I decided to participate in the French Ultra Festival (June) to prepare for the deca-Ironman in Monterrey (November). I'm not a novice as far as ultra is concerned, but for the deca I think I need to know how to handle a multi-days effort (more than 3 or 4 days).
The race consists in running/walking as many 1295 meters (0.8 miles) laps as possible, during 144 hours (6 days). On can stop, eat, sleep, swim in the nearby sea, only the winner is he who managed to make the greatest amount of laps. I expect to score between 700 km and 800 km (about 450 miles), and I'm excited at the idea of devoting a whole week to one of my passions: running. I acknowledge I'm quite lucky to have the opportunity to live my dreams for good.
As simple as a smile
While in the train from Paris to Antibes, I'm reading a book by Noël Tamini (he wrote lots of things about running in the 80ies) and chomp radishes with great pleasure in my 1st class seat. For whatever reason this ticket was only 45€ so I did not hesitate and opted for the great comfort option. I travel alone.
The train company employee checks tickets. Despite my efforts it seems impossible to have that controller smile. I hate people who don't smile. I know when I meet another runner when training, and he does not answer my good old « hello! », I get in a bad mood and feel like accelerating, just to show him who's the boss over here. Just look at trekkers in the mountains, they do say hello to each other. As for me, when I'm wandering in the woods and meet someone, I rarely miss the occasion to be polite and hopefully cheerful. But this guy with his official train company cap seems to be determined in not smiling at all. You would expect someone who walks all day along a train with hundreds of people in it to be sort of socially bloomed, but this one is like the caricature one would make of such a profession. He checks tickets. No more, no less.
Controller, why did you steal my smile?
Antibes, Juan les pins
I'm in Antibes now, on the French Rivera. Sun's shining. I set my tent up. Then go shopping in town. And forget half of what I was supposed to get, despite a precise and complete list. I decide to swim a little bit, as the Meditteranean sea is just there. After a few yards, I feel something itching my arm. Is that jellyfish? No, this is not possible, not in Spring. Not yet. I keep on swimming. I believe I could swim way up to Tunisia, water is perfect, I feel great. And then AOUCH I get an electric shock in my left arm, fore sure that's nasty jellyfich.
I head back toward the beach with my sore arm. I have three visible marks on my upper left arm, and it's swelling, getting bigger and bigger. OK, no panic, I go back in town and by a cream to stop the pain. You know, I need to sleep well tonight.
The evening is spent in a little restaurant near the marina, the prices of which have nothing to envy to those of Paris. Also takes ages to get your food once you've managed to order it but well, the good news is that I'm with happy friends, among them Alain Gestin who happens to offer a handfull of great adventure races all over Europe and Africa, and possibly elsewhere. Great man.
After a night sleep, I go back in town to buy a few more items, get my race number, and have lunch far away from the race buzz, with my friend Tonverre. I used to play the sousaphone in a brass-band he created, called La Voiture 4. I totally miss the race briefing but at least I'm having some good time, with no pressure. This is all fine.
Then I dress up and... ready, set, go!
The secret plan
Yeah, I had a secret plan. I even hesitated to publish it during the race (day 4 or 5) with the help of my spouse Valérie but I didn't do it. Still too superstitious.
Roughly, the idea came to my mind reading Slow Burn by Stu Mittleman, who happens, if I'm well informed, to hold the 1000 miles record. It's said at the beginning of this book - foreword or something - that Stu, during his record setting race, looked better the last day than the first one. Yes, you read well, he seemed in better shape at the end than at the beginning, with a world record in between. How is that possible? I found this intriguing, and even if I never though a 6 day would be a great rest for me, I just wanted to know how one could approach such a result.
