Month in review: December 2016

I stopped writing “month in review”s in February because my statistics show that nobody ever visits this blog. “Why bother?”, I thought. But almost a year later I realize (once more) that by regularly scrutinizing my training (and related factors) in semi-public, that I might hold myself more accountable; and therefore make better progress towards my goals.

Track running: December saw a very clear focus on track work. I did 14 track workouts, both outdoors (6x) and indoors (8x). The latter number was amplified by participating at the FLA training camp during the Christmas holidays. I’m thankful that the federation allowed me to participate, even though I noticed a number of times that I’m far removed from my peak performances. Still, you play with the cards you’re dealt with, and I hope the effort I put in increases my odds of doing well during the January competitions. In mid-December, I did a 300m at the Indoor Laf Meeting which was not very good.

Road and trail running:  With such a clear focus on track, the need for recovery and busy days at work I didn’t get out nearly as much as I liked. Consequently, I only did one single long trail run (12km) in early December.

Walking: I only walked 33km during the entire month, which therefore sits as one of my least active months this year. Again, work is partially to blame: it’s much easier to just grab food at the nearest place during lunch than to go on a reasonable (4-5km) walk and grab something to eat on the way.

Cycling: This month, cycling was impacted in the same way as walking. With daylight being nonexistent outside of work hours, I should have gone out on bike rides in my lunch breaks, but didn’t. I still got 82km in (in 4 rides) with 799m of vertical gain, and 3h53 in the saddle.

Weight training: Strength training was nonexistent this month, apart from a few sessions at club training, for a total time of just 2h19.

Total time outside: 18h34

Average body weight: 82.43kg. Body fat 15.48%. This is a fairly significant change for the worse, after doing quite well for much of the year. Since November, I’m up over 1.4kg and almost 1% of BF.

Race report: Indoor Lafmeeting, 300m, 39″18

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.

Photo: Julien Garroy / Le Quotidien

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.

Photo: Harry Daemen / FLA

I literally collapsed over the finish line in a disappointing fifth and last place, in equally disappointing time of 39″18.

Photo: Harry Daemen / FLA

Overall, I finished 24th out of 45 competitors.

Race report: Red Rock X-Challenge (MTB/trail duathlon)

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.

Race Report: Mamores VK (5km, 1000Hm)

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.

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Race report: KM Vertical du Mont-Blanc

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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.

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IMAG0723 IMAG0721 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?

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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.

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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?

Race report: Katrinberglauf 2016 (4.5km, 943 Hm)

The gun goes off. The timing chip beeps as I cross the starting line, surrounded by around 200 other runners. This is my second attempt at running Katrinberglauf (2015 blog entry). The basic premise is simple: the race spans an official 4.4km and climbs 943 meters of elevation. The first few hundred meters are on tarmac (which helps spread out the runners a little), the next half kilometer is on a narrow gravel road in the forest, and then from around the 1km mark to the top the runners follow a ski slope with a rocky single trail snaking its way up, getting steeper and steeper along the way. I may not be the fastest competitor, but with the majority of runners being from Austria, there’s a big chance that I drove the most Kilometers go get here. Why would I do that even though I have no chance of finishing on the first page of the results? Why would anyone subject themselves to this much suffering, anyway?

During the initial 300m on tarmac, oddly enough, things felt more relaxed than last year. I hit a top pace of 4:05m/km, but that’s pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things because the one minute and fifteen seconds it took us to cover this ground is fairly meaningless compared to the almost hour-long slog up the mountain that would follow. Now off pavement, we went around a 90 degree bend and then attacked the first short but solid climb of the day. Here, things were a bit congested and I transitioned into a walk for a few meters because people in front of me weren’t moving faster. I had started quite conservatively, but even then my heart rate had already gone up from 130 at the start to 170 right as we did another 90 degree turn and followed a gravel-filled road through the forest. I transitioned back into a run for the next few hundred meters, but after a little over 500m of total distance, with my heart rate at 172 and the road now getting steeper, I was (just like last year) one of the first people to switch to power-walking.

I was quickly starting to feel my lack of mountain-specific training. I competed at the European Masters Athletics Championships Indoor (EMACI) in late March. With so much focus on 60m and 200m sprints, along with the inevitable flu season that hit me hard in March, not only did my 2016 training only see half the vertical elevation change, but I also did less than half of last year’s distance on roads or trails.

On the steeper stretches, I tried to do that steep-mountain-walk where you push with your hands against your quads, basically in an attempt to use your arms to aid in pushing your legs into the ground and yourseld forward; but all that gave me was arms that were quickly feeling tired. And while last year I fell into a groove and went the same speed as the people around me, this year it seemed that I was passed a bit more often. I was working hard, and my heart soon reached the maximum sustainable level of around 175 beats per minute. While it can go a little higher for short bursts, I know that this is right around the level where I can still keep going without falling apart. But even though I wasn’t falling apart, I still didn’t have an easy job. A stuffy nose left me with some breathing issues; which I’m sure wasn’t really helping to get enough oxygen into my blood and muscles.

Since there’s also a separate relay after the main race has started, and several teams each year answer the challenge of sprinting up the mountain in larger groups, there was regular clapping and encouragement coming from relay runners who were still waiting for their chance to run.

