research project – in fact, I should have done so already. In between all of that, I have to make the time to both get a work permit to go to Switzerland for the summer, and to renew my French visa for the fall.

It’s tough to take a day off in the middle of the week to deal with visa issues, but that’s what I had to do: travel to Paris, a three-hour train ride, to go to the Swiss embassy. As much as it was an unaffordable pain in the butt, I had never been to Paris before, and I was so excited! Unfortunately, I also had to get up at 4:15 in the morning to walk to the train station (no trams that early!) and so for most of my time there I was a little bit of a zombie.

I’m afraid I don’t have the time to do my visit the justice of a full write-up, but suffice it to say, I now understand why people talk about Paris in mystical and mythical terms. Having only about six hours to explore, I eschewed all the museums and anything you might have to pay for and perused many of the gardens and the streets of the Latin Quarter. The embassy was just next to Invalides, so I wandered from there to the Grand Palais, through the Tuileries, around a neighborhood (with a quick stop at a fancy chocolate shop) to the Palais Royale, then across the river into the Saint Germain neighborhood, through the Luxembourg gardens, and back down the islands in the middle of the Seine. It’s amazing how nonchalant people are as they pass amazing bit of architecture after amazing bit of architecture; around every corner, it seems, is something so spectacular to people who live anywhere other than Paris.

I finished off my visit with the obligatory trip to Notre Dame, which is a true marvel. And, finally, a visit to Berthillon ice cream. I figured I should treat myself to one suggestion from David Lebovitz; he said this was the best ice cream in Paris, and I trust him on not only all things Paris but all things ice cream. The Gianduja a l’Orange was to die for. Then, it was back on the train, back to my little bed (which felt so great after such a long day) and my lab and my papers.

Without further explanation, here’s a dump of photos. It sprinkled rain off and on, so I only had my camera out about half the time – imagine all the things I didn’t photograph! Click to enlarge any photo, and then you can scroll through the gallery fuller-screen.

sauternes in photos.

I didn’t have time to take too many photos in Sauternes, but is was beautiful so I wanted to share what I got. On my crappy camera, so they aren’t amazing. I hope I captured, though, how happy I was to be back in the countryside again!

marathon de sauternes: I came, I ran, I drank the wine.

sauternes finish

Never before has a race left such a mark on my body. I can’t wear running shoes because of the huge, grotesque blister that formed on one of my toes, despite them being the same shoes I have worn for all my training runs. I’m afraid to wear sandals because people will undoubtedly be grossed out by that huge, grotesque blister.

I didn’t notice it during the race, in fact not until I took my shoes off and changed my clothes, but I must have subconsciously changed my running stride to compensate because the whole left side of my body feels like it doesn’t work. The twinges start in my hip and travel down to my knee and my foot. As I traipsed through Marseille today in search of the Swiss embassy and my work permit, I swear I could hear a clicking in my knee.

That’s in addition, of course, to the dull ache and fatigue that is ever-present in both my legs – quads, hamstrings, calves, the little muscles around the knees.

I have never chafed from my sports bra before, but the top of my ribcage is raw on both sides, as is one shoulder from a strap. No shirt is comfortable.

And with my fat thighs, I know better than to ever wear running shorts on a long run. I had worn spandex shorts instead, so there were no seams to rub back and forth until they make the skin bleed. But for the first time ever, even these gave me minor chafing on one leg. Another raw spot.

I’m sunburned and that night my contact lenses were plastered to my eyes; I had to dig repeatedly to get them out. Lack of oxygen going in and out for too many minutes I guess.

Commensurate to its aftereffects, running a marathon takes a bit more preparation than many athletic endeavors. This relates not just to the months and weeks leading up to the big day, when you ought to be putting in the miles, fast on some days and slow on others. It also applied to the weekend of the race itself. You have to eat right, get enough sleep, show up on time, and have a plan for eating and drinking during the race.

