Récit de la course : SaintéLyon 2019, par The English Runner

L'auteur : The English Runner

La course : SaintéLyon

Date : 30/11/2019

Lieu : St étienne (Loire)

Affichage : 980 vues

Distance : 76km

Objectif : Faire un temps

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Saintélyon 2019 - The race of my life (English)

La Saintélyon - 2019


This was the race of my life.


I don't know how I managed to run like that, but it seems to have been the perfect storm, a whole bunch of factors all coming together at the same time for an extraordinary result.


Going back in time to 2017, I ran the then slightly shorter Saintélyon, in 11h24 minutes. This race leaves Saint Etienne at midnight during the first weekend of December. Five thousand competitors run out of the town and climb up to the hills of the Pays Mornantais. A train of headlamps serpentine up through the dark woods, windswept fields, single track paths and small agricultural villages, and then gradually back to civilisation, via the outlying towns, suburbs, and then back to Lyon itself. This is a 76 km race, it is cold and rude. In 2017, my goal was just to finish this ultra-marathon. Revisiting it now, two years later was different, and having good improvements in my training times, I felt that maybe I hadn't quite reached my potential as a runner, and this might be the race where I see what I am capable of. It is said, that it is not the fastest runner that wins an ultra trail, but the runner who slows the least.


I am at my best when I have an objective. Runners wisdom says that one should have several objectives. That way, even if you are failing to achieve you main goal, you will still have something else to aim for. I had set myself three goals. Bronze medal 10h45m, silver finish in the top fifty percent, (I was at the 66th percentile in 2017), and my gold medal, under ten hours... The surgeon who operated on me last year, said that he had run the Saintélyon three times, and that his best time was ten hours, I think that's where the goal originally came from (thank you Dr Bourdariat). It wasn't a completely ridiculous target, but it was a massive step up from any past performance, and I felt almost embarrassed saying it out loud. When you correct for distance, this was two hours quicker than my previous performance...


So cut to the finish line! I completed the seventy six kilometres in 9 hours, 58 minutes and 45 seconds... yeah fuck! A tiny seventy five seconds inside my gold medal time, and this over the course of ten hours. Even in retrospect, I honestly don't know where I could have saved any more time. I can't think of a single decision that Saturday night that would have gained me any extra time (well ok, just one... after most races I have a long list!).


This night I was on a mission. I could feel that I was performing at my maximum, that I had no extra to give, nothing held back. Nonetheless during most of this race, my times showed that even if I maintained my intensity, that I would miss my objective by between five and fifteen minutes. Still an excellent result that would have left me ecstatic.


But somehow I managed a little more. How?


Marginal gains... Don’t waste time! Every stop to take a photo, every easing on my effort level, any hills walked up, when I could’ve trotted up, any fiddling with my equipment, any minute or two lost with something not vitally important, would count.


Ravitaillements (Aid stations/Ravitos)… Carlos (our hero who has completed a 360km race the Swiss peaks, and the 170 km UTMB, yeah, there's always bigger fish!!) asked me how I normally deal with the “Ravitos?” I replied that during a long trail, I love stopping for a few minutes to eat a bite, rest my legs, and appreciate the atmosphere, chat briefly with the other runners and helpers. That obviously this night I would try and be quicker. He took a plastic bag out of his pocket and said “You need this. You arrive at the aid station, fill this bag with food, and then leave, walking. If you’re walking, you’re resting, right? But at least you continue to progress.” Not only would I save time, but I would not become so cold from stopping completely (and I also noticed, that breaking back into a run is less brutal from a walk than it is when you have been stationary.)


Nutrition... As is my habit before any big race (normally two per year), in the four weeks leading up to it, I stop drinking alcohol. This time I also concentrated on my protein intake, which I now realise has been inadequate. The 110g of protein advised for an endurance runner is quite hard to find on a daily basis. After failing with other ways of getting my daily dose, I caved in and bought some whey protein powder. With no conscious effort, I eased off on the junk food too.


Rest... Ok my kids are crazy demanding, and despite a few sleep problems and a busy schedule, the two nights leading up to this race, I managed a proper nights sleep. Also the Saturday afternoon before the midnight start, Stéphane let me crash a few hours at his place. Extra rest in preparation for a sleepless night, not to mention a few rare hours of calm without our three young angels [Joke!], Elliott, Félix and Daphné winding me up!


