Willpower & perseverance : aut finisher, aut nihil!! (Endurance Trail Templiers 2010)

After the UTMB race, my ‘Olympics’ that were cancelled after only 21kms/166kms late August 2010, times have been difficult. It took me a while to get better and a couple of weeks to go back into proper training, not just a means to expel my anger and pain. The first following race was in Chamonix again. It has been harrowing to go back, alone, to run another race than the UTMB. I was not even able to take the start of it: only a few hours after arriving in Chamonix, I was struck by a winter disease and ended up stuck in my hotel room for 2 days, unable to get out of my bed or eat. This was the fourth race of the season out of four that I was not able to complete. For this one, the last chance of the season, the bad luck was not over because of French strikes and the shortage of gas (a four hour drive). I almost couldn't go...

I. The feet and legs

Thursday 8.38pm, I manage to close my eyes and fall into a profound sleep only waking up on Friday 1am, a bit before my clock. I head towards the starting line around 3.30am. It is cold on this late October morning. I hope to get warmer soon, with  the 4am intimate start. The first kilometers are often  an indicator for me, if not a determiner, of the race. After this troubled season, thinking back to my last finish line a very long year ago, I feel like a recovered skier, getting back onto skis after a bad knee injury. I run slowly, being aware of any single part of my body, listening to any single breathe out that would be stronger than another, any strange feeling. I stay focus on my head lamp ray on the ground, optimizing my energy to the maximum. I test. I analyze. I am scared. I do not want to cut the wound back open again, I do not want to live that again, I cannot fail. I will not fail. I want this line. I want it.

As kilometers pass and my body is warming up a bit, I try to do the same with my soul, I try to loosen it. My shoulders are lowering and my stride is softening as well. I feel lighter. I start looking around and up. The moon is full and unbelievable, so bright, and so is the entire sky with thousands of shimmering stars. I can hear them trying to cheer me up. They are on my side. I warm and fuel myself with their light.

It is now about 7am and with the sun soon rising, the temperature is dropping, it is more humid, and I am a bit cold. I try to shake my arms, moving them in big circles. I keep wiggling my fingers as well. But after three hours finding my pace and battling behind slower runners on single tracks, I reach the beautiful and typical village of Peyreleau. We wonder across the town, walking up and down picturesque stairs, tucked in tiny streets, before reaching the first aid stop, at km 23 (14 miles). I fill up my water bag, grab a couple of raisin breads and leave the station in under 5 minutes. I now focus on the next leg. 

Peyreleau village

I reach the next stop, 14 kms away (9 miles), in a bit more than two hours after a serious uphill. Again, I quickly fill up my ammunitions and leave.

After km 60 (37,5 miles) and many short up and downhills, I am joined and start running with an entertaining man with a strong typical accent from Perpignan. He has a GPS and when km 64 comes (40 miles), supposedly when we should have the third aid stop, nothing… We keep on going, joined by one or two other men as well. Several of minutes pass by and still no sign of the aid. Water is starting to run low but we find a small fountain in an isolated village that we go through. Finally after about an hour in total, on a very very steep uphill, we hear a woman’s voice: “Congrats you guys, come on, goood job, climb all the way up towards me! You just have about 25 min left now til the aid stop”. So when we reach the stop, my Southern companion tells me it is km 72 (45 miles). The last stop was 6h ago. I do not pay attention to this distance difference and again, after a quick yet good fill up, I’m gone. I head a bit before the latter given that he is talking to many people about which kilometer we really are at. I prefer not getting into this kind of conversation but rather to stay focus. Back on tracks, I start running again but have to stop quite soon. My breathe is short. Could it be because I am still trying to swallow all this cheese I have stuffed my mouth with, as if I was not going to eat in the next two weeks?! To my defense, I was really hungry after this long leg and as you may know, I am a cheese monster…But my eyes are blurry too. Am I choking?! No, just like reaching the top of Grand Col Ferret in the CCC race in 2007 (report here), reaching this point was really important to me. It is now more than half the race and I know I am going all the way. I just know it, I can feel it. The light of this morning’s stars are shining through my mind and my body, I am just feeling so good, I know it, I’m going all the way!

