Review #Saintelyon – If I stop ultra running now, then I’d stop happy

I’m still a pretty rubbish runner but once in a while you feel like you’ve done everything just about bob-on and the planets align to make magic happen – for me, this is what must have occurred during the SainteLyon. Be aware, though the race was at the shorter end of the ultra distances, this report is not.

A French Classic?

The Saintelyon has been a long distance endurance event and in its current form the solo assault is about 72km give or take a few metres (yep it’s French so we’ll be fully metric here too) and covers the road and trails between St. Etienne and Lyon. Excited yet? No? Understandable. What if I tell you it starts at midnight in the middle of winter? That you’re surrounded by the best French runners around and that you will follow a trail illuminated by your fellow competitors? You’ll be surrounded by the people of France supporting the race almost every inch of the way? At 4am in the morning all you’ll hear are the sound of cow bells and the smell of wood burning fires as you pass through unofficial supporting posts? Does this get you excited?

This is a race for runners, trail runners, hill runners, night time runners, this is a race for those who want to test their mettle over a hideously wonderful course that takes bit fat chunks out of you if you switch off for even one second. This is a race made for everyone and if my experience doesn’t convince you, well, you’ve got no soul and that’s just fact*

Pre-race timeline 

  • Apr: Enter 72km solo entry
  • Apr: Book accommodation
  • May: Book flights
  • May: Improve your French
  • Sept: Find other English speakers
  • Dec: Shit yourself
  • Dec: Run like you’ve got wind

My journey to the SainteLyon

I first came across the SainteLyon about 15 months ago when Cat Simpson mentioned it (I think). I tried to enter that day but to no avail and so from my armchair in sunny Kent I watch the competitors race out last December and then I waited. It would be some five months before entries for the race opened and I was checking regularly (daily) and when it did open for entry I was one of the first in line – hence my rather low bib number.

Launch forward several months and I found myself stood at Heathrow airport wondering what kind of madness I had let myself in for. I’d be running pretty well for the 8 or so weeks before – I’d taken part in the Saltmarsh 75, Thames Meander Marathon, Ranscombe Challenge, Poppy Challenge and Greenwich Movember Race – all setting me up for my French adventure. In the back of my mind was the nagging doubt about my ability given what had happened at the CCC but as I arrived into Lyon I put this to the back of my mind and focused on the task at hand.

Transport in Lyon is simple, from the airport I sauntered down to the city on the Rhonexpress (return €24, 30 minutes) and then picked up the single tram ticket to my accommodation. I was staying about 10 minutes from the centre of town and this proved a decent choice for access to the bib collection and also the finish line. I used AirBnB for apartment hire, got a cat thrown in for free and after dropping my bags off I headed straight out to ‘Halle Tony Garnier’. It was a 40 minute walk and I wanted to get a feel for Lyon by night and this seemed as good a place as any to start.

It was here that the problems started, I entered the hall to collect my bib and the realisation of what I had done hit me – I had forgotten my passport – the only identification I had and the only identification that would suffice. Feeling a little silly I spoke with one of the crew who advised me that I would need to return with my passport to get my number but that they were closing within the hour and that I would probably be best returning in the morning. I made the decision to have a look round the small but rather interesting ‘race village’ collected a few leaflets for races I’d never heard of, took some photographs near the finish line and then ambled back to my apartment to have a bite to eat and a restless night of sleeping.

I woke up the following morning about 6am and started to prepare my race bag and the foody delights that would power me between St Etienne and Lyon. But the main reason I was up early and bright was because at 10am I wanted to be waiting for the doors to open and for me to be collecting my bib.

I rocked up about 9.30am with a pain au chocolat and a hot café au lait in my hands and proceeded to wait with the other runners until the gates to the hall opened wide and I descended quickly upon the Saintelyon crew.

The interesting thing that was holding up most of the runners though was not the queue, no, it was the body and bag search. Recent horrific events in Paris had made this event clearly more conscious of security and we were all made to go through the same quite extensive but understandable search.

The challenge was now to get my number as quickly as possible and then head off for some well earned rest. Funnily though my plans took an unexpected turn and in a very pleasant way. I had grabbed my number and race pack with the aid of some very poor French on my part and some decent English on the part of the SainteLyon crew (though I didn’t get a little hat, much to my dismay). I did however manage to get some excellent looking beers as Christmas gifts and information about lots of beautiful looking trail races across Europe.

At this point the race village was starting to bubble over with people and my early morning jaunt have achieved all I had intended it to (including the purchase of a very nice SainteLyon jumper). So by 11.00am I was on my out of the hall and making an immediate beeline for a runner I had met via Twitter just a few short months ago.


