Thursday, October 19, 2017

A (very different) start to a new season

After 2016, where I tackled new challenges and learned a lot but fell short, 2017 has been highly satisfying. Two successfull finishes at two tough races, both actually surpassing my previous longest distance of 168km (though that was in the sand and desert, and longer time-wise at 42h...), not to mention a whole new experience with the 12h timed race in Villeneuve: I am very happy camper.
So now after a month's R&R, a new season starts as I look to 2018. Again, I would like slightly different challenges, which I need to work around a big family holidy planned for August. So I've split the year in two:
  1. Jan-June: build on all the work I did this year in road running to try and a) set a real PB in marathon, ultimately at BQ time, which would mean 3h25 (or 3h20 to be sure of a spot); and b) aim for a best time at the 100km Bienne early June (60th anniversary!) - again, seeing  how close I can get to a Spartathlon-qualifing time of 10h... Spartathlon is like my Holy Grail: perhaps inaccessible, but just the quest to qualify takes me down fascinating roads...
  2. After June: back to the mountains after 18 months, definitely with the LG Trail (Lausanne-Geneva via the Jura mountains) which I plan on running with my good friend Cyril; and possibly end August the Échappée Belle, a 144km trail with 11,000 meters of elevation. It takes place outside Grenoble in the wild Belledone mountain range which I didn't get to see on my aborted UT4M attempt in 2014. If I finish, it will not only be my longest trail run but also, because of the elevation and highly technical nature of the race (some parts are not just off-road but even "off-trail"!), could be my longest race time-wise to date - currently 45h47mn at the Swiss Irontrail. Though I'm not hell-bent on extending race time into a second sleepless night...
What I think will be interesting will be to see how speedwork for a road ultra will translate into better fitness and time on a trail run. Because that will be my focus for next year.
However, current plans to return to running end October and start on an 8-week "speed increase" plan have been totally derailed since learning that the pain in my right foot, which I had put down to plantar fasciitis, is actually a stress fracture! Which explains why it appeared only a few weeks after the GUCR when I started running again, and again after the UTL (though how a stress fracture didn't bother me during the UTL is beyond my comprehension - but I'll take it! Just happy I didn't go to the doc's before the race, because no way would have tackled 110 miles knowing I had a stress fracture. Apparently "fracture" is a misnomer, it's some form of inflammation in the bone, but still - there word is there...)
I guess the good new is, from what I've read, is that a "fracture", once healed, is good to go, whereas plantar fasciitis can be a real pain for a long time.
So I'm being quite zen about it. I've signed up to a gym that's 30 seconds from work, and I'm planning on doing quite a bit of high-intensity stationary biking and strength training. The key is mainly not to lose the habit of exercising. But I think this could be a good thing and ultimately make me a stronger runner; certainly I'd like to think that several weeks of strength training (which I've always wanted to do), which I'll keep doing when I slowly ease back into running (hopefully in December), will help prevent injuries next year. And finally, it'll be a good mental break, and I'm sure I'll return to running with renewed hunger and energy.
So that's the start to the new season: biking and strength training, ease back into running in December, and in January do my planned 8-week speed-training program...

Friday, October 13, 2017

On injury, ultra running and a "higher power"

I like the term "higher power". Not only does it not impose any belief system, but also saying "I believe in a higher power" does not even have to imply that you believe in a creative principle at work in the universe. It can quite simply mean that you recognize that there are forces at work over which you have no control. And that, to me, is fundamental. Hurricanes, earthquakes, accidents, etc. are obvious examples, but there are events that occur daily in our lives over which we have no control - recognizing them for what they are, and differentiating between those events and others over which we may exert some control is the difficult part.

Relationships are one example. There are elements in a relationship where we can play an active part in making sure that the relationship goes well; and then there are aspects of a person's personality, or their emotions, that we just have to accept - by not trying to change them, through better understanding, by looking at things from their perspective.
I admittedly have a long way to go to reach this ideal!

But I do believe that ultra running has really helped me learn that there are times - and even in identifying those moments - in life when we should just let go. That our ego and need to control is getting in the way of peace, serenity, acceptance... When you are suffering in an ultra, you are required to figure what you can do to help solve the problem, and when you just have to accept the pain and just keep moving on to the finish. When that happens, when you give in to the suffering and accept it as part of the ultra experience - that's when you realize what the body and mind are capable of, and a sense of peace that comes with no longer punishing yourself for something you can't control makes the ultra experience a quasi-mystical one.

So that said, in addition to a returning plantar fasciitis I am now suffering from sciatica which came on abruptly on Tuesday afternoon when I stood up from my desk. Just as I was coming to the end of a month's break from running, have joined a gym to do some strengthening and alternate exercise on a step machine and bike, and am about to get back to what I really love next week. But I can't. So I can mope about it, which I will try and do as little of possible; I can do what I can to solve the problem - acupuncture, physio, whatever... But at the same time, rather than dwell on my inability to get back to running, I am telling myself that it is what it is and ultimately this is the best possible time for it to occur - no big events on the horizon, plenty of time to get back in the game even in a month's time...

