Race report: Freelander’s Trail Mersch-Hollenfels (18km, 500Hm, 4°C)

It was a lazy Saturday morning. Rain was pouring down. Either I’d drive to Mersch, 30 minutes away from home, and do a late sign-up for a 18km trail race; or I’d sit at home, complain about the weather and not get any run done. The weather was a concern, but if I managed to go out and “get it done” I figured I would not just train my muscles, but also strengthen my mental fortitude and reinforce a positive habit. So before I could change my mind, I assembled my running gear and got in the car.

The race start was scheduled for 13:15. I arrived sometime after noon, to the sigh of a police car handing out parking fines to competitors who had ignored “no parking” signs at the main entrance to the event site. I parked in a quiet side-street, and when I entered the signup area there were two long lines – one for the 11km, one for the 18km. The lines were a bit confusing, because in theory you had to go to one spot and pay for the late sign-up, then queue up to get your running bib and timing chip. What most people did – me included – was to just queue in that second line straight away because that’s what everyone was doing. This was less than optimal because when reaching the end of the queue, you then found out that you were missing a payment proof.

Race sign-up done and 25€ poorer (which included a rather steep 7€ “late sign-up” penalty), I headed outside for a short warm-up. A 15 minute delay to the starting time was announced over the PA system. The delay wasn’t too bad – I was catching up with a friend and former sprinter who had signed up for the 11km; and at the same time the remaining rain clouds were squeezing out their last drops.  When the 10-second countdown went out over the loudspeaker, the bad weather that had been all over Luxembourg the past day or two seemed to finally have dispersed.

After just a few short straight meters on grass past the Krounebierg swimming pool, over 400 runners (both 11km and 18km) almost immediately had to face the first climb of the day. Initially on pavement, then on a wide farmer’s double track, we climbed the first 75m of elevation for the day, in less than a kilometer. I had lined up in the first third of the field, and position shuffling was fairly limited. By the time my watch beeped for the first kilometer, we were already descending again. The pace of my surrounding group was quite high, and I covered the descent as well as the next kilometers of slightly undulating terrain at a pace of less than 5min/km. I was a bit concerned that this wouldn’t be sustainable, but I had a constant eye on my heart rate which hovered between 162 and 167 beats per minute, which is well below my maximum of around 182.

Somewhere around the 5km spot, we hit the first of three aid stations. The 11km runners had to turn left and head up a climb for their return to the start, while the 18km runners continued straight. This spot could have been marked better, a 11km runner just ahead of me got confused and it was only the verbal instruction from the person manning the aid station that sent him on the right way. I heard of others facing a similar problem.

After about 6km, we briefly crossed the CR 105 road and were soon heading up on the second serious climb for the day, again of about 90m of elevation gain in less than 1km (which is as much as you typically get in central or southern Luxembourg, because that’s the usual prominence the hills have over the valleys). We had now reached Hollenfels (or Huelmes in Luxembourgish), and would almost immediately head down to Marienthal, both places well-known to people who grew up in Luxembourg because a lot of us went there for summer camp while in primary school. Despite these places being just a short drive from home, I had probably last set foot here some 30 years ago during said summer camp. This second descent for the day was more abrupt and a bit technical. I was following a runner who I thought was being very prudent by taking the wet wooden steps one very small step at a time. His prudence was justified however, because on one of the last steps (which I took two at a time) my feet went flying out from under me, and I hit the ground. No ill effect fortunately, except for my shoulders tensing up either from a sudden reflex movement or from my arms cushioning the fall before my backside could hit the ground.

With nothing hurt but a little bit of my pride, I headed on, down to the valley floor and then almost immediately towards the third climb. This one was a bit mellower, first following an easy trail and then a short stretch of paved road. At the next bend of the road, at around 9km of distance we hit the second aid station where I took, once more, just a cup of water.

From here, we went downhill again, a slightly faster descent that was made a bit treacherous by large flat stones partially buried under fallen leaves. The going was quite slippery.

From km12 to km14, the going along a nice straight forest trail was straightforward, with no major elevation gain or loss. I could feel a bit of tiredness coming on, but headed on at what I thought was a sustainable pace, right around 160bpm.

At km14, we hit the 5th and final big climb for the day. This one went up a few switchbacks, and by this point I’d really had enough climbing. My heart rate went up to almost 170, still a sizeable way from my limit. Once more, I seem to have been a bit better at climbing than people surrounding me, but usually any gains that I made were short-lived because whoever I passed usually caught back up to me on the next straight part or descent.

I had been trading positions with a former middle-distance runner a few times. She’d been at the peak of her career before I reached mine as a sprinter some 20 years ago, and very likely I was a stranger to her; but it’s always nice to have some known reference point during a race. At the third and final aid station, I took a cup of Coke and overheard that she was the second female on the 18km course. I had no idea about about my position – by this point, the number of people I’d passed recently could be counted on one hand, and in turn I was passed by just one or two guys.

From km15 to km16.5, there was a downhill I have no major memory of and then, a little bit of a surprise, came another uphill. When I’d looked at the race profile in the morning I had memorized the information that there would be 5 climbs, but had neglected to commit to memory that right at the end, there was another inconsequential climb (of around 30 vertical meters) just before the final descent to the finish line. In the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t a big deal; but on fatigued legs it seemed quite a bit longer and steeper than it probably was in reality.

Km16.5, the start of that small uphill, was where we rejoined the “out and back” section of the course – the final 1.5km to the finish line. The “peak” was at 17km of distance, which meant in theory it was now a 1km descent to the finish. I was in close contact to a runner ahead of me, and thought that if I lengthened my stride I could probably catch him. Since the last part of the descent was on pavement, this provided some additional pounding on my feet, and my vulnerable left achilles in particular, but if I had any chance to gain a position and shield myself against attacks from runners trailing me, it was a small price to pay. I hit a 3:50min/km on that last 800m descent, and for a while accelerated to a top speed of 3:00min/km. This allowed me to catch the other guy and make sure that I in turn wasn’t passed anymore.

I crossed the finish line, amid some familiar faces: the race presenter and DJ typically see me at finish lines with a camera in my hand, but I could get used to crossing the finish line under my own power rather than just photographing the ones doing it.

My official finish time, which took almost a full day to get posted online, is 1:39:26. My watch recorded 17.8km race distance and 1:39:17 of duration, and an average pace of 5:34min/km. I finished in 55th position (53th male), out of 221 finishers on the 18km distance. 149 runners finished the 11km distance.

Will I return? A date for a 2018 edition has already been announced. Apart from the few minor gripes with sign-up and timing, the race was a positive experience. The course and elevation profile are interesting and challenging, without being overly difficult. For a small local race, a late-signup fee of 25€ is quite steep for people not interested in the free meal (spaghetti) or a free entry to the adjacent swimming pool; so if I do come back I’ll make sure to sign-up in advance.

What I wore:

  • Salomon Speed Cross 4 shoes
  • CEP compression socks
  • Icebreaker brief
  • Ronhill Infinity Fuel Twin Short
  • 2 Hummel Jonas Seamless t-shirts: one long-sleeve as base layer, one short-sleeve on top
  • I was also wearing an Icebreaker wool cap, an off-brand polyester buff and a pair of old thin running gloves.
  • I was not carrying any kind of water or gels. A few cups of water at the aid stations were sufficient.
  • With temperatures of around 4°C and a bit of wind, I never felt cold anywhere but my hands.

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