Transpyrénéa race report - Stage 2, Merens - Luchon

And now, just because I do appreciate to think and act differently, I start in the wrong direction. I mean: most runners go backwards and back to Merens to get back on GR10. But as I do this, I notice the GPS track offers another possibility, which implies turning left when getting out of the camping site. As I psychologically do not like to move backwards, after less than half a mile I head towards my new, unique direction. I de-zoomed the GPS track and I realize it just goes through a couple switchbacks on a forest road. Then I imagine it joins that good old GR10. And this is where I got it totally wrong... A lady catches me "hey, this is the wrong way !". I insist and claim I know what I'm doing. Such a fool.

Indeed, the GPS track follows a forest road. Then this road becomes a simple trail. A simple trail which is quite different from the GR. It's marked in yellow. I globally feel I'm in the right direction. I have no doubt that "at some point" I'm gonna be back on the GR against. But this "point" is not for now. The yellow marks are as sparse as the white and red marks of the GR. And it's raining. I've put my poncho on. It stinks. A very disgusting smell of plastic. I sweat inside. This is a nightmare. Why on earth need we have this poncho stuff, when I do have an all-comfort Gore-Tex jacket that is way better than this. With an outer bag protection, it would be much more convenient. But the poncho was mandatory, and Gore-Tex + poncho was too heavy so I had to choose, and left the Gore-Tex home. So when it's raining I get no choice: poncho or nothing. I still find my rythm, I manage to clip my road-book to my neck, and fit the GPS in the poncho front pocket, while still having it tied to my back pack. The GPS track is fuzzy and not very precise. It's muddy. I get lost, have fog on my glasses, my feet are getting wet. Now the party is finally on.

After wasting time on wrong tracks, I finally understand the GR is simply on the other side of the river, and the joining of paths is going to occur on the plateau somewhat arround 5 000 feet elevation, a very classical setup. This is cool. Crossing the stream is done on a quite long and worrying series of stones popping just below its surface. At last I'm on the right side! I'm back on the GR. I might have lost an hour or two with my alternative path, but now I'm back on the right track. And then, I miss a turn on the right on go straight to the bottom of the valley instead of climbing. 30 more minutes lost. And I get lost once again leaving the "Refuge du Ruhle", just being a perfect moroon, unable to find an obvious, well-marked trail. That's life.

Rocks, rocks and rocks. They are not rare over here.

Then, after a not-so-safe path on a ridge, we are on a big plateau, this place looks just perfect for cross-country skiing. But this is another story. Fatigue is making its way, and it shows amoung racers. There's a little group in front of me. I fail to join them, I prefer going my own pace. It's cold. I'm going to put more warm clothers and them... what the f*ck! I do not know exactly what happened at BV1, but changing gears, I managed to "get it wrong". My "warm jacket" (mandatory, of course!) is indeed composed of two elements, one thick long sleeves layer, blacked, and marked "UFO". This one is not water proof. But it's really warm and breathable. Now there's a second layer, a little thinner but windproof, marked "Tor des Géants 2014", which can even protect from minor rain. By combining the two, I get something modular and efficient, it protects from cold, wind, and even rain when things are not that bad (for this, the poncho is the final solution). But that thin windproof layer over the "UFO" stuff... I forgot it at BV1. How is this possible? Was is even done on purpose? It's true I acknowledged by bag was quite lighter than before, but I thought it was only because I replaced the tent by the sleeping bag. I'm in trouble, because a t-shirt + the Tor des Géants 2014 goodie + a poncho is the bare-very-bare minimum. I need a 4th layer, and had planned it, and now I'm gonna miss it. For now it's OK as I'm moving fast enough so the machine keeps warm, and it's still daylight.

Here comes CP6 "plateau de Beille", the checkpoint features a very northern-flavored atmosphere, huskies, igloos, and so on. I cross the path of the race director, Cyril Fondeville. He asks me wether everything is fine. I answer that globally, things are going well, but still mention my logistics blunder. Now this is a cool man, he tells me he has spare warm jackets in his van. I do not decline the offer. So this is how I got the chance to have a "La Pastourale" free jacket. I just have to give it back to him at BV2. No problem man. He saved my race, if not my life. Without this jacket, I imagine I would have done things differently, not having it was not a definitive "no go" but having it did make things a lot easier. I'd better watch out next time, and not forget half of my equipment at the aid station. Some day I might get in real trouble.

I eat plenty at CP6, largely using my "food tickets" which I convert into delicious has lasagna. After a small break of half an hour sleep in a tent, I'm back on track. I'm alone but this is very fine for me. Night is coming.

And then, I'm in hell. It's just so crazy. I do not remember exactly how it came, it must have come bits by bits, the situation just got worse and worse. Rain. Fatigue. The GPS track being slightly wrong. I can see the correct path is just nearby. Indeed, the real GR10 path is available on OpenStreetMap. In theory, it should not be that hard to follow it. I imagine during daylight, it's a piece of cake. But now, my glasses are constellated with rain drops, and it's raining cats and dogs, the faintest stream just became something big enough to wet my feet. I regularly step into up to half a foot of water, it's pitch dark, and, to sum it up, this is just an oh-so-shitty situation. I can't tell the difference between water streams and the path itself, both are tracks with stones in them and running water. From time to time I can spot a red and white mark, but this is rather exceptionnal and the norm is following the GR approximatively using the GPS. I make random traversals following theorical directions. I hit thick vegetation, I slip and slide on my back, on my stomach, heavily fall on my poles. I even get scared when I find myself sliding in the mud and wondering when this is going to stop. OK this looks like a not-so-dangerous forest, but in the mountain you're never free from an unexpected rock barrier... I spend hours in this horror context, it has some Barkley feeling. When I finally get out of the forest, I get on faint trails, which must be very easy to follow on daylight, but with the obscurity and fog it requires deep concentration to follow them. I waste 20 minutes trying to find an exit after meeting an empty house which, sadly, looks closed. I learn afterwards that there were people sleeping inside, protected from that cursed rain. You lucky bastards!

