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This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

Unless you are an avid reader of French blogs and reviews most of the people who read this are likely only to ever come across Oxsitis through one of two places, the first is via the Hoka running bag (which is made by Oxsitis) or through the countless images I’ve posted across my own social media extolling the virtues of their products.

I first came across Oxsitis when I was looking for a replacement for my original Ultimate Direction PB race vest – I wasn’t keen on the v2.0 as this didn’t look like a serious upgrade and I had recently tried the Hoka Evo bag at the London Marathon Expo in 2014 (just there for the expo not the race).

They didn’t have any for sale but they had one to try and it was amazing. Lots of pockets, incredibly lightweight and a little organiser system on the inside. I went home and began researching the bag and eventually discovered that the bag was made by a relatively new French manufacturer ‘Oxsitis’.

Reviews were limited and stockists even more so but after finding out as much as I could I took the plunge and bought the Hydragon 17l – the most deceptively brilliant race vest I’ve ever owned.

Later that year I was in France for the CCC and happened to be staying near a place called Albertville which has the single most awesome running and outdoor store in the universe Au Vieux Campeur it had everything – lots of Hoka, tonnes of Raidlight, Grivel and brands I’d never come across OMG I was in some kind of running heaven. I spent hours poring over items I had no reason to buy, I tried on everything and bought quite a few things – but the one piece that is relevant to this post is the Oxsitis Hydrabelt.

I’m no fan of running belts as I find they ride up and ultimately aren’t very comfy – I’d much rather wear a race vest and spread the load across my back but the CCC had an extensive kit list and it was being suggested we should all be carrying more water than normal as the temperature was expected to be high. I tested several Salomon and Nathan choices as well as a couple from Decathlon but my choices would be limited so close to race day. I saw the Oxsitis belt and given my positive race vest experience decided to give it a go.

The belt was secured by two thick Velcro straps that could be adjusted at either end and across the belt there were a number of interesting innovations

  • Magnetic clips for race numbers
  • A removable (velcro) pocket for rubbish or small items
  • An elastic triple pocket (big enough for a mobile phone and a reasonable amount of food) comes with a magnetic closing mechanism
  • Pole holders
  • Water bottle pouch with 500ml hard bottle on the reverse
  • A hidden inner pocket with a thermal blanket inside
  • Thick elastic hoops (I added carabiners to mine to attach buffs and arm warmers)
  • Whistle

The first thing you notice when trying it on is how comfortable the thicker straps are around your waist and the double strap allows for easy adjustment. For me it sits comfortably around the waist without much fuss and I found that while running there wasn’t much movement and thankfully no rubbing. The velcro fixing also means that this should fit the smallest to the largest waist sizes in the running community without any issue.

I would be hard pressed to say you don’t notice it but it’s not as intrusive as some of the other race belts I tested out.

The goodies!
In terms of the little goodies spread around the belt there was nothing that seemed out of place. The bottle holder itself (the main feature of a purchase like this) is angled in such a way as to make access easy both getting at the water and returning it to its berth. The wider than usual bottle is also nice and easy grip and in this situation a hard bottle is best, though a UD soft bottle also works a treat.

The pole holders are excellent and a welcome addition taken directly from the Hydragon vest. The hoops for this allow one z-fold pole to be mounted either side of the belt. The quick release is surprisingly spritely and because it isn’t surrounded by the pockets, as on the vest, the poles come to hand very smoothly.


The main pocket has three levels – a velcro, flush to the body first section that is ideal for your phone, a large elasticated topped pocket that is the main store for food or small clothing/electrical items and a slightly smaller front pocket ideal for rubbish, gels or for me it’s perfect for tissues.

Strangely the most useful thing for me though is the removable ‘rubbish bag’. This attaches to the two straps that keep you locked into the belt. The removable nature of it lends itself to two things either a) rubbish, so you have easy access for disposal and washing once its full or b) a perfect size for a medical kit (which is what I use it for).

