Thursday, June 24, 2010

Défi International Val-de-Travers Half Marathon - 6/19/10

I left German speaking Zurich and headed out by train to the French speaking valley of Val-de-Travers in the canton of Neuchatel. This was actually the second time I'd traveled a good portion of this route, but the previous time was the reverse route up from Geneva and was a straight shot to Zurich. I wasn't even supposed to be in Switzerland, but I got lucky. My original trip was canceled, but when the volcano Eyiafiallajokull erupted it pushed back a data center build which precluded someone from going. When given the opportunity I jumped at the chance to fill in. It wasn't the original reason why I was supposed to go, but it was for almost as long, and I'd get to spend time in both Geneva and Zurich doing fairly mindless work. I welcomed the break and the chance to escape while getting to explore somewhere I'd never been.

When one of my coworkers found out that I'd be missing a race I'd already registered for due to the trip, she found another one for me to run. The Défi International Val-de-Travers. Located in Western Switzerland, two and a half hours southwest of Zurich, I was able to determine it would be an easy train ride and that I could make a day trip out of it. I researched the area before registering. It has a population of about 10,000 people at an elevation of 2417 ft, and it's famous for being the birthplace of the "Green Fairy", Absinthe, which has since begun to be distilled there again since its prohibition was lifted in 2005. It's a countryside region off the beaten path in a valley of the Swiss Jura Mountains. The landscape of the valley is a combination of forests, rivers, and mountains, and is also known for its watch industry.

(Areuse River)

There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I wanted to run it. The event included a 75K ultra named the Absinthe, a full marathon, a half marathon, a 12k, and an 8k Nordic Walking event. I briefly entertained the idea of running the full marathon thinking what a great experience it would be, but I quickly dismissed it knowing that my body wouldn't be recovered enough from the marathon I was running three weeks prior, so I registered for the half knowing I'd have an equally good experience.

John and I left Zurich at 10a to give us plenty of time to get there before my race started at 2:15p. The train ride was relaxing and the scenery beautiful. It was when we made our last connection off the main Zurich to Geneva line that we really started to head out into rural Switzerland. There were no more big rail stations, just little stops at each of the villages. We were climbing slightly in elevation and were surrounded by mountains covered by lush green, pine forests. The rain came and went, but it was always misty, especially the higher we went. Soon after passing Neuchatel, the capital of the canton Neuchatel, we headed into Couvet of Val-de-Travers. We arrived in Couvet at 12:15p with ample time to spare.

We got off the train and followed the Areuse river for less then half a mile to the Centre Sportif where the event was being held. It was a big sporting complex for the region with a track, huge indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, climbing wall, and a restaurant. As we walked towards the complex I could hear an announcer speaking excitedly in French. Runners from earlier events, I can only assume the marathon, were finishing up their races.

(Centre Sportif)

When I entered the center, my first challenge of the day was to find a volunteer who spoke English who could check me in and find my racing packet. Luckily since so many people speak English, even in a small town far from the big cities, it only took me asking two people before I found someone. Thankfully I'd managed to register correctly and everything was in order. I was given my race package and my race t-shirt. I'd been really looking forward to my international race shirt, but unfortunately since my race was the last of the day, they'd run out of my size so I was forced to go one size too small. Doable, but not ideal. On the other hand, I was thrilled that it wasn't yet another white tech shirt. It was orange! The first thing I did was dump my goody bag out on a nearby table spilling it's contents everywhere. I rummaged through it: racing bib, some pamphlets I couldn't read, and a bunch of candy. Candy?! I've never received candy from any races I'd run back home. This race was going to be great.

We had about an hour and forty five minutes to kill before my race started. There was a fair amount of activity going on since other events were finishing up. I pinned my bib on and noticed that UBS was the sponsor. Pretty ironic considering that they were a big part of the reason I was in Switzerland to begin with. The data center we were moving was largely built to accommodate them. On my bib was a pasta party voucher. I was hungry but not entirely sure if and how much I should eat since I'd never run any long distance in the afternoon. After realizing the candy bar I'd already eaten from my goody bag wasn't going to cut it, John and I decided to split one of the pasta dishes. The volunteer gave me what was at least three heaping scoops of pasta with tomato sauce. John got a beer. I was slightly jealous, but knew there would be one waiting for me when I was done. I kept my intake to a minimum since the last thing I wanted weighing me down was pasta belly.

I sat at the table watching the other runners coming and going. I noticed that they had an awful lot of mud caked onto their legs and shoes. It was raining off an on and therefore very wet outside, and I knew the race was partially on trails so I didn't think much of it, especially since a lot of them were carrying walking sticks. I figured they must be the nordic walkers who went on a different, more off road course than mine. As I talked to John I knew I was nervous. I hadn't been nervous running a half marathon for awhile, but my hip flexors were still hurting from the previous weekend when I'd stayed up until 6a dancing at the White and Silver club in Geneva. That apparently aggravated them enough to cause another flare up which had otherwise healed after the Coeur d'Alene Marathon. Knowing I hadn't been running much didn't help either, but I'd opted to give my body some rest after so much training. I wasn't worried about not having the stamina to make it, but I wasn't sure how my runner's knee or hip flexors would hold up. Thankfully the cold I'd come down with shortly after arriving in Geneva was fairly minor and had cleared up long before race day. I admitted to John that there was a part of me that was also afraid I'd somehow manage to take a wrong turn and get lost thanks to my horrible directional sense. He assured me there's no way that would happen and I had to admit that was more my pre-race dreams (or nightmares) that were talking.

