STEVE’S ACCOUNT OF THE RACE
On reaching Millau at 7.45am on Friday morning we had a leisurely wander towards the river to collect our hire car. The morning and early afternoon was spent driving across the Millau Bridge and down the autoroute to register and collect our numbers for the race, before heading back to Millau to check into our hotel. Checked in, fed and watered by 8pm we tried to settle down for a very early night. With the race start at 4am, race briefing at 3am and an hour’s drive this meant a 1.00am alarm call!!
The start line
After a kilometre or so through the village we were soon onto a narrow track climbing up gradually through the woods. Starting mid-pack is always a bit frustrating in these races as the single track climbs always slow everyone to barely more than strolling speed for quite some time. I remember thinking how long it took for the sun to rise on that first day. It seemed like we were running forever in the pitch black. Finally the sky grew lighter and we were rewarded with a stunning cloudless sky which lasted all day. The forecast mentioned an approaching front and a marked deterioration in the conditions was expected by lunchtime on Sunday. For now we were content with a beautiful clear day, not too hot and ideal running conditions.
The early checkpoints came and went, every 10-15 kilometres or so and we stopped for nothing more than 2-3 minutes at each to refill water bottles. The terrain was varied with open, mountainous trail sections then long stretches through woodland, climbing up and then dropping back down into the next valley.
Fun and games
Secondly, came a slightly gratuitous (there were other ways around!) crawl through a storm drain to access the next trail up through the woods. The drain was only around 5 metres long but the pipe was so narrow there wasn’t enough clearance to kneel and crawl through – you had to literally drag yourself through on your elbows and shuffle.
The going gets tough
The night section
The biggest climb
The weather had started to deteriorate earlier than the predicted Sunday lunchtime and before even the first glimmer of light the wind had increased to not much short of gale force and occasional spots of rain started to become more frequent. After a quick water and safety check at the next checkpoint the trail became a long undulating track which twisted and turned through the woods high on the mountain. The wind was howling and the trees groaning as they swayed and bashed into one another. I carried on, willing the daylight to arrive. Sunrise on the second day of such a challenge is a watershed moment, mainly symbolic as in reality it is just the start of another cycle of day and night, but to anyone engaged in a challenge that straddles more than one day and night the second sunrise brings hope and the feeling that the finish line is finally, slowly coming into sight and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get there.
After the race
Adventures come in many shapes and sizes. Overall, this had been an incredible, seriously tough and character building experience. The main thing was that we had both made that finish line and the Trail du Roc de la Lune races go down as one of my favourites so far.
PAUL’S ACCOUNT OF THE RACE
Getting to the start line
The 4am start was a massive shock to the system and Steve being the type of person who likes to keep the small details under control our early alarm clock got earlier and earlier. Although I was happy to make sure we got to the start time with out any surprises. Although a huge Hare running out in front of us on the drive nearly did just that. Who needs sleep when the thought of seeing two sunrises would keep me focussed and can’t thank Steve enough for his support. He kept reminding me that running for over 30 hours was going to be bloody tough and sleep deprivation is hard to deal with. Am so thankful that he helped pace and mentor me through the first half.
Here we go
After running for a couple of hours my hands became warm in my gloves and as I was expecting sunrise within a short while, I opted to take my gloves off. I then didn’t want to have to stop and put them back on again as they began to cool and made a stupid judgement. By the time I needed them back on, I already knew I had lost too much movement in my fingers to get the gloves on correctly. It took us longer to get to the check point than I expected and the temperature had dropped to around freezing. The ground was covered in frost.
Once at the check point I needed Steve’s help to undo my bag, fetch me food and a hot drink whilst I waited to regain movement in my hands. Was really annoyed at myself for costing us such valuable time so early into the race. Another lesson learn that on mountains, often survival is based on a right or wrong decision. It was only after the race that I read that The Swiss climber Ueli Steck has been killed preparing to climb Mount Everest, Nepal’s tourist office says. Steck, who was known as the “Swiss Machine”, died in an accident while acclimatising for an attempt on the mountain without oxygen by a new route. The Swiss machine was an inspiration and even with all the experience he had it goes to prove how unforgiving Everest is and mountains alike. RIP. Luckily my situation wasn’t as critical and I was able to enjoy the companionship with Steve of crawling on hands n knees though a storm drain, pulling myself up a rope into the cave entrance, I even slipped at one point and gave my shin a massive whack on a rock! Loved being inside the massive space which was the Abime de Bramabiau caves. Doing my best Mr Deeds impression to create an echo!!!