He describes in his books two of his participations in the La Rochelle 6-days. First one is a failure. Registered last minute, he starts with a strong will but no plan. He would sleep a little bit when exhausted, but the rest of the time keep going as strong as possible. This is the 100 miler strategy. The problem is after 36 hours or so, he's just wandering arround the track, with no speed, totally annihilated. A fellow sees his distress and helps him. He asks him to observe the other runners. What do they do? After some time, he acknowledges most of them follow a pattern. And the 6-days happens to be a confrontation of each runners routine rather than a brute-force comparison of physical condition. He picks up his mind and by adopting a 5 hours run / 1 hour walk cycle manages to get back in the race, and perform correctly. Now for his other participation to the 6 days, trained by Maffetone this time, he starts right away with a 1 hour walk - 1 jour run - 1 hour walk - 1 hour run - 1 jour walk pattern. This 4 times a day. He's sceptical about his coach idea but applies it anyway. Walking the first hour proves to be hard for the French public whistles and goes "booo" "booo" "booo" as at this time being an American citizen is not the best way to improve your mojo in France. He sticks to the plan. By day 3 or 4 he's moving up the field. Ultimately, he does not win the race but ends up very close to the winner, Jean-Gilles Boussiquet.
So well, I needed to check that out. I decided having a similar strategy would be my best card to, play. I imagined 3 hours cycles, with 1 hour walk, then 2 hours run. A 2 hours jog is just what everyone does on Sunday morning, isn't it? So here's the raw plan:
- 04h00 a.m. - 05h00 a.m. : walk
- 05h00 a.m. - 07h00 a.m. : run
- 07h00 a.m. - 08h00 a.m. : walk
- 08h00 a.m. - 10h00 a.m. : run
- 10h00 a.m. - 11h00 a.m. : walk
- 11h00 a.m. - 01h00 p.m. : run
- 01h00 p.m. - 02h00 p.m. : walk
- 02h00 p.m. - 04h00 p.m. : run
- 04h00 p.m. - 05h00 p.m. : walk
- 05h00 p.m. - 07h00 p.m. : run
- 07h00 p.m. - 08h00 p.m. : walk
- 08h00 p.m. - 10h00 p.m. : run
- 10h00 p.m. - 11h00 p.m. : walk
- 11h00 p.m. - 01h00 a.m. : run
- 01h00 a.m. - 02h00 a.m. : walk
- 02h00 a.m. - 04h00 a.m. : sleep
And well, since I also had to cope with the meals offered by the organisation, I decided to complete the plan, so here's the enhanced version:
- 04h00 a.m. - 05h00 a.m. : wake up! Get ready. Ideally at 4h15, put the first step on the track. The idea is to walk until I'm fully awake, ready for a long day.
- 05h00 a.m. - 07h00 a.m. : a little jog, with the sun rising at about 5h45. This is usually pleasant, and I do a good mileage, usually something like 10 miles or more.
- 07h00 a.m. - 08h00 a.m. : walk, and have breakfast with Friends. It's a good occasion to sit at a table, tell a few jokes, dring a huge bowl of coffee, eat bread with a totally insane quantity of butter spread on it.
- 08h00 a.m. - 10h00 a.m. : the second jog of the day. This one is cool two. Coupled with the first one, those twin jogs sometimes made other runners believe I was attacking them. Now, I wasn't. I was just following my plan.
- 10h00 a.m. - 11h00 a.m. : walk, and eat a melon. I had bought 6 melons before the race. One per day. I ritually cut it into 8 slices, put those slices in a plate and walk arround the track holding the plate in one hand and a slice of melon in the other. Delicious.
- 11h00 a.m. - 01h00 p.m. : yet another 2 hours jog. This one gets harder. I admit sometimes I had to split it and made pauses to eat someting.
- 01h00 p.m. - 02h00 p.m. : walk, with one important thing in mind: eat as much as possible. It's important, at this stage, to have energy for the rest of the day.
- 02h00 p.m. - 04h00 p.m. : run, but not for the complete 2 hours, I offer myself a good shower at the end. This lead us up to 04h00 p.m., which is the time the race was started. This is why the shower is placed here, it's a hot time in the day, and after the shower I'm fresh and ready for the next 12 hours cycle.
