Saturday, April 29, 2017

12h Villeneuve race review - a new high!

Well, that was a unique experience. I never, ever thought I would do loops for 12 hours. I first heard about timed races 17 years ago, and it seemed utterly, mind-numbingly nuts (stupid, fucked up actually) – and this was while I was competing in the marathon des sables, my first serious footrace after a marathon a few months earlier, only a year after starting running. The guy who told me about it was Swiss German, so I just put it down to cultural differences.

Then I realized he wasn’t alone. Timed races are actually very popular in France among a certain crowd of runners. Well, they’re French, right? So… Ah, but that’s when the penny dropped – I’m French! Well, sort of. Longstanding family heritage, even if I've never actually lived there - apart from when I did my civil service (smoking pot, drinking rum and working in the banana industry in the French West Indies for 16 months)…

Anyway, that’s not really why I decided to compete in a timed race. I realized I was actually more curious than I cared to admit when Jean-Luc Ridet, the organizer of the Ultra Tour du Léman (110-mile run around Lake Geneva) started the first time race in French-speaking Switzerland (though French-speaking, it’s very much not French) in April 2016. So I volunteered, having done so at the UTL in 2014, and thought it would perfect to discover what it was all about. 

It was – it felt like being at an exchangist party and not putting your keys in the bowl. I knew I had to participate in 2017 – et voilà! And what do I think about it?

Hmm. It is definitely not boring – but I’d pretty much figured it wouldn’t be. I did think that the repetitious nature of it would lead to either overload or mystical epiphany – but neither occurred. But it was definitely an incredible inner journey, enriching, and unique. It feels both exhilarating and dirty, a bit like kinky sex. You feel like you’ve transgressed some socially acceptable barrier (when someone who’s done the Tor des Géants thinks you’re strange…), but it just felt so gooood.
Seriously, there’s something perverse yet so gratifying about running 12h (let alone 24h, or more) in circles – something fascinating, and that answers a deeper yearning, about running a long distance without actually going anywhere – that I can’t help but make analogies with sex.

Here’s what I think happened. It wasn’t boring, because running isn’t boring, and a timed race reduces the whole event just to the running. It makes you realize that you don’t always need incredible landscape to enjoy being out there pumping away. I know it helped to some degree that I enjoyed perfect weather and that the Villeneuve 6h/12h/24h race is in a beautiful location nestled in the Rhone valley between two alpine ranges, but that only takes you so far. A few hours into the event, I remember suddenly feeling like I’d fallen in love with running all over again – how did that happen? It’s because there’s nothing but the running. A trail run is often more like an adventure, but here all the non-running related uncertainty is gone: you need a change of clothes, more food, water, a shower, a rest? It’s all there within at most the time it takes you to complete a loop. All that’s left is to run – so, you’re completely left to your own devices (yes, I had to slip a Pet Shop Boys reference there).

That’s the inner journey part – you and your running, your reasons and objectives. But you’re definitely not alone. You leap-frog with people, you chat with some – but I found much less than in “regular” races (but who defines what’s normal?!) because pacing for most is quite crucial – you get to see the same volunteers round after round after round, so it’s not just a 2mn thing and then goodbye, you get appreciate how much they really put in to giving a good race and get to really express that appreciation. And in this year’s event, it was fantastic because one volunteer’s daughter rounded up her friends to do the 6-hour timed race as a six-person relay with team whose average age was 8.5 years old! From 6 to 10, and they did it, logging more than sixty kilometers! It was amazing to see these kids running - sometimes with a parent next to them, sometimes not – next to grizzled veterans of Badwater, Spartathlon, 6-day timed races, Transgaule… And everyone enjoying themselves equally. Running democracy at its best.

Yes for sure, having dipped my toe in it, I’ll be back for more. After the 12h threesome, I have to do the 24h orgy…

I actually was very tempted to do it this year, but with the GUCR only 5 weeks after, 12h was perfect to test my race pace, while 24h I’m sure would have been too much. On that front I’m thrilled. I was happy to go out last (and stay last for several hours), plodding away at my intended race pace, and stopping for 4-5mn after 10, 21, 34 rounds to simulate the checkpoints. It took me a really long time to figure out a run/walk strategy that could emulate a point-to-point race but adapted to running in circles, but I did in any case do some of that too. So all in all very good, particularly since I ran the last loops pretty much as fast as the first, and two days later I was back to training with an interval session on Tuesday and heading for a 90k week. The one disappointment was discovering that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were not the bliss I’d expected them to be. I had been so excited – for the first time, I could make the sandwiches and put them in my drop bag, and access them easily without fear of what I would find. But no – I actually threw away the last one.

