I interrupt the endless scramble to catch my breath. Standing on the a narrow ledge, I grasp the rock face with both hands and gaze down in the mist below. Nobody’s coming, I am alone. My watch tells me that I am nearing an altitude of 1000 meters. More than 300 to go on towards the summit. Gosh, I even didn’t know that one could climb the Pic de Bugarach from this side. I decide to move on. My Black Diamond poles make scraping noises, dangling uselessly from my left wrist, while I continue rock climbing on all fours. I mount the desolate ridge where I spotted some of the characteristic GRC tape and drop immediately to my knees. The hard wind seems to try to push me over the edge. Lonely and a little scared, I cautiously proceed to a rocky outcrop sporting a strange hole. There are some ropes, one of them goes straight through the hole. The mist is getting thicker and thicker, while the wind is yanking at my backpack and rattling my hood. This is the famous Pech de Bugarach. New-agers believe it is hollow and houses aliens inside. Reportedly, they mount the steep path on the other side wearing their sandals as a kind of pilgrimage. Oh irony, so do I. I am a Cathar in the land of the Cathars. A long time gone religious order named after the word catharsis. Well, isn’t this one? This is the longest and one of the toughest stretches in the Grand Raid des Cathares.
I am well over the 100 km mark now. Luckily the rain has stopped since last I met my support team in Cubières-sur-Cinoble at km 92. Previously, they have been awaiting me for hours on the cliffs at the windy and wet valkyrie that Chateau de Peyrepertuse is, so now they decided to finally leave the parcours for a combined late afternoon breakfast-lunch-dinner. Hence, I will be alone at the next check-point in Sougraigne. If all goes well, we will meet up again shortly before midnight at the “base de vie” in the Arques chateau. At km 130. All the time, they’ll keep an eye on me watching the satellite tracker I carry, so they can time their journey trough this barren land and arrive just in time. A re-assuring thought.
At the summit, I meet a collegue from a well-organized running team originating from Amiens, waiting for a characteristically red dressed team-mate. The howling wind and the cold make it impossible to stay there, so I pursue my lonely journey towards lower and more sheltered areas. Damn, this is the wet side of the mountain. There is a path, but so slippery and rough, it should be skillfully negotiated. On my way down I meet the photographer from the Amiens team. They’re all dressed in red, except for the blue one I met at the top. After a while you start to recognize each other. Stunned that I am still in the race and survived the Pic, he shoots a couple of pictures while awaiting the remnants of his team. I realize that what I am doing is out of the ordinary and feel proud. But the descent takes ages, just as the ascent did, and I start to worry about the ever-looming cut-off times….
A bit forward in time. I passed Sougraigne without any trouble, but didn’t spend any more time than necessary at this check point. On my way to the next one. These are the last kilometers to Arques. Relatively flat surface. Two guys overtake me at what I consider an unachievable speed at this stage. But why not try it? Every minute I land in Arques before the midnight cut-off, will be a bonus. So I decide to follow suit. Incredibly, I pass them by again. A freakin’ machine, that’s what I am. Never before in my life I ran at this pace after 120 km. Running at more than 8 kmph on the stony track, I start to tick away those last kilometers separating me from the yellow-lit solitary tower deep in the dark valley. Euphoria sets in.
I arrive at 10h20 PM, so I can can afford a 30 minutes break. Delicious apple pie. Besides some serious chafing on my inner thighs, no traces of wear. I apply the Cicalfate cream my team brought from the farmacy while having their meal in Rennes-les-Bains. With “only” 50 km to go, I dive into my second night without sleep. Wearing a warm Icebreaker jacket, as this will be a dry but cold one. I also apply some new tape around my big toes, to eliminate any blister risk. From here onwards, I am familiar with the terrain, as I did successfully run the 102 km Raid des Bogomiles last year. On sandals, yeah. I know it is tough terrain, full of surprises and moreover some of the distances between check-points are different from those advertised. A matter of being mentally prepared. Some 13 km to go to the next stop in Villardebelle. Damn, the right tape is not OK, it has folded up under my right toe and sticks to the foot-bed. A little embarrassment, nothing more. Push on, buddy.
