For some people, going up a mountain, traversing a narrow ridge and then descending over 1000m of elevation again is a day’s work. At Ring of Steall skyrace, I’d do that twice in less than 7 hours; going up and down over 2500m of elevation in the process, more than I’ve ever done in a single push.Continue reading
I like traveling to new locations for races. But there’s also a certain appeal to return to a race you’ve already done, and giving it another shot. Especially if said race is in scenic Scotland.
Since I’ve written quite extensively about the race in my 2016 race report, I’ll keep the writing short(er) and let the photos speak for themselves.
In an ongoing quest to challenge myself with longer races with ever-increasing elevation gain, I figured running a half marathon with “Inferno” in its name would be a good milestone. So in August, the wife and I set off for Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, the location of this iconic half marathon that climbs from valley floor (795m) to Alpine mountain peak (2970m).
In the week leading up to this race, I had started to fall ill. But since I had taken the weekend off from my freelance job, paid for the hotel, and mentally committed to the race as an essential stepping-stone for the rest of my 2017 season, I drove down to the Alps anyway. It’s only 11km and 1462m of height gain, so no big deal, right?
Was it wise to run the 23km du Mont-Blanc race with 1600m of elevation gain less than a day after running the Vertical Kilometer (3.8km with 1000m elevation gain), especially after not doing stellar at the VK? I didn’t know, but once more it was a challenge that would get me out of my comfort zone. Continue reading
Third time’s the charm? Could the proverb be true, and was I sure to succeed at a task or event on the third try? After 2015 and 2016, I lined up at the Mont-Blanc Vertical KM in Chamonix again in 2017, intent on improving my ascent time for this race that goes up 1000m of elevation over just 3.5km of distance.
On Monday evening preceding this weekend’s Meeting Régio #2, we trained starting blocks. I felt strong. Then I returned home, had dinner and about an hour later I suddenly felt ill. I’ll skip the details, but suffice to say that the next time I could stand the thought of having any kind of food was about 36 hours later, on Wednesday morning. I still stayed at home on sick leave until Thursday, then dragged myself to work on Friday even though I still wasn’t feeling 100%.
So of course when I drove to the Coque indoor track on Saturday, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform at my best. But with the Luxembourgish indoor season being as short as it is, this would be my first and last chance to run a 200m before the national championships the next weekend.
I was seeded lane 4 in heat 5. The fastest local competitors were in preceding heats, so I didn’t know what to expect from the people I was running with.
Lane 4 is one of the best lanes for me right now because the bend is wide enough for my 6″2 (1.89m) frame, but doesn’t feature quite as much of a height difference on the turns as lanes 5 or 6 (which requires powerful legs, which I no longer have).
As usual, I tried to get out of the blocks and through the first bend as aggressively as possible – what you lose here cannot be made up later on. Throughout the straight, I had gained some ground on my competitors, but would need to do an efficient second turn.
Half-way into the second turn, I felt the effect of the week that I’d spent ill. I could no longer push hard, and as such I exited the second turn in third place. I still tried to maintain stride length and made a conscious effort not to force things too much, which usually ends up being counter-productive because while you feel like you’re working hard your running economy goes bad. I successfully held off the runner from CAB in the outside lane, but couldn’t gain ground on the two athletes ahead of me.
I crossed the line in 24″20. I had hoped to be faster, but given how the week had gone I suppose it’s still OK. From an age perspective, I was by far the oldest competitor at 39 years. The next-oldest runner was born in 1984, with everybody else born 1990 or later. Position-wise, I finished 31th out of 49.
I’m not happy to run slower than 24″ – everyone has these time limits of what they think is “slow”, and for me it was always 24″00 on the 200m and 12″00 on the 100m. (On the other hand, “fast” in my part of the world is under 11″00 and 22″00 respectively.) It’s been 19 years since I first ran 22″00 on an indoor 200m; and if I make the link between then and now there’s certainly nobody from that time frame who’s still competing today. So I guess I should be happy about that.
