Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trail des Forts or Bust

Last January (the 15th, to be precise), while waiting in the dentist’s office, Rebecca found a magazine with the most complete listing of local races I’d ever seen—and so I jotted down a list of a half a dozen or so. I like to race one 5k in the spring and one in the fall to take benchmarks of my progress. Around here there aren’t any 5k’s, though. The other kind of race I do once or twice a year is more of a stunt—to just see what happens if I push myself at a longer distance. With no benchmark race, I decided to go for a stunt race—a 19k called the Trail du Val du Loue that we blogged about before. It seemed pretty ambitious to me—not necessarily the distance, which I cover all the time on my long runs, but the three big hills:

So I asked my coworkers if anyone wanted to go with me, and a couple people said they were up for it. I kept up my training—but forgot to remind people a few weeks before the race, and by that point everyone else had forgotten about the big day—and everyone bailed. As consolation, Jean-Luc proposed we do the Trail des Forts—a 28k. I wasn’t sure about that distance, but decided to go for it anyway, it’s only 9 more kilometers, right? It’s still less than a marathon, so I won’t have to take a month off to recover, which is why I am not interested in that distance. So I was committed to the longer race before I did the 19k and hit the wall at 60 minutes, right at the top of that big second hump, at only 12k (I had to walk most of the rest of the race).

So why didn’t I just cancel for the 28k? I was determined to learn from my failure. I redoubled my endurance training. I ramped up to hill runs every weekend, then double-hill runs, and ultimately a hill run every Friday morning followed by a double-hill or super long run on Sundays. I learned how to carry water and food with me, and when and how to eat, and pushed my “wall” up to 2 hours. I was so excited to conquer la Dame Blanche two weeks before race day without bonking—that’s a 269+ (900 feet) meter climb and at least 20 kilometers round trip—I can’t get an accurate number on the map—I may have gone as far as 25k that day. So, I was ready for the Trail des Forts. Better yet, Jean Luc announced he was training too. He’d been doing hill runs, and wasn’t sure that he could finish the race, and didn’t think he’d be able to go as fast as me—but at the very least he was still in for the event. I said that I go on long runs all the time—that this day, for me, was about the run being social. I didn’t care if I had to run slower than my normal pace—and besides, that would just make it more likely that I wouldn’t bonk.

Even though I was pretty confident, I was still worried that I might bonk on this race as well. The Trail des Forts, pictured below (the shorter version, anyway) is a 25k (17.5 miles) trail run with 3900 feet of uphill climbs and 3300 feet in descent.

profil du 28km 2010

We decided to start out slowly, and to walk up all the steep inclines. I always run up hills when I’m alone, so I was a bit concerned about the walking—but I read online that a lot of trail runners find it’s faster and safer to walk up steep ascents, so I was game. I read runner’s world every month and love hearing the stories of road runners—but don’t know much about trails. Pictured below is the starting line, followed by the traffic jam at the first ascent at Fort de Planoise.

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We hit a trail on Plainoise that I’d never run on—it was surprising because it descended from our initial climb and never hit the fort. As the day wore on, I realized that the short version of this race skipped all the forts, and that was disappointing to say the least. One of the main attractions I had for this race was the potential to see some forts I haven’t yet found in Besançon. Even though we were taking it easy, by the 7k mark you can see that I was getting tired.

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Contrast my sweat-drenched face with the cool and relaxed look of Jean-Luc. How does he do it?

We continued on, up and down and up again, along narrow, muddy trails, across pastures, on and on and on.

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We hit the two-hour mark and I started to feel weak. I knew it was the beginning of a bonk… and I didn’t know what to do to fight it off. I had already been drinking my sports drink, and I knew we were not even half way. I lost my ability to focus, and Jean-Luc started having to tell me when the trail was flat enough to run again—it was like I was just floating alongside my body, and it didn’t really listen to my commands. Thank goodness he was there! Then Jean-Luc started getting cramps. I wish I could say I helped him, but I was just out of it. Half an hour later my cramps started… and while I learned a great way to deal with them—stop, put pressure on the muscle for a few seconds, then walk it out with deep breathing—they just kept coming back along flat stretches of the course. At one point I had such a bad cramp in my left thigh that I couldn’t bend my knee at all. Besides cramp management, I learned what my fat-burning pace is, because it was at that speed that I wasn’t losing my vision. This new pace is definitely slower than I normally do my long runs. Maybe that means I need to slow down—which is so counter-intuitive.


I seriously began to think I might need to bail. I just was having so much difficulty. Then I had this inspiration that was motivating—but my brain was so foggy all I could say to Jean-Luc was (in French, of course): “This is the best possible day to push myself, because I’ve got your help and all these refreshment stations.” Then, a few minutes later, I was able to remember my original thought: “This is awesome—I wanted to find my limits—and this is so hard, I’m sure this is it—this is my breaking point. If I can finish this, I’ve had a real triumph. If it were easier, then what sort of accomplishment would it be?” P090510_11.05 Everything began to hurt. My feet, my muscles. The spastic cramps. I wanted to cry. I wanted to rest. I wanted my next refueling station—the food—something to look forward to--NOW. It showed up about 2 kilometers past where I expected it to be—and I was pissed. I felt robbed—and said so to Jean-Luc. He thought that was funny—but I said I needed something to distract me, so I focused on the anger (beats focusing on cramps!). I deserved my treat—I’d come a long way! When it finally came into view, it was such a welcome sight that I had to catch it on the camera. I got to the station, grabbed a couple dried apricots, then an orange slice, and on the way to my mouth noticed the mud on my hands had besmirched the orange—and I couldn’t have cared less—I wolfed it down and grabbed two more slices. I walked in little circles around the booth, eating as much as I dared, refilling my bottle, and continuing on.

After this refueling station, I knew the trails, and I thought I only had about 5 kilometers left. Unfortunately, it was much further—9km—but I just refused to give up. Walking, running, trudging, fighting cramps, just moving forward. My decision to continue cost me everything but my sheer force of will. Though that was merely a whisper, it did carry me on. When I got to the Chateau Montfaucon, they had some jesters playing music—but I didn’t even care enough to do any more than steer around them. Some people said that we had just 1km left before a down hill, and I all I could think was that I was sick of down hills—they hurt more than flats or ups. I urged Jean-Luc to go on without me, because he was doing fine and I was just slowing down. I was sure I’d finish at this point—just not sure when. He refused politely, but I insisted and he easily left me in the dust. Here we are at the finish line, including a shot of some of my loyal fans. Jean-Luc came in about 2 minutes ahead of me, and as you can see, he is still as perfectly coiffed as at the starting line.

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There was a post-race meal, but I was so weak I couldn’t touch it—too fatty and greasy. All I wanted to do was lie on the grass while the kids lifted my legs in the air. Pictured at right is Jean-Luc and I after half an hour of recovery. I thought it would be me helping him finish, but it was the other way around. Thanks for pulling me along, Jean-Luc!

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I was sore for 2 days, but luckily no injuries (except blisters and a dead toenail) and I am now back on a full training schedule. I don’t know if I’ll ever try such a race again, but I’m happy with my performance for the day. The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak—yet the mind won. Mind over matter!

1 comment:

Shana said...

Wow Andre! What an amazing story, I'm inspired. I've gotten back into running a little now, after my usual 6-month cold-weather hiatus, and I'm feeling good - this is going to be my summer to run. But I'm sticking with roads, none of these crazy hills and mud-paths!! Reading your post, though, does make me want to push myself a little, see what new distances I might be able to cover this season. Way to go!

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