Les Templiers – Endurance Trail 100k
This amazing looking event was booked the day after my failed qualifier at NDW100, something of a knee jerk reaction but a keenly anticipated one. Training had been going amazingly well until an innocent trip whilst working in London and run – commuting resulted in a cracked rib that seemed to never heal. I was advised to train on the roads as another trip whilst on the trails would mean no Les Templiers so I bought a treadmill!
This was a family trip in a motor home through Spain into France to camp near the race start in Millau before heading home through the Pyrenees. It turned out to be the best family holiday ever, a motor home, the family and mountains = heaven on earth.
Les Templiers is not a single race, but a festival of races over several days, the main event “Le Grand Trail” attracts elites from every corner of the globe, but not the endurance trail as far as I know. The expo was just about the best I have ever attended and relieved me of a good few euros, job done organisers. The number of flyers for amazing races worldwide was jaw dropping, so little time so many races, planning, planning, dreaming and planning…
The 100km race was starting at 04:00 Friday morning so the whole entourage of in-laws, children and wife Shelley (crew) insisted on seeing me off, and what a race start it turned out to be amidst flares and booming music. It certainly felt nothing like the ungodly hour of four am as I ambled over the start triggering my first of many beeps that day in virtually last position. My race plan was to start slowly and pick off runners slowly and steadily as the race progressed. This plan was in stark contrast to my usual blast off and bank the miles, but was it a valid plan??
We started on roads for a mile or so and I was happy to tick along near nine-minute mile pace until our first hill up a steep track lead to the first overcrowding. Moving steadily and patting myself on the back for trainer choice Sportiva Anakonda who clung to the rocks like limpet mines, life felt good.
We passed through several villages in darkness save for head torches and occasional street lights where it was nice to see a few people out clapping at this early hour. The first properly bad crowding was upon us once we started a descent into woodland and the single file of runners ground to a halt, each runner quickly developing a covering of dew sparkling in the torch light like millions of diamonds a most bizarre sight. Passing slowly through the restrictions on the single track and soon into CP1 – Rivière-sur-Tarn 18km in what seemed like no time, I was feeling happy to have passed a few runners. Two tickets into the Western States lottery were a shoe in, only 80 ish km to go.
The next section of the race after dawn had broken in breath-taking style was something of a blur, memories are patchy at best like a drunken night out of old. One incident I have replayed many time occurred when traversing a narrow path in a train of around 20 runners. Stumbling badly nearly taking out the guy in front who kindly checked on my wellbeing in perfect English having realised my spoken French was laughable. Half a mile later the same guy turned and joked falling now would probably be fatal as the drop inches to our left tallied into the hundreds of feet. This was a proper mountain race and no mistake, the danger and mystique of the narrow trails and steep gullies was intoxicating. The next hour or so are a total blackout memory wise, save for knowing I allowed many runners past on the steep downhills where my lack of mountain down hilling was a cause of constant grief and self-pity. The race places I was making up on the flatter sections I was surrendering without a fight on the downhills. My feet were getting battered and I now cursed my minimal shoe choice, every single rock, stone, piece of grit felt like a broken bottle through the shoe soles. I was hating every moment of the endless steep descents, that’s one thing I remember vividly. Sadly though, I can’t remember the second aid station Mostuéjouls km 34.5.
The next section I do remember was in warm midday sunshine, and the gist of the race was becoming clear…. We ran (as best we could) up a mountain side, ran along the ridge (sometimes), then descended into a village for the aid station. The next one came up after what seemed a never ending sheer downhill section, god this was brutal. At Le Rozier km 44 I took a few minutes to get myself together after nearly peeing myself when caught up with a group of fast downhillers thinking I was going to die. Leaving this aid station, I phoned my crew (wife Shelley) who had followed online and said I was doing really well situated about mid pack which surprised me. The scenery since the break of dawn was way beyond anything I have encountered before, my feeble words go nowhere near doing the race justice in respect of the endless mountain scenes. It was here that I took my only photos of the race after the crew instructions had been confirmed via a quick call The next downhill road section was bliss, I actually passed a good few runners who had only recently bombed past me on a downhill trail, I couldn’t figure why they travelled so slowly on road yet tore down the trails like a whirling dervish. The next aid station was simply a tap dispensing the coldest most amazing fresh water I have ever tasted, simple things mean such a lot.
