When A friend asked if I was available to ‘help out’ at the Trail festival at Box Hill I didn’t think twice. I checked the calendar and I was straight in there. I probably would have bought a ticket anyway. A few days later when the confirmation came through and I was asked if I was OK to support the 50km guided run I chuckled. Yeeeeah sure. Why not. I was smiling. I love, despite what life throws at me, that I’m now ready. Ready to run. Ready to keep going. Ready to say yes to running, no matter what the distance. It’s a great feeling.
Saturday soon came around and I made sure I was there early to ‘check in’ and meet the others. As I walked to the festival Village I conveniently bumped into Matt who was behind much of the organisation. As I arrived so did the many familiar faces who were either leading the runs (all the Salomon Athletes/Ambassadors) and others like myself who were there to support them.
It was great to finally meet Tom who was the lead for the 50km and who told me we’d be joined by Mark (another familiar person I’m vaguely connected to but had yet to meet in person).
As we grouped and welcomed the 17 runners who’d make up our group, we immediately had one drop out after she realised this one might be beyond her. With everyone else ready to go Tom led us off. We’d be running a clockwise route and expected to be back around 16:30 or so.
As we left the field it became immediately apparent to me how varied the group was in terms of ability and experience. This was to be expected and wasn’t a problem, it was a guided social run after all. But something very important to be aware of – there was a long day ahead of us and fundamentally we were responsible for everyone’s health and safety and return! Spotting the ability and assessing each runner is important to ensure everyone has a great time.
It was like we’d done this all before as a team – Tom, Mark and I set off and split ourselves out. Tom Leading the way and setting a comfortable pace surrounded by the eager and more experienced runners. Me and Mark acting as the tail of the group, interchanging at the back of the pack.
Conversations begun as we all started to get to know one another. We’d soon be best friends for the whole day. It was a group of strangers. Runners getting to know other runners. Sharing stories and experiences, swapping tips and wisdom. A collective mass of adventurers. Tom would lead us on and ensured we stopped every now and then (frequently) for us to regroup and check everyone was OK. Each time a quick headcount to check we’d not lost anyone and then we’d be off again.
A small dog came bounding towards us. A ball of energy loving the runners rushing past. As he came to me last he started jumping with excitement and head butted me in the dick. Perfect shot. I can’t lie. I let out a gasp and was thrown off my stride for a bit. Damn stupid cute dog. One more runner then dropped out within the first three miles after twinging an injury. As he lived locally and trained these routes, after chatting through with him we were comfortable leaving him find his own way back to the start and we checked in with the wider team to confirm we were one down.
After about four miles we came to our first planned ‘aid stop’. Throughout the day we’d be flanked and met by Tony who would drive ahead and meet us with refreshments. At this first stop we dived into a huge tub of sweets (later I found out these were no ordinary sweets but ‘energy’ one’s by Powerbar.), refilled our water and grabbed a quick rest. We let Tony know of the drop out and confirmed to check he reached back to the festival site OK.
Long Grass Fields
Throughout he day we were also treated to some spectacular views and scenery (despite the overcast day). A particularly memorable point for me was the poppy field that we soon came into shortly after the first pit stop. It was stunning to see the red flowers penetrating the green carpet of grass. We continued on through the single trail which cut through the long grass field dotted with poppies. Next up, a mandatory stop at the now infamous ‘Matt Buck’ Waterfall.
Cracking on, one of the milestones of the run would be the tower of Leith hill. It’s a hilly route and one I knew most of from other runs. We’d normally have immense views from here but it was a little subdued as the heavens opened just as we arrived (but not before me and Tom grabbed a picture at ‘Rachel’s’ Tree!). We were immediately soaked through, even in our waterproofs. We took another break as we waited for Toby to arrive and meet us once more. We were now 10 miles in and very wet and miserable. But that all changed when he arrived. Wow, what a spread he’d bought for us. A legend of the supermarket aisles, he’d catered for all our needs and began taking special requests for the next stop. Sadly Steak didn’t make the cut but Pork pies did!
With the rain and clouds covering the sky we began moving again before we got too cold. Once we were running we’d soon warm up again. We continued in the rain for several miles as we hit Pitch Hill and Holmwood Hill before the rain finally ceased. Along the way we encountered some wicked ‘trail art’ someone had created with Bark. It was later on as we neared about 20 miles that the implications of diversity of abilities in the group became really apparent. We started to spread out more and more and the front would have to wait longer for the tail to catch up. We really did have runners of all abilities – From dragons back finishers and top 40 finishers at MDS (I believe this deems you ‘elite’!) and sub 2:40 marathoners to first time trail runners and those who’d never been above 50km before. The gulf was huge and has got me thinking about the implications of this (more on that another time). I’d spent most of the time running with Carl. A long distance walker more accustomed to going at his “own pace”. He got stronger as we went further though and it was clear that his mental strength was next level. It was never a doubt that he’d finish, only a case of when. A real positive attitude and one you see a lot of on the trails.
Trail Running Love?
Trail Running Love?
One dude unfortunately dropped out shortly after the 20 miles. We still had maybe 3 miles left to the next checkpoint but he was in pain and couldn’t manage more than an uncomfortable walk. His groin was aggravated and he was affected. We agreed that he’d have to stop and we called for a pickup. I stayed with him until it arrived. After which I sped on after the group. Like a hunter chasing its prey. I knew the trail. I knew what was ahead (including one of my favourite signs/views at Blatchford Down). It was a moment to myself. A peaceful one of just me and my thoughts. I’d been consumed all day by a bad pain in my left foot. My arch felt bruised and I’d been alternating all manner of running styles throughout to try and run more comfortably. I probably shouldn’t have continued myself but I had a job to do. It wasn’t affecting my ability to support the group there and then but I knew I’d be in agony the next day (and for over a week afterwards it turned out!). Now with some time to myself I ran on. I ran free. Was it painful? Yes. But I was smiling too. I passed several more groups of DofE and walkers and smiled and cheered as I zipped through, splashing in the mud as I went (I’d been enjoying the cold wet puddles and found them soothing on the ankle and foot!).
It was raining again but still nice and warm as I broke trough the trail paths into an open space and found the rest of the group just starting off from the final checkpoint. Mark stuck around and waited as I stuffed more kitkats and pork pies into my gob and we were off. Less than 4 miles to go. Time to “bring it home”.
The exhaustion in the group was obvious now and as we ran down through Denbies wine estate one last time Tom had a surprise left for everyone – the route wouldn’t take us straight back to the festival village but first up, over and around box hill. We were going home alright, just the long way! A few groans came but really they were more flippant than anything. This group had started as strangers and now bonded over 9 hours of wet hilly trails. We cracked on, first tackling the Infamous steps of Boxhill before a quick photo stop at Salomon’s Memorial, which provided a brief rest-bite after the climb.
Just before the festival we regrouped for the last time and ran into the village together. We were Welcomed back by a few volunteers and other runners and then we were then greeted to the rapturous cheers from Maggie, Rachel and Hannah. They were loud. They were excitable. They were the support we needed. I started to feel my face ache I was smiling so much from their energy. Quite possibly the best finish to a run I’ve ever had!
After a quick ‘wet wipe shower’ in the car park we grabbed some coffee/beer and pizza. We sat in the dimming sun and enjoyed the Salomon films on the big screen before deciding it was time to leave.
Whilst we didn’t personally experience that much of the festival village, it was an incredible day. A well run event that was very popular and catered for all. From 5km to ultra distances. There were also Workshops for trail techniques, guided and times runs and yoga and talks. A great day out for those used to trails and also those new to trails. Get involved next year is my advice. I’ll be back for sure!
A huge huge huge thank you to all those involved in organising the event and making it happen. To Tom and Mark for leading a fantastic run and all those I met throughout the day. A special thanks to Maggie, Matt and all the team at Salomon Running for getting me involved. A great experience!
I like to prepare. It doesn’t always mean I’m sensible with the preparations though! The Luxembourg Night Marathon was the perfect example. When Bobby, Nick, James and I agreed to do this marathon, I thought it would be a good idea to fly out Saturday morning, run the marathon and return the next day. After all, Luxembourg city is a small place and we’d see most of it during the run. Whilst it went almost exactly to plan, it was bloody tiring…
It’s Saturday morning. 2am. The alarm clock is buzzing. I’d already slept through three alarms and I needed to move my ass pronto. I was regretting my plan already. With a 7am flight I’d soon need to make the 2 hour bus/night tube trip across London to Heathrow. The others were a little more sensible with either a hotel for the night nearer the airport or quicker Uber trip as their choices. I’m too stubborn to pay ‘extra’ for these things. It’s OK though, I thought I’ll just get some sleep at the hotel when we arrive as the race doesn’t start till 7pm.
Shortly after 10am we’d made it to the expo at the LuxExpo “box”. Whilst there wasn’t much there to see, it was a big place and already set out for the day. The most noticeable thing being the internal finish. At the end of the race we’d run into one of the big ‘hangers’ and do a short internal stretch to a finish line. This would be different, I’d never experienced that before – finishing inside a building. Race numbers collected and photos taken we made our way on the bus into town – Amazingly, public transport is free on the weekend in Luxembourg. Whilst it was only 2Euro for a ticket, I loved this concept and was delighted to save some pennies! We arrived at the hotel and were told there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of checking in before 3pm. Bollocks. We’d also been told that we should be at the race for 5pm as the shuttle busses were expected to be very busy and the roads full of traffic as they start to lock the city down for the event. There goes my plan of any sleep. I’d have to struggle through on the measly 4 hours I’d clocked up last night.
The rest of the day sped by as we ate food, wandered around town, met Nick’s mum (who’d come to see him do his first marathon) and went back to the hotel to check in and get ready. Before we knew it we were back at the Box and part of the mass crowd that was assembling. Runners and supporters everywhere. It was quickly becoming overcrowded but the atmosphere was already showing signs of being great. With a DJ playing music and introducing various acts (some form of dancing butterflies?!) as well as volunteers giving out sponsored bowler hats and tambourines. I took one and immediately annoyed Nick who politely warned me not to run with it!
With our bags checked in we still had a good 1hr 30mins to wait before the start. Like thousands of others we sought refuge from the blistering sun in any shade we could – it was high 20s and didn’t show any signs that it would cool down before the sunset around 9:30 that night. We lay on the hot tarmac in one of the starting pens and waited. It felt like a hell of a long wait, more so because there was no water. I’d already drunk all the water I’d brought with me. It was much hotter than I expected. This was probably the only negative of the whole weekend. The organisation I thought was pretty good, it was like a large scale military procedure with one way systems and setups accounting for most things, except the provision of information. Nowhere was there any clear and obvious indication of where to go to check in, to register, to get info, to get the buses, bus timetables etc. (and the only info stand available where of little help either!) and nor was there anywhere on site to get water whilst we waited to start!
Anyway, 7pm eventually came around and the runners were sent on their way. With over 10,000 runners across all the event disciplines it was a busy start and it took the four of us about 10 mins to walk to the actual start line. In that time we lost Bobby in the crowd. We were all going to run together (this being Nick’s first marathon), however, fiddling with his shoe laces and race tag, we lost Bobby moments before we started. I ushered us on. Whilst Nick was concerned and wanted to find him, I wasn’t worried. Bobby is a very independent guy and this was his 5th marathon. He knew what he was doing and would be fine on his own if he didn’t find us before we crossed the line.
So the three of us set off and kept a decent pace in the crowd as I tried to regulate it as best I could. We were aiming for roughly 9:50 minute miles and we fluctuated around this for the first few KM as we dealt with the crowding and various bottlenecks that inevitably formed. We all felt good though and chatted away as we approached the first Water station. I say approach, it was on a bend and we’d pretty much run past it as we were on the far side of the road. I made a mad dash through the crowds and grabbed three cups of water before weaving back to Nick and James, announcing my arrival with “Incoming, Delivery, coming through”. Beautiful. It wasn’t much but it wet our lips, or in Nick’s case, his face. This was his first experience of running whilst drinking from a cup, as any experienced runner knows, it is not easy. Nick immediately compared it to being water-boarded!
Laughing away, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the next water station. They were every 2.5km, which is very frequent! It immediately dawned on me that whilst we’d talked with Nick about running with him and pacing, we hadn’t actually discussed anything else. Like what to do if we get split up. The first water station was bad enough. but this one separated us. There were volunteers on either side of the road and runners everywhere, it was a free for all and we (I at least!) were all thinking about water and food, it had been so long in the sun without any and the drops at the last water station had failed to quench our thirst! I went left and saw Nick go right. James was behind me. I took water, isotonic and some PowerBars. As we emerged the other side I saw James, but not Nick! Shit. We jogged on looking around but couldn’t see him. Shit again, we were just about 5km in and we’d lost him. How bad were we?! We carried on a little, looking back and forward, then we sped off through the crowd at a much faster pace looking for him. Nothing. We stopped and held up at the side of the road to wait. He didn’t come. He’d either carried on, or he’d stopped to wait for us. We hoped it was the former and devised a plan – James would run ahead and, if he saw him, would carry on running with him. If he didn’t he’d slow back down and eventually we’d catch him. I’d hold back and wait, If I saw nick we’d run on together. If I didn’t I’d carry on after a few minutes until I eventually caught them again. I stopped on the side of the road on a raised pavement and watched all the runners intently as they passed. I was keeping an eye on the time when, out of the corner of my eye on the far side of the road I saw someone speeding past everyone. It was James?! What the hell. I set off like a gazelle after him. The crowd loved it, they were probably wondering what I was doing. When I reached him we carried on at that speed, ducking and weaving through the crowded field in our on little race. James had very quickly found Nick just ahead of us so went back for me. Somehow we’d missed each other in our focus in finding Nick. A few km later, after weaving through the crowd and some narrow roads we found him and reformed, laughing at our fuck up. Nick did the right thing – carry on at his pace, stick to his game plan. We agreed if it happens again, just keep going.
As we ran we noticed how great the crowd were. Initially as we started off I thought the support was poor. Whilst there were people, they were just standing there in silence. Now though we were seeing hundreds of people, larger groups, making plenty of noise and loads of music and bands along the way. They reacted too. Giving them a clap, a cheer or a scream would trigger them to make even more noise. I was loving it. There was one part, where we ran through a Big Top tent, inside were dancers and a samba band (there were a lot of samba bands out there!) and as we emerged, an arch made from two tractors with their diggers extended out over the road. I thought this was a great touch. The route was very twisty as we crossed and weaved many smaller streets, constantly turning in different directions. We were completely disorientated and had no idea where we were or where we were heading! But this made it fun. It made the course interesting and we’d duck into and out of various parks along the way. It was still incredibly hot and we took every opportunity to get drenched with water from the crowd with their hose pipes. At one point we saw a wet patch on the road and a spray of water. As we made a line for it we were all confused as to where it was coming from, it was like rain falling vertically on this small patch. We looked up as we passed through and there was a lady, perched on her window sill about 4 storeys up, holding her shower head out the window. We cheered and clapped her. It was so hot, still in the high 20s and the cooling water was a godsend.
