Sunday, August 31, 2008

French 100K Championships: a long wall, solo

A first DNF (Did Not Finish) after 135 races, including 26 ultras in 2 years, and a weekend in Sologne, this is worth some explanations...

If you have not read my previous posts, I should not have been here. Injured at the beginning of the month, little training, stress at work, doctors advice to take it easy and not run, my body which was sending negative signals. Last Sunday I even ended up at the Emergency Room for what doctors believe was a renal colic. I could not get follow-on exams before flying to France last Tuesday, but I’m schedule for a check-up upon my return to the California on Friday.

However, with passion involved, you know the reason get sometimes relegated behind. I was also excited to visit my cousins’ place in Sologne. Philippe and Jocelyn welcomed me in their vacation home, a water mill on the Sauldre, hectares of land with several lakes and another farm on the property. A smart balance of water sheds, woods and open areas, in which wild life thrive so much that hunting has hard time keeping roe and wild hog population under control.Anyway, despite all the counter-indications, Philippe drove me to the start, early Saturday morning. We left his house at 4:30 am and reached Theillay 50 minutes later. Miles away from cities and no moon at all, the sky was extraordinarily clear and full of stars. However, it was not the time to look up but to get prepared for the 6:15 am start.

It was still quite dark at the start but running on asphalt in the dark is no problem:

The course was made of a first 5K-loop in Theillay, another 10K-loop around Theillay and a 85K-loop going through 4 other villages of Sologne. I took an easy start and was surprised to be in 13th position by km 15 when we came back to Theillay for the second time. Philippe took this picture of the sun rising, showing how nice and clear the sky was on race day.

At my second passage through Theillay, I was stunned when the speaker announced my name and added: "this guy has a too long stride, it's going to hurt at the end!" I found that comment so French, this way to say negative things instead of positive encouragements... Although, the observation was probably true in the end... Ouch! But I need to make up for my short legs!

Pacing or muling...?

The end of the second loop was the point where runners were allowed to pick a pacer, on bike. I was intrigued by this practice when a read about it on the registration form, especially for a championship.

First, there is the overall rule about pacers in championships. The French Track and Field Association rule book for outdoor and road races includes the following text:

"Pour les courses à labels international, national ou régional, les accompagnateurs ou suiveurs sont interdits, Marathon inclus, ainsi que sur les courses de 100 km comportant plus de 4 boucles."

Which I'd translate into: "For events with international, national or regional label, pacers are forbidden, including marathons, and also 100K races with more than 4 loops."

This weekend race had only 3 loops, yet it had a National label. I had shared my surprise with the organizers who replied that pacers were actually authorized on ultras, yet they should not be used by runners as a protection against the wind for instance (among other restrictions).

Surely, pacers were authorized this weekend. But my understanding was that runners could not get anything from the biker (aka pacer) outside the aid stations, about every 5 kilometers (3 miles). In other words, no muling. Actually, each aid station had very visible signage marking the beginning and end of the aid station zone. Later on, I learned that the restriction of no exchange (muling) outside the aid stations was limited to the first 4 hours of the race. I actually could not hear most of the instructions the speaker gave on the starting line because of the noise, but my cousin was surprised a committee would indeed come up with such last minute rules just the night before a championship.

Between km 15 and the half-marathon, I had two runners enough at sight to see stuff was going back and forth between the runners and the bikers. At the 20-km mark I stopped to ask the official judge about the rule and he confirmed muling was not allowed. Later on, one of the two bikers in front of me had stopped on the road and I mentioned I was surprised about their practice. He replied that it was OK as long as the runner was keeping the stuff, a sort of one-way muling. As you can see, the rules were not clear, and everyone seemed to make their own.

On my side I was carrying two bottles (I was the only of course!) and losing some ground when stopping at aid stations for some food (since the other competitors did not have to stop). I was on an average 7:00 pace (7 minutes/mile or 4:21/km) by the half marathon and decided to slow down a bit as I felt some asthma was kicking in.

A good marathon

I passed the marathon mark in 3:08 and 17th place, not too bad when suffering from diarrhea, stomach cramps and frequent pit stops. Actually too fast of a start given the circumstances. I was drinking ok, taking one salt tablet (S!Cap) every hour but was surely not angry. I was able to keep some light food but hit the wall shortly after the first marathon. The lead gal, Brigitte Bec, caught up with me at the 44.5-km aid station. Her pacer carefully handed her over a bottle before the end of the zone. Brigitte did not stop and kept running while taking sips. Then, a few hundred meters after the station, she gave the bottle back to her pacer, just before my eyes. I was stunned and kind of disgusted and angry with this use of pacers. In reaction, I slightly picked up the pace, passed her for about a kilometer before I had to slow down again, with stomach cramps.

