Friday, March 29th
Winning by finishing third and the 40% rule
After a luxury 5 hours sleep, I was scheduled to do my first solo run at 9:40 (19km). I was very nervous before the start. My left hamstring was tight to the point of making me limp when walking. Stephane took me to the physio truck, then a guy kindly taped my hamstring and told to go easy. It was not my intention to go hard anyways. While waiting for the start, I exchanged a few jokes with Lionel (the camping car driver) which allowed to me to relax a bit.
As soon as the race started, I found myself effortlessly (and surprisingly) on second position, and astonishingly with a (almost) pain free hamstring. The course was undulating which was my specialty. I love climbing (while others usually hate it) and I also like running downhill. Near the end of the first kilometre or so, I caught up with the leader, Thierry from MGC Coeur. He set the pace at about 4:20¬4:25 pace. It was quite hilly and warm. I was well in my comfort zone, but it wasn’t his case. I could have just left him, but I didn’t. Before the race captain Eric and Stephane briefed me about the spirit of the race. It’s not about just winning, it’s about sharing and helping, it is for a cause that is greater and beyond ourselves, going through the hardship together, caring for others. In the end donating an organ is giving out a part of yourself to create a miracle. If I could help a fellow runner go beyond his/her limit by putting my pride aside and “giving out” my heart, I thought I would get closer to the true spirit of the Course Du Coeur.
After about 3km or so, we were joined by another runner, Toby from Novartis. He also was in the red zone. I thought it could nice to cross the finish line all three together. Each uphill was hard for them particularly for Thierry who seemed to have some hard time judging by his rate of breathing. We kept smiling in front of the cameras, to the people who came to cheer on us and to the cars that were following us. And this despite the struggle. But this is what this race is all about, smiling in the face of adversity. Smiling does not mean it is always easy. It means we choose to face hardship with a positive attitude. The J car that was escorting me behind, had Nicolas, Fabrice, Stephane and Richard. They kept asking us if we needed water or anything. Nicolas as usual kept throwing
bad jokes at me while Fabrice and Richard kept doing their jobs as photographers (and also throwing random jokes). The cars escorting Thierry and Toby were screaming our names as well. It was cool.
Around 12km or so, Toby started to take off, leaving about 3 meters in front of us. We had been slowing down during the last 3km or so actually. I decided to follow Toby. I tried to increase the pace a little bit and push him. He seemed to follow but after a short while he told me “Harri, you don’t have to wait for me, feel free to go”, to which I replied “We’ve been running side by side for the past 10km, it does not make sense to me to finish alone, let’s finish this together”, “Ok Harri” said Toby with a smile on his face. So we ran the two of us, until about 1.5km to the finish when we heard “Thierry is right behind you guys!” I turned my head around and he was indeed just a couple of meters away! what a come back I thought, this guy really pulled it out. I was impressed. I screamed “Thierry! Come over here, let’s do this!” I grabbed his hand and pulled him by my side. We were now facing the final climb, 800m uphill to the finish. It was fairly easy for me, but they were digging dip into themselves. So I stepped back a bit, staying a few centimetres behind them and giving them an occasional push on their back here and there. We then crossed the finish line together, me in the middle holding their hands and a few centimetres behind.
As I walked away from the finish area, the driver of the MGC car (Thierry’s team) came to me, with a teardrop in her eye “Harri… it was a beautiful finish”. That was a sweat victory I thought.
A short while after the race, I felt a sharp pain on the side of the arch of my left foot. It was very sore to the touch and painful to walk on. I had most likely overused my foot to protect my hamstring. The on-site physician told me it was a plantar fasciitis, but I was convinced it was not, having experienced it once. He applied an anti-inflammatory cream on it and told me I should no longer run…. But there was no way for me to let my teammates down as it was my turn to run the MDC at 7 PM which meant I had about 8 hours to heal. I kept on doing plantar and dorsi flexion at my ankle in order to keep the blood flow going and hopefully make the inflammation go away.