Already we’d noticed, that whilst fairly flat (admittedly not “flat as a pancake” as I’d told Nick before we signed up!) it was surprisingly hilly. The route involved lots of very gradual inclines and declines. I was feeling it! I didn’t mention this to Nick though. We’d soon be hitting the main centre square and hopefully we’d see his mum who’d travelled over to watch him. I wanted to ensure he was focusing on seeing her. It was still very busy as we had all the 21km runners with us still, I think these made the bulk of the numbers. We were approaching the main square and there was a water station ahead. They were struggling though. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for water, isotonic or fruit. each cup we all grabbed at was empty. We carried on without any. This was frustrating. A downside of having paper cups at races – it takes time to keep them replenished. James was also amazed at the state of the floors around the water stations. As a regular sub-3 hour runner he is used to seeing them less busy and less like a war zone.
We rounded a bend and several volunteers were directing us into two ways – splitting off the 21km runners. It soon became far less crowded and we headed into the main square. It was packed with crowds and they were in excellent voice. I started screaming “MUM” over and over. We found it hilarious (or at least I did!) and then we saw Nick’s mum and he ran over for a hi-five and cheer. James heard her proudly claim to everyone “that’s my son!”. So touching. Boosted by the love we carried on. Almost half done, Still a lot of work to go. The next section would see us enter and leave more parks and shaded areas and also various stints in some residential areas. Without the 21km runners it was now far more enjoyable and easier to run!
I thought running through the residential areas was great. Whilst not normally fun or interesting places to run (I’m comparing to some of the streets in Brighton and Muscat!) here I was fascinated. They were so clean for a start, and being kept that way with locals out collecting rubbish along the roads. The houses were huge and all looked so well maintained. I wanted to move here! But, like the rest of the run so far, the Support was fantastic. From kids with water pistols and super soakers, squirting water at runners, to families having dinners and cheering from their front gardens with their wine, to pockets and groups of people partying away in the street. The music was loud and the atmosphere brilliant. Like all supporters before, if you interacted with them they responded even louder. So we did, singing and cheering our way through. I was blown away by the volume of music and bands and also the variety. They felt more frequent than the water stations and we had bands, djs, horn blowers (huge horns!) samba dancers, steal drum bands, jazz musicians and local folk dancers throughout. It was fantastic!
It was probably around the 16 mile mark that the first signs of the huge demands of a marathon started to become visible for Nick. Whilst he was running strong and consistent he did acknowledge he was now feeling it and that it felt harder than the comparable 20 milers he’d been doing in training. We reassured him how well he was doing, how tough the race was with the heat and hills and encouraged him onward. At some point, whether it was around this time or not I can’t recall, Nick commented on another facet of running a marathon – he mentioned how pissed off he was at getting passed by faster runners doing the team run and who had just started their 10km run. We’ve all experienced this and it does mess with your mind and confidence. What was funny is how a lady doing the team run apologised as she ran past, overhearing his comment.
We also saw Bobby at some point along the way too. We’d assumed he’d got caught up in the crowds at the start and would have been behind us. But as we ran up a long hill stretch we could see Bobby out in front. We called out to him and for a moment we were all reunited. He dropped of and James stayed behind to check up on him whilst I kept Nick going at his pace. James arrived back shortly afterwards, confirming Bobby was OK but exhausted and prepared to slow down to finish the race.
Before we knew it we’d left the residential areas behind and were back running through the parks and streets of the central area.It was still very hot, but it was now starting to get dark. We were dipping in and out of parks and along roads that started to look familiar. I think we’d run on or near them in a different direction already (possibly many times) but I was so disorientated. We ran along a walkway built under a main bridge, where the music and atmosphere was lively from a DJ at the end. Shortly after which we then headed down into the Public park (I think) where there was the festival of light going on. We were back passing under the bridge and could hear the DJ above us. As we carried on down, we could see the big lanterns from the festival lit up and marques of people partying away. Again there was great support for the runners as we weaved our way through the park, again, even lower than before once more passing under the bridge and hearing the DJ above. Like the twisting route, the music became familiar as we rose up out of the park and ran along the top of a bridge, this time the DJ now below us. I was amazed and how many different ways we’d passed this same spot and DJ!
As the night darkened, the pack of runners became increasingly more spread out. More musicians lined the streets and we left the central area for the last time. We were heading back out towards the Expo. I remember we rounded a corner in the dark to the sound of Hot Chocolate – Sexy Thing. I couldn’t help but sing out the chorus, or the line of the chorus I knew! Two other runners sang along with us and laughed. Sometime, several miles later, we’d catch up with them again and I started singing the line once more and they responded and joined in again. The runners were in good spirits!
Throughout the day we’d been near and around a partially sighted runner and their guide runner. This always fascinates me. It must be hard and such a demanding challenge for both runners. We arrived at the final Team Run switch point and it was so crowded. Runners were encroaching on the road from both sides making it vary narrow and difficult to squeeze through. Nick was shouting at the crowds to back off and give space as the two runners were in front of us now. It must have been tough for them here.
We’d done probably 20-21 miles by now and Nick was feeling it. He started to hit the wall and the pains were visible in his face. He made it known, cursing and shouting down every hill we came across. I knew from the route that it was all uphill from here. Gradual, but up hill. I didn’t tell him. James encouraged him and kept him focused. From time to time we’d stop and walk, or spend a moment at a water station to ensure he was fuelled. Each time he’d motivate himself on to start running again. He was determined and ready to beat the marathon and didn’t need much help from us to do so! Whilst he was constantly looking at his watch, and aware that his ideal finish time was slipping further from reach, he was running great. I thought we’d finish around 4hrs 30mins. It would be tight though…
He wasn’t alone either. By now both James and I were acknowledging how hard this marathon actually was. The long declines to start and then the gradual climbs now were having their effect. The legs were felling heavy, and, for me, my foot was hurting. I’d rolled it the week before at the Run Free marathon and could feel it now. I knew I was no longer smiling myself!!
We were running along the main road which was gradually climbing never ending into the distance. The occasional walk but mostly powering forward. Not too far from the top was a large group of supporters. A cheer zone. The local running community that is Fat Betty were out in force (think similar, but scaled back, to mile 21 at London Marathon if you’ve ever been there to cheer?!). They were handing out beer to runners. Whilst I’m not a beer fan generally, and especially not when running (or after running even!) I took one. I was having fun. It wasn’t far left to go, maybe 3-4 miles, and I wanted to try and entertain Nick a little and take his mind off the run. I actually quite enjoyed the beer, even though most of it ended up in my beard!
As we reached the top of the hill we cracked on. We got talking to another guy from the UK. He was also feeling the hills, and rightly so – He did the NDW50 the week before! We all ran together for a while and I chatted with him all things running. Nick continued to curse the lumps in the road and I sensed he was beginning to fade again. I was watching the time now and new it was getting tighter and tighter to make 4hr 30mins. Whilst I’d been trying to convince Nick to not worry about time for the first marathon, it’s easier said than done. The mind is a fickle beast. If we could get a 4hr 30mins I know he’d be smiling. I told him “no matter what happens next, stick with me” and I cranked up the pace a little. We left the NDW man behind and strode on.
We had less than 30 mins of running left. It was tough. We’d increased the pace by about a minute per mile. A good 10% increase in effort after 4 hours of running. Not easy for an experienced marathoner on a tough course, never mind a first timer. But Nick stuck with us. We were encouraging him on and bar a few short stints walking, he kept it up. We were running past people. People we’d seen pass us earlier and people we’d not seen before. Even runners on the final leg of the team run (who would have been fresher than us!) came and went as we passed. I shouted at Nick, pointing ahead and telling him we were going hunting. That the crowd in front of us were his. He was going to take them all. All except a guy in a red t-shirt, he looked like he was running strong so I excused him! But we did, we took them all, red t-shirt guy included. We were flying. Up ahead the road started to decline and we could see the expo. 2 more minutes and we’d be there. My watch had clocked a marathon. It was going to be tight. We ran down, passing more and more runners. One final bend into the hanger of the arena, I screamed at Nick, directed him forward and shouted to the finish line to “go fucking take it, its yours”. Round the last bend. He was in the zone. He was sprinting. Two guys up ahead hogging the way, Nick was on the race line, they wobbled to the side and Nick had to squeeze through them (much to their disgust). Me and James went either side of the guys, we saw and heard Nick’s mum right at the finish line cheering. It was done. We crossed the line. What began with 2 marathoners, finished with 3!
Immediately over the line Nick’s legs went from under him. I shouldn’t laugh but I did. I recall that feeling and sensation all too well. The body reacting from a big push (he’d absolutely blitzed the last 2-3 miles) and the sudden instructions to stop. He was wobbling and we took hold of him. I don’t miss that feeling! Looking at the results, We climbed 200 places over the last half of the course, I think that really shows the effort Nick put in over the last few miles!
It was a long wobble to the medal, then to the water, then to the drop bags, then to the food and changing area. By now the post marathon effect was kicking in strong and Nick needed to lay down. Up against the massage tents, out of the way he rested. I went round hoarding all the food I could (greedy as always) and we waited for his body to recover from the shock of the achievement. Soon after Bobby arrived. Shortly after him, Nick’s mum arrived with a paramedic. Whilst Nick was OK (just post marathon shock!) I find it hilarious that his mum rocked up with a paramedic for him. Bless. As spectators weren’t allowed into the area, his mum had cleverly convinced the paramedic that she was worried as she hadn’t seen Nick emerge from the runners area since he crossed the line. So the paramedic escorted her in to look for him. Genius. We sat and talked and laughed, reminiscing the past few hours, whilst Bobby got a rub down.
Eventually, after the most expensive taxi ride, we made it back to the hotel. Nick climbed the stairs on all fours before we made it to our rooms. Exhausted. We’d been awake almost 24 hours and were shattered. We went to bed, knowing in the morning when we woke, it would be the first day Nick woke up as a marathoner. Job done.
Run Free. I love this phrase. One I often refer to when I think about running – its exactly how I want my mind to be when I run. This time though it has a different meaning. A more literal one! Maverick and Tribe collaborate for an event they call “Run Free”. I’ll do it an injustice when I say it is simply an event of multiple distances (Short, Medium, Long in the traditional Maverick setup) but one for which part of the proceeds go toward charity and Tribe’s 10% Project. Whilst as a community, Tribe push people to redefine their boundaries, in this instance, the Run Free event is in support of ending modern slavery. A worthy cause indeed.
Lush green fields…
I hadn’t planned on being at the event, but a last minute change of plans meant, come Friday, I had no plans for the weekend. I was on a self-enforced ‘rest’ and hadn’t run in two weeks up until a Run with Nick midweek. Now I had the urge, I couldn’t sustain the rest any longer. I wanted back in to what I love – running. It didn’t take long on Friday morning to come up with a plan. Reaching out to various friends there were options. It came down to a toss up between hill repeats at Box Hill or travel north and volunteer at the Run Free event. Something I want to (and will) do more of. After speaking with Paul, my mind was made up – you could register on the day to run. Perfect. The Run Free event was taking place in a part of the Chilterns I hadn’t really explored. They also had a marathon option. I was sold. The only difficult part was getting to the race event ‘village’ which was annoyingly in the middle of nowhere. Time to form a plan.
My plan was simple and a little stupid, but its how I think – I could get the Oxford Tube to Lewknor Turn. From there I could run the 5 miles to the start. I’d repeat this on the way back unless I could bag a lift off someone… The Oxford tube is great. It runs 24 hours a day, is fairly frequent and pretty cheap. I used it when I went to the Race To The Stones a few years back so could picture where I needed to be and get off. And so, with a 4am wake up call, I was on my way.
pre-race warm up
Hills for breakfast
I got off the bus at 7:30 which left me an hour until registration opened and a further hour until the race would begin. enough time to chill, relax and prepare. Those first 5 miles though, they were a little hilly. I covered almost 1,000ft of elevation (a third of the marathon’s elevation gain!) before I’d even begun the race. Taking about an hour, I did think to myself ‘see, this is why it is silly!’. Anyway, I got there, most of the run to the event was on trails and narrow country lanes. It was all good. Arriving into the event I was greeted by Hannah (of extreme endurance event fame and whom I first met out in UTMB last year after she sped across the TDS finish line – so impressive!). I was a bit spaced out and immediately snatched a tribe bar out of her hand and started feasting on it – I was famished from the early wake up and run. How rude I was – sorry Hannah! I went off to register and was greeted by Sarah and shortly after met Paul, Ben and Vanna among many others.
The Maverick events are a bit of a cult phenomenon. They are incredibly well organised and great fun. I knew I’d see friends and familiar faces there and I sure did – There were so many people I knew there. I hadn’t even registered and I was bumping into people and chatting. As much as I say that I don’t like people, I do love the community spirit and vibe that running has. People from all different groups, people from all different places and ways of life, coming together for the love of running. It is a very inclusive community!
Pre race involved a fair few selfies with the various groups before Ben led a quick warm up for the runners. I joined the starting pen with Elis who was there with Melissa who lives around the corner from me. See, it really is a small community. As the Maverick bell was rung and the race started I ran passed Yvette who was also there volunteering. The connections were endless! The start saw us all bumbling downhill, fast! It was steep. It was lumpy. We were jumping and hopping rather than running. The ground was uneven and as with any race there was a mad dash for the best line/route down. I let gravity take me and sat comfortably with many runners in the middle of the pack. Before long though we came to a grinding halt.
The path diagonally crossed some fields and there was a stile to climb. It created a big bottleneck as we waited patiently to cross one by one. I say patiently, that was until a bunch of Dickheads thought they were better than this. That they don’t need to wait. One by one a group of them started climbing the barbwire fence. I find this so disrespectful and unnecessary. Yes, perhaps the different races could have been staggered to prevent such a bottleneck, but don’t be a dick. That’s someones property. It is there for a reason and no one wants to tend to your sliced bollocks if it all goes wrong. What does a few minutes of waiting really mean? Get over yourself! Anyway, rant over…
The route was glorious. I’ll try not to type about it all in the way I usually drone on about mile after mile, but it was so open. Lush green colours of various shades constantly surrounded us and huge fields and rolling hills were the delights for our eyes. I spent much of the initial 10km or so near Vanna from Wild TR before our routes split us into different directions. Passing through the first checkpoint I met two familiar faces in the Maverick Trail Division Ambassadors that are Paul and Spencer. These guys are fantastic. Ultra running nutters of the best kind. I first met Spencer in the drunkenness that is the after party of UTMB. Like Hannah, he’d also just completed the TDS, a phenomenal achievement. He also suffered a Stress fracture earlier in the year before recovering and going on to break a sub 3 hr marathon in Newport a few weeks ago! He wasn’t running today as he was volunteering, but he ran with Paul from the first checkpoint to the second after his assistance was requested there. Paul I’d chatted with for a while before we briefly met at the Dorset Coastal Trail Ultra. I say briefly because Paul had to leave asap. Like me he has a little addiction to running. Unlike me though, he runs EVERYTHING. He left Dorset that day to get home to run the Hurtwood 50km the next day. This weekend he was running the Run Free Marathon, the Westminster Mile and the Vitality 10km. Whilst I was also running the WM mile, the difference being He boshed out an impressive 5:15min mile. I opted for a far more casual 9:47min mile! He is a machine.