We passed the first “Labestelle” where water or isotonic drinks were offered. Since temperatures were much lower than last year, and I thought I’d hydrated well before the race, I opted not to slow down for a drink. I had memorized my splits from last year, so when I passed the second kilometer in around 20 minutes and the third one in 35 minutes, I knew that I wasn’t too far from last year’s performance. In between, there were a few spots where the gradient was a little less steep. I wished I could have run here, but the heart rate and overall state I was in did not allow this.

Even though my eyes were mostly focused on the ground, and landing ideal foot strikes without slipping or sliding; I couldn’t help but notice the large variety of the people around me. With the top athletes already across the finish line by now, my competitors here were a lot more diverse than you’d expect. It’s a little humbling to have a women in the W60 category pass you; but good for her. Coming from a country and a sport (track&field) where most people finish their athletic careers before they hit 30, it’s refreshing to see people who maintain fitness well into their sixties.

So not only was I getting passed by people considerably older than me; but the terrain got even harder. During the final kilometer, the average grade increases some more, sometimes hitting 30% or 40%. The elements started playing a more dominant role now, too. With valley temperatures at around 16 degrees when we started, it was noticeably colder here. My running top was soaked with perspiration by this point, so when the wind picked up (even if it was a bit of a tailwind), the evaporative effect started to chill me. And then, to up the annoyance factor some more, it started raining.

Finally, a sign with “400” written on it came into view. In my oxygen-depleted state it took a while for it to register that this meant I had 400m left to go. 400m is not very far. I’ve covered that distance in less than 50 seconds on the track. Here, it would take me at least a handful of minutes. I traded positions with one or two runners a couple of times, but really I was just too tired to make any meaningful improvement on my racing position. Basically, all my body allowed me to do was to just keep on going. In comparison to last year that was a change, because last year I first had a really low point where I wanted to quit, and then found a second wind. This year, I neither had a low point nor did I ever find a second wind.

The final 200m or so were tough. I still had breathing issues, and I could feel that my legs were threatening to cramp up. There was a trio of runners ahead of me, and I tried to hold on. I was moving faster than the last of this trio as we entered the finish line chute (where it’s an unwritten rule to no longer pass people). He moved to the side, but I stayed behind, saying something along the lines of “it’s okay”, meaning I’d gladly stay behind. I think only “okay” actually came out of my mouth. Maybe he understood. With nobody immediately behind me, a bit of a gap formed in the last meters as I unraveled. I walked over the finish line and collapsed against a wall.

I heard the speaker announce my finish time. The exact numbers didn’t quite register, but I understood that I was a minute or two faster than last year (in fact, I did 54’15 , versus last year’s 55’55).

I crossed the line in 127th position. With 202 finishers in total, that puts me at about 63%; which in turn is marginaly better than last year’s 65%.

So why again do I do this? I knew I wasn’t in any kind of shape to significantly improve last year’s performance. I knew that the weather wouldn’t great. I knew that driving almost 1500km (round trip) over the course of the weekend would tire me out. I knew that I’d be forced to power-hike for the maority of my race. And yet, I signed up for the race and I’m glad I did. When I did the race last year, my achilles tendon was the limiting factor. It was badly inflamed and running on it was painful. Recovery was a long process. When I started preparing my second season as a mountain runner, I vowed that I would do my best to improve my physical shape so I’d be able to actually run much more of the distance. Not only would this be faster on the easier gradients, but it just feels a little dishonest to sign up for a race and then power-hike 90% of it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite adhere to that vow because somewhere along the way an indoor track season happened. But the achilles is a little better this year, and as long as my body still allows me to do a little training for these kinds of challenges, I’ll sign up for it. Because the alternative to it, a world without athletic challenges, just seems entirely too boring to me. Other people may have differing opinions, and in fact I think most of my friends and acquaintances cannot even imagine competing here. To some, a flat 10km race is a perfectly fine challenge, whereas others don’t seem to need challenges at all. To each their own. I can’t imagine a life where I’m not pushing myself for some athletic endeavour.

Race report: European Champion Clubs Cup, Leiria, Portugal: 100m, 4x100m

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

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.

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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).

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Official photo finish image, www.fidalservizi.it I’m in 3rd position (the fastest athlete is on the right)

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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Official photo finish image, www.fidalservizi.it I’m in 4th position (the fastest athlete is on the right)

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.

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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.

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7D2_8163 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.

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Official photo finish image, www.fidalservizi.it I’m at the very top in lane 1

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.

Race report: 33. Championnats Nationaux Indoor

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.

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Photo by Harry Daemen / fla.lu
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Photo by Harry Daemen / fla.lu
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Photo by Jeff Gloden / fla.lu

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.

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Photo by Julien Garroy

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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.

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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.

20160123. Athletisme. Championnats Nationaux Indoor. 200m Christian Kemp. Photo Julien Garroy / EDITPRESS
20160123. Athletisme. Championnats Nationaux Indoor.
200m Christian Kemp.
Photo Julien Garroy / EDITPRESS
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Photo by Nicole Wiltzius / fla.lu

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