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Grand Trail du Saint-Jacques; my first DNF

Race name
Trail du Saint-Jacques
Le Puy-en-Velay
80 kilometres

It should have been the race that confirmed I’m on the right track for the UTMB CCC, instead I’m left behind with lots of question marks. A story about my first Did Not Finish (DNF), at the Grand Trail du Saint-Jacques.

Question 1: Can I handle heat?

We’re 10 kilometres into the race and I’m struggling. We’ve climbed the first mountain and I feel hot. My legs are fine, but the sun is burning down on me. I haven’t had a lot of sun this year. To be fair, I think I’ve only had rain. My body isn’t used to running in the sun yet. It’s draining my energy.

The start this morning felt weird. We’re running a race in line. Around 7.30 am we had to be at the bus stop in Le-Puy-en-Velay. I was there 15 minutes before and could directly hup onto a bus. Half an hour later we were dropped in Monistrol d’Allier. The only problem; the start was at 9.30, so we had to stand and sit on the side of a wet road for 45 minutes on a very fresh morning.

No energy

A quarter past nine we were allowed to go to the start pen. I was in the second wave, which meant I had to stand there for another 25 minutes. It felt like a big waste of energy, before a race of 80 kilometres, with 3.100 metres of altitude. But at the CCC it won’t be any different, so I better get used to it.

I would have loved that freshness now. I run better in the cold. I think my best race so far was the Houffa Trail in January, in the snow, at minus 6 degrees. Heat is not my thing. The parts in the forest are okay, but on the open fields, I feel my energy draining away.

Maybe it’s just a feeling. I’m not doing badly. My plan is to run this race in 14 hours. I’m 20 minutes ahead of schedule.The first climb wasn’t as hard as expected. My legs feel like they can handle this pace for the rest of the race. Looks like my week of training in the Vosges is paying off.

Question 2: Should I have been wiser?

There is a second reason I feel low on energy. I’ve been stupid. Yesterday Sara wanted to go out for dinner. I know, never eat out the day before a race. Eat at home, or at least in an apartment.

Yet, sometimes you want to be nice to your girlfriend. This is her holiday as well and I’m dragging her to a race. Again. So we had a bite in town, which came retour last night.

This morning I ate noodles, my race food, and before the race I ate donuts. So far I’ve been eating an energy bar every half hour. That’s 60 grams of carbs per hour, excluding what’s in my sports drink. Still, I’ve missed a meal.

Question 3: What’s the damage in my left hip?

Just after the 15 kilometres point, on a little downhill, I decide to overtake the two guys in front of me. We’re on an easy downhill, the path is opening up and I like to speed up a bit. I’ve been doing a lot of downhill running in the Vosges. I know I can handle a faster pace than we’re running.

The moment I speed up, the rock I place my foot on rolls away and suddenly I’m on the ground. My right knee is bleeding, my right elbow is bleeding, my right hand is bleeding and my right hip doesn’t feel good. The guys in front of me directly stop and ask if I’m okay. I affirm. My hand hurts badly, my hip also, but everything is still working. At least, that’s what it looks like.

I wash the blood away. It looks like I have some gravel stones in my hand, but that’s a problem for later. Carefully I start running again. My hip doesn’t feel good, but I manage to run. The longer I go on, the more stiff my right glute becomes.

At the refreshment post around kilometre 47 the glute feels okay again, but by then I’ve got a more serious problem.

Question 4: Do I like big races?

There is something heroic about big races. That’s why I want to do the CCC and that’s why I want to do Zegama. I’m attracted by the crowds. It looks so cool to run by with all these spectators going wild. Even now, here on the Trail du Saint-Jacques I enjoy it when we run through a little village and a handful of spectators are clapping and ringing cowbells.

When I’m struggling, late in the race, a little kid who helps his mother crew, puts his portable speaker on full volume and cheers me on. I feel a surge of energy and together we run to the forest, where he returns to his mama and I dive in, with a smile on my face.

The downside of big races

However, there is a downside to big races. Traffic jams. On the first single track of the day, the whole field comes to a halt. On the wide asphalt road we’ve been running side by side, now one by one, we have to go on the small track into the forest.

The same problem occurs on the climbs. Not everybody goes up at the same speed, which leads to long cues, on the muddy, slippery tracks. As we start to pick up runners of the 100 miles race, things get worse. They have been going all night and some shuffle along, like zombies. We’re still fresh, but there isn’t a lot of space to pass.

Too many big egos

What irritates me is that if everybody waits respectfully in line to climb a steep hill, on a small path with no space to take over, there are always guys who try. Guys – never girls – whose egos are so big, they can’t wait their turn, but squeeze in front, slipping, falling and endangering the ones that are waiting.

I’ve spent a week in the Vosges, on my own. Going out for a run every day. Hardly seeing anybody. No cut-offs, no cues. Just me. I think I choose that over big races.

Question 5: Am I an ultra runner?

