Matterhorn Ultraks 46k

Another Did Not Finish.

DNF. It’s becoming a bit of a habit to have those three letter after my name.

How did I arrive at my 3rd, yes 3rd DNF of 2017?

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Entering the Matterhorn Ultraks 46k was a bit of a spontaneous decision, I’d seen race photos which well & truly captured my imagination. This was for one simple reason; The Matterhorn. For years, I’ve had a mild obsession with this mountain. To me it is the mountain, you know, the one you drew as a kid when you had to draw a mountain. A proud, angular triangle dominating the landscape, reaching that summit tops my bucket list so finally getting to see it AND do a race in its vicinity was just too tempting! After chatting to a couple folks on social I checked the website to find out more information and was hugely disappointed when I first thought it was sold out. When I realised I was looking at the previous year’s page and I could register for the 2017 event I did so immediately without thinking any more about it.

Fast forward 9 months & the challenge was suddenly looming.

After a torrid MdS & inordinately tough Gozo 50km I made the difficult decision to withdraw from the two 100’s I had scheduled over the summer. Pulling out of the Lakeland 100 was particularly disappointing, but with mental resilience at a spectacular low & matching fitness levels it was the right decision. As one of 2017’s races I had been most looking forward to the Ultraks was to be my return to racing after a 3 month break & after some time off to rest & recover I’d worked fairly hard preparing for it so was hopeful for a positive outcome.

Having never been to Zermatt before I decided to make a holiday of it & spend a few days before the race there. The decision behind this was threefold:

  • As the highest point of Malta is only 253m above sea level I thought the opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude would be beneficial come race day
  • The aforementioned ‘mild obsession’ drove a desire to explore the area more than I would in just a single race
  • I wouldn’t have been given permission to go without making it a holiday & going with Anna, my long-suffering partner

IMG_0958After the short flight and long train journeys we arrived on Sunday afternoon and was immediately blown away by the scale and beauty of the village & the surrounding mountains.  Having done a bit of prior research I had a short list of long trails to do and spent the next 2 days hiking some of the most popular & beautiful trails that the area has to offer. These included the Swiss Top Walk to Rifflalp & Gornergrat and the sublime Edelweissweg past Trift which were all on the race route. We had some glorious weather, and were treated to astonishing vistas each day but the climbing, descending and hours on my feet did take their toll & my quads & calves were pretty sore by Wednesday. I took it easier for the remainder of the week with ascending mostly done in cable cars or trains. My legs were less painful but still felt heavy on Friday when a bout of diarrhoea from the ill-advised cheese fondue the night before compounded a week that wasn’t ideal preparation for a hard day among big mountains.

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Despite these minor setbacks and major stupidity, I woke from the usual fitful pre-race Start2slumber on Saturday feeling pretty good & jogged down to the plaza in the early morning drizzle feeling comfortable and reasonably confident of a finish. After meeting Chris (@RedSquirrelRun), Stuart @FromBoris) & then Darren (@RunnersKnees) & Jen (@_jen_mo_) at the start we had time for a brief chat to keep our minds off the looming adventure before we lined up towards the rear of the pack and we were finally off at 7.30am.

Leaving the Plaza we returned down Bahnhofstrasse before turning right at the Church passing the Climbers Graveyard & crossing the Vispa River. By this point, Stuart had already disappeared ahead, but I was still shoulder to shoulder with Chris & Jen popped up & said hi from behind. The asphalt started to ascend almost immediately and Chris slowed to a march while I carried on running for another 100m or so. Through a tunnel, the incline increased so I too settled into a fast march, winding through the pine forest as we quickly increased altitude and slowly ticked down the miles. The tarmac broke up, soon becoming a trail & we finally got to run along an undulating stretch of single track reaching the 5km marker in 47mins. sportograf-106558086I was happy enough, particularly as the first rays of sunshine start to break between the clouds nearing the top. The gradient increases towards the summit of Sunnegga & to maintain pace I pushed harder, redlining as I rounded the crest of the top (caught perfectly on camera) & then trotted down to the first CP.

Despite the photographic evidence, I felt good so went straight through without wasting too much time beginning the brilliant descent into the valley where Chris caught me as we passed through an idyllic hamlet. Having walked here on Monday I recognised where we were & identified that the right turn & immediate ascent marked the start of the climb towards the highest point of the race. As the temperatures and effort started to soar we cut towards the section I had ill-advisedly trotted down on Monday & after crossing the junction where we’d joined the 5 Seenweg (5 Lakes Walk) the trail immediately became much steeper with switch backs rising endlessly up the mountainside. Coming down, it hadn’t seemed anywhere near this steep. Up to now we had been running through thick pine forest or across lush alpine meadow’s filled with chirping grasshoppers & swirling butterflies but as we moved higher the life started to disappear & the landscape started to change, taking on the alien & almost lunar appearance seen at the top of many high peaks.

It was as we started climbing again that I realised I hadn’t got the strength in my legs that I’d had earlier in the week & I soon lost touch with Chris & several others passed and slowly pulled away from me. I was still making reasonable progress but had to pause several times as we zig-zagged up the path. Thankfully as we rose above 2800m altitude the time in the mountains paid dividends and despite feeling short of breath I overtook a few who were suffering far more than I was, then towards the summit the path goes through a quarry, ascending the scree to a ridgeline that leads to the top of Gornergrat at 3083m providing incredible views to te snow covered 4000m summits of  Breithorn & Monte Rosa.

 

 

I pottered down from the summit, weaving among the aimless tourists who had all come up to the summit on the train and into the 2nd CP with plenty of time in hand. Again, without stopping for long I began the descent towards Rifflealp. Looking back, it was from this section on that my race began to unravel as my legs felt leaden and I didn’t make the progress on this stretch that I needed. I was enjoying the scenery as we soon joined a trail I hadn’t been on before, passing a mountain lake providing a dramatic view of the Matterhorn reflected on its surface but I couldn’t get into a rhythm and my pace was too slow. DSCF9343As we descended I was entertained by Marmot’s calling & the cow-bells from a herd of cows on the mountainside above Rifflealp. It seemed to take a long time to get to the 3rd CP but I still had plenty of time in hand at the cut-off so topped up my bottle, swigged a cup of coke & snacked on some cheese before setting off towards Furi.

I struggled up the following short sharp incline with a lack of strength in my legs suddenly very noticeable, despite descending some 500-600m it felt like I was suffering from the altitude now… in retrospect I was probably just low on energy as I hadn’t eaten anywhere near enough for the amount of effort being expended. The following descent became frustrating as it was quite technical & I didn’t have faith in my legs to hold me up hopping between the rocks & makeshift steps to the bottom so was moving very slowly.

After what felt like a lifetime I reached the bottom of the steep descent & started to jog down the good wide track with the full glacial river roaring beside me but just as my spirits began to rise I took 2 heavy psychological low blows. First after passing a sign for the Hangebrucke, the suspension bridge we were to cross, that showed it was 20mins away & then worse & heart-breaking was the 25km marker. I immediately checked my watch in disbelief & it showed 5hrs 30mins.

I just slumped at the side of the trail in the shade and wanted to cry.

I knew I was going to struggle to make the next cut-off.

After this brief bout of self-pity, I pulled myself together & continued down the trail, reaching the turn down to the suspension bridge after just a few minutes and slowed to a walk as I crossed the bouncy construction over the deep gorge & continued slowly down to finally reach the Furi CP.

I was surprised to see Anna waiting, I obviously didn’t look too good as she force fed me fluids & tried to get me to eat. I stayed at the CP for a few minutes before setting off on the ascent I had been dreading most. The huge lump to Schwartzee.

I made my way upwards, painfully slowly & feeling nauseous so I kept stopping to dry heave. All through the forest covering the lower slopes the floor was crawling with big ants. They covered my shoes & crawled up my calves each time I stopped, biting me when I tried to flick them off… this assault kept me pushing on a little more than before! Leaving the cool of the forest and the carnivorous insect life behind we moved into the open meadows again but tackling the continuous switchbacks crossing the mountain my progress got slower & slower as I stopped more & more often to lean on my poles & heave. Looking upwards there was a line of about 10 other participants all doing exactly the same, if I hadn’t felt so bad it would have been comical.

This climb went on & on & on & on…

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Finally nearing Scwartzee with Rifflealp on the left, Breithorn & Monte Rosa on the right

Having seen it from the cable car on Wednesday I knew it would be bad but in my current condition it became hellish. I finally reached the summit to see them taking the CP down & a marshal just stopped me in my tracks slicing his hand across his throat in the universal signal of ‘you’re dead’.

My race was over.

I had my 3rd DNF of the year.

Despite my general lack of pace this was my first experience of being timed out and it was a complete anticlimax as I unceremoniously took the cable car back down to Zermatt with a couple of other guys who had also been timed out after struggling to the summit. I later discovered that Stuart had also withdrawn at Schwartzee after being sick on the ascent, both Darren & Jen stopped in Furi realising they couldn’t make the climb before the cut-off and only Chris managed to finish… and I had time to return, shower & get to the finish to watch him cross the line.

I didn’t put myself in the best position to complete the race, I clearly pushed myself too hard on Monday & Tuesday which I paid for on Saturday. I regularly ‘go hard’ a week or so prior to an event & personally I feel better for having my muscles activated & ready to go rather than resting or tapering, but in this case I did underestimate how much it was going to take out of me & this was only compounded by bad guts caused by the local ‘delicacy’.  On the day, I once again didn’t get my fuelling right and the resulting energy loss & nausea made climbing difficult.

Usual excuses and justifications aside, I still don’t know I would have completed it.

On a better day, I know I could have made it to the summit of Schwartzee from Furi in the time I had left & on that day I also would have arrived at Furi earlier giving more time in hand. But as it was still a long way to the finish from there with one more steep climb would I have had enough in the tank to get to the finish before 6.30pm? I don’t know. I suspect that even at my current best I might well have still struggled to get round the route in the allotted time limit.

The Matterhorn Ultraks is a remarkable race, the route is incredible and the scenery breath-taking and views dramatic but it is tough. Very tough. The ascents are big and long, the descents destroy your quads, the altitude slows you down and the cut-offs are tight. It was a massive learning curve, I’ve done a few mountain events in the UK but they just don’t compare to the scale of those on the continent. It wasn’t my first time in Alpine mountains, but it was my first race in them & I had underestimated quite how hard that would be. Nothing has changed tough, I absolute love it in the mountain, even more so when they are like those around Zermatt and will be back to race again, summit some 4000m peaks… or maybe both but first I’m going to get a coach to prepare my mind & body for The Spine Challenger 2018 so I can finally put this year of DNF’s behind me.

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I did run some of it! And smile! During better times descending from Sunnegga

 

 

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(Not) Seeing Dots – Gozo 50k

This was my second time completing the Gozo 50k after I’d visited on holiday to do it 12 months ago. I then moved to Malta last year & as this is the only ultra-distance event on the archipelago I felt duty bound to register once again. Having just completed the Marathon des Sables I knew this race would go one of 2 ways, either I’d benefit from the mileage done 3 weeks earlier & I’d run well or I’d struggle as I hadn’t recovered fully from my endeavours, but as I knew the route was scenic, challenging & fun thought it was worth the punt.

Living here meant an early start to get the 6.45am ferry from Malta to Gozo but this adds to the feeling of doing something a little out of the ordinary. Race HQ was much like last year, very low key with about 60 participants loitering in the car-park overshadowed by the impressive Ghajnsielem Parish Church. I just had enough time to register before the race briefing and we set off at 8am sharp.

The route crosses one busy road leading up from the Ferry Terminal in Mgarr before hitting the type of trail we spend most of the day on, dry & dusty track with loose rocks & spiky vegetation or a cliff edge bordering it, IE good running.

We followed the red dots marking the route around the cliff as a pack, before hitting the first of MANY descents & ascents along the route. My mind had played tricks on me, I’d forgotten how many there were in the first stretch and had only stored the stunning cliff top running that interspersed the climbs. I hung on to the pack for a while making steady progress but after slowing a few short miles in I soon found myself completely alone.

The answer to my question had been answered. The day was going to be a struggle.

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We reached Cenc and I recognised it as the location for the first CP, in my eagerness to reach it I stopped looking for dots and missed a turn. Thankfully I was quickly notified by runners a little way behind so I got back on track quickly… but this wasn’t to last long. After a splash & dash at the CP we headed out of the village directed by local guides up a clear track, no sign of any markings I carried straight up the path but after a few 100 metres the track petered out & broke into small trails in several directions, with no sign of any markers we backtracked some way before spotting the route directions crossing a wall which had been deliberately obscured by a car. On the other side of the field an old local guy was shouting at runners & squaring up to them as they attempted to make their way along the marked path. As I took a detour around the field I watched him angrily pushing another runner who had cut across ‘his’ field… the last I saw of him he was tearing down the tape that marked that section and stamping his feet like a cartoon stereotype.

This drama had created a concertina effect and we were now in a small procession along breath-taking cliff tops until the descent into Xlendi… a section I remembered all too well from the previous year. Passing the restaurants with tourists enjoying breakfast or a very early beer we hit the first big steep climb up out of the bay on an almost sheer cliff face, it was hard & hot work but I remained on the route and got to the top feeling less worn out than I recalled in 2016. Starting to jog again soon after following the trails & markers I made my way easily through the following section I’d got lost in last year and soon made my way on to a road.

By the time we returned to the cliff we were well spread out & I was alone again. I hadn’t spotted any dots for a while & although not concerned as the sea was still to my left when I spotted marker tape down by the cliff edge I followed it. I went under an eroded overhang & on a section were there was no path… in fact there was no anything in spots & I was clinging onto the cliff edge as I stepped over gaps dropping to the sea 100 metres below me. I realised this couldn’t be the correct route & the markers had obviously been tampered with and placed there to send us the wrong way. Luckily I spotted the runners who’d been ahead of me descending in front so cut back to meet them & safely got back on track but I now had doubts in my mind about the route being correct, this enforced by another runner who confirmed other markers they’d passed had been tampered with.

The descent to Dwejra, filming location for Game of Thrones & the original Clash of the Titans, followed & my first visit since the Azure Window had collapsed during a storm in March. The area now has little to offer except the ‘Inland Sea’ and this is obvious in the lack of thronging tourists I had to weave through last year despite the glorious weather. I was running well into CP2 but also getting very hot so paused for a couple minutes topping up my bottles & grabbing a few salted snacks before beginning the long drag up to the top of the cliffs.

