Why racewalking ?
I'm not a total beginner as far as the 6 days format is concerned. For instance, I did one already in 2010 . This year, race director Gérard Cain, who can definitely be considered "Mr 6 days" in France, has had a very hard time organizing the event. It was initially planned in Nice. Then Villefranche sur mer. The data changed too, from May it shifted to October. I imagine this has been a probleme for many runners, especially those that are crazy about running and plan their races well ahead.
I, for one, was at the Tor des Géants a few weeks before. And following the various cancellations, I'm also registered for the 6 days Across the Years in Phoenix, Arizona. Between those two events I need to make some room for the 6 days in Privas. I soon find out it's impossible to pack the three of them : Tor des Géants, 6 days in Privas, 6 days in the US, within 4 months. I have a good physical condition, but I do have limits, like anybody else.
So an idea pops out in my head: I can go to Gérard's 6 days, because it's a friend, because his races are always great, because I can't let him down but... I will walk it and not run it. There's a special category for this, with official racewalk judges. I bet walking is less destructive than running. Les shocks, slower overall rythm, I should, at least in theory, take a smaller load that during a regular 6 days ran "full speed". Besides, there's some logic in doing this as my interest and participation in racewalking events is increasing, for instance I did a 24 hours in Saint Thibault des Vignes last year, and appreciated it.
And finally: 6 days racewalking is a very rare format. Maybe the opportunity to do it again won't materialize soon again. So I'm set, I will walk in Privas! Anyways, I had planned to work my walking technique as generally speaking, it's wise to know how to walk fast when "running" long distances.
So I'm going to see what I'm worth on 6 days, that's to say 144 hours, walking. The difference with runners is that walkers are not allowed to run while runners can walk. The rest of race rules is the very same: clock is tickling all the time. You might stop but as you stop, others are very likely to keep going. I target 600k (370 miles) and won't come back home without them.
October 19th 2014
I made the trip with the whole family (spouse + 3 cute daughters) and rented a van (through Le Bon Coin of course! A web site with classified ads, somewhere between Craig's list and eBay, which I happen to work for). I anticipated cold nights, not very compatible with kids aged 7, 9 and 10 sleeping in a tent. I still do have my own small tent, planted right close to the track.
After the race is started, I soon find the real race is among walkers. Let's be clear, I deeply respect my runner friends, but this year, great French runners where not there. Olivier Chaigne -> did not come. Thierry Delhaye -> not here (he has no performance recorded on days, but has logs on ultra triathlons and regular 100k which do mean something). So well, the race is soon neutralized by the powerfull Israelian Kobi, who can just show out who the boss is. I wish there were some other competitors of is class or above, so that he could have some good company. But well, I concentrate on the walkers, after all, for this week, I belong to this new family.
The first three did make some damage. Stéphane, who I do not know personnally, but is a great walker, is stuck during the first night. Back problems, after a quite impressive start. Bernardo, who won last year, collapsed during day 2. I think the local weather, at this season, did not fit him, and besides this, he was not as well trained as other years. 6 days does not leave much room for compromises.
Alain & Christophe
Quite soon, three walkers take the lead of the walking race. Alain Grassi, me, and Christophe Biet. I try not to focus too much on race positions, but I still get a glance at it every 12 hours.
Curiously, I'm more intimidated by Christophe (3rd) than by Alain (1st). Indeed, Christophe is a machine. No kidding. He's rustproof. If he walks 4 mph, then over 20 hours he's done 80 miles. Period. Impressive. I fail to understand the miracle behind my being before him on the race board. Alain has a different style. A great walker, powerful. With a single stride he goes 8 inches farther than I would. Not only are his legs very long, but his stride is incredibly efficient. Now I'm in the middle of all this, walking for less than 2 years. The best card I can play is my being used to various ultra distance events. But as far as walking technique is concerned, I might as well pass my turn. But who cares, I'll just give it a try, and see what happens. What's the risk after all?
