Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Eco-Trail de Paris

I've had a few days to collect my thoughts and to rest.

The short version is:  The race was EPIC in pretty much every way.  So much harder than a marathon but in ways I hadn't expected.


Registering the day before was very easy and quick.  The process was polished and the volunteers clearly knew what they were doing.  I had wanted to rent a live GPS tracker but they had sold out.  Instead, I subscribed to have an SMS update sent to my wife's phone each time I passed a checkpoint.  At 4 euro, it was a good value service, I thought.

I also bought a few items of kit:  Collapsible cup, survival blanket and bandana/sweatband thingy.  The cup and blanket were required equipment and, with warm weather forecast, I knew I would need some head covering.

I passed the Friday evening with an easy 2k jog that was part of my nutrition strategy (more in another post) and then walked around looking for and finding a decent place to get pasta for dinner.  Chez Luigi by Dupleix metro station, if you ever need somewhere to go.

It was still early and I was charged up with nerves so I decided to repack my kit.  Changes from the initial attempt a few days ago included swapping the warm sleeveless top for a long-sleeved running shirt, replacing the poncho with a survival blamket and (duh!) adding in some spare contact lenses.  That last item really ought to have been there all along.  What I don't understand is why I left the gloves in there.  By the time I was done, it was almost midnight and I crashed out in no time at all.

Saturday Morning
I got up at the planned time, miraculously.  Normally, I either wake hours early or have to really drag myself out of bed.  Quick continental breakfast and off to the train.  Travel to the start was included in the entry fee and consisted of a 45 minute train ride followed by 20 minutes on a coach.

I got to the start area about 90 minutes before the start and got ready in about 10 minutes.  I'm so used to getting there at the last minute that I was a bit lost really.  Took a few pictures and had a second breakfast from the refreshment tent provided.  Then I just sat under a tree for an hour and thought through my race plan.

I set a series of goals (as usual).  Starting with arrival at the second refreshment station (45km) which would be the farthest I had ever done, ideally in about 6 hours.  Every step after this would be a new achievement and from there, as my intermediate goal, I just wanted to finish the distance.  My stretch goal would be to arrive within 12 hours.

At 11:45, I headed into the start area and activated my GPS watch which I packed away where I couldn't see/access it.  I positioned myself right at the back of the start area so I wouldn't get dragged off by the pack for a too-fast start.  After a minutes' silence out of respect for the people killed in Toulouse and Montaubon, we were off.

The reason I packed the GPS in my bag was that I wanted to lift any pressure to meet time targets away from just enjoying the experience.  This had worked well at the Semi de Paris and I had since read some articles about "running from within".  That is to say:  Pace yourself on how you feel and ignore the speed of those around you.  So, I settled in at a slow and sustainable jog which had the additional benefit of allowing me to take in the beautiful surroundings.  (There are some Pictures on the Tab above.)

Honeymoon Half-Marathon
Out to 22k, the sun was shining and all was well with the world.  A gentle breeze kept me from overheating.  I had planned on a run/walk strategy (as usual based on a lot of reading) such that I would run anything that was downhill, walk anything even slightly uphill and on the flat cycle through  5 minutes running and 1 minute walking.  Actually, that last part never happened as there was never really a flat section lasting more than 5 minutes.

The paths started very well defined and flat but gradually became more trail-like.  I wanted to cover this first section in 2h30m but in the end it was 2h50m.  The hills in the last quarter of this part really slowed me down but I was NOT going to run up them.

I was at this stop for an extra 10 minutes as I needed to pursue some urgent business.  Ahem.

And, here, I made my first mistake.  Dismayed at being over three hours, I set off again without replenishing my water supply.  I thought I had more than enough to get to the next stop.  You can see what's coming, yes?

Reality Comes A-Calling
The next 23k were the ones brought the realisation of just what a challenge this was going to be.  The paths became rockier, the slopes steeper and the scenery more lovely.

I passed a lot of people on this section.  Most of them had either gone away too fast from the start or just couldn't get through it.  Sadly, I also saw a lot of tired and broken people as well.  The physical challenge of just keeping going on these hilly, rough paths became truly evident on this sector.  I heard a lot of people on the phone calling ahead to say they were done and would finish at the next stop.

Had my first almost-fall on this part when, not lifting my feet as one should on a trail, I stubbed my toe on a rock.  Fortunately, I fell into a tree and bounced back into the race with only a sore toe to show for it.

Fatigue began to really bite and, as well as the climbs becoming longer and steeper, it took significantly longer to recuperate from them and start jogging again.

