The Samoens Tour du Giffre. A 33km mountain race in the Alps with a little over 2,000m of elevation gain. One of a number of races on the weekend including a monster 90km (6,500m D+!!) and a VK over a 2km distance. Jana talked me into this one. I didn’t want too initially (I had enough events in the calendar already). But I’m so glad it did. It turned into a trail runners equivalent of a “slumber party”. The plan was simply to eat our body weight in food, run the trails and cheer our hearts out to all the runners out there and have a wickedly excellent time…
11 (and a half!) of us rocked up on the Friday, wandered the little town of Samoens aimlessly (searching for ice cream and enjoying a little public gardens area with a waterfall) before registering at the race village and heading to our chalet up in the mountains to relax. Katie took charge in the kitchen and bossed up a wicked risotto dish before we all eventually passed out from the days travels.
Come 7:30am the next day we had joined the crowd in the town centre for the start and were soon speeding through the manic stampede along the streets. There were no game plans. No agreements to run together nor race. All just out there doing our thing and enjoying the trails. We were racing though in the initial pack of starters, an early glance at the watch noted a near 7min mile pace for the first km. Yikes. Thankfully though this was soon stopped as we hit the trail and the immediate bottleneck of the first climb.
Starting pen selfies
For the next 7 or so kilometres we’d be heading up. Up into the clouds. As always on these sorts of races the poles came out. Humans transformed into 4 legged monsters stabbing and probing at everything around them. Each other included. It felt unnecessary. The elevation chart didn’t look ‘that bad’. We’d all opted for the no pole strategy. There should be some sort of rule on mass events that poles aren’t allowed until a certain point, quite frankly they are dangerous in the wrong hands in crowded areas. And most runners seem to be the ‘wrong hands’ incapable of using them properly. Anyway…
We climbed and climbed and I began sweating more and more. They’d predicted thunderstorms, yet we were treated to glorious sunshine throughout (the thunderstorm did arrive later that night, and I believe to fatal consequences in some parts of the region! The 90km was terminated as a result of the storms too!). I was just happy to settle into a nice relaxed rhythm and enjoy the run.
After a little while I went by Maggie, then Jana and Katie. Towards the summit I could see Rachel and Bucky up ahead too. Each time I caught up with one of them we’d chat briefly and carry on. There was then a shortish downhill section, where Rachel and Bucky sped off into the distance, and I was being taken over constantly. Tens of runners sped past. It was very runnable. I was amazed how fast people were going. Whilst I’m not the most confident nor comfortable running descents, this was quick. Again a glance at the watch noted sub 8 min miles. Speedy for a trail!
A shout cane out ahead, Sarina was there cheering and supporting in the forest as we approached he first aid station (her run was not until Sunday morning). Heading into the aid station (after crossing a temporary scaffold bridge over a main road) I refilled my water (I’d opted for a single Tailwind sachet for this race and Hi-Five electrolyte tabs I bought last year and were soon to expire) and started ploughing into the picnic spread. Salami, cheese and fist fulls of orange slices to start off with (there were two more aid stations later on the route). Katie and Jana came through and carried on, barely stopping to breathe.
Afterwards the down hill continued. A brief flat section broke into some fields and Jana and Katie were up ahead. Jana stopped and waited for me and we continued together before Jana ushered Katie on at her own speed (she’s pretty fucking fast!!) who was like a puppy let off a leash (she’d ran the rest of the route lightening quick and finished well under the 5 hour mark!).
As Jana and I continued, we crossed a little bridge over the river before running another flat section alongside the river which was a very root-laden path. Jana remembered it from her solo adventure in the Alps last summer. She swore at the recollection of the hills we’d soon have to climb. And soon I joined her in the swearing as we started the climb.
Jana and I had a good ol’ chin wag as we climbed. We weren’t quiet. Laughing and joking and catching up on life since we last saw each other back in October at the Lemkowyna trail. We had a lot to talk about and several runners commented as we powered past them. They couldn’t understand how we could talk and climb so quickly. Looking back, it took my mind off the climb and made it pass fairly quickly. We we soon behind Bucky and Rachel again as we hit the second aid station. Jana patiently waited as I grabbed more food and liquid before we continued again. Soon we climbed as a foursome before the summit broke us once more. As we ran down Jana vanished into the distance and I began running with Rachel for quite some time.
We ran through several streams of water which were absolute bliss. Cold wet and soothing on the sore feet and ankles. I dipped my hat into each to cool down. Annoyingly though the rapid descents and wet feet didn’t agree with one another. As my feet rammed forward and my toes crunched to brake my speed, the insoles of the shoes broke free and bunched up under my feet. They slipped both under my heel and under my toes. It was horrible. As we hit the bottom I had to stop and refit each insole. As I did so I was greeted with cramp in the quads. Great. It’s been a while since I cramped. I wondered if having less Tailwind (and it’s sodium!) was to blame?! Several more times I had to stop again and repeat the process.
I was climbing again though and soon caught up with Rachel once more. The last of the ‘big’ climbs was mostly uneventful but one section was stunning as we crossed a water fall that had frozen solid and the race volunteers had ‘dug out’ a path through for the runners and we were encouraged to go slowly and carefully. Eventually the summit was reached. The vast opening at the top of a ski slope and the ski lifts. There were cows all around and Rachel ploughed on ahead despite her phobia. Some coke and more oranges at the aid station was enough for me this time as we’d begin the last 7 or so kilometres back into town. All good…
Only it wasn’t all that good. It was steep. Very steep initially. And very wet and muddy. It was harsh on the feet and legs and felt very dangerous in parts as we slipped all over the place. We’d constantly slow and let other runners past. Rachel’s knee was hurting from the descent and my feet and ankles giving my now ‘normal’ pains. The swearing and groaning was very verbal at this point. Thankfully it eventually ended but there was a small (relatively!) climb to now navigate. As soon as I hit it, I cramped up badly in both legs. I came to a hobble before loosening up enough to run after Rachel again. Rachel kept pulling up with her knee and encouraging me on. She was always near though and is such a strong runner, even when in pain! We ran past Sarina again a few km from the end, only she was now with Maggie?! Something had happened and Maggie had retired from the race. She confirmed she was all OK though as I ran past.
Some more forest paths saw many runners zip past us before we hit some tarmac roads and switchbacks and cut several of them with shortcuts down the trails. We arrived at the bottom and the sound of the river hit me before I saw it. It couldn’t be far now as we were back at ‘ground level’.