This section is fairly tough, but beautiful, with alien limestone overhangs & stunning cliff edge trails but I realised that I must be behind last year as the photographer had already given up & gone elsewhere before I passed. Despite this I actually felt better here than I recalled from the previous year & was plodding along steadily until spotting a marker on a rock next to a separate track I followed the track down, but after a few 100 metres realised I hadn’t seen any more dots so had to retrace my steps. Again. Frustrating.

Returning to the original track & following it round & down to the salt pans I recognised the start of the tightening in my knee that signalled the ongoing issue I’d been getting all year. I could still run but knew that with about 13 miles over some of the more technical trails of the route this was going to be a long day. CP3 was in a different location this year & just before seeing it I spotted a red arrow sprayed on the floor pointing up a trail… which I dutifully followed. To a dead-end. Back-tracking yet again, I was getting annoyed with my inability to follow the route this year & cursing my failure to download the GPX from last year!

Last year I had gone through CP3 without topping my bottles & as my pace had plummeted I had run out of water. To avoid this happening again, I topped both softs flasks up again, despite it taking a frustrating length of time at each CP. We now followed the Promenade for a stretch through Qbajjar & then down to pass the bars & restaurants in Marsalforn, before the climb out the other side.  This had finished me in 2016 but I ascended more comfortably this year so enjoyed the winding single track skirting the hillside a lot more… until I reached a descent & my knee pain increased sharply, to the point that I struggled to put any weight on it.

I was angry. I loved this stretch of trail & although my legs were leaden I still had slow running in them. Unfortunately, the pain meant I couldn’t continue running for more than a few hundred metres & steep downhills were agonising, literally becoming a hop rather than a run. Finally reaching the now agonising descent to Ramla Bay I shuffled across the sandy beach, dipping my shoes wet in the Mediterranean before tackling the steep climb up to the cave overlooking it. Arriving at the top I sat down in the cool for a couple minutes to savour the view & cool down before exiting out the back & following the red dots along the road.

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I kept moving forward, but the distance I could run was getting progressively shorter as the miles ticked slowly by, this section was a mix of quiet country roads, old farm tracks & some trails with several sharp climbs included. One positive I got from this race was my climbing had improved for the first time in ages & I could power up some of the steep ascents well despite the heat & knee pain. Reaching the final CP with about 10km to go I was well looked after by a young scout who helped me top up my bottles, offered me food & added some ice-cubes to my coke! Absolute star!

I set off to get it finished following the little red dots along the road again as it turned inland. After a while the route dropped to pass above a quarry on the coast that I remembered wasn’t too far from St Anthony’s Battery, which identified the corner of Gozo and more importantly about 3 miles to go. I was now struggling on the eroded rock and sharp loose stones, the constant adjustments needed aggravated my knee making it hurt more with each step.

I was relieved to round the fort to reach some decent trails leading to the scrambles off vertical drops, clambering over rocks & scaling large boulders that had astounded me last year. I started to pass more people on the trail & the beaches so knew that I was getting nearer to the ferry port & even caught & passed another participant, the first I’d seen since before Ramla Bay. Trudging on & still running as much as possible the final few kilometres finally ticked down & I reached the road into M’garr, flat but painful I was glad to pass a final additional drink station and begin the last ascent up to Ghajnsielem through a narrow alleyway.

Turning off at the top & following the final few red dots to the finish I wobbled down to cross the line in 8.30… just under 30mins slower than last year.

It was a frustrating day as I felt I had more running in my legs but the increasing pain from the midway point had made this impossible. In assessing my performance, I have admitted that both my body and head are not in the game & I’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from my next 2 events to regroup & hopefully rediscover my love for running.

Despite the difficulties I faced, this is a fun, low-key run and with few entrants it is just about as far from the MdS as you can get. It features some fantastic trails, crosses varied & challenging terrain passing some beautiful and sometime bizarre locations. I had an incredibly solitary run, which I generally enjoyed, particularly as it was so far removed from the continuous queues endured in my last event but it did lead to me taking the wrong trail several times. Other than the route difficulties, some of my own doing & some that was obviously deliberate (and in one case dangerous) tampering my only other gripe was that the photographer had moved on from each location before I had made my way there.

Neither will stop me signing for the third time, will I see you there?

A Mid-Pack Marathon des Sables

Savour not just Suffer…

I knew I wasn’t as fit as I had been in 2016 as training had been hampered since breaking myself in January, then to add injury to injury I slipped & fell while out walking with a full pack landing awkwardly and hurting my shoulder. So, all things considered my aim going into the 32nd Marathon des Sables was to finish and my mantra leading up to  it became ‘Savour not just Suffer’

I was soon to find out that this was far, far easier said than done.

VIRB PictureEtape 1 – 30.3km – ‘The Easy Day’
Easy [ee-zee] – Adjective: not hard or difficult; requiring no great labour or effort

Unsurprisingly on the first day there were a lot of nerves & I for one hadn’t got into a routine yet. A lot of unnecessary faffing was done in the morning while packing my bag, misplacing kit & trying to eat breakfast… my planned treat of rice pudding & fruit came to nought after my can opener broke in transit so I made do with 2 pots of fruit & a pouch of yoghurt. Excitement was building as Tent 109  made our way as a group to be part of the creation of the number 32 which is photographed from the air before separating to line up at the start in various positions dependant on our race ambitions. We were then subjected to a selection of random and often inappropriately cheesy music tracks and the first of 6 long & repetitive briefings from Patrick.

Finally, the refrains of Highway to Hell were belting out & the countdown to the start was on!

Worried about hydration my strategy for the first 2 stages was to take it easy & see how I coped in the heat. Supposedly an ‘easy day’ it felt long, slow, hot & continuously uphill. I comfortably ran the first 5.5km at a steady pace as we followed an oued, but this dropped after the first sandy climb of the type we would soon become all too accustomed to. From the top, we got our first indication of the sweeping scale of the desert as the train of runners wound away into the distance behind. Midway through I stubbed my foot on a rock, this lifted my little toe and the nail caught on the inside of my shoe pulling it hard. I hobbled for a short distance, but concerned I had damaged it looked for somewhere convenient to stop. Finding a flat rock & lowering myself down to it I managed to pierce my hand with multiple thorns which provided another early & valuable lesson… those things are vicious! Peeling off my gaiters & socks I was relieved to see little sign of serious injury despite the pain being quite severe. Replacing my socks, shoes & gaiters I continued gingerly on my way but was still concerned about the level of pain. The miles were slowly ticking down, but as 5 of the last 6 were all uphill it was a tough battle, finally with a couple left we hit a steep climb and after reaching the summit was relieved to see the second campsite in the mid-distance. I shuffled along slowly having found this ‘easy day’ inordinately difficult & I was concerned how I would cope as the days got longer & harder.

Time: 4:51:19 Position 540th

VIRB PictureEtape 2 – 39km -‘The Hard Day’
Jebel ˈdʒɛbɛl’ [jeb-uh l] – Noun: (in the Middle East and North Africa) a mountain or hill, or a range of hills.

I didn’t have long to wait to find out how I would cope as we’d been warned that the second day was tough and it was another 9km further, making it a long hard day 2. It began with a sandy climb, followed by a series of small dunes during which I felt a hot spot form on my heel, which I could feel had immediately opened. I stopped as soon as possible to tape what was a raw but thankfully small open blister. The dunes soon levelled out and after a short distance there was a climb over Bou Laadam Jebel before we began our journey over the first endless stretch of vast emptiness that is characteristic of huge areas of the Sahara Desert. This long psychologically draining flat stretch continued over the horizon and seemed to go on forever and we were just a trail of insignificant dots lost among the landscape. In retrospect, my progress was much slower than it should’ve been but I eventually made it to CP1. More of the same followed to CP2 but rising temperatures and no escape from the scorching sun meant it was hot work to get there, requiring my first rest in a bivouac at a CP for a few minutes to cool down. I poured spare water over me & my clothing & set off again. From CP2 it remained flat & rocky providing good progress & as I started chatting to somebody this section passed quickly and I began to feel positive.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last & reaching a section of beautiful, but devastating sand dunes that rose incrementally I blew up in style as the increased effort to ascend each one & the heat bouncing off the sand literally burnt me up. Finally escaping this sandy sauna, we followed a stretch of single track winding ever closer to the dreaded El Otfal Jebel. Entering the stone gorge marking the start of the ascent was like stepping into a steam room. The sun was reflecting off the rocks and as the ascent began to get steeper, the effort increased again & my core temperature spiked. I had to stop regularly, desperately trying to hide from the sun in miniscule strips of shade in a futile attempt to cool down. The climb wasn’t that long, but it took 39mins to complete one mile before it finally angled out from among the rocks up over a sandy incline to the summit which provided breath-taking views in all directions.

An annoying queue to descend holding a rope was awaited, taking much longer than necessary with many nervous people ahead, but the exhilarating descent on loose sand which felt like skiing on the dunes almost made up for it. Reaching the final CP with just 3km left I drank a few big swigs of water, pouring the remaining cool elixir over myself and headed off to sluggishly to complete the second stage.

I’d picked up a few blisters on my toes & the now angry laceration on my heel didn’t look great so I went to see Doc Trotters on my return. After a very long wait I left with some supplies & tape on my heel… not worth the wait when I could’ve been eating & recovering after a long hard day.

Time 12:33:10 Position 616th

VIRB PictureEtape 3 – 31.6km ‘The Hilly Day’
Ascent [uh-sent] – Noun: the act of climbing or traveling up

I felt good the next day & my feet, although heavily taped felt OK. My strategy before seeing the road book had been to try a bit harder on Day 3 if I had been comfortable in the previous days. Despite having had a torrid Day 2 and warning that the upcoming stage was also tough I decided that I’d run the early flat stretches at the start of Stage 3 while it was cool. The stage started with a short run to warm up before the short sandy climb up Rich Mbirika Jebel then a good flat stretch leading to the first of 3 big climbs. The tough 18% sandy ascent to summit of Joua Baba Ali Jebel generated a hot spot on my other heel but with nowhere convenient to stop I continued up until it revealed a beautiful technical ridge, shame it was another queue of inexperienced participants ruining what should have been a thrilling and fun skip across the rocks. It was still an impressive section & I took advantage of the slow-moving traffic to look around and take it in, snapping a few pictures and savouring the moment. At the end of the ridge we had a technical descent to CP1 where I should have stopped to sort my heel but was feeling strong so pushed on to make good time.

After another short runnable section a steep sandy 15% climb followed, with another ridgeline and a fast descent before a longer flat stretch to CP2 which I ran/walked between route markers as it was now a lot hotter. After a quick breather and refuel I was off carrying extra H2O for the first & last time. A gruelling, oppressive & precipitous 25% ascent to the summit of El Otfal Jebel, often sandy underfoot with some big rocks to step up on it soon had me blowing out of my arse. Queues slowed progress again but this time I was grateful for them, allowing time to breathe. Reaching the same point we began the descent on stage 2 required hauling ourselves up on the ropes knee deep in soft sand, but the descent the other side the way we’d ascended the previous day was much faster and the rocks were quite good underfoot. The dunes were dispatched with aplomb this time as I took my time & believed that they were heading downhill. Once beyond the dunes I was confronted by a long flat endless finish into the heat haze that showed no sign of ending, head down & despite the soaring temperatures a fast march followed until I could finally make out the train of runners snaking their way up a ridge in the distance. The miles ticked down with the death march and after an eternity I started to climb the ridgeline, once over the top I released an involuntary whoop of joy as I spotted the 4th campsite a short distance away.

I’d enjoyed the day & the terrain had been far more to my liking with much more variety & ascent, maintaining a better pace on the flats & managing to push well on the ascents. Peeling my bloodied socks off however revealed more toe blisters & a large gaping hole on my heel that had been blister but was now an open wound, I immediately applied antibacterial solution & taped it ready for the next day but I knew this was going to cause me problems.

Time 18:53:42 Position: 591

IMG_2807Etape 4 – 86.2km‘The Long Day’
Dune [doon, dyoon] – Noun: a sand hill or sand ridge formed by the wind, usually in desert regions or near lakes & oceans.

The pain from my feet was horrendous and pulling on my shoes for the ‘Long Day’ was excruciating. Nerves and tension were obvious at the start of the 4th Stage, there was a heavy atmosphere among the mid-pack & it was much quieter than usual. Despite my feet hurting I started well, taking advantage of the cool start through the scenic El Maharch Pass, past camping oasis & over the huge dry lake where I spotted my first herd of camels in the distance. Reaching a series of sandy ascents indicated the start of the end of my progress and I wobbled as I climbed, with the loose sand sapping my energy quickly and my feet started to throb with pain. The climb up Mziouda Jebel saw my pace plummet but the technical descent to CP1 that followed was a welcome distraction.

The leg to CP2 was shorter, staring flat but soon incorporating a sandy ascent and the theme of the day was set. It did include a couple fantastic sandy descents but generally it was just slow going, wading through hot loose energy sapping sand up to an isolated CP. I slumped in a bivouac to remove my insoles, before carefully topping up my water & pouring the little excess over my head, one bottle at this point was a bit tight. Immediately after the CP we had another sandy ascent to reach a rocky decent, with feet moving too much in my shoes I fell on the descent cracking my elbow on the sharp rocks. I stopped to put my insoles back in. After the frustratingly slow descent there was a long stretch on big undulating sand dunes, where we were finally passed by the front runners who had started 3 hours later than us. Reaching a track, I hoped to make better progress but it just revealed more sand, the ‘Marathon of the Sands’ was truly living up to it’s name.

I finally made it to CP3, 35km in. I sat in the shade of a vehicle to prepare soup & drink lots of water. After 10-15mins rest I put my music on & hammered the next section, passing lots of other mid-packers and unexpectedly caught Twitter’s Susie Chan, one of my tentmates. I slowed to accompany her and almost immediately blew up after burning though all my energy and not eating enough, spending the next section winding through shrubs feeling tired and sick. We muddled on finally reaching CP4, where I ate and raised my feet for 5mins to reduce the throbbing pain before we set off again. We made slow progress over the obviously sandy ascent up Lahnoune Jebel and the series of dunes that followed as the sun set. Descending from these & reaching flat rocky trails we started to pick up the pace a bit, even running for short stretches until arriving at CP5.

After drinking as much of a recovery shake as possible and taking painkillers we set off into the dark to get this done, but CP5 – CP6 was endless soul destroying sand dunes. If I’d checked my roadbook and had been aware of what was coming up it would have been better, but as it was dark & we couldn’t see far ahead I kept hoping we’d come to the end of the dunes only for the next one to rise in front of us. My head was battered, my feet were in agony & I struggled to find anything positive to latch on to descending into a funk of searing pain, complaining & threats of violence upon Patrick Bauer… not great company for Susie who was having a battle of her own.

