I’m now the proud owner of the 2013 Trail des Citadelles 73 km finisher T-shirt! This is very cool because I had to earn this T-shirt. Many races just give the T-shirt out at the start line with your number as if it’s a given that you’ll easily romp home without hardly breaking a sweat. Actually I think there should be a new law – if you are given the T-shirt before the race and then you don’t actually finish the race then you should give the damn thing back. Or maybe they could scribble “loser” over the front of your shirt? I don’t know, it just feels great to have actually earned my T-shirt for once.
So on 31st of March 2013 I finished my second ultra marathon, and I’m going to say this now, I think this may have been one of the best race experiences I’ve had. In fact, and I don’t want to come across all elitist and showy offy, I didn’t really find it that hard…
Well okay, maybe it was a little hard.
And perhaps the fact that now a couple of days have passed my memories are somewhat “rose tinted.” Yes, actually when I think about it there was an awful lot of mud… and at one point I did swear a solemn oath to myself that I’d never, ever run in mud ever again…
73 km of mud running…
The French for mud is “boue.” Quite often during the race I over heard my fellow runners uttering such things as, “Merde: La boue.” or, “Putain: La boue” and “J’en ai marre avec cette putain de merde boue.”
Translation: There was lots and lots of boue.
At times it was quite good fun and reminded me of the few years that I ran in the Hereford league cross country. But those races were usually no longer than 6 miles, Conversely I estimated that during this race I probably ran no more than 6 miles on dry surfaces. The other 39 miles were muddy buggers. There were four distinct types of mud on offer…
- Slimey tread deep mud usually covering a hard rocky path, quite runnable but often hiding little secret “trip hazards,” quite slippy on an incline.
- Very bright, almost yellow coloured mud, extremely slick and the slide was not predictable, causing me two bad falls and countless near misses.
- Dark brown, deep boggy squelchy mud, that seemed to want to rip shoes off or pull the trekking poles out of you hands (not that I ran with poles, just noticed this happen to some of the folks with cheating sticks… ha!)
- Is this mud or am I actually in the river?
And the Trail des Citadelles is not an average mudfest. No, it has the added bonus of steep climbs and even steeper descents – lots and lots of them, mostly muddy. Over the whole course there is a whopping 3600 metres (11811 feet) of positive vertical in total. Did I mention that most of that was muddy? The course profile looks like this:
So… How did it go?
My alarm woke me at 3 in the morning so I could get up and out of the house by 4. Of course the clocks had changed so in reality I was waking at 2 and leaving at 3. This is why we have coffee. I had packed everything the night before and my bowl of rice pudding was waiting in the fridge; I ate this with chopped banana and a creme fraîche and nutella topping. Nice.
I finally got in the van at 4.15 am and set off for Lavelanet, a small town nestled below the Mont d’Olmes mountain range. This small massif is beautiful, unspoiled and it’s the first proper mountains as you head south from Toulouse. There’s even a bit of skiing to be had there. The area is also famous for it’s mountain top castles – this is Cathar country and the race does more than enough to take us on a tour of the most beautiful places in the area. I arrived in Lavelanet just after 5 am and headed to the registration building, sorted out my number, had a coffee, faffed about with my gear and did the usual pre-race tension release technique of standing in a nervous queue waiting to use one of two toilets provided for over 300 starters.
Will half an hour be enough time to get to the front of the line?
Should I just hold it in and do a Pope? (You know – bears, popes… woods etc.)
The queue moved slowly as to be expected, as we all need a bit more time in this situation, but eventually loads were lightened and I found myself walking to the starting tent.
Yes. They had a starting tent!
After a bit of a briefing, much of which I didn’t really understand, we were off. I decided that I was not going to do anything stupid, remain humble – this was after all only my second ultra race so my goal was to get through it. But hey I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to shoot for a time so I went out with a nice round 10 hours in mind. And maybe that could have been a possibility if it wasn’t for all that life sucking mud. Due to the time change the first hour and a half was in the dark, we were obliged to run with head torches. I’ve never been in a race with that many head torches before, and the view looking back through the woods of the long line of lights was quite amazing.