Anyway, they set out from the aid station shortly before me and I spent the next 10km playing catch up. They were always in my sight but, other than a short stint chatting with Spencer, they were too far away from me as we roamed through forest paths and the rolling hills. This was for many reasons, mostly because they were running at a pace I just couldn’t keep up with. Despite being itching to run, 2 weeks off did have me feeling a little lethargic and ‘out of shape’. It was manageable though. What wasn’t manageable was when I rolled my ankle after about 6 miles. It fucking hurt bad. Usually ankle rolls are terrifying and quickly forgotten. This hurt though. The pain lingered for the rest of the race and beyond the day. My ankles are my biggest concern and weakness at the moment. They’ve taken an absolute pounding over the last 18 months. June will be hectic on them (5 weeks of back to back marathons, mountains and ultras lay ahead culminating in the beast that is the 120km Lavaredo Trail in the Dolomites!), so perhaps July will be another attempt at some time off…
Anyway, I’m blabbing. Checkpoint two came and I said good bye to Spencer. Paul, free of chatting, soon vanished into the distance and I carried on. It was a good but tough day. This is the perfect sort of training run for me. Besides being well supported, sign posted and through stunning parts of the country, my own run became a challenge. Physically and mentally. The toughness of the course and concern for my painful ankle put me into the dark parts of my mind. Parts I need to visit from time to time and deal with. Parts I need to make peace with and get comfortable being consumed by. You don’t want to visit these places alone on a mountain partway through a day long ultra without being prepared to deal with them. Perfect mental training, building your strength of character.
As the midday heat intensified, I was running (very inefficiently I might add!) down a long trail track. At the end I could see the mass of energy that is Emma. Another Volunteer and someone I’ve seen at many races and other running events over the past 18 months or so. Along with Jay, she was the third and final check point. This was a mini heaven. I stopped and chatted and greedily consumed loads of the food (sorry everyone!). As I did so, another face appeared – Gwen. We’d met a a run several months earlier and did the whole “hey!!” kind of thing before later asking each others names again. We pretty much ran most of the last 10km together, with Gwen out in front and running strong to a finish a few minutes ahead of me.
Before the finish though was one last, badly kept secret – a steep hill. The initial lumpy downhill we ran, we had to now climb back to the finish. Whilst I’ve certainly done longer and higher, it was not easy. With the windmill up at the top as the marker point I proceeded to climb and my calves screamed out immediately. It was a burner for sure. Then it was over, running across the line Yvette smashed me in the face with the finishers medal and gave me a beer. Paul was there along with many others including Hannah who helped me refresh and served up the nutty Tribe protein shakes.
Maverick provide free photography
I spent a short while repacking, getting ready and chatting away with various people before I managed to blag a lift back to the bus stop from Elis and Melissa. Perfect. They day couldn’t have been any better. A last minute plan, perfectly executed. Thanks guys!
On my own
It was an absolutely fantastic day. As always, the Maverick events are impeccably organised and the volunteers are incredible. The whole atmosphere the organisers manage to create is something special, never mind the festival-esque vibe they created at this special event. If you want to sample trail running races, this is the company to do it with, you won’t regret it!
As we munched down on the juicy slices of orange I’d been carrying for the last 4 hours, we discussed it’s place in a trail runners hierarchy of desires. It slotted into the top three above oral sex and a foot massage. Momentarily we were in juicy orange heaven.
The day had been a proper picnic for me. Lou, Elisa and I were running the Three Forts Challenge (they claim its a challenge not a marathon as its 27 miles) and the organisation was superb. There were a ridiculous amount of checkpoints for a marathon distance (11 I think!) and whilst not the biggest or most stocked of checkpoints, they provide ample opportunity for snacking on sugary sweets, savoury biscuits, cake and chocolate. There were times Elisa and Lou had to shout to get me moving again! Whilst I knew about the checkpoints in advance, it didn’t stop me over-preparing with my own snacks and thus the oranges were hauled around the trails of the South Downs until they were squishy and warm. Regardless, they were special when the time came to indulge. I do love a good juicy orange slice on the trails.
Right, enough tantalising of the Vitamin C, lets rewind a little and put some context on this race. This challenge was a week after my epic adventure in Madeira – the 115km Madeira Island Ultra Trail. Why was I running another marathon so soon? The old case of fear of missing out. It hit me hard. I knew a number of people heading down to Worthing for this race and I wanted in. That and it was very cheap for an ‘ultra’ (£40!) and the route went along parts of the South Downs I hadn’t run on before. This is a big factor for me at the moment – exploring new places. So, pre MIUT I signed up knowing that if anything went wrong in the lead up I hadn’t lost out and the plan was to enjoy the day as a recovery run. It was also a bank holiday weekend, so why not?!
I knew Lou and Elisa were preparing for their own epic adventure of the London to Brighton trail race so I’d persuaded them to let me tag along for the day with them. Whilst they were staying for the weekend near the start line, I joined a few others on a 6am train out of London. It was painful. Running really has brought early mornings to my life! Walking from the station to the starting village we bumped into Lou and Elisa on the way. Such convenient timing. As we hung about waiting for the race to start we came across more and more faces we knew, dropped off our bags (conveniently the start and finish were in the same place) and soon we were off on our way.
Initially there were some single track paths and a little bit of jostling for space, but soon the space came and the first of many many hills paid us a greeting. We’d agreed (non-verbally) that we’d be walking all those damn hills. We had a cut-off of 6 hrs to complete the race and I was more than confident that this was highly achievable. Walking would be our friend! Naturally, with hills come great views and we were soon snapping away at each other and enjoying the fantastic early morning scenery on offer. Before we knew it we were passing through the first of the many checkpoints.
It quickly became apparent how well organised the event was. there were several points along the route were we’d cross roads or intersecting paths and, besides at the checkpoints, there were volunteers and marshals everywhere! Besides the various local running clubs that support the event, there were also volunteers from many of the local Rotary Clubs too. They were all so cheery, chatty and supportive and it really makes a difference when you’re out pushing yourself through endurance challenges.
The miles came and went and my belly was filling up with cake and jelly babies. We’d climbed several more hills and were now on a section of the route that saw us running towards Devils Dyke where we’d eventually turn around and retrace our steps before heading off in a different direction and looping back to the finish. As we reached the top of a long climb and started descending, we began to see runners heading towards us. The race leaders. We whooped and cheered them through and quickly developed our favourites for who we wanted to win – it was those runners who were conscious enough to return an acknowledgement. It doesn’t take much. A smile, a look even. I do get a little wound up by how ignorant some runners can be, even when you are pushing yourself to your limits you can muster a smile at least. It became a game for us. Cheering and supporting the runners louder and louder and mocking some as they passed “quick, grey shirt dude is catching you!”. We had fun at least. As the numbers increased we took turns amusing each other by cheering alternative runners passed.
The larger hills at this section went by easily as we were having such a laugh. We hit the turnaround point at Devils Dyke and continued our game as we cheered through those runners at the back of the pack. As we neared the checkpoint at the Hostel we came across Gemma. She was out on her own battling her demons with such a positive and cheery outlook. Hugs exchanged, we carried on with a brief stop at the Hostel where I got comfortable chatting to the volunteers and ramming chocolate brownie and pretzels into my gob. Delicious!
We were over half way through by this point and the only thing of concern was Elisa’s knee. She’d been acknowledging a high level of pain for quite some time, only intermittently forgotten about when her fingers swelled to the size of some chubby sausages which caused us endless amusement. Elisa powered on, determined to overcome the pain. Soon, after passing back along side a quarry we’d seen earlier, we headed further inland away from the coast which seemed so near yet so far. We started passing more runners in the other direction whom we initially mistook for participants in the race. We realised though they were doing another – the XRNG Devils Challenge which is a 100 mile 3 day event along the South Downs. The runners, despite being on day two of their challenge, were all so upbeat and we exchanged good wishes for our respective races.
As you run trail events and longer distances, you start to become accustomed to the awful stench you produce. Be that the sweat and and odour of the body or the many gases seeping their way out of your body however they can. I most admit though, something didn’t smell right. It smelt awful. I wasn’t sure if it was me or them. I was hoping it was neither. “Pig Farm!!” Lou screamed out. I sighed a small sigh of relief. That explained everything. Pigs everywhere. Honking and squealing they looked at us like we were crazy. I looked at them like I was hungry! Baby pig Pig Pig Pig Pig, Baby pig pig pig…. all day long I’d had the Baby Shark song stuck in my head and couldn’t stop singing it every time we passed a baby animal – cow, sheep and now pigs! Irritating on so many levels.
Further on from the pigs, at one of the highest parts of the course, we passed fishermen. In a field. A field of grass. No water. Were we hallucinating? where we lost? Something wasn’t right. All the runners near us were thinking the same and we all laughed at the weirdness of it as we watched them throw their lines into the lush green fields. What the fuck?! It turns out it was some form of competition for throwing your line out – whatever that is called. Casting? We were amused anyway.
We continued chatting away to each other and with other runners around us also enjoying the day, like ourselves, as a training run for something else. We exchanged stories of challenges to come and what lay ahead. There are some incredible people out there! After a while as we began to spread out again we noticed we were continually near one older gentleman. The ‘Noisy Man’ as we came to affectionately know him. Everything about him was noisy – the heavy breathing, the funny noises he’d occasionally make and heavy stamping feet. We wanted away from him but found we spent the rest of the day leapfrogging each other (mostly as we’d stop and enjoy the treats at the aid stations, or ‘having a dinner party’ as he commented!).
Before we knew it, we were approaching mile 21. The checkpoint was conveniently placed on top of a hill. One with a picturesque view though. At the top of the hill, in a green pastured field, was a small cluster of trees. It was quite a sight. We stopped and took photos and had a mini photo-shoot with the mile marker before carrying on. Elisa’s Knee was causing more pain but she was full of dedication and sheer determination to see it through, regardless what she felt. He mental strength is quite inspiring. All the while I ate more and more food and remembered the oranges! Soon would be their time. Lou on the other hand, despite being a constant moaner, was full of positivity and drove the conversations, making us laugh and take our mind off the route which was quite hard and rocky terrain for the most part). I think she is a far stronger runner than she gives herself credit for, especially given her injury setbacks over recent years.
The remainder of the course was more down hill with the last undulating hills which we smaller by comparison of the early ones. With a few km left to go we started to run downhill run towards the start, retracing the initial part of the route. Other than a few close calls where toes were stubbed and falls almost had, this felt like a breeze in comparison. We rounded the last turn, squeezing past some runners before crossing the finish line together. I think it was about 5hrs 30mins on the clock, well within the cut off time. We collected our medals, hi-fived our friends already finished and I head straight back the the food stand to get cakes and more biscuits. I loved it.
We were handed the most high-vis of all high-visibility garments you can imagine. Some last photos and hugs and we said our goodbyes. As the pair headed off home, I went back to the finish line and joined the others in waiting for the legend that is Arlene to finish. As she appeared in the distance and our support increased in volume, Jakub took the Town Crier’s bell and ‘rang’ her home. It was hilarious when he handed her this massive (heavy!) bell and little Arlene almost buckled under the weight of it! We were done. Time to begin the long and tiring journey back to London…
How do you visualise a challenge? How do you imagine what you’ll endure and what you’ll face along the way? Comparisons work for me. I think what else have I done that is similar, how does it differ and compare to what I’ll attempt next. It normally works. Sometimes it isn’t so easy though, not when the challenge is so large. The Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) would not the furthest (distance) I’ve run. Comparably though, it is just about the highest I’d run. Likely it would also be the longest (duration) I’d run. It felt like a substantial challenge before I even considered he terrain, all you ever heard about is the steps. So I’d struggled to imagine myself enduring this event and what I’d really face. I was generally confident though.
Why so confident? What was different this time? I’m certainly more experienced in such events now. Just half a year ago I did my first mountain race and there have been a few under my feet since then! I’ve also upped my preparation game a little. Stair work has been a regular part of my training, more on that later. I’ve also watched videos of past versions of the race (like a scene out of Cool Runnings, only I’m not sitting in a bath tub when I do it), looking at the terrain. The point of this was to hopefully minimise any surprises I had like in Trans Gran Canaria where the rocky riverbed mashed me up good and proper.
Physically I was feeling ready, generally I’ve been OK. The one visual that kept forming in my head, was a sort of ‘health check’ image of my body. Mostly green, but both ankles and my left knee were flashing orange, orange to indicate a lasting pain for weeks or months, something I’m aware of but hasn’t stopped me from running. I’ve carried on regardless, like the idiot that I am. So I headed out to MIUT good to go…
So what is MIUT? It’s another of the Ultra Trail World Tour races. The short blurb is you run across the island form coast to coast via the mountains. I went back onto the MIUT website (after the race) to grab some words and phrases of how the event is described and I’ve decided not to copy and paste or dilute the words. Pop over to the website and read the description of the event. I think it is quite something. Probably because I can now visualise what it all means – MIUT – The Event
Way back when I planned 2018, I saw a video of MIUT. Wow. I was sold. The tunnels. The views. I came very close to buying a sponsored entry for 2018 in my excitement. I’m glad I didn’t. I was so inexperienced and it would have ended badly for certain. Now this time I think I had a fighting chance. Of all the experience I’ve gained, developing an understanding of my mental strength and my ‘race mindset’ has been invaluable. No matter what else, that will see me through I thought. Time would soon tell…
The weeks leading up to the race had been a little stressful, my mind was contaminated with work. I don’t like it. I don’t like work either but I meant the thoughts occupying my mind, I don’t like those. The short story is I’m in limbo, between jobs. I’m waiting, patiently. Waiting to get confirmation and run my way out of the purgatory of my current role. But the waiting has dragged on far longer than it should. It should all have been sorted weeks before this event but it hasn’t been. I didn’t want to have all these thoughts in my head still and I was fearful of being alone with them for 30 hours or so of running in Madeira. They make me angry. I’ve noticed I’m clenching my jaw frequently of late and I’m sure it’s related. Angry Dai would be a wildcard on the trails. I needed a calm and clear head to focus on the challenge.
Anyway, work left at home, flight and landing at the infamous Funchal airport successfully navigated, Yvette, Ale and I made our way to the event exhibition. They were both also running different events at MIUT. After registering and checking out the finish line we set off on our own little exploratory trip. Every adventure begins with a mini taster of the trails and we headed out to Ponta de São Lourenço. A lovely hike later in the Madeiran afternoon. It was an opportunity to sense the climate and get a feel for the conditions. It was grey and overcast, Warm but chilly. How do I pack now I thought? What should I carry to deal with the wind and cold at higher elevations? I’d have to think it through once more, but, the landscape lit up the gloom. A taster of things to come. I was excited. Very excited.
Race day. I slept for most of it. I still haven’t decided which is worse, an early morning wake up for an early start, or waiting around all day for a later start. This one was a midnight start. I woke around 8am after a decent sleep, had some breakfast and chilled with Ale and Yvette before prepping the kit bags and going back to bed for the afternoon. Drifting in and out of sleep before waking at 6pm for a pasta feast.
Come 9:30pm I was on the shuttle bus to the start. It was a long bus journey full of smelly runners (how do some people smell so bad before they’ve even started?). But, for me, worst of all, the loud group behind me who talked at excessive volumes the whole trip, including one lady who had an unnecessarily loud phone call (on loud speaker!) for a good 20 mins or so (of which I think about 15mins was spent saying good bye to her loved ones). Loud phone calls, hell loud conversations even, in public are a pet peeve of mine. I didn’t sleep any longer and ended up thinking about my work life again as another two days without answers had passed. I was hoping this would be the last of it.
