Briefing of TSL 16 on a cold Friday night sounded like…
“Please, guys remember one thing about the race. It’s cold outside, and tomorrow will be colder. If you fall, and you don’t know how to survive, to do a strap or anything, we’ll have a problem. The cold can get to you before we do, it can be dangerous out there. As soon as you find an area where you have a network, please stay there and call us.
It’s a simple equation: if you fall, you die. So please, just hold it together.
Oh and please, try at least to always pair with other runners, especially during the night.
We have wolves here.”
Pardon me, WHAT?!!
It was supposed to be my last ultra-race of the year.
I chose TSL 16 – also known as Trail des Sources de la Loire – because I needed some points for CCC.
It was supposed to be hard and smooth.
But what I found on that trail that day goes far beyond any points for CCC, far beyond running itself.
What if I told you, TSL 16 was an eye opener, and that I found some truth during that last race of the year?
Go ahead darling, start too fast…
The first part of TSL 16 is rolling. Alexandre and I just took off with the front of the pack, and just found our (little too fast) rhythm in the cold morning. The scenery was breath-taking, the fields were covered with a light morning frozen, and you could see the peaks over the clouds, immersed by the morning fog and the Sun slowly coming up. The atmosphere was like in a fairy tale, beautiful, blue, and cold, so cold (minus 4!), nobody wanted to stop and take pictures. It would have implied to take off the gloves. No way!
Everything felt good, I was following Alexandre, running up (yes running! Not walking) the hills. When I passed one volunteer around KM5 my mind clicked. You’re the first woman! he said. Not for long, I laughed back. But then the game was on. Fucking mind, fucking ego, fucking competition.
You’re not here for any position, you’re here for the CCC points, so slow down. I tried. And failed miserably. Fighting between two states of mind: how far can you hold that pace said my evil voice; slow down, finishing is what matters, you’re burning yourself out, said the wiser one. How perfect would it be, starting the season with a DNF, and finishing better than in Barcelona?
… and burn!
At a certain point, I took some time to take pictures. Between the amazing single tracks covered with gold leaves, hiding the difficulty of the trail (understand rocks and holes), the arches made of gold trees, and the leaves dancing down in the wind, the scenery was beautiful. I thought, what the hell are you going to show in your blog about TSL 16 if you keep focusing on running? What’s the point of going in the middle of nowhere if you don’t take in what Mother Nature has to offer? A volunteer soon reminded me again, that I was the first woman, so I pushed again. Unknown people chase you, and it’s thrilling. It’s a rush of adrenaline, a fight to know how far you can go that way.
Run, darling, run. And don’t look behind your shoulder.
While Mrs. Reason was trying to get in the way of my silly ambitions, talking me down and reminding me the essentials, I looked behind my shoulder in a steep downhill where the scenery was beautiful. And there I saw a pink jacket. I took off in a second, professionally ignoring the pain in my legs and my breathing, ignoring everything Mrs. Reason was trying to teach me. Again.
How long was I supposed to hold it?
Yes, you nailed it. I was burning. Or burned?
If you don’t listen to the signs, someone else will force you to
After leading the women pack for 12KM and 1:17H from the start, my body sent me a little reminder.
So you don’t wanna listen? Ok, fair enough, be prepared.
First I felt the fatigue, remembering me, that I hadn’t sleep enough the whole week prior to the race, not to mention the night before, and that I’ve been sick since Sunday.
With a snap of your fingers, my energy just left me.
Just like that.
In a second, I felt completely empty. Every hill became a nightmare. I couldn’t breathe properly, and my usually beloved downhill became pure torture. Something is wrong I thought. And I couldn’t help it, remembering how I felt after 9K into the race in Portugal beginning of the year.
Starting a big hill, I felt relieved when the other women passed me.
Good morning! – one told me with her eyes smiling warmly at me.
I was waiting for you, I answered in one breath.
And it was true. Now I’d be able to focus on the race, the pictures, and myself because I was not chased anymore. Alexandre told me to focus. You decided to run TSL 16 for a reason, hold on to it! Everything else is an option, but we finished this! And he took off, leaving me with my thoughts at the beginning of what would be a hell of nightmare ascent.
Every runner knows that moment in a race. You know it, I know it, we’ve all been through it.
Usually it’s late in the race, you are struggling hard to keep the pace. Maybe you’re slower. It’s harder.
The pain is finally getting to you. And there it is.
Your mind starts playing games.
