All posts by Neil

Blé d’or 2019

I took part in my third Blé d’Or, a ‘cyclo-sportive’ event that starts in Lèves, a village near Chartres, France. In previous years I experienced problems either at the start of the race, when folks seemed to go off far too fast, or later on, when I has to stop for a pee, met with an unexpected hill, or even followed someone off in the wrong direction. Such events made me lose contact with my group (peloton, grupetto) and find myself alone, battling the effect of wind resistance. I’m sure you know already how much easier it is to ride in a sheltering group, but you may not realize quite how much. Recent computer simulations by Ansys and Cray  show that a position in the middle of an idealized peloton mean that the effort expended is as little as 15% of that required by a single rider to maintain the same speed.

This year things started well, except that despite plenty of preliminaries, I found my need for a pee increasing as the start approached and I was stuck in the SAS départ. We set off at a fair lick, and various groups formed, broke apart and reformed as we swung through the countryside. The Blé d’Or is, by the way, a race for rouleurs, with only around 500m of climbing for the 95km distance. After a while things settled down and I found myself in a group of half a dozen, too small to benefit from the 15% effect, but way better than being alone. In a small group it is of course the done thing to share the wind-breaking riding up front. By dint of a few barked commands from someone, our lot self-organized into a rotating pace-line which was kind of fun, but also quite tiring. This went on for a while and we managed to catch up with a few small groups and stragglers and eventually had a real peloton of 50 or so. I then settled down at the back hoping to take a bit of a rest. This went OK until around KM 30 when a small hill got me and I lost contact and found myself alone. I stopped for that (by now) much needed pee. Lovely, and amazingly quiet after the racket of the race. Nobody around, no more followers or stragglers. I got back on my bike, hands on the cocottes and set off again in true contre la montre fashion.

This lasted maybe a quarter of an hour or so when, whoosh, another train arrived, a large group passed me and I accelerated an sat on the back of this one. Same routine. I was carried along for maybe half an hour before a small hill got the better of me and again I was on my own. Actually this is a situation I prefer. I like getting my head down and riding alone without the constant attention that riding in the peloton requires. There is also the great schadenfreude of catching and passing  the odd straggler.

I reckon that I did about half the race alone and still managed a 31kph average speed for the 95km. This got me a “gold” finisher time for my age group with which I was well pleased. I even had dreams of a ‘podium’ for my category. These were quickly dashed when I got the race results. I was 14th out of 18 in the 70-99 year old category. There are some pretty mean 70 year old cyclists out there!

Le Migoual 2018

Started fine – same team as last year. I was a bit surprised at the speed of our ascent of the Causse noir and the fact that we were not in our normal position (last)  although this was later fixed. The first 30k are described as ‘real trail’ and indeed they are tricky, single tracks across beautiful but tough terrain. Also amusing that the Migoual includes many segments that would normally be most of a day’s leisurely ramble. Great views of the Dourbie valley, down into Le Monna. Major ‘roadworks’ ‘firebreaks?’ cut across the forest around Longuiers. Drop down into Riou Sec, on up to Roques Altes and along the side of the Rajol and behind the Roc Banut before dropping down to Montmejean and on to St Veran and up to La Bouteille where the ‘real trail’ ends and the relatively easy terrain starts. Most of the trip to Lanuéjols, the first stop at the ‘base vie,’ for me switched between feeling a bit slow and old, when my companion was feeling not so great, and feeling relatively OK when his troubles slowed him down a bit.

Weather was fine – a bit of cloud but warm when moving and I was stripped down to a singlet and even got some sunburn. Hard to believe with what was to come. At La Bouteille or thereabouts we picked up an extra team member – Jean Marie, whose companion had bailed out. JM was young and a bit faster than us. Not the ideal team mate although he did fine.

Had some pot noodle and other stuff – curious mixture of food tends to get consumed. Stuff that is ordinarily out of bounds for a healthy eater. ‘Tuc’ biscuits (nice and salty), coke (sugary), handfuls of salted peanuts and saucisson sec (fatty).

Set off again with JM who once out of the village put his head down and accelerated away. Clearly not staying with the oldsports team any longer. So, on we poddled. Doing pretty fine really. We had done an average of 5kph with stops which would have got us to the finish in 26 hours – well inside the 30 hour max.. if we managed to keep up.  A big if. And also, the race was already changing shape.

At Lanuéjols we learned that bad weather on top of the Migoual meant that the turnaround had been moved off the top and the race was already shortened by 2×2 km. No great pity as last year we had experienced some pretty horrible conditions on the top where there is a very exposed 1 km section before the observatory.

