One of my favourite side effects of competing in athletic events has always been to travel to places I normally wouldn’t get to see and experience. So when in early 2016, I stumbled across an announcement for the Mamores VK, which would take place in a fairly isolated corner of Scotland, I jumped at the chance. The Mamores VK is named after the “Mamores” mountain range and the familiar “vertical kilometer” concept which has athletes ascend 1000m of elevation in a short distance – here, 5km.
If you’ve done something once and then set out to do it again, the expectation is that you’ll do better. Otherwise, why bother, right?
For the second year in a row, I was in Chamonix, France for the “KM Vertical du Mont-Blanc”, a vertical kilometer race that ascends 1000m of elevation in around 3.8km. The previous year, I’d reached my beginners’ goal of finishing in less than one hour. This year, I wanted to do better. But then several track&field events took away my focus and I ended up doing less than half the vertical mileage I’d done the previous year.
The week of the race, the weather predictions were dire. Lows of 10 degrees, highs of 20 degrees, risk of rain showers. I wasn’t all that happy, but I’d cope. But then as Friday came closer, the weather forecast changed. I drove 630km to Chamonix on Thursday, with my car reporting temperatures of up to 36°C. On Friday at 2pm, the temperatures in Chamonix topped out at almost 29°C. I walked 3km to the starting line in that heat, kept my warm-up quite light, and hoped for the best.
With 800 spots available for the vertical kilometer race (up from in 2015), I was expecting there to be lots of stress at the starting line. The opposite was true, with the speakers almost begging people to line up at the time they were supposed to start. Did people just try to wait for cooler temperatures, or had many of them not started at all?
There was no line whatsoever as I crossed the start line and waited for the next 20-second count-down. I couldn’t get my heart rate down below 130 just standing there. I was wearing short running tights, a sleeve-less running top and well-broken-in Brooks Cascadias. In my pocket was a 0.5 liter bottle of water; and I’d emptied another one just like it during warm-up.
The count-down hit zero, and I was off. Strangely enough, my bib (with timing chip) wasn’t scanned at the start, but maybe half a kilometer into the race. The spot where they did the scan was where the route rejoined rue La Mollard – the initial few hundred meters had been changed compared to last year’s course and instead of going straight from Place du Triangle de l’Amitié to Rue La Mollard via a roundabout, the new route bypassed the church on the right, going up several sets of stairs instead.
At the top of Rue La Mollard, a straight and even climb still on pavement, I passed my first competitor. Shortly later, my watch beeped with the encouraging news that I’d covered the first kilometer in a time that was slightly faster than last year. So far, so good. And then, just as I hit the 100m elevation marker, which is also the start of the continuous switchbacks that define the next 400m of elevation gain, things started unraveling.
For some reason, the effort felt harder than it should. I was feeling quite weak, my breathing was labored and I was sweating up a storm. I took a sip of water, but it felt burning hot. I was walking by this point, and I could feel that I wasn’t as strong as I was last year. Whereas last year, I was pushing aggressively, this year even just going through the motions felt like a lot of work.
By the time I reached the 200m elevation marker, the one competitor I’d caught had passed me again. As did several others. I was feeling worse and worse. At some point, I thought that maybe some more water would do me good, and I downed almost the rest of the bottle, but to no positive effect.
300m of elevation. 400m of elevation. 500m of elevation. It’s all a blur, and I catch up with no-one while an increasing amount (10? 15?) people catch me. A random hiker who’s not even in the race is easily keeping up with me even though he’s talking on the cell phone. A little later I let him pass, and he offers me an energy gel. Do I look that bad? I thank him, but refuse. It’d be against the rules, and I don’t feel that the issue I’m having is something that a handful of calories would solve.
Beyond 500m, the single-trail stops being just boring switch-backs and instead gets more technical. There’s a few spots where I use the hands to stabilize myself, not so much because it’s required but rather because I don’t fully trust myself. At least I seem to have stabilized a little and for a while I don’t get passed. I even manage to catch up with two female runners. Little victories do count when you’re down.
600m. 700m. The technical difficulties keep increasing. My heart rate has gone down quite a lot; which means that I’m definitely no longer pushing as hard as I should. But the effort level still seems very hard.
My pace slows down some more as I realize that even though my heart rate is nowhere near its peak, I still feel bad. The slackening of pace is then more for self-preservation; because I don’t want to push beyond the 100% that are possible today; because a missed foot step or a slip could very well a fall of several meters and a fairly bad injury.
Finally, we reach the photo spot that marks the end of the technical scrambling, and I’m sure I was looking very photogenic (or maybe not). When I say “we”, that is actually a good thing because while I’m still getting passed every now and then I’ve finally caught up to a runner or two.
The course changes again it seems (or maybe my memory is hazy by this point) and we seem to go the other way around the cable car station. Now, it’s just an uphill sprint to the finish line, right? I actually start running again, pass another runner, but then as I approach the spot of last year’s finish, there’s… nothing yet. The new course still goes around a bend, and only then does the finish line come in sight.