@Kemptonslim
Sometimes you are really lucky and you meet people who make the day just that little bit better and altogether more awesome @kemptonslim is one those. It would be fair to say that the SainteLyon attracts most of its entrants from mainland Europe and more specifically – France. Most people there understood enough English for me to get by with but having a native English speaker really made the hours of race day fly by much more easily than they might have.

We hung out together for a little while and managed to grab some awesome Calzone from an overworked Frenchman and we avoided the giant Churros (though I did contemplate sneaking back for one) and soon we headed off to our respective abodes with the suggestion we would catch up later.

I returned to my apartment and finished getting ready – shower, pack, feed and water the cat (yep I had feline company in my apartment). For the purpose of staying cool I managed to watch a couple of episodes of classic BBC comedy ‘Bottom’ but as time eroded I knew I needed to head out.

I waved the cat goodbye and headed to the finish line. The whole area around the SainteLyon was awash with a manic buzz, it was a brilliant spectacle and supremely well organised. I managed to get on a very comfy bus (€13) laid on by the organisers which took us up to St. Etienne, here I managed to grab about half an hours sleep here but it was only an hour or so in total to St. Etienne and I arrived feeling lightly refreshed but keen to relax further in the hours pre-race.

It was at this point that the only blight came to the race. We were all frisked by security as we entered the second race centre but the gentleman who went on to examine my bag was rough and took apart my well prepared race pack. He threw me accusatory glances as he searched for sharp implements that I just didn’t have. His English like my French was poor and so eventually after pulling everything out he gave up and let me in. I suppose it was unsurprising that they were being rigorous but it wasn’t handled well.

Thankfully this was a minor thing and understandable given all France has suffered recently, However, now free of security I headed to the main hall and took up position on the floor, grabbing some space and using what few items I had with me to act as a cushion.

It was weird watching runners setting up picnics and effectively camp in the main hall. It was a proper spectacle. I managed to get hold of tea and cakes too and this gave me a pleasant boost but not as much as my reuniting with @Kemptonslim.

For the next few hours we chewed the fat about our lives, our races and the mystery of why looking into the ceiling lights might well be like looking into the face of God. We also met Darius and Steve (names may be wrong) – both English ultra runners and triathletes/duathletes who had come to France looking for a glorious challenge. All in all this was a good few hours and the lesson is that having someone with you is invaluable in a race like this.

© SainteLyon 2015

However, all the pre-race fun was now over. The relay racers had left and it was the time of the solo entrants. We meandered our way out of the hall – stopping only at an unofficial  toilet point (or fence) and then went and lined up. The line-up was a joyous experience, it was filled good quality music and we jigged to Daft Punk and Euro Pop, it was filled with an electrifying charge from the runners and it was filled with light. There were thousands of runners but it didn’t feel crowded, it didn’t have that horrible crush feeling that I experienced at the CCC. We paused for a minutes applause in honour of the people who had been killed in Paris and then we hugged and kissed our fellow competitors – this was a special moment, this was going to be a special race.

The countdown was now on, I loaded up the map on my Suunto and started to have a bit more of a jig to the music that surrounded us and then we were off.

The light from the head torches of all the runners was the most stunning start to any race that I have ever taken part in. It wasn’t the quickest start as I believe it was staggered a little to let people get some movement between each other and this meant that when I passed the start line at 12.04am I had room to move and room to run.

@Kemptonslim and I had a very similar strategy for running which was to start slow and then start picking people off as we got further into the race. We also had never seen the course before and therefore didn’t want to waste our energy committing to running sections that we would regret later. Therefore we both used the hills as fast walking sections and the flats/downhills for running. What I surprised about was how fast I was managing to walk the hills in the early sections.

The first checkpoint was located about 10 miles in and was after several steep ascents – the actual climb wasn’t that much overall, not when you consider a mountain run but the up and down nature of the first section combined with the dark and your zest to get going this was a dangerous time in the race. However, conditions were good and @KemptonSlim and I kept each other under control and stopped one another racing away or getting carried along by the waves of euphoria that swept over us.

Despite the course toughness I confess that I fell into an immediate love with it. The crowds that lined the streets and the general party atmosphere had put me in a very good mood as I raced on. My only gripe was my own fault and that was I had managed to fill my bladder with fizzy water and this tasted pretty crappy.

When you’ve done something like this you need to make a decision. Do I a) drink the water and potentially make myself sick or do I b) not drink the water and potential dehydrate myself before CP1? The answer was somewhere in between – the fizziness of the water was making me feel sick and rather burpy so I decided I would sip a little but wash my mouth out with the fizzy water until mile 10 when I would dump the remainder of my bladder and fill up with fresh flat water.

The first 10km were slow going as the hills were mainly on tarmac and I knew that my glutes would thank me later for taking this in a more sedate manner. Many of the other runners were streaking ahead but it seemed that this was a strategy that I could overturn later in the race and make up ground.

