Americans do many memorable things when they visit France — eat, drink, gawk — but Mr. P and I were the only Americans who participated in this year’s La 6000 D, an ultramarathon that goes through the mountain village where we ski. It is a classic mountain race in France that has been around for nearly 25 years, and Mr. P has been threatening to register for the past couple of years. I always humored him, figuring he would never go through with it… but he floated the idea enough that people began asking him when? When are you going to do La 6000D? And then, suddenly at Christmas during our ski trip in France, it became “This Year. This July.”
And if we were going all the way to France for the race, what was I going to do? Stand there and hold my husband’s bag?
So La 6000D is 60 KM (36 miles) and 11000 ft of elevation gain, with a 12 hour time limit. By comparison, the North Face Endurance Challenge marathon that I did in May was 26 miles and 4222 ft of elevation gain — and that took 6 1/2 hours. My longest training run in June was 22 miles with 7000 ft of elevation gain — and that took 7 hours. You might look at these times and wonder how I could ever hope to finish the rugged La 6000D, but the terrain in the Alps is much faster. By virtue of New England’s low altitude, the trails are under the treeline and thus covered in roots and rocks, so running is a more technical (and thus slower) experience.
The race was on Saturday, and we arrived beforehand in France from a short stay in Ireland late Monday night (near midnight) and promptly crashed in our condo. Little Boy woke me up at 8am the next morning, and I took him to his first trip to the boulangerie to buy baguette for breakfast. The village is decidedly quieter in summer, but there were a few people milling around. In America, I could pick out my fellow La 6000 D participants, but in France, everyone is trim and athletic-looking, even the couch potatoes.
After breakfast, we met up with Mr. P’s family (father, sister’s family including a 15 yo, 5 yo, and 2 yo) and took the chairlift up the mountain.
We were meeting Mr. P’s mother and some friends in the valley for a BBQ picnic lunch. Mr. P and I wore our gears so we could train a little on the terrain where we would be racing and get accustomed to the altitude. We separated from the group (leaving Little Boy, who in the company of his 5 yo cousin scarcely noticed we were gone).
The BBQ lunch was in the valley, next to a small brook that the kids neglected lunch in order to play in. After spending two hours eating and relaxing, everyone headed to the car except Mr. P and I, who headed back up the mountain.
The next three days progressed the same as this: walking and eating, with daily trips to the swimming pool. The weather was perfect. Mr. P’s cousin arrived with her two tweenagers and her ultramarathon husband V, who is the real deal — sponsored by Montrail, a very strong amateur runner. It was hard not to feel intimated looking at his super-skinny build and top-notch gear.
Our big excursion was to the glacier, which was the toughest part of La 6000 D. The whole family took a series of telecabins to the glacier, where in the summer there’s an elaborate manmade ice cave filled with chiseled animals.
After touring the ice cave (which was cold, dark, cramped, and generally an unpleasant experience for Little Boy), we descended the mountain partially for another picnic lunch.
The race was getting closer. On Friday. Mr. P and I drove to Aime to pick-up our numbers and “cadeaux” (gifts — a race-branded athletic towel made from bizarre fabric and a pen.) There was an exhibition that we toured briefly with the typical offerings: shoes, watches, clothes, and of course the pre-race wine/cheese degustation.
It was at the exhibition that I found out only 8% of the entrants were women. Ultimately, 1000 men and 80 women would finish. This quickened my anxiety, and I was all keyed up Friday evening. I slept about 6 hours, woke up at 3:30am (an hour before the alarm) and sat on the floor of the tiny kitchen, eating chocolate and reading The Age of Innocence. When Mr. P woke up (Little Boy was staying at his grandparents), we made coffee, put on our gear, used the bathroom and met my father-in-law downstairs. We drove down to the valley and picked up cousin V. and one of his ultra friends (both of whom would ultimately finish in the top 30).
At Aime, my father-in-law dropped us off near the starting line. We had 25 minutes until the start at 6am, and I promptly got in line for the bathroom to rid myself of the water I had been chugging. (One thing about this race is there isn’t much tree cover, making it trickier for women to relieve themselves along the way.) The French don’t have porta-potties, so the line was long and slow-moving for the two toilets available. I got out roughly 5 minutes before the start and Mr. P and I headed to the starting line. The sun was just beginning to rise, though it was cloudy and, just before the start, rain drops began to fall.
