“Encore quatre kilometres,” said an older gentleman, cheering from a random point in the middle of the trail, as is not uncommon in Europe, where the number of trail-side supporters is typically robust.
“QUATRE KILOMETRES?!” I exclaimed, with obvious shock and possibly slight distress. I mean, I’ve been trail running long enough to understand that not all race courses are exactly the distance they are advertised to be so for quite some time I’d figured that this 75-kilometer race was going to be more like 77k, but now this gentlemen was bumping it up to 79k with one little off-hand remark.
“Not to worry,” he said, “it’s easy from now on.” No, no, no. I don’t think you understand, Monsieur. I am fried. I am absolutely smashed. I have been trying to stave off cramps whilst also staving off a strong and powerful Jasmin Nunige for a good few hours now. Pretty much anything even at 1% incline is no longer easy, so you see that tiny incline ahead–that feels like an enormous mountain. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is mostly downhill from now until the finish and I’m reasonably confident that I can hold off Jasmin for two more kilometers of downhill but if you are now doubling the distance remaining then this is a whole new ball game. And let’s be honest, I’ve been leading this race for about 30k so I’m kind of keen not to be overtaken in the closing minutes, and well–whilst I’d not come into this day really expecting to win–if I could, that would just be really rather fantastic for me given the annus horribilus I’ve had in terms of running up until today.
I guess I should back track. In terms of running, until this weekend, 2015 has been a little bumpy to say the least. I don’t mean bumpy in terms of running on mountainous, technical terrain, I mean bumpy in terms of one little niggling injury after another, one week after another of reduced mileage or no running at all, one month after another of little racing or far-from-stellar race results. Sure, I’ve had some okay races but anyone who knows me understands that I like to try do a little better than “okay,” and that’s not really happened so far this year until this weekend. I’d even begun to wonder if my days right at the top were over. Sure, I could still run okay but was it time to accept that I was never going to get back to my previous levels of competitive fitness? I wasn’t at all ready to accept that, that was for sure, but I did wonder if that might be the new reality moving forward.
However, in the two months leading up to Les Templiers, things started to slowly but surely come together. I decided to try to target the race if I could–to try to train for it but not at the expense of pushing too much too soon and risk further injury. I accepted that I would need to take things gradually, one training week at a time. I would need to take extra rest days if little niggles appeared and I would need to cross train to boost my fitness whilst my running mileage was still somewhat limited. I so wanted to try to make it to Les Templiers and was prepared to get there slightly undertrained but uninjured, rather than fit but broken. But things had really started to come together in the final four weeks of preparation–I’d logged two 50k training runs, I was getting back up to pretty decent weekly mileage, and I was somehow running pretty-darn fast in speed workouts. Well “fast” is a relative term, but a 35:43 10k personal best two weeks before Les Templiers showed that I had more than enough speed even for this fairly swift race course. On race day I would find out if I had the endurance.
The start of Les Templiers is electric–thousands of runners line up in the dark street, music is playing, the announcer’s voice animatedly blares from the speakers. I look around to see so many friends from all over the world with their headlamps shining, ready to run off into the inky darkness. And then ‘boom’– a smoke flare and gun blast and we surge forward for a few fast-ish kilometers on the road before we begin the gradual uphill grind to the trail. The race was on!
I never used to be very comfortable running side by side with other women in an ultra. I felt it was too much pressure, too much competition. But I’ve gotten more used to it and now enjoy sharing early miles with other women if that’s how the race pans out, and it was comforting to settle into a pace nearby Jodee Adams-Moore, a chance to share a few words, to share the light of each others’ headlamps (somehow we’d both not charged our batteries properly!) and just settle into some comfortably paced early miles. Yes, this is a race, but the first few hours of what turned out to be an eight-hour race are not the time to be racing. They are a time to just click the miles by in a controlled manner and enjoy the experience.
Soon I was blasting down the cobblestone stairs into the first aid station in the medieval village of Peyreleau, at the 24k mark in the race. I felt strong and steady, and I was enjoying myself. From supporters I found out that I was in second place but I knew that Jasmin and Jodee, and quite possibly a good handful of other ladies, were right on my tail. I was fine with that. After all, we were only one third of the way into the race. Many of the aid-station locations were beautiful and this one was no exception–sunlight breaking over hundreds-year-old stone buildings. This was definitely a European trail race!
Mixed in with this European trail-racing scene was Nick Bester who I know as the Nedbank team manager when I race Comrades in South Africa. Nick was at Les Templiers managing the South African team but, as is so indicative of the spirit of ultrarunning, he had offered to help me at the stations if I needed it. And whilst I didn’t need any logistical assistance from Nick, I did want to show him that I was so much better than my disappointing sixth-place finish at Comrades earlier in the year. I wanted to show him that I really was a good runner. Maybe this seems odd but I respect Nick hugely and Les Templiers was about showing him, and many others–those of you reading this included–that I could still run and I could still run fast.
By the third aid station at 48k, I had taken the lead, but on a brief out-and-back section I saw that Jasmin was less than a minute behind me. Earlier when we had been running together, we had joked that she would overtake me on each uphill and I would overtake her on each downhill as that is how our running strengths differed. Although I knew the race finished with a significant downhill I didn’t like the idea of relying on those final few kilometers for the win. On the next uphill I held Jasmin off, but barely. It was round about the 60k mark and approaching the top of a climb that I turned around see her quite literally a few footsteps behind me, which gave me enough of a push to run a short uphill that I really wanted to walk in order to maintain the lead until I could try to extend it on the next descent.
The course was now getting increasingly technical, which I had expected and is a type of running that I love, but there was certainly no time to hang around and admire the autumn colors or the stunning views down into the gorge below. It was now about hurtling down the rocky and unstable descents as best as I could to try extend what I suspected to be my very small lead. As I cleared a bustling water station with around 10k to go, the race was far from over as now we began to tackle some steep and rocky ascents.
By now my aggressive powerhiking technique was being used in full force. No longer was I smiling or waving at the numerous supporters who lined the course. It was head down, hands on the quads, and power up, up, up those climbs just as fast a I possibly could, on what was now becoming a rather warm day. My ugly but effective powerhike got me past two South African men which buoyed me that I was moving up in the overall field, but I was now trying to stave off cramps and the legs were beginning to feel like they had the flexibility of an arthritic elephant. I was so focused that I almost passed my Team Europe teammate Danny Kendall before I even recognized him and when I did I had no energy to exchange more than a couple of mumbled words of conversation. Any speed that I had gained in the months of training prior was of no use now, and the “just enough endurance” I had managed to gain was being pushed to the limit.
And so you can now see why when that trail-side supporter said “only four more kilometers” that, well, four more kilometers seemed like a very, very long way. Fortunately that supporter was wrong with his well-intentioned information, and it was actually more like the two kilometers I had expected of gloriously fun, though still a little stressful, downhill to the finish line. Crossing that finish line was pure joy. Not only had I won, but I had run a much faster time than I had expected, I had enjoyed a wonderful day on some stunningly beautiful trails, and I had shared the weekend with many friends both new and old. Last time I left France, after the Mont Blanc Marathon in June, I was beaten and broken.
This time I have left France strong and with my spirit soaring. Whilst it might be the end of season for many of you who have raced hard this summer, for me it feels almost like it is just the start–and I now can’t wait to make the journey to San Francisco in December for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. After a year of many doubts, I finally feel like I am an ultrarunner once more.