- 04h00 p.m. - 05h00 p.m. : walk. So yes, like Mittleman at La Rochelle, I walked the first hour of the race. This is also a good occasion to check up race positions and global mileage.
- 05h00 p.m. - 07h00 p.m. : run. That's why it was important to take the shower and then walk, this is a long day.
- 07h00 p.m. - 08h00 p.m. : walk, and have dinner. Think about calling my spouse.
- 08h00 p.m. - 10h00 p.m. : run. This one is tough. Additionnally, night is there.
- 10h00 p.m. - 11h00 p.m. : walk.
- 11h00 p.m. - 01h00 a.m. : run. To be honest, I very rarely ran this one. It was just too hard, I was exhausted after almost 20 hours being up and moving arround.
- 01h00 a.m. - 02h00 a.m. : walk (if I can stand it, else go to bed)
- 02h00 a.m. - 04h00 a.m. : sleep in my tent
So this was my plan. Not very complicated, I didn't really need to write it down on paper - but still I did - it's very easy to deduce what you have to do at a given hour with only those 2 informations : it's a 1 hour walk / 2 hours run cycle and that the alarm clock is supposed to ring at 04h00 a.m.
You'll also note there's no mileage given. To be honest I did write some distances in my initial plan but as soon as race started I never looked at them. Useless. If you walk and run in the same proportion every day you end up doing pretty much the same mileage...
As a conclusion about this plan and its spirit, think about French writer Flaubert who wrote « Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres. ». In English « Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. ». My bet was to have a very cool, relaxed way of life, as if I had been on a vacation camp on the seaside. My choice to sleep between 02h00 a.m. and 04h00 a.m., for instance, was pretty logical if one knows at this time of the day the body is not at 100% of its possibilities. It's time for car accidents to happen, people feel dizzy, you need to sleep! Some argue that at that time the outside temperature is perfect for running but I prefer to fight the 02h00 p.m. raging sun with all my power and strength rather than try to overcome fatigue at night with my body letting me down.
OK I had a global strategy (the plan!) but as far as on-terrain tactic is concerned, I stayed very light. At least, at the very end, I worried about keeping my 3rd place and/or tried to see wether getting second was within my capabilities.
But to summarize the event, I mostly saw many runners fighting hard to gain a place. I, for one, was just cruising arround. 2 hours jog. That was my way. A 2 hours jog is barely worth noting and does not look competitive but at the end of such a race, it does represent something. Typical scenario follows: a runner is just behind me. He sees me walking. Thinks hey, this Mauduit fellow does not look in great shape. He runs and gains loops. He's almost at my level, maybe before me now. I don't mind. Then it's 8h00 a.m. so I start my 2 hours jog. I run. He stays just by me, matching my pace. I run one hour. One hour and fifteen minutes. The guy gives up. I put 45 minutes more. Now I'm clearly ahead, but I start walking. For me it's easy to handle the two hours jog for I know it will only be two jours. For the other it's harder, he doesn't know when this will end unless he oberves my routine of if his crew does. But no one seems to care. So each time I had to fight for my position, I was in the confortable of he who is in control, backed up by my plan (simple, but efficient) which I knew that, if respected, could get me very far.
Each time I had a hard time, I decided to stick to the plan. The very fact it was there was a relief. Follow your plan, you'll do well. This was confirmed by messages by Paulo (my father) and Mmi (a 6-days specialist I admire) and I thank them for that, their help has been precious.
The mistake one certainly must not (definitely not!) do is to run a part which was initially planed to be walked, in order to catch up. By following my plan very precisely, running at 8km/h (12 minutes miles) and walking at 5km/h (20 minutes miles), that's to say by doing, one after the other, 3 hours half-marathons, one can tackle 900km (more than 550 miles).
