Fuck You

When recapping my last race I mentioned how, during the Eiger Ultra Trail E101, I fell over for the first time in a race. We’ll I think it was a floodgate moment. In my next race I must have fallen about 50 times, no exaggeration, I spent a lot of time on my backside in Norway…

The Stranda Fjord Trail Race in Norway had been on the cards for a long time. Originally I signed up to the race back in 2019 and hoped to do the inaugural 100km run in 2020. But we all know what happened that year and the same cause meant 2021 also wasn’t possible for us. Oscar, the Race Director, was incredibly supportive in deferring entries until we could travel to Norway and race. So in 2022, a slightly smaller than planned group of us headed out to finally run in the fjells of Norway.

In the days leading up to the weekend it became increasingly clear that the weather was going to be less than ideal for the race. Clouds and rain meant a weather warning and amendments to the 100km route were activated for safety. At this point I was kind of ok with it. We can’t control or change the weather, and I was expecting the route to be very difficult. So removing some of the most difficult sections would be in my favour I thought. A small benefit to missing out on the legendary panoramic views from Slogen.

Nick and Natalia woke at 1am to escort me down to the town of Stranda for the start. An unnecessary and kind gesture from them both given they would need to wake up in a few hours to prepare for their 48km race. After collecting my GPS tracker I sat inside the building (where we collected our race numbers) with the other runners, waiting until it was almost 02:00 and time to run. We first lined up under the finishers arch before being led around the corner to the real start line. Here I fell for the first time, stepping in a hole in the concrete pavement, before the race had even begun!

Section 1: Start –Duklidalen

The course starts on the town square in Stranda. From Stranda you will first be running a few km on a asphalt road until you hit the trailhead on Framhus. From Framhus you will be running on a nice trail up to Dregetua (693) and then off trail over to Vardnakken (878masl) and further to Blåhornsvatnet on trail. From Blåhornsvatnet you will be running on a nice trail down to Vasset. From Vasset you will be running a few km on a gravel road until you hit the trailhead for the trail towards Lievarden (799masl) and Duklidalen (820masl). In Duklidalen you will find an aid station.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

Moments later and we were off, running the tarmac road switch backs for the first few kms. I was pleasantly surprised at this point that we stuck together mostly as one big group of runners and that I hadn’t been left behind completely.

The roads soon gave way to the forest and we began running in single file in the darkness. And it was very dark, something about it felt darker than the usual nights I’ve experienced. Though the trails were clearly lit by the dozens of head torches bobbing about.

Mostly it was silent now other than the sloshing sounds as we ran through puddles and muddy trails. I felt that most runners were, like me, trying to avoid getting their feet wet. I accepted that it would be wet but didn’t plan on being waterlogged for the whole race so was happy to skip around the trails when I could. I should have known better that weeks of rain in this area would have meant the ground conditions would be far worse than I imagined! It was soon clear that the trails would consistently be this way at the best of times.

Through the forests two things stood out in my memory. Almost getting lost – the spacing between runners was now increasing and a few of us lost sight of the runners ahead of us and this section was not course marked. A quick stop and check of the GPS and we were back on track before the damage was done! And a point where there was a delightful bunch of supporters with coloured lights and music who cheered us through one small section of the track. It created a good atmosphere and led to a few of us to start talking. Whilst talking to a few climbers who were doing the race it made me realise that most of the runners around me were head to toe in waterproofs (or wearing hiking trousers!) and there were very few like me in shorts and tshirts without a waterproof on. Even though it was drizzling with rain, I knew though that I’d overheat on the early climbs so was waiting until the climbs were exposed before I’d layer up.

After a little section on some wider gravel roads, the forests returned and became a little steeper and very, very muddy. Every now and then a series of wooden walkways assisted in avoiding much of the mud. The forest soon gave way and the mountain opened up into a vast exposed climb. The single tracks we followed, still trying to skip around the mud and bogs. So far so good although it was now very windy and cold (the drizzle of fine rain had become more constant now) so I took a moment to layer up with my waterproof jacket.

We continued climbing before reaching the first of the smaller summits (which must have been Dregetua) marked by a stone trig pillar. We then began descending and running again. I set off and was enjoying seeing the head torches of other runners way off in the distance. Here though it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mud as the narrow tracks left little room to manoeuvre as the ground was so uneven. It wasn’t long before I was soaked to my shins and covered in mud. At one point my left shoe came off, stuck and wedged in the mud completely. I had to bend down and pull with both hands to get out back out. I took the moment to tighten both my laces! We then climbed a little more in similar lumpy conditions which was quite tiring on the terrain and in the cold of night. The heat from the first bit of climbing meant my t shirt was soaked with sweat so I couldn’t really avoid getting cold even with the jacket on!

From the next trig point (Vardnakken) we began descending. Down we went through a long series of lumpy bogs. The undulating terrain meant it was quite difficult to get a good rhythm when running. One foot would descend then next foot would ascend a lump. I felt like I was jarring up and down and running very inefficiently. There were rocks hidden in the darkness too.

Once more my shoe got sucked off (the right one this time) and after retrieving it I tightened my laces even more. They were so tight now that they weren’t particularly comfortable. But thankfully they never came off again!!

Stranda at night

The descend was consistent until we reached Blåhornsvatnet. From here the descent became steeper and significantly harder. We we going down muddy and rocky switch backs, sometimes off trail, sometimes through streams and always having to look and see which way was the most obvious. It wasn’t long before I was on my arse and covered in mud. Within a few minutes I had fallen multiple times. The mud was so thick that there was no way to grip it properly. Whilst my Inov8 Trailrocs aren’t ideal for muddy runs, I also couldn’t imagine many trainers being much use here! I wasn’t alone. I could hear the gasps and groans of other runners in the night too and could see runners in front of me falling over.

I was already thinking to myself that this was the least fun I’ve ever had in a descent. It was relentless and torturous and I just had to accept it. Accept that it would be uncomfortable and that I’d keep falling. So I just kept moving, letting gravity pull me down, hoping it would be done quicker that way. There were a few points where I just ploughed straight through bogs above my knees and had to drag myself out with my poles. There would be no warning as the ground just sucked you in. Mostly though it was just about shin high. I remember thinking to myself that this was suppose to be the easiest section of the race! The alarm bells were ringing. I then took an almighty slip, skidding a little bit on my heels before twisting and going down on my left side. I know I swore loudly (not for the first time) and I heard a sound from my pole which I landed on top of. It sounded like a crack but I hoped it was just the sound of it hitting the the ground and my weight on top. Once again I picked myself up and carried on, thankfully the trails finally came to an end and we had a section of gravel track to run on. It felt quite long but soon enough we were climbing again (which I believe meant we were now connected to where the 48km runners would start). The gravel was a welcome change and I took the opportunity to remove my jacket again. I was also surprised how quickly my feet and shoes seemed to dry out. It was around 04:30, the morning was breaking and the sun starting to rise, giving a glimpse of the amazing views of Stranda and the Fjord below us.

Inevitably the gravel road became a forest track and the climb became harder as the wet ground and mud returned. Over the course of a few 100m of climbing the tracks became off/track as the mountain opened up to us. The tracks returned and brought with them incredible views off to our left of the Fjord and over to Liabygda. I stopped for a few minutes to layer up again as the exposed mountain meant more rain and the temperature had dropped as the wind picked up. It did give me an opportunity to absorb the views all around me in the early morning mist.

Morning was breaking

From the climb we descended again, the tracks weren’t too steep but they were very wet and we ran on waterlogged tracks and bogs from the many streams. Up ahead a tent could be seen alone in the wild. The first aid station at Duklidalen and the first opportunity to eat something!

I checked my watch and timings and I had covered the 20km or so in pretty much the time I estimated I would. Not a bad start considering the state of the trails!

Section 2: Duklidalen – Fjørstad

From Duklidalen you will be running on and off trail up the Mønet. There are sections here that´s up to 45 degrees steep, you will have to use your hands at times on this section. Mønet is a cliff with a several hundreds meter drop on the fjord side, be careful and stay on the trail. Further on you will be on and off trail in scree up to Fremste Blåhornet (1478masl). From Blåhornet you will be running off trail along the ridge high above the fjord over Rjupskartind and towards Åknesnibba (1296masl). This section is very technical as the ridge is narrow with drops on boths sides. We recommend you to be catious here. There are parts where light scrambling is involved on this section. Before Åknesnibba the course will take a hard right turn down into the valley with a steep technical descent down, this is also a good place to be xtra catious. Then along Rjupeskarvatnet, and further out Fjørstaddalen past Heimfjørstadsætra and down to Fjørstad on a nice trail. On Fjørstad you will find an aid station.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

Immediately from the aid station we began making our way to the ‘wall’. I believe it was the cliff called Monet. But to me it was a wall on the edge of the world. I couldn’t see where we were heading. Making my way towards it I was texting Natalia ahead of her race and slipped and fell again. This one was my fault for not paying attention. The ground was soaking wet and cold where I fell.

SFTR official photograph of Monet. There was only one other runner on it when I climbed the cliff

As I reached the ‘wall’ it became clear we were climbing up it. I could see runners scaling it and became apprehensive. It was steep. I held my poles in one hand and used the other to pull myself up with each step. I dared not look down but accepted that it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked and I was at the top maybe 15 minutes later. Up top the grassy cliff turned to rock almost instantly. The climb however continued.

Looming in front of me was a giant of a mountain. Grey in every way. Grey rocks. Grey clouds. Just grey. I assumed this was the first change in the route and this is where we wouldn’t climb. I was wrong though. People ahead of me kept going further up and disappearing into the grey clouds. I put on my gloves as it became colder the higher I went. I then put away my poles and began climbing on all fours. It was quicker that way. I briefly started talking to Kristofer who’d done the 48km last year, who explained this was just the climb to Fremste Blåhornet (I believe he called it ‘Front Bluehorn’) and that the removed part of the course was further up still. He powered on passed me. Eventually I made it to the summit and the timing mat and turned around. Now we were on the diversion route which meant going back the way we came then across and down a valley.. There were a few runners ahead of me but they soon disappeared into the distance as I move so slowly over technical descents like this. I kept watching and making mental notes of where they were and went so I didn’t get lost. I felt alone now, for the first time in the race. I soon couldn’t see runners ahead nor behind me.

After completing the rocky downhill the diversion route took us left and away from the next climb. There was no path though and it was an off track descent from here to the next aid station Fjorstad. I was beginning to see the pattern now and off track terrain meant crossing lots of streams, slipping loads in the mud and bouncing up and down with the lumpy ground. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of a single runner ahead and another behind me. This was another down hill I did not enjoy. I was initially glad when the route entered a forest area but that happiness soon gave way to frustration as the mud returned with a vengeance. Once again I was constantly on my bum. I started saying “fuck you” loudly. Like a chant. Every time I stubbed my toe on a rock “fuck you”. Slipped on my arse “fuck you”. Stepped in a bog or stream “fuck you”. It became my mantra as I continued tumbling down.

Off track descent

Finally the forest let me free and I ran the small down hill to the aid station, slipping and falling for the supporters and volunteers to enjoy! We all smiled and laughed knowing I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to provide the entertainment.

The aid station was a good one. Kristofer was there and changing into spare clothes. On this race you could have a drop bag at each station. I’d opted just for one at the 63km point. I regretted it slightly seeing Kristofer change into dry clothes as I was soaked through. It was warm inside the building so I packed the waterproof away again and noshed down on plenty of watermelon, crisps and cinnamon buns.

Section 3: Fjørstad – Habostadsætra

From Fjørstad you will be running the asphalt road down the Strandavalley for 4km and then into Moldskreddalen on a gravel road for 3km to Mesætra. By Mesætra you will hit the trailhead to Storhornet and cross the river on a bridge, and start the climb up to Storhornet (1309masl) on and off trail. Parts of this trail is technical. After summiting Storhornet you will turn around and follow the course back down for 1km, and then turn right and hit the trail down to Habostadsætra. Ths downhill section is very steep but the trail is very nice. On Habostadsætra you will find an aid station.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

Before long I was back out running with Kristofer on a long road section. It felt good to run. I’ve never wanted to run along a main road with cars driving passed me (very safely and courteously I should add!) so much in my life. It felt like it was the first time I could actually run. It was also a strangely therapeutic few kms knowing I could see this road from our incredible mountain accommodation.

From the road we were once more on a gravel track uphill before, yep, you guessed it, we were back in the wet and slippery forest hiking off track up a steep climb. Kristofer started getting further and further away as I huffed my way up. Once out of sight I had to concentrate more looking for the red trail markers painted on trees or rocks. This climb felt like it took so much longer than it probably did. After the forests it was wild and rugged terrain. Up and down lumps whilst still generally getting higher. There was a person out here all alone. It took me a while to realise he was a photographer. It took a while longer for me to get to him, he waited patiently and snapped me as I said hello and made some bad jokes. I asked if it was Ian, and it was. A world reknown adventurer and photographer. I’d read his blog from the 2021 event and we had a brief chat comparing the contrasting weather conditions. He kindly shared some advice on the climb and temperatures awaiting me and wished me well on the journey.

Photo by Ian Corless

From here things got a little harder. The climb went off for an out and back section to the next summit of Storhornet. It went ‘up’ pretty steeply and the trail was more prominent and clear for a short while as the the mud and wild terrain tagged out and the went rocky tracks tagged back in. There were many runners coming back and I’d let them glide effortlessly passed me. I had no idea how far I had to run to get back to this point. But up I went. There was another photographer filming runners coming down and he had to film me slowly walking up. I made it clear I wouldn’t be running down like they all were!

Like the Blåhornet summit, this one became very rocky very quickly. It was now just like before as I was stumbling from rock to rock heading into the mist in the direction shadows were coming from. Here I had one moment that ‘threw’ my mind a little off. A lady was coming down and started speaking to me, I assumed in Norwegian, and I explained I only spoke English. She then told me that it was very cold further on and asked if I have any more clothes to put on. I was caught off guard. Whilst her intentions were no doubt full of kindness and support of other runners, I didn’t quite understand the comment. There was mandatory kit and I was clearly in the race with a full bag on my back I also had on my waterproof coat and gloves on, so I don’t think I looked under-prepared compared to anyone else. I assume she was concerned because I was just in shorts. But I reassured her I was fine and carried on. Soon Kristofer ran back passed me and sometime later I looped around the summit and too was heading back down. On this section many runners overtook me as I once again descended so slowly.

Eventually I completed the out and back and was then going down a steep hill in another wet and slippery forest section. I was all over the place. Sliding and slipping everywhere going down the switchbacks. A lady behind was asking if I was ok as I was swearing constantly. Then it was her turn as she slipped and did a pencil roll down one bend/turn. I can’t quite describe how fantastically she rolled and ended up down ahead of me and back on her feet laughing at her ‘shortcut’. She then sped off descending rapidly with ease. She called back to check on me a few mins later when I let out a rather loud expletive laden cry. I was ok. I’d fallen again (Fuck you!). This one was worse though. Whilst I was fine, in the process I’d snapped my fucking pole again (I snapped one in the VDA last year). I was really pissed off. It snapped right at the handle where it slides in and the locking button is. It was fucked and useless now and I’d only covered around 40km of the race. In a mood I carried on into the aid station that wasn’t far away.

A few runners looked at my pole and the volunteer was a superstar, running around looking for things to fix it (his plan was to tape a small rod to the handle to strengthen it). I knew it was a lost cause though but I appreciated their efforts. I filled my sorrow with meat soup (which was frikken ace) and Coke. The aid stations were pretty great for variety in my eyes! I checked my timings and, once again, felt I was pretty spot on to plan as it was about 30 mins before the first cut off. And so, having experienced running with one pole before, I knew I could overcome it, I packed it away and carried on with the single pole.

Section 4: Habostadsætra – Myrsætra

From Habostadsætra you will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail trough a lush birch forrest to Nysetvatnet with a great view towards Brekketind and the Brekketind glacier and then further to Patcellhytta where the climb to the iconic mt. Slogen (1564masl) starts. You will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail up to Slogen. The last part up to Slogen is very steep and involves scrambling, be catious on the way up and down. From Slogen you have a majestic view over Hjørundfjorden. The summit is very narrow, so one have to be carefull on the top. Here you will turn around and go back the way you came up for 1,5km. But instead of going back down to Patchellhytta, you will turn left and continue towards Isavatnet and further down Langseterdalen past Storevatnet on a nice trail. At the parking lot at Myrsætra you will find an aid station.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

The next section began with us walking up a stream. Really?! Fuck this trail I thought. I was waiting for the pain of constantly wet feet to kick in. Like the rest of the route, there was nothing to do about it except power through. It was kind of up hill, but very gentle and certainly not runnable (for me) as it was mostly rocky. My power hike was in full flow though and I was enjoying the intimating views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides and thunderous roar of the river besides me. Off in the distance I could see the lady along with another runner. I kept thinking I was gaining on them but I really wasn’t. The section was another that felt like it went on for a while, but I was content knowing we were at least climbing gradually higher. And so my mind wandered a little. I got thinking back to that last aid station and my timings and realised that all wasn’t quite what it seemed. Whilst I was ‘on time’ and within the cut off. We hadn’t done the climb from Blåhornet nor the ridge or its ‘more’ technical descent. That was the very technical section and no doubt a harder descent for me. So I highly doubt it would have completed that longer section of the route in my spare 30 minutes. I realised I would have been timed out at the first cut off (which was 13:00 at the last aid station) if the route hadn’t been changed due to the weather. I clang onto the hope that if the weather was better then the terrain would be less muddy and I might have moved a little quicker!

