UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, has a certain pomp and air to it. For those less familiar with the brand, it’s one of the largest trail running races across the globe and the organisation recently partnered to Iron Man with mixed public reaction. Think bigger brand, bigger costs, new sponsors and processes including a new series of ‘by UTMB’ branded events across the world that form the qualifiers for a “World Series”. The final of the world series being the UTMB events in August. Basically it’s changed. For good or for worse, that the Brand will decide. Either way, some 10,000 punters show up for one of the many races of the UTMB:
UTMB – 171 km (106 Miles)
TDS – 147km
CCC – 100km
OCC – 55km
MCC – 40km (for locals)
PTL – a Whopping 300km team event
YCC – various distances for youth ages
Les Mini UTMB – for the little ones
And now the ETC – 15km
I’ve been very fortunate to have previously completed both the CCC and the TDS. Now, after completing Val d Aran by UTMB through which I gained a one-off guaranteed entry to UTMB, I find myself towing the start line at the main event, the 100m ‘Series Final’ that is UTMB.
Running 100miles in the mountains takes a long time for mere mortals like me. Over this time you think of so many things and also decide to explicitly not think of so many things too. I’ve recapped and recalled long races before and I find it’s often as exhausting as the race itself. So I decided I’m not going to put myself through that pain and recap mile by mile of my UTMB experience. Instead, what follows is a dump of thoughts and recollections with a shorter summary of the event. The 45 hours of running will mostly stay between me, Paul and Matt.
I mentioned that somewhere in the region of 10,000 punters show up for the UTMB races. Granted this is staggered over a week with the PTL beginning the proceedings and closing it along with UTMB on the final Sunday in August, but, add in family and friends along with the usual number of tourists and the small towns the races pass through are bursting at the seems. Chamonix in particular is very, very busy during race week (and leading up to it). If you don’t like crowds and the pomp then you probably won’t like this event!
On the plus side, big crowds add to the atmosphere and vibes. Watching finishers of other races and supporting runners from all over the world is incredible. Watching the true greats of the sport ‘competing’ with people like me is fascinating and exciting. Although I imagine it is less exciting for the pros as they get mobbed in the streets and have to partake in all manner of commercial appearances before and after the races. The towns really are a little mental during this time. On our race, hitting Les Houches in the early evening on Friday, and Saint-Gervais a few hours later was a crazy experience. Saint-Gervais in particular was pumping with loud music and people lining the streets cheering and supporting runners for hours on end.
Finishing early afternoon on Sunday was quite a surreal experience too. The last of the finishers would be just an hour behind us and the crowds had gathered ready to cheer them home. So we benefitted from a great finish line atmosphere with thousands of people in the streets cheering and clapping runners across the line (you run a good km through the town, past all the pubs and restaurants, to get to the finish line). Having experienced an early Saturday am finish on the CCC and a midweek, midday, finish on the TDS, this UTMB finish really was on another level. As a participant in the ‘main event’ you really are put on a pedestal and cheered like nothing else I’ve experienced.
The UTMB takes in three countries as you loop around Mont Blanc from France, into Italy, crossing into Switzerland before reaching back into France and approaching Chamonix from the other direction. The route is 106miles, covers 10,400m of vertical gain (and also descent!) and crosses through a number of major towns including Chamonix, Courmayeur and Champex Lac. With 15 major aid stations and many more checkpoints/timing points along the way. It’s a military operation. And that’s just one of the races!
The Alpine trails are stunning. For much of UTMB the trails are very, very runnable. There are, inevitably, some rocky sections and some of the climbs are tough. But on the whole the trails aren’t technical on the UTMB (unlike it’s sister the TDS, which takes in some more technical routes from Courmayeur back to Chamonix) nor the climbs/descents too long. In my experience, the terrain alone makes it a very straight forward route and one which shouldn’t be feared. Combining with the distance and elevation though makes for a far tougher beast and it is fair to say I underestimated just how hard this course is.
There are many climbs and summits and at a few points, including the Col de la Seigne (where you cross from France to Italy) and also Grand Col Ferret (where you cross from Italy to Switzerland) you reach an altitude of >2500m. You’re high up in the Alps. The mountains don’t care about us humans, we are just visitors riding our luck at anytime. The weather will turn and the mountains will serve you your ass on a plate if you’re not ready. There is extensive mandatory kit for the races (and in the exception of ‘cold’ weather or ‘hot’ weather there are also additional mandatory kit lists that can be activated the day before the race begins). For us, in 2022, it was thankfully just the normal kit list that was activated. Although, for the first time in my UTMB experience the Organisers didn’t check everyone’s kit on registration. There were subsequent kit checks during the race though.
The 106 miles of the route is a long way. I thought about this alot over the 40 hours. It is the 4th time I’ve run 100miles and I’m beginning to accept what a challenge it actually is. As time ticked by we carried on flirting with cut offs. We were never in danger of being ‘timed-out’ but I was very aware that time could easily be against us at any point. I also wondered how it was so comparable (time wise) to Val D’Aran which felt far harder with more technical terrain and bigger climbs. Truth is, it’s because 100 miles really is a long way. It will take a while to cover on foot regardless of where you are. And so it did take a while for us to cover on foot, we can’t escape that. 100miles in the Alps is also, unsurprisingly, not comparable to 100miles in the UK (although only one of my four 100 mile runs have been in the UK!). I should have already known that 100 miles is a long way. After completing UTMB I think I finally accept that it is!
We expected rain and bad weather as, in the lead up to the event, the forecasts had predicted rain and some light storms throughout, we were preparing for a soggy two days. Come the day before, these forecasts had changed and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d have a dry run. I can’t explain how much this would have helped. Thankfully that is how it stayed and, other than some light rain at the start whilst we waited to begin, we avoided all bad weather across the course. If anything, it was a little hot during the day time and on some of the climbs where shade was limited! We were very fortunate.
Together we were stronger. Matt said after the race that there were points he wondered if he’d enjoy it more alone. I already know the answer to that. I wouldn’t have. I enjoy the company and the distraction from the task. All three of us started together and finished together. That’s a wonderful thing. Over 45 hours we never left each other’s sides. We could have. Mostly Matt could have left me and Paul behind (like we’d left him at Eiger), but he didn’t. Early in the first night Paul went through a tough number of hours of nausea and sickness. He struggled through it and came out the other side (picking up in Italy!). From Courmayeur onwards I moaned about my ankle/leg and could barely run. This slowed us down a lot! Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the guys could have left me many times but didn’t. I’m thankful for them sticking it out with me and sacrificing a quicker finish time to help me through. Again, without them I’m not sure whether I would have succumb to the darker thoughts that taunted me over the last 24 hours.
Leaving Chamonix was mental and the first 8km to Les Houches flew by, as did the first climb over Le Delevret to Saint-Gervais with the sun setting just as we came close to the end of the downhill. The town was one giant party. It was full on and very noisy. It was great and the atomosphere was a talking point amongst runners. For me, the first night was mostly enjoyable. After a flying visit through Les Contamines we were running through the Hoka ‘light show’. The sponsors had errected a big tunnel of light and covered the surrounding area in further lights. It was a bit odd and very cheesy. But it was different and for as few moments the night was alive. We ran through the darkness, over La Balme and Col du Bonhomme (where we unfortunately witnesses someone being airlifted from the course) and descended into Les Chapieux at around 50km in the early hours of the morning. It was a long climb from here which, despite feeling my ankles hurting I rather enjoyed as we reached the Col de la Seigne into Italy just in time for sunrise. The sunrise was beautiful. We stopped for a moment and enjoyed the subsequent climb to Pyramides Calcaires which was rather rocky and more technical than the previous 60km we’d run. There was a long descent into the morning to the next major aid station that was Lac Combal. However, things were starting to become far less enjoyable by now.
After enduring a difficult night, Paul was back to his ‘normal’ self as the day began brightening up and generally we were all running well. We had one plan which was to get to Courmayeur without being screwed up! If we could reach halfway with our quads and ankles intact we were all confident for the second half of the course (which follows pretty much the CCC route which we’d all previously completed). So far everything was going to OK but the plan started to unravel slightly as the morning heated up and we began the steep descent into Courmayeur. The steep and dusty trails were hard work and my left ankle was now constantly in Pain. My form had gone out of the window and I was lumbering downhill whichever way I could. The dust the runners were kicking up was unavoidable and we all arrived into the halfway point with dry and dusty throats.
Out of Courmayeur we began the CCC route albeit with a different climb to Refuge Bertone. Rather than the longer route via Tete de la Tronche we went the more direct way, pretty much straight up. It was tough in the heat as we slowly climbed through the forests. By now there was a lot of pain in my left ankle/shin. I was struggling to run but knew I wanted to keep going, it wasn’t even a question I would entertain, I was finishing this race. From Bertone we ran the ‘balcon’ to Refuge Bonatti and again further on to Arnouvaz from where we would begin the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (aka ‘Grand Colin Farrel’). I recalled this section and that it was stunning and enjoyable. It still was, although I wasn’t able to ‘run’ too much. We were also starting to tire at this point and took a moment at Bonatti to lay in the sun and close our eyes for a few mins (being woken by ants biting us!). The climb to Col Ferret was easy going and this was the first time (on my third visit) where I could see the Col clearly. It was visible towards the end of the climb with the wind quickly blowing the clouds away before they could settle.
Now in Switzerland, it was a long downhill to La Fouly. I knew it would hurt. And it did hurt. I was struggling badly now. Climbing was ok, and I knew I could cover ground at a faster than our average pace when going uphill, but the descents were too much for me. Paul and Matt encouraged me when they could but I was starting accept though that I simply could not move any faster, physically it was beyond me. It wasn’t just the pain, but the range of motion I had in my left ankle/foot was now very limited and I couldn’t push off my left foot. I was already thinking about the three big descents still to come later in the race and I couldn’t believe we still had 60km+ to run and so I was a little bit deflated. We’d agreed we’d try and sleep at Champex-Lac for 20 mins so the initial goal was to get through La Fouly and cover the 14km to Champex-Lac. The slog there was very slow (yep, because of me). I remembered I liked this section on the CCC as we ran through the forests and mountain tracks to Praz de Fort, which I really liked, and also the climb to Champex-Lac through Sentier des Champignons with all the wood carvings. Paul didn’t enjoy it so much but we were all decent fast-hikers so, despite my inability to run, we we still covering the ground at an acceptable pace and eventually reached the aid station with plenty of time for the planned sleep.
We dived dived straight into the sleeping tents. Selfishly I found one and went to work. As soon as I laid down I was shivering. I couldn’t stop it. I should probably have changed into dry clothes first but was so tired I could only think of maximising the sleeping time! Once awake, but very spaced out, Lisa, Martin and Mike went to work fixing us up and sending us back into the night. First up it was the monster climb to Refuge Bovine and we summited deep into the night. Struggling down the descent to Trient (passing through the shithouse party stop that is a barn at La Giete) we then reached Trient just as day was breaking. Mike was there again and over saw another 10 minute power snooze. With the morning chill on our side we powered up the climb to Les Tseppes. We then lost a lot of ground on the ‘nice’ downhill to Vallorcine. We were feeling it now, I was broken and in constant pain and Paul was feeling his quads due to all the downhills. Matt seemed absolutely fine. We were in a good place though knowing that we finally had one ‘climb’ and one ‘descent’ left to conquer. We didn’t stick around too long at Vallorcine and began the climb to La Tete Aux Vents in the midday heat. It was of course a bastard. A rocky climb with no shade and a rocky traverse over to the checkpoint. It wasn’t easy. But I was more worried of the final descent from La Flegere. A whopping 800m downhill to go back to the finish line in Chamonix. The traverse to La Flegere was frustrating and the downhill excruciating. Somehow though we were moving quick enough to be passing more people than whom overtook us. Jana, Paul, Jess and Mikkel came to meet us near Chalet De La Floria and to support us for the last few kms. And then it was the ‘km’ run around the town. The crowds. The cheers. The elation. We’d done it. It happened. We were UTMB finishers.
I’ve saved it till last, but most importantly, this race was all about the people. Firstly Me, Paul and Matt. We were running it. It was for us, by us. We all had our different reasons and motives for being there and the race meant different things to each of us. We’d all worked hard to qualify and prepare ourselves to be at the start line. So it was our race. We were doing it our way. We’d discussed various potential finish times, but these were scrapped pretty much as soon as we started. We were all of the same mindset though and we had one simply mantra we shared from the “it’s happening”. Nothing was going to stop it from happening that’s what we said going into it. It came up several times during the two days and in the final minutes the mantra shifted tense to “It Happened”.
Then there’s the crew. Unexpected, but absolutely essential and critical to us completing the race. Matt’s family – Dad Mike, wife Lara and son George along with Lisa and Martin were on crewing duties. Not always arranged or planned but they were popping up everywhere when we needed them most. They were all dotted along different places at the start in Chamonix and at the first checkpoint in Les Houche. Lara and Mike went to Courmayeur (80km in). Lisa and Martin showed up in Champex-Lac (120km in) with Mike and again on the last climb to La Flegere. Mike also made his way to Trient in the middle of the second night (and had to be sent home to get some sleep and ordered not to show up in Vallorcine too!). Of course they were all then at the finish line to see us finish.
Crewing is a crazy tough ask. The amount of travel, stress, lack of sleep and general thankless nature of following a smelly miserable runner around a race for hours on end is exhausting. Never mind doing it across three different countries! But without them, the outcome of the race would have been very different. From tending to our needs, making us eat, encouraging us, timing our sleeps (and in my case Mike stopping me from pouring coke on myself as I slept!), to giving us extra food and supplies, and so much more. All these things altered the outcome of our race for the better. We couldn’t have done it without them all. This really was a team effort. Whilst three of us ran, a team of us worked tirelessly to achieve the goal. I can’t thank them all enough.
Then there’s everyone else who was out in Chamonix, racing or supporting, who popped up to cheer somewhere along the way from the start line all the way through to the finish. And also all those who contacted us and sent messages of support. These acts of generosity and kindness meant so much to us and helped lift our spirits more than we could express. Big thanks to Jana, Jess, Paul and Mikkel who ran out to see us on the last descent and to all of Paul and Lisa’s family and friends spread across the world who were actively following and messaging us (we’d all spent a weekend together two weeks prior at Paul and Lisa’s wedding!).
Starting UTMB near the back was a bit shitty. It was a slow start and we had bottlenecks on pretty much all the climbs and descents. We did what we could though, embracing the crowds and using them to our advantage to keep our pace slow and steady.
The Finish line time of day vibe is key for UTMB events. There’s very little after race love and attention at UTMB. It’s all about those few minutes as you run through the town and up the finish line. Time it wrong and finish too early and it’s a lonely, anti-climatic finish.
Chasing cut offs is not fun. It’s stressful. We weren’t as tight as last year during the VDA but I was constantly aware and calling them out, running the numbers and doing the math, re-evaluating are progress. It saps away at your spirit and makes you feel like you can’t do it.
Matt is the king of the power nap. Ten mins at a time and he’s refreshed. Me and Paul need to work on it.
The drop out rate as always is huge. 800 runners started but didn’t finish. For us it was perfect conditions. But there are so many reasons that could change that for each individual.
The aftermath – I talked about the pain I was in during the race. One week later and I still cannot walk. The swelling has subsided and the X-rays were clear (no break) but the diagnosis is still pending. Until then I’m in a support boot and still in pain. This time I’ve done something serious to my body. Right now I’d say it was worth it, but I can’t quite understand how I managed to keep going until the end!
The course record was smashed and for the first time the winner went under 20 hours. So did the second place finisher this year. To put that into perspective, there was a longer time between the first finisher and us finishing, than the time taken for the winner to complete the race. I can’t understand how they can cover the distance so quickly!
