EcoTrail de Paris race recap: Come rain, hail or shine…

… or snow, ice rivers and all the mud…

What an absolutely crazy race that was. I’m writing this on Monday, two days after the race and I still can’t quite believe what happened on Saturday. I’m so lucky that I had trained through the winter and was prepared for this race, because the weather threw everything at us and yet I could keep fighting and running strong the whole way. I was hoping to come in under 5hours but managed 4:31:03 which just goes to show that I had an absolute cracker of a day. Oh and I took 9th place female, which I was 100% not expecting 😊

Back to the start: the RER C (which would take me to the start) of course had trackwork this weekend, but the race knew abou this and had organised shuttles from a nearby station which was very easy. I decided to get to the start nice and early and so was surprised when my train was crammed full of runners, but most of them turned out to be heading to the 30km race which started 45min before ours. When I arrived at the 45km start there was barely any queue for the toilets, which is a good indicator for how much time I’d allowed myself!

AHH the toilets, the first funny story of the day! True to the ‘Eco’ part of its name, the race had put in a number of environmentally-friendly initiatives, such as a BYO-cup policy and extra time added to competitors who littered along the course. They also provided eco ‘dry’ toilets, where you had to scoop up a bucket of sawdust before entering the cubicle, and then pour it down the hole once you were finished. This was a new experience for me, and while I think it’s a good initiative, it probably should have come with a warning not to sit down! I ended up with sawdust all down my pants and had to go back a few more times to try and get rid of it. Sawdust is itchy! 😂

It was a bit cold at the start and I was a little worried that I hadn’t brought enough layers to wear while running, but there also wasn’t much I could do about it anymore. I did manage to get a cup of delicious tea and a piece of brioche which they were handing out at the start-tents which was great. Of course though, I hadn’t actually used my BYO cup before, and as it turns out, hot drinks in a metal cup makes the metal very hot and difficult to drink out of! Had to stand around for 10min waiting for the cup to cool before I could even take a sip… Silly me.

Deposited my bag and jumper and got into the start pens with 20min to go. There were ~1500 runners for the 45km event, but the race was still set off in waves every 10min and I didn’t want to get stuck in a wave too far back because it would mean more time standing around in the cold. I ended up in the second one, and we set off at 10:55am.

The waves weren’t organised by speed, so from the get-go I had to weave around people to get to a comfortable running speed. The first ~6km of the course is flat around the gardens of Versailles, and while I didn’t want to go out at 5km pace I wasn’t too worried about setting off too fast because the hills from 6km onwards would slow me down enough to negate any extra speed I had managed in this first section. The plan was that if I ever ran for more than 19min at a time I would take a 1min walk-break, and otherwise would just walk up all the hills. As it turned out I only ever did one 19-1 phase which was during those first flat kilometres, and even then I cut the walk short because I saw a small hill up ahead which I used for the remainder of the walk.

During this part of the race I had had really tight calves, which then turned into pins&needles in my feet. Thankfully by 8km it all went away, and this is when I really hit my stride. Up until this point I had been running well but when we got onto the proper trails I just felt this spark light up and my legs were ready to go. I was still walking up the hills, but this meant that on all the flats and downs I could just fly along. It’s a brilliant tactic! My legs weren’t tired from having to expend too much energy going up the hills, and so I could overtake people when I was running, which was a great mental boost. Actually, most people were walking up the hills so I rarely got passed there either.

Basically, kilometres 8-25 were a total dream. Having run the course so much in training I knew it like the back of my hand and so knew exactly what was coming up and where my favourite and most hated sections were. In the past I’ve picked my way along the downhills but now I had confidence and could scream down them, competently knowing how to navigate the mud and rocks which in the past have caused all sorts of fear. There were plenty of people around who were approaching the course as I had a few months ago, and it just made me so happy to see how far I had come. I even happily hiked up my nemesis hill at ~20km with a massive smile on my face – take that!

Nutrition and hydration were also going really well. I had Tailwind in my bladder which I was drinking every 15min, and that broke up the run into really small manageable chunks which seemed to pass very quickly. I was also eating brownie/date/banana mush (I made homemade bites but they kinda melted 😞) every 30min and although sticky, it tasted great and gave me the energy I needed. My arm-warmers + t-shirt combination turned out to be the right amount of clothing for the body heat I was generating, and I even took my gloves off partway through.

It had started raining though and the ground, already muddy from recent rainfall, was getting worse. My headband was soaked and my ears had become quite blocked and I couldn’t unblock them – a little like when after you’ve been swimming. It wasn’t great, but again I couldn’t do anything about it at this point.

