Monday, December 26, 2016

What I feel I've lost

Ah, well, I'd completely forgotten I'd written the previous post shortly after finding out that I have a place in the GUCR. Well, I didn't follow that plan... I have been training, but I've come to realize that so much is a shot in the dark - someone else's Spartathlon training plan?... So I've decided to have someone draw up a personalized training plan for me starting in January. I avoid the word 'coach', but that's what it is in essence. How did I get here? I'm excited to start on the training, I'm looking forward to "progressing", I'll be glad come race day that I can have confidence in my training... But I've feel like I've lost the spontaneity - it's all become so serious.

My dad competed in over 100 marathons (after starting at the age of 44) and at least 20 races that would qualify as ultras. He certainly never had a coach. I don't know how deeply he cared about DNFing but I do know that the main interest was sharing a unique experience with like-minded people, and the whole adventure. The only races he didn't finish were the 100km Bienne (twice) and the MdS (four out of seven entries), and he was over 60 and probably over 200 pounds. From what I can remember, it dropped because he really couldn't go on - it any case, it certainly wasn't accompanied by the type of angst that I've found myself possessed with. I've feel like I've been infected with something, like I've lost so much else in pursuit of bigger challenges and also with the growth of the sport.

Trail races in France today sometimes feel like groupings of forty-somethings in the collective throes of a midlife crisis. There's an intensity there that before I'd only feel at marathons (or at the two triathlons I've competed in). At least at marathons and triathlons, it goes with the territory, but on these trail runs it's like disco types trying to be groovy hippies, and thinking they are by the simple fact of being there and dressing the part. And I've gone from feeling comfortably out of my element as I was at the MdS in 2000, to getting wrapped up in this John Travolta-like, belly-button gazing search for performance. I look in from the outside feeling insulated from the phenomenon having been competing in trail runs before the word even existed, yet knowing that part of me is exactly like all the other MANILs. It's all too familiar - and way too overcrowded.

The UTMB/TDS/CCC is the epitome of this phenonmenon. It's like people are competing more in an idea, in a concept - not the race itself. It's like only accepting only to run the New York or London or Paris marathon and not any marathon even if it's in your backdoor (and there usually is one within an hour's driving distance wherever you are). The distance and challenge of a race aren't enough. It has to be a particular kind of race. Sure, the course of the UTMB is beautiful, but people now do it for more than that - it's inescapable.

Last year I managed to escape it. Competing in the low-key Swiss Irontrail (which is actually much more wild and beautiful than the UTMB) and then in the race around Lake Geneva, made me feel connected and disconnected in a way I hadn't felt in several years. Connected to the pure challenge, to competing in a race simply because it is there; disconnected in the sense of feeling out of my depth as I did at my first MdS in 2000. But also a sense of "tribe" that I certainly haven't felt in almost all the races I've competed in since about 2009. Not in the sense that everyone is all chummy, high-fiving and trying to 'connect' with everyone, thinking "look how we're crazy and different from everyone else, aren't we amazing", which is what I get in French trail races today where everyone talks about "the trail spirit" but actually it's not there at all... But just in the sense that everyone there is at heart a lone wolf, standing at the start anxious and excited by everything that will happen along the way to the finish. People who want to accumulate experiences, not races, even though of course the race is the means to the experience. Many, like the GUCR, Badwater (+ many more) and, yes, the UTMB and the MdS, are iconic because they offer a particular kind of experience. But I would argue that the UTMB and the MdS no longer offer a unique experience. Badwater is unique; but you can get an experience similar to the UTMB by participating in the Swiss Irontrail. You can get an experience similar to the MdS (multi-stage, self-sufficiency and desert) by competing in Augrabies - without the drawbacks of overcrowding and everything else. Sure, you don't get the Mont Blanc or the Sahara, but that's my point: today, the A-types put that argument first, hiding the fact that what it really means is "I want a race name that people recognize, it reassures me that I am donig something really special"; to me it is secondary and not worth the drawbacks. And

Arg, I just can seem to express just how I feel... Perhaps this is the difference I'm talking about. At almost all the recent trail races I've competed in in France, everyone seems to be parading around in their recent finisher's T-shirt making some sort of statement; they all seem to be compiling points to qualify for the UTMB. Most so-called runners I meet nowadays are really proud of the fact that they have never run a marathon, never run on roads - and dismiss anyone who does as "asphalt lover". I remember last year being introduced at a party to someone "who also runs"; when I was asked what my last race was and I said the"100km Millau" and how much fun it was, the guy looked condescendingly at me and said, "oh, I don't do roads". Oh, you mean you don't actually like to run, you just engage in glorified hiking - the more technical, the better...

