Last year’s EcoTrail de Paris (45km) was hands-down my favourite race of the year. Something about getting to race along the trails I’d been training on for months, and then splashing through icy rivers of mud when it started slowing (past all these guys gingerly trying to avoid getting their feet wet) was a total hoot. It snowed from 25km onwards, had the most elevation I’d ever covered in a single push, and was my first ever ultra. Brilliant!
So of course I had to do it again this year. Because of the upcoming Boston Marathon I chose the 30km distance to more fit in my training, and also wasn’t able to get out onto the trails because Boston is a road race (eyes on the prize). I knew the hills and terrain would be a challenge, but that was what I was excited for! Pacing and strategy be damned, I just wanted to go out and frolic in the woods for a few hours.
But so did thousands of other people. The 45km race starts with a flat loop of the Jardins de Versailles, so by the time you get into the woods after 6km, the runners have stretched out. Not so for the 30km – we dove straight into single-track running, or rather, tried to run but came to a complete stop several times thanks to too many people squished onto a narrow path. They had started us in waves to try and mitigate this issue, but alas it was fairly chock-a-block for the first kilometres.
I’d started out running with Pippa, as both of us just wanted to have a fun time out there. Unfortunately though, stopping to walk every 30 seconds wasn’t my idea of fun so I started to weave forwards and lost her. My other annoyance was that people would get to a mud-puddle on the path, stop, and then carefully pick their way around the outside to try and avoid getting their shoes dirty. People – it’s a trail race! You’re going to get muddy! There’s only one option for mud – plow straight through.
That turned out to be a brilliant tactic, because by charging ahead through the bogs I not only got to feel like a bad-ass in front of the other runners, but could also pick off 5-6 people in one fell swoop. I was running strong, overtaking people and getting to squelch through mud – exactly what I wanted from the day!
Whenever we got to a hill I’d have to slow to walk, because I didn’t want to waste too much energy pushing up it, and knew I could make up time on the other side. Despite not having run on trails properly for a long time, I was glad to see my body remembered how to throw itself downhill. It took me lots of training last year to gain the confidence in not stacking it on the way down, and now I just love it.
Uphill kills your calves, while downhill kills your quads. It took ~6km for my legs to feel comfortable on the terrain, but that’s when all the hills started. It’s not possible to run at a steady pace out on the trails, so instead I just ran as best I could in the moment. The smooth running came in troughs and waves: when my legs ached after a climb I slowed down, and when they felt good then off I’d go.
I was surprised by how many people were ahead of me to overtake – as I kept pushing forward there were just more and more people to fly past. The men didn’t bother me too much – it was nice to run past, but I was more concerned about catching the women. There were a few with whom I played leap-frog: I’d overtake just before a hill but then they’d come past again, and it would take a decent-length flat section before I knew they were permanently behind me. It became a bit of a game, and one which was seeing me through the kilometres.
The course was lovely, and super memorable. Afterwards I was chatting with Simon about things that had happened en route and we were saying things like “that bit where you came down the hill before turning right to cross the bridge and go into town”, and would know exactly where that was on the course. You can’t do that with a road race – “that bit where you ran on a road and then turned onto another road”… nope.
Was overtaking and pushing and appreciating that it wasn’t as grim as last year (as fun as that had been, I do like to feel my feet). It was tough though, and I was counting down to the end probably from the ~12km mark. When the 20km aid station came at ~19km I was hopeful that maybe the course would be short. It would do me just fine not to run the complete 30km.
After that aid station (cup out, iced tea in, keep going) you come down a hill back into civilisation, and the last 9km are run on a concrete path next to the Seine where I do a lot of my training. The race plan had been to have fun on the trails and then aim for MP on the roads, but my quads were shot and my legs just didn’t have any more speed in them. I felt like I was just about moving, and the only thing that told me I was still doing well was that I continued to overtake people, albeit less frequently (it felt) than before.
Brutally they changed the finish from last year, so rather than staying relatively flat for those last kilometres, we concluded by being sent up a flight of 100+ steps. Just what the legs want after 28km of thrashing. Even more cruelly there was an escalator next to the steps, and Pippa told me she saw some people take that shortcut (cheaters).
Simon waved to me as I came around the last bends towards the finish and then huzzah, it was complete. Couldn’t face the soup that was on offer but ate some crackers and iced-tea/coke mix and felt more refreshed. I had run a good race, coming in some 20mins faster than I had expected at 2:39:20. Also placed 22nd female and 12th in the SEF category, so I’m super happy with that.
Trail running is fun. Trail bombing is fun. Pushing on even when you’re tired can feel good, and is something I can draw on for the marathon. Starting to feel like I’m in a really good place for Boston!