So as described earlier, I somehow managed to make it to the starting line of my first Ultra. Not sure what to expect, naive about what was in front of me, I fully bathed in the incredible atmosphere before the race.
The energy before the race is incredible. In typical French fashion, the lights, music and ambiance make you feel like you’re in a night club. If it wasn’t for the 6000 comrades beside you dressed in running gear, one could very much confuse the starting line for a night club. A minute before the start, all of us lit our headlamps and with a vigorous countdown we were off at midnight.
The first 10 kilometers are on road and in fact the first 5 are roughly flat. The idea is to take it easy and warm up a little bit. I chatted with a couple of friends reminding them to slow down because the race was long. They in turn reminded me not to make the race longer than in needed to be. Fair enough…
When the hills started we walked energetically, when the road flattened, we ran again. This went on for the first 10k and the ambiance was jovial. At the top of the first major climb, snow started peeking its face and everyone stopped to put on their chains if they had them. We fastened them and then went on to resume our run. The conditions were great: it was cold at -4C (25F) but dry and there was very little wind. However with this weather, it’s easy to forget to hydrate or eat and with an hour into we all reminded each other of this important point.
Despite some snow, the conditions weren’t too bad and most everyone continued with a general merry attitude. I twisted my left ankle a bit at the 15th km but it wasn’t too bad and I decided to keep going. The sights were beautiful with its long lines of lights going through the hills of southern France lit up the distant night and very much inspiring. In fact, this would go on for most of the race. A couple of kilometers later, we arrived at the first aid station: Saint-Christo-En-Jarez. This first “ravito” was packed with people and we had generally planned for that so we pushed through with a very little pause. A quick cup of warm tea and we were off.
Things after start became a little more complicated. A long portion of snow and ice essentially separated my friends and I. Lots of people fell due to ice and those that did not have chains, including one of my friends, had a very difficult time and some hurt themselves. At km 22 I twisted my right ankle inward and it hurt like hell. I kept running in order to keep the tendons and muscles warm and give the ankle a chance. I could tell I was compensating with my upper leg and knee but I was 8k from the nearest aid station so we might as well keep going. To further complicate things, people were bunched up and you couldn’t accelerate on the downhills meaning that you were constantly slowing down using your quads, something I’d pay dearly later. In insight, I really should have pushed past a lot of people even taking some small chances in order to save the quads and gain a little bit of time.
By the second aid station at km 30, the mood had changed. It was clear looking at everyone’s eyes that the race had really started. The conditions were difficult, it was past 4AM, it was cold, my ankles hurt like hell and I’d lost both my friends. To top it off, as I rested a bit refilling my backpack, I finally found my friend who took the start without chains and he told me that he just DNFd. I admit that the idea of a warm bus to go home and rest my ankles sounded really good. I came across someone I’d met before the race and we decided to push to the next aid station together. That’s all I focused on at this point and after some refueling we were off to tackle the two biggest difficulties of the course.
The next section was long. We walked a lot on the uphills and the downhills continued to tear up my quads. I ran alongside Alexia without talking much. She wasn’t much of a talker and neither am I when I run so that fit perfectly. I swear, I don’t think there was any flat sections during this portion of the race. It either climbed and killed your glutes or it went down and shot your quads. By the time we reached Saint Genoux (Saint Knee in French), the aid station at km 42 we had climbed close to 4000 feet. I reached Saint Genoux in a little over 6.5 hours of racing and I felt like I was on my knees. The aid station wasn’t well organized. There was a big bottleneck and it took us a long time to get through it. With a marathon behind me, a couple of sprained ankles, some fairly good elevation and the cold, it was starting to get complicated. I looked at Alexia and told her we had to go quickly before I changed my mind.
This next section did me in. With 13k to Soucieu en Jarrest and 900 feet of elevation, it wasn’t the hardest part of the course. In fact, there was a good amount of downhill and it should have been a breeze, but it’s when everything hit me like a ton of brick. Reports came in of the winner who had finished in less than 5h30 and I kept thinking how he was probably warm by now. The fatigue started setting in and my right knee was becoming quite painful as it compensated for my twisted ankle. The sun came up around 7h30 giving us a brief reprieve by staring at the beauty of the valleys being lit up with the morning’s light, but it also gave us a reminder that we’d been racing a while…with a fair amount left to go. I did some quick math in my head and it wasn’t looking pretty for me. At kilometer 50 I gave up. The downhills were killing my quads and I didn’t have the strength to run on the flats. I had to walk the next 5km before the next aid station and I must say that these were the longest five kilometers I’ve ever walked. I was in a really dark place. I told Alexia to go on without me as I would quit at the next aid station and despite her best attempt to cheer me on, I assured her my mind was made up. She took off and left me to my own dark thoughts.