For perspective, Matt ran the whole race in brand new kit after his luggage was lost on route and didn’t turn up in time. How he didn’t stress and lose the plot I do not know. Most of us runners are meticulous in our planning and preparation, but Matt just accepted it for what it was and went with it. He’s such a calm and level-headed guy!
When recapping my last race I mentioned how, during the Eiger Ultra Trail E101, I fell over for the first time in a race. We’ll I think it was a floodgate moment. In my next race I must have fallen about 50 times, no exaggeration, I spent a lot of time on my backside in Norway…
The Stranda Fjord Trail Race in Norway had been on the cards for a long time. Originally I signed up to the race back in 2019 and hoped to do the inaugural 100km run in 2020. But we all know what happened that year and the same cause meant 2021 also wasn’t possible for us. Oscar, the Race Director, was incredibly supportive in deferring entries until we could travel to Norway and race. So in 2022, a slightly smaller than planned group of us headed out to finally run in the fjells of Norway.
In the days leading up to the weekend it became increasingly clear that the weather was going to be less than ideal for the race. Clouds and rain meant a weather warning and amendments to the 100km route were activated for safety. At this point I was kind of ok with it. We can’t control or change the weather, and I was expecting the route to be very difficult. So removing some of the most difficult sections would be in my favour I thought. A small benefit to missing out on the legendary panoramic views from Slogen.
Nick and Natalia woke at 1am to escort me down to the town of Stranda for the start. An unnecessary and kind gesture from them both given they would need to wake up in a few hours to prepare for their 48km race. After collecting my GPS tracker I sat inside the building (where we collected our race numbers) with the other runners, waiting until it was almost 02:00 and time to run. We first lined up under the finishers arch before being led around the corner to the real start line. Here I fell for the first time, stepping in a hole in the concrete pavement, before the race had even begun!
Section 1: Start –Duklidalen
The course starts on the town square in Stranda. From Stranda you will first be running a few km on a asphalt road until you hit the trailhead on Framhus. From Framhus you will be running on a nice trail up to Dregetua (693) and then off trail over to Vardnakken (878masl) and further to Blåhornsvatnet on trail. From Blåhornsvatnet you will be running on a nice trail down to Vasset. From Vasset you will be running a few km on a gravel road until you hit the trailhead for the trail towards Lievarden (799masl) and Duklidalen (820masl). In Duklidalen you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Moments later and we were off, running the tarmac road switch backs for the first few kms. I was pleasantly surprised at this point that we stuck together mostly as one big group of runners and that I hadn’t been left behind completely.
The roads soon gave way to the forest and we began running in single file in the darkness. And it was very dark, something about it felt darker than the usual nights I’ve experienced. Though the trails were clearly lit by the dozens of head torches bobbing about.
Mostly it was silent now other than the sloshing sounds as we ran through puddles and muddy trails. I felt that most runners were, like me, trying to avoid getting their feet wet. I accepted that it would be wet but didn’t plan on being waterlogged for the whole race so was happy to skip around the trails when I could. I should have known better that weeks of rain in this area would have meant the ground conditions would be far worse than I imagined! It was soon clear that the trails would consistently be this way at the best of times.
Through the forests two things stood out in my memory. Almost getting lost – the spacing between runners was now increasing and a few of us lost sight of the runners ahead of us and this section was not course marked. A quick stop and check of the GPS and we were back on track before the damage was done! And a point where there was a delightful bunch of supporters with coloured lights and music who cheered us through one small section of the track. It created a good atmosphere and led to a few of us to start talking. Whilst talking to a few climbers who were doing the race it made me realise that most of the runners around me were head to toe in waterproofs (or wearing hiking trousers!) and there were very few like me in shorts and tshirts without a waterproof on. Even though it was drizzling with rain, I knew though that I’d overheat on the early climbs so was waiting until the climbs were exposed before I’d layer up.
After a little section on some wider gravel roads, the forests returned and became a little steeper and very, very muddy. Every now and then a series of wooden walkways assisted in avoiding much of the mud. The forest soon gave way and the mountain opened up into a vast exposed climb. The single tracks we followed, still trying to skip around the mud and bogs. So far so good although it was now very windy and cold (the drizzle of fine rain had become more constant now) so I took a moment to layer up with my waterproof jacket.
We continued climbing before reaching the first of the smaller summits (which must have been Dregetua) marked by a stone trig pillar. We then began descending and running again. I set off and was enjoying seeing the head torches of other runners way off in the distance. Here though it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mud as the narrow tracks left little room to manoeuvre as the ground was so uneven. It wasn’t long before I was soaked to my shins and covered in mud. At one point my left shoe came off, stuck and wedged in the mud completely. I had to bend down and pull with both hands to get out back out. I took the moment to tighten both my laces! We then climbed a little more in similar lumpy conditions which was quite tiring on the terrain and in the cold of night. The heat from the first bit of climbing meant my t shirt was soaked with sweat so I couldn’t really avoid getting cold even with the jacket on!
From the next trig point (Vardnakken) we began descending. Down we went through a long series of lumpy bogs. The undulating terrain meant it was quite difficult to get a good rhythm when running. One foot would descend then next foot would ascend a lump. I felt like I was jarring up and down and running very inefficiently. There were rocks hidden in the darkness too.
Once more my shoe got sucked off (the right one this time) and after retrieving it I tightened my laces even more. They were so tight now that they weren’t particularly comfortable. But thankfully they never came off again!!
The descend was consistent until we reached Blåhornsvatnet. From here the descent became steeper and significantly harder. We we going down muddy and rocky switch backs, sometimes off trail, sometimes through streams and always having to look and see which way was the most obvious. It wasn’t long before I was on my arse and covered in mud. Within a few minutes I had fallen multiple times. The mud was so thick that there was no way to grip it properly. Whilst my Inov8 Trailrocs aren’t ideal for muddy runs, I also couldn’t imagine many trainers being much use here! I wasn’t alone. I could hear the gasps and groans of other runners in the night too and could see runners in front of me falling over.
I was already thinking to myself that this was the least fun I’ve ever had in a descent. It was relentless and torturous and I just had to accept it. Accept that it would be uncomfortable and that I’d keep falling. So I just kept moving, letting gravity pull me down, hoping it would be done quicker that way. There were a few points where I just ploughed straight through bogs above my knees and had to drag myself out with my poles. There would be no warning as the ground just sucked you in. Mostly though it was just about shin high. I remember thinking to myself that this was suppose to be the easiest section of the race! The alarm bells were ringing. I then took an almighty slip, skidding a little bit on my heels before twisting and going down on my left side. I know I swore loudly (not for the first time) and I heard a sound from my pole which I landed on top of. It sounded like a crack but I hoped it was just the sound of it hitting the the ground and my weight on top. Once again I picked myself up and carried on, thankfully the trails finally came to an end and we had a section of gravel track to run on. It felt quite long but soon enough we were climbing again (which I believe meant we were now connected to where the 48km runners would start). The gravel was a welcome change and I took the opportunity to remove my jacket again. I was also surprised how quickly my feet and shoes seemed to dry out. It was around 04:30, the morning was breaking and the sun starting to rise, giving a glimpse of the amazing views of Stranda and the Fjord below us.
Inevitably the gravel road became a forest track and the climb became harder as the wet ground and mud returned. Over the course of a few 100m of climbing the tracks became off/track as the mountain opened up to us. The tracks returned and brought with them incredible views off to our left of the Fjord and over to Liabygda. I stopped for a few minutes to layer up again as the exposed mountain meant more rain and the temperature had dropped as the wind picked up. It did give me an opportunity to absorb the views all around me in the early morning mist.
From the climb we descended again, the tracks weren’t too steep but they were very wet and we ran on waterlogged tracks and bogs from the many streams. Up ahead a tent could be seen alone in the wild. The first aid station at Duklidalen and the first opportunity to eat something!
I checked my watch and timings and I had covered the 20km or so in pretty much the time I estimated I would. Not a bad start considering the state of the trails!
Section 2: Duklidalen – Fjørstad
From Duklidalen you will be running on and off trail up the Mønet. There are sections here that´s up to 45 degrees steep, you will have to use your hands at times on this section. Mønet is a cliff with a several hundreds meter drop on the fjord side, be careful and stay on the trail. Further on you will be on and off trail in scree up to Fremste Blåhornet (1478masl). From Blåhornet you will be running off trail along the ridge high above the fjord over Rjupskartind and towards Åknesnibba (1296masl). This section is very technical as the ridge is narrow with drops on boths sides. We recommend you to be catious here. There are parts where light scrambling is involved on this section. Before Åknesnibba the course will take a hard right turn down into the valley with a steep technical descent down, this is also a good place to be xtra catious. Then along Rjupeskarvatnet, and further out Fjørstaddalen past Heimfjørstadsætra and down to Fjørstad on a nice trail. On Fjørstad you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Immediately from the aid station we began making our way to the ‘wall’. I believe it was the cliff called Monet. But to me it was a wall on the edge of the world. I couldn’t see where we were heading. Making my way towards it I was texting Natalia ahead of her race and slipped and fell again. This one was my fault for not paying attention. The ground was soaking wet and cold where I fell.
As I reached the ‘wall’ it became clear we were climbing up it. I could see runners scaling it and became apprehensive. It was steep. I held my poles in one hand and used the other to pull myself up with each step. I dared not look down but accepted that it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked and I was at the top maybe 15 minutes later. Up top the grassy cliff turned to rock almost instantly. The climb however continued.
Looming in front of me was a giant of a mountain. Grey in every way. Grey rocks. Grey clouds. Just grey. I assumed this was the first change in the route and this is where we wouldn’t climb. I was wrong though. People ahead of me kept going further up and disappearing into the grey clouds. I put on my gloves as it became colder the higher I went. I then put away my poles and began climbing on all fours. It was quicker that way. I briefly started talking to Kristofer who’d done the 48km last year, who explained this was just the climb to Fremste Blåhornet (I believe he called it ‘Front Bluehorn’) and that the removed part of the course was further up still. He powered on passed me. Eventually I made it to the summit and the timing mat and turned around. Now we were on the diversion route which meant going back the way we came then across and down a valley.. There were a few runners ahead of me but they soon disappeared into the distance as I move so slowly over technical descents like this. I kept watching and making mental notes of where they were and went so I didn’t get lost. I felt alone now, for the first time in the race. I soon couldn’t see runners ahead nor behind me.
After completing the rocky downhill the diversion route took us left and away from the next climb. There was no path though and it was an off track descent from here to the next aid station Fjorstad. I was beginning to see the pattern now and off track terrain meant crossing lots of streams, slipping loads in the mud and bouncing up and down with the lumpy ground. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of a single runner ahead and another behind me. This was another down hill I did not enjoy. I was initially glad when the route entered a forest area but that happiness soon gave way to frustration as the mud returned with a vengeance. Once again I was constantly on my bum. I started saying “fuck you” loudly. Like a chant. Every time I stubbed my toe on a rock “fuck you”. Slipped on my arse “fuck you”. Stepped in a bog or stream “fuck you”. It became my mantra as I continued tumbling down.
Finally the forest let me free and I ran the small down hill to the aid station, slipping and falling for the supporters and volunteers to enjoy! We all smiled and laughed knowing I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to provide the entertainment.
The aid station was a good one. Kristofer was there and changing into spare clothes. On this race you could have a drop bag at each station. I’d opted just for one at the 63km point. I regretted it slightly seeing Kristofer change into dry clothes as I was soaked through. It was warm inside the building so I packed the waterproof away again and noshed down on plenty of watermelon, crisps and cinnamon buns.
Section 3: Fjørstad – Habostadsætra
From Fjørstad you will be running the asphalt road down the Strandavalley for 4km and then into Moldskreddalen on a gravel road for 3km to Mesætra. By Mesætra you will hit the trailhead to Storhornet and cross the river on a bridge, and start the climb up to Storhornet (1309masl) on and off trail. Parts of this trail is technical. After summiting Storhornet you will turn around and follow the course back down for 1km, and then turn right and hit the trail down to Habostadsætra. Ths downhill section is very steep but the trail is very nice. On Habostadsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Before long I was back out running with Kristofer on a long road section. It felt good to run. I’ve never wanted to run along a main road with cars driving passed me (very safely and courteously I should add!) so much in my life. It felt like it was the first time I could actually run. It was also a strangely therapeutic few kms knowing I could see this road from our incredible mountain accommodation.
From the road we were once more on a gravel track uphill before, yep, you guessed it, we were back in the wet and slippery forest hiking off track up a steep climb. Kristofer started getting further and further away as I huffed my way up. Once out of sight I had to concentrate more looking for the red trail markers painted on trees or rocks. This climb felt like it took so much longer than it probably did. After the forests it was wild and rugged terrain. Up and down lumps whilst still generally getting higher. There was a person out here all alone. It took me a while to realise he was a photographer. It took a while longer for me to get to him, he waited patiently and snapped me as I said hello and made some bad jokes. I asked if it was Ian, and it was. A world reknown adventurer and photographer. I’d read his blog from the 2021 event and we had a brief chat comparing the contrasting weather conditions. He kindly shared some advice on the climb and temperatures awaiting me and wished me well on the journey.
From here things got a little harder. The climb went off for an out and back section to the next summit of Storhornet. It went ‘up’ pretty steeply and the trail was more prominent and clear for a short while as the the mud and wild terrain tagged out and the went rocky tracks tagged back in. There were many runners coming back and I’d let them glide effortlessly passed me. I had no idea how far I had to run to get back to this point. But up I went. There was another photographer filming runners coming down and he had to film me slowly walking up. I made it clear I wouldn’t be running down like they all were!
Like the Blåhornet summit, this one became very rocky very quickly. It was now just like before as I was stumbling from rock to rock heading into the mist in the direction shadows were coming from. Here I had one moment that ‘threw’ my mind a little off. A lady was coming down and started speaking to me, I assumed in Norwegian, and I explained I only spoke English. She then told me that it was very cold further on and asked if I have any more clothes to put on. I was caught off guard. Whilst her intentions were no doubt full of kindness and support of other runners, I didn’t quite understand the comment. There was mandatory kit and I was clearly in the race with a full bag on my back I also had on my waterproof coat and gloves on, so I don’t think I looked under-prepared compared to anyone else. I assume she was concerned because I was just in shorts. But I reassured her I was fine and carried on. Soon Kristofer ran back passed me and sometime later I looped around the summit and too was heading back down. On this section many runners overtook me as I once again descended so slowly.
Eventually I completed the out and back and was then going down a steep hill in another wet and slippery forest section. I was all over the place. Sliding and slipping everywhere going down the switchbacks. A lady behind was asking if I was ok as I was swearing constantly. Then it was her turn as she slipped and did a pencil roll down one bend/turn. I can’t quite describe how fantastically she rolled and ended up down ahead of me and back on her feet laughing at her ‘shortcut’. She then sped off descending rapidly with ease. She called back to check on me a few mins later when I let out a rather loud expletive laden cry. I was ok. I’d fallen again (Fuck you!). This one was worse though. Whilst I was fine, in the process I’d snapped my fucking pole again (I snapped one in the VDA last year). I was really pissed off. It snapped right at the handle where it slides in and the locking button is. It was fucked and useless now and I’d only covered around 40km of the race. In a mood I carried on into the aid station that wasn’t far away.
A few runners looked at my pole and the volunteer was a superstar, running around looking for things to fix it (his plan was to tape a small rod to the handle to strengthen it). I knew it was a lost cause though but I appreciated their efforts. I filled my sorrow with meat soup (which was frikken ace) and Coke. The aid stations were pretty great for variety in my eyes! I checked my timings and, once again, felt I was pretty spot on to plan as it was about 30 mins before the first cut off. And so, having experienced running with one pole before, I knew I could overcome it, I packed it away and carried on with the single pole.
