Les Templiers 73k Race Report

Shortly after the Napa Valley Marathon this spring, while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, I awoke to a Facebook message from Bryon Powell asking if I would be interested in racing a 73k race in France in late October.  I already had tentative plans to defend my U.S. 50 Mile Road title at the Fall 50 in Wisconsin, but when I learned the details about the Festival des Templiers, I quickly changed my plans.  I reasoned that the Fall 50 will be there next year, but a supported trip to France may not be.

Taking place in the south-central French town of Millau (a town recently made famous by its enormous 2 kilometer long suspension bridge), the race series saw its 20th edition this year.  Featuring a handful of races over three days, it is one of the most popular trail races in France, far exceeding the size of any trail races in the U.S. (though to be fair, permitting issues in Europe are not what they are in the States).  Roughly 9,000 runners would compete over the course of the weekend, with almost 3,000 toeing the line at the premier event, Les Templiers 73k. 

In celebration of the race’s 20th edition, race director and Millau native Gilles Bertrand created a team competition within this year’s race.  Billed as “France Versus the World,” the competition featured cross country style scoring, summing the place positions of each team’s fastest three runners to come up with a total score: low score wins.  There were three teams—France, USA, and Europe—each with a men’s and women’s side.  My fellow Team USA men’s competitors were Alex Nichols, Chris Vargo, Sage Canaday, and Zach Miller.  The women’s team consisted of Jodee Adams-Moore, Magda Boulet, Cassie Scallon, and Aliza Lapierre.  Very strong teams, both.  That said, the competition coming from the French and European teams was formidable.

Team USA Men
Team USA Women
I felt a bit outclassed, to be honest; perhaps not if the race was in my wheelhouse (i.e. something like Ice Age or JFK), but this was a mountain race featuring over 11,000 feet of vertical gain in 46 miles.  My four teammates all live and train in the mountains year-round, and as I keep learning, it is quite hard to match these guys when I train in the hills of Bloomington, Indiana!  That said, I was still hoping that with a conservative race and a great day, I could crack the top 5. 

I arrived in France several days before the race in order to adjust to the time change.  Overall, I think I adjusted well, and I didn’t feel overly tired heading into the race.  The days leading up to the race were pretty low key, consisting mostly of some easy running, a course tour, cheering on runners from the other races, and a press conference.

Race morning came nice and early due to the 5:15 a.m. start.  With dawn nearer to 7 a.m., we would race in the dark for a significant amount of time.  The start was crowded and noisy with excitement, creating a festival atmosphere befitting the race series’ name.  With a quick countdown and the starting gun, myriad flares were lit as we bolted down a tunnel of red light.  The start was fast and crowded, but not unreasonably so.  The front pack settled into a rhythm of roughly 6:00/mile for the first mile of flat road before a gradual road climb.  Within two miles, we left the pavement and began a climb on a rough gravel/rock road that was something like 15% grade, perhaps a bit steeper.  I let go of the lead pack at this point, as the pace was still hot and climbing is not my forte. 

I wound up running alone somewhere in a strung out chase pack as I reached the plateau at the end of the climb.  Up top, the rolling road (really more like a doubletrack trail) was mostly smooth dirt.  I was thankful for this, as my headlamp was not cutting it without the ambient light of a pack of runners.  This is the second race I have made the mistake of using a crappy headlamp (just your standard $30 type of camping headlamp).  Mainly due to cheapness (and lack of a sponsor!), I haven’t invested in a high quality headlamp, but I will soon.  I just had no depth perception, which leads to some jarring steps here and there when you misjudge your footstrike.  Come technical terrain, this deficiency is more hazardous still, as I would soon learn. 

I took advantage of the mild terrain and moved up a few positions over the next several miles.  Soon however, we began a rocky descent toward the first aid station.  Two French runners bombed by me as I stepped off the trail to let them pass.  I was having a hard time adequately seeing the trail, rolling my ankle twice, cursing to myself in frustration.  Then I caught a toe on a rock I never saw and I was going down.  No real time to react, I landed hard on my elbow, hip, and right thigh.  I popped up, reassured myself that no serious harm was done, and continued on my way.  Light was coming on at this point and soon I rolled into one of the tiny mountain towns that hosted the aid stations.  As I peeled off my arm sleeves and hiked up my shorts a bit to assess the damage from the fall, I saw a lot of blood, but otherwise everything seemed fine.  Bryon Powell told me I was 2 minutes down—less than I expected.  As I exchanged a bottle and left town, I settled in behind Jonas Budd as we began the next climb. 

