An Aussie in Europe – Chasing Vertical K Part Two

If you checked in yesterday, you’ll have read part one of James Stewart’s account of his race up the Red Bull V3, a 3,000m ascent of Mt Rocciamelone – one of the craziest races going, with gradient of nearly 60% in some places. For part two, James elaborates more on this race, as well as giving us some insight into his other races in Europe over the course of his nine weeks there. In part three tomorrow, James tells of just how painful it is to be climbing up 60% gradient…

Making it to the top of Rocciamelone had been my only goal pre-race, I went through the Trucco checkpoint in 59th, Rifugio Ca’ d’Asti checkpoint in 37th and achieved 31st place in a time of 2:42:57. Now one Australian sits in the finishers club, and as I promised the race organiser, more will come.

It was the hardest race I’ve ever done. I had never ran a sustained climb at high intensity for almost three hours, but I survived. Several months earlier, I had completed the Buffalo Stampede SkyMarathon in Bright, Victoria. This race is 42km with 2,900m of ascent. Many Australians know the difficulty of this race, yet the K3 climbs more in a quarter of the distance.

I was satisfied and only 6 minutes short of a top 20 finish. Despite pulling back 28 places after Trucco, I was unable to reel in a line of runners just ahead of me, and at high altitude in the final throes, I was pushing beyond my physiological limit trying to do so. My head throbbed.

“How the hell am I going to get down?” I briefly thought to myself as I picked myself off the rocks.

Maybe this is why Red Bull sponsors this race; a stimulant is perhaps the only way to convince the body to accept more abuse on the impending descent. At least we didn’t have to go all the way back down; shuttles were organized to take us from the highest car park on the mountain 5km and 1,400m of descent away.

The K3 podium
The K3 podium

Water felt like the nectar of the gods, and I could feel life returning to my body. I ignored thinking about moving down the mountain, taking in the spectacular views of my shoes as I sat hunched over.

“I think I’m alright, that was epic,” I told my new water bearing English speaking euro friends.

On this acknowledgment, they moved on tending to the others arriving behind me. I stayed for over half an hour on the summit; I don’t recall much of that time, probably due to my body overdosing me on pain-killing endorphins that readied my body with adrenaline to comfortably tackle the descent. I barely remember the views. I don’t remember the faces of the people who assisted me, but I thank them.

40 minutes before my arrival, young Swiss runner Remi Bonnet shattered the previous race record 2:06:30, finishing in 2:01:57. Bonnet is 20 years old and so slight of frame—all of probably 50kgs—it’s hard to imagine how his petite legs carry him up the mountain so fast and with such strength. His lightness is his biggest weapon, and as a recent junior world champion of ski mountaineering, if anyone is one day threatening to take over Kilian Jornet’s mantle, it might be this guy. He established himself in Skyrunning throughout 2015, placing high in vertical KM races and after a long season he decimated the field at the Limone Skyrace in October.

On the start line, I unknowingly slotted behind the eventual podium trio of Moletto, Teixido, and Bonnet. Moletto is a La Sportiva vertical KM specialist and the previous winner of the first edition of the K3, Teixido is the Andorran vertical KM champion. Both are equally slight of frame, a little more Chris Froome-esque due to their greater height. Teixido finished 9 minutes back from Bonnet in 2nd; Moletto was 11 minutes in 3rd. Karl Egloff, the man breaking some of Kilian Jornet’s climbing records, arrived for this first big European race finishing in 5th, 18 minutes back, and 22 minutes ahead of me.

As I stood behind them on the start line, I admired these thin and lean guys, vascularized like thoroughbred horses. I was happy with my decision not to drop weight to their extremes. At 64kg, I am considered slight of build in the general societal standards, but in the world of steep vertical KM racing, I am still too heavy.

Amazingly, for a course that average 30% gradient, there are 'runnable' sections
Amazingly, for a course that average 30% gradient, there are ‘runnable’ sections

Already I was at a weight disadvantage, and this was my 9th race in 8 weeks. To save money, I had been sleeping in my car for most of the previous month. I was depleted and my racing season had been in steady decline, never reaching the heights I had benchmarked during training before arriving in Europe.

