Highs and lows, downs and ups, the Trail des Fantomes was riding on physical and mental waves of energy.
It’s almost five in the morning, pitch dark. The sky is covered with clouds. A little gap shows a tiny moon. No stars to be seen. Around me all runners have headlamps. All except me. I made a rookie mistake by assuming it would be light. I assumed wrong.
It does mean I can throw today’s plan overboard. My only idea is to make it to the finish, but to do that, I wanted to start slow. Now the thing I need most, is to stay close to those who have a headlamp, so I can see all the rocks and tree roots that are trying to trip me.
Not feeling it
I don’t know if it’s yesterday’s traffic (too much), the rain (too hard), the darkness, the early, uninspiring start, or bib pick-up yesterday, or my stupid mistake, but I don’t feel like running. We’ve done 3 kilometers and the only thing I want is to be in bed with a cup of tea and a good book. This is going to be a long day.
An hour later my mood hasn’t changed. I’m making my kilometers dutifully, following the lights in front of me. I’m here to see if my body can handle running for almost seventy kilometers. Okay, I’m here to enjoy myself as well, but that’s not the main thing today. What I do find interesting is how I will handle this mental state. My mind wants to quit. Can I be stronger than my mind?
A happy voice
A couple of kilometers later, my mind lights up for the first time, as I hear a familiar voice behind me. ‘Orange shirt, that has to be The Running Dutchman’, it says. I can’t directly place it and as it’s still dark, I don’t dare to look behind me. I need all my focus to stay on my feet.
A few hundred meters further, as we have to crawl underneath a fallen tree to continue our path, the voice catches up with me. It’s the one of Kevin Provost. Earlier this year we met at the Mighty Marathon in Geraardsbergen (Belgium); running the last couple of kilometers together to the finish.
Back then he was training for the Tour du Lac, a 2 day trail run around the Lake of Annecy. This time he is just back from the Mozart 100 in Austria, a race I have my eyes set on for next year. But it wasn’t the big event Kevin expected it to be, being part of UTMB. Which means I might have to reconsider my plans.
A light in the dark
The only option I have now is staying close to him, as he has a head torch. I succeed for a couple of kilometers, but as soon as it becomes a bit more light and I can distinguish the roots and rocks from the rest of the trail I let go. I have to. Kevin definitely became a better and faster runner over the last couple of months. Too fast for me at this moment.
Dutiful I make my kilometers, in the now pouring rain. Still not too happy to be running this morning. But as soon as I leave the first refreshment post behind me, my second happy moment comes. An older lady joins her daughter for a loop. She’s 61 years old, but an amazing runner. She apologies for being on the trail. Her daughter is doing her first 68 kilometers and she is just here for moral support, as she is too lazy to run the whole race herself, she says.
She looks happy to have somebody to talk to. As I ask her how she can be such a good runner for a lazy person, she admits that she does run a lot. A whole lot, as she is training for the Half Marathon des Sables, a 3 day, self sufficient stage race, with a total of 120 kilometers. Self sufficient in this case means also carrying all your own food for three days, and your sleeping and toiletry bag.
Around 17 kilometer I leave mother and daughter behind me, and follow my way on my own. But again, not for long, as I doubt if I’m still on the right track. Today’s trail consists of 3 different loops from start to finish, followed by 2 more loops that will bring us twice to refreshment post number 4. It does mean sometimes you cross a road and see signs to your right and signs in front of you.
As I am trying to figure out which one is the right one, Amelie Mathieu – half of her hair pink, the other half purple – catches up with me and guides me in the right direction. It’s the second time she’s running a big distance like this and just like me, she has her eyes set on more. A few kilometers later, we start playing leapfrog, up until she runs away from me.
When I leave the second refreshment post, after 25 kilometers, I finally feel a bit like running. Maybe the runner’s high is finally kicking in, maybe it’s just the Coca Cola, maybe it’s the flat section. Although, flat means runnable, and my legs don’t seem to like running fast. They preferred the slow pace from before.
