6000 m of climb in 120km of mixed mountain terrain over 3 days in temperatures up to 50 deg Celsius in and around the Grand Canyon of Europe.

An article in the October 1998 edition of TODAYS RUNNER by Jolyon Crosthwaite about the 6th Verdon Gorge Race caught my attention. I had been looking for something that was a little bit different from the ultra runs and Mountain Marathons that fill my annual race calendar and wanted to race abroad in an event that would be demanding, challenging and enjoyable. This seemed to fit the bill so I wrote off by return for details. I was not to be disappointed. After the angst of having to pay out so much money to enter a race (£195) and realising the costs of ferry and travel (another £200) I put that behind me and concentrated on building my race and training programme towards competing in this years Verdon Gorge race, 1-3 July.

My race preparation consisted of my usual ultra training with build-up races beginning in February and finishing in June with key races as follows:






Meon Plod


21 M

158 mins


Goodwood Gallop


13 M

92 mins


Compton Downland Challenge


40 M

309 mins


Mid-Cornwall Coastal Challenge


33 M

300 mins


Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon (2 days)


42 M

807 mins


By the end of June I felt fit and ready for the Gorge. I had trained and raced with my Camelbak and was used to using Hi5 and Carb-boom as supplements to plain water. I was keen to race against like-minded Europeans and looked forward to a bit of sunshine. The stage was set.

I met up with an old race buddy, Steve Sharp, former winner of the LAMM and we set off for the little mountain village of Aiguines in Provence, some 100km north east of Marseille, which hosts the start and finish of the race. It was a long drive, but we had given ourselves a rest day on arrival to recover and get used to the heat. School French was useful at registration as no-one at registration spoke English, however, we signed our way through it all and spent considerable time studying the excellent course profiles produced for each days race. A 1:25,000 wall map helped bring the course alive and it wasn't long before we realised that this was going to be the equivalent of a LAMM Elite Day 2 followed by two KIMM Elite Day 1s. We couldn't wait to get going.

Each competitor was obliged to carry their own water system (bladder or bottles), whistle, waterproof and torch (day 1 only). Only the british seemed to have their waterproofs at the start, everyone else just smiled! The rest of your kit was transferred to the overnight stop. The organisers plea that everyone should wear the voluminous event T-shirt for the start was given a stiff ignoring by all. A singlet and factor 25 was about as much as you could bear.

Of the 156 starters, there were 12 from UK, with the rest coming from France, Ireland, Italy, and Germany. Of the British, most were there prepared only to survive, enjoy and be enriched by the experience. A few wished to give a good account of themselves, and they did. British competitors were: Gwyn Jones (Fellrunner), Danny Heggs (TRA), Chris Hutcheson, Ray Ziel (Ironman triathlete), Nic Karinias, Steve Sharp (MMs), Neil Schofield, Steven Seaton, Rachael Cubberley and Karen Thomas.

RACE DAY 1 - 30.5km - 1750m climb.

Breakfast at 5am, still dark – hand heavy bags in, then down from the campsite to the start in the village. A big fanfare start in the centre of the village then a screaming downhill loop of about 35 mins before climbing back up to the village and on up the major climb to Le Grand Marges (1591m). This is the southern ridge of the gorge and it afforded us super views in all directions. From there it was a long downhill stretch over tortuous terrain. Fist size rocks and steep narrow paths made the going tricky. Occasional grassy stretches allowed you to pick up the pace then into the woods for a long period of downhill running on earthy, rocky paths to the lower half of the gorge and a steep stepped path descending 200m to the river. Time here for the British to make up some time by splashing straight through the glacial river whilst the others took their shoes and socks off!

There was then a beautiful stretch through the trees along the bank of the river, with a cool wind in your face. This provided a lovely cooling effect before the long climb to Breche Imbert where we were faced with negotiating several hundred very steep ladder steps down through a gully. From there it was a long run up and down the west wall of the gorge across boiling limestone rock to a set of tunnels. By now the temperature was high and it was extremely thirsty work. The tunnels were cool and welcome after such a long time in the open.