Anyway – for anyone who’s ever considered a timed race but not really sure about it: do it! If you’re curious about something, probably means you’ll enjoy it…

Monday, April 17, 2017

Marseille Marathon

The first thing that struck me as my friend Cyril and I walked from the train station to our hotel was the number of people in shiny track suits - and they definitely weren't all runners. This was a definite fashion statement.

Anyway... Cyril had suggested this marathon to add to the list of city runs, and it was certainly worth it: a pleasant five-hour train ride from Geneva via Lyon on Saturday morning, a comfy hotel overlooking the port, easy race bib pick-up, an excellent pre-race seafood meal, a well-organized bus ride to the starting line about 10km out (with the buses leaving from the port, right in front of the hotel), a slightly delayed start, (but this is Marseille!), a beautiful run along the sea into town (the great sunny weather was a definite bonus), two loops out that took us down a long stretch of road with the sun in our eyes then through a (rather empty) park (i suppose people weren't up too early in Marseilles), jogging for about a mile with a couple who, at a 11am, evidently hadn't yet gone to bed and amused themselves by feeding us tangerine slices (I remember those days of little green pills...)  and  - where was I? Oh, yes, and the organizers managed to get the distance markers wrong - in a marathon! I know we're in the south of France, and everything is more relaxed and all, but this was quite cliché. It skipped from 12km to 15km, then we had the 1/2 marathon markers to contend with, and the food stations weren't evenly spaced, so basically it was impossible to know really where you were, especially if not wearing a Garmin or, in my case, didn't trust my second-hand one (I mean, how to do get marathon race markers wrong?). Finally order was restored on the 2nd loop with km marker 27. But all the volunteers were fantastic, and it was all rather quite amusing. It's not like it changes much in terms of pacing and all that...

Well, despite my GUCR training pace of about 7' per km, Cyril bagged the race at 25km as we came into town and left me on my own for the 2nd loop to go get a pint and more seafood. Have to say, this was his longest run in almost a year, and he probably hasn't logged much more than 200km since, so a good show, I'd say... I "let loose" on the last km or so, running it at over 12km/h, and finished in just over 4h55mn.

I'm quite pleased as this is the first time I've done a marathon in the middle of a structure training, where it comes on the heels of a four 70-80km weeks, in what would otherwise be a "recovery week", and followed 48 hours later by interval training that heralds the start of another four 80-90km weeks (this is top mileage for me!). Certainly doing the marathon at a slow, specific pace was a new and fun experience.

And now, next up, 12h Villeneuve, where I hope to log 90+km applying GUCR race plan.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A possible solution to gastrointestinal distress in ultrarunning

I have recently immersed myself in Jason Koop’s Training Essentials for Ultrarunning and am quite thrilled. I’m not usually one for training manuals – then again, I wasn’t one for coaching for 16 years :-) – rather more partial to race reviews and personal experiences, but last summer bought Bryan Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress and The Sage Running Secret by Sage Canaday. I didn’t find anything actually groundbreaking nor, ultimately, very useful, apart form Powell’s chart on different hydration ailments – extremely helpful in determining where you are at with sodium/water in-take and balance based on body reactions) – but Koop’s book almost makes them irrelevant. He debunks several training notions (implicitly poking fun at Powell's pizza analogy for layered training) and takes the confusion out of apparent conundrums like “drink early” vs “drink when thirsty” and “speed work” vs “no speed work” and “what kind of speedwork”. He does so because he explains the mechanics, backing everything up with research and convincing illustrative arguments.

I particularly like how he makes fitness the key training factor, with everything else coming after (an extreme illustration would be: you can’t compensate lack of training by buying the best gear). He really just makes it sound like plain commonsense, and drives this home very effectively by highlighting how the major reasons invoked for DNFs – hydration, , gastrointestinal distress, blisters, muscle pain – can all be linked back to lack of training (which means lack of adequate fitness), even though that is rarely the reason highlighted by the person  him/herself. (I would add the time barriers, which highlights a lack of speed – but that might just be my personal experience!)