Prat! He doesn't really understand, to me, what the essence of this is all about. A race experience comes from so much more than just the landscape. In fact, it's when you find beauty in the most mundane and ugly that you know you're experiencing something real. That guy - and French trail races now feel full of them, which is why I have no desire to compete in them anymore - wouldn't understand what James Adams writes so truly in his book (Running and Stuff): "Running ultramarathons gives you a weird sense of romance for places that are otherwise shit. I was not running through Machu Picchu, looking at the Great Pyramids or taking in historic sections of the Great Wall of China (...). No, I was in a Tesco car park in Leighton Buzzard."

The worst thing is, that notion of only competing in mountrain trail runs because everything "Dude, I'm a Born to run nature lover who feels so free running trails" is totally spurious! I have a home in the mountains and will never tire of running/hiking in them - because I'm alone, not stuck with 2,000 people clogging up the paths with my nose pressed against some guy's ass - where's the "freedom" in that!?

These guys are having an experience, for sure. They are surpassing themselves and feeling badass and rising to challenges and overcoming pain and suffering and difficulty... But I still feel they are experiencing it in a way I don't identify with: like a trader closing a deal before moving on to the next, like... I don't know. Something I'm afraid of falling into, I suppose. So I'm just hoping that having someone now draft up a personalized training plan for me will not bring an intensity and seriousness to my running that removes the romanticism.

That's what I'm afraid I've lost and started to retrieve at the run around Lake Geneva and hope to experience at the GUCR: falling in love with a parking lot, which is basically just being in love with Life, with living. And I can only do that if I feel some sense of love for myself, which can be such a difficult task at times - because it involves not being enamored with some image of myself but rather appreciating and accepting who I am at my core.

Ah, yes, "finding my inner child" - woo-hoo!

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, far from the madding crowd of French trail races where everyone seems to be in the collective throes of a midlife crisis.

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, almost two marathons.
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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

2016 Swiss Irontrail T201 race review: a glorious DNF at a must-do race!

(201km, 11'500m of elevation gain; DNF at 137km and 7'300m)

I have found my race. I loved this race. Everything about it. And for the first time I am already looking ahead for "revenge" in 2017. I've "only" had two previous DNFs, and I had no real desire to go back and do them again. The UT4M because I wasn't crazy about the race itself, and the TDS because...well, it's that whole UTMB crowd and I don't enjoy the mountains surrounded by a few thousand people, not to mention over-crowded check points with hundreds of crew & sundry supporters milling about. Still, at the time they were the longest races I'd attempted in years and of course I wanted to know if I could go the distance. Something similar has happened since I pretty much timed out at the Swiss Irontrail, though at 137km after 42 hours I now know I have it in me to finish a 100-mile mountain race - though perhaps still not 125 miles and 38'000 feet (11'500m) of vertical elevation! But that's only part of the appeal - my main reasons for wanting to return are the landscape, the atmosphere, and everything this race made me feel and experience.

As for the reasons I now assess for my DNF, I will get into them at the end. Essentially they are encapsulated in the "pretty much" of "I pretty much timed out", since I still had 10 minutes to spare at Savognin when I dropped.

A low-key beginning in Davos

So back to the start, 4am on Friday 5 August, in Davos. Out of the 200 competitors, or thereabouts, originally signed up for the T201, only 155 showed up at the start, the rest having switched to a shorter distance race (the T91 50-miler) primarily because of the horrendous weather that was supposed to last all day and even into the night. I was exchanging some not-so-memorable banter with my friend Jérôme who was embarking on his 2nd ever mountain trail (and only 3rd ultra).
It was pouring down rain and barely 8°C (46°F), and half of us were waiting for the start time in the gymasium where the organization had set up its headquarters. The other half, we found out when we starting easing out of the gym into the courtyard at 3h55, were under the schoolyard bike garage. Then we heard village church bells ring out at 4am, someone blew on an Alp horn... It took a while to realize that the race was, in fact, on! And it happened in trickles, with the last one out of the gymnasium passing right through the departure/arrival arch. The most low-key start I have ever seen, no announcement, nothing. 4am? bells and alpenhorn? Ah, time to go!
Wonderful. Almost felt like we were off for a weekend long run.

Dürrboden - 6am or thereabouts - 14km, 400m

Geez it was pissing down. Within 90mn, despite my supposedly UTMB-proof weather jacket (Craft) and trousers (Salomon), I was feeling distinctly damp. It was early hours and easy going, however, so the pace was keeping me from getting too chilly. The terrain was perfect, just like I like them - not too steep, not technical at all - just what I'd hoped for. Still, by the time we made to the first checkpoint at Dürrboden around 6am, I was cold and already wondering whether I'd make it my first drop bag in Samedan without getting hypothermia. And my mind must already been dissolving into a mental marshmallow, since I find it funny in hindsight that I extrapolated an "easygoing race course" out of the first 14km that post a mere 400+m of elevation gain. Anyway, first faff of the race as Jérôme and I proceed to remove wet clothes, wring them out, put on sweater and eat - 15mn instead of the 5mn stop I'd anticipated.