Why run ultras? They can provide a sense of perspective and fortitude in the face of the unexpected twists and turns of life. "Life is what happens when you're making other plans" sang John Lennon (or something to that effect) - and in ultras, nothing ever really goes according to the best laid plans. So you adjust and accept, and in doing really connect with that "higher power". A very powerful experience.
Of course, there's the real danger that ultra running can turn you into a self-centered narcissist. Read the early pages of Marshall Ulrich Running on Empty... When running becomes paramount, when we squeeze in that planned "crucial" training run at the expense of the family, despite requests not to do so, because some huge challenge looming ahead is all we can think or talk about, and if we don't do that run, oh my God, the whole race is compromised, if we stop not just listening to others but not even hearing them because nothing is as interesting as our running... Then it's really not worth it.
But hey, let's focus on the positive!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

CHALLENGE ROTH : an ironman-distance triathlon experienced from the outside

Spectacular! That’s the best adjective to describe Challenge Roth – spectacular in the sense of how awe-inspiring the event is in its organization and display of endurance athletics, and spectacular in the sense of being a true (and huge) show. Compared to most sporting events I’ve competed in, in terms of "visuals", Roth is like the original Star Trek series to Game of Thrones... (No offense to Star Trek fans – I love the series too, just like I love low-key races.)

So this was back in early July, and I was there to accompany my friend Anthony, who I can thank for introducing me to the world of triathlons by encouraging me to participate at Alpe d’Huez in 2013 and then Ironman Vichy in 2015. He had crewed for me at the Swiss Irontrail and at the GUCR, and I was really excited to share this new experience with him, help him out as best I could (a little less allowance for roadside assistance in triathlons than at the GUCR, but still), and witness a tough endurance event from the outside.

And tough it is. Having competed in Ironman-distance triathlon and now witnessed another, I am firmly convinced that it can qualify as the toughest single-day (i.e. 10-16 hours) endurance event out there, for two specific reasons: the training commitment required to toe the line with decent expectations, and the intensity of the effort engaged to complete it.

Elite ultra running coach Jason Koop says that to have a good chance of finishing a 100-mile (160km) footrace, you should train for at least 9 hours/week for 6 out of the last 9 weeks (so before a 3-week taper). And that works. But I’m quite sure that the average weekly training load for the average triathlete when they’re just starting out their plan, six months from an Ironman distance event, before reaching 14, 16 or more hours per.

That takes a lot of energy and dedication (and lack of sleep), so just getting to the starting line of an ironman is a feat of endurance in itself – especially when, like my friend Andrew, you started a new job in a high-powered environment four months before and would still like to be living with your wife and two young kids when the whole thing is over.

Then with regards to the effort exacted by competing in a long distance triathlon, though it is comparable time-wise to a 100k road race for example, I don’t think it’s comparable intensity-wise (again, for the average competitor). I doubt that I am the only to “slack off” in an ultra when the going gets a bit tough, gab with my wife or a friend on the phone, and rest up at a checkpoint stuffing myself with food, fixing my feet or getting a massage. Haven’t noticed much of that in an ironman. In fact, I think most participants are competing as if constantly up against a time barrier; it’s like keeping up marathon intensity but for a whole day. At least that was my experience at Vichy and it is what I found most mentally tough. I felt drained after that in ways I have rarely felt after an ultra.

So anyway, back to the start of Roth. Actually the race started about 20km out along the Main-Donau canal, just outside Hipolstein – and already at 6am (the first wave departed at 6.30am) crowds were lining the river banks along at least a kilometer stretch. And there was no real point in trying to find a spot near the swim launch pad, the crowd was five rows deep. Music was blaring – ok, eighties hard rock stadium favorites (Bon Jovi, Survivor, Queen), but as I’ve mentioned, that’s what it’s all about. And it does get your heart racing. I certainly was getting chills.

Anthony was admittedly a bit subdued as we parted ways and he headed for the transition area to check on his bike and put on his wetsuit (for a 7.25am). He told me later he was having a hard time getting his head in the race. I went up on the bridge to watch but even that was packed! So I headed back down along the bank – due to a curve in the river, I couldn’t actually see the departure, but like the others around me, I was just waiting for the first swimmers to make their way around the buoys towards us, before they turned back towards the swim finish – about 40mn after the first wave. A loud gun shot went off every ten minutes as each wave departed, with almost non-stop commentary from someone who must have a day-job as radio DJ.

Eventually I left to scope out the next sighting area, which was at 70km on the bike route, but due to the nature of the course it was actually only a 3km from the transition area at the (in)famous Solarer Berg.

No way was I going to see Anthony in that crowd so I headed about a kilometer up to where the food station was and decided that was where I would position myself (we’d also agreed on that in case I needed to give him some food he had left with me, or if he needed to unload some stuff). Recon done, I jogged back to the transition area (the two back-and-forths would give me a nice log for my own training!) to try and see if I could catch Anthony coming out of the water. It was 8.30am so I figured I had a bit of time.


He did come out in 1h25, but I didn’t see him! But by 9am, figuring that I had in fact missed him, or he had actually quit during the swim (which I considered highly unlikely, but apparently he did have a moment of doubt at one point), I jogged to Solarer Berg, then went up the hill for about 500 meters, away from the crowds that I think would rival even the most fanatic at the Tour de France…

…and stood at the roadside opposite the refreshment stand. It took about 45mn before he showed up, during which time I gained an even deeper appreciation for the volunteers and their thankless task. At least at an ultra marathon, they generally get to chat with all except the fastest (or surliest) competitors, but here everyone was cruising by on their bikes, hands outstretched to grab a bottle or gel on the fly.