The path led along side the river, passing a campsite and then the lake and fields of the finish line (familiar as it is where we collected our bibs the day before) became visible to my right, on the other side of the river. A bridge up ahead, I prayed we’d cross over it. we didn’t! We were taking the long way around the lake. Dammit. I was still so hot and sweaty and ready to finish. I didn’t know how far it was, a kilometre at least for sure. It felt like longer before I eventually lined up with the finish line. The big surprise was seeing Dorota as I rounded the bend, whom I had the pleasure of running a good section of the Brecon Beacons Ultra With last year. Then further on, Ben, Jana, Katie, Maggie, Sarina and Chris all brought the noise as I ‘high-kneed’ it across the line. As I stopped the cramp hit again.
Medal grabbed I hobbled into the refreshment area just as Rachel was finishing. We hugged a sweat fest of a hug before joining the others just in time to see Bucky cross the line. We all joined the party to cheer home Yvette and Kasia and several of Jana’s friendstoo. We hung around in the sun for a few hours (with one beer that made me very sleepy!) before heading back to the chalet for pizza and booze, just in time to beat the thunderstorm
I love cheering runners
Dorota smashing the 12km
The next morning we woke to repay the support. It was Sarina’s time to run and we all headed out to see her off, get pastries, and then travel the course to cheer her. After some navigational mishaps we rocked up just before he first aid station where Sarina first saw us the day before. We made our home on a section of road splitting through a down hill section of the trail. We whooped and cheered all the runners coming down and were then greeted by runners coming up the hill where we’d driven – the 12km run was joining the 18km run at this intersection. I don’t know how long we were there for but I know we had the best of times. The noise we made was visibly appreciated by the majority. Dorota came up and passed on her 12km run then, to the greatest of noise we could make, Sarina appeared. Smiling and bounding down the path. After she passed we bundled back into the car and found the road just after the aid station. The same point on a bridge the day before where Jana waited for me and sent Katie on ahead. Sarina soon appeared again and would run from here along the river back to the finish. We headed there to wait and then brought the noise as she arrived. Group hugs all around. This was one hell of a party and one we were all sad to bring to an end and head to the airport.
When A friend asked if I was available to ‘help out’ at the Trail festival at Box Hill I didn’t think twice. I checked the calendar and I was straight in there. I probably would have bought a ticket anyway. A few days later when the confirmation came through and I was asked if I was OK to support the 50km guided run I chuckled. Yeeeeah sure. Why not. I was smiling. I love, despite what life throws at me, that I’m now ready. Ready to run. Ready to keep going. Ready to say yes to running, no matter what the distance. It’s a great feeling.
Saturday soon came around and I made sure I was there early to ‘check in’ and meet the others. As I walked to the festival Village I conveniently bumped into Matt who was behind much of the organisation. As I arrived so did the many familiar faces who were either leading the runs (all the Salomon Athletes/Ambassadors) and others like myself who were there to support them.
It was great to finally meet Tom who was the lead for the 50km and who told me we’d be joined by Mark (another familiar person I’m vaguely connected to but had yet to meet in person).
As we grouped and welcomed the 17 runners who’d make up our group, we immediately had one drop out after she realised this one might be beyond her. With everyone else ready to go Tom led us off. We’d be running a clockwise route and expected to be back around 16:30 or so.
As we left the field it became immediately apparent to me how varied the group was in terms of ability and experience. This was to be expected and wasn’t a problem, it was a guided social run after all. But something very important to be aware of – there was a long day ahead of us and fundamentally we were responsible for everyone’s health and safety and return! Spotting the ability and assessing each runner is important to ensure everyone has a great time.
It was like we’d done this all before as a team – Tom, Mark and I set off and split ourselves out. Tom Leading the way and setting a comfortable pace surrounded by the eager and more experienced runners. Me and Mark acting as the tail of the group, interchanging at the back of the pack.
Conversations begun as we all started to get to know one another. We’d soon be best friends for the whole day. It was a group of strangers. Runners getting to know other runners. Sharing stories and experiences, swapping tips and wisdom. A collective mass of adventurers. Tom would lead us on and ensured we stopped every now and then (frequently) for us to regroup and check everyone was OK. Each time a quick headcount to check we’d not lost anyone and then we’d be off again.
A small dog came bounding towards us. A ball of energy loving the runners rushing past. As he came to me last he started jumping with excitement and head butted me in the dick. Perfect shot. I can’t lie. I let out a gasp and was thrown off my stride for a bit. Damn stupid cute dog. One more runner then dropped out within the first three miles after twinging an injury. As he lived locally and trained these routes, after chatting through with him we were comfortable leaving him find his own way back to the start and we checked in with the wider team to confirm we were one down.
After about four miles we came to our first planned ‘aid stop’. Throughout the day we’d be flanked and met by Tony who would drive ahead and meet us with refreshments. At this first stop we dived into a huge tub of sweets (later I found out these were no ordinary sweets but ‘energy’ one’s by Powerbar.), refilled our water and grabbed a quick rest. We let Tony know of the drop out and confirmed to check he reached back to the festival site OK.
Long Grass Fields
Throughout he day we were also treated to some spectacular views and scenery (despite the overcast day). A particularly memorable point for me was the poppy field that we soon came into shortly after the first pit stop. It was stunning to see the red flowers penetrating the green carpet of grass. We continued on through the single trail which cut through the long grass field dotted with poppies. Next up, a mandatory stop at the now infamous ‘Matt Buck’ Waterfall.
Cracking on, one of the milestones of the run would be the tower of Leith hill. It’s a hilly route and one I knew most of from other runs. We’d normally have immense views from here but it was a little subdued as the heavens opened just as we arrived (but not before me and Tom grabbed a picture at ‘Rachel’s’ Tree!). We were immediately soaked through, even in our waterproofs. We took another break as we waited for Toby to arrive and meet us once more. We were now 10 miles in and very wet and miserable. But that all changed when he arrived. Wow, what a spread he’d bought for us. A legend of the supermarket aisles, he’d catered for all our needs and began taking special requests for the next stop. Sadly Steak didn’t make the cut but Pork pies did!