After the longest 9km of my life we crawled into CP6 where we both managed to get some fuel on-board and after leaving & following the stony tracks I took point managing to increase our pace to a fast march for a while, even breaking out into a run for a brief stretch. Straight through CP7 and with just 3 miles to go my energy levels plummeted again, my head went & I slowed to a crawl needing Susie to drag me on for a while. The last few miles were tough with a flat section preceding a final short sandy climb before we could see the camp, the last 4km appeared to be flat but incorporated numerous sand mounds, loose rocks and oued crossings which hurt my sore feet and slowed progress even more. Susie & I eventually tottered over the line at about 4am, neither of us even attempting to run and (once Damien allowed us to enter the tent) immediately crawled into our sleeping bags to rest.

Time 38:19:20 Position 558

sunrise‘The Rest Day’
rest [rest] – noun: refreshing ease or inactivity after exertion or labour

Waking after just 3 hours sleep I got to work on my feet… which were a mess. The heel had obviously been bleeding and oozing pus all day, which when mixed with the sand had hardened into a concrete like substance which had rubbed my heel continuously. For 54 miles.

The little toes on both feet were red, swollen and inflamed with the right already showing signs of infection. I left my toes to air for the day, but did have to tape my heel early to try to protect it. I tried to eat but noodles and nuts were looking less appetising by now, thankfully salty crisps, Peperami and Bombay Mix still went down well. In hindsight I realise that I didn’t drink enough through the day and as I struggled to eat I didn’t fuel properly… although the Coke was a gift from the heavens.

JC_S9412Etape 5 – 42.2km ‘The Marathon Day’
Marathon [mar-uh-thon, -thuh n] – Noun: a foot race over a course measuring 26 mi. 385 yards (42 km 195meters)

My feet were in absolute agony as I lined up for the start of the last timed stage, I had taken pain-killers although these did little to keep my suffering at bay. As we had an early start I wanted to take advantage of the morning cool and grit my teeth to run for as long as possible. The terrain was the most forgiving of the week, generally good running with the odd technical section and I went well to CP1. I continued at a reasonable pace and despite the discomfort covered the first 13miles in 3 hours, unfortunately after CP2 we hit a section of sparse sand dunes on a flat which broke my rhythm and the wheels fell off. I struggled for a while, particularly over a section of big dunes and I hadn’t recovered before we ascended through a gorge to CP3. Most of the final stages were on good rocky trails but featured several gentle climbs which felt like full on mountain summits, as I crawled towards the disused M’fis mine & the first sighting of the finish line. I Shuffled down through an old village & completed a walk/jog for the remaining 3 miles before crossing the line, where underwhelmed but relieved I claimed my finishers medal & traditional bear-hug & kiss from Patrick. I didn’t slap him but did tell him he was a sadist. I then made my way unsteadily to Tent 109 for the final time, collapsing in a heap, hot & dehydrated.

Time 45:05:50 Position 563rd

dunesEtape 6 – 7.7km ‘The Charity Day’
Solidarité [sol-i-dar-i-tee]  – Noun: union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests

Otherwise known as the pointless day as the race & timing had ended the previous day. My feet were uncomfortable and I could barely get my socks & shoes on but we were provided with fresh t-shirts! I didn’t relish a final 5 miles on sand but the dunes we crossed in this stage were stunning and it was a fitting end to an epic week. Damien accompanied me throughout and although not racing, we made good progress to beat the crowds & get back to the hotel in good time.

My 18 month journey was finally over. I had completed the Marathon des Sables.

medal

Epic (ep-ik)

Adjective, Also, epical

  1. noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style: Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem.
  2. resembling or suggesting such poetry: an epic novel on the founding of the country.
  3. heroic; majestic; impressively great: the epic events of the war.
  4. of unusually great size or extent: a crime wave of epic proportions.
  5. spectacular; very impressive; awesome: Their burgers and fries are epic!

Epic used to mean something. It used to describe works of fiction and films that were massive in scale, with endless sweeping vistas containing stories of immense heroism. Now, the term is overused; it is one of superlatives that is bolted on to describe many things from rain to burgers and fries… however this race truly deserves the nomenclature. In every sense of the word the Marathon des Sables is epic!

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But does it live up to its self-promotion as the ‘toughest footrace in the world?’

It’s something we discussed a lot during the week. It’s all relative, for many this will be the hardest thing they ever undertake but the toughest in the world? No. Probably not.

Make no mistake though, this race is tough. The heat is testing but was only a concern for the first 2 days, after this I got used to it discovering I didn’t need to drink too much to stay hydrated, getting into the habit of using excess water to cool down. Having to carry all your own kit adds to the challenge, to keep weight down you make do without food… by Stage 5 I was running on empty. As the week wears on the rucksack weighs less & after the ‘Long Day’ it only weighs marginally more than a standard ultra-marathon vest. However, the terrain is brutal. Of all the challenges faced this was the one I found most difficult to overcome, especially with the inconvenient discovery that I was rubbish in sand and this edition featured a LOT of it… particularly the long day which incorporated more sand and dunes than anyone could remember before.

I like a challenge otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up for the 32nd Marathon des Sables in the first place… but here’s the rub, being brutally honest, I didn’t enjoy this race. In general, the terrain didn’t suit me as I am happier when a route features more ascent (and descent) as this plays to my strengths more, Stage 3 was the only one that I enjoyed and this was the only one that included real climbs. The scenery is exotic, enthralling & expansive but we saw it all in Day 3 alone so I found I wasn’t getting the same kind of inspiration from my surroundings as I do when running in the mountains.

Thankfully, what makes the Marathon des Sables so epic is everything beyond the running itself, camp-life is the saving grace of this event & I loved this aspect, the bond that developed with my tentmates, being cut-off from the real world & deprived of food & luxuries is what makes this race special & it’s only after it’s all over & you have time to recover and reflect on the time here that you realise how much (or little) all this matters.

For me was what the Marathon des Sables is all about.

I went into this with the personal mantra of ‘savour not just suffer’ and I did manage to savour some of this race, I even enjoyed some of it… however I suffered far more than I savoured.

And got so much more from the experience because of it.

 My Marathon of the Sands Kit List

Clothing:

Montane Shark Ultra Tee – Performed well, high UPF so I didn’t burn, breathed well & despite going through the ringer didn’t smell too bad by the final day.

Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights – My go to shorts, did the job although could have been more breathable.

Injinji Midweight Socks – My feet fell apart but I don’t blame the socks… although I would wear the lightweight option if I ever returned.

Chaffree Boxers – Love them… sadly mine died on the third day but I could still wear them for the remainder of the week. Will definitely be replacing them!

High UV Buff – I think it’s an essential bit of kit, I wore mine around my neck for most of the week but it was used to cover my face from sand and a sponge to cool my head & as a hat in camp. Take one!

Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap – I hate wearing caps when I run but this was lightweight & unobtrusive so I never really felt the need to remove it. it comes in different sizes so I could get a size small enough to fit my freakishly little head.

Raidlight Gaiters – Did the job but were falling apart by the end of the week, I opted for the ones WITHOUT a zip & this was the right choice (despite the inconvenience) as the sand destroyed the zips.

Compressport Calf Guards – Still no evidence they do anything for me but I think I suffer from less cramping when wearing them so I will continue doing so.

Inov8 Race Ultra 290 Shoes – these were the only piece of kit that really didn’t work for me in the desert. Had no problems in advance but they didn’t combine with my feet & the desert at all.

I also took a Ronhill windproof & a cheap light pair of shorts for camp which were both used all week & I was happy to have them… particularly the jacket.

Kit:

Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 – excellent, perfect size and lightweight. I’d removed the back ‘padding’ to save weight and from experience knew I needed to tape my shoulders to avoid chaffing. as the straps are minimal. Would still like more pockets up front but got used to the side pockets over the week.

Alpkit Pipedream 200 Sleeping Bag – cracking bit of kit for the price, weighs 525g so a bit heavier than some available but a fraction of the cost & I was warm all week.

Thermarest Prolite – I opted for the full length self inflating mattress & it served me well, I packed it as a back protector in my bag each day & slept fairly well on it but it is quite bulky & weight could be saved by getting the short option. I would consider an inflatable alternative in future.

Exped Air Pillow – Complete luxury but at 25g it was oh so nice to have! Far better then the alternative of your running shoes in a poo bag.

Mountain King Trail Blaze poles – were useful but probably not essential and I found I was less likely to run when they were in hand.

Alpkit Gamma Headtorch – not the brightest but lightweight & reliable  don’t think a heavier & brighter headtorch would have provided any benefit during the long stage.

Raidlight 750ml Bottles with Straws – the top was a bit fiddly & one leaked regularly ut as I planned on taking the poles I wanted bottles with straws and these worked.

Mandatory Kit: Silva Field Compass, Bic Lighter,  Inov8 Whistle (from the Ultra Vest), Small Kitchen Knife, 30ml Surgical Spirit, Venom Pump (Ebay), Signalling Mirror (Ebay), Sea to Summit Survival Blanket, 50ml Kids Factor 50 Nivea Suncream (great… one application a day sufficed).

Extras: 3ml superglue remained unused, portable battery pack to charge my Fenix, Garmin Virb to take photo’s & video… I only wish I’d taken more of them! Earplugs where a godsend and for 3 grams also essential! First Aid; painkillers & tape were used a lot, other medication wasn’t… but if it was needed I would have been very glad of it! Toothbrush & toothpaste, there are limits to which even I go to save weight, although they were both lightweight travel versions.

And don’t forget toilet paper

2017-03-26 20.11.32

The Spine Challenger 2017

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Taken by Racing Snakes on the ascent of Kinder Scout

This race had been on my radar for a couple of years after I had tracked Damien Hall & Pavel Paloncy in the Spine Race in 2015, later the same year I met the Summit Fever team (Ellie & Matt) who filmed the Official Film during that race & they kindly gave me a copy of their DVD. As soon as I watched it I knew it was for me, the conditions appeared torturous and the whole experience looked set to test me to the absolute limits. I just HAD to do this.

I attended a screening of the film hosted by Like the Wind Magazine in London before the final push, when I met Damien at the Imber Ultra in March 2016 & during a brief chat with him at the finish he convinced me that anyone could take it on successfully, so I applied later that month.

I was on the waiting list, finally finding out I had a place at the end of September 2016.

The next couple of months were filled with sporadic training and intensive kit research, both being ramped up in the final few weeks to a frenzy of last minute panic buying and Insanity workouts. I even managed to test my Alpkit Pipedream 400, Hunka Bivvy & Rig 3.5 Tarp shelter combination successfully during surprisingly cold conditions in Malta the weekend before the race, with news reports coming from Britain of horrendous ‘thundersnow’ storms being forecast for race weekend.

Things were looking good.

I flew to the UK from Malta on Thursday and landed to heavy snowfall in Manchester and then alighted the train in  Cumbria to heavy snowfall. There was a pattern forming here. The next day me & my support crew (My Dad) drove to Edale for registration, I flew through kit check, getting just 3 simple items in their lottery system, and then queued for registration. Whilst waiting Ellie & Matt arrived and they interviewed me for the daily films. Once done at registration & briefing, Dad & I retired to Castleton to enjoy a decent meal and discuss final race pace, meeting points & strategy.

I got next to no sleep on Friday night as my nerves got hold of me and the associated stomach knots made eating breakfast difficult but I forced what I could down. We headed to the start to be fitted with the GPS & after saying hi to Damian again to pick up some Camphor Spray & a quick word with Ellie we were ushered to the start line.

All too soon we were off.

We made reasonable progress over hard packed & icy trails & despite having a big fall on the first decent I bounced well and wasn’t hurt, but it had got my attention. It wasn’t long before we reached Jacobs Ladder the first big ascent and the weather closed in. Heavy snow was whipped around us by strong winds, visibility was poor and temperatures plummeted.

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Looking towards Bleaklow from Snake Pass

Conditions were terrible.

I loved it.

As I climbed up I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I felt right at home.

I was enjoying myself & making good time as we headed past the first safety check at Snake Pass and on to Bleaklow Hill. The top here was difficult to navigate as it was featureless and trails appeared to criss-cross everywhere, after losing the Pennine Way I ended up waist deep in snowdrifts & plunging knee deep into bogs. Getting back on track took a good 20 mins and a huge amount of energy and I slowed for a while until I eked out the stamina to move on again.

I’d latched onto the back of 2 guys and was feeling strong again as we finally started to descend towards Torside Reservoir and my first support stop about 16miles in. I forced down some soup & tea but couldn’t manage much of either and I headed off after a few minutes. I was struggling to get back into any sort of rhythm when Damien, Ellie & Matt came heading down towards me, I gave another brief interview and made my way onwards.

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The only sunshine of the weekend at Torside Reservoir

And as it turned out upwards and the wheels fell off.

The short sharp climb up Laddows Rocks completely drained my reserves and I felt terrible, it was now a long drag over moors towards Black Hill and I got slower and slower as the lack of fuel I’d been able to consume started to take its toll and my feet were cramping. It probably should have been quite enjoyable, but felt never ending and I was glad to finally reach the safety point at the A635 road crossing about 23miles done.

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It was freezing cold & exposed here so I took advantage of the marshals to help me get my headtorch ready for the imposing darkness and the element I’d been dreading, night time navigation. I was given a warning that weather condition were forecast to deteriorate and we’d be facing gale force winds, hail & rain in the upcoming hours. Sounded like fun.

I was alone.

It was dark and it was raining.

The Pennine Way crossed barren & isolated moorland.

It wound up hidden hills and down into black vales.

The trail was unsigned and difficult to follow.

I felt comfortable.

I knew I was safe.

There is something reassuring knowing you’re carrying everything you need to survive and you have the navigation tools to show you the way. Normally on ultra’s you might have a route description and if you lose the trail you have no way of identifying where you are to get back on track. In the Challenger I had a map, compass and GPS and despite going the wrong way a couple times I am comfortable using a map to get back on track… which I had to do at least once. So I soon gained confidence in my abilities.

I had arranged to meet my Dad at the A672 road crossing, just prior to the M62. I had already realised that the gap between stops was too big and we should have arranged to meet at the A635 and this leg was long. It felt like it went on forever. It wasn’t helped by the fact you could see the next road crossing from some distance, but it never got any closer… and then when it did there was always a sharp descent before a climb to the road!

