Midway through Day 4 of a seven-day jaunt between Paris and Moscow — the Texas cities, not the European ones — French runner Romain Valle lowered himself gingerly onto a folding chair, leaned back and squeezed his eyes shut.
"It’s the best place to run," he sighed, nibbling a slice of bread and a hunk of cheese. "In a chair."
After a 5-minute respite, Valle, 55, topped off his water bottle and headed back out onto the two-lane highway between Palestine and Athens. Before the day ended, he’d covered 36 miles of rolling East Texas terrain with his well-worn sneakers.
Nine runners from five countries converged here earlier this month to test their hamstring strength and blister resistance during the Napoleon Ultra, a 230-mile stage race organized by Austin ultra runner Russell Secker. The grueling run kicked off with a reception at the French Legation Museum in Austin, where the athletes munched pizza and sipped wine as Secker briefed them on logistics in, alternately, German, French and English.
Some expected dusty flat prairies. Instead, they got piney woods and rolling farmland. Clad in neon yellow and pink tops, they strung out along roads that wound past small-town churches, roaring 18-wheelers and a tiny cafe called Bubba Jean’s.
The route took them from the world’s smallest Moscow (we think) to the world’s second largest Paris (we’re pretty sure), where they stood in the shadow of the world’s 23rd largest Eiffel Tower.
A week hardly qualified as a long race for some of the participants. Four are veterans of the TransEurope, a 2,850-mile, two-month ramble across that continent. One, Klaus Neumann of Germany, has notched just shy of 800 marathons.
Still, they know it’s imperative to pace themselves.
"We have to be careful," said Christian Marti, 60, of Switzerland. "Compared to 64 days, this is easy indeed, but still we run more than a marathon a day for a week. There’s a danger if you start too fast. You can run into injuries."
That’s why they trotted instead of zoomed, maintaining 10- to 15-minute miles along the way. That’s practically a snail’s pace compared to most races, but ultra runners must conserve energy for the long haul.
They run for the camaraderie and love of the sport. "(Running) is part of me," Marti said.
Secker, the former president of the Austin Runners Club and one-time director of the Decker Challenge and Daisy Run, and a veteran of the TransEurope race himself, is also a history buff, which (sort of) explains why he put together the Napoleon Ultra.
The event, held Dec. 1-7, marked the 200th anniversary of the march led by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from Paris to Moscow (Europe, that is) and back. Of the 500,000 soldiers who started that tragic journey, just 25,000 finished. The rest died of disease, cold, hunger and enemy attack.
The stats weren’t as grim here in Texas. Everyone who set out to run the full distance made it. "It’s tough, there’s no doubt. Two hundred and thirty miles is a long way to run," Secker says.
Temperatures rose to the low 80s during the muggy first days but cooled slightly later in the week. Athletes covered between 26 to 43 miles each day, pausing at a mobile aid station every 10 miles or so to fuel up with M&Ms, bread, cheese, cookies, granola, potato chips, Coke and peanuts.
Ultra running takes mental toughness. Don’t properly fuel and you’ll crack. Start too quickly and you’ll break down mentally.
Secker reported no major problems in Napoleon Ultra, aside from some nicks, cuts and upset stomachs. One runner struggled emotionally, pushing through periods of weepiness over the miles. And everyone felt the miles on their feet.
"It’s getting better by the day," Marti said halfway through but admitted his legs were tired.
When one exhausted runner rolled into an aid station, Secker gave her a pat on the back and helped her refill her water pack. "One mile at a time," he encouraged.
Some of the French runners got through the miles with an occasional can of Budweiser from the aid station. "I wanted a little red wine, but there wasn’t any," said Dominique Chaillou, 51, as he nibbled a ham sandwich.
Some cut the toe boxes out of their shoes to prevent bruising.
"It’s good," Valle said of his first run through Texas. "Hot. Flat. Many trucks. Many big cars. Many cows. And not much beer."
Jenni de Groot of Holland reached Paris first, completing the race in just over 40 cumulative hours. The last racer took 57 hours.
"It’s difficult to explain, but I like the way of living," de Groot said of long distance races. "You only eat, sleep and enjoy running."
She accepted her Josephine award as the first female finisher, in the shadow of Paris’ cowboy-hat topped Eiffel Tower. Marti, the first male finisher, was dubbed Napoleon.
The long slog complete, they loosened their shoelaces and headed out for beer and burgers.