Section 4: Habostadsætra – Myrsætra
From Habostadsætra you will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail trough a lush birch forrest to Nysetvatnet with a great view towards Brekketind and the Brekketind glacier and then further to Patcellhytta where the climb to the iconic mt. Slogen (1564masl) starts. You will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail up to Slogen. The last part up to Slogen is very steep and involves scrambling, be catious on the way up and down. From Slogen you have a majestic view over Hjørundfjorden. The summit is very narrow, so one have to be carefull on the top. Here you will turn around and go back the way you came up for 1,5km. But instead of going back down to Patchellhytta, you will turn left and continue towards Isavatnet and further down Langseterdalen past Storevatnet on a nice trail. At the parking lot at Myrsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The next section began with us walking up a stream. Really?! Fuck this trail I thought. I was waiting for the pain of constantly wet feet to kick in. Like the rest of the route, there was nothing to do about it except power through. It was kind of up hill, but very gentle and certainly not runnable (for me) as it was mostly rocky. My power hike was in full flow though and I was enjoying the intimating views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides and thunderous roar of the river besides me. Off in the distance I could see the lady along with another runner. I kept thinking I was gaining on them but I really wasn’t. The section was another that felt like it went on for a while, but I was content knowing we were at least climbing gradually higher. And so my mind wandered a little. I got thinking back to that last aid station and my timings and realised that all wasn’t quite what it seemed. Whilst I was ‘on time’ and within the cut off. We hadn’t done the climb from Blåhornet nor the ridge or its ‘more’ technical descent. That was the very technical section and no doubt a harder descent for me. So I highly doubt it would have completed that longer section of the route in my spare 30 minutes. I realised I would have been timed out at the first cut off (which was 13:00 at the last aid station) if the route hadn’t been changed due to the weather. I clang onto the hope that if the weather was better then the terrain would be less muddy and I might have moved a little quicker!
In the distance there was a little mountain hut of some sort and a guy out sweeping the decking area in the rain. It amused me. As I walked passed a volunteer called to me and waved me up to him. I checked my watch, yes, I was mindlessly following the two in front. I called after them and they walked back to join me on the climb. Each climb in this race seemed to find a way to be more challenging than the one before. This one was just a pain to start with as the terrain fluctuated between single track and off track frequently and we traversed so many streams and flows of water down off the mountain. It was just miserably wet. Like the number of times I fell, I wish I’d counted the number of streams we’d crossed on this course, I’m certain it would be hundreds. The mountains were leaking water everywhere due to the recent weather. It only stopped the higher we got. And it only stopped because the terrain became rocky. Once more we were playing dot-to-dot connecting the red trail marks and traversing the huge boulder fields.
There was a giant sleeping here. To my left I could sense and enormous presence and was admiring the mountain in the clouds. It was Slogen. The original route included an out and back to summit of Slogen for ‘panoramic views’. But we wouldn’t be doing that today. I was glad. This was also one of the hardest parts in the race so I was relieved to be skipping! Instead we carried on straight passed it. Straight into and across the snow fields. These were fairly short but difficult with one pole and not so aggressive soles on me shoes.
After some time we began our descent towards Myrsætra. This is where my drop bag would be. So I was in good spirits anticipating it. But the descent was tough. It was, you guessed it, rocky. So the the three of us moved slowly. I don’t remember much more than passing down alongside some lakes and rivers. I do remember we were in a valley and it reminded me a little of a section the TDS route in how it looked (but harder!).
There was plenty more falling over here too and I was losing track of my orientation and where we were going. The lady reminded me that soon we’d have the out and back to the aid station to the left and then we’d go back to the right to climb out of the valley. It made sense when she explained it.
Oddly, here I also realised my eyesight was a little hazy. I could see ok, but it wasn’t crystal clear. Almost as if I had clingfilm on my eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do and I assumed it was a combination of tiredness, constant concentration, the wind and the rain and perhaps the white glare from the snow. Anyway, I wasn’t worried, but I was conscious of it and to keep an eye on it (Whey hey!)
We reached the out and back section and now, like before, saw runners and familiar faces going in the opposite direction. There were a lot less of them this time though! I didn’t know how long it would be to the aid station but I was aware of how wet and muddy the track was again. I immediately decided that I would not be changing my shoes or socks. My socks would be soaked as soon as I changed them so I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. As I rounded the last corner into the aid station I had one of my best falls yet. I slipped in some mud and both feet went up in the air, above my waist, as my hands and head threw up behind me with the motion. I landed on my bum and back straight into a boggy patch. I was covered in mud. The volunteers laughed as I arrived (they heard the ‘fuck you’ scream) and I apologised as I sat straight in one of their chairs and covered it in the fresh mud. I ordered more soup, ate more cinnamon buns and finally changed into a dry tshirt after 14 hours.
Not long after the three of us reached the aid station, we were shortly followed by a fourth runner a Polish man I’d been near throughout the day. We sat and ate and drank and joked with the volunteers. We had our own little party before cheering ourselves back out knowing we had five hours to cover the 10km to the next (and final) cut off. Easy we thought… Wrong…
Section 5: Myrsætra – Brunstad
At Myrsætra you will run back up the same trail you came down up to Langsætra where you will follow the DNT marked trail up to Gullmordalsvatnet passing by the Gullmorglacier along the trail (you will not be running on the glacier). This section is very technical and you will be running parts of it on scree. After passing Gullmordalsvatnet you will be on the top of the Gullmorbrekka (979masl) pass, from here you will be running technical downhill to Velleseterhytta and further on gravel road down to Brunstad where you will find an aid station. This is also the location for the the cut off time at 21.00.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The first section was ok. It was a repeat of the out and back. After which we we were constantly looking for the trail. This section wasn’t marked by the race and no red trail markers could be seen anywhere. We followed our GPS and would be on what seemed to be a trail, then all of a sudden the GPS would say the trail is off to our side by 50-100 m. This meant we were zig zagging up the climb. Crossing all sorts of wild terrain to ensure we kept heading in the right direction. Every now and then the Polish guy would appear from nowhere. He was having the same navigation issues. After an ‘age’, the lumpy foliage turned to rock. But that didn’t make it any easier and the same thing would happen as we’d turn at right angles to try and maintain the correct direction. We at least could now occasionally see some red trail markings on rocks though.
At this point we were sticking together as a foursome as we crossed many more snow fields and rocky sections climbing and traversing our way out of the valley. The lady, who was from Argentina, lady kept kindly offering me her poles as I was really struggling on all the snow crossings. So mostly I was behind them all and would time to time shout out when I thought we were ‘off route’ again. To me it felt like it was night time. We were deep in the clouds and the grey-ness of the mountains. The only light was coming from the snowy floor we trudged over. It was surreal and disorientating at the same time, yet it was only about 17:00.
We were trudging across another snow section when I noticed we we starting to get further from the trail, which was going off on a sort of angle above us. We stopped and debated for some time where to go and eventually agreed we shouldn’t continue on the snow. For one thing, we couldn’t see any recent signs of activity on them! The issue however was that the snow was sloping and above it was a wall of rock. It didn’t look feasible that the route could be up there. But that’s what the GPS was saying (and scrolling out we could see that the route would turn further that way after about a km further along). If we carried on the snow instead we’d soon be far off course and could see nothing ahead to make us want to continue (into the unknown).
So we back tracked and headed for the rocks. It took me a long time with one pole to get up to the rock and my troubles didn’t stop there, the climb facing us was a beast. It was essentially bouldering and rock climbing. I was trying to use strength from my arms which I just do not have to haul myself up onto rocks. And it was all loose. Admittedly I was scared. Actually, very scared. A fall here would be bad. A certainty of a serious injury and likely a very long wait to be rescued. I was glad I wasn’t alone and Argentinian Lady was very supportive and looked after me with constant reassurance. I knew we had to keep going though and that we should even get a little higher to be safer and further from the steep drop.
The climb, even just covering a few meters, was very slow. We were barely moving and the loose rock was causing us difficulties. Several times we knocked rocks back on each other, one time I released a sizeable one that went tumbling down. My warnings weren’t enough for the Polish guy to get out of the way in time and all he could do was raise his arm to protect his head as the rock fell straight into him. I felt so bad, but he reassured me that he was ok, just annoyed by the situation. It only added to our frustrations and concerns of safety.
We were at least now tracking in the right direction according to the GPS and the rocky climb eventually gave way to firmer ground, albeit more snow capped fields. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that section, but I was wrong (again). We were now faced with another directional dilemma. The route indicated we needed to leave the snow and descent a very narrow, very steep rock face. I looked over the edge and it felt like an abyss, the end of the world. Meters below us all I could see was a dark grey mist cloud wrapping the mountain. I couldn’t see a trail or path. It is fair to say I was not keen and I didn’t want to go that way. The alternative though was to remain higher up and walk along the snow covered mountain. I’d had enough of them though and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine where we would go or how we could re-join the path if we did continue that way. It felt like ‘down’ was actually the better option. Two of us started to descend…
I was still on top of the snow when, in the distance, a lonely figure, in a bright blue coat, emerged through the clouds with his hand in the air waving. I didn’t know what to think. He was clearly gesturing to us so we called back to let the others know someone was coming. We walked on and met him. He explained he was a volunteer from the race and he’d show us the way. He confirmed we could go either way, but the snow might be the easier route for us. So we followed him.
He was moving so effortlessly I struggled to keep up. He pointed down a steep snow slope and said we can go down here. And off he went, sliding, skiing (without skies) down hill. The French guy went next and pretty much made it the whole way standing up too. I followed and immediately landed on my arse. I sped down like I was on some sort of toboggan, bouncing up and down with the lumps. In no time at all my arse was so cold and starting to hurt with the freeze and friction. The whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. Looking back, my Strava indicates we went down a slope of approximately -50 deg and covered around 70m in descent. My apparent pace was 1:32 km per minute. What a ride!
One by one we all made it and we were at least treated to an incredible view of the Gullmordalsvatnet lake and valley surrounding it. The downside, I could still see no clear trail or path. We were told that we needed to traverse along to the right of the lake. I couldn’t believe it. What?! It was just the slope/side of the mountain with alternating layers of snow and rock. How? He reassured us that as we got closer we would see some race markings to indicate the way we should go. He told us that we would need to climb and descend on the rock and avoid the snow slopes at all times. I could see why, if you slipped on those, nothing would stop you sliding all the way into the freezing lake. Game over. There was another catch though, first we would need to ascend on the initial snow slope, but not to worry, there is a rope. Fuck sake…
One by one we ascended the rope climb. This was awful for me. I had no energy or strength to pull myself up and no grip in the snow to provide any traction. It was yet another very slow ascent. I relied on a tactic of pulling myself up and looping the rope around one hand with each pull to get more leverage. I thought my shoulders would pop out here. Thankfully I soon reached the sanctuary of the rocks. Ha! Now I was thinking that the rocks were my friends!
The volunteer left us here and went back to look for the remaining runners behind us in the pass somewhere. We thanked him but I never got his name. His final words were “it is 2 hours to the next checkpoint”. I looked at my watch. We had 2 hours and 10 minutes until the cut off. Shit. I thought we wouldn’t make it, that we would be timed out. If he was saying 2 hours, it would probably take us longer. I hung on to the glimmer of hope that there might be some sections we could run and that he was talking about walking time.
We still had to travers the lake first though. Painstakingly, we looped up and down each rock section, maybe up to a 20m climb and descent each way. Looking and following the trail flags which we could finally see. Each loop required a small traverse either along the top of the snow slope or along the bottom, right next to the water. I could feel the chill coming off it. At one point I sent another rock tumbling. Down the snow it rolled and then bounced off the bottom of the slope, launching into the air and over the water onto a floating patch of ice with a ‘boom’. The lake didn’t flinch and I didn’t want to follow the rock!
As we finally reached the end of the lake, the paths did become a little easier. They were far from runnable though. Just easier than what the last few kms entailed. It was still a horrid down hill though. In maybe 3km we descended over 500m. It was very rocky and very slippery as we navigated through tens and tens of waterlogged paths and streams. There was plenty of falling over and slipping here too. We mostly descended in silence. I’m not sure what the others were thinking, but all I could think about was the cut off and whether we would make it or not. I wanted too, but I was also wondering how I’d feel if the decision to continue was taken away from me. I genuinely believed that, after this cut off, we would have plenty of time to finish (there was 13 hours for the last 20km or so). So I wondered if we were close to the cut off if I would be of mind to try and negotiate my continue. It was all theoretical, but it kept me focused. Going further down, fast hiking, moving with purpose. It as all I could do.
We then came upon a forest section which was far less steep than before. The trails became a little drier and other than a few big leaps across streams (with broken planks that were intended to be crossed) the next few hundred meters of descent were a little more forgiving. We still weren’t running, but were able to pick up the pace at least. We were racing the clock though as time was against us and I kept looking at my watch and doing the calculations. 50 minutes to go, 40 minutes to go, 30 minutes to go… With every step I adjusted our progression, but it didn’t really make much difference. It was going to be tight if we couldn’t run. And then luck was finally on our side…
From the forests we came across a house with a lady gardening and a man tending to the path. We ran down, said hello and left through their gate. He wished us well and said he hoped we were enjoying ourselves. I think I just laughed. But, from the gate, there was a gravel road. It was steep, but it was dry and even terrain. Gravity did its ‘thing’ and we ran. We were a little spaced out as we all descended at slightly different speeds. But we were all running. After maybe 1.5km, there were people further along. It was the aid station at Brunstad. I looked at my watch. We had 20 minutes to spare. We’d made it. This 10km section of the race had taken us 4.5 hours to complete!
I ran into the aid station with belief. I believed now I would finish. I believed in me. The decision to continue was in my hands, and I know there is only one answer to that question, pulling out is never a consideration, never an option. I would continue and I would finish. We sat and set about refuelling. Eating more soup, more cinnamon rolls, more chocolate sweets and crisps. At the aid station, the Argentinian lady’s family were waiting. It dawned on me that her and her husband, along with their dog, had been sitting opposite me in the reception at the start line some 18 hours earlier. With the positivity we were feeling, the Polish guy said what I’d been thinking “we all stick together now right, and finish?”. There was no hesitation from me. Absolutely, yes I said. The French guy agreed also. I’m not sure if I missed it somewhere but the lady had decided that this was where her adventure would end. She simply had no more desire to continue. I only realised when she was offering me her poles to continue on with as ‘she didn’t need them anymore’. Even now, after bowing out she was still supporting and looking after me. I felt sad and emotional that she wouldn’t be seeing it through with us. I declined the offer of the poles though. I made it this far and was confident I’d be ok.
As we set back out we were a little deflated that we still had over 20km to go. The amended route GPX had indicated we would be doing around 88km in total, but we were already around 77km at this point. It made sense though, the final two sections were unchanged and we still had to complete them. We left just before 9pm (and then stopped straight away as I had forgotten to get my head torch out ready for the darkness).
Section 6: Brunstad – Svartevatnet
From Brunstad you will run to Brunstadsætra through lush birchforrest and crossing the river right before Brunstadsætra. On Brunstadsætra you will get on the nice and very steep trail up to Storevatnet. From Storevatnet you will be climbing off trail up to 1100m and traverse over to Vassdalen (The course is not going to the peak of Ystevasshornet) where you will be running downhill on technical trail down Svartevatnet. At the parking lot by Svartevatnet you will find a aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Initially we had a gravel road ascent similar to what we had just descended. This was good for easing back into the task ahead. We took this opportunity to chat and for the first time exchanged names. It felt silly that we’d been through so much together without knowing who we were. This was where I learned that the Polish guy was Kamil and the French man was Matt. From the results table I now know that the lovely Argentina was Margarita. These were my companions, my saviours.
A few kms later the gravel changed to forest. The gradual climb, with no warning then became very steep switch backs as we climbed for another 500m in the slippery dense forest. I had to stop a few times to catch my breathe and refocus. It was tough going, but I was happier with this type of climb than the many we’d done before.
