UTCAM 2023



Vengeance is sweet, but Bananas are sweeter !

First, a little bit of history: The Mercantour national park. is the youngest national park in France, created in 1979. Well before that, the area of the Mercantour (France) and Argentera (Italy) was site of a tug of war between Italy and France for over a century before that. Both countries wanted control over the chamois and the bouquetins that galloped across the mountains in this area that had been a crossing point between the two countries for centuries. It seemed that the chamois and bouquetins weren’t particularly concerned about who would be king of the mountain.

Fast forward about 125 years from the time of Napolean III, and now imagine about 240 humans clad in flourescent lycra, carrying their weight in energy gels and bananas, trapsing up and down these same picturesque mountains of the parc du Mercantour. This, my friends, is the Utra Trail de Cote d’Azur Mercantour 2023 (UTCAM). But we runners were not not being chased by WWII Italian soldiers or dodging 19th century hunters. We paid good money and had a swanky send off from Monaco before heading up, up, up (and occasionally down) over the French Alps – for 125km+, just like generations of chamois and bouquetins have done for eons, albeit not clad in lycra and sucking down energy gels. 

At least, I didn’t see any chamois in lycra, not even in my hallucinations.

This was a vengeance run. In 2021, Eric and I abandoned the race after 85km in 2021. Imagine, if you will:  two 50-something runners, giddy to register for the first race that opened after the Covid pandemic. Forget about being trained, or even looking at the race profile, we went into UTCAM 2021 with our eyes closed. If you are curious about how far you can get in an endurance run in the mountains on enthusiasm alone, before heat stroke and uncontrolled vomiting sets in…its about 85km and 6,000 meters of positive elevation.

But this time was different. We were trained (thanks, coach Anna!). We had a nutrition strategy. We had a super crew (thanks Alan and Lois!). And, as always, we had each other (thanks, mon amour!). This doesn’t mean that we did not have pre-race jitters. I had sore quadriceps all week. And even with a massage a few days before we left Tana, I was worried that the bump up in our training volume had been too much, and my quads would not recover in time. In Nice, my legs were still sore, like my skin was a size too small for my muscles. I used the massage gun every night, but the quads still felt stiff up to the day of the race. I didn’t know how this was going to play out, because I wasn’t sure if this was just a “phantom pain” that frequently happens just before race day, or if I had really overdone it. If Eric had any jitters, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, eating ice cream and drinking beer up until the day of the race. Not fair!

Start Line – Monaco 

At the start line, we met up with a friend of ours from the Tor des Geants, Harriet Kjaer. She is a super-fast runner and a super interesting person. She makes violins for a living, lives in the middle of the forest in Barcelona, speaks a million languages and manages to run super-fast, eating only raw fruits and vegetables. Cool, right? With Harriet, we set off from Monaco at 7pm under a late summer sun.

Monaco to Piera Cava – 49km (2,529m elevation gain)

We crossed Monaco under the mostly disinterested stares of well-dressed Monegasques and tourists, sipping their aperos in chic outdoor bistros. But we chatted and joked as we climbed sets of stairs that would take us out of Monaco and into the wooded paths behind Menton and toward the first aid station at La Turbie (5 km). Despite the late evening heat, we made it to La Turbie in half of the time we estimated. I filled up my water bottles (it was still hot) and we headed off to the next aid station at Gorbio (14km). There was a long rocky descent to Gorbio with lovely views of the Cote d’Azur. The downhill felt good, even though it was long and a bit technical, and I began to realize that my quadricep worries had been for nothing. Whew!

Once we left Gorbio, I knew what to expect, because Eric and I had done the section between Gorbio, the Col de la Madone and the Col de Graus in February. It was a steep climb out of Gorbio, but it felt easy compared to when we had done the reconnaissance in February. Night fell as we approached the summit, and I wasn’t looking forward to doing the descent that I knew was waiting for us in the dark. The descent to Col de Graus (39km) was steep and technical.

The ground was soft, unpacked soil that gave way with each step, with just enough pointy rocks and jutting roots, to keep it interesting.

Eric gave the impression that he wasn’t even touching the ground, as I was banging my way down the hill behind him like a half-tranquilized elephant. And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way down the mountain, I slipped, and the earth rose to meet my butt so forcefully that it knocked the poles out of my hands. So, my poles and I slid ungracefully downhill about 3 meters. The poles graciously lodged themselves between two trees, as I ungraciously slammed into them, breaking one of them.

