Eco Trail de Paris: Challenge 1

Last year a friend at works two sons were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. They have the most acute form. In very basic terms this means their life expectancy is short & they will never be able to enjoy physical activity. Something many of us often take for granted. I pledged to help Tony raise awareness of this condition & monies to help him provide the care that his two boys will need. As part of this commitment I came up with the idea of challenge639. The idea was to undertake a range of endurance events & use these as a vehicle to raise awareness.

As is often the case I entered into this plan with enthusiasm & verve. I mapped out my year ahead picking events that I thought would test me physically & mentally. Unfortunately I didn’t back this up with a resumption of my own training. As a consequence my first two target events passed quietly by with me not featuring on the start line. This clearly wasn’t acceptable.

So with a fair degree of trepidation, a complete lack of training in my legs I boarded the Eurostar at Kings Cross, London to Paris to take part in the Eco Trail de Paris. I had elected to take part in the 50km version. There is an 80km, or an 18km option too.

I arrived in Paris, a city I love in glorious sunshine. I checked onto the apartment I had rented, admired the view from the window & temporarily forgot that on Saturday I had 50km of trails to cover.

On Friday I spent a glorious day enjoying the very best of Paris, culminating in collecting my race number & final instructions. Friday night was spent packing my mandatory kit into my rucksack, checking & double checking things, & adding a few extras into my pack ‘just in case’. The result was a pack that would probably have been sufficient for a multi- stage event. Perhaps the extras serve as a comfort blanket for me? I probably should be beyond that now!

Saturday arrived & my journey commenced. Armed with a couple of maps I found the first RER station (underground) & positioned myself on the platform having checked & re- checked the map. After a short time some French runners called me across to the correct station & then kindly shepherded me to the start area. This was well organized & friendly. It also offered free coffee!

Aside from the free coffee (very important to me), the backdrop was awe inspiring, being sited in the grounds of the Chateau de Versailles. I had arrived early so tried to relax & look forward to the run ahead.

The run had been advertised as 50km with an 8hr cut off. My aim was to finish within this cut off. There were 2 checkpoints along the way with mandatory time limits. On paper these looked generous. At this point I learned it was to be 53km not 50km. Even with my lack of training I naively expected the cut offs would still be comfortable for me. This was to prove a huge misjudgment.

At 10:30 am the event started. The atmosphere was good. After a short while runners were spreading out. The sun was shining, the setting was beautiful. All was good. The first 5km were within the grounds of the Chateau skirting round an ornamental lake. The route then exits the grounds via a long tree lined avenue. After crossing a road it then enters a forested area where it begins to twist & turn & rise & fall.

The first hour or so passed issue free. I was on top of my hydration, moving freely (if slowly) & when the trail slowed me to a walk I grazed on some of my mum’s home mad flapjacks.

The first signs that the day may prove more ‘interesting’ than anticipated was around 2 1/2hrs. Despite drinking regularly my fingers & hands were swelling & I was experiencing some light-headed moments. These provided evidence of the loss of electrolytes & a drop in blood sugar levels. Fortunately I recognized this. I slowed (some would not have believed this possible) and focused on getting some more carbs in me & drinking some more. I then eased back to give these time to get into the system.

I arrived at the first checkpoint about an hour slower than envisaged, but having got through this first complication. I checked my phone. This was full of encouraging messages from friends. These made me smile & helped keep me focused on what was important. On this occasion time was irrelevant, finishing was what mattered. I re-filled my camel back (3litres of fluid drank), grabbed some food & set off again.

The trails continued to wind their way through beautiful forested areas & through the occasional town. Those around me appeared to be battling their own demons with grunts & pained expressions that reassured me that I wasn’t the only one finding the going difficult.

I knew all was not well as I wasn’t stopping to pee. I was also having difficulty eating solids. This was a potential time bomb. I continued to drink but was unaware of the carb content of the drink as it had been provided by the organizers. I kept moving forward towards the next checkpoint. Spells of light headness returned. Eating wasn’t an option so I drank more & more. With about 5km to go before reaching the 2nd checkpoint I had exhausted my 3 litres of fluid. Not ideal.

Those 5km were a struggle. I was desperate for a drink, acutely aware I had screwed up my nutrition & getting increasingly tight on time to make the cut off. I did some maths (never my strong point) & worked out what I needed to do to make the checkpoint & worked to this plan. When my Garmin indicated the checkpoint should be it wasn’t! This was not helpful. I had no option but to push on. I reached the 2nd checkpoint with 84 seconds to spare & in a disorientated state. I re- filled my camel back, glugged on some flat coke, & filled my mug with hot soup & set off. The soup tasted so good. As I enjoyed this I read more messages of support on my phone. These were amazingly helpful. I finished my soup & returned to some maths. I worked out what I needed to do to be an official finisher & worked to that. The original time limit of 8hrs had been extended due to the extra kms but I wanted to hit 50km sub 8 (for peace of mind). If I beat my target pace for a km I re-adjusted the time that the net km had to be completed in. One step at a time.

The next 6km or so were spent focusing on this. My recollection of the views is blurred. At 50km the Eiffel tower was not in sight but I was sub 8hrs, not by much but sub 8.

The first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was through some grubby buildings & was a relief but not overly inspiring. A short while later it appeared in full view. This raised my spirits if not my pace. The route then takes a circuitous route to the Tower which on tired legs was a little unkind, but eventually the finish line was in sight. According to my Garmin this came at 54.8km!

Crossing the finish line was an emotional experience. Physically I may finished alone but the journey & battles had been shared with friends. I allowed myself a moment (or two) of reflection. In the moment this finish was as intense as finishing my first Ironman. Not because I had run well, my time clearly indicates otherwise, but simply because I had finished. I had battled through some physiological & psychological demons. This had been possible thanks to the support of my friends, a good helping of personal resolve & drawing on my experience.

I elected to walk back to my apartment to ease the legs off. The first few steps were awkward & dysfunctional but as I walked along the Seine the muscles began to ease off & as I reached the Louvre I was almost walking normally. This made me stop. This brought into sharp focus what most of us can do. Most of us can exercise, take on athletic endeavours. They may hurt in the moment, we may ache for a time afterwards but we will recover. Alfie & Arthur, Tony’s boys, & other sufferers of Muscular Dystrophy won’t ever be able to taste/ feel that pleasure.

Thanks for reading

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