My first 24 hour ultra and an experience I will never forget.
When a race starts at 11:00pm the ‘pre-race’ period is pretty damn long. For me, it started at 5:30am after a good night’s sleep. I usually only get about 6 to 7 hours but, for the last few days, I have been getting more than 7 hours sleep and I managed 7.5 hours of good, quality sleep. I might have still woken early – sleeping habits are a hard thing to break, just for a day – but I felt rested and hoped it would hold me in good stead for the race in the evening.
What I woke up to, however, was a little foreboding: rain.
And this was no regular rain – it was heavy, constant, and had been streaming down since about midnight. My thoughts turned to the course and I ran through the various parts of the loop in my mind, assessing the impact of all the water:
- the descent on the Piste de la Sarra? That’s going to be muddy, slippery, and messy. I’ll have to be careful not to fall.
- the transition to the Nicholas de Lange? Mostly OK though the cobblestones will be slippery and I’ll have to take care.
- the Nicholas de Lange staircase? It’ll be fine – I ran it in the rain in training and there won’t be issues.
- the Parc des Hauters? There’ll be puddles to be avoided for comfort’s sake but it should be fine.
Conclusion? There’ll be a much better chance that I’ll fall over on the descent and I’ll need to keep concentrating on the cobblestones but it will basically just make everything a little more uncomfortable. But, hey, this is ultrarunning and discomfort is part of the point of the sport, right?
I had packed my gear the night before and, after dinner and putting Jamie off to bed, I checked everything once again before getting prepped to leave. I called an Uber, loaded my gear in the back, and headed up the hill.
As it turns out, though, the seeds of my eventual Ultra Boucle undoing had already been sown. No, it wasn’t the weather, it was the lack of rest before the race and the long day at work. While the sleep was good the night before, being awake at 5:30am, spending the day working and dealing with family things, and then heading to the race meant I was already awake for 17.5 when the race started. By the time we were twelve hours in to the race, I would have been awake for nearly 30 hours…and this would have a big effect on how I ran.
Things got underway a couple of minutes after 11pm and the first thing to negotiate was the descent of the hill. The first time down the hill would be one of the only times in the race where it was crowded and, with only headlamps to pick our way down, I took things easy, left big gaps between myself and the other runners, and tried to stay out of trouble. My shoes gripped the soil of the descent pretty well and I didn’t slip at all. Indeed, throughout the whole race I never had a problem slipping on the hill, though I did slip inside my shoes and slam my toenails into the front of the shoe every descent. This would hurt me come the second half of the race and even the next day, but black toenails are a part of the sport, too, I guess and I’m used to the post-race pain.
At the bottom of the descent there is an s-bend on bitumen and then the run along the bottom of the course to the staircase, the major challenge of the race.This rolling bottom section, however, is a little deceiving because while it is not as steep as the staircase up the hill, it does sap the legs. I jogged over this section the first time and then the next few times, though eventually I would run only the first part and power walk up the second, steeper section. I might drop a few seconds doing so but I would keep my heart rate lower and stay more comfortable doing so.
After the rolling section there are some twists and turns on cobblestones before the right, ninety-degree turn onto the stairs of the Nicholas de Lange. I had run these in training and I knew them well now, and I also knew that running them at all would be a disaster in the longer term. Hence, I power hiked them at a steady rhythm the first time and every subsequent time, too. I would end up passing people consistently throughout the race on these stairs as I tapped out my steady pace and I was happy with the fitness that I had gained training on the stairs the last few weeks. It enabled me to keep things nice and even and still have my breath left at the top.
When we did reach the top, it was a quick transition over the road to the dusty, rocky path through the park and the return to the Piste de la Sarra for the next descent. The small, gritty rocks along here would work their way int my shoes and I stopped a couple of time during the race to clear them out before they created blisters. The only other notable thing here was the bridge of the Four Winds which, when running across it, bounced with each step. This is not such a big deal if you are the only one on the bridge, but if you are two or three runners or even walking tourists at different points on the bridge then the bouncing can be very disconcerting and even painful.