Going into 2017’s first race, I thought I had a good shot at being faster than the previous year. I’d done a much more thorough preparation phase over the previous several months, also because my achilles tendon had allowed me to get in more quality sprint workouts. I even had the privilege of joining the national team for some of the workouts.
Which was both a blessing and a curse, because while I had done quite a bit of quality work in the past weeks, I also had a stressful work week behind me and wasn’t too sure whether I had fully recovered from the last two hard training sessions on Monday (indoor sprints) and Tuesday (sled work at the club).
So I drove to the Coque indoor track with a few goals in my head. Realistically, I was aiming for anything between 7″40 and 7″50. Optimistically, I thought I might even dip below last year’s season best of 7″40. Pessimistically, I was hoping to at least be faster than 7″65.
After a pre-race chat with Martti, I set off to warm-up with Mart. We did our warm-up in the area behind the stands (obviously the Coque still lacks a serious warm-up area), and then headed downstairs for stretching and skips/strides.
Fifteen minutes before the race, the first heat was allowed out on the track. Or rather, not. Since a high jump competition was going on, everyone was prevented from setting foot on the outside track, which was otherwise unoccupied. So despite subsequent heats being called out and allowed out of the calling area, we were all kept in the small band between the outside lanes and stands. Doing serious warm-up sprints there was almost impossible and the minutes dragged on until finally the previous category’s 60m were over and the first heat was allowed to approach the starting blocks.
I was in the 3rd heat, in lane 4. Once more, I think that’s my historic times getting me a good lane, rather than my current capabilities. I was sandwiched between Lionel Evora Delgado (who would go on to run a remarkable 7″01 in the finals) and Tiago Delgado who I’d trained with several times over the past month or two; and who’d beaten me at every single start there.
The gun went off… and then went off again. False start.
The gun went off for attempt #2, and much to my surprise I was out of the starting block with the best. That feeling unfortunately didn’t last long. It seemed that within the blink of an eye, Tiago leapfrogged from being one meter behind me to being one meter ahead of me. Lionel was far gone by then too, so all I could do was hold on to Tiago and hope that he would go reasonably fast, because then that’d mean I wasn’t too far behind. As we crossed the line, I could see Steve Weiwert to the very right also ahead of me.
After the finish, Tiago mentioned he wasn’t happy with his start; and I immediately felt like I could have done a better race as well. While the start had been OK, I hadn’t pushed as aggressively as I should have during the rest of the race. Post-race analysis with the above photos also reveals that I pushed my upper body forwards over an imaginary finish line that was at least two or three in front of the actual finish line. That mistake alone might have cost a hundredth of a second or two.
The end result was disappointing: I was clocked in at 7″60, and I finished the heat in 4th place out of 5 (with one other runner marked DSQ because of his false start). Overall, considering all 6 heats, I finished in 25th place out of 41 people. Needless to say, I neither qualified for the A-final, nor for the B-final.
For the past several years, the Luxembourgish Federation has been organizing a regional indoor meet in late December. Since the inside of the indoor track (with 60m lanes) is only put in place around Christmas, that means the meet is limited to the outside lanes. As for distances, the federation is concentrating on “odd” distances: 300m, 600m and 1000m.
In 2011 and 2012, I already did a 300m indoor at the same event and even managed to set a lifetime PR in (a very mediocre) 37″79, since I hadn’t run that distance during my peak years.
For 2016, I was hoping to maybe beat that time. My preparation during the early months of the winter season was shaping up nicely, but then work stress, illness, and ugly weather all had a negative influence on my fitness. Furthermore, I fell prey to some bad habits (eating too much junk food and not burning off enough calories) so that on December 16th, I lined up about two to three kilos heavier than I was in summer. Nevertheless, I was optimistic that I might at least finish in a low 38″.
