Not unlike last year, I decide rather last minute to run the Ardennes Mega Trail. However, this year, I’d be all by myself. Tony wasn’t really feeling up to repeat the challenge. That kind of made things more serious: talk less, run harder. So on Friday, after work, I drove straight to Les Hautes Rivières, pitched my tent and headed for the bib pickup. Gear check… my heart skips a beat. I totally forgot about the obligatory gear. I check the list and notice I only miss the adhesive elastic band. Luckily I can buy some on the spot. Then it turns out there’s another person who has the same race bib. With some delay, I head back to my tent and have dinner and turn to bed super early, hoping the events of the evening are no omen for the next day.
The next day starts early. Too early. I eat some muesli, Fill up my backpack and decide to make use of the drop-off point at 50k to reduce the number of energy bars I have to carry on the first part. I add a sleeveless shirt, you never know what it might be good for. And then off to the start where my colleagues are already nervously pacing back, forth, left and right and any other directions they can think off. I position myself somewhere in the 10th row and can’t help getting nervous. I love this. Torches are being lit and the memories of last year come to mind. I’d totally forgotten about the first loop between tons of volunteers with torches. A bagpipe fills itself. And then we’re off, into the darkness!
During the first short loop, I try to position myself a bit in between runners doing more or less the same pace. It’s tempting to go fast with the 54k & relay runners mixed between those of us running the AMT. I focus on my body. It’s the first time I did the whole ‘carbo loading’ thing and on the last day of the carbo-starving preceding it, I got some bad cramps in my left calf. I can still feel it somewhere beneath the surface. Let’s hope my Skins tights can keep them under control. We pass the start again and then it’s really on! 93 more kilometers of this. The unspoken goal: anywhere under 15 hours.
I move up in the pack. Things go smoothly. We’re barely 10k far when the sun gives us enough light to put away the headlamp. We encounter the first really steep climbs and I pull out my poles, only to notice that one of them doesn’t lock properly anymore. That’s what you get when you don’t use them for months and don’t test them the day before I guess. Great! I decide to use only 2 of the 3 telescopic parts, which works fine, except when the tip gets stuck which makes me lose the bottom part of the stick again and again. This sucks!
At the second supply post, I see some safety ribbon and stuff some ribbon inside my pole. It still won’t grip, but at least I won’t lose anymore. Get some water and onwards because, except for the poles, everything goes really, really well. I reach the 33.5k supply post, where the 54k and 93k runners split up. “Troisième”, the volunteer yells. Third. Well, that’s unexpected. I realise I’ve started overly enthusiastic though and expect a fallback, but for now, let’s just speed on. 41k supply post in about 5 hours.
The temperature is slowly climbing towards the 30 degrees, but it already feels that hot when there are no trees offering shelter from the sun. Sweat stains appear on the sleeves of my shirt. I’m thinking about what I have in the backpack. Nothing salty. The drop off back at 50k? Nothing salty there either. Damn it! I’ve always liked my care-free approach of races: Just appear at the start and go for it. Now I’m starting to regret my negligence. At least I have the sleeveless shirt to look forward to. I start calculating the pace I need to maintain to reach the sub-15h goal. Never a good sign. I reach the 50k point, feeling a bit low. I take my time to switch shirts and eat a bit. When I leave, I’m in 7th position, two guys close to me.
After a few kilometers, I start to feel a bit better again and even though I still have the feeling I’ve slowed down compared to the first half of the race, there’s nobody coming from the background and the three of us switch positions from time to time, until, closely after the 74k supply post, I find one of the other guys sheltering in the woods. The heat is getting to him, as it would to a lot of others today: 41% of the runners would never reach the finish line. I’m feeling better again but have to let my companion go. We meet again at the last supply post. 7k to go and except for the heavy climb right after the supply post, it’s all downhill from here onwards. I’ve got this! Time check. I’ve been running for 12h17′. I’m on cloud 9 and give it all I’ve got left.
The climb takes me over half an hour. The descent just over 20 minutes. The path closes in on the river again and I suddenly remember we have to cross it. The other guy is out of sight. I wade through the water and it’s doing miracles on my muscles. When I reach the other side, I look back one last time, only to see there’s nobody there. I relax and enjoy the final kilometer to the finish line. 13h16’50”. That’s about 4 hours better compared to last year…
I still feel pretty fresh and decide to take a quick shower and pack my things and head back home. On the way back, my thoughts are still racing. There’s no doubt my start was too enthusiastic. In Chamonix, I’ll have to take a more reserved approach. Still, there’s no doubt I’m in the best shape I’ve been since… well… ever. Without incidents, I should be fine for UTMB. 2 months… It’s closing in fast now.