Fourth ultramarathon race, third ultramarathon for the year, and the first ultramarathon with significant climbing.
So. Many. Stairs.
In the end, though, it wasn’t the stairs that affected the outcome of the race as it was the descent each lap and one element that really couldn’t be prepared for until the day: the weather.
Here’s the story of the 2016 Ultra Boucle de la Sarra.
I wrote earlier in the week about my goals for the race. I was hoping for somewhere between a marathon (42km) and 50km. The 50K distance would require a good day all round on my part but the marathon was definitely in reach. I was confident that if I kept moving I would be able to get somewhere close to my goal distance and, understanding that this was not a flat course and the standard of the field was strong, I was committed to running my own race and shooting for my own goal.
Nutrition and Hydration
I went in with the same nutrition and hydration strategy as at CIEC and aimed to take on a bottle every 4km, or two laps. I would switch between plain water and electrolytes each time I took a bottle and this should see me take on a liter of water every hour. As well, I would use the same glucose/gummi bear mix I had used before as I know my stomach can handle it and that I can get through a six hour race using it.
As it happened, though, the weather was very hot at the race start and so I took my first bottle on at the 2km mark. After that I didn’t run a lap of the race without a bottle in my hand and generally took on a liter and half of liquids throughout the course of the race. When I started cramping on the stairs from about the 25km mark, I switched to electrolyte mix exclusively, save for the final lap where I went with water as I was under time pressure.
It was hot.
As I wandered up to the start line in advance of the race to get my number and get all signed in I was sweating, and the real heat would not arrive for another hour or more. By the time the race started there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was beating down. I hung around in the shade and chose to run in the shade, too, through the first half of the race and I couldn’t wait for the sun to go down at about the 4.5 hour mark and the slightly cooler temperatures to arrive.
There was not a lot of breeze to cool things down, though there was a nice breeze at the top of the staircase which I looked forward to each lap. Other than that, it remained hot – damn hot – the whole race. Indeed, it was the polar opposite of the run in the rain and mud at CIEC. Whereas there had been no place to hide from the rain and mud there, here there was no place to hide from the heat.
The start was set for 5pm and so at about 4:45pm we made our way to the bottom of the descent. The organizers had quite rightly assumed that a couple of hundred runners throwing themselves down a hill to start a race is not the brightest way to get things underway and so the race started at the bottom of the descent, headed uphill for about half the length of the descent, and then turned around to head back downhill. I was under no illusions as to my speed going uphill and so I positioned myself near the middle of the group at the start and kept repeating to myself that ultra races are not won in the first five minutes but can certainly be lost there. I was content to move steadily up the hill, make the turn around, and hit the course proper.
The Ultra Boucle de la Sarra is a looped course of about 2km or so and I think of it as being composed of four sections. The first section is the descent, a straight shot down an old ski slope that is murder on the quads and on my poor toenails that hit the end of my shoes almost every lap. The second section is a rolling route between the bottom of the descent and the start of the stairs. It’s not overly hard but the rolling nature makes it easy to underestimate how hard this is after a dozen laps. The third section is the stairs – 563 of them, to be exact – that wind from the bottom of the course to the top. They are uneven, hard to find a rhythm on, and not a lot of individual runners were running them after the first hour. Finally, the fourth section is the trail which is a hard packed trail from the top of the staircase to the start/finish area and the top of the descent. It is slightly downhill at the start but is basically flat, a little breezy in parts, and the easiest part of the course overall.
On a podcast I listened to a couple of weeks ago I heard someone say that ultra running is basically problem solving. Those words came back to me during the run as I adjusted everything from pace to hydration to run/walk sections in order to overcome small problems before they became big problems. Some examples…
The first couple of hours I didn’t have many problems at all. I was on pace for a 50km finish and I was hitting my pace and lap goals. I knew if I kept the pace just under 15 minutes per lap I would complete my 24th lap just before the six hour cut off and be free to walk in the last lap and my 50th kilometer. I realized at around the half way point, however, that this was going to be a little too hard to deliver. After all, if I was just on pace in the first three hours, I would be naturally slowing down in the last three hours and might push too hard to bring the 50K home. Hence, at about the half way mark I reset my goal to be ‘get the marathon first, then rethink’ and tok some pressure off myself.
Also around the half way point (25km or so) I started cramping on the stairs. It was really only my right leg but it was painful enough to have me wincing and I decided to adjust the hydration strategy. Instead or alternating water and electrolyte mix I changed to electrolytes exclusively and hoped this would do the trick…and it seemed to get it done. A couple of times I missed being able to tip water from my bottle over my head or squirt it on my shoulders to cool down, but the trade off was worth it as I didn’t have major cramping after that.
Somewhere around the three hour mark I also decided to start taking it easier on the rolling section and the first part of the trail section, too. I realized that I was expending a lot of energy to try and keep running along the rolling section and wagered I would do just as well with a power hike. This would also have the advantage of bringing my heart rate down and letting me hydrate a little more comfortably. As it happens, I still ended up passing people who were continuing to run up this section as the rolling rises were not easy to run fast after a couple of hours. As well, at the top of the stairs, many people seemed to get straight back into running after powering up the hill. I, on the other hand, power hiked for at least 100m to 200m after the stairs to get my heart rate and breathing back under control and I think this helped avoid some of the fatigue that crept in for others.
So, ultra running is basically problem solving and I was happy with the way I was dealing with these small things during the race as they kept me moving, kept me motivated, and kept the heat and effort from becoming overwhelming.
In terms of pace it really was a tale of two halves. In the first three hours I managed 9.2km, 8.4km and 8km – remembering that slightly faster than 8km an hour would have me on track for a 50km finish, I was doing well. However, in the second half of the race, I took that average way down with 6.3km, 6.3km, and 6.8km hours. The final 2km loop after the end of the six hour limit to start the final lap was about 17 minutes or so, and probably one of the faster laps of the second half of the race.
When I finally clicked stop on my Garmin a few seconds after crossing the line for the final time I was happy with the distance I had covered, happy with my race overall, and happy I had managed that final ‘no pressure’ lap by sneaking into the finish with only about 20 seconds left before the six hour siren sounded.
A good afternoon out for me and I achieved my goal distance despite the stairs and the heat. It was fun running with so many people (about 300 all up including the teams) and the support from the Lyon Ultra Club, the spectators, and the other runners was incredible. The Lyon Running Club team managed a wonderful 33 laps and while I didn’t get close to that by myself, I was very happy to see some people I knew out there supporting, running, and officiating, too. I think I’ll be back for this one next year and, if the weather is a little cooler and if I can figure out how to run descents, I hope I will be able to crack that 50km barrier.
Distance 46.9km (11th Senior Male)