It is now exactly a month since I ran Tor des Géants. The first three weeks after the race were though, with first a serious foot infection that barely responded to broad spectrum antibiotics Clinidamycin in tablet form and where I probably should have received intravenous antibiotics from the start as I was quite ill with high fever and an enormously swollen right leg. After the infection I got a serious cold, which was not improved by an overseas business trip to the US, and it was not until this weekend I felt myself again. Upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) are very common after an ultramarathon and in a classic study published by Nieman and colleagues already in 2003 of 45 runners in the 100 miles Western States Endurance Run one in four developed URTI in the two weeks following the race (Nieman et al. Immune and oxidative changes during and following the Western States Endurance Run. Int J Sports Med. 2003; 24: 541-547). Clearly a race like TDG messes up with the immune system and the immune suppression I experienced after the race probably made me also more susceptible to receive the foot infection. The knowledge about the role and response of the immune system during and after endurance activities is increasing and I will come back to this very interesting topic in later blogs. It took also almost a month before I returned to normal eating and sleeping habits - the first weeks I slept much more than normal and I was also contantly hungry despite eating much more than I normally do.
Besides sporadic jogging I have not logged any serious miles and during these past weeks following the race and now when I have started to run my 4.5 miles (7.5 kilometers) to work and 4.5 miles home from work each day my legs feel quite stiff and sore. My knees and Achilles tendons/Ankles feels OK, however, and I think that I am now ready for the long fall and winter build up for next year’s challenges. I have still not suffered from what many runners of TDG call the “Tor sickness” – a deep post-race melancholia almost on the borderline to depression. It might be that I am relishing on the fantastic memories I have been blessed with – I am still thinking about the race almost every night going to bed and often dream about it. It feels almost surrealistic that I made it through and that it was such a great experience. I have been running since I was a little boy in kindergarten, even competing in track and field and cross-country running when I was young, and running has always been something positive and something I have felt to be almost “in my blood” as I grew up with it. However, as an adult I have had other priorities for many years and it was not until the beginning of last year I started to train seriously to gather points to take part of the lottery to UTMB, a lottery I am now very happy that I was not lucky in as it made me take part in the TDG lottery instead. I was clearly not well prepared when I completed Trail Verbier St Bernard last summer and I felt the effects of that 110 kilometer (70 miles) race for several weeks afterwards. This year I came to TDG much more prepared, having run an average of over 100 kilometers (60 miles) per week most of the summer, but still I am surprised that I could make it without completing a 100 miles race ever in my life before having read comments that TDG is “a monster that eats a bowl of Hardrocks for breakfast” on blogs by previous runners.
I think the key to my finish of TDG was that I came really mentally prepared for the race, having it as this year’s main and only goal and dream. I found the exact right balance during the race between being focused on the finish line and completing the race and fulfilling my goal and the management of the pain and emotions I experienced at every moment along the way. If I had only focused on the finish line and my goal and to not DNF I would not have made it as this race requires so much of you for such a long time that you cannot suppress your suffering until after the finish line. You have to embrace it during the run. I also came reasonable well prepared physically as I had no problems at all with the climbs throughout the race and my legs felt strong almost the entire race, perhaps with some exception day 2 and 3 where I really slowed down, but during in particular day 2 I also suffered from altitude headache. The intense hill repeat training with poles I had spent the last few weeks before the race in the local ski slope clearly paid off during the ascents, but regretfully not during the descents. I should have spent much more time running downhill on really steep rocky slopes and across talus fields with stones of all sizes. During the race I think the key to success is to learn how to take care of all kinds of issues, but in particular dermatological problems like blisters and chaffing, and learn how you react to altitude and tiredness. I ran TDG without any crew and support and it would have been much easier if I have had someone to help me at the life bases, where support is allowed as in most European races where no pacers are permitted. At the end of a race lasting more than 100 hours you are not thinking clearly and to have some else tell me to sleep one hour longer would have been very good. On the other hand this was my first try and I have, hopefully, learned a lot now.
I certainly learned and experienced a lot during TDG and I think it normally would have taken many shorter ultras to get the same amount of experience. After the race I have read the book “Eat and Run – My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness” by Scott Jurek and it is fascinating to read his, albeit somewhat colorful, quite correct description in the beginning of the book about what you could experience during an ultrarace:
“I know that I’ve chosen a sport stuffed with long stretches of agony, that I belong to a small, eclectic community of men and women where status is calibrated precisely as a function of one’s ability to endure. Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and my fellow ultrarunners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers. Chafing, black toenails, and dehydration are just rites of passage for those of us who race 50 and 100 miles and more. A marathon is a peaceful prologue, a time to think and work out kinks. Ultrarunners often blister so badly they have to tear off toenails to relieve pressure. One ultrarunner had his surgically removed before the race just in case, so he wouldn’t need to bother later on. Cramps don’t merit attention. Unless nearby lightning makes the hair on your arms and head stand up and dance, it’s nothing but scenery. Altitude headaches are as common as sweat and inspire approximately the same degree of concern (the death by a brain aneurysm of one runner in a Colorado race notwithstanding). Aches are either ignored, embraced, or, for some, treated with ibuprofen, which can be risky. Combined with heavy sweating, too much ibuprofen can cause kidney failure, which usually results in ghostly pallor and, if you’re unlucky, an airlift by helicopter to the nearest hospital. As an ultrarunner buddy and physician once said, “Not all pain is significant.” Ultrarunners take off a sunrise and continue through sunset, moonrise and another sunrise, sunset and moonrise. Sometimes we stumble from exhaustion and double over with pain, while other times we effortlessly float over rocky trails and hammer up a 3’000-foot climb after accessing an unknown source of strength. We run with bruised bones and scraped skin. It’s a hard, simple calculus: Run until you can’t run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster. Other sports take safety precautions, we have death-avoiding precautions baked into the enterprise. Most ultras are dotted with aid stations, where runners are tracked, sometimes weighed, and provided with snacks, shade and medical checkups. The majority of races also include pacers, who are allowed to accompany runners in later sections of the course (but only for advice and to keep them from getting lost, not for carrying food or water). Ultrarunners can – much of the time – bring support crew, men and women who provide food, water, updates on competitors, and reassurance that you can, in fact, continue when you are sure you will collapse. Nearly all ultras are run continuously, meaning that there is no point at which the clock stops and everyone gets to retire for a large plate of pasta and a well-deserved night’s sleep, like competitors in the Tour de France do. That’s part of the challenge and appeal of the event. You keep going in situations where most people stop. You keep running while other people rest”.
I am quite glad I had not read this description before running TDG as I was about to experience most of the things listed, with the exception of the vomiting and that the lightening the first day was not as close.
I have been asked more than once the past month what advice I would give to someone wanting to run TDG and if I only select three it would be:
1) Take care of your feet. Apply lots of Sportslick or similar product from the beginning. Learn how to quickly tape your feet and take care of blisters of all kinds. Use compression socks and change them often. If you are planning to switch shoes bring them in a size normally way to large as your feet will swell enormously.
2) Bring a strong headlight, music and coffee in some form for the long dark and lonely nights.
3) Prepare by running crazy steep rocky downhill trails and learn your feet to love uneven stones of all sizes.