Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A hopeful return to running

First run in just over two months this morning, woo-hoo! Well, I won’t celebrate too soon, since the stress fracture I experienced was (is?) on the sesamoid just below the big toe, which apparently makes it one of the more troubling injuries to have (one website even said that it can compromise running permanently, but I’ll ignore that one). The only thing the doctor prescribed was no running (obviously), in fact nothing that puts pressure on the foot, which includes elliptical or step machines, and actually he suggested crutches. That just seemed silly - walking to the gym in crutches?! - but I'm wondering now if I shouldn't have done it anyway for a few weeks...

Still, I haven’t been idle exercise-wise. Two weeks of low intensity cross-training (mainly stationary bike at the new gym I joined, just a minute from the office – good thing I joined!) after two weeks of doing absolutely nothing post Ultra Tour du Léman. Then I eased into some high-intensity interval training on the rowing machine and stationary bike, with a sequence of weight training to strengthen the legs and upper body. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and definitely good in view of staying injury free next year.

Combine that with the fact that I believe I have now definitively ended my pack-a-week smoking habit, and am starting on a 5-week high protein low carb diet to try and shed those every 5-6 kg I’ve been carrying around, and I’m hoping that I may actually come back to running stronger – and faster.

That’s key since I have these two speed-related goals next year: a Boston qualifying time at the Geneva marathon (3h25, 3h20 would be ideal), and a sub-11h at the 100km Bienne (actually a double-secret goal of sub-10h, but I’ll take sub-11…).

So this morning I did 10mn on the treadmill at 5’36” (target pace for the 100km – never too early to start integrating specific race pace). A few niggles and twitches, but the main test will be tomorrow morning when I wake up and put my foot on the ground, and Thursday when I try running again.

Anyway, the 2-month break has been refreshing and actually quite a welcome break. but now I’m really ready to get back into the swing of things.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A (very different) start to a new season

After 2016, where I tackled new challenges and learned a lot but fell short, 2017 has been highly satisfying. Two successfull finishes at two tough races, both actually surpassing my previous longest distance of 168km (though that was in the sand and desert, and longer time-wise at 42h...), not to mention a whole new experience with the 12h timed race in Villeneuve: I am very happy camper.
So now after a month's R&R, a new season starts as I look to 2018. Again, I would like slightly different challenges, which I need to work around a big family holidy planned for August. So I've split the year in two:
  1. Jan-June: build on all the work I did this year in road running to try and a) set a real PB in marathon, ultimately at BQ time, which would mean 3h25 (or 3h20 to be sure of a spot); and b) aim for a best time at the 100km Bienne early June (60th anniversary!) - again, seeing  how close I can get to a Spartathlon-qualifing time of 10h... Spartathlon is like my Holy Grail: perhaps inaccessible, but just the quest to qualify takes me down fascinating roads...
  2. After June: back to the mountains after 18 months, definitely with the LG Trail (Lausanne-Geneva via the Jura mountains) which I plan on running with my good friend Cyril; and possibly end August the Échappée Belle, a 144km trail with 11,000 meters of elevation. It takes place outside Grenoble in the wild Belledone mountain range which I didn't get to see on my aborted UT4M attempt in 2014. If I finish, it will not only be my longest trail run but also, because of the elevation and highly technical nature of the race (some parts are not just off-road but even "off-trail"!), could be my longest race time-wise to date - currently 45h47mn at the Swiss Irontrail. Though I'm not hell-bent on extending race time into a second sleepless night...
What I think will be interesting will be to see how speedwork for a road ultra will translate into better fitness and time on a trail run. Because that will be my focus for next year.
However, current plans to return to running end October and start on an 8-week "speed increase" plan have been totally derailed since learning that the pain in my right foot, which I had put down to plantar fasciitis, is actually a stress fracture! Which explains why it appeared only a few weeks after the GUCR when I started running again, and again after the UTL (though how a stress fracture didn't bother me during the UTL is beyond my comprehension - but I'll take it! Just happy I didn't go to the doc's before the race, because no way would have tackled 110 miles knowing I had a stress fracture. Apparently "fracture" is a misnomer, it's some form of inflammation in the bone, but still - there word is there...)
I guess the good new is, from what I've read, is that a "fracture", once healed, is good to go, whereas plantar fasciitis can be a real pain for a long time.
So I'm being quite zen about it. I've signed up to a gym that's 30 seconds from work, and I'm planning on doing quite a bit of high-intensity stationary biking and strength training. The key is mainly not to lose the habit of exercising. But I think this could be a good thing and ultimately make me a stronger runner; certainly I'd like to think that several weeks of strength training (which I've always wanted to do), which I'll keep doing when I slowly ease back into running (hopefully in December), will help prevent injuries next year. And finally, it'll be a good mental break, and I'm sure I'll return to running with renewed hunger and energy.
So that's the start to the new season: biking and strength training, ease back into running in December, and in January do my planned 8-week speed-training program...

Friday, October 13, 2017

The mysticism of ultra running

The term "higher power" does not impose any belief system. Believing in one does not even have to imply belief in a creative principle at work in the universe. It can quite simply mean recognizing the fact that there are forces at work over which we have no control - and when faced with them, we must let go. That is the path to peace of mind: accepting that we are connected to each other and the forces in the universe in ways that we do not understand, and not drive ourselves crazy trying to control that which we have no control over, including one another. Running very long distances has helped me understand this, and practice it to some degree.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, accidents or pandemics are obvious examples of events beyond our control, but there are also daily occurrences in our lives – traffic, an inopportune phone call, a ??? – which we would do best to let go. Relationships are another example. There are elements in a relationship where we can play an active part in making sure that the relationship goes well; and then there are aspects of a person's personality or their emotions, that we just have to accept - through better understanding, by looking at things from their perspective, by not trying to change them. Differentiating between those aspects we should accept and others over which we may exert some control, is the difficult part. Mainly it is "us and them": change myself, accept others.

This is, of course, an ideal that may never be reached but should consistently be attempted. There is no "finish line" but what matters is the journey. In that respect, I believe that one lesson ultra running is excellent at imparting is helping to identify those moments when we should just let go. It teaches us that our ego and our need to control are getting in the way of peace, serenity, acceptance. When you are suffering from hours and hours of running and lack of sleep and adequate nutrition – and quitting is ever more tempting – you have to figure what can be done to keep moving but sometimes you just have to accept the pain and keep moving on to the finish. When that happens, when you give in to the suffering and accept it as part of the ultra experience - that's when you realize what the body and mind are capable of, and the sense of peace that comes with no longer punishing yourself for something you can't control makes the ultra experience a quasi-mystical one.

Of course, there's the real danger that ultra running can turn someone into a self-centered narcissist. Read the early pages of Marshall Ulrich Running on Empty, when he leaves his wife who is dying of cancer to go running though she is begging him not to... When running becomes paramount, when we squeeze in that planned "crucial" training run at the expense of the family, despite requests not to do so, because some huge challenge looming ahead is all we can think or talk about, and if we don't do that run, oh my God, the whole race is compromised, if we stop not just listening to others but not even hearing them because nothing is as interesting as our running: then ultra running has gone from mystical to dogmatic.

But if you ultra running stays an experience, and is given its just place - not more, no less - then it provides a sense of perspective and fortitude in the face of the unexpected twists and turns of life. "Life is what happens when you're making other plans" sang John Lennon (or something to that effect) - and in ultras, nothing ever really goes according to the best-laid plans. So you adjust and accept, and in doing really connect with that "higher power".

A very powerful experience.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

CHALLENGE ROTH : an ironman-distance triathlon experienced from the outside

Spectacular! That’s the best adjective to describe Challenge Roth – spectacular in the sense of how awe-inspiring the event is in its organization and display of endurance athletics, and spectacular in the sense of being a true (and huge) show. Compared to most sporting events I’ve competed in, in terms of "visuals", Roth is like the original Star Trek series to Game of Thrones... (No offense to Star Trek fans – I love the series too, just like I love low-key races.)

So this was back in early July, and I was there to accompany my friend Anthony, who I can thank for introducing me to the world of triathlons by encouraging me to participate at Alpe d’Huez in 2013 and then Ironman Vichy in 2015. He had crewed for me at the Swiss Irontrail and at the GUCR, and I was really excited to share this new experience with him, help him out as best I could (a little less allowance for roadside assistance in triathlons than at the GUCR, but still), and witness a tough endurance event from the outside.

And tough it is. Having competed in Ironman-distance triathlon and now witnessed another, I am firmly convinced that it can qualify as the toughest single-day (i.e. 10-16 hours) endurance event out there, for two specific reasons: the training commitment required to toe the line with decent expectations, and the intensity of the effort engaged to complete it.

Elite ultra running coach Jason Koop says that to have a good chance of finishing a 100-mile (160km) footrace, you should train for at least 9 hours/week for 6 out of the last 9 weeks (so before a 3-week taper). And that works. But I’m quite sure that the average weekly training load for the average triathlete when they’re just starting out their plan, six months from an Ironman distance event, before reaching 14, 16 or more hours per.

That takes a lot of energy and dedication (and lack of sleep), so just getting to the starting line of an ironman is a feat of endurance in itself – especially when, like my friend Andrew, you started a new job in a high-powered environment four months before and would still like to be living with your wife and two young kids when the whole thing is over.

Then with regards to the effort exacted by competing in a long distance triathlon, though it is comparable time-wise to a 100k road race for example, I don’t think it’s comparable intensity-wise (again, for the average competitor). I doubt that I am the only to “slack off” in an ultra when the going gets a bit tough, gab with my wife or a friend on the phone, and rest up at a checkpoint stuffing myself with food, fixing my feet or getting a massage. Haven’t noticed much of that in an ironman. In fact, I think most participants are competing as if constantly up against a time barrier; it’s like keeping up marathon intensity but for a whole day. At least that was my experience at Vichy and it is what I found most mentally tough. I felt drained after that in ways I have rarely felt after an ultra.

So anyway, back to the start of Roth. Actually the race started about 20km out along the Main-Donau canal, just outside Hipolstein – and already at 6am (the first wave departed at 6.30am) crowds were lining the river banks along at least a kilometer stretch. And there was no real point in trying to find a spot near the swim launch pad, the crowd was five rows deep. Music was blaring – ok, eighties hard rock stadium favorites (Bon Jovi, Survivor, Queen), but as I’ve mentioned, that’s what it’s all about. And it does get your heart racing. I certainly was getting chills.