The MDC was drawing near, and so my anxiety. My foot was better but still sore and my hamstring tight. I had recently finished reading a book titled “Can’t hurt me” by David Goggins, a famous Navy Seal who is renowned to be one of the toughest man on the planet. One of his popular feat includes running a marathon on fractured legs. He says that usually, when we think we gave it all, we’re in reality only at 40% of our full capacity. During a conversation I had with Sam about his first run with Lynda, I reminded myself that when the cause is beyond yourself, pain is secondary. Lynda told us that her 10km race pace was around 5:00min/km. Yet when she ran with Sam, she managed to pull out a 9km run at around 4:30 ~ 4:40 pace ! While waiting for the start, I had a little walk with Nicolas who gave me a lecture about French monument classification history and the beauty of French bureaucracy. Nicolas is a knowledgeable man. I had a good laugh and that relaxed me.
Stephane and myself from car J, Nathalie G and Elizabeth from car A were to do the MDC, this time 22km. I was designated to start the first leg. It was getting cold as the sun had already set. Each runner starts with a 2 minutes interval. When my name was called on, I was able to run fairly fast and just like that, most of the pains in my legs vanished. I passed the relay baton to my car-mate Stephane still wearing his Rocky Balboa shorts who flew away like a beast as I made my way into the car. Nicolas, our Vin Diesel was as sharp as ever. Both ladies were very nervous about the race, but as soon as it started, they took the rhythm. I soon forgot about my injuries and only focused on running as hard as I could. We all ran hard, very hard. Each time we got back up into the car we were out of breath. During the last 5km, Nathalie started to feel her calf tightening up, she was losing a bit of her running form but she did not complain, she just kept running. As she was not comfortable at running uphill I tried to help her out by taking her turn whenever possible on the climbs. 22km felt long and short at the same time. When we finished, we were all proud of ourselves and I was proud to be part of the team. It was probably much harder for them than for me but still, no one ever complained. By the end of the race, my legs were very tired, and so were my teammates. But now one question was haunting me:
how was I going to run three times the distance the day after?
After diner and 3 hours of sleep, we woke up at 3AM, and took off 30 minutes later
Saturday, March 30th
The infamous Super Marathon Volant Des Cimes (SMVDC) literally, the Super flying marathon of summits.
The same format as MDC but just three times the length, and more vertical distance (62km, with ~1500m of D+ and ~1500 of D- ). This was renowned to be the toughest part of the event. It was scheduled from 4:15 PM to 8:15 PM.
By 3AM, when the alarm rang, I was already awake. Actually, I had not slept at all, I just couldn’t fall asleep. The anxiety in anticipation of the race probably played a big role in that matter. We hopped on the car and after 2 hours of driving, we reached the departure spot for Stephane’s next race.
We received an announcement that the race was going to be shorten from 17km to 10km due to runners finishing the previous run too late. That’s not uncommon at this stage of the event where fatigue has set in, your legs are dead and when you’re asked to run 20km in the middle of the night, your body just won’t respond that well. Stephane felt relieved to run only 10km. The run started around 6:00AM. We drove by his side, me as a deejay and Nicolas as a jester. Stephane is the type of guy that will find strength by socializing. Although he would not reply to any of our bad jokes (or pretend to be over-focused and concentrated) he would never miss an opportunity to chat with another runner. Stephane can be described as a social animal. Some men are motivated by women, for Stephane, he just had to talk to anyone to get wings growing up on his back. The run went well, and he finished strong.
It was now around 8:30am, it was Yacine and Laetitia R‘s turn for the rowing and running race ( the heaviest from car A and and one girl from car B were picked – official rule). That particular race had 2 parts: the duo canoe (where each team of 2 had to row along a given course) then the solo run done by Yacine. Although it was the first time for the two of them, they looked confident. We had a good laugh however right after the gun shot when Yacine in an attempt to get on the canoe fell flat out on the boat like an omelette-flipping on a pan. He acted like if everything was planned but… well. It was a good stunt nevertheless. After they finished somewhere in the middle, Yacine was able to catch up by running hard during the second part and finished in the lead pack.
