Running, Travel

Trail des Tranchées 2015

This is a recap of Race #4 of the season, the Trail des Tranchées 2015, also known as Hell and Highwater, or What Was I Thinking? or Never Again. First of all, a little trailer from the organisers…

Since the Ninja Turtle has spent all week trying to recover from the ordeal and catching up with work, she cannot afford to re-write this story and so she’s taking the lazy way out by sharing an excerpt of a private communique with a fellow-blogger-running-expert-turned-good-friend, to whom she owes a huge debt for being a listening ear and a personal cheerleader when she was completely flipping out before the race. Thank you, Rod. You’re the man.

The story will be punctuated with some images, which is the second reason for the delay. Given the weather conditions, GodzillaPin was unable to follow the Ninja Turtle during the race to take photos. The official photos were only just released a few hours ago, as the organisers were taking their sweet-a** time uploading them. Anyway…

The Story

“Sunday’s run was… interesting. We lost an hour due to daylight savings, so I woke up after 5h of average sleep. Due to the weather, some participants didn’t even both showing up, apparently. Not enough to be noticeable, but it was the word on the grapevine.
Lost an hour to daylight savings

Lost an hour to daylight savings

Anyway, the Yellow Alert weather forecast warning for rains didn’t deter the organisers from giving us the green light, so off we went in the wind and rain.
The 43km race route took us along the trenches of WWI, and it was a resounding success when it debuted last year.

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But instead of marvelling the forts, hide-outs and bomb craters, this year’s rain meant we were sometimes almost knee-deep in mud, and sightseeing was the last thing we felt like doing. The winds from the previous night of up to 80kph had succeeded to rip some trees apart, and the primary issue was safety. Even at the first fuel stop (12km), so many were already moaning about how sick and tired they were of it, and how they wanted to go home. It felt like we were re-living the war!
As you can imagine, the 1000m elevation, with 95% muddy trails, over 43km in a highly technical terrain… it was pure survival mode. So many people were slipping, sliding and falling, but I took care to slow down rather than risking a fall.
I made friends with a few guys, who were all buddies in a trail running club. I’d helped one of them twice, once by picking up his lost water bottle and another time when I offered to wash his wound with some water, and after that he happily introduced me to his mates as his copine Singapourienne, cheeky bugger.
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I was grateful for the company though, and we all ran/walked together as long as we could, telling jokes and stories to keep morale up, until I had to break ahead for a bit. Past the 25th km I so badly wanted walk but my temperature was dropping perilously fast, so I had to maintain at least a jog to avoid hypothermia. My small body size was no match against the 60kph winds and 3+ hours of rain, despite eating copious amounts at each fuel stop to generate heat.

The organisers were sick bastards who threw in a few hill climbs of over 40% incline, in the last 10km. These were super muddy, and at one point, I slowed down by just 1.5 seconds, and found my foot sinking into the mud to knee level. I almost lost my shoe, and was stuck so fast, I couldn’t move. I looked around for help but I was all alone (in the rain, in the mud, with another 6km to go, I wanted to cry), so I used both hands, grabbed my thigh, and yanked my leg out.

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Are you beginning to see how this isn’t even running, let alone a race, anymore? There were ZERO spectators through the whole course, and of course, no entertainment.
Some runners decide to become the course entertainment.

Some runners decide to become the course entertainment.

I only began to notice how perhaps I’ve underestimated myself, when I started overtaking people in the last 10km despite these conditions.
When it doesn't stop pouring with rain, and the wind wants to blow you to Spain, just keep running with a smile, cos you've still got another 25 miles...

When it doesn’t stop pouring with rain, and the wind wants to blow you to Spain, just keep running with a smile, cos you’ve still got another 25 miles…

I tend to be one of the shy ones who hang around at the back of the starting line, but I overtook about 2 dozen men towards the end. My fastest kilometre splits were also the 42 and 43rd kilometres, which tells me I must have my pacing down pat.


The final torture came at the home stretch – out of the forest and into open space, back to the village, it was over 1km of exposure to the tempest. I’d been going for almost 5h 30m and all I could think of was the finish line beer. A middle-aged gentleman came up from behind and overtook me, but then slowed down to look back at me. I yelled at him “don’t slow down now, mister, we’re almost at the end!” and he said OK and pulled ahead.