Another kilometre and we reached the final drink station (4 in all) then it was 3km to the finish and 300 metres of climb. It was a brutal end to the day and the end couldn’t come quick enough. Company was good throughout, scenery was wonderful and the tent was bearable (just).

I took 4:28 to complete the course and found myself in 12th position. Glyn Jones was in 10th in 4:27 and Steve was in 17th in 4:36. We were all very pleased with our first days run. I felt in good shape and the massage provided for all competitors did much to ease the aches out of the legs and back.

Rougon offered a cold beer and some shade whilst watching out for the stragglers. Some were out for up to 10 hrs. The afternoon saw most people trying to find shade as the temperature climbed to a steady 52 deg Celsius.

RACE DAY 2 - 46.6km - 2451m climb.

Reveille at 0445 for a 0600 start which was delayed by 15 mins. Today was to be a tough one. 46.6 km and 2451m of climb which changed marginally to 44km and 2265m of climb due to the National Park refusing permission for the race to use their ground. The Race started at a steady clip with 900m ascent to Le Grand Mourre over about 11km. It was just light and nice and cool. We were able to keep in the shade for most of the way and on reaching the ridge line we were offered a superb early morning view of the Alps in all their glory.

From there we had a gully descent followed by a long scree run down to a bit of a plateau. The route went astray here amongst the scrub bushes and we wasted a few minutes getting orientated. I pulled out my map and compass, got sorted and shouted to the others to follow me, off we galloped.

It was at this point that Steve seemed to get a second wind and he just motored off down the hillside and I didn't see him again until the finish. Shortly after this we hit the first control and I had already drunk my Camelbak dry so it took a little time to top up, drink and eat and get on my way. Once again the route was not well marked and I missed a turn. Fortunately I was only about 400m past it so I retraced my steps. It does lower morale a bit though.

From here we had a long hot climb up to Chateauneuf Mousiers, a little monastery. Now we were in the open on a ridgeline and the sun was getting hotter. Up and on we climbed for about 8km. Views were magnificent and we could look across the valley to where we had descended some 90 mins before and see others cracking on down. I was in about 16th at this stage and feeling okay though very hot. Glyn was just ahead and I eventually caught him at the next feeding station. We then ran together for the next 15km. From the control we had another tortuous descent for some 8 km along an aggregate track which basked in airless sunshine. It was murder on my feet and I had to take some painkillers to beat off the suffering. They didn’t work!

We were now faced with a demoralising 400m climb that went on forever, my first real low point. I left Glyn, just before the summit and ran down and up to the Col, which would be the start of our descent to the Lake Sainte Croix. It was horrible, about 500m of drop over 1km on ground that was characterised by large boulders and aggregate, really painful. This dropped us onto a road and the final drink station. I absolutely drenched myself in water at this point. I drank a litre of glucose and water, filled the Camelbak and then walked off. I was now in 10th position but pretty tired and with 8km and another 200m drop then a 400m climb to the finish, I wanted today’s leg over ASAP.

The climb was up a gully, which was a heat trap and took its toll. Fortunately, we passed a campsite and I detoured into the ablutions to pour a lot of cold water over me and cool myself down. ( Steve told me later that he spent 1 min under a cold shower) On and on went the climb. I seemed to get slower and some 4 runners passed me, all looking great !

Eventually I picked up the pace and was able to catch 2 of the guys, and put on a burst to beat them to the line by about 2 mins. It had been a very hard day. I was pretty exhausted, my feet needed some repair work and the massage was to say the least, painful.

Steve had an excellent run in 6.5 hours (6th overall), I was in on 7:02 (10th overall), Dan was sitting 13th Vet 1 and Ray was 4th Vet 2, both were very tired. Sadly, Glyn retired at the last checkpoint after suffering from ripped feet after the descent. The medecac helicopter had been in demand today, several injuries and heat casualties were flown off the mountains for treatment by the excellent medical support team that were on hand throughout.

Steve needed his ankle strapped and we both needed blister work. We skipped the organised lunch and brewed some noodles and a beef stock drink. That evening we slowly recovered over a pizza whist Ray plotted how to pull off 3rd in the Vet 2 category.