I should have trained for that. Like 95% of runners entering this event, I forgot to train properly for the most important of things: walking. At day 6, walking hurt my legs very bad, while running is almost natural. Only the problem with running is that it's too demanding for my heart and my feet cannot handle the bumps any more.
This being said, while racing, I had a bright idea. Indeed, numerous walkers where registered in this event. And so I as walked quite often I had many opportunities to start friendships with some of them while other runners were fighting at the head of the race. So I talked with Jacqueline. A great walker, 40 years of competition, she held world record on 5000 meters in 1975-1976. So well, as she's a qualified trainer, I just ask if it's possible for her to give me an accelerated walking lesson. She agrees. Cool!
The result was a little deceiving since I probably worried about that a little late, and additionnaly, my arm pits really didn't like the rubbing induced by moving my arms so far and fast. Still, next time I'll race a 6-days, I'll have and will very likely use this additional knowledge.
At day 3 (I think it was 3) I started to really move up the field. Without entering a very competitive mode in which I would fight hard to gain places, I started to think it would be wise not to waste a good chance to make an excellent race and, who knows, win it? So well I got a little more serious. Before, I used to cut down my 2 hours jog just to chat with a friend, or to hang out (oh, just a little bit) at the refreshment table to tell or listen to a good joke.
I decide this is gonna stop.
Bad move. I realize this in the evening. I'm just unable to run past 11h00 p.m., I'm burnt, completely exhausted. I walk like a zombie on the track, trying to pile up loops I manage to finish only in 20 minutes (25 minutes miles). I stay on the track because I do not want to give but it's so hard, and it's clearly not efficient. Next day, I decide not to deprive myself from all these little daily pleasures. So I tell jokes again, I have a good old breakfast sitting at the table, I enjoy the present, I live. To sum it up, my bet is that self-care and feeling in great shape makes me stronger that clenching my teeth fighting against the watch my adversaries.
And it works. This night I manage to run a proper 22h00 p.m. - 01h00 a.m. jog, I mean it's not perfect but mileage is significantly better.
The lesson I got from this is that for a multi-days race I can't - some might be able to do it, but I can't - be all the time outside my comfort zone. I need times when I draw forces from my friends, times I enjoy. When Gilbert takes his dog out on the track, he's not wasting his time either. Fred with his I'm-so-cool look, Phil and his warm smile, Marc always ready for a chat, all belong to an atmosphere which helps me perform well. And when everyone sings « happy birthday to you » - I was born June 9th, it was the 3rd day of the race - it's important, and I'm touched. And I insist, my first walked hour at race start was helpful of course because it got me in the right rhythm, but also because it allowed me to discover lots of people in the mid or even back pack, people it would otherwise have been harder to get in touch with. Slowing down to chat with a walker is not necessarily lost time. This guy might, later, be here to support you, and conversely, you can support him. At the end of the race I could not even run 400 meters without passing a friend. And we would exchange a smile.
This very smile the train company employee refused me. Remember the beginning of the race report?
This very smile I got it back from all the other runners, this smile which illuminated my face each time I read the various cheering messages which were handled to us every morning. This is what pushed me to the end.
Thanks to all.
Thanks to Valérie, to Paulo, to Gégé, to Gilbert, Phil, Fred, Neo, Florence, to the Mouettes, to Daniel, Maryse, Jeannick, Jacqueline, Philippe, Marianne, Jean-Claude, Stéphane, Greg, Peter, to Bagnard, to Coureursolitaires, Sam, Craie, Runstephane, UPDA, Jamel, Maïpi, Mamine, Guy, Bottle, Oslo, Boo, Shadock, Mireille G., Olivier91, L'Blueb, Agnès, Embrumman, to Sanglier, to Romain, Bikoon, Éminence, Hikaru, Judith, Pêt, Björn, Stephane33, Aude, Winnie, Nicolas, Kandahar, Dominique, José, Did, Gilles, Runningbinez, Runner14, Laurent, Vite-fait, Bernd, Mica, Chicot, Yorcire, Logan, Cyril, Vivien, François de Les Bauges, Manu, Frédéric, Festy, Gia, Mr Menguy, Hémérodrome, Mohammed, Saïd, Yves, Tonverre, Mac Manu, Mireille M., Anne, Cloclo, Bipedy, Miro, Willy, to all the race volunteers and to all those I forgot, and who will hopefully forgive me.