I made a long 4-minute stop at the 49.5-km aid station where I had a drop (zip-lock) bag with a few GUs, 2 pouches of GU2O and some sun screen for the remainder of the race. By then I was probably in 20th position and I could spot the same irregularities with the runners/pacers who had passed me. Interestingly, I cannot find anything regarding "accompagnateur" or "suiveur" in the 2008 rule book for National Championships. So maybe that was just me...


I passed the 50km mark in 3:52. My initial goal being evaporated, my digestive system still giving me hard time, the heat picking up, the shade of the trees disappearing, and demoralized by the pacer advantage, I started walking more and more. I was probably in 40th position at that time and I believe the first solo runner passed me around the 55th kilometer (unless there was a solo/non-assisted runner in the top 10 after the second loop).

While walking, I got passed by one ultrafondu (reader of ultrafondus magazine) who recognized me from my blog. Otherwise, and as opposed to the Californian ultra races, the race had all the anonymous aspect of a road marathon (without the crowd). With rare encouragements from runners and pacers passing me, a pinch of ultra spirit and camaraderie. At this time, I also got passed by the 3rd or 4th gal, with three bikes, yet another irregularity per the race rules this time. Oh well, who was caring anyway?

The idea of walking for 45 kilometers in the sun became a dark vision or nightmare. My cousins had planned to be at the finish by 1:30pm (in case I was running in 7:15) and I started thinking that I may not reach the finish before 6 or 7 pm. Although Philippe studied my blog enough to learn that CREW stands for Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting in ultra, I really did not want them to get a 6-hour wait for their first encounter with this sport. Besides, my lower back started to get painful and I figured it was enough to call it a day, with medical warnings and counter-indications. And enough to get to experience the concept of DNF for the first time in my running life.


It surely hurts, but I had read enough from other runners to get prepared for such a thing. Overall, what is important is not to make the headlines for having pushed the limits too far and getting under the spotlights for critical medical conditions. I was not near there, I believe, it was more a mix of fatigue, disappointment, anger, detachment and a bit of reason after all the medical advice I got these past weeks.

I was walking when I heard a car coming from behind, just in time to see it was the medical shuttle. I waived and the crew did not ask any question when I said that I wanted to drop; that was a quick and easy call. It was km 70 (mile 43.5) and 6 hours 27 minutes of running and walking. Only two thirds of the way...

The ambulance was almost full, with already 5 runners in the back and the 3-people medical crew in the front. We stopped to pick another runner, then others wanted to get on but we did not stop. While passing the other runners on our way back to Theillay, it gave a strange taste of fleeing, running away and letting others down, like you can see in some war movies. The 30-km ride to the finish was sometimes bumpy and very uncomfortable, yet we, in the truck, all felt sorry for the runners who will suffer from the heat through the afternoon. I later learned that 255 made it to the finish out of 330 starters (and 370 registered) which is not too bad. Congratulations to these valorous finishers! See the results on line.

I consulted with a doctor upon coming back to the finish. He was nice, just asked a couple of questions and was not worried at all for me, despite the renal colic story. I saw the first three runners coming in (7:04, 7:08 and 7:12), all with a biker/pacer (of course!) and went to get a massage while waiting for my cousins. We then tried to get some food but the ticket I had purchased was in the car parked on the other side of the village so we decided to leave and have some lunch on the way back. Enough for the French ultra party in Sologne! No, not done yet, look at the setting and great view to start my blog:

On the way back I consulted my BlackBerry to find out that my hero and favorite Scott Jurek had retrograded from 2nd position to... DNF at UTMB. And, on Sunday night, there are many other elites whom I cannot find in the results (select Scratch in the pull-down menu). I am glad Karine placed 2nd again this year, Pascal (Blanc) 19th (he was 18th last year), Jeffery (Sam Rogers, from the Bay Area) 752th and Alan (Geraldi, also from the Bay Area) 853th. What a tough and challenging course. So different from my flat 100K of this weekend...

Brooks and ufo (ultrafondus) sponsorship?

