La Saintélyon, France, 3 December 2016

La Saintélyon is a long race at a strange time of day where you don't get to see much: 72 kilometres, starting just before midnight in Saint-Étienne and finishing in Lyon, and you'll only be running in daylight if you are on the slow side. I liked the sound of something a bit different, even though it's usually all about the scenery for me.

Standing on the start line for an hour before things got under way, the temperature below zero, I was shivering uncontrollably beneath four layers of clothing. I had just woken up from an hour's sleep on the cold stone floor of the huge hall where runners waited for the start time to come around; I had not expected to fall asleep but I was very glad to get a real rest right before the race. Now as I stood there I tried to convince myself that this was like any other race starting in the dark in the early morning (except that it wasn't yet early morning, it was late evening). It's all about the mental games. I had gone outside to the start line so early because I wanted to be sure to get into the first of the six starting waves that were necessitated by the huge number of runners, 8000 in all. The 9000 other runners in the shorter events would be starting closer to Lyon and we would be passing their start lines on our route.

Once we got going I was warm almost immediately and regretting my top layer, a fleece vest. The early kilometres in Saint-Étienne were well lit but it was just factory after factory, car and bus yards and nothing of interest. I discarded my fleece onto the footpath, a bit reluctantly but I had no way of carrying it. (I had a sentimental attachment to it as it was at least 15 years old.) I didn't have a pack with me, just a waist belt with pockets and a hand held bottle.

Soon we hit our first country lane and it was pitch black. I hoped my new head torch would work well for me. It was really foggy and I couldn't see any moon or stars. We seemed to be running by farmland judging from the smells, but if the surrounding countryside was hilly or flat, forested or cleared I had no idea. I could only see frost, lots of frost, on both sides of the road. We were climbing and it was getting colder. Runners were chatting gaily and although we were all quite close together it was an eerie feeling.

The best part about the whole night time experience was looking forward or back and seeing the long line of lights from all the runners' head torches, snaking through the blackness. Sometimes the lights zigzagged upwards or downwards and sometimes they stretched forever in a solitary thin line.

By the time we reached our first village, 16 kilometres done, I was ready for some excitement: a floodlit church on top of a hill. And there were people out in the streets to cheer us, even at this ungodly hour. The aid station was in a hall, a heated hall, and offered all sorts of delights. The aid stations were a high point of the event; there were only five of them but they were all except one in a warm hall with an array of foodstuffs. I had to tell myself not to linger because I thought the warmth would make me sleepy. There was water, Pepsi and hot drinks, and then chocolate, Madeleine cakes, cheeses, salamis, crackers, mandarins, bananas and more. I found that the little cakes, chocolate and mandarins were perfect, and I'm ashamed to say I drank nothing but Pepsi the entire night. It kept me awake at least.

I took off my top layer, a windproof jacket, and wrapped it around my waist. I still wore a thin thermal and a longsleeeved running shirt. I was completely comfortable at this body temperature despite the chilly air. Some runners wore really thick jackets but there again some runners wore shorts (and the organisers had specifically warned against this).

From here there was much less road running and a lot of trails through forest. The trails were rocky and undulated but we were predominantly climbing. There was leaf litter constantly underfoot and it disguised a lot of hazards. Runners were tripping all over the place on rocks and roots. I slipped many times but without falling .....yet. Where there wasn't leaf litter there was mud, lots of it. The French seemed a little reluctant to get their feet dirty but I ploughed straight through it. In some past editions there has been a lot of snow along here.

Another village, another hall and we ran on through the dark night. We went in and out of forest and contoured along hillsides. Sometimes there were people standing at a road junction shouting 'allez' or 'courage' . Not one person tried to tell us 'almost finished'. The runners around me grew quieter. I began to recognise the same people as they pulled away and I would catch them again. I felt reasonably good as we hit the start of the 44 kilometre race. Despite my natural timidity I wasn't the slowest on the downhills (I wasn't the fastest either, some bombed downhill like maniacs) and I was able to pass people on the uphills. There was a fair bit of downhill as we had now passed the highest point on the run. The fog had lifted but there was still nothing to see. It was in the forest at around half way that I had my first fall. I slipped on a large rounded rock and went flat on my bum. It was a big surprise. I had had a sore back coming into the race and the fall made me reflect that now I would have a different back pain to focus on.

