Sunday, June 10, 2018

100km Bienne race report: not too shabby after all...

What a strange race this was, with a feeling of really missing my goal yet at the same time objectively not doing too bad. Thing is, this was in some respects my 'A' race for this year, since I have geared my training since March specifically for this. I was hoping for a sub-11h, which was a bit optimistic, but considering my marathon times 3h45-4h (on a bad day too), and a 100k time is supposed to be 2.8-3x that, then 11h30-12h should definitely have been possible. The test, therefore, for me was to see how consistent I could be and run pretty much throughout, which would be real break-through for me.

Bienne is the 2nd oldest ultra-marathon in the world, celebrating its 60th birthday, and started out as a military race - and there are still teams that compete in uniform with a special race bib. Which might explain why it starts at 10pm. I haven't been sleeping well and I don't too well with sleep deprivation, so I was worried about this aspect, and had quit coffee for a few days before so that my caffeine pill taken just at the start would (hopefully) have an optimal effect. It sort of worked - i didn't get sleepy enough to want to nap, but I think I was definitely affected by the fatigue.

The race atmosphere is interesting. It starts in the center of town, and there are about 800 competitors, plus several hundred more competing in the 56km race or as relays or as pairs, so over a 1000 people. There's a small race "village", and all the competitors can change and lounge around in the sports arena. So it's not what you'd call low-key, and yet it had that feel. The start was just a brief annoucement and then the gun went off. The top runners charged off, the rest of the crowd shuffled forward, taking about 2mn total to cross the start. I was still taking a last pee and had enough time to amble up to the back of the crowd.

Things started out well. About a kilometer of weaving between people who were starting out at a slower pace, but we were going through town with nice crowds cheering us on. I was pacing well at 5'55"-6'15" per km. I felt good, relaxed, the only thing was my stomach was bit queasy, crampy. I'd taken imodium to avoid any unpleasantness, but was kicking myself for forgetting my ginger.

I passed the first 10km in 1h03, only a bit fast but feeling fine, and the 2nd 10km in 2h08, so now right on pace. We were now in the countryside and the air was permeated with the smell of manure, which did nothing to help my stomach issues. But I was able to eat - there were food points almost every 5km. No time to dally, otherwise you can waste a lot of time, and I managed to get in and out of checkpoints quite quickly, just like during a marathon: grab a few fistfuls of food, top up the water bottle (first just water, then I began mixing water and coke), and off - this is the first time I've done a race of this length without stopping at checkpoints, and it was one of my goals, so happy about that. (No using the drop bag service at km 56 in Kirchberg!)

It was shortly after half-marathon point that the shit hit the fan. I  can't be sure, of course, but I think the night start had a lot to with it, and a day at work ending in stress and the muggy weather just compounded it. Also, having just looked now at the race profile - lesson learned! -  a major contributor to slowing down and feeling bad may be that between km 20 and 30km it's all slightly uphill - 150m elevation. Not much, but I didn't notice it in the dark so I probably struggled a bit to keep up the pace but not realizing exactly why, i entered a dark downward spiral.

So I hit the wall hard - and then it was mental warfare for the next 50km. All night, on these long straight stretches of road, I just cursed myself. This would be my last ultra for a while! No more of this, except with a friend! I am not enjoying myself, this is stupid! I am hopeless, all this training serves no purpose, I'm just not made for this shit!... I passed the marathon stage in just under five hours, with the real sense that I could not have run it faster even if it had just been a marathon. I was seriouly contemplating quitting, and kept talking myself out it. I knew I could finish, I just didn't know how long it would take (and I wanted to get home to the family before the afternoon - and my ego was a bit bruised that I would do so poorly after having trained so specifically for this.

I arrived at Kirchberg at 56km before dawn. That's when I realized that this race, sad to say for such a venerable event, really has no soul. It was filled with people finishing the 56km race, and the rest of us just seemed to be an after thought. The food stations are all stocked with the same nuts, pretzels, isotonic drink, 'sports' tea (???), bouillon, bananas, gels and protein bars. I stuck with some nuts, pretzels and bananas - and rasberry jam tart ("linztorte") the region's specialy, which I love. But after 10 hours, I would get a bit tired of just that. Here in Kirchberg, they had another tent was next to the food station, with hot dogs and fries and coffee - but only for sale!!! I couldn't believe it - no coffee on an all-night 100km race. So really, I felt like we 100k runners were just punted off to the side. It felt a bit like that throughout the race, no-one really speaking to each other, rather disengaged volunteers - though, as always, much appreciated and very kind (just a weird mix of aloof and businesslike).

Anyway, this is the only place where I took a little more time, lying down for just under 10mn with my legs up and my eyes closed, gathering my mental resources to carry on to the bitter end and not stop here (which would have been far too much bother anyway, since I had no idea how long a wait it would be for a bus back to Bienne - and I certainly didn't want to be riding with a bunch of 56km finishers).

After Kirchbert, the route goes in the woods along the Emme river. I remember enjoying this part with Cyril 13 years ago. We'd had a purple spot, jogging after a lot of walking and chatting away. - This time it was agony, forcing myself not to walk and to keep up a decent pace, just trying to stay positive as I hit "'just' a marathon to go", then "under 40km", and now the sun was coming up. I just couldn't wait to get out of the forest, but then the next stretch goes near a refinery and through some sort of industrial zone, then out into more agricultural land with the smell of manure again...

Finally at 70km I snapped back into a postive mindset. I realized that if I could just not slow down I could make it under 13h, which wouldn't be so bad, especially since my secondary goal was consistency - and, excluding the first 20km, I had been moving at around 8km/h. What really helped to not stop and walk too often was to give it structure: I reverted to a 5'/1' run-walk strategy. It really helped keep my mind busy, and with the music and seeing the kilometers tick down - 30, 25, 20 to go - I replaced the vicious circle by a virtuous one. I realized that I could be mentally strong enough to keep running even when I wanted to just death march the rest of the race, and that physically I could do so. I was passing people and could feel the months of physcial training paying off (true or not, I don't know, but I've never felt this good this late in a 100k race). I wasn't just dragging myself through the end of the race, I was pushing myself to the finish.

