When the warm-up stage is 50km, it makes you wonder what form of hell a “long” stage will take. In this case, it's a 75.8 km brute that happens unusually early in the race. Most of the time self-supported ultras will have the long stage just before the end, so racers can "leave it all out there". Coming as it does on day 3, the legs may be a bit fresher, but the packs are still heavy and racers know that they will still have almost 3 marathons worth of running ahead of them.
The Race Directors staggered the start, with the top 11 racers starting one hour behind the rest of the field. Despite this penalty, they were already overtaking the slower group before the first checkpoint. The course started off going straight up the Mansard, a challenging climb for anyone. Sixty-year-old Kiwi veteran Jo Petersen led the early pack and was first to reach checkpoints 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 before finally being caught by the 3 leaders in the sand dunes section. He went on to finish the stage in 4th overall. Brilliant, mate!
Despite the distance, two good climbs, lots of sandy tracks and 5 km of gorgeous sand dunes, the eventual winners of the stage, Stefano Gregoretti of Italy, Salvador Calvo Redondo of Spain and Davide Ugolini of Italy finished together in a time of 12 hours and 34 minutes. The lead men still seem content to enjoy the runs as opposed to racing them hard. I'll have to ask them about that...
The women's race saw a change at the top of the leaderboard, with Sharon Gaytor moving into the lead just ahead of Sarah Lavender Smith, Caroline Richards, and Heather Mastrianni. Caroline had won stages 1 and 2, but Sharon really nailed the long stage and moved from 4th to 1st. After the long stage these 4 competitors were still neck-and-neck, with only 46 minutes covering the four of them. Unlike the top men, these ladies were going at it hammer and tongs, and it was still a toss-up as to who would end up on the podium when all was said and done.
Some racers at the back of the pack elected to stop at CP6 and sleep until morning before tackling the sand dunes. I joined them at this "camp", sleeping underneath the stars on a chilly night that saw a layer of frost covering my sleeping bag by morning. Things warmed up nicely by the time we hit the sand dunes, and the scenery was spectacular. Having never seen let alone hiked real dunes before, I was spending more time taking photos than moving forward.
The last competitor, Payge McMahon was applauded over the finish line at 1:23 pm on Wednesday in a time of 29 hours and 8 minutes. To get an idea of how the race has spread out already, the final 12 racers have already been on the course more than twice as long as the leaders: 49 + hours compared to 23:26.
The cutoff times at the first 5 CPs caught out some of the slower racers, and a further 7 dropped to unofficial status.
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