My breathing is really labored by now; that final running segment has taken all of the remaining energy that I had. As I cross the finish line, the speaker announces me by name and says I’m from “The Netherlands”. Really?
Across the line, there’s a tent and a bench, and I sit down feeling like I weigh two hundred kilograms. I grab a cup of Coke, then another one, then a third one. The guy behind the counter asks me if I’m OK, because apparently I look quite white in my face. I reply to the affirmative, grab two slices of cake and head outside.
I take off the soaking wet running top, take a few photos of the scenery and finish line and text my wife. I was around ten minutes slower than last year (Official time: 1:07:17, versus 0;57:43 last year). I’m quite disappointed, but then again, I had most of the race to come to grips with the realization that today wouldn’t be a good day.
Maybe I need to come back next year?
Sometime in April, my club asked me if I could join them in Portugal for the European Champion Clubs Club on the 100m and 4x100m. At 38 years old, I didn’t consider myself the strongest sprinter for that task, but their options (not that many 100m sprinters, studies, injuries, people not having the Luxembourgish nationality, etc.) were limited. I had wanted to concentrate on vertical kilometer training in spring, but when offered the chance to travel to a country I’ve never competed in for the club I’ve been a member of since 1987, I could hardly say no.
So on May 27th the entire group took an early-morning flight on TAP from Luxembourg to Lissabon, and then spend another couple of hours in a minibus to drive down to Leiria. In the late afternoon, most people headed down to the track, where we were first hit by rain and then witnessed nice evening colors on Leiria castle that towers over the stadium.
After a decent night’s sleep in our hotel “Eurosol Leiria” (in which a third bed had been added to a regular two-person bedroom barely large enough for that task) and good hotel breakfast (the only decent food we had while in Portugal – the event catering offered by the organizing club was not very good), we headed out for the events.
The rain had passed and temperatures were climbing. No excuses, then.
Well, my 100m was bad. My start was a textbook example of what not to do (it felt like I stood up and ran). And to add insult to injury, I was competing against athletes that were faster than what we see in national or regional competitions. My series was won in 10″51, and I came in dead last in a disappointing 11″91. The fact that I was the only competitor marked as “masters” in the results list, and that we had a -1.2m/s headwind were not much of a solace.
Later that day, we still had to do a 4x100m. And again, we were up against strong competition. Not to mention that our team was compromised of a triple jumper, a javelin thrower, a high jumper who’d also done a long distance that day; and me, the old guy well past his prime.
During warm-up, it became evident that the meeting organizers had some kind of trouble. We had already finished our warm-up and were waiting to be let into the calling room when… nothing happened. This would ultimately last for close to an hour, during which we weren’t even allowed on the track to maintain our warm-up.
Finally, the first heat was allowed onto the track, and ran their race. I noticed that the race marshals didn’t even catch a very obvious mistake by one of the competitors (he stood with his entire body in front of the line that marks the start of the 10m acceleration zone, rather than inside it) that should have lead to outright disqualification of the offending team.
In our heat, we finished last. The time was a disappointing 45″44. Mind, I’m not slagging the team – we did as best as we could, and everyone gave his best given the circumstances. It’s just that it was disheartening to see several other teams do times between 43″ and 44″, which should really have been within reach for the club.
Ancona EMACI 2016 (11th European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor), day 3: 200m series
When the entry lists for the EMACI first appeared online in early March, it looked like my best chance to go on to the next round (half-finals) was in the 200m. As it turns out, the number of athletes in attendance and my own performances at the 60m series allowed me to progress to that half-final as well. I’m not complaining, of course, but given my less than optimal preparation (only getting green-lighted for competitions in late December after six months off due to an Achilles injury), running two 60m’s on Tuesday instead of one meant additional stress on my body, and by the time Thursday rolled around I wasn’t feeling fully recovered.
Once again, I warmed up on the outside track. Temperatures were manageable, but there was a very strong wind. I did my usual warm-up, plus some strides and starting blocks in the turn, trying to ignore a building unease in my left foot and Achilles tendon.
About ten minutes before the calling room opened for the M35 category, I headed back inside. The atmosphere inside was stuffy. The air conditioning that had been going full blast the first day had had been shut off. Combined with fairly full stands this meant that the air quality suffered a lot.
I had been assigned lane #3 in heat 2. With five heats in total, the first two athletes in each heat and the eight best times after that would go on to the half-finals. I knew that Richard Beardsell had a much faster season best, so he was certain to qualify, which meant that if I wanted to be sure to advance I needed to place ahead of the others.
The gun went off and I pushed out of the blocks. My start had been mediocre – I’d seen worse, but the acceleration into the first bend maybe wasn’t as aggressive as it could have been. Richard in lane #2 went past, and in turn I tried to get closer to Marvin Edwards in lane #4. The straight lines in Ancona seem quite long and the bends are quite narrow; which at almost 1.90m tall doesn’t suit me terribly well. Still, as we exited the second bend I was within breathing distance to Marvin and second place. However, there was still a long straight ahead until the finish line and I tried to push hard to inch ahead. The trouble with pushing hard is that it’s not really elegant and just running a relaxed stride would have been better; but while you’re in the effort that’s a hard thing to influence.