After leaving the forest it was more off-track plodding in the open mountainside as we continue to about 850masl where the ground flattened out. Here we could see up ahead a semi-circle of mountains surrounding us. Once again I had no idea where we were going and how we would ‘escape’ from here and descend back down. We continued walking towards it as the day light diminished and darkness began to set in.
We reached a lake where our head torches started to pick up the feint shimmer of the reflective tape for the race markings. One or two at a time. They gave an indication of where to go, but not too much insight as to where we were actually heading. Slowly it became clear that we were just going ‘straight up’ to get out of the plateau. Seriously? Fuck you. In the darkness we began to climb the rocks again. I was struggling with the climb. Matt and Kamil were getting progressively further away. I set myself a target to rest and breathe at each flag marker, only meters away from one another, but I was stopping multiple times between each one. We climbed for maybe another 200-300 meters, up and across scree slopes, the rocks loose under foot and when I grabbed at them with my hands for support. As I reached the top we were now in complete darkness. Besides the reflective trail markers I could now also navigate by following the head torches of the others in the distance.
We began the descent which wasn’t any easier. Loose and sharp rocks, winding switch backs and wet streams to cross. We stopped at one stream and filled our bottles with ice cold water. It was delightful. I gulped back two bottles straight away. Like many before this one, the streams we needed to cross were often bursting at the seams and the ‘path across’ was submerged under rampant and powerful flowing water. They were difficult to cross and even more so in the night. It was a case of steadying ourselves and hoping for the best, accepting that we would be wet to our shins. The aim was to get to the other side and not to get sucked in or fall over. The roar of water in the night was quite something. It was the only thing we could hear out here in the wild.
After a while the rocks gave way to forests and you already know that these were steep, muddy and slippery. As we progressed, a huge lake started to come into focus below us. Way off ahead, on top of a mountain silhouette in the darkness I could see two head torches way up in the sky. I knew where we were heading now. We would descend to a road crossing (Svartevatnet) before the final climb on the other side. I remember looking at this section when we drove along the road into Stranda when we first arrived.
I was glad to get off the forest track as we bottomed out at the lake. Here there was a slightly flat gravel section towards the road. At this point Kamil, who was in front on the descent was now behind me. Matt was up ahead on the road and I shouted at him when I saw the markers on the other side. We started to cross. Then loads of volunteers came into sight further up the road at a lay-by. They gestured us towards them. It was another aid station that I had complete forgotten about.
Here I was ready to leave quite quickly and just get on with it. I was sick of soup now so ate some crisps and cookies. Matt had some soup and a French man came to say hello to him. He was in the area, saw about the race and heard there was a French person running, so he stayed out to say hello and cheer him on. How lovely that was. Kamil sat in a chair and told us to go on without him, that he was going to have some sleep as he was struggling with fatigue. He wrapped up and tried to get comfortable. I let Matt know. Whilst we were there I had a half cup of coffee to try to fight off my own tiredness before we set back out. For now, we were down to two. I was sure Kamil would catch up with us at some point on the climb in the night.
Section 7: Svartevatnet – Stranda
By Svartevatnet you will cross the road and get on the trail to Langevatnet and further to Roaldshornet (1230masl). From the summit of Roaldshornet you can enjoy the epic view over Storfjorden and down to Stranda. You will continue to Blåfjellet and downhill Trollvaregga with technical running down to Skuravatnet. (The course is not going up to Skurahornet, it goes straight to Stranda from Skuravatnet) .From Skuravatnet you will be running on a nice trail all the way down to the outskirts of Stranda, and then on gravel and asphalt roads down to the finish line at the town square in Stranda.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
And so, at 01:00 in the morning we began our final section. From the aid station we crossed the road and began heading into the darkness of the forests once more. The trees lasted only a short while and the climb began. Initially I had flash backs of the first climb of the race when we left the forest and the mountain opened up. The terrain felt very similar. It was a series of gently inclining winding big paths littered with bogs and waterlogged foliage. Compared to the other climbs of the race I was very happy at that moment in time. This felt very manageable.
As we had previously, we navigated by reflection of the race markings. Each one opening another insight into where we were heading. The large silhouette of the mountain standing tall in front of us and getting closer with each step. As we neared it, the climb took us to the mountain face and the rocky ascent began, but, it was no where near as bad as the ones before. I felt this was the easiest climb of the night and possibly of the whole race. I was thankful.
Before we reached the summit, my watch died. I hate this watch. I accept it is now a good few years old (it is a Suunto 9 Baro) but the battery just does not last what it indicates it will. Barely 24 hours with some of that on the Ultraks mode. Useless. I couldn’t care less about charging it now. I just wanted to finish the race and rest.
The climb wasn’t too bad either and we emerged onto the roof of the mountain. It was, of course, rocky but for the most part we were now traversing the top along to the next point at Roaldshornet. It was very cold and windy on top and we stopped to layer up ready for the final climb to the summit. As we hiked along to the summit, with a gentle undulation, the sun started to rise to the East. It was going to be spectacular. We’d miss the full sunrise and views from the summit, but we had a glimpse of the orange glow breaking up the darkness. We kept moving and covered the final little dip and climb back up to Roaldshornet where we could start to see the landscape ahead of us for our descent back to Stranda. From here it was all ‘downhill’ (of course every trail downhill has some sneaky ‘uphills’ included!).
The descent was going to be long though and it was still very technical. Once again lumbering over a boulder field of rocks. For many parts I had to sit and lower myself down and we were trying to find the best and most accessible route between markers, sometimes straying from the more obvious path due to slippery rocks or muddy sections that we were still slipping and falling on. Eventually, further down, we could see a short ridgeline way below leading to what looked like dry dirt trails. We were heading for it and we’d then loop down into the forests back towards Stranda. We had a visual aim, although it still felt like a very long time until we reached the ridge.
We continued the descent from the ridge which was a lot harder than I expected. It was a complete mess from the rain and the mud and bogs were everywhere. Where possible we avoided the trail, running over the lumpy ground along the sides instead. In some places, wooden structures were there to go over the marsh land, but they weren’t really helpful to us. With so many runners having been through the day before, the land was completely churned up and the walkways covered in mud and equally as slippery and dangerous. I think I fell more along this section than anywhere else on the course! Matt must have been sick of hearing me swearing and groaning. I did one spectacular fall where I slipped and skidded downhill, completing a 180 spin and falling flat on my front, face first, into a bog. The mud muffled my scream. It was slower progress than I expected at this point and it certainly wasn’t the dry dirt trails I’d been imagining from the view at the top. From time to time we looked back, expecting to see Kamil come bounding passed us. At one point I swore I saw a head torch on the summit at Roaldshornet.
The mountain side started to give way to forest tracks, which weren’t all that better. They felt steeper and, whilst drier for the most part, still had many wet and muddy sections. The benefit now was that the trees could be used to steady ourselves and break our falls. As we ran down, we were getting hotter and hotter. The layers from the mountain were definitely no longer needed now, but the inclination to stop and delay the finish further was low. We wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
A few kilometres later we left the forest and hit some road. We crossed some fields and were then back on the road in a section we both recognised from visiting the town. It wouldn’t be long now until we were on the main road into Stranda and down to the finish line. We were running. Probably very slowly but we were running for the first time for many, many hours. It was painful and slow but we were inching towards the finish as we ran down the deserted and quiet road. It was some time after 06:00 in the morning.
We rounded the final turn and climbed the steps into and through the hotel before the finish line (it was strange passing straight through a building to get to the finish!) and emerged into the final stretch to a lone clap from a volunteer at the finish line. We walked over the line. The final finishers. We hi fived and smiled. We’d done it.
I thought the volunteer was Oscar (the Race Director) but it was Martin. He told us he was at the last aid station with Kamil when he dropped out. It took us a moment for the realisation to set in, Kamil hadn’t continued on after his attempt to sleep. I felt bad for abandoning him and wondered if he would have been ok if he kept going? Martin gave us our medals, congratulated us and went and fetched us pizza. Then Matt’s wife, Natalia, Nick, Arlene and Gif all arrived and congratulated us, taking us back to the safety of a shower and bed! We had done it.
I knew this race was going to be difficult and would include terrain that I’m not always comfortable with. However, it was worse and harder than I imagined. The weather for the race was actually ok, but the terrain had suffered from weeks of rain and that made it far more difficult that it could have been. I reckon I must have fallen 30-50 times. I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed 100s of rivers and streams throughout the 100km. I’m actually surprised my feet weren’t in a worse state when I finished (they were pretty mangled though!). Oscar acknowledged the conditions in has post race breifing:
SFTR 2022 was just as hard and muddy as it can be! We got a bit of everything with some glimpses of sun, rain, snow, wind. The feedback from the elite field in Golden Trail World Series was that this was the most technical race they ever participated in. So all of you who joined the race should be proud of your effort! The good news is that we ordered sun for SFTR 2023, the bad news is that we ordered sun for 2022 too 😉
It is without doubt the toughest 100km I have done (and we didn’t quite get to the 100km mark!) It took around 5-8 hours longer than my typical time for a mountainous 100km. That is quite a significant time difference. Despite the course and the conditions, the local Scandinavians ran incredible times. I’m amazed at how effortlessly they cover this sort of terrain, they are phenomenal athletes.
Reflecting back on the progress, I actually would have been timed out at the first cut off (around 40km / 11hrs) if the route hadn’t been amended. I see no way I could have completed the original route in the time I had remaining at the cut off. The gods were on my side on this occasion!
I also think we would have been timed out at the second cut off (Brunstad) if it weren’t for (1) the volunteer who found us in the Gullmorbrekka pass at showed us the way (thank you so much!) (2) the short road section down to the aid station at Brunstad which meant we could run! without those, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it in time.
I came away from this race with my ankles pretty beaten up, loads of cuts and bruises, one broken pole, a ripped pair of gloves and a shoes shredded on all sides. Yet, I saw it through, I persevered and once more can say I’m a finisher and have re-evaluated my own limitations and strengths. I love this sport!
As with every race I met some incredible people. People who show all kinds of determination, strength and will power who go above and beyond to help and support you. Thank you Margarita, Kamil and Matt. And of course, thank you to Oscar and his team and thank you Norway!
The Eiger ultra trail. One that has been on my ‘list’ for some time. The E101 is a 100km route circling Grindelwald with a not too subtle >6,000m of elevation gain.
It’s 3:30am and Paul and I have met Matt at the start line in the shadows of the majestic mountains surrounding Grindelwald. Despite the early hour and darkness it is already very hot. We are upbeat and excited as the race gets underway and we pass through the start arch with hundreds of other runners.
For the first few kms we begin running up the Main Street and back passed our hotel. We made many promises about not running this gently inclining road section but, of course, we get completely sucked in and are moving along with the flow of the runners. Thankfully though we soon hit a bottleneck as we come across the trail head and the single track trail to begin our first climb. Here we chatted to Bert, a local runner with numerous finishes on the E101. He shared his experiences with us and gave us an insight into what adventures lay ahead.
The climb was a series of switchbacks through some forests at what was a very civilised pace. No one was trying to jostle for positions or overtake and everyone was comfortable just moving along together. It was quiet and all we could hear in the night was each other as we chatted away. We met Matt during the Val D Aran last year and this was the first time we’d met since and really the first real time we’d gotten to know each other properly. Looking back at Val D’Aran all we really did was moan at each other.
As we climbed, we started to leave the trees behind and the mountain started to open up and we could look back and see the sun rising over the Eiger and the tail of runners climbing both ahead and behind us. It was a surreal view. We then soon arrived at the first aid station which had a very narrow setup and led to the runners being funnelled, but it had everything we needed. A quick top up of water and we continued on.
Now, on the ‘second section’ of the course we had our first chance to run and move at a comfortable pace as the trails opened up on the mountain. We rolled along enjoying the incredible panoramic over Grindelwald with the majestic Eiger standing prominent behind the town. The sun was now up and the moon was fading.
The trails took us up towards ‘First’, but not quite all the way. Just before the final climb to the summit, the route diverted us away and we began the first descent. Bert was with us once more and told us this was the ‘easy’ downhill and to save our legs. I’m not sure there was much we could do to save our legs as the steepness of the sealed track meant gravity was in control here.
The downhill was long and sweeping as we looped back and forth on switchbacks used for the mountain carts. Our legs thumped at the ground and our feet heated up with the constant slapping. As we came upon the Firstbahn station we had a brief rest bite at the aidstation, once more ensuring we had enough water consumed and packed as we’d now begin the climb back to the summit of First. At around 10am the day was truly heating up now and the sun could be felt on our exposed skin.
We had a basic plan for the heat management. It was as simple as ensuring we drank enough and smothered ourselves in plenty of suncream! So far all was good and I was confident my morning lathering would see me through to around midday, so at First we planned a little longer rest and to apply the next layer.
This climb once more started with a long forest section. The smells were fresh and clean. Segments of the route were a long series of steps made out of long longs. The legs were definitely ’feeling it’ after the previous quad-buster of a downhill. As we left the forest we were hit with the full force of the sun as we climbed an exposed track on the side of the mountain. There was no escaping it now until the final ascent to First not in the distance you could see the clear line of shadow where the angle of the mountain would block the sun’s rays.
It was a lovely climb. The incline was gradual and gentle terrain still very forgiving and not too rocky. Into the shade we went into single line as we climbed the last few hundred metres to the summit. Here the route weaved you around the mountain side and under the tourist attraction of the summit viewing platform. A series of metal walkways were constructed and the views were incredible. Maarten, whom I met at MIUT and Cappadocia, was on hand to provide the support and loudly cheered us in. There was a small gathering of tourists and supporters over looking us from the platform as we made away along and under them. I whooped and cheered as me and Matt passed through but I had a very muted reply!
This aid station was slightly larger than the two before and we took a few extra minutes to eat, acknowledging we were all hungry, and to apply more sunscreen. We chatted to another Irish Paul, enjoyed the view and then set off towards Faulhorn. Just as we set off once more Maarten provided the energy and gave us a mid-morning boost. From here we had clear views of the trails we’d run and could see Faulhorn off up in the distance. Faulhorn would be the highest point on the race at around 2,644m. The tracks were once more very forgiving and were long gentle gravel tracks. Once more, as I was sure it would all day, the Eiger stood proud and prominent watching our progress.
Very soon we were at a series of lakes which were amazingly tranquil and provided a view looming back down onto First. We’d hardly noticed how high we’d climbed already. After weaving through the lakes, for the first time the trails turned a little more technical and became rocky and narrow for a short descent. As we began, the first of the 50km runners began to pass us and zipped by. The lead runner was flying up and down with ease (he went on to win with an incredible time!).
Before completing the climb to Faulhorn we had another aid station after descending a few hundred metres. This was the first time we were a bit confused. None of us could remember this on the route profile. Still, it was a fairly easy section with a very short out and back to to the water stop where I filled a third bottle of water ready for the climb. I’ve no idea how hot it was now but it felt above 30 degrees, although occasionally we’d catch a cooling breeze.
So after accepting that we hadn’t already started climbing to Faulhorn, we now began the climb. It was the toughest so far. Whilst it did feel marginally steeper than the earlier climbs, I think it was the heat which, was energy sapping, that made this more difficult. Matt drifted a little behind us and Paul powered on ahead. I was plodding somewhere between the two. Like Matt, I felt it a little harder to breathe with a regular rhythm as the progressive climb took all my energy. I put it to one side and focused on keeping up with Paul who was passing people frequently and getting further away. I saw him disappear over the summit as I lagged behind.
Up into Faulhorn there was a huge Eiger Ultra Trail arch erected on the summit marking our arrival to Faulhorn which we passed through. The views were spectacular and runners stopped on the platform to take selfies. I spotted Paul a few metered below at the water station and I went after him.
Initially this aid station was to be limited for water refills, however, the day before the race the organisers had added more water here, as well as additional water stops in the next section and later somewhere later on in the second half of the route. It was greatly appreciated and there was even coke available at Faulhorn. I broke my own ‘no coke before halfway’ rule and knocked some back. It was well earnt in this heat I thought.
