Tunnel Ultra Race Report

September 24th - 26th, 2021

What is this "Tunnel Ultra" thing? Like, you do an ultrarunning race in a tunnel, is that it? Sir yes Sir! This is exactly it. You run in a tunnel for a very long time. So simple. The tunnel is a mile long. You have a 100 outs, and a 100 backs, to do. Which, if you add it up, amounts to 200 miles. Time limit is 55 hours. On paper, nothing could be more easy. You just go to other end, come back to the starting point, repeat 100 times, and that's it, you're done!

Tunnel under the Channel
To go to a race in a tunnel, use a tunnel. Logical. The Shuttle is not too crowded these days.

In terms of logistics, they provide a table with snacks, 2 giant water bottles, there's a laptop plugged to a chip detector at one end, and another detector at the othe end. And this is it.

For other accomodations:

  • Spectators, public ? None.
  • Assistance? Forbidden.
  • Camping ground? No, not enough room.
  • Parking area? Same, too small, no place, nothing.
  • Extra gear? Your own stuff, stored outside, prefer something waterproof such as a plastic box.
  • Hot food? Now wait, do you seriously expect a Grand Chef to cook you special fancy dishes Out There?
  • Company, friends along the road ? You have to run single file, security first.
  • Headphones, music? Forbidden, way too dangerous!
  • First aid station, doctor? None.
  • Walking sticks? Forbidden, use your legs.
  • Restrooms? Yes, one of those mobile plastic things. Opens only 5 minutes before race start.
  • Cyclists riding at 20 mph in the dark? Yes, there are.

Now I think you got the point. This is (quoting the race director) a "low key" event. The official web site of the race makes it straight clear, this is going to get you out of your comfort zone. If you had to pick one color to define it, it would be grey, and the main theme is loneliness.

English countryside
Gone to do a PCR test and some basic shopping in Bristol. Beautiful area.

On the finishers t-shirt one can read "There comes a point where you no longer care if there's a light at the end of the tunnel or not. You're just sick of the tunnel."

Of course, since I love events which are a little different and original, I had to try it. This is even so absurd that the tunnel is an ancient railroad near Bath which is a marvelous thermal place, maybe a little outdated and tainted with nostalgia but the surrounding countryside is just superb. This is a beautiful place, and we, 30 brainless runners, are going to stick ourselves in a tunnel for more than 50 hours. Mindblowing.

The first achievement, for me, was to step my foot on British soil. With COVID, travelling abroad requires some serious motivational skills, but with help of a full vaccination, and 2 PCR tests, among them one in the UK that cost me 100 pounds (!), and an amazing amount of paperwork which must, I believe, impress viruses as much as it impresses apes like me, I managed to make my way to the start line. So at 3:30 pm sharp, I was there, ready to start.

The other side
The North-West entry. Slightly higher than the other one. Just a very little bit higher.

Even the start line is strange. It's the wrong way, turned 90 degrees, since we must start single file. So we start following each other. I had already "visited" the tunnel just an hour before the race, since I came from my hotel and entered the tunnel from its other end. So I could discover then that well, you know, it's a tunnel. In the middle, it has some road quality pavement, wide like a comfortable bike path, maybe 8 or 9 feet. Then on the side you get some gravel (railroad ballast) on a width of 2 (large?) feet. All in all, the whole thing must be 13 feet wide or so. This is very approximate, I did not measure. But what I am sure of is that this is a single track tunnel, no way two trains could cross each other here. Ah, and the border of the nice center pavement is marked with a white line. This is convenient because between those two zones, there's small step, maybe the gravel is only 2 inches lower, but this is enough to twist your ankle if you do not pay attention. Apart from this, the tunnel is lit by some dim lights but after some time you get used to it so you do not need any headlamp. Also there's a small slope, the start area in the South East is a little lower than the other North West end. So you get the overall feeling to climb the get down. Something like a small 1% slope. Last point, in the middle of the tunnel, you can hear some music, sounds like classical music looping on 1 minute. If you do not like violin, you're going to suffer even more than others. You can hear it from meter 800 until meter 1100. Because, curiously, hundreds of meters are marked on the ground. Strange to see this metric anomaly in this otherwise imperial country. And if you follow these marks, you could infer the tunnel is 1700m long. But this is wrong, this Wikipédia article about the tunnel teaches us that it's only 1672m. So less than 1700. But more than the official 1609 of a mile. You draw your own conclusions as to what the distance of the race is, but it is clearly 200 miles, no doubt. This race is for purists, not for bargainers.

