Not totally uncommon this summer, there was a fireworks display last night launched from the bay in Villefranche. Check out the video I took.
Dave Lin was just in town visiting me for a bit more than a week. The highlight was a multi-day trip through the Provencal countryside on bike. Unfortunately some train issues caused us to miss a day of riding, but we managed to days on the bike at around 160 miles total. It may not sound like much, but carrying all our supplies in backpacks made it incredibly difficult — especially climbing some of those relentless hills.
More pictures and a write-up to follow (if by some chance you read this before the write-up). For now, a picture taken along the ride.
Overall Time: 9:31:33
Place: 66 of 479 (429 finishers)
Weather: 45 degrees at the start
Start Time: 6:00am
I can’t really remember how it all started, but at the beginning of the year one of my friends who ran the Lookout Mountain 50 miler started talking up the Silver Rush 50 Mile Run in Leadville, Colorado (yes, the same Leadville of the famed 100 miler). Somehow, most of my Lookout 50 crew and I decided that another mountain-y 50 miler would be in order for 2012, and we all ended up registering for the Silver Rush 50. It’d be Mike S, Jonathan W and Daniel G heading over to Leadville to go run through the mountains like maniacs.
Almost all ultramarathons seem to have a “thing” — extreme weather, difficult terrain, crazy climbing, wild bear zombies chasing you. For the Silver Rush, it was the altitude. The race starts in the town of Leadville at Dutch Henry Hill at 10,200 feet. On 4 occasions (technically, 6) you ascend to above 12,000 oxygen-depleted feet above where normal humans live. Having done the Atacama Crossing earlier in the year (8000 – 10,000 ft above sea level) I was somewhat familiar with how it felt to run an ultra feeling like you have a sock stuck in your mouth as your lungs burn for air. “It’s not so bad,” I told myself when I signed up.
“It’s not so bad,” soon turned into, “why again did I sign up for this?” as July 15th approached. Having just run a successful Reach the Beach in May and ready to start preparing for the Chicago Marathon in October, this sort of threw a wrench in my ambitions to run fast this year. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to run ultramarathons and still train for speed at shorter distances, but I prefer the idea of specificity of training. And 50-mile mountain trail races have very little to do with marathons on flat roads.
Unfortunately I had committed to the race not so much by the $95 registration fee, but by the commitment of buying a plane ticket to come from France to run this thing. Had it just been the entry fee, I may have opted not to run it and call it a lesson learned. I would have called it the lesson of Don’t-Get-Swept-Up-In-Everyone-Else’s-Fervor-For-Random-Ultramarathons-Thousands-Of-Miles-Away. But with a round-trip international flight, I was sort of pot committed.
I did make one concession, though: I would not be racing this. I’d put in enough effort to get me over the finish line without embarrassing myself, but I would not run with guns ablazin’ because I knew that when I left Colorado I would need to resume Chicago Marathon training immediately.
I flew into Boulder on Thursday night. Daniel is a Boulder native and was staying at his parent’s place. He’d offered Jonathan a spare bed to sleep on, so conveniently we were all in the same town together in the days before the race. Boulder is only at slightly more than 5000 feet above sea level and any hopes of trying to acclimate to the altitude were dashed knowing that the race started at twice the elevation.
Arriving in Leadville on Saturday afternoon, we didn’t do much other than the standard packet pickup and go for a nervous-energy-expending walk through our surroundings. We were joined in Leadville by Jonathan’s sister (there for support) and her husband Jimmy (who would be running the race).
After a vegan dinner (their idea, not mine…. but it was good) we headed to bed and I tried my best to sleep. God did I need to sleep. Since having landed in Denver two nights prior, I hadn’t gotten more than 3 hours of sleep in the past two nights. I’m normally able to sleep before big races, so I had good hopes that my generally knackered state would mean that I’d pass out as soon as my head hit the pillow at 10am for the 4:15am wake-up call. I was wrong. I tossed and turned all night, and worse — I was in a bunk bed. I had to be conscious of not disturbing Daniel G sleeping below me so I just laid there facing the ceiling (all two feet from my face) praying I’d catch an hour or two of sleep.
I was already awake when my alarm went off, and I hopped in the shower to try and shake the grog of not sleeping. After a coffee and some fruity bready thing that the boys had picked up at the Boulder’s farmer’s market the day before, I checked my pulse and realized it was sky high for me. It was the lack of sleep or the altitude, or both — but I wasn’t feeling good. I really wanted to pull out of the race but I ended up getting in the car like a good soldier and we headed to the race start.
The race starts at Dutch Henry Hill is an old hill used for tubing when there’s snow. It’s a crazy hill to try and run up, but the race organizers stood at the top of the hill and handed out two entries to the Leadville 100 next month — one to the first male and the other to the first female that reached the top first — and this was enough that a few souls went scrambling up the hill with reckless abandon to snatch their way into the already sold-out 100.
Daniel and I leisurely walked up the hill, as did half the field. In any 5K you can’t win the first mile but you sure can lose in the first mile. Let’s just extrapolate that for a 50 miler, and you can imagine why I had no incentive to go straight up hill at the beginning of this race with any sort of speed.
I settled into a nice little groove with a few people and noticed that I wasn’t feeling so good. I don’t think it was the lack of oxygen so much as it was how tired my body was with no rest. The first few miles were nice and easy, with Jonathan and Jimmy ahead of me and Daniel behind me. Despite “nice and easy” I was already having doubts about finishing by mile 5. I just tried to keep my head down and reach the first aid station at mile 7.
