Beaumes-de-Venise trail run

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.

starting
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.

bdv-course

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!).

queu-leu-leu3

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).

bdv-profile

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.

firstdentelle

But look at the picture below. Some people actually ran this stuff!

870a-symonds-cp-akunamatata

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.

view2nddentelles

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 …).

therope

At 627 m, this was the highest point of the trail and the reward was an amazing view of the valley towards Gigondas.

valleygigondas

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”?

boulders

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 …).

gravels2

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.

majestic

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.

verticaldownhills

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.

foodgloriousfood

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.

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!

Roman road and Fleam Dyke

Most often, a Sunday run involves starting from home and running on known roads not far from the house. Around Sawston, we are fortunate to have nice trails at short distances. One such trail is the Roman road. This is a long straight path running south east from Cambridge for many miles. It is unfortunately cut by the A11. But I frequently use both portion alternately. The North portion is part of a loop going through BabrahamWandlebury,  the Magog down and Stapleford and back to Sawston. I use the South portion, quite undulated, to train for trail. However, I am always limited by the time I can spend on a run.

A fellow runner of the London 2 Cambridge challenge once posted that she trained on a 50K run along the Roman Road and the Fleam Dyke. I did not hear about the Fleam Dyke before so my curiosity was picked. In June 2016, I decided to go and see this dyke by myself. The run was lovely. However it took me 11K to reach the beginning of the dyke. I decided to go back, since this meant already more than 22K and 2:30. But I promised myself that I would do the whole run during the summer. The last week end of August is a bank holiday in England. The weather forecast was brilliant and my family was away. It was therefore a perfect occasion. Here is the path in green:

map-RR-FD

I actually came from Sawston, not from Cambridge, and got a bit lost in the middle. So the actual run, that lasted 48K was:

RR-FD-course

Since I knew I would travel for roughly 50K, I brought plenty of liquid. But I suspected I would be short. I had two 550 ml chest bottles – one of water, one of electrolytes, another hand held 550, and a litre of water in my backpack. My backpack was the Ultimate direction AK 2. I love it because it is minimal, and therefore does not bother me in the runs. But in this situation, it was too minimal. I stuffed it to the maximum, and could barely add gels, bars and a banana after the bottle, the pack of wet wipes (yep, never forget those), an extra battery for my phone/GPS. BTW, this decided me to buy a new one when I came back. I changed manufacturer and volume, and bought the Salomon S Lab Advanced Skin 12 (12 L instead of 4.5 on the back)

The first 5K are on roads from Sawston, through Babraham, across the A1307, to reach the Roman road. Then just 1K on the lovely Roman road. Here are pictures taken during my June run. The Roman road is actually on the other side of the trees. The poppies are lining the fields along the road.

Then we take to the fields. Very green in June, which forced me to run on the side, in overgrown wet grass. Fortunately at the end of August, the harvest let us with very flat fields that can be ran without detriment to crops.

IMG_20160618_115114

After a few hundred meters, we enter a sort of magical mini-wood. It is only about 5-10 meters wide but it feels much more secluded than that. And it provided a much appreciated shadow on a very sunny morning.

After crossing Balsham road, that links the villages of Fulbourn and Balsham, we  reach a nice path lining fields and the Fulbourn Fen reserve. This part is positively lovely and is what decided me to do the whole run. We finally reach the bottom of the dyke. These dykes are fortifications dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, although traces of previous earthworks dating from Iron and Bronze ages are present. There are several of such dykes running in parallel in a south-east direction.

dykes

The dyke is basically a long elevation of ground, accompanied by a ditch where the soil was taken. On the top of the Fleam Dyke is a path which is sometimes runnable, and otherwise walkable.

IMG_20160618_112531

My experience of the path goes from positively lovely – clean path, beautiful surrounding – to gruelling – nettles, blackberry, wet overgrowth and roots. But altogether a very special path. I would say I was able to run half of it. The dyke is cut several times, by a disused railway, by the A11 and at the levels of farms. These descents and climbs actually cause welcome distractions. On the way we pass near an impressive wind farm

The dyke progressively disappear and the difficulties start … There are no indications there. I strongly recommend to acquire the guide book if you want to do the walk/run. The path goes through the village of West Wratting, then wanders through fields.  I got lost a first time there, and ended up in Yen Hall Farm. One of the persons living there was able to point me to the right direction and I reached the village of West Wickham. Shortly after leaving West Wickham, I got lost again. The farmers have changed the configuration of the fields since the guide was printed, and when signs remain they are tiny (and dark brown, which does not help considering the main colour of the surrounding …). Thanks to some indications from walkers, from the position of the sun, my phone sat nav, and sheer luck, I was able to reach the Roman Road again. After crossing fields I was so covered in thistles  that I had to undress to remove all the prickling bits by hand.  By then, it was clear that I would run out of liquid well before home. Therefore, I decided to make a small detour and see if I could find something open on the bank holiday. By chance I did. I landed at the Old Red Lion, the pub of the village of Horseheath. Now I have to confess.  I did buy water, to refill my chest bottle and put in my back pack. But I also took a beer. After the mishaps in West Wratting and West Wickham, it was impossible for me to beat any time I did at the L2C. Therefore, there was no hurry … The beer was soooo fresh, taken outside, extending my legs in the sun🙂

Restarting was not easy, but I was cheered up by horses with sunglasses. They were very friendly and both came to be say hello (well, they  came to see if I had food for them, but close enough).