Now being a French company they’re concerned about your safety on the trails too and include a ‘space blanket’ as standard (the gold and silver version) and a stash pocket located behind the water bottle to keep it in. The obligatory whistle is the finishing touch on the safety features but would come in handy should you ever need to bang out a Bob Dylan number to scare off some wild animals.

I told you it was feature packed!

Conclusion
Ultimately this is a tremendous piece of well made, well considered kit that for about £35 seems an absolute bargain. If you want a running belt that is both comfortable and practical then this is well worth considering and if you’re looking to expand your capacity for longer adventures then you’ll find this works really well with most race vests and even sacks such as the Fastpack 20 or OMM 15.

I have no trouble recommending the Hydrabelt and nobody paid me to say that. I bought this with my own money and tested it extensively over the last 18 months. For me Oxsitis are an exciting brand making innovative, well crafted products but they’re hard to come by in the UK and I feel it’s my duty to share my findings. Therefore, I’ll finish by saying, if you happen to be in France anytime soon and love running, then stop by a local independent retailer and try Oxsitis out or find them at their website www.oxsitis.fr (and let google do the translation!)

I’m still a pretty rubbish runner but once in a while you feel like you’ve done everything just about bob-on and the planets align to make magic happen – for me, this is what must have occurred during the SainteLyon. Be aware, though the race was at the shorter end of the ultra distances, this report is not.

A French Classic?

The Saintelyon has been a long distance endurance event and in its current form the solo assault is about 72km give or take a few metres (yep it’s French so we’ll be fully metric here too) and covers the road and trails between St. Etienne and Lyon. Excited yet? No? Understandable. What if I tell you it starts at midnight in the middle of winter? That you’re surrounded by the best French runners around and that you will follow a trail illuminated by your fellow competitors? You’ll be surrounded by the people of France supporting the race almost every inch of the way? At 4am in the morning all you’ll hear are the sound of cow bells and the smell of wood burning fires as you pass through unofficial supporting posts? Does this get you excited?

This is a race for runners, trail runners, hill runners, night time runners, this is a race for those who want to test their mettle over a hideously wonderful course that takes bit fat chunks out of you if you switch off for even one second. This is a race made for everyone and if my experience doesn’t convince you, well, you’ve got no soul and that’s just fact*

Pre-race timeline 

  • Apr: Enter 72km solo entry
  • Apr: Book accommodation
  • May: Book flights
  • May: Improve your French
  • Sept: Find other English speakers
  • Dec: Shit yourself
  • Dec: Run like you’ve got wind

My journey to the SainteLyon

I first came across the SainteLyon about 15 months ago when Cat Simpson mentioned it (I think). I tried to enter that day but to no avail and so from my armchair in sunny Kent I watch the competitors race out last December and then I waited. It would be some five months before entries for the race opened and I was checking regularly (daily) and when it did open for entry I was one of the first in line – hence my rather low bib number.

Launch forward several months and I found myself stood at Heathrow airport wondering what kind of madness I had let myself in for. I’d be running pretty well for the 8 or so weeks before – I’d taken part in the Saltmarsh 75, Thames Meander Marathon, Ranscombe Challenge, Poppy Challenge and Greenwich Movember Race – all setting me up for my French adventure. In the back of my mind was the nagging doubt about my ability given what had happened at the CCC but as I arrived into Lyon I put this to the back of my mind and focused on the task at hand.

Transport in Lyon is simple, from the airport I sauntered down to the city on the Rhonexpress (return €24, 30 minutes) and then picked up the single tram ticket to my accommodation. I was staying about 10 minutes from the centre of town and this proved a decent choice for access to the bib collection and also the finish line. I used AirBnB for apartment hire, got a cat thrown in for free and after dropping my bags off I headed straight out to ‘Halle Tony Garnier’. It was a 40 minute walk and I wanted to get a feel for Lyon by night and this seemed as good a place as any to start.

