Monday, July 30, 2007

A training week with a champion: Karine Herry

I saw Karine for the first time two years ago on the Western States course when she passed through Last Chance, the aid station I was captaining for my running club, the Striders. She barely stopped and finished 3rd, earning the F3 bib the following year. Unfortunately, 2006 was a very hot year and Karine dropped out last year. She was back for the 2007 edition this past June and, as I was running too, we had more time to get acquainted. As it turned out, we, the only French citizens of the 392 field, finished 17th and 18th overall, Karine preceding me by 12 minutes in 20 hours and 12 minutes. She was 3rd female, good enough to meet her goal of making another podium on this legendary course.
Nikki Kimbal and Karine, 1st and 3rd at Western States 2007
When discussing about our plans for our next family trip to France with Karine and Bruno (her companion and coach) after the race, we found out that we will be in Chamonix the same last week of July, Karine and Bruno coming to review the new course of the North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB, 5th edition, August 24-26, 2007). Karine won last year's edition, setting a new course record of 25 hours and 22 minutes.
Karine in front of Mont Blanc, on the Italian side
So, as I will relate in more details in an upcoming post, I had the privilege to train with Karine for 5 days this week.
Road and trail

When I met Scott Jurek after Miwok in May where he placed 5th overall, he admitted that he didn't feel that great on trails after having trained so hard on roads, trying to qualify for the world championships of 100K (Canada, this July). Having missed the qualification by a few minutes in such a bad weather begining of 2007, he focused back on trail running and had an outstanding Hardrock, winning and setting a new course record. I hope he will do well at this year's UTMB for his first participation. And that he has the opportunity to review the trail as I just did, before.
Discussing the Brooks Cascadia models with Scott, at Miwok

What makes Karine's career in ultra praticularly outstanding is her ability to combine performances on both roads and trails. Karine has won the French Nationals of 100K road 7 times in a row (2001-2007). This year, she also won the National title for the 24-hour road race. On the trails, in addition to her participations to Western States and her victory at the UTMB 2006, she won many races including the Jeep Raid of La Réunion and Les Templiers race, 9 times.

Tips

Running and training with such a champion is not only motivational. It is also the opportunity to learn and progress. Here are some tips I gathered this week.
  1. Poles or no poles? When I joined this week's training group (see my coming UTMB training camp report), I was the only one to carry bottles (the American way...), when the 7 others were using poles in the uphills. After 4 days, I was pleased that Bruno was questioning the use of poles for Karine for the upcoming UTMB race. I don't deny it may provide some help when poles are properly used, and I'm excited to try this technique. In the meantime, I find reassuring it's not necessary to perform well, even on this course.
  2. Bottles or Camel Back? The question is not worth asking if you want to use poles. But, in any case, you need to carry so much stuff on the UTMB course that you need a backpack. So, adding a fluid puch to it or bottle holders on the shoulder straps, make a lot of sense, freeing your hands and arms from the weight of the bottles.
  3. Nutrition. Karine plans on writing a book on the topic of nutrition for ultra runners, so I should not disclose her secrets. Just three tips in the meantime. I already knew I should avoid acidic fruits before a race, but I didn't realize that it was true between races too. The second tip is to stop milk and diary products in case of inflammation. And, a third one is to drink some Green Magma, like Karine, and Scott Jurek!
  4. Knowledge of the course. A precise knowledge of the course of a race is definitely very beneficial. I could experience it at Western States, it helps to have trained through the toughest parts, especially for mental preparation. What I learned this week is the level of details of Bruno's knowledge of the course: turns, type of terrain, setting of aid stations, pace, time keeping/tracking, etc. With such details reported on the road book.
  5. Keep going. Last but not least, Karine impressed me by her persistent walking and running even when we got tired in the toughest uphills of this course. Agnès doesn't like the nickname I gave Karine for that: la teigne (ringworm)! I realize it's not nice, but it captures for me all the tenacity which makes Karine such a champion.

What's next for Karine?

10 years at the top of such a demanding sport is not easy to manage. Add to it the pressure coming with the sponsorships (Lafuma, Green Magma), an active and busy medical doctor career, and raising 6-year old twins, no wonder you hear Karine and Bruno discussing about lighter race schedules for the coming years. At least Karine doesn't have to deal with any commitment related to representing France in international championships as the French Track & Field Association (FFA) seems to ignore her despite a 10-year outstanding career. Will be interesting to see if turning 40 next year brings a second wind to Karine.