I tend to measure distances in ultras by aid stations to break down the race into manageable chunks, and 50 individual miles are hard to pay attention to especially as this race I ran without a Garmin. Aid stations at the Silver Rush are roughly every 7 miles, which is a decent distance to focus on each time — surprisingly I completely missed the first aid station. How in the hell does that happen?
I suppose after having doubts about finishing at mile 5, I managed to zone out and let my legs find their own gear. The next 6.5 miles to the Printer Boy aid station at mile 13.5 were up and down. There were 3 miles of uphill and it was here that we ascended to above 12,000 feet for the first time. It’s very clear when you do this because all the trees suddenly disappear. Even they can’t be bothered to go beyond around 11,300 feet in the Rockies and it becomes a very disturbing feeling to be above them. I just kept thinking to myself, “I want to be around trees already!” when I found myself climbing and starving for oxygen.
Ironically, knowing my lack of enthusiasm for uphills, I passed Jimmy during this uphill section although he never seemed to trail me for more than a few meters when I glanced back. Daniel had told me that he wanted to put in a good effort at this race and would be going out hard but I wondered if he’d have the stamina to keep it up. I wasn’t racing this all-out, but I was at least still competitive with those around my speed.
Desperate for trees again, my prayers were answered when the climb was followed by a lovely 3.5-mile downhill along nice dirt road. With good traction and a nice downward slope, this section would be a nice time to stretch out the legs without exhausting myself. Unfortunately, as I noted to myself, as an out-and-back course I would have to deal with a 3.5-mile uphill climb toward the final miles of the race. Shit.
At mile 13.5 I reached Printer Boy and made sure not to miss it because I had run out of water in my sole 21-oz handheld bottle. It was here that I tasted my first gout of whatever Gu-brand energy drink they were giving out. It wasn’t bad, but it was a little strong in the middle of a race. I made a note to mix it with 50% water next aid station and passed through the aid station without hesitation. I had picked this up from the suggestions of others, and having seen Debbie Livingston do it last year at Lookout. With 7 aid stations, lingering an extra 3 minutes at each one ends up being a lot of time. I made it a point never to stop more than the 30 seconds needed to fill my water bottle and stuff my face with some watermelon.
Leaving Printer Boy I knew that we’d begin another tough climb to the next aid station at mile 18. With only 4.5 miles to run we’d ascend to 12,000 feet two times (a slight dip each time) and each time we’d hope to get back beneath that tree line. The only good thing about this section for me was knowing that when I reached the mile 18 aid station I would be on my way to the turn-around point and half the race would soon be over.
Looking back, it’s a little strange to think that I don’t have many recollections about this section being very hard. It sounds hard, yes… going to 12,000 feet never sounds easy… but I think it’s easy enough in the race that you still have energy, and the prospect of nearing the turnaround point makes you forget about the fact that you’re starting to get tired. You just keep your head down, and all of a sudden you’re at mile 18 with only a few miles to go until the halfway point. The roads were fairly decent and the climbing was nice and gradual. There wasn’t any big “fuck you” that the course threw your way going to 18.
The section between 18 and 25 were a bit of an odd duck. The first bit was easy, but then it got a little tricky. It was never flat, and the footing got a little funny. I kept thinking, “there were people on mountain bikes doing this yesterday?!” It just seemed a little dangerous at times due to the steep downhills and tricky footing. A lot of people were walking the downhills, afraid of losing control or killing their quads if they allowed themselves to jog down. I can just imagine someone starting a jog down and quickly becoming an arm-flailing maniac running at full speed despite their best intentions to stop. This was immediately followed by a fairly flat route toward the turnaround point where we would pick up our drop bags and have another chance to eat some yummy watermelon.
Heading to the turnaround I saw Jonathan looking very strong somewhere around 10th place. Thankfully we were both running on flat ground so we were both actually running in front of each other, instead of one of us walking an uphill, and we exchanged obligatory motivating shouts at each other. I had been counting the people coming “back” while I was on the “out” portion of the course and knew he was doing well so I said something to him about cracking the top 10.
At mile 25 I picked up my drop bag, but found that I didn’t need anything in it. Instead I added my arm warmers to it now that the sun had warmed the air up a bit. I shoveled down a handful of salt and vinegar chips and then learned that a friend of mile would be dropping from the race due to some severe headaches, stomach issues, and other fairly severe altitude-related symptoms. With this bit of bad news I had no choice but to continue on alone. Jimmy wasn’t far behind — maybe 5 minutes — but when he came in and I offered to run with him he said he needed to rest a bit at the stop and by then I was ready to go. So I went.
I picked up a few running friends on my way back to the start. There was a nice woman from New Mexico who seems to be a bit of an ultrahead. She was training for her first 100 miler and was having a conversation with a 100M veteran. I joined in the group and tried to soak up any free advice I could. Both she and the other guy were from elevation and at some point she asked me where I was from. “SEA LEVEL!” was my response, and it was about time we all had a good laugh. After running a marathon in the mountains you need a bit of distraction from what you’re doing and talking about 100 milers wasn’t really distracting me from running 50.
Soon I saw Daniel heading toward mile 25 and looking very strong. Unfortunately for me he caught me on an uphill section — which meant I was walking (!) while he managed to look cool and confident on his downhill run. The bastard! I had left Mile 25 approximately 20 minutes earlier, which means that I had around 40 minutes on him.
