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GR20

GR20 France - Learning is hard

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GR20 France - Learning is hard

If you came to this post to read about the logistics of running the GR20 from gear to mileages to everything in between you should go read my blog post about the logistics instead. If you've arrived here to read my personal trip report then enjoy!

"It is not possible" a man repeated to us on the trail. "You cannot do it." Another man said. It was a common theme for Libby and I on our 5 day traverse on the GR20 but let's start from the beginning instead.

It was March I think fresh off a failure in Minnesota and preparing to battle the Alaska mountains once again when Libby cold called me. The conversation was something along the lines of you want to run the GR20? Sure! It was a week before our planned adventure when I finally sat down with the book and looked into what it would take to really run the GR20 in 5 days. What I found didn't make me scared but I knew we would be pushing. The book predicted 20 hr days every day. I assumed we would do half the time of their hiking predication if we had perfect days. I printed a couple of copies of a map and the plan and called it good for planning. I wasn't worried of 180km in 5 days with 44,000 feet of gain and 45,000 feet of loss. I'd run 100 miles in 1/5th of the time this to me seemed very doable. As long as I could recover daily and keep my eating right.

My schedule was tight. Libby was uncertain of her ability to get out of Libya on time so we only gave our selves 5 full days in Corisca with a travel day on the front and end. That means I flew from San Francisco to Paris to Nice to Corisca and then started running about 10hrs after landing. As a new world traveler I didn't realize the implications that a trans Atlantic flight would have on my stomach and sleep schedule. But we only had 5 days... so jetlagged or not we were moving. Libby and I met in the airport with our lovely couch surfing host Philipp. He was a huge part in our success. He gave us tons of useful information, took us to swim in the Mediterranean, helped us buy groceries, made us dinner, and even drove us to the trailhead at 6am the next morning.

The alarm chirped at 5am. I had barely slept that night from jet lag and the air conditioning being too cold. We rolled out of bed got our things together and ate a quick breakfast. I had some yogurt thinking it would be fine. Unfortunately it wasn't sugar yogurt but very raw sour yogurt. My stomach was already unhappy with this choice. We got to the trailhead by 6:30am and were optimistically charging up the long up hill to our first hut. We had barely stept onto the trail when two men came storming past us in little packs. Libby and I tried to pack light but we were definitely not running more fastpacking with the size of our packs. Those men were running.

We moved very quickly on the uphill passing lots of people and making good time to the first hut. We filled water here and kept on moving. The day seemed to fly by, the uphills seemed easy, and the terrain rocky and interesting to keep the mind occupied even with a very sour stomach. As we descended into our second hut of the day we picked up the pace. This is when I lost focus for just a second crossing a dry creek bed and twisted my ankle. Screaming in pain and crumpling to the ground I had felt everything in my ankle crunch. I thought it was over. After all the travel and planning to have everything be over in a split second. I was devastated. Libby quickly turned around and I regained some composure to assess the situation. The ankle was intact. The pain was extreme but I only had one option to get out of these mountains and that was to walk. I got up now heavily relying on my poles and hobbled to the next hut. We sat here and I removed my shoe to look at the damage. A bit of bruising a lot of swelling but it appeared to be a sprain so not a show stopper. Libby recommended I take some ibuprofen. I was hesitant. I had never taken any medicine during any runs I had ever done. This didn't seem like the place to start but she was a nurse and I needed to not roll it again because the next roll could be game ending.

My stomach was still very upset and now the heat of the day was setting in. We death marched up the final climbing sweating profusely. Head down trying to ignore the pain in my ankle and the nausea in my stomach we kept moving. As we started our descent into the final hut of the day Libby was out of water and the drugs had finally kicked in so I was moving fine. Time wise we looked good. 12.5 hrs for the first day was close enough to my 10hr perfect day predication. At the hut we paid to sleep outside and went to a nearby restaurant to get a big dinner. Eggs and fries were exactly what I wanted and a nice comfy sleeping pad in a tent was the best sleep I had in a while. I was limping badly now that we had stopped moving and even worse when we woke up in the morning.

