Sunday morning at a little before 8:30am I took the final steps to cross the finish line of the Ultratour du Leman. 178 kilometers or a little more than 110 miles after I had left Villeneuve in Switzerland I was back having completed my first 100 mile ultramarathon. I was tired, my feet were killing me, but I felt as good as I ever have. Crossing that finish line was the culmination of nearly 10 months of work and to be able to record a finish and do so with a smile on my face was one of the more rewarding things I have ever done in sports.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To tell the story of how I came to finish I’m going to go back to when I started thinking about this race, what I needed to do to be confident of completing it, and how all of that fell into place.
I ran my first – and most disastrous – ultra event in December 2015. After that effort, though, I got smarter, trained better, and had a great year in 2016 running everything from 6 hour races to my first 100K to a end-of-season trail race that, while not really my cup of tea, was a great way to round out the season. By the end of 2016 I had run just short of 3000 kilometers in training and racing and was ready to head into 2017 with some more experience and a goal in mind: to finish my first 100 mile race.
I had heard about the Ultratour du Leman on social media and after reading some blog posts about it by other runners. I thought it seemed like a good fit for me as there wasn’t a lot of climbing (less than 1000 meters or 3300 feet across the whole course ) and I am not the best on hills. I also really like Lac Leman and every time I go to Geneva, one of my favorite cities to visit in the world, I take time down by the lake to relax, read, and take in the beauty. The idea of running around the entire lake was attractive from the outset and so I got in touch with the race director, Jean-Luc, and signed up straight away.
My 2016 Calendar
As I went about planning my calendar for the 2017 season, the primary goal remained finishing the 100 mile race in Switzerland. The events I chose to add to the program all had some way of building some part of my ultrarunning resume so that I could go into the race feeling good. Among the course I choose to run:
- The Saint Fons 12 Hour race, the first of a couple of races this year that would force me to manage nutrition, hydration, and running through the night as the Ultratour du Leman would demand
- The Ultra Boucle de la Sarra 24 Hour race, another race that would see me stretched as I put in an effort over the course of an entire day and dealt with the mental fatigue that comes from forcing yourself to continue throwing yourself down a steep slope only to climb stairs back to the top
I also started adding hill workouts and stair workouts to my training in an effort to improve an area where I am still not strong, and I added more distance to the training program than I had in previous years. Indeed, while I ‘only’ managed 2927 kilometers for the entire year of 2016, by the time I finished the Ultratour du Leman I had banked 2948 kilometers – and it is only mid-September!
In effect, no matter where I was running or racing this year, the Ultratour du Leman was in the back of my mind. By the time I got to the start line I knew I had done what I needed to do to finish and that there was not much else I could do to prepare other than what I had already done.
Montreux and Villenueve
Unlike the Ultra Boucle de la Sarra where I worked the entire day, ate dinner, and then went and ran for 24 hours, I wanted to give myself the best chance of finishing this race feeling good. Thus, instead of arriving a few hours before the race, I headed up from France to Montreux by train on Thursday, looked around the town and enjoyed relaxing by the lake, and then made my way to the race headquarters on Friday afternoon. I managed to fit in a couple of short runs while I was there but nothing serious: I was just shaking out my legs from the travel and making sure I felt good before the start of my ‘big dance’ for the year.
Arriving at the race headquarters, I met Jean-Luc and some of his team, set up my air mattress and laid out my clothes for the next day, and then spent a couple of hours wandering around the town of Villeneuve from which the race would start. I returned to the race headquarters later, met a few of the other competitors who were starting to arrive and set up their own sleeping quarters – a couple slept in camping cars, one in a hotel, but most stayed in the gymnasium bunked down on inflatable camping mattresses – and then got ready for the pre-race briefing.
The briefing was all in good fun and Jean-Luc explained the course, the markings we would follow, and what we would find at the aid stations. Unlike some US ultras that I hear about where aid stations are around 6 miles or 10 kilometers apart, the aid stations here were approximately 25 kilometers apart. Not a lot for the first couple, but it would seem like an eternity for the later stations as the speed dropped and the night dragged out.