Let's be simple: I ate like an oger. No so-called energy drink, no pouder, nothing in that category. My speciality, baby-food (mixed vegetables, things one gives to 1 year old kids) with my favorite during these hot 6-days being carrot and zucchini based meals. For the rest, I simply ate (in vast amounts!) what was available on the refreshment tables, which were very well furnished IMHO. Cakes, peanuts, chips, sausages, banana, water, coke, everything was there.
Back at home in Argenteuil, I checked my weight. I lost 2 pounds. Not that much considering I've been exercising for 6 days...
I was afraid of not being able to fall asleep because of the race stress. In fact, it prooved to be a non-problem. But, I also discovered that after 130km days (80 miles), once I was lying in my tent, after half an hour, I was seized by an atrocious leg ache. It would last half an hour at least, then the pain would go below the level required to allow me to fall asleep.
So the « typical » night would consist into heading toward my tent at 1h15 a.m. and lie down at 1h30 a.m. I would be calm, but have cold sweat, and feel uncomfortable. Then I would wake up at 2h00 a.m. with pain in my legs, trying to find the right position, but failing to get rid of this continuous aching. Then finally at 2h30 a.m. I would fall asleep for good. Wake up at 4h00 a.m., this is another day.
I can't say I enjoyed these nights, one hard point was that I also needed to handle all sort of low-level details, such as choosing socks for the next day, counting them to know wether I had enough or if I needed to take some to the shower with me to quick-wash them, triple-check that my alarm clock was correctly set. Well, it happens that as far as night is concerned, a little crewing wouldn't harm.
The atmosphere is somewhat electric over the campus. On Friday when my little sister Florence comes by, I'm laughing like mad with Marc, we're like two teenagers who do not remember why the laughter started, but can't help stopping it. What is so hilarious? Is it the arrival of the 48h racers, all clean and well dressed-up on Thursday afternoon, which made us cross the line between sane and insane people? We warned you guys, the « sentier des poilus » (a part of the track which can be very warm and which has tough footings) has no mercy for novice runners! Also, what a strange idea to start with clean and colored shoes when among 6-days men we all wear the same model: unknown brand, dust color.
And this guy who hesitates, along with the race doctor, to unwrap his feet and redo all his bandages. But there's only 36h to go... Oh yeah, you're right, for only 36h it might not be necessary to go through all that fuss. Let's keep these bandages as is.
I'm not sure I was always totally aware of my acts. I remember one night I considered walking a few laps on the other course. The extra course, the alternate one. I have no idea what would have happened if I actually had opted for this. Maybe I would have ended up down town, away from other runners? Strange.
And I'm also having some fantastic times filled with euphoria. When the wind is raging (the race almost got cancelled, it wasn't a real storm but it was blowing hard) I just feel comfortable, like a fish in water, I appreciate the feeling of the wind over my body. I even stop and take pictures and even a short movie of the sea with waves coming from the horizon and breaking themselves on the shore. I like to think I'm filled with the same energy, a long term, deep energy which allows me to add up miles, slowly, but restless. I certainly lived some of the best instants of my life, it was thrilling, no time, no space, only me, my stride, the wind, and the track.
The last night
OK, this super-secret-plan story is fine, but by almost never checking ones mileage and barely getting informed of the other's positions, one risks to loose a place for a few minutes, and/or miss a symbolic goal. So well, at the end of the race I started to worry about numbers.
So on Friday night, less than 24h before the end, I'm 3rd. The 4th runner is well behind, and AFAIK he's pretty much driven by competition with others so unless I explode and show open signs of great fatigue, he won't try to come back. Or maybe he just can't. Anyway, I won't see him again, I don't look that way.
