The preparation for my summer mountain running challenges isn’t going great. With my main job and side job both taking up considerable time and energy (both physical and mental), my proverbial tank has been empty on a lot of days, which means I’m not getting in as much mileage and vertical elevation as planned. My running and cycling commutes are also taking a lot out of me, without bringing either mountain- or speed-specific training to the table. But rather than lamenting about this while watching TV on my couch, I decided that maybe a short 12k trail race would be a good reminder of what this summer’s challenges are about.

I’ve mentioned before how much I appreciate small local races, because the commute and sign-up are so easy. I’m able to leave home at 10:00 for an 11:00 race for which I hadn’t signed up in advance. Of course this is only possible because the Escher Südstroum Trail is less than 10 minutes away from my home by car. Inexplicably, the number of people attending seems to have gone down from last year, but for me that means I’m able to find a parking spot next to the track that houses the start/finish area.

I do the on-site sign-up, which involves filling out a small paper form with my essential information (name, age, club) and handing over the very minimal 10€ race fee. Had I signed up in advance, I would have saved 3€. I chat with a sports photography colleague, then do a quick warm-up lap and chat for a bit with a highschool class mate. As eleven o’clock rolls around, people start lining up on the start/finish line on the athletics track; which will serve the same purpose for this trail race. Through my track&field past and current sports photography side job I know most of the runners lined up in the first row and could almost tell in advance how the podium would look. Beyond the top 10 men and women, nobody else seems intent on being in the second line. It seems overly ambitious to me too, but on the other hand I feel maybe it’s appropriate for me given how I placed when I ran this race last year (24th out of 129).

The gun goes off and we’re doing a half-lap around the track first. The pace is moderate – around 4:00min/km – so I’m running at around 12th position. We then turn right, off the track, and go back in the opposite direction, almost back to the starting line but on a higher level on a pavement road that surrounds the track. Next there’s a couple of stairs and we’re on dirt along the training soccer pitch. Beyond that, we enter the forest. We’re on a minor uphill, and my pace drops a little. There’s a bit of single trail with a few exposed roots, but before too long we’re on a wider dirt path again. I’m feeling the effect of what, for me, is a quick starting pace. Rather than run myself into the ground I take my proverbial foot off the accelerator just a bit. A few more people catch up to me. At this point I’m still counting the number of people in front of my, and it seems I’ve dropped to about 16th place.

About 10 minutes in, we’re on smaller trails again; and looking ahead at a climb up to the Animal Park (“Escher Déierepark”). This one feels quite hard and in some spots my pace drops down to 7:00min/km pace. I reach the top of this climb about 4km into the race. Once more, I’m slightly hampered by imprecise heart rate data: I forgot my heart rate chest strap and as such have to rely on the numbers of the built-in optical sensor of my watch. Which gives me a highly improbable max of 188. Even if that’s at least 10 beats higher than reality, it still means I’m working hard.

What goes up must go down. There’s a fairly abrupt descent, and we lose at least 50m of elevation over less than 300m of distance. I’m trying to be fairly efficient on these descents – on some of my mountain challenges this summer there will be considerably longer and steeper descents and the best way to prepare them is not to baby my body down these comparatively small descents. Next comes a fairly flat bit as we head into the Ellergronn natural reserve. We’re on a clearing that was once used in strip mining but has since been retaken by nature.

Somewhere around 5.5km, I go past the single aid station (apart from the one at the finish line). Since I decided to take along a 0.5 liter soft flask in the back pocket of my running pants, I don’t need to stop here. Soon after, we’re about to start the biggest climb of the day, about 80m of elevation gain over the course of 1.1km. At some point we’re going up the same switchbacks I still remember from last year, and I’m feeling quite shattered. I get passed by at least another competitor (who says something potentially encouraging but which doesn’t register in my brain) but rather than follow him I end up walking for a bit. Needless to say, my pace drops considerably, all the way down to a very pedestrian 14min/km pace for what seems like an eternity but in reality was probably just a few steps. The climb mellows out a little, and I return to a decent running pace. Still, my overall pace has suffered a lot. I covered km6 in a snail-like 6:44min/km.

Another descent awaits, and my pace recovers. I manage to get back to 4:28min/km on km7. The next kilometer is quite easy as well. Near the 9km mark, we go past what I think is a shooting range. I still remember that landmark from last year, but unlike last year we don’t follow a narrow crest trail on some former mining talus, but instead run down an easier dirt road. We go past the Animal Shelter and then up again into the forest. The climb looks inconsequential enough on GPS, but it’s enough to slow down my pace. Overall, the final 2km or so of the course are the most technical, with gently undulating and winding single trail. It’s all perfectly runnable still, but the accumulated fatigue from the previous weeks as well as the first 10km of the race mean that I have to bury all ambitions of being able to finish in less than 1 hour (which translates to running the 12km with less than 5:00min/km pace). I’ve lost contact with the runner in front of me and cannot see any runners behind me; so I’m not externally motivated to run faster. As such, I just continue grinding out a high but not sky-high effort. Finally, I reach the final small climb back up to the athletics track, and even manage to increase my pace to less than 4:00min/km on a final 200m “sprint” until I reach the finish line. Once upon a time, twenty years ago, I ran a 200m here in less than 22 seconds.

I go across the finish line after 1:02:33. My own watch has registered 11.92km of distance and 1:02:36; which translates to an average pace of 5:15min/km.

I’m 20th male (out of only 69). Of the 26 women, 2 finished in front of me. Overall, that means I was 22nd of 95.

What I wore

Hoka One One Clifton 3 road running shoes provided sufficient grip. My Ronhill Cargo tights allowed me to easily stow a 0.5 liter Salomon soft flask in the large back pocket, as well as my Samsung S8 cell phone and car keys in the front pockets. My Salomon Agile t-shirt was decent enough at keeping me cool.

Did I reach my goals?

I didn’t have many firm goals coming into this race, because I only decided at the last minute to run it. I thought it’d be nice to be able to run an easy trail race at a pace faster than 5:00min/km pace, but I failed that by about 0:15min/km. But overall, I’m happy with how the race unfolded; and I’m happy with where I ended up on the results.

Will I return next year?

I like this race. It’s not expensive to enter, the course is scenic (albeit not jaw-dropping, but that’s difficult to achieve in Luxembourg) and well-marked. The only thing that was a bit surprising is that the course seems to have been changed from 2017 in a few spots. This makes it more difficult to compare your fitness from one year to the next.

Overall, I don’t understand how there can be less than 100 finishers at this race and 16000 people enduring traffic jams, an overcrowded race course and high entry prices at the ING (half-) marathon that took place the week before. I wouldn’t mind returning the next year – but the question is: with so little public interest, will this race survive?

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