The first section wasn’t too steep with a nice gentle climb through woods and some great tracks, it was raining, but at this point there was not too much problem with the mud. Some sections were a bit slippery but no major concerns. After about 2 hours and 20 minutes of pretty even paced running and hiking I reached the first aid station at 18km, in the village of Bélesta. This was no ordinary aid station. Based in the village’s, “salle des fêtes” they had heating, seats and tables piled high with food. I drank soup in a cup which was nice, had some cheese and chocolate (also nice). Tempting as it was to linger in the warmth of this temple of aid stations, I decided that I could get ahead of some of the runners that I was already playing cat and mouse with (this was a race after all) and I quietly slipped out before getting too comfortable.
I hit a road section for a kilometer or two and then the mud really began in earnest. From that point up to the next aid station I can’t recall much, nice trails, really nice forest running, but quite a bit of mud and some real kick ass climbs. I reached the next stop at Fourgax (34 km) about 4 and a half hours in. The aid station here was less palatial but the volunteers were very friendly and I ate soup, saucisson crisps, cheese and two cups of coke. I left with full water bottles and some squares of chocloate. The next section was a big hike out of the valley culminating in reaching the summit of Montségeur with it’s beautiful castle perched on top.
I found this section quite hard and I suppose if there was a low point it was here. I had decided to take off my jacket and I got quite cold, I had also drunk very cold water and this had started me wheezing a little. I had a few moments of doubt on the climb. I was already more than 5 hours in and I felt like my goal time was slipping away with every slippery muddy foot placement. Fortunately the path dried out a little nearer the top and I was able to hike a bit faster. The last section up to the castle was a very narrow single track that climbed out of the woods and wound its way up a steep rocky path. Annoyingly there were a lot of tourists taking their time to get up to the castle. Added to this were runners heading back down the path… It was quite a moment. I was glad to reach the top, do the loop around the castle and head back down. I made sure to take on a few gels at that point as there was still some way to go to the next aid station.
After picking my way back down from the castle, and dodging the general public I found myself on perhaps the most runnable mud section of the race, the descent was gradual, wide and not so dangerous. There were also quite a few fallen logs and I couldn’t help but do a few show off jumps over these. By doing this sort of thing not only am I being really cool but it increases the fun factor and this helps to take the pain away. Okay, In reality I may look like a complete twat when I’m running fast down a hill and take a jump and grab my feet like a freestyle skier – but at least I’m winning the psychological battle.
During this section the guy that I was playing cat and mouse with earlier caught up and passed me, but this time my competitiveness burned through and I fought back making up the place and passing him again. I could sense him behind me all the way to the next aid station where we ended up having a bit of a laugh about it. One thing for sure that part was very up lifting, this was the moment when I knew I had the race.
After leaving the aid station at Montferrier (47 km) I was on a high, I passed quite a few runners at this point, I even managed to out walk a group of three. My family were waiting at the next village and this thought pepped me up some more. Unfortunately the mud in this section was truly horrible and as we approached the village of Roquefixade where my support crew waited there was a wicked short and steep climb that took a lot out of me. But on the plus side the sun was out and it was warming up. I cruised in to the village and was greeted by my family – my son waving the Union Jack. Super stuff.
I decided that I’d change my socks at this point and left the family with a soaked, rotten and muddy pair to deal with. I took a few minutes to do this but it was a nice rest and after I felt renewed.
I headed off with a very happy heart up the next climb past the Chateau de Roquefixade. By this point I was fueling a lot with gels, and the chocolate Cliff Bar ones were working really well. I was also paying attention to my hydration as I usually get more thirsty the longer I’m in the race. I passed the chateau with just over 9 hours on the clock, by now I knew my goal of a 10 hour finish was not possible, but I was hoping to come in under 11 hours. I didn’t realise that there was still a whopping great big climb left!
