I'm the first to admit that running an ultra marathon is on the whole a mental game. However, one also has to know when mind over matter can actually cause more harm than good. Your mind can get you to the finish, but it's your body that takes the hammering.

I learnt this first hand during the 74km Grand Trail de la Vallee d'Ossau held in the magnificent Béarn Pyrenees - which also happens to be my backyard!

It’s 5am in the morning and you have a head torch strapped to your head. A thousand people are nervously fidgeting next to you, adjusting and readjusting their running vests, checking their phones, retying their shoelaces for the umpteenth time. There’s a lot of faff. Meanwhile, you’re dealing with a pesky monkey sitting on your shoulders asking you lots of questions:

Have I packed the right kit? It’s drizzling now, but what if it turns to rain? Should I put my rain-jacket on now? There’s a bottleneck soon, so should I run fast to get ahead of everyone or take it easy and play the long game? I don’t want to blow up too soon. Shall I take an energy gel now, to top up my carbs? What if my injury flares up? Damn, I need to take a piss. Shall I do it right here? And why didn’t I enter the relay?

There’s no doubt about it – the startling of an ultra marathon can be a terrifying place. As proven by HAT contributor Jack Gammon’s experience in the Transvulcania, something he wrote about in ‘The sh*t that goes through your mind at the start of an ultra marathon‘. 

Honestly, I’ve done a ton of races, and every single one involves mental and psychological acrobatics as we battle with all of our insecurities. And last weekend’s race, the Grand Trail de la Vallee d’Ossau was no different. 

Six weeks ago, at the end of May, I did something truly stupid by breaking my big toe. It could have been avoided by not rashly offering to move a bloody heavy stone pot for my wife, which I subsequently dropped on my toe, breaking it in the process. As I hopped up and down, muttering four letter words, I knew in that instance I would not be running f or a while. I was well and truly gutted.

You see, life had got in the way the past year – work, family, renovating our house, starting a new business, getting a bed and breakfast up and running, trying to be a good father to our young daughter, and a good husband – and my running took a bit of a dive. It didn’t help that we had about 7 months of non-stop rain in the early part of 2018 that totally dampened my spirits. Literally. 

Setting goals

I needed to set myself a goal and get myself out of the rut. It happens, even to the best of us. So  I entered the 160km Grand Raid des Pyrenees, a race I’ll be reporting on for Runner’s World UK, as an incentive to get myself out in the mountains more often. 

There’s no bluffing a hundred miles, because it will bite you in the arse if you don’t do some preparation. So, I started doing lots more trail running and I was feeling good. And then I break my toe! Back to square one.

I had to totally reevaluate my race schedule for the summer. It involved cancelling races, like the Gavarnie Trail which was two weeks away. And the adventure race on my birthday at the end of June. Cycling, however, I quickly discovered was OK. I spent a fantastic week in the Costa Brava discovering what makes this fabulous region a hot pot for professional and amateur cyclists alike. You’ll be able to read about that in Outdoor Fitness magazine soon.

Cycling - an excellent way to crosstrain

I managed to squeeze in almost 500km of cycling over the course of a week – a good way to keep my cardio on the hot plate and of course, keep my moral up. But cycling, although a great cross training tool, ain’t running. If you’re running a hundred miles in the mountains, you need to get into the mountains. 

So, rather tentatively I did. My toe wasn’t healed, but I discovered if I wore hiking boots, it took the edge off the pain. So I made my way to my closest mountain, the Montagne du Rey (which translates into Mountain of the King), a mere 20 minutes from us at Secret Pyrenees, and proceeded to slog up and down the beats, clocking up 900m of ascent at a time. 

 

There’s no bluffing a hundred miles, because it will bite you in the arse if you don’t do some preparation.

However, I only managed to do four outings before I faced a decision point. Do I or don’t I run the 74km Grand Trail de la Vallee d’Ossau complete with 5000m of elevation. It’s literally my local ultra and since it started, 5 years ago, it’s become a classic in the Pyrenees, selling out within a month of entries going live. 

Ordinarily, I’ve got a commission for a race and therefore have a certain amount of pressure to do the race (and complete it). But I’d entered this one myself as a training race for the GRP later in August. It was not my ‘A’ race, a term coaches refer to as your priority race. Thefefore, it would have been very easy to DNS (Did Not Start). What have I to prove, except showing how to injure myself?

So I dithered, dathered, ummed and arred, before deciding to run the race, but promising myself to take it easy and stop at the slightest hint of pain OR if I felt I was at risk of doing more harm than good. It was kind of a test. 