But, here's the Dürrboden checkpoint on a nice day (ah, the typical Swiss chalet and landscape!):

And here's miserable me leaving it at dawn:


 Chamanna - possibly 8.15-8.30am - 25km, 1400m

With dawn came the first serious climb up to 2'600m (8'600ft). Which is when Jérôme and I realized something else as the temperature edged down towards freezing: our gloves were not waterproof, so they were now basically ineffectual. Now, my friend Anthony (who was meeting us in Pontresina and crewing the rest of the way, brave man) was at Sandhurst and told me that one of his officers once said, when he complained about being wet: "Your skin's fucking waterproof, Kennaway!" That, however, did not help. My skin might be waterproof, my hands were getting very cold.

Still, going briefly off track and the view of the high treeless mountain ridges and several valleys intersecting, with no sign of life anywhere - an amazing view even in the rain and clouds - kept the mind off things.

Also, the checkpoint at Chamanna had broth/bouillon. This only added to the already intense faffing about, as we tried to wring our clothes dry again (however, I will happily note that with the sweater, the Craft wind jacket did keep me relatively warm, if not particularly dry; and the legs were good) and eat some crackers and cheese, and top up the gels in my belt, and attend to toilet duty. We'd holed ourselves up in the ski locker at the side of the entrance, and suddenly heard sounds that sounded eerily like a woman giving birth. Actually it was someone who was having multiple cramps spreading through her legs. Not even five hours in and it wouldn't be long before the first DNFs.
20mn break, perhaps even 25mn. And already almost an hour off my hoped-for finishing time of 55h (I definitely won't admit now what my double-secret finishing time was).

So here's Chamann on a bright, sunny day:

Bergün - 10.51am - 38km, 1400m+

(I can be so precise about some arrival times because these are registered on my results sheet on the race website.)
Next we were in for a 1300m (4300ft) drop into the first valley, but what I liked so much about this race is that the "valley" was never lower than 1300m, the altitude at which Bergün sits. Most were above 1800. (Actually there is one at just under 900m but i didn't get that far). Anyway, this drop made me realize that as cold as we got going up, we could warm up going down the other side of the mountain, somehow consistently out of the wind. This would be quite a lifesaver. At this point I'd removed my gloves and would cover them as much as I could with my sleeves going uphill. Needless to say, I wasn't winning any points for speed.
Same for the downhill, since this was when the Swiss Irontrail became decidedly technical and would never quite let up. Oh, there was some running spots, and it wasn't as bad as the Beaufortain, but with the bad weather we had ample mud to trudge through ("don't let your shoes get sucked in!" - one bloke almost ended up in socks) and overflowing streams to wade through (picking our way over wet rocks - with a recently cracked tailbone, not my idea of fun).
The rain was supposed to let up by noon, drizzle till 4pm then stop. It wasn't letting up (well, it wasn't noon yet but having left at 4am after only a few hours sleep it certainly felt like it should). I know, because I don't have much recollection of this passage, probably because my eyes were glued to my feet. I wear glasses, without windscreen wipers sadly.
I don't think Jérôme and I spoke much, except for one funny moment (at least, I though it was quite amusing) when we spoke about finishing times and I realized that Jérôme hadn't really quite caught on that this race would last well into Sunday. I said, "I'm hoping to finish under 60 hours. That gets us in at 4pm on Sunday, we should be able to catch a train to Zurich and the last one to Geneva," ignoring the fact of just how utterly beat we would be by simply thinking that we'd sleep on the train. For Jérôme, it suddenly became non-negotiable: "I'll keep you to it - I have to get back by Sunday. I have a job interview to prepare for on Tuesday and some work to get done on Monday". Okaaay. Fine with me. No more faffing. Still, Jérôme just had no clue - a job interview on Tuesday!? - it was quite refreshing. That's why I figured he had all the right intrinsic qualities to finish such a race, even though the longest he'd done was 15 hours at a 50-miler mountain race earlier that spring in great weather in the south of France. This race was just a job that needed to get done. That simple.

I don't even remember the checkpoint in Bergün. It was at a school gym, I think, like so many I've been through. All the others in this race were memorable - not this one. All I know is that we spent less than 8mn here, so all that pep talk about "getting it done" helped in that respect.
I do remember a nice, long stretch of gently sloped decline that allowed us to run for 45mn at a decent clip.
We passed some serious work going on by the forest rangers to avoid landslides and river floods outside Bergün. It wasn't very reassuring to realize that one at point we just crossed an area that was now cordoned off to hikers.


