French National Long Distance Championships 2019

In which our hero makes a fool of himself for the benefit of others, through the medium of quickroute and strava….

Earlier this year, we booked our family summer holidays. I’m into mountain climbing and canyoning, so I finally convinced Anne-Marie to bring the whole family to the Alps this year – eurocamping courtesy of a black-friday deal on the shores of Lake Annecy. A few weeks after we had booked it, I got an email from Mike Long mentioning that the French Champs were taking place the same weekend as we arrived, and only 50 mins drive from our campsite. I’d been having a reasonably good season, so I entered myself and the two kids in the knowledge that we didn’t need to care where we finished – it was just an event during our holidays. In hindsight, I probably should have cared a little more…

Fast forward a few months, the IOCs are just finished and I’m crippled. Proper hobbling-around-the-house, where’s-my-walking-stick crippled – my right knee was suffering badly from the combination of LOC/JK/IOC in the space of 5 weeks. Went to a physio, and she gave me some exercises and stretches to ease it back into life. “Should I be running on it, you know, to help it recover?” I ask optimistically. “Well, it’s basically an overuse injury, so maybe some gentle running – just listen to your body”. I decided not to mention that I was planning to run up a ski slope in a week or two. So basically, in the 2.5 week run up to the event, I ran a total of maybe 15k, and virtually no climb. This would prove to be problematic.

We got to France anyways, and had a day to spare before the event. Went for a short jog around some similar mountain terrain on the Saturday, but cut it short when I ended up thigh deep in deceptively deep snow drifts – I really didn’t want to hurt myself this close to the event. Had an early start on the Sunday – we had to be on the road by 06:30, to get to the arena by 07:30, for an 08:23 start time. We met some of our Irish compatriots there – Ruth, Don, Philip, Dave, Mary and Clodagh – who had run in the previous three days events, including the Relay event on part of the same map the previous day. Got lots of warnings about the terrain – steep, very detailed, low visibility in the forest, and complex rock and contour details. I got a chance to have a small peek at it, as they gave us a small map and 6-7 controls to find on the way to the start.

The actual start was at the bottom of a recently thawed out ski slope, with a cruel slog from the map pickup to the start triangle half way up the piste. In hindsight, it was probably the least cruelest climb of the day. Got into the boxes, cleared my SI card, picked up my descriptions (7.9k, 360m climb, 15 controls – sounds steep, but ok) and eventually stood beside my map box, waiting for the beep. Clock beeps, turned over my map, and saw the full horror of what lay ahead of me.

Ooookay. That’s a long first leg… Jesus…. Really long…. I kinda want to get a ruler and see just how long it is. But instead I’m jogging up a ski slope trying to plan the next 1.5 km of my life. I decide to try and go high quickly at the fork in the pistes, and stay above the treeline as much as possible for as long as possible. Get to the top of the current piste, cross the first path, and realise the second path isn’t a path, but a very long, large crag (first arrow, in pic below). In true kamikaze style, I launch myself down a small vertical gap and keep going. Cross the path, through the forest, picking off the lone trees (second arrow), and trying to maintain my current elevation by entering some young scattered trees just after a chairlift (third arrow). I trundle along at this height, trying in vain to match map to ground. I hit a nice big doline with a path running behind it (fourth arrow), and I’m happy that I’m still on target, though I thought I had traveled further. Pass another doline, and then a big taped off hole in the ground (fifth arrow?) and I’m aiming for the next bit of open ground, which I’m planning to use the corner of as my attack point. This is where it all goes to hell.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may notice that it isn’t actually open ground – its this funny thing that appears all over the map with green dots on open ground. In reality, to my un-french eye, this looked an awful lot like the white forest, which also looked an awful lot like the white dots on open ground sections. On the map, they seemed distinct, but in reality, they all blended into one (to me). I must have gone through the “open” section I had wanted to use, and instead found a different “open” section further on, higher and to the south-west of the actual control. I proceeded to spend approx the next 30-40 mins fecking around in the forest here looking in vain for my first control, sanity slowing drifting away. I wasn’t alone – there was a group of about 13 of us by the end, all similarly perplexed, but mostly talking to each other in french. I tried multiple times to relocate into the control, but since I was relocating of an incorrect premise, I was getting nowhere. We eventually decided to wander downhill with the train of lost french people, and we eventually (collectively) found it. My watch read 53 mins. Le sigh.

From 1, I found my way to 2 ok, but again, the white dotted forest seemed pretty damn indistinguishable from the regular white forest. Was very wary to 3 – I tried to pick up the path going north, but never saw it, and was stuck in this forest with crags and dips everywhere. Compass kept me heading in the right direction, and I saw the big re-entrant with a large crag on the south side maybe 100m south of the control, on my left hand side as I approached. However, got distracted by crowds here and veered to the left of the actual control, looking instead in a set of depressions slightly to the west. Saw the path running left-right ahead of me, relocated and got the control. OK, time to get the hell out of dodge. Glanced at my watch. 4.3km covered already. This was going to be a long day.