Running on the Roman road was enjoyable as usual. By then, I was pretty tired. But I still ran on the flat and downhill, and walked the climbs. I was happy to come home but cannot wait to do it again, for instance in winter, when there are no nettles, blackberries and thistles …

Final time of 7h24 for 48K.

 

Hyde Park 10K. How long can I expect PBs to come?

Since I had no race planned in August and, after all, it is time for Summer holidays, I decided to only run a 10K. It went well and I improved my personal best by more than 2 min. I am ecstatic. But I cannot avoid the question: How long will that blessed period of consistent improvement last? I am not young any more you know …

But the race first.

There were no such race locally in August, so I went all the way to London (which meant waking up at 6am on Sunday, boohoo).  The Hyde Park 10K is part of the Royal Park Summer Series. The weather was beautiful, and it was a blessing. Indeed, the race starts in the middle of the park, without any protection. Toilets were close by though. After collecting my race pack, and changing in my race clothes, I was ready to warm up. About 700 runners participated, which made for a big crowd. The organisers therefore decided to set up impromptu waves. A few seconds after the start, to-be-runners (including me) were stopped in their launch for a 30 sec wait …

The race was made up of two 5K laps around the East part of the park, pretty flat with just the right amount of 1%  slopes and climbs to keep us awake. The main problem was that the race track stays open to all. We were constantly among the Sunday morning crowd of walkers (mostly nice), and cyclists (mostly not nice).  At some point we even ran with the gardener’s van. I then experienced the predicament of elite runners, forced to run in the fumes of the media vans and motorbikes. Not cool.

HydePark-2016-course

I am very happy with my race, because I was consistent. After a usual slow start, that was a good warming up, I mostly stayed between 5:00 and 5:25 per K. As you can see below, the sliding average (dashed grey line) does not show either constant slope or kink as it so often does.

HydePark-2016-profile

medal.jpg

I stopped a few sec at 5K for a cup of water. I did loose time (not just because of the drink, but it always takes me a few hundreds metres to get my rhythm again), but it was worth it. The weather was very nice, and the sweat abundant.

Final time was 51 min and 48 sec. My previous best was 54 min and 22 sec, hence an improvement of 2 min and 34 sec.  Quite chuffed with that.

 

 

 

 

Now, how long will I keep improving my times? The first question is “how good am I doing now?” I mean, considering my current form, what should be my time on a race without specific difficulties (flat course, cool temperature, no wind etc.). An important parameter to measure that is the Jack Daniel’s VDOT.

DanielsRunningFormula

You can learn all about it in his iconic book, one of the runner’s bibles. The VDOT (a v with a dot above) is an “effective VO2max“,  VO2max being your maximum rate of oxygen consumption. Runners with the same VDOT should perform the same, whatever their actual VO2max. How do we determine our VDOT? Daniels’ running formula contains tables with VDOT values and theoretical performance in races. You select the highest VDOT corresponding to your races.

I did that. I am very close to the entry of the table (the lower VDOTs), but fortunately still able to make it. At the time I looked, my best performance was the Shelford 5K, that I ran in 25 min and 11 sec. That gives me a VDOT of 38. What does that tell me? That tells me: *today*, I should be able to run the 5K in 25:12 – check, the 10K in 52:17 – check, the half marathon in 1:55:55 – off by 5 min, and the marathon in 3:59:35, off by a whooping 46 min!!! The conclusion is inescapable, I need to get cracking and stop bonking at 16K during half marathons and walk from 30K onward during marathons! I have no excuses, Jack Daniels tells me I can do it.

VDOT

Now, all that is if my form does not improve. What if I loose some weight? What if I improve my lung capacity? What if I change my ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers? To answer the question, we have the WAVA scores (WAVA means World Association for Veteran Athletes, now rename World Masters Athletics). A WAVA score shows the percent of the maximum speed you can expect for your age. They are based on curves computed by fitting the best  times recorded by masters athletics. You can find a set of curves on the website of the runscore software.

I plotted my times on the curves below. My first Wimpole Parkrun in January 2015 scored 43.98%. My Shelford Fun and Run in September 2015 scored 56.74%. A big improvement. That correspond to the world record at 85 years old.

