Arts and Culture, Food, Running, Stories, Travel

The ALESIA Trail

A long time ago, when the Roman civilization was flourishing and France was still known as Celtic Gallia (Gaul), there lived a chap who dared defy Julius Caesar. He was known as Vercingetorix, and you may have come across his name, which is strewn liberally all through pop culture, most notably in the Asterix comic book series or film. Wikipedia says his name meant Great Warrior King, and  as a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, he attempted to unite the Gauls to rebel against the Roman legions. When Caesar built not one, but two fortifications to cut off both the city, as well as the Gallic allies who came as relief, the Gauls lost the Battle of Alesia and the Roman Empire was created. Vercingetorix was held captive, brought back to Rome, marched the streets and finally executed.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

It’s a sorry end, but the man went down as a hero. So widely celebrated is this part of Gallo-Roman/French history, that the running community has decided to celebrate it with the Alesia Trail, a trail race that takes runners through the forests and villages of Burgundy, in the ancient battle site of the Battle of Alesia (52BC). It offered four distances – 16km, 25km, 34km and 51km. The Ninja Turtle won her bib on RunningHeroes, which included the post-race meal, and she was absolutely stoked.

After fourteen races since the end of February 2015, this was to be the Ninja Turtle’s fifteenth and last race of the year, and as luck would have it, a final hurrah to summer.

The duo rolled into town a day in advance and took a moment to enjoy the landscape of the Burgundy countryside during the bib collection. Alise-Sainte-Reine sits atop a huge hill, and the view was magnificent, but it did mean that the race will finish with a climb back uphill, and what a mother of a hill it was.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

GodzillaPin decided to calm the Turtle’s anxiety by taking her sightseeing, so they drove to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where their B&B accommodation was, and popped by the lolly factory and the medieval crypt. By the time they checked into their B&B, the Ninja Turtle was tired enough to sleep. They were greeted by their host, who was very friendly, but when she inquired who was running the race and what distance, the Ninja Turtle was met with a rather impressed and skeptical look.

But first, a pre-race meal at the Cheval Blanc.

The next morning, the duo woke up bright and early, and their host served up a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit salad, yogurt, breads and spreads. The Ninja Turtle also got a whole flask of coffee to herself, which came to 4 cups! They were joined by the other two guests in the B&B, a couple from Paris who were also in town for the race. The husband was running the 16km, and the same look of disbelief crossed their faces when GodzillaPin announced proudly that the Turtle was doing the 34km.

Some fun facts from the organisers:

1600 runners across the four distances. 26% of all runners were women, and 74% men. 15% (240 runners) were doing the 34km distance, and the average age of all runners was 41. There were to be 160 volunteers, which meant 1 volunteer to 10 runners. The runners will run a combined distance of 41138km in 8 hours!

A map of the 34.2km route.

A map of the 34.2km route, with a climb of 1200m (3937ft) and a total elevation profile of 2393m (7851ft).

While driving to the starting line, the Ninja Turtle decided to err on the side of over-dressing, with the option to remove layers, than to risk freezing through the race. Although the forecast was a nice sunny day, it was 9°C (48°F) at the starting line with cold winds. She made it to the starting line with barely a few minutes to spare. The duo hadn’t counted on a traffic jam to happen, but with the road closures on narrow streets, it was inevitable. GodzillaPin dropped the Turtle off, and she hiked uphill to the starting line. The queue for the toilets were too long, so she found a bush close by. GodzillaPin joined her a few short minutes later for a good luck kiss, and off the runners went.

Ready... steady... GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

9am flag-off for the 34km race. Ready… steady… GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

After a long and hard season that culmulated in a half marathon PR just two weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle had just one simple objective: to simply finish the race and enjoy herself while at it. There are some runners out there who snub this absolute lack of competitive spirit; perhaps you believe that if one ain’t pushing hard, there’s no difference from doing just a training run, so why pay the money to join a race? Well, that may be the case for road races, but as far as the Turtle is concerned, there is no way her training would take her through the forests and hills of ancient battlefields, and she runs her trail races as experiences to be lived. Besides the faster one runs, the sooner the experience is over, which makes it terrible value for money. That’s not to say the Turtle doesn’t make an effort, she still runs in these events, because everyone else is doing it and it’s a great sensation to be flying through the landscape. Also, this race had 2 time limit checkpoints.

Landscape like this.

Landscapes like this. Lovely Charolais cows soaking in the sun, staring at the nutters running by.

The race had four water stations,three of which offered up food, and one of them with a time-check. The first of which these was in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where GodzillaPin waited to capture some photos of the Turtle.

The villages offered up a picturesque change from the countryside and the forest landscapes.

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It was truly a fantastic experience, as most of the race took the runners along soft forest soil, which was an absolute pleasure compared to some of her previous races. That said, the Ninja Turtle does not wish to downplay the difficulty of the race, as there were moments where runners still had to deal with sharp rocks, and at two points, the course became very technical, and runners were obliged to use cords to descend and to climb up the impossibly steep trail. To get an idea of what the Ninja Turtle lived, one of the participants from the previous edition made a video of the race.

