After loving the CCC so much last year, I had this far-fetched goal that I wanted to try and turn myself into a bonafide mountain goat runner. I got a bit over-confident and wanted a race that was longer, had more elevation, and was more technical than the CCC. And Grand Raid Pyrenees ticked all the boxes, which is why Tom and I were on a flight to Toulouse at the end of August. The GRP follows a similar format to the UTMB with a number of races over various distances – we were entered into the 123k/7,000m Tour des Cirques. The GRP is predominantly a French affair, with only a handful of English people doing it, but mention it to a French runner and they go into raptures about how good the races are. I’d had a brilliant block of training for it, and whilst I was fully expecting it to be the most challenging race I’d ever undertaken, I felt more than prepared for it. I was a little bit apprehensive as I did feel I was venturing into the unknown (unlike the CCC last year where I’d recce-ed the route beforehand and knew there was nothing that had phased me), but I knew I’d improved in the mountains and felt confident I could handle whatever the Pyrenees threw at me (oh how wrong I was!).
We stayed in the village of Saint-Lary-Soulan, which is adjacent to Vielle-Aure, which is the central hub for all the races. Kit check and race registration was mainly in French, but was straightforward with the help of a bit of international sign launguage. Even the race goodie bag had a French flair to it and came with two jars of pate and a bottle of wine!
On race morning we were bussed from Vielle-Aure to Piau Engaly where the race starts. I’d had 8 hours of solid sleep the night before, physically and mentally I felt great, and was excited to see what the outcome of 4 months of very dedicated mountain training would be.
5 minutes of running joy/8 hours of trudging up/down/over rocks
The race started with a lovely grassy descent and I descended down the mountain like the happy little mountain goat I’d trained so hard to become – little did I know at this point that this would be the only part of the race I enjoyed for the next 50 miles!
If I’m being honest, the thing which I don’t really enjoy about mountain races is all the hiking you have to do – I’ve said it numerous times but I’m a simple creature who just likes to run! However, I loved the CCC so much last year, because apart from the five climbs, the majority of the rest of the course is really runnable. So in my head, this was how I imagined GRP was going to be; more technical, but still with lots of good running sections. As I hiked up the first climb, conditions were perfect, and I was excited for what lay ahead!
However, once we reached the top of the 2,000 feet climb, my heart sank at the sight of the descent. Technical descending is something I’ve been working on a lot this summer with numerous weekends in Wales and the Lakes, but this was something else and way out of my comfort zone, with a long steep 2,000 feet descent of uneven rocks. I tried to convince myself that maybe this wasn’t going to be the pattern of things to come, but deep down I knew from reading race blogs that the second half of the race was the more technical part of the course.
There then followed a second similar length climb, this time over very rocky terrain. I was barely 8 miles into the race but already I was starting to wish I was anywhere else but the Pyrenees. People always laugh at how happy and smiley I am when I run, but there was no smiling going on today; all I could think was that I had another 70 miles of trudging through rocks ahead of me.
I normally have a really vivid recollection of races, but the majority of GRP just passed in a never ending nightmare of rocks and boulders, with the occasional aid station popping up as a slight reprieve. As is the case with French aid stations, they are always a hive of activity with lots of supporters and crew cheering you in. Mountain racing in France is a predominantly male affair (out of the 560 starters in this race, I’d guess only about 15-20% were female), and once people saw that I was not only a woman but had a UK flag on my bib, I got even more encouragement and ‘allez allezs’ (they might hate us for Brexit, but show up at one of their races and they realise we’re not all bad!).
I got to the fourth aid station (just under marathon distance) in just over 8 hours, and with the exception of the first 5 minutes, I can honestly say I’d not enjoyed one bit of the race. However I hate self-pity; I take the view that I choose to do this, so there’s no point moaning about it, so I put my music on, got my head down and thought I’ll just get the job done.
Deciding to DNF
The course had been hard enough in daylight, but at night, even with the Petzl Nao, it felt like I was just one step away from a fall or a twisted ankle. My already slow pace during the daytime slowed even further. It felt like it was going to be a very long and lonely night ahead of me, and I kept bursting into tears. I genuinely started to think that I might not be capable of finishing this race. I even started to wish an injury upon me (nothing serious that would put me out for weeks, but perhaps a badly sprained ankle!) that meant I could legitimately DNF.
The cloud became very low in places, which meant visibility was down to almost nothing, and at one point on a narrow ledge with a drop to my right hand side, my foot missed the trail. Fortunately my pole and a male runner behind me saved me from falling any distance, and whilst I’m not making out I would have plunged down the mountain side, it was enough to really shake me up.