But after 200m, something wasn’t right, he was beginning to lope weirdly. I pulled up and asked if he was all right, and he grimaced “I’ve got a cramp and it’s only getting worse”. So I linked my arm around him and said, “come on, we’re almost there”.

He wanted me to go ahead but I refused, and linked my arm around his, and kept talking to distract him and give him a mental boost. After 100m he was struggling even more, so I threw his arm over my shoulder, and supported as much of his weight as I could (thank God he was not much bigger than I am). I half-dragged this poor man the last 300m, and we crossed the line together.

Code of trail runners AND soldiers in combat: leave no man behind.

Code of trail runners AND soldiers in combat: leave no man behind.

I opened my finish-line beer immediately, and it was the sweetest nectar in the world. I forgot to look at the official time we finished, but it seemed completely irrelevant at that stage. I’d done the hardest race in my life, in the shittiest conditions, and I learnt that in the face of adversity, I simply become stronger.”
Epilogue
There are challenges, and then there are challenges. The Ninja Turtle started running in races because each and every one presented a unique opportunity for her to challenge herself to do better. Yet, it’s fair to say that this race was, hands down, the absolute best and worst race in her life, thus making it one-of-a-kind.
For readers with a stats fetish, here are the figures:
Official time: 5h 34m 47s
GPS time: 5h 33m 24s
Category ranking: 12 out of 17 women
Overall ranking: 127 out of 154 finishers
The worst marathon time in the Ninja Turtle’s running life, but her most splendid performance. Of the 205 participants who registered, a few probably DNS, while plenty others obviously DNF’ed. Finishing this race wasn’t only a success, it was a life-changing and epic journey.
When her courage wavered, she thought of her country’s late former Prime Minister, and his steel will, discipline, focus and determination.
When the elements made a difficult route overwhelmingly tough, she thought of the soldiers who braved four years of this hell during the WWI. Most of them were young men, far from home, scared and lonely. They died so we could enjoy the freedom to pursue such insanity today.
When the trucks carrying all the DNFers back to the village rolled past, and it was so easy to just raise an arm and say “I surrender”, she thought of family and friends who loved her and believed in her. OK, so they weren’t necessarily informed in advance about her signing up for this, just in case she got yelled at, but surely they are all retrospectively proud of her.
Like trail running, life is ugly, messy, painful, and full of shit. There are too many ways to hurt yourself, and at the worst of times, it feels like a neverending journey. There are times when we ask the question “what are we doing here?”
But like trail running, life throws us beautiful moments too – the chance to make new friends, plenty of good food to enjoy (even if it’s only raisins, bananas, cake and Coke), and when you dare to face a challenge that seemed far bigger than yourself, it is only then you open up your heart, look into your soul, and learn what you’re truly made of. That, my friends, is priceless.
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Running, Travel

Race #4: Trail des Roches du Dabo

The calendar says 16 June 2014 today. This means the Ninja Turtle has survived all 4 races this season, and is still alive. Happiness all around. Unfortunately, she hasn’t completely recovered her sanity and coherence quite yet, hence shall be unable to write meaningfully. This post will be some photos, and recollections of the bizarre thoughts that went through her mind while racing.

First off… choose a favourite cliché you identify with:
a) Save the best for last!
b) What you don’t know cannot hurt you
c) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
d) Death is but a part of life
e) It ain’t over till it’s over.

In that very order, those were the thoughts the Ninja Turtle had about yesterday’s race. At first she was very excited, then she went into slight denial when she was informed just what lay before her. On Saturday afternoon, however, fear had began to sink in as they left the cute cottages of Alsace and drove up the winding roads that took them through the mountainous forests villages. GodzillaPin got carsick and stopped by the road side to throw up. The Ninja Turtle’s brave facade quickly melted into resignation that this race may be one of two “first-time experience”s: crossing the finish line last, or worse, a DNF.

A map of the trail, plus some details on elevation and distance below.

A map of the trail, plus some details on elevation and distance below.

Just as a little side note, when the Ninja Turtle registered for the race, it was advertised as 25km, but later changed to 27km. At some point in one’s running life, a person is able to say, I’ve been running for donkey hours, what’s another xkm? The Ninja Turtle is NOT at that point yet. She chooses races according to a distance she believes treads the fine line between personal achievement and being permanently incapacitated.

