I think I can't be considered a beginner any more on that "distance". I've done a 6 days in 2010 , 2013 , 2014 (race-walking). 2014 , 2015 and 2016 . 6 days racing is a very simple concept, people show up on a loop ranging from half a mile to a mile and a half, and they just complete laps, one after the other, for 6 days, that is, 144 hours. Simple as it can be. The clock never stop. You may speed up, stop, sleep, even book a room in a hotel. On the paper, when one has already ran a few long races, it does not look that complicated. I mean, lots of people can achieve, say, 110 miles in 24h. So what about doing only 85 miles per day. Yeah, only 85 miles per day, and you end up well past the 500 miles mark. On the paper, this is pretty much what this is all about. The 85 miles for 24h crowd is usually filled with people who walked for an extended amount of time, sometimes even stopped for a couple hours, and some would even consider 80 miles in 24h is not really running any more. To give you an idea, I'm worth 100 miles in 24h... walking. So indeed, 85 miles per day is not even my level when I walk.
So what is happening here? Why aren't there many more people over the symbolic 500 miles barrier? If it's "just plenty enough" to score slightly above 85 miles per day. This is where the 6 days magic is. I think it's my favorite format in running. It gives a chance to the otherwise totally unnoticeable slowish guys like me, who would typically be lost somewhere far down the leaderboard. Here, there's no special skill in trail, where you need to handle various terrains. There's no need for a high base speed like on the marathon. On the other hand, you need to be, generally speaking, quite "solid". Joe Fejes, one of the best performers lately (he's almost 70 miles ahead of me...) once said (well, I'm not absolutely totally sure these where his words, but I'm pretty sure I got the spirit of it) that, to succeed in 6 days, you need:
- hardcore training
- carefully crafted race schedule, before the 6 days
- total determination on race day
Note that here, there's no mention of genetics, talent, whatsoever. I really do think, and claim it loud, that 6 days racing is to be learn on the track, you build yourself year after year, and anyone can do it. But pay attention to the terms employed. Such as "hardcore" or "total determination". These words do carry some meaning.
As I was getting prepared for this 6 days, things got complicated. I was dead tired after Ultrathlétic Ardèche and spent an awful June month, doing almost nothing, broken in two pieces, running like an old man, then July was better, I had a quite good 100 km in Cléder and completed a triple Ironman in Lenshan within my expectations. At the end of the day, I'm a little slow, I lack speed, but I feel my body is fine, I have no worrying injury, it does not hurt anywhwere, my legs are OK. I'm heavier than usual, around 185 pounds (when I had my best results at 170 pounds in 2010) but hell, it's like this, I certainly won't cut an arm off to gain 25 pounds.
I won that race the year before, so people are sort of "waiting for me at the corner". There are other favorites, such as Olivier Chaigne, who has a personal record 30 miles ahead of me (so, technically, much stronger). But still, I can't pretend I'm not expected to perform well.
But this, I could try and forget, as it's only about what others think about me. No, the real pressure, I had it myself on my shoulders. I registered for the RAAM 2018, which is about crossing the United States, on a bike. And the difference with a 6 days is that, out there, you don't just do "whatever you can". There are time limits. So I need to go from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean (roughly 3 000 miles) with a crazy elevation (150 000 feet) in less than 12 days. 288 hours. Now this is yet another category, as in "performance on demand", I need to be under the cutoff, else, I'm out of the race, period. RAAM is known to chew and spit out even experienced, talented cyclists in a few days.
So, on this 6 days starting line, I'm just thinking that if I can't get a 500 miler out of this, which is my most favorite race format, I'd better question myself seriously and take strong measures.
We're told it could be hot this week. Oh, really? How hot? 85F? 90F? Now wait, I'm told that in that desert East of Los Angeles, it can easily get up to 110F. Again, RAAM is going to be much harder than this. I'm playing a dangerous game as normally, when you do race A, you do race A, you don't do it while thinking about race B. But I can't help it, RAAM is starting to spread all over me, I'm just about to enter that period where I need to grow wheels at the end of my lower limbs, and become a riding machine.
So this 6 days is a test, I have to face it, either I succeed and do something nice, or I fail and send a strong - and clear - signal to my team that I might not be the right guy to go and get than RAAM finisher's jersey. There's no way out, I need to go, period.
