I live at the moment and for a few months now in a city a lot consider as one of the prettiest in the country. Honestly, I’m glad that I don’t have to stay in it for too much longer. As it does on many, my time in Boulder probably spoiled me a lot. My perspectives and tastes got certainly fairly altered by all that blue sky, awesome friends I made and great time spent in the mountains. And I’m actually happy it did. I don’t think I could live a happy life having only work and partying as a perspective. Sadly, that seems to be the case for too many here. I’m not even sure they would realize it if I were to tell them they are so missing out. Their bad.
Also, call me Scott Jurker if you will, but being consistent at running is now for me a huge help to reach balance and wellbeing. They’re right, it’s always so rewarding. Going to the woods at the weekend and climbing a few hills after a terribly long week at school helps me reach this place where all becomes better, where all the insecurity vanishes away.
The Vosges mountains, that are more like forest covered hills host a fair number of races that look like real fun. Mountain biking seems to be big here, then would come trail running as the second most popular outdoor activity I think (if you don’t take hiking into account). Thus, I figured that I could sign up for one race each month in April, May and June around here.
The “Défi des Seigneurs” (“Challenge of the Lords”) would be the first one. Quite the name, eh?! Well, one has to consider that the Vosges region is the region of the world that contains the most middle age castle ruins. And the 47 mile loop of the race would make us run by a good half dozen of them.
After a terrible night of sleep, the alarm went off at 5:00 AM for a 7:00 AM start on Saturday morning. Good thing, it was only a 40 min drive from my apartment. Also, daylight had come by the time I got to Niederbronn les Bains where the start of the race would be given. As it seems to be often the case in France (yeah, that’s right, I’m from here but I did not know people were running, let alone racing distances over the marathon in the mountains 3 years ago, before I moved to Colorado), the race HQ and runner center is located at the town gymnasium. Their setup seems to be great, ready and hopefully functional: I can spot a bar and beer on tap! They also have food stands and lots of running related companies seem to be exposing their products, as in Chamonix at the village during UTMB. And it has heating in there!
There’s enough time for a German runner (we are literally by the border of Germany here) to snap a picture of my skinny self and we are already called to the starting line. Wow, that’s a lot of runners today, 350! I don’t know how’s gonna be the competition nor where exactly I should sit by the starting line. I try to let a couple-three dozen runners ahead of me. We are given the instructions, the type of signs to follow along the way. RD says that today, it should be all about fun. You got it!
Then we’re off, a quick lap around the town track, and already comes the first climb of the day where runners ahead of me already start hiking, their poles deployed. That’s a big “No-No!” here, I’ll run that thing, it’s gonna be a too long of a day otherwise!
I pass a few and get by a runner who seems to be on his own, it seems like I could keep up his pace fairly well. “Perfect conditions to run today eh?” I go. “Sure thing! Not too hot, not too cold” he answers. We keep on talking to know if we’re locals or about where we’re from and here we go: he’s from Brittany too! That’s so cool! He now lives around Paris, not too far from the “Forest of Fontainebleau” where he goes running regularly. We talk about our sport experiences, and also what took us away from home. It feels awesome to share some chitchat while running. He is more into triathlon, completed a few Ironman. He was originally into kayaking, took part of the junior World Championships some years ago. He is now responsible of the gym and physical activities of inmates at a prison. He tells me that one story, in which, short after he got that job, he played badminton with a few and had such a great afternoon. He took everybody’s names for his record, checked them up back at his office and cried, big time. They all were convicted sex criminals and had been involved in big publicized cases. But he says, “there’re in here to pay their time and they should be helped for when comes the time for them to exit prison. They should not get out of here with a huge hate of society, that would not do anybody any good.”. “Wow!”, I think, that is really showing so much humanity from him. He also seems to directly share with people he connects. Well, aren’t we all like this after all, us, ultra-runners? While running up a hill, we can’t hide behind a mask and everything reveals.
We smoothly reach the first aid station at km 26. I barely ate nor drunk anything, time flew very quickly. The runner ahead of us gets a nice encouragement from his young daughter who’s here along with his wife. That’s really cute. We talk a bit with him. He’s a real local but now lives in Annecy. Oh man, that’s, if I have to stay in France a place I’d love to live in! It’s like the French Boulder, everybody is crazy about outdoors activities out there! I tell him I got back from Boulder not too long ago and that it’s where I got into trail running. He sure heard of the place (Tony K. is useful there for one thing I guess then). “It’s the Mecca of trail running” he adds. He could feel an American touch on me with my beard & hat. “It’s the only mandatory equipment you’ve got to carry with you when you hit the trails there!” I add. Then I go, I push the pace a bit, taking longer steps on that logging road. I’m feeling great, it looks very much like where I go training at the weekend, I feel at home. I feel like I might get dehydrated soon though. I sweat quite a bit. It’s warming a bit up. Volunteers ask me how I’m doing? Great, obviously! “Enjoy your stroll then, you’re in 8th position!” they add. “You got it my man, thanks!”
I get to the second aid station at km 46. There’s another set of great volunteers. There’s also quite a bit of public in that village! Wow, that’s awesome. I feel a bit impressed. I try to smile & thank everybody for their kind words. “How are you guys doing?” I ask the volunteers. “Great dude! But what about you? Having a nice stroll?” “Heck yeah! It’s all so beautiful around here!”. I get 2 cups of yummy veggie soup, 2 of coke, 2 of water, some banana slices, I get my bladder refilled. Sylvain gets in. That’s awesome, High five bro! Off I go, not forgetting to thank the volunteers for their job and presence here another time. I let them know that without them, we would not have such a great day. I could always see them being touched when I say that, but it’s all so true and it should be mandatory to do so for every runner before they get anything at aid stations in my opinion.
