For days we've heard "you've done the hardest part, the rest is easy!". I wish. Each time, this proved wrong, there was yet-another-awfull-thing ahead. Easy stuff is not something we've been fed with, recently. But now, at last, it happens.
I mean, this is crazy, the downhill to Ste Engrâce is, based on facts, quite easy. One would sometimes even wonder wether this is really the right track. I'm alone. And happy. This is nice and great. At the gorges de Kakouetta, I spot a soft drink and ice-creams reseller. The guy is very nice, even funny. I order 3 magnum ice creams and 2 sodas. I fill up my bottles. I ask him wether eating and sleeping in Logibar makes sense. He thinks yes. Good.
The climb is plain and efficient. I go pass a dead cow. A large piece of clothing covers her. Booo! Once I reach the pass, I make a phone call to Logibar. Because, yes, my friends, on the road-book I've prepared, not only do I have a list of al refuges I could collect in the topo-guides and which appeared to me as usuefull, but I also have their phone number. Ah ah, I, for one, know how to plan things! It's 6 pm. According to the guides, it's 4 hours huking time to get there. I suspect I can do it in 3 hours. I announce my arrival at 9 pm. The restaurant should be closed at that time but they can prepare meals in advance. Prepare 2, please. I'm hungry! A little surprise, the lady on the phone agrees.
So I power walk and run towards my diner and bed. Full speed ahead. Well, this is relative. But still, I move fast enough. A little panic arises as I see printed "Retour Logibar"... in the direction I'm coming from. I take time to pull out the map, double, triple check, 5 minutes. No, this is all right, it's plain ahead. I enjoy the Holzarté bridge with people laughing and jumping on it, then I cross two ladies with a little girl who fit just so well in this little forest.
And then I'm finally in Logibar, 9:30 pm. There I say hello to the lady I had on the phone, she's very nice and welcomes me. I take my shoes off. My socks. And the toe bandage. And the toe nail. Well, not quite. It's still sticking on the foot, retained by some piece of skin which I need to cut with my knife, an Opinel (the one I won at the Grand Raid 73!). I initially was protesting against that mandatory knife, in the gear you're required to carry on the Transpyrénéa. Until I found out the knife has no relation whatsoever with food, but is part of the first aid medical kit. And then, everything becomes logical: you can use it to cut bandages and straps, to work on blisters, and ultimately, get rid of old toe nails. I'm sorry for the lady running that place, my feet are not the best view to offer. But she informs me that in 28 years, she's seen a bunch of hikers feet, so this is not new to her... Makes sense, after all.
The food is delicious. There's plenty, even in only one meal, but I'm glad I ordered two of them. I ask for a breakfast, too. I take a shower and go to the dormitory. There's already a trailer here. I do not want to disturb him with my "James Brown One-Two-Three-Four!" bell, so instead I strap my watch on my glasses, to be sure when it rings it's close to me ears, set up the alarm on my watch at 2:00 am and 2:30 am, and fall asleep.
Tuesday, August 2nd. 2016 - Day 14
I wake up at 5:30 am. The two rings were of no use, I slept through them. I'm pissed! The trailer is gone, there's nobody left, I slept for 7 hours and a half! Hey? Who am I to consider I can offered such a lazy thing? I sadly think that yesterday I tried to gain minutes, generally speaking, since more than 10 days, I try and do my best go fast and here, I just wasted full hours. Just because I'm unable to set up an alarm clock the right way?
Rule number one: never get angry. After all, there's almost 100 miles left. And I lost "only" 4 hours. Maybe only 3, because, I must admit it, after all that sleep, I feel great, looks like this is race start, almost. No go on Christian, move on, this is the best thing you can do.
I eat breakfast and hit the road. I do not even need to prepare a bandage for my toe, since it's gone now, I can just have the sock on the skin, it's not a problem anymore. 10 minutes saved! Logibar is a great place, I would come back there any time.
Now the climb to the châlets d'Iraty is a no-problem story. It's very nice over here, beautiful views. The vegetation is itching in some places, and we occasionnally get deep mud, but globally, it's a pleasant hike. I've been quite surpised by a Greek racer (not the same one that at the Maison du Valier) who's moving... backwards. It takes me time to realize. But... yes, I've seen that face already. And he had all the equipment. So here's racing for real, but in the wrong direction. Mystery all over the place...
