One Community, One Love

“One Community”. The Centurion Running virtual event held in May 2020 amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. Not your average event. There are many like it (well, as in many virtual races) in these strange and testing times where groups of runners are coming together to run virtually and tackle the prestigious running events from around the world which are on hold. Virtual events are now the way to get set your focus, obtain your bling bling and hit those highs and lows of running…

I’ve never been into virtual events previously. They don’t really do anything for me and always seemed a bit gimmicky. I like the buzz of the adventure you see, getting out and exploring, experiencing things for real. As the lockdown continued though I got involved in some VRs, mainly in the Maverick Race VR series. If you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I’m a fan of the Maverick team and their events and it has been a great way to support the company in these difficult times.

Then along came Centurion Running with a big one. The One Community. Centurion Running have a series of events like no other. A selection of 4 x 50 milers and 4 x 100 mile endurance events make the backbone of the Centurion race calendar along with a few additional and unique events like their Wendover Woods, night races and the infamous Piece of String. For a while I’ve been contemplating an attempt at a Grand Slam buckle – running all four of the 100 milers in a single calendar year…but I’m just not ready for such a mammoth task. After my stint volunteering last year I have a place in the NDW 100 to look forward to later in 2020 if, big if, the powers that be reduce the lockdown restrictions and we begin to emerge once more into the great outdoors.

The One community (CROC) is a race for all. A chance for Centurion to bring the extensive and loyal community together and celebrate. In their own words “to try to offer our community a way to engage around event but recognising that we can’t do that in person right now. It is extremely important for many of us to have a focus – and our hope is that our One Community event will hopefully provide many of you with that, whilst also offering a chance to involve a wider range of runners than we would traditionally be able to through our regular events. As a result we have set up the Centurion Running One Community virtual event, to take place over the last week in May. This will be the first time we have organised anything like this and we hope it will help bring everybody together behind a shared focus, achieving so much positive interaction along the way.” A great vision if you ask me.

There were a range of options across the week from 5km up to 100mile. Participants could choose how and when they achieve their chosen distance – all in one go or staggered across the week. And that is what I love, it is so inclusive. You could adapt as your ability/fitness/commitments require. During the week you could also upgrade or downgrade too, so you can flex those goals!

I wanted in. I began to plan. At this point I was currently without work, a casualty of the sudden impacts on the job market when, finishing my last role after returning from my adventures in March, I suddenly found myself stuck at home, isolating without a purpose. Yeah it was fun at first, but the novelty soon wore off. I used this time sort of wisely and began with resting. With all my upcoming races being cancelled, I no longer had a focus, no longer targets to be fit nor ready for. I took the opportunity to recuperate a little from the strains I’d placed on my body. As the weeks went by I was able to begin increasing the load, exploring local trails and going further afield as the restrictions eased. During this time I thought about the CROC and soon my plan was set, I knew what I wanted to do.

Capital Ring

For a while I’d been tempted to run the Capital Ring in full. A circa 78 mile loop of walking trails around London. What an adventure that would be. What a challenge too – When I first started looking at this route in 2019 there was a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of around 18 hours which, at the time, I thought would be a respectable target time. Now I revisited the Capital Ring again in 2020, in the year or so since my first curiosities, many attempts had bettered that FKT and it was now an impressive 13.5 hours. A target beyond me I knew, which was good, as it removed any pressure of doing an attempt myself and getting sucked into thinking solely about times.

I thought that if I waited until the end of May, the last weekend of the event, to make my attempt, the restrictions might be eased further. I could fill the beginning of the week with the remainder of the miles needed to hit the 100 mile target for the week and have a few days rest before attempting the “longer” run. And so I began to define the plan. Firstly, 78 miles is a long way. It is tough enough as it is without the implications of it being self supported. Outside of race environments this meant no aid stations or check points, no food/water support and no medical assistance. At this time I would not want to be a burden on the UK health services if something went wrong so I thought the best thing to do would be to find a companion. Someone like myself who was willing and capable and ideally someone who’d inspire and motivate me along too. Thankfully I knew many such people and I didn’t have to look far. I decided Paul was the man for this job and floated the idea to him.

Backstory – me and Paul first met during the Country to Capital Ultra in 2018. We kept in touch, joined for various runs and were always training towards similar aspirations. I was able to see him finish the CCC and knew, like me, he too was itching and craving for an adventure whilst caged up at home during the pandemic. Plus being a raving loon of an Irish man I knew he’d bring the “craic” and is a formidable runner who would challenge me along the way. It took no persuasion whatsoever. I mentioned the basis of the plan and he was in.

Ideally I’d have loved to turn this into a mammoth challenge with many of my friends from the running community, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Not now, not during these times. It would be great to pick up and drop people long the way, but with exercising, outdoor pursuits and social distancing all under tight restrictions, even meeting and exercising with one other would be a challenge. Thankfully, a few weeks into the planning the Government eased the lockdown restrictions in the UK with two key guidelines that gave us the green light to proceed: (1) we could exercise outside with unlimited amounts (2) we could meet and exercise with one other person from outside our household as long as we maintained a social distance. We weren’t planning on holding hands so we were in agreement that we felt comfortable to proceed with our plan. It was set.

Time to up the planning…. The first week of May we set about planning it thoroughly. Here are some of the key considerations that we made.

Background Research and the Route

The capital Ring walk is a circular route around London consisting of open space, nature reserves, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest and many parks and residential areas. It is split up into 15 sections. from Woolwich to Beckton. It is easily accessed on foot the whole length. You could start and finish in many places along any section and, conveniently it passes nearby where I live – Crystal Palace. With travelling a consideration of the lockdown guidelines, I’d already, selfishly, decided to start and finish from home. I made Paul aware of this when I first mentioned the idea.

The route is well known. There is a wealth of information available including official route guides, maps and GPX files as well as an abundance of individual reports from walkers and runners completing individual sections or the whole ring. Here are some of the resources I found most useful:

  1. TFL Website – on the TFL website you can find detailed descriptions and maps (PDFs) of each sections. these include summaries of the section including step by step instructions for each turn and the alternate paths. It also includes additional information about nearby landmarks and transport hubs.
  2. Google Maps – there are an abundance of GPS files to trawl through and download. I found the Google maps file to be great as it is interactive and split into the sections ready. Great for virtually checking the route and switching to Google Street View.
  3. LDWA – The Long Distance Walkers Association has a wealth of updates and news about the route as well as lots of detail about each section and the types of things you can expect to see along the way.
  4. Fastest Known Times – this website collates a list of the known times people have completed routes on foot. There is a well documented section on the Capital Ring with many attempts. Many of these link to detailed run reports and insights from other individuals about how they approached it and what they encountered on their adventures.

With this route, starting from home, I’d never be more than approximately 15 miles from home. As a long distance runner I was comfortable with this. no matter the situation, I knew I’d be able to get home on foot reasonably and safely. For Paul, being more central, it would be less. Again, given the lockdown restrictions I also felt this was acceptable as I think I could consider it ‘local’ and it involved no transportation.

With an overview of the route, I set about plotting my own version manually. Using Strava and Google Maps I went through the route mile by mile. I plotted on my own GPX route. There are many GPX files available but I wanted to walk through my own and and not rely on pre-prepared information. For each mile I noted in a spreadsheet, starting from home, where the mile would end and the next would begin. It took a few hours to do so, but now I’d virtually mapped the ‘course’ and compared it to the sections notes available. I had an idea where I’d be at any given point of the day, where the more complicated parts of the route would be and where I needed to spend my attention researching.

Timings

So now I knew where we’d be running, it was time to focus on the when. The two questions were ‘when should we start’ and ‘what would that mean for our predicted progress along the way’…. This was particularly important because, whilst under no real time pressures, the route does goes through many parks, public spaces and sometimes restricted areas. Opening and closure times along the route could be a problem, and this would vary depending on where and when you begin. Knowing my own capabilities and comparing to other attempts I knew this was likely to take over 15 hours and many of the places along the route would begin closing from as early as 18:00. Thankfully, attempting this in summer bought a few additional hours to opening/closure times. Regardless, I’d decided starting from home was the best option rather than seeking and optimising the starting location based on the route restrictions and my projected average pace. I’d simply have to make it fit and plan alternative detours where necessary. Besides, after 78 miles of running, I’d be thankful to be as close to home as possible (something I selfishly explained to Paul when I first floated the idea – Sorry mate!).

Mile by Mile what we’d encounter. I do love a spreadsheet!

As I’d have limited opportunity to recce this course, I had to be prepared. So with my mile by mile account I set about noting all the restrictions, all the parks and areas that would be navigated each mile. I projected some average paces (including breaks etc.) and used Google street view to navigate the whole course. By doing this I noted several other things to be aware of and which would require some research. Being unable to travel to far afield (and not wanting to run multiple ultras in the weeks before the event) I decided I could only really recce the first two and last few sections (i.e. from and to Crystal Palace), most of which I was thankfully quite familiar with already. This would cover off most of the south sections of the Capital Ring. I wasn’t overly worried about the north as, if we set off early enough, this would all be during the daytime when restrictions wouldn’t apply as much. With the assistance of Local Council websites I began filling in the blanks and finding out what parts would be open and when. Soon we settled on 05:00 as a good time to start.

Recces

From the plan I set about running the sections I’d identified as accessible to me. Nothing untoward was discovered and I used these runs to photograph entrance points of parks as well as notices like opening/closure times. A few parts were found to be closed with diversions either because of local works or simply due to social distancing restrictions. I also checked a few alternative detours such as around Wimbledon Park (which doesn’t open until 09:00 on weekends!).

Paul, being Paul, also took it upon himself to recce some of the route, being further north he recce’d pretty much all the northern sections by the end of May. Result, between us, in a matter of weeks we were confident we had to whole route recce’d bar a few kms. This was far better than I’d expected. I knew Paul was the right man for the adventure!

Prior to our big day we had a video call to talk through our notes and recce runs. We both agreed that the recces were so worthwhile as we were not only able to confirm the opening/closure times and general navigation but also identify those areas that were more confusing due to the multitude of alternative paths and signage (or lack of!). We also discussed the various points where we could go to shops / cafes and where our concerns lay, such as the longer trail sections with no immediate access to facilities etc.

Refuelling and hydration was our main concern. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. With plenty of parks, shops and cafes along the route as well as public toilets and water fountains this would normally be straightforward. Running such a route during a pandemic though would mean either these facilities would all be closed, or, at best they’d be busy with long queues. Tough shit though, these are the conditions we were choosing to run under. We’d both recce’d and noted numerous points along the route where we could easily detour and ensure we were adequately fuelled. We also identified a cafe around halfway through which Paul ran passed and was open the week before our planned attempt.

Concerns and Plan management

There were a number of concerns we’d be executing the plan with. Firstly, heat. The UK was experiencing the warmest May on records. It was going to be warm, in the high 20s (centigrade) and many parts of the route were completely exposed. Running through the whole day meant we’d have to endure all the sun’s glory. Suncream and hydration would be critical.

Secondly, refreshments and hydration I’ve already noted how we planned detours to ensure we would be getting enough water and liquids. Coupled with the heat of the weekend though this would be especially important.

Finally, for me, shoe choice. This is an incredibly flat route of about 2,000ft across 78 miles. surprisingly though we’d estimated it was approximately 50% trail 50% pathed (I expected more pathed paths!). My trail shoes all seemed a bit extreme for this type of run and the support and cushioning of road shoes would be welcomed. Only, having not run much road for a while I either had an old pair of very worn Brooks Ravennas (veterans of 15 marathons!), their brand new (still in the box) replacements or a pair of Adidas Boosts I’d been wearing for casual trainers over the past year and not exactly worn in for running. I began my training runs and recces in these and soon remembered that they are a tight fit in the toe box. I wasn’t sure how they’d stack up over 78 miles as my feet swell. Then I remember I had another pair of trail shoes I’d won in a competition in 2019. Again brand new in the box – New Balance Hierro. They were bulky and heavy for a trainer, but cushioned and the sole was far from aggressive like many of my other trail shoes – to me they seem like light trail/hybrid type trainer. So I soon switched to them and covered about 70 miles in the two weeks prior to the run. I decided that with the wider toe box I’d attempt the Capital Ring in these, but I had no idea what they would feel like after more than 40km of continuous running. My feet might suffer….

Now, with all the planning and preparation completed, we were ready….

CROC week

And so, finally, the week of the One Community event was here. The CROC kicked off and social media was flooded with amazing feats and achievements from the running community. Our friend Ged ran the 100miles in one go on a treadmill starting at 1 minute past midnight. Another, Martin, ran it in loops near his house. Another gentleman signed up to all the event distances and was running 35 miles each day for the week. Numerous families and young kids were attempting it and for many the week was seeing personal achievements in times, distances and commitments. The atmosphere was amazing for something we couldn’t physically experience together. Inspiration and motivation was truly all around us.

On Monday I covered an easy 15 miles along local hills in Crystal Palace. Tuesday morning before work I added another 10 miles of loops in the playing fields near my house. 25 miles were banked and I was hoping we’d cover the 78 miles with no issues – I really wouldn’t want to have to go back out on Sunday and run any missing miles! Paul had done similar covering about 30 miles early in the week and we were now itching to go and just had to wait patiently until our Saturday adventure came along. Enough preamble though, let’s get into the main event and the big day…

CAPITAL RING

05:00. Paul and I begin the adventure

Just before 05:00 on Saturday 30th May I met Paul outside Crystal Palace station. After a photo opportunity we set off. Without speaking about it we’d kind of the split the day into various combinations of sections – 4 sections thinking of the ring as the fours sides to a square, but also the 3 groups of sections were I would navigate the first section until just after Richmond, Paul would see us venture North and cross London towards Hackney and I’d guide us back south and towards Crystal Palace. It’s just how our recce’s worked out.

Crystal Palace is my playground. Imagine the ridicule when, upon beginning the first climb, just 0.3 miles into the adventure, I proclaim we’ve climbed the wrong street, we run back down and then realised we were correct the first time. Doh

My initial concern, that a few of the small parks and paths leading to Tooting might be closed so early in the morning were answered when they were all open. Within no time at all we’d breezed to Streatham, passed the Streatham Pumping station (with its glorious 1800s architecture) and were making our way through Tooting Common. Here we were momentarily disrupted from our stride when A fire engine, sirens blaring, was manoeuvring into the Upper part of the Common and we had to patiently wait as it made the turn. At 06:00 there seemed to be a fire ablaze in the bushes and some early risers were directing the fire engine accordingly. We were soon back running again and winding our way through Wandsworth and Earlsfield toward Wimbledon.

Wimbledon Park was the one place guaranteed to be closed on our trip. With an 09:00 opening time on weekends, there was no way we could start late enough in the morning without risking closures of multiple other parks later in the day. We knew we’d have to take a diversion and would do so by taking Melrose Avenue up to Southfields Station, looping around the park and joining up back on Wimbledon Park Road (approximately 0.6miles of detour). As we progressed along Melrose Avenue though we found the side entrance to the park was open so, excitedly we ran into the park and traced back to navigate around the fields. Frustratingly as we arrived at the exit on Wimbledon Park Road though it was indeed locked up. Dammit. Climbing the huge gate was an option but one I wasn’t prepare to do. We continued a full loop of the fields before reemerging on our detour having added an extra mile and a half to the run already.

It was trouble free running as we continued on into Wimbledon Common, passed the Windmill and weaving our way through the woodland paths with big smiles on our faces. The relatively short run through Richmond Park was a treat as the sun began shinning brightly as the deer galloped around us. Leaving Richmond it was now a section along the canal paths as we’d navigate north along the route. Here the pandemic struck our plans for the first time as Richmond Lock footbridge was closed due to “Covid-19” as it wouldn’t support Social Distancing. We’d expected to encounter such occurrences but I wasn’t ready for one so soon. Back we went to cross at Twickenham Bridge with another 0.5 miles added to the total. We should have guessed by now that the route was going to be a bit longer than we’d prepared for!

Exceptional circumstances meant some parts of the route were out of bounds

Heading north was a delight with the canal paths fairly quiet in the early hours as we traced along the river passing Brentford, and the Brent River parks. Knowing the restrictions we’d face during the day in obtaining water and refreshments, we’d planned a detour near Hanwell to some local shops. This worked out as planned and we were able to refill our water and continue on our way with minimal fuss. 24 miles in, our focus now became the 40 mile mark where we’d planned a lunch stop in a cafe along the route.

The adventure through Greenford was delightful as the day began to warm up and the parks and green spaces treated our eyes to the wonders that London has to offer. The climb up Horsenden Hill was a delight with some wonderful views to take in and absorb. With the heat of the day beginning to sap away at us, we stopped once more in Harrow-on-the-hill to get more water and begin our adventures through the next set of parks in North London. Here I really enjoyed the views, particularly seeing the arch of Wembley stadium from perspectives I’d never seen before. Having never ventured into these parts of London, I was truly enjoying exploring, despite the pains of running around 50km beginning to set in!

Harrow on the Hill

It felt like there was an abundance of green space along the route and the Capital Ring used streets to connect them all up. Past Wembley we entered into Fryent Country park which was glowing with colour as the yellow flowers shone in the midday sun. From here we planned our next detour, skipping past a connecting trail path and down to a petrol Station near Neasden which we knew had both a toilet and an M&S food store. We had a bit of queuing to do as it was busy and probably hung around for about 15 mins as we refuelled with cold water and snacks. The next little stretch was alongside the Brent Reservoir as we ran through the delightful Welsh Harp Open Space. After this came a few miles on street as we navigated East across Hendon. We were about 40 miles in at this stage and would soon be reaching our planned ‘lunch’ stop at a cafe in Lyttelton Playing Fields…

This sign made me giggle. There was water behind it actually.

We’d fantasised over the cafe’s menu (mostly lasagne) for some time, Paul in particular was getting hungry now and was eagerly anticipating each turn as he jogged his memory on when we’d appear at the cafe. The parkland was beautiful and peaceful, very quiet considering what we’d seen elsewhere. At 13:00, we were ready for the rest and agreed we’d be flexible between 30 mins to an hour. Only that plan was soon scuppered. The damn cafe was closed. We were at a loss. Our brains shut down with disappointment and we suddenly felt flat. We agreed to stop and rest anyway and took 15 mins to reapply sun cream, eat more of our own stash and reset our minds. Paul introduced me to the wonders of Kendal Mint Cake as we sat on a bench. As our brains settled, we knew we’d soon be coming up at Finchley where there would be alternative food options along the High street. So off we set once more.

Finchley High street turned into a bit of a mess. There were a few cafes, corner shops, a Subway and a Dominos. We thought the pizza option would be quickest and easiest, but we were defeated once more. “Delivery only with no collection” was the sign that greeted us at the entrance. We contemplated phoning in an order and giving the shop’s address to deliver outside but thought better of the hassle. Subway it was. There were a few small children (under 10) waiting outside and we joined the now normalised queuing process. There wasn’t much shade and at 13:00 it was hot waiting around in the sun. As the kids went in next we chatted with their mum a little. She was pleasant. The wait went on. Eventually one of the kids came out to say it was now cash only and mum went off to get some. We continued to wait patiently, only the wait dragged on as confusion inside mounted. After some time we realised the only person working inside the Subway hadn’t started making the families order as he was waiting to see the money (in his defence they were ordering a lot, maybe £40 worth). We later found out that a few times already this day he’d made orders that weren’t paid for due to the card machine issues. So his nervousness was understandable. Eventually we did manage to get served and grabbed two of his quickest sandwiches to make. Along with some coke and more water from a shop we sat down again in Cherry Woods to eat our lunch. This whole process of buying a sandwich cost us an hour in time. Frustrating, but necessary and we did know before we’d began that the changes to ‘life’ as a result of the pandemic would indeed cause us a few delays along the way. It might be that the concept of ‘fast food’ is no longer what it used to be!

