Stairway to Trail Heaven

How do you visualise a challenge? How do you imagine what you’ll endure and what you’ll face along the way? Comparisons work for me. I think what else have I done that is similar, how does it differ and compare to what I’ll attempt next. It normally works. Sometimes it isn’t so easy though, not when the challenge is so large. The Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) would not the furthest (distance) I’ve run. Comparably though, it is just about the highest I’d run. Likely it would also be the longest (duration) I’d run. It felt like a substantial challenge before I even considered he terrain, all you ever heard about is the steps. So I’d struggled to imagine myself enduring this event and what I’d really face. I was generally confident though.

Why so confident? What was different this time? I’m certainly more experienced in such events now. Just half a year ago I did my first mountain race and there have been a few under my feet since then! I’ve also upped my preparation game  a little. Stair work has been a regular part of my training, more on that later. I’ve also watched videos of past versions of the race (like a scene out of Cool Runnings, only I’m not sitting in a bath tub when I do it), looking at the terrain. The point of this was to hopefully minimise any surprises I had like in Trans Gran Canaria where the rocky riverbed mashed me up good and proper.

Physically I was feeling ready, generally I’ve been OK. The one visual that kept forming in my head, was a sort of ‘health check’ image of my body. Mostly green, but both ankles and my left knee were flashing orange, orange to indicate a lasting pain for weeks or months, something I’m aware of but hasn’t stopped me from running. I’ve carried on regardless, like the idiot that I am. So I headed out to MIUT good to go…

So what is MIUT? It’s another of the Ultra Trail World Tour races. The short blurb is you run across the island form coast to coast via the mountains. I went back onto the MIUT website (after the race) to grab some words and phrases of how the event is described and I’ve decided not to copy and paste or dilute the words. Pop over to the website and read the description of the event. I think it is quite something. Probably  because I can now visualise what it all means – MIUT – The Event

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The race profile. All of those climbs are ‘steep’!

Way back when I planned 2018, I saw a video of MIUT. Wow. I was sold. The tunnels. The views. I came very close to buying a sponsored entry for 2018 in my excitement. I’m glad I didn’t. I was so inexperienced and it would have ended badly for certain. Now this time I think I had a fighting chance. Of all the experience I’ve gained, developing an understanding of my mental strength and my ‘race mindset’ has been invaluable. No matter what else, that will see me through I thought. Time would soon tell…

The weeks leading up to the race had been a little stressful, my mind was contaminated with work. I don’t like it. I don’t like work either but I meant the thoughts occupying my mind, I don’t like those. The short story is I’m in limbo, between jobs. I’m waiting, patiently. Waiting to get confirmation and run my way out of the purgatory of my current role. But the waiting has dragged on far longer than it should. It should all have been sorted weeks before this event but it hasn’t been. I didn’t want to have all these thoughts in my head still and I was fearful of being alone with them for 30 hours or so of running in Madeira. They make me angry. I’ve noticed I’m clenching my jaw frequently of late and I’m sure it’s related. Angry Dai would be a wildcard on the trails. I needed a calm and clear head to focus on the challenge.

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Getting a feel of the finish line

Anyway, work left at home, flight and landing at the infamous Funchal airport successfully navigated, Yvette, Ale and I made our way to the event exhibition. They were both also running different events at MIUT. After registering and checking out the finish line we set off on our own little exploratory trip. Every adventure begins with a mini taster of the trails and we headed out to Ponta de São Lourenço. A lovely hike later in the Madeiran afternoon. It was an opportunity to sense the climate and get a feel for the conditions. It was grey and overcast, Warm but chilly. How do I pack now I thought? What should I carry to deal with the wind and cold at higher elevations? I’d have to think it through once more, but, the landscape lit up the gloom. A taster of things to come. I was excited. Very excited.

Race day. I slept for most of it. I still haven’t decided which is worse, an early morning wake up for an early start, or waiting around all day for a later start. This one was a midnight start. I woke around 8am after a decent sleep, had some breakfast and chilled with Ale and Yvette before prepping the kit bags and going back to bed for the afternoon. Drifting in and out of sleep before waking at 6pm for a pasta feast.

Come 9:30pm I was on the shuttle bus to the start. It was a long bus journey full of smelly runners (how do some people smell so bad before they’ve even started?). But, for me, worst of all, the loud group behind me who talked at excessive volumes the whole trip, including one lady who had an unnecessarily loud phone call (on loud speaker!) for a good 20 mins or so (of which I think about 15mins was spent saying good bye to her loved ones). Loud phone calls, hell loud conversations even, in public are a pet peeve of mine. I didn’t sleep any longer and ended up thinking about my work life again as another two days without answers had passed. I was hoping this would be the last of it.

We arrived in Porto Moniz and had about an hour or so before the start. The atmosphere was building and runners were huddling together to escape the ferocious wind. The Dj was getting the tracks going and some local musicians performed and danced to entertain us. With about 30 minutes to go they announced that they would start letting runners in to the start pen. By chance I was near the entrance so went straight in. I was therefore quite near the front of the 900 or so runners and, when the countdown completed, I felt it! We were off, heading through the town at a speedy 8min/mile pace. Runners passing me from all sides. I shouldn’t be running this fast I thought.

Soon the road turned and we started the first climb (just a baby at under 400m of elevation) as we skirted around Pico do Caldeirão. This was on windy switchbacks of the main road and wow. Just wow. My calves were on fire. I’ve never felt such instant pain in muscles before. They clearly didn’t like this, despite all the training and stairs I’d been doing. I was praying that this was only an initial reaction and wouldn’t last. I’d be in trouble if it did!

As we climbed through the town there was great support from all the locals. Drums and bells were ringing and plenty of chanting and cheering were coming from those gather along the roads. The main roads became narrow streets and paths and we climbed further and further. Many runners were already using their poles, but I felt it was unnecessary on the tarmac. We crossed streets and roads with built in steps in the centre of them and I’d alternate my climb between the (flatter) tarmac slopes and the steps. As the nature of the mountains goes, what goes up must come down and so the first descent began. Another mixture of road and trail and rather steep. Shortly before reaching the bottom I recall a very steep road. Gravity was instructing a fast descent. My brain was screaming out to put the brakes on, but gravity was, as always, the dominant force. It was a sprint. My feet were burning up. The friction in my heels was another new sensation and I thought my feet might combust. So soon into the race and I was already being tortured by MIUT!

As I descended I could hear the crowds up ahead. As we hit the bottom and the town of Ribeira da  Janela more fantastic supporters whooped and cheered every runner through. Almost in a sadistic way as they pointed us into the first of the ‘big’ climbs – ~1200m up to the first checkpoint of Fanal. As we started (with the poles out now!) I looked back and saw the trail of lights descending behind me. I’m really coming to love this sight of trail lights glowing in the darkness. Its almost magical.

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Trail of head torches descending behind me

The climb was very steep and very muddy. The terrain was forest and, under the moonlight and streams of flashlights, I could make out the sea of trees surrounding us. Occasionally we’d break out of the trees into the openness of fields as we’d cross to rejoin the forest paths in different directions. I don’t know how far we’d climbed before I realised two things; firstly, how cold I was. It was bitterly cold and the wind was howling. Secondly how sweaty I was. I remember glancing down and seeing sweat on my shorts all the way down, almost to my knees. I was drenched. This was the realisation that I was in a vicious circle of sweat. I was sweating because I was hot and exerting effort on the steep climbs. But the sweat, coupled with the mist of clouds we were now ascending through, was making me cold in the wind. I knew it would only get worse and was already calculating how to address this at the first check point. I wasn’t alone. Arriving at the packed checkpoint of Fanal I could see other runners layering up. I got chatting to a Scotsman as I layered up myself and he acknowledged the same. I opted for my ‘sweat bag’ aka the OMM Sonic Smock. Super lightweight wind protection. I felt this was the ideal choice as my waterproof would be too warm and a baselayer too heavy in this climate. The ‘sweat bag’ would take the chill off and I’d continue to sweat inside. I packed fist fulls of food into a sandwich bag and set back off into the night.

As we summited the mountain we were shrouded in mist in the open grassed peak. I could barely see the ground in front of me as the mist clouded the light from the head torch. I also remember in the darkness there were cows all around, wandering in the darkness. You almost didn’t see them until they walked close to you. In the mist we began to descend, still barely able to see the ground, until again we reached the forest. Here the paths were muddy and soft under foot as we’d wind our way down. I remember a few stretches were the trees had grown up and over the path way (or the path had been made through the trees?!) forming tunnels. These were almost magical. At the bottom we reached the checkpoint of Chão da Ribeira, a quick break before the second of the big climbs towards Estanquinhos (another 1200m El gain) would begin. One which was a real introduction to the steps I’d heard so much about. Time to put all that stair training to good use. Just as we neared the start, running down a main road we were again greeted with immense local support as the crowds cheered us upwards with the screams of ‘vamos’ onto the steps. These steps felt never ending. Mostly it made the climb fairly easy though. Easy in the sense of you had a sure foothold, even during the muddy parts. It was still bloody hard work. Repetitive. Lunging forward and having to be sure to vary the effort on both legs (the steps weren’t quite shallow enough for a regular walking pattern). Occasionally we’d break from the steps and head through some mountain tunnels, navigating around the rockfaces. Natural water channels had been carved out and water flowed through these tunnels like streams. Then, mostly, this climb was through more dense forest. You could smell the fauna and hear the silence of the night. If you can hear silence that is. The steps were now essentially circular pieces of wood with earth packed up behind them. Sometimes so worn you were just hurdling the wood itself. As the trees started to becomes less and the trail widend, the moonlight lit up the summit above us. The moon was so bright and felt so close. I felt like I could reach out and touch it gently. As I looked forward I could no longer tell of up ahead whether I was looking at headlamps in the distance of simply seeing the stars of the night (it was the later!).

After sometime I felt we must have been nearing the checkpoint at Estanquinhos. But I was greeted with disappointment on multiple occasions. I’d hear noise or see tents but these turned out to be either bib number checks or extra medical assistance points. No rest-bite just yet. We began a short descent before climbing further and eventually checkpoint came. I didn’t plan to stay long but I soon joined many other runners huddled under a heater warming my hands and trying to dry out my gloves. Then it was back out into the night once more.

The steep descent down the mountain was like running through a rain-forest. Even in the darkness I could see it was lush green in colour. The smell of eucalyptus was powerful and I smiled to myself knowing it was blocking out the less than pleasant stench I was generating! Through the forest there were streams lined with trees we’d run through, slipping and sliding down the loose soil and mud. There were some more mountain tunnels and at one point we emerged onto a rock formation which we’d climb over via a stone-pathed path with cabled fencing to ‘protect’ from the drops either side. I had to get the camera out now as dawn was arriving, but sadly there was not enough light to capture the experience properly on film. As the descent continued we we were soon hit with the true glory of the morning breaking. We were still rather high when the trees fell away and exposed the panoramic views of the mountains. The layers of red and orange glow from the sun behind some distant mountains faded into the blue and black of the night sky. A battle for dominance was unfolding before us, all above a fluffy bed of clouds. Again my camera couldn’t handle its beauty. It was like a stereotypical drawing a child would make of the clouds and mountains.

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My camera really couldn’t capture it, but just below the glow of the sun was a layer of cloud with mountains peaking through them

We ran down some long and wide gravel switch backs as morning broke and headed into the checkpoint at Rosario. Shortly afterwards, emerging through the forest I found myself chatting to a guy from Essex as we began the next ascent to Encumeada. We were chatting away when two runners came bounding towards us and then took a sharp turn uphill. Following them we’d thought they’d gone wrong before we clocked their bib colour- they were on the ‘ultra’ distance race which started at 7am. We must have been making great time as they were alone and running uphill fast., I assumed they therefore would have been near the front of the pack. As we climbed more sections of never ending steps we were passed constantly by the fresh Ultra runners.

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Morning breaking over Rosario

Eventually we reached the checkpoint at Encumeada which was a personal assistance zone, so it was packed with runners and their designated helpers. They were serving hot food but, despite being ‘breakfast’ time I didn’t feel the need. Perhaps my Tailwind was keeping me adequately fuelled. I snacked a little to be sure I had energy and went about swapping out the buff for the sun cap and took off my arm warmers. Despite still sweating from effort I was already dry from the heat of the morning. It was beginning to get warm! I knew the next section was long (about 15km) so I went about ensuring I had 3 bottles of water at hand and knocked back plenty of liquids before setting out -Including a few cups of some horrible flavoured isontonic sports drink available. Laying in wait before the next checkpoint at appropriately halfway were a few “smaller” climbs and descents.

I misjudged those climbs though and didn’t use my poles. I probably should have. Looking at the elevation profile of the route this section didn’t appear to be too daunting, just because there were three sections that looked far more impressive on paper, so I naively underestimated them. The first was up the steps leading alongside the infamous gas pipe. It was very steep. A very slow climb as it was packed with runners with limited opportunity to pass. I’m glad I trained stairs, but this was a whole new level of working out!

Once we reached the top it was a lot of windy single track paths descending followed by a lot more climbing. This one felt like an eternity despite not being one of the ‘big’ ones. I was quickly getting through all my water supplies and was glad I’d planned ahead. Despite the difficulties along this section the views were simply stunning. At some point I think we’d run around a mountain  (Pico Grande?) as the views changed so much and we could now see different peaks towering in the distance.

Down below a town as visible, it must have been Cural Das Freiras, the halfway checkpoint as we soon began to head down again. This one hurt me. It was very technical and very long. I was slowing quite a lot and could feel the effects the terrain was having on my feet. All the downhills in MIUT are so steep that your feet are being bashed about in your shoes. My feet were raw now. As we neared the bottom I could see a road with runners running in both directions. It was confusing and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating, but clearly it was the route intended. As I reached the road we were sent in the downhill direction first. An old guy was sitting outside his house with a hose pipe wishing runners well. I wished him Bom Dia and drenched my hat in his cold water. It was bliss. After the road we hit some more technical trails were we would climb up and over the town and main road to reach the checkpoint. I couldn’t judge how long this would take and my watch battery was low (too low I realise now…) so I stopped to set it charging. This was the plan for the halfway point but I didn’t quite make it in time.

Reaching the checkpoint I tucked into some pasta. It was plain and tasteless, but very much needed to keep me going. I witnessed a small argument between volunteers which was amusing. The lady serving the food clearly didn’t want help and kept snapping at another lady who was dishing out food and setting it ready on the counter tip – a good idea I thought as there was a bit of a queue forming waiting for the serving lady to go about her methodical process regardless of demand.

After eating I headed over to the drop bag space set up in a large sports hall. I spent a good 45 minutes in total freshening up, changing and swapping out kit from my bag. I know it was 45 minutes because, as I was queuing for food, I’d noticed my watch had completely stopped. Dammit. I realise now the Suunto had auto-saved the activity as the battery was too low. Dammit, that would be a pain for monitoring my average pace later in the race. Oh well.

As I set off to leave I passed through the mandatory kit check. I fully endorse these, safety first after all. One requirement was a minimum of 1ltr of water as the next climb to the highest point of Madeira – Pico Ruivo, at 1862m was a beast. I had 2 ltrs on me and I’m so glad I did….

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Climbing again

Coming out of the checkpoint we crossed the town and went down some weird industrial path with steel steps back onto the main road were we now went in the ‘up’ direction. After some time slowly walking the road I could see runners climbing in the distance. Time to go back up I thought. I can’t remember too much of the details of this next climb despite it being the longest continuous climb. It was steps again. Inevitably, a shit tonne of steps. I’ve no idea what direction or how we reached were we did. It was a head down and power on up kind of job. I kept thinking I’d take a break and treat myself to a few moments rest when the trail next broke/flattened out, but there was no natural break that appealed to me so I kept going. Kept pushing. Kept heading up. Like Yass would say “The only way is up…“.  Then, eventually I reached ‘trail heaven’. As runners ran passed me I noticed (the rather unmissable) view. To our left was a sea of clouds. To our right was mountain ranges as far as your eyes could see. I stopped and started taking photos. I sat down and had a snack. Soon others did the same around me, I had the best seat though!

I had a huge smile on my face now and went for one more photo before I would get a move on again. Behind me there was a shout out “taking selfies are we?!” to which my reply was “take a look and don’t say you won’t do the same!” It was Yvette. She’d been running for a few hours on the ultra race and had now caught me up. I had wondered if we’d meet at all and suspected she’d already be ahead of me. I was fully committed to walking mode now though (I know, already!) and she went off ahead. There were several more climbs and a few very steep descents as we’d weave around various peaks to Pico Ruivo. I was constantly stopping to take more pictures. Some steps here were terrifyingly steep. If you have vertigo, don’t go here!

Up at Pico Ruivo, in a tiny checkpoint (with an open fireplace flickering away!) I met Yvette again. After refuelling and guzzling a load of Pepsi we headed off once more with Yvette out in front. I wanted her to leave. To run her race. To enjoy it and experience it for what it is. This was her first time going over 50km and it was a monster of a course. It’s great to know people and share these trails, but, there is always time for that. I didn’t want her thinking about me or changing her race as a result of my progress. I was 70 plus kms in and fading faster than the descents. Like many other races I’ve done I was ready (and happy) to power hike it to the finish from here. I had no doubt I’d soon be embracing the darkness of my thoughts, for which I make bad company to be around!

As we headed towards the observatory we were in for more treats from the Gods. More sections of steep stone steps and some rusty old metal steps (also terrifying!). All around us the paths dropped away to nothing. Nothing but certain death. How these paths were ever created I do not know! Then, then the tunnels. Again I’d read so much about these were the footpaths stopped weaving around the mountains and instead cut straight through. There were a few. First very short (you could see the light at the end of the tunnel) then several longer ones (where you couldn’t see the end). For the later few you needed your head torch. I didn’t have mine to hand and couldn’t be bothered so I winged it. Poles tapping away as I walked through the utter darkness using the distant glow from another runner far ahead to offer some sense of direction. Another surreal experience.

And then, after some really steep steps (yeah ok, I don’t know what the difference between steep, very steep and really steep are any more either, but these were the kind of steep where you wanted to make sure you body weight was leaning INTO the steps as you climbed!) we emerged onto the ridge way. A path along the ridge with a sheer drop either side. Spectacular.

Just before the observatory I met an English dude from Watford and we walked and chatted together until the next checkpoint Chao da Lagoa. I had some snacks and saw Yvette yet again. She was keeping good pace ahead of me. From here it was mostly down hill now with just one sizeable climb remaining. This was going to be tough I thought. My body is breaking with each run and challenge I do. With each event I think I’m getting slower at the downhills as a result. The pain and cautious approach I now take is a little bit of a hindrance. I knew there was one very technical bit waiting but I didn’t know which part it was. Early on we had a fairly technical part just as we began the descent back beneath the clouds (we’d now spent hours enjoying life above them!). I was hoping this would be the worst of it.

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Last of the day light and time to go below the clouds again

I was hiking along at a decent speed and would occasionally be passed by runners, but I kept catching one who’d run, then walk. This was the classic thing I’ve noticed. To me it  seems like a misuse of energy to put effort into running only then to lose the gains through walking so slowly. Arrogantly I think my power hike is far more efficient over a long distance. I was stuck behind him for sometime and was going to pass him, but he struggled badly and fell a few times on the technical bits. So we ended up talking and I felt stuck with him. He was Polish and had a thick accent. We struggled to understand each other and honestly, at this point I didn’t want to talk, not to him or anyone. Thankfully the tracks soon gave way to wider paths that were quite runnable. I even broke into a run as gravity once again took control. Soon we reached the bottom and it was time to head back up for that final big climb. Not far ahead on the road I could see Yvette in front of all the other runners who had passed me on the descent when I was walking. I zipped past them all as we climbed. Yvette and I climbed together now, back through the forests. It was a long one. We knew there was an checkpoint (Poiso) waiting at the top and as we emerged once again above the layer of clouds we sensed it was close. Another false hope. It must have been another few kilometres of climbing and power hiking before we reached it. We’d talked about layering up when we arrived as it was now around 8pm and I noticed the night before it was colder around 9 and completely dark 30 mins later. When we’d begin the next descent we’d head below the clouds for the rest of the race. The climate would be different and we’d end the race running along the coast.

As we arrived at the checkpoint and I immediately started shivering. Stopping movement, even walking, had a dramatic effect. I got some soup on the go and started layering up once more. By chance I was under a heater again. This was good, as was the soup so I had more. It was a salty delight. We left and began heading back down – we still had 1000m to descend before the finish in Machico. I can’t remember this section. Nothing. My memory has gone blank. The only thing I remember is arriving at the Portela Checkpoint. The last personal assistance zone. As I reached some steps down into the checkpoint I heard a Kaaar Kaaaar call out. In a very delayed reaction I responded. It was Ale. He saw me in. Inside I had more soup again. So so good. Yvette and I left together with a course overview from Ale as he’d completed this part earlier in the day on the marathon race. We had 5km until the next checkpoint, a wide track, then forest paths and a very technical descent. Bollocks, I was hoping it was already one of the descents completed. Oh well.

