It was one of the moments I realized what I would be facing – in the first night approaching a climb I saw headlamps. But not somewhere in front of me but literally ABOVE me. I stopped for a moment hoping it was the moon or some bright stars shining through the trees but no: those were cleary moving LEDs. Seconds later the crawl started.
L´ Infernal Trail des Vosges is an (ultra) trail race in the Vosges mountains in the North-East of France. Covering distances from 15 to 200k this event is for everyone. And apparently everyone accepts the invite. The tiny town Saint-Nabord turns into a huge trail running festival for a whole really long weekend in September (2023 was the 15th edition of the event). Some of the shorter distances have more than 500 participants – a whole runners village/expo is built up – a sound system, light shows, fire work – you name it. Normally nothing I desperately hope for but the vibe was great – festival feeling. 700+ volunteers work relentlessly to run the village and all CP along the course. Although you don’t get anywhere with English they do their best to care about you and whatever which you may have. Big shoutout to orga/volunteers – this was an amazing job. Magnifique!
Luckily the #IT200 as the longest race starts first – so the hustle and bustle was not too bizarre at the start. I am lucky to have great friends and could take the train to Freiburg where I was picked-up and brought to the start (and picked-up after the finish on Sunday). What a service – thank you! Midnight start is not my favourite kind of thing as it just adds more sleep deprivation to the story. We arrived in Saint-Narbord 3 hours before start – enough time to place the drop-backs, check the backpack, make it through the kit check into the huge start area to wait for the start.
What a start it was. After a few probably useful information in French which I did not understand we were ask to quiet down and epic music was played culminating in the countdown to start. A proper firework, more music and a burning L´ Infernal logo sent us off into the Vosges night – pretty emotional for a start.
Although I obviously checked the track, the total distance and the elevation gain quite a bit upfront to the race I was unsure how this would actually feel in reality. The first climb made one thing really clear: it was going to be brutal. From the LegendsTrails runs I am used to ridiculous climbing but the Vosges are higher and steeper compared to the Ardennes. Overall it was a bit less technical (e.g. there is no Ourthe part in IT200) – but only a tiny bit. There were Mountainbike parks, ski slopes, senseless up and down on small rivers, straight and direct climbs with more than 30% slope – both up and down. In summary: a real brutal and pure ultra experience. And it never stopped – there was no mercy with the runners at all. One hit after the other. Something which drains you both physically and mentally until you are stripped-down to your core with nothing left. To continue in this stage is what ultra is all about. On top of this the weather added another difficulty with bright and sunny days with 30°C on Friday and even a bit hotter on Saturday. Heat can be a real problem. Nothing you need on top of the above described.
On the other hand: Vosges – how beautiful are you? Superb landscape, fantastique views! Not too many people out there – a perfect area. It was a great journey through those valley and over all those hills/mountains.
The checkpoints provided the needed breaks from all of that. In addition to the CP there were some unmanned water points dividing difficult stretches – well organized. Always enough water and supply at hand even in hot conditions (although there were stretches where I consumed 2L of water). The strategy for me could only be: stay focused and don’t do mistakes. So I set the watch timer to one hour and took a salt pill every hour and made sure to drink enough. This saved me from heat damage and worked really well in the given conditions. The rest was the usual fight. There were dark moments with lowered motivation, there were critical situation especially in the third night (unstable running, deadly tiredness, loss of focus, being chased by hornets) – but I was awaiting and embracing them and therewith taking their force away. At a few checkpoints I closed my eyes for 10-15 min each: this helped to ease the moments of fatigue so that I did not need to sleep on trail.
Overall everything worked-out as well as I could possibly hope for. Crossing the finish line at 0214 in the third night after 50h and 14 min of travelling through the Vosges was a great relieve.
A nice finisher hoodie, a worn empty bottle of coke were the rewards of yet another great, rough and truly ultra experience.
Clear recommendation for everyone who wants to push beyond. Be warned – the elevation is really extraordinary outside of the real mountains.