The final 50m seemed to be twice as long, and if the crowd was watching I hope we gave them a good show – it was a close fight for second position. Unfortunately for me, I lost it by 4 hundredth of a second. The time was quite bad, 22”86 versus 22”82, or over a second behind the winner (22”72).
Across the finish line, I collapsed on the floor. I would later repeat that performance in the stands, because the air was still quite oppressive and I’d given a hundred percent. The good thing was that my performance would allow me to progress to the half-finals. My time placed me as 13th out of 18 half-finalists.
Ancona EMACI 2016 (11th European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor), day 3: 200m half-finals
After running the qualifications around 15:00, it was once again a long wait until the half-finals that would take place close to 20:35. The logical choice would have been to head back to the hotel, but since ours was outside of Ancona it would have meant quite a drive and then the need to look for a parking spot again – things were quite busy on the roads and parking spots surrounding the area (although to Ancona’s credit, parking was free everywhere).
I started my warm-up about an hour and twenty minutes before the race. It was still light enough outside so I didn’t have to jog, stretch or do strides in the busy and stuffy indoor area; but the price to pay for the fresh air was that it came in very strong and cold gusts. I retreated into the corner that was the most sheltered, and did an undisturbed warm-up – most athletes had opted to be less exposed to the elements and stayed off the outdoor track.
My Achilles wasn’t too happy – this week was the most I’d worn my spikes in years – but I was quite confident that it would hold up.
About thirty minutes before the race, I headed back inside. Since the “official” way in was quite a bit of a walk, I followed a fellow athlete through a shortcut, a door marked “no exit / no entry” next to the calling room. We received a bit of a glare from an official, but nothing more.
Once again the calling room staff (who didn’t seem to change too much, and were probably long hard days as volunteers) checked our bibs, whether we’d confirmed our races, and the length of our spikes.
I was in the first of three finals, along with Jimmy Melfort from France who (spoilers!) would go on to win the final. Since I had one of the weaker times in the series, I was assigned lane #2. Again this didn’t make it easier to hit my ideal stride length during the turns, but the advantage was that I could see my competitors ahead of me.
For the fourth time this week the gun went off. Again I tried to push out of the blocks aggressively, but again I found myself not making any headway against the stronger athletes. I’d told myself that I’d do my best to catch up with Gavin Stephens (who had qualified 4/10 of a second faster than me). Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to do that, and during the second turn I was fighting with Daniele Carloni for fourth position.
Once more, I came in four hundredths of a second short and crossed the finish line in fifth position in 23”82, to Daniele’s 23”78. Gavin was third in 23”31, with the two French guys (Jimmy Melfort and Thierry Henry) well ahead. They would both qualify for the finals.
This time, I was a bit happier with my race execution – my final meters were less forced. However, of course the time still wasn’t great. There’s a multitude of reasons for that, some of which I’ve mentioned before: difficult recovery from my Achilles troubles, inability to train at the same level of intensity and volume that the other guys probably still do, etc.
However, I’m happy enough with the general outcome of the week. I didn’t injure myself; and I came close enough to my season bests (200m), or even bettered them (60m). Of course I would have liked to run faster or closer to what I still consider my remaining potential at 38 years old. But “it is what it is” and as such I can only be happy with the experience and having reached the half-finals each time. As for the 400m, for which I’d signed up as a “backup plan” in case I failed at my 60m or 200m, I wisely skipped that one on Saturday.
Ancona EMACI 2016 (11th European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor), day 1: 60m series
All throughout the day leading up to my 60m series, I was doing mental mathematics: 14:36 minus 20 minutes call-room minus 1 hour warm-up equals the time I was supposed to start my warm-up. I checked my simple math several times, and still ended up starting several minutes early because this was my first big international track competition in over ten years, and with many athletes in different categories already warming up for their earlier starts, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement.
We’re in Italy, so some rules in the technical manual are cast aside straight away: nobody uses the dedicated warm-up area, a soccer pitch with artificial grass, and instead everyone is on the outdoor track where the throws events (javelin, hammer) are taking place.
I run a few laps in the outside lanes, and then take shelter under a small structure near the finish line to do my stretching. The sun is beating down and even though there’s a cold breeze, it’s a great day outside. Since I don’t know any of the people I’m competing against, it’s hard to pick out who’s running in the same category: the M40 age group is running before my age group, M35 (for those aged 35 to 39), and there’s some overlap with some people starting their warm-up early while others might be late.
I do skips and strides, then put on my sprint spikes. There’s two starting blocks on the 100m lane, then a third one appears and I head to the tool shed to grab a fourth one. The atmosphere is relaxed, but at the same time it’s somewhat typical that the majority of sprinters are blocking out the entire outside world. The British sprinters are the only ones who talk among themselves. Their sign-up times are also among the best, so to them the series are just a mild inconvenience on the way to the half-finals and half-finals.