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Salty soup delight

We set off power hiking again. A few runners passed us but not many. The wide track was just that – a wide track. Dull but flat. The Forest was surreal. In the darkness the head torches lit up the trees and the sheer drop we were running along. Don’t slip! The ground was wet and soft and slipping was a real likelihood. We hit a wooden cabin all lit up with fairy lights and had our numbers checked. It was time to go down. Fuck me this was bad. Switchback tracks making it steep. Rocks that you’d have to jump or lunge down. And nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. Adding to the wet loose soil I was. for the first time, fearful I might disappear on a trail! And it almost happened many times. I lost count of how times I slipped and skidded down on my backside. How many tims I screamed out profanities into the night and how many times my hiking poles were my savior. The body visuals I had were now screaming red in my feet and ankles! I was hurting.

Last checkpoint Larano. More soup. Yummy. 12km to go. Next stop was the finish. I was doing the math. That’s still 2-3hours on a mountain ultra. Time for the brain to engage and win this battle. Yvette headed out and I wasn’t far behind her.

I don’t know how we got there, but there was a few km along the coastal path. Wow. Below us on the left was the sea (I could hear it not see it!) to our immediate right the rock face. In and out along every cove and rock face. Lights up ahead from runners bobbing about. I was behind another runner walking it in. He was also walking at a good pace so I didn’t pass him. I could have gone faster but it would have been an extra bit of effort I didn’t want to muster. Runners passed us but it was difficult on the single track and we’d have to time it right so they could. There was a stretch that had been lit up with extra lights. I’m not sure why this section only had it, but it was a delight and very pretty in the moonlight.

We then turned and headed inland and once again I found myself stuck behind the Polish guy as we hit some technical tracks and continued our descent. It was a little frustrating and a repeat of the situation a few hours earlier. After sometime he stepped aside and I walked passed.

The next challenge was running alongside a water channel. It was long. Like forever long. Machico was below us. The end felt near, I could see the town. We needed to descend the remaining 300m or so. Surely soon I thought, but the water channel path just kept going on and on. Many people were walking and I’d catch them up and pass when I could. Occasionally I’d be stuck behind someone and struggle to pass. I needed to keep walking at my pace I thought. I was engaged in finishing now. Determined. Looking up ahead the lights of runners continued at the same altitude round the mountains into the distance. When will this end?!

Finally a sharp right was indicated and we descended through some fields. No defined track as such it was a just a case of following the reflections from the course markings reflecting down below. Gravity once again won through and I ran down grunting and swearing with each rocky step. As we hit the road I continued. I could see the the finish line below in the distance. Maybe a kilometre to go? If I stopped running now I might not start up again. I was on it. I ran passed a few runners. Finish strong, the way I like it. As I hit the flat road the Polish guy whizzed passed me. I bet he was more grateful than I was to be on flat ground! As I crossed the line Ale and Yvette were there. Yvette ushered someone to give me a medal. I think the volunteers must have been tired too – it was 2am afterall!

The words that came out of my mouth were “is there a finishers gilet?” There wasn’t. That annoyed me. I quite like those as a different memento. Ultra races always have such an anticlimax of a finish I find. So many emotions. You never know what to expect. What you want. What you are going to feel. Suddenly it can seem like the whole day of exertion amounts to something as silly as a gilet! I was happy though, challenge completed. I was a finisher.

My immediate thoughts on MIUT? It’s utterly spectacular. The trails are without doubt the most picturesque I’ve run on so far. I’d highly recommend it. It is however brutal. I dread to think how many thousands of steps and stairs you climb. The ascents and descents are soul destroying and it is a very technical race. If you’re going to do it, be prepared. Train for it!

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Mandatory photo shoot for a bit of metal

The next day we drove back up to the observatory. Ales marathon race didn’t take in Pico Ruivo so we thought that would be a good place for him to see. Of course, we took our medals out for a photo shoot!

Ciao Grazie

Another race report, another heavy feature for the Wild Trail Runners. I write about this lot fairly frequently now. It is Probably representative of how much time I spend with them because they are a truly wicked bunch. Trips to Italian mountains to run races? Yes please, I’ll have some of that!

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Wild TR on tour

Last year I followed the adventure of a group of the Wild Trail Runners from my phone in the comfort of home, watching as the group either ran or crewed the SciaccheTrail, and I was jealous. The trails and scenery looked spectacular and they looked to be having so much fun. So when they arranged to go again I was straight in there.

The SciaccheTrail is an event held in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. The race is roughly 50k and somewhere around 2500m of elevation gain. You start and finish in the town of Monterosso Al Mare, looping out and up into the mountains then along the coast, up and down into each town of the region then back to the finish line where it all began.

I set out to Italy without a (running related) care in the world. There would be a group of nine of us and I’d have no pressure on the race itself. With MIUT two weeks away this was always going to be a tune up event for me. My one focus was to see how the recovery is/was afterwards to benchmark for later in the year where I have two ultra mountain races within 3 days. No doubt I’ll write more about that in the weeks and months to come but for now it is the time to see how that might work out!

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Shake it out!

Leaving London on the Thursday I stayed in Pisa overnight and took the early train to Levanto. Meeting the crew (who arrived the day before ) at 9am I was able to join them on the now customary ‘shakeout run’. We ran over to Monterosso Al Mare and experienced a tiny section of the trail we’d explore the next day. It filled me with excitement.

That evening we returned to Monterosso and registered and collected quite possibly the most generous race pack I’ve ever received. The race is part of a regional festival and besides the obligatory race T-shirt and sponsored goodies (like a hat from La Sportiva) each runner received a bag of local produce including pasta and wine! How good is that?!

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Start line vibes

The next day we rocked up to the start line ready for the 7:30am start. With under 300 runners it was a very easy and low key start. Before we knew it the countdown had begun and we were released. The first part of the course head out of Monterosso Al Mare along the coast back towards Levanto before which we began the first climb.

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The sun is shining…

That First climb was steep and busy. Steps and Rocks were the terrain but generally it was soft underfoot. The first summit at Monte Negro took us into, and through some tree lined paths which were a delight. The morning mist that shrouded the summit soon started to giveaway to the glorious bright sunshine as morning broke. I’m beginning to love those early morning sunrises when I’m running high up near the clouds and hear nothing but the sound of my feet tapping the paths.

Soon we came upon the first aid station followed by a long road stretch along the top of the mountains before dropping sharply and then beginning the next big climb towards Monte Soviore. Further on we’d reach the highest point of the race at Monte Malpertuso after the third climb. The climb began with a steady switchback along the roads where Kirsty caught up with me. We ran together interchanging paces as is overtake her on the climbs and she’d wizz past on the downs. An all too familiar experience for these races now!

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Running with Kirsty

Running through some more tranquil tree-lined forests I was at peace and smiling. Then up ahead some guy came over the hill towards the runners. He had a Wild Trail Runners shirt on and I was curious. My mind clearly wasn’t thinking as it was Matt. Of course it was Matt. He was out to support us all and said he’d be around the 20km mark!

Shortly afterwards Kirsty reappeared again and we ran together. We have a similar race pace and stuck around each other chatting away as the forest was very runnable. Soon she’ll be leaving for New Zealand and I’ll miss having her pop up in races to run with. She’ll be missed from the group.

We began a long down hill section as we headed towards where the course would loop back and head towards the town of Riomaggiore. Much of the previous section it was all incredibly runnerble. Just before the edge of the loop, Kirsty pulled up with cramp and as I reached the end of a down hill section we arrived at an aid station. I shouted back at her to carry on. This aid station was phenomenal. I’d been loving the oranges so far, blood oranges and so juicy. I’d heard about the cakes at aid stations and i had resisted the panettone up until this point. Here I couldn’t resist the cakes anymore though when I caught sight of a giant crostata. I love a good jammy crostata and started stuffing my face. I had three pieces and grabbed a forth along with more oranges and biscuits and cracked on. As we left a camera man called out to me ‘ciao’ and I smiled widely whilst shoving biscuits and tart into my gob.

The course continued downwards towards the town and we began traversing the first of many vineyards we’d run through that day. I whipped out the camera for more photos and as we were posing Maggie popped up behind us and we ran on as a three for a bit. This section was beautiful as we weaved through the various vineyards overlooking the coast.

We soon began the steep descent to Riomaggiore which was tough. Very tough. It was a Steep down hill on cobbled Steps and paths. For the first real time that day I felt my body begin to talk to me. My feet were sore with raw toes and achy ankles and knees were registered. I altered my technique and was actively braking as I continued down. Maggie went flying past and vanished off. She’s such a strong down hill runner. As we entered Riomaggiore Matt was there again grabbing photos and cheering us through. Hi fives and cheers were embraced and I swung a sharp right straight back up to some steps as I blasted on and skipped the aid station in the town.

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Maggie enjoying the views from the Vineyards above Riomaggiore

The Aid-stations were now every few kms and I didn’t need them all. Making sure I’d fill my bottles I could skip one each time. As we climbed up and out of the town I was back with Maggie and Kirsty and we climbed to together until Kirsty pulled up again with cramp. We left her (sorry!) as we powered up. At the top Maggie and I ran the huge bridge before beginning the next climb. This was a tough climb through old stone paths along the vineyards. We took some photos and Maggie pointed out that this was our first race together. I’ve run with her so much now since we met just over a year ago that I hadn’t even realised we’d not run an event together. As I stopped to take more photos Maggie carried on. But what a photo it was…

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This caught my attention

Soon we were running down hill again and I was passing runners this time and feeling strong but Maggie was no where in sight. The next undulations took us to the town of Manarola. Were we run down into the busy tourist streets and straight through and back up. The aid station volunteers ensured runners navigated the crowds of tourists with ease. On the climb or I caught up with Maggie once more. Again we walked and talked and she directed me to a public tap half way up some stairs (she did the race the year before). We soaked our hats and carried on. Not too far further up we reached another aid station were I began to refill my Tailwind (my little travel bottle technique is working a charm!). Maggie left left me at the aid station as she doesn’t stay long at all. A few moments later, with coke in my belly I cracked on. It was hot now in the heat of the day and the fuelling was becoming critical. Whilst I’d eaten loads of fruit cake and biscuits, I needed to constantly hydrate. A benefit of having so many aid stations is that they don’t get busy. I presume because like me, most runners wont stop at them all.

In the distance the start/finish of Monterosso Al Mare loomed. It seemed so far away. There must still have been about ten miles to go and the trails and towns came and went. The climbs now between towns were all steep steps and combinations of natural as well as man made paths. The streets and towns were packed with locals and tourists alike and the trails were windy and often involved crossing small rivers. I Thought of the finish and powered on.

We sort of by-passed Corniglia and then headed into Vernazza. A lovely little port town with amazing coloured houses. I stopped on the path and joined some tourists taking photos. As I had all day long I greeted them with “Ciao Grazie”, the limits of my Italian vocabulary. After leaving Vernazza I’d occasionally glimpse Maggie in the distance as the paths crossed or I could see her running the other side of a cliff as I could see up ahead where runners were going. I carried on knowing there were no more major climbs of note to overcome. I was in the zone and running. The finish now appeared closer. I could sense the end. I was momentarily stuck behind two Italians with poles. They didn’t seem keen to let me pass and I had to buy my time. I saw an opportunity and powered past. Then I focused on not stopping. After making such a clear statement I couldn’t let them catch me again. I kept going. Rounding the bends and powering the last few steps onto the main road. A down hill finish. I could see Maggie ahead for the last time as she was crossing the line and I kicked on. As I neared the finish I noticed the cheer squad of Matt and Tamas clapping to see me home. Straight away I was rewarded with the lovely wooden medal and shared a hug and a photo with Maggie. As we collected some ice cold beer two lovely old ladies hugged us (they must surely of regretted that!) and congratulated us (I presume, they were Italian). And, best of all, we each received 10 Euros cash at the end (a deposit back for the racing chip!). Amazing. I Felt like a pro being given money at the finish!

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Glad to finish that one!

We hung around and cheered the other runners home and saw in the rest of the team as they arrived one by one. We cooled off in the sea, or at least I dipped my feet and ankles in, it was freezing! Before celebrating with Maggie as she was presented on the podium as the 9th female (the SciaccheTrail rewards the top ten males and females). After which we headed to the free pasta party and filled our stomachs with more amazing local produce of vegetarian lasagne, seafood pasta, grilled octopus and veg, and that was just the mains!!

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The wooden medal is made by a local shop

Eventually we headed back to our flat in Levanto and chilled out before we couldn’t stay awake any longer.

The next day a few of the group went for a hike whilst Yvette and I joined Matt on his training run. It turned into a photoshoot for me as I had won a place in the Adidas City Run race which I couldn’t make. So I did my ‘hour’ along the Italian coast.

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The weather the next day wasn’t so enjoyable!

Another excellent weekend adventure running. What better way to explore the Cinque Terre region?!

Player 1 vs The Serpent Trail

*** In the summer of 2018 I ran the Serpent Trail 100 event. Shortly afterwards I wrote a blog. possibly my favourite personal bit of writing to date. At some point later in the year I noticed the blog had vanished. WordPress claim it was deleted and unrecoverable. I sobbed a little. Over the months since I’ve tried to recreate it. It isn’t the same, it is no longer an original thought. It is merely an attempt at remembering what I wrote in 2018 and preserving my memory for old age. Either way, here it is…. ***

Player 1 vs Serpent Trail

The Serpent Trail. A serious of footpaths and routes weaving through West Sussex. Aptly named from the slithering shape it creates from Haslemere to Petersfield (and that it is a habitat to British species of snake). The 64mile path is home to a small (but growing!), local-ish race from Tom and the team at Freedom Racing. I just couldn’t say no to giving it a go. It would be good training for my upcoming CCC adventure.

I headed down after work on Friday where I planned to camp the night before the race. The organisers had arranged for a shuttle bus service to take us from the campsite at the finish line to the start in Haslemere. Nice and easy. After checking in and registering with a lovely friendly welcome, setting up tent and collecting my bib and dib-dab tracker whatsit I went to bed. It would be an early start with the bus leaving at 5am.

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Rolling start…Freeeeedom

I chatted to a few other tired runners on the bus and tried to get a little more shut eye in before I really had to wake up. A long day lay in wait. Arriving in Haslemere we walked to the start, hidden behind a pub and, just like that, we were off. A sort of rolling start began as we all just began running. Finding our stride, heading out on to the Serpent Trail we were off!

The early mile or two confirmed a few thoughts I’d had. My mind was in overdrive. The day was still very young. We’d not yet covered but a few miles and I could sense the challenge ahead. It was the height of summer. A warm one at that. The Serpent would become my nemesis. My opponent. The challenger I’d have to overcome. I recalled the computer games of my childhood. The early 90s. It reminded me of the platformers and the ‘beat em ups’. Player 1 vs the The Serpent Trail. I was in control.

Within barely a few miles I heard my name called out. I turned to meet the warm smile of Ally. We shared mutual friends. We’d never met but we’d been told about each other running. We ran and chatted and soon found out we were neighbours!

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Making friends on the trails

The sun had started to come out and the early morn was breaking. We celebrated the warmth of the daybreak by getting lost. Not alone though. Others followed us. Somehow we were tracking back the way we came. Ally felt familiarity in the route. She recalled a gate we went through. I wasn’t so sure until a little further along when I noticed a trail sign on the bottom of a tree. It was a weird place to put one and I’d spotted it first time we passed. We back tracked and were soon on the right path again. Joking with the camera man we saw for a second time.

The first aid station was soon a welcome sight. Today they would be spread out over a decreasing distance as we closed in on the finish. The first was ten miles in. We didn’t stay long. We grabbed some stuff and carried straight on. Passing through we saw a runner who’d already lost his battle to the Serpent. His head was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Sights like this often fill me with fear when running. Accidents can happen and when they do they can be pretty bad. The Serpent clearly had his tricks to try and win the battle.

Ally and I ran together for a fair few miles before eventually we went our separate ways. We promised not to get lost again. I broke that promise almost immediately. Before too long I was coming up behind Ally once more as we ran along a road section. I don’t know how it happened. But I could feel the draining effect it had. The Serpent sapping my energy with his mind games. I’d have to focus more. I couldn’t afford to keep getting lost. In the heat any extra distance I covered would mean the Serpent would pound me down and win this battle. Not today I thought. Not today.

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Early morning smiles (pre getting lost!)

Moving on, for the second time that morning I waved goodbye to Ally. We planned to meet again at the finish as she kindly offered me a lift back. That would be better than spending a second night sleeping in a field. The second checkpoint was a welcome relief. The sun was in a prominent position in the sky now. Whilst I chatted to the volunteers Ally rocked up. We were allowed drop bags at this checkpoint and Ally was well prepared. She’d frozen isotonic drinks in her softflasks and put ice packs in her drop bag to keep them cool. Genius. I was a little jealous. Well played Ally! Immediately after setting back out I was lost again. Somehow I’d missed a turn and was running alongside a field of sheep. They were noisily bleeping and leaping all over the place. Perhaps trying to tell me that I’d fucked up and gone wrong, again.

Back on track I thought about the battle. I thought about those videogames I used to play. Each character had their special skills, their power moves and weaknesses. I was starting to understand what I was up against in my opponent. The Serpent’s main weapon in the battle was the path itself. The terrain. The path would twist and turn. It would vary from forest paths, to dirt tracks, to rooty-tree lined tracks, sandy hills and occasional roads. As soon as you’d get accustomed to running on one surface, the bastard would switch it up. Thankfully the hilliest sections were in the first half of the course. But I could use this to my advantage – with hills come viewpoints. With winding paths come alternative views. The course was scenic and I’d use this to my benefit and enjoy whatever was presented to me.

Sometimes though the terrain was tough. There was one particularly fruity climb just before the third checkpoint. The Serpent was throwing it down to us. Challenging us. Taunting us. Reaching the top I was dripping with sweat. I took the chance to replenish my energy and I spent a little while at the aid station – joking with the volunteer and cheering through other runners making sure they dabbed in. He offered me a job. I declined and set back out. It was hot. Morning had become midday. The sun was scorching.

I realised the Serpent was a sneaky opponent. He was one of those with the ability to call in allies. Collectively I came to think of these as an ‘army of bastards’. One of which was the Bastard Prick of a Sun. The Sun, although limited in duration, was unreachable. I couldn’t attack it. I could only avoid it. The Bastard Prick of a Sun rained down its relentless rays of heat, pounding the runners and terrain alike. This was a UK heatwave. Nothing sapped my energy more than the sun this day. I could only avoid it when the terrain gave me refuge in the forests and shade of trees. I weaved and dodged all day long finding those rest bites, those shaded tracks. If I could get to the evening, its power would vanish and I’d come through on top. Hours away though. In the meantime water and shade were my friends.

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Checkpoint jokers

The Serpent wasn’t the only one bringing support to the fight though. I had the camaraderie of other runners. I often thought of Ally and I chatted away with others as and when I could. In addition there were the volunteers. The checkpoints were the friendliest I’d ever encountered. A real family feel. Each one you were welcomed into and cheered out of. I’d use this camaraderie to see me through the battle.

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Before I knew it the Serpent upped his game. In the height of the midday sun, whilst the Bastard Prick of a Sun was showering me with heat, the Serpent lay down a gauntlet of confusing paths and sandy hills. It was tough. I went wrong multiple times. I was trying to interpret the signage of the Serpent Trail that were all ambiguously positioned. They could have been pointing down one of many routes. I had a gpx file but signal was poor and it often took too long to correct the course. Many times I chose wrong. Many times I extended my run and depleted my energy supplies. On one occasion I met another of the Serpents bastard army – Spikey Foilage. Running full steam into an overgrown path I ended up being shredded by spikes from Bastard Foliage. Damn. I was weakening. I needed to get back in this battle. The midday sun was blistering and my heart sank as realised I’d gone wrong yet again and had to retrace my steps uphill and once more through the Spikey Bastard. My legs were screaming from what felt like a thousand cuts. I was out in the open, running more sandy paths with little shade. My throat was dry and water wasn’t quenching my first. I carried on and used my wits were I could – My brain would be my biggest strength. Determination and stubbornness to repel the Serpent’s attacks. I’d run when I could, sticking to the shade and minimising the time I spent exposed to the sun. When exposed, I’d be sensible and walk in the sun to avoid overexertion.

Earlier than expected another checkpoint appeared in the distance. There was a tent. That meant shade. This was the best one. Exactly what I needed. It was full of friendly support , all the volunteers were Tom’s family. His mum and his sister were there and they were great and lifted my spirits and prevented me from succumbing to the beating I’d been taking. One of them offered me a cold wet towel to cool off. Lots of ice and food was available and I took as much as I could. Like in Streets of Rage and eating a chicken  found in a dustbin my energy levels were restored, the health bar refilled. The red turned to green. I was jubilant. I was back in the fight. I was on top now and ready to press forward and attack The Serpent.