I was seeded in lane 3 of the third heat. In theory, that was quite a good fit for me: not waiting around for the final heats (there were eight in total), and having a “middle” lane without the negative impact of either a narrow bend (lane 2) or having to climb the higher curb on the outside lanes.
I wasn’t able to concentrate too well before the start, so as the “on your marks” command was given, I was rather annoyed to discover that rather than be excited to race, my mind was having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand. No time for those idle thoughts though, the “ready” command was given and then we were all off with the shot.
Since a 300m is composed of three bends and straights and I wasn’t quite sure about my sprint stamina in a quick race, I tried to be efficient out of the first bend, but then to hold back a little through the second bend and onto the opposite straight. So far so good, I felt like I was closing in on my competitors. With one more bend to go, now was the moment to speed up… and of course, that’s when the unexpected happened and somewhere in my stomach region a cramp started to form. This had never happened before. I have enough experience with legs feeling heavy or some other issue that makes running less efficient, but never had any experience that originated in the stomach and/or lungs. It severely impacted my oxygen intake, so for the final 75m or so I wasn’t breathing well. To my body, of course, it felt like I wasn’t breathing at all, and consequently everything fell apart. Needless to say, rather than make my move and pass the competitors ahead, I was passed by the ones behind me.
I literally collapsed over the finish line in a disappointing fifth and last place, in equally disappointing time of 39″18.
Overall, I finished 24th out of 45 competitors.
Ever since its inception a few years ago I’ve been aware of the “Red Rock Challenge”, a weekend-long event in October that offers a multitude of different trail run and mountain bike races; near my home in the south of Luxembourg. After I covered part of the event for the newspaper in 2014 and 2015, I told myself “one day, I’ll compete in one of those races”.
Since I’m at the tail-end of my Thirties (39 years old in late October), I realize more and more that for athletic endeavors, “one day” is a bad perspective; and that the best way to take part in a challenge is not to feel overwhelmed and wait for years for the right opportunity, but to just commit to it and potentially be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
So when I looked at the competition schedule for this year’s Red Rock Challenge and found that they offered a duathlon (bike-run-bike), it would have been easy to dismiss it as being too hard, or that I hadn’t trained enough for it. Conventional wisdom would have steered me towards either just doing a trail race or just a mountain bike ride. But challenges are supposed to be, well, challenging. So I signed up for the duathlon event, which was advertised as 21.2km of MTB, 9.6km of trail running and 18.2km of MTB.
Once I had committed to the idea, it was already too late for in-depth preparation. I only had two weekends left, which I both used to do recon on the mountain bike course – doing the first 10km one weekend, and then biking around 35km of it the next one. The opportunity didn’t come for me to even looked at the run course, but I figured that an hour of running would be the least of my worries if it was sandwiched between 40km of hard mountain biking.
Leg 1 – 20.5km MTB ride
I lined up on a fairly chilly Saturday morning with around 180 people. While about 80 of these had signed up for the duathlon like me, an additional 50 people had signed up for the easier option of just doing the mountain bike course, while 37 teams were doing the duathlon as a relay.
Since I didn’t really know what to expect from either myself or the competitors, but guessed that my endurance and skills were less than average, I positioned myself about two thirds back from the starting line. As we set off at a less-than-maximum pace over both paved surfaces and gravel for the first 1.5km, I was moving up a few positions, but still very much respectful of what would still come.
On the first climb, now on a slightly narrower forest path that only allowed people to travel two abreast, I began to regret my timid starting line positioning. There were several people in front of me who were considerably slower than I would have been on my own. A handful of people were already fighting gear ratios or had no climbing legs at all.