After almost 24 hours, I take a look at my mileage. Wow, I'm about to pass the 24h point with almost 93 miles. My personnal record on 24h is about 103 miles. This sounds like plain suicide. I decide to slow down. Maybe it's even too late. Damn, I'm so stupid. I *know* one should never race for real before day 4!
Follow two complicated days, Tuesday and Wednesday, where I need to navigate with raw estimations between two extremes: on one hand I need to save forces for later. My theory is simple, the strong Thursday guy has great chances to win the race. Not the one who is first on Thursday. No, I mean, the fastest moving guy on Thursday, the one going strong. On the other hand, I need to log enough miles not to be excluded from the race. If on Thursday I'm in great shape but 70 miles behind: it's over. Now this is just pure 6 days science, and this is why those races are beautifull, you need to "do it right".
Mistral is the name of local wind, common to the whole southern-east part of France. It blows from the north. And it's a strong wind. Let me be frank : each time I did a 6 days, there's been a wind story, with tents flying all over. But hey, living this instant when you wonder wether the race is going to be plain cancelled is... something. Hint: it never happened yet ;) As far as I'm concerned, I play the most selfish card with the "I'm an ass hole and keep logging miles while others are in panic mode helping each other" attitude. My spouse Valérie offers her help. This makes feel a little less guilty. Those who were sleeping under the community tents had some really hard time.
Mistral did make other victims than our tents. It did put race organizers under pressure, and got on the nerves of some walkers and runners. I, for one, really do not care. I must even admit that I enjoy walking with the wind in my face. It makes me feel strong, at each step I can push on my toes and feel I'm alive. I suspect this is even easier to do walking than running. In other words, I have the same equipment than at the Tor des Geants, I'm ready for mountain conditions at 9000 feet elevation. The race being held in October, I planned everything as if it could be real cold. I have good gear and am ready to handle temperatures well below freezing point. It could even snow, I don't care. And let me just mention that this year, in France, automn is almost a virtual, endemic season, it seems summer is never ending. If I had something to complain about the weather, it would rather be "too much sun and heat in the afternoon" more than anything else.
Lise, my 9 years old daughter, decides to walk a few laps with me. 1 hour and 40 minutes later, she's done about 10 of them. Time flies by! She's quite good at it. I certainly do not want to force them (my kids) to do anything painfull and/or bad for their health, they are free to exercice or not. I claim to be a responsible parent who do not uses his children to power up his own dreams. If I want to go far and fast, it's my problem, I do it on my own. But hey, Lise has this little thing that makes you appreciate "distance", she features this ever-lasting contemplative patience that carries you way in the distance before you even figure out you got there.
Other context, other child, Gildas, a local boy, walks a few laps with me. He's a triathlete. At his age? Wow, cool! When I was his age, there was no way I could do this, you had to be 16, period. Times change, and sometimes things get better. We exchange about sport in general, this is quite cool.
Contrepèteries and male humor
Later at night, we get together with Alain (Grassi) and Patrick, joking around while walking. We exchange good "contrepèteries". I dunno wether this "litterrary" figure exists in English. It's about mixing sounds in a sentence to transform it into something dirty, typically about sex or anything you would never tell in front of your mother. Edit : I just checked the Spoonerism on Wikipedia, and honestly, what I read there does not fit for a real "contrepèterie". The latter must really something you can't mention publicly if you're engaed in politics, it *has* to be something you can be caught saying and be therefore considered bad mannered, rude. I hope you get it. This is loop humor you know, after too much time spent on a track, brains get weird.
What is plain ununderstandable is how Patrick manages to follow us. Let me explain: Patrick (Pierre) had one of his legs broken into parts. He can walk on it during normal "civil" life. But during a 6 days he has to protect it. So he carries a hudge external prothesis, he can slightle bend his knee with it, but that's all. He carries that gear lap after lap. He will end up the race with a total of 282 miles. And a big smile. I don't know if those figures mean something to you, but they do to me. He needs to regularly stop because of his peculiar condition. With 20 years less and two valid legs, that man would be a serious 6 days animal. Meanwhile, at night, with his asymetric stride, he manages to follow both of us, Alain and I, who are technically the race head. Think of it before finding a good excuse not to register for a 6 days.