It was here that the problems started, I entered the hall to collect my bib and the realisation of what I had done hit me – I had forgotten my passport – the only identification I had and the only identification that would suffice. Feeling a little silly I spoke with one of the crew who advised me that I would need to return with my passport to get my number but that they were closing within the hour and that I would probably be best returning in the morning. I made the decision to have a look round the small but rather interesting ‘race village’ collected a few leaflets for races I’d never heard of, took some photographs near the finish line and then ambled back to my apartment to have a bite to eat and a restless night of sleeping.

I woke up the following morning about 6am and started to prepare my race bag and the foody delights that would power me between St Etienne and Lyon. But the main reason I was up early and bright was because at 10am I wanted to be waiting for the doors to open and for me to be collecting my bib.

I rocked up about 9.30am with a pain au chocolat and a hot café au lait in my hands and proceeded to wait with the other runners until the gates to the hall opened wide and I descended quickly upon the Saintelyon crew.

The interesting thing that was holding up most of the runners though was not the queue, no, it was the body and bag search. Recent horrific events in Paris had made this event clearly more conscious of security and we were all made to go through the same quite extensive but understandable search.

The challenge was now to get my number as quickly as possible and then head off for some well earned rest. Funnily though my plans took an unexpected turn and in a very pleasant way. I had grabbed my number and race pack with the aid of some very poor French on my part and some decent English on the part of the SainteLyon crew (though I didn’t get a little hat, much to my dismay). I did however manage to get some excellent looking beers as Christmas gifts and information about lots of beautiful looking trail races across Europe.

At this point the race village was starting to bubble over with people and my early morning jaunt have achieved all I had intended it to (including the purchase of a very nice SainteLyon jumper). So by 11.00am I was on my out of the hall and making an immediate beeline for a runner I had met via Twitter just a few short months ago.


@Kemptonslim
Sometimes you are really lucky and you meet people who make the day just that little bit better and altogether more awesome @kemptonslim is one those. It would be fair to say that the SainteLyon attracts most of its entrants from mainland Europe and more specifically – France. Most people there understood enough English for me to get by with but having a native English speaker really made the hours of race day fly by much more easily than they might have.

We hung out together for a little while and managed to grab some awesome Calzone from an overworked Frenchman and we avoided the giant Churros (though I did contemplate sneaking back for one) and soon we headed off to our respective abodes with the suggestion we would catch up later.

I returned to my apartment and finished getting ready – shower, pack, feed and water the cat (yep I had feline company in my apartment). For the purpose of staying cool I managed to watch a couple of episodes of classic BBC comedy ‘Bottom’ but as time eroded I knew I needed to head out.

I waved the cat goodbye and headed to the finish line. The whole area around the SainteLyon was awash with a manic buzz, it was a brilliant spectacle and supremely well organised. I managed to get on a very comfy bus (€13) laid on by the organisers which took us up to St. Etienne, here I managed to grab about half an hours sleep here but it was only an hour or so in total to St. Etienne and I arrived feeling lightly refreshed but keen to relax further in the hours pre-race.

It was at this point that the only blight came to the race. We were all frisked by security as we entered the second race centre but the gentleman who went on to examine my bag was rough and took apart my well prepared race pack. He threw me accusatory glances as he searched for sharp implements that I just didn’t have. His English like my French was poor and so eventually after pulling everything out he gave up and let me in. I suppose it was unsurprising that they were being rigorous but it wasn’t handled well.

Thankfully this was a minor thing and understandable given all France has suffered recently, However, now free of security I headed to the main hall and took up position on the floor, grabbing some space and using what few items I had with me to act as a cushion.

It was weird watching runners setting up picnics and effectively camp in the main hall. It was a proper spectacle. I managed to get hold of tea and cakes too and this gave me a pleasant boost but not as much as my reuniting with @Kemptonslim.