A few stopped at the stands to change bottles or take a breather, which is what Anthony did so we could exchange a few words. He didn’t seem in the best of states, morale-wise, only slowly emerging from a dark spot that had lasted since the swim through about 50km of the bike ride. He mentioned some niggles and how he was finding this a real challenge, so I sort of ignored the faint undertones of negativity – it wouldn’t have done him much good anyway to focus on the bad stuff, since in any case he had to get on with things, and he was starting to do that – and just told him he was making good time (which he was), and was looking good (which he was), and told him I’d meet him at Greding just past the 120km.

I jogged back to the car through the crowds, and while the top bikers were already cruising past the start line for their 2nd loop, the last competitors were heading out from the swim onto the bike course. There were still hundreds of people milling around, and it must of felt good for those in the back to have that kind of support.

I hopped in Anthony’s car and drove for about 20mn to Greding (I always find it fascinating to realize, cruising on the German Autobahn at 130kph, that the competitors will have to cover this distance and much more by bike). It’s at Greding when I took stock of how tough this course was, since the food point was situated at the top of steep hill, and while it’s not the distance of the Alpe d’Huez climb, a half-dozen of those on the course (which means a full dozen total for two loops) can really kill your legs…

As a spectator, however, the view point was bliss. A few food stands and – oh rapture, oh joy! – non-alcoholic Weissbier from the brand sponsoring the event. I was in heaven…

Anthony came powering up the hill about 20mn later, and considering the incline I was able to jog beside him for half a minute or so. He looked a bit drained but otherwise good, happy I think to be on the backend of the bike course. He commented on the toughness of the course, and I used that to point out how well he was doing – not far off his Vichy time, on a tougher course and with similar heat. Yep, it was hot out, over 30°C, and humid.

I left Anthony to refill on isotonic drink, while I went back for another Weissbier…


Getting to Roth for the run course was the main difficulty of the day. Or more precisely, finding a parking space. Access to the small town was cordoned off completely within 300 meters, since the run course looped back and forth through the town. I kept being diverted by “detour” signs, unable to find a parking spot, till I just maneuvered around a road block and into a supermarket parking lot.

Once I found the run course, I couldn’t understand which way it went, since people were running in both directions, and where I should go. I chose a direction but soon found myself heading towards a wooded area, which meant I was probably heading away from Roth. I wanted to position myself at around the 10km mark, and could find that on the race course map – but I didn’t know where I was on the map.

Finally I found someone who was able to point me in the right direction, and it meant weaving my way to other side of the small town of Roth. The atmosphere was amazing – the main drag was cordoned off for the runner, and the sidewalks were packed with people milling around, while restaurants all hand tables and benches out, with sausage and pretzel stands, and everyone having a great time cheering the runners on. Loudspeakers had been set up along the course and the music was ubiquitous.

When I realized that I was on the opposite side of town to the finish, I went back to get the car, loop all the way around Roth, before finding a spot in a garage lot about half-mile from the finish. I grabbed my backpack, jogged to the 10k mark, and found myself there just in time – and almost perfect assessment of Anthony’s pace (around 10.5km/h) as he appeared 5-10mn later (yeh to me!). He seemed in a better place, sweating like crazy in the heat, and I jogged next to him for a few yards while he handed over a fistful of food he wasn’t going to eat and asked me for some gels he had left with (btw, I have to say that Anthony has an incredible tolerance for gels, scoffing 1 every 20mn for the full duration of his Vichy Ironman, which means 33 gels!)

I had been texting with his wife who was back in Zurich, and Anthony kids had been asking for pictures, but so far I had been unable to provide one. So I found a spot in the middle of town that doubled as the 20k/32k spot, and read a book until about 10mn before I figured Anthony would come through – and managed to snap a picture when I saw him arrive.

He was smiling but mumbled something about sore legs which I promptly ignored, gave him some rather bland words of encouragement (are there any other kind? – I know any encouragement is great when receiving it, but when giving it no words seem right, a bit like when you give your “condolences” – maybe because even if the runner is looking bad, you can’t tell them they look like shit, at the very least you tell them to “get over it” – anyway…).

I then eschewed a pretzel for an ice cream and settle for another hour’s wait before he passed through at 32km… This was actually the only real downtime I would have the entire day – and that’s because I was on a course that loops four times through a town! I knew crew members are a dedicated bunch, but now I really appreciated how busy it can be just trying to get from one spot to another. But it certainly wasn’t boring. And though it did rekindle a faint desire to do another triathlon, I was certainly happy to be the outsider that day!

Before Anthony came through at 32km – once again at a rock-solid consistent pace which made my own estimations so much easier – triathlon legend Chrissie Wellington came sweeping through. She was doing it as a relay, competing only in the running section. She had a huge smile on her face and just kept waving to people. That joy and humble pleasure that she exuded at just being there in the middle of the pack was really inspiring. A real shame, however, that she couldn’t have been a bit slower, or Anthony a tad faster, because he came past barely a few minutes after so I didn’t get a picture of them together!

After that I checked out the finish area – another massive show of merchandise stands and, of course, the stadium arrival – before returning to the 40km mark. When Anthony came past he didn’t even notice me until I was tapping on his shoulder – definite end-of-race fatigue! He was suffering quite a bit at this point, but perked up a bit when I told him the finish was real close now and he was making great time, only within 20mn of his Vichy time. He’d been running for a while with another guy and that had been helping him push through the suffering (which also might explain why he lost somewhat track of time and distance).