He addresses these ‘failures’ really well, again drawing on scientific evidence, and providing solutions. There is one instance, however, where that solution is unsatisfactory since it boils down exclusively to: “train more, be in better shape” – and yet I think there is a possible solution out there that is founded on the very scientific evidence that Koop provides. And that is gastrointestinal distress.

Let me first quote him at length:

In addition to competition for blood flow, damage to the gut occurs during any endurance running activity as a by-product of digestion, blood flow reduction, and constant jostling up and down. Recently, researchers at Monash University studied the naturally present bacteria (endotoxins) that leak into the bloodstream as a result of this damage. They found that most individuals participating in an ultramarathon had markers in their bloodstream equivalent to those found in hospital patients with sepsis.


Although the researchers concluded that the damage was significant and that the gut was impaired, little evidence was presented as to how to alleviate or avoid the condition. The one correlating factor suggested by the research team was that the individuals who had simply trained more exhibited less damage.

Ok, so there are two reasons for GI distress, the first being “competition for blood flow” and here I have nothing to add to all of Koop’s recommendations (read the book for those).

However, regarding the endotoxins damaging the gut (sepsis?! ow!), there is definitely something I would suggest all endurance athletes try (in addition to better training) – it has certainly worked for me, and the solution is based on the cause. For seven years now I have had almost no GI issues while ultrarunning; so much so that I’ve almost forgotten that I used to be plagued by them. I thought it went with the territory, until a friend of mine who is a pharmacist and naturopath said exactly what Jason Koop said: running for extensive periods of time damages the stomach lining – and this includes training! Basically, not only are you damaging the gut during an ultramarathon but even the training required to compete in one exposes the stomach to bad bacteria.

So what’s the solution? Pro-biotics and L-Glutamine: Give the stomach good bacteria and strengthen the stomach lining.

Here’s what my health practioner friend prescribed and what worked for me:

  • A 2-3 month cure
  • Probiotics: must take one with a high concentration of active ingredients (CFU) – at least 10 billion, in the morning on an empty stomach.
  • L-Glutamine: google it for more info, but it is definitely indicated to fix the stomach lining (which, when it wears down, is the primary cause of ulcers); 1g, again every morning on an empty stomach.
  • (I took the L-Glutamine first ,about 30mn before eating, and the probiotics about 10mn later – and have a green tea in the mean time…)

I do this every spring. Try it: I bet your race this summer will go a lot better. I used to be a heavy drinker, and even alcohol consumption did not get the way of its efficiency.

Of course, no-one can guarantee anything when it comes to ultrarunning. But if you’ve been plagued with GI issues, it’s worth the try. Of course ask your doctor/pharmacist first, usual disclaimer, but I really see no down-side and a lot of potential upside.

Friday, February 3, 2017

GUCR training: month one

I wouldn’t usually blog about training ahead of a race since it’s rather useless if I fail to finish the said race, particularly as my DNFs at my last two (respectively the longest road run and longest mountain trail run I’ve ever attempted) were primarily due not to lack of training but misguided training. Hence calling on a professional to draft a training plan for the GUCR, hence the blogging about it since presumably it should get me to the start in proper shape and then it’s just up to me... But I want to be able to read back whatever the result and see what my thoughts and impressions were at the time, untainted by hindsight, since I think it can help me in the future.

So these past four weeks have been a gradual build-up of mileage, but still well within reasonable amounts even for me (from 52km/32.5 miles first week to 64km/40 miles 4th week), primarily focused on intensity and running efficiency. Five runs a week; two at medium comfortable pace, one of which includes 5mn up to 20mn tempo at just over marathon pace; short intervals at 5k pace of increasing time; a longish run that includes longer intervals at 10k pace (I think, at least that’s how it feels – apparently on paper it’s supposed to be close to marathon pace, but ha!), and a not-yet-very-long run a slow-poke race.