Experience... This would be only the fifth time in my life that I have run over 50km, but after almost three years trail running one starts to know oneself better, to know what mistakes you has made in the past and thus avoid them, and to have a little confidence that you are capable of this kind of thing. You can, at least to a certain degree, ignore your worries and doubts and just "trust your training”.


Knowing the course... I have run the entirety of the course in training more than twice, forwards and backwards in segments, and I have run the race once. You know where you can push it a bit, 'cos there's a downhill after to recover, or the aid station is this far away, just keep up for a short while and you will have a break in a few minutes, and the like.


Don't tell me the score”... Maybe a small thing, but I have been listening to this podcast from the BBC. The presenter spends around an hour interviewing top sportspeople, and understanding their psychology and motivation, and seeing which parts can carry into everyday life. Maybe after over ten hours listening to this kind of stuff, some of it has washed off on me. By the way a great listen, start with the Alex Honnold episode about fear, absolutely riveting.


I trained seriously for eight weeks... with application and intelligence, relaxed when it should have been and intense in the right place. An incredible mental approach is worthless if the body has not been forewarned and primed for the exploit.


I made this race important... I set a goal, I told everyone, I visualised the difficult passages so that the hard parts would not be a surprise. I steeled myself, that for this particular race, I would give everything that I could.


So you know the result. You know what I did to ready myself. What happened?


Running an ultra trail, you spend a lot of time with yourself, out there in the rain and cold, concentrating and making decisions for hours. I talked to myself a lot. That night, there were two me’s. I had my body/emotional me, and I also had the brain me, the coach inside my head making decisions and overriding a lot of the feedback from my body; “No it doesn't hurt”, “Don’t walk, You can run this section!”)


St Etienne 0km to St Christo in Jarez 18km

The Start...


On the starting line of the Saintélyon, the wait is long. The start is stuttered in 6 waves. It's clearly best to be in the first or second wave, less traffic. There were about 6600 people on the starting line. Having set myself a tough goal, under ten hours, which I felt was a long shot even on a good day, I was feeling pretty uneasy, so much so that while driving me to Saint Etienne, Joelle, sensing my unease had asked me if I wanted to turn back. I had put pressure on myself. It’s pretty crazy spending a whole hour driving somewhere in the car, knowing that you have the same distance to run back, in the dark over the hills in the middle of nowhere, with just a small rucksack, a t-shirt, light jumper, an anorak and a pair of tights, not reassuring...


I went to the starting line an hour and a half before the first wave set off. No rain for the moment. The long wait was ok and I chatted to a few people and settled a little. I made it into the second wave.


The first 18km to St Christo went fine, a decent pace, I knew that going too fast would burn me out early, but you can't do a good time without pushing it a little. So I concentrated on trying to keep in the right zone for effort. To finish in 10 hours, I needed to run an average pace of 7m54s per km. I was around the 7m35s/km at St Christo, so I felt positive. Flash ravitaillement, I spent less than 2 minutes in the heated tent, just enough time to put some food in my ziplock bag and refill one water bottle as planned. Even just being inside a tent for 90 seconds, I felt the cold on leaving. To stay any longer, the shock would have been worse. I left the tent, walked and ate for a few minutes, then trotted off at a fair pace. I have been running for two hours and seven minutes.


St Christo en Jarez 18km to Sainte Catherine 31km

Moving deeper into the night...


We have left the village and are heading deep into the agricultural hills of the "Pays Mornantais". The rain starts and we head into what my children would surely call “La Royaume de la Boue", or the “Kingdom of Mud”. I am not that into toilet humour, but from here, until I hit the paved roads of Lyon several hours later, it felt like some fairy tail giant had a bad case of diarrhoea, and we all had to run through this for km upon km, uphill, downhill, through forest; damn this mud. The terrain underfoot changed, but always coming back to this mud, treacherous, dangerous. These images of mud will be forever burned onto the memories of all those present with me on this night. The slippery, heavy, wet mud. It disguised the terrain underfoot, and it meant eight hours running with wet feet.


