MIND OVER BODY, story of my first 100k trail race.
I can’t tell if this hunger or if I’m getting sick, but I found myself woken up in the middle of the night by a sharp stomach ache. I open my eyes and my back hurts. I get off the bed to make my way to the bathroom to get some water. I fell right back on the bed. My feet are beat up and my IT band and quads can not carry me. I’m thinking about going back to bed but I fear that thirst won’t let me fall back asleep, or crawling to the bathroom. This will be option number two… How the hell did I get there?
The snow was slowly covering Vail Village, CO. The conference room was still empty as only a few of us were asked to be there early for the interviews with Gill, RD of the race. The job done, I joined the Flag crew with Carlie and we all made our way down the pedestrian streets to a coffee shop. We were cracking jokes and catching up with each other’s lives and accomplishments since we hadn’t had the chance to see for a while. Only Rob, or should I say Famous Rob was getting nervous about debating the serious things of ultrarunning in an interview with Allison Nily Pattillo.
About 200 runners and crew are now packed in the conference room. For the first time, I’m sitting on the other side of the Elite athlete table. I guess my current 7th of the Skyrunning world Championship Ultra, owned me that sit. I have to get used to this status and race up to it. The chat goes on and the room is filled with smiles and hugs. It’s catch up time in the Ultra world and it’s good to be part of this passionate and enthusiast crowd.
Roberto Mandje, a good friend and Olympian runner on 1500m in 2004 from Boulder had agreed to crew me for the race. He had just made it to Vail through the snow storm that only was auguring an even more exciting journey for the race the next day. After the conference we quickly made our way to the car and drove back to Frisco. The organisation rented a massive house for athlete but it sounded like not many athletes were aware of it. Only Mike Wardian, who I had a very cool chat with during the ride he kindly offered me from Boulder up to Breckenridge – say “Breck” if you want to sound cool or local – and outdoor Photographer Matt Trappe were there with us.
When I say massive, I mean the kind of house that has 10 rooms, each with private bathroom, two separate apartments and two living rooms, that to be honest were alone bigger than my flat back home! Last gear check and briefing for Rob’s tomorrow long mission to crew me through 5 aid stations, and off to bed.
6.20am, Saturday morning. It took few minutes for Rob and I to get off the car parked on main street in Breckenridge Colorado. Outside, it was dark and “pinky-size cold”!
Though, I am calm, relaxed, and looking forward to the long journey that will unleash myriad of surprises, good for some and bad for other. Cruel but beautiful fate of ultra running. Anything can happen, to anyone.
“Some of the best ultra runners are here today, but you have owned your spot at the front row, so act as such. You’re trained, you’re healthy and you’re damn ready to hurt.” I remember saying to myself as standing at the starting line.
Off we are, going straight up a hill only about a mile in. I set into a comfortable pace behind my partner in crime, Emelie Forsberg, who I had planned to stay with for the first half of the race. And so the race was on.
As the lead pack spreads out, I’m feeling good so I decide to crank up the pace and carry on climbing on my own.
I ran through the first aid station and everything worked out perfectly. This was the first time I had someone crewing for me and this really makes a difference. Beside the option to have exactly what you need at each aid station where crew is allowed, you have a second brain that works for you and tells you precisely what to eat, drink and take exactly how you had planned to do.
After they caught up with me at the aid station, I cruised for a while with Gary Gellin and Brian Tinder just enough time to hear Tinder step on ice and crash. Damn that was loud. I stopped and turned around to see him upside down. I shouted “You’re all right??” He stood back up, snowed himself off and started running again, “I’m all right, but damn that hurt!”. After a while I let these two and Michael Versteeg take off as I felt the pace was slightly too fast for me at this early stage of the race.
I got to the second aid station, 22k in and didn’t feel 100%. The road portion took a toll on me but I looked forward to the first real climb of the race. Again I’m in and out of the aid station, perhaps a bit too fast but I was only going to realise that a wee bit too late…
2/3 up that first climb, I quickly did the math and concluded worried that at the pace I was going through my food and water supplies I wouldn’t have enough to make it to the next aid station properly fuelled. I had clearly underestimated this portion that the snow fall from the whole day and night before had made even slower. Despite rationing my food, my pace and strengths were declining. I had a hard time following Brian, and was passed by two guys who were shouting out long and loud “yeeeeheaaaaw”. I just don’t get that. Is that joy, expression of being amazed by the surrounding mountains, show off ? I can only see loss of focus and energy and it kind of grinds my wheels to be honest. I whispered through my teeth “Oh for crying out loud, can’t you leave people run in the beautiful silence of the mountains?!!” Maybe I was becoming more irritable at this point as I started bonking. This is where Stephanie HOWE caught up with our little group.
Up the pass, we dropped on the other side after running along the ridge for a while. Strong wind was blowing and the temperature was later announced as to have reached -14°C with wind chill. Glad I had my lightweight GoodPeopleRun Jacket , 80 grams were never put to such good use! Going downhill through mid calf deep snow was kinda fun and almost made me forget about my bonking. I was going back and forth with Gary on that section, but he was clearly faster and soon was disappearing on the snowy/muddy single track we had caught off the snow fields.
