So the last ultra of the year is over and I’m typing this with sore feet a few hours after crossing the line at the Halle Tony Garnier. The race turned out to a be mixed affair and while I am glad to have completed it, I don’t immediately feel like signing up again for next year. It’s not that it’s a bad race but perhaps it is a victim of its own success…but more about that in a bit.
I set off from Saint Etienne at 12:10am and closed out the race 9 hours, 8 minutes, and 24 seconds later. For those of you who caught the pre-race time estimation you’ll recall it was 9 hours and 8 minutes – how’s that for knowing your body well?
Or sort of, anyway. While the time was spot on the pacing plan I put together in advance of the race didn’t go close to reflecting what actually happened on the course. I learnt a few ultra lessons along the way this morning that I’ll report on in the coming days, but here’s how things rolled out during the course of the morning.
So here’s the Strava map to give you an idea of where the course went. With a few twists and turns to make sure we didn’t get too bored, it’s essentially a straight shot between Saint Etienne and Lyon.
I had arrived in Saint Etienne about three-and-a-haf hours before the race and, though the first wave of runners wasn’t due to leave the starting line before 11:40pm, most everybody started lining up shortly after 11pm. By the time my wave of about 1000 runners made it to the start line and was given the ‘go’ from the announcer, it was 12:10am. Frankly, standing about for an hour in the cold isn’t the best way to get prepared for the race and while I imagine it made for less congestion on the trails to have waves of runners leaving 10 minutes apart, it did mean starting on cold legs.
After the start there was a 7 kilometer section of road running that was rolling but where I held back, not wanting to burn out too fast. I was passed by hundreds of people as I stuck to my 5:30 to 6:00 pace and, while I knew I would never see some of them again, I was also pretty certain that after the 50km point I would see some of these fast starters coming back.
After this short section we entered the first of the trail sections and then, for the next 40 kilometers or so, there were two things that defined the Saintelyon experience for me: crowded trails and muddy, uneven ground.
Most of the time I was within arms length of at least two people, and usually more. While this is all part of the experience when you have 17,000 runners on singletrack trail, it also means that no one can really see more than a couple of feet in front of their feet at any one time. This meant that for the most part you spent your run staring at the ground, trying to avoid tripping over, and keeping all your senses tuned for the sights and sounds that mean someone is falling – something that happened a lot.
The ground was very technical and some of the descents were barely runnable, sometimes not even very walkable. While I suspect this is part of the appeal of trail running, I think it does take away a lot of the enjoyment of running when you are mainly negotiating a route down a mudslide that won’t see you getting injured.
The mud was cold and constant. In the first trail section people pointed out the puddle in the middle of the trail and the mud on one side. In retrospect this was amusing as, after the first section, no one bothered doing that anymore as both puddles and mud were unavoidable.
Some sections of the trail in the first fifty kilometers were runnable and one section in particular – between 32 and 34 kilometers – allowed me to run sub-7:00 splits over rolling ground which was right on target. However, after the 34th kilometer comes the 35th kilometer and this held the worst climb of the day: a 20% grade straight up the side of a hill for 750 meters before a slightly lower grade for the final 250 meters of the kilometer long section. I had hoped to get through this part of the race with 8:00 splits and, instead, I ran an 18:22 kilometer split.
When I got to the aid station just after the 50 kilometer point I was feeling tired, my feet were sore (especially my left big toe that I had kicked very hard three times on rocks) and I was happy to take some hot tea and message Cécile. I told her that, the way things were going, I would be pretty slow over the last 20 kilometers. There was nothing really runnable, there were too many people around to run smoothly, and there was too much soft ground and mud. The idea of a time around 9 hours was looking sketchy at best and I was fully expecting an end result more than an hour longer than that.
However, leaving the aid station with a cup of hot tea in hand – I was intent on “relentless forward progress” and not standing around in the aid station when I could be walking, drinking tea, and getting closer to the finish line – I quickly realized that this next section had some very runnable sections. Oh, sure, there were still uphill sections I would have to power hike, but I could run a lot of it. I knew I would have to take on some calories in this second-to-last section so I told myself that I would run until we came to a climb and then fish out some nutrition from my pack and eat on the hill. After all, if I was going to be hiking uphill, I should at least multitask, right?
In this section where I thought I would be doing 8:00 splits I ended up running seven of ten kilometers at a sub-6:30 pace, and three of those were sub-6:00. Where the splits were longer I was climbing more and when I came into the last aid station I was feeling a lot better. The trails were dry, a lot of people were camping out in the aid stations, and anyone who had gone out too fast was being reeled in fast. Indeed, I passed more than 300 people in the final two sections, proof I think that I am closing out ultras well.
At the final aid station I didn’t hang around too long. I took some more warm tea and set out. There was a chance – and outside one, anyway – that I would be able to finish in under nine hours if the route stayed somewhat flat and runnable. I knew that there was a descent to the finish so I figured that I could go a little faster there and I could kick to the finish if there was a chance of hitting a sub-9:00:00 finish.
But it wasn’t to be.
With about five kilometers to go I was faced with another long steep climb that saw three consecutive sub-6:00 kilometers turn into a fourth nearly 10:00 split. Ouch.
Another climb just afterwards saw me record a sub-8:00 split but, at this point, I knew my chances of a sub-9:00:00 race time had all but disappeared. Still, I closed it out strongly with a 6:05, a 6:50, and a 5:49 before a final kick to the line at 5:06 pace for my fastest split of the race.
The final time was 9:08:24 and – all things considered – happy with that.
Statistics and Data
Some statistics and data for the nerds – and believe me, I’ll be checking this out and cutting it all up in the days to come.
First, the course profile:
Yep, not a lot of flat stuff there – and that ‘wall’ in the 35th kilometer is easy to spot.
Then there’s the pacing data:
It really looks like a race of two halves: the first and last quarter of the race were basically run in 2 hours each, while the middle two quarters were basically run in 2 hours 30 minutes each. I particularly happy with how I managed to run hard at the end of the race, something I also did at the 100km de la Somme.
Then there’s the heart rate data:
Happy to have kept my heart rate under control despite not looking at my monitor the entire race. Basically I did it all on breathing: if I was climbing or descending and my breathing was getting too heavy, I would slow it down. Yet this never really happened and, as the data suggests, I spent 90% of my time keeping things under control. Seen in one way this could mean that a little harder effort a little earlier could have seen me break nine hours…but by keeping things under control I could finish the race strong and I never felt like burning out.
Finally there’s the data from race organizers who kindly tracked how my position changed over the course of the race:
- Aid Station 1: 1898th
- Aid Station 2: 1914th – lost 16 places
- Aid Station 3: 1743rd – improved 171 places
- Aid Station 4: 1637th – improved 106 places
- Aid Station 5: 1505th – improved 132 places
- Finish Line: 1331st overall- improved 174 places
Overall I was 1331st out of 5142 finishers, and 670th out of 2110 runners in the Senior Male category.
Not a bad morning out and a nice way to close out the ultra year.