You’re asking yourself the $64.000 question…
“Honestly darling, why are you doing this to you?”
But then it vanished, it’s normal to ask this question. We push through, and we forget about it. And we all have a good laugh at the end of the day.
Today was different. What happened after that hill was mind blowing. It got me so deep. I had the feeling I couldn’t move forward anymore. And even if I always say that if it gets harder in a race, we somehow always manage to reach the top, my emotions started getting to me.
“That hill just killed you, right? Come on Oriane, just move forward, one step after the other. Don’t be a wimp” said my little devil on my shoulder. I tend to listen to this little fucker a lot since a few years now, rather than listening to the other, wiser one. Reaching the end of that hill, I just wanted to cry hard. It was cold, I was tired, empty. And I had lost any willpower.
The truth of KM15
And then the normally quiet wise little voice started talking and asked my inner self the $64.000 question.
“Honestly darling, why do you run? Why do you have to push through that pain, at that moment, right now?”
But, somehow, it didn’t feel like the $64.000 question I had asked myself a thousand times during my short running career. That time, it was different. It was not the evil voice, asking you this question so you can find the last power to push through. No.
I stopped. Standing there in the middle of nowhere, the scenery was so peaceful compared to the battle happening within me. The sun was flooding the field, the air was so thin, so cold. Here, submerged by the beauty of Mother Nature, this question got me deep.
In that moment, I knew.
It felt like a slap in the face, a mix of astonishment, pain, and peace.
Like when you finally hold something you’ve been looking for so long.
In that special moment, the battle got still.
And as my surrounding, I felt at peace.
Because in that moment. I decided it was not worth it.
Running isn’t my priority anymore.
Tears came up, ready to be released. I wanted to cry out my feelings.
Overwhelmed by relief, I knew it was over.
The only battle that was about to come, would be the one between Mrs. Reason and Mrs. Ambition.
It’s like when a relationship ends. Usually, you know deep inside that it’s over, but you keep trying.
A battle between rationality and emotion.
Here a battle between reason and passion.
The first aid station of TSL 16 was at KM20, I would pull out there.
Don’t quit. High five on it.
At the aid station, Alexandre was waiting for me.
No, you’re not giving up, you’re strong, and… we don’t give up when you’re with me. End of discussion.
He was ready to leave the aid station but then waited for me until I was done. Eating some chips helped me a bit, and we took off. And I lost him again. I had no energy left. And I wanted to cry. My left knee started to hurt me, again at the same KM as in Barcelona or March. TSL 16 was no exception to that rule, maybe I should consider changing shoes.
3H and 22KM in the race, I wrote Jenson. “I am done. My legs have no energy left; I just can’t take it anymore.”
He motivated me to keep pushing. Told me my mind is stronger than my body.
I think he is right. Usually, I am stronger than that.
But what if that day, my strength was lying somewhere else?
This strength to know when it’s enough, and to listen to it? I turned my phone off, telling him I would give him a sign as soon as I’d be halfway of the 71KM of TSL 16.
When a race becomes more than about yourself
I just wanted to cry since the last 5K. It was such a difficult fight, knowing I had to pull out, but didn’t want to fail the expectations I had about myself, not wanting to fail the opinion my friends had about me. I turned Instagram one and read the comments. So I kept pushing. And pushing. And pushing. Then I met a guy on the trail. He had no energy left either but convinced me that we would make it. We were good on time. So why giving up? I started running again, taking pictures, trying to enjoy it. But this little voice in my head was trying to convince me to stop.
At KM35 I had a moment, where everything started to be easy again. So, I kept running, and running, and running. I was happy. What if I was wrong?
What if my low moment was gone, and now I was coming back stronger?
Not today said the knee. 37,5KM, I wrote Jenson. I couldn’t run anymore, but I kept it to myself. He was proud of me he says. I had to cry because I felt I was not deserving it and I was going to fail his expectations.
My running looked like a bad choreographed dance, and I couldn’t stop thinking, that if today was a test for Germany’s Next Top Model’s catwalk, I would fail miserably. Don’t know why I thought about that, but I did.
You don’t give up now.
2KM before aid station 2 at KM39, I started walking again. I couldn’t lean on my left leg anymore. Reaching the aid station after 5:30H into the race, totally on time, cut offs being at 7:45 at this stage, I was pissed. The tricky thing, when you arrive at aid station number 2, is that it’s also the finish line area. TSL 16 had some changes in the original course, forcing us to do a loop to come back here. Difficult for the mind. But well.