Age5K

My first 10K, for the Milton Keynes festival of running in March 2015, scored 45.82% while last week-end 10K in Hyde Park scored 57.86%. This correspond to the world record at? You guessed it, 85 years old.

Age10K

Now for the half marathons … Not much improvement is there? Peterborough Great Eastern run in October 2015 scored 52.44%, while my best, the Silverstone half in March 2016 scored 53.88%. My VDOT would correspond to the fastest speed of an 86 years old, but my best time correspond to the best of an 88 years old.

AgeHalf

Should I go on to the marathon? Well I have only one point here. But it tells me that my Shakespeare marathon, in April 2016, score a paltry 47.49%. My VDOT would correspond to the best of a 86 years old, but I ran a marathon corresponding to the best achievable at 90 years old.

AgeMarathon

Conclusions:

  1. I need to work on stamina and fortitude, and reach my VDOT predicted performances. I have zero excuses not to.
  2. I have lots of room to improve my VDOT, even without competing with actual athletes.

I will aim at running the 10K in 50 min. That would give me a VDOT of 40. This mean a 5K in 24 min, a half marathon in 1 h 51 min and a marathon in  3 h 45 min. If I achieve that before being too old, I will be very happy. And then I will be allowed to concentrate on slow trail running (in three weeks I am running my first mountain trail, which features a participant who is 76 years old).

 

About complacency and fortitude

My participation to the London2Cambridge challenge let me low in energy and aching in many different parts, feet, legs, hips. I nevertheless recovered and started to run again. I was running fairly short runs and on a slow pace.
D+7:  3.6 km at 8min52s/km (my 50K pace)
D+9: 5.8 km at 6min50s/km  (my 41K pace)
D+13: 7 km at 6min13s/km (my 31K pace)
D+15: 8 km at 6min36s/km (my 38K pace)
At D+21 I ran my first race since the challenge, a half-marathon that I finished in 2h10 (average of 6min8s, that is my 27K pace). By then, I was convinced that the L2C drenched me of all energy and that was the reason I was so slow. I returned home and resumed the training, staying in “recovery mode”. After all, I earned it right? If after a few kms I felt tired, why not stop? I did not have breathing problems. My joints did not hurt. I just felt tired. My body was probably telling me to go easy. Was it really? Since when one is not supposed to feel tired when running?
D+23: 4.8 km at 7min2/km
D+25: 7.15 km at 6min10s/km
D+29: 12.45 km at 6min5s/km. This was a long run in a mix of street, dirt road and mostly wood trail. I did some of the earliest kms at my 5K pace (4m55s/km), the rest very slow. I felt good. Therefore I decided to go back at trying to progress.
D+31. I decided to go for the 12K time-trial.  I ran 7 km at 5:30s and then felt a pain on my right heel. I immediately stopped running and ended the session. When was I supposed to get better? Meanwhile I kept registering for more races. Was I deluded myself? If after more than a month I could not recover from a 100K, that was the end of the story. After all I run because I like it and it helps keep me fit. Not to feel broken and weak.

F..k it. D+33, let’s try again. Sunny afternoon, alone in the gym. Good warm-up and off we go on the treadmill. Everything went well. I broke the boredom with ultra-running podcast (2 days before, I was forced to run watching a contest between Rhianna and Arianna on 4Music …). Sure, arriving at 6-7K I felt tired. But I did not have breathing problems, I did not have specific pains. Just tiredness. The good aspect of treadmill running is that stopping require an active movement (moving your hand and press the slow down or pause buttons). When running on an immobile surface (ignoring the fact that it travels at blinding speed around the centres of the earth, the solar system and the galaxy), it is much easier to just stop moving your legs. So I did not stop. Towards 9K, I had to concentrate and threw my headset across the room (sorry for the disrespect to whoever was talking on the podcast at the time). But I pulled it. 12.07 km at 5min29s/km. Nothing hurt more that usually. I was not broken. I did not collapse on the floor of the gym. On the contrary, the pleasure of having a new benchmark on 12K synergised with the running high. I felt super great.

So you know  what, I was just being complacent before (a lazy bastard would be another way to put it). Because everyone was continuously telling me how amazed they were that I travelled 100K on my feet, I basically stopped pushing. I lacked mental strength, which is one of my greatest weaknesses.

NEVER STOP PUSHING. Otherwise, what is the point?

Recovery from 100K. Back to business

It’s been three weeks since I ran the London 2 Cambridge challenge. Immediately after the event, I could not wait for the next one. I was not alone. A large portion of the members of of Facebook group kept exchanging information about forthcoming challenges. I started to put together a list of possible events to attend, thinking of the organisation, wondering how I could travel to all those places in a year etc. However, before committing to anything (well, I did registered to the Manchester Marathon), I was curious and a bit anxious to know how my body would recover from the 100K. Well, the recovery has been uneven.