An uphill start

Well as I alluded to at the beginning of this post, all sorts of things were going through my mind, but most of them were positive. I was doing this race voluntarily – no one was forcing me to be there! And I had no pressure on me to try and win or prove to my friends that I still had what it takes to nail an ultra. This was a training run with the added bonus of being fully supported with crowds encouraging me on and aid stations! It was also a chance to see how my Aussie Grit Apparel kit would stand up in an ultra – an otherwise untested scenario. 

The beginning of the race was fast as everyone jostled to get out of Laruns and get as far up the pack as possible, to avoid the inevitable bottle neck that will occur as we climb a 1000 vertical meters within a few kilometres. It was fun! 

It was drizzling a little, the remnants of an almighty thunderstorm that had been rattling all of our homes during the night, and no doubt made one or two of us question whether we should be getting out of bed at 3 in the morning. But as the sun rose and displayed the magnificent scenery of the Bearn Pyrenees, I was so glad I was there. 

I adopted a bit of a walk jog strategy, stopping to take lots of photos and videos (I did a bit of an Instagram Story – my first!) and chatted with friends who inevitably passed, asking what I was doing so far back in the pack! 

And for about 25-30kms, I felt really good. My toe wasn’t hurting and I was just revelling in being up in the mountains. Sure, I felt a little tired, but that’s kind of to be expected when you climb 2000m in the space of a couple of hours. 

But by the time I was beginning to make my way down to the halfway point in Louvie-Juzon, the temperatures were now reaching epic levels and my lack of training simultaneously started to kick in. I’d been on my feet for just over five hours, and I was beginning to remind myself what a sufferfest felt like. 

Aid stations - an oasis of hope in an ultra

Aid stations are infamous for being time killers. It’s so easy to forget to keep track of how long you’ve been in there, as you take advantage of the yummy snacks on offer, whilst topping up water bottles, etc. If you spend 5-10 minutes in each aid station, over the course of a race like the GTVO, you can lose up to an hour – which is huge! 

But I wasn’t concerned with time – so I totally took advantage of being out of the sun. It was also the point at which the relay runners swapped, so it was fun seeing the haggard faces of those who’d started at 5am swap with their fresh faced partners. 

15 minutes later, I was out of there. I toyed with the idea of stopping at Louvie and pulling out, but then I thought no, I’ll carry on and at least tackle the next monster – the Montagne du Rey!

King of the Mountain, I don't think so!

Although I’m a regular on this mountain, I have only once taken the route that the GTVO was taking – which was had a 27% average incline and can only be described as brutal. I honestly thought I was going backwards. Any puff that I had left my legs, as my body began to sweat profusely causing me to become seriously thirsty. The litre of water that I was carrying was not enough. 

I’d hear the ‘clip, clip, clip’ of poles behind me and would play a guessing game as to whether it was someone doing the Solo course or the Relay. Inevitably, if they were overtaking me, it was the fresh faced relay runner, feeling somewhat guilty at not suffering more as they sidestepped past me. Hell, I was glad. The last thing you need is someone breathing on your heals as you do a death march up a mountain. It just seemed to go on forever!!

But I kept on going, taking little pauses now and again in the shade to cool down. I’m a big believer in running by feel and no longer wear a heart rate monitor. There are several reasons for that, the first being I don’t like having a strap around my chest. The second being that you stop listening to what your body is telling you, believing that heart rate monitor knows better. 

I know when I’m overheating, or when my sweat rate is exceeding my water intake, or when I’m running out of salts, or when I’m out of breath, or when I’m cold and clammy, or nauseous, any o the other signs that can indicate something is wrong. I try to pay attention to them and adjust my running accordingly. 

Time to call it a day!

But once at the top of the Rey, the heat of the midday sun beating down on my weary body, I decided I’d withdraw at the next aid station, at the Port de Castet. I had promised that I wouldn’t do myself an ill-service. Crikey, I’ve run hundreds of races, and even though this might be the first time I’ve ever withdrawn from one, it wasn’t because I couldn’t go on. It was because I chose to not go on, preferring to live to fight another day.

And so, with 45k and 3500m of climbing to my name, I approached the aid station official and politely told them I was stopping there. ‘But you’re missing the best bit’ she tells me. 

Perhaps I was, but since I live here, I can run these trails any day of the week. And I’ll be back the following year, with all of my toes intact and in much better shape. For now, I felt really pleased that I had the moral courage to stop when I did. Ironically, it would have been easier to carry on. But who knows what that story would have told….

A few stats about the GTVO

1 %
Finisher's rate
1
No. of relay teams
1
No of runners