Preparing for my first marathon was challenging in any number of ways. There was a brief period where I was really optimistic about how my training was going – I loved running and was putting in more miles than I ever had in my life! It was exciting. I didn’t stop loving training, but as my masters project got more and more out of control, I had less and less time to run. I thought that 68-mile week was a jumping-off point. In fact, I never returned to that mileage again. Nor, for the most part, did I complete the tempo runs and threshold workouts I had penciled into my datebook.

Spurred on by my friend Lynn (thank you, thank you, thank you Lynn!), I tried hard to be more serious in the last ten days before the marathon. I did two good workouts and not much volume besides that, and I made sure to go to bed early. But still, I did not feel good. In fact, my legs felt heavy and sluggish, and running felt worse than ever. My pace was slowing down, too.

Then, the weekend was upon me. I woke up early on Saturday to catch the train to Bordeaux, where I rented a car. I drove to the race site to pick up my number and do a quick fifteen-minute jog. It felt terrible, and seeing all these marathon enthusiasts made me feel decidedly fat. I had no doubt that it was a great venue and location and could be a lot of fun, but I felt like everything I had done up to this point had been wrong. I had done the wrong things at the wrong time, and it was going to be a disaster.

Plus, there was the specter of running a marathon completely unsupported. The other people I saw picking up their numbers had girlfriends or husbands to help them out, who would walk or bike from point to point on the course to cheer them on and hand them food and sports drink.

I’ve done a lot of minimally-supported ski racing, but I think this might was only the first or second race I went to completely alone, not knowing a soul. Plus, I speak French, but not that well and not when people talk fast. It was disorienting and a little scary. As I picked up my number, a roving race organizer with a microphone wandered over and started interviewing me about why I had picked this marathon and what time I was shooting for. I bumbled my way through in French, struggling to even answer the questions in my head – what time was I shooting for? I had told myself only to finish under four hours, but now that seemed hard to imagine.

The organizer took my uncertain answer as an indication that I hadn’t understood the question, so I had to repeat myself. I hope to finish under four hours. J’espère.

That first day it took me forever to fall asleep at night, thinking about what was to come. (Also, there were weird noises in my hotel, sort of like a gun, or some construction nailgun… even now, I have no idea what they were, but I spent about 45 minutes planning how I could escape out the window onto the roof if needed.)

Then race morning rolled around and everything was magic again.

* * *

I definitely never saw these guys, but the organizers posted this photo on their facebook page.

I definitely never saw these guys, but the organizers posted this photo on their facebook page.

There’s something about a race that still gets to me after all these years. I guess that means that I’m definitely not done with sports yet, not done being an athlete even though I’m technically not one – I’m a student, a worker, an adult. I really have no business doing well in races. But competing so infrequently means that when it does happen these days, it’s like the excitement and adrenaline and atmosphere flips a switch in my brain and my whole worldview changes.

I didn’t feel sluggish that morning. I felt excited and above all curious. I returned to the finish line where I had picked up my number; the field that they had been haying the day before, carting off huge round bales on a flatbed trailer behind a tractor, had been marked off into a parking area. Somehow, that made me feel at home. I dressed, stashed some gummies in a pouch secured by Velcro and one pack down my sports bra (I’d eat those first), and joined the procession of runners who were walking the 1500 meters from one chateau to the next for the start.

And what a start it was. I immediately knew I had done a good job picking my first marathon. We lined up many-deep on the narrow dirt driveway to the chateau, about halfway down. The whole thing must have been almost half a mile long, and was lined with plane trees on either side. Overhead, from wires strung between the two rows of trees, the flags of the various countries represented in the race were fluttering in the breeze. It felt epic and somehow honorable, even though it was just a silly running race.

I put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack to start so I wouldn’t get too carried away. We set off, very slowly at first as the pack gained momentum and people began passing and working their way to the front. I just relaxed, slowly moving just a bit faster. I had no idea what pace to go. I just pretended I was out on an easy run, and went that pace. The only time I checked my watch was at 10 k. It said 51:30. That seemed fast, but I felt fine. If anything, I felt like I could go faster. I decided to hold to my original plan of ignoring my watch from that point out.

