Trail des Patrouilleurs - Fantastic trail running in a beautiful place
I can see a very strong argument that no good day starts with an alarm at 1.55, and certainly that is how I felt when I was awoken at that time on Saturday morning. My motivation and mood did not improve dramatically over my breakfast, or the hour’s drive that followed. At 4am I was at the race office in Crans-Montana (I have never quite worked out what is Crans and what is Montana), and as with so many previous races I was amazed to find fantastic, bright eyed and helpful volunteers who were obviously a lot more resilient to the early start than I was.
I was doing the Trubelstock course, which at 55km and 4240m of vertical, was the longest race of the weekend, and which started at 5.00. By 4.50 it was getting fairly busy, and people were starting to wander out to the start line, though even then most people seemed very happy to sacrifice a good start position in favour of waiting until the last minute to venture out into the cold. The gun went off with perfect Swiss punctuality, and we were away. Pretty quickly we had climbed out of the shelter of the village, and I had to put on gloves against the chill of the early autumnal morning. The first section of the race involves a climb that is steep enough not to be taken lightly, and right from the start my legs were feeling jaded. Unfortunately the sluggishness in my legs was just the first indication that my body was not in a good mood.
At the top of the first climb we came to an aid station, followed by a fairly long descent. It was during the descent that my stomach decided to voice its displeasure at the day’s endeavours. Fortunately my stomach never got really bad, but from this point on it was never especially comfortable.
Towards the bottom of the descent it finally got light enough to put away my head torch, and then after a quick refill of soft flasks at the second aid station we were into the second climb of the day. From here to Plaine Morte was a series of medium length climbs interspersed with short sections of descent, but unfortunately a combination of my body not feeling great, and thick hanging cloud over Grand-Bonvin meant that I did not really get to appreciate the views.
Plaine Morte is one of the places that can be accessed by the lift system, and also it is on all 3 of the longer race routes. This meant that there were quite a lot of spectators, and a lot of runners of different speeds, so things started to feel a bit more crowded around the aid station. The views from Plaine Morte are fantastic, and by then the clouds had cleared, so it seemed like a good time to try and take a few photos. Unfortunately the cold wind had frozen the battery of my phone, so I was stuck with legs that felt empty, a stomach that felt all wrong, and a phone that had died so that I could not even prove to social media that I had achieved something, all in all a bit of a disaster. Fortunately, despite feeling far from good, I still seemed to be moving at an ok speed.
Prior to the race I was hoping to get under 10 hours, but by Plaine Morte I had almost given up on this. Fortunately the section between Plaine Morte and the final aid station was fast and fairly easy, and again I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt able to keep a fairly decent speed even when my body did not feel quite right. I was very happy to realise during this section that I would still be able to achieve my goal in terms of time. After the last aid station there was a slight sting in the tail with a climb that was just long enough and steep enough to hurt, but I had just enough left in my legs to make it over the top, and then it was just the last few kilometres of racing to the finish. Then about half way down the final descent to Crans Montana I realised that with a bit of effort I could actually make it in under 9 hours. This was a nice surprise, but it did mean that I could not just relax and enjoy the final section of the race.
After hammering down as fast as my still reluctant body would go I got to a part of the village that I knew and realised that I was going to make it in under 9 hours. The last section through the village goes rather bizarrely through a lift station, down a multi storey carpark staircase and then finally down the longest escalator I have experienced outside of the London Underground, a very strange series of terrain changes and challenges for a trail race (the shame of hurting yourself falling down an escalator in this context would be humbling to say the least). Safely down the escalator and you are outside again in the sun and into the final hundred metres of the race. My final time of 8hrs 54mins was only slightly soured by the fact that my family were still on the bus as they were not expecting me to finish for a further 30 minutes, but I was just really happy that a day when I had struggled so much had turned out very well. The final very nice surprise came after my family arrived and informed me that I had finished 10th, which was a far better position than I thought that I had achieved.
In the end a day that had been very tough, and felt like nothing was going quite right, turned into an unexpectedly solid performance. It does not change the fact that for most of the day I was struggling and feeling pretty ropey, but it shows what you can achieve if you just put your head down and plough on even when things do not feel easy.
Trail des Patrouilleurs has 4 distances to choose from (55, 40, 25 and 15), with the 2 longest courses sharing a lot of the same terrain. In fact both courses manage to include the best sections, without the extra sections on the longer course feeling at all like they were just padding to bulk up the distance. I think that this is fantastic, as it really does mean that you cannot go wrong in choosing either distance.
Aside from a couple of short technical sections the trails are all fairly good and fast, which is a real contrast to a race like Trail du Besso, which feels a lot more like a mountain race than a traditional trail race. I absolutely loved Trail du Besso, but I also really enjoyed the more free and easy running of Trail des Patrouilleurs, and I certainly think that it makes for a race that suits a wider range of levels of experiences (Trail du Besso is definitely not as suited to runners who are less experienced in the mountains).
Another aspect of the race that I really like is that the whole event is structured around people doing the races as teams of 2 or 3, which makes for a different atmosphere to most solo races. This year for the first time solo entrants could enter, but only on the Trubelstock course (this is how I entered).
I also really appreciated the way that the courses are set out, as it means that the 3 longest courses all come together for the Plaine Morte section. The trails that the races share are all good, and most are fairly wide, so there is no issue with different speeds and overtaking, but I do like how it meant that most people got to share the most spectacular section even if they were doing different races. It had the effect of making it feel like you were all part of a shared event, instead of being part of very distinct races.
All in all I thought that Trail des Patrouilleurs was a fantastic event. It is well run, has a good atmosphere, and it manages to have a range of distances of races that all feel like they use the terrain really well. They are all good distinct courses while also interweaving really nicely together. Certainly if you are in the area and looking for a race to do it is well worth considering.