With twenty minutes to go before the race I started to get ready. John and I walked out to the start and as soon as my GPS watch found a signal it gave the low battery warning. Great. The way I feel about my GPS watch I might as well have been running with out running shoes it's that important to me. My only hope was that it could hold on for at least half the race, just long enough for me to get into a good pace. The runners were all standing around the big departe banner. The announcer was talking non stop, getting more and more animated. At one point all the runners pushed in right up to the starting line. I took that to mean the race was about to start so I got my good luck from John and followed the group.

"cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un" and we're off. There weren't many of us, less then 200 for the half marathon, which is the smallest race I've ever run. I looked down to start my watch timer and it was dead, already. Sniff, sniff. We ran two thirds of the way around the track before exiting the complex. John was at the exit with the rest of the spectators to wave goodbye. If he hadn't hurt his knee prior to the trip he'd probably be running with me instead of cheering me on. We crossed the bridge over the Areuse river, the water gushing along below us, and took a left to run around some buildings. After less then half a mile we came upon a grass hill and started up it. I looked up and saw we were heading straight to the very dense, tree covered mountains. Shit. It then hit me. This wasn't a road race with some trail parts, this was a trail race with some paved parts. How did I not know this? Something must have gotten lost in translation when I was looking at the course map. I wasn't prepared for this at all, but it did explain the mud covered finishers I'd been seeing.

Not even half way up the grass hill I knew I was in trouble. It in itself was fairly steep and very soggy from all the rain. I've never run a trail race before, but I knew what they were all about. Elevation gain. Yes, I knew it would be beautiful, but I hadn't been training for hills. And not just hills, but the hills I knew I was going to encounter. At that moment I considered turning around and throwing in the towel. I knew I was still close enough to the start that I could find my way back. Plus, could my hip flexors and knee even handle this? The one thing I did know was that I hadn't traveled all this way to turn around. I would finish this race even if it meant walking the entire thing and coming in last place.

When we reached the forest line we followed a trail and got a short break from the uphill, but the reality of it was we were still climbing. And climb we did for another 1.5 miles. And when I say climb, I mean it. Some parts were so steep, you literally could not run up it. Even when I was walking, I had to do so on my tip toes to get up it. Surely we'd get to a flat portion soon. We spent the next mile doing a lot of ups and downs. The rain had done a number on the trails and the rush of runners didn't help matters. It was wet, muddy, and slippery. When I run I'm used to just looking straight ahead and going for it. Well I quickly learned that's not the case with trail runs regardless of the conditions of the trails. You have to be careful for the protruding branches, rocks, and uneven surfaces. When we hit mile 2.5 we encountered our fist major downhill. And just like the uphills, the downhills were some of the steepest I'd ever run. So for the next 3/4ths a mile we ran down, just to be greeted with another huge ascent. This one lasted another 2 miles and really took it out of me. I'd already resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I could run the entire way. Walking up portions of the hills was going to be a necessity, which it seemed to be for a lot of runners. Luckily at the top was an aid station and a chance to get some fluids in me which I desperately needed already.

(I ran the red line. The background of many of my pics will give
you an idea of the hills the course went through)

Through the trails the course really spread out. I knew at this point I was in the last half of the group and I really didn't care too much. There weren't a whole lot of people around, but UBS had put up tape along the course steering you in the right direction. I was following a guy and we were slopping through a particularly deep mud pit when he turned to me and said something in French. I told him that I couldn't speak French. We both laughed because he obviously didn't speak English and we continued to push on feeling each others pain. In some places, mini metal grate bridges were put up to get over some parts of the trails that were really thick in mud. You had to be careful going over those as to not slip off the side. We then hit another long downhill. You make up a lot of time on the downhill because you go so fast. There were times were I felt like an out of control skier and that I could literally go tumbling down the hill if I didn't watch myself.

At some point through all the twists and turns of the trail I lost sight of the guy I was following. As I went flying down the hill, with no one else around me, some spectators came running towards me yelling things in French, pointing at me. Uh oh. I must have done something wrong. After a few seconds of staring blankly at them, I finally called out saying I spoke English. One lady gave me a big "Ahhhhhhh" and came running up to me. I'd clearly taken a wrong turn and she got me back on track. Thank goodness they were there because I had no idea I was going the wrong way. The unfortunate part was that I'd headed the wrong way down a steep path which meant I had to head back up it just to get back on the course. I'd lost at least half a mile and was really disappointed about the lost time and extra energy I had expended.

