Volvic Volcanic Experience

07.15.2019 | No comments
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An invitation to a little known race came to me in December. The Volvic Volcanic Experience 100km in Volvic, France. I knew not where that was, or really anything about the race, but I love an adventure, and I love France, so of course, I accepted.

Since January of this year, my calendar has been race centric – part by chance, part by design. I ran three 100k and one 50k by the end of April. I was pleased with my fitness, mentally and physically. Except for one small thing. One little nagging yet manageable knee pain. It was mostly a whisper to an inside voice, and with rest, back to a whisper (and by rest I mean one night of sleep between workouts). And then it happened – I did a workout one morning, got the thing a little spicy, then went for a group social run that evening, where everything came apart. I ended up hobbling back, and spent the next 3 days barely moving to let my knee calm down.

It improved rapidly, but only to a certain point. From the time of the acute injury until the race, I had 10 days. I avoided anti-inflammatories, running, lifting – anything that would delay healing. I remained optimistic. Mark and I boarded the plane for France 3 days before the race, at which point I succumbed to taking NSAIDS to mask the pain, to see if that would allow me to get through the race.

Arriving in France, the real magic of the week began. It had nothing to do with me. We were greeted by our taxi driver for the week, Georges, and one of my competitors, Sarah Verguet Moniz from Portugal. And we proceeded to a meeting place where we finally got to meet our hostess (for lack of a better word) Marjorie Gadot. She was warm and had the patience of a saint. We went over what the next 2 days of activities were, and then we were off to our accommodations. Narrow, winding, verdant roadways through a few small villages, and at last out in the countryside we were delivered to the Volca Lodge. The owners were extremely friendly and proud of their accommodations, and with good reason. The reception was the upper floor of an old barn (European old as in probably over 200 years) and the lower floor was a converted dairy into a lovely restaurant.

Our luggage was placed in a golf cart and were transported about 50 yards below the reception to our – what I would consider – tiny house. It was made from all locally sourced materials, and had a roof of plants, a small deck, and a wee spa. The view was a pleasant meadow and very private. 

Dinner in the lodge was typical French with course after course of beautifully plated food that was excellent. I managed to stay awake until a reasonable hour, but my inner clock had me awake from 2:00 am on. 

The restaurant

In the morning I ate plenty of the croissants. A bit later, we runners met up with Marjorie and one of the race organizers, Jean Michel Chopin. Other runners there were Dawa Sherpa of Nepal and his wife Annie, Francesca Canepa of Italy and her husband, and Sarah. After much talking in French and a little bit of translation for me we all piled into some cars. Jean Michel explained to Mark and I on the drive his passion for the land, for the community, for the way the water naturally processed itself and how the trail connecting the volcanoes and the villages was a perfect venue to share this passion, and more importantly, change the farming practices to preserve the purity of the water.  His approach to putting on a race was it needed to make sense and to have a purpose. The course turned out to be 110k, and for him, that was perfect because it was the length of the already existing pathway. The proceeds from the race go to the local farmers to help them make the change from traditional chemically dominant agriculture to what the French refer to as “Bio-Agriculture”  which is what we refer to as organic. This not only benefits the consumer, but keeps the Volvic water, which is the result of fluvial processes through the volcanic rock, pure. Another benefit is restoration of natural bee populations which are then creating honey and pollinating native plants.

Our first stop was to the studio of Thierry Courtadon, a very well established sculptor, with works displayed around the world, included 5th avenue in NYC. He proudly showed us his current works, and they were like nothing I have seen, all created from the local lava stone. 

Next we were transported to an open space along a country road, across from an unexpected bit of sculpture aside. We were greeted by another organizer, Daniel who proceeded to tell us about the relationship between having farmers converting to bio-agriculture, and the return of bees to the habitat, and presented us each with a gift of honey. 

At this point we were behind schedule and sent back to our lodging for lunch. We were able to skip a few meetings, then went back to the race headquarters to pick up our bibs, do a gear check, and then participate in a press conference. Being the only non-French speaker on the stage, I was given special head phones in which an interpreter was translating for me, what each individual was saying. The panel consisted of myself, Sarah, Francesca, the two winners from last year, Dawa Sherpa, and Killian Journet, who is the ambassador for this event. The most humorous bit for me was being asked a question, in which I answered in too much length, for when it was asked to be interpreted, the interpreter said it was so long he forgot what I said. 

Killian remained on stage for further interviewing regarding the nature of the event and the involvement of Volvic and the Danone group with helping promote bio-agriculture, and he went on at length with his commitment to the environment and to nature. It was such a unique, for me, experience to have this theme really be the forefront of the event, seemingly it’s sole purpose.

Killian being asked about the importance of the environment to him.

Back at our lodging, and through the interpretation of our multi-lingual friends, we were able to procure a pasta dinner, after which I retired. I had finally let Marjorie know that I had injured my knee the previous week and was unsure about my ability to finish the race. She showed deep concern for me and not an ounce of pressure to do the run. I said I would start and give it my best.

I slept a few hours, and then at 2:00 am was up to eat some eggs, cheese, and coffee. At about 2:45 I made my way up to where the taxi would pick Sarah and me up. We were on our way by 3:00. I took 2 Aleve, something I do not recommend or approve of, but I wanted to give my hosts a good shot at completing at what I had been asked to come here for. 

