Thursday, March 20, 2014

Toto the trailer

 My father (his grandchildren called him Toto) entered his first marathon in 1976 or 1977, in Athens, when jogging was exploding in popularity. He did so because of a drunken bet that he had made with a bank colleague several months earlier. Relying on his past as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, he thought that he was easily within his grasp—until he went out the next day and could barely run a quarter of a mile. But he stuck with it, running ever further distances every weekend, and discovering a great number of local British pubs in the process.

He competed in the New York Marathon a year or two later, and then went on to finish over a hundred marathons. Trailing wasn’t very common at the time, but he did participate in the several mountain races in Switzerland (where we moved to from London in 1980) that did exist, such as the Jungfrau marathon and Sierre-Zinal. I particularly remember him having a very hard time walking after Jungfrau… He also entered the Bienne 100k race twice, but failed on both attempts to get past the checkpoint at kilometre 88 (mile 55).

Toto at the Marathon des Sables
When he heard about the Marathon des Sables in 1994, he immediately registered to participate the following year. He had crossed the Sahara desert by Land Rover in the early Sixties, had lived in Saudi Arabia, and loved the desert. He finished the MDS in 1995—last, to great applause—and returned every year until his 7th and last participation in 2001, finishing two more times.
Despite all that running—and most of his training consisted of walking/jogging to and from work and then some on the weekend—he continued to enjoy the corporate dinners and outings that his banking career required. He certainly didn’t have your typical runner’s build. At 5’10’’ and at the age of 60, he weighed 195 pounds—before he was diagnosed with advanced metastatic prostate cancer and the disease took over—as the picture below will testify (he is far right)—a picture taken at the departure of the 2000 Jordan Desert Cup, organized by Patrick Bauer, the guru of the MDS.

Departure of the 2000 Desert Cup

My father returned to the Marathon des Sables in 2002 as a volunteer to help the organization and accompany Swiss participants. He died the following year at the end of February, eleven years ago.  Today he would have been 80 years old.
To me, he represented the true spirit of trail running—no concern for time, the enjoyment of nature and life, the desire to find one’s limits and discover about himself in the process, always willing to lend a helping hand, fraternizing with other runners. He also had little concern for technical equipment, buying a surplus store pair of US Army desert boots for the Marathon des Sables or a pair of old tennis shorts as running pants. He wasn't much help to me when I prepared for my own first MDS.

Then again, I would never have gone he hadn't asked me to share his secret garden. I have him to thank for my early involvement in running, when he asked him to join him at the MDS in 2000 when he retired. I think about him on many long training runs, and before and after every ultra trail I compete in, knowing that in other circumstances he would be at my side—either to support me or, more likely, to compete.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The longest long run...

I went out for a long run on Sunday and it almost turned into a morning of survival. Certainly good training for an arctic marathon – or rather, I now am sure I don’t want to compete in any races in the Arctic or near it (or even something like the Spine race, I think).

Anyway, on this very Spring-like morning away I head planning on roughly ten to fifteen-mile sortie with 6,000 feet of climbing. About four hours, I figured. 

First problem: just when I suppose to hit the beginning of the major ascent, 30 minutes into the run, I can’t find the path. I’ve done it in Summer and I’ve done it in deep Winter, when the snow was either sparse or packed. But now it is nowhere to be seen.

Ok, I backtrack and decide on another route, which requires traversing a ski slope twenty minutes later. And that proves to be an impossible feat. It’s 8am, no skiers around, but the groomed slope is ice slick. I try three times, rather terrified since on this very slope I slipped on an ice patch skiing at 5mph and dislocated my shoulder. I’m gripping my poles, digging in my heels (useless pair of spiked soles!), but to no avail.
So I decide to call it a day.

On the way back I take what I hope to be a short cut along a trail I have run numerous times – but again, either in Summer or when the snow was nice and packed. Now it doesn’t seem to have been used since I was last up in these mountains, about a month ago, and so I find myself calf-deep in spring sludge.

Unfortunately I’m wearing Salomon trekking boots, not trail shoes. Sure, I would have been soaked in trail shoes, but these now turn out to be worse. First, not only to have to stop every three steps to redo my shoe laces, but snow keeps slipping in over my ankles and gets trapped in this boots designed to keep the snow out (therefore, it’s doing a fine job of keeping it in). Within fifteen minutes, my feet are bathing in ice-cold water. Ten minutes later and I can’t feel my toes.

Fortunately home is only another twenty minutes away. By the time I hit the last 100 yards of asphalt, each step feels like I’m pressing down barefoot on a bed of nails (that reminds of some obscure Eighties hard rock hit single…). An hour more and I seriously think I might have gotten frostbite.
Or perhaps it’s just my overactive imagination.

Anyway, for the first time in years, it was not about the distance or the effort. It reminded me of my first Marathon des Sables. It was fun.