My motivation to race was dwindling, but the prospect of this final K3 experience got me to the start line for this last race. I had just run the TPS Vertical K2, a double vertical KM race the weekend before and taken the entire week off of any activity in the hope my aching muscles might recover enough to survive the strict cutoff at the K3. Winning, podium or even top 10 or 20 was out of the question; I just wanted to finish.

Even from my first race in Catalonian Pyrenees, the Milla Vertical d’Areu on June 13, my body had begun rebelling against me, but not unexpectedly. I left Australia in April, embarking on a long series of adventures in California, Colorado, and Vancouver in the weeks prior. I spent the first month living in Sacramento, my home away from home. I had run in Boulder and Evergreen, Colorado. No doubt to my coach’s horror, I ran four US national parks in four days (Canyonlands, Arches, Colorado Monument and Black Canyon) in the last week of May. I camped out in the Rockies, running snowed in trails on Mt Elbert and Hopes Pass in Leadville. Some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen.

My two favourite vertical running experiences were running the Manitou Incline at Colorado Springs (1.3km, 580m ascent), and the Grouse Grind in Vancouver (2.3km, 785m ascent). These iconic climbs attract hundreds of people on a daily basis and are well worth doing if you ever find your way to these places. I powered up both of these inclines inside the top 10 on Strava for both climbs, faster than I had ever climbed before. I was confident of my form and was managing my fatigue, but in hindsight I would have been better served with an easier lead-in. My motto is life is about experience, so I have no regrets.

My European season began arriving in Catalonia, Spain four days before my first race on June 13. The race at Areu is a Vertical Mile race, 1,600m of ascent, in 3.8km. The race is low key, put on by the small group of locals who live in this otherwise desolate ancient Catalonian medieval village. The village still looks the same as it probably did centuries ago and the race is removed from any sign of commercialism. I quickly found myself beginning to understand the deeper history and love for mountain running embraced by this part of the world.

milla vertical areu

I found out about the race from my coach Travis Macy, an Evergreen, Colorado-based ultra and adventure racing Hoka One One pro, who had snagged a 2nd place behind Ferran Teixido a year earlier. I had chosen Macy to coach me simply because he had devoured my then Strava course record on the Chamonix vertical KM course, running a mere 2 minutes slower than Kilian Jornet for a 6th place finish in 2014. Vertical KM racing is not his main focus, 100-milers are, making his effort even more incredible. He seemed like a cool guy to know who had proven his ability in this format. After a quick message of inquiry, he was keen to get involved with my journey.

When I arrived for the race, the locals were so amazed a runner from Australia had come, or even known of their race. I found them to be truly humble and generous people. What I learned at this race was Catalonia has academies for teenage mountain runners, and these up and coming Kilian Jornet’s were lining up for the race. The race was a proverbial rite of passage for these young athletes, for the first time I was feeling my age of 36 on the start line.

The Milla Vertical begins in the early evening (6.45pm) because its heritage is paved in history as a race to beat the setting of the Sun. Their website reads:

The initial test has its origin in the book “The Age of stones” of the writer Pep Coll, which resurrects the legend of “the man who ran faster than the sun”; located in the village of Malpui, it could well be the current Àreu. Legend has it that, “the eve of the festival village, became a foot race between bachelors population. It gave access to the town square just beginning sunset, and was reaching the top of the mountain was just in front and to the east of the town before sunset above the top. The prize was the right choice for the maiden dance festival. “

I cannot think of many better ways to determine the stamina of eligible bachelors. Perhaps this is a tradition worth reinstating; The Bachelor take note! On the mountain, there is no hiding, only humbled egos. To summit requires courage, endurance and stamina both in physical and mental capabilities. Those runners prove themselves as true Catalonian warriors.

The race started from the middle of this small town, a mass start traversing a narrow street before a brief flat section running through the local crowds before it opens up onto the goat track up the mountain. A massive Catalonia flag draped over part of the slope and smaller Catalonia flags line the route as course markers. These people are proud of who they are, and the mountains are an integral part of their sense of identity.

Everyone used poles—including me—and the mass start felt like being consumed inside a washing machine of Spanish testosterone, this was the mountain running equivalent of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. I was aggressive, but not enough to match the young Catalonian tyros. Quickly I was swallowed and consumed, climbing sticks flying everywhere; I tried to avoid tripping, losing an eye all while running 3 minute/km pace. The race left town to the applause of the local crowd lining the route toward the narrow track ascending the Pyrenees mountain Monteixo (2,905m).