And then I ran out of water.  Fortunately, I knew it wasn't far to the next checkpoint but this was a very unpleasant and parched 45 minutes.  I don't recommend the experience.

Second Wind
I arrived at the 45k station after a shade over 7 hours and gratefully refilled my water pack.

Another mistake here.  I also drank a lot of water.  Far too much, actually, and was quite bloated and "sloshy" for the first few kilometres of the next section.  But then the feeling passed and I got my second wind.  Running became very easy, my pace picked up and I even ran up some of the gentler slopes, only walking the steep ones.

I still kept the pace controlled but as the sun slowly set and the light dimmed the forest, this was the part of the race I will always remember.  Tirelessly, effortlessly running through the woodlands in twilight, feeling like nothing could ever stop me.  It was a truly guilty pleasure that I expected to pay heavily for later.  I have never felt that way before and it was magical.

Also, the course passed though the grounds of the Observatoire de Meudon and passed between the domes housing the many telescopes there.  Observatories always make me think about my dad, an astonomer amongst other things, and it was nice to think of him for a while as I ran through this area.

My inexperience showed again, here.  I left it too late to put on my headlight and nearly fell as I trod awkwardly into a pothole in the path.  Again, I was fortunate and, though painful, I was able to continue running.  This, I think, more than any other was the point at which I could so easily have  injured myself badly and had to retire.

Into The Night
I have no recollection of the stop at 55km but my GPS record shows that I did.
After the two previous two attempts, I finally did fall on this part.  I assume this is also a beginners' error:  Don't try to adjust your headtorch while you are running.  I really ought to have stopped for a moment but that always feels like a kind of surrender.  I don't know how I did it but I fell kind of diagonally, rolled completely forwards over my right shoulder and came to rest in a kind of sprint starting position from which I pushed off again and carried on.  What I didn't know was that I had cut my knee and was happily bleeding down my shin and into my shoe.  Never felt a thing.  And I know it really happened that way because of the mud I had on my bag and on the shoulder of my shirt.

The darkness became absolute and a new challenge began.  Running.  In the dark.  On rocky trails.  Downhill.  I really don't like running downhill or in the dark but, believe me, I am totally over it now.  It's a surreal thing following an unfamiliar trail guided only by reflective strips hanging in some of the trees.  Time passes like treacle to start with but, as your concentration becomes more absolute, it flies past.

Weird.  Spooky.  Disconnected.  Yeah, it was like all of that only much stranger.

Murder In The Dark

Stopped for more than 10 minutes at 68k and the final refreshment stop.  I was pretty much spent and was thoroughly demoralised by the Tower being no closer now than it had been several hours before.  The course had doubled back across the South of Paris. 

Finally, I knew I just had to get on with it or quit.  So I got up, took a picture of the scene and staggered onwards.  The last of the long descents followed and I ended up walking most of it.  The path was rocky, uneven and so very dark.  I really didn't want a late fall to stop me this far in.

The last 10k or so was pretty flat and, even though we were heading towards the heart of Paris, most of it was on parkland paths.  Motivation was really just a faded memory by now and every step was an act of will, taken only out of what had become a long habit.  I don't know what reserves I pulled the energy from but it was a real effort.  It didn't help that even when you couldn't see the Tower, the searchlights continued to cut through the night, always reminding you that you weren't getting much closer. 

There was a lot of walking here by myself and by almost everyone around me.  In the last three or four kilometres though, I decided that enough was enough and began to jog again.  Returning to walking only in uphill sections and stairs, I lost all feeling in my legs.  No less tired, I was instead able to focus on the pain in my hips, feet and upper chest.  That latter was a bit worrying until I realised it was because of the rucksack I'd been carrying all day.

I jogged pretty much all the way to the base of the Tower.  There we had to be issued an entrance ticket (I kid you not) and the stairs began.  Apparently, there were 357 steps but I hardly recall them at all.  I was overjoyed at starting the ascent before midnight and jubilation at that thought carried me upwards.  Others weren't in such a good state and I (somewhat heartlessly) passed several people by even though they were in obvious distress.  I blame my own fatigue as normally I would stop to either help or encourage but it just didn't occur to me.

On the first floor of the Tower, there was a red carpet leading to the Finish.  I crossed the line and then stood there, glassy-eyed for several minutes.  One of the marshals came over and asked if I was OK and only then did I realise that I had actually completed the distance.

I'm not ashamed to say that I was filled with an enormous sense of pride at that moment.