Warning: Long post. This is a race review which comes with a background story.
Although this blog may present a charming life of travel, food and fun, several incidents over the last few months have conspired to creating a sense of pressing urgency within the Ninja Turtle to redeem herself. First, there was the accident of falling from a height of 2.5m onto concrete while on holidays back in November last year (and the subsequent few months of recurring nightmares where the Turtle was falling to her death in some way or another), leaving the Ninja Turtle with a perpetual sense of mortality ever after.
Then, there was the crushing defeat of her first DNF at the Trail Yonne back in May; after months of training for the ultramarathon event, increasing her mileage, cleaning up her diet and quitting all the good stuff in life (wine), she found her limits against Mother Nature.
More recently, she’d “lost” her job (word used loosely here – she had in fact, painfully decided to walk away from it) when everyone around her pointed out the fact that it was not normal to be busting her balls for ridiculous hours at a token pay that equated to exploitation. Nor was it normal that none of her writings on the site were ever attributed to her name, and since she’d taken all promises in good faith, she’d only learnt that she was being used when she finally tried to sort out a contract and was essentially told that she was not worth a paycheck.
The breaking point came when she’d gone back to Singapore and was on a couple of occasions, treated with such little respect with regards to her time, that within a week or so, she’d lost a couple of kilos due to missing out on sleep, meals, and even the chance to use the toilet, and fell so ill with a raging fever that for a while, they were worried she’d contracted MERS during her stopover in Dubai. After months of dedication, she pretty much has nothing to show for her work. Worst of all, during this period of insanity, the Ninja Turtle had neglected GodzillaPin on various occasions, choosing to prioritise meeting rushed deadlines over quality time (especially at Easter).
The Ninja Turtle is choosing to reveal all this information now, as she had kept some or all of it from various friends and family out of shame. The thing is, while the Ninja Turtle may not be competitive, she handles failure very poorly (perhaps this is exactly why she’s not competitive). Some people bounce back quickly, but she’s the sort to withdraw into a darkened room, curl into a tight ball and wash her wounds with tears of self-pity. Melodramatic, for sure. Thankfully, she’s had amazingly good friends like Sonic and Krazy Kow who rallied by her side immediately, but also Mother, Papa and Baby Turtle who showed her unjudgemental and unconditional love, and GodzillaPin who readily forgave her for the few awkward months, so she wouldn’t all but give up on writing and running completely (which would have been really stupid).
So these were the Ninja Turtle’s primary motivations for signing up for the race, which fell on the weekend of her birthday. She’d wanted a chance to redeem herself, to celebrate life, and to take on a challenge because life goes on.
The race was stated to start at 8.30am and it was quite timely (her watch read 8.33am). There were 812 people registered for the 35km race, but only 750 showed up at the starting line. The sun was already out by then, and all the runners’ were sporting hydration packs that were full to bursting. The Ninja Turtle looked at the mountains around her, thought about the 1900+ elevation gain and 1900- descent that awaited her; her brain failed so she resorted to humming “She’ll be coming round the mountain” instead.
Passerelle is what the French call a bridge. The race took the runners across two simple suspension bridges that crossed the Drac and the Ebron. Built in 2007 using helicopters, these cable bridges span 180m and 220m. Depending on the water level in the artificial lake, the bridges sit 45 to 85m above the water.
The first picture is a sign pointing to the Drac suspension bridge. The race route took the runners across the bridges 4 times in all. The middle photo was taken while queueing to cross the bridge for the first time. The Ninja Turtle was happy but she’d yet to learn what was to come. Almost all the runners enjoyed a magnificent view from the bridges. Sadly, the Ninja Turtle was not one of them.
A few steps onto the bridge, which was swinging wildly from the combined weight of all the runners and the wind, she was seized by overwhelming panic, and paralysis set in. The dizzying height brought back her fear of falling, and her heart rate shot up to 175 despite standing stock still. Each time she had to cross, a fellow runner would hold her by the hand and gently coax her forward with encouraging words, while her tears flowed, her knees buckled and she rambled nonsense about death. She got the names of two runners – Isabelle (mother of 3 who lives in the area) and Judit (a young Hungarian doctor), but not the gentleman whose poor hand she probably fractured, squeezing so hard. Whoever he is, bless his runner’s soul, she hopes he scored a PR.