FeetAfter2weeks.jpg

The next day after the challenge, I could barely walk. My quads were so sore that I would walk with small steps, without bending my legs. Not surprisingly, stairs presented the toughest challenge.  It took just three days for my walk to become normal again. I still felt stiffness in my legs, but it was more a discomfort than a pain. The large blisters  dried up in a few days and were really never a bother. The small ones persisted for a couple of weeks but did not cause any pain. I did not loose any toenail so far, despite two of them clearly unhappy. Some of my fellow runners are loosing them now, so I might still have to part with some.

Update 30 Aug: After a long trail run (48K), the nail on my left big toe finally let go. A new one was almost complete underneath.

More problematic was my left foot. During a few days after the challenge, I experienced sharp pains on the arch. They reminded me of the plantar fasciitis I once had on the same foot. However, the pain progressively evolved. Sometimes my arch  itched. If I rubbed it, the itching disappeared, to be replaced by pain. Then I noticed that pressing on my thigh caused pain in my foot, and I now think I had a sciatic nerve issue. The problem was solved during a flight to the US. I boarded with the pain, and disembarked without. Pretty much the opposite of what I feared (long hauled flights traditionally cause me all kinds of pain).

The only remaining niggle was a dull pain in my right hip, that still persists today. I was nevertheless able to run during a conference at Disney World  in Orlando. 3K just 7 days after the challenge, and 5K 9 days after, both at very slow pace (in part because of my fatigue, in part because of the very hot temperature, above 24 deg Celsius).

Back home, I had a 7K interval session at the gym, and a 8K “long run” at the week-end. This was 2 weeks after the event. I still felt weak and ran quite slowly. However, I had registered a while ago for the Longeville half marathon.  It is an event just a few kms from my parents home, and I thought it would be nice to couple a race with vacations (this is also one of the qualifying races for the French championship, although I am not at all in the same category as people actually trying to qualify). As usual, I ran with my daughter Marie.

Nicolas-Marie-small.jpg

The weather was gorgeous that day. Despite a start at 18:45, it was still over 28 deg Celsius. Without a cloud in the sky, it felt even hotter. Most of the course offered no shade at all, and we dehydrated quickly. Fortunately, there were many water stations, 8 in total! Most of them offered some kind of food, mostly fresh fruits (I ate far too much water-melon and orange), and sometimes sweets and sugar.

Longeville-Course

Our initial aim was to start on a 5min35 per km basis, as in the Histon half, and keep at it most of the way. I thought it was a good plan to get a personal best since there was no trail portion contrary to Histon. After a few kms, it was clear that I could not sustain such a pace. First, the temperature was far too high, and second, the course was undulated, with alternating smooth slopes and bursts of short steep slopes. We moved back to a goal of 5:45-5:50 per km. I was able to hold that pace for about two third of the race. However, we lost a lot of time at the water stations. We stopped to drink and eat, and jogged slowly for a little while after that, to get back to speed without upsetting our stomach (those stops are easy to spot on the pace diagram).

Longeville-Profile

Towards 12/13 km, Marie started to be a bit restless. As usual, she felt better after the half-point, and was eager to get going. She went on at about 14 km. I could still see her for a while, and then I bonked seriously at 15K, see the graph above. My aim was really to finish, not to record a time. So I probably did not push myself to the limit at the end. I started to power hike on the steepest slopes and even walked while eating a gel. Final results where 2h04 for Marie and 2h10 for me (515/611). These are the gun timings, since there were no chip timings. This is my worst time in actual races. However, considering the difficult conditions, the poor physical state and the lack of training, I can only be happy of the result. [Too bad we do not have a finisher medal. The organisation of this event was really bad, with chaotic arrival. Hundreds of runners were channelled to the same spot to receive a t-shirt and an empty goodie bag. There were no space where crews/families could gather with runners at the arrival. etc. A bit of an anti-climax].

Nicolas-Arrival-small

Nevertheless, I learnt my lesson. After the Shakespeare Marathon, I recovered in 2 days. So much that I recorded my fastest 5 miles on the treadmill about 50 hours after the arrival. Granted, I was not happy with my marathon, feeling that I did not push myself enough. But that was still 42K no matter how slow. Three weeks after my 100K, I still ache, and I am still tired. Ultra-marathons are definitively demanding on the body. And the obvious conclusion is that I cannot (I should not) do more than a few a year, separated by months.

My first 100K, the London 2 Cambridge challenge

As you know, I have taking running 4 years ago, and increased my distance ever since. My close entourage also knows how infatuated I am with long distance running, in particular trail running, having to put with my endless recount of videos I watch on Youtube (From such as the Ginger Runner, Sage Canaday, Zinzin reporter and the Lapin Runners). A year ago, I registered for the London2Cambridge challenge, that I would run in support of Alzheimer’s Research UK. Well … that’s it. I have done it. I am an ultrafinisher!