After 2.6km and about 80m of elevation gain, we crossed Rue de Hussigny. The next few kilometers were quite technical for an entry-level hobby biker like me. We faced a descent with a few 180° turns, two or three steeper ascents, and some undulating single track in between. On the ascents, again, I found myself stuck behind people pushing their bikes. On my own I’m not sure I would have managed to stay clipped in at every single one of these spots, and my heart rate was quite high even while getting slowed down; so maybe in ideal conditions I wouldn’t have been much faster. But still, I was getting slightly frustrated. Fortunately, before too long the field had thinned out somewhat, and the average width of the trails had widened to the point that passing was easier.
After around 10km we came to our first major road crossing, just outside the eastern outskirts of Differdange. Volunteers were stopping the cars, so there was no slowdown. On the other side of the road, we climbed slowly, reaching the path formerly used by small-track mining trains and followed that through a short tunnel. Since I’d been here the previous weekend, I knew that the tunnel surface was smooth, or otherwise this would have required a careful crossing – it was very dark and potential obstacles would have been difficult to spot.
After going through the tunnel we turned 360° and crossed the tunnel on a higher level. The trail kept going up and my heart rate reached 177, near my maximum. I knew I had to slow down a little since a heart rate this high was not sustainable in the long term. Fortunately, there soon came two descents that offered a bit of a breather.
54 minutes into the race I crossed another road, this time without seeing any traffic. Next up was a bumpy traverse of a field over a grassy trail that allowed to take in what competitors were up ahead. It’s easy to pick at least the nearest one and set yourself the target of catching him, but in reality the race had gone long enough for the slow riders to filter out, and whoever was in front of me wasn’t an easy catch anymore. I still managed to overtake a rider every few minutes, but most times I didn’t even know if any of these guys were even in my own race (duathlon) or just doing the MTB part.
The next quarter-hour was spent on an anti-clockwise loop of Titelberg, most of which I rode without seeing anyone either in front or behind me. This part of the route was quite interesting visually and ended with a technical down-hill. I’m sure that more experienced bikers breezed down to Fond de Gras without a second thought, but for me it was a small victory to make it down almost without walking the bike.
My first MTB leg took me 1:11:33 according to the official timing. This put me in 44th place out of the 70 people that finished.
Leg 2 – 9.3km trail run
Fond de Gras was where we switched from bike to trail shoes for the second leg of the race. This would be my first duathlon transition, ever. With this in mind, I promptly forgot to press “lap” on my Garmin, and thus wouldn’t have any means of tracking how much time I spent in the transition zone. After getting off the bike, I was surprised to find that it took substantial mental effort to deduct that my Number 107 bib meant I was supposed to look for my drop bag in the row that was marked “100-120” (I think). And of course as I moved past the bags and bikes of other competitors I missed my own bag and upon reaching the end of the row had to retrace my steps. Great.
I got rid of my helmet, biking glasses and gloves; and put on my Salomon Speedcross 3 – their “speed laces” probably saved me a few seconds over tightening a traditional shoe. And then I finally remembered to press “Lap”. Although I hadn’t tracked the duration, my transition took me much longer than the handful people who arrived shortly behind me and were now ahead of me.
I set off running at around a 5:30 min/km pace, unsure of how my legs would hold up after 75 minutes of hard biking. Surprisingly, they held up quite well for as long as the trail was straight or on a minor down slope. But on the first incline, somewhere after 3km, I quickly switched over to a power hike. By this point, I’d been caught and passed by a few people. As the trail flattened out again, I resumed running. A female athlete had been behind me since the transition, and when on the next uphill my legs started cramping, she offered a few words of support. Two spectators who were nearby let me know that this was the highest point of the course. They weren’t quite right, but in that moment the cumulative support somehow flicked a switch and I managed to make the leg cramps fade away while also getting back some speed into my legs. I still wasn’t going much faster than a 6km/min pace, but it was much better than walking.
Even though the first kilometers had felt glacial, I was happy to get closer and closer to the transition zone again. The last half kilometer as we got closer to the transition zone felt a bit uncertain, with trails going off in different directions and spectators walking everywhere, but I followed the markers and ended up at the transition zone again. The run took 0:55:31 according to the official timing. My GPS time puts it at 53:55. At this point, the official results put me in 52th place; I therefore must have lost 8 places, but only remember being passed by 3 or 4 people; which means 4 others had faster transitions.
