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...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is (ultra) running selfish and pointless?

Of course I am going to answer a resounding "yes", hang up my running shoes, and take up golf... Still, though running has arguably (and I am arguing this point) saved my life from ending up in an East L.A. gutter, I will try to be as objective as possible when answering this stupid statement that I read in a book recently.

Stupid, because saying "running is selfish" is like saying that cell phones (smart phones? i dunno, names change so quickly) prevent people from communicating. No: people are selfish and self-centered - running is just an activity and phones are things. Some runners sacrifice family, friends, work to their running; most that I know try to do what they can with the time they have available - and in that regard, each one is different. I can't compare my situation to anyone else's. For instance, if my dad had been around for us as much as I am for my kids, my parents' mariage would never have lasted. Too much of a free spirit. But the time he spent with me was entirely dedicated to me and he opened my eyes to the world (apart from being directly responsible in getting me involved in running, which I suppose means that if the act of engaging in running saved my life, then my dad saved my life); and divorce would not have done me much good.

The author also ranted about how some runners try to make their running mean something by running for charity. Sure, if you claim that's the only reason you run, then yes it's disingenuous. However, I think that even though some might wish to deny that by promoting their running via running they are also promoting themselves and their accomplishments, for the most part anyone running for charity knows that they are deriving a personal benefit from it but they just also wish to share the joy and put that to good use. Perhaps there's a bit of guilt, since yes, of course, running is a solitary activity that means when you do it you are necessarily taken time away from something else for your own benefit, but I think for the most part people's hearts are in the right place. And for fuck's sake why does it even matter why? I don't do many of my races for charity, but I did raise nearly CHF 4'000 for cancer research competing in the UT4M (and discovering that running an ultra for charity doesn't prevent a DNF) so the benefits are genuine and concrete whatever the reasons. And without the running, people are just not going to give.
Which doesn't mean it has to be running - many personal engagements are worthy vectors to ask people to donate to a cause. It just seems that people are more inclined to give money to charity for a running event than if you say: "Hey, I'm watching all seven episodes of Star Wars" or "I'll be doing back-to-back trilogies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - including the bonuses". But why? If someone actually does spend 20 hours watching TV - and I know they are out there - that's quite an achievement. Why shouldn't that be used to raise charity? In that regard, I don't particularly place a  running event above a telethon as a reason to raise money for charity - I'm just trying to point out that running (or TV) is just the excuse to ask for money, but while it might reflect positively or negatively on the person asking for the money (depending on how they do it), it doesn't say anything about the value of running.

And so is running pointless? Well, I suppose that depends on what is meant by something "having a point". Personally I think most employment out there is ultimately pointless from a cosmic perspective - which doesn't mean that work is unnecessary and beneficial (beyond need to put a roof over our heads and food on the table, it answers many personal, social and psychological needs that don't necessarily relate to poor self-esteem or greed), or that I won't feel happy in a job, give it my best, and feel that I am doing something good apart from lining shareholders' pockets - and since most of my fellow human beings take more or less the same approach, I don't judge anyone's work (though perhaps sometimes I'll question their relationship to it) and, of course, I don't consider work truly pointless (but don't make me think that the world will stop turning...); I'm just trying to give a different perspective and figure out what someone means when they call running "pointless".

Because "pointless" is like holding up a mirror to "successful": what does that mean?! Currently I am unemployed. I have not forged a career as such, since for most of my twenties and thirties I attempted first to be a writer then a filmmaker. Those pursuits taught me alot, providing me with a wealth of life experience that I wouldn't exchange for any "career" in the world. And at 44, I have a happy mariage, two kids who want to spend time with me, I feel more and more comfortable in my own skin, and have an acceptance of life and who I am that I never thought possible: that, to me, is "success" if I was forced to define it that way. How much I earn, how much professional responsibility I have, what my social status might be, mean nothing if I am drinking myself to oblivion each evening, riddled with anxiety, if my wife and kids hated me, and my job was less than compelling. I know I'm not the only one to feel this way.

What do we take away with us when we die? Yep - so acquiring external things is really absolutely useless, or at least limited to those that can allow us to develop ourselves internally: knowing oneself, the most interesting and essential and gratifying of all human studies (not to mention the off-chance that there is a cosmic force and eternal soul).