MCU: Marvel cinematic Universe
Later in the morning, it was the “man in costume” event. Each team had to perform a song and choreography in the organ donation theme while wearing a ridiculous/funny costume. This year it was decided to go for the theme of superhero (hence the name “beyonders”). We were wearing an eye mask (the Zorro type), a white t-shirt with a drawing that reminds the symbol of Captain America and… a Hawain/Christmas party skirt (???). To be candid, we looked more like Hawaiian beach dancers from a Disney movie than any Marvel superheroe…but that’s another debate. According to Nicolas who made a serious statistical study about this event ended with the following conclusion:
- there should only be one main singer,
- we must find a song that is not chosen by any other team
- The team must follow a nice and synchronized choreography.
For the 2., picking an old English song would do the trick (as everyone seem to pick recent French pop song). So we danced on “Gime Gime Gime” from ABBA and it was Elizabeth who was in charge of singing. She did not crumble upon the pressure and did a brilliant performance. Yacine was the lucky one: he didn’t have to dance nor to sing. He was just there to hold the lyrics on a big billboard and pretend to smile (which he did). Yacine is a tall, muscular good-looking guy so it was not a coincidence he was chosen to take on that role. The skirt on him though is another story… As for me, I already had forgotten both the lyrics and the choreography. So I just followed Laetitia on my right, and captain Benoit in front of me. Because I am usually very lucky, both of them were completely out of sync. I was wearing a purple wig on top of it so I felt like a complete buffoon. All in all, spectators seemed to like it. The whole spectrum was represented, from the most sophisticated dance to the complete joke. I believe we were in the top tier.
SMVDC part1: 25km car C and J, why so serious
It was 11:30AM and we had some time to chill before the super marathon. Nicolas drove us to the departure spot, a city in the middle of nowhere with probably no more than 200 villagers. Our presence probably increased the city’s population by 300%. It was a well-organized mess. While waiting for the start I chilled with the car C who were to do the first part of the race with us. Sam was as good as debiting sarcastic jokes, as he is a strong runner. Just like Nicolas, every word that comes out of his mouth seemed to have a degree of sarcasm, the French type of sarcasm, I don’t recall hearing him speaking out a serious sentence during the 4 days and 4 nights. He talks so much that by Sunday, he lost 80% of his voice and sounded like Sylvester Stallone on Flu antibiotics. While waiting, we’ve learnt that Yacine experienced a malaise. It was probably due to the cumulative fatigue and the lack of sleep. It was a very tough day for him. He had slept about 3 hours, went to row and run (hard), and right after the man and costume thing, went on 28km uphill run with captain Benoit. He collapsed due to muscle cramps at about 1km from the finish. Even after that, his body kept shivering and it took him a while to get back up on his feet. Sometimes, the body just don’t follow the mind. Yacine experienced that the hard way.
The SMVDC involves 6 runners: 2 runners running the entire race (car J, Stephane and myself) and members of two different cars covering half the distance and switching around the middle. The car C was the first team to start with us: Sam, Lynda, Nathalie V and Helder. Then captain Eric, Laetitia R, Alex, Laetitia V from the car B would join us after 25km. As for the driver, it was the veteran and experienced super marathon driver Lionel this time and Fabrice for the photos and videos.
We chitchatted around in the car while waiting for Stephane to show up. For some reason, the atmosphere was unexpectedly very relaxed, too relaxed… The first few turns went much slower than usual. Nathalie V , Lynda and Sam could not stop laughing. Lionel was kind of shocked and told us it was the first time he drove a car with runners laughing around. I’m not really sure myself what happened neither, all I can say is that we had a lot of fun and laughed so hard that we each forgot the pain on our legs and the fatigue. After 10km or so, we got into the rhythm and took it more seriously. Knowing Stephane and I would have to do the entire 62km, we made sure not to go all out when running.
During the SMVDC, passing the baton could happen anytime except in villages with a red mark. Whenever we entered in such zone, the runner would have to run the entire village without exchanging the baton. Distances ranged from 300m to about 1km. The common practice when running through villages is to take it easy, or at least to make sure not to sprint. We would usually take turns
SMVDC part2: 37km and mother nature
When you can no longer hold it, letting it go might be the best solution, so might have been the moral of that night’s story.