So I start at a really easy pace. We have 55 hours to express our respective talents, so nothing is going to happen on lap one. I start walking.

My plan:

  • 30 minutes walk, 90 minutes run, until the next morning
  • 15 minutes walk, 105 minutes run, from that point until the second night
  • the rest running as much as I can, just a few walked session to eat and do small logistics
The tunnel
The tunnel is like this. Like it or not.

And that's it. Why do I do this? Forcing myself to walk in the beginning avoids stupid blunders, such as exhausting oneself and entering the red zone too soon. Walking is the most stupid and rudimentary way to do this but you know what, it works with me. I did the same at the 48h in Royan in 2015 and it worked like a charm. So I reuse that good old recipe.

Fun fact, at the end of the first outback, I was the last of the pack. Nobody behind me...

I exchange a few words with a runner named Graeme, on paper he seems slower than me but since I took it easy in the beginning, we're together. We talk while being one behind the other. When by some circumstance you get side by side with somebody, you feel guilty... This is special. So well, here we are, about 4 hours into the race. I check my mileage. Wut? Only 20 miles? That sounds not too much. This is when I started to grasp the subtlety of those 1672 meters miles. British humour is something you need time to appreciate. And I can not complain, I have had plenty of time to appreciate it. Plenty, really.

Beginning of the race was rather easy. I panicked a little bit regarding the clothes I had brought. I had underestimated the wind. Some run in a t-shirt. I wear a t-shirt, a light long sleeve technical layer, and on top of this a cycling jersey. And still I am not too hot. I have a theory on that. Those who start half naked in the beginning of the race are just burning calories too fast. They feel hot because they exercise too much, go too fast. And they pay for it afterwards, except for a few of them who indeed have a different metabolism. But most of them start putting layers back on at the end of the race, because they slow down, and then they get cold. But yeah, I am still a bit annoyed, because even with those 3 layers, I feel a little cold. I had one more layer but... the zip is broken, it's useless. And I finally have a light rain jacket, which can act as a windstopper. And that's it. No extra, nothing to cover my legs, no extra dry t-shirt, I came with one set of clothes, period. Apart from 2 extra pairs of socks, which I eventually won't use, I have no spare. My bet was that changing clothes was a waste of time, and the weather inside the tunnel should be stable. Knowing this is not a fashion meeting, one set is enough. It was a reasonably good bet, but not an excellent one.

I then discuss a bit with Berit Jessen, a young lady (there are all young, I can tell) who is beginning in the ultra world, and well, she's doing great so far.

And then comes the night. The first night. Because you have to be realistic, even moving very (very) fast you have to spend two nights in the tunnel. So what does it change, since it's dark anyway? Well, it changes two things. First, you don't have this small break of daylight at each extremity. And this small fraction of daylight does wonder. Light, life. Second, between 11 pm and 5 am, lights off! Well, more precisely, between 11:30 pm and 5:00 am, and only half of the tunnel gets pitch dark. I've been told the race director is disappointed. I can understand this. I mean, you make a race for real tough people, and then somebody decides to cancel the challenge and keeps the light on almost half a mile. Can we seriously call this is a challenge anymore? If all ultras get easier and easier this way, at each yearly iteration, they are all going to get as trivial as a gentle Sunday walk in the park. Where has all the good old hard stuff gone? So well, anyway, I have to pull out my headlamp and use on 50% of the course. At the very moment lights turn off, I am in the dark, unlit part, and wham! Absolute darkness within a fraction of a second. I was happy to have a working light.

