Wednesday, October 14, 2015

100km Millau: What I like about ultras

The 100km Millau - the oldest such race in Europe, dating back to 1972 - was almost like an on-going live breakdown of what goes through my mind in an ultra and what I love about it, probably because I did it with a friend who was doing his first ultra. In fact, this was his first footrace in five years, and before that it had just been a few marathons and some half-ironman triathlons.
The race itself is peculiar in the sense that three-quarters of the runners are accompanied by a friend or family member on a bike. When I read about this, I thought that it would be quite annoying, but actually it gave the race a real festive atmosphere, like that of a local 5k run spread out over 100km. And after having spent the past few years on trails, it was a great way to return to road running.
Out of roughly 2000 competitors, about 1800 were doing the full distance, while a few were "only" completing the marathon, which comprised the first loop of the event. The most scenic part too, as we headed east towards the Tarn gorges through old medieval towns... Then we returned to Millau and passed into the sports center to time out the marathon before heading off south for the next 58km out-and-back section.
Jérôme and I finished the marathon in 4h30mn, slower than we'd hoped, but still ok time for a 12h finish - provided we didn't slow down too much. However, I was quite sure that would happen. My recent Ironman as well as the speed training I'd finally (if somewhat haphazardly) integrated into my training certainly helped me keep up a certain amount of intensity, but I knew it wasn't sufficient. I was still hoping to run (jog) the whole thing, but I'd started feeling my legs at mile 10, and I would have been happy that day just to end at the marathon... And here was the first thing I hate to love about ultras: the need to forget the distance, definitely not extrapolate how you might feel later based on how you feel now, just concentrate on enjoying the present moment and finding the resources to keep up the pace - and that's the thrill, realizing that you do have those resources, and probably will find more when needed later...
The marathon loop had been hillier than expected, but the majority of the elevation (3000 feet) on this anything-but-flat road race was about to come. So Jérôme and I looped through the sports center in Millau and headed out towards Sainte Affrique. Things were much more urban now, even though the roads were shut to traffic, and I could almost imagine myself at the Spartathlon that was taking place that same weekend... Hmm. Almost.

As we went over the first hill just around50km, we hit our first slump, even though this was the point where we passed under the famous Millau viaduct. Probably the effect of the distance getting to us for the first time, with the marathon over we were now looking at still another half... We both agreed to spend a little time with ourselves and music. A half an hour and another food station slipped by, and we were back on form, though slowing down noticeably.
Have I mentioned the food stations? Incredible! I'm not used to trail-style stocked food stations at marathon-style intervals (every 5km)... Actually, these were the best stocked stations I've ever seen, everything you could possibly desire: chocolate (dark and milk), bananas, orange and lemon quarters, ginger bread, cream cheese on bread, blue cheese on bread (Millau's in Roquefort country), two types of fizzy water (one being the salty St Yorre), gels and protein bars, eggs, energy drink, Coke, and even beer...
Then it got a bit rough again as we hit a 3- to 4-mile stretch which seemed flat but actually had a slight incline, and we both plugged into our music, particularly since the last food station was blasting old Eurythmics (Sweet Dreams) as we came in and AC/DC (Highway to Hell) as we headed out, and music just seemed like the right thing then...
The road wasn't quite level, and Jérôme started to worry about his right knee. He went off into the dirt on the side to change the point of impact. But then we hit the second and larger hill, probably around 800 feet of elevation, which we took at a steady high-powered walking pace, get into a great conversation and time slipped by again. Particularly since now the top runners are coming the other way, and I'm surprised for some reason to see pain etched on their faces... A 62-mile run isn't painless for anyone!
The downhill into Sainte Affrique was then just a long slog of mental perserverance. Jérôme told me later that he really had doubts at that moment about how he would handle the 18-mile return leg to Millau (which isn't quite the same thing as wondering whether you can finish, but is the first rung on that mental downward spiral). I could tell he wasn't doing great, so we did a body check: stomach? no problems; urine? clear and still happening; feet? ok, can't feel any blisters; legs? tired, duh!, but no sharp pains... My Hokas seemed to be at the end of their life span, with some pain radiating up my right food, but other than that we had to admit that after 44 miles, we were in fine fettle!

Sainte Affrique

So that with that assessment in mind, we arrive at Sainte Affrique where the food station is set up in a sports center with some army cots to lie down in, tables and chairs to sit at - and some massage tables! Jérôme makes a beeline for that, while I get our drop bags and proceed to change shoes - first time I'd ever done that and right glad I am that I had!
When it was my turn for the massage, I realized that I had two blisters. That's a first, I'm usually quite immune to those, didn't get a single one at the Beaufortain despite the trecherous rocks and everything, must be the road... But no worries, I pierced them, disinfect them and put on a Compeed... In the mean time Jérôme went to get some soup, so we had two bowls of those and some other food, and after a 40-minute break we were ready to leave, having put on arm warmers and wind breaker as night was falling and the temperature was dropping quite fast.
Jérôme was a new man (and so was I), roaring to go, and I saw the joy on his face and knew that he'd connected with that intangible thrill of an ultra... We'd been spending minimum time at food stations (particularly considering how many there were!), no sitting down, just grabbing food and topping off our water bottle and moving on. And I hadn't intended to stop for so long at Sainte Affrique, but it was just right. We needed those 40 minutes to go from "how are we going to handle the next 18 miles?" in low spirits, to "let's go finish this thing and in the best time we can manage!"
Basically these kind of stops, which you don't really do in shorter races or something high-intensity like the Ironman (and which I can imagine represents - beyond the sheer distance and other particularities of the race - the major challenge of the Spartathlon), is what I love about an ultra. It's where it goes from being more than just a footrace - an adventure. Even though I'd entered the 100km race with the hopes of posting a certain time, I knew I was facing a rout if I didn't stop to regroup, like a general may retire his troops to avoid a crushing defeat, allowing them to reform and fight on to victory...
So off we went, charging up the hill on the return in less time than we'd power-walked it on the way in, then running down the other side at a decent clip... Then what had been a slight incline on the way out was now a gentle downward slope on the way back, and here again we were able to run it - at least most, I think this where I started to feel a slight niggle at the interior of my right knee, and started to ask for 100-yard walking breaks.
Still, we were pretty much in a state of grace until kilometer 90, a mere 6 miles from the finishing line. So now the job was done, and I felt great - particularly as we were just passing under the viaduct lit by the full moon, but suddenly my knee really started to cause pain, almost to the point of locking up. But I'd entered this race with the idea of pushing myself to run/job as much as possible, only to walk if it was impossible to do otherwise, and for the last 6 miles, though our jog slowed to a shuffle and the walking breaks became more frequent, I never gave into just walking it in as I would have done in the past.
Of course, I probably could've done more, since about a mile from Millau I realized that we could come in under 13h40. Suddenly that became very important to me. I wanted 13h38 or 39, not 40... So we ran, probably even at 10-11km/h, and I couldn't feel my knee... And finally we crossed the finishing line in 13h39mn...