We arrived in Porto Moniz and had about an hour or so before the start. The atmosphere was building and runners were huddling together to escape the ferocious wind. The Dj was getting the tracks going and some local musicians performed and danced to entertain us. With about 30 minutes to go they announced that they would start letting runners in to the start pen. By chance I was near the entrance so went straight in. I was therefore quite near the front of the 900 or so runners and, when the countdown completed, I felt it! We were off, heading through the town at a speedy 8min/mile pace. Runners passing me from all sides. I shouldn’t be running this fast I thought.
Soon the road turned and we started the first climb (just a baby at under 400m of elevation) as we skirted around Pico do Caldeirão. This was on windy switchbacks of the main road and wow. Just wow. My calves were on fire. I’ve never felt such instant pain in muscles before. They clearly didn’t like this, despite all the training and stairs I’d been doing. I was praying that this was only an initial reaction and wouldn’t last. I’d be in trouble if it did!
As we climbed through the town there was great support from all the locals. Drums and bells were ringing and plenty of chanting and cheering were coming from those gather along the roads. The main roads became narrow streets and paths and we climbed further and further. Many runners were already using their poles, but I felt it was unnecessary on the tarmac. We crossed streets and roads with built in steps in the centre of them and I’d alternate my climb between the (flatter) tarmac slopes and the steps. As the nature of the mountains goes, what goes up must come down and so the first descent began. Another mixture of road and trail and rather steep. Shortly before reaching the bottom I recall a very steep road. Gravity was instructing a fast descent. My brain was screaming out to put the brakes on, but gravity was, as always, the dominant force. It was a sprint. My feet were burning up. The friction in my heels was another new sensation and I thought my feet might combust. So soon into the race and I was already being tortured by MIUT!
As I descended I could hear the crowds up ahead. As we hit the bottom and the town of Ribeira da Janela more fantastic supporters whooped and cheered every runner through. Almost in a sadistic way as they pointed us into the first of the ‘big’ climbs – ~1200m up to the first checkpoint of Fanal. As we started (with the poles out now!) I looked back and saw the trail of lights descending behind me. I’m really coming to love this sight of trail lights glowing in the darkness. Its almost magical.
The climb was very steep and very muddy. The terrain was forest and, under the moonlight and streams of flashlights, I could make out the sea of trees surrounding us. Occasionally we’d break out of the trees into the openness of fields as we’d cross to rejoin the forest paths in different directions. I don’t know how far we’d climbed before I realised two things; firstly, how cold I was. It was bitterly cold and the wind was howling. Secondly how sweaty I was. I remember glancing down and seeing sweat on my shorts all the way down, almost to my knees. I was drenched. This was the realisation that I was in a vicious circle of sweat. I was sweating because I was hot and exerting effort on the steep climbs. But the sweat, coupled with the mist of clouds we were now ascending through, was making me cold in the wind. I knew it would only get worse and was already calculating how to address this at the first check point. I wasn’t alone. Arriving at the packed checkpoint of Fanal I could see other runners layering up. I got chatting to a Scotsman as I layered up myself and he acknowledged the same. I opted for my ‘sweat bag’ aka the OMM Sonic Smock. Super lightweight wind protection. I felt this was the ideal choice as my waterproof would be too warm and a baselayer too heavy in this climate. The ‘sweat bag’ would take the chill off and I’d continue to sweat inside. I packed fist fulls of food into a sandwich bag and set back off into the night.
As we summited the mountain we were shrouded in mist in the open grassed peak. I could barely see the ground in front of me as the mist clouded the light from the head torch. I also remember in the darkness there were cows all around, wandering in the darkness. You almost didn’t see them until they walked close to you. In the mist we began to descend, still barely able to see the ground, until again we reached the forest. Here the paths were muddy and soft under foot as we’d wind our way down. I remember a few stretches were the trees had grown up and over the path way (or the path had been made through the trees?!) forming tunnels. These were almost magical. At the bottom we reached the checkpoint of Chão da Ribeira, a quick break before the second of the big climbs towards Estanquinhos (another 1200m El gain) would begin. One which was a real introduction to the steps I’d heard so much about. Time to put all that stair training to good use. Just as we neared the start, running down a main road we were again greeted with immense local support as the crowds cheered us upwards with the screams of ‘vamos’ onto the steps. These steps felt never ending. Mostly it made the climb fairly easy though. Easy in the sense of you had a sure foothold, even during the muddy parts. It was still bloody hard work. Repetitive. Lunging forward and having to be sure to vary the effort on both legs (the steps weren’t quite shallow enough for a regular walking pattern). Occasionally we’d break from the steps and head through some mountain tunnels, navigating around the rockfaces. Natural water channels had been carved out and water flowed through these tunnels like streams. Then, mostly, this climb was through more dense forest. You could smell the fauna and hear the silence of the night. If you can hear silence that is. The steps were now essentially circular pieces of wood with earth packed up behind them. Sometimes so worn you were just hurdling the wood itself. As the trees started to becomes less and the trail widend, the moonlight lit up the summit above us. The moon was so bright and felt so close. I felt like I could reach out and touch it gently. As I looked forward I could no longer tell of up ahead whether I was looking at headlamps in the distance of simply seeing the stars of the night (it was the later!).
After sometime I felt we must have been nearing the checkpoint at Estanquinhos. But I was greeted with disappointment on multiple occasions. I’d hear noise or see tents but these turned out to be either bib number checks or extra medical assistance points. No rest-bite just yet. We began a short descent before climbing further and eventually checkpoint came. I didn’t plan to stay long but I soon joined many other runners huddled under a heater warming my hands and trying to dry out my gloves. Then it was back out into the night once more.
The steep descent down the mountain was like running through a rain-forest. Even in the darkness I could see it was lush green in colour. The smell of eucalyptus was powerful and I smiled to myself knowing it was blocking out the less than pleasant stench I was generating! Through the forest there were streams lined with trees we’d run through, slipping and sliding down the loose soil and mud. There were some more mountain tunnels and at one point we emerged onto a rock formation which we’d climb over via a stone-pathed path with cabled fencing to ‘protect’ from the drops either side. I had to get the camera out now as dawn was arriving, but sadly there was not enough light to capture the experience properly on film. As the descent continued we we were soon hit with the true glory of the morning breaking. We were still rather high when the trees fell away and exposed the panoramic views of the mountains. The layers of red and orange glow from the sun behind some distant mountains faded into the blue and black of the night sky. A battle for dominance was unfolding before us, all above a fluffy bed of clouds. Again my camera couldn’t handle its beauty. It was like a stereotypical drawing a child would make of the clouds and mountains.
We ran down some long and wide gravel switch backs as morning broke and headed into the checkpoint at Rosario. Shortly afterwards, emerging through the forest I found myself chatting to a guy from Essex as we began the next ascent to Encumeada. We were chatting away when two runners came bounding towards us and then took a sharp turn uphill. Following them we’d thought they’d gone wrong before we clocked their bib colour- they were on the ‘ultra’ distance race which started at 7am. We must have been making great time as they were alone and running uphill fast., I assumed they therefore would have been near the front of the pack. As we climbed more sections of never ending steps we were passed constantly by the fresh Ultra runners.
Eventually we reached the checkpoint at Encumeada which was a personal assistance zone, so it was packed with runners and their designated helpers. They were serving hot food but, despite being ‘breakfast’ time I didn’t feel the need. Perhaps my Tailwind was keeping me adequately fuelled. I snacked a little to be sure I had energy and went about swapping out the buff for the sun cap and took off my arm warmers. Despite still sweating from effort I was already dry from the heat of the morning. It was beginning to get warm! I knew the next section was long (about 15km) so I went about ensuring I had 3 bottles of water at hand and knocked back plenty of liquids before setting out -Including a few cups of some horrible flavoured isontonic sports drink available. Laying in wait before the next checkpoint at appropriately halfway were a few “smaller” climbs and descents.
I misjudged those climbs though and didn’t use my poles. I probably should have. Looking at the elevation profile of the route this section didn’t appear to be too daunting, just because there were three sections that looked far more impressive on paper, so I naively underestimated them. The first was up the steps leading alongside the infamous gas pipe. It was very steep. A very slow climb as it was packed with runners with limited opportunity to pass. I’m glad I trained stairs, but this was a whole new level of working out!
Gas pipe climb…
…so many steps
Once we reached the top it was a lot of windy single track paths descending followed by a lot more climbing. This one felt like an eternity despite not being one of the ‘big’ ones. I was quickly getting through all my water supplies and was glad I’d planned ahead. Despite the difficulties along this section the views were simply stunning. At some point I think we’d run around a mountain (Pico Grande?) as the views changed so much and we could now see different peaks towering in the distance.
Down below a town as visible, it must have been Cural Das Freiras, the halfway checkpoint as we soon began to head down again. This one hurt me. It was very technical and very long. I was slowing quite a lot and could feel the effects the terrain was having on my feet. All the downhills in MIUT are so steep that your feet are being bashed about in your shoes. My feet were raw now. As we neared the bottom I could see a road with runners running in both directions. It was confusing and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating, but clearly it was the route intended. As I reached the road we were sent in the downhill direction first. An old guy was sitting outside his house with a hose pipe wishing runners well. I wished him Bom Dia and drenched my hat in his cold water. It was bliss. After the road we hit some more technical trails were we would climb up and over the town and main road to reach the checkpoint. I couldn’t judge how long this would take and my watch battery was low (too low I realise now…) so I stopped to set it charging. This was the plan for the halfway point but I didn’t quite make it in time.
More views heading down to Cural das Freiras
More views heading down to Cural das Freiras
Reaching the checkpoint I tucked into some pasta. It was plain and tasteless, but very much needed to keep me going. I witnessed a small argument between volunteers which was amusing. The lady serving the food clearly didn’t want help and kept snapping at another lady who was dishing out food and setting it ready on the counter tip – a good idea I thought as there was a bit of a queue forming waiting for the serving lady to go about her methodical process regardless of demand.
After eating I headed over to the drop bag space set up in a large sports hall. I spent a good 45 minutes in total freshening up, changing and swapping out kit from my bag. I know it was 45 minutes because, as I was queuing for food, I’d noticed my watch had completely stopped. Dammit. I realise now the Suunto had auto-saved the activity as the battery was too low. Dammit, that would be a pain for monitoring my average pace later in the race. Oh well.
As I set off to leave I passed through the mandatory kit check. I fully endorse these, safety first after all. One requirement was a minimum of 1ltr of water as the next climb to the highest point of Madeira – Pico Ruivo, at 1862m was a beast. I had 2 ltrs on me and I’m so glad I did….
Coming out of the checkpoint we crossed the town and went down some weird industrial path with steel steps back onto the main road were we now went in the ‘up’ direction. After some time slowly walking the road I could see runners climbing in the distance. Time to go back up I thought. I can’t remember too much of the details of this next climb despite it being the longest continuous climb. It was steps again. Inevitably, a shit tonne of steps. I’ve no idea what direction or how we reached were we did. It was a head down and power on up kind of job. I kept thinking I’d take a break and treat myself to a few moments rest when the trail next broke/flattened out, but there was no natural break that appealed to me so I kept going. Kept pushing. Kept heading up. Like Yass would say “The only way is up…“. Then, eventually I reached ‘trail heaven’. As runners ran passed me I noticed (the rather unmissable) view. To our left was a sea of clouds. To our right was mountain ranges as far as your eyes could see. I stopped and started taking photos. I sat down and had a snack. Soon others did the same around me, I had the best seat though!
The sea of clouds
I had a huge smile on my face now and went for one more photo before I would get a move on again. Behind me there was a shout out “taking selfies are we?!” to which my reply was “take a look and don’t say you won’t do the same!” It was Yvette. She’d been running for a few hours on the ultra race and had now caught me up. I had wondered if we’d meet at all and suspected she’d already be ahead of me. I was fully committed to walking mode now though (I know, already!) and she went off ahead. There were several more climbs and a few very steep descents as we’d weave around various peaks to Pico Ruivo. I was constantly stopping to take more pictures. Some steps here were terrifyingly steep. If you have vertigo, don’t go here!
steep but runnable descents
Gradual climbs back up
Up at Pico Ruivo, in a tiny checkpoint (with an open fireplace flickering away!) I met Yvette again. After refuelling and guzzling a load of Pepsi we headed off once more with Yvette out in front. I wanted her to leave. To run her race. To enjoy it and experience it for what it is. This was her first time going over 50km and it was a monster of a course. It’s great to know people and share these trails, but, there is always time for that. I didn’t want her thinking about me or changing her race as a result of my progress. I was 70 plus kms in and fading faster than the descents. Like many other races I’ve done I was ready (and happy) to power hike it to the finish from here. I had no doubt I’d soon be embracing the darkness of my thoughts, for which I make bad company to be around!
Don’t look down
Windy moutain trails
Nature’s balancing act
As we headed towards the observatory we were in for more treats from the Gods. More sections of steep stone steps and some rusty old metal steps (also terrifying!). All around us the paths dropped away to nothing. Nothing but certain death. How these paths were ever created I do not know! Then, then the tunnels. Again I’d read so much about these were the footpaths stopped weaving around the mountains and instead cut straight through. There were a few. First very short (you could see the light at the end of the tunnel) then several longer ones (where you couldn’t see the end). For the later few you needed your head torch. I didn’t have mine to hand and couldn’t be bothered so I winged it. Poles tapping away as I walked through the utter darkness using the distant glow from another runner far ahead to offer some sense of direction. Another surreal experience.
Light at the end of the tunnel
And then, after some really steep steps (yeah ok, I don’t know what the difference between steep, very steep and really steep are any more either, but these were the kind of steep where you wanted to make sure you body weight was leaning INTO the steps as you climbed!) we emerged onto the ridge way. A path along the ridge with a sheer drop either side. Spectacular.
Dominating the skyline
Infamous path towards the observatory
High above the clouds
Just before the observatory I met an English dude from Watford and we walked and chatted together until the next checkpoint Chao da Lagoa. I had some snacks and saw Yvette yet again. She was keeping good pace ahead of me. From here it was mostly down hill now with just one sizeable climb remaining. This was going to be tough I thought. My body is breaking with each run and challenge I do. With each event I think I’m getting slower at the downhills as a result. The pain and cautious approach I now take is a little bit of a hindrance. I knew there was one very technical bit waiting but I didn’t know which part it was. Early on we had a fairly technical part just as we began the descent back beneath the clouds (we’d now spent hours enjoying life above them!). I was hoping this would be the worst of it.
I was hiking along at a decent speed and would occasionally be passed by runners, but I kept catching one who’d run, then walk. This was the classic thing I’ve noticed. To me it seems like a misuse of energy to put effort into running only then to lose the gains through walking so slowly. Arrogantly I think my power hike is far more efficient over a long distance. I was stuck behind him for sometime and was going to pass him, but he struggled badly and fell a few times on the technical bits. So we ended up talking and I felt stuck with him. He was Polish and had a thick accent. We struggled to understand each other and honestly, at this point I didn’t want to talk, not to him or anyone. Thankfully the tracks soon gave way to wider paths that were quite runnable. I even broke into a run as gravity once again took control. Soon we reached the bottom and it was time to head back up for that final big climb. Not far ahead on the road I could see Yvette in front of all the other runners who had passed me on the descent when I was walking. I zipped past them all as we climbed. Yvette and I climbed together now, back through the forests. It was a long one. We knew there was an checkpoint (Poiso) waiting at the top and as we emerged once again above the layer of clouds we sensed it was close. Another false hope. It must have been another few kilometres of climbing and power hiking before we reached it. We’d talked about layering up when we arrived as it was now around 8pm and I noticed the night before it was colder around 9 and completely dark 30 mins later. When we’d begin the next descent we’d head below the clouds for the rest of the race. The climate would be different and we’d end the race running along the coast.