The tunnel looks different, with the headlamp. It changes a bit.

And you know what, I think I kind of appreciate it now. It looks wider when I look at it with the headlamp only. With the official orange lights it seems narrower, like crushed onto itself. With the headlight, it looses character as well, looks flat, that's typical of anything you light with a source light near the point of view. Everything looks uniform. To diversify my environment, I sing in my head, because remember, headphones are forbidden. So now radio brain is playing takapoum... If that sounds weird to you, do not worry. It is a little weird. But it makes me feel great and keeps me entertained.

I keep on alternating walk and run with a 30 min walk every 2 hours scheme. At night, during the walking sessions, I tend to fall asleep. Once or twice I end in the left wall. Slowly, so this does not really hurt but still. I should not walk for too long, because indeed, when doing so, I get dizzy and fade away. I sometimes even need to wear my small rain jacket, because I get cold, walking.

In terms of ranking, I looked, so far, my progession every 4 hours or so. I went from 20th in the early evening, to 11th at the beginning of the night, and now I am slowly climbing the ladder, to stabilize, if I remember well, around 5th the next day. This is just a general idea, I do not really care in detail. What I do is that I observe runners who look fresh. There's one who's making an impressive loud noise. Tac-tac-tac-tac-tac... I forgot his name but remember his yellow shirt very well. And another guy, with a much lighter stride, whom I initially thought was a dude doing his daily 10k training. It's only after seeing him over and over that I realized he was racing with us. This was Mike Raffan I think. Those two guys seemed surprisingly fresh to me. One the first third of an ultra, you do not care about who's first or last or middle of the pack. The only thing that matters is who's in great shape and who's already in the red zone. The significant differences in time and distance are usually built later into the race.

And so this is another day. New rhythm, 15 minutes of walk every 2 hours. In terms of food, I use a lot the snacks provided by the race. They are simple, yet efficient. Crackers, candies, chocolate bars, water, and that's pretty much it. There's sugar, salt, liquid, the fundamentals. And, what's more, there's always something, they always put something new in there, so that's cool. This is just perfect, everything that was announced in the race description has been true so far. I like this. But well, on top of this, I have, in my bag (stored outside, just at the tunnel entrance) a 6 tortillas pack, 2 cans of SPAM, sliced cheese, bananas, a big bottle of local cola, 6 cereal bars, and 3 packs of honey. My plan is to make a "sandwich" (let's not call this a taco, Mexican food is better than this and deserves more respect) every 6 hours, using the fake ham or cheese. And hang around with a pack of honey always in my back pocket, this way I always have something sugary at hand in case I get a low. Other than that I carry a water bottle. I got no back pack, everything fits into my pockets. This is why I opted for a cyclist jersey, you get pockets everywhere in the back. It floats a bit but it's not *that* bad. At least I do not waste time at the refreshment area, and that's already a thing.

So during the day, I discover the ceiling of the tunnel. Now imagine that since the lighting is orange, in contrast, the top of the tunnel appears a blue. And dark blue on top, makes you think about a night sky. Then on the sides, the walls are interrupted at regular intervals by some pillars in stone (or brick?) which is a little darker than the rest. There, this looks almost like tree trunks. And those orange lights, after all, they might be the dim warm light of a late sunset, filtering through the trees. Trees of which you can see the leaves, because the ceiling is not perfectly regular and has those darker veins in places. Who can make the difference between branches and stripes of stones in the dark? Not me. And after all, this is fine. I do regularly have hallucinations on ultras, this is pretty common. It usually waits for night 2 to happen, but I imagine the tunnel favors those cognitive distortions. So I just enjoy it, because running under beautiful trees, with a lovely permanent sunset, is not worse than running in a grey and sad and monotonous tunnel. My imagination is unleashed, I see purple in places, and sometimes the overall ambiance changes. Awesome!