No, it's not that cut and dry

That's where running comes in - ah, yes, here we are! That's why running isn't "pointless", unless you think that living, in the sense of self-discovery and self-improvement, is pointless. While we are on this planet, we might as well live, live in such a way that we are transformed as people for the better. And running, especially ultra running (although any distance is an ultra depending on what level you're starting at), is certainly one great way of doing that - not the only one, for sure, but less expensive than sailing or space travel, and (arguably) less risky than sky-diving, for instance.

I won't go into exact reasons why, because I could only give examples (like running through candle-lit Petra alone at 2am) but those examples are just moments that cannot capture the essence of what ultra running does to a person, in the self-discovery that occurs when you overcome the moment when you want it all to stop - and you have the power to make it stop, but choose not to, and then the magic occurs... There are great, inspiring books out there that will provide other perspectives and a myriad of glimpses on this: Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery; Fat Man to Green Man; Running and Stuff; The Summit Seeker.

Still, it's almost impossible to explain adquately how running can transform you into a more stable, more tolerant, more generous and just a better person ("can" as long as - back to the first part of this long blog - you don't let it take over, obsesses, loose the joy, become enamored with your own accomplishments), by changing your view of yourself and the world.

But it can.

And I can't think of anything that has greater value for one's family, friends, co-workers and the world at large than becoming a better person. It's the simplest, yet hardest, yet most rewarding thing that one can hope to achieve in this life.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Great start to a season: Cabornis trail race report (44km/2200m elevation)

After overcoming injury in 2015, I went on to have a great year, with varied races and first attempts at speed training, and pretty structured training in December, to end with a local 5-mile race where I shaved 4 minutes off my last time. 2016 has so far gone well also, with no injuries, progressively higher mileage and, along with last year, probably the longest stretch of consistent running and structured training in my 16 years of dabbling in ultras.

So, of course, I was heading into the Cabornis trail with high hopes, aiming for the first time actually to "race" (i.e. post my best time possible, not just take in the views, but still finish with enough in the tank to pick up training again next week). It was a close call, however, as I seriously stubbed my toe on a chair in the living room a few days earlier when I turned off the lights to go to bed, but it was a toe that apparently doesn't seem to matter for running because it didn't bother me at all even though it was still sensitive to the touch on race-day. The friend I was supposed to the race with, Jérôme, wasn't so lucky, however: he sprained his ankle on Wednesday on a night run and it still looked like he had an orange jammed up his foot three days later...

So it was sadly all alone that I took off Sunday morning at 6am for Lyons, a 2hr drive from Geneva where I live. The Cabornis takes place in the Mont d'Or just 10mn outside the metropolis, and is beginning to be an early-season local favorite, because the distance and elevation ratio is perfect, and on hills not mountains so there's a fair amount of (tough) running to be had, even though it's really up-down-up-down... Also you can choose on the spot (at mile 10) whether to complete the full 25miles/40km or only do the 23km loop.

So high hopes I had... My usual time would be around 6h30, depending on motivation and how much time I would spend at the check points/feeding stations; here my target time was 5h27mn, that of a friend in 2014 who went on to finish the UTMB that same year. With the training I had, I figured it was manageable, or at least meaningful...

Anyway - when my friend raced it, it was sunny and 19°C. This year it was barely above freezing and it rained the full week before turning most of the trail into a Woodstock-style mudfest. However, count your blessings where you get them: rain had been predicted until the last minute but we actually had spots of sunshine. Well, we had the three seasons Winter-Spring-Autumn all rolled into one race. I took off with just a long-sleeve warm shirt and vest, then it started to snow, so out comes the rain jacket, then it stopped, the sun came out and the birds were chirping and my rain jacket was off, then it was windy and cloudy, then a few drops of rain, and the rain jacket came on again... And that cycle occured three times! The third time i just bagged the vest and kept the rain jacket.

It was a very scenic race through vineyards and ruins of stone houses, the whole lot overlooking the valley around Lyons. Of course trail races being what they are, it ended up not really being what the website announced or even what the race director said that morning (must have a different model Garmin): 44km (just over 27 miles) and 2200m (an extra 700 feet of elevation), so my base comparison time from my fitness level in previous years had to be readjusted upwards to over 7 hours...