At least there’s always the view…

Mont Fort hidden behind the tree


Arg, insomnia struck again last night—fitful sleep then wide awake at 2.30am, exactly as has happened to me before a few races. I’ve read that it happens a lot to runners, fortunately I don’t suffer too much from it. A glass or two of wine (no longer an option, however) or a homeopathic sleeping pill usually do the trick; but there have been cases of race anticipation making sleep a short affair. But it has happened, usually with a 5am race call and I’m afraid of missing the alarm at 3am.

So what’s disturbing my sleep now? A few things but yes—a race is one of them. The only thing is, this particular race is almost 6 months away, and yet I am already in anticipation mode, that mix between excitement that it’s finally here (but it isn’t!) and the healthy fear of what is to come (but I’m not racing!).
Well, my last non-stop 100-miler (actually, my only one) was 14 years ago. Since then, I’ve gained experience, and therefore a healthy respect for what I am about to do. But I also want to enjoy myself and have a good race—which I did last time, but then (unmarried and no kids) I had a lot more time on my hands to train. Now, to compensate, it’s out at lunch time, running home to work, or up at 4am on weekends so I don’t miss too much of the breakfast with the family (at least that’s the routine once I finalize my recovery from a dislocated shoulder).

For the first time in 15 years, I have actually charted some semblance of a training plan, I am testing gear, and I have scheduled some trail runs as training races. Actually, since originally I was intending to sign up for the UTMB, the past five years have turned out to be training races. It’s just that since the birth of my second child end 2008, I had no idea if I could find the time to train adequately for something like this. I’d only been running for 18 months when I did the Desert Cup, but I also had loads of time on my hands.

Anyway, where was I?

Insomnia… A bit of lack of sleep before a race is manageable, if you have enough sleep on previous nights and because of the adrenaline and race excitement on the day. But five months before, every other night?... I suppose I really will have to get out the candles and practice meditation to empty my thoughts.

If I consider it training for an ultra trail, I might actually succeed.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Race regrets and future plans

Back in 2000-2001, I had no kids, no wife (barely a girlfriend) and not really even a job, but my dad—who signed me up for the Marathon des Sables, partly to share time with me after learning he had cancer, partly to get me out of my troubling (and troublesome) lifestyle in Los Angeles—probably would have helped finance and join me on two races (at least as support) that I learned about on that first participation in the MDS: Badwater and the Diagonale des Fous in Réunion. I still have high hopes of doing both, but it will take a few more years before I get there. Then there was that missed sign-up for the UTMB in 2007 before they instated qualifying points (and before my second child was born).

I’m still planning on going back to the desert next year—not the MDS!—but not sure that I’ll actually manage to swing 9 days off work that are not dedicated to my family. 

Which reminds me: I won’t say which race I want to do. In fact, I never considered sharing my wish list of races on this blog as so many others do, because it consists on the one hand of a few that are so well known now in any case (the aforementioned + Leadville, GUCR, Hardmoors, Tor des Géants,…) and that I’d like to do despite difficulties getting in or overcrowding because I could experience new and incredible landscapes, and on the other hand of a growing list of trail runs that are not well known or in their infancy, and therefore hold the promise of very few participants and a more genuine feel...

The Costa Brava Extreme, a must-do in my opinion

Sure I want to do the UTMB for its beauty and for the myth, but when I see pictures of 2,200+ runners traipsing up the mountains, I figure there are more enough tough, beautiful trail races out there where there are fewer people and easier to get into. The numbers are growing every year as everyone seems to want to organize a race and there seem to be more and more people turning to trails--all a very good thing.

So I think that apart from a few staple races and some as yet undiscovered races, I will now seek out inaugural or first editions to be part of the fun from the start. The 104-mile Jordan Desert Cup back in 2000 is the perfect example (it no longer exists, in fact it didn't last long, but I think it's been replaced by another). The UT4M is another, only on its second edition this year and limited to 500 competitors.

So if you know of any... well, I don't expect you to share the good news (but I will swap), but if you are organizing a new race, don't hesitate to let me know...

Thursday, March 6, 2014


I've wanted to participate in the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail (100 miles, 33'000 feet elevation) since hearing about it in 2006. Every year, something got in the way of being able to register... Most recently it was my DNF at the Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) race that prevented me from getting the necessary qualifying points. But as luck has it, a new race has now been organized with the same mileage and elevation in Grenoble, France, and takes place only a week before: the UT4M.

I have David at Running Planet Genève to thank for this great discovery, the answer to my dilemma...

Not only could I register immediately, but there are at least three times fewer participants. The UTMB as it was in its first years? The UT4M promises to be more technical, therefore perhaps more challenging even, but at least it starts on a Friday morning at 5.30 am, rather than 6pm like the UTMB which forces most people to run through two nights... And though the Mont Blanc won't be there as a backdrop, the region around Grenoble (where the 1968 Winter Olympics were held) will certainly be spectacular.

I'm excited. Not sure I even want to compete in the UTMB anymore. Too much hype, too many people. Now I just need to train... As in the past, I am hoping to raise money for charity - so stay "posted".