Karine passing through Argentières, the last 6 miles before Chamonix

Acknowledgement

Karine, thank you for being such a model of tenacity, kindness, natural and modesty, in France and internationally. It has been very inspirational to run with you this week, around the top of Europe, and learning a few tips from you and Bruno. I hope to come back soon to run the big race (UTMB) with some friends from California. Good luck on August 24 and 25 to defend your title (Nikki's presence may help you setting a new course record!), and for the continuation of your career in ultra running!

With Karine, in front of the Grandes Jorasses, at the Refuge Bertone

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Running in Paris (2): La Coulée Verte (South)

Last week I described a run which may not be appealing to ultra runners visiting Paris. 1-mile loops in Parc Montsouris are better than circling a stadium track (1/4-mile), yet it's many loops before getting to and beyond the marathon mark!

This run is actually my favorite to escape the city busy and noisy streets and log more miles while I'm visiting Paris (about 6 to 8 times a year, for business). For the South Bay and Silicon Valley residents, this is the closest you can get in the Paris area to the Los Gatos Creek trail.

There are actually two "Coulées Vertes" in Paris. The real Parisians will argue that the real Coulée Verte is in the 12th district and extends in the Eastern suburb of Paris. The one I'm talking about here is actually mostly outside Paris, which has to be if you want to find many miles outside of the busy car traffic of Paris. This is the trail which starts in the South of Paris (hence the South in the title), crosses 2 counties (Hauts de Seine, 92, and Essone, 91), and 10 cities: Malakoff, Châtillon, Bagneux, Fontenay-aux-Roses, Sceaux, Châtenay-Malabry, Antony, Verrières-le-Buisson, and Massy (see more details, in French, at the page "La coulée verte du sud parisien" and also these pictures).
A view of the trail in Chatillon (Copyright Conseil Général 92, Alexandre Petzold):


The trail is mostly a bike lane (asphalt again). It officially starts at the city limit between Malakoff and Paris, but you can find a bike path starting Place de Catalogne, near the Montparnasse train station in the 14th district, which is quite convenient if you stay downtown. When you are on Place de Catalogne, near the Vaugirard side of the train station, you'll find the start of the bike path right behind the Notre-Dame du Travail church (the church is not right on the plaza, you'll have to go through a tall gate in residential buildings, at the South of the plaza).

Unfortunately there is no bathroom and drinking fountain along the course, which is insane for us, runners. You have to carry your own water. As for pit stops, better get all set before starting your run, or stop in a café...

In terms of direction after the start it's really straightforward except for the following two spots, both in Malakoff near the start, so better paying attention not to get lost early in the run.

After passing over the Périphérique (the highway which surrounds Paris), coming from Paris/Montparnasse, you'll enter Malakoff, again, following the bike lane. You'll pass a metro/subway station (Malakoff-Plateau de Vanves) and, about 300 yards later, hit a road at the end of Boulevard Charles de Gaulle: cross it, take on the right under the train track bridge, then right on your left after the bridge (bike lane). That's the first trick, see below (and Google Maps for more details):The second trick comes less than one mile after. You'll hit a main/busy artery which you need to cross, leaving Malakoff and entering in Chatillon. There are a few new buildings, residential and commercial, and often construction which makes the bike lane difficult to find sometimes as some of the sections might be closed (like this summer 07). I suggest you go around a couple of blocks as shown below (and you can check Google Maps too). Again, you need to look for the bike path which goes South, through Chatillon.After that, it's pretty much straightforward for 6-7 miles until Massy, one of the terminal stations of RER B. All the way you'll follow the TGV and RER tracks, but on a trail going mostly through green areas (trees, bushes). Most of the cities you will cross have RER station which is an easy ride back to Paris if you want or need to shorten your run. Take some cash with you in case.

The trail gets more busy during weekends, especially in the morning and mid-afternoon. Otherwise, you won't see many people running or biking during weekdays.

It's really a great way to run 20 miles (or less!) if you stay in Paris (and if you need to put in 40 miles, you can either explore further South of Massy, or do this run twice!). Hope you have the opportunity to try it during a visit to France!

Farther in Europe and France.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Running in Paris (1): Parc Montsouris

Before escaping the French capital for a family vacation week in the Alps in Chamonix, a short post to describe one place for a run if you are visiting Paris.

