Race Report: TCS Amsterdam Marathon 2014

Chasing the elusive 3hr marathon

Although I live in the mountains and spend most of my time running up and down trails, I surprised myself in March 2013 by running the Paris Marathon in 3:08. Being a spring marathon, my training was heavily interrupted by the Alpine snows, and I spent as much time on skis as I did getting quality runs in, so I figured if I picked the right race, had a whole summer to train and put some quality mileage in, I would have the potential for a sub-3hr time in me, while I’m still the right side of 40!

The start of the 2014 TCS Amsterdam Marathon in the Olympic Stadium

Training

My first choice was Berlin, but I was unable to get a place, so I plumped for the TCS Amsterdam Marathon on 19th October. The idea being that a fast, flat course at the end of autumn would mean that I could spend the entire summer getting some proper training in.

I based my training loosely on Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 Marathon plan. The idea being that the early part of the week would be fairly straight forward, with a quality Tuesday run sandwiched by a couple of easy sessions, followed by some intense speed work, hill repeats or tempo run on a Thursday. Friday would be the only rest day, ready for a decent pace run on the Saturday, and the long, slow run on a Sunday.

I found that I quickly adapted to this – 6 days a week is more than I was used to but I managed to start ramping up the volume, peaking at around 90km per week, leading into a 3 week taper for the marathon. I definitely felt faster (and may pace times validate that) after putting in the Thursday speed sessions.

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

Getting There

I had a good taper and started my carb load as normal, then flew out to Amsterdam on the Friday. Unfortunately a minor emergency at home meant my wife couldn’t come with me, but it meant that I didn’t feel the need to tire myself out being a tourist in Amsterdam, I could just rest and eat in the apartment. My apartment was next door to one of the best areas in the city for running (Vondelpark) and so I spent Saturday morning going for a shakeout run.

I picked up my bib number and race t-shirt from the Expo and headed back to rest and eat. Everything seemed good

Race Post-Mortem

The combination of excitement/anticipation, being fully rested and full of carbs always makes sleeping difficult the night before a marathon, but managed to get some decent sleep. Getting to the start was easy as the city had laid on regular trams going in one direction – to the Olympic Stadium where the event started and finished.

This was the third big city marathon I’ve done (after London and Paris) and was definitely much lower key. Despite 12,000 runners (as opposed to 35,000-40,000 in the others), it was large enough to be a big event, but small enough not to be utterly daunting.

The stadium start gave a good atmosphere with a sizeable crowd giving an enthusiastic sendoff as we all left according to our start pens. Unfortunately, the streets immediately out of the stadium were quite narrow and the initial couple of KMs were quite slow and below my target pace of 4:15min/KM. This meant when I got free I felt the need to speed up to make up time and was soon putting in KMs in 3:59-4:07 range, a bit too fast to be sustainable. This would come and bite me in the arse towards the end.


All was reasonably good until around KM 30. I became aware of how warm it actually was, and quite humid and pretty soon I could see the 3hr pacing group with their white helium balloon slowly disappearing into the distance with no hope of me catching up. The last few KMs I started to get cramps in my inner thighs and pinging twinges in my calves – something I aways experience in marathons and thought I might have banished by finally increasing my training volume.

Reflections

I was very disappointed to hobble in at 3:07:23, although this was a new PB by almost a minute, so I can take some solace in that. However considering the level of extra training effort I added, it represents a substantially diminishing return.

Since I still have plenty of miles in the legs I’ve decided to be pragmatic and go for one last shot at sub 3 hours. The Turin Marathon takes place in the middle of November, so if I can maintain my form, get another 20 miler in and a bit of speed work, I will try again but this time try to keep my pace under control and see if it helps.

Race Report: Trail de Céüse

I’m deep into my training for the Amsterdam marathon in 6 weeks time and so I try to get my weekly long runs on the road and as flat as possible, which isn’t easy living in the Alps. Anyhow, I really miss proper trail running, and this Sunday saw there was a 32km trail race around the Massif de Céüse so I figured I would give that a go instead.

The event was run by Sigoyer Sport Aventure, cost only €10 to enter, and was just an hour’s drive away. My intention was to not race but take steady, since this was meant to be a long training run, but any thoughts I had of taking it easy went out the window right after the start as the race got steep very fast.

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Overall there was only around 1600m of ascent, but most of it was very steep (with fixed ropes in some sections). These steep sections all came early on, meaning the legs went through a real softening up early on. We were soon rewarded with amazing views from the Céüse plateau from where you could see 70km in every direction.

