The GR20 is very topical at the moment, particularly with Salomon athlete Julien Choriers‘ imminent attempt at the course record set by Kilian Jornet in 2009. Read HERE
However, earlier this year, Emelie Lecomte broke the female record. Unfortunately this didn’t get much coverage outside France, however, Niandi Carmont actually was trekking on the GR20 route when this attempt took place and later caught up with the new female course record holder. Here is what she had to say:
Emelie Lecomte GR20 by Niandi Carmont
Corsica is affectionately known by the French as the “Ile de la Beauté” (Island of Beauty) and Nicolas Hulot the well-known French adventurer and journalist aptly said even the most beautiful islands in the Pacific cannot compare with this French island in the Mediterranean South of France and off the West coast of Italy.
The GR20 in Corsica is arguably Europe’s greatest and most spectacular mountain trail. In French G.R. stands for “Grande Randonnée” (great trek). Over a distance of 200 km of crests, pinnacles, rocky mountains, pine forests and snow-capped peaks the GR20 crosses the island from Northern Corsica to Southern Corsica. It is traditionally divided into 15 stages and takes an experienced hiker about 2 weeks to complete. With 14 500m of positive incline it is also considered Europe’s toughest trail and its spectacular scenery and free roaming wildlife are only accessible to experienced hikers who are prepared to do some serious rock climbing and looking for a physical challenge.
The GR20 was created in 1971 and since then has been the playground of many an experienced athletes looking for personal challenges and setting records. It is here that Kilian Jornet astonished the ultra community by setting a new course record of 32h54 in 2009.
But today all the focus is on 32 year old French female trail runner Emilie Lecomte, a Team Trail Quechua sponsored athlete, who smashed the previous female record held by Corsican Stéphanie Samper knocking an amazing 9 hours off the previous record to finish in 41h22.
I happened to be hiking in Corsica when Emilie set the new record and the day before I finished my hike she literally flew by me towards victory looking fresh as a daisy.
Emilie is not what you imagine a tough ultra trailer to look like: feminine, nymph-like with big blue eyes she exudes an aura of calm and self-control. But make no mistake this girl is immensely talented, tough, focused and determined. Modest and generous too Emilie was very excited about sharing her experience with UK readers.
Can you take us back to your beginnings in trail running? What motivated you to start sport seriously only 4 years ago and especially trail running?
I started trail running in 2009. The Raid de la Réunion (160km, 9000m+ and 9000-) was my first ultra. My partner got me interested in sport. Before 2007 I did some cycling. When I started cycling 12 years ago I quickly developed a passion for endurance and adventure sports. Then in 2007 I started multi-sport events. The notion of pushing yourself to your limit was an eye-opener and suddenly there was new meaning to my life. I work in sales so I can relate to the idea of competitivity. You have to work really hard to achieve your goals. . Having said this today I identify more with the values in sport than in the working world – basic values – like sharing emotions and achievements.
What made you decide to set the GR20 record?
It’s a long story. 12 years ago before my passion for sport I hiked the GR20. It felt great to be in Corsica in the mountains. It was amazingly beautiful – a bit like being on another planet- back to basics. Also it’s the toughest trail in Europe. I returned 12 years later to hike the GR20 in 7 days, then in 5 days –that was last year. It was obvious to me that the next logical step would be to do it non-stop. What I was interested in was the sports challenge – a challenge against myself – a personal challenge. I was competing against time. Would I be able to cover 180km non-stop with more than 12 000m+?
What makes this so different from an ordinary race is the team work. I was seconded and assisted by a team of close family members including my partner, mother and friends from the Marseille Trail Club.
This was not about claiming a trophy it was about sharing a challenge with my team.
How did you train for this?
Like you would train for any other ultra mountain event. What’s important when preparing for this kind of challenge is managing your race. Race management is key – you need a good combination of physical training and race management to succeed.
When I saw you on the course you were with Stéphane Talotti – what was the role of your seconds?
The seconds ran mostly behind me – they were not ‘pacers’ but more like ‘guardian angels’ – giving advice, protecting me. Pacing was OK on the fast runnable stretches but I set the pace.
In your blog you mention your ‘Dream Team’. Tell us about them.