I had started eating a handful of snow each time I had a chance. Stephanie passed me as while in a desperate move to keep myself together, I had stopped to get few mouthfuls of water off a stream to make it down to the Copper Mountain aid station in the least poor possible form.
I ran behind her all the way down to the creek thinking, holly crap she is fast! She was then leading the women’s field and clearly had wheels on the flat sections. Down to the creek, we had another 2 miles on a winding single track before we could hit the aid station. It felt like forever.
So when I finally made it, I stopped. Screw Formula 1-like transitions! I had clear intention to make a killing at this aid station big time. I went onto the food at the aid station like the cookie monster on cookies! After I fuelled up, I got some cheering from Rob and I was off again. I left the aid station walking, waiting for the food to sink in and my strengths to come back, and desperately trying to forget that I was only 43k into the race…
Water had never tasted so good / The death march leaving the aid station. Photos Greg Vollet / Rob Mandje
In the distance, I could see Emelie. She had had a much faster transition and was now ahead of me. I couldn’t help thinking “I wonder what would have happened if I had stuck to the plan and stayed with her?”. But I had taken my chances and I was accepting its consequences.
On paper, the upcoming section of the race was a 18k stretch over Vail Pass on a cycle path, which pretty much sucks for a goat like me with very little raw speed in its legs. Yet, it had one advantage that was going to put me back on track. Road means boring – oops that came out wrong… – Road means you don’t have to think about where you put your feet or where you turn, that’s what I meant!
So I actually managed to keep it together for the first part up to Vail pass, running brain dead and repeating thoughts to keep me up. (See the end, mind tricks).
There Rob was ready to cheer me on and put more gas in my engine. Joe Grant was also there and told me I looked good. All I could think of though was “you’re nice buddy, but I know this trick and at this point I’m not sure it will change anything”, yet it did.
Seeing me doubtful about his words, he added “yeah you’re still 18th” with a very sincere look on his face. If I was still top 20 while having one of the worst bonking I had experienced in a race, then it was time to get my shit together and start trucking.
My good friend Timmy Olson truly inspired me once again as I crewed along with his wife Krista and parents in law to witness him take 4th at UTMB a month before. He had lived up to what he had told me after TransVulcania earlier this year: “In an ultra you must be able to come back from a low patch. Whether you have pushed a climb too hard or if you’re bonking, nothing’s ever over, unless you let it.” He was right and I wasn’t going to let go.
The 53k mark is where things went downside up (not sure I can say that but that’s how it felt!) and where I was able to truly take advantage of all the training I had built up for that race.
I couldn’t quite leave behind my stiff legs at the aid station, but I sure was back on the horse and ready to push. I adjusted my stride to a faster pace on the now downhill bike path to the next aid station; 8ks down the other side of Vail Pass. I was followed by a runner, but I never looked back. Basic XC running rule, if you look back, you make the guy behind feel stronger and that’s enough to help him pass you. So head down I reached the next aid station, filled up my water bottles with water, took the time to eat and drink (you make a mistake once, call it an accident, make it twice you’re an idiot!) and started the second big climb of the day with Stephanie right in my new bull’s eye.
I felt strong all the way up. I passed Stephanie along with another guy. I eventually caught up with Emelie who had taken the lead in the women’s race. She was moving quite quick so we had time for a brief chat. I gave her the status on the women’s happenings in the race, she gave me words of encouragement. I was off grunting away and power hiking the last steep section before the opening on the ski slopes at the back of Vail mountain. I was on a mission and I could not let anything take my focus off of it.
Got to the top of Vail Mountain, after passing another guy and Gary who I initially thought I wouldn’t see any more. That was a good sign. I was feeling strong mentally but my legs were still stiff and my quads were starting to seriously hurt.
To take my mind off that pain, I sucked up positive energy from this part of the course I knew very well. I had run this single track along the ridge for the past 6 years during the annual TransRockies Run stage race. The sun was up and the snow was melting, turning the single tracks into a succession of puddles of mud and water, which I wasn’t even bothered trying to avoid anymore.
I perceived an aid station in the distance and was trying to scout other runners I could catch. I really was on hunting mode, which helped take away my attention from my hurting quads and hamstrings. Sadly, no soul in sight.
I got to there looking for food and I found my good friend Luke Nelson! Another runner I wasn’t quite expecting to see again. His words were : “Get out of here man!” as he faked punching me in the stomach. This guy can have the best as well as the worst time on the trail, he always show positive attitude and a big smile.
“I’m not feeling to good he said, do you want to walk for a bit?”.
I responded with my mouth full of watermelon that I wasn’t feeling great but I surely wasn’t walking, and off I was again. Damn I must sound like an ass sometimes, but when racing mode is on, it’s on like King Kong!!
The trail down to the last aid station in Minturn was a long winding downhill section that I ran rather fast, hoping to close on more runners. I didn’t, and covered the whole section on my own.