When you’ve got to go…
We stuck together until I needed a call of nature, in a bid to reduce my pack weight I opted to leave a pack of tissues behind. Thinking I could always use a toilet at a feed station, luckily Steve always carried a pack, a lesson he learnt himself many erm moons ago!!!! (apparently from the Ultra Goddess Veritie). Steve asked if I could not wait until the next checkpoint which we expected to hit in about a miles time, I was already reaching to pull down my clothing!!!! I told Steve to run ahead and let him go off at his own pace whilst I did what bears do in the woods!! Thought I would catch him at the next feed station, turns out the checkpoint wasn’t exactly how it was marked on the map, instead of running downhill to the check point we had a massive climb to it! I ran out of energy as I hadn’t expected that climb and hadn’t eaten enough. I kept second guessing myself. Had I missed the marker? Was I on the right route? I wasn’t wearing my glasses, only really do when I’m driving. I was trying to look back down the mountain and trying to work out if the headtorches in the distance were coming up the same way as I was. Ultras are all about the mental game, and you will go through highs and lows of emotions. This was a massive low…I had to take control of the controllable. I sat down, put another layer on and then rummaged around my bag for some quick food to give me enough energy to get to the top of this damn mountain, once on top then maybe I would find the checkpoint on the way down…when I reached the top I was overwhelmed to find a marquee buzzing with volunteers and runners.
Go your own way
The heat of the gas burner hit me as I’d entered and there sat on a chair looking very tired was Steve! I felt really bad that he had waited for me for about 45 minutes. We chatted for a bit whilst I tried to get warm, and although the marquee was warmer than outside it still wasn’t warm enough to stay for any length of time. I promised him that I would finish this race no matter what. And then off he went out of the zip doorway…..that was the last time I was to see him until about 14 hours later.
Keep on moving
My back, legs and feet had been sore since about mile 20 and I was counting on the second mornings Sunrise to give me a huge lift. It was whilst I was at 1366metres on top of the mountain when rain set in! Viz was about 100metres and I was struggling to see the course markers. I put every layer I had on, changed my head torch battery and battled through day break. Didn’t get to see the sunrise which I really wanted to see to lift my spirits. A few hours later I had my first hallucination from sleep deprivation. This still makes me laugh at what I thought I saw in the mud! Luckily this mountain had a decent path to follow and I felt fairly safe on top. I pulled on my waterproofs and prayed this would be enough to keep me warm and hoped the weather didn’t get colder. I really didn’t want to be that stupid Englishman whom was rescued from the top of the mountain! I knew that as long as I kept moving then I would eventually start to descend and find warmer air. We had checked the weather forcast before the race started and Steve is nearly always spot on with his information. He cross checks everything. That’s what he does. We expected the weather front to come in about midday. This front hit about 6 hours early!
Luckily for me a group of four guys caught up with me and originally they went straight past me as I was moving so slow. I knew I had to put in maximum effort and managed to catch back up with them and used them for company. Just having the reassurance of other people double checking the markers and picking the best route through the terrain helped keep my pace up. At the next feed station the marque appeared out of fog. We only just made the cutoff time and we stayed until they closed it. I didn’t really understand what they said in French but I knew I was in danger of missing the next cut off. The volunteers there were really helpful. I ate well there and when the four left they had a real push of pace.
I struggled to get my wet gloves back and and one of the volunteers helped me. By this time I could just see the four guys disappear into the fog. I sprinted out of the marque in the direction I saw them go. I hadn’t expected the now gale force winds which blew my hat off. I had to double back about 20 yards and chase after it. I couldn’t afford to let my head get cold. I then had to work extra hard to catch up with the guys ahead. Running down hill, sliding and jumping over rocks, legs and feet sending shocks of pain through my body. That didn’t matter right now. I promised Steve that I was going to finish and I needed to work with the four guys to keep a good pace for the next 9 hours. In my head I named us the famous five, we took it in turns to be on the front leading the way and just found a natural rotation without ever really saying anything. Often hours would pass with deep breaths, coughs and every other noise that can come from the body until we hit a check point and our spirits would be lifted and chatter would break out between the French.
Not the dog…
Eventually we reached a road crossing which looked to me like it was the village we had first started in. I came upon what appeared to be a water station . It was sort of a garage sized dwelling with a young boy of maybe 12 and what appeared to be his father. At first they assumed I was French but then the boy spoke a little English when I told them I was. I asked them how far I had left to run. 10k the boy told me. When I asked if it’s all up. The man said a little….at that point a sheepdog was almost run over by a Land Rover turning into the drive. I left the two of them roaring in laughter as I tried to fight back the tears at the thought of the dog being squashed right in front of me!
Stupid bloody emotions! That’s what lack of sleep can do to you! So I set off following the flags indicating the course on what I thought was another 10k. I hoped that I could cover the terrain in less than 2.5 hours. One of my errors in preparing for this race was to assume that my garmin could be charged whilst running from the powerbank I carried. Unfortunately this did not work and when I tried to do so after about 10 hours I lost my data. I waited for the Garmin to recharge enough and then reset it between checkpoints. Later I realised that the distance between checkpoints on the official race route was not as advertised, I could only use it as a rough guide. Very frustrating when you are trying to gauge energy, effort levels and pace over 120km distance.
