I’m privileged that I can. That I’m capable of running.
I’m privileged that I have the means and motive to run. That I want to run.
I’m privileged that I don’t have any restrictive illnesses or impediments to running. That I’m able to run.
I’m privileged that I’m supported by friends and family. That I’m encouraged to run.
I’m privileged that my lifestyle enables me to run. That I enjoy running.
But why am I telling you this? It’s a reaction. Life is full of comparisons, expectations and assumptions. Sometimes they are frustrating. I can’t deny that on occasions they’ve frustrated me a little too. Conversations with strangers, acquaintances, friends and even loved ones become repetitive and frankly a sometimes a little annoying.
There are words, phrases, sentences and the way conversations are constructed that, whilst well intentioned, can have a negative connotation. “You’re crazy”, “you need to slow down”, “you’re going to hurt yourself”, “how do you do it?”, “how many races have you done now” are a few that have that effect on me.
‘Crazy’ is a word bandied around like other sayings that I think can play down achievements and come across (to me) as sort of negative and backhanded compliment. Almost like you have no belief in someone’s ability, that they are naive or stupid, that you are questioning what they do and what they are capable of. Sometimes I wonder if they are they covering a person’s own insecurities, failings and fears? That’s the critic in me thinking. They are similar to phrases like ‘you’ve lost weight’, ‘you look skinny’, ‘you look tired’. They can go so far the other way from a compliment that you give the recipient a new complex.
So, I’m not crazy.
No one knows their own body like one’s self. It’s true. We all know when something is not right or actually when we feel fantastic. No doctor or diagnosis can tell you that, it’s a gut feeling. No one knows the strength and depth of our own mindset. Our own determination to achieve and succeed is limited only by our minds. Not someone else’s.
So I’ll just say that, whilst I’m still very inexperienced as a runner, I know what I’m doing.
I know what the consequences of what I’m doing are and I’m at ease with them (one example being I believe that, as a runner, injury is inevitable at some point regardless).
I know what I can and cannot do.
I know where my strengths and weaknesses are, and I utilise them both.
I know what to do to empower myself and set myself up for success. I’m not doing this blindly, I work hard and I prepare.
I know it can’t last for ever, that it isn’t sustainable, so I’m doing what I can, what I want, while I can.
I know all those privileges I have can change at any time for reasons of my own doing or those out of my control. So I’m doing what I want before I have responsibilities and life changes that impede me.
I know one day I’ll lose the love. Lose the passion. So I’m enjoying the ride (run?) Before that happens and before I stop enjoying running.
Why am I so confident? How do I know I can with such certainty? Because my approach is different (although not original, it is probably different to yours anyway). My mindset is different too. I live a very active lifestyle but I don’t run that much really. Not in terms of frequency anyway, once maybe twice a week if that. And the intensity is low, very low. I don’t push myself, test myself or challenge myself in that regard. I run slow. I run consistent. I run relaxed. I run to enjoy. I run with a smile on my face. The strain on my body is far, far less than you’d probably think. The recovery involves many more ‘off’ days than any plan you might follow. There is no intense training cycle.
I think we should all think a little more before we respond to someone with a potentially disbelieving comment. Caring is great and welcomed but think how the message is portrayed and delivered. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. We don’t know what the other can or can’t do. Advice is great, advice based on experience and wisdom is greatly appreciated and heeded. But the worrying and throw away comments, they aren’t so great, they aren’t empowering. So be positive in how you respond to someone. Be encouraging.
In the week leading up to the race, conversations with colleagues and acquaintances have typically gone…
“See you next week”
“Oh, are you going away?”
“Yeah, to Poland “
“What are you doing there?”
“How far? Are you doing a marathon?”
“No, it’s a little further, 150km”
“Oh, nice. How many days are you doing that over?”
The conversations tend to just end there. That’s been fairly typical this year. If you’re not interested in running you won’t know. You won’t understand what is feasible or not. It may sound ridiculous but 24 hours is a long time, you can achieve a lot in that time and in the world of trail running, covering 100-150 km of mountainous terrain is very, very feasible. You don’t even have to run that fast or even run that much and can walk a lot of it. Much of it is in your head and, as always, I think it comes down to mental strength.
And so, off to Poland I was. To the Beskid mountains. I came here last year, to the Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, and did the 48 km was event. Now I was back for the big one, the 150 km… Last year was a treat. The event is billed as a muddy one with the strap line “enjoy the mudness”. In 2018 though freakish weather meant we had a glorious sunny dry day and very little mud. All that was to change on 2019. The weeks leading up to the event had seen plenty of rain and mud was once again on the cards.
This posed a challenge. How would my legs cope with the fatigue induced from running in mud? What kit would I need, What shoes? How long might it realistically take? It’s a 3 hour bus back to the start once I’m finished, what else will I need when I’m finished? I left the planning there. Things mostly out of my control. I’ve more than enough kit to cope with the majority of situations now so I decided not to worry anymore.
The race itself, it drained me. In a different sort of way. I was tired. I enjoyed it. I didn’t think and recall the journey as I normally do. I didn’t put the effort into mentally tracing my steps. It was all very similar and so I can’t recall and write about the adventure like I have in many other races. What I do remember though is many of the thoughts I pondered along the way. The things that came into and out of my mind…
As I left the house at 11pm, the group sent me off with one final Polish lesson. Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb. All I needed for the aid stations!
The start was subdued. Runners casually making there way out of the meeting point and to the start. Whilst I chatted with fellow English speakers Mike and Alice, the race just started. No music. No countdown. Just a casual movement which became a run.
The polish countryside is stunning. I thought this last year too. Covering 150 km is a great way to experience it. Rolling hills. Views of idyllic castles, churches and houses. Little farming villages, streams and fields were the order of the day.
It was peaceful. Very peaceful. Less than 500 runners started and were out on the 100/150 km course. I was alone for a long time and I liked it.
There’s always a point at night where you stop, turn around and gasp at the trail of head torches behind you. This race was no different and the moon was glowing with them. beautiful.
There are different levels of mud. At some point no amount of grip or technical footwear will help you. Slipping and sliding is inevitable and managing how you do it becomes critical.
I slipped about 4 or 5 times. I never trip or fall when running. The mud got me and I was hands and bum down more than I liked.
Hot soup is great. Hot chicken soup is greater. Hot chicken noodle soup is the greatest.
Spiced pumpkin soup is special.
It was cold. Very cold. I ran the whole of the night sections with a jacket. I’ve not need to do that before.
The Inov8 Thermoshell is an incredible piece of kit. I bought it a few weeks earlier and this was the first run I’d done in it. It was very lightweight, warm and breathable. I put it on again the next night and was immediately snug once more. Possibly my new favourite piece of kit.
Warm fires at night are bliss. Having a few minutes at a checkpoint camp next to a blazing hot fire is lush.
Polish runners are so considerate and thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask anyone to let me pass them and no one tried to kill me with their poles. They were keen to chat and understanding when I couldn’t reply.
Muddy steep hills were challenging, especially to descend. Trying to do that in wetter conditions would have been terrifying. We were lucky it wasn’t wet during the race itself.
There was a long climb at the top of which was a wooden structure. It reminded me of the church Sandor Clegane helped build in Game of Thrones. I sat on a bench and looked at it for about ten minutes.
Hallucinations. First time I’ve had it. Only briefly in the last 30 km. I saw the most spectacular crystal chandelier above me glistening in the light. As I got closer I realised it was the moon and the trees flickering in the wind!
Caffeine kick. For the first time I drank coffee during a run. 15 km from the end I was drowsy and nodding off as I hobbled along. I knocked back a coffee and then doubled up on caffeine (Tropical) Tailwind. I was buzzing and ran most of the last 15 km or so. I was wired. I ran through the pains I had.
Apples. I’ve not had them at a race before. Smashing stuff. Crunchy. Juicy. Tasty. Easy to eat. Sugary. I like apples. My forth favourite fruit (after pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit if you just know).
Cup of coke? I went for a bowl of coke. Game changer. Fuzztastic. Gulp gulp gulp. Belch.
Polish churches are architecture masterpieces. Sounds like ‘costu’ in English.
The ‘middle’ sections of these long races feel like the longest parts.
I constantly checked and tried to trace my way using the elevation profile on my bib. I mis-judged it so many times. Hills don’t look like hills on a 150 km route profile picture!
The silence of the night was disturbed only by the mass barking of dogs locked up away from the runners. Miles away from villages you could hear the dogs!
Memory is an incredible thing. The last 48km was so clearly memorable to me. Only the order of trails/sights/memories was a little jumbled.
Damn windy. Head winds whilst hiking up mountains is not easy. I was pissed off when a group of runners clearly used me as a wind shield. I didn’t blame them though.
Pictures – I took less. Whilst it was beautiful to see all around, the landscape was similar and too darn cold to keep fishing out my camera.
The last 48 km I latched onto a group of four runners. I used them (it might have been those that used me in the windy parts?!) My mind was going and collectively they were strong. I sat back and when they ran, I ran. When they walked, I walked. I used them. Until I took the coffee and my mind fired up again and I left them in my caffeine trail.
I visualised my body working. Buses driving messages from my brain to my body. Loads of tiny workers shovelling the food I consumed into a burning fire engine like a steam train. My legs like two grumpy trees telling me they were in pain. Functioning.
I visualised the finish I always do. I could see myself crossing that finish line. Celebrating. This time I saw exactly how – A chicken dance. I did eventually do the chicken dance I thought about for so many hours.
Tamas running passed me before 70 km. So strong. He started an hour after me! What a legend.
Runners drinking beer at 82 km. How?! Talk about stereotypes.
The realisation at 60 km that I was no where near halfway through. That was tough.
The disappointment when my Suunto went bezerk and at 82 km I thought I’d done 86 km.
The count down by comparable races. Only a TDS to go. Only a TGC to go… A Lavaredo to go… A MIUT to go… A CCC to go… A Brecon Beacons to go… A Cinque Terra to go… A marathon to go… A Wild TR weekend run to go… A run to work to go… A park run to go. I don’t even do park runs. Fuuuck when will this end.
Running 100 miles is an incredible achievement. I’m still 15 km off that. Wow. So much respect for those achievers now. Those who have the strength to even start and those who persevere to the end. So inspiring.
Leaving a message for Julian and Astrid whose wedding I was missing. The words were in my head but I’m not sure what I bumbled down the phone.
At the finish I was shattered. Momentarily I fell asleep on a bench.
I like polish food!
The race itself…
It’s is exceptionally well marked. Tape and reflective signage every few metres. You can’t get lost (although others somehow did!?!).
It is superbly organised (just like the year before). With 5 different races starting and ending at different locations, this is not an easy feat. Lemkowyna make it seem effortless. As a non-Polish speaker, it’s very easily negotiated (OK, we had Polish speakers in our group but I’d be comfortable attempting it myself).
The volunteers went out of their way to help you. Not only filling bottles and serving you but sitting you down and fetching you things. All things.
The volunteers and support were amazing. Big shout out the the man I met at the 82 km mark and chatted too and whom came to find me at each checkpoint there after to talk to me and see how I was getting on. So thoughtful!
The bell medal. Unique. Now I have two.
The finishers top (150 km finishers) is great too. High quality Columbia kit.
Finish line food – an abundance. Healthy, vegetarian, meaty, local specialities. They had it all.
The trails were mostly forest paths. Soft and not too ‘rooty’. There were a lot of long road sections also.
The aid stations are about 20 km apart which is longer than most races. There’s nowhere to get water in between. I carried 1.5 l at all times and was thankful I did.
There were two ‘bonus’ aid stations with water and some other supplies towards the end. A very welcome surprise!
What else do I remember? Support and friendship. That’s what. I’ve said this a few times over the last year. Friends and companions on such adventures is a huge boost. The joking, the laughter, the shared panics and emotions. The common understanding of what you need and don’t need. The different approaches, advice and learnings. Not being alone. The achievement of succeeding is one thing, but sharing it with others is something else. I was spoilt with such a special group. They took control. They looked after me. Cooked for me. Cleaned after me. Ordered for me. Drove me about. Waited and cheered me. Travelled 50 km in the wrong direction and waited for hours for me. Forever and constantly I am in their debt. Their support and friendship is mind blowing. Daisy and Claire called it out, making new friends as adults is strange and often not easy (the innocence of childhood friendships is lost as you grow older…). But through running I’ve met people with similar characteristics, traits and mindsets and we’ve bonded over the most memorable experiences together.
Whilst I was out in the polish countryside, there were a lot of other runs and running achievements happened the same weekend and conversations I had with others summed up my own experience this weekend. This snippet from Sarah said it all… “...Like a roller coaster, so many highs and lows but we rally through to the end. The things we put ourselves through for fun, and I have to say it was fun…“. We find our enjoyment…
Whilst In Ireland for a wedding, Nick and I wanted a run. He was two weeks out from the Amsterdam marathon and I was flying out to Poland the following week for my next and (once again!) biggest challenge to date – 150km of the Lemkowyna ultra trail. Nick plotted a route of about 20km along the roads and we were set for Sunday morning, the day after the wedding. I wanted something different though. I wanted onto the local trails. So we did the run on the Saturday morning, pre-wedding, and I planned to go and do the 33km of the Foxford Way Loop on the Sunday. After such a great run on Saturday, Nick wanted in too, despite needing to be at the airport for 14:00.
With heavy heads and tired eyes we woke early and set out about 7am to follow the. routed I’d plotted on the Suunto 9. We drove to the nearest town, Foxford, where we could leave the car with our checked out luggage and loop back at the finish. We weren’t 100% sure of where the route should start so we parked up near the Centra in Foxford and set out in an anti-clockwise direction. We picked this direction as we knew the last 8km so from the run the day before and, if struggling for time, this would be useful knowledge and experience. A short jog along the main road and we were able to turn off onto the tracks…
The Foxford Way is intermittently marked with a trail sign – a yellow arrow and human hiker-figure. Mostly found on fence posts and markers about waist height. I say intermittently as they didn’t mark specific turns or intersections. Sometimes we’d go for a few kilometres without seeing any.