Now finally I'm on a a plateau, and near the col du Sacs, I identified some "shelter". I'm exhausted, I need to rest. And then, here's the shelter! I try and open the door. This is closed. Oh, no, there's someone inside, it opens! A voice informs me that it's "full". Full? I give it a curious eye... yeah, it's packed and full. They gently offer me a place to sleep but it's *really* packed. Those are cool guys, but I need to hike my way forward. Sad but equiped with what I'd qualify as "deep motivation", I keep going. This is no gentle night. It's still raining, it's windy. And it's not soon over. Now, while walking, I spot, just on my left, some stone human-made layout, which I consider as a workable shelter. It has GR marks on it. Inside, it's still humid, there's no door, the "ceiling" is less than 3 feet high so it's just impossible to stand up, I can barely fit while sitting on the floor. But it's this or nothing, I get no choice. I need to crawl inside, and decide to spend the rest of the night here.

Worse or best?
Not quite sure this is a good or bad place to sleep in. But I did it anyway.

I get myself ready to sleep in my improvised palace. I decide to pull out my sleeping bag. The ground is wet but everything is wet out there, to be honest. At least there's no running water inside, and I'm protected from the wind. I manage some basic insulation for my lower body by stuffing the sleeping bag inside the poncho. It's not that easy, even lying down is complicated, and getting sitted is a real challenge. At some point I consider I'm ready to sleep, I have the sleeping bag plus the poncho for the lower part, and for the upper part I just have all my clothes on. I'm dead tired, set up my cell phone on "wake up 3 hours later" and just, forget it, let's sleep.

Saturday, July 23rd. 2016 - Day 4

The ring bells. I deny reality. This must be a dream. I'm going to wake and realize this was a nightmare. But no, this is plain real. I need at least 10 minutes to fully acknowledge what is happening. I'm shivering. My legs feel cold. The sleeping bag got all wet. And water is pouring from the "roof". I guess it stopped raining, but the overall humidity did wet all my gear. What a fool I was, to believe this stone mess would protect me from the bad weather... I take care of my left foot. Bandage, strap, wet socks, eat something to gather forces, and get my ass out of that rat hole. I have packed my wet sleeping bag and stick it at the bottom of my bag. What a mess.

And then, getting out of my shelter, I realize, half disappointed, half filled with a cynical joy, that the plain reality is that: the rain did not stop at all. The weather is still awfull, and my shelter was indeed not bad at all. It was probably a good idea to stop there, instead of fighting the rain openly, out in the dark. I keep going and get warm by merely moving. The GR path is not complicated here, as I understand it, we follow somewhat of a round ridge, on a plateau. But again, with the rain and fog, what is normally just so easy becomes tricky. At last daylight is back again. Houray! Now this is gonna be a piece of cake again. A group of trailers joins me. Martine is one of them. We chat and I realize they are those who opened be the door of their shelter. I imagine they had a better night than I did. No surprise. I'm not jealous, the shelter they were in was indeed fully packed, and there was no other choice for me than to hike along.

At the end of the downhill, at last, we cross a few villages. I dream of a bakery, with some just-baked and warm croissants. Now this is only a dream. People crewing for other trailers inform me that there are no shops whatsoever around here. For instance, one saw a lady carrying a nice round piece of bread under here arm. "Hey, could you please tell me where you bought this?". "Sure, I bought it there, but you need to order it the day before...". Oh, great. Even with a car, it's complicated to buy stuff here. So for us pedestrians, you just... forget it.

I go through Lercoul, this place has a special meaning for as a former co-worker does own a house here. This is still sort of a desert. I can also testify that the "saying" that pretends that the hiking times boasted by the various printed guides are "quite optimistic", are quite true. Indeed, on some section announced as "worth 2 hours", even by power-hiking without stopping, it takes me an hour and fifty minutes to reach the goal. OK, I admit we're tired and much slower than on day zero, but still, I fail to believe a casual hiker going for a sunday hike with family and kids would do this in 2 hours only. 2 hours would be for people climbing "naturally" at a 1 200 or 1 500 feet elevation per hour pace, and for whom stones and mud are just the plain norm.

Official building
For some reason, this one means something to me.

I fill my bottles with fresh water at a fontain in Lercoul, it's true they do not have tasty fresh bread and giant cakes here, but they do have clear water, there's no denying it. And once my bottles are filled, I just realize there's a trailer, sitted a few meters away. He's German, and he's about to quit. What for? OK, I'm late compared to my prepared schedule, but the time limit is still a few hours behind, so we do have a good margin left. He explains me something I do not fully understand, but it has something to do with the GPS. I offer him to follow me, my orienteering might not be perfect, but I statistically always manage to find my way out, so after all, I'm not a bad bet. He cuts down the debate by revealing that he's spent 8 hours in the woods above, without finding the right path. Wow. Eight hours. No kidding. Now, I sort of understand. I leave him with his accumulated sadness, telling myself that I'd better watch out and not get lost that way.

