Monday, October 22, 2012

Le Vertical KM de Fully

A race like no other. It's hard to know where to start describing this one.
Perhaps with the numbers: 1000m of climb in 1920m total distance. Average gradient of over 50%. Almost 600 starters.
Or maybe with a picture:
See that straight line up the middle? That's the race route.
But the truth is that numbers and pictures do little to convey just how steep this course is, just how much it looms over you, just how intimidating it is. The course follows an old railway line used for carrying the grape harvest down the hill from the vineyards on the south facing slope. As such, apart from one bend a third of the way up the hill, it is completely straight. This means no switchback bends or well designed hiking path here, just a bullet straight line perpendicular to the contours and no place to hide or recover.

Let's make this clear from the start: I'm pretty bad at climbing the steep stuff. I'm a hill-runner not a hill-power-strider or hill-walker. If I can run all the way I will and I'll probably do ok, limited only by my shape on any given day. But when the gradient gets above 30% I'm reduced to a plod, one step at a time onwards and upwards. And while some hill "runners" are also very good hill walkers and have little difference in pace while walking or running, I may as well put my reversing lights on and start making beeping noises as that's what happens to my race position on the steel stuff: backwards through the field.

Somehow I'd managed to convince myself it was going to be different in this race. I've done some specific steep reps in training recently, searching out the longest steepest climbs near Edinburgh to scale multiple times and working on powerwalking technique. The nature of this course, with the railway sleepers forming steps and no rough terrain to get in the way would surely help too. Because of the narrow nature of the course the Fully VK is run as a time trial so I'd both be able to run my own pace and try and chase down the guys starting in front of me.

Sadly in the event it didn't turn out so well. There are laws that have to be obeyed and gravity is one of them. The course was relentless. The sleepers did make useful steps but every five or so there was a big cable guide wheel in the middle of the track which required a detour to the side. The first couple of hundred metres climb were not too bad, at a gradient of 30-40% and with fresh legs I was able to tap out a nice rhythm and run all the way. At 400m though the railway goes through a tunnel and in the eery darkness it is impossible to see where to put your feet. Walking was the only sensible option here but once you stop running it's hard to start again.
From there on it gets a bit blurry. A succession of runners came past, all skipoles and lycra. I tried in vain to stick with them. At times I managed a jog but soon the gradient would increase. At first this meant hands pushing on quads but in the worst sections it was so steep that you could just reach forwards and touch the railway line. Climbing hand over hand like that was more akin to climbing a ladder than any mountain path I've ever been on!
Like a 10km race has markers every km this race had markers after every 100m of ascent. I took a split at each one of these which means I can now work out the gradient for each 10th of the course. The steepest was 800-900m, which was covered in just 131m. A quick bit of trigonometry tells me that means an angle of 50° to the horizontal, or put another way: 1.15m up for every 1m along!
Eventually it was over. That's about all I can say. It took me 38:58 which at the start of the day would have been 10s outside the women's world record however four girls smashed the old record in this race which was pretty humbling for me! The men's record was also beaten by the impressive Urban Zemmer in an astonishing 30:26. I just can't comprehend that sort of speed. It seems even further away from me than the speed of Bekele's world record for 5000m and 10000m. At least with those I could hope to hang on for a couple of laps, I fear against Sen├Ár Zemmer I would be left from the gun! Still, if you ignore your weaknesses they will never improve so I hope to gain from this experience, however humbling it was at the time. I know one thing is for sure: steep has a new definition in my mind!

50m from the finish. Photo thanks to @tessahill.
Results (pdf)

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