It's wednesday morning. Alain Grassi is having problems. During the night, he talked about quitting. I explain his team (4 guys crewing him) that they'd better motivate him back again, else they'll experience what my kick in the butt feels like. Well, this is not exactly what I said, but it is exactly what I thought. It seems the weather, wind and cold, are a problem for him. It seems to me that a little rest and warm gear could fix that. I offer him to stay in my van, which is free during the day, and has a heater.
Alain is back on track in the morning. Hurray! But a couple hours later, once again, he's in trouble. No more motivation or pleasure. I respect his choice. Alain is a great athlete who, unlike my lucky little self, has to permanently fight disease. Most mortals would, in his situation, have quit not after 72 hours, but more likely after 72 minutes.
This is how I get in first place, if one considers walkers only. It happens during the afternoon. This is moderately good news, I would have 1000 times prefered to beat Alain the right way, this is just not fair, and not my style. I sadly watch him packing his tent. As I tell him a last goodbye, we take a look at the first runner, who does not look in such a great shape any more. 8 mph laps are over. His victory might not be that easy after all. Well, we'll see.
I end up the day in a rather cool mode. I listen to quiet random music until late in the night. I'm just zen.
I sort of fear thursday. It's the most important day. I hesitate between lighting the fire in the morning, or wait until the evening. In practice, I'm getting tired, no matter what I plan. I try and watch facts with some distance: everything is going well, looks like things are under control. I did not watch very closely my mileage, but it looks like I'm able to do almost 70 miles per day. Which seems quite "OK" to me.
I give myself this thursday to "get into the race". And I'm into it. I just tuned my pace. At the beginning of the race things were a little messy, at least technically speaking, but now my walking technique is paradoxaly getting better I think. I keep quite straight enough. Walking is not that hard. Just put your leg forward and straighten it before the impact on the ground. Keep it straight until it passes the "vertical" point under your body. Then finally, push hard on your toes, as you can't fly in the air, you need to use the whole stride to its maximum. This is for the lower body. The upper body is simple too. Lock your head and shoulders so that they move as little as possible. Then swing your arms fast. They give the tempo. And to compensate all this, you need to losen your hips and butt, they should naturally move as your legs keep straight and your shoulders go straight. At least, this is how I understand racewalking.
I use and overuse my MP3 player. I carry a hudge rugged Android phone, waterproof, shockproof. Its weight is way above the average but it's still convenient. I also have real headphones, also quite weather resistant, in which I can build my own bubble, where nothing from the outside world reaches me. Just me, my shoes, and the track.
On this thursday evening, I'm dead scared to be caught back by sleepiness. I sleep about two hours and a half since the beginning of the race, except the first night during which I only cooled down for an hour. Two hours and a half is both a lot and very few. It's the garantee to have a complete sleep cycle (mine last between an hour and a half and two hours), but it's also three hours and a half outside the track, including the "bootstrap" process. But something happens, which is going to make all my fears vanish.
Walkers and runners
At the end of the afternoon, I'm about to pass Kobi, the first runner. Then he stops to put is nationnal flag up, the latter suffering bad treatment from the wind. I decide I can't pass him while he's stopped. I just wait until he's back on track, then speed up, and do show him that obviously "hey, you know, I walk, but I go faster than you runner!". It's dead stupid, I know, but Kobi appears to be a "player" and he gets the signal. He speeds up too and gains one lap over me. One lap and a half. Then I gain terrain again. We play cat and mouse (at least, I, for one, do) all night, and time flies by. I'm having great fun, I'm like a kid, just going crazy. Hell, that's a race, there's no way I can get bored!
After all that fun, Jean-Michel, the second runner, pops out on the track. He might have been there before but I did not notice him yet. I explain him that I warmed up his adversary, he might keep going and continue the chae. I'm sort of done, you know.
