Racing The Runner-Sandwich At The CIEL Ferney Trail Run
It’s kilometre 3.5, and I’m struggling up a beastly climb after a swift start when it suddenly occurred to me, like the grateful answer to that question that’s been on the tip of your tongue… the name of ‘that’ actress you can never remember when recommending a movie, or the password for an app you keep forgetting. It suddenly occurred to me, I should not be working so hard. Chasing the guy in front of me like he’s stolen my wallet.
Taking a trip to run a race is a favourite reason to travel for many a runner. While most of the many South Africa’s race running enthusiasts were either training for the Soweto Marathon in November or tapering for the Cape Town Marathon this upcoming weekend, I packed some lightweight trail shoes and hopped on a flight to Mauritius to take part in the 12th iteration of the CIEL Ferney Trail run.
I’d been training for two months. Starting from a condition of decent fitness, but certainly not racing condition. I knew I had to put the time in the reach a goal of sub-2 hours on what was going to be a tough course. Ferney La Vallee is a perfect valley induced bowl with thick jungle-like terrain of slippery mud and roots, steep ascents and super fast leg-spinning downhill open jeep track into the finish line at the old sugar mill refinery.
I knew I’d be off the winning pace by at least 20 minutes, and it would be a cool personal challenge to dip under two hours and to see how close I could get to the winning time. Mini challenges always add a little extra fun to a target race and I was excited to get out there and see what I could do in the lush terrain on the east coast of Mauritius.
Meanwhile Back On The Hill
How absurd I am to be so vehemently chasing the guy here in front of me, while protecting my position from the guy just behind me. I mean, I’ve trained pretty decently for the race and not once did I dedicate any attention to either of these specific guys I’m now battling with all my worth.
How could I have? I’ve zero clue as to who either person is. No mini-challenges against either of them. No side bets or positional incentives that can reconcile the amount of energy I’m using to race the guy eight steps in front of me, and the other, 20 paces behind – if my last panicked glance is at all accurate.
I realised that I’d always been like this. This was not something new. Spending way too much focus and attention on purely ego-driven goals of the moment. So many races stuck in the middle of a racing-runner-sandwich that had never actually proven any benefits. Today I was feeling it working against me.
The intense tropical island humidity is pushing my body temperature higher and higher with every metre of altitude gained. These guys were making me work too hard. No! I was the one putting the pressure on. These two runners, these two layers in the sandwich were of my own making. It was up to me to do something about them.
I made a decision. This effort outside of my original plan was not working for me. As difficult as it was for my stubborn Aries nature and competitive spirit, I needed to let go of the runners around me and continue with my own race. Make the pointless target in front of me invisible, and the demon chasing me disappear.
We were only a couple of hundred metres from the 4.8km water point, I let go of the pace I was running to stay in touch with the guy in front and settled into a more manageable effort.
Here comes the runner from behind me. He’s in red shorts. He passes me. A layer of tomato from the sandwich, I chuckled to myself as he goes by. Oh geez, there was another guy behind him. This one’s wearing yellow shorts.
I let him go by too. The cheese of the sandwich. This time, I actually let a little laugh out loud, which that layer of cheese passing me must have found pretty strange in the middle of this sweaty slogfest.
By the time I got to the water point, cheese and tomato were leaving and I was fine letting them go. Looking back down the climb I couldn’t see anyone either. It wouldn’t have mattered if there was. I was already feeling so much more comfortable running to my own pace – not bothered about racing anybody. I continued on, cooler and more relaxed as the course changed from jeep track in the open, to single track in the jungle.
Bacon, Cheese and Tomato
It’s really a magical trail network to enjoy if you let yourself take in the surroundings of the Ferney Valley. The exposed roots and vines of the huge monster like trees and tropical greenery are lush, gigantic, and like a movie set for Jurrasic Park or Avatar. The slippery roots can really be your undoing though. Climbing and descending past dramatic waterfalls, weaving my way through moss-covered stone stairways and sludging along mushy single tracks were all tangible reminders that this ain’t the comfort of a Hollywood green-screen, but rather an ever-changing, gradient challenging course in a vibrantly lush tropical jungle.
