My first trail ultra outside the UK was a brilliant experience. I know I'm easily pleased and can usually be found grinning like an idiot throughout most of the running events I do, but this was really something else. The Ecotrail de Paris 80km simply rocks!
Friends on Fetch pointed me in the direction of the race website, and when I read that this event involves running 82km along pretty trails through French countryside, with a finish on the first level of the Eiffel Tower, I didn't hesitate to sign up.Admittedly I hadn't sussed out the logistics very well. The first Eurostar on Saturday morning allowed me only a frantic half hour in which to cross the city from Gard du Nord to the Eiffel Tower, find the marquee and pick up my race number, then get to the RER station in order to catch the last train to the start. It was tight, involving a taxi and spurts of running here and there, but I made it.
The train was packed with runners - the first sign that this was different to most UK ultras. A 50 miler may attract a couple of hundred here (usually less, though the sport is rapidly gaining popularity), but there were well over 3000 doing this one. This meant that there were other people around for the entire course, with bottlenecks still occurring on sections of singletrack well after halfway. Plus of course most were French, so conversation was a bit limited, but I managed enough chat, including a tiny spot of Japanese and I even coped with some chirpy banter in German after about 40 miles.
Another strange but welcome touch was that the course was marked throughout. There were orange arrows spray-painted on the ground and red and white Ecotrail-branded tape hanging from trees, with the addition of reflective tape too from halfway, which worked really effectively through the woods later. I'm used to having to navigate with a map and/or written route instructions for anything of 30 miles or more, so it was great to be able to appreciate the scenery that bit more.
And the scenery was beautiful. We started in a park, across a field then round a lake. We followed trails and went into woodland, mostly flat for the first 6 miles. The first hill brought us up to a gorgeous view over a large lake. The trail descended gently through the trees down to the water. This set the pattern for the majority of the route, with many more woodland climbs and descents. The trail was runable, but very rocky and rootsy in places. I jarred myself and nearly went flying several times. Fortunately I only actually fell twice - first at about 8 miles, not too bad, then a much harder fall by the Seine with just over 4 miles to go. (I'm still amazed I didn't take a tumble in the woods in the dark.)
The first check point at 22km was a lively affair in a small village, with an enthusiastic band and plenty of food & drink, including bananas, dark chocolate and pots of apple compote (along with an assorted selection of cheese, salami, cakes & biscuits for the non-vegan folk).
At about 30 miles we crested a hill at an old stately home, which offered a view over Paris, with the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and the goldy-looking roof of Les Invalides all on display. Shiny. And slightly surreal as the ascent up through the trees had felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. We turned and ran in the opposite direction as there was a lot of ground to cover yet.
Unfortunately I had been feeling decidedly unwell until this point. The midday heat at the start didn't help, with this being my sweatiest run in ages, but I just didn't feel right. Very heavy legs and extreme tiredness. Then the rain that had been threatening (there was some dramatic sounding thunder throughout the afternoon) finally poured down for a good twenty minutes. It really cooled me off and made me feel a lot more like me. I still wasn't quite running normally, but I began to need to walk less and less. Occasionally we'd cross a road or come to some other sort of civilisation where people had gathered to shout support. I'll have to check if there weren't many women in the race, as I got extra-special encouragement for being female, it seemed.
At 46km there was a control point, where they did a random kit check, asking us to show them our head torch and survival blanket ("blonket of life"). After the second checkpoint (56km - they weren't exactly evenly spread) it was dark. The sight of a string of headtorches glaring behind and the pools of light ahead of those in front is pretty magical. It was eerily quiet in the woods, with no road noise and just the sound of other runners and a few owls hooting breaking the silence. It was good to have a bit of night running in a relatively short race.
From about 40 miles onwards I really got into my stride, helped by the first six miles of this section being predominantly downhill, winding our way to the Seine. The last stretch along the river was great. Some of it still on trails of sorts (where I took my second fall at some speed, causing nasty knee & elbow grazing, but nothing too major as ouchies & booboos go) then bits on the road, where people cheered us on from their cars.
I approached the Tower near 11pm, when they switched its lights to super-sparkly-twinkly mode. There were crowds cheering us in at the base of the tower, then it was through a security arch and pick up a ticket (!) to ascend the steps. You'd think the trek up to the first floor would seem tough, after over 51 miles on the sort of trails that force you to expend a lot of extra energy picking up your feet to avoid falls. But actually there were not as many steps as I remembered and I made it up in less than 3 minutes. Crossing the finish line felt very good. And offered more great views of the city.
I was extremely grateful that we could take the lift back down. And It was still early enough for me to take the Metro up north to my hotel. I was very glad of a hot and powerful shower.
This morning I spent my time mooching around Saint Germaine and along the Seine, pausing for coffee a few times, where I took the opportunity to start writing an article for a green NY-based website I've been ask to be a contributor for. It's a good life.
And it's only a fortnight till I come back for the Marathon de Paris...
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