We decided to buy breakfast at the hut the next morning which put us on a late 6:30am start. This day was a question mark for us since the information I had written down was for the recently closed cirque de la solitude. But we knew it was going to be one of the bigger days ending up closer to 30 miles. We always made good progress in the mornings and uphills were turning out to be our biggest strength. We passed parties that were gripped clinging to the side of the mountain as we mountain goated by hands free. We'd talk to a few english speakers as we passed by and they all seemed surprised as we told them our destination was "Manganu!!?? noooo" People seemed to be surprised but nobody seemed to express doubt in our abilities to do it just yet. This stage was beautiful and my stomach seem to be doing fine. It was the heat and the distance that seemed to wear on us and a few bone issues with Libby and her bad leg. Hikers liked to tell us of how flat sections of the trail were and how after the 4th stage the trail flattened out and was easy. As time would progress we would realize more and more that there was no such thing as flat on the GR20. And that the steep rocky bits continue on to the very end. Contrary to what people who are currently hiking it and who have previously hiked it may say.

Our late 6:30am start ended up really screwing us over on our way to Manganu. The hut seemed to never come and when we arrived at 8:30pm dinner was already done being served. We were screwed if we couldn't get a good dinner and a good night sleep. This turned out to be our free night. The host had already left so we had no one to pay for sleeping and a lovely Swedish couple saved us with some pasta, cheese, bread, and even a peach. We owe a lot to that couple and Libby and I made sure we would never have another late start again. Dinner was crucial to our success. We opened bivied that night and I in a thin bivy sack essentially slept in a warm sometimes chilly swamp of my own sweat. Needless to say it was a bad sleep.

We got up early the next morning and were hiking by 5:15 am. When we would start on a uphill we always seemed to make progress quickly. This was a nice technical traverse and we passed lots of parties. On the back side we boulder hopped quickly when Libby made a bad pole placement and went down face first into the boulders. The way she fell I was sure she had broken her leg. It was over. I slowly approached her growning. She hadn't yelled like a break so I was optimistic. A puddle of blood was pooling beside her face and I asked if she was okay. She responded yes but let me take stock first. She had punched herself in the face with her pole as she fell a few scraps on her knees and fat lip was all she sustained. I was hoping this would be our last accident.

We filled water at the next hut and decided to take the high route variation for the next section. A nice technical traverse of a ridge line to keep us occupied instead of traversing low in the trees. We moved faster on the technical terrain anyways. We passed a couple who we chatted with for a bit. The man very kindly wanted to remind us that we needed to stow our poles to get through the technical section. I ignored his comment and we kept moving. After a bit Libby and I talked about the encounter. It was the first time I had really started to notice how much unsolicited advice we had been getting on the trail. Was it because we were two females? Was it because we were Americans? Why did everyone want to tell us what we needed to do or that it was impossible to do the GR20 in 5 days? The pole comment stuck with me since we had never stowed the poles even once and honestly the entire route could be done without even using your hands. The real question was did they also say this to the two men who had flown past us at the beginning? Just as we were having this thought picking our way slowly down a step descent a man came flying past us in a tiny backpack effortlessly bounding down hill. His feet never touching the ground for more than a second. We must have passed those man in a hut at an early day I was convinced it was the same men.

Some storm clouds started to build and Libby set a grueling pace on the next uphill. Now it was just 5,000 feet of descending and we would be at the half way point of the GR20. This is when it hit me. I could eat like a 100 miler for 2 days worth of time but by the 3rd day my body was starting to lose hold of the sugar diet. Sugar might buy me 15 minutes instead of an hour now and the lack of calories and water sent my into a downward spiral. The downhills started to hurt more and my knees start to lock up. Next thing I know I'm bending over to stretch my legs standing up and falling face first into the boulders from a strong orthostatic hypotensive moment. I thought my sugar had dropped and I needed sugar. Libby was saying things to me but I couldn't hear her. Apparently I was moaning some inaudible sounds. I shoved a fruit leather in my mouth but couldn't chew it. Libby describes the moment as a partially unconscious person chocking on a fruit leather. She got me to move into the shade drink some water and eat some real food. She shared with me some of her extra food a cheese stick which I promptly spilled cheese liquids all over my shirt. It was my badge of dishonor to remember how I screwed up nutrition once again. This is when we realized that I had never done a multiday push. I've run 100 milers in a day before and I've climbed big walls in a day before. It turns out pushing is a lot different than pacing. I couldn't use my motivation of "the faster you run the faster you're done" no I had to keep sustaining for 5 days. You can't push into the pain cave and create a deficit. It was a new world of eating and moving that I was learning. And unfortunately this is what learning feels like as Libby liked to remind me. 

