This race was the race of firsts.
- This was the first time I entered a mountain trail (One of the runners argued that it was not strictly speaking a mountain trail but a hill trail. This reminded me of the movie with Hugh Grant, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain).
- This was the first time I travelled to a race on my own. Generally I run with Marie or we use the race as an excuse to organise a family mini-break.
- This was the first time I failed to finish a race. Oops, sorry for the spoiler. Since you know the end, you can stop reading.
I could have predicted the outcome. The reasons why I chose the trail of Beaumes-de-Venise were because it is part of the Trails de Provence, and I wanted to run one of those, it is a “short trail”, which means less than a marathon distance (most people would probably not consider running 30 kilometres in hills “short”) and it was fitting my calendar. However, according to all the reports I read, it is one of the most difficult if not the most difficult trail in Provence (and boy, difficult it was).
The second warning was the history of drop-outs in the race. 30 to 40 of the couple of hundreds participants drop off every year (we beat that head and shoulders this year).
The third warning made the second one even more worrying. At the start, all the participants looked super mega fit. I was not just the only overweight person. The others all looked skinny and strong at the same time. A few of the participants were top-class such as Sandra Martin, who was then the French long trails champion (and actually topped the women rankings on the day). Most of the competitors in the Trails of Provence challenge were running as well.
Sooooo, I did not feel anxious at all waiting for the starting time …
The start from the centre of Beaumes-de-Venise was good. I decided to start close to the back of the pack, so as not being dragged forward by people running too fast, and not impede too many runners. We all ran the first 1.5K, until the chapel of Notre-Dame d’Aubune.
NB: This bit was supposed to be 2K according to the course profile. But this was not true, as all the other communicated distances: the rest stop was not at 16K, but 17K. The cut-off was not 1K after the rest stop, but 1.5K. And the short-cut did not last 4K, but 5K. I just don’t get why the organisers did that. It really killed me. When I saw nothing coming at the announced distance, my moral collapsed each time.
Anyway, we then started the first climb. Everyone started to walk, and we were basically walking noses to bums until the top. It was scorching hot, and the hillside was fully southward. The forecast was 30 deg C, although some runners claimed that they recorded 37 on some parts of the course. But I had climbed this the previous day so I knew what to expect (a very silly thing to do by the way. What was I thinking? I should have saved every ATP molecule and rest every muscle cell!).
After that, it was down into the valley of “Grand Vallat”. I also ran that one the previous day (grrr.), so it was also fine. My only niggle was the GoPro chest strap again. I already had problems during the London2Cambridge challenge. But I put it on again for this trail. Not good. It pushed on my stomach and made me nauseous. On a regular basis I unlocked it, but that was really bothering me. I should also not have eaten only 2 hours before the race (a pasta salad, a bit of dry sausage and a banana).
Then, we started to climb, really climb, towards the hill of Grand Montmirail. The factor that killed us early was that the the climb took place in two steps. First, we had a long climb (2K) between 5 and 15%. I started to be passed by runners at that point. People who got stuck in the queue after the chapel, and started to get their proper rhythm.
Second, we were hit by a crazy climb, 800 m at more than 15%. This was when my heart went mental. I had to stop a couple of times, just to let it calm down. This was also when I started to overtake runners, who were crashing (one of them was actually attended by first aid crew). The crazy climb ended up with a near vertical portion where I was on all four.
But look at the picture below. Some people actually ran this stuff!
I looked pretty happy though.
The arrival at the summit of the Grand Montmirail at 8K granted us with the first breathtaking vision of the run though, with the majestic Dentelles Sarasines in front of us. It was worth the pain.
By that time I ached, but it was just physical. I still tried to run whenever I could (although my criteria for the runnability of the trail became more stringent), and was still considering reaching the rest station possibly in time. And in any case, I was still willing to continue the race as an independent runner under my own responsibility (this option was offered). That is when I started to feel hungry for the first time. I had a fruity bar, which went down OK.
Then we had to climb the Dentelles Sarasines themselves. Pretty stiff slope, with a portion of several hundreds metres >15%. The end of the portion at km 10 is a vertical wall, requiring ropes to climb it (yup, you read it right. This is not borderline trail “running” in my book …).
At 627 m, this was the highest point of the trail and the reward was an amazing view of the valley towards Gigondas.