Then it was down a road into the finish area to wait a few minutes in the stand for unparalleled stadium finish that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to experience at least once in their life.

Good going Anthony! Swim time 1h25, bike time 6h08 (steep hills!) and run time 3h55, for a finish time with transitions of 11h37mn – bloody brilliant!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Ultra Tour du Léman (UTL) 2017 race review: a journey to the end of the night


The Ultra Tour of Léman holds a special place in my heart. First of all, there’s the fact of going around a lake that I’ve called home for 37 years - but the main reason is the atmosphere of this race that I love, “far from the madding crowd”. Every year, a great group of enthusiastic but low-key runners gather to experience this unique race, led by the organizer, Jean-Luc Ridet. I contacted him in 2013 when I saw one weekend a bunch of runners with backpacks and bibs running along the lake in Geneva. I volunteered the following year to help out, and I knew then that I had to do this race. As a result, 2015 became a test year with the 100km of Millau and in 2016 I participated in the UTL for the first time – stopping in Morges after 130km and 19h of running with the feeling that my legs were giving out. I figured it was in large part due to having done only six weeks before another race that I had been focusing on for a few years, the Swiss Irontrail - 201km with 11,000m of elevation (though I timed out at 140km after 42 hours) - and I had focused my training on the mountain running, figuring that transferring to road would not be a big deal! Ah, well, lesson learned...

So 2017, I trained almost exclusively on flat roads. A pain in my right foot in June/July forced me to reduce my training,but having finished the GUCR (233km) in May, I still felt fit and ready...

Friday evening I returned to the friendly family-like atmosphere of the UTL. A few well-known faces from the previous year and the 12h/24h Villeneuve race in April - Corrinne, Juan and Paola - and new encounters, such as Scott, an Australian expat from Nyon, Dylan, another expat from Lyon whose blog I’ve been following for a while, Sylvain from Brittany, Hélène from Dax in the Landes, and Ruthann, an Irish woman who had just in Nyon on a short-term work posting and figured, "Ah, there's a race around the lake, sounds nice!". She finished 2nd in less than 20h! Well, turns out she’s Ireland's 24-hour champion (225km). We know, because Jean-Luc takes the trouble during the race briefing Friday night to present all the runners individually. There are some very impressive CVs, of course, with treadmill records, Transgaules, Transeuropes, Etoile Savoyarde, Spartathlons, UTMBs, Tor des Géants and others, but in the end it is the slightly wonky world of ultra-running that unites us all. There are quite a few of us with far more modest CVs, and some for whom this is the first attempt at a 100+ miles. Everyone is really supportive of one another, since we are only competing against ourselves.

And then there's the staff, the volunteers, incredible. As one of the competitors, René Lecacheur, wrote after the race: "THANK YOU for your presence, your dedication, your patience, your kindness, your smiles, your good humor, your availability, your little attentions to us, your pleasure to be there. Receive our gratitude for all your support in difficult conditions (night, cold, wind ... etc), but you are always there for us, always with a smile. So Thank you!".

After the briefing, communal dinner then off to bed. I slept well but woke up in a strange mental state, as if I did not quite realize that I was going to run 175km. The sole of my right foot hurt very slightly, but in the end it would turn out to be never more than a slight bother even after 29 hours of racing – so ultimately nothing to complain about (damn!).

Villeneuve – Lugrin – CP1 (22,5km)

We head off with cool weather at 7am to the sound of cow bells. Right away René charges ahead (he’s vice-world champion for longest distance on a treadmill in 24h - 247km! – didn’t even know that this kind of stuff existed!). He came to win, even break the record... He’s followed by a small group moving too fast for me - then there’s me, at about 9km/h as planned. And then behind me, a slightly slower group... So, only 10 minutes into the race, I find myself alone. And I’ll stay that way- almost without seeing anyone in front or behind - for nearly 15 hours of racing... Ah, for someone who doesn’t like crowds, I got what I came for! A new journey of inner discovery awaits…

This first section is going well. I already plug in to a little music, I set my pace, forcing myself to walk a minute or so every quarter of an hour. The first few kilometers are in a natural reserve along the lake between Villeneuve and Le Bouveret, then we cross the border into France. We’re right on the lake, the view is magnificent, with steep mountains on the left, and I feel very fortunate to be here.

I had estimated my time based the GUCR and arrived bang on schedule at the first checkpoint in 2h30. Quick coffee, a homemade wafer by the daughter of Raphaëlle, one of the loyal volunteers of the UTL, and I charge off - forgetting my water bottle! But no worries, I wanted to get rid of it anyway, and I have a pouch in the backpack. Raphaëlle says she’ll also be at the last CP7, and I tell her that this year I count on seeing her there!

