The first of the true ultrarunning tests is done for the year and I could hardly be happier. Long story short, I ran a good race, achieved nearly all of my goals, and placed higher than I could have expected based on the previous performances of the other runners in the field. A lot happened over the course of the 12 hours so – buckle up – here’s a race report.
Things were a little hectic in the end around the apartment as Cecile had decided to head home with her parents to recover after her hospital stay and surgeries, and I was left to take care of Jamie alone. Normally a ‘weekend for the boys’ is a good thing and we can really get outside, get moving around, and tire ourselves out. Today, though, I wanted to retain my energy and not spend too much time walking or running around. Still, we did need to grab a couple of last minute items in the morning for the race and, being the Easter weekend, a bit of chocolate for Jamie, too, but then after that we were back home in the cocoon and trying to take things easy.
I had planned out the eating for the day so that I could eat well at lunch, rest in the afternoon, drop Jamie at his Mum’s for the evening, and then cook a quick but filling dinner closer to the time I would leave for the race. I had starting preparing my clothes and equipment in the couple of days I wasn’t running before the start of the race so I was pretty much set in terms of arriving on the line ready to go. This didn’t stop me checking and re-checking everything multiple times, running through various checklists to make sure I didn’t forget anything, and charging up all of the devices I would need for the night.
I loaded up the iPod Shuffle with a bunch of podcasts that I had managed to avoid over the last few days. Among the list were Ten Junk Miles, The East Coast Trail and Ultra Podcast, Planet Money, and Science Vs. I also added a couple of episodes of Hardcore History (the three ‘Punic Nightmares’ episodes, to be precise) and added some mixtape music for the final hours where that sort of thing can be very motivating. I opted for The Hood Internet (a half dozen different hour-long mixtapes) and added some Armin van Buren trance music mixes, too, because sometimes trance music is what the doctor calls for.
With everything ready to go, my gear packed, and my ticket for the short train ride to Saint Fons on my iPhone, I was ready to go, collect my number, and get my head in the game ahead of the race.
Check In and Countdown
I had given myself plenty of time to arrive, register, and get sorted out in the hall before the run got underway. My registration was officially complet which meant that my submission of a medical certificate and my payment online was all meant to be perfect. However, this being France and this country having a sort of addiction to crossing t’s and dotting i’s no matter how inconvenient, I arrived with my medical certificate tucked in my gear and a little cash in case something, somehow, had gone awry. Luckily, all was well and I was able to register in a couple of minutes, get my number, get a rather nice T-shirt for the event, and search out a place where I could get myself sorted out and my head in the game.
The 24 hour race had begun at 10am so those runners were still running laps, resting, chatting or – in the case of a couple – lying down already. My first 24 hour race isn’t until next month and I truly have no idea how I’ll go over that sort of time. It’s always a little bit worrying to see how people look this deep into an ultra but I just remind myself that I’ll be looking like that to others in a few hours time and I won’t feel half as bad as I look. I tried my best to stay out of the way of others, keep to myself, and just plugged in my headphones to stay focused on my final preparations and the few final tasks I had to complete before being ready to go.
After 1700 kilometers of training runs, 11,000 meters of climbing, and more than 140 hours on my feet, I was ready to take on the first competitive ultra of the year…
We gathered outside with about ten minutes to go before the starting gun. When we lined up for the start (making sure to leave room for the 24 hour runners to pass under the starting arch as they continued to run while we waited for the gun) I set myself back from the first row and decided to see how things would go in the first few laps.
I had a plan in my mind to try and stick to a 5:30 to 6:00 minute pace which would, if I managed to hold it, get me over the biggest of the goals I had set myself. If I missed this average pace, I would still be able to hit my second goal of 110K for the 12 hours if I managed to keep things under 6:30 pace. I was sure that, even if ended up walking some sections, I would be able to manage this pace, but I wouldn’t really want to go too much slower than that.
With a countdown from 10 and musical backing from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell over the course loudspeakers, we were off.
Hours 1 to 3
I started conservatively enough and fell into my rhythm. A couple of other runners went straight to the front and I hung back a little, happy to keep my pace where it needed to be. I knew there were class runners in the field and I as happy to focus on my own race. As it happened, though, the leaders started to come back pretty fast. Panelli pushed hard to take the lead away from Gerardin and, strangely , Gerardin gave it up without a fight. Panelli didn’t hold the speed, however, and somehow, after a half hour or so, I found myself at the front end of the race. Indeed, at the end of the first hour and despite keeping to my planned pace, I was in the lead…right where I didn’t want to be.