The Ninja Turtle passed the mid-point time check and clocked in at 2h 13m 29s, ranking 164 overall. By the time she’d crossed the finish line, she’d finished the race in 4h 11m 3s, and moved up to 134 of 211 finishers. It was a pleasant surprise too, to discover that she ranked 10th among the women (29 finished), and 4th in her age group category (11 finished). Perhaps they’re not terribly impressive results to some, given the size of the competition, and frankly, the Turtle didn’t care. She was simply glad to receive some post-race TLC from a couple of amazing volunteer physiotherapists. She also enjoyed the chance to socialise with some of the other runners (they saw Asterix, a Roman soldier, and here the Turtle poses with Getafix), and quite possibly the reincarnation of Vercingetorix himself! Guilhem had run the race twice before, and this hardcore young man is the face of Alesia Trail. That’s him on the poster! He also did spectacularly well, coming in 10th overall in the 51km. And he’s only 22…

Overall, it’s been a great race season, filled with extreme experiences, new PRs, personal growth and above all, the chance to celebrate the love of running.

The Turtle has no doubt that 2016 will bring more racing fun and adventure, but for the moment, she is ready to hang up her running shoes for a few weeks, for she has earned a much deserved rest.

The happy end to a chapter.

The happy end to a chapter.

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Running

Semi Marathon de Longwy Recap plus SOS Call for Advice from Other Runners

After a summer of travelling around the various mountainous regions of France for trail racing, the Ninja Turtle found herself last Sunday in the town of Longwy, which borders Luxembourg, toeing the starting line of a road race. The event offered up the 10K and a half-marathon distances, and since the Ninja Turtle’s original intention was not to race, as she has another trail coming up in two weeks that she’d like to stay injury-free for, she went with the latter option. She was simply there to get some mileage in for the week, while showing some moral support to a friend.

The Ninja Turtle was going through a weird phase where in spite of, or because of, all the gorgeous landscapes she’s been racing through, running around her little town just didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Quite simply, she was starting to find her running routine boring and was losing motivation at an alarming rate.

Coincidentally, her neighbour Mickey Mouse expressed the intention around the same time to start working on his fitness. A few months ago, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle invited Mickey Mouse along to one of the Turtle’s races. Inspired by the experience and the race day vibes, he was determined to start fighting back against the first signs of middle-age spread and bought himself a pair of runners.

So the Ninja Turtle did what any good neighbour would do – she offered to take Mickey Mouse running. Mickey Mouse would get the guidance that he needed, while the Ninja Turtle got to re-kindle her passion for running by sharing her knowledge with someone. How’s that for a win-win?

Mickey Mouse played a lot of sports, especially soccer, in his younger days. He’s blessed with a pretty good baseline fitness, doesn’t smoke nor drink to excess, so it was merely a question of getting him back into a regular routine. Just to ensure Mickey Mouse would truly commit, the Ninja Turtle gave him six weeks to train up for his first-ever 10K road race.

The first time they ran together, the Turtle brought him to their local park and after a 5K warm-up followed by 5 sets of hill sprints, Mickey Mouse was pooped. He started expressing mild concerns for the 10K distance, but the Turtle was unfazed. Mickey Mouse has a motor mouth, and if he wasn’t talking during 95% of their run, he’d probably have a lot more wind to do some actual running.

Not long after, the Ninja Turtle told Mickey Mouse that they’d aim for the 10K, but not worry about the speed. Sure enough, by the 8th kilometre, Mickey Mouse was talking a lot less, while the Ninja Turtle took over the talking, alternating between distracting him with nonsense and cheerleading him with encouraging phrases. They made it to 10km in just under 1h 3min, and the Ninja Turtle was satisfied.

For the final session before race day, the Ninja Turtle once again got Mickey Mouse to aim for 10K, but said they’d be aiming for a negative split out-and-back. The Canal de Jouy was the perfect training ground for this – on one side of the river meant for cyclists, it’s trail-like with sand, soft dirt, roots, holes in the ground and stones, while the other side designed for joggers, the ground is smooth, even and flat. Unused to the challenges of a varied terrain, Mickey Mouse was the quietest he’d ever been (at any rate, the quietest that the Ninja Turtle has ever known him to be) as he focused 100% on running without tripping and falling. Several times throughout the run, the Ninja Turtle checked in to see how he was feeling, and when they got to 6 miles, the Turtle yelled “sprint time!” and they did a lung-busting 400m fast-finish.

Mickey Mouse was as ready as he was ever going to be.

Race day approached, and the trio valiantly woke at 7.00am. After only 4 hours of sleep (because her neighbours upstairs were doing unspeakable things at 3am in the morning and the noise prohibited sleep until they stopped) the Ninja Turtle wasn’t feeling very flash. Two cups of coffee later, GodzillaPin was driving the 70km to the starting line. Early start aside, it was overcast, windy, and en route, it started pouring. The Ninja Turtle could only hope that Mickey Mouse wasn’t completely discouraged. Thankfully, the rain had stopped when they reached the starting line.

About 300 runners at the 10K and Semi-marathon de Longwy on 13 Sep 2015.

About 300 runners at the 10K and Semi-marathon de Longwy on 13 Sep 2015.