For me, I was 28th out of 43 in the preliminary sign-ups, and as such I didn’t expect to be among the 16 who go on to the half-finals.
About 30 minutes before my race, I change back into running shoes and do the relatively long walk back to the indoor track and the calling room that’s located behind the second 200m curve.
With around thirty to forty people competing in each of the age groups, there’s quite a crowd. Things get slightly hectic as the M35 group is allowed into the calling room – the officials are briefly checking our accreditation badges, bib numbers on the front and back of our uniform and the conformity of our running spikes. We’re limited to a few chairs, since the M40 runners are also still waiting for their turn. Some jump around, do quick sprints bursts in the few meters of space, or just watch the preceding heats through the advertisement banners separating us from the track.
My name is called along with the other people in the first heat and soon thereafter we’re led out onto the inside track. Everyone sets up their block and does a test start, then at around 14:40, almost fifteen minutes late, the gun goes off.
My start is OK – not my best, not my worst. Surprisingly, I’m in lane four even though a lot of runners had faster times. Lane four allows me a good view of my competitors as we sprint towards the finish line: there’s two people way in front (Sergio Cruz Pastor in 7”04, David Beaumont in 7”10), a third one also still ahead of me (Thierry Henry, 7”28), and then there’s me in fourth place.
Only the first two of each series go straight through the half-finals, everyone else needs to battle it out for the handful of remaining spots. Hand-shakes are exchanged beyond the finish line, and we’re ushered out of the track so the next heat can stand. I motion “thumbs down” to my wife in the stands to let her know what my initial impression was of my time, and then return to the calling room to change back into running shoes.
In the end, it turns out that I did qualify for the semi-finals, in 7”40. Only 34 people actually lined up at the starting line, and of those 34 I had the 14th-best time. However, the margin was razor-thin, the two people slower than me both did 7”41. Maybe of note is that out of 16 people, only two were born in 1976 and thus older than me, I was the only one from 1977 and the majority of my competitors were born in 1978, 1979 or 1980.
Ancona EMACI 2016 (11th European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor), day 1: 60m half-final
With the (surprising) semi-final qualification, I’d need to run a second 60m in the evening. My heat was at 14:40, the semi-final would be six hours later at 20:40. I had already done a cool-down lap and a little bit of stretching after the 60m, so I joined my wife in the stands and we headed outside to grab a bite to eat. There were sandwiches and small pizzas, so I had one each and treated myself to a can of Coke (which, contrary to when I used to run a little more competitively in the late Nineties, is a rare indulgence nowadays).
Since there’s a sizeable Luxembourgish team at this year’s event (nine people are signed up), we then headed to the outdoor track to catch Sandy Debra’s hammer throw competition. Afterwards, we still saw the tail end of the opening ceremony inside, and then it was finally time for me to warm up again.
Once more, I started a little too early. With a call-room time of 20:20, I started running a little after 19:10, thankful to still have some daylight outside. Temperatures were still quite good, but there was once more quite a lot of wind that had a cold sting to it.
I did my usual routine of stretching, skips and strides, but then as the temperatures dropped decided to head inside to do the remainder of my routine in sprint spikes. Once inside, there was noticeably less traffic (obviously, since the 60m heats in the different age categories draw a lot more people than the half-finals).
I was able to get in a few good strides, but also spent a good time recovering in between. All of us entered the call-room at about the specified time (20:20), again with minimal fuss.
The inside of the call-room was much emptier too, and before too long the first of the two half-finals were called up to head out onto the track. I was in the second half-final, so I had a few more minutes, and then got called up first since I would be in lane one.
I set up my starting block in the full knowledge that I would be in no position to influence the outcome of the race. My time was the second-slowest in my heat. The challenge therefore would be to do the best that was still possible after the long day. Privately, I’d set myself the goal to compete only with the athlete in lane two, Guillaume Tessier, who had been a tenth of a second faster than me in the series.
As the gun went off, I was surprised to actually be ahead of him – typically, when competing at a national or regional level I tend to be one of the slowest starters. However, this was short-lived, he caught up with me pretty fast and I could do nothing but hold on and try not to let the advance get too big. Meanwhile, the guys in the middle lanes were in a different league. The heat was won by Sergio Cruz Pastor in 7”01. I had one weak moment a few meters before the finish line, which almost felt like I mis-stepped with my left foot, and crossed the finish line in 7th position in 7”42, just 2/100 in front of 8th place.
In total, I was in 13th position, which of course meant this was the end of the line for me. Obviously only the eight first runners go on to the finals. My half-final was two hundredths of a second slower than my time in the heats. I would have liked to still improve my time, but considering all the things that lead up to this competition (injury, illness, etc.) I’m happy to have run the times that I did. Both times were actually better than my previous season best (7″50), and while I’m 4 tenths of a second slower than my all-time PR of 7″00, I’m sure that most of my competitors are also a sizeable margin behind their own bests.
