19 March 2016, 10.45am: close to 1,500 participants gathered at the start line of the EcoTrail de Paris, ready for the 3 starting waves. It was chilly at about 10°C, with an overcast sky, and it stayed like that throughout the whole race. Gusts of wind brought out silent regrets of not wearing a windbreaker, and less than 10 minutes after the race started, drops of rain pattered on my face. Fortunately, the drizzle fizzled out in less than 5 minutes.
The first 6km took place on the grounds of Château de Versailles, including circling the Grand Canal (a canal built between 1667 and 1679 and measuring 1,670m long). Physically fresh at the start, and faced with flat paths, I brushed off my caution, and ran at a pace much faster than my target pacing of finishing within 6.5 hours.
The first ‘climb’ which tempered my initial burst of speed, happened at 7km into the race, a climb lasting 1.6km long to an altitude of 172m over an elevation gain of 55m. Nothing significant, of course, compared to those hills that I was used to in Hong Kong. However, a continuous spread of those spikes (also around 170m) until 35km, did take a toll on my legs which were not used to running continuously (well almost) for such long distance.
Having started trail running in Hong Kong 3 years ago, I was definitely not used to the terrain in Île de France, and thus not properly trained for a race like EcoTrail. EcoTrail is a trail running race that I would call a “road runner” race, as the course is relatively flat and not technical, and the historical fastest finishing times were around 3h.
The infamous trait of the Hong Kong trails, is the abundance of long flights of concrete stairs, or what I normally term as “stairways to heaven.” For a mid-pack runner like myself, to finish an ultra-distance trail race in Hong Kong, it would be impossible for me to run the entire race, but rather strategically mix fast hiking and running.
As such, my legs are not conditioned to running non-stop for 50km.
You may be asking why I did not stop and fast walk in EcoTrail. Well, with a flattish course like EcoTrail, I could find no valid reason to stop and fast walk as often as I do for a Hong Kong race. I would chide myself, whenever I stopped to a walk, even for a few seconds; self guilt made me pick up the rhythm again, and resume my running (or shuffling, more like).
After exiting Château de Versailles, the race passed through 3 forests (Forêt Domaniale de Versailles, Foret Domaniale de Meudon, and Forêt Domaniale de Fausses Reposes) and a park (Parc de Saint-Cloud) before running the last 9km, mostly on paved roads, along the Seine, the river crossing Paris.
The first 41km was mainly on dirt roads, intermixed with short sections of trails covered with thick layers of fallen leaves. Bare trees were the dominant scenery greeting the runners, who also had the opportunity to explore some of the surrounding villages.
Various sections of the route were joined by roads, where you would always find friendly volunteers weathering the cold weather, always ready to guide the runners safely across the roads.
One of the mandatory items for the 50km race was 1.5 litres of fluid, which I correctly foresaw as more than enough to get me through the race. Also equipped with 4 energy gels, I did not pause at either of the 2 checkpoints (28km) and (39km), which had definitely helped me to gain previous minutes over the other runners.
I understood later from my partner that the checkpoints served the usual range of sustenance such as oranges, bananas, energy drinks, water and of course, the cheese and sausages.
EcoTrail serves as a good warm-up before the start of the trail running season in France, and is a good starting point for me to integrate into the local running scene. The race also gave me an opportunity to test my ankle, which almost took the last 3 months to recover from a bad sprain I sustained from Hong Kong.
Overall, I was pleased that I completed the race, and beat my target time by 45min, finishing in 5h 43min.