Monday, September 15, 2014

Transe Gaule & anterior compartment syndrome (ACS)

What happens when a runner attempts to run 40 hilly miles a day for many consecutive days? In my experience, after 3 or 4 days, problems often develop in either the achilles tendons or the lower shins. You can spot the achilles tendonitis suffers as they limp up the hills; shin suffers can be seen tottering down hills as if running on hot coals. Once these problems have set in, there are really only two choices - suffer or stop.

During Transe Gaule 2005, I spent most of the last two weeks of the race across France wracked by shin pain, known medically as ACS (Anterior Compartment Syndrome). The pain was most intense during the middle few days of the race, from the Loire to the Lot. Anti-inflammatories - now out of vogue big time due to the possibility of liver damage - was all I had to look forward to on some of those benighted days.

For this year's edition of Transe Gaule, it was Claire's turn to suffer from ACS, garnished with an uncomfortable sprinkling of blisters and toenail infections. After four days, her usually sprightly stride was reduced to an agonising, tear-filled hobble. Even her walking was reducing to a death march crawl. It was very hard to watch.

The problem with muscle injuries is that in order to protect itself from further injury the body stops responding to brain instructions to keep moving. Try as she might, continuing was not an option for her, as she was finding it increasingly difficult to finish each day's stage inside the cutoff time. Her brain said run, but her body could barely walk.

Of course, abandoning a huge, long-strived for goal like Transe Gaule is a sad and gut-wrenching moment. Race director J-B, his team of volunteers and her fellow runners were hugely kind and supportive. After we left and returned to England, watching their progress to the Mediterranean was a daily bittersweet reminder of what should have been. But hey, this is how it works out sometimes - I still couldn't be prouder of my cankly wife.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Transe Gaule background

Here's a translated summary of Claire's upcoming race across France, courtesy race director J-B Jaouen:

"The morning of August 12 is approaching. On this date, several minutes after high tide, Monsieur Joseph Séïté, mayor of Roscoff and starter of the race since its very first edition, will lower the Breton flag for the 11th time, and 51 runners will set off on this latest crossing of France, towards the Mediterranean sea and Gruissan-plage.

The race is 1192 kilometers ~ 740 miles long in 19 stages (the average daily distance except for the 19th stage is 64 kilometers ~ 40 miles). Each starter is attempting to win a finisher's star for completing the longest footrace in France. 29 runners are attempting their first Transe Gaule; 22 have already crossed France at least once. Thirteen women participants represent a record number of female entries (the first edition in 2001 was 100% men!).

The first five stages cross Brittany and stop at Plounévézel, Pontivy, Guer, Châteaubriant and St-Georges-sur-Loire, before crossing the Loire at Chalonnes-sur-Loire. The race then passes through Anjou, Limousin, the Auvergne and Languedoc-Roussillon before arriving at the finish line in Gruissan-plage.

This year, four continents will be represented: Europe (Germany, Netherlands, Italy and France), America (USA), Australasia and Asia (8 Taiwanese, 1 Malaysian and 1 Japanese runner, Hiroko Okiyama, who participated in 2005 and 2008).

The runners' average age will be 53. The oldest is 76 (Texan Don Winkley) and the youngest 21 (Angel Pallaruelo, for his second participation - last year he was the race's youngest ever finisher)."

I will be attempting to Facebook and blog on Claire's behalf as the race progresses from August 12 - 30. Good luck to her and all the other runners and volunteers. It will be an unforgettable experience.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - epilogue

Things have finally drawn to a close. Last night's award ceremony was followed by a strangely Texan, delicious BBQ, surrounded as ever by aperitifs, wine, a cheese course, superb patisserie, and staggeringly strong post-prandials. At 7 o'clock this morning, we were back at it again with freshly baked (of course!) croissants, pains chocolats and homemade preserves.

I cannot say enough good things - or even effectively describe - the wonderfully French ambience of this race. The Codet family - Michel, Martine and Gilbert - have through this 6-day race created a beautiful model of cooperative human existence. Everyone supports everyone else, everyone works hard, everyone smiles and greets one another frequently and genuinely, everyone applauds minor victories and consoles minor setbacks. Food is fresh, toil is honest, pain is at times raw, and praise is earned and deserved. This is how all of life should be. We have all been privileged to experience it this week. I thank the Codets again deeply and sincerely, as well as the many volunteers and competitors.

