Questioning Everything at Templiers 104k Endurance Trail Festival
What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?
What makes an activity worthwhile? It can be plain fun, I can be an interesting challenge with which to test yourself and come out the other side stronger, it can be leading to something bigger, a delayed gratification of sorts, but ultimately, it should have a clear purpose which makes it enjoyable.
Since watching the documentary “Unbreakable”, a loving ode to the sport of ultra trail running, the desire in me to one day run the pictured race, the Western States 100 Endurance Run, sparked. At the beginning of 2020, I put it down as one of my goals for the decade.
It’s tough to qualify for the race because it’s so sought after, it takes around 5-8 years on average from starting the qualification process until you are allowed to stand there at the starting line. The annual race lottery can only be entered by proving you have completed an officially sanctioned qualification race in that year. Every year you do so, your chances grow.
To me, this sounded like a fun task. Do one qualifier race per year, sign up for the lottery, cross fingers, lose at the lottery, repeat next year. The races will be great, surely! But I was wrong. Also, I need to rewatch Unbreakable.
I wanted to start it off by running Mozart 100 right in 2020, but Covid happened and so I did just that in 2021. It was my first ever trail ultra marathon, and what an amazing one. As predicted, a few weeks later, I lost at the Western States lottery. With the chances for a first-timer at less than one percent, I was neither surprised nor disappointed. But since Mozart was such a great race experience, I decided to keep going.
Now, I’m not so sure anymore.
On paper, the Festival des Templiers in the south of France looked stunning. I mean, south of France alone should be convincing enough. I’m also a sucker for historic events, and Templiers are the Chevalier de l'ordre religieux et militaire du Temple – or, in English, the Knights of the Religious and Military Order of the Temple. The Knights Templar.
When Mozart 2020 got cancelled and I was on the lookout for a replacement qualifier, it came to mind. My friend Henning, a writer at the German localization of Runner’s World magazine, had done Templiers several years before and vowed it was worth it. I signed up but it was cancelled as well. Then, in 2021, Mozart happened. Wanting a different race to experience new things, I chose Templiers as the my 2022 qualifier and looked forward to it for the better part of a year.
The registration required the submittal of a medical approval certificate, which I think is unnecessary, but I was able to obtain that easily. On the plus side, the staff had decided to create special edition Templiers branded beer in several different styles which you could order. I didn’t think twice. Beer and ultra runs do mix!
It’s not easy to travel to Templiers, it turned out. Located at the town of Millau somewhere between Montpellier and Toulouse it’s just out of reach for a car trip because that would have taken two days. Same for a train journey. This made us decide that we’d leave the kids home and I would go on the trip alone even though the date actually fit well into the school holidays. Flying required at least one stop-over from Hamburg, and amidst the current developments in the airline industry, that makes it risky. Still, it was the best and most cost-effective solution. Hamburg via Basel to Montpellier, and then one and a half hours of rental car driving through France. The journey back would lead via London Gatwick, requiring a lay-over even. The resulting cost was therefore still on the expensive side which made me question the whole trip and almost cancel it sometime in summer. But Sophie reminded me how much energy I normally gain from these solo trips, so I relented and bought the tickets. Mozart was so great, if it’s similar, it will be worth it.
So far, the year had mostly been about fast paced running for me. I tried twice to break the three hour barrier on the marathon and did next to no trail running with elevation. But since the two are very different versions of the same sport, my keen anticipation of Templiers grew because it would change things up. During the race I wouldn’t have to worry about losing a few more seconds at an aid station as I did at those three hour marathon attempts. I could even take breaks to enjoy the scenery while eating a cereal bar and it wouldn’t matter at all in the end.
The qualification limit for Western States is set at 19 hours maximum. With 104 kilometers to run containing 4,500 meters of gain and loss, it would on paper be slightly easier than Mozart with its 108 kilometers and 4,800 meters up and down. Mozart took me 17:30 hours, so this should be no problem.
Shortly before the race weekend started, I even signed up for another ultra trail for 2023, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120k, to keep being able to enter the Western States lottery annually, because I was just so convinced it was going to be great.
Specific training had to be condensed into the three weeks between my Cologne Marathon Sub-3 attempt and the Templiers race. My friend Mathias helped me to make a smart special plan, including two blocks focussed on elevation training over the two weekends between the races. A year of daily core exercises and “mountain legs” routines also helped me feeling fit and prepared on race day.
The trip to Millau worked out well. Immediately I was able to enjoy the solitude and my guilty pleasure, air travel.
Between the travel and the race I had put a free day in order to wind down, sleep well, and fully recharge for the race. I spent that day just like that and visited the race expo to collect my bib number. It was a huge expo consisting of several huge tents filled with exhibitors showing trail running gear and offering their scenic ultra trail races, mostly in France. The country is huge for trail running. Next to the Western States, the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc in the French alps is definitely the other of the world’s most renowned races of the type – equally tough to get in, equally tough to finish.
