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French Champs Race, Les Rocs 20/01/13

It seems to make sense as the major races are now lining up thick and fast, for the training to involve tweaks here and there rather than getting tired/overtrained/injured/ill. Two weeks ago Jon Bracey and I travelled to http://www.lesrocs.fr/ les as a sharpener race before the first international race of the calendar. He was on great form, despite minimal racing this winter, juggling guiding, house hunting and looking after Josh- his small boy. Josh isn’t yet convinced of the virtues of an unbroken night's sleep, and with a 6am meeting time in Cham he did well to stay awake in the http://www.chamonixskialpinisme.com/ minibus on the drive to Abondance. This was a race attended by many as it also doubled as another French Championship race.

In true Savoyarde style the full fat freebie as part of the race was a chunk of Abondance cheese- far more useful than a gadjet or tacky souvenir that you often get. It was market day so this sleepy village near lake Geneva was probably as lively as it gets- er not very. We had enough fresh snow to make the course fun and challenging. It was varied rolling terrain with 4 climbs on skins, a ridge, a bootpack with skis on your pack and some spicy ski tree skiing in the powder- think slalom course in deep snow with your slalom poles one foot thick and made of pine and larch.

[caption id="attachment_4686" align="alignnone" width="450"] Post race nutrition Savoyarde style- lardons anyone?[/caption]

For the first time this season it was coming together for me, though not in terms of overall result- 44th out of 160 is hardly earth shattering- but in national or international ski races I will only ever be an enthusiastic participant rather than being anywhere near the front. You can go a long way with training but a significant part of it is your physiology. With world class athletes like Kilian having a VO2 Max of 90ml/kg/min, as he proudly displays on his Facebook timeline, people like me with a measly 60ml/kg/min are genetically programmed to be consistently slaughtered by the likes of him. Amusingly in my other life as an anaesthetist we are positively encouraged by a patient undergoing major surgery if their VO2 Max is more than 11ml/kg/min- that’s fit in a patient population!  VO2 Max is a powerful predictor of winning skimo races and your length of stay in hospital and mortality after surgery.

But despite my paltry numbers training does allow you maximise what you have. The other important concept in exercise physiology is your anaerobic threshold (AT). Kilians AT is 95% of his VO2 max- in other words his engine can burn oxygen efficiently until very close to the point at which it will blow up and lactic acid will prevent him continuing efficiently. My AT was 50% of VO2 max when it was measured it a few years ago- I am quite sure it is higher now- I haven’t re-measured it in the last few years as this is the domain of professional athletes with extensive lab support (ie good enough for their results to justify major investment). Whilst VO2 Max is largely genetically determined, AT is highly susceptible to training- 20% gains in AT are relatively easy with specific training. But most of the competitors have maximised their ATs already and it comes down to diminishing returns with ever increasing amounts effort. And whether we like to accept it or not anorexic dieting and drugs are out there too in skimo, as they are in every endurance sport. Another chunk of Abondance anyone?

[caption id="attachment_4687" align="alignnone" width="450"] Amateur physiological testing- functional threshold power on John Taylors static bike. Harder than any race.[/caption]

But it isn’t just a numbers game- the technique training I had from Bastien and Yann was definitely paying off and everything went smoothly on the transitions an the descents. I felt tired after my 8000m of uphill that week and as a result didn’t manage to get my pulse much above 150, yet overall it felt like a good race and the cheese tasted good too afterwards. Jon Bracey said he felt completely trashed but he looked absolutely fine when I arrived 4 minutes after him. Our post race warm down lasted a full 5 minutes before the temptation of a big cheesy lunch got the better of us. Poor Jon (and separately Carron, our other top racer) fell victim to the Euro-lurgy a few days later so had to miss the biggest race of the year so far:

World Cup Race, Marecottes, 26/01/13

http://www.alpiniski.ch/

I hadn’t had the pleasure of a race of this calibre before- Jon told me of what fun it was doing a World Cup a few years ago. He drove Andorra one time (ten hours from Cham), kipped shivering in his car the night before, paid through the nose to race in a World Cup race, came last on a dull non-technical course, no post-race food (standard issue in France), and drove home again, knackered, for ten hours- fantastic! Luckily my experience was different. Thank you Norway for sending 3 people slower than me.

[caption id="attachment_4689" align="alignnone" width="450"] Podium: left to right- Mattheo Jacquemoud (yes it is a man), Kilian Jornet (very definitely a man) and A. Jedi Italian[/caption]

Ben Bardsley was raiding from Threlkeld again for the weekend and we drove over past the awesome-looking Eaux Noirs icefalls (close your eyes, you’re a skimo racer now..) to Marecottes. It is just above Martigny so the views were great to the Rhone Valley, the Pennine giants and the Mont Blanc massif. The contrasts were ridiculous- on the second climb we skinned then booted up a south facing couloir in baking radiated heat. (Yippee- there’s a Slovak who has overcooked it and stops to vomit- I’m not last!) But over the back we descended into the shady freezer near Lac de Salanfe by the Dents du Midi. I could easily convince myself that the large crowd of supporters cheering wildly to encourage the local female hero were actually screaming “Allez Jonny” though I admit it may have been “Allez Jenny”. She dropped me on the flats across the dam wall so my support lessened.. Pretty exciting there as there was so much snow on the dam wall that it was above the fence line- not very wide and 50 meter drop on either side.

[caption id="attachment_4685" align="alignnone" width="450"] Argentiere basin from les Couterays[/caption]

In the near distance, as well as Jenny and the Norwegians was Ben who is always quicker than me in the first half of a race (and often the second half too). Big effort needed to catch up on the 3rd climb and descent but just about managed- hideous trying to stay with him as we toiled uphill to escape the freezer, cresting out together into the sunshine at last. We slithered out of control down the fixed ropes in the 45 degree couloir in a 2 meter deep trench channelled out by Kilian and his mates. I had a sense of humour failure as my skis repeatedly fell off my sack (note to self- new attachment system needed..). We left the penultimate transition together- steep deep slushy race moguls. I went past him part way down- never saw the carnage that was his uberstack but I heard the scream shortly after. He was only a couple of minutes behind me at the end and we were both, er, 40 minutes behind Kilian. How is it possible to skin uphill 2000m and of course throw in the ski descents and the long flat sections with 12 transitions (ie skins on or off, skis on your pack etc) all in 1 hour 52 mins? He won by 3 minutes..

One more race this weekend in Switzerland if they don’t cancel it (Snowmageddon forcast here), a weeks ski guiding in the Queyras for me as gentle warm down and acclimatisation, then the biggest event of the international calendar starting Sunday 10th February- the World Ski Mountaineering Championships. We are 8 men and 4 women representing GB and there will probably be about 25 countries present. This will be my 5th World Champs and although I appear to be getting quicker each time the rest of  the world appear to be getting quicker more rapidly! We have 4 strong women but no more because nobody else wants to do it- put yours hands up girls and you’re also in the team for 2015. I suspect the Alpine nations have different selection criteria..

[caption id="attachment_4688" align="alignnone" width="450"] Threatening clouds over Mt Blanc[/caption]