Naz - noon or thereabouts - 43km, 1800m+

Getting to Naz was great. It was like going through the Shire, hobbit territory in the Lord of the Rings. Low alpine vegetation, twinkling streams. A lull in the rain (as predicted!) helped. And there were the postcard-perfect mountain railways.
Jérôme and I spoke about when to sleep. He wanted to anticipate fatigue and rest in Samedan. I figured that would be too early and wanted to get to Pontresina where I knew Anthony was waiting with hot food, eat and then rest before heading out to finish the bigger part of the night. We figured we'd play it by ear.
Naz was just a lean-to on a roadside farm, but there were boiled potatoes and broth, so we managed to spend about 15mn here, again too much, but it seemed necessary and maybe it was. At this point, finishing times were taking a big backseat to cut-off times. We were an hour ahead, so we figured we were still on for 60 hours since we hoped to stretch that margin more as the race went on (ha!).

Samedan - Just before 6pm (or thereabouts) - 60km, 3100m+

There is actually a checkpoint between Naz and Samedan at km 54 - Spinas - but it's really just a few volunteers huddled under a marquee (actually a bit like Naz) with some coke, banana, and horrible chunks of powerbar that tragically (for me) looked like chocolate. I almost puked for the first time in a race. Won't make that mistake again.
Again, don't remember much of this stretch. It was pretty, however. My fingers went numb on the uphill, despite trying to cover them with my sleeves, but then they defrosted on the downhill so I started to ignore that problem. Everything else was actually fine and dandy. Some leg soreness earlier on had disappeared and I was feeling quite good.
The drop into the valley was again technical and slow going, but  before reaching the bottom we had some fun heading off the switchbacks and going straight down - the going was easy enough and the switchbacks went right through a cow herd that I was anxious to avoid. Jérôme and I were followed by another competitor who turned out to be from the Lakeland district. He encouraged me to come run the Lakeland 100, which I've heard about and am tempted - but then there's the remoteness and was about to tell him that when I realized - "wait, here's here in the Engadine, that's pretty damn remote!" Then I mentioned the GUCR, which has been on my radar for a few years now, and he said he'd heard of it. "Bloody long though, innit?"
WTF?!?! Yes, it's 145 miles, 238km. Sure that's almost a marathon longer than this race, but it's also flat as a pancake in comparison. The cut-off time is a twenty hours less. 44 hours to 64. Almost  whole third. 44 hours would get you in the top 10 if not 5 here at the Swiss Irontrail.
Still, made me wonder if I really wanted to run from Birmingham to London. Then it made me want to do the GUCR even more.

By the time we reached the valley, Jérôme had slipped into a low point, I think, but he didn't express it as such and following our recent high spirits, I didn't notice it. There was a 4km flat stretch before Spinas that I was able to run, but Jérôme lagged behind a bit. Under the marquis in Spinas we had our first minor altercation. I didn't want to stop more than the 2mn necessary to fill up my water bottles, while Jérôme needed a longer pause, and had decided to reconvert a ziplock bag into rainproof gloves (yes the rain had not let up at 4pm). He said I was stressing him;  I could see that, but didn't mean to: I was just informing him that I was getting cold and would move ahead and he would catch me up going uphill. He got it. And after all, we had decided before the race that we would split if necessary - this didn't seem necessary yet, but out of all the races i've done, this seemed the one where it would be most difficult to stick to someone else's pace, either too slow or too fast.
So I went on ahead. But actually I didn't really fancy going up the hill alone and I thought it was too early to split up, and somewhere in my befuddled and race-focused brain I probably realized that Jérôme as have a bad patch, so I decided to wait for him somewhere out of the rain and wind: I spotted a cow barn and headed inside. Kept me warm for the few minutes it took for Jérôme to catch up, and it cleared my sinuses!

There was another uphill trudge before arriving at Samedan where our first dropbags awaited us. It was a great rest area, particularly since in a 200-km race with only 155 participants, it was hardly crowded. And a few kids were there to go get our dropbags, asking for our numbers as we arrived and bringing them to our tables - what service!
Changed shoes (Sportivas to trail Hokas), changed socks (old trusty compressport to Decathlon-bought X-Bionics) and changed shirt - I donned a thicker Skinz long-sleeve shirt, and that along with the windbreaker (no sweater) would be sufficient to keep me warm enough at night and in the freak snow storm at 2'600m - ate some personal rations (salt & vinegar potato chips, sour cream & onion chips, strawberry protein shake, energy shot), drank some coffee, and I was out of there. Well, not that simple. Faff, faff, faff. Changing shoes and socks and in what order what turned out to be a horribly complicated matter. Then I wasted time trying to dry my gloves with the hairdryer in the changing rooms.
I was finally ready to leave after about 40mn. Jérôme said he was going to rest some more. I reminded him that the cut-off was at 7pm. He planned on leaving just before.