I decided there and then, that was it. I’d been feeling so miserable for well over 12 hours. I was hating every minute of the race. With the speed I was moving I had a depressing amount of time ahead of me. And after the slip my legs had turned to absolute jelly. I was going to get to the next aid station, hand my number in and drop out. I was prepeared to hold my hands up afterwards and say the GRP well and truly beat me.
Now DNF-ing (without a very good reason) is something I feel very strongly about. I feel like if I quit a race just because things have got tough, then what does that say about me as a person. I’m a big believer in once you commit to something, then you finish it; end of. Now maybe at times like this, I really wish I didn’t have such strong principles, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that I really didn’t have a good excuse for quitting. Physically I felt great – my legs still felt strong, I was still eating well and had lots of energy, so what was my excuse for dropping out? I thought of my friend Mark who has terminal cancer and was going to be running 140 miles across England this weekend; I thought of Dawn who sprained her ankle in the first 200 metres of LL50 and yet still hobbled out a finish; I thought of Mandy being mentally broken at LL50 yet still finished top 10; I thought of Elisabet telling me how much DDF had destroyed her at the time, but she changed her goalposts and grinded out a finish in a time that the majority of us would have been delighted with.
I decided there and then that I couldn’t quit and had to finish this thing – I knew the race had a cut-off of 44 hours, so if needs be I would just walk to the finish. Pre-race, I’d been hoping to finish in 28-30 hours (which based on previous year’s results would have seen me finish top 10) and I’m always open about my targets to anyone who asks. Now it’s quite a humbling experience to have to admit that your goalposts have changed and your aim has changed to just one of a finish, but I knew if I could slog out a finish, then I would learn a lot more about myself than if I just threw the towel in.
The sanctuary of an aid station amidst hours of hell
I’m a big stickler for aid station management and I’m normally in and out of them, however the main aid station at Luz St Sauveur was a sanctuary that I didn’t want to leave, away from the hell of the mountains. There was a white board which gave times of the mini buses taking DNF-runners away from this hell and back to Vielle-Aure – how easy it would have been to hand my number in and get on the next one, so I did my best to ignore it. My drop bag had been meticulously planned (3 fresh Salomon flasks with Mountain Fuel in it, 2 Mountain Fuel recovery shakes and a resupply of Longhaul pouches) so I could be in and out of the aid station. Instead, I grabbed a seat and felt like I just wanted to rock back and forward with my head in my hands. It seemed like every other runner had their own crew; normally I love being independent and self-sufficient when it comes to races, but all I wanted here was a crew and someone to look after me!
When I’d arrived, I’d given myself a strict cut-off that I had to leave this aid station at 2:15am, so as the clock ticked on, and after wasting 40 minutes here, doing very little apart from feel sorry for myself, I reluctantly dragged myself out. I knew that the worse part of the race was ahead; the one positive I had was that physically I felt great which is the one bonus I could take from the race – if I had been suffering physically or felt sick, then I don’t know how I’d have continued, but I had no excuses in that department.
‘Cracking’ out 45 minute pace miles
It was another long climb, and then we started crossing a massive boulder field. I knew this was coming so I thought I was prepared for it, but nothing prepared me for the hundreds and hundreds of uneven sharp boulders, with no defined path to cross, as my feet and poles kept falling down gaps between the boulders (to give an indication of how bad it was, I later discovered Tom managed to break his big toe and one of his indestructible Leki poles in this section!). I’d consciously tried to avoid looking at my watch as it was too depressing to see how slowly I was moving, but I was moving about 45 minute mile pace over this section. My mood flitted between sobs of tears and hysteria at the sheer awfulness of it all. At one point the Paul Oakenfold mix of U2’s ‘A Beautiful Day’ came on my iPod, irony at its finest, and I shouted out ‘piss off Oakie, this is NOT a beautiful day’.
More scrambling over huge rocks followed; I normally love things like this when I’m on holiday and I’m generally quite a fearless person, but after being on my feet for getting on for 20 hours and feeling like an emotional wreck, I don’t mind admitting I was really quite scared.
The elation of daylight
Finally, it started to get light. I felt that I’d broken the back of the race (although little did I know that I actually had another 10 hours head of me).
I arrived at Refuge de la Glère and wasted at least another half an hour here – the normal Sarah Sawyer would have been horrified with all this aid station time wasting, but I was past caring. I sat in the cold morning air outside the refuge looking out at the mountains, and trying to process the last 22 hours of awfulness. People had told me how beautiful the Pyrenees are, and they really are, but this was really the first time I’d been able to look at the views as I’d spend most of the previous 22 hours looking at my feet!
