Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Race report: Défi des Balcons d'Azur

This has been planned for many months now - a two-day spring race in the South of France, in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean: 15 miles and about 3'500 feet of elevation on Saturday afternoon, and 50 miles with about 10'000 feet of elevation on Sunday.
I was excited going into the race - having logged over 900km (just under 600 miles) since the beginning of the year, quite a bit more than I've ever done at this time of the year or even in a 4-month period, plus some speedwork, I was curious to see how that would translate into race efficiency.
I wasn't planning on going out fast, since I was with two friends, Cyril and Jérôme, recoving from recent injuries, and that suited me fine. We were aiming to stay just within the time barriers, which would give an average speed equivalent to that which I hoped to maintain for as long as possible at the Swiss Irontrail in August. So my hope was to feel relatively fresh at the end of the second day so that the prospect of another 100km did not feel impossible - and to jump back into training relatively quickly.

Things went more or less according to plan.

Cyril was actually cruising on the first day, I wouldn't have wanted to go much faster. The course was much as I expected, with a few sharp hills but rather short, some longer, gentler inclines, a mix of single track and gravel roads where it was possible to run at a nice clip downhill - and all with incredible views of the sea, a deep blue set against the olive green of the trees and the red ocre of the soil.

We finished the first day in just under 3h45mn, ranking 75th out of 100 (yes, small races, LOVE 'EM!), then tucked into the most disgustingly satisfying post-race meal I have ever had: steak tartare pizza!

Then it was up again at 4.15am the following morning, backpacks repacked, and we headed the departure only 100 yards away since we'd rented a boat in the harbour via Airbnb - perfect accommodations - just 30 seconds before the 5am departure. Since it was late April, the first hour or so was in the dark with headlamps. But this first part was also along the same path as the previous day, so we sort of did it sleep walking, not quite awake yet. I was astonished at the general race speed: all it takes is for me to stop for a pee and we find ourselves at the back, where we will remain for most of the race.

Again, beautiful surroundings, but we do end up realizing that we are looping from one coast to the next of the penisula and it starts to get a bit monotonous, aside from the occasion "summit" that provides a panoramic view of the region. I write "summit" because one "peak" that we summitted was 91m (300ft) high. So again, mainly several short, 300-800 foot climbs made up the elevation, on manageable single-tracks and a few gravel roads - apart from one 5-mile section around the half-way point that was incredible technical and slowed us down considerably.

The time barriers were set at a 5.1km/h (3.2mph) average speed, and we'd been averaging about 20% faster than that. But this technical section really slowed us down and now at around mile 30, Cyril was starting to feel the pain and was struggling. For my part, the technical section actually took my mind to a better place than where it had been until then: at lot of internal doubt and grumbling. I felt ok, but for some reason I thought I should feel better, fresh as a daisy. In hindsight I realize that I've never felt so consistently strong in a race, but for some reason I was expecting it to feel like a stroll in the park - it is a 50-miler, and even a a relatively slow speed that's never going to be a stroll in the park.

Anyway, after the technical section we had to speed things up again and that's when I realized that I still had legs and actually felt really good. Cyril wasn't as convinced that we were bumping up against the time barriers and we got in a bit of a spat, with me charging off since I did want to at least finish the race. Jérôme was right behind me, but I though we'd lost Cyril - but no, lo and behold he'd upped his pace (the guy's a machine, especially at the prospect of racing alone) and came into the next checkpoint barely 10 minutes behind us - just as we were about to leave. We'd gained some time on the time barrier so we waited for him to refuel, then we headed off again. Well, "refuel": the race is pretty, but the food is minimal at best...

We soon connected with the same route as yesterday and new there would be no more surprises. But we did have to sustain a constant pace, with some running on flats and downhills (which Cyril cursed us for, but thanked us also as we managed to finish the race, coming in 15mn before the final time barrier (though in all fairness to Cyril, they didn't seem too strict about them), with the arrival along the ramparts of a fake-old castle (the whim of a wealthy American built in the 1920s) and then the beach, just as night was falling at 8pm.

I was knackered and happy to arrive, but knew that if the race was longer, I could keep going. I rested for a week, completely for 3 days, just some light walking; a short bike ride on the following Thursday and a 3-mile run on the Saturday. Then I did some speedwork on the Monday, and two short runs (5 miles and 2 miles) on Thursday and Saturday, before running the Geneva Marathon on the Sunday in 3h45, beating my previous best time by 7mn. So mission accomplished basically - and very happy with the base training in Jan-Feb-March and slow injection of speed work since mid-March...

With the GE marathon behind me, another light week and then it's two months of high volume and elevation before the Swiss Irontrail in August...

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