The immediate descent from the aid station was rocky and once again a little more technical at first. It wasn’t long before we left the rocks behind and started descending into a valley. After passing a refuge/mountain cafe there was another rocky section as we continued downhill. We then looped back around with amazing views over the Brienzersee lake and across to the Hardergrat ridge (which Paul ran along a few weeks earlier). Check it out. It looks spectacular and terrifying in equal measures!
Through this section there were increasing number of hikers marking the trek in the opposite direction from Scheidegg to Faulhorn. We exchanged pleasantries with everyone as we passed. The trails then left the valley behind and levelled out to some lovely undulating trails with more expensive views off into the distance and the trails we’d run earlier in the day. Paul was checking up on Matt and they agreed we’d meet and wait at the halfway mark. It was just a very long descent over about 10 miles to go before we reached there.
First we hit up ‘Egg’, the extra water stop, and then eventually some switchbacks to another mountain lodge where there were plenty of supporters. As we left there was a family with small kids offering high fives which I, and all the runners around us, greatly indulged in. It’s such a boost to interact with people when running an ultra. Shortly after there was a man with a hose pipe spraying runners and me and Paul danced in the rain. It was so cooling and refreshing.
Paul and I both started to feel the need for more water, despite the extra stop and carrying an extra bottle we’d been drinking loads (the heat management plan was being perfectly executed so far). It felt like the next stop wasn’t coming anytime soon luckily we then spied a tap / trough on the side of a building and took advantage, Paul submerging his whole head. As we walked on, pleased with our find, we could see the next aid station was just a few hundred metres further ahead. Typical.
From here we entered the forest, and the descent began to steepen. The trails were narrow and the ground was littered with lumpy tree roots. It wasn’t easy underfoot and we accepted this is how it would be for quite some time. After what felt like a few km of consistent rooty downhill running, out of nowhere we started to climb again. I was furious. It couldn’t visualise it on the elevation profile. It hit me hard. I called out to Paul that I needed a break. Like hours earlier on the climb to Faulhorn, my breathing was erratic again. Every race profile is like this and has those sections where you are going downhill but have a ‘hidden’ uphill included (or vice versa). The distance and elevation never easily transfers to a small visual elevation profile. It really messes with your mind sometimes and, today, it was messing with me. It took my strength and my energy and I needed a few mins sitting on a rock to regain composure and carry on. Fucking tree routes!
We were soon back in the rhythm and then, for the first time ever in a race, I hit the deck. I went down like I’d been tasered. Mid-flow I got cramp in my right calf and my lower body just seized up. I did a quarter of a turn and just fell, rigid and straight, down bouncing off what I thought was my left arm and shoulder. On the floor I then instantly got cramp in my other calf too and couldn’t get up. I was like a bug on its back flailing my. A runner coming behind called out and I’ve no idea what I mumbled back as I slowly relaxed and clambered back to my feet. It seemed like my left arm had come out and broken the fall and I had a few little indents on my palm from small stones. Somehow despite all the roots I’d fallen on a fairly clear and soft area. Frustratingly though, covered in sweat it was like I’d been dipped in breadcrumbs. My arms and hands were covered in soil and I was now irritable. I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long without falling before. With no issues or concerns we just got back on with it.
I don’t know how much longer the downhill carried on for, but there was one last steep section through a field as we approached the halfway mark.
I set about the full works. Pasta. Potatoe. More coke. Full wet wipe wash. Tshirt change. Sock and shoe change. Fresh hat. Fresh buff and more food and tailwind added to the bag. Not long after as we were getting ready to leave, Matt showed up. I made a big mistake here and led the decision to crack on without him. We said we’d wait, and he was bang on schedule for a 22:45hr finish. I said me and Paul wanted to try and finish in under 22 which was the qualifier time for western states. So we left without him. It was a mistake as, despite running the next 50km without him, he finished only 10 mins behind us, bang on that 22:45hr finish. Sorry Matt!
From the half way we had a series of two big climbs to overcome. The first climb was before the town of venkat. It started with a series of roads climbing on switchbacks. Here we Met another Swiss runner in Nicole who was doing her first ultra and chasing that sun 22hr finish also. We chatted as we climbed before the roads changed into forest tracks again. They were rooty, but not as bad as before. Some sections where steep and it was very humid with little wind or breeze reaching us. Occasionally we’d get a burst of sun and see the mountain alongside us. Slowly we tracked around the side of it.
There was also a brief stop where there was another water tap. From here we were back into the forests and making our way down hill to Wegen. One thing that was noticeable here was that we started seeing a lot of volunteers and mountain rescue dotted along the course. We were being very well Looked after! On the downhill I continued to cramp. I was cramping in my ankles and shins which was a whole new weird experience which I don’t know how to describe. Thankfully nothing too bad though.
The town of Wengen was delightful and I made a note to come and visit one day, it was very picturesque. We weaved through the aid station after collecting more water and coke and began the big climb to Mannlichen which was approximately 1,000m gain in around 5km. Pretty much a vertical Kilometer (VK).
After climbing through some narrow back streets of the town, we were yet again back in the forest. Every time there was an opening I tried to see where the hell we were going, but I couldn’t. I could see the end goal of Mannlichen on top of the mountain, but I could rarely see any runners on the mountain side climbing. I was so confused. Paul and I agreed to break the climb up. There was the extra aid station somewhere along here so we agreed to stop again before and after it. Paul was the time keeper and I was eager to test him and push the limit of how long I could stay sitting down for!
We weren’t alone and there were plenty of runners we passed and who passed us. At each stop we got talking to Jason, yet another Irishman, as we leapfrogged each other along this section. The route took us across the mountain face and through a series of snow barriers built to protect the town which was way down below us now. The breaks, and the water stop, were greatly appreciated. As we eventually summited a friendly voice called out and cheered our arrival. Like earlier in the day at First, Maarten was above us supporting and crewing runners reaching the aid station. He followed us into the aid station and tended to our needs like a hero. I was very hungry again and slowly ate a Chia Charge flap jack and remember Paul bringing me lumps of chocolate. It was very good chocolate!
Up top it was cold. Very cold. We discussed layering up and I acknowledged my stupidity in not bringing my arm sleeves or lightweight wind proof from my halfway drop bag. I always run with them but for some reason I purposely didn’t this time. Whilst I knew we’d run into the night, I guess I was so focused on the heat of the day that I didn’t think they would be needed. It wasn’t a problem though as I had a long sleeve top and a waterproof jacket in my bag, so I certainly wouldn’t be getting too cold. We cracked on, knowing that we’d warm up when we began running again. And boy did we run…
We acknowledged that we’d ‘broken the back of the beast’ now. There were no more aggressive climbs to come our way and we were probably 3/4 of our way through the distance by now. It was a huge boost. What made it better was that the trails were very wide, smooth and it was a very gentle downhill. It felt like we were running so fast for a few km as we were running straight toward the Eiger’s north face which was covered in cloud. What a sight it was.
All good things come to an end though, and so did the easy downhill as we then turned away from Grindelwald and headed off-track for another (comparatively) little climb. It was a little punchy and I remember passing loads of cows here. I was constantly looking to my left and across to the Eiger where I could see there were so many trails, but I couldn’t see a single runner on any of them. Once again I was disoriented and I had no idea where we were going. I knew we’d come back along the Eiger towards Grindelwald somewhere, but I just couldn’t see where. The tracks kept twisting and turning and my sense of direction was getting a little messed up. Eventually we dropped down and joined a wide gravel path again, crossed a train track and walked up a gentle hill towards the next aid station.
There was a runner here squatting down taking a picture of the Eiger reflecting in a small pond. As painful as it was, we stopped and indulged for the same picture. It was worth it.
We were soon at the next aid station. This was quite possibly the best location of any aid station I’ve ever been too. It was inside a train depot. It was getting dark and colder outside but inside it was so warm and smelt of oil. I loved it. Here we found some warm broth which was exactly the salty delight I needed. Sitting, eating, I looked around and noticed it was a little like a medical centre with a number of runners sleeping or receiving medical attention.
After a good 15 minutes or so, we left and headed back out for a short little downhill before climbing again to the Eiger Glacier. We passed a runner who was being sick but whom signalled he was ok. Then, moments later as we started to climb he sprinted passed us and continued to run the uphill. I couldn’t understand his miraculous recovery! It was around 9:30 now and our head torches were on as the last of the light started to leave us.
The climb up to Eiger Glacier was tough going. It was a mixture of dry trail (with more cows lining the track!) and little rocky sections. In parts it was steep with some narrow switchback trails before a long climb on a small ridge. It was another slow climb and one which slowly chipped away at our depleting energy levels. We took another moment at the top before beginning the descent towards the finish. It was a very long descent of around 1,200m over 10km kilometres back towards Grindelwald.
It was now obvious why, hours earlier, I couldn’t see any runners on any of the trails. We were tucked right up close on the mountain face. To our left the mountain dropped away on long scree slopes. Way off to our left headlights of runners descending form Mannlichen could be seen.
The trails were runnable. Not as nice as the initial descent from Mannlichen but the rocks were well trodden and flattened to the track for the most part. As we ran, we were in silence and all we could hear were the many, many waterfalls falling from the Eiger which we’d cross one after the other. After what felt like a long few kilometre of steady plodding the relaxing sound of water started increasing and becoming more ferocious. There was one huge waterfall absolutely gushing from the mountain and the sound was thunderous. From here we began descending at a steeper rate on a series of increasingly more rocky switchbacks. Surprisingly my feet were holding up very well. I feel the trails had been incredibly easy going and forgiving on this route considering we were running in such a mountainous area. The quads were definitely feeling it now though and the fatigue was kicking in!
For a while, Paul and I had been discussing what remained of the route. I recalled one big climb once we bottomed out from this descent. We’d heard mixed reports of the elevation ranging from 200m to 600m. We didn’t know. What we did know was that we didn’t want a 600m climb! We soon reached the next aid station, and I clocked the elevation profile on a board. My heart sank a little as I saw we still had plenty of descending to go as well as another small climb before another much bigger one. Paul asked for details and again a new number was thrown out about how big the last climb was “maybe 400m”. A bit deflated, we carried on with the remaining descent which was now on road (which didn’t make it any easier at this stage!).
Finally, we levelled out and began the last 10km or so of the route which would see us run parallel to Grindelwald, passing it before looping back and down into the town. From here we could see the finish line in the town. It is annoying seeing a finish line during a race and heading in the opposite direction, and this time was no different, especially as we were running ever so slowing now.
We began the little climb, although it went on and on and I clocked another 200m. Here the trails were very technical forest trials, yet again (and unsurprisingly) littered with roots once more. Our mood was sinking but we knew we just had to keep moving. After another hour or so we reached a small little aid station. Paul questioned the distance and vertical gain here too and we received a far more favourable response of “280m”. This was good. I perked up and and cracked a lot of jokes to the volunteers. I felt like I was on stage and absolutely killing it. They were probably just wishing I’d leave already. Eventually we did.
As we progressed along the 280m climb, a few runners caught and passed us. We kept our heads down and moved along and we’re joined by another runner whom we chatted to at the last stop. He was craving a bit of company in the night. Pretty much bang on 280m we arrived at Feinsteing. I was impressed. If anything, the root marking and distance markers were exceptional throughout. The trails had dedicated Eiger Ultra Trail flags, glow sticks, arrows on the ground, reflective paint throughout and even Eiger Ultra Trail specific trail signs. At every 5km/10km marker my watch had been pretty much in sync too. I’ve never had that before. Although Paul would argue differently with his Suunto (same model) clocking slightly longer. Anyway, from here it was about 4km downhill on road to the town with a small uphill towards the end to join the main street where it all began.
We begrudgingly left the comfort of the final aid station, acknowledging that a Western States qualifying time was beyond us now. There’s no way we were clocking a 30min 5km pace (even downhill) after running all day. We calculated that the 4km remaining would take more like 40mins. The downhill and roads weren’t particularly enjoyable. Now my feet were hurting after that last technical section and I wasn’t enjoying the feet slapping sensation like we felt all the way back on the first descent some 20 hours earlier.
We were trudging along through a camp site when we saw the next trail marker sign. It said 100km. We couldn’t believe it. That crept up on us out of nowhere. It worked us up and with a little moaning we powered through the last little climb back to the Main Street. Thankfully we merged further down than our hotel so didn’t have to run passed it! We emerged onto the street to cheers from some supporters out late in the night and then picked up the pace as we finished the course. The last little surprise being the very steep finishers bridge into the finish line. The risk of falling with our tired legs giving way was probably quite high! Thankfully we didn’t tumble for the camera. Seconds later we crossed the finish line. We’d done it. As Eiger E101 finishers we were handed our little piece of the Eiger – a rock from the moutain as our medal. I love it, but right then i was sick of the rocks!
Without knowing or realising, as we went into the sports centre to collect our bags, Matt snuck passed and finished just a few minutes after us. What a guy. Such consistent running all day!
Serpent Trail 2: The Return Difficulty: ‘Go Easy On Me Knees’ Game Mode: Co-Op: 2 Player Player 1: Dai Player 2: Ultra Nick
Cue theme music. Some proper late 80s keyboard and synth Jingle jingle vibes…
With all game sequels come new characters, abilities, foes and new ways of interacting with the environment. Fundamentally the playing principles tend to remain unchanged. For that purpose the Serpent Trail provides the platform for this sequel.
Back in 2018 I ran the serpent trail on what was quite frankly a ridiculously hot and sunny day. That day I recalled my adventure like a computer game; I was the player and the sun was the pesky boss level character on the Serpent Trail. It was something I had in my head all day as I ran the 100km from Haslemere to Petersfield, a kind of side scrolling platform adventure. Four years later I returned and this time it was a co-op mode with Nick being the new ‘player 2 character’ helping me to complete the distance.
Unlike 2018 my ‘running character’ is very different. I feel the 2022 version is a pumped up version from the first iteration in what was my third 100km race. Metaphorically speaking of course and I’m thinking about running experience terms.
So here we go. Loading up the the sequel…
We camped at the finish line in Petersfield Rugby club the night before and sadly mistimed the food as there was nothing warm ready (or anytime soon) when we had set up the tent. We did however find a burger van after walking over to a Gospel Festival happening further along on the fields. A burger and 1.5 hotdogs meant it was a meat heavy bit of race prep. I didn’t foresee it at the time, but this would prove to be one of the ‘game enemies for me’.
4am we were awake and jostling for toilets and sinks with the other runners before being herded onto 3 buses for the short trip to Haslemere were we’d start the level. Like 4 years earlier, the start was as low-key as they come as we all huddled in a small opening of grass and we’re simply waved on our way by Tom the RD. The difference this time was only that the field size was probably four times what it was on my first go. The race profile was indeed growing – besides a larger number of participants there are now a number of different distances to run over the weekend.
Level 1: Tree Tops
Unlike before, I don’t have a play by play of the miles from start to finish. This was very much, for me, a far easier play than that first time round. Perhaps I did have it on ‘easy’ mode (and I was certainly thinking of preservation ahead of the next mountain event, the Eiger Ultra Trail, in two weeks time!). But, playing two player mode certainly makes it easier and the early miles just flew by rather quickly as I ran with the support from Nick. The course was also very familiar having run the first 25miles of it just a few weeks earlier as part of our preparation. For much of the route you run through scenic forest tracks with huge trees and views over the Surrey Countryside.
Somewhere early on in those first 10 miles we met Pete. It was like another player inserted his coins and pressed start to join in the fun part way. After chatting for a while he decided to stick with us rather than push on for his target time. Multi-player mode activated like a good old fashioned coin-op arcade game! Between us we batted away all the early obstacles the game threw at us. Little hills? No problem. Hot and sweaty? Not a concern. Rooty woodland trails? No falling over here! Thankfully it was nowhere near as warm this year and overall the playing conditions were very favourable. With each aid station we took a few minutes to refuel – in this sequel the health bar was recuperated mostly with sandwiches. Jam sandwiches were my go to choice at the aid station. There were still no roast chickens smashed out of dustbins a la Steets Of Rage though!