With the rain and clouds covering the sky we began moving again before we got too cold. Once we were running we’d soon warm up again. We continued in the rain for several miles as we hit Pitch Hill and Holmwood Hill before the rain finally ceased. Along the way we encountered some wicked ‘trail art’ someone had created with Bark. It was later on as we neared about 20 miles that the implications of diversity of abilities in the group became really apparent. We started to spread out more and more and the front would have to wait longer for the tail to catch up. We really did have runners of all abilities – From dragons back finishers and top 40 finishers at MDS (I believe this deems you ‘elite’!) and sub 2:40 marathoners to first time trail runners and those who’d never been above 50km before. The gulf was huge and has got me thinking about the implications of this (more on that another time). I’d spent most of the time running with Carl. A long distance walker more accustomed to going at his “own pace”. He got stronger as we went further though and it was clear that his mental strength was next level. It was never a doubt that he’d finish, only a case of when. A real positive attitude and one you see a lot of on the trails.
Trail Running Love?
Trail Running Love?
One dude unfortunately dropped out shortly after the 20 miles. We still had maybe 3 miles left to the next checkpoint but he was in pain and couldn’t manage more than an uncomfortable walk. His groin was aggravated and he was affected. We agreed that he’d have to stop and we called for a pickup. I stayed with him until it arrived. After which I sped on after the group. Like a hunter chasing its prey. I knew the trail. I knew what was ahead (including one of my favourite signs/views at Blatchford Down). It was a moment to myself. A peaceful one of just me and my thoughts. I’d been consumed all day by a bad pain in my left foot. My arch felt bruised and I’d been alternating all manner of running styles throughout to try and run more comfortably. I probably shouldn’t have continued myself but I had a job to do. It wasn’t affecting my ability to support the group there and then but I knew I’d be in agony the next day (and for over a week afterwards it turned out!). Now with some time to myself I ran on. I ran free. Was it painful? Yes. But I was smiling too. I passed several more groups of DofE and walkers and smiled and cheered as I zipped through, splashing in the mud as I went (I’d been enjoying the cold wet puddles and found them soothing on the ankle and foot!).
It was raining again but still nice and warm as I broke trough the trail paths into an open space and found the rest of the group just starting off from the final checkpoint. Mark stuck around and waited as I stuffed more kitkats and pork pies into my gob and we were off. Less than 4 miles to go. Time to “bring it home”.
The exhaustion in the group was obvious now and as we ran down through Denbies wine estate one last time Tom had a surprise left for everyone – the route wouldn’t take us straight back to the festival village but first up, over and around box hill. We were going home alright, just the long way! A few groans came but really they were more flippant than anything. This group had started as strangers and now bonded over 9 hours of wet hilly trails. We cracked on, first tackling the Infamous steps of Boxhill before a quick photo stop at Salomon’s Memorial, which provided a brief rest-bite after the climb.
Just before the festival we regrouped for the last time and ran into the village together. We were Welcomed back by a few volunteers and other runners and then we were then greeted to the rapturous cheers from Maggie, Rachel and Hannah. They were loud. They were excitable. They were the support we needed. I started to feel my face ache I was smiling so much from their energy. Quite possibly the best finish to a run I’ve ever had!
After a quick ‘wet wipe shower’ in the car park we grabbed some coffee/beer and pizza. We sat in the dimming sun and enjoyed the Salomon films on the big screen before deciding it was time to leave.
Whilst we didn’t personally experience that much of the festival village, it was an incredible day. A well run event that was very popular and catered for all. From 5km to ultra distances. There were also Workshops for trail techniques, guided and times runs and yoga and talks. A great day out for those used to trails and also those new to trails. Get involved next year is my advice. I’ll be back for sure!
A huge huge huge thank you to all those involved in organising the event and making it happen. To Tom and Mark for leading a fantastic run and all those I met throughout the day. A special thanks to Maggie, Matt and all the team at Salomon Running for getting me involved. A great experience!
I like to prepare. It doesn’t always mean I’m sensible with the preparations though! The Luxembourg Night Marathon was the perfect example. When Bobby, Nick, James and I agreed to do this marathon, I thought it would be a good idea to fly out Saturday morning, run the marathon and return the next day. After all, Luxembourg city is a small place and we’d see most of it during the run. Whilst it went almost exactly to plan, it was bloody tiring…
It’s Saturday morning. 2am. The alarm clock is buzzing. I’d already slept through three alarms and I needed to move my ass pronto. I was regretting my plan already. With a 7am flight I’d soon need to make the 2 hour bus/night tube trip across London to Heathrow. The others were a little more sensible with either a hotel for the night nearer the airport or quicker Uber trip as their choices. I’m too stubborn to pay ‘extra’ for these things. It’s OK though, I thought I’ll just get some sleep at the hotel when we arrive as the race doesn’t start till 7pm.
Shortly after 10am we’d made it to the expo at the LuxExpo “box”. Whilst there wasn’t much there to see, it was a big place and already set out for the day. The most noticeable thing being the internal finish. At the end of the race we’d run into one of the big ‘hangers’ and do a short internal stretch to a finish line. This would be different, I’d never experienced that before – finishing inside a building. Race numbers collected and photos taken we made our way on the bus into town – Amazingly, public transport is free on the weekend in Luxembourg. Whilst it was only 2Euro for a ticket, I loved this concept and was delighted to save some pennies! We arrived at the hotel and were told there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of checking in before 3pm. Bollocks. We’d also been told that we should be at the race for 5pm as the shuttle busses were expected to be very busy and the roads full of traffic as they start to lock the city down for the event. There goes my plan of any sleep. I’d have to struggle through on the measly 4 hours I’d clocked up last night.
The rest of the day sped by as we ate food, wandered around town, met Nick’s mum (who’d come to see him do his first marathon) and went back to the hotel to check in and get ready. Before we knew it we were back at the Box and part of the mass crowd that was assembling. Runners and supporters everywhere. It was quickly becoming overcrowded but the atmosphere was already showing signs of being great. With a DJ playing music and introducing various acts (some form of dancing butterflies?!) as well as volunteers giving out sponsored bowler hats and tambourines. I took one and immediately annoyed Nick who politely warned me not to run with it!