At km 80, the sun now fully up but not yet too sunny and hot (that would come about an hour before finishing), we hit the most scenic part of the race, along the canal of the Aar river. It reminded me of the GUCR, but in a way that I wish the GUCR was: instead of being hemmed in by the canal on one side and a hedge of the other which obscures the view of the surrounding countryside, here we had a smaller hedge between the foot path and the canal, so you really feel out in the open. We came through a few small villages, with a mix of typical Swiss German/Austrian architecture and contemporary apartment buidings of suprisingly interesting architecture.

Finally I reached the outskirts of Bienne and just kept plowing along, At km 90, i was doing 4'/1' run-walk, then 3'/2', but I was running decently and keeping pretty much to just under 8km/h. Then the signposts - every 5km until then - came every km: 96, 97, 98, 99... Then round a bend I recognized the starting pen and saw the Congress Hall where the race ended.

12h50mn: I pumped my fist. Better by 50mn than Millau, much better consistency (in fact, after km 20, there was very little difference between the first half and the second half), no stopping (in Millau, I stopped for 40mn at Sainte Affrique, km 70), and feeling strong at the end. So while I was way off my hoped-for time, I'll focus on the positive. I'm not sure if I'll do another 100km, but it would have to be one that isn't too hilly (Bienne is fine, but not Millau or 100km Savoie, for instance) and starts in the morning (and one that has more soul than Bienne!), and in that case I do think I could go under 12h, perhaps even manage 11h30. I guess I'll just have to put that theory to the test...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Looking back at the Geneva Marathon 2018

I'm glad I waited a bit to write a short account - or rather a "lessons learned" - of the Geneva marathon this year, because at the time and for a while after it felt like a catastrophe, a complete meltdown. Now, I am putting it somewhat in perspective (though that might be because I want to psyche myself up for 100k Bienne race this weekend).

So why a catastrophe? I was aiming for 3h25, but finished in 4h05, pretty much giving up in the process to try for a decent time. I just wasn't in it.

The first reason was physical. I'm not sure how realistic my time was with regard to my capabilities, but it felt achievable - at least back in January! But considering the difficulties I was having with the target pace (not to mention I never got rid of the intended 6-8kg), I think that it would have been better to give up on the arbitrary Boston qualifier time, and even on the psychological 3h30, and gone for 3h35, which definitely should have been feasible. Thing is, I forgot my ultimate goal, which was "increase speed". That meant pushing myself all the way through a marathon distance - whether that involves finishing in 3h20 or more (but less than 3h45, my PB). So, I should have determined a more realistic time that would involve a good pacing effort and aimed for that, rather than something arbitrary which, after 10k, just made me throw in the towel. I did lower my expectations early, notably because of the heat, but that's just it: I lowered my expectations rather than set a goal i could be proud of, and so after about 20k when I couldn't be bothered anymore, it was easy just to give up trying for any time.

And of course, I went out too fast, considering that my time was unrealistic and because of the heat. But the second reason was mental. I had aimed to train quite specifically to try seriously for a "best time" in a marathon - but I didn't really do it properly, fitting too-short marathon pace sessions mid-week, and not bothering fitting more in during the long runs on the weekend, which I did at 100k pace. But still, I'd logged some respectable miles, with tempo runs, mile reps and intervals - so I psyched myself up for it. And when I realized that it probably wasn't go to happen, disappointment took over and I just gave up, rather than try for a "best effort". This was compounded by the fact that I was at the wedding of a colleague of my wife the night before, and though I ultimately got home at 1am and the Geneva marathon mercifully starts at 9.45am, which means I got enough sleep (and hadn't been drinking), I'd started to feel that it was "ruining" all those weeks of specific training.

The good stuff

But looking on the bright side, I took the time to chat with (or rather, whine to) a few friends and acquaintances a long the way. I settled into a 100k pace towards 30k and used it as a training run. The heat, once my pace lowered, didn't bother me in the least. I recovered really well. And I had the very novel experience of filling for 10-15mn to pull the chariot of  handicapped patient at Clair-Bois, an organization that was raising money for its cause. So on top of it, if I count all those stops and slow downs, I was actually close to a sub-4h, which in past years would have made me very happy.

Looking forward to Bienne

I don't want to make the same mistake for Bienne. When I originally signed up last August, I thought I could give a 10h time a good go - at least train specifically at that pace. But while I might still harbor dreams (the way my son thinks that he may one day get the 500-dollar Millenium Falcon Lego set), I know that it isn't feasible, particularly with the stress fracture that delayed getting into any consistent training for 2-3 months. But I still feel that maybe, just maybe, a sub-10h30, the old Spartathlon qualifying time, might be possible - and that's the time I have to give up on. I feel comfortable at the pace that would allow me to finish in that time, and have maintained it even on 3h long runs at the end of a heavy mileage week, but it would mean maintaining that pretty much for the whole time with no slow-down, and ignores pretty much any down time at food stations.

So, again, back to the basics. I want to be able to maintain a steady pace for as long as possible - the goal is "being faster and more consistent", i.e. do a 100km with almost no walking and not too much slow-down. I aim to start out feeling comfortable at around 9.7 km/h, so I think a sub-11h would be at good target. My previous best time was 13h38 in Millau, which is known for its hills, so I would even be (or should be) happy with a sub-12h, but anything over that I would consider that my aim to work hard at the race would not have been accomplished.

Shall see on Friday!