Jean-Luc introduced all of the runners with a couple of anecdotes about the races they had run, the sorts of results that they had achieved, and their ultrarunning background. The experience in the room was, well, overwhelming. One runner had just returned from the 24 Hour World Championships in Ireland, another had won the Race Across America, multiple runners seemed to have run across entire countries or continents, and there were a big bunch who were returning to this race for the third or fourth time. To say I was a little overwhelmed would be an understatement but I reminded myself that this race was about me, my only competition was myself, and that the running resume of others doesn’t affect my ability to reach my goals. I might have been in the presence of some ultrarunning greatness but the fact that others are a lot better than me didn’t mean that my training was any less sufficient or that my mental game had to change.
After the briefing we enjoyed a communal dinner of pasta with bolognese sauce, some salad with a wonderful dressing, and some desert. I chatted to a couple of the others including Eric (whose blog I have read for a year now and who was on his second attempt at this race after DNFing last year) and Scott, an ex-pat Australian now living in Nyon, Switzerland, with a healthy ultrarunning background.
Not too long after dinner it would be lights out so I pulled on some pajamas, dove into my sleeping bag, and bedded down for the night. In ten hours I would be heading into the unknown and I wanted at least 7 hours of good sleep before I did. As luck would have it, I got about eight hours all up, and when everyone was woken at 5:00am, I was ready to go, get dressed, pound down some breakfast, and get my head in the right place for the race.
We got a short briefing again before the start and Jean-Luc filled us in on the latest weather news. It was likely that we’d have rain at about the halfway point and that, the earlier we got to the halfway point, the heavier the rain would be. Geneva, it seemed, was going to be wet and so, not quite sure what sort of pace I would be running, I stowed my jacket in my backpack, put some other wet weather gear in a drop-bag for the halfway point, and made sure I had enough water to get me to the first checkpoint.
We all gathered outside the gymnasium for the final few minutes and then, after a countdown and to the sounds of clanging Swiss cowbells, we set off for the 175 kilometer loop around the Lac Leman. My 100 mile adventure was underway.
Start to Checkpoint 1 (22K)
Scott Kummar of Ten Junk Miles had given me a little advice in the lead up to the race. He told me:
In the first half don’t be an idiot. In the second half don’t be a wimp. You faster guys tend to blow up your stomachs….so EAT!!!
With this in mind and having had the experience of a far-from-enjoyable 50K a few months back where I went out WAY too fast and paid for it soon after, I concentrated on running a steady, sustainable pace in the opening 10 kilometers. I was running with Scott, the ex-pat Aussie, and Ruthann, an Irish 24 hour national team member, and we chatted about the differences between Switzerland and our home countries, some of the scenery, and the other things you chat about to pass the time in a race.
Nearing the 10 kilometer point I pulled ahead of the two of them slightly, and then realized I was still running fine and not lifting my heart rate too much so I settled in at this nice steady pace and just breathed in Switzerland. At the 11K point I had the chance to cross the first national border I had encountered in a running race as we moved from Switzerland into France, and I maintained a nice steady tempo all the way to the first checkpoint at 22 kilometers.
I sent a couple of text messages, loaded up on some food, and hit the road reasonably quickly. My hydration pack still seemed to have a bit of water in it, so I didn’t bother refilling it there. I was in and out of the checkpoint pretty fast and back on the road.
Checkpoint 1 (22K) to Checkpoint 2 (44K)
I was feeling good when I left this checkpoint but I was still aware that I didn’t want to go out too fast. Paying for a fast start in a 50K race means suffering for a couple of hours but a fast start here would mean suffering the whole day. I was drinking from my hydration pack every couple of kilometers and eventually I formed up with three other runners and we ran together for the next couple of hours.
However, it was when I was running with this group that I had my first inkling that something was not going to plan. We were chatting in French about this and that, and then one of the other runners mentioned to me that we were the front group in the race. This shocked me as I was sure that there were others ahead. No, he confirmed, we are the leading runners.