Despite it being the 37th edition, the Semi-Marathon de Longwy was terribly organised, and the Ninja Turtle will never run it again, nor does she recommend the race to anyone. The organiser’s website offered no information on starting time and place, which she found on another website. Driving into town, there were no signage of the event, let alone mile markers and signage to the starting line and bib collection. Showing up at Place Darche, she had to approach another runner to ask where bib collection was, only to be told it was at the Uni building about 2km away. GodzillaPin drove the gang for bib collection, where the volunteers didn’t even bother looking at, or collecting their medical certificates, before driving back to Place Darche for warm-ups and the start.

Mickey Mouse's first race experience. Had they trained enough for the event?

Mickey Mouse’s first race experience. Had they trained enough for the event?

While speaking with another runner at the starting line, the Ninja Turtle learnt that the race was to finish at the Uni building where they’d collected their bibs. So after the starting gun fired, the Ninja Turtle was less focused on running, and more busy trying to locate GodzillaPin to make sure he knew this piece of information.

The Ninja Turtle making sure GodzillaPin knew he had to meet them at the Uni building for the finish, because he has a tendency to daydream or get hopelessly lost, missing a lot of the Ninja Turtle's finish line moments.

Found him! The Ninja Turtle making sure GodzillaPin knew he had to meet them at the Uni building for the finish, because he has a tendency to daydream or get hopelessly lost, missing a lot of the Ninja Turtle’s finish line moments. Also, a quick kiss for luck!

The Ninja Turtle spent the first few kilometres trying to warm up. Despite those ridiculously pink gloves (hey, it was the only colour available in kids size at the store), her hands were freezing, as the wind had picked up and the rain started again. She marvelled at the runners in tank tops and shorts while she was sporting her winter undergarment and a windbreaker. About 4.7km in, as they approached the halfway mark and where the 10K route diverges from that of the half-marathon, she was finally warm enough to take the gloves and windbreaker off. Mickey Mouse was still in sight, about 150 yards ahead of her, looking pretty strong.

Looking at her TomTom watch, the Ninja Turtle did a double-take. At the rate she was going, she was due to reach 5K in just over 25 minutes, which would mean a PR for the distance. In any other circumstances, this would have been cause to celebrate, but setting a 5K PR in a half-marathon race is not only insane, it’s downright stupid. The Ninja Turtle slowed down and reached 5K in 26 minutes, which actually, was still a PR.

Don’t panic, she thought to herself as she approached the first water station. Slow down, drink some water, catch your breath, regroup.

“What are you doing? Keep running, don’t stop! You can throw the cups along the side of the road!” one of the volunteers at the water station yelled at her. Chastised, the Ninja Turtle continued.

With the 10K runners gone, the adrenaline and pressure to run fast! dropped a couple of notches, and the half-marathon runners exited Longwy, starting down a country road. The Ninja Turtle was a little afraid to look at the GPS HRM watch. She was no longer sure what the strategy of the race was. She had fully intended to take it 100% easy, given the niggles she was experiencing in her right heel (new problem) and her left knee (old problem). She also failed to execute her pre-race BM (big problem), and was paranoid that running too hard was going to result in a mess (literally). The change in pace and scenery helped her relax a little and she tried to sing along to her playlist.

Towards the 9th kilometre, the runners entered a forest and by the 10th kilometre, the Ninja Turtle couldn’t resist taking another peek at her watch. 53 minutes 17 seconds! That’s another PR, and suddenly, the Ninja Turtle decided to stop piss-farting around and take the race a little more seriously. At this rate she was going, she could very possible break the 2-hour mark (her last 21.1km was completed in 2h 01m 12s and she finished the race in the medical tent after her blood pressure plummeted upon crossing the finish line).

The next fuel station was at the 11th kilometre, after a steep descent of about 13%, where the Ninja Turtle finally got to put her trail experience to good use as she gleefully overtook 4 runners. Old habits died hard, however, as she stopped a minute for 2 cups of water and 2 handfuls of raisins, in no real hurry to continue. The volunteer raised an eyebrow and tapped at his watch. The Ninja Turtle left in a huff.

The next part of the race wound through the town of Gorcy, where a handful of spectators had come out to cheer the runners on, but a majority of the townsfolk just went about their usual Sunday business. The exit of Gorcy was where the organisers warned was the beginning of a steep climb for the runners, going uphill for the next 3.5km. The Ninja Turtle kept her head down and focused on her breathing, mentally prepping for the climb and thinking of no one and nothing except the possibility of a sub-2 half-marathon.

After 800m of a gentle uphill slope, the Ninja Turtle noticed she’d overtaken 3 other runners, and looked up ahead. She was still waiting for the steep hill to make its appearance. Sure, they were gaining elevation, but it was no more steep than the roads of GodzillaPin’s home village. By the time she’d reached the next fuel station at 15km for 2 more cups of water, she was halfway through said “massive climb”, and that was when she realised just how much her trail running had skewed her expectations. She’s used to crawling up cliffsides at 3kph, and for once, it was a pleasure to be moving along at 10kph on the toughest climb of a race.

The last kilometre of the climb saw her overtaking 6 runners, three of them women and all of them sporting running club T-shirts. She won’t deny it, she felt a little bit pleased with herself.

