July 26, 2011

Unreal - The Story Of My First Ultra Marathon

Read the full story here : Part I - Part II - Part III - Part IV - Part V - Part VI

- Part VII -

Borrowing energy from Juan Pablo wasn't difficult. I recall vividly the look on his face, turning from devastation to determination, building up momentum step after step, emerging from the dark confines of despair into the bright light of a hard-earned success. I could do it, too.

It took me two stops to finally climb the steepest hill of the course, for the very last time. Each obstacle I was overcoming made me feel one step closer to the finish line. I was not running the course, this time around. I was finishing it.

My frantic race to make the cut-off, unsurprisingly, took a heavy toll on an already burdened body. The back of my right knee became so stiff I had a hard time bending it. The top of my knee caps hurt a lot, too, probably because of how fast I took the downhills. But that was all good, as long as everything held up until the finish.

My last stop at the first aid station was very emotional. The kids, who probably had followed my epic third turn on the radio, were all aligned behind their table and started applauding when they saw me coming. I was DFL (Dead Fucking Last) at that point, so I guess it made things even more dramatic. I took time to thank everyone of them, tasted the beautiful watermelon one last time, refilled my bag and left.

It was only after that stop that I somehow managed to start running again. It was more of a jog, but at least I was covering some distance. I remained very careful on the ascents to the higher portion of the course. The heat was massive and my legs tired, and it was difficult to be alert and swift enough to avoid all the things that got in the way.

My stomach had ceased to function somewhere along my manic sprint, so I realized it was useless to shove any more food in it. That is one of the strangest things in ultras; your body gradually shuts down functions to keep energy for only the strictly essential things of running: a beating heart, breathing lungs and shuffling legs. All the excessive expenses, like higher brain functions, peripheral vision, digestion and even elocution stop working. So I focused on hydration, taking little sips every couple steps.

After what felt like hours, I arrived at the last aid station, where everyone was packing up, ready to leave. The nice lady was there, with a smile so big it moved me. "I knew you would make it", she said with a mix of pride and amazement. "Now listen to me. Take these gels. They taste like shit, but I want you to eat one every 15 minutes. You got that?". I nodded, too tired to explain I don't eat sugar and avoid chemical compounds as much as I can. Like if she'd read my mind, she added "They're natural. Made with fruits and all." I smiled.

Just as I turned around to leave, I saw the young man with the radio, the guy who'd told me about the cut-off. He walked to me. We shook hands solemnly and I thanked him for what he'd done. "You have no idea how bad I felt" he said. I asked why. He answered "I made a terrible mistake. When I told you there were 45 minutes left to the cut-off, I miscalculated".

"Ooohh that's why I made it", I said to myself. "There was actually more time than what he'd said". I was interrupted in my thoughts by the young man, who continued with his face down. "There were only 35 minutes left. When I realized my error, you were already gone."

I stood there, my mouth opened, in absolute disbelief.

"You made it, man. You made it!" he said with great emotion. "Next year, you're coming back here and I'm running with you." His look had turned to admiration. I thanked him again for all that he'd done, shook his hand and turned one last time to the trail, for the final stretch.

I couldn't believe it. I had gone down that crazy trail, 5.4km of bumps and roots and stubs and rocks and ups and downs in 34 minutes and 20 seconds. It's like running the last stretch of a grueling marathon in an all-out sprint. How was that even possible?

I ate a gel, like the lady had said. Funny, I didn't taste anything. Taste is one other of these not-so-useful things that get shut down in a long-distance run, I guess. I was still able to run, after all this time, but I allowed myself to walk the uphills and the steeper descents. My knees were the weakest and I had to walk sideways sometimes to be able to climb up or down.

At least I had gotten familiar with the trail. I spent the remaining time remembering all the emotions I had gone through on my previous laps, and I savored long minutes of absolute victory, all alone, knowing that I had made it all the way. I was an ultra runner. An ultra trail runner. An endurance athlete. I was fulfilling on of my life's greatest dreams.