We set out up the N26 and soon turned right after a Mother of Mary shrine on the side of the road. The path began to climb and morning began to break. The climb was a wide, semi-pathed track and it wasn’t long before we reached the top and the path continued rolling across the hills and countryside. It was a chilly but dry morning and we could see we were going to in for a treat with spectacular views over West Ireland.
After a few Km we reached a Lake (Louch Muck) and followed the path to the right passed some beautiful houses with unobstructed views of the lake. The path was again wide and semi-pathed as it led around the lake, into some forests and beyond.
After a little while we reached the N26 again, crossed over and continued up a country road for a little while. We soon encountered our first challenge. As the route led us off the tarmac track and onto some wild and un-maintained tracks. The trail markers reassured us that we were going the right way and we took a moment to enjoy the stunning views as the sun began to shine. We were then presented with a very overgrown route.
The thorns and hedges, soaked with the morning dew, dew reached our knees and thighs and running became almost giraffe like. With high knees. The ground and foliage covered with a white layer of spider webs glistening in the dew. We were slowed to a fast walk. Maybe a km of this path was enough to frustrate us but I was hopeful it was a one-off and just a little used section of the loop.
The route followed some clear track again and we were walking up the road munching on flavoured KitKats when we noticed we were a little off course. Back tracking we found the path again – another overgrown route. We sighed and high-kneed it onward.
We came across another trail fence post with the way markers indicated. But we were momentarily confused as there were two different ways indicated. One across a make shift wooden plank bridge across a stream into a forest, the other straight on behind a tied up rusty cattle gate, into a tree-lined path, shaded from the sun’s reach. The watch said forward and so we climbed the gate and continued.
We soon cane to a halt as I exclaimed “Fuuuuuuck” and stopped. I’d lifted my head and glanced forward and saw, what looked to me like, a little girl, standing there in high-white socks and her long blond hair covering her face and shoulders. Just standing there, silently staring at us and not moving. Nick stopped and swore too as we quickly realised it wasn’t a little spooky girl but a small stumpy pony. As I went to photo it it ran towards us. It ran funny and looked a bit poorly cared for. It loved us and the attention though.
After petting the pony we realised we’d run passed the ‘turn off’. There was no turn though, so I started jogging back to the gate and the pony started chasing after me, excited to play. Nick leaped over the stream and escaped to the forest. I carried on slowly.
As I climbed the gate and headed across the wooden plank bridge Nick acknowledged he was stuck the other side of a farming ‘rope’ fence and another stream. We carried on along our separate sides and the pony ran off and left us. The route was on track, but it was no path and we just stumbled out way through the forest!
The forest looked enchanted and was littered with farming rope as the sun shone through the trees in the distance. The ropes ran both parallel and perpendicular to us and we climbed over and ducked under to continue, Nick to my left navigating his own route. To my right I could hear the ‘tick tick’ clicking of the rope dividers. They were electrified. As I looked up I momentarily freaked myself again as the pony was up ahead galloping (in its own funny way) through the forest towards me. Where and how it arrived I do not know. I petted it more and carried on weaving through the electrified roping. A fence post confirmed the right way but oddly, it didn’t match the route on my watch.
As I climbed over the last rope divider blocking my way, Nick arrived, in style. As he ducked under a rope fence he slipped and became stuck. I laughed as he limbo’d to free his bag from the rope with his feet sliding apart in the mud. The pony didn’t make a sound. As Nick freed himself I warned him about the electric fence. He discarded it claiming it wasn’t and he’d been touching them. To demonstrated this he grabbed the rope and immediately screamed and jumped about. Yep. I was right.
We continued in the direction of the signpost and emerged into a garden, well, field (it’s Ireland!). But the rope dividers continued. The route said we needed to first go diagonally across the land before joining a more prominent path and head left. There was no path across the field though so we walked to the farm building and across the land. I was hesitant knowing this was someone’s property and was glad to climb the boundary wall and hop onto the main path. We sighed some relief and then a dog came.
It was an old dog. Wheezing. Not barking. It wanted attention. So much attention, sitting on our feet. It moaned and wheezed and pushed against us when we tried to continue. Then it barked a loud screechy wheezy bark and wouldn’t shut up. We ran on. I looked back as we ran and saw a figure behind us standing on the track and watching us run away. It was some form of ‘heritage centre’ (‘Hennigan’s Heritage Centre’) but seemed almost abandoned and lacking any Heritage (to a passer by!). Either way, a little freaked out by the figure and conscious our trail through the ‘enchanted’ forest had cost us some time we ran fast along a country lane whilst many more aggressive dogs barked from within their fenced gardens. Thankfully unable to get at us!
After a short incline the path again indicated a turn to the right and the start of the second highest climb of our run. Again, despite the sign posting, the path was not feasible. Overgrown and thorny to at least waist height. We couldn’t go up it so instead we climbed a wall into the field running alongside, cautiously acknowledging the sign saying “beware, bull in field”.
We stuck as close to the path as best we could but it was far easier to walk parallel to it in the field. Whilst we would have needed a machete to navigate the path, we instead had to navigate lumpy boggy fields as we hiked to the top. Our feet were already wet but now so too we’re our legs from the knees down. There was no way to avoid the bogs.
As we traced alongside the wall ‘up’ we contended with the water-logged bogs and lumpy divets. The climb was slow but we kept going, occasionally turning around to absorb the views behind us. The higher we climbed, the worse it became though and we’d occasionally go right back to the overgrown track to confirm the directions.
Eventually we reached a wall by some old ruins and climbed over onto the most mainstream of roads we’d seen for quite some time (still a country lane). We turned right and ran on. We came upon a collection of houses and ran passed another trail marking. It indicated the path would turn left sooner than the map on my watch indicated. Whilst I went ahead and checked it out, Nick made a new friend. Another dog, black and shaggy (like ol’ wheezy’ only much younger’). I came back as the point the watch was suggesting was far less accessible than the area indicated by the trail sign.
We spent a few moments petting the dog which was silent and attentive with these big dark brown eyes that pierced you. We decided to trust the sign post best and climbed a wall to get onto the indicated route. We were back up to our knees in foliage yet again. Then we weren’t alone. The dog had come with us. He bounded through the wet grasses and stopped up ahead as if showing us the way.
We kept trying to send he dog back but it wouldn’t. I was glad of the dog at this point. The route again was not clear and the dog became the marker. It was like he knew the way we needed to go and was helping to guide us. It was a little surreal but a huge insight to a dog’s mind. I believed it was telling us to follow him.
We continued on like his for the whole climb. A long climb. As we reached the top, soaked through from the waist down, we again tried to send the dog back. Sam, we called it Sam, was having none of it. So on we continued together. Again, I was thankful as we began to descend the hill as it was all off track and lumpy and muddy. The track was not clear or available at all. But Sam saw a way through and we followed. The last part of the climb was through a field covered and glistening with webs. Sam bounded through without a care in the world.
After what felt like ages of climbing and descending we reached a wide drive-able track. We tried to run on and recoup some time. As we struck a rhythm we turned left onto a slightly less mainstream track, still runnable though. We tried once more to ditch Sam. We failed. I looked back and saw the mountain (hill really) behind us becoming a distant shadow. I worried Sam wouldn’t get back. Nick was thinking the same and despite my protests was already planning how we’d return the dog. Whilst I was trying to put us first, I knew he was right – We had to get Sam home safely after the run.
The path opened into a small area of houses and buildings. Many being built. Many not looking that nice. A community. There were lots of dogs. Some looked aggressive. Some barked and began chase. Sam wasn’t phased. No comment. No sound. Just ran on ahead, guiding his “humans”. We were glad to get away from that area and all the dogs.
We hit a stream and whilst Sam refreshed we untied an old pallet crate makeshift fence and continued. I thought we’d lose him here, but to my surprise, Sam figured a way around and continue with us. At that point I accepted he be staying with us.
The path was over grown and we climbed gradually with the boggy, unclear track. Then a house. It felt once more like we were on someone’s land, but up ahead some metal steps had been built over the stone wall to guide the way. Once over, Sam was there looking at us wondering what went wrong and why we’d taken so long. Onward we went, to the right we climbed. A little more. Always a little more.
The track opened and we ran down. A nice section of wide trail paths that was very runnable. The views were beautiful. Sam up ahead. Every few hundred metres he was turning around and looking to see if we were following. At the bottom the biggest climb was about to begin. Now the green steps over the walls were marking the way. We went over, Sam went around. The route again was overgrown. My feet we’re wet and cold. My legs scratched to shit from all the brambles. We were embracing it though. Up and over this ‘mountain’. 200m. A baby. Head down and march on. Sam, diligently as ever kept stopping and waiting. Or running back and sitting at our feet. Eyes wide open, want a pat on the head. I desperately wanted to feed and water him but my fuel for the day was High5 isotonics and KitKats – not dog friendly!!
Eventually we reached the top and stopped to take pictures. Sam was all over this. Jumping on the rocks to join us and pose. A well deserved break and a moment to enjoy what the run has amounted too. A really off road adventure and a new friend too!
With time on our mind we cracked on. We now had less time than we’d planned. Whilst the run has taken longer than planned (with wrong turns, animal encounters and navigating around the unfeasible paths we’d added about 30 mins to our conservative estimate) we now had to taxi our new friend home also. We had no idea how long this might take but we knew we couldn’t abandon him now. He hadn’t left us for a close to two hours at this point. We picked up the pace and began to ran. Soon we were walking again though – the descent was very boggy and we were slipping all over the place.
Eventually we reached a pathed track and recognised the area from the previous day’s run. We knew where we were now. Soon the main road appeared and we had to control Sam as we crossed and ran a short distance along the country lanes with cars zipping passed.
Taking side roads Sam started to attract attention from more dogs (did everyone own dogs in this part of Ireland?!?) and took a particular shine to a dog being carried by two girls. Like a ‘dutiful owner’ I had to go back and drag Sam away. Whilst they were OK with the encounter, Sam didn’t look too impressed with me!
The final straight soon appeared and we knew we just had to run to the end of the road. One more obstacle though – the road was closed. Fenced off for building works. Bollocks. It was a bit of a trek back to circumnavigate around the road works so we made the decision to climb around the fencing, coaxing Sam to join us. We ran through the closed road, passed the Wollen Mill and arrived back where we started.
We realised we’d left the car unlocked (with all our stuff in it) and as soon as we popped the boot Sam jumped in. He didn’t stay long before leaping back out and seemingly wanted to play with the traffic instead, refusing to get back in until Nick picked him up. How he had so much energy left I don’t know – Sam ran with us for 18km and some 2.5 hrs!
Where he Ra
Where we met Sam
Where he ran with us too
Nick started driving while I sat in back Sync-ing the activity from my watch and looking for where I thought we picked Sam up. Thankfully the unclear trail turning and climb were giveaways and I found where I paced up and down looking for the path and where we zigzagged up the mountain following Sam. Found it! 5 miles later we were at the houses where we met Sam, near a place called Cornageltha. We picked the house we thought he appeared from and Nick knocked on the door…
A little old lady came out, confirmed Sam was hers and laughed when she saw him sitting in the car. We let Sam out and he sat at my feet whilst we talked to the lady. She told us his name was Rocky. She explained he always goes off with strangers and walkers and that neighbours normally call her when he is found and that her brother has to go out and collect him from wherever he has decided to stop. She thanked us for looking after him and bringing him home. He jumped up and hugged us as we said good bye. We got into the car and made to leave.
As we left I overheard her talking to Rocky. She said something along the lines of “why do you always do this” pleading with him not to keep running off with strangers. “what will I do without you”. She questioned. I almost cried…
The Foxford Way Loop is described as “a 33km long route, with the Ox Mountains on one side and the Nephin Mountain on the other; it is one of Mayo’s finest walks. Along the route a rich rich variety of flora and fauna and an exceptional archaeological and historical content is to be expected.” The terrain of the route will include bogs (wish we’d paid attention to that before hand!), mountains, rivers and lakes and breath-taking scenery to delight. This we can vouch for!
We decided to do the Loop in an anti-clockwise direction, although there seems to be no guidance as to the benefits of doing the loop in either orientation.
The Start / Finish – Foxford
Whilst http://www.mayowalks.ie describes the official start/finish point as being located in Foxford “beside the children’s playground in a car park just off the N26” we found this a little vague. So we parked up and started/finished on the N26 outside the ‘Centra’ shop, right in the middle of Foxford near the Wollen Mill.
We’ve split the trail notes into a few sections to provide guidance for anyone wanting to follow the route.
Section 1 – “Lough Muck” (Foxford to Lismorane). Distance from Start approx. 5.6 miles
From the Start in Foxford, the first section loops South from the N26, around Lough Muck before re-joining and crossing the N26 again just passed Lismorane.
From the Centra we headed East along the N26 in the direction of Swinford. The initial route ran alongside the N26 for about 0.8 of a mile. There is no pavement nor path for the majority of this section and we ran along the dotted lined/verge of the road. The turn off the N26 (on the right hand side of the road) was just after a religious shrine/monument and opposite “Noorey Park” road.
The trail here was wide and semi-pathed. It initially climbs to a height of about 400ft alongside the peak of Carranarah. The path continues in a South-Easterly direction from the N26 for about 1.5 miles before reaching Lough Much. From here the Trail continues South then in an Easterly direction (about 3.5 miles) until it reaches the N26 again. This whole section was well signposted with undulating trails. Easy to walk and run for all abilities.
Section 2 – “Cornageltha” N26 (Lismorane) to Cornageltha. Distance from Start approx. 11.2 miles
When the trail meets the N26 again just passed Lismorane, follow the N26 in an Eastern direction (again towards Swinford). Again, there is no pavement along this section of a busy road. Take the first left onto the ‘unnamed’ road after about 0.3 miles along the N26.