As the runners re-entered the town of Longwy, the Ninja Turtle got one final kick up the backside at the water station. She’d stopped for another 2 cups of water and 2 handfuls of raisins, but this time, she needed a little rest to catch her breath. Her vision was starting to blur a little and she was feeling a little nauseated, so when the volunteer shouted “come on, you have 4km left, don’t loiter around here”, she was tempted to throw a fistful of dried fruit in his face.

Instead, she nodded weakly and continued. Looking at her GPS watch, it read 1h30m. She’d completed 17km in the time it usually takes her to run 15km. Her mind too weak to do complicated sums by this stage, but she noted that even if she dropped to 8kph (5mph), she’d still meet her 2-hour goal. A part of her wanted to slow down until she wasn’t seeing double, another part wanted to see just what she was capable of. Miserably undecided, she decided to stop overthinking and just run, and that she wouldn’t look at her watch again until the race was done.

Back in town, the spectators were still hanging around in clusters. The children in particular, were incredibly enthusiastic, and in this final stretch, the Ninja Turtle received no less than a dozen high-fives from the kids. In fact, she had no qualms slowing down to properly high-five the young ones, because each time she got one, it was like a health-pack in a video game that turbo charges her speed for the next 100m. The good: she overtook another 5 runners in the last 2 miles. The bad: only one out of those five was a woman, and she looked way older than the Turtle, which meant no change to the category ranking. The ugly: the woman was very upset about being overtaken, and even with her earphones on, the Ninja Turtle could hear her bursting into sobs and she started yelling at her husband, who was running alongside her.

The last kilometre brought a surprise and a mental boost the Ninja Turtle badly needed. She was so dizzy and nauseated that she almost missed GodzillaPin!

True love is hiding in the bushes and jumping out to scare your partner when they're about to vomit from running so darn hard.

True love is hiding in the bushes and jumping out to scare your partner when they’re about to vomit from running so darn hard, then running alongside them saying “allez allez, you are almost at the end!”

“You’re doing awesome, babe!”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“You just have to reach the Uni, you’re almost there.”
“My mouth feels claggy. I got raisins stuck in my teeth. I want to sit down.”

The runners had to loop around the track before crossing the finish line, and the Ninja Turtle gave the last few hundred yards everything she got.

Smiling for the camera but inside, she was screaming "are we there yet?! how can 100m be so goddamn far?"

Smiling for the camera but inside, she was screaming “are we there yet?! how can 100m be so goddamn far?”

No medical tent this time round, but the Ninja Turtle did treat herself to a 5-second sit down on the grass once she crossed the finish line. Sweet reprieve after being chased away from every water station, but she was once again hurried away to make room for other runners coming in. GodzillaPin was there waiting with a big grin and the most romantic phrase ever uttered “bravo baby, you were running really fast!”

The Ninja Turtle was in a hurry to look for Mickey Mouse. Unsurprisingly, she found him outside the Uni building, gasbagging at a group of poor innocents who’d done nothing to deserve it. The Ninja Turtle interrupted his soliloquy, and he looked genuinely surprised to see the duo.

“Oh my goodness, you’re looking in great shape for someone who’s just completed a half-marathon! You don’t even look tired at all!”
“Go to hell. How did you do? How are you feeling? What was your finishing time?”
“I was completely dead at the end. GodzillaPin saw me as I crossed the finishing line, I think I had my tongue out.”

And so he did.

And so he did.

Mickey Mouse had finished the 10K in a remarkable time of 52 minutes and 54 seconds. For a first-time racer with only 6 weeks of training, it was a pretty impressive performance. The Ninja Turtle was immensely proud of Mickey Mouse completing the race, but more so by the fact that he’d expressed the desire to race again.

As for the Ninja Turtle, she’s added yet another PR to her 2015 racing calendar – 1h 52m 40s for a half-marathon distance. She knows she ought to be happy, but she’s been feeling strangely indifferent (and physically sore). When one goes into a race treating it like a training run, and then beating an ad-hoc time goal determined mid-race by over 7 minutes, the brain has problems interpreting the situation. With a trail race coming up on 27 Sep, she’s spent the week foam-rolling, massaging and stretching. Perhaps with deeper reflection, the finish time will take on some meaning, and she’ll know what to make of it.

How do you recover from a half-marathon?

What advice would you give the Ninja Turtle with regards to her racing attitude, strategy and performance?

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Arts and Culture, Food, Running, Travel

Running Lessons Learnt + Race Recap EDF Cenis Tour (32km trail)

Note: this post was written with runners in mind. If you’re here for the photos, feel free to skip all the blah-blah-running-jargon-blah and jump right to the end. =)

When a runner ambitiously signs up for 2 races of distances 20 miles spaced 2 weeks apart, it’s an indication of confidence or insanity. In the Ninja Turtle’s case, it was a little bit of both. Before her scabs from the Trail des Passerelles had even come off, she and GodzillaPin found themselves doing the long drive back down towards Grenoble once more.

This time, the Ninja Turtle was signed up for the 32km distance of the EDF Cenis Tour. Here’s an awesome promotional video capturing the essence of the race:

Of course, the Ninja Turtle didn’t watch that video before she’d signed up. Had she seen it, she would certainly have thought twice about putting her name down on the list. There comes a point when one quickly discovers that in France, trail race organisers can be very casual about certain things, but more on that later.

