Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Le Grand Raid des Pyrenees - the personal side

So there's technical and logistical write-ups of the race going to other sites elsewhere, they're the ones that tell blow-by-blow story of the area, the trails, the race organisation etc. But this here is my blog, and this here is the personal side of things, so this here is the personal account of the Grand Raid des Pyrenees.

In the beginning...

A year ago, I would never have thought about running an Ultramarathon. A year ago, I rarely ran anything over 5km, except in races. Longer runs tended to butcher my feet with blisters which stopped me wanting to run. Road racing holds no appeal, and I'm not a skinny racing whippet so I'm never going to win anything doing it anyway. I run only for myself, for enjoyment and catharsis, to clear my head and shake out my legs.

Because of that, the whole build-up to the GRP has been very strange for me - not unpleasantly strange, but strange nonetheless. Running, as I have often said, is a weak discipline for me, so entering this was putting me way further out of my comfort zone than any other race of the past few years. There were a lot of doubts and a lot of questions, but I guess the ruling mindset was that I had to try, just for me - I'd feel like an idiot if I didn't at least give it a go.

There was a bit of a worrying precedent I wanted to try and avoid, though: At the Nokia C2C, my last big solo race, I'd suffered some pretty wild mood swings. The same thing happened at a Man of Porage a few years ago.  I chalk those up to being out on my own (off the back in particular) for a lot of the day, and it was a worry to me that the same could occur at the GRP: A long day out, unknown terrain and being a foreigner could be a bad combination for that. It's difficult to quantify exactly what I mean by 'mood swings', but I felt I needed to avoid the cycle of getting 'down', hacked off, losing time in being miserable and feeling like I wanted to quit one minute, then seeing other people or a CP and being back 'on the level' again, only to drop again minutes later when I realise I'm still on my own and it's a long way to go. Sound crazy? Possibly does, but it's what I've been through in the past and I knew it would wreck my chances if it happened this time. Guess I'm more of a social animal than I like to admit.

To counter that, my planning had been as meticulous as it could be, I had the route book pretty much memorised, my kit was well sorted out, and physically... well. Someone asked me about how much training I'd done while we were shunting up the first few kms of uphill, and my honest answer was "probably not as much as I could/should have". January, and the Janathon, was the kicker that got me back into running and earned me my entry to GRP. I maintained the mileage fairly well from then until the Deerstalker in March. After that I dropped back on the mileage for a little while, kept things steady until my unplanned 'Samoan Sandals' effort at the Settle Saunter in May and then backed off for a couple of weeks to recover from the beating my calves took there. Another 'concerted effort' in June for the Juneathon, and after 200 miles over the month I definitely pulled back: Niggles in my right foot, ankle and knee were telling me that taking it easy for a while was a good idea. All too soon July was past, tapering needed to commence and it was too late to rush any more biggies in. So much for a rigid training programme. I knew I wouldn't be quick, but I also had a good feeling that I wouldn't be last.

I won't bore anyone with the trains, planes, coaches and automobiles that got me to Vielle-Aure for the start. It was a long haul, I was short on sleep, but dinner with AM and Jacques on the way from Toulouse to Vielle-Aure was fantastic. VA itself was very pretty, although my mind was firmly on getting some shuteye rather than anything else. Arriving on the Wednesday gave me Thursday to wander around and get my head straight and Friday to get my gear sorted and register before the off at the lark's fart on Saturday (5am - eesh!). Much kit faff had been eliminated by only flying with hand luggage, so I only had two possible sets of kit to choose from, though food choice did take a while and an extended trip to the local Carrefour.

I Would Walk 500 Miles 

The 100-mile race had a bit of a shocker to start with - horrendous weather, storms, lightning, low cloud etc. The organisation wisely decided to delay the start by two hours, re-route the runners (swapping the in- and out-lap routes to avoid the higher ridge start in the midst of the bad weather) and cut the dogleg up to the summit of the Pic du Midi. Still, the first cutoff point saw a 10% dropout rate - I wonder how many people ran with ultra-lightweight gear and got caught out (a la ARWC '07)? It's perhaps telling that the guy who crossed the line second in the 100 was penalised and dropped to 14th, having been caught out at the gear check at Tournaboup. To me, it's a stupid and cynical mistake to make, for the benefit of a few grams. I'd gone as light as I dared on kit - new Montane Minimus instead of my old Paclite, Petzl E-Lite in place of a heavier Fenix as my back-up light - and I can't say the few hundred grammes made an appreciable difference, at least, nothing that training more and stopping less couldn't have replicated and out-stripped. I had lightweight kit that I had confidence would see me through, rather than lightweight kit I hoped I wouldn't have to use. Perhaps that's the difference

The day was much better for the 50 mile start, a cool, dry morning, not horrendously cold and an only slightly clouded sky. Kind of suited me, I was happy enough on the startline in shorts and a short sleeve Icebreaker top. Once the gradient turned upwards properly I was nice and warm, though some of the sections where the 850-strong 'crocodile' snaked to a halt started to get a bit nippy before the sun rose. Stopping briefly on the first wee summit to get a pic of the sunrise over a temperature inversion in the valley was a feeling that'll linger - part exhilaration, part admiration, part nervousness, but a very cool place to be all the same.