Follow the pathed road for about 0.5 miles (gradual incline) and turn right at the intersection. After about 0.7 miles of semi-pathed, down hill track, turn left. This section is single track and very un-maintained. The foliage was overgrown at waist height, the ground very lumpy and soft underfoot. The path continues like this for approximately one mile, emerging onto a small country road labelled “Graffy” in a North-Westerly direction.
Take the first right turn after about 0.2 miles along the Graffy. There should, almost immediately, be a trail heading off to the left of the path. This is signposted by the Yellow arrow/Hiker. Again this path is un-maintained and a little difficult to spot.
After about 0.3 miles the trail splits. There are two signs marked for the route, one straight beyond a closed and tied rusty farm gate, the other to the right across a small stream into a forest. Both probably lead to the same way, but the route to the right through the forest seems a better choice, if not a little ‘off-piste’. The forest is marked with electrified cattle rope and at the end you can see the yellow route / trail marker.
The route emerges from the forest into the fields/grounds of the Hennigan’s Heritage Centre. Leave the grounds and join the road ‘Rubble’. After approximately 0.5 miles, turn left at the road intersection onto Tiernunny. Follow the country road for 1 mile and then turn ‘Right’, shortly after the village of Derrynamuch, at the trail marker.
The section here is approximately 0.5 miles long. The official route indicates you should climb approximately 200ft along a marked route lined by a wall. You can see the route, however it is completely un-maintained and overgrown with brambles and (as of Oct 2019) not feasible to navigate along. We climbed a small, waist high, wall into the field (noting the sign warning “Beware of Bull” and made the climb through the field alongside the overgrown path. Whilst the field is easy to navigate (just keep heading ‘up’) it is very ‘lump’ and full of stream water and boggy. The Bogs in some places were knee height.
At the top of the climb you join the country road “Carrownedin” (just east of the village of Cornageltha) and head to the right/East for about 0.5 miles until you reach a small collection of houses on your right hand side and fields on your left. There should be a Trail marker/signpost indicating the route continues through the fields on the left.
Section 3 – “Carha” Cornageltha to Carha. Distance from Start approx. 17.5 miles
Cross/climb the stone wall into the fields inline with the trail marker. Whilst the path is not obvious and the fields are overgrown to about shin height with long grass, the way is clear – straight up!
Stick to the right-hand side of the field you start in and follow it for about 0.5 miles to a highest point of about 700ft. Be sure to look around and enjoy the views on this climb! There are 3 or 4 trail posts dotted along the climb that are visible and will aid directions.
When you reach the highest point, you should see a drop ahead towards a country road and a lake in the North-West direction. Again the way down is not particularly clear but you can see a feint boggy track leading down towards the country road and a few more trail markers will help reach it safely.
Once you reach the road the next part is easily navigated – Follow the ‘un-named’ road North and it will soon split. Take the left/West track and stick to it. The track here is semi-pathed and wide.
After a little more than 1.5 miles you’ll reach a (skewed) crossroad. Continue straight across (West direction) for another mile before reaching an intersection and turning left towards the village of ‘Muckroe’.
The trail markers will soon be visible, and you’ll take a left turn off the country road back onto single track trails. From here the route climbs to its highest point of approximately 830ft. The path is clearly navigated, first through boggy fields with occasional green metal step ladders to enter/exit the fields. After the field section the route continues up the climb through open countryside. Again trail markers are occasionally visible to navigate by. After about 1 mile of climbing you’ll reach the summit.
From here the path down towards Carha is visible and clear. Easy to follow with occasional trail markers the whole way. It is very ‘lump’ soft ground with plenty of bogs to enjoy.
After another mile and descending approximately 500ft you’ll reach a country lane (again not labelled) and turn left towards Carha about 0.3 miles away.
Section 4 – “Home stretch” Carha to Foxford distance approx. 21.8 miles
As you reach Carha, take the first left, continuing on the same unnamed country lane. Follow this lane for about 1.5 miles due South-West. You’ll reach an intersection of a main road (which runs parallel to the N26). Cross the road and keep left, taking the split of the road which heads further South-West towards the River Moy.
After 1 mile turn Right towards the village of Rinnaney. Follow the road left through the village then take the first right. After 0.3 miles turn left onto Green Road.
Follow Green road for just over a mile along the River Moy as it becomes Lower Main Street. Here you will pass the Foxford Wollen Mill, Leisure Centre and return to the N26 Swinford Road where it all started.
Earlier in the year James asked me if I wanted to join him for the Tallinn marathon. I was hesitant. A week after TDS, after a fairly jam-packed August. Hhhm. Maybe not. Then Luxembourg happened and it was frikken great. Bobby and Nick went and signed up to Tallinn immediately. I soon had the FOMO and was signing up to join them. After all, a trip to a new country and exploring a city whilst doing what I love…
Fast forward a few weeks and Bobby and Nick have both pulled out. Bastards. Suddenly I’m heading out with an unnecessarily expensive hotel booking (I could have shared a dorm for cheaper but I’m such a princess and don’t like sharing around a long run, I need some space!). James was still there but I’d missed the chance to jump in with him and his mates.
Anyway, August is done though, 3 big races conquered, all went better than I’d even hoped. Considering what I’ve achieved, I feel bloody good. Yeah sure, a few aches and pains and the ankles are still feeling a little brittle, but I feel great. I’m heading into Tallinn without a care in the world. My mind is clear and I’m ready to kick back, relax, run and enjoy the experience. No pressure. All I need to do is control it when I start running. I’ll ‘run to feel’ though and don’t imagine I’ll be feeling a fast run, so that’s good. It’s also a special weekend in Tallinn with celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary and it’s also the 30th edition of the marathon. So there is plenty going on.
It was a 9am start on a Sunday and I’m staying just minutes from the start . I’m not used to such luxury and take full advantage by staying in bed untill 8 and being very casual. I meet James and Chris just before 9 and we head down to the starting pens. We are briefly separated as they go to B and I’m ushered to C but some confusion just before the start sees the two pens merge into one.
There’s a lot of runners and, as we are given the green light to go, we start plodding down the cobble streets of the old town. Tallinn is a small place and the route will see us leave the old town, head to Seaplane Harbour, out of town with various bendy turns and switchbacks before heading back towards, and finishing in, the Old Town under the Viru Gates.
The roads were wide and many had been closed off for the event so there was no fighting for space. We soon settled into a rhythm of around 6 min/km and chatted away as we began our sightseeing adventure. It wasn’t long before we reached the first water station (and every water station infact as they were only about 3km away from each other!). We all made the mistake of trying the salty bread – dry traditional Estonian black bread sprinkled with salt. It was, of course, salty! Much water was then needed!
After passing through Seaplane Harbour and then several residential streets (with some fascinating architecture of old traditional buildings mixed with modern apartments) we ran through a long main Street. There was an old lady hanging out of her window banging a saucepan which made us laugh. We then ran through what would be the first of many parks and green spaces.
A little further on was a real highlight as, first noticed by the foul smell, we realised we were running through the grounds of a zoo. Whilst we didn’t see many animals there was a bear(!) inspecting the runners from his cage. Running the paths leading through the zoo was a whole new experience, and whilst sad and odd to see animals caged up, it was nice from a running perspective.
Shortly after the halfway mark we were running through some lush trails and forest paths with trees all around us before we emerged near the sea front. We felt good, but tired. The green spaces were welcomed though and thankfully we spent very little time on main roads with cars.
Around 25km in, Chris stared to struggle. He’d picked up an injury and, after about ten mins of slow walking and shuffling, James and I made the reluctant decision to leave him and carry on. At that point he was going to just walk back and pull out (he’d be able to skip through the various switch backs and take a more direct route back to town). Both James and I were feeling it too though – I was aching in my knees, which is a new one for me.
Despite most of the running happening out of town, there were pockets of support along the way and some great chants including “c’mon Brexit” and my favourite “blah blah blah” (or at least that is what it sounded like, I’ve no idea what it meant!).
The next section took us along the coast and had a few kms of long switchbacks which were painfully dull, seeing runners winding ahead of you. After that was a stretch around, then up into, a park before returning to the coast once more. With about 10km to go I started a run-walk strategy with a brisk walk after each water station just to take the pressure off my knees a little.
It soon quietened out and with the last water stop done James and I pretty much ran alone to the finish line. Tracing our steps back along the initial part of the route into town (without the loop around Seaplane Harbour). As we neared the finish line Craig casually called out “hello” to us and he was then at the finish line as we hobbled the last 200m along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and through the Viru gates.
Medal collected we headed back for a quick shower before returning to see Chris cross the line. Turns out that after we left him he decided to stick at it and he’d continued on to complete his first marathon (after covering no more than a half in his training and battling through the pain on the day!!). We missed him by about a minute!
I’m hugging a man. His arms are around me. He’s wet with sweat and he stinks. I am absolutely rotten with sweat and stink too. We are both smiling though. The embrace is special. We are acknowledging over 35 hours of running technical Alpine trails coming to and end, most of that time spent together, supporting one another and motivating each other through. 35 hours ago this smelly man was a complete stranger, his mere existence even unknown to me. Now he’s not only a friend but someone I’ve shared an incredible journey with and whom will always be in my memories. His name is Darryl.
Moments earlier we’d crossed the finish line of the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (Aka The “TDS”) at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). A 145km trail race in the Alps starting in Courmayeur (Italy) and finishing under the famous UTMB arch in Chamonix (France)…
5 minutes earlier – Chamonix
Somehow, despite hours of walking and persevering with the ‘ultra shuffle’ we muster enough strength to run the final stretch through the streets of Chamonix. Cheered on by the immense crowd, clapped through as the sea of spectators part to make way, we see many familiar faces of our friends. The moment is electric, so many emotions are pulsating through my body, my only reaction is to smile. A huge, wide smile. I don’t think anyone could experience that sort of finish and not have a smile on their face.
We are spent. It’s very hot. We are walking the final 8km into Chamonix. We are happy with this. I’ve run this path once before many years ago on a stag do (With another Daryl!), Darryl more recently did it on the TDS last year. “It’s flat” he claims and so he told another runner, Robin, a few kms earlier. I should know by now not to trust Darryl’s memories, he’s already admitted it’s hazy at the best of times. It’s not that flat (only in relative terms!). It’s undulating. We slow our fast hike back to a shuffle. We are in this for the long haul. 8km feels like 80kms and it takes almost two hours to walk to Chamonix. We eventually leave the riverside trail and hit the main road. We’ve not been alone on our walk and have chatted with several other runners who’ve walked it ‘home’ too. As we hit the main street we all look at each other and begrudgingly start shuffling faster and ‘performing’ for the crowd. Me and Darryl contemplate buying ice cream but are too afraid to stop moving again.
117.5 Hours – Les Houches.
We dropped off the winding switchbacks of the paved roads into the final aid station. For the last time we fill both our flasks and our faces and head back out on the trails. As we grab fistfuls of ice from a bucket, shoving them under our caps, I notice those around us. The volunteers – so supportive and encouraging, the runners – exhausted and many slumped on benches. We crack on. As the Compressport sponsored sign read, “finishing is your only fucking option”.
Descending from Col di Tricot wasn’t nice. The paths were littered with rocks and hikers. We’d run, stumble, jump and walk our way down. Eventually reaching a wobbly wooden foot bridge before climbing yet again. The rocky climb, however small, sapped our energy and by the time we reached Bellevue we were gasping. As we refreshed with water we questioned how that was only 4km we’d covered. 5km still to descend.
The next 5km were through the forest paths, shaded from the sun at least. We slowed to a walk. Our feet were hurting once more, raw and sore. The rejuvenating effects of the medical attention we received not that long ago had well and truly worn off now. Somehow runners were still running past us, we were impressed with their physical state. A familiar shout out from one was instantly recognisable. It was Alan. Supercharged and nimbly descending at speed. He called out to Darryl “Hey! How did Dai get on?!”, “I’m down here” I replied from around the next switchback. Alan was ready and willing to ‘walk it in’ with us and finish together, but I told him to keep going, he was on form again after a bad night and Darryl and I had each other. He vanished into the forest. We eventually made it to the road, a long stretch of paved switchbacks leading into Les Houches. The flat tarmac was a welcomed feeling.
115.5 Hours – Col di Tricot
We’ve made it to the top, finally. That climb was tough, the sun had done it’s job and I was definitely burnt on my neck. There was no water up top which we’d been hoping for. The timing point indicated 9km to go to reach Les Houches. 4km of which would take us to Bellevue where there would be water. All downhill, about 1,200m to descend in total.
Strapped up from Les Contamines, we left the aid station and were on the move again. It had been a long stop. About 1.5 hours. We were good again though and able to move quite quickly once more. The medics had worked their magic. We powered up past the church, up the roads and back to the trails, immediately passing many runners. Our power hike continued. Two more big climbs were left to conquer, the first barely noticeable and through the shaded woodlands we went. The second climb a bit of a beast with a steep zigzagging climb to Col di Tricot.
As we emerged from the first climb and descended we could see Col di Tricot opposite. It wasn’t small nor insignificant. It felt like a long time before we crossed the bridge, thread through the small hamlet and climbed to the switchback trails. The midday sun was bright and there was no shade on the climb. Darryl believed there would be water up top and I hoped he was right, whilst I had plenty now, the steep climb would be thirsty work.
112 Hours – Les Contamines
Once inside, Darryl went to find the foot doctor and I went to find the toilet again! After I had fun squatting and propping myself up against a wall, I found Darryl laughing and joking with the medics. It had already a while, and I’d eaten before finding him, but he was getting the full treatment both feet lanced, sterilised and wrapped in more padding than a winter jacket. I was jealous, so I queued up for a bit of foot TLC myself. I even got my ankle properly strapped and, whilst I was getting repaired, Darryl then went for a massage. We were smiling and laughing again and ready to get this race finished!
