Monday, 22 March 2010

50 miles then run up the Eiffel Tower

Starving at CP2

View from the final CP

CP2 while James went through

Typical trail, but less muddy than most of it

The start

James trying his best not to look English and failing as usual

My impression of a Frenchman

If someone told you that you can go up the Eiffel Tower without having to queue you might assume it'd cost a lot or that you'd need to be a visiting dignitary. But about 3,000 people were able to do just that last weekend (not at the same time or there would have been a queue, obviously) thanks to a very cool event, now in its third year - the Eco Trail de Paris. With an 80k, 50k and a shorter 18k, I had to choose the main event and do the longest one.

I decided that March is unofficially mileage month. After the lack of running up til February, I managed to get 60+ miles/week in through that month, just so I'd be able to take the strain of lots of very long races and basically no tapering through the entire month of March. The slightly odd-sounding mileage target for the month is 406.1 miles, worked out as an average of a half marathon per day.

Anyway, following the race this weekend, I'm three weeks into it and have managed to stick to my plan religiously. Obviously, I had to factor in that an ultra means lower mileage for at least a couple of days afterwards, but I've done the hard part now I've finished the second ultra of the month and I'm still feeling fine with the knee injury well and truly in the past. It's meant I haven't got as much speed as before, but in a few months that'll come back. This is the base building phase for both Comrades (end of May) and Western States (end of June) so as long as my legs get used to running longer, they should be able to take some faster training in there too.

The Parisian race was a mixture of fun and things going a bit wrong (for me only - the race was generally well organised even if the communication from the organisers wasn't always perfect). I'd expected a big group of Serpies when I signed up many months ago since it sounds great on paper - 50 miles of undulating trails, finishing with a sprint up to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower and with 1,500 entrants. So many Serpies are getting into trails and ultras that I assumed they'd all be entering...but in the end it was the usual two who do every race they can get their hands on, James Adams and myself.
For a while it looked like it'd just be me due to James' lack of organising any transport to Paris until about a day before, plus his St Paddy's Day food poisoning due to a dodgy late night burger. Then we even had issues overnight at the hotel when I realised there were bedbugs in my bed and that I was being eaten alive and therefore not getting any sleep. I opted to sleep on the floor while James made various noises from various parts of him. Luckily I had ear plugs.

On race morning it seemed like a genteel start given kick off was at 12:30pm. We weren't 100% sure how to get to the start so went to the expo under the Eiffel Tower. Many other runners were there, mainly to register, so we managed to work out that a train from a nearby station went to the right place and that we had been given the correct ticket in out good bag. It wasn't as easy to work out as you'd expect and the actual trains had no identifying numbers or a screen on the platform to show where they headed making us (and about 200 other runners) get on, then quickly off again, several trains before the right one came.

Hoards of lycra-clad Frenchies got off the train with us and we piled into coaches to take us to the start at a place called Trappes, somewhere east and a little south from Paris. There was cake and also muesli bars to eat at the start but it was cold and windy enough to make us both a tiny bit uncomfortable while we waited about 90 minutes for the start. I stuffed my face while James was being more careful and crossing his fingers that his stomach would hold up and that the tiny quantities of food he'd eaten for the past two days would be enough.

After a quick race briefing in French then in English, we were off and the day had warmed up to make us all feel overdressed in our cold weather gear. But gear is a very important thing in this race. Not because you need it (it's Paris in Spring so you aren't exactly going to get lost on a mountaintop for days on end), but because the compulsory item list is long and partially pointless. For example, does everyone really NEED two headlamps with spare batteries as well? Or a very long strip of bandage in case you burst an artery and no medical help is around? Running tights/leggings were also compulsory so I was feeling hot in them. And, like every French race, a medical certificate, signed by a doctor, was compulsory. The one compulsory item I didn't have was a reflective armband, but my hat had reflective strips and my sleeves were bright white. I hoped this wouldn't be an issue.