A mile or two into the run back, it got hard. Hard hard. The crazy downhill on the way out because a crazy uphill on the way back. People were walking. People were stopping! It was like climbing stairs for thousands of feet, except the footing was less than stellar and all I could think of was how much I wish Jimmy had run with me so that I could focus on someone else’s misery instead of my own.
After what seemed like an eternity (probably 15 minutes) I made it to the top. It was then that I really started seeing people who were making their way to mile 25 and started to think that it was going to be a veeeery long day for them. At the top of this walk I saw people who were so relieved to finally be going downhill but I hadn’t the heart to tell them that it was ten times harder coming back up. I kept my mouth shut, yelled cheesy things like, “you made it!” and kept going on.
Running to the aid station at Mile 30 was pretty simple after the crazy trek uphill. I was still with New Mexico and her 100M ultraveteran, often trading places depending on our relative skills (mine, downhill and hers, uphill). We stuck together as a group until Printer Boy at 38.5, when I just blazed through not wanting to stop. It was here that I couldn’t believe how many people were spending enough time here to have a picnic. After going straight through with only a top-off of fluids, I turned back a half mile into the course and couldn’t see anyone behind me. What were they doing, firing up a bbq?
Anyway, unfortunately this departure from Printer Boy meant that I’d be facing that 3.5-mile section above 12,000 feet that I had made a mental note of during the opening parts of the race. What was before a lovely downhill was not a gruelingly long, winding epic of an uphill battle. Every time I turned a corner I thought I would see the end, but it never seemed to come when I wanted. Only when I grew desperate to see a hint of relief did I see the turn down to the brilliant sight of the treeline. I can guarantee you that nine out of ten people will remark that this stretch was one of the most demoralizing parts of the entire race. The distance of the uphill and the placement this late in the race made it a nice little challenge. Now that I’m done with it I can call it a, “nice little challenge,” but at the time I thought it was just bitch entirely unnecessary to my happiness.
With that final climb out of the way, the rest of the race would be at only 10,000 feet. It sounds scary thinking that 10,000 is some sort of a relief, but it was. There would be 3 more miles to the last aid station, and about 7 miles to the finish. Best of all, it would be net downhill and nothing too technical about the trail. There would be nothing for me to fall over (unlike Lookout), no crazy hills to climb, and not a whole lot of distance separating me from the finish.
I plodded along at my joggy pace and finished the last miles unsure of how fast to run them. Should I pick up the pace and try for a big PR? Would doing so kill my legs too much and force me to take the next week off? Is my ego in the 50 miler bigger than my training plans for Chicago? I was just a ball of uncertainty how to finish off this race, until I reached the aid station at mile 43. By then I had run out of water and forced myself to stay at the aid station to rehydrate and take in extra fluids before departing for the finish. I got into a quick conversation with some of the volunteers, which ended up in a joking debate about salted vs. unsalted watermelons, and that’s when I realized I should ease off the throttle a bit and not kill myself finishing this thing.
I set off for the finish alone now. New Mexico and her 100M friend had passed me somewhere along the uphill walk of death after Printer Boy, and the last 7 would be all me. I had plenty of time to think about the race now that I was confident that I would finish it in around 9 hours 30 minutes. I knew the last bit would take me just over an hour, so I enjoyed the views and started wondering how Daniel, Jimmy and Jonathan were doing. Jonathan was probably finished by now, and Jimmy and Daniel had to be close behind me.
There was nothing special about this last segment, except me thinking that I was glad it was easy terrain and I was glad that it was shaded beneath trees. It made it very runnable if you still had the energy, and I can imagine that there were some fast finishes from the top 10. There was a bump of a hill with about a mile left to go, but it wasn’t so bad. What *was* bad was the fact that at the top of the hill you could hear the announcer calling in peoples’ names — I was close! Not far in the distance to my left people were finishing! But wait… what’s this? Why am I turning right? NO NO NO I wanted to turn left and finish this! Why am I being led around in the forest when the finish is so near? It was a cruel thing to do to runners, but we meandered a bit through random trail turns before we were as close to the finish as we thought.
Inevitably I made it to the finish. It was spectacular — there was a massive drop straight down the same hill that we ran up to start things off (ok, a bit off to the side in case any of you want to get super technical — but the grade was the same). Arms were flailing, legs were kicking, and boom…. I was finished 9 hours and 31 minutes after I had started; an accidental PR for me. Even not racing this I managed to tick off a minute from my time at Lookout, and I felt like I still had a lot of energy crossing the line. It was a mild success.
Jonathan had finished in an astonishing 8:08, proving that he’s some sort of superman for not succumbing to the lack of oxygen. This placed him in 12th place of field of over 400. Jimmy would post a PR of 10:29, and Daniel would manage to set a PR as well clocking a 10:50, for his first time under 11 hours. It’s rare that I ever go to races with friends where we all have good races, so it made it all the more exceptional how well this weekend had been executed. I’m fairly certain this is a race that I would do again, if I can scrap together the money and time to do so. And I think the next time I go to Leadville, I’m racing this to shoot for sub 8:30.
Happy 4th of July! Shit, I could use a Central Park hot dog right about now.
Last month my friend invited me for a two-day hiking trip (a “Randonnée“) through the Parc National du Mercantour, a national park along the France / Italy border in the Southern Alps. Naturally I didn’t hesitate at jumping at the chance, even though I had no idea what it would involve.
He got back to me eventually and proposed the weekend of June 30 / July 1 for a self-supported hike (backpacking with food, clothes, sleeping bags, etc.). I had brought my backpack from the Atacama as well as water bottles, so I was all set. Perfect.