Lugrin – Anthy-sur-Léman – CP2 (44km)

Things are going pretty smoothly. Things are getting rather more urban with cars zipping past, requiring to be quite focused when the sidewalk disappears. Then we turn off the main road into residential areas – very pretty! I was already quite pleasantly surprised last year to gain a new perspective of a region I thought I knew so well… I pass the marathon distance in less than 5 hours, much slower than last year when I took off too fast, and I arrive again on schedule in Anthy in 5:15. A few quick nibbles and I’m off. Can feel my legs now, but nothing out of the ordinary…

Anthy-sur-Léman – Chens-sur-Léman – CP3 (64km)

I spend a lot of time thinking about the race, about what I will write on my blog, and time just flies, it's great – I even have to force myself to slow down. Then, as can always happen in an ultra (and usually does several times), the tables flip and I find myself finding the time very looooong. Last year, too, I started to struggle mentally here. There are parts of the road without sidewalk but overall it is beautiful, as you pass through Excenevex, Yvoire, Messery. Yet I’ve got the blues... Which might explain why, when I arrive at the third checkpoint, I blab on and on to the volunteers about the fact that I will see my wife and my daughter soon since I pass within 100m of our house. The CP, which I hit again right on schedule at 3pm, moved one kilometer from Chens because there is a 10km race organized for this afternoon. That's nice.

Chens-sur-Léman – Bellevue – CP4 (87km)

After Chens we head vaguely downhill to Hermance and into Switzerland and very familiar territory. I had retrieved my lost water bottle in Chens, but realized that I had not only forgotten to fill the bottle but also my back pouch, what’s up with that? No worries, I come across a water fountain and fill up my pouch, figuring that the lack of a sign indicating that the water is (or is not) drinkable means that it is… Right? A few minutes later I'm not very sure ... Anyway, whether it's psychological or something else (running and eating randomly for more than 8 hours), I start to feel nauseous. So I pop a Motilium pill... But that doesn’t seem to work too well, so I eat some candied ginger – and that works wonders!

Around 4.15pm I pass in front of my mother-in-law’s house. Last year I stopped here more than half an hour to chat with my wife and eat some tasty stuff I’d left in my mother-in-law’s fridge. But it was a weird experience – I'm not used to having my wife follow me on my races – and I didn’t want to stop for such a long time outside an official checkpoint, so we’d agreed just to meet up briefly near our home. I’m glad I did: I feel much better than last year when I was already suffering from very tired legs and a sore knee, even though the nausea has already returned.

Just before I get to Collonge, a cyclist slows down to my level and asks me what I am up to, then he explains that he is doing the Ironman Barcelona in a few weeks and that he is on his last long bike ride, which he should follow with a run but he is really not motivated... Sorry dude, not sure what to tell you...

I pass my daughter's school and call my wife to let her know. 10mn later we meet up in front of the Migros in Vésenaz with my daughter. They buy me an ice cream (mmm ...), my daughter hands me a Monster energy drink that I’d left in our fridge, and we sit out in the sun for a quarter of an hour - my daughter on another bench ten meters away because she says I smell bad! Then she tells me I have to hurry, I’m going to get overtaken! Oh, no worries about that darling! We are few and far between, and in any case if someone does, good on them! Then she tells me that I should just stay here. What do you mean!? Have I not taught you never to give up without a damn good reason – and this isn’t one! She says it's because she’s going to miss me tonight ... Oh, break my heart... But beyond the fact that I absolutely do not see myself stopping now, the prospect of having to get up and take the train on a Sunday morning to retrieve my car and stuff in Villeneuve sounds even more tiring than running another 100km around the lake. So I just blow a big kiss, hug my wife and off I go…

And immediately run into a former colleague. I don’t want to be rude, so I ask how she’s doing, kid and all, and I do really want to know because it’s been a while since we ran into each other, but finally I tell her I’m in a race and should get going. She understands, and I head off towards the lake.

The Monster kicks in, I’ve seen my wife and daughter, and the sun is glinting off the lake as the town of Geneva appears (last year it was raining): I’m in rare form, and I start to run more and walk less, and manage to keep that up till the next checkpoint. I spend 5mn talking with a woman on a bike who asks me about the race and encourages me. I feel even more like superman… There are a lot of runners out, so I try to make sure that my bib is visible ("see, 175km, that's why I'm so slow! ") But no-one keeps me more than a perplexed nod…

I arrive at Bellevue around 18:30 still within my most optimistic time predictions, so I start to wonder if I might not actually pull a good time, less than 26h? I was over an hour later last year and night had fallen.

Bellevue – Gland – CP5 (107km)

I am the only runner again at checkpoint 3, with three volunteers all to myself. I am offered a massage, I hesitate, I accept. I start to shiver, they give me two blankets, one for the shoulders, one for the legs. Then they serve me up some broth with noodles - mmm, that goes down well, almost the only thing that I can stomach with this recurring nausea which comes in waves between bites of ginger. This is only the 2nd time in about 30  ultras that I have nausea, and now there’s something new: the feeling that I have a pill stuck in my throat…

I am surprised to see Helen at the checkpoint, because she’s running the relay, but it’s good to see her. She’s waiting for her teammate Philippe who took off slowly as he’s suffering from a knee injury. She has a while to wait still. Meanwhile, she discovering Swiss chocolate! ... I ask how Dylan is fairing, as know it’s his first 100-miler (110!), and I was told he passed through more than an hour and half ago. So it would seem it's going well.

I leave after retrieving a new baggie of food for the next leg – I’ve left one at each checkpoint from here on – but the chips, Pims and Oreo cookies that I thought would be a real delight when packing them do nothing for me now. I actually throw away the cheese-flavored chips, ugh!, and just nibble on an oreo and a pims. It goes down ok, but I have to force myself a little. So disappointed!

I keep up a good pace, still run/walk-ing, until Versoix/Mies. Night’s falling but there are enough streetlights not to have to put on my headlamp. I run past Scott's wife who tells me that Scott is napping in the car...