The second hour was a chance to settle down a bit and I managed to stick to my pace moving forward. I was still in front of the field but I wasn’t exerting any particular pressure. I was keeping a keen eye on my watch and on the timing board at each loop to make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid as I did back in 2015 in Ploeren where I went to the front, and promptly burnt out in 6 or 7 hours. At the end of the second hour I was in the lead but there were four other people on the same lap as me and we were bunched relatively close together.
In the third hour, things reverted to what I think of as normal. I kept my pace the same but Gerardin started to roll and took the lead back from me. Thank goodness! It’s very difficult not to keep thinking that you are leading the race when you are, in fact, leading the race. Your pacing gets more difficult and all the more important with no one to chase, Gerardin was flying and he quickly put a full lap into me, Behind us, Stephane Poidevin (someone I only know from Strava) pushed into third place, and Panelli dropped back to fifth behind Petit, too. At the end of three hours I had almost exactly 33 kilometers banked – right on schedule for a 121K finish.
Hours 4 to 6
Positions didn’t change much during the fourth hour as everyone brought up their marathon. My watch would reveal that I got through the marathon myself in 3:50:38 which is not super fast, but neither is it super slow. I could have finished 1048th in the Run in Lyon Marathon with that time but without the need to run another 80 kilometers when I was done. By the end of four hours I had 2 kilometers on third place and the first place runner, Gerardin, was running away with the race.
Hour five was where I wanted to hit my stride. I wanted somewhere between 50 and 54 kilometers on the board by the end of the hour and, with first place running away with the race quite literally, I was hoping to hold onto my second place. At the 50K point I slowed to a walk, however, to fix a small problem with my shoe: the small rocks on the pathway around the course had worked their way into my shoe and I wanted to clear it out. The 50K mark at 4 hours and 42 minutes seemed like a good place to do that and I paused long enough to open the shoes, clean them out, and get them back on ready to go. As I did, though I did them up too tight and I am paying for that slightly as I have some top-of-foot pain to deal with in the aftermath. Such is life, I guess, and I lost a lap to the chasing pack – I was now only one lap ahead of the chasers with 52K in the bank.
Hour six was the first where I took a walking break for the first time. I managed to keep my place behind Gerardin who was now out to a strong lead and without much of a chance of coming back unless he got injured. I kept my one hour lead and enjoyed the walking which brought my heart rate down and allowed me to use a couple of muscles that I hadn’t when running. All was going according to plan and, while it would be tight, I was still on track for a 120K finish.
Hours 7 to 9
Here’s where the pain and the real effort set in.
I kicked things up in the seventh hour and got my lead back out to 2 laps over the chasers by the end of the hour. I was still slightly ahead of schedule and mixing up walking with running on a regular schedule: 4 laps running, 1 lap walking – but fast. I was pacing the walk as I had been pacing them in the weeks leading up to the race. All those lunch time walks with their 8 to 9 minute kilometers, all that power walking? It was paying off big time as I kept things moving forward. The three work mantra? Relentless forward progress!
All through the eighth hour I kept up the run four laps, walk one lap strategy. The laps I was running were fast enough, usually under 5:30 pace and then, when I started to walk I grabbed a bottle, filled it from the aid station quickly, and pounded down some food while I kept myself moving forward. Indeed, I did a great job at moving forward almost the whole race with all the aid station stops, nature stops, and the pause to empty out my shoes at 50K and tie and re-tie my laces at a couple of points adding up to a total of 12 minutes and 35 seconds of not moving forward. Had I been crewed I might have gathered a few more of these minutes to add some additional distance to the outcome, but I am pretty happy with a pause of about a minute each hour all up. After eight hours I was building a bigger lead over the chasing runners and was out to a three lap lead over third and a five lap lead over fourth.
The ninth hour saw me maintain this lead and the only real important point was that it was becoming increasingly clear that hitting the 120K mark was going to be problematic. I had just under 90 kilometers by the end of the hour and this meant I was going to struggle to continue to rack up 10 kilometer hours for the next three hours. I realized around this point that I was still on track to knock over a new personal best for the 100K distance, however, so I decided to concentrate on that instead then see what I could do to push the final result over 110K and towards, if not possibly to, 120K.
Hours 10 to 12
The final three hours was where I dug deep both to hit my final targets – well, save the 120K target that now looked out of reach – and to maintain my place in the pack.