My wife and I travelled to London the night before and stayed in the Westfield Stratford City mall. The dinner at Jamie’s was not great. Very noisy, slow and bad service (but good food). However, the night in the Premier Inn was good. I was surprised to get any sleep to be honest. I dreamt of running several times but altogether got several hours of decent sleep time.

I woke up at 5am, had a peanut butter sandwich, a banana, washed with a instant coffee. And off I went. In the lift I met a man in running gear who asked me if I was also going “for a little morning run”. This was a bit odd considering that I wore my ultimate direction vest and a GoPro on my chest … It took me about 20 min to reach the start at Hackney East Marsh. The atmosphere there was great. I was right in the middle of what I had watched on YouTube over the last couple of years. All those runners preparing for a full day of effort, tuning their kit, getting the last bits of food and drinks. I was so excited, it felt a bit surreal. I could not possibly be here, in London, about to run an ultra-marathon to go back home.

Our ticket was scanned, and we were providing with our kit. This included our chip, which was on a piece of cardboard in a plastic holder supposed to be worn suspended around the neck. Err… For the walkers maybe. I did not fancy a piece of plastic flapping around during 100K. So I remove the holder and put it in the back pocket of my shorts. It turned out to be not such a great idea. When I arrived half way, the cardboard had started to decompose due to the sweat getting in the plastic holder. For the second half, I put it in my bag. I latter learnt that they could actually scan it through the bag! The kit also included a metal fluorescent band for the night. I dutifully put it in my half way bag … where it stayed for the whole event! Same as for the colourful piece of clothe, that many runners put around their head. Why would I need that? After all, I had my Ferrari cap. I would remember it after the last rest stop, when my eyes burnt as the sweat poured down my brow. Putting items in my half way bag and letting them there would become a theme of this adventure.

I noticed several members of my Facebook L2C team group, but was not bold enough to go say hello. Pretty stupid really. Andrew Dorsett was there, setting up for his first Ultra, a very important event for him. You can read more about his emotional journey to become an ultra runner on his blog. Many runners looked young and fit. I started to fill a bit out of place. Fortunately, a nice lady, older than me, started to chat with me. She turned out to be a former professional runner, 400 m champion. She got cancer and was running the event for a cancer charity. I felt better afterwards. I had a coffee. There were loads of food. As in every stop there was a free supply counter with gels, bars, crisps, fruits and a coffee/tea counter. In addition a warm food counter offered bacon bap, sausages and the such. But I was not feeling hungry. About 25 min before the start, we were invited to enter the starting pen, where we would get the lattest briefing and have our warm up.

0K-24K

7:00. 3 … 2 … 1 … go!

0-10The start was fairly brisk. Many runners made the mistake of going too fast. It is so hard to bridle yourself when you feel you are lightly jogging, chatting with your neighbours. I was doing 5:50 min per km. This is the pace I use during my easy week-end long runs and 20 sec slower than my half-marathon pace. Hey mate! you are NOT doing a half marathon. You are doing 5 half marathons … I initially ran with Andy Killworth, who would end up 7th, finishing in 11h17. He told me about his past experience (this was his second L2C challenge), and warned me about starting too fast. Of course him being slow was far too fast for me. Fortunately we were then running with Rob Coates, who also found the pace too high. We both slowed down to about 6:00 min per km and were joined by Debra Shaverin and Hazel Hall. The following 20K were among the best times of this experience. We chatted all the way, exchanged our experience of running, and sport in general, talked about our living places, our jobs. The weather was superb, sunny but not too hot, and the surrounding along the river Lea really nice. We were in the middle of London, but it felt like countryside.

10-24This loveliness was to be my doom. We seldom stopped at the 10K mid-point. Just a little pee and an attempt at a chocolate bar. This did not go down and I threw it the bin. I also had a cup of water. However, over the first 18K, I drank … 3 times. I was just not thirsty, and felt like I could go on forever. By 18K though I felt really tired. I stopped talking, answering questions with single words (or grunts), despite the exciting topic: Brexit. Rob noticed how I was struggling, and slowed down to run with me. He kept me going until 22K, at which point I told him to go. I walked a few meters while drinking and crawled to the rest-point. I was crushed and scared. I had only go one fifth of the way and was dead. I was no ultra-runner! This was a half-marathon distance (it did not occurred to me that I ran this half-marathon faster than my first actual half-marathon! No wonder I was not keeping up). How on earth would I finish this race? I was thinking about the lesson I was giving the next day. Would I arrive in Cambridge in time? What about my daughter who was supposed to join me at 71K? How could I tell her that I would probably not be there on time. Heck, I would probably not be there on the same day.