The Parc Montsouris is situated in the South of Paris, next to the RER B's station Cité Universitaire (see Google Maps). Established in the 19th century when today's 14th disctrict (arrondissement) was still inhabited.

The park opens at 8am during the week, 9am on weekends. And, from June to September, closes at 9:30pm, which is convenient if you are jet lagged and want to run at the end of the day.

If the park is closed, like early morning, you can circle outside the park, you don't have any road to cross. And you should have some company as this is a favorite spot for the local runners, of all abilities. The outside loop is 1.04 mile.

Of course, it's even better to run inside the park when the doors are open (they usually open a bit earlier than the disclosed times). If you follow the outside trail, actually mostly asphalt, the loop is 0.94 miles.

The loop is gently inclined, about 50ft overall, providing a rolling profile for every mile. If you want to break the monotony of the mile loops, there are trails (asphalt again) crossing the park.

Depending on the season, you'll see ducks and swans around the lake. I even saw an egret last week, which is very rare in downtown Paris. Pigeons too of course (they are everywhere!), and many Parisians, quite a few walking their dogs (12 million dogs for a 60 million population!). Likely a few students too, from all over the world and living in the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, just across the street and the brand new tramway (T3 line). While you are in the neighborhood, it's worth visiting the Cité and looking for the building of your country as so many nations are represented.

By the way, the park has (free!) public restrooms (a rare resource in Paris, sorry...), and three drinking fountains (also not so frequent).

I'm just back from running 15 laps there, which is 13.1 miles, right a half marathon. Hope you have the chance to visit Paris and stop by this park if you stay in the 14th district.
Enjoy and, bon voyage!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

An athletic tour of Olympic Barcelona

It took me 42 years to visit Spain for the first time, but this is my second times in 14 months. First time was Madrid, for business. This time, Barcelona, the capital of Catalona, for a weekend with the family.


I'm not going to blog about the vibrant culture which animates both the city and its large and friendly population, nor about the amazing genius of architect Gaudi, but relate my visit of the city as a runner (of course!).


The boys are late morning sleepers since they arrived in Europe, almost 3 weeks ago. I left before 7am with just a map, but no scale on it. I was therefore relying on my new Garmin Forerunner 205 to tell me how much of a tour I could accomplish before our day of visit of the city.

Spain is known for its late and active night life, and it's not a legend! 7am on a Saturday felt like running in a deserted city. Everybody was still sleeping, except the BCNeta! workers. BCNeta! stands for Barcelona Citutat Neta (clean city). The fact that I mention it is not fortuitous. It is really hard to keep such a large mediterranean city clean, without any rain for several months. It requires quite an initiative, which you can see at work, early morning and throughout the day: recylcling bins, sweepers, cars with high pressure water hose to clean the sidewalks. And dog owners cleaning after their dog. Almost... Anyway, again, any effort to keep the sidewalks clean is much appreciated by us, runners. And, incidently, by the thousands of tourists.

The layout of the city is rather simple, around the downtown area: a grid of large avenues with a few diagonals, like in Washington DC, with the impressive Avinguda Diagonal and its famous brand stores. It's when you get in the hills (e.g. Montjuic Park or near the Guell Park) that it's getting more confusing.

Here is a simple itinerary, a tour of the city in 15 miles (click to enlarge):

  • The never ending Sagrada Familia project:

  • The arenas where I could smell the bulls getting ready for the Sunday night fight,
  • The Olympic city created for the 1992 games,
  • The beaches at the Marina, where we later enjoyed a swim in the surprising waves,
  • The small neighborhood of Barceloneta,
  • The museum of history of Catalonia,
  • The mirador of Chritophe Colomb, pointing to the distant America:

Then, climbing the Montjuic Park:
  • The Miramar hotel and its amazing view over the entire city for the ones who can afford,
  • The Monjuic Castle, a military fort and prison, overseeing the Mediterranean sea and the huge and modern harbor of Barcelona,
  • The Olympic Stadium erected for the 1992 games, but already under renovation after just 15 years (the ancient Greeks would find this weird, when we still have pieces of their original stadiums),
  • The monumental avenue of Queen Cristina.
The key tip to remember when exploring Barcelona is: run early in the day! Not easy for the readers coming from the US (jet lag), but it makes a huge difference. The good news though is that 9am is still early in Spain (on weekends at least)!