After the original road there were more moors and more hills. Lots of them.

It was dark and I was alone. I actually enjoyed this for most of the time as it made it MY adventure, MY achievment. But did become a bit tedious at times.

I eventually reached the A62 which was the first of 3 roads in comparatively quick succession which I remembered from our map survey on Friday, there was a safety point here offering hot drinks but I abstained wanting to reach my support as soon as possible as I knew he’s been waiting ages. I should have stopped.

I continued on, having to stop several times to check my location & ensure I was following the correct paths. I wasn’t eating enough and was feeling sick, although I was still plodding forwards on the flats the ascents were difficult and the required exertion exacerbated the nausea. I could hear the M62 buzzing for what felt like hours but it dragged on for an eternity. Eventually I saw the dancing lights shining in my direction from the safety crew & I wobbled down from White Hill 35miles in.

Once arriving I immediately slumped in the back seat and stripped off a lot of kit. At first I wasn’t sure I’d continue as I felt terrible. After a couple black tea’s & a tin of beef & ale soup I felt a bit better. I put on my Nike Aeroloft Down Gilet under my jacket, put on my Sealskinz waterproof hat & Montane Mitts before stepping out of the car to face the elements again. I’d been stationary for at least 30mins, but it had been necessary.

I left the lay-by slowly & a little unsteadily but eventually got into a rhythm and even started to feel pretty good again. I was navigating pretty well and starting to feel quite confident, then I got to a cross roads, misread my GPS and took the Roman Road the wrong way. I didn’t realise until very near the bottom and a long way off route, I checked the map & realised I could follow the road up to where it meets the PW  no major drama but probably added at least hour to an already long day. There was a safety check at the road crossing where it intersected with the PW so I had a cup of tea. The trail now followed the Rochdale Way and the Todmorden Centenary Way, a good track alongside Warland and Light Hazzles Reservoirs and was BORING, I was almost grateful to switch back to moorland… but then almost immediately ended up going off-piste following another Spiner, got completely turned around & disorientated among a warren of footpaths. Thankfully Rob (ended up last finisher) arrived after a couple of minutes and helped guide me past Stoodley Pike Monument and down the other side.

I’d had it in my head that CP1 was at 43 miles, I was now beyond this & it was nowhere near.  I was still struggling to consume enough food to fuel me and I was feeling sick all the time, the only thing I was able to stomach were Ella’s Kitchen smoothies and I had now used my entire supply. On the steep ascent from Charlestown on the A646 my legs went completely and I had to stop regularly. I lost touch with Rob and just wobbled forward on my own. I’d been concerned about navigating the final stretch to CP1 but in reality it was signed and pretty straight forward, unfortunately it took me ages in the state I’d got myself in to. I finally reached the road and saw a sign directing us off the Pennine Way, I tried to memorise the area to rejoin the PW coming the opposite direction and staggered down the road. It felt like a very long way before the arrows took me down the steep muddy footpath to the CP, I was stumbling and falling repeatedly with no energy & was dry heaving before the bottom. But did eventually make it.

Inside I wasn’t functioning properly & everything took me far too long. I did finally get myself stripped and showered, then after failing to be able to eat went to bed. Thinking my race was over I didn’t even set my alarm.

I woke after about 2 hours sleep and felt a lot better, I still couldn’t eat much but managed to force down some Alpro Desert, soup and fruit. I was now pushing my luck to get out before cut-off but after rushing around taping my feet, changing, stripping out all non-essentials from my vest and repacking I got out of CP1 at 8.00am.

I was dead last on the road.

The descent that had seemed so technical the night before was easy… although even muddier & I felt far better as I reached the road. I ploughed on into the driving rain and promptly walked straight past the only arrow the race organisers have on the route. After 2 miles or so I realised and turned round… and after checking my phone received a message from Race HQ telling me I should’ve done that 40mins ago!

I’m not ashamed to say I threw a tantrum at the side of the road & considered returning to CP1 and retiring, after a call to my Dad who told me that I was showing as retired on the tracker I contacted HQ and had a chat. They assured my I was NOT retired and they were relieved to hear I’d decided to join the Pennine Way., I spent some time sorting out my GPS & finally (for the 1st time all weekend) got the right setting on it.

Amazing how much better it was to navigate from now on!

Heading up onto the first of many moors my spirits actually lifted, I was really proud of myself for getting out again in the morning and despite the driving rain and wind I was enjoying myself. I’d opted for boots leaving CP1 and was glad I had as the heavy rain overnight combining with the melted snow the Pennine Way was now either a river or a quagmire. But this is all part of the ‘fun’ of the Spine.

I made reasonable progress over Clough Head Hill and down past Gorple Lower Reservoir, I had a minor navigation error to reach the road but then it was easy going past Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and out to more open moors. I was up and down, both literally & figuratively. Generally I was OK once up on the moors, but struggled for energy to climb up to them, I was able to eat more now but still struggling to consume enough and the deficit from Saturday was taking it’s toll. Doubts of a finish were already setting in. Despite this I was still making ‘relentless forward progress’ and actually passed 3 people on the road.

As I dropped down to skirt around Ponden Reservoir a couple people were walking towards me smiling, one said my name but it still took a few moments to realise it was Gav who had come down to support. It was an incredible lift to see him and I’m so appreciative of the support.

After leaving Gav I headed up towards Ickenshaw Moor and then finally after a very long day to meet Dad in Cowling. I arrived thinking I was going to drop. The ascents were so slow I couldn’t see me continuing, but after some food, tea and tough love from a member of the safety team & Dad (who lied telling me the next stretch was on good tracks) I made my way onwards again.

This part essentially crossed continuous hills. To get to the top of these hills I had to cross lots of very muddy fields and because my legs were shot to pieces and I had no energy left I fell over in this mud. A lot. I passed Lothersdale and although the Spine special was tempting I carried on past to start the ascent to Pinhaw. On the descent down towards Thornton I was all over the place, stiles became a life & death gamble as being 6feet in the air on one foot with zero control over your own body was scary.

I walked up the road to Thornton met my Dad and retired.

I’m sure I could still have made the finish, but was concerned that I falling over so often it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself and there’s a small matter of a run in the desert later this year. I was disappointed but oddly content that I had done so much.

This event is truly brutal.

Everything about it is tough.

I would go as far as say it is a horrible race.

Set in January you face inclement weather and it’s dark for 16hours of the day, making navigation that much more difficult. As a non-stop event, you will lose sleep and the Pennine Way itself is not a nice trail, not only is it undulating continuously, ascending a number of big hills along its route it also traverses numerous moors with their bogs that will drain what little energy you have left as they attempt to suck your footwear off your feet. If you’re not knee deep in stinking mire then you’re probably sliding around in mud churned up by the competitors ahead of you.

It’s awful out there and it chews you up and spits you out.

But I loved it.

I can not wait to go back & do it properly and next time THIS will be my ‘A’ race

I realised that I was comfortable doing it. From all my years hiking in the mountains I understood the kit requirements, had all the right gear and I was as warm & dry as you can be in the circumstances. Navigating wasn’t a problem, although I made it one. Being able to use your GPS (and all kit) is invaluable, but the main thing is keeping an eye on your location, particularly at night. It is incredibly well organised, this is a foot race on an extreme level and although isolated and alone for long periods of time, in reality you’re never to far away from support or a safety team… and as I discovered Race HQ keep an eye on your progress to ensure you’re going the right way too.

Physically it damaged me more than anything else I’ve ever done.

At time of writing, a week after the start I have a big lump on my right shoulder accompanied by a rather angry rash, my quads are still numb but occasional bouts of pins and needles under weight are recurring, my feet continually swell up & 2 toenails have come off but I’m not ‘injured’and have started running again already.

I will be back at the Spine.

And next time, I KNOW I WILL finish it.

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Clothing:
Rucksack:
Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 – The roll top was perfect for storing the extensive compulsory kit I needed and the stretch pouch at the front was ideal for gloves etc that I may have needed faster access to. My shoulders hurt from very early, particularly the right where the GPS had changed its fitting.
OMM Trio– I paired the UD Fastpack 20 with an OMM trio to give accessible extra storage on the front. It fit perfectly between the front mounted bottles, clipping to the shoulder straps & pole carrier loops underneath. I used the main compartment to store food and essentials & it has a built-in map holder on the front. The map holder wasn’t great as it’s difficult to read in the position & I ended up removing the map when I needed it but having large storage where I could reach it for food was great.
Footwear:
Inov8 Roclite 282 GTX – I wore these on Saturday and they performed well, I had soaking wet feet by CP1 which nothing was going to prevent and I slipped or fell a number of times which was almost certainly going to happen regardless what I put on my feet. I got a few hot spots, which turned into blisters but nothing too serious.
Salomon Cosmic 4D GTX Boots– I switched to boots after the night of rain & glad I did, progress over the moors was great & they were brilliant at keeping my feet warm & dry in very wet conditions. I wouldn’t start in them again next time, but I would be tempted to switch to them earlier than CP1 dependant on my progress & the weather.
Socks:
Injinji Trail – as good as always.  Injinji Liners & Baluga– paired two of them when wearing the boots and the combination worked very well & I got no more hot-spots or blisters.
 Jackets:
Montane Spine Smock – tough & rugged yet comparatively lightweight it’s perfect for the Spine. My only niggle is that the chest pocket is not accessible when wearing the vest (I also had a Montane Minimus Jacket & Berghaus Asguard Jacket as backups). Montane Featherlite Primaloft Jacket – light & warm, spent Saturday in my bag & I left it in my dropbag after the CP, but great kit. Nike Aeroloft 800 Gilet – really lightweight & breathable, I put it on overnight on Saturday and it worked a treat to keep me snug & warm.
Trousers:
Mountain Equipment Thermal Tights & CWX compression tights – wore the ME on Saturday & I was toasty all day, I switched to the CW-X on Sunday for the compression as they’re my tried and tested tights and did a great job for the last 25+ miles. Salomon Bonatti – brilliant. Lightweight & breathable, they protected me from the elements without me cooking in the bag too much on hard ascents (I also had a thicker heavier pair of Berghaus Goretex trousers in my dropbag).
Layers:
Helly Hansen Cold & Icebreaker Merino – my regular cold weather combination and paired with the Spine Jacket they were perfect in the conditions we faced.
Gaiters:
Berghaus GTX – These were an essential piece of kit, I opted for knee length for  the additional protection provided & would do the same again. They worked with both shoes & boots and kept the worst of the moors & hills off me & out of my footwear.
Gloves:
Sealskinz Grip – Worn for the majority of Saturday & were Goldilocks… not too hot & not too cold and waterproof too! Montane Extreme Mitts – I put these on when the temperature dropped on Saturday night but they were too warm in the conditions, they were also annoying as I had to take them off every time I needed to check the route but I’m sure I would be grateful for them if it had remained as cold as it started. Karrimor Running Gloves – lightweight & this these are my go to gloves as I generally get warm hands, sadly not waterproof so useless once wet (I spent the last part of Saturday & all day Sunday without gloves on).
Hats:
I just used a Montane Chief (Buff-alike) during the snowstorm on Saturday & was fine, On Saturday night in the rain I used the Sealskinz Beanie with peak & it was brilliant, although a bit too warm for my preference. I switched back to a Chief on Sunday.
Equipment:
GPS: Garmin Etrex 20 – Small, light & rugged. It’s battery lasted for the whole race (I didn’t have it on throughout) and once I worked out I was using the wrong setting on Saturday it kept me on track while I was alone on the moors Sunday night.
Shelter:
Sleeping Bag: Alpkit Pipedream 400, good for -7.5 & weighs 840g. Only used it indoors, but having tested it I know it would keep me warm & when paired with the bivvy dry in all but the most extreme conditions. Bivvy: Alpkit Hunka, I opted for the standard size as it’s lighter. Glad I did as I just carried it all weekend, but it is reassuring knowing it’s there if needed. Tarp: Alkit Rig 3.5, I carried a tarp on Saturday so if I needed to stop enroute I would be able to create a comfortable shelter. I dumped this at CP1. Roll mat: Therm-A-Rest Prolite self inflated mat – best of both worlds, but a but a bit bulky. Wasn’t used but I would be grateful for it if I did need to bed down without a bed somewhere.
Stove: Alpkit Brewkit Jackal – didn’t use but compulsory kit…
Grip Enhancers: I took Yaktrax Pro as they’re easy to carry & simple to put on if needed, I didn’t use but if it had stayed dry & cold on Day 1 they would have gone on.
Poles: Mountain King Trail Blaze – I selected these due to the weight & that they’re NOT carbon. I bent one of them on Saturday in a big fall on ice & think this would have shattered a carbon pole so glad I did. I would HIGHLY recommend the use of poles (they’re a necessity for me) & these are a brilliant option, this was the first event event I’d used them for & I’m a convert.
Headtorch: Silva Trail – I picked this up as the battery pack is remote so it can be stashed in a pocket or bag to keep it warmer, the lithium batteries lasted all Saturday & much of Sunday when they started to fade & I had to change them. I took my Unilite H8 as a backup.
Goggles: Picked up a cheap pair online with yellow tinted lenses in case I wore them at night, as expected they remained in my bag throughout.
Maps: I took the Harvey Pennine Way South & Central Maps… used extensively throughout & wished I’d got the OS alternatives as the better scale is easier to use.
2017-01-13-10-56-37

Or less than 60 hours…

Druids Challenge 2016

Extreme Energy’s Druids Challenge is an 84 mile multi-day ultra marathon along the Ridgeway, Britains oldest road. Starting at Ivinghoe Beacon we were due to complete 29, 27 & 28 miles over the 3 days as we headed South West towards Swindon on the trail that has been in existence for at least 5000 years.

The weekend started on Thursday for me with a flight to the UK from Malta before the train ride to Tring, while waiting at Clapham Junction I spotted Jenny who I knew was doing MdS too so spent the remainder of the journey chatting with her about how preparations were going. Arriving at Tring station we went our separate ways as we were staying in different hotels & I made the short walk (in pitch darkness) to Pendley Manor where I met the guys who would become a big part of my experience, Andrew, Geoff, John & Kev (all taking part in MdS 2017) for a couple drinks and plates full of pasta before getting some sleep.

Race Day 1 dawns and as with all XNRG events there are 3 staggered start times, but unlike their other races the start time on the Friday are a lot later. I’d been assigned to the 12pm start, which is described as the ‘Elite’ group. I knew that my pace wasn’t fast enough for this and also knew that if I went in this group I would feel forced to go out too fast in an attempt NOT to be left alone all day but unfortunately the 11am shuttle bus to the start was full so I had to wait for the latest start.