For the next few hours we chewed the fat about our lives, our races and the mystery of why looking into the ceiling lights might well be like looking into the face of God. We also met Darius and Steve (names may be wrong) – both English ultra runners and triathletes/duathletes who had come to France looking for a glorious challenge. All in all this was a good few hours and the lesson is that having someone with you is invaluable in a race like this.

© SainteLyon 2015

However, all the pre-race fun was now over. The relay racers had left and it was the time of the solo entrants. We meandered our way out of the hall – stopping only at an unofficial  toilet point (or fence) and then went and lined up. The line-up was a joyous experience, it was filled good quality music and we jigged to Daft Punk and Euro Pop, it was filled with an electrifying charge from the runners and it was filled with light. There were thousands of runners but it didn’t feel crowded, it didn’t have that horrible crush feeling that I experienced at the CCC. We paused for a minutes applause in honour of the people who had been killed in Paris and then we hugged and kissed our fellow competitors – this was a special moment, this was going to be a special race.

The countdown was now on, I loaded up the map on my Suunto and started to have a bit more of a jig to the music that surrounded us and then we were off.

The light from the head torches of all the runners was the most stunning start to any race that I have ever taken part in. It wasn’t the quickest start as I believe it was staggered a little to let people get some movement between each other and this meant that when I passed the start line at 12.04am I had room to move and room to run.

@Kemptonslim and I had a very similar strategy for running which was to start slow and then start picking people off as we got further into the race. We also had never seen the course before and therefore didn’t want to waste our energy committing to running sections that we would regret later. Therefore we both used the hills as fast walking sections and the flats/downhills for running. What I surprised about was how fast I was managing to walk the hills in the early sections.

The first checkpoint was located about 10 miles in and was after several steep ascents – the actual climb wasn’t that much overall, not when you consider a mountain run but the up and down nature of the first section combined with the dark and your zest to get going this was a dangerous time in the race. However, conditions were good and @KemptonSlim and I kept each other under control and stopped one another racing away or getting carried along by the waves of euphoria that swept over us.

Despite the course toughness I confess that I fell into an immediate love with it. The crowds that lined the streets and the general party atmosphere had put me in a very good mood as I raced on. My only gripe was my own fault and that was I had managed to fill my bladder with fizzy water and this tasted pretty crappy.

When you’ve done something like this you need to make a decision. Do I a) drink the water and potentially make myself sick or do I b) not drink the water and potential dehydrate myself before CP1? The answer was somewhere in between – the fizziness of the water was making me feel sick and rather burpy so I decided I would sip a little but wash my mouth out with the fizzy water until mile 10 when I would dump the remainder of my bladder and fill up with fresh flat water.

The first 10km were slow going as the hills were mainly on tarmac and I knew that my glutes would thank me later for taking this in a more sedate manner. Many of the other runners were streaking ahead but it seemed that this was a strategy that I could overturn later in the race and make up ground.

I found myself occasionally stopping and turning regularly, especially on the hills as I could look back over the expanses and the wide open spaces and see the procession of lights behind me – it was a truly awesome sight, but there was more to the first 10km than this. We passed through a number of small and delightful picturesque towns (despite the dark) and admired both the gleaming lights and also the brilliant support.

One of the killer things for the first 10 miles was the challenge of the floor below the runners, although conditions were pretty much perfect the ground was filled with loose rocks, mud, roots and leaves – the path was also wide enough generally to have easy over taking but this came with the risk of those hidden roots and rocks and on several occasions I saw runners tumble in front of me.

You knew you were in a race that was not going to be taking any prisoners.

Within a couple of hours despite the hills both I and @Kemptonslim had made the first checkpoint unharmed and raring to go. I changed my water and ate some of the delicious fruit pastilles but it would be fair to say that the checkpoints were a little bit chaotic. The crews were doing their best and cannot be faulted but there were so many runners attempting to get through that it needed a little more organisation. The other thing was that the cola on offer was Pepsi Max – yes that’s right sugar free, calorie free, taste free cola. Lots of the runners were disgruntled by this but with little other option we drank it by the gallon.