The smiles hide the hunger and frustration

Back up and running again we made our way through Highgate Woods and Queen’s Wood. I remember it was nice to be back in the shade of the woods, but I think I’d spaced out a little here. I remember digesting the food and feeling heavy from all the coke. I just sort of followed silently behind Paul as he led the way. We then joined up to the Parkland Walk which was a beautiful set of trails leading past Stroud Green to Finsbury Park. This was a lovely section to run, albeit very busy with walkers and cyclists. Large groups of people and plenty of dogs meant space was a bit of an issue. At the end of the Parkland Walk, the walkway enters straight into Finsbury Park. Well, it would on any normal day, but this was another Covid-19 closure issue and we had to detour a mile around and back into the park. We knew we’d feel all these little detours later! Finsbury Park was very busy, and we navigated through it before joining the new river paths around the wetlands and reservoirs. I really enjoyed this section which was again completely new to me. Lots of new housing developments with glorious views and wide open spaces. As we ran the river, a family of swans with their little cygnets graciously swam down the river.

So graceful

At the end of the path we stopped for a tactical “re-lube”. We are both fans of Squirrels Nut Butter for minimising chafe, and on a run of this proportion there is no escaping it – it is inevitable. Constant reapplication is key to minimise the damage and the screams in the post run shower! Here though we realised, somewhere along the way, Paul had dropped his tub of butter. I’d brought only a small sample size pot so we began to ration what we had between us as we still had over a marathon to run! We could feel the screams already.

After the reservoir we were heading to Stoke Newington via Clissord park. Holy shit it was busy! There was no doubt in my mind, this was confirmation for me, Lockdown was over. Clissord park was like a festival site. Huge masses of people congregating in groups some probably 20 plus in numbers. Every bit of space was taken up. I guess it is inevitable with it being a summer weekend, recent frustrations at politicians, recent announcements about upcoming easing of measures and no where else available to go (no shops, entertainment venues, sports or holidays…). Agree with it or not, social distancing isn’t compatible with such volumes of people in the same place at the same time. It was the same along Stoke Newington high street too. We stopped for more water and had to run along the busy main road as pavements were packed with people out and about. Thankfully it wasn’t far along the high street before we entered Abney Park Cemetery and then some quieter side streets towards Springfield Park (where we passed a sign for the Capital Ring which, for the first time, indicated Crystal Palace – one marathon to go!) and Walthamstow Marshes. I’ve run in a lot of cemeteries recently (for no real reason other than they’ve been along my routes) and Abney Park Cemetery was another fine example with a lot of historical importance.

The tow path along Walthamstow Marshes was wide and we coped ok with the crowds here. Our next destination would be Milfields Park where Connor, a friend of Paul’s would join us for a section. We found him patiently waiting outside a closed pub and then headed off towards Hackney Marshes and then Stratford. It was a good few miles following the tow path along the Marshes and again it was very busy, especially as we reached Stratford and the London Stadium where it is very ‘hip’ and a number of canal boats were playing music/serving alcohol to the thousands of people sitting along the banks. Despite the crowds, with Connor’s fresh legs pacing us we managed to make speedy progress down the river Lee.

From the London Stadium the route takes you onto the Greenway. Another long stretch of nearly four miles of completely exposed pedestrian and cycle path which we’d follow to Beckton. Me and Paul were flagging here. The monotony of a long run and over 50 miles in our legs was bad enough, but the exposure to heat, even now at 17:00 in the afternoon was just draining. We were begging the sun to piss off for a bit! Thankfully again Connor’s fresher legs pacing us really helped us just get through this section quickly. I was back ‘in charge’ now as we’d completed all the northern sections that Paul had recce’d. My first task was try to recall where there was a shop so we could get more water. As great as these parkways and pedestrian areas were, they were not supported with amenities for ultra runners on an adventure! My mind was hazy. I knew there was a shop down near Cyprus station, but I couldn’t think of anything sooner or even how far away that was. As we ran through the several parks around Beckton, we kept entering new little spaces I’d forgotten about. Eventually though after a few miles (that felt like many more) we found a corner shop and hit it hard. Another 20mins of sitting on a wall in the shade, gulping down water was what we needed. From here it was a dull 2 miles around Royal Albert Basin to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel where Connor would leave us once we got South of the river and he’d head towards Greenwich.

Crossing the foot tunnel was uneventful and we didn’t have to wait or queue for the lifts. Emerging the other side we tracked the river path and wound through the housing estates in Woolwich until we reached Maryon Wilson Park. I was glad to reach here as this was one of the parks with a particular closing time. It gave me confidence that we were here about an hour before closing. There was another smallish detour due to a foot path closed because of social distancing measures and we had to track around the animal enclosures.

The next section I knew fairly well now and it was nice to look forward too. A serious of parks, commons and woodlands meant we’d be off the main roads for a while. It also meant shade from the still intense heat of the sun which was refusing to rest up. The downside, and which I’d pre-warned Paul of, was a long series of climbs. Nothing substantial, but with 60 miles previously covered, we’d feel these for sure. Particularly around Castlewood and Oxleas Wood. We planned a few mins rest at Severndroog Castle to sit down and recuperate. As I drank a small can of coke I’d brought with me, I realised the next challenge I was facing. In the woods and shade, as the sun did slowly start to set (it was now about 19:30), when we weren’t moving I was getting cold very quickly. My clothes were wet with sweat and I’d naively (overly confident?!) decided not to bring any other layers for the trip. I got up and we set off. No more stopping for extended periods I thought. From Oxleas woods we picked up the signs once more and saw one that said 13 miles to Crystal Palace. A half marathon remaining, a good milestone and goal. The end was realistic at this point and we could begin to visualise it.

Making our way through the parks to Eltham we missed a turning and went a short direction in the wrong way, following signs rather than our gut we were clearly on autopilot now just trying to get it done. Back on course we emerged just south of Eltham and once more went in search of water. We were about a mile from Eltham High street (in the wrong direction) and were hoping for something closer. We had to ask a bunch of teenagers who kindly sent us in the direction of a petrol station that wasn’t too far off route. Turns out it is the worst petrol station shop and was about the size of a shoebox. They did however have water and Lucazade so we were content.

Running passed the stables alongside Eltham Palace we were treated to an incredible view of the sun setting across London. We tracked on and in my head I was confident once more as, other than the Downham Woodland walk, there were no more closure times to be concerned with. Access all the way home would be fine. The Downham Woodland walk closed at 21:00 and this too wouldn’t be a problem as parallel streets run its entire length, however it would be a nice few km’s away from residential streets. Thankfully, despite arriving a few mins after 21:00 it wasn’t closed and we made it along the length of the walk. Emerging into Beckenham we’d both acknowledge we had very little remaining in our respective tanks and would happily walk the last few miles once we got north of Beckenham. Particularly so because this was deceivingly uphill (very gradual) and very dull as we’d be following streets through a few residential areas with two small parks which were unspectacular. Before that though we’d power on through Beckenham Palace Park, which, in the woodlands was now dark and made for slower progress. Emerging the other side we plodded on along the streets where we reached the subway going under New Beckenham and the train lines. This was the milestone for me, we’d walk from here.

In the darkness, with tired minds, I thought we’d missed the turn into Cator park as the GPS signalled we had (dodgy signal I guess). A small but irritating mishap as our vocalisation of our pains became louder and louder. We were now averaging about 16 minute miles, which was still good given we kept repeating to ourselves “20 min miles, 1 hour to go”. I’d like to say those last 3 miles flew by, but they certainly didn’t. We eventually crossed Penge East and arrived at the bottom entrance to Crystal Palace Park. All that remained was to navigate around the Dinosaurs, sadly too dark for Paul to experience these wonders, before we arrived triumphantly back at where we started some 17 plus hours earlier. Fist pumps, emotional hugs and cheesy selfies later where we walked to find Lisa who’d waited patiently to pick Paul up. She treated us to banana bread and coke before they kindly dropped me home. I went straight in the bath with an ice cream before climbing into bed. Reflecting on our achievement and that we had literally just run around London, which, in 17.5 hours, we are claiming this as an unofficial Pandemic-FKT (PFKT) 🙂 Capital Ring, you beauty.

Things we learned:

Running a long way during a global pandemic isn’t easy. We anticipated a lot of things but I guess we were still surprised by the impact it had on running:

  1. the planning and restriction. Being able to run together and recce the whole route easily would have helped with the planning. On the day having to take detours because of closure of certain paths added to the time on our feet.
  2. the sheer busyness of everywhere as people can only go outside, so paths and parks were rammed. #Cumgate and easing of Lockdown measures the weekend of our run probably led to some reckless abandonment of the guidelines by the British public.
  3. public toilets are closed. Don’t underestimate the strategic or tactical need to relieve yourself on a long run. Having no public toilets definitely led to a bit more thought. We had many conversations about the benefits of Strategic crapping versus Tactical crapping. Which type are you?
  4. water stops/fountains are closed. Fresh drinking water when you need it is essential to long distance running. Whilst there is plenty still available, you do have to think a little harder and plan where you will detour and find water when park fountains and cafes are closed.
  5. cafes are closed. Likewise for grabbing food on the go. The many little cafes found in the public spaces are ideal for the Capital Ring. Not when they are closed though.
  6. shops require you to queue. We estimated that detours and queues probably added over 2 hours to our adventure. The Subway fiasco alone cost us an hour of time, all for a shit sandwich. Don’t underestimate the impact this has on your mental state and momentum too.
  7. Food and water stores in shops aren’t what they used to be. In many of our stops we had to buy multiple smaller bottles of water because they’d “run out” of larger bottles. Whilst not a problem, it did mean we probably spent a lot more money than we thought we would.

Some tips for the taking on the Capital Ring

  • Plan your start and finish location accordingly. It might be that starting and finishing nearer home is right for your adventure, but it might not necessarily be the case depending where you are.
  • Opening and closure times will dictate your progress and might result in a few extra miles of detours. Apart from Wimbledon Park, starting and finishing in Crystal Palace worked out perfectly. However, if we started later, or at a different time of year, we most definitely would have had to detour around some closed areas later in the evening
  • Opening and closure times vary seasonally and across London Boroughs. Just because a park was open in one area or one week of the year doesn’t mean it will be in the next. Also, whilst summer means longer opening times, it is also likely to me that it will be hotter and you’ll need to hydrate more.
  • If you do expect to be out after dark take a headtorch! Whilst the street light is enough in many parts, the parks and commons will be dark and you don’t want progress hindered when you are getting tired!
  • Plan for refreshments along longer sections. This probably sounds repetitive now, but make sure you plan where and when you can access shops along the route to top up on food/water. We were able to minimise our detours by planning ahead.
  • Watch for signs showing multiple routes/alternative paths. Some sections of the route will have signs directing you in many different ways. This is because of how the route has evolved with developments and in some parts you can reach the same destination by more than one route. The Southern Eastern section also follows the Green Chain Walk. Whilst you can follow these signs for a bit too, be conscious that the Green Chain Walk is a completely different route and has other paths that the Capital Ring does not follow! Also the signs for the London Loop (a longer loop around London) are very similar to the Capital Ring signs, you don’t want to end up following the London Loop when south of the river!!
  • Be attentive as in some areas the path will take you off the more obvious paths. You’ll be trudging along, following an obvious path or direction and next thing you know you’ve missed a subtle turn. This happened to us a few times and it is clear in Woolwich too when following the route (Clockwise) along the Thames Path and then you suddenly turn off through a housing estate with no warning or signs.
  • GPS or a map is advised. Whilst the route is often obvious, well maintained and signposted, it is also easy to get lost. Some parts aren’t signposted or the signs are hidden in the overgrowth or the section is closed due to building works. A GPS and/or map of the route will be useful in these situations!
  • The terrain is varied (we estimated 50% road 50% light trail). In non summer months it could be muddy in the parks/fields and slippery along canal paths and tow paths. I wore Trail shoes New Balance Hierro V4 and Paul wore Road Shoes – Hoka Cavu). The terrain is forgiving and our feet were fine (one very manageable blister for me). Plan your footwear to the weather and conditions – getting wet feet along an 80 mile run might result in more damage to your feet and slippery conditions could lead to injuries.
  • Lastly, for me I would definitely advise some company. Whilst it is achievable solo I’d argue that it is definitely be more achievable if you’re not alone. If you’re a Londoner, the temptation to stop and get on a bus home etc. will definitely be greater. Paul was without doubt the perfect buddy to pair up and tackle this challenge with!

Trust Your Kolumpa

After a less than fruitful sleep, we were all crammed into the minibus for our transport to the start of the Borneo Ultra Marathon. I had two strategies for this race (1) keep hydrated (2) try and regulate my temperature as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how this race would pan out but I knew to have any chance of surviving the heat of Borneo I’d have to get this right!

Surviving the heat wasn’t the only concern amongst participants of the BUTM. Despite the carnage and ongoing concerns of the Covid19 virus that was sweeping the world, BUTM 2020 was going ahead. I felt bad for the race director. He was in a difficult position. 3 weeks prior they’d advised they were proceeding. Then the global situation intensified. The Sabah region had stayed pretty much virus free until pretty much the day before the race when. So, despite last minute updates to government’s advice the race was still going ahead. This did cause some stir and there was some noise as other races in the following weeks were cancelled. But what can you do, how do you cancel and international event at a few hours notice? It’s a lose lose situation for the RD. Some last minute provisions were made and as we queued up to enter the registration hall, all runners had their temperature scanned and our hands were sanitised. There was advice provided to for social distancing where possible (but let’s remember in the grand scheme of things this is a low key event and it doesn’t draw a crowd of spectators!).

After registering we made our way to the start line which was just a short walk away. This is also where the race would finish as we cross the final wooden suspension bridge across the water. We did the usual pre-race photo rituals and those of us doing the 100km or 50km made our way to the front of the start pen (the 30km has a later start). With little fanfare we were off and started running back through the small town and passed the hall where we registered.

We soon began the first of many long climbs and I settled in near Meghan and Carl as Spencer and Jake ran off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d turn off and begin a different route for the 100km. First though we began the steep road climb. The pace immediately slowed to a bimble in the darkness of the early morning. The sun was starting to shine and I was hoping to experience this sunrise again in 24 hours time.

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A few km in and the 100km runners broke away, turning left away from the 50km runners who’d continue the climb a little further. I had this to look forward to later on where the later half of the 100km follows the same 50km route. For now though, a small quad buster of a trail descent. The ground was lumpy and hard, but my attention was drawn to the views of the surrounding area as the day broke. I briefly chatted to a Canadian woman doing her first 100 mile race and an Irish man from Wexford also doing the 100km (who’d go on to finish 2nd!). I stopped to capture a few pictures and ran on when the roads flattened and became gravel trails. Already the field was thinly spread and I found myself running alone. At the end of the descent I saw a 100 mile runner running back towards me. I assumed we’d gone wrong but he explained the river crossing was ahead and he didn’t want to get his feet wet so was going to cross the suspension bridge. I agreed with him, in the week before my feet took a beating from running in wet shoes and socks as I cooled in the rivers. I promised myself that if I stopped at a river to immerse myself I’d removed them first. It was too early to need to cool in the river though so I followed him across the scariest bridge I’d ever been on. The suspension bridges in Sabah are essentially rusty old wire fencing (think chicken coop wire) with wooden planks along them, not always attached! This one however was missing one side of the wire ‘rail’ as it was broken and hung loose and flaccid along the bridge. The planks in many places didn’t exist and the wire was full of holes. We shimmied across with two hands on the existing rail and sidestepped it. The bridge swinging and bouncing with the movement of runners. I was sure we’d fall in the river!

Shortly after the bridge fiasco, We crossed a concrete road section breaking up the river and even before 8am I was realising just how hot it was and how hot it would get. It was scorching and I was dripping with sweat already. After climbing some more gravel roads we ran into a field where we were scanned before crossing the field and running a trail path along the river. We then began the first of the ‘bigger’ ascents which was a mix of gravel roads and more hard and dry packed trails. Here the heat of the morning really struck and I noticed a number of the local runners would stop whenever there was a bit of shade from the trees. I decided to adopt this technique and grab a few seconds breather also. This would help my goal for regulating the body temperature. It was relentless. I soon realised I’d be stopping a lot on these climbs and taking it slowly so I made my peace with that. As we climbed I also started to think about my liquids. I was getting through my 1.5ltrs (I had an additional 500ml bottle to add to the hydration for later in the day) and I was wondering where and when I’d come across the first water stop. I changed my watch screen to check the distance and somehow I was on 15km already. I was confused as I’d not seen the water station. I thought it must have been in the field where I was scanned (I remember reading about that field in the race notes), but I didn’t see anything. It was a good thing though, it meant that I wasn’t far from the second water stop and had made good early progress.

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The second water stop came just before the next big climb and I was glad. I was ready for some food and water. As I arrived I was more confused than ever though. I couldn’t see any water and the only food options (fruit) and fizzy drinks had prices on them and a woman telling me it was RM3 (less than a pound) for a coke, 100Plus or bottled water. What?! I wasn’t going to buy liquids in a race in the high 30degrees out of pure stubbornness. Thankfully I was eventually directed to massive water butts on high platforms with hoses coming from them for drinking water. This made more sense and no wonder I missed it at the last stop. As I refilled my bottles I realised I’d made a kit packing error – in my haste packing the night before I’d put all my caffeinated Tailwind in my race pack rather than the drop bag for the second section at night. Great. I’d be buzzing with caffeine throughout the day now. I decided to try and ration it and water it down a bit to save some for when I’d need it most when I’m tired at night.

As I left the water station we began the first jungle/trail section which was quite technical but also short before the wider trail climbs. Just like the climbs before, this was completely exposed and I was seeking out the shadows to cool down. It was a slow slog to the top but I was able to run a bit as we descended into the next water station. All along the climb and descent there were locals at the side of the road, in cars, outside their houses selling fruit and drink. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem right to have to buy essentials (yes I class coke and isotonic drinks as essentials in ultras!) during a race.

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During this section I recognised several trails from our runs the week before. I ran a familiar ridge and passed a house where we saw a monkey and a pig before passing a place which had amazing views of Mount Kinabalu. Some trails looked so familiar but I wasn’t sure if I’d been on them too! I then arrived at the third water stop and things became a little bit clearer. A volunteer asked me if I wanted fruit and when I asked if I needed to pay he replied saying “no, fruit is free for runners”. I ate so much pineapple my tongue went funny from the acidic goodness. It was ace. I filled all 4 bottles of water and set back out.

And so onto the biggest climb of the race. I was aware this one would be tough and the 14km section (straight up and back down the other side) would take about 4 hours. It was so exhausting. As the sun rose higher in the sky, with it the temperature began to sore. I was looking for the shadows. They were pure temptation. Like a voice calling you over. Come to me. Rest a while. Sit down and take the weight off your feet. Maybe stay a while, stay here all day if you like. I had to challenge myself not to succumb to the relief but to keep moving. I made a pact. I’d stop every time an opportunity presented itself, but not the first shadow, always the second or last one. Make some progress up the climbs and break it up. Each time I’d stop I’d count to ten with deep breathes, resting my hands on my knees and my head lowered to the ground. In and out. I’d watch my heart rate decrease in those ten breathes. Sometimes dropping 30+ BPM. I was working hard in the heat despite moving slower than I’ve ever climbed before.

Eventually I began to reach the top and there was a woman selling drinks. I knew there was a false summit but the trail descended quickly so I asked here if this was the top and she replied ‘yes, all downhill to the next water stop’. I packed away the poles, composed myself and cracked on. She was wrong. It was the false summit and we still had 300m of climbing to cover. I was annoyed! As we began the descent I saw a runner turn right but I saw the markings go to a trail to the left. I stopped and was about to call after him when I saw markings that went the other way too. Another runner also stopped and we debated which was right. We followed the first runner and saw more markings further on, we hoped it was right!!

