I’ve never been interested in Marathons, particularly not ones run on road. I’ve always said that and in fact, I’ve never run a marathon other than in an Ironman. However, I’ve always been interested in both trails and ultras and little did I realize that I would run one not very long after my first Ironman.
After a summer spent recovering from my Ironman and Chronic Rhinitis (largely due to too much chlorine in pools), we were hanging out with friends a Friday night for someone’s birthdays when we decided to start signing up for races. It’s true that having goals always helps maintain a good level of training and fitness. In fact, it often helps me maintain a clear focus which I otherwise can lack.
We started ticking off the list. A 10k here, a 20k there, a half Marathon, some signed up for fall marathons, a couple of trail runs, the list went on. Then someone mentioned the SainteLyon…
The SainteLyon is an ultra trail race run at night from Saint Etienne to Lyon on the first weekend of December. The race is famous for any ultra runner in France and/or Europe and is run on the night of the festival of lights. Magical for the beauty of its lights, it is renowned for its difficult conditions and was apparently celebrating its 60th Anniversary this year with a particularly long course. There are several ways to run it. The 21k, the 45k, the 75k or any of the relay options (2, 3 or 4 legs). Its 6700 feet of elevation, cold, ice, snow and muddy conditions leave no doubt about its difficulty and contribute to its mystical aura.
The day after three of us signed up, we went on a group bike ride and proudly told our other team members about the race. Their first reaction was “oh great, you guys are doing the relay?”… It was then that we realized we might be in trouble having signed up for the full 75k (46 miles) solo event.
Training wasn’t pretty as none of us had much time or preparation. With 2.5 months before the race it was panic training. We got the required gear and started running…a lot. We would run to swim practice (and hour out), swim 2 hours and run back. We’d do long runs the day before half-marathons just to push the legs and we’d run a bunch of the local hills. Essentially, it was complete nonsense and our poor coach tried his best to get us prepared but there’s only so much one can do…
Two weeks before the start of the race, I came down with a good cold and stopped training completely. This was likely due to a bit of overtraining (sudden increase in mileage) and the usual winter cold/flu going around, having three kids certainly doesn’t help either… In any case, I started feeling a little better the wednesday before the race and went out on a test run Thursday. The legs felt fine so I figured I’d still go for the race with the convincing of a friend who assured me this was a local festival and that the race would be easy and filled with a fun atmosphere…
I’ve never been on a trail run longer than 10 miles, I’ve never run a marathon other than in an Ironman, nor have I ever run longer than marathon and I’ve never run at night. So I essentially had to learn everything and buy all the right equipment. For this I used my Ironman experience when I was very peculiar amount my gear choice and about testing it.
I signed up with both my friends who are equally aware of the importance of having the right gear and we helped out each other in researching, thinking of needed gear, testing everything and gave each other advice on what worked and what didn’t. Of course, the usual gear that you need including shoes, running tights for cold weather, etc… are standard but there are some particular things to think through and other items unique to ultra running.
One the of the key item needed for such an ultra which I didn’t have was the hydration bag. With the necessity to carry water, some food, mandatory survival blanket, spare batteries and headlamps, and possible extra clothes a racing backpack is necessary. I opted for the Salomon Skin Pro 10-3. I listened to a few friends’ recommendations and the bag appeared versatile with plenty of usable features for this or other races. I like to have the drinkable bag inside the backpack as well as having the ability to carry bottles in front. The storage compartment were big enough and the side pockets allowed me to easily reach for food or other necessities. Overall a good bag which I was happy with during the race and one I feel will serve me well in other races. The only thing I would modify would be to add a few more pockets on the side or up front to store a few bars, keys and/or an phone.
This being a night run, the other item of critical importance include the headlamp. I went for an average PETZL TIKKA headlamp. In hindsight, I would strongly recommend to invest in TWO lights so that you have a spare as well as in a headlamp that is brighter than the middle of the road model I chose. Some of the racers had very bright lights like the RAO which gave them better perspective on the ground features and helped them avoid key obstacles.
For the feet, there are four key components to remember. The first are trail socks. These should be meant to dry quickly and will come in handy in a race like this one. Mud and water will get into your shoes and you’ll be happy with moisture eliminating socks.