Streams, rocks and rivers

In the distance there was a little mountain hut of some sort and a guy out sweeping the decking area in the rain. It amused me. As I walked passed a volunteer called to me and waved me up to him. I checked my watch, yes, I was mindlessly following the two in front. I called after them and they walked back to join me on the climb. Each climb in this race seemed to find a way to be more challenging than the one before. This one was just a pain to start with as the terrain fluctuated between single track and off track frequently and we traversed so many streams and flows of water down off the mountain. It was just miserably wet. Like the number of times I fell, I wish I’d counted the number of streams we’d crossed on this course, I’m certain it would be hundreds. The mountains were leaking water everywhere due to the recent weather. It only stopped the higher we got. And it only stopped because the terrain became rocky. Once more we were playing dot-to-dot connecting the red trail marks and traversing the huge boulder fields.

There was a giant sleeping here. To my left I could sense and enormous presence and was admiring the mountain in the clouds. It was Slogen. The original route included an out and back to summit of Slogen for ‘panoramic views’. But we wouldn’t be doing that today. I was glad. This was also one of the hardest parts in the race so I was relieved to be skipping! Instead we carried on straight passed it. Straight into and across the snow fields. These were fairly short but difficult with one pole and not so aggressive soles on me shoes.

The first of many snow fieldds to cross

After some time we began our descent towards Myrsætra. This is where my drop bag would be. So I was in good spirits anticipating it. But the descent was tough. It was, you guessed it, rocky. So the the three of us moved slowly. I don’t remember much more than passing down alongside some lakes and rivers. I do remember we were in a valley and it reminded me a little of a section the TDS route in how it looked (but harder!).

in the Valley

There was plenty more falling over here too and I was losing track of my orientation and where we were going. The lady reminded me that soon we’d have the out and back to the aid station to the left and then we’d go back to the right to climb out of the valley. It made sense when she explained it.

Oddly, here I also realised my eyesight was a little hazy. I could see ok, but it wasn’t crystal clear. Almost as if I had clingfilm on my eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do and I assumed it was a combination of tiredness, constant concentration, the wind and the rain and perhaps the white glare from the snow. Anyway, I wasn’t worried, but I was conscious of it and to keep an eye on it (Whey hey!)

We reached the out and back section and now, like before, saw runners and familiar faces going in the opposite direction. There were a lot less of them this time though! I didn’t know how long it would be to the aid station but I was aware of how wet and muddy the track was again. I immediately decided that I would not be changing my shoes or socks. My socks would be soaked as soon as I changed them so I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. As I rounded the last corner into the aid station I had one of my best falls yet. I slipped in some mud and both feet went up in the air, above my waist, as my hands and head threw up behind me with the motion. I landed on my bum and back straight into a boggy patch. I was covered in mud. The volunteers laughed as I arrived (they heard the ‘fuck you’ scream) and I apologised as I sat straight in one of their chairs and covered it in the fresh mud. I ordered more soup, ate more cinnamon buns and finally changed into a dry tshirt after 14 hours.

Not long after the three of us reached the aid station, we were shortly followed by a fourth runner a Polish man I’d been near throughout the day. We sat and ate and drank and joked with the volunteers. We had our own little party before cheering ourselves back out knowing we had five hours to cover the 10km to the next (and final) cut off. Easy we thought… Wrong…

Section 5: Myrsætra – Brunstad

At Myrsætra you will run back up the same trail you came down up to Langsætra where you will follow the DNT marked trail up to Gullmordalsvatnet passing by the Gullmorglacier along the trail (you will not be running on the glacier). This section is very technical and you will be running parts of it on scree. After passing Gullmordalsvatnet you will be on the top of the Gullmorbrekka (979masl) pass, from here you will be running technical downhill to Velleseterhytta and further on gravel road down to Brunstad where you will find an aid station. This is also the location for the the cut off time at 21.00.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

The first section was ok. It was a repeat of the out and back. After which we we were constantly looking for the trail. This section wasn’t marked by the race and no red trail markers could be seen anywhere. We followed our GPS and would be on what seemed to be a trail, then all of a sudden the GPS would say the trail is off to our side by 50-100 m. This meant we were zig zagging up the climb. Crossing all sorts of wild terrain to ensure we kept heading in the right direction. Every now and then the Polish guy would appear from nowhere. He was having the same navigation issues. After an ‘age’, the lumpy foliage turned to rock. But that didn’t make it any easier and the same thing would happen as we’d turn at right angles to try and maintain the correct direction. We at least could now occasionally see some red trail markings on rocks though.

At this point we were sticking together as a foursome as we crossed many more snow fields and rocky sections climbing and traversing our way out of the valley. The lady, who was from Argentina, lady kept kindly offering me her poles as I was really struggling on all the snow crossings. So mostly I was behind them all and would time to time shout out when I thought we were ‘off route’ again. To me it felt like it was night time. We were deep in the clouds and the grey-ness of the mountains. The only light was coming from the snowy floor we trudged over. It was surreal and disorientating at the same time, yet it was only about 17:00.

We were trudging across another snow section when I noticed we we starting to get further from the trail, which was going off on a sort of angle above us. We stopped and debated for some time where to go and eventually agreed we shouldn’t continue on the snow. For one thing, we couldn’t see any recent signs of activity on them! The issue however was that the snow was sloping and above it was a wall of rock. It didn’t look feasible that the route could be up there. But that’s what the GPS was saying (and scrolling out we could see that the route would turn further that way after about a km further along). If we carried on the snow instead we’d soon be far off course and could see nothing ahead to make us want to continue (into the unknown).

So we back tracked and headed for the rocks. It took me a long time with one pole to get up to the rock and my troubles didn’t stop there, the climb facing us was a beast. It was essentially bouldering and rock climbing. I was trying to use strength from my arms which I just do not have to haul myself up onto rocks. And it was all loose. Admittedly I was scared. Actually, very scared. A fall here would be bad. A certainty of a serious injury and likely a very long wait to be rescued. I was glad I wasn’t alone and Argentinian Lady was very supportive and looked after me with constant reassurance. I knew we had to keep going though and that we should even get a little higher to be safer and further from the steep drop.

The climb, even just covering a few meters, was very slow. We were barely moving and the loose rock was causing us difficulties. Several times we knocked rocks back on each other, one time I released a sizeable one that went tumbling down. My warnings weren’t enough for the Polish guy to get out of the way in time and all he could do was raise his arm to protect his head as the rock fell straight into him. I felt so bad, but he reassured me that he was ok, just annoyed by the situation. It only added to our frustrations and concerns of safety.

We were at least now tracking in the right direction according to the GPS and the rocky climb eventually gave way to firmer ground, albeit more snow capped fields. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that section, but I was wrong (again). We were now faced with another directional dilemma. The route indicated we needed to leave the snow and descent a very narrow, very steep rock face. I looked over the edge and it felt like an abyss, the end of the world. Meters below us all I could see was a dark grey mist cloud wrapping the mountain. I couldn’t see a trail or path. It is fair to say I was not keen and I didn’t want to go that way. The alternative though was to remain higher up and walk along the snow covered mountain. I’d had enough of them though and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine where we would go or how we could re-join the path if we did continue that way. It felt like ‘down’ was actually the better option. Two of us started to descend…

Kamil emerging back from the abyss

I was still on top of the snow when, in the distance, a lonely figure, in a bright blue coat, emerged through the clouds with his hand in the air waving. I didn’t know what to think. He was clearly gesturing to us so we called back to let the others know someone was coming. We walked on and met him. He explained he was a volunteer from the race and he’d show us the way. He confirmed we could go either way, but the snow might be the easier route for us. So we followed him.

He was moving so effortlessly I struggled to keep up. He pointed down a steep snow slope and said we can go down here. And off he went, sliding, skiing (without skies) down hill. The French guy went next and pretty much made it the whole way standing up too. I followed and immediately landed on my arse. I sped down like I was on some sort of toboggan, bouncing up and down with the lumps. In no time at all my arse was so cold and starting to hurt with the freeze and friction. The whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. Looking back, my Strava indicates we went down a slope of approximately -50 deg and covered around 70m in descent. My apparent pace was 1:32 km per minute. What a ride!

Gullmordalsvatnet – we tracked along the edge to the right of the lake, all the way to the end

One by one we all made it and we were at least treated to an incredible view of the Gullmordalsvatnet lake and valley surrounding it. The downside, I could still see no clear trail or path. We were told that we needed to traverse along to the right of the lake. I couldn’t believe it. What?! It was just the slope/side of the mountain with alternating layers of snow and rock. How? He reassured us that as we got closer we would see some race markings to indicate the way we should go. He told us that we would need to climb and descend on the rock and avoid the snow slopes at all times. I could see why, if you slipped on those, nothing would stop you sliding all the way into the freezing lake. Game over. There was another catch though, first we would need to ascend on the initial snow slope, but not to worry, there is a rope. Fuck sake…

One by one we ascended the rope climb. This was awful for me. I had no energy or strength to pull myself up and no grip in the snow to provide any traction. It was yet another very slow ascent. I relied on a tactic of pulling myself up and looping the rope around one hand with each pull to get more leverage. I thought my shoulders would pop out here. Thankfully I soon reached the sanctuary of the rocks. Ha! Now I was thinking that the rocks were my friends!

The volunteer left us here and went back to look for the remaining runners behind us in the pass somewhere. We thanked him but I never got his name. His final words were “it is 2 hours to the next checkpoint”. I looked at my watch. We had 2 hours and 10 minutes until the cut off. Shit. I thought we wouldn’t make it, that we would be timed out. If he was saying 2 hours, it would probably take us longer. I hung on to the glimmer of hope that there might be some sections we could run and that he was talking about walking time.

We still had to travers the lake first though. Painstakingly, we looped up and down each rock section, maybe up to a 20m climb and descent each way. Looking and following the trail flags which we could finally see. Each loop required a small traverse either along the top of the snow slope or along the bottom, right next to the water. I could feel the chill coming off it. At one point I sent another rock tumbling. Down the snow it rolled and then bounced off the bottom of the slope, launching into the air and over the water onto a floating patch of ice with a ‘boom’. The lake didn’t flinch and I didn’t want to follow the rock!

As we finally reached the end of the lake, the paths did become a little easier. They were far from runnable though. Just easier than what the last few kms entailed. It was still a horrid down hill though. In maybe 3km we descended over 500m. It was very rocky and very slippery as we navigated through tens and tens of waterlogged paths and streams. There was plenty of falling over and slipping here too. We mostly descended in silence. I’m not sure what the others were thinking, but all I could think about was the cut off and whether we would make it or not. I wanted too, but I was also wondering how I’d feel if the decision to continue was taken away from me. I genuinely believed that, after this cut off, we would have plenty of time to finish (there was 13 hours for the last 20km or so). So I wondered if we were close to the cut off if I would be of mind to try and negotiate my continue. It was all theoretical, but it kept me focused. Going further down, fast hiking, moving with purpose. It as all I could do.

one of the nicer paths!

We then came upon a forest section which was far less steep than before. The trails became a little drier and other than a few big leaps across streams (with broken planks that were intended to be crossed) the next few hundred meters of descent were a little more forgiving. We still weren’t running, but were able to pick up the pace at least. We were racing the clock though as time was against us and I kept looking at my watch and doing the calculations. 50 minutes to go, 40 minutes to go, 30 minutes to go… With every step I adjusted our progression, but it didn’t really make much difference. It was going to be tight if we couldn’t run. And then luck was finally on our side…

From the forests we came across a house with a lady gardening and a man tending to the path. We ran down, said hello and left through their gate. He wished us well and said he hoped we were enjoying ourselves. I think I just laughed. But, from the gate, there was a gravel road. It was steep, but it was dry and even terrain. Gravity did its ‘thing’ and we ran. We were a little spaced out as we all descended at slightly different speeds. But we were all running. After maybe 1.5km, there were people further along. It was the aid station at Brunstad. I looked at my watch. We had 20 minutes to spare. We’d made it. This 10km section of the race had taken us 4.5 hours to complete!

I ran into the aid station with belief. I believed now I would finish. I believed in me. The decision to continue was in my hands, and I know there is only one answer to that question, pulling out is never a consideration, never an option. I would continue and I would finish. We sat and set about refuelling. Eating more soup, more cinnamon rolls, more chocolate sweets and crisps. At the aid station, the Argentinian lady’s family were waiting. It dawned on me that her and her husband, along with their dog, had been sitting opposite me in the reception at the start line some 18 hours earlier. With the positivity we were feeling, the Polish guy said what I’d been thinking “we all stick together now right, and finish?”. There was no hesitation from me. Absolutely, yes I said. The French guy agreed also. I’m not sure if I missed it somewhere but the lady had decided that this was where her adventure would end. She simply had no more desire to continue. I only realised when she was offering me her poles to continue on with as ‘she didn’t need them anymore’. Even now, after bowing out she was still supporting and looking after me. I felt sad and emotional that she wouldn’t be seeing it through with us. I declined the offer of the poles though. I made it this far and was confident I’d be ok.

As we set back out we were a little deflated that we still had over 20km to go. The amended route GPX had indicated we would be doing around 88km in total, but we were already around 77km at this point. It made sense though, the final two sections were unchanged and we still had to complete them. We left just before 9pm (and then stopped straight away as I had forgotten to get my head torch out ready for the darkness).

Section 6: Brunstad – Svartevatnet

From Brunstad you will run to Brunstadsætra through lush birchforrest and crossing the river right before Brunstadsætra. On Brunstadsætra you will get on the nice and very steep trail up to Storevatnet. From Storevatnet you will be climbing off trail up to 1100m and traverse over to Vassdalen (The course is not going to the peak of Ystevasshornet) where you will be running downhill on technical trail down Svartevatnet. At the parking lot by Svartevatnet you will find a aid station.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

Initially we had a gravel road ascent similar to what we had just descended. This was good for easing back into the task ahead. We took this opportunity to chat and for the first time exchanged names. It felt silly that we’d been through so much together without knowing who we were. This was where I learned that the Polish guy was Kamil and the French man was Matt. From the results table I now know that the lovely Argentina was Margarita. These were my companions, my saviours.

A few kms later the gravel changed to forest. The gradual climb, with no warning then became very steep switch backs as we climbed for another 500m in the slippery dense forest. I had to stop a few times to catch my breathe and refocus. It was tough going, but I was happier with this type of climb than the many we’d done before.

After leaving the forest it was more off-track plodding in the open mountainside as we continue to about 850masl where the ground flattened out. Here we could see up ahead a semi-circle of mountains surrounding us. Once again I had no idea where we were going and how we would ‘escape’ from here and descend back down. We continued walking towards it as the day light diminished and darkness began to set in.

The climb out was up and to the left!

We reached a lake where our head torches started to pick up the feint shimmer of the reflective tape for the race markings. One or two at a time. They gave an indication of where to go, but not too much insight as to where we were actually heading. Slowly it became clear that we were just going ‘straight up’ to get out of the plateau. Seriously? Fuck you. In the darkness we began to climb the rocks again. I was struggling with the climb. Matt and Kamil were getting progressively further away. I set myself a target to rest and breathe at each flag marker, only meters away from one another, but I was stopping multiple times between each one. We climbed for maybe another 200-300 meters, up and across scree slopes, the rocks loose under foot and when I grabbed at them with my hands for support. As I reached the top we were now in complete darkness. Besides the reflective trail markers I could now also navigate by following the head torches of the others in the distance.

We began the descent which wasn’t any easier. Loose and sharp rocks, winding switch backs and wet streams to cross. We stopped at one stream and filled our bottles with ice cold water. It was delightful. I gulped back two bottles straight away. Like many before this one, the streams we needed to cross were often bursting at the seams and the ‘path across’ was submerged under rampant and powerful flowing water. They were difficult to cross and even more so in the night. It was a case of steadying ourselves and hoping for the best, accepting that we would be wet to our shins. The aim was to get to the other side and not to get sucked in or fall over. The roar of water in the night was quite something. It was the only thing we could hear out here in the wild.

After a while the rocks gave way to forests and you already know that these were steep, muddy and slippery. As we progressed, a huge lake started to come into focus below us. Way off ahead, on top of a mountain silhouette in the darkness I could see two head torches way up in the sky. I knew where we were heading now. We would descend to a road crossing (Svartevatnet) before the final climb on the other side. I remember looking at this section when we drove along the road into Stranda when we first arrived.

I was glad to get off the forest track as we bottomed out at the lake. Here there was a slightly flat gravel section towards the road. At this point Kamil, who was in front on the descent was now behind me. Matt was up ahead on the road and I shouted at him when I saw the markers on the other side. We started to cross. Then loads of volunteers came into sight further up the road at a lay-by. They gestured us towards them. It was another aid station that I had complete forgotten about.

Here I was ready to leave quite quickly and just get on with it. I was sick of soup now so ate some crisps and cookies. Matt had some soup and a French man came to say hello to him. He was in the area, saw about the race and heard there was a French person running, so he stayed out to say hello and cheer him on. How lovely that was. Kamil sat in a chair and told us to go on without him, that he was going to have some sleep as he was struggling with fatigue. He wrapped up and tried to get comfortable. I let Matt know. Whilst we were there I had a half cup of coffee to try to fight off my own tiredness before we set back out. For now, we were down to two. I was sure Kamil would catch up with us at some point on the climb in the night.

Section 7: Svartevatnet – Stranda

By Svartevatnet you will cross the road and get on the trail to Langevatnet and further to Roaldshornet (1230masl). From the summit of Roaldshornet you can enjoy the epic view over Storfjorden and down to Stranda. You will continue to Blåfjellet and downhill Trollvaregga with technical running down to Skuravatnet. (The course is not going up to Skurahornet, it goes straight to Stranda from Skuravatnet) .From Skuravatnet you will be running on a nice trail all the way down to the outskirts of Stranda, and then on gravel and asphalt roads down to the finish line at the town square in Stranda.

Excerpt from the Race Manual

And so, at 01:00 in the morning we began our final section. From the aid station we crossed the road and began heading into the darkness of the forests once more. The trees lasted only a short while and the climb began. Initially I had flash backs of the first climb of the race when we left the forest and the mountain opened up. The terrain felt very similar. It was a series of gently inclining winding big paths littered with bogs and waterlogged foliage. Compared to the other climbs of the race I was very happy at that moment in time. This felt very manageable.