As soon as captain Eric, Laetitia R, Alex and Laetitia V took over, the average pace increased improved by 7s per km (about 3:50min/km). We rapidly got into a good rhythm. Despite the excellent driving skills of Lionel, I started to feel a bit dizzy and feeling a bit of nausea. I tried to ignore it and asked Lionel to let me on the road a bit longer and volunteered to run the villages where I would run very hard instead of going easy. I soon realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling dizzy. Laetitia R was running very hard and giving her best out there, but at one point she felt so bad she could no longer run. So we continued the relay with 5 runners, letting her rest hoping she would recover. She was clearly holding herself not to throw up. As the car C was following us, we decided to let her go with the escorting car and keep the relay with only 5 runners. We still had about 30km to go. Looking at her made me worried that I might be forced to step aside as well as my overall feeling did not seem to improve. Fortunately, captain Eric, Laetitia V, Stephane and Alex seemed to feel very good and had great lot of fun. As I was the only one with a poker face, they started to notice it.
I volunteered to run most of the villages. I had anticipated I would be forced to stop before the end so I thought this was the best way for me to help my teammates as I was able to run fairly fast in all villages (around 3:30min/km or so). This strategy would allow to keep the overall pace the same or improve it. I sensed my end was drawing near anyways.
I was feeling worse and worse. We were approaching a village about 1km long, down and uphill. I volunteered again knowing it might be the last one before my gut says stop. I got off the car and ran hard. Lionel drove away and waited for at the end of the section, 1km away. The first half was downhill and I managed to run at about 3:10 pace. Then the last 400m were all fairly steep uphill. I was giving it all, imagining my teammates eager to see me coming. As I was huffing and puffing up the hill, Laetitia V was waiting for me. Behind her were captain Eric and Stephane, turning their back. They were taking a good leak one meter away from Laetitia V who looked poker face. As we got back in the car and caught my breath, the two boys were relaxed and peaceful. Strangely, after a one full turnover, the relay baton got wet and sticky. It proved to be a strong motivation to run faster and pass the baton as quickly as possible.
At about 52km, I could no longer run. My teammates convinced me to stay in the car while they did the work. I felt very guilty but in all honesty, I was on the verge of throwing up. It was only a matter of minutes. As we approached the final village and last stretch of the race, Lionel asked me if I would do this 800m section. I replied I couldn’t so captain Eric took the lead. Laetitia R. was then recovered, and she joined us so we could cross the finish line all together.
It was one a tough cookie but we made it. We took off the venue and got the to hotel at 11PM. I was too tired to eat anything. I took a quick shower and went straight to bed as we were set up to wake up at 3:40AM.
Sunday, April 1st
Frozen: let it go
A beautiful sunny day awaited us. The last day promised to be full of emotion as it was going the put an end to the hardship, the sweat, the tears, the laughs and all the things that accompany the Course du Coeur. We started after the car A finished grueling the uphill night runs: 19km for captain Benoit and Elizabeth, and 15km for Yacine (the survivor) and captain Eric. The Car J and B would team up and take turn to do a 16km downhill run, 4 runners on the road, 2 in the car. It was a pleasant and relief type of run. The girls Nathalie G, and both Laetitia were gracefully flying down the slope, with an exquisite smile on their face in harmony with the sunrise. Nathalie G who was struggling since the beginning enjoyed a lot this downhill run. When running by her side, I could feel she was finally at ease, swiftly descending the road like a light a good surfer would on steep slope. I believe the 6 of us felt relieved for the first time in 4 days, realizing that the hardest part was already behind.
The final destination – was very near. The last run, 17km departing from the city Aime and finishing at the heart of Bourg Saint Maurice was a 12km uphill run (done in a flying relay marathon style) and a final 5km downhill run to the finish line. Captain Eric, Captain Benoit and Yacine (who ended running about 100km over the 4 days and nights) were doing the relay. The Car A, B and J were waiting for them at the top of the climb along with special guests: Veronique Sani, COO of Natixis and Benoit Gausseron, the global head of the communication department.