2h45 later, I reach the ante penultimate stop in one of the most isolated village I have ever been to in my life (176 inhabitants). It is completely tucked between those cliffs and they probably do not see much of the sun’s light in winter time and there is an eery feeling that, despite the sweet volunteers, make me grab food, take out my night clothes, as the sun will soon go to sleep, and I leave. Also, there is a tensed atmosphere: people who have GPS still have a difference in the kilometers and start asking anyone they can about where we are exactly. I do not want this interference in the bliss I keep being in. I remain focus, focus on the next leg and the next aid stop.

The next part starts back with a strong uphill. So far, they have been rather short to my taste with mostly flat parts in-between, which are not my strong asset. Yet they were beautiful plateaus towering the cliffs. So I am waiting for any uphill relief with envy to express my mountain girl skills. Yet they are very different than the ones I am used to (since we are not in the mountains) where typically the trail makes a Z going up. Here, they are going straight up the slope. Given the region, the terrain is extremely rocky, calcareous rocky so with the inclination, one foot ahead takes you three steps behind. So you try again and it takes you four steps behind! But it’s fun! At least, I am getting the extra uphill I wanted! The similar downhills are also very humorous. While most people use their sticks (which I purposely did not take), I use my “skier technique” and when that does not work, my secret weapon: my derriere! With the delight I am having, I have not noticed it is pitch black now and the chubby and smiley moon is back. We could be mistaken for twins!! The stars are back as well and maybe it is the fatigue, but I see them keeping moving, just as if they were dancing. They can feel it too that I am feeling good and going all the way, and they start celebrating! While they do so, I go on towards the final yet very abrupt uphills. My hands do not have time to get cold as much I use them often. Once, I try to hang on to a root that almost rips of the ground, then it is on a big sharp-edged rock. Sometimes the trail seems like a wall blocking our way and I literally have to grab trees’ trunks above my head and lift myself up. There I have it again my altitude change!

Around 22.30pm, I reach the very last aid stop. The Perpignan guy Laurent is back with me and as we arrive through the gate of this small farm, even I ask the volunteer which kilometer we are now. Indeed, we are supposed to be at km 95 (60 miles) but with the 7-8 kms difference (5 miles), at this stage of the race, it makes quite a difference between 15 kms left (9 miles) or 8 kms (5). Probably having been asked hundred times, the volunteer brutaly answers or rather, points out the sign “95”. Laurent and I look at each other a bit with despair but I skip the anger thaughts and rush through the food. I have had a craving for a cheeseburger for the last three hours and I keep my hopes high that in this lost farm there would be some but … nope! No cheeseburger. Oh well, I devour the chips and local cheese that there is. While I do so, Laurent is telling me with agitation that he is a bit bothered by this s*it. I listen but eat and drink my soup. A woman then discreetly comes to us and says “You know, there is no more than 10-12kms left now you know” (7.5 miles). As I stand back up and close all my gears to get back out in the cold, another woman comes to us and says: “Come on, you only have no more than 6 kilometers to go now” (3.75 miles). Laurent and I look at each other again, dazed. I contain a laugh, he does not. He starts rambling again, saying that from 6 to 12 it’s the double and it means between 1h30 to 3h! Yet I thank the woman and we head back out the door. I am a bit troubled indeed but I suppress the feeling in. No room for negativity.Pessimism is a mood’s thing, optimism is willpower”, dixit philosopher Alain. I remain positive. I have not felt down for a second until now, I’m not going to start! I prefer hearing the forest growing rather than the big tree falling (Hegel). Back on tracks, a light wind has risen and my wet and cold body is shivering. A few minutes later, as I run on this long right turn, the landscape in front of me suddenly opens up, the cliffs drop and the famous bridge of Millau illuminates all he can, breaking the darkness. It is stunning and I am under the spell of this iron mastodont showing me the way.

These last kilometers go by fast and soon I reach the last 4 kms (2.5 miles) of descent. It is very steep in this  forest and with the humidity, the soil is very wet and slippery. At some parts there are ropes between trees for us to grab. I am having a blast! As people battle with their sticks holding on them like they would on a parachute, I grab the ropes and just let myself slide down. I wake my bottom up once in a while but it is kept awake by my laughs anyway. I am loving it and pass by at least 20 persons on that last part, including many men who are not so happy, despite the dark, to see a young woman passing them. I reach the last kilometer entering Millau where we have to cross a road and a volunteer is there to stop the traffic. As I pass, there is a car stopped and despite the dark, I recognize my former colleague Stephane who will run another race the following day. He has been very protective and supportive over me in my other races and I cannot believe he is there! After I crossed the road, as he  speeds up to reach my side, there are other former colleagues of mine in the car, kindly cheering for me. They have followed me online and had planned to come and cheer for me!! I thought I was going to be alone and even though my joy was so powerful that nothing could have taken my smile away from me, now I get to share it and that is priceless. On this last kilometer, I do not think I ever ran as fast in my entire running career, even on interval training. I just had wind beneath my wings as my idol Chrissie Wellington likes to say when she wins Hawaii. I want to slow down though because crossing the line means ending this amazing journey I am in. It has unrolled like a movie, in sequences, that I have made the most of, always focusing on the present to get to the future (finish line) more easily.

