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Ultra-Trail Des Cagous- Dawn Tuffery Race Report

Barefoot Inc Athlete Dawn Tuffery has had a stella start to the year, with a podium at Tarawera, Athletics New Zealand 100km title and now a win at the 80km Ultra-Trail Des Cagous, on 7th June in New Caledonia. Below is Dawn’s race report.

Photos by Maranui Aitamai, http://www.photo-action.nc/, Sakiko Miyake and Sebastien Barreau.

Au revoir Nouvelle Zelande, bonjour Nouvelle Caledonie! Heading off to my first international ultra, I was looking forward to adventure. The flight to New Caledonia is a cruisy 2 and a half hours. Stepping off the plane was like stepping into a heat chamber. Race director David Esposito picked me up, along with Maranui Aitamai from Tahiti, another invited athlete. David was buoyant and enthusiastic, doing 10 things at once while talking on the phone. I stayed a night at David and Christine’s house, and then headed over to the Parc where the race would be on Friday afternoon.

Dawn_Stephen_Maranui_Jeremy (1)There, I met my temporary flatmates and fellow foreigners Jeremy Ritcey (Canada, currently Hong Kong), and Stephen Rennick and wife Saki Miyake (Melbourne). We were sleeping at a little hut right near the race finish. There was a good slippery clay slope right beside it, so we could skate around and test out shoe combos. Ruby Muir had suggested taking socks to wear over the shoes as she’d seen locals doing that the previous year. I decided to go with Fivefinger Spyridons + socks for the comfort factor, and perhaps change to Inov8s at the 50k checkpoint as we had a drop bag there. I’d also learned from Ruby to take supplies if I wanted to eat vegetarian, so my bag probably equalled 60% food, 30% shoes, 10% clothes. It’s good to have a wise predecessor.

We went for a run to check out the course and ended up mildly lost. Everyone seem to have a story about running extra last year, so I vowed to pay extra attention to the ribbons. As we retired for the evening, the organizers were still going strong. It’s a small and hardworking team that put the event on. It started to rain.

TC VALE-019Saturday morning.

Light rain gave way to hot sun on the morning of the race. The start was a kilometre or so away and relatively late at 10am, allowing plenty of time for repacking and doubt. In all this time, I forgot to put on sunscreen, but Saki saved me by running back to get some (legend).

…Cinq, quatre, tres, deux, un – departe! We set off along a clay fire road, weaving down a bit and up the first rise. I knew the elevation profile featured about 8 big hills with around 3 – 400m of climbing, and a few smaller ones of 1 – 200 (this relative vagueness would be regretted before the day was out). The first hours went smoothly, walking most uphills and appreciating the glorious landscape. Coming down to Pont Perignon, the first checkpoint at 15k, was a beautiful site.

TC VALE-160We passed through in good time and I started making tentative plans to knock this thing out in 10 or 11 hours – no problem! David had suggested the winner should take 9.15 or so, but the guys and I privately wondered if that might be a little soft. Ah, hindsight.

This plan first unwound a little during a long near-vertical climb with ropes and much use of branches. Knew there was a reason (other) people do press-ups and whatnot. I greeted Mara as I passed and hoped he’d rally soon. Afterwards there was an excellent roll downhill through some jungle. My water ran out, as I’d been guzzling it in the humidity. A runner and I decided en route that we’d probably covered 30k by now, so the next checkpoint and chance to fill up should come any minute. Dropping down on to the road there was a sign – 20k. Ah. Bother. I wasn’t wearing a GPS as the battery life isn’t up to anything over 6 hours, and I like not worrying about speed etc anyway. But they have their useful side.

28k – 50k

It started to rain lightly, which meant I wasn’t super hot any more. There was some moderately flat/undulating tracks and then the 28k checkpoint at Pont Germain – a welcome sight. As I filled up with water and snacked, a cagou (the suavely crested native bird the event is named after) suddenly strolled confidently out of the bush as if to say ‘Bonjour! How are you enjoying my race?’ That had me smiling as I set off again for a roped river crossing.

By now my hill procedure was sorted – stride up them, lollop down, roll onward to the next climb. Whether it was due to weather, the different course, a slower pace or the socks, slipperiness hadn’t been too much of an issue. The semi-technical jungle running was good fun and pleasantly familiar, like trails in the Kaimais.

frenchconvoThe field was spread out so I’d been on my own for a while by this point. The self-absorbed happy monotony of an ultra was interspersed with moments of pure wonder that I was lucky enough to be running in such a cool landscape in a foreign country. After all, only a small percentage of people get to see such views, or examine the cool New Caledonian moss that grows at 400m and resembles pale green soapsuds. Peaking the hill after the 38k checkpoint, in the complete middle of nowhere, I came round a corner to see a man in a tent clapping. ‘Fantastic excellent!’ he called. Lovely.

System-check time came as I descended to the 50k checkpoint back at Pont Perignon. Tired? Yes, but in a normal way. Water had run out again but I had a pack swap coming. I was pretty happy with how the Fives and socks had fared on the rocks and clay – not one fall, despite some close calls. I hit the 50k mark in around 6 hours 40, and figured finishing in 11 hours should be no problem, with 4 hours or so left to cover 30k. Surely?

50k_checkpoint (1)Onwards and upwards – 50k+

I passed the gear check, swapped out the UltrAspire Surge for the Omega which I’d pre-filled, and decided to go ahead with a shoe change as my feet were a bit tender from the descents and the socks were threadbare (50k of rocks etc, not bad for op-shop socks). In hindsight, sticking with the Fives or at least taping my heels before running in new-ish shoes would have been a really good idea.