Having a competition after an 8-hour work day is always a bit of a challenge. But yet, that’s the reality of the Luxembourgish indoor championships, where I was running the 60m and 200m series on Friday evening, and looking to qualify for the finals on Saturday.
I was off to a bad start. Not just figuratively, either. My 60m start is often my weak spot, and in the series it once again seemed that I was reacting slower than everyone else. Consequently, I had a hard time catching up, and crossed the finish line in a disappointing 4th position. Needless to say that I was too slow to qualify for the final. My 7″53 was only the 11th best time of the evening, and that’s not counting a couple of foreign starters who were only allowed to run the series.
Of note in this series was that Tom Reuter (in yellow/black) had a much faster start than me but pulled a muscle in the final meters, as can be seen below.
The 200m series were a little better. I was in the same heat as Pol Bidaine, who’d go on to win the final. If I wanted to qualify for the final, all I could do was therefore to accept that someone was easily in front of me, and then try and limit the damage by placing ahead of everyone else. This worked to the extent that I finished 2nd and ran 23″50, an improvement over my previous 2016 best, but of course the gap was very noticeable.
The next day, I didn’t line up for the 60m final at 15:00 (I could have – there were a number of people who had qualified but decided not to run). But I didn’t know that in advance, and considering the state of my achilles tendon, it was already a stretch to do the 200m final a day after two races. Since I was still pretty fresh in my injury recovery, there was a fairly thin line that separated me from over-extending myself. Instead, since the wife and I had guests for lunch, I was able to actually stay home for the entire duration of lunch instead of heading to the indoor track while our guests would still have been eating.
Said lunch still influenced my 200m final however, because I probably had a little too much of it too closely to the 16:00 race. As if a full belly wasn’t enough trouble, my left foot was also problematic. While the achilles was holding up comparatively well, I was fighting some instability issues that have been cropping up quite often in recent years because I’m just not used to running in spikes anymore. This instability issue translates to pain at the top of my foot, and it was distracting enough that I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to start, or finish. In the end, I decided to tough it out, and ran the final, although in a distracted state. I crossed the finish line in a a disappointing 23″97, almost in last place.
I did my final indoor meeting for 2015/2016 on Luxembourgish soil this past Saturday, over one month after the Luxembourgish Championships. Athletes in the national team were afforded two more opportunities to compete in between, but the rest of us had to make do with regular training or travel abroad to compete. I chose the former, getting a few solid training sessions in during February. I did no tapering at all for this weekend, with a particularly hard stairs training on Monday that left my calves shattered for the rest of the week. So did 5 weeks improve my performances? Yes and no.
My first race for the day was the 200m. I warmed up for it with a 2km loop outside, then headed back inside for stretching, skips and strides. The warm-up area seemed deserted, since a lot of the top competitors in the 2016 season had decided not to race. This allowed me to be seeded in the first heat, which is always a good thing because it gives you access to the running lanes fifteen minutes before the race start (as opposed to only being allowed onto the race track shortly before your start, after the previous heats have run). I was put in lane 4, which is pretty much optimal for me in my current shape because while it might be marginally slower than lanes 5 and 6, it is also less extreme and puts two runners ahead of me who I can make it my task to catch.
Catching the runners ahead of me worked… 50%. While I did catch up with Quentin Bebon in lane five somewhere at the start of the second turn, Philippe Hilger remained safely in the lead for the entirety of the race. I had a better than average start and did a solid first turn, but fell apart again in the final 30 meters or so; which meant I was forcing too much and not running with an optimal technique.
I crossed the finish line in second place, in 23″49, and a considerable distance from the winning time (22″82). More surprising was that overall, I also finished 2nd out of 13 runners. Also of note is that all of these guys were born in the late Nineties.
Next up, after several hours of waiting, was the 4x200m relay. I’d talked myself into my club’s first team, a spot I thought was merited because of my 2016 performances. I had made an argument for our club’s strongest possible constellation to compete since I thought we’d have a chance of finishing on the podium, but did not really agree when one newspaper predicted us as the potential winners in their meet preview. I thought that CAB with Pol Bidaine was a stronger contender, especially since most of their team was fresh whereas our relay had all competed in either the 200m (Gilles, me) or 400m (Stefano, Aymen) already.
The gun went off with Gilles (slowest PR of the team) in first position. FOLA had their strongest runner in first position. We were in lane 6, so the relay change from Gilles to me had the added complexity of him needing to fit between me in the inside of the lane and the barrier on the right side of the track. Our change went over without much drama, even though I probably started a little early and couldn’t push off at full speed until I had the relay baton in my hand.
I did a fairly aggressive first turn during which I could see FOLA’s second runner in an inside lane blow past. He had less distance to run, so all I could do was push hard and hope for the best. After the turn, the runners all converge in lane one. With FOLA ahead, I was expecting CAB to not be far behind, but as I moved left I turned my head and couldn’t see anyone else. I was in second position then, which I held until the end of my relay.