After the race, people that were on the track that night would tell me that I looked just soo exhauste. Additionnally, ununderstandable words and sentences were pouring out of my mouth. This is 6 days too, there's a time to save one's energy, and a time to fire the engine and check out what's inside.
My tactic this night is debatable. Purists might argue that I'd better have done my race instead of focusing on the runners. Nonetheless, by playing stupid games all the evening, I piled up a significant number of good old solid miles. I end up the night at a slower rythm, I cool down. I want to go to sleep when I'm ready for it, not in full action. Tomorrow will be an important day: Friday!
Alain Grassi's back
I wake up with stiff legs. Worse than the days before. Let me just give you a picture of it. In the morning legs are just two bone sticks. During at least half a lap, that is, more than a quarter mile, everyone passes me as if I was not moving at all. These &*$%**%! race rules require the leg is straightened when touching the ground. This complicates everything. I awkardly carry my legs around an plant them every feet or so. It's certainly ugly to watch, it's painful to do it. So I try and get a smooth movement as soon as possible but this is easier said than done. Hopefully I'm winning the race and this has the nice effect to make a lot of things easier than they really are.
Christophe fights hard against sleep deprivation. He walks great but probably lacks a little experience on that peculiar point. I hope, and do not doubt he learnt a bunch of things during these 6 days. I do think he can perform very well if he solves this problem. Meanwhile, I pulled ahead. Well ahead enough that I realize and am informed that I can possibly beat the race record, which belongs to Alain Grassi. Alain who stopped after three days and is now back with his record to beat, of 702 km (436 miles).
A great fatigue goes through my whole body and mind.
Because I know, for sure, I should not afford to sleep if I want to get the record. Well, there's a slight possibility that I could sleep, but I just don't believe in it, it sounds too hard and risky. I fear the waking up process, what if I just can't stard again? With this racewalking technique, I can't just hop around the way I please. And also, I'm curious to know how it feels to go through a complete night (the sixth one...) without sleeping. Sometimes a choice needs to be made. I won't sleep. Maybe powernaps, but no complete two hours and a half night. Straight to the end.
Since thursday 4 pm, Valérie gives me, regularly, a complete summary of the difference in mileage between me and the other runners. Because, yes, I look at runners mileages, and not only walkers, this way it's much more motivating. I sometimes feel like I'm the only one *seriously* chasing Kobi. It's probably wrong because Jean-Michel Pion is really close. But well, I draw motivation from any available source, and this one is quite valid.
Everything goes fine until the evening. Then, having suffered from a sun a bit too shiny for me in the late afternoon, I hit a wall. No rythm. I need to do a little more than 60 miles in 24 hours. On the paper, looks so easy. On the track, things get harder. I fell behind the symbolic 3 mph limit. I try to get back on track using music and all sort of tricks. It lasts a lap, but no more.
I stop for a little nap, not the big one, just a small nap. My estimation is that 45 minutes could do it. Claudine Anxionnat, who passes by, tells Valérie "30 minutes, no more". I listen to Claudine, she's right, this is not a vacation camp, it's a race after all. I'm walking again. But still wrong, under 3 mph.
My feet hurt, my joints are rusted, my muscles stiff, like an old man. I decide to stop at the medical tent to have my feet inspected. Quite ugly. Since the beginning I handle blisters by perforating them with a needle, put cream back on it and call it a day. The problem is that in addition to the traditionnal "under your feet" blisters one gets on long ultras, I get those typical of walkers on the side of the heel, and what's more annoying, little small blisters on top of the base of my toes. This is because I bend my feet at the end of each stride to push with my toes. Those are a pain. The race doctor confirms what I was suspecting, the swelling on the right foot is the consequence of a local infection, things could get bad. They treat all that, try and sterilize the whole mess, and put cream back on, a foot per doctor. Sounds like I'm a car in Indianapolis, the tires of which are being changed by blazing fast operators. Only I'm a car with a top speed of 4 mph but let's put those details aside. At some point in the creaming process, I wake up suddenly. The doctors wonder what's happening... I'm just very ticklish and they reached the sensible parts of my feet. This is just funny. I feel better.