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When we weren’t far from the end of the descent we reached the 4th water stop. We were now 40km in. I filled my bottles and went and sat in the shade in the hut. It was quiet here with only one other runner doing the 100 miler. I sat with my head between my legs and necked a lot of water. A woman asked if I was ok. I felt fine, just too hot. She told me I was 11th. Just outside the top ten and the 10th runner just ahead. I laughed at her. That’s crazy I said and I told her I need to slow down then. I sat back and chilled out. That might have spurred people on, but not me. I went the other way. Top ten?! That’s not me. So I decided to stay here for at least ten mins and recover from the exhaustion of the climb. I eventually got up and went to another hut full of fruit and gorged on more pineapple and watermelon. I tried chatting to the women who prepared it all but they just kept laughing at me. Some sweaty white guy stuffing his chops and not stopping to chew.

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I carried on. It was only 4km to the next water station and I now felt recharged and fuelled after the lack of food earlier in the morning. I was able to run a little and the ground was quite forgiving. The next water station was a confusing one as it was also one I’d revisit later in the race. I sat down for another 10 mins and applied more suncream and had some more fruit and water. The exit to this station was a massive suspension bridge and we were then running on some undulating trails heading back towards town. About halfway along the trails the runner I was following stopped. He said he didn’t see any trail markings any more. He was right, I’d stopped paying attention and now also didn’t see any. I ran on a bit but still didn’t find any. I loaded the GPX on the watch and it seemed like we were ok to continue. It wasn’t on the track but it looked to run parallel. We both sat on the floor and composed ourselves. Even thinking in the heat was draining!! The trails did indeed meet once more and we crossed several more suspect bridges. We then ran passed a junction in the race I recognised from the morning (which I’d also visit once more later in the race) and along some road. I was plodding along and before I realised it I was back at the start. Halfway. Time for my drop bag, food and a good sit down and rest.

I was about two and a half hours ahead of my predicted time so I messaged the group. They’d all finished their races now and were still in the area so they came to see me. I was a beautiful sight for them. Half baked with a wet towel draped over me, feet up and chewing on potatoes and other veg (I wasn’t fancying my chances of keeping the chicken curry down!). I was sweating so much. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to relax and cool down but to no avail. As we talked I found out they’d all smashed their races. We had first female in the 30km, second female in the 50km and several winners in their age categories. Incredible. They went off to collect their podium prizes before leaving back to Kota Kinabalu. Spencer was staying with Jess to crew her sister on the 100 miler and she was flying, she’d arrived and left the aid station. I was getting comfortable. I was content with how the race was going so decided I’d stay for at least an hour. I ate more, bandaged my feet and kept trying to stop sweating. Eventually Jess and Spencer started packing my stuff up and kicked me out, back on my way. Cheers guys.

The next 50km would be broken up. Two big climbs and descents. A bit of flat/undulating trail. A tough trail climb and descent then two small hills and a fairly flat but slightly inclined 8km to the finish line. I was focused.

I started the first climb at a steady paced hike. The temperature had now dropped and the suns heat was diminishing. The climb was immediately easier than those in the morning/midday heat and I no longer needed to stop as I hiked. I felt good. The descent was quite runnable and I plodded on consistently.

I reached the next water stop and took another ten mins to relax. The next climb was tougher than I expected as it was through trail and jungle forest. There were some very steep sections. As I started to climb, it began to rain. Thankfully in the forest I was quite week sheltered so I let the rain cool me. I was also not worried about getting wet because the temperature was still high twenties and I was already soaked through with sweat still.

I summitted as the sun was setting and I took a moment to enjoy the views of surrounding mountains In the twilight. Quite surreal. As I continued along the ridge it soon became dark and I had to put my head torch on. The next descent was a little harder than I expected as the darkness settled quickly and the ground was very muddy and slippery from the rain. I almost stacked it a few times!

At the end of the descent I arrived back at the water station (with the big suspension bridge) from earlier in the day. I cracked into some noodles and rested again. Too my surprise, four 100km runners then showed up (one woman running in some flimsy rubber sandals!) and I was a little shocked. I’d seen only a handful of runners since I started the second loop and most of those were doing the 100 miler. I thought I’d been making better progress now. Clearly not though! I followed them out and we retraced the undulating trails from a few hours earlier. This time I walked behind them. Then, I lost sight of them. I noticed some head torches lights just above me and realised this was were I had to look at the GPX route earlier. I quickly ran back and found the actual root this time and soon caught them up again. We next arrived back at the intersection of all the routes for my third time and I started to veer right. The other runners carried on straight. Aaah. I hadn’t been caught up after all, they were still on their first loop. I was at least 20km ahead of them. That made me feel better.

I was happily walking the next section when I once more realised I’d done this route earlier in the day. I crossed the concrete road through the river again (disoriented and thinking I was going the opposite direction this time – I wasn’t). Despite looking at the route and the elevation I hadn’t quite noticed how many paths I’d duplicate. I knew what lay ahead though. Gravel and pathed roads, climbs and a small descent. Then I’d be at the water station I missed on my first pass (the very first one!). I was getting sleepy now though. I thought about sleeping for ten minutes when I arrived but I settled for coffee instead.

It was back out through the field and along the river before somewhere I turned off on to new trails I’d not yet experienced. Next it would be the biggest and most technical section of the last 50km. Spencer had warned me about how technical this but would be in the dark so I felt prepared.

I don’t really remember the climb. But I do remember the descent. It was brutal. It was very steep and very rocky and rooty. The ground was covered in wet leaves and slippery earth. I was going slowly. I was also feeling it in my feet and the they were hot and raw. I couldn’t wait for this to end.

It was quite surreal being in the jungle at night. The noises were very relaxing and the floor was moving, crawling with insects. I saw so many armies of giant ants, big ugly spiders (eyes glistening in the torch light!) frogs and bats. A few times I stopped and turned off my light to enjoy the darkness and look up at the clear night sky. It was peaceful out here on the mountain with the stars shinning through the gaps In the trees. As the trail flattened out I realised how tired I was actually becoming. I was definitely beginning to fall asleep as I ran and wobbled from side to side. At one point I saw Spencer laying on the ground next to me. I jumped awake as I almost stepped on him. He looked up and said “you alright mate?”. I was beginning to hallucinate and needed more coffee!

I stocked up on caffeine and more noodles at the aid station and carried on for the final two lumps of the race. It was working. The warm food and caffeine enabled me to run the down hill sections which were gravel tracks and road. We crossed many more suspension bridges (quite a few in dire need of repairs!) and I even passed a few runners. Before I knew it I’d covered the 10km of trail and was at the final water stop. I felt good. It felt like a long time since I’d finished a race actually running a bit. Normally I’m resigned to just walking by now! I promised a quick final stop. More coffee and I ate a whole pack of PowerUp sweets I’d had for over a year. A resealable pack, I chewed them all down. This would give me that final kick of energy. And it did. After a quick turn around I was running. I was now churning out some sub 7 minute kilometres as the watch ticked passed the 100km mark. I even ran some of the small inclines and kept the moment going. Partly I didn’t want the people I overtook catching me up. I did now wonder how far off I might be from the top ten all these hours later.

The final section felt quite disorienting and I felt like I was running around in circles. Constantly crossing bridges and looping around. As the kms ticked down I could sense the end. One volunteer I passed (checking bib numbers in) congratulated me. I smiled. He was right. I’d done this. The few km ahead were a formality. I was feeling it. Smiling. Running with confidence again.

Up ahead I saw the bright lights on the other side of the river. All very quiet, but this must have been it. The final bridge crossing. I’d read about it. You finish this side of the bridge and walk across to collect your medal. It wasn’t exactly as climatic as that for me though. There was no one there. I crossed the bridge and ran under the finish arch to total silence. At the finish line two volunteers. One checking all the mandatory kit. The other handing out the tshirts and medals. Very subdued at 05:00 in the morning! Which is always to be expected. I’d come in under 24 hours, I was very happy with that.

I walked back to the registration hall, collected my drop bag, found the driver Joanne had arranged for me and headed back to the lodge to get some sleep. In 12 hours time I’d be on a flight back to the UK and in 24 hours time I’d be heading to work, and my adventure would have sadly come to an end! What an adventure it has been though!

Joanne and Richard from Adventures in Borneo had prepared an incredible two weeks of running and adventure for us. The Planning and organisation and support from them and their team was incredible. They’d supported us through the race too. Not only with the logistics and organisation but through their advice, experiences and getting us exposed to the trails and climate beforehand. The group, now friends, who’d done the adventure all performed incredibly. When I found out the results at the half way point I was amazed. So strong and everyone had such a great time. I too had a great run and did squeeze into tenth place in the end. Unreal.

The race itself was enjoyable. I started off mentioning the difficult circumstances surround the event and I am so glad I was able to run the BUTM. The trails and route was pretty epic and the volunteers and organisation were great and helpful. The pre-race information was, if anything, too informative (detailed route instructions that you’d struggle to visualise) and as far as I could tell the whole event ran smoothly. The trail markings and directions were great and any fears I had of running through the jungle at night were not valid. I also mentioned about having to buy drinks. This was the biggest negative for me. I believe it’s intended to support the local communities but I think this can be achieved via the entrance and registration fees. It’s great that people are out providing extra support to runners, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of the provisions at the actual aid stations. This was the first ‘supported’ race I’ve done where I’ve eaten most of my own nutrition stash. There just wasn’t much at the aid stations to have (pineapple and noodles aside!). I’d definitely recommend this event and do now have my eye on their sister race ‘TMBT’ (Interpreted as either ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’ or ‘The Most Brutal Thing’ depending who you speak to!) held in August each year…

Chasing Pounamu

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The Toki pounamu for finishers of the Tarawera 100 mile endurance event

‘Chasing Pounamu’ is a short documentary about one runner’s quest to complete the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run. Runners completing the event are gifted a Pounamu – a local Maori gemstone made into a necklace. It’s a heart warming and emotional watch (you can find it on YouTube). One I watched a few weeks before I headed out on my own quest to ‘chase the pounamu’…

Last year, when Kirsty left the UK to return to New Zealand, a few of us said we’d come and visit sometime. Little did I realise a few months later I’d be signing up to my first 100 miler in New Zealand. 100 miles was never on my to do list. However, over the past 12 months my running distances had been slowly creeping up and 100 miles suddenly became the next logical step. Although It wasn’t until I was on the sign-up page for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) that the decision was made as, unlike the other events at TUM, the ‘miler’ finishers are gifted with a pounamu. I signed up immediately.

Fast forward some 8 months later and we are reunited with Kirsty in Rotorua. Like many events I didn’t feel as ready as I could or should be. Especially for tackling my first 100 mile event. A recurring pain in my ankle/shin had kept me from running for the whole of January (with the exception of the Maverick race in Amberley). My mind was focused though. No way was I not starting. No way was I not finishing. No way would I be leaving without that Pounamu! For weeks my mind had been consumed by the race. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the costs. Maybe the extent of the adventure I was embarking on for 6 weeks. Maybe because I was nervous. Either way it helped me to focus and visualise on the end goal. I was determined and would be relying more than ever before on the experience I’ve accumulated from running ultras…

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Trail Maggots

The day before the race we went to the Maori Powhiri at Te Puia. A traditional welcoming ceremony which welcomed the runners to the event and officially opened it. With talks from the race founder, Maori leaders and the town Mayor as well as singing and dancing it ended with a hongi – a significant expression performed by rubbing noses. It was , to a ‘Westerner’ unusually special. I’ve never felt so at home at an event before. The runners were told that we were now part of their community. Their family. That together we’d see success in the event. It was all rather touching. We then went and registered and collected our bibs (and do the weigh in for medical reasons). This was the quickest of processes as we’d already passed our mandatory gear checks – the event had a unique collaboration with Macpac (an outdoors retail chain) where you could visit any store in the days leading up to the event, do the mandatory gear check in store and receive a signed certificate to present at registration instead of taking your kit with you. This made the whole process so much slicker, how any of it is actually governed come race day I do not know though! The afternoon involved some relaxing in the heated hotel pool and then as much sleep as I could possibly get!

It was time. After a few hours sleep I found myself creeping around in the dark at 2am. The 3 others in the room were still sleeping, squeezing in an extra hour for the later start of their 100km race. Final preparations and checks completed and it was time to leave, just as it started to hammer down with rain. Hugs and high fives all round. Andy kindly drove me to the start back in Te Puia and Jorge, being the ever generous and supportive friend he is, came along too. We rocked up in a very empty car park. Jorge sported Adrian, the man at the centre of ‘chasing Pounamu’ and I followed him inside the cultural centre to the start line right up by the active Pohutu geyser – Pohutu happens to be the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere and erupts once or twice every hour, sometimes reaching heights of 30 metres!) which was erupting magnificently in the darkness. The start line was covered in the spray and mist from the sulphur activity. I sat on the hot rocks nearby and waited patiently. I did one final ‘body check’ and mentally confirmed all was good – nothing but the normal few amber warnings flagged up. I was as ready as I could be.

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The Pohutu Geyser in Te Puia at the Start of the miler

As the MC started to welcome the runners and brief us on the journey ahead we congregated behind the start line. Our welcome climaxed in a traditional Maori Haka and traditional singing. With Pohutu erupting behind us it was a truly surreal and magical moment as the race director and crowd of supporters counted us down and sent us off on our challenge…

For a moment I was overwhelmed as I crossed that start line. To cheers and applause I realised this is the moment of races I like most. A sense of awe from the crowd. Respect and appreciation as they spur on loved ones, family, strangers. There’s no competition, only encouragement. the beginning of an epic challenge and adventure, however it turns out. At this moment I feel invincible. I smiled and clapped back, as I always do. I wish this feeling would last more than a few seconds!

We ran through Te Puia and very quickly found the trails as we made the first 13km to the first aid station. The first set of paths were hard and dusty. Uneven but nice to run. They led us into the first of many forest tracks we’d run this day. It was still raining but as we entered the Redwood forest the rain was but a light mist/spray that was cooling in the humid morning. The head torches lit the way as we traced the winding paths through the woodlands. The pack of just under 300 runners was already beginning to spread and I found myself following a group of maybe six runners keeping pace together. Before I knew it a sign screamed out at us “aid station 200m ahead”. Little did I know how much I’d look forward to these signs later in the day!

Leaving the aid station we were immediately back into the forests. These paths were different though. More single tracks. The floor littered with roots. A few times I tripped but thankfully never fell. Areas of steps provided extra challenges in this part as we navigated the trails in complete darkness due to the thick foliage and cover. The smells were incredible and so vibrant and I was smiling as I wound my way through moew twisty tracks. Another aid station came and went and I then found myself running alongside the Green Lake. The sun was starting to rise and the paths navigated ran alongside the lake as the sun began to glisten and reflect off the water. The trails were undulating with little stretches of running broken up by short climbs. We burst out of the forests and ran a section along a sealed road. Cones marked the way and signs encouraging the runners to keep inside the cones. I felt the road. It was dull and tedious after the trails before it. Thankfully though the Buried Village soon appeared. The third aid station and one of historical importance – a heritage site persevering a village buried under rock, ash and mud following the eruption of Mt Tarawera.

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Green Lake

Inside the Buried Village the atmosphere was electric. Loads of supporters welcoming the runners in to the aid station and a lady on a mega phone cracking the jokes and encouraging everyone on. I had some jam and Nutella sandwiches made for me by the volunteers and cracked on to the next section which would be the second longest stretch between aid stations with about 15km until I reached Isthmus. I did stop very quickly for a picture at the view point and then again to take off my arm warmers and pack them and the head torch away.

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Lake Tarawera

This section was by far my favourite part of the race. The Buried Village was beautiful and the trails undulating along the rock face. Fauna surrounded us and we were soon presented with incredible views across lake Tarawera as the sun continued to glisten and reflect off the water. The paths then opened up as we reached the lake. The soft grassy trails which followed the contours of the lake were a joy to run on. As we closed in on Isthmus I noticed some odd signs warning of zombies and that ‘any zombies chasing humans would be shot on sight’. It took me a while before I realised the it was a sign for the aid station and that all the aid stations were themed. This one for a Zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a great way to raise a few smiles and provide entertainment.

A bunch of runners came in after me and I didn’t hang around too long. It was just over a km until I’d reach the ferry crossing to get to the other side of the lake Rerewhakaaitu. I didn’t want to end up in a queue for the boat so I stepped on it a little. As I arrived at the jetty there was sadly no boat waiting for me. Two ladies, Sue and Femi sat waiting with mocktails. The volunteer was preparing juice and ice mocktails for the runners and they were an absolute treat. I picked one up, clinked glasses and sat down to joined them. As we waited he explained there had been an issue with one of the two boats. By the time it arrived 12 of us shuffled onboard to get to the other side. A few minutes later as we unboarded the runners fled off into the distance and running through the private farm roads. We then hit a long road on a gradual incline. I briefly chatted to sue as she ran a steady pace running to heart rate. She gradually pulled away as I was adamant I was walking it all. I didn’t want to burn out so soon!

The road continued for about 5km before we reached the next station at Rerewhakaaitu. It was still morning but getting very hot now. I took advantage and lathered up with the suncream available at the aid station before hitting the road again. And that is what it was. More road. More tarmac gradually climbing as far as my eyes could see into the distance. I hiked on. I was amazed by the persistence of runners who ran it all. The farmer themed aid station of Okahu broke up the road briefly but more was to come. By the time we left the road I think we must have covered somewhere between 10-15km. It was soul destroying. The return to the trail was most welcomed.

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A small section of the seemingly never ending road

The trails were now long and wide gravel tracks worn over time by vehicles. Again the paths were undulating with gentle inclines and down hills alternating. A good section for running and getting into the flow again. That was until towards the end of the section where a climb of about 200m was lurking. As we reached the top and the aid station at Wihapi the volunteers apologised for the hill. I laughed and said it was easier than the road. It certainly was for me! 

From here the wide gravel paths continued. Only down hill. The longest section of downhill on the route and I thought it was as soul destroying as the road. Why? Because it was so straight. You could just see the path continue into the distance and never ending. Mentally I found it tough to keep moving at pace. Somewhere around here I’d started talking to another runner – Thomas. We’d been leap-frogging each other for a while and had settled into a comparable pace. He seemed fine with it when I kept pointing ahead and indicating where and when I’d start walking or running. Puhipuhi was the next destination and one that marked where the route would join with that of the 100km runners. Those runners would be well passed by now though having started 3hours after the miler and having just 20km to run to get to the same aid station. Hopefully that would mean the trails would be quieter for me for the rest of the day. The volunteers offered me plenty of ‘crippies’ and ‘lollies’ as well as the option to lay in their paddling pool. I declined the later but did discover Mountain Dew. Something I’ve never tried before. I thought it was ace, even though it is probable a chemical concoction I do not want to know more about! As I drank the Mountain Dew, it was the first moment that it dawned on me how far the race was. 80km in and we were only half way there. Halfway! Shiiit. That thought would linger for a long time.

Chatting away to Thomas I completely zoned out on the way to Tiktoki. I remember the trails were still long and wide but now more grassy and more dirt like rather than gravel. Some woman also joined with us for a short while. She was memorable because she was completely soaked (somewhere she’d gone for a dip in the lake!) and because she shared insight and knowledge as the was her second time. She encouraged us to reach Hhumphries before dark as that section was technical. She vanished before we reached Tiktoki and was no where to be seen when we arrived. As we sat and ate at the aid station we chatted with several other runners. One explained he was done with the sweat food and a volunteer overheard and brought out bacon and egg pie. Woooah. This was great. Back on it now! 10km until the 100km mark and a key milestone in my race because (1) I’d mentally split it into 3 x 50 kms. I knew if I got to 150km I’d finish. So 2/3 of the race would have been completed when I reached the Outlet. (2) it was where my drop bag was located. So time for a longer rest and mid-race maintenance. For me this means a wet wipe shower, change of socks, t-shirt and shoes. Reapply Squirrels Nut Butter to prevent chafe. Swap out and refill my nutrition stash and dump any unnecessary items. This time I got rid of the Gopro, sunglasses and running belt (used to carry my phone but I was no longer in the mood for photos so in the backpack it went!). Before I reached the Outlet though it was more windy forest trails. The highlight of which was a section running along one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Somewhere hidden here is the Tarawera Falls. You could hear it for a long time before we reached it. The water was gushing out of the mountain through many holes. We took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing.