Side note, I'm currently searching for sponsorship (for the RAAM), I still need to finalize my book and other paperwork, but in any case do not hesitate to contact me.
My spouse Valérie is racing too. Last year she had trouble near the end, and missed her target because of excruciating pain in her feet, among other things. This year she comes back undertrained - a complicated year, as we moved to a new house - but she's motivated and I hope she can better her personal record and what's even more important, keep a positive image of her race.
Valérie often crews me, but now, as she's competing too, she logically can't hold that position. So, who's my crewer? Well, first of al the 6 jours de France are quite well organized so you don't really need a crew. In 2010 I came alone and AFAIK Olivier Chaigne did all of his superb performances alone, by himself, 100% solo. Then, I came with my daughters Adèle, Lise and Garance (13, 12 and 10 years old) as well as Anne, Valérie's mother, who are in Privas for the whole week. They stay in a little house we rented for the race period, during the day they travel and have "normal" vacation time, enjoying the countryside.
But on each morning we get fresh croissants, and in the evening they would handle my dinner (like, getting into the line with the ticket, get the food, find a table and a chair, then call me when everything's ready...) . They also do a minimum clean-up of my tent, there's a hudge gap in efficiency between a tent that is never being taken care of and ends up in an awful mess, and a tent where someone regularly puts the right things in the right places back again. I appreciate this help greatly, the only thing I have to do is plain and dumb simple: pile up miles.
Last year, my co-workers already did an amazing job of setting up a custom dashboard to follow my race. This had been an interesting opportunity for a blog post on our engineering blog. This year, same thing. Even better, yet.
The thing I added is that since I knew the guy running the computer stuff behind the scenes at this 6 days (his name is Jean-Michel), I could manage to set up a per-racer dashboard, for everyone, with:
- the current mileage
- the current number of laps
- the progression, in distance, over the last week
- the average speed during the last 24 hours, per 30 minute time-frame (approximation)
That last one is typically really interesting I found, because it reveals what you usually can't spot, which is: how is that runner moving? Is he going steady or alternating speed ups and pauses? Does he sleep much? Etc. I've had some quite positive feedbacks about this, mostly from friends and coaches who would try and follow a given runner from their home.
I did something like 121 miles on day 1. Some people though "wow, that's a fast start!". Not quite. I ran and walked during the first 24h, as I had planned to. I even stopped for a 30 minutes break, at night. Only, by walking strong and running fresh, it's easy to score up miles, that's all. I never crossed the red line, and did not even really know my position on the leaderboard. I just moved on.
And at 48h, I cleary remember I was close to the 209 miles mark, which is a qualifier for the Spartathlon and decided, just before 4 pm, to take a shower and go see the race doctor to have some blisters fixed. So I missed that mark (knowing I can reach it again at Royan if needed) knowingly, preferring to save myself from exhaustion rather than try and catch some side-quest mark, which could have interfered with my racing plan.
Only, as long as I'm not *over* "560 miles pace" (900k, this is a symbolic metric system related mark I'd like to reach some day) I consider I'm still "slow enough". And 120 miles on day one for a final mileage of 560 is not insane, it might just be the exact right mileage after all. So after that 1st day I did slow down for many reasons, but I claim I did not start out that fast. I just did what I had to do.
Now let's get down to it. I realized after a couple years that many people consider I carefully craft and plan my races, getting every detail sorted out beforehand. This is not true. On the contrary, I just draw the big picture, set up a few basic rules, the rest I improvise on the fly. So when I was asked: "are you on your race schedule?" ... it was hard for me to answer. The actual schedule, mileage, depends so much on the weather, on my body feedback that, well, I might be ahead or behind, just depends too much on external factors.
But in any case, I had a plan. A simple one. The one you can't forget, even dead tired. Here it is:
- 30 minutes walk/ 1 hour and a half run
- diner at 6 pm (10 minutes pause)
- sleeping at 0:30 am
- wake up at 2:30 am
And that's it, over.