24K-37K

24-37Debra, Hazel and Rob were still at the stop when I arrived, and waited for me before leaving. I had bought a meal, which was silly. I tried to get something down, but could swallow none of the hard food. Fortunately, there were also fruits on the regular food supply, and I had an apple. After a few minutes, we were ready to go. A hundred metres were sufficient to tell me that I could not run. My calves were cramping as soon as I was jogging. And I really wanted a wee, despite having visited the loos at the stop. I told Rob to leave me and join Debra and Hazel (Rob and Debra would finish together in 15h06, Hazel was doing the first half and finished 6th in 6h18!). I went into a bush and tried to pee. Less than a dozen drops came out, of a nice dark ruby colour. All was now clear (no pun intended), I was completely dehydrated. The following 13K were miserable. I would run a few dozen meters, cramp, walk a km, and iterate. The surroundings were still delightful, the weather gorgeous, but I was very gloomy. On top of all, my GoPro’s chest strap was hurting me. Nevertheless I hobbled on, and drank, drank, drank. One of my bottles was filled with water, the other with a solution of electrolytes. I drank from them alternatively, making sure I would empty them before the next stop. I was not the only one in trouble. Despite walking most of the time, I overtook a few people. I was overtaken by many more, all the smarter runners who started more slowly and were still fresh as cucumbers. During this stint, we moved from large flat hard towpaths to actual trails, and encountered our first climbs. I arrived at the 37K mid-stop in slightly better shape. I ate slices of melon and orange, refilled my bottles and took a couple of ibuprofen. The pee was now orange. In normal situation this would have been scary, but this was much better than ruby!

37K-49K

37-49I left this mid-stop in a relatively good mood. I was still cramping a bit, but was able to run a few stretches of a few hundreds meters at a time. We were now going through fields. It was hard to move fast, but I quite enjoyed the surroundings. I got my headset out, and put a few Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts. The path alternated between fields and lovely woods. The few people I encountered were cheering, and a little girl gave me a Haribo. I reached the 42K mark (marathon) in 5h38. At the time, this looked pathetic. However, looking at my predictions (see table below), it was not so bad. Considering that I completely bonked at 18K and believed then that I was on course to a DNF, this was even pretty good. The weather was turning grey and windy, and I could see the showers behind me. A little one caught up with me at 48K. I was almost at the stop and started to run.

station optimist pessimist actual time
10 Km mid-point 08:00 08:02 07:58
24 Km rest stop 09:31 09:38 09:34
37 Km mid-point 11:28 11:58 11:38
49 Km rest stop 13:21 14:00 13:48
56 Km mid-point 14:54 15:47 15:35
71 Km rest stop 17:41 18:37 17:59
84 Km mid-point 20:29 21:36 20:28
100 Km finish 23:30 00:53 23:07

49K

Half-way! Arriving there felt good. This was only my second “50K” (OK, it was technically only 49, but close enough). The weather was gorgeous again. I saw Rob with his family (who was following and waiting for him at each point). I also met the Angry Jogger. I recommend his book and blog. Both serious and hilarious. I had noticed him at the start but was too shy to say hello (or too scared of him starting shouting and swearing?) Now we were both tired, sweaty and hungry, so that was fine. I checked out my half-way bag. The charge of my Garmin was close to 50% and I decided to recharge it. That meant stopping the recording in the meantime. I am so angry at Garmin. They claim the 920XT lasts 30 h on GPS mode, and independent tests reported 20 h. This was nowhere close in my case. Removing shoes and socks I discovered two small bloody blisters on the inner parts of my feet, at the edge of my calluses. That will teach me to take care of those better. I popped the blisters with one of my race number pins, and dressed them with special plasters. I changed socks, shorts and t-shirts. I had brought clean underwear, but did not dare strip naked in the tent. I later heard that some ladies were not so sheepish, providing entertainment to runners and first help staff. I decided not to put back the GoPro strap. As a result, there won’t be images of the second half. I only have memories. They cannot be fully shared unfortunately. Feeling refreshed, I went to fetch food. The buffet was abundant and varied. I was not sure I could eat anything else than fruit, after the failed attempt at 24K. So I put a tiny portion of pasta salad and a sausage in my plate. As soon as I swallowed the first bite, I felt positively ravenous. I vacuum cleaned my plate and went back for more, different types of pasta, different meat and a bun. Plus another apple. I drank a bottle of water and a coffee. I did not touch the entire table of fabulous Victoria sponges. I did not feel like eating cake. But this was very impressive. After a very successful stop at the loos (I know, too much details …), I filled my bottles and off I went.