The next Hill I had to climb was a shock to the system, it was basically a muddy hill side and the trail shoes I was wearing didn’t give me enough traction to get up the steep slope! I had to use my pole like an ice pick and pull myself up it. Maybe every ten feet up I’d fall to my knees and I could feel the energy draining from my body! When I eventually reached the summit I was hit with gale force winds! The course took us over a huge bolder which was slippery with all the rain, I didn’t trust my muddy feet enough to climb over it so I opted to walk along the barbed wire fence instead. One hand on the fence the other holding my precious hat on my head. I made my way to the tree line as quick as I could in the fierce wind. As I approached the tree I could see them almost bent over double in the wind! Was this another hallucination? I didn’t think so, there was evidence of freshly broken trees on the mountain floor and i could hear the branches straining. I was now extremely worried that I would get debris or even a branch or tree come crashing down onto me. As I hurried into the cover of the trees I slipped at a bank and grabbed out for a tree to steady me. The sheared off section of a branch hit me square In the chest. It hurt but luckily I didn’t fall with enough force for it to puncture me. My brain played images of me stuck on the tree with the branch penetrating my body. Would I have screamed out? Would anybody of heard me over the wind n rain? What would the runner behind me do? Doubt mountain rescue would be able to get to me for hours! Luckily the terrain was so hazardous that I had to push that thought out of my head and concentrate on every single footstep! Over the remainder of the race a small group of us stuck together and although we didn’t really exchange words we knew we were keeping an eye on each other. We all wanted to finish in one piece and as we ran down the muddy hillsides we had to grab trees, branches, handfuls of grass or whatever we could find to try to slow ourselves down and prevent falling over.
I genuinely lost count of how many times I unwillingly fell over. Most of the time I was throwing myself onto the floor to prevent a larger fall. Even this didn’t stop me having a number of tumbles that really hurt me. The type when you know you’ve hurt yourself and I remember saying to myself, I’ve had enough now, I want this to end!!! In the past I’ve ran Man versus horse, touch murder and a number of fell races in Wales where mud had been part of the enjoyment. On this occasion I was so exhausted that if I’d known a quicker way to the finish line then I would have stopped right then!
‘Merci you wanker!’
Suddenly the distance didn’t matter, I was fed up of not having enough strength. I was physically, mentally and emotional beaten. At that point the devil had won….luckily for me I didn’t knew where I was, the only option for me was relentless forward progress. I kept going over the same mantra….this pain will keep me awake. I might not make the finish time but the finish line is the way home. Before I had that luxury I had to endure more of a beating. At this point the runners whom had taken part in the shorter races were running past me. Some of the lead runners came so fast down the hills that at the point I heard them over the wind and rain they had almost ran into me on a number of occasions. Most of the time I would jump off the narrow path into what felt like a rocky ditch with all the rain water draining off the hillside. On one particular occasion I jumped out of a guys way, which in turn caused me great pain and he didn’t even acknowledge that fact I had done so. I was furious. In my tired state of emotion I shouted back at him, ‘MERCI YOU WANKER!’.After that I decided I was still racing as well, all be it very slowly. It was up to them to find a way around me.
‘We are strong. Come on’.
After what seemed like miles and certainly was a few hours I saw a hut approaching through the long grass. In my tired state I now for some stupid reason thought that they must have moved the finish line due to all the rain! I unzipped my jacket, unfolded my mud splattered race number, held my arms in the air and smiled as I ran towards this gathering of people whom were cheering me in…… As I approached them I realised it was another feed station…I didn’t want food, I needed the finish line. Surely it could only be another kilometre maybe two tops? I grabbed a sugary bun and ran out of the checkpoint, feeling determined that I was close to the finish line. As I left the building and approached another road I expected it to send me left, instead it was across the road towards a lake. Was this right? Had the wind blown the marking flag around? Had someone messed with the course? I stopped running and walked around the lake, still uncertain if it was the right direction. I then turned around and started walking back to the last checkpoint. Luckily before I reached it one of the runners I’d passed earlier crossed the road and came my way. I asked him if this route was correct. In broken English he said maybe. So together we began to run again. I put my fingers to my neck and told him I was done. No more.He simply replied ‘We are strong. Come on’. Those five little words brought renewed enthusiasm into my body. A smile appeared on my face and I powered up the next hill and despite the pain I found the strength to run down the next one. I then tried to copy his skiers technique for sliding down the muddy banks and hills. I didn’t have enough strength left in my legs and I fell every time. But now I had decided that I was going to finish this bloody race. Yes i had been tested and yes I was feeling like shit but that’s the crap that lIfe throws at you.
Finish line in sight
I then proceeded to collect my finishers jacket, collect my dropoff bag and head back to the field that I expected Steve to be in. I still had enough charge in my phone to call him but had no signal. It was only at that point that I suddenly hoped he had finished as well. What if he had twisted an ankle? How would I know? I walked the half mile or whatever it was to the field car park, I was soaked, legs, feet, back sore. Mud all over me! Not sure what I needed to do. I felt like I needed a big hug, a cup of tea and then a shower…. I looked across to where we left the car…..it had gone….then I saw parked under a tree a similar colour car, damn hire car, was that the one we hired? No one was inside it? WTF, maybe Steve was asleep in the back? I tried the door no luck. I actually said F**k out loud. I looked around the field in disbelief and then I noticed, parked next to this car was our hire car and Steve was staring straight at me! Instant relief came over me and suddenly I was happy, secure and pleased to have such a good friend. He already had gone through exactly what I had. Although I was out in the rain for about two hours more than Steve and the trails had a lot of use and rain on them in that time!