Then my watch starts beeping: low battery. I plug it into my portable battery and store it in my backpack. I try to use my phone to track my running/walking, but soon realize it’s totally useless and give up, and give in to the pleasure of just moving along without focusing on time or pace…

This might have been a mistake - because it seems to take forever to reach the next checkpoint, which seemed so short last year and which is, objectively, the shortest distance between checkpoints. Yet I feel good and I thought I was moving pretty quick (relatively speaking). Several times I thought I was arriving in Nyon - but no! And when I pull out my watch to check my average pace, it’s dropped! I’m actually moving slower than last year?!

Feeling somewhat lonely now, I call my friend Anthony, with whom I did the Alpe d'Huez long-distance triathlon, then the Vichy Ironman (well, we participated in the same events, he just finished far ahead!) and who crewed me at the Swiss Irontrail and the GUCR. Then I try to call another buddy, Cyril, whom I've known for almost 30 years, with whom I did the Marathon des Sables and so many other races,- and who had accompanied me by bike for the UTL last year... Turns out he’s at a friend’s 50th birthday. 50th! Time flies. I don’t feel anywhere near 50!

I pass Nyon finally, then Gland arrives not too far behind, but I’m pretty damn sure there are sections of the road that weren’t there last year, or perhaps the kilometers have turned into miles…

Gland – St. Prex – CP6 (126km)

Last year, I already had thoughts of dropping at this checkpoint. I was fine this year, tired for sure, but legs ok. Apart from my latent nausea, all systems are a go – a timid go, like a stubborn mule forced to climb the mountain, but a go nonetheless….

I ask how Dylan’s doing, and turns out he passed through two hours ago, so he’s even gained time on me (not that I’d harbored any ideas of catching up), so I’m figuring he’s doing really well. Actually, I learned later from his blog that he was having to cope with signs of dehydration. Goes to show how easy things always look from the outside...

I don’t dally, pick up another baggy of food (beurk!), retrieve a more powerful headlamp (a Petzl Nao and its f**king intertwining threads, I really have to switch to something else) and off I hop. An hour later, I pull some Parma ham of my bag – rough going, but it’s real food and salty and greasy and that’s apparently what I need because it goes down ok. And I need fuel.

Then I slow down – I mean, to the point where even I realize that I am slowing down. I continue to trot intermittently, but there’s quite a bit of power walking going on… Still, no plodding, so gotta look on the bright side. That said, space-time distortion continues: I feel much better – and that I am doing better – than last year, but I still only get to St. Prex just an hour ahead of last year's time, which means I did the whole section from Bellevue much slower?! I’m telling you, they added sections to the road…

But I'm no longer alone at this point. I arrived in Rolle with no water, and couldn’t find any fountains with drinkable water (not making that mistake again!), so I fill my pouch in the bathroom of a pub (from the tap, I might add), and as I’m leaving I see another runner. I call out to him but he doesn’t hear me, so I charge across the road (all things being relative when I say “charge”) and tap him on the shoulder: it is Scott! He’s doing pretty well, he slept a little in his wife's car. But he’s tired and his legs are beat, and we are both happy to reduce our pace to a sustained walk.

And so chat for the next hours, about work and the races we've done... Scott is attempting to do 500km in 50 days in six races. Last weekend he did Swisspeaks, about 80km/50 miles and a lot of elevation on technical trails, and next weekend he’s doing the LG Trail, 115km with 3,500m of elevation from Lausanne to Geneva. Which explains his state of fatigue…

We arrive at 1 am in St. Prex where we both agree to take a proper break. I retrieve another food baggy, but I suddenly retch at the sight of the bars and gels and even the dried beef that I end up by throwing away with a heavy heart. One of the volunteers standing near steps back but I manage to keep it all down... A few pieces of ginger later and I feel better right away. But I’ll be unable to eat for the next 4-5 hours, which might explain why I have a hard time finding renewed energy.

Scott and I both realize sleep is an impossible proposition as the night is quite cool, so we head off for the longest leg to the last checkpoint.

St. Prex – Cully – CP7 (153km)

And it definitely feels like the longest stretch!... But the kilometers slip by as we chat, and I'm happy to arrive at Morges where I stopped last year... Then shortly after exiting Morges, Scott plays tricks with my mind: he sees a bus shelter and says that would make for a nice lie-down. I hadn’t dared suggest it! But when we pass the next one, I say “hey, what about a lie down”, but he’s not up for it, like he was joking or something, but I can’t get it out of my head, so on the third one we pass I tell him I’m going to nap as my eyes are drooping. I tell him to go on, maybe catch up later…

The nap lasts all of five minutes. There’s a breeze that just fills the shelter with cold air, so I decide to move on. I try again an hour later, same result. Then I hit the outskirts of Lausanne and enter a dark forest that runs all along the lake. It's almost scary! Which of course is when my Petzl decides to blink to tell me the batteries are dying - oops, must have forgotten to charge them. I recognize with some dry, detached humor the accumulation of errors I’m making on this ultra, a sign perhaps that I was not as focused on it as I should have been. I’m just lucky that it’s a road race where the temperature changes aren’t too drastic and there is access to civilization…

Anyway, I decided to enjoy the dark for a while, before realizing that I’ve hit a deadend and there is nowhere to go except into the lake… So I turn back until I see one of the race arrows – actually indicating I was in the right place. What the…? Ok, so I head back along the boardwalk, but this time take out my spare lamp and hey presto magic, there’s the path, just to the left weaving into the forest. Thank God for Light!

