"Don't worry, we checked on the internet. They cut off is at midnight. You still have time."
In my confused and dehydrated state, I had somehow switched the key cut off times and I had had it in my head for the previous couple of hours that the cut off for Breil was at 6.30pm, only a couple of hours in the future, as opposed to midnight. I was sitting, slumped and defeated at La Brigue, one of the smaller ravitellement posts - in reality just a town fountain, and Mrs R had put a towel on my head and was pouring Perrier and iced tea into me by the gallon. I had taken to iced tea since my moratorium on high caffeine drinks such as Coke, due to my prior episode of Atrial Fibrillation.
The 2am alarm, and 4am race start seemed like eons ago. Just over 220 of us, about 175 Cro Trail (120km) racers and about 50 Margueries (80km) racers, had set off from Limone at 4am that morning. I felt physically ok but still fatigued at the start - not enough sleep in the week prior to the race and virtually none the night before the race itself. I hoped I could run it off. I had also been suffering from nerves - nagging doubts about the Atrial Fibrillation. I had my emergency blood thinner in addition to my 8kg or so of compulsory equipment.
I set off at my own pace, heading up the hill to be greeted by a spectacular sunrise over the top of Limone. I had my heart rate monitor on, and was careful to keep within my pre assigned limits. I was already sweating - a precursor to the infernal heat that was to characterise the rest of the race, a lot of it set on the upper echelons of the Parc Margueries, at times a carpet of wild flowers, at others a barren moonscape, all of it utterly stunning. But no shade.
The race was familiar territory - up and down, up and down. I had a little twinge in my left calf on the first real flat section of the race, but I managed to stretch that out and carry on. One foot in front of the other; enjoy the scenery.
I had filled my bladder at Refuge Garelli, and as we climbed out I was moving ok, despite a lot of friendly traffic as the walkers left the refuge for that day's fun. It was steep and not particularly technical, but I lost my footing on a rare rocky section, put my other foot down and it found nothing but air. I pivoted on my own axis and landed a couple of feet below where I had been, my hip and calf bearing the brunt of the fall. A quick damage assessment, and I found I could move but I had a little pain in my right calf. I stretched but after a few minutes it came back. Nothing for it but to just get on with it.
The sun rose and became relentless, no cloud cover or the shade of trees, and by the time I hit the long and technical descent to Tende I was having a complete sense of humour failure, having run out of fluids quite a bit before. My calf pain had migrated to my knee making descending very tricky, the sun was at its peak and my mouth was full of something akin to brick dust. My Garmin had decided to crash some time earlier, rendering distance and heart rate functions useless, and was now just an oversized watch. The fountain at Tende was a sight for very sore, and annoyed, eyes. I filled up my bladder and rehydrated myself before getting a medic to check my knee.
A quick cold spray later and I was off again, about an hour before the 3pm cut off time, but not moving much quicker than I had been before. I checked in with Mrs R, and for the first time texted her the words "Contemplating Abandoning". The fatigue I had at the start had made the pool of my mental capacity to deal with set backs very shallow, and I had already reached it. Mrs R rang me in a panic - she was waiting for me at Breil. I knew I didn't have it in me to reach Breil by the cut off time: in my head 6.30pm. Any remaining morale evaporated, and I just wanted to disappear into one of the many cracks in the dusty path.
It was a mere 5km between Tende and La Brigue, with a 4.30pm cut, but it took me two hours to hobble there along the sharply undulating footpath. Unexpectedly Mrs R, #1 and the two dogs were waiting for me with iced tea, a cold towel and a variety of other liquids. As well as the welcome news about the Breil cut off time. I knew if I could get there I could at least salvage some sort of return from my efforts by the ITRA points attributed to the Marguereis finish, although I would still be down as a DNF for the Cro. My crew picked me up, gave me a boost and I felt almost human as I left. Next stop Fontan and the 7pm cut.
I teamed up with another runner - he had been the last finisher of the Cro the previous year, and was struggling too, however he was moving fluidly and seemed in better shape than I was. We chatted in French as we shuffled along footpaths and tracks, but eventually he left me as we descended to Fontan, my knee preventing my descending at anything other than a hobble. I was receiving cheerful texts from Mrs R and crew to keep my morale up, but I was exhausted.
I left the aid station in Fontan, bladder replenished, with as much cheer as I could muster having overtaken several other runners, similarly disheartened by events. I had beaten the cut by about 30 mins, but the climb out was brutal. It was still roasting hot, and I could feel my heart pounding as, with my hands on my knees, I pistoned up the hill. I texted Mrs R and said I was worried about my Heart Rate but the phone reception was patchy at best I couldn't really get my point across.
I passed 4 or 5 other runners, several of whom were vomiting, before I lay prostate on some grass under a tree and tried to slow my pounding heart rate down. The blood in my ears was deafening and I was on the verge of panic. A few deep breaths, fiddling with Garmin, and I managed to get a patchy reading from my chest strap. 140, 130, 120, 99...all in quick succession. Phew. The fact it was coming down was a massive positive, I wasn't in AF and didn't feel like I was about to be. It was strange - one moment I felt terrible, and then with certainty I was cheering up and felt ok.