Driving for hours in the rain on Saturday, hoping and praying that the rain clouds would finish dumping their load by the next morning.

Driving for hours in the rain on Saturday, hoping and praying that the rain clouds would finish dumping their load by the next morning.

Lesson #1: If you live on low altitudes, be prepared for some level of discomfort when running a mountain trail race.

The race kicked off from a little Savoyard village called Lanslevillard, up in the mountains of the Vanoise National Park. This is about an hour’s drive east of Grenoble and Chambery, and pretty close to the Italian border (on one side of the mountain ranges, the French call it Mont Cenis while on the Italians call it Moncenisio).

Look at the altitude from the starting point!

Look at the altitude from the starting point!

The race took the runners up to 2200m above sea level, which is an altitude pretty darn high for the Ninja Turtle. In fact, she was already uncomfortable at the starting line, because the air really is rather much thinner up there when one’s not used to it. She came with Ventolin, and took 2 puffs at the starting line, but that didn’t do much. All through the race, she struggled with nausea, breathlessness and towards the end, a lightheadedness that made her head swim.

In fact, these symptoms were so unpleasant that it completely threw her fuelling plan out of whack (plan being simply to eat as much as possible at every fuel stop). Due to the nausea, she could only manage a total of 6 dry biscuits and half a cup of apple juice through the entire course. Thankfully, she’d eaten a larger-than-usual pre-race breakfast (not because she was hungry but who says no to coffee, freshly baked baguettes, homemade jams, regionally sourced honey and cheeses, organic yogurt and locally churned butter?) For once, her greed did not end in bloated self-loathing and regret.

Also, signing up for trail racing has a different meaning in the mountainous regions. Not only do runners have to contend with the usual roots, rocks, sand and unstable terrain, very often, they find themselves along cliff edges too. For someone who’s still trying to grapple with a fear of heights and falling, this handicapped the Ninja Turtle greatly during the race. At various points, the runners had to climb up vertical cliff walls with the aid of cables driven into the face of the mountains. The Ninja Turtle was scared out of her mind and on two occasions, came close to quitting, but since she’d made a promise to run the race for Vaco, quitting was not an option. She just simply stood aside and let the faster, more confident racers overtake her (although a few very polite gentlemen insisted on letting her stay ahead and take her time).

The Ninja Turtle will either have to come to grips with great heights, or stop signing up for mountain trail races because she’s just going to be a pain in the arse to the other runners with her paranoid and tearful dithering. Bad attitude is a handicap on the trails.

Lesson #2: Distance isn’t all that matters, total elevation has to be taken into account too.

So, as the Ninja Turtle was saying, 2 races of 20+ miles in set 14 days apart. For a runner of about 3 years, she is no longer intimidated by covering distances like that, but there was one little thing she overlooked while signing up – the elevation of the race.

The last race had an elevation gain of 1900m, and this one of 1600m. Remember, what goes up must come down, and as any runner knows, it’s the downhill that kills (thrashed quads, bruised toenails, increased chances of taking a tumble or rolling an ankle). She measured a total elevation of 3834m (12,578ft) for the Trail des Passerelles, and 3523m (11,558ft) for the EDF Cenis Tour. Take her word for it, each of those races were harder than a road marathon.

Trail race organisers also have a peculiar habit of being rather vague about distances – her last race advertised 35km but she completed 36.75km, while this one said 32km but she measured 33.34km. It may be easy to say “oh come on, you’re already covering 30-odd kilometres, what’s an extra one or two?”. Well, when you’ve been on your feet for hours and all you want to do is sit down to a cold beer, one extra kilometre is a huge difference.

Lesson #3: Racing or training – pick ONE.

So after failing to complete The Trail Yonne, the Ninja Turtle spent hours crafting a training plan for her promised comeback (with a focus on higher mileage and more hills, basically). With swollen quads and a few new purple toenails to deal with post-Passerelles however, she was quickly forced to admit that she was going to need a few days off.

Some ultra running websites advise 1 day for every 10 miles raced, or 1 day for every 10km if the elevation was hard. The Ninja Turtle found this to be a pretty reasonable guide; on Thursday, she had ambitiously ventured out into the sunshine, but after 1km around the Parc de la Seille, her quads were squeaking “are you out of your soddin’ mind?” So she walked for an hour to enjoy some sunshine, and the next day, she was ready for a very slow 5 miles at recovery pace.

In fact, for the week leading up to the second race, ALL her runs had to be done at an easy effort, and she even cut one of her runs short. This was imperative to her ability to complete the EDF Cenis Tour.

For any runners out there contemplating on doing multiple races back to back, understand that by the time race season rolls around, your body should be in tip-top racing shape and training runs by this stage are secondary to your ability to recover as quickly as possible. This isn’t the moment to be obsessing over your weekly mileages anymore. And no, rest assured that you will NOT lose fitness in that one week or ten days off. If you can race multiple times in a season, you’re probably pretty fit, and your butt will not magically blimp out in the meantime.

Treat any injuries straightaway, and assess your ability to run in the upcoming races. Drink lots of water and stay hydrated. Eat lots of high quality food. This is not the moment to be on a diet – unfortunately, just like weight loss and eating for racing don’t mesh, weight loss and eating for recovery simply don’t go together either (wait until you’re back to base stage of your training to drop the kilos).