In terms of ranking, I went up to place 3rd or 4th. We're a small pack of 3 or 4 runners, just in the same lap. We should pass 24h with something like 110 miles I think. Not crazy, but that's already something. In front, this runner with his stomping feet (might just be noisy shoes). He's a metronom, regular, steady. He is, I think, about 9 laps ahead, being at 58 when I am at 49, and then zap! I go from 3rd to 2nd place, doing nothing. He dropped off. Wut? He looked so fresh. I will learn later that he already won this race, and has another target within 2 weeks, so rather than exhausting himself in the tunnel, he prefers saving forces. That makes sense. But I am a little disappointed.

And now, this is night number 2. It gets a little more complicated. Indeed, we've been given instructions, to not get lost, because in the area where there's no light, there's a course variant, one has to pay attention to not loose the right track. I think this is sutpid. Light or not light, the path remains the same, right? Yeah well. I wait until lights are off. And then I realize that indeed, the part in which we have to pull the headlamp is trickier. I almost do not walk anymore, at least never "plan" to walk. I acknowledge sometimes it's not that easy to find the right path options among all those that are offered. I try to reason myself: this is a tunnel. There are only 2 exits. No variants. If you come it an one end, you get out at the other one. Yes, but with lights shut down, that's what they explained, you have to be careful, because it's easy to get it wrong. What? Anyway, I am not here to search for any conflict. If we've been asked to watch our steps, I will do so, no problem, I'm your man.

Now let's face it, this second night, things are tightening themselves. I finally managed to take the lead, and now that I am in 1st place, try to build up some distance between me and my followers. They are doing great, going strong and steady. But the truth is, at this stage, after more than 30 hours of racing, nobody is going to break through at 8 mph. If they were strong enough to do so, they'd be in front. So my plan is dead simple: keep going, as planned, don't let it go, this will be fine.

I am happy when, at 5 am, light is back on. Now the night course change is reverted, no more needed to find your way around, it's just straight ahead! Yes, but no. It is more complicated than this. It depends on tunnel sections. More specifically, the center zone, AKA "the old town" is always complicated to negociate. In this place, the tunnel widens itself, and you can guess there were old ancient buildings here. Well, not really, because it's a tunnel, but there could have been. This is, among other things, why some sections of the tunnel have been given names, according to what they can evocate.

A bit of knowledge, did you know that this tunnel respects a rather strict tradition of "no branches". You'll tell me, that's easy, with all that rock around it, nobody is going to improvise a small instant option on the left... But yeah, let's say that beyond the practical aspect, it is more for philosophical, artistic reasons, that this tunnel is straight and has only one path. Now this tradition is good for me, because it simplifies things for me, because there are so many different paths that appear with time, and it's not always easy to spot the right option in this whole mess.

And it is around lap 85 I think, so mile 170, that it strikes me. Sh*t, I lost my mind. The tunnel is straight because it is an ancient railroad. And if there are no branches it is because it is not possible. Period. Well, it could be opossible in theory, but in the case of this specific tunnel, there is none, it is straight, no options, end of the debate.

Now, I am reassured.

But wait... in that case, why were we given specific instructions for the night? And all those different sections of the tunnel, the old town, the long straight, the wider zone, the terrain changes, I did not dream that did I? So now stop fooling me, nothing is so simple. But I have a trick. A trick that always work. I know where the right path is, even when my perception is getting fussy. I "just" have to try a found a round shape that "encloses" everything that is in front, and there it is! This is the tunnel. And the right direction. It works all the time, this is wonderful.

So I keep going this way. Only I am wasting vast amounts of time. Sometimes, indeed indeed in this old town sector, there are some obstacles, chains, barriers, cars parked in weird places. No wait, there can't be any parked cars, since they can not enter the tunnel. Yeah right but here's a BMW right in front of me, I am not going to run into it, I am not mad! But yes, on the contrary, go ahead, hit the road, the car can not be here, so if you see it, it is necessarily an illusion, so you can safely go through it, without any risk. Wait wait wait man, are you telling me I can run anywhere, hit obstacles and not care, and this is fine? Nice from you to give me all those pieces of advice, but I want to stay alive. So I keep being cautious, and keep moving, but watch my steps.