And then there was the mud - did I mention the mud? Oh, well, wasn't too bad except in the beginning and end. So we started with a gradual 1000-foot ascent, just too steep to run (at my level) and power walking was made difficult with the mud and the sheer number of people (reminds of why I don't like crowds - you feel like everyone's impatient and trying to push passed, but actually everyone feels the same way and is really polite and everything). But after about 4 miles we could really run, with the downhill not technical or steep at all. Until mile 10, it pretty much undulated this way, with some uphills even runneable and there was more pebbles and (slippery) tree roots than mud after mile 4 (and some asphalt - gasp!), so at the cutoff point (which you had to reach in under 2 hours, and I had 20 minutes to spare) I was actually on par for a 5-hour finish (again, based on 25 miles).

We had been warned that the next section was tougher, but for about 3 miles it just continued in the same vein. And then it got messy: from about mile 13 to 21 the climbs and descents - though short (300-foot elevation range) were steep and muddy and very slippery, making for slow going. I've found it easier hiking up ski slopes - in fact one section was so bad, I wasn't sure I would make it up. I couldn't find a grip and had to venture into the undergrowth away from the muddy path... After that it got better, actually with some road winding through quaint villages, except for one last section, when we were supposed to be finished (my watch said 42.5km!!!), where I almost lost my shoes in the mud that wrapped around my ankles making a pleasant sucking sound at every step.

One fellow's wife, who's obviously read too many "inspirational quotes" on twitter, told her suffering hubby, "remember, pain is only in your head". I believe I saw him pause, debate whether to return and tell her where she could stuff her pain... but then, as he was already a few steps up the next hill, he probably thought it wasn't worth it. "Don't wait for me at the finishing line", i would have said. But then, that's why my wife doesn't come with me on these things. Though I don't think she's silly enough to say something like that (then again, she doesn't read running magazines, quotes, blogs, etc. where you come across such soundbites made up by people in comms who probably haven't run a mile in their lives).

So anyway, I enjoyed the whole romp, but was really starting to want to arrive by the time km 43 rolled around and I still felt like we were lost in the hills. Then suddenly we emerged between two cow patches and there was the church steeple. The arrival was only a quarter-mile away, and I finished quite happy in 6h11, completely unable to tell whether that was an improvement in any way but quite sure it was that I couldn't have given it much more if I wanted to be able make the 2-hour drive home safely enough. At least my ranking was similar to my friend's two years ago - but i don't really care about these things...

The prize was a liter of local apple juice, which was quite welcome.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

To taper or not to taper - more self experimentation

What I mean by "to taper or not to taper" is really the "traditional" view of reducing mileage progressively over 2-4 weeks before a race. I've always been a great fan of that, even when I wasn't doing much mileage to begin with. I'd average about 25 miles per week, then get frantic two months before a race, ramp up to about 35-40 with a long run in the mountains on weekends, do that for 3-4 of the next 6 weekends, then do pretty much nothing for two weeks while trying not to drink or smoke too much... The races I'm talking about are in the 40-50 miles range in the mountains (usually about 12'000 feet of elevation), and though I was never aiming for speed, I'd always finish, even if the last few hours were a slugfest and parts of it often involved quite a bit of suffering, and as the years passed I slipped closer and closer to the bottom of the rankings. And evidently whatever I did in 2014 - there was no speed or structure to my training and probably I didn't really increase my mileage a huge amount (not to mention the slight issue of a dislocated shoulder) - wasn't enough  to finish the 100-mile UT4M...

Anyway, now that I had a more constructive year of training last year, and have done quite well since the beginning of the year on my "base training", averaging 40 miles a week now after some "speed training" in November, I'm eager to see how that will translate in the upcoming Cabornis race, 25 miles and 6'000 feet of elevation on which I hope to test my speed.