The course record was a reasonable 6h02m so I had my sights on that but the entire field zoomed off like they all wanted to break world records. I got caught up in it, but was actually running around the right pace at first, covering the easiest and flattest section to 21km in 1h29m. Unfortunately, I felt bad and that I was going too fast. I made the error of running other people's races rather than my own and also didn't want to get too far behind the lead pack. But I wasn't fully fresh after the 56-miler two weeks earlier and in-between I'd run high mileage so my tapering had basically consisted of only doing a 5-miler the day before. Not ideal, but I thought I could get away with it. Even if I couldn't, the training benefit of March meant I couldn't prioritise any of the races unless I wanted to take something away from Comrades or Western States.

I decided to forget about the course record and settled down to a slower pace as the course got harder and prettier. It was very muddy for much of the distance and the hills weren't big, but often steep (1,500m, or about 5,000ft, of total ascent over the whole course but it felt like more) and required walking up. Some stomach problems and too much stuff latched on to the back of my water pack (and therefore falling out) caused a few minutes of stoppages and a group of runners overtook me, including the lead woman. I reckoned I was around the top 20, but couldn't really tell. I'd been running just ahead of them for about 10k, so it was annoying to drop positions without a fight.

A relatively long, but gentle, climb took us up to an observatory and the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, 35km away along the course. It was a nice surprise to see it, but I'd only gone a few kms over half way so it wasn't time to start thinking of the finish line. Soon after, at 46km, there was a random checkpoint, with no food or water, which we hadn't been told the location of. Annoyingly, the one item of kit they wanted to check was the reflective armband, which I didn't have. So after a couple of minutes of me trying to pretend that it must have fallen off my waterproof jacket which was tacked on to the back of my pack, they let me go but took down my number. I was annoyed for the next few minutes because it was broad daylight, I had no intention of finishing in the dark and I had plenty of reflective stuff on. But I kept jogging along, wondering whether I'd get to the end and be disqualified.

The next checkpoint was a long way, at 53km, and a lot of people struggled with the 32km gap. But by the time I got to it, I'd been running on my own for ages and hadn't seen the people ahead or behind me. I'd overtaken a lot of people since CP1 and they had a lot of film crew and even an MC getting the reasonable crowd and large number of volunteers excited. Everyone before me had been French and there was no other runner in the area so the MC started interviewing me. He knew I was English from the info he had on the runners and it was an interesting experience to try out my French while eating as much as possible. At least my French was good enough to understand when he said I was seventh, but I wasn't sure if that was overall or just in the men's race. With 27km to go, top five overall seemed like a good aim, especially as I'd been taking it easier and felt fresh again.

After a good few minutes of eating and refilling my water bladder, I was off and had more motivation. Even if the time would be slower than I wanted, I could still get a great day's training and top five on an off day with tired legs would be a definite success. Even more so after starting off too hard and then losing heart at the effects of my purposeful overtraining.

I'd ask spectators along the way "Ou est le prochain coureur?" which was imperfect French for "Where's the next runner?" I got a variety of answers, some too long for me to understand, but one guy was very clear and told me I was only a minute behind and that he was going slowly. That spurred me on, but he must have seen a jogger, not one of the participants because I still hadn't caught anyone by the next checkpoint at 60km and I'd sped up.

The day had stayed cool and rain free, so even by this point I didn't need extra layers. The checkpoint was empty of other runners and I now suspected that there was a big gap behind and ahead of me. It meant I had to keep concentrating on not getting lost, but the trails were well marked with tape, some orange arrows on the ground and marshals dotted about on road crossings.

The final checkpoint was at 70km and I finally caught up to the next position just before it. He was struggling badly and hobbling at a slow speed. I asked if he was ok, but his response in French was unintelligible. However, his sullen face said it all - race over. I felt bad for him but it did show me the contrast with how I was feeling, which was fine. In fact I was feeling better than at any other point in the race. It also helped that the second viewing of the Eiffel Tower was at this checkpoint and it looked a lot closer.

Only 10k to go and it would mainly be flatter and along the river after the biggest downhill of the day. I was on track for around 6h30m if it was exactly 10k to go, but that checkpoint was early according to my GPS, so I expected a slightly longer run in to the finish. 10k is nothing as long as you feel fine, so I happily sped up and started throwing in 4-minute kms. The course followed a skanky section which looked more like the canals in the UK than the beautiful Seine river, but it soon switched to the more familiar Parisian landscape.