We met the first teams coming down midway between Lanuéjols and Camprieu – quite a lot sooner than last year. Had they turned around before the top? Were they a lot faster than last year? We a lot slower? About the same time the rain started seriously.

It rained steadily right up to our own turn around point – the Col de Seryarade which is some 5k from the top – shortening the race by 10K. I was soaked by then also very tired and not keeping up with my buddy. I was wearing two layers beneath my waterproof jacket. But the latter was no way up to the pounding rain. As we went down so did the temperature and our body heat. Soaked to the skin and then snow. Not a lot I admit but enough to turn the grassier parts of the trail white. The other parts we wet. Very wet. When we made it back to Camprieu, the place was awash. Wide roads covered with sheets of water going this way and that. At midnight or thereabouts, the only living thing I saw was a frog. He was having more fun than me.

The last 10 up and over the hill back to Lanuejols was a painfully freezingly cold thrutch. Both of us had sore shoulder and back muscled from shivering so much and I could put on an impressive chattering of teeth when I wanted but elected to keep jaws clenched to avoid damaging teeth. We were relieved to see the curious pattern of Lanuéjols street lights (in the Sud Aveyron street lighting in the villages was a ‘new thing’ only five years ago. It is fast getting an ‘old thing’ as villages go for less light spoiling the night sky. Lanuéjols has gone for the Through the looking glass/sodium vapor style.

It was a very long and very wet trek to the village with another novelty. Long very wet grass.

Entering the baes vie we were greeted with a big round of applause which was completely transformative. There were 20 plus people there welcoming us in from the cold. Also, the fact that we had left some extra clothing at the base meant that we had something to change into – and a few space heaters to sit beneath. Things were looking up. I told Shihab however that no way was I going to continue. He was in the process of trying to convince me that it would be fine. We were still on for a 5kph average and had “17 hours to do the last 45k.” One of the organizers came over offering sweet tea. He also put me out of my misery informing us that the rest of the race was cancelled and that we had officially “finished.” That explained why there were so many people there. Some eating, others wrapped in blankets, some staring into space…

The organization did a great job of picking up those ahead of us from various points along the way back to Millau. Each team had a GPS tracker so at least they knew where to look (although I’m not sure that all were fully functional with the storm). Eventually a means of transport was found for us all and we had a rather hairy drive back across the Causse in sleet although I was only half awake most of the time. But all of us zombies awoke abruptly when the driver hit the second speed bump in La Roque at 50kph!

Le Migoual 2017

Freezing on the top!

The first ever Migoual Concept race took place on the 13-14th May 2017. A simple “concept:” start from Millau, south Aveyron, France where Norman Foster’s spectacular viaduct spans the Tarn, run along the GR62 marked trail to the top of Mont Aigoual in the Cevennes and return to Millau along the same route. Total distance out and back of 130km. To allow the race to take place with a minimalist organization, all were in teams of two or three, running on a buddy system meaning that hopefully, nobody would get lost – or at least if they did, they would have company. The Migoual event is an addition to the established ‘Verticausse’ weekend which includes races of various lengths and dénivellé (vertical ascent). The main eponymous run, favored by the elite runners, is a marathon length trail run with over 2000m of ascent which the elite finish in around four hours.

I have run a few long distance runs before, these have all been on or around the 80km limit between ‘trail’ and ‘ultra.’ I was not too concerned myself about the extra 40 k but my family was. My daughter in particular advised against. She was somewhat mollified by my promise not to ‘overdo it.’ This was easily made since I never overdo my sporty events, always run or bike in my comfort zone and can’t imagine how Paula Radcliffe does it with all the grimacing.

The race started at a very civilized 10am with a briefing at the Café du Golf. We were provided with maps of the run and one member of each team carried a GPS beacon so that the organisers, family and friends could follow us along the route. After a couple of great free expressos, all part of the deal, along with big chunks of sugary fouace, a local specialty, an orange flower water flavored brioche and excellent fuel for trailers. Speaking of which, Anglophone runners in France might like to know that the word ‘trail’ is in general pronounced ‘try’ in French. This can be an embarrassment when you engage with someone using the English pronunciation.