Though I was running a good pace, keeping my heart rate down, and trying to keep everything under control, I replied that this was not the place for me to be. I didn’t want to be leading the race at the marathon mark only to abandon later because I had blown all my energy early. I knew I had to back it off and so, as we found ourselves on a hill leaving the town of Thanon-les-Bains, I slowed to a hike and let the group go on ahead. I didn’t need to be running up front, and I didn’t need to be running hills, either. If I was going to finish, it would be because I managed my efforts, and I don’t mind running alone when the alternative is running too fast, too early, and burning out.
I was still in fourth as we got into the aid station at the 44 kilometer point, the other three from the leading group having moved through and out of the station quickly. I sent a couple of text messages to let Cécile and the family know where I was and how I was doing, and refilled my hydration pack.
And it was here I noticed that I might have dug a second hole for myself.
As well as probably going out too fast, I realized I had only drunk about a liter of water. Uh oh – that’s not enough and I knew right away I was going to be paying for that lack of hydration soon. I hoped it wouldn’t affect my chance of finishing too much, but I knew it would affect me some how, and soon.
Checkpoint 2 (44K) to Checkpoint 3 (64K)
I ran most of this section alone and it wasn’t so bad. It rolled a little, and I concerted on drinking as much as I could. When I saw a freshwater spring on the side of the road – there is one in almost every Swiss village on the route – I grabbed some water, covered my head to keep cool, and kept on my way.
However, even here, I realized that the early speed and lack of hydration was going to be a bigger issue than I thought. I looked down at my watch when I crossed the 50K point and it read 5:04:51. Bear in mind that the last 50K I raced where I started too fast and didn’t drink enough saw me finish the distance in 5:09:37. Here I was five minutes faster at the 50K point than I was when I had a horrible day out racing…and I still had 125 kilometers to go!
This was not the place I wanted to be in and so I started doing some self-assessment. While I didn’t feel dehydrated, I knew that I was. I started drinking more and more in an effort to get back to balance. I knew it wouldn’t be entirely successful but I could at least start making some headway into a major problem I had caused myself. I also resolved to keep walking the uphills, taking the downhills easy, and keeping the heart rate manageable. I saw it climb a couple of times which I, at first, put down to a dodgy reading on the watch. Later it occurred to me that my heart was probably working harder to do what I was asking it to do without resources such as water that my body needed to get the work done.
It wasn’t hurting me much in terms of performance, but I knew enough about ultrarunning to know that it was only going to be a matter of time.
Checkpoint 3 (64K) to Checkpoint 4 (87K, Half Distance)
I knew things would fall apart and, even with taking on lots of extra water and keeping my pace down to something manageable, this was where I would pay for the earlier stupidity.
This was a HORRIBLE section of the race, probably the worst in terms of physical form and feeling. My head was throbbing, the afternoon sun – we had been expecting rain but it never came – was beating down hard, and I was walking fast on flats and hiking hills rather than running them.
This was the part of the course that I knew best as it took us into the city of Geneva, around the bottom of the lake, and then out to Bellevue on the other side of the city. I had run here before earlier in the year and so I knew what to expect in terms of terrain, the crowds of tourists on the Mont Blanc bridge in the city center, and the long push out to Bellevue and towards the aid station.
I felt bad and while I didn’t think of dropping out – to be honest, in the whole race I never let myself consider dropping out – I can understand why, of all the checkpoints, this was the one where most people would drop. I imagine some others made the same mistakes I had made, and maybe there were other reasons too. There are a lot of reasons to drop from an ultra and there’s no shame in it, but this checkpoint, by all accounts, was the place where more people dropped than at any other checkpoint in the race.
I sat down for a while here and got organized for the second half of the race. From my drop bag I grabbed the things I would need for the night (headlamp, warm gloves, some extra food to carry) and I dropped off some of the rain gear that I didn’t end up needing. The aid station volunteers explained that any predictions of rain were at least a day away now and that the rest of the race should be dry. This was good news to me and I was happy to leave behind the wet weather gear in the drop bag. A couple of last handfuls of candy and salty Pringles chips and I was off again.