The route was marked excellently, and with only a small field of around 40-odd runners doing the full 32km (there were another 100 or so doing a shorter 12km version) it was easy to find yourself on your own. However it was well marshalled and well signposted. The availability of food and water at the aid stations was not that generous (cups of water, but no refills of Camelbaks/bottles) but considering the difficult of getting supplies to many of the areas, and the low cost of the race this wasn’t a major fault.

I finished in 4:14:04 which brought me in with the middle of the pack. Definitely one to do again next year.

Some Photos…

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Race Report: 1er Trail des Cimes du Buech

The race start at La Faurie

The race start at La Faurie

The first edition of the Trail des Cimes du Buech took place on Sunday, and so I went along since at 17km and 950m +/- it was short and steep enough for me to feel like I could properly ‘race’ it, rather than just try to complete the distance. Since it took place in La Faurie, a village just 20 minutes drive from me, it made sense too.

The Route

The route comprised of a loop, climbing the mountains above La Faurie, running along the ridge with an ampitheatre to the east, and opening up to the rolling hills of Haute Provence to the southwest. The entire route was on eithe forest single track or 4×4 roads, with some steep climbs and technical descending. Around 60 runners made it to the start line, and I made a conscious effort to get to the front early since the first 800m or so were fairly flat, but with a bridge and some single track it would quickly become a bottleneck, so by the time we reached the first climb I was in around 12th place. 10 minutes into the climb I’d made up about 4-5 places and settled in at 5th place. It stayed like this until the final summit, until the runner behind me showed how the skill of technical descending can really make a difference. He overtook me and I lost 2 minutes on him in the final 6km to the finish, coming in in 6th place with a time of 1hr 46.

Not looking my best as I summited the top of the course in 5th place

Not looking my best as I summited the top of the course in 5th place

Strava Race Data

Descending through the forest down to the finish line

Descending through the forest down to the finish line

Race Report: La Bombarde

On Sunday I ran my first ever competitive 10km road race – since getting into running about 6 years ago I’ve always been attracted to the longer distance events on trails, and can comfortably knock out a 45 minute 10km so I was keen to see how this would translate to an actual race. Since my main aim for this year is the Amsterdam Marathon in October, I’m keen to see how I can sharpen up my speed as well so I thought it would be a good little test.

The event ‘La Bombarde’ is run every April by a local running club, Club Athlétique Veynois which is a 25 minute drive down the valley in Haute Alpes. I got there an registered on the day – only €10 which included a good quality (if a little on the turquoise side) tech t-shirt.

The race headquarters where at the Plan d’eau in Veynes, a nice summer spot around a lake, with riding stables etc. Its in the main valley of the Grande Buech, so despite being in the Alps, there is quite a lot of ‘flat’ land and the race was to take place mostly on the back roads around the back of Veynes.

Photos

The starting pistol went off without much warning or ceremony, and I found myself bunched at the back a bit. The first few hundred metres were on narrow twisting roads which made it difficult to get closer to the front but it soon spaced out. The race was on open roads but on a Sunday morning there’s not much going on in Veynes, and the marshalls did a fantastic job of keeping everything organised on the well marked course. There were markers at every kilometre, and I set my watch to just show me my average pace, with the idea of keeping it consistently below 4:00min/km so that I could aim for as close to 40 minutes as possible.

Luckily I made it in 39:14, so very pleased with the result.


Official Results 

Race Report: 1er Trail Blanc de Dévoluy

It’s the depth of winter here in the French Alps and the snow is deep and for most people the race calendar is fairly empty as most people turn to skiing and snowboarding to pass their leisure time. The nearest big ski resort to me however, Super Dévoluy, was hosting a 10km trail race on the local cross country ski trails and so I thought I would take a look to keep some motivation to my training which has fallen by the wayside of late.

Things didn’t get off to a good start as we had several feet of heavy snow overnight, and it continued in the morning meaning the first job was to dig out the car and hope the main roads had been cleared. Luckily the ploughs had been out, and I have winter tyres so even though the usual 45 minute drive took me over an hour, I pretty much got there in one piece.

It was pretty difficult to find the start though, as it was set in a new sports hall that wasn’t signposted yet, so as so often seems to happen to me, I ended up having to run to the start line. Not the best prep but its only 10k – what can go wrong?

