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  • Rachel

the ultimate Ultra Side Hustle, France edition

Society for Reproductive Investigation 66th Annual Meeting and Ergysport Trail du Ventoux 46km

Paris and Bédoin, France

This is the epitome of the Ultra Side Hustle! Recognizing that I am an MD/PhD student, not a professional trail runner. My job is to learn how to both conduct solid scientific research and how to take care of people. This is a small snippet of my story, but I think it nicely illustrates how trail running can complement any career path, and hopefully you reading this, will get some ideas on how to allow your “work” to encourage and support your “play.” (But to me, it’s all play.)

When I started graduate school in March of 2016 I set some goals, including to present my work at an international conference. This isn’t exactly something one has control over, since you submit an abstract of your work to the conference organizers and they select speakers based on what they think would be of most interest to attendees. Ideally, I would also pair this conference with a trail race that I otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to do. The original plan was to attend the Fetal and Neonatal Physiological Society in the Netherlands last year, and then run the Mont Blanc Marathon. Unfortunately my mentor and I decided to not attend that meeting, and I ended up being injured and had to pull out of the Mont Blanc Marathon, so I ran the Cortina Skyrace instead. My second attempt at the European racing/international scientific conference sandwich began in October, 2018. I submitted an abstract to the Society for Reproductive Investigation 66th Annual Meeting and found out in December, when Tyler and I were driving up to Bellingham, that it was selected for an oral presentation! Once things were set with the conference, I began a search for trail races happening around that time. I reached out to the Ecotrail-Paris race director in hopes of running the Eiffel tower stair climb on March 13, but unfortunately they had already selected the runners for that race. I also reached out to the Ergysport Trail du Ventoux and was so excited they were able to fit me in! I’d never heard of the race before, and didn’t realize until the week of the race that it was actually quite big, with 1200 participants and part of the Salomon Golden Trail National Series. The race was set to take place about a month after the FOURmidable 50k, which was a competitive focus for me, so I decided that the goal for Ventoux would be to peg up the fun meter as much as possible!

Here's a nice recap of the race, scroll to 5:09 for my little cameo!

I arrived in Paris on Monday evening and was signed up for a Career Development workshop on Tuesday, and then the conference Wednesday through Saturday, with the trail race on Sunday. While in Paris, I snuck in a couple runs, mostly to pre-selected bakeries, I highly recommend the nature kouignettes at Maison GEORGES Larnicol and the Pistachio escargot at Du Pain et des Idées. I even found some trails as well! I knew the week leading up to my presentation on Friday and the race on Sunday would be hectic, meeting a lot of other scientists from all over the world and learning about what they’re working on, thus expending a LOT of mental energy. This meant I couldn’t have a strict training plan and would need to listen to my body and simply do whatever felt good after the long days at the conference. This ended up meaning days off, some easy runs as transportation, and a simple workout: 6 x 1 minute hard, 1 minute easy "to keep the muscle tension," as Tyler would say. The other tricky thing about being in Paris is that you have to pay to pee. Unfortunately, this resulted in me avoiding drinking much water, because I’d rather spend euros on croissants than going to the bathroom, so by the time Saturday came around my cells were feeling pretty desiccated (though I must point out that this is not what happens physiologically, it’s just that’s how it feels), and I’m pretty sure I drank more red wine than water that week.

Kouignettes from Maison GEORGES Larnicol.

I stayed with two awesome women from New Zealand, Mary & Jasmine, and a postdoctoral fellow from my university, Jessica. Jasmine and Jessica are both scientists and musicians, and were playing in a show specifically for the conference (composed of scientists from all over the world) on Friday, so they were up late rehearsing every night. Mary, Jasmine’s wife was exploring all day while we were at the conference, and she and I would have the most wonderful dinners while Jasmine and Jessica practiced for the show. I think our favorite place was Chez Janou. It felt like we were in the cartoon, Ratatouille! Our waiter was a young, lanky, curly haired boy who was very sweet and a bit clumsy. Of course, we had to order the ratatouille! And it was fabulous! (also highly recommend the mussels!) The next night we also felt like we were in ratatouille but for a much different reason. There was a tiny mouse running around the restaurant! Ha!

Talking science with my mentor Kent in the foreground.