These photos do little justice to the race experience. The climb was insanely tough, and runners who came with walking poles had an advantage, while those without had to resort to hands on knees. Many runners stopped to catch their breaths (both literally and metaphorically), as the air got thinner as they ascended, but the view was truly spectacular.
Several things the Ninja Turtle did right this time:
1. Pacing herself by effort. As soon as she’d hit Start on her GPS HRM watch, she’d all but ignored the details on it except to occasionally glance at her heart rate. Speed was irrelevant since there was no cut off time for any check points or the entire race.
2. Constant hydration. As the mercury pushed towards 37°C (98°F) on the unsheltered summits, it was imperative to keep drinking.
3. Eating early and eating often. After burning through too many calories to maintain her core body temperature, costing her a DNF at the last race, the Ninja Turtle has learnt her lesson. Eat as much as you can, as often as you can. Also, she skipped the dried and fresh fruits this time, opting for crackers and cheese sandwiches because when you’re drinking about 5L (1.3 gallons) of water, you’d better be replacing the NaCl.
Several things she could have done better:
1. The Ninja Turtle lost 15 minutes at the first water stop. First of all, there was a queue of thirsty runners battling to refill their hydration packs. When everyone else towers over you, you quickly become invisible to the volunteers. After politely hanging around the back for a few minutes, the Ninja Turtle decided to just crawl under the crowd of smelly runners and get her share. However the battle was not over. She struggled for another 10 minutes trying to figure out how to close that stupid device. Lesson: don’t use new gear on race day.
2. The Ninja Turtle may have been doing a few runs on Mont St Quentin and Les Sartelles (military grounds in Moselle and Meuse, featuring hills) sporting a new pair of New Balance trail shoes, so she’s been perfecting her uphill climbs and rolling back downhill in those flashy things. She’s learnt to rotate her hips more and let gravity do some work for her, so she can actually enjoy the sensation of going fast. However, she didn’t take into account that her training ground insufficiently reflected the incline and decline of race conditions. After the first descent, she could feel all her toenails threatening to fall off. After her second descent, her quads were screaming for mercy. Lesson: you can never be over-prepared.
Useful advice from the running community that’s helped her:
1. Ultra runner Paviter Singh once shared with the Ninja Turtle the technique of thinking of the race not by its total distance, but the number of summits to surmount. The Ninja Turtle found this, combined with thinking of the number of food+hydration pit stops, helped greatly in keeping up morale.
2. Trail runner Jon had recently shared his experience at the TransLantau 50 and how he hadn’t carried enough gels on him for the race, as he didn’t expect to take that much longer to complete a trail (as compared to road). This helped the Ninja Turtle keep her expectations of finishing time in check (i.e. she had none, she just wanted to complete it), and also to carry spare food in her sack in case.
The race was mostly a series of uphills or downhills – very occasionally the runners came across a stretch of flat ground, but most were too tired to run or even jog these brief moments of respite.
After the Ninja Turtle crossed the bridge for the fourth and final time, she’d thought the worst was behind her. It was about 4.5 hours into the race, and she took stock of her situation – the sun was unrelenting but she didn’t feel overheated. She was a bit tired like everyone else, but she’d been eating and drinking enough to feel OK to go on. Her toenails were the only things that truly bothered her, and she was wary of how her gait has changed as a result of it. Now all that was left to do was to face that final monster climb, get something to eat and drink on the summit, and roll back downhill to the finish line. How hard could that be?
Turns out, pretty darn hard. The pain of her toenails hitting the front of her shoe was becoming increasingly unbearable, and the Ninja Turtle started to trip over the roots and the rocks. She didn’t give much thought to the first few stumbles, but then she had a fall. A few concerned runners (Judit included) checked to see if she was OK, and luckily it was nothing serious. Off they all went again.