Not long after I was doing a hilly section that was especially muddy when I did that classic thing where you lift up your foot but your shoe is still in the mud. I instinctively grabbed the hand of another runner, which was fine as the French are very friendly, and both he and someone behind me gave me a push up, thinking I was having trouble with the steepness of the hill. I was more concerned about leaving my shoe behind and having to run just in a sock! Fortunately I was able to explain that I didn't want to say goodbye to my shoe just yet. My sock was encased in thick gloop but I just pushed it straight back in the shoe; I didn't even undo the shoelace.

As we reached the village where the 21 kilometre race started, some 51 kilometres down the track for us, I realised I was really hungry. I had to make sure to grab plenty of food. This was the lowest I felt the whole night; quite suddenly I was engulfed by an overwhelming exhaustion but I knew there was still some way to go. The route through the village to the aid station was a long winding downhill which seemed like it went on forever. But as I left the village hall I felt totally renewed.

The first kilometre out of this village was all pleasant downhill running so I carried the food in my hand, waiting for an uphill walking break to eat it. And then all of a sudden I went splat, I slipped on the icy road and took the full force of my fall with my left hand, the one that didn't have the food. This fall really hurt. I was worried I had broken my hand but there was nothing I could do about it. I did learn that where the roads were icy it was better to run on the crusty, frost covered grass as it was less slippery. The problem was that you often couldn't see if the road was icy or not and you didn't know until you started slipping or saw others falling. 'Ça glisse' became a common cry.

I was rather surprised at the good pace of the runners around me; they were motoring along when I would have expected a bit more of a death march after 50-60 kilometres. But this may have been a reaction to the long downhills and our leaving the twisty forest trails. Pretty soon most people appeared to slow down again.

Within five kilometres of my fall there was a hint of daylight. There had been cocks crowing well before this but they were only a false alarm. Once daylight came we only got to see foggy meadows covered in frost. We ran alongside a creek for a while and passed through our last village with 11 kilometres to go. Those last kilometres were far too long. They included a long hill as we returned into Lyon and a stretch along the Roman aqueduct (which I'm ashamed to say is the only tourist site I saw in my time in Lyon), and we had to climb down to the river bank and back up again on long flights of stairs. I made myself run, even on the uphills, just so I would get to the finish faster; by now almost no one was running. The river was very smelly but when I saw it I recalled with pleasure that it was close to the finish. Finally I was crossing the courtyard and entering the Halle Tony Garnier where I could run under the finish arch while spectators in the grandstand cheered. It was a nice touch, this indoor finish.

The finish area was not well organised and it was hard to work out where you were meant to go. I kept trying to get into the various areas through the exit instead of the entrance and the security guards were rather too enthusiastic in patrolling their patches. It wasn't just me, in the space of about five minutes two other runners asked me where I had got my T shirt and meal. Although the food at the aid stations had been great, the meal at the finish was disappointing: instant noodles. In France! I didn't spend long in the eating area. I went to the first aid post to get my hand looked at; the medical post was far less busy than I would have expected. They asked me an awful lot of questions and then wanted me to lie down while I waited for the doctor, but I knew I would fall asleep if I lay down. Anyway, he said nothing was broken and bandaged it up.

There's a nice conclusion to this little adventure. I went back to my hotel to shower and lie down, and then as I didn't actually know my finish time I went online to have a look and I was amazed to see I had won my age group, Veterans 3. There was a trophy for first place in each age group and I saw from the race program that the awards ceremony was starting in ten minutes' time. So I rushed back to the Halle Tony Garnier. My 9 hours 33 minutes was ahead of my expectations. The ceremony was held on a large podium with lots of Lyon dignitaries and a lot of cheek kissing. Being a charming Frenchman, the host said to me that I could not possibly be that age!

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