Pontresina - 11.37pm - 73km, 4300m+

In hindsight probably my most ecstatic stretch. Night was falling and I love the night. There was a 3km joggable flat stretch (more faff taking off the sweater that I'd put on in Samedan but would not put on again - I was actually too warm and risked sweating and getting wet from the inside, the irony...) and the 1200m climb was divided in two parts with another 3-4km runnable slight downhill stretch in between. The first part was through the woods and then only a bit above the treeline, and out of the wind. The second part was high up above 2000 meters and on rocks - but they were all flattened to big slabs so the going wasn't too tough, very much like climbing giant steps - or it wouldn't have been if it wasn't night, with high wind, and now a snow storm! Good thing I was in high spirits because it felt rather like an adventure.
I spotted a bench (go figure!) so I stopped to exchange text messages with my wife - to say good night! -, with Anthony - he was still trying to locate the checkpoint in Pontresina -, and with Jérôme who'd latched on to two other runners, quite overwhelmed by night fall and the weather (he hadn't yet seen the worst of it), but then my fingers were way too numb to hit any more keys. But I knew I just had to stick it out until the downhill and things would warm up (besides, what choice did I have?) About 15mn before reaching the top, I saw a figure coming towards me: a volunteer was up here in the storm making sure people were ok. Amazing. He was some grizzled mountaineer who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself and it was infectious. That raised my spirits even further, just enough to get over the hill - the climb was starting to get very long and I was ready for it to end - then a steep drop into the valley.

Arriving in Pontresina was great. Anthony was there outside the checkpoint to greet me - he'd been following my progress on his laptop and knew pretty much to the meter when I'd arrive since we all carried GPS beacons. There was snow on the ground but the rain had let up. There were even a few timid stars out!
Unfortunately Jérôme had texted me to say that his knee was hurting, he could hardly bend his leg, and was making very slow progress.

Long pause in Pontresina, but a good one (maybe 10-15mn too much) during which I ate a bacon cheeseburger that Anthony had cooked and chatted, before putting my head down for 15mn (without really sleeping). Anthony also thew away my trail mix that I could no longer stand the sight of, and handed me his own home-made potion - with M&Ms in them. Mmm.
The location was amazing, I couldn't get my head around the layout, it almost seemed like the checkpoint was set up in a small hotel, with food and beverage on one level, and sleeping mattresses on the landing on the upper level. The food and beverage was rather spartan, however, and I was making the other competitors rather jealous with my burger.
When I came back down from my nap, Jérôme was there. It was midnight, the cut-off was in 30mn, and he said that he couldn't go on, just too painful. I was really sorry for him, but at the time my tired brain couldn't only really focus on continuing and what I needed to do before heading out, so I received the news rather matter-of-factly. He introduced me to Richard, who was one of the "veteran runners" who'd helped him get over the mountain in the night, but who was now also thinking of dropping due to nausea.
Jérôme gave him one of the anti-nausea pills (motilium) that we carried and I encouraged him to go on with me. We'd end up spending pretty much the next 24 hours together (and he'd go on to finish!) (and he filmed parts of it which means I figure in a race video for the first time in my life!).
So we headed out at  12.10am with Anke, a 3-time finisher. I figured I was in good company.

The view I didn't see of Pontresina in the day time

Station Murtèl - around 5am - 87km, 5'300m

So I headed out into the night with Anke and Richard through the streets of Pontresina. Except that after five minutes, we realized we were headed down the wrong street. Well, Anke realized it, pulling out her pocket GPS. Though this was her 4th participation, she said it was different every time, if only because the start times had been different each year (first 6am, then 8am, now 4am).

Anyway, we found the right street, then headed off into the forest. After some desultory conversation - during which I learned that Anke had won the women's 100km Biel run more than ten years ago - I upped my pace a little, moving ahead of the others. It wasn't that their pace was slow (I had my mind on the cut-offs, but was quite sure that Anke was intent on finishing - and would - so as long as she was in my sights I was ok), but I think that I wanted to be on my own. Jérôme and I had never really been on the same wave length and that created some tension between us, as he felt pressure from me to spend less time at the check points, and I felt stressed by his desire for me to adapt to his rhythm. Especially since I felt somewhat responsible - this was, after all, his first serious ultra, and we trained a lot together, and the conditions were atrocious. In fact, the weather had only compounded the tension, as we found ourselves pretty much in survival mode very early on.

Now the weather had cleared, I could even see some stars, and I wanted to be alone. I felt bad for Jérôme forced to drop, he had invested so much time, energy and hope (and money!). But though he may feel I let him down, and perhaps in some way I had, I'm not sure how I could accommodate our desire to run together and the evident need to move at our own paces. This was my 'A' race after all, something I'd had in my sights for several years, and I needed to give myself the best chance of completing it. I know that at some level he knows that too.

So now I have a race to do, step by step. I'd been going for 20 hours, but barely cracked more than a third. Still a long, long way to go.