We set off of under cloudy skies with a forecast of showers and even thunderstorms neither of which fortunately materialized. Millau, an old Roman town, is deep down in the valley of the Tarn and there is only one way to go… up. For us this meant a stiff climb onto the Causse Noir limestone plateau. As we plodded on, a few breaks in the clouds suggested that the earlier forecast was a bit off. Later in the day, the skies cleared pretty much completely and on the top, it really became a perfect day for a trot across the mountain.

There were no sprinters in our midst but as we progressed at a steady walking pace up the road at first and then onto the trails, me and my buddy slipped gently back down the field until we were installed with the stragglers. This was no problem. The time limit for the 130 k was a generous-seeming 28 hours.

There is one thing I need to explain though; my running partner suffers from a curious malady. Like other sports people as I understand, he is fine doing pretty well any distance as a training run, but on the big day, if it is an actual event, he gets nauseous and throws up. First chunder session came after five or six kilometers. Other race participants expressed concern but I explained that this was ‘normal.’ The distraction meant that we lost contact with the rest of the field and also, our way. When I checked my GPS, we were a good 500m too far along the main path. A short back track and we came across a huge cairn and a copiously signed path off to the side. How could we have missed it? Incidentally the GPS (a Garmin 64 with the IGN’s digital 1:25,000 scale topo maps) was a great, almost essential companion. Following the GR with a map during daylight is OK but at night, pretty well impossible. Around KM 1O we came across a couple with the same GPS who were puzzling over the apparent difference between the downloaded route and the path. Seemed like we were both on the same trail and there was no alternative so we ploughed on. The couple were Rumanians, he a member of the French Foreign Legion, she, his girlfriend, a tattooist. I wondered aloud what work there was for a tattooist in La Cavalerie, now home to the 13e demi-brigade of la Légion. She pointed out that the Légionnaires were a big captive market. She by the way had never run a race in her life and was just doing it because she figured that she could!

The minimalist organization offered several unattended water points but only one food and rest station, strategically placed at KM 44 so that it divvied up the run into three equal parts. My buddy was of the opinion, probably influenced by his malady, that you needed to get in and out of the station asap, I was not so sure. While he operates on a low to no calorie intake, I, over the years, have taken to eating more and more? In the event we ended up taking a short break when he produced a couple of egg sandwiches. I scoffed mine in a couple of seconds. He put him in his backpack for later – I suspect he didn’t touch it.

Apart from not taking a decent break at the rest point, our other error was to underestimate quite how cold the night was going to be. The forecasts being for cloudy weather had it that the nighttime temperature was not going to fall too much. But of course, the sunny day that had emerged by then foretold a chilly night on the mountain. We left with far too lightweight jackets packed. Anyhow we were still feeling pretty hot with the steady climb.

Feeling good after the rest we attacked the mountain part of the race. Really a very steady 20km climb. As night fell we me the leaders coming back, rather later than I expected. I believe that the elite runners probably eschewed the ‘concept race,’ maybe waiting till it got a bit more famous. The leaders were not too talkative – a ‘salut’ ‘bon courage’ at the most. But as we went down the field folks got more and more chatty – unfortunately they all had the same preoccupation – our attire. As we would find out shortly, it was very cold on top – 5°C with a 40kph wind. We were still in shorts and singlet – The ‘attention, il fait tres froid la haut’ while we were both comfortably warm with the steady effort was getting quite irritating. I figured that we would put the little extra clothing we did have when we felt cold! We held our own until the top – a bare mountain situation with a good kilometer to run where we were really exposed. I gave short shrift to the last couple who harangued us to dress up ‘OK, OK! That’s the 15th time!’ But we complied, putting on our thin shells which really didn’t make much difference.

We hit the top of le Mont Aigoual at midnight, greeted by a couple of benevoles who shepherded us up the metal spiral staircase to the viewpoint. It was a clear night – you could see lights in the distance, but I was too cold to take much notice. We had been promised a ‘surprise’ on the top. Turned out to be beer (neither of us drink) and a packet of goodies – including some small sausisson sec, a packet of Haribos and some shrink-wrapped madeleines. Probably the best thing was the plastic bag these came in that served me as an improvised glove, swapping from one hand to the other as the night got colder and colder.

On the way down, even out of the wind, I was still around 5°. The result was that we ran (relatively) fast to keep warm. Running fast is not a good thing to do on a 130km trail run. As our supporters who were tracking us online throughout the night (concerns for our mental health had turned into concerns for our wellbeing) told us later we moved up from pretty much last 23rd to 18th and we zipped past other teams. We also benefitted from my GPS while others, trying to follow the trails in the dark, just got lost.