Now, on the track, I did make last minute changes. The first night, I only "slept" 30 minutes. In reality I just lied down half an hour and let everything cool off but was totally unable to sleep, adrenaline involved. Then on the last night I had planned not to sleep at all, but then we had a thunderstorm, and I figured out since I needed to do some feet maintenance and probably change clothes, I might as well rest a bit so I took an hour nap. So all in all, as far as sleep is concerned, it amounts to:
- 30 minutes the first night
- 2 hours per night for night 2 to 5, included
- 1 jour on night 6 (the last one)
That's a total of 9 hours and a half dedicated to sleep, I probably only slept 8 hours for real, and lost a bunch of time before and after these pauses to (un)dress, do some basic foot care, and so on. I've been in the race lead quite fast so I could technically choose whatever time I favored to go to sleep, but I suspect even with someone on my heels I would have done the same. At least until day 4, that is 96h. At this point it might be efficient to play cat and mouse and adjust sleep time according to other racers tactics. But before, it's way too early, I claim the best thing to do is just do your thing.
So now that the sleep subject is done, let's talk about the day. My days would start at 3 am (time to wake up, dress up, and do a warm-up lap). At this point I run untl 4 am. Then walk for 30 minutes. Then run for 90 minutes until 6 am. Then walk for 30 minutes. Then run for 90 minutes until 8 am. Ad lib. I know an hour and a half of running sound easy to me, and it should be for anyone who's training seriously. This is a very common run session. And the very important point (that's *the* point) is that I cut down the effort *before* I'm worn out. If I feel I can go stronger and longer, I just keep my stamina for the next, upcoming running session!
From midday to 6 pm, the race is... neutralized. You know, as in those car races when there's been a crash and the pacing car is there, forbidding competitors to pass each other. Oh, we might have had one mild day when the afternoon was not dead hot, but most of the time, the Boss was... Mr Sun. And, you should respect Him. Year 2015 legend was all around. "In 2015, it was even hotter, in 100F and even worse". OK so in 2015 I was not there (because of PBP ) but apparently, so, it was yet much worse. Still, 2017 was a hot year. I've seen several runners try to run nonetheless, in the heat. And pay for it at night. You would not see them again. So I had a rather cautious approach. Walk in the sun, keep moving but lower the pace. It was hard because I saw many hopes vanish in the air, among other things the possibility that I would beat my own personal record soon became a mere dream. I was sad but realized it was beyond my reach this year. At some point I was tempted to ignore the heat and run strong no-matter-what. Really tempting. I did not do it. I think it was a wise decision. Wise or coward? It's hard to tell. But I made a choice.
But anyway, at night it's much easier to speed up and score many laps, as the temperature goes down to a very comfortable level. It's sort of, runners' paradise, you know. For those who are still on the track. Curiously, I found out we were not that many on the track after dusk. I would have expected more people around, working at night, and resting during the day. Resting during the day was not really an option for me. At over 105F inside the tent, I'm not even trying to sleep, this is plain impossible.
And one good thing with moving at night is that I could do it with the music. I almost only use my earphones to fight sleep deprivation and dizziness, and also have company when other runners are scarce on the track. As a side note, my earphones do keep my ears quite warm, so running with them in the heat and sun is a clear non-option.
This year I had my usual playlists, some of them quite old, like the good old recipes that yield expected yet highly positive results. And also, I had brought some new stuff. Typically, I would listen some Shaka Ponk, more precisely their albumThe Geeks and the Jerkin' Socks. To be totally honest, 70% of the time, I would listen to that album. 2 hours in the morning, 4 hours in the evening. 6 hoursper day, so let's say about 30 hours of listening (on day 1, I don't use music) so that could mean 70% of 30 hours -> about 20h of Shaka Ponk. And to be even more down to it, I clearly remember once or twice I ran a compete 90 minutes session listening to the same single song Sex Ball. An hour an a half having the same 4 minutes track in repeat mode. Music does not need to be changed when it's good. It's like your running pace. Once it's finely tuned, no need to tweak it, simply enjoy it.
And then I remember the great John Lennon once said "French rock is like English wine". This almost tempts me to taste English wine. No way, I'm just kidding.
