Friday, November 16, 2018

Two very contrasted races: Trail des Glières and Trail de Nendaz

So this will be much ado about nothing – taking almost two months to write about my last two races – the Nendaz trail and the Glières trail – and pretty much skipping over them. Thing is, there’s not much to say about the former and I would not recommend the latter for anyone, like me, who thinks that too much technicality just kills the pleasure of trail running. I mean, it’s one thing to be working your downhill skills – and another to be scared of falling and slipping a disk or dislocating a shoulder just by walking; one thing to work your heart pump uphill and another to be on all hands and knees having to use a rope to get to the top of a mountain. And what was with the speed goats?! I mean, I was doing this race with my friend Anthony, his first ultra but certainly no stranger to endurance events, having finished two Ironman triathlons – and pretty quick too, with a finishing time of 11h17 and a sub-40mn 10k – and yet here we were not even half the race straggling in the last 10%... Needless to say, Anthony was none too pleased and I was very disappointed I had chosen this for his first trail run.

That said, if I hadn’t done the Nendaz trail a few weeks earlier, I might have begun to wonder if the time barriers and required speed at trail events weren’t getting a little to ridiculous. I mean, I might be getting a bit old, fat and slow – but still! Fortunately there was the 30k fun run Nendaz trail that I’d done a few weeks earlier with my longtime running companion Cyril where I was passing people uphill (a first!) and still felt I had something in reserve – and it was blissfully not-too-technical, with very runnable downhills on 4x4 tracks. A bit too “woody” (i.e. most of the race takes place below the tree line) but very scenic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The "modesty" of long-distance runners

As I (desperately) wait for a (probably never-to-come) ideal moment to find enough time to write a brief report on my last two trail races - Nendaz and Glières - and look at the past year and year ahead (not to mention the past 20 and the next 20!), as well as my first attempt at coaching someone for their first 100k run, here's a short video making fun of how runners tend to gab to just about anyone who will listen about their upcoming challenges...

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Meltdown in Montreux: A brief race review of the Montreux Trail Festival Xtrem

Image result for chateau de chillon

Ok, so the race was end July, but since then it's been madness at work making sure our big event - plenary and launch of a report in Mexico outlining why governments should regulate the legal sale of all psychoactive substances and how they can go about doing it - and really haven't had time to reflect on the race in the past couple of months.

Anyway. Montreux was to be my third attempt at the 100-mile mountain race - and a defining one! 164km and 12,000m of positive elevation gain, in the Vaudois Alps, which I don't know well, departing in front the Chateau de Chillon on the banks of Geneva lake just outside Montreux and its famous Freddy Mercury statue (among other things), home to the Jazz festival. Smoke on the water was written here. Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein at Chillon when she, her husband poet Percey and Lord Byron rented the place one summer and told ghost stories in the dungeons...

My kind of race, once again, very happy with this low-key choice. Slept army-style on a mattress in a gymnasium with a dozen other runners the night before. Race departed at 6am - not too early, not too late. Less than 200 people. And "We are the Champions" sounding at the start line after the short race briefing, at the end of which we were asked to kneel as the modern-day 'knights of Chillon", and then one of two co-organizers lined up with us to take part in the run.

Unfortunately I only made it through one-third of the race, so this is more of a "lessons learned" than any kind of race review that could benefit anyone attempting the race. But I would 100% recommend it - if they put on the 100-miler again next year. The first climb, long and steep, brought us to a stunning vista, and it didn't get much shabbier afterwards. More steep climbs that reminded me how little elevation I've done this year through cow fields (lots of cows to navigate, didn't like that part), a few sharp crests to maneuver along (not for the faint of heart), a stroll along a mountain lake, even a patch of snow... Truly beautiful. I though the Swiss Irontrail in the Grisons had it made, but this gave it a run for its money in terms of alpine splendor.

Image result for rochers de naye

At the Swiss Irontrail in 2016, I believe I would've finished if it had been a 100 miles - but it was a 130 mile race. Still, coulda-woulda-shoulda and I didn't finish. In 2014, at the UT4M I was probably was a bit undertrained and underprepared mentally - too frightented ultimately of the whole thing. For Montreux, I was probably a bit complacent after the GUCR and UTL last year - thought I could get back to mountain running at the last minute and wing it.