It's soon midnight, I leave with my teeth clenched, telling myself that if I'm about to get some record, I'd better be prepared to make some effort to deserve it.
And it does work. The machine is on again. After 3 or 4 very difficult hours, I can walk almost normally again. I can maintain 3 mph and speed up if needed. I explain Valérie that the runners hunt is over. I've had a first warning, I should not mess everything up. I'm going to just go to the end steady but quiet, with the 702 km symbolic mark as a unique target. Let's not multiply the goals, a long night of hard work is waiting for me. I just need to make yet another 12 minutes lap. And yet another. Don't let it go.
Patricia helps me a lot through the night. We make a bunch of laps together. Of course Valérie helped me a lot too, she stayed awake almost the whole night
And Claudine. Incredible Claudine. She catches me at the end of the night. She knows I'm having a hard hard time trying to go as fast as possible. She tells me to follow her the way a cyclist would typically do. I do follow here. She's a hell of a machine, unstoppable. I soon find out going that fast I won't go far but I keep on following her. I try and tell her to slow down a bit but can't catch my breath. We walk something like two laps this way, which will stay forever printed in my mind. A very nice chunk of pure sport. Our speed was, if you think of it, not that impressive (8 minutes laps?) but on the track I felf like we were just so fast. Thanks Claudine, thanks again.
This night is real hard. I took another 5 minutes nap, I was just fading away. I remember someone, seeing me having a hard time, told that I had almost already won the race, that the record was not such a big thing, that I should take it easy. Yes and no. What would Alain say now? "Oh well, it's hard, too bad". Sorry, it does not fit. I must go.
At some point, I think it was 6:30 am, I cry and weep like a little boy. It's strange but this does not slow me down, I still walk. So well, a mile is a mile, and I keep going, but this is weird.
As the sun goes up, the end is close.
Daylight always gives me extra energy. And here, no exception, the morning is just great. I face a "make 13 miles in 7 hours, and you break the record" challenge. Half a marathon in 7 hours. This is ridiculous hey? But from my position, it's still a challenge. Those who've done a 6 days trying to go as far as possible know what I'm talking about. Distances and time get distorted. And just, one detail: the only thing I want is sit on a chair and have cool cocktails for at least an hour. Something I could not afford for more than 28 hours. Hopefully, this is soon all over.
I also must take care not to be injured, as on December 28th of this year, that is, about 10 weeks ahead, I have another 6 days to complete. And this time I will run it, not just walk. So I really really do not want to end the race completely wrecked.
The record is beaten at about 1 pm. I thought it would never happen. Valerie is excited and filled with emotion but I'm not. I had my breakdown earlier this morning now I'm stable. I keep going.
It's strange, but not a big surprise, once the target is behind me, my rythm drops dramatically. Only two laps per hour! I finally manage to get to a more respectable pace, something that looks like 2.5 mph. Not great but enough to pile up a few extra miles. He (or she?) who will try and beat the race record again will need to do these extra miles too, just for fun ;) There's another symbolic record I could reach, at 742km (464 miles) but this is really too far. I might have been able to go a little faster at the very end, but no way I could do 20 more miles. Next time... ;)
I just want to congratulate Jean Wallaeys who ends up with a very nice and fast finish, few racers being capable of doing this. Also Claudine, with her 620k (385 miles), the record and everything. Congratulations!
I'm also very happy to have offered a second place to the walkers community. This is note a pure coincidence, I did work to get that. I hope this can make some runners think about how usefull it is to run full speed when a walker can do 440 miles.
Now I need to rest. I came for 600k, and got much more, so I'm just happy. Next race is in December. There I will see if 10 weeks is enough to recover. Meanwhile, these 6 days in Privas were a blast.