The park is only about 90 minutes away. It’s maybe 30 miles, but there’s no fast way to get there from Villefranche. It involves lots of small, windy roads that would make Mike O nervous.
The plan would be as follows:
- Start at Lake Mesches, and head west and north
- Hike approximately 25 km to the Refuge de Nice, where we spend the night
- Begin Day 2 from Refuge de Nice, and make our way back to the starting point, passing through the Refuge de Valmasque for a break.
Here is what the map of the trip looked like. The green start indicator is Lake Mesches where we parked the car and started / ended our journey. The red stop indicator is the Refuge de Nice, where we slept Saturday night. That border you see running along the top of the map is the France / Italy border.
Saturday morning Thierry picked me up at 7am and we made our way to the park. I had my pack fairly well-loaded for only a two day trip, but I wanted to be on the safe side when it came to food. I wasn’t sure how challenging the terrain would be or what sort of provisions would be waiting for us at the Refuge de Nice.
When we got to Lake Mesches and got out of the car to start our randonnée, the first thing I noticed was how nice the weather was. In Nice and Villefranche, the summer is definitely settling in. It’s hot, it’s humid, and the dew point is uncomfortably high. Just walking around in shorts and a t-shit, you sweat like a pig. Here in the park, we found ourselves starting at 4,500 feet where the air is cool and dry. I was so happy to get off the seacoast.
Like you would imagine, the park was beautiful. I shouldn’t have to explain that the Southern Alps are going to be beautiful. What was unique (to me) about them was how rocky they were, and that there was still snow on the ground at some elevations (depending where the shadows were cast). I had brought my Flite-195 trail shoes with me. They’re technically trail shoes, but they’re very thin-soled and I wish I had brought beefier shoes because rocks kept sticking the underside of my foot fairly uncomfortable.
The trails were fairly well-marked, although there were a few times when Thierry and I had to scour ahead for where the painted trail markers were.
Starting at 4,500 feet, we were still well within the confines of the treed forest. There was lots of pretty shade and typical overgrown greenness of late Spring. Thierry was fairly confident that we would see plenty of “chamois,” a wild goat-antelope species (according to wikipedia) that live at high altitude among the rocks in mountains.
Straight from the opening miles, I could tell that this little randonnée wasn’t going to be flat. Within 2 hours we had only gone 5 miles, but we had climbed to over 7,000 feet. We were straddling the tree line at this point, and by the time we got to our first stop of the day at the Refuge des Merveilles.
Every few hours worth of hiking there are these “refuges” where you can stop. They’re basically just a log cabin in the middle of the park. During the day you can stop for limited hot food options and drinks (being France, of course you can get wine — hot and cold). In the evenings, they have bunkbed dormatories (dortoirs) where you can stay for the night in additional a proper 3-course meal service. The meals aren’t exactly Michelin-grade, but at the end of 8 hours of hiking who can tell the difference?
Thierry and I stopped at the refuge for a quick snack from our backpacks, and to give our legs a little rest. It was a welcome break, both for the rest and for the view. The refuge is located along the beautiful Lake Long Superior.
After admiring the view (of both the lake and other hikers — I have to say that on the whole there were some fairly fit and attractive hikers coming through the park this weekend!), we set up to make a few more kilometers into the park before chowing down on whatever canned lunches we had packed for ourselves.
You can see in the picture of the Refuge that there aren’t any trees around anymore. We had reach the tree line, and from here it would be rocky and sunny. It would also mean a chance to make friends with the local chamois.
Within a half kilometer of leaving the refuge, we were greeted with a steep steep climb that took us all the way to 8,400 feet — the highest point of the day — at the baisse separating the two valleys we would be hiking through.
It was here that we spotted our first chamois of the day. Now that we had finally left the trees and found ourselves among the rocks, chamois seemed to be everywhere. They’re not too big — probably the size of a domesticated goat — and they’re pretty skittish and like their distance. They can scale rocks just like other mountain goats, so that makes them fairly calm when they’re on a cliff because they seem to know there’s no way people can even hope to chase them without dying.
Naturally, seeing this chamois made me hungry so before beginning out descent down to the valley that awaited us, Thierry and I sat down to enjoy some backpack lunches. He dined on some tomato sandwich invention, and I pried open a can of tuna and slathered it on some bread I had packed along with some slices of emmental (swiss) cheese. Thierry being Thierry (he likes to cook) he had brought along some homemade jelly candy made from pear, which was pretty damn fantastic. I’m a big fan of pears and a big fan of sugar on a hike, so they two made me a very happy man at 8,400 feet.
After stuffing my face on tuna and sweets, we ventured down the other side of the baisse and began a 3-mile descent that took us down 2,700 feet. It was a pretty intense maze of switchbacks on gravel and rocky road, and it’s a bit of a miracle that neither one of us twisted an ankle or tripped. I think having fallen so many times on trails, I’m finally a little more cautious on shit like this.
It was around this point that I started to get low on water. This wasn’t the Atacama, so it wasn’t like I was going to melt within 5 minutes, but it did mean that I was started to get uncomfortably thirsty as I rationed what remained in my water bottles while looking for a place to stop to refill.
This being the middle of the Alps with no infrastructure, there wouldn’t be any place to stop for running water except at the refuges. And at this point I was midway between the Refuge des Merveilles where we had stopped earlier, and the Refuge de Nice –our final destination. This was a 2+ hour walk either way, and a bit too far to go without water.