One final photo from last night...four finishers from Trans Europe 2009 - Roger Warenghem (France), Christian Marti (Switzerland), me, and Jan Nabuurs (Holland).
We travelled nearly 3,000 miles together over 64 long days, from Italy to Norway. I salute you.

Location:Myans, France

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - final stage

Today's photo of the day - a finely constructed Savoyard goat playscape:

Despite being "only" 54km, it still took me more than 6 hours of running to complete today's final hilly route. But I find myself done - uninjured, healthy and happy - so nothing much else matters at this point.

This magnificent golden statue at the Myans Sanctuary is very close to the daily race start and finish line. Situated on top of a very prominent hill, it was always a great moment each afternoon when it first hoved into view, never more so than today:

Tonight's final dinner will be replete with lots of wine, awards and French kissing (no, not that kind). Last night's duck confit, praline brioche dessert and champagne set the bar pretty high, but I'm confident that tonight's repast will be equally wonderful, judging from the superb paella I just devoured post-race.

Location:Myans, France

Friday, July 11, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - stage 5

Here's my post-race "still life" from today's penultimate stage:

It shows:
Protein shake and accompanying litre of milk. Delicious, nutritious.
Watermelon. Ditto...well, except not quite as nutritious.
Walking poles. Super useful today as we climbed three cols and gained 1800 metres of elevation. I caught several poleless competitors during these super long climbs of an hour or more...although they did often catch me up on the subsequent downhills.
Course profile. Showing said cols and altitude gain statistics. Pretty handy.
Beer. For carboloading and rehydration, of course.

Weather was markedly better today, with only a couple of brief showers and good running temperatures. There were even a few beautiful views to ogle. (It has apparently been snowing this week in nearby places like Tignes and Val d'Isère. Toboggan sales are soaring in July, but summer alpine pursuits like mountain biking and canyoning are taking a beating.) Given the climbs and descents, it was a tough 65km (40 miles), but it always felt good to know that tomorrow's final stage is almost upon us. 187 miles run so far this week, with nearly 4 miles of climbing and descending. That would explain why there's a whole lot of hobbling going on at race HQ. This morning's breakfast ended with copious physio taping for those stricken with shin splints, a common malady during hilly stages.

Location:Myans, France

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - stage 4

On a clear, sunny day in Summer, this is how the Savoy Alps look - green fields, vines, orchards, snow-covered peaks off in the distance, and dramatic hills ascended and descended with the liberal use of hairpin bends.

Today, it didn't look at all like this. A cold, sometimes driving rain persisted all day, reducing visibility to a couple of hundred yards at best. The sublime views were transformed into a grey, misty haze. Unfortunately, more of the same (though marginally warmer) weather is projected for the final two stages. But so it goes with mountain running.

I tried to keep my hands warmer today by donning a pair of latex surgical gloves from the first aid kit and putting my own gloves over them, but no joy. They just seemed to fill up with icy water; not even a "wet suit effect"! The cycling jacket has done sterling service all week, and my compression socks over heavily vaselined feet have resulted in zero blisters - a great result considering the very soggy underfoot condtions.

I spent much of the day today being chased up and down the many long hills by my friend Viviane, only later to discover that she had arranged a rendez-vous with her family at the last aid station, and didn't want to be late. We managed to make it just in time. Her son Tim ran the last 8km with us, and did exceptionally well to keep up with his very in form mother.

Two days to go. A huge amount of climbing is on tomorrow's menu. More than 1800 metres of it. Gulp! But again...only two days to go!

Location:Myans, France

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - stage 3

Halfway done! Three more stages to go before we can all put our feet up. To celebrate, crêpes were provided as our post-race treat. I had one salée (with ham, egg and cheese, though not the McDonald's kind) and one sucrée (with banana, sugar and Grand Marnier). Food tastes so good when you're really hungry. Here's my Swiss friend from Trans Europe, Christian Marti, tucking into his:

Back to the running bit...

Today's course was a slightly shorter and less steep 59km (37 miles). Lots of legs appeared tired today after yesterday's big climbs combined with a cumulative 3-day mileage of 110. It rained heavily and almost continously, and temps never rose north of 60F (16C). I was glad to have gloves, long-sleeved shirt and waterproof top, and never took anything off. Conditions weren't so bad for the runners, but ghastly for our ever-cheary aid station volunteers - super folks.