Checkpoint 4 (87K) to Checkpoint 5 (107K)
I crossed the 100K mark after some 12 hours of running. This is quite a bit off my personal best for the distance at a touch over 10 hours, but I still had another 75 kilometers to go so they aren’t really comparable, right?
I took a break for a few minutes about five kilometers from the checkpoint. I felt like I needed to sit down and so I told myself I could have five minutes rest before continuing on. This seemed to work and I got my breath back, ate some food, and drank some water. I also urinated for the first time since very early in the race and, well, lets just say it was the wrong color. I’m not an expert but I have read enough to know that clear to light yellow is probably OK, darker yellow is a sign you need more water, and anything that is between dark yellow and brown is a sign that things were going wrong in the hydration department.
Things were going wrong for me.
I figured I would keep on drinking a lot and taking on salty foods to replace the electrolytes I was sweating out, and I hoped that my “better late than never” approach would help me restore some balance to the hydration issue I was battling.
The ups and downs through this section were tough and I continued calking the uphills to try and conserve some energy. Night was starting to fall by the time I arrived at Checkpoint 5 and I had my headlamp on when I wasn’t in the middle of a village or a well lit path. I was gutting it out, pushing forward, and still not considering dropping out. My feet might be hurting but that’s to be expected – this isn’t a 10K after all, it’s an ultramarathon!
At the checkpoint I took some time to sit down, grab some hot coffee, drink some wonderful soup – I think I had two bowls here – and send some updates to Cécile on my progress. All up I spent about 20 minutes at this aid station before heading out once again to take on the 20 kilometers to next aid station.
Or at least that’s how long it is if you don’t get lost.
Checkpoint 5 (107K) to Checkpoint 6 (126K)
Mentally, this was the hardest section of the race for me.
I had been trying my best to follow the markings that told us when to turn and when to keep going forward. I was also relying on my GPS device, too, which was giving me a good idea of where I should be going. However, as I moved past Lausanne, things got confusing for me and two times I was turned around and lost significantly, with another time being lost and off course a shorter time.
All in all these missed turns and off-track GPS probably only cost me a half hour, but there were two impacts that were probably more important in the grander scheme of things.
First, they added distance – a couple of kilometers here and there – to the total I had run. I didn’t mind this as much as the impact it had on the directions we had been given. The directions were very precise and explained that we would turn left at kilometer 116 and right at kilometer 117.8. However, when you lose a hundred meters here and there, a kilometer while trying to get back on track, and whatever else your GPS watch adds or subtracts over the course of a day or running, these directions start to lose value. Was I out by 1.5 kilometers or 2.1 kilometers? Should I take this turn, or run on to the one ahead? On an urban course it is easy to get lost and I increasingly had to stop referring to the road book for directions because it was too far out of alignment to be useful.
Second, it got into my head that I was making errors in navigation. Add this to the previous errors of pacing and hydration, and I was starting to have some negative self-talk in my head. As I said, the time I lost was not enormous and the extra distance I had to cover was – in the scheme of things – not important. But the head games, the idea that I couldn’t navigate and that I was making basic errors and therefore must be overtired, all of that was going to negatively impact me.
The final push up and along the rolling hills to Checkpoint 6 was difficult but I was happy to arrive at the checkpoint, drink some more of that fabulous soup, and get set for the final couple of sections.
Checkpoint 6 (126K) to Checkpoint 7 (153K)
This would be the longest push between checkpoints for the whole race. It was meant to be 27 kilometers but, of course, I didn’t really know how far off my GPS was or whether I would get lost again. I took it nice and easy and tried my best to track the course markings and I did really well…until I didn’t.