From early on I did have my own personal battle throughout the day. Kind of like a side mission, as I struggled with the ‘burger demon’ who tormented me through most of the race. However, that’s not a character worth writing about any further!
Petworth was a target and milestone for us. Our save game zone. It would be the halfway mark and where the narrative of the game would change as we could start homing in on the finish. We’d ticked off the ‘1/3 of the way’ mark and soon enough we’re closing in on that 50km marker and heading towards the little town of Petworth. This was around the time I started vividly remembering parts of the course. I started recognising signs, trees, lakes, specific views and all sorts of random things. I was remembering where the course would go and what would come next. It was quite relaxing and enjoying to recall the previous memories. The others were probably fed up of me going “oh I remember this”…
Level 2: The Wall
One thing I remembered before we got to Petworth was that there was what felt like a never ending stretch of road along a massive stone wall in Petworth (before the aid station). It was longer than I recalled. This was a foe that would sap your energy for sure as your mind would focus on the stones and curves of the wall for what felt like an eternity. When we did arrive at the aid station we were greeted by the beaming smile (as always) from Dimi who looked after us as we took 15 mins to refuel and recuperate. A friendly face is always a morale booster!
For a short while after Petworth we played as four when Pete’s brother in law, a Petworth local, joined us for a few miles. The route restarted with a lovely climb through some open spaces with incredible views. We then ran several kms through more of the scenic woodland trails including a little extra when we all missed a very blatant sign on a downhill section and had to back track up to the route.
At this point we were all feeling pretty great. We were over half way through and none of us has any real issues or concerns. The energy was quite high and we were deep into conversations bouncing back and forth. I particularly loved the nostalgic buzz of recalling the late night soft porn tv shows from the early days of Channel 5 when we were all teenagers. Red Shoe Diaries anyone?!
Around 63km we met Elise and Nick’s mum who supplied us with cold drinks and food. It was a huge boost and we were glad to see them. It also brought another flashback to many years earlier when a lady was outside the very same shop supplying runners with cold Coke. I can remember how thankful I was for that in the heat of 2018!
Level 3: The grey roads
The further we went, the more Pete yearned for it to be over. He was still feeling good and strong and wanted some road sections (he’s more fond of a road marathon than Nick and I). We agreed that he should push on whenever he felt like it. He was eager to finish now. We also had a brief stop near some farm land as we waited for a herd of cows to, slowly, proceed down the road we needed to cross. Each looked at is inm a thankful and confused way, perhaps curious as to what we were up too. It was like the technical part of a game were you need to time your move just right to avoid getting caught out somehow. we certainly didn’t want a herd of cattle turning on us!
Through more aid stations we went and then we saw Elise and Nick’s mum again at 83km. At the Midhurst aidstation with not far left to run. They came here prepared with McDonald’s chips and nuggets. It was awesome, a cheat code for a full health refuel! The volunteer laughed when I turned down the jam sandwiches because I had chicken nuggets. She didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. There was one runner here who was looking a little worse for wear and going through some knee troubles. But she came through behind us and left before us, determined to see it through and reassuring everyone she was ok. We took off a few mins later and almost immediately Nick started to suffer. In game speak, he took some kind of critical combo hit and suffered a from a typical runner’s character weakness – blisters. He’d been complaining of sore feet for a little while and now they were starting to affect him.
This leg of the route was gently undulating and we walked and ran in equal measures. We were at a cross roads where the pain hurts more when walking, but the legs were fatigued and didn’t want to run as much. Nick powered on. I was constantly amazed that we didn’t catch up with the girl who was limping until almost the penultimate checkpoint almost 7 miles later. She was strong and focused!
As we began to hit the road sections, Pete now headed off at a quicker pace at this point. He also had a busy night ahead with getting home to his family post race. The roads were long, straight and inclined ever so gently. in the dying light they were grey and the beauty of the route started to leave us. At the next checkpoint Nick took a seat. He positioned it right in front of the aidstation table, as if interviewing the volunteers behind it. We all laughed and I mocked his suffering whilst eating lollipops.
Final Level. The Petersfield loop
After a while he found the strength to get up and keep going and so, with powerups and a health top up, we continued on to the final battle to the end. This was it now. no more lives or save slots nor continues. Once chance to attack and complete the final level: Two short sections were all that remained now, separated by a small aid station just a few miles from the finish. We recalled the final few kms from a recent recce and enjoyed (sort of) the gentle change of terrain to the flat road sections. I think this helped Nick’s feet a little along with providing the confidence that the finish was certain to happen.
As we left the trail I checked the watch. We had just under 20mins to complete the last 2kms and finish in under 15 hours. I put it to Nick and he was happy to pick up the pace. So I did. Probably too much and I got into the groove and we just kept running. The long loop around the rugby club, into the riverside path at the back. We pounded the roads and then the tree lined path. Just a 100m from the finish, before emerging into the field, Nick demanded a break. He was spent from the increasing effort. So we stopped, caught our breathe, and composed ourselves before finishing the journey to the cheers of the supporters at the finish line. Of course the loudest of them all were Elise and Nicks mum.
Relief washed over us as the end credits started to roll. After a quick pose for Phil to take our pictures and sweaty hugs all round, we were glad to get straight in the car and head home to our beds (given the clubhouse showers had been closed (whhyyy?!)).
And so, like many times before, I’ve been privileged to be there by Nick’s side as he pushes his boundaries and shows what he is capable of. It’s a great feeling to run with your mate and see them achieve. And of course, it’s always enjoyable to watch them suffer just as you have done yourself!
As we left the comfort of the hotel at 23:30 it was buzzing with activity. The packed restaurant was bouncing with loud music and dancing. Paul had hardly slept as his room was above the restaurant. Thankfully I’d grabbed some sleep earlier in the day. As we walked down the strip we realised this was common for a Friday night in Ohrid, North Macedonia. What was clear when we arrived at the Chinar Tree to merge with the small crowd, was that trail running was less common. Gathered at this ancient tree were just 40 runners huddled together near a modest start line preparing for a 100km adventure…
Upon arrival we sought out a person with a staff badge around his neck to ask about the route. Earlier in the day, when registering, it was indicated that the route would need to be modified due to the storms forecast for Saturday. We hadn’t heard anything since so asked what the route would be. He very clearly explained the situation, that heavy storms were forecast and so we would not be visiting Margaro or the other peaks on the route. We’d have an unchanged course for the first 50kms or so to Vojtino. Then we’d detour to Prevoj on a different route, skipping the big climb to Magaro by staying lower down and going around the mountain. From Prevoj we’d again detour and skip the peaks and ridges and instead head to Assan Gjura more directly on some access roads. The next section would be unchanged to Letnica but then once more we’d skip the last peak and begin descending more directly to the final aid station of Velestovo. We thanked him and he told us to stay close for the briefing. He introduced himself as Dejan, the race director. A few minutes later he gave the safety briefing, re-explaining the situation and route to the whole field before we then gathered in the starting coral with the modest number of spectators cheering us on as he counted down to midnight.
The race began and half the field vanished out of sight almost immediately, racing off through the cobbled streets of Old Town Ohrid. We stayed at the back, right at the back, as per our strategy to enjoy a slow first marathon. Natalia was running the 65km route which began at our marathon mark, Sv Naum, just after our cutoff. The intention was to run with her, so rather than bust a gut and then hang around, we planned to arrive between 06:00 – 07:00 and enjoy the night shift.
In the darkness we weaved around the Old Town. A series of cobble streets saw us climb up to the castle at 700m. Even here we ran on trails and single tracks as we made it to the lakeside and descended passed St. John’s church and onto the lake front where we ran across a very wobbly boardwalk before hitting the strip back towards the hotel. We ran passed the red flag markers which we’d spotted on our way to the start (we saw a few teenagers walking and waving them which gave us some initial concerns about the markings, which were unfounded). As we approached the hotel we could hear Lisa cheering from the balcony and waving us on. We were in a small group of maybe ten other runners, most of whom were Greeks and were leading the pack as we ran passed the finish line after a few km. We all cheered as one tempted fate and ran through the finishers arch. I hoped the timing mat wasn’t switched on already!
Along the lake front we heard the wild calls of nature with many many birds and insects singing into the night as we left the roads and Ohrid and headed onto the trails. It began with a gentle climb on a wide track road. We passed a place called Paradise Nest which was a series of cabins overlooking the lake and soon turned onto single tracks through the forest. Here we chatted with the Greeks who had all come over on a bus tour together. With some steady climbing on rocky trails we then emerged at the first aid station of Velestovo about 12km in. A quick refill and to Paul’s delight a cup of the ‘proper stuff’ – Coca Cola branded cola. We left knowing we’d be back here many many hours later when we’d descend back to Ohrid.
We left the aid station and continued through some farm land. I followed two runners and Paul held off as we couldn’t see any flags or markings. They couldn’t hear me as I called after them. I followed and found the trail and waited, calling back to Paul in the darkness who soon found me after he located the actual trail and looped around the farmland. The route then took us up off the quad track and onto a narrow single path that was very rocky. We continued on this, climbing higher and higher. Below us to the right was the darkness of a valley between two ridges. The second, higher one looming straight ahead, a silhouette in the night sky. The climb continued, alternating between rocky paths and forest tracks which occasionally opened up under the moon-lit sky. The air around us was cooling and the moisture of the night made us cold as our clothes became wetter with sweat and the mist. As we trod on through the mist we almost missed a turn which, thankfully, the runner behind spotted and called after us. This was the summit of the first climb and, the inevitable down followed. My word it was a beauty…
The tracks opened up wider. The forests cleared to open spaces. To our left the mountain dropped away to darkness and up ahead the orange moonlight reflect off the calm lake. It was stunning. We ran free, happy, enjoying the moment, hopping from path to path as we descended towards the town of Konjsko. We couldn’t stop commenting to each other about how amazing it was. It all ended too quickly as we rocked up at the next aidstation and commended them on their excellent spread of cheese sandwiches. We briefly chatted with the volunteers who were excited to see some UK runners (there were two other Brits out there somewhere too) and they told us they’d see us again at the marathon mark at SV Naum. So off we went into the night once more with our bellies and hearts full.
From here the night became a little harder. Naturally tiredness now began to creep in as the excitement of the start began to fade and our bodies fought back against the natural desire to be asleep. The terrain became red in the night as we ran through endless mud/clay tracks and our feet became heavier as they collected the dirt in their lugs. It was super sticky. We had a choice of that or the rocky tracks around the mud. I kept to the mud. The smells were a pleasant distraction though as the forests around us were lush, dense and green. After what felt like a long time of trudging along we caught another, local(ish) runner from North Macedonia. We all chatted away as the trails began to descend again, zigzagging down hill we flew and enjoyed the moment once more. We emerged onto a road crossing where we no longer saw the path or flags/markings indicating which way to go. Come to think of it, we’d not seen a flag marker for quite some time. Oh oh.
I quickly loaded the course to my watch knowing that we were still on the unchanged route so would be able to check our location. It was immediately clear we’d gone wrong, very wrong. We’d come off the mountain far sooner than we should have. We should be crossing this road about 5kms further along. We briefly considered the option of following the road to rejoin the course where it crossed. We decided not too. We felt we had time to recover, and that there was a small chance the next aidstation would be before the road crossing and we’d need to ‘check in’. It was also quite a main road, even though it was early in the morning it wouldn’t be the safest option. So we started retracing our steps back up the mountain.
Turns out it was longer than we thought. The switch back tracks deceived the radius shown on the watch. We weren’t getting back to where we went wrong anytime soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d run almost 3km in the wrong direction and also descended 300m which we then needed to climb. It cost us quite a bit of time! We finally made it back to where we went wrong and waited for the other guy to catch up to make sure he also ended up back on track. As we waited we realised the mistake we had made – there was a slight split in the path. After we took one track they merged once more and we remember acknowledging that and saying it wasn’t a problem. What we hadn’t seen though was that there was a sneaky turn on the other track which we therefore missed. We should have realised we were no longer following the markings, but we were clearly enjoying the downhill too much.
Now we were back on track we ran a little harder. The track was less enjoyable than the descent we previously took and was a little rockier. We kept going and were heating up as the morning light started to replace the darkness and we took off our head torches. It wasn’t too much later that we then descended the mountain where we should have initially and crossed the road once more. Shortly after this we passed through Trejca and after a short road climb we came across the next aid station where three volunteers sat at the side of the road. They acknowledged we were likely the last runners so we let them know there was one more on his way because we’d gotten lost. From here we had almost 9km to go to SV Naum. This section also included a little climb of around 200m and a corresponding descent. It was 05:50, the cut off was at 07:00. After a night of running this was now going to be tight. Tighter than I wanted to admit but thankfully Paul took charge and ran off for the next 9km and I just had to try and keep him in sight.
We followed the road before going back into the forest and soon conquered the climb (which thankfully took us over a saddle in two hills rather than up and over one of the higher lumps!) and were then descending the narrow and rocky single tracks through the forest. We caught up and passed one of the Greek runners and took a moment to enjoy the views near a a village and over the lake as the morning light broke fully into day. I love the end of a night shift on a long run when the morning breaks. It has a real empowering moment for me when your energy levels have dipped and start increasing again with the rays of sunshine. Running through small villages at this point is one of my favourite aspects of trail running as the paths take you in all directions as you explore the unfamiliar land. Here we briefly skirted a village and went back down to the level of the lake where we left the forest and hit upon a shingle beach. Bollocks to that. This wasn’t funny anymore. We were running hard! I was panting hard. I could see Paul looking back checking I was still in sight. My legs were aching and the soft ground didn’t help. Neither did the realisation that we were running on this for as far as I could see in the distance. I wanted to stop so much but calculated we still had 30mins to go to the cut off and possibly as far as 5km still to cover.
We left the beach and then hit upon what felt like an obstacle course. We ran in and out of farmland and had to climb over many fallen trees and duck through narrow overgrown passes. But the topping was the (admittedly small) river crossing that we needed to make. It was clearly quite deep where it met the lake and a rope was set up to help us cross. I ploughed straight in the thigh-high level without giving it a second thought. We just had to keep going. Time was no longer on our side. Running through the endless crop fields we passed a few more runners and for a brief moment between breaths I felt unbeatable. We didn’t stop to acknowledge them but sped on passed. Finally the turn into the monastery was clear and we ran through and into the aid station with 8 minutes to spare before the cut off. The first marathon hadn’t quite gone to plan!
As we arrived, Dejan and the lady from a previous aid station laughed as we explained our cock up and little adventure. We ate and drank as they told us we didn’t need to leave exactly at 07:00 and that they would be lenient with runners. They also told us the lead runner had pulled out after encountering a bear on the course, so to be observant. Great!
The 65km runners arrived and I found Natalia as the rest of them ploughed into the aid station and started raiding it. That frustrated me a little given some 100k runners were still arriving and needed the refreshments! I said goodbye to Natalia (we’d arranged to meet just after the aid station so we were out of the way of their start). After the manic run to the aidstation, Paul decided to stay with us from here also. We were both spent from the mammoth effort we’d just put in. We needed a break and the 30mins until Natalia would start was now going to be our rest and we were looking forward to it. We walked a bit and then sat in the sun a km down the route and cheered the lead runners from the 65km through when they turned up. The first two runners already had a very sizeable lead on the chasing pack. It was very impressive. We then picked up running again when Natalia showed up shortly after them.