II. The heart and soul

The finish line has a sad aspect in that it is the end but my smile is still covering half my face. In the final turn, I can see Stephane, Aurelie and the seven of them clapping and starting running to accompany me on a few meters. My feet recognize the line before my eyes can even see it. There is not much going on in my head as I rush to the line. I can barely hear  Stephane say “Enjoy, it’s your moment”. Everything goes too fast. The power rushing through me is …  “No pencil can draw it, no colors can paint it, and no words can describe it in all its magnificence” (Julius Von Payer). It is very new. My other finish lines have been so intense, especially my very first race when I finished first female junior of course, or the following year, when I went through so much difficulties during the race yet still reached the line. But now, everything is so light. I wanted it so much, I had worked so much for the UTMB two months ago, and was deprived the right to accomplish my dream. The other races that I could not finish this year, all of this had piled up in my soul and weighed on it so much.  I thought I would have bursted in flames, bursted in tears, screamed, fallen on my knees. But I do not. The victory and its display is somewhere else. When I think back about the race, the absolute self-control and happiness I have put myself into all along, I believe I was in the famous “zone”, this feeling of being beyond. Billie-Jean King once said about it: “The zone? It is the perfect combination of violent actions in the most peaceful atmosphere”. My heart is so at ease at that moment. I have so much light in it, maybe the moon and stars’ lights. I am in harmony with myself. All the suffering I have let myself go through have been so easily annihilated within seconds. Not a split moment have I felt revenge, revenge on the past elements, not a split second. It would just not be worth it. All I want is now before me. The Chilean miners disappeared in the dark only a few days before my UTMB. They came back to the light a bit before this race. I believe I have shared their destiny. I was put in the dark but knew people were there for me, I felt their support and mostly, I “sat back in me” as my osteopath once told me. I listened to what I really wanted and fought to reach it. I knew it was the race I had been least prepared for in three years racing yet I focused on the good reasons I was doing it. I thought I partly wanted a revenge but what I wanted most was to see the results of my determination and the work I had done to reach this goal. I wanted to live those few seconds of explosion on the finish line and I got 19h52 of pure elation and rapture. It was not the UTMB but it will be eventually, one day. For now, I just want to satisfy myself to have ran just like my very first race, finding the perfect balance and the enjoyment again, at all times. I had not experienced it ever again. With this humble testimony, I have once again discovered myself a bit more but also, I have proved that I can give my best each time and mostly I strive to never ever surrender. “As you - the best Winter Olympic athletes of all time […] enter to compete in the honour and glory of sport […] you carry with you the hopes and the dreams of so many. […] You are living proof that men and women everywhere are capable of doing great good – and that in life as it is in sport - we should always give our best - and never, ever give up. You are our beacon of hope - in a world so much in need of peace – healing – unity - generosity and inspiration.” (opening speech to the Winter 10 Olympic Games).

One day I’ll win my UTMB Olympics but with this race, I surely won a great world cup stage.

Km 23 rank 418, 03h07 of race
Km 37,5 rank 362, 05h26
Km 64 (72 ?) rank 289, 11h28
Km 80 rank 256, 14h15
Millau km 110 Rank 214/360 (650 starting),19h52 total time, rank 15/26 woman, rank 6/10 in my category

A special thanks again to all my Allibert colleagues for showing up and to all of you who supported me after the UTMB, my victory belongs to you too. 

One big face-covering smile...

110 kms, 4500m. ascent


  1. Fantastique Gratianne! So happy for you and what a wonderful account of your experience. Thank you for sharing it and congratulations on such a terrific outcome. Glad the biking helped with training. Bravo from us all at l'equipe de B&R!


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