The relay change was a bit hairier this time. I came in at full speed, but all the lanes were blocked with waiting athletes. I had to brake aggressively, then was so close to our third runner, that I couldn’t hand over the baton straight away. We finally managed to do the change-over, and for a moment I was afraid I hadn’t safely handed over the baton, but he had a safe grip on it and was off. Aymen managed to catch FOLA’s third runner (born in 2002!), and Stefano solidified the lead to cross the finish line with over a second ahead of CAB who had moved up a position and finished marginally faster than FOLA.
Overall, we did 1’33″08; which means as a team each one of us had an average of 23″27. Considering the constraints (all of us running on tired legs), this is an OK time. There have of course been faster championship wins, but also slower ones.
In closing, while I thought that five weeks of additional training should improve my season best by more than just one hundredth of a second (23″50 to 23″49), I’m still happy with the competition. At 38 years, ten years after I officially put an end to my track&field career, and with more achilles injuries than toes on my feet, I can once again go out there and compete. What’s more is that I can feel my body becoming more resilient again, because contrary to the last few competitions my achilles tendon was doing quite well the next Monday.
One month to go before my final indoor competition for this season, which will also be my first international competition in ten years (and first european championship ever): European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor in Ancona, Italy.
For the second competition in 2016, I’d come up with a grandiose plan: I’d run the 200m, rest for about two hours and then give it all in a 400m, a distance I’d never done indoors. Reality would turn out to be different, though.
The week before the competition, I’d done two trainings with the club: a sprint session outdoors with three 300m’s at a fairly aggressive pace on Tuesday, and then on Thursday (just two days before the competition) we’d done just a few jumps and reaction starts inside. Nothing earth-shattering, but apparently it was sufficient for me to still have sore hamstrings on the day of the competition.
After a jog outside in the snow, I returned inside for the rest of the warm-up. Things were fairly quiet, and I pretty much kept to my usual time table (start 1 hour before the race, do skips 30 minutes before the race, then a final hard acceleration 15 minutes before the race just as the first heat is let out onto the track).
I was in lane 4 in heat two, and I’d been told that the athlete in the lane in front of me was good for a time under 23″. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go that fast in my current shape, and was instead hoping to hold on as best as I could. With my limited training, I had been guessing I’d be able to finish anywhere from a low 23″ to somewhere around 23″60.
The gun went off and apparently I had a really bad reaction time. I didn’t even notice, but apparently it was really visible from the stands. The start notwithstanding, I tried to accelerate hard, and to not allow myself to fall into a pace that was comfortable (and below the maximum speed). At the same time, I could feel that my hamstrings were not happy and I was fairly close to the point where I thought that if I sped up any further, they’d seize or cramp.
The leading athlete (lane 5) was well in front of me as we reached the first turn, and I tried to hold it together to at least stay in that position. As we left the second turn, I soon realized that this wouldn’t happen, as another athlete (lane 3) still passed me. I was able to fight back against finishing last (against lane 2), and just barely managed to finish third out of 4. I’d done 23″80, a little slower than I had been hoping for but still an OK time considering my age and amount of training in the past months.
The final results of all the heats combined were a little more positive. I had placed 11th out of 33 runners, and on a purely Luxembourgish ranking, I turned out to be in 4th place out of 22.
With the hamstrings still tight after the race, I opted to skip the 400m. I’d worked quite hard at the 200m, with average results, so if I had tried to sprint twice as long the result would have been underwhelming at best, and might have ended up with yet another injury at worst.
When I signed up for the 60m race on Tuesday 5th, I was quite sure I was going to be in way over my head. While the doctor had cleared me (and my achilles) for racing, it had been just four short months since I’d done tentative short jogs at 6:30km/h pace, and I’d just had a couple of months to gear up my track training. Which had mostly been at a sustainable endurance sprint speed (like 300m repeats), not top-of-the-line aggressive sprints like a 60m requires. I hadn’t worn spikes in about a year and a half. So I guess you could say I was a little concerned.
I arrived at the Coque at around 2pm, went to the “Chambre d’Appel” to confirm the early signup my club had done and then still had a little time to talk with a few people.
About one hour before the race, I headed back outside to warm up. In other years I’d always stayed inside for warm-up laps, but inside the Coque, Luxembourg’s only indoor track, there’s no real dedicated warm-up space. Furthermore, it’s always too hot and the air is drier than Death Valley, so I preferred to venture outside into the grey drizzle.
Came back inside for stretching and strides, and then got a peek at the starting list: I was in heat 5 out of 5; which meant that I’d need to stretch out my warm-up a little longer.
Put on the spikes later than most other people, did a final short sprint which confirmed the achilles was still holding up, and then headed towards the starting line. I knew that there’d be a few people faster than me in my heat, so there was no pressure. We set up our starting blocks, and then lined up. I’d say “the gun went off” but there’s no gun anymore, just an electronic signal.
