Sunday, June 12, 2011

Once Upon A Time In Aquitaine. (The Greatest Ultra Run You've Never Heard Of Is Over)

The 7th Edition of La Trans Aq is over. And possibly this event will never run again, which will be a loss to the world of ultra running and multi stage events; as quite simply this is one of the most special races there is. I've been luckily enough to take part in and complete two Trans Aqs (that's 2 stars next to my name), some people have done all seven.

In some ways I don't want to tell you about this race, I want to keep it a secret. I don't want it to turn into the Marathon De Sables (MDS), where there's a two year waiting list and it cost several thousand dollars. But that's just selfishness on my part, maybe this race will never run again so all of this is a moot point. So I might as well let you know the secret.

But what is the trans aq, why is it so special, and where is it and how did it come about. To answer this I must start at the beginning.


Aquitaine is in France
Aquitaine is in the Southwest corner of France, think Bordeaux, and that's where its at. The terrain is pine forests, beaches ocean, lakes and sand; and being in southwest France it can get warm.

What Is The Trans Aq

It is a 6 stage multi endurance event, about 220km in distance. There is one long stage on day 3, it was 58.4k this year, a night stage on day 4 when you run up and along the Dune Du Pyla (biggest dune in Europe) and then into the forest with just a head torch for company. The other stages all take place in the pine forest mostly, with some running on the beach and around the edge of lakes.

You carry your own food, with a drop bag of 3 kg at the end of the third stage which can contain whatever you want, but sensibly should contain your food for the next 3 days

But these are just the facts, this is not the story...

Once Upon A Time There Was A Runner Called Gerard

Gérard Caupène is the runners runner. To say he's been there and done that is an understatement. His achievements include 240 km solo without any assistance in the Sahara desert between Araouane and Timbuktu in 2003. 203 km in 24 Hours in 2002. 31st place at the "Marathon des Sables" in 1998. 100 km PB 8h53 at 24 years old.

With a mixture of Zen mind and French flair, almost mythical stories of him running on sand with trainers with specific holes cut in them to let the sand drain out, and of course, no socks.

Maybe, he saw the MDS and knew he could do a similar race in his region of Aquitaine, and try to avoid all the things about the MDS that he didn't like. Who knows.

He made his money from selling scalextric in France (strange but true), and had organised large scalextric racing events, world championships with specially constructed tracks. Combining his organising skill and knowledge of ultra running the Trans Aq was born.

He funded it himself with his own money. It wasn't about making money, he'd break even at best. The event is cheap in comparison to the MDS, racing the planet and even a 1 day ironman events. It was about the spirit of Raid running and the trail.

I don't know anything about organising races, but I think a multistage race must but the hardest type of race to organise, compared to say a 24 hour race where you run in a circle of even a long 100km run, where you only have to deal with marking out one course for one day. A 6 day run with all the trail markings, moving of camps, gaining permissions from various people to run across their land, medical support and aid stations and a million things I haven't even thought of must be a logistical nightmare.

But he did it, and people turned up to run for 7 years.

The Gestalt Race. The event that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So you're running in the forest in Franc. And in peoples mind this seems easy, but its not. As Gerard says, it doesn't have the romance of running in the desert. However, the challenge is the same, it is as tough in its own way because it sneaks up on you and leaves you shell shocked because you wasn't expecting it.

"The MDS has one day of sand dunes, trans aq every day is sand, it's like someone dropped a pine forest on top of a beach." - Welsh Arthur*, no.111, Team Alf Tupper
And the stages are designed to push you. The design is psychologically clever, Gerard will see how far he can take you, distance is almost irrelevant. You didn't come to the trans aq to run on cycle paths and roads did you? Just when you think your safe, you'll take a right turn and be on the dreaded rollercoasters of sand, up and down, up and down; but you wouldn't have it any other way. You'll learn a new language of classification for paths and from S0 (no sand) to S5 (soft sand everywhere), you'll spend 6 days looking at road books looking at S2, S3, oh no S2 has become S5 because of the dry spring.

Race briefing: No, the guys at the back haven't been doing some painting and decorating

But its not just the terrain, 'The map is not the ground.'

Corkscrews & Black Fly

The two volunteers have been standing in the forest for three hours being attacked by insects. The head torches bounce towards them like slow moving tracer. They get the bottles of water ready, offer to top your water holders ups, they notice that your English, shout go, go, go and your away.

The volunteers hold this race together. They volunteer their time and holidays to be part of this race. Always positive, always there for you, many have done this race and others like it, they know how you feel. Many have volunteered for all seven editions of this race, a honorary cork screw for every edition on their name badge. They set up camp, have the aid station ready, provide medical support, and in the case of the night stage, can end up on the go and awake for well over 24 hours.

There are only 10 or 11 English people on this race, and to my shame I don't speak French. However, you never feel excluded. Of course, some of the volunteers can speak fluent English as wells as German and many other languages. Even, when their is a language barrier, the communication of concern and support is obvious.

In everyday life you are faced with negative people on a daily basis. On this race though, everyone is positive, there is a 'you can do it' attitude from all the volunteers and participants. You have to take responsibility for yourself, this is France, health and safety culture hasn't taken over (imagine a ride on a Zodiac boat in England without a safety briefing,  no signing of a waiver and no one wearing a life jacket, in France your an adult - deal with it!). But the organisation of the race is spot on, with aid stations, control points, camp set up and start times.

One thing you can say about the French, they always look stylish. And Raidlight has no need to sponsor this race because everyone is using their gear anyway

If you did it, you did it

The first person in and the last person in get the same t-shirt, the same medal. If you did the distance, you did the distance, you finished it. Maybe you had your personal battle, a twisted ankle, a swollen knee, maybe you fell in a swamp. If you made it though, you know how that feels. You will get cheered across the line, bravo, you made it. In the banquet at the end, everyone goes up on stage and gets their t-shirt, medal, bottle of wine & resin pot (found scattered through the forest, used to collect resin from the trees a long time ago). Last person goes up on stage first. No cash prize. The spirit of raid running is here.

(Why you did it and how you did it are subjects for another article to follow soon!)

“Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.”  - Winnie the Pooh

Breathing Out

And it will come to you in flashes and fragments like a dream you once had. The beach, the sand, running in the forest alone at night, blood, blisters, the guy who paced you up the beach, the wild boar crossing your path, Run Like Hell playing on a loop in your head, a glow-stick, in a zodiac boat crossing the bay; and then your back in the room.

Most of the wounds will heal. Right now, my right achilles is healing nicely, I change the dressing on a daily basis, and my left foot doesn't feel broken anymore! You're left with scars and memories.

Standing in a t-shirt that says 'finisher', stand back, the forest is darkening in the background as the sun falls. There is wine in your hand, and the ocean crashes but your can't see it from here, an Um Pa Pa band is playing. Remember the moment. Most of these people you will never see again. In the marquee laughter and conversation. Stand back and soak it in. It's already history.

And a long time from now, in conversation someone will ask and you will say 'I went to Bordeaux once, I went to Aquitaine once'.
'What were you doing there?'
'I was running in the Trans Aq'
'What was that like?'

There is no answer. Once I went to Aquitaine and ran with 140 other people. And if you weren't there I can't explain it. Once I was a runner.

Steve Collins** Team Alf Tupper

"There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."[and women]
                                        -Maurice Herzog (first person to climb a 8000m peak - Annapurna)

No comments:

Post a Comment