Frazer Alexander: La Grand-Ducale: not a Cigarette, but the 34km DKV UrbanTrail!

Now a well established series of races, the DKV Urban Trail’s Grand-Ducale race was the ideal opportunity to test my legs 6 weeks prior to the ING Luxembourg Marathon, the latter taking place on Saturday 28 May 2016. With a 30km long distance run 10 days before, I was adequately prepared for the gruelling 34kms, which ventured in to the suburbs of Bonnevoie, Hesperange and Itzig. However, I was not prepared for the challengers.

Baala Samir won the race in 2:16:51. Unbeknown to me, Samir is a French national marathon champion (2002 in Havre and 2008 in Sénart) and has a personal best of 2:17:06 at the Paris Marathon in 2009. This guy was a big gun, but didn’t let it show and, boy, was I not prepared for it. Initially, the race was lead by David Karonei, and Samir and myself battled out 2nd and 3rd for the first 10kms. Just behind in 4th position was Jean-Pierre Serafini and in close 5th, James Dunn.

One marathon runner was not in the pack. The organiser himself, José Azevedo, has various palmères to his name and has been leading the event since the start. I ran the Marathon des Sables with him in 2008 and his motivation in the Sahara Desert was beyond reproach. By stage 3 of that year, he was firmly in the top 15 of the race, mixing with the best ultra-runners of the world. In 2007, he came 3rd in the International Association of Ultrarunners 50-Mile Trail World Championships in Houston, Texas. So he knows a fair bit about trail racing and knows the mantra ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’. It is really honourable to see a true sportsman putting back in, what he has gotten out. This was echoed by James Dunn, the runner up in the Grand-Ducale (34kms).

James is preparing the ING Half Marathon and ran a superb 2:17:19. Currently at Edinburgh University, he is a CSL athlete having attended the St George’s International School in Luxembourg. He knew all of Sunday’s trails; growing up in the city, it was his training ground. Whilst in Edinburgh, his season so far has been dominated by Scottish cross-country races, so racing in Luxembourg must have seemed like a warm breeze. Placing 28 seconds behind Samir, James proved his credentials on Sunday and can be counted as a favourite top finisher for the ING Luxembourg Half-Marathon in May.

Having introduced some of the personalities, it is the course that makes this race so unique. The 2,541 finishers enjoyed the sights of the old city, Clausen, the Grund, Paffenthal, Plateau du Rham and Kirchberg, to name but a few of the sights. Each distance went off seperatly, with the 1,800 runners in the 13km (Traces des Vauban) race even having to start in 3 waves. The 27km (Trail des Forts) and 34km trails were the muddier options, whilst those running the 13km had only the paving stones and some dirt track leading up to Kirchberg to contend with. After a common route of 5.2kms for all events, both longer routes split away on the bridge in the Grund. The short distance went in the direction of Natural Science Museum and the longer routes headed east to the Polfermillen. The Alzette has carved a lovely valley which leads all the way to Hesperange. On each side of the valley are excellent trails, all quite narrow and constantly going up or down. At the Itzegerstee, the Trail des Forts would cross the bridge whilst the 'Ultras' carried on to Hesperange. It was here, I saw my 2nd place diminish to 4th, with Samir and Serafini overtaking me. Located in Hesperange was the second team relay change point and a water point. All this time, James had been sticking behind me, waiting to make his first move. Heading West in direction of Luxembourg City, I started to tire and James overtook me to go in to 4th place. With James well in front, my course (GD, 34kms) joined on to the 27km course, and I was able to start chasing other runners down. All three routes come together on the bridge in the Grund where we had left the city centre initially. This is where José Azevedo’s succesful operation became apparent.

Still in 5th place, I had the slower participants of the Traces des Vauban (13km) to contend with. The race starts were managed, so that the longer routes would start earlier, and all runners would converge on the identical last 6kms of the route. Imagine London’s M25 motorway full to the brim on a Friday night and you’re running late. It was worse.  ‘Excuse me’, ‘Coming Through’, ‘Lènks!!!’ (luxembourgish for left), ‘Oppassen’ (Attention). Looking up from the Abbey Neumünster’s Square, I could see the coloured t-shirts of a lot of runners; up on the Wenzel Tour (a walking tour round the old City), by the Bock and queues of runners at the narrower passages. David Karonei, a seasoned veteran of the Luxembourgish cross country scene had led the race for over half way. He had hit the wall and I overtook him just before the Tour Malakof and prior to my climb up to Kirchberg (similar to a small hill in Wales). From the top, I heard some encouragement from a fellow marathoner. Jean-Pierre Serafini too, had slowed down. Like a true gentleman, he wished me luck for the last 4 kms and told me to get a move on.

Leaving the Philharmonie on Kirchberg behind me and descending into Paffenthal I was looking forward to the Tunnel (the entrance is just under the red bridge). It was a chance to pick up the pace and mentally prepare for the steps. In the tunnel, I exchanged some greetings with some friends, but never taking too long. Coming out in to the Petrusse Valley, all of us had 500m along the valley bottom before the dreaded final steps. Even if they lead up to a golden lady, the steps were by no means a stairway to heaven. This coup de grâce brought on the burn one final time. I held my pace and nerve and finished in 3rd position on the Plateau du St Esprit.

A good days sport for all, let's hope Luxembourg City Council remains an avid supporter of running. It doesn’t want to become like those spoilsports of Little Stoke (UK) Parish Council, who have decided to charge the organsier of a free-for-all 5km run (part of the Parkrun worldwide network). Google 'Park run' and you’ll see what it’s about. Maybe a reader might want to start one here in Luxembourg. Nevertheless, besides the aching joints and muscles on the Monday, Sunday's race has only fuelled my hunger for more long distance running. Bring on the ING Marathon!

Photo by Albert Krier