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Tarawera falls. A magnificent sight!

As I was going through my drop bag routine I told Thomas to crack on. I was going to be here for a while and didn’t want him waiting for me longer than he was prepared for. As is the case with these races you often see people again at different stages. We wished each other well and I got stuck into some more hot noodles. I was all about the hot savoury food now! Loads of runners came and went in my time at Outlet. But when I left I was born again!

The next section was the technical bit to Humphries bay running alongside the northern side of lake Tarawera. Crazy to think I’d been looking across the lake to this area maybe ten hours ago after I left the Buried Village! It was Only about 7km and I was feeling rejuvenated so I ran. I ran well. I passed maybe ten runners on this section as I leaped and bounced around the roots and lunged up the rocks and powered through. It was fucking humid too. As the day started to end the humidity In the forest increased. My fresh kit was quickly as wet and stinky as the stuff I’d changed out of. Despite the running it took a while. A good 1.5 hours for such a short distance before I emerged into the scout base of Humphries bay. Here I persuaded a volunteer to make me a cheese toasty using the volunteers sandwich maker. She wasn’t too eager but how can you say no to someone running a 100 miles?!

Leaving Humphries it was a similar story as I made my way towards Okatania. More forest paths. Less technical thankfully but still many roots and fallen trees to climb or duck under. The legs didn’t appreciate those lunges now! It was still very bright as the sun set over the lake but as soon as you turned back into the ‘bush’ it was pitch black. The headlamp had to come out. It felt odd as I could look up and see the light beyond the foliage. It just wasn’t reaching the ground. I found Thomas again and we carried on into the darkness for the several km remaining of this section, which felt so much longer.

I lost him once more at the Okatania aid station. This one was pumping. Okatania, with its circus theme, was a hive of activity. Not only was it another drop bag and support aid station, but it was where miler runners could have a pacer join them for the last marathon. Yep. Three back to back marathons done, one remaining. I sat down with some soup and more egg and bacon pie and a woman started talking to me. She was waiting for her husband and was asking how it’s going and if she could get me anything. So kind. I was sorted though. Warm belly and more fluids taken on board as well as a third water bottle filled up – the next section was 16km. I’d been drinking a litre between aid stations and despite it now being night, the humidity, length of the next section and the imminent climb meant I should be wise and prepared. I had noticed that despite all the fluids I was still not fully hydrated though after all this time and it did bother me a little and was on my mind.

Stocked up I set off to make the climb. Maybe a little over 500m lay ahead. This didn’t phase me and I was ready for a good walk. I’d also picked up my poles at the 100km mark ready for a lot of walking. After bringing them all this way I at least needed to make some use of them. So out they came. And off to the Blue Lake I marched.

It was a lonely old climb. I thought I’d see groups of people encouraged by their pacers storming past me but it never happened. What did surprise me though was that on the climb I began overtaking some 100km runners. I didn’t think I’d catch the ck end of this event. They were in high spirits though and with each one I passed we congratulated each other’s efforts and called bullshit to the climb and pains. As I broke the back of the climb the descent began. It was runnable. Single track easy underfoot. I ran on. After a few km though the ran became a hobble. Whilst I’d been blocking out the pains in my legs (particularly my ankle/shin pain and my destroyed quads) I couldn’t block out the pain in my left foot. The sole was raw. A blister for sure on the padding. Pressure was rather uncomfortable but there was no choice but to keep moving forward. The slow progress then began to make me tired and I was wobbling a little for sure.

Before the Blue Lake there was another section. Coming out of the long trails from Oktania we reached the aid station at Millar road. A smallish aid station but one busy with volunteers. I asked for warm food but there was none. They did have coffee though. I needed it. The long walk had made me sleepy. I needed a kick. I sat down with more jam sandwiches, a cheese scone and some ‘chippies’ whilst I drank the coffee. I noticed runners coming in and either layering up or being wrapped in blankets as they sat. Mmhhh. I realised it was cold. I took my arm warmers back out. It wasn’t cold by UK standards but I was beginning to shake a little.

As I left Millar road I walked with another guy. We talked a bit but I forgot his name. I was spaced out now. I overheard a volunteer tell another runner about long sections of road and another 1.5km of technical forest tracks. As we walked the first part of the road the pain was too much for me to fully engage in conversation. I also kept needing to pee. So I’d dropped back from the runner before we reached the technical part. In the bush it was so dark. The paths were windy with twists and turns. I kept having to stop and look which way I was going. My head torch died and I needed to change the battery to see (thankfully it died in a small clearing in the bush and the moonlight was enough to see in my bag for the spare). The bush was spectacular in the dark. But I was getting sleepy. So very sleepy.

Eventually we left the forest behind and emerged onto a road. Back at Blue Lake. To my right was the aid station, lit up a few hundred meters away. To my left, arrows and cones marking the path. Ah. Shit, I forgot we had to do a loop of the lake first. About 4km. We ran this as a group a few days before in the opposite direction. I at least knew what to expect. But this wouldn’t mean I’d enjoy it. 4km hobbling took a long long time. 

I rocked up 2 hours later than estimated at the Blue Lake aid station and I only had one thing on my mind… “is there a medic or someone who can treat a blister for me?”. Thankfully there was. A running coach went to work and gasped when my sock came off. “We need to drain that one!” Much to the shock of the volunteers who’d gathered round. It was probably about the size of a watch face on the padding of my sole. I drank more coffee whilst she went to work and then taped it up to relieve the pressure. Immediately I felt better and that I could hobble a little faster at least. I thanked them and set off on my way. As I left the aid station Jorge, Kirsty and Andy were there to cheer me on. I find this level of support and friendship incredible – after running all day, 100km for 14-18 hours with minimal sleep they still put others first over their recovery needs. It’s so generous. A short chat and I was back moving. 15km to go via the Redwoods back to town…

From Blue Lake to Redwoods was a tough 9km stint. It started with some twisty gradual climbs on loose gravel paths. Any thoughts I had on running were gone again. The loose rocks ached the raw skin on my feet. As we continued we ventured back into the forest trails. This time surrounded by the huge redwoods all around. My watch kept beeping as it lost signal. The darkness was pure. Above us a super moon shining bright in the sky. Towards the end of the section we climbed again. I passed more runners from the 100km and a few milers on the climb too. Each one questioning when it would end. Each one with a different understanding of how long the final section through town would be, it ranged from 2km to 9km. Naturally I hoped for the former! As we levelled out the town lights were visible in the distance. Like all ultras though I questioned how far further this last stretch would be and when we’d descend to town level and how/where we we going. It looked so far. What goes up must come down though and soon we did. Rapidly. Steps. Heaps of them. Deep earth packed Steps with un-level wooden breakers. I limped down them all eventually reaching a road and volunteers each egging me on the final few hundred m. I arrived at the Redwoods aid station to be treated by a Mexican day of the dead party. The sun beginning to rise and two familiar faces – Paul, the founder of the Tarawera race (who welcomed us at the Powhiri) and a gentleman I’d seen many times throughout the day supporting his wife. He chatted to me each time. He’s had just 5 hours sleep in the last two days and looked exhausted now. I assured him his wife Billie was just behind me. They pushed me on for the last stretch with encouragement. It was close to 7km to go. Damn. I wanted more coffee but there wasn’t any. I was no reliant on the rising sun to bring some life back into me and keep the eyes open as I left the aid station

 

Into finish now. 7km. 2 hours. It was happening for sure. Even if I slowed down further the sub 30 ‘Western States’ qualifier would be achieved. I believed more than ever before. A few runners ran past me. They clearly believed too. We followed some park paths for a little while before hitting the geothermal valley  area. Woah. Besides being hit in the face with the heat and sulphur smell, it was beautiful. Natural rocky landscape steaming from vents. I expected to run through the main streets of town. Long straight blocks of buildings. Nope. We’d loop through parks and wooden walkways surrounding the thermal areas all the way to the lake. It made it far more manageable. I plodded on. Billie and her husband ran past. It was about 7am. The sun was shinning. I reached the last sign saying 200 m to the finish. There were a group of people standing and clapping. I stopped to talk. We joked about running the last bit. The only bit that matters. A few moments later I started again. The plod became faster. I was shuffling now. The crowd gathered at the finish line began to cheer. The MC announced me as I entered the finishers area. I shuffled over the line with a beaming smile. I didn’t know what to do and the first words that came out to a volunteer were “where do I sit down?” I was so spaced out. Exhausted. A lady came over and apologetically encouraged me to come and get my gift, the Pounamu. Yes!!! A table was laid out. There were loads of Pounamu in boxes on display like a jewellery shop. They were massive. Far bigger than I expected. Each one different. Different colours. Different shades. She explained the purpose, the shape and meaning and significance of the ‘Toki’ design. She explained that we were to choose our own. It was personal. It took me a while but with a little help I found my Pounamu. The dark green jade called to me. She put it round my neck. I asked her to get a finish line photo. A videographer took pictures and filmed and asked if he could have a few words. Before she left the lady asked me if I wanted a hug, “fucking right I do” and at that moment I felt the sense of achievement and closure from the race. As the videographer asked me questions I realised how spaced I was. I’ve no idea what I answered. I was led in to the recovery zone to be weighed – we were weighed at check in and on finishing to check we were medically ok. They advised they were looking for a weight loss/gain within a 4kg tolerance to ensure we hadn’t taken in too much or too little liquid. I’d lost about 1.5kg. Perfect he said, go get some food and relax in the recovery area. As I went in I saw Femi from the boat ride some 14 hours earlier?! Then Jorge, Andy and Arlene arrived. They’d seen me finish as they were parking. They helped feed me and get me home. They updated me on everyone else’s races and achievements.

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Crossing that finish line as a 100 mile finisher!

Final thoughts

  • Milers are hard. It’s a long ass way
  • I once again broke it into thirds. The first 50km was a breeze. The middle dragged on and on and the final was a slog. The realisation at 80km that it was only half way was horrible.
  • The generosity of friends. Tracking and following, supporting. Its incredible at the best of times. Its another level of generosity when they do it after running 100km themselves!
  • The sheer size of operation – around 690 volunteers and 150 permanent staff. 200 kms of trails across private land, public land, Government land and tribal land. There is a huge amount of organisation to such a successful event.
  • The generosity of the event. There was something very psecial in the Powhiri welcome. I’ve never experienced that before. Also starting in a cultural site and the Haka at the start. Incredible. The amount we got out of it too with entrance to cultural/heritage sites such as Te Puia and the Brried Village, the race swag, the support throughout the race and the huge pounamu. The expensive race entry was fully justified this time!
  • It takes a lot of coffee for me to get going when I’m tired.
  • The morning is a very special time when running. The light from the sun is powering and what goes before it is soon forgotten when the day breaks.
  • Rotorua is special. It has so much. Tens of lakes. Woods and forests such as the Redwoods. Mount Tarawera and the geothermal valley. Any one of those alone would make it special, Rotorua has them all!
  • The pounamu. A medal I’ll wear for sure.
  • I’m a miler man now.
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With the choosen Pounamu

Ultra Nick

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“Damn that Hurt”
Ultra Nick
He’s such a groovy guy
Ultra Nick
He’s running all the time.

Running through the Forests
Having lots of fun,
Here comes Ultra Nick you know
That he's the mighty one

Ultra Nick,
We think he's mighty fine
Ultra Nick,
A hero for all time

I’m not quite sure where the memory came from. One minute we are running along. The next I’m singing ‘Ultra Nick’ to the tune of Earthworm Jim. Nick recognised it straight away…

Saturday was full of memories and sharing. It was the Hurtwood 50. A local-ish and increasingly popular ultra marathon in the Surrey hills brilliantly run by Freedom Racing. This was Nick’s first ultra. Like his first marathon in Luxembourg just 6 months ago, I was stoked to be at his side. I love running with people and supporting them through such achievements.

A few weeks ago we ran in the Surrey Hills and Daryl who I met during the TDS joined us. It turns out that Daryl and Nick went to the same school and a few hours later we’d roped Daryl in to joining us at the Hurtwood also.

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With the Hairless Nut Bag before the race

On the morning as we travelled down to Dorking, Jorge messaged to say he’d be at the start. He was combining his training with supporting us too. What a guy! Always so thoughtful and generous with his time. We rock up at the leisure centre and meet Jorge in the registration queue when some fella wanders over. Excitedly he proclaims “I’ve had a hair cut”! Bloody hell. It’s Daryl, only without his shoulder length hair. He’s had it chopped off after about 8 years for charity. Hero!

We stop by Rachel who is on duty volunteering at the registration and we say our hellos to her and the many other familiar faces like Derrick and Sarah we see before we head outside to join the start. Tom, the RD, gives the race briefing and talks about the community. Immediately it’s clear the importance such an event has when, after asking “hands up if this is your first ultra”, Hands all around us are thrown up into the air. It’s great to see. Little did they know what they were in for – The Hurtwood route is a fairly hilly and muddy one! Rachel was in charge of sending us off and, with a few loud blasts the air horn, off we trotted.

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Start line feels with Sarah and Jorge

We had no real plan for this run. A vague finish time in mind that was realistic and challenging and the same time. I think it is important not to put pressure on yourself, particular for a first time doing something new – it is daunting and hard enough without putting expectations on yourself. Instead we’d run from checkpoint to checkpoint, treating each as a little run in itself. At the Hurtwood there are two checkpoint locations. As it is an ‘out and back’ course, you visit each one twice. Fairly evenly spaced out that makes it five 10k-ish sections.

The first section heads out towards Leith Hill and the tower. A few little inclines and declines are followed by a short single track section before a much longer, steady and shallow incline. Eventually, around 12km later you reach the short but steep climb to the Tower. The largest climb on the course. Along this section, with 300 runners, it was fairly busy, but you always had plenty of space. We briefly ran with Sarah before she sped on as we stopped for cake and crisps at the checkpoint.

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Caught in action by No Limits Photography at Leith Tower

The next section involves a number of rolling trails as you run through various forest tracks and reach the view points at Holmbury Hill and Pitch Hill. Beautiful views across the South await at both sections. We didn’t stay long at either though as the cold December morning presented plenty of chilly winds and each time we stopped we’d get cold quickly. Daryl in particular was feeling the cold on his ears, something he hadn’t felt for 8 years! About 18km Jorge said his goodbyes and turned around to head back.  Then shortly after, at one of the car parks, we met Nick’s mum who’d once again come out to support him, just as she did in Luxembourg. It wasn’t long later that the leader (shortly followed by Second and Third place) sped past. We cheered them through.

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Stopping to enjoy the view points

As you reach the second check point the course splits. Here you do a loop, heading down through some stunning forest paths, lined with tall trees pointing up to the sky, before slowly climbing back towards Winterfell Woods. This section has a stint along some roads. Around this time we spent a little bit of time with Laura who I’ve followed on Instagram and always pops up at the same races. I later found out this was her 50th marathon/ultra. Half way to entry to the 100 Marathon club. What an achievement already!

Back at the second (now third!) checkpoint we scoffed more crisps and cake and joked with volunteers and runners alike. We were surprised to see some runners still arriving into the check point for the first time (including some ladies Nick recognised as teachers from his school) and I think this gave Nick a huge boost.  Along the loop section though Nick had started to feel the pains of the run (which was already one of his longest trail runs to date), especially in his ankle. He was doing far better than he probably realised. Daryl and I were confident we were sitting comfortably in the ‘middle of the pack’ somewhere.

Fresh from the refuel, and after Daryl accidentally tried to send a runner back out on a second loop,  we headed ‘back’ the way we came towards Dorking. We made some strong progress along this section and got to say hello to ‘Mum’ again too. Approaching the final checkpoint we stopped and tucked into the sandwiches the volunteers had kindly prepared. Cheese sandwiches were a welcome delight and we joked how none of us had eaten any of our own food – the spreads at each checkpoint were great (even if demand was putting pressure on the supply!). Once more we made the big climb to Leith hill and wasted no time running straight passed and down the other side. It was getting grey now and was far colder at the view point than it was earlier in the day.

As we left Leith Hill the sky turned dark and the rain began to fall. We were on the long steady decline now though and momentum was working in our favour. Despite our aches and pains we plodded on, racing the rain almost. The protection of the forest was enough to avoid us having to stop and layer up. The continuous running at this point started to take its toll on our tired legs and groans and moans became the soundtrack to our progress.

To Nick’s annoyance we weren’t yet done with the hills either. A few remained and each one increased the volume and frequency of the moaning. Variants of “fuck” were coming thick and fast and more combinations than I thought possible. I won’t even go into how his “ass hurts”. We gained several places and held off a few runners chasing us down too. Finally breaking free of the forest we arrived back into Dorking and had less than a mile to plod through the town, all slightly downhill. The volunteers ensured our safe passage across the streets as we hunted down one last runner. We got closer and closer before calling the decision to ease off. The finish was strong, but we were busting a gut now and it might have got messy at the finish if we sustained the effort any longer.

Rounding that final bend we pushed Nick forward toward that finish. Rachel, now on Medal duty, directed him in. Jorge screaming to the beat of the cow bell being rung by Nick’s Mum. Aimee cheering him in, me and Daryl whooping him on. He had his own entourage that dominated the finish line. His transformation was complete. Ultra Nick was born.

Afterwards we went to the pub. We stayed for quite a while and I for one was rather pissed when I left. I shouldn’t laugh, but one of the highlights was Jorge getting ‘egged’ as we left the pub. I heard the crack and just thought he’d stepped on an egg. But his leg was covered. I’m still laughing now. Sorry Jorge!

Whilst running the Hurtwood there were many thoughts bumping around in my mind and the conversation often revolved around experiences. First times, subsequent times. Things we’ve learnt along the way. Thanks Nick was experiencing and going through in the moment. Daryl is an experienced ultra runner and we shared many similar views and experiences about what we’ve encountered on our journeys and adventures. Be that the way people talk to us, the way we feel, the things we look forward too, the techniques we use to avoid succumbing to the pains and darkness etc. We saw some of these in Nick too. Particularly the hurt and the pain. The way he felt every change in elevation. the impact of the mud or the roots. We took joy in it. Lots of Joy. Having been there and done that, it filled us with amusement and plenty of laughter. As much as I love running and supporting people, the sadist in me also loves being there to laugh as they fall, as they moan, as they suffer. I can’t help but enjoy that too!

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Mid Stride. Courtesy of No Limits Photography

I started this blog saying I’m not sure where the memory of Earthworm Jim came from. What I do recall is what triggered the memory. Before the race, as motivation, and then again towards the finish line, I referred to Nick as ‘Ultra Nick’. The way I said it rhymed easily with the tune. But why did I say it? I was thinking of the evolution. The variations of ourselves and the changes we go through as part of hobbies, passions, life events. Specifically with running, how, after each achievement we become a new version of ourselves. We ‘join a club’ as they say, and become another number who has done something specific.

What are those version of ourselves for running? It could be anything you want really. It could be based on distances, emotions, achievements, memories, ambitions. Absolutely anything. It is unique to you and not defined. Thinking about Nick, and the running we’ve done together in the last two years, the versions and transformations I imagined were:

  • Nick 1.0 – Nick the Casual Runner – he ran occasionally. He didn’t need much persuasion to join me for a run but it was down low on his priorities.
  • Nick 2.0 – Nick the Frequent Runner – Something changed, he was running more often and further each time. The London Burger Run became a regular in his diary.
  • Nick 3.0 – Nick the Half Marathoner – Several halves later he’s running regular half marathons each month. Things are escalating quickly.
  • Nick 4.0 – Nick the Enjoyment Seeker – Running has become fun. It’s no longer a chore. He’s organising, coaxing and leading others, supporting them on their own running trajectories.
  • Nick 5.0 – Nick the Marathoner – He’s popped his cherry. He’s a mixer of emotions and thoughts and ambitions. More marathons are scheduled, there’s no turning back now.
  • Nick 6.0 – Nick the running addict – He wants it all. He’s signing up to all sorts. He’s pushing, he’s challenging, the change is going exponential
  • Nick 7.0 – Ultra Nick – … He’s running all the time.

Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb

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Ready for my longest run!

In the week leading up to the race, conversations with colleagues and acquaintances have typically gone…

“See you next week”

“Oh, are you going away?”

“Yeah, to Poland “

“What are you doing there?”

“Running”

“How far? Are you doing a marathon?”

“No, it’s a little further, 150km”

“Oh, nice. How many days are you doing that over?”

“One”

“…..”

The conversations tend to just end there. That’s been fairly typical this year. If you’re not interested in running you won’t know. You won’t understand what is feasible or not. It may sound ridiculous but 24 hours is a long time, you can achieve a lot in that time and in the world of trail running, covering 100-150 km of mountainous terrain is very, very feasible. You don’t even have to run that fast or even run that much and can walk a lot of it. Much of it is in your head and, as always, I think it comes down to mental strength.

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The Polish town of Krynica-Zdroj. Where the 150 km started

And so, off to Poland I was. To the Beskid mountains. I came here last year, to the Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, and did the 48 km was event. Now I was back for the big one, the 150 km… Last year was a treat. The event is billed as a muddy one with the strap line “enjoy the mudness”. In 2018 though freakish weather meant we had a glorious sunny dry day and very little mud. All that was to change on 2019. The weeks leading up to the event had seen plenty of rain and mud was once again on the cards.

This posed a challenge. How would my legs cope with the fatigue induced from running in mud? What kit would I need, What shoes? How long might it realistically take? It’s a 3 hour bus back to the start once I’m finished, what else will I need when I’m finished? I left the planning there. Things mostly out of my control. I’ve more than enough kit to cope with the majority of situations now so I decided not to worry anymore.

The race itself, it drained me. In a different sort of way. I was tired. I enjoyed it. I didn’t think and recall the journey as I normally do. I didn’t put the effort into mentally tracing my steps. It was all very similar and so I can’t recall and write about the adventure like I have in many other races. What I do remember though is many of the thoughts I pondered along the way. The things that came into and out of my mind…

  • As I left the house at 11pm, the group sent me off with one final Polish lesson. Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb. All I needed for the aid stations!

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Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb

  • The start was subdued. Runners casually making there way out of the meeting point and to the start. Whilst I chatted with fellow English speakers Mike and Alice, the race just started. No music. No countdown. Just a casual movement which became a run.

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Alice and Mike

  • The polish countryside is stunning. I thought this last year too. Covering 150 km is a great way to experience it. Rolling hills. Views of idyllic castles, churches and houses. Little farming villages, streams and fields were the order of the day.
  • It was peaceful. Very peaceful. Less than 500 runners started and were out on the 100/150 km course. I was alone for a long time and I liked it.
  • There’s always a point at night where you stop, turn around and gasp at the trail of head torches behind you. This race was no different and the moon was glowing with them. beautiful.

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Runners in the night

  • There are different levels of mud. At some point no amount of grip or technical footwear will help you. Slipping and sliding is inevitable and managing how you do it becomes critical.
  • I slipped about 4 or 5 times. I never trip or fall when running. The mud got me and I was hands and bum down more than I liked.
  • Hot soup is great. Hot chicken soup is greater. Hot chicken noodle soup is the greatest.
  • Spiced pumpkin soup is special.
  • It was cold. Very cold. I ran the whole of the night sections with a jacket. I’ve not need to do that before.
  • The Inov8 Thermoshell is an incredible piece of kit. I bought it a few weeks earlier and this was the first run I’d done in it. It was very lightweight, warm and breathable. I put it on again the next night and was immediately snug once more. Possibly my new favourite piece of kit.
  • Warm fires at night are bliss. Having a few minutes at a checkpoint camp next to a blazing hot fire is lush.
  • Polish runners are so considerate and thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask anyone to let me pass them and no one tried to kill me with their poles. They were keen to chat and understanding when I couldn’t reply.
  • Muddy steep hills were challenging, especially to descend. Trying to do that in wetter conditions would have been terrifying. We were lucky it wasn’t wet during the race itself.
  • There was a long climb at the top of which was a wooden structure. It reminded me of the church Sandor Clegane helped build in Game of Thrones. I sat on a bench and looked at it for about ten minutes.

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I don’t know what it was

  • Hallucinations. First time I’ve had it. Only briefly in the last 30 km. I saw the most spectacular crystal chandelier above me glistening in the light. As I got closer I realised it was the moon and the trees flickering in the wind!
  • Caffeine kick. For the first time I drank coffee during a run. 15 km from the end I was drowsy and nodding off as I hobbled along. I knocked back a coffee and then doubled up on caffeine (Tropical) Tailwind. I was buzzing and ran most of the last 15 km or so. I was wired. I ran through the pains I had.
  • Apples. I’ve not had them at a race before. Smashing stuff. Crunchy. Juicy. Tasty. Easy to eat. Sugary. I like apples. My forth favourite fruit (after pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit if you just know).
  • Cup of coke? I went for a bowl of coke. Game changer. Fuzztastic. Gulp gulp gulp. Belch.
  • Polish churches are architecture masterpieces. Sounds like ‘costu’ in English.

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The most traditional of Churches I saw

  • The ‘middle’ sections of these long races feel like the longest parts.
  • I constantly checked and tried to trace my way using the elevation profile on my bib. I mis-judged it so many times. Hills don’t look like hills on a 150 km route profile picture!
  • The silence of the night was disturbed only by the mass barking of dogs locked up away from the runners. Miles away from villages you could hear the dogs!
  • Memory is an incredible thing. The last 48km was so clearly memorable to me. Only the order of trails/sights/memories was a little jumbled.

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I don’t remember these dudes being there last year though!

  • Damn windy. Head winds whilst hiking up mountains is not easy. I was pissed off when a group of runners clearly used me as a wind shield. I didn’t blame them though.
  • Pictures – I took less. Whilst it was beautiful to see all around, the landscape was similar and too darn cold to keep fishing out my camera.
  • The last 48 km I latched onto a group of four runners. I used them (it might have been those that used me in the windy parts?!) My mind was going and collectively they were strong. I sat back and when they ran, I ran. When they walked, I walked. I used them. Until I took the coffee and my mind fired up again and I left them in my caffeine trail.
  • I visualised my body working. Buses driving messages from my brain to my body. Loads of tiny workers shovelling the food I consumed into a burning fire engine like a steam train. My legs like two grumpy trees telling me they were in pain. Functioning.
  • I visualised the finish I always do. I could see myself crossing that finish line. Celebrating. This time I saw exactly how – A chicken dance. I did eventually do the chicken dance I thought about for so many hours.

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Ziemniaki for the finish

  • Tamas running passed me before 70 km. So strong. He started an hour after me! What a legend.
  • Runners drinking beer at 82 km. How?! Talk about stereotypes.
  • The realisation at 60 km that I was no where near halfway through. That was tough.
  • The disappointment when my Suunto went bezerk and at 82 km I thought I’d done 86 km.
  • The count down by comparable races. Only a TDS to go. Only a TGC to go… A Lavaredo to go… A MIUT to go… A CCC to go… A Brecon Beacons to go… A Cinque Terra to go… A marathon to go… A Wild TR weekend run to go… A run to work to go… A park run to go. I don’t even do park runs. Fuuuck when will this end.
  • Running 100 miles is an incredible achievement. I’m still 15 km off that. Wow. So much respect for those achievers now. Those who have the strength to even start and those who persevere to the end. So inspiring.
  • Leaving a message for Julian and Astrid whose wedding I was missing. The words were in my head but I’m not sure what I bumbled down the phone.
  • At the finish I was shattered. Momentarily I fell asleep on a bench.

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snooze

  • I like polish food!

 

The race itself…

  • It’s is exceptionally well marked. Tape and reflective signage every few metres. You can’t get lost (although others somehow did!?!).

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Arrows on the roads helped too

  • It is superbly organised (just like the year before). With 5 different races starting and ending at different locations, this is not an easy feat. Lemkowyna make it seem effortless. As a non-Polish speaker, it’s very easily negotiated (OK, we had Polish speakers in our group but I’d be comfortable attempting it myself).
  • The volunteers went out of their way to help you. Not only filling bottles and serving you but sitting you down and fetching you things. All things.
  • The volunteers and support were amazing. Big shout out the the man I met at the 82 km mark and chatted too and whom came to find me at each checkpoint there after to talk to me and see how I was getting on. So thoughtful!
  • The bell medal. Unique. Now I have two.

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Red cow bell medal

  • The finishers top (150 km finishers) is great too. High quality Columbia kit.
  • Finish line food – an abundance. Healthy, vegetarian, meaty, local specialities. They had it all.
  • The trails were mostly forest paths. Soft and not too ‘rooty’. There were a lot of long road sections also.
  • The aid stations are about 20 km apart which is longer than most races. There’s nowhere to get water in between. I carried 1.5 l at all times and was thankful I did.
  • There were two ‘bonus’ aid stations with water and some other supplies towards the end. A very welcome surprise!

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LUT runners!

What else do I remember? Support and friendship. That’s what. I’ve said this a few times over the last year. Friends and companions on such adventures is a huge boost. The joking, the laughter, the shared panics and emotions. The common understanding of what you need and don’t need. The different approaches, advice and learnings. Not being alone. The achievement of succeeding is one thing, but sharing it with others is something else. I was spoilt with such a special group. They took control. They looked after me. Cooked for me. Cleaned after me. Ordered for me. Drove me about. Waited and cheered me. Travelled 50 km in the wrong direction and waited for hours for me. Forever and constantly I am in their debt. Their support and friendship is mind blowing. Daisy and Claire called it out, making new friends as adults is strange and often not easy (the innocence of childhood friendships is lost as you grow older…). But through running I’ve met people with similar characteristics, traits and mindsets and we’ve bonded over the most memorable experiences together.

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Friends on the trails

Whilst I was out in the polish countryside, there were a lot of other runs and running achievements happened the same weekend and conversations I had with others summed up my own experience this weekend. This snippet from Sarah said it all… “...Like a roller coaster, so many highs and lows but we rally through to the end. The things we put ourselves through for fun, and I have to say it was fun…“. We find our enjoyment…

 

 

Blah Blah Blah

Earlier in the year James asked me if I wanted to join him for the Tallinn marathon. I was hesitant. A week after TDS, after a fairly jam-packed August. Hhhm. Maybe not. Then Luxembourg happened and it was frikken great. Bobby and Nick went and signed up to Tallinn immediately. I soon had the FOMO and was signing up to join them. After all, a trip to a new country and exploring a city whilst doing what I love…

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Medal and Tee in traditional Tallinn emblems

Fast forward a few weeks and Bobby and Nick have both pulled out. Bastards. Suddenly I’m heading out with an unnecessarily expensive hotel booking (I could have shared a dorm for cheaper but I’m such a princess and don’t like sharing around a long run, I need some space!). James was still there but I’d missed the chance to jump in with him and his mates.

Anyway, August is done though, 3 big races conquered, all went better than I’d even hoped. Considering what I’ve achieved, I feel bloody good. Yeah sure, a few aches and pains and the ankles are still feeling a little brittle, but I feel great. I’m heading into Tallinn without a care in the world. My mind is clear and I’m ready to kick back, relax, run and enjoy the experience. No pressure. All I need to do is control it when I start running. I’ll ‘run to feel’ though and don’t imagine I’ll be feeling a fast run, so that’s good. It’s also a special weekend in Tallinn with celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary and it’s also the 30th edition of the marathon. So there is plenty going on.

It was a 9am start on a Sunday and I’m staying just minutes from the start . I’m not used to such luxury and take full advantage by staying in bed untill 8 and being very casual. I meet James and Chris just before 9 and we head down to the starting pens. We are briefly separated as they go to B and I’m ushered to C but some confusion just before the start sees the two pens merge into one.

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Reunited and getting ready to run

There’s a lot of runners and, as we are given the green light to go, we start plodding down the cobble streets of the old town. Tallinn is a small place and the route will see us leave the old town, head to Seaplane Harbour, out of town with various bendy turns and switchbacks before heading back towards, and finishing in, the Old Town under the Viru Gates.

The roads were wide and many had been closed off for the event so there was no fighting for space. We soon settled into a rhythm of around 6 min/km and chatted away as we began our sightseeing adventure. It wasn’t long before we reached the first water station (and every water station infact as they were only about 3km away from each other!). We all made the mistake of trying the salty bread – dry traditional Estonian black bread sprinkled with salt. It was, of course, salty! Much water was then needed!

After passing through Seaplane Harbour and then several residential streets (with some fascinating architecture of old traditional buildings mixed with modern apartments) we ran through a long main Street. There was an old lady hanging out of her window banging a saucepan which made us laugh. We then ran through what would be the first of many parks and green spaces.

A little further on was a real highlight as, first noticed by the foul smell, we realised we were running through the grounds of a zoo. Whilst we didn’t see many animals there was a bear(!) inspecting the runners from his cage. Running the paths leading through the zoo was a whole new experience, and whilst sad and odd to see animals caged up, it was nice from a running perspective.

Shortly after the halfway mark we were running through some lush trails and forest paths with trees all around us before we emerged near the sea front. We felt good, but tired. The green spaces were welcomed though and thankfully we spent very little time on main roads with cars.

Around 25km in, Chris stared to struggle. He’d picked up an injury and, after about ten mins of slow walking and shuffling, James and I made the reluctant decision to leave him and carry on. At that point he was going to just walk back and pull out (he’d be able to skip through the various switch backs and take a more direct route back to town). Both James and I were feeling it too though – I was aching in my knees, which is a new one for me.

Despite most of the running happening out of town, there were pockets of support along the way and some great chants including “c’mon Brexit” and my favourite “blah blah blah” (or at least that is what it sounded like, I’ve no idea what it meant!).

The next section took us along the coast and had a few kms of long switchbacks which were painfully dull, seeing runners winding ahead of you. After that was a stretch around, then up into, a park before returning to the coast once more. With about 10km to go I started a run-walk strategy with a brisk walk after each water station just to take the pressure off my knees a little.

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Captured by Craig

It soon quietened out and with the last water stop done James and I pretty much ran alone to the finish line. Tracing our steps back along the initial part of the route into town (without the loop around Seaplane Harbour). As we neared the finish line Craig casually called out “hello” to us and he was then at the finish line as we hobbled the last 200m along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and through the Viru gates.

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Finishers

Medal collected we headed back for a quick shower before returning to see Chris cross the line. Turns out that after we left him he decided to stick at it and he’d continued on to complete his first marathon (after covering no more than a half in his training and battling through the pain on the day!!). We missed him by about a minute!

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Just missed him

119 Hours

119 Hours – Chamonix. Thursday, 15:00. 

I’m hugging a man. His arms are around me. He’s wet with sweat and he stinks. I am absolutely rotten with sweat and stink too. We are both smiling though. The embrace is special. We are acknowledging over 35 hours of running technical Alpine trails coming to and end, most of that time spent together, supporting one another and motivating each other through. 35 hours ago this smelly man was a complete stranger, his mere existence even unknown to me. Now he’s not only a friend but someone I’ve shared an incredible journey with and whom will always be in my memories. His name is Darryl.

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This is Darryl

Moments earlier we’d crossed the finish line of the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (Aka The “TDS”) at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). A 145km trail race in the Alps starting in Courmayeur (Italy) and finishing under the famous UTMB arch in Chamonix (France)…

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145km, 9,100m of vert. The TDS.

5 minutes earlier – Chamonix

Somehow, despite hours of walking and persevering with the ‘ultra shuffle’ we muster enough strength to run the final stretch through the streets of Chamonix. Cheered on by the immense crowd, clapped through as the sea of spectators part to make way, we see many familiar faces of our friends. The moment is electric, so many emotions are pulsating through my body, my only reaction is to smile. A huge, wide smile. I don’t think anyone could experience that sort of finish and not have a smile on their face.

We are spent. It’s very hot. We are walking the final 8km into Chamonix.  We are happy with this. I’ve run this path once before many years ago on a stag do (With another Daryl!), Darryl more recently did it on the TDS last year. “It’s flat” he claims and so he told another runner, Robin, a few kms earlier. I should know by now not to trust Darryl’s memories, he’s already admitted it’s hazy at the best of times. It’s not that flat (only in relative terms!). It’s undulating. We slow our fast hike back to a shuffle. We are in this for the long haul. 8km feels like 80kms and it takes almost two hours to walk to Chamonix. We eventually leave the riverside trail and hit the main road. We’ve not been alone on our walk and have chatted with several other runners who’ve walked it ‘home’ too. As we hit the main street we all look at each other and begrudgingly start shuffling faster and ‘performing’ for the crowd. Me and Darryl contemplate buying ice cream but are too afraid to stop moving again.

117.5 Hours – Les Houches.  

We dropped off the winding switchbacks of the paved roads into the final aid station. For the last time we fill both our flasks and our faces and head back out on the trails. As we grab fistfuls of ice from a bucket, shoving them under our caps, I notice those around us. The volunteers – so supportive and encouraging, the runners – exhausted and many slumped on benches. We crack on. As the Compressport sponsored sign read, “finishing is your only fucking option”.

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Damn Right!

Descending from Col di Tricot  wasn’t nice. The paths were littered with rocks and hikers.  We’d run, stumble, jump and walk our way down. Eventually reaching a wobbly wooden foot bridge before climbing yet again. The rocky climb, however small, sapped our energy and by the time we reached Bellevue we were gasping. As we refreshed with water we questioned how that was only 4km we’d covered. 5km still to descend.

The next 5km were through the forest paths, shaded from the sun at least. We slowed to a walk. Our feet were hurting once more, raw and sore. The rejuvenating effects of the medical attention we received not that long ago had well and truly worn off now. Somehow runners were still running past us, we were impressed with their physical state. A familiar shout out from one was instantly recognisable. It was Alan. Supercharged and nimbly descending at speed. He called out to Darryl “Hey! How did Dai get on?!”, “I’m down here” I replied from around the next switchback. Alan was ready and willing to ‘walk it in’ with us and finish together, but I told him to keep going, he was on form again after a bad night and Darryl and I had each other. He vanished into the forest. We eventually made it to the road, a long stretch of paved switchbacks leading into Les Houches.  The flat tarmac was a welcomed feeling.

115.5 Hours – Col di Tricot

We’ve made it to the top, finally.  That climb was tough, the sun had done it’s job and I was definitely burnt on my neck. There was no water up top which we’d been hoping for. The timing point indicated 9km to go to reach Les Houches. 4km of which would take us to Bellevue where there would be water. All downhill, about 1,200m to descend in total.

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Col Di Tricot

Strapped up from Les Contamines, we left the aid station and were on the move again. It had been a long stop. About 1.5 hours. We were good again though and able to move quite quickly once more. The medics had worked their magic. We powered up past the church, up the roads and back to the trails, immediately passing many runners. Our power hike continued. Two more big climbs were left to conquer, the first barely noticeable and through the shaded woodlands we went. The second climb a bit of a beast with a steep zigzagging climb to Col di Tricot.

As we emerged from the first climb and descended we could see Col di Tricot opposite. It wasn’t small nor insignificant. It felt like a long time before we crossed the bridge, thread through the small hamlet and climbed to the switchback trails. The midday sun was bright and there was no shade on the climb. Darryl believed there would be water up top and I hoped he was right, whilst I had plenty now, the steep climb would be thirsty work.

112 Hours – Les Contamines 

Once inside, Darryl went to find the foot doctor and I went to find the toilet again! After I had fun squatting and propping myself up against a wall, I found Darryl laughing and joking with the medics. It had already a while, and I’d eaten before finding him, but he was getting the full treatment both feet lanced, sterilised and wrapped in more padding than a winter jacket. I was jealous,  so I queued up for a bit of foot TLC myself. I even got my ankle properly strapped and, whilst I was getting repaired, Darryl then went for a massage.  We were smiling and laughing again and ready to get this race finished!