I think at the end of the race, I had named the North corner of the course "Posado crossing". As a tribute to number 33, José Luis Posado Perez. Because - and he's an amazing runner - he would go so deep into his effort, and become so intensely tired, that he would have a hard time... finding his way around. I mean, normally, there are some solid metal barriers, quite big and noticeable, which you would not try to fight against. But fatigue has unexpected side effets. So more than once other runners had to help José Luis and "hey, dude, you're going the wrong way !". He's a fast and dedicated runner - he ends up in 5th position overall - but I would not recommend you to follow him Out There in Frozen Head State Park.
One thing I heard during this race was "hey now Christian, good job, just manage your lead". True, I wasn't expected to be in the lead that early. It was done after 12 hours or so I think. The Spanish did continue to threaten me a bit afterwards, but nothing bad. So all in all, after a rather short time, I was in the lead.
Now let me tell you, I did not "take it easy". I pushed, hard, as hard as I reasonnably could, during the whole 6 days. I would gain about 10 miles over the 2-3-4 group every day. This is not about "managing one's lead". "Managing one's lead" would be gaining a 25 miles lead, then sit on it and control the race from there. I did take some risks until the end. I was chasing Christian Mauduit from 2014, the one at 541 miles. And, mostly, I was only applying my Friend Guy Rossi advices (he was racing ultra triathlons when I was still a baby). And he, AFAIR, would advocate giving always your best when racing. I took some risks because I could technically overheat and leave a widely open road for Olivier Chaigne to step up the 1st place, but as long as my primary goal is to ... "do my best" I can only reach it when I just demonstrate a sincere effort on the track.
I think I had it wrong with the shoes. I started out with a cheap pair bought on sale while I was at a large sport dealer buying something else. Not bad shoes, but they had not enough control and pronation support for me. So after, say 36 hours, I had to change for another pair. A brand I had used in Le Luc in 2013, and had been disappointeed. Back then I had considered the track was so aggressive with shoes it was not that brand or model's fault. But now, then again, after 2 days they are worn out. OK I had done a couple races with them before, but still, now I know it, these are not suitable for heavy (185 pounds) runners like me. So I end up using good old trail shoes, Asics Trabucco. Quite a solid make, however the cushionning is not that great so at the end of the race, my feet where quite mashed up.
Next time, I try and be serious and show with real, adapted gear. It's crazy that even with so many years of running, I can still make so stupid a blunder. And I even know a perfect local dealer nearby in France who always has the perfect gear for anyone. Tsss...
Let's on this 6 days, it's fifty-fifty between newcomers and old timers. Every year the same ol' people keen coming by. And every year also, rookies show up, bringing some fresh blood into the battle. And this is great, because we get a whole week to discover each other. It's like a huge holiday camp. With a major daily activity, quite repetitive but yet unforgettable: "today, we circle around the track!".
During those 6 days, I meat Sarah Barnett again, an Australian girl who might have ran all the 6 days available on the planet, I also chatted - and sadly saw him leaving early - with Denis Orsini, winner of the 6 days in Pentano this year with 455 miles, I met the French moving Bible of ultra road racing in general and time-based events more specifically, I named Christophe Antoine, I saw Jean-Patrick Lely and chatted with his partner who is by the way a great swimmer (not totally sure I fully got what their vacation/sports camp is all about, but sounds cool), Martine Renaux reminded me of my young triathlon years with her blue suit, I remembered last minute that Jacques Beck does not dring any alcohol (which, for someone coming from Belgium, is quite unexpected...), I kissed Valérie Mauduit (and hell, I could get a handle on my toothbrush on day 3, yes, that gives you an idea how she loves me), I listened to the amazing story of Denis Jarriault meeting Léa, I took a serious stride demo by Cristina Gonzalez Garcia, I vainly attempted to better my Spanish beyond "una cervesa por favor" with Alberto Melendex Perez, I resisted a furious envoy to shoot "ça va lise?" (a bad joke in French, as "va lise" sounds like "valise" which means suitcase) at Lise Borel every time I would pass her (hint: on of my daughters is named Lise), I saw the great Richard Mc Chesnay oscillate between 5 and 1 mph, I followed with great interest that little dynamite stick they call "Maria Pierre", I longly