I found myself occasionally stopping and turning regularly, especially on the hills as I could look back over the expanses and the wide open spaces and see the procession of lights behind me – it was a truly awesome sight, but there was more to the first 10km than this. We passed through a number of small and delightful picturesque towns (despite the dark) and admired both the gleaming lights and also the brilliant support.

One of the killer things for the first 10 miles was the challenge of the floor below the runners, although conditions were pretty much perfect the ground was filled with loose rocks, mud, roots and leaves – the path was also wide enough generally to have easy over taking but this came with the risk of those hidden roots and rocks and on several occasions I saw runners tumble in front of me.

You knew you were in a race that was not going to be taking any prisoners.

Within a couple of hours despite the hills both I and @Kemptonslim had made the first checkpoint unharmed and raring to go. I changed my water and ate some of the delicious fruit pastilles but it would be fair to say that the checkpoints were a little bit chaotic. The crews were doing their best and cannot be faulted but there were so many runners attempting to get through that it needed a little more organisation. The other thing was that the cola on offer was Pepsi Max – yes that’s right sugar free, calorie free, taste free cola. Lots of the runners were disgruntled by this but with little other option we drank it by the gallon.

Despite the crush at the checkpoint we managed to get out of the checkpoint within about six or seven minutes. Not bad really and at this point we learnt something very important – we would be very cold when we left checkpoints. I’ll stop here briefly to mention my kit choices for the race, which were similar to normal but focused on the specific conditions I would be facing.

Kit?

  • 1 x Ronhill long sleeved fluorescent orange top
  • 1 x recycled eco green run shirt
  • 1 x OMM arm warmers
  • 2 x Buff, 1 x Salomon XT Wings gloves
  • 1  x pair Injinji liner socks
  • 1 x  pair Drymax heavy socks
  • 1 x dirty girl gaiters
  • 1 x pair Compressport calf guards
  • 1 x pair 0.5 OMM flash tights
  • 1 x Salmon  exo compression tights

The kit now came into its own post CP1. For much of the first 10 miles I had my arm warmers rolled down, my sleeves rolled up and my gloves in my race vest. I hadn’t raced like most of the runners who had deemed it a requirements to be wearing waterproofs and/or windproofs combined with long leggings. What I needed in terms of warmth was to not feel the cold as I left a checkpoint … as we stepped outside I moved my neck buff round my mouth, put gloves on, rolled arm warmers up and sleeves down. I only needed to do this for a few minutes before I had to strip down again but it was worth it as it kept me focused and gave me an idea of what I had to do at the end of each CP visit.

Section 2, 3 and 4  of the race brought with it the fun of the SainteLyon. Here the trails became harder, more diffciult to negotiate and surprisingly, even steeper. You were starting to get tired too and so it made it even more important that you took care. Both @Kemptonslim and I agreed that actually the fastest progress was likely to be that which took a little longer and a little more care.

The atmosphere for the runners was a strange one, one that I have very really experienced and that was very much that it didn’t matter where in the race you were you were still racing and that feeling was very special.

Upon reaching the high point of the course we stopped and looked out across France and marvelled at the little orange lights twinkling in the distance. It was a one of those nice moments that ultra running brings and it was punctured only by the other runners going past.

It was now probably around 4am and lots of distance had been covered but there was more to go and the course remained unrelenting and even with a chirpy nature all the competitors were feeling the toll on their bodies. However, such was the magnificence of the course and the supporters on the route that in the distance I could see a fire burning and the sound of a man beating his cow bells for all he was worth – this was just the lift you needed. The video is currently available over on Instagram (search UltraBoyRuns or Saintelyon2015).

Sometime around here I also came across a lovely Moroccan runner who when he discovered I was originally from Liverpool started referring to me as ‘We Never Walk Alone’, given that this was the name of the event my own father put together last year this seemed appropriate and brought a smile to my face.

As the miles pushed on I can say that they go no easier and actually the down hills that we were facing were just as hard as the uphill and I saw more than one runner lose their footing and take a face plant into the dirt. Moving at speed was a dangerous game but both @Kemptonslim and I saw our opportunity to move up the field. We were no progressing faster than the runners around us and periodically we’d even take on the pace of some of the relay runners to give us a boost in our quest for a decent time. My running buddy and I were now taking greater and greater risks as we ploughed through the down and kicked on through the up – we both quietly were thinking that we might be on for sub10hrs.

All we felt we now had to do was continue in this form until we hit daylight and that would refresh us.

7.30am and daylight
Daylight was an awesome sight – we watched it arrive through the vines of a vineyard – a French vineyard, how cultured we felt! But now it was head torches off and we arrived into the penultimate checkpoint 20km(ish) from home. We stopped here for a bit of chicken soup and slightly more time than I would have liked but I was feeling it and I spoke to my excellent and clearly more energised running partner.

