Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ultra Tour du Léman race review: my first attempt at a 100-mile road run

I first became aware the UTL when driving to Lausanne from Geneva with the family. We’d stopped to get gas just outside Geneva and I saw a guy run by with a race bib. On our return a few hours later, I saw several more runners with race bibs. A quick check on the internet revealed a Facebook page highlighting this first edition, organized by Jean-Luc Ridet, a veteran runner of the Marathon des Sables, UTMB, Badwater, Spartathlon, Nove Colli, Transgaule and several other extreme ultras. I contacted Jean-Luc, and the following year I volunteered to help out. That experience confirmed my opinion that I would never compete in a 100-mile (actually 175km, or 110 miles) road race, particularly one on a course that I knew by heart and passed right in front of my home. However, I loved the atmosphere, and the contact with all these ultra grizzlies who made my own 15-year running experience seem positively pastoral in comparison.

Two years later, however, faced with prolonged unemployment and the nature of ultra running being what it is, I found myself signing up for the race with some anticipation. This lingering idea of competing in the GUCR had something to do with it, but also by now I was really searching for small, low-key races far from the madding crowds of the French mountain races where everyone seems to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis, dressed as if they’d just stepped out of Trail Running magazine. The clincher was also the fact that I now wanted to get out of my comfort zone, attempt something that would strike fear in me – not just the distance, but doing so on road and well-known turf. Finally I wanted a change of pace, so to speak – to run, or at least try to for as long as possible, rather than hike up and down mountains, particularly since I was battling inner fears of falling on descents. Oh, and I forgot to mention the medal – at these high-browed trail races trying to distance themselves from roads, all you get for your pain is a bloody t-shirt! I’ll admit, my name is Eric and I like race medals (even if they’re stuffed in shoe box in my cupboard and only my kids like to look at them).

Most participants arrived at Villeneuve, at the opposite end of Lake Léman from Geneva, between 4-5pm on Friday. The idea was have everyone camp out in the county gym the night before. For the first time I could look out at the surrounding mountains knowing that I wouldn’t have to climb them. The weather, however, was not promising. Most of my races over the years had been in very fair weather – apart from the infamous CCC in 2010 and TDS in 2012 – so now I was playing catch-up. First with the Swiss Irontrail five weeks ago, now here with the expectation of rain after several weeks of warm, sunny weather (and a few more weeks after the race that would prove also to be unseasonably warm). That, however, would be a blessing in disguise. Road running in the rain is nothing like similar weather in the mountains. No change of temperature, for one thing; and a rain-proof jacket is really all that is required. No need for change of clothes, gloves, hat, rain-proof trousers… And a sight better than running in 30°C temperatures.

At 6pm, all 50 of us gathered in the small wooden bleachers to listen to Jean-Luc’s race briefing. It was great. He knew most of us, and ran down the race numbers giving funny accounts of each of our running “accomplishments”. A few were tackling this distance for the first time, but even they were usually coming off 100km races where they’d posted enviable times (for me). But most were multi-ultra veterans that had finished some of the toughest and longest footraces on the planet. But no-one was sporting a race shirt, and everyone was really friendly.

Then we all gathered for a pasta dinner, served by the volunteers as if we were stars. I sat next to a US expat, Stephanie, who had failed at two attempts at mountain runs this year and, like me, wanted to go flat. That would turn out to be a good choice for her, as she would have a great run the next day finishing in 24 hours. I also sat opposite a Danish runner, Claus, who was competing in sandals! Said that it kept his feet pleasantly aired and prevented blisters. He’d been running in Vibrams for many years, had finished Spartathlon, several 24-hour track races, and 70 miles of Badwater in sandals, so for him he was a case of “this is easier than running in shoes”. I felt a bit less lonely the next day when I realized that most other competitors, like me, were running Hokas. Claus, Stephanie and I shared some race stories – mainly Claus – and when I said that I was planning on doing something else next year that I never thought I would – a 12-hour timed race around a 1-mile track, in Villeneuve (also organized by Jean-Luc), he said: “Why 12 hours, not 24?” Well, I’m doing it for the mental training, but since I’m afraid that even 12-hours will test my ability not to go stark, raving mad, it seemed silly to jump right into a 24-hour race. His response? “But… that’s like doing a half-marathon rather than the full!” Yes, well, each is own and all that. Only in this company would I get that reaction.