As we arrived at the checkpoint and I immediately started shivering. Stopping movement, even walking, had a dramatic effect. I got some soup on the go and started layering up once more. By chance I was under a heater again. This was good, as was the soup so I had more. It was a salty delight. We left and began heading back down – we still had 1000m to descend before the finish in Machico. I can’t remember this section. Nothing. My memory has gone blank. The only thing I remember is arriving at the Portela Checkpoint. The last personal assistance zone. As I reached some steps down into the checkpoint I heard a Kaaar Kaaaar call out. In a very delayed reaction I responded. It was Ale. He saw me in. Inside I had more soup again. So so good. Yvette and I left together with a course overview from Ale as he’d completed this part earlier in the day on the marathon race. We had 5km until the next checkpoint, a wide track, then forest paths and a very technical descent. Bollocks, I was hoping it was already one of the descents completed. Oh well.
We set off power hiking again. A few runners passed us but not many. The wide track was just that – a wide track. Dull but flat. The Forest was surreal. In the darkness the head torches lit up the trees and the sheer drop we were running along. Don’t slip! The ground was wet and soft and slipping was a real likelihood. We hit a wooden cabin all lit up with fairy lights and had our numbers checked. It was time to go down. Fuck me this was bad. Switchback tracks making it steep. Rocks that you’d have to jump or lunge down. And nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. Adding to the wet loose soil I was. for the first time, fearful I might disappear on a trail! And it almost happened many times. I lost count of how times I slipped and skidded down on my backside. How many tims I screamed out profanities into the night and how many times my hiking poles were my savior. The body visuals I had were now screaming red in my feet and ankles! I was hurting.
Last checkpoint Larano. More soup. Yummy. 12km to go. Next stop was the finish. I was doing the math. That’s still 2-3hours on a mountain ultra. Time for the brain to engage and win this battle. Yvette headed out and I wasn’t far behind her.
I don’t know how we got there, but there was a few km along the coastal path. Wow. Below us on the left was the sea (I could hear it not see it!) to our immediate right the rock face. In and out along every cove and rock face. Lights up ahead from runners bobbing about. I was behind another runner walking it in. He was also walking at a good pace so I didn’t pass him. I could have gone faster but it would have been an extra bit of effort I didn’t want to muster. Runners passed us but it was difficult on the single track and we’d have to time it right so they could. There was a stretch that had been lit up with extra lights. I’m not sure why this section only had it, but it was a delight and very pretty in the moonlight.
We then turned and headed inland and once again I found myself stuck behind the Polish guy as we hit some technical tracks and continued our descent. It was a little frustrating and a repeat of the situation a few hours earlier. After sometime he stepped aside and I walked passed.
The next challenge was running alongside a water channel. It was long. Like forever long. Machico was below us. The end felt near, I could see the town. We needed to descend the remaining 300m or so. Surely soon I thought, but the water channel path just kept going on and on. Many people were walking and I’d catch them up and pass when I could. Occasionally I’d be stuck behind someone and struggle to pass. I needed to keep walking at my pace I thought. I was engaged in finishing now. Determined. Looking up ahead the lights of runners continued at the same altitude round the mountains into the distance. When will this end?!
Finally a sharp right was indicated and we descended through some fields. No defined track as such it was a just a case of following the reflections from the course markings reflecting down below. Gravity once again won through and I ran down grunting and swearing with each rocky step. As we hit the road I continued. I could see the the finish line below in the distance. Maybe a kilometre to go? If I stopped running now I might not start up again. I was on it. I ran passed a few runners. Finish strong, the way I like it. As I hit the flat road the Polish guy whizzed passed me. I bet he was more grateful than I was to be on flat ground! As I crossed the line Ale and Yvette were there. Yvette ushered someone to give me a medal. I think the volunteers must have been tired too – it was 2am afterall!
The words that came out of my mouth were “is there a finishers gilet?” There wasn’t. That annoyed me. I quite like those as a different memento. Ultra races always have such an anticlimax of a finish I find. So many emotions. You never know what to expect. What you want. What you are going to feel. Suddenly it can seem like the whole day of exertion amounts to something as silly as a gilet! I was happy though, challenge completed. I was a finisher.
My immediate thoughts on MIUT? It’s utterly spectacular. The trails are without doubt the most picturesque I’ve run on so far. I’d highly recommend it. It is however brutal. I dread to think how many thousands of steps and stairs you climb. The ascents and descents are soul destroying and it is a very technical race. If you’re going to do it, be prepared. Train for it!
The next day we drove back up to the observatory. Ales marathon race didn’t take in Pico Ruivo so we thought that would be a good place for him to see. Of course, we took our medals out for a photo shoot!
Another race report, another heavy feature for the Wild Trail Runners. I write about this lot fairly frequently now. It is Probably representative of how much time I spend with them because they are a truly wicked bunch. Trips to Italian mountains to run races? Yes please, I’ll have some of that!
Last year I followed the adventure of a group of the Wild Trail Runners from my phone in the comfort of home, watching as the group either ran or crewed the SciaccheTrail, and I was jealous. The trails and scenery looked spectacular and they looked to be having so much fun. So when they arranged to go again I was straight in there.
The SciaccheTrail is an event held in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. The race is roughly 50k and somewhere around 2500m of elevation gain. You start and finish in the town of Monterosso Al Mare, looping out and up into the mountains then along the coast, up and down into each town of the region then back to the finish line where it all began.
I set out to Italy without a (running related) care in the world. There would be a group of nine of us and I’d have no pressure on the race itself. With MIUT two weeks away this was always going to be a tune up event for me. My one focus was to see how the recovery is/was afterwards to benchmark for later in the year where I have two ultra mountain races within 3 days. No doubt I’ll write more about that in the weeks and months to come but for now it is the time to see how that might work out!
Leaving London on the Thursday I stayed in Pisa overnight and took the early train to Levanto. Meeting the crew (who arrived the day before ) at 9am I was able to join them on the now customary ‘shakeout run’. We ran over to Monterosso Al Mare and experienced a tiny section of the trail we’d explore the next day. It filled me with excitement.
That evening we returned to Monterosso and registered and collected quite possibly the most generous race pack I’ve ever received. The race is part of a regional festival and besides the obligatory race T-shirt and sponsored goodies (like a hat from La Sportiva) each runner received a bag of local produce including pasta and wine! How good is that?!
The next day we rocked up to the start line ready for the 7:30am start. With under 300 runners it was a very easy and low key start. Before we knew it the countdown had begun and we were released. The first part of the course head out of Monterosso Al Mare along the coast back towards Levanto before which we began the first climb.
That First climb was steep and busy. Steps and Rocks were the terrain but generally it was soft underfoot. The first summit at Monte Negro took us into, and through some tree lined paths which were a delight. The morning mist that shrouded the summit soon started to giveaway to the glorious bright sunshine as morning broke. I’m beginning to love those early morning sunrises when I’m running high up near the clouds and hear nothing but the sound of my feet tapping the paths.
Soon we came upon the first aid station followed by a long road stretch along the top of the mountains before dropping sharply and then beginning the next big climb towards Monte Soviore. Further on we’d reach the highest point of the race at Monte Malpertuso after the third climb. The climb began with a steady switchback along the roads where Kirsty caught up with me. We ran together interchanging paces as is overtake her on the climbs and she’d wizz past on the downs. An all too familiar experience for these races now!
Running through some more tranquil tree-lined forests I was at peace and smiling. Then up ahead some guy came over the hill towards the runners. He had a Wild Trail Runners shirt on and I was curious. My mind clearly wasn’t thinking as it was Matt. Of course it was Matt. He was out to support us all and said he’d be around the 20km mark!
Shortly afterwards Kirsty reappeared again and we ran together. We have a similar race pace and stuck around each other chatting away as the forest was very runnable. Soon she’ll be leaving for New Zealand and I’ll miss having her pop up in races to run with. She’ll be missed from the group.
We began a long down hill section as we headed towards where the course would loop back and head towards the town of Riomaggiore. Much of the previous section it was all incredibly runnerble. Just before the edge of the loop, Kirsty pulled up with cramp and as I reached the end of a down hill section we arrived at an aid station. I shouted back at her to carry on. This aid station was phenomenal. I’d been loving the oranges so far, blood oranges and so juicy. I’d heard about the cakes at aid stations and i had resisted the panettone up until this point. Here I couldn’t resist the cakes anymore though when I caught sight of a giant crostata. I love a good jammy crostata and started stuffing my face. I had three pieces and grabbed a forth along with more oranges and biscuits and cracked on. As we left a camera man called out to me ‘ciao’ and I smiled widely whilst shoving biscuits and tart into my gob.
The course continued downwards towards the town and we began traversing the first of many vineyards we’d run through that day. I whipped out the camera for more photos and as we were posing Maggie popped up behind us and we ran on as a three for a bit. This section was beautiful as we weaved through the various vineyards overlooking the coast.
We soon began the steep descent to Riomaggiore which was tough. Very tough. It was a Steep down hill on cobbled Steps and paths. For the first real time that day I felt my body begin to talk to me. My feet were sore with raw toes and achy ankles and knees were registered. I altered my technique and was actively braking as I continued down. Maggie went flying past and vanished off. She’s such a strong down hill runner. As we entered Riomaggiore Matt was there again grabbing photos and cheering us through. Hi fives and cheers were embraced and I swung a sharp right straight back up to some steps as I blasted on and skipped the aid station in the town.
The Aid-stations were now every few kms and I didn’t need them all. Making sure I’d fill my bottles I could skip one each time. As we climbed up and out of the town I was back with Maggie and Kirsty and we climbed to together until Kirsty pulled up again with cramp. We left her (sorry!) as we powered up. At the top Maggie and I ran the huge bridge before beginning the next climb. This was a tough climb through old stone paths along the vineyards. We took some photos and Maggie pointed out that this was our first race together. I’ve run with her so much now since we met just over a year ago that I hadn’t even realised we’d not run an event together. As I stopped to take more photos Maggie carried on. But what a photo it was…
Soon we were running down hill again and I was passing runners this time and feeling strong but Maggie was no where in sight. The next undulations took us to the town of Manarola. Were we run down into the busy tourist streets and straight through and back up. The aid station volunteers ensured runners navigated the crowds of tourists with ease. On the climb or I caught up with Maggie once more. Again we walked and talked and she directed me to a public tap half way up some stairs (she did the race the year before). We soaked our hats and carried on. Not too far further up we reached another aid station were I began to refill my Tailwind (my little travel bottle technique is working a charm!). Maggie left left me at the aid station as she doesn’t stay long at all. A few moments later, with coke in my belly I cracked on. It was hot now in the heat of the day and the fuelling was becoming critical. Whilst I’d eaten loads of fruit cake and biscuits, I needed to constantly hydrate. A benefit of having so many aid stations is that they don’t get busy. I presume because like me, most runners wont stop at them all.
In the distance the start/finish of Monterosso Al Mare loomed. It seemed so far away. There must still have been about ten miles to go and the trails and towns came and went. The climbs now between towns were all steep steps and combinations of natural as well as man made paths. The streets and towns were packed with locals and tourists alike and the trails were windy and often involved crossing small rivers. I Thought of the finish and powered on.
We sort of by-passed Corniglia and then headed into Vernazza. A lovely little port town with amazing coloured houses. I stopped on the path and joined some tourists taking photos. As I had all day long I greeted them with “Ciao Grazie”, the limits of my Italian vocabulary. After leaving Vernazza I’d occasionally glimpse Maggie in the distance as the paths crossed or I could see her running the other side of a cliff as I could see up ahead where runners were going. I carried on knowing there were no more major climbs of note to overcome. I was in the zone and running. The finish now appeared closer. I could sense the end. I was momentarily stuck behind two Italians with poles. They didn’t seem keen to let me pass and I had to buy my time. I saw an opportunity and powered past. Then I focused on not stopping. After making such a clear statement I couldn’t let them catch me again. I kept going. Rounding the bends and powering the last few steps onto the main road. A down hill finish. I could see Maggie ahead for the last time as she was crossing the line and I kicked on. As I neared the finish I noticed the cheer squad of Matt and Tamas clapping to see me home. Straight away I was rewarded with the lovely wooden medal and shared a hug and a photo with Maggie. As we collected some ice cold beer two lovely old ladies hugged us (they must surely of regretted that!) and congratulated us (I presume, they were Italian). And, best of all, we each received 10 Euros cash at the end (a deposit back for the racing chip!). Amazing. I Felt like a pro being given money at the finish!
We hung around and cheered the other runners home and saw in the rest of the team as they arrived one by one. We cooled off in the sea, or at least I dipped my feet and ankles in, it was freezing! Before celebrating with Maggie as she was presented on the podium as the 9th female (the SciaccheTrail rewards the top ten males and females). After which we headed to the free pasta party and filled our stomachs with more amazing local produce of vegetarian lasagne, seafood pasta, grilled octopus and veg, and that was just the mains!!
Eventually we headed back to our flat in Levanto and chilled out before we couldn’t stay awake any longer.
The next day a few of the group went for a hike whilst Yvette and I joined Matt on his training run. It turned into a photoshoot for me as I had won a place in the Adidas City Run race which I couldn’t make. So I did my ‘hour’ along the Italian coast.
Another excellent weekend adventure running. What better way to explore the Cinque Terre region?!
*** In the summer of 2018 I ran the Serpent Trail 100 event. Shortly afterwards I wrote a blog. possibly my favourite personal bit of writing to date. At some point later in the year I noticed the blog had vanished. WordPress claim it was deleted and unrecoverable. I sobbed a little. Over the months since I’ve tried to recreate it. It isn’t the same, it is no longer an original thought. It is merely an attempt at remembering what I wrote in 2018 and preserving my memory for old age. Either way, here it is…. ***
The Serpent Trail. A serious of footpathsand routes weaving through West Sussex. Aptly named from the slithering shape it creates from Haslemere to Petersfield (and that it is a habitat to British species of snake). The 64mile path is home to a small (but growing!), local-ish race from Tom and the team at Freedom Racing. I just couldn’t say no to giving it a go. It would be good training for my upcoming CCC adventure.
I headed down after work on Friday where I planned to camp the night before the race. The organisers had arranged for a shuttle bus service to take us from the campsite at the finish line to the start in Haslemere. Nice and easy. After checking in and registering with a lovely friendly welcome, setting up tent and collecting my bib and dib-dab tracker whatsit I went to bed. It would be an early start with the bus leaving at 5am.
I chatted to a few other tired runners on the bus and tried to get a little more shut eye in before I really had to wake up. A long day lay in wait. Arriving in Haslemere we walked to the start, hidden behind a pub and, just like that, we were off. A sort of rolling start began as we all just began running. Finding our stride, heading out on to the Serpent Trail we were off!
The early mile or two confirmed a few thoughts I’d had. My mind was in overdrive. The day was still very young. We’d not yet covered but a few miles and I could sense the challenge ahead. It was the height of summer. A warm one at that. The Serpent would become my nemesis. My opponent. The challenger I’d have to overcome. I recalled the computer games of my childhood. The early 90s. It reminded me of the platformers and the ‘beat em ups’. Player 1 vs the The Serpent Trail. I was in control.