Arriving at Saint Catherine, I felt intact. The ravitaillement is outside, another flash stop, less than two minutes and I leave, walking and eating from my little bag. I overtake everyone who stops to eat and sort out their kit. My calves (normally my strong-point, it's my hamstrings which are the weak link) are burning just a little, and I wonder if i have overdone the speed at the beginning and am starting to pay after just 31km. Sainte Catherine is where the most people abandon (over 600 of the 786 people abandoning during this race, did so here), and I passed next to the lit warmed coaches full of spent runners, as I left, running into the night.


I knew that this would be a difficult moment, not even half way and the body is starting to say "Hey, what are you actually doing to me here?" I had visualised this before, and brushed off the negativity... relentless forward progress, just get through the next two passages, the day will start to break and you will see the light which is the end of this race. However, my pace is continuing to drop, down to 7m58s/km, behind schedule. My early advantage on the ten hour objective starting to loosen. I have been running for four hours and two minutes.



Sainte Catherine 31km to Le Camp 41km

On through the darkness, cold, wet, desolate...


Push on to Le Camp, the rain hardens, I can feel that I'm advancing well; the runners all around me are more hardcore than I'm used to, less chatting, lots of focus, it feels serious here. Contrasting with the dense packs of runners, toe to heel in Saint Etienne, where a thousand runners set off every ten minutes, we start to separate a little and feel some space between ourselves in this dark land.


I check my watch, the ten hour objective seems to be slipping. I keep it at the back of my mind, but start to concentrate more on my second objective, being in the top 50% of finishers. Looking around me, I see quality, and I feel confident that this second goal is still on target. These people around me look like top half finishers.


Nothing to report at Le camp, no need for water, it must be cold enough that I'm not even sweating, not thirsty, not hungry. This outdoor aid station is barely a lit table with a few snacks, I march straight past and walk for a few minutes, just enough to centre myself, recuperate, the run off into the night. I have been running for five hours and twenty minutes


Le Camp 41km to Soucieu en Jarrest 53km

A dark, wet and cold grind, through to the relief of a lit sports hall with a chance to sit down...


It's just a slog now. I power-hike the steeper passages, I run everything that I can run. The runners around me "relancent sans cesse", every time a steeper section flattens, they break from walk into a run. I copy them. It's pitch black, around 5 am, it's raining, its cold. There is mud everywhere.


Every downhill is a nightmare. The mud sloshes, I fell hard once after St Christo, several holes on my running tights from pointy rocks, but just a light graze on my knee. My eyes constantly scan the ground for the best (or least bad) place to land my feet, constantly jumping left and right at speed to avoid tree roots, or rocks, or holes. Its a gamble, Walk down and lose time, or run down and risk falling, twisting an ankle and having to DNF (did not finish). I ran a lot of these descents, sometimes Del Boy ringing in my ears saying "Who dares wins Rodney", but some were too treacherous. A few runners reincarnated from previous lives as mountain goats would overtake in spectacular manner and speed, I don't know how. But I overtook people too, and any easier downhills I used to put my most important mantra into practice, "Il faut gratter les minutes." It was ringing through my ears from the beginning to the end of this night.


Someone had said this on the starting line a few hours earlier. It seemed to resonate with my goal. “Il faut gratter”, meaning scrape a few seconds here and a minute there. It seems crazy, that over the course of ten hours, saving just thirty seconds could be that valuable... but then you already know the ending, and so you know how valuable those seconds were.


I am closing in on Soucieu now, the fourth ravito. Leaving the agricultural land and slowly heading toward the suburbs. My headlamp has flashed a while back, telling me that it will soon run out of battery. It's still dark and I don't know how much longer my headlamp will last. A few km before Soucieu, it dies. I run by the light of others. We are on the road and I am thankful that it didn't run out on some god forsaken single track, obliging me to stop and lose precious time changing the battery. I knock out the last few km to Soucieu, knowing that I will stop for a few minutes to deal with a few issues, and that this time we will be inside, in a sports hall, warm and well lit. I salute the camera with defiant raised fists as I approach the building. Inside I find a chair and table to sit. What luxury; I start the timer on my watch to count the minutes used at this pause. “Take exactly the time you need, and no more” coach Duncan reminds body and soul Duncan. But still I let myself relax just enough to appreciate the chair and table. New battery, test headlamp, working. Ok, diclofenac gel, almost the whole tube on my painful groin, and calves, loads, and hamstrings. A part of me calculates the dose (a 30g tube of 2% diclofenac equals how many milligrams that I just applied to my legs...) who cares, forget this, its already on, next! OK two dry buffs to replace two soaking wet ones... mmm that feels good, great idea! Replacement headphones in my pocket for later.