All in all I’m feeling pleasantly and manageably fatigued, which I think is the perfect state to be in. The training is specifically targeted to my weaknesses, which is the ability to sustain a higher speed for a longer (increase endurance fitness) and lock into a slow race pace that I should presumably be able ultimately to sustain for hours on end (running efficiency). And it’s working: the tempo runs have become quite pleasant; the longer intervals which I dread have become easier (especially when there’s no ice and snow to watch out for!); and the slow race pace run (approx 8km/h, 5mph) feels weird, which means it's good to be working at it now! And the niggles that always appear when I start on a new training regimen have disappeared without any type of injury (stretching and foam rolling have helped!). I haven’t kept up with the strength and core training that I’d been doing in November-December (but it wasn’t mentioned in the training plan and I’m lazy…)

So I’m not exhausted but am looking forward to the 5th week which is for recovery – I think I’m looking at about 40km/25 miles approximately, and only short intervals and long intervals for intensity. I’ve been wondering a bit about the low mileage but how I feel physically and the improvements I have seen already are, to me, a better indication of the training’s effect on me, and it will certainly avoid burning out too fast mentally with over-strenuous miles to fit in a busy lifestyle.

Besides, as Stuart Mills says in his excellent article on training for ultras, what's important is expectations - and this is why I turned to a professional: to remove any negative thoughts related to my training. I didn't want to find myself suffering at the GUCR and doubting my training and therefore using that as an excuse to quit. I fully expect to be properly prepared for this, so when the time comes there will be no doubts in my mind and I'll just have to buckle down and get the job done. 

For that, of course, I have to trust the professional, and in this case I do: French ultra marathoner Bruno Heubi, who boasts a 6h 51'25" finishing time for 100km, 242.3km at a 24h timed race, and 2nd place at the 2008 Transe Gaule race across France (1,156km in 99h, or 11.67km/h, 7.3mph average!). Training plan and weekly feedback for a very reasonable price. And even in four weeks I can feel that I am being "race focus" trained.

In any case, it’s going to ramp up in the next four weeks, both in mileage and intensity, with longer short intervals, faster long intervals, and a long Sunday run extending to over 2h. Also, I’m quite amused by the fact that the next 5th recovery week will include my first race of the season, the Marseilles marathon – which of course must be run at GUCR race pace (starting race pace), which means about a 5h15-5h30 finish. Thankfully I’m doing it with an undertrained friend, so I won’t risk going too fast and compromising the following week of training.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Plans for 2017: tears of joy and fear

Well, to paraphase David Bowie in Five Years, the news has just come over and I have five months left to cry in: my name came out of the hat for the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR)... Actually, I'm thrilled - it's been on my radar for three years now, but it always seemed a distant dream. I grew up in England, and figure this is as good a way as any to visit a large chunk of it. And, of course, the GUCR is the epitome of low-key iconic races that I'm now targeting.

So here we go... With the new job it's going to be a challenge. Anyway, last year gave me the confidence that I have the endurance to finish - but it proved to me that I need to develop better speed over longer distances and actual running (leg) endurance on flat surfaces. Since work is quite intense right now, and I'm not ready to start sacrificing evenings and early mornings, I'm working on a 3-4 day a week marathon training program focused on a day of intervals (400m to 1k), a tempo day, a long run (shorter but much faster than what I'd usually run, basically not just marathon pace but a target marathon pace that is 20mn faster than my last best time).

I plan on doing that until december ending with a 22-mile run, then really hit with a training plan inspired by what someone set up for his Spartathlon. It means working with heart-rate monitor, which is probably better for me because another realization from this year is that I really have no clue what my training paces should be. I just say, "oh, I'd love to run 100km in 10h" and base my paces on what that would take - and of course not hitting them at all. A friend says I should get a trainer, but for the moment this is much more fun. Anyway, with the HRM, I can follow the plan and probably find out what the best pace is for me for long runs/tempos/intervals, and take it from there. It calls for quite a few back-to-back longish run with speed followed by longer run at race pace, and that fits ok with my schedule.

Anyway, I've been structuring my training for only two years now, and there's been progress, so at least I'm heading in the right direction. And again: it's fun building my own plan...