So I spend crazy amounts of time checking whethere there are obstacles, trying to find my route, etc. Hopefully, I hit reality again every time I reach the end of the tunnel. Daylight, that changes a man. For a few seconds, the world becomes real and realistic again. But as soon as I get back into the tunnel, it starts again. Illusions, alternate course options, obstacles. I crossed bridges over wide empty spaces, arches made out of dinosaur bones, long green hedges, all kind of things.

The most worrying thing, I think, is this "Notre Dame" area, which looks like Paris, just before reaching the South-East end of the tunnel. It is full of life, people walking by, and this is just... not right.

At some point, after lap 90, I realize again that I am loosing my mind. At this time, I am at the North-West end of the tunnel. I reason myself. It's a f*cking tunnel. Empty. There is nothing. There are no bridges. There are no old houses. There are no parked cars. It is just a straight tunnel and THIS IS IT! And now I get a good idea. I am going back into the tunnel, and as soon as this little trickster tries to play with me, I pull out my phone camera and bam, it will have to comply with reality.

And you know what? It works! As soon as I get the camera out of my pocket, everything disappears. The obstacles, the chains, the cars, the houses, everything is gone. There's only a bare tunnel, empty. With, obviously, cyclists passing around from time to time, and a few racers as well, but generally speaking, things are back to normal. And immediately, everything becomes easy again. When before I had to find my way, avoid obstacles, handle the unexpected, now I can just: run, run, run, run. So indeed I will have to give up the comfort of all the variety that my imagination is pulling out of the void, and I will have to pay the price of monotony. But grayness and uniformity is better than this permanent illusion which, among other things, slows me down considerably.

HQ
Race headquarters.

And this is getting worrying, because I had started to build up some "safety laps" between me and the second runner, but he is now catching up. Indeed, I waste time on stupid imaginary things... But this is over. I am now back on track, I move faster, this is all so easy. Christian 1, Tunnel 0. End of the game, ha ha ha!

Yes, but in fact no. Illusions are back again. But this is fine, I have my camera! I pull it out, watch the screen. All black. I try to turn on the light. Which button is it? Can't remember. But it worked a couple hours ago! I try again, but there's no way. Around me is a giant tunnel, maybe 30 feet wide, in the brownish, reddish tone, not so dark, pretty nice. I know this is not the real tunnel. I stop. Close my eyes. I concentrate my mind on my mental image of the real tunnel. Then open my eyes again. Hey, it worked! The tunnel is back, small and empty. I can hit the road again.

Until it does not work anymore. Until my last techniques, namely, from the moment I enter the tunnel, fixing its sides and anything that is close to me and progressively extend this reality zone to incrementally build up a true image of the tunnel. Nothing works now. I know this is all fake. I can not see. I am blind. How can I still avoid the bikes? Still a mystery. The rare contacts I have with other racers help me a lot. At least if I cross their paths it means that I am in the right place, at the right time! I had a very friendly and interesting exchange with a Greek runner, I forgot his name but he's done several races in France, among them la Transe Gaule, and la Milkil.

I only have 3 laps to go. I ask people to confirm before I leave. Just, to be sure. I just go to the other end, it's straight, I can not get it wrong, correct? Yes Christian, go go go, you are going to win. Oh, right. So. I keep going. The landscape evolves in most unexpected ways. For the 3 last laps I am required to use the twisty road, and end up on top of the hill. They go straight down. The downhill is steep, but the view is magic. 98th lap. I confirm, it was a beautiful view.

Now I start lap 99. I don't get it. I got out of the tunnel. How is this possible when I went downhill from top of the hill? I do not dare to ask the question. I fear I got it wrong and might be disqualified. But I have a trick. Just find the round shape around the environment, and this is both the proof I am on the right track, and a valuable hint to find my path forward. Keeping LHS, of course, security first.