And guess what? I get lost! One needs to say that the GR is marked, but it's quite minimalist. For instance, the crosses that usually warn you that "you're on the wrong way!" are typically missing here. So I do miss several times those little tracks that start aside from wide forest roads. For instance, as I approach CP7, Goulier, I walk a complete mile in the wrong direction. Oh, the right path is just 500 feet on my left. Only, both 500 feet left and 500 feet higher. It does make a difference. But I should have known better, I knew I had to pay attention. I mean, this German guy was a significant warning, after all.

Goulier, CP7, is just wonderfull. The weather's now nice and warm. My sleeping bag has been drying up on my back. Everyone is taking care of me, a foot doctor puts some magical cream on my feet, which dries them up within 15 minutes, while I'm pigging out on crackers and peanuts. Then I walk up to the restaurant, where in exchange of a mere food ticket, which as a symbolic "5 euros" mention on it, I have an extraordinary meal, all-included, with salad, meat, carbs, anything I could dream of. I eat and eat and eat. I'm now filled up with calories and have had great exchanges with other racers and crews ass well. Cyril is here again and it looks like he notices and appreciates my being positive. But let's face it, unless you've decided to be in a bad mood, it's not possible not to be enthousiastic here.

This being said, some people are having trouble. It seems to be the case for Martine. I had met her the day before the race eating a pizza & salad. Now her feet are a big concern. The combination of day zero heat + rain on day three + the rocks and mud and hostile profile of the course has taken its toll. She's gonna quit soon, her face shows how hard it can be. But there are realities you can not overcome: giant infected blisters are not something you can ignore safely. This makes me think. On this race, the mere fact of "being able to continue" is a small victory. Finishing within the time limit might prove harder than it seems.

GR10 mark
Taking a picture near this GR10 official mark. Note the way I have my sleeping bag drying on top of my backpack.

Next, the course is quite easy and funny. I take the time to take a picture near that symbolic GR10 monument, it's supposed to represent... well, I don't know exactly what but it seems that the pilgrimage wouldn't be complete without this. The path is then created, digged, articially in the mountain. It's quite nice indeed, with a very aerial view on the valley on our right. Watch your step! I move cautiously. At some point, a lady, crewing her partner, tells me to turn on the right. This is a steep downhill. A few minutes later I realize I'm taking a shortcut. The GPS track would have me keep going on the mountain. What am I gonna do? Is this cheating? I do believe I did not cheat for real, at least, I did not intentionnally try to follow this shortcut, I just listened to a lady which seemed to be friendly minded. I'm too tired and lazy to consider going up again and following the genuine GPS track. I'm planning to tell the race director that I did not do this intentionnally but later I learn that... this was an "allowed variant" so there's no problem at all, I've been worrying for nothing.

I soon have a good opportunity to be 100% honest: I notice that while being on the GR I'm not on the right track which goes to Marc through La Prunardière using the "upper option". So I head back and take the good turn. Without doing this I would have borrowed a much easiest path that was quite flat but not as fun. I hope that once in Marc I can eat something in a bar or restaurant. Wrong guess, I arrive just before 9 pm but everything is closed already, there's simply no way to get something to it. Well, business, in that area, is definitely something rare and special.

Disappointed, I use some public restrooms along the road and, as I go round them to find a water tap I stumble on... Daniel! I know Daniel because he's also a 6 days runner. I'm very happy to have found him, he's very nice, and such a good company is not easily found.

We decide to hike together for a while. And as a start, we get lost. 20 minutes to get out of the village and find the start of the GR. Now this is what happens when you take to city guys and drop them into the country. Mark my words, this is Daniel's first trail race. Ever. We follow a concrete track that goes round the mountain. I feel ill-at-ease, it's pitch dark and we can only guess, but not see, the big, probably dangerous, empty space on our right. And this lasts quite a long time... I'm relieved when, finally, we start climbing towards the Refuge de Bassiès.

In this darkness, I'm tired and move slowly. Daniel tells me that my Barkley training is definitely not OK. Clear enough, I have no energy, my quads are not powerfull enough. I generally am a good climber, my quads being strong thanks to the bike training. Point is, in 2016, I have no cycling event planned, therefore I did not train apart from my daily 7 miles to go to work, and the direct consequence is: no muscles. Daniel is just so fast compared to me. I can barely follow him. I sweat, breath with noise, but the result is not impressive at all. Daniel is nice, he waits for me. He does cycle on a regular basis, and seriously, as he's been interested in racing Ironman triathlons lately. So he knows what pushing on a bike pedal is about, and it's pretty much the same effort as climbing on a mountain trail. After a quite athletic climb, the course flattens itself. But with our road racers abilities, and the unavoidable tiredness, we slow down. We can't move fast. Additionnally, our feet are dry, and we're afraid of wetting them. In the darkness, it's complicated to make the difference between some mere wet soft ground and a real puddle filled with water. So we just waste precious time, and it takes us 2 hours to complete what was supposed to last only 1 hour. Daniel "hey, but this is way more than 1 hour, we should have reached our goal!". Yes Daniel but 1 hour implies "1 hour when moving at a normal pace" and our pace is anything but normal, we're dead slow. He must be quite tired, he who's usually so smart, it's strange he fails to realize that the time it takes to complete a distance depends on your speed. At last, we reach the refuge. We are in the hall, start pulling out our gear, and wonder if there's someone in there. How are we gonna do? I could just sleep here, but is that allowed? Probably not... But we're saved, someone just shows up. It might be 1 am, the guy is very nice, he even cooks us an omelette, I did not expect such a level of comfort! As we enter the dormitory and crawl in our beds, I need a minute to find out how the ladder which should allow me to climb on my bed works. Ah, OK, it has only one vertical stick and steps on both sides. Within that minute, required by my slowed down brain to figure out how to go up, Daniel is already snoring. It does not take me much longer to fall asleep.

