by contributing writer: Ian Corless
Ecotrail Paris 80km (50 miles)
March 15th 2009.
The thought of being able to run 50 miles of ‘trail’ all the way to Paris is something that tempts the mind. This race was the creation of 4 runners who used these trails as part of their regular training routes. They combined forces, strung the training routes together and created an 80km trail race that works its way into Paris, along the Seine and finishes at the Eifel Tower. To finish at the Tower is special enough but wait for it…. you don’t just finish at the Tower, you run up to the first floor and finish under the ‘Ecotrail’ finish line. Needless to say an awesome spectacle! The race starts at midday, so running in the forest and along the Seine for many requires head torches and night running. This adds to the drama. Paris is illuminated, the Tower glows in the distance and from approximately 12k from the finish it tempts and tantalizes you.
So, the race?
Registration takes place under the tower in a special marquee. It is possible to register up to 10pm the day before the race or up to 10am on race morning. Free Metro and Bus transfers take you to the start some 80km out of Paris. Race start is midday with a cut off of 13 hours (1am Sunday Morning).
The French love ultra running. It seems to be in the blood and when you consider 1600 people towed the line for an 80 km trail race, you realize how special this sport is. Amazingly French Ultra runner all look alike; Raidlight or Salomon rucksacks, Salomon clothing, pony tails, ‘buffs’ around the head or neck; they are a great group! I was privileged to meet up with some legends within the French Ultra Running Community; Katel who had just returned from a 200km race in Libya and was preparing for Spartathlon, Huguette; 100km road champion, Christine; preparing for Badwater, Didier; a blind ‘ultra’ runner that has a list of palmares that would make anyone impressed – Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, Marathon Des Sables etc… Infact, everyone who I ran with had done ‘MDS’ at least once… Michel Bach (Mr Ultra Runner) had completed the race fifteen times !!
A bond is between all of them. They ‘love’ the sport; you can see it. They are ‘serious’ but don’t lose the humour and the fun of an event. In some cases they will just run a race like ‘Ecotrail’ as training. They will ease back, have fun and revel in the day.
On the train it was like a bunch of children on an outing. Shouting, singing, good natured insults… excitement was in the air. A perturbed commuter shouted abuse at the noise but she was laughed way… everyone was having too much fun and spirits were too high. On arrival at the station a bus awaited everyone and we were then transferred to the race start, a field in the middle of nowhere.
Runners lay on the grass with rucksacs and kit everywhere. It is essential and part of the rules that you all must carry certain kit: a rucksack, 2 litres of liquid, food, 2 head torches, spare batteries, space blanket, elastic bandage, whistle and reflective arm strip. At midday everyone congregated at the start line and with a relatively un-ceremonious horn we were off.
As you can imagine the first 20km was quite congested as everyone runs very steady, the trail is narrow and everyone is cautious. In true Ultra running style, we walk the hills. Believe me, this race has lots of them spread throughout the 80km course. Treat them with respect! In the latter stages the quad busting ascents and decents break many.
At 10k ‘Lapin Bleu’ passes us… yep, a guy dressed in a blue rabbit outfit. Respect! This course is tough enough without trying to run in an outfit like that. I shout to my running friends that ‘no way’ am I being beaten by a blue rabbit…. We catch Christine and Didier (the blind guy) we chat, make jokes and push on.
The first feed at 23k is welcome. We refill our camel backs, eat cake, some banana and prepare for the next push. Katel, just back from Libya pulls out. She is fine but the recent 200k race and the prospect of a big race in China tells her that caution is wise.
The next session is brutal and long. With next feed some 30k away I struggle. Aerobically I am fine but in the 8 days previous to this race I had been on a training camp in Lanzarote accumulating some 32 hours training. The week before that I ran a 50k Ultra and a fast half marathon. It was all creeping up on me. To be honest at 50k I thought I was going to pull out but the Dean Karnazes quote wrung through my head ‘…..never give up’.
The 50k feed came. Coke, coffee, cake, chocolate, cheese crackers, more coke, more coffee and more chocolate. I was having a picnic. From here on I was just putting up with the pain and focussing on moving forward. At 7pm the light failed and we switched on our head torches. I loved this section. Running through dark trails following the course marked in ‘yellow’ reflective strips. It was awesome. If you looked behind white spot light faded into the distance as a row of running ants followed each other. This was the magic time. It was hard work. Concentration is greater and viewing terrain under foot is harder.
Finally the last feed at the top of a hill. In the distance the lights of Paris and the glow of the Eifel Tower. I don’t mind admitting I had a tear in my eye. This was quite a sight and worth the journey. Another picnic and the final push. After a long decent we had about 10k of flat running along the Seine to the Eifel Tower. I pushed on and funnily enough the final 60-90 mins of the race is where I felt best.
The steps came that took us from the Seine to the foot of the Eifel Tower. Crowds cheered and clapped. We ran across the road and through the registration tent. Out of the other side and to the entrance of the ‘Tour’. Onward and upward, step after step and finally the finish at the first floor of one of the most significant landmarks in the world. I crossed the line in 9 hours 36min. The time was academic, the experience; priceless.
I have raced all over the world. Experienced many things in sport, but this race ranks in my top 3. I had all the same sensations as my first Ironman finish. I will be back again to experience the atmosphere, the pain, the friendship and the spectacle of a truly awesome event. If you want a challenge, start the training now and build to the 80km that is ‘Ecotrail’.