‘I’d leave you behind, ultras are about your own race, not mine’ and it was a genuine thing I said as I intended to cut him loose so he could get the best possible time. However, we stayed together for another couple of kilometres out of the checkpoint when I finally admitted defeat on the tarmac and said ‘you really have to go on’. We shook hands and he was gone – I hoped I’d see him at the finish.

What this did was allow me a few minutes to have a little bit of a meltdown. I needed about 20 minutes to compose myself for the final 15km and in this time I watched dozens of runners go past me and each one that went past filled me with a sense of fury. I had worked really hard to get past these runners and now they were taking advantage of my mental fragility.

But then I picked myself up, I reminded myself that the road would come to an end and I might manage to hit some trails again but regardless of what I was running on I was going to be running. Boom. I hit my stride and for the first time in about 2hrs I felt strong again, I’d eaten some Reeces Cups, Biltong and had as much water as I could stomach – I was back in business.

I felt like I was thundering along as I came into the final checkpoint, I wasn’t really but I now had the bit between my teeth and I was determined to make up the ground I had lost. The final checkpoint allowed me the opportunity to properly fuel and rather than take the easy option and sit down for 20 minutes I powered on.

The next 5km were great and fun trails and with light now breaking the day open I was able to hurl myself down the trails in an effort to catch those who had passed me

My tenacity was showing its prowess and all things I had worked so hard on were coming to the fore. I was determined that I would have nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line. The next 5km passed in a blur, only one small accident occurred as I pressed hard on the downward trail and looked to have fallen over a sheer  drop – thankfully I grabbed hold of a tree and righted myself before continuing my downward run to my doom – and I still attached to the trail.

In the distance as the trails slowly started to come to their conclusion and there was a super fast down that I was able to look forward and heard myself give a little ‘oh shit’. It seemed the final 5km would be the final killer and ahead of me I could see runners who had moved into trudge mode, the death march but that was not to be my fate. I powered up the hill and continued to pass my fellow competitors – I was no longer being passed by anyone.

I felt like crying

My feet felt good as I reached the summit of Lyon, I was at the top of a long set of steps and I suddenly felt like Gene Kelly and I flew down them like Debbie Reynolds was awaiting me at the bottom. I could now see the Musee des Confluences, I was so close. I reached the bottom of the steps and we were sent away from the finish line and down to the River Rhone, then back up, then beyond the museum and then into the home straight and across the Pont Raymond Barre. At the 200metre mark I began my sprint home, as is often my want, I aim to give something to back to those that have come out and supported and I disappointed nobody, not even myself as I raced to the finish and watched the numbers tumble before me. 100metres, 75metres … I could see the signs disappear behind me and then the hall opened up before me. I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything about it all I know is that I recall saying to myself ‘both feet off the floor UltraBoy’ and I made it happen.

I crossed the line at pace and cried. I’d done it.

Conclusion
This is the best race I have ever had the honour to compete in. The organisation was exceptional, the course was exceptional, the night start was exceptional, the time of year was inspired  – this has something for everyone. Obviously its not perfect, what race is? But there was a magical charm about this event that I’ve been struggling to find recently. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the SainteLyon is that it reminded me of how I felt the first time I started an ultra at the White Cliffs 50 – it was all so unknown. SainteLyon you made me feel fresh and alive and that’s a great gift you give to runners.

I suppose the big question is ‘would I go back?’ and the answer without hesitation is ‘YES’, possibly even next year – depending on when the Haria Extreme in Lanzarote takes place. However, if I don’t return next year then I will be back soon as this was so good and so much fun.

There are no limits to how highly I recommend this beautiful and yet tough old bastard of a race. One for your list I hope!

Special Mention
Special mentions must go to Jon – @Kemptonslim who provided both inspiration and excellent company in equal measure. I’m sure I would have gotten round without him but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun. I look forward to the opportunity to run on some course with him again.

Technical

  • The course was well marked and directions were not an issue
  • Pre-race information was excellent but you needed to translate it
  • Food was pretty good but there needs to be a better way of dealing with the checkpoint chaos
  • Water refilling stations – there were not enough of them, this meant that the stop at Checkpoint 2 took longer than was required
  • The hall spaces at both St Etienne and Lyon were excellent

Important Information

  1. If you’re English then use the French language website and have Google Chrome translate it for you, it’s more up to date and infinitely more useful
  2. Take something to lie on, thermarest or some such for your wait in St. Etienne – it will be transported to the finish.
  3. Forget the medal – there isn’t one, there’s a T-Shirt and it’s awesome.
  4. Remember this is a runners run (although there were a couple of hiking types at the start).
  5. British Airways are cheaper than SleazyJet once you factor in additional transport/baggage/parking by some way

*I don’t believe in souls unless they’re attached to the bottom of my Altra and then they’re soles. 


 

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