When we arrived at the half way point we got to see the the little town of Vizzavona. It wasn't much but it had showers, electricity, and the comfiest air mattress and best sleep I had on the entire trip. We ate downtown at a restaurant were no english was spoken. A few mystery dishes with one mild vomit and it was off to bed to start the second half. We chatted with an English speaker in the camp who was doing the route in 14days. When he discovered we were doing it in 5 he promptly responded with "You can not do it. It is impossible" We quickly ended the conversation and it left a bad taste in our mouths. On the way back to my tent I looked at Libby and said fuck that guy just because it's hard doesn't mean its impossible. 

The next morning we rose early and made our way to our last sleep on the course. The day started well and we made progress quickly. The terrain for this day was boring. Mostly wooded and good trail with little exciting to look at. I was running low on food and we were actually running on the trail. Libby close to falling asleep behind me we decided to slow down a bit and talk to make the time and distance pass quicker. When we finally reached Verde we decided to take a longer break drink some cokes and eat some food at the restaurant. We were on the final 10 mile stage of the day and making good time. The coke and the new drugs finally kicked in and we rocketed up what we thought was the final climb. But then things started to go south for me. I had eaten a bit of the cheese sandwich Libby had bought and the stinky cheese immediately did not sit well with me but riding the coke high at first it didn't seem to matter. Now about 3 miles out from our destination I was dry heaving on the side of the trail seconds from vomiting. I wanted to vomit. Vomit would make me feel better. Libby was talking about nasty things in an effort to make me vomit and I was retching on the side of the trail. An hour of slow walking and laying down and dry heaving and burping went by before I started to get angry. I felt like shit and I wanted to get to the next hut. At the pace I had slowed to we would miss dinner again. I started too shout and ride the anger wave now averaging a fast pace on the trail. I shouted angrily about french food and about animal cruelty and ran in anger. This wave of anger lasted until the hut was in sight and then I ran in desperation to be done. When we arrived I sat head between my legs with extreme pain in my abdomen. We had gotten the very last two dinners which I counted as a success. A nice comfy warm tent and I bought some more food to get me through the last day.

As we sat down to eat the food two very fit looking men in running shoes and clothing came up to us. You are the runner girls they proclaimed how many days are you doing it in. We responded with 5. They seemed impressed. They were the men that had passed us at the beginning and again on day 3! They were also doing the trail in 5 days. We had such a pleasant evening talking about the trail and running and getting to know each other. They both lived here on Corsica and the one man had run the trail in a just 2 days! We enjoyed their company and it was such a pleasant relief to have people who didn't use the word impossible. They gave us some good beta on some alternate routes that would make the final day more enjoyable. 

That night was rough. I tossed and turned all not from the pain in my stomach. I got up a few times to use the bathroom but nothing seemed to help the pain. Usually in the mornings I would feel great and we could make good progress for the fast half of the day. This morning was different. The abdominal pain had not left. We got on the trail by 5am and the boys passed us for one final time on the initial climb. Unlike the other days I wasn't able to muster the energy this morning. I was ill but moving. A cute little brown dog was following the boys out of the camp but when the boys moved to fast he latched unto Libby and I. He had a collar with no name and we assumed he belonged to someone at the hut. Libby kept shouting at him to go back but the fit little dog seemed determined to go with us. After a while we just accepted that he was with us now but the anxiety of having the dog around couldn't be ignored.

I ate 4 times with in the first hour of the morning. Hoping my stomach would turn around. The first hut took forever and the second took just as long and the sun was the hottest it had been the entire trip giving me heat rash on both my arms. When we arrived in Bavella we could finally eat some real food. We ordered 3 cokes, 2 chocolate crepes, and a large order of fries. Our puppy friend took a nap and the restaurant seem to recognize him and gave him a big plate of food. I was happy he was being fed but start to cry thinking about how independent he was and how much I missed Lopi. I poured a coke into my bottle and chugged the other. It was the final 12 miles to the finish and there was nothing that could stop us now.