The steady pace induces a reflective mood. Flashback time… The weekend before, finishing the GRC seemed such improbable thing to do. Having mainly focused on core and hip stability training after the Ut4M Challenge, my weekly training average dropped to the low thirties for the last two months. Less than two weeks ago, I struggled to complete the 45 km Trail de Saint Jacques de Compostelle in Namur, Belgium with buddy Frank. Afterwards, my legs kept on hurting for days, seemingly not willing to recover. At such point reality kicks in hard! In a panic, I decided to have my legs massaged by a specialist and to continue my strength trainings until a unintential stretch move produced an awful sound in my left knee. Ouch! With 4 days to go for the GRC, and hotel and airplane expenses paid already, I decide at least not to cancel the trip. At worst this becomes a DNS (did not start) and a touristic weekend in Carcassonne, at best a downgrade to the 40 km Trail des Colombes on Saturday. The fact that two Legends Trackers went subsequently missing in the mail and the ever worsening Carcassonne weather forecast did not really add to the optimism. However a last sports massage, a recovered tracker and some motivational words from my wife and trail running friends seem to brighten up the last afternoon before departure. And great are the benefits of arriving in town the day before the race. We walk towards the Salle du Dome to meet Magali Michel and team, frantically preparing the opening of the Trail Expo the next day. Nevertheless, she takes her time to greet us and explains that the weather to be expected Thursday night would be some of the worst imaginable, being torrential rains and cold. “Pas de sandales, cette fois-ci.” We leave pondering what to do. My knee still hurts, and my muscles are still sour. I decide to put in a 10 hours of healing sleep… It rains the whole night, but I do not notice. Next day, walking with Sofie to the hall to fetch my race bib, I decide to stick to the 180 km. No downgrade, cette fois-ci. On our way back, I convince myself that starting on Vivo Barefoot Primus shoes is the right thing to do. A sandal run would be crazy in this terrain. Especially given the low profile soles of the Luna Gordo. Time has come to make final material choices and prepare the drop bag. Legends Trails’s Stef messages me to ask if I plan to do this thing on flip-flops. Still pondering, I answer. Within the next millisecond, I know and throw my shoes in the drop bag. I’ll start this thing on sandals, whatever it takes. If I manage to make the 50 km to Arques, I can still decide to switch to shoes. Never going to survive unless I am a little bit crazy…
Three hours before race time. Sofie goes out to deliver my drop-bag (transparent, terrorist threat), I wil see see it twice in Arques. Sleep does not come that easily in the afternoon. I lie on the bed, thinking about the night to come. Time to move to the Chateau Comtal, in the center of La Ciutat (the city in langue d’Oc). My bare feet raise a lot of interest, I think nobody believes I will make it. Crazy Belgian guy on sandals amidst those gnarly tanned ultra runners.
I know those first 50 km, see Bogomilism and Minimalism… Raid des Bogomiles 2015… And suddenly I remember one of my own statements from last year. “I am glad it didn’t rain, because I don’t think this track is feasible on sandals when it rains”. Shit, I think about my shoes probably being somewhere on a truck towards Arques. That’s it. Switch on the tracker, program the watch and count down. The start is epic. Knights with banners escort us to the the city gates through a cheering crowd…
A light rain keeps us company through the military domain, while the darkness falls. The first check points come and go. I feel strong. The core work improved my style. Muscles are well relaxed. My experienced feet find the grip I need. I try to stay below 6 kmph average at low heart rate. This is it…
Then hell breaks loose. Tracks change into rapids. Steep downhills become mudslides. Sometimes I have to put 50 percent of my body weight on my Distance Poles. Hope they will hold up. With pride I message Sofie that I arrived in Arques well before cut-off. I eat a plate of macaroni and leave my shoes where they are, I don’t even bother to collect the drop bag. Back into the night. This is a test of the spirit and the body. The strong light of my headlamp reflecting in the curtain of rain has a blinding effect. Around 4 AM, I receive a message from Sofie that I am nearing Fortou. She woke up to check my position and announces the party will leave the hotel to be in Peyrepertuse before 7h15 AM. Turns out to be some calculation error.
Only many hours later, descending a very rocky path southwards, I spot the impressive Peyrepertuse stronghold, dominating the valley from its impregnable rock. From the hamlet of Roufiac at the foot of the castle, an impossibly steep path runs up to the castle walls. I didn’t even know the fortress could be approached from the north side. Average speed of 1.5 kmph. I am afraid to slide down and grasp tree after tree leaving my fellow climbers behind…
Exhausted. Under the castle walls I meet Sofie and Kris. They walk with me to the check point. Friday morning, it is nearing 10 AM and we’re at km 82.
That was yesterday in the mean time. Back to Saturday morning. Just passed check-point Villardebelle. Cries of amazement when I enter the place barefooted in my running sandals. I turns out that only some 63 or so runners are still in the race. Of the 107 starters. There are even some twenty runners behind me. It looks like I will make the Saturday 11h30 AM cut-off in Villefloure easily. Of course the night will be long. My legs are getting tired and the sleep deprivation starts to play up. But less than a marathon distance to go. Let the countdown begin.