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Chicken from a bin. Classic

The second wind was embraced and I ran and ran. As the miles counted down I wondered what the football scores were. It was the World Cup and England were playing Sweden. For the earlier games, the aid stations had been updating scores on their welcome/sandwich  boards. It was good to follow the changes each stop and see how they finished. As I ran I started to realise I’d been running solo for quite sometime now. I couldn’t remember the last runner I’d encountered. I hadn’t been passed either and started to wonder what my position might be. I was expecting a checkpoint but it didn’t come. My water was running low and my feet were starting to ache. I ran passed a pub and there was a lot of noise from live music and the football. Soon after the checkpoint finally came into sight. There were two other runners there. A lady just leaving as I arrived and a man relaxing in a chair. I joined him. I tended to my feet, ate some food and drank back lots of coke. I don’t know how many cups I had. I could have stayed there for a long time. I was happy and getting comfortable too.

As I rested, another runner came in to he checkpoint. Shit, I am being caught. He was jovial. He joked he was done, he wanted to quit, he wanted the bus home. Only he wasn’t joking. He told us he’d spent the last hour in the pub watching the football and eating fish and chips. We all laughed and I was a little pleased I hadn’t been caught after all. I decided to get up and go. Time to end this battle and get it done.

Along the next section I started to meet runners from the 50km race. They were full of spirit and support. I chatted to a few and we exchanged encouragements. We were all sensing the end of the battle now. A little while later, enjoying yet another second wind, I could hear footsteps behind me. It was the runner who quit. What the fuck. We chatted as we walked on. He explained he was told it would be about an hour to wait for the bus and with just about 10km left he felt he might as well walk it in. Only he wasn’t walking, he was running and running strong! I let him go ahead. I was impressed. Although if he’d been in the pub for an hour before I caught him he was clearly a strong runner!

I carried on in my own world. For the last section I’d put my music on. An extra weapon to fight the Serpent and distract my mind. My own boost and distraction. The Bastard Sun had faded and I was winning the battle. After exchanging attacks all day the Serpent was slowly coming to an end. I came upon the last water checkpoint and grabbed some more coke. The sole volunteer cheered me in and urged me on. The next guy wasn’t far ahead he told me. He insisted I could make the top ten if I beat him. I laughed and explained he’d just overtaken me after being in a pub for an hour. “Oh” he said. I cracked on anyway. I was ready to finish.

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Evening views

Not long after leaving the checkpoint, in a field of lush green grass, I could see him. I could see the runner. He wasn’t alone though, he was with the woman I saw at the checkpoint and I could see they were walking. I caught them and had another brief chat. It turns out she was the leading female. Amazing! I carried on. I felt invigorated knowing that keeping ahead of them could put me in the top ten (if I trusted the volunteer’s counting skills that is!). Soon I came upon some more 50 km runners. I followed them as they navigated some fields. I’d switched off and wasn’t concentrating. They went wrong. So I went wrong. Dammit. I was running strong now and this annoyed me. The leading female and ‘pub runner’ we approaching behind. They were also running again. I could sense the finish though and soon we left the trails. We were back in Petersfield. I knew I was close as we emerged onto some roads I recognised from my walk from the train station the night before. But we ran passed the turning, we were running away from the finish and taking the long way, looping around the finish line via some riverside paths through some woodlands. I was still running. I wanted this. Finish strong is my mantra. The Serpent needed one last attack to be defeated so I pushed hard. I broke free of the trees and the darkness that was starting to fall, I burst up into the field and the finish line was in sight. The volunteers rang the bells and whooped me home. Shouts of “runner” triggered some lots of clapping from the crowd at the finish.  The Serpent fell in front of me to the screams (in my head) of “finish him”. I floated across the line with a finisher smile beaming across my face. Player 1 wins!

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Floating into the finish

As I was going to stick around and wait for a lift back with Ally I had a bit of time to spare. I showered and packed my stuff up. I grabbed some buffet food on offer and talked for quite sometime to the medics and photographer whilst I waited. It was fascinating to get an insight into what an ultra involves for them and certainly to appreciate all the hardwork that goes into supporting such an event. A few hours later Ally arrived and we were soon in the car heading back to reality. The Serpent Trail had been defeated. We both emerged victorious from our battles.

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Nice bit of wood that!

Rocky Bastard

Trans Gran Canaria. One of the early season races in The Ultra Trail World Tour Series. I only heard about this race last year when some other people I’d met were heading out to run it. Set in the volcanic island of Gran Canaria, the 128 km race is part of the carnival of events staged over a week. With 7,500m of positive elevation it’s no mean feat. Yet it is sandwiched between the marathon, advanced (65 km) and the monstrous ‘360’ – a 270 km tour of the island. This would be my second UTWT race after my debut at the CCC last year and one which filled me with some pre-race doubts. I felt ready, perhaps not in my desired shape due to the customary lack of structured training I do, but confident of the adventure (I’d focused on shorter runs and lots of step-based training). The build up and the journey to Gran Canaria was fine. Typical in that it involved unnecessary stresses about the little things like packing and registering etc. Pre-race anxiety still overwhelms me greatly.

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Elevation profile

The ‘Weekend’ started Thursday night with a Chinese and a good long sleep. Yvette, Ale, Jorge and Matt all had the marathon at 9am so I woke with them at 5am, ate breakfast and sent them off to get the bus before going back to bed. All fine and I managed a few hours sleep before getting up at midday. I had a whole day to wait hanging around until my start at 23:00.

I walked into town and sampled the atmosphere. Cheering the marathon runners along on the last 2 km as I wandered towards the finish line to catch the gang all finish.

During this time we saw the second finisher of the 360 and someone who’d traveled from Alaska for the marathon race with 5 flights to get here! Earlier that day Luca Papi had won the 360 event and would be lining up in the field to also run the 128 km that night. Crazy (he finished by the way!).

The team all finished strong with Yvette smashing through her race, Ale and Jorge battling sickness and injuries to conquer theirs and Matt speeding through the finish so quickly I didn’t have time to react and take a picture! Great efforts.

Some hours later it was my turn to be sent out of the hotel and onto a bus to the start line. There was something weird about sitting on a bus, driving past the start line and thinking “I’ll see you again in two days, hopefully”. One thing was for sure, I was in for a long adventure! On the bus a gentleman from Beijing sat next two me. His second sentence was “let’s have a photo”. I don’t think he’s used to bearded people. I didn’t see him again.

The bus arrived at 9pm in Las Palmas. 2 hours before the race started. We offloaded from the bus and took the short walk to the beach where we mingled with the music and revelers at carnival. I’d never been to a race start that coincides with a local festival. The novelty soon wore off though. It was crowded. There were no toilets. None. Nothing set out for the race. Public toilets were closed and restaurants I inquired at pointed me in the direction of the closed public WCs. Helpful. Like many, I had to take myself along the coast to the sea.

Then we waited. And waited. For the two hours to slowly pass by. The question everyone had was why were we here so fucking early?! I sat on some steps for almost two hours. Smokers all around me which didn’t help with my pre-race anxieties.

With 15 minutes to go we were allowed onto the beach and into the starting pens. 900+ runners jostling for space. The team found me and wished me well. Final words of encouragement (and instilling of fear) from Jorge who’d previously done the race. He kept telling me how hard it was. He was preparing me and I’m grateful for his insights.

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Yawning at the start

Over the loud speaker the announcements were made, a video played and music began, the live band playing the Gran Canaria by Los Gofiones. The ten second count down was made and the race began to a rapturous roar from the crowd and a synchronised-firework display. We set off running ran along the sandy beach. The waves crashing in and teasing our feet.

Within minutes I had to stop and remove the windproof layer that had kept me so warm for the last two idle hours. My plan was to run in short sleeves and arm warmers (which we’d received a pair of in our running pack). De-layered, I felt good. The sea breeze cooling on my skin.

After the beach we headed inland, first up a relatively small (few hundred meter) incline along a very runnable path. I ran most of it as I’d heard of the inevitable bottle necks that would follow.

Soon after this my memory already started to fade. It was night and dark. My mind was fully alert on the terrain and it was becoming rocky. Very rocky. Hard, sharp, loose rocks. We were running in and out of a river bed which felt like it went on for a long time. I often stopped to walk as others bundled past me at speed. I didn’t feel safe or comfortable running such tracks and knew I had a long run ahead. But it consumed me. I can’t recall seeing beyond the track. It was something like slow, gradual climbs up to remote villages before we hit the first aid station about 10 miles in. Yvette and Jorge were there and I fathed as always with my bottles and food before saying my good byes. I can’t fully remember the next section either. I was already in a grump. I vaguely recall a shortish climb through a forest and hurdling trees that were being cut down. Not technical, but not runnable either. It felt like we ran down through some massive mansion estate of some sort too. I remember stone walls and and a long driveway. But soon I emerged in Teror (the town, not my mental state). I think the section we’d just passed was the diverted track announced on the week of the race. It added a few km to the total distance.

At Teror the team we’re again there and we jigged and danced our way through. In TGC you are allowed external support in the vicinity of the majority of aid stations (Teror isn’t one) as long as it’s not in the actual tent. Before and after is fine. I was beginning to understand how I’d see the team or at least hear them as they shouted and ‘cooed’ endlessly into the dark. I was a little disoriented and despite studying the route and elevation I had no idea where I was. I’d continually ask which station this was and moan that the track “wasn’t very nice” (I wasn’t so articulated at the time!).

Beyond Teror the real elevation began. I remember one muddy-clay like climb through the dense forest which I took my poles out for. I blasted past runners as we climbed and was then blasted past in return as we went back down. The downhills were steep and rocky. Not loose like the riverbed thankfully. This would be one of the things I’d come to notice about the race – it’s very runnable. Over such a long distance I can’t run that far. And much of the terrain, as painful as the rocks are, is very runnable indeed. Especially when momentum takes control.

At some point along the way I passed another check point where Yvette and Jorge were waiting outside once I’d emerged from some minor DIY repairs. My left nipple was sore and my shoes were filled with sticks and stones. Whilst other runners fueled on warm coffee I patched up and got re organised. You quickly learn in ultras not to dwell on pains and discomforts but to sort them ASAP! I set off back into the night.

The darkness was full of depth and I also noticed the almost eerie atmosphere of the mountains at night, it was warm (some 14 degrees or so) but deadly silent. No wind. No insects. No animals. Just the noise of runners feet cracking on the forest floor and occasional burps and farts breaking the silence. It also smelt good (ignoring the farts) the foliage had some incredible smells which I cannot justifiably describe.

Off in the distance the silence was broken by the sound of drums. Faint at first but louder as I closed in on the source. Boom. Boom. Boom. Like a war drum pounding repeatedly. As I skipped down a small track I could see the origin up ahead. A band of drummers had lined either side of the path at the base of a climb. A steep bastard of a climb! I’m undecided if it was evil or pure genius that they chose this path and welcomed us like slaves pitted up against an almighty gladiator ahead. I charged forward. Power hiking up. I was enjoying the hills. I felt strong walking them and was boosted by passing runners who appeared less strong than me. It Became my tactic. Run when I could. Walk the rocky bastard parts (of which there were many) and annihilate the inclines. I began to look forward to them.

Next checkpoint up we emerged into a small roadside checkpoint by a reservoir. It was early morning, perhaps about 6am. It was a little cold at this spot and the checkpoint quieter than the rest. Whilst I’d not really suffered any real bottlenecks, the field was definitely starting to spread out. All I was interested in though was my stomach. I needed the toilet. I could feel the rumbles beginning. Your body is on a different cycle at night, eating and exercise disrupts it. Not a single aid station had any toilets. Just like the start, this was the only real negative aspect to the race organisation. Get some bloody toilets in!

Jorge sent me off with instructions as to what I’d encounter next. A long steep climb onto a ridge-way with cliff drops either side. Don’t fall in the dark he joked. I soon understood he wasn’t joking as two black holes of danger lay either side as we climbed. It was quite spectacular in the dark to see even more depth to the night. Along the top we followed a wall protecting you from the drop. I was tempted to climb over and use the wall as support to relieve myself but thought better of it.

We emerged into a road section before hitting a very steep technical down hill section. Almost immediately afterwards we’d climb again. As the path winded back up I could see off to the distance the snake of headlights descending behind us. It was mesmerising. White lights to the back, red (rear) lights up ahead. We were in a valley of some sort. I tried to capture it on my phone but again I can’t do the memory justice.

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Head torches as far as the eye can see

As we started to reach the summit dawn was breaking. The sun was rising and light was finally becoming our friend. It warmed up very quickly. We carried further up through forests and with the light of the morning finally got to see our surroundings. Wow. It was breathtaking. Layers of mountains as far as the eye can see. Each silhouetted by the one behind it. Off in the distance some strange peak formations were particularly fascinating.

We were approaching the half way mark. 65 km. Two things came to mind, firstly that the Advanced race would soon be starting (9am) and we’d be joined by another 900 or so runners. I saw only one positive to this. I’d maybe see Arlene and Julia on the trails. However, whether I timed it before or after 9am I’d be caught up in that race. Get there before they start and I’d have fast and fresh runners up my arse and pushing me faster than I’d like. Get there just after 9am and I might get caught up in the inevitable stampede and bottle necks. Lose-lose. Thankfully though neither happened. As we ran down and through the fields into the town we were greeted by volunteer staff who directed us into an aid station just before the 65 km mark. Here we were welcomed to hot food and refreshments. I decided to spend sometime here. I’d eat the pasta (I’d not been eating as much as I should have) and prep for the daytime running – recharge my watch, change my head torch and buff for a sun cap and glasses and plaster myself in sun cream. Best of all, there was a toilet. And I got the last of the toilet role. I felt like a winner. I headed off replenished and ready for the day.

The second thing that hit me at this point was that I still had a fucking long way to go. I was half way there. I still had a 65km mountain ultra to complete. I’d been running for 10-11 hours. I was tired and cranky. It was still a marathon and a half to go!! For fucksake. But, as Tomasz (who I chatted with over pasta) put it “I’m not feeling fucked enough yet”. Wise words.

Leaving the town of Artenara was another climb. And more treats for the eyes. I was constantly stopping to take photos as we climbed through forests and along more mountains tops. I wasn’t alone and as I’d interchange places with Martin from the US we’d point out good photo opportunities for each other. The strange rock formations were getting closer and more prominent.

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Roque Nublo in the distance

I found the morning tough. I hadn’t seen the team since about 6am and as I made my way to Tejeda I was looking forward to when I might see them again. Alone with my thoughts my mind was constantly drawn to my left foot and ankle which had been hurting throughout. I was also constantly thirsty and breathing heavily. Despite making great progress I was certainly feeling how tough it was. I think the pasta kicked in though and the relieved stomach had settled. I found myself in a rhythm and had a solid stint of running before flagging as we reached Tejeda. The checkpoint felt like it took an age to appear after I first encountered the signs for the village. Upon arrival though I fueled on fists full of oranges (oranges had been my go to at checkpoints so far this race!) and, as it was just over half way, I decided now I could treat myself to cola. Always a runners friend on an ultra. I didn’t want to indulge too soon and it sure was good. As it approached midday it was sweltering. When I left Tejeda, I walked. We were on a paved road section that was downhill. I knew the next climb was one of the hardest, to Roque Nublo (the rock formations I’d been taking pictures of previously in the day). I couldn’t give a shit about running at this point. Some people passed me. I was fine with that. I’d found a strong hiking pace through the night and was able to maintain this comfortably between 14/15 min miles (when I ‘ran’ I was only marginally faster at 11/12 min miles) so I wasn’t fussed. That is until three men ran passed tethered to a metal pole. A lead and back runner guiding a blind man. As incredible as this was, I didn’t want to be stuck behind them on the climb. So I stepped it up.

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Layer upon layer of mountain

Early into the climb I bumped into Victoria, a friend of Yvette’s doing the Advanced. We chatted briefly before my power hike took me forward. The climb was indeed a painful one. But as we reached the summit we were treated to the panoramic views from the popular tourist spot Roque Nublo. Throughout the run I’d been near another runner called Luis. I’d pass him on the ups and he would pass me on the downs. He didn’t speak very much English and me ‘speaker de no Spanish’. But we’d exchange back slaps as we passed. I like this unspoken camaraderie of the trails. It’s special. It’s an acknowledgment to each other’s strengths. No words are needed. As we summited he tried to explain the route. We’d go up to the rock and be checked in before doubling back and heading down a different way. He also insisted on taking a photo for me. I liked Luis. I didn’t get to see him again much more after this as he made too much ground up on the downhills. And this was my concern for the last marathon – as we reach Garañón where the marathon started the route was predominantly ‘downhill’ (as in comparative elevation gain in relation to the rest of the course). The majority of the races elevation is done in the first 80 km of the event. And I was discovering today that my downhills were weak. I’d readied myself mentally. I was planning now to walk the majority of the marathon remaining. I was so far ahead of my estimated time of 27 hours. I was starting to believe I could finish on Saturday before midnight. At a push, if I stayed focused and had no incidents maybe even a sub 24 hour. I cracked on.

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Roque Noblo

I thought I might see the team at Roque Nublo as they’d planned to hike it themselves. But timings would have been tight and Garañón was the planned bag drop. Coming into Garañón I was greeted to the beaming smiles of Yvette and Jorge. I hadn’t seen them for about 8 hours. It didn’t show, but I was so glad to see them.

I had a plan here. Collect my bag. Change my clothes. Eat some food and prepare my kit for the rest of the day and night. Then leave what I didn’t need behind (or rather with the team to save me having to walk to get it at the end!). And that’s exactly how it went down. For food a bowl of potatoes with salt. Butter would have been great but they were delicious. Wet wipe wash, clean T-shirt and buff. Again I emptied my shoes of crap but I also decided against changing my socks. My feet felt OK and I was also afraid to look at them incase something was worse than it felt. I was wearing Stance 360 socks and I’ve found these great for doing ultras. I re-applied sun cream (you don’t want to compromise a race due to being unprepared!) and removed many things from my back (extra night layers etc I hadn’t needed). And I re-stocked on my holy grail – Tailwind. Pre-race I’d measured out 18 servings of Tailwind into either soft flasks or travel bottles to mix with water on the go. This worked a treat and was so quick to take one of the bottles of powder out and empty into water at an aid station. I took 9 with me on the start and had 9 here waiting. Whilst it was slightly less than the desired amount for the race, I intended on eating along the way too as I like the taste of food and thankfully I don’t struggle with eating on the move. I made a slight mistake though and should have taken a few more initially as it wasn’t a 50-50 split for distance or time to Garañón. The last 10 miles I’d done with out Tailwind and I was missing the taste. I was craving my hit like a junkie!

After again chatting with Tomasz over potatoes I was back out and reassured by Jorge and Yvette. They’d run this part as their marathon yesterday so again debriefed me on what was to come. As I mentioned, mostly down hill with two climbs although nothing compared to what went before and then finally the dreaded finish along another river bed.

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The first of the climbs was gradual but long. Through forest paths and looping around the mountain. Here I saw many runners, familiar faces and new. Also many people looking defeated by the run. I’d pass them and check. One guy, Brian, suffered from stomach issues but reassured me he was OK (and had done the race last year) and many others asked the same question – “how far to the next aid station”. Good question. I was wondering the same. It felt like we’d be climbing for a very long time of false summit after false summit. I’d drunk nearly all my water including my third spare flask which I’d carried since the start. I was trying to calculate my estimated finish. Earlier in the day I’d figured a 4 hour half marathon (to Garañón) and an 8 hour marathon to the finish would see me make it in 24 hours. I couldn’t remember what time I left Garañón but now had less than 7 hours before 23:00. I wanted it. I also wanted to go to bed and to stop. I was fed up of the terrain now. Whilst I hadn’t fallen. My feet were beginning to hurt. I was walking as I had been for the last hour or so. 7 more hours of walking was a long time to contemplate.

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Eventually the aid station appeared. It was small but I found a chair and quickly emptied my shoes of stones again. I didn’t plan on staying here long but I was starting to chaff and I wanted to make sure I had more than enough water after that last stint. I’d kept and empty fourth flask after Garañón so I decided to fill them all. I prepped all the Tailwind and a lovely volunteer helped me film them all. He was lovely that is until he got a little mud on the bottle and decided to empty the entire Tailwind filled goodness onto the floor to wash it. I wanted to hurt him. Hurt him bad. He wasn’t to know. I didn’t say anything. I thought some evil things in that moment though. I thanked him and left. As I was leaving the familiar sound of Arlene called out. She was entering the station above me and shouted me on rather than wait. I don’t know how or where I ended up ahead of here?!

