I failed to finish the 75km Trail des Hospitaliers three times over the last five years. This time it was make or break. This grueling run starts from Nant in the Aveyron, France and goes around a loop that includes about 3700 meters of climb (measured at 10m spacing) including one long haul up the Mont Guiral of about 800 m vertical – and almost as much down the other side.
Last year I nearly made it round but was just outside the time limit at the last checkpoint (the spectacular village perché of Cantobre) and also was pretty well pooped and probably incapable of doing the last few kilometers as these include yet another trip up and over the Causse.
In the run up to this year’s race I convinced myself that last year’s failure was likely due to ‘bonking,’ i.e. running out of energy. In the past I have beev a great purchaser of energy bars and so on but I have not been so good at actually consuming them during a race or ride. I find the munching effort too much and end up returning home with the bars unconsumed. This year I tried to find out a bit more about nutrition during a race.
As in just about any subject, researching the web is tricky because it is full of commercial ‘advice’ on what products to use and there is also a lot of information from people who just seem to be making this stuff up. Like do you really need all those vitamins and trace elements, and what difference can it make for the duration of a race whether the stuff you eat is ‘bio’ or not?
Being of a somewhat scientific nature and liking to keep things simple I figure that what I really needed during a race was sugar and water. The question was then how much. More web trawling and chatting with friends gave came up with the following. First that it is pretty well impossible to replace all the calories you use up in a big race. You may well be burning around 500+ kcal/hour but it is hard to ingest anything like that amount. Someone told me that the max was about 100 kcal/hr which sounds like not very much but when you translate it into gels and bars it looks like quite a lot. For the 16 hours I was running this means 1600 kcal, i.e. 16 sachets of PowerBar’s Powergel or 32 of those little tubes of stuff. The other advice I randomly selected out of the huge amont of information was that it is a good idea to eat something every 30 minutes or so from the start of the race. I set out with all my uneaten bars and gels from previous races and decided to give the new regimen a go. The results were pretty convincing as a look at my times over the two years shows.
I set off this year eating regularly pretty much whatever I had. Bars, gels and Isostar glucose tabs. My wife replenished the supplies at the feeding stops. The first half of the race includes the big climb over the Mont Guiral I mentioned earlier. Previously I found this pretty hard going and had to stop for a break on the way up. Even on the way down on some occasions. This time I ate and ate and, although my time was similar to last year, I did the climb and the descent feeling infinitely better than in previous years. The eating thing went so well that I actually ate all my stuff with a couple of hours to go before the next food stop. I did the St.Jean to Dourbies leg in pretty much the same time as previous years but felt a zillion times better.
Running out of food for a couple of hours was not such a great idea but it gave another point of the graph because although I started eating again asap, I was undoubtedly in a calorie deficit as I did the next Dourbies to Treves leg about 10 minutes slower than in 2014. This actually put me 5 minutes behind my 2014 time at Trèves (something that thankfully I did not realize at the time). But again, I was again in much better shape and got another handful of bars and gels before setting off on the redoubtable leg from Trèves to Cantobre.
This leg is tough (the route goes along a rubbly riverbed, climbs a bit to a long traverse on an awkward sloping path before yet another big up and down the Causse Noire) and it is not made easier by the fact that the race notionally ‘finishes’ at Cantobre. In other words, if you make it to Cantobre by 6:30 pm – i.e. in under 13 ½ hours you are OK and you can take as long as you like to do the last Cantobre to Nant leg. So the pressure is on.
I am not saying that the new regimen made this critical penultimate leg easy but by golly, having reloaded on my calories and with constant topping up, I managed to knock off 20 minutes off my 2014 time for this 13 km leg. What’s more, I actually managed to run quite fast along the short flat stretch before the scramble up to Cantobre. There was energy to spare! Made it just under the time limit.
I took the ‘take as long as you like’ motif to heart for the final stretch and walked steadily over the rather tricky path to Nant. I came in last except for a couple of walking wounded to an incredible reception. It was great to see the clock showing 15 hours 59 minutes, like this was somehow significant. There must have been 50 yellow jacketed ‘benevoles’ who shouted, clapped and cheered – even managed a Mexican wave as I crossed the line and ran their gauntlet. An amazing reception that was reserved for us tail enders – the online video of the winner shows nothing like this as the benevoles were all still out in the field. Really this is an incredibly well organized and friendly event. Highly recommended.
Post script ..
French speakers might like to read my ‘compagnon de fortune‘ Thierry’s race account in the Festival de Hospitaliers guest book and a few other exciting accounts – notably from “deux points de suture” Sophie. My thanks to Jane my spouse for all the support, ferrying to and fro and supplies of gels and bars. Thanks too to Lionel of Lou Castel at Cantobre and friends for the pancakes and his wise suggestion that I wear a jacket for the last leg (it suddenly got quite cold in the curious hinterland between the Cantobre rock and the climb up the rock Nantais).