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We said good bye & good luck to John & Geoff who set off with the 11am start group and after the standard race brief from Neil, where he warned us that he worried about this group getting lost the most as they normally race head down & pushing hard we jumped on the coach for the short drive to the start. After piling off the coach we walk along the Ridgeway to the summit of the Ivinghoe Beacon for a couple photo’s before we’re given the off.

I try to reign myself in but the group is fast, too fast. Despite a lovely fast descent within the first few 100 metres I know I’m going too fast but feel good so continue pushing at 9min miles. I’m still in the middle of the main pack after 2.5 miles when halfway down a fast descent a shout goes out from the front runners that we’ve all gone the wrong way. And we have to go back up hill.

Not a great start.

Dejected, I turn with all the others and walk back uphill and after rejoining the correct route start to run again but I’d been shuffled to the back of the pack and everyone’s pace suddenly seemed to be far higher than mine. I continued pushing on but despite my miles splits staying at around 9-10mins I remained firmly at the rear, not aided by going off route again heading across a field the wrong direction after losing the trail running into the sun. In the first 10 miles I only pass 1 runner and 2 walkers.

I arrived at the first CP at 11 miles and reluctant to lose more time than absolutely necessary I pause only for a splash & dash before heading off to take on Coombe Hill with a handful of Haribo. I now started to catch some of the earlier starters & on the long ascent I passed Jenny who was really struggling with an ongoing ankle injury. I finally reached the top of the hill, but the early efforts & final climb had taken it out of me & I never regained the pace I had at the beginning again.

The next 6 miles to CP2 seemed to take forever, it was the most undulating stretch of the day and I struggled, with my quads already screaming in pain. I withdrew into my own head and doubts that I may have ruined the entire weekend by going to hard in the early stages started to creep in. With my experience doing ultra’s I know that these thoughts can be overcome, but I had also had a few months off racing so found it very difficult to pick myself up and make progress again.

After what felt like an eternity I wobbled into CP2, which just happened to be on top of a hill. I arrived at the same time as a small group of walkers including John who was having real problems with a knee injury which curtailed his performance. I took the opportunity to pull on a jacket and grabbed a variety of food before heading off downhill.

It took another couple of miles (only really struggled for about 8 in total) but eventually I started to feel comfortable again and I got back into a decent rhythm again for a while, I continued to pick off a few earlier starters which helps lift the spirits but as they were all moving noticeably slower than me & anyone moving my pace was obviously an hour or more up the road I was having a very lonely day.

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As dusk approached I ran into CP3 at 23 miles feeling better than I had for about 20 miles. It was now just before 5pm and I knew it would be dark soon so pocketed my headtorch and carried on aiming for a sub 6hr finish. The next stretch was much flatter and followed a very clear track in pretty much a straight line. At least I think it did, it was dark for most of it and as the batteries on my headtorch were running out my visibility was restricted and my progress slower than it should have been on the rutted terrain. I spent much of the time cursing having to start at 12 or I would have finished in the daylight and would have been able to tackle this section much more confidently but I made the most of it and ensured I spoke to all other participants that I passed.

Finally reaching the end of the trail & seeing the big signs pointing down the road I turned off the Ridgeway for the 3rd time all day (and first time correctly) and immediately stopped. Did I head down the road? Did I take the trail across the field? Pulling out the route description for the first time all day (and the only time all weekend) it advised I would be directed by yellow arrows, glow sticks and paint on the road. Other than the arrows pointing left there were no other visible signs so I took a leap of faith and ran down the road. After a nervous wait I was relieved to finally spot another sign pointing the way and carried on down the road, I reached the 29.3 distance for Day 1 and carried on until reaching the bottom of the road followed signs left. Another ½ mile later I turned into the school that would be home for the night and passed the finish gantry in 5.57 averaging 11.54/mi.

I was shown through the school to pick up my gear and after bedding down near Kev, having a quick lukewarm shower, phoning home, wolfing down a bowl of lovely chilli and getting a massage it was time to snuggle into my luxurious new Alpkit Pipedream 400 and lie on my new Thermarest Prolite sleeping mat and not sleep for longer than an hour at a time.

At least I was warm and comfortable while not sleeping though.

Race Day 2 started at 6am with the lights in the hall going on. Happily I was now in the middle group who were starting at 8am so had plenty of time for breakfast and packing my kit before heading off in the heavy rain to retrace our steps back up the road we’d come down the previous evening to pick up the Ridgeway again. I felt surprisingly comfortable as we set off and I enjoyed the first stretch a lot, it featured a few big climbs but these were followed by long descents with good going underfoot. I was near the front of the main group and making good progress but much happier with a slower average pace. I got chatting to an Italian runner who was good company for a couple of miles and helped point out the correct way over the golf course as I was tiring. He had pulled ahead as we closed in on CP1 but after another quick pit-stop I set off before him and a big wave of other runners behind me.

I plodded along OK for a while but reaching the long flat stretch that follows the Thames my quads started tightening up and I struggled to maintain good progress on terrain that should have been providing a quicker pace. To make matters worse I was being swamped by other runners who were managing to make faster progress on the flat and as I hobbled into CP2 at 14.5 miles and sat down to ease my sore legs the wave that had been behind me all streamed past.

Setting off again I continued to push myself forward, despite it being uncomfortable. After another couple of miles we reached the road through Goring, the first of the 9am wave breezed past as I tried to force down a Peperami and some painkillers. After winding through Goring we headed up a road that seemed to go on (and up) forever, particularly as I needed a piss but eventually we turned off onto the classic chalk trail of the Ridgeway again so I could relieve myself. I was still having to fight my body to maintain progress, particularly on ascents which caused my quads to scream in discomfort but the painkillers started to kick in and I began to push on again.

Arriving at the final CP I was given the psychological boost of finding out we only had 3.8miles to go – less than I’d expected and I realised I could finish in less than 5.30. I ran on but the ground underfoot was probably the worst it got all weekend with heavy clay like mud that covered the entire track clinging to your shoes & weighing down already heavy legs. I know the best way to get over this is using fast feet and short steps, but this is easier said than done 25 miles in & following 30 miles the previous day! Thankfully this didn’t stretch for too long and finally breaching it we made our way up to the top of the downs where we could see the finish about 1.5 miles away. It was at this point that Andrew passed me, then walked until I almost caught him before running again. He continued to do this for the remaining mile towing me on towards the finish, which I finally ran past in 5.27 and a more comfortable day at a slightly easier (and much more consistent) pace averaging 12.19/mi

We had to wait a short time for the shuttle buses to take us down to the school that would be the night’s lodgings but it had stopped raining so it wasn’t an uncomfortable wait. After getting back to the school I bedded down, had a massage and slightly warmer shower and sat around shooting the breeze with Andrew and James who we’d got talking to over the last couple days. It turned out someone had taken Kev’s shoes and he’d been forced to run in Neil Thubron’s Speedcross 3. This didn’t work out as Kev turned up after taking 7.19 having got lost and having to walk for 2 hours due to excruciating toe pain due to the shoes.

We had a decent meal of lasagne before enjoying a presentation from Marina Ranger. I departed during Rory’s talk and tried to settle for sleep. Unfortunately it turned out that we had a snorer nearby. And not just any snorer, a stop start snorer and despite having earplugs, this combined with 2 marathons plus in 2 days and the chemicals released associated with this I got even less sleep on the 2nd night. James who was between me & the snorer actually got up & moved early on!

At least I was warm and comfortable while not sleeping though.

I was almost grateful to give up on sleeping and crawl out of my bag at 6am and start preparing for Race Day 3. Kev was off in the early wave after his exploits the previous day, with me & James at 8am followed by Andrew at 9am. Breakfast was followed by packing kit for the final time, this was all much more difficult now I was exhausted and my legs were incredibly sore. I feared how I was going to complete this final day but come 7.30 we piled onto the bus to return to the Ridgeway for a stunning  start to Day 3.

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I set off slowly. Particularly ascending the hills, it was tough watching so many moving away into the distance but I had to stick within my limits, trying to manage the pain as my legs were complaining so much. Running on steadily, I ensured I took on nutrition every 3 miles and was trialling Shotblox for the first time. Taking one of these every 6 miles.

I reached CP1 at 7.7miles comfortably but comparatively slowly, 2016-11-13-09-20-08there was a long ascent directly after the CP but once over this my legs started to feel OK for the first time all day and although still incredibly painful I could make a bit faster progress on them. I moved away from the runners I’d been mixing with all morning and caught others that had got away from me early on. I passed John & Jenny while I was feeling strong on a couple descents, Jenny was using poles and it was great to see her making good time & feeling fairly comfortable. I was loving the route on the final day, it was continually undulating giving the muscles in my legs much needed changes so they continued functioning without seizing and to my surprise I threw in a couple sub 10min miles. After a very fast steep descent into CP2 there was a horrible section on the road which I struggled along before we climbed again around fields to the Ridgeway proper. It wasn’t until we got back into the rhythm of this trail that I got my legs back again but once there I started to make good progress again but despite sticking to my strategy of nutrition every 3 miles I was tiring by 20miles.

Finally CP3 arrived and I sat briefly, downing a water & coke to lift my spirits (and hydration) but with less than 6 miles to go pressed on. I suffered in the next stretch as the short sharp and continual ascents pounded my quads and I tired. Frustratingly Andrew caught me again with less than 2 miles to go just before we turned onto the road but despite doing a 9min mile down the hill I couldn’t keep up with him and he pulled away. Again. The last few 100 yards seemed to go on forever but I finally turned into the hotel & under the finish in 5.28 averaging  11.31/mi easily my best paced day of the weekend.

I had a great weekend, although the running itself didn’t go as smoothly as I would like (mostly due to my own stupidity) as with all XNRG events the support & camaraderie were outstanding. The route was very easy to follow signposts throughout and I only used the route card once all weekend (although other did get misplaced and add several miles to their race). Multi-day events are a different ball game to one-days and the need to look after yourself in preparation for the next day is part of the fun, as is sharing a school hall with 150 stinking and snoring runners. The camaraderie created by the shared experience is superb and definitely one of the main reasons I keep returning for these events… that & the need to prepare for MdS2017 of course.

Kit I used –

 As I’m currently in preparation for both the Spine Challenger and the Marathon des Sables I used this race as an opportunity to test a variety of kit & clothing… here’s my thought on what I used.

Shoes: Day 1 – On Running Cloudventure. Comfortable again and provided decent grip across all surfaces. Day 2 & 3 – The North Face Ultra MT, great confidence inspiring grip without being too aggressive. Remained comfortable on both days, despite being worn straight out of the box.

Socks: Injinji, wore the same pair on Day 1 & 2 and treated myself to a new pair for Day 3. Choosing these is a no-brainer and they’re well worth the premium.

Gaiters: Day 1 & 2 Outdoor Research, absolutely filthy by Day 3 so bagged them instead… they work well at keeping detritus out of shoes but tnf Ultra’s do a good job on their own.

Underwear: Chaffree Boxers, worn every day & can’t recommend them highly enough.

Shorts: my usual Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights, did suffer with ventilation a bit this weekend but remain comfortable with good compression.

Shirts: Helly Hansen Warm combined with Icebreaker Merino kept me warm & dry for most of the race, I switched to the Skins DNAmic tshirt on Day 2 as due to the rain I wore a jacket all day.

Vest: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, stacks of space for an event like this but with the straps could be compressed to fit comfortably. Limited number of pockets on the front so will be adding pockets prior to MdS & using the OMM Trio for the Spine.

Waterproofs – Jacket:Montane Minimus Jacket, lightweight and breathable used it as temperatures dropped on day 1 and when combined with the Merino shirts I was warm enough. Montane Spine Smock, worn in the rain on Day 2, substantially more robust than the Miimus but only marginally heavier. It worked very well and was comfortable but doesn’t pack down as small if it was to be predominantly carried. Trousers:Salomon Bonatti, carried all weekend without being used. Again.

Headtorch: Unilite H8, heavy & bulky but good value, the batteries were on their way out so light was dimmer than usual & made progress difficult… lesson learnt!

Sleeping Bag: Alpkit Pipedream 400, 840g so quite heavy but comfort rating down to 0 so I was warm all night. Bought as the best balance between needs for both races.

Sleeping Mat: Therm-a-rest Prolite, not my 1st choice but needed to pick it up on the day. Actually pretty comfortable, packs down fairly small & easy to use.

Thanks to Neil, Anna & the whole XNRG team for another fantastic & thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

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Montane Lakeland 50 2017

“Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find out that wilderness is necessity… going to the mountains is going home.”

This was my second time doing the Lakeland 50 after I completed it in 2015 as my first 50 mile race. If you’ve already read my review of that event you’ll know that I arrived KNOWING that I was woefully under-prepared. I don’t mean the usual paranoia like niggly knees & achy ankles but rather that I genuinely hadn’t trained for it. Despite my lack of preparation I found ‘flow’ late in the race & in a dusk revelation fell in love with the event & ultra-running, recognising that although I would never be good at it I was at home plodding along isolated trails for a long time.

Fast forward to this years event & I am in a very different position, I have been more committed to training this year although after moving to Malta just 4 weeks earlier I hadn’t managed to get in any long distance runs since my failed attempt to complete the SDW100 six weeks before. I had however been running more consistently, my times had been creeping down and I was feeling stronger so despite demons dwelling following my first DNF, race weekend arrived with me confident of a better performance.

Preparation for race day wasn’t ideal. I flew into the country a couple days before, spent Thursday packing and lugging heavy furniture around before joining the entire country in a queue heading north towards The Lake District for 9 hours on Friday. I thought I was going to arrive too late to sign on but thankfully the traffic eased enough for me to arrive in Coniston at 9.15. After quickly and efficiently signing on (IE passing kit check first time this year) I headed back to my Dad’s for a bit to eat and some sleep before the big day.

I arrived back in Coniston at about 8am & met Kate, Con & Gav (@borleyrose, @conwild, @Firman_77_) who had commandeered a spot in front of the door. It was great to meet people I knew as the unusually witty conversation kept my mind off the upcoming endeavors, particularly as the increasing nervousness had caused GI issues in 2015. We were soon ushered in to listen to the mandatory race briefing delivered by Marc Laithwaite, who clearly wants to be a stand-up comedian (and could probably do it well too) and Terry Gilpin. As with last year Marc had put together a very funny, but thought provoking speech that gave much to consider over the coming hours. The key take away, was that we’re all a bit weird, but at least we don’t work in IT.

