“I was exhausted. I wanted it all to end. My legs were empty, my resolve was spent and my spirit was broken. I didn’t have anything left in me to go on. Stopping, I flaked out at the side of the trail, barely an inch away from where people were treading past. I didn’t care. My race was over.”
Starting Right at the Back
We set off at 5am from Annecy-le-Vieux in the dark, heading along the lakeside. We hadn’t realised it to begin with, but we started in the last pen (ordered purely on bib number), which ended up having a big effect on the outcome of our race. We turned up early at the start line to avoid the rush of previous races and once we were in our pen the need to visit the toilet to settle pre-race nerves was continually discounted as we feared we’d not get back through the crowds or find each other in time. This was our first mistake as within 2km of the start line we stopped to settle those nerves, only to find we were then literally the last two people in the race. We had to virtually sprint to re-attach ourselves to the back of the pack before we headed out of the city and into the mountains.
Jo was running like she was chasing a Strava segment, while I was demanding she slow down – never a recipe for harmony! Inevitably, we hit the first climb (a 12mile-long, uphill slog) feeling out of breath and a sickening sense of having already used up too much essential energy.
Jo was keen to move up the pack and is a stronger climber than me, resulting in her scooting uphill to grab every gap that appeared in the pack. I could not respond. This meant the first few miles of Maxi Race were spent arguing about pace and whether we should just run our own race. It must have been good entertainment for the local Frenchies! Despite the tension, the forests were beautiful and acknowledgement of the beauty around us was given through gritted teeth!
Eventually we managed to settle on a pace that was agreeable to both of us and by the time we passed the second official photographer we were smiling and happy – the first official photo was snapped mid-pacing argument, which we nicknamed ‘Row Photo’ – deliberately omitted!
The High Point
Reaching the summit at Semonz (1685m) was great. It was the highest point of the race and the longest, though far from steepest or toughest, climb of the day. The views were stunning. We raced down the hill to the fist aid station for the much-promised Pepsi as well as hot, salty soup and whatever else we could grab. The heat of the day was to be around 30C (and it was) and Maxi Race is not one that allows drop-bags, so we had to ensure we filled our water bladders at each opportunity. This meant we rarely had a light pack, making those hills even tougher.
Running together meant that the cumulative time spent going to, or waiting on the other nipping to the loo added up to a rather substantial amount. My overactive bladder (plus a lot of pre-race hydration), meant that by the time we left the first aid station we must have lost at 15-20mins in collective toilet time. This was to become significant later.
The descents and climbs (down to 683m, up to 1333m, down to 654m, up to 861m) between aid stations 1 and 2 were both beautiful and brutal. The views in and out of the deciduous forests were amazing, but already the muscles were feeling the strain of climbing and the joints feeling the impact of long, steep, technical descents.
By the time we were in the valley floor aiming for aid station 2 at Doussard (approximately halfway), the heat was intense and the 3km on Tarmac felt like an unnecessary punishment. Jo motored her way to the aid station, while I stopped to take photos and get some relief from the pounding on Tarmac. The flat plain at Doussard (470m) meant the gymnasium hall took forever to feel within reach.
The Race Truly Begins
Aid station 2; water re-filled, cups filled with Pepsi, grab whatever food, sweet or savoury, can be had, sit down, eat and drink. All was good again… until Jo asked what time we needed to leave the aid station before the cut-off. We had 30 minutes. The reality took a few seconds then landed like a lead balloon inside me. “We’re only 30mins ahead of the cut-off?!” I questioned in my head.
I’ve never needed to worry about cut-offs in any race prior to Maxi Race, so it never entered my mind to make a note of what time the cut-offs were at each point. I had suddenly become painfully aware that we were only just in this race and there was very little room for manoeuvre. Here I acknowledged Jo’s insistence on dragging me up the first climb too fast for my liking (Relationship Tip #27 – admit when you’re wrong, even if you don’t want to).
Our legs were stiff and our range of motion vastly reduced as we headed out of Doussard only 15mins ahead of the cut-off. After a flat few kms, we went head-first into the woods and an intense, steep climb that rarely let off until we’d reached the famous Col de Forclaz (1146m). My legs were empty going up and the only thing that gave me any hope of reaching the top was the energy gels. Their effect has never been more apparent than it was climbing up to Forclaz!