An hour later I reached Soucieu at 9h15 and took a status check. I had a half marathon to go, 900 feet of elevation, a very painful knee, two bum ankles and I was cold and hungry. Before I quit however, I called my wife who by that time was up with the kids and she advised me to take 10 minutes and see how I felt…so that’s what I did.
I took some soup and food, took care of my feet by applying some anti-blistering cream, refilled my bag and put on my headphones. I wasn’t sure what to do so I got up, and walked. As I left the aid station I called my wife, and told her I was moving to see where this would take me. I had six hours to finish the race, so I kept walking hoping that’d be enough. The kids cheered me up briefly but I could only muster a walk. After about 10 minutes, I opted for a jog which was holding up, and then a bit of a downhill came up and I was feeling good so I started pushing the pace (at this point, pushing the pace is extremely relative by the way…). The music helped and I was really looking forward to this race being over. I covered the next 10k in about 1h15m which I was very happy with. And then I was done…
I walked the rest of the way until Beaunant, the final aid station. Beaunant stands right in front of the last difficulty. 7.5k and 160 meters of climbing left, most of which in one climb right after the rest area with climbs from 16 to 18 percent for good measure just in case some of the racers had anything left. The walking was slow and the legs were done. By this point, even the downhill was painful and none of us could run. And then…the final surprise of the course. The race director, in his attempt to make the course as memorable as possible made us go through 200 steps downhills after the 72nd kilometer. It was horrible… Everyone wobbled, some people (myself included) leaned into the handrail and others actually walked backwards. It was epic! 3k left… I managed to pick up the pace, meaning attempt a feeble jog with 2k left and finished the last section in 1h40m. 7.5km in 1 hour and 40 minutes…that was painful.
The final stretch arrived, then the signs with 200m, 150, 100, 75, 50… I walked, savoring these last meters, enjoying having overcome the agony of the race, thrilled to have pushed what I knew of my limits and gone even further. I jogged the last 5 meters, committed to running across that finish line. Then of course, the sudden fill of emotions came across me and my eyes started watering, until I saw both my friends waiting for me at the finish line… They were already showered, dressed and refueled but it was great to see them. 13 hours, 21 minutes and 8 seconds for a tough 75Km night-time ultra. At this point, I’ll take it. In what seemed consistent with the simplicity of the race, there was no medal, no big frill at the end, just your t-shirt to pick up. But this is one T-Shirt I’ll remember for a long time!
I learned a lot of things about myself during this race. When you are down into the darkest corners of your soul, you find out what you are made of. It’s not about quitting or not quitting, it’s not about finishing in a given amount of time (says the guy who took more than twice as long as the winner), those are side points of these endurance events. To me, they really are about what you find when there is nothing left. Those discoveries are deep, different and unique for each one of us to have and to keep.
I’m sure I’ll quit a race at some point in my athletic career and when that happens I will learn something else about myself. In some cases, quitting is smart actually and often justified. My friend who quit at 30k did the right thing. Without chains he would have taken unnecessary risks by continuing on and would have certainly hurt or injured himself. I’ve also had several friends who have quit races before and went on to have fantastic seasons afterwards because they didn’t hurt themselves.
I also realized that there is a very big difference between thinking about quitting, talking about quitting, wanting to quit and actually quitting. At 55k I was ready to quit, I wanted to, I was prepared for it and yet…I ended up finishing the race.
The biggest lesson I learned in this race however is to give yourself a chance. By sitting 10 minutes before I commit to quitting, I gave myself a chance. I took care of my feet, my nutrition, my hydration, my morale and talked to my best supporter and wife. In the end, it made all the difference. This is a big lesson for racing of course but one that is equally as important in life. In many tough situations, we should give ourselves a chance to succeed and surround ourselves well with the people who will support our journey. Too often we give up right before the goal, too often we end our pursuits too early when success or a new paradigm is right around the corner. So in racing and in life, give yourself a chance…