As we had previously, we navigated by reflection of the race markings. Each one opening another insight into where we were heading. The large silhouette of the mountain standing tall in front of us and getting closer with each step. As we neared it, the climb took us to the mountain face and the rocky ascent began, but, it was no where near as bad as the ones before. I felt this was the easiest climb of the night and possibly of the whole race. I was thankful.

Before we reached the summit, my watch died. I hate this watch. I accept it is now a good few years old (it is a Suunto 9 Baro) but the battery just does not last what it indicates it will. Barely 24 hours with some of that on the Ultraks mode. Useless. I couldn’t care less about charging it now. I just wanted to finish the race and rest.

The climb wasn’t too bad either and we emerged onto the roof of the mountain. It was, of course, rocky but for the most part we were now traversing the top along to the next point at Roaldshornet. It was very cold and windy on top and we stopped to layer up ready for the final climb to the summit. As we hiked along to the summit, with a gentle undulation, the sun started to rise to the East. It was going to be spectacular. We’d miss the full sunrise and views from the summit, but we had a glimpse of the orange glow breaking up the darkness. We kept moving and covered the final little dip and climb back up to Roaldshornet where we could start to see the landscape ahead of us for our descent back to Stranda. From here it was all ‘downhill’ (of course every trail downhill has some sneaky ‘uphills’ included!).

Sunrise from Roaldshornet

The descent was going to be long though and it was still very technical. Once again lumbering over a boulder field of rocks. For many parts I had to sit and lower myself down and we were trying to find the best and most accessible route between markers, sometimes straying from the more obvious path due to slippery rocks or muddy sections that we were still slipping and falling on. Eventually, further down, we could see a short ridgeline way below leading to what looked like dry dirt trails. We were heading for it and we’d then loop down into the forests back towards Stranda. We had a visual aim, although it still felt like a very long time until we reached the ridge.

We continued the descent from the ridge which was a lot harder than I expected. It was a complete mess from the rain and the mud and bogs were everywhere. Where possible we avoided the trail, running over the lumpy ground along the sides instead. In some places, wooden structures were there to go over the marsh land, but they weren’t really helpful to us. With so many runners having been through the day before, the land was completely churned up and the walkways covered in mud and equally as slippery and dangerous. I think I fell more along this section than anywhere else on the course! Matt must have been sick of hearing me swearing and groaning. I did one spectacular fall where I slipped and skidded downhill, completing a 180 spin and falling flat on my front, face first, into a bog. The mud muffled my scream. It was slower progress than I expected at this point and it certainly wasn’t the dry dirt trails I’d been imagining from the view at the top. From time to time we looked back, expecting to see Kamil come bounding passed us. At one point I swore I saw a head torch on the summit at Roaldshornet.

Uneven and boggy descents towards Stranda

The mountain side started to give way to forest tracks, which weren’t all that better. They felt steeper and, whilst drier for the most part, still had many wet and muddy sections. The benefit now was that the trees could be used to steady ourselves and break our falls. As we ran down, we were getting hotter and hotter. The layers from the mountain were definitely no longer needed now, but the inclination to stop and delay the finish further was low. We wanted it to be over as soon as possible.

The final, dryer forest section

A few kilometres later we left the forest and hit some road. We crossed some fields and were then back on the road in a section we both recognised from visiting the town. It wouldn’t be long now until we were on the main road into Stranda and down to the finish line. We were running. Probably very slowly but we were running for the first time for many, many hours. It was painful and slow but we were inching towards the finish as we ran down the deserted and quiet road. It was some time after 06:00 in the morning.

We rounded the final turn and climbed the steps into and through the hotel before the finish line (it was strange passing straight through a building to get to the finish!) and emerged into the final stretch to a lone clap from a volunteer at the finish line. We walked over the line. The final finishers. We hi fived and smiled. We’d done it.

I thought the volunteer was Oscar (the Race Director) but it was Martin. He told us he was at the last aid station with Kamil when he dropped out. It took us a moment for the realisation to set in, Kamil hadn’t continued on after his attempt to sleep. I felt bad for abandoning him and wondered if he would have been ok if he kept going? Martin gave us our medals, congratulated us and went and fetched us pizza. Then Matt’s wife, Natalia, Nick, Arlene and Gif all arrived and congratulated us, taking us back to the safety of a shower and bed! We had done it.

Final Thoughts

I knew this race was going to be difficult and would include terrain that I’m not always comfortable with. However, it was worse and harder than I imagined. The weather for the race was actually ok, but the terrain had suffered from weeks of rain and that made it far more difficult that it could have been. I reckon I must have fallen 30-50 times. I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed 100s of rivers and streams throughout the 100km. I’m actually surprised my feet weren’t in a worse state when I finished (they were pretty mangled though!). Oscar acknowledged the conditions in has post race breifing:

SFTR 2022 was just as hard and muddy as it can be! We got a bit of everything with some glimpses of sun, rain, snow, wind. The feedback from the elite field in Golden Trail World Series was that this was the most technical race they ever participated in. So all of you who joined the race should be proud of your effort! The good news is that we ordered sun for SFTR 2023, the bad news is that we ordered sun for 2022 too 😉

Oscar, RD

It is without doubt the toughest 100km I have done (and we didn’t quite get to the 100km mark!) It took around 5-8 hours longer than my typical time for a mountainous 100km. That is quite a significant time difference. Despite the course and the conditions, the local Scandinavians ran incredible times. I’m amazed at how effortlessly they cover this sort of terrain, they are phenomenal athletes.

The state of my bib at the end. I had to keep wiping the mud off to make it visible

Reflecting back on the progress, I actually would have been timed out at the first cut off (around 40km / 11hrs) if the route hadn’t been amended. I see no way I could have completed the original route in the time I had remaining at the cut off. The gods were on my side on this occasion!

I also think we would have been timed out at the second cut off (Brunstad) if it weren’t for (1) the volunteer who found us in the Gullmorbrekka pass at showed us the way (thank you so much!) (2) the short road section down to the aid station at Brunstad which meant we could run! without those, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it in time.

I came away from this race with my ankles pretty beaten up, loads of cuts and bruises, one broken pole, a ripped pair of gloves and a shoes shredded on all sides. Yet, I saw it through, I persevered and once more can say I’m a finisher and have re-evaluated my own limitations and strengths. I love this sport!

As with every race I met some incredible people. People who show all kinds of determination, strength and will power who go above and beyond to help and support you. Thank you Margarita, Kamil and Matt. And of course, thank you to Oscar and his team and thank you Norway!

For an expert view on the race (all distances) take a read of Ian’s race report – Strand Fjord Trail Race 2022.

Some of the professional race photos:

St. Peter’s way

Sometimes I sign up to races and events and then a littler later on I develop a little regret for my decisions. This was one of them. And the regret was for completely pointless reasons really. I signed up to the St Peter’s Way ultra nearly two years ago and multiple delays meant it was now something I’d given very little thought too. I always knew it would come a long, but I’d just be some a little too comfortable without it.

The race was on a Sunday which just meant I’d be more tired than usual at work on the Monday and it was in Essex which is a mission to get too without a car when public transport would be more limited. What made it more of a pain was that the race started in a small town (Chipping Ongar) and finished 43 miles or so further east, on the coast of Bradwell on Sea. The regret was because I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that hassle. But, there was also a little motivation hidden in its logistics also. The organisers (Challenge Running who were amazing by the way!) put on mini buses to take runners from the finish back to the start. Only they were at roughly 3 hour intervals (it’s an hour or so round trip for the driver) and the first was at 14:30 and the last at 20:30. I wanted to make that middle bus at 17:30. That would be around a 9hr 20min finish for 43 miles. Very doable. But, yep, another catch was that the buses were on a first come first served basis. I estimated I’d need to finish around 4pm to be in with a chance of safely securing my place on that bus.

And here is how it went…

Carl and I travelled up to Harrow and stayed the night there on Saturday (yep, had two years to book accommodation near to the start and didn’t!). An Uber to the start the following morning saw us join the low-key race centre and registration located in a small carpark where we collected our bibs. The nice surprise was seeing John at the start who I didn’t realise was running and that he’d done this race before. We chatted a bit and wished each other well for the adventure. The ongoing theme for the day would be me and Carl spending the hours calculating the chances of making the bus. We’d started straightaway sizing up the field of 80 or so runners lining up at the race briefing.

starting in a carpark

With an uncharacteristic (for a trail race) “on your marks, get set, go!” we joined the runners in an initial single line through the narrow track and the first of many (many!) kissing gates (and stiles) that we’d encounter throughout the day. We’d read about the ‘mud’ of the route and it was apparent early on. The route went through so many fields, massive green fields that were very soft underfoot. They started off nicely and began progressively getting more and more muddy. As always the worst parts were straight after you climb over a sty and then enter the field.

During the race briefing we’d been advised that much of the initial section of the route (with 4 aid stations the route was split into 5 sections each with hand written instructions to follow the route – we stuck to a gpx file!) had changed from previous years and to our benefit we’d be following more closely the original footpath to the at peters chapel. Early on we saw splits in runners going different directions in the fields. We stuck to our route and later chatted to a multi time finisher who confirmed we were indeed following the new and correct route.

Endless fields

As the day progressed we got to experience the great hospitality and support at the aid stations. As we crossed progressively muddier fields and, towards the second aid station, we found ourselves running more and more on our own as the field spread out. We passed through some lovely little villages and also along the Blackwater marina of Maylandsea which broke up the route slightly as we began to leave the muddy fields behind.

It was here we stared to sense we were close to the coast and that all (all 400m!) of elevation was behind us. Yep. Essex is indeed pretty flat. We then came into the final aid station where there we a handful of other runners and we were shortly joined by a chap called Alex who was running his furthest distance to date and had taken a few wrong turns trying to follow the hand written instructions. He tagged along with me and Carl for the remainder of the race.

We let him know our thoughts for the bus. We estimated that only a small fraction of runners would not start, not finish or would have family and a lift from the finish. We assumed that it would be a 15 seater minibus and that therefore we’d probably want to be in the top 35-40 finishers to get on that 17:30 bus. We also didn’t want to bust a gut to finish around 4pm and have to wait until 20:30 to begin the journey home!! Alex was more relaxed and went with the flow and chatted away to us. It was refreshing chatting to Alex and adding a third person to the conversations and hearing about his experience of the day and his runs – he’ll soon be heading off to the Sahara to tackle the Marathon Des Sables. Good luck to him on that beast!

Towards the end of the route we ran along a sea wall. In the distance was a building that we thought could be the finish line (St Peter’s Chapel). It did, from a distance, look way too modern, although we did estimate it was probably the few km away that corresponded with our distance covered. We Were hopeful that the end was in sight!

Also in the distance we’re two other runners. We were tempted to try and leg it after them, but realistically it was beyond us. We wondered if our presence was enough motivation for them to keep pushing to the end too. Either way we continued our run walk strategy which had served us well over the last 8 miles or so.

A few final turns and we could clearly see that the building was indeed the chapel and finish line as the runners ahead turned inland and headed directly to it. Shortly after then the three of us crossed the line and received our welcome from Lyndsey (the RD) and secured our space on the bus. We made it!

2 became 3

In the end we finished just under 8 hours and in positions 31 -33. It went almost exactly to plan. Our estimates were slightly off though as only 4 runners made that first bus and we secured 3 of the remaining 5 seats on the 17:30 and we only just secured our spot – There were 5 other runners who finished within 10 mins of us. I felt bad for them and glad we kept pushing to the end. we had just enough time to ‘cleanup’ and grab some food in the shelter of the Chapel – outside the temperature was rapidly dropping. And what a Chapel it was, a very unique finish to a race indeed!

Our adventure didn’t quite end there as on arrival back in Chipping Ongar it became apparent that taxis were going to be difficult (we were told we’d have a 3 hour race) and the next bus was a bit of a slow journey towards Epping. By pure chance, after a trip to a petrol station for some food, we once more bumped into Alex who very kindly gave us a lift back into London! What a gent! Thanks again Alex!

As always, despite my trepidation about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as always, loved the experience of running somewhere new. Although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I didn’t have Carl by my side throughout to cheer me up through all the mud. Coincidentally this was 2 days short of two years since we first met, in Borneo running with Maverick Race! Happy anniversary Borneo Carl.

Are You Not Entertained?!

A Maverick Race event is always a guaranteed great day out. There’s no point me repeating the words I’ve used so many time before about how fabulous the team are, the meticulous organisation of the events, the friendly and supportive volunteers, their amazing routes or the abundance of freebies and finishers items. Just sign up and experience it for yourself.

One of the things that attracted me to this particular event was the route. Based in the South Downs, the route took runners onto some of the lesser trodden paths away from the more mainstream South Downs Way. Looking at the map before I signed up I could see it would take me to places I’d not run before. So it was a great opportunity to explore some new areas.

Once more I headed down to the race with Nick after an early start. We rolled up, collected our bibs and casually walked over the start line five minutes after all the other runners had set off. I love the rolling start window the events now have! The cut-offs are very generous and the vibe of these events is very relaxed and friendly.

It wasn’t long before we’d caught the rest of the pack as the trails began with some single track paths and inevitably some bottlenecks formed. We squeezed passed a few larger groups and settled into our own grove as we wound through the forest paths of Slindon and then Houghton forest.

Somewhere along the forest tracks we ran past Jake for the first time that day. He was out in the open, partly camouflaged by some bushes, taking pictures before we soon arrived at the first aid station. From here we turned away from Houghton and began a more common section as we ran up the South Downs with its rolling hills and wide open spaces. The radio masts at Gatting Beacon visible up ahead.

After a while of running along the downs, we descended from Cross Dyke and soon came upon the second aid station at the Cadence cafe. We took a quick stop to refuel and fill our water before we began a climb back up to the hills again. Here we found Jake once more and stopped for a quick chat. We joked about my lack of enthusiasm for jumping shots and he proved the quicker man, capturing me with a teasing jump. 1-0 Jake.

You win this round Jake!

The hills were gentle but long and Nick started to hit some rough patches. He’d been recovering from that mad cold going around as well as a week holidaying through all the whiskey distilleries in Scotland. This was his second run since the Chilterns 50 (the other being a marathon) so he always knew it would be a struggle today. I ran ahead and would wait for him to catch up. I kept repeating this, probably to his annoyance.

“It’s Dangerous”

There were plenty of hills, including a lovely leaf lined downhill. I bundled down whilst Nick moaned behind me. ‘It’s dangerous’ Nick kept repeating. Admittedly the damp leaves made it a slippery descent. The downhill was inevitably followed by a steep incline. This time it was Phil who was hiding in the trees and waiting with his camera to capture the pain in the runners faces. A brilliant spot indeed.

This section was the longest between aid stations and we knew we still had a long way to go before we could replenish our water. All through this section we played leapfrog with other groups and pairs of runners. We chatted and joked our way along with them. The joke’s weren’t so amusing though as we slowly made our way hiking up a long sealed tarmac road. All the runners were hoping the aid station wouldn’t be far away as we all now needed a top up of fluids. Thankfully we soon came upon it, much to everyone’s relief.

After a little party at the aid station we set off again. From here it was 10k to the next one. We were in better shape now and ran some solid sections again through forest tracks and paths near East Dean. As we looped around Upwaltham we were greeted with a huge down hill into the final aid station which I bombed down with joy. I could tell here that many runners had now had enough and were ready for the finish. Much to their delight we had one more steep climb to get through first as we made our way from the aid station to West Wood. This sapped all the fun out of it for everyone around us and the moans were audible way behind us as more runners started the climb.

Steep climbs = excellent views

From here it was back to the dense forest tracks and for us plenty of stop start running from here until the finish. The rain started to come down and we forced ourselves to power through the open fields to get out of it and back to the shelter of the forests at the other side. At the end of the field Brittany was waiting in the cold, holding the gate open for runners with the great news that it was only 1km to go. We kept going, trotting on towards the finish line. As we rounded the corner back from Slindon Estate back into the college we pushed and shoved each other, wrestling before finally crossing the line a show for the crowd. A fist bump of thanks to Justin, Ben and Paul from the Maverick Team for another awesome race.

Another awesome day was finished and crowned the day off with a pizza for the ‘bearded wonders’ from the awesome chulli pizza team.

‘Bearded Wonders’

Hips Don’t Lie

The Cappadocia Ultra Trail (CUT) is a 119km trail run in the heart of Turkey. Set in the Cappadocia region, runners do a sort of figure 8 from Urgup. Exploring the historic landscape as they traverse the high plateaus and valleys from one side of Cappadocia to the other. The terrain in the region is made up of ‘tuff’ – a thick ash (from ancient volcanic eruptions) that solidified. In many places, millions of years of wind and water erosion has left behind incredible structures (like the Twin Fairy Peaks) and in others, humans carved the malleable material into vast networks of caves, living quarters and other structures, both above ground and below. A remarkable region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Like the course itself, the CUT for me was a race of two halves. The spoiler in my story is that the first half was the more difficult experience and, unusually, I finished the race much stronger than I started.