Leaving Col Du Joly, we wondered how we still had 24km to go. I do not know. Morning was breaking. The mist on the mountains was lifting and the the trails becoming lighter. Darryl was talking to another Brit and I cracked on. I was cold and needed to warm up – my body temperature had dropped significantly whilst stopping at the aid station. The head torch was soon turned off and we started a long descent. First the fields and ski paths before we hit the longer stretch descending through the forest paths.

As I hobbled down I was making the questionable sex noises. Oh, ee, ahh, fuck me, aaagh. I wasn’t alone and a chorus of squeals could often be heard. Many runners went passed, many we’d spoken too. Darryl was a little way behind now and I enquired after him to the Brit as he passed.  He told me Darryl was moving but slowly.  After about 4 km of descending I waited at the bottom. I found a bench and sat on it until Darryl arrived. He wasn’t looking good, he was stumbling and barely moving forward.  His feet were destroyed and he was in quite some pain. He told me I shouldn’t have waited, I told him I’m not leaving him now, we’d done maybe close to 100km together and we had plenty of time to finish, I had no where to be in any urgency and I wasn’t going to leave him and potentially see him pull out. We walked on together. Slowly, very slowly. We hobbled at a pace slower than 20mins per km. It took around two hours to walk the flattest section of the race to the next checkpoint of Les Contamines.

110 Hours – Col Du Joly

Darryl’s hopes of medical attention were dashed when the medic  told him that the ‘foot doctor’ was at the next aid station. Um, Ok then. We layered up as we left the aid station, it was still dark and cold. We refuelled on warm soups, re-jigged our packs and left for the final 24km.

From Hautelace we were confused. Very confused. We were still wandering in circles around the town and every now and then saw a trail lit up by tens of head torches in the distance. They were high. It was spread out and long. We kept questioning over and over if that is where we were heading or if that is the descent to Beaufort which we’d already completed. Every few minutes we’d have the same debate all over again.

The trails eventually took us in a different direction which did make sense finally. The climb was slow and a real slogfest in the dark. Sometime later we topped out on the summit and the open trails. It was windy and we could see the head torches both out in front and behind us. There was plenty of mud and my fresh clean shoes and socks (from the drop bag) were now soaked through. We ran along the ridgeline in the wind before we stopped to layer up and have some food. I was sleepy and hungry. I went into the chocolate reserves and came out with some chocolate coated raisins. They worked a treat and perked me up enough to keep moving with more clarity.

We continued on and the trails became increasingly more muddy and technical. We were ready for the next aid station now and Darryl was starting to struggle with pains in his feet. We looked forward to the opportunity for some medical attention and warm noodle soup. First though we had to navigate a steep descent and subsequent climb along some sharp rock faces in the darkness.

We were slowed to a plod as the runners started to back up under the difficulty of the terrain. At one point I yelled out and almost lost my foothold as I touched an electric fence that was stupidly close to the trail (on my other side was a drop into the darkness!). We laughed it off but I did question what I was doing here in the dark!

Over the last little climb, the music pumping from the aid-station could finally be heard.

105 Hours – Hautelace – 105 hours

Hautelace was a little confusing. Probably because it was 1am and we were tired, probably because it was fairly soon after the big check point and probably because of the route. This was also part of the new course and it felt like we were walking in circles around the town. I heard rumours afterwards about villages paying the organisers to be part of the route and I wondered, if true, if this was one of them – we were on a tour!

We finally pulled ourselves together shortly before midnight and headed back out from Beaufort for the third and final 50km. As we were leaving Alan showed up and indicated he hadn’t been so good and that he was going to have a sleep. I joked with Darryl that we’d see him run past us in a few hours time!

We climbed into the darkness and soon reached a town. After doing what felt like laps of the town we weaved into the aid station which was pretty much empty. We had a long stretch of running through the night ahead of us though so we took the opportunity to get some more food and water in before we headed back out into the night and up into the darkness.

102.5 Hours – Beaufort

Beaufort Aid Station. The long awaited, very much anticipated 90km mark. The aid station where we could access our drop bags, the aid station where the risk of dropping out (due to home comforts) increases. The one where hot food would be available. The one that marks the end of the “second” section (in my head I broke the race into three 50km sections) and the point where there is “only 50km to go”.

The entrance to the aid station was a a long walk. It felt like we were taking a detour around the aid station. I spotted the Live Cam and gave it a good middle finger. I was moody. That last 50km seemed to drag on and on and on (a bit like this blog?)…

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Have that TDS

After leaving Gittaz it all got a bit shit. Literally. One of the highlights for me here was the actual shit I had (it was surprisingly healthy for an ultra marathon poop!). But this whole section here was shit. Don’t get me wrong, it is another set of beautiful trails and the views and scenery was absolutely stunning (Exhibit A – The Black Lake), but it was shit because it was tough and it dragged. This was the section of off-track climbs, false summits and the beginning of the night. 

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Black Lake on the descent to Beaufort

The climb from La Gittaz was immediately steep and immediately lumpy. It was long, we were exhausted and it continued to deceive us. False summit after false summit and lumpy ups and downs were the order for 10km or so as we tagged Côte d’Ani and Pas d’Outray. Sometime around Côte d’Ani we took a moment. We sat down after the disappointment of reaching another false summit and we needed a few minutes to get ourselves over the disappointment of coming over the top and seeing the enduring trails and runners heading off into the distance. We weren’t alone. For every few runners who went passed, one would stop and join us. By the time we left there must have been about 7 or 8 of us grumpy bastards sitting in a circle laughing at each others miserable appearance. We also wondered if we could get the next long downhill done and out of the way before darkness. Spoiler – we didn’t. Not a chance in hell it would ever have even been possible. As we continued to descend the darkness enveloped us and and the head torches were back out and we trudged on.

The descent into Beufort was long, technical and difficult. This was the first section of the new route. Darryl wasted no time in pointing out that it immediately made the course harder than the old version (which he’d done previously last year!). After what felt like a lifetime we reach the aid station and settled down for a break and a freshen up with our drop bags. Whilst I fumbled through my routine, Darryl went off and had his knee tapped.

98.5 Hours – La Gittaz

La Gittaz was quite a cute little aid station. It stank a bit (think actual farmland) and there were plenty of small stone brick buildings in the area. The aid station itself was small, and the volunteers and support few but very boisterous.

We’d run down into the aid station through about 800m of descending trails. They were mostly steep and technical, but the end was a real treat. We ran down alongside a gorge and the sound of the water flowing below us was brutal. It sounded like high-speed wind battering you. The path was carved out through the mountain and winded down and around before dropping into open fields.

I’d left Darryl behind and we agreed we’d meet again at the aid station. Just as we descended the fields he caught up with me and we walked in together before I headed straight off to the Eco Loo for a very much needed good ol’ shit. What? It had probably been about 24 hours since my last one and that Lasagne and Burger was still bouncing up and down inside me!

 

96.5 Hours – Cormet de Roselend

I spot the Live Camera. I’d forgotten about these. As I ran into the aid Station I stuck the thumbs up and the tongue out for the world to see. I’m alive, I’m doing ok…

It had been a long one. 4 and a half hours had passed since I left the last aid station and I was certainly feeling a bit exhausted now (inevitable seeing as I’d been on the move for over 12 hours at this point).

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Stunning lakes

Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice I began the big climb. I didn’t feel it was as bad as people made it out to be. Perhaps because I was in a great place mentally and physically. In my mind it was split into a few smaller sections that I can recall. First off a steady climb on some soft and soily trails. As we climbed I could hear a deep voice bellowing out above “Alleeeeeee Hup Hup Hup Allleeee Allleeeee”. It was a great voice. Eventually I reached him – an old man with his wife ringing a cowbell. He was fantastic. “Merci, Superb” I called as I passed.

Beyond the old man the climb continued as we hit some open fields (and a bit of sun) and rounded an old fortress. It was here I was stunned to find loads of runners laying down and resting. And I mean loads, tens of them, everywhere. I couldn’t figure out if this was a strategic stop – part way up an exhausting climb, gaining some much needed sleep after an early start, planning for the future. Or whether it was because they were dead on their feet with exhaustion from the climb and they just had to stop. Part of me wondered if it is because the views were spectacular and it was just a wonderful place to stop and rest? I’ll never know, but for certain it looked far more enjoyable than some of the places I saw runners curled up in later that night!

I met Darryl again along the climb and we continued together chatting and catching up on the past few hours. We passed a short water station (by water station I mean a hose pipe filling a bucket) which gave a chance to replenish and soak my face and hat. It was also here that the famous 5 Euro soft drinks were on sale. I declined to get involved.

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A little bit of scrambling

The climb continued and the terrain became varied. From muddy trails to razor sharp rocks. The fast hiking very quickly became slow lunging and scrambling! The views though were sensational and Darryl and I decided to take a little rest at the top of one of the peaks and enjoy a moment. Plus we were both starving and I wolfed down a few bars of food and Darryl rested his knee which was starting to cause him some pain.

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Incredible views

We carried on up the rocky climbs before my balls almost detached themselves from my body and ran off back the way we’d come. In front of us were a group of volunteers, all happy singing and dancing, hiding from us what was a sheer drop of the mountain top. It also happened to be the way we had to descend. What the fuck? Down there? There was a rope. There were runners holding onto the rope and shuffling themselves down the sharp rock face backwards. Fucking hell I was terrified. I’d come to run, not to abseil with no equipment. The only way was down though, so I packed away the poles and headed on down.

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Going down. I was too afraid to get the camera out until after the steepest part of the descent was completed!

We’d gone barely a few metres when a pair of poles went flying passed us following a shriek from above. A runner almost lost himself as he tried to head down using his poles and not the rope. Not worth it. Get a grip!

We made it. It took sometime but we made it to the end of the rope section. The path was still very technical and steep though and the run down into the aid station was painful. The memories of the pains in my feet from Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria all came flushing back!

92 Hours – Bourg Saint-Maurice

There is the slightest of inclines through the streets. I walk into the aid-station (which was the first major/crew-support aid station on the course). No running here. I’ve just been on one hell of a run. but I am buzzing. beaming. smiling ear-to-ear. “Dai” I hear as I look across the packed aid-station to see Ryan calling me over. He introduces me to his Wife Emma who gives me the biggest of hugs and gets a sweaty kiss before offering me potatoes which I happily take.

Ryan is a bit dazed. I caught up with him on the downhill which was a huge surprise (he is a speed demon!) before he turned and showed me his bloody face. A bad fall had left him a bit spaced out after taking most of the impact literally head on.

After another very long downhill, maybe about 15km and a descent of about 1,500m with much more running, more speed work, I remember looking at my watch and thinking I have no right. No right to be running 6 min/kms at 40-odd kms into a race, never-mind a 145km race! But I kept going.

I soon bumped into Ryan and then arrived at a water station where I proceeded to refill all my bottles ahead of the ‘big’ climb. A volunteer kindly told me the aid-station was in 3kms though and this was just a water station in between. So I legged it back out through the town and parks…

When I arrived, after speaking with Ryan I saw Darryl heading out and spent a moment talking to Alan who arrived just after me. We did a quick kit check reminder to fill all our bottles as the next climb was an un-shaded beast  – almost 2,000m of climbing in the midday heat (not sun though as it was mostly overcast thankfully!).

I chatted to Emma a little longer after Ryan left (and ate more of his spuds!) before leaving myself. I spent very little time at this aid station as quite frankly, I felt great. I had energy and a smile and saw little point sticking around any longer. So off I went.

90 Hours – Col du Petit Saint Bernard

The Point of Col Du Petit Saint Bernard sticks out in my memory for one reason only. This was the French/Italian border crossing! and the technical, small stone descent before a much longer descent. Ahhhh wonderful. I did enjoy the little border crossing they’d erected for the runners though. That was nice.

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The Italian-French Border crossing for the race.

Other than that, my mind has gone a little blank. We climbed together, the fresh smells of the forest, the morning warming. It’s about 10am but I can’t picture the scene. I don’t think Darryl was with me at this point. Maybe he was. A few hours have passed though and I don’t recall too much of where or what I saw in this time.

Sometime earlier though morning had broken, I put the head torch away and started to enjoy the grey misty morning as we climbed about 600m, from which we had stunning views of the valley and lake below. I was above hundreds of runners and I’m looking down, but also up. Hundreds more were above me and the climb continued to the cheers and sounds of supporters at a timing point. As I reached them I breathed a deep breath. I took a moment to absorb the views and point to the distance trail path leading off into the un-see-able distance.

From the peak at Col Chavannes I got moving again. Woaaaah boy do I get moving again. The path was very runnable, about 10km of shallow descent on fairly decent and wide track. It is fast. Another consistent period of running 5 min/kms. I knew my quads were going to hate this in a few hours, never-mind the next day!!

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The long, runnable descent from Col Chavannes

There’s a short break in the rhythm as the path deviated sharply down and cross a river before ascending some forest tracks. At this point I first met him, the sweaty stinky man. I had no idea what would happen next and how a friendship would form. “Alright Mate” he says “How’s it going?”. As simple as that. A mere conversation starter. One runner to another, one human to another, one person looking to change their day. Thank you Darryl, you certainly changed my day!

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Into the forests we shall go

86.5 Hours – Lac Combal

I’m running along a flat gravel path, It’s flooded with puddles of water and I’m zig-zagging along at close to 5 min/km pace. Crazy. Still, it feels good so I keep at it. I’m distracted by a ‘Full Kit Wanker’. A lady wearing head to toe in branded UTMB event gear. And I mean head to toe – Columbia UTMB edition trainers, Compressport UTMB socks, base layer shorts, shorts/skirt, Tee, Arm Sleeves, Buff and Running cap. She has it all. Maybe over 400Euros of kit right there. Wow. We all like a souvenir (I bought a Matterhorn race hoody just days earlier!) but that is a lot of kit to (potentially) try out for the first time on a 145km run!

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Leaving Lac Combal

The distraction takes my mind off the running and a big aid station soon appears. I grab some food, refill my water and am about to head out before I notice a sign saying about 19km to the next aid Station. I turn around, drink some more water, part fill a third soft flask and eat some more food before heading back out. I don’t want to be caught short so soon into the race!

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Hello Morning!

As I continued on the climb I stopped for a moment and turn around to try and photograph the stream of head torches snaking back for miles in the distance. It doesn’t do it justice, but its an incredible sight – maybe up to 1,500 heads bobbing away. So far I’d not used my head torch. Like a parasite I was using the light from those around me and being a sneaky bastard and saving my battery for night time (even though I’m carrying four batteries!) I continued the climb before a nice easy descent into Lac Combal. I’m running (with the head torch on now!), I’m smiling. It’s been a good start, a fast start and I think I’m a little ahead of Alan, I last saw him just before the climb started and I couldn’t recall him storming passed.

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Runners in the night

85 Hours – Col Checrouit Maison Veille

A little over an hour has passed. Its 5 in the morning and still Dark. I’m about half way through a 1,000m climb (over 10km) and I’ve stumbled into the first aid-station at Col Checrouit Maison Veille, some 1,900m above sea level and its a little cold. Runners are in jackets and gloves, sipping hot drinks. I’m in a T Shirt with arm sleeves rolled down. It’s sweaty work this fast hiking! I fill up my bottle with the help of a lovely volunteer before heading out and swearing. Fucking Prick. He’s filled me up with sparking water. Why would you do that? The smallest of things, but it pissed me off. I’m not a fan of sparkling water. Regardless, I find a way to calm myself down and move on. It’s just a bit of gas.

 

84 Hours – Courmayeur

Hans Zimmer (“He’s a Pirate”) is pumping out. Hi-fives and fist pumps are exchanged. Cheers and whoops are let out. Screams of “Ale Ale” and cowbells ringing fill the main street of Courmayeur. The 2019 TDS is under way and my 84 hours of recovery comes to an end. It is time to run again. This time, further and higher than I’d ever been before. Time to push those boundaries and redefine myself.

Before the race began I was subjected to one of the random bag searches whilst in the starting pen. Great. Whilst I fully endorse and support this approach, it isn’t half a pain in the arse. When you pack and re-pack your bag and organise it in such a way, only to then be rushed to unpack in a crowded space to show you have all the mandatory gear is just a nightmare. Either way, I passed. I got my green sticker on my bib.

You really can’t fault the organisation of UTMB. from bag checks to bus transportation to the start line, it really is a military operation and you can clearly see where you 200 Euro entry fee has been spent. You are so looked after and accounted for during the event. I’ve almost forgotten its been 3 hours since I first woke, trudged to the bus and started eating croissants.

71 Hours – Chamonix

It’s about 3pm on Tuesday and I’m leaving the race registration tent. I’m in. I’m Done. I’m set to go. The rigorous testing and inspection of your documentation and kit has been passed. Phew. Time to head home, re-pack the kit and drop bag, eat more food and go to sleep. At 1am I need to be up and heading to the bus to Courmayeur.

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Trying to be like the UTMB Manga

That morning I’d skipped the organised morning “shake out” run so that I can head up the VK with the others (I didn’t want to do both). Most of them bailed on the second run, but Yvette showed me the way. We did about half way before turning back and heading home so I could register. Post registration I finally got to eat and rammed a lasagne down my throat before an hour later heading out for a burger with Alan. I was bloated now but heading to bed. 7pm, If it goes well I can get about 6 hours sleep before the journey begins….

45 Hours – Chamonix

Its a whole day later and I’m stepping off the Chamonix Express into Chambalama Town (Chamonix that is!). So far the trip has been fantastic and worked out exactly as planned and I’m where I want to be when I want to be there. I pick up the key to the apartment, meet Yvette and Jess and head into the main town to cheer home the MCC runners. There are a few friends running and due to finish within the next few hours. We grab a burger and make it in time to support them all across the infamous UTMB arch/finish line. The rest of the day is spent eating and meeting many friends before heading to bed and trying to get a semi-decent night’s sleep. I’m not sure how Tuesday will pan out but I know I want to get the legs moving a little bit and eat and sleep as much as I can.

21 Hours – Visp

Arriving in Visp I head straight to the hotel with my fingers crossed that I can check in early, I can. Result! I was staying at St. Jorden, which very quickly became apparent was some form of religious retreat (an ‘Education and Seminar House’ as they put it!). This didn’t bother me though and I was given some very helpful advice relating to the thermal baths and local buses before I set off out in my short shorts.

I get to the Thermal baths very quickly, pay my 25Euro for three hour access to both the pools and Sauna rooms and head on in. I’m immediately disorientated though. It is busy. I’ve a little armband to activate doors and lockers and straightaway signs are instructing me to remove my shoes. I wander on in and first stumble upon the ‘Grotto Bath’ – a pool maintained at 40 degrees. It is awesome. I follow it up with a stint in the ‘Cold Water Grotto’ which is so relaxing as it is in pitch darkness. I keep alternating between the two before heading outside (after a stop off at several steam baths of various temperatures and aromas).

Outside I find a series of swimming pools with jets, streams and water features. I enjoy a few trips around the ‘River Pool’ and smile as the water current pushes me round and round. I then head off to the slide. Yes, the slide. I’m like a child all over again and it is frikken brilliant. I don’t know how many times I go on it, but it is great fun. I must have been in here for about 2 hours by now so I head back inside to repeat my hot/cold water “treatment”, steam rooms and get naked in the saunas. I’ve one eye on my watch now as the buses aren’t all that frequent and I want to get the next one. Whilst in the Grotto Bath I decide to lay on the loungers – when you recline your feet are elevated. That will help with my recovery I think to myself. I’m sure it did too, because the next thing I remember is waking up and it is 45 mins later. Shit, I’m late. I rush out, in a panic realise there is a bus in less than 10mins, but I can’t find the changing rooms. I dive into a disabled toilet and start getting changed but am disrupted by someone banging on the door. “Hold on” I scream before grabbing my stuff and making to leave. Outside a cleaner is looking at me disgusted and starts yelling at me pointing at my trainers. I try to explain I don’t understand and am lost and continue the long walk of shame to the exit, to many tuts and disapproving eyes along the way.