This was, however, to prove another sting in the tail later in the day. With no drop-bags, we had to strike a balance between the amount of food we’d need vs. the weight of our pack. I only had a few gels left!
“You’ll make there next cut-off if you’re quick”.
The col was jam-packed with tourists and the heat was blistering, so our stop for photos over-looking the lake was brief, before we descended from Forclaz away from the lake and to the next water station (1042m). Here Jo asked the marshal how we were for time and reported back to me that she’d said “You’ll make there next cut-off if you’re quick”.
Holy mackerel! With no clear idea of where the next checkpoint was (the route map on our bibs was not very clear nor detailed) and with no knowing what her definition of “if you’re quick” actually meant, we set off as if we were running a 5K, not a mountain ultra. At this point we agreed to run our own race (or so I thought) so that at least one of us could make the finish line ‘for Ferdinand’. This was far from enjoyable as we had no defined goal of place or time, so we pushed ourselves into the red trying to reach the next checkpoint. This saw us power past people who were only plodding their way up ‘Poor things’, I thought, ‘perhaps they don’t realise they’re about to be timed out’.
As we began the leave the forest, the full force of the sun was unhindered as it blasted down on us. By now, Jo was a reasonable bit further up the mountain than me and just before I passed through the next checkpoint the marshal announced in French ‘You have 30minutes left’. My understanding of French isn’t the best (I’m working on it), so I took this to mean that I only had 30mins to reach the next checkpoint or I’d be timed out – I didn’t have Jo next to me to verify this was what she said. We have subsequently deduced she meant ‘there are 30km to go to the end. Not helpful.
In a panic to remain in the race, my intensity increased. I powered up the climb as hard as I could with one eye on my watch (it had lost battery power by now and stopped tracking my race, but was, thankfully, still showing the time) and a sense that the next checkpoint must be reachable within 30mins otherwise the marshal wouldn’t have made her announcement. So, again, I was deeply into the red and chasing an unknown goal.
I reached the top of the climb (1428m) in a bad state and was, by now, fending off tears. I was feeling incredibly sad for failing to finish Maxi Race – for myself and for Ferdinand – and I was feeling sick from the intensity of effort. I stopped briefly to look for water at Chalet de l’Aulps, but quickly discovered there was none and carried on, ruing the 30seconds I’d just wasted. It turns out I missed Jo at this chalet, which would prove significant later.
The descent from the chalet went back into the forest and was highly technical over rocks and roots and on steep mountainsides, including a brief crossing over a snow-covered stream. None of this was made any easier by knowing I had 15mins to reach an unknown location and my eyes were full of tears – not helpful when you really need to see where you’re putting your feet!
“I’ll never get up there in 10mins”
Finally the trail levelled out and I could hear cowbells. ‘Yes!’ I thought. ‘The checkpoint is up ahead, there’s a big crowd cheering’. The chalet appeared on the mountain above me and I quickly saw that the rapturous cowbell ringing was not coming from a crowd of supporters, but a herd of mountain cows running across the meadow! ‘I’ll never get up there in 10mins’ was my first thought. ‘I HAVE TO!’ was my second. Going even harder into the red I went at it like a man demented. Pushing my hands on my knees, breathing hard, and working everything I had to get there.
10mins had passed, but I pushed on anyway, thinking they might allow a few minutes grace, only for me to arrive at the chalet and for there to be nothing.
The chalet I thought I had been racing to get to for the last 30mins was nothing at all to do with the race. No marshal, not timing chips, no water, just a few runners having a cold drink on the terrace. I looked up only to see the trail continue to climb on up, steep as ever!
My bubble was burst! I was crestfallen! I can’t recall ever feeling so deflated. All of that effort and I didn’t make it. Wherever the checkpoint was, I hadn’t managed to get there within 30mins of pushing hard in the red. All of the puff, resolve, power, energy, belief and strength stripped from me in an instant.