Despite the crush at the checkpoint we managed to get out of the checkpoint within about six or seven minutes. Not bad really and at this point we learnt something very important – we would be very cold when we left checkpoints. I’ll stop here briefly to mention my kit choices for the race, which were similar to normal but focused on the specific conditions I would be facing.

Kit?

  • 1 x Ronhill long sleeved fluorescent orange top
  • 1 x recycled eco green run shirt
  • 1 x OMM arm warmers
  • 2 x Buff, 1 x Salomon XT Wings gloves
  • 1  x pair Injinji liner socks
  • 1 x  pair Drymax heavy socks
  • 1 x dirty girl gaiters
  • 1 x pair Compressport calf guards
  • 1 x pair 0.5 OMM flash tights
  • 1 x Salmon  exo compression tights

The kit now came into its own post CP1. For much of the first 10 miles I had my arm warmers rolled down, my sleeves rolled up and my gloves in my race vest. I hadn’t raced like most of the runners who had deemed it a requirements to be wearing waterproofs and/or windproofs combined with long leggings. What I needed in terms of warmth was to not feel the cold as I left a checkpoint … as we stepped outside I moved my neck buff round my mouth, put gloves on, rolled arm warmers up and sleeves down. I only needed to do this for a few minutes before I had to strip down again but it was worth it as it kept me focused and gave me an idea of what I had to do at the end of each CP visit.

Section 2, 3 and 4  of the race brought with it the fun of the SainteLyon. Here the trails became harder, more diffciult to negotiate and surprisingly, even steeper. You were starting to get tired too and so it made it even more important that you took care. Both @Kemptonslim and I agreed that actually the fastest progress was likely to be that which took a little longer and a little more care.

The atmosphere for the runners was a strange one, one that I have very really experienced and that was very much that it didn’t matter where in the race you were you were still racing and that feeling was very special.

Upon reaching the high point of the course we stopped and looked out across France and marvelled at the little orange lights twinkling in the distance. It was a one of those nice moments that ultra running brings and it was punctured only by the other runners going past.

It was now probably around 4am and lots of distance had been covered but there was more to go and the course remained unrelenting and even with a chirpy nature all the competitors were feeling the toll on their bodies. However, such was the magnificence of the course and the supporters on the route that in the distance I could see a fire burning and the sound of a man beating his cow bells for all he was worth – this was just the lift you needed. The video is currently available over on Instagram (search UltraBoyRuns or Saintelyon2015).

Sometime around here I also came across a lovely Moroccan runner who when he discovered I was originally from Liverpool started referring to me as ‘We Never Walk Alone’, given that this was the name of the event my own father put together last year this seemed appropriate and brought a smile to my face.

As the miles pushed on I can say that they go no easier and actually the down hills that we were facing were just as hard as the uphill and I saw more than one runner lose their footing and take a face plant into the dirt. Moving at speed was a dangerous game but both @Kemptonslim and I saw our opportunity to move up the field. We were no progressing faster than the runners around us and periodically we’d even take on the pace of some of the relay runners to give us a boost in our quest for a decent time. My running buddy and I were now taking greater and greater risks as we ploughed through the down and kicked on through the up – we both quietly were thinking that we might be on for sub10hrs.

All we felt we now had to do was continue in this form until we hit daylight and that would refresh us.

7.30am and daylight
Daylight was an awesome sight – we watched it arrive through the vines of a vineyard – a French vineyard, how cultured we felt! But now it was head torches off and we arrived into the penultimate checkpoint 20km(ish) from home. We stopped here for a bit of chicken soup and slightly more time than I would have liked but I was feeling it and I spoke to my excellent and clearly more energised running partner.

‘I’d leave you behind, ultras are about your own race, not mine’ and it was a genuine thing I said as I intended to cut him loose so he could get the best possible time. However, we stayed together for another couple of kilometres out of the checkpoint when I finally admitted defeat on the tarmac and said ‘you really have to go on’. We shook hands and he was gone – I hoped I’d see him at the finish.