Another very French thing would be cheese. Millau isn’t too far from the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the home of the world’s best known blue cheese. This expo was filled with cheese stands.
The city of Millau has special trail running stores, which I noticed. Walking through the center, I came across three ones. It certainly seems to be a favorite pastime of the people here.
For me, the task was getting good energy into my stomach and trying to fall asleep early at 8:00 PM. Both to mixed success. The alarm clock would go off at 2:00 AM and I was wide awake in nervous anticipation immediately.
🌄 100 Kilometers of Beautiful French Scenery?
A banana, CLIF bar, some Coke. When I walked down the stairs of the guest house in full gear, I was very surprised to find the owner of the house, Alain, awake with a prepared breakfast just for me! We had problems communicating since he didn’t speak a word of English, not unlike almost every other French person (sorry not sorry) and my French is hugely limited. The day before, I understood he asked me which of the several different races of the Festival des Templiers I was going to run.
“Courir à Millau?” – “Oui, Templiers!” – “Uh lala, le long?” – ”Le long!” – “Oh-hoho!”
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He must have checked the starting times online and since mine is at 4:00 AM, he got up and prepared everything. Baguette, jus d'orange, croissant, confiture, café, the works! But I had my routine already finished so I wouldn’t want to mess with my stomach. Also, the time didn’t allow for it, so I was very sad and sorry about needing to turn him down. Poor guy, waking up at 2:30 AM for nothing. I left him the Templiers beers the day afterwards, hoping it would make him happy.
Arriving at Millau, which is at about 450 meters above zero in a valley, the weather was favorable. Slight rain during the night has left a few puddles, the huge winds from yesterday had diminished, the temperature was ideal. Pitch black with no visible stars, though. The anticipation built up more as we all made our way to the wooden starting gate. A surprisingly huge number of runners were surrounding me, I didn’t expect that but should have. Me somewhere in the middle of the first starting wave of two. Another feat I wasn’t aware of: two separate starting waves.
Countdown, start, red flares, spectators cheering even at 4:00 AM. This is quite something, but I’m looking forward to the solitude of the trail, to be honest. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t arrive.
The first two or three kilometers were flat and on roads, leading out of Millau towards the mountains. Big streets are well suited because it’s just too many runners here.
When I checked for the time of dawn on the day before, I mentally prepared for the first four hours of running happening in full darkness. I don’t like that, because I’m not traveling to far-away stunning places to just see the little cone of my headlamp lighting up a bit of stony mud in front of me and nothing else.
I understand it’s necessary, though – the time limit for this race is 23 hours (19 hours max if you want to qualify for Western States). As an organizer, you want the runners to get through some significant chunks of the race while they’re still fresh. Many of these long races start either very early or in the evening so you first run through the night and have it a bit easier when you’re fatigued later.
I still don’t like it.
The first big ascent starts fairly soon and it’s getting even warmer. The route is still filled with runners, it’s unpleasantly crowded. I get through it okay but start to feel woozy from the light cone. That hasn’t happened before. The damp underground is changing from bigger streets to the trails we came here for. At a slight ascent, about 12 kilometers in, unfortunately a key moment transpires. I fall. Usually that’s no problem, it happens to everyone – during Mozart I fell down at least three times if I remember correctly. This time it wasn’t a disaster as well, I managed to catch myself and just got a little dirty from the wet mud.
But something changed in me at that moment. The cheerful anticipation disappeared. The first thoughts like “Wait, why am I doing this again?” appeared in my head. I shrugged them off, believing it will get better. Just keep going and wait for the sun to come out.
But it got worse. Another little stumble which left me muddy and more anxious on the downhills added more negativity to my thoughts. This resulted in me getting slower and slower on the downhills. The uphills were no problem at all, I still had lots of power in my legs and felt a lot more fit compared to Mozart. For sure I could finish this thing if it just came down to raw power and endurance.
The technique is key, though. On a technical downhill every step has to fit well into the surroundings. This course was already not easy to run on, and it got even more challenging as it went on. The French runners had no problem with that, apparently they were very used to it. On those narrow paths I often had to find little shoulders on the sides on which to get out of the way and let a few dozen jolly jumpers pass me by.
“Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Tout va bien?”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”, “Merci”.
Frustrating. Just a few minutes later, when the next group reached me, this repeated. A few minutes of me blocking the eager runners, then me finding a little spot next to the downhill single trail to get out of their way, and a bunch of Mercis. You can imagine my motivation wasn’t improving.
A little later, all of this happened even more often – probably due to the fast ones of the second starting wave who had by now reached me, the anxious downhill obstacle.