The terrain round the course was a good mix. Some of the rocky sections made me wonder how the 100mile winner had clocked 22hrs, and how the 50 mile winner ended up doing sub-10. Maybe I was slowed down by the snake of people in front, but some flat and downhill sections were still definitely unrunnable, and you'd be risking your ankles trying to move too fast over them. In the early parts, the climb to the Col de Bastan and some of the traverse around the lac de Greziolles were hard work. In the late stages, descending from the Col de Bareges over the rocks in the dark in particular slowed me right down. Maybe in daylight I could have held a better pace over them but that's life. The woody, rooty, muddy singletrack late on was a hardship as well, picking lines to keep the feet dry was a tricky job, and it was hard to move smoothly over those sections. Poles, in this case the wonderful Leki carbons that Anne-Marie had lent me, were a definite advantage, short 'vaults' over streams, help with balancing on stepping stones, and a bit of support on high rocky step-downs. Add to that the 4WD effect when climbing and I realise why, for me at least, I wouldn't attempt a long run like this without them. People can argue about the energy balance (greater energy output but spread over a larger number of muscle groups), but for a multisporter like me, with a fairly decent level of upper body strength, it's a no-brainer.

I conciously tried to limit the time I spent at the seven feed/water stations: easy to lose 10-15 minutes at a time by faffing with kit, checking maps etc. Realistically, 10 minutes was still a decent break for a bit of food, a toilet stop, a roadbook check, and that was about it. Honestly, excellent course waymarking made navigation irrelevant and if you were confident in your kit selection, not swapping or faffing every time, there was no need for longer. Artigues (FS2) and Tournaboup (FS5) were the only places where I stopped longer than 10mins - Artigues after a 15km push to recuperate a little for the stage after (7.1km, 1200m ascent) and Tournaboup to switch socks and shirt and grab more food before heading into the night - and both of those were still sub-20 mins. Perhaps it's an art to balance short stops at feed stations with not losing time on energy crashes between them, but I felt like I got it right. The climb to the Pic du Midi summit was the only place I had a 'low', and a couple of gels and my mp3 player sorted that out quickly enough.

Team Europe

As I said right the way up there ^ , company seems to be a good way of alleviating the heebie-geebies, and things couldn't really have worked out better that way. At the Col de Sencours feed station, on the down lap, I got chatting to a French guy called Phillippe who'd been moving at a similar pace just ahead of me. He'd left just before me but stopped to talk to a marshal at the junction off the main trail. I caught him and we opted to run down to Tournaboup together, a cracking bit of actual running down some lovely dirt singletrack - one to take the bike back for, and a camera (there were llama. This amused me greatly). Not long after the Super Barrege ski station we caught up with a German girl by the name of Carmen, again, moving at a similiar pace, and she tagged along, all of us speaking English with some gentle teasing about multilingualism*, national stereotypes** and a healthy dose of self deprecation***. When we got to the feed station, kit-checked and clothes changed, the official acknowledgement went round that it would probably help us all to work together into the dark section, navigationally and psychologically, and so Team Europe was formed. I think that little union played a big part in getting me through the night in fairly decent shape, took the pressure off when I was suffering and gave me the chance to try and pull others along as well. We were slower than we could have been on the descents, as Phillipe's knee started to disintegrate on the rocks after the Col de Barege (ITBS / tendonitis), and it forced him to pull out at the final feed stop at Merlans with only 13km to go. But perhaps, had we not teamed up and moved together slowly, we might have all stopped moving along at all and all quit. I felt sorry for the guy, he'd pushed hard to get through the descent but knew the final burst could have done more harm than it was worth. We passed another runner with her partner in tears half way down the ski piste descent to Espiaube. The same trouble, ITBS in both knees and in crippling pain, too far beyond Merlans to head back but still a long way out from the finish and undoubtedly going to run tight on time. It's those points where the head needs to direct the legs and shut the rest out, and I felt for her.

As it was, Carmen and I crossed the line at 3:59am, making our official finish time 22hrs 56mins. We were seen in, even at that ungodly hour, by Anne-Marie and by Carmen's friends. A different Phillippe, this time one of the race cameramen, stuck a large lens in my face and I jabbered happy rubbish for a minute or so. I got a T-shirt that reads 'Finisher' - I'm very proud of that T-shirt. We walked back to the accomodation, Jacques took a photo of my feet. I showered and passed out. Lights out, game over.

10 Lessons Learnt.

1) A trail Ultra is an amazing experience. Well worth doing, and yes, I probably will do another. Rose tinted specs, perhaps, but I honestly really enjoyed the GRP.

2) When the feed stations are regular and well stocked, you don't need to carry a lot of food. I dumped two full ziplock bags at the Artigues feed station (about 30km in) with a note on them saying "FREE - HELP YOURSELF" because, frankly, I was carrying far too much. A bag of Jelly Babies or two and some gels would have been fine.