So other plans for 2017 include something completely different, something I thought I'd never do, but now I feel not only represents great physical and mental training, but I also find it intriguing in its own right: a time track race, in this case, 12 hours around a mile-long track, at the other end of the lake from Geneva, in Villeneuve. It's about 6 weeks before GUCR, which seems ok if I don't go overboard. I figure, on the other side of crazy must lie transcendence!

Of course, training went really well this morning. Stress at work (which is linked to an event next week, so limited in time) means I've been sleeping poorly, so I went running early but it was complete shit: felt heavy (well, I do need to lose 10-12 pounds), legs hurt at mile 5, and  was constantly in the "feels like running, definitely jogging" zone. Utterly horrible. Did 20km in about the time I'd intended to do 28...

As I said, five months left to cry in... Well, actually a little more than six but that doesn't have the same ring.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ultra Tour du Léman race review: my first attempt at a 100-mile road run

I first became aware the UTL when driving to Lausanne from Geneva with the family. We’d stopped to get gas just outside Geneva and I saw a guy run by with a race bib. On our return a few hours later, I saw several more runners with race bibs. A quick check on the internet revealed a Facebook page highlighting this first edition, organized by Jean-Luc Ridet, a veteran runner of the Marathon des Sables, UTMB, Badwater, Spartathlon, Nove Colli, Transgaule and several other extreme ultras. I contacted Jean-Luc, and the following year I volunteered to help out. That experience confirmed my opinion that I would never compete in a 100-mile (actually 175km, or 110 miles) road race, particularly one on a course that I knew by heart and passed right in front of my home. However, I loved the atmosphere, and the contact with all these ultra grizzlies who made my own 15-year running experience seem positively pastoral in comparison.

Two years later, however, faced with prolonged unemployment and the nature of ultra running being what it is, I found myself signing up for the race with some anticipation. This lingering idea of competing in the GUCR had something to do with it, but also by now I was really searching for small, low-key races far from the madding crowds of the French mountain races where everyone seems to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis, dressed as if they’d just stepped out of Trail Running magazine. The clincher was also the fact that I now wanted to get out of my comfort zone, attempt something that would strike fear in me – not just the distance, but doing so on road and well-known turf. Finally I wanted a change of pace, so to speak – to run, or at least try to for as long as possible, rather than hike up and down mountains, particularly since I was battling inner fears of falling on descents. Oh, and I forgot to mention the medal – at these high-browed trail races trying to distance themselves from roads, all you get for your pain is a bloody t-shirt! I’ll admit, my name is Eric and I like race medals (even if they’re stuffed in shoe box in my cupboard and only my kids like to look at them).

Most participants arrived at Villeneuve, at the opposite end of Lake Léman from Geneva, between 4-5pm on Friday. The idea was have everyone camp out in the county gym the night before. For the first time I could look out at the surrounding mountains knowing that I wouldn’t have to climb them. The weather, however, was not promising. Most of my races over the years had been in very fair weather – apart from the infamous CCC in 2010 and TDS in 2012 – so now I was playing catch-up. First with the Swiss Irontrail five weeks ago, now here with the expectation of rain after several weeks of warm, sunny weather (and a few more weeks after the race that would prove also to be unseasonably warm). That, however, would be a blessing in disguise. Road running in the rain is nothing like similar weather in the mountains. No change of temperature, for one thing; and a rain-proof jacket is really all that is required. No need for change of clothes, gloves, hat, rain-proof trousers… And a sight better than running in 30°C temperatures.

At 6pm, all 50 of us gathered in the small wooden bleachers to listen to Jean-Luc’s race briefing. It was great. He knew most of us, and ran down the race numbers giving funny accounts of each of our running “accomplishments”. A few were tackling this distance for the first time, but even they were usually coming off 100km races where they’d posted enviable times (for me). But most were multi-ultra veterans that had finished some of the toughest and longest footraces on the planet. But no-one was sporting a race shirt, and everyone was really friendly.