Leaving Col Du Joly, we wondered how we still had 24km to go. I do not know. Morning was breaking. The mist on the mountains was lifting and the the trails becoming lighter. Darryl was talking to another Brit and I cracked on. I was cold and needed to warm up – my body temperature had dropped significantly whilst stopping at the aid station. The head torch was soon turned off and we started a long descent. First the fields and ski paths before we hit the longer stretch descending through the forest paths.
As I hobbled down I was making the questionable sex noises. Oh, ee, ahh, fuck me, aaagh. I wasn’t alone and a chorus of squeals could often be heard. Many runners went passed, many we’d spoken too. Darryl was a little way behind now and I enquired after him to the Brit as he passed. He told me Darryl was moving but slowly. After about 4 km of descending I waited at the bottom. I found a bench and sat on it until Darryl arrived. He wasn’t looking good, he was stumbling and barely moving forward. His feet were destroyed and he was in quite some pain. He told me I shouldn’t have waited, I told him I’m not leaving him now, we’d done maybe close to 100km together and we had plenty of time to finish, I had no where to be in any urgency and I wasn’t going to leave him and potentially see him pull out. We walked on together. Slowly, very slowly. We hobbled at a pace slower than 20mins per km. It took around two hours to walk the flattest section of the race to the next checkpoint of Les Contamines.
110 Hours – Col Du Joly
Darryl’s hopes of medical attention were dashed when the medic told him that the ‘foot doctor’ was at the next aid station. Um, Ok then. We layered up as we left the aid station, it was still dark and cold. We refuelled on warm soups, re-jigged our packs and left for the final 24km.
From Hautelace we were confused. Very confused. We were still wandering in circles around the town and every now and then saw a trail lit up by tens of head torches in the distance. They were high. It was spread out and long. We kept questioning over and over if that is where we were heading or if that is the descent to Beaufort which we’d already completed. Every few minutes we’d have the same debate all over again.
The trails eventually took us in a different direction which did make sense finally. The climb was slow and a real slogfest in the dark. Sometime later we topped out on the summit and the open trails. It was windy and we could see the head torches both out in front and behind us. There was plenty of mud and my fresh clean shoes and socks (from the drop bag) were now soaked through. We ran along the ridgeline in the wind before we stopped to layer up and have some food. I was sleepy and hungry. I went into the chocolate reserves and came out with some chocolate coated raisins. They worked a treat and perked me up enough to keep moving with more clarity.
We continued on and the trails became increasingly more muddy and technical. We were ready for the next aid station now and Darryl was starting to struggle with pains in his feet. We looked forward to the opportunity for some medical attention and warm noodle soup. First though we had to navigate a steep descent and subsequent climb along some sharp rock faces in the darkness.
We were slowed to a plod as the runners started to back up under the difficulty of the terrain. At one point I yelled out and almost lost my foothold as I touched an electric fence that was stupidly close to the trail (on my other side was a drop into the darkness!). We laughed it off but I did question what I was doing here in the dark!
Over the last little climb, the music pumping from the aid-station could finally be heard.
105 Hours – Hautelace –105 hours
Hautelace was a little confusing. Probably because it was 1am and we were tired, probably because it was fairly soon after the big check point and probably because of the route. This was also part of the new course and it felt like we were walking in circles around the town. I heard rumours afterwards about villages paying the organisers to be part of the route and I wondered, if true, if this was one of them – we were on a tour!
We finally pulled ourselves together shortly before midnight and headed back out from Beaufort for the third and final 50km. As we were leaving Alan showed up and indicated he hadn’t been so good and that he was going to have a sleep. I joked with Darryl that we’d see him run past us in a few hours time!
We climbed into the darkness and soon reached a town. After doing what felt like laps of the town we weaved into the aid station which was pretty much empty. We had a long stretch of running through the night ahead of us though so we took the opportunity to get some more food and water in before we headed back out into the night and up into the darkness.
102.5 Hours – Beaufort
Beaufort Aid Station. The long awaited, very much anticipated 90km mark. The aid station where we could access our drop bags, the aid station where the risk of dropping out (due to home comforts) increases. The one where hot food would be available. The one that marks the end of the “second” section (in my head I broke the race into three 50km sections) and the point where there is “only 50km to go”.
The entrance to the aid station was a a long walk. It felt like we were taking a detour around the aid station. I spotted the Live Cam and gave it a good middle finger. I was moody. That last 50km seemed to drag on and on and on (a bit like this blog?)…
After leaving Gittaz it all got a bit shit. Literally. One of the highlights for me here was the actual shit I had (it was surprisingly healthy for an ultra marathon poop!). But this whole section here was shit. Don’t get me wrong, it is another set of beautiful trails and the views and scenery was absolutely stunning (Exhibit A – The Black Lake), but it was shit because it was tough and it dragged. This was the section of off-track climbs, false summits and the beginning of the night.
The climb from La Gittaz was immediately steep and immediately lumpy. It was long, we were exhausted and it continued to deceive us. False summit after false summit and lumpy ups and downs were the order for 10km or so as we tagged Côte d’Ani and Pas d’Outray. Sometime around Côte d’Ani we took a moment. We sat down after the disappointment of reaching another false summit and we needed a few minutes to get ourselves over the disappointment of coming over the top and seeing the enduring trails and runners heading off into the distance. We weren’t alone. For every few runners who went passed, one would stop and join us. By the time we left there must have been about 7 or 8 of us grumpy bastards sitting in a circle laughing at each others miserable appearance. We also wondered if we could get the next long downhill done and out of the way before darkness. Spoiler – we didn’t. Not a chance in hell it would ever have even been possible. As we continued to descend the darkness enveloped us and and the head torches were back out and we trudged on.
The descent into Beufort was long, technical and difficult. This was the first section of the new route. Darryl wasted no time in pointing out that it immediately made the course harder than the old version (which he’d done previously last year!). After what felt like a lifetime we reach the aid station and settled down for a break and a freshen up with our drop bags. Whilst I fumbled through my routine, Darryl went off and had his knee tapped.
98.5 Hours – La Gittaz
La Gittaz was quite a cute little aid station. It stank a bit (think actual farmland) and there were plenty of small stone brick buildings in the area. The aid station itself was small, and the volunteers and support few but very boisterous.
We’d run down into the aid station through about 800m of descending trails. They were mostly steep and technical, but the end was a real treat. We ran down alongside a gorge and the sound of the water flowing below us was brutal. It sounded like high-speed wind battering you. The path was carved out through the mountain and winded down and around before dropping into open fields.
Before La Gittaz
The incredible Gorge
I’d left Darryl behind and we agreed we’d meet again at the aid station. Just as we descended the fields he caught up with me and we walked in together before I headed straight off to the Eco Loo for a very much needed good ol’ shit. What? It had probably been about 24 hours since my last one and that Lasagne and Burger was still bouncing up and down inside me!
96.5 Hours – Cormet de Roselend
I spot the Live Camera. I’d forgotten about these. As I ran into the aid Station I stuck the thumbs up and the tongue out for the world to see. I’m alive, I’m doing ok…
It had been a long one. 4 and a half hours had passed since I left the last aid station and I was certainly feeling a bit exhausted now (inevitable seeing as I’d been on the move for over 12 hours at this point).
Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice I began the big climb. I didn’t feel it was as bad as people made it out to be. Perhaps because I was in a great place mentally and physically. In my mind it was split into a few smaller sections that I can recall. First off a steady climb on some soft and soily trails. As we climbed I could hear a deep voice bellowing out above “Alleeeeeee Hup Hup Hup Allleeee Allleeeee”. It was a great voice. Eventually I reached him – an old man with his wife ringing a cowbell. He was fantastic. “Merci, Superb” I called as I passed.
Beyond the old man the climb continued as we hit some open fields (and a bit of sun) and rounded an old fortress. It was here I was stunned to find loads of runners laying down and resting. And I mean loads, tens of them, everywhere. I couldn’t figure out if this was a strategic stop – part way up an exhausting climb, gaining some much needed sleep after an early start, planning for the future. Or whether it was because they were dead on their feet with exhaustion from the climb and they just had to stop. Part of me wondered if it is because the views were spectacular and it was just a wonderful place to stop and rest? I’ll never know, but for certain it looked far more enjoyable than some of the places I saw runners curled up in later that night!
I met Darryl again along the climb and we continued together chatting and catching up on the past few hours. We passed a short water station (by water station I mean a hose pipe filling a bucket) which gave a chance to replenish and soak my face and hat. It was also here that the famous 5 Euro soft drinks were on sale. I declined to get involved.
The climb continued and the terrain became varied. From muddy trails to razor sharp rocks. The fast hiking very quickly became slow lunging and scrambling! The views though were sensational and Darryl and I decided to take a little rest at the top of one of the peaks and enjoy a moment. Plus we were both starving and I wolfed down a few bars of food and Darryl rested his knee which was starting to cause him some pain.
We carried on up the rocky climbs before my balls almost detached themselves from my body and ran off back the way we’d come. In front of us were a group of volunteers, all happy singing and dancing, hiding from us what was a sheer drop of the mountain top. It also happened to be the way we had to descend. What the fuck? Down there? There was a rope. There were runners holding onto the rope and shuffling themselves down the sharp rock face backwards. Fucking hell I was terrified. I’d come to run, not to abseil with no equipment. The only way was down though, so I packed away the poles and headed on down.
We’d gone barely a few metres when a pair of poles went flying passed us following a shriek from above. A runner almost lost himself as he tried to head down using his poles and not the rope. Not worth it. Get a grip!
We made it. It took sometime but we made it to the end of the rope section. The path was still very technical and steep though and the run down into the aid station was painful. The memories of the pains in my feet from Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria all came flushing back!
92 Hours – Bourg Saint-Maurice
There is the slightest of inclines through the streets. I walk into the aid-station (which was the first major/crew-support aid station on the course). No running here. I’ve just been on one hell of a run. but I am buzzing. beaming. smiling ear-to-ear. “Dai” I hear as I look across the packed aid-station to see Ryan calling me over. He introduces me to his Wife Emma who gives me the biggest of hugs and gets a sweaty kiss before offering me potatoes which I happily take.
Ryan is a bit dazed. I caught up with him on the downhill which was a huge surprise (he is a speed demon!) before he turned and showed me his bloody face. A bad fall had left him a bit spaced out after taking most of the impact literally head on.
After another very long downhill, maybe about 15km and a descent of about 1,500m with much more running, more speed work, I remember looking at my watch and thinking I have no right. No right to be running 6 min/kms at 40-odd kms into a race, never-mind a 145km race! But I kept going.
I soon bumped into Ryan and then arrived at a water station where I proceeded to refill all my bottles ahead of the ‘big’ climb. A volunteer kindly told me the aid-station was in 3kms though and this was just a water station in between. So I legged it back out through the town and parks…
When I arrived, after speaking with Ryan I saw Darryl heading out and spent a moment talking to Alan who arrived just after me. We did a quick kit check reminder to fill all our bottles as the next climb was an un-shaded beast – almost 2,000m of climbing in the midday heat (not sun though as it was mostly overcast thankfully!).
I chatted to Emma a little longer after Ryan left (and ate more of his spuds!) before leaving myself. I spent very little time at this aid station as quite frankly, I felt great. I had energy and a smile and saw little point sticking around any longer. So off I went.
90 Hours – Col du Petit Saint Bernard
The Point of Col Du Petit Saint Bernard sticks out in my memory for one reason only. This was the French/Italian border crossing! and the technical, small stone descent before a much longer descent. Ahhhh wonderful. I did enjoy the little border crossing they’d erected for the runners though. That was nice.
Other than that, my mind has gone a little blank. We climbed together, the fresh smells of the forest, the morning warming. It’s about 10am but I can’t picture the scene. I don’t think Darryl was with me at this point. Maybe he was. A few hours have passed though and I don’t recall too much of where or what I saw in this time.
Sometime earlier though morning had broken, I put the head torch away and started to enjoy the grey misty morning as we climbed about 600m, from which we had stunning views of the valley and lake below. I was above hundreds of runners and I’m looking down, but also up. Hundreds more were above me and the climb continued to the cheers and sounds of supporters at a timing point. As I reached them I breathed a deep breath. I took a moment to absorb the views and point to the distance trail path leading off into the un-see-able distance.
From the peak at Col Chavannes I got moving again. Woaaaah boy do I get moving again. The path was very runnable, about 10km of shallow descent on fairly decent and wide track. It is fast. Another consistent period of running 5 min/kms. I knew my quads were going to hate this in a few hours, never-mind the next day!!
There’s a short break in the rhythm as the path deviated sharply down and cross a river before ascending some forest tracks. At this point I first met him, the sweaty stinky man. I had no idea what would happen next and how a friendship would form. “Alright Mate” he says “How’s it going?”. As simple as that. A mere conversation starter. One runner to another, one human to another, one person looking to change their day. Thank you Darryl, you certainly changed my day!
86.5 Hours – Lac Combal
I’m running along a flat gravel path, It’s flooded with puddles of water and I’m zig-zagging along at close to 5 min/km pace. Crazy. Still, it feels good so I keep at it. I’m distracted by a ‘Full Kit Wanker’. A lady wearing head to toe in branded UTMB event gear. And I mean head to toe – Columbia UTMB edition trainers, Compressport UTMB socks, base layer shorts, shorts/skirt, Tee, Arm Sleeves, Buff and Running cap. She has it all. Maybe over 400Euros of kit right there. Wow. We all like a souvenir (I bought a Matterhorn race hoody just days earlier!) but that is a lot of kit to (potentially) try out for the first time on a 145km run!