The first miles after Pontresina were very pleasant, through a forest in which I came across a family of deer, and it was a gently rising slope that made the pace feel easy. About a half-hour in, after a random phone call on my 'race phone' (a cheap, highly resistant, old-school Nokia, with a 3-week+ battery life, ideal for these conditions), from someone I didn't know and couldn't understand (only my wife, Anthony and Jérôme had the number, and the race organizers; i thought at first it was Richard telling me I'd gone off course, but turns out it wasn't - mystery...), I arrived at the foot of the next steep climb.

It was endless. I played leap frog with three South Koreans who were playing leap frog with each other. One of them and I pulled ahead and with great Asian politeness, he kept letting me go on ahead. But after a while, he dropped way back. Then he caught up again when I stopped to eat, pee, faff. When I caught up with him again, I saw him turn his head and groan - and he let me go way ahead again... Then I understood what was going on: though my stomach felt fine, I'll admit that I was experiencing rather heinous gas. Understandably, he wanted to keep his distance.

When I finally reached the summit, feeling like a climber on Everest taking minutes for each step, it was only to realize that the reflective strap indicating the way had disappeared. I had no idea where to go. Eventually I was joined by the three South Koreans, Anke, Richard and some other person. After a little while ambling around at 9'000 feet in the dark, Anke finally decided upon a direction and - after some hesitation, but with Richard confirming the route - we headed off after her.

I can't remember much of the next part, I just remember it being very cold as we pretty much remained on the mountain top, making our way across to the next check point: Murtèl, a mountain top restaurant located at the arrival of a car. The atmosphere there was very sedate. One person was passed out on a mattress, about five-six others were shuffling from the food station (coffee!) and the tables. I found a seat with Richard who asked if I was continuing - well, yes! Turns out, if you dropped here, it was just a cable car ride down to a bus ride back to Davos. Hell, no...

Maloja - 8.30am (in), 9.26am (out) - 101km, 5'500m

So Richard and I, and some other quiet person whose name I have sadly since forgotten, headed down the mountain, actually with a bit of skip in our step, Richard leading the pace. Dawn was breaking, and yes, renewed energy came with it. It was an amazing descent, along the flank of the mountain, over looking the valley spotted with lakes. The difficult part was that we could see Maloja in the distance...

We arrived in Sils, where Richard showed me the house where the German philosopher Nieztsche used to live as we passed it. No time to visit, sadly.

Nietzsche's house in Sils

I may have had more energy, even feeling a little sprightly, but the run to Maloja is a bit of a blur. Richard and I chatted about different races, he was telling about his daughter who was competing in the T91, and I also spent some time hanging back, listening to music.

We arrived on flat ground in the valley, just as some Saturday morning joggers were out for their morning exercise, and then it was jog/walk along an unpleasantly hilly (but very picturesque) path the lake into Maloja. Strangely, both Richard and I were talking about dropping in Maloja as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Of course we were going to drop. This has gone on long enough! I was also convincing myself that considering how much time it had taken me to get this far, there was no way I could make it to Savognin in the cut-offs... But at the same time, we were saying that if we go to Savognin we got some sort of special ranking. I figured I should go to Savognin, then I thought it would be nice to get to 160km - the 100-mile mark. And then  I started to realize that if I made it back to Davos, it would be too late to take the train home and that meant the family vacation in the South of France wouldn't start until Tuesday, and my wife would be disappointed about that, and I was started to feel that it would be a shame, I'd already asked to sacrifice so much for this race...

Fortunately 5km outside of Maloja I heard a peppy British "well hello there!" My friend Anthony had jogged all this way to meet up with me. I remember babbling, but not what about, only that at one point I did say that it had now been three years almost to the day that I'd stopped drinking any alcohol. Anyway, he pushed me to run more than I would have done otherwise, and thanks to that I arrived at Maloja with an hour to spare - just enough time to regroup, rest, change and eat.

Jérôme was there too, cheering me on. The two of them pampered me, Anthony re-packed my Salomon backpack after I'd changed and cooked me a breakfast of eggs and sausages, while Jérôme got me a chilled Monster energy drink that Anthony had stored in his portable fridge (I was almost embarassed by the looks of starved envy from some of the others runners). I ate all that after a 20mn nap, and Anthony was sure I would just puke it back up on my way up the mountain. Oh, no! It was amazing. 

Richard was there filming - he'd managed to get his camera working again - and off we went together three minutes ahead of the cut-off time, but not feeling anxious about that at all. I figured if I just kept going, it would all sort itself out. In fact, I was in such a state after weathering the shittiest weather I've ever experienced in a race that nothing could phase me now that the sun was out. I realized that I'd left my Skinz spandex compression shorts back in my dropbag in Samedan - and the long pants were too warm - so I was stuck wearing just some running shorts, old school. But it felt good to have the breeze on my legs, and I just lathered on an extra layer of lube to avoid any chance of chafing. Figured I'd worry about the next night when it came.