I switch my telephone out of airplane mode (the cold had seemed to be draining my battery earlier), and received a few test messages, "Tu le niques grave" says Joelle. That makes me smile. Then Elliott my son says, "Oh, mais il est chaud, il fait un temps de ouf". Who doesn't want to impress their nine year old son!? Another message from Joelle says that I am currently placed about 1100 out of 5000 starters. Wow.


I up and start to leave, but then decide take a couple of minutes next to the gym bar by the exit in order to extend my suffering muscles (not stretch, just gentle extension, a proper stretch would be too damaging to my muscles at this point.) After, I stuff a slice of salami in my mouth, (my body seemed to ask for it and my brain agreed.) I waste a small thirty seconds fishing out some empty wrappers from a pocket and finding a bin to dump them into. Sixteen minutes used up total, I had planned ten. But I think that after fifty three kilometres, I needed this. No regrets (apart from the thirty seconds unnecessarily emptying rubbish from my pockets!) I have been running for seven hours and sixteen minutes.


Soucieu en Jarrest 53km to Chaponost 65km

You can feel the town calling, but there's still a long way to go...


I leave the comfort of the gym and set off again. Walking is actually pretty painful. There's another 23 km to run, more than a semi marathon. My pace has now slowed to 8m04s/km. The math seems a bit hard to calculate, but observe that each time I have checked, my pace has slowed, and despite my insistence, my goal is drifting away. I can see the way that things are going. My legs are not getting any faster.


Maybe the ten hour barrier is out, but if instead of top fifty percent, I can overtake some people and make it into the first 1000 people out of 5000, that would be impressive. There is still plenty to fight for. And I've worked so hard to get here, don't let go now.


So after a few hundred metres of walking, well limping somewhat, I try to trot, small steps, flat foot. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it, but the sole of my left foot feels bruised from all the impacts. Just another pain to ignore. Right, take stock, running slowly is no more painful than walking, “that's good” I say to myself, “now try to open up your stride a little”. I remember clearly this part of the race, leaving Soucieu at daybreak from 2017. That year, the song “No cars go” by Arcade Fire came through headphones and gave me a boost. This year my legs just feel like bruised pieces of crap. I advance, only 22,5km more to go...super!


Basically, the next two hours consist of a pretty monotone conversation between my brain and my body, with my emotions just follow blindly whichever one of the two is talking at the time. My body says, "Aïe, everything hurts, not excruciating, but painful." My brain briefly says "I wonder why my biceps hurt" followed by "What? I didn't quite hear that, keep running. You know, land on your foot, push off, lift you knees". All of this is interspersed with a big dose of motivational talk from old Tim Robbins who has come to join the party "Come on Duncan, you're amazing, look at what you've done, don't slow down now, your doing the performance of your life, you knew it would hurt when you signed up, and you did say beforehand, that the trick would be to ignore the pain signals coming from your legs. Go on you're a determined bastard, stick it to 'em" I could go on, but you get the idea.


Although I love trail running, it was so good to be running more and more on the road. Something solid and flat beneath my feet after all that mud. I pushed on to Chaponost. The sun rose somewhere behind the clouds. I decided not to eat or drink much. I was actually running at a decent pace, whilst not really quite knowing, what kind of perverted balance in my mind body axis, was allowing this to happen. Best not to add anything extra into the mix, it was fragile. Still I downed a packet of my expensive energy gums to add a teeny bit of glucose and caffeine, I don't believe for a second all the crap that they write on the packet, but when I am fragile, these gums have never upset me. I have been running for eight hours and forty one minutes.


Chaponost to Lyon 65km-76km

Like lightning, through the pain unto the finish line.