I wanted a small close-knit team of people bonded by mutual trust. I met the Marseille Trail Club in 2009 on the GR20 – we hit it off immediately and became very good friends. They have done a fantastic job. They gave up their time in preparation for the challenge, during the challenge and after the event. They had to carry 12kg ruck-sacks in the mountains to provide me with food and water. Most of them had to take holiday leave and go through white nights.
Your partner Franck was on the course too – what was his role and was it difficult to get the timing right?
There were 8 refreshment stations. I drew up a road-book with a pacing chart to help my seconds. What made things complicated was when I was delayed or when I was ahead of schedule. On the GR20 there is hardly any mobile network. When I was delayed the seconds worried I might be injured and when I was ahead of schedule the whole seconding chain had to recalculate the check point times so that they wouldn’t miss me. I needed seconds who could react quickly. Franck my partner was at 6 of the 8 refreshment stations which were accessible by road and he was responsible for liaising with and coordinating the seconds. The key to success is preparation. I couldn’t decently expect of my team to be available for me if they couldn’t count on me to be organized and prepared.
You started on Thursday morning at 4am and arrived on Friday at 21.30pm. How did you manage to run on this steep, rocky and very tricky course on mountain crests, with via ferrata and tricky dangerous descents at night?
I didn’t find it any harder at night. On the contrary I prefer running at night!! You are so much more in symbiosis with the elements. We had very good frontal lamps and on the technical stretch I was paced by the fire fighters from the Fédération Française de Montagne – all mountain experts.
What was the hardest bit?
I had 2 hard patches. The first was when I stopped at Vizzavonne for 15 minutes. It was 3 in the morning. When I started running again it took me a while to get back into it. I’m not so sure the break was a good idea.
The second was just before I got to the Col de Bavelle – it was like an oven – I was boiling hot – there was no shade – it was 42°C and the sun was beating down on us.
Friday was hard going on the mountain crests with soaring temperatures, lack of shade, forest and wind.
Your mum was with you on the course. What did this mean to you?
I really wanted her to be there. I needed her moral support.
In your blog she writes ‘Emilie is excessive in all respects as much in her energy, will-power, pugnacity, and stubbornness as in her affection, love and generosity towards others’ One really gets the impression that she’s 100% behind you.
My mum finds it much easier to express her emotions in writing – she wrote that straight after the GR20 –I felt she was very proud of my achievement and it was very touching to feel all that love. Even though she worries about me she will always back all my projects even the craziest ones!
Is it hard to juggle with your professional life and your training?
It’s really hard. A project like that is very time-consuming both in physical training and conception. It4s really hard juggling your professional life and your life as an elite athlete especially for someone like me who holds a full-time job in sales.
Do you intend to go back to Corsica to try and beat your record?
Not for the time being. To be honest I was aiming for sub 40 hours. I’m not disappointed just a little frustrated. Why not in the future? Right now I’ve got too many other projects and challenges in the pipe-line.
How do you see your future in trail running?
I’d like more recognition of the sport whether it is at a national level or with regards to the Federation. It’s an extremely demanding sport. Nowadays sports like football are disproportionately lucrative. If you consider the investment in terms of training I feel long distance trail running doesn’t get enough recognition considering that it is one of the few sports that conveys essential basic values to the younger generations.
Any future challenges?
I do a lot of multi-sport adventure events, mountain-biking and road-biking.
Any role models?
I admire athletes who share the same philosophical values. For example Myriam Lamare (Boxing) or in sky-running Corinne Lefavre. She’s an icon. And also Derwa Sherpa not because he’s part of the Quechua Team but because of his way of seeing things – I can identify with that.
Last question Emilie – do have any advice for young women out there who would like to take on a tough challenge?
Don’t hesitate. Dreams enable us to move forward. Don’t be afraid of getting involved in a project. Women are genetically programmed to be tough and resistant – it’s our way of compensating for not being as physically powerful as men.
2011 1st female du Grand Raid 73
1st female Andorra Ultra Trail
3rd female Trail du Ventoux
3rd female l’Ardechois
2010 1st female Trail des Aiguilles Rouges
1st female 6666 Occitane
2ND female Grand Raid 73
2009 1st female Grand Raid de la Réunion
1st female Drayes du Vercors
Winner L’Ultra trail l’Ardéchois – 98km, 3930m + in 12 hrs31
The GR20 female record in 41h22 beating Stéphanie Samper by 50h52
L’UTMB August 31st – 168km, 9,600m+
La Diagonale des Fous La Réunion 18th to 21st Oct