At the end of the first lap my main concern was that I could find my way around the course easily enough in the dark (no problem) and that my timing chip was working (also no problem) and so I started on lap two, lap three, and lap four. I was hoping to average about three laps an hour overall and I started at a pace that would see me put in about four in the first hour. That was a little fast and I would slow down eventually, but I felt good and was ready to push on through the night.
It might be easiest to break things down into blocks of time when describing how things went.
The first four hours were fine and I tapped out a steady rhythm on the staircase, managed to descend without issues, took on water, electrolytes, and food without problems, and was feeling pretty good. I wasn’t pushing super hard on the flatter sections and concentrated on keeping my stride short and fast rather than long, slow, and heavy. The descent I tried to take at speed so as to avoid the crushing of my toenails that had hurt so much last year at the six hour race, and I felt this was successful. I had picked out some rocks on the way down that I used as guides to let me know when to move from one part of the descent to another part a few meters over and generally I didn’t have a problem here.
Hydration was going well and I carried a bottle for two laps drinking throughout, then dropped it off at my bag for the next lap where I ran with nothing in my hands. This seemed to work well and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on liquids. And the frequent pauses to grab the bottle or drop it off meant I could grab a couple of slices of saucisson or some cheese, too, to keep my energy up.
Around about the fourth hour I started to feel a bit down and I didn’t know why. My legs weren’t making the transition from the descent to the rolling section, or from the stairs to the final flatter park as easily as before. I walked a couple of laps to get my head in order once again and figure out my next steps in order to get back on track, and what I came up with was this:
- run the downhill
- run the first part of the rolling section until the steeper hill
- power walk the steeper hill and then through the cobbles to the staircase
- take the staircase nice and steadily
- power walk the hundred meters or so from the staircase to the park
- run the park back to the decent
This worked well and allowed me to conserve energy for when I needed it, stay nice and relaxed, and take on liquids and food. For the next few hours this is exactly when I did and so, right up until about the 8 hour mark, I had a nice rhythm going. Just before the eight hours ticked over, though, I needed to visit the bathroom rather desperately and when I did I was…well, surprised, by what the running had shaken loose. While I don’t want to give too much information about bowel movements in a post like this, let me say I was surprised by the sheer amount of waste I managed to expel. I guess if you are going to shake things loose, then running up and down a hill is the way to do that…but, crikey, it was pretty crazy.
At about the eight hour mark I had about 60 kilometers in the bank but I was feeling OK. A little tired from the running, sure, but still OK.
Things mostly clicked along nicely here though the fatigue was starting to pile up.
The highlight of this block was a visit from Cecile and Jamie who dropped by to cheer me on. I stopped to chat and then did a lap walking with Jamie. He was skipping down the descent, racing up the stairs, and generally putting me to shame. Maybe if he was half a day deep into the course he would be skipping less, but it’s hard to tell when a seven year old has all this energy – he may well have been kicking my butt by this point, too!
After saying goodbye to the family I walked a couple more laps but I was starting to feel very tired. It wasn’t so much the running but the being awake from early the day before. By the time the 12 hour mark arrived I had been awake nearly 30 hours and I was feeling it. I sat down for a few minutes during hour twelve and my eyes were shutting of their own accord. I asked for a couple of cups of coffee and managed to perk myself up again and head back out but I was now feeling a lot more tired and it was showing. My descent was now less than smooth and I was still keeping that rhythm on the climb, but it felt a little bit slower than before. It was maybe the beginning of the end for me – the fatigue was starting to arrive in a big way.