I'd planned the year to work on speed in the beginning, which sort of worked (even though I bombed the Geneva marathon), and focus on the 100km Bienne road race (which didn't even go as well as planned either) and then pack in a bunch of high-incline treadmill work, hills reps and weekend mountain runs.

Well that part did work, and ultimately I think things could have worked out - except for the two-week family vacation in Japan early July. I had factored that in, and did ten days running in a row, figuring a forced hard taper in Japan with no running, and then a couple days easy running in the week I got back before the race. But I had forgotten how tiring and demanding sight-seeing can be! We chosen this trip after many summers of beaches and sand play, since the kids were now old enough to appreciate it. So it turns out we walked anywhere from 4-6 hours (brave kids!) and on top of it in a heatwave (up to 40°C and humid!).

Image result for golden temple kyoto

So I arrived physically quite fatigued, jet-lagged, and five days wasn't enough to recover. 25km into the race, I felt like I was starting on my 2nd day. And so at 56km and 4,400m and 13h30 of race time, I quit. There really was no point in going on. I was pretty much last, along with a Japanese competitor with whom I'd spent the past few hours talking to (go figure), and banging up against the time barriers with absolutely no will to live - and no mental resources to draw on.

In hindsight, I should have realized and really integrated the fact that this would be by far the toughest race of the year, one of my toughest ever. Without actually changing the focus of my training as I had mapped it out (flat and speed first, the elevatoin), I think mentally it may have helped me overcome some of the physical fatigue.

Whether or not it would have been enough, I don't know - but I know that for my fourth attempt next year, I am definitely making the 100-mile mountain race my absolute focus. I do hope to get back to Montreux if it is organized again so I can see the rest of the race, but at end July the timing is not the best with regard to holidays. Otherwise I'll aim for Swiss Peaks, which also shows very promising landscape and not too big a crowd. Plus it's early September, which would allow me to focus on speed and road running till April (again with the hopes of a marathon BQ - just one of those things on my bucket list) and then do a bunch of hills and mountain climbing...

Sunday, June 10, 2018

100km Bienne race report: not too shabby after all...

What a strange race this was, with a feeling of really missing my goal yet at the same time objectively not doing too bad. Thing is, this was in some respects my 'A' race for this year, since I have geared my training since March specifically for this. I was hoping for a sub-11h, which was a bit optimistic, but considering my marathon times 3h45-4h (on a bad day too), and a 100k time is supposed to be 2.8-3x that, then 11h30-12h should definitely have been possible. The test, therefore, for me was to see how consistent I could be and run pretty much throughout, which would be real break-through for me.

Bienne is the 2nd oldest ultra-marathon in the world, celebrating its 60th birthday, and started out as a military race - and there are still teams that compete in uniform with a special race bib. Which might explain why it starts at 10pm. I haven't been sleeping well and I don't too well with sleep deprivation, so I was worried about this aspect, and had quit coffee for a few days before so that my caffeine pill taken just at the start would (hopefully) have an optimal effect. It sort of worked - i didn't get sleepy enough to want to nap, but I think I was definitely affected by the fatigue.

The race atmosphere is interesting. It starts in the center of town, and there are about 800 competitors, plus several hundred more competing in the 56km race or as relays or as pairs, so over a 1000 people. There's a small race "village", and all the competitors can change and lounge around in the sports arena. So it's not what you'd call low-key, and yet it had that feel. The start was just a brief annoucement and then the gun went off. The top runners charged off, the rest of the crowd shuffled forward, taking about 2mn total to cross the start. I was still taking a last pee and had enough time to amble up to the back of the crowd.

Things started out well. About a kilometer of weaving between people who were starting out at a slower pace, but we were going through town with nice crowds cheering us on. I was pacing well at 5'55"-6'15" per km. I felt good, relaxed, the only thing was my stomach was bit queasy, crampy. I'd taken imodium to avoid any unpleasantness, but was kicking myself for forgetting my ginger.

I passed the first 10km in 1h03, only a bit fast but feeling fine, and the 2nd 10km in 2h08, so now right on pace. We were now in the countryside and the air was permeated with the smell of manure, which did nothing to help my stomach issues. But I was able to eat - there were food points almost every 5km. No time to dally, otherwise you can waste a lot of time, and I managed to get in and out of checkpoints quite quickly, just like during a marathon: grab a few fistfuls of food, top up the water bottle (first just water, then I began mixing water and coke), and off - this is the first time I've done a race of this length without stopping at checkpoints, and it was one of my goals, so happy about that. (No using the drop bag service at km 56 in Kirchberg!)