The happy feeling lasts only for a couple of kilometers, because as soon as I stumble upon a technical section by the river, with lots of fallen trees and slippery rocks, the thought hits me. I’ve done 28 kilometers, that means I still have a marathon to go. A full marathon, and my hamstrings are already feeling pretty shit. Somehow, I don’t see myself doing that today.
Start the countdown
Six kilometers later, the world looks a lot brighter. 34 kilometers means I’m halfway and can start counting down. It’s fascinating how the mind swings from highs to lows in ultrarunning. It’s like riding on mental waves.
The same for my energy. One moment I feel low and am happy to power hike, half an hour later I’m running again. It’s like being hit by waves of energy. Although not every wave is involuntarily. All climbing sections are walking sections, all technical sections are walking sections. Flats and downhills are the moments to run.
Taking it easy
Refreshment post 4 is the first one, that isn’t at the event’s starting location. It’s the one I’ve been looking out for, as this will be the last, long, hard loop. Mentally hard, because I’m convinced that if I make this loop, make 58 kilometers, I will make 68. I mean, with 10 kilometers to go, I’m not stepping out.
It does mean, I am taking it a bit easy. There are still 24 kilometers to go from here and my legs feel pretty trashed. Plus I am a bit done with this trail. Yes, the forest is beautiful, running by the river is beautiful, but I’ve been running for more than 7 hours. I’ve seen it by now.
I’m also running alone again, somewhere in the middle of nowhere of the field. Nobody in front of me, nobody behind me. Or running, a lot of it is power hiking on this loop. With one running pole. I broke the other one at kilometer 20. I slipped on a rock and landed with my hand on the side of the pole. It didn’t like it. It rests in the trash can of the second aid station. The pole I’ve got left I alternate between my left and right hand. Although on some climbs I use it with both hands to pull myself up the hill.
A new wave of energy
To be honest, I feared this race. I ran a marathon and a 30 kilometer in training to prepare for this race. They went okay, but not great. I had the idea I hadn’t run enough kilometers to make it to the finish line today. Strangely enough, I start to feel better and better. Maybe it’s a new wave of energy, maybe it’s because I’ve left the last refreshment post behind me and am now doing the last loop of 10 kilometers.
The last time Sara checked I was number 77, out of 99 runners. I lost a couple of places after that, but now I’m taking over people. People who are walking, while I’m running. Of course I feel my legs, they are painful, but they don’t stop me from running. Maybe it sounds crazy, but I feel more energised than I’ve felt all day.
A wet surprise
Of course there are a few surprises awaiting me, like every trail run. Trails are made by sadists. The moment you can’t put one foot in front of the other anymore, but are holding on to the thought you’re almost there, is the moment you get the steepest climb or the biggest obstacle. In this case, the deepest, as I have to cross the river Ourthe. Not by bridge, but through the water.
It’s only waist deep, but after a month of rain the current is so strong and my legs so trashed, that it knocks me twice off my feet. The second time I hit my knee on a big rock, which make bending it immediately painful.
When I drag myself on the other shore, I need a couple of minutes to get my knee moving again. But my mind is set on the finish, so I spur myself on to run again. Once I watched a YouTube video of an ultra runner, who said: ‘If you can run, run. If you can’t run, jog. If you can’t jog, walk, but keep on moving.’
I don’t think I can call it running what I’m doing, maybe more jogging, or just stumbling forward, but I’m moving and I’m still taking over other runners. Even a steep descent and a steep climb where we have to lower ourselves down and have to pull ourselves up with a rope can’t stop me.
Neither, the last, crazy steep climb, on which I’m happy I have one running pole left, so I don’t slide down again. I am on a good wave of energy now and from the top of the hill, I speed up one more time, on to the finish, where the clock stops for me, the number 68, at eleven hours, 48 minutes and 27 seconds. 68,5 kilometers in the pocket. What will be next?