So…

When she found herself at the starting line surrounded by people who looked like they were either military-trained or included "10 miles run" in their lunch breaks, she started wishing those wolf-dogs would maul her so she didn't have to run.

When she found herself at the starting line surrounded by people who looked like they were either military-trained or included “10 miles run” in their lunch breaks, she started wishing those wolf-dogs would maul her so she didn’t have to run.

There is very little, and yet so much, to say about attempting an experience bigger than oneself. The Ninja Turtle has now fallen solidly into the habit of starting a race right at the very back of the pack. It didn’t matter anyway, as soon as the gun went off, the fastest runners shot off, while everyone else fell into their own comfortable paces, for all of about 3 minutes. The runners came to the first of numerous hills, and trail running wisdom calls for runners to walk uphill when it becomes more energy-efficient-relative-to-running to do so. The traffic jam took about a minute to clear, and the Ninja Turtle proceeded to slowly hike up with everyone else.

This became a regular feature for the rest of the race. There are several big lessons about trail racing that the Ninja Turtle learnt immediately:
1. Worth reiterating: ignore your splits, there is no way you’ll hit the same splits running on mountainous trail as compared to road-running.
2. The trail path is only wide enough for you or your ego. Choose one.
3. You can only go as fast as the person in front of you. Don’t be a jerk by trying to overtake, you could compromise the safety of yourself and others.
4. May be a good idea to get trail shoes, and to dress for the terrain. Never know what plants you may be allergic to. Also, expect to finish with a layer of dust or mud on your feet and legs, at the very least.
5. The forest is like a beautifully-distracting woman. As soon as you take your eyes off the goal (focusing on running safely) to admire the view, that’s when you’re most likely to trip up.

Take a number, and join the queue. Walking uphill saves energy, plus it gives you a good excuse to linger a bit and admire the view.

Take a number, and join the queue. Walking uphill saves energy, plus it gives you a good excuse to linger a bit and admire the view.

Although the Ninja Turtle started the race with a niggle in her right calf and knee (thanks to the race in Champagne), she’s all but forgotten about it 3km into the race. In fact, all her fears evaporated as the magic of the mountain air filled her being. She found a reliable target to pace her – a woman with killer calves and a regular pace that matched the Ninja Turtle’s very comfortably.

The miles flowed by, punctured only by the smattering of sunlight that pierced through the foliage.

Time froze and shattered into splinters that crunched underfoot like the gravel.

The Ninja Turtle wanted to burst into a Walt Disney song. (If you must know, it’s A Whole New World from Aladdin.)

Water and food stations were regular, and provided another valid “resting point” for runners to take a break, catch their breaths and look around. It’s very interesting to note that the fuel provided in this trail race included the more natural sources of energy – dried apricots and raisins, oranges and bananas, and water. In comparison, the Ninja Turtle has seen at the fuel stations in road races, chocolates and salted pretzels, muesli bars and energy gels, energy drinks and even Coca Cola. All things considered, it feels almost virtuous to run in a trail race.

So, the race started in a valley at the lake of Schaeferhof, and wound its way around and up towards the Rocher du Dabo. All up, the organisers counted a total ascent of 629m and a descent of 646m. Most racers were wearing GPS, and although none of them could agree on the actual total elevation gains and losses, there was one thing they agreed on: the organisers seemed to have somewhat understated the challenge.

That thing up there was our goal. The rock (rocher), standing at 647m above sea level, reduced many grown men to tears that Sunday.

That thing up there was our goal. The rock (rocher), standing at 647m above sea level, reduced many grown men to tears that Sunday.

Along the way, a few other amusing thoughts crept into the Ninja Turtle’s mind. One of them was trying to identify who her heroes and role models are. Of course, it being Fathers’ Day, she had Papa Turtle on her mind a fair bit. Her best friend Sonic the Hedgehog was also celebrating his birthday (see previous post), hence the photo in yesterday’s birthday dedication was taken for him when the Ninja Turtle finally reached that bloody rock (the photo session added 2 minutes to her final race time, but fool to those who couldn’t afford a moment to simply stare at the effort they’ve just made to reach such breathtaking heights).

The Ninja Turtle is also immensely grateful to GodzillaPin, who is completely indispensable for all his support. He drives her to races, carries her necessities in his backpack, ready for when she crosses the finish line, and more incredibly, finds ways to take photos of her during the race.