Anthony was admittedly a bit subdued as we parted ways and he headed for the transition area to check on his bike and put on his wetsuit (for a 7.25am). He told me later he was having a hard time getting his head in the race. I went up on the bridge to watch but even that was packed! So I headed back down along the bank – due to a curve in the river, I couldn’t actually see the departure, but like the others around me, I was just waiting for the first swimmers to make their way around the buoys towards us, before they turned back towards the swim finish – about 40mn after the first wave. A loud gun shot went off every ten minutes as each wave departed, with almost non-stop commentary from someone who must have a day-job as radio DJ.

Eventually I left to scope out the next sighting area, which was at 70km on the bike route, but due to the nature of the course it was actually only a 3km from the transition area at the (in)famous Solarer Berg.

No way was I going to see Anthony in that crowd so I headed about a kilometer up to where the food station was and decided that was where I would position myself (we’d also agreed on that in case I needed to give him some food he had left with me, or if he needed to unload some stuff). Recon done, I jogged back to the transition area (the two back-and-forths would give me a nice log for my own training!) to try and see if I could catch Anthony coming out of the water. It was 8.30am so I figured I had a bit of time.


He did come out in 1h25, but I didn’t see him! But by 9am, figuring that I had in fact missed him, or he had actually quit during the swim (which I considered highly unlikely, but apparently he did have a moment of doubt at one point), I jogged to Solarer Berg, then went up the hill for about 500 meters, away from the crowds that I think would rival even the most fanatic at the Tour de France…

…and stood at the roadside opposite the refreshment stand. It took about 45mn before he showed up, during which time I gained an even deeper appreciation for the volunteers and their thankless task. At least at an ultra marathon, they generally get to chat with all except the fastest (or surliest) competitors, but here everyone was cruising by on their bikes, hands outstretched to grab a bottle or gel on the fly.

A few stopped at the stands to change bottles or take a breather, which is what Anthony did so we could exchange a few words. He didn’t seem in the best of states, morale-wise, only slowly emerging from a dark spot that had lasted since the swim through about 50km of the bike ride. He mentioned some niggles and how he was finding this a real challenge, so I sort of ignored the faint undertones of negativity – it wouldn’t have done him much good anyway to focus on the bad stuff, since in any case he had to get on with things, and he was starting to do that – and just told him he was making good time (which he was), and was looking good (which he was), and told him I’d meet him at Greding just past the 120km.

I jogged back to the car through the crowds, and while the top bikers were already cruising past the start line for their 2nd loop, the last competitors were heading out from the swim onto the bike course. There were still hundreds of people milling around, and it must of felt good for those in the back to have that kind of support.

I hopped in Anthony’s car and drove for about 20mn to Greding (I always find it fascinating to realize, cruising on the German Autobahn at 130kph, that the competitors will have to cover this distance and much more by bike). It’s at Greding when I took stock of how tough this course was, since the food point was situated at the top of steep hill, and while it’s not the distance of the Alpe d’Huez climb, a half-dozen of those on the course (which means a full dozen total for two loops) can really kill your legs…

As a spectator, however, the view point was bliss. A few food stands and – oh rapture, oh joy! – non-alcoholic Weissbier from the brand sponsoring the event. I was in heaven…

Anthony came powering up the hill about 20mn later, and considering the incline I was able to jog beside him for half a minute or so. He looked a bit drained but otherwise good, happy I think to be on the backend of the bike course. He commented on the toughness of the course, and I used that to point out how well he was doing – not far off his Vichy time, on a tougher course and with similar heat. Yep, it was hot out, over 30°C, and humid.

I left Anthony to refill on isotonic drink, while I went back for another Weissbier…


Getting to Roth for the run course was the main difficulty of the day. Or more precisely, finding a parking space. Access to the small town was cordoned off completely within 300 meters, since the run course looped back and forth through the town. I kept being diverted by “detour” signs, unable to find a parking spot, till I just maneuvered around a road block and into a supermarket parking lot.

Once I found the run course, I couldn’t understand which way it went, since people were running in both directions, and where I should go. I chose a direction but soon found myself heading towards a wooded area, which meant I was probably heading away from Roth. I wanted to position myself at around the 10km mark, and could find that on the race course map – but I didn’t know where I was on the map.

Finally I found someone who was able to point me in the right direction, and it meant weaving my way to other side of the small town of Roth. The atmosphere was amazing – the main drag was cordoned off for the runner, and the sidewalks were packed with people milling around, while restaurants all hand tables and benches out, with sausage and pretzel stands, and everyone having a great time cheering the runners on. Loudspeakers had been set up along the course and the music was ubiquitous.

When I realized that I was on the opposite side of town to the finish, I went back to get the car, loop all the way around Roth, before finding a spot in a garage lot about half-mile from the finish. I grabbed my backpack, jogged to the 10k mark, and found myself there just in time – and almost perfect assessment of Anthony’s pace (around 10.5km/h) as he appeared 5-10mn later (yeh to me!). He seemed in a better place, sweating like crazy in the heat, and I jogged next to him for a few yards while he handed over a fistful of food he wasn’t going to eat and asked me for some gels he had left with (btw, I have to say that Anthony has an incredible tolerance for gels, scoffing 1 every 20mn for the full duration of his Vichy Ironman, which means 33 gels!)

I had been texting with his wife who was back in Zurich, and Anthony kids had been asking for pictures, but so far I had been unable to provide one. So I found a spot in the middle of town that doubled as the 20k/32k spot, and read a book until about 10mn before I figured Anthony would come through – and managed to snap a picture when I saw him arrive.

He was smiling but mumbled something about sore legs which I promptly ignored, gave him some rather bland words of encouragement (are there any other kind? – I know any encouragement is great when receiving it, but when giving it no words seem right, a bit like when you give your “condolences” – maybe because even if the runner is looking bad, you can’t tell them they look like shit, at the very least you tell them to “get over it” – anyway…).

I then eschewed a pretzel for an ice cream and settle for another hour’s wait before he passed through at 32km… This was actually the only real downtime I would have the entire day – and that’s because I was on a course that loops four times through a town! I knew crew members are a dedicated bunch, but now I really appreciated how busy it can be just trying to get from one spot to another. But it certainly wasn’t boring. And though it did rekindle a faint desire to do another triathlon, I was certainly happy to be the outsider that day!

Before Anthony came through at 32km – once again at a rock-solid consistent pace which made my own estimations so much easier – triathlon legend Chrissie Wellington came sweeping through. She was doing it as a relay, competing only in the running section. She had a huge smile on her face and just kept waving to people. That joy and humble pleasure that she exuded at just being there in the middle of the pack was really inspiring. A real shame, however, that she couldn’t have been a bit slower, or Anthony a tad faster, because he came past barely a few minutes after so I didn’t get a picture of them together!

After that I checked out the finish area – another massive show of merchandise stands and, of course, the stadium arrival – before returning to the 40km mark. When Anthony came past he didn’t even notice me until I was tapping on his shoulder – definite end-of-race fatigue! He was suffering quite a bit at this point, but perked up a bit when I told him the finish was real close now and he was making great time, only within 20mn of his Vichy time. He’d been running for a while with another guy and that had been helping him push through the suffering (which also might explain why he lost somewhat track of time and distance).

Then it was down a road into the finish area to wait a few minutes in the stand for unparalleled stadium finish that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to experience at least once in their life.

Good going Anthony! Swim time 1h25, bike time 6h08 (steep hills!) and run time 3h55, for a finish time with transitions of 11h37mn – bloody brilliant!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Ultra Tour du Léman (UTL) 2017 race review: a journey to the end of the night


The Ultra Tour of Léman holds a special place in my heart. First of all, there’s the fact of going around a lake that I’ve called home for 37 years - but the main reason is the atmosphere of this race that I love, “far from the madding crowd”. Every year, a great group of enthusiastic but low-key runners gather to experience this unique race, led by the organizer, Jean-Luc Ridet. I contacted him in 2013 when I saw one weekend a bunch of runners with backpacks and bibs running along the lake in Geneva. I volunteered the following year to help out, and I knew then that I had to do this race. As a result, 2015 became a test year with the 100km of Millau and in 2016 I participated in the UTL for the first time – stopping in Morges after 130km and 19h of running with the feeling that my legs were giving out. I figured it was in large part due to having done only six weeks before another race that I had been focusing on for a few years, the Swiss Irontrail - 201km with 11,000m of elevation (though I timed out at 140km after 42 hours) - and I had focused my training on the mountain running, figuring that transferring to road would not be a big deal! Ah, well, lesson learned...

So 2017, I trained almost exclusively on flat roads. A pain in my right foot in June/July forced me to reduce my training,but having finished the GUCR (233km) in May, I still felt fit and ready...

Friday evening I returned to the friendly family-like atmosphere of the UTL. A few well-known faces from the previous year and the 12h/24h Villeneuve race in April - Corrinne, Juan and Paola - and new encounters, such as Scott, an Australian expat from Nyon, Dylan, another expat from Lyon whose blog I’ve been following for a while, Sylvain from Brittany, Hélène from Dax in the Landes, and Ruthann, an Irish woman who had just in Nyon on a short-term work posting and figured, "Ah, there's a race around the lake, sounds nice!". She finished 2nd in less than 20h! Turns out she’s Ireland's 24-hour champion (225km)... We know, because Jean-Luc takes the trouble during the race briefing Friday night to present all the runners individually. There are some very impressive CVs, of course, with treadmill records, Transgaules, Transeuropes, Etoile Savoyarde, Spartathlons, UTMBs, Tor des Géants and others, but in the end it is the slightly wonky world of ultra-running that unites us all. There are quite a few of us with far more modest CVs, and some for whom this is the first attempt at a 100+ miles. Everyone is really supportive of one another.

And then there's the staff, the volunteers, incredible. As one of the competitors, René Lecacheur, wrote after the race: "THANK YOU for your presence, your dedication, your patience, your kindness, your smiles, your good humor, your availability, your little attentions to us, your pleasure to be there. Receive our gratitude for all your support in difficult conditions (night, cold, wind ... etc), but you are always there for us, always with a smile. So Thank you!".

After the briefing, communal dinner then off to bed. I slept well but woke up in a strange mental state, as if I did not quite realize that I was going to run 175km. The sole of my right foot hurt very slightly, but in the end it would turn out to be never more than a slight bother even after 29 hours of racing – so ultimately nothing to complain about (damn!).

