Monday, August 10, 2015

Ultra Tour du Beaufortain 2015: Back to basics – improvising an ultra

Before I get into the run-up to this race that fell almost out of the blue into my race calendar (and the different training that this implied for me), let me just preface by saying that the 65-mile Ultra Trail du Beaufortain mid-July was extremely technical (most of it as bad if not worse than the worst the UTMB can throw at you, with almost no respite), but the most awe-inspiring mountain scenery I have ever run in – and I live in Switzerland). It's my favorite kind of event: a highly and personally involved race director, fantastic volunteers, no fuss or frills, no advertising, no race village or sponsor vending stands, very reasonable entry fee (65 euros), low-key and friendly – the race director has clashed with ITRA and refused to pay their extortionary fees now required for a race to be accepted as a qualifier for the UTMB… 

It’s just 400+ competitors who love running (or glorified hiking) and the mountains, most of whom camp out next to the starting site the night before, and a 4am kick-off by the side of a lake. I finished the race last after 28h15mn – but with a greater than 50% drop-out rate (54% this year) and the fact that I’ve seldom had to dig so deep to finish, yet at the same time enjoying almost the entire time the full challenge of it, I think it is the finish of which I am the most proud. And it just felt great to forget about targeted training, planning, worrying months ahead of time... just go with the flow.

And reconnect with that great feeling and belief that I can finish anything.


Flashback a few months…

After tearing my left calf muscle towards the end of January, I saw my hopes of competing in the 100-mile race, which I’d set my sights on since DNFing the UT4M and which was taking place mid-April, evaporate. Based on stuff I’d read on the internet, I figured I’d back to running within a few weeks, and boldly signed up for the Ultra Trail du Beaufortain, a 105km and 6’400m of elevation (66 miles and 22’000 feet). It was a race I’d considered right after the UT4M when, in a slump, I decided that 100 miles and 33’000 feet was just too far. I figured I could complete the Beaufortain in 20-24 hours, at the most a few hours more than when I quite the UT4M (I should call it the UT2M considering I only managed to complete 2 of the 4 mountain ranges).

Anyway, the race was already booked full and I was on the waiting list. When the doctor told me a few days later that I actually had a very severe tear and not to consider anything until autumn and certainly not an ultra, I was somewhat relieved. When my Achilles tendon inflamed shortly after resuming my training end March, side-lining me again for another few weeks (and I was lucky), I’d pretty much forgotten about it and was now focused on getting back to training injury-free in time for the Ironman end August and hopefully a 100km road race end September.

Finally the curse seemed over and things started to fall into place. I finished June (and work) with a great week of running and biking – and at 6am on July 1, waiting in the airport with the family on our way to Spain for a 10-day holiday, I received an email from Fran├žois, the race director of the Beaufortain trail, that I had been pulled off the waiting list, and would I like to do it?

Sure I wanted to, but was it sensible? I had the perfect build-up with 3 weeks to go in which to taper, but the build-up was part of a training plan for my 100k end September, not for an ultra in 3 weeks. If I finished, it would be my longest non-stop race in 15 years…

Training log:
January: 125 miles of running, 1.5 miles of swimming
February: 0 miles of running, 10 miles of swimming
March: 50 miles of running/walking/hiking, 35 miles of biking, 5 miles of swimming
April: 13 miles of running, 157 miles of biking, 3.5 miles of swimming
May: 78 miles of running, 276 miles of biking, 5.5 miles of swimming
June: 164 miles of running, 234 miles of biking, 4.5 miles of swimming

Thing is, I felt ready because most of my running in the past two months had been high intensity -  a a lot of tempo runs and some interval training, which was quite a first for me, particularly in such a structured and consistent manner. None of my long runs had been longer than 2h40, but these had usually been preceded the day before by an intense 1h30 workout – not to mention that I really felt that the biking, as much as I couldn’t get used to it, had really boosted my overall endurance.

But in any case these are just figures and rationality thought. The decision to compete would be irrational and emotional. On the one hand I felt like I had nothing to lose since on paper I was not prepared so who could fault me for not finishing? However, that’s a rather pathetic mind set for an ultra, and besides I had DNFed my last two major ultras and I knew that mentally I would have a hard time getting over it.

It didn’t take me long to accept, however. I loved the whole idea of it, the sense of improvisation and just taking life as it comes. My plans for the 100-miler had gone out the window due to injury, how could I not accept this new lesson simply to accept things and not always try to plan, plan, plan. It reminded me of my participation in my first Marathon des Sables in 2000, only a year after picking up running, and with only a marathon in November 1999 under my belt before the event (4h38mn!) in which I pinched my sciatic nerve and couldn’t train until early February 2000.

And I knew I couldn’t DNF. I recaptured my “quitting isn’t an option” mind set. I’d gotten rid of my guilt trips at being away from home. I felt ready and, above all, excited.

It all falls into place

In Spain I found some anti-chafing cream to prep my feet, but apart from that I had to wing it. I did some running of course, and it was all fun along the beach. I found a room about a 12-minute drive from the starting point for the evening/night before, and when I got home I bought a new power-breakfast mix that didn’t require cooking and could be eating 30mn before the race – important when the start is at 4am.

The heatwave we’d been experiencing for the past few weeks didn’t seem to show any signs of abating. It was 97°F the day before and the temperature didn’t seem to drop off at night when I got to bed at 7pm (and no air conditioning). I probably didn’t really get to sleep until 10-11pm, as I did some reading and TV-watching with some bouts of dropping off, and was awake despite my best intentions before 2am. Still, I’d slept well the nights before (contrary to UT4M) and I considered this quite well rested for a pre-race night and such an early start.

I started at the back but quickly passed a few people on the 2-mile paved approach to the first climb. Not a huge number of people – I don’t go out too fast, but neither do I slow down as much as I probably should be maintain a more consistent pace over the race… The first climb is massive (and fortunately the longest): almost 5’000 feet in 6 miles, quickly followed by another thousand feet. Mentally actually not that bad I found as it levelled off briefly every thousand feet or so which gave some respite.

The heat was a bit stifling for 4am (23°C/74°F) as we started the climb. But as dawn broke and we realized that the sky was actually cloudy and now, above 6’000 feet, the weather had cooled considerably.

This climb and the vaguely flat single track that followed would be pretty much the easiest part of the race. But it was still rocky and gnarly and I kept twisting my ankles. This reminded me why I wanted to go back to road running! After very technical sections of the UT4M, I’d thought “no more!” Why I thought the Beaufortain would be a good idea. I think I was blinded by the distance and elevation which seemed the ideal challenge last year… And the scenery: and this, certainly was not disappointing! More incredible than anything I’d seen on other alpine races.

But inevitably in this first descent another ankle twist made me drop on my left knee, slamming the shins into the rocks. Nice and bloody, but at least the pain of impact subsided after a few seconds and there didn’t seem to be any lasting damage.

I arrived at the first check point at Les Arolles in 3h44. As I was hoping (rather than actually aiming) for a 20-24 hour finish, I was expecting to come in between 3h15 and 4h, so I was smack in the middle. I didn’t spend too much time here and headed off after topping up the water in my bottles (but not the back pouch since the weather was cooler than expected). At this point I was in 274th place (bib number 274!), and this wouldn’t change much for the rest of the race – I would just slip further and further to the back as more and more people dropped out.