My legs and energy levels have held up well. I'm clearly not setting any records, but I make steady progress each day and finish with something left in the tank. This is a first-rate event with great logistics and courses, thanks to the Codet family and its support team. Chapeau to them!

Location:Myans, France

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - stage 2

After running 42 miles in more than eight hours in the rain and cold, while climbing and descending a vertical mile, this was my first reward - pickled cucumbers, Le Puy lentils and sweetcorn salad, washed down with milk and a cookies'n'cream protein shake (thank you, Claire and Tina, for getting me hooked on this delicious recovery drink).

My legs feel very tired and beaten up after running 70 hilly miles in two days. All those runs along flat towpaths didn't really prepare me sufficiently. But the good news is that I still feel healthy, strong and uninjured.

Tomorrow is thankfully a slightly shorter, flatter stage. And at its end, we'll be halfway done. OK, it's now officially siesta time, before the next groaning spread appears in less than two hours.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde - Stage 1

Well, that wasn't so bad. In fact, it was pretty bloody good! Especially after the dire night of violent storms that preceded our 7 a.m. start.

Weather ~ perfect except for some humidity early on. No wind, no rain, only a little sun and fog at times.
Course ~ brilliantly marked. (I love the French word flêchage - literally, "arrowage" - to describe course markings.) Insanely steep uphill for one 11km stretch; less insanely hilly for the other 40km. Legs have a rather concretey feel now, but worth the mountain views and the wine-growing countryside.
Aid stations ~ great volunteers (called by another great French word, bénévole), lots of everything needed when we needed it.
Post-race ~ beer, 3-course French lunch, happy people. Couldn't fault it. No injuries; shoes, clothes and hydration system (OK, a water bottle and an overpriced plastic bag with a tube sticking out of it) all worked perfectly.

I ran parts of the course with very nice folks; some had run this race before and some were stage race novices. I was keen to stress that I was saving my legs for subsequent stages, but I did get slightly carried away from time to time. Jean-Philippe, Frédéric, Christophe, Maurice ~ they all were good French company and seemed to forgive my occasional grammatical howlers. Maurice and I finished together happily in 10th place, averaging 9.75km/hr ~ not bad for two old geezers on a beyond-hilly course.

Tomorrow's stage is 10km longer than today's and I suspect even hillier. But as they say: "Tomorrow can wait." Sleeping and eating is all I have to do now.

Location:Myans, France

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde starts tomorrow

The morning was spent driving the the first stage's course. 15km of rollers, then 10km of OMG uphill, then another 25km of serious uppy-downy stuff. This will be interesting! My strategy of uninjured undertraining will be sorely tested.

The course was extremely well marked - note orange arrow on road sign. Looks like a runner down on the pavement/sidewalk too:

The low tech start/finish banner is in place, just in front of the municipal rubbish bins. Briefing done, race numbers issued, rosé consumed, and now rain and thunder is kicking off. Allons-y!

Location:Myans, France

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Etoile Savoyarde -2 days

I find myself chilling in a shabby, non-chic hotel room in the Savoy region of France, preparing for a 6-day stage race starting and finishing each day in the lovely village of Myans.

After being dropped off at London Stansted airport - where they actually have the unmitigated gall to charge you £2 for the privilege of being let out of your car at the kerb - the journey to Lyon was enlivened only by a humorous chat with the security screener. Him: "Have you got anything sharp on you?" Me: "No...(pause)...except for my wit." Him: "Well, you're at the wrong airport then. These people here are all witless."

The flight passed without major incident, apart from being within coughing distance of a French 2-year old with the worst case of measles I've ever seen.

Driving from Lyon Airport was a dream. French autoroutes are a thing of beauty, despite the occasional toll booth hassle and expense. Smooth, wide carriage ways, pleasant rest stops, great signage - 21st century stuff. (Take note, UK and US!)

After a little detour to photograph the village church, I managed to find the race HQ, and discovered friends Vincent, Nadine and Xavier already encamped outside the salle de fêtes. The temperature is high today and the sun is shining, but rain is in the imminent forecast. Tomorrow I'll score 1 for shabby hotel, zero for small tent camping.