After a few minutes, the trio showed up, with Eric holding the team’s flag. I was impressed by captain Eric’s performance. The night before he was running the SMVDC by my side. He then had a few hours nap before running a 15km climb at 6AM, followed two hours later by a 12km flying relay climb. Yet when he showed up on the top of the hill with barely any sign of fatigue. He seemed as fresh as the first day, smiling at all of us, holding proudly his role of captain along with captain Benoit, he shouted “let’s go Beyonders, now all together as a team”
We were only a few meters away now from the finish line, in the heart of Bourg St Maurice. It was somewhat hard to realize it was almost over. We finally came to a stop to high five all the people, the other teams, the villagers. That was it, words were no longer sufficient nor required to express the tremendous feelings we all had. It is the kind of moment in your life where you know that no matter what you say and how you say it, only a fraction of what you have been through, of what you have lived, can be described by words. It belongs to the kind of moment that can only be lived to understand. Tears were running down faces like raindrops, all in symphony with a sea of delicate smiles.
It ain’t over until it’s over!
Although it felt like the last race, it was technically not. One last relay awaited us: a 14km climb where each runner runs 1km. That was the last bullet. I was saving some energy for that as I knew my legs would complain much less when going up compared to running a descent. It would be tough for the lungs and the breathing, but I didn’t care, I was willing to suffer… not just a little, but for real. Nicolas told us that usually, people start out too fast and they are grasping and sucking for air not long after they start. I was well aware of that. My section consisted of a 500m undulating, and the final 500m was on a 12% incline. I charged hard the first 500 to save as much as time as possible. I knew that the last half would be a suffer fest, but I was prepared, I was waiting for it. Because I was running only by myself, not having to run with anyone, I was free, no strings on me, I powered up the hill, and went all out, screaming almost at each step as my lungs were burning. Each second on the last part was excruciating… but I liked it, I actually felt alive. I wanted to be forced down on my knees when passing the baton. In my mind I wanted to finish that way, I wanted to finish a race with the feeling I have given it all, even it if is for a very brief moment. When Elizabeth took the baton from my hand, I believe I had accomplished that goal, my watch was showing 4min 20s, I was on my knees but I was smiling inside me.
Back up in the car, I took my breath back and after two minutes, my heart wanted to get out there running again. I was observing Elizabeth and it seemed that she might have started the first 200m too fast. When you’re not experienced at running uphill on the road, it is hard to catch your breath unless you stop. So I jumped out of the car to run by her side and give her some support. Then I just kept going. The next one was Yacine, who had jokingly said before the race that I should do 6km out of the 14km and leave the rest to the team. So when I saw him I told myself I would at least run 6km. I did. I ended up running about 10km
Veronique and Benoit G. joined us the run the final two kilometers, and just like that we crossed again all toghether – this time for real – the last and final finish line. It was over.
When we look at the pictures and videos displayed in all the social medias and the official website, 99% of them show people smiling. Although the smiles reflect a positive attitude in the face of adversity which is totally the spirit of the CDC, the race isn’t by any mean easy. The grind is a big part of it. The hardship has created bonds in four days that would normally take four years. The day before the race, I met captain Eric and told him that I wish I was in a good shape. Now looking back, even if I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in 5 years, I can’t help but think it was a blessing in disguise. During the entire time, I shared the same pain, the same anxiety, the same intensity of joy as everyone. Each member of the team came with his/her own ghost, but came out victorious from the field of battle.
Finally, I would like to say that we were extremely lucky to have Eric and Benoit as captain of the team. They lead by the example, always giving priority to the team, making sure everyone was safe, and was having fun. Organizing this kind of event requires a tremendous amount of work and effort and they did their job marvelously from the beginning to the very end. The support crew, Nicolas, Lionel, Fabrice, Richard were simply awesome to hang out with, if even one of them was missing the event would have had a total different taste and color. This event will have brought memories that will hold a big place in my heart and I am sure it will remain one of the best time of my life.
Last but not least, special
thanks mention to Nicolas, Sam, Stephane and Lionel who gave me more nicknames in 4 days than I have received in 35 years.
Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results