However, tapered I have not, or at least I am experimenting something different, having just completed my biggest week in two months, though I plan to do only about 12 miles of easy running with some sprints spread out between Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday - and a bit of biking. We'll see what happens. Even though I want to "race" the Cabornis, not just run it comfortably, I'm also using it to find out more about how my body functions/reacts. Because after all, there's no set recipe for tapering, everyone is different, and I want to see what works best for me in time for the Swiss Irontrail in August (not to mention anyway that I heard that tapering for too many races reduces its effectiveness).

Well, these are really just reasons made up after the fact - this situation really came about when I realized last month that the 3 weeks on, 1 week off in terms of ramping up mileage then having a recovery week, wasn't perhaps best for me (a factor of age? - 44 - and the fact that I don't have a history of big mileage?), but rather 2 weeks on, 1 week off (maybe I'm just a bit lazy, but I did come close to an injury in January and it's been much better since I scaled back the following week and settled into the 2/1 rotation So this is race week but it also needs to be a "week on" if I want to keep following my pattern, with a lower mileage recovery week after the race. Hence the big week last week and some mileage this week to add to the race mileage and have a decent week...

Does that make sense to anyone but me?!

Anyway, point is, I'll learn much more this way about how (not) tapering effects me, how much recovery I need, bla bla bla.

And what is more fun that experimenting on oneself?

Also, whatever happens, it's a nice feeling to have completed stage one of the new this-is-me-structuring-my-training program, i.e. consistent higher mileage running for fun not looking at watch with a bit hill sprints, before moving on stage two in which I have planned to keeping up my mileage and increasing a bit more, but mainly implementing some speed work. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Running to heal?

So another post on the calf pain saga... Well, it's not so much a pain as a dull presence. Seems to slip around from the right of the shin to the Achilles' tendon to the glucem-something other (the big fat calf muscle). I figure if it's moving around... Also, I'm wondering if the fact that I try to massage my calf with a massage pillow may not actually have bruised the shin bone and that's all it is really...

Anyhoo, I went off Sunday morning for my first serious long run in several months. I've done some 3-hour runs but in the mountains - I think it's been last June since I actually came close to 20 miles on roads. I'd roped in a friend since the weather was going to be miserable and planned on doing about 10 miles before joining up with him. About half-mile into my run I could feel my calf. Definitely. I thought about turning around... Nope. As long as I don't do any sudden movements... Then I figured perhaps I'd meet up with my friend but tell it's a no-go. Nope, can't do that. Then I thought: ok, school holidays are starting tomorrow, we're heading to the mountains on Wednesday, this will be my last run, I can afford take a week off from running, particularly if I'm skiing and touring...

By the time that mental game ended, I realized I couldn't feel my calf anymore. The weather was still miserable, but my new playlist was great, my friend dragged me along for 8 miles at a hefty pace, then I turned back home for a final 2 mile, hitting my target with nary a peep from the calf.

Go figure. Don't want to jinx myself though. But it is an enigma. It's not like the muscle or whatever warmed up and the pain went away only to come surging back - it didn't hurt the rest of the day, and the next day not at all. So I went for a short easy run this morning (the day after), and I could feel it after a half-mile but much less and it eased off again even quicker than two days ago. Not completely, however, so I know something's there. Bit annoying really, because I have a race in less than a month and not sure exactly what to do. I don't seem to be making things worse, yet it's not going away either.

Oh, well. I'll focus on family skiing this week, with a couple of long runs/hikes in the snow thrown in. Then I'll take it from there.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Consistency, almost - finally!

Ah, well, I didn't really stick to what I said in the previous post, since I went out for a run only three days after what I thought was a muscle pull. However, in my defense, I was not totally idiotic: i went for a massage and the therapist said that it was a contraction not a tear - so there!
I did reduce the mileage, then upped it more reasonably the following week, and now planning to get just shy of 50 miles with the long run tomorrow morning. The calf is still tight so I'm being careful. A few faster runs when I feel ok, but no hills or anything too stupid.

Which means two things: for the first time in three years I have cleared January injury-free (no skiing accidents - there's almost no snow!) and can train in February. And maintain some sort of consistency. So now I'm as excited as my kids at Christmas time to see what I can do at the first race of the season early March, the Trail des Cabornis.

Well, let's not count the chickens... I still have four weeks to go. Need to get there in one piece.