The next section was also runnable. I didn’t want to run it but it was downhill and the rocks weren’t too loose. I stayed inline with the crowds and again played leapfrog with various people as I powered past on the inclines and they floated past me on the downhills. Eventually I found a second (third? Forth? Firth?) wind when two faster runners ploughed through. Together they had momentum and I could see them easily alert runners ahead of them who granted them passage past. I piggy-backed in behind them. Tailgating and running several kms with them and a comfortable pace. I was still doing the math. Badly. But I calculated I needed a few stints of running to get me in before Sunday came. After a while they stopped. But I was in the zone and carried on for a little longer before emerging onto another road section.

Walking again we were on another climb. I think I’d been confused as this definitely wasn’t the last climb I’d face. With the late evening sun pounding my skin I hiked onwards as we gradually climbed a fairly smooth and wide path. Up ahead I spotted the welsh dragon on a lady’s t shirt and I spent a while chatting to her and a fellow welsh woman she’s met on The trail. She joked about making it in time for the rugby. Eventually we reached the top and another downhill began. This one was a bastard. I really didn’t enjoy it. A very man-made winding switchback of slippery cobble stones. I don’t know how long it went for but I really didn’t like it. I couldn’t Run it. I was afraid of slipping. It hurt my feet. It was steep and the bends sharp. Gravity forced me to walk faster than I liked. I was glad when it ended. Other than that it opened out onto what I can only describe as what I perceive Mars to be like. A completely alien terrain of hard sharp rocks and dry ground. The torturous terrain of Trans Gran Canaria was relentless!

It didn’t stop there either. We came across a sign that very reassuringly said “extreme precaution. Technical Section”. It didn’t fail to live up to the hype. It was almost vertical. Very short switchbacks of jagged rocks and barley wide enough for a single person. We backed up into a slow descent. A short intersection with another path treated us to the information that it was just 1.5 km to the next aid station. 1.5 km of the same technical descent. My feet were taking a pounding now. I craved the rest bite.

At the aid station I ate cheese. It was good. I also took the decision to, for the final time, readjust my kit. It was now about 18:99 – 19:00. Soon the sun would set so I wanted to be ready. Away went the hat and sunglasses. Outcome the buff, head torch (new battery!) and arm warmers. Deja vu all over again. From here it was the last climb. About 200m followed by a downhill to the riverbed back into Maspalomas.

The climb was slow. I was still calculating my time. I couldn’t figure it out but I was now confident I’d get sub 24 hours. My mind focused on getting to the last 15 km with 3 hours to go. That would be 9 miles. 3 miles an hour. 20 min miles at a comfortable walking pace. I was still hiking at close to 15 min miles. I was confident. I strode on. Up the dirt track road we went. The night began to fall and I enjoyed watching the sun set. The same day I’d welcomed on one mountain I now said goodbye to on another. I captured the snake of headlights coming down the technical section back in the distance and was thankful I navigated that in the day light. My thoughts went with those doing it at night. The only negative point here was a staff volunteer driving up and down the climb, churning up the dust into our faces for us to inhale. I don’t know why he was doing it. Perhaps to check on the runners?!

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Night setting in, head torches in the distance

As we summited the final climb it was time for another run. Initially the path was wide for cars and smooth to run before it became rocky again but not loose. For the second time I found myself tailgating two other runners. I set my aim to run to the bottom and the beginning of the river bed. Then my task would be complete. My false finish. From there I know I’d get to the end. No time pressures. I’d complete the event for sure.

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It was dark when I ran this at night, so here’s a picture from during the marathon

The riverbed came. They carried on. I stopped running. I probably stopped a lot of things at this point but swearing was not one of them. The riverbed was the rocky bastard I’d read about. Dry, sharp loose rocks. It’s not an over exaggeration to say I was afraid again to break an ankle or slit my throat on a fall. I walked. Painfully stepping and sliding like trudging through mud. I swore out loud a lot. But I maintained my pace. I passed a lot of people with my power hike. Occasional they’d run past when we’d have a moments pause from death by a thousand rocks but I’d soon pass them again when they slowed to a walk.

It was dark. My feet were blistered for sure. I was constantly kicking rocks into my own ankles. Fuck it hurt bad I was lonely. I was cranky. The night was again spectacular as the riverbed was overlooked either side by rocky mountain faces. Off in the distance they merged and I longed for the opening back to reality. Eventually it came. I hadn’t passed any signs of the distance markers. I hoped I was near 5 km to go. I hated them when I first spotted “105 km to the finish” and “95 km to the finish”. Now I longed for that last confirmation. My time was good. I was walking back no matter what.

Under the motorway bridge up in the distance two silhouettes were making noise. Calling for me as they had the previous night. I knew it was Yvette and Jorge. I could hear them question and laugh as they thought it wasn’t me. The penny soon dropped and they came in to cheer me on. To the final stretch. I was super cranky at this point. I wanted for nothing except more solitude and the finish. I wasn’t capable of dealing with anything and I abruptly made this clear with unintentional rudeness. My mind had wandered to some dark places over the last 22 hours. Possibly some more places of self discovery also. I wasn’t ready to re-emerge to reality just yet. I still had a lot to deal with and get through.

One more checkpoint. Parque Sur. It seemed weird to have one so close to the finish but also one I was quite thankful for. Some more cola and sweets. I politely declined a beer and begrudgingly trod on. Down an old river bed again (although rocky not loose and nice and wide). The final stretch was a slight uphill along the road I’d walked and cheered the marathoners along on Friday. I’d already spotted that day the grass patch to the side of the road I’d walk. It was like carpet under my feet. I felt smug as runners ran past me. I was getting overtaken frequently since the last checkpoint and I couldn’t give a shit. I’d won my race. I’d smashed my goal of completion. I may not have been smiling but was pleased with myself.

I had two roundabouts to go. Then the last bend Into the finishing straight. I looked at my watch for the first time in ages. It said it was 21:55. A new goal came to my mind. 5 minutes to make a sub 23 hour??! The few stretches of running and tailgating had really paid off (along with my overly conservative 20 min/mile walk estimates). My mind fired up. The quickest I’d reacted to anything for a whole day – my brain and my body connected and agreed we were going for it. I left the grass. It was on. Uphill. Momentum began to kick in. I don’t know how far it was. It looked longer than 5 minutes. There was only one way to find out. Nothing to gain other than personal satisfaction. I powered forward. Photo-finish ready. I wasn’t going to finish looking like I’d just walked a 7 hour marathon or run 128 km. I was going to finish with the smile that had been missing for so long. The cheers and the whoops came. All The team were there including the “Aguafiestas” Ale and Matt. This was my moment. The high fives came as I rounded the final bend into the finishing straight. I lined up with the little sloped finishing platform. The sadistic bastards. I hit it and finished up on my toes instantly striking the pose of the ‘trans Gran Canaria’ logo. I don’t know where that came from. I wasn’t the first nor the last to strike the pose I’m sure.

As I stepped down from the finish some child slapped the finishers medal into my stomach and a lady gave me the gilet. Cola and kebabs were consumed and sweaty hugs enjoyed with the team. Now we all had a gilet for our efforts. I immediately reverted back to grumpy Dai and my legs made it clear how much they hated me. I wanted ice cream but they were closed. I wanted a shower so they drove me home.

The next day we walked some sand dunes and the reality of the damage to my body started to became clear. My ankle is swollen and hurts badly. My feet are blistered and battered. I say we walked some sand dunes. I hobbled them. Flying home I, like many others, partook in the unspoken custom of wearing the finishers gilet through the airport. You nod in silent appreciation to other finishers. You know what we’ve each been through. One final acknowledgement before it becomes another generic piece of apparel in the reality of the real world.

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The Bling

If you spoke to me in the hours after the race then you’ll have received a certain miserable perspective on the event. That was unjustified. I stand by what I said in that, to date, it’s the hardest thing either done. But as the emotion of the finish has settled I’ve been able to reflect on and recall the positive and enjoyable aspects. Yes it really is hard. The distance was new for me and mentally I felt that. For 2/3 of the event knowingly having an ‘ultra’ still to go was demotivating and the pounding your feet take is exceptionally aggressive. But, the landscape and environment is surreal. The Rocky Mountains, Mars like terrain, panoramic island views, fresh aromas of of the forests and witnessing a day break and set from spectacular view points is incredible.

The organisation itself was also fantastic. Before flying out I moaned about the lack of information on the website or email contact. Reality is you’re provided with enough. And that is all you need. The race exhibition and bib collection was so straightforward. No kit checks or too much hassle. The organised buses were efficient. The aid stations were incredibly well stocked and had great atmospheres. The volunteers were superb and so helpful (to the guy who emptied my Tailwind – I’m sorry I thought about hurting you. But this doesn’t mean I like you!). The course markings were phenomenal. There’s no chance of getting lost in this one. Signs and markings were very frequent (even though you rarely turned off the same paths!). Many had hi visibility strips attached to them and there were hundreds if not thousands of markings with flashing red lights too. I played a game at several points along the day and came to the assessment that, when walking slowly (e.g. hiking up a climb pace) there were typical signs/markings every 15 seconds. Without doubt the best course markings I’ve encountered. The swag bag of goodies was also decent. A branded technical compression t shirt, arm warmers, shoe gaiters and finishers Gilet filled the drawstring bag.

Would I recommend the race? I’m not sure. It is incredibly hard. If I’d done the marathon or advanced I definitely wouldn’t be going back to try the 128 km. I did enjoy it though and am glad I experienced it.

I’m also so thankful for Yvette, Jorge, Ale and Matt who sacrificed so much this weekend to support me. One day I’ll be able to repay the kindness.

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Inevitable “Trans Gran” pose

Country to Capital

It’s only just 2 weeks into the new year and my first Ultra of 2019 is ticked off. This is a great feeling. The year is looking just a little bit daunting, so to get it underway and emerge through the first finish line is pleasing.

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The medal is a piece of art!

Over Christmas I was worried. More than I’ve been since I started running. I’ve had a few niggles over the last year and you know what your body is feeling. This niggle felt a different, it concerned me. I know when it happened. I don’t know what happened or what it is though. During the night run a few weeks before Christmas the top of my foot hurt. It hurt as I stepped off the train, before we even started running. It felt like my laces were too tight but loosening didn’t help (neither did running the 24 miles, I know!). The pain intensified and persisted for a few days and a lump appeared. So I was concerned.

It woke me up for the first time and I swallowed my stubbornness and went and saw a physio. The prognosis was good, ankle movement was as expected and I was set some rehab and stability exercises and prescribed some rest. Always some rest. That is the difficult part right?! Over the Christmas period I continued to dwell on the pain and with the Trans Gran Canaria race looming in the distance I was thinking of pulling out of the Country to Capital. 70km felt like it could put my year at risk before I even began.

But, I didn’t. I’ve been stubborn as always and after a follow up with the physio and a check up with the GP (who confirmed the lump is a small Ganglion cyst, but nothing to worry about) I stuck by my original plan. So to the race I went.

This is quite a popular event. There aren’t that many ultras in the first few weeks of January, especially not ones so accessible from London. An ultra at the beginning of January is a test. A checkup if you like. To see where you are at and what your body is saying after Christmas. Many runners use this event as ‘tune up’ (as Alan describes it) for what is to come. So that became my aim too.

With an early start and a rush from the first train from London to Wendover, I decided to stay overnight in Stoke Mandeville. I’m glad I did. I woke relaxed and at eased and casually made my way to registration with plenty of time to do all the mandatory registration activities without any stress.

I met with Alan, Lenny and a few of their mates and the race Director sent us on our way. There was a mad dash at the start as the runners legged it down the high street to get the front line at the single track paths. And that there is where the majority of my memories of this event comes to an end. It is, as events go, pretty unspectacular. We cover a lot of ground (45 miles!), but it is mostly forgettable. True, the start near Wendover Woods is quite scenic, but as soon as you get inside the M25 it is a grotty run. 30 plus kilometres along the Grand Union Canal towpath, it sounds good, but it is ugly. Flat. Hard. Narrow. Covered in more litter and abandoned rubbish than you can imagine. I’m not talking about the odd bit of crap here and there, in places it was piled with bonfire sized heaps of rubbish. London has a problem here it needs to address! Such as historic part of the country in such a sad state.

Anyway, that’s off my chest. What do I remember?

A few rolling hills to start with provided some early morning treats to the eye. The first 15 or so miles were a breeze with some walking up the inclines and crowds of runners to chat away too and enjoy. Shortly after the second checkpoint, with conversations of the morning often revolving around the recent UTMB ballot results, I got chatting to Sophie. Sophie had quite a remarkable experience at UTMB this year which really puts all the preparation and stress of the events into perspective. There’s a lot of discussion around changes required to events as a result and hopefully we will see those much needed changes come sooner rather than later.

As we chatted, Sophie pointed out how fast we were running. What finish time this equated too. I knew I was ahead of the pace I’d set out for. I knew I’d gone off too quickly. I was feeling OK though so was rolling with it. Sophie gave me a reality check. I stuck with it and carried on, telling myself “as long as it feels good”.

I started to make deals with myself. First off, get to checkpoint 3. This would be roughly a marathon in, after which it was the towpath all the way to the finish. I’d have a moment at the checkpoint and update Alan and the others on my progress (we’d be meeting in the pub later in the day). Checkpoint 3 came about so quickly. Quicker than I expected. One of the volunteers did acknowledge it was now the afternoon, so I’d done the marathon in around 4 hours.

Onward along the canal we went. The field did start to spread out now and no doubt a lot of us were starting to feel the aches in the legs. The route had no signage or markings but I did have the GPX on my watch. I was on the towpath, I didn’t need it though right? Wrong! I was constantly following the runners in the distance and at one point, after heading after a runner I soon heard some screaming behind us. It took a moment but the caller was persistent. I’m so glad he was as we had missed a turning off the canal path onto another. If we had continued, we would have ended up in Brentford! Thankfully I was able to back track and recover and thank the runner. The could have been very costly!

I negotiated the next set of deals with myself. First off, get to the forth checkpoint. I was hopeful it wasn’t too far away. And it soon arrived. To my surprise the volunteers confirmed there were just 10 miles to go (I’d been estimating closer to 13 miles left) and the final checkpoint was only 4 miles away. This lifted me. I decided to walk for a moment and eat some more food, then I’d run what was left of the 4 miles. I could do that. That was a very process-able distance.

The next deal would be when I get to the final checkpoint I’d start a walk-run strategy. I’d been checking my average pace for the last few miles an I knew a strong finish (somewhere under 8 hours) was on the cards. I probable could have run the last 6 miles but there was nothing in it for me to do so. I came up with the plan to walk 0.25 miles, run 2 miles and repeat. This would make the last 6 miles so much more manageable and I felt I’d walked very little other than the few short inclines early on in the run.

After leaving the last checkpoint, a few miles from the finish I saw a familiar face. I recognised it smiling out at the runners. I couldn’t place it though. We had a Hi-five. Then it clicked. Rowan called out my name and it all made sense. We’ve known each other through Instagram yet never met, somehow avoiding each other in the 20 plus group that was out in Berlin together.  Rowan snapped the only picture I have of the day, we had a hug and I was back on my way. The last few miles went down exactly as per the deal, I was blocking out the crap littered tow path until Little Venice came upon me so quickly.

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Rowan’s camera snapping the only photo from the day!

The finish was an understatement. A subtle welcome, medal and a cuppa doesn’t do the brutality of the race justice. The Country to capital is not an easy run. I don’t think any flat runs are. It gives me great awe thinking about those runners who take on events like the Thames 100. It must be so hard on the body. Don’t go entering the Country to Capital because you think it is an easy race, it really isn’t!

It’s the day after the run and I feel surprisingly good. I’m thinking and checking over my body and I’m feeling very happy. There’s things I know I need to work on and things I need to improve, but after a tough run I expected to be in pain in a few places. The worst is my ribs and abs. I know I’ve run hard when they ache! The foot? The foot feels fine. Now back to those rehab and stability exercises.

CTS – Dorset

December. Before I know it, it was December. It has come around quickly. This would be my last race of the year. The final event in my race calendar. 1st December would mark the date I’d complete my challenge. Originally persuaded by Jack and Alex (that dude who went blue in the face Brighton) to come to their neck of the woods and hit the trails. I couldn’t resist and went for the longest option (the Ultra ‘plus’). After booking earlier in the year, a group of the Wild Trail Runners then also signed up to some of the various distances on offer so I tagged along for the journey. This is great as I’ve come to love running such events with others. Not just the run itself but the lead up, day before and things you do post run which are all better celebrated together.

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The Jurassic Coast. Dorset

I’m going to keep this one pretty short and as a straight forward review of the race. Partly because I’m tired. My mind is still wired and my body aching. Secondly, as you’ll soon read, the day was pretty grim and there’s probably not a lot to say about the course and hours that went past!

Leading up to the event I was on the back of two previous ultras (Brecon and TBU). This was number 3 in 15 days. I was heading into the run tired and a little complacent. My mind wasn’t focused (and truthfully hasn’t been since Berlin). Evident in the amount of fathing I did packing my bag the night before – Rocking up at the race I didn’t use the bag drop but left some stuff in Maggie’s car. Later realising I’d brought bugger all else and not even spare shorts or trousers for afterwards!

Arriving at the start in the morning it was indeed pretty grim. We’d seen the weather forecasts and event updates in the days preceding the start and they didn’t disappoint. It was cold. It was very windy and it was hammering down with rain. We registered and huddled in the tent and listened to the race briefing. Shivering. The would be a diverted route today due to the high winds and a part of the coastal path would be avoided. We didn’t realise at the time that this would lead to a slight increase in the distance. First out where the Ultra and Ultra plus (yep, it’s a thing for Endurance Life) Runners.

Along with Kirsty, Tamas and Weronica I was doing the Ultra plus. The route would be a figure of 8 along the coast, then repeating the first half of the figure of 8 and then repeating a smaller loop of the first half of the figure of 8. Got it? Yeah, as a route that sounds as boring as it was. As the race director acknowledged, we’d see the ‘one mile to go’ sign 3 times before it applied to us. Great. Tagging in to the start/finish each time would be a test of our will power to continue!

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Cold, wet but upbeat!

We huddled for a group picture and were then sent off, out to do battle with nature. The route first took us up the steps towards Durdle Door. These were some long steps. Everyone was walking. No one was talking. We were all hiding inside our waterproofs. Hoods on, heads buried into our chests. The rain and wind was relentless. Visibility was close to non-existent. Durdle Door was there somewhere. You just couldn’t see it.

After this section was the diversion. We carried on climbing the second incline and found ourselves running through some very muddy fields. There was plenty of space but runners sliding all over the place. Again maybe just a few metres visible ahead. We were soaked through. Wet feet was going to be a stand out memory of the day! It wouldn’t make a difference that I wore my S-LAB ultras that had a hole in them!

The good thing about the lack of visibility was that you couldn’t see what was coming up or how far you’d come. You’d just plod on. That might make the second lap easier!! We passed a few checkpoints, a nice section through a woodland and were back running through the muddy fields in the opposite direction. I hadn’t realised how much of the course we’d run back along. It was only after passing Maggie, Daniel and Matt who were starting out on their Marathon journey (they’d complete the initial figure of 8 route).

First loop done, now came the really big climbs. A few hours had passed and the morning had started to brighten up a little. As we climbed, the cliffs were visible. The white chalk glistening in the gloomy day. The climbs came thick and fast. And they were big. Lunging up steps and, at times, using your hands to grab at the land in front of your face. Each summit presenting new views to savour.

Along the coast I was amused as we ran along side a military training facility. The constant warnings to ‘keep out’ and ‘danger’ were a reminder of the area we were in. But soon the route would take us to the other side of the fence and it felt we were now running in the danger zone.

Looping back at the tip of the ‘8’ the route took us onto one of the hardest parts of the course. A field of mud. Really really muddy soft ground. On an incline. The snake of runners immediate slowed. We weren’t walking. We were sludging and sliding our way through. Eventually emerging the other side to more of the same. A cabbage field. Equally muddy and even steeper. This whole section was a drain on the energy. At the top runners were pulling each other up the final inclines. It was all quite amusing, but tiring and I was glad we wouldn’t be coming back here later!

Sometime later we were back at the coastal paths and joined by the half marathoners and 10km runners. I didn’t realise we’d run those cliffs again and sure they felt steeper this time around. One in particular was really tough and took quite some time to over come. As I powered up we passed a guy being slid down the hill by some helpers. He looked in a bad place. Adam, one of the Wild TR coaches was one of those helping.

We arrived back at the starting point to complete the first figure of 8. I was ready for a rest. With the diversion we’d just done a little over a marathon distance. I knew Kirsty wasn’t far behind me as we’d been passing each other over the last few hours. As I sipped back coke and some (many) and jelly babies she arrived. We were both so glad to see each other and agreed to keep each other company for the next half of the race. The wind and rain made the day quite miserable so far and the lift from company was needed.