Right before I left the trail to make it to the road that lead to the Aid Station, Meghan M. Hicks who was killing it at covering the race on IrunFar shouted at me I was 11th and two more runners were down at the aid station. Talk about a motivation boost! Top 10 was suddenly POSSIBLE…
I first saw Rickey Gates, who looked strong and gave me a high 5. A couple of hundred meters further down the road, I found Michael Versteeg with Andrew Bock on his tail. I had then put a face on my two new targets. I rushed down to the aid station to trade my jacket for a lighter and dry New Balance singlet and GPR Visor. Took water, watermelon, cliff shots at the aid station and I trotted out of the aid station with Rob chased me down to give me the last couple of salt pills of the day.
NO WALKING ! This is what I kept in mind as I was running up the road to the trail back up to Vail Mountain. “As soon as you hit the trail, you keep running.” I eventually had walk sections but I ran most of the first half of the climb. I had the feeling I was moving rather fast but I couldn’t catch a glimpse of any runner, and started to loose confidence in catching them. “Run with your heart” I remembered, the words of my better half. And off I was again, running. Good think I didn’t wonder what my mind wanted, because I’d probably have turned around and said f…k it!
And there they were. I could finally see them in the distance, right when the trail was getting steeper. Perfect. I was now powering through like a honey badger, I didn’t care. In no time I was behind them. I remember thinking “Should I stay behind for a while, rest and pass them hard when I feel fresher?” Nah… I was feeling strong and wasn’t about to break this streak. I just bulldozed froward until we approached the last aid station. I stated running again and even picked up the pace to leave it before they could make it there. Two cups of water and I was down to the last section of the race.
A horrible 6.5k down hard packed dirt road making it the longest and most frustrating switchbacks. I was surprised to see Rickey there. He looked like he was taking a stroll, enjoying a fine late afternoon in the mountain. But for knowing Rickey, he’s not a walker so clearly something was wrong. I slowed down and asked if he was OK or if there was anything I could do. He nodded, “nope, I just don’t have anything left. See you at the finish”. Never fun to leave a buddy behind, especially in such shape, but I had two guys on my tail and the finish line down that hill. So I let my legs loose, opened my stride and took off. I was flying down and I was impressed to still be able to move at this pace after 95k. And there it was, the finish line. I rolled on the last two switchbacks and I was home.
11h32’32″ placing 8th overall and owning myself the 4th spot at the Skyrunning Ultra World Series. A day that ended rather well for someone who had only run his first 50 miler earlier this year and just finished his first 100k. Overachievement. Überjoyed!
Thanks a ton to those without who none of this would have been possible. Starting with my supporting girl whose advice and words helped me greatly to make it to the finish, Lauri van Houten and Marino Giacometti executive directors of the international Skyrunning federation who supported me to make it to Vail as part of the Elite athletes, the Race directors and all the volunteers who have worked hard to make this race happen, my sponsors New Balance, Isostar and Compressport, and last but not least Roberto who has done an amazing job at crewing me all day and with no doubt played a key role in this unforgettable journey through my first 100k.
Thank you all of you out there, friends and family, runners and members of Goodpeoplerun.com who have sent support, cheering and congrats, I really appreciate it. This is also part of what motivates me to train even harder and keep inspiring people to run and seek for their limits, wherever they might be.
I personally had a motivation tank that was overflowing coming into this race so that helped a lot. I used :
- the article written by fellow runner Rickey Gates in Trail Runner Magazine about DNFs and how you think you’ll feel better after to drop out because your body’s screaming pain shall stop, only to let your brain and ego take over.
- I had also bagged up two running quotes “to give anything than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” by Pre and “Think easy, light, smooth and fast” by Caballo Bianco.
- Last one was from my girl “Run with your heart”. The very rational person I am, would in normal times find this slightly lame. But looking back at the race, this was with absolutely no doubt the one that kept me moving till the end.
- I also repeated to myself POPC, POPC, POPC ! Some of you probably know what I mean :)
- My NB 1010 V2 hadn’t arrived on time before I left to the US, I took a pair of Salomon Sense for the first half of the race and switched to my lucky shoes NB Leadville 1210 which had already successfully taken me to the finish line of my first 50 miler earlier this year.
- New Balance split shorts
- Salomon fuel belt with 2 soft flasks 200ml
- Amphibian hand held bottles. I love the shape, but damn the lids never close correctly and it spills all over…
- New Balance singlet
- Lightweight jacket by Goodpeoplerun.com
- Rudy’s Project shades
My fuel :
- 10 Salt Stick Salt pills
- at least half of a watermelon !
- 3 high energy bars Isostar
- 10 gels Energy Isostar
- 18 shot blocks from Cliff Bar (available at the aid stations)
The morning of the race:
- two bananas with Justin’s maple almond butter
- a full water bottle with chia seeds mixed with water and FRS drink.
The night before:
Timmy’s special : Mashed sweat potatoes, then fried slowly in coconut butter. Chicken breasts fried in coconut butter.