Running. This Breton assisted Aurélien Sanchez, the first Frenchman to complete the most difficult race in the world – Running
You assisted Aurélien Sanchez (32), winner and first Frenchman to complete the mythical Barkley, in Tennessee, in the United States. How was the race?
It went really well for Aurélien. He had never been on the course and ran, at the start, with another Frenchman, Guillaume Calmettes, who already knew the course. In addition, he was very lucky with the weather. It was cold at the start, but there was not a single drop of rain for the rest of the race, which is quite exceptional in the woods of Frozen Head Park, where the weather changes very quickly! The other parameter that helped was that the race started at 9:54 in the morning. Which made three half-days of race day instead of three half-days of night. But he did a lot of physical and mental preparation. It’s a race he’s had in mind for six years. He understood that he had to manage everything that was manageable, to minimize the imponderables.
What was your role in this race?
I was what the Americans call a “crew”, an assistant. I had the role of ensuring the transitions, reloading the backpacks with water, food, that they were done as quickly as possible. I didn’t expect him to make such quick transitions! About ten minutes between the first and the second lap, five minutes between the second and the third… In 36 hours, he barely stopped!
He didn’t rest at all?
Time to sit on the chair to change shoes, clothes, batteries for the headlamp… But that’s all. Afterwards, he took a micro-nap between the third and fourth rounds. At my level, the idea was to optimize everything that could be in terms of logistics so that he would be mentally relieved.
What makes the Barkley, which you attempted in 2022, the most difficult race in the world?
It’s a race at the antipodes of everything we know, like the Grand Raid or the UTMB… It’s very closed (40 participants), with very special rules. Everything is done so that you are in a zone of perpetual discomfort. There are a lot of special rules: no markings, a lot of navigation, the validation of crossing points is done by tearing the pages of books, only the organizer knows the departure time, between midnight and noon.
How not to miss the start?
You need a good assistant (laughs), who will make sure to hear the shell, called a conch, in which “Laz” (Gary Cantrell, creator and organizer of the race), blows. Once he’s blown into it, that means the race starts an hour later. The runner then has one hour to get ready, put on all his clothes and at the start, “Laz” lights his cigarette and only when he has lit it, the clock starts and the race starts for everyone.
So it was you who heard the conch?
I slept with one eye open in our van. I always had a listening ear. Then I had guessed the time of departure, even if it’s a bit of a coincidence… We had made bets together and I had said that the departure would be at 9 o’clock in the morning! I had done a study on the past 16 years, with all the departure times, and I had a curve where I had seen that it would not leave early.
Do you realize, as a team, having finished a race that only 15 people have finished in 35 years, before this edition?
Me, a little bit, because I took part in it (in 2022). I know the hardness of the course, which I did not manage to finish. I had only managed to find eleven out of 14 books and was out of time. So I measure at my level. But you should know that on the Barkley, you enter physical and mental dimensions that have nothing to do with the race laps. Aurélien has accomplished something exceptional.
He not only finished it, but he won it too…
He set the fastest time anyway. The winners are those who finish. But I had seen from the start that he was physically well, in transitions he was always lucid. It even scared me a little at first, the transitions were so fast. I was afraid he would get carried away or pay it later. But ultimately, no. It was a pretty incredible ending. We were at the yellow barrier, night was starting to fall, then we see, in the distance, a headlamp coming down the mountain, and we see that it’s him…
And yet, he thought he hadn’t won, in the end…
There was a twist. A hiker saw one of the last books on the way and brought it back! Aurélien had been running for almost 60 hours
, he arrived at a place where the book was not, he looked for it for five minutes and positioned stones in a certain way to tell “Laz”, at the end, that the book had to be there. Mentally, it must have been quite difficult. But he continued his race, with a doubt in mind when everything was going pretty well. But that’s the Barkley, there are always imponderables.
The race of almost 160 km (more than 20,000 m of altitude difference) must be completed in five laps of 60 hours in total. Aurélien Sanchez clocked 58:32:12.All Running news
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