Seven hours into the race, with 43 kilometres done, plus most of the climbing, I’m asking myself if I’m an ultra runner. I’m bored. I had a nice conversation with Jean van Haperen, another Dutch guy who did the admirable thing of picking up all the wrappings of energy bars other runners dropped, but that’s it. Most people around me only speak French and I’m not in a too chatty mood myself.

The kilometres go by slowly. The trail is nice; forest, single tracks, wide open fields, but I miss the views you have in the mountains. It feels too much the same. Normally I would put on a podcast, but today I’m monitoring the battery of my phone. Will it last the 20 to 24 hours I need for the CCC? If I do this race in 14 hours, how much battery do I have left?

Running is meditation

For me, running is an active form of meditation. I run to still my mind. But I’ve done that for 7 hours and I have another 6 to 7 to go. Hours I can use to write stories, read books, make movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love running, but there is a limit to the hours in a day I want to spend running.

Question 6: How long will my knee injury last?

Thirty kilometres into the race I start to feel the tendon of my right Sartorius. It got inflamed a lot when I started running long distances, but on my last ultras, it has been fine. I’ve done a lot of strength training for it and lately I run without tape.

So why is it bothering me now? Have I been using my right leg more, because of the pain in my left hip? Is it all the slipping in the mud? As long as we go uphill it feels okay. Running on the flats and downhills hurts. It looks like I can’t straighten my leg anymore. Running the steeper downhills, with my legs continuingly bent, is doable.

Feeling good, but that sh*** knee

At the refreshment post I eat some macaroni with lentil soup. The temperature has gone down. Eating real food makes me feel better. At kilometre 40 I was 42 minutes ahead of schedule. The muscles in my legs still feel good. My stomach feels good. I’ve been eating well, drinking well. My left hip is okay-ish. If I jog to the finish, I can easily make it in 14 hours.

From the refreshment post we go up to Mont Deves, around 52 kilometres into this race. Uphill my knee is okay, downhill the pain gets worse and worse. I try to run parts, but every time I land the pain shoots through my whole leg. In the beginning it was just on the inside of my knee, now it radiates down to my shine and up to my thigh. Power hiking is the only thing I can do.

Runners I’ve left behind long ago, start to pass me. Deteriorating my mood even further. No, I don’t really care about placement. I know I’m not fast. But I was on my way to end up in the fastest half of the general standing. My best result so far. Now, I’m just stumbling.

Thinking about dropping out

At Bains I fill up my soft flasks again and calculate how many hours I have to walk to get to the finish. Probably three, if I can keep it at 6 kilometres an hour. But can I? My leg doesn’t bend anymore. And how wise is it to go on? How much damage can I do?

I look at my map. The next refreshment post at Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaison should be at 65 kilometres. Maybe the medics have tape there. Around me trail runners are flying by, enjoying the long, easy downhills. I envy them. I would love to run. I know my legs can do it, if it wasn’t for this shitty knee.

With every step the pain is getting worse and slowly I start to think about leaving the race. I never did that and I’m kind of proud of that. I’ve finished races where I could barely run or walk at the end. I’ve finished races in a very bad mood. But I’ve finished them all. I know I can stumble along, but what price will I have to pay?

I decide to take a step back. What would massage therapist John advise ultra runner John? Probably that if it is a tendon I can make it to the finish. But it will make the inflammation worse and it will take weeks – maybe even months – to heal. So how important is this race? The answer is simple. Not important enough to sacrifice the CCC. This race was a test case. Not my most important race of the season. The CCC is.


Now that I’ve made my decision I start to long for the refreshment post. I’m still walking 6 kilometres an hour, but it feels like those kilometres are ticking by really slowly. I keep checking my watch. 64 kilometres. Almost there. 64,5. 65; nothing. It should be here. 66k, still nothing. Then I hear voices. Is that it? The answer is no. A crossing with some spectators. They cheer me on. I try to smile back, but I feel sad. Weak. I’m dropping out. I’m failing.

After more than 67 kilometres I reach the post. The medic offers me a consultation with a doctor. I thank him, but I know what it is and I just want to go back to the apartment. Away from this race. Away from those who are happily running on.

A bus full of blank stares

Fifteen minutes later I step into the bus. Twelve drawn faces stare into space. The girl in front of me asks the runner next to her a plastic bag. As soon as she gets it, she pukes, twice.

Half an hour later we’re back in Le Puy-en-Velay, at the centre where we can pick up our bags. Nobody speaks. Once inside the girl asks me where to pick up our bag. The sign is right in front of her, but her eyes are hollow. She’s there, but she’s not.

I collect mine and stumble back to the apartment. I feel defeated. When I pass the road up to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy, the last stretch of the race, I stop for a moment. Spectators are cheering for the tired runners who can almost touch the finish line. Tears well up in my eyes, as I turn and walk alone and lonely through the almost deserted streets back to my apartment. With a head full of questions.

Race distances
  • 130k5.500m+
  • 80k6.200m+
  • 51k2.000m+
  • 18k600m+
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