Today I returned to Bessans, deep at the end of the Maurienne Valley for a second crack at an cross country ski marathon. Last year conditions were difficult with several centimetres of fresh snow and temperatures the cold side of minus ten. I struggled round in about three and an half hours - slower than my normal running pace, but satisfied to have completed my first cross country ski race.
This year conditions were completely different. After two huge snowfalls before Christmas the weather in the Northern French Alps has been sunny but cold. Until this week when it changed for the worse: SW'ly winds brought warm, humid air and wind and rain to most resorts. Saturday was as warm as a spring day and the snowpack at all levels has suffered catastrophically. There simply isn't much snow, and what there is below 1800m has been rotted by the rain.
But Bessans is special. Deep in the mountains and surrounded by the glaciers of the Vanoise National Park, it is legendarily cold - as I had discovered in 2009. This year it is one of the few cross country ski resorts in the area that still has reasonable snow cover. Conditions today were warm and the pistes were in fantastic condition. Instead of hacking through fresh snow, it was pure glide on perfect pistes - a potentially record day.
The event is a mass start with both the half- and full-marathon skiers starting side by side. In total well over a thousand people were chomping at the bit at the line and when the gun went they launched themselves forward in a mad folly. Skis were trodden on, there were falls and crashes, and and at least one marathoner's race ended early with a broken pole in the first four hundred metres. I saw him unhappily skiing back to the start, staying to the side of the piste to avoid the swarming mass of skiers.
After the excitement of the start, normally the pace cools off a bit and people settle into a more relaxed marathon rhythm. Not this time. The glide was fantastic and people were enjoying it, hungry to break their own personal records. With so many around it was nigh on impossible to overtake and so I settled into a comfortable pace, pacing myself and knowing that I'd still be fresh for the second half.
For the first 15km the course winds left and right, making a wobbly loop through the fields up the valley from the village. Glancing at my GPS, the first 10km takes only 36 minutes, not bad given the crowds. From there, we descend gently and consistently next to the river. It's a good consistent gradient giving a good cruising speed of over 20km/h. I sneak around one group of skiers and squeeze through another, enjoying the descent and keen to make time. After crossing the river down the valley, we make a U-turn and head back towards the village. Here comes the only extended climb of the course, a perfectly wide and steady slope. The snow is good, I change down two gears, and keep my technique for the climb, occasionally changing stride to give alternative sides of my body a rest.
Cresting the top, I grab a warm sugary tea from an aid station without breaking pace. It's a flat run to the village from here, and the half-marathoners break off left for their finish. I'm in the marathon and I have a second lap to do.
With half the number of skiers and everyone slowly spreading out there's suddenly much, much more space. I'm still fresh and I know the terrain from the first lap. I step up my effort and focus on the skier twenty metres in front of me, hauling in him. Once I'm past him I focus on the next one and haul him in too. And then the next one. The glide is good and despite one wobbly moment while wolfing down a carbohydrate gel, my technique is holding together. This is the best part of the race.
With just 10km to go I glance down at my GPS watch - I've been only going 1h50m. With a quick mental calculation I realise that a sub-2h30m time is possible. Not wanting to waste this opportunity I step up my pace. Once again I'm on the cruising downhill section by the river and I push harder, tucking in behind a group of five skiers. I'm skiing into the increasing wind but that means that the wind will be with me for the long climb. Rounding the corner after the river I again gear down, not wanting to blow up three kilometres before the finish. It works. I crest the top for the second and final time, having gained a few more places on the way up.
On the flat I step up the speed again. The skis are still working well and the finish is in sight. I'll be comfortably under 2h30m, but can I gain any more time? Pushing on and counting down 800m... to go. 600m... At 400m I start my sprint - a somewhat wobbly proposition given my "English" technique - and cross the line at full pelt and 2h23m on the clock, over one hour faster than last year! Yes!
Thanks so much to Sylvain Dhonneur for organising a brilliant weekend and waxing my skis to perfection. This was great training and a real confidence boost for my big cross country ski challenge this year: the 76km Transjurassienne Ultramarathon on Sunday, 13th February. Let's hope there's some snow!