We then came down to the paved part of the race. It was a welcomed break and it took us through a small village. There were some people out cheering us on, and it was great getting to see all the cute houses and people going about their daily lives. It was also nice to be able to run for almost 3 straight miles. We were nearing mile 9 when we started to head up again. Silly me for thinking that was the end of it. In truth, I had no idea what miles we were on. For awhile there were kilometer markers, but after kilometer four they disappeared. I had no idea how long I'd been running, what my pace was, or how close I was to the finish. I was running near a girl my age and after noticing she had a watch on, I turned and asked her if she spoke English. She did, nearly perfect English. I asked what kilometer we were on. She said her watch wasn't that accurate, but it said 12. I quickly did the math and knew that was only 7.5. That didn't seem right, and very shortly after she asked another runner who confirmed we were actually on kilometer 15. Much better. We'd been running for an hour and thirty five minutes. This was going to take me forever, I still had 4 miles left.

When we hit the forest line on the opposite side of the village there was another aid station. At that point I was so happy to see it, I'd been cursing myself for not bringing the water bottle with me that I'd left in my bag. I grabbed two cups of water and chugged it down as I noticed the snacks they had out. Dried fruits, parts of granola bars, and cheese and crackers. I had to laugh thinking only at a Swiss race (and maybe a French one too) would they have cheese and crackers at an aid station. As much as I was hoping that there wasn't much uphill left, I knew I was wrong. And sure enough, up, up, and up we went again. There was one point where it was so steep that there was a bar I had to grab onto to literally pull myself up due to the steepness and slipperiness. My road shoes weren't cutting it. Not in these conditions. Had the rain not been a factor, I probably could've gotten by in them, but not having any traction wasn't helping things. I was slipping all over the place and I'm shocked I never ended up falling. Throughout the course I'd encountered numerous places where the mud was as deep as my ankles. Every step I took I sunk, it was impossible to run and I had a hard enough time staying on my feet. There were three of us in one particularly bad spot, we were all slipping and sliding everywhere, and one of the ladies said something in French, and while I had no idea what she said, I know we were both thinking the same thing. Where is the solid ground?!

As we ran along the trail, I took a moment to take it all in. It was beautiful, looking down into the valley it was like something out of a picture book. The area was so green, so peaceful, even the birds were out chirping despite the rain. I looked up towards the mountains in the distance and one of them had a giant Swiss flag painted on it. I wished so bad I had a camera to capture it.

I knew I was coming to the end of the race. I could hear the announcer in the distance. The last of the course was downhill as we headed back into the valley and ran along the river to the complex. At one point before the race I'd told John that I should finish at the very least in two hours, and if I wasn't in by then, then something had gone wrong. I knew I was well over two hours. I passed some girls that were cheering us on. Apparently the way they cheer in Switzerland is by yelling "whoop, whoop, whoop". At that point I couldn't do anything but smile and nod as I dragged myself to the finish.

As I entered the track and approached the finish line, I all of a sudden heard the announcer say "Jen Norvelle, San Francisco". I went through the finishers chute and at the end they had Coke Light, water, and more cheese and crackers. One of the volunteers said "Ah, San Francisco". He didn't speak any English so that was the end of that conversation. It was about then that I met John. John runs trails. I told him that was the hardest thing I've ever run. I was covered in mud and was having a hard time standing. Everything hurt and I was physically exhausted, but I did manage to take a few end of the race photos. We headed back to the indoor center and as I was walking away from the finishers line, I heard the announcer say San Francisco and rattle a bunch of other stuff off I didn't understand. All of a sudden everyone was looking me, some clapping. I waved to everyone and walked off. The announcer kept going on since I was able to make out the phrase golden gate. After having my celebratory beer, I managed to communicate with the pool attendant through hand motions that I wanted to use the dressing room to change my clothes. I felt slightly guilty since I'd tracked mud all over the place, but I needed to get out of the soaking wet, mud stained clothes to make the journey back home.

My time was 2:26:02. I was discouraged. That's 30+ minutes more then my usual time despite the fact I'd gone a half a mile off course. I expressed this to John, but he assured me that you can't even compare a trail race to a road race. It took me awhile to realize that, but I still wasn't happy with the fact that I'd finished in the back of the pack. After giving myself a break, I realized I'd just run a half marathon trail race with a total elevation gain of 2300 ft without training for it. All and all, not bad. I knew if I could handle a 2300 ft gain over 13 miles, I could handle any road race. This was a comfortable realization as I prep for Park City (granted, elevation in general could be its own issue there).

Thanks to John for the making the video!

The race was by far the most exhausting run I'd ever done, even surpassing both marathons I'd run. My body hurt in places I'd never experienced just from trying to keep my body stable through all the inclines/declines and mud pits. It was an incredible, unique experience, and definitely worth all the pain.

1 comment:

  1. DUDE we need to find more races where they give out candy. Seriously- CANDY???!!!! WhereTF was I?? Also, you didn't miss much at the Giant's race. It was 70F at the start. DEAD at the end. Plus, it was longer than 13.1... more like 13.4 -... but who's keeping track- ;)