Saturday 17 March 2018

Eco-Trail of Paris - Impossible? Give me a break!

 Cet article est disponible en français ici.  

Six months training for a well-prepared race that turned into a nightmare...

My misfortune is starting at the airport, where I have to wait 4h to take off from Berlin. Time to head to my sister's place and prep my bag for the next day, I crash into bed at 4am.

I open my eyes around 8am, long before the alarm. My head hurts but my body is done sleeping. Time to hit the road, I won't give up so close to my goal ! I slip into my running clothes and go out in the chilly morning, heading for the train station where I catch up with the pack of runners waiting for the train. We leave the station for cold and gloomy landscapes. The weather says it will rain in the afternoon, maybe even show. I try to swallow a sandwich, without any appetite. I look at the Spanish runner in front of me, competing for the 80k, with the following words tattooed on his thigh: "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional"... Oh my!

We get out at St Cyr and hop on a bus shuttel that takes us to the parc of Versailles, where we reach the starting area. After some deep thoughts, I decide to keep my long-sleeve shirt, my rain jacket and my leggins only. I take a backup sweater too, just in case.

I give up my bag and head to the starting line, where breakfast is served. I feel depleted of all my energy, my body ache after the 4h waiting at the airport, I got pain in my head due to sleep deprivation. Am I really up to run 45km? I feel so uncertain at the moment, but that ship has sailed. The countdown echoes from the speakers and we all rush forward in an ode of joy. Alea jacta est. We still have no idea what's waiting for us up there.

The Eco-Trail of Paris is an annual event organised by the Région Parisienne, offering different races: 18, 30, 45 and 80km. What makes it unique is that it's not looping, you start out of town and end up at the feet of the Eiffel Tower. With more than 90% of dirt and forest roads, the routes bring you to magnificent places, like the Versailles Castel or the Meudon observatory. Moreover, if you subscribe to the 80k, you will have the chance (but is it really one?) to cross the finish line at the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, after climbing its 347 steps ! Add to this some strict rules that runners have to follow, like carrying a waste bag, drinking in your own cup and respecting the visited areas. It's all very environment-friendly, unlike some city races, which can be pretty polluting.

Let's get back to business. After a complete tour of the Grand Canal with the Versailles Castel breaking through the morning haze behind us, we exit the parc. My stiff body starts to warm up. Quick look at the watch, 5km.

We leave the streets of Versailles for the first slope. If I want to complete the race, I will have to climb 900m of elevation overall. But I am not planning any finish time, so I take it easy and I walk uphill, refuelling on my homemade flap-jacks.

The misty rain thickens. I pull on my hood and protect my face behind buff and beanie, with barely enough space for my eyes to see where I'm going. It's no pick-nick, as the ground is getting muddy and slippery. We run over the highway and into the forest again.

My arms are getting cold and my fingers painful inside the wet gloves. The rain intensifies. We are now entering the hardest part of the race. Only 10km to go until the next supply point, but the weather gets nasty, turning the route into an obstacle race. The path is steep and narrow, snaking between the trees. Our feet sink into mud at every step and I have to stay focused, hold on to branches and jump over puddles so I don't stumble. It is impossible to keep a steady pace, my muscles are tiring. Everyone is complaining and the mood is not as cheerful as two hours ago.

Still, I've always been an optimistic and I keep a cool head. We have just reached Vélizy-Villacoublay, where I grew up as a kid. We are close to my secondary school and I know these woods, for having run many cross-country races at that time. I feel old, that was 22 years ago ! I eat and drink a bit, glance at the watch, 20km, only five more before the break.

The supply point is playing hard to get. We climb flooded hills, running on tip toes. A bunch of volunteers in bright yellow vests encourage us and show us the way. Heroes of the shadows, they work hard all day long in the cold so we can finish the race.

"One kilometer to the aid station!", shouts one of them. I fly over the last slope and enters a little clearing in the heart of Chaville's forest, where they installed the first aid station. Half of the race is behind me now.

After a few seconds of joy, reality hits me hard. I am soaked to the skin and freezing to death. I take shelter under a tent to escape the sharp wind. Show is still falling around us, I feel like trapped into a snowball. The mood is worse than ever and many runners are giving up. I myself feel down but I still have some gas in the tank to resume my journey. I need to hurry though, as every second strikes me down even more. The hardest part is coming: changing and getting warm.