As the last stretches of trail were slowly rolling under my feet, I noticed voices ahead. By that time, I'd became used to hallucinations so I thought it was nothing but another mirage. To my great surprise, after a couple turns I realized that I had caught up with three runners. I was granted the gift of not finishing DFL. Coming closer, I asked them if they minded that I pass them or if they wanted to finish with me. "Go ahead", they answered.

I shuffled past, and a couple seconds after I was at the clearing, and then on the gravel road. A large pickup truck was parked there and, immediately as I showed up, its door opened. It was my young friend from the second aid station! He had come all the way down to wait for me by the road. He started screaming at me "You've done it. YOU'VE DONE IT!!!!"

The pain, the mental exertion and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment all mixed into something I cannot describe. I had ran so far, for so long, and now the finish line stood only a couple hundred of meters away from me. For the last time, I took the turn on the gravel road. I entered the grass area of the finish line under a thunder of cheers. It seems like everyone had stayed until the last runner would come in.

And there it was. The gate. At its feet, my three brothers, Gillezz, Donald and Yves. The tent and The Amazing Julie. The tables with beautiful food and drinks. Smiling people. A beautiful mid summer's afternoon in the sun.

I crossed the line in a roar, gave time to my feet to understand we didn't need to run anymore, dropped my bag and jumped in my friend's arms, one after the other, both laughing and crying at the same time. Absolute body annihilation and infinite ecstasy. A remote place in the human experience that is very hard to reach, but that delivers meaning and purpose.


Looking back, I don't think what I've done is exceptional in any way. I came to Limberlost to become a distance runner and to pursue a dream. I gave it my all and was graced with the strength, resolve and good share of luck needed to succeed. To some other athletes, it may even seem like a meager accomplishment, and that's fine with me. There's still time.

But there's one thing that happened on the trails that day, one event I will never forget. A bend in space and time, a feat of will that defies any understanding. A true achievement. For the rest of my life, when someone asks what my personal record on the 5K is, my answer will always be the same.

34 minutes and 20 seconds.


  1. Way to go dude!

    That is an amazing story and you've got all my admiration !

    ;) @+

  2. Salut François,

    Ton récit me met les larmes aux yeux. Même si je n'ai jamais participé à ce type d'événements, j'ai assez pratiqué des sports dans ma vie pour comprendre tous et chacun des mots que tu as exprimé: la douleur, le temps (ou l'absence de), l'adrénaline, les démons dans notre tête.

    J'ai quelques mantra pour m'aider à continuer: "slow is smooth, smooth is fast"; "the mind gives up way before the muscles" et quelques autres un peu plus colorés ;)

    Mes plus sincères félicitations!

  3. Merci, thank you friends :)

    Humberto : les mantras que j'utilise sont :

    "That's what you came here for" (Scott Jurek)
    "Release the awesome" (Thanks Jake)
    "Smooth. Light. easy" (Caballo Blanco)

  4. Bravo! Merci de partager ton récit! Ton histoire est très touchante et inspirante. J'en ai pleuré à chaudes lardes et rit à coeur joie!

  5. Just.Plain.WOW
    I feel like I did when I was a kid watching the end of ROCKY and jumping up and down in the theater!!! FABULOUSLY mindbending story! Think how it altered your LIFE!!!!
    I've never experienced The Wall....simply because I have not run that far yet! But it reminds me of childbirth, reaching the transition phase where you make the choice between,"I give up! Give me pain meds!" or, "I'm gonna do this. For me....for my baby." I felt like Super Woman after giving birth naturally and have drawn on that strength ever since...in so many situations. Thanks for adding more fuel of inspiration to my fire!!!

  6. You ARE a superwoman :) Enjoy your body and your health, breathe good air, eat good foods, make good friends. And run free!

    PS - This experience is the one that lead to my participation in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon and the unforeseeable chain of recent events.

  7. You suck![not really]. What I mean is, I have to get up at 6am for work and now it's 12am! I couldn't stop reading your race report/story. I literally tried and had to get open my laptop back up to finish. No way I was going to sleep without knowing if you finished or not. Great job! I will be thinking of your story on my first ultra.

  8. Thank you (I guess), David :)

    And I hope your first ultra is as much a revelation and a discovery as it was for me. Run free!