Sunday, July 24th. 2016 - Day 5

The next morning, we had initially planned to wake up very early, say 4 or 5 am. The sad truth is we open our eyes only once the sun is up and shining, something like 6:30 am. All the regular hikers are already gone. Yeah right, here we go, we're supposed to be the racers, and everyone is on the trail while we're still in bed. This ends up by us having a large and tasty breakfast, and we get out of this place with large smiles on our faces. It's impossible to be thankfull enough, the people at this Refuge of Bassiès were just so nice with us.

Breakfast in Bassiès
Now this is gonna feel good once inside my body. The food, not the anti-chaffing cream, you nuts!

I leave Daniel behind. We agree on one point: our association is, as far as speed is concerned, a failure. I can't powerwalk fast enough when it goes uphill, and he's bad at downhills. So if we wait for each other, we're just gonna miss the cutoff. So I speed up and try and accelerate on the next downhill. I'm generally speaking not great at doing this, but it happens I have no serious injury and my quads are OK so I stiff move with a reasonnable speed. As far as feet are concerned, my left toe nail is still worrying me, but it's OK as long as I do not hit any stone. If, by mistake, my left foot hits some form of obstacle, then yee-haw I yell and one can tell it hurts badly. No kidding, a nail does not leave its toe without having you being fully aware of it. I pass a canadian girl, with whom I had exchanged a few words in the bus between Argelès and Le Perthus. Her feet are worn out. I can only feel sorry for here, and leave her behind.

Cloud falls
Note the way these clouds are pouring on the right side of the mountain, looks like a real stream.

A few runners take advantage of my bad orienteering, bad downhill technique, and slow uphill speed to catch up. So I'm not alone any more. That's life. Then we get near the Ars waterfalls. And then, I see a fairy. I mean, a real one. She wears a transparent white dress, and she's stretching in the morning light, right in the middle of some white vapor, with, as a background, the waterfalls. You need to believe me. I just saw her, for real, this ain't any form of hallucination! As a proof, I have no picture, but several runners saw the samne thing. Collective hallucinations do not exist, do they?

Ars falls
Of course, without the fairy, it's much less magical. But I mean, the fairy was there. I saw her. I, I did really see her. No, but let me go, I told you I saw... leave me... ahhhh...

I keep going. On the paper, facts seem to state that this is a flat section. It should be fast. In practice, it's a path on the side of the mountain, there are some rocks too, and it's pack with people having a Sunday hike at a slow pace. I can't move fast. At the col d'Escots, I reward myself with two sandwiches in a high-grade restaurant, the kind of restaurant which makes me feel uncomfortable with my current clothing, since I'm basically out in my underwear. I have a quick chat with François, who's having sandwiches too.

GR or black-rated track?
Now this is a dilemna. On one hand, it's clearly marked as "the path". On the other hand, it clearly states "this is rated black, dangerous, dial 112 (the European 911) in case of emergency". What should I do ?

The downhill towards the next CP starts. Looks like this is a ski station, and we're using the ski tracks. Wait, this is a mountain bike trail. Rated black. Forbidden to pedestrians. OK, right, but the GR10 has marks right on it! So I follow them. It's quite steep, and what's more, it's muddy as hell. As a consequence, I fall and scramble on all fours. After a couple falls, I realize there's a gentle path, dry, outside the forest, just a few dozen steps on the right. Only, it's not marked at all. My understanding is that this is the real, practical GR10 and the historical path inside the forest is for (experimented!) bikes only. They should state this more clearly, instead of naturally driving the walkers on the dangerous bike track. Anyway, I finally manage to reach CP9, namely "l'Escolan", not without going through an ultimate just-too-steep section, which is just so... pointless. I mean, why? Why would one build up the path that way straight through the mountain when a few switchbacks, like it's done in 99% of the rest of this part, would make it so much easier. Go figure...

L'Escolan is quite cool as a check-point. I refill everything and get a fair amount of calories back in. There's pretty much anything you need here, including, but not limited too, ice creams. It starts being quite late, I fear I won't be able to reach the next CP before it's time to sleep. I still have noticed a little town, Couflens, not very far, just after the next uphill and downhill. I'm with François, and we chat a bit, I tell him about the next vacation I've planned with my family, a trek in Nepal, for late 2017. Yes, we, as a family, have deciced to reward ourselves with an unforgettable walk near those legendary giant mountains. And guess waht, François is a Népal specialist and lover, he's done the Great Himal Race and other unique events. What he tells me about Nepal in general confirms what I suspected: we're gonna have a hell of a nice time over there! We promise to exchange email adresses and phones, to stay in touch and discuss that point in detail.

Now this is a good surprise: refreshments as a self-service. Give as you take, they had sodas, fruits. Totally super cool.