With our bags checked in we still had a good 1hr 30mins to wait before the start. Like thousands of others we sought refuge from the blistering sun in any shade we could – it was high 20s and didn’t show any signs that it would cool down before the sunset around 9:30 that night. We lay on the hot tarmac in one of the starting pens and waited. It felt like a hell of a long wait, more so because there was no water. I’d already drunk all the water I’d brought with me. It was much hotter than I expected. This was probably the only negative of the whole weekend. The organisation I thought was pretty good, it was like a large scale military procedure with one way systems and setups accounting for most things, except the provision of information. Nowhere was there any clear and obvious indication of where to go to check in, to register, to get info, to get the buses, bus timetables etc. (and the only info stand available where of little help either!) and nor was there anywhere on site to get water whilst we waited to start!
Anyway, 7pm eventually came around and the runners were sent on their way. With over 10,000 runners across all the event disciplines it was a busy start and it took the four of us about 10 mins to walk to the actual start line. In that time we lost Bobby in the crowd. We were all going to run together (this being Nick’s first marathon), however, fiddling with his shoe laces and race tag, we lost Bobby moments before we started. I ushered us on. Whilst Nick was concerned and wanted to find him, I wasn’t worried. Bobby is a very independent guy and this was his 5th marathon. He knew what he was doing and would be fine on his own if he didn’t find us before we crossed the line.
So the three of us set off and kept a decent pace in the crowd as I tried to regulate it as best I could. We were aiming for roughly 9:50 minute miles and we fluctuated around this for the first few KM as we dealt with the crowding and various bottlenecks that inevitably formed. We all felt good though and chatted away as we approached the first Water station. I say approach, it was on a bend and we’d pretty much run past it as we were on the far side of the road. I made a mad dash through the crowds and grabbed three cups of water before weaving back to Nick and James, announcing my arrival with “Incoming, Delivery, coming through”. Beautiful. It wasn’t much but it wet our lips, or in Nick’s case, his face. This was his first experience of running whilst drinking from a cup, as any experienced runner knows, it is not easy. Nick immediately compared it to being water-boarded!
Laughing away, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the next water station. They were every 2.5km, which is very frequent! It immediately dawned on me that whilst we’d talked with Nick about running with him and pacing, we hadn’t actually discussed anything else. Like what to do if we get split up. The first water station was bad enough. but this one separated us. There were volunteers on either side of the road and runners everywhere, it was a free for all and we (I at least!) were all thinking about water and food, it had been so long in the sun without any and the drops at the last water station had failed to quench our thirst! I went left and saw Nick go right. James was behind me. I took water, isotonic and some PowerBars. As we emerged the other side I saw James, but not Nick! Shit. We jogged on looking around but couldn’t see him. Shit again, we were just about 5km in and we’d lost him. How bad were we?! We carried on a little, looking back and forward, then we sped off through the crowd at a much faster pace looking for him. Nothing. We stopped and held up at the side of the road to wait. He didn’t come. He’d either carried on, or he’d stopped to wait for us. We hoped it was the former and devised a plan – James would run ahead and, if he saw him, would carry on running with him. If he didn’t he’d slow back down and eventually we’d catch him. I’d hold back and wait, If I saw nick we’d run on together. If I didn’t I’d carry on after a few minutes until I eventually caught them again. I stopped on the side of the road on a raised pavement and watched all the runners intently as they passed. I was keeping an eye on the time when, out of the corner of my eye on the far side of the road I saw someone speeding past everyone. It was James?! What the hell. I set off like a gazelle after him. The crowd loved it, they were probably wondering what I was doing. When I reached him we carried on at that speed, ducking and weaving through the crowded field in our on little race. James had very quickly found Nick just ahead of us so went back for me. Somehow we’d missed each other in our focus in finding Nick. A few km later, after weaving through the crowd and some narrow roads we found him and reformed, laughing at our fuck up. Nick did the right thing – carry on at his pace, stick to his game plan. We agreed if it happens again, just keep going.
As we ran we noticed how great the crowd were. Initially as we started off I thought the support was poor. Whilst there were people, they were just standing there in silence. Now though we were seeing hundreds of people, larger groups, making plenty of noise and loads of music and bands along the way. They reacted too. Giving them a clap, a cheer or a scream would trigger them to make even more noise. I was loving it. There was one part, where we ran through a Big Top tent, inside were dancers and a samba band (there were a lot of samba bands out there!) and as we emerged, an arch made from two tractors with their diggers extended out over the road. I thought this was a great touch. The route was very twisty as we crossed and weaved many smaller streets, constantly turning in different directions. We were completely disorientated and had no idea where we were or where we were heading! But this made it fun. It made the course interesting and we’d duck into and out of various parks along the way. It was still incredibly hot and we took every opportunity to get drenched with water from the crowd with their hose pipes. At one point we saw a wet patch on the road and a spray of water. As we made a line for it we were all confused as to where it was coming from, it was like rain falling vertically on this small patch. We looked up as we passed through and there was a lady, perched on her window sill about 4 storeys up, holding her shower head out the window. We cheered and clapped her. It was so hot, still in the high 20s and the cooling water was a godsend.
Already we’d noticed, that whilst fairly flat (admittedly not “flat as a pancake” as I’d told Nick before we signed up!) it was surprisingly hilly. The route involved lots of very gradual inclines and declines. I was feeling it! I didn’t mention this to Nick though. We’d soon be hitting the main centre square and hopefully we’d see his mum who’d travelled over to watch him. I wanted to ensure he was focusing on seeing her. It was still very busy as we had all the 21km runners with us still, I think these made the bulk of the numbers. We were approaching the main square and there was a water station ahead. They were struggling though. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for water, isotonic or fruit. each cup we all grabbed at was empty. We carried on without any. This was frustrating. A downside of having paper cups at races – it takes time to keep them replenished. James was also amazed at the state of the floors around the water stations. As a regular sub-3 hour runner he is used to seeing them less busy and less like a war zone.
We rounded a bend and several volunteers were directing us into two ways – splitting off the 21km runners. It soon became far less crowded and we headed into the main square. It was packed with crowds and they were in excellent voice. I started screaming “MUM” over and over. We found it hilarious (or at least I did!) and then we saw Nick’s mum and he ran over for a hi-five and cheer. James heard her proudly claim to everyone “that’s my son!”. So touching. Boosted by the love we carried on. Almost half done, Still a lot of work to go. The next section would see us enter and leave more parks and shaded areas and also various stints in some residential areas. Without the 21km runners it was now far more enjoyable and easier to run!