‘Bon courage!’ supporters called as I left. An appropriate farewell, as courage would certainly be needed for the next sections. As we passed 5.30pm it started to get dark. A new challenge was afoot – night running.

I’d borrowed a couple of LED Lenser headlamps for the race thanks to Steve and Stefan. These were good quality and did the trick for a while. The difficult part was keeping tabs on the orange ribbons that marked the course every 50m or so once the daylight went. The ribbons weren’t really reflective, so often I had slow down but wasn’t taking any risks of getting lost for the sake of time. Climbing again, I could see the Parc laid out in the moonlight and had another flash of gratitude for how amazing it was to be exploring a mountain in New Caledonia in the dark.

We started to hit patches of fog, which made things extremely interesting. Suddenly I couldn’t even see the ground, and searching for the markers got even slower. The terrain was still pretty varied – bush, slippery stuff, fire roads. People started to come past me, mostly those with super-bright Ay Up headlamps and/or poles. The pole people were very fast. Some of these competitors were relay runners, but it was hard to tell – if I looked back, I was blinded by their awesome lighting systems.

Up and down, endless up and down. Lots of walking. Experienced ultra-runner Jeremy had taken a laminated elevation profile with him, with aid stations marked on it – a really good idea. Personally I’d lost count of the ‘big’ hills – a really bad idea.

TC VALE-304Dark times

I thought I heard ‘neuf kilometers!’ to go, up near the top, and ran for half an hour figuring it must be the final descent before the end. At a river crossing, the volunteers told me there was actually 10k to go from there. Oh, and I had to turn right to go up another very big hill. Awesome! The fuel I had with me was gone because the run was taking longer than I’d predicted, the blisters hurt, and I was somewhat unimpressed. If 100 milers mean twice of much of this, I never want to do one. (Remind me of that if required). However, I girded my tired loins and stomped grumpily up the slope. Needless to say, a sub-11 or 12 hour finish had gone out the window.

Cresting the top seemed to be a good thing, but coming down was harder. The fog had rolled in again and even both headlamps together weren’t making any headway in the thick patches. ‘Merde!’ said a runner passing carefully. ‘Oh, pardon, good thing you don’t know French.’ Mm, I suspect everyone knows that much French. At a crossroads I wandered in the wrong direction a few times looking for the ribbons, couldn’t find anything, and had to take some deep breaths to regain equilibrium. This is a special kind of crazy. Standing in nothingness on the dark hill crying was a tempting option, but wouldn’t get me any closer to the finish.

Super Julien

Eventually someone came past with a super-torch, so I got going again. Julien turned out to be quite a saviour. He’d done the 53k before, so only got lost half as often as we descended. I’m sure he could have gone faster, but could probably sense the low ebb and gallantly ignored my ‘merci, au revoir’s. Also, being in front meant he was the one to fall into thigh-deep puddles or mud, and I knew what to avoid.

Soreness, raw blisters and wooziness got blanked out in the adrenaline of being nearly there as we covered the final few ks. The last part we ran up a stream through the water. That was also a special kind of ridiculous, but it didn’t matter any more. The lights of the finish were in sight, and from somewhere I found a sprint. J’arrive! Relief and satisfaction descended.

TC POD-001I wanted an adventure and absolutely got one. 12 hours 48 was the final time. The men’s winner, local Ludovic Lanceleur, ran 10.42, demonstrating the non-softness of David’s original prediction. A third of the field didn’t finish.

1st: Ludovic LANCELEUR – 10.42

2nd Christophe H LOUBRIAT – 11.08

3rd: Stephen RENNICK – 11.20

Full results here (scroll to ‘classement UTDC Vale’).

I’d been given the seeded number 06 and hoped to live up to it in the overall race, but 10th wasn’t far off at least. It was a huge learning experience. I think headlight choice, course familiarity and some proper training would knock big chunks of that time. However, I was happy, and with a shower, fresh clothes, and a free massage, even happier. (Thanks to Angelique for lending me the shorts!) Too amped to sleep, I settled near the finish for several hours to ‘bravo!’ fellow survivors. The last person came in at 23.5 hours, sneaking in under the cut-off.

IMG_8923The next day we snoozed, ate, and swapped war stories. I had my first, epic, ride in a helicopter, swooping over the Parc like a bird.Papayas and pamplemousses as big as my head got devoured. A generous Kiwi called Ian offered a ride to Ilot de Maitre in his yacht the next day for snorkeling and paddleboarding (amazing). Lovely lady Véronique rung to invite me to the spa, but I was off helming the yacht – you know how it is.

‘You’re the New Zealander who is smiling all day!’ said someone to me at the Monday prizegiving. With experiences and hospitality like this, it’s hard not to. I heartily recommend this race to NZ trail runners wanting something different – it’s well organized, closer than Australia, on a tropical island, and everyone is super friendly. I’m extremely grateful to David and his team for the invitation, and to Ruby for the referral (bon courage pour Mont Blanc). Thanks to organizers and volunteers, the runners for providing great company, and everyone who contributed to a seriously excellent holiday. And of course my main sponsor Barefoot Inc.

Gear:

Fivefingers (Spyridons)

Inov8 Roclite 236s

Socks x 4 (op shop)

Shorts, singlet

UltrAspire Surge pack

UltrAspire Omega pack

 

Nutrition – bit of a mixture:

Vfuels leftover from the hundy although more would have been nice (dear Vfuel Inc, please send BCR some more stock soon)

Clif bloks

Em’s Power Bars (gluten free)

Leftover Perpetuem Solids

Nuuns

Watermelon etc

 


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  1. Great report Dawn! Nice to met you there, wish you some more adventures and international successes. :D

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