RACE DAY 3 - 37.1 km - 1674m climb.

Day 3 was always going to be hard, but then we wanted it to be, an easy finish would have been an anti-climax. We were not to be disappointed. Few of the competitors spoke English but running was our common language and though we were racing there was much camaraderie amongst those starting the last day. Everyone was suffering from something and there was much back-slapping and handshaking going on before the start. It felt good to be part of such an event.

The first part of the route saw us re-trace our final 8 km of the day before. This time it was downhill, fast and in the shade. By the time we reached the road and started the 700m ascent to the ridgeline that parallels the gorge on its northern side, the field was well spaced out. Sadly for me, this is where I started to experience a few problems. I was suffering badly from a bout of hiccups which were causing me to belch and occasionally throw up. By the time I got to the ridgeline I was a bit wobbly so drank a lot of Hi5 and jogged on hoping to recover. I didn't. I then realised over the course of the next 5 km that I had something fermenting in my gut causing all the aggro. If I drank, I threw up, if I didn't, I dehydrated. I opted for continuing to drink and ran/jog/walked as best I could to the next check where I emptied out the Camelbak bladder and refilled it with plain water. This helped for a little while but it appeared that the fermentation process was still alive and well in me and whilst my legs felt strong, my upper body wouldn't let them work too hard so I was forced to fast walk large chunks of runable terrain. It was very frustrating, even more so when Ray came whistling past intent on his 3rd Vets 2 place. I clung on to his coat tails and this proved a good move as I ran a lot more than I would have had I been on my own. The route had been awesome during the course of the morning. Following the line of the gorge about 400m above the water we followed tiny ledge paths in and out of gullies, under cliffs and over rock falls. Every turn offered a new vista and most of the time all you could do was say, "wow".

Following an adventurous run down to the gorge bottom and a river crossing at the same point as Day 1 it was a hefty climb up to the road, a welcome drink stop then 4km of hot, hot running up to the final drink station. I knew if I could make this then I could make it to the finish 8 km beyond. I was now in survival running mode, the belching problem was still with me and I wasn't going to be able to shake it off. I had to get focussed; do as much as I needed to, don't get distracted by others overtaking me, concentrate on my own objectives and break the distance into bite size chunks that will help me cover the ground in good shape all the way to the finish.

It wasn't as easy doing it as it was concocting the plan, but then I expected that. It was plain old hard graft, made palatable by the scenery, encouragement of fellow runners and the desire to finish. The race had a sting in its tail. The final 8 km followed what appeared to be a little used mountain track, long overgrown and not very runable. This was frustrating for all the athletes but fell in my favour since my digestive system caused me difficulty when running but coped better with fast walking. On and on we climbed until the route took us out of the gorge and snaked us downhill through 2km of forest path to the outskirts of Aiguines.

The village was packed with well-wishers and supporters and you were cheered and clapped all the way to the enthusiastic MC with the microphone at the finish. Cold drinks, sponges and handshakes welcomed you as you sat down and reflected on a wonderful experience. Today had been tough for me but I had hacked the course and with a time of 7:02 only dropped 7 places overall. Others had had a bad day as well. My bad day was attributable to me, not through lack of training or fitness, but by a lack of attention to detail on refilling my Camelbak after Day 2. Steve did very well, holding his 6th place, Danny was delighted with his 33rd and Ray achieved his goal, walking off with a rather smart trophy for 3rd Vet2 (over 50).

Overall the race was a tremendous experience. The winner Marco Olmo, an Italian Mountain Guide, declared that the Verdon Gorge race was harder for him than the Sahara Marathon (Marathon des Sables), which he has come 3rd in, three times. The field included professional athletes and runners who make it their business to enter these types of individual challenge, endurance races month in, month out and as a Royal Marine I had good times mixing it with the French Dragoons, Paras and Engineers who wore their units colours.

The administration was good and the food provided throughout the race (3 meals/day plus in-race food) was excellent. The race was entirely what I wanted it to be; challenging, demanding, enjoyable and very scenic.