Maloja, the most beautiful moment of the race

 Bivio - around 2.30pm - 115km, 6'400m

I wasn't exactly in high spirits. Mellow, would be the best way to describe it as I was so sleep deprived. 'Suspended animation' might actually be closer to the truth. Richard's video (posted at the end of this blog entry) shows (around mn 7) how slow I was making my way up the mountain. But it was all good.

And then I had what I can only describe as an instantaneous mental and spiritual collapse. I signaled to Richard (who was some ways up), using the scuba-diver's "no air" sign, that I was heading back down. I called Anthony to tell him that I was handing in my bib. That was it, I was done.

Thankfully, Anthony did his duty, basically telling me there was no point in me coming back down, he was going to wait for me in Bivio. FINE! Anger was the best antidote. I hung up, put my phone Aaway and headed back up. By the time I reached Richard, I realized that I was full of energy. It was total elation - not only did it feel like the past 30 hours had just melted away and I was barely an hour in on a weekend long run, but I knew that this was the very moment I had hoped to experience on an ultra: a complete turnaround. Perhaps the nurofen that Anthony had given me as I left Maloja had something to do with it. I'd been complaining about some pain in my leg, but that was all gone now.

We summitted the mountain and I literally charged down the other side, taking advantage of the easy trail, that merged with a dirt track and then road, to run at almost 12 km/h into Bivio. I remember texting my wife to say that I had found everything that I'd come here for and that it didn't matter now if I quit. She didn't quite understand what I was going on about... Problem is, that very emotion contributed later to my DNF. I really had found what I was looking for. Finishing didn't seem to matter much. Having experienced this amazing turnaround, realizing what I was capable of, it seemed more important to be home by Sunday night so that the family could travel to the South of France on Monday morning for our last vacation before I started my new job.

Savognin - 9.47pm - 137km, 7'300m

Bivio was quite a happy affair. Jérôme and Anthony had set up their quarters in a restaurant, and by the time I arrived they had a pizza waiting for me. Anthony had texted me on the way down asking what I wanted. Can't quite remember what I asked for, but it had onions on it. Mmm, delicious.

When I went to the official check point to beep in, I saw Richard there again. After attempting another ten minutes nap, we headed out again, with another (different) person who was going on about competing in the Petite Trotte de Léon (the UTMB's big sister, over 300km) in two weeks. Totally mental!

After that, it became a slow meltdown. Richard waited for me for a bit, before saying that we might not make the cut-offs. I told him to go on, of course. My heart started racing anytime I tried to up my pace, so I settled into a slow pace that gradually cut into my resolve. I started once again on all the reasons for not going beyond Savognin, and how much I'd accomplished already, and how I'd be back next year to finish, with better uphill training to increase my speed and less messing around at the checkpoints.

All that is true, but also next year I'll have to make sure there is no family holiday planned for after the event - nothing that could make me want to cut the race short. Still, I think I slowed my pace in some ways so that I would not make it in time to Savognin to be able to continue. The fact that I managed to jog at certain times so that I could be sure that I wouldn't at least completely miss the cut-off, and therefore still be ranked in Savognin, is some indication that I could have pushed a little harder, had a little more time in Savognin to get my drop bag, eat, change and rest - and head out again. I could even have taken Anthony up on his suggestion to grab my bag, get out under the cut-off, then rest near his car. But my heart wasn't in it. The run into Savognin, along an endless road that winded its way through the forest, and then up and down through the forest a few hundred yards from the road (during which I sat down against a tree and closed my eyes for 5mn, completely disappearing into Neverland), had defeated me a little more.

And night had fallen again, and what with that and sleep deprivation, hallucinations were staring. I was starting to see little gnomes in the tree stumps, my water bottle attacked me at one point. I don't mind them, it was quite fun, but sadly all the more so because I was actually happy at the prospect of dropping.

That's how I want to remember it. Yes, there are reasons for my DNF that I can address next year:
- increase my uphill speed (downhill sadly depends on me overcoming my fears of falling, after dislocating my shoulder and cracking my tailbone)
- less faff at checkpoints
- not forgetting the ultimate goal: "good effort" is not the same as "great finish"
- don't have a family holiday planned after
- don't give up until it's really over - meaning, really, a little bit of "mindfulness": don't keep projecting what comes next, extrapolating times, etc. Just give what I can give at any given time.

So I'm proud of what I accomplished, thrilled at what I experienced - and looking forward to returning. I know I had the endurance to continue - I jogged into Savognin with no blisters, no pain in my legs apart from normal race fatigue, no stomach problems... Just too damned sleep deprived to continue - but happy. It actually felt like a finish! I suppose that's the best way not to complete a race, if that's what it's going to be.