Chaponost aid station; I whizzed through in just a few seconds. Straight out the door. I permit myself a minute or so walking to recuperate before General Custers last stand. I chat a bit to the girl next to me. She is all fresh, just running 23km for her part in the relay. I complain about the mud (the fucking awful I cant stand it any-more you slippery-shitty-giant diarrhoea mud.) I know the route. I know that this “mud slick” is there waiting for me up ahead, not yet finished punishing me, undermining my grip, making me slip and slide, forcing acrobatic moves from my legs to stay righted.


I look at my watch again. Am I possibly in touch for the ten hour barrier? 1h17mins to do 12km. I did this section in 1h15m during training, on fresh legs. Half of me says that the dream is dead, half says, that it’s probably impossible, but who cares, ten-ish kilometres left, that's nothing, just see how close you can get. Overtake as many people as possible to try and sneak into the first 1000 finishers”. You never know. "Il faut gratter".


It is light now. After seven hours with no quarter given, the rain has finally stopped. It doesn’t make any difference, I couldn't be any wetter. Every uphill is welcome. I get to walk, and the mud while climbing is less complicated to deal with than whilst going down. The pleasure of arriving on the outskirts of Lyon, is equalled by my memories of how difficult the last 5k were in 2017. We arrive at the old Beaunant aqueduct, the climb is pretty steep. I don't care that it taxes my legs, just that hiking up steep hills is costing me my precious seconds. I attack the climb with brio and chat to the two guys with Christmas tree lights on their bags. We have been advancing at the same speed since Saint Etienne, they were next to me at the start. I check my lap pace for this km, 8m 44s. I’ve only slowed a little, hat's not so bad for this steep section.


I start to think that maybe the sub 10 hour finish is possible. I am around 9h30 elapsed, with a touch under 5k left if all calculations are correct? If I just push the last 5K it might happen. After Beaunant, I managed to run 7m01s for the next kilometre, then for the kms which follow, 6m32s, and 5m52s, 6m25s, and 5m17s. The only thought in my head, is that I am close to my dream performance, and that I must not ease off, I must give every ounce of determination, must wring out all of my strength. After almost ten hours dedicated to the pursuit of advancing as quickly as I could, of scraping seconds, it would kill me if, after all that I had been through this long night, I missed my goal by a sliver because I allowed myself to slow at this late stage.


I really want this, I overtake many people on the downhill sections of road, I want to finish fast more than they do. The bridge Pont Pasteur, the park Berges du Rhone, the last metres, seem drawn out in time. I keep checking my watch, but the math now is complicated, and irrelevant so long as I am at my maximum capacity. I think that I am on schedule. I keep my feet moving, conscious to not slow. I sense that I have exceeded myself, that this is special. Finally I enter the Halle Tony Garnier and pass under the illuminated arch of the finish line, like a victor, amazed by what I have just done, I look at my watch which confirms my hopes. I am allowed to stop running now. It is over.


I have been running for [official time], 9hours 58 minutes and 45 seconds...I actually paid to do all that. And how did it happen? A few years experience of running, eight weeks specific training, relentless determination and focus, and hundreds of small decisions made over the course of ten hours. The only decision that I regret? Thirty seconds unnecessarily emptying the rubbish from my pockets at Soucieu. Every other second was dedicated to pursuing my goal. I had wanted to be sure, that if i didn't achieve my goal, it wasn't because I hadn't done every single thing that I could to get there.


This was the race of my life. I was placed 775 out of 4462 finishers.


Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever.


4 commentaires

Commentaire de gpass posté le 17-12-2019 à 20:32:28

Inspiring post...

Commentaire de The English Runner posté le 21-12-2019 à 11:15:12

Merci, je suis très content de pouvoir partager cette expérience !

Commentaire de lstauf posté le 18-12-2019 à 11:43:50

I enjoyed reading the whole story of your race. I found very good advices about race preparation and strategy (for instance ziplock bag) !
You were not afraid of setting an ambitious goal and your reached it. Congratulations!

Commentaire de The English Runner posté le 21-12-2019 à 11:22:48

Glad that you enjoyed imy story, sometimes just one little idea can make a difference to a race, so if you found something useful here, that's great! I think that my next race I will run at a more easy pace in order to have a different experience! Thanks for your nice comment !

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