At that point I realised that my legs would not sustain much more climbing, and in particular the 2.5K of uninterrupted climb in the second part of the race. But my moral was still good, and I was still just in time for the cut-off. I even found some crazy parts of the trail funny. Would you call what is on the picture below a “trail”?
But then came the downhill part. The first 2K were hard because of the numerous portions of rolling stones. Imagine running down a sand dune, with sand rolling under your feet as you get down. But each grain of sand would have a size ranging from a marble to a melon. It both kills the knees, the quads, and is quite dangerous. Basically, either you run it hoping for the best, or you have to slowly slide along (look at my shadow on the picture below …).
This took a few of us out. At the end of this portion we reached a water point. The few of us running together then realised that we would probably not make the cut-off. That caused a mental meltdown for me. Basically, the realisation that I would not make the cut-off triggered a “what’s the point” attitude, where I did not feel like pushing any more. And that was a wrong place to feel that, because we climbed again. I had imagined that we would go downhill from the Dentelles to the rest stop. But this was not the case. We had to climb again, three times! I tried to eat a cereal bar, but could not swallow anything solid. To be fair, the landscape was pretty stunning, but by that time I was passed tourism.
After two climbs, one long (2K) and one shorter, we plunged towards the village of Lafare, at >15%. In some portions the descent was so vertical that I had to play Tarzan and go from tree to tree or to face the rock and go down using my hands.
At that point I was really hobbling around. And then, I started to see the village in the valley, hooray! How deceiving are hills though … The trail started uphill again, and AWAY FROM THE VILLAGE! I swore so much that it will be easier to delete the sound-track on the GoPro movie rather than beeping the rude words.
In the final descent to Lafare, I was overtaken by a women with whom I spent the next few km. She was a seasoned runner, finishing the CCC and the TDS (two of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc races) and organising another trail of Provence, in Manosque. She had actually ran part of the UTMB 2 weeks before. But she did not make the cut-off time there either.After the rest stop, we climbed a bit together, but she was really struggling and I left her (although she finally finished not much later than me). The rest stop was full of runners who gave up. Some were exchanging views about the trail, some were lying on benches or even on the ground. The volunteers were super nice and super helpful, comforting us, giving advices and of course providing food and drinks.
So, as expected I did not make the 18K cut-off. As a result I was re-routed through a short-cut (see profile) which corresponded to the short trail race (“La Dentellière”). I did not climb the last two summits and ran only 23K. But the view of the valley southward was gorgeous. It is a pity my GoPro was dirty by then.
However, from 19K onward, I was back on the regular course, including a long run along the river La Salette, and sometimes in the river.
Because I was back on the normal course, I was running amongst people who actually ran the 30K and were arriving at the same time. I felt like an impostor when I finally reached Beaumes-de-Venise and was cheered up by the crowd during the last half km. At the finish line, as is customary for the trails or ultras, I was greeted by a microphone and asked for “one word”. Of course, despite being warned by the Lapins Runners, I did not prepare anything interesting and witty to say in advance, and since my brain was fried (literally), I could not improvise much (I just muttered that I was dead and choosing this trail as my first was perhaps a mistake).
The first thing I did after passing the line was to get my free beer! Gosh, it was so good, so cold! To follow on the cooling down, I went to try on a bit of cryotherapy. The theory behind cryotherapy is (unsurprisingly) that cold improves recovery after a strong effort and in particular alleviates delayed onset muscle soreness. Some high profile runners use sophisticated cryotherapy on a regular basis, such as Mo Farah. I do not know anything about the scientific basis for cryotherapy. And having no comparison, I cannot evaluate its effectiveness on myself. However, I indeed did not hurt much or at all this evening, and most of the next day. Pain in the calves and the buttocks only started the next evening. I basically removed shoes and socks and dipped in water at 13 deg C for 5 min.
I then decided to take a shower before the prize ceremony and dinner. I found the idea of a dinner with all the runners very nice, even if my mood was not at its highest after my failure to complete the whole trail. I changed into regular clothes, but it turned out most runner did eat in running kits. Since the next day the village was still full of people strolling around in running gear, I suspect that many trail runners just use such clothing all the time. After all, it is very comfortable.
I finished the 23K in 5 hours and 3 min. The full 30K was finished in 3 hour 9 min by Andy Symonds and in 3 hour 52 by Sandra Martin. The final results say that 115 people finished the complete trail and 94 did not. However, several people who were rerouted (including myself) appeared in the rankings. An unofficial post on Facebook mentioned a 60% drop-out rate!