Another horrific descent followed, basically loose scree and rocks, and then I hit a bit of runnable trail, and then grass….and then tarmac! I started running, I was smiling, I started overtaking people (who must have wondered what had happened to the miserable Brit who’d been shuffling along for hours!), and for the first time since 9:05am the previous morning, I was enjoying myself, and I positively skipped into Tournaboup aid station.
The awful realisation that it can actually take 9 hours to cover the remaining 19 miles
It was another beautiful sunny day in the Pyrenees and for the first time in 24 hours I actually felt positive as I was heading into the final quarter of the race. I have a strict ‘rule’ of no phones/photos/social media during races but I quickly checked my phone for any messages from Tom to see how he was getting on. And 2 minutes previously I’d got a text from my friend Rhianon; if there is anyone you want to hear from after 24 hours of racing it’s Rhianon, and after a call with her, I felt ready for anything, I even started to try and convince myself maybe it hadn’t been ‘that’ bad?!
Unfortunately, my joy was short lived as before long I was back to clambering over boulders again. It was another section that seemed to drag on and on, with no reprieve from the endless rocks.
The one positive I could keep taking from the race was how good I felt physically. I still felt strong on climbs and on the very rare runnable sections, I could still run well. I was also still eating well and had lots of energy. I’d decided pre-race to really simplify my nutrition and would just use Mountain Fuel drinks and jelly’s and Longhaul pouches. It was by far the longest time I’d ever been out for in a race, and yet I didn’t have the slightest bit of nausea or drop in energy. So with some long races coming up over the next year or so, one of the (very few!) positives of the race is that I have completely nailed the nutrition side of things.
The only other positive is that I was happy with all my kit choices – in particular, the Scott Supertrac RC Ultras were superb for this kind of terrain, and without the Leki poles, I’d probably still be somewhere in the middle of the Pyrenees, curled up in a ball and crying uncontrollably!
I knew I was going to finish now, but I couldn’t care less about my finish time or position. I lost umpteen places on the final descent as I got caught up in another GRP race and hundreds of fresh legged multi-day runners bounded past me. Although they couldn’t have been more encouraging when they saw I was one of the 123k runners, it was the last thing I needed in my fragile state, and I kept moving to one side to let them pass, so in the end I resigned myself that it was going to just be a slow walk to the finish.
Finally, I saw Saint-Lary-Soulan down in the valley. There had been many many many times in the race where I doubted I’d arrive back here on foot. I had hated pretty much every minute of the last 32 hours, but I had done it.
Eventually, I arrived in Vielle-Aure and I ran along the river bank, counting down the final metres of the race, which I’d so excitedly taken photos of on Thursday, imagining that I was going to finish strong and happy like I did at the CCC. Instead as I turned onto the main street and saw the finish line, there was no elation or happiness, just a massive feeling of relief that it was over.
I don’t mind admitting the GRP chewed me up, spat me out, and there’ll probably be little bits of me forever scattered around the Pyrenees.
Tom and I knew it was going to be tough, but nothing prepared us for how tough. With no real course knowledge it was hard to have a pre-race target, but based on our CCC times (17:30 for Tom and 20:30 for me) we thought sub 24 was realistic for Tom and 28-30 hours for me. However, considering how difficult we both found it, all things considered, we are both really happy with our times of 26:56 (55th overall) and 32:07 (180th overall/10th female) out of 560 starters. My time and performance definitely wasn’t worthy of top 10, but sometimes you get an easy ride in race positions.
I’d already spoken in length to my coach about this over the summer and how I don’t really feel the love for mountain running – I do get bored of 20+ minute hiking miles and not being able to run freely as you’re always thinking about foot placement and bloody rocks; and whilst this was definitely at the extreme end of things, it well and truly reinforced that mountain running isn’t for me. I have no regrets about doing the race (I had a brilliant summer of training, I’ve improved as a runner, and I have power sized quads and calves to rival any man’s!), but for now bring on runnable trails, tarmac, 24 hour racing and Greek A roads. As Ian said to me, we do this sport because we love it so we want to do races that will make us happy – I know now what makes me happy and that’s things like running around a track in Crawley for 24 hours!
Thanks as always to Ian Sharman for the superb coaching, without it, I definitely wouldn’t have finished this race; and to Likeys, Mountain Fuel and Longhaul Endurance for their support and providing top notch kit and nutrition to get you around 32 hours of very tough mountain running.