Within barely a few miles I heard my name called out. I turned to meet the warm smile of Ally. We shared mutual friends. We’d never met but we’d been told about each other running. We ran and chatted and soon found out we were neighbours!
The sun had started to come out and the early morn was breaking. We celebrated the warmth of the daybreak by getting lost. Not alone though. Others followed us. Somehow we were tracking back the way we came. Ally felt familiarity in the route. She recalled a gate we went through. I wasn’t so sure until a little further along when I noticed a trail sign on the bottom of a tree. It was a weird place to put one and I’d spotted it first time we passed. We back tracked and were soon on the right path again. Joking with the camera man we saw for a second time.
The first aid station was soon a welcome sight. Today they would be spread out over a decreasing distance as we closed in on the finish. The first was ten miles in. We didn’t stay long. We grabbed some stuff and carried straight on. Passing through we saw a runner who’d already lost his battle to the Serpent. His head was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Sights like this often fill me with fear when running. Accidents can happen and when they do they can be pretty bad. The Serpent clearly had his tricks to try and win the battle.
Ally and I ran together for a fair few miles before eventually we went our separate ways. We promised not to get lost again. I broke that promise almost immediately. Before too long I was coming up behind Ally once more as we ran along a road section. I don’t know how it happened. But I could feel the draining effect it had. The Serpent sapping my energy with his mind games. I’d have to focus more. I couldn’t afford to keep getting lost. In the heat any extra distance I covered would mean the Serpent would pound me down and win this battle. Not today I thought. Not today.
Moving on, for the second time that morning I waved goodbye to Ally. We planned to meet again at the finish as she kindly offered me a lift back. That would be better than spending a second night sleeping in a field. The second checkpoint was a welcome relief. The sun was in a prominent position in the sky now. Whilst I chatted to the volunteers Ally rocked up. We were allowed drop bags at this checkpoint and Ally was well prepared. She’d frozen isotonic drinks in her softflasks and put ice packs in her drop bag to keep them cool. Genius. I was a little jealous. Well played Ally! Immediately after setting back out I was lost again. Somehow I’d missed a turn and was running alongside a field of sheep. They were noisily bleeping and leaping all over the place. Perhaps trying to tell me that I’d fucked up and gone wrong, again.
Back on track I thought about the battle. I thought about those videogames I used to play. Each character had their special skills, their power moves and weaknesses. I was starting to understand what I was up against in my opponent. The Serpent’s main weapon in the battle was the path itself. The terrain. The path would twist and turn. It would vary from forest paths, to dirt tracks, to rooty-tree lined tracks, sandy hills and occasional roads. As soon as you’d get accustomed to running on one surface, the bastard would switch it up. Thankfully the hilliest sections were in the first half of the course. But I could use this to my advantage – with hills come viewpoints. With winding paths come alternative views. The course was scenic and I’d use this to my benefit and enjoy whatever was presented to me.
Sometimes though the terrain was tough. There was one particularly fruity climb just before the third checkpoint. The Serpent was throwing it down to us. Challenging us. Taunting us. Reaching the top I was dripping with sweat. I took the chance to replenish my energy and I spent a little while at the aid station – joking with the volunteer and cheering through other runners making sure they dabbed in. He offered me a job. I declined and set back out. It was hot. Morning had become midday. The sun was scorching.
I realised the Serpent was a sneaky opponent. He was one of those with the ability to call in allies. Collectively I came to think of these as an ‘army of bastards’. One of which was the Bastard Prick of a Sun. The Sun, although limited in duration, was unreachable. I couldn’t attack it. I could only avoid it. The Bastard Prick of a Sun rained down its relentless rays of heat, pounding the runners and terrain alike. This was a UK heatwave. Nothing sapped my energy more than the sun this day. I could only avoid it when the terrain gave me refuge in the forests and shade of trees. I weaved and dodged all day long finding those rest bites, those shaded tracks. If I could get to the evening, its power would vanish and I’d come through on top. Hours away though. In the meantime water and shade were my friends.
The Serpent wasn’t the only one bringing support to the fight though. I had the camaraderie of other runners. I often thought of Ally and I chatted away with others as and when I could. In addition there were the volunteers. The checkpoints were the friendliest I’d ever encountered. A real family feel. Each one you were welcomed into and cheered out of. I’d use this camaraderie to see me through the battle.
Before I knew it the Serpent upped his game. In the height of the midday sun, whilst the Bastard Prick of a Sun was showering me with heat, the Serpent lay down a gauntlet of confusing paths and sandy hills. It was tough. I went wrong multiple times. I was trying to interpret the signage of the Serpent Trail that were all ambiguously positioned. They could have been pointing down one of many routes. I had a gpx file but signal was poor and it often took too long to correct the course. Many times I chose wrong. Many times I extended my run and depleted my energy supplies. On one occasion I met another of the Serpents bastard army – Spikey Foilage. Running full steam into an overgrown path I ended up being shredded by spikes from Bastard Foliage. Damn. I was weakening. I needed to get back in this battle. The midday sun was blistering and my heart sank as realised I’d gone wrong yet again and had to retrace my steps uphill and once more through the Spikey Bastard. My legs were screaming from what felt like a thousand cuts. I was out in the open, running more sandy paths with little shade. My throat was dry and water wasn’t quenching my first. I carried on and used my wits were I could – My brain would be my biggest strength. Determination and stubbornness to repel the Serpent’s attacks. I’d run when I could, sticking to the shade and minimising the time I spent exposed to the sun. When exposed, I’d be sensible and walk in the sun to avoid overexertion.
Earlier than expected another checkpoint appeared in the distance. There was a tent. That meant shade. This was the best one. Exactly what I needed. It was full of friendly support , all the volunteers were Tom’s family. His mum and his sister were there and they were great and lifted my spirits and prevented me from succumbing to the beating I’d been taking. One of them offered me a cold wet towel to cool off. Lots of ice and food was available and I took as much as I could. Like in Streets of Rage and eating a chicken found in a dustbin my energy levels were restored, the health bar refilled. The red turned to green. I was jubilant. I was back in the fight. I was on top now and ready to press forward and attack The Serpent.
The second wind was embraced and I ran and ran. As the miles counted down I wondered what the football scores were. It was the World Cup and England were playing Sweden. For the earlier games, the aid stations had been updating scores on their welcome/sandwich boards. It was good to follow the changes each stop and see how they finished. As I ran I started to realise I’d been running solo for quite sometime now. I couldn’t remember the last runner I’d encountered. I hadn’t been passed either and started to wonder what my position might be. I was expecting a checkpoint but it didn’t come. My water was running low and my feet were starting to ache. I ran passed a pub and there was a lot of noise from live music and the football. Soon after the checkpoint finally came into sight. There were two other runners there. A lady just leaving as I arrived and a man relaxing in a chair. I joined him. I tended to my feet, ate some food and drank back lots of coke. I don’t know how many cups I had. I could have stayed there for a long time. I was happy and getting comfortable too.
As I rested, another runner came in to he checkpoint. Shit, I am being caught. He was jovial. He joked he was done, he wanted to quit, he wanted the bus home. Only he wasn’t joking. He told us he’d spent the last hour in the pub watching the football and eating fish and chips. We all laughed and I was a little pleased I hadn’t been caught after all. I decided to get up and go. Time to end this battle and get it done.
Along the next section I started to meet runners from the 50km race. They were full of spirit and support. I chatted to a few and we exchanged encouragements. We were all sensing the end of the battle now. A little while later, enjoying yet another second wind, I could hear footsteps behind me. It was the runner who quit. What the fuck. We chatted as we walked on. He explained he was told it would be about an hour to wait for the bus and with just about 10km left he felt he might as well walk it in. Only he wasn’t walking, he was running and running strong! I let him go ahead. I was impressed. Although if he’d been in the pub for an hour before I caught him he was clearly a strong runner!
I carried on in my own world. For the last section I’d put my music on. An extra weapon to fight the Serpent and distract my mind. My own boost and distraction. The Bastard Sun had faded and I was winning the battle. After exchanging attacks all day the Serpent was slowly coming to an end. I came upon the last water checkpoint and grabbed some more coke. The sole volunteer cheered me in and urged me on. The next guy wasn’t far ahead he told me. He insisted I could make the top ten if I beat him. I laughed and explained he’d just overtaken me after being in a pub for an hour. “Oh” he said. I cracked on anyway. I was ready to finish.
Not long after leaving the checkpoint, in a field of lush green grass, I could see him. I could see the runner. He wasn’t alone though, he was with the woman I saw at the checkpoint and I could see they were walking. I caught them and had another brief chat. It turns out she was the leading female. Amazing! I carried on. I felt invigorated knowing that keeping ahead of them could put me in the top ten (if I trusted the volunteer’s counting skills that is!). Soon I came upon some more 50 km runners. I followed them as they navigated some fields. I’d switched off and wasn’t concentrating. They went wrong. So I went wrong. Dammit. I was running strong now and this annoyed me. The leading female and ‘pub runner’ we approaching behind. They were also running again. I could sense the finish though and soon we left the trails. We were back in Petersfield. I knew I was close as we emerged onto some roads I recognised from my walk from the train station the night before. But we ran passed the turning, we were running away from the finish and taking the long way, looping around the finish line via some riverside paths through some woodlands. I was still running. I wanted this. Finish strong is my mantra. The Serpent needed one last attack to be defeated so I pushed hard. I broke free of the trees and the darkness that was starting to fall, I burst up into the field and the finish line was in sight. The volunteers rang the bells and whooped me home. Shouts of “runner” triggered some lots of clapping from the crowd at the finish. The Serpent fell in front of me to the screams (in my head) of “finish him”. I floated across the line with a finisher smile beaming across my face. Player 1 wins!
As I was going to stick around and wait for a lift back with Ally I had a bit of time to spare. I showered and packed my stuff up. I grabbed some buffet food on offer and talked for quite sometime to the medics and photographer whilst I waited. It was fascinating to get an insight into what an ultra involves for them and certainly to appreciate all the hardwork that goes into supporting such an event. A few hours later Ally arrived and we were soon in the car heading back to reality. The Serpent Trail had been defeated. We both emerged victorious from our battles.
It’s been an unusual week. Unusual in the sense that it’s included a lot of familiarity with both familiar and unfamiliar situations and people. I say week, I mean two instances, just that they happened to be in the same week. First, I went to the Like the Wind Magazine birthday bash. Secondly I went to the Maverick Hampshire race.
At both events I’ve been surrounded by a ridiculous amount of runners and adventure seekers. All with their own passions and stories and experiences. Its been overwhelmingly inspiring.
Before I’d even arrived at The Stance shop where the Like the Wind magazine was being hosted I’d exchange knowing smiles and head nods with other runners. We’d recognised each other but had not met in person until this point. This continued inside and throughout the night at Stance (where I spent a discounted fortune on socks!!) and I made many new connections that night. It was quite surreal with so many people congratulating me and asking me about the Trans Gran Canaria trip.
Two days later and I was on my way to Hampshire with the Wild Trail Runners. They’d swapped out their monthly trail run for an entry at the Maverick Trail Division event. I’d never been to one of the Maverick events before. I’d heard, and seen many, good things about these events and knew a lot of other people heading there too.
And so the theme from Thursday night continued. After registering and collecting my bib I dashed about to exchange some quick hellos and hugs with various others I’d spotted. Friends I knew and those I was meeting in person for the first time. Whilst I’d expected and was seeking out these meetings, one in particular stood out. In the crowd someone came towards me, Perkins! Sarah was there way back when in 2015 I ran my second marathon in Kilimanjaro. We travelled and climbed Kili together and I think I’d seen her just once since. That was most unexpected.
Time had gone by, group photos had been posed for and taken. It was time to run. There were three distances (short, medium and long). Most of the group were bashing out the half marathon ‘long’ distance. We set off. Immediately it became clear, it was muddy. Very muddy. I realised I hadn’t brought spare socks. I don’t know why, I wasn’t expecting mud. No explanation or excuse. I just hadn’t thought about it. I had prepared though. I turned up with my usual garb and was, spare socks aside, prepped for an ultra. It’s the norm now. I’m used to carrying all the gear I might need.
Initially the course was inevitably packed with runners. There were those I knew from Wild TR and NSL all around me. Out on the right Adam (Wild Tr coach) was snapping pictures. By this point my feet were already soaked and muddy. Runners ran to the sides of the bogs. Probably because it was easier than running trough the mud but also probably to avoid getting muddy. Like many others I ploughed straight through. There were hours of this ahead. It wouldn’t make a difference now.
I could feel my ankle. The pain I experienced over Christmas came back after Trans Gran Canaria. I’ve run once in the two weeks since. Recovery has been great apart from this niggle. Today was a test. And it was uncomfortable just a few miles in. Probably a warning sign and a fail of the test but I kept it in mind but also out of my mind at the same time, I wouldn’t dwell on it. It wasn’t bad enough to stop running. And that became my mantra for the run. Don’t stop running. I’d heard we had about 500m of elevation to cover. That’s nothing. A few little lumps is all. So I told myself I’d run the whole thing. Don’t stop. I’m so accustomed to walking hills now that today I decided to challenge that approach. Show myself I can and I will. I wouldn’t run particularly fast. Just what was comfortable. Making sure I wasn’t gasping for breath or heavy breathing at any point. Just don’t stop.
The course split for the short course to peel off and loop back to their finish. We continued on through the mud. There were lots of little dips where you’d run down and immediately back up a muddy incline. often over little wooden planks covered in mud. I struggled for grip at times. I didn’t see anyone else stack it though so was confident watching the runners ahead that the ground was stable enough.
I think we were about 6 miles in when I looked at my watch for the one and only time. My ankle was dominating my thoughts so I wanted to see how far in we were. Half way. if nothing else I could count down the distance from here. Up ahead in a field I could see the black kit of a runner, I couldn’t be sure but I thought it was Paul from the Wild TR crew. Out of the field we hit a small road section and a slight incline up a tarmac path between some farmer’s fields. On the left, as I got closer to Paul, some sheep were going wild, running and jumping back and forth closer to the runners. They were excited about all the activity going on around them?!
A little while later we hit a downhill section that was pure mud. Behind me a carnicross runner was chomping at my heels, I let them pass as the dog had so much enthusiasm. I think it was dragging its owner through! After this the route was flat and hard in comparison. My feet started to dry out nicely and then the route split again. We were on the last section of the long course now. A mental milestone where you can start to visualise how much is left. The Volunteer directed us left and up hill we would go. It was short but steep. Groans were coming from the many runners ahead of me. I joked as I blitzed past. I enjoyed this. I felt so speedy as I tip-toed up the incline whilst others bent forwards and pressed on the quads to power up. I kept thinking to myself this is nothing compared to inclines of two weeks ago. It filled me with confidence.
What goes up must come down right?! Soon we were bumbling back down a muddy hill. At the bottom A volunteer cheered me safely across a road and I ran past the aid station. I had everything I needed. I heard them say 6 kms to the finish. I didn’t need to stop for that. I did have a sense of familiarity with the volunteer at the road crossing though. I couldn’t place her. She was on my mind.