I thought running through the residential areas was great. Whilst not normally fun or interesting places to run (I’m comparing to some of the streets in Brighton and Muscat!) here I was fascinated. They were so clean for a start, and being kept that way with locals out collecting rubbish along the roads. The houses were huge and all looked so well maintained. I wanted to move here! But, like the rest of the run so far, the Support was fantastic. From kids with water pistols and super soakers, squirting water at runners, to families having dinners and cheering from their front gardens with their wine, to pockets and groups of people partying away in the street. The music was loud and the atmosphere brilliant. Like all supporters before, if you interacted with them they responded even louder. So we did, singing and cheering our way through. I was blown away by the volume of music and bands and also the variety. They felt more frequent than the water stations and we had bands, djs, horn blowers (huge horns!) samba dancers, steal drum bands, jazz musicians and local folk dancers throughout. It was fantastic!
It was probably around the 16 mile mark that the first signs of the huge demands of a marathon started to become visible for Nick. Whilst he was running strong and consistent he did acknowledge he was now feeling it and that it felt harder than the comparable 20 milers he’d been doing in training. We reassured him how well he was doing, how tough the race was with the heat and hills and encouraged him onward. At some point, whether it was around this time or not I can’t recall, Nick commented on another facet of running a marathon – he mentioned how pissed off he was at getting passed by faster runners doing the team run and who had just started their 10km run. We’ve all experienced this and it does mess with your mind and confidence. What was funny is how a lady doing the team run apologised as she ran past, overhearing his comment.
We also saw Bobby at some point along the way too. We’d assumed he’d got caught up in the crowds at the start and would have been behind us. But as we ran up a long hill stretch we could see Bobby out in front. We called out to him and for a moment we were all reunited. He dropped of and James stayed behind to check up on him whilst I kept Nick going at his pace. James arrived back shortly afterwards, confirming Bobby was OK but exhausted and prepared to slow down to finish the race.
Before we knew it we’d left the residential areas behind and were back running through the parks and streets of the central area.It was still very hot, but it was now starting to get dark. We were dipping in and out of parks and along roads that started to look familiar. I think we’d run on or near them in a different direction already (possibly many times) but I was so disorientated. We ran along a walkway built under a main bridge, where the music and atmosphere was lively from a DJ at the end. Shortly after which we then headed down into the Public park (I think) where there was the festival of light going on. We were back passing under the bridge and could hear the DJ above us. As we carried on down, we could see the big lanterns from the festival lit up and marques of people partying away. Again there was great support for the runners as we weaved our way through the park, again, even lower than before once more passing under the bridge and hearing the DJ above. Like the twisting route, the music became familiar as we rose up out of the park and ran along the top of a bridge, this time the DJ now below us. I was amazed and how many different ways we’d passed this same spot and DJ!
As the night darkened, the pack of runners became increasingly more spread out. More musicians lined the streets and we left the central area for the last time. We were heading back out towards the Expo. I remember we rounded a corner in the dark to the sound of Hot Chocolate – Sexy Thing. I couldn’t help but sing out the chorus, or the line of the chorus I knew! Two other runners sang along with us and laughed. Sometime, several miles later, we’d catch up with them again and I started singing the line once more and they responded and joined in again. The runners were in good spirits!
Throughout the day we’d been near and around a partially sighted runner and their guide runner. This always fascinates me. It must be hard and such a demanding challenge for both runners. We arrived at the final Team Run switch point and it was so crowded. Runners were encroaching on the road from both sides making it vary narrow and difficult to squeeze through. Nick was shouting at the crowds to back off and give space as the two runners were in front of us now. It must have been tough for them here.
We’d done probably 20-21 miles by now and Nick was feeling it. He started to hit the wall and the pains were visible in his face. He made it known, cursing and shouting down every hill we came across. I knew from the route that it was all uphill from here. Gradual, but up hill. I didn’t tell him. James encouraged him and kept him focused. From time to time we’d stop and walk, or spend a moment at a water station to ensure he was fuelled. Each time he’d motivate himself on to start running again. He was determined and ready to beat the marathon and didn’t need much help from us to do so! Whilst he was constantly looking at his watch, and aware that his ideal finish time was slipping further from reach, he was running great. I thought we’d finish around 4hrs 30mins. It would be tight though…
He wasn’t alone either. By now both James and I were acknowledging how hard this marathon actually was. The long declines to start and then the gradual climbs now were having their effect. The legs were felling heavy, and, for me, my foot was hurting. I’d rolled it the week before at the Run Free marathon and could feel it now. I knew I was no longer smiling myself!!
We were running along the main road which was gradually climbing never ending into the distance. The occasional walk but mostly powering forward. Not too far from the top was a large group of supporters. A cheer zone. The local running community that is Fat Betty were out in force (think similar, but scaled back, to mile 21 at London Marathon if you’ve ever been there to cheer?!). They were handing out beer to runners. Whilst I’m not a beer fan generally, and especially not when running (or after running even!) I took one. I was having fun. It wasn’t far left to go, maybe 3-4 miles, and I wanted to try and entertain Nick a little and take his mind off the run. I actually quite enjoyed the beer, even though most of it ended up in my beard!
As we reached the top of the hill we cracked on. We got talking to another guy from the UK. He was also feeling the hills, and rightly so – He did the NDW50 the week before! We all ran together for a while and I chatted with him all things running. Nick continued to curse the lumps in the road and I sensed he was beginning to fade again. I was watching the time now and new it was getting tighter and tighter to make 4hr 30mins. Whilst I’d been trying to convince Nick to not worry about time for the first marathon, it’s easier said than done. The mind is a fickle beast. If we could get a 4hr 30mins I know he’d be smiling. I told him “no matter what happens next, stick with me” and I cranked up the pace a little. We left the NDW man behind and strode on.