Get in plenty of fruits and vegetables for the antioxidants, protein for muscle recovery, and play with natural sources of anti-inflammatory like tart cherry juice, beetroot, ginger, turmeric, fatty fish and walnuts.

Sleep. Get lots and lots of sleep. Take cat naps. Take dog naps. Take elephant naps if you need to.

Professionals use electro-stimulation therapy, but that can get expensive. For mere mortals, consider a massage. Take an ice-bath post-race, and a warm bath with magnesium salts a couple of days later. Use Tiger Balm liberally. Foam-roll like you mean it.

The Ninja Turtle enjoying a post-race massage from volunteering physiotherapists.

The Ninja Turtle enjoying a post-race massage from volunteering physiotherapists.

Lesson #4: If you’re serious about racing, proper nutrition is important.

Here is what the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin ate for dinner the night before the race:

A meat platter on a DIY hot plate with an unfinishable side of French fries and a variety of cream sauces, because it was raining all day and 13°C (53°F) outside.

A meat platter on a DIY hot plate with an unfinishable side of French fries and a variety of cream sauces, because it was raining all day and 13°C (53°F) outside.

They also had a half-bottle of red wine to share, and later, the owner/chef came out to see if everything was all right, and gave them each a shot of home-made caramel schnapps, which they had to drink because firstly it’s rude to say no and secondly, come on, caramel schnapps!

This was what the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin ate for a late lunch after the race:

A giant hamburger with salad and even more French fries (not shown). The Turtle also had 2 beers because the tap said Best Beer In The World and she wanted to believe it was true.

A giant hamburger with salad and even more French fries (not shown). The Turtle also had 2 beers because the tap said Best Beer In The World and she wanted to believe it was true.

The photo does little justice to what must be the biggest hamburger this side of the Atlantic. Even with two hands, that thing is so loaded with mayonnaise, bacon, steak and salad just threatening to fall apart. Yes, it was as delicious as it sounds.

And then later, they went back to the same restaurant as the previous night “for cocktails, since we’re not hungry” – GodzillaPin. The owner was so surprised and thrilled to see them back, and asked the Ninja Turtle how she did. Well, drinks inevitably turned into dinner, and the Ninja Turtle’s kir de châtaigne became:

A half-bottle of rosé, all by herself because GodzillaPin was still nursing a cocktail.

A half-bottle of rosé, all by herself because GodzillaPin was still nursing a cocktail.

And because it’s not advisable to drink on an empty stomach, she and GodzillaPin eventually ended up ordering:

Apple and goat's cheese salad (supposedly to share but guess who ate most of it).

Apple and goat’s cheese salad (supposedly to share but guess who ate most of it).

Close to the Italian border, right? That pizza was like a party in the mouth - thin hot crunchy crust, gooey cheese, and a herby tomato sauce that literally sparkles on the palate.

Close to the Italian border, right? Thse pizzas were like a party in the mouth – thin hot crunchy crust, gooey cheese, and a herby tomato sauce that literally sparkles on the palate.

The owner came over to have a chat, and naturally, out came the caramel schnapps again. This time, he insisted on giving them not one, but two shots each, because après l’effort, le réconfort.

The Ninja Turtle obviously got the macronutrients backwards. A focus on carbs before the race, and protein after, right? But altitude sickness aside, the wheels didn’t fall off, and she managed to complete her race just fine. In fact, she surprised herself with her race results (see end of post). This goes to show that for the average non-competitive runner out there, there is no need to stress out getting the nutrition side 100% spot-on. Our bodies are pretty adept at taking what it needs and making the most of it.

BUT! After such a hedonistic weekend, the Ninja Turtle is paying the price. Two-pound gain aside, she woke up with a throbbing headache, and the worst thirst ever. Binge-drinking alcohol after a hard effort is a terrible idea no matter how you look at it, as the Ninja Turtle’s angry bowels can attest (alcohol can be dehydrating in more ways than one). She’s guessing her liver’s pretty swollen too, and she’s too afraid to ask her kidneys how they’re doing. Lesson learnt.

Now the four lessons are out the way, here are some photos taken mid-race:

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And for those with a fascination for numbers and stats, here’s the low-down:

GPS time and distance measured: 33.34km in 4 hours 30 mins 20 seconds.

Official time: 4 hours 30 mins 27 seconds (small racing field!)

Ranking for 32km finishers (don’t know how many DNFs): 82/151 Overall, 10/32 Women and 6/20 Senior Femmes.

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Running, Travel

Lessons from a DNF Race

On 2 May 2015, the Ninja Turtle attempted her first ultramarathon trail. The following video tells the story.

After a week of grieving and moping, the Ninja Turtle exhausted her emotional response to the disappointing outcome, pulled herself together, and made that video.

Six months of preparation, discipline and sacrifice; hundreds of euros spent on the trip, and her race was truncated by bad weather. She has cried, she has sulked, she has mulled over it. She has cursed the gods, her fate, and the ill-aligned stars. She has rehashed the event in her mind over and over, trying to draw some lesson from it – something, anything, to pinpoint her errors, her faults, her weaknesses. Something to blame, and to avoid repeating the next time.