The course was quite spread out now. As I trudged through the mud I moved to one side to let a guy passed me. Shortly after this I saw him stop up ahead. I urged him onward as I’m sure that’s where I saw another runner in the distance go. He stopped and pointed to the left and we both saw some blue tap on a tree. It must have been left then. I questioned if I saw a runner go straight on, he wasn’t sure. We went left. It felt wrong. After a short while we turned back, at the turning about 10 other runners carried on straight. Great.
It wasn’t long before we caught them up and there was another hill. I zoomed off, They all let me passed again as I bounded up the incline as they walked. A short stint through some brambles lay in weight before more mud. Lots of mud, probably the muddiest part! I caught up with a female runner and we laughed as we both slid and got caught up to knee deep in parts. We were all smiles though. I said my goodbyes and carried on, seeing another group of runners in the distance. I vaguely recognised Paul, one of the Maverick Ambassadors, from behind and gradually caught up with him just after the course rejoined with the Medium course route. There were a lot more runners now. I briefly chatted to Paul who was feeling a little unwell before leaving him on the last climb. Again I tip-toed and weaved my way up and through all the runners. I stopped running momentarily as I reached the summit as I was slipping and sliding. We couldn’t be far now. Less than a km for sure. I started up again.
I could see the finish line up in the distance, we just had to cross the field in which we started. I don’t know why, but I undid my bag straps at this point. It made no sense at the time and it makes no sense now. I’m not sure what crossed my mind. I jogged it in to the finish and was greeted by the giant that is Spencer. I gave him a big sweaty hug in exchange for a medal and a beer. We’d met out in Chamonix after the TDS (him) and CCC (me) and hadn’t seen each other since. After a brief catch up I grabbed a Tribe bad and an Ice coffee and went and joined with those already finished. I also found a tap and was able to clean my shoes and socks.
Chatting away at the finish line the familiar unfamiliarities continued as I met more people whom I vaguely knew. Gif appeared with a box of beer – she’d won the female short course race (she joked all the others had gotten lost and she hadn’t), good on her, she loves her beer! Afterwards the Wild TR group headed to the pub and we all shared our stories.
Travelling home I reminisced to myself. Firstly, seeing the Instagram stories and posts answered the question I had mid race – Sarah. Sarah was the cheering volunteer at the bottom of the hill whom I hadn’t recognised. Probably good for her, she would have had a very sweaty hug if I did!
Then onto my feelings during the race. I tried to recall and recount how I felt. Yes, my ankle hurt. It didn’t hurt in a way that worried me though. I felt good to some degree. I recalled enjoyment and having fun. I didn’t push it and I felt comfortable. Yet I was running faster than I am used too. Probably, as a race, the fastest I’d run since Berlin over six months ago! I started slow and definitely got stronger as the race progressed (probably as my body is now used to longer distances where the race doesn’t begin until tens of kms in?). I questioned my prep again. Why I turned up packed for an ultra. Spare kit. Emergency supplies. Medical kits and the like. What was I thinking? I’m too used to days out I think. This was a half marathon. A supported half marathon at that. I enjoyed the mud. Besides the fact that it felt like I was running on highway of mattresses, the mud was ice cold. It was soothing on my ankle and probable helped a little with the pain management.
My takeaways were that it was an incredibly fun day. Very social with lots of great friends to interact and share the day with. I enjoyed the run (recognising parts of the Serpent Trail from a race last year) and felt there’s still a bit of speed in these ultra legs!
I’ve read a lot of bollocks about what runners sacrifice. Quotes claiming that you give up your friends and the like. I think that’s the biggest pile of wank-shite ever. Your friends are your friends. They’ll always be there for you, understand and support you. It’s unconditional. Yes, like me, you might see them less, but that doesn’t (shouldn’t!) diminish the relationship. Likewise I am there for my friends unconditionally (if you’re reading this and had any doubts, be reassured).
In pursuing your passions, what will happen is you make new relationships, you gain new friends. Friends with the same specific interests as you and, in my case, in running.
Like any true friendships these friends will go beyond for you. That was what I experienced recently when I ran Trans Gran Canaria. I received much support and well wishes leading up to and during the event and had a great time training with Alan and Gif (thanks for the advice and workouts!) and running local hills with Arlene and other great friends I’ve made through this passion of running.
In particular though I was inspired by and I want to call out those friends whom I went out to Gran Canaria with – Yvette, Jorge, Ale, and Matt. Friends I’ve made through Wild Trail Runners. They were all running the marathon on Friday and they then spent the entire night and next 23 hours driving around the island following me and supporting me. I didn’t ask them too. They just did it. Because they wanted to. Because they enjoyed it. Because that’s what friends do. They slept less than me, clocked several hundred kms, barely ate and endured the loneliness of the night. But they brought so much energy and I was pleased to have them. I looked forward to seeing them. At most of the checkpoints they popped up with laughter and support. They put up with my smells and my moods (which was constant grumpiness!). I owe more to them than words can portray. But for now, the next time someone says you sacrifice friendships or you read some pointless motivational quote of the same manner, you give them the middle finger. Friendship is deeper than words.
Yvette, Jorge, Ale, Matt. Thank you. You’ve given me more than you may realise. My achievements are shared with you all and I look forward to the next adventures!
Trans Gran Canaria. One of the early season races in The Ultra Trail World Tour Series. I only heard about this race last year when some other people I’d met were heading out to run it. Set in the volcanic island of Gran Canaria, the 128 km race is part of the carnival of events staged over a week. With 7,500m of positive elevation it’s no mean feat. Yet it is sandwiched between the marathon, advanced (65 km) and the monstrous ‘360’ – a 270 km tour of the island. This would be my second UTWT race after my debut at the CCC last year and one which filled me with some pre-race doubts. I felt ready, perhaps not in my desired shape due to the customary lack of structured training I do, but confident of the adventure (I’d focused on shorter runs and lots of step-based training). The build up and the journey to Gran Canaria was fine. Typical in that it involved unnecessary stresses about the little things like packing and registering etc. Pre-race anxiety still overwhelms me greatly.
The ‘Weekend’ started Thursday night with a Chinese and a good long sleep. Yvette, Ale, Jorge and Matt all had the marathon at 9am so I woke with them at 5am, ate breakfast and sent them off to get the bus before going back to bed. All fine and I managed a few hours sleep before getting up at midday. I had a whole day to wait hanging around until my start at 23:00.
I walked into town and sampled the atmosphere. Cheering the marathon runners along on the last 2 km as I wandered towards the finish line to catch the gang all finish.
During this time we saw the second finisher of the 360 and someone who’d traveled from Alaska for the marathon race with 5 flights to get here! Earlier that day Luca Papi had won the 360 event and would be lining up in the field to also run the 128 km that night. Crazy (he finished by the way!).
The team all finished strong with Yvette smashing through her race, Ale and Jorge battling sickness and injuries to conquer theirs and Matt speeding through the finish so quickly I didn’t have time to react and take a picture! Great efforts.
Some hours later it was my turn to be sent out of the hotel and onto a bus to the start line. There was something weird about sitting on a bus, driving past the start line and thinking “I’ll see you again in two days, hopefully”. One thing was for sure, I was in for a long adventure! On the bus a gentleman from Beijing sat next two me. His second sentence was “let’s have a photo”. I don’t think he’s used to bearded people. I didn’t see him again.
The bus arrived at 9pm in Las Palmas. 2 hours before the race started. We offloaded from the bus and took the short walk to the beach where we mingled with the music and revelers at carnival. I’d never been to a race start that coincides with a local festival. The novelty soon wore off though. It was crowded. There were no toilets. None. Nothing set out for the race. Public toilets were closed and restaurants I inquired at pointed me in the direction of the closed public WCs. Helpful. Like many, I had to take myself along the coast to the sea.
Then we waited. And waited. For the two hours to slowly pass by. The question everyone had was why were we here so fucking early?! I sat on some steps for almost two hours. Smokers all around me which didn’t help with my pre-race anxieties.
With 15 minutes to go we were allowed onto the beach and into the starting pens. 900+ runners jostling for space. The team found me and wished me well. Final words of encouragement (and instilling of fear) from Jorge who’d previously done the race. He kept telling me how hard it was. He was preparing me and I’m grateful for his insights.
Over the loud speaker the announcements were made, a video played and music began, the live band playing the Gran Canaria by Los Gofiones. The ten second count down was made and the race began to a rapturous roar from the crowd and a synchronised-firework display. We set off running ran along the sandy beach. The waves crashing in and teasing our feet.
Within minutes I had to stop and remove the windproof layer that had kept me so warm for the last two idle hours. My plan was to run in short sleeves and arm warmers (which we’d received a pair of in our running pack). De-layered, I felt good. The sea breeze cooling on my skin.
After the beach we headed inland, first up a relatively small (few hundred meter) incline along a very runnable path. I ran most of it as I’d heard of the inevitable bottle necks that would follow.
Soon after this my memory already started to fade. It was night and dark. My mind was fully alert on the terrain and it was becoming rocky. Very rocky. Hard, sharp, loose rocks. We were running in and out of a river bed which felt like it went on for a long time. I often stopped to walk as others bundled past me at speed. I didn’t feel safe or comfortable running such tracks and knew I had a long run ahead. But it consumed me. I can’t recall seeing beyond the track. It was something like slow, gradual climbs up to remote villages before we hit the first aid station about 10 miles in. Yvette and Jorge were there and I fathed as always with my bottles and food before saying my good byes. I can’t fully remember the next section either. I was already in a grump. I vaguely recall a shortish climb through a forest and hurdling trees that were being cut down. Not technical, but not runnable either. It felt like we ran down through some massive mansion estate of some sort too. I remember stone walls and and a long driveway. But soon I emerged in Teror (the town, not my mental state). I think the section we’d just passed was the diverted track announced on the week of the race. It added a few km to the total distance.
At Teror the team we’re again there and we jigged and danced our way through. In TGC you are allowed external support in the vicinity of the majority of aid stations (Teror isn’t one) as long as it’s not in the actual tent. Before and after is fine. I was beginning to understand how I’d see the team or at least hear them as they shouted and ‘cooed’ endlessly into the dark. I was a little disoriented and despite studying the route and elevation I had no idea where I was. I’d continually ask which station this was and moan that the track “wasn’t very nice” (I wasn’t so articulated at the time!).
Beyond Teror the real elevation began. I remember one muddy-clay like climb through the dense forest which I took my poles out for. I blasted past runners as we climbed and was then blasted past in return as we went back down. The downhills were steep and rocky. Not loose like the riverbed thankfully. This would be one of the things I’d come to notice about the race – it’s very runnable. Over such a long distance I can’t run that far. And much of the terrain, as painful as the rocks are, is very runnable indeed. Especially when momentum takes control.
At some point along the way I passed another check point where Yvette and Jorge were waiting outside once I’d emerged from some minor DIY repairs. My left nipple was sore and my shoes were filled with sticks and stones. Whilst other runners fueled on warm coffee I patched up and got re organised. You quickly learn in ultras not to dwell on pains and discomforts but to sort them ASAP! I set off back into the night.
The darkness was full of depth and I also noticed the almost eerie atmosphere of the mountains at night, it was warm (some 14 degrees or so) but deadly silent. No wind. No insects. No animals. Just the noise of runners feet cracking on the forest floor and occasional burps and farts breaking the silence. It also smelt good (ignoring the farts) the foliage had some incredible smells which I cannot justifiably describe.
Off in the distance the silence was broken by the sound of drums. Faint at first but louder as I closed in on the source. Boom. Boom. Boom. Like a war drum pounding repeatedly. As I skipped down a small track I could see the origin up ahead. A band of drummers had lined either side of the path at the base of a climb. A steep bastard of a climb! I’m undecided if it was evil or pure genius that they chose this path and welcomed us like slaves pitted up against an almighty gladiator ahead. I charged forward. Power hiking up. I was enjoying the hills. I felt strong walking them and was boosted by passing runners who appeared less strong than me. It Became my tactic. Run when I could. Walk the rocky bastard parts (of which there were many) and annihilate the inclines. I began to look forward to them.
Next checkpoint up we emerged into a small roadside checkpoint by a reservoir. It was early morning, perhaps about 6am. It was a little cold at this spot and the checkpoint quieter than the rest. Whilst I’d not really suffered any real bottlenecks, the field was definitely starting to spread out. All I was interested in though was my stomach. I needed the toilet. I could feel the rumbles beginning. Your body is on a different cycle at night, eating and exercise disrupts it. Not a single aid station had any toilets. Just like the start, this was the only real negative aspect to the race organisation. Get some bloody toilets in!
Jorge sent me off with instructions as to what I’d encounter next. A long steep climb onto a ridge-way with cliff drops either side. Don’t fall in the dark he joked. I soon understood he wasn’t joking as two black holes of danger lay either side as we climbed. It was quite spectacular in the dark to see even more depth to the night. Along the top we followed a wall protecting you from the drop. I was tempted to climb over and use the wall as support to relieve myself but thought better of it.
We emerged into a road section before hitting a very steep technical down hill section. Almost immediately afterwards we’d climb again. As the path winded back up I could see off to the distance the snake of headlights descending behind us. It was mesmerising. White lights to the back, red (rear) lights up ahead. We were in a valley of some sort. I tried to capture it on my phone but again I can’t do the memory justice.
As we started to reach the summit dawn was breaking. The sun was rising and light was finally becoming our friend. It warmed up very quickly. We carried further up through forests and with the light of the morning finally got to see our surroundings. Wow. It was breathtaking. Layers of mountains as far as the eye can see. Each silhouetted by the one behind it. Off in the distance some strange peak formations were particularly fascinating.
We were approaching the half way mark. 65 km. Two things came to mind, firstly that the Advanced race would soon be starting (9am) and we’d be joined by another 900 or so runners. I saw only one positive to this. I’d maybe see Arlene and Julia on the trails. However, whether I timed it before or after 9am I’d be caught up in that race. Get there before they start and I’d have fast and fresh runners up my arse and pushing me faster than I’d like. Get there just after 9am and I might get caught up in the inevitable stampede and bottle necks. Lose-lose. Thankfully though neither happened. As we ran down and through the fields into the town we were greeted by volunteer staff who directed us into an aid station just before the 65 km mark. Here we were welcomed to hot food and refreshments. I decided to spend sometime here. I’d eat the pasta (I’d not been eating as much as I should have) and prep for the daytime running – recharge my watch, change my head torch and buff for a sun cap and glasses and plaster myself in sun cream. Best of all, there was a toilet. And I got the last of the toilet role. I felt like a winner. I headed off replenished and ready for the day.
The second thing that hit me at this point was that I still had a fucking long way to go. I was half way there. I still had a 65km mountain ultra to complete. I’d been running for 10-11 hours. I was tired and cranky. It was still a marathon and a half to go!! For fucksake. But, as Tomasz (who I chatted with over pasta) put it “I’m not feeling fucked enough yet”. Wise words.
Leaving the town of Artenara was another climb. And more treats for the eyes. I was constantly stopping to take photos as we climbed through forests and along more mountains tops. I wasn’t alone and as I’d interchange places with Martin from the US we’d point out good photo opportunities for each other. The strange rock formations were getting closer and more prominent.
