Festival des Templiers - 100km mountain run
The sound of my alarm doesn’t quite register until a second one goes off just 2 minutes later. Have we slept at all? It’s 01:46 on a Friday morning, and still full from last night’s cheese board, the last thing we want to do is run 5260m of ascent over 100km in the annual Festival des Templiers. It’s the day we’ve been excited about for nearly 12 months, but like most ‘mornings of’ nervousness masks over any excitement, and we’re a little apprehensive about what the next 24 hours will bring. But, as reluctant as we are, we crawl out of bed and join the rest of the Project Awesome and Midnight Runners team in the kitchen for a lavish 2am breakfast of croissants, bananas and overnight oats.
By 4am, we’re standing in the atmospheric glare of thousands of head torches crowding the start line of the Endurance Trail in Millau with 100km, and a lot of pain ahead of us. The atmosphere at the start line is electric. A swarm of thousands of head torches all facing towards a very long journey ahead. The music blaring above the crowd makes for a more than epic soundtrack to our fate – playing it back now gives me shivers! The gun goes off, with blasts of red smoke curling through the athletes, and we’re breaking into a run, taking a final selfie before crossing the start line - it’s 17.5 before I’ll see this place again.
The first 18km before Check Point One was a tough start, with 810m of ascent it was a fast track way to the pain cave. We’d been running for more than two hours before we reached the warmth of the check point, the smell of coffee circulating amongst sweaty athletes was surprisingly welcoming. I bumped into fellow teammate George and it’s amazing how much morale was boosted by a familiar face! After a shot of coffee and shovelling a few cheese cubes into our mouths it was back onto the dark trail and we could see the slow moving lights up the next mountain in front of us. Like fireflies, they snaked upwards in the distance as the sun slowly began to rise over the hills. There was no point in feeling scared about that mountain; it was one of many to come.
When it did finally become light at around 8am, the autumnal colours of the hills made the views incredible, either up high on the rocky outcrops, or amongst the forests down in the valleys. The trails were fairly technical, so you had to keep your eyes on your feet at all times, particularly on the descents as the smallest rock or tree trunk protruding from the ground was enough to send you flying. I was very close to stacking it on countless occasions, and if it wasn’t for some (far from elegant) recovery steps, this would be an entirely different race report.
At 50km in, as I circled down into the valley and checked in to the halfway mark, I felt like I’d given everything, and everything from here wasn’t going to come from my legs, but straight from the mind. If I wasn’t so clogged up with Kendal mint cake and energy gels, the next 12km to where our amazing support crew from Project Awesome were waiting would have been a lot less painful. The first hill after 50km I experienced an all time sugar low. I could feel my fingers and insides shaking, but at the same time had absolutely no energy to pull myself up the hill, and I had to step aside several times to let runners past. Although I had no idea what they were saying, I really appreciated the words of support they offered as they heaved themselves passed me and carried on. The French can be friendly! I can’t describe the feeling of relief when I finally reached the checkpoint and Tom, Wolley and Lucia were there waiting with salted caramel brownies and a fresh pair of socks. I stayed in the check point for longer than I should have done, but the warmth of their company was really needed, and the buffet of cheese and bread was exactly what I wanted. The French do race nutrition very well. No messing around with energy gels, it’s everything you really want – cheese sandwiches, crisps, Roquefort, salami, and flat coke. After a change of socks and wrapping of tape around some serious chafing (thank you Tom), I was back on the trail with ‘only’ 38km left.
Unfortunately the next 38km were relentless. I was in a world of pain, and I’ve never wanted anything to be over as much as this damn race! The hills felt higher, steeper, and my knees and quads wanted to give in at every step. Running 50km is one thing, but running another 50km, with the same legs, degrading every step, is a whole other challenge. The km’s were ticking down very, very slowly, and my average pace had dropped to more than 9km/hour. At 85km, as the sky got darker, so did my mind. It never occurred to me to actually give up, but I just wanted it to be over, which of course, it could only be if I finished! So I kept moving, one foot in front of the other, gasping for air on the up hills, and side stepping down the descents, as my knees couldn’t work their usual movement. At 93km, my Suunto had died (it felt like I had too!) so I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. After one very steep ascent down into the valley, where a fully fledged hobble had been adopted, I finally heard the French commentator, and could see the flashing beams of the race finish. It was just a matter of minutes before I’d be face deep in a cheese board.
The finish line was an absolute party. Support crew waiting at the bottom, running in with me, high fives from the crowd, and the French techno blaring out of the speakers. I wanted to cry, faint, vomit, and laugh all at the same time. Luckily for all involved, I just laughed, and gave a lot of hugs. I had a prodigious sense of achievement over what we’d done, but the real achievers were the runners still out on the course, still in the pain cave and heading for the finish – my thoughts were with them!
Certainly not for the faint hearted, the Festival des Templiers is an epic race, taking in technical trails and using steep ascents to really challenge your limits. The time of year really made for a beautiful route, and by winding through leafy valleys, past tiny French villages and on top of rocky mountains, it encapsulates the beauty of the midi-Pyrenees. Nearly one week later, whilst the legs are still repairing, the mind reflects on what was one of the most challenging but rewarding trail races. And still slightly full from all the cheese.