My talk was on Friday afternoon, and I was surprisingly not nervous. I’d done similarly high pressure talks in the past; never on this scale, but I felt somehow hardened to being too riled up about this kind of thing. My mentor, Kent came and sat down next to me at the session and pointed out a woman in the audience who is a neonatologist and the head of the National Institutes of Children and Human Development, one of our main funding sources. She is studying Down Syndrome and was presenting on her work before my talk. I thought to myself, “How am I going to get up there and talk about my work when this woman is curing Down’s Syndrome?!” The next talk (directly before mine) was given by a graduate student who was introduced as “Doctor,” he politely corrected the moderator and proceeded with his talk, which was on a topic very similar to mine, skeletal muscle mitochondrial metabolism and growth restriction (I study heart metabolism and growth restriction). He gave a very nice introduction to a lot of the same topics I brought forward in my talk, so I was able to say, “Thank you student doctor Pendleton for that excellent introduction on growth restriction and the electron transport chain.” It was so perfect. My friends and I always jokingly call each other “student doctor” so it was fun to be able to bring a hint of humor to an otherwise serious and professional meeting. That night, my mentor took me and some other colleagues out to dinner, and I had some tasty duck! He also brought his wife and grandson with him, which I thought was pretty neat. I hope someday I can bring Tyler and our grandkids(!?) to one of these things. After dinner, we went back to the conference center because it was the night of the concert! I was so impressed at the amazing musical talent of these scientists! I was talking to my friend Jess after about how important it is to have these other areas of fulfillment outside of your main jobs. I think running provides a lot of resilience in dealing with challenges as a fledgling scientist and medical student, while my education takes pressure off of running because it is not my full time job to run fast.

By the time Saturday came around, I think it’s safe to say that my brain was pretty low on ATP. I took the train East to Troyes, where my old housemate Kas scooped me up in his momma bear’s little Volkswagen UP. (stick shift!) I haven’t driven a stick shift consistently, but was pretty dang proud of myself for my impromptu stick shift driving skills, especially in crazy traffic on teeny tiny streets! We drove that lil guy all the way down to Bedoin, and arrived around 5:30 PM. Bedoin is an adorable little town and is famous for the Tour de France mountain stage that finishes atop Mont Ventoux. The streets are lined with gnarled sycamores, which were all pruned back. I really loved those trees. I picked up my bib, and decided to forego the race t-shirt, because I’m Marie Kondo-ing, darn it! As I left packet pick up without my shirt, at least 4 people started yelling to me that I’d forgotten it, and I said “no merci,” but I don’t think they understood why someone wouldn’t want their shirt. Then I realized I didn’t have pins for my bib, so I went back and they said they didn’t have any. I went to the nearby grocery store, and they also didn’t have any! Fortunately, I still had my lanyard from the conference, and fashioned that sleek ribbon into a SWEET number holder! Kas and I had pasta dinner at the hotel and I laid out my gear for the morning!

Waking up on Sunday I felt more excited than nervous, because I decided that while I wanted to compete and do my best, it didn’t really matter where I placed and the motive was to have a fun adventure. I pretended like I was going on a hard long run with a bunch of new French friends, and I didn’t have to worry about finding my way because our route was already marked. What a dream! This mindset meant that breakfast went down without a hitch, and I was feeling light and happy. It was a crisp sunny morning, and I made my way to the start line. I was chatting a bit with the other runners on the start line, and the guy next to me was pointing out all the French runners. He pointed out a blonde woman, and said, "she never loses." In that moment, she turned around, smiled, and winked at me! Wooo! That was a cool moment. When I told him I was from the United States, he asked to take a photo with me, which I thought was pretty sweet. The start of the race was awesome, we ran through the city for probably less than a mile before getting on the trails, and interestingly, the first few miles were extremely sandy! I wasn’t expecting that at all, but didn’t mind too much because we were on an adventure after all! I wasn’t concerned about my place or people passing me, I recognized that it had been a long week and 28 miles in a long way to run, so I was going to be patient with myself. I got into a nice groove on some single track and let the miles click by for awhile. About 8 miles in, a man told me I was in second place, and the next woman was 25 seconds ahead. “Nice! That’s not too bad,” I thought. We got to an aid station shortly after, and a few miles after that an older couple said “première femme!” The other woman must have stopped at the aid station. Then we began climbing more and I made a goal with myself that I would stick with the “French DZ.” My friend Derek (DZ) used to have long reddish hair and he would boop the flowers and trees and ferns when we went trail running in the Columbia River Gorge. Believe it or not, the man I was running behind ALSO had long hair and was LITERALLY booping the tree branches as we ran by. This gave me some serious heart sparkles and I knew I had to stick near him. We climbed and climbed and before we knew it we were running on some super icy roads! I would run and then slide like you do with slipper socks on a hardwood floor! Better do that than get all crabby about the ice, eh? Then we made a right turn and got back on some icy single track, which turned into SNOW up above treeline! This Minnesota girl was all about the snow running! We made a hairpin turn and the beacon at the top of Mont Ventoux was in sight! It didn’t take long to get there and when I got onto the road at the summit a man with a NIMBLE GIMLI (some people call it a gimbal) began running alongside me!