 Strava Race Data

Race Photos

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Shivering at the start line

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The first real climb after leaving the XC ski trails

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More climbing in deep snow

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A few stragglers coming in at the finish

Race Report: Ultra Trail du Vercors

On Saturday 7th September I ran the 86km Ultra Trail du Vercors – with 4000m of elevation, and some stunning scenery it was my longest run to date. I’m pleased to say I completed the course (280 out of 610 starters abandoned the race) in just over 16 hours.

This was the second time I’d attempted the event, the first time was in 2011 during the inaugural running of this event. Being my first ultra marathon it proved to be a real eye opener – I DNF’d after 60km – the heat, the mountains and inexperience on fueling all contributed to that failure, so I vowed to return to what was a well run event with a few thousand more KMs in my legs and whole load of extra experience.

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The city of Grenoble, sitting below the Vercors mountains

The Course

The course is a loop around the Vercors mountains. It takes in four of the major villages, Villard-de-Lans, Lans-en-Vercors, Correncon and Meaudre. Each one of these villages constitutes a major check point roughly every 20km apart. Each year the race starts in a different village, and alternates between a clockwise and a counter-clockwise loop. This ensures that even if you’ve run it before, the course can throw up something new each time.

With over 4000m of vertical gain, this definitely counts as ‘hilly’. There’s also a relay option for teams of 2 or 4, with each person running a quarter or a half of the race respectively.

The Race

This year the race started in Villard-de-Lans, so we drove up on Friday night with our dog Eric, checked into the B&B and went to the race briefing to pick up my goodie bag (buff, t-shirt etc) and then back for an early night. The race starts at 5am so the first hour is pretty much run in the dark – and a significant proportion of people are expected to finish in the dark too so naturally a head torch is obligatory. Arriving at the race briefing I had a flashback to the head torch sitting back at home on the kitchen table – forgotten, and 2 hours drive away. I desperately ran around the village looking for a shop that hadn’t yet closed and managed to find one that sold a head torch. Unfortunately it was the most feeble beam you could ever imagine and I’d have had better luck with my iPhone, but at least I could pass kit check.

For a 5am start there was quite a decent sized crowd to cheer us off, and even up into the first climb people were lining the paths – it felt good to be off after months of training, then the stress of tapering down and trying to avoid injury.

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At the start line in Villard-de-Lans at 5am

The first climb in the early morning darkness

The first climb in the early morning darkness

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

Early start in the dark, the first climb lit only with headlamps.

After an hour of climbing 700m in the dark, with a sea of clouds in the valley below us, we reached the ridge of the Vercors and crossed over onto the other side, to be greated with an amazing sunrise. Looking to the south I could see the familiar peaks of the La Jarjatte valley where I live, cast into an unreal glow of dawn light. There wasn’t time to admire the view though, because the trail flattened out and headed south along a great trail of single track.

Running along the trail at dawn

Running along the trail at dawn

Another 90 minutes of running and we headed back up over the ridge and started the descent into the first major checkpoint at Correncon. From then on, the gradient got a little easier, running in more open country and through fields before reaching Meaudre, nicknamed merde by myself after being the location of my DNF two years ago (but it really is a beautiful village and worth a visit).

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

Starting a new section, heading out of the aid station in Correncon back in the valley below.

This time I was in a much better state, and meeting up with Amy and our dog Eric, I was still in good spirits having just run marathon distance, but still feeling pretty good.

At the halfway point in Meudre - Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

At the halfway point in Meudre – Eric had come along for some moral support and was disappointed not to be running with me.

By now my Garmin was dead, and after having used Amy’s up to I had to run the 3rd section with no pace or time data. I found this oddly disconcerting. This section was where it really started to bite – moving as it did through the hottest part of the day and with some seriously steep sections – including running along the side of the ski jump in Autrans, site of the 1968 Winter Olympics hosted by nearby Grenoble. I was starting to despise my food, and also trying to balance drinking enough to keep cool, but not over-hydrate.

 

After meeting up with Amy again in St-Nizier, and being re-equipped with a recharged Garmin the race climbed back up to the eastern ridge of the Vercors to an amazing viewpoint looking out over Grenoble. When I first ran this race, this was our view at dawn and it looked amazing, being able to see all the way up the valley to Mont Blanc, nearly 100 miles away. Unfortunately this time the city and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mid-afternoon haze, and I was keen to get moving, so continued along the trail towards the third stage village, Lans-en-Vercors.

