The 4th edition of the Les 2 Alpes Night Snowtrail took place last month, and I (Iain Martin) was lucky enough to be there to ‘enjoy’ it.
Les 2 Alpes is a ski resort located an hour from Grenoble in the Southern French Alps, on the opposite side of the valley from Alpe d’Huez.
With the slopes empty of skiers and snowboarders and the sun setting behind the Vallee Blanche range, it’s a magnificent location for a trail race. Magnificent, but cold – never have I felt the need to ‘warm up’ so much as at a -3C dusk in the Alps.
There are three distances on offer in the Night Snowtrail: 10K (220m ascent, 760m descent), 15K (450m. 900m) and 20K (700m, 1200m). All three races start from 2189m above sea level at the top of the Jandri cable car, and finish in the centre of town at 1600m.
If that makes it sound like a pretty straightforward downhill race, then think again.
The first ascent was a short but steep 210m climb. What is an easy green run for skiers in the day, was a somewhat more difficult challenge for those going up on foot.
Even the head of the field walked most of this section, but once we reached the Diable chairlift at 2400m, it then became a test for the quads as the route headed downhill towards the resort.
As the light left us, headtorches (obligatory for all competitors) were essential for picking your way down the snowy path. While the snow was generally hard-packed, in places it was breaking up into a heavy mush; making good sighting was important.
An hour in and I was skirting the edge of the resort, where the 10k and longer races separated. At this point, the 20K route turned upwards briefly and most competitors happily took the chance to settle back into a steady walk.
I had thought this was the start of the final ascent but I should have paid more attention to the race info. Instead, we headed into the woods along a trail that meandered up and down until we reached the only aid station on the course.
It was well-equipped with Haribos, Coke, chocolate and water, with hot drinks available too if you wanted. I took a cup of water, ate my own gel and headed onto the next section.
This was the only part of the course that involved running through deep snow as we descended through the woods in shin-deep powder. I was running in Brooks Cascadia which were grippy enough to keep me on my feet as I zig-zagged my way down this ‘off-piste’ section.
On my mind at this point was that every step down meant a longer ascent as the ultimate payback, and sure enough, the real slog of the night came shortly after. Although not as steep as the climb at the start, the next 4K covered 400 vertical metres – you don’t need a degree in maths to work out that average gradient!
If your trail running is on the South Downs like me, where you top out at 200m above sea level, you can never truly prepare for the demands that climbing at 2000m places on your body.
The consolation of this long, slow haul, were the stunning views across the valley to Alpe d’Huez. It was a clear night, lit under a perfect full moon. On the trail, ahead of me, the lines of headtorches created a wonderful sight.
Eventually the trail topped out into an undulating traverse across the mountainside with the town below us to our left. As we got closer to the finish, the sound of the PA echoed through the night sky and reassured that the end was near.
After a tricky descent, which included crossing a treacherous icy piste, the final 2K were on steps down into the outskirts of the town. And then, for the first time in the race, on tarmac, before we again joined the piste for the final ‘sprint’ to the finish.
I finished in 27th place out of 101 starters with a time of 2hrs 11mins, and was delighted it was over! Having run a marathon a month before, I knew I had plenty of endurance fitness, but I had completely under-estimated the demands a ‘simple’ 20K would present.
In the snow, at altitude, in sub-zero temperatures, this is a serious test that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a new challenge!
Watch my video below and check my running stats here.
The 5th Les 2 Alpes Night Snowtrail will be held in January 2017. This year’s race cost 25 euros. For more details go to www.les2alpes.com