Villeneuve – Lugrin – CP1 (22,5km)

We head off with cool weather at 7am to the sound of cow bells. Right away René charges ahead (he’s vice-world champion for longest distance on a treadmill in 24h - 247km! – didn’t even know that this kind of stuff existed!). He came to win, even break the record... He’s followed by a small group moving too fast for me - then there’s me, at about 9km/h as planned. And then behind me, a slightly slower group... So, only 10 minutes into the race, I find myself alone. And I’ll stay that way- almost without seeing anyone in front or behind - for nearly 15 hours of racing... Ah, for someone who doesn’t like crowds, I got what I came for! A new journey of inner discovery awaits…

This first section is going well. I already plug in to a little music, I set my pace, forcing myself to walk a minute or so every quarter of an hour. The first few kilometers are in a natural reserve along the lake between Villeneuve and Le Bouveret, then we cross the border into France. We’re right on the lake, the view is magnificent, with steep mountains on the left, and I feel very fortunate to be here.

I had estimated my time based the GUCR and arrived bang on schedule at the first checkpoint in 2h30. Quick coffee, a homemade wafer by the daughter of Raphaëlle, one of the loyal volunteers of the UTL, and I charge off - forgetting my water bottle! But no worries, I wanted to get rid of it anyway, and I have a pouch in the backpack. Raphaëlle says she’ll also be at the last CP7, and I tell her that this year I count on seeing her there!

Lugrin – Anthy-sur-Léman – CP2 (44km)

Things are going pretty smoothly. Things are getting rather more urban with cars zipping past, requiring to be quite focused when the sidewalk disappears. Then we turn off the main road into residential areas – very pretty! I was already quite pleasantly surprised last year to gain a new perspective of a region I thought I knew so well… I pass the marathon distance in less than 5 hours, much slower than last year when I took off too fast, and I arrive again on schedule in Anthy in 5:15. A few quick nibbles and I’m off. Can feel my legs now, but nothing out of the ordinary…

Anthy-sur-Léman – Chens-sur-Léman – CP3 (64km)

I spend a lot of time thinking about the race, about what I will write on my blog, and time just flies, it's great – I even have to force myself to slow down. Then, as can always happen in an ultra (and usually does several times), the tables flip and I find myself finding the time very looooong. Last year, too, I started to struggle mentally here. There are parts of the road without sidewalk but overall it is beautiful, as you pass through Excenevex, Yvoire, Messery. Yet I’ve got the blues... Which might explain why, when I arrive at the third checkpoint, I blab on and on to the volunteers about the fact that I will see my wife and my daughter soon since I pass within 100m of our house. The CP, which I hit again right on schedule at 3pm, moved one kilometer from Chens because there is a 10km race organized for this afternoon. That's nice.

Chens-sur-Léman – Bellevue – CP4 (87km)

After Chens we head vaguely downhill to Hermance and into Switzerland and very familiar territory. I had retrieved my lost water bottle in Chens, but realized that I had not only forgotten to fill the bottle but also my back pouch, what’s up with that? No worries, I come across a water fountain and fill up my pouch, figuring that the lack of a sign indicating that the water is (or is not) drinkable means that it is… Right? A few minutes later I'm not very sure ... Anyway, whether it's psychological or something else (running and eating randomly for more than 8 hours), I start to feel nauseous. So I pop a Motilium pill... But that doesn’t seem to work too well, so I eat some candied ginger – and that works wonders!

Around 4.15pm I pass in front of my mother-in-law’s house. Last year I stopped here more than half an hour to chat with my wife and eat some tasty stuff I’d left in my mother-in-law’s fridge. But it was a weird experience – I'm not used to having my wife follow me on my races – and I didn’t want to stop for such a long time outside an official checkpoint, so we’d agreed just to meet up briefly near our home. I’m glad I did: I feel much better than last year when I was already suffering from very tired legs and a sore knee, even though the nausea has already returned.

Just before I get to Collonge, a cyclist slows down to my level and asks me what I am up to, then he explains that he is doing the Ironman Barcelona in a few weeks and that he is on his last long bike ride, which he should follow with a run but he is really not motivated... Sorry dude, not sure what to tell you...

I pass my daughter's school and call my wife to let her know. 10mn later we meet up in front of the Migros in Vésenaz with my daughter. They buy me an ice cream (mmm ...), my daughter hands me a Monster energy drink that I’d left in our fridge, and we sit out in the sun for a quarter of an hour - my daughter on another bench ten meters away because she says I smell bad! Then she tells me I have to hurry, I’m going to get overtaken! Oh, no worries about that darling! We are few and far between, and in any case if someone does, good on them! Then she tells me that I should just stay here. What do you mean!? Have I not taught you never to give up without a damn good reason – and this isn’t one! She says it's because she’s going to miss me tonight ... Oh, break my heart... But beyond the fact that I absolutely do not see myself stopping now, the prospect of having to get up and take the train on a Sunday morning to retrieve my car and stuff in Villeneuve sounds even more tiring than running another 100km around the lake. So I just blow a big kiss, hug my wife and off I go…

And immediately run into a former colleague. I don’t want to be rude, so I ask how she’s doing, kid and all, and I do really want to know because it’s been a while since we ran into each other, but finally I tell her I’m in a race and should get going. She understands, and I head off towards the lake.

The Monster kicks in, I’ve seen my wife and daughter, and the sun is glinting off the lake as the town of Geneva appears (last year it was raining): I’m in rare form, and I start to run more and walk less, and manage to keep that up till the next checkpoint. I spend 5mn talking with a woman on a bike who asks me about the race and encourages me. I feel even more like superman… There are a lot of runners out, so I try to make sure that my bib is visible ("see, 175km, that's why I'm so slow! ") But no-one gives me more than a perplexed nod…

I arrive at Bellevue around 18:30 still within my most optimistic time predictions, so I start to wonder if I might not actually pull a good time, less than 26h? I was over an hour later last year and night had fallen.

Bellevue – Gland – CP5 (107km)

I am the only runner again at checkpoint 3, with three volunteers all to myself. I am offered a massage, I hesitate, I accept. I start to shiver, they give me two blankets, one for the shoulders, one for the legs. Then they serve me up some broth with noodles - mmm, that goes down well, almost the only thing that I can stomach with this recurring nausea which comes in waves between bites of ginger. This is only the 2nd time in about 30  ultras that I have nausea, and now there’s something new: the feeling that I have a pill stuck in my throat…

I am surprised to see Helen at the checkpoint, because she’s running the relay, but it’s good to see her. She’s waiting for her teammate Philippe who took off slowly as he’s suffering from a knee injury. She has a while to wait still. Meanwhile, she discovering Swiss chocolate! ... I ask how Dylan is fairing, as know it’s his first 100-miler (110!), and I was told he passed through more than an hour and half ago. So it would seem it's going well.

I leave after retrieving a new baggie of food for the next leg – I’ve left one at each checkpoint from here on – but the chips, Pims and Oreo cookies that I thought would be a real delight when packing them do nothing for me now. I actually throw away the cheese-flavored chips, ugh!, and just nibble on an oreo and a pims. It goes down ok, but I have to force myself a little. So disappointed!

I keep up a good pace, still run/walk-ing, until Versoix/Mies. Night’s falling but there are enough streetlights not to have to put on my headlamp. I run past Scott's wife who tells me that Scott is napping in the car...

Then my watch starts beeping: low battery. I plug it into my portable battery and store it in my backpack. I try to use my phone to track my running/walking, but soon realize it’s totally useless and give up, and give in to the pleasure of just moving along without focusing on time or pace…

This might have been a mistake - because it seems to take forever to reach the next checkpoint, which seemed so short last year and which is, objectively, the shortest distance between checkpoints. Yet I feel good and I thought I was moving pretty quick (relatively speaking). Several times I thought I was arriving in Nyon - but no! And when I pull out my watch to check my average pace, it’s dropped! I’m actually moving slower than last year?!

Feeling somewhat lonely now, I call my friend Anthony, with whom I did the Alpe d'Huez long-distance triathlon, then the Vichy Ironman (well, we participated in the same events, he just finished far ahead!) and who crewed me at the Swiss Irontrail and the GUCR. Then I try to call another buddy, Cyril, whom I've known for almost 30 years, with whom I did the Marathon des Sables and so many other races,- and who had accompanied me by bike for the UTL last year... Turns out he’s at a friend’s 50th birthday. 50th! Time flies. I don’t feel anywhere near 50!

I pass Nyon finally, then Gland arrives not too far behind, but I’m pretty damn sure there are sections of the road that weren’t there last year, or perhaps the kilometers have turned into miles…

Gland – St. Prex – CP6 (126km)

Last year, I already had thoughts of dropping at this checkpoint. I am fine this year, tired for sure, but legs ok. Apart from my latent nausea, all systems are a go – a timid go, like a stubborn mule forced to climb the mountain, but a go nonetheless….

I ask how Dylan’s doing, and turns out he passed through two hours ago, so he’s even gained time on me (not that I’d harbored any ideas of catching up), so I’m figuring he’s doing really well. Actually, I learned later from his blog that he was having to cope with signs of dehydration. Goes to show how easy things always look from the outside...

I don’t dally, pick up another baggy of food (beurk!), retrieve a more powerful headlamp (a Petzl Nao and its f**king intertwining threads, I really have to switch to something else) and off I hop. An hour later, I pull some Parma ham ouz of my bag – rough going, but it’s real food and salty and greasy and that’s apparently what I need because it goes down ok. And I need fuel.

Then I slow down – I mean, to the point where even I realize that I am slowing down. I continue to trot intermittently, but there’s quite a bit of power walking going on… Still, no plodding, so gotta look on the bright side. That said, space-time distortion continues: I feel much better – and that I am doing better – than last year, but I still only get to St. Prex just an hour ahead of last year's time, which means I did the whole section from Bellevue much slower?! I’m telling you, they added sections to the road…

But I'm no longer alone at this point. I arrived in Rolle with no water, and couldn’t find any fountains with drinkable water (not making that mistake again!), so I fill my pouch in the bathroom of a pub (from the tap, I might add), and as I’m leaving I see another runner. I call out to him but he doesn’t hear me, so I charge across the road (all things being relative when I say “charge”) and tap him on the shoulder: it is Scott! He’s doing pretty well, he slept a little in his wife's car. But he’s tired and his legs are beat, and we are both happy to reduce our pace to a sustained walk.