I had been yo-yoing with two men in bright green running shirts, and so I fell in behind them. We ran together for the next seven or eight kilometers; sometimes they would go almost too fast for me, but other times, usually right after a feed station (of which there were, thankfully for the solo runners like me, many, almost every three or four kilometers), they would slow down and I would take the lead. Finally, they talked to me. I almost didn’t realize it at first because it was still in French.

“How many times have you done something like this?” one of them asked.

“This if my first marathon,” I said.

“Wow,” they both said.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Well, you have a very good pace,” the first one said, skeptical and obviously surprised I was going so fast.

“I’m a cross country skier,” I replied. “I’ve done some ski marathons before, but that’s different.”

Yes, it’s different, they agreed.

“We’re running at about 3:40 pace,” the second one said, still incredulous. “If you keep running with us, that’s where you’ll finish. 3:40.”

Gosh, that seemed fast. Okay.

* * *

DSCN0163

By the time we reached the halfway point, one of the green shirt men was getting tired. He actually didn’t even notice the sign that said “21 kilometers,” and then told his buddy that he had to slow down. I stayed with them at first. We had also passed the point where the “duo” runners, who each run 20 kilometers and then the last two together, tagged off. So a few fast, fresh runners were flying by us.

Some of the duo runners were going a reasonable pace, though. It was hard to remember, since they had just started and I had already run so far, but they were still running a half marathon, which is pretty darn long and requires good pacing. Without really noticing it, I left the green shirted men behind and fell in with a few of the new duo runners, again all men in middle age. The pace felt fine, but we were passing people. That’s always a great motivator and boost.

For the next 20 kilometers, I ran entirely with one tall man with tall compression socks. Eventually we started talking a little bit. He was as surprised as the others had been that this was my first marathon, and offered me lots of valuable tips. At one point he said to “garder un peu” because the last part of the course was hilly and I would need it later (he was right). At another point he told me I should come back and do the Marathon de Medoc, because there was more wine and more chateaux.

More than anything, he was a great leader. He’d give hand signals when the course turned or there was a pothole in the road. With ten kilometers to go, he said, “this is where it gets difficult.” And, exactly as I knew it would, it sure did. Sometimes I would fall off the pace and he would look back and motion with his hands or say, “allez!” Get up here!

Up until this point, I had eaten a gummy every seven kilometers. A college teammate had once used that strategy with gels in a ski marathon (by that calculation, moving much slower on foot, I should have been eating more in all likelihood). But when the 35 kilometer mark rolled around, I could barely force myself to put anything in my mouth. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want anything. I felt sick. I forced myself to eat half of one, knowing that I needed any extra energy I could get, but it almost made me throw up. I tossed the rest on the side of the road (bad etiquette) in disgust.

We were still passing people – maybe even passing more than we had before – but he was getting tired too. I could hear that his breathing was even more labored than mine. Sometimes I’d get a fresh wind and take over the lead, feeling like I was finally doing something helpful for the tall guy who had made it so easy to simply follow his pace and his footsteps. It had taken a lot of thinking out of the act of running, and I was incredibly grateful.

Just as he had said, about four kilometers from the finish, the course went up a big hill. Note: it wasn’t really that big. Maybe like the stretch of Highbridge Road from the mailboxes to my house. But the whole course had been more or less flat, and this seemed really hard. I struggled and fell far enough behind that my leader stopped looking back.

At the top of the hill, though, after a chateau and a feed station, I looked up down the road and saw undeniable woman shorts and woman hair. My competitive instincts kicked in. I must catch her. I thought of that last ski race I did in Sweden, where I didn’t realize I was in second place and had let someone get away. I doubted I was in second place, but I certainly wasn’t going to give up. I found it in me somehow to pick up the pace and, in the process of reeling her in, found my friend again.