Outside I try to leave but the armband flashes red and buzzes every time, after some time the receptionist realises it is because I am “late”. Ten mins overdue, I’m instructed to a machine to pay a fine. 5 Euros, phew, that’s OK. I run out and jump on the bus just in time before it leaves. I slept very well that night!

15 Hours – Zermatt

Morning has broken. My legs ache. I feel well rested but my quads are definitely a little tender. The Matterhorn Sky Race was faster than I expected and I was already feeling it. After a relaxing evening and a good long sleep I felt like I’d lost a big chunk of my recovery. That wasn’t the case though, sleep is what I needed. I just didn’t need tender legs!!

I finished packing my bag and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar. I had a casual day ahead with no rushing. My trains were booked and I had plenty of time. I ate, and ate and ate at breakfast. I didn’t really eat a proper meal the night before and I was pushing in the calories now. Plus I didn’t know when I’ll get a chance to eat next that day, so I relaxed and ate a shit tonne of food.

As I sat on the train from Zermatt to Visp I did a quick bit of research on what Visp had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across the Thermalquellen Brigerbad – Thermal Baths and Spa. Sod exploring the mountains, this was the best Idea I’d had in a long time.

0 Hours – Zermatt

It’s about 16:00 on Saturday. Moments earlier I crossed the line of the Matterhorn Sky Race. Now I’m sitting down eating the post race meal with Jason and Pritt, two runners I met along the way. “What’s next?” they ask. “The TDS at UTMB” is my response. “When is it?” they ask. I take a look at my watch. “It starts in 84 hours” I tell them….

After thoughts

Lets rewind (or fast forward? I’m so lost with my own writing now!) a little. The race is done, completed. I’m wondering why I thought I could do it? With such technical terrain, I’m not quite so sure I thought I even could do it. But I did. And I did it well (I’ll modestly say). I felt OK afterwards. Probably the best I’ve ever felt after an ultra. It was just a long ass slog.

It was very much a three part race. The first 50km, the middle 50km and the last. I loved the first 50km. I felt free and ran more than I’m used to running in mountain races. The middle 50km dragged on and seemed to take a lot longer than the first 50km. Then the last 50km was all about survival and perseverance, as many ultras often are.

I was fortunate that, unlike many runners, I had no issues (other than sore feet). That I also found a companion to support me through. I keep saying it, ultras are far far easier with friends!!

It did make me question the distance though. 150km is a lot. It’s long. When you’re telling yourself, “only 50km to go”, “only another 12 hours”, and when you’re OK with that, it should be questioned!!

Last year’s CCC left me underwhelmed. The finish in particular was a let down, but this year the TDS gave me the full UTMB experience. Finishing midday with all the exceptional support was a phenomenal experience.  It was an electric atmosphere unlike last years finish and one I’ll never forget.

The TDS was modified for 2019. Increased from 120km to 145km with the additions through the Beaufort valley. Those I spoke to who’d done the ‘old TDS (Like Darryl and Alan) now claimed it was too much. Too hard. The additions unnecessary. Many say its harder than UTMB which, whilst longer and has a little more elevation, is far less technical. There’s only one way for me to confirm, let’s see what the UTMB ballot God’s have to say about next year…

To all those who helped me achieve, supported and believed, thank you!

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Exhausted, but finished!

Toblerone in the sky

The Matterhorn sky race. Another run I’m wondering how I ended up doing. I mean, I know I booked it, only it is one of three ultras in August and just days before I am doing the TDS, how did I manage that?! I know I booked it before I found out I had a place at TDS but I don’t remember why this one though. I think I read about it or saw pictures or something. Either way I was on my way to Zermatt, a Swiss town in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. I was excited.

I feel I now start all Post-race write ups with a lil’ moan about my state of fitness etc. No difference this time. I guess it’s natural that my body is desperately trying to hold itself together given everything my mind selfishly throws at it. Still, I feel like I could be in a better place. But, two things. Firstly confidence is in a good place after getting through 100km of the Stour Valley just two weeks ago and secondly my mental state is great. Better than it’s been for a long time. One week before I was struggling. My mind was wandering all over the place. Thinking and over thinking and re-thinking the same thoughts. It was annoying. Very. Naturally I then started worrying about this race and the TDS and how I’d cope with these thoughts when alone with my mind for so long. Thankfully though, things not only improved, but changed significantly. I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long (and I mean long!) time. Some great things have happened to me recently and I’ve a huge smile on my face and I’m intending on making this last. The only reason I was thinking so much is because I don’t want to jeopardise the good. So, arrogantly, I’m feeling a little indestructible. I know what lays ahead. I know how hard it’s going to be and I know what I need to do. It’s time to do it.

Pre race I made my way to the town of Zermatt. Whilst a fairly long day of travelling, it was most efficient. Big kudos to the Swiss! The train and bus system seems impeccable and the long journey was a breeze. Arriving in Zermatt there was a buzz about the town and I went straight to collect my bib which was the easiest registration I’ve ever experienced. No queue. No documentation. I just Walked straight up to the relevant race desk, said my name and within seconds I had my bib number and sponsored goodies. Excellent. I walked straight outside and bought a race branded compresssport hoody and I was done. Off to the hotel and time to relax.

That evening I went for a little walk after food. I found myself wandering aimlessly and ended up following a path along the river before I eventually reached a view point. What a view point it was. Curved benches angled facing the Matterhorn. They were layered out in such a way you could lay back and take it all in. And that’s exactly what I did, for about an hour. I was ready.

Matterhorn in the morning

The hotel I was staying at provided an exceptional service whereby, as the race would start before the breakfast serving, they’d offered to prepare a sandwich lunch to takeaway the evening before. I woke. Ate the lunch and set off for the start line. As I left the hotel, the Matterhorn stood naked and proud in the dark blue morning sky. I was mesmerised. A short while later, to the inevitable violin sounds of ‘epic music’ I was running.

We looped through the main town roads and out to the trails. The streets were lined with early morning support and the atmosphere was calm. Yes, calm. Normally such races feel frantic and rushed, but not this one. The feeling of calm continued.

First climb

As we began the First climb I basked in the calm. I realised that the pack of runners felt different than usual. More Respectful. I wasn’t stressed by the poles (I kept mine packed away as I always do on the first climb). I wasn’t stressed by runners trying to squeeze past in the narrow trails. Everyone seemed content in their place and with the day ahead. It was unusual but an absolute delight. As we peaked the first summit it was starting to brighten. The sun was rising ahead of us and I stopped a few times for a view of the Matterhorn. I didn’t quite realise at this point that I would see it all day from different angles. Obvious really!!

Morning broke

New kit!

 

We hit the first downhill section and it was fairly runnable. Not too technical, not too narrow. The runners opened up and many sped past me as we galloped down the switchbacks. Soon we’d hit the valley below and the second climb to Gornergrat, would begin. This would be the big one.

Swiss trails

Climbing

The climb was long. It went on. The sun was shining bright now. We climbed through forest tracks and open fields. The sweat came. I was dripping. I watched the droplets form and then fall off the brim of my hat. My face was drenched and my lips could taste the never ending flow of salt. The pace was slow but steady. All around me was still calm, it was tranquil. Without doubt the most peaceful race I’ve done. I could hear very little, mostly just the roar of water in the distance, not even wind. I continued with a smile on my face.

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runners on the ridgeline

Near the top the route briefly flattened out into a very wide track. I could hear noise above me but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Cheering, support, the calm was broken. There was a building up higher alongside me. It was an observation tower/view point up on top of the ridge and then I saw them. Runners runnning along the ridgeline. We’d be climbing a little more then looping back along the stunning ridge.

Views!

Summit smiles

Gornegrat

Up top I stopped to picture the mountains. I met another runner, Jason, as we savoured the moment. He’d done the mountain race last year and come back for the superior views of the sky race this year. He was right about it, the views were stunning. I later looked up the Gornegrat and hadn’t quite realised what I’d run too. At 3,100m high (highest I’ve ever run!) The views take in the Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier; and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m, including, of course, the Matterhorn in all its glory. Wow. It’s also home to the world’s first fully electrified cog railway (now Europe’s highest open-air cog railwat) and Europe’s highest-altitude hotel. Quite a place.

Matterhorn

I refilled my bottles and Tailwind at the aid station and ran down past all the early morning tourists who arrived on the train. The run down was again very fast. A brief period of rocky technical terrain but again very runnable. With a consistent run for a few kms it wasn’t long before I reached the next check point. I heard it first though. Loud, deep music filled the air as I ran down into the aid station, first joining with the runners of the shorter Active race who joined the course here. There were a lot of them. As I refilled my bottles again I listened to the source of the deep music. Three men playing ridiculously long horns. The sound was fantastic.

Horny

I headed off into a now busy pack of runners, the pace was good though as they were probably fresher than I was and the terrain was forgiving. We then hit the infamous suspension bridge. Holy shit that was scarier than I expected. It was maybe a few hundred metres long but it was high.. steel cables suspending a steel grate walkway that wobbled, yes wobbled, under the wait of its cargo. I tried to film it but I was walking like I was pissed, swaying from side to side and bashing into the railings. I’m pretty ok with heights but this was horrible and I was glad when it ended!

Wobble bridge

Back on solid ground we continued running and came closer to the Matterhorn. Just wow. It doesn’t matter how many times I stopped and looked at it, each angle, each variance in shadow and cloud cover gave it a new unique look, I was mesmerised and couldn’t stop trying to get a photo that would do my memory justice.

Trail porn

matterhorn

We climbed some more, but all I can recall is the Matterhorn. We ran down from the summit and I remember this one was a little bit more tricky with large rocks and steps, steep switchbacks zigzagging down, runner after runner bounded past me as I clang to the sides to make way. As we bottomed out the two routes webt their separate ways as the Active runners headed back to the finish whilst us Sky runners head, well, back up to the sky! The was more climbing to be done…

Best waterfall

I soon met Jason again and we chatted briefly as we started the climb and acknowledged there as just one more climb and a ‘little dip’ to go. I very quickly let him run on though as I stopped for more photos – as if my eyes hadn’t been treated to enough spectacular views already, the best was still to come…The views were insane. The route took as right up close against a towering waterfall that was gushing with water. The sound was ferocious as water poured over the cliff edge. Amazing in itself, but then as I looked around and, of course, the Matterhorn was there too. Towering behind the waterfall. The perfect backdrop.

Just wow

I wanted to stay here for the rest of the day. It was a special place. I’ve seen many incredible sights in my life, but this one stole me. I was captured in this moment. Not quite emotional, but probably not far off. I seriously contemplated sticking around and making myself at home. I’d beaten the last cutoff checkpoint, I had plenty of time to spare and nowhere to be. I don’t know what made me leave, but I did. As tempting as it was, I had a run to finish. The climb was steep and tough. I was watching the elevation map on my watch which quite frankly is frustrating. To watch a little dot barely move was irritating, but at the same time it was intriguing to see where on the climb I was.

Soon we made it and it was that time again to head down. This was the worst of the downhill sections for me. It was very steep and rocky, by far the most technical and a load of runners passed me, probably all of those who I powered passed on the incline. Same old story.

Jasson arrived just after me with the opposite story, he was hating the climbs but loving the descents. I joked that it was all his from here, the last climb was nothing compared to everything we’d climbed that day and a long downhill was the final assault to the finish line, I joked I’d see him again as he runs passed me when we descend. Up we went and true to the route profile the climb was pleasant. As we climbed, a rock almost as big as a football, came hurtling down between me and the runner behind. It was bouncing wildly and thumping at the mountain with each impact. It passed before we could process it and before we both had time to swear. If that had impacted, it would have been game over. No questions. We shouted down below, probably a futile attempt at warning other runenrs. We were both in shock. However, as the climb ended, the views once more were truly spectacular as we circumnavigated the mountains with the Matterhorn to our side and slowly drifting behind us.

Final climbs

bye bye Matterhorn

It tried to rain and that gave me the energy to power on. I didn’t want to have to stop and get the rain jacket out. It was cold though, the rain droplets like ice as they hit your skin. The long run around the mountain soon ended and up ahead runners disappeared off the horizon, it was time to descend for the last time. But not before I had a quick chat with these adorable sheep hiding between some rocks. Valais Black Nose sheep apparently, like something out of star wars.

Star wars sheep

Of all the descents, this felt the quickest. I once again let lots of runners passed. One guy stuck with me though and refused to pass. We were going pretty fast I suppose. We joked all the way down as every turn and opportunity I gave him the chance to leapfrog ahead, everytime he laughed and refused. We hit the flat of Zermatt and we stepped on it. Back on the main streets there was one final turn, one final offer to the smiley runner to pass, he refused once more and I hit it, few hundred metres, sprint finish, why not!

At the finish line Jason was there. We exchanged photo duties and met Pritt from Estonia (A marathon I’ll be doing in two weeks time). We may just meet again. The three of us sat and enjoyed the post race meal, reminisced about the adventure before going our separate ways.

Finisher

For me, my warm up was done. 2 out of 3 races in August complex, half the cumulative distance covered, a third of the elevation and less again if the total time on my feet. I’ve 84 hours to recover and get to the start line of the TDS…

Stour Valley Gold

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Stour Valley Path

Stour Valley Gold. A loosely fitting title for this post, but one that seems all so relevant. Not only is it a beverage served at the finish line of the SVP 50/100 (I think and hope that is what it was called!) but also a direct reference to the golden shades of the many, many fields run through along the course. The Stour Valley really was golden this year…

The SVP100 is becoming a it of a tradition for me. This was my third year running the SVP100. What began as my second ultra in 2017 has now escalated into my 20th Ultra. What the fuck. 20th?! No wonder my body aches (there’s also been 9 road marathons in that time)! It makes sense now I count them!

Each year has been different. SVP100 2017 was new to me and I was naive, oh so very naive. It whipped my butt for sure and taught me so much about ultra running. For the SVP100 2018 I ran it with others and shared the experience as part of my training for the CCC, this year however it was all about me. For me. I did it for the T-shirt. If you don’t know about it – the finishers T-shirt is green for the SVP100 (grey for the SVP50 and yellow for the volunteers). But on your third completion, you get a black ‘3-star’ t-shirt. I wanted it. I did this race for a T-shirt. Yep, that is who I am now. (I have since found out you get another ‘5-star’ black t-shirt when you complete it 5 times. I need to not think about that!!). What ever motivations are out there, running a race for a slightly different t-shirt is valid inspiraation in my eyes!

I ran the race this year mostly on my own. I needed too. Firstly as I have some niggles I’m conscious of, and wanted to be in complete control of, my race, and secondly for more brain and pain training. With the TDS and other longer ultras in the calendar I once again need to get accustomed to being alone with my mind when things get though. That being said, I didn’t find this one mentally tough. Quite the opposite, I found it very enjoyable. It did get me thinking though, about what has changed. 2 years and 17 ultras apart, my SVP journeys have seen me become a different runner, a different person even…

But before I get into all of that, lets have a quick recap of the actual race. If you are contemplating entering, do so. It is a wicked little race along the Stour Valley Path – a footpath that follows the River Stour through the beautiful Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire countryside, including the Dedham Vale AONB (Dedham Vale ANPOB’s words, not mine). It is a small(ish) sized event of up to about 200 runners on the 100km (since 2018 there is also a 50km route starting in Sudbury and joining for the later part of the 100km route to Manningtree) that is meticulously organised by Matthew (Race Director). The route is delicious, the volunteers and support is immense (go check out the SVP100 community page on Facebook and you’ll see just how helpful everyone is!) and the race itself is very challenging – It is very flat (c900m over the 102km distance) with some tight cut-off times (you need to complete the 100km in 15.5hours). Personally I find some of the mountainous ultras easier than this one. It is not easy!

The weekend began with some less than ideal travel issues. With a 07:00 start on Saturday, overnight accommodation in Newmarket was required. I’d agreed to travel up with Pierre (who I’d stay the night with) and Agata and we each left work to get a train from King’s Cross at about 17:30. We’d be in Newmarket around 19:00 with time for food and prep before an early night. Or so we thought. We were each disrupted on our way to King’s Cross by some train issues. Whilst I made it, Agata and Pierre (who had the train tickets!) didn’t. It soon became apparent that there was a bit of a problem. A big problem. A National Grid power outage had hit the UK and King’s Cross was one of the worst affected stations (we later found out that trains from 17:30 were cancelled as the station was closed and the first train didn’t leave again until 21:30!). Sometime later Agata and I had found each other and went to a restaurant near the station as we waited for Pierre to arrive. Around 20:00, with Pierre now with us and a belly fully of pizza and pasta, we gave up and headed to Liverpool Street where we managed to get a slower train to Cambridge and then we took a taxi to Newmarket. Arriving at 23:00 was not what we’d hoped for.

Pierre and I were staying in the White Hart pub next door to the race registration point in the Town Hall. Ideal, except that the White Hart also seemed to be a late night bar. So if you are contemplating a good night sleep before an Ultra marathon then this might not be the best choice! Thankfully though our little adventure meant we were ready for sleep and we passed out quickly enough.

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Ready to run

We woke up just before 06:00, rolled into the Town Hall next door and registered before returning to the room and getting ready. 06:50 we joined the rest of the runners outside as we began the (now familiar to me) walk to the start line. Moments after arriving, Matthew let off the air horn and the SVP100 was underway (not before Agata hustled us into a quick start line selfie!). The start of the course includes a few km along the road before turning onto the trail and this year I was a little more conscious not get caught up in the inevitable sprint start. My ankle/foot was still aching from the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and I hadn’t run for the last month until the week before. So I was trying to be wiser (more on that another time though as I’m clearly not so wise seeing as I turned up and started or even booked the race in the first place!) and pace my run. Having done the course twice before I knew what was in store and how challenging it is.

One thing I soon noticed this year is how much more overgrown the route was. Almost immediately this became apparent when a low hanging branch knocked my sunglasses off my head within the first few km of the trails. As I turned around to pick them up another runner unknowingly tread on them and bust the arm. Dammit. Several more times throughout the day my hat was pinched off my head by an overgrown branch. I saw it happen to a few others too, a little amusing each time. I know that prior to the race volunteers and other runners had been out cutting back the foliage but it was still noticeably more overgrown (healthier!?) than previous years. Thankfully, despite a few thorn scratches on the arms and itchy legs it had no ill effects for me.

This year we were also treated to some cooler (less sunny!) temperatures but some pretty ferocious winds. Whilst I thought this was a good thing – the majority of the time I felt sheltered by trees and bushes and found the wind to be incredibly cooling on the skin – I do believe there were some incidents for other runners where the high winds caused problems. For me the only problem it did cause was a slight ache in my neck later in the day as the wind caught in my beard and forced my head to tilt as I ran!! Beard problems tough life!

Beyond that the run went to plan. Or better than planned, and the route treated me kindly. One of the things I really like about this event is how the aid stations are dispersed along the route of the SVP100. They start off further apart and the distance between them decreases as you near the end. The aid stations, as always, were full of incredible volunteers going out of their way to support and help you. Maybe it is my memory (and needs?) but I feel this year they were stocked even better than previous years and I had a few particular favourites in the homemade fudge(!) at the third aid station and the Strawberries at the fifth aid station. Those were perfect treats for me and hit the spot when I needed something different!

Shortly before I reached the second aid station, as I walked up one of the lush golden fields (which I recall from last year when a drone was filming overhead), I was greeted by the familiar face that is Mark (“Stour Valley Parry” as I called him – he was also tackling the 100km for the third year in a row). We ran and chatted for a little while before he darted off and, as he put it, we played out the slowest car chase imaginable as I tried to keep him in sight as he edged further and further away.

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Mark Parry running through the golden fields

I carried on, admittedly faster than my intended pace, and I was soon playing leap frog with a gentleman in a green SVP finishers top (apologies I never got your name!). He was so smiley and friendly and we spent the rest of the day cheering each other on and laughing each time he’d somehow pop up from behind me. Usually because he’d stopped for a pint of Guinness(!) in a pub or to pick some apples from trees. He was having the best time and his laugh was contagious (thanks for being there!).