And so chat for the next few hours, about work and the races we've done... Scott is attempting to do 500km in 50 days in six races. Last weekend he did Swisspeaks, about 80km/50 miles and a lot of elevation on technical trails, and next weekend he’s doing the LG Trail, 115km with 3,500m of elevation from Lausanne to Geneva. Which explains his state of fatigue…

We arrive at 1 am in St. Prex where we both agree to take a proper break. I retrieve another food baggy, but I suddenly retch at the sight of the bars and gels and even the dried beef that I end up by throwing away with a heavy heart. One of the volunteers standing near steps back but I manage to keep it all down... A few pieces of ginger later and I feel better right away. But I’ll be unable to eat for the next 4-5 hours, which might explain why I have a hard time finding renewed energy.

Scott and I both realize sleep is an impossible proposition as the night is quite cool, so we head off for the longest leg to the last checkpoint.

St. Prex – Cully – CP7 (153km)

And it definitely feels like the longest stretch!... But the kilometers slip by as we chat, and I'm happy to arrive at Morges where I stopped last year... Then shortly after exiting Morges, Scott plays tricks with my mind: he sees a bus shelter and says that would make for a nice lie-down. I hadn’t dared suggest it! But when we pass the next one, I say “hey, what about a lie down”, but he’s not up for it, like he was joking or something, but I can’t get it out of my head, so on the third one we pass I tell him I’m going to nap as my eyes are drooping. I tell him to go on, maybe catch up later…

The nap lasts all of five minutes. There’s a breeze that just fills the shelter with cold air, so I decide to move on. I try again an hour later, same result. Then I hit the outskirts of Lausanne and enter a dark forest that runs all along the lake. It's almost scary! Which of course is when my Petzl decides to blink to tell me the batteries are dying - oops, must have forgotten to charge them. I recognize with some dry, detached humor the accumulation of errors I’m making on this ultra, a sign perhaps that I was not as focused on it as I should have been. I’m just lucky that it’s a road race where the temperature changes aren’t too drastic and there is access to civilization…

Anyway, I decided to enjoy the dark for a while, before realizing that I’ve hit a deadend and there is nowhere to go except into the lake… So I turn back until I see one of the race arrows – actually indicating I was in the right place. What the…? Ok, so I head back along the boardwalk, but this time take out my spare lamp and hey presto magic, there’s the path, just to the left weaving into the forest. Thank God for Light!

Oddly enough, it's among the moments in the race that I enjoy the most. The wooded park on the left, the lake on the right, the silence of the night... Then I see a telephone booth - a few broken panes but providing better shelter from the wind than anywhere else. So I curl up on the cigarette butt-strewn floor, actually quite comfortable, wondering again and the unique experiences an ultra marathon provides… It reminds me somewhat of past years of alcohol and drug-use, sleepless nights and aimless wondering in empty public places in the dead of night… And it’s briefly unpleasant until I realize how far I have traveled, that my intense fatigue now is due to 140 kilometers of running and there's no chemical crash…

I drift off a bit but eventually leave after about 10 minutes of fitful napping, pass through a port, and emerge on the edge of wide open space now occupied by a horse show... And I realize it's dawn.

I arrive soon after at Ouchy and that’s when I see Scott staggering ahead. He really doesn’t look good. But he's on the phone - with his wife, I think - and he waves vaguely to me as I pass. I slow down to stay just a little ahead of him, given him some space, but we’re really moving slowly. Something of a dilemma - if I keep going at this pace, I could eventually just give up; and that would certainly happen if he drops out and gets picked up by his wife. So I signal to him that I'm taking off.

Still, I look behind from time to time but can’t see him. I stop for five minutes to rest and wait for him, but he still doesn’t show up... Well, he has plenty of experience (finished, among others, a 250km race in the mountains in Japan – like the Asian Barkley's), he has a phone, we are in a city and there are already joggers out this Sunday morning so I’m not too worried for him, and eventually just “charge” ahead to Cully.

And that's where space-time distortion resumes, but this time it's entirely my fault. I’ve retrieved my watch from my bag but it seems like the charger didn’t work so I’ve turned off the GPS function and I have no clue of distances or speed. So I figure that by studying the bus stops, I can guess how long it will take me to get to Cully.

What a mistake! Since when are bus route maps drawn to scale? So at the beginning I feel like I'm moving fast, calculating that at the pace I move between bus stops I’ll arrive at the last checkpoint in Cully at around 7:15am - cool! Also weird: every time I stop to check the schedule, a bus arrives, as if to taunt me. And it's Sunday morning! I would love for buses to run on a Sunday like that in Geneva.

Then I pass through a beautiful village on the lake stupidly thinking that this is Lutry and I will soon reach Cully, but realize that in fact this is the old town of Pully. But it’s after this that my morale really takes a blow. According to the bus route, the distance appears about the same between Pully, Lutry and Cully... But it turns out that between Lutry and Cully there is a small town called Villette, which comes well after a really long straight stretch from Lutry…

Fortunately, the scenery is amazing, especially at this early hour, with the lake sparkling to the right and the vineyards to the left, and the train tracks in between. I feel like I’m in a miniature train set... And then I come across a gas station open early and buy a chicken sandwich. My nausea has not completely passed, but by eating it in small pieces, it goes down pretty well! Have to say that it’s been more than 4 hours since I’ve eaten anything...

Cully – Villeneuve (175Km)

I arrive shortly after 8h at Cully, where Raphaëlle is waiting with a big smile, her kids running around with endless energy (apparently they slept real well in the car). I manage some broth, and salami goes down well too. Then I try to catch some sleep in another volunteer’s car – he stretches out the driver’s seat and hands me a blanket. But, once again after 5-10mn I give up.

When I get out of the car, I see Scott staggering in. He collapses into a chair, exhausted – and this is probably the first time I’ve really seen someone absolutely exhausted. He doesn’t want to give up but he realizes that he may actually be putting his health at risk. When I head out, he gives me a big smile of encouragement for the last bit. Whatever he’s feeling, it may be completely understandable disappointment but definitely not self-pity.

The sun’s shining and it’s all downhill into Vevey, amazing. I remove my windbreaker and long sleeves that I wore during the night to put on a new clean t-shirt. I feel like a new man and I start jogging again.

From Vevey I can see the entire distance still to cover – but I can pretty much see Villeneuve! I know I’ll get there and if I push a bit I can make it close to the somewhat loose official cut-off time of 29h10 (which means an average pace of 6km/h for the whole race, taking stops into account). Just like at the GUCR, these last hours are really tough on the legs and feet, and mentally I just want to get it done, I will get it done, but struggling with the amount of time it will take… But I am not bored at all. The boardwalk is filled with strollers, and joggers too whipping by (as I once again try to make my bib visible!).

Then I pass the Chateau de Chillon and there it is, I am in Villeneuve. I pass the train station, I see the service station that marks the left turn towards Tronchenaz. Now I’m running along the river, with the soccer field on my left. And then they see me and I hear the incredible sound of the cowbells - and I get a hug from Jean-Luc, and Scott is there too and we give each other a long hug - I thank him for his support and helping me finish, saying how sorry I am he had to drop - and Dylan’s there too congratulating me ... Actually, almost everyone is there since I'm the second to last person to arrive. Helene will arrive a little less than an hour after me, a real warrior.

So at last the tour of great lake is complete – and I won’t have to return out of revenge but rather to enjoy the magical experience of a unique race.

Friday, September 29, 2017

What defines an ultra marathon?

It’s confusing these days… Traditionally, anything over the 42.2km marathon distance has been considered an ultra, but that’s a bit misleading. For me, what defines an ultra is the experience rather than the distance per se, and that experience is linked to the time it takes to finish. In that regard, someone who struggled to finish a marathon in 6-7 hours most probably had an ultra experience.
But if reasonably fit and adequately trained (even if trained “just to finish”), you only usually hit one bad patch in a marathon, around 30-35km. Also, the duration of a marathon means that any problems that develop (blisters, bleeding nipples, stomach distress) do so at a later stage where, again, you are close enough to the finish to just soldier on.

The "ultra experience", on the other hand, entails several emotional ups & downs, and requires you to really find solutions to a number of issues that can occur if you want to finish: heat, cold, dehydration, over-hydration (lack of salt), blisters upon blisters, cramps, leg pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, sleep deprivation…
In this sense, the average person will generally have an “ultra experience” within 5-7 hours, therefore my definition of an ultra is any race that the average person would finish in around that time, which means roughly 30-45 miles depending on the race… Of course, it’s so personal because depending on how fast, fit, well trained you are - or your experience – the goal posts shift…

In any case, this really highlights the individual nature of races, distances, pacing and experience – and is otherwise pointless. Also, moving beyond 16-17 hours into all day and all night runs takes the ultra journey to whole different level, and again when you move into the 40h+ range... 
I hope this helps anyone who is starting out on the "ultra" journey and why there is a compulsion to go longer - it's not just ego and "bigger/longer is better". What I do find condescending and ultimately pointless is to say that someone hasn’t run an ultra when they just slogged through a 40k race with 3000m of technical trails. Or even, for that matter, someone who battles their way to a 6h+ finish on their first marathon. 
I say, welcome to the crowd – your life will have changed in some subtle way and you’ll probably be a different person for it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The wonderful mystery of the disappearing plantar fasciitis

About a month before the Ultra Tour du Léman, the nascent plantar fasciitis that I'd been feeling since getting back into training post-GUCR flared up sufficiently during a run that I decided to cut out speedwork and cut my mileage almost in half.
Now that the UTL is behind me (race report forthcoming), turns out it was the right decision. My fitness wasn't where i hoped it would be, but I went into the race feeling mentally strong from the GUCR finish and that my fitness was at least sufficient to see me to the end of the race. And that turned out to correct, since I did manage to finish, even if it meant drawing on all my reserves and experience and just plain stubborness and desire to finish.
But it was also correct from the perspective that it's better to show up at the start less fit but uninjured. The foot was still still a bit sensitive upon waking up in the morning, but it didn't bother at all during the nearly 30 hours it took me to finish.

But the most amazing thing is that now, three days after the race, there is no pain at all! Not waking up, not walking around during the day. I read somewhere (via James Adams, citing Mark Cockbain I think) that "an injury caused by running is solved by running". A bit extreme, but in this case quite true!

Perhaps my foot is still "warm" from the race, and the plantar will flare up again in a few days or if I started running again next week. But plantar or not, I'd already planned to take a long "seasonal" break from running. A full month off, something I haven't done for the past three years. I need it, both mentally and physically, and am really looking forward to it, to reset the mental batteries. I'll be doing some low intensity biking starting next week for cardio, and strength training starting the week after, but otherwise no running till mid-october. Then it's going to be a slow build-up for three weeks before a two-month period i have planned to increase my speed (avoiding any runs longer than 2h). I guess the real test will be then, but I'd like to think that my feet will appreciate almost two months off hard running and will reward me by keeping quiet.