I was so happy to reach the aid station. New dry clothes were waiting for me. I saw Sophie and was so happy to hug her. I needed a hug and someone to tell me again that it was ok. In the aid station, Alexandre was leaving and made me check his hand, promising I wouldn’t give up. No pressure.
So I changed clothes. I was so done. I remember telling myself, you stay 30 minutes here, take the time to refuel, and then you leave again. You’ll make it girl. It’s alright. I had some soup but was not able to eat anymore. It was so cold.
In or out, what do you decide?
30 minutes. I was standing near the door. It was time to leave. Sophie was standing next to me, looking at me. And I couldn’t move. I was looking outside, and I couldn’t move. 2, 5, 10 minutes. I was still there, holding my tears, thinking of the last article I read on Stephanie’s blog (@anygivenrunday), asking myself, what is your excuse to give up? She took a wrong turn, and still finished that damned race.
Sophie asked me “You don’t wanna leave? Do you wanna quit?” And I started crying hard. I told her how stupid I was to be here, knowing my chaotic situation at home, that I should be home, trying to find a solution and save money; telling her how stupid I felt to be here just to have points for the CCC after being sick the whole week; that there was no point for me to continue, cause I felt like pulling out at KM15 already. I cried and cried.
And then I took off. Sophie walked a bit with me. For one KM I guess. Thank you again. It was gold to have you.
Addictions and so…
After Sophie left me, I started walking up the hill. I was in such a pain. Remembering the words of Maty, the days prior to the race. “I don’t know what demons are within you, but you are an addicted person, but with such a positive energy. You can turn it in the direction you need to!”. And my addiction goes far beyond running I thought at that moment.
Here I was, walking toward unknown territory but certain end: a DNF. Why would I do that? It was destructive. I was failing the promise I made to myself, to not hurt myself anymore, walking up a hill, with such a pain in the left knee and in my right hip, that turning around back to the aid station would have been appropriate. I started running. Well, running, it’s a big word in that moment, it looked like hobbling. So, I stopped and stayed to hiking. Why would you do something you would forbid to the athletes you train?
I’m done with Salomon
You know that pain, I talked to myself, it will go away. But one thing is sure, I must figure out something else for the shoes in the future. I am done with Salomon on long distances. Even if I love these shoes.
In front of me I see this guy who passed me in the hill, who’s taking a wrong turn. “That way!” I say. His name is Simon. He ran the 32KM in less than 3H and was just doing some hike/running to complete his training for the TransMartinique. We start talking, taking my thoughts away from the pain and the need to cry it out. I keep telling that I should turn back to the aid station, but then he motivates me to continue.
I am digging so deep. He says that I could totally make it if we continue that pace. We’re walking so I am surprised, but I just believe him. He cares, and I feel a bit better emotionally.
Isn’t it supposed to be a trail?
At a certain point, we reach a road. We are on top of a hill, and we have a beautiful view on hilly fields, with a long, long bitumen road snaking around the landscape. The sky is blue, it’s colder than before, but the sun is still shining. Maybe I am cold because we’re not running anymore. Leaving the woods behind us, we start the descent on the road, a descent we must climb again afterwards.
It’s the second or third time in a race with so much bitumen, I start grumbling against the organization. The single tracks are perfect, the trails too, but this is too much. At that point in the race, it’s just inhumane to put so much road. It feels like someone is cutting your legs at every step. Hated it. My knee and my hips are so hurting; I stop in the middle of the road. “I am done”. Simon starts thinking about solutions and comes up with an idea.
Never would I wear Hokas.
Do you want my Hoka? It might be better than your Salomon for a start.
Naaaa, don’t worry, I’d be fine, I say.
Two minutes later, we are sitting on the road, changing shoes. You’ll ask how the hell can I have the same size as a guy. Well, I have the Salomon in 42 for mid-race after my feet have swollen, so it works. Ha!
It feels better… for a minute or two. But the pain arises like a lesson to learn. I know I should have quit.
I just want to DNF now, I am so sick of this race, and these paths, and all of it. A shower would be a dream. Can we just call it a day? I won’t make it through the cut-offs anyway.
Simon talks me good, tells me to hold it together. His favorite sentence?
As long as the Sun is shining, everything is good.