I was unhurt and unashamed. Eric had seen me take tumbles far worse. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied. I didn’t even bother to brush off the dirt and leaves before I continued on with only one trekking pole. After refilling my bottles, downing a banana and putting a couple of cookies in my pocket for later, we were on our way to Piera Cava. I was still in good spirits and 1 pole lighter. We were looking forward to seeing our crew for the first time that day. StilI, I was thinking that it was a good thing that I packed extra poles and that I could pick them up from Lois and Alan at Piera Cava. Live and learn, right?

The climb from Col de Braus to Piera Cava (1,685m elevation gain) was slow and steady. Before we realized it, we were at the top and facing a road sign that said “Piera Cava – 2km.” We were arriving at Piera Cava aid station an hour and a half before our estimated time! Great!! … Except that our crew wasn’t even awake yet, and they had an hour’s drive from Nice to get to Piera Cava. We were sorry to wake up Alan and Lois after everything that had done to help us get to the start line, but we had to call. As always, they were in good spirits and said they would get in the car and join us right away.

The sun was just coming up as we entered Piera Cava aid station at 5h30. We turned off our head lamps and headed inside for some soup and some coffee.  We waited for our crew for about an hour. It wasn’t in our plan, but it wasn’t such a bad thing. We rested. We ate. We cleaned out the garbage from our packs.

We noticed a woman crying at a table next to us. We had met her at the start line before the race. She had been worried that she wouldn’t make the cut off times, and indeed, she had been disqualified at the first aid station for missing the cut-off. We tried to cheer her up a bit, explaining that we had dropped out of the race in 2021 and the cut-off times were tight, especially int eh beginning. There was nothing to be sad about. She would come back stronger the next time. I don’t know if we made her feel any better. I don’t think that it would have made me feel any better. I know that disappointment too well.

When Alan and Lois arrived, we grabbed the gels, snacks, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses that we would need for the morning. Kisses all around, and we headed out… but before we made it to the door, we heard “Bonjour, Eric. Bonjour Andrea.” It was Boris, a guy we had met running in Mauritius. He looked tired and said that he found the first part really hard. But we were all smiling as we encouraged each other for the next section.

Piera Cava to Roquebiliere – 31km (1,654 m elevation gain)

Relative to the first part and the last part of UTCAM, the middle section is “easy,” and even with the hour that we waited at Piera Cava, we were still ahead of our estimated time. The main thing that we had to worry about was the heat. The sun had risen, and it was going to be a scorcher – 30+ degrees C/around 90 degrees F. Memories of 2021 flashed inside my head. And, indeed, not long after downing what felt like the best potato chips and watermelon that I’ve ever eaten in my entire life at the La Bolene aid station, a practically vertical downhill and a refreshing splash from the village fountain at Lantosque, I was curled up in an exhausted ball by the side of the trail about 5km from Roquebiliere.

Eric gave me a banana and within a minute I was back on my feet, and we were trotting into Roquebiliere. We were happy to see Alan and Lois, and they took care of us like pros. They refilled our water bottles, changed out the sticky mess of gel wrappers and replaced it with the gels, granola bars, boiled potatoes and BANANAS that would carry us through to the next aid station. We downed a huge ham and cheese sandwich, soup and popsicles -hurray for popsicles! We left Roquebiliere at a digestive hike with lifted spirits and full bellies, even though we knew that we would be facing the hardest part of the race…and the hottest part of the day.

I don’t know if you can imagine the scene, but try: the trails are mostly single track, meaning not wide enough for two people to walk or run side-by-side. There is a steep drop-off on one side and a vertical, brush covered mountainside on the other side. So where might a heat-exhausted old lady park her tired ass and eat a banana, you might ask? Well, very inelegantly half laid out/half-leaning at a 40-degree angle on top of the brush and against the mountainside. I think that you get the picture by now that this is not a glamorous sport, and I had no more !@#$s to give about appearances.

Roquebillière UTCAM2023
Roquebiliere – Relais de Merveille – Madone de Fenestre – 27km (1,877m elevation gain)What I remember of this section is trudging uphill at what seemed like a snail’s pace, popping boiled potatoes and raisins, and trying not to think about having to swallow another gel. I think a couple of guys passed us, but not too many in any case. It’s funny how when you are in this situation, you keep thinking that you can’t go any faster. You know that you can still put one foot in front of the other, but you are just worried that there will come a moment when you don’t want to do that anymore.
Vers Relais des merveilles UTCAM2023

And down the mountain we went with an energy that came from I don’t know where. We passed the few guys that had passed us on the uphill. We crossed paths with a girl leading a donkey somewhere, just to keep things interesting. Again, not a hallucination, because Eric saw it too. And then we find ourselves in front of a crystal clear lake with families fishing and boating. That lake looks so inviting that all we want to do is dive in. But Alan, who has come to meet us on the trail, reminds us that we’ve lost the advance that we had on our timing and besides that the water is freezing cold. I can’t help thinking that swimming in glacial lake would still be better than another gel…

Au dessus de Belvedère UTCAM2023

You are just too hot, too tired and too sick of eating crap that you don’t want to eat anymore, and you know that if you stop thinking about putting one foot in front of the other, you will start thinking about stopping. And, then, you finally get to the top and find yourself on a downhill slope, and its like a different world. Is it cooler? No. Are you any less tired? No. Have you suddenly been given an ice cream sundae? No! But. You. Can. Run.