The thing is, there’s probably none. She has followed her training plan to the T (save for a week after her accident of falling onto concrete from a loft 2.5m high), fighting against incredible pain on several occasions. She’d run in the heat of the Australian summer, the humidity of Singapore and the frigid winter in Europe.

She’d cut back on alcohol, modified her diet to become fat-adapted, sorely missing out on beef hor fun, curry puffs, Hokkien mee, sushi rolls… (it’s a list too heartbreakingly long to continue so she’ll stop there).

She’d trained in the prescribed heart rate zones. She’d done the mileage she had to do, and for a while, she celebrated PRs for her 10K, 10 miles and marathon distances all in the same racing season. It seemed as if all the fatigue, sleeplessness and ravenous hunger were worth it, promising a celebratory finish to an amazing race season.

The DNF was thus an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. The Ninja Turtle’s boss, an ultramarathoner himself, told her there are many reasons for DNFs, and indeed, the weather is one that’s truly beyond the scope of runners’ control. She’d trained well, toed the line in peak condition (no injuries, having tapered brilliantly), and stuck to all racing conventions: nothing new on race day, stay hydrated, poop before running, smile for the cameras, enjoy the experience and make friends with fellow trail runners.

She did all that and still she DNFed.

After 7 hours in the relentless rain, having covered 49.4km and about 1000m+ elevation according to her GPS, her clothes and shoes were soaked through, and she’d lost her gloves. Despite all the noodle soup, sandwiches, coffee, cake, tea, chocolate and bananas she’d eaten, her temperature dropped. With the winds picking up in the darkness of the night, the rain still pouring and the temperatures dropping even further, she suffered her worst defeat ever when a gust of wind blew just as she turned around a corner, making her feel so ill, like she’d been violently punched in the guts, and her knees buckled.

Thankfully, GodzillaPin was there to witness it all. He’d come to St Julien du Sault to meet the Turtle for a moral boost, and was in fact, holding her hand and walk/jogging alongside her the very moment she’d caved, remarking only 2 seconds before that how icy cold her hand was.

The volunteers arrived, and shortly after, the medics whisked her into a heated ambulance where her pulse and breathing were measured. She hadn’t stopped shivering, and was begin to feel slightly drowsy and a little confused. Her bib was removed and she was declared out of the race, and brought back to Sens in the vehicle, with GodzillaPin following behind in his car.

The heartbreak came slowly, in waves. That night itself, the Ninja Turtle was simply numb with cold and the only thought she had in mind was: DNF. Sitting in the hot bath back at the hotel, having washed away the mud, she could only console herself with the thought that at least she was not passed out in the forest between St Julien du Sault and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, in the rain, in the middle of the night.

Over the following two days, the physical ache of running almost 50km of muddy trails was frequently matched by the emotional devastation of failing to finish. The Ninja Turtle felt betrayed by both the inclement weather, and a constitution too weak to handle the rough elements. Mentally, she was certain she would have made the 85km, but physically, despite the 1000 miles she’d logged on the hills of Moselle, in the valleys of Meuse, along the coasts of Sydney and on the sandy beaches, in gorges and ravines of South Australia, along the highways of Frankfurt and Marseille, through the villages on the outskirts of Paris and on the country roads of Lorraine, the canal networks of Singapore and Metz, morning, noon and night, she was still unable to support the cold rain in wet clothes and shoes. She had found her limit.

So that’s it. Life isn’t fair; if it had been sunny like last year, no doubt she wouldn’t have cracked, but there is no point speculating. She couldn’t possibly have trained for these conditions, so she’s not sure she can regret anything. That’s the lesson out of this race – she’s given her 100% and she has failed through no real fault of her own. Sometimes, we cannot seek to blame anything or anyone, but rather, we must simply accept how things are, learn to let go, and move on.

Above all, her spirit has not been beaten by this experience, and she shall rise from the ashes to try and try again. One day, the stars will align in her favour and she shall be ready to claim the victory of daring to chase a dream.

In the meantime, all that’s left to do is to turn away from her grief, and properly thank every single person who has supported her on this remarkable journey with their faith, confidence, and words of encouragement when the Ninja Turtle needed them most. Rod Lowe, Baby Turtle, Sonic the Hedgehog, Krazy Cow, Yellow Jersey, and above all, GodzillaPin.

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Running

Race #5: Boucles de l’Acier

Spring has finally sprung! After two miserable races in miserable weather conditions (both being marathons no less), the Ninja Turtle finally lucked out and got some sunshine for her 5th race of the season, a 10K run in Florange, not far from the Luxembourg border.

This time round, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle invited their neighbour Mickey Mouse to come along for a fun day out and extra moral support. Secretly, it was the Ninja Turtle’s strategy to make sure that GodzillaPin would be there at the finish line this time, instead of missing her YET AGAIN.

The race started at a local stadium, which was very convenient for warm-ups. Mickey Mouse helped pace the Ninja Turtle to make sure she was going fast enough to get the blood pumping, but not toe the line wasted.

The race started at a local stadium, which was very convenient for warm-ups. Mickey Mouse helped pace the Ninja Turtle to make sure she was going fast enough to get the blood pumping, but not toe the line wasted.