We then piled onto those dreaded coaches for the loooonnng drive to Dalemain, again I was grateful for the company which kept me entertained and although we appeared to have 2016-07-31 09.17.00the slowest bus in the North West which almost required assistance up the slightest of inclines and was in desperate need of a new fan-belt we did arrive just in time to relieve ourselves & stash our (unused) drop bags before entering the starting pen. We had just a few minutes to wait with tensions starting to build, obligatory hopping from one foot to the other, repeated tying of shoe laces and the dawning realization I needed a poo but it was too late as long the race countdown began… and we were off.

The first 4 miles is a pretty uninspiring loop around the Dalemain Estate but possibly because it was noticeably cooler or maybe because I was better prepared, I dispatched it far easier than I remember last year leaving us to take the lovely single track towards Pooley Bridge. The endless procession of runners made their way through the village quickly with less traffic held up on the eponymous new wider, but far less lovely, bridge before passing through the village centre. I said a brief hello to Wayne ‘SpecialHorn’ Singleton (@SingletonWayne) then we turned uphill towards the first climb of the race towards the Cockpit, I plodded uphill when Jane, the lady I was chatting to spotted #LakelandLegend John Kynaston, famous for sharing numerous recce videos of the 100 route which have become somewhat of a visual bible for the entrants. Nice to see people like this out supporting enroute and it shows the affection so many have for this event.

I remember vividly being in a lot of pain already on the long descent along Ullswater towards Howtown in 2015 and I was relieved to still feel fresh & strong following in my footsteps 12 months later. I felt myself tiring a little by the time we finally reached the end of the trail, dropping down the steep section of road I passed Kate, then just behind Con & Gav who had just left the first CP. I downed a couple cokes, grabbed a bag filled with a selection of their pick & mix, then sat down to top up my bottles, leaving without wasting any more time than necessary as I wanted to get the next stage out of the way as quickly as possible.

We were now entering Fusedale…

You will often hear entrants talking in hushed tones about their varied experiences ascending Fusedale to the highest point on both the 50 & 100.

Most commonly it has scarred their very being in some way, a scar so deep it will never truly heal.

I am one of those people.

Marc had described in the briefing how for many people their race ends when they attack the ascent too hard and they break. This is exactly what I did when I cracked last year, it almost finished me then and this time I feared it would do the same but I was determined to avoid the same mistake so took it really steady. In retrospect I was too deferent, too steady but at least this year I had the legs to run down the grassy descent from High Kop to Low Kop & the steep drop to the banks of Death Valley, known on OS maps as Haweswater.

This final 4 miles to CP2 at Mardale Head, is hard going. Again I have terrible memories of it from 2015 and these effected how I approached it this year, taking my time, going slowly and losing places. The jumbled, jagged and unstable rocks were causing me a shooting pain in my right ankle  but although I was fading when I finally wobbled into the CP at least I knew I wasn’t going to be withdrawing here this year. I gave myself 15 mins, taking on some soup, coke & water and topping up my bottles again before taking some painkillers to ward off increasing ankle pain and sitting down for a few minutes to let the blood drain from my legs. Although I could easily have whiled away the afternoon dozing in the afternoon sun, I knew ‘The Mother in Law’ was waiting for us ahead, so started my slow plod up the switch backs that ‘go on & on & on…’

I carried over the same technique that got me to the top of Gatescarth with enough energy to run down the other side before and ascended slowly, literally placing one foot in front of the other continuously and although it did seem to take forever I finally passed the gate that for me symbolizes not just the start of a great descent but also that the hardest parts are now behind me… so I started running.

And I kept running, only this time I kept on running all the way to the bottom and we turned right to start the shorter but sharp climb up the Col, once we’d got over this it was the simple task of finding our way through the warren of stiles into Kentmere for CP3 and some pasta. One of my only regrets of the day was forgetting the fruit smoothies here, but I polished off a bowl of pasta, couple cokes & a couple waters quickly and left after just a few minutes to take on Garburn Pass, the last ‘big’ ascent before the Stairway to Heaven. I ran down the road before it and started to climb uphill steadily. When I first recce’d this I 2016-07-30 18.49.09did it on tired legs and found it difficult, oddly in both races I’ve got to the top comparatively easily and have plummeted down the prolonged decline with aplomb. Nearing the bottom I caught sight of Kate walking, so obviously having some problem. I slowed to speak to her for a little while and discovered she’d had a fall earlier but as I was feeling OK (and we were still heading down) I selfishly pressed on. Con & Gav where just ahead having stayed with Kate for a while and they now tracked ahead of me as we passed through Troutbeck onto Robin Lane before pulling away into the distance.

I wasn’t feeling quite so upbeat heading towards Ambleside, but the knowledge I was 1.5hours ahead of my 2015 time helped keep me positive on the approach. Even this was forgotten as we made our way through the town, the groundswell of support was incredible. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was greatest passing the White Lion but it was a wall of noise throughout, made even more noticeable following our relative isolation for the preceding hours. It was such a buzz, I can’t help but imagine how amazing it must be running into Chamonix at the end of the UTMB.

Arriving at the CP, they’d set up tables at the base of the steps this year so I was thankful for not having to climb those extra steps to dib in. I was surprised to find Con & Gav still there but as I was feeling a bit run down I took a few minutes longer here & they’d long gone before I started walking through the park with my second cup of soup. Looking back I spotted Kate hammering her way towards me at some pace & she caught me just past the bridge leading towards the next ascent. We chatted as we ascended but she was determined to arrive at Chapel Stile before dark and took every opportunity to make progress & she soon started to pull away from me. I was still feeling fatigued so didn’t think I’d make the next CP before dark but was happy to be moving forward, I then caught up with Kate again at a T junction in the path, a pattern that would become quite common in the next few miles.

We dropped down towards Skelwith Bridge descending along the road where I had my twilight epiphany last year, passing the hotel and following the river as the sky started to change colour with stunning reds & pinks coming through. Up ahead an unknown woman left her family to run over and open a gate for me, a small gesture that meant so much & clearly demonstrated how many people respect and support this race.

After this, we continued to follow a good (and flat) tarmac path and shadowing Kate I dropped in a sub 12min mile… which at 38 miles is unheard of for me and I even managed to maintain a reasonable pace as we passed the carpark and another gratefully received pocket of supporters, slowing to a walk for the incline towards the quarry.

I ran through the campsite down to the Chapel Stile CP meeting up with Kate, Con & Gav. It was nice, if unexpected that we would all be at a CP so late in the race together. I inhaled the beef soup on offer before having a cup of tea, not really necessary but I felt the need to use the plastic cup that I had carried with me all day. I donned my jacket and readied my headtorch for action as the light was now starting to fade and as I was starting to get chilled I told the others I was going to start walking and would see them when they caught me.

I walked for a while, only speeding up to a run for the steeper descents (DON’T cross the bridge) and there were no sign of the others. Eventually as I clambered over one of the ladder stiles I heard Gav saying my name, happy they were behind me I trotted off at a run again but it took me a while to realize nobody was following me. I continued on my way, ascending Side Pike Pass & taking the now pitch dark trails past the unseen Blea Tarn, I spent the majority of this section completely alone and realized that the extra light provided by company was missed, particularly when I almost passed the gate down to the boggy open fell. But as I was now 2 hours ahead of my previous time and I hadn’t actually got lost I was happy I’d tackled it solo this year.

As seems to be common on this next part a few of us congregated along the indistinct paths as  we searched for the best passage through the bogs and after dibbing in we all started to run down the road together. I continued to maintain a reasonable pace downhill despite my quads protesting but the next climb did take a toll and I was starting to tire quickly & I feel nauseous. These few miles seemed to go on forever but I eventually passed the farm, ensuring I didn’t point my headtorch at the bedroom windows shuffled along the road to the waiting final CP with the candles lighting the Stairway to Heaven above.

I waited a few minutes and had a coke, hoping the others would come in behind but a combination of the desire to get it finished and a chill the minute I stopped moving meant I soon made my way up the steps signifying the start of the final 1.5 miles of ascent. I hadn’t got a lot left in the tank and was feeling sick, particularly when exerting myself more and I got up on willpower alone, but I was more concerned about the descent as I had enjoyed slipping and sliding down the slate last year but my legs were not behaving anymore and coordination was lacking. Reaching the high point of the ascent I started to trot downhill, but upon arriving at the more technical sections I couldn’t throw myself down them as I couldn’t trust my legs to hold me anymore. I struggled feeling much slower than previous descents here and although initially relieved at reaching the switchbacks on the quarry  tracks I still couldn’t get a rhythm as I was now wobbling around uncontrollably.

I eventually reached the road and can honestly say I have never been so grateful for tarmac in my life, finally making progress again… although not as much as Kate, Con and Gav who all swarmed past me with a mile left to go. I managed to pick up my own pace a little as I settled in on the flat surface and weaving through the final few streets into Coniston the end couldn’t arrive soon enough.

There were a lot more people around finishing at this  time and there were still a good number out on the road as I ran down the road towards the school, arriving to rapturous applause I turned under the finishers arch and I had completed the Lakeland 50 in 13 hours 32 mins, a cool 2 hours faster than my previous attempt.

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No two ways about it, this is an exceptional event.

The camaraderie out on the route is second to none, on most events competitors start talking late in the race but on this we are talking before we leave Dalemain. The marshals are superb, they genuinely can’t do enough for you and act like silver service waiters bringing whatever you need at the CP’s. The quality of fayre available is also great, the hot food and soup in particular go down well.

The real star of the show (nope, not Marc on the mic) is the location. The climbs are brutally hard and go on for a long time but the views you are treated to provide inspiration to continue and lift your spirits when you’re struggling. And in the evening as the light softens and the shadows lengthen it becomes even more magical, I struggle to believe it can be beaten.

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Kit I used –

Shoes: On Running Cloudventure. Comfortable and reasonably good grip, exceptional over many varied surfaces but not particularly inspiring on wet rock… squeaked annoyingly throughout.

Socks: Injinji. I remained blister free AGAIN, won’t run long distances in anything else now.

Gaiters: Outdoor Research, do the job but look a bit silly

Underwear: Chaffree Boxers, I have never chaffed when wearing them and won’t do a long race without them.

Shorts: Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights, these are my preferred shorts for race day. They a comfortable but have the best level of compression I’ve found.

Shirt: Salomon Fast Wings, extremely light and breathable but shows off my pot belly a little more than I’m comfortable with. Just superstitious but I have been wearing this in my 2 best races …

Vest: Inov8 Race Ultra 10, this vest is SO comfortable and the stretchy side pockets swallow everything you need at hand for the race. Downside is the soft flasks are a real pain to refill.

Waterproofs: Jacket – Montane Minimus, my second Minimus jacket and I love them. Fit well function brilliantly and have decent pockets. Trousers – Salomon Bonatti, bought them when I failed L50 kit check last year and still never used in anger but they’re light & pack down small.

Headtorch: Unilite H8, heavy & bulky but good value, bright and the batteries have lasted several events.


As a final amusing addendum to my 2016 Lakeland experience, a post was added to facebook where some supporters were looking for a ‘hot guy akin to a Viking’ they had spotted running through Ambleside… it turned out the ‘Hot Viking’ was indeed me. So not only did my race go as well as I’d dare dream I was also received the hotly contested ‘Lakeland Viking Award 2016’ too.  There’s one for Marc’s routine next year.

 

South Downs Way 100, The Diary of a DNF – Ultra 6 of 12

Now a few weeks have passed and I have had time to assses my failure I finally feel able to right down my review of my first Did Not Finish.

The South Downs Way 100 was where my whole year started and how the 12 ultra’s in 12 months came about. In short it was THE race of 2016. In a fit of over confidence having completed the Lakeland 50 last year I thought why not try a 100 miles, I mean how hard can it be right? When entries for the Centurion Running  SDW100 opened shortly after I signed on the dotted line.

And then freaked out.

I’m not bad at convincing myself to go out to run a few miles but doing 20+ miles alone on Sunday morning has never been one of my strength’s so I took the decision to do a few ultra’s in the lead up to my first attempt at 100 miles and a few soon morphed in to 12 in 12 challenge.

The year has been a mixed bag with a good start, but a few niggling injuries & changing circumstances have made consistency elusive again. After the North Downs Way 50 in May went far better than I’d anticipated as race day approached I was confident that I was capable of finishing it and I felt I had the capacity to finish well, so much so I had decided to pace for a sub 24 hour time. My strategy was to complete the first 25 miles in 5 hours , then maintain 4 miles an hour for 50 miles before allowing my pace to fall to 3 miles an hour. Sounds easy right?

I’d met a few twitter folk before the start (@IraRainey, @firman_77_ & @emlynfluff) and having arrived very early I passed the time shooting the breeze with these and several other entrants but as always it didn’t seem long before the race briefing was being shouted over our heads and we lined up at the start line to begin my first 100 mile footrace.

So I set of around the field and out onto the South Downs Way proper at a good pace so that with stops I would maintain the splits I needed for my target, it was grey and drizzly when we set of but even at 6am it was humid and the moisture in the air wasn’t doing much to cool us. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable from very early on, with my calves feeling tight from just 10 miles or so, but this is part of distance running so I plodded through it expecting to get my lift later on.

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The first 20 miles passed fairly quickly and uneventfully, early on I chatted to a couple other runners and it was always great to see Stuart’s smiling face popping out of a bush to take a photo but mostly I just dug in & focused on maintaining the pace I needed to hit my target. Gav passed, telling me he was in trouble with a bad leg (but still managed to pull some distance on me).  I had completed a recce of this section back in November but I didn’t recognise most of it and it was only once we reached Winchester Hill and the area I’d run several time that’s I started to remember the route.

I caught Gav for the last time at around 19 miles and he was obviously in a lot of discomfort, I walked with him for a bit but as I was feeling alright I pressed on, arriving at Butser Hill just a few minutes behind my target stopping briefly to say hello to Roger (@irunoffroad) just below the summit then plummeting down the steep (and fun) descent to Queen Elizabeth Country Park and CP2. I topped up my bottles here and grabbed some fruit and a selection of savouries to munch on, I stayed in the cooling shade for a few minutes before heading out for the steep ascent through the woods.