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It had stopped raining at least and I decided I needed to re-jig my kit. I no longer wanted to run in my waterproof jacket so removed it to go with the t-shirt and arm warmer combo. I was soaked through from sweat as well as rain. I feared I’d be instantly cold but hoped the wind would sort of dry me out (it did). As I was changing Amy (Alex’s wife appeared). Alex was on the half and expected quite soon into the finish. Then as we were talking, Paul appeared. I’d been speaking to Paul for quite some time but we hadn’t yet met. I didn’t expect to see him as he was contemplating not doing the half as he was running the Hurtwood50 the next day.

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It was visible on the second passing only. Durdle Door.

Time was up. Time to head back out and climb those hills again. First off those steps! Immediately I felt better having Kirsty about. The afternoon also cleared up as we reached Durdle door so we had some views to absorb. We stopped to take some pictures and make those memories before carrying on. Unlike the first loop, there was a lot more walking this time round. But still enjoyable. The volunteers and the checkpoints were full of energy and encouragement and we joked our way through. Passing all the muddy fields before the brief stint along the paved roads and the forest paths (which were stunning now the mist had moved on). Emerging into a field we could see the steep decline down to the second checkpoint at the bottom. We set off but could see a very muddy section half way down which we joked about. As I hit it I immediately slid and did my best ice skating impression as my arms waved about and I spun 180 degree to look back up at the top of the hill and a runner behind me laughing. A good save. Or so I thought. As I continued behind the runner I stacked it. My legs slid forward out from under me and I sat straight down into the mud. Squishy. We all laughed. At least I picked the softest place to fall!! I wiped mud on my face to mark the occasion. The ladies at the check point laughed and greeted me as I arrived, they’d seen the whole thing.

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Moments later the darkness descended

We ploughed on, retracing the route towards the start again. Darkness descended upon us quickly in the overcast sky and we needed to stop to get the torches out. As frustrating as this was, it was certainly the right decision. It was hard enough to see and stay stable in the light! The quick reshuffle of kit though did unbalance my packed kit. I planned to fix this when we reached the start – about 2 miles to go.

As we arrived back at the start, I took time to change my clothes, putting on a long sleeved layer and using my windproof jacket as padding in the bag. It all worked well. It took me far to long to do though, I’d kept Kirsty waiting for what felt like an eternity! But I was eventually ready. Back out we went. Time for those steps and inclines yet again.

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Finisher. Fresh with Warpaint

No surprise, this final 10km was tough. Obviously we knew now we’d finish now as we’d left the comfort of the start. But we were exhausted and walked/run our way around. No sights to see this anymore. Just the few metres lit up by our head torches. Pretty uneventful this time round, we just persevered. Getting over those hills and through the mud. That sign ‘one mile to go’ came into view and our mood picked up. We would’t have to pass it again. This time it was for us! We ran. We kept running. We could hear the hustle of the camp not too far away and plodded down the final stretch into the finish line. Medals and pictures received. We were done.

Shortly after finishing, Maggie and Yvette arrived in the car to collect us and soon after that Weronica arrived too. Time to head home to shower and eat!!

 

 


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Dynasties: Runners

Help me out a little here – Imagine reading this one in a David Attenborough-esque narrative, with a Welsh twang of course…

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Since life began on this nature-rich planet we call home, a sub-group of the human species have sought out the endorphin rush of adventure, exploring their habitat on foot. These humans, known as ‘Runners’ have been seen exploring the concrete jungles of their city homes and often, now in increasing numbers, are seen venturing further a field into the wilderness of the countryside.

In this episode we follow one particular pack of (trail) runners and recount their journey as they seek their thrills in the Countryside of the Brecon Beacons.

Pre-dawn and the runners are rising. Rubbing their eyes whilst eating porridge, the morning rituals begin. Caffeine is consumed and hydration tabs passed among each other as survival kits are checked and race numbers attached.

In the quiet community of Talybont-on-Usk the runners, in numbers reaching 250 convene in the village hall. An annual pilgrimage will soon begin where these runners set off on a journey of self-discovery and adventure in the National Park. A race director inducts the runners into today’s challenge before the runners start gathering in the nearby field to begin their journey – one which will take them over and around the Brecon Beacons National Park. This epic adventure will see the runners climb to exquisite viewpoints, traverse through forested woodlands and cross streams before returning to the sanctuary of the village hall basecamp. Whilst alone this presents a significant challenge to push these runners to the limits of their physical and mental boundaries, on this occasion they will venture back out to complete the 23 mile loop for a second time. An adventure of ultra proportions and one bestrewed with dangers and obstacles to be overcome.

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The ‘Pack’ ready to be released

As dawn breaks, the runners are released from the safety of the basecamp and they begin their journey, their quest for adventure and ultimate safe return to the camp before succumbing to the challenges ahead. The initial route takes the runners, in their large numbers, along the Monmouthshire & Brecon canal towards Llangynidr. Passing the  Llangynidr Locks, the atmosphere is jovial as the collective mass of runners form into single line formations as they jostle for space. Their legs heavy from sleep they shuffle in line, greeting each other with pleasantries and enthusiasm for the trail.

Within a short time the collective begins to disperse and spread out. Packs and teams of runners compete among themselves and the others around them. Some runners decide to ‘go it alone’. Typically The faster, stronger runners. They might be fearful of the rumored challenges laying await in the night, or seeking personal dominance in a show physical supremacy. Either way, they risk it all to finish earlier than those around them. Such runners standout in the collective through their professionalism and determination strewn faces. Built like gazelles they are seen briefly in the very early parts of an adventure before vanishing into the wild. Later on they are recognisable by the often gaunt look of exhaustion that accompanies their remarkable achievements.

Other runners in the collective opt for the tactic of strength in numbers. They Form ‘packs’ with other like-minded runners where they will show solidarity and support each other through the obstacles of the journey. Often heard before seen, these runners are most visible at viewpoints and aid stations and recognisable from their readily accessible phones and abundance of selfie poses stuck.

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‘Pack’ mentality, cameras at the ready

The runners turn off the canal path just before Llangynidr and the journey up to Tor Y Foel – the highest point on the loop at ~1,700ft – begins. The runners enter the lush green fields and are greeted by the docile stares from herds of sheep and cows. No particular concern for most of the runners as long as the stares remain just that. If undisturbed, the runners can cross the fields unobstructed. Fear however can cause a stampede of livestock and the pack hope that the runner Gif will get through the fields unaffected. As the path starts to incline, the runners choose their survival tactic. Some jogging on at pace, others embracing the ‘walk the hills’ approach. Our pack take the later and the cameras are soon out snapping pictures of the morning mist.

Up ahead their view is obstructed. Visibility is low, wind is howling, covering the pack with a fine spray of the morning rain. The runners soon become damp with the fast-moving mist. They trudge onward into the unknown. Uncovering just a few meters of the trail at a time. One minute warm and the next minute cold, they struggle to adapt to the changing climate as the effort levels increase. Ensuring their body temperatures remain comfortable is critical to their survival.

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Early in the morning, visibility was poor

The climb is an opportunity for further interaction between the pack and with other runners around them. Jokes are traded and stories exchanged. Before they know it they have reached the summit and can begin the descent towards the reservoir. One runner known simply as ‘Ged’ comments on the beautiful Welsh scenery, comparing it to the steamy view he can achieve in the shower back in his man-made shelter.

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Later in the afternoon the Reservoir was revealed in all its glory

Atop the summit, the down hill begins and the runners break out into a run. This is the prime characteristic of runners – a faster, flowing synchronised movement of the feet which differentiates them from other human forms. The collective disperse further as runners bound over the wet boggy land at different speeds. The pack stay together, finding a communal pace they can all enjoy. Off in the distance to their right they can vaguely see the vast storage of water that is the Talybont Reservoir, shrouded in the mist. Alongside the reservoir, the pack will embark on the journey along the long path of the ‘Fire Track’. Before the trek begins, one runner – Dai – sneaks to relieve themselves against a man-made stone structure known as a wall. Returning to the pack he moans of wet feet incurred through stepping in a bog. A natural obstacle so often catching out runners in need of relief. With wet feet he continues alongside his pack, conscious not to stray far from the safety of the pack again.

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The long, lonely path of the ‘Fire Track’

The fire track is a long gravel road gently climbing alongside the reservoir. It is a mental challenge for runners who endure it. Wide, lonely and everlasting into the horizon the runners have to continue exposed to the elements and unsure as to what lays ahead. A decision faces them as they contemplate whether they should run whilst they can or preserve energy for the challenges further on? Our pack decide to run whilst they can. A classic runners tact to focus on the ‘now’ rather than the ‘later’ and to “bank some miles” whilst they feel good.

The fire track comes to an end near Blaen Y Glyn, like much of the first loop, Organisers and marshals are present along the course to help ensure runners are steered in the right direction, preparing them for their challenges ahead with a fighting chance of survival. They direct the runners towards the next section where the will follow the route along side the water station near the Lower Neuadd Reservoir. From here the runners could venture left and up to to the peaks of Corn Du and Pen Y Fan. On this adventure though it is straight. Straight up towards ‘The Gap’ between the peaks of Cribyn and Fan Y Big.

Up ahead the runners encounter  a hoard of the ‘hiker’. Another human variant, the hiker is similar to the runner in many ways. They are however often found in groups of large, slow moving numbers. To the runner this can cause a blockade that needs navigating. The Pack need to be swift footed to find a route through these friendly hoards, being careful not to cause them trouble or disruption as they pass.

The path is again long and straight and the pack can see runners dotted ahead rising into the distance. The negative mental effect this could have is combated by the morning mist leaving the ground and the sky clearing. With optimistic smiles the pack continue onward, putting distance between themselves and the hikers, all is not safe though as the track is formed of loose rocks waiting to trip and injured the runners. The pact decide it best to walk the incline,  recuperating some energy as they go.

Here, at the second summit, the pack are rewarded with unfiltered sunshine raining down on the sacred land around them. Before their eyes lies ‘The Gap’. A vast valley formed deep between the peaks of Cribyn and Fan Y Big. Paths winding off into the distance beyond the sun’s reach. For a moment they stop, breathing in the fresh valley air and assessing the land in front of them. They begin their decent – down along the Gap  on to the trails to the towards the villages of Cantref and Llanfrynach.

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The Gap

As the terrain continues, rocky underfoot, the pack pick up the pace. The gravity induced run raises the energy levels of the runners and whoops and cheers can be heard echoing around them as the bound onward. Fleet-footed they choose their path wisely and leap the streams of water washing over the well trodden track. There’s no avoiding the cool wet mountain chill on their feet as they splash their way through. A short mile or so ahead lays one of the great wonders of the running community – an aid station.

‘Dabbing’ in at the checkpoint the runners confirm their safe arrival. Tracked by the organisers, their safety is not taken lightly. Water and refreshments are served and the pack joke with the race ‘volunteers’ – an incredibly supportive form of runner, donating their time as a gift to support and encouragement runners on their journeys. “See you later Butt!” Lingers in the air as the runners set off on they next installment of the adventure. The next time they stop will be in the sanctuary of the basecamp…

First though, more treacherous challenges are thrust before the runners and which the pack must overcome. Upon leaving the aid station the runners are thrown straight back into a single line formation as they navigate the overgrown, rocky ground that might form a natural stream under adverse weather conditions. The runner by the name of ‘Jon’ takes the lead, guiding the pack through the seemingly never ending track. Legs are stretched as they straddle the banks and hop from rock to rock, their limbs scratched at by thorny foliage. Before they can reach the end they are tested once more when a cry of “Bike!!” is heard from behind.

A more dominant, faster sub-group of humans is racing down the track in the direction of the pack. The pack speed up with the end of the path looming in sight. But it is too late. As the bikers, on their mechanical contraptions are hurtling towards them, the pack have no choice but to move to the side and throw themselves deep into the foliage to avoid a near-fatal collision. In this desolate land, assistance and recovery would not come quickly. Passing the pack safely the bikers continue. But ahead of them, Jon is still chasing that glimmer of freedom and light at the end of the overgrown tunnel. With moments to spare he makes it unscathed and the bikers continue off out of sight.

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Freedom from the rocky paths and escaping the hoard of bikers

Pleased with their escape the runners continue but are then greeted with a short run along a trail runners nemesis – a paved road. Vast man-made formations, roads litter the natural landscape like tribalistic markings. Designed for speed and mass transportation they can cause all manner of injuries to runners. Navigating the roads, the tarmac bends through the village of Llanfrynach, where a sole local-supporter offers another restbite for runners with fuel and support. Shortly after which the paved road once again gives way to a welcomed return to the lush green fields of Brecon.

This is not the end of the runner’s dilemmas though when, after overcoming many other man made torture devices – the sty – the runners follow a course marking in the wrong direction. The sense of urgency on a trail is heighten. More so that, if it wasn’t for the eagle-eyed Reka spotting the path into the fields, the runners might already be lost to the endless pain of the paved road. The risk of going wrong, getting lost and expending unnecessary energy is too great so Jon calls the pack to a halt. A moment of democratic discussion sees the pack  retrace their steps a few meters to inspect the signage and opt for a different path out of the fields. The right path. Runners know only to well to trust their gut feeling.

Crossing a river stream the runners again emerge onto another paved road leading to the next village of Pencelli. They slow to a walk and swear with other runners as they pass. Soon, the road should again join the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal path, the final stretch into the basecamp. Eventually in the distance a hi-vis yellow arrow directs the runners over a bridge. The canal has been reached. The end of the lap is within their grasp.

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Familiar sight of the canal path

Dai, spurred on by the sense of familiarity (he has traveled this path before – Brecon trail), breaks into a run. He knows where he is going and just how long it is. His confidence is high. He sees lone runners scattered in the distance and picks them off one by one with greetings of support to each he passes. Soon he sees the turn into camp but he grinds to a halt as a familiar voice calls out “there he is!”. Up-ahead two bobble-headed supporters wave and cheer. Kelly and Fudgie are supporting one of their own and cheering the other runners into camp. The greatest strength of a runner is the support from within the community and other runners bringing energy and joy to them. It works. They stop for a chat and wait a few moments whilst the rest of the pack fall in. Goodbyes are said and the pack head into the base camp sanctuary. Just under 5 hours elapsed. Time for sausage rolls and coke.

Rejuvenated with fresh supplies the pack head back out with their kit adapted for the second passing. Alas they emerge not empty handed. They take with them offerings to pay back the supporters for their sacrifices and giving up their time to be on a cold and lonely path all day. Sweets and brownies deposited to Kelly and Fudgie. The pack start the journey all over again.

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A cow watching the adventure unfold

Second time out the conditions have changed. The path is the same and the runners have boosted confidence in knowing what is in store. Now they also have light on their side. As Jon proclaims “daylight is underestimated”. They are not alone though and more wildlife is also enjoying the sun’s rays. Dai takes time to interact with some cows watching the adventure unfold before he hastily returning to the pack. They run the canal back to the beginning of the climb to Pen Y Foel. A climb this time they can see in all is magnificence.

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The glory of the mountains in the afternoon sunshine

What nature gives with one hand though, it slaps the runners with the other. With the clear visibility of the the afternoon, comes the torment of seeing the monumental challenge of the mountain ahead. Whilst they’ve summited once before, now they are tired and aching. They can see Pen Y Foel in the distance. Way off in the distance. As they hike it once more, this time it drains them. The runner Ged is prepared. He has brought poles. Like a modern day archer he unleashes them from his back and hikes on. Or at least that was the intention. He has all the poise of a clumsy Star Wars AT-AT wobbling from side to side. His frustrations grow. But to the enjoyment of the pack. The summit is overcome through laughter and piss-taking. A runner’s secret weapon.

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AT-AT

A moment up top this time offers another chance for the runners to rest. Unlike the early misty morning, the clear panoramic views are there to be absorbed. The pack take it all in. The cameras are out and they dance around the (quite possibly least impressive) summit stone. The enjoyment continues down towards the Talybont Reservoir where it is this time revealed in all its glory.

A few rarely seen Locals line the entrance to the fire track offering support to the runners. No doubt veterans of these paths themselves, they laugh with the pack and send them on. This time the pack walk-run the length of the fire track, stopping momentarily to interact with other runners and some more of the hikers they encounter. Unseen in the morning, the colours of the trees and woodlands below them flicker in the sunshine and light reflects of the reservoir behind them. The track is overcome with no casualties and they progress back onto the rocky climb to the next summit. Already half way through the second loop they are optimistic about the final quarter of the challenge.

But they are not ill-prepared. They know their greatest challenge is yet to come. A danger they cannot avoid nor out run. One which they must endure and be at their most alert for it will test them to their limits. The darkness.

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The shadows beginning to take hold of the gap

The runners had been aware of this danger since before they left camp in the morning. But now, as the hours pass by, it has quickly become a reality as the sun begins to set behind the Welsh mountains. Soon the pack will be entering the The Gap where the sun’s reach will diminish to nothing. They have less than an hour of daylight remaining before the darkness will come. Whilst the trail runner is adapt at running in the dark, they are vulnerable to its energy. More than ever before on the run they are aware of their surroundings which soon they will no longer be able to see. Led by Jon the pack treks up to the summit. Unlike the first passing it seems to take far longer this time around but they persevere. They have made it to The Gap in time and can once again begin their descent. This time their descent is impeded as the rocky terrain is wetter than before and the danger of slipping has increased. A fall here could end the adventure and leave the runners exposed to the elements of the night. They descend with less haste than earlier in the day before picking up their pace as they hit the grassy stretch just before the final aid station.

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Cautiously descending the rocky, wet path

Inside the recognisable volunteer faces greet the pack and help them with water and cakes. A cookie dough brownie is a favourite which the pack feast on before being released back out onto the track with their head torches accessible. The darkness setting upon them is imminent and they are conscious of the single narrow track of the river bed to which they now need to navigate. Whilst there are no bikers this time, the pack once again find themselves in a race through the foliage tunnel as they try to emerge injury free before the darkness completely devours them. They narrowly achieve their goal and emerge onto the road into pitch black of the night. Darkness is here.

The lap has felt longer this time around and is taking its toll on the pack. They are drained of energy and longing for the safe arrival at the basecamp. With darkness now here to stay, they walk on into their next challenge. As darkness lingers around them, the dangers change. The course has become quieter and runners are now at their loneliest. The marshals had, but for a few, all retreated to the safety of their homes or the sanctuary of the basecamp and very few locals are seen outside. Along with the humans the animals have also sought safe shelter from the elements. Darkness would bring exquisite views to follow a beautiful sunset. But with the orange burn of last rays of light succumbing to the night, new dangers await. Dangers that are are more psychological and which will toil with the runner’s tiring mental strength. In these parts the runners are aware of the nocturnal predator that is the Talybont Nun.

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The Sun sets over the Brecon Beacons

Rumours from the villagers report of the mythical Talybont Nun who feeds off the fear and depleting energy of runners. The stories tell of runners who go missing at night and the uncertain implications of being “touched by the Talybont Nun”.  No runner is certain. No runner can escape the clutches of the Talybont Nun. No runner is safe at night.

In these isolated villages a network of locals provide warning signs to support each other through times of darkness. Visible signs are there to warn those out at night. The runners know how to recognise and interpret these signs, the most prominent of which is the dim orange glow which signifies a reported sighting of the Nun – an orange light in their window  warns that the Nun has been seen in the area and to take extra care, to seek safe refuge before it is too late.

The pack continue. Aware of the rumours. Aware of the occasional orange light shinning out at them. They are together. They are strong. they huddle closer as they run to improve their chances of survival. No runner wants to be alone at the back, likely to be the one touched by the Talybont Nun.

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Head torches at the ready

The runners need to see in the darkness and their head torches are out, bobbing away and brightly lighting up the paths ahead. A necessity to their safety, but a contradiction all the same. The light will alert the Talybont Nun and guide it to their location. They have to keep moving. Keep on their feet and hope they can reach the goal before the Nun makes a showing. They are tired now, exhausted from hours on their feet. The risks are increasing and chances of survival balance on a knife edge. Now is not the time to slow.

The pack rely on their kit. Technical advances in fabrication have enabled them to increase their chances of survival through carefully selected attire. But each garment comes at a cost, like the torches, the reflective materials used on the kit can act like a flare in the night when caught by the glow of a head lamp, a risk they must take, hoping that the reflective material does not alert the nun to their location.

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Beware the Talybont Nun

Up ahead the pack spot reflections coming back to them from the kit of other lone runners. They head after them, chasing them down one by one. An ideal addition to their pack, not always as a friend but sometimes as a sacrificial runner that can be offered to the Talybont Nun to increase the pack’s chance of survival. If it shows, the Nun can be distracted with its ‘fear-harvesting’ from the sacrificial runner, offering a chance for the pack to flee ahead to safety. This ruthless instinct for survival pushes them on as, with runners behind them, for a moment the tension reaches critical levels – the runners pass a sign for the Village of Pencelli, and  Llanfeigan Church, the known origin of the Talybont Nun, if ever a sighting was likely it was now.

