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Trail Racing at the End of the World

Early morning start line jitters

My first ultra in three years

They say that time flies. I try to fly against that notion and focus on the richness of every day in an effort to keep time moving slowly. I believe that time only flies if you let it. When it comes to racing, I have let it fly.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an excuse to avoid racing, but even before then I had let my priorities shift away. Between 2010 and 2016 I was on a tear. I wanted a yearly calendar full of races, one building to the next, 5ks, half marathons, marathons, 50ks, 50 milers, and a couple hundos, trying to peak at a few select events every year, but showing up and racing was essentially what I lived for. It’s what I looked forward to, it’s what I thought about falling asleep every night and waking up every morning. Yes, I was obsessed.

Then something happened in 2017 that made me take a step back and reevaluate. It wasn’t so much some thing, but some combination of things: turning 40, getting used to being a father to an adorable daughter, feeling restless in my career, having an overuse injury that forced me to take time off from training, and wondering if there was more to life than looking forward to every weekend and vacation.

I decided to mix things up in my athletic life by switching over to Spartan races in 2018 and 2019, completing ten races of varying distances. That was an exciting change of stimulus. All of a sudden my training incorporated a lot more strength, push-ups, burpees, weights, rock climbing, and mud runs. There were new problems to solve. It was really fun and challenging. But it still didn’t satisfy my desire for more freedom and autonomy.

Another pivotal event in 2017 was Thanksgiving weekend, which I spent with friends and family. One of my friends who had tired of listening to me describe my malaise at work, said as a joke: “Maybe you need to be financially independent.” This sarcastic comment ended up introducing me to the concept of FIRE and the notorious blog of one Mr. Money Mustache. I checked it out. This guy retired at age 30 and argued that anyone could do it. What?!

FI – curious

I was deeply skeptical of the FIRE message at first, like any self-respecting educated person who sees themself as smart and analytical. I started poking holes in the concept and trying to justify why it couldn’t apply to me. But I also knew, from my experience learning about, training for, and running ultras, regular people can do some pretty amazing stuff. So instead of dismissing the concept straight off, I started reading. And reading. And listening. And thinking. And daydreaming. I replaced “I could never…” with “What if…?”

What if I could do whatever I wanted? What would that even look like? What if I didn’t need my job for the money? What would I do? How much did my life currently cost? Am I spending money on things I truly care about? Do I even have time to enjoy the things I do spend money on? How many times have I ridden that $2000 road bike in the basement? What if that money were invested instead of collecting dust? How much would I need to save to cover my expenses for a month, 6 months, a year? Etc., etc.

This is a really long way of saying that I had uncovered a new obsession – get my money right. I kept running, but with less focus on performance and more on the enjoyment of moving my body through nature. I always felt better, calmer, and with a clearer mind after my runs, especially trail runs. I used my running time to think, to daydream, to get informed and be inspired by podcasts and audiobooks, usually about personal finance. I probably annoyed some friends by talking about it too much.

All this to say that by April 2022, I hadn’t run an ultra in a long time, three years to be precise. Time had flown. But I had let it fly. It felt weird to realize how much time had passed since my last race. I still carried around the identity of an ultra runner, and people would ask me about it all the time, especially new acquaintances. It makes good party conversation, and I’d much rather discuss running a hundred miler (even though I’ve only done two) than “What do you do for work?” I still ran four or five days a week, but I wasn’t obsessing about the next race. I wasn’t even sure if I was an ultra runner anymore. Instead I was obsessing about gaining more control over my time.

Five years later, here I am. Stay at home dad, part-time run coach, full-time amateur athlete, expat, teacher on sabbatical. I’m not retired, and I’m not 30 years old, but my wife and I saved a lot of money and bought ourselves some time. I am so grateful to the FI community for opening my eyes to new possibilities. With my newfound freedom, I can spend time doing what I love: training for and racing ultras… if my body cooperates.

Trail racing in Finistère is serious business

The Trail de l”Aber Wrac’h is one of the races in the Ouest Trail Tour series, seven mostly ultra-distance races around Brittany. It draws a pretty impressive level of local talent. I was expecting it to go out hot, and my already high expectations were blown away.

These people showed up to race hard, from start to finish. I’ve never seen such a large pack of runners casually run a sub-20 minute 5k to kick off a 52k race. Nobody seemed frantic, so I went with the pack, thinking, “This is fine.” Actually, it wasn’t.

Sun’s out, guns out

Suicide pace

Most runners know the Steve Prefontaine quote: “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” I think about it a lot during races. Sometimes you want to play it smart, and be conservative at the start, hoping you’ll catch people later. Sometimes you just want to harness that inner mustachioed 70’s badass, and say “Screw it, let’s see what happens. Maybe today’s my day.” Prefontaine was mostly racing 10k’s, not 50k’s, so there’s a little less time to drag your cadaver across the finish line if things do go badly. Nonetheless, it’s endurance running; the concept is the same. If you go out too hard, you will suffer.

The pace at the start of this race wasn’t completely suicidal, but it was sadistic. It didn’t cause me to “die” (aka walk), but the second half was definitely more painful than it needed to be.