A glorious DNF. The greatest race I Did Not Finish.

Richard's 12mn video, Jérôme in the background

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Race report: Défi des Balcons d'Azur

This has been planned for many months now - a two-day spring race in the South of France, in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean: 15 miles and about 3'500 feet of elevation on Saturday afternoon, and 50 miles with about 10'000 feet of elevation on Sunday.
I was excited going into the race - having logged over 900km (just under 600 miles) since the beginning of the year, quite a bit more than I've ever done at this time of the year or even in a 4-month period, plus some speedwork, I was curious to see how that would translate into race efficiency.
I wasn't planning on going out fast, since I was with two friends, Cyril and Jérôme, recoving from recent injuries, and that suited me fine. We were aiming to stay just within the time barriers, which would give an average speed equivalent to that which I hoped to maintain for as long as possible at the Swiss Irontrail in August. So my hope was to feel relatively fresh at the end of the second day so that the prospect of another 100km did not feel impossible - and to jump back into training relatively quickly.

Things went more or less according to plan.

Cyril was actually cruising on the first day, I wouldn't have wanted to go much faster. The course was much as I expected, with a few sharp hills but rather short, some longer, gentler inclines, a mix of single track and gravel roads where it was possible to run at a nice clip downhill - and all with incredible views of the sea, a deep blue set against the olive green of the trees and the red ocre of the soil.

We finished the first day in just under 3h45mn, ranking 75th out of 100 (yes, small races, LOVE 'EM!), then tucked into the most disgustingly satisfying post-race meal I have ever had: steak tartare pizza!

Then it was up again at 4.15am the following morning, backpacks repacked, and we headed the departure only 100 yards away since we'd rented a boat in the harbour via Airbnb - perfect accommodations - just 30 seconds before the 5am departure. Since it was late April, the first hour or so was in the dark with headlamps. But this first part was also along the same path as the previous day, so we sort of did it sleep walking, not quite awake yet. I was astonished at the general race speed: all it takes is for me to stop for a pee and we find ourselves at the back, where we will remain for most of the race.

Again, beautiful surroundings, but we do end up realizing that we are looping from one coast to the next of the penisula and it starts to get a bit monotonous, aside from the occasion "summit" that provides a panoramic view of the region. I write "summit" because one "peak" that we summitted was 91m (300ft) high. So again, mainly several short, 300-800 foot climbs made up the elevation, on manageable single-tracks and a few gravel roads - apart from one 5-mile section around the half-way point that was incredible technical and slowed us down considerably.

The time barriers were set at a 5.1km/h (3.2mph) average speed, and we'd been averaging about 20% faster than that. But this technical section really slowed us down and now at around mile 30, Cyril was starting to feel the pain and was struggling. For my part, the technical section actually took my mind to a better place than where it had been until then: at lot of internal doubt and grumbling. I felt ok, but for some reason I thought I should feel better, fresh as a daisy. In hindsight I realize that I've never felt so consistently strong in a race, but for some reason I was expecting it to feel like a stroll in the park - it is a 50-miler, and even a a relatively slow speed that's never going to be a stroll in the park.

Anyway, after the technical section we had to speed things up again and that's when I realized that I still had legs and actually felt really good. Cyril wasn't as convinced that we were bumping up against the time barriers and we got in a bit of a spat, with me charging off since I did want to at least finish the race. Jérôme was right behind me, but I though we'd lost Cyril - but no, lo and behold he'd upped his pace (the guy's a machine, especially at the prospect of racing alone) and came into the next checkpoint barely 10 minutes behind us - just as we were about to leave. We'd gained some time on the time barrier so we waited for him to refuel, then we headed off again. Well, "refuel": the race is pretty, but the food is minimal at best...

We soon connected with the same route as yesterday and new there would be no more surprises. But we did have to sustain a constant pace, with some running on flats and downhills (which Cyril cursed us for, but thanked us also as we managed to finish the race, coming in 15mn before the final time barrier (though in all fairness to Cyril, they didn't seem too strict about them), with the arrival along the ramparts of a fake-old castle (the whim of a wealthy American built in the 1920s) and then the beach, just as night was falling at 8pm.

I was knackered and happy to arrive, but knew that if the race was longer, I could keep going. I rested for a week, completely for 3 days, just some light walking; a short bike ride on the following Thursday and a 3-mile run on the Saturday. Then I did some speedwork on the Monday, and two short runs (5 miles and 2 miles) on Thursday and Saturday, before running the Geneva Marathon on the Sunday in 3h45, beating my previous best time by 7mn. So mission accomplished basically - and very happy with the base training in Jan-Feb-March and slow injection of speed work since mid-March...

With the GE marathon behind me, another light week and then it's two months of high volume and elevation before the Swiss Irontrail in August...