Freshly drugged and full of food Libby and I took a more casual start to the final leg. We talked a lot and kept the miles and time passing. The end went quickly in my head. The mountains started to disappear and the ocean was the only thing on the horizon. My stomach and feet were hurting but a good conversation can distract anything. I had been in a strange habit of pooping about 3 times a day and the final day was no exception. This time however I realized something was different. I pooped the blackest poop of my life. A sign of bleeding. It was of no surprise having not taken ibuprofen for years of my life to now taking a healthy dosing for 5 days in a row that maybe the abdominal pain was something deeper than just upset stomach. But we were hours from the finish and it would heal in time anyways. 

The final day took us longer than expected and we arrived at the finish well past the bus schedule. It was entirely my fault but I had done the best I could. A lovely French family celebrating Bastille day invited us in for some delicious homemade pizza and wine and we talked all things Trump and GR20. In Conca even though the trail was done we were 3hrs from being back in Calvi and on a holiday in France the town was dead. Again for the last time of the trip we were told "It is IMPOSSIBLE to get to Calvi tonight" with early flights in the morning we reassured them that nothing is impossible it just may be expensive or hard. A few hours of attempted hitching and then a quick call to a taxi we were back in Calvi with our lovely couch surfing host Phillip at 2am. A glorious shower and blister relief allowed us to finally sleep well for me the first time 8 days. The next day would hold a 40hr travel block with a 18hr layover in Paris to a 5hr bus ride from SF to Truckee. Boy it felt good to be home and what a beautiful adventure. My ankle is healing well and I already feel like I can run again!

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GR20 Logistics - Corsica, France

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GR20 Logistics - Corsica, France

Route Plan

I had a double sided paper with this information printed on one side and then the map printed on the other side. I printed 3 copies one for each of us and a spare if we lost one.

Day destinations miles miles total hours hours total feet up feet up total feet down feet down total
1 Calenzana -> d’Ortu 7.5 7 5085 770
1 d’Ortu -> Carozzu 5 16.25 6.5 19 2460 9825 3445 6545
1 Carozzu -> Haut Asco 3.75 5.5 2280 2330
- - - - - - - - - -
2 Asco -> Tighjettu 5.5 6.5 3280 3280
2 Tighjettu -> Vergio 9.5 25.5 6 18.25 2790 8270 2855 7695
2 Vergio -> Manganu 10.5 5.75 2200 1560
- - - - - - - - - -
3 Manganu -> Petra 6 7 3220 2430
3 Petra -> l’Onda 6.75 19.5 5 19.5 1640 8110 2985 10335
3 l’Onda -> Vizzavona 6.75 7.5 3250 4920
- - - - - - - - - -
4 Vizzavona -> Capannelle 10 5.5 3280 1100
4 Capannelle -> Verdi 8.75 28.75 4.5 17.25 1050 8560 2035 5860
4 Verdi -> d'Usciolu 10 7.25 4230 2725
- - - - - - - - - -
5 d'Usciolu -> d'Asinau 10.5 7.25 3315 4020
5 d'Asinau -> Bavella 6.75 29.25 4.75 19 1250 6860 2280 11780
5 Bavella -> Conca 12 7 2295 5480
- - - - - - - - - -
119.25 93 41625 42215


Gear

Libby and I took similar but different gear. I am just going to write about the gear I brought including the pad which Libby carried since I didn't have room in pack.