By the time I got to Lans, it was early evening and getting cool. Hot soup was served at the checkpoint and I slurped some down – I was sick of everything I was carrying myself by that point. Some drops of rain were starting to fall and the clouds were looking increasingly threatening as a storm approached. It probably wasn’t the best time to be climbing up to another high ridgeline if lightning was imminent so it was an added incentive to keep the pace up.

Well, it got dark and the heavens opened and I eventually made it into Villard-de-Lans in the middle of a torrential downpour – cold, wet and exhausted but extremely happy to have completed an event that claimed a 30% abandon rate with a time of 16h03’19”. You can see the full results here.

Final Thoughts

Although the UTV is a low key event by the standards of some of the larger French ultra marathons, in just the two years since my first attempt they have been making great strides to improve the already excellent organisation – but at the same time they haven’t lost any of the atmosphere that attracted me back. Running with the middle of the pack, I never found myself short of somebody to talk to, and the scenery is nothing shorts of stunning. The race marshals and volunteers at the aid stations did and excellent job, and there’s plenty of hikers out on the trail to give support.

I definitely plan to be back.

Race Report – Les Drayes du Vercors

On Saturday I ran my first ultra marathon since 2011. Les Drayes du Vercors is ‘only’ 62km, but represented the first big test of the year, and a baking hot mid-June day, and 3,800m of vertical meant it was a tough old day on the trail.

The day before we drove from my home to the fabulous Auberge Collet which would be our base for the weekend. The drive took us through the heart of the southern Vercors, the dramatic Col de Grimone, Gorges des Gats, through the historic town of Die, and then up through the Col du Rousset, giving this amazing view back from the top.

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

Looking back at the southern Vercors mountains from the Col de Rousset

The Route

The race comprised several smaller events and relay events, but since I was running the full solo 62km, I would start from La Chapelle-en-Vercors, running in a loop to the southeast taking in two large climbs, before arriving back in La Chapelle after 26km. The race then snaked out to the north along a sustained climb, before plunging down the spectacular cliff faces of Les Grands Goulets. After climbing back up, it was another descent into the valley heading south, before one final climb back into La Chapelle to complete the figure-of-8 course.

The video below, taken by another competitor gives a summary of the full course in a couple of minutes.


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I completed the event in 10:08:27, coming 42nd out of 53 finishers. I’m not sure how many abandons there were but I passed a couple of people who had given up, and we saw one person being stretchered off with what looked like a broken leg.

 Organisation

The event cost only 25EUR to enter, and as such was one of the cheaper long distance races I’ve entered. There was no t-shirt or medal, but a portable rubber cup and survival blanket (both mandatory items on the list) were included. I was slightly disappointed with the lack of any route maps, as the map available on the website was not very good quality. It was also difficult to know how far apart the aid stations were – a list of them with cumulative distance would have been handy.

Start/finish area - end of first loop

However, despite the lack of map, the marking of the course was fantastic, with ribbons, signs and paint marks ever 25m or so. During the course of 62km, I only took one wrong turning towards the end (and it was my fault for not paying attention) resulting in a 200m detour (unfortunately back uphill).

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The aid stations were well equipped and the volunteers were full of encouragement. At the end of the race the local Pompiers offered massages and we were all checked out to make sure we were OK.

Terrain

The route the course took was almost always off-road, with probably no more than 500m of tarmac on the whole of the 62km course. In places this was extremely tough going with some very steep sections. In France we have had quite a wet Spring and there were still some quite boggy sections in the forest too.

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Other runners

Race Report: 2013 Paris Marathon

Its been a while since I’ve run a marathon on tarmac. 3 years in fact. London 2010 was my first and only road marathon which I managed in a respectably 3:35. I was a bit of a wreck at the end, but the crowd were amazing and the time was decent enough to encourage me that I had room for improvement.

But then I fell in love with trail running. I turned my back on road races and headed for the hills. The Greensand Marathon, Pilgrim Challenge, Ultra Trail du Vercors, Midsummer Munro, The Beast – all of these  were much more to my liking – hundreds, not thousands of runners, stunning locations, and lots of hills. The closest I came was a marathon in Richmond Park.

However as time went on, and my running in the hills improved, I was curious to see how this might affect my road running. Common running folklore says that ultra running, trail running, mountain running – all the offroad stuff – is not conducive to fast marathon times on the flats. So I got the itch to test myself again, and picked Paris.