My plan was working out just perfectly now as I cruised at what I felt was a comfortable pace in this dense foliage. And then, and I’m not making this up, as if to divinely affirm the sandwich analogy playing through my brain, the final layer of the Bacon, Cheese and Tomato presented itself in the most animated of ways.
Just to my right I see a ball of black hair rampaging towards the single track in front of me. The ball becomes a barrel and he smashes wrecking-ball like through the greenery, over the open trail and disappears on the other side. I look back towards where this single-minded moving wild boar came from and see another.
This one is much lighter in colour, just the same size and heading in the same direction. It’s going at about a tenth of the pace though and just as I am trying to decide whether to make a dash ahead on the trail to the side I need to be on before it reaches it, I see why her pace is so much slower. I counted four little piglets struggling to follow their mother. I stop immediately.
Perhaps the black male is not as far into the thick growth as I had assumed. And if there is one thing I know about wild animals, it’s not to get in the way of parents and their babies. So I stop. Now I can see a fifth piglet. A mixture of the light brown of the mother, black of the father and some white patches to complete the camouflage.
If anyone could have seen the expression on my face as I watched the wild boar procession cross the race route and head off into the jungle, they would have thought a wildly smiling madman was loose in the jungle.
There is goes. The bacon. Surely the final layer of my Bacon, Cheese and Tomato running sandwich.
Soon after standing still for a minute and a half, giving way to the family of wild boar, I made it to the 12.5km water point. From here it was pretty much easy going. The route back is in the open air and there is very little climbing. The last 4.5km is actually just bombing-it downhill into the finish and I set my internal pacing dials to freewheel and see how fast I could go. The answer, not very.
All the climbing from the first half of the course had taken its toll and I was a little wearier than I had planned when previously identifying the parts of the course I could open up with some speed.
Getting closer to the finish gives a hint at the great vibe that awaits all the finishers. The valley amplifies the sound and I could hear the announcers from 5km’s out. I’d entered the 20km race but there was also a 4km option for the children and the hugely popular 10km race with over 1000 participants.
All in all, there are over 3000 entrants to the race which makes for a festive race-village finish.
As I entered the last kilometre – a long, straight rocky road between the sugar cane fields, I was joined by the speedy German, Moritz auf der Heide. He was in a titanic battle for first place in the 37km race with the favourite and four-time winner, Lauret Jean Eddy from Reunion. The timing was perfect as we just happened to hit the last kilometre at exactly the same time. I had a quick chat to Moritz where he explained to me they’d been jousting for four hours and it was only over these last few hundred metres that he knew he had the victory in the bag.
I backed off to give him some space when crossing the line. Jean Eddy finished just 54 seconds behind Moritz. Such great racing with huge amounts of tactics and tensions at play throughout the race. It all added to my own realisation of how, if you are racing for a podium, or top 10 perhaps, then the competitor in front and the one behind are obviously 100% relevant, but if you’re chasing your own time goals and are out of the podium positions, the sandwich-trap can be a tremendous thief of such precious energy.
I was very happy with how, for the first time in decades of being stuck racing in the runner-sandwich, I was able to let it all go, choose my own pace and enjoy the beauty of the Ferney Valley.
And my time? Well, the 2h06min was just outside my sub-2-hour attempt, but I was fine with that. I got to see the wild boar family, enjoy the Ferney Valley and manage my comfort levels effectively all while discovering the deconstructed sandwich routine, which I look forward to applying in my next race.
See you next year at the CIEL Ferney Trail. It’s a race that has it all and the tropical island flavour is one any runner will be immediately taken by.
For more information on the CIEL Ferney Trail, click here!