Yes, everyday of our vacation was rain-free except one: the day of the race. Even Ireland was dry and somewhat sunny. The rain dropped off before we started running. The speakers blared inspiring classical music as we took off through the streets of Aime towards the trail. The first 2-3 miles were flat and crowded, and we managed 9:30 minute miles. Then the incline began. It was slight, and the last words I heard Mr. P say before we separated were “I think most of the course is like this. Really gradual.”
Ha. Quickly the climb began. I slowed to a walk (like most people around me) and jogged the easier parts. At around mile 6, the rain began again. Thunder. People were stopping to put on relatively heavy rain jackets; I donned my paper-thin windbreaker, which was promptly soaked. The climb intensified and that’s when I began to think about quitting. I could turn around and trot back to the starting line and find a cafe to hang out at until the race ended. It would be so much easier… except, it wouldn’t. No, I had to continue.
Thoughts of quitting came back at mile 9, when my GPS stopped working, I was thoroughly wet and cold, and I was running in ankle-deep mud. I came to a checkpoint where I could surrender my bib… but I was greeted by an adorable young boy holding a sign that said “Pas du glacier.” Yes, the rumors were true: Due to the storm, the organizers closed the toughest part of the course, probably to prevent hypothermia. That meant 5 fewer kilometers and, more important to me, 2000 feet less elevation gain. Without the glacier, the race just got easier.
My spirits up, I continued. Spectators cheered: “Bravo, madame!” when I passed. I was steadily eating Chomps energy chews, drinking from my hydration pack, and swallowing salt tablets, so I only picked at the food offered on the trail: cheese, ham, raisins. Runners seemed to favor Pepsi over the energy drink, and I was surprised to see sparkling water. Soon after the food, we hit the first significant downhill, and it felt wonderful. The sun came out and my previous thoughts of quitting seemed ridiculous.
And so on I went. And on. My legs began to feel tired around 25-30km, but my progress was steady. The course went through several resort towns, and at around 40km I reached to portion of the trail where I cross-country skied in the winter. It felt great to run on a trail that I knew so intimately. Plus, the rocky terrain was more like the trails that I trained on in New England. I passed a fair number of men on this trail.
I was approaching our mountain village, where I was expecting to see Mr. P’s family and Little Boy cheering me on. This thought made me so incredibly happy, but when I reached the town I didn’t see them. I finally spied my father-in-law, who is an annual volunteer for the race, and through my limited knowledge of French I understood that everyone left after they saw Mr. P. Since it was 1pm, I assumed they went home for lunch. This burned me a little bit, but it turned out that they were following our progress on the internet. At every checkpoint, our bibs were scanned and apparently mine didn’t make it to the internet. They had assumed that I stopped running after the start, so Mr. P’s father was very surprised to see me… especially since Mr. P was only 8 minutes ahead of me.
The last 10km were downhill, but they seemed to last forever. I began walking periodically on the flats. What drove me on was when I passed another women who had passed me previously. Since only 80 women were running, I didn’t want any women to pass me right before the finish. It sounds silly now but at the time it really motivated me. Finally the trail let out on a bike path that led to the finish line. I jogged slowly, saving some energy for the final push. Through the streets of Aime I ran, past some cafes where people sat, drinking and smoking, and finally the finish line appeared. As I approached, suddenly Little Boy and his cousin darted out in front of me. If I was thinking clearly, I would have took their hands and crossed the finish line with them, but my brain was so focused on the finish line that I simply patted there backs and continued.
8 hours, 14 minutes. Wow. If not for “Pas du glacier,” I would have probably finished closer 10 hours and I would have been physically and mentally destroyed. (The next morning over breakfast, I told Mr. P “My second-favorite phrase in French is baguette avec beurre et confiture. My first-favorite phrase is pas du glacier.”)
With the race over, I could finally relax and bask in my accomplishment. My soreness was not as profound as I feared. Out of 81 women, I finished 35… but among American women, I was the first (and only).
The next day, we went for a short walk in the valley to see a waterfall. Of course the weather was perfect.
Mr. P and I also went to the sports complex for massages, courtesy of his parents. We made the aperitif rounds to visit family and friends, all of whom plied us with alcohol and sausage. His sister’s family left for the beach, followed soon by his parents. We had one more night in the mountains and spent some time at the pool.
On Monday, we packed up, cleaned the apartment, and took off in a rental car for Geneva, where we were staying with another cousin before the flight Tuesday morning. On the way, we stopped at some scenic sights and also at the town of Beaufort, where we bought a significant amount of cheese.
Summer vacation was over, but the memories will last forever. So now the question we’re getting from France is… will there be another La 6000D? If you had asked me an hour after the race, I would have said “No way,” but now that a week has passed, it’s more like “Probably not.” Probably not.