At CP19, I tell that story. And we see him going the right way 20 minutes later. Strange, 500 miles might not be enough for him, want any more extra miles for free?
I leave the aid station after him, not forgetting to fill up my body with food, drinks and, in a general manner, calories. I catch him up at a crossroads where he seems to be lost. I'm surprised, because this is in my opinion easy orienteering, one just had to keep going straight on after crossing the road. I suspect he's going to be way faster than I am, because making that kind of blunder, he has to compensate with a high speed average. But no, he slowly falls behind, and after some time I can't see him behind any more. Huh.
And then, I tell you something, I'm happy. I'm happy because for the last couple days, the trail is easy, this is almost insulting. Roadish, almost. I think about all those who gave up in Ariège (section 2) with their feet totally ruined. If they could picture us walking all those gentle paths with that summer sun, not even aggressive, they would be jealous, that's it. And they would be right to be jealous.
And what's more, Valérie and my daughters, who are currently on vacation at Urrugne, near Hendaye, are going to wait for me at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Everything is going smoothly now, I'm more and more convinced that I can finish the race, the race itself is getting easier and easier, this is just so cool.
At Etstérençuby, I stop at the local restaurant and order 3 ice creams. People look at me as if I were strange. I explain one is for my, and the two others for my imaginary friends. No no, the imaginary friends do not require a spoon, just one spoon for me, please.
And so, at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, CP20, finally, I can see my little family, as the sun is going down. It's a great relief, I'm really pleased to see them. I take time to exchange news. I also take time to eat some raviolis! I do not know how many plates of raviolis I ate on this race, but this answers sounds like "many". I also leave my hiking sandals and a mosquito-repellent bottle I had taken just-in-case, but finally, all this is of no use. Too heavy. The people at the aid station are, as usual, just great.
I head back on trail, with my headlamp on, accompanied by my familly for a quarter of a mile. I planned to sleep at St-Étienne-de-Baigorry. This way, I just have one more sleep to go. And then I can finish the rest of the race in one row, without any sleep. The uphill is not that bad, but once again, during the night, it's not so obvious to find one's way. On top, there's yet some fog, and I thank my GPS for never letting me down.
I have stopped twice. Once 10 minutes in a village. Another time 5 minutes near some water source, right in the mountain. It's hard. I'm having a hard time. I sing in my head. Always the same songs. At some point I put music on my cell phone. Maybe I should have taken earphones. Not sure. What's surprising is that when I try to change, I keep on repeating the same songs. When going uphill it's Thomas Fersen, Croque and downhill it's Robin Schultz, Sugar and don't ask me why: it's just like that. I can sing and/or listen the same music for hours. For days.
The Greek guy must have passed me as I was power napping. I can't see any other explanation, since, having left CP20 an hour after me, he's ahead of me by 30 minutes when I reach CP21, and I saw no other light in the night. What's even more strange: when I come accross him he's, like at the Chalets d'Iraty, going the wrong way. He explains me he's going to sleep. I don't get it. I'm not sure I really want to understand what's going on.
Globally, I did a good job. François' son, who wakesup at CP21 as I just come in, tells me that: "hey, you were falling behind, but now it looks you are moving well again". Hey, man, this is no big surprise: the path is becoming easy, and we're near the end, so I speed up, this is what I'm used to.
Wednesday, August 3rd. 2016 - Day 15
Wonderfull CP21, I sleep there like a baby. I could have left an hour earlier, as I had already finished my sleep cycle and was naturally awaken. But I decide to use my 3 hours up to the end, and wait until 8 am to really wake up and get out of my sleeping bag. Meanwhile, a little group with Paolo, Charles, Roberto and Vincent just catch up.
I hit the trail alone, but powered-up like mad. After 20 minutes only, panic! Hey Christian, wouldn't you be completely stupid by not filling your bottles completely, when leaving the CP? I mean, I have only 2 liters out of 3, when a powerfull sun seems to be decided to shine all day, there's no shade whatsoever on the mountain I'm climbing, and streams look pretty damn rare. I consider going back to CP21. Oh shit, forget it, let's move on.
