En­dur­ing a long, hot slog

Ul­tra run­ners race from Moscow to Paris (Texas, that is)

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - Pam LeBlanc

PALES­TINE — Mid­way through Day 4 of a sev­en­day jaunt be­tween Paris and Moscow — the Texas cities, not the Euro­pean ones — French run­ner Ro­main Valle low­ered him­self gin­gerly onto a fold­ing chair, leaned back and squeezed his eyes shut.

“It’s the best place to run,” he sighed, nib­bling a slice of bread and a hunk of cheese. “In a chair.”

Af­ter a 5-minute re­spite, Valle, 55, topped off his water bot­tle and headed back out onto the two-lane high­way be­tween Pales­tine and Athens. Be­fore the day ended, he’d cov­ered 36 miles of rolling East Texas ter­rain with his well-worn sneak­ers.

Nine run­ners from five coun­tries con­verged here ear­lier this month to test their ham­string strength and blis­ter re­sis­tance dur­ing the Napoleon Ul­tra, a 230-mile stage race or­ga­nized by Austin ul­tra run­ner Rus­sell Secker. The gru­el­ing run kicked off with a re­cep­tion at the French Lega­tion Mu­seum in Austin, where the ath­letes munched pizza and sipped wine as Secker briefed them on lo­gis­tics in, al­ter­nately, Ger­man, French and English.

Some ex­pected dusty flat prairies. In­stead, they got piney woods and rolling farm­land. Clad in neon yel­low and pink tops, they strung out along roads that wound past small-town churches, roar­ing 18-wheel­ers and a tiny cafe called Bubba Jean’s.

The route took them from the world’s small­est Moscow (we think) to the world’s sec­ond largest Paris (we’re pretty sure), where they stood in the shadow of the world’s 23rd largest Eif­fel Tower.

A week hardly qual­i­fied as a long race for some of the par­tic­i­pants. Four are veter­ans of the Tran­sEurope, a 2,850-mile, two-month ram­ble across that con­ti­nent. One, Klaus Neu­mann of Ger­many, has notched just shy of 800 marathons.

Still, they know it’s im­per­a­tive to pace them­selves.

“We have to be care­ful,” said Chris­tian Marti, 60, of Switzer­land. “Com­pared to 64 days, this is easy in­deed, but still we run more than a marathon a day for a week. There’s a dan­ger if you start too fast. You can run into in­juries.”

That’s why they trot­ted in­stead of zoomed, main­tain­ing 10- to 15-minute miles along the way. That’s prac­ti­cally a snail’s pace com­pared to most races, but ul­tra run­ners must con­serve en­ergy for the long haul.

They run for the ca­ma­raderie and love of the sport. “(Run­ning) is part of me,” Marti said.

Secker, the former pres­i­dent of the Austin Run­ners Club and one-time di­rec­tor of the Decker Chal­lenge and Daisy Run, and a veteran of the Tran­sEurope race him­self, is also a his­tory buff, which (sort of ) ex­plains why he put to­gether the Napoleon Ul­tra.

The event, held Dec. 1-7, marked the 200th an­niver­sary of the march led by French Em­peror Napoleon Bon­a­parte from Paris to Moscow (Europe, that is) and back. Of the 500,000 sol­diers who started that tragic jour­ney, just 25,000 fin­ished. The rest died of disease, cold, hunger and en­emy at­tack.

The stats weren’t as grim here in Texas. Ev­ery­one who set out to run the full dis­tance made it. “It’s tough, there’s no doubt. Two hun­dred and thirty miles is a long way to run,” Secker says.

Tem­per­a­tures rose to the low 80s dur­ing the muggy first days but cooled slightly later in the week. Ath­letes cov­ered be­tween 26 to 43 miles each day, paus­ing at a mo­bile aid sta­tion ev­ery 10 miles or so to fuel up with M&Ms, bread, cheese, cook­ies, gra­nola, potato chips, Coke and peanuts.

Ul­tra run­ning takes men­tal tough­ness. Don’t prop­erly fuel and you’ll crack. Start too quickly and you’ll break down men­tally.

Secker re­ported no ma­jor prob­lems in Napoleon Ul­tra, aside from some nicks, cuts and up­set stom­achs. One run­ner strug­gled emo­tion­ally, push­ing through pe­ri­ods of weepi­ness over the miles. And ev­ery­one felt the miles on their feet.

“It’s get­ting bet­ter by the day,” Marti said half­way through but ad­mit­ted his legs were tired.

When one ex­hausted run­ner rolled into an aid sta­tion, Secker gave her a pat on the back and helped her re­fill her water pack. “One mile at a time,” he en­cour­aged.

Some of the French run­ners got through the miles with an oc­ca­sional can of Bud­weiser from the aid sta­tion. “I wanted a lit­tle red wine, but there wasn’t any,” said Do­minique Chail­lou, 51, as he nib­bled a ham sand­wich.

Some cut the toe boxes out of their shoes to pre­vent bruis­ing.

“It’s good,” Valle said of his first run through Texas. “Hot. Flat. Many trucks. Many big cars. Many cows. And not much beer.”

Jenni de Groot of Hol­land reached Paris first, com­plet­ing the race in just over 40 cu­mu­la­tive hours. The last racer took

Chris leblanc / for amer­i­can-states­man

Claire Secker runs past Bubba Jean’s cafe in Brad­ford dur­ing Day 4 of the Napoleon Ul­tra stage race.

LINDA SCOTT / STAFF

Ro­main Valle and Do­minique Chail­lou, both of France (in the fore­ground) and Ger­man Klaus Neu­mann (be­hind) run along a high­way north of Pales­tine dur­ing Day 4 of the Napoleon Ul­tra run.

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