It was a small-town race, and only into its 3rd edition. The name Boucles de l’Acier literally translates to Loops of Steel, as it was 2 laps of 5km, and a reference to the local steel industry. There was a really dreadful smell as they drove into town, which was a cross between dead fish and chlorine. It was little consolation when they got accustomed to the smell though, because there were visual reminders of heavy industry.

How to die of black lung: run a race in a town which pumps out this much smog. Breathe. Enjoy. Keel over.

How to die of black lung: run a race in a town which pumps out this much smog. Breathe. Enjoy. Keel over.

It was a pancake flat course, and with the sun and light wind, conditions were perfect. The Ninja Turtle employed her usual “strategy” of going slow for the first 70% before picking up the pace at the end.

She even had time to stop for a mid-race kiss from GodzillaPin.

She even had time to stop for a mid-race kiss from GodzillaPin.

She finished the race in 54m 13s, which is a PR for a 10K distance. Save for the 7th to 9th kilometres, which were held at a constant of 11.05kph, this was also a perfect negative split run, meaning each kilometre was run progressively faster than the last. She started at 10.49kph and worked her way up to 12.93kph for the last and final 1000m.

Crossing the finish line strong and happy.

Crossing the finish line strong and happy.

There’s an observation that the Ninja Turtle wishes to make. Progress takes time. For some people, it takes a very long time. When the Turtle first started running in September 2012, she’d lost all fitness, and couldn’t imagine running 10km without dying of an asthma attack.

She remembers when she first ran a 10km under an hour, some time after the New Year of 2013. She cried happy tears.

It took her one year and a bit to bring it down to 57m 54s (summer 2014)

This race time of 54m 13s in spring 2015 is a new 10K time for the Turtle.

Undoubtedly, there are lots of people who improve much faster than she does, but there are also others who’ll need more time. The Turtle has no running coach, and isn’t part of a running club. These are not excuses, these are just facts, being stated simply and plainly. It’s to say that whatever your personal circumstances are, whatever your financial or temporal limitations, just work with what you’ve got. It takes determination, discipline, patience and trust to happen.

Also, progress isn’t linear. Sometimes we stagnate, or we regress, but as long as we keep at things and give it all we’ve got, magic will eventually happen.

You’ll just have to check back in a year or so to see improvements with this Turtle (who knows, she may have even upgraded to a Sloth by then).

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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.
TdTofficial16
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

Race #2: Piste de Napatant

Today, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle celebrated International Women’s Day by waking up super early, and fitting in as much as they could during the daylight hours (which are getting longer hooray!) Although Spring doesn’t officially arrive in France till 22 March, and even then, we don’t shift the clocks forward till 29 March, there is definitely a slight change in the air. The morning chill lingers, but the sun is slowly beginning to bite. This is how the Ninja Turtle likes it.

The 13km took the runners around Briey, which is still in Lorraine, but the next department over – la Meurthe et Moselle. Under the glorious sunlight, the route was gloriously beautiful. It was a mix of road and trail, and although people were making a big fuss out of the hill climb in the final 2km, the Ninja Turtle didn’t mind it.

One of the better small town races so far. The post-run refreshments included the standard fresh fruit, raisins cake and chocolate BUT it also had fruit salad, ham and cheese sandwiches and a choice of drinks including BEER!

One of the better small town races so far. The post-run refreshments included the standard fresh fruit, raisins, cake and chocolate BUT it also had fruit salad, ham and cheese sandwiches and a choice of drinks including BEER!

Yay! GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle sitting on the grass and snacking, just like back at the Adelaide University campus!

GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle sitting on the grass and snacking, just like they used to back at the Adelaide University campus

Then, because it was only midday when everything was done, and they had many more hours of sunlight to enjoy, they decided to take a roadtrip to Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. Because, why not?

The majestic Vosges mountains

The majestic Vosges mountains

The quick stop back at the apartment gave the Ninja Turtle a chance to take a shower, and they packed a picnic lunch of sandwiches, salads, chips and fruit. But then of course, GodzillaPin conveniently forgot to mention that there was a reason why they were going to Saint-Dié-des-Vosges that day.

23ème Salon de la Gastronomie et des Produits Fermiers du Massif Vosgien la Table Vosgienne

23ème Salon de la Gastronomie et des Produits Fermiers du Massif Vosgien la Table Vosgienne

So, they foolishly carried around a picnic bag with food brought from home, in a food exposition. *le sigh* Aside from the usual cheese, honey, sausages, terrines etc that characterise the offerings by these small food producers in the region, they managed to buy some rather interesting items, such as a honey-like spread made from dandelion flower and saffron, duck terrine, and this:

St Patrick's Day came a bit early for this man...

St Patrick’s Day came a bit early for this man…

Yup, green beer. It was in fact, beer with a green thistle syrup. The Ninja Turtle stole a sip, and it had a nice floral smell but otherwise, it tasted like regular ale.

The precious little that was left of the afternoon was spent driving around aimlessly, just enjoying the sun and the scenery of the region. When it was time to head home, the duo were treated to sunset on the highway.

Even if there had been a traffic jam, one wouldn't really complain.

Even if there had been a traffic jam, one wouldn’t really complain.

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