So for the first time since I started running ultras in 2015 I recorded a Did Not Finish, or DNF.
The 2017 Saintelyon was the last race in a season built around a September objective (the Ultratour du Leman) and it was perhaps the only event I went into under-excepted and even a little bit worried about my ability to complete it. It wasn’t the distance that had me worried – I had run longer than the 72km on the table a number of times during the year already – or the elevation I would encounter. No, the one thing that had me worried in the days before the race were the conditions underfoot. After snowfall during the week it would be icy, it would be snowy, and it would be treacherous – and it was definitely all of those things.
I don’t do a lot of running on trails and I am not used to running on ice or snow. The combination of the two on Saturday evening and Sunday morning meant that I would likely not have a good time running from Saint Etienne to Lyon in the dark in the best of cases. Unfortunately for me, things could barely be described as ‘best case’ except for about the opening ten kilometers or so. After that, even when heading uphill, things seemed to go steeply downhill.
I headed over to Saint Etienne for the start from Lyon on the train. I had booked the ticket some months in advance and managed to snaffle a very reasonably priced seat in first class on the TGV from Part Dieu. This gave me plenty of room to spread out, relax, and get my head in the game for the race to come. I spent the trip reading the race guide (again) and memorizing the aid stations and the distances between them. Approaching the station in Saint Etienne, I glanced outside to see that there was plenty of snow and ice on the ground and I only hoped that this was because the areas were not much traveled next to the train line, and that perhaps the foot and road traffic around the course would have kept those areas snow free. Stepping off the train, however, i realized that Saint Etienne had gt a bunch more snow than Lyon and even the train station was looking white. Yep, this was going to be a long, snowy night.
I made my way over with the rest of the crowd from the station to the exposition center where the start was to be held. The halls there were packed with runners and supporters staying out of the cold and I joined them to make the final preparations for my backpack and to send the rest of my street clothes back to Lyon and the finish in one of the trucks rented for that purpose. After I was sorted, I texted Cécile, got my head in the game, and at about 11:00pm I headed out to the start line to await the release into the cold.
And I waited. And waited. And waited some more
In the last couple of years the organizers of this race have released the runners in waves of about 1200-1300 runners ten minutes apart. With 7 kilometers of road before the first of the narrow trails, this is supposed to give people the opportunity to spread out a little before the bottlenecking that eventually comes as the road gives way to the singletrack. It’s a good idea in theory but, in practice, it means that anyone not in the first wave is likely going to spend a long time standing around in the cold before getting started. I was in the fourth wave to start which meant I arrived to wait at 11:00pm and didn’t do much more in total than walk the 200 meters from where I started standing in line to the start line in the next hour.
Still, cold and raring to go, at midnight I launched into the darkness with more than a thousand others and started on the way to Lyon.
Start to 7K
The opening kilometers of the Saintelyon take the runners from the city center out to the trailhead and mean running on wide, closed roads from the exposition center to the edge of town. There were only two things on my mind in this section: a bathroom break, and keeping my pace under control.
The bathroom break was required as I had just spent an hour standing around in the cold and this standing was coming after some pre-race hydration that saw me drink about a liter of water in two or three hours. I needed to empty my bladder and, after a couple of kilometers, I pulled to the side of the road to do exactly that. After getting myself sorted again, I was back on the road and feeling OK.
The pace I was setting for myself seemed about right. I was aiming for 6:00 kilometers and after an opening split of 6:30 and the bathroom-break slowdown in the second kilometer to a 6:42, I started hitting consistent 5:45-5:50 splits from then on. I wasn’t pushing too hard and I was enjoying the cool air, and my heart rate was nicely clicking along in Zone 2. Perfect for the start of an ultra and I was glad I had not got carried away by the adrenalin at the start.
Little did I know that less than 10K later I would have an adrenaline charge of a different type.
7K to 16K
The first aid station would be at 16K so I had about nine kilometers of trail to pass through after we turned off the roads before grabbing a quick rest, a handful of food, and some warm tea. The trails would be crowded and we would be moving in single file a lot of the time, but this was what I had expected after last year’s race here. I settled in to a good rhythm and, in the early going, things were good.
The trails here are generally not that treacherous. They are technical in parts with roots, potholes, and rocks waiting to trip you up. These are pretty easily avoided if you are paying attention, though, and the real danger are the rocks that are nearly hidden on the surface that, in the nighttime cold, glisten in the moonlight covered in ice. I did my best to avoid placing a foot on the rocks and, on the odd occasion where I either didn’t see it or misstepped, I could feel my foot slide around. It’s not a nice feeling…
Around the one hour mark and as we were heading up a hill I dove into the Camelbak pocket for some of the food I had bought along. I wanted to eat before the first aid station knowing that, on a night like this, it was going to be closer to the two hour mark before I arrived there. If I waited until the aid station to eat, I would be behind on nutrition and this is not what I wanted, so I took in about 300 calories as I headed up the hill and then got back to running on the other side.