I felt like Amelia Boone at Sean O’Brien, 2018 edition! I crested over the top and then we began charging down the craggy mountain! That descent was super fun! There were lots of people up there, hiking and cheering with their puppies and children, I couldn’t stop smiling. Just before getting back into the trees, someone told me 2nd place was 2 minutes back, and 3rd place was 4 minutes back! Eeek! Time to go! I was feeling a little bonky despite staying on top of eating, so I busted out my secret weapon, the Spring Energy SPEEDNUT! (215 calories rather than the usual 100) – and it tastes so good! Looking at the elevation profile prior to the race, it appeared that it was basically one big climb and one big descent, but there were plenty of punchy, heartbreaking climbs in the “descent” that made things tough. I was tempted to back off a bit but then I remembered that my friend (and fellow gopher) Ladia gutted out a solid 2nd place 100k finish at Bandera while puking for the last 12 miles! I thought, “if Lads can puke for 12 miles of a 100k, I surely can keep my foot on the gas here.” At around 5 miles to go, the course converged with the 23km course, and there were heaps of traffic! “pardonnez, excusez-moi,” were my attempts at sneaking past. When we got onto some flat ground, the second place woman caught up to me! She asked, “would you like to finish together?” and reluctantly, I said “sure!” as I was hoping we’d have an exciting battle to the finish. After a mile or so, she said I could go ahead if I wanted to, and I really wanted to get the thing done so I went ahead and ended up finishing just 40 seconds before her! When I was 100m from the finish, a man sprinted past me and I accepted his challenge, while laughing a bit, in a sprint to the finish! I’m not sure who crossed first, or whether we were in the same race, but boy was it fun! Here's the strava for you data geeks!

Kas was so excited! I had a few short interviews at the finish, waited for Blandie and Sarah, the second and third place women, and then went for a shower. That evening we went for a nice stroll around the narrow streets and saw so many sweet kittens out on the prowl. We stopped for a beer downtown on the way back to the hotel. One of the other restaurant guests had a puppy that looked a bit like my dog friend Olive Lohr (Brittany spaniel) mixed with a border collie, but it had its full tail and was completely white except for a black eye patch. He ran right over to me and jumped up on my lap, bumping his head on the table in the process. His owner called him back over, “Ollie!” but he was just too excited to be following orders. The trail race was great, but 15 seconds of snuggling Ollie was right up there in the highlights of the day.

It was a lot of fun to experience another European race! I’d previously done 4 other races in Europe including two 5ks in Spain, the Mont Blanc 10k (2017) and the Cortina Skyrace (2018), increasing in distance each time. It’s so interesting to compare their style with those in the United States, where at home it seems many participants are most eager to take home a participant medal or trophy. In Spain, we got wine and in one of the races I even won a big hunk of meat! At Ventoux, participants were given bottles of wine, and I won a box of snacks complete with a loaf of olive bread, honey, nuts, spirulina, pasta and beer. I really liked that, and decided that if I’m ever a race director I’ll be handing out loaves of crusty bread to the runners.

Bringing home the bacon, Spain 2011.

Gratitude to:

- fellow graduate student, pal and housemate Graham for taking care of my sensitive plant while I was gone (AND it even sprouted a NEW leaf! woop woop!)

- the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health for funding my science and travel support

- Serge, the race director of Trail du Ventoux for the exceptional hospitality

- Spring Energy for keeping my cells happy and hydrated!

- Territory Run Co for the love and support

- HOKA for supplying me with the sneaks!


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