Each race is an experience and one to reflect on. Each time we run we learn something a little bit more out ourselves. This is why I like ultra running so much. I don’t think it ever actually gets easier. Hopefully we just get stronger and wiser and are able to deal with the challenges better. Going into the race I already new some mistakes I’d made even before I’d stepped a foot over the start line. I thought it would be my struggle to shake a mucus-y cold from the week before that would make the race harder. Turns out it was my own planning. I’d mentally prepared for 24 hours of running and, being further East than usual, and the sun setting earlier, I’d brought mostly caffeinated Tailwind. For some reason I didn’t question my choice to bring so much. And so I started with two bottles of caffeinated Tailwind at 7 in the morning. I was junked up and, along with the multiple morning coffees, It went straight through me! That exciting story unfolds as I recount the morning’s adventures…

Usual photo opportunity whilst everything is still being set up

The start line was a breeze. With about 20 minutes before the race start we’d walked down from the cave hotel we were staying in nearby, dropped off our bags and bumped into Sammy, Sarah and Harry. 5 minutes later we were waiting in the numbered holding pens and ready to go. The race began with a steep uphill section along the roads as we’d leave Urgup. I didn’t want to run the hill but was caught up in the dash of runners (and two stray dogs who’d some how made their way into the starting pens with the runners!). Before he’d shot off, Paul had explained that the trails were fairly narrow early on and that we could expect some bottlenecks. So I stuck with it, huffing and puffing my way up.

It was soon over and at around 7:30 in the morning we were running on the dusty trail paths with incredible views of the area and hundreds of hot air balloons floating in the sky above Goreme. Having taken a hot air balloon ride the day before it was a surreal experience to now be running the trails we’d seen from above. The trails weaved through the rock formations and faster more confident runners bounded past, hoping from rock to rock as the rest of us followed in single file down the gullies carved out as paths between them.

My morning mistakes immediately started to hit me as I could feel my stomach cramping. Too soon I repeated to myself internally. Too soon. I sipped the Tailwind solution, trying not to take the full caffeine payload too early, saving plenty of it for the later stage of this section. Soon we reached the first aid station situated along a road as we left the town of Ibrahimpasa and I topped up on water, watering down what was left of the existing Tailwind in one bottle and switching to the basic lemon flavour in the other, before carrying on whilst ramming some cake into my mouth.

Early on with all the other runners

The route took us down through the town and onto a path at the back of the houses/caves. The two dogs were still running with us and Coren caught me up. We ran together a little while weaving through the back paths, duck-walking our way through some tunnels and cave systems before we began the largest climb of the first half of the race and then making our way up and over a major road which had armed police stopping the traffic for runners. The route then took us down onto a phenomenal down hill trail through some white chalky rocks. It was steep and slippery. Here the runners were split into the more hesitant and the clearly very confident ones who bounded passed the rest, bouncing from side to side.

My body screamed at me the whole way as I looked for a place to escape off the trail. The landscape was barren and there was nowhere to grab a moment of privacy and I struggled on, no doubt pulling some questionable faces. A short while later the rocky section was over and we entered a section of golden forest. I saw my opportunity and took it. A sacrifice to the God of Thunder needed to be made. Relieved, I emerged back out and joined the train of runners. This section, leading to Goreme was glorious as the yellow leaved trees shone in the light of day and the trail teased its way through the forest.

A snippet of golden trails and white Tuff terrain

The route led us up and into Goreme, where I caught back up with Coren and Yvette who’d passed me. We ran together through Goreme, recognising it from the previous morning where we’d floated over the day before on our Balloon ride. Leaving Goreme we were stuck behind a smelly garbage truck on a narrow lane which turned my stomach even more. I thought I’d be over my issues now, but the last few kms had made me think otherwise. I wasn’t well that was for sure and the initial sacrifice had been rejected. We weren’t far from the next aid station but I didn’t know what to expect and felt unpredictable so was keeping my eyes peeled again.

We began the next, steep climb to the aid station in the town of Uchisar. Along the way was a tap, I filled my bottle to drink from, before deciding it probably wasn’t the best idea, so poured it over my head instead. As I reached the aid station I bid farewell to Coren and Yvette and went toilet hunting. After some language barriers and misdirection, I eventually found one in a Mosque. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary and I was thankful for the privacy and a running tap. I washed my face and emptied an absurd amount of mucus and dust out of my nose before setting off out and hoping my body and mind would now work together.

With the delivery complete, my attention turned to the second issue or mistake I’d made and which had been masked by my previous distractions. Knowingly, I made a poor choice of footwear for the race – the Adidas Two Ultra Parley. A Good shoe that is comfy and decent for hard packed trails, but I find lacking in both stability and support. I took a risk and it was slowly proving to be a bad choice as the laces were causing pain in my metatarsals. Occasionally, sharp pain would shoot through my foot and I’d limp forward. I was going to have to address this soon, but for now I was running OK and the next aid station wasn’t far away as it was a short section of about 6 km as we’d loop around to the other side of Goreme.

I put my foot issues to the back of my mind vowing to loosen the laces when I next stopped. With my mind preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about those 6km other than passing a horse ranch and feeling like the shackles had been removed. My body was relieved and after 30k I was able to focus on the running. I caught up with Coren and Yvette again as we hiked some gentle climbs in the heat of the day. The sun reflecting back off the white ground. I mentioned I’d not used suncream and Yvette said she had some she’d give me at the aid station too. Soon I was sitting on the side of the road creaming up. The metatarsals on my left foot were screaming at me. I used the rest break as a chance to loosen those laces which I think were adding pressure to my foot (there is no padding on the tongue of these trainers). It helped a little. But before setting back out I recognised the next challenge I was facing (or soon to face) – with nearly 40k of running complete I realised I had eaten very little. After a huge breakfast, I wasn’t yet hungry, but soon would be. I grabbed some satsumas which were delightfully juicy and started to eat some of my snacks knowing that I was going to have to eat more to keep going!

Despite thinking I’d be low on energy from not eating, from aid station 3 I felt like I was flying. Besides the pain in my foot which I was still feeling, I was running carefree. There were some more incredible trails through woodlands and I overtook a few runners as I enjoyed the gentle downhills and small climbs. We went through some more fantastic rocky sections with huge caves (no ducking to get through these), as we ran passed what I think was the ‘Pigeon Loft Cave’. After the woodlands I emerged onto a long dusty/sandy straight back out in the open. I plodded on and started to notice it was a bit more windy now. I say a bit, I mean really windy. Up ahead I could see the dust swirling on the path and then it hit me. The wind. The dust. The combination. I could barely keep my eyes open even with my head turned away and facing down. I caught a glimpse of the sky, it was grey. A storm of some sort had hit us. I really hoped it wouldn’t last!

Ale caught this picture of the storm from when he was at the second checkpoint. I guess I’m in there somewhere!

The sun cream I’d recently applied meant the sand stuck to me. I was covered. Every time I went to drink I had a mouth full of dust as an accompaniment. Eventually I broke off the path and was now crossing a field with the wind behind me. I passed Sarah as we began another climb.

The climb was pretty scenic. Further up ahead there was a guy I recognised from Madeira two years ago – Maarten. We ran together a bit and swapped stories of the last two years and races (including both being at Val d’Aran a few months earlier). We were talking about how hot it was and how much water we had when a girl came up from behind, clearly struggling with the heat and pleaded if we had any water to spare. Luckily, knowing this was a longer section, I’d filled a third soft flask so had a spare 500ml which I gave her. She drank nearly all of it in seconds, gratefully thanked us then vanished off into the distance. She would have been one of the lead runners in the shorter 38km race which started a few hours after we did. Not long later we came across a make shift water station before the course split for the 38km race to head back to Urgup more directly as we detoured off to Cavusin.

With Maarten

We went left at the course split and began another scenic but slightly more technical trail that undulated along and down the side of the mountain. Mesmeric views of red rock formations were all around us as the trail led down to the next aid station where I continued to address my nutritional problems. I grabbed a full bottle of water, some coke, more satsumas and hot lentil soup and went to find myself a place to sit along a wall. I’d started to fill my belly as Maarten arrived and shortly later Yvette, completing the Madeira reunion. After a few mins I left them both sitting in the shade and carried on.

Incredible rock formations on the undulating descent

The next section towards aid station 5 began with a big steep climb as a snake of runners weaved up to the top of the mountain we’d just circumnavigated. It was very hot now in the middle of the day and the climb was exhausting. Up top the paths traced the edge of the mountain as we made our way back along the top, almost to where the course split had happened a few hundred metres lower down. The views were spectacular and way down below I could see runners on the trails we’d arrived on. I wondered to myself how far behind me they were. It would only be a few miles for sure.

View from the top with the trails visible lower down

The top of the mountain was fairly flat but rocky. I mixed up the running and walking as the trails were so visible so far ahead I couldn’t mentally commit to keep running it all. Eventually there was a very steep but short descent and we arrived at the next aid station. A small tent halfway up the mountain. As I sat and drank more and ate some food, I got chatting to two guys from Yorkshire. I wished them well as I left and began the last section of the first half of the race back to Urgup.

As I drank from one of my refilled Tailwind bottles, I noticed another error I’d made where I’d mislabelled a Tailwind portion and instead of lemon I had another caffeine one. Despite feeling more settled, it worried me a little and I didn’t want to repeat the morning’s mistakes which were still very fresh in my memory. So I tried to make sure I’d drink from that bottle last and prolong when I took in more caffeine. Thankfully it was only another 8k to the halfway point and I wasn’t likely to need a full litre.

The route was pretty as we traversed lots of gradual ups and downs and undulated along trails between farmland and areas of modern housing. There was lots of walking and I was starting to feel the effect of not fuelling early on. I knew I’d need to continue that process of addressing the imbalance at halfway, this time with more substance. As I walked I began talking to Omar from Jordan who was doing his first Ultra, the 63km. He was so friendly and smiley and enjoying his race, knowing he was on the home stretch. Shortly after seeing, as we approached the iconic Twin Fairy Chimneys, the 38km course re-joined our route and there were loads of other runners surrounding us. I had a momentary boost as I powered passed a bunch of them and felt a surge of arrogance and confidence in my performance and race. A timely mental boost to see me through to the halfway point!

We then reached another major road crossing manned by the police. I can see now that it is the same road from earlier in the day, just many miles further along. The Police stopped a car for me to pass and the driver started shouting out the window. It was Sammy. Amazing timing. I then descended down the red bricked pavement to the aid station. Wincing with pain as my foot broke my stride and technique. I’d been adapting my running for the passed two sections but now on the hard ground I was more than a little worried that the damage may done already.

Into half way I went. Sarah was already there and Sammy busy supporting and getting her ready to head back out. I grabbed my bag and went straight for the food asking for “everything”. I had some soup, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and a giant potato to go with it. I then found a place on the grass to sit in the shade and went about executing my on-the-fly strategy. I removed my shoes and socks and let my feet catch some air whilst I ate. There was a blister that would need taking care of on my little toe. I’d been ignoring it as it had been giving me grief for a while and it was clear now why. A blood blister.

In between eating I’d clean and fix myself up – a wet wipe shower, removing dodgy tape from my toes that had peeled loose, reapplying it and addressing the blister. Yum. Yvette and Maarten had arrived and we all joked as I cramped trying to reach my feet. I ate the dry potato by dunking it in the soup. I was conscious I needed more salt intake too so grabbed some more cheese and finished off with a GU energy waffle, a bit of cake and some more juicy satsumas for dessert. A good feast was had. Eventually, 15mins longer than planned and an hour after arriving, I set back out with a change of trainers (Inov8 Trailroc).

From halfway I felt good. The change in trainers immediately helped my foot with the greater padding and support offered by the ever trusty Inov8s. The route crossed the road and onto a trail with an immediate short but very steep sandy decline. I was covered in stand as gravity pulled me down at speed I shouldn’t have after 60 odd kms of running. Great. I needed to stop and take off my shoes already. I found what looked like a rock and sat down. It was just a mound formed of the sand/dust though and it collapsed under me. I picked myself up, carried on and tried another rock with more success.

I remember running passed some cows in an enclosure as this section of the route led us more ‘off path’ and we ran through many fields and farmland. A few times we crossed back and forth over a small river. For a short while I was chatting to a guy from Cardiff as we spurred each other on through the lumpy terrain. We joked about the derby game that would happen on Sunday and I teased that we can’t be friends or run together as I dashed off ahead. The route then took us up the river we’d been criss-crossing. I ran up the river by following the narrow banks and jumping side to side trying to avoid getting wet feet. It was a long and smelly stretch that required a bit of focus as I didn’t want to step in the water as it didn’t seem all that clean and I was thinking of the open wounds on my toes which I’d sliced up at the halfway mark. I was glad to be navigating this in the light which was now diminishing as the sun was setting,

For a long time the moon lit up the path after the sun had set

I was beginning to feel stronger now and able to run consistently with no pain in my foot any more. As I ran I passed a woman and few guys together as we climbed another of the few smallish inclines this section had. They cheered me on and shortly afterwards we reached another town, Mustafapasa, as the moon took over now the sun had set. As we left the town and ran back onto the trail I put my torch on and gained pace on runners ahead who were still struggling with the low light or stopping to search in their backpacks for their torches. One guy clearly tried to keep up with me, probably knowing we weren’t far from the next aid station, and piggy-back on the light from my head torch. I was having none of it though and picked up the pace. I could hear him grunting as he dropped further and further back. I didn’t do it purely out of spite, but more so because of the sound of his poles. The sound of other runners’ poles tip-tapping on the ground really annoys me in races.

From here I ran all the way into the next aid station. It was a smallish one just off the main path. I sat down and began drinking Coke and eating pieces of apple. The volunteers here were very friendly and supportive. One volunteer asked if I wanted salt. I didn’t, but I did think it was a good idea as my legs were very tender and with the cramping I suffered at half way I dived straight in, pouring the sachet straight into my half drunk Coke. Ew. What was I thinking. Salty coke was not pleasurable. It was knocked back though.

As I left the aid station another runner caught me up and asked me if I wanted music. I absolutely fucking did not want any music. I like music. I hate it on a trail run though. I hate it even more at night when running and it was a beautiful night so far. Peaceful. Clear skies. Glistening moon and stars with the lack of light pollution. Nope, I didn’t want that spoilt with some tin-cup music out of a phone speaker. I think my blunt reaction made it awkward as we were then walking/running together in silence. He also had poles tip-tapping on the floor, so I used a small climb as a chance to take a piss and let him go on ahead. Thankfully that worked and I never saw him again.

We then began a monstrous climb. I knew this was coming, but was secretly hoping one of the many smaller ones leading up to it was actually the ‘big ‘un’. Sadly my attempt to count the hills had failed. Although this was one of the biggest climbs on the course, at 500m it shouldn’t be particularly troublesome. But, unexpectedly it was like a sand dune. So dusty/sandy. Every step my foot would submerge to the ankle. It made the climb slow and difficult. Nothing else to do though other than keep trekking along. The subsequent descent was no better and the run down very sandy also. I gave in to the pain and discomfort and let gravity take control and I just ran it all (it felt superhuman at the time, but it was only about 3km), kicking up sand everywhere. I was constantly coughing and found it difficult to breathe and see as I made my own mini sand storms (the light from the head torch struggled to penetrate through all the dust). I passed Sarah on the down hill and powered into the aid station.

I felt good. For a while I’d been thinking that a sub 20 hour finish was possible. I was averaging around 9min 30 per km throughout so had about 30 minute buffer on a 20 hour finish time. However, each climb would eat away at that average and we had three big climbs to get through in this second half. The run down after the first one had a big impact though and I clawed back nearly 10 mins. However that soon vanished… As I sat down at the aid station and emptied the sand out of my shoes, I asked for soup. I still needed to keep fuelling properly to sustain the final 30km push. The soup was so hot though that I had to wait for it to cool a bit. As I did I got very cold sitting there so dug out the arm warmers. Those minutes gained were ticking away so I used the time to plan ahead and rearranged my bag making sure I had more food accessible and also changed my head torch battery now so I wouldn’t have to do it again later on. As I was faffing, Sammy arrived and shortly afterwards Sarah did too. We all moaned about the ‘sandy bastard’ and got excited for the soup!

With my soup consumed I set back out, accepting that a 20 hour finish was probably now out of reach and distracted by the cold. I was hoping I’d soon warm up from running/hiking which, thankfully I did. Although I immediately then had cold feet when the route took us across a wider/fuller river section which I spectacular mis-timed my attempt to jump across. Dammit.

I began the second of the big climbs. This one about 400m. It was a decent path though with a wide track and it was not as steep as the previous one. I was thankful it was more forgiving than the last climb and hiked up quickly. Up top was a longer flattish section than the previous mountain. I powered on in full ultra hike mode. I was averaging 9 minute kms when walking. This was faster than my average pace and faster than the 10min kms average I needed to sustain a sub 20 finish. I stated to believe a little again but couldn’t be bothered to run and didn’t need too – as we joked the next day, I’ve a pretty good power hike and I teased its all inspired by Shakira and ‘hips don’t lie’. I was in a happy state now and was content with however it would finish from here. Two more aid stations to go and still enough time for ten mins rest at each. I believed it was back on.

As I walked this whole section I vividly pictured a flip-book cartoon of my inner body system functioning through races. I’ve often described to friends how I visualise the ‘boys in the command centre’ who run the show from the inside. This time I saw them all. All the internal body parts and their controllers, the conversations and messages flowing through the command centre. The instructions being followed to process the food, to engaged the legs and run, power up the power hike mode and so on. It kept me entertained for quite a while. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to draw it out.

I ran the descent and once more made up some time. I pushed it for another 3 km or so until I arrived at the aid station in Karlik. It was so hot inside the building. I took water and left straight away. I felt strong and I didn’t need a rest nor the sweltering heat of the aid station. There was 20k left to go and I felt surprisingly good. I had everything I needed after my bit of prep at the last stop and knew the soup would kick in sooner or later, plus I had Kendal Mint Cake ready to eat and get a sugar high from. So I just cracked on.

There was one big climb and descent left to the final aid station. My optimism after leaving Karlik was soon diminished though. The climb was off path. It was very uneven underfoot with lots of rocks, uneven lumps of foliage and dirt and at some points quite steep climbs. It was not going to be as forgiving as the last section. I kept on walking. I passed a few runners and a few familiar faces passed me. One couple I’d caught up with were running very consistently. We leapfrogged each other now on and off for a few km as when I hiked a climb I’d power passed and they’d eventually overtake me on the flatter parts running. I gave into the temptation to keep playing this game and followed in behind them as we began the descent. It was technical. Not super technical but rocky and steep none-the-less. It was rather painful on the now very sore feet. Clearly they’d left one of the hardest sections to the end of the race! I wasn’t in a happy place any more.