My first planned crew meet up was at Saint-André-de-Vézines km 63, which I learned via sms was not reachable in the motor home, they would see me at the next CP, which again was a fresh water tap. By this time, I was feeling beaten up, my feet were trashed, my buttocks, groin, in fact everything within my compression shorts was chaffing badly. The never ending up/down hill was taking it’s toll on my aging body, but life still felt pretty damned good. Shelley did her usual magic on my chaffing and after a change of trainers to old trusties Addizero along with priceless energy boosting hugs from the children I was off again. Straight up another mountain, yay, where I actually ran for as long as I could whilst my team watched me disappear into the trees from where it was back to the grunting and moaning upwards.
After the first big climb towards the next aid station Pierrefiche km 75, there seemed to be a reprieve from the brutally steep ascent/ descent pattern and I was again enjoying a period of decent paced stop / start running. Here there was booming music to greet us into the aid station and an amazing spread of food, cheeses and breads, to which I got stuck in unashamedly, realising my calorie intake had been lacking all day.
It was early evening leaving Pierrefiche, a time of day I simply love, no matter how beaten up my body is feeling, now re-energised and running approximately 10min mile pace in sections passing many runners, I convinced myself it was definitely ‘game on’ for sub 19-hour finish and Western States qualifier. At some point over the next few miles in my dangerous sate of euphoria and fatigue, confusion reigned as my mental arithmetic said I was two hours ahead of where I actually was in the race. My phone call to Shelley was greeted by amazement at my progress which I explained away by my new found ‘top gear’, my prediction of being at Massebiau km 90.5 in a couple of miles or 30 minutes max was wild to the extreme as it turned out.
When I finally arrived in Massebiau, two hours later than anticipated, the realisation I was going to miss my qualifying time of sub 19 hours had already hit me hard a while ago. Shelley did her best to revive my spirits for the final push but I was spent and wanted the race to be over. Leaving the motorhome I said to Shelley, voice cracked, spirit broken; “Thankfully all the climbing is over with, only 10k on the flat to go.”. My loving wife looked at me with tears in her eyes, looked skyward and said “Bebe”. I followed her gaze skywards and saw pin pricks of light moving slowly in the sky, as my eyes adjusted to the dark the realisation they were head torches made me dizzy.
This section broke me more than any other, crawling and stumbling upwards, with regular stops to try and calm my breathing it was a long and torturous climb to the top. Passed by many, I cared not, my only objective was to get over the finish line without injury. There was a crazy almost party atmosphere at the final aid station, Cade km 93 from where I knew for sure it was all downhill. There were some runnable sections but these soon gave way to horrendous steep downhill trail through the forest, a snake of runners each lurching from one tree to the next, nowhere to pass, staying upright here was the main objective for everyone, helped in places by ropes such was the terrain. After what seemed like miles of deadly downhill, we emerged to hear the finish line commentary with maybe one more mile to go. I hurriedly phoned Shelley whose calls I had been unable to take for the past 45 minutes; she was going to bomb it to the finish line with the children. I put my foot down to make up the lost places during my phone call. A mere 200 yards from the finish and no sign of Shelley, I waited five minute giving away many places and phoned to learn the campsite had locked the gates and they were walking, about ten minutes away. Ten minutes was a lifetime so I crossed the line alone for the first time in an ultra. Placed 732nd of 1,200 starters was not too shabby but plenty of room for improvement.
In the immediate hours after the race I hated Les Templiers, by sun up I wanted to do it all again. The race was crowded for sure, a sit back and wait approach is costly in the first section. The scenery is quite incredible, the organisation is world class, the course is a test, a proper test of uphill and downhill abilities. To date this was the toughest physical challenge of my life, for me 100km did not have the same requirement of mental fortitude as a 100 miler but it’s a damn fine distance up the mountains!
Millau is an incredible place to stay, we will be back for sure, Les Templiers festival is incredible, we will be back in 2016 if finances can stretch that far but I’m currently dreaming of an encounter with a big hill in Derbyshire later in the year..