Tomorrow will be a rest day, with pre-race greetings, introductions, instructions and welcome dinner in the evening. Then off to work on Monday with a hilly 52km (32mile) prologue. All good, except for a rather irritating sore throat...c'mon, Strepsils!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Belgium - the "finish line"

The Bruges (Brugge) gate:

Belgium ... retrospectively ... belatedly

Running with our friends was wonderful. No stress about time, pace or distance. Coffee breaks and lunch breaks along the way, as the mood and thirst/hunger strikes. The Belgian coast is impressively flat and bike-friendly (ergo runner-friendly too!). Would we do it again? Absolutely!

Location:The seafront aproaching Ostend

Friday, May 23, 2014

Trans Belgium (almost!)

A varied, mostly enjoyable day of running from De Panne (near the French border) to Bruges (near the Dutch border).  With various detours we managed 40 miles with Jenni and Anneke - along the coast and through the cities of Nieuwpoort and Ostend (where lunch was shrimp croquettes and salad washed down with two cokes). The last 15 miles were fairly gritty along the busy N9, but entering the old historic city of Bruges was a splendid moment.  Our hotel was harder to find than it should've been, but an eventual soak in a tub after a beer made all right with the world.  Dinner was delicious - the Belgians do great food. Full marks for their shrimp pasta and profiteroles.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trans Belgium

Today's Dover-Dunkirk ferry journey deposited us in possibly Europe's least attractive industrial park, but as soon as we crossed the border out of France, things magically improved - green fields, cows, that kinda thing.

We checked into a sparkling new Ibis hotel in De Panne just over the border (so astonishingly pristine - two women were actually sweeping the underground parking garage floor), and soon met up with our dear Dutch running companions, Jenni and Anneke.

De Panne is a tidy, well-heeled seaside resort with nice beer and restaurants. Tomorrow we will run about 60km (37 miles) to Bruges via Nieuwpoort and Ostend. On Saturday, our route is not yet determined, but we will aim to finish in Knokke-Heist where we will hope to board Belgium's superb Coast Tram back to De Panne.

Good times!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Selfie? Or footie, maybe?

Thanks to the good folks at Hi-Tec and XNRG for a fine new pair of V-Lite Infinity trail shoes:

I sadly had had to dispose of my Pony Express race shoes in a Burger King waste paper bin two weeks ago, after yomping through many miles of New Forest mud. But it turned out that I had been the speediest in the pre-OAP age category. And so now their pristine, Vibram soled, clementine coloured replacements have arrived, as if by karmic magic.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Pony Express Ultra stage races

Ultra stage races don't get any better than this:
A) when they're ony two days long;
B) when you don't have to run more than 30 miles a day;
C) when the weather is cool, the skies are blue and sunny, and there's no wind;
D) when your 80 or so fellow runners are a wonderful bunch of people;
E) when the race organisation (Neil Thubron / XNRG) does a superb job;
F) when dinner, breakfast and tea & cake are all delicious;
G) when you get to run through some amazing British scenery filled with wild ponies;
H) when you get to share the experience with your brilliant running wife, who only got lost once;
I) when you glow with pride when your wonderful friends Tina and Sandra complete their first 30-mile journey, and are still smiling at the finish;
J) when you don't get lost;
K) when you have the pleasure of beer and chilliburgers in a pub afterwards.

Only three things in the negative column would be the day 1 mud (had to throw away my shoes last night as they were finally beyond hope), gym snoring (well, that did used to be me, so I suppose I can't complain) and falling hard after 1/2 mile on day 1 resulting in bloody scrapes and a sore hip (eejit!).

Location:New Forest, UK

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pony Express starts in three days

Looking forward to heading down to the New Forest this weekend. Two 30-mile stages hosted by the fine folks from XNRG. Claire and I will be sharing the trail with our excellent boating neighbour Tina and her sister Sandra, plus a hundred or so others. Both Tina and Claire have had some Achilles/calf niggles in recent weeks, but I seem to be blissfully uninjured. Ah, the beauty of undertraining. This will be Tina and Sandra's longest ever runs, and (as this was originally my idea!) I'm desperately hoping that it proves to be a wonderful experience for them both.

Providing I don't overextend myself on Day 1, I hope to inspire a few of our fellow runners at my speaking gig on Saturday evening. The theme will be "the good, the bad and the ugly" of stage races. I have no shortage of examples of each to draw on.

Now, where are those saddles?