"No pace is too slow"
Jamie is one of my ultra runners who I've coached for several months now and he recently ran the Nice by UTMB - 108km with 5500m of elevation in 23hrs and 26mins, finishing 190th out of 704 starters.
This was a huge jump in degree of difficulty for the Canadian who lives in Tunisia with his young family and we had discussed him racing this for a few weeks before committing. As a coach it was quite nerve racking seeing the weather conditions then following his progress during the race as he went through each checkpoint whilst telepathically sending him messages of support!
Ultras aren't marathons. You don't just finish one and go about your day the day after.
It's emotionally, mentally and physically a battle.
And it's life changing.
It's always a good insight for regular runners and athletes (re: not professionals) to hear what it's like to race an ultra and understand how it feels and what to expect.
So I asked him a few questions about his race and how it went for him...
1) Can you give us a run down on how the race panned out for you?
The “Nice by UTMB” 110 km was a big jump up from my previous longest length, a 64km. It was a tough race for me (and I think a lot of other runners too), and I was proud to finish, which was my only real goal. Weirdly I managed to get a second wind with about 20 km to go, and actually started to feel great (OK, not that great, but everything is relative) for the two final legs, which I mostly ran, passing a lot of runners. I even managed something resembling a sprint to the finish. In the end, I couldn’t help but wondering if it had been a 120 — or 160k? — instead of 110km, maybe I would have placed even better!?
2) What were some of the low points for you during the race?
The beginning was not quite what I expected. My bus was the last one to the start area because the road up the mountain was too narrow and we had to get out on the side and wait (in the cold and rain, ugh!) more than an hour for another one. We were on the 160km route and it was eerie seeing those runners, who had already been out for like 16 hours, passing by, already looking lost and exhausted, with 100km still to go.
That’s us in 12 hours, we sort of whispered to one another. Because of our late arrival, we got placed at the absolute back of the start funnel. People are really funny about starts, aren’t they? Folks who DNF at 20km or finish DFL can have no scruples whatsoever about elbowing their way to the front of the funnel so that they can feel like heroes for 500m after the gun. The course went almost immediately onto steep single track and the first 10-15km I felt more like the queue at the grocery checkout than an “ultra-race”, but the mantra “there is no pace too slow” helped me to keep cool.
And as expected, the race had plenty of challenges in store for me.
The biggest challenge other than just the sheer length were the conditions. All the headlines in Europe over the summer were about the historic drought, but as Murphy’s Law requires, it poured down rain on race day. I had a good waterproof jacket but pretty soon so much water had got down round the neck and hood that I could fill your cup by holding my arms by my side and letting the trickle flow down the inside of my sleeve. Luckily the rain relented by nightfall, which came for me at the drop bag aid station, around 60km. I was feeling strong up till then, but I ate too much and sort of sat around too long at the aid station, making it tough getting going again.
The trail was extremely muddy, it was dark, I started to be alone for long stretches. I saw a guy slip like a cartoon character stepping on a banana peel and hit his tailbone so hard he had to pull out of the race. I broke one of my poles when I slipped and put all my weight on it. I stubbed my toes so badly on a rock that they swelled up and pushed into the end of my shoe, and started getting blisters. From 60-90km I probably only managed to run 2 or 3 km’s. My quads were completely blown out, the course was deadly slippery, and I was exhausted.
I started to find it harder and harder to get food in, despite my very slow pace and good fuelling in the first half. I began wondering if I was going to have to literally walk 50 straight kilometers, after having (mostly) run 60km. I figured once my quads were gone I just simply wouldn’t be able to run again.
In the last 5km coming into town I was very drowsy and lost my concentration on the route. Sometimes the flags were hard to see with all the cars and street signs and stuff, and I took two wrong turns. One of the two times I literally circled back to where a race marshall had ushered me across the road 1km before. I was like “what!? I’m literally going in circles!” I probably lost a total of only 1.5km, but it included one very big hill I had to climb again and having to add distance, especially when that close to the end, was so soul destroying!
3) What were some of the high points for you during the race?
I guess the real high point was probably just working up the conviction to enter the race, then finishing it. I genuinely had no idea if I could finish it when I entered, and I came out realizing there was more in me than I thought. That’s a great feeling!
If I think about the details of the race, the high point was actually in a way a low point, and vice versa. It occurred in Leg 8, which despite being the shortest leg of the whole race, from Km 84 to km 91 aid stations, was by far the toughest one for me. I was moving at a snail’s pace and totally exhausted in both the physical and mental sense. I was almost totally alone and began to feel unsteady on my feet, like I was zig-zagging and couldn’t even walk in a straight line. I was thinking “how can 7km be this long?! There must be a mistake”.
When I got into the aid the station I figured it was probably where I would quit. But then I was like, how can I quit so close to the end? I started shivering like I was getting hypothermia, but put on some extra layers and got that under control. Then I thought, OK, this must be the moment that decides my race. So I had a cup of coffee, took a paracetamol with caffeine that I had for “emergencies,” and got out another piece of emergency kit, my earphones.
I said to one of the volunteers, who was a lady in her 60s who spent a sleepless night out there helping people, “Thanks so much for everything, you have no idea how much it means to us. Now: tell me I’m going to finish this race.” She gave me a really warm touch on my arm and said something about how I could do it. I hit play on my music, and started to run.
I never imagined going into that aid station that I could have run another kilometre, let alone 20, but I had a super strong finish to the race.
4) Prior to this ultra, what was your race history?
I had done two 52km races (Paris Ecotrail, years ago, and the Ultra Mirage in southern Tunisia), and one 64km in Val Cenis, France. I was pretty apprehensive about such a big jump up to 110km, but Morgan was a great encouragement and I was having a baby 1 month after the race, so I was motivated to get something big in before starting that other sleep deprived endurance event!
5) What would be some of the key areas for amateur runners when taking on an event like this (nutrition, mental, etc)?
I decided my mantra through the race would be “no pace is too slow,” and that I would focus a lot on eating regularly and trying to get in “real food” since I’ve often felt nauseous from about the 40km/5hr mark in other races.
In the past I’ve been more of a 10k and half marathon runner, and it is a big mental shift when you start doing the longer distances over the very challenging terrain. Walking is part of the race even for the elite athletes, and your approach to pacing and speed is totally different. I have to remind myself not to run the wrong race, for instance by trying to push the speed in the first third or half, then be unable to finish or feeling like puking the whole rest of the way.
The other thing in the long races is there is usually a point where my quads get “blown”: my leg muscles simply get too tired to run, especially on downhills. It has nothing to do with cardio fitness and was totally unfamiliar to me from the shorter distances.
6) Given where you live, how was your training leading up to the race?
I live in Tunisia so get lots of heat and not as much hills as I would like, so it was pretty much the exact opposite of the races conditions for this particular race! But having a race in the calendar is always good motivation to train, I’m sure I would not have got out as much without this event.
7) What advice would you give to someone contemplating a long-distance ultra race for the first time?
Working up the confidence and willingness to take a chance on a long distance is tough, but give it a try, you might surprise yourself!