Running in sandals... Not something I foresee doing!
Anyway, so we took off the next day after a communal breakfast at 7am, in the rain, as expected (though apparently it was supposed to taper off by noon). The first five miles were a wonderful stroll along a towpath till we reached the departmental road that runs along the lake – one that was very familiar to me as we drive along it with the family to and from the mountains many weekends per year.
Now, being so familiar with the course, I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, or for it to be such a discovery at moments. I had expected having to struggle with running on a road with no pavement and a lot of cars, but not only wasn’t it that bad or that often relative to the whole thing, it was also part of the “urban experience” I was looking for after all these years on the trails. It was an integral part of what made this a completely new experience, even though I was presumably in familiar territory.
However, my form was not great. Legs started aching at mile14. I realized that 5-6 weeks since covering 137km with 7’300m of elevation in 42 hours was not enough recovery time for me. Oh, well. I started to slow down. Then I felt a really rough hot spot on my soles – I stopped to change socks and add Nok (like sudacrem) – and realized they there were all white and wringly from getting wet in the rain and the wet grass I had to traipse through when avoiding car rushing towards me. Go figure, 16 hours in the rain in the mountains hiking through mud and rivers with nary a problem, and here, impending blisters after 5 hours on the road. Certainly a journey of discovery…
I was mostly on my own for the first 40 miles, apart from playing leap-frog with a US expat, but then another, quite strong runner who had been averaging slightly more than 8km/h since the beginning caught up with me, as I had dropped from just under 10km/h to about 8km/h. I spent about an hour with my fellow competitor – it felt like the Tour de France as he was accompanied by not one but two friends on a bike, who rotated out of a minivan! – before he pulled ahead just before we entered Switzerland in Hermance.
Another race in the rain...

A few miles later, I was sitting in my parents-in-law’s living room, eating cheese and drinking a Monster energy drink while chatting with my wife. Very surreal. Never has she accompanied me on an ultra, so we have never spent time together with me in the parallel state of ultra-running, and doing so in the comfort of this living room was very strange. But I manage to get my pack redone, change my clothes, eat and be on my way within 30 minutes as anticipated. Thankfully also her parents had ibuprofen since my left leg was really starting to act up, and was expecting to meet up with my friend Cyril on a bike just by the lake in a few miles, otherwise it might have been difficult to get going. But I knew this could be a double-edged sword, so I enjoyed the comfort, had no thoughts of stopping, and got going in relatively high spirits.
As I emerged, a car was parked just outside my in-law’s garden gate that fronted the road. It was assistance for one of the runners, who was sitting on the rear fender having a rest and some food. I said a quick “hello” and headed off… only to turn back after 100 meters realizing that I’d left my water bottles at my in-laws!
Back on the road, in very familiar territory, as I shuffled past the town hall where I was married in Collonges-Bellerive. My left knee started acting up something horrible, so I stopped to pop an ibuprofen, which took about 10 minutes because I couldn’t find it. I was only a mile from my in-laws but no way was I heading back. I was just about to call my wife to come drive it to me, when I found it.