3) Foot care is MASSIVELY important. I was doing grand until about 8km out from the finish. My Injinji toe socks had been fantastic for the first 50km, I changed into a clean set of Groundhogs at Tournaboup and was cracking on until my feet got wet in an un-noticed stream across the track, about 7km out from the finish. Half an hour later they'd blown up completely, and the last 5km was agony, as my now white and puffy feet got pummelled in trail shoes on a tarmac/ hardpack surface. Note to self - pay more attention and keep the feet dry. That said, I still wouldn't go for Gore-Tex shoes, I still think my radiator-esque feet would wilt under their own personal greenhouse effect if I did

4) Small things can perk you up immensely. Little joys of the GRP included:
 - French dried mango. Very different to English dried mango.
 - Llama. Not  to eat, just to look at.
 - Hot veg soup with cubes of cheese.
 - Sunrise from a hill-top.
 - Self-deprecating national humour, from three different nations (see the Humour Annex below)
 - Two chunks of dark chocolate and a wedge of orange. Better than you'd think.
 - Mistaking a marshal's tent for a large boulder. Later, mistaking a large boulder for a tent. The mind plays tricks, y'know.

5) Carrying a small teddy around a race with you not only gives you companionship, but also a talking point when you take him out of your pack to take a photo of him at a checkpoint.

6) The point where you say "Right, only about 6hrs to the finish, then" is the point where you have entered the Twilight Zone of the Ultra mindset. From here, there may be no going back.

7) Pushing a little harder to reach the first cut-off point well ahead of time is worth it, even if the extra effort does make you wild-eyed, crazy-looking and apt to scare the nice ladies at the feed station.

8) When in the aforementioned wild-eyed, crazy-looking phase, do not be surprised when a nice French lady tells you to go and sit down and she'll bring you a cup of tea over. She is probably fearing that you'll assault her with the empty kettle you're clutching in confusion.

9) If you're going to carry an mp3 player, set it to Random. That way, when you pull it on in a wee low point, you can giggle all the way up a climb to Sir Mixalot's "Baby Got Back", summit the Pic du Midi to It Bites' "Calling All The Heroes", and dance your way back down to the Utah Saints' "Something Good" and the Dave Matthews Band's "Rapunzel"

10) When the pain does kick in, with only a few kms to go, suck it up. Well remembered advice includes the words "The legs only do what the head tells them" and "The fastest way to get the pain over with is to get to the finish". I guarantee you, the adrenaline of the last kilometre will mask the howling nerves in your feet.

Thank you, and goodnight

There have been a few people behind the scenes who have supported me a hell of a lot, and they deserve a mention too:
Anne-Marie Dunhill is a good friend from international adventure races, a fellow journalist, and  the Press Officer for the GRP. She's the person who invited me over in the first place, had faith that I would get round, and waited for me at the finish at god-knows-what in the morning. Without her, I wouldn't even have tried.
Graham Kelly and Gary Vallance are the two people I've turned to for Ultra advice, both being much more accomplished and experienced distance runners than me. They are the two 'gurus' who have been able to answer my various questions and offer snippets of advice that made me feel a wee bit better about what I was trying to do.
Stuart Hale has been the technical advisor, particularly dealing with my weird ungainly gait, lightweight kit and the scientific side of an Ultra. He's also sorted me out on the nutritional side of things, though the nice men at customs did nearly try to confiscate half of my supplies.
There's been a whole host of others who've encouraged, advised, abused, and told me I was crazy. Thanks to all of them as well - every little helps.

So that's all for now. I''m proud to say, my visualisation and prophecy came true:

On August 28th, in the afternoon, I sat in a cafe in Vielle Aure,
drinking coffee, munching on a croissant, chatting to friends
having completed the Grand Raid des Pyrenees.

Thanks for reading.

Geek annex: Pyro's GRP Kitlist:
Head cover: Headsweats racing cap, Buff
Torso: Icebreaker short sleeve,  Keela long sleeve tops
Waterproof: Montane Minimus jacket
Legs: Nike ACG shorts, Montane Featherlite windproof pants
Socks: Skins calf guards, Injinji / Groundhog socks
Shoes: Mizuno Wave Harrier 3
Haulers: Inov8 Race Elite 15 rucksack plus bottle holders, OMM Trio 4 front pack for convenience
Poles: Leki carbon trekking poles (thank you AM!)
Nutrition: High 5 gels, 4:1 carb drink and Zero electrolyte drink

Humour annex
What do you call some one who:
   a) Speaks three languages? A - Trilingual
   b) Speaks two languages? A - Bilingual
   c) Speaks only one language? A - French

Phillippe: "I have a Belgian friend who's just become a multi-millionaire. He buys and sells French people."
Pyro: "How does he make any money doing that?"
Phillippe: "He buys them for what they're worth, and sells them for what they think they're worth"

Carmen: "We'd better keep moving, I'm very cold"
Phillippe: "Yep, I'm cold too, let's go"
Pyro: "I'm not cold. It's because I'm fat and British"
Others: "True..."