Royan receives you broken.
3 years you’ve been coming to this sleepy seaside town and 3 years you’ve arrived, heavy.
Work issues, visa problems, matters of the heart; it’s rare that you arrive with your biggest worry the race ahead. The race is incidental, the reason for being there but not the reason for being.
You stay in the hotel that has become ritual the night before. You eat the it’ll-do pizza by the sea.
You head to the stadium to say a quick hello to friends doing the unthinkable – the double – the 48-hour race.
You are welcomed as a friend, by the volunteer who recalls the rugby match back in 2015. The rust-red gravel crunches familiar underfoot; this time tomorrow you’ll have learnt to hate it.
Participants with 12 hours of racing behind them are preparing for their first long cold night. They are determined, focused, wearing all manner of clothing. Some walk, others run, some of their gaits – like that of the Italian, are graceful and effortless, others so laboured you’d give up your seat on the bus to its owner, if we were anywhere else.
It doesn’t look all that impressive, if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
The next morning, the sun shines fiercely through the mist. You greet friends, some you’ve seen just last week, for others it’s been a full year; Royan your only common ground.
One wears a Bondi Beach t-shirt, and hands you photos from the year before – minutes before the start – a timely reminder that you’ve been here before, have done this; can do this; got this.
You take the start line with the others, the few women taking particular care to greet each other. We are outnumbered, but we are there. We set off slow, a sprinting start serves no-one in this kind of arena.
For hours you walk, and you jog, slowly-slowly your only plan. The sun is shining, Elton John plays out from the speakers. You eat your chocolate dessert and think – I’m really enjoying this. It sounds insane but it feels almost like vacation.
You eat well, nothing hurts, and for the moment you don’t think beyond the marathon. Get to 42.2km before dinner, you think, then we’ll take it from there. But the marathon comes earlier and easier than planned, so you have to readjust. Get to 50km, before dinner. Without any serious training for the race, 50km is your cautious goal, you should be able to get 50km out without training.
50 comes and goes and you are ecstatic – this is what you came for, everything else is bonus. You’re also a little lost. What to aim for now? How to break down the night into its parts? You catch up with Valerie who calms you down with her practical advice – do a few more laps, sit down to dinner, then you’ll see. She’s right, just get to the next thing, then the next. You find you have 60km in you before dinner, though your right knee has been playing up since 50. It’s a familiar niggle, but it means a lot more walking than running, which in turn brings other challenges.
You eat and joke and linger at dinner. Other years you’ve eaten while walking around the track, no time to lose, a large goal looming. This year your strategy is a lot looser, your sort-of goal already surpassed. Truth be told you don’t want to go back out there. You do it anyway.
Barely started again and the German powerhouse distance walker Martina catches up with you, to tell you with a giggle how much she likes your bright Bonds leggings. You fall into step and her conversation, first in French, then in English, carries you through 3 or 4 precious kilometres. You talk about yoga and mushroom hunting and holiday spots, she tells you about some fascinating races she’s been to, and her love of Stephen
King novels. Her determined pace and concentration had invited a wide berth in previous years, now as you laugh out loud, you wonder why on earth you weren’t chatting to her all along!
If 50-60 are buoyed by Valerie, 60-70 are most certainly thanks to Martina. You decide at 70 to lay down for awhile. An hour of sleep, followed by 3 hours to get to 80km should work well. At 11pm you close your eyes, and wake again at 2am. You don’t want
to leave the sleeping bag, nor the warmth of the gymnasium, but both work in your favour. Starting again is less painful than predicted. You cradle a strong, hot coffee, and set out again into the night. You grab the phone – a call to Australia is just what the doctor ordered. 70-80km take time, but soon enough they’re done too.
The hundred is, at this stage, perhaps possible, perhaps not, but you know for sure you don’t want them badly enough to fight for them. It feels liberating, somehow.
You want to reach 84.4km, the symbolic double marathon, then take another rest before attacking the final hours. The knee still not keen for running, you make a cup of instant noodles, and set back off around the track. The lack of sleep makes you giddy. You dub 81km: The Noodle Tour, in your head, like Madonna’s Comeback Tour. At the time this seems like the greatest joke ever.
You hit the double marathon, and head off to breakfast. Again, you chat and linger. There is a little under two hours to go. Back to the track. You walk, you joke, you smile. The sun is up, the night a memory.
You walk and chat and run a little, as the euphoria of the end draws near. You won’t hit the hundred and it doesn’t matter one bit. You came, you did the thing, you didn’t suffer.
You stand beside the podium, fourth in a race of four, but stupidly proud regardless. You are here, you belong. You’ll be back.