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Pure darkness on the canal path

Leaving the other runners behind them the pack reach the Canal path once again. The greatest risk of all is the isolated loneliness of the canal path at night. 2 miles of darkness and no where to escape. A single direction onward to safety. No turning back. To one side a canal that would consume them if they were to fall, behind them, somewhere the Talybont Nun lurks. This is an all or nothing moment as the runners pick up the pace and start racing off after their medals. The pack break into a sprint as they sense the end is near. In the distance the cowbells of safety ring out to mark the safe return of another runner, welcomed to the warmth and sanctuary of the finish.

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Safety of the finish

The Pack’s time has come. The bells ring out. On this adventure our pack have not been taken by the Talybont Nun. They dab into the finish line where warm flames flicker from a fire and they are awarded with hot food, clothing and a medal of protection. The runners retreat to a pub. For this group they survive, to run another day. Many other runners and packs remain out on the dark course, a DNF looming, their fate as yet unknown….

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Sanctuary

 

* Note. The myth of the Talybont Nun is just that. A myth. Orange glows from cottage windows are most likely coming from families enjoying a bit of Ant & Dec on a Saturday night. No nuns were touched in the making of this adventure and the race organisers have confirmed the safety of each runner.

 


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I’ve been nominated for the personal blog category with the Running Awards. I’d love your support and votes. If you like what you read and you’d like to vote for me you can click this link and find “RunWithDai” in the nominees. Thanks!

 

 

 

Ziemniaki

The Lemkowyna Ultra Trail (LUT) is a Polish running event set in and around the Beskid mountain range of South East Poland. Lemkowyna is in its 5th year and has a series of events with races at 30km, 48km, 70km, 100km and 150km. The  150km race being a ‘discovery’ race on the prestigious Ultra-Trail World Tour UTWT.

Through her various trail running contacts Jana ran the 30km Lemko trail in 2017 and dragged (far too easily) a few of us out to Poland for the weekend to run the 48km ‘marathon’ this year. One of the biggest selling points for me to join the adventure (other than filling my October ‘event’ and running with friends of course!) was the race tagline “enjoy the mudness”. Apparently it would be a very, very muddy event. Awesome. Let’s kick start the winter running season with some grotty fun!

After months of waiting, it was time. Myself, Jana, Yvette, Daisy and Clair were heading out to Poland for the weekend. Logistically it was a flight into Rzeszow and a taxi transfer to the town of Krosno. From here we’d be able to get the organised LUT buses to the start of the race in Iwonicz-Zdroj and also back from the finish line at Komancza.

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Team Cool Cats go shopping

Leading up to the weekend I was relaxed. Far too relaxed. There are probably numerous reasons for this. Firstly it was convenient to leave all the worries to Jana as the only fluent Polish speaker in the group (sorry and thanks Jana!! – Jana did try to teach us all the necessary pleasantries, however I was only able to grasp a single word “Ziemniaki”). Secondly, I’ve achieved everything I wanted to this year. I’ve come through my biggest challenges unscathed and smiling. I’ve 3 events left to tackle and had already switched to planning 2019. These races are now about enjoyment, experience and maintenance ready for what 2019 can bring. On top of that I am carrying a bit of an injury. I don’t know what exactly but I’m aware of some discomfort. I thought it was my calf. Now I think it’s my hamstring. Either way I still wanted to run but not too push it.

Unfortunately Clair was also injured so had to switch to cheer squad duties for the weekend. Yvette was a little apprehensive about the run (there is a tight 8 hour time limit on the course) so I imposed myself and insisted I’d run with her throughout so that she wasn’t alone.

After settling in at the accommodation and having a good nights sleep, we were up early to make it to the ‘shakeout run’ before registration. The shakeout run was led by Marcin Swierc who won the TDS this year in a gripping finale. Very impressive! A brief jog along some local trails before he put us through a series of challenging stretches and body exercises before we returned for a complimentary breakfast. The breakfast spread put on by the organisers was full of local made sausages, breads, cheeses and jams. We were in heaven. After which we had an impromptu interview with the media channel supporting the race. I’m still not completely sure what was asked and what we responded despite Jana’s translations!

After the morning’s activities we met up with Michal (who stayed with us in Chamonix during the CCC and whom recently finished 6th at Ultra Tour Monte Rosa!!). Michal was here with Team Vindberg (or “team Hot Tub” as I liked to call them) after claiming a podium finish at the 48km LUT last year. We went off for some ice cream and a walk around Krosno whilst we waited for race registration to open.

Race registration was straightforward and efficient with a check of all the mandatory kit list in exchange for the bib number and tracker. Oddly, despite a cut off time of 6pm the mandatory kit list includes equipment like head torches and back lights but no waterproofs or layered clothing. Odd, but rules are rules and there is no doubt a logic behind it. It did feel odd having such a lightweight kit bag! All checked in we posed for some pre-race pictures and made our way to a restaurant for some pierogis. I do love Polish dumplings!! We followed this up with a chilled evening drinking 2% Radler beers like the crazies we are. We know how to party!

The next morning was a breeze as the race wouldn’t start till 10am. So no early wake up call in Poland. Awesome. Fed and packed we eased through the bus ride, checked our drop bags in and were in the race pen ready and waiting. The 150km, 100km and 70km runners were already well underway and many 70k participants were at the aid station where we were starting in Iwonicz-Zdroj. It was good to cheer them through but I felt anxiety for them knowing any minute we’d be stampeding after them, surrounding them with our fresh energy.

Krzysztof, the race director (Jana’s friend at Lemkowyna), pulled us forward (with Jana’s help) to the front to get people focused and ready. He gave the mandatory race briefing at the countdown began. 10am. Race underway. Within seconds Jana vanished from sight and disappeared into the distance!

The initial part of the course ran through the town as we sought out the beginning of the trail. Within just a few kilometres we were climbing the first of what I’d describe as the 3 “small” inclines of the route. Besides this there would be one big-bastard climb and plenty of rolling hills along the way. As we climbed we were greeted with loud voices from a group of men positioned halfway up the hill. Music pumping and bottles(!) of something no doubt alcoholic being drunk, they were in for a good time!

Now what I haven’t already alluded to was the weather this weekend. In fact, as to how much we were sweating! We came in the search of mud. We were ready to ‘enjoy the mudness’. However, we were presented with a 20+ degrees (C) beautiful summer’s weekend. There would be very little mud. The layers had been swapped the night before for short shorts and a vest! As we climbed the sweat only increased. But what goes up must come down and soon we did.

Here came my first surprise of the day. The terrain. The ground was very uneven and rocky. The climbs were tough and the downs were harder. Much concentration was needed to ensure a strong footing in the jagged stones and dusty trails. So much so I removed my sunglasses to help focus. This was going to be quite a painful run for the feet I decided. The second surprise followed soon after with a delightful warning of bears in the woods. hhhmmm.

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Don’t look, keep running!

Throughout the day we were never alone. Plenty of runners from our event and also the 70km event mixing and running together. At one point the route took us onto a road that was still in the process of being re-surfaced. The ground was sticky with tar and you could feel the heat coming from the ground. This was a new experience!! I stuck with, or near, Yvette for the first 10 miles and we soon came across the first aid station at around 18km. Here we met Sarah from team ‘hot tub’ who was readying herself for an assault on the 30km race which would soon be starting.

We filled our bottles and bellies (chocolate and biscuits for me!!) and set off again. I checked my watch (I still only run with current and average pace showing – this gives a huge sense of being free from pressure and not thinking about distance nor time!). We’d covered the 10 miles or so in just under the two hours. This was great progress. I told Yvette how well she was doing, to not worry nor thinking about the 8 hour cut off but instead make her realise a sub 6 hour was a real possibility!!

Onwards we went. Upwards. The big-bastard was immediately after the aid station and was about 800m or so of climbing steadily over several kilometres. I lost sight of Yvette somewhere over this climb but carried on knowing she wouldn’t be far behind. I was in my own bubble at this point. I was a little concerned as I could feel my leg (this is were I became conscious that it was more likely my hamstring and not my calf) but I was Smiling. Enjoying. The hills were stunning. All around us the trees were turning red and brown but the sun was shinning brightly. As you climbed higher and higher the unobstructed views into the distance became more and more impressive. This was a side to Poland I’ve not seen before. It really is beautiful out there. I plodded along with a smile on my face, absorbing it all and cheering the runners who’d pass me along the way. After about 15 or 16 miles Sarah cane zooming passed with a huge smile and cheered me on. She was third lady in the 30km LUT and looking very strong. She was gone before I knew it.

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Exceptional views from the LUT

There was a long section on top of the hills which was very pleasant, out in the open sunshine. I was a little worried I’d get sun burnt now! I had a brief moment of distraction talking to a Polish lady (Agata) who lives in Devon. She too powered off into the distance as I walked the little hills happily. I met her again at the finish and found she finished 4th lady in the 30km LUT, narrowly missing the podium by under a minute! I hope this wasn’t down to talking to me!!

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Get ready for the descent!

Next up was the down that inevitably follows the up – Over a very short distance we’d descend the 800m or so back down. This was rapid with gravity taking you probably faster than you’d like. I was again very conscious of my footing as, although the ground was softy and grassy it was riddled with lumps and cambers. Immediately at the bottom the next aid station awaited.

I briefly checked the time, 2pm. We were still on for that sub 6 if we wanted it. I just had to wait for Yvette to show. I filled the ten mins or so eating. Lots of orange slices, biscuits and chocolate and a load of flat coke. It was so flat. Perfect. The volunteers here were excellent and incredibly helpful and I joked around with one lady who was drenching people with cold water whilst I waited. The volunteers throughout were absolutely fantastic and help make this a special event! After about 10 mins or so Yvette showed up and it was her turn to stock up and refresh.

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Going Strong

As we walked up the last of the “little hills” Yvette confirmed she was in a good place mentally and physically. The steep rocky down hills were taking its toll on her ankles (she’s had previous injuries there) but she was good. The last third of the race went by in a blur. We wondered if Clair had been able to find a way to get to the finish (it’s in the middle of nowhere with limited transport and she had no confirmed way of getting back either!) and if Daisy and Jana would have finished by now. For a while we interchanged places with a mixed group of other runners from our race, the 70km and the 30km. But we were consistent and comfortable. So comfortable that I inadvertently found some of the mud. Despite the weather, pockets of the course were still very muddy. I can see how, with a little rain, the whole course would become so much more difficult to run. But, throughout the course you were easily able to navigate around or jump the muddy patches. Lost in my own thoughts though I was no longer thinking or focusing and I ran straight through a muddy seduction. I was immersed to my ankles and almost lost my trainers as I pulled through! I cheered myself and laughed. No harm. A pain to clean at some point but I had come for the mud after all!! As a result, I ran through all the mud I could for what remained of the trail. Why not huh?!

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I found the mud!!

I was deep in enjoyment now and amused myself with a little game as we ran through some forested areas. As the seasons were changing, the trees were ripe with autumnal colours and leaves were falling. All around us in the tranquillity of the forest there was not a sound other than the foot strikes on the ground and the leaves rustling through the trees branches as they fell and floated to the ground. You could see them falling all around and the shadows they’d make. I made it my game to catch them as I passed. I managed it just once.

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Scenes from the forest trails

As we neared the end of the trail we knew there would be a few km on the road to run to the finish. We soon hit this and it was an ever so gradual incline. Yvette was stitching but carried on. I figured we had maybe two miles at most left to cover. I was a few hundred yards ahead of here and kept stopping to see if she was coming. But then, out of nowhere a sign saying ‘finish 350m’ appeared. What? This was too soon. I looked back. Yvette was there. So I legged it. I ran in to finish the race. Rounding the corner where the cheers from Daisy, Clair and Jana could be heard. I screamed “ziemniaki” (that one word I could remember) and passed the line. Moments later Yvette skipped in past me to finish too. We finished around 6 hrs and 4 mins. Amazing. If I’d known the finish was so close I would have pushed us to break that hour mark! Still, it proves Yvette is a far stronger runner than she gives herself confidence for, smashing the cut off she was concerned by with 2 hours to spare!

Race done we were treated with our favourite 2% Radler beer and snacks from Clair (who’d clearly made it!) and admired our amazing ‘cowbell’ medals. The organisers had arranged food (great food!!) for runners and we sat and chatted about our races and experience.

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How good is this medal and mug!!

As the night started to draw in we had a brief ‘wet wipe wash’ in the river (the showers were cold and the changing area was a bit chaotic) and made our way into the main tent ready for awards and live music. We’d planned to stay for the entertainment and get the 9pm bus back to Krosno anyway, but we had even more reason too now – Daisy had finished 3rd lady in the 48km and Sarah second lady in the 30km. We gave them a great reception as they collected their incredible awards and huge amount of sponsored gifts for the podium finishers. In an amazingly thoughtful touch, Krzysztof (the race director) invited Jana onto the stage to thank her and give her the honour of presenting Daisy (and the 48km lady podium finishers) with their awards in recognition of her support to the Lemkoywna. After all the awards there was also a chance to recognise and applaud some of the many volunteers whom received a very well deserved standing ovation.

It was an amazing finish to an amazing weekend that was all about the support and camaraderie of each other! Something tells me this won’t be the last time I go to this event!! The people, the organisation, the food, everything we encountered during our time in Poland was special!

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I’ve been nominated for the personal blog category with the Running Awards. I’d love your support and votes. If you like what you read and you’d like to vote for me you can click this link and find “RunWithDai” in the nominees. Thanks!

Your name written in the newspaper

The Berlin Marathon 2018.

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Sporting History was made on the 16th September 2018. You don’t need me to tell you what happened. On such an incredible day I wrote my own piece of history. I ran a sub 3 the marathon. Something that was never a dream or goal. But something that became a ‘thing’ for me. A monkey on my back in 2018.

Let’s rewind a little. 7 months ago. February. I’d just ran a 3:07 marathon in Muscat and a 3:03 in Malta. My mind went into overdrive. Out of nowhere I suddenly thought I can. I believed. I wasn’t patient though and pushed it. Limassol was the the spectacular climax and crash and burn affect of my naivety and disrespect.

It created this monkey. He isn’t cute. In truth he’s a little mouthy Pratt. He’s loomed over me like a shadow. A shadow that filled me with doubts and fears. What if it happens again, but with more severe consequences? What if I keep trying and keep failing? What if I can’t do it? What ifs. So I did what I do best and blocked it out. Shut it down. I succumbed to the fear. If I don’t try, I can’t fail. And that’s how the next two marathons went.

I found a comfort zone. A safe place. I ran at a pace I could enjoy and where no harm could come to me. Whilst it was great that I could enjoy the marathons in such a way, I wasn’t challenging myself or confronting my fears. A manifestation that I’m almost cheating myself. That has been my norm since. I just accepted it. Maybe one day I’d try again.

There’s been a gap of 5 months since my last marathon as I’ve explored the trails over the summer. September though brought about My next marathon. Berlin. One of the Abbott World Major Marathons. Originally this was going to be my main race of 2018. After obtaining a place I thought I was going to train and go for a GFA (London) time (which annoyingly I’d achieved in Malta until they changed the criteria!!) I then found the trails. This all changed. Two weeks before Berlin I’d now be tackling the biggest physical challenge of my life – The CCC. I had no plans for Berlin once again. It was an afterthought. A secondary race in the shadows cast by the mountains.

Berlin would be special in a different way though. I was in a ‘group’ of 20+ other runners that had formed together through various connections. It was going to be a very social and enjoyable weekend. I was looking forward to that.

As the race approached, my mind only turned to Berlin after I finished the CCC. Two weeks to go. What was my plan? My legs still ached. I hadn’t ‘trained’ for roads or speed. I wasn’t in a training nor taper period. I was in a period of recovery. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last. So I reverted back to the shadows and found a safe option. I decided that 3:15 to 3:30 would be my safe zone. I’d be happy with a time like that. 3:30 was more than comfortable at Helsinki and a time of 3:15 would provide some challenge. Deep down I was scared I’d leg it. You always get caught up in the stampede at the start of a race. So a secondary goal was not to run faster than an average pace of 7:10 mins per mile. That would be a 3:10 marathon pace. Contain yourself was my message!

That’s it. Plan formed. Now to enjoy the weekend…Arriving Saturday AM I bullied my way through the mayhem of what is the biggest race expo I’d ever experienced. I was in and out. Nice and easy. I met up with various members of the group to watch the football and later again for pasta. Spirits were high. Everyone was ready to attack their race. By this point though I’d already made my one ‘mistake’. As I’d run a faster time since I obtained a place at the marathon, I’d had my starting block moved up a place. I’d now be running with 1,000s of other runners capable of a 3:00-3:15 marathon.

Pasta eaten, it was time for bed. Bobby and I were staying on the 6th floor of the Wombats hostel. There is a roof top party every night till 3am. Great. This was our concern. Turned out it wouldn’t be a problem at all. The sudden awakening we got at 4am to the incredibly loud sound of “Achtung!!” Would be our problem. What’s this? What the fuck?! After listening to the German message, we eventually received the English translation. Something along the lines of “Attention. This is the hotel manager. Due to an emergency in the building we request that all guests make their way outside of the building immediately”. A fire alarm. Oh bollocks. We got up and started compiling our race kit. Who knew how long this could go on for! As we were doing so the hotel manager entered our room and started questioning us. Apparently it was our room that had sounded the alarm! “We’ve been sleeping!!” we told him.

After about 30 mins of standing around outside I had to laugh as a couple belatedly came out of the lift, with all their luggage and even their bed sheets?! Err OK. Talk about a sense of urgency! We were finally then let back into our rooms. False alarm. Time to try and get some more sleep before we really have to wake up!

Eventually we really did have too wake up. I was ready for the morning. I knew what was needed. One lingering thought from Limassol was that I hadn’t fueled sufficiently. So I’d planned to get 1500kcals into me before I left the flat. That was mostly done trough 4 Quaker porridge oat bars. I’ve recently found these and they are far easier to consume than the equivalent amount in bowls of porridge. I wasn’t going to be caught out this time!

What then felt like way too soon after being woken in the night we were at the event village. Holy smoke this place was massive. It felt like I’d walked for an eternity trying to find my bag drop and subsequent starting block. Penned in, the block started to fill up, it was a busy one! In front of us the ‘elites’ and pros were warming up and the wheelchair racers were setting off. The atmosphere was electric and we were whipped into a frenzy as the front runners were introduced and the count down begun.

In a flash we were off. The heavy footsteps of 1,000s of runners pounding the tarmac. The thumping built as the crowd gained momentum. Within a minute we were over the line, split into two masses either side of the road, we were off!

The effect of my ‘mistake’ became immediately apparent. Everyone here was fast. We accelerate and were at a sub 7 Min per mile pace in no time. Weaving around the bends and roundabouts the mass of runners stuck together. We wouldn’t be splitting and spreading out anytime soon if at all. This was it. I was in this. I was overtaking people. People were over taking me. I kept checking my watch as the pace fluctuated between 6:40 and 6:55 Min Miles. Over the first 2-3 miles I kept telling myself “run your race”. “Don’t worry about the others”. Despite it all, I felt good. My legs were lethargic, but my body felt strong. My breathing was easy and my heart felt calm. Sod this. Sod my ‘aims’. I’m going for it. My plan was out the window. Sub 3 hours was the goal. If I didn’t get it, it didn’t matter. No pressure. But if I could maintain a 6:50 average pace then I’d do it. If I didn’t then hell, there might be a new PB involved or at any point I could slow it meet my original aims. It was all good. Absolutely zero pressure.

I went for consistency. This was a big difference to my last attempt where I heavily overloaded the first 10 and then second 10 miles with an unsustainable pace. There would be no letting up today. No room to slow. Just keep going. One thing I’ve learnt from the trails is consistency. Over a long duration your current pace doesn’t matter. The average pace over the distance is what defines your time. So for 26.2 miles I would try to be as consistent as I possibly could.

The downside of my change in approach was that I was focused. Ok, yes that’s a positive. But it meant I cannot recall much of the run. I was constantly checking my watch and monitoring my pace. Constantly processing my thoughts to step up or slow down. Maintenance was critical. Going too fast would burn me out. Going to slow could mean I would struggle to recover the time as the fatigue kicks in later on.

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I still manage to enjoy

The main disruption to my focus was the water stations. I knew they’d be cups. However, I didn’t want to wear a hydration pack trough out the race. Despite being so far forward in the progression of runners though, each station was an apocalyptic scene. Plastic everywhere. The water areas were flooded with puddles. People crashing into each other and spilling water all over the place. None of that compared to the sound – The noise as thousands of plastic cups were dropped and trampled. Cracking and splitting. It was a horrific sound. It also highlighted the shitty-ness of runners. Come on people, have some tact. It’s not hard to put your empties in the bin or move to the side of the road to drop/throw them. Multiple times this day I was hit by flying cups of water or nearly covered in a persons spit. People really are selfish dicks. My challenge at each water station was to drink enough (without choking myself as I threw the water down my throat) and get back up to target pace as soon as possible. Each stop would be a repetition of this challenge. Some harder than others as the crowds and fatigue varied.

