Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pounding pavement

The first cumulus clouds of the season, the first sign of instability in the atmosphere, have appeared over the last few days. The first tentative XC flights of the season have been made, and soon the paragliding season will begin in earnest. For the closing moments of the ski season (for me) I'm doing my last ski tours and have increased my running distance during the week before paragliding takes priority every weekend.

I've chosen to focus on four types of workouts, plugged into my MP3 player to give me the right rhythm:

Regular runs are steady runs at a comfortable pace. They're a way of getting the miles in to the legs in a limited time. My music of choice is Annie Mac's Mashup and I aim to run for about 60-70 minutes and cover 15-17km.

Tempo runs start with a good warm-up, 20 minutes at a gentle pace, followed by 30 minutes "comfortable but hard". The goal here is to spend time running close to your lactate threshold, it basically gets you used to running at race pace while tired. This is followed by a 10-15 minute warm-down and the soundtrack is provided by Judge Jules spinning big room club tunes.

Long runs are a reasonable distance run at a slower pace. I try to limit these to 25-30km at about 14km/h. Many runners believe that these, in combination with tempo runs, are the key to preparing for long distance races. However, if you run much further than 30km without consuming food and/or an energy drink you tend to exhaust your body's energy supply and hit the infamous "wall". This is painful, but more seriously it takes a long time to recover afterwards so you compromise the following training sessions. The only music to listen to during long runs is Kutski playing hard dance and hardcore, a "runner's high" is guaranteed.

Recovery runs are shorter runs at a very easy pace. Generally I aim to do 11-13km at an average speed of 12-13km/h. You don't really even break a sweat doing these but they have the beneficial effect of clearing your muscles and are best done the day after a hard run. I tend to do these with my running partner from work, Nicolas Morisset.

Race sponsors Suunto have sponsored four competitors with a Suunto T6C watch and a customised training programme. You can follow their training on the Suunto at X-Alps blog.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great snow, great touring, zero visibility

It's snowed a lot and I've been out to play. On Saturday I headed in to the mountains with the Amis Montagnards mountain sports club to tour up to the summit of the Roc de Tavaneuse (2156m) above Abondance in the Chablais region. Conditions were challenging with piles of fresh snow and flat light, but our Chefs de Course, Mark Schaerrer and Patrice Rouiller, led us expertly on a brilliant tour with three amazing ascents and descents totalling 1700m of height gain, cumulating with the spectacular NW couloir of the Point d'Ardens (1959m). I'll let Mark's excellent series of photos tell the story, here (click on "diaporama" to see them full screen).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Matterhorn turnpoint

The most iconic mountain in the Alps, the 4478m Matterhorn is part of the huge Monte Rosa massif which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. The only way from one side of the massif to the other is by foot or by air, there are no bridges or tunnels for the supporter's car. Driving from one side to the other takes several hours: Cervina (Italy) to Zermatt (Switzerland) - only 13km apart as the crow flies - are 232km and 3.5 hours distant by road via the Grand St Bernard pass. This turnpoint will likely be the most challenging of the 2009 Red Bull X-Alps, both physically and logistically. It could make or break several athletes in the race.

Back in Decemeber I visited Zermatt to chat to the local pilots about the flying options on the north side, two weekends ago I visited Gressoney-la-Trinite (Italy) during a freeride ski weekend to check out the southern options. The photo, taken by S├ębastien Jossi, shows me looking over the Val de Gressoney from the Rothorn pass. The summit below the sun is the Testa Grigia (3315m) on the ridge between Gressoney-la-Trinite and St Jacques.

The obvious route from the Marmolada takes us in an almost straight line to Domodossola in Northern Italy and then onwards west to Macugnaga. But here the obvious route abruptly ends. On a direct line to the Matterhorn lies the Dufourspitze, at 4633m the highest mountain in Switzerland. Its imposing 2700m vertical East face, one of the very largest faces in the Alps blocks our way. Few options present themselves, none of them good.

Heading just north of the summit, the lowest pass to Zermatt is at 3400m. High mountain glaciated terrain, and the far side is flat enough that if you were to fly from the col it's unclear if you would out-glide the huge Gorner glacier (shown in the photo on the right taken by Zacharie Grossen) to reach a safe landing in Zermatt (1600m). Assuming you do make it to Zermatt, then you find yourself trapped by 4000m summits in all directions and it's another 1800m vertical ascent through inhospitable glaciated terrain to a col to regain the south face of the Monte Rosa massif. Those without mountaineering experience need not apply.

The terrain to the south could hardly be less favourable to X-Alps competitors. A series of 3000m ridges run north-south with deep valleys in between. The cols are high and the valleys are low: to get from Macugnaga to Cervina involves four successive ascents of 1500m, 1600m, 1000m and 1200m respectively -- that's over 5000m of vertical just to make about 25km of forward progress. Walkers following the classic Tour of Monte Rosa will take four days to do this, we'll want to do it in much less. Logistically it's a nightmare: the supporter has a multihour drive between each trailhead at the top of each valley.

Other possibilities include walking round the south side of the massif (about 200km from Domodossola to Cervina) or making an early radical route choice and crossing into the Swiss Vallais and approaching the Matterhorn from the north, a very long way round and risking disqualification if you infringe the Sion or Zermatt airspace.

So much will depend on the weather here and the final position and radius of the turnpoint (the race organisation haven't defined it yet). If flying conditions are good it's possible that we'll be able to fly from Domodossola to the Matterhorn in one day (it's only about 50km by air) but cloudbase will have to be very high for us to surf the south face of the Monte Rosa and safely pass the numerous cols at 2800m. The only flights in XContest's amazing Skyways map are top-to-bottoms from the summit of the Breithorn (4164m). If conditions are mediocre then maybe we'll be able to skip some of the ascent by flying from the cols and landing halfway up the slope on the far side. Should the weather be bad enough to keep everyone grounded then it's not inconceivable that the more-flying-less-walking competitors, having flown much of the way from the Marmolada, will be slowed by the steep terrain, giving the runners an opportunity to catch up and possibly overtake.

Of course, getting to the Matterhorn in the heart of the Monte Rosa massif is only half way: you then have to find a way out...