Competing with the best
Now that I’ve had a few days to digest all of the events (and cheese) from last weekend I can say without a doubt that Les Templiers ultra race was one of the most memorable races of my life. In just a few days I got to run in a part of the world that I’ve never seen before, get to know some great people, eat a lot of bananas, and lead the US to victory over France and the World.
Getting together with the top ultra runners in the country
It all started last spring when Bryon Powell of irunfar.com contacted me to take part in an ultra race in France. The race organizers wanted a team competition in which France would take on other countries. For some reason Bryon thought I would be a good candidate for the US team. As I came to find out later, the rest of the US team would be Chris Vargo, Sage Canaday, Zach Miller, and Matt Flaherty. In other words Brian put together an all star cast of 50 mile runners. I was psyched to be a part of such a great team but also a little intimidated.
Zach, Chris, and I met up early in the multi day journey from the US to Millau (pronounced “meow” I think). The nearly 30 hours of travel time was more than enough to bond with my new US team mates. By the time we went on our first run along the streets of Millau it was like I had known Zach and Chris for years. In the next 6 days the bond would only grow stronger and weirder as I spent almost every waking hour with Zach and Chris. I learned interesting details about my new friends like the fact that Chris ate 6 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the flight instead of trying the meal, and that Zach is a dirt bag.
The beginning of what would be a long and painful race
Our lazy days in Millau were much enjoyed but just as I was starting to get used to my new lifestyle of French leisure Zach woke me up at 3:30AM and told me I had to go run 45 miles. It was race morning. I spent the previous two days resting and eating but now the moment had arrived. Oddly enough the topic of race strategy had never really come up between the US men’s team. There was talk of “working together” but I wasn’t really sure what that meant other than the guys donating a gel a piece to me when I found out I had not packed enough. So we all lined up under a sky full of stars and red torch light and took off into the darkness unsure of how the race would play out.
I immediately found myself alone. Ahead of me the lead men’s pack of about 50 guys were pushing the pace, and behind me the lead women jockeyed for position. I knew that the second half of the course had most of the vertical gain so I took a chance and decided to let the leaders get away from me. And man did I let them go. In the first 13 miles I lost about 13 minutes to the leaders. It sounds crazy, even to me now, but I felt like I was running the pace that I could maintain for 45 miles, so that’s what I did.
I had faith in my pace but it was still extremely difficult to know that I was the last US man out on the course. Coming into the race I made it one of my goals to score points in the team competition, which meant finishing in the top 3 for my country. When I first realized just how far back I was, I panicked a bit and hit the next uphill hard. Even though it was only a two mile climb I flew by about 10 runners.
Settling in and trusting my pacing
I settled down a little bit when I my Dad told me that I was in 21st place at the second aid station. I was feeling good and the hills were just starting to get steep. Soon enough people started to come back to me in waves. I would pass 2 or 3 people at a time like they were standing still. By the time I hit the marathon mark I was in the top 10. At that point I knew I was having a good day.
Unfortunately it was during that stretch that I came across both Chris Vargo and Matt Flaherty. Both guys were experiencing some, as the French say, “bad sensations.” Before the start I guessed that they would both be top 10 performers but sometimes the race just doesn’t work out like it should. Suddenly I was among the top 3 US men, a fact that made me slightly nervous at the time. Even though it was my goal to score points I suddenly had added pressure to perform. I tried to use that fact to keep moving forward and not let myself relax, especially after 35 miles when the race really got tough.
The miles ticked by and I kept moving up. As I approached 37 miles I suddenly felt the full weight of the race. I went from feeling great, to struggling to hang on. It was just about that moment when I came up on Sage Canaday. He too was having some tough times, with his hips in particular. I asked him how many more uphills we had and then put my head down and got ready for the two hardest uphills in the course. In the final 10k the race climbs a total of 2600 vertical feet over the course of two big hills. It actually doesn’t sound too bad on paper but try doing it after you’ve already run 40 miles. It was hellish. Even though I was feeling awful it turned out both Miguel Heras and Zach Miller were feeling worse than me. When I passed Miguel his eyes had the empty look of a man in pain. And in a horrible way that gave me hope. I was feeling bad, but I knew I wasn’t feeling that bad.
Struggling through the last miles to the finish
In the final 3 miles I got clumsy. I remember stumbling on roots, tripping on rocks, falling face first in a stone tunnel, almost crying because the race just wouldn’t end, but mainly I remember seeing Zach. I had finally come out of the last downhill, I could see the salvation of the finish line below me, when up ahead I saw someone barely moving in a bright singlet. It didn’t fully register with me that it was Zach until I was almost past him. If Miguel had the empty eyes of pain Zach had the blank stare of someone who had moved beyond pain and into a world that few have ever experienced. I felt bad for him but in that moment all I could think about was sitting, so I kept going and hoped that nothing was seriously wrong.
Then all of a sudden it was over. I was third, Sage had rallied to stay within 2 minutes of me for 4th, and Zach had peg legged his last 2 miles to finish 5th. We won the team title and I later got to hear the amazing story of Zach’s near win. We celebrated with Roquefort cheese and cheered the final finisher in later that evening. It was an incredibly exciting event to be a part of. The race atmosphere was like nothing I’ve experienced in the US and the course itself has to be one of the best I’ve run. I can only hope that next year France will want a rematch.