One of the great motivators for my full-steam-ahead approach to running this race was that Sye and my friend Genieve had both come to support me and were waiting at the 25km aid station! It was so absolutely lovely of them to come, particularly because the conditions were so horribly foul. I had packed a bag for Sye to bring along, which meant I could change out various bits of it – such as my sopping headband and terribly muddy socks. I had been dreaming about fresh socks for a while, and it was such a great feeling to switch them out – but at the same time probably an unnecessary waste of time given that 100m into running the next section they were already full of mud again. However, I had felt something stuck under my toes which would probably have caused problems 10km further into the race, so cleaning my feet probably was a good idea – mentally, if not time-wise.

I spent ~10min in the aid station and probably gave far too many sweaty wet hugs to my crew (sorry!) and then it was time to go again. I left the aid station at ~2:30 into the race, and which meant that I was making damn good progress – more towards the ‘dream’ rather than ‘reality’ end of the scale. Somehow though I had completely forgotten about the next 5km in my race planning, and though that the last 20km would just be easy-peasy through to the end. NOPE!

As it turned out, those were the worst 5km of the race. Not only was it one hill after another after a downhill to then go straight back up again – but it started snowing. WTF. It’s March, and last week I was running in shorts and a t-shirt. How can it be snowing?!?!

In part the snow was fun, but it also meant that now the mud was a complete disaster. The ground was gaining an extra layer of flowing thick mud-water which was just incredibly unpleasant. A few times I got suckered into following some guys ahead of me into the scrub to avoid a bad section, only to get annoyed at myself because running straight through would probably have been easier than ducking tree branches.

Finally we got into the Domaine National de Saint Cloud, aka it’s mostly downhill until the end. Once again I could pick up speed and overtake the guys floundering in the mud #girlpower. Soon though as the trails turned to paths, the mud turned into deep icy rivers. For probably a kilometre in that park I had to run through ankle-deep ice-cold water where I could barely feel my feet. It was tempting to stop and walk because it sucked (especially when it then turned into ice-cold-mud-rivers) but I kept telling myself that running forward was the only way to keep some sort of warmth going to my feet.

The ten kilometres between aid station 1 & 2 passed pretty quickly, and I only paused at the second one to grab a few slices of orange before continuing on. The worst of the hills were now behind me and all that remained was to run along the edge of the Seine, where I have run so many of my training runs at varying speeds. Of the whole race course, this is the bit I knew the best and I have suffered here enough times to know how to make it through to the end. I had also arranged with Sye that he would be waiting for me in the last few kilometres for a final boost, so I just needed to get to him.

From 40km my legs finally started to feel tired. I was properly legging it now, setting my eyes on every competitor in front of me and reeling them in one by one. It felt like no-one could keep up with me, that no-one could even try. I have no idea where all this energy came from (other than, yeah ok, all the training that went into this race) but damn I felt good. I also felt like I really didn’t ever want to race this fast again – but we all know that’s not going to happen!

Sye popped out earlier than I was expecting at 41.5km (on my watch), and it was great to see him… until he said that he was too cold (it was still snowing) and that he wanted to go home and warm up rather than meeting me at the finish. That threw me a curveball and for the first time in the race I struggled emotionally. I kinda just ran off without saying a proper goodbye and then texted that yes, he did need to be at the finish. I was pretty angry for the next kilometre or so* until I realised that I was almost at the last section of the course, and that my watch was probably a kilometre short of the actual race distance. I was nearly finished!!!

*I’m sorry Sye, thank you so much for coming out to support. I know the conditions sucked and I’m sorry that I reacted so emotionally at that point in the race, and that I’m now recounting it to the world.

Walked up one last set of stairs and crossed the road into the final straight. There was the green carpet stretched out in front of me, and with one last burst of energy I overtook some walkers (from the 30km, but still) and crossed the line. I saw my name and time flash up on the screen – 4:31:03. WHAT?!?!?! How on earth had I just managed that?

That result was beyond my wildest dreams, and I kinda started crying/smiling so much that lots of volunteers were asking me if I was OK. Surprisingly I was totally fine and could walk to the finish area just like it was any other normal day. Unfortunately that didn’t last and I was actually really stupid and refused to get out my safety blanket and so got really cold and stood around for too long then when I finally decided to go inside to get changed realised that the bags were in a truck across the road so had to be out in the cold for longer and then when I finally did get inside I was crying and a total mess because I was completely frozen and couldn’t feel my fingers and Sye had to hug me for a long time then force me to have a hot shower which did wonders. Oops. Lesson learned for next time…

Ignoring the after-race bit though, the day was absolutely incredible. I can’t believe I could run like that on trails, and I feel like I’ve really proved something to myself. I finally feel like my training over the past few months has had some results, and I’m getting really excited now to take on the North Downs Way 50miler in May. Bring it on!

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