Saturday, April 29, 2017

12h Villeneuve race review - a new high!

Well, that was a unique experience. I never, ever thought I would do loops for 12 hours. I first heard about timed races 17 years ago, and it seemed utterly, mind-numbingly nuts (stupid, fucked up actually) – and this was while I was competing in the marathon des sables, my first serious footrace after a marathon a few months earlier, only a year after starting running. The guy who told me about it was Swiss German, so I just put it down to cultural differences.

Then I realized he wasn’t alone. Timed races are actually very popular in France among a certain crowd of runners. Well, they’re French, right? So… Ah, but that’s when the penny dropped – I’m French! Well, sort of. Longstanding family heritage, even if I've never actually lived there - apart from when I did my civil service (smoking pot, drinking rum and working in the banana industry in the French West Indies for 16 months)…

Anyway, that’s not really why I decided to compete in a timed race. I realized I was actually more curious than I cared to admit when Jean-Luc Ridet, the organizer of the Ultra Tour du Léman (110-mile run around Lake Geneva) started the first time race in French-speaking Switzerland (though French-speaking, it’s very much not French) in April 2016. So I volunteered, having done so at the UTL in 2014, and thought it would perfect to discover what it was all about. 

It was – it felt like being at an exchangist party and not putting your keys in the bowl. I knew I had to participate in 2017 – et voilà! And what do I think about it?

Hmm. It is definitely not boring – but I’d pretty much figured it wouldn’t be. I did think that the repetitious nature of it would lead to either overload or mystical epiphany – but neither occurred. But it was definitely an incredible inner journey, enriching, and unique. It feels both exhilarating and dirty, a bit like kinky sex. You feel like you’ve transgressed some socially acceptable barrier (when someone who’s done the Tor des Géants thinks you’re strange…), but it just felt so gooood.
Seriously, there’s something perverse yet so gratifying about running 12h (let alone 24h, or more) in circles – something fascinating, and that answers a deeper yearning, about running a long distance without actually going anywhere – that I can’t help but make analogies with sex.

Here’s what I think happened. It wasn’t boring, because running isn’t boring, and a timed race reduces the whole event just to the running. It makes you realize that you don’t always need incredible landscape to enjoy being out there pumping away. I know it helped to some degree that I enjoyed perfect weather and that the Villeneuve 6h/12h/24h race is in a beautiful location nestled in the Rhone valley between two alpine ranges, but that only takes you so far. A few hours into the event, I remember suddenly feeling like I’d fallen in love with running all over again – how did that happen? It’s because there’s nothing but the running. A trail run is often more like an adventure, but here all the non-running related uncertainty is gone: you need a change of clothes, more food, water, a shower, a rest? It’s all there within at most the time it takes you to complete a loop. All that’s left is to run – so, you’re completely left to your own devices (yes, I had to slip a Pet Shop Boys reference there).

That’s the inner journey part – you and your running, your reasons and objectives. But you’re definitely not alone. You leap-frog with people, you chat with some – but I found much less than in “regular” races (but who defines what’s normal?!) because pacing for most is quite crucial – you get to see the same volunteers round after round after round, so it’s not just a 2mn thing and then goodbye, you get appreciate how much they really put in to giving a good race and get to really express that appreciation. And in this year’s event, it was fantastic because one volunteer’s daughter rounded up her friends to do the 6-hour timed race as a six-person relay with team whose average age was 8.5 years old! From 6 to 10, and they did it, logging more than sixty kilometers! It was amazing to see these kids running - sometimes with a parent next to them, sometimes not – next to grizzled veterans of Badwater, Spartathlon, 6-day timed races, Transgaule… And everyone enjoying themselves equally. Running democracy at its best.

Yes for sure, having dipped my toe in it, I’ll be back for more. After the 12h threesome, I have to do the 24h orgy…

I actually was very tempted to do it this year, but with the GUCR only 5 weeks after, 12h was perfect to test my race pace, while 24h I’m sure would have been too much. On that front I’m thrilled. I was happy to go out last (and stay last for several hours), plodding away at my intended race pace, and stopping for 4-5mn after 10, 21, 34 rounds to simulate the checkpoints. It took me a really long time to figure out a run/walk strategy that could emulate a point-to-point race but adapted to running in circles, but I did in any case do some of that too. So all in all very good, particularly since I ran the last loops pretty much as fast as the first, and two days later I was back to training with an interval session on Tuesday and heading for a 90k week. The one disappointment was discovering that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were not the bliss I’d expected them to be. I had been so excited – for the first time, I could make the sandwiches and put them in my drop bag, and access them easily without fear of what I would find. But no – I actually threw away the last one.

Anyway – for anyone who’s ever considered a timed race but not really sure about it: do it! If you’re curious about something, probably means you’ll enjoy it…

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