The distraction takes my mind off the running and a big aid station soon appears. I grab some food, refill my water and am about to head out before I notice a sign saying about 19km to the next aid Station. I turn around, drink some more water, part fill a third soft flask and eat some more food before heading back out. I don’t want to be caught short so soon into the race!
As I continued on the climb I stopped for a moment and turn around to try and photograph the stream of head torches snaking back for miles in the distance. It doesn’t do it justice, but its an incredible sight – maybe up to 1,500 heads bobbing away. So far I’d not used my head torch. Like a parasite I was using the light from those around me and being a sneaky bastard and saving my battery for night time (even though I’m carrying four batteries!) I continued the climb before a nice easy descent into Lac Combal. I’m running (with the head torch on now!), I’m smiling. It’s been a good start, a fast start and I think I’m a little ahead of Alan, I last saw him just before the climb started and I couldn’t recall him storming passed.
85 Hours – Col Checrouit Maison Veille
A little over an hour has passed. Its 5 in the morning and still Dark. I’m about half way through a 1,000m climb (over 10km) and I’ve stumbled into the first aid-station at Col Checrouit Maison Veille, some 1,900m above sea level and its a little cold. Runners are in jackets and gloves, sipping hot drinks. I’m in a T Shirt with arm sleeves rolled down. It’s sweaty work this fast hiking! I fill up my bottle with the help of a lovely volunteer before heading out and swearing. Fucking Prick. He’s filled me up with sparking water. Why would you do that? The smallest of things, but it pissed me off. I’m not a fan of sparkling water. Regardless, I find a way to calm myself down and move on. It’s just a bit of gas.
84 Hours – Courmayeur
Hans Zimmer (“He’s a Pirate”) is pumping out. Hi-fives and fist pumps are exchanged. Cheers and whoops are let out. Screams of “Ale Ale” and cowbells ringing fill the main street of Courmayeur. The 2019 TDS is under way and my 84 hours of recovery comes to an end. It is time to run again. This time, further and higher than I’d ever been before. Time to push those boundaries and redefine myself.
Before the race began I was subjected to one of the random bag searches whilst in the starting pen. Great. Whilst I fully endorse and support this approach, it isn’t half a pain in the arse. When you pack and re-pack your bag and organise it in such a way, only to then be rushed to unpack in a crowded space to show you have all the mandatory gear is just a nightmare. Either way, I passed. I got my green sticker on my bib.
You really can’t fault the organisation of UTMB. from bag checks to bus transportation to the start line, it really is a military operation and you can clearly see where you 200 Euro entry fee has been spent. You are so looked after and accounted for during the event. I’ve almost forgotten its been 3 hours since I first woke, trudged to the bus and started eating croissants.
71 Hours – Chamonix
It’s about 3pm on Tuesday and I’m leaving the race registration tent. I’m in. I’m Done. I’m set to go. The rigorous testing and inspection of your documentation and kit has been passed. Phew. Time to head home, re-pack the kit and drop bag, eat more food and go to sleep. At 1am I need to be up and heading to the bus to Courmayeur.
That morning I’d skipped the organised morning “shake out” run so that I can head up the VK with the others (I didn’t want to do both). Most of them bailed on the second run, but Yvette showed me the way. We did about half way before turning back and heading home so I could register. Post registration I finally got to eat and rammed a lasagne down my throat before an hour later heading out for a burger with Alan. I was bloated now but heading to bed. 7pm, If it goes well I can get about 6 hours sleep before the journey begins….
45 Hours – Chamonix
Its a whole day later and I’m stepping off the Chamonix Express into Chambalama Town (Chamonix that is!). So far the trip has been fantastic and worked out exactly as planned and I’m where I want to be when I want to be there. I pick up the key to the apartment, meet Yvette and Jess and head into the main town to cheer home the MCC runners. There are a few friends running and due to finish within the next few hours. We grab a burger and make it in time to support them all across the infamous UTMB arch/finish line. The rest of the day is spent eating and meeting many friends before heading to bed and trying to get a semi-decent night’s sleep. I’m not sure how Tuesday will pan out but I know I want to get the legs moving a little bit and eat and sleep as much as I can.
21 Hours – Visp
Arriving in Visp I head straight to the hotel with my fingers crossed that I can check in early, I can. Result! I was staying at St. Jorden, which very quickly became apparent was some form of religious retreat (an ‘Education and Seminar House’ as they put it!). This didn’t bother me though and I was given some very helpful advice relating to the thermal baths and local buses before I set off out in my short shorts.
I get to the Thermal baths very quickly, pay my 25Euro for three hour access to both the pools and Sauna rooms and head on in. I’m immediately disorientated though. It is busy. I’ve a little armband to activate doors and lockers and straightaway signs are instructing me to remove my shoes. I wander on in and first stumble upon the ‘Grotto Bath’ – a pool maintained at 40 degrees. It is awesome. I follow it up with a stint in the ‘Cold Water Grotto’ which is so relaxing as it is in pitch darkness. I keep alternating between the two before heading outside (after a stop off at several steam baths of various temperatures and aromas).
Outside I find a series of swimming pools with jets, streams and water features. I enjoy a few trips around the ‘River Pool’ and smile as the water current pushes me round and round. I then head off to the slide. Yes, the slide. I’m like a child all over again and it is frikken brilliant. I don’t know how many times I go on it, but it is great fun. I must have been in here for about 2 hours by now so I head back inside to repeat my hot/cold water “treatment”, steam rooms and get naked in the saunas. I’ve one eye on my watch now as the buses aren’t all that frequent and I want to get the next one. Whilst in the Grotto Bath I decide to lay on the loungers – when you recline your feet are elevated. That will help with my recovery I think to myself. I’m sure it did too, because the next thing I remember is waking up and it is 45 mins later. Shit, I’m late. I rush out, in a panic realise there is a bus in less than 10mins, but I can’t find the changing rooms. I dive into a disabled toilet and start getting changed but am disrupted by someone banging on the door. “Hold on” I scream before grabbing my stuff and making to leave. Outside a cleaner is looking at me disgusted and starts yelling at me pointing at my trainers. I try to explain I don’t understand and am lost and continue the long walk of shame to the exit, to many tuts and disapproving eyes along the way.
Outside I try to leave but the armband flashes red and buzzes every time, after some time the receptionist realises it is because I am “late”. Ten mins overdue, I’m instructed to a machine to pay a fine. 5 Euros, phew, that’s OK. I run out and jump on the bus just in time before it leaves. I slept very well that night!
15 Hours – Zermatt
Morning has broken. My legs ache. I feel well rested but my quads are definitely a little tender. The Matterhorn Sky Race was faster than I expected and I was already feeling it. After a relaxing evening and a good long sleep I felt like I’d lost a big chunk of my recovery. That wasn’t the case though, sleep is what I needed. I just didn’t need tender legs!!
I finished packing my bag and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar. I had a casual day ahead with no rushing. My trains were booked and I had plenty of time. I ate, and ate and ate at breakfast. I didn’t really eat a proper meal the night before and I was pushing in the calories now. Plus I didn’t know when I’ll get a chance to eat next that day, so I relaxed and ate a shit tonne of food.
As I sat on the train from Zermatt to Visp I did a quick bit of research on what Visp had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across the Thermalquellen Brigerbad – Thermal Baths and Spa. Sod exploring the mountains, this was the best Idea I’d had in a long time.
0 Hours – Zermatt
It’s about 16:00 on Saturday. Moments earlier I crossed the line of the Matterhorn Sky Race. Now I’m sitting down eating the post race meal with Jason and Pritt, two runners I met along the way. “What’s next?” they ask. “The TDS at UTMB” is my response. “When is it?” they ask. I take a look at my watch. “It starts in 84 hours” I tell them….
Lets rewind (or fast forward? I’m so lost with my own writing now!) a little. The race is done, completed. I’m wondering why I thought I could do it? With such technical terrain, I’m not quite so sure I thought I even could do it. But I did. And I did it well (I’ll modestly say). I felt OK afterwards. Probably the best I’ve ever felt after an ultra. It was just a long ass slog.
It was very much a three part race. The first 50km, the middle 50km and the last. I loved the first 50km. I felt free and ran more than I’m used to running in mountain races. The middle 50km dragged on and seemed to take a lot longer than the first 50km. Then the last 50km was all about survival and perseverance, as many ultras often are.
I was fortunate that, unlike many runners, I had no issues (other than sore feet). That I also found a companion to support me through. I keep saying it, ultras are far far easier with friends!!
It did make me question the distance though. 150km is a lot. It’s long. When you’re telling yourself, “only 50km to go”, “only another 12 hours”, and when you’re OK with that, it should be questioned!!
Last year’s CCC left me underwhelmed. The finish in particular was a let down, but this year the TDS gave me the full UTMB experience. Finishing midday with all the exceptional support was a phenomenal experience. It was an electric atmosphere unlike last years finish and one I’ll never forget.
The TDS was modified for 2019. Increased from 120km to 145km with the additions through the Beaufort valley. Those I spoke to who’d done the ‘old TDS (Like Darryl and Alan) now claimed it was too much. Too hard. The additions unnecessary. Many say its harder than UTMB which, whilst longer and has a little more elevation, is far less technical. There’s only one way for me to confirm, let’s see what the UTMB ballot God’s have to say about next year…
To all those who helped me achieve, supported and believed, thank you!
The Matterhorn sky race. Another run I’m wondering how I ended up doing. I mean, I know I booked it, only it is one of three ultras in August and just days before I am doing the TDS, how did I manage that?! I know I booked it before I found out I had a place at TDS but I don’t remember why this one though. I think I read about it or saw pictures or something. Either way I was on my way to Zermatt, a Swiss town in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. I was excited.
I feel I now start all Post-race write ups with a lil’ moan about my state of fitness etc. No difference this time. I guess it’s natural that my body is desperately trying to hold itself together given everything my mind selfishly throws at it. Still, I feel like I could be in a better place. But, two things. Firstly confidence is in a good place after getting through 100km of the Stour Valley just two weeks ago and secondly my mental state is great. Better than it’s been for a long time. One week before I was struggling. My mind was wandering all over the place. Thinking and over thinking and re-thinking the same thoughts. It was annoying. Very. Naturally I then started worrying about this race and the TDS and how I’d cope with these thoughts when alone with my mind for so long. Thankfully though, things not only improved, but changed significantly. I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long (and I mean long!) time. Some great things have happened to me recently and I’ve a huge smile on my face and I’m intending on making this last. The only reason I was thinking so much is because I don’t want to jeopardise the good. So, arrogantly, I’m feeling a little indestructible. I know what lays ahead. I know how hard it’s going to be and I know what I need to do. It’s time to do it.
Pre race I made my way to the town of Zermatt. Whilst a fairly long day of travelling, it was most efficient. Big kudos to the Swiss! The train and bus system seems impeccable and the long journey was a breeze. Arriving in Zermatt there was a buzz about the town and I went straight to collect my bib which was the easiest registration I’ve ever experienced. No queue. No documentation. I just Walked straight up to the relevant race desk, said my name and within seconds I had my bib number and sponsored goodies. Excellent. I walked straight outside and bought a race branded compresssport hoody and I was done. Off to the hotel and time to relax.
That evening I went for a little walk after food. I found myself wandering aimlessly and ended up following a path along the river before I eventually reached a view point. What a view point it was. Curved benches angled facing the Matterhorn. They were layered out in such a way you could lay back and take it all in. And that’s exactly what I did, for about an hour. I was ready.
The hotel I was staying at provided an exceptional service whereby, as the race would start before the breakfast serving, they’d offered to prepare a sandwich lunch to takeaway the evening before. I woke. Ate the lunch and set off for the start line. As I left the hotel, the Matterhorn stood naked and proud in the dark blue morning sky. I was mesmerised. A short while later, to the inevitable violin sounds of ‘epic music’ I was running.
We looped through the main town roads and out to the trails. The streets were lined with early morning support and the atmosphere was calm. Yes, calm. Normally such races feel frantic and rushed, but not this one. The feeling of calm continued.
As we began the First climb I basked in the calm. I realised that the pack of runners felt different than usual. More Respectful. I wasn’t stressed by the poles (I kept mine packed away as I always do on the first climb). I wasn’t stressed by runners trying to squeeze past in the narrow trails. Everyone seemed content in their place and with the day ahead. It was unusual but an absolute delight. As we peaked the first summit it was starting to brighten. The sun was rising ahead of us and I stopped a few times for a view of the Matterhorn. I didn’t quite realise at this point that I would see it all day from different angles. Obvious really!!
We hit the first downhill section and it was fairly runnable. Not too technical, not too narrow. The runners opened up and many sped past me as we galloped down the switchbacks. Soon we’d hit the valley below and the second climb to Gornergrat, would begin. This would be the big one.
The climb was long. It went on. The sun was shining bright now. We climbed through forest tracks and open fields. The sweat came. I was dripping. I watched the droplets form and then fall off the brim of my hat. My face was drenched and my lips could taste the never ending flow of salt. The pace was slow but steady. All around me was still calm, it was tranquil. Without doubt the most peaceful race I’ve done. I could hear very little, mostly just the roar of water in the distance, not even wind. I continued with a smile on my face.
Near the top the route briefly flattened out into a very wide track. I could hear noise above me but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Cheering, support, the calm was broken. There was a building up higher alongside me. It was an observation tower/view point up on top of the ridge and then I saw them. Runners runnning along the ridgeline. We’d be climbing a little more then looping back along the stunning ridge.
Up top I stopped to picture the mountains. I met another runner, Jason, as we savoured the moment. He’d done the mountain race last year and come back for the superior views of the sky race this year. He was right about it, the views were stunning. I later looked up the Gornegrat and hadn’t quite realised what I’d run too. At 3,100m high (highest I’ve ever run!) The views take in the Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier; and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m, including, of course, the Matterhorn in all its glory.Wow. It’s also home to the world’s first fully electrified cog railway (now Europe’s highest open-air cog railwat) and Europe’s highest-altitude hotel. Quite a place.