👟 Le Spid-geaud
The choice of running shoes plays a large role on a 100 kilometer mountain foot race, as you might imagine. In the past, I have struggled quite a bit with finding the right ones. For a long time, the minimalist shoes of the Altra brand seemed to be the ones suiting me best. During Mozart, I was especially happy with how they protected my feet and the all-in-all feel of my feet in them after those hours.
For unknown reasons, that changed. During a later long run in them, I developed ankle pain which stayed with me and got worse whenever I wore them. Highly surprising. After this was going on for a while I felt I had no other choice but to explore other options.
Having had great runs with HOKA shoes, which by the way originated in France, I went for the highly popular trail shoes of the brand, named after legendary ultra runner Karl Meltzer nicknamed The Speedgoat. Fifth edition. Big ones, although light and with lots of cushioning as well as strong support for the ankles. So they say. The first few hundred kilometers in them felt comfortable and the few runs with elevation gain I did in Hamburg as well. Good enough!
Here, in the French mountains, it was a different story. When I came through a little spot with stationary volunteers who were counting the brand names of the shoes of the runners coming through, “Salomon”, “New Balance”, “Salomon”, “Adidas”, “Salomon”, “Salomon”, I couldn’t help but smile when they announced me by saying in a wonderful French accent: “Le Speedgoat”. It sounds just so cute!
The shoes are very chunky, especially in the US 14 (EU 49) size I need to use for my large feet. Quite often, my feet got stuck at some rubble or roots causing me to stumble. This didn’t happen with the Altras. The ankles were fine, though. Upsides and downsides. Surprisingly, the rear of my feet started to hurt on the uphills in these shoes later on. Never had that problem before – but when you see a picture of the back of the heel bit of the Speedgoat 5, you might understand why. It’s designed in a slippery way which also catches dirt more easily than traditional heel design.
I’m not convinced.
For the next ultra trail I’m thinking of trying out the brand called Topo Athletic, especially the Terraventure 3. A few friends swear by them and since they aren’t as huge as the HOKAs and seem to be more supportive than the Altras, they might work well for me. It’s not easy to find the perfect shoe for these special events.
Another thing which added problems I could have done without, was the careful restraint my legs adopted automatically ever since I broke one of my toes in May of this year. It led to me balancing my bodyweight differently in order to avoid the pain in the toe on runs. The tricky mountains made it worse. I didn’t have the practice necessary to compensate for it. And unbeknownst to me, I still hadn’t fully recovered from the accident. The toe was fine, but the muscle apparatus was still upside down.
So many little things coming together making this race just plain unpleasant.
The worst was probably the fear I had suddenly developed on the downhills. I couldn’t help but think that any step I made could have led to a twisted ankle, broken leg, or even worse. The canyons were getting steeper and it was all far from safe. Muddy narrow single trails could have easily make me slip into the abyss. It was outright dangerous. Thinking of my wife and four kids at home, and having a story I recently read in my head of a single mother of two who died mountaineering just a few weeks prior, it just felt plain wrong to put myself into this type of danger just for fun. If it even were fun, that is.
One thing I can always count on during an ultra trail race, is the aid stations being exceptionally great. Usually there are lots of different foods, gels, cereal bars, candy, sugary drinks, nice cold water, sometimes beer, soup even, and often some specialities of the region. The first aid station of Templiers was located after 29 kilometers, atypically late for a 100 kilometer race. After around four and a half hours, still quite fast in the grand scheme of things, I arrived there full of hopeful anticipation.
I couldn’t have been any more disappointed.
It was a hall in a little town. Teaming with runners. There was water, yes, and also a Coke-type beverage which unfortunately tasted weird and was warm. No other drinks apart from that. On the other side of the hall, there was food. Mainly different types of cheeses, but not the fancy ones from the expo yesterday, it more or less looked like discounter products. Flies were enjoying the cheese at least. A few power bars were stacked next to it, not looking very inviting. Brown bananas completed the sad picture.
What a waste. So much anticipation at such a bleak moment for me, my hopes were nearly fully destroyed. I had some of the weird Coke and refilled my bottles. In a moment of general bewilderment, I filled them with sparkling water, which is a mistake I only realized after a few more minutes of running. Suddenly the bottles were nearly exploding with pressure. Oh, come on!
This bad aid station was the last drop. I knew right then I wouldn’t bounce back from all of the little mishaps today. If I can’t even get through it by making it from aid station to aid station, because those suck, too, I won’t stand a chance.
⛰️ Can the Pretty Scenery Save the Race?
Now, finally the sun went up. 8:30 AM. I could see some more apart from just a ten meter radius of light right in front of me. Maybe the pretty surroundings will get me through?
They turned out to be quite pretty, yes. Stunningly beautiful, even. Under different circumstances, it would have been lots of breathtaking fun to maybe hike or bike, or even run through this.