We had less than 30 mins of running left. It was tough. We’d increased the pace by about a minute per mile. A good 10% increase in effort after 4 hours of running. Not easy for an experienced marathoner on a tough course, never mind a first timer. But Nick stuck with us. We were encouraging him on and bar a few short stints walking, he kept it up. We were running past people. People we’d seen pass us earlier and people we’d not seen before. Even runners on the final leg of the team run (who would have been fresher than us!) came and went as we passed. I shouted at Nick, pointing ahead and telling him we were going hunting. That the crowd in front of us were his. He was going to take them all. All except a guy in a red t-shirt, he looked like he was running strong so I excused him! But we did, we took them all, red t-shirt guy included. We were flying. Up ahead the road started to decline and we could see the expo. 2 more minutes and we’d be there. My watch had clocked a marathon. It was going to be tight. We ran down, passing more and more runners. One final bend into the hanger of the arena, I screamed at Nick, directed him forward and shouted to the finish line to “go fucking take it, its yours”. Round the last bend. He was in the zone. He was sprinting. Two guys up ahead hogging the way, Nick was on the race line, they wobbled to the side and Nick had to squeeze through them (much to their disgust). Me and James went either side of the guys, we saw and heard Nick’s mum right at the finish line cheering. It was done. We crossed the line. What began with 2 marathoners, finished with 3!
Immediately over the line Nick’s legs went from under him. I shouldn’t laugh but I did. I recall that feeling and sensation all too well. The body reacting from a big push (he’d absolutely blitzed the last 2-3 miles) and the sudden instructions to stop. He was wobbling and we took hold of him. I don’t miss that feeling! Looking at the results, We climbed 200 places over the last half of the course, I think that really shows the effort Nick put in over the last few miles!
It was a long wobble to the medal, then to the water, then to the drop bags, then to the food and changing area. By now the post marathon effect was kicking in strong and Nick needed to lay down. Up against the massage tents, out of the way he rested. I went round hoarding all the food I could (greedy as always) and we waited for his body to recover from the shock of the achievement. Soon after Bobby arrived. Shortly after him, Nick’s mum arrived with a paramedic. Whilst Nick was OK (just post marathon shock!) I find it hilarious that his mum rocked up with a paramedic for him. Bless. As spectators weren’t allowed into the area, his mum had cleverly convinced the paramedic that she was worried as she hadn’t seen Nick emerge from the runners area since he crossed the line. So the paramedic escorted her in to look for him. Genius. We sat and talked and laughed, reminiscing the past few hours, whilst Bobby got a rub down.
Eventually, after the most expensive taxi ride, we made it back to the hotel. Nick climbed the stairs on all fours before we made it to our rooms. Exhausted. We’d been awake almost 24 hours and were shattered. We went to bed, knowing in the morning when we woke, it would be the first day Nick woke up as a marathoner. Job done.
Run Free. I love this phrase. One I often refer to when I think about running – its exactly how I want my mind to be when I run. This time though it has a different meaning. A more literal one! Maverick and Tribe collaborate for an event they call “Run Free”. I’ll do it an injustice when I say it is simply an event of multiple distances (Short, Medium, Long in the traditional Maverick setup) but one for which part of the proceeds go toward charity and Tribe’s 10% Project. Whilst as a community, Tribe push people to redefine their boundaries, in this instance, the Run Free event is in support of ending modern slavery. A worthy cause indeed.
Lush green fields…
I hadn’t planned on being at the event, but a last minute change of plans meant, come Friday, I had no plans for the weekend. I was on a self-enforced ‘rest’ and hadn’t run in two weeks up until a Run with Nick midweek. Now I had the urge, I couldn’t sustain the rest any longer. I wanted back in to what I love – running. It didn’t take long on Friday morning to come up with a plan. Reaching out to various friends there were options. It came down to a toss up between hill repeats at Box Hill or travel north and volunteer at the Run Free event. Something I want to (and will) do more of. After speaking with Paul, my mind was made up – you could register on the day to run. Perfect. The Run Free event was taking place in a part of the Chilterns I hadn’t really explored. They also had a marathon option. I was sold. The only difficult part was getting to the race event ‘village’ which was annoyingly in the middle of nowhere. Time to form a plan.
My plan was simple and a little stupid, but its how I think – I could get the Oxford Tube to Lewknor Turn. From there I could run the 5 miles to the start. I’d repeat this on the way back unless I could bag a lift off someone… The Oxford tube is great. It runs 24 hours a day, is fairly frequent and pretty cheap. I used it when I went to the Race To The Stones a few years back so could picture where I needed to be and get off. And so, with a 4am wake up call, I was on my way.
pre-race warm up
Hills for breakfast
I got off the bus at 7:30 which left me an hour until registration opened and a further hour until the race would begin. enough time to chill, relax and prepare. Those first 5 miles though, they were a little hilly. I covered almost 1,000ft of elevation (a third of the marathon’s elevation gain!) before I’d even begun the race. Taking about an hour, I did think to myself ‘see, this is why it is silly!’. Anyway, I got there, most of the run to the event was on trails and narrow country lanes. It was all good. Arriving into the event I was greeted by Hannah (of extreme endurance event fame and whom I first met out in UTMB last year after she sped across the TDS finish line – so impressive!). I was a bit spaced out and immediately snatched a tribe bar out of her hand and started feasting on it – I was famished from the early wake up and run. How rude I was – sorry Hannah! I went off to register and was greeted by Sarah and shortly after met Paul, Ben and Vanna among many others.
The Maverick events are a bit of a cult phenomenon. They are incredibly well organised and great fun. I knew I’d see friends and familiar faces there and I sure did – There were so many people I knew there. I hadn’t even registered and I was bumping into people and chatting. As much as I say that I don’t like people, I do love the community spirit and vibe that running has. People from all different groups, people from all different places and ways of life, coming together for the love of running. It is a very inclusive community!
Pre race involved a fair few selfies with the various groups before Ben led a quick warm up for the runners. I joined the starting pen with Elis who was there with Melissa who lives around the corner from me. See, it really is a small community. As the Maverick bell was rung and the race started I ran passed Yvette who was also there volunteering. The connections were endless! The start saw us all bumbling downhill, fast! It was steep. It was lumpy. We were jumping and hopping rather than running. The ground was uneven and as with any race there was a mad dash for the best line/route down. I let gravity take me and sat comfortably with many runners in the middle of the pack. Before long though we came to a grinding halt.