The miles counted down. Things I saw (or remember seeing) were few. Eventually the halfway point was passed. Half a marathon to go. 1hr 29mins elapsed. Same again. It felt like an age for that first half. My thoughts were dominated by nothing else. Rarely did my mind wander from the constant calculations and visitations of that sub 3. I recall thinking back to Vallorcine during the CCC. At that point there was also about a half marathon to go. A mammoth half. This would be nothing by comparison. I could do this. The mental challenge of the CCC was different. Here I could rest in the knowledge of it being over in another hour and a half. That was a real boost.

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Passing the sites

The second half went by so much quicker. The atmosphere was incredible. The crowd was constant. The noise high and the music amazing. So many jazz and sax bands entertaining the runners and crowds, really lifting the runner’s morale. Berlin nailed it.

I was using all the usual tricks in my head to keep it going, keep maintaining. Counting down the kms. Converting the miles. Planning what I’d drink and when. I took a pack of Cliff shot blocks and took one every 5km from 22kms. I presume they helped. The flavour certainly did. I had a gel on hand (which I never ended up using) and 250ml of High 5 isotonic drink in a soft flask. I was saving the isontonic for the last 10km and to save me from the carnage of the water stations. My mind was focused and planned. 20 miles done. 6 miles to go. Just a morning run commute to work left.

There were two mental boosts for me at mile 20. Firstly an announcement that the world record had been broken. The crowd and the runners went mad. That’s insane! Everyone wanted to know the time. What a day this was. Secondly, another runner started shouting. “Who’s doing this?! Who’s breaking sub 3 today?!”. No one responded. Inside me though I started to believe even more. I wasn’t alone. I realised I was surrounded by other determined people chasing their goals, chasing their sub 3 dreams. I had a brief chat with the guy. We were doing this. We spurred each other on. I kept him in my sights for the rest of the run. He seemed determined enough that he’d make it.

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Focused

I kept going. Kept adjusting and maintaining the pace. The miles passed by. I knew Louise and Becca would be at 38km waiting with the loudest of cheers. I was ready to look out for them. But first came the Adidas runners cheer zone at 37km. Wow. Just wow. There were hundreds of them. It’s a huge community but amplified at an Adidas sponsored world major marathon. The noise was insane. The roar as runners ran through was so uplifting. I’d now caught up with the 3 hour pacers too. They’d set off before me and I thought that, if I get in front of them and finish, then sub 3 will be certain. So I did. I slipped by and settled back into the rhythm. By the time I reached the girls I was in a strong mental place. I saw them and yelled. They went wild. Lou later told me that, on the trackers they’d been saying “Dai is going too fast. He’s going to fast” before realising “Dai is going for sub 3. He’s not going too fast, he’s on target'”. This made me chuckle. Setting myself some goals and changing them mid-run was clearly misleading for others!

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That moment ‘you know’

After seeing the girls I powered on. Last 5km. Three miles. Don’t drop it now. But, here came my biggest challenge. I couldn’t tell myself this was happening. I couldn’t rest up. I’d been this close before. 1 mile from the finish it all went wrong in Limassol. Mile 25. I had to get passed mile 25. I had to feel strong at mile 24 (my last memory at Limassol!). I did. Keep at it. Keep believing. Keep focused. My watch ticked over, 25 miles done.

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Go on, get nice and close up!

Now. Now is the time! My mind went into some sort of automatic self-diagnostic mode. My brain was sending signals to every part of my body. I could feel the information flowing back and my brain ticking them off. Check. Check. Check. It felt almost surreal as I acknowledged that my breathing was good. In and out through my nose. Deep and easy breathing. My lungs were good. My legs told me they were good too. Heavy, as they’d been all morning. But good. They wouldn’t let me down. My toe hurt. That was the worst response back. It was telling me there would be a blister at the end. A small price to pay. My heart was good. Not pounding. Just pumping rhythmically. My fingers clenching and relaxing by my side. My abs tight and holding me up right. My form felt good. My stride was consistent. My mind was clear. I was focused. 1 mile and a bit to go. Maybe 10mins max. This was on. I checked my watch and did the maths. Don’t drop the pace. Keep at 6:50ish for one more mile and this was mine. Soon I’d be at the Bradenburg Gate. Soon I’d be on the home stretch. That small insignificant bit of distance at the end of a 26 mile run. I told myself it’s nothing. It’s just that ‘extra’ bit runners do in training to round up to an even number. Go. Go.

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Smiling through the gate

Under the gate I went. The crowds lined both sides of the road. Huge numbers. Huge cheers. Runners everywhere either powering on or succumbing to the moment and stopping. Cramping. Walking. I felt for them. But this was me and my time. I crossed the line. Stopped the watch. It was under 3 hours (2:59:27. Officially). It was close. I’d done it. Everything I’d said to myself to keep going was right. So close. One bad mile, One prolonged period of not focusing and those 30 seconds would have evaporated away. But it was done. And that was it. I went into some kind of blurred, subdued state immediately. Inside I was so happy. But I don’t recall much or the emotions. I don’t know if I screamed or jumped or anything as I crossed the line. I do know I was chuffed to bits though.

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Looks like I was pretty pleased!

It was a long walk to the medals, to the water. I savoured it all. I saw the Runner who’d powered us on and we hugged it out. The long walk continued and I found Jordan ahead. I thought she must have also done it also as she was ahead of me. She’d come so close at 3:01 but had smashed her target and Pb. She was calling Chris. He was coming in just behind us at 3:07. He’d finished. He’d stopped at the medical tent to steady his legs. We walked back and met him after he’d collected his medals. Big hugs All round. He’d smashed his 3:10 target. We said we’d sign up to Boston in 2020. Here we go again…

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Something tells me we were all very happy!

Over the next few hours the rest of the group finished one by one. We regrouped and celebrated each other’s achievements. Before going our separate ways until later.

I met and saw so many other friends and familiar faces out there that day (and weekend). PBs were shattered all over the place. What a day to be a part of. We celebrated that night. We laughed a lot.

I might seem subdued to those I’ve spoken to since the race. Truth is, I don’t think the realisation has set in yet. I’ve played the sub 3 down so much this year that it probably hasn’t fully registered in my mind just how big of an achievement it is. I am though absolutely ecstatic with the outcome. Not just because of the time and achievement. But happy with the relief that the demons of the past have been put to the sword. The shadow lifted and the mouthy pratt of a monkey no longer is on my back trying to fill me with doubts.

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Yes!!

I don’t feel that roads are my place anymore. I’ve nothing to achieve from them. I don’t need, nor want, to improve that time. It won’t provide me with any greater satisfaction. I’ll run road races again for the reasons of it being a world major (one day I’ll do the 6), for covering a marathon on each continent (although that doesn’t mean it has to be a road!) or if I get a place somehow. I won’t be looking for them.

My heart and feet belong in the trails. They’ve consumed me now. I enjoy the challenge more. The freedom and experience more. The camaraderie and more relaxed nature of them. I can go back to the trails now knowing that I’ve redeemed myself. Limassol has well and truly been assigned to the history books and a time of learning and self realisation.

I will take pride in opening my copy of the Berliner Morgenpost and seeing my name written in the newspaper. The time etched as part of my own history on this very historical day for sport.

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I’m in the German news, sort of!

 


Vote

So it turns out that I’ve been nominated for the personal blog category with the Running Awards. I’d love your support and votes. If you like what you read and you’d like to vote for me you can click this link and find “RunWithDai” in the nominees. Thanks!

The Soulless Centipede

A brutal race deserves a brutal review…The CCC is indeed a brutal race.

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Pre-race cheese

What follows might come across as yet another moan about yet another race I willingly signed up to. So let me firstly caveat it with the confirmations that I did enjoy myself, I did have a great race, I’m proud of my achievements and I’m happy I did it. Would I recommend the race to someone contemplating signing up, no. No I would not. If you get anxious, as I do, it would also be a definitive no!!

To save reading on (what follows will be ramblings about my trip to the alps as well as the race itself!) the shortest way I can think of summarising why I wouldn’t recommend the race is that it just doesn’t live up to the hype. Whether that’s caused by my false expectations and that my preconceptions were way off the mark I don’t know. But for me it just didn’t stand up to the prestige that surrounds the event. Let me also caveat that the recap that follows is going to be littered with contradictions. I know that. The good things were the bad things. The bad things were often the good things. It is a little hard to separate them.

The UTMB is like the Mecca of the trail running world. A Hollywood blockbuster of an event. I’m generally ignorant of the running world, the elites, events and challenges. But I knew of the UTMB week. 10,000 or so runners, the top trail runners in the world, rigorous qualification criteria, years of training and days of festivities. It’s hard not to know a little about this particular event.

CCC Confirmation
The confirmation that led to many sleepless nights!

Since I obtained a place back in December, besides being a nervous wreck, I’ve met numerous runners who had, and who soon would also be taking part. I received so much advice and insight (for which I am grateful) and so knew a little about what lay in waiting for me. Everyone spoke of the same difficulties (e.g. congested single tracks) but spoke so positively about the races. However my experience and feelings soon went off on a different tangent.

Let me begin with the lead up to the ‘race’ from when I arrived in Chamonix. I was staying in a chalet with 6 others. Some I knew well (like Yvette who would be crewing me), some I’d met occasionally before and some where complete strangers to me. All shared a passion for running and exploring and each was here for a different reason, be it running one of the events, crewing a Runner, supporting friends, photographing the events or generally absorbing the vibes. This was a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of.

The morning after arriving, myself and Yvette headed out for a run with Alan. He’s a mighty strong and experienced runner. I was nervous of running so far the day before such a big run, but his experience and knowledge shone through when my heavy travel legs started to loosen up. It was also a great way to get some last minute advice from a guy who knows what he is talking about (Alan went on to smash the UTMB course this weekend!).

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Heading off to register

Post run, feeling refreshed, I headed off to the event village to register. If ever there was an example of the scale of organisation involved in events, it is the UTMB registration process. The application, the website and the pre-race communications are rigorous and meticulous. Constant deadlines for submitting mandatory requirements (think qualifying evidence, medical certificates, contact information, transport services etc.) are the norm and the in-person registration is no different. It starts with a dedicated registration slot. After a short queue your chosen form of identification is used to confirm you as a registered runner and grant access to the registration hall. You are handed a personalised, random generated, mandatory kit checklist and join the snaking queues of checks that lay ahead.

The mandatory kit list is extensive and demonstrates the enormity of the challenge you are embarking on as you are left to fend for yourself, in some cases over multiple nights, in the mountains of the alps. It highlights the seriousness that the organisers place on health and safety, which is clearly a good thing. Thankfully for the CCC this year there wasn’t a need to implement either of the additional “Hot”/”Cold” weather kits! After placing the required items in a tray, they are checked. Thoroughly. It’s not sufficient to show just your phone, but that it works and has roaming for networks across the 3 countries the race spans. Any old waterproof is not sufficient, the seams are meticulously checked and you sweat nervously whilst your expensive equipment is deemed sufficient enough to progress through the checks. Once you receive the thumbs up you continue on your journey and trade your stamped kit checklist for your bib number and tracker. See, if you fail the kit check, you won’t be allowed anywhere near the race itself! Bib number received you are instructed on how it should be worn and passed on to the wristband and ‘pack’ check. Here you receive a wrist band according to your race and your race pack/backpack of choice is tagged with the race tracker. You cannot change the bag now! Next up you receive your dropbag and and advised on the route navigation, markings and signs you’ll see along the way that need your attention (warnings of danger, wildlife, delicate paths and when to stick to the track and when not to use poles). There really is no excuse at this point for not understanding what you’ll see. Finally, checks, tags and information complete, you secure your bus passes and assistance tickets (to admit your crew to the dedicated assistance checkpoints). There’s also a cheesy photo opportunity (free! Nice touch) and you are done. It really is a military operation but one of the smoothest, if most nerve racking, registration experiences I’ve had.

Post registration we met backup with Alan at the finish line and waited for Hanna (one of Alan’s teammates) to arrive at the end of here race – the TDS. Almost bang on her estimated finish time she arrived with a huge smile beaming across her face and waltzed across the finish line. It was near 11:00am and a decent crowd had formed at the finish line, cheering and whooping the finishers across the line to the chorus of “Allez, Allez, Allez”. More than ever I was ready for my turn now.

The weeks leading up to this weekend were repetitive. The same questions. The same answers. The same feelings. I was ready. I was excited. There was nervous anticipation mixed with self-confidence. I was fed up of waiting. I wanted it now. I wanted to run. One more sleep stood in my way. One more afternoon of overthinking every possibility that lay in wait.

After some lunch we headed off to meet Jana and Maggie. Jana and I planned to start the race together and Yvette and Maggie to crew us together. Some chat about plans and lots of laughter later we said our goodbyes until the morning.

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The morning wait

05:00. The alarms are going, coffee is being drunk. The prep was complete. It was time to go. Finally. The morning started nervously as my watch had somehow drained of battery over night. It read 27% and it annoyed me. We met met up with Jana and Maggie in Les Bossons and hopped on the shuttle bus to the start In Courmayeur (Italy). The next time we’d see Yvette and Maggie would be over 12 hours later in Switzerland! The bus pulled up in Courmayeur, and then continued onward to a car park that felt an eternity away from the start. A rushed toilet start and more eating (fuel fuel fuel!!) filled the time as we made our way to the starting pens.

We wouldn’t be starting together after all. A staggered start meant I’d set off at 9:15, 15 mins before Jana. I was sure she’d make up 15 mins on the trails. The first few hours would be all walking and I knew she was eager to get ahead of the pack ready for the single track congestion. I text her to say my phone would be on flight mode (to preserve battery) and to look out for me. National anthems, talks from the mayor(?) and some crowd-hyping later it was time to go. There were photographers and drones everywhere. But also a helicopter cameraman. If ever you needed to know the scale of an event then needing a helicopter to get around kind of tells you how massive it is!!

The beginning of The CCC involves a climb out of the town towards Tete de la Tronche. When I did this on the recce run it took nearly 5 hours. It’s pretty much all up hill as you climb to 2584 m along single file tracks. Everyone had spoken about the single file, to try and get ahead of the crowds to avoid being too slow, but the reality is it just isn’t possible. There are over 2,100 runners. Over 2,100 strong runners (they’ve all had to qualify remember!!) and they all have the same idea. Immediately you fall inline. Immediately I experience some of the motions that will become a recurring theme of the race. The tapping of trekking poles as they strike the ground. The stench of sweat from the runners (myself included), the huffing and puffing of heavy breathers and the complete lack of spatial awareness humans have. You almost need to be a trained fencer to avoid being stabbed from trekking poles coming at you from all angles!

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A glimpse of the Human Centipede off into the distance

As the climb begins to steepen the reality of the congested single tracks became clear. For long sections it is stop and start. So much so that my watch wouldn’t even registered we were moving it was that slow! Your personal space is invaded, continuously. Your view is not that of the scenic mountain views, but of the arse or the runner in front of you. It was one sadistic race director away from being a sporting version of the Human Centipede. It’s basically disgusting. Jana thought the bus smelt bad. The mountains smelt worse as your breathing space contained almost toxic combinations of runner’s sweat, muscle rubs, food reserves and farts (yep, that one was definitely me!). I wanted nothing more to escape the centipede and power on. But I knew the pace was consistent and good for preserving my energy for later in the race.

As you carry on upwards you are repeatedly impaled by trekking poles from the front and rear. You are rear-ended by the person behind you who isn’t watching where they are going and you are shoved by the runners who have a disrespect for everyone and everything around them by barging past. There was anger in me that should not exist in such a beautiful place. The bottlenecks are a real pain. But they have two causes I could see. Not just those runners climbing at a slower pace than the others around them (difficult I know, but it is possible to occasionally step aside to let people past, over such a distance it won’t affect your ability to finish or secure a set time. I was able to do this!) but also those more impatient runners who take any opportunity to barge past, cutting corners, going off track etc. They are the ones who create the funnel effect and cause the sudden stops to the forward motion of the centipede.

Reaching the first summit at Tete De La Tronche, the shackles are broken and freedom is sensed. The pack breaks up and a stampede begins. It was almost like a scene from the Lion King and I was slightly concerned I’d be caught up in a mass tumble as we all started hurtling down the mountain. We didn’t thankfully and the freedom of the trail was a welcome relief. I was running far faster than I probably should, but it felt good. It was just a few kms to the first checkpoint. Running into Refuge Bertone is a very steep and rocky down hill section. I was nervous of falling but far to occupied with my breathing. It dawned on me that, with so many runners stampeding down the mountain, the tracks were dusty and my mouth and eyes were being bombarded with dirt in the air. I was so ready for the relief of the checkpoint.

The was no relief at the checkpoint though. After being ‘tagged in’ (the race had excellent tracking of runners!) it was like being in a war movie as runners scrambled over each other to reach the rations. The fruit and savory offerings on the tables were grabbed in fist loads and water poured everywhere as volunteers frantically tried to please the thirsty hordes. I had to leave there quickly before I started windmilling to maintain my personal space. I was gone. I was outta there!

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Robin representing the flag!

The next section lead to Arnouvaz via Bonatti (which offered a water refueling stop). Both sections were very runnable and ever so slightly less congested. When actually running, I found you often fell into groups that you were at a comparable pace to yourself and the paths on these sections were slightly more forgiving for overtaking – with the exception of the section where one runner got angry with the woman slowing everyone down as she persistently stopped to take photos! It was on this section I met Robin from Cardiff who I started talking to after noticing the welsh flag draped on his pack. We chatted on and off as we continued into Bonatti. It was great to finally talk to someone as the centipede was not only a slow moving beast but a soulless one. Being such an international event, there is far less camaraderie than I’ve come to enjoy on ultras. It simply isn’t as easy to have a conversation when everyone speaks different languages!! Sadly it does suck the life out of the journey and creates the Soulless Centipede.

The brief chat with Robin was also a relief for my brain as I’d realised how much my right foot was hurting. It felt like I had a blister or hot spot on the sole of my foot. Occasionally the impact of striking the floor would burn through my foot and make me grimace. I suspect that bounding over the rocky descent to Bertone was the cause. I made a not to stop at Bonatti and empty dust and dirt from my shoe as a precaution to further agitations. I’d have fresh socks and medical supplies waiting me a few hours away in Champex-Lac to look forward too.

As Bonatti came into sight there was a a steep incline to overcome. I was barely a third of the way up when I was hit with some pretty bad cramping to my left quad. I suffer a lot from cramps. My coping strategy is a stubborn one. I always try to just carry on through it. And so I did. Albeit painfully and slowly I managed to reach the top. Mountain water into my bottles, coke in my belly I was almost ready to go. I decided I needed a toilet stop and was disheartened to find the WC was downstairs in the refuge and also that there was a queue. I don’t know how long I waited but it was some kms later when I was overtaking runners I recognised before like (Robin!) that it must have been quite a few minutes – looking back at the ‘stats’ I lost 35 places at this point!

Not long after leaving the checkpoint the centipede was attacked by bikers. Whilst many hikers and walkers are out on the paths, it was generally quieter due to the event. These bikers didn’t care though and insisted on playing a game of chicken with the centipede and jostling for ownership of the path. It was a bad choice by the cyclists. They wouldn’t be winning this day. On the way down to Arnouvaz I was conscious of my fueling. I’d taken enough food with me and had plenty prepped with Yvette for each assisted aid station, but I knew the climb awaiting me to Grand Col Ferret would be draining. So I forced some more food down as we snaked through the mountain paths, crossing streams and rivers flowing with the energy of the mountains. Arnouvaz was one of the liveliest checkpoints. Supporters lined the entrance and exits and the atmosphere was buzzing. Inside the tent the now familiar scrambles were taking place as you bounced around like a pinball, fisting at the fruit and snacks. To watch me you’d assumed I’d not eaten in days as I squished oranges and smashed bananas into my face, juices smothering my beard. I don’t like bananas but I was eating as much as I could stomach to combat the cramps.

Outside the centipede reformed as we made our way towards Grand Col Ferret. Initially movement was slow up the single tracks as the usual mumbles of ‘pardon’ followed pole stabbing and the invasion of space. We came across signs indicating fragile land and to stick to the track. Signs ignored by many runners who jumped the tapes and ran amok to get ahead of the congestion. Unnecessary and disrespectful. I just don’t see what they achieved with this. Respect the environment! There was a brief widening of the path and I made my move. I hiked onward in space. Happy to breath the fresh air into my lungs.