Tapering

Pre-marathon preparation is always difficult. As running lore and common sense dictates, there’s not much you can do in your final week to improve your race performance, but there’s a hell of a lot you can do to mess it up. With that in mind, during the week of the race I went out on the Tuesday evening to run a fast pace with full marathon kit, complete with carrying gels and running in the gear I would race in. I probably went  a little too hard but luckily had enough time to recover the sore quads in time for the race.

Marathon Expo

A quick run round the village on Saturday morning with the dog, and then it was on the TGV up to Paris. Our hotel was in the SW of the city which was quite convenient for the Marathon Expo at Porte de Versailles, where I went to pick up my race number and goody bag. Once I’d emptied all the flyers and other crap from my good bag, the only items of any discernible usefulness were a bar towel, and a bag of pistachios. Note to organisers: For 65 euros and upwards – could do better.
Running Expo

Anyway, I made my way through the expo as quickly as possible – it was full of people trying to sell running gear or get you to sign up to other marathons. There was a rice party for last minute carb-loaders but I’d brought my own pasta (taking no chances with restaurants and food poisoning) so I headed back to the hotel to stuff my face.

Race Day

I managed to get a reasonable sleep despite the rumble of the RER trains and trams right past the hotel, and was up at 6 to wolf down some porridge and get the Metro to the start line. When I surfaced at Place de Charles de Gaulle, the sun was up and the place was swarming around the Arc de Triomphe. It was damn cold though, so left it until the last minute to drop off my bag so that I could keep my tracksuit on for as long as possible.
The marathon route is basically a squashed loop, heading out from the Champs Elysee, down to the Louvre and heading east to the Bois de Vincennes park. It loops round before heading back west along the Seine, to the Bois de Bolougne, and then finishing on the Avenue Foch leading back to the Arc de Triomphe. This meant that logistically, our bag drop was at the finish (unlike say, London, where they transport your bags to the end).
Worst version of “Where’s Wally?” ever…
I was in with a predicted time of 3:15 so had to get to one of the start pens at the front. The Champs Elysee is a pretty wide avenue, and all of the road was penned for runners, with the side pavements used to get to the start gate. However it soon became a huge crush, as 50,000 runners tried to find their place. I managed to get into my start pen with seconds to spare, so no real time for a warm up and feeling pretty stressed. I really shouldn’t have left it so long until I dropped my bags.
The pace kicked off pretty quickly as usual, but the first 10km were pretty crowded. The weather was perfect, clear and cold with little wind and we soon warmed up. I chatted to ‘Richard from Portsmouth’ who was aiming for a 3 hour time so we made conversation as we passed our way alongside the Louvre, the Rue de Rivoli and out east.

Park Life

The course really was quite flat and fast, and being so straight we soon made it out to the Bois de Vincennes, a huge park just outside the Peripherique on the eastern side of Paris. The course looped through there from about KMs 12 to 19, and being so far out, the crowd support dropped a bit with a few gaps, but there were plenty of people around the KM markers, and lots of casual support from people out walking their dogs on a  Sunday morning.

Tunnel Vision

After the Bois de Vincennes, the route snaked back towards the centre of Paris, along the river Seine. We passed the halfway point and I was still feeling strong, averaging around 4.17min/km which I knew was a pace of just over 3 hours for the whole race – however I was aware that keeping that up for another half marathon was not going to be easy. My time at the halfway point was 1hr 29m 55sec – my first ever sub-90 minute half marathon – I was pleased, but a bit worried I was going too fast.
Coming back into town and the crowd support really increased. A beautiful, sunny day on the banks of the Seine, with the Eiffel tower in the background made it an amazing experience. But then came the tunnels. There were about 3 or 4 tunnels of varying length, each of which dipped very sharply, plunging us into a humid and bizarre dark world, before forcing an uphill run out back into daylight.

I really started to flag at the end, after the 35km mark I was getting the usual cramps pinging into my calf muscles whenever I ran too fast so my pace dropped.

Conclusion

40,108 runners left the Champs Elysee at the start, and 38,690 crossed the finishing line. I came 1,926th in total, with an official time of 03h08’12”. My best marathon to date, and tantalisingly close enough to the magic 3 hour mark that I’m tempted to have another go.
If you’re thinking of a marathon, you could do a lot worse than Paris. The organisation was pretty spot on considering the huge field of runners. The route was magnificent, crowd support was good and the fact that the start and end is pretty much in the same place is a big plus. Its much easier to get a place, not being as heavily subscribed as London, and also gives you a great excuse to visit Paris.
Finished
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