Monday, April 29, 2013


Sunday was the Ultra Trail des Balcons d'Azur ... its already one year since my 54 k 'impossible race', amazing, time flies and all that. This year I decided not to run it. I achieved my goal and now I seek new challenges. I am still working on strengthening my body for potentially more ambitious challenges but more on that later. In the meantime I felt it was time to give something back to this truly demanding sport. As my French is lousy, a position at an 'Aid station' was not an option but I had others.
    On race day the weather was even worse than last year, and that's saying something but I thought if those guys and girls can go out in this storm then so can I. I arrived to wave off the early morning runners, many with that look on their face of,  'What the hell am I doing?' I knew the feeling well, its a sort of abject fear of impending pain. Later on in the day I hiked up into the mountains to give encouragement at the 5 hour mark. I stood on a fork on the trail in the driving wind and rain wearing my trusty bright orange racing jacket with not a soul around. As the runners came through they appeared a bit lost as the trail markers were not very clear so I started directing them the right way. I was going to move to another spot but felt it important to stay and keep directing everyone as getting lost up here is not an option, and I should know ... having done it myself on more than one occasion.
    As time passed a few more people appeared and started asking me questions about the race. It dawned on me very quickly that they obviously thought I was a Race Marshal, they seemed somewhat confused when asking me a question in French as my reply was always a blank stare. I had no idea what they were talking about and they must have thought I was a lousy Race Marshal who was either a mute or an idiot ... and probably, 'How on earth did he get this job?'
   However it kept happening as more and more people appeared. This was compounded further by the runners themselves asking me questions. 'Combien des kilometres?' ... 'Ou est la Revailletissement? These I could answer easily, '5 kilometres', but I did it with such assured aplomb  that it convinced the spectators even more that I was a Marshal ... a crap one admittedly but at least I was sending everyone the right way. I felt a bit like a traffic cop, Sue says it was my jacket ... judge for yourselves.

As time passed I picked up some of the language that others were using to encourage the runners. One girl kept shouting   'S'accrochez!'. I remembered hearing something like 'accrochez' when hanging up a phone so I figured this must mean something like 'hang on in there'. I found out later that this was correct however my pronunciation was pretty lousy and when I said it I got weird looks .. not sure why ... maybe I was saying ' go hang yourself ' or something even more bizarre. The leaders had come through much earlier and they seemed serenely calm as if they were on some early morning jog before breakfast. Weird. I of course had never seen these people before due to the fact that I am always at the back ... still, most disheartening, they looked so cool and in control ... and fast! After about 2 hours the majority of runners had passed and I was one big wet orange blob.
       There were 3 different races that day and this was the 54k with a longer 64k taking place further away. I decided to move on to an even more remote location where the 'back of the pack runners' of the 64k would be. I ended up at possibly the most remote place in France (well it felt like it). The wind and driving rain were horizontal and I had to keep running up and down the track so that I didn't die of exposure. This time nobody else appeared other that the odd bedraggled exhausted runner. I clapped, and shouted 'Bravo', I didn't risk 's'accrocher' in case some poor soul took the more dramatic option and to be fair about five of them looked liked they didn't have long for this world. Maybe that's what I look like after 10 hours, Crikey!, no wonder the Medics always look concerned when I pass them by.
     When they asked the distance to the finish I told them it was 12 kilometres. It wasn't, it was more like 14 but I think that would have pushed a few of them over the edge and I wanted to keep their spirits up. They also had the worst climb of the day ahead of them, I know, because last year it took me an hour to go about 3 kilometres and at the top its practically vertical. Ultra running is a tough, even brutal sport, the sense of achievement in doing it is immense but it's at these times in a race where you feel the mental pressure to quit the most and hence my reason for standing there. Quite a few of the runners thanked me, clapped and shouted 'Bravo' back. It's a respect thing, I guess you had to be there, it's quite emotional.
     I waited until I could see no more runners coming up from the valley floor. It was getting near the cut off time so I presumed that was the last of them ... I hope so as I don't like to think of one last lonely guy struggling on his own ... one day it could be me.
     When I got home I had a sauna to get warm as it felt like I had sort of run the race myself, I was exhausted.  Very strange.
     The winner did the 64k in just over 6 hours ... and the last guy, in just over 12 hours; and he was 66 years old. Amazing stuff, it makes me proud to be part of such a unique group of complete nutcases.



  1. Phil, Really nice post. I enjoyed reading it. Makes me want to go find a really terrible race to run. Forgot, that is what I do anyway! I ended up being a traffic cop at a local 50 K a few weeks ago. I went up to place a water jug at an unmanned aid station and decided a lot of people would go the wrong way if someone didn't stay there and direct traffic. (3 trails cross and runners come through twice from two different directions and impossible to figure out trail marking. I stayed up there about 6 hours. The only difficulties I had no food. I did live!

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  22. Hey Phil, I'd like to remind you that you said I should give the Balcons d'Azur a go.. and I was seriously considering doing the 45km trail this year.. reading this has put me off!!! I don't run in wind and rain.. never mind the hills factor..