And a small voice, back in my head, tells me: don't think, move forward. And when you see the light, U-turn and go back the other way. This is not complicated, is it? Yes but what if I miss the end of the tunnel and get lost in the countryside? Now will you shut up and move! Do you want people to remember you as the stupid dude who lost his mind 3 miles before the end and screwed up his race? OK right, I'll move.

I clearly remember, at some point, thinking that if all this was a dream, an illusion, why would I even bother the suffering? In a dream, you wait, you let it go, and then you wake up and it's over. This is how it works. I stand right in the middle of the tunnel. Or rather, in the middle of a landscape which does not exist. Can somebody help me? Help! I feel lonely, help me! Nobody answers. I am right to feel lonely, I am indeed alone. I finally realize I will not wake up. The only way out, is to move, to run. My body hurts all over, my crotch is a total mess, I walk and run like a duck, but hell, I need to move my ass out of here. With a little help from Luck, there will be light at the other end of the tunnel. It worked 197 times. Why not once more? I have nothing to loose.

Final lap. I want somebody to come with me. I don't want to get lost. I do not know now, whether I need to take the twisty road or whether the tunnel exists, at all. Did I take a shortcut? So many things are contradictory, nothing makes sense, maybe the race itself can not exist. Take the example of this night instructions we had, the tradition of the "no branches" tunnel, this is all crap, stop taking me for a fool, leave me alone, I just want to run. I leave the refreshment area, I have a plan. A simple plan.

  • go up
  • when I see daylight, change direction, go back
  • keep going until the end

And as you don't see the light, you don't stop, d'ya get it? Ok boss.

Gone again
This way, right?

Obviously, after 1 minute, I am back again in dreamland, this type looks like some Japanese set up. This will never end. Racers cross me and encourage me. There are not so many of us racing, all of those who did not manage to get 100 miles in 27:30 have been pulled off the race. And others simply decided to quit. Mandy Foyster, first lady to (soon) finish the race, handles it like a pro. As I arrive on top, miracle, I recognize the place.

Final mile. A few minutes, seconds of reality and them back again, the full picture, with bridges, and the "american" finish with rails. On top of this, a racer passes me, and as I try to follow him, I am blocked by stairs. This is not possible. There are no stairs on a railroad. I try to keep close to the wall, keep touching it with my hands. I put my foot in the void. It is like there would be a glass pane over that void, the stairs are an illusion. Being cautions, I wait until that empty space is only a few inches before daring to actually run on it.

And finally, I see daylight. I hear applause. Maybe less than 10 people here, but they save me. Light, people, life. I think I underestimated that tunnel quite a bit.

I finish in more than 51h. Honestly, I thought I would be faster, but I won't complain, winning a race is always cool.

I'm done
And it's over. 200 miles (and change) in 51 hours (and change).

My only regret is to not be able to transmit you all those wonderful images I have seen inside the tunnel. Unbelievable. Never seen so many things. Since I am a poor drawer and painter, I think the best way for you to access those images is to either take LSD or, obviously, enter the race, which happens every year.

I have already had hallucinations on races. But in general, it is limited to a strange thing here and there. Now this was the stage beyond, I was unable, even concentrating myself to the maximum, even knowing that everything I was seeing was wrong, to come back to reality. Sometimes I was scared, as it was quite oppressing. My theory, at this stage, is that I simply dreamed, awake. As if my brained started the process associated to dreaming, without waiting for me to actually be asleep. And crossing the finish line, like when you wake up, dreams fade away, and their logic vanishes, and you wonder why your brain went that way. Curiously enough, expect for the first night, I never felt sleepy.

This has been a unique experience. A great warm thank to Berit, who took the time to walk me to a pub nearby, and call me a taxi. I think going back to my hotel by crossing the tunnel a 202nd time was beyond my forces. And also, thanks to race director Mark Cockbain for imagining this... "thing".

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Updated on Thu Sep 30 2021.