Oddly enough, it's among the moments in the race that I enjoy the most. The wooded park on the left, the lake on the right, the silence of the night... Then I see a telephone booth - a few broken panes but providing better shelter from the wind than anywhere else. So I curl up on the cigarette butt-strewn floor, actually quite comfortable, wondering again and the unique experiences an ultra marathon provides… It reminds me somewhat of past years of alcohol and drug-use, sleepless nights and aimless wondering in empty public places in the dead of night… And it’s briefly unpleasant until I realize how far I have traveled, that my intense fatigue now is due to 140 kilometers of running and there's no chemical crash…

I drift off a bit but eventually leave after about 10 minutes of fitful napping, pass through a port, and emerge on the edge of wide open space now occupied by a horse show... And I realize it's dawn.

I arrive soon after at Ouchy and that’s when I see Scott staggering ahead. He really doesn’t look good. But he's on the phone - with his wife, I think - and he waves vaguely to me as I pass. I slow down to stay just a little ahead of him, given him some space, but we’re really moving slowly. Something of a dilemma - if I keep going at this pace, I could eventually just give up; and that would certainly happen if he drops out and gets picked up by his wife. So I signal to him that I'm taking off.

Still, I look behind from time to time but can’t see him. I stop for five minutes to rest and wait for him, but he still doesn’t show up... Well, he has plenty of experience (finished, among others, a 250km race in the mountains in Japan – like the Asian Barkley's), he has a phone, we are in a city and there are already joggers out this Sunday morning so I’m not too worried for him, and eventually just “charge” ahead to Cully.

And that's where space-time distortion resumes, but this time it's entirely my fault. I’ve retrieved my watch from my bag but it seems like the charger didn’t work so I’ve turned off the GPS function and I have no clue of distances or speed. So I figure that by studying the bus stops, I can guess how long it will take me to get to Cully.

What a mistake! Since when are bus route maps drawn to scale? So at the beginning I feel like I'm moving fast, calculating that at the pace I move between bus stops I’ll arrive at the last checkpoint in Cully at around 7:15am - cool! Also weird: every time I stop to check the schedule, a bus arrives, as if to taunt me. And it's Sunday morning! I would love for buses to run on a Sunday like that in Geneva.

Then I pass through a beautiful village on the lake stupidly thinking that this is Lutry and I will soon reach Cully, but realize that in fact this is the old town of Pully. But it’s after this that my morale really takes a blow. According to the bus route, the distance appears about the same between Pully, Lutry and Cully... But it turns out that between Lutry and Cully there is a small town called Villette, which comes well after a really long straight stretch from Lutry…

Fortunately, the scenery is amazing, especially at this early hour, with the lake sparkling to the right and the vineyards to the left, and the train tracks in between. I feel like I’m in a miniature train set... And then I come across a gas station open early and buy a chicken sandwich. My nausea has not completely passed, but by eating it in small pieces, it goes down pretty well! Have to say that it’s been more than 4 hours since I’ve eaten nothing...

Cully – Villeneuve (175Km)

I arrive shortly after 8h at Cully, where Raphaëlle is waiting with a big smile, her kids running around with endless energy (apparently they slept real well in the car). I manage some broth, and salami goes down well too. Then I try to catch some sleep in another volunteer’s car – he stretches out the driver’s seat and hands me a blanket. But, once again after 5-10mn I give up.
When I get out of the car, I see Scott staggering in. He collapses into a chair, exhausted – and this is probably the first time I’ve really seen someone absolutely exhausted. He doesn’t want to give up but he realizes that he may actually be putting his health at risk. When I head out, he gives me a big smile of encouragement for the last bit. Whatever he’s feeling, it may be completely understandable disappointment but definitely not self-pity.

The sun’s shining and it’s all downhill into Vevey, amazing. I remove my windbreaker and long sleeves that I wore during the night to put on a new clean t-shirt. I feel like a new man and I start jogging again.

From Vevey I can see the entire distance still to cover – but I can pretty much see Villeneuve! I know I’ll get there and if I push a bit I can make it close to the somewhat loose official cut-off time of 29h10 (which means an average pace of 6km/h for the whole race, taking stops into account). Just like at the GUCR, these last hours are really tough on the legs and feet, and mentally I just want to get it done, I will get it done, but struggling with the amount of time it will take… But I am not bored at all. The boardwalk is filled with strollers, and joggers too whipping by (as I once again try to make my bib visible!).

Then I pass the Chateau de Chillon and there it is, I am in Villeneuve. I pass the train station, I see the service station that marks the left turn towards Tronchenaz. Now I’m running along the river, with the soccer field on my left. And then they see me and I hear the incredible sound of the cowbells - and I get a hug from Jean-Luc, and Scott is there too and we give each other a long hug - I thank him for his support and helping me finish, saying how sorry I am he had to drop - and Dylan’s there too congratulating me ... Actually, almost everyone is there since I'm the second to last person to arrive. Helene will arrive a little less than an hour after me, a real warrior.
So at last the tour of great lake is complete – and I won’t have to return out of revenge but rather to enjoy the magical experience of a unique race.

Friday, September 29, 2017

What defines an ultra marathon?