Lots of buttery singletrack, sometimes peanut buttery

Early miles – all smiles

The early miles were a blur as I got swept up into staying with a pack. It was crowded enough that if you eased off the pace, someone was going to try and pass. Eventually I felt good and settled into a pace that was more responsible (something I could actually maintain). I couldn’t help but compare to New England ultras, where it gets pretty spread out after a few miles. Here we were still jockeying for position ten miles in.

One of the greatest challenges in ultra running is having the patience to run at an effort that feels too easy. Letting people go ahead of you because it’s not time to dig deep yet. I did a poor job pacing at this race. To put some numbers on it, the splits are all on Strava. I also have a more detailed write-up about the race on TeamRunRun’s blog. You can see the slowing trend from sub-7:00 mile pace, sub-8, 8:30 – 10:00/mile through mile 15, and barely any miles sub-10:00 in the second half.

Aid stations had water only. Thanks, Covid!

Aid stations and support

There were three water stations on the course, one with beer at the halfway point (I abstained). This was a bit sparse, so I ended up carrying a heavier pack than normal, and too much food. Maybe I could have gotten away with a handheld bottle and some gels tucked in my jacket, but I didn’t want to risk running out of water. I also had a couple of layers and gloves to stash, since it was close to freezing at the start. I carried a pack with a 2 liter bladder, which was fairly heavy. Although I practiced with it in training, it felt cumbersome on race day. A vest with soft flasks probably would have been better. Being the frugal person that I am, I don’t own one. The race pack I bought in 2011 is still working fine.

Just about halfway, cross the bridge and turn around

Along the Aber

This is where it was peanut butter

Train for specificity, they always say. So I did. I ran along the beach by the Bay of Brest. I ran the hilly trails in the woods near my house. I even did race recon and covered about 80% of the 2019 course. The only part I didn’t run was by the Aber. This turned out to be a bit of an oversight.

In case you’ve never run on the banks of a tidal estuary, know that it can be very slippery. Shoes with big mud lugs would definitely be beneficial. I opted for an older pair of shoes with worn-out tread, and this made for a few spots that felt like I was ice skating. It was probably only 5-10% of the race, though, so not a huge impact.

Toonel of Lohve

Obstacles make it interesting

I love obstacles. I love Spartan races, even if I don’t always love Spartan racers. I got the chance to meet Joe DeSena, founder of Spartan races, once, and he talked about how he loved messing with people’s confidence in races. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like: “You take this fast runner. He thinks he’s a badass, he’s gonna crush everybody in the race. Ok, now make this guy take his shoes off, take away his socks, run through a stream, fill his shoes with sand, and see what happens. A lot of people just give up! They can’t handle it!”

I agree with Joe. Races should be a chance to tackle adversity and the unexpected. Obstacles shake things up, force you back into the moment. You think you’re such a stud, how are you going to run now that your socks and shoes are soaked and full of grit?

This race was far from a Spartan event, but it held a few surprises. A handful of stream crossings, a 50-foot long drainage tunnel, the Tunnel of Love (or Toonel of Lohve, depending on your accent), some steep muddy embankments requiring rope. The tunnel was the one that took me furthest out of my comfort zone. There was a moment when I thought I might freak out from claustrophobia, but it passed quickly. The fact that I could see the light ahead and hear the volunteer encouraging us made all the difference.

The namesake

No beach for you

The standard 56km course borrows the beautiful GR 34 coastal path for the first fifteen miles, then follows the estuary inland for the rest. Due to Covid, the race didn’t run in 2020 or 2021, and apparently the organizers struggled to get enough volunteers to cover the original route. To simplify things, they made a course change for 2022 so that the race was an out and back along the estuary. It was a lot more woods and mud, and a lot less ocean views. A little bit disappointing, but I didn’t hear anyone complain. We were all grateful to be racing.

There was some red carpet halfway through
Somebody messed up and put the beer in the middle of the race, not the end
Dry feet are a distant memory

Finishing the race – a sprint for 100th

If my race had a theme, it would be: acceptance. Accepting that I’m running in the mid-pack. Accepting that my body has limits. I trained as much as my body allowed, and I ran as hard as I could for the distance. Accepting that ultras are really hard, and training for them is even harder. Accepting that I may not get faster, in fact will definitely continue getting slower, and that’s ok.

At trail races in New England, I was accustomed to finishing a lot closer to the front. As I said before, racing here is serious business. The level of competition at this race was more like a USATF road race back home. While my ego took a slight hit, I just reminded myself that I wasn’t there to worry about my place. Of course, when a guy tried to pass me coming into the finishing chute, I still had to give it a kick for that one extra spot. That kept me in the top 100, whatever that’s worth.

I loved running every step of this race. My finishing place is humbling, but ultimately unimportant. Whether I finished first, fifth, 300th, or 499th, I would still be proud. On April 3, 2022, 500 people ran 52 kilometers through the Breton countryside, and each one of them had a unique experience. I hope they all enjoyed it as much as I did. I was grateful to be there, to complete the course, to soak in the highs and suffer the lows, to share the challenge with a bunch of people dedicated to exploring their limits.

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