Then we all gathered for a pasta dinner, served by the volunteers as if we were stars. I sat next to a US expat, Stephanie, who had failed at two attempts at mountain runs this year and, like me, wanted to go flat. That would turn out to be a good choice for her, as she would have a great run the next day finishing in 24 hours. I also sat opposite a Danish runner, Claus, who was competing in sandals! Said that it kept his feet pleasantly aired and prevented blisters. He’d been running in Vibrams for many years, had finished Spartathlon, several 24-hour track races, and 70 miles of Badwater in sandals, so for him he was a case of “this is easier than running in shoes”. I felt a bit less lonely the next day when I realized that most other competitors, like me, were running Hokas. Claus, Stephanie and I shared some race stories – mainly Claus – and when I said that I was planning on doing something else next year that I never thought I would – a 12-hour timed race around a 1-mile track, in Villeneuve (also organized by Jean-Luc), he said: “Why 12 hours, not 24?” Well, I’m doing it for the mental training, but since I’m afraid that even 12-hours will test my ability not to go stark, raving mad, it seemed silly to jump right into a 24-hour race. His response? “But… that’s like doing a half-marathon rather than the full!” Yes, well, each is own and all that. Only in this company would I get that reaction.

Running in sandals... Not something I foresee doing!
Anyway, so we took off the next day after a communal breakfast at 7am, in the rain, as expected (though apparently it was supposed to taper off by noon). The first five miles were a wonderful stroll along a towpath till we reached the departmental road that runs along the lake – one that was very familiar to me as we drive along it with the family to and from the mountains many weekends per year.
Now, being so familiar with the course, I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, or for it to be such a discovery at moments. I had expected having to struggle with running on a road with no pavement and a lot of cars, but not only wasn’t it that bad or that often relative to the whole thing, it was also part of the “urban experience” I was looking for after all these years on the trails. It was an integral part of what made this a completely new experience, even though I was presumably in familiar territory.
However, my form was not great. Legs started aching at mile14. I realized that 5-6 weeks since covering 137km with 7’300m of elevation in 42 hours was not enough recovery time for me. Oh, well. I started to slow down. Then I felt a really rough hot spot on my soles – I stopped to change socks and add Nok (like sudacrem) – and realized they there were all white and wringly from getting wet in the rain and the wet grass I had to traipse through when avoiding car rushing towards me. Go figure, 16 hours in the rain in the mountains hiking through mud and rivers with nary a problem, and here, impending blisters after 5 hours on the road. Certainly a journey of discovery…
I was mostly on my own for the first 40 miles, apart from playing leap-frog with a US expat, but then another, quite strong runner who had been averaging slightly more than 8km/h since the beginning caught up with me, as I had dropped from just under 10km/h to about 8km/h. I spent about an hour with my fellow competitor – it felt like the Tour de France as he was accompanied by not one but two friends on a bike, who rotated out of a minivan! – before he pulled ahead just before we entered Switzerland in Hermance.
Another race in the rain...

A few miles later, I was sitting in my parents-in-law’s living room, eating cheese and drinking a Monster energy drink while chatting with my wife. Very surreal. Never has she accompanied me on an ultra, so we have never spent time together with me in the parallel state of ultra-running, and doing so in the comfort of this living room was very strange. But I manage to get my pack redone, change my clothes, eat and be on my way within 30 minutes as anticipated. Thankfully also her parents had ibuprofen since my left leg was really starting to act up, and was expecting to meet up with my friend Cyril on a bike just by the lake in a few miles, otherwise it might have been difficult to get going. But I knew this could be a double-edged sword, so I enjoyed the comfort, had no thoughts of stopping, and got going in relatively high spirits.
As I emerged, a car was parked just outside my in-law’s garden gate that fronted the road. It was assistance for one of the runners, who was sitting on the rear fender having a rest and some food. I said a quick “hello” and headed off… only to turn back after 100 meters realizing that I’d left my water bottles at my in-laws!
Back on the road, in very familiar territory, as I shuffled past the town hall where I was married in Collonges-Bellerive. My left knee started acting up something horrible, so I stopped to pop an ibuprofen, which took about 10 minutes because I couldn’t find it. I was only a mile from my in-laws but no way was I heading back. I was just about to call my wife to come drive it to me, when I found it.