But for the 2nd place, well, who knows, if they fail to maintain their pace... Also, I feel I can grab the 800km mark (almost 500 miles). But I don't want to have a horrible day tomorrow, with, for instance, 80km (50 miles) to be done in 12 hours. So I need - remember the plan, alarm clock rings at 4h00 a.m. - to pile up enough kilometers/miles before going to bed. And I must not go to bed too late.
But I'm dead. Burnt, vanished, exhausted, call it the way you want, I'm done. I just ate dinner. It's 09h00 p.m. and I'm hot. I sweat like crazy, I feel I have fever, I can only walk at a slow pace, I can't eat, it looks like this is the end. Hell, I'm not gonna give up now, eh? I remember two days ago I had to stop at the race doctor HQ for my nose was bleeding. I know I can't fight heat and fatigue with brute force methods. And clock is always running, and my laps add up so slowly, and my sleeping time shrinks as I'm wandering arround the track, distressed.
So I lie down near my then and ask a friend to wake me up in 15 minutes. I decide to try some micro-sleep, this worked last year in Lenshan so why not now? At least it will make my body temperature get a little lower, this can't harm.
And here we go, I'm back on track. Ready for the longest jog in my life. While I was asleep, the distance display went off so I can't even know what's my score. The only thing I know is that I walked too much, that I spent 15 minutes not moving at all, and that now I'm probably late on my schedule. So for one time, once in a whole week, I forget the plan and run. I ran, ran, ran, ran until it was time to go to bed. I ran pushing it hard and telling myself « now Christian, you don't let it go, keep it up! ». This lasted about 3 hours. 3 hours is ridiculous compared to 6 days. But try, just try, to run 3 hours when really tired.
Shortly after 1h00 a.m., distance display showed 736km. Well done. So then, I went to my tent, and fell asleep.
The race was over. I knew the next day, I only had to score a regular 70km (45 miles) to go beyond 800km (500 miles).
I was cool, relaxed. Like somebody who's done with a great exhausting work day, comes back home, and feels tired but light hearted.
The best jog in my life
The best jog in my life? It's the one I started with Marc this Saturday, at about 11h00 a.m. A jog which would take me very close to the 800km (500 miles) barrier. Thanks to last night effort, I can offer myself 2 hours of gentle jog (everyone enjoys a cool 2 hours jog!) in the sun.
When Olivier Chaigne and Christian Fatton are fighting like crazy ahead of me, I'm just cruising behind, enjoying this very moment. Uncredible. Third. On the podium. I'm happy.
But, you might argue, what's this looser's attitude? Isn't it time to push the machine hard? I doubt it. I tried, out of curiosity, to go a little faster. Oh, just, slightly faster. The answer came fast. The « sentier des poilus », in the heat, is not a joke. Off course, you can always speed up. But at what price? You might collapse as well... After 140 hours of racing, one is not really in what I would call one's « normal state ». Just after a little sprint I made to impress friends, I feel my head dizzy, and my heart goes boom-boom-boom and takes ages to slow down. There's a time to play, and a time to get the job done.
So I ended my race the way I had begun it, at a very cool pace, and I think that's the way it should be. The 144 hours are over, after 812km (504 miles).
A few numbers
I remember I was 30th at the marathon distance, and passed km 100 after about 15 hours of race. For the rest, please refer to the array below, which is build with data collected by my spouse Valérie during the race:
+------+------------+--------------------+-----------------+ | jour | classement | distance partielle | distance totale | +------+------------+--------------------+-----------------+ | 1 | 9 | 98 | 98 | | 2 | 6 | 84 | 182 | | 3 | 4 | 80 | 262 | | 4 | 3 | 82 | 344 | | 5 | 3 | 80 | 424 | | 6 | 3 | 80 | 504 | +------+------------+--------------------+-----------------+