It’s confusing these days… Traditionally, anything over the 42.2km marathon distance has been considered an ultra, but that’s a bit misleading. Not to demean the achievement of running 50km, but I think anyone who runs ultras knows that it doesn’t really qualify (unless there’s a huge amount of elevation). But why? Probably – this is my personal perspective – because what defines an ultra is the experience rather than the distance per se, and that experience is linked to the time it takes to finish. In that regard, someone who struggled to finish a marathon in 7 hours most probably had an ultra experience.
But if reasonably fit and adequately trained (even if trained “just to finish”), you only usually hit one bad patch in a marathon, around 30-35km. Also, the duration of a marathon means that any problems that develop (blisters, bleeding nipples, stomach distress) do so at a later stage where, again, you are close enough to the finish to just soldier on.

The ultra experience entails several emotional ups & downs, and requires you to really find solutions to a number of issues that can occur if you want to finish: heat, cold, dehydration, over-hydration (lack of salt), blisters upon blisters, cramps, leg pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, sleep deprivation…
So here’s my view: the average person will start to have an “ultra experience” after 6-7 hours. So there’s my definition of an ultra, any race that the average person would finish in about that time, which means roughly 30-45 miles depending on an ultra… Of course, it’s so personal because depending on how fast, fit, well trained you are - or your experience – the goal posts shift…

In any case, pretty much the only reason this is of any consequence at all, is if, like me, you like to know how many ultras you have run! Another way around that is: “I have run X number of races of marathon distance or more”.And I do think, for someone starting out, it is really condescending and ultimately pointless to say that they haven’t run an ultra when they just slogged through a 50k race with 3000m of technical trails. Or even, for that matter, someone who battles their way to a 6h+ marathon finish. I say, welcome to the crowd – your life will have changed in some subtle way and you’ll probably be a different person for it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The wonderful mystery of the disappearing plantar fasciitis

About a month before the Ultra Tour du Léman, the nascent plantar fasciitis that I'd been feeling since getting back into training post-GUCR flared up sufficiently during a run that I decided to cut out speedwork and cut my mileage almost in half.
Now that the UTL is behind me (race report forthcoming), turns out it was the right decision. My fitness wasn't where i hoped it would be, but I went into the race feeling mentally strong from the GUCR finish and that my fitness was at least sufficient to see me to the end of the race. And that turned out to correct, since I did manage to finish, even if it meant drawing on all my reserves and experience and just plain stubborness and desire to finish.
But it was also correct from the perspective that it's better to show up at the start less fit but uninjured. The foot was still still a bit sensitive upon waking up in the morning, but it didn't bother at all during the nearly 30 hours it took me to finish.

But the most amazing thing is that now, three days after the race, there is no pain at all! Not waking up, not walking around during the day. I read somewhere (via James Adams, citing Mark Cockbain I think) that "an injury caused by running is solved by running". A bit extreme, but in this case quite true!

Perhaps my foot is still "warm" from the race, and the plantar will flare up again in a few days or if I started running again next week. But plantar or not, I'd already planned to take a long "seasonal" break from running. A full month off, something I haven't done for the past three years. I need it, both mentally and physically, and am really looking forward to it, to reset the mental batteries. I'll be doing some low intensity biking starting next week for cardio, and strength training starting the week after, but otherwise no running till mid-october. Then it's going to be a slow build-up for three weeks before a two-month period i have planned to increase my speed (avoiding any runs longer than 2h). I guess the real test will be then, but I'd like to think that my feet will appreciate almost two months off hard running and will reward me by keeping quiet.

Running ultras continues to be a valuable life lesson in pain management and physical recovery. If this plantar doesn't come back, however, it will be quite the most amazing thing that has happened to me. And hopefully gives hope to anyone ever plagued with injury...

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My essential self-sufficient medical kit

As I prep my bags for the Ultra Tour du Léman, just thought I'd share what I've refined now over many years as my "essential self-sufficient medical kit". I store it in a zip-lock bag in an easy-to-access part of my backpack.

- toilet paper (in a separate plastic bag - and definitely put in a plastic bag! remove cardboard middle)
- suntan lotion (there are quite a few really small tubes that exist)
- vaseline or similar lube
- compeed & band-aids (for blisters, cuts)
- 1-2 disposable tubes of eosine (disinfectant)
- safety pins (to pierce blisters)
- lighter (to disinfect the safety pin - and to burn toilet paper after going to the bathroom)
- crystallized Ginger (really works well against nausea, and fast!)
- anti-nausea pills (i.e. Motilium), just in case Ginger doesn't work
- 1-2 imodium pills (for opposite problem, diarrhea)
- Arnica (for bumps, bruises and general soreness)
- BCAAs (optional, but i find it helps to take one an hour, 12/day)
- 1x anti-inflammatory pill (ibuprofen based)
- 1x paracetamol

A note on the last two: if you are well hydrated and have just eaten something, 1 anti-inflammatory pill shouldn't do any harm - take advisedly, of course. The paracetamol is better, and can be taken within 4-6 hours of the anti-inflammatory - though if pain relief is necessary, i would a) wait till at least 2nd half of race depending on length, and b) start with the paracetamol... As always - I'm not a doctor, check with yours first...

Then in a much smaller baggy that I carry in a belt bag i can access without taking the backpack off (where I also have my phone and an emergency gel or two)
- lip balm (chapstick)
- salt tablets/S-caps
- caffeine tablet