It felt like a lifetime to get to the final aid station. But eventually I did. There was nothing here to entice me to hang around as it was just a tent on the mountain. So I filled my water and joked with the volunteers. Next stop, the finish line. 10 km to go. I’m outta here…

The first task was a final, shorter climb up the mountain again. From here a short stint along the top once more before descending down the other side. Once up top I began running. It was still rocky terrain, but everything was falling into place again. There is always a point in a race, no matter how far from the end you are where you know you’ll get to the finish. I’d passed that point and was full of belief. The energy levels and confidence were high. After so much caffeine over the last 20 hours I was wide awake (all the Tailwind I’d drank since 5pm at halfway was caffeinated!). I caught up a lot of people as I began to descend, confidently whizzing past them. Another guy up front looked familiar. It was Paul! I wasn’t expecting to see him but here he was. I screamed out to him, terrifying him in the process. I carried on running the downhill and he soon fell in line and began running with the momentum too.

A short while later we came off the trails. We were somewhere in Urgup now. Maybe 3 km to go. Here the route twisted around the town as we’d make our way back to the start. A long gradual climb through the streets was not an exciting finish. Even less so was the very, very steep but short hill as we went through a building site and some back ally near a fancy hotel. It was probably the steepest climb on the course! Thankfully though it was then downhill to the finish as we hit a cobbled side street down to the start line.

Unplanned, we crossed the finish together. Maria and Ale, the legends, were there at 02:30 in the morning to cheer us in. Their support at this ridiculous hour was incredible after their own exhaustions of running their own races earlier too. Shortly after finishing we heard the sad news that Yvette had withdrawn at 100km. An incredible achievement to get so far on a very difficult route and enduring her own struggles over the 20 hours. We grabbed our stuff and finishers merch and headed back up to the caves (great, more climbs!) where we found her waiting in the cold outside the rooms.

Cappadocia was done and, for Paul, redemption after his DNF (did not finish) a few years earlier. I finished the race in 19 hrs 24 mins. Far faster than I was expecting and a strong finish in 76th position sharing joint second Brit with Paul hahah.

On reflection, I’ve no doubt that my strength in this event was my adaptability and able to think forward. I was acutely aware that it’s a long game. It always is. I’d mentally settled in for 20-24 hours of running. So when it was all a struggle early on I could think clearly that what I did now (at that moment) would affect me later on. It wouldn’t help immediately. There is no secret pill or easy fix in ultra running. You can enjoy the moment but you have to be thinking ahead. Hours ahead. In this case knowing after a troublesome first 30km a bonk was inevitable if I didn’t address the problems and start fuelling properly. I’m proud of myself for this one and turning it around before it got the better of me. All hail the boys in the command centre!

Looking back over the data from my run, I’m impressed with how my second half pace and speed per section didn’t drop off too much from the first half, despite factoring in the elevation, difficult terrain and general fatigue. The second half was very consistent. The chart of my race position ranking constantly improving after my early difficulties in the first 30km also brings a smile to my face. A satisfying end to the race indeed!

Running is life

Running is life. You can read into and over analyse that as much as you want, you won’t get the intended meaning behind it. It was a phrase Nick and I screamed at each other several times during the later stages of the Chilterns Wonderland 50 mile race by Centurion Running. Every time it had us laughing and singing. Its a play on a phrase from a tv show and we’d follow it up with football chants of each other’s names. It is always the simple things that bring most joy. I interpret that to be its meaning in the show too, find joy in what you do. There was plenty of joy on this occasion. It was Nick’s first 50 miler and his longest run to date. We were happy for so many reasons. One thing was clear to me though, he has come a long way!

Transformation. Change. Progress. Development. Whatever word you want to assign to it. It was visible to me. Obviously visible. We judge ourselves constantly. We are hard on ourselves and our own worst critics. But others have that external perspective. As an outsider I can see how Nick has changed when it comes to running. I was there running alongside him when he started running again, for his first marathon, his first ultra and for many runs in between. I’ve seen, and laughed, as he suffered like we all do, hitting the wall, fuelling poorly, struggling up hills, sliding in mud and managing the post race wobbly legs. This time was different though…

After his first ultra, I wrote about ‘Ultra Nick’. I recalled the sadistic joy of watching him go through the pain of discovering himself, I laughed at the grunts and ‘fucks’ he uttered with each change of terrain and slight hill as the race went on and I related it to the different versions of yourself you create each time you push yourself that bit further. That day I said he was now ‘Ultra Nick’. Now he is something else, something more.

So what has changed now? Familiarity for a start. He now has experience. Each run is a learning curve. Each run tells us a little something more about ourselves. We gain a better understanding of how we feel. What are limitations are. What are strengths and weaknesses are. What to expect with each passing mile and each new step into the unknown. We may not feel it, but it shows. I can see Nick running with more freedom. Less fear of the unknown and with greater confidence it what he is capable of. A stronger ability and willingness to adapt as the run goes on. Whether that’s feeling better, recognising the signs the body (and mind) send out, accepting when to stop and rest and when to push on and endure. There’s certainly less encouragement from me and less need for me to share my experiences as he now has plenty of his own to work with.

Above all, he now he runs with freedom and with complete unadulterated joy. Running is life.

Misty start in Goring

How did the day go…? When we arrived at Goring Village Hall for registration, the morning was very overcast with a low mist covering the town. We breezed through registration and were ready to go 10 mins into the rolling start window. The race began with a short trot down the Thames before we took the planned detour due to the path being closed. Nick was already cursing at the realisation he’d somehow recce’d the route in the reverse direct. I was happy, I knew I didn’t want to run along this section after running all day.

As we reached the first climb a friendly runner sped passed, powering up the hill as he wished us a good day. He looked like a competitor, a winner. Nick called it out. Later that day it was confirmed he did indeed win the race in a ridiculously quick time.

It wasn’t long before we reached the first aid station at Tokers Green. It was brilliant. Set up like a 1980s birthday party with cocktail style savoury snacks galore and Ribena. Excitedly I gulped back a few cups whilst tucking into my own bacon sandwich and half a pork pie. This would keep me going for a while and make my pack start to feel a little lighter – the pie was hefty.

As we set back out the mist was well and truly gone. The morning was heating up rapidly and the sun was shinning brightly. We soon found ourselves running into the Country Estate of Crowsley Park. It’s such a beautiful space (ignoring the massive BBC satellite dishes on the grounds) and the tranquillity was momentarily broken by an expletive-ridden squeal from Nick as he jarred his knee and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The family with young kids in front didn’t look too impressed by his choice of words but thankfully he was ok after a few minutes of catching his breath. No lasting damage, just the shock of coming into contact with the ground sooner than the mind expected it.

Another quick stop at Bix where the second aid station saw Nick encounter many familiar faces who he’d met along the Woldingham marathon a few weeks earlier. From here the route took us through another glorious open space – Stonor Deer park. here we were happily chatting away to other runners including a guy from South Africa who told us stories of all his Comrades finishes. We realised how much our pace had increased as we talked to him so had to encourage him carry on and to let us drop back before we passed out trying to maintain it!

The day was now very hot, it didn’t feel like a mid September kind of day! Thankfully though my mind was distracted by the route. Since Bix I was in unchartered territory having never run this section of the Chilterns before. It was delightful and continued to be excellent with plenty of very runnable terrain. There were plenty of hills to break up the running and the route felt like it was a roller coaster – as soon as you were at the top of a climb you would then go straight back down. there was a pleasing symmetry to the terrain and elevation of the climbs and subsequent descents.

A tough climb up Ibstone to the windmill soon greeted us. It was probably the steepest in the route but thankfully short. The garden fire and smoke at the top made it difficult to capture our breathe though. Further on another short climb took us to the school and halfway point aid station.

We planned for a rest here. Nick found a throne and sat down to be treated like Royalty by the volunteers who pandered to his needs. Dimi, with her beaming smile greeted me and whilst we talked Phillip (a veteran of Centurion races) rocked up. After we rested for a little while we then carried on. Ready for the day. More of the same planned, chatting and joking from the moment we left.

After running through another 10km or so of fields and woodlands we arrived at the next aid station. Here everyone was fighting for the shade. It was very bright now and salt was visible on most runners. The coke had run dry and we stayed a little longer as a resupply was imminent. It worked out well as Nick needed fuel and I wanted the Coke. We stayed a little longer than planned but it was very much needed and would set us up for what was to come.

After leaving the aid station we ran with Melanie and Kirsty for a while as we all kept similar pace. I was pushing Nick now though. I was conscious that when he gets chatting there’s no stopping him. He loses focus slightly and gets too comfy. They all joked I ‘wouldn’t let him off the train’. It’s true, the whip was out. We pushed on.

Corn fields as the sun began to set

Before long we were bounding down the long straight to Grim’s Ditch. I knew where we were now having run this section at night many years ago. The train was running free and we made a small bit of time over the many familiar faces we’d been seeing all throughout the day. As we entered the small aid station we knew it would soon be filled with all the other inners immediately behind us. We were in great spirits here and were singing Mr Sandman with the volunteers and laughing to ourselves as we left.

It wasn’t far to go now. The reality has set in with Nick that we were 100% finishing. The cut offs would not be a concern. We were an hour ahead of it with a 12 hour finish looking likely. As always though, the confidence of knowing the end was in sight started to play on Nick. The possible 12 hour finish was soon changed as he suggested 11.5hrs might be possible. Soon after he changed the goal again thinking 11hr could be achievable. It certainly was, but bloody hell I was looking forward to a relaxed finish not a frantic one.

And so we ran. We kept running. The last few km were mostly downhill. We kept going. Kept catching runners. Kept overtaking them. The train was now a runaway. We were still enjoying it. The sun starting to set on the fields. We were thankful that the increase in pace meant we wouldn’t be needing to get the head torches out as we ran through the last of the forests and soon reached Goring for the last few streets.

Into Goring village we ran. The cheer of the finish line now audible. Residents on the street clapping us in as we we to and around the village hall. The excitement and elation as we finished was a great feeling. We’d done it. He’d done it. Nick was a 50mile finisher now!

We immediately changed into the finishers tee so I looked less salty for the finish line photo. Stuart, as always, captured and immortalised the magical moment. What a day. What a run.

Animo!

The Torn dera Val D’Aran by UTMB, aka the ‘VDA’. This was the first edition of this event that has been franchised under the prestigious UTMB banner. The VDA being one of a handful of events as part of the weekend. A 162km (100 mile) circular route around the mountainous Val D’Aran region in the Pyrenees.

Our journey began back in the summer of 2020 when the first edition was postponed to 2021 and they reopened registrations. Paul was the mastermind once more and it took very little to persuade myself and Darryl to sign up too. Later on Paul C also signed up, but 2020 wasn’t finished with us just yet…. I’m not sure how many flights were cancelled, how much additional money we spent nor how many times the travel rules and restrictions changed in the weeks leading up to the race, but I do know it led to many, many sleepless nights spent stressing over deliveries, tests and forms. Paul C had to drop out the week before and I was left guessing until I woke up just 5 hours before the flight was due to take off. Until this point I still hadn’t received the negative test that was now required to enter Spain and I was prepared to go to the airport and hope for the best with numerous, less than ideal, alternative travel plans. For those who know me well, you know this isn’t how I like to roll. I like to deal with greater certainty. I thrive in a process and I struggle when I can’t control aspects of that process.

The Elevation profile for the VDA

Arriving at the airport with all my barcodes and forms, I already felt like a winner. Now, with a little over 30 hours to go to the race start, I could finally start thinking about the race itself… I wasn’t alone though. We went as threesome and we planned to run together. We are all now experienced ultra runners. We know each other well. We also knew and recognised that we are getting into some big league running with this event. 100 miles. 10,600 m of elevation. The Spanish mountains. It was an ultra that would push each of us beyond our comfort zone and redefine our boundaries once more.

It’s been a while since I’d run fuelled by a little fear. I think it is a good thing. It’s needed. We arrived not knowing how we’d cope. We were realistic that it will take us very close to the 48 hour cut off mark. We were accepting that it is going to hurt a lot and hurt in new ways we’d not yet experienced. But, mentally we were focused. We broadly knew what we’d face and why we were there and that, together we were stronger. Together we stood a chance of getting to the finish line.

Lining up on the start line along the main street in Viehla, the pre race jitters kicked in a little. This wasn’t like any other race in the last two years. This was a mass start, just shy of 1,000 runners bunching together at 18:00 trying to remain in the shade as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ (The song adopted as the UTMB signature theme) blasted out of the speakers. The MC was gearing up the crowd and initiating a final countdown. It’s hard not to feel special in a moment like this. Before we knew it the countdown was over and we were shuffling along through the town, about to begin the first of many climbs.

I cannot recount two whole days of trail running. It would take me longer to write that much never mind that I’m sure none of us have the time to read a two day long recap. I do broadly remember the sections though, the feelings and emotions and I can stitch together the adventure with what I can remember…

The first 20km or so was an absolute delightful. For the first few hours we had the sun with us, as we took in some beautiful climbs between Pomarola and Geles which presented us with incredible views and a mesmerising sunset behind the mountains from Montpius. All along this section we were like children playing. We had complete freedom. We were so pleased to be where we wanted to be, to be in the moment that we were laughing and joking non stop. We didn’t contain it to ourselves either but extended it to others, whether they liked it or not. Every time a runner went passed us, we made ‘fast car’ noises. Vrroooom. Every single time. It went down like a led balloon except for one guy who stopped in a fit of laughter and offered a fist bump. We liked him. We never saw him again though.

Bottleneck

Somewhere along the first climb there was a point where we all came to an abrupt stop. Runners waiting impatiently as the wide fire track converged to a single track path. We were at a physical standstill for a good five minutes. Those behind us would have waited longer. Oddly, after this, the etiquette improved and runners no longer tried to squeeze past each other and gain places along the narrow tracks.

As darkness settled in, we arrived at an aid station (Geles) which was manic. Runners were everywhere, grabbing what food and drink they could, layering up, shuffling through. There were chocolate spread sandwiches available which we snapped up and ate as we too started adding layers. Now the Sun’s heat had been replaced with the chilling mountain wind, a few moments break was enough for us to get very cold very quickly.

The next section saw us run towards the French border and soon after Antiga de Lin we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge deep in the night and began one of the biggest climbs of the course. The darkness here was our friend as it hid from our view the absolute monster of a climb. It was exhausting. The darkness masked the beauty but illuminated the ‘snake’ or runners by their head torches lighting up the trail. Every turn we took exposed more of the snake. It appeared to reach to the stars. One thing was clear, it was going to be a while to climb to the summit of Cap dera Picada (2400m).

Suspension bridge

The snake of runners was like a continuous train. Each runner was a carriage being dragged along by the momentum. Pulled from the front and pushed from the back. One would step to the side of the trail to break. The train would form up and fill the gap. Other times as runners re-entered the train it would adjust to accommodate them. It was an ongoing process. Every time I raised my gaze from the floor I’d see runners stepping aside or re-joining the train. We did it ourselves too, many times. At one point we stepped aside and sat down. We turned off our head torches and just sat there in the darkness. Above us was the Milky Way was visible, crystal clear. A beautiful sight worth stopping and taking in!

Eventually the trail became rockier as we approached the top. Above us runner silhouettes were all along the ridgeline, lit up by the Moon behind them. The Moon reflecting the Sun’s light and guiding us, showing us the way to go. Along the top the trails continued to undulate. The first of our collective low points hit us somewhere here during the night as Paul pulled up and vomited pretty severely. After this there was no stopping him and we struggled to hold pace and keep up with him. He’d struggled for a few hours during the night and was now emerging from his inner battle with the breaking of the new day.

We arrived at another aid station (Coth de Baretja) located on a long down hill section. We took some hot broth to warm us up and sat outside the tent in the chill. Already vans were collecting runners who were dropping out. The climb had claimed some victims. We were about 45km in at this point. We knew the next time we’d stop would be at the 55km mark. So off we went, heading into the day break as the morning Sun started to break through the darkness of the night before. Experiencing a day break on a trail run is an amazing and powerful experience. The energy it brings is difficult to describe. Your tiredness gives way with a freshness that only the Sun’s rays can provide. We were moving freely again and soon found ourselves approaching the aid station in the school at Bossost.

This was a significant milestone. The 55km mark. It sounds insignificant but, besides being the first of three aid stations with hot food and about a third of the race, it meant we’d now covered over 4,000m of elevation gain. Over 55km that is quite a lumpy run! The rest of the 6,000m was more spread out with a lot more downhill to cover. Before the race we’d aimed to get to this point without being completely broken. If we could do that, we knew we stood a good chance of getting through to the end. As we sat there, gathering our thoughts, we were hustled by a volunteer telling us that we had an hour until the cut off at 08:45. We knew this and weren’t bothered. We knew we were capable of completing the race and were currently way ahead of schedule with a projected finish around 40 hours. But, suddenly, we felt a little on edge. We were now aware of how tight these cut offs actually were. It felt crazy that with so much time in the bank we were being hurried at just the fifth aid station and first thing in the morning. It was now very apparent to us that a lot of runners would not be making this cut off!

After Bossost came Canejan and from there Sant Joan de Toran. Both of these were fairly short sections and didn’t include too much climbing. One of them was a 6km stretch and I remember thinking it was one of the hardest 6km I’d ever done. There was an initial part that ran along side some industrial factories and then the paths took us through some forest sections along a cycle/adventure track next to the main road. I remember signs for UTMB all long here. Then we began to climb, crossing over a dam and a massive waterfall. Each section had maybe 400m of climbing, but it felt like so much more. I was tired!