At the start area, pitch black lighted by the unique fire structures nearby, the energy was good, fun, promising. I finally ran into my friend, Sange Sherpa from Nepal, and then Sarah, Francesca, and myself were asked to come up to the very front for the start. That made me nervous, as I knew full well there would be some stampeding. At last the countdown, and then we were off! I kept my focus on safety as I was overwhelmed by over anxious runners forging by quickly. We hit some trail soon, and I was relieved that although I could feel my knee, it wasn’t too bad.

I fell into a nice relaxed rhythm, slowly jogging and hiking the climbs, and then very cautiously relaxing on the flats and downs. I could feel my knee but so far, very manageable. The trail was only a bit rocky, wide enough for two runners, and with my headlamp I could see that most of the runners were using trekking poles. I knew it was allowed (it is Europe) but hadn’t trained with them since the course appeared to be pretty runnable. I did however have them tucked in a belt in case my knee took a bad turn and I could use them to unweight my leg.

For the most part I was enjoying the course, even in the dark. We were in a forest, the temps were mild, the terrain varied from gradual up, to some pretty steep but short climbs, and then downs that would have been more fun if it were light and i wasn’t guarding. It was fairly congested for the first hour or so, but eventually we spread out as day break came. I was fairly high on the first climb and heard music at the top – a banjo and accordion player serenading the runners in the morning mist brought a smile to my face. 

We hit the descent, and at first things were “okay” but the more down I went the more my knee protested, and the more I guarded by using my other leg to work. I kept hoping that eventually I’d just loosen up, or warm up, but not give up, and that hope became almost all I could think of. 

I came into the first aid station, and from there actually had quite a long stretch of flat running on a gravel road, a bit of pavement, and then of all things, we ran right through a Museum of Volcanoes! it was quite different, but I noticed at least one runner took advantage of an indoor toilet. Eventually we wound our way out and back into the forest and single track. 

Next ahead was the big climb to Puy de Dome – the highest volcanic dome in the region, with a notable set of quite high antennas. Running up the now wide dirt road, I began to see runners coming toward me and it took a minute to realize this was an out and back section. It wasn’t long before I saw Sarah bounding down towards me, and we quickly cheered each other on. I thought that the top must not be that far off. I was wrong. I crossed some railroad tracks, eyes peeling for any other women coming down, only to finally see Francesca Canepa coming down and she yelled “It’s horrible!” I didn’t learn until later that both her Achilles tendons were quite sore and that eventually she would drop out. 

Puy de Dome

I checked my watch, as I had whenI saw Sarah, and 15 minutes had already passed. The top seemed far away still, and just as I reached it, another woman was coming down. Once at the top we were directed to the left to follow a cement path, which ended up winding all the way around the top of the dome, which was actually quite long, and ended at the 2nd aid station. I carefully had my bottles filled, and then left, passing two women who had arrived before me. While it boosted my spirits, the descent was already feeling awkward and I was galloping more than running. My head started to argue loudly that this was not going well, and wasn’t going to get better. Just then I heard some speak in English “Good job!”. That got my attention, so I looked for the supporter and was touched to see it was Killian, remembering that I was the English speaking woman on the stage the night before. Shortly after, Jean Michel was coming up and was so excited to see me, gave me a high 5 as I galloped by.

Typical trail of the course through a Beech forest

Ah heck, I thought, I gotta keep going. I want to finish this to show respect for the organizers and appreciation for their generosity. I entered a narrow rutted downhill single track, and my mind flipped right back to “this is a terrible idea”. I struggled like Jeckyl and Hyde for the next several miles – feeling not too bad on the climbs, and feeling pretty bad on the flats and downs. It just seemed like I was getting worse, and then I started limping. I pulled out my poles, and tried to even out my pace, but the whole ordeal only frustrated me to tears. Oh no, I’m not going to do that, no breaking down, no pity party, but I’m done. 

I somewhat hobbled along to the next set of volunteers who were managing a road crossing, told the first one there that I needed to drop. Her English was impeccable, and she helped me to the back of a car, offered me food and a jacket, and she and another volunteer kept checking on me. I sent a text to Marjorie that I had to drop. I sat in the back of the car, watching runners go by, cheering them on. When the last runner was through the volunteers drove me back to the finish, where I was still able to enjoy watching runners from all the distances finish. Sange won for the men, and Sarah for the women.

I’d be remiss if I left the story here, but the experience continued, and bears telling. In the evening Mark and I were treated to street performances of local girls dancing, and these “horse riders” https://www.animare.eu/en/horseriders

Street performers

But perhaps my favorite part of the week was the day after the race, where we participated in a Rando’gastro – which was a walk with a three course meal similar to our progressive dinners!  A large group of participants gathered near the town square where Jean Michel asked the invited athletes to come up to be recognized, where Sange Sherpa pulled out his wooden flute and played a Nepalese traditional song, and began walking through the cobblestoned alley, flock in tow, like the Pied Piper. The rest of the morning into early afternoon, we hiked through woods from one course to the next, enjoying food made by locals, music, and French countryside. By the end we had covered 10 miles, and 3 courses. My knee held up fine, thankfully. The rest of the afternoon into the evening was filled with yet another meal of local food, accompanied by live music and light show.

This race has made a lasting impression – putting the runner experience high on the priority list, and not just the race, but the culture of the region. The surrounding communities were respected and involved. Friendliness and inclusivity abounded. I fully intend to return next year and complete the race, and have another great experience with the people.

Many thanks to the race organizers, Jean Michel Chopin and his amazing assistant Marjorie Gadet whose Cat Herding abilities were exemplary.  Thanks to my sponsors The North Face, Squirrels Nut Butter, Nathan Sports, Injinji, and Now Foods. And to Mark for traipsing around the world with me.

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