And then, right in the middle of the downhill, boo, my frontlight stops functionning. Huh? Well, I got a spare one, but it's been quite a surprise to have this one stop working just like this, in a fraction of a second. Hopefully, since there were two of us, François' light did mitigate the problem, I still had his light and was not in complete obscurity. I've heard those USB lights have a tendency to stop working at once when the battery is out. I should check this out. Well actually, since then, I did check: the light is just plain broken. Hopefully I had a third one in my bag which I've been able to collect at the next major aid station (BV2). We finally arrive at Couflens. And we get there quickly, because this uphill and downhill was suprisingly easy. I mean, instead of the usual rocks and mud, we got a gentle path. Strange.

François very kindly offers me to sleep in one of his tents, because he has 3, as he's crewed. One for him, one for his crew, and a spare one. It's a very nice and appreciated proposal but it happens in Couflens I spot an ancient public laundry spot with all the modern comfort. Judge by yourself: it has a place protected from the wind by small stone walls, protected from the cold by some wooden floor and a roof, some restrooms nearby, and even a water tap. What else would you want? I let François go to the camping area and stop here. We're gonna meet again later, no worry... So I setup here and sleep like a baby. 3 hours later, when I wake up, I can see I'm not the only one to appreciate the spot. 3 other guys are lying down here. Only I was the only one to enjoy the wooden floor, they had to sleep on the pavement. I was first.

Monday, July 25th. 2016 - Day 6

Looks like that animal appreciates water, including, but not limited to. my water bottle.

I dress up, and just before I go, I see that paper on the wall, written by people who are against bears coming back in the Pyrénées. This article shows a hiker from Slovenia who (pretendly...) got attacked and injured by a bear. They recommend not to hike at night, for your own safery. I really needed that to feel secure. I've been told bears in the Pyrénées are quite small, much smaller than a grizzly. Since then I've seen a typical local bear in an animal parc in the nearby Val d'Aran. OK, it's probably smaller than a grizzly but, hell, it's still quite a beast.

And so I'm about to hit the road, alone, with my spare headlight only, the main one being broken and stored in my bag. Frankly, I've known better. Anyway, I stink so much that any savage animal, including, but not limited to, a bear, can probably spot me 2 miles away. Additionnally, probably up to 60 people went that way during the past 2 days, so the risk of an encounter, I'm positive, is close to zero.

This uphill is not passionnating. I cross a runner who, caught by fatigue, decided to stop along the road. The GR follows a road, with some shortcuts. I still get an unbelievable reward when reaching the top. A unique, beautiful sunrise in this wild mountain, with rocks and snow in the background. This is really a savage area, and it makes sense bears can live here. The rare villages we cross are small, hikers are rare. This is just lost in the middle of nowhere, and awesome.

Beautiful, period.
Now that was hard. I had to go uphill at night. But the reward is here. Worth anything.

During the downhill, I experience a new form of hallucination. I hear music. It seems to me there's some music around, something like a rave party. Yeah right, in the middle of the mountain, at 9 am, where finding 10 square meters of flat grown is a challenge, there's a group of 200 youngsters partying. Sure. This race is probably more than I can handle.

Oh, a runner is catching up, and passes me. He tought I was a regular hiker. It's true that with my green back pack, my brown hat, way from behind, I might not look like your ordinary traileur. He found I was going quite fast for a hiker. I consider this a positive statement, and appreciate it. I let him pass me, he's too fast.

It's hot. We're at the very bottom of the valley. I use a flat road section to call my spouse Valérie and give news. One thing is worrying me: my shoes. Those Hoka Tor Ultra are very nice. But they have one weak point. They are not strong enough. I mean, after only 200 miles, they look already worn out. I just did one race and part of this Transpyrénéa second stage with them, and I've good reasons to think they are never going to make it to the end. I imagined several solutions. One is to buy a new pair of shoes in Luchon. It's a ski station so there should be a sport shop, with trail shoes, hiking gear, well, it should just be OK. Valérie agrees. She does the right phone calls for me, checks for the existence of the shop, gets its address, etc. Unbelievable, even when she's not physically here, even without officially crewing, she manages to provide valuable and practical help. I'm lucky to be with her.

At lunch time, with a heat I consider as way too much to feel comfortable, I arrive in Aunac. Aunac, CP9, is, once again, a very nice refreshment area, where I'm received like a king, or a prince, choose your option. I spend two food tickets, or rather, one sleep ticket which I convert into food units. Whatever. I'm so hungry! The cook is surprised to see me order two meals. I even order sandwiches, for later use. I wash my socks. And I dip my feet in fresh water while listening some cool, appropriate music by François Morel (you need to be French to get the lyrics, sorry, they are indeed about how cool it feels to have one's feet in cool, salted water). One would swear this is pure vacation time, the context is perfect, the weather matches. It requires deep motivation to get out of this local paradise.

The next section is worrying me. In its first versions of the road book, it was a plain 45-miles-in-a-row until Fos. Hopefully Cyril added a CP at the maison du Valier. On the paper it's marked as "without food". One can still expect to find tents, water, and with some luck, hot coffee. And that's it. OK, I took care to keep significant amounts of food in my bag, I can handle the "no food there" aspect. But given the time, I'm probably gonna be in need of the tents, to sleep and get forces back.

Lost in the green desert
This sector is infested with insects that bite without any form of respect. On the picture, one of the rare human building miles around.