I was happy to bring up a new 100K personal best of 10:12, improving by about 15 minutes over my time in the 100km de la Somme from last year. Even more impressive for me was that I still had at least 10 to 15 kilometers to run after the 100K mark and I was still feeling good. I think that if I am running a straight 100K later in the season I should try my best to push it under 10 hours; it seems to me to be a good goal. I had 99K in a couple of minutes short of ten hours, and walked in the final lap of the 100K right on schedule.
Heading into the final couple of hours I was keeping an eye on who was coming up from behind. Both Poidevin and Panelli were about four and five laps back, respectively, and I was trying my best to maintain my forward progress while also working hard to keep the second place I had been holding for so long. At one point I fell into step on a walking lap with Panelli and we chatted for a short time. As we finished off the lap he said to someone else that he was off to run five laps in a row. I did the math – I was lapping faster than him when I ran but about the same speed when I walked – and walked on for a couple of laps before starting to run myself. When I did run laps I was putting down consistent 5:15 to 5:30 laps but I didn’t have it in me to run five in a row anymore. As the sun was now Up I kept a close eye on him and Poidevin to make sure I didn’t make any errors and lose my position.
However, starting with about 90 minutes to go, Panelli started putting down running lap after running lap. I wasn’t going to be able to do the same so I settled for running one loop and then walking the next. This limited the losses to his fast close and, while he took a kilometer off me in the final hour, he didn’t get too much closer. Poidevin, on the other hand, ended up near me most of the laps, coming back behind me when I would run and putting a small lead into me on the same lap when I slowed to a walk. Essentially, we stayed about even and, with an hour to go, I had four laps up on third place and five laps up on fourth place.
I knew I wouldn’t be hitting 120K but I thought I could still get closer to 120K than I would to 110K. I kept up running and walking until I was sure I would finish with more than 116K and then walked in the final laps, speeding up only to grab a rain jacket with about forty minutes to go when the heavens opened, and then again in the final seconds of the race as we we called to stop where we ended up and I thought – intelligently – that I should aim to stop next to one of the park benches that littered the edge of the race course. I trotted forward to a bench, heard the final gun sound, and sat down.
I was done.
116.310 kilometers after I had started running, I had stopped – and I was in second place and damn proud.
I laid out my goals for the race in a previous post:
- Set a new PB for 12 Hours
- Set a new PB for 100K
- Run 110K
- Run 120K
So how did I go?
My previous 12 Hour race PB was 66.4km at the Ploeren 12 Hour race in December 2015. I knocked out a 116.3km run today so, as expected, I smashed this one.
My previous 100K PB was 10:26 set at the 100km de la Somme in October 2016. Today I knocked over the 100K in 10:12 so, again, goal achieved.
Did I run 110K? I surely did. In fact, I ran more than 6 kilometers more than that.
Did I run 120K? Sadly, no, I did not qualify for the Spartathlon this time around but I got pretty close. 3.7 kilometers more and I would have made it. Next time…
Nutrition and Hydration
Just a note on nutrition as it is something I have been focusing on for the last few months. I ran this ultra in a state of nutritional ketosis and I only took on board low-carb foods. This is not to say there was a huge selection of low-carb offerings at the aid station because there wasn’t. However, I brought cheese and saucisson and it seemed to do the trick. I drank electrolyte replacement drink and some water, and that was it save for a big coffee in the two hours before the start.
I did have stomach issues, especially during the last couple of hours. It was nothing I couldn’t run through but it was not comfortable. The drinking seemed to loosed up the stomach a bit but it never really went away. I’ll have to watch for this in the future. I did urinate more than normal in an ultra which I took as a good sign. I basically stopped every hour or so to urinate and it was mostly the right color, though late in the race it was getting darker. I’m happy with the nutrition and hydration strategy for the race but I think I’ll take something more than just saucisson and cheese next time around.
Below is a taste of what I won for second place.
Left to right: the trophy which is rather magnificent; the official beer of the race and a nice red tote bag; and some organic products from sponsor Carrefour.
I ran a good race, things went mostly to plan, I solved problems when I had to, and I had all the equipment I needed to get moving, keep moving, and hit almost all of my goals. It’s the furthest I have ever run in a race, it represents new personal records for 100K, for 12 Hours, and I finished among the top runners despite the class on display in Saint Fons.
It’s a great start to the racing season and while I don’t expect to do anywhere near as well (or even run as far, really) at the 24H Ultra Boucle de la Sarra next month, I have got a little confidence that I am doing the right sort of things to succeed – at least on a small and local scale – in this ultra caper.