Running ultras continues to be a valuable life lesson in pain management and physical recovery. If this plantar doesn't come back, however, it will be quite the most amazing thing that has happened to me. And hopefully gives hope to anyone ever plagued with injury...

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My essential self-sufficient medical kit

As I prep my bags for the Ultra Tour du Léman, just thought I'd share what I've refined now over many years as my "essential self-sufficient medical kit". I store it in a zip-lock bag in an easy-to-access part of my backpack.

- toilet paper (in a separate plastic bag - and definitely put in a plastic bag! remove cardboard middle)
- suntan lotion (there are quite a few really small tubes that exist)
- vaseline or similar lube
- compeed & band-aids (for blisters, cuts)
- 1-2 disposable tubes of eosine (disinfectant)
- safety pins (to pierce blisters)
- lighter (to disinfect the safety pin - and to burn toilet paper after going to the bathroom)
- crystallized Ginger (really works well against nausea, and fast!)
- anti-nausea pills (i.e. Motilium), just in case Ginger doesn't work
- 1-2 imodium pills (for opposite problem, diarrhea)
- Arnica (for bumps, bruises and general soreness)
- BCAAs (optional, but i find it helps to take one an hour, 12/day)
- 1x anti-inflammatory pill (ibuprofen based)
- 1x paracetamol

A note on the last two: if you are well hydrated and have just eaten something, 1 anti-inflammatory pill shouldn't do any harm - take advisedly, of course. The paracetamol is better, and can be taken within 4-6 hours of the anti-inflammatory - though if pain relief is necessary, i would a) wait till at least 2nd half of race depending on length, and b) start with the paracetamol... As always - I'm not a doctor, check with yours first...

Then in a much smaller baggy that I carry in a belt bag i can access without taking the backpack off (where I also have my phone and an emergency gel or two)
- lip balm (chapstick)
- salt tablets/S-caps
- caffeine tablet

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ultra Tour du Léman training and race strategy: then... and now

So the plan for the UTL this year was to capitalize on my GUCR finish and see whether aiming for a Spartathlon qualifying time might not be such a utopic goal. Since you now need to complete a 100-miler in 21h, I figured that if I could go sub-24h or near that at the 110-mile UTL, I might be able to start dreaming...
After taking roughly 2.5 weeks of active recovery, but no running (aside from the Transjura Trail hike), I eased back into things then on holiday cut back on the number and length of sessions to focus on family and speedwork - and then the plan was to ramp up mileage and more or less copy my GUCR training with a slightly higher target race pace (6'30" per rather than 7'), which, if i can maintain some consistency, should bring me close to my goal, accounting for a fade to less than 6 km/h at the end...
Except that I started to feel the sole of my foot. Pretty sure it was plantar fasciitis, too bloody symptomatic. I guess those sore feet after 145 miles were still angry with me, but I still found it strange that I hadn't felt anything during the recovery weeks (or at the Transju'Trail).
Anyway, I don't know whether that contributed to having a hard time getting back into a heavy, structured training schedule, but it was a real struggle. Still, I manage to do a surprising big week time-wise (9h) ten days ago, mainly thanks to an impromptu 2h power hike in the mountains with my kids. But the following week was lower than anticipated, and now, I had to cut 2h off my long run this morning since I felt the plantar for the first time during a run and have to acknowledge that things are getting worse, not better (ending up with less than 70km and just over 7h this week), despite foam rolling & massaging & stretching calves and soles...
I know I have to review my training if I hope to finish. So, since I read that speedwork is the worst, I'm cutting down the mileage by removing those sessions (two birds with one stone, and all that) and replacing then with high intensity workouts on an indoor-bike that I can access at a gym through work (additional mental training, arg gyms!). I'll keep the tempo training and the long run, and a 3rd shorter race pace run. Since I do my short interval training on Tuesdays and the long run Sunday morning, that should also give me three days' rest without running.
I'm hoping that this will keep me fit enough to still aim for a 24-25h finish, since we are only 5 weeks off now, so in any case it's taper time in 2-3 weeks, and I only have to bank two 4h long runs anyway. But given that this is 110 miles, there's a fair chance the plantar will flare up enough at some point to make even walking painful. And if I end up finishing in 27h or more without my plantar flaring up, that means that my training between the GUCR and UTL was in any case inadequate - or that i am getting a little too old and slow to harbour any more Sparta dreams...
So, I do need to prepare mentally for "just a finish", fading sooner and more rapidly than at the GUCR, and walking it in early - potentially in a lot of pain. Which means turning to Ulrich Marshall for inspiration, as he got plantar fasciitis on Day 12 of his 52-day run across America, because I'm hell-bent on finishing this year - plantar fasciitis be damned!

Monday, August 7, 2017

My personal key components of ultra training

Thankfully, there is no guarantee to finishing an ultra, defined here for my purposes as a footrace that goes beyond 10-12h; so basically anything above a 100km or mountainous & technical 40-miler. Anything under 10h, I think that with experience you can muddle through it. But beyond that all it takes is a bad day, going out too fast, wrong food, and things can go down fast - though the one advantage in a long race is that you have time to turn things around (if the time barriers aren't breathing down your neck).

Still, I have found that there are some key components that have helped me finish most of the ultras I have competed in - and I know that each one of my three DNFs is due to not attending to one or more of them. So I have try to summarize them here.

1. Have fun. It's so easy to forget, but essential. Enjoy it when the going's good - because it won't last. Enjoy it when it's tough, because that's where you learn about yourself, that's the journey, that's why we do these things.

2. Never ask "why am I doing this?" This question will always come into your mind at some point. Don't answer it. It's the con of a body finding a way to get you to stop. Any attempt to find an answer, even if you are trying to be positive, will be at best be fruitless, at worst it will send you into a spiral of rationalizing a DNF. Because there is no real answer to that - or rather, the answer is in the finish, when it becomes crystal clear or totally irrelevant. The only thing you can do is ignore the question - tell yourself that you'll never do this again if you have to, but at least go out with a bang! - and remember to enjoy yourself and do whatever it takes to get to the finish.

3. Solution-mode: any issue that arises during a race must find a resolution - a solution. It cannot be a rationale for quitting (well, unless it requires hospitalization, of course), otherwise you just go into a spiral of justification that leads to a DNF. If your legs hurt, your stomach is upset, the weather is crap - whatever is, search for solutions, carry on through it, just considering them as obstacles to the ultimate objective from which you cannot swerve: finishing.

4. Nutrition: day-to-day? Eat what makes you happy, don't try to conform to some ideal. Go vegan if that's what you want not because you think a runner should be vegan. Kilian Jornet diets on pizza and nutella... But don't lie to yourself. If you aren't happy with how you are eating, want to lose weight, or whatever - then definitely do it.

5. Race nutrition: ok, forget the "don't try anything on race you haven't tested" blablabla... I mean, try stuff out by all means, since if you don't like something on a long run, chances are you won't like it during a race, but otherwise you CANNOT test on a long run what you might want to eat after 10 hours of running - unless your long run lasts 10h (and it shouldn't). This is what is called experience. Go run a marathon on an empty stomach at your ultra pace - then head to the supermarket and buy all the foods that strike your fancy. Chances are, you'll want to eat it and your body will want to digest it. Then go run an ultra, and see what works and what doesn't - and so on. It's one of the things I love on a race - discovering new foods...

6. The Gear: don't get worked up about the gear. Get the stuff that's comfortable and you can afford, and don't sweat it. Gear will not make it any easier to finish, it just might make you feel safer and more secure, which is a distinct psychological boost, but the latest trendy gear is not essential. In other words, don't psyche yourself out of race by thinking you don't have the adequate gear to finish when you probably do. If you really don't, then chalk it up to experience and learn for the next time.

7. Train hard, race... less hard. I read on a blog - for ultra running no less - that if it is hot out, you should run early in the morning or late in the evening, etc. Crap! That just safe - not good ultra advice. You want situations that are tough. You didn't sleep well? Great, go for a long run - you'll know a little more how you react on no sleep. It's hot? Go run at noon! Of  course, take all the precautions as you would on a race (lots of water, salt, going slower, whatever) - but that's the point. You learn to manage.

8. Training: time commitment. I go with Jason Koop on this: 6-9h of training a week in six of last nine weeks of training before a race (since you factor in 3 weeks of tapering), for anything from 50 miles to 100 miles. The rest of the time, I'm convinced you can survive on 4-5 hours, taking the time required to build up to the 6-9h per week, which could mean starting increasing your mileage from a base of 5h to 9h.

9. Training: Speed and long. Speedwork in an ultra can help you finish for several reasons: better fitness (the key point), greater leg power and strength, sustaining a slightly higher race pace for a longer duration, and better race form (or "improving running economy", which also helps later in a race); essentially add short intervals, long intervals (lactate threshold runs) and tempo runs. Long runs have been touted as essential, and of course they are, but to be truly effective they must be run on tired legs since that is the whole point of them - sustain race pace for as long as possible...

Therefore, no rest on the day - or even days - before, and ideally doing a good hard long intervals session the day before. Also, run long runs (at least first 2h) on an empty stomach.

The following 5 days/week work for me for 100 miles. For 50 miles to 100km, you can probably get away with skipping one of the speed sessions:
1. short intervals (anything from 16-20 x 30"/30" (100-150m) to 8-10 x 2'/1' (500-600m)) (1h).
2. 1h-1h30 at race pace (depending on available time).
3. 1h-1h45, with 20mn to 2x40mn at tempo (just under marathon pace, for me)
4. (after a day's rest) - 1h-1h45 with 3x6' to 3x20' at half-marathon pace (1'30" rec)
5. Long run at race pace - duration depending on how much total weekly running time you want (1h30-4h)

Do a 3-4-week build, increasing running time by about 10%, then take a recovery week, removing the long run and reducing the interval sessions.

For mountain runs, I strongly believe that you can do the week-day, speed-focused sessions on relatively flat ground, and the long runs on race-specific terrain - that should be enough. Doing intervals on hills certainly doesn't hurt, and can actually help even for flat, road ultras.