discussed politics and how great our new President is (aouch', please no, not here...) with Jean-Michel Dréan, I saw how Jérôme Chevrieux is improving, spending much more time on the track, I congratulated Mireille Cormier for her beautiful South-African cap (I got the same at home, I mean, the cap), I had good old talks about race-walking and athletism in general with Dominique Eche, I was the happy neighbour of Elisabeth and Berbard Lescure-Thanron, I admired the elegant walking style of Sabrina Freyburger, I said hi to the now-so-famous Jaroslav Prückner, I agressively (grrr!) threatened Dephine and Olivier Wepierre, should they try and beat us at the unofficial running couple contest, I (like every year...) had Patrick Pierre take notice that he would limp a bit, "watch out for your left leg, Patrick!", I insanely used Guy Guibert as a pacemaker when I would slow down, I enjoyed the typical southern French accent - directly imported from the Pyrénées - of Aurélien Olivant, I tried to cheer up Maria José Tomaz de Aquino but that was hard because we could not communicate in English and the only I can do in Spanish is order a beer, let alone in Portuguese, I admired the incredible effort done by José-Luis Posado Perez, I had the change to cross Cécile Schmidt pass who, clever as she is, would not spend the day outside in the 2 pm heat, I talked trail races with Fredy Rachafka, who was mostly a spectator in this race I think, but could do a very big mileage, I (finally!) got why Jean-Michel Fremery is not so talkative, I promise next time, I send clearer signals along the road, I spotted Vérone Vincent, as always, without her shoes, barefoot on the track - and when you know the course, you realize it's something noticeable - despite the fact it's probably not Dominique Vincent who stole them, I saw Gérard Cartier, always running strong and dynamic, I had the opportunity to discover Nicolas Poissant, he was unlucky this time, but could well surprise us in the race-walking category, I saw Francine Hervier run from day one to day six, always looking great, I followed with interest the adventures of Fançois Xavier Hop-o'-My-Thumb Dubois, who left, in various part of the track, different electronic devices, and hopefully collected them all before leaving, I listened with great interest the amazing ultra projects of Marc Djistera Ternier, I chatted with Guillaume Sautai, always in the right place at the right moment, I discovered the ever smiling Gilles Lemaine, exchanged a few words with Vincent Lauvergne (curiously, I would have thought he'd put more miles in the bank), I watched, hipnotized, the pendulum movement of Dominique Odouard's arm (Dominique is sort of a mutant, he's unusually tall and as funny as he's tall), I closely followed the metronome Christophe Biet (or is he a bulldozer variant? dunno, but he moves steady), I waited with sheer impatience the moment Philippe Vidal would step into his fireman outfit, he set the track on fire, I admired Philippe Clément's walking style, I cheered Jean-Louis Valderrama as he was trying to reach the Spartathlon qualifier during the first 48 hours, without daring to tell him the secret weapon is to use socks and regular shoes (he's known as "Croc's man" here, he always, always, runs every single ultra in Crocs), I talked books and publishing with Jacques Flament, I remembered my good old times with Patricia Bouème in 2014, when she saved my night by walking with me, I could not help being impressed by Jean Thielbault, who ran all (12 of them) the editions of the 6 Jours de France (starting in Antibes, 2006), I tried to set up a Christian's running club with Christian Velly, I was regularly passed by Roger Luccioni, who makes it an habit to run strong at the end, I had serious uncontrolled laughter with Patrick Joassard, I listened carefully the advices of Jean-Claude Beaumel, I enjoyed the race set up by Gérard Ségui (he ran with us the first 2 days), I was bluffed by the most surprising hats of José-Luis De Santos Hernanzes (was that really him, those crazy umbrellas ? EDIT: I got it wrong, Alberto Costilla Garcia was the one with the funny hats), I said hi - sadly, he could not start the race - to the very nice Philippe Herbert, I waited for 6 days for the candies distributed by Sylvie Couturon, I noticed the very powerful style of Fabien Shlegel, I also was pleased to meet again Alain Burger, I noticed Patricia and Éric Vandeportal seem to come from Jarnac (I used to have family nearby), I said hi to Marina Hausman, knowing that I owe her pretty much 50% of what I now about 6 days tactics, I tried to motivate Frédéric Pettaros into pimping up his tattoo on his right calf, without success, I crossed Jacques Moutier's path, I have an immense respect for him since he completed the Ultrathlétic Ardèche... walking, I sent positive messages to Toni Perusic, a great runner, I suspect he could