A few minutes later, as I shuffled up the mild hill leading to Vésenaz where I live, all the pain and fatigue ebbed off drastically (ibuprofen + Monster energy drink! So magic potion as at the Swiss Irontrail – though I knew I wouldn’t be taking another pill for at least 6-8 hours, if ever—I cared too much about my kidneys!), making me feel like a million bucks. After Vésenaz, there’s a downhill ramp to the lake, which usually marks the start of most of my road runs, then we run along the lake all the way to the Mont Blanc bridge, before crossing and heading back to Villeneuve—at that point still 90km away (the lake being a crescent shape, the Swiss side that we return along is longer, so Geneva doesn’t actually mark the half-way point, doh).
I jogged it all at a decent pace, around 9.5km/h, for almost 10km till the next food station at Bellevue.
It was bliss, made even better by the fact that I was joined with Cyril on his town bike loaded with food, drinks and clothes. I leap-frogged a few times with Paula, an experienced Italian runner who I think was struggling a bit but maintained a beautiful smile nonetheless. We chatted a bit, but I think she sensed that, in some ways, she was breaking up my tandem with Cyril. I felt a bit guilty, but then she gradually distanced me until I could no longer see her, so in the end probably she was in any case moving faster than I was and had I been alone, she would’ve have let me alone at some point anyway.
The food station at Bellevue was—as all the food stations—wonderfully stocked with an assortment of savory and salty foods: eggs, ham, cheese, bread, crackers, cake, candy – and noodle soup! Ooh, and coffee.

I didn’t dally too long but it was enough to take the wind out of my sails, or perhaps in any case the “purple spot” I’d been experiencing since Vésenaz would have ended at that point anyway. I’d covered just under 90km now in just over 12 hours, and I thought I might actually beat my best 100km time from last year at Millau (13h38mn) but it was not to be. The route after Bellevue to Coppet has several mild inclines that I had to walk, my interspersed jogging was more and more interspersed and slowing down, and even the walk was starting to fall below a pedestrian 4km/h. It took me about two hours to cover the next 10km. Part of that was due to a very pleasant stop overlooking the lake just before Nyon when I had a Pata Negra sandwich (dried ham from Andalousia—I’d been dying for this at the Swiss Irontrail, but didn’t trust leaving food, even dried ham, in a drop bag for over 24 hours, and hadn’t thought to ask Anthony at the time). The rain had abated by now—actually it had relented a while ago, and I realized that it really hadn’t bothered me in the least. My jacket had kept me dry, unlike at the Swiss Irontrail, and I hadn’t suffered at all from the cold. I merely switched off my T-shirt for a long-sleeve shirt on the outskirts of Geneva, and then donned a sweater as my pace slowed and the night cooled.
Despite knowing Cyril for 26 years and run more than a dozen ultras together (including the MdS), we never ran out of things to talk about. On this stretch we recalled a very hot 34km run from Geneva to Nyon and back when we were training for the MdS in mid-summer. I thought how far I’d come since then, though I was ten years older: still feeling ok after 110km—well, at least no thoughts of dropping out yet, and still feeling comfortable with the cut-offs—a mere six weeks after my 42-hour Swiss Irontrail attempt.
Unfortunately, it was the start of my decline. I had a temporary reprieve when I arrived at the next check point at Gland, since I’d expected it much later, and finding out that the 6th check point in St. Prex was a mere 18km further down the road, rather than the 22km I’d expected (no, I don’t really recon the routes much; this was really just a case of following the lake, or, as Jean-Luc had said about finding our way at night: “Lights on the left: bad; no lights on the right: lake, good”). Of course this meant that between St. Prex and the last check point in Cully at 155km was further than the others. How far, the volunteers wouldn’t say (“oh, we don’t want to get it wrong”, “not exactly sure”, and my favorite: “don’t worry about that now”), which told me everything I needed to know: it was far. Their technique didn’t work, however: though I should’ve focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and the next immediate check point, I did start to get demoralized.
However, I did get a blister treated for the first time (a long, thin blister running from between my big toe and the one next to it (does it have a name?) to the knob of my big toe. I usually don’t get blisters, and the few I have gotten, I’ve managed to treat myself (well, at Millau at least; at the MdS, Cyril was kind enough to help out). I think it’s the road running. All that shuffling on asphalt makes the foot land in the same place again and again. Mountains are strangely much kinder, since I managed over 12 hours with wet feet at the Swiss Irontrail and no blisters.