My reaction time and start were better than average. I was behind the two leading guys, and pushed hard to maintain that position. Somewhere around the 30m or 40m mark I probably lost a little time (and elegance) by pushing too much, which had a negative impact on my running style. Still, I made it across the line in third position (out of 7) and was relieved that there was no severe pain anywhere. The achilles had held up. That was the most important, but the time wasn’t horribly bad either: 7″51. A far cry from my PR of 7″00 that dates back to 1998, but I’m a whole lot older now and no longer a competitive athlete.
There’d be an A and B final later on, and while I thought my time was good enough to be somewhere in the B final, I ended up as last qualifier in the A final because one athlete had decided not to run. Out of 33 athletes, I had the 9th-best time.
Being the worst qualifier meant I was in lane 1 and far removed from the main action of the race, which obviously takes place in the middle lanes. So again, no pressure, except that I didn’t want to false-start. Again, the electronic gun went off, but this time I left the starting block a little slower (bad reaction time, no aggressive push during the first 1-2 steps). Outside of the start, my race as such was a little better, because I didn’t have that weak moment at 40m but instead pushed through to the best of my abilities. Of course I was DFL (dead f—ing last) for most of the race, and I only managed to get across the line in 7th place because Christopher Weber pulled a muscle and slowed down on the final meters. Pol Bidaine won in 7″10, but could probably have gone a little faster.
The final result for me was 7″50, a hundredth of a second faster than in the series. Most importantly, I had made it across the line again without severe injury. Both achilles tendons were sore, but that was to be expected.
In a vertical kilometer race, or kilomètre vertical (KMV) as it’s sometimes referred to in France, the goal is to ascend 1000m of elevation by running (or walking) the shortest possible route on roads or trails. For the Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometer, the route starts at the Place de l’église just outside the city center at 1000m of elevation and ends at Plan Praz, a gondola lift station at 2000m elevation in the shadow of the Brévent mountain.
On June 26th 2015, I was about to enter this race for the first time. I was a relative newcomer to the mountain running scene, having just run two other mountain climbs in Germany and Austria in the preceding months. Both had been learning experiences, and enabled me to see where my limits were.
Two days before, I had done a reconnaissance hike of the entire race course. (This is where I took almost all of the pictures used in this race report.) Getting a good look at the course and trail conditions in advance didn’t just mentally prepare me for what was ahead, but also allowed me to fine-tune my clothing and hydration choices, especially since the weather was forecast to be the same.
Rather than following the traditional form of a group start (which would get very crowded on the narrow trails higher up the mountain), the Mont-Blanc Vertical Kilometer is run as a time trial; with athletes starting every thirty seconds over the course of several hours. The way this is handled is that the slowest athletes start at 16:00, and depending on your projected finish time you gave them when signing up you’re then put into a time slot (17:30 in my case) around which you can show up at the starting line. You don’t necessarily need to be on time ‘like a Swiss clock‘ – there’s no exact sequence that is strictly enforced, since you’re scanned individually as you set off and that’s when your personal timing starts.
In my case, I set off at 17:19, a few spots behind Charley and Sophie, whose blogs I had found while researching the race and who I had been following on social media. As such, I knew that Sophie was aiming for a finish under 1 hour; which was also my goal. With no other points of reference, these guys (who didn’t know me) would in a way be my implicit pacers, and I knew that if I lost ground to them my pacing wasn’t working.
The city center was quite crowded, and as such everyone sets off to constant applause and encouragements. It’s a little intimidating, and you tend to maybe go off a little faster than you’d planned. I ran past the church, through a traffic circle (traffic police was stopping the cars whenever a runner approached), and then up Rue de la Mollard, a paved road that has an approximate 14% grade.
While I’d done a lot of training for this race, a badly inflamed achilles tendon had put a damper on the amount of cardio I’d been able to do in the months leading up to the race. As such, I had to be very mindful of my heart rate, and knew that I would speed hike a majority of the course rather than being able to run most of it. I was still dismayed to find that I’d reached my limit in the middle of Rue de la Mollard already.
After about 0.5km on the road I then contoured around the Brévent cable car station, and after just a short stretch of wide gravel I reached the start of the switchbacks. Since I was one of the first people to switch from running to power hiking, I’d already lost a position or two.
After about 700m of distance we reached the start of the switchbacks we’d be on for the next half hour or so. It’s all single trail, which makes it quite a lot harder to pass people (or be passed). Soon, we reached 100m of elevation. Only 900 left!
On the switchbacks, I was able to cover ground comparatively well. My speed hiking pace enabled me to keep up with most of the people around me, regardless of whether they were running or hiking, and I even managed to pass a few. Most people were courteous in letting faster athletes pass, and likewise I stopped a few times in the curves of the switchbacks to let someone faster pass me. One person did not move over to let me pass as expected, and a sudden evasive step into grass that I chose to make almost caused me to fall and my heart rate spiked. No other damage done, so I soldiered on. My heart rate at this point was around 177, peaking to 180; which is also very close to my maximum heart rate.