After this short virtual visit of Barcelona, I wish you have the opportunity to stay yourself for a few days in this appealing city. Max, who celebrated his 15th birthday on this Sunday 15th of 07/07, kept telling us he wants to come here for College. We'll see... By the way, he was born during the 1992 Olympics of... Barcelona. Interesting connection and timing!


Farther, in Europe!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Beaches of D-Day "ultra": souvenir and respect

This week, I'm enjoying some vacation in Normandy, the homeland of my parents. My mother's family is from Granville, in the South of Normandy, very close to the Mont St Michel which marks the border with Brittany. My father's family originated in the Central part of Normandy: Calvados.

Trévières, where my grandfather lived during the war, is situated about 8 miles from the sea and what became Omaha Beach in June 1944. The small village was almost entirely destroyed on D-Day by the bombs fired by the American float, unable to see the coast from miles away. They wanted to take the German by surprise to destroy the "wall" they built to defend the entire coast facing the Atlantic.


My great grandfather was in his house when a bomb fell in his backyard. The funny annecdote is that it destroyed the entrance of his cellar. As the Americans were passing by, and he was so overjoyed by the ongoing Liberation, he gave away all of his best bottles of Calvados to the soldiers, some who quickly got drunk with such a exquisite 45-degree liquor! In exchange he got some jars of gasoline, not the same taste but better for the car! My grandfather for a toast with the American troops, to celebrate the 4th of July, 1944:


Anyway, we wanted to visit this region during our next family trip to France after my son, Alex, did a documentary about Trevieres on June 6th 1944. So here we are, for a pilgrimage to what shaped the Europe we know today. Alex in front of his great grandfather's house in Trévières:


What does this blog post have to do with running? As Agnès and the boys visited the museums, I ran 29 miles along the beaches, from Arromanches, or Golf Beach where the British troops landed, to the Pointe du Hoc (view of Utah Beach), back to the American Memorial and Cemetery of Colleville sur Mer, or Omaha Beach, where the American landed, and so many lost their lives. With the boys in Arromanches, the start of my run:



I was excited to resume my training after a complete week off following my great experience at Western States last weekend. I wanted to run on the beaches but the tide was high and the beaches are separated by steep cliffs, so I followed the road. That was a lot of asphalt after the 100 miles of trail last week, but most of the cars slowed down when passing me, especially the visitors from all over Europe. I was surprised to see so many cars from Denmark. Others included: Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Spain, many cars from Great Britain of course due to the proximity and the ferry, and also some cars from Germany, although there is not a single flag of Germany along the way, given the circumstances.


I didn't really plan to go for an ultra today, so I had only one bottle of water and 2 GUs. It took me three hours and 22 minutes to reach the 26.2 mile mark. Then I switched to a short ultra stride for the next 3 miles because I was worried not to see Agnès and the car. They finally arrived as I was entering Colleville, 1 mile from the American Cemetery. Other than the American embassy in Paris, this is the only territory and piece of land that the US owns in France (see The American Battle Monument Committee website).

A quote about Sacrifice at the entrance of the museum: "Then it all came down to this brief first day of battle on the coast of Normandy, and, for so many of them, it all ended. For the rest of us, what has been since has not been the same." [Capt Charles Cawthon - US Army - 29th Infantry Division]
Endless views of tombs of soldiers who gave their life in the combat against the nazism. 9,387 headstones, not counting 1,557 missing in actions. About 3,000 soldiers died while landing on the beaches, turning the sea to red. As I was running, I was thinking of these men who had to jump in the water, under the ennemy's fire, hearing the sound of the bombs and bullets, while seeing their teamates and friends falling. This must have been the worst "run" you can ever imagine. Such thoughts made my long run so much easier, in this windy and rainy weather.

A quote about Courage: "I started out to cross the beach with thirty-five men and only six got to the top, that's all..." [2nd Lt Bob Edlin - US Army - 2nd Ranger Infantry Battalion]

Sincere thanks to these anonymous heroes, who gave their lives to bring freedom back to my parents. That the thousands of visitors continue to bring them respect, tribute and peace. And work in today's world at building peace everywhere we can, to avoid creating such tragedies again.

PS: July 4th, Independence Day, is not about remembering this war, but, last Sunday, July 1st, many French people gathered at Omaha Beach to tell the American how they will never forget about such a sacrifice for their country (see the website: The French Will Never Forget). The text below is made of people standing: