Trail des Fantômes has been on my running to-do list since the day I ran my first trail. Sometimes I was out of shape. More often there were calendar conflicts. But this year it suddenly became a certitude.
One of the reasons I entered the UTMB 2016 draw in the beginning of this year was because I already had the required amount of points to do so. The plan was flawless & bullet proof, except for this one part where I didn’t have any control over: the lottery.
The draw results turned out negative and after a whole lot of doubts whether it was all worth it, I decided to try to obtain the necessary points again and enter the UTMB 2017 draw. The new point system wasn’t helping: I could keep the points of the Ardennes Mega Trail, 5 in the new system, but I still had to earn 10 points in 2 races. After some looking around, a daunting plan emerged: I would run the 65k Trail des Fantômes (worth 4 points) and then 2 weeks after that, I’d run the Echappée Belle, 144k, 10k of positive altitude and a solid 6 points. But first things first: Trail des Fantômes.
It’s probably a bit arrogant to call a 65k trail run a “training session”, but that’s exactly how I approached this one. With the main goal 2 weeks later, I had no intention of pushing myself to the limit. I spotted Nelson on the participant list and ran into Benjamin, super friendly guy I met in Ghent during one of our many training runs. Smalltalk keeps you relaxed just before the start.
7 o’clock. Off we go. As Nelson came well prepared, I decide to let him go right from the start. I start somewhere in the middle of the pack and stick with Benjamin for a little while. We talk about past & future runs until we get separated on the first climb.
Things are going well. I’m consciously holding back a bit. Even on the flat part that follows, I run slower than I normally would. Just a training run. Just a training run. It’s a mantra going through my head while I take in the wonderful surroundings. We reach a breath-taking point of view and I get out my phone to take some pictures. Some Dutch guys catch up and follow my example. Sport event should probably put some panorama sign up there.
Big parts of the trail runs over the mountain bike routes we rode/ran back in December last year. It’s fun to recognise some places along the road. From time to time, I even remember what’s ahead. So this is what it’s like when you really prepare a race properly! haha!
10k in. Time to take off my jacket. It’s getting hot. Luckily, 90% of the route would turn out to be in the shelter of trees. It’s lovely out here and I’m really enjoying it. Meanwhile, Kim is cycling from one road crossing to the rest to cheer for me, which gives me some extra waypoints to look forward to. 20k, first supply post. I take my time. If the altitude profile is correct, the first hard part should be over now. The next 20k should be reasonably flat, finishing off with a harder 25k again.
The next 20k are reasonably flat, sure. But they’re super technical too, and more often than not, through nettles and blackberry bushes (auch! But also yummie!). I’m moving slow, but nobody’s overtaking me. So I guess I’m doing fine.
Around kilometer 30, I run into someone who decided to keep count and, on top of that, let me know about it. I’m running in 10th position and about to overtake two Dutch runners. Damn it. I was going to take it easy, but now that I know I’m doing so well, it’s hard not to speed up. Just a training run. Just a training run.
I see Kim again around 38k, right in time because I’m all out of water. “Nelson is about a minute ahead of you”, she says to my surprise. “All in due time”, I think, no need to hurry. I catch up with Nelson when he’s taking some time at the 2nd supply post at 42k, where we leave together.
We stick together for a few kilometers. He’s faster in the descents, I catch up on the steep climbs, we stick together whenever things flatten out. I’m still feeling pretty good and slowly but surely, I run away from Nelson.
60k, the last supply post! As Kim & I walked the 12k trail route the day before, I know what to expect from here onwards: A long, steep climb, 2k of flat, easy running trails and then a descent that becomes more steep & technical towards the end. Through the river and then about 500m of flat roads to the finish. I keep my stop short and start pushing towards the top with all I have left.
At the top, a 33k runner I just caught up with catches up with me again. I barely have anything left in my legs now, but I catch up with him again and stick close. We chat a little and once the descent becomes more technical, I take over and speed down.
The river! I couldn’t be more happy to see it. It’s a treat for the legs. I take some time to enjoy it and then start crossing it. Out at the other end and now time to get it over with! Pick up the pace and across the line in 7h36′, 5th overall!
All in all, a solid general repetition. Holding back in the beginning was definitely a good call, giving me quite some spare energy towards the end. It also gave me the chance to really enjoy the beautiful Belgian Ardennes!