I was aware it was now mid afternoon. I’d been out here a long time. The forecast was predicting rain and the clouds were starting to form. The climb to Grand Col Ferret would be a long one and I knew, if nothing else, it would be cold and windy up top. I made a decision to stop before starting the climb (up to 2537 m) and layer up. I took out the Allez Micro fleece and switched my cap for a buff. Whilst it was still dusty, it was also time to say good bye to the sunglasses. I regained the places I’d lost through layering up as I powered through the climb. My decision was a wise one. With the turns on the mountain the centipede was attached by the wind and the first droplets of rain. Runners stopped all around me to start layering up and putting their waterproofs on. I carried on and before I knew it I was at the top. I almost missed the tagging of the bib number as I immediately started hurtling towards the downhill. The overcast sky meant it would be dark sooner than I’d like and I wanted to cover as much ground as I could before the light was lost. It was just minutes later that I came to a stop when the heavens opened and I knew I had to get the waterproof out. I’d be soaked through if I didn’t. Minimus Stretch Ultra applied I was off again…vrooom…

When I did a  recce run, I loved this section and it was the same feeling here. Gravity and momentum throwing you forward on a forgiving track. For a moment at least I was free again. On my mind, a few miles away, would be the descent into La Fouly. And soon enough I was there, the point where we had cow-gate on the recce and had to go off track, no such issues this time as the cows were nowhere to be seen. As I rounded the cow shed though I immediately encountered another danger. Mud! I wasn’t ready for this. As I raced passed a few more cautious runners I felt my soul jump out of my body as I skidded and slid around the bend. Oh oh. Up ahead there were runners sliding all over the place, like a mass spin-out on Mario kart following a few banana skins being dropped. I tried to run. I was sliding everywhere. A runner, Juan from Mexico, let me passed and was in hysterics as I slid 180 degrees and started sliding down backwards like Bambi on ice, waving my arms comically overhead. How I didn’t fall I’ll never know. We laughed at each other as we slid our way down the mountain. I won’t lie, I was terrified. The gravity and momentum was not a great pairing with the mud! At the bottom the gravel tracks into La Fouly were a welcome relief. Onward we ran to the checkpoint, almost a marathon covered.

Inside La Fouly was the mayhem continued. I joked with the volunteers as I chowed down on the banana, oranges and watermelon before discovering the joys of biscuits and dark chocolate. My taste buds were thankful. I occupied my mind watching a conversation between the medics and a topless runner. He was insistent that he didn’t need the layers. Weird. It really was quite cold, even for me. I was expecting to see Maggie and Yvette here supporting Jana. But they weren’t. I didn’t know why but assumed it was a timing issue. I think I arrived far earlier than expected and Champex-Lac wasn’t too far away. I cleaned my shoes of mud, topped up my fluids and headed back out into the rain, hands and cheeks bulging with chocolate and biscuits. I walked on, danced with the lady from the CompressSport tent who was giving out sweat bands, and munched my way back to the trails.

Once again I knew there would be some decent running on this section and I quickly covered the ground to the ‘tree-lined’ path I loved so much on the recce. As I set off down it a runner went by and some confusion entailed as he looked back and talked. I thought that he had thought I’d said something. Turns out he recognised me from Instagram (As Ron Burgundy would say “I’m kind of a big deal”. I’m not!) and Wild Trail Runners. I chatted with Marc shortly before stopping for a brief walk, letting him carry on. I could sense the evening sky becoming greyer and greyer so stepped back up to run through the scenic Swiss villages of Praz-de-Fort, Les Arlaches and Issert and to the start of the Sentier De Champignons. I knew this path well. I recalled the wood carvings and knew it wasn’t much of an incline into Champex-Lac. I stopped to remove my waterproof again and lighten up so I didn’t overheat as I ran the last bit to the road at which point I packed away the poles ready for entering the first assistance zone. I was welcomed to cheers and clapping and the sight of Maggie and Yvette with cameras in my face. A little trail-jig and Yvette directed me into the aid station.

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Maggie and Yvette ‘bringing me in’ at Champex-Lac

This is where Yvette delivered her crewing A-game. She tended to all my needs and made me feel at ease with confident wording and assessment of my performance. I was flying. Well ahead of my ETA and explained why they weren’t at La Fouly. We’d managed to find a place by Marc(!) and we chatted some more as Yvette fetched me pasta and coke. I started charging my watch and set out re-organising my kit and wiping my face with refreshing wipes (Tip, Nivea ones are the way forward, my skin loved it!). It was nice to sit down for a moment. Now the time has come which I was dreading – it was time to clean my feet, inspect the hot spot damage, do some general maintenance and get some fresh socks and a clean t shirt. It was revitalising. I felt good! Yvette checked my foot. No visible damage of concern. Some wet wrinkled skin seemed to be the cause of pain. Blister plaster applied I was happy knowing it was nothing to cause concern. I took a moment to record a voice memo to myself (recording the thoughts you are reading now)  fixed my charging watch to my wrist (using the new sweat band to hold the charger and cables in place!) and set back out.

I’d spent just under 40 mins recovering and needed to get going again. First stop, mandatory kit check. Aaarrgh! I’d just packed it all away neatly! Waterproof trousers, jacket and phone checked and I was allowed back out on my journey. Second stop…toilet. The stomach needed some “free-ing” (I had more eating to do!!). Job done. Third stop…the lovely lady from Bristol who cheered me on. I joked for her to come with me as she cheered and she did! We walked and talked. I think she was concerned when I joked I’d rather be somewhere else. Turns out she has family and friends in Swansea. We hugged as we reached the lake and acknowledged I needed to run again. Faith in humanity restored, a lovely gesture from a stranger and a huge boost. Onward…

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Waiting for the mid-race kit check

Soon after, I had to stop for a forth time. The night had indeed darkened quicker than I hoped and the post-lake path led into the forest trails. I needed my head torch out. Damn. I walked on as I fiddled with the power. It wouldn’t come on. I thought I’d screwed up the locking mechanism, and perhaps I had as the battery was dead. Bollocks. More time wasted searching in the back pack, but soon there was light! Today was being dominated by tech mishaps!

I was wearing the Petzl Reactik torch and it was awesome. As it adapted to the changing light conditions I was occupied and entertained. So much so I can’t recall reaching the next incline! But here I was. Hiking up again. Up indeed, off in the distance I could see the flickering lights of the centipede climbing the towering mountain. It was a long way to look! Head down, sticks out, that’s the way we like to climb. I was looking for distractions again. I liked this climb compared to some of the others, but this would be my first experience of such a climb in the darkness, and I knew it was a long and winding one. The distraction came in the form of watching the rain. A gentle but relentless flow of water coming from the darkness, visible for mere seconds as the head torch lit it up as it fell. It was oddly satisfying and mesmeric. I was disturbed briefly from my trance when I misplaced a footing crossing a stream. Damn, fresh socks were now soggy socks. Oh well.

I’d left Champex-Lac fairly light in terms of fluids. I’d (or rather, Yvette) filled my two 500ml soft flasks but I’d kept the bladder as it was part filled from La Fouly. The checkpoints were fairly evenly spaced over the remainder of the course and I knew up at Bovine there was a water fountain if I needed it. I wanted it! I loved the ice cold mountain water available throughout the route and this one was very much welcomed. A hose had made the fountain more accessible and I refilled, gulping back the icy-goodness. A little further to the summit and it was another fairly runnable downhill into Trient again. But wait, what was this…I hear Queen? Was that “We Will Rock You”? Yes it was. Someone was having a party in the distance. How nice for them. The volume increased as I closed in on the venue and I recalled the same song being played at Arnouvaz during my recce. And then, to my delight, I entered La Giete where the music was originating. Another unexpected checkpoint with water on the go. Brilliant. I took a moment, filled my bottles again, ate some more food, removed my waterproof yet again as the rain had gone and enjoyed Rag N Bones Man “Human” before carrying on. Lets Do This!

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Switching up the kit!

I was expecting the checkpoint in Trient to be near the campsite, but it wasn’t. Before I knew it I was being welcomed in by Yvette and Maggie and their cameras. Thank God they were there because the entrance was so confusing. There were runners coming and going in all directions and it really wasn’t clear which way you needed to go. We found some space in the corner and Yvette set about working her magic. She absolutely nailed the crewing. The atmosphere was surprisingly upbeat in Trient, probably because of the weed Alpine techno music pumping out above us. We danced and laughed, taking a moment to enjoy ourselves. I think we’d been fairly organised in what we needed to do at each checkpoint. It was mainly fill my bottles, give me food and make sure I don’t get too comfortable! But here I needed a slight change. I’d noticed, I was hot. Too hot. Not just when running, but when hiking too. I’d brought an extra layer, thicker than the Allez Micro I was wearing so decided to swap the t-shirt and Allez Micro for the Spider hoody. It was the right call. Taking off the Allez Micro I realised how wet (with sweat) it was. If I’d continued into the night with this I would have become very cold I’m sure.

As I was finishing up and re-packing, Jana arrived! The predatory mountain goat had done it, she had made up the time deficit and caught me. Amazing perseverance. She welcomed me with two middle fingers. Lovely. Maggie forced her to eat something before we both set out together, about 30km left to go. Knowing the next checkpoint was “just” 11km away was a great boost. So off we went.

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Reunited on the trails!

Climbing up to Les Tseppes was tough. It’s a steep old climb. Most of it we covered in silence. Silence that was only broken up as I muttered profanities at the lady in front of me who had absolutely no control of her poles whatsoever. She was a complete liability, huffing and puffing and groaning away and 4 times nearly decapitating or piercing me with her poles. I couldn’t understand it. Neither could the runner who’d paused on the side of the track and was almost impaled as she passed. Soon the path gave me and Jana the chance to overtake and we gladly put the effort in to get away.

I was ready for the top, ready for my favorite view point from the recce, although knowing it would be darkness and I’d see nothing! We joked about the head torches up ahead and questioned if the stars were more glimpses of the centipede sparkling up high?! The summit came, I knew the path well again and assured Jana there were some good running opportunities up ahead. We paused for a moment as I once again removed my waterproof. We were off. Feet to the ground, let’s make some dust. Down we ran as Jana shouted out from behind me “Pardon, Passe?!” to help free our way. She was eager to run it all, but I knew some steep and rocky parts lay in wait so held us back slightly before the path into Vallorcine opened into a wider stony way. Hard underfoot, but free for movement and overtaking. Down into the green forest we could begin to hear the cars, the river, the trains below us. We kept going. Crossing the bridge into Vallorcine I felt good. I felt strong, I continued running all the way, zipping into the checkpoint as Maggie and Yvette were checking in. Perfect.

Last assistance point. More Food. More pep talks. From here I entered the unknown, the part of the course I’d not recce’d. Everyone talks of La Flegere. How tough it is. All I knew is that I had about 19km left to run. I could begin to rationalise it. A half marathon. Sure, a mountain one, but a half marathon. It hit home when the girls told us it was about 4 and a half hours to go. Oh, Ok then. A big half marathon! But from here, no turning back. Other than a water station up at La Flegere, this was the last checkpoint. Given the pace we’d been running, I could walk to the finish line from here within the cut-off times. Confidence was high. Praying for no incidents or injuries, this was the first time I really believed I could complete the route. We set back out in good spirits. We power hiked most of the first part of the route as it was fairly flat. At this point a strong hike with intent was faster than our average pace over the day and not far off running speed. Within minutes of leaving Vallorcine though I had head torch “issues” again. After trying for a while to turn it back on, I’d realised I was wearing it upside down. Idiot. Then, shortly after, the light was weak and flickering. I needed a battery change! New power source applied the hike could be resumed.

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She’s not even laughing at the upside down torch!

Then, the mountains came for us. The incline began, and it was a steep one. Back into the familiar centipede routine. Head down, poles out, finding any way I could to block out the heavy breathing from those around me. The day before the race the course was changed. Due to a rock fall, the climb to La Flegere was adapted and a route variation was activated. Now we’d need to climb, descend then climb again rather than a continuous climb to the summit. Whilst not the highest point we would climb, it certainly felt like one of the steepest inclines (looking back at the stats now, it is no surprise that my slowest pace coincided with the second of these climbs!).

I hit my low point here. The intensity of the crowd of runners and head torches around me brought me down. My anxiety levels were rising and I was grumpy with the invasion of my space. Once again I had my head in someone’s arse the whole way and someone breathing heavily behind me. I swear I could even smell red bull on their breadth. It was disgusting. I wanted out. The darkness pulled me down further and, as we started the decline (before the final climb), I could sense all the pains I’d been blocking out. The walking at this point was more like lunging as we made our way down. Then I bashed my knee. It hurt like hell. Lunging down I bent my knee into a rock in front. The blunt pain shot through me. It felt like an eternity of agony as we continued down and then began repeating the whole process back up. In my mind I was trying to understand the size of the climb. To visualise the 500m or so of vertical required. It doesn’t sound far, but that’s probably something like 250-300 people (I’ve not done the actual math!) standing on top of each other. That is a lot. I had to adapt my mindset. I needed to to embrace the demons now. To come out stronger, to overcome them, I find you either have to shut them out (like I do with pain), or let them surround you. Let them consume you on your terms. This was my tactic now. I was hyper-aware of them all. The pain, the irritants, the noises, the false summits, the size of the climb, the unknown that lay ahead, the uncertainty of the finish. I focused on them all. I wouldn’t let them beat me. I recalled some advice Alan gave me the previous day. He told me to create a false finish. La Flegere. He told me that the race ends there. Get to La Flegere and you can get to the finish. I did just that. I focused on the summit. I knew it must be close now. I knew Jana was somewhere close by in the centipede too. I couldn’t see or hear her though. I knew I had to carry on alone from here. That my pains couldn’t rub off on here. I kept going. The path widened and I took the chance to break ahead for some space as the climb continued up. False summit after false Summit, I kept sensing I saw the checkpoint, lights in the distance, music, something, anything. Each time I was let down until Finally the tent flickered up ahead.

It was the worst checkpoint of them all. It felt like a place were people go to sacrifice themselves to the mountain or something. The silence was deathly. Chairs lined the tent with deflated runners sitting in them heads held in their hands. The volunteers looked like they had enough too. I wanted out no sooner than I entered. Fill my water I thought. Get fluids because you need to run from here before the mountains claim you too. I was ready to go until another run stopped me. He needed help with his pack. I didn’t want to. But I had too. I gathered his stuff and helped him adjust it as quickly as I could and I was out. It was time to go home. False finish complete. This was happening. I was finishing this race. 8kms or so, mostly downhill. I need to run. Off I went. Running.

I don’t know what happened here. But I won my battle. My mind had been fighting for I don’t know how many hours climbing to a Flegere, and now my body took over. It’s as if my legs said “Don’t worry Dai, we’ve got this. Leave it to us”. I just kept on running. The decline zig-zagged down. The path was stony but smooth at the same time. The drop off the mountain face was terrifying! I’ve not done much running in the dark. Never mind running down  a mountain in the dark but I was flying down (don’t get me wrong, there were people flying even faster than I!). I was amazed. My body and mind were awake to the challenge. My mind matching my legs for effort. I was inspired by the power of the brain. My own body. That it can, and was, reacting so quickly. In the darkness you have an incredibly short period of time to pick a spot to place your foot. To choose wisely. To calculate your path, to execute your choice. To plan ahead maybe just one meter at a time. It was incredible how the body does this. The reaction time and processing power to keep you moving. It really fascinated me. Made me smile even. The enjoyment was coming back. That was until I rolled my ankle, resulting in a hop-hop-hop motion and a complete stop as the air completely left my body along with the profanities. It hurt like hell. Don’t go into shock I told myself. Get back on it and let the adrenaline power you through and deal with the consequences later (thankfully there were none!). I flew past runners with a smile on my face again. I sensed the finish. I must have now been a few miles at most as I dashed past Chalet de La Floria. I just kept going. Again I could rationalise this. A few miles. 20-30 minutes at most. Go go go.

There were people up ahead, noise, spectators and supporters in the darkness whistling the runners through. We hit the streets. The temporary bridges (?!!) crossing over the roads. I recognised the path. We were near the race village now. This was it. I’m doing it. I was alive. I was smiling. I turned the head torch off. Run Dai Run. Over the final bridge crossing (seriously why?!). The glow of light from the town centre hit me. I was running through the streets now, people cheering. I smiled, I clapped back, I stuck my thumbs up. Yvette’s screams hit me. She egged me on as I ran. I ran on… and on… and on. The street went quiet and I stopped. What the fuck? I put my arms out in a gesture of “where am I going?” to a guy standing outside a shop. He just looked at me. I heard screaming behind me. A family were shouting at me. I turned and looked at them with the same gesture. They shouted more. I wish I knew the language. I pointed in the direction I was going and they shouted louder. I started running again. They shouted even louder still. I turned back and they gestured me toward them. Bloody hell! As I approached, they pointed up another street so on I went. Then they shouted loud again, wrong way, AGAIN! There was a lorry, coming out from the street where I needed to go. Blocking the fucking path. Seriously?! This was ridiculous. I squeezed past and ran. The small crowd that had formed (it was 06:00 in the morning!) clapped and cheered and I ran toward the UTMB finishers arch. I saw Yvette and Maggie. I was done. I crossed the line. At that was it.

Literally, that was it. The end. Just like that. The most anti-climax and deflated finish to any event I’d ever done. I crossed the line and stopped, turned around in circles not knowing what to do. No one said a word. No one approached me. No instructions. No “well done”. No “this way”. No anything. I just sat down and waited for Yvette to find me. She came. We took pictures and she took me off to get my finishers. Gillet. I put it on. We went back, Jana had just arrived. Her friends were there. We talked, we laughed. We got cold. Ali gave us a lift back in his van (Thanks Ali!). And that was it. Over 21 hours of torture. The most subdued and depressing finish that was absolutely not worth what had gone before it. The buzz I had built up running down from La Flegere had been sucked out of me like an elephant drinking through a straw. I was spent.

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Confused at the finish!

Over the next few days I spent a lot of time talking to people about these feelings. Some felt the same. Some didn’t. It was hard to process. I was grumpy. I was probably even angry to some degree. And that is why I wouldn’t recommend the race. It just wasn’t worth it. All the negatives clouded my memories. Over 21 hours of suffocation through congested single tracks dominated my memories. I still wouldn’t recommend it. Although I’d give this honest account to people who want to know what it is really like. Prepare yourself, don’t get consumed by the hype. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredible experience. But one you can recreate yourself. You don’t need to run it in one go, through the darkness and rain surrounded by strangers. Do it on your terms. In your own time. Stay over night along the way, enjoy the views, make it an experience. So what, you don’t get a gillet? You don’t get to say you’ve “raced it”. So what? I didn’t compete. I came 615th place. It is meaningless. The void I had on finishing left me so empty. For the first time ever in a race I wanted a medal! I never cherish medals. I want functional t-shirts. Here I got that AND a gillet. But I wanted something, some acknowledgement at the finish to say “you did that!”. So no, go do it on your terms and enjoy it. Don’t do it with your head up someone’s arse the whole way. I immediately felt no desires to do it again, nor any of the other races. Yes this is the generic “post run feeling”, but it has lasted longer than ever before this time!

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Fresh faced Alan

How was the rest of the trip? well, the next morning we woke early to go follow Alan and see him cross the line of the UTMB. He absolutely smashed it and looked so fresh crossing through that arch. I might even have come close to feeling a little emotion inside watching him ‘aeroplane’ toward the line. Later that morning I went for a short “recovery hike” with the group from the chalet. I think they tricked me though as it turned out to be a 6 and a half hour, 15 mile hike up to La Jonction and back. Bastards. That hurt like hell, but sure was worth it for the views. The evening was for the after party and free socks (thanks Stance!) and pizza. It was nice meeting other runners and friends and swapping stories and experiences. Then, sadly it was time to head back to the reality of the city that is London.

Now, here comes the biggest contradiction of them all. Remember I said I wouldn’t recommend it? Remember I said I wouldn’t go back? Well, I still wouldn’t recommend it but writing all that you’ve just read through has made me realise how much I bloody loved it. Shit! As I joked with Hannah – it is a good thing that I don’t have enough points to apply for the UTMB next year…perhaps though, maybe, just maybe I’ll see you there in 2020…..

 

 

You’d thought I’d finished writing didn’t you? This is like the UTMB equivalent of a blog… I can’t finish without thanking everyone. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the race in someway. All those friends, family, connections and strangers. To the runners I met along the route, to those who sent me messages of support, the advice and insight I received leading up to the race. To all those that asked me how I was feeling, if I was ready. To all those who congratulated me, to those who asked how the recovery is going. To the other inspirational runners and photographers out in Chamonix last week. Thanks to Jana and Maggie for all the support and company over the weekend. But most of all, thanks to Yvette. She gave up her time to support me. To have my back. She slept less than I did, possibly stressed more than I did. Travelled for hours on end on buses, spent a fortune, cooked me food, eased my pains and made me believe. She never moaned. She never asked for anything. She just wanted to help. I didn’t, and probably still don’t, understand the tolls of crewing, but she owned it. She sacrificed so much for me and I’m so grateful. This wasn’t a journey or achievement of my own, but one shared! Thank You!