The sun is not our friend but our enemy today. No shade, no water. A hiker informs me that there's a water point just 300 meters on the left on the GR, a little further on the path. I hesitate. Once there, I consider going to it. I walk 50 meters. Then go back. I still have 1 liter, and there's only one small climb and a big downhill, it should do the job.
And it works. I think I always have taken too much water on this race. 2 liters where really enough, the 3 liters I had where mostly driven by fear. By filling bottles at each CP, using micropur on streams, and being carefull when the sun and heat were aggressive, I could have save 1kg, on an average, on all the course. It's easy t say, afterwards.
And then at CP22, Bidarray, it's the last CP before the finish. I take a shower. Eat my ultimate raviolis. On the paper, there's only some minor climbs during the following few miles, then a big flat section between Ainhoa and Sarre, and a final set of climbs before the end. Well well well.
Out of Bidarray, I notice all those people enjoying the local stream, bathing, having the royal choice between sun and shade because all this is in a gentle forest. It's unbelievable to see all those people enjoying life, with their families. Just wait until it's my turn, and it's coming soon!
The next climb is quite... steep. Hell one could even get tired going through this! I think I remember it even had some ropes in the worst places. And then it becomes easy again. I buy myself a sandwich and a soda at la Venta Burkaitz, get lost too and spend a very nice time walking on a beautiful high crest before reaching the next pass.
I eat in Ainhoa in a very cool bar. People there recognize me as a racer "Are you doing that trail race? Yeah, number 104!". They clap their hands and cheer me up. Cool.
Night again. The trail is always fairly easy. Mostly flat now. I walk fast, and can garantee a 4 mph average, which is not that bad, at that point in the race. And I don't get tired doing this (no run). I still make some minor orienteering blunders, but nothing bad. I enjoy one of the last opened bars to drink some cola and strong coffee.
Thursday, August 4th. 2016 - Day 16
And then, the final climbs, as I had seen on the roadbook, before Hendaye. On the paper, it's not very impressive. A good climb. The minor uphill and downhills. Then final descent. Clear enough? This is much easier than what I've been doing for almost 500 miles, this is going to be all too easy. This, is theory. Now, practice.
So the sad reality is: forest, rain, fog, deep fatigue. I can't see. It's slippery. And it's not even a frank, honest climb. It climbs a bit. Goes down a bit. Climbs again. Sometimes it rains hard. This reminds me the 3rd day, the worst one as far as I'm concerned. With a nice, sunny afternoon, this area is probably very easy and fun to hike. But at night, with my glasses covered with water drops, this ever-lasting moisture, and a horizon that disappears 10 feet ahead, it's a nightmare. This is sad, because I had a good start this evening, I was power walking, going strong and all. But one, two, three hours spent in that liquid hell just killed my legendary optimism. I move like I can, I push on my feet, poles, I push everywhere. I fall down, get lost, crawl, hesitate, I do not know. At some point I wake up standing on my poles. I just fell asleep, standing up. I need to get out of that shit, quick.
In a descent, just before Ohlette, I meet a girl, Jan, from Australia, who's camping. She waves me. Looks like she's on another planet, but I might be too. At least, she's enthousiastic, it's a pleasure to meet her. She wants to fully enjoy her last 15 miles so she decided to sleep for 3 hours. I understand her. 3 hours of sleep means 3 hours less spent in that crap. Ironically, she has exactly the same tent than me, only mine is in my spare bag, waiting in Hendaye. I'll learn later that she's "only" racing La Pastourale (half the distance). I hope she enjoyed her trip in France.
I go through the Venta d'Inzola. This is yet another gloomy place. All those closed shops, around a rounded shaped road, with an average inclination of 15%. And again, this "déjà vu" feeling, like at the Granges d'Astau. No surprise, this happends when I'm totally exhausted. I'd swear I've been there already... The batteries of my GPS choose this very moment to run out. Now, this is almost good news, at least I can sit down and get protected from the rain as I change them. It's not that bad after all.