Lac au relais des Merveilles
Poste Relais des merveilles UTCAM2023

We decided to take a 15-minute power nap at the Relais de Merveille aid station. I was falling asleep on my feet and shivering from lack of calories. So, some soup with pasta and a little nap, and we left the aid station feeling confident that we would make it to the finish line. We wouldn’t see Alan and Lois again until then, because no crew were allowed at Madone de Fenestre.

Kisses and encouragement from our crew and we continued our power hike out of Relais de Merveille. Up and up we went. I felt like we had slowed a bit, but I didn’t have the energy to do much more than trudge up the mountain. We had doused ourselves with water at a couple of village fountains, which helped. But the relief didn’t last long. I thought that maybe a few more calories would help. Little did I know that my stomach had decided differently. In went the gel and out went the gel with about a liter of water, soup and everything else… you get the picture. Eric urged me to sit down and rest a bit, but I felt better. After tossing my cookies. I wasn’t going to go any faster, but I wanted to keep moving. And so, up and up we went.

Vers Madone de Fenêtre UTCAM2023
Sommet vers Madone de Fenestre UTCAM 2023

Madone de Fenestre – St Martin Vesubie – 19km (1,790m elevation gain)

Poste Mada de Fenestre UTCAM

The power hiking strategy was really beginning to pay off on this last section. We were moving at a regular pace, not expending too much energy, and we were passing folks that seemed to be struggling to move forward. Again, this climb seemed to go on forever. And at night, I think this is even stronger. Eric said to me, “You see that light at the very top of the mountain?” I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “You mean the one that looks like a far away star?”

It was around 9pm when we got to the Madone de Fenestre aid station. It wasn’t dark yet, but at least it was starting to cool down. I filled my water bottles, ate some watermelon, soup and crackers and changed into a long sleeve shirt for the night. I wasn’t sure if this was the right decision as it was still warm, but I thought that when we climbed back out of the valley that it might be cooler after we climbed the 1,000 or so meters we needed to climb before descending into St Martin Vesubie and the Finish line!

Sommet après Madone de Fenestre

But at this point in the race, we knew we were going to finish. All we had to do was grit our teeth and keep putting one foot in front of the other, until we touched that star. And that’s just what we did. There was some entertainment on the way. A guy, seemed like maybe he was a coach, kept screaming after two runners to hurry up: “Eh! Fanny et Laurent!! Depechez vous!” This went on for at least an hour. But when we passed Fanny and Laurent, they had stopped to check their Runtastik. They were comparing how many steps they had done…Clearly, they didn’t have the same objective as their “coach”. 

It seemed like they had had enough of the uphill climb as well. But as with all uphills, you eventually reach the point where you are on the other side. While this seemed to take an eternity, we passed the col and headed over to the other side. And it was a dark side!

Arrivée UTCAM 2023 St Martin Vésubie

The last downhill was a mean joke on the runners. Not super steep, but just filled with boulders and rocks, really hard to see where to put your feet, and almost impossible to see where to put your feet while you searching for the little flags that mark the trail. Once again, I was so happy to be with Eric, who not only floats downhill, but has a sixth sense when it comes to orientation. I wasn’t the only one following his lead downhill. After we passed the last group of runners we would see before the finish line, a young guy named Simon, whose headlamp had abandoned the fight, joined us. We chatted and finished the descent at a regular pace, not breathing hard. Just trying not to twist an ankle in the last kilometers.

Dossards Eric et Andrea UTCAM2023

Finally at 1a.m. we entered the village of St Martin Vesubie. There were still a few spectators in the village, probably waiting for family and friends to finish the race. And there were Lois and Alan, cheering us on. “Bravo! Just a few more meters before the finish line!”. We turned to each other and asked at the same time, “Do you want to run it in?” Without a word, we picked up the pace for the last few meters. The fireworks went off around us, and the announcer said, “Eric et Andrea! Andrea et Eric de Madagascar! Finishers of this UTCAM 2023! Congratulations!!”

Vengeance is sweet, but bananas are sweeter, indeed.

–  Notre vidéo de l’épreuve 2023 UTCAM –