Getting closer to the aid station and the ice started to appear more frequently. The snow was not on the course here and the weight of thousands of feet before mine has turned what there was into mud. But the ice? Well, that was everywhere and treacherous as I expected. I saw a few people go down and all said they were OK, even a couple who really looked worse for wear. Then, probably only a few seconds after watching someone a little in front of me slip and fall, I felt my legs go out from under me on a descent and I fell flat on my back, hard.
I could feel the pain shoot through my back and hips but the rest of me seemed OK. I quickly got up, shook the snow off my gloves and brushed it off my clothes. It was then I noticed that the rocks had ripped both my pants and jacket (the latter less so that the former) and that while I was feeling numb behind, I knew there was going to be bruising later. I shuffled on towards the aid station and decided I would do a prepare review of any injuries there.
15 minutes later, I entered the first aid station sore and cold but still running. I could tell I was hurt but there was no blood that I could see and, after a quick cup of hot tea and a handful of fruit, I was back on my way. I had 12K to go to the next aid station and I would take it nice and easy.
16K to 28K
I texted Cécile as I left the aid station and told her I had fallen and was sore, but that I would take it nice and easy on the next section. This was my plan but, after making the climb out of the aid station and getting back onto the trails shortly afterwards, I realized that while I would be going nicely forward, the easy part was out of my control.
The trails heading out of the aid station were snowy and iced up. I stopped shortly after entering the trail section to pull on the spikes I had bought the day before to help in exactly this sort of terrain. It didn’t take me long to get them on my feet and I rejoined the crowd heading along the trail with a little more grip and a little more confidence, too.
People were still falling a lot through this section and a step off the tail to go around someone in front of you meant that you would be dealing with 10 or 15 centimeters of powdery ice. The goal for me, then, was not to be setting myself up to pass anyone but instead just keeping my feet and not hurting myself again.
The trails were wonderful and, had I been alone and hiking, I think it would have almost been magical. But I didn’t have a lot fo time to look around as I needed to watch where every foot fell along the trail to avoid the rocks, avoid the ice, and avoid tripping over once again. Up and down well moved over the rolling hills and I never paused to even stop and take a picture as the cold wind on the hilltops ripped through le and made the thought of stopping for a photo opportunity unthinkable.
I managed to keep my feet and I didn’t even stop to remove the spikes from my shoes on the short road sections connecting different trails. Some others did but I felt like the small advantage I would gain over the road sections would be lost in the time it took to take the spikes off and on, and I would be getting cold in the wind for little reward. I kept on trucking and moved forward, keeping my feet nd taking care not to fall before-
I lost my feet again and fell hard on my back and side. The pain that was already there in the background was amplified and I had somehow fallen in a way to bang my right hip something horrible. I pulled myself up again, did a quick check of myself, and then started on again a little worse for wear. I concentrated on my foot placement again, left a larger gap to the person aead of me so I could see all the trail before landing each step, and concentrated hard on not slipping. This was a little slower but I –
I was on the rocky ground again, this time pitched forward. While I had been concentrating on where I put my feet, I could not control the speed or agility of the person running close behind me who lost their footing and slammed into me. We both went down and, once again, everything was throbbing. The guy who took me down apologized quickly, I said it was no big deal, and we both continued on.
However, it was a big deal…or at least a race ending one for me.
While I still couldn’t see any blood I was in pain now and my right hip and my lower back were very sore. With about 5K to go to the aid station I started running through the reasons to stay in the race or to drop somewhere ahead. I recalled the advice of the race announcer before the start who mentioned that the really bad ice and snow was in the section to come and realized that if I was having trouble staying upright on this previous section with its snow, ice, and slipping, the next section was going to be worse. I did a quick review of how I was feeling (sore, cold, and banged up) and I guess I had lost confidence in my ability to keep going without hurting myself more.
Finally I reflected quickly on the fact that this race was not all that important to me for the year of ultrarunning, that I would not be proving anything to anyone by continuing on in pain, and that the last time I ran a race with an injury and refused to give (that was the Run in Lyon Marathon) I put myself in a position where I could barely walk, let alone run, for weeks. The calculus seemed pretty simple in the end, and as I entered the 28K aid station at Sainte Catherine, I clicked stop on the Garmin and headed for one of the buses back to Lyon.
My first DNF: painful physically, but not so much spiritually, you might say.