I refilled my bottles and Tailwind at the aid station and ran down past all the early morning tourists who arrived on the train. The run down was again very fast. A brief period of rocky technical terrain but again very runnable. With a consistent run for a few kms it wasn’t long before I reached the next check point. I heard it first though. Loud, deep music filled the air as I ran down into the aid station, first joining with the runners of the shorter Active race who joined the course here. There were a lot of them. As I refilled my bottles again I listened to the source of the deep music. Three men playing ridiculously long horns. The sound was fantastic.
I headed off into a now busy pack of runners, the pace was good though as they were probably fresher than I was and the terrain was forgiving. We then hit the infamous suspension bridge. Holy shit that was scarier than I expected. It was maybe a few hundred metres long but it was high.. steel cables suspending a steel grate walkway that wobbled, yes wobbled, under the wait of its cargo. I tried to film it but I was walking like I was pissed, swaying from side to side and bashing into the railings. I’m pretty ok with heights but this was horrible and I was glad when it ended!
Back on solid ground we continued running and came closer to the Matterhorn. Just wow. It doesn’t matter how many times I stopped and looked at it, each angle, each variance in shadow and cloud cover gave it a new unique look, I was mesmerised and couldn’t stop trying to get a photo that would do my memory justice.
We climbed some more, but all I can recall is the Matterhorn. We ran down from the summit and I remember this one was a little bit more tricky with large rocks and steps, steep switchbacks zigzagging down, runner after runner bounded past me as I clang to the sides to make way. As we bottomed out the two routes webt their separate ways as the Active runners headed back to the finish whilst us Sky runners head, well, back up to the sky! The was more climbing to be done…
I soon met Jason again and we chatted briefly as we started the climb and acknowledged there as just one more climb and a ‘little dip’ to go. I very quickly let him run on though as I stopped for more photos – as if my eyes hadn’t been treated to enough spectacular views already, the best was still to come…The views were insane. The route took as right up close against a towering waterfall that was gushing with water. The sound was ferocious as water poured over the cliff edge. Amazing in itself, but then as I looked around and, of course, the Matterhorn was there too. Towering behind the waterfall. The perfect backdrop.
I wanted to stay here for the rest of the day. It was a special place. I’ve seen many incredible sights in my life, but this one stole me. I was captured in this moment. Not quite emotional, but probably not far off. I seriously contemplated sticking around and making myself at home. I’d beaten the last cutoff checkpoint, I had plenty of time to spare and nowhere to be. I don’t know what made me leave, but I did. As tempting as it was, I had a run to finish. The climb was steep and tough. I was watching the elevation map on my watch which quite frankly is frustrating. To watch a little dot barely move was irritating, but at the same time it was intriguing to see where on the climb I was.
Soon we made it and it was that time again to head down. This was the worst of the downhill sections for me. It was very steep and rocky, by far the most technical and a load of runners passed me, probably all of those who I powered passed on the incline. Same old story.
Jasson arrived just after me with the opposite story, he was hating the climbs but loving the descents. I joked that it was all his from here, the last climb was nothing compared to everything we’d climbed that day and a long downhill was the final assault to the finish line, I joked I’d see him again as he runs passed me when we descend. Up we went and true to the route profile the climb was pleasant. As we climbed, a rock almost as big as a football, came hurtling down between me and the runner behind. It was bouncing wildly and thumping at the mountain with each impact. It passed before we could process it and before we both had time to swear. If that had impacted, it would have been game over. No questions. We shouted down below, probably a futile attempt at warning other runenrs. We were both in shock. However, as the climb ended, the views once more were truly spectacular as we circumnavigated the mountains with the Matterhorn to our side and slowly drifting behind us.
It tried to rain and that gave me the energy to power on. I didn’t want to have to stop and get the rain jacket out. It was cold though, the rain droplets like ice as they hit your skin. The long run around the mountain soon ended and up ahead runners disappeared off the horizon, it was time to descend for the last time. But not before I had a quick chat with these adorable sheep hiding between some rocks. Valais Black Nose sheep apparently, like something out of star wars.
Of all the descents, this felt the quickest. I once again let lots of runners passed. One guy stuck with me though and refused to pass. We were going pretty fast I suppose. We joked all the way down as every turn and opportunity I gave him the chance to leapfrog ahead, everytime he laughed and refused. We hit the flat of Zermatt and we stepped on it. Back on the main streets there was one final turn, one final offer to the smiley runner to pass, he refused once more and I hit it, few hundred metres, sprint finish, why not!
At the finish line Jason was there. We exchanged photo duties and met Pritt from Estonia (A marathon I’ll be doing in two weeks time). We may just meet again. The three of us sat and enjoyed the post race meal, reminisced about the adventure before going our separate ways.
For me, my warm up was done. 2 out of 3 races in August complex, half the cumulative distance covered, a third of the elevation and less again if the total time on my feet. I’ve 84 hours to recover and get to the start line of the TDS…
Stour Valley Gold. A loosely fitting title for this post, but one that seems all so relevant. Not only is it a beverage served at the finish line of the SVP 50/100 (I think and hope that is what it was called!) but also a direct reference to the golden shades of the many, many fields run through along the course. The Stour Valley really was golden this year…
The SVP100 is becoming a it of a tradition for me. This was my third year running the SVP100. What began as my second ultra in 2017 has now escalated into my 20th Ultra. What the fuck. 20th?! No wonder my body aches (there’s also been 9 road marathons in that time)! It makes sense now I count them!
Each year has been different. SVP100 2017 was new to me and I was naive, oh so very naive. It whipped my butt for sure and taught me so much about ultra running. For the SVP100 2018 I ran it with others and shared the experience as part of my training for the CCC, this year however it was all about me. For me. I did it for the T-shirt. If you don’t know about it – the finishers T-shirt is green for the SVP100 (grey for the SVP50 and yellow for the volunteers). But on your third completion, you get a black ‘3-star’ t-shirt. I wanted it. I did this race for a T-shirt. Yep, that is who I am now. (I have since found out you get another ‘5-star’ black t-shirt when you complete it 5 times. I need to not think about that!!). What ever motivations are out there, running a race for a slightly different t-shirt is valid inspiraation in my eyes!
I ran the race this year mostly on my own. I needed too. Firstly as I have some niggles I’m conscious of, and wanted to be in complete control of, my race, and secondly for more brain and pain training. With the TDS and other longer ultras in the calendar I once again need to get accustomed to being alone with my mind when things get though. That being said, I didn’t find this one mentally tough. Quite the opposite, I found it very enjoyable. It did get me thinking though, about what has changed. 2 years and 17 ultras apart, my SVP journeys have seen me become a different runner, a different person even…
But before I get into all of that, lets have a quick recap of the actual race. If you are contemplating entering, do so. It is a wicked little race along the Stour Valley Path – a footpath that follows the River Stour through the beautiful Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire countryside, including the Dedham Vale AONB (Dedham Vale ANPOB’s words, not mine). It is a small(ish) sized event of up to about 200 runners on the 100km (since 2018 there is also a 50km route starting in Sudbury and joining for the later part of the 100km route to Manningtree) that is meticulously organised by Matthew (Race Director). The route is delicious, the volunteers and support is immense (go check out the SVP100 community page on Facebook and you’ll see just how helpful everyone is!) and the race itself is very challenging – It is very flat (c900m over the 102km distance) with some tight cut-off times (you need to complete the 100km in 15.5hours). Personally I find some of the mountainous ultras easier than this one. It is not easy!
The weekend began with some less than ideal travel issues. With a 07:00 start on Saturday, overnight accommodation in Newmarket was required. I’d agreed to travel up with Pierre (who I’d stay the night with) and Agata and we each left work to get a train from King’s Cross at about 17:30. We’d be in Newmarket around 19:00 with time for food and prep before an early night. Or so we thought. We were each disrupted on our way to King’s Cross by some train issues. Whilst I made it, Agata and Pierre (who had the train tickets!) didn’t. It soon became apparent that there was a bit of a problem. A big problem. A National Grid power outage had hit the UK and King’s Cross was one of the worst affected stations (we later found out that trains from 17:30 were cancelled as the station was closed and the first train didn’t leave again until 21:30!). Sometime later Agata and I had found each other and went to a restaurant near the station as we waited for Pierre to arrive. Around 20:00, with Pierre now with us and a belly fully of pizza and pasta, we gave up and headed to Liverpool Street where we managed to get a slower train to Cambridge and then we took a taxi to Newmarket. Arriving at 23:00 was not what we’d hoped for.
Pierre and I were staying in the White Hart pub next door to the race registration point in the Town Hall. Ideal, except that the White Hart also seemed to be a late night bar. So if you are contemplating a good night sleep before an Ultra marathon then this might not be the best choice! Thankfully though our little adventure meant we were ready for sleep and we passed out quickly enough.
We woke up just before 06:00, rolled into the Town Hall next door and registered before returning to the room and getting ready. 06:50 we joined the rest of the runners outside as we began the (now familiar to me) walk to the start line. Moments after arriving, Matthew let off the air horn and the SVP100 was underway (not before Agata hustled us into a quick start line selfie!). The start of the course includes a few km along the road before turning onto the trail and this year I was a little more conscious not get caught up in the inevitable sprint start. My ankle/foot was still aching from the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and I hadn’t run for the last month until the week before. So I was trying to be wiser (more on that another time though as I’m clearly not so wise seeing as I turned up and started or even booked the race in the first place!) and pace my run. Having done the course twice before I knew what was in store and how challenging it is.
same hedge shot every year
same tree every year
One thing I soon noticed this year is how much more overgrown the route was. Almost immediately this became apparent when a low hanging branch knocked my sunglasses off my head within the first few km of the trails. As I turned around to pick them up another runner unknowingly tread on them and bust the arm. Dammit. Several more times throughout the day my hat was pinched off my head by an overgrown branch. I saw it happen to a few others too, a little amusing each time. I know that prior to the race volunteers and other runners had been out cutting back the foliage but it was still noticeably more overgrown (healthier!?) than previous years. Thankfully, despite a few thorn scratches on the arms and itchy legs it had no ill effects for me.
This year we were also treated to some cooler (less sunny!) temperatures but some pretty ferocious winds. Whilst I thought this was a good thing – the majority of the time I felt sheltered by trees and bushes and found the wind to be incredibly cooling on the skin – I do believe there were some incidents for other runners where the high winds caused problems. For me the only problem it did cause was a slight ache in my neck later in the day as the wind caught in my beard and forced my head to tilt as I ran!! Beard problems tough life!
Beyond that the run went to plan. Or better than planned, and the route treated me kindly. One of the things I really like about this event is how the aid stations are dispersed along the route of the SVP100. They start off further apart and the distance between them decreases as you near the end. The aid stations, as always, were full of incredible volunteers going out of their way to support and help you. Maybe it is my memory (and needs?) but I feel this year they were stocked even better than previous years and I had a few particular favourites in the homemade fudge(!) at the third aid station and the Strawberries at the fifth aid station. Those were perfect treats for me and hit the spot when I needed something different!
Shortly before I reached the second aid station, as I walked up one of the lush golden fields (which I recall from last year when a drone was filming overhead), I was greeted by the familiar face that is Mark (“Stour Valley Parry” as I called him – he was also tackling the 100km for the third year in a row). We ran and chatted for a little while before he darted off and, as he put it, we played out the slowest car chase imaginable as I tried to keep him in sight as he edged further and further away.
I carried on, admittedly faster than my intended pace, and I was soon playing leap frog with a gentleman in a green SVP finishers top (apologies I never got your name!). He was so smiley and friendly and we spent the rest of the day cheering each other on and laughing each time he’d somehow pop up from behind me. Usually because he’d stopped for a pint of Guinness(!) in a pub or to pick some apples from trees. He was having the best time and his laugh was contagious (thanks for being there!).
I reached the half-way point (third aid station) after about 5hrs 20mins. This felt very strong and rapid. But I knew it was too fast. I didn’t need to be going at this pace and had to talk myself into slowing down in the second half of the race. I had nothing to win here, only everything to lose if I were to injury myself ahead of the next few races. Thankfully a few wrong turns and a few hills helped slow me down too! Shortly after the half-way point a few runners went speeding past me and for a moment I was shocked at the speed in which they were running. Soon I realised though that I was out in front of the SVP50 runners and it was like the stampede in the Lion King and I was soon clinging to the edges of the single-track path and signalling them past me as they sped through. This also helped making navigation easier as I could follow more people!
Somewhere before the fourth aid station Hannah also came running through with the SVP50 runners and managed a quick chat before legging it and finishing her first race since coming back from a lengthy spell on the injury table. Nice one Hannah! I also briefly saw Kevin out there volunteering and directing runners which was a huge boost. The support, as always, really is fantastic on this event. Even Stuart, the race photographer, was hi-fiving and cheering runners through every time he snapped a picture and captured their pain/anguish for eternity! Stuart really was immense out there. I’ve no idea how one man managed to appear in so many places (for so long!) and maintain such a high level of enthusiasm whilst working. Thank you Stuart!
One thing I was looking forward to was the Church (St Andrews, Wormingford) which I knew had a tap outside. I couldn’t remember where on the course this particular church was and thought I’d missed it. 75km or so in it appeared and Smiley-Guinness-chugging-Green T-shirt dude and I enjoyed the cooling shower it offered us. We followed this up with then immediately getting lost afterwards by not turning off the road when we should have. Thankfully a car-driver corrected us before we went too far down the hill! That could have been painful.