Being tired now was not a good thing. As we approached midday, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, we embarked on the next huge climb towards Tuc des Crabes (2,400m). Here we’d climb 1,500m through a valley. We started off through some lush green forests before the path opened up in the valley floor. We stopped at a river where some runners were completely submerging themselves. Paul and Darryl filled up some fresh water, I stuck with the 2 litres of Tailwind I’d prepared at the last aid station.

We met an Australian, Matt, and chatted with him as we climbed. Like the runners around us, we’d break frequent and often, sitting in the shallows of shade on the mountain paths. Often you’d stop when there was a chance as runners littered the path seeking out the shade spots. By now we were seeing familiar faces that we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the night (and would continue to do so with until the finish!). Stephen another Brit, David from Scotland and two Spanish guys who we could barely communicate with other than make fast car noises at – like the guy early on, they saw the funny side in it. We’d clearly done it to them when they’d passed us and sometime later they repaid the favour to us. It was now a running joke with them and we loved it. Every opportunity the five of us would ‘Vroooom’ each other and laugh.

The climb was exhausting. It was the midday heat. It sapped our energy. The higher we climbed though, the better the views became. After the climb came a descent into Pas Estret. By now our mood had changed dramatically. All three of us were now feeling the toils of the climb. We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. the terrain over the last 50km had been very rocky and our legs and feet were feeling the blunt of it. We were looking forward to a break at the aid station and were disappointed when we reached it. As he shuffled in, we saw four vans fill with runners who were dropping out. Inside the tent, runners were laying everywhere. It was struggle to reach the food as runners rested in the shade under the tables. The food was sparse with the aid station having run out of many things and the rest was simmering in the sun. Sandwiches were dry and stale, chocolate was melted in the trays and the water was warm. Luckily I’d been fuelling well so far and still had plenty of food on me that I’d sourced from Xmiles before the trip. Some more Stroop Waffles and some Kendal Mint Cake sorted me out as we stopped to rest. We then had to force ourselves to leave knowing we had another climb to do.

Up to the Iron Mines

We knew we had to keep going. We also knew that, after the next climb we’d be treated to the views of the old Iron Mines. We’d read about and seen glimpses of these in various YouTube videos we’d watched to recce the route from afar. When we reached them, they didn’t disappoint. First we ran through some tunnels on the edge of the mountain with the old cart tracks still in place. Through the tunnel, panoramic views of Lac de Montoliu in the valley floor greeted us. Further up the old mining structures, dilapidated and left in ruins. My mind whirled wondering all the scenarios for how they were built this high up in the mountains in such a remote area. Before descending we encountered a group of guys with a trumpet. They played a tune for each runner and cheered us all on. We loved it. We sat with them for a bit and cheered along with them. They entertained our requests and even played the UTMB theme for us when Paul emerged on the summit. This section of the route was very rocky but it was an iconic section for sure. The rocky trails back down were difficult to run on and jabbed at my feet as we covered the 1,000m decline into the next aid station.

Before long, night was closing in once more and I powered on ahead of the others knowing our drop bags at 104km were waiting for us. To my horror, when I arrived I was told we were only at 98km and the drop bags were at the next aid station. This was Montgarri, not Beret, I was mortified. Paul and Darryl asked the same when they arrived behind me. The only good news was that it was 6km to Beret and it only had 200m of incline and 40m descent to cover. We layered up again and pushed on. A quick pose for a photograph we trekked on into the forests.

We continued on and reached Beret as the night descended into darkness. We made a joint call to try and get some sleep. A micro sleep. We had a long way to go and another full night to endure. We knew there were some ‘technical’ (let’s be honest, by now we’d realised that the majority of the trail was very technical!) later on. We gave ourselves an hour at the checkpoint. Eat, freshen up and use whatever time we could to sleep. Darryl found a deckchair, Paul laid out on the floor and I placed my head on a table. None of us really caught any sleep, but I’m sure the rest and moment to close our eyes helped more than we realised.

As we headed back out, still maybe an hour ahead of the cut off times, it was howling. Since we’d stopped, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped rapidly. As we walked on, we were descending again when we were joined by Rodrigo. A Portuguese gent living in Cambridge. He’d come alone and, like us, had never experienced running through two consecutive nights without sleep of running. He asked if he could stick with us to ensure he was safe and didn’t fall asleep in the night. We obliged and acknowledged we weren’t moving that quickly anymore but he was happy to stick with us.

I was hitting a lull here and was very happy in my own little bubble just head down and plodding onwards. My feet and legs had been hurting for a long time and I was really feeling them now. The 700m descent into the villages of Unha and then Salardu were slow and painful for me and I didn’t enjoy the cobbled streets or rocky trails along the river. Each turn in the villages seemed frustratingly familiar even though we’d not be here before. In the depth of the night, Paul was sick once more. Each of us were battling in our own ways and all we could do was grind away at the terrain in front of us.

The cut offs were once again looming and were now very much at the front of our minds. We knew we’d be fine and that the cut offs would be more lenient later in the race. But, for now, we were shuffling to ensure we made it. We left Salardu about 45 mins ahead of the cut off and left with a purpose. The next aid station was at Banhs de Tredos with a cut off at 05:00. It was 12km away with a whopping 800m climb (the fifth biggest single climb of the race). We were so confident that if we made it there in time, we’d no longer have to look over our shoulders at the cut offs.

We had a quick turn around at the aid station and formed a plan to put some speed in over the next 12km. We kept it simple and simply set out to once more beat the next cut off and hopefully bank a little time along the way to attempt another sleep. So we did. We left with a brisk pace. Powering up the roads before tackling the 800m climb through the dense forest. We worked as a team. Sticking together and clearing a path up passed other runners. We took breaks to rest and fuel every 200m. Ticking them off. Hard and fast. We were up the 800m climb in what felt like no time at all.

Into the second night

At the top the hills evened out and the vast forests we were in became visibly more clear. We descended back down a little and made it to the checkpoint with plenty of time. We all went straight into a position to sleep. Paul and Rodrigo on the floor laying on cardboard boxes. Me and Darryl hunched over on chairs with our heads on the table. It was cold in the tent and so we all had emergency foil blankets draped over us. We all woke a short time later when we were shivering. A volunteer asked us if we were leaving. I acknowledged we were and rallied the others. We all seemed fine and we had plenty of time before the cut off. Now though we had more climbing to do. It was time for the ‘technical’ section and another 1,000 meters of ascent…

As we left Banhs de Tredos it was very cold and dark. The others dug out more warm layers but I opted just for the addition of my windproof smock. I figured that I’d soon warm with the exertion of the next climb. I wasn’t wrong. Almost immediately we started climbing. Here the terrain was wet and muddy and the trails that were littered with huge boulders to overcome. There was a lot of lunging movements as we climbed. It soon dawned on me that there would be no let up, it was going to be like this all the way to Colomers…

Eventually the darkness started giving way to the light of Sunday morning and the sheer beauty of our surroundings started to reveal themselves. We were 2,000m high and, glistening ahead of us, the stillness of lakes sat in wait. We could see the head torches of runners skirting the perimeter of the lakes up ahead and we followed the paths they created. The further we went, the lighter it became, the more surreal the surroundings became. Each bit of climbing brought more lakes to trek around, each more majestic than the ones before. However, the terrain was truly brutal. With 130km in our legs, I was in no place of mind to enjoy the beauty. It’s a shame. Being miserable with the demands of the course I purposely left my GoPro in my drop bag back at Beret. I had no interest in the effort of turning it on anymore. Looking back, this was my one regret. However my brain cannot undo what my eyes have seen and I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over these lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ranges on all sides.

As morning continued to dawn, we were still climbing. It made no sense. We were each in our own spaces now and I was plodding on ahead. I’d somehow wriggled myself to the front of all the runners in the area and was pretty much leading the way. I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was desperately seeking the orange marker flags amongst the grey terrain. Occasionally I’d see a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance but I could see no obvious way out of the mountains.

Bit by bit the route would reveal itself and we ended up climbing, literally rock climbing, our way out as we reached Tuc de Podo (2,700m). This was by far the most technical terrain I’d ever experienced. I can’t hide the fact I was quite scared at numerous points. I wasn’t alone feeling this way. As I reached the top, there were a few volunteers and we were scanned in. We’d been climbing for 3 hours solid. At a decent pace. Still aware there were cut offs looming at the stop after the next aid station. I sat and waited for Paul and Darryl, absorbing it the views and resetting my mind. Shortly after me the ‘fast car’ Spaniards arrived. One was fuming. I could see him berating the volunteer who scanned us in. When he saw me he joined me and found the words to communicate to me his frustrations. Basically that he thought it was dangerous. Tired runners who hadn’t slept for over 30 hours and who had already covered 130km should not be exposed to that terrain. I found myself agreeing. There were no real qualifying standards for the race nor prerequisites for having experience on this sort of terrain. Added to that, not once was any of our mandatory kit checked by the organisation (another frustration I’ll come to later…). He calmed himself down and carried on. I sat and waited.

descending with one pole

We had another 6km to the next aid station (Colomers). All down hill. But all rock and boulder fields. We were hustling. Stephen was near me and asked if I thought we would make it. I recall my response to him was “if we run”. So I kept running. Darryl and Paul were exhausted. Rodrigo seemed quite energetic. I told him to help me make the others hustle and move a little faster. I felt we needed to use the downhills to our advantage now. As we were running I had a disaster, one of my poles slipped down between to rocks and my momentum snapped it clean, breaking the lower section. Bollocks. I’d become so heavily dependent on the poles and knew I’d be using them for the rest of the route. I recalled earlier on a runner talking about carrying Gorilla tape. I said this out loud and Rodrigo responded with “it’s me”. Amazing. He patched up my pole with the tape and we continued on catching up with the others again. Sadly though it didn’t last and there was nowhere near enough tape to secure them properly. One pole it was going t to have to be then…

The downhill was tough. Darryl bonked and needed to stop and get some fuel in. As was the theme, runners we’d passed now passed us back. Back up and running I hustled us along. Looking back, I hadn’t picked up on the signs of how Darryl was suffering. I was so focused on getting us down to the aid stations. We bottomed out and with 1km to go crossed a dam at Lac de Major Colomers. Descending further we eventually arrived into the aid station we went. I was with Stephen again and he too was carefully watching the cut off times but had mistakenly thought the next cut off was here. It wasn’t though. It was Ressec in another 9km or so where the cut off was. We had time to make it for the 12:45 cut off for sure. We would make it. I was sure of it. If we made that then I was also sure we’d have no issues of finishing in the final 48 hours. I thought we’d get there by 12 and have 6 hours to finish. We made sure Darryl fuelled more here and I gave him some food from my Xmiles stash. The KMC recharge bars were particularly refreshing now. Then, in a small group with David and Matt in tow, we gathered our things and headed back out. Rodrigo had vanished before we reached the checkpoint. we assumed he was good now the night had passed.

The next climb was a bit of a shock to the system – it was an incredibly steep climb for 400m. I struggled with only having one pole and found it hard to support my body and pull myself up. The rocks were loose and we were all conscious of them moving and falling under our foot movements with runners above and below us. I reached the top and sat and waited for the others who I’d seen not far behind me on some of the switchbacks. As I sat I started dwelling on something Darryl had mentioned earlier on – We no longer had the few hour buffer we thought we did. Those early calculations we had of a 40-45 hour finish didn’t include the few attempts we made at trying to sleep during the night nor the sheer demand of a 3 hour climb through the rocky lake section. We had no spare time banked any longer. For the first time I was really concerned that there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t make it. We simply had to move faster than we were, there was no alternative.

I briefed the others when they arrived. All four of them acknowledging the situation. I took charge and led us down. Running where I wouldn’t normally run. I was powering us passed other runners. We were our own train now and we were shifting. A strange thing had happened to me. Normally in races, when I’m in pain then that is just the end of it. I endure and succumb to it. I accept the pains and hobble on. This time though, with the pressure and reality of being timed out, I somehow found a way to block it out. I described it like a switch that numbed the pain. I was able to run and ignore the pains. I was using my frustration of the event and the difficulty of the route to focus my effort into finishing. I was focused, this was going to get finished.

Darryl however was suffering. He wanted to finish, I knew that, but his anger and frustrations were only adding to his pain. He was hitting a very, very dark place. We were struggling to pull him out of it and find a way to to foucs him once more. After we had descended the next mountain, David continued on whilst I waited for the other three. They were further back than I thought and several other runners came passed before them. Darryl looked bad. They were all chatting though and carrying on what I thought was a bit of a leisurely pace. I walked ahead. I thought I’d wait for them at the next aid station, Ressec, and try again there to hustle them once they’d rested.

On the trails to Ressec, I later heard my name called out from behind. It was Paul and Matt was with him. No Darryl though. Paul said he was in a bad place and was walking slowly. Paul was feeling the urgency now too. We felt that there wasn’t much that could be done here and we continued to the aid station where we’d wait. We hoped another rest and more fuelling would do the trick so we carried on. We arrived at 12:05. 40 mins ahead of the cut off. I thought we could have got here around 11:30 but we’d dropped off the pace. It was still enough time to have a decent rest though despite meaning we no longer had 6 hours for the final two sections (a plan we’d discussed back at the last summit). At this rate it would be more like just over 5 hours. It was going to be tough now. Very achievable but we’d have to hurry ourselves along. One thing was certain was that we couldn’t make the time if we continued at the pace we had been going at over the last few kms.

We waited, expecting to see Darryl maybe 5-10 mins behind us. The clock kept ticking. We found some pizza. He still didn’t show. We were worrying now. Then, with ten mins to go, he showed up. He was exhausted and had been hallucinating. In hindsight we shouldn’t have gone so far ahead of him, we shouldn’t have left him. He was slurring his words explaining the hallucinations he’d been having. I don’t think he was fully aware of what was happening. I asked him what I could get him and he asked for water. I needed his cup, but he didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked him for it. When I eventually came back with water for him, we pushed him. He had just 5 mins remaining before the cut off and he needed to make a decision. He either dropped here, now, after 43 hours of running. Or somehow turn himself around in the minutes remaining and pushed harder than he was. Deep down, me and Paul knew the answer. But Darryl had to decide for himself. If he came, and we wanted him too, we’d stick together. But he had to be sure he could move quicker. He called it. He knew. I went outside to tell the volunteer that we would be leaving but also asked if there was a medic. If we were leaving without him we needed to know he wasn’t alone and was going to be ok.

And so, after 150km, the 3 became 2. Paul went to the toilet and I became emotional as I waited. It hit me hard. I was shaking and trying to hide it when a volunteer started talking to me and encouraging me to finish strong. I wanted it so much. But I didn’t want it this way. I wanted us all there. Darryl and Paul C too who was stuck back in London. Darryl had worked so hard. 150km! It was cruel. Paul pulled me back together and we set off. We now had a new mission. Two sections. 15km or so. 5 hours. That’s all that stood in our way. The first section was to be a 700m climb and a 300m descent. The last section a 400m climb and a 1200m descent. Not an ordinary 15km to overcome! This was not going to be an easy way to end a race…

We set off with a renewed focus, straight away we were passing people. We were moving with a (relatively) ferocious pace now and were completely comfortable with it. We passed people who left the aid station a long time before us. We acknowledged them. Those we’d been chatting to along the way asked after Darryl. Each time it made the goal more important. We had to finish now.

The first climb I kind of enjoyed. It felt like the most forgiving of the many we’d done over the past two days. A long looping fire track, long gradual single track switch backs through lush forests then a slightly steeper section climbing through the grassy mountain summit. At the top we rested on the crown. Staring at the descent down. 2km to drop 300m. At our pace maybe 30 mins. We’d absolutely annihilated this section. We ran the steep grassy descent and into the final aid station. We completed the section in 1hr 30. We’d planned for 3 hours for this and 2 hours for the last section. We knew now with certainty that we’d finish. The impact this had mentally was incredible. The relief and pressure dissipated and drained out of us. There was nothing but smiles at the finial aid station. Runners looking at each other knowingly, acknowledging the job was done. However, as the pressure drained so too did my ability to block out pain. As quickly as the power ‘switched on’ the same switch now flicked off. I was a spent force. There was no way to turn it back on.

The next climb was unforgiving. It was more direct and steep. I had to stop very frequently to sit down and breathe. Eventually we reached the top and began to descend. An huge descent to drop and a nasty way to finish off an already destroyed body. I felt everything. Every blister. Every stone. Every blade of grass. I walked. I only ran when gravity forced me to move faster than I could handle. David was with us now and as vocal about his pains as I was. We supported each other. Paul was far more spritely and high off the knowledge of the pending finish. He was on the phone arranging a live stream video of the finish for his fiancé and family. How he never tripped on the sharp downhills I do not know.

The trails gave way to the cobbled roads of Viehla. We’d ran this very section when we started the journey two days earlier. A few people were out clapping and cheering. One group had a shower hose spraying water into the street. We took turns performing for them and basking in the refreshing chill of the water. A few streets later we turned one last time and were now on the main road, the home stretch.

Darryl was there getting the ice creams in. We’d joked about this for days. A joke stemming back to when me and Darryl finished the TDS – we saw an ice-cream shop as we approached the finish line. We went to get one but we’re put off by the size of the queue waiting. So we said we’d finish here with an ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream man was rather slow and lacked the purpose we did. Darryl told him we’d be back and we told Darryl to run with us. The three of us reached that line together. We rang the bell. We rang the damn bell. It was over.

I know one thing for certain, running together we were stronger. We may have set off together and not quite finished together, but if it wasn’t for Darryl and Paul I wouldn’t have made it. We each supported the others, dragged us through our dark moments and made this adventure memorable for what it was. We did it together and the achievement is a shared one. He may not have physically rang his own bell at the end, but if Darryl didn’t make the hardest decision of the weekend, me and Paul may never have rung ours. I can’t thank these guys enough!