This stretch isn’t particularly inspiring with lots of country roads and old tracks and as the heat & humidity continued to rise I was glad I could lower my pace to 12 min miles to maintain 4 miles an hour. I was passed by a lot of runners on this stretch, psychologically a bad side effect of the strategy and it seemed to take a long time to reach the next CP where due to increasing pain in my left calf I took some paracetamol. I was dragged out of the CP by another runner who had been stalking me since QECP and we continued together for a while. When the paracetamol kicked in relieving the pain a little I got a second wind so pushed on behind a guy who had just passed, I followed him through a couple gates and downhill along a great road under cover of woods. But when he pulled up a while later I realised I hadn’t seen any markers for a while & I’d made the schoolboy error of following him blindly… off course. Backtracking up the hill again for ¼ of a mile I felt my shoulders dropping and from feeling good just a few minutes before I became irritable and frustrated. I became annoyed by everything, why it wouldn’t rain enough to cool us, the rattle in my bag, the lost 10 minutes, my inability to be sure of accurate distance and of course the heat.

The route went along the beautiful Harting Downs following the roller coaster chalk hills past the Devils Jumps before finally dropping down the long fast descent to Cocking CP 36 miles. I was still on for a sub 24hr finish at this point but I already knew that in the heat I wasn’t going to be able to maintain the pace required, the brutality of it proven by a guy arriving shortly after literally throwing his number at the marshal saying he’d had enough and pulling out. After a good rest, refuel and pouring of cold water on head & wrists I set off again. But things were about to get really difficult.

My pace was dropping as quickly as the temperature and humidity was rising, I was having a tough time and after running down a long descent at around 38 miles I started to feel really dizzy and nauseous. I had to stop to heave at the side of the trail, a couple runners checked if I was OK, but I was surprised how many just passed without so much as an ‘alright?’ something I was to become used to during the day.  I struggled on having to stop a couple times, sometimes to heave others to sit to allow the dizziness to pass.

I arrived at the Bignor Hill CP feeling mighty sorry for myself & I was already questioning if I could continue, I was here for around 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to hold fluid down but every sip I took returned within a few seconds. I eventually dragged myself out and up the long scorching hill that followed, I will be eternally grateful for the marshal who followed me up and talked (possibly just making sure I was compos mentis) as I crawled to the top. I carried on like this, essentially just death marching the 3 miles to the Kithurst Hill CP where I wobbled in telling them that I thought my race was over.  There were only about 10 entrants behind me, the cut-off was a scant 2 hours off and as my average pace was getting slower and slower it was catching me swiftly. I repeated my attempt to take on fluid & food at this CP, bringing it all back up the second I left, after being badgered out again. I continued the horrible progress for around 4 miles along the undulating ridgeline until finally descending off the ridge along the alternate route to Washington.

I was met the my Nat (@NatashElsdon) who was supposed to be pacing me for the final stretch and as I managed a run into the CP the first thing I said was ‘I think I’m done’. It had taken me close to 7 hours to cover the 19 miles from Cocking and I had been unable to hold any fluid or food down in most of this time so I’d made the decision that if I couldn’t stomach anything here then I would stop. I tried several options all returning almost immediately and I had nothing left in the tank.

After more than an hour agonising over the decision and changing my mind more than once I made the call to quit.

I handed over my race number.

I had failed.

I was very kindly given a lift home by Michelle (@MichLR_) who was marshalling in Washington & Nat collected my bag from the finish and I went home to sleep and rehydrate. Annoyingly even before I got home I was feeling better and the next day I started second guessing my decision, but it couldn’t be changed even if it was incorrect so I needed to learn from it. I’m pretty sure I got heat or sun stroke, which is easily avoidable. I just need to look after myself more carefully. And I also learned that I need to have a better drop bag with a variety of stuff that I might want to eat ready for me … and spare shoes that actually fit. It was a shame I didn’t get further into the ‘unknown’ distance as I could have learnt far more from this but I am taking what I can from it.

I’m still very disappointed and I haven’t fully got over it, with my next race in 2 short weeks I’m hoping that an improvement on last year will be what is needed to get me back on track for the remainder of the year and the challenge.

As for the South Downs Way 100, I have unfinished business with it and despite other big races in 2017 I will be back to try again.

I will get my revenge on this race.

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North Downs Way 50 – Ultra 5 of 12

Centurion events have got one hell of a reputation within the Ultra Running community, but to date I hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in one myself. A combination of poor planning and working weekends meant I hadn’t signed up before they inevitably sold out…

In a fit of over enthusiasm and confidence I had registered for the South Downs Way 100 after I’d  completed the Lakeland 50 last year, but this meant I needed to finish a 50 mile race in less than 15 hours to qualify, so I also signed up for the North Downs Way 50 to this end. This formed the start of the plans to complete 12 ultra’s in 12 months and the NDW50 became the 5th on the list.

In the weeks leading up to the race I was fairly relaxed, knowing I was running it in company, was capable of completed the distance on tougher terrain and that I had trained far more effectively this year helped put my mind at ease but on Friday night I did not sleep well as the usual doubts started to creep in.

An early start & I rode my motorbike up to the start where I unloaded and changed at the school before parking round the corner. I met Tony, my companion for the day and fairly regular race partner who was completing his first 50 and bumped into both Kev (@KevJKeenan) & Justin @JustinBateman) before I saw Mike Julien (@TailwindUK) who had very kindly agreed to bring some sachets of Tailwind for me, finally allowing me to stop flapping about and get sorted for the day ahead.

After the obligatory race briefing from James we made the short walk round the corner to the trail head where the race was due to start. We ended up near the back of the procession of runner so couldn’t see the start line but we still heard the air horn to signal that we were underway and it didn’t take long for us to make good progress down the trail.

We ran for about half a mile on trail and some roads queuing through a number of kissing 2016-05-14 09.51.42gates before I recognised the trail from where Pilgrims Challenge had joined the NDW. It then follows the same mixed trails on undulating terrain for 33 miles.

We made decent progress reaching Puttenham feeling good, I had a strategy for the day and was pushing the pace a little harder than I normally would at the start of a 50 miler knowing that it gets far more difficult from the midway point so wanted plenty of time in hand for the hills. We soon passed under the A3 and headed past Guilford dropping down to the river to be greeted by the now legendary ‘Bacon Boat’ as expected, but the Stormtrooper most definitely wasn’t expected. Heading off across the river & playing fields, bacon sandwich in hand the procession of runners must have looked an odd sight as they passed the few supporters beyond.

Still feeling good we continued pushing on through the next stretch to St Martha’s which seemed to take far longer than last time I ran this way. Kev caught up with us here so we had a chat about the benefits of a mild twitter addiction, which passed the time before we finally reached the sandy ascent to the Church. Rounding the corner we were treated to stunning views and Matt Buck (@RunningBucky) who has had the hard job of coaching me this year. After a quick hello and saying how good I was feeling we set of on the long descent down the other side, where the first of only two issues came on immediately as I started to get cramping in my right calf. Running through the pain we made it to the CP at Newland’s Corner about 15miles in.

We were well looked after as I topped up my bottle and tried to stretch out my calf but as I did I identified the second issue of the day realising my left knee was tight and it hurt to bend, I was now a little worried that with Brighton Marathon & Gozo 55k in the last 4 week s I’d been overdoing it.  We set of again fairly quickly but I was very aware of the pains I had and for the next few miles I struggled, focusing heavily on these issues, after a further 3 miles and Tony comfortably pressing on dragging me forward and regularly dropping me I took some painkillers and continued to plod on uncomfortably. I disliked this long flat section the previous times I’ve run it but in the changed perception from longer race we seemed to cover the distance far quicker and reached the more enjoyable undulating section through the woods and open hillside past the pill boxes just in time for the painkillers to kick in.2016-05-14 11.28.59I was soon running more freely again and as we reached Ranmore Common, found I was able to keep up and even pass Tony again and starting the long steady descent through the vineyards to the A24 I was feeling strong. We despatched the annoying detour under the subway, but it didn’t annoy me as much knowing it was coming and turning into the Box Hill Car Park saw the much needed CP ahead of us. We had planned to sit down here for a few minutes & topping up my bottles and grabbing a couple slices of watermelon and coke gave us time to briefly rest.

I had warned Tony several times about the Box Hill steps and cautioned him again before we set off but we had the stepping stones to despatch first. Hopping over them, forgetting to smile for the camera we made our way up the hill to the steps. Again, knowing what was coming and remembering how many there were meant I pushed on and got up reasonably easily, Tony on the other hand cracked a bit as he made his way up. I reached the top, but it was a few minutes before Tony reached the top, rewarded with the same views I had been treated with while waiting.2016-05-14 12.56.17We then continued on the path past the view point on the top and loads of supporters before taking the surprise ascent just after, I dropped Tony again and waiting after he took ages to appear. When he finally did he told me he’d gone the wrong way. Considering how well the route was marked I have no idea how he managed this, but I made sure I kept a closer eye on him afterwards! We had reached the 25 mile point in a shade over 5 hours and felt pretty good too. The next section is brutal with lots of steep descents followed by quad burning ascents as we zig-zag across country but the tracks are great, I love this 8 miles stretch going the other way but in this direction it seems to be far more uphill than down and progress can be hard. I was still feeling remarkably fresh as we reached the steep climb up track towards Reigate Hill but this took a lot out of me and the ridge was a slow plod as we headed towards aid station 4.

I felt like I was running on empty so polished off a couple sausage rolls and avoided the far too comfortable looking deck chairs basking in the sun outside. Leaving the CP we enjoyed the mile long descent that follows before meandering along the roads past the school and out to the golf course which marked the end of my knowledge of the route.

2016-05-14 23.04.59Turning left instead of right where I went before the North Downs Way skirts the edge of Merstham and crosses the M25 before reaching the picturesque St Katherine’s Church then soon crossing the M23 leaving that behind by heading uphill across fields. This stretch featured a fair bit of road but also included some spectacular views from the tops.

Finally heading into CP5 At Caterham I saw Ben (@runaaargh)and he came out to run in with me, he handed me the rice pudding I’d put on special order and topped up my Tailwind again with caffeine now to give me a boost in the final stages. We stayed here for a fair time giving our legs a rest and getting some food inside us before hobbling off again.

We only had 5 miles to the final aid station but it was to be the start of the end before we reached the CP.

2016-05-14 23.08.26The route weaved in and out of woodland, with some really pretty spots as we passed glades full of wild garlic and bluebells and I really enjoyed plodding along the single track chatting to various runners as we met.We passed a group of supporters in what appeared to be a random section who really lifted our spirits before we arrived at the final big climb of the day up Botley Hill, at the bottom a guy was sat checking the race list then saying your name as encouragement and as I started to ascend a girl headed down, peered at me then ran away up hill. Then I realised it was Emma (@emmah1506) waiting a bit further up and it was her daughter who’d been looking out for me. After berating them for waiting on a hill we walked up together, in reality the chat as we climbed took my mind off it and it was despatched quite easily and I got to the final CP in good spirits. After getting a pep talk from the guy in a cow hat at the CP I grabbed some water and waited for Tony. And waited. And waited.

At the bottom of Botley Hill he hadn’t been far behind so I walked back to the gate and saw him plodding up towards me, obviously in some discomfort. I shouted support trying to will him on to the top. At this point I was still feeling great, I wanted to crack on and push to the end as a sub 11hr finish was still achievable but seeing  how much pain Tony was in this was reassessed.  We grabbed some pineapple and after Tony sat down to rest before we made our way across the road.

The final section featured more undulations but was mostly across and around fields, Tony was really struggling. I pushed him as hard as possible but he was pretty much done, a couple of the final miles dropped into the 20mins but he kept moving forward and the distance slowly but surely reduced. I kept checking with him to make sure he was ok, sharing my caffeine with him hoping to lift his spirits a little. I was estimating how far we had trying to count it down for Tony, and eventually arrived at a signpost showing Knockholt Pound 1 ¼ miles away so we knew we only had that fair to go. Passing a marshal she advised we only had to head round the next field to the road before we finish, we could then hear the supporters cheering and as we went through the kissing gate caught sight of the finish line, tantalisingly close but yet so far away.

Heading up and away from the finish we circumnavigated the biggest field in the world before we finally arrived at the final style and turned left downhill along the road where we ran a bit again. Walking up round the corner to save Tony’s legs so he could run over the line we turned into the grounds and ran to the line together finishing in under 12 hours which was always the main aim.

After receiving our medals and posing for some finish line photos we went inside for the best cup of tea and hot-dog in the world. Ever. Then I was bundled into the arriving shuttle bus for the LONG journey back to Farnham during which I had a great chat with Garfield and the end of the race day.

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I had an incredible time, the marshals in Centurion events have an almost mythical status and they lived up to this reputation, helping in any way they could and providing humour and encouragement at every stop. With a Stormtrooper in attendance the legend of the Bacon Boat surpassed my expectations and although it repeated on me for miles I am glad I had it and became a part of that legend. The support along the route was amazing, from those I knew (Matt, Emma & Ben) to those I’ve tweeted (Susie, Marina & Rhianon) and those I don’t know at all (lady with pompoms, man getting our names from the entry list, random group in the woods, all the crews) they were all so enthusiastic and full of energy they really helped keep me happy along the route. The route is brilliant, tough for long stretches but featuring fabulous views throughout and some fantastic trails to run on, particularly towards the latter stages and it is incredibly well marked throughout. Additionally we were treated to almost perfect weather on the day which was most definitely the icing on the cake.

I felt really strong for most of it and it’s filled me with confidence for the upcoming South Downs Way 100 in 4 weeks. We finished in  11.40 but with a 50k personal best I could have come in a lot quicker, showing that despite some issues with training over the last couple months I have been making solid improvements which bodes well for the big challenges coming up over the next 2 months.

 

 

 

 

Gozo 55km Ultra-Trail – Ultra 4 of 12

I’d signed up for this race on a whim after a friend who lives on Malta sent me the details, I’d needed an ultra for April and after checking this one out I realised it was cheaper to pay for the flight, accommodation and entry than the alternative I was considering so I registered and didn’t think much else about it. Not until race day started to dawn anyway.

With all the other races I was taking part in taking my attention one after the other it wasn’t until mid-April that I finally started to look into the Gozo 55km and I quickly started to question my decision to sign up without researching it first. I read a couple blogs written by previous entrants and there was one common theme… how hard the route was.

Oh dear, with just 2 weeks before the NDW50 what had I let myself in for?!

We arrived in Gozo on the Wednesday before the race and spent a couple days exploring Malta’s sleepy little sister Island, soon discovering that the terrain was… bumpy. And hard. In fact, the whole place is either limestone or volcanic rock and I swear there isn’t a flat spot on the entire Island. The undulations aren’t even gentle with sheer cliffs either side of the bays we visited and knowing the route followed the coast I incredulously convinced myself that it must somehow skirt these towns for a more passable route that I was unaware of. I was wrong, so very wrong.