Moving through a small village with cobbled streets (and let me tell you that there is nothing that your tired feet hate more in the closing third of an ultra than cobblestones!) I followed the markings perfectly until I got to a crossroad and they…disappeared. I went back to the written instructions and tried to figure out from them which was the correct route to take of the three on offer. The GPS was of little help telling me to only ‘head east’ and in my addled state I could make a case for either of two of the options being ‘east-ish’. I didn’t know which way to go, backtracked a little, and then decided to head straight on. If I was mistaken I would find out relatively quickly but, as luck would have it, I made the right choice. At the next intersection was one of the familiar orange arrows and I was on track. It’s not really getting lost but it did take five or ten minutes of trying to figure things out and do some math in my head at a point where I wasn’t really capable of doing either well.
When I got to the final checkpoint I was happy to see the two smiling faces encouraging me on. The pair had some updates on who dropped and who hadn’t, and I was happy to hear that both Eric and Scott were in the race still (Scott would later drop, but Eric pushed on for a fine finish). I drank a couple of bowls of soup, had some coffee, grabbed handfuls of chocolate and nougat which I stashed in a plastic baggy to eat an hour or so down the road.
When I got going again I was cold. Despite resting out of the wind and having the gloves, warm beanie, and jacket on, the 20 minutes or so of inactivity left me chilled for the first 10 or 15 minutes after the aid station. I’ll have to remember this for the next race as there is not much fun in being cold after 22 hours on the road.
Checkpoint 7 (153K) to Finish (175K)
I had sent Cécile a text message telling her that this last section was going to be ugly. I was going to finish but it would not be pretty, and I was pretty sure by now that I would be hiking in most of the last 22 kilometers.
She was staying in Montreux about 6 kilometers from the end of the race and I sent her a text message to let her know that I would see her at about 7:30am or maybe 7:45am. A little bit of extra speed on the downhill, though, and some good, relatively fast hiking on the rollers into Montreux saw me update her and say I would likely be there by 7:15am.
Along this section I started to feel like I needed to take a toilet break. Unfortunately, there weren’t any public toilets that I could see and so as I moved along with a rumbling stomach and a growing realization that this was going to be a very bad to, as they say, ‘trust a fart’, I kept hoping a public toilet would present itself. Thankfully, as I closed in on Montreux, one did, and I managed to relieve myself and head towards where I would meet Cécile a little more comfortably.
I got to the meeting point – appropriately for big Queen fan Cécile it was the statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux – and waited only a couple of minutes for her before we took off together for the final push to the finish. We walked at a slower pace than I had been but I was happy to recount the adventure to her and, eventually, arrive at Villeneuve and the finish line.
After 25 hours and 22 minutes, I was done, and the goal that was almost a year in the planning was achieved.
I was so very proud of having finished the race that the pain – temporarily, anyway – seemed to go away.
But it came back again fast.
I started hobbling about after I stopped moving, I ate a little but not all that much, had a shower where I noticed for the first time some pressure points and other chafing that don’t really emerge until you blast them with hot water, and then lay down to sleep for a couple of hours.
When I woke, I felt stiff and sore but I managed to hobble over to the kitchen and sort out some food, a little to drink, and catch up with Cécile and a few of the other runners and staff. I saw some others finish, packed up my gear, and started discussing with Cécile how we’d head for home.
With about 30 minutes to go until the final cut off there was only one runner still out on the course: Eric. Then, all of a sudden, we heard the Swiss cowbell ringing out as it did for all the arrivals and I rushed outside to see Eric cross the line with a half hour to spare and a big smile on his face. I was very happy that he completed the race, especially as his own race report on last year’s event was a big part in motivating me to do this years race.
As Cécile and I had to get going, Jean-Luc presented me with the handcrafted wood trophy for completing the race and a couple of other going away gifts, too. He’s a class act and a great RD and I hope we’ll have a chance to connect again soon.
We took the train from Villeneuve into Montreux, another train into Geneva, and a final train home to Lyon where I ate the traditional post-ultra pizza and crawled into bed sore, tired, but also as a 100 mile finisher.
And, damn if that doesn’t feel good.