Grand Raid des Pyrenees - Full race account

It’s 6:30am and we’re up on the black slopes before the piste bashers are even out of the garage. But we don’t need their engine - we’re here to run 30km across the snowy peaks of the midi-Pyrenees, and it’s leg, solar, and snow powered. The Grand Raid des Pyrenees Hiver is an annual mountain race in the Midi-Pyrenees, starting from the ornate town of Saint Lary. The race start, only accessible by cable car, starts from the ski resort at 1650 above sea level, and from then on, it’s a race filled with determination, appreciation, and apprehension.

As our first snow running experience, there was a huge sense of unknown, leading to some tough lessons learned for my friend Dave and I. Important things like kit lists, race information, and intense training should never be underestimated. That being said, these problems can be overcome with a little self belief, friendly French translators, and a last minute trip to Decathlon for the forgotten emergency blanket. Along with Tobias Mews (ultra-running guru and adventure athlete), we were the only Brit’s daft enough to run that day, and considering myself and Dave’s amateur characteristics, I think we did pretty well, and enjoyed one of my favourite races to date.

After the intensive start of an 800m vertical climb, the route followed breath-stealing ascents, and un-runnable descents. Gasping for the thin mountain air, feet crunching through compact snow, quads burning as I reached the top of the vertical climbs running high above a duvet of clouds. The course was tough, and I was ill-prepared in comparison to the 288 French (90% male) participants. I felt vulnerable in comparison without ski poles (nope, didn’t get the memo), and even more vulnerable without a bin liner which was nonchalantly whipped out by everyone at the top of the first ascent in order to sledge down. Your legs couldn’t take the gradient, feet either crunching a foot deeper into hard snow, or twisting over small boulders of fresh powder, body unable to keep upright and withstand the speed. So we all just kind of sat down, in the ready made sledge paths of the faster runners before, and sledge we did! It felt fast, and a little strange. It was fun and exhilarating at first, but after 6metres of my thin lycra Skins being tested by the ice, the chafe pain made it a real struggle – a downhill struggle.

The first half of the race was a strong test of running ability, both mentally and physically. Although generous with the weather – (cloudy still, but generous) – the mountains were throwing everything like mountains do, and we were really out in the elements. Crampons were essential, as was the need to have all limbs covered, and in order to see anything at all then sunglasses were a must. The sky was overcast, but the light from the sun still shone through, lighting up everything and reflecting off the blinding snow. It was gloriously white. A huge contrast to the melted town of Saint Lary below, which you would never guess was a ski resort in the depth of winter. Most of the time I was a nice temperature, in long sleeves the cold forceful air was refreshing after the steaming temperature of dragging myself uphill, and the high sun was warming. The thin air was still noticeable, but still a lot more comfortable than my training runs back in London, gasping for breath in amongst red buses on Old Street roundabout. The combined low air pressure and the cold weather, caused considerable difficulty for oxygen to enter the vascular system, and when you’re already fighting for breath, and fighting in the snot that’s inevitably rolling down your upper lip – it’s a hard run!

Any trail runner would agree that there’s nothing quite like seeing a mountain range from afar, then having the ability to run amongst it, explore its depths, consumed by the geography of its making. The views of the Midi-Pyrenees were no exception, and after a little recce up to the ski-slopes the day before, it felt almost unreal to be running inside the Instagram photo I’d taken 24 hours earlier. Starting off in the dark light of the winter morning, the blue snow turning lighter as the sun rose from below, looking down on a soft blanket of orange. As we ran, the earth moved, but the mountains remained strong, offering views of snowy peaks, smooth ski slopes, rocky outcrops in the lowest sections, and a beautiful view of a frozen lake (Insert lake name) on the valley bottom.

By the time I reached the lake at around 20km, my legs were crying at me for some flat terrain and dryish trail of the valley. But after beasting ascent like that, I was too tired to run normally, and it was hard to find the rhythm we all long for in an endurance race. The lake was glorious, and I felt like I was running inside a postcard. A huge vast space of ice and trail, surrounded by trees, offering an alternative view to the high peaks of the first 20km. Although unable to run with style, the level ground surrounding the lake was a good ground breaker mid way point, like a firmer beach run but without the ice cream at the end.

No 99 flakes but the French really do know how to feed trail runners. The two check points along the route were wonderfully staffed by friendly volunteers, and offered some of the best route snacks I’ve ever experienced. A delicious spread of carbs, fats and sugars lined the tables, better than a continental breakfast at some of London’s hotels. Hungry and a little delirious, I went hands in, shovelling cubes of emmental, salami, and crackers, into my mouth, and rough cuts of dark chocolate into my camelback for later. There was hot soup ‘on tap’ tea and coffee, as well as fruit cake freshly made that morning. They knew what we wanted, and highly exceeded every runners hungry expectations.

After finally reaching the finish line after five hours of real free running, I was so relieved to stop the movement in my legs and stretch out. I was finally back down to the ground with civilisation, and a solid concrete road which thankfully, was not covered in snow. I was speechless in the cable car back down to Saint Lary as we reflected on the days experience. It took me five hours and forty minutes to travel 30km that day. Comfort zones were explored, and new limits reached both in the summits I climbed and the inner mental battle when my legs overshadowed my mind in telling me I couldn’t go any further. It was a race of pushing boundaries, and running into the unknown. If you’re looking to step outside your zone of relaxation, enter a race where you have non idea what’s ahead of each step, enter the Grand Raid Pyrenees.

Sarah Pritchard