The second are the shoes. Since the race is 56% trail and 44% road, having a good hybrid shoe is a must. A shoe too focused on trail or on road could be difficult. As I always wear ASICS shoes, I personally opted for the Gel-Fuji-Trabuco. As shoes appear to be different between countries (I have no idea why), they seem to be the equivalent of the Gel-Scouts in the US. I love them for my runs in the country-side and they were a good choice for the SainteLyon.
On top of the shoes however, don’t forget to get gaiters. Having snow, rocks or mud get stuck inside your shoe would make for a very long day and I don’t recommend it. I went with the LAFUMA Gaiters. I purchased mediums but for my shoe size (45) I should have probably gotten Large ones, no big deal however.
Finally, not to be underestimated are the chains. I had never heard of chains until we learned how much snow there was going to be on the course. My friends had purchased a pair of Ezyshoes and were happy with them but because of a logistical issue, I had to buy a pair at the last minute of LAFUMA Chains and it was probably a better choice. (Sorry, no link for the chains that I can find).
For the rest, after several trials and errors during training, I opted for the following setup:
- Odlo Undershirt
- Odlo Long-sleeved Mid-Layer
- Odlo Gloves
- GoreTex Flash Jacket
- CWX Running Pro-Tights
- WAA Hat and Buff
Other Items that I brought:
- NOK Chaffing Cream
- Survival Blanket (Mandatory)
- Whistle (This was included in my Salomon Bag)
- Spare Batteries
- KT-Tape just in Case
- Baby Wipes (which came in very handy)
From a nutrition perspective, I only had limited amounts of time to test a new nutrition plan. As such, I used the exact same nutrition strategy as for Ironman France described here. The plan worked well although it was poorly executed in the sense that I did not eat as regularly as I needed to. I certainly felt it later in the race and once the stomach has stopped worked, flowing blood into it to restart a digestive process is complicated. These races tend to be rather unforgiving for nutrition (or lack thereof) errors and I certainly felt it as I grew lethargic towards the end of the race from the lack of nutrition. More on that later.
The SainteLyon is a unique race that deserve a bit of pre-race explanation. With a midnight start, the hours before the start are just as important as the race itself.
We decided to take the TGV (High-Speed-Train) From Paris to Lyon and back and this worked out well. A bit of a nap on the way was much needed for Michel who hadn’t slept the night before because of a medical issue in his family and for Matthieu who had a hangover (He’s the only endurance athlete I know who includes wine as part of both his prep and recovery drink strategy). As for me, I was still recovering from two weeks of illness so we all enjoyed the rest.
We arrived early to avoid any stress before the race. They check your license and/or medical certificate (this is France, make sure you bring one) and we picked up our bibs quickly. The setup was well organized with volunteers who are helpful and clearly passionate about the sport. After that, we walked to the expo where I found my chains and picked up a nice souvenir book. Without wasting much time, we headed for the shuttle and drove 45 minutes to Saint Etienne.
I was already liking the atmosphere and attitude of trailers by then. Of course, I was a bit intimidated by the looks of some of them, they frankly looked like they ran way more than I did… But all of them seemed nice and willing to talk or share their prior experiences in this or other ultras. I’m not entirely sure why but it seemed like a simpler crowd than triathletes, maybe because running is the only sport they had to worry about.
Upon arriving in Saint Etienne, you find yourself in a large and cold hangar and everyone seemed to pick a spot. We did and then headed off to the Pasta Party. I must say that all three of us were quite happy to beat the crowd and eat early, it further contributed to reducing stress. By 8PM, we were in the hangar, slowly getting ready and resting.
As time went on, more and more people filled the hangar which soon became warm from all the body heat. I was amazed to see some bring their sleeping bags, others their heaters to reheat food, it seemed many had brought their entire camping gear. And it all seemed so natural, everyone seemed so relaxed about this not insignificant undertaking we were all about to start. I truly enjoyed this atmosphere and certainly look forward to joining other trailers in the future.
With about an hour to go, the energy level started going up and we all started getting ready and dropped off our bags in their various locations to find them later after the race. Then, with ten minutes to go, we made our way to our various corals.