I found the morning tough. I hadn’t seen the team since about 6am and as I made my way to Tejeda I was looking forward to when I might see them again. Alone with my thoughts my mind was constantly drawn to my left foot and ankle which had been hurting throughout. I was also constantly thirsty and breathing heavily. Despite making great progress I was certainly feeling how tough it was. I think the pasta kicked in though and the relieved stomach had settled. I found myself in a rhythm and had a solid stint of running before flagging as we reached Tejeda. The checkpoint felt like it took an age to appear after I first encountered the signs for the village. Upon arrival though I fueled on fists full of oranges (oranges had been my go to at checkpoints so far this race!) and, as it was just over half way, I decided now I could treat myself to cola. Always a runners friend on an ultra. I didn’t want to indulge too soon and it sure was good. As it approached midday it was sweltering. When I left Tejeda, I walked. We were on a paved road section that was downhill. I knew the next climb was one of the hardest, to Roque Nublo (the rock formations I’d been taking pictures of previously in the day). I couldn’t give a shit about running at this point. Some people passed me. I was fine with that. I’d found a strong hiking pace through the night and was able to maintain this comfortably between 14/15 min miles (when I ‘ran’ I was only marginally faster at 11/12 min miles) so I wasn’t fussed. That is until three men ran passed tethered to a metal pole. A lead and back runner guiding a blind man. As incredible as this was, I didn’t want to be stuck behind them on the climb. So I stepped it up.
Early into the climb I bumped into Victoria, a friend of Yvette’s doing the Advanced. We chatted briefly before my power hike took me forward. The climb was indeed a painful one. But as we reached the summit we were treated to the panoramic views from the popular tourist spot Roque Nublo. Throughout the run I’d been near another runner called Luis. I’d pass him on the ups and he would pass me on the downs. He didn’t speak very much English and me ‘speaker de no Spanish’. But we’d exchange back slaps as we passed. I like this unspoken camaraderie of the trails. It’s special. It’s an acknowledgment to each other’s strengths. No words are needed. As we summited he tried to explain the route. We’d go up to the rock and be checked in before doubling back and heading down a different way. He also insisted on taking a photo for me. I liked Luis. I didn’t get to see him again much more after this as he made too much ground up on the downhills. And this was my concern for the last marathon – as we reach Garañón where the marathon started the route was predominantly ‘downhill’ (as in comparative elevation gain in relation to the rest of the course). The majority of the races elevation is done in the first 80 km of the event. And I was discovering today that my downhills were weak. I’d readied myself mentally. I was planning now to walk the majority of the marathon remaining. I was so far ahead of my estimated time of 27 hours. I was starting to believe I could finish on Saturday before midnight. At a push, if I stayed focused and had no incidents maybe even a sub 24 hour. I cracked on.
I thought I might see the team at Roque Nublo as they’d planned to hike it themselves. But timings would have been tight and Garañón was the planned bag drop. Coming into Garañón I was greeted to the beaming smiles of Yvette and Jorge. I hadn’t seen them for about 8 hours. It didn’t show, but I was so glad to see them.
I had a plan here. Collect my bag. Change my clothes. Eat some food and prepare my kit for the rest of the day and night. Then leave what I didn’t need behind (or rather with the team to save me having to walk to get it at the end!). And that’s exactly how it went down. For food a bowl of potatoes with salt. Butter would have been great but they were delicious. Wet wipe wash, clean T-shirt and buff. Again I emptied my shoes of crap but I also decided against changing my socks. My feet felt OK and I was also afraid to look at them incase something was worse than it felt. I was wearing Stance 360 socks and I’ve found these great for doing ultras. I re-applied sun cream (you don’t want to compromise a race due to being unprepared!) and removed many things from my back (extra night layers etc I hadn’t needed). And I re-stocked on my holy grail – Tailwind. Pre-race I’d measured out 18 servings of Tailwind into either soft flasks or travel bottles to mix with water on the go. This worked a treat and was so quick to take one of the bottles of powder out and empty into water at an aid station. I took 9 with me on the start and had 9 here waiting. Whilst it was slightly less than the desired amount for the race, I intended on eating along the way too as I like the taste of food and thankfully I don’t struggle with eating on the move. I made a slight mistake though and should have taken a few more initially as it wasn’t a 50-50 split for distance or time to Garañón. The last 10 miles I’d done with out Tailwind and I was missing the taste. I was craving my hit like a junkie!
After again chatting with Tomasz over potatoes I was back out and reassured by Jorge and Yvette. They’d run this part as their marathon yesterday so again debriefed me on what was to come. As I mentioned, mostly down hill with two climbs although nothing compared to what went before and then finally the dreaded finish along another river bed.
The first of the climbs was gradual but long. Through forest paths and looping around the mountain. Here I saw many runners, familiar faces and new. Also many people looking defeated by the run. I’d pass them and check. One guy, Brian, suffered from stomach issues but reassured me he was OK (and had done the race last year) and many others asked the same question – “how far to the next aid station”. Good question. I was wondering the same. It felt like we’d be climbing for a very long time of false summit after false summit. I’d drunk nearly all my water including my third spare flask which I’d carried since the start. I was trying to calculate my estimated finish. Earlier in the day I’d figured a 4 hour half marathon (to Garañón) and an 8 hour marathon to the finish would see me make it in 24 hours. I couldn’t remember what time I left Garañón but now had less than 7 hours before 23:00. I wanted it. I also wanted to go to bed and to stop. I was fed up of the terrain now. Whilst I hadn’t fallen. My feet were beginning to hurt. I was walking as I had been for the last hour or so. 7 more hours of walking was a long time to contemplate.
Eventually the aid station appeared. It was small but I found a chair and quickly emptied my shoes of stones again. I didn’t plan on staying here long but I was starting to chaff and I wanted to make sure I had more than enough water after that last stint. I’d kept and empty fourth flask after Garañón so I decided to fill them all. I prepped all the Tailwind and a lovely volunteer helped me film them all. He was lovely that is until he got a little mud on the bottle and decided to empty the entire Tailwind filled goodness onto the floor to wash it. I wanted to hurt him. Hurt him bad. He wasn’t to know. I didn’t say anything. I thought some evil things in that moment though. I thanked him and left. As I was leaving the familiar sound of Arlene called out. She was entering the station above me and shouted me on rather than wait. I don’t know how or where I ended up ahead of here?!
The next section was also runnable. I didn’t want to run it but it was downhill and the rocks weren’t too loose. I stayed inline with the crowds and again played leapfrog with various people as I powered past on the inclines and they floated past me on the downhills. Eventually I found a second (third? Forth? Firth?) wind when two faster runners ploughed through. Together they had momentum and I could see them easily alert runners ahead of them who granted them passage past. I piggy-backed in behind them. Tailgating and running several kms with them and a comfortable pace. I was still doing the math. Badly. But I calculated I needed a few stints of running to get me in before Sunday came. After a while they stopped. But I was in the zone and carried on for a little longer before emerging onto another road section.
Walking again we were on another climb. I think I’d been confused as this definitely wasn’t the last climb I’d face. With the late evening sun pounding my skin I hiked onwards as we gradually climbed a fairly smooth and wide path. Up ahead I spotted the welsh dragon on a lady’s t shirt and I spent a while chatting to her and a fellow welsh woman she’s met on The trail. She joked about making it in time for the rugby. Eventually we reached the top and another downhill began. This one was a bastard. I really didn’t enjoy it. A very man-made winding switchback of slippery cobble stones. I don’t know how long it went for but I really didn’t like it. I couldn’t Run it. I was afraid of slipping. It hurt my feet. It was steep and the bends sharp. Gravity forced me to walk faster than I liked. I was glad when it ended. Other than that it opened out onto what I can only describe as what I perceive Mars to be like. A completely alien terrain of hard sharp rocks and dry ground. The torturous terrain of Trans Gran Canaria was relentless!
It didn’t stop there either. We came across a sign that very reassuringly said “extreme precaution. Technical Section”. It didn’t fail to live up to the hype. It was almost vertical. Very short switchbacks of jagged rocks and barley wide enough for a single person. We backed up into a slow descent. A short intersection with another path treated us to the information that it was just 1.5 km to the next aid station. 1.5 km of the same technical descent. My feet were taking a pounding now. I craved the rest bite.
At the aid station I ate cheese. It was good. I also took the decision to, for the final time, readjust my kit. It was now about 18:99 – 19:00. Soon the sun would set so I wanted to be ready. Away went the hat and sunglasses. Outcome the buff, head torch (new battery!) and arm warmers. Deja vu all over again. From here it was the last climb. About 200m followed by a downhill to the riverbed back into Maspalomas.
The climb was slow. I was still calculating my time. I couldn’t figure it out but I was now confident I’d get sub 24 hours. My mind focused on getting to the last 15 km with 3 hours to go. That would be 9 miles. 3 miles an hour. 20 min miles at a comfortable walking pace. I was still hiking at close to 15 min miles. I was confident. I strode on. Up the dirt track road we went. The night began to fall and I enjoyed watching the sun set. The same day I’d welcomed on one mountain I now said goodbye to on another. I captured the snake of headlights coming down the technical section back in the distance and was thankful I navigated that in the day light. My thoughts went with those doing it at night. The only negative point here was a staff volunteer driving up and down the climb, churning up the dust into our faces for us to inhale. I don’t know why he was doing it. Perhaps to check on the runners?!
As we summited the final climb it was time for another run. Initially the path was wide for cars and smooth to run before it became rocky again but not loose. For the second time I found myself tailgating two other runners. I set my aim to run to the bottom and the beginning of the river bed. Then my task would be complete. My false finish. From there I know I’d get to the end. No time pressures. I’d complete the event for sure.
The riverbed came. They carried on. I stopped running. I probably stopped a lot of things at this point but swearing was not one of them. The riverbed was the rocky bastard I’d read about. Dry, sharp loose rocks. It’s not an over exaggeration to say I was afraid again to break an ankle or slit my throat on a fall. I walked. Painfully stepping and sliding like trudging through mud. I swore out loud a lot. But I maintained my pace. I passed a lot of people with my power hike. Occasional they’d run past when we’d have a moments pause from death by a thousand rocks but I’d soon pass them again when they slowed to a walk.
It was dark. My feet were blistered for sure. I was constantly kicking rocks into my own ankles. Fuck it hurt bad I was lonely. I was cranky. The night was again spectacular as the riverbed was overlooked either side by rocky mountain faces. Off in the distance they merged and I longed for the opening back to reality. Eventually it came. I hadn’t passed any signs of the distance markers. I hoped I was near 5 km to go. I hated them when I first spotted “105 km to the finish” and “95 km to the finish”. Now I longed for that last confirmation. My time was good. I was walking back no matter what.
Under the motorway bridge up in the distance two silhouettes were making noise. Calling for me as they had the previous night. I knew it was Yvette and Jorge. I could hear them question and laugh as they thought it wasn’t me. The penny soon dropped and they came in to cheer me on. To the final stretch. I was super cranky at this point. I wanted for nothing except more solitude and the finish. I wasn’t capable of dealing with anything and I abruptly made this clear with unintentional rudeness. My mind had wandered to some dark places over the last 22 hours. Possibly some more places of self discovery also. I wasn’t ready to re-emerge to reality just yet. I still had a lot to deal with and get through.
One more checkpoint. Parque Sur. It seemed weird to have one so close to the finish but also one I was quite thankful for. Some more cola and sweets. I politely declined a beer and begrudgingly trod on. Down an old river bed again (although rocky not loose and nice and wide). The final stretch was a slight uphill along the road I’d walked and cheered the marathoners along on Friday. I’d already spotted that day the grass patch to the side of the road I’d walk. It was like carpet under my feet. I felt smug as runners ran past me. I was getting overtaken frequently since the last checkpoint and I couldn’t give a shit. I’d won my race. I’d smashed my goal of completion. I may not have been smiling but was pleased with myself.
I had two roundabouts to go. Then the last bend Into the finishing straight. I looked at my watch for the first time in ages. It said it was 21:55. A new goal came to my mind. 5 minutes to make a sub 23 hour??! The few stretches of running and tailgating had really paid off (along with my overly conservative 20 min/mile walk estimates). My mind fired up. The quickest I’d reacted to anything for a whole day – my brain and my body connected and agreed we were going for it. I left the grass. It was on. Uphill. Momentum began to kick in. I don’t know how far it was. It looked longer than 5 minutes. There was only one way to find out. Nothing to gain other than personal satisfaction. I powered forward. Photo-finish ready. I wasn’t going to finish looking like I’d just walked a 7 hour marathon or run 128 km. I was going to finish with the smile that had been missing for so long. The cheers and the whoops came. All The team were there including the “Aguafiestas” Ale and Matt. This was my moment. The high fives came as I rounded the final bend into the finishing straight. I lined up with the little sloped finishing platform. The sadistic bastards. I hit it and finished up on my toes instantly striking the pose of the ‘trans Gran Canaria’ logo. I don’t know where that came from. I wasn’t the first nor the last to strike the pose I’m sure.
As I stepped down from the finish some child slapped the finishers medal into my stomach and a lady gave me the gilet. Cola and kebabs were consumed and sweaty hugs enjoyed with the team. Now we all had a gilet for our efforts. I immediately reverted back to grumpy Dai and my legs made it clear how much they hated me. I wanted ice cream but they were closed. I wanted a shower so they drove me home.
The next day we walked some sand dunes and the reality of the damage to my body started to became clear. My ankle is swollen and hurts badly. My feet are blistered and battered. I say we walked some sand dunes. I hobbled them. Flying home I, like many others, partook in the unspoken custom of wearing the finishers gilet through the airport. You nod in silent appreciation to other finishers. You know what we’ve each been through. One final acknowledgement before it becomes another generic piece of apparel in the reality of the real world.
If you spoke to me in the hours after the race then you’ll have received a certain miserable perspective on the event. That was unjustified. I stand by what I said in that, to date, it’s the hardest thing either done. But as the emotion of the finish has settled I’ve been able to reflect on and recall the positive and enjoyable aspects. Yes it really is hard. The distance was new for me and mentally I felt that. For 2/3 of the event knowingly having an ‘ultra’ still to go was demotivating and the pounding your feet take is exceptionally aggressive. But, the landscape and environment is surreal. The Rocky Mountains, Mars like terrain, panoramic island views, fresh aromas of of the forests and witnessing a day break and set from spectacular view points is incredible.
The organisation itself was also fantastic. Before flying out I moaned about the lack of information on the website or email contact. Reality is you’re provided with enough. And that is all you need. The race exhibition and bib collection was so straightforward. No kit checks or too much hassle. The organised buses were efficient. The aid stations were incredibly well stocked and had great atmospheres. The volunteers were superb and so helpful (to the guy who emptied my Tailwind – I’m sorry I thought about hurting you. But this doesn’t mean I like you!). The course markings were phenomenal. There’s no chance of getting lost in this one. Signs and markings were very frequent (even though you rarely turned off the same paths!). Many had hi visibility strips attached to them and there were hundreds if not thousands of markings with flashing red lights too. I played a game at several points along the day and came to the assessment that, when walking slowly (e.g. hiking up a climb pace) there were typical signs/markings every 15 seconds. Without doubt the best course markings I’ve encountered. The swag bag of goodies was also decent. A branded technical compression t shirt, arm warmers, shoe gaiters and finishers Gilet filled the drawstring bag.
Would I recommend the race? I’m not sure. It is incredibly hard. If I’d done the marathon or advanced I definitely wouldn’t be going back to try the 128 km. I did enjoy it though and am glad I experienced it.
I’m also so thankful for Yvette, Jorge, Ale and Matt who sacrificed so much this weekend to support me. One day I’ll be able to repay the kindness.