Then starts the rough patch of my day. I don’t know if it’s the bladder that has been too much refilled or if this is too much soup that I had, but I start to feel terrible, tired and all. My guts wake up on me too. I got it. I hit the caffeine pills. I chug 4 of them. I need a boost and also maybe a bush stop to feel lighter. Sylvain passes me, ask kindly if we missed a trail connection. “No, no, keep going, I’ll catch up, I needed a break here!”. It’s only just 10 rolling km on logging roads to the next aid station. I could train well on that kind of terrain in the Vosges mountains, so I got it. But boy, how hard it is though right now! I get to that village, km 56, aid station. Sylvain already took off, he should feel great. The race director is here! I let the volunteers know that their cup support (a wooden board, the size of 3 letter size sheets of paper next to each other with holes in it the size of a cup each) is really cool and functional! The race director tells me it’s quite a piece of work to get that ready. He asks me how I feel, a bit concerned while I’m grabbing one of the tent leg. “Well, I’ve been better. 50k would have been enough for me today” I’m thinking. He tells me we race these distances to feel like that. He’s right & that’s the first one of my season too! He tells me that there’s “two last kick of butts” to give before the last aid station, 10k away. No runner getting there before I leave. They should all be cooked by now I assume! I’m off then, feeling better, a bit revived. Climbs are my thing after all, that can’t be too bad. I also take a look at my watch. It’s been just over 5 hours. It really ain’t too bad after all, that might even be a trail 50k PR for me. I should be happy today! Thus, I decide to just finish while simply enjoying. Aren’t we here for that after all? To have a good fun time, as the RD mentioned before we all took off in the morning.
It gets hotter in that sort of canyon and oh there’s a stream running just on the side of the trail, that’s awesome! I’ll use my Simple Hydration bottle I had with me the whole time, in a pocket of my pack. I’ll dunk water on my head. Oh boy, this ice cold water feels so good, it’s so refreshing! Oh and there’s a runner ahead! I’ll catch him eventually, I’ll take the time I need to dunk my hat a few more time in these running streams, that’s such a good feeling! So what about this runner? He seems to move slowly uphill with his poles. He’s got dark hair, he’s a bit tanned, he could be Italian. I’ll call him “Giorgio”. That’s a fine name I find, like in the Daft Punk song of their last album. “Hey buddy, steep eh?!” when I get by him. And we start talking and talking, and moving and moving. The next aid station was supposed to be at km 66. Damn, it’s not here, I’m pissed! Giorgio keeps on talking, I get a stitch in my side developing. Okay, I let the race organizers have two more km to make this aid station happening. Then I’ll go crazy. Giorgio doesn’t seem to bother, he looks experienced. He ran TDS, twice. “What’s the time you expect for it this year?” he asks me. “I don’t know, in the 18-20 hours range”. “Oh, you’ll need some quality training then before it! My best time was 20 hours! But you’ll love it, it’s such a beautiful race”. He also ran UTMB in just under 30 hours last year (he maybe saw Eric Lee The Eric Lee then on the way?).
Here’s the aid station. It’s by some sort of a light house minus the light part. Some other great volunteers are here too. I try not to forget to thank them all. But they wanna have the last word, saying that without runners like us, they would not have such a great race either. That’s sweet, it will take me to the finish line. It’s all downhill now they add. But no, it wasn’t. After the second bump we notice, Giorgio suggests we get back to them to prove them wrong. Then, we agree it would be too much of an effort here and we carry on. We talk some more about the hunters hunting in the woods of France where we go training and also about the Forest workers. These two categories of people really seem to not like runners or mountain bikers a lot. We agree on that’s so stupid. It’s not like our goal was to degrade the place, quite the opposite actually! All we do is lightly use the trails and make sure we let the place untouched afterwards. We agree hunters should just go hunting in private reservations, and certainly not nearby trails. Along with the forest workers, they should feel like we invade their spaces, but eh, it isn’t theirs, it’s everybody’s! And they are the one who should respect Nature more! What kind of behavior is that to eradicate all the wildlife and cutting so many trees? Hunters kill an average of 20 hikers or runners in the woods of France, each year. They are the ones with all the weapons in France. Sadly, nobody seems to feel concerned.
Here comes the descent to town eventually. On a sign at the last aid station, they said we had 9 more km from there to the finish like. We’ll get to 77 km by then. I feel happy. I apologize to Giorgio for not talking so much with him regarding this bit of pain on my side. He’s okay with that, he’s also just happy to have someone along to clock the last km with. The woods eventually clear, Giorgio says that it smells like the “garage”. “No it doesn’t smell like oil!” I’m thinking. Oh I get it! He means, it will be like reaching home and that garage where you park your car. A volunteer tells us that it’s the 400 final meters! We hug with Giorgio, smiling so big! I clap in everybody’s hand here to cheer.
And we cross the finish line. Sylvain is there, seated on a bench by the finish line. He got here 5 min earlier. We need a picture, me and my 2 new friends! We shower. Sylvain pays the first round of beers, I get the second one and the three of us stay by a table for a good 2 and a half hours. We have the same kind of conversations you have on a Monday night at the Southern Sun in Boulder after a Green Mountain run. We talk about running experiences which are, as we all see it living experiences. It feels like home.
I eventually take off, getting the info of these two in order to stay in touch for a future reunion around a race, or a beer, or both. These two fellows are running some more tomorrow! Sylvain a 60k (he happened not to be able to finish) and Giorgio a 25k (getting him to rank 3rd on the 77k + 25 k added race!). “Thanks, but no. I won’t take part of more stupidity for the weekend, I had my share already with today!” I say. “It was just another click when I was at home in front of my computer!” says Sylvain.