49K-56K

49-56It was only a short 7K stint to the next mid-stop. The weather was very warm, and I stopped to remove my t-shirt, keeping only my sleeveless Alzheimer’s Research UK vest. I switched to Ultra-finishers podcasts, to keep me up-beat. The countryside was nicer than ever. At some point we went through a graveyard near a church. The walkers went through there at night, and complained that it was spooky. But I went through it under bright sunshine, and it was was positively lovely. Nice little stop, with an amazing amount of prepared fresh fruits. I had slices of melon, pineapple and orange. A trip to the loo rewarded me with light golden pee (ahh the little pleasures of the runner). I was back on track on the hydration front. It took me 32K, but I did it. And I think this is a very important difference between the ultra-distance races and the more classical ones. In a marathon or a half-marathon, you do not recover from a bonk or dehydration. You just crawl to the finish. The sheer length of an ultra, and the abundance of rest stops, mean that you can rebuild yourself. Being slower on some parts of the course does not mean you will keep being that slow, as shown in my race profile below. By then, I was quite happy. I was looking forward to see Marie at the 71K mark.

profile

56K-71K

56-71I left the stop with a group of people whom I kept overtaking and being overtaken by. I initially walked, then started to run. This was a very long and difficult stint. We were often on uneven grounds in fields, passing small and slippery bridges. Tractor tyre marks were particularly annoying. The ground was very dry, and the tyre marks formed hurtful ridges. Impossible to run on that, and even walking was hard. Other hazards included felled trees and hidden holes. The worst was at km 67, where a path included grooves, 20-25 cm deep, hidden under high grass. By then I was running, and suddenly fell the ground disappearing under my feet. I was lucky not to twist my ankle on this one. Marie sent me a text message saying that the LiveTrail system predicted my arrival at the 71K mark around 19:30. She was pretty annoyed about that since I asked her to be there at 17:30. I told her it could not be right, that I would do better. This motivated me. I started to run more often, as soon as I was on a flat and even surface. I switched from podcasts to music, and the last 30 min flew while I was running with the soundtrack of Pacific Rim. I arrived at the rest stop in a fairly good shape. My former boss and friend Dennis Bray was waiting for me, having driven Marie. Dennis has been a keen runner all his life, including marathon. The rest stop had everything ready to prepare burritos, and I indulged myself into a nice chicken and tomato one. I washed it with a couple of cups of tea, and downed a few more of those lovely pieces of juicy fresh fruit. The Angry Jogger was also there.

71K-84K

We left the rest stop under a fairly heavy shower but were rewarded by a nice rainbow.

Rainbow

71-84The presence of Marie made all the difference for the last third of the race. It is absolutely clear that without her, I would not have finished that quick, and perhaps not have finished at all. From Elmdon to Duxford, our pace was fairly good, with a few bits of running, when downhill or flat. Leaving Duxford, my quads and feet were really hurting though. When we arrived at the last mid-point stop in Sawston at km 84, we were welcomed by my wife, who was back just in time from the annual Zumba conference in London.

ArriveeSawston

This kind of little surprises does a lot to lift the spirits. I gobbled a banana and an apple, as well as a few peanuts. While refilling my bottles, I squatted to stretch. That was not a good idea. Both squads screamed, and when I stood up again, the right one was killing me. Although ultimately nothing serious, they would hurt during several days, impairing my walk and vertical movements.

84K-100K

Leaving Sawston was difficult. For the anecdote this is where I live, and we passed 800 m from my bed! My mood was down. On one side, it was the last stretch, and only a small proportion of what I already did. On the other side, there were still 16 kilometers to go. In normal time, I quite relish a 10 miler, when I am rested and full of energy. That was not the case. Moreover, the sun was setting and the prospect of so many km in the dark was not enticing. Even more since I forgot my headlamp in the damn half-way bag!

84-97This is were Marie’s presence was crucial, pushing me, encouraging me, talking to me continuously (for those who know Marie, continuous chatting is not the most enormous challenge for her but still😉 ) and … in possession of a nice and powerful headlamp. I though the street lighting would be sufficient. It was not. To save money, Cambridge shuts down part of the street lamps and dimmed the others. They are basically useless. Fortunately the organisation had thought about it and hanged glow sticks on all signs and blinking lamps on hazard warnings. By then we did not meet so much runners anymore. And when we did, nobody talked. Everyone was suffering. The tarmac was hard on the feet, but we preferred it to the surprise last stretch of trail at the heart of Cambridge, complete with muddy patches and nettles. We finally entered the city centre on Saturday night, close to the time of last orders. Swarms of young people occupied the streets, and we met some d..kh..ds who stole race glow sticks and attached them on the front of their pants. I do not know how many were removed from the path before the morning. I hope not many walkers got lost as a result.

CambridgeWe ran the last few hundreds meters. The finish was fantastic.  Plenty of green glow sticks showed the way, and the arrival was lighted by lamps on both sides of the track, like an airport runway at night. I did not feel particularly emotional crossing the line, after 16 hours and 7 minute. I was just happy it was finished. We were handed a glass of bubbly and joined my wife who came to greet us (and bring us back home).