The course starts by a climb in dense, green vegetation, with that ever-shining sun, and those very nasty insects that bite you without respecting you. I mean, one of them even bites me through the sock, while I'm walking! This is plain crazy... At an intermediary pass, I stop for a quick 15 minutes nap. Looks like I'm getting tired. The following section has variants. I'm not really sure which one I chose, but I know I kept following red and white marks, I climbed, went through nice viewpoints, and in the end I was in the right place. Grégory is always around, sometimes in front of me, sometimes behind. We arrive pretty much at the same time at the maison du Valier.

And there, surprise: there's food! Plenty of food, not only snacks. No, they have the whole things, pasta and all. It looks like finally, the people responsible for this aid station managed to drive a truck up here, so the logistics problems are all sorted out. This is... just great. Thanks very much you guys! I chat with the spouse of a runner with whom I talked at the beginning of the race, but is now way ahead. She's crewing him but she's also helping the runners globally, acting as a general-purpose member of the organization team. Impressive. One can easily recognize her with her nice red hair. This aid station, by the way, is run by professionnals. I mean, the tents are organized like a real hotel, they know who is sleeping, where, for how long, and they anticipate the upcoming crowd so we're asked to sleep by pair.

Logically, I sleep with Grégory as we came in together. He wants to make a short night of 4 hours. I want to make a long night of 4 hours. Our points of view differ, but we're made to find an agreement. I think I remember he did not hear his alarm clock but as a security I had mine ringing some minutes later (James Brown, one-two-three-four!) so we wake up more or less at the right time. The greek guy who asked me to wait for me yesterday night, pretending he needed help to find his way into the mountain, has vanished. He probably has found another partner.

Tuesday, July 26th. 2016 - Day 7

I leave alone, by myself. Grégory seems a little slow to boot and start. I climb the mountain, happy. There, I found some quite desert places, where, I think, only those who decide to complete the GR10 dare to venture. There's nothing. Really, nothing. Grass, mountain, that's it, nothing else. From time to time a basic shelter, period. The green desert.

I look at the path, just in front of me. I often cross those big black insects. It seems that sheep excrements do interest them a lot. Do they really feed on them? The funny part is, between two balls of "sheep shit" stuck together, and that animal with its head and abdomen, there's not a big difference, they look pretty much the same. So it's sometimes hard to figure out whether it's eating something or copulating. Now this is strange: your diner and your sexual partner share the same appearance. To be clear, they both look like shit. This is when I'm happy to be a human being. I talked about this just to give some clue to those who wonder "don't you ever get bored when racing those long events?". No, frankly, very rarely. But I'm not totally alone in my head.

Trailer's trap
Now, watch your steps. I repeat, watch your steps.

In a downhill, I see rusted iron towers. They look like old ski resort material. Only as rusted as they are, I feel there's something wrong, no one with a sane brain would use those. Indeed, some of them are... lost in a forest. They have been abandonned for so long that a complete, real forest had time to grow around them... There's even an old iron cable, but still looking strong, more than an inch thick, hanging accross the path, half a foot above ground level. It's marked with red and white paint, but in the dark, with rain, I would not swear I'm 100% sure to avoid it. This is a hikers trap!

Eylie d'en haut
For sale. Please consider some work before using it for real.

At Eylie d'en haut, I have, a "refuge" is noted on my road-book. I don't know why, but seeing those almost-ski-resort stuff, and associating this with "refuge", I imagine some sport station with a restaurant, mountain bikes and kids playing. But no no no, this is not it. At Eylie d'en haut there's just nothing, if the place evocates something, it would be the end of the world, boasting some post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The rusted equipments I've seen before is not about skiing. It's about mining. These are industrial, abandonned installations. Eylie looks like an old Far West town, with dust. Invite Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cliff and you can start recording some interesting western sequence. The "refuge" is closed, it's open only on demand, but now everything is empty, desperate.

Hey, we go a problem with that pipe!

Out of luck, Dominique (I met him on the Ultrathlétic Ardèche, too), who already quit because of an injury, is there waiting for Patrice, and he offers me some food. I gladly accept. This is greatly welcome, he saves my lunch, I try a bunch of new stuff, including dry-frozen meals, something I did not plan to use (too expensive, brother!). And I must admit it's quite tasty. Thanks very much Dominique!

The next uphill makes me think about the working conditions of those miners, when the mines where still open. I might just be on their daily route and, how should I state this... it kills a man. It's steep and long... On top, there are other abandonned mining related stuff. This is very gloomy, let this spaghetti western atmosphere end. A few hikers and casual walkers are there. Seems like some areas are reachable with a car. I drink water from a stream which is running on a rock that is so red it must be packed with iron. Drinking this, I should become as strong as Popeye the Sailor!

Iron enriched water
That stream must definitely deliver water that is packed with iron.

I can't remember when and how, but arriving at la Serra d'Arraing, and at its refuge, Rudy and Paolo are with me. I already had met them on the course, looks like they always go together as a pair. This Serra is beautiful, it's quite different from that post-apo atmosphere we've just left. And then, my mind connects things together. Serra d'Arraing. Val d'Aran. Ariège. Iron mines. Airain in French, Iron in English. Iron, yes. Doh! All the names in this area refer to Iron and its extraction from the soil! I had to wait until the age of 41 to come to this conclusion. It's never too late to learn something.

Serra d'Arraing
Ain't that pretty ?