During La Champenoise, he managed a couple at the beginning and the end, and at La Feminine, there were a couple of moments where he ran alongside the Turtle to try and capture a shot. This time however, his efforts really took the cake. What’s a man with a knee problem to do, when he’s trying to photograph his partner during a trail race?

He takes a bike, and rides like crazy to strategic points along the route, and waits.

He takes a bike, and rides like crazy to strategic points along the route, and waits.

It takes a lot of foresight and good timing to manage coinciding with the Ninja Turtle. He even got into an argument with a traffic control officer who insisted the roads were closed for runners (it wasn't, there were cars) and wanted to ban him passing through. Like a proper Frenchman, he thumbed his nose at her.

It takes a lot of foresight and good timing to manage coinciding with the Ninja Turtle. He even got into an argument with a traffic control officer who insisted the roads were closed for runners (it wasn’t, there were cars) and wanted to ban him passing through. Like a proper Frenchman, he thumbed his nose at her and simply carried on.

The first 20km flew by like a dream, and the next five required a little focus, but was still immensely good fun. The Ninja Turtle had, by that stage, overtaken a few runners, while maintaining to keep up with that pro-racer-with-killer-calves. She fell into conversation with Ms Super Calves, whose initial reticence dissolved once she realised that the Ninja Turtle simply wanted a guide. Ms Super Calves has been racing on trails for a little over a year, and has a marathon in the Alps coming up soon (thus confirming the Ninja Turtle’s instinct that she’s indeed a pro). She was quite taken aback when the Ninja Turtle said the only trail race she’s ever done (La Feminine), was 2 weeks ago, and had an elevation of a molehill in retrospect.

The few instances the Ninja Turtle found herself overtaking Ms Super Calves, she simply stopped and let Super Calves catch up and run ahead of her. This saved her from doing the navigation work, gave her a good idea of where to plant her feet, and provided a sense of security in case an accident happens. Plus, Ms Super Calves had a much more constant pace, whereas the Ninja Turtle can get ahead of herself when she’s excited, and unreliably burst into sprints while screaming “wheeeee!” when she feels the urge to.

The last three kilometres, Ms Super Calves made all the difference. The Ninja Turtle, having eaten about a handful of raisins and half an orange for the last 25km, felt a wall approaching. Maintaining the same pace suddenly felt tiring, and she felt her breath beginning to labour while her heart rate skyrocketed. She quickly dug around in her fuel belt for the honey and guarana shots given to her by Mother Rabbit (GodzillaPin’s mother, who’s a very organised woman, also furnished her with a torch, just in case). Whether those two elixirs actually worked is hard to say – the Ninja Turtle had only one thought in mind: the finish line isn’t far!

Which was why she felt really, ridiculously confused and somewhat furious when her RunKeeper said 27km, and the finish line was nowhere in sight. What the? She suddenly remembered that trail races are notorious for being “a little vague” when it comes to defining distances. The last two races she’d run in turned out to be shorter than advertised, but this time… this time it was a whole 900m longer.

Ms Super Calves picked up her pace for the final stretch, and all the Ninja Turtle could do was grit her teeth and hang on. She was hell-bent on finishing right behind this incredible woman. As they approached the lake, the Ninja Turtle dug deep and wrung herself for the final, whereas Ms Super Calves didn’t seem concerned about sprinting the last few steps. Then, she quickly realised that the race was not over yet! They had to run the lap around the bloody lake before it was considered done. At this moment, Ms Super Calves changed gears, and kicked up dust like she was late for a flight. The Ninja Turtle hung on as tight as she could, overtaking two more runners in the final 300m.

GodzillaPin, waiting at the finish line. The moment of shared victory for the duo.

GodzillaPin, waiting at the finish line. The moment of shared victory for the duo.

There is not much else to say. The Ninja Turtle has covered almost 28km running through the mountainous pine forests and lived to tell the tale. Her official time was 3h 24m 01s, which is meaningless since it’s not a DNF, and nor was she the last across the finish line (she actually placed 4th in her category, but that’s meaningless too since there were only 6 in the SEF group, while a good majority appeared to be V1M).

Four races completed. Enough with the running for now, it’s time to rest, stretch, foam roll, eat, sleep and dream up the next adventure.

When you're too tired to run or walk or even crawl, sliding on your arse is always an option.

When you’re too tired to run or walk or even crawl, sliding on your arse is always an option.

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