One of the beautiful towns we ran through.
Jonas is a total stud, with second place finishes at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the Comrades Marathon, and the 100km World Championships—quite the impressive range.  I decided to key off of Jonas for the climb, and it felt gratefully easy.  The trails at this point were still mostly runnable and as we hit another plateau I slowly gapped Jonas and passed two or three more runners.  I soon found myself at the second aid station, twenty miles in.  I was in something like 15th place, and as the terrain remained smooth, I used my speed to get by six more runners in the following few miles.  In retrospect, I probably got a bit too aggressive in this stretch, which might have cost me quite a bit later.

The terrain until the next town at mile 26 was a bit techier and I wasn’t feeling great, but I maintained my position of 9th place.  However, at mile 26, we hit a climb that did me in.  I powerhiked nearly the whole thing, as the grade was quite steep.  One of the major challenges of this race was the grades of the ascents/descents, which are just so much greater than in the U.S.  Instead of switchbacks, the trails largely go straight up or down.

I heard breathing behind me near the top of the climb.  This proved to be Alex Nichols, doing what he does best.  Alex is a rail thin runner and an excellent climber who lives in the Colorado Springs area.  We hit the third aid station in 9th and 10th place, with two of the other Americans, Sage and Zach, still ahead of us.  Things were looking good for Team USA.  Fortunately, those other three were able to maintain, as I really started to fall apart.  Alex, Sage, and Zach would finish 3-4-5 respectively, sealing victory for Team USA with a team score of 12 points.

The next six miles or so did not feature a ton of climbing or descent, but the trail became very challenging for me.  Most of the trail was off-camber, making it difficult to stay efficient.  Eventually the trail was so obscure that I was literally looking from one marking flag to the next to figure out where to go.  It looked as if the trail had been cut a few days before—perhaps it had.  I fell another time on a bit of loose dirt/gravel and generally descended into a pretty rough place as a dozen or more runners passed me. 

By this point, the heat was becoming a factor as well.  I refilled my water at mile 39 before beginning a steep climb toward the fourth aid station.  I really had no business running this climb, but there were a lot of people out spectating and cheering me on, and my race was shot anyway, so I ran.  After climbing maybe 1,000 feet, I started to get lightheaded and dizzy, suffering from the heat. 

There were only about 6 miles left to run, but I knew they were a pretty rough 6 miles.  That said, I was determined to finish.  I knew I would need some time and calories to nurse me back to health at AS4, but I saw no reason to drop.  I’m not somebody who stigmatizes DNFs too much, but for me personally, it will take more than just a bad day before I decide to drop.  There needs to be illness, injury, or some other significant consideration.  As things stood, I knew I could make it to the finish without inflicting bodily harm, so I would. 

One silver lining of my race unraveling was that I got to partake in the interesting aid station fare.  Housed inside an old stone building, AS4 was fully stocked with cheeses (including Roquefort, a specialty of the region), chocolate, and pancakes.  I enjoyed all of these as I watched the lead women come through: first was Nuria Picas, and not too far behind, Magda Boulet in third place.  An aid station volunteer served me up a cup of homemade soup, which was delicious.  As I got a second helping, someone offered me a beer.  “Why not?” I thought.  It was delicious. :)

Twenty minutes or so after I arrived at the aid station, I headed back out for the remaining 7k.  I was walking a fair bit, cheering on other runners as they passed.  One runner named Ludovic recognized who I was and offered a “come on, Matt.”  I latched onto the back of his pack shortly before we started the final climb of the day.  This one was pretty brutal; very steep, almost stair-stepped with large rocks, and there was a lot of hands-on-the-ground type of climbing.  As Ludovic and I ran the last descent, he kept asking if I wanted to pass, but I saw no real reason to.  I was enjoying the company and told Ludovic I would just finish with him if that was alright. 

As we left the singletrack trail and ran the final mile of dirt road winding down to the finish, the fourth and fifth place women came into view behind.  They were having a race, and it turned out to be my Salomon teammate Aliza Lapierre versus French runner Maud Gobert.  Aliza fought gamely, but Maude simply crushed the descent and prevailed between the two.  Still, a great finish for Aliza (you can read her report on her Running Times blog here).  As for me, I crossed the line hand in hand with Ludovic, taking satisfaction in simply finishing what I would call the hardest course I’ve ever run.

War wounds
Flares at the finish to welcome in the final runners
Sunset over Millau