Finally, it's probably good to plan a 50-miler or 100k as a training run. When? The most obvious is 2-3 months out, allowing for a week of active recovery before you start that crucial 6-9-week high-intensity and volume period. However, if you place it within that 6-9-week period then taper slightly in the week up to it (by "taper", I simply mean running enough mileage so that combined with the race miles you reach just above your peak weekly mileage), definitely take it easy and run it at your 'A' race target race pace (to test that pace, but also not to overtire yourself) - but then don't do much in the way of "recovery".
In training for a 145-mile race end May, I did 91km at a 12-hour timed race five weeks before, making it my biggest week at 110km, but the race ended on midnight Saturday/Sunday and the following Tuesday I was doing my interval sessions, followed by 4 more sessions, with a 3h45 long run on the Sunday (which had been preceded by long interval sessions on the Saturday), for a week totalling just under 10h and just over 90km of running. Then I did another big week (11h, 102km, including a marathon at slow 'A' race pace) before starting a three-week taper.

10. Race pace: it's key to train at this pace, because it should be slower, even much slower, than a comfortable pace and you need to be most efficient at this pace. Just because you are comfortable running at 12km/h, doesn't mean you will be efficient running at 9km/h. What pace? I would say that for a 100-mile run, for instance, your race pace should be 3km/h less than marathon pace. You can also take a target time (a reasonable one) start out 1.5km/h faster, which should account for slowing down while allowing you not to go out too fast (i.e. if you want to finish 100 miles, 160km in 20 hours, 8km/h average, start out no fast than 9.5km/h).

11. The Taper: this really is very personal, but what has now worked for me is a three-week taper, but with only a slight drop in mileage the first week (70-80%), maintaining intensity in the short and long intervals, but cutting the tempo run in half and reducing the long run to 2h. Then a sharp drop in the 2nd week to about 30% of peak mileage, 3 rather than 5 sessions, no intervals but a mid-week 1h15 run with 30' at tempo pace, and only an hour at race pace on Saturday. Finally the week of the race, only two runs, 50mn and 40mn at race pace, on Tuesday and Thursday for a Saturday morning race departure.       

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Transju'trail "mystery race" - a post GUCR "fun run"

The organizers of the Transju’trail set up this “mystery race” to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the event. The idea was a 55km race but in complete self-sufficiency (only one water point mid-race), but with course details (departure, arrival and elevation again – around 2,000 meters it turned out) unknown until the morning of the race. Finally, it was limited to 100 participants, which is fine by me.
The format seemed just too tempting not to sign up. It was ideal to share with my friend Cyril, who has sadly slacked off in his running, but with whom I have shared many races, starting with the MdS in 2006. It also happened to be on the weekend of Pentecoast which, in several years past, has coincided with bank holiday weekend in the UK when the GUCR is traditionally held. And at the time of registering, I had made up my mind that I would not be signing up for the GUCR… That changed a few weeks later of course, and chance had it that UK bank holiday was a week before.
So a mere six days after finishing a 233km race, I found myself at the starting line of a 55km trail run. My legs still felt somewhat like cement blocks and my feet had only stopped hurting at every step two days earlier. But Cyril had probably logged no more than 200km in training in the past year so we were pretty much on par for our expectations (i.e. best effort, enjoy, a finish very much in doubt) and it was great to be in the mountains again after months of training on flat roads.
So on Saturday, June 4th at 7am, participants gathered in Mouthe (a rather depressing town nestled in the Jura mountains where conditions, especially in winter, can be particularly harsh), where we were given our race bibs and course package. Then we loaded into two buses for almost two-hour trip to the starting line. There was a coffee stand, which Cyril and I quickly took advantage off, before the organizer – dressed in race gear – gave a 3mn briefing before yelling “start” and heading off himself in the middle of the pack.
Cyril and I set off at the back… and stayed there. In fact, by the time we turned off the road after 200 meters and onto the trails, we could no longer see anyone in front. That was fine, we were in high spirits. The weather wasn’t great, but so far no rain, and the path was dry.
The Jura is not a high mountain range – at least not compared to the Alps – peaking at just over 1,600 meters. But the landscape is very different from the Alps at that altitude, where foot paths are overshadowed by tall pine trees, evergreens and larch trees. In the Jura, the vegetation is more sparse and often quite barren, especially towards the top. I’ve also always found the Jura to be quite mystical, reminding me somewhat of Tolkien’s hobbit Shire countryside, and lingering patches of fog added to that impression.
Within 8 kilometers or so, I could already really feel my legs, thrown back to how I felt after 100 miles at the GUCR. Cyril was already tired too! But we munched on biscuits and peanuts and caught up on family news, and just kept plodding enjoying the scenery. We made the first summit which opened onto an incredible vista of the mountain range (picture unfortunately lost), before taking a steep descent which made me realize how very unaccustomed I had become to technical trail running.
At around 15km, we saw some volunteers taking stock of the stragglers and Cyril and I had already discussed stopping. I was in a strange mindset. On the one hand, I knew I could keep going, probably even until the end, and I knew that doing so would provide quite a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, I didn’t really see the point in putting myself through the same amount of pain for another 5 hours that I had experienced a the GUCR; after completing 233km just six days earlier, I really didn’t feel the need for a new ego boost, and I knew I had no problem DNFing this race – I wouldn’t even have started if Cyril hadn’t been with me – all this particularly considering that this was a three-day weekend and I really wanted to spend some time with the family after my lengthy absence the weekend before in England. And finally, at the back of mind was the idea that I should really recover from the GUCR properly, so that I could get back to training for the 110-mile Ultra Tour du Léman in September.
However, it was not my choice to make. The one volunteer with a car who could drive us back to Mouthe was quite unwilling at this point to do so – though he said this in the nicest possible way, and more as a way of encouraging us to continue (I think he was a little baffled that we wanted to stop this early). He said we could reassess at the next town that we crossed where he would again be checking for stragglers, “only six kilometers away”, he said.
Well, for the first time in my experience, a volunteer was spot on when assessing distance – not a mean feat considering the winding, up & down nature of the forest trails. So Cyril and I soldiered on for another hour and a half, still enjoying ourselves, ultimately happy to be doing a little more for the sake of saying that we really did put in the best effort considering our respective states of physical distress, and equally happy at the prospect of quitting at 21km (almost half!), especially as the rain started to come down.
And so after almost four hours lumbering on the trails, we stopped. In any case, at that point, we could only have continued until the one water point at 27km, since we were way off the cut-off time for that check point. It turns out this was quite a “fast” race in terms of time barriers, as the organizers wanted everyone in within 8 or 9 hours, so with over 2,000 meters of elevation that didn't leave much room for hiking as we were doing. This was not an event to be used as a training race for a longer ultra to practice specific pacing.
But it was certainly a fun race and I did enjoy the “mystery” format, even if it turned out to be a little hyped and less exciting than I had originally thought. But the scenery was great, and my guess is any of the Transju'trail runs (72km and 36km formats) are certainly worth doing.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Grand Union Canal Race - GUCR 2017 Race report


Taking part in this iconic British race has been three or four years in the making. I had been surfing the internet and came across a highly entertaining (and inspiring) account of James Adam’s race across America, from Los Angeles to New York. The GUCR had been his first major long ultra, and his review of it sparked a desire – as it has, apparently, with so many others – to compete in it. It wasn’t just the challenge of the distance – 145 miles, 233km – but also the low-key, almost tribal atmosphere that seemed to characterize this race.
But between right time, right mind-set, and a willingness to face my fears, take the plunge and commit to structured training for the first time ever (and more than I’d ever done), it took a while before I finally put my name in the hat. And it got pulled out!
I had just started a new job, and the more I thought about it, the more 233km just seem too daunting for me to tackle on my own. So, for the first time, I asked for professional help. I have my friend Anthony to thank for that. Actually, since I was working with Anthony when I first read James Adam’s blog, he has followed my wavering about the GUCR from the start – but he claims he always knew I would do it, and I believe him. In fact, I think that’s in some measure why I ended up signing up for it: Anthony helped me realize that I really did want to do it, and believe that I could.
So French running coach Bruno Heubi drafted a 20-week training plan starting in January Just over 5h/week at the beginning, ending with several weeks at 9-11h. I stuck to the program 97% (it’s not that I love numbers, but the plan was to run five days a week for 20 weeks, and I missed three days, so it’s quite easy to figure out) and arrived in Birmingham feeling ready. I have my amazing wife (and a lot of early morning runs) to thank for the fact that it didn’t put too much strain on family affairs.
And Anthony was there, which was a priceless boost. I have a hard time being away from the family for a race – the selfishness of it really get to me (though it does fade during the race, it can come back to haunt me if the going gets tough). We drove up together from London in his dad’s car (in horrendous traffic), registered at the Travelodge, ate a "last meal" at O’Neil’s pub (steak and ale pie!). Anthony and I marveled at the fact there we were here in Birmingham after more than three years talking about it, I pointed out a few GUCR hoodies and Spartathlon T-shirts worn by other running pub patrons also having their last meal (and, for many, pint). Then I tucked in for a relatively early night. My past 10 days or so of melatonin and homeopathic sleep spray worked its wonders and I had the best pre-race night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
I was running unsupported. Having flown over from Zurich, Anthony was mainly there for (absolutely essential) moral support, though he would supply me with water and some food items (English novelties for me) that were amazing in breaking the monotony of my own food. To tie me over between check points, I’d packed an assortment of gels, jellies, fruit purée, cheese and salami in seven plastic baggies that I could recover from my drop bag at each checkpoint. I was a bit wary of the salami sticks and Babybel cheese, since they’d been stuck in my bags the day before for a five-hour, traffic-laden trip from Heathrow to Birmingham in sweltering heat. But after the first few went down ok, with no stomach problems, I figured I was safe.