A few minutes later, as I shuffled up the mild hill leading to Vésenaz where I live, all the pain and fatigue ebbed off drastically (ibuprofen + Monster energy drink! So magic potion as at the Swiss Irontrail – though I knew I wouldn’t be taking another pill for at least 6-8 hours, if ever—I cared too much about my kidneys!), making me feel like a million bucks. After Vésenaz, there’s a downhill ramp to the lake, which usually marks the start of most of my road runs, then we run along the lake all the way to the Mont Blanc bridge, before crossing and heading back to Villeneuve—at that point still 90km away (the lake being a crescent shape, the Swiss side that we return along is longer, so Geneva doesn’t actually mark the half-way point, doh).
I jogged it all at a decent pace, around 9.5km/h, for almost 10km till the next food station at Bellevue.
It was bliss, made even better by the fact that I was joined with Cyril on his town bike loaded with food, drinks and clothes. I leap-frogged a few times with Paula, an experienced Italian runner who I think was struggling a bit but maintained a beautiful smile nonetheless. We chatted a bit, but I think she sensed that, in some ways, she was breaking up my tandem with Cyril. I felt a bit guilty, but then she gradually distanced me until I could no longer see her, so in the end probably she was in any case moving faster than I was and had I been alone, she would’ve have let me alone at some point anyway.
The food station at Bellevue was—as all the food stations—wonderfully stocked with an assortment of savory and salty foods: eggs, ham, cheese, bread, crackers, cake, candy – and noodle soup! Ooh, and coffee.

I didn’t dally too long but it was enough to take the wind out of my sails, or perhaps in any case the “purple spot” I’d been experiencing since Vésenaz would have ended at that point anyway. I’d covered just under 90km now in just over 12 hours, and I thought I might actually beat my best 100km time from last year at Millau (13h38mn) but it was not to be. The route after Bellevue to Coppet has several mild inclines that I had to walk, my interspersed jogging was more and more interspersed and slowing down, and even the walk was starting to fall below a pedestrian 4km/h. It took me about two hours to cover the next 10km. Part of that was due to a very pleasant stop overlooking the lake just before Nyon when I had a Pata Negra sandwich (dried ham from Andalousia—I’d been dying for this at the Swiss Irontrail, but didn’t trust leaving food, even dried ham, in a drop bag for over 24 hours, and hadn’t thought to ask Anthony at the time). The rain had abated by now—actually it had relented a while ago, and I realized that it really hadn’t bothered me in the least. My jacket had kept me dry, unlike at the Swiss Irontrail, and I hadn’t suffered at all from the cold. I merely switched off my T-shirt for a long-sleeve shirt on the outskirts of Geneva, and then donned a sweater as my pace slowed and the night cooled.
Despite knowing Cyril for 26 years and run more than a dozen ultras together (including the MdS), we never ran out of things to talk about. On this stretch we recalled a very hot 34km run from Geneva to Nyon and back when we were training for the MdS in mid-summer. I thought how far I’d come since then, though I was ten years older: still feeling ok after 110km—well, at least no thoughts of dropping out yet, and still feeling comfortable with the cut-offs—a mere six weeks after my 42-hour Swiss Irontrail attempt.
Unfortunately, it was the start of my decline. I had a temporary reprieve when I arrived at the next check point at Gland, since I’d expected it much later, and finding out that the 6th check point in St. Prex was a mere 18km further down the road, rather than the 22km I’d expected (no, I don’t really recon the routes much; this was really just a case of following the lake, or, as Jean-Luc had said about finding our way at night: “Lights on the left: bad; no lights on the right: lake, good”). Of course this meant that between St. Prex and the last check point in Cully at 155km was further than the others. How far, the volunteers wouldn’t say (“oh, we don’t want to get it wrong”, “not exactly sure”, and my favorite: “don’t worry about that now”), which told me everything I needed to know: it was far. Their technique didn’t work, however: though I should’ve focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and the next immediate check point, I did start to get demoralized.
However, I did get a blister treated for the first time (a long, thin blister running from between my big toe and the one next to it (does it have a name?) to the knob of my big toe. I usually don’t get blisters, and the few I have gotten, I’ve managed to treat myself (well, at Millau at least; at the MdS, Cyril was kind enough to help out). I think it’s the road running. All that shuffling on asphalt makes the foot land in the same place again and again. Mountains are strangely much kinder, since I managed over 12 hours with wet feet at the Swiss Irontrail and no blisters.