The descent down from Roquefixade was dry at the top turning very muddy at the bottom of the valley. We passed the most beautiful waterfall at this point. I’ve lived in the area for almost 2 years and I never knew of it’s existence… I made a mental note to come back as I headed into the last aid station at Roqueforte les Cascades (61 km) A quick bite to eat, some coke and a refill of my bottles and I was off. I over heard someone announce that it was only 11 km to go, so that got me excited… That’s nothing I thought I can run a hilly 10 km in an hour. But at this point my body seemed uninterested in running, even on a nice flat dry track. I kept urging myself to run, but the sun was now hot, my jacket was stowed and I felt like strolling. I probably walked for about a kilometer until a chap who I thought I had left for dust miles back passed me, I decided to try and run, but all I could manage was a stop start, run walk. And then it got stupidly muddy again…
So I dug deep, hiked as best I could over the two short climbs and eventually descended into Raissac, 5 km from the finish. I scanned the vista before me, trying to workout where the trail led after the village – I could see the main road and the signpost for Lavelanet, surely it would be a nice flat run into the town…?
The sting in the tail
Every good race has one the TDC is no exception. After leaving Raissac the course crossed the road and went straight up the steep rocky hill on the other side of the valley. Please I thought, not all the way to the top… I was reduced to a very slow walk, but managed to keep moving one foot in front of the other. I knew from looking at the course profile that there was a descent to the finish but the final climb was relentless. I eventually reached the top where the single track branched on to a ridge path, which looked like my thing; a nice easy, rangy rock strewn single track. But I was so drained from the climb and the previous eleven and a half hours of running that it was all I could do to manage a brisk walking pace. I decided that this would do for a moment – I ate two gels and drank some water. I quickly caught up with the chap who I was previously racing, he looked pretty beat and was walking the path with another competitor. I recognised that my pace was much quicker so I overtook them both and wondrously started running again! With the help of the descent I managed to get back to something resembling a running pace, some other competitors were managing this as well and soon I had a bunch of people behind me. Thinking that they wanted to overtake me I stepped to the side and let two go past.
I instantly regretted the decision as I knew my pace was okay, the trail was getting very technical and demanded a lot of concentration, so I slipped back in between the group of four and blatantly used the lead two as pacers! I managed to keep up with them well and soon found myself overtaking them again, the path now was getting steeper and I could hear some muffled French coming from the public address system at the finish. I was going to do it! No question. Bolstered by this I increased my speed, the assistance from gravity playing a large part in this – there was no sense in saving the quads now. I ran hard down hill and came out of the woods to the final steep run in to town. It was so steep they had a rope!
I crossed the road with the finish in sight and even managed a sprint to the line! I completed the race in 12 hours and 4 minutes – the feeling of finishing was exceptional, I wasn’t disappointed to have gone over my goal time by 2 hours. I sat down over the road from the finish with Delphine and I felt great, like I could keep on running, she even commentated that I didn’t look too bad. Perhaps all those hours spent wading through knee deep snow this winter have paid off?
Will I be back to do it again? I honestly don’t know, now that I know the course I’m sure I’d do better next year, and could it really ever be that muddy again? I’m sure that I prefer the simplicity of up and back down mountain running, as opposed to the continual ascending and descending of a trail race. We’ll see. Oh yes almost forgot, there’s an added bonus – I’ve got two points towards the UTMB now!
Gear and Fuel
- Ron Hill long sleeve top (the new one) – it’s just right if it’s not going to be that cold, but still cold enough to warrant sleeves – I don’t want the faff of those silly sleeves that you wear under a T-Shirt.
- Ron Hill trail shorts.
- OMM Kamleika Race Smock.
- Hilly trail socks, Pete Bland trail socks.
- Merrell Mix Master 2. Great shoe for comfort, but not for immutability or grip. This race finished them off, the medial side upper completely tearing away from the sole… With only just over 200 miles on the clock I expect more so I’ll be looking at something more robust in the future. It’s a shame as the last really suits my foot shape.
- Sansa Clip Zip MP3
- Sound Magic ear phones
- Alpkit Gamma head torch (It’s all you need).
- Golite Rush Rucksack.
- Cheep watch from Decathalon
- 5 Chocolate Cliff Gels
- 5 Apple Isotar Gels (tastes like medicine).
- 3 Powerbar fruit bars
- 4 marzipan bars
- half a bar of nutty chocolate
- Elete Electrolyte stuff
- And my trusty Buff.
In addition to all that fuel I scoffed loads of food at the aid stations and drank coke which I always seem to crave I probably took on between 2000-3000 cal during the race.