As we began climbing, I felt comfortable but my legs were not offering top end power. I was thankful to maintain a constant intensity, but the final throes to the summit were an ordeal. I was happy to hold off a few young Catalonian tyros, finishing in 8th position in a time of 1:13:15. Andorran Ferran Teixido again won the race powering up to win in 1:02:31.

As I summited, a storm battered the mountain and only 32 runners were allowed to go to the summit. The rest were turned back. The descent back to Areu was on the same path, it was steep, and heavy rain had turned it into mud. The steepness made for a challenging descent, so challenging I fell on my backside numerously and made it down in almost the same time it took me to ascend the mountain. Thankfully arriving just as darkness set across the valley. After a warm shower, I ate with the locals and other ‘racegoers’ during the typical Catalonian dinnertime of 10 pm. I sat and watched the stream of headlamps trickling down the mountain throughout the night as the slower people returned, happy I was no longer one of them. I told stories of my adventures; the locals told me stories of their history. It was surreal. I now knew I could finish a vertical mile, but could I survive almost double that?

A week after Areu, I powered up the Verticale du Criou in Samoens France, a near vertical mile of 3.5km and 1,450m ascent. After battling the use of poles in Areu, I had decided to forgo them in this race. Feeling over my jet lag, I raced to my potential, gaining my first European Podium, a 2nd place in 1:00:43. The good result in this race also fated my decision to forgo poles in the Red Bull K3, a decision I would later regret.

Fast forward to late July, I had raced in Mont Blanc, Val D’Isere, the Dolomites in Italy and had cycled around watching the final mountain stages of the Tour de France. Two weeks out from the K3, I had cycled the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Glandon in a single ride of 118km with 3,350 meters of ascent. This had tested my legs for the elevation I would soon race; I felt confident I could achieve it and hopeful I would recover.

A week out from the K3 I ran the TPS Vertical K2, a brand new race starting at Villaroger in the Isere valley of France. In a perfect world, I would have skipped this race to be fresh for the K3, but I decided to use it as a lower intensity training run and trial a target heart rate (HR) range to use in the K3.

I had been experimenting with heart rate (HR) pacing throughout the racing season, a tactic I used to great success in the Mont Blanc Marathon where I had surprised myself to finish in 21st. I do not run marathon distances very often, in fact, this was only my fourth one and I had no longer runs in my legs, but it was probably my best result in Europe after everything was done and dusted. The Mont Blanc Marathon features a very fast start gradually climbing up the Chamonix valley before the first big climb starts 16km in. I had decided to hold a HR of 163bpm for most of the race (88-90% of my max HR). It was difficult mentally to hold back and watch people pass early in the race, but as the race unfolded I consistently passed them all again as they tired. As my own leg fatigue set in later in the race, I was still taking places, and overtaken only twice. One of them was by two-time UTMB winner Xavier Thévenard, presumably using the race as a training run as he effortlessly breezed past me on the climb to Flegere with 6km to go.

I choose to go no higher than 168bpm for the K2, which left me way back in the field after the first 1,000m took 48 minutes to complete. However, I felt strong as we made our way to higher altitude and I quickly reeled in 20 places to finish in 18th place in 1:45:13. The race turned out to be the most technical vertical race I’ve ever completed as we ascended a high alpine glacier, without spikes. As we cut across the icy glacier, to prevent us sliding down to our death, the organisers had unraveled a fabric mat in parts and constructed a fragile plastic fence – see here. It unnerved me, but it was a neat experience. After the glacier, we were met with snow slopes and even steeper slopes of loose scree. It was the first race where I felt it was unsafe to return the way we came. Thankfully there was a cable car off the summit down to the town of Les Arcs on the other side of the mountain, with a comfortable 8km jog back to the start.

Join us for the final part tomorrow in James’ adventures in Europe.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “An Aussie in Europe – Chasing Vertical K Part Two

  1. I am *LOVING* this mini-series of articles!

    Not that I’ll ever be near as quick as James, but; now to find some local climbs that are steep enough to realistically practise.

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