At the Serra d'Arraing refuge, we chat with "regular" hikers. Those who follow the GR10 with a more conventional pace. They tell us they've seen the Fattons and it looks like they were suffering, suffering, suffering. According to them, their chances to complete the race are not great, the odds are against them. Should we be talking of anyone else, I would have agreed. Yeah, right, after almost 250 miles, and with more than 250 to go, if your body is already ruined, you get no chance to finish. But here, we're talking about Julia and Christian Fatton. They are different. Unless there's a brick wall preventing them to move, they're gonna move forward. It's not logical, it does not seem realistic, but it's a fact: they're unstoppable. Now here's the end of the story: they did finish, as I expected.

Last downhill before Fos. I always wondered what was in that area. Fos is quite well known to me, I regularly drive through it as I go on vacation in the Spanish Pyrénées. So, when I drive down the valley, one has the general feeling that this is a no-man's land. Seen from above, it's nicer, the view does have some appeal. But well, it's still a no-man's land anyway. No wonder there are bears round hear, human probably do not disturb them very often. One has to convince oneself that Man is ubiquitous and has conquered the planet. It's quite a theorical point of view from here.

Anyway, as I go down, I pass a Spanish runner who's totally out of order. He walks so slow that it might take him two or three hours to complete a single mile. He's worn out. I ask him how things are going. He answers it's hard, but OK. Feet problems, as it seems. I wish him good luck and keep going. Soon, Rudy and Paolo catch up and ask me "have you seen that Spanish guy?". Yes, of course, how could I miss him. "We're going to tell people at the next CP that he's in trouble!". And then, I feel guilty. I mean, this guy is suffering, I just say hello goodbye, when they take the time to note his number, plan to warn the race organization. I feel selfish and useless. Oh well, let's say this is because I'm tired. A little road section before arriving in Fos. Not thrilling, but those are easily-earned miles, and they're welcome. Arriving in Fos, a new feeling of yet another end-of-the-world. The city is not abandonned. Not completely. But one can without exagerating state that economically, it's not in a florishing state. I almost get worried trying to find the CP, fearing I went passed it without noticing. But I finally find it easily.

And there, guess what? Our Spanish fellow is already here, regaining forces. Ha, one needs to explain me something, are we talking about the same guy stuck up there in the mountain, almost unable to move, a couple hours ago? I do not know the final word of this story but it seems it all ended up with a plain "quit at CP11, Fos".

I sleep 3 good hours in Fos, and head back on track in the middle of the night. This is a good rythm for me, sleep early in the night, then wake up and hit the trail at something like 1 am. This way, the hours spent at night are spent after collecting new forces, it's much less dangerous and I'm more efficient. On a track, I handle it differently, but on a loop, security is a very secondary aspect. Here, it's different. Trail, in that perspective, is a complex discipline, I can't put myself in those second states I can reach in more secured events. Here I need to be able to handle the unexpected, risks, stuff from the outside world.

Wednesday, July 27th. 2016 - Day 8

Thinking about handling the unexpected, a dog just decided to walk along with me as I got out of the CP. I do not appreciate dogs that much. Animals are not my stuff. Oh yes, I enjoy my cats, but a cat is different, it knows how to take care of its own self. No, seriously, dogs are not my passion. But this one really seem to stick with me. At some point I need to "go to the restrooms". I wait until the dog is away. But the dog follows. Oh dear. I do what I have to do just aside of the path. The dog waits for me. And keeps following me as I'm back on the trail.

The path is not very obvious to follow. The GPS track is not very precise. And the red and white marks are tricky to find in the darkness and upcoming fog. But the dog knows. He knows the course for real. I can't tell wether he knows it by heart or he follows the smell of previous trailers, but the plain reality is: in doubt, follow the dog, he has a 99% rate of finding the right option. I simply have to wait for his guess. He's thirsty. At the first stream we cross, he drinks like we were hiking the desert. At some point I realize we've climbed up to 3 000 feet together. At that point I decide to name him Artigues, as we've just passed a shelter named "cabane d'Artigues". I also pity that beast, and I finally give away a piece of typical dried French sausage called "saucisson". Yeah I know, now, the dog is going to follow me for real, but he's been around for hours already and now we're lost in the middle of nowhere far from his home, and he deserves a reward, I don't want to exhaust him.

25 miles with us. Now that's a hike, dog!

In some areas the trail is very faint, with the help of both Artigues and the GPS, I manage to find my way up. And then, who's there? Rudy and Paolo! They are lost. There are also two other trailers with them, not racing, but lost all the same. I tell them that my orienteering skills are limited, but proved to be enough until know, they just have to follow me and Artigues, we're very likely to reach Luchon. And there we go, the 6 of us, me, Rudy, Paolo, the two other trailers and the dog Artigues. We go round circles for some short time, need to cross open land using the compass but finally we got it, we find the GR10 and keep going until sunrise.

Artigues, portrait
I hope she's now OK, and that she took a good rest.

When we enter the city of Luchon, I feel uncomfortable. The dog is still there, only now people consider it's my dog, and expect me to take care of him, keep him quiet, and so on. Oh dear, here am I, responsible for a dog I did not even know yesterday, me, who is anything but a dog addict. I fear the animal could be run over by a car, just so close to BV2, where I can probably give him to some race official who could find the original, official, master. Come Artigues, don't act as a fool please! Come here!

Reaching BV2 is frustrating. We have to go pass a local airport and go around it before officially crossing the arch. It's a bit too much. Now, here we go. I explain the dog case. I get explainations back, informing I should have got rid of the dog right away, by, typically, throwing stones at him, and bringing him was a bad idea... Throwing stones? OK I don't love dogs, but throwing stones is another story... OK, the people here take care of the animal. After a quick inquiry: he's a she. And the real master is quickly found, they are going to get her back home. So Artigues officially has another name, but for me, she remains Artigues, and I bet she's gonna remember that glorious 25 miles hike in the mointain.