Bubbly

What I really would have liked was a cold beer! I wrapped myself in a foil blanked and went for some food. There was BBQ type food and also a buffet that I did not see. The Angry Jogger was here too. It seems we had about the same pace. Rob Coates was also still here with his family, greeting newcomers, as was Debra, but I did not see her. Those guys were awesome. Rob Pope, another member of our L2C team FB page, who finished in an awesome 13h, even came back the next day to cheer the walkers at the end of their long ordeal.

I went back home around midnight, I undressed and evaluated the damage. I had 6 blisters. The two I popped at half-way were back, bigger. I had two large ones on the side of my heels. And finally I had two little ones under each of my middle toes. Completely symmetrical.

Left Right

I popped them and after showering I dressed them with blister plaster and tape. And then I went to my heavenly bed! The next day, I could barely walk, and even less climbing or getting down the stairs. Unfortunately, I had to teach in the afternoon. That forced me to move. I do not know if that was good or bad for my recovery. The blisters dried in 2 days and the pain in my quads vanished in 3. The biggest problem was my left foot. The sharp intermittent pain I felt suggested a bout of Plantar Fascitis. However, I then noticed that a compression of the thigh was causing increased pain. After testing positions, pressures etc., I think this is a sciatic pain. As I write that, 6 days after the event, in a plane over the Atlantic, the pain seems to have abated. I plan to go for a run tomorrow morning in Disney World resort where I attend a conference.

Altogether it was a fantastic adventure, and very good experience. Several of the female runners compared it to childbirth: a total pain during hours, and then you just forget, and remember only the good aspects. I cannot really comment on that, but it is true that the next day I was browsing the running websites to find my next ultra!

There are a few lessons I would like to highlight though, for me and anyone who would read that piece and envision their first ultra. Things you should be careful of:

  • Do not start too fast. Whatever speed you are running during the first few km, it is too fast, slow down.
  • Drink regularly and in abundance. Do not wait for the thirst.
  • Avoid anything that make you uncomfortable. A small inconvenience, hitch, pressure, weigh will become a serious problem after hours of running.
  • Write checklists AND USE THEM. I did write checklists for the start and the half-point. But I did not print them. After 50K, my brain was half shut down. I could not think straight anymore. Everything, including contingency plans, must be ready in advance.
  • Get a support crew. Marie’s presence was a tremendous help for the last third, and seeing my wife at 84 helped also.
  • If you are not a competitive runner, on route to a course record, try to enjoy the scenery, the friendship, the atmosphere.

Medal

Histon Flaming June Half Marathon

A bit more than a year ago, I drove my daughter Marie to the Flaming June Half taking place in Histon (Histon runners like fire references. Their other race is called the BonfireBurn 10K) . That was Marie’s second half marathon. I did not yet feel ready for the distance, having only run a few 10K at the time. Therefore, I did not register. I waited for her, and cheered up the other runners. It was a gorgeous day and I regretted my decision. That day I decided to move up, and back home registered for the Great Eastern Run (Peterborough half marathon).

Fast forward one year. Histon half was my last race before the London2Cambridge challenge. I had a disorganised week, with a professional trip to France, and several dinners out.  The night before the race I had a massive insomnia. I was not able to fall asleep before 4am, and then only got a few hours of fragmented sleep. It is fair to say that I was not really in the best of shape when my alarm rang.

The Flaming June Half starts in three successive waves, 5 min apart. I initially registered in wave 3, but that was before the Silverstone half. Because of Marie’s sub-2 time there, I registered her to wave 2, and asked the organisers to bump me up. Unfortunately, wave 2 was full. As a result, we both started in wave 1, with the elite runners! Not surprisingly, the start was fast, too fast, about our 10K pace. After a little while we were able to rein ourselves back, thanks to the guided busway. It is flat, straight and relatively wide, so not bumping into other runners.

2016-06-12-Histon-Course.png

After 3K, we move to the fields. A good half of the course is made up of trail. A good training for the coming 100K, but pretty testing. Marie and I were running together, and that proved to be key to maintaining a good rhythm. We paced each other in turn. I would go in front and try to keep a steady and decent speed, ignoring the moaning behind me … Once I felt my resolve faltering, or when I was in pain, we would switch, Marie taking the lead and myself trying to stay with her.

2016-06-12-Histon-Profile

The weather was nice. Less sunny and warm than in 2015, but still quite mild, the sun appearing with increasing frequency as the race progressed. There were only 3 drink  stations (8, 12, 16), with small plastic cups, no bottle. This was not even close to enough drink for me. I dehydrated fast. I was OK until 15K. Then, in the middle of a tough trail part, I hit the wall. I was able to hold on until the drink station, and then let go of Marie.  I did the last 5K at easy pace.

I finished in 02:02:45, 227 of 391 runners (63 of 82 males under 50). This was my second best time on the distance and frankly, considering the difficulty of the course, I am pretty happy of the result. Marie keeps on improving steadily, with a good 01:57:36, 186 overall and 25 out of 79 women under 40.

Medal.jpg