I reached the half-way point (third aid station) after about 5hrs 20mins. This felt very strong and rapid. But I knew it was too fast. I didn’t need to be going at this pace and had to talk myself into slowing down in the second half of the race. I had nothing to win here, only everything to lose if I were to injury myself ahead of the next few races. Thankfully a few wrong turns and a few hills helped slow me down too! Shortly after the half-way point a few runners went speeding past me and for a moment I was shocked at the speed in which they were running. Soon I realised though that I was out in front of the SVP50 runners and it was like the stampede in the Lion King and I was soon clinging to the edges of the single-track path and signalling them past me as they sped through. This also helped making navigation easier as I could follow more people!

Somewhere before the fourth aid station Hannah also came running through with the SVP50 runners and managed a quick chat before legging it and finishing her first race since coming back from a lengthy spell on the injury table. Nice one Hannah! I also briefly saw Kevin out there volunteering and directing runners which was a huge boost. The support, as always, really is fantastic on this event. Even Stuart, the race photographer, was hi-fiving and cheering runners through every time he snapped a picture and captured their pain/anguish for eternity! Stuart really was immense out there. I’ve no idea how one man managed to appear in so many places (for so long!) and maintain such a high level of enthusiasm whilst working. Thank you Stuart!

One thing I was looking forward to was the Church (St Andrews, Wormingford) which I knew had a tap outside. I couldn’t remember where on the course this particular church was and thought I’d missed it. 75km or so in it appeared and Smiley-Guinness-chugging-Green T-shirt dude and I enjoyed the cooling shower it offered us. We followed this up with then immediately getting lost afterwards by not turning off the road when we should have. Thankfully a car-driver corrected us before we went too far down the hill! That could have been painful.

I carried on through the course, running mostly but at a consistently comfortable plod and walking occasionally when it felt deserved/needed. For the final few miles I played leapfrog with a couple of runners and will always remember the runner in the yellow SVP top pacing another lady. He was so enthusiastic and encouraging and an absolute blast of energy at so late in the race. His support to me and comments about getting that 3-star tee were appreciated! Unlike the herd of cows in the last set of fields who decided to go on a little evening walk about the same time as we wanted to run through. They were some big bastards! Cows navigated, I eventually ran into Brantham and finished the race in just over 12 and a half hours. The fastest of my three SVP finishes. So way better than expected or planned. There was only one thing on my mind though…give me my 3-star finisher tee (apologies to the volunteers if I seemed impatient, I’d been waiting two years in my mind for this one!). A shower and some cheesy beans on chips later, I was chatting away with the Advent Running crew before hopping back on a bus then the train back to London. I left the SVP with the biggest sense of fulfilment from any of my runs to date. This one had been a long time in the making and I can stop obsessing about this particular t-shirt. Now about that 5-start tee……

Earlier in this post I mentioned I’d been thinking. Thinking about those 17 ultras in between and what has happened during this ‘long time in the making’. Running the route mostly on my own I spent a lot of time reflecting. It was easy to do so as memories from previous SVPs came thick and fast and, naturally, I drew comparisons (trees and fields in particular – I was constantly amazed at how golden the wheat fields were this year!). This led to my mind thinking about me. Reflecting on myself as a runner and as a person, as to how I’ve changed since that second ultra marathon back in 2017….

In the running sense, I am a different runner now to the one I was back in 2017. As I write this and counted the races I’ve done in the last two years I let out an audible “fuck me”. I knew I’d done a few, but it hadn’t quite registered I’d gone from a complete newbie to a fairly experienced 20 times Ultra marathoner within the space of two years. So it makes sense that I’ve changed, and each race, each challenge has contributed to that in many ways… If it might interest you to find out more, then have a read here… I’ve separated it out as it ended up becoming quite a lengthy brain fart and not all that relevant to the SVP100….

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One of the many Pictures captured by Stuart

Chaos is a Ladder

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.

If you know Game or Thrones, you’ll know the quote by Petyr Baelish. Whilst there are many specific and more subtle meanings in this quote within the story’s context, I think it’s apt to the the recent experience of running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A 120km trail race through the mountainous Dolomites.

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Pre-race grimmace

It was chaotic. People clambering to ‘climb the ladder’. It was literally a climb – With over 5,500m or elevation, it’s a hilly run. Many attempted it, some 1,800 runners. Many failed and were broken by it – nearly 30% of the starters didn’t finish. Many succeeded, they clung to it. Why? good question. Illusions of grandeur perhaps, but the ‘ladder’ was certainly real and we all fought for our moment on the ‘iron throne’…

It would be too easy for me to follow he route of Game of Thrones comparisons. It would be trying too much and really there are no comparisons. I merely thought of that quote as repeated to myself early on that ‘this is chaotic”.

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Team Cortina Trail

We were staying in a hotel situated on the final approach to the start/finish. This was great for making it easy logistically and something I’m not used to. About an hour before the start, Sonia and I casually rocked up to the crowd of runners. There were 1,800 doing the 120km and it was carnage. Absolute mayhem. We couldn’t get anywhere near the starting pen. We couldn’t even make it onto the road. Runners and family/friends blocked the streets both sides and the shoving began. It was like the rush hour on the tube. Somehow Paul found us in the massives. We spent the time waiting for the start getting intimately fondled and prodded from all angles. We waited as the elites were introduced and the MCs spoke about the event. The Epic theme music replaced the classic rock anthems and the countdown began. As the count hit zero the runners charged. 

They charged forward and that meant many charged into space that wasn’t there. The pushing and shoving intensified as people impatiently tried to squeeze through people and barriers. Bunch of bellends the lot of them. After minutes of being shoved I’d been pushed into the start pen and was able to move of my free will. But not very far as the stampede bust through the barriers either side and runners clambered in where ever they could and the pile up continued. Selfishly, without thinking of Sonia or Paul I ran. I wanted away from these assholes. Away from as many of them as I could before the bottleneck of the first climb. I was charging through the street, a gradual incline, at a near 7 min mile pace. I was sweating already. I passed Yvette, Kevin and Jess and ploughed forward. A few km later the bottle neck came and I kept to the outside and filtered in. Now I could begin to relax a little. We’d climb. It would be like any other race – runners would fumble with poles. People would bunch up and some would squeeze past. I’d power up. Poles kept in the bag for the first climb as I always do. Finding my space and freedom as we ascended 500m or so.

The track was mostly gravel. One thing I noticed in the torch light was the fine mist of dust kicked up by the runners. I could see it and I could feel it. In my eyes and gritty in my throat. It wasn’t pleasant. But the climb wasn’t too bad. The gravel path soon widened and there was plenty of space. This was very much the case for the first two climbs and their subsequent descents. The Paths were wide twisting switchbacks, Easy to climb and very runnable. Many runners were running up them too including Cajsa who passed me early on.

The climb was followed by a fast descent as we approached the first aid station. Here the tranquillity of the night was replaced by the air of assholes again. The pushing and shoving returned as the small aid station was woefully inadequate to support thousands of runners charging in.

We piled up like clubbers 3-4 deep at a bar. Arms reaching through like a zombie apocalypse storming a safe-hold. Shouts of “aqua, aqua” filled the tents as the volunteers struggled with demand. I couldn’t understand why they were filling small (~2 litre ) jugs with water to then pour them into the runner’s bottles held our. It was so inefficient as 1-2 runners would be filled whilst the rest waited for the jug to be replenished. It took a long time before I had water again and I was refilled and able to head back out into the night and more wide gravel climbs and fast descents.

Despite the chaos I was enjoying the run. It felt good. I felt quick. My average pace was far quicker than usual in such races. No doubt helped by the wide and forgiving tracks. I was smiling as in continued on and began the second climb to Forc Son Forca (which was higher than the first). I recall the vast openness of the night. The climb through the wide roads broke free from the trees and the dark night sky with shinning stars covered us like a blanket. the higher we climbed the clearer the night sky became. In the quietness or the climb it was surreal and almost relaxing (panting aside!) and thankfully as we descended again and reached the second aid station it was thankfully was far less crowded. At some point during the night I whacked my right foot on a rock. I can’t recall exactly how it happened whether I kicked a rock, slipped and scrapped it or twisted it. I remember it happening though and breaking the night silence with a groan as I felt the rock scratch through my trainers on the outside of the foot. It was throbbing now but not preventing me from running.

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Morning broke over the lakes

It was now gone four in the morning and I was over 20 miles in. As I climbed the next, biggest yet, climb towards Forc Lavaredo, I sensed it would soon begin to get light. And as I climbed higher and higher the night sky became evidently more vibrant and blue. Dawn was coming. In the darkness of night cowbells rang out from the forest and fields around us. Cattle were beginning to wake and birds began their morning rituals with songs calling out from the trees. A short descent through the forest kept the light at bay for a little longer before we broke free onto the first of many lakes. Morning was here. The mountains glowed red in the morning sun. I stopped for pictures as runners ran on around me.

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Mountains reflecting in the lake

As we circumnavigated the first and then a second lake I continued snapping away. This is one of my favourite moments of any such race – Enduring the night and being treated to a spectacular sunrise in incredible places. And this was special. I captured the reflection of the mountains in the water and smiled to myself as I began the next stage of the run and continued to climb to Forc Lavaredo. The day ahead would inevitably be tough with high temperatures predicted.

 

The climb was the next challenge as it became steeper and steeper and seemed to go on and on. As I powered up, fresh off the sunrise treat, a voice called out. It was Paul. He must have legged it through the streets last night even quicker than I. I’d assumed I’d be ahead of him as I was the first of us to break free of the start line. We chatted away as we climbed. Both agreeing how great we’d found the run so far, despite Paul acknowledging how tired he was from a lack of sleep and how close he was to falling asleep on his poles.

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Reunited with Paul

At the top, incredible views awaited as we saw layers of mountains extending in all directions. A few pictures and some hot noodle soup for breakfast and we were back out. The next section continually presented us with rocky mountain panoramic views before we were soon presented with the iconic Tre Cime rocks – Three rocks formed at the peak. Huge. We were dwarfed in their shadows.

Paul was in pain here. His knee very uncomfortable and making it difficult to run the descent. Miraculously though it soon fixed itself and he legged it on ahead, rapidly descending as the gravel tracks subtly began to become more rocky.

The descent then turned into a behemoth of a downhill as we dropped over 1000m. A glacier stream was soon roaring beside us as we ran switch backs and long straights that were loose rocks. Mostly small but very loose underfoot. Paul ran on ahead as I struggled with the terrain. It immediately brought back memories of the riverbed in Trans Gran Canaria and my face winched. I walked and skipped a lot of the decline chatting away to a guy from Yeovil. He shared stories of his runs and was quite experienced with numerous podium finishes but had rolled his ankle during the night and was struggling a bit. We kept going until the sound of the water intensified and we reached the bottom of the descent around Landro. Up ahead we had to cross the fast moving river. Whilst not too wide, it was knee high and runners were contemplating which of three approaches they’d choose – (1) plough straight in and through (2) remove their shoes and socks and hobble across the rocks (3) continue further on and try to hop across larger stones and avoid the water as much as possible. It wasn’t a question for me. I was a numero uno runner. I grabbed a photo and waded in. It was glorious. With the early morning temperature already excessive, the ice cold water was a relief. It numbed my sore feet which were burning from grinding on the rocks and chilled my bones. I dunked my hat and drenched my body before running on.

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Cooling water

Next was a very gradual climb of about 7km to Cimabanche which would mark the half way point. This whole section I was aware of from the profile as it was the best part of 20km from the aid station at Rif. Auronzo (before Tre Cime) to the ‘halfway point’ at Cimabanche. A fair stretch in the middle of a scorching ultra. I was glad I was here so early in the morning before it got too hot. I power hiked on. My foot aching from the bump in the night. It was getting hotter as we carried on. I talked to several runners including a French guy who was also suffering from a rolled ankle. Common theme here? Despite acknowledging how little running he’d be able to do, he pointed out we were still hitting a sub 20 hour pace. I laughed. This was ridiculous, but he was right. The night really had been rapid!

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Gradual Climbs

Runners from the Ultra Dolomites 90km race soon started powering past (and I mean powering as the lead runners ran the incline!) and the atmosphere intensified a little as I cheered them on and the half way point came into view. For the first time along the race there was support and we were clapped into the aid station. Inside it was small. I grabbed my drop bag and found Paul and his brother Nick. I joined them, grabbed a whole bottle of coke and began my halfway ritual of a wet wipe shower and change of clothes before dumping any unnecessary extra kit in my drop bag. Paul headed out and I told him I’d catch him up after a shit. Yep. Toilet talk. It’s gonna happen in an ultra race. Your body needs to function and running and eating will give you a need. Frustratingly I couldn’t relieve myself prior to the race so expected I’d need to at some point along the way. Whilst I wasn’t desperate, now felt like an opportune moment. I dropped my bag off in the van to return it to the finish and sought out a toilet. There were two portaloos. Neither with toilet paper. Whilst I had my own stash, I didn’t want to unpack my bag to retrieve it and couldn’t stand staying in the stench of the hot box any longer than I needed. I left. I shared my frustrations with an Italian lady. This was quite ridiculous – with the two races meeting here at Cimabanche, there would be over 2,500 runners passing through. Add in a few hundred more for friends/family/crew/volunteers and locals, two toilets is pathetically insufficient. It made me think that, despite the best efforts of all the volunteers, the aid stations and facilities were just inadequate for the scale of the race. The only negative on an otherwise excellent organisation.

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Views

Anyway, I was back out running again. We passed under a major road via a storm drain (some runners were injured hitting their heads here!) and I was climbing again towards Forc Lerosa. Soon I rejoined Paul once more. Then everything changed as we descended from Forc Lerosa….

We were about 70km in. 50km to go. The race changed. What so far had been a fairly “easy” and enjoyable run became and absolute bastard. Fuck the second half. It can fuck right off. My optimism left me. My desire to take photos and embrace my surroundings went with it. I didn’t hit a particular dark place. But I wasn’t enjoying the run any longer and I don’t want to recall the second half. I’m not ready to talk about it in the same detail. It can fuck right off. The short version goes a little something like this…

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Varied Terrain

The ‘Valley of death’, ‘death canyon’, ‘hell’, ‘shitsville’, ‘that shit bit’. It adopted many names. A long, very long, stretch of rocky terrain (loose fist sized rocks) that extended in a canyon/valley far beyond one’s eyesight. No one was running. It wasn’t runnable. We crossed streams after streams, many of which were again knee high and the current strong. Runners embraced them. Some sat in them. We all drank from them. Each one became like a party as we escaped the heat momentarily. It was fucking hot. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. There was no shelter from the midday sun at high 30degrees. We trekked on and on. Soon climbing. Every time we came across water runners would set up camp and cool all over again. The river was our lifeline. It cooled us. Iced our pains (to the point it was painfully cold even!). Nourished and hydrated us. Without it who knows what would have happened. The scenery was breathtaking. The adventure was painstaking. There was no obvious end or path in sight. The stretch continued into the distant horizon.

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Shitsville

Hours later we emerged at a ‘water station’. I sat and waited for Paul to arrive. He did. I felt shit. He looked shit. So I probably looked shit too. He verbalised it. He was struggling in the sun and questioned whether he could continue. It wasn’t a question for me. He was going to continue and finish. We had over a marathon to go. We still had a few km to climb out of the death valley. He had no choice here but to keep going forward. We rested then set off again.

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Sanctuary

As we neared the summit, Paul was wobbling a little as he climbed. We were seeking shade. We needed a break from the heat and he wanted to be sick. We passed a guy laying against a rock. We checked up on him, Like everyone we encountered he said he was feeling the impact. Not far passed him a huge rock offered a shadow and shade. We took the offer and sat down, exhausted. We hydrated and ate. We cooled a little and farted a lot. I’d reapplied sun cream at the previous water station but was feeling the burn. Then Paul heaved. He threw his guts up with a thunderous roar disturbing the other runner resting. Like before with his knee he was instantly better. We carried on.

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No escape from the sun

The rest of the run followed a similar theme – We walked. Slowly at times. We hobbled over the rocky terrain. Before each descent were steep inclines. Some where tough and the sweat dropped off us. More and more runners ran passed as we slowed and slowed. Each check point ticked off the kilometres. 40 became 30 became 25 became 20. Hours passed in between. Each stop Nick was there supporting and encouraging. A long day for him. The mountains were beautiful. But we cared little about them any longer. We wanted it to be over. As we navigated the ‘Cortina’ trail up and down some ridges of the mountains we visualised the end. Paul was feeling a little rough again, his feet and knees hurting. My feet were destroyed. Hot spots and blisters making my walking pathetic. At the penultimate aid station of Passo Giau I sought out the medical team to treat my blisters. As I took off my socks there was nothing there. Hot spots yes, but blisters no. What I did have though was a bit of trench foot. I needed something and and they agreed to “wrap” my feet. As they did I saw the swelling on my right foot. A large lump which they addressed with padding. That knock in the early night had done some damage it was raw and bruised.

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Strapped feet (post race)

Strapped up we headed back out, Navigated the final climb and began the long descent to the finish. The last aid station marked 8km remaining. We took a moment (longer than planned because I’m slow and a fiddler with my bag) layering up as it would soon be dark as we hit the forest and as we left saw Reka arrive. She was on the 90km and ran straight through the aid station and said “are you coming” as we laughed her off.

 

We power walked and skipped down hill for the the next 5km or so. Gravity moving us faster than we wanted. The descent was a little technical and very slippery in the moist soil of the forest. Like the end of any ultra, it dragged on. Occasionally the lights of Cortina flickered in the distance. Always far away. Always far below. It never seemed to come closer. About 3 times in this section I rolled my ankle. We were mostly silent other than the expletive rants every time we hurt ourselves. The only entertainment was Paul’s increasing inability to walk. As he powered forward and tired he constantly tripped himself up with his poles. Numerous times he came close to stacking it entirely.

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Sunset before the final descent

We broke free of the forest and were welcome to a “2km to go” sign. The church tower at the finish line stood out in the distance and we walked on. Finally we hit the Main Street. We put on a ‘brave face’ and ran the last few hundred metres through the town. The party goers and supporters cheered us in and we faked it till we made it. High-fiving supporters down the finishing stretch. We held hands and crossed the line together. The rest of the team there to see us finish just before 11pm, some 24 hours after we started.

We shared the sunset and sunrise over the Dolomites. We shared the darkness of the challenge and the literal highs and lows of the adventure. We shared a beer as we collected our finishers rain jacket (ironic given how fucking hot the day had been). We shared an adventure in the mountains we’ll never forget.

It really was a race of two halves for sure. The first 66km we’d completed feeling strong in under ten hours. The next 54km took over 14 hours. I learned a lot this weekend. Some key things for me were:

  • Never to get too comfortable or underestimate a run. The illusions of grander I had at half way and possibly getting close to a 20 hour finish were naive. Anticipate and expect what lays ahead, never forget that these challenges, marathons even, will chew you up and spit you out.
  • Mountains are rocky. They always are and will be. Why I think some runs will be ‘easier’ I do not know. I should expect rocks. I fucking hate rocks.
  • The decisions to wade into the water I stand by. At the time they were the best. The fresh coolness very much needed. But the consequences and impact on my feet were severe. I should have expected this too. Trench foot is a bastard too. I should have attended to my feet earlier than I did.
  • Chaffing. I chaffed bad. On my lower back from my bag. I’ve a red strip the whole width which is now quite raw. I should have addressed this properly but I never bothered. I need to sort this out as it’s a horrible sensation and not conducive to running.
  • Sharing the trails in such an epic race is one hell of an experience. Having someone around you is so underestimated. Paul and I helped each other through. Gave each other strength. You can’t put a value on that. In October We’ll be running 150km in Poland. I’m so glad Paul will be there again at my side. That will be another whole new challenge! Thanks Paul (and Nick for all the support!)