Relief came at the bottom of the descent, where the sounds and sigh of a large river greeted Thierry and I. It was fresh and coming from the snow-topped Alps, so I was more than happy to take some water. It seems such a simple thing, having fresh, cold water — but it was the most amazing thing to have when you normally live in the city. It didn’t come out of a bottle and I didn’t turn a tap. This stuff is actually natural. Sometimes you forget that.
After topping up on water it was time to start climbing again, making our way to the ultimate destination of the day — the Refuge de Nice. It means going uphill, and following the source of the river. It was definitely a challenging uphill, very rocky and leaving my hamstrings pretty fatigued by the time we reached the top. The only worthy distraction was the general beauty of the varies cascades and waterfalls we hiked next to.
It was around here when we started to see a few more hikers coming the opposite direction. They weren’t exactly fit, though, and this prompted Thierry to remark, “OK, next time we take a harder route. There are too many fat people here.” Yikes, harsh! For having a language so indirect, the French certainly have no problems saying exactly what’s on their mind in English.
We made it to the Refuge de Nice shortly before 5pm, where we would spend the night. It was surprisingly well-equipped with a full bar and an efficient staff. Immediately we ordered a few cold beers to help us relax after the hike, which hit the spot. It was starting to cool off so Thierry and I asked to be shown to our bunkbeds where we could put our backpacks, and grab a hot shower. Showers cost 3 Euros and are limited to 3 minutes, probably because of long lines of stinky people and the fact that the hot water is heated using solar panels and there is only so much water they can heat up before it goes cold and people get mad.
Finally clean, we casually waited around until dinner was served at 7pm. With a couple hours to kill we grabbed a whiskey and played French Scrabble. However, it was decided that Thierry could play his words (only) in French and mine in English. This was a little difficult for me, because the letters favored French words. However, I used this to my advantage by fully cheating. I just made up words in order to win, and Thierry knew no difference. Hey, what can I say — I just “had” to get that “Y” on the triple-letter tile.
7pm rolled around and all 50+ people who were staying overnight at the refuge made their way into the tiny dining hall. Bench-tables sat between 8 and 12 people, and filled the room to make it pretty cramped and loud. We were sat with a German couple and a French couple from Aix-en-Provence, who were pretty cool. The French couple were loud and fun, and of course the Germans were quiet and …German. Dinner started with a soup and was followed by fettuccine with a beef stewy-sort-of-bourguignon thing.
It was good, but when the male part of the French couple jokingly asked if they had Parmesan (of course not; it’s the middle of the Alps) I remembered that I had actually packed some in my backpack. It was something I learned from the Atacama Crossing. Parmesan is super light, packs a lot of calories per gram, and has salt necessary to replenish electrolytes. It also makes even unpalatable things super tasty. I darted up to my room upstairs and came down with a bag of Parmesan, much to the delight of the table. All of a sudden the table became much more gregarious; it’s amazing how a simple act like sharing some cheese can transform an evening. Soon enough we were ordering bottles of wine to share, and I was being introduced to génépi, a French liqueur similar to absinthe.
Sensing the it would be wise and prudent to get to sleep soon, we all called it a night after the génépi right around 10pm.
The next morning we woke up early and made our way on the trail back to the car. We’d be going east and then south, to complete the loop back to Lake Mesches. The first two miles of this day would be very very difficult. There were a few portions where I though, “Oh shit, there’s no way I could talk Mike O into doing something like this.” The opening 2.2 miles took over two hours because they were straight up rocks.
It was very technical, and to be honest we lost the trail several times because 1.) nothing looks like a trail (it just looks like rocks and boulders everywhere) and 2.) we were so busy crawling on our hands and feet that we couldn’t always look much further than a few feet ahead because we were scrambling on all fours.
Thankfully, once we made it past the first 2.2 miles we were greeted by nothing but easy downhills for the rest of the day. We were still high enough that there were plenty of chamois around us. There was also still snow from the winter, sticking around despite warm temperatures in early July.
We made our descent toward the Refuge de Valmasque, and after the morning’s climb I was more than ready for a sandwich and a rest for the legs. Nothing climbing had really tired me out and since we had started so early on the morning of the second day, there was plenty of time to rest at the refuge midday.
Good friends Mike O and Mike B are coming to France. They land June 21 and leave June 27. It’s going to be a quick trip, but it will be good to see them. I know that I saw them only a month ago when I was back for Reach the Beach, but I miss drinking and gossiping with the girls.
Here’s the proposed itinerary:
Thursday: The Mikes invade France. First night of drinking on the balcony. Lots of relaxing after their long journey. Nothing much more.
Friday: The Mikes can decide if they would like to (Option 1) stay in Villefranche for the day to relax, or (Option 2) if they’d like to visit one of the neighboring cities. If Option 2, suggestions would be Eze and Monaco in the same day.
Running options for the day are the trail run around St Jean Cap Ferrat, or in Nice along the Promenade des Anglais for the full tourist experience. While more difficult, the trail run around Cap Ferrat offers more beautiful views of the area.
Mini Road Trip : Saturday / Sunday / Monday
Saturday: Get out of Villefranche! Drive to Avignon late Friday morning (after a run, of course). The drive is about 3 hours. We can stop along the way at Aix-en-Provence for a late lunch and to stretch the legs if desired. If time permits, stop to see the Pont du Gard before arriving in Avignon. Evening will be lots of wine and good food.
