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Leanne Callaghan reports, March 2013

Those who have competed in really tough events will appreciate, they rarely feel nice at the time, but by ‘eck it feels good afterwards! Surprise and delight was our feeling at the end of day 1 and 2 of the 2013 Pierra Menta race last week, having smashed our expectations by reaching 16th position out of the 23 top international female teams. Day 3 was really grueling and cold and we nearly lost all hope when my ski binding broke and all the positions we had gained vapourised whilst trying to do a botched repair. Luckily we just made it through the cut to the final leg on day 4 and finished 18th overall, having been seeded 22nd; a respectable 40% behind the unstoppable world champions Letitia Roux and Mireia Miro. I can honestly say we dug right to the very bottom of our physical and psychological reserves to achieve the tight cut off times for each of the 4 exciting days of the race.

The Pierra Menta involves 4 Days of climbing on lightweight carbon fibre skis, running over exposed ridges and summits, and high speed descending down a variety of steep icy couloirs and technical off piste terrain, in teams of 2. The total height climbed is 10,000m (33,000 feet) over many mountains and every thousand metres climbed is then, of course, skied down as fast as your tired jelly legs and tiny matchstick skis will let you, over a distance of 100km. If you are lucky, the snow on the descents is powder or hard-pack. This year a huge snowfall followed by a big freeze-thaw ensured plenty of killer sun-crust and concrete avalanche debris to keep us on our toes!

Tight time cut-offs are imposed in the race in order to minimize avalanche danger and this is what makes the race hard for Gaby and I.  We live and work in the most unlikely place for a ski mountaineering racer. Most of the Pierra Menta competitiors are either full time professional athletes, or they live in Alpine ski areas, training daily for several hours on snow. The most successful ones spend 20-40 hrs per week training and skiing literally hundreds of thousands of metres per season up and down at altitude, dedicating months and years trying to get into shape for this race. The teams are selected on the basis of the race results they have already achieved during the previous season. Fortunately Gaby and I were British top 2 women in 2010-2012 and had a consistent CV of race results including several World Championships and World Cup races.

Gaby and Leanne on the Grand Mont

Gaby is a physiotherapist at Bridgend Hospital and I am a doctor at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, so it doesn’t take a brainbox to realize the enormous advantage the vast majority of competitors have who are living and training in ski areas. The obstacles to our training and preparation this winter seemed sometimes insurmountable for us. On the one hand we had to train long and hard and alone in the dark, rainy nights of British winter but at the same time juggle responsibilities, travelling, winter flu bugs and shift work. I felt like I spent a lot of the season running on fumes: permanently exhausted, ill and unacclimatised on arrival at the start of each race. Despite this we still love it! Sport specific training is virtually impossible at home and we rely heavily on experience, technique, determination and most of all friendship and teamwork to get us through. Fortunately for us, our attitude to racing is light-hearted and we make sure we enjoy the journey to the start line and truly appreciate the good fortune which bestowed on us our physical health and strength.

This year there were the usual 200 teams on the start line of the Pierra Menta and virtually all the competitiors were from strong skiing nations such as France, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, USA and Spain. It is unusual to see nations from non skiing regions such as Britain but over recent years there have been a few men’s teams who have ben selected and finished in fine time. This year Jon Morgan and Ben Bardsley finished an impressive 60th and just 35% behind the winners William Bon Mardion and Matheo Jaquemoud.

Finishing even one day of the race together was our goal and anything beyond that was simply incredible. What’s next? The British Championships in a couple of day’s time! It’s a big ask to recover fully in such a short time for Gaby but if she can, I put my money on her to win it. Me? I am going to put my feet up and have a nice cup of tea.

The Pierramenta…