Love this tree every year too
…and this one
I carried on through the course, running mostly but at a consistently comfortable plod and walking occasionally when it felt deserved/needed. For the final few miles I played leapfrog with a couple of runners and will always remember the runner in the yellow SVP top pacing another lady. He was so enthusiastic and encouraging and an absolute blast of energy at so late in the race. His support to me and comments about getting that 3-star tee were appreciated! Unlike the herd of cows in the last set of fields who decided to go on a little evening walk about the same time as we wanted to run through. They were some big bastards! Cows navigated, I eventually ran into Brantham and finished the race in just over 12 and a half hours. The fastest of my three SVP finishes. So way better than expected or planned. There was only one thing on my mind though…give me my 3-star finisher tee (apologies to the volunteers if I seemed impatient, I’d been waiting two years in my mind for this one!). A shower and some cheesy beans on chips later, I was chatting away with the Advent Running crew before hopping back on a bus then the train back to London. I left the SVP with the biggest sense of fulfilment from any of my runs to date. This one had been a long time in the making and I can stop obsessing about this particular t-shirt. Now about that 5-start tee……
2 years of medals
The Black finishers Tee
Earlier in this post I mentioned I’d been thinking. Thinking about those 17 ultras in between and what has happened during this ‘long time in the making’. Running the route mostly on my own I spent a lot of time reflecting. It was easy to do so as memories from previous SVPs came thick and fast and, naturally, I drew comparisons (trees and fields in particular – I was constantly amazed at how golden the wheat fields were this year!). This led to my mind thinking about me. Reflecting on myself as a runner and as a person, as to how I’ve changed since that second ultra marathon back in 2017….
In the running sense, I am a different runner now to the one I was back in 2017. As I write this and counted the races I’ve done in the last two years I let out an audible “fuck me”. I knew I’d done a few, but it hadn’t quite registered I’d gone from a complete newbie to a fairly experienced 20 times Ultra marathoner within the space of two years. So it makes sense that I’ve changed, and each race, each challenge has contributed to that in many ways… If it might interest you to find out more, then have a read here… I’ve separated it out as it ended up becoming quite a lengthy brain fart and not all that relevant to the SVP100….
Whilst recapping my different experiences over 2 years whilst running the Stour Valley Path Ultra, I started to think about what is different and how I have changed in that time. I surprised myself when I realised there has been 17 ultras between my first SVP100 and my latest. I surprised myself a little more when I started thinking about how this has changed me… so as a recap (or if you’ve not read about my latest SVP100 adventure):
SVP 2017 broke me. It was me alone and chatting with strangers. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. There was very little pre-thought or strategising. I was destroyed for weeks afterwards.
SVP 2018 was enjoyable for the company. Ged & Chris made the race for me. I didn’t have to think about anything. Just talking and enjoying the ‘camaraderie’ on the trails.
SVP 2019 was for me and me alone. I did it for the t-shirt. For the confidence and for my brain. It was beautiful. I went into it with different types of goals, a sort of plan, but to focus on specific aspects of my running and adventure. I was clear in my mind that I’d run comfortably, consistently and with particular attention to my foot placement. I didn’t want any ankle rolling incidents. Mentally I was at ease with the distance and the challenges ahead. I was calm. This comes from experience. Something I didn’t have in 2017 nor 2018 (despite it being my second time).
Experience. That indeed I now have. I can now say I know what it feels like to run an ultra marathon. The physical and mental experiences. That I know what I need to do during such a run, to turn negatives into positives. To keep going when it feels like I can no longer do so. Experience and wisdom are so valuable and important during endurance events and my runs are now very much dictated by these. Many things have changed as I’ve gathered these skills…
I look back at my early ultras and what I had kit wise and carried along the runs. Without doubt I have better kit now. It isn’t all essential and you don’t need expensive or top of the range gear, but it does make a difference. Yes you can run marathons and ultras in any old thing really and it all comes down to your preference. But in my opinion better quality kit does make a difference, especially when you’re running as far and as often as I now do. The ease, the lightweight materials, the comfort, understanding different trail shoes for different purposes etc. Having the choices to define your decisions at key points on a long run is a great privilege to have.
I now have my go to strategies and tactics. Things I like, things I want, things I try not to deviate away from (like Tailwind, Tailwind, Tailwind!). I go in to races with a certainty in my approach and options to support my plans. I’ll study the route, the elevation, I’ll plan when I might struggle, when I might need support or something particular from my kit. At the SVP100, like most of my ultras, Tailwind was the basis of my nutrition. I genuinely love the stuff and refill 2 x 500ml of Tailwind at every aid station. That’s my default calorie, nutrition and salt intake right there. Yes I’m still greedy and pig out when I can, but no longer am I reliant on aid stations as I was 2 years ago.
Speaking of aid stations, I eat more fruit now. Far more fruit in fact. I didn’t see that coming (I blame growing up with a pretty horrific diet of processed foods!). If there are oranges and watermelon at an aid station I will go straight for them. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits and sweets are now secondary options. It is now a rule I now have. Other rules I tend to abide by include:
Headphones. I carry headphones but will never use them. They are there for that real emergency boost. I have no doubt that one day I will hit such a low that I can’t be left alone with my thoughts. Until that day comes, the headphones will remain in the bag and I will enjoy my surroundings and thoughts in peace and embrace them.
Coke. I’ve a rule that I won’t drink coke before halfway in a race. No real reason other than I know I like it so much, so I hold-off and make it something I have to earn. But also, no more than 3 cups at any one aid station. I want to have teeth left to smile at the finish line.
If there is hot/substantial food on offer, I must eat it. Be it soup or noodles or pasta or potatoes. Get it down you. Some proper fuelling, whether I feel like it or not, is going to be so useful at a later point. Food in general, whether hungry or not I make myself eat.
I always carry a spare (third) soft flask (500ml). Despite best efforts, you won’t know what the conditions are until you are living them. Be it a hotter day than expected, getting lost, or just how I feel during the run, having the option to carry more water is a conscious decision I make. I drink (sip) plenty and often and always carry a reserve option!
Don’t stop moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I feel like shit, moving forward no matter how slowly is better than staying where I am and not moving. Keep moving forward, towards the finish.
In a similar way to my tactics and strategies, I’m consciously more aware when I run. Aware of my surroundings (simultaneously managing to always look at the floor and my foot placements but also enjoy the scenery I run through!) and aware of my thoughts. I embrace my thoughts. I’m then better equipped to react and deal with them. I’m more aware of my body and how I feel and I’m able to focus on that, not only understanding when to push it and when to take it easier but being able to know when to make those decisions at the right time!
I’m kinder on myself. Taking those decisions and understanding the longer term (in the sense of the run I’m doing) implications of them. That it is okay to not only walk, but to walk a lot! That done in the right way, this doesn’t have such a drastic impact on overall time as you might think and that the benefits to energy and how you feel can be quite significant. Walk with intent as I call it.
I used to be a sucker for running for a specific time (even on trail) and constantly looking at my watch. But now, fuck the time and fuck the distance. I don’t buy into this ‘naked running’ / leave your watch at home crap though – Just change the settings. We all want a record of our run. If not to go back and analyse at some point then to show off to our mates and strangers whom we’ll never meet. It’s self validation, a part of us is wired that way. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I do however no longer care about the distance or time. Yes I could choose not to sign up to a race or to choose a different distance, but I get a challenge and enjoyment from the ‘longer’ (its all relative!) stuff. But once you start, you can’t change the distance. You need to cover that no matter what. Time? Blah. If you’ve read a few of my blogs you’ll know I once did give a shit and why I no longer do. My validation is now in completion. The achievement of getting the challenge done. So it is irrelevant to me to see time or distance on my watch. Until I hit the finish line there is still plenty of work to be done! What I find does help is being aware of my average pace. As contradictory as it sounds, distance and time is a factor and there will always be a cut off time and a realistic/best estimate finish time. So as long as I know what that averages out at over the course of the event, I can work out (if I need/want too) what is left or how I’m performing. And there will always be check points, indications of distance and time of day (like the sun in the sky!) and questions/conversations you’ll inevitably ask or hear (“how far to the next checkpoint”, “only x miles to go” etc.). So fuck times. Fuck distance. I go out with one job. To finish. I know what is needed to get there. No matter what, what average needs to be maintained.
And as a person… how has running changed me?
mmmh. This was a bit like writing a CV or a performance management appraisal document of some sort. “I’m a good person”, “People would describe me as bubbly”…fuuuuuck. It didn’t start off that way nor did I intend for it to end up like that. It’s another mind dump. The words just kept coming and I babbled on about me, myself and I. Maybe there is even an analogy of some sort in there. Is the ‘me’ the same as the ‘I’? Do these represent different iterations of my growth. Bollocks to all that. I’m trying to be too clever now. I’ve changed a little bit is all. Hopefully for the better. Shit chat aside, I feel like I’m a better person these days and I think running has something to do with it….
I’m less frustrated. I used to get wound up a lot. Never angry (except with my mum, she’s always bared the brunt of that for some reason – sorry mum, love ya!) though, mostly just frustrated. This would normally be a work thing too. I think I’m more accepting these days.
I’m less pedantic. Hoooooo. I love a bit of pedantry. It used to cloud my judgement though. I couldn’t see the bigger picture because I was too busy being a prick about the finer details. Still happens (did I mention I love a but of pedantry?) but I’m more accepting of being corrected and put in my place now.
I’m less touchy about things. I used to let things get to me. You know when something didn’t go as planned, when you were put out by something. That. I don’t care so much any more and am more accepting of the need to adapt and change.
I’m more tolerable. Not as in I’m more tolerable to be around (c’mon, I’m always tolerable to be around!), but as in I’m more tolerable of others and things beyond my control. I guess its the whole ‘change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change’ thingy.
I’m more willing. In many ways. More willing to try stuff, to do stuff, to inconvenience myself for the better good etc. I suppose this is an acceptance that everything isn’t centred around me and my needs and that I should put others before myself sometimes.
I’m more confident. Oh for sure I’m more confident. Be it at work or at home, running has given me that. Confident in my own thoughts, decisions and opinions. Confident in my own rationalisation of things and handling of situations. I finally accept that I know what I’m doing and I should portray that confidently.
I’m still very stubborn though. Possibly a negative way to describe determination, but it is a trait that is certainly useful in running and daily in achieving the things I set out to achieve! I don’t like being told what to do, which in a running sense means I probably couldn’t be coached!
I’m wiser. I rely on experiences more. Whilst maybe not in the running sense (not always smarter! As my race calendar would indicate!). I’m learning more to rely on those past experiences for comparison and accept the gut feelings in my decision making.
I’m more in tune with my body. This doesn’t mean I treat it with respect. Quite the opposite in fact. But I listen. I feel. I sense what is right and what is wrong. What I need to do and when I need to adapt. I’m accepting that some things are inevitable. Like injuries. Yes I can prevent them, but given the nature of running (and cycle commuting in London), I know one day I won’t avoid the inevitable and I’ll have to accept the consequences and deal with it. I’m strangely at ease with that thought.
My mental strength is strong, stronger than it has ever been. It’s been trained. Through running, through suffering and pain. I think it is one of, if not ‘the’, my strongest attributes. If I was on a running version of ‘top trumps’ it might well be my top power and special ability. I accept the dark thoughts, the difficult places, I accept I need to spend time with them and not let them consume or dictate me. As a result, I comfortable with them and can deal with them when I need to.
I cut out the negativity in my life. Sounds harsher than it is. I do what I want when I want and for my own benefit. Gone are the times of hanging on to people or things for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to be surrounded by negativity or things that drag me down. I respect myself enough now to only accept the positives into my life.
mmmh. There is a theme here. Acceptance. I accept running has changed me. I believe it has, and for the better. I also accept it might be the best midlife-crisis* I could have hoped for!
* I am not having a mid-life crisis. It is just a joke. Accept it. It was funny.
The first Marathon – London 2013
Second Marathon and first overseas – Kilimanjaro 2015
The first run I wanted to do – Bagan 2016
The first Ultra – RTTS 2017
Second Ultra – SVP100 2017
First run in my homeland – Brecon Beacons Ultra 2018
Sprinting to the finish…First Mountain ultra – CCC 2018
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.
If you know Game or Thrones, you’ll know the quote by Petyr Baelish. Whilst there are many specific and more subtle meanings in this quote within the story’s context, I think it’s apt to the the recent experience of running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A 120km trail race through the mountainous Dolomites.
It was chaotic. People clambering to ‘climb the ladder’. It was literally a climb – With over 5,500m or elevation, it’s a hilly run. Many attempted it, some 1,800 runners. Many failed and were broken by it – nearly 30% of the starters didn’t finish. Many succeeded, they clung to it. Why? good question. Illusions of grandeur perhaps, but the ‘ladder’ was certainly real and we all fought for our moment on the ‘iron throne’…
It would be too easy for me to follow he route of Game of Thrones comparisons. It would be trying too much and really there are no comparisons. I merely thought of that quote as repeated to myself early on that ‘this is chaotic”.
We were staying in a hotel situated on the final approach to the start/finish. This was great for making it easy logistically and something I’m not used to. About an hour before the start, Sonia and I casually rocked up to the crowd of runners. There were 1,800 doing the 120km and it was carnage. Absolute mayhem. We couldn’t get anywhere near the starting pen. We couldn’t even make it onto the road. Runners and family/friends blocked the streets both sides and the shoving began. It was like the rush hour on the tube. Somehow Paul found us in the massives. We spent the time waiting for the start getting intimately fondled and prodded from all angles. We waited as the elites were introduced and the MCs spoke about the event. The Epic theme music replaced the classic rock anthems and the countdown began. As the count hit zero the runners charged.
Waiting to Start with Sonia…
They charged forward and that meant many charged into space that wasn’t there. The pushing and shoving intensified as people impatiently tried to squeeze through people and barriers. Bunch of bellends the lot of them. After minutes of being shoved I’d been pushed into the start pen and was able to move of my free will. But not very far as the stampede bust through the barriers either side and runners clambered in where ever they could and the pile up continued. Selfishly, without thinking of Sonia or Paul I ran. I wanted away from these assholes. Away from as many of them as I could before the bottleneck of the first climb. I was charging through the street, a gradual incline, at a near 7 min mile pace. I was sweating already. I passed Yvette, Kevin and Jess and ploughed forward. A few km later the bottle neck came and I kept to the outside and filtered in. Now I could begin to relax a little. We’d climb. It would be like any other race – runners would fumble with poles. People would bunch up and some would squeeze past. I’d power up. Poles kept in the bag for the first climb as I always do. Finding my space and freedom as we ascended 500m or so.