Sunday: Tour Avignon by foot. Major sites to hit (our own morning walking tour, probably in roughly this order): Les Remparts, Espace St-Louis, Palais des Papes, Cathedrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms, Petit Palais, Rocher des Doms, Pont St-Benezet. The afternoon can be spent in the museums, wine bars, restaurants, etc. Stay overnight in Avignon.
Monday: Drive to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Sunday morning to take part in their world famous market, dubbed “the most charming flea market in the world.” Take an early idyllic lunch near one of the town’s old watermills. Follow this up with a mid-day drive to Chateauneuf-du-Pape for the rest of the day. At C-d-P, first (while we’re sober) climb the hill to the ruins of the Chateau to enjoy the view of Avignon, the Luberon and Mont Ventoux. Climb back down the hill and explore the city and the “caves de degustation” (wine-tasting cellars) lining the streets. Stay overnight in C-d-P.
Tuesday: Drive back to Villefranche early morning. Take a day to relax; maybe have a picnic on the beach on Cap Ferrat? After running around Provence for a few days, I figure this would be a good day for downtime before heading back to NYC.
Wednesday: Bye bye, Mikes!
Going to Paris the 16th through the 19th. Thank you, easyJet!
Erwin, don’t judge.
The view I went to bed to.
So I wrote up the big boring blog post about the team, but how did I do? I ended up averaging right around a 6:34 pace, which I am generally pleased with. This is 10+ seconds faster than last year, and I felt like I felt a lot stronger at the end than in any of my previous other RTB experiences.
Thomas asked me if I thought it was the higher mileage that contributed to it, and I think it was a big factor. But more, I think the increase in all aspects of my training has helped me become a better distance / endurance runner. So much of this type of running is mental, and having a lot of experience under my belt has helped me to run smarter *and* faster.
For the numbers geeks out there, here are the breakdowns of my legs:
|Leg #||Time||Distance||Pace (min/mi)|
Two weeks ago, I flew from France to New York in order to compete in the second running of the Reach The Beach: Massachusetts, a 200-mile footrace from Wachusett to Westport. For various reasons, I was not able to resurrect the same team that I had last year, but we kept the most important part of the team — the name. A Case of the Runners would return again!
A Case of the Runners was probably one of the few returning “Ultra” teams to the MA RTB event. If you’re not familiar with RTB, it is a team-based relay event. Between 4 and 12 runners pile in a van (or two) in an effort to run to the beach as fast as possible using small local roads and sometimes trails. There are 36 legs, which are divided amongst the runners.
Most teams who transverse the 200 miles do so in teams of 12, which means that each runner has 3 segments to run (36 segments divided by 12 people = 3 per). The “Ultra” category was created for teams who compete with 6 people or fewer. In my case, the team had 6 people, which means that each runner had 6 legs to run.
Returning from last year were Chris F., Mike S., and myself. Replacing Mike W., Lavar C. and Ramon F. were Jonathan W., Thomas H., and Jerry McD.
Chris S. would be our den mother, and driver extraordinaire Mike O would be returning as our driver, this his 7th time doing so. I doubt highly that there is another driver in all of RTB who has more experience than Mike, and his ability to be a little (ok, a lot) bitchy when time is short means that he runs a tight van. And with a team so fast, you need someone to keep the meandering runners from losing focus.
The runners in their running order and their mileage were as follows:
Jonathan (27.1 miles)
Chris (40 miles)
Jerry (34.1 miles)
Mike (33.5 miles)
Me (31.57 miles)
Thomas (34.3 miles)
A quick description of our runners, in order of rotation:
The case of the first set of legs (1, 7, 13, 19, 25, 31) was one of the shortest distance overall (only 27 miles) but with the most elevation gain. I had to take myself out of even considering this leg because I knew I would burn out my legs after two legs. I just don’t have the legs to go uphill very well but thankfully Jonathan did. He was one of only two people who volunteered for this short-yet-intense leg, and while his strength lies in longer distances we had to take advantage of his abilities and willingness to run uphill almost every leg.
The second rotation was all Chris. Chris was a part of my team last year and I was quite happy to have him on the team again. He’s a strong runner who doesn’t shy away from running long distances and he was one of three who volunteered to do the long 2nd rotation, which totaled over 40 miles. He was in perfect shape, having trained for Boston 2012. Unfortunately, everyone who knows the horror story that was Boston 2012 knows that no one had a good race. Regardless, he was in as good a shape as we could have asked for and was probably in shape for a low 2:40s at Boston.
Our third runner, Jerry was a last-minute replacement for our van den mother Chris. Jerry is a very strong distance runner, and I think the only time he hasn’t broken 3 hours in a marathon was Boston 2012 in the near-90 degree temperatures. Most importantly, he’s finished numerous RTB ultras and he knows how to manage his running over the course of 24 hours without blowing up physically or mentally. He’s also one of the most pleasant people in the club to be around, and if I’m going to be stuck in a stinking van for a day then I may as well choose people who all get along with each other.
Jerry passed off to our 4th runner, Mike. Mike wanted the 40-mile leg but got stuck with one of the normal legs because too few people were willing to take certain rotations. Just two weeks earlier Mike had competed in the Bear Mountain 50 Miler after making the decision just a week before to compete. He ended coming in the top 10% with no specific training for this 50-miler. Insane.
