Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Which is tougher: Ironman or ultra marathon?


I really can’t complain about my year. After suffering a severe tear in my left calf in January, followed by a mild Achilles tendinopathy, I was only able to return to running end of April – but i compensated with quite a bit of swimming (in February-March) and a lot of biking (April-May). Then in July I competed in a 65-mile mountain run, the Vichy Ironman in August and the 100km Millau road ultra in September.
So quite a few people have asked me: which is more difficult, Ironman or Ultra?
Well, first of course it depends on what kind of ultra we’re talking about – you can’t compare apples and oranges (or fries and Brussel sprouts). Certainly the Beaufortain mountain trail run, with its 21’000+ feet of vertical elevation and highly technical trails, was in a class of its own and took me to places an Ironman never could – if only because it took 28 hours and everything I had to complete. By the same token, I’ve done 50 miles footraces on flatter terrain that were easier: quicker finishing time yet more relaxed pace (with more frequent stops to sample the great food at check points).

So the ultra marathon that I feel is most comparable to an Ironman is a 100km road race, with similar finishing times (i've also read that elsewhere). Mathematically it bears out, if you are so inclined, i.e. 3k run equivalent for 1k biking and 1k run equivalent for 4k swimming, so an Ironman is (3.8x4) + 180/3 + 42 = 117km in terms of time. Presumably also endurance effort, but that's what I'm here to find out. Hmm...
Anyway, having completed both a month apart, I feel quite well placed to give an informed opinion – though it still only remains valid for me. The first took me 14h40mn, while the second took me 13h40mn, and I would attribute the hour difference to two factors: the high heat at the Ironman (35°C) and the fact that IronmanTM couldn’t be bothered – despite the high entry fee – to give out anything more than the sponsor’s gels and bars (no bloody savory food, discounting a few random Tucs!) (whereas at the Beaufortain they were cooking pasta soup and serving coffee at 3am at the top of a mountain). And then of course there's my lack of specific training… But that only makes my answer more valid.

Because definitely I would say that the 100k ultra marathon is the more difficult challenge, and anything above that, or with considerable elevation, definitely more so. (Though training for an Ironman – particularly in a dedicated and specific way, which certainly wasn’t my case – is a lot more time-consuming.) I didn’t doubt that I could finish either going in (though in such endurance events it is of course always a possibility), but during the races I never really doubted that I would finish the Ironman, whereas I did have some moments during the 100km whether I could finish, wanted to finish or would finish in one piece, when my goal had been to walk only the hills and after that as little as possible (goal accomplished actually, even though my pace at the end was more a shuffle than a jog). And I was able to jog up some stairs at the end of the Ironman, whereas my right knee had locked up by the time I completed the 100km.
And I had trained specifically for this race. Up to 50 miles per week of running (a huge max for me), while I’d only swum 5 miles and biked 200 miles in the 3 months leading up to the Ironman (that would account for my time…). Not to mention that I have a hard time in the pool after about 10 minutes and I’ve never been a fan of the bike and all the apparel that goes with it.
However, I will say that while I entered some dark spots at the 100km that didn’t occur during the Ironman (i think due to the change in activity from swim to bike to run), I did find it more intense. You always seem to be in race mode, whereas at the 100km, even though I was aiming not to walk, I never felt as pressured (much sorer, yes, but not pressured). And I took my time to eat, chat… 
And there was definitely a sense of pride and accomplishment particular to finishing the Ironman – it was my first (which doesn’t imply there will be a second, though I can’t rule it out), and you never forget your first time…

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

100km Millau: What I like about ultras

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

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

Sainte Affrique

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