The race was advertized as one of four 100Ks in a series put together by Brooks and ufo. The Brooks association to the event is one of the elements which decided me to participate (I am a Brooks fan and receive a small sponsorship from them covering about two pairs of shoe a year). But I really wonder what the sponsorship consisted in: no banner at the finish or the start, no mention on the race t-shirt, Adidas (!) on the bib numbers of the participants to the Nationals. Hope Brooks’ money was worth something else, if money was involved.

An experience

After a DNF, it is hard to talk about the race as a good experience. Yes, there are things to learn from the experience. But more importantly, it was more than just a race. It was an opportunity to experience one facet of the French ultra, in which road races take a much bigger place than in the US. Road ultras in which France excels at the international level (both men and women at the world championships). Apart for the pacer snafu, the race was well organized with roads closed to most traffic, a lot of picturesque places along the course, frequent aid stations, nice volunteers from 5 different villages collaborating to make this race a success.

It was also an opportunity to visit this beautiful region of Sologne, so quiet and with so much wildlife, yet so close from Paris (less than 2-hour drive). It was an opportunity to get to know my cousins better and visit their secluded estate where they concretely act on sustainable development through the restoration of original fauna and natural habitats. With all that, including a strong connection with ultra running, it could not have been a bad experience!


Max said...

My first comment on your blog (:
I read the entire post!!
Very interesting, minimal errors, has a clear angle and lead, easy to read, hard to stop reading - A.

But what a nightmare...


(J'admire le fait que tu as decide de t'arreter au lieu de continuer et risquer de te faire encore plus mal - BRAVO)

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Hi Jean,

Sorry to hear about your difficulties and the unfair treatment some of the participants received. I hope you recover from the various injuries and ailments soon. It's good to be able to decide to quit when you don't feel right (physically or mentally) and not stubbornly continue only on principle.

We are also very curious about health issues related to running and endurance events, and if you have any blog sites or other information to recommend, we'd like to hear it. We posted (finally) about our Headlands 50K experience and were surprised at the obvious consequences (fluid retention?) from the event, and are wondering what kind of hormonal/inflammatory/etc. effects could have caused this result. What do your medical advisors say? We'd like to explore this area further and would appreciate any comments or direction to other reading materials.


Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Sorry about the DNF, UTMB-like rule "flexibility", and the disparaging loudspeaker announcement, although I guess i would also probably find it amusing if that happened to me. Great report though and France is always cool to visit, even for those not French...

Jean Pommier said...

Thanks for the A, Max, that's encouraging! Please keep reading... Dad.

Mark, at least you would have not annoyed by the speaker, the comment was in French! ;-) Thanks for stopping by, during yet another night shift...

Cynthia, I wish I had doctors specializing in ultra to assist me, but no luck. No offense, I appreciate medicine is still very empirical. And look forward to the scientific angle you can bring in through your analysis and experience.


Rajeev said...


Congratulations on gutting out 43.5 miles despite all your problems. Most runners, me included, would have quit way before that.

If you have learned even one thing from the experience then it is a "success" i.e. there are truly no "failures" in life.

Rest. Recover. Good luck on the nex race.

How about a "slow" recovery run in Rancho one of these days?


Anonymous said...

Hey Jean,

Here my first comment on your blog,
I saw your last post on National French championship in Sologne....and i'm the French Brooks distributor ...
You know the big problem in France for ALL National running Championships In France sponsor by ADIDAS
and ALL races are very ....STUCK !!!
so it's whay you don't saw any banners , any bib, any informations with Brooks....very sad for me btu that's life
This year we want to make a 100K challenge ( 4 races)
we are the first running brand who make this challenge on 100K and now with UFO...nice ....

here this is my email address to speak together
i will be happy
and i remember you on your last 2007 Ohlone50K iw as over there with Catra Corbett ;)

take care

Anonymous said...

Bon rétablissement, Jean, heureusement que vous vous êtes arrêtés à temps.
Amitiés à Agnès et aux garçons

Alan said...


Like you, I experienced my first ever DNF this year in over 25 years of endurance events. It really sucks. It gets better after your next successful race, but still I know how you are feeling. You will bounce back and thanks for the great blog story.

Scott Dunlap said...

When the back hurts, you gotta stop. I am proud of you for quitting before it cost you an entire season. One DNF in over 100 races...not bad at all. I'm sure you will be in good shape to redeem yourself at Rio.

Cheers, SD