It was shortly after half-marathon point that the shit hit the fan. I  can't be sure, of course, but I think the night start had a lot to with it, and a day at work ending in stress and the muggy weather just compounded it. Also, having just looked now at the race profile - lesson learned! -  a major contributor to slowing down and feeling bad may be that between km 20 and 30km it's all slightly uphill - 150m elevation. Not much, but I didn't notice it in the dark so I probably struggled a bit to keep up the pace but not realizing exactly why, i entered a dark downward spiral.

So I hit the wall hard - and then it was mental warfare for the next 50km. All night, on these long straight stretches of road, I just cursed myself. This would be my last ultra for a while! No more of this, except with a friend! I am not enjoying myself, this is stupid! I am hopeless, all this training serves no purpose, I'm just not made for this shit!... I passed the marathon stage in just under five hours, with the real sense that I could not have run it faster even if it had just been a marathon. I was seriouly contemplating quitting, and kept talking myself out it. I knew I could finish, I just didn't know how long it would take (and I wanted to get home to the family before the afternoon - and my ego was a bit bruised that I would do so poorly after having trained so specifically for this.

I arrived at Kirchberg at 56km before dawn. That's when I realized that this race, sad to say for such a venerable event, really has no soul. It was filled with people finishing the 56km race, and the rest of us just seemed to be an after thought. The food stations are all stocked with the same nuts, pretzels, isotonic drink, 'sports' tea (???), bouillon, bananas, gels and protein bars. I stuck with some nuts, pretzels and bananas - and rasberry jam tart ("linztorte") the region's specialy, which I love. But after 10 hours, I would get a bit tired of just that. Here in Kirchberg, they had another tent was next to the food station, with hot dogs and fries and coffee - but only for sale!!! I couldn't believe it - no coffee on an all-night 100km race. So really, I felt like we 100k runners were just punted off to the side. It felt a bit like that throughout the race, no-one really speaking to each other, rather disengaged volunteers - though, as always, much appreciated and very kind (just a weird mix of aloof and businesslike).

Anyway, this is the only place where I took a little more time, lying down for just under 10mn with my legs up and my eyes closed, gathering my mental resources to carry on to the bitter end and not stop here (which would have been far too much bother anyway, since I had no idea how long a wait it would be for a bus back to Bienne - and I certainly didn't want to be riding with a bunch of 56km finishers).

After Kirchbert, the route goes in the woods along the Emme river. I remember enjoying this part with Cyril 13 years ago. We'd had a purple spot, jogging after a lot of walking and chatting away. - This time it was agony, forcing myself not to walk and to keep up a decent pace, just trying to stay positive as I hit "'just' a marathon to go", then "under 40km", and now the sun was coming up. I just couldn't wait to get out of the forest, but then the next stretch goes near a refinery and through some sort of industrial zone, then out into more agricultural land with the smell of manure again...

Finally at 70km I snapped back into a postive mindset. I realized that if I could just not slow down I could make it under 13h, which wouldn't be so bad, especially since my secondary goal was consistency - and, excluding the first 20km, I had been moving at around 8km/h. What really helped to not stop and walk too often was to give it structure: I reverted to a 5'/1' run-walk strategy. It really helped keep my mind busy, and with the music and seeing the kilometers tick down - 30, 25, 20 to go - I replaced the vicious circle by a virtuous one. I realized that I could be mentally strong enough to keep running even when I wanted to just death march the rest of the race, and that physically I could do so. I was passing people and could feel the months of physcial training paying off (true or not, I don't know, but I've never felt this good this late in a 100k race). I wasn't just dragging myself through the end of the race, I was pushing myself to the finish.

At km 80, the sun now fully up but not yet too sunny and hot (that would come about an hour before finishing), we hit the most scenic part of the race, along the canal of the Aar river. It reminded me of the GUCR, but in a way that I wish the GUCR was: instead of being hemmed in by the canal on one side and a hedge of the other which obscures the view of the surrounding countryside, here we had a smaller hedge between the foot path and the canal, so you really feel out in the open. We came through a few small villages, with a mix of typical Swiss German/Austrian architecture and contemporary apartment buidings of suprisingly interesting architecture.

Finally I reached the outskirts of Bienne and just kept plowing along, At km 90, i was doing 4'/1' run-walk, then 3'/2', but I was running decently and keeping pretty much to just under 8km/h. Then the signposts - every 5km until then - came every km: 96, 97, 98, 99... Then round a bend I recognized the starting pen and saw the Congress Hall where the race ended.

12h50mn: I pumped my fist. Better by 50mn than Millau, much better consistency (in fact, after km 20, there was very little difference between the first half and the second half), no stopping (in Millau, I stopped for 40mn at Sainte Affrique, km 70), and feeling strong at the end. So while I was way off my hoped-for time, I'll focus on the positive. I'm not sure if I'll do another 100km, but it would have to be one that isn't too hilly (Bienne is fine, but not Millau or 100km Savoie, for instance) and starts in the morning (and one that has more soul than Bienne!), and in that case I do think I could go under 12h, perhaps even manage 11h30. I guess I'll just have to put that theory to the test...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Looking back at the Geneva Marathon 2018

I'm glad I waited a bit to write a short account - or rather a "lessons learned" - of the Geneva marathon this year, because at the time and for a while after it felt like a catastrophe, a complete meltdown. Now, I am putting it somewhat in perspective (though that might be because I want to psyche myself up for 100k Bienne race this weekend).

So why a catastrophe? I was aiming for 3h25, but finished in 4h05, pretty much giving up in the process to try for a decent time. I just wasn't in it.

The first reason was physical. I'm not sure how realistic my time was with regard to my capabilities, but it felt achievable - at least back in January! But considering the difficulties I was having with the target pace (not to mention I never got rid of the intended 6-8kg), I think that it would have been better to give up on the arbitrary Boston qualifier time, and even on the psychological 3h30, and gone for 3h35, which definitely should have been feasible. Thing is, I forgot my ultimate goal, which was "increase speed". That meant pushing myself all the way through a marathon distance - whether that involves finishing in 3h20 or more (but less than 3h45, my PB). So, I should have determined a more realistic time that would involve a good pacing effort and aimed for that, rather than something arbitrary which, after 10k, just made me throw in the towel. I did lower my expectations early, notably because of the heat, but that's just it: I lowered my expectations rather than set a goal i could be proud of, and so after about 20k when I couldn't be bothered anymore, it was easy just to give up trying for any time.

And of course, I went out too fast, considering that my time was unrealistic and because of the heat. But the second reason was mental. I had aimed to train quite specifically to try seriously for a "best time" in a marathon - but I didn't really do it properly, fitting too-short marathon pace sessions mid-week, and not bothering fitting more in during the long runs on the weekend, which I did at 100k pace. But still, I'd logged some respectable miles, with tempo runs, mile reps and intervals - so I psyched myself up for it. And when I realized that it probably wasn't go to happen, disappointment took over and I just gave up, rather than try for a "best effort". This was compounded by the fact that I was at the wedding of a colleague of my wife the night before, and though I ultimately got home at 1am and the Geneva marathon mercifully starts at 9.45am, which means I got enough sleep (and hadn't been drinking), I'd started to feel that it was "ruining" all those weeks of specific training.

The good stuff

But looking on the bright side, I took the time to chat with (or rather, whine to) a few friends and acquaintances a long the way. I settled into a 100k pace towards 30k and used it as a training run. The heat, once my pace lowered, didn't bother me in the least. I recovered really well. And I had the very novel experience of filling for 10-15mn to pull the chariot of  handicapped patient at Clair-Bois, an organization that was raising money for its cause. So on top of it, if I count all those stops and slow downs, I was actually close to a sub-4h, which in past years would have made me very happy.

Looking forward to Bienne

I don't want to make the same mistake for Bienne. When I originally signed up last August, I thought I could give a 10h time a good go - at least train specifically at that pace. But while I might still harbor dreams (the way my son thinks that he may one day get the 500-dollar Millenium Falcon Lego set), I know that it isn't feasible, particularly with the stress fracture that delayed getting into any consistent training for 2-3 months. But I still feel that maybe, just maybe, a sub-10h30, the old Spartathlon qualifying time, might be possible - and that's the time I have to give up on. I feel comfortable at the pace that would allow me to finish in that time, and have maintained it even on 3h long runs at the end of a heavy mileage week, but it would mean maintaining that pretty much for the whole time with no slow-down, and ignores pretty much any down time at food stations.

So, again, back to the basics. I want to be able to maintain a steady pace for as long as possible - the goal is "being faster and more consistent", i.e. do a 100km with almost no walking and not too much slow-down. I aim to start out feeling comfortable at around 9.7 km/h, so I think a sub-11h would be at good target. My previous best time was 13h38 in Millau, which is known for its hills, so I would even be (or should be) happy with a sub-12h, but anything over that I would consider that my aim to work hard at the race would not have been accomplished.

Shall see on Friday!

Monday, March 19, 2018

10km Tour de Presinge: enjoying a shorter, faster race

As I was having a hard time in my recent training sessions hitting my target 10k pace of just under 4’30’’ (so’s to slip under 45mn), I really wasn’t very hopeful for the Tour de Presinge last Sunday, and was starting to wonder if even 47mn was possible. And so of course I also started to wonder about all this speed training hullaballoo since it didn’t seem to be having the slightest effect on me, either increasing my base speed or my ability to run faster for longer.

Wouldn’t you know it – perhaps because I’d been training in very cold weather and dodging snow patches, certainly because of the taper effect, and also thanks to some good advice from two friends, I actually hit my target goal at 44’47”… (I think originally I was hoping for 43mn but that was not founded on anything realistic). What is quite satisfying is that this corresponds quite neatly to the predicted time based on my recently tested maximum speed of 15.7km/h. So that does confirm that actually since February the speed work has been having an effect, both in base speed (since I was at 15) and in my ability to maintain about 85% of that speed for longer.

Not only that, but I am also quite pleased that I actually managed the race well in terms of pacing, posting a slightly faster 2nd 5k than the 1st (thanks to some pointed advice from two friends!)...

So now I start on my cobbled-together training plan for GE marathon/100km Bienne/100-mile Montreux with a renewed determination and belief that those goals – 3h25 for Geneva, 10h30 for Bienne – are possible.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Recovering from a sesamoid stress fracture

I've continued ramping up mileage and intensity, moving from 4h to now 6h30, including sprint intervals and hills - and the foot is still "holding", meaning that while I can still feel the occasional tension and weird soreness, there is nothing that prevents me from running and, most importantly, it is all decreasing in duration and intensity, even as I ramp up my running. So while I certainly won't cry victory yet, I think I can put down what I've been doing in the past months to help recover from the sesamoid injury, in case someone else finds themself in the same situation:

- specifically designed orthopedic sole: if nothing else, definitely this! I waited too long.
- rest: it is definitely worth waiting more than less before resuming running; at least six weeks, probably two months, with even minimal walking - and always with the special soles.
- cross-training: to keep up fitness, definitely get into doing 10-20mn of high-intensity aqua-jogging intervals - obviously keeps the heart pumping but also surprising trains the leg muscles; high-intensity rowing; low-intensity bike for endurance to replace long runs (if you do too high intensity, you risk putting pressure on the sesamoid); and strength training (watch out for lunges though!)
- nutrition: magnesium, calcium with vitamin D, vitamin K, and natural acerola vitamin C/ascobic acid; omega 3; and prefer alkaline foods as less inflammatory
- anti-inflammatories, occasionally: for several weeks as i eased back into running, i would take one tablet 2-3 times a week in the evening after a higher intensity session that made me feel the foot.
ice:  definitely try and ice in the evening on every day that you run when you first ease back into it, and of course as necessary.
- return to training: very gradually; go at an easy pace at first - 30mn then adding about 10mn each time, but allowing two full days rest between sessions (i.e. monday, then thursday); if and when you add intensity, make it first longer tempo sessions, then long intervals (1 mile, 1k, 800m) then shorter (400m) and only then go for hills and 30-45" sprints. Even if you are used to high mileage, I found it best to follow the 10-15% rule and back off after 3 weeks. It goes slowly at first, but once you hit 4 hours, it starts to increase noticeably. Just better to really take the time. First time around, i increased too quickly and had to stop for 10 days.
- what pain is ok pain: obviously that's a personal one, so again I can only give the guidelines i've followed, based on what the podiatrist told me after examining me:
    * if i could press on the big toe bone and just behind it, and there was no sharp pain, and it didn't really feel that much different from the other, healthy foot, then it's probably just tension in the tendons and muscles that are being newly sollicited.
    * if it didn't hurt during the run, or only as a distant bother, and in any case didn't get worse, then I would soldier on, perhaps shortening the planned run a little - or avoiding any interval work.

Hope this helps...