The path diagonally crossed some fields and there was a stile to climb. It created a big bottleneck as we waited patiently to cross one by one. I say patiently, that was until a bunch of Dickheads thought they were better than this. That they don’t need to wait. One by one a group of them started climbing the barbwire fence. I find this so disrespectful and unnecessary. Yes, perhaps the different races could have been staggered to prevent such a bottleneck, but don’t be a dick. That’s someones property. It is there for a reason and no one wants to tend to your sliced bollocks if it all goes wrong. What does a few minutes of waiting really mean? Get over yourself! Anyway, rant over…
The route was glorious. I’ll try not to type about it all in the way I usually drone on about mile after mile, but it was so open. Lush green colours of various shades constantly surrounded us and huge fields and rolling hills were the delights for our eyes. I spent much of the initial 10km or so near Vanna from Wild TR before our routes split us into different directions. Passing through the first checkpoint I met two familiar faces in the Maverick Trail Division Ambassadors that are Paul and Spencer. These guys are fantastic. Ultra running nutters of the best kind. I first met Spencer in the drunkenness that is the after party of UTMB. Like Hannah, he’d also just completed the TDS, a phenomenal achievement. He also suffered a Stress fracture earlier in the year before recovering and going on to break a sub 3 hr marathon in Newport a few weeks ago! He wasn’t running today as he was volunteering, but he ran with Paul from the first checkpoint to the second after his assistance was requested there. Paul I’d chatted with for a while before we briefly met at the Dorset Coastal Trail Ultra. I say briefly because Paul had to leave asap. Like me he has a little addiction to running. Unlike me though, he runs EVERYTHING. He left Dorset that day to get home to run the Hurtwood 50km the next day. This weekend he was running the Run Free Marathon, the Westminster Mile and the Vitality 10km. Whilst I was also running the WM mile, the difference being He boshed out an impressive 5:15min mile. I opted for a far more casual 9:47min mile! He is a machine.
Anyway, they set out from the aid station shortly before me and I spent the next 10km playing catch up. They were always in my sight but, other than a short stint chatting with Spencer, they were too far away from me as we roamed through forest paths and the rolling hills. This was for many reasons, mostly because they were running at a pace I just couldn’t keep up with. Despite being itching to run, 2 weeks off did have me feeling a little lethargic and ‘out of shape’. It was manageable though. What wasn’t manageable was when I rolled my ankle after about 6 miles. It fucking hurt bad. Usually ankle rolls are terrifying and quickly forgotten. This hurt though. The pain lingered for the rest of the race and beyond the day. My ankles are my biggest concern and weakness at the moment. They’ve taken an absolute pounding over the last 18 months. June will be hectic on them (5 weeks of back to back marathons, mountains and ultras lay ahead culminating in the beast that is the 120km Lavaredo Trail in the Dolomites!), so perhaps July will be another attempt at some time off…
Anyway, I’m blabbing. Checkpoint two came and I said good bye to Spencer. Paul, free of chatting, soon vanished into the distance and I carried on. It was a good but tough day. This is the perfect sort of training run for me. Besides being well supported, sign posted and through stunning parts of the country, my own run became a challenge. Physically and mentally. The toughness of the course and concern for my painful ankle put me into the dark parts of my mind. Parts I need to visit from time to time and deal with. Parts I need to make peace with and get comfortable being consumed by. You don’t want to visit these places alone on a mountain partway through a day long ultra without being prepared to deal with them. Perfect mental training, building your strength of character.
As the midday heat intensified, I was running (very inefficiently I might add!) down a long trail track. At the end I could see the mass of energy that is Emma. Another Volunteer and someone I’ve seen at many races and other running events over the past 18 months or so. Along with Jay, she was the third and final check point. This was a mini heaven. I stopped and chatted and greedily consumed loads of the food (sorry everyone!). As I did so, another face appeared – Gwen. We’d met a a run several months earlier and did the whole “hey!!” kind of thing before later asking each others names again. We pretty much ran most of the last 10km together, with Gwen out in front and running strong to a finish a few minutes ahead of me.
Before the finish though was one last, badly kept secret – a steep hill. The initial lumpy downhill we ran, we had to now climb back to the finish. Whilst I’ve certainly done longer and higher, it was not easy. With the windmill up at the top as the marker point I proceeded to climb and my calves screamed out immediately. It was a burner for sure. Then it was over, running across the line Yvette smashed me in the face with the finishers medal and gave me a beer. Paul was there along with many others including Hannah who helped me refresh and served up the nutty Tribe protein shakes.
Maverick provide free photography
I spent a short while repacking, getting ready and chatting away with various people before I managed to blag a lift back to the bus stop from Elis and Melissa. Perfect. They day couldn’t have been any better. A last minute plan, perfectly executed. Thanks guys!
On my own
It was an absolutely fantastic day. As always, the Maverick events are impeccably organised and the volunteers are incredible. The whole atmosphere the organisers manage to create is something special, never mind the festival-esque vibe they created at this special event. If you want to sample trail running races, this is the company to do it with, you won’t regret it!
As we munched down on the juicy slices of orange I’d been carrying for the last 4 hours, we discussed it’s place in a trail runners hierarchy of desires. It slotted into the top three above oral sex and a foot massage. Momentarily we were in juicy orange heaven.
The day had been a proper picnic for me. Lou, Elisa and I were running the Three Forts Challenge (they claim its a challenge not a marathon as its 27 miles) and the organisation was superb. There were a ridiculous amount of checkpoints for a marathon distance (11 I think!) and whilst not the biggest or most stocked of checkpoints, they provide ample opportunity for snacking on sugary sweets, savoury biscuits, cake and chocolate. There were times Elisa and Lou had to shout to get me moving again! Whilst I knew about the checkpoints in advance, it didn’t stop me over-preparing with my own snacks and thus the oranges were hauled around the trails of the South Downs until they were squishy and warm. Regardless, they were special when the time came to indulge. I do love a good juicy orange slice on the trails.
Right, enough tantalising of the Vitamin C, lets rewind a little and put some context on this race. This challenge was a week after my epic adventure in Madeira – the 115km Madeira Island Ultra Trail. Why was I running another marathon so soon? The old case of fear of missing out. It hit me hard. I knew a number of people heading down to Worthing for this race and I wanted in. That and it was very cheap for an ‘ultra’ (£40!) and the route went along parts of the South Downs I hadn’t run on before. This is a big factor for me at the moment – exploring new places. So, pre MIUT I signed up knowing that if anything went wrong in the lead up I hadn’t lost out and the plan was to enjoy the day as a recovery run. It was also a bank holiday weekend, so why not?!
I knew Lou and Elisa were preparing for their own epic adventure of the London to Brighton trail race so I’d persuaded them to let me tag along for the day with them. Whilst they were staying for the weekend near the start line, I joined a few others on a 6am train out of London. It was painful. Running really has brought early mornings to my life! Walking from the station to the starting village we bumped into Lou and Elisa on the way. Such convenient timing. As we hung about waiting for the race to start we came across more and more faces we knew, dropped off our bags (conveniently the start and finish were in the same place) and soon we were off on our way.