What this did was allow me a few minutes to have a little bit of a meltdown. I needed about 20 minutes to compose myself for the final 15km and in this time I watched dozens of runners go past me and each one that went past filled me with a sense of fury. I had worked really hard to get past these runners and now they were taking advantage of my mental fragility.

But then I picked myself up, I reminded myself that the road would come to an end and I might manage to hit some trails again but regardless of what I was running on I was going to be running. Boom. I hit my stride and for the first time in about 2hrs I felt strong again, I’d eaten some Reeces Cups, Biltong and had as much water as I could stomach – I was back in business.

I felt like I was thundering along as I came into the final checkpoint, I wasn’t really but I now had the bit between my teeth and I was determined to make up the ground I had lost. The final checkpoint allowed me the opportunity to properly fuel and rather than take the easy option and sit down for 20 minutes I powered on.

The next 5km were great and fun trails and with light now breaking the day open I was able to hurl myself down the trails in an effort to catch those who had passed me

My tenacity was showing its prowess and all things I had worked so hard on were coming to the fore. I was determined that I would have nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line. The next 5km passed in a blur, only one small accident occurred as I pressed hard on the downward trail and looked to have fallen over a sheer  drop – thankfully I grabbed hold of a tree and righted myself before continuing my downward run to my doom – and I still attached to the trail.

In the distance as the trails slowly started to come to their conclusion and there was a super fast down that I was able to look forward and heard myself give a little ‘oh shit’. It seemed the final 5km would be the final killer and ahead of me I could see runners who had moved into trudge mode, the death march but that was not to be my fate. I powered up the hill and continued to pass my fellow competitors – I was no longer being passed by anyone.

I felt like crying

My feet felt good as I reached the summit of Lyon, I was at the top of a long set of steps and I suddenly felt like Gene Kelly and I flew down them like Debbie Reynolds was awaiting me at the bottom. I could now see the Musee des Confluences, I was so close. I reached the bottom of the steps and we were sent away from the finish line and down to the River Rhone, then back up, then beyond the museum and then into the home straight and across the Pont Raymond Barre. At the 200metre mark I began my sprint home, as is often my want, I aim to give something to back to those that have come out and supported and I disappointed nobody, not even myself as I raced to the finish and watched the numbers tumble before me. 100metres, 75metres … I could see the signs disappear behind me and then the hall opened up before me. I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything about it all I know is that I recall saying to myself ‘both feet off the floor UltraBoy’ and I made it happen.

I crossed the line at pace and cried. I’d done it.

Conclusion
This is the best race I have ever had the honour to compete in. The organisation was exceptional, the course was exceptional, the night start was exceptional, the time of year was inspired  – this has something for everyone. Obviously its not perfect, what race is? But there was a magical charm about this event that I’ve been struggling to find recently. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the SainteLyon is that it reminded me of how I felt the first time I started an ultra at the White Cliffs 50 – it was all so unknown. SainteLyon you made me feel fresh and alive and that’s a great gift you give to runners.

I suppose the big question is ‘would I go back?’ and the answer without hesitation is ‘YES’, possibly even next year – depending on when the Haria Extreme in Lanzarote takes place. However, if I don’t return next year then I will be back soon as this was so good and so much fun.

There are no limits to how highly I recommend this beautiful and yet tough old bastard of a race. One for your list I hope!

Special Mention
Special mentions must go to Jon – @Kemptonslim who provided both inspiration and excellent company in equal measure. I’m sure I would have gotten round without him but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun. I look forward to the opportunity to run on some course with him again.