The track was mostly gravel. One thing I noticed in the torch light was the fine mist of dust kicked up by the runners. I could see it and I could feel it. In my eyes and gritty in my throat. It wasn’t pleasant. But the climb wasn’t too bad. The gravel path soon widened and there was plenty of space. This was very much the case for the first two climbs and their subsequent descents. The Paths were wide twisting switchbacks, Easy to climb and very runnable. Many runners were running up them too including Cajsa who passed me early on.
The climb was followed by a fast descent as we approached the first aid station. Here the tranquillity of the night was replaced by the air of assholes again. The pushing and shoving returned as the small aid station was woefully inadequate to support thousands of runners charging in.
We piled up like clubbers 3-4 deep at a bar. Arms reaching through like a zombie apocalypse storming a safe-hold. Shouts of “aqua, aqua” filled the tents as the volunteers struggled with demand. I couldn’t understand why they were filling small (~2 litre ) jugs with water to then pour them into the runner’s bottles held our. It was so inefficient as 1-2 runners would be filled whilst the rest waited for the jug to be replenished. It took a long time before I had water again and I was refilled and able to head back out into the night and more wide gravel climbs and fast descents.
Despite the chaos I was enjoying the run. It felt good. I felt quick. My average pace was far quicker than usual in such races. No doubt helped by the wide and forgiving tracks. I was smiling as in continued on and began the second climb to Forc Son Forca (which was higher than the first). I recall the vast openness of the night. The climb through the wide roads broke free from the trees and the dark night sky with shinning stars covered us like a blanket. the higher we climbed the clearer the night sky became. In the quietness or the climb it was surreal and almost relaxing (panting aside!) and thankfully as we descended again and reached the second aid station it was thankfully was far less crowded. At some point during the night I whacked my right foot on a rock. I can’t recall exactly how it happened whether I kicked a rock, slipped and scrapped it or twisted it. I remember it happening though and breaking the night silence with a groan as I felt the rock scratch through my trainers on the outside of the foot. It was throbbing now but not preventing me from running.
It was now gone four in the morning and I was over 20 miles in. As I climbed the next, biggest yet, climb towards Forc Lavaredo, I sensed it would soon begin to get light. And as I climbed higher and higher the night sky became evidently more vibrant and blue. Dawn was coming. In the darkness of night cowbells rang out from the forest and fields around us. Cattle were beginning to wake and birds began their morning rituals with songs calling out from the trees. A short descent through the forest kept the light at bay for a little longer before we broke free onto the first of many lakes. Morning was here. The mountains glowed red in the morning sun. I stopped for pictures as runners ran on around me.
As we circumnavigated the first and then a second lake I continued snapping away. This is one of my favourite moments of any such race – Enduring the night and being treated to a spectacular sunrise in incredible places. And this was special. I captured the reflection of the mountains in the water and smiled to myself as I began the next stage of the run and continued to climb to Forc Lavaredo. The day ahead would inevitably be tough with high temperatures predicted.
The climb was the next challenge as it became steeper and steeper and seemed to go on and on. As I powered up, fresh off the sunrise treat, a voice called out. It was Paul. He must have legged it through the streets last night even quicker than I. I’d assumed I’d be ahead of him as I was the first of us to break free of the start line. We chatted away as we climbed. Both agreeing how great we’d found the run so far, despite Paul acknowledging how tired he was from a lack of sleep and how close he was to falling asleep on his poles.
At the top, incredible views awaited as we saw layers of mountains extending in all directions. A few pictures and some hot noodle soup for breakfast and we were back out. The next section continually presented us with rocky mountain panoramic views before we were soon presented with the iconic Tre Cime rocks – Three rocks formed at the peak. Huge. We were dwarfed in their shadows.
Paul was in pain here. His knee very uncomfortable and making it difficult to run the descent. Miraculously though it soon fixed itself and he legged it on ahead, rapidly descending as the gravel tracks subtly began to become more rocky.
The descent then turned into a behemoth of a downhill as we dropped over 1000m. A glacier stream was soon roaring beside us as we ran switch backs and long straights that were loose rocks. Mostly small but very loose underfoot. Paul ran on ahead as I struggled with the terrain. It immediately brought back memories of the riverbed in Trans Gran Canaria and my face winched. I walked and skipped a lot of the decline chatting away to a guy from Yeovil. He shared stories of his runs and was quite experienced with numerous podium finishes but had rolled his ankle during the night and was struggling a bit. We kept going until the sound of the water intensified and we reached the bottom of the descent around Landro. Up ahead we had to cross the fast moving river. Whilst not too wide, it was knee high and runners were contemplating which of three approaches they’d choose – (1) plough straight in and through (2) remove their shoes and socks and hobble across the rocks (3) continue further on and try to hop across larger stones and avoid the water as much as possible. It wasn’t a question for me. I was a numero uno runner. I grabbed a photo and waded in. It was glorious. With the early morning temperature already excessive, the ice cold water was a relief. It numbed my sore feet which were burning from grinding on the rocks and chilled my bones. I dunked my hat and drenched my body before running on.
Next was a very gradual climb of about 7km to Cimabanche which would mark the half way point. This whole section I was aware of from the profile as it was the best part of 20km from the aid station at Rif. Auronzo (before Tre Cime) to the ‘halfway point’ at Cimabanche. A fair stretch in the middle of a scorching ultra. I was glad I was here so early in the morning before it got too hot. I power hiked on. My foot aching from the bump in the night. It was getting hotter as we carried on. I talked to several runners including a French guy who was also suffering from a rolled ankle. Common theme here? Despite acknowledging how little running he’d be able to do, he pointed out we were still hitting a sub 20 hour pace. I laughed. This was ridiculous, but he was right. The night really had been rapid!
Runners from the Ultra Dolomites 90km race soon started powering past (and I mean powering as the lead runners ran the incline!) and the atmosphere intensified a little as I cheered them on and the half way point came into view. For the first time along the race there was support and we were clapped into the aid station. Inside it was small. I grabbed my drop bag and found Paul and his brother Nick. I joined them, grabbed a whole bottle of coke and began my halfway ritual of a wet wipe shower and change of clothes before dumping any unnecessary extra kit in my drop bag. Paul headed out and I told him I’d catch him up after a shit. Yep. Toilet talk. It’s gonna happen in an ultra race. Your body needs to function and running and eating will give you a need. Frustratingly I couldn’t relieve myself prior to the race so expected I’d need to at some point along the way. Whilst I wasn’t desperate, now felt like an opportune moment. I dropped my bag off in the van to return it to the finish and sought out a toilet. There were two portaloos. Neither with toilet paper. Whilst I had my own stash, I didn’t want to unpack my bag to retrieve it and couldn’t stand staying in the stench of the hot box any longer than I needed. I left. I shared my frustrations with an Italian lady. This was quite ridiculous – with the two races meeting here at Cimabanche, there would be over 2,500 runners passing through. Add in a few hundred more for friends/family/crew/volunteers and locals, two toilets is pathetically insufficient. It made me think that, despite the best efforts of all the volunteers, the aid stations and facilities were just inadequate for the scale of the race. The only negative on an otherwise excellent organisation.
Anyway, I was back out running again. We passed under a major road via a storm drain (some runners were injured hitting their heads here!) and I was climbing again towards Forc Lerosa. Soon I rejoined Paul once more. Then everything changed as we descended from Forc Lerosa….
We were about 70km in. 50km to go. The race changed. What so far had been a fairly “easy” and enjoyable run became and absolute bastard. Fuck the second half. It can fuck right off. My optimism left me. My desire to take photos and embrace my surroundings went with it. I didn’t hit a particular dark place. But I wasn’t enjoying the run any longer and I don’t want to recall the second half. I’m not ready to talk about it in the same detail. It can fuck right off. The short version goes a little something like this…
The ‘Valley of death’, ‘death canyon’, ‘hell’, ‘shitsville’, ‘that shit bit’. It adopted many names. A long, very long, stretch of rocky terrain (loose fist sized rocks) that extended in a canyon/valley far beyond one’s eyesight. No one was running. It wasn’t runnable. We crossed streams after streams, many of which were again knee high and the current strong. Runners embraced them. Some sat in them. We all drank from them. Each one became like a party as we escaped the heat momentarily. It was fucking hot. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. There was no shelter from the midday sun at high 30degrees. We trekked on and on. Soon climbing. Every time we came across water runners would set up camp and cool all over again. The river was our lifeline. It cooled us. Iced our pains (to the point it was painfully cold even!). Nourished and hydrated us. Without it who knows what would have happened. The scenery was breathtaking. The adventure was painstaking. There was no obvious end or path in sight. The stretch continued into the distant horizon.
Hours later we emerged at a ‘water station’. I sat and waited for Paul to arrive. He did. I felt shit. He looked shit. So I probably looked shit too. He verbalised it. He was struggling in the sun and questioned whether he could continue. It wasn’t a question for me. He was going to continue and finish. We had over a marathon to go. We still had a few km to climb out of the death valley. He had no choice here but to keep going forward. We rested then set off again.
As we neared the summit, Paul was wobbling a little as he climbed. We were seeking shade. We needed a break from the heat and he wanted to be sick. We passed a guy laying against a rock. We checked up on him, Like everyone we encountered he said he was feeling the impact. Not far passed him a huge rock offered a shadow and shade. We took the offer and sat down, exhausted. We hydrated and ate. We cooled a little and farted a lot. I’d reapplied sun cream at the previous water station but was feeling the burn. Then Paul heaved. He threw his guts up with a thunderous roar disturbing the other runner resting. Like before with his knee he was instantly better. We carried on.
The rest of the run followed a similar theme – We walked. Slowly at times. We hobbled over the rocky terrain. Before each descent were steep inclines. Some where tough and the sweat dropped off us. More and more runners ran passed as we slowed and slowed. Each check point ticked off the kilometres. 40 became 30 became 25 became 20. Hours passed in between. Each stop Nick was there supporting and encouraging. A long day for him. The mountains were beautiful. But we cared little about them any longer. We wanted it to be over. As we navigated the ‘Cortina’ trail up and down some ridges of the mountains we visualised the end. Paul was feeling a little rough again, his feet and knees hurting. My feet were destroyed. Hot spots and blisters making my walking pathetic. At the penultimate aid station of Passo Giau I sought out the medical team to treat my blisters. As I took off my socks there was nothing there. Hot spots yes, but blisters no. What I did have though was a bit of trench foot. I needed something and and they agreed to “wrap” my feet. As they did I saw the swelling on my right foot. A large lump which they addressed with padding. That knock in the early night had done some damage it was raw and bruised.
Strapped up we headed back out, Navigated the final climb and began the long descent to the finish. The last aid station marked 8km remaining. We took a moment (longer than planned because I’m slow and a fiddler with my bag) layering up as it would soon be dark as we hit the forest and as we left saw Reka arrive. She was on the 90km and ran straight through the aid station and said “are you coming” as we laughed her off.
trails in the distance
trails in the distance
We power walked and skipped down hill for the the next 5km or so. Gravity moving us faster than we wanted. The descent was a little technical and very slippery in the moist soil of the forest. Like the end of any ultra, it dragged on. Occasionally the lights of Cortina flickered in the distance. Always far away. Always far below. It never seemed to come closer. About 3 times in this section I rolled my ankle. We were mostly silent other than the expletive rants every time we hurt ourselves. The only entertainment was Paul’s increasing inability to walk. As he powered forward and tired he constantly tripped himself up with his poles. Numerous times he came close to stacking it entirely.
We broke free of the forest and were welcome to a “2km to go” sign. The church tower at the finish line stood out in the distance and we walked on. Finally we hit the Main Street. We put on a ‘brave face’ and ran the last few hundred metres through the town. The party goers and supporters cheered us in and we faked it till we made it. High-fiving supporters down the finishing stretch. We held hands and crossed the line together. The rest of the team there to see us finish just before 11pm, some 24 hours after we started.
Paul the Finisher
We shared the sunset and sunrise over the Dolomites. We shared the darkness of the challenge and the literal highs and lows of the adventure. We shared a beer as we collected our finishers rain jacket (ironic given how fucking hot the day had been). We shared an adventure in the mountains we’ll never forget.
It really was a race of two halves for sure. The first 66km we’d completed feeling strong in under ten hours. The next 54km took over 14 hours. I learned a lot this weekend. Some key things for me were:
Never to get too comfortable or underestimate a run. The illusions of grander I had at half way and possibly getting close to a 20 hour finish were naive. Anticipate and expect what lays ahead, never forget that these challenges, marathons even, will chew you up and spit you out.
Mountains are rocky. They always are and will be. Why I think some runs will be ‘easier’ I do not know. I should expect rocks. I fucking hate rocks.
The decisions to wade into the water I stand by. At the time they were the best. The fresh coolness very much needed. But the consequences and impact on my feet were severe. I should have expected this too. Trench foot is a bastard too. I should have attended to my feet earlier than I did.
Chaffing. I chaffed bad. On my lower back from my bag. I’ve a red strip the whole width which is now quite raw. I should have addressed this properly but I never bothered. I need to sort this out as it’s a horrible sensation and not conducive to running.
Sharing the trails in such an epic race is one hell of an experience. Having someone around you is so underestimated. Paul and I helped each other through. Gave each other strength. You can’t put a value on that. In October We’ll be running 150km in Poland. I’m so glad Paul will be there again at my side. That will be another whole new challenge! Thanks Paul (and Nick for all the support!)