Mike passed off to me, and while normally I might be considered on the faster end of the spectrum, on this team I was on the slower side. That would be because of…
…Thomas Hammer, our final runner. He’s fast as the dickens and he knows how to pace himself. There are a lot of people who run their first Ultra RTB and end up wanting to (or actually) walk their last leg or two. They run so hard their first 3 or 4 legs that they don’t have anything to finish up with. I knew Thomas would be smart, and that even as our runner who had to run the last leg — and thus, actually reach the beach — he would maintain a strong and even pace throughout the race.
On to the event!
Last year was the first year of the event, and we were able to take advantage of a few crucial opportunities and win 1st place in our (Ultra) division, and 2nd overall. Our goal this year was to again capture the 1st place Ultra category. However, competing with us from New York were 4 other Front Runner teams in the Ultra division — two of which we’d be competing directly with. Both teams were fast, but one in particular, headed by Koach Kelsey, was extremely fast.
Not unexpected, the race organizers seeded us in the last group of teams to start. While the teams who were expected to take the longest time to finish started the race at 8am, A Case of the Runners started at 2pm — 6 full hours after the first teams had departed. This may seem like a bad thing, but to be honest there’s a certain egotistical side of me that enjoys starting dead last and passing so many people throughout the race, especially when some of them ask what time we started and they realize we started 5 or 6 or 7 hours after them.
At 2:00 PM when the gun went off, Jonathan started for our team and did so starting with two other FRNY Teams — the “Ultra Gays” captained by Dave L. and “Ultra FRNY” captained by Kelsey. Both were fast teams, but we knew the real threat to us was Kelsey’s team. While he had made a team of only 5 people, they were all ringers. It’s sort of like the first Olympic basketball Dream Team. Relative to the rest of the field, they were just *that* strong, even with one less person than the other Ultra teams.
Not too surprisingly, all three FRNY teams who started at 2:00 PM kept fairly close to each other the first set of 6 legs. I think that no one wanted to go out too hard; the race is really won or lost in the last 10-12 legs. While this made me happy to be somewhat close (but still behind) Kelsey’s team, it did make me want to start putting some distance on Dave L’s Ultra Gays. While I love them, I still wanted to beat them. And if I couldn’t beat Kelsey’s team, I sure as hell had to beat the Ultra Gays.
My first leg would be my longest, at 7.7 miles. I started off conservatively, trying not to worry about the possibility of one of the Ultra Gays hot on my heels. Annoyingly, the first half of my first leg was uphill and I had to temper my ego when the first set of splits started coming through in the high 6:40s. But as soon as it leveled out and I warmed up, the 6:20s came ticking and I had already started passing people who were on teams that started a half hour ahead of me. I played it all by feel, and finished off feeling great. By the time I had the finish line in my sights, I was still ready to keep running. I was happy to have kept my ego in check as I passed the bracelet to Thomas, who scampered off to run his first-ever RTB leg.
As the rotations kept coming, Kelsey’s team slowly but steadily pulled away from us. By the middle of the race we were probably a half hour behind them, and they weren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Still, we all wondered aloud: They only have 5 team members. It’s hard enough to run 6 legs each, but what must that 7th leg be like? It sounded horrible.
Surprisingly, we had also put a noticeable lead on the Ultra Gays. While I was secretly relieved that they probably wouldn’t be beating us this race, I was a little bit disappointed that they didn’t run faster because I do enjoy everyone on their team and it’s always nice to mingle a bit with the other teams once you get sick of your own. I flew over from France for this race and hadn’t seen many of these people in months. I had been looking forward to making off-color jokes in the middle of the night and trading gossipy stories of what was happening in each others’ vans.
As day became night and we were well into the lightless hours before dawn, somehow we all managed to keep knocking off our legs without drama. Normally it seems that in every van, in every year, there are one or two people who start to struggle or doubt themselves after the 3rd leg when it’s 3am and no one has seen the sun for 7 hours. When there are 3 legs and 16+ miles still ahead, thoughts of, “oh god, can I even finish this,” start popping into your mind and you try to keep it a secret for fear of disheartening the rest of the people in the van (one or two of which probably have the same thought but are too afraid to admit it).
This year, however, was a strange success : everyone kept ticking off those miles without any problem. No one finished a leg and came back into the van looking like a sweaty zombie. No one slowed down more than maybe 10 seconds a mile even on the harder legs. It was strange, and it gave me a small sliver of hope that if Kelsey’s team started to struggle, we might be able to make up some time on them when they were on their 6th, 7th, and even 8th legs per person.
Sure enough, as the night passed on and we continued our rally, I noticed we were started to catch up with Kelsey’s team. First it started off with sightings of their van leaving transition areas as ours arrived. But as day broke we found ourselves waiting with Kelsey’s
team for each of our runners to come into the same transition area. They were no longer a full leg (40+ minutes) ahead. They had only 20 minutes on us, and we were closing in with 10 legs left to run.
It was around that time when we were driving to a transition area when we spotted one of their runners — walking. Our first thought when we saw someone walking ahead was, “oh god, more roadkill.” Then we realized it was someone from Kelsey’s team. Not good. While we’re all very competitive with each other and everyone wants to win, no one wants anyone to have to walk or get injured. We pulled along the runner and passed them a Gatorade to finish the remaining mile of their leg, and continued driving to the transition area to let Kelsey know that he had a runner who was walking. This was when we learned that Kelsey had pulled out of the race, after an ITB issue. I felt a bit bad for Kelsey, because this would be his second RTB:MA race that he had to end prematurely. This also meant that the team was down to 4 people, one of whom was now walking.