From here the route took us through more fields and dense green spaces. We chatted with different groups of runners as they passed us including a few Americans who were living in North Macedonia. There was another river crossing which everyone carefully tiptoed across on some strategically placed rocks. I ploughed through once again to the delight of the Americans. I had wet feet anyway so it made no difference to me and had the benefit of knowing I had spare socks in my drop bag waiting later on.
From here we began ascending. This was now the biggest climb of the run and we’d be climbing 900m to Vojtino. So we climbed. That’s all we’d do. Head down and walk on. We played leapfrog with a few runners and followed the track as it passed through more forests and occasionally opened up onto vast rocks overlooking the lake. The views were beautiful and we took the chance to stop and capture the moments when we could. It really was stunning. Some how, out of nowhere the next aid station then appeared. We’d been so focused on just walking that the section passed by quite quickly. It was fairly small but we welcomed the opportunity to take on more liquids as it was very humid in the early morning heat. Here the volunteers told us it was maybe 4km to Provej, which would be the drop bag aid station. This was where the route was now changed and rather than climbing another 900m or so to the Magaro summit and descending down to Prevoj, we’d climb lower (maybe just a few hundred metres) and circle the mountain instead. It was a shame, but, at the same time we were now glad it wasn’t as far to go. We moved onwards.
The section wasn’t exactly easy though (easier than the off track 900m climb to the summit over 5km I’m sure!). The climb continued and in places it was quite steep and mostly the ground was covered in a deep layer of leaves that covered a multitude of obstacles – rocks, sticks, snow even! It felt longer than 4km by the time we left the climb and emerged into a grass mountain side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sound of Music! We were delighted to find the aid station waiting for us. I immediately sought out hot food and my drop bag. I set to work freshening myself up and stocking up on the soup and pasta they provided. I was very hungry and empty and knew I needed food before it was too late. Paul and Natalia patiently waited for me and put up with my antics of snorting Tailwind which I’d spilt trying to refill my bottles.
As we left the aid station we were told we’d now follow a road for a few kms before finding a dirt/quad track. Again we were avoiding the climb to the next summit and were not running along the ridge. The road was indeed very long and the tarmac hurt our achy legs. At midday the heat was absorbed by the black surface and it felt like we were being battered from all sides. It was tough going. We weren’t alone though. We’d made a friend. A dog. He ran casually with us. Not a sound from him. Just a tongue hanging out. He seemed happy. We joked that he liked cheating on us with the faster runners as he’d run with us for a fair bit then would run off and chase the runners ahead of us before waiting for us to catch him up. He ran alongside us for many kms. Even when we turned off the road and followed the track again.
Here we could see Lake Prespa (the other lake hidden from Ohrid by the mountain range) on our right. Lake Ohrid was now hidden by the mountain ridge to our left somewhere. The views were stunning and we enjoyed looking back at the mountains behind us, wondering what if… and then it happened. Pretty much bang on midday as forecast the sky started to darken. The thunder started to rumble. The rain started to come. Natalia was having none of it and started running harder and faster. Me and Paul couldn’t keep up. Within minutes she was out of sight. We carried on, walk-running in the rain. We caught and passed a few other runners and eventually caught up with her at Assan Gjura.
Here at the aid station we sat under the shelter of the outbuilding along with many other runners from all the different distances. Some were coming, some were leaving. We took a moment to gather ourselves, re-calibrating our focus and thinking of the storms and what was left to run. As the rain eased off we psyched ourselves up and prepared to leave. Only we couldn’t. The volunteers and park authorities advised we didn’t as there were more storms coming. They made the decision to hold us all at the aid station for safety. We sat back down not knowing how long we’d be here. The minutes ticked by. Food was running low but we were all fed up of the same thing now anyway. They lit a fire burner and we all huddled inside a room that became our sauna. After a long time one lonely runner arrived at the aidstation from the 100k. She was very wet. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they let us leave. Initially it was a ‘5 people can go’. Without thinking I selfishly grabbed Natalia and pushed to the front, indicating that us three would leave. My mind was on finishing. My mind was on escaping any risk of not finishing if they cancelled the race. I wasn’t primarily thinking of safety at this point. In my mind we could finish in a few hours and we were descending pretty much for the rest of the race, I felt they wouldn’t be saying we could leave if it wasn’t safe.
We set off. We were legging it. This section was flat at about 1400m asl. Trying to get as far as we could whilst it was dry. Within seconds the many layers we’d put on were coming off again. The ground was a waterlogged and there were puddles in all the tracks and the red earth was equal measures sticky and slippery. The skies however were clear and bright. For now… We ran on from side to side skipping the puddles and mud. Up ahead the sky was getting darker and the feint rumbles of thunder could be heard again. There was a lonely cow, mooing loudly in front of us. We prepared to pass it on widely. It was either distressed or it was warning us. From the left, there was a guy descending quickly from the mountain. He was running in jeans with a bottle of water in his hand shouting and waving. I thought he was chasing after his cow, lost in the storm. Of course he wasn’t. He was trying to get our attention. He directed us to go in the direction he had just come from. He explained that we were running straight into the storms which were about 40 mins away. He told us on the top of the climb there is another guy on the road who will give us further instructions. It was maybe a 10 minute climb, a very slow climb. Natalia went quickly. Me and Paul went slowly. I assumed that this was it, that this was where our race would end. I assumed here they’d be telling us to get in the car and we’d be evacuated from the storms.
As Natalia reached the guy we could hear the instructions he was was providing. He was directing us down another way. This wasn’t game over after all. There was still hope. I woke up from my false misery and we sped up for the last few metres of the climb to join them. He gave us his number for safety and topped us up with coke. Our instructions now were that we’d follow the dirt track road for a few kilometres. Eventually we’d find a turn on our lefthand side marked with the flags and that we should take this route towards Velestovo, the final aid station. He emphasised the path on the left and not the one on the right. The correct route would divert us around the storm and we’d skip the next aid station and head straight to the last one.
We ran on slowly as it was tough. My legs hurt so much. Natalia was fresh and strong and focused on getting down and out of the storms as quickly as possible. I was struggling behind with the inevitable painful ankles. Natalia would run off and wait for us to catch up before carrying on down the road. The route was gradual and not too bad but it was a dirt track and pretty painful on the tired feet. The thunder was growing louder and louder around us and the rain had started yet again. After a while I started to think we’d missed the turn. I check the original route and thought we’d run passed a turn on the that route maybe 1-2 km further back. I couldn’t understand it. How?! We didn’t see anything, we were being alert and would have noticed the marked flags and the escape route! We checked the local maps and could see that this path would bend back towards the storm slightly before connecting with another path which would take us towards the aid station we wanted. We made the decision to carry on and trace this route instead.
A few minutes later we found red flags on both the right and left. This was it! In all my confusion we were doing just fine and hadn’t missed the turn. We turned left as instructed. A few other runners passed us. I was still confused though and it didn’t make too much sense in my head but everyone reassured me that it was right. It wasn’t much further before we hit a little village and Natalia dashed off to the aid station. Me and Paul walked the rest of the path and filmed the view of Ohrid further down. It was beautiful and we could almost smell the finish now. It was pissing down, dark and moody, as we arrived into the aid station. Natalia was a little on edge and uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the sanctuary of the aid station and entering the storms for the final 8km. We reassured her and she emerged from the aid station with us to make the final decent to Ohrid. We made a run for it knowing we’d be finished soon. Far, far sooner than we initially thought. With all the diversions and lack of climbing we’d be coming up short on the distance and finishing whilst it was still light, which was a pleasant thought now.
From here we ran a different route back to Ohrid than which we’d climbed the night before. This one took us through the villages and down some grassy tracks towards the lakeside. The whole way I was behind Natalia and Paul. My legs screaming at me as I kept rolling my ankles on the uneven terrain. At one point I heard them both make some noise and saw Paul pull up suddenly. There were some locals re-cementing the road (during a storm!) and Paul had almost ploughed straight into it. They directed us around and cheered us on our way. Shortly after which we then needed to navigate our way through a herd of goats who were off on their own adventure. Further down we reached the main road of Ohrid. It was flooded. We had a short detour to cross the road around a petrol station to join the path to the lake. Paul went off, making a beeline for the finish. Natalia pushed me hard to get passed the last few 100km runners in our sight. She was running so strong.
Moments later we hit the home stretch and crossed the line, hand in hand. It was done. It wasn’t quite the race we’d hoped for, but the outcome was exactly as planned. At the finish line Dejan, the RD, congratulated us and handed us our medals. It was an incredible experience and an adventure we will never forget.
After finishing, two things were immediately clear to me. Firstly, how accommodating the Macedonians were and how well we were looked after by Dejan, his team and all the volunteers. Personally, I felt safe throughout and never had worries. We knew there would be storms. We knew safety measures were always likely to be activated, but it was the manner in how they were done which was impressive. With runners spread-out over so many different parts of the route it must have been a logistical nightmare to manage. But, we were informed, at registration, at the start of the race and during. The course was very well marked (it was our mistake which made us get lost early on) and the volunteers and Park Authorities were helpful and informative. Whilst we were held at Assan Gjura we were told the organisers were out monitoring the situation and confirming when it would be safe to leave. Having mid aid station diversions to avoid the storms was also something that impressed me. I felt so looked after and cared for.
Secondly, Natalia’s mentality impressed me and I’m so proud of her. She made no secret of her concerns and fear of the storms, in particular the lightening strikes. Yet, she ran, she kept going and she made it to the finish line despite her fears. What impresses me is how strong she is. I don’t share such fears so I will never fully understand what it must feel like to be battling yourself at such a instinctive level. I run without fear so can’t comprehend what it must be like to have your mind working against you when you are tired and exhausted. She never gave up despite the many, many opportunities she had to stop during the race, she just kept going. I’m so proud of her and her strength.
Hardmoors 55, one of a number of events in the Hardmoors race series. These races are set in and around the North York Moors, a place I’d never previously visited, never mind run around. Jon was the architect of this adventure as he looked for an event way back in 2020 to help with his preparations for the CCC. Yep, it’s one of those events on my list of deferrals that, third time lucky, I was now able to tick off.
For the past few years we’d planned for a small group (6 of us) to make this trip. Besides Jon and myself there was also Jess (who we’d not seen in ages), Gif and Reka. Sadly with all the date changes Yvette was no longer able to join us. Jon had arranged a house for us to stay in near the finish in Helmsley (the same place he’d booked two years earlier) and we all met up on the Friday evening arriving full of anticipation for what the adventure would bring. Of course there was messing around and you should always, always, check your wardrobes before you settle in to go to sleep!
It was soon ‘sleepy time’ as we had a rather early wake up call the next day – The organisers had arranged for buses to ferry participants from the finish line to the start in Guisborough. As painful as the early starts and long bus rides can be, I do prefer this set up of point to point races with transport to the start line. This way when you finish there is minimal effort in getting to your bed!
As we arrived into Guisborough, the morning was breaking and it was shaping up to be quite some day. Stepping off the bus we started immediately began stripping off our layers and re-packing our bags. At registration we were formed into queues for drop bags and had to go through the kit check before registration could be completed. In all the races I’d done, I’d never experienced the drop bag being done before registration. I must say how much I approve of this approach. It certainly helps minimise the chances of runners going through registration and mandatory kit checks and then removing kit into their drop bags. It also helped me as I hadn’t prepared any drop bags, so I had one less queue to go through!
Before long we were (trying to) listen to the race director provide the race briefing before jostling for position along the narrow footpath that was the start line. Other than a few flags there was no real marking of the start, certainly no starting arch anyway. I liked it. Minimalist with no unnecessary fath. At 8am we were beginning our 55 mile adventure that would take us all the way back to Helmsley.
As soon as we started, with no reasoning or thought, I started heckling Jon. It amused me. It annoyed him. That amused me more. “Go on Jon”. “You can do it Jon”. “Good luck Jon”. “Keep going Jon”. “Turn right here Jon”. There was nowhere for him to go, squished in with all the other runners on the narrow trails there was no escape for him. I couldn’t help myself. No one else was amused though, just me. And I was immensely amused by it. I’ll do it again and again to whoever I’m running with!
As the footpath came to an end, the first of many, many climbs began as we ascended up alongside Spa Wood. We gently began hiking and made our way up to the beautiful woodland area where it alternated between some flatter single track paths and some small runnable hills. Here the views were breath taking as we traversed towards Guisborough wood and looked back on Guisborough and beyond. Here we’d run for several km as we made our way to Rosebury Topping
The peak of Rosebury Topping came into view and conveniently hid the ‘dip’ that we’d first descend before having to make the climb back up to the summit for a small out and back section. As we began, approaching runners were speeding passed us in the other direction and there were plenty of pleasantries exchanged as we all congratulated each other whilst gasping for air as we powered up the short switch back climb. Over the first few kms our group of runners had kind of separated a little with Reka, Jon and myself ahead of Gif and Jess. At the trig point though we all conveniently met back up and posed for a photo.
From here we repeated the down the back up and cheered on the other runners behind us as those ahead of us had to us. It was then a short run along some easy trails before an enjoyable downhill section into to Kildale, which was the first checkpoint.
The checkpoint set up for the Hardmoors races are quite a unique set up. Whilst they are checkpoints, ultimately the event is more synonymous with a self supported type race. It’s not marked course/route and you have to carry a physical map of the route at all times. In this event there are two drop bags available on the course too. But, these are non returnable and must be ‘small’. They are intended for food only and not kit. So in effect you are stashing your own supplies along the route rather than relying on the checkpoints for fuel. As a result, besides water and squash, the offerings at the checkpoints are quite basic and minimal. I decided not to use drop bags and carried all the food I wanted with me rather than having to plan/think about when I might want access to them. The others all utilised the drop bags and were looking forward to accessing their stash now the first 10 miles or so was completed.
At Kildale we took a few moments as Jon and Reka collected their bags. Then we headed back out and onwards to a large climb back up onto the Moors. Jon and I were in a group chatting to various other runners and we were all commenting on the weather (and food!) as it was now nearing midday and the day was indeed very warm. We were happy and these conditions, despite how though the heat would become, was certainly favourable compared to the usual expected rain, snow and wind experienced on a Hardmoors race in March.
As we chatted Jon and I could see Gif and Reka further up in the distance waving back at us. It wasn’t much further later and we caught them up and carried on again together again and before long we were running passed what I believe was the Captain Cook monument. There were plenty of school kids doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards who were hiking around here and I laughed with one as they played their rock music and cheered us on.
We started to spread out a little after this as Gif dropped back and Jon and Reka raced on ahead of me in the middle. I was struggling to keep Jon and Reka in my sights. event though it was so open and bare on top (with little shade from the midday heat that was picking up). As we followed a sharp turn, looking back we saw incredible views as far back as Roseberry Topping and around the the u shape of the horse shoe which we’d run. It was a beautiful sight. This was a welcome distraction as it was very dusty on the ground and my leg was now hurting quite a bit.
The second aid station was soon upon us (after another fantastic descent) and the marshals had split it so there was water just before the climb started. Those not stopping could refill and go rather than stop at the aid station a little further up the climb. We opted to have a few moments and ate some food whilst chatting with the volunteers who once again were spoiling us. In a box of sweets I found a Wham bar. Result. I’d not had one for years and it was an absolute delight. Another 10 miles or so had been completed.
From here we climbed and then we’re treated to a series of ‘sisters’ or small(ish) ascents and descents in the rolling Moor tops as we navigated along the edge of the hills. Up ahead above us were tens and tens of gliders effortlessly flowing through the sky above. It was mesmerising to watch them glide, gently bobbing up and down above our heads.
Somehow, after may 25 miles or so of rather uncomfortable and painful running, I slowly started feeling better. I knew it meant the pain in my leg was just numb and I was now used to it. Either that or Wham bars having magical healing properties that haven’t been documented! Either way it was a good thing, for now. It meant I could enjoy the downhills a little bit so whilst Jon and I carried on Reka would speed off down the descents and wait for us at the bottom to catch up.