But as I passed the woman, she looked me right in the face and I got nervous that she wasn’t going to give up easily. I had to drop her like it was serious. So I kept pushing even though it was incredibly hard and incredibly painful. I didn’t want to walk, but I wanted to slow down. I reminded myself: beat her. She’s right there, beat her. And, that guy – you’ve been running with him for almost 20 kilometers, you can run with him for another fifteen minutes for sure. Just stop being a wuss and do it.

Going up the last big hill, a little over two kilometers from the finish – about the size of the one before – I saw another woman. She was obviously flagging. I passed her.

At this point, I was just counting down the meters. Your mind practically shuts off. The last 20 minutes of the race are compressed in a strange way – they took forever, but I can also barely remember them happening. I passed the 40 kilometer mark. Then the 41 kilometer mark, where the first-leg duo members were waiting for their partners and cheering for everyone else. “Allez la fille!” some of them shouted. I grimaced. It was another hill.

Finally I could see the chateau where I knew the finish lay. I’ve heard that it’s rude or unsportsmanlike to kick it in at the end of a citizen’s race, but I tried to empty all the remaining energy out of my body. It wasn’t hard to do. People were cheering so I had a little extra adrenaline to spare. After I crossed the finish line and had my timing chip removed, I was handed a congratulatory bottle of wine and sat down in the grass.

It was over.

* * *

dinner

It had been so fun, even the hard part. And it kept being fun. After managing to choke down a small piece of a sandwich and immediately draining three bottles of water, I wandered over to the results board and saw my time: 3:30:00. I laughed to myself that it was so exact; someone trying for a goal time of three and a half hours could never have run it right on the dot. A funny coincidence.

But more than that, I was amazed I had negative-splitted the race, run a decent time considering all of my misgivings about my training and preparation, and managed to be the sixth women across the line.

(For an actual marathoner, that’s not a very fast time. But based on my training record this spring, that should have been definitely impossible to put together 26 eight-minute miles, and I’m really, really happy to have run that fast. I have no business doing so, and I think it was due less to my training than to the many years of practice I have digging deep. I probably wasn’t in any less pain than anyone else, the difference was simply that I kept pushing the pace at the end anyway.)

After changing my clothes, wiping the sweat off my body, and discovering my disgusting blister, I headed for the big tent where the organizers were serving up a meal for racers. It had cost I think ten Euros on the registration form. This turned out to be a good investment: I finally had my appetite back and chowed down on the tabouli, bread and cheese and salami, a huge, dripping, delicious steak, and some of the better “frites” I’ve had in France. For dessert, a slice of apple galette, and there was a glass of sweet Sauternes wine to go along with the whole thing. Only in France is this a post-marathon meal and only at a marathon does it cost so little.

Looking back, it was an amazing experience. It went better than I really ever could have hoped. I didn’t die in the last six miles; I never walked; I never wanted to quit. That’s all sort of incredible. I really had my head in the game the whole time, which is the most important thing to me at this point. Sometimes I can space out or give up, but I didn’t do either of those things. And mostly, it was fun!

Given my bad training record, it’s easy to imagine how much faster I could be if I took this seriously. But I don’t want to. I think it was so fun because it was an adventure, one where I was just out to see what happened. Chasing times would make it too stressful. Maybe I’ll do another one sometime, but it will be hard to compete with the atmosphere in Sauternes, and I know I’ll never be a career marathoner. Just an occasional tourist.

first marathon

i got my handbag.

IMGP1508

If you check out the menu bar on the right, you’ll see a new feature: places & travel. I realized that this is basically becoming a travel blog, despite previous incarnations as a skiing blog and a cooking blog – and I became curious about how many places I have blogged from. It turns out, a lot! It was a good reminder of how incredibly lucky I have been in these last few years to be able to see so much of the world – and at the same time how much there is left to see!