I don’t want to make a fuss over anything…
It’s cold; I have some troubles warming myself up. Simon always reminds me to drink. Have you eaten? No, I haven’t. I can’t. But I say yes, cause I don’t want him to worry. We start talking about meals, what we would love to eat right now. We cross a road. I look around, there is nothing except one or two houses and fields. A lot of them. It’s green, a frozen green. You feel and see the cold air. I breathe like someone having bronchitis. Maybe because of the altitude and the cold. Or maybe it’s my sickness of last week coming back in worse? I don’t know.
The Sun is giving us a beautiful show. From the hill we start climbing, we can see the windmills working full-gas on the left, a house with a steaming chimney where I would love to go to warm myself up, and the lights of the sunset mingling with the clouds. It looks like dancing dust in a blue sky, within the sunlight. We stand there, silent, astonishing to the beauty of Mother Nature.
KM50. It has been an up and down for the last 10K. I wanna stop. I am cold. No, I am freezing. My body is shaking. I try to hide it. My hands feel like ice cubes, I pulled my buff up to cover my whole face, I have double gloves, but still. Nothing changes. KM51. The sun isn’t shining anymore. We can feel the temperature dropping. Simon is wearing a short and doesn’t have any headlamp. Only 7K to the next aid station. We could make it. I imagine myself, running… well hiking, through the darkness of the night, at minus 4. And then I think about the briefing of the TSL 16.
…but I don’t want to die. When it’s time, it’s time.
No. I can’t. My left knee is wasted. I have been compensating while walking, and now my right knee is trying to tell me something. We need to go back to the road, call the organization and go back to the finish area. I am so cold, I feel like close to hypothermia. No jokes!
Is it okay if I decide to go home? TSL 16 is over for me – Simon approved. It’s your call, he says.
While we walk down the hill, we see the guy who is in charge to collect the marking of the race. I remember seeing him at the aid station when I couldn’t decide to leave. He told me “if you see me later, it’s a bad sign, it means you’re off the time.” A bad sign? I was SO happy to see him. He gives me his jacket.
Simon and I were talking and making jokes while waiting for our special car. It’s the first time I could laugh again. He was caring so much, trying to find a hidden place to protect me from the freezing wind. Do you want my survival blanket? I take it off if you want! So nice. I thought, about the amazing people you meet thanks to our sport. This guy just walked three hours with me through the cold, talking to me, sharing with me these incredible moments for my mind. He was supposed to hike/run one hour and ended up on the trails for three hours till the night and changing shoes to help a total stranger. If you read this Simon, thank you again. I owe you a tartiflette!
In the red car taking us back to the finish line, Simon sitting on a camping chair in the back, with the heater turned on the maximum power, I took my gloves out. My hands had doubled. You silly, stupid, little idiot I thought. What the hell were you thinking? Being in the mountains isn’t a joke, isn’t something you go through in a snap. 52KM, 9H21 and close to hypothermia. Silly.
All the sudden, I think about my journey at TSL 16, about the whole year. About the why I was here. And thinking of 2017, I feel so relieved. Relieved to know I didn’t make it for the points for the CCC, which meant the whole program of races (and pressure) I had planned depending on this race just vanished in a second. And it’s like I could breathe again.
It’s over I thought. You’re not going to push your body through a same destructive year as 2016. You’re not going to make it harder for your mind by planning and committing to a racing plan.
2016 was a lot of emotional pressure, and I took a lot of bad decisions, pushed my body and my mind so hard. For what? To belong to a community? Get the approval of my friends or fellow runners? Prove myself I can fit in and run these distances? And now what? What did I get out of it?
About the $64.000 question
It’s time to stop delude ourselves. We’re not running ultras for the landscapes. We could be hiking and taking the time to soak it all in. We’re not running ultras because we love running. It goes far beyond it. It’s all about the limits, the ego, the ambitions and the thrilling feeling to push and discover the limits; to be recognized by our peers and accepted within a crazy community. And maybe the love comes in-between all these reasons. Some of us are literally running away from something. Others are running because they need someone to see them as extreme, and cool, even if they don’t like running.
I know I am nursing and feeding my addictive personality with my running. Guilty!
Don’t understand me wrong. I love running. No doubt about it.
I used to be addicted to partying so hard, Maty was right. All my friends, my mother are right. My year is the reflection of my addiction. I just transferred it from partying to running. If it’s less destroying than partying? Not sure about that. Once is sure. I might not plan a lot for 2017, even if I already have some ideas in mind. But for now, I prefer to focus on other projects, like coaching others to reach their goals in running. And get my shit together 🙂
Have you ever had a light bulb moment in a race?
Please share your story in the comments below! I would love to know more!