The Great Escape… Big Fun, No Bling

“When will you actually finish one of our races?” asks race director Tim, steering his car back to CP6 in Houffalize. I am grinning in the back. “One day, I will.” I know exactly which one, where and when. Then again, what am I doing in the back of his car at 3 AM in the morning?

100 km, 4050 D+

Ettelbruck -Weiler. Stepped out at 100 km and 4050 m D+

More happy than sad, I am in a reflective mood. The Great Escape is the second race organised by the Legends Trails team, rising stars among the ultra XL trail organizers. A strenuous 100 miler along a beautiful long distance path between Ettelbruck in Luxemburg and La Roche-en-Ardenne in Belgium, named the Lee Eisleck trail. Could not resist. Wise to start? Yes, enjoyed it very much. Wise to stop? Yes, cannot afford to let a nagging pain under my right knee develop into something more serious.

My program has been a bit overloaded lately. FOMO, the infamous “fear of missing out” syndrome? It must be… After achieving my goals during the Heroes Ultra in Crete, I clearly might have exaggerated a bit. A mere two weeks after Crete, I did a fast sandal shod Boucles Ardennaises (for me 8 km/h is really fast!) on a flooded circuit and an even wetter 50 K Ohm Trail on my Luna Origens the day after. Because I wanted to. It was my birthday after all. There seemed to be some merit in their claim “Hardest Trail of Belgium”… and I suffered. But I didn’t want to quit and pushed through regardless. In the end my lower legs were nearly destroyed. No movement  for about two weeks. I felt like I had too much, so it must have been enough. Two weekends later I threw in the towel after 22 K on a recce run of the last 45 K section of the Great Escape…

But the week after I did run an exceptional 12 km/h ten miles race in the sandy fields of my hometown. Also gained another 4 kg of body weight in that period after the HUC… Add some last minute travel for work and an infected root canal requiring antibiotic treatment. Well…. not exactly the perfect conditions to start a 100 miler…

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With Sofie in Maboge (near La Roche-en-Ardennes), at the fantastic Great Escape race HQ. High hopes for the Belgian soccer team playing later that night.

Back to the race. No whining, no pressure… It has been a marvellous day so far. Started at 4 AM in Ettelbruck, where Buzz Johnson and I took hotel rooms, while our families stayed in Bérismenil. After meeting us at CP2 in Hoscheid, they will fetch the other car we left at Ettelbruck station and meet us in Kautenbach. Those first 50 km feel great. Buzz is ahead of me, nevertheless I am confident I will catch up eventually.

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Time to move to Luxemburg. With Buzz Johnson in Maboge.

It is the third time I run this section, and in the mean time I know it by heart. Only difference since May is the lush vegetation. The new post global warming weather makes the grass and especially the brambles grow like hell. Hard to see what slippery things lie underneath. Roots, branches, tree stumps and loose rocks… And everything is wet. So far my dream of running a dry and dusty trail for once. The Ardennes should not be underestimated. Demanding terrain, for sure. But my Luna Origin sandals keep up well. So do I.

The first 50 K are in the bag. Since Kautenbach, I am running with Hans and Jos. Hans is one of the rare Legends finishers, but doesn’t seem to enjoy the race today. Although the trail is pure beauty. Suddenly… Wham! Next checkpoint -CP3- is a true marvel. A La Chouffe tent in front of a nice castle staffed with old acquaintances Chloe and Patrick, both  as helpful as ever. Great is my surprise when Hans announces he’ll quit at this point. I gather PLS (post legends syndrome) must be a serious thing. Better be warned.

In the mean time rain started pouring down. I join forces again with Jos, Willem and Alex. As far as I know I am the only one who ever did a 100 mile trail in the group. Despite the rain we are determined. But the devil fools with the best laid plans. Around kilometer 65 I start to develop a strange kind of pain below the right knee. Every step during every descent feels like someone driving a nail into my poor bones…. Bummer!

Great is my surprise finding my wife and eldest daughter at the entrance of Clervaux. Off the Eisleck Trail and across the town towards the local soccer field, where CP4 is. Last couple of hundreds of meters take ages. Endless, it seems. Bumping into Geert, the race doctor, I ask for his advice. Continue or stop? Depends on how much risk I want to take. Hmm. I decide to take a royal pauze, eat chicken soup and reflect. Someone prepares a super coffee for me. I survive it without cardiac arrest. One hour before the cut-off I fill up my flasks and get moving. Will take it CP by CP at this point.

After a while, Alex, Willem and Jos join. It is dark and those 23 km to CP5 take longer than expected. Next to the painful knee I have developed a nice blister under my big toe, probably from walking slightly sideways like crab in order to spare my sore knee. Once trouble starts… Arriving at CP5, 20 minutes before cut-off, the balance is quickly made. Too much risk for a CP6 attempt, I decide to pull out, together with Alex. Willem and Jos continue. Having no injuries they still stand a chance…

So, I find myself in Tim’s car, knowing that Sarah is at CP6 awaiting Buzz, who seems to be on a roll. When I enter he is just about to leave. I take an Orval and lasagna (gosh… are there any other races like this in the world?) and accept the ride back to the house where my wife and kids sleep.

Next morning we go and find Buzz at CP9. He’s almost there, together with a small group of others who decided to finish the race together… Sun is shining and I feel the epic spirit. I missed out on this part. These guys climbed up and down the chains of the Herou and  will have a short but mean victory round over the Wall of Maboge after passing the finish line for the first time. It stings a bit not being part of this, but on the other hand, I am glad I took the right decision.

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Buzz and Paige entering their last hectometers…

When they finally cross the finish line and get their medals (go the distance, get the bling as race director Stef puts it) everybody is ecstatic. Buzz bagged his first 100 miler and the beers and barbecue taste sweet after such victory. The Great Escape is a great race. The ambience is even greater. Will be back.

So I conclude not every DNF is a disaster. This is the start of a beautiful summer…

Time for some pelgrimage with the family. Half of July to the Spanish Pyrenees in the Cerdanya Valley, the area where Kilian Jornet grew up. The Cami dels Bonnes Homes (GR107), an ancient route used by the Cathars to escape prosecution during the Albigensian Crusades.

Then a week in my all time favourite, the spectacular Massif de La Chartreuse, plenty of summits and vertiginous routes to choose from. Home of Raidlight, one of my favourite brands. Will try not to mind that piece of unfinished business over there, the legendary Grand-Duc (see Anything but the Shunt and De Mooiste Uil die ik Ooit zag), another DNF waiting to be (cor)rectified. But that’s another story.

In August back to Grenoble for the Ultra des 4 Massifs (169 km and 11000 m D+). Opted for the Ut4M Challenge formula, 4 daytime race days in the splendid Oisans,  Belledonne, Vercors and Chartreuse massifs. To enjoy more and as a recce for the whole thing in 2017.

By October it is time for the Grand Raid des Cathares in Carcassonne (174 km, 7700 m D+). Looking forward to climbing those rocky stairs to the ancient Cathar fortress Chateau de Peyrepertuse in the eery morning light and letting my sandal shod feet take me over the esoteric Pech de Bugarach before leading me back to Arques to pursue another 50 km to the Medieval town of Carcassonne. I shed a tear of joy right there when arriving from the Raid de Bogomiles last year…

All of this is preparation for the Grand Goal of 2017. A matter of knowing which bling really matters…

 

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