For now, though, a few last thoughts on Corsica. As I said, I know I’ll be back! I’d really like to explore the mountains more, because there are a lot of them and they are big and awesome. I only got out hiking on my last morning, and headed up the closest peak to town. It doesn’t even have a name on the map, that I saw, yet it’s a hugely prominent feature rising a bit over 2,200 feet from the sea. No matter where you are in Calvi, you’ll see it. I sent one friend a photo the first night I arrived, and his question was, “are you going to hike up that big rock tomorrow?”

Not tomorrow, but before I left. I faced a conundrum the last morning, though. I had to pack up and check out of my hotel room, which meant that my backpack was full for the flight home. No problem, I thought – it’s just an 8 k round trip, 2,000 feet, how hard can it be? After all, I’ve done a lot of stuff way more extreme than this. It’s not a 20+ mile ridge run mostly above treeline, and it’s not like that time Andrew and I almost got stuck on Wheeler Peak in a lightning storm and then he got altitude sickness.

Feeling cocky, I tossed my camera and wallet into a cloth bag, slung it over my shoulder, and set out.

My foreshadowing here was not particularly subtle, and as you may have guessed, the hike was a little harder than it looked. I started out way down the flank of the ridge so that I could visit Notre Dame de la Serre, a chapel overlooking the harbor. It was beautiful! As you can see below.

The closer I got to the peak, though, the more rocky, ledgy, cliffy, and scrambly it became. Really, it wasn’t a problem… but I probably would have been better off with a pack that was securely attached to me, so I could maintain a center of balance, and also protect my camera better! Yikes! I also didn’t have any extra layers with me and as the weather turned from bright sun to sprinkling rain and back again twenty different times I would get cold, hot, cold, hot, and freak out that my camera was going to get wet. In places the rocks were slippery, and hands and sneakers skidded along, looking for traction.

Lesson learned: even old farts have to plan ahead. Stop being stupid.

It all worked out though, I didn’t get stuck in a storm and I got to enjoy the hike as well as some time at the top taking in the incredible views in all directions: out over the semi-circular bay of Calvi, looking down the peninsula I had run around on Friday, and into the mountains. There were so many of them, just sitting there teasing me.

The plus side of the handbag scheme was that I marched straight down off the mountain, into town, and bought a huge ice cream sundae overlooking the port. Great recovery. It was so much ice cream that I literally felt sick afterwards. Now that’s what vacation means.

Here are the photos from my beautiful wander! Click to enlarge into a slideshow.

une evasion de la vie quotidienne.

intro

As soon as I stepped off the plane in Calvi, Corsica, on Thursday night, I let out out a sigh of relief and wonder. Six hours earlier I had been in the lab, sweating and stressing over locusts. The project wasn’t going well; coordinating with my supervisor wasn’t going well; communication between us and the other research team sharing the lab space was downright horrible. This setting is not good for your health.

But as I stepped onto the tarmac, I absorbed the sun. I felt the mountains. I smelled the sea. Life was about to get better.

By the time I took a taxi into town, checked into my hotel, dumped my stuff, and headed out the door, dusk was coming and there was about to be a sprinkling of rain. Clouds were rolling in, but it didn’t matter. I had no idea what the city held, so I hiked up to the most obvious interesting part: the citadel. The wind blew my hair as I looked back over town, across the bay, and into the mountains. I was free from locusts, on my own, in this beautiful new place. Why weren’t more people up here!? (Probably, the rain.)

Then I walked down through the port and out onto the rocks. There’s no better way to calm yourself down than to sit by the water, looking at the horizon and listening to the waves. This was just what the doctor ordered.

first night 1

first night 2

And so began three days that I would call one of the best vacations I have ever taken. I don’t spend much time vacationing in warm places – usually I’m chasing snow – but Corsica was a reminder that focusing solely on winter is a mistake. Between this and the trip that I took to the canyons of southern Utah last spring at about this same time, warm places are asserting themselves as pretty darn great.