After Thoughts

Running is a bit of a conundrum. It isn’t easy. There is always physical and mental suffering involved. You achieve what you set out to, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles. Sometimes though you question whether it’s worth it. I’ll look back on this experience one day and maybe the thoughts will be different. But right now I can’t say I enjoyed that. It was tough. Far tougher than I expected and I expected it to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I think there is a very good chance that this will will actually be the toughest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve no desires to be in that ‘place’ again. I don’t really like the 100 mile distance. It’s a beast to conquer. This race is very though. Looking at the stats, the first finisher came in at 24 hours. The top runner took an entire day, that is 4 hours longer than UTMB! 50% of the participants did not finish. Nearly 500 runners set out and never made it back to the finish line. That tells you all you really need to now… it’s tough.

Throughout the run we moaned about the cut offs. We felt they were very tight and unforgiving. In hindsight though… we finished in the ‘golden hour’ so, arguably, the cut offs are perfectly good. If we’d been an hour later for any checkpoint, we wouldn’t have finished on time. On the flip side, without arrogance, I’m not a cut off runner. I’m always comfortably mid pack. So the entry level of the race is something to consider if you are thinking about signing up!

Overall, I also felt that the event didn’t carry the prestige of the UTMB name. The organisers acknowledge they have a lot to improve and that should be commended. But, the feeling out on the course was one of anger and frustration. The grumbles about the dangerous sections and cut off timings were common. Despite the language barriers, people were sharing these feelings. For me, two things stood out that fall well short of expectation for a UTMB branded event. Firstly the lack of mandatory kit check and secondly the aid stations.

Let’s start with the mandatory kit… there’s a big list, and rightly so. When playing in the mountains you need to be prepared. We were blessed with great weather for two days. However, the night we finished a thunder and lightning storm hit the region. It was an incredible storm that came on in no time. When we went to collect our bibs, that is all we did. Despite bringing everything, no one checked or asked for anything. They simply took our runners insurance, gave us the bib and that was it. I even asked if they wanted to see my kit and they said ‘no, tomorrow’. Tomorrow they never did neither, nor the next day. That’s right. Not once did anyone ask any of us for any single item of kit. At one of the early aid stations during the first night I did spot what looked like a table set up with paper lists of kit items. No one stopped us nor asked as we walked passed. The table was empty there was no reason not to ask at least one of us…

Given the severity of the consequences and the recent examples of when things go badly, I’m shocked that there was not a single item of kit checked over the two days. I thought this was very poor from the organisers.

Secondly, the aid stations. There were plenty and there was plenty of food. But… for a 48 hour race, there were some issues. There was a lack of variety and questionable quality controls. Most aid stations we arrived at presented us with discoloured fruit and dry bread that had been out in the sun for so long. Many food stations had trays where the food items, like chocolate, had melted and none of them offered any hot drinks other than some very cheap and bland broth. The exception to this was the pizza at Ressec. This felt completely out of place though and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reactionary rather than planned. Either way though it was very much appreciated. Most concerning though was the quantity. We were arriving into checkpoints that were running out of food. That should never be the case. Especially not with the early pace we were keeping! Thankfully I had so much of my own food from Xmiles that this wasn’t really a problem for me. This was meant to be supplementary though, and not my main source!

In the days after the event there was another twist in the saga as, after travelling home we each felt rather unwell. Soon after we discovered a Facebook group where over 500 runners have identified as having come down with the same symptoms of illness. The organisation are investigating the cause, but it has left a rather sore feeling for many of the participants!

Camino Lea Valley

When I think of ‘Daz N Bone’ (the brains behind Camino Ultra), I can’t help but sing the words “oh oh I’m in trouble, trouble…” from the tune they’ve used as their intro to their excellent Legends of Running Endurance podcast (plug for the guys, it’s an mega entertaining listen and a podcast that is well worth investing your time in). And that’s exactly how I felt going into this 50kn – in trouble.

Firstly, physical trouble. I’ve a wanky ankle. It seems to hurt when I run but holds up ok when I keep on running. With Val d Aran edging closer, I’ve been limiting the time I spend running and have slipped back into my inconsistent behaviours of running long and not frequently. Race wise I also felt in trouble as the course is so flat. I’ll mention this again for sure. It was going to burn.

Arriving into Welwyn Garden City I met Alan and JM on the train. We walked over to the start line where Darren greeted us, got us organised and took our kit bags for the finish line. Gigi was on hand to capture the moment as the three of us set off together. Alan was clear he was heading for a 5 hour finish. My aim too. JM would go wild and run faster for sure, she was holding back though hesitating about the navigation.

I stuck with her initially at a pace that was far faster than a five hour finish. But it was comfortable (for now) and I was enjoying the blast. After navigating a few turns through the town we found ourselves running some lovely trail paths and then about 4 miles in hit the underpass Daz had warned us about. It was flooded from a week of heavy rain. In the middle of it stood David filming the runners. There was no way around this. I’m sure some would stop and try to find a way out. It was clear there wasn’t an easy alternative though so I just ploughed straight in. High kneeing it splashing everywhere I ran straight at David. He loved it. The obscenities as he was splashed confirmed this. I was soaked through. Water up to my nipples and my face covered. I might have regretted it a little later on!!

Splash Splash Splash

Soon after the flood I told JM to go on ahead as I would drop the pace off a bit. She instantaneously vanished from sight! She was wearing a hi-vis top and it’s a good thing as I caught a glimpse of her ahead on the wrong trail. As she feared, she’d gone wrong. Hilarious. But, I’d need to correct her. Screaming after her I detoured but made sure to send the runner behind me in the right direction. Thankfully she heard my calls and was heading back towards me before I’d run too far wrong myself.

We joked about it as we ran through Hertfordshire village and she left me again just before that first aid station. From here the route hugged the river. It was pretty scenic and very flat. The chances of her getting lost again were very slim now as we’d follow the river all the way to Hackney. Earlier we’d covered the one short incline and ‘descent’ of the course and it was now also going to be as flat as it was straight. It was fairly peaceful with occasional walkers on the route and very few other runners during the first 20k or so.

After a while I started to catch a few groups of runners and the customary positive vibes exchanged. I remember one very smiley woman kitted out in the welsh flag and I chanted ‘Wales Wales Wales’ as I approached. Just like the unimaginative football fans do! It was a good week to be Welsh with the national team having pretty much guaranteed a qualification from their group at the Euros! Today was about running though and it was perfect running conditions for it – warm but an overcast day, no chance of over heating or getting sunburnt.

Shortly after passing a few groups I arrived into the second aid station that was supported by the team from KOM fuel. I took a few mins here to eat some food and refill the tailwind. All the while the guys providing excellent encouragement and jokes to entertain the runners as we reached the half way point.

As I left I started to formulate the plan for the next half of the race. Mainly acknowledging the legs were tiring and would soon start to flag. Early on I made the decision to keep running to the third aid station and then begin to drop some walking breaks into the run. Probably a few hundred metres in every km. I had nowhere to be and was well inside the target five hour time.

This next section was then pretty torrid purely because of the midges. Fucking midges. Millions of the little bastards. For many KMs I was like a car windscreen. So many sticking to my sweaty skin. Every time I wiped my face my hand was covered. My arms looked diseased with the black spots and my neck was smothered. I wondered what I’d look like to the passers-by.

Before I knew it I was arriving into the third and final aid station, topping up my water again before setting off. After I hit the 40km mark I executed the run/walk plan. I opted for 200m walk and 800m running for every km. first few went by like a breeze. This approach did mean I was counting the kms though which was mildly annoying and after a few km I wish I could forget the count but I couldn’t. I stuck with it though and continued passing people and wasn’t overtaken by anyone else. I figured this approach would add maybe 15-20 mins to my finish time if that?

Before I knew it I was back on familiar territory of the capital ring. I ran passed the pub where we met Pauls mate on our Capital ring adventure and I knew the finish line of Here East would be moments away. Soon enough a sign of “200m to the finish” appeared and I emerged under the bridge to cheers and claps from the supporters and other participants gathered in the finish area. A big cheer came from David and Dimi by the boat and I swooped under the finishers arch to receive my goodie bag and finishers photo from Gigi.

Moments later Alan crossed the line too. We met up with JM and Johnny and headed off in search of some food. Job done. Another excellent day out thanks to Camino Ultra!

Finishers!

North Downs Ridge 50km

It was somehow already the beginning of May and I found myself heading back down to the ever too familiar trails of the North Downs Way for the Freedom Racing North Downs Ridge 50k. This race was one of the ones that was cancelled earlier in the year and one that, in some ways, contradicted my Modus Operandi for races – which is to only do events that I really want to do (despite how obvious that may sound!). It’s the route you see. I’ve run It so many times (and you’ve read me type it so many times…) and this particular section of the North Downs Way which includes my least favourite part of the trail (purely because it’s so damn runnable!). It is because of the organiser though that I signed up. This was to be my third Freedom Racing event after the Serpent Trail and the Hurtwood and I’ve enjoyed each one immensely. FR are a small, family centred events company which I’m happy to support. So, off I went.

Tom, the Race Director, had adopted the now very familiar flexible start line approach for this event. I opted for the ‘faster’ time slot and arrived for 8am with a rough 5.5 hr finish in my mind (justifying starting in this group rather than the later group).

The start was easy. I walked from Dorking station to the event HQ at Denbies Vineyard. When I arrived it was straight into a short queue for registration. Bib and dabber collected, I went to the toilet and changed quickly in the field, dropped my bag off and then walked into the starting pen. I was the only one. No queuing. I dib-dabbed in and off I trotted.

The short queue at registration

The route starts with a short stretch and climb out of the Vineyard as you join the tarmac path of the first climb to the church at Ranmore. I wouldn’t normally run this but I was fresh and eager so I plodded on upwards. Passing the few walkers as I reached the top, I continued in the gentle pace I’d settled into with my heart full of joy of another adventure underway.

I mentioned a rough 5.5 hr finish time I had in mind, but really I had no real aims for the day and a sub 6 hour finish would, as always, be a good day out for a 50k for me. As a fairly hilly route with an out and back set up I’d be happy with that. Immediately after starting out though, I devised a game to keep the brain occupied – I’d keep a count of the people I passed and the people who passed me. I’d try and remain with a positive count by the end of the race. A small challenge but one with great potential for distracting the mind throughout the run. As I’d started behind the ‘slower’ group but at the start of the ‘faster’ group, I assumed it would be a comparable count each way. I added the rule that being ‘passed’ involved people overtaking me, people running in the opposite direction as me before I turned around (at about mile 12.5) and again people I saw coming the other way on the final loop. So potentially some runners could hit my count 3 times.

The view at Ranmore

It started good. The numbers were positive despite a few speedsters soaring passed (all in carbon road shoes I noted, the trails were very dry…) and it was steady progress. None of the hills here and until the sandy climb to St. Martha’s were steep enough to consider walking so I just kept plodding along. I skipped through the first aid station as it was only about 5 miles in. I had enough food and water to last a while and knew it would help avoid it becoming too busy as the first ones always do.

Those first 12 miles then wizzed by and and a few familiar smiling faces helped add a little atmosphere and buzz to the day. I was heading down the descent from at St. Martha’s to the next aid station, where we’d turn around, and my number count was going haywire. I was around 50 and suddenly struggled to keep count as I passed runners and runners came towards and passed me. I was suddenly around 20 by now.

I then almost stepped on some Goodr sunglasses and stopped to pick them up, checking with each runner coming passed if they’d dropped them. I had better luck as I announced my arrival at the aid station with a loud “anyone drop their glasses?” to which thankfully someone realised they had indeed dropped them. Chatting to the lady I completely lost count of who came and went in the aid station. So I stopped my game and pigged out on sausage rolls, flapjacks and frazzles. Delightful. Fully stocked I headed back out, jogging the climb to St Martha’s once more.

On the return leg, more familiar faces were there with big hi fives from Meg and Daisy and a fleeting hello to Frank at the top of the hill. Back down the sandy path I went. Beaming in the sunny, warm mid morning sunshine.

Running back to the next aid station and onto Denbies again was all very unmemorable. I just kept steady, holding the pace and realising that I was actually holding pace for a solid effort at a sub 5hr 50k. I don’t think I’d ever gone sub 5 before. Other than a marathon distance and 100 miles, I’ve no idea what any of my PBs actually are. But now I had a new game to play, a new way to occupy my mind for the last ten or so miles. I just needed to keep on steady and hold the pace…

I briefly stopped to refill some water at Denbies and carried on for the final loop. This section, as we’d head towards the village of Westhumble, was new to me. Straight away we were met with a long ol’ road incline which warranted a walk. No point busting a gut here. It was much longer than I expected and glancing at the watch I noted that the elevation gain ticked over 700m. I wasn’t expecting that much elevation for the day either, but it made me feel strong, given how little walking I’d done and how comfortable I felt.

Soon I was back on trails and it was delightful to experience a few miles of new trails to explore. The whole loop was deceivingly uphill which I tried to hold my pace on. By the time I’d completed the loop and was heading back down the road section I saw that I’d done another 100m of elevation gain. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Back through the vineyard

Crossing back over the NDW it was now down into Denbies for the final straight through some of the vineyard and across the finish line. Dib dab done. I stopped the watch and I was a few mins under 5 hours. Tidy. I’ll have some of that.

Medal hunter

I dropped the timing chip off. Collected my bag and checked the train times. With one in 20 mins I knew I had time for a quick change of clothes and a fast hike to the station. I stopped to get a picture next to the Freedom Racing trailer and a rapid chat with Tom the RD, thanking him for another excellent adventure before I trundled off.

Another day, another race. Another sense of achievement. Job done.

The Ones That Got Away

The Covid-19 pandemic. From a purely selfish running perspective will be remembered, by me, for the absence of 16 events I would have completed. Yes, would have – despite the challenges they pose, I believe you have to attack them with confidence. That’s a fair few events and the ones I’m classing as the ones that ‘got away’, the ones that, someday sooner or later, I will conquer….

Each one of these events represented a different challenge, different reasons why I’d signed up to them and also different reasons why they eventually didn’t happen. One day I’m sure I’ll want to remember these details, so here’s a summary…

Hardmoors 55 – An adventure with mates. Instigated by Jon, as this was to be one of his races in preparation for his maiden 100 mile run (the SDW100). A group of 6 of us agreed to go north to Yorkshire and tackle this 55 mile, unmarked ultra by one of the well renown and respected event organisers in the running world. Scheduled for the end of March 2020, it was inevitably the first of my scheduled races to bite the dust as the UK was plunged into lockdown two weeks beforehand. Rescheduled for November it was once again cancelled when the second lockdown was implemented. I’m now deferred to race in March 2022. Third time lucky…

Boston Marathon – This one hurt. One of the World Marathon Majors. Everyone knows about Boston Marathon, the history and the prestige but also the difficulties in qualifying. My sub 3hour marathon (at Berlin 2018) gained me that Boston Qualifying time. In 2019 it still wasn’t enough and I didn’t have enough of a buffer with all the BQ applicants. 2020 I was a year older, my BQ time flattered by an extra 5 mins for my new age group, I was in. Then I wasn’t. Patriots day was mid-April and countries all around the world were deep into lockdown. Just a few weeks before the event it was all called off. It was a pain to cancel all the flights and hotels and try to recuperate expenses for what is a very financially demanding race! The organisers later rescheduled the event for September but this too was also cancelled and made into a virtual event. I ran the virtual Boston race purely for the finshers items. 2021 was postponed from patriots day (which landed on my Birthday) and is now planned for October. I shall roll the dice again and hope my BQ time is good enough for the reduced field size proposed for the 125th Boston Marathon. It won’t be the same, but it will still happen….one day.

Maverick Snowdon X Series – I’d planned to do the Snowdon X Series ultra with a group of friends from the Wild Trail Runners. May was too soon and it was inevitable that this event was cancelled. Sadly it’s not scheduled for 2021 either so I will have to wait patiently. Thankfully I was able to move my entry to their Peak District X Series Ultra which DID go ahead in 2020….

Maverick Original Sussex – A short one at a mere 20km, I signed up to this for the joy and atmosphere of Maverick Races. Another early summer race that was quickly cancelled. I’m deferred onto the 2021 event in a few weeks which IS going ahead. I can’t wait to run with the Maverick lot again!

Edinburgh Marathon – This one I never really wanted to do, but I agreed to run it with someone else. Nothing against Edinburgh, just it seems a bit of a pain in terms of logistics. Still, it was postponed, then it was cancelled and became another virtual event which I did. I took the voucher option after it was cancelled and recently it was announced that the 2021 event has also been cancelled. I don’t know when, but this one will be near the bottom of the list of events I rearrange to conquer…

Strandja Fjord – A big trip to Norway was planned for August. Over ten of us were venturing to the Fjords for what felt like it would be a real adventure. The 100km race has over 7,000m of elevation and some quite brutal looking terrain. Sadly none of us were surprised when this one was also cancelled and we immediately deferred to 2022. I did partake in the virtual event (with just 2 other participants on the 100km virtual!!) they held for this as I had a back up race planned – After signing up to the NDW100 I then went and booked this event on the same day. I never cancelled my place on the NDW100 and it did happen. So I submitted the run for the virtual event and claimed my “Corona Edition” tee shirt as a bonus.

Wild Boar (Persenk) Ultra – This race in Bulgaria was another one I never wanted to do. I’d never even heard of it. After failing to get their place in the CCC ballot, Jon and Ged hatched a plan and came across this little known race in the mountains of Bulgaria. Before I knew it I too was tagging along. And then I wasn’t. After not wanting to do it, now I REALLY want to do it. The race did go ahead towards the end of August, however the travel restrictions meant that, one by one, everyone else planning to go had to pull out. I came so close to going by myself. The flights and accommodation were booked, the quarantine was arranged, the mandatory bear bell was purchased, work even signed me off to work remotely from Bulgaria. Ultimately it came down to the fact it wouldn’t quite be the same without everyone else and it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do – suddenly jump on a plan and travel during a pandemic. I bailed. Other commitments mean this isn’t going to happen in 2021, but who knows for 2022….