Not much changes as I passed the 200m, 300m and 400m markers. While there were still a few position changes, things had settled down somewhat. Mostly, I tried to inch closer to the person in front of you, while in turn peeking back each time I changed direction on the switchbacks to see if I was opening up a gap towards the people following.
Somewhere around the 500m marker, we reached the sign announcing that the trail was no longer maintained beyond this point. Mostly, this meant that there were occasional small boulder fields to cross, and that the footing was more treacherous in some spots with either loose stones or loose dirt.
Somewhere after the 600m marker, we left the switchbacks behind. Whereas the trail had been going up below the cable car line, we were now starting on a line that veered off to the right and contoured around the mountain slope.
And then the 700m marker came, and it was time to get the hands dirty. In some spots, the trail seemed to go up almost vertically between jagged boulders. There was a cable to hold on to, and I used whatever strength I could muster in my upper body to assist my legs by pulling myself up on the cable.
There were a few spots where a slip or fall would have been painful, but it was always manageable. While the field had thinned considerably by this point, I caught up with a few more people on this stretch. I suppose this is where weaknesses in your strength or endurance will catch up with you.
After the 800m marker, one can finally see the cable car station. Unfortunately, there’s still quite a bit of ground to cover on difficult terrain. This is the rockiest part of the course; and an iron rope was no longer sufficient. The boulders one needs to climb up are quite big. As such, there was an assortment of ladders or iron foot holds, with a guard rail to hold on to. This part of the race culminates in a spot where runners climb up with a sheer rock face on their right and a slippery gravel slope to their left. Here, race photographers set up shop because you can get a nice shot of runners with Chamonix in the valley below as a backdrop.
Beyond the photographers, the trail mellows out a little. With most of the climb facing into the Brévent massif with my back to Mont-Blanc, I was happy to find that for a short while the trail actually opened up with splendid vistas of mountain peaks and glaciers across the valley.
I passed the 900m elevation sign and another official photographer, and then the cable car station was almost within reach. The climb is less dramatic here, but of course with the accumulated fatigue I still didn’t manage much of a run.
After the relative quiet of the climb, the cable car station was much busier with spectators. The path leads over some wooden planks and then up some iron stairs. This of course marks the end of the single trail, and the remaining distance is on a wide dirt road. On its own, the remaining elevation change would not be drastic, but after climbing for close to an hour near my maximum heart rate, it was really hard to convince my legs, lungs and heart to allow me to run over the finish line. I managed, barely.
And just like that, the race was over. Almost straight away, I could see my official finish time on a timing screen, and had the confirmation that I’d stayed under one hour. I loitered around the finish area for a bit, taking photos and sending a text message to the wife saying that I’d survived.
After just a few short minutes, I was feeling quite well again (maybe I had energy reserves I could have tapped into during the race?). I set off to hike/run up to the Brévent, but then after the first bend reconsidered because after all it wasn’t just a jog up the hill but could easily have added an hour or two and maybe caused me to miss the last gondola down if something unexpected happened. Instead, I returned to the finish line to see the fastest athletes arriving. It was a bit disappointing to realize that there wasn’t more of a crowd – their finish times certainly warranted more attention.
After the final athlete arrived, everyone seemed to be in a mad rush to get down the mountain. I decided that with nothing else to do that evening, that I’d attend the victory ceremony (which was held on the main square near the starting line) as well. There was a lottery for all participants, and as luck would have I won a fairly nice supply of Isostar running nutrition (gels, powder, etc.). Afterwards, I set off towards the gym where the pasta dinner was held. This was a no-brainer since (a) it was on the way to the hotel, (b) it was included in the price and (c) I hadn’t eaten dinner yet.
The pasta was good, but of course it was no fun eating in solitude. I guess when elite runners always talk about the camaraderie among athletes, they may be right about it from their point of view; but as a random guy among other random people, a lot of them in established groups, it was hard to make contact with anyone. I didn’t particularly mind though, and instead soon headed out; walked the remainder of the way to my hotel and settled in for a good night’s rest.
Here’s my Strava activity for the race.
Gear that I used:
- Brooks Cascadia 8 shoes (These have been my go-to shoes for most of my trail running in 2014 and 2015, so it was logical to wear something that I knew would work. )
- Ronhill Men’s Trail Cargo Contour Shorts (The differentiating factor between these Ronhill’s and comparable running tights is that they offer plenty of pockets so I could safely stash my cell phone, some paper tissues, my ID and hotel keys in separate locations. Otherwise, I’d always be afraid to, for example, lose one thing if I grabbed another.)
- Under Armour Sonic Compression Men’s T-Shirt (Not much to say. A lot of similar running shirts would have worked just as well).
- Ultimate Performance Handheld Bottle with hand strap (It is debatable whether much water is needed on a <1 hour run. However, I emptied the 0.6 litre bottle on the way up; and when the sketchier parts came I was able to use the strap to fix the bottle on my upper arm and thus have both hands free for climbing/scrambling.)