Joined a train of people leaving the forest via the path that headed directly up the hill to the open pistes to the west – It was the obvious way out of the forest. Branched off to the right when the path veered left, and headed out of the last bits of trees. From here, the next few controls were much more like home. I had good visibility across the slopes to where 4 must be, and from where I was, It was only slightly uphill. However, getting there was energy sapping, with loads of ups and downs with the many small dips and depressions along the way. The sun was also high at this point, with the temperature already in the high twenties. Drank about half my 500ml of water on this bit, and had a gel – pineapple, yum. There was an unmarked water station directly between 4 and 5, so took a cup. Never thought to refill my bottle. 5 was on open karst, very pretty rocky landscape. Got to 6 and I was finally at the top of the hill (for me, I’m sure the elites went higher). Could actually run a bit going across and down to 7, and then tried to go fast downhill to the path leading my back into the forest to 8. 4/5/6/7 had all been clean, but I was just slow, due to my energy already been sapped, and the heat turning the screws on me. I really wished I had had more hill kms in the last few weeks…Went down the path into the forest, and turned off to the right down a nice defined re-entrant. Veered slightly to the right in the forest here (once again, the green dots on open ground proved elusive), and only corrected myself when I arrived at the top of a big crag running north-south overlooking a big doline.

If I’m honest, the only thing I remember about my fumbling route from 8 to 9 was running into Don going the opposite direction. At least he was able to confirm the location of a control he had just come from, so I was able to course-correct and get to 9 relatively unscathed. At this stage, the forest had me over a barrel. I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain any form of meaningful contact with the map, even at walking pace. Veered off to the left on the way to 10, but realised I must have done so with distance travelled, and self-corrected to find my way back to it.

I’m not really sure how I made my next mistake, as it’s probably the most elementary of the lot. I blame my delusional state of exhaustion at this stage of the race. I had given up looking at my watch, but I had to be over two hours at that point. Had another gel in futile attempt to refuel. I decided to head north-west, to pick up the path, and follow it all the way to the big road at the edge of the map. However, I followed a small path (possibly imaginary?) and arrived out at a big path (which was actually mapped as a huge ride), and somehow made the logical leap that this was the path I was looking for… Set off along the “path”, came to a junction which I mistook for the parking area, and continued along it to look for 11, eventually entering the forest to the left of the path (twice) and scratching my head a lot.

I suddenly noticed the sound of a small child crying. Really crying, like I-just-had-my-favourite-toy-smashed-by-a-hammer crying. I ceased my aimless wandering and headed back to the path to calm him down. He spoke a little english (thankfully), and was waaay off course (worse than me even). Between looking at where he had come from, and where he needed to go, I both realised my own mistake, copped where we were, and was able to point him in the correct direction, after eventually getting him to stop crying (screaming). It’s a beautiful story. Headed back down to the real road, and popped in to get 11. Phew. Good thing no-ones ever going to hear about that howler…

At this point, I pick up another train of people – I guess a lot of the longer courses are finishing on these controls. We essentially sweep across the forest to 12, and then 13 – my only high point of this was leading the train to 13, having eventually started to get to grips with the map. Bit late really. 14 seemed like a cruel control – the only good route I could see was to just slog straight up the hill to the pistes – part of it was super steep, hands-and-knees stuff. Eventually crawled out onto the grassy slopes, and staggered to 14.

Last control had no surprises, just round the corner from 14 and run down a piste in full view of the waiting crowds, punch 15, and straight into the finish chute. Done. A kid hands me some water and a headband. I want to collapse, but keep going to to download tents. The kids and Anne-Marie are waiting for me and provide much needed water. I ran out hours ago.

Anne-Marie is looking at my splits, I haven’t seen them yet. “I reckon I was over two hours” I say. Anne-Marie looks like she has some bad news to break to me. “More like three” she says. Gah. I’m pretty annoyed at myself. Annoyed at not being able to read the map. Annoyed at the heat. Annoyed at my stupid knee (which gave me no trouble on the day, but messed up my training). Annoyed at not drinking enough. But then I ask how the kids did. “Yeah, both pleased with their runs, no big problems” she reports. And I realise that there’s no point being annoyed. It’s a holiday run. I’m here as a tourist, having never run on this terrain before. Nobody has a good run everytime – we all have bad days. I tell the kids this every week – no good if I don’t believe it, and I do. I take it as a lesson learned, and tell the kids that they did great. “You did good too, Daddy” Aoife says in an attempt to cheer me up.

We head back to the car, change into dry clothes, drink several litres of water and by the time we are sitting relaxing beside a lake an hour later, I am no longer annoyed. I’ll be back over here again some time, and I’ll be better prepared. 🙂

Strava link for the run:

Dave M (CNOC)

Many thanks to Dave for his confession! We hope he manages to get some therapy and is out again very soon! 😉

Anyone with an orienteering story to tell, news or views orienteering related. Feel free to contact

Orienteering in Ireland
Orienteering Ireland, Irish Sport HQ, Blanchardstown
D15 DY62, Ireland