June 24, 2010 / 6:34 PM / 9 years ago

WITNESS: From agony to peace: my ultramarathon experience

Paul Carrel, 36, is Reuters’ senior economics correspondent in Berlin. A Briton, he joined the company in 1996 and has worked in London, Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris and Berlin. In the following story, he describes his battle with injury and the experience of running a 6-day ultramarathon in France.

Paul Carrel (L) leads a British contingent into Hourtin, near France's Atlantic coast, at the end of Stage 1 on the 6-day Trans Aq ultramarathon, May 31, 2010. Picture taken May 31, 2010. REUTERS/Dunes Organisation/Handout

BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - I had never run further than a half marathon before. I wanted to take on a really big challenge but I had a problem: I couldn’t even walk properly.

A doctor had given me a downbeat assessment in the spring of 2009: I had damaged my Achilles tendon by trying to revive my teenage exercise levels in my mid-30s. He told me to rest.

By early 2010 the Achilles still hurt. During a walk on my 36th birthday, January 2, I found myself limping as I trudged home through the Berlin snow.

I wanted to shape up but running was a problem so I used a cross-trainer — a machine that simulates running with plates under the feet to avoid impact. I longed for more.

Soon after, I was surfing the Web and found ‘La Trans Aq’: a 220-km (137-mile) , six day, ultramarathon which takes participants along the Atlantic coastline of France from Montalivet to Saint Girons Plage.

That averages out at almost a marathon every day, in a race where participants are required to carry their own food and kit over beaches, across sand dunes and along forest trails.

“I couldn’t do that, could I?” I thought. “Or could I?”

I called the organiser and told him I had run a few half marathons in about 2 hours and done plenty of mountain hiking but nothing close to the Trans Aq. What were my chances?

“You’ll be borderline,” he said, but encouraged me to give it a go. The trouble was I still wasn’t running. It was late February and the Trans Aq started on May 31. I needed help.


My local gym recommended Dr. Ludwig Weh, whose surname is a German word for ‘pain’. He proved to be a major relief.

“It’s not torn,” he said of my Achilles, explaining the heel was a different shape to most, likely due to overuse years ago.

The problem was manageable if I took it slowly, he said. So I started running again, at first for just 10 minutes, then 30, then more. There was still some pain in my heel but Dr. Weh’s positive attitude reassured me I was doing it no damage.

I cranked up the training in April and May and then it was time to go to France for the Trans Aq. My goal was clear: if I was the last runner home but made it to the end, I’d be happy.

Then we were off: 152 of us running south along an open beach. I took it easy on Day 1, doing just enough to stay in the race. Day 2 was harder. Covering the forest trails was sand: terrible to run on, and it gets into your shoes whatever you do.

The big one came next: 55 km on Day 3. Setting off with a companion, we ripped through the first 20 km in no time. But he was too fast and I told him to go on. With 25 km to go, I was alone and hurting. Was I going to drop out now?

No way. I focused on getting to 30 km and then 40 km, and rewarded myself with an energy gel at those markers. Toward the end, I felt what I thought were hotspots on my feet but when I took off my shoes, I was shocked to see some nasty blisters.

I lanced two and pressed on. At the end, I played it cool.

“Are we there already?” I asked at the stage finish. I was about 20 places higher than before — but my feet were a mess.


The chiropodist sucked puss from the blisters with a syringe but there was one under a toenail that she couldn’t get at. I had heard about the dreaded drill at camp, and out it came.

At first I wondered what the fuss was about. But when the drill went through the nail and hit a nerve I let out a scream that must have been heard in Paris. I hobbled off again.

Day 4 was a night time marathon that included an ascent and run along Europe’s biggest sand dune. I was drenched in sweat after scrambling on all fours up the 107-meter (351-foot) high dune and my shoes were filled with sand.

I emptied them at the bottom and pressed on, my headlamp picking out glow sticks hanging from trees in the forest.

Sand on the trail kept seeping into my shoes and making its way under the balls of my feet. Every step became painful. The night stage was the hardest thing I have done but despite the suffering, I found an inner peace during that time.

I finished after 3 a.m. and grabbed 3 hours sleep in my running gear before my tent mates woke me. We were off again.


The organizers had raised the cut-off pace on Day 5, so I had to keep going no matter how tired I was.

Just after half-way I caught up with a Frenchman. I tried to pick up the pace and he came with me. Then I slowed. I was whacked. People were pushing hard for places and he could have left me for dust. But he didn’t.

For the next two hours this man whose name I didn’t know stuck by me, setting a gentle pace. On we shuffled until the finishing straight, when the Good Samaritan stretched out his hand. I grabbed it and we crossed the line together.

I know his name now and will never forget it.

Nobody had ever started and failed to finish Day 6 and I wasn’t about to be the first. I shuffled up to half way, and feeling all right, stepped on the gas. With about 5 km to go, I was so excited that I missed a turning and charged down a hill.

Having seen no markers for a while, it dawned on me I should go back to the top. There I saw everyone I had spent the last hour overtaking surge past, and had to do it all again. Idiot.

I stormed across the finish line with one of the Good Samaritan’s friends. What a privilege.

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