Anyway… After Gland I really went downhill. My spirits were high and it was fun being with Cyril on his bike in the middle of the night on the quiet roads and towns of Switzerland, but my legs were giving out. Six weeks after previously doing 137km was evidently not enough for my level of training.
There’s the saying, “Run if you can, walk if you can’t, crawl if you have to”, or some version thereof. That’s where I was at: definitely walking and heading towards the crawl. It’s not that my muscles hurt—I’m used to that—it was something new: they were starting to no longer actually function and allow me to keep moving. I lay down on a park bench for a few moments’ respite; I remember lying down with my legs up against a building wall to try and get the blood flowing: nothing worked for very long.
But I was ready to grind it out. Sure, I had a business trip to London in three days and it would be better to finish early Sunday morning and have an extra day’s sleep and rest that arrive early afternoon—but I was ok with that; I know I’d survive the business trip somehow (and probably better if I finished than if I quit too soon). Sure, I bounced mentally between believing that, really, now I couldn’t continue any longer to saying “let’s at least make it to Lausanne and we can always catch a train there”, to pushing ahead and even attempting a few running paces…

Morale was generally high, and I remember a perfectly fun moment when we arrived at a roundabout to discover to police cars waiting in ambush for any late night reveler; the cops offered me a ride, I pointed out the obvious and said I’d be disqualified, they laughed. I realized how young the four of them were and how much older I now was.
Cyril and I got very temporarily lost trying to locate St Prex. I only noticed the (very, very) small arrows that Jean-Luc had stuck (probably a few years ago at the first edition of the race) on lampposts because I remember turning off the main cantonal road with Anthony when we biked to Morges and back in preparation for the Vichy Ironman (my only long bike ride…). A few kilometers later, Cyril and I then avoided the obvious and headed uphill and away from the lake, before coming to our senses and heading back down towards the lake.
I was really appreciating my surroundings along a road that I had never travelled along before, when we arrived at the St Prex food station. It looked like they were ready to close up, and the first thing I said was: “Am I last?” They told me I wasn’t, which did little to lift my belief that I could finish this thing, and then said a group of three were only ten minutes ahead of me and looked the worse for wear—and that did boost my confidence for about two minutes. I realized I looked good because I felt good, endurance-wise, but my legs weren’t cooperating. I asked them about stopping, what would happen to Cyril and his bike, how I would return to Villeneuve—and basically they were very evasive, borderline rude, and pretty much ignored me.
I realize now, of course, that it was the perfect response to anyone talking about quitting. And it worked: I got up out of the chair and stumbled off.
But really now I was in the “crawl” zone. I realized that the speed at which I was now travelling would not get me to Villeneuve or even Cully under the cut-offs. Then I just ignored that and told myself to press on till Lausanne at least, then I visualized the very kind volunteer Rafaelle, who said she’d be expecting me in Cully and I imagined the finish (and the medal)…
I was pretty much in that state of mind when I literally ground to a halt on the outskirts of Morges. I had run, I had walked and I was now crawling. With five kilometers remaining, which would probably have taken me 2½ hours, I would have crawled. Perhaps even 10km. But not another 45km.
I called it in.

A DNF I’m ok with

Often we engage in ultra marathons with the idea of “finding our limits”, only often to discover that they can almost always be pushed back, depending on how much we want it (and how far we want to go). But there are limits, to some degree dependent on innate physical ability, and largely also dependent on training, I realize. Either in terms of time (speed) or distance. It’s the mental limits, actually, that we seek to push back.
I didn’t reach that in this race, as well as in the Swiss Irontrail. I felt mentally strong. Sleep deprivation and speed were my nemesis in the SIT; lack of specific training and fatigue from the SIT (and speed) prevented me from finishing the Ultra Tour du Léman. Just as a couch potato can’t conceivably run a marathon in six hours no matter how strong is mental will is, just as a friend of mine who trained for a marathon in six weeks, finished in just under six hours and couldn’t walk for six hours, would not have been able to complete a 100km race – well, I couldn’t complete a 100-mile road race in my condition.
So I’ve found my limits twice this year, and I learned so much from that experience. I’ve learned that I can reach them end of them, provided I do the right training (and always without sacrificing unduly my family life), and I intend to do so. I’ll be back to both these races, and I know that if I finish them, I will be able to finish anything.
That’s the experience and answer I’m looking for.

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