This part was just painful for me. I would be walking and running laps, searching for a way to keep moving forward but failing pretty significantly. Oh I was still adding distance where I could, of course, but I was far too fatigued to be doing so in a regular way. For most of the fourteenth hour I was almost asleep sitting down (I didn’t want to lie down as I knew I would likely sleep entirely and not wake again for hours) and any time I slowed significantly on the course I would feel my eyes getting heavy. I tripped for the the first and only time in the race when I was going up the stairs and I realized a few seconds later that the reason I had tripped was because my eyes had been shut and I was falling asleep. I have never fallen asleep running before and I knew this was a sign that I had made an error in having such a long day before the race.
Oh well, you learn these things as you go, right?
There wasn’t much more for me to do on the course. I had long ago passed the 100K mark and I was working on adding a few more kilometers to the total, but I was also in pain and entirely fatigued. Small issues that had sprung up during the run were beginning to make themselves known in more painful ways – a strain on my right shin, the toenails on both feet, and a blister on the outside of my left foot were all throbbing – and I took a long sit down before realizing that I didn’t really need to sit down, I needed to sleep.
I pulled the plug on the loops 17 hours and 22 minutes into the 24 hours with a little more than 111 kilometers banked. I had been awake for 35 hours and I was ready to fall asleep for days – my Ultra Boucle de la Sarra for 2017 was over.
I went in to the Ultra Boucle with a couple of clear goals.
One was to be sure that I could be awake for a day of competition as, come the Ultratour du Leman, that’s what I’ll need to do. I’m going to claim this one as achieved even if I left a few hours on the table on the hill in Lyon. I was awake for more than a day and a half when I finished and the total time limit at the Ultratour du Leman is ‘just’ 30 hours. I know now I can be awake and moving, working, doing things for that sort of length of time and, even if I didn’t see the Ultra Boucle all the way through to the end, I feel confident that I can be awake that long and performing well. What’s more, for the Ultratour du Leman I have taken the day off work as a vacation day and I will be able to go to the start line fresh from a night of sleep instead of tired from a day of work. I think this will stand me in good stead.
Another goal was to keep moving the whole time and, for the most part, that is what I did. Excluding bathroom breaks, a couple of ten minute periods where I stopped to eat and drink and get my head together, and a couple of points where the fatigue really bit hard, I was moving the entire time. Descending, climbing, walking, running – just moving. This helped me break through that 100K barrier and keep going and I am sure it will help in preparing me mentally for the Ultratour du Leman in September. I know I can keep moving and I know I can keep facing the challenges of the course.
Another goal was to manage my hydration and nutrition. This I managed well, particularly the hydration which I think I have dialed in nicely now. I used water, some electrolyte mix, and the odd cup of coffee later in the race to keep hydrated and it worked well. I urinated regularly – more so that at the Saint Fons 12 Hour race, which is a good sign – and I never felt dehydrated. Nutrition wise, I managed well enough though I did ‘break’ the diet a little by sharing some candy with Jamie during the race when he stopped by for a lap. I was happy with the nutrition and I didn’t feel the same ‘weight’ in my stomach that I did at points during the Saint Fons 12 Hour. I think I am getting used to running and eating at the same time now.
Finally, I wanted to average 3 laps an hour for the 24 hours I was running. Obviously I stopped a few hours short of the 24 hour mark but, for the time I did run, I managed this pace. A little more than 111K on a course a few meters longer than 2km means I did about 55 laps. At about 17.5 hours, this means I kept to that pace the whole time. It might have dropped slightly behind this pace had I tried to continue at a walking pace for the final few hours, but I was toasted by then and I knew it. Let’s call this one ‘mostly’ done.
All in all, then, I’m pretty happy with how I performed and I knew the only reason I didn’t feel better at the end wasn’t because of my training or preparation but because having a job where you need to be in the office early, having a family that needs attention, and having a day that cannot be taken as vacation just because you want to sleep before a sporting event means I was going to have a hard time no matter what. In the end I managed to prove I could run well and climb well, too, despite the fatigue, and this will hold me in good stead for the Ultratour du Leman in a few months time.