Anyway… After Gland I really went downhill. My spirits were high and it was fun being with Cyril on his bike in the middle of the night on the quiet roads and towns of Switzerland, but my legs were giving out. Six weeks after previously doing 137km was evidently not enough for my level of training.
There’s the saying, “Run if you can, walk if you can’t, crawl if you have to”, or some version thereof. That’s where I was at: definitely walking and heading towards the crawl. It’s not that my muscles hurt—I’m used to that—it was something new: they were starting to no longer actually function and allow me to keep moving. I lay down on a park bench for a few moments’ respite; I remember lying down with my legs up against a building wall to try and get the blood flowing: nothing worked for very long.
But I was ready to grind it out. Sure, I had a business trip to London in three days and it would be better to finish early Sunday morning and have an extra day’s sleep and rest that arrive early afternoon—but I was ok with that; I know I’d survive the business trip somehow (and probably better if I finished than if I quit too soon). Sure, I bounced mentally between believing that, really, now I couldn’t continue any longer to saying “let’s at least make it to Lausanne and we can always catch a train there”, to pushing ahead and even attempting a few running paces…

Morale was generally high, and I remember a perfectly fun moment when we arrived at a roundabout to discover to police cars waiting in ambush for any late night reveler; the cops offered me a ride, I pointed out the obvious and said I’d be disqualified, they laughed. I realized how young the four of them were and how much older I now was.
Cyril and I got very temporarily lost trying to locate St Prex. I only noticed the (very, very) small arrows that Jean-Luc had stuck (probably a few years ago at the first edition of the race) on lampposts because I remember turning off the main cantonal road with Anthony when we biked to Morges and back in preparation for the Vichy Ironman (my only long bike ride…). A few kilometers later, Cyril and I then avoided the obvious and headed uphill and away from the lake, before coming to our senses and heading back down towards the lake.
I was really appreciating my surroundings along a road that I had never travelled along before, when we arrived at the St Prex food station. It looked like they were ready to close up, and the first thing I said was: “Am I last?” They told me I wasn’t, which did little to lift my belief that I could finish this thing, and then said a group of three were only ten minutes ahead of me and looked the worse for wear—and that did boost my confidence for about two minutes. I realized I looked good because I felt good, endurance-wise, but my legs weren’t cooperating. I asked them about stopping, what would happen to Cyril and his bike, how I would return to Villeneuve—and basically they were very evasive, borderline rude, and pretty much ignored me.
I realize now, of course, that it was the perfect response to anyone talking about quitting. And it worked: I got up out of the chair and stumbled off.
But really now I was in the “crawl” zone. I realized that the speed at which I was now travelling would not get me to Villeneuve or even Cully under the cut-offs. Then I just ignored that and told myself to press on till Lausanne at least, then I visualized the very kind volunteer Rafaelle, who said she’d be expecting me in Cully and I imagined the finish (and the medal)…
I was pretty much in that state of mind when I literally ground to a halt on the outskirts of Morges. I had run, I had walked and I was now crawling. With five kilometers remaining, which would probably have taken me 2½ hours, I would have crawled. Perhaps even 10km. But not another 45km.
I called it in.

A DNF I’m ok with

Often we engage in ultra marathons with the idea of “finding our limits”, only often to discover that they can almost always be pushed back, depending on how much we want it (and how far we want to go). But there are limits, to some degree dependent on innate physical ability, and largely also dependent on training, I realize. Either in terms of time (speed) or distance. It’s the mental limits, actually, that we seek to push back.
I didn’t reach that in this race, as well as in the Swiss Irontrail. I felt mentally strong. Sleep deprivation and speed were my nemesis in the SIT; lack of specific training and fatigue from the SIT (and speed) prevented me from finishing the Ultra Tour du Léman. Just as a couch potato can’t conceivably run a marathon in six hours no matter how strong is mental will is, just as a friend of mine who trained for a marathon in six weeks, finished in just under six hours and couldn’t walk for six hours, would not have been able to complete a 100km race – well, I couldn’t complete a 100-mile road race in my condition.
So I’ve found my limits twice this year, and I learned so much from that experience. I’ve learned that I can reach them end of them, provided I do the right training (and always without sacrificing unduly my family life), and I intend to do so. I’ll be back to both these races, and I know that if I finish them, I will be able to finish anything.
That’s the experience and answer I’m looking for.