I get rid of my wet clothes and put on my sweater, that I carried around in my running bag. Thank God it's dry! I fill up my hydration bladder and join the buffet, where an old granny is playing the ladle. The soup is boiling hot. Bottoms up! I drink one down and ask for a second one.

I plunder the plates full of chocolate, cookies and energy bars. Quick look at the watch, it's time to hit the road. Second act, next aid station in 10km.

The narrow paths make room for larger routes. The ground is still muddy and slippery, but I don't need to focus all my attention onto it. I feel better now, the sleep deprivation merged into a general weariness, with a persistent headache.

At a crossroads, I meet some lost runners and start chatting with Stéphane, a trail veteran, to keep my mind busy until the next stopoff. He's a real bushwhacker who loves 100km orienteering races. His speciality is to rush straight ahead without thinking, spilling water onto my shoes at every puddle of mud. Between two "sorry", he gives me some tips to finish one day the 80km, as he did many times already.

This slow pace suits me and the discussion makes time fly quicker, until the next stop, which is up there after this last slope, according to veterans who know the route by heart. We drag ourselves up to the domain of Saint-Cloud and finally spot the aid station, at the 35th kilometer. Last few metres before the apéritif!

This one is smaller, some tables covered with water barrels, two or three tents with shivering volunteers. Let's be quick this time. I have enough water to finish and nothing dry to change into anyway. It's soup time! The thought hasn't left me since the last stop. The cup is burning my frozen hands. The heat radiates into my whole body and I resist the urge to spill it on my head.

I look at the victuals and I cannot believe my eyes. I wasn't lying when I said apéritif! I hurl myself at the cheese cubes, the crackers and the slices of dried sausage. I'm just missing some pickles and a glass of red wine! The volunteers are super nice. We talk about the participants running the 80km, who will reach this aid station around 20h, after going through hell. Stéphane hits the road again and I follow him, to keep him company. 10km to go until the finish line and a last well-deserved soup.

After running downhill on a zigzagging path, we are journeying back to the civilization. We find ourselves on the Seine docks, in front of the Seguin island and follow the riverbank. The colourful barges watch us pass by under the persistent snow. We trot around the majestic dome of the Scène Musicale until the parc of Saint Germain Island.

Stéphane is losing ground and I take the lead. My body is exhausted but swallows these last kilometers without complaining. I force myself to drink, even if I'm not thirsty, and to eat a flapjack. We are now running along the grey avenues. Cars keep honking at us with excitement. We meet some finishers wrapped in survival blankets heading the other way. The finish line is very close. I check my watch, 42km. For the third time, I am reaching this mythical distance. Only today, I am venturing beyond that point, deep into the unknown.

We cross the Grenelle bridge and we get down onto the Cygnes island. A handful of runners are walking now, out of energy. I am pushing myself on the Bir-Hakeim bridge, pain rushing from my ankles into my legs. When finally I see her: huge, imposing, her feet trapped into the haze, her head lost into the cloudy sky. The Eiffel Tower is rising in front of us, and at her feet, right before the carousel, waits for us the finish line.

Rush of overwhelming joy. A handful of brave supporters encourages and pushes us towards the finish. I take our my phone and start a video recording of this epic moment... Ten meters before the line, the battery is running out and my phone dies in agony. Thank God I can hold longer than that!

I cross the finish line 6h and 16 min after the starting one. Even if I walked a lot and I took my time at the aid stations, it's a really good time for me and I cannot believe that I just ran 45km through the cold, mud and snow after a 4h-sleep night! Never underestimate how strong and determined the mindset can be!

I grab my finisher tee-shirt and take shelter amongst the volunteers, waiting for Stéphane. We exchange a warm handshake before parting ways. This is part of the wonderful trail experience, sharing intense moments with complete strangers, until each one goes his own way, hoping we will meet again one day at the crossroads.

I'm cold, I'm hungry, my numb fingers cannot endure it any longer. I'm heading straight to the shower. Then I wrap up warmly into my scarf and end up at the supply tent where the soup is still warm.

It's time to go home. I follow the damp avenues, cross the Iéna bridge above the Seine and painfully climb the Trocadero stairs in the chilly sunset. In my back, the giant iron lady silently gazes at me. I promise myself to come back for the 80k, and climb her stairs until the finish line. She who used to be a common monument to me, has become a symbol today, a future step on my runner's journey.