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.

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.

Running, Travel


A quick recap on last Sunday’s Marathon de Marseille 2015: it was raining, it was windy, there were 499 sleep-deprived marathon runners who woke up ridiculously early for the shuttle-bus to the starting line, of which service terminated a whole hour ahead of the starting time despite the small number of runners.  They sat around in a pub and were fed a winning pre-race breakfast of coffee, biscuits and sardines. Despite the beautiful coastal scenery, the route illogically looped around downtown twice. The signage was inadequate and there was no salt to be found in the first-aid tents. In short, not quite a bag of giggles.

Still, remember how the Ninja Turtle was waffling on about keeping a positive attitude in the face of the absolute worst circumstances? Well, here’s why it’s always important to be wearing a smile: you never know when you’re going to be caught on camera! (See if you can spot the red beanie.)

And here are some photos from the organisers (apologies for the watermark, but the Turtle has already paid more than she cares for to participate in the race, so she’s not paying more for the photos.)