Every once in a while, something unexpected happens to all of us. For me, this moment came mid-May when I found myself standing on the podium after winning 3rd place for women in my age category (23-39 year olds) at the 44km / 1500m of vertical Maratrail race during the Challenge Vallée de la Drôme.
I should probably begin by saying that not many races award prizes for all categories, so I was pretty lucky – the trend nowadays tends to be to award 1st, 2nd and 3rd for men and women overall, plus the 1st person from each age category. Also, for reasons unknown to me, there were not that many women competing in this race, so my chances were certainly better than in many other races.
But I’m not going to let that fine print cast a shadow over my moment of [very relative] glory!
Plus, ranking aside, I was really happy with my race, despite arriving at the start line only a few harried moments before the race departed.
The race started at 9am from the town of Crest, and the 21km and 44km courses left together, which meant that it was quite hard to judge where you were in the pack as the semi-marathon racers tend to go out a bit faster than the longer-distance runners. About 2.5km into the race our paths separated and I then had absolutely no clue where I was in the pack.
My race was part of an entire weekend of trail races, including the 120km (with 6500m / 21 350ft of vertical!) Aventuriers du Bout de Drôme race that left at half-past midnight on Saturday morning. A few impressive competitors had accepted the “Challenge Vallée de Drôme” which meant that after finishing a 105 or 120km race on Saturday (or, possibly, sometime in the early hours of Sunday), they toed the line a few hours later to compete in the 44km Maratrail. It was pretty darn inspiring to see a couple of these guys in the pack and I couldn’t help but encourage them admiringly when I spotted them hobbling along – you could generally tell from quite a distance that they had already run 100+km, either from their achy gait or the amount of K-tape around various parts of their bodies. Most impressive, though, was Luca Papi, who finished 4th overall in the 120km race on Sunday (after 20 hours of racing!) – and 8th overall in the Maratrail on Sunday! Needless to say, I didn’t catch up to him in the pack. But I did see him win his weight in local wine back at the finish as the result of his victory in the Challenge!
My first twenty or so kilometres flew by. It was a beautiful day and runners and volunteers all seemed to be in a joyous mood. The race had an incredible number of aid stations (seven, I think) which were all stocked with water, energy drinks, Coke and an array of fruit, nuts, cereal bars, crackers, cheese and cold-cut meats. Having learned from my mistakes, I no longer stop to eat at aid stations; instead I fill up on water if necessary and head on my way, sometimes taking a piece of banana with me, preferring to stick to my own food and fuelling schedule roughly every 45 minutes.
I tested out a couple new treats during this race and was happily surprised in that respect also. I’ve finally found a fruit jelly that I like, isn’t too sweet and kind of melts in your mouth – and it’s among the cheapest on the market to boot. I also tried the Aptonia nougat bars and, somewhat to my surprise, actually quite liked them, too.
Around the 22km mark, I feared I might have gone out a bit too fast and had to scale back on my pace and fight off a bit of the dreaded bonk. My calves were also starting to cramp up, oddly on the uphills, which had never happened before and I didn’t think it was due to dehydration or lack of salt, since I had kept my liquid consumption as usual. Luckily, a few kilometres, some positive thinking – and a magic fruit jelly – later, things were back on track and the rest of the race flew by.
The atmosphere amongst runners was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Thanks to the number of aid stations, it was easy to run into the same people several times throughout the race. There was a group of 3 men who took their time at each aid station, then would catch up and pass me, only for me to catch up with them again at the next aid station. A pack of about eight runners leap-frogged like this for much of the day. Towards the end of the race I ran for some time with one guy from the group of 3 and we talked about our objectives. I said I hoped to finish in under 6 hours and he told me he was aiming for 6.5 hours. I told him I thought we could make it in 5.5 if we gunned it for the last 10km. That was slightly ambitious (I hadn’t had time to study the race profile in depth and hadn’t realized that we hadn’t yet seen the last of the 1500m of vertical climb), but we both made it in well under the 6-hour mark, so everyone was happy!
Several times throughout the course volunteers informed me of my ranking, which was nice. It was only toward the end that I realized I might actually be a podium contender – it would depend on how many people from my category were 1st, 2nd or 3rd overall, but it was feasible. I was delighted to pass a few more people in the final 10km, although most I thought were not likely in my category. I arrived into the final stretch alongside another woman who I think must have gone slightly off course. She popped out of nowhere (from a side street) as we re-entered the town of Crest. I was quite surprised to see her a few meters ahead of me, since I had passed her a few kilometres back, but I’m pretty sure she took a staircase where I’d hesitated, too, before seeing the race flag a bit further up. But she turned out to be in the age category above me, so her arriving 5 seconds ahead of me ultimately made no difference to my age-group ranking (and she didn’t appear to realize she’d gone off course).
All and all it was a great day. The sun was out, my legs were in fine form and everyone was in friendly spirits. My fan base was meant to be waiting for me at the finish line, but they got held up at lunch, so I didn’t have anyone I know see me on the podium… So, yes, I bought the professional photos to have actual proof!