BV2 has the end-of-the-workd atmosphere, to some extent. A lot of people did already quit and are waiting for a bus or something to leave the place. I, for one, quickly head downtown to the sport shop. On my feet, of course, because it's forbidden to climb into a car during the race, and anyway, there's nobody to take me there. I first need to go to a drugstore. Inddeed, I have some... err... well... "sexual" problems. I mean, the very end of my major procreating tool is just red, itching, and getting bigger and bigger, for bad reasons. I explain this, and I'm given a cream supposed to fight mycosis, and a piece of advice stating that generally speaking the problem is: moisture. This is unbelievable, I mean, considering all the parts of my body, why would that one, specifically, decide to go wrong during an ultra race. Life is full of suprises.

The story could end up here: skin problem, apply a cream, adopt a better hygiene, period. Not quite. Because here, I'm only treating the symptoms. What's the root of the problem? Moisture? OK, right, but why? Why on this race and not another? Because it's longer? Looks too simple. Thinking about it, my race number, since the race start, is attached to one of my bag straps, and is therefore very often on my tights. In front. So it indeed keeps moisture in that area, and collects anything dirty around my legs. Check the late race pictures, one can see my race number is especially dirty, more than others. So what? So I decide to attach the race number at the back of my bag, and let my upper legs be free, in open air. I strongly believe this little decision is as efficient as the cream. I mean, both are usefull. One needs to treat both the symptoms and the roots of a problem.

Hoka Tor Ultra
Good shoes. But they do not last long enough. 200 miles and wooot they're gone. Nice gear, but fragile. Use primarily for showing out ;)

Then I run to Intersport, the local sport shop, where Philippe, the shop manager, does everything he can to help me. At first he would sell me classic trail shoes. He does not have any Hoka Tor Ultra. So I explain him my tastes, the fact that I trained with hiking shoes, naming their brand and model, and mentionning the first 100 miles where done with traditionnal leather gear. I quote the Salomon Quest 4D as being something I'm used to, and an acceptable choice for me. This, he has in stock. But not my size. So he suggets I try a pair of La Sportiva Trango Trk Gtx, which are more rigid and hiking oriented than the Quest 4D, but still not as extreme as my old Meindl. I try them and this is my lucky day, they feel really comfortable! I add some Sidas soles for better cushionning, and buy 3 pair of X-Socks socks, because given the terrain, its humidity and hostily, changing socks happens more often than expected. And here go, I'm all set! A great big fat "thank you" to Philippe, who knew how to be patient, listen to me. I understand he's found the perfect job for him: he knows how to talk to people, listens to them, he loves sport in general, and he knows the products he's selling. What else?

La Sportiva Trango Trk Gtx
The shoes I bought at Intersport, Luchon Picture taken a few days after the end of the race, they have already done 250 miles of solid hike in the mountain.

On the way back I buy a chicken in a little supermarket. I eat 80% of it, and give what's left to Paolo who was passing by. We're on our way to the shower, which is more than half a mile away from the aid station. But... as I'm coming back from downtown, part of the distance is already covered so it's not that bad for me. The shower is cold. I expect it to become warmer after some time. It doesn't. I wait. Still cold. OK, dear. It needs effort and concentration to to yell under that freezing water. And then other trailers join me under the shower. And then, but only then, the shower becomes slightly warmer, mild, then frankly hot. What? Am I the only one to have tasted cold water? Probably yes. I don't care, I have new shoes. Paolo notices them, and points out that they are Gore-Tex shoes so while perfect to step into small streams, if the water finally goes inside... it's a nightmare. Did I just make a blunder? Doubt is all over the place. Oh, forget it, let it be, this is done, period.

Back to BV2. I gave the Pastourale jacket back to Cyril, and now take my initial warm long sleeve "UFO" piece of clothe. As far as shoes are concerned, it's quickly sorted out: my leather Meindl have mold all over, from staying five days, wet, inside a closed bag. This is sad, should I've been able to take care of them, they would have been usable for years on, but ow, I won't keep those in my spare bag. I throw them away. And the Hoka were already thrown away at the sport shop, the sole was falling apart. Now the only pair I have is the one on my feet. They'd better be good and make it up to the end.

As I'm preparing my bag, I realize one of the elements that is getting heavier and heavier is the "first aid kit". I know have a wide range of articles in it, bandages, straps, anti-shaffing cream, that cream for mycosis, an antiseptic spray... Yes, the antiseptic spray is heavy, but I believe it's the price to pay to be sure to be able, twice a day, to clean up all those would-be blisters, as well as my almost-gone toe nail. A lot of runners did quit because of blisters. Not easy blisters. No, infected blisters, those who might require you to go to a hospital and take antibiotics. So my spray is heavy, but who knows, it might be part of the right solution. It's an investment. It's going to slow me down, but it could help me finish anyway. And as I have no crew, almost everything I need, I have to carry it on my back.

All in all, this stop in Luchon did cost me 4 hours, and I did not sleep at all. OK, it was long, but considering the shopping downtown, the shower and everything else, I believe it was required.

Next page: Stage 3, Luchon - La Pierre St Martin

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Updated on Tue Aug 16 2016.