Quantity Item Brand Notes
1 15L Running Backpack Osprey Super adjustable with no chaffing and extra storage space. Perfect for walking quickly or running. Also includes a 2.5L bladder for long hot efforts.
1 Bivy Sack Black Diamond Too warm for a bivy sack just makes you sweat and be uncomfortable at night. Instead bring the Patagonia ultra light sleeping bag. Would not bring this again.
1 Sleeping Pad I'm not sure I'd bring this again just because if you get in early enough and don't mind spending the money you can get a tent or a bed that already has a pad or mattress.
500 Euros You probably only need about 250 Euros unless you plan to Taxi from Conca to the start and then you'll need atleast 500 Euros
1 Wind breaker Black Diamond Only used this one day for about 10 minutes but would be nice if the weather wasn't so good.
1 Wind pants Patagonia The only pants I brought were definitily nice to have something to change into at the end of the day.
1 Underwear Patagonia I turned them inside out every other day and cleaned them at the half way point.
1 Puffy Jacket Patagonia It got chilly at camp at night it was nice to be able to put a warm jacket on also for sleeping
1 Fleece Patagonia I would take my sports bra and shirt off at the end of the day and it was nice to have a warm soft light layer to sleep in every night.
1 Bra adidas Outdoor Only need one. Cleaned it half way though and did not sleep in it.
1 Shirt Smartwool The thin wool shirt was clutch. It didn't even smell bad by the end of the trip.
1 Skirt Ryp wear The Ryp wear skirts have nice inner pockets to store food and also long enough to prevent lower back and thigh chaffing.
5 Socks Swiftwicks I brought a new pair of socks for everyday. This is important since your socks get really dirty every day and proper foot care is key to success.
1 Buff Buff I used the buff at night to cover my eyes and keep the ear plugs in.
1 Sunscreen Jtree Skin Products The Mediteranian sun is relentless. I wish we would have brought more sunscreen than we did.
1 Water bottle Hydrapak This was key for getting enough electrolyte drink. Every day I would drink several these with electrolyte, recovery, or even coke in it.
1 Chapstick Burtsbee The sun is unforgiving apply often.
1 Earplugs The only way to guarantee a good night sleep every night is to keep the sound out.
1 FirstAid and Drugs We kept an assortment of bandaids and pills. We never used any of the bandaids but the ibuprofen came in handy.
10 Babywipes We used baby wipes every day for just bathroom and foot cleaning. We should have brought about 10 more than we did.
1 Bugspray We encountered very little bug activity would not have brought this again.
1 Running Poles Black Diamond So key to being able to do the distances day in and day out. Save your legs.
1 External Battery Goal Zero This was perfect for charging the phone every day. Also important to bring a European charging converter. Most huts have electricity to charge from.
1 Cell Phone Iphone You want to be able to remember it if you're going to go this fast. :)
1 Child flip flops These are light wieght and key for foot relief at the end of the day. Defo bring a pair of these.
1 Sunglasses Peppers It is a bright!
1 Tiny Towel Nice for bathing in rivers and at the huts. Could go without but was nice to have when we showered.

Food

There are tons of places to buy food along the trail. You can probably go a lot lighter if you would like. Every hut has wide selection of food as well as all of the Bergeries along the trail. What I learned from what I brought is that in these kind of events you want to bring a wide variety of textures and flavors of food. And way more real food than packaged food.

Quantity Item Brand Notes
5 Electrolyte Powder Skratch Labs I brought one for each day and wish that I had brought at least two for each day. The weather was so hot that you sweat a ton and need a lot of sweat replacement.
5 Recovery Powder Skratch Labs I brought one for each night and end up drinking them every night. This was key to getting enough calories and being able to recover for the next day.
4 Cookies Skratch Labs I made 4 homemade blueberry almond butter cookies. This was a nice change to what I was eating out of packets and wish that I would have made and brought more things.
10 Gels Assortment I had given myself about 2 gels a day and ended up maybe eating about 6 of them. Gels are hard to stomach when you feel sick already and aren't as good for sustainable energy in a long multiday adventure
10 Gummys Assortment I eat all of my gummies by day 4. They are easy and tasty. Bring things that you like to eat it'll make it easy to eat them when you are forcing yourself to.
8 Nut butter Justins These I found hard to eat as well with how hot it was. But sucking back a nut butter packet always gave me some sort of sustainable energy for a good amount of time.
3 Bars Pro Bar These were perfect for a large mid day protein bust. I only wish I would have brought 5 so I could have had one every day instead of just the first 3.
10 Oatmeal Quakers We each had two packets of oatmeal every morning for breakfast. In the beginning this was enough but as the trip progressed I needed more and more food in the morning. A packet of peanut butter had to be added to get enough calories to start moving by day 4.
15 Fruit Leather Stretch Island These saved me in Alaska but weren't dense enough calories to get me through. I finished all 15 of these by day 3.
3 Apples Real fruit was an awesome way to mix things up
1 Dried Appricots I bought these at the half way point and really enjoyed mixing it up with some dried fruit with the usual food.
10 Apple sauce I bought 5 at the half way point and 5 at the last hut. These were nice and easy to go down but burned through quickly.


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