On the descent down to Saorge I actually started to enjoy myself, possibly for the first time that day. The flies were still with me, the cloud as big as ever, and joined by a couple of wasps I started to imagine I was Ernie the fastest Milkman in the West and the sketch at the end of every Benny Hill show with more and more people chasing him. The flies and wasps were my conga chain. At some point I was stung by a wasp but I don't remember the exact incident as the pain all melded into one. Cheerful texts from Olive and Graham, who had put me up the night before in Limone, as well as Mrs R and the kids, all helped to keep my spirits aloft.
The temperature was dropping to something akin to bearable, and I chatted to an old lady as she descended from her house to Saorge on the dirt track. We were going at the same pace, although she must have been in her late 80's and was off to play Bingo or whatever they do on a wild Saturday night in Saorge. I was 70km into my day. There was a promised fountain in Saorge to fill up our water supplies, but I must have missed it, and did not pick up any spare. I did cross a large river at the bottom of the valley but did not fancy filling up my bladder there as there was a guy swimming naked about 10 metres from the marked crossing. Upstream. Nothing for it but to carry on. One long and steep climb, and then lots of short climbs and descents later, and I had run out of all fluids, energy and positive mental attitude! I was passing people at a rate of knots, the sound of crickets and odd rustling from nocturnal animals disturbed only by the sound of retching as several runners dry heaved at the side of the track in chorus, one after the other. I was starting to feel nauseous due to dehydration, and becoming increasingly desperate, even asking one of the vomiting runner for a sip of his water.
With night came an easing of my limbs, however, and I was moving quite well despite the nausea. Even descending a little better. I found myself next to some running water and desperately looked around for it with the light of my headlamp. Eventually I found it and used my cup to drink several gallons of the stuff. I hoped it was clean but after barely a second's pause decided I was past caring.
Once replete I looked around for the trail markers and realised I was not even on a trail at all. It was past 11pm with the cut at midnight in Breil. Firstly I needed to get there for the cut to at least get a Margueries finish, but also I needed to get there in time to leave for Sospel and the next cut at 4.30am. I power hiked back up the hill, found a trail and followed it back towards Saorge, before I saw a junction and a trail marker for the Cro. I descended as fast as I could, before encountering a medic hiking back up the other way. He asked me which way to the ill runner - my response - which one? He looked even more downcast and started a long story about how it was his 3rd rescue that evening and he had already hiked for 50 mins for the first one, 30 mins for the second one. I excused myself, pointed to my watch, and left. He had nothing on my 16 hours of shuffling!
Looking at my watch I noticed I only had 30 mins left before midnight, and I excused myself and belted down the hill. Eventually I emerged into Breil, and the aid station at 11.37pm, 23 minutes before the deadline. Paola the aid station head, and familiar from last year's Cro, sat me down and got my drop bag for me so I could do my admin. In 2 minds as to what to do I set about filling my bladder, rehydrating and changing my headlamp batteries. With 5 minutes to spare I dressed and made to leave the aid station. Paola asked me what I was doing, clearly not believing I was about to head off to Sospel. She intercepted 3 other runners that had all been in the aid station when I arrived, and without hesitation suggested it was still a tough cut off to make - 4hrs 30 and some serious climb and descent.
I had had enough. Confident of getting my Marguereis points, I gave Paola my number and officially abandoned. There was a bus waiting to take me to Menton, the logistics of abandonment anywhere else post Breil a nightmare, and the pure fact of the cut off meant I did not have enough time to either recover properly, as Paola impressed on me, nor in reality get to Sospel before the cut.
On reflection, I am truly disappointed to have clocked up my first ever DNF, even though I have salvaged a finish of sorts which was hard enough in itself. As I made my way from the Cro finish on the beach in Menton (without crossing the line), I was not overly disheartened. Disappointed yes, but I had still completed an ultra of sorts. Had I had the yellow bib of the Trail Marguereis rather than the red of the Cro, I would have been over the moon and sporting a finisher's t shirt with pride. It was not to be.
However, I have to learn from the experience - hydration is an issue in these races, and dehydration can certainly be energy and morale sapping. I should probably have spent a little longer looking for the two fountains I missed which resulted in long periods of debilitating dehydration. I used to rely greatly on Coke for a lift and to ease dehydration. That can no longer be the case, at least unless I have an ablation, but Iced Tea worked wonders and almost 70% less caffeine than Coke and 90% less than coffee (although still trace caffeine content). If a crew is an option, ever, iced tea would be a welcome addition! Sleep before the event must be focussed on too, not just because of the body but more importantly the mind. Perhaps it was too soon after the Ironman. Perhaps my training had not been right. But I know in my heart of hearts that my head was just not in the right place for this race.
Onwards and upwards.