I stopped briefly in disbelief before continuing on slowly. I reached the shade of some woods and sat down at the edge of the trail. I took some photos of the amazing Tournette mountain and took a selfie – my “scratch” photo. ‘This was where it ended’ I thought. I texted Jo that I was finished and to ‘run like the wind’ and to ‘do it for Ferdinand’. Strangely, at this point amid the deflation and exhaustion, I must have inadvertently switched off my mobile signal, as my phone received no further messages – this was to become significant too!
My Race Is Over
Psychologically I couldn’t bear to walk back over the ground I’d worked so hard to power up, so I resolved to get to the next aid station in the village of Menthon where I could get the ‘broom wagon’ back to Annecy. I continued on very slowly as there was no point in racing – I had timed-out after all. My legs were totally spent and my head was gone. My race was over. I managed another 10mins of achingly-slow progress before I flaked out at the side of the trail, barely an inch away from where people were treading past. I didn’t care. I dozed for about 15mins before finding enough strength to get back on my feet and plod on, one slow step at a time.
After a few more stops I finally reached the exciting and vertiginous top of Roc Lancrenaz (1666m). Here the marshals cheered and shouted for me to keep going. It was great but futile.
“Je suis…” I started
“Fatigue?” came a reply,
“Non, finnit!!” I responded emphatically. The Frenchies laughed and scanned my bib.
“What, I’m still in?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes” they replied taken aback back the question. I didn’t really believe it and asked what time the cut-off was at Menthon.
“8pm” came the reply.
“Really? That means I’ve got two hours to get there?”
“Amazing! I can still do it!” I whooped with joy before recounting how I’d just been sleeping by the trail as I thought I was already timed out. They cheered me on my way and I was like a man re-born!
Allez Ryan, allez!
Suddenly I could run again and I began singing aloud and shouting encouragement to myself “Allez Ryan, allez!!” I commanded to the bemusement of my fellow runners – the same runners who had witnessed me powering past them, before seeing me flaked out aside the trail, only to see me now powering past them again whilst shouting at myself! Such wild fluctuations in pace is the opposite of how I’d like to run such a race, but I had no idea where the checkpoints were and what their cut-offs were.
I was blasting down the long, technical descent towards Menthon (490m) to try and catch up with Jo before she left the aid station. I was delighted. I was still in. The dream was still on!
I stopped to briefly to answer the call of nature when a woman stopped behind me and exclaimed “Mon Dieu!” Perplexed as to why she’d be so afronted at me peeing in the woods (I had gone further off the trail than many had during the race!), I took a long time in turning round, hoping she’d carry on running before I was finished. I didn’t fancy an ear bashing from an angry French runner.
When I turned round it was Jo! “Eh?!” I yelped. “What are you doing here? I’m trying to catch you up!” I explained.
“I’m trying to catch you up!” She returned between gasps. “I’ve been chasing you for half an hour!”
It turned out that when I stopped at Chalet de l’Aulps looking for water amidst my tear-filled push, Jo must have been there in the toilet. Bad luck meant we missed each other and, so, expecting me to still be coming behind, she waited there for me for 20mins, but to no avail. Eventually she decided I must have quit, so she gave up waiting and carried on. She’d tried calling and texting me, but my phone was no longer receiving messages. So while I was chasing her, thinking she was ahead, she was chasing me! Both of us were running at the limit when we didn’t need to be!
Jo had even called the UK to ask our friend Ian, who was tracking our race, to find out where I was. I never got his text telling me I was in front of Jo and to slow down and wait for her until we were already out of the race!
We descended together to the water station (759m) to re-fill before assessing our situation. We had 45mins to cover 5.5km, 3 climbs (170m in total) and another descent (250m-) to get to Menthon. “We’ll never do it” said Jo. “I can’t keep going like this”
“Me neither” I replied. “I feel sick, but we must try. We’ll do what we can. If we make it, great, if we don’t, then we’ll have done our best.”
Our bodies were reluctant, but we set off and were, yet again, in the scenario of racing the clock and putting ourselves in the red. We pushed and pushed. We offered each other encouragement when we were feeling sick inside ourselves. I shouted encouragement at myself again and Jo did well to not shout at me for it! We raced hard to get to Menthon and, thankfully, we made it with 10mins to spare. We were certain to finish the race now.