Initially there were some single track paths and a little bit of jostling for space, but soon the space came and the first of many many hills paid us a greeting. We’d agreed (non-verbally) that we’d be walking all those damn hills. We had a cut-off of 6 hrs to complete the race and I was more than confident that this was highly achievable. Walking would be our friend! Naturally, with hills come great views and we were soon snapping away at each other and enjoying the fantastic early morning scenery on offer. Before we knew it we were passing through the first of the many checkpoints.
It quickly became apparent how well organised the event was. there were several points along the route were we’d cross roads or intersecting paths and, besides at the checkpoints, there were volunteers and marshals everywhere! Besides the various local running clubs that support the event, there were also volunteers from many of the local Rotary Clubs too. They were all so cheery, chatty and supportive and it really makes a difference when you’re out pushing yourself through endurance challenges.
The miles came and went and my belly was filling up with cake and jelly babies. We’d climbed several more hills and were now on a section of the route that saw us running towards Devils Dyke where we’d eventually turn around and retrace our steps before heading off in a different direction and looping back to the finish. As we reached the top of a long climb and started descending, we began to see runners heading towards us. The race leaders. We whooped and cheered them through and quickly developed our favourites for who we wanted to win – it was those runners who were conscious enough to return an acknowledgement. It doesn’t take much. A smile, a look even. I do get a little wound up by how ignorant some runners can be, even when you are pushing yourself to your limits you can muster a smile at least. It became a game for us. Cheering and supporting the runners louder and louder and mocking some as they passed “quick, grey shirt dude is catching you!”. We had fun at least. As the numbers increased we took turns amusing each other by cheering alternative runners passed.
The larger hills at this section went by easily as we were having such a laugh. We hit the turnaround point at Devils Dyke and continued our game as we cheered through those runners at the back of the pack. As we neared the checkpoint at the Hostel we came across Gemma. She was out on her own battling her demons with such a positive and cheery outlook. Hugs exchanged, we carried on with a brief stop at the Hostel where I got comfortable chatting to the volunteers and ramming chocolate brownie and pretzels into my gob. Delicious!
We were over half way through by this point and the only thing of concern was Elisa’s knee. She’d been acknowledging a high level of pain for quite some time, only intermittently forgotten about when her fingers swelled to the size of some chubby sausages which caused us endless amusement. Elisa powered on, determined to overcome the pain. Soon, after passing back along side a quarry we’d seen earlier, we headed further inland away from the coast which seemed so near yet so far. We started passing more runners in the other direction whom we initially mistook for participants in the race. We realised though they were doing another – the XRNG Devils Challenge which is a 100 mile 3 day event along the South Downs. The runners, despite being on day two of their challenge, were all so upbeat and we exchanged good wishes for our respective races.
As you run trail events and longer distances, you start to become accustomed to the awful stench you produce. Be that the sweat and and odour of the body or the many gases seeping their way out of your body however they can. I most admit though, something didn’t smell right. It smelt awful. I wasn’t sure if it was me or them. I was hoping it was neither. “Pig Farm!!” Lou screamed out. I sighed a small sigh of relief. That explained everything. Pigs everywhere. Honking and squealing they looked at us like we were crazy. I looked at them like I was hungry! Baby pig Pig Pig Pig Pig, Baby pig pig pig…. all day long I’d had the Baby Shark song stuck in my head and couldn’t stop singing it every time we passed a baby animal – cow, sheep and now pigs! Irritating on so many levels.
Further on from the pigs, at one of the highest parts of the course, we passed fishermen. In a field. A field of grass. No water. Were we hallucinating? where we lost? Something wasn’t right. All the runners near us were thinking the same and we all laughed at the weirdness of it as we watched them throw their lines into the lush green fields. What the fuck?! It turns out it was some form of competition for throwing your line out – whatever that is called. Casting? We were amused anyway.
We continued chatting away to each other and with other runners around us also enjoying the day, like ourselves, as a training run for something else. We exchanged stories of challenges to come and what lay ahead. There are some incredible people out there! After a while as we began to spread out again we noticed we were continually near one older gentleman. The ‘Noisy Man’ as we came to affectionately know him. Everything about him was noisy – the heavy breathing, the funny noises he’d occasionally make and heavy stamping feet. We wanted away from him but found we spent the rest of the day leapfrogging each other (mostly as we’d stop and enjoy the treats at the aid stations, or ‘having a dinner party’ as he commented!).
Before we knew it, we were approaching mile 21. The checkpoint was conveniently placed on top of a hill. One with a picturesque view though. At the top of the hill, in a green pastured field, was a small cluster of trees. It was quite a sight. We stopped and took photos and had a mini photo-shoot with the mile marker before carrying on. Elisa’s Knee was causing more pain but she was full of dedication and sheer determination to see it through, regardless what she felt. He mental strength is quite inspiring. All the while I ate more and more food and remembered the oranges! Soon would be their time. Lou on the other hand, despite being a constant moaner, was full of positivity and drove the conversations, making us laugh and take our mind off the route which was quite hard and rocky terrain for the most part). I think she is a far stronger runner than she gives herself credit for, especially given her injury setbacks over recent years.
The remainder of the course was more down hill with the last undulating hills which we smaller by comparison of the early ones. With a few km left to go we started to run downhill run towards the start, retracing the initial part of the route. Other than a few close calls where toes were stubbed and falls almost had, this felt like a breeze in comparison. We rounded the last turn, squeezing past some runners before crossing the finish line together. I think it was about 5hrs 30mins on the clock, well within the cut off time. We collected our medals, hi-fived our friends already finished and I head straight back the the food stand to get cakes and more biscuits. I loved it.
We were handed the most high-vis of all high-visibility garments you can imagine. Some last photos and hugs and we said our goodbyes. As the pair headed off home, I went back to the finish line and joined the others in waiting for the legend that is Arlene to finish. As she appeared in the distance and our support increased in volume, Jakub took the Town Crier’s bell and ‘rang’ her home. It was hilarious when he handed her this massive (heavy!) bell and little Arlene almost buckled under the weight of it! We were done. Time to begin the long and tiring journey back to London…