One hour later, the situation changes drastically and dramatically. My right lower leg doesn’t work anymore. Turns out the fold in the tape has caused a blister underneath my right big toe and without paying attention I have been running for many hours lifting it off the sandal foot-bed. The muscle controlling it in the front of my lower leg is so cramped, that it got deprived of blood and oxygen and starts hurting and swelling in no time. I must remove the tape and drain the blister to get it moving again. I saved on weight and do not carry a Swiss knife, so removing the tape in the dark along the track is a difficult task. Not sure if I packed a syringe needle in my kit neither, I decide to wait until the Greffeil check-point and ask the medical staff to puncture the barely noticeable but very painful blister under the hardened skin. Secretly, I hope it will pop by itself.
This is something different. Although I have maintained a sufficiently large margin on the time limits, my sudden drop in speed worries me. In the mean time, more than ten runners have passed me by and Greffeil seems an eternity away. In despair I hook myself up to a group of runners and try to follow them. This will be a challenge. The ever worsening inner-thigh chafing caused by my Compressport compression shorts doesn’t help neither. It really hurts and I adopt a strange jogging style. Meanwhile, I look around for barbed wire to pierce the blister, ask runners if they carry some safety pin or whatever. No luck…. An endless struggle. Finally arriving in Greffeil at kilometer 150, the local medical team seems to believe blisters are uniquely caused by sandals, refuses to drain it for hygienic reasons and applies a big bandage that I wouldn’t even apply for a short walk in the park. I escape to the bathroom wielding the syringe needle I found in my backpack in the mean time. The little pink fountain almost brings tears of relief. After taping the bandage in place, I decide to eat some bananas and leave. Only 30 km to go. This could become a very, very hard last 30 km.
While the painful toe becomes manageable, the cramped shin does not release at all. Having to push myself forward with every step while half asleep, I experience some strange sensations. The terrain is technical as ever, and my blurred mind is convinced that I missed a meeting where it was explained how to negotiate the descents. I am almost in despair when one of the imaginary creatures in the woods tells me I have to take the steps in a “representative manner”. For hours I am wondering what that could mean. But as such the time passes and finally I welcome the beautiful colors at horizon, announcing imminent sunrise. These are the tough hours. I hear a guy repeatedly shouting the name of a colleague from the top of the hill above me. A bit later I hear some mumbling from the bushes besides the track and see the guy being called curled up, sleeping with a heavenly smile on his face. This is what extreme fatigue does. I speed up the hill, and tell the man about his team-mate below. “Goh, they’re just like kids, you have to watch them all the time” he says grumpily and starts moving down again to reprimand his dozing colleague.
Villefloure inches closer, the morning sun is blinding and hot, but I don’t find the courage to take of my head torch, beanie and jacket. The shadow side of the hills can still be downward cold. The irritation caused by the compression pants has passed the point of being unbearable. I run like a cowboy, trying to avoid friction on those bloody patches that once used to be skin. I don’t know how I will handle the last 16 km past Villefloure and pray that my support team will be there. Pray that they will have my bag containing the soft underpants I planned to wear after the race. Given the fact that I am hours behind schedule, I know the odds of meeting them there are increasing. They must have seen my dot creeping forward on the map whenever the tracker comes in reach of a mobile network.
With the light, some minimum intellectual powers re-emerge, and I calculate I will reach Villefloure more than one hour before the time limit. If I take a 30 minute break, I only have to achieve an average speed of 3 kmph on that last 16 km section… Suddenly, I see Kris. He walks calmly besides me as I frantically jog towards the tents placed in the middle of the field. Never undressed that fast in my whole life. What a relief.
Time to go again. Sofie and team did their due diligence and announce they will meet me in the middle of the military domain, apparently it is allowed and possible to reach that check-point by car.
Back on my way. I shuffle. The real-time speed indication on my Suunto watch says 2.1 km per hour. Sofie yells that it is not the time to give up. Pushing on for another 100 m it says 2.2 kmph. Finally after 600 m I achieve a sustainable speed of 3.6 kmph. Sofie walks back to the car while I disappear into the woods. Suddenly the track is flooded with fast runners. The Trail des Colombes. They take incredible risks and I am forced to move aside time after time. Not easy to sustain pace. In the mean time I notice 2 people marching behind me. I signal they can pass by, but they just smile and stroll along. It takes hours to figure out this must be the GRC sweeping team. I am in last position, together with a about 5 other runners. This is the tail of the race. What a bunch of injured and tired people. But determined. These are people who will make it. Finish what we started. We have all the time and take it easy through the vineyards surrounding this fantastic medieval city. Kris walks the last 4 km with me. I am in a grumpy mood, every little detour is one too many. Where is that darn finish?
An image I will never forget. A last euphoric stampede, 5 people hand-in-hand over Le Vieux Pont. Our voices echo against the city walls. The winner, who arrived 21 hours before us, shakes our hands while our medals are being handing over. The speaker notices my bare feet and is flabbergasted. Ten minutes later he is still raving about the sandals. He asks how are these things are called. I smile and say “Claquettes”. Off to shower, massage and a bunch of La Ciutat beers. I am the happiest person in the world. For a while.