The course wasn’t as wet and muddy here, too. It got a little better. A slight glimmer of hope. But then, the really technical parts started.
Climbing through stony caves was fun at first. But after a few more bits during which I needed to crouch and claw myself to rocks and tree trunks, it got annoying. Is this not a trail run but an obstacle race instead? Some nearly vertical climbs followed by muddy downhill slides happened. Again, usually that’s fun, but under these circumstances here, I was grunting in exhaustion by now. Even on the flat bits, I was walking. Sad and disappointed of the race and of myself, too.
Every now and then, a breathtaking panoramic view nearly made me reconcile. At a certain spot which I liked I just sat down on a rock, had two CLIF bars I brought with me and enjoyed the view. Thinking. Dozens of runners passed me by, again. Wow, this just is too crowded! The amount of participants must have been over a thousand. Way too many for a single trail race.
👎 Did Not Finish
Walking obviously made the situation worse. More runners wanted to pass me by and I had to get out of the way. This is it, I thought. At the next aid station, shouldn’t anything improve dramatically, I’m out. DNF. No Western States qualifier for 2022.
And nothing improved. So, after another very annoying downhill, stumbling a lot in my big Speedgoats, grunting and almost crying, I was relieved to arrive at the aid station, 38 kilometers into the race. The aid station was located at the side of an overland road, improvised, and had even less of an appeal. I took some water, and since I was just about at marathon distance I decided to at least get this last little win in and ran down the mostly flat road for two kilometers, and back, bringing my total to 42.2 kilometers – the full marathon. The elevation gain landed at 1,800 meters, by the way. Not nothing, but it felt a lot harder due to the technical nature of the course. Kaisermarathon in Söll, Austria, was a walk in the park with its 2,400 meters of gain over the marathon distance, compared to today. Elevation doesn’t equal elevation, I learned today.
The race marshals stationed at this aid station made a sad expression when I told them I was out. But fortunately they were able to show me to a bus parked a few hundred meters to the side of the mountain, which would take me and a few others who had also dropped out, home. The guys and I sat there, all equally disappointed. I heard someone vomit in the vicinity. Not an easy day. The weather turned out great, though, and looking at the pictures later I was stunned how beautiful it really was.
🔀 Does This Change Everything?
Off course, my thoughts ran wild when on the bus and during the hours afterwards.
Clearly, this race sucked for me. A race my friend Henning described as “totally runnable at all times” was so far away from “runnable” to me. How could that have happened? Sure, he’s a far better runner than me, but still. What if the Western States 100, the race I’m so keenly trying to get into, will be of the same difficulty to me, and therefore, no fun at all?
And what about all the other qualifying race? The Lavaredo 120k, for which I had just signed up to do in summer of 2023 might be similarly disappointing. Is this type of trail running just not for me? But why did I enjoy the Mozart so much, then? Is Mozart a one-off exception from all the other races?
But, most of it all, why am I doing this again?
I would like to enjoy tough challenges, get to know parts of the world I usually wouldn’t see up this close, and come home relaxed and happy, recharged with solitude for the every day family life and business struggles through which I need to get through okay. That’s a clear mission statement, I think.
So a race has to provide these benefits to me or it won’t make any sense. I think I could just run Mozart year after year, that might do the trick. And why not!
Regarding the difficulty of the Western States, I consulted with Henning again and he told me that some runners don’t even wear trail shoes for it. So much for the difficulty in terms of technical undergrounds of that race. What a relief! Apparently, only the first 20 kilometers of the 160 can be challenging because the mountains there are often covered in snow. Apart from that, only the heat is tough to take. But I love the heat! So it should work out and be much more of a race suiting me than Templiers could have ever been.
🛣️ But First, Safe Bet City Marathons
After those few hours of sadness, it soon all looked a bit brighter. And it certainly helps to get the priorities straight, which such an experience does like nothing else.
I was reminded of how much I love easy flat city marathons on asphalt. Even if I fail a goal time or if the aid stations aren’t great, it usually doesn’t matter – I still reach the finish line happy. Every time. I remember just one exception to this, Nicosia Marathon in Cyprus, right before the pandemic started. At the time, I was preoccupied with my company not doing too well and an even more challenging time at home with Sophie’s tough working hours, but if I remember correctly, all other of my 71 official marathon races were enjoyable.
The weekend after Templiers, already fresh and ready for more – an upside to calling it a day after just 42 instead of 104 kilometers in France –, I ran the official Dresden Marathon in a relaxed 3:25:30, nearly effortlessly, smiling, talking to other runners along the way, waving to the crowds, loving the ice-cold watermelons and beer at the finish line. That’s the stuff. That’s what I’m here for.
And who knows where the ultra running and Western States slot chasing will take me during the next years. I’m not throwing the towel, but my priorities have shifted a little.