Birmingham to Heart of England Pub (53 miles/85km)
I’d broken the race into three parts, not only for strategic reasons but because I found it impossible to think of the full distance of 145 miles. The first would be to checkpoint 4 at mile 53 (km 85), Heart of England pub, slightly more than 1/3rd of the way, which I hoped to cover in about 10.5-11 hours; then Grand Junction Arms at the 100-mile (actually 99.8) mark (160km) in 23-25h; then I would have at least 20 hours to cover the last 45 miles. My idealistic A goal was sub-36, and that depended on arriving at Grand Junction in good form; the more realistic B goal was sub-40; and of course finishing was key, no matter what the time. I could not DNF this race.
The plan was to start out at about 8.4km/h, mixing in about a minute of walking every quarter hour, starting at hour 2, with only short breaks at the first three checkpoints, to end up with an average speed of just under 8km/h and arrive at this first milestone in about 10.5 hours. The problem is that I’d only realized a few days before that the course was in miles! These pacing numbers in miles meant nothing to me. Ok, I figured that 8.4km/h was 11:15-11:30 mn per mile, but once I factored in the walking and the breaks, I was lost! Well, I solved that by reverting to just checking average speed, since I knew 8km/h was 5mph, so anything above that in the first third good going. Once I’d managed that complex math problem, I called my wife to wish her a happy birthday and ensure that the flowers I’d ordered the day before had arrived (they had, definite brownie points).
The plan worked to a T, at first. After almost wandering off along another branch of the canal within the first few miles, I arrived at the first checkpoint at Catherine de Barnes (10.7 miles/17km) in two hours and just scoffed a few Jaffa cakes and refilled my water bottles before moving on. There were two sporadic rain showers, but I put away my waterproof jacket after the first one since I realized it wasn’t going to be a big deal and it was nice and warm out, with a breeze that made the heat bearable. I hit CP2 (22.5 miles/36km) at Hatton Locks at just around 10.30am, also right on schedule. Had a banana, orange squash (hmm, love being in a different country for a race, nice change of pace at the food stations), and then got really confused about the time, momentarily thinking my average pace (11:27/mile) was the time and wondering how I managed to be an hour behind schedule when my average speed was above 5 miles an hour. Oh, boy, less than 5 hours in and I can’t read my watch right (too much data and too many screens on my Garmin). I did remember to refill my water bottles, which was a good thing since in the entire race I only managed to spot one water tap – and my key wouldn’t work!
I was playing leapfrog with Jim, a friendly guy displaying an Australian flag on his backpack, who was suffering a bit from inflamed Achilles’ tendon. I left him at this point chatting with a friend he’d caught up with and moved on ahead. I also exchanged a few words with another runner, Simon, whom I’d cross paths with again later in the race. The big difference in this race compared to mountain runs is that because it is flat, everyone seemed to have a real pacing strategy, and since this entailed a bit of walking at different times, you never really ran alongside anyone for very long. Tends to cut conversations short, like “well, I had bloody awful weather at the CCC in 2010 and [beep, beep, Garmin watch alert] – oh, right off you go/ah, time for me to walk, catch up later...”
I was still pretty much on target when I arrived at Birdingbury Bridge (CP3, 36 miles, 58km), where I met up with Anthony for the first time. I enjoyed a bowl of beans for lunch and headed out after a bit of banter with a hot dog in hand. I also plugged into some music for the first time. I do that in spurts – sometimes it really boosts my mood, sometimes it takes my mind off things and sometimes it just gets annoying so I switch it off to enjoy the relative silence… In this case, I went through a real “purple spot” where I had to rein in my enthusiasm not to start running too fast and the music provided the perfect backdrop. The sun was shining, the route along the canal was as picturesque as I had imagined, and I ambled along like that for a while, trying to remember to put in some marching minutes to save energy for later. It was at that point I remembered a passage from James Adam’s book, Running and Stuff, where he describes his start at his first Spartathlon, when other competitors who had run it before treated him a bit like a happy Labrador who has no idea the walk in the woods is actually a trip to the vet. I wondered if that wasn’t what was going on now: I’m having my bouncy Labrador moment, just before the shit hits the fan.

Yes, that's a hill!
Well, the shit didn’t exactly hit the fan but obviously the moment wasn’t going to last. Before Braunston Locks my running pace slowed slightly and I started to walk a minute every 9 instead of 14. I’d planned that in any case after CP4 and figured this could happen before, but this was still earlier than expected. I was slowed even further when we hit the only hill on the course around mile 44 as we leave the canal for the only significant time– and it felt like one, though the picture hardly shows any incline!
My morale sank a bit. But then at the bottom of the hill, I saw Anthony next to his car, which was a welcome sight! I sat down for 5mn and unloaded some unneeded gear from my backpack. I also gave up my front water bottles which were bruising my ribs – that never happened even during 42 hours at the Swiss Irontrail, but I suppose there’s another difference about running on an almost consistently flat surface. I would rely only my back water pouch, hoping that would be enough to see between checkpoints. Anthony gave me a Monster energy drink and chilled coffee. It seemed a bit early (about 3pm) for caffeine, but what the hell, I needed a boost. It worked too: I headed off in better spirits, walked some more uphill along a road for a quarter of a mile, before heading back into the forest and the security of the canal. In hindsight, I should have appreciated this escape beyond the canal limits more, since by the following morning I would sometimes feel trapped by the high bushes and trees that lined the canal and made it impossible to see anything of the outside world. Everything was restricted to water, barges and locks. Always beautiful, but sometimes I felt like I was running in circles along the same track…
I made it to CP4 at Heart of England (53 miles, 85km) around 5pm, so at the slower end of my schedule but still moving at just under 8km/h (4.8mph) with walking breaks every 10mn. I spent almost half-hour here – I had planned a longer rest, to get my stuff sorted (and pierce a blister that had appeared on the middle left toe), drink some tea, eat some canned fruit (mmm, another delicious novelty I wish they could import to races in Switzerland and France), tomatoes and a few other things that would make my eyes light up (if it looks good, my body must need it). I changed my socks and off I went, calling my wife for the second time that day (it was, after all, her birthday!).
Heart of England Pub to Grand Junction Arms (100 miles/160km)
The wheels came off a little sooner than expected. I was still feeling ok and morale was high, but I just couldn’t manage so much running, so I was soon at 8mn run/2mn walk and then even 7/3, and my pace was slipping towards 4.5mph. But the running pace was rather consistent, and the walk was brisk, and mainly I still felt good, so I wasn’t too bothered.
Suddenly my phone beeps – i pull it out of my waist pack and read a text from Anthony, “Drinking a pint with James Adams”. Go figure. I was only about 20-30mn out, but I never did actually get the opportunity to say thanks to James in person for introducing me to this incredible race. I realize now that as much as his and others’ race reviews attempt to convey the special atmosphere of this race, it still impossible to grasp what exactly sets it apart. I can’t explain it either. There’s just something about it…
Anyway. I reached CP5 at Navigation Bridge (70.5 miles, 113km) on schedule (more or less at this point) around 9.45pm. The checkpoint was on a bridge we had to cross over, under a dark tarpaulin with almost no lighting. I didn’t mind much, I just huddled in a far corner to keep out of the breeze that was chilling me now that night had fallen. A kind volunteer immediately brought my drop bag, then tea, porridge and a bunch of other food items I now forget. I used my headlamp to fish out a new food baggie of my own for the next leg, my vest and sleeves from the drop bag.
With my stuff sorted, I was ready to go within 15mn so I was pleased. I’d been hearing Anthony’s voice for a while and had called a few times with no response, and it was only when I crossed the road to meet up with him that I remembered that only volunteers and runners are allowed at the checkpoint at Navigation Bridge, everyone else has to stay on the other side, mainly inside the pub, completely taken over by crew, great atmosphere.
Anthony and I went inside – not sure what the original reason was, I think he wanted to give me more coffee, but I’d taken a caffeine pill (made in USA, a blue thing that looked like Viagra and was probably nearly as strong, not that I’ve taken Viagra though someone did try to get me to take it at Burning Man – funny when I think about all the stuff I did take back then but it’s Viagra that had me worried – that was in 2002, by the way… Anyway, I digress). So I was good, but think I drank a very tasty iced coffee anyway.
I also checked the blister on my middle left toe, and it didn’t look good (but didn’t feel bad either, so no worries). Another had formed. I couldn’t find my lighter so I just popped it with the safety pin without disinfecting it and luckily that didn’t come back and haunt me later. Anthony cobbled some form of taping for it, and I was done – now my turn to apologize to the pub patrons sitting right next to me for the gruesome sight.
Spent an additional 10-15mn but it was definitely worth it. I headed off into the night with the usual chills coming out of the pub. I almost went the wrong way following a runner who was actually going to the car park to meet up with his crew. I had momentarily forgotten that I was supposed to be following a canal... I soon got back on track and within about 15mn was warm enough to take off the jacket.
Shortly afterwards, a guy running in the opposite direction quickly informed me that there was a competitor sleeping by the towpath and not to wake her up. I came across her about five minutes later and I’m glad he warned me, but I did wonder why he hadn’t stayed with her or put up a “do not disturb sign” (though how he could have done that, I don’t know – maybe that’s why he was running back to Navigation Bridge; at that point my functioning brain cells were mainly involved in anything immediately race-related), because if he hadn’t warned me I would in all good conscience have had to stop and see at least if she was breathing ok.
It was pitch black beyond my headlamp spotlight, and time started to dilate. I enjoy night running in that respect, my whole relationship with the race experience shifts, becomes internalized. You find yourself alone with your thoughts, dreams and demons – ooh, and that’s when the shit really hit the fan. Shortly after Milton Keynes, my legs suddenly screamed at me. I had bad flashbacks to the Ultra Tour de Léman where I just ground to a halt after about 130km, and this was just about the same distance. Back then in September, I just couldn’t face another 45km. Here I had another 100! But Anthony had given up his weekend for me, I’d woken up too early on too many mornings for this race, imagined it on and off for several years, I’d travelled from Switzerland to compete in it, so I put myself in solution mode, which I’d failed to do at the UTL , and avoided coming up with very good reasons why I couldn’t continue. Also, since the fact that the race fell on my wife's birthday had escaped my attention when submitting my application, my wife had said that if I didn't come home with a medal, I'd find my bags packed on the doorstep... She was joking, of course, but jokes always from somewhere...
So as soon as I came across a break in the hedges and undergrowth lining the towpath that opened onto a small park, I found a friendly tree to put my legs up against to hopefully relieve some of the fatigue. At least, that was the plan. My quads were so tight I couldn’t crouch. Hmm. I did actually stop to ponder how I was going to get from standing up to lying down. Finally I just sort of flopped down sideways, then edged up to the tree so I could elevate my legs. I set my timer for 10mn just in case I fell asleep – but I needn’t have worried with all the caffeine. However, I did start shivering now that I wasn’t moving. Bother!, so I had to remove my windbreaker from my backpack which was making a nice pillow. I got bored after about 5mn and something did the trick. Once I managed to get up (imagine a beetle or a turtle on its back trying to right itself), I ambled off in a little less pain and slightly more confident. I think mainly that I found the whole episode – thankfully not witnessed by anyone – so silly but so much part of what I love about ultra running, that amusement overcame any possible sense of despondency. I even managed to keep up something close to a 7 km/h (4.3mp) pace; less than originally planned but I was good with that.
I arrived at Water Eaton, checkpoint 6, at about 2am, so already nearly 1h30mn off schedule, but the schedule was for an ambitious 36-hour finish and at this point I was going for “best effort”. I spent about 20mn gathering my wits, chatted with a Belgium guy  who was on his 6th participation and hoping for a 3rd finish, and with another great volunteer who reeled off a list of things I might like to eat like I was at a five-star restaurant. He lived in Leighton Buzzard but originally from Brazil, which I’m glad he specified because I was beginning to think that the local accent was quite exotic, even to my Swiss ears. Anyway, five-star service it was, more tasty food and drink (coffee, tea,…), and, yes, I’ll admit, a pill of pain relief. Finally I got moving, just after Simon came plodding in, looking about as fresh as I felt.
After that it’s something of a blur until Grand Junction Arms. But a good blur. The legs stopped whining and started cooperating again. My pace didn’t change much, but at least it was done in quite high spirits. Made even higher by meeting up with Anthony outside Tesco at Leighton Buzzard around 3am. Not sure when that man slept, but what a rock! He also gave me some more delicious morsels to eat and topped up my water, and just a good energizing chat. I had a middle-of-the-night constitutional, and found to my relief that I could squat and lift off again (and all the duties in between) without too much difficulty. I really don’t understand how the body can feel like it’s about to give up – and then instead of getting worse, things get better. Then again, I don’t understand how my phone, computer, TV work, and I don’t let that bother me either - so not letting things that you don't understand bother you is apparently the way to finish an ultra...
I snapped a picture of myself an hour or so passed dawn, knowing that I would finally complete 100 miles on foot for the first time in 17 years. And I remembered that picture I took in November 2000 at the Jordan Desert Cup when I passed, at dawn, the 100km mark for the first time in my life. It was harder back then to get a good selfie with a disposable 35mm film camera.