I slept so late on Saturday, waking up just in time for the hotel’s breakfast. It was bright and sunny and I needed to get out exploring. A quick look at the map revealed a huge peninsula just south of town: Punta della Revellata (things are always mixed up French and Italian). That’s where I headed, running along the road for ten or fifteen minutes before dropping down onto a dirt track along the coast. Every time I turned a corner I wanted to stop and take in the view, or take a picture. It took some discipline just to get 20 minutes before taking a water/photo break. It felt like forever to get to the next acceptable break.

run 1

run 2

At the end of the peninsula is an oceanographic studies center of some sort, so I started finding dirt roads to follow. I followed them, winding back and forth up the steep slope, until I got to the top of the hill, almost 500 feet over the Mediterranean. The great thing about being a retired athlete is that every day doesn’t hinge on executing a well-conceived workout. I set out to go on a run. But everything around me was too much to take. By the time I reached the top, I had to stop and appreciate what was around me. I climbed up onto the rocks and lay in the sun for a long time, succumbing to the reptilian warmth-seeking genes I inherited from my mother. (Love you, mom!)

punta 1

punta 2

punta 3

punta

Finally, I ran home. I’d probably run just an hour and a half, maybe 1:45, but I was tired – the sun takes it out of you, as does a week of getting only five or six hours of sleep per night. I hadn’t been taking care of myself, and part of the point of this vacation was to fix that.

For long periods of my life, I did not take vacation. After I entered middle school, we barely ever took family trips; in college, I visited some amazing places, but my travels always had a purpose, whether it was work or training or racing. The idea of just taking vacation – to do nothing – was foreign.

Now, as an adult balancing school and a job and living by myself, I have a different outlook. The harder you work, the more you need a break. Think of it like intervals as an endurance athlete: you can do long threshold intervals with short rests in between. Or you can do really hard, short intervals, where you need rest more frequently. At this stage in my life, I’m doing some very high-intensity intervals. I can go on one weekend trip and feel like I’ve come to a revelation about some aspect of my life; apparently it took five to realize that I need to keep taking these trips.

I needed recovery, and I am going to keep needing it. I have to build it into my plans. Burnout is not an option; periodically doing nothing is a very good one.

I arranged the trip less than a week before leaving. With my current project, I have to work most weekends and holidays. In theory I split these obligations with my supervisor, but I’m never quite sure what her schedule is, which leaves me in the lurch and often on the hook. So, suddenly, it was a mad dash: I need to get out of here. I can get out of here! Train tickets, a plane ticket, a hotel reservation. And here I was, running back along the rocky coast of a famous island. (Besides all the Napoleon stuff, Christopher Columbus was apparently born in Calvi.)

And it’s amazing that I have the opportunity, and the means, to something like this. I am a lucky girl. This semester my trips have never been more than long weekends, but they have gotten progressively more expensive: each time, the hotel ten Euros a night more than the last. After a few trips, that adds up. And Calvi was the worst; you can stay somewhere cheap, or stay somewhere decent. I’ll be skimping for two weeks to make up for it, but it was completely worth it, even the ill-advisdely pricey last dinner I ate at a restaurant in the citadel, overlooking the harbor.

The island has incredibly natural beauty. I wish I could have spent a week, or a month, exploring it all. With little public transportation, I was limited to forays on foot from town, but even just in three days, just around Calvi, I was amazed by what I could do. I would spend the mornings running or hiking (I’ll post a separate photo gallery from my last hike), and then make sure to spend each afternoon on the beach.

beach

stone pier citadel

beach 2By the time I left on Sunday, I was in a different state of mind, a more calm, relaxed, and centered state of mind. It was hard to say goodbye to Corsica, because I really fell in love. I want to come back in two months, when the Tour de France rolls through with three long stages. (I can’t; it coincides with the week my project is due.)

I want to come back every spring for the rest of my life.

That probably isn’t possible, but I know that I will be back. So in that way, and with my newly zen outlook, it wasn’t so hard to say goodbye after all.

goodbye

goodbye 2