And I go again. I only have a small climb, not even 1 000 feet to go. This is nothing. Only I move at one mile per hour. Maximum. I can only see my feet. So finding the path is a hell of a trick. I sometimes loose it when it's 15 feet on my left. Only at 15 feet, you see nothing.
At about 5:30 am, tired of fighting the night, I lie down on the grass, beaten, and as in the rocks when going down Madamète, I just let it go, waiting for the sun to rise. I'm done. Done you know, just... done. And finally, the sun shows up again. And after going down for long enough, I'm out of the cloud, and there's no more fog. Good. I still manage to make an ultimate mistake when choosing my path and do some extra walk which allows Jan to catch up. But, at least, I can now see Hendaye. And the trail is easy to follow. Hurray, I'm almost done!
I had dreamt of a distant view of the see, from a summit, some nice picture with the mountain in green, and the sea in blue. I only had mud, slippery rocks, fog and rain.
This seems to never end. I speed up to get it over as quick as possible. I told Valérie, my spouse and Karen, a friend from the Parc Montceau in Paris, who's in vacation in that area, that I would arrive between 8:15 am and 9:30 am. And sometimes it looks like this is going to be 10:45 am... Finally, I cross the finish line at 9:10 am. I think I was too tired to really enjoy the sea, the end. I got almost hit by suprise by this last hard part in the forest. Which was apparently less of a problem for my Greek friend, Sakis Malamidis, who arrived 5 minutes before me. Strange enough, I did not see him going backwards this time, it was becoming sort of a habit.
Just a word about feet: a lot of racers gave up because of bad blisters, more specifically, infected blisters. I repeat: to finish within the time limit, you do not need to run very often. So, my point of view is: it's safer to choose standard hiking shoes than your usual trail shoes. I mean, in the worst case, with hiking shoes, you're gonna need to run a few miles on the very rare flat road sections. In exchange, your feet are protected, preserved, they get wet less often, you ankle, as well as the forefoot are less exposed, and so on. For the Pyrénées, it's better to have mountain shoes than shoes designed to run on gentle trails. May I repeat? But beware, high hiking shoes do have a tendency to cause blisters on your heels. To mitigate that risk, I trained myself to wear that kind of shoes, during more than a year (since I signed-up for the race, actually...). I even ran a marathon with them. Once you are used to the shoes, the shoes being designed for the mountain, you're all set. If you are used to mountaineering and regularly run in the mountains and rocks all year long with trail shoes, this little piece of advice probably does not apply. But if what's to be found in Ariège is new to you, then, honestly, think about it...
And now ?
Physically, I'm just very tired, my brain feels tired, and the days after the race I slept, slept, and slept. I lost 5 kg. And my legs feel empty, no power left. My feet also hurt, kind of "now you guy, you let us have a rest and don't try to make us feet do that crap too often, or we're gonna be on strike and you'll feel really sorry!". My muscle do not hurt, at all. A lot less than after a "standard" 6 days running on a track. Anyway I think that trail races are not my stuff. I fail to "give it all" in the mountain. Maybe it's all about being cautious. In that case, I prefer being slow and alive than fast and dead. But more seriously, I think one can't be strong in all disciplines, and this one is simply not my favorite. I still enjoy it and it's for me a form of tourism, I discover something different with the help of my general good endurance. As long as it works, I keep going!
I'm given a wooden trophy, a stone medal, we shake hands, people smile, and that's it. Perfect. Is that all? Well, it's often stated that what is important is not the goal, but the path followed to reach it. I mean, have you seen that path? Do you realize? 16 days out on the trail? With 20 hours per day being awake, thinking of one thing: moving forward, no matter what. One of the things that got me into that ultra racing thing is when I've seen those people crossig the finish line of the Embrunman (a quite hard Ironman size triathlon in France). Seeing those guys I thought "I want to be there, I want to know how they feel, I want to feel that". And I really think that if I'd seem people crossing the finish line of the Transpyrénéa, I would have thought "I want to be there, I want to know how they feel, I want to feel that". Now that I've done it, I can tell you one thing: it was really worth it. Without any hesitation. Without any.