About a-third to halfway up the Mother Ascent, the Ninja Turtle slowed down. The trail had become treacherously technical, and she was stumbling more frequently. She knew it wasn’t light-headedness, it was a combination of muscular fatigue and those damned toenails. On a small brief stretch of downhill that was rocky and dusty and hell, the Ninja Turtle fell a second time, this time, much harder.
She laid sprawled on the ground for a moment, engulfed by searing pain all over. A few runners came up from behind, and one stood beside her with his arm stretched out, without hurrying her at all, just waiting for her to be ready to be hauled onto her feet. She gritted her teeth, and grunted in pain while she was yanked up, and took stock of the situation. Covered in dust all over, she had blood streaming down her left forearm, her knee and her right hand, which bore the brunt of the shock, was stabbed by 3 stones. Her right hip was grazed through her clothing and began to bloom with a giant bruise.
The Ninja Turtle has a weak stomach for blood. She has a terrible history of fainting at the sight of blood, her own or someone else’s. When she saw all that blood gushing out of her hand, she almost vomitted in pain, fear and disgust. Other runners coming by all asked if she was OK, and a few of them helpfully squirted her wounds with water from their bottles. After a few painful minutes, a parade had overtaken her, and the Ninja Turtle was left all alone.
She looked at her GPS: 28.7 km. The final water stop was on the summit at 30km (a bit farther, since she’d run more than the official distance measured) and the finish at 35.1km. The sun was shining, the butterflies were flitting amidst the mountain flowers, and the Ninja Turtle decided to take however long she needed to finish the race, but there was no way in hell she was going to DNF again.
Sniffling like a baby, she switched gears back down to Tortoise Mode and plodded along, daintily avoiding those stupid stones, singing to herself some silly nonsense to reassure herself that all was fine. When she got to the final water stop she went straight to the first aid van. The man laconically glanced at her, asking “had a little accident, did we?” before looking at her wounds and proceeding to declare they were superficial grazing. He sauntered to the food table, took a bottle of water and poured it over the Turtle’s wounds. The Turtle howled in pain, and he looked bemused. “Surely it’s not that bad?” he said.
The Turtle was very unhappy. In her great huffiness, she departed after washing out her contact lenses, forgetting to eat and drink something. Turns out, there was still another kilometre of climbing before the descent began. BAH.
The Ninja Turtle took a good hour or so to finish the last few kilometres of the race. The descent was steep, the terrain incredibly technical, and she knew that psychologically, she could not afford another fall. Her toenails occasionally reminded her of their misery, but by that stage, the Turtle was in pain all over, that it became a game of rotating her focus on different injuries. Her right hand was bleeding afresh and she could not look at it. On the way back down, she was overtaken by another several dozen runners; on a cliff edge, yielding the path to runners who cannot afford to lose momentum means taking the outside edge of the cliff so they don’t risk slipping and falling off. The Ninja Turtle would stand breathless, letting the others pass, hoping she wouldn’t fall off herself.
A kilometre from the finish line, the Ninja Turtle took out her phone to ring GodzillaPin. The plan was for her to call, so they could arrange to meet somewhere easy to locate each other. After 3 attempts however, the Ninja Turtle gave up. GodzillaPin was not answering. She burst into tears but quickly stopped – it was hard to see the road.
Emerging from the forest trail, the final stretch of the race took the runners along a pebbly stretch of the beach, where holiday-makers were barbecuing and frolicking in the cool water of the lake. Covered in dust, sweat and blood, hobbling over the ridiculously uneven ground strewn with pebbles, the Ninja Turtle must have been quite a sight, hobbling with a grimace. The crowds gathered to cheer her on, and the Ninja Turtle’s heart leapt as little kids came running up to her, demanding high-fives.
As the Ninja Turtle crossed the finish line, her GPS read 36.75km in 6 hours 5 minutes 3 seconds.
The results came out later that evening and the Ninja Turtle’s ranking was as follows:
Gun time: 6 hours 5 minutes 29 seconds
33/67 (SEF) Senior women
With this race complete, the Ninja Turtle felt ready to leave behind all the pain and sorrow of the last several months. She’s redeemed herself, and she’s ready to begin on a new page with another year added to her age. Life keeps going, and we’ll just keep on rolling.