Technical

  • The course was well marked and directions were not an issue
  • Pre-race information was excellent but you needed to translate it
  • Food was pretty good but there needs to be a better way of dealing with the checkpoint chaos
  • Water refilling stations – there were not enough of them, this meant that the stop at Checkpoint 2 took longer than was required
  • The hall spaces at both St Etienne and Lyon were excellent

Important Information

  1. If you’re English then use the French language website and have Google Chrome translate it for you, it’s more up to date and infinitely more useful
  2. Take something to lie on, thermarest or some such for your wait in St. Etienne – it will be transported to the finish.
  3. Forget the medal – there isn’t one, there’s a T-Shirt and it’s awesome.
  4. Remember this is a runners run (although there were a couple of hiking types at the start).
  5. British Airways are cheaper than SleazyJet once you factor in additional transport/baggage/parking by some way

*I don’t believe in souls unless they’re attached to the bottom of my Altra and then they’re soles. 


 

  
‘You’re still going?’ my grandmother cried, exasperated by how far I’ll go to run, ‘but those Muslims are killing people in France!’

My grandmother I should point out is an old style racist, the kind that makes snide comments about race, colour, gender, sexuality or appearance. She doesn’t appreciate that the attacks in France were NOT committed by Muslims, Catholics, Christians, Jews or any other religion – they were committed by people who hate and more importantly people who hate everyone and everything.

Obviously my grandmother is concerned that I’m off to race the Saintelyon in a few weeks time. She’s worried that a big event with runners might be a perfect target for a terrorist attack and in this she’s got a valid point – I mean let’s not forget how vulnerable runners are – Boston was not so long ago.

But at no point after the horrific events of last week did I think ‘maybe I shouldn’t go to France’. Infact I think it’s vital that I go to Saintelyon, it’s vital we all go and when asked on Twitter if I’d been put off I suspect my answer was already known.

I remember growing up with the IRA bombing cities and towns not far from me but there was never any doubt that life just went on, we got on with things and while I realise that this modern warfare is a whole new level of danger we must ensure we stand strong and simply ‘get on with the life we were leading’. Disruption, difficulty, suspicion, hate, panic these are the things that the attacks are meant to create – so why play into their hands? I’d rather be tolerant, supportive and tenacious.

So I am going to continue to be.

I’m not changing my avatars on social media instead I’m going to do what I always do and that’s be me. I’m going to go to France and enjoy the Saintelyon, I’m going to continue as a citizen of the world and embrace its diversity and I’m going to hope that there aren’t too many people like my grandmother out there because we all need to pull together whatever your background

Vive le France

  
I’m very terrified of heights, it’s second only to my fear of Baked Beans.

However, my second piece of altitude training has gone okay and though I was absolutely terrified I made it up and back down again in one piece. I was advised to make a particular ascent at Tignes as this would take me past the height of the highest point on the CCC at 2700metres. What I wasn’t advised was that the course was actually mostly a ‘black’ marked downhill mountain bike course with terrifying ascent and decent that was barely walkable never mind runnable and with more than 250metres of ascent per kilometre this was some steep shit (well for me it was). I suppose it’s all part of the learning curve of being in the mountains (and falling in love with them) I can very much understand why people like @1elevennorth and @imoutrunning enjoy them so much – it’s simply spectacular in every way.

So today I’m off for a 10km out and back hike instead of run but I’ll be carrying UltraBaby and it’s offers more the 800metres climb out and obviously 800metres back and I’m feeling surprisingly chirpy about this whole adventure and I might even go some way to curing my fear of heights*

*no it didn’t

STL15_Carroussel1-m7f000t4nnbgelfrzwddyzxuviw31dk81jxuq2b5ri

I’m not doing as many races as I normally do in any given year but there was one that opened on April 13th that I couldn’t resist – The Saintelyon.

It was brought to my attention by Cat Simpson last year (but sadly too late for either of us to enter) however, after seeing it I decided that this was a must for 2015 and so I’ve entered. I am so looking forward to racing through the night, in France at the start of December, for 72km and the question for you should be (given that Eurostar will run direct from London to Lyon) why the hell aren’t you joining me?

Visit www.saintelyon.com and watch the video

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