Another stop at the Lanuéjols watering hole – a different atmosphere altogether – some sleeping, some walking wounded. I ate some more. We both faffed around wondering what to wear next. It was still cold but it would soon be daylight. I stuck with my lightweight kit. My buddy put on his anorak. The next 10 k or so went OK although I was pretty cold and think that a degree of hypothermia was affecting my judgement. I read after the race that while your body can assimilate calories from fat, your brain needs sugar. I think – or rather I justified post facto that this was the start of my downfall. A vicious circle whereby you a) are fed up with SIS/GU type stuff… b) your brain suffers and c) you decide not to bother … and so on.

I like to think that if I had kept on piling in the calories, I would not have, quite suddenly, around KM 100, started to be pissed off with my companion who was trotting down the hill I great form while I began to struggle. We lost a lot of time and by KM 110, I was pooped. Also, KM 110 was a very strategic, closest point to our holiday home where the family, a shower and hot meal awaited. I decided to bail out. My buddy completed the course with the Rumanians. All ended pretty well really. The furthest I had ever run before was 80k over a much easier course. So 110 was pretty respectable. And I find that ultras are a lot about knowing the course and oneself. A mental note for next year: more calories in, better clothing, no sprinting.

One curious fascinating fact, seemingly well known to ultra runners, bloated hands! Spending a long time with arms dangling down as you shuffle along means that blood pools in your hands. It can make taking off your outer shell rather tricky!

Next one is on the 12th of May. Generously, the organisers have given us an extra three hours to complete the distance. I expect we will need them. More on

First outing with the Panono 4 Pi steradian camera

Trying out my new Panono camera – pretending to run uphill!

The Panono is a little football-shaped camera on a stick. It contains 32 cameras that all fire at once to produce what the manufacturers describe as a 360° x 360° picture. Put the above image into full screen and drag it around and you will get the picture as it were. Note that it really takes a single shot of all the surroundings, around, above and below and therefore to my mind its pictures are better described as covering 4 pi steradians.

Raid Nocturne du Larzac

Raid Nocturne du Larzac

Ma femme m’avait demandé « quel est l’intérêt d’un trail nocturne? » J’avoue que je n’avais pas de réponse. Mais, au passage par La Cavalerie, jadis citadelle des Templiers qui accueil depuis peu la Légion étrangère, j’ai aperçu des traileurs et Vététistes s’engager avec enthousiasme en dépit d’une météo affreuse. Et je me dis que c’est un truc de fou et donc qu’il faut y aller.

La manifestation est double, pour coureurs et vététistes. J’hésitais un moment entre les deux options et je demandais conseil des organisateurs. Surtout pour le degré de « technicité » du parcours VTT, domaine où je n’ai pas une très grande expérience et où j’ai eu des mauvaises surprises dans le passé. On ma répondu que non, le parcours n’était pas particulièrement technique, mais au regard de ma réaction, on est convenu que la descente du Larzac à St. Eulalie la nuit, sous las pluie, n’était pas sans doute le bon occasion de découvrir ses réelles capacités de descendeur. Donc j’ai opté pour le trail, à pied, de 40km.

Avant le départ on s’est réchauffé un peu dans la salle des fêtes où on a pu écouter les consignes. On nous a indiqué une température de 2° sur le Larzac, mais je crois qu’il en faisait 2 ou 3 de plus pendant la course. Mais il est vrais que l’après midi on a vue quelques flocons de neige fondue. Le speaker a beaucoup parlé, ainsi que les différents personnages, adjoint au maire etc. Mais sans doute par inattention, je n’ai bien saisi le déroulement des évènements. Il y’avait des distances variant de 12 à 40 km et cela pour les traileurs et vététistes. Une fois sortie, rebelote, beaucoup de discours, mais j’ai échoué à capter l’essentiel (ça m’arrive) si ce n’est que j’avais l’impression que nous partions les derniers. Donc après des vagues successives de vététistes et traileurs, je me trouve en compagnie d’un autre mec avec un dossard portant le numéro après le mien. On se dit qu’on est pour le 40km… c’est bon… Sauf que non. On s’est rendu compte que devant nous il y’avait foule de … marcheurs ! Point de coureurs. On avait raté le départ. Donc nous bousculons les marcheurs pour arriver sur la ligne de départ où on nous confirme que tous les autres sont partis depuis un moment.