Mike was on deck for us, and had to chase down an on-form Josh. While Mike couldn’t have caught up with Josh, he could certainly keep pace. He’s got the ability to keep ticking off tempo-paced miles, leg after leg without slowing down. After a few more rotations, I noticed that we were still gaining on Kelsey’s team, but not by much. We had narrowed the gap to maybe 15 minutes, but I estimated that at the current rate it wouldn’t be enough to catch up with their team with only one rotation left to go. While a few of them had slowed down, a number of them were still churning along without problems.
As we entered the 6th and final rotation, with 6 legs to go is when the race became about finishing as strongly as we could without killing ourselves to win. We were still making up time on Kelsey’s team, but not enough. With only a few legs left to go we knew we couldn’t beat them. It wasn’t realistic to try and chase down Kelsey’s team. And worse, we didn’t want to push ourselves so hard that we would be delirious and potentially injured. I was a bit concerned seeing one of Kelsey’s runners finish a leg barely able to stand, yet still with one more leg to run. How would it be possible? Is it even worth it?
After Jonathan finished his last leg (leg 31), the volunteers at the transition area told us that only two teams had even come through at that point. That means that of the 185 teams that had started, we had thus passed 182 of them despite having started dead last. We knew that one of the teams ahead of us was Kelsey’s team. The other team we were told had started much earlier than us, and that in terms of overall time we were well ahead
of them. We were in 2nd place overall. Hot diggity! This was a bit of an ego / morale boost for me. While winning the Ultra category was important, if we couldn’t do that then we could at least repeat our overall finish from last year — beating all but one team in the field.
Like gears turning, my team all finished their final legs with a smile. Mike had a bit of a long leg before passing off to me, and it gave me a few minutes to wait for him and consider how fun this had all been. Waiting for him and waiting to start my final leg, I didn’t want it to be over yet. It’s amazing how fast 20+ hours go when you’re sleep-deprived and physically exhausted. I still remember how long my first RTB seemed. But after my second and now this third, they seem to go by faster.
My 6th and final leg was a bit of a doozy — 7.29 miles, with rolling hills. I’m not a fan of hills (who is?), but to have a relatively long distance as the final leg and with hills? I wasn’t a happy camper. The entire race I had managed to average around 6:35 pace, and I didn’t want to humiliate myself by blowing up this last leg. So I took the bracelet one last time from Mike, yelled a quick congratulations to him for finishing his last leg, and started on my way toward handing off to our last runner, Thomas. In an effort that surprised me, I was able to fade the hills and average a 6:49 pace for that last leg.
What I didn’t expect was that there were more than hills to worry about — there was that little voice in my head. It was asking, rhetorically, if I had to keep running fast. I couldn’t catch up with Kelsey’s team with only one leg to go, and we were so far ahead of the other teams that I could have walked the entire leg and we wouldn’t have given up a spot finish-wise. But to slow down at this point would be wrong in so many ways. Any good runners knows that we run for more than to win or to compete. We run for ourselves — a selfish and egotistical reason, but true. I wanted to keep my pace up and my splits down, because that’s what we do. We compete against ourselves. I’m never going to win a marathon or even a New York Road Runners race, but if I perform less than what I’m capable of then I’ve lost something even more important. I reminded myself of this the entire duration of that last leg, and managed to finish in fine form to hand off to Thomas. And just like that, my race was over.
Thomas had the 36th leg, a 10km distance that would be over in around 36 minutes or so. As much as I wanted to sit down and take a break, we had to all get in the van to wait Thomas’s arrival. After a quick stretch of the legs for me, we hopped into the van at the beach and eagerly waited for Thomas. There we saw Kelsey’s team who had finished just minutes ahead, and soon we were given the signal that Thomas was approaching. The entire team, including driver and den mother, assembled 100 meters from the finish chute and picked up speed to match and finish with Thomas.
For the second year in a row, we would come in 2nd overall, finishing in 21:28, an average of 6:25 per mile (4:00 per km). Unfortunately, we did not take first in the Ultra category as we did last year. That honor would go to Kelsey’s team who took 1st overall and 1st in the Ultra in a time of 21:17. They ended up ahead of us by 11 minutes, or roughly 3 seconds per mile. If I had to lose to a team, I’d want it to be Kelsey’s.
The Ultra Gays were a bit behind, finishing in 23:28 (7:01 pace). I had hoped they’d be more competitive, because then we could have blocked out the top 3 Ultra spots with FRNY teams. Unfortunately there was another speedy ultra team out there who finished in 22:35, relegating the Ultra Gays to 4th place Ultra. It should be noted that the top 4 teams overall were all Ultra teams. This is a little bit amazing, and it’s a great accomplishment on the 4 teams for fielding such strong runners. There are so many things that can go wrong, but this year it seemed like everything went right.
There hasn’t been any direct discussion about next year’s race just yet, but I’m hoping that we can return with the same team. There are almost always small changes to the line up, but I really enjoyed each of the personalities in the van. As a credit to them, I never once wanted to strangle anyone (too much).
I always get a little sad when epic races like these end. They’re so much fun, no matter how much I secretly want them to be over when I’m actually running. The camaraderie, the stories, the sense of accomplishment are highs that keep me going for a long time. I don’t want them to end, but it’s inevitable. Thankfully, I seem to stack my years with big races every few months. In July I have the Silver Rush 50 miler in Leadville. Then in September is yet another Reach the Beach (of course), through New Hampshire. And my A-Race for the year, I have the Chicago Marathon in October with a truckload of other Front Runners. As a means to keep my sanity, I can’t wait for them to come.