Chicago Marathon – We knew fairly early on that this one also wouldn’t happen. Another World Major Marathon, there was no way that an event of this scale would take place in October. A blessing at first as I’d booked two massive ultras and a marathon in America in the same month. But then the whole month was cancelled…. Chicago Marathon have been great with their refund policies and I have the option to run the race in either 2021, 2022 or 2023. I won’t be doing it in 2021 due to other deferrals and the crossed fingers for Boston! 2022 we will see…

Cappadocia Ultra Trail – This has been on the wish list for a few years. I’ve heard so many fantastic things about the Urgup region and the Cappadocia Trail. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be and I’m really hoping it does get to go ahead in 2021. The benefit of the deferral has been that there is now an even bigger group of us booked to go this year!

13 Valleys Ultra – This was a new race planned for 2020. Through some contacts I’d managed to get a place at the event and I was very excited to go run around the Lake District (I’ve still never been). Unfortunately, being a new event, the organisers just didn’t have the option to plan and prepare everything needed during a lockdown to be able to execute the event the way they wished. I’m hoping they are able to bring the event to life in the years to come…

Wendover Woods 50 – The first of the substitutes… With so many cancellations, I was frantically trying to replace ‘lost events’ in my calendar. After the success of the Centurion Running NDW100 I signed up and got a place on their Wendover woods 50km. 3 Loops of Wendover Woods, at night…. Nothing about this race appeals to me. One loop of Wendover Woods is painful enough. I’ve run two at night before and it hurt, a lot. Alas, I’m deferred to 2022 (due to a date clash in 2021) and now have and extra 18 months of pre-suffering to endure.

Camino Lea Valley – A small and new ultra from the DazNBone duo that is Camino Ultra. Another substitute for all the other cancellations. Sadly this too was deferred to November and then fully cancelled. Roll on summer 2021 where I will conquer it.

Cheviot Goat – I didn’t want to do this one either. There is a theme here and that theme is “Jon”. Jon talked me into this one also. This one is different though. I don’t want to do it because I know it is going to be tough. Winter in the Cheviots will make it hard. 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it tougher. A single Aid station in 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it very tough. No course markings, a single aid station in 55 miles in winter in the cheviots makes me not want to do it. I’m going to do it in Winter 2021….

Hurtwood Double – I’ve done the Hurtwood 50km in 2019. I’ve run the route many times too. I had no desire to go and do it again. Then after cancelling their 2020 edition and moving it to January, I signed up because they offered a choice to do it twice over two days and claim the Hurtwood Double. Good luck unravelling my logic there. I took the refund when the event was subsequently postponed again and the date moved to one which I already had a race booked in for. I’ll stick with the 2019 medal on this one.

St Peters Way – This was one I talked Nick into. I’ve not run much up in Norfolk and this 40-odd mile point-to-point ultra sounded like a good way to (1) see some of the area (2) get Nick running further than 50km in preparation for his 50 miler later in 2021. The New Year lockdown meant this plan has been shafted into 2022.

North Downs Ridge – I’ve no idea why I signed up to this. I’ve seen enough of the North Downs Way in the last year. I don’t particularly like this section (from a running event perspective). But I did sign up because I’m needy and have issues. I’m now doing it in a few weeks, May 2021….

Your Community Needs You

Volunteering at the Centurion Running NDW100 in 2019

Let’s talk about volunteering…. I’ve done a fair bit of volunteering at running events in the past few years. It is something I enjoy and really do like giving back and supporting events, particularly those that I have run in or would like to participate in. Race volunteering can be quite a complex thing. Where do you start? How do you get involved, what will I be expected to do, need to bring etc. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences on volunteering at running events.

Why Should I Volunteer?

Race volunteering, Let’s be honest up front, it isn’t a selfless act. There are many, many benefits in it for the individual. Most race organisers offer an incentive in some form to encourage volunteers. It may be a free tee shirt, a free race entry for the following year, vouchers or kit from sponsoring partners as well as many other freebies in the form of food and sponsored gifts. Some of the larger, international races also provide accommodation for volunteers, particularly for stage races where volunteers work multiple consecutive days. Besides these obvious tangible benefits, there are also the less obvious benefits like networking. You get to make connections with key people in the industry and form friendships with other runners and volunteers you’ll frequently meet at events. These can lead to all sorts of future opportunities, but, more importantly, friendships. Also, it is fun and a nice thing to do.

That being said, whilst we may offer our time to volunteer because we want to take advantage and for example, participate in the event the following year, these incentives might not always outweigh the commitment. A race entry for example might be anywhere from £50 to £200 quid for a UK trail ultra. That’s a small price to pay to enter an event and normally exceptional value for money. Volunteering isn’t always free. Typically you’d give up a whole day, maybe 8 hours or more of your time to support (to gain a spot in an event through volunteering, there will usually be a minimum commitment of volunteer hours required). You’ll spend possibly hours travelling to and from the event and that costs too. So if you really want to do a race, volunteering isn’t normally the most cost effective way to do it. Although, for popular events with limited places, a guaranteed entry for volunteers could be a significantly worthwhile investment of your time rather than playing with the race lottery.

Most importantly though, race directors and organisers need volunteers. We want so much for these events to be available to us, and they don’t happen without a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make them a reality. Race Directors often rely on small armies of volunteers to support them and make sure the events run as smoothly as they do. If you want events to continue to happen, to continue to be affordable and viable to run, give back and help out where you can.

After running the SVP100 3 times, in 2020 I finally earned the ‘yellow’ Volunteer tee.

How Do I get involved?

Simple, contact the race organiser. Most race organisers will have a specific section on their website or even a dedicated email address to contact if you would like to help out. Drop them a message or get in touch with them via their social media pages or in person if you’re at the event. Most organisers are desperate for help and will welcome your offer with open arms. Be patient though, there is a lot going on when organising events so it may take them a while to respond and take you up on your offer or they may direct you to someone else to speak to. Don’t be put off if that is the case. Many events have community groups and Facebook pages where you can also get involved and make contact with the organisers too.

I’d highly recommend getting in touch with Maverick Race, Centurion Running and the SVP100Ultra as great events to volunteer and support at…

What about pre event day?

Leading up to an event you can expect to be contacted by someone from the organisation to give you some instructions. They’ll ask for your key contact details and any information to help them support you (e.g. dietary requirements if they are providing food for the day) and details that could help them arrange all the volunteers. For instance if you can drive, if there are preferred roles you’d like to support with, if you are first aid trained or able to provide additional support during the day. Besides all that though, you need to be prepared yourself and think about how you will be ready to support on the day. Things to think about are:

  • Figure out where you need to be and when – Do you know what is expected of you and when?
  • How are you going to get to the event – This is likely to mean getting to the race at least an hour before the race registration begins and before runners start arriving.
  • What do you need to take with you – Have you the right clothes for the day, do you have water and food supplies to see you through?
  • Make sure you know who to ask for when you arrive. Don’t be offended when it’s assumed you are an eager runner who has turned up early!

What might I end up doing?

Types of roles and responsibilities you can expect to get involved with could include any or all of the following, depending on the scale of the event. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of roles, but if you are a first time volunteer you’ll probably end up doing something like this, so don’t expect to be managing and coordinating other volunteers, acting as a deputy race director or MC-ing and event!

  • Set up and support at an event village – Race villages don’t set themselves up. Tents and marquees need constructing. Fences, flags and tape need laying out. Tables and layouts need arranging. Kits, race numbers, medals and all sorts of stuff need setting out. At one event I volunteered at we even had to construct the winners trophies and ensure all the engraving was placed on the correct trophies!
  • Course Marking – Most events will have signs and/or tape to help direct runners and keep them on the correct route. You may be able to get involved with walking/running the route and either setting out the course markings or checking they are still all in tact!
  • Parking – someone needs to coordinate the runners when they arrive at an event by car. Humans persistently demonstrate that we can’t be relied upon to park responsibly!
  • Registration – This is a hugely varied role from welcoming runners, to checking people are who they say they are, that they have paid to run the event, that they have their bib numbers and any other race items required (like pins, trackers). It could be that you are providing critical safety instructions, providing runners with their race packs like t-shirts or other gifts. In some events you might also be tasked with checking people have the required and mandatory kit with them.
  • Directing runners and supporters (e.g. where to go, what to do) – Races are exciting right? We all turn up with butterflies in our stomach, see people we know and ultimately don’t focus on what we need to do or where we need to go. How many times at an event have you asked where the toilets are, where the drop bag is or which way to the start line even? You might be that person providing the critical directions needed!
  • Drop bag stands – we’ve all experienced the carnage of a badly managed drop bag zone. It isn’t an easy task to take in bags from runners, ensure they are correctly labelled, stored in the right place and sent to the right checkpoint (if it is for a mid-race drop bag!). This can be incredibly stressful but vital to the efficient flow of runners at an event. We’ve all seen the crowds of runners pushing towards drop bag zones throwing bags over people queuing. You want to avoid it ending up that way!
  • Checkpoints and aid stations – most races will have, at minimum, a water stop. Ensuring these are set up before the first runner and adequately stocked so all runners, right through so that not only the last runner but also the course sweepers are able to get water and fuel they need to carry on. 
  • Shopping. Speaking of checkpoints and aid stations. Where do you think all the food and drink comes from? Someone, somewhere, will have to go shopping and buy it all! If you are tasked with this you will most likely be given a shopping list with the types of things and quantity to buy. You also won’t be expected to pay for it out of your own pocket and will be told how to reclaim the expenses, so don’t worry if you do end up being sent to Tesco to buy 200lts of coke, 50 oranges and all the jaffa cakes you can find!
  • Marshal points directing runners – Ever got lost on a race because you took a wrong turn? Yep, me too. Most events will put marshals at key points to ensure runners don’t get lost. Be the human signpost. Keep everyone accounted for! Being a Marshal may even mean manually accounting for runners and ensuring no one is missing. You’ll have to be alert!
  • Marshalling road crossings – Likewise, you might end up standing at a road crossing. Most of the time you won’t be expected to stop traffic (on quieter country roads I do tend to do this if I have enough visibility of the road, the runners approaching the crossing and feel it is safe to do so) but you will be expected to stop the runners. When runners are in the ‘zone’ we do tend to be quite ignorant of what is going on around us. We didn’t see the warning signs put out 100m from the crossing warning us of the danger ahead, we were too busy listening to Tina Turner pumping out “Walking on broken glass” to hear the HGV roaring up the road. Sometimes even we are just too damn exhausted and spaced out to realise the impending danger. Marshalling a road crossing is all about being the eyes and ears for the runners and ensuring that they don’t unknowingly (or sometimes intentionally) dash out onto a busy road! 
  • Event finish line – medals, directing etc. This is like the registration in reverse. You might still be ensuring every runner gets their allotted items (medals, appropriate sized t-shirts etc), directing them away from the finish line, getting their photos, drinks and generally telling them where to go. You may also need to deal with that runner who has pushed themselves a little too hard or has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. You need to be on the ball at the finish line to spot those signs of a runner in need of a helping hand!
  • Drop bag collection – remember the prophesied carnage from earlier in the day…. Hopefully you’ll help to avoid that. At the same time though, recognise that this can be a time consuming role. Ever walked into a hall to find one bag amongst a few hundred? Even when it is meticulously laid out, it might be that one bag that is put in the wrong place. That one bag that has the name/number tag no longer attached. Ever seen a number ‘1’ that looks like a number ‘7’? Yep that can lead to confusion too! Or what about when you can’t find the bag and you ask a runner to describe it and they tell you it is ‘Green’ only it turns out the zip is the green bit and the rest of it is blue. Ever seen how many North Face Basecamp duffle bags are found at a trail race? Dozens of them, guaranteed, especially the yellow ones! It can take time to find the right bag, even under ideal circumstances. You also need to ensure you are giving the right bag to the right person. 
  • Course Sweeping – Safety of runners is paramount and the role of a sweeper is to follow (not closely!) the last runners and ensure the trails are swept of all event markings, litter and that all runners are accounted for and not left out on the route! This is a fantastic way to run some or all of an event whilst volunteering!
  • Pack up and closure of events – When you think it’s all finished, you remember the boxes you took out of the van, or the marquee you fought to construct in the wind… yep, they need to be put away. The rubbish needs to be picked up. It doesn’t finish until it looks like the event  never happened in the first place!

I’ve done most of these roles myself through volunteering. Some memorable times include being on Water and and Tailwind (hydration drink) duty at a checkpoint in the middle of the Centurion Running NDW100, to running up and down stairs to collect drop bags for runners at the SVP100 finish line, to standing alone in the woods in the pouring rain marshalling road crossings and course sweeping and collection for Maverick Races to even spending 8 hours dancing inside a giant penguin costume at the London Winter Run. The role of a volunteer is a varied one.

The 2018 Winter Run. I was kept warm as a dancing penguin. I fucking hate dancing!

What to expect

  • Larger events, like a mass participation road event, you’ll tend to rock up at a set time, meet a team leader, be given instructions and get on with it, leaving at a set time
  • At a smaller event, you may meet the entire team of volunteers and be involved in a little of everything
  • Be prepared to go the extra distance. You can’t expect the race directors and team to pander to you and your needs. It may be that you need to figure out a way to get to your volunteer spot in the middle of nowhere. Local transport, run, walk if you can. Don’t be put off if you can’t get a lift to where you need to get to!
  • Hanging around alone. You have a responsibility to ensure the safety of runners. That might mean you are waiting for hours before you first see a runner and are on point for a long time after the last runner goes past. Be prepared for loneliness, but stay alert.
  • Be prepared to travel – races won’t be on your doorstep. It is your responsibility to manage your time and ensure you are where you need to be when you should be!
  • Be patient. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions before volunteering and even after (when will I get my free stuff?!), but be patient. The race directors will be fielding endless amounts of questions from participants, other volunteers, locals and the community surrounding the event as well as authorities giving the race the permit to proceed. You won’t be forgotten about, be patient whilst the questions are prioritised and addressed.
  • Most races you’ll volunteer at will be experienced. They’ll have plans and processes in place for coordinating and managing the volunteers. You’ll be told what to do and given what you need in good time. Don’t panic if you’ve not been given detailed instructions weeks before the race!

What to do

  • Get involved. Offer help, ask what you can do. It might just be unloading boxes from a van, but it needs doing. Take the initiative and don’t just stand about like a lemon waiting to be instructed.
  • Do it with passion, do it with interest. Standing around at the side of the road or in the middle of a wet field might sound dull but you can make it interesting. Dance, sing, clap and cheer. Be stupid. Make people laugh, bring some enjoyment to what you are doing and it will rub off on others.
  • Entertain and support. As a runner you’ll know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a big smile and someone encouraging you on. This is your opportunity to give back
  • Be prepared. It can be long and tiring volunteering. Take food, take plenty of water, take warm and appropriate clothing. 
  • Gain some knowledge about the event. Passers by will want to talk to you and find out what you are doing. Make sure you know how to give them information and share the word about the event. 
  • Be prepared to support runners. We always want to know where we are, how far left to go, where is the water etc. Make sure you have the key information to hand. No one enjoys it when they are told there is ‘only 1 mile to go’ but that 1 mile turns out to be 3 miles.
  • Explore your surroundings, this I think is particularly more relevant for trail events. Go past your checkpoint, explore just before it. Know where runners are coming from and where they are going and what hazards they can expect to encounter. You can help them prepare then.
  • Make sure you know who to contact in an emergency. This could be in the case of an injury to a runner, an angry local who has a complaint or your own personal situation should it arise. 
  • Be yourself, bring your character
Getting my thirst on with Centurion Running & Tailwind

Some things to think about

  • Understand the commitment you are making. That free tee shirt sounds great, but do you really want to help and are you committed? I’ve already mentioned the stresses leading up to organising a race. The last thing organisers need is a volunteer pulling out last minute because they’ve changed their mind. Obviously sometimes life means you have to pull out, but don’t pull out because you’ve changed your mind or underestimated the responsibility you’ve volunteered for.
  • Be prepared. Events are prepared to deal with the inevitable injuries to a runner, but they are not prepared for the avoidable situation where a volunteer has caught pneumonia because they didn’t bring a jacket, or they didn’t bring water and are dehydrated etc.
  • Make sure you can get there on time and can get home afterwards. It isn’t a race director’s responsibility to coordinate you or help you when you realise you missed the last train home because you weren’t prepared.
  • Be helpful. Don’t be rude, don’t try and dominate or change the processes in place. If you have feedback, save it and provide it directly to the event organiser, maybe after the event, as a suggestion for future consideration. You are there to help runners, be patient with them. It is inevitable they will ask questions you’ve heard a 100 times already that day, or be frustrated that the course was 10 meters longer than they thought. Remember you are representing the event and the organisers. Be helpful where you can.
  • Be thankful. Build those relationships for next time you volunteer or participate in the event.

SO…

Whatever your reason, volunteering is incredibly fulfilling. Don’t be put off, don’t feel guilty that you are doing it for the wrong reasons such as the personal incentives. Don’t be afraid of being uncomfortable. Races rely on the support and volunteers to make them happen. Behind every race is an army of people getting involved. Many of these you will never see on race day. I’ve volunteered because I want that race entry (thanks Centurion Running!) or a particular tee shirt (yep, I wanted the yellow SVP100 tee in my collection!) or a voucher to buy some trainers (Cheers Maverick Race!) I could afford to just buy anyway. But, despite all this, for each event I’ve volunteered at, I’ve gained knowledge, experience, thanks and memories that go far beyond just running. Be part of the community you love so much, get involved!

Marshalling road crossings with the Maverick Race hi-vis