Alors en route. Mon compagnon part comme un bolide et moi, je me lance à une vitesse suffisante pour ne pas être rattrapé par les marcheurs. Je suis seul à affronter les éléments. Pour être honnête, ca aurait pu être pire. Il pleuviotait par moments et des fois, un vent horizontale s’est rejoint à la fête. Mais après quelques kms j’ai même pu enlever mon imper (que j’ai remis pour du bon peu de temps après). La traversée du Larzac jusqu’à sa bordure se passait convenablement. Tout sur des chemins « carrossables » plus ou moins, sans aucune difficulté et sans commune mesure avec ce que connaissent les coureurs de la Grande Course des Templiers. Je commençais à regretter que je n’aie pas pris mon VTT.

Et puis petit à petit les sentiers se rétrécissent, le buis, les dalles calcaires se manifestent. Et commença la descente vers Sainte Eulalie. Bon là encore, pas de grand difficulté par rapport au Causse noir, pas trop trop cassant. Mais du coup je ne regrettais absolument plus d’avoir laissé le VTT au garage.

Pendant ce temps j’avais tout de même rencontré un autre coureur du 40km avec qui j’ai échangé quelques plaisanteries sur le temps, notre chrono et d’éventuels barrières horaire. Je lui ai un peu devancé dans la descente mais il ma quitté pour du bon dans la remonté de Sait Eulalie vers le Larzac.

Là, la course a pris une autre allure, avec une montée assez raide et par endroits dans une argile gluante que me rendais mes chaussures (des Hoka OneOne*) comme deux ballons de foot. Apres quelques minutes de marche je croise trois jeunes gaillards poussant leurs VTT péniblement dans la gadoue. L’occasion parfaite je me dis de m’informer sur la « technicité » du parcours.

« Alors c’était comment cette descente »

« C’était horrible » (dit avec passion)

Me voilà renseigné.

J’ai laissé les trois à leur œuvre. Il est plus facile pour un vieux marcheur de monter la pente que pour trois jeunes dégoutés poussant des VTT. Ou quelque chose comme cela.

Ensuite, arrivé au plateau je me suis rendu compte que j’avais fais une fausse manip avec mon GPS qui était coupé pendant tout la monté. Ceci avait un peu faussé ma vitesse moyenne qui était en réalité plus près de 7 k/h que de 8. Bof je continue. Un peu plus de pluie, du vent, des bénévoles recroquevillés sous leurs parapluies. On est mieux à courir qu’à bénévoler dans de pareilles conditions. J’avoue que j’en avait un peu marre après 20 bornes et je basculait mentalement entre continuer sur les 40 ou de prendre l’option de raccourcir en finissant sur le 25km. J’étais (je crois) décidé (de justesse) de continuer quand, arrivé à la jonction 25km/40km on m’informe que la course du 40km était stoppé en raison des conditions météo, surtout pour les bénévoles. Il est vrai que ma continuation les aurait imposé 2 heures de plus au froid. Et je n’avait pas du tout de problème moi-même de me rebasculer mentalement sur 25km. Au contraire.

Petit accroc à la fin tout de même. J’avais pas du faire plus d’attention aux consignes des bénévoles à l’arrivé à la Cavalerie qu’au départ. Je m’étais égaré en ville et j’ai du faire un kilomètre ou deux de trop et mon arrivé final était du mauvais coté de l’arche (gonflable) de la victoire. Ce qui a fait rigoler certains. On me demandait si j’avais fais les 40km !

Le lendemain, à la lecture des résultats (je suis bel et bien dernier sur le 25km – pas de surprise) je m’étonné de voir qu’il n’y avait qu’un finsher au 40km, et que c’était mon compagnon retardataire qui a du bien rattraper son retard. Mais où était les autres sur le parcours 40km ?

Un mail aux organisateurs éclairât la situation. Il n’y avait que trois partants sur le 40km. Donc mon échantillon de trois (a qui j’avais posé la question « sur quel parcours vois êtes ? »), a touché par hasard l’ensemble de cette population !

Pour conclure, je ne suis toujours pas vraiment en mesure de donner une réponse à la question de ma femme, donc je serais obligé sans doute de refaire l’expérience l’année prochaine pour plus d’inspiration.

* Les Hoka sont des chaussures assez particulier avec une semelle très épais qui joue super bien le rôle d’amortisseur surtout en descente caillouteux. J’ai une reproche à les faire c’est que puisque le pied bouge pas mal verticalement dans la chaussure (en raison de sa grande amortie) cela me donne un petit frottement aux niveau de la cheville qui fini par se sentir. Mais dans l’ensemble il sont assez remarquables.