I caught two more guys along the river and they were both going at a slow jog, so didn't even try to stay next to me. It seems the fast pace at the start ruined a lot of people's races and I'm sure most of the large group who started off with close to 6-minute mile pace could have gotten a better time and had more fun if they'd ignored the rush.

I assumed I was in fourth at this point but still hadn't caught the lead lady so that meant fifth overall at worst. I'd managed to scrape into the top five and it didn't look like there was any chance of gaining more positions - one marshal told me I was 10 minutes behind and I was within the last 5k.

As the Eiffel Tower approached, it gradually looked taller and taller. It wasn't dark yet so the lights all over it weren't lit up. I realised that one of the best things about the race would be to run up to the glittering tower with the lighthouse-style lamp swirling about on the top. But I could always see that later after the finish.

As I came into the final sections and jumped up the stairs from the water-side to the base of the tower, there were large crowds cheering. It was a fitting end to the race...but there was still the best bit to come. As I ran under the tower, the course snaked into the expo tent, along a stage and out the other side. There were staff members and 50k finishers sat down eating and they cheered every runner through, including myself. Then there was just the final climb up the tower to come.
I was given a ticket and they stopped me to check my bag (for bombs?) before letting me loose on the stairs. I started off bounding up them but soon slowed to power-walking two at a time and using the handrail. There was a cameraman just below the entrance into the first floor, so he saw me at my slowest, then he also saw me catch up to the lead lady on the very final turn on the stairs. She was walking slowly and I hesitated for a second about overtaking her on the narrow staircase. However, she kept going at the same speed, so I ran up the last few stairs and popped out to a throng of paparazzi photographers who'd been expecting the winning woman to come through next. They quickly redirected their cameras when she appeared behind me, but I felt exhilarated to have finished and to have recovered from many tough and slow miles in the middle. 6h32m32s and fourth overall, but well off the podium who were bunched together around 6h08m. Over 1,000 of the 1,500 entrants finished within 12 hours but I'm not sure if the slower ones after that time were counted as finishers.

I chatted to the race director and some of the staff but was keen to get down to the bottom again since there was only Coke and beer at the top, with all the food at the bottom in the tent I'd just run through. I also wanted a shower and to get back into a viewing position for when James would come through. He'd optimistically said 7h30m, but his illness meant I expected him to come through slower than this. He finished in 9h20m after some torrential downpours, which I luckily managed to completely avoid in the marquee.

Overall we were both happy to have got round without injury and I was amazed he managed to do it after being ill. James does know how to push himself, which is why he's had finishes in races of 145 miles and 153 miles - sheer guts and determination are the main success factors in those races. I had to face the reality that if I train hard I can't also race hard at the same time with no taper at all. It would be good to retry that race but it's just too far to go from the US.

So, five days to recover and to fit in a slightly lower mileage before the Jurassic Coast triple marathon on Friday-Sunday. Based on how my legs are 48 hours later, I should be fine to run those three races reasonably hard. I don't get to rest properly until a week later, after completing the Two Oceans 56k race in Cape Town, South Africa. Then I can hopefully look back at a great month and allow myself an easy week to soak up the benefits of the training. The proximity of Comrades and Western States isn't really a worry, but I know I need to train very hard, particularly on hills, to nail these races. I can't wait for the challenge I've set myself but there's also a significant chance of failure just because my expectations are set high. Sub 6h at Comrades (2h50m marathon pace for 55.5 miles) and top 10 minimum at Western States as long as I'm not fried from Comrades.


  1. 4th place. I know how that feels. :-)
    But honestly another strong performance from you Ian.
    I am really looking forward to reading about your Comrades and Western States attemts!

  2. I was a long way off the podium. They came in between 6h08m and 6h09m then there was a long wait for the first lady and myself before a lot more runners came streaming through. But for a lot of the race I thought I'd be lucky to make the top 20, so it could have been worse.