Myself and 3 other runners (from Canada, Poland and Belgium) were transferred by shuttle bus from Marsalforn to the start in Ghajsalem on the Saturday morning with plenty of time to register, a hassle free start to race day which is always preferable to fighting with public transport in a foreign country. During the obligatory race briefing we were advised to follow the tape and sprayed red dots & arrows, the latter used because the “hunters remove the tape”. Cue nervous laughter from all! Hunters?  I just hoped we weren’t the prey. We then lined up behind the inflatable gantry ready for the local Mayor to count down and at 8am we were off…. by which time it was already getting warm.

From the start the route quickly hits the cliff edge passing the walls of one of the many fortified towns around Gozo giving stunning views of Comino and Malta, then immediately it started to take on the soon to be familiar pattern of rocky technical descent to a pretty bay followed by short steep quad burning ascent. I had set off at a comparatively quick pace and was soon sweating heavily in the early morning heat so slowed a little to a more comfortable speed. The trails were pretty good for the first 6 miles and although the runners were already well strung out the red dots marking the route were clear and easy to follow so I soon reached CP1 in good time & good shape.

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I took on some water and quickly followed the red dots and arrows through the town where I was joined by Sue a local runner who was here for the second time and chasing a sub 8 hour time. We broke free of the town and were greeted by the breath-taking Ta’ Cenc Cliffs, a highlight of the race and I had to stop for some photos losing touch with Sue.

The next 3 miles followed the cliff edge all the way to Xlendi, one of the places I’d visited but couldn’t see how we could possibly get up the sheer cliff side. After passing the restaurants and taking the stairs I’d seen on the far side the red dots that showed the route just went straight up the rock face. Literally scrambling up to the boulders to some steps cut into the rock I rounded the top, but with the concentration and effort required to get up I had lost sight of any red dots. After wandering back and forth for a few minutes I spotted another runner passing me along a track just below me so I crossed to the edge & picked up the route again, but I had lost a substantial amount of time which had allowed several runners that hadn’t been in sight to catch me. We all continued along together, me leading the way until the trail appeared to fade away before my eyes, with no red dots in sight. We fanned out looking for signs of the route, until one of the group pointed out a track off to our right telling us we needed to be on that. The big sign stating “Way Out à” suddenly made much more sense. Joining the trail we were all off again heading inland on gravel tracks & country roads before running into arable land and blindly following the others as they passed a big sign that warned “Private. Stay out or Trouble.” We now weaved between a lot of the hunter hides, some in action with hunters (and their guns inside). We eventually joined a clear trail on the cliff edge again and could soon see Dwerja and the Azure Window for CP2. Dropping down the good track onto the road and dodging buses and tourists to the second place I’d visited since being on the island and CP2 at 13 miles.

The marshals were superb, helping me top my soft flasks up with water, electrolytes & Tailwind – no mean feat in the stiff breeze before I headed on my way. It was a long pit stop, due to all the faffing about but I needed to ensure I had enough fluid as temperatures were now soaring. The route now began a long drag uphill first away from the Sea before picking up the cliff edge and providing absolutely stunning views back to the Azure Window, a perfect location for the race photographer to snap us as we passed.

Azure

The next section was a bit of a mental battle for me, I felt sick, but wasn’t sure why. Was I dehydrated? Had I drank too much? Do I need to eat more? Was it heatstroke? As the questions and doubt pounded my brain we passed through some stunning landscapes, which helped take my mind off the concerns. The limestone had been eroded by the wind & sea creating formations that were like an alien landscape and as I started to feed off the views I picked myself up again and began making good progress again.

limestone

Reaching the Salt Pans I knew from the blog I’d read we were nearing Marsalforn and I reached CP3 at 19.5miles feeling good again and on for a sub 7hr finish. I began chatting to a Swiss runner and we stuck to the road through Qabbar and down to Marsalforn, passing the bemused British and Polish tourists filling the restaurants along the seafront. At the end of the row of hotels there are a few steps… and then you enter Hell. The trail ascends abruptly and with the hill blocking the wind it was hard and hot work, but the reward for this was a fun stretch of single track carved out of the hill side. Following the dots I passed into a patch of bamboo, enjoying the sudden cool in the shade, coming out the other side 2 runners came down towards me, telling me they were lost. We went pack into the bamboo, and there was a marker… out of the bamboo, nothing. We wandered up and down trying to work out which way to go before seeing Sue making her way along the beach below us. We eventually discovered a reasonably safe way to drop down to the beach and again picked up the route. We all heading along the beach over the rocky edges before the trail climbed very steeply up to a ridge overlooking Ramla Bay.

I cracked on this final climb and dropping down the path to the beach I was suffering in the heat, making my way onto the sand I heard Anna calling me and I shuffled over to see her. Downing a few big slugs of water I deliriously wobbled away down the beach. To escape the torturous sun trap of Ramla Bay required a long slow steep climb up to the welcome cool shade of Calypso’s Cave where I sat for a few seconds. Legend has it this is where Odysseus stayed with Calypso during his Odyssey, so if it’s good enough for him to take a break then it’s good enough for me too! Leaving the cave through a door way in the back we now made our way along a serious of enclosed roads and tracks that undulated like a roller-coaster which soon raised my temperature again. I took some painkillers to ward off the growing pain in my legs and continued to move forward, slowly. It had taken so long to cover the last 6miles I had run out of fluid and was now worried about the 10 hour cut off, never mind 7hrs! After another 1.5 miles the road surface improved and we reached a good descent that allowed me to stretch my legs a bit and as we hit the coast again the wind picked up cooling me a lot. Reaching CP4 I was finally starting to feel OK again.

The marshals again helped me with my soft flasks adding caffeine infused electrolytes and Tailwind for an extra boost during the final leg. I downed a bottle of Isotonic and plodded off up the road. Passing onto steadily rising trails I was feeling sick again, I’m pretty sure that it was Iso drink sat on my stomach that made me feel bloated so I took my time until the sloshing subsided and I’d taken on the fluid. I finally started to feel OK as we passed yet another fort and I started to push on knowing I was only a few miles from the finish. I was following the red dots as they passed between a couple large boulders and appeared to disappear, looking around a little bewildered I realised the route dropped straight off the side down a loose rocky scramble. I clambered down and as I started making my way on a female runner behind me continued straight past, I was shouting for her & realised that a male runner was behind me saying no because the route again appeared to disappear. There were markers all round us but it took a few second for us to realise the dot went straight over the side of a huge rock blocking our way, so another climb was necessary. After another couple scrambles and crossing a couple beaches the route took us up a metal rung ladder over a final rock face before we settled into better progress along a single track.

ghajnsalem

By this point I was smashed to pieces but pushing on as I wanted to get it over with and for the final couple miles of trail I played leapfrog with one of the MTB entrants, he would pass me only for me to catch him in a section he couldn’t ride just to be passed again seconds later. I passed him one last time as we reached the road and didn’t see him again until the finish line as I soon left the road to head up the steps and slopes in enclosed back alleys towards Ghajnselem. I passed the line in 8.08, I was a little disappointed to be over 8 hours but it was a bloody hard day that I found thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite getting lost on several occasions having lost the route I didn’t really find this a negative, the support from the marshals was spot on & they couldn’t do enough for me at the check points. The views and terrain were spectacular and it was an incredibly welcoming and friendly event with runners from all corners of the world which all added up to be a true experience. The only negative was the runner who miraculously appeared ahead who I suspect used local knowledge to take a shorter route. I know that really they’re only robbing themselves and the organisers have done what they can to stop this by having a number of spot checks around the course but it is still saddens me to see it happen.

To finish off a great day the organisers also put on a pasta party at a nearby country club on the cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean so I joined many of the runners from the day in the evening for a good meal, a recap of our days exploits and the presentation ceremony… a fitting end to an unforgettable day.

  • Travel to Malta is quick and comparatively cheap, with flights starting from as little as £25 and taking less than 3 hours. Accommodation on Malta (and Gozo) is plentiful and well priced so it makes perfect sense to make your running trip here into a holiday giving you time to explore the islands and their sights and sites.

Imber Ultra, what a lovely day – Ultra 3 of 12

Having already raced 100 miles in the preceding 4 weeks my body was feeling far from race fit with a taped left foot to support the ankle, taped right ankle after I’d dropped the bike on it, strapped right knee and I was absolutely dog tired for the entire week leading up to The Imber Ultra, my 3rd of 12 Ultra Marathons in 2016. If I hadn’t publicly committed to the challenge and received sponsorship for it I would have just stayed in bed come Sunday morning.

But at 6.00am I dragged my aching bones from my pit, grudgingly readied myself for the day ahead and limped into a bitterly cold morning. I arrived with a 20 mins to spare & collected my race number & route description and said a quick hello to Roger (@irunoffroad) before the race briefing.

We were set on our way by the the town crier at 9.00am & took the lap of the playing fields, designed to spread the (already sparse) field out a bit before we head out onto the road for a short stretch turning onto a narrow track then taking the 1.5 mile muddy climb up to the ridge. From the start I was uncomfortable, the knee being the most concerning niggle, feeling like it had no strength and would give occasionally. Once warmed up I got into a slow stride for the first 7 undulating miles taking us up and down around the ridgeline, the descents were the most difficult as the lack of support in my knee was disconcerting and I was surprised how hilly the route was already.

I had been tailing a pack of Fareham Crusaders (@fcrc) but after descending to a crossroads realising I couldn’t see any other runners either in front or behind I opted to turn left down the road and slowed to a walk to check the route description and suddenly got overrun by a chasing pack. There was a mixed bunch in the group, including 3 guys with an Eastleigh Runner among them a couple guys with a Gosport Road Runner, 2 solo females Beth (@pfb2030) from Victory and a local Avon Valley Runner, Damien Hall (@damo_hall) and now me. Most of this group stayed together for the next 10 miles and it was great to have the company on a day that was always going to be psychologically tough.

We headed over a couple Iron Age forts on short but steep hillsides providing nice views with a friendly greeting from the volunteers at CP1 nestled between them, it was at this CP that Damien dropped off the group which was a shame as I had been hoping to pick his brains about The Spine Race but the rest of us plodded on chatting about the various races we had done, were planning on doing and food. We talked a lot about food.

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Running out across fields and some stretches on the military road we made our way round to CP2 at around 13.5 miles, I realised I was already flagging a bit and my energy levels had dipped so grabbing a cupcake from the CP I walked on, consuming further Pepperami, Haribo & a few good swigs of Tailwind to get me going again. I struggled on for a while and the group started to stretch out as the stronger runners pulled away and those making slower progress dropped off. 2016-03-06 12.09.18Heading over the plains we passed the German Village where the military were conducting a training op so there was lots of machine gun fire and activity as I shuffled along.  Just after this the route description advises us to look around, as we’re in the middle of nowhere and following the instruction I stopped to take it in for a moment, it is remarkable that in a country that is so heavily populated, particularly in the South you can still find yourself in spots were no civilisation is in view for miles.

The temperature had dropped as it became cloudier and a couple very brief hail showers reminded us we were out in March so I was very glad to take the descent down to the road and the long ascent before a warm welcome and cakes at CP3. 2016-03-12 19.15.41Leaving it after grabbing yet more cake I passed a few barrows and dropped to the military road again just in time to be passed by a convoy of tanks belting along, providing some further light entertainment before climbing yet another hill. Reaching the top my heart sank as the route was now visible undulated along the grassy trail for miles. This section became the most difficult of the day, I was tired and sore, I’d been alone for several miles and was having use the tactic of running to a point then walking for a while as I was struggling for motivation. Arriving at CP4 I caught up with Beth again who told me she was going to pull out as she was cramping but with just 11 miles I argued she’d regret it if she did stop now and said we could run together. This was by no means a selfless act as the company did me good and although we were both quiet as we fought our demons for a mile or 2 we soon got into a rhythm of a slow run downhill or flats and walking uphill, both pointing out markers to run too and chatting happily.

Once into our flow it didn’t seem to take long to arrive at the final CP, where we were greeted with the customary warmth and support of all of the CP’s all day. We shared a Mars Bar at this final stop before continuing on, after a very low flying plane passed overhead we turned uphill walking the long final climb.

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Once at the top we had about 2 miles skirting the top of the ridge looking for the correct red flag that marked our point of descent down the muddy trail. We were passed by one of the original pack from 20 miles earlier who I’d last seen before CP3 who was finishing really strong just before we reached the turn off, we started to drop with me leading the way when I was startled by a screech and colourful language from behind me, turning Beth was prostrate on the ground appearing like she was attempting to bring back the trend of planking in inappropriate places. As we had JUST been having a conversation about severe injuries caused by innocuous trips I was initially concerned before she got up still smiling. Again, my concern was not entirely selfless. I didn’t fancy carrying her downhill for the remaining 1.5miles. We took our time down the rest of the descent, which was far muddier than when we’d climbed it earlier having been churned up by all the returning runners and Sunday walkers since we’d set off. Finally reaching the turns towards the leisure centre, we were caught by a group at the bottom so we pushed on to finish just ahead. Not that I’m competitive you understand.

A last heartfelt welcome as we crossed the finish line in 67th position after 6hr 40mins and we were handed our goody bags containing a mug & Avon Road Runners buffalike, Mars Bar & Banana. I’ll take these over a t-shirt any day of the week. Roger came in just a minute behind also having had a strong finish and he too was enthused with the support out on the course. I then got chatting with Mike Julien of Tailwind which had helped fuel me around the route, Mike had finished just minutes behind me and completed it in just sandals! What a legend! Then to top off a great day Damien Hall came in (behind me) and I finally got to say hello.

I hadn’t wanted to do this race and all week I had been dreading it, it was a struggle and I really shouldn’t have been out there but having got round I am very glad I did. The route was far more challenging than I’d expected with almost 4000ft of ascent and although long stretches are on featureless plains there was a surprising amount going on to occupy the mind and some nice views. Considering a field of less than 150 I was taken aback by the support, I suspect the route lends itself to family making their way around to continually catch up with their runners but they were behind all of us as we passed and the marshals and volunteers were among the best I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. But for me it was the other entrants that really made this a lovely day, as it was such a low key event for 2 great causes it appeared to have attracted a lot of kindred spirits and their company throughout the day made it not only bearable but enjoyable despite my discomfort.

So Ultra 3 of 12 completed…. 25% of the way already, now time to repair & rebuild.

The Imber Ultra is event organised by Avon Valley Runners and the Rotary Club of Westbury and all proceeds are given to Hope for Tomorrow and Julia’s House Childrens Hospice.

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