King of the Castle (Running)

La Bouillonnante is a collection of some of the best trail races in Belgium at a variety of distances up to 50km. In 2011, when I first moved to Belgium, I entered the 50km race. I was pretty fit after a decent stint in the Alps racing on skis, but I’d not got much running in my legs, the ski season having only recently finished. I raced well for the first 20km or so, swapping the lead and getting drawn into running too fast for such a long race. Then I fell apart, completely, totally and utterly. My legs gave out from underneath me. At 25km I was a minute or so behind the leader, at 40km I was an hour behind and struggling to run at all. For only the third time since I started running as a ten-year-old, I dropped out.

I returned a year later and won the 24km race. While that was fun, it was clear that the real deal was the long race, and I vowed to return and put in a good performance on that. This year it fitted well as an over-distance race in preparation for a summer of Skyrunning races.

At first it’s hard to imagine how it is possible to get a race with 2400m of ascent in Belgium, a country even less blessed with high mountains than the UK. But the region of the Ardennes around Bouillon has a beautiful river, la Semois, that snakes along near the border with France. Its sides are steep, forested and contain winding, often technical trails. The organisers of La Bouillonnante have devised a series of courses that make the most of this terrain and include very little road running. A real joy.

Bouillon castle

Bouillon castle

To top off a fantastic course, the race has the unique feature of starting and finishing in the grounds of a medieval castle.

This year the 50km race had been extended (or more accurately measured?  I’m not sure) to 56km, and a 35km race had been introduced, starting at the same time as the longer race and sharing the first 20km or so.

The logistics of getting a thousand runners into a castle courtyard at 8.30 in the morning proved too much, and the start was a bit chaotic, with runners starting to run out of the castle while others were still trying to get in. I ended up crossing the start line way back from the leaders, and having to chase them down on the run through town. By the time we had climbed and descended the first of the day’s innumerable steep hills I had caught all but the first two runners. Unfortunately they were going a little faster than I wanted at the start of such a long race, but I didn’t know whether they were racing the 35 or 56km. From the few glimpses I had of them I was pretty sure one of the runners was Michel Verhaeghe, the man who I had raced for the first 20km in 2011 and who had gone on to win (and again in 2012 and 2013). I decided that I couldn’t afford to let them get too far ahead.

Over the first few technical sections I tried to keep a mentality of running efficiently but not really racing, but my body was telling me it was fast. The gap was manageable though (spectator estimates were between 1 and 3 minutes), and I was confident that either the runners ahead of me were extremely good and I didn’t have a chance whatever I did, or they would blow up before the 56km was out.

After the longest climb of the race, the two courses split, and I asked the marshals how big the gap was; “you are in the lead, the other two runners are on the 35km course”. Ah. A dawning realisation that I’ve just ran quite a bit too hard for the first 20 km of a 56km course. I wondered how big the gap to my more prudent competitors was…

At times in the next hour or so I thought maybe I’d get away with it, that the slowdown would be minimal and I’d just have an absolutely storming run and win by miles. At other times I thought my pursuers were just behind me (mainly based on the passing-dog-bark estimation method). I happened to glance at my watch around 42km (and about 1600m of ascent) and was somewhat alarmed to see 3 hours 22; that seemed a pretty respectable time for a stand-alone marathon over that terrain, but I had another 14km and 800m of ascent to go…

Luckily for me the state of my legs was soon not the limiting factor as my course joined the 24km and 35km race, and I started to pass first a few, then hundreds of runners on the narrowest, most technical part of the race. I got pretty bored of shouting “excusez-moi”, but eight ascents (including two ladders) and two waist-deep river-fords later I dragged the shell of my body back up to the castle grounds a very happy man. It turned out Michel hadn’t been racing at all, and the man I’d mistaken him for was Vincent Wirtgen, who took a good win in the 35km. Furthermore the barking dogs had been barking at each other rather than other runners, and I’d won by over half an hour.

In 2011 my dropping out of this race preceded winning the Jura fell race so hopefully surviving an even faster start and winning here is a good sign for things to come this summer. Next up is the first round of the Skyrunning world series in Zegama in two weekends’ time.

Results, and Movescount “move”.

That was last weekend’s entertainment. This weekend I ran a 1500m race on the track for the first time since I was 13 or so. Managed to run 4:27 which I was happy enough with a week after La Bouillonnante. Very exciting racing on the track, everything seemed to happen so quickly compared to a 5 hour race!