About three hours ago I came to a stop, clicked off my Garmin, and smiled. The Saint-Fons 6 Hour race was over and I had achieved my goals. Yes, I a not burying the lede here: I went into the race hoping to hit 60km and I finished with more than 63km. I had a ‘C’ goal of going in of a top five finish and, indeed, I finished 5th overall, 4th male, and 1st in my age group.
This was a good day.
I got to the race about an hour and half before the start. I wanted to get my number, set up my gear, and walk the course as, after all, I was going to spending a lot of time here today. All went smoothly and I was signed in and ‘numbered up’ within a few minutes. I was early enough to snag a great spot for my gear right next to the course meaning I wouldn’t have to waste seconds grabbing bottles, food, or changing clothes, if it came to that.
I walked the 1001m course and it seemed pretty straightforward. The corners were many but they were mainly right angles and I knew I could swing wide around them to save straining my ankles. The only corner that I knew would be a problem was a 180° u-turn about 150m from the end of the lap. Not only was this u-turn on asphalt but it was very tight. There was no way to take it without straining the inside (right) leg and I knew that four or five hours in this would start to bite. The course was about half hard-packed trail and half asphalt, and there was about a 100m section that could be run on the grass if you chose to do so; I only used the grass to pass people running two-abreast, however, and nothing really hurt too much anyway underfoot. The course was dead flat – Strava recorded zero meters ascent for the entire 63km – which suited me better than the one or two meters slope each lap at Ploeren back in December.
We gathered for the start just before 10am and, after a few words from various official types, we were off!
My goal going into the race was to try and hold a 5:00 minutes pace for as long as I could. To hit my 60km goal I knew I could run 6:00 kilometers, but I also knew I would stop for food, drink, perhaps the toilet (though in the end I didn’t need to take a bathroom break) and to walk sections. If I kept a 6:00 pace I would surely fall short of my goal and so 5:00 was a good way to ensure I had banked some time when the stops eventually came.
Hour One: I started out at a good pace but let the bunch of faster runners get away. I kept telling myself that this was my race to run, not theirs, and I remembered what had happened when I took off too fast in Ploeren in order to run with the leaders. I settled into a good rhythm and spent the first 10km hitting my pace goals and slowly pulling back a couple of the leaders who had gone out way too fast. I ate and drank regularly and it was heating up fast so I ran a few laps with my handheld bottle to make sure I was getting enough liquids. After the first hour I had run 12.6km and was somehow sitting in 4th place.
Hour Two: I kept my pace up and continued eating and drinking on schedule. Things were really heating up now so I was taking on a lot more water than I had planned on and taking advantage of the cold water and sponges that the organizers had provided. I was planning on hitting the 25km mark by the end of this hour and, indeed, I managed to bank 25.4km and had moved up to 3rd place. To be clear, I wasn’t racing to place and I had no intention of trying to catch the two leaders who were more than 2km clear at this point. I was just sticking to my plan and making the laps.
Hour Three: I was still feeling good during this hour leading to the mid-point of the race. I slowed slightly in terms of pace when, after 30km, I walked a lap of the course taking on water, but other than that I kept the pace where it needed to be. I closed out the third hour with 36.7km in the bank and was still in 3rd place.
Hour Four: Of all the periods in the race the fourth hour was the toughest. I was starting to really feel the heat and I knew that while I was on track to hit my goal, a lot could still go wrong. The walking that I had done in preparing for the race meant I was confident of being able to deliver around 8 minute kilometers walking and so, during the fourth hour, I started walking more. I walked three laps in a row and then, doing a little math in my head, decided that running two laps before walking one lap would be a good rhythm to get me through this ‘down’ part of the race. Indeed, it later appeared on Strava he had abandoned midway through the hour. I never stopped moving and I walked as fast as I could to make sure I didn’t lose momentum. I rounded out the fourth hour with 45km in the bank and I had dropped back to 5th place.
Hour Five: I kept up the run two/walk one strategy in the fifth hour and I continued to make progress. I figured that I could run 5:45 kilometers and walk about 8:00 kilometers and so calculated I could add about 9km in this hour. I kept to the schedule and things fell into place. I finished the fifth hour with 54.1km completed and still in 5th place. I was sure that my decreased pace would have left me in sixth or worse at this point but what I didn’t know is that the runner who had been leading at hour two and in second since had stopped almost entirely in the fifth hour. He completed only three kilometers so, even with my decreased pace and being passed by the eventual fourth place finisher, I maintained my position among the leaders.
Hour Six: Honestly, starting the fifth hour, I knew I had the 60km mark in the bag. I needed only six more kilometers and I knew I could get that walking. Indeed, I walked five laps to bring up the 59km mark and then, with the goal in sight, I decided to run the 60th lap. I found I still had some good legs at this point and turned in a sub-5:00 lap. Feeling good enough, I turned in two more sub-5:00 laps which, I have to say, impressed me as I was running as fast then as I had in the first lap of the race more than five hours before. At 62km and with only about 10 minutes remaining in the race I stopped at my bag, grabbed my handheld bottle of water, and my phone, and then set out to walk at least one more lap. I managed about a lap and a quarter and, when the final gun went off, I clicked stop and waited for the officials to come and measure the distance off. I finished with 63.319km which, as my father would remind me later, is just a handful of meters longer than one-and-a-half marathons. I finished in 5th place.
I’ll write a little more about some lessons applied and new lessons learned tomorrow but, I have to say, I exceeded my expectations today I it feels wonderful. The ultramarathon season is off to a good start and I can’t wait for the next race.