We waddled the last 50m into the hall. I was too exhausted to eat, but knew I must re-fuel. I took an age to muster the strength and appetite to get up and fetch food and water. I was craving to lie down. We knew, though, that we now had 5hrs to make the finish line. This was doable and we’d take the full 5hrs to do it. That was, until, Jo was informed by a marshal that there was a checkpoint up on the final climb that closed at 11pm. This was the first we knew about this checkpoint!
“What?!” I was crestfallen for a second time. “That gives us 2.5hrs to get up there. And it’s starting to get dark.” Our relief and euphoria from making it to Menthon had evaporated in that instant. Getting to that last checkpoint in 2.5hrs felt like mission impossible. Doubt about completion had well and truly sunk in. Yet again, we’d spent a long time in the red, expending enormous amounts of energy, to be faced with yet another impossibility.
We forced ourselves out of the aid station 5mins before it closed and, after a fairly flat 1km, we turned a corner to be met by a flight of big, steep steps. Stumbling our way on, progress was snail-like. Reality kicked in. We were spent.
“We need to make a decision”
We stopped. “Right, we need to make a decision” I said. We began to weigh up the situation in context. Jo’s parents had been looking after the children for a night and a day and we needed to be capable of taking on the parental role the following day.
“If we miss that cut-off, we’ll be stuck on top of the mountain in the dark and still have to walk off” Jo said. “You go on, you can make it. For Ferdi.”
“No, I don’t think I can. My legs are empty going uphill and I’m out of gels. We’re in this together and, besides, you just spent 20mins waiting for me back there. You’d have had plenty of time if you didn’t wait for me. I’m not leaving you here now.”
“If we go on, we’ll be doing most of it in the dark. This will slow us down further and add a real risk of injury” Jo added.
“I know” I replied
So we agreed we would count to three and say our gut instinct decision. It was unanimous; “quit!”.
Relief was instant. No more would we be racing uphill in the red against incredibly tough cut-offs. We were done.
We sat down, took in the view, explained our abandonment to others plodding by (the same people who’d witnessed my insane pacing throughout the afternoon) and agreed that, considering all factors (muscle fatigue, energy levels, ensuing darkness and risk of injury, 11pm cut-off and parental responsibility), this was the best decision.
Slowly and happily, we walked back to the aid station, texted in our bib numbers to the organisers and waited for the ‘broom wagon’ to take us back to Annecy.
More Than a Race!
What a race! It was the most beautiful, tumultuous, hardest, stressful, stunning race I’ve ever done and, despite a DNF, the furthest I’ve ever gone (70km and 4172m+).
Why did it come to a DNF?
In brief; lack of preparation.
The heat of the day, extreme lack of sleep in the week(s) leading up to the race, the weight of carrying everything throughout the day, being in the last pen at the start and numerous toilet stops all added to time lost, but, ultimately, it was the lack of prep which cost me.
I never trained for this race and that is the fundamental reason I DNF’d. I also never studied the race map, profile, aid and water stations, cut-off times etc. This was mainly due to having so much going on with the children and a lack of sleep, but I needed to find/make time to do it. Ultimately, I didn’t respect the course enough. Am I sad about this? No. Why? Because I knew I wasn’t respecting it fully, but was hoping to ‘just get round’ and I didn’t.
But the journey in getting to 70km was a thrilling and an amazing experience. It taught me that I can go harder and further than I imagined on no training. It taught me I can recover from major setbacks before and during a race. It taught me that a wee rest or sleep beside the trail is worth its weight in gold. It taught me that much of the ultrarunning game is psychological and that with some actual training, I’d be pretty good at it. And with the decision to DNF, it taught me that I’m strong, wise and that sharing these journeys and these decisions with Jo makes our relationship stronger and deeper.
A week after Maxi Race and with my muscles recovering, it’s easy to think “we could have made it.” Perhaps we could, but I’m proud of what we achieved and I’m proud of the decision we made at the time.
One bright side of our DNF was it meant we made it to the pizza shop with 5mins to spare!! Nom nom…