"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ghost Running the Ghost Run

Along the River Ourthe
Wednesday night was the last long run before TransAlps. Enroute from England to Switzerland, I searched for a place about halfway to stop for the night. Somewhere that might have good running, of course! What I came up with was La Roche-en-Ardenne, a village of less than 5,000, on the River Ourthe in the Ardennes forest.

I started a generic search for trail runs in the area, which yielded some info on a few trail races. I found a few ultras with 25k-30k options and wondered if I might find a gpx file online. After some useless searching through Google, I suddenly thought of Garmin Connect's public files. It was the first time I thought to use that tool - it was great! I secured the Trail des Fantomes 25k course. And by superb coincidence, the race had just happened on Sunday, so I was able to get the 2012 file. I figured the course would be newly cleared of any obstacles and I might even find a few markers along the way to help.

This is hill training, but not altitude training!
The race was billed as one of the toughest in Belgium with 2,250 mtr over 50k or 1,245 mtr over 25k. The 50k scores 1 point for UTMB.

With the ferry over the English Channel, drive, and time change of one hour, we arrived about 5 PM. The file I had was for someone who finished in 4h19m. Long story, but I somehow got it in my head that we could run this at an easy training pace in about 3hr (thinking incorrectly that the fastest 50k time was 3hr5!).

I really loved the course - and as it was just after the event, they obviously hadn't swept the course yet. The flour arrows were still there, so between those and the map on the Garmin, it was easy nav. Until it got dark, that is!


The course had everything. Wonderful smelling Himalayan balsam flowers to pretty up the fire trails and heaps of single track with lots of technical bits with rocks and roots. The course went up - very steeply most times - from the River Ourthe, then along the top for views of the surrounding forests and valleys and back down to the river again. Multiple times. Rollercoaster-like.

We went through an ancient Celtic archaeological site and past a few random pretty little cafes in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There were short, steep scrambles and even a section with chain for climbing. We had a river crossing about halfway.

Not a bad climb in the dry, but in the wet....!
While the chosen name with its emphasis on ghosts (fantomes) was a bit of a mystery to me, there was certainly a ghostly feel to running the course just 3 days after hundreds of others. I thought of their adventures, the ones smashing out a great day and the ones having a bad day, those who were undoubtedly running further than ever in their lives, and those gunning for the cash prize at the front of the pack.

I was really glad for my last minute decision to throw my headlamp in the pack, considering our 5.38 PM start. It did look good for us to finish in the light, with 3hr5min on the clock and 3k to go, on open fire trail. It looked like we were headed in for a nice, fast 3k descent to the village. But then we hit a deep forested section on the south edge of town. It went from "dusk" to "dark" once in the trees. With several steep, switchbacking trails all in close proximity, it was hard for Garmin to tell me which one was ours - it's easy for Garmin to go out by 40 mtrs or more at times. We lost a few minutes to a wrong turn (but a nice viewpoint), then found the right trail down. I dug out the headlamp so I could enjoy the last and steep descent.

Then suddenly we were upon the river again. Naturally. If we'd crossed it once, we obviously were going to have to cross it again to get back into town. We came down right by a cable "tightrope-style" bridge (with two handhold cables) over the river. I didn't look closely, but Rolf said it was closed. Our thought was that the RD had everyone cross the river by cable. My track showed us needing to go north-west, but I couldn't be sure which side of the river we should be on...was there a bridge nearby that was used for the race? In the dark it was hard to get bearings on the "natural" way the racers would have gone and we couldn't make out any distant features like bridges.

We lost 20 minutes in this area, trying one option, then another, along the water's edge. When Rolf suggested we run further downstream, as we'd have to get to a car bridge eventually, I said I wanted to have one last look at the cable bridge thing. I was unfamiliar with these, only ever riding in a few cable cars in my life. I needed to confirm for myself there was no way to get across - to see how it was "closed." I didn't doubt that it was somehow closed but my brain was desperate to find an option and I needed to get all the "data" I could.

The first river crossing, while still light.
Sure enough, I saw a locked metal 'door' across the triangle of cables. But then standing there it struck me. I could see the water rippling. Rocks create ripples. It wasn't deep. I told Rolf I was going to try crossing, as with my headlamp, I could clearly see the depth of the water.

Well, THAT was embarrassing! We spent 20 minutes faffing about along the edge of the water, fighting with each other about nav, when all we needed to do (and surely all the competitors did) was run across, calf-deep!

Why? Because we both made a very rookie mistake. We got hungry before the finish and stopped eating. We both made that dreaded mistake: "It's only a few K now, I don't need to eat."

But, when suddenly things go wrong, as they sure can do, even 500 mtrs from the finish, being hypoglycaemic compromises decision-making. We both assumed that just because we saw a cables at the river, it must be deep and there must be no alternative. It was a good lesson going into TransAlps - we cannot risk playing a game of "only-a-few-K-to-go: don't-eat." When there are so many things you can't control in an ultra/trail run, you should most definitely control the ones you can!

3hr21 moving time; 3hr51 total time for our 28k run (start/finish at our hotel, a little further, plus faffing about). Finish times for the 25k were in fact 2hr31 to 6hr28. We're thinking of requesting 1/2 a point for UTMB ;-)

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