perform even better, I suffered with Lucille Leclercq who had her feet totally bruised at the end, I encouraged Alain Casper "as always", conversely I enjoyed, each time I'd pass him, the ever-positive messages from Philippe Bousquie, I spent a couple nice mornings with Bernd Schmidt, enjoying with him the cool hours around dawn, time would fly by in his company, I could not ignore the fact Toshio Ohmori has the lightest t-shirt you can make out, ever, I was pleased to meet Bernard Rapetou Bouliteau again, crossed the path of our temporary neighbour (he had a room just when Anne and my daughters were staying) Ariel Anselmo Gorga, I saw Saïd Bourjila beat the national Moroccan record of 6 days, and if you think about it, Morocco is a country where grabbing a national record, when it comes to running, is not a small feat, I could only salute Daniel Mazeau's hat and style, most beautiful, I admired the incredible consistency of Seïgi Arita, I met Bénédicte Salomez again (funny, I had met her near Paris in a completely not-ultra-related event), I was impressed by the steady Philippe Rosset who slowly but surely did make his way up to 4th place and over 700k, I was pleased to meet Alain Duverne again, always smiling, I was happy to exchange words with Peter Kluka, you always learn something by doing so, I had time to wonder wether Pascale Bourdel is really always, 100% of the time, smiling, is that smile just printed there or can it technically fade, that is the question, I was lucky, again, to see Joëlle and Michel Debaisieux, also serious contenders of the unofficial running couple contest, I was totally mindblown by Claudie Bizard and her very efficient, professional style, with a clear and well deserved victory at the end, I admired the Payet Family, Didier, Claude and Lucie, and told it would be cool if I could also bring my kids here, but it just depends on them, let them decide, I won't interfere, I saw Roger Ben score lap after lap, I gave a good tap on the shoulder and tried to cheer up Fernando Soriano Rubio on a Saturday morning, when he was having one of those awfull "lows" only multidays ultras can cause, I noticed Christelle Vincent, always even, quite stable over time, I wished that Olivier Chaigne would regain his amazing stamina so that he would itch me and push me forward - this will be for next time, no problem - I outrageously enjoyed the nice company of Cathy Muller to soften the hardness of some incredibly hot afternoons, I was, as always, pleased to see Mimi Chevillon again, more than ever on the track, I remarked the very clean and neat race-walking style of Suzanne Beardsmore, I discovered Françoise Lodomez, and met again Philippe Kieffer and followed, sometimes with a worried feeling, his ups and downs throughout the race, but then, this is how we like him.
Yes, I did all that in 6 days. And I probably forgot some. Please forgive me, sometimes, my memory plays tricks to me.
And I also do not forget those who sent me messages on the web site. Those messages we get printed on paper and receive in plastic physical mail boxes on the track. Thanks. Thanks to all of you.
And finally, to close that friends' chapter, two great guys, the former Gégé (Cain) and the upcoming one (Ségui), who are transferring to each other the responsibility of handling. Thanks to you, for what you've done already, and also for what's coming next. And please transmit my warm thanks to all the people who make this race possible.
I had a wonderful Saturday, the last day. The big picture was, I had won the race, and starting from 10 am, I only had to "put miles or 500" which is quite rewarding activity. Nothing to loose, basically, it's just net gain.
This being said, I missed my personal record. I knew it was over when we had 3 days of heat in a row. It was impossible for me to move strong in the afternoon, and I would need this to tackle 540 miles. So well, I'll try again. And again. Until I beat it. And then, I will try to beat the new record. That's the point. It never stops. And when I get old enough so that beating my records seem unrealistic, I can follow Jean-Claude Beaumel (73 years old) way of doing things, he only permits himself "3 miles less every year".
Meanwhile, I had a great time at these 6 days, and I'm very happy for Valérie who managed to beat her personal record (she ends with 292 miles, nice) and most important, she had an even, regular race.
Next step: Revolve 24, 24h on a bike at Brands Hatch in England, preparing RAAM. It would be a good think to do at least 350 miles. In itself, this should not be a problem, I'm more concerned about the 27 000 feet elevation this would represent. But hey, I'll just show up and do my best, there's really no other option.
PS: this race report is also available in French (Français) and in Spanish (español) thanks to my wife Valérie who translated it.
PPS: you can also read her race report.