Shortly afterwards, fatigue hit me like a brick. Some runners feel new energy with dawn – not me. It’s like my body saying, “ok that’s it, you’ve done dinner, pub, night club and after-party – time to go to bed”. I started weaving, barely able to keep my eyes open. Then I saw a bench. Very inviting bench in an absolutely stunning location next to a lock. I set my alarm for 10mn and laid down using my backpack as a pillow. Bliss…
I was up before the alarm went off and after a few seconds trying to catch my bearings, I was off feeling incredibly refreshed. Well, that might be an exaggeration. Let’s just say that the nap had the effect of an on-off switch and the desire to sleep was gone, which really is the best I can ask for.

Around 7am I stumbled into Grand Junction Arms, the most picturesque check point I have ever had the pleasure of stumbling into. This, and the fact of feeling surprisingly rested and reaching 100 miles feeling good might explain why I gave everyone a hearty “good morning”, because it really did feel like one. I know, Grand Junction Arms is not really at 100 miles, but whatever. I still felt very proud, and I’ll take that any day over dark thoughts and moping.

Grand Junction Arms to Little Venice (145 miles/233km – FINISH!)
Anthony was there, really not showing any signs of fatigue, bloody amazing. I changed shirts, ate some porridge and pretty much whatever I could reach on the table in front of me without getting out of my chair (hmm, canned tangerines, another delight), once again the recipient of some amazing volunteer care and attention. (Next time, if there’s a next time, I should remember to at least ask their names.)

I took off after about a 30mn break, ready to tackle the long 32km stretch till the next checkpoint. But very quickly I felt a distinct sense of unease. At this point, with almost 20 hours to cover the last 45 miles and no particular ailments to complain about, I knew I should be able to finish - I did get some faint nausea on two occasions but crystallised ginger worked wonders... However, despite being within my predictions for a sub-40h finish and pretty much hoping to be in the state I was in at this point, now that I’d reached Grand Junction Arms, I definitely didn’t feel like the race was in the bag. 70km is still a long way to go, and it was conceivable that something could happen that would make even plodding it in impossible. Not to mention that my legs were definitely exhausted, my feet were hurting, and I knew that nearly two marathons in this state was going to be like a very long session with my boss: informative and always a learning process, sometimes even empowering, but mainly painful. I really had to take it one moment at a time and not think of the whole distance left to cover.
The scenery helped. I gingerly avoided a swan, having read reports about people getting pecked at. I marveled on two separate occasions at a heron taking off from the side of the towpath as I approached (definitely less aggressive than the swans), gliding with jealousy-inducing ease over the water to the other side. I stopped for an ice-cream at a boat rental place – unbelievable! I had been very upset at not seeing the candy boat I’d read so much about in other reviews, so when I spotted the ice cream sales sign, I didn’t hesitate. I’d carried a few heavy British pound coins just for this.
The sun was shining bright in a California blue sky, and though it was not only warm but also humid, I preferred that to rain. Compared to the previous day, there was also a lot more life on the towpath. Yesterday was all about the boats drifting down the canal – families, boy scouts, couples – or beer-drinking and barbeques on parked boats. On Sunday, there were cyclists, joggers (please notice my race bib as you rush past!) and families out for a stroll on the path. A lot more life, but not always very relaxing, especially with the bikes.

It was around this time that I started to feel trapped. As beautiful as the scenery was, the sides of the canal were often bordered by high trees or, even more tantalizing, hedges that reached just high enough to prevent me from seeing any of the surrounding landscape. I welcomed a break in the hedges, locks that opened up the view to rolling, sheep-filled pastures as much as a maximum-security prisoner enjoys his hour stroll in the prison yard.
I was slowing down too. Running was rare and in spurts, and my walking pace was almost a plod. I tried listening to music but, as often when I am in this state, I would aggravate me more than take my mind off things. But I think that having realized at Grand Junction Arms that the race was far from over enabled me to stave off any downward spiraling negativity. I started doing some pacing math, which usually is a bad idea but in this case helped. I figured that if I could maintain a pace of 3.3mph/5.2kph, I could finish under 40 hours.
That became my goal and I started speeding up and immediately felt better. What also helped was that I had been slowly moving up in the “rankings”. I knew I had been passing other participants, and hadn’t been passed by anyone since Leighton Buzzard, but I hadn’t realized quite how well I’d been doing. It’s not the competition aspect of gaining places that buoyed my spirits so much as the fact that, after 17 years of ultra-running, I’d finally not gone out too fast and was now reaping the benefits. So apparently as slow as I felt I was plodding on, everyone else was in the same boat.

Anthony met me near Berkamsted Bridge, which was a huge welcome break to the long stretch between checkpoints. With each step and I could taste that medal, I just wished I could move faster...
  • Arrived at Springwell Lock somewhere between 1-2pm; in any case still on target for sub-40h.
  • Anthony’s dad had joined him on this lark, taking the dog out for a Sunday stroll. Possibly the strangest way to meet a friend’s parent, but he took it all in stride. It was nice to have some company for a few hundred yards, which Anthony and his dad did on a couple of occasions after Springwell Lock.
  • Changed shirts again.
  • A few chafing issues difficult to resolve with additional cream and there was no area to hide decently. I dealt with that after leaving the check point as soon as I found a secluded spot. Difficult with all the Sunday public on bank holiday weekend.
  • Ate an amazing bacon, baked beans and egg sandwich. That’s why I came to England to do an ultra. Sadly, I sort of stalled before the end and had to toss away about a quarter, to the utter dismay of the kind volunteer who had made it for me.
  • Tried another catnap after Springwell Lock, but got interrupted by a woman on a barge asking me if I was alright. I said yes, just tired, been running/walking a long time. “Yes, from Birmingham, right? Been seeing you guys go by all day”. Well, if you know, why did you wake me up?! She was very kind otherwise. So was her husband, originally from New York, who appeared extremely pleased about his life on an English canal boat far from Manhattan. Who could blame him?
And so still managing what I felt was a pretty decent walking pace with some sporadic running, I made it to the left-hand canal turn and the GUCR famous sign-post “Paddington, 131/2 miles”. I didn’t visibly weep, but tears were flowing inside. Finally all the fear of not finishing vanished. My feet to my shins hurt like hell at every step (I could no longer feel my quads) and I just wanted to end. I wanted the medal and the finish, but I couldn’t contemplate the prospect of the next 3-4 hours of pain that the finish required. I kept having to tell that of me to shut up and let me get on with it.
Soon after the turn and just before the final checkpoint at Harborough Tavern – under a graffitied bridge vaguely smelling of urine – the volunteers are saints – I am welcomed by a man who I’d seen at various moments since the very first checkpoint. Wearing the same clothes, which evidently meant he’d been following the race without sleep just to help man the checkpoints and encourage everyone along. God bless him. He asks me if I’m ok, and I just break out in a huge grin – hurting, sure, but fuck I’m going to finish, how can I not feel great! He walked me into the checkpoint as we chatted, and I asked if he’d done the race. “A few times”, he says modestly. “What’s your name?” I ask, finally remembering social niceties. “Pat,” he says. I guess I had a few brain cells left, because I realized it was Pat Robbins, who’s won the GUCR several times and held the course record until last year. I asked him how he was able to run it so fast, and he just modestly responded that he didn’t know how the guys winning last year and this year are able to do it in under 24h or thereabouts. Well, yes, I guess we all have our own reference points. Anyway, I promised him I wouldn’t blab about this incredible race so that it doesn’t get run over by foreigners, but I have been unable to keep my mouth shut. But no worries, it’s not like I have a huge fan following.
So that’s about it. It started pouring down just as I got to the checkpoint, and I’d put my rain jacket in my dropbag (“ah, I’m done, let’s pack everything away!”) and there’s no dropbag at the last checkpoint. But incredible and resourceful Sandhurst-graduate Anthony met up with me with a cut-out garbage bag, which tied me over perfectly until the sun came out again not long after. I said goodbye to Anthony, since he had to return to his dad’s place before flying out the next morning for work in Paris. Difficult to express the depth of my gratitude at that moment. For sure we’d shared an incredible experience, and not sure I would have made it without his unfailing presence. Or if I had, it would have been with far darker moments and doubts. We did this race together.

Shortly after leaving the checkpoint, I was caught up with Simon! Aside from one half-hearted attempt to jog, we basically just walked as best we could. Didn’t even feel like a death march because I did feel like I was giving it all at that point just to put one foot in front of the other. And so we chatted for over three hours, about our respective experiences over the previous 36 hours, past and future races, home life, and other stuff.
And then Little Venice came into view. Finally, the FINISH! 39h23mn, and a medal that completely lived up to expectations. After that... Well, I succeeded so well in splitting the race up into smaller chunks that I still can't wrap my head around the full number of 145 miles, 233km. I love it!