Leg 3 – 18.6km MTB ride
My second transition was slightly better than the first, even though I realized afterwards that I breezed past the feed and water station without taking anything. While I had munched on a power bar during the run, and had drunk about two thirds of my water during the first bike leg; I would later regret that I hadn’t kept up with my hydration needs as well as I should have.
Straight out of Fonds de Gras was another climb. I was starting to feel the cumulative effort and felt slow, but still hit a heart rate of 172 on the way up. The trail mellowed out through the forest, then briefly followed a road (just for one bend) before rejoining the forest again.
Around this point, I started to suffer. My lower back wasn’t happy, and in retrospect I’m not sure whether it was my kidneys that were complaining because they were starting to feel the effects of dehydration (2 hours into the race, and I’d consumed just barely over half a litre of fluids), or if it was just my lower back muscles letting me know that, well, I had not enough lower back muscles to adequately support my body through all the movements of a 2+ hour effort over rough terrain.
With so much of my mind on just moving forward as efficiently as still possible, my memories of the next kilometers are somewhat vague. I know that even though the amount of competitors had thinned out, at some point I reached one local competitor whose name (on his triathlon suit) felt vaguely familiar. I passed him, but he held on and stayed behind.
Some time later, with mostly easy riding, we had to cross a small wooden bridge. We’d both caught up on another rider, who slowed down smack in the middle of the bridge. I changed to a lower gear, somehow my gears got caught up and the chain jumped. The sudden loss of forward movement and a foggy brain had me leaning to the left. I would have fallen straight into the water below if there hadn’t been a wooden board that I was able to lean against and steady myself. I swore, successfully cleared the bridge and then let the other guy go past.
The end was coming nearer and nearer. Thankfully, there were no more big climbs, but the trail was undulating and there were quite a few twists and turns that required full concentration.
A little later, I saw two wheels sticking straight up. I’d caught back up to the last rider, and apparently he’d fallen and was now trying to unclip and get himself off the ground. I asked if he was alright – he was, so I continued on.
Somewhere along the way I passed a few more people, and got passed once or twice, but mostly there was nobody around me.
Finally, I reached the the parking lot near the forest where the single trail had started at the beginning of the race. From here on out, the descent would follow the same path that we came up on. Road markings were a little misleading however – or at least, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and got confused. Soon though, I realized that I was indeed on the correct path and needn’t worry about navigation anymore.
Maybe a kilometer from the finish line, another rider passed me. He said something, but I had a bad case of tunnel vision; and didn’t understand a thing. With my mind that foggy, it was time for the finish line, which fortunately was approaching.
I biked over the red railway bridge and across the line. The second MTB leg had taken me 1:07:53. I finished that bike split in the 34th fastest time of all duathlon competitors.
Overall ranking, and conclusion
I finished 40th out of 70. My final time was 3:14:55. The race was won in 2:22:37, with the first Luxembourgish competitor coming in at 2:34:34.
The race was one of the hardest competitions I’ve done, mostly because of the long time with a high sustained heart rate. My average heart rate was 164bpm.
A lot of things went right during the race. My bike, a Trek hard-tail (front-suspension only) performed flawlessly. I suffered no punctures, and had no gear issues. I didn’t fall (barely). My clothing choices (cycling shorts and two layers on top) were OK. While I was too warm occasionally, just one layer of clothing would probably have been too chilly. I didn’t drink enough and a few more calories would probably have provided me with more energy during the end of the race. A slightly more optimistic starting line positioning might have kept me out of traffic jams on the first few kilometers. Overall, I’m really happy with how the race unfolded and if I manage to train at least as much next in 2017, I wouldn’t mind lining up at the start line again.