Shortly after this Jon started to feel ill. Almost out of nowhere he stopped to be sick. Something wasn’t right and he seemed to know straight away it was his nutrition (Tailwind). Somehow he picked himself up and found that reserve and toughness to crack on and was able to keep moving, although he was a little quieter than he had been before.
Possibly close to the 30 mile mark, a little over half way through the race, he broke his silence. To mine and Reka’s surprise he muttered the forbidden words “I’m thinking of dropping out”. He said he was 99.9% certain he wouldn’t carry on. Me and Reka were having none of it. We offered some encouragement, slowed and walked with him when he tried to make us go on ahead and told him to rest at the aid station and think it through. We wouldn’t be far from the next checkpoint now.
As we got closer we had a short little section which we shared with another, local, runner. I chatted with him whilst Reka stayed with Jon. I was enjoying the local knowledge he was sharing and he told me he thought the next section, where we’d be heading south after the aid station, was his favourite part of the course. This excited me as it was quite some course so far!
We ran into the village Osmotherley together. This was the second (and final) checkpoint with a drop bag. There was some food on offer and I started filling my face with pizza, rice pudding and plenty of coke. Jon sat and took his time, gathering his thoughts but not eating or drinking just yet. Not long after we arrived, so too did Gif and then Jess. They whole team was together again and we sat, ate and laughed together. Jess was bringing the energy with her infectious smile and laugh. She was in her element and having a great time.
There there was a table of food left behind due to the bag drops which other runners decided not to take with them. I kept going back and helping myself to the best of the leftovers. I was in heaven. It was like an old school tuck shop. I had hula hoops. Tangy Toms. A Freddo and more. I was enjoying the stop and must have clocked up a few extra hundred meters just walking around and back and forth.
Gradually Jon started coming around and eating himself. He’d decided to no longer use the Tailwind and started drinking water. Gif, who like me was covered in salt from the heat of the day, started to panic at the mention of cut offs and made to leave with Jess. There was a complete misunderstand as we were well within the cut off. She thought that we were now up against the final cut off at the next aid station and was worried about making it in time. Either way we sent them on their way and Reka and I stayed with Jon despite his protests. We weren’t leaving him now, I guess we thought there was still a chance he’d convince himself to quit as he had intended too.
After about 45 minutes he was ready to give it a go. So out we went, the three of us together. From here, for the remaining 20 miles or so, we knew it would be a run walk strategy. This suited me too as, whilst I wasn’t in direct pain anymore, I was very conscious of the leg and making it worse than I already had.
Although it was still super hot, Jon seemed a lot better. He was moving a little more freely now and he ran when he could. That suited me to a tee. Reka would bound off at speed whilst we plodded on and then wait for us to catch her up. After a big climb we caught up with Gif again and the four of us jostled and interchanged with various other runners for a few kms. As they had been all day, the views were amazing and we started to see the Moors in a different light (literally) as we started to run into the evening and the Sun’s rays diminished.
It wasn’t long until we were stopping to layer up. The wind proofs and gloves were coming out as without the Sun the temperature started to plummet. It was a good reminder of how fortunate had been that we’d managed to get as far as the evening without needing to layer up!
We ran through many woodlands and more open space moorland before reaching the Yorkshire Gliding Club Airfield where the course would deviate for a slight out and back loop where the final aid station would be. Like many hours earlier we cheered on the runners ahead and they encouraged us too as they ran back towards us. Here we saw some runners who sat near us at the aid station in Osmotherley. They were pleased to see Jon made it back out and cheered him loudly.
The route then took us sharply down hill and through a forest section at Hood Grange Wood. Here there was a runner running in shoes (road shoes) that had broken under the uneven terrain. He said he’d been running for about 30 miles with his heel sticking out the back of the collapsed arch. We were amazed. I certainly don’t think I could have run in a broken pair of trainers like that. Tough going!!
We could then hear the music from the aid station and see the lights set up in the evening darkness. The aid station was a welcome sight. The Marshalls instructed us to take out our head torches (also checking we had them) and helped us refill our water and refuel on snacks. Head torches on we left and climbed back out the steep steps alongside the white horse, which of course we couldn’t see in the darkness .
From here it was a final 9 miles to the finish. It was a slow slog of a section! Throughout, in the darkness we almost took a few wrong turns missing the trail signs which were now slightly more difficult to navigate as our minds wandered off. There was also a long stretch of trail alongside a river (I think) that was littered with toads. There were so many sitting in the darkness that it was very difficult under the torch light to avoid stepping on them. We slowed to a walk here to be sure they weren’t harmed. As we hit some pathed roads Reka ran on ahead and scared runners in front of us with the brightness of her head torch – they thought she was a car coming out of nowhere !)
With a few places gained we powered on for the final few miles. There was one last climb and then it was mostly flat and down hill before we eventually came to the end of the Cleveland way. The day before we’d walked this road and stopped at the ice cream shop which was sadly ,but unsurprisingly, closed (it was around 9pm after all!). A few twists through the village and we were on the last section, a climb to the finish line.
It was a bastard uphill for a few more hundred meters. Not long. Not steep. But we were tired and hungry. For the first time Reka seemed to drain of energy and we laughed that she couldn’t flag so close to the finish. Finally, after what felt like a very long time, we crossed the finish line, well, we walked through the door into the building! A no frills finish line for sure.
We were given our times and our medals, treated to warm drinks and some vegan chilli and sat down with Jess as we waited for Gif to join. Not long afterwards she appeared through the doorway and, for the last time we were altogether at a checkpoint again. This time we only had to leave to walk the few mins back home to our warm beds.
Sometimes I sign up to races and events and then a littler later on I develop a little regret for my decisions. This was one of them. And the regret was for completely pointless reasons really. I signed up to the St Peter’s Way ultra nearly two years ago and multiple delays meant it was now something I’d given very little thought too. I always knew it would come a long, but I’d just be some a little too comfortable without it.
The race was on a Sunday which just meant I’d be more tired than usual at work on the Monday and it was in Essex which is a mission to get too without a car when public transport would be more limited. What made it more of a pain was that the race started in a small town (Chipping Ongar) and finished 43 miles or so further east, on the coast of Bradwell on Sea. The regret was because I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that hassle. But, there was also a little motivation hidden in its logistics also. The organisers (Challenge Running who were amazing by the way!) put on mini buses to take runners from the finish back to the start. Only they were at roughly 3 hour intervals (it’s an hour or so round trip for the driver) and the first was at 14:30 and the last at 20:30. I wanted to make that middle bus at 17:30. That would be around a 9hr 20min finish for 43 miles. Very doable. But, yep, another catch was that the buses were on a first come first served basis. I estimated I’d need to finish around 4pm to be in with a chance of safely securing my place on that bus.
And here is how it went…
Carl and I travelled up to Harrow and stayed the night there on Saturday (yep, had two years to book accommodation near to the start and didn’t!). An Uber to the start the following morning saw us join the low-key race centre and registration located in a small carpark where we collected our bibs. The nice surprise was seeing John at the start who I didn’t realise was running and that he’d done this race before. We chatted a bit and wished each other well for the adventure. The ongoing theme for the day would be me and Carl spending the hours calculating the chances of making the bus. We’d started straightaway sizing up the field of 80 or so runners lining up at the race briefing.
With an uncharacteristic (for a trail race) “on your marks, get set, go!” we joined the runners in an initial single line through the narrow track and the first of many (many!) kissing gates (and stiles) that we’d encounter throughout the day. We’d read about the ‘mud’ of the route and it was apparent early on. The route went through so many fields, massive green fields that were very soft underfoot. They started off nicely and began progressively getting more and more muddy. As always the worst parts were straight after you climb over a sty and then enter the field.
During the race briefing we’d been advised that much of the initial section of the route (with 4 aid stations the route was split into 5 sections each with hand written instructions to follow the route – we stuck to a gpx file!) had changed from previous years and to our benefit we’d be following more closely the original footpath to the at peters chapel. Early on we saw splits in runners going different directions in the fields. We stuck to our route and later chatted to a multi time finisher who confirmed we were indeed following the new and correct route.
As the day progressed we got to experience the great hospitality and support at the aid stations. As we crossed progressively muddier fields and, towards the second aid station, we found ourselves running more and more on our own as the field spread out. We passed through some lovely little villages and also along the Blackwater marina of Maylandsea which broke up the route slightly as we began to leave the muddy fields behind.
It was here we stared to sense we were close to the coast and that all (all 400m!) of elevation was behind us. Yep. Essex is indeed pretty flat. We then came into the final aid station where there we a handful of other runners and we were shortly joined by a chap called Alex who was running his furthest distance to date and had taken a few wrong turns trying to follow the hand written instructions. He tagged along with me and Carl for the remainder of the race.
We let him know our thoughts for the bus. We estimated that only a small fraction of runners would not start, not finish or would have family and a lift from the finish. We assumed that it would be a 15 seater minibus and that therefore we’d probably want to be in the top 35-40 finishers to get on that 17:30 bus. We also didn’t want to bust a gut to finish around 4pm and have to wait until 20:30 to begin the journey home!! Alex was more relaxed and went with the flow and chatted away to us. It was refreshing chatting to Alex and adding a third person to the conversations and hearing about his experience of the day and his runs – he’ll soon be heading off to the Sahara to tackle the Marathon Des Sables. Good luck to him on that beast!
Towards the end of the route we ran along a sea wall. In the distance was a building that we thought could be the finish line (St Peter’s Chapel). It did, from a distance, look way too modern, although we did estimate it was probably the few km away that corresponded with our distance covered. We Were hopeful that the end was in sight!
Also in the distance we’re two other runners. We were tempted to try and leg it after them, but realistically it was beyond us. We wondered if our presence was enough motivation for them to keep pushing to the end too. Either way we continued our run walk strategy which had served us well over the last 8 miles or so.
A few final turns and we could clearly see that the building was indeed the chapel and finish line as the runners ahead turned inland and headed directly to it. Shortly after then the three of us crossed the line and received our welcome from Lyndsey (the RD) and secured our space on the bus. We made it!
In the end we finished just under 8 hours and in positions 31 -33. It went almost exactly to plan. Our estimates were slightly off though as only 4 runners made that first bus and we secured 3 of the remaining 5 seats on the 17:30 and we only just secured our spot – There were 5 other runners who finished within 10 mins of us. I felt bad for them and glad we kept pushing to the end. we had just enough time to ‘cleanup’ and grab some food in the shelter of the Chapel – outside the temperature was rapidly dropping. And what a Chapel it was, a very unique finish to a race indeed!
Our adventure didn’t quite end there as on arrival back in Chipping Ongar it became apparent that taxis were going to be difficult (we were told we’d have a 3 hour race) and the next bus was a bit of a slow journey towards Epping. By pure chance, after a trip to a petrol station for some food, we once more bumped into Alex who very kindly gave us a lift back into London! What a gent! Thanks again Alex!
As always, despite my trepidation about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as always, loved the experience of running somewhere new. Although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I didn’t have Carl by my side throughout to cheer me up through all the mud. Coincidentally this was 2 days short of two years since we first met, in Borneo running with Maverick Race! Happy anniversary Borneo Carl.
At the start of 2021 I wrote my thoughts under a title of ‘A New Dawn’. It turns out it was more of a false dawn. I wrote some shit down and instantly forgot about it. Hey ho, whatever. I talked about consistency and how I was intending to be more structured and consistent. Well that went pretty badly to start with as I began the year with an injury. It did soon fall into into place as the fear of running 100miles in the Pyrenees shocked me into a routine. Inevitably the intensity of training for for that event and the subsequent fatigue after it led to more injuries and down time. Before I knew it I was once more stuck (and still am) in the old habits of running far, followed by not running much and just repeating over and over. Maybe in 2022 I’ll try again. ‘Something needs to change’ I said, I tell you now that what needs to change is the pumpkin of a belly I’m lugging around on the runs – It is getting heavy and bounces about now! I also nattered on about showing respect to running. To some degree that is there, the experience levels keep increasing and the learning that goes with it too. I am also still more than slightly obsessive about it. But I’m more willing to accept that that is just who I am at the moment. I love it, so why shouldn’t I enjoy and obsess about it?
So as I’ve been doing each year, I stop and look back and reflect. 8 of the races I’d planned didn’t happen. I found many others which took their place instead though and, through these, I achieved something else that I mentioned at the start of the year…
I wrote about the big Five-0. Hitting 50. Nope, not my age you cheeky beggars. But a milestone none the less. A pointless one though really, as it is just a number and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. However, I’m using it as a marker, a point in time of you like. A marker to celebrate me. Yep, this is a narcissistic bit of writing and more about me than all the other posts about me which I evidently like to write. I’ll reflect beyond the last year and look back on the past few years since I started taking on endurance events.
So what is this ’50’, well, it is the number of ‘official’ events of marathon distance or longer I’ve completed. Haaa. Told you it was meaningless. There’s a lot to summarise here as I’m going to be touching on each and every one of those runs. If you fancy it, you’ll find links throughout to all the write ups I’ve done after each event.
In some ways this is a reflection on who I am now. How I came to be here, now, writing about having run 50 ‘marathons’. When I think about it, it really is quite something (back slap to me). They say 1% of the population have done a marathon (not sure what kind of bullshit that is, and I’m going to reference it without any research to support it), if that is true, then I’ve achieved something very few do (although I personally know many people who’ve run hundreds!!). So let’s celebrate and indulge a little. Time to reflect as it has been quite the journey…
First off though, I’m going to explain how I define this number. What my definition of ‘official’ really is… You see, there is such a thing as the “100 marathon club”. I looked into it. Personally I think it’s a complete load of bollocks (contradictory given I’m writing about a half century achievement?). From what I’ve understood about it, you register and pay them to become a member, they validate and vet your achievements against their definition of events that qualify. This then gives you the “right” to wear their kit (a twatty tee shirt with ‘100’ on it. Yuk. Naaa thanks). It seems very much like an ‘old boys’ club. Exclusive and elitist and more focused on road running. I may be very wrong, but that’s what my takeaway was when I looked into it. Each to their own eh, but I decided that it is not for me. I believe that you are what you achieve, not what someone else says you’ve achieved! I do agree though that each run only counts once, and a 100 mile run doesn’t count as four marathons!
So I decided to define my own runs, I’ve run the bloody things after all, and I could have cut this a number of different ways. I decided that, for me, the definition of an ‘official’ event/race was one that is paid for. Or more specifically where there is a cost for participation as it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve paid for it. For example, I ran the 50k event at a Salomon festival a few years back, but as a support runner, I was gifted the place to help out during the run. So that counts as other people paid for that run and I would have too if I didn’t work at the event. Another example is a Wild Trail Runners event that was organised. A group of twelve of us ran a marathon along a planned route with a medal for finishers. But, it was free to anyone to join. So that doesn’t count in my tally. Oh, and of course I had to complete the distance set out to run. So yep, that blotch on the running CV, the Limassol marathon, doesn’t count either!
So what is the outcome of this classification? Well it ruled out a surprising amount of runs I’ve done. At the time of writing this, 32 times I’ve run a marathon or longer which I now consider “unclassified” or ‘Training runs’ if you like. Shit, so really I’ve run a marathon or longer 89 times as I write this!! Double back slap for me. I didn’t realise it was quite that many. I vividly recall making the decisions to do the first one!
So time to reflect, let’s break it down. It’s been an (exponential) learning curve for sure…
Pre-2017 – The early years
2013 is when it all really began, back in London. What a way to kick off this journey – The London Marathon. I really did enjoy. After 5 years of rejection I had a guaranteed place (an old rule!). After completing the race I did immediately say that I’d like to do one again one day. I soon came up with the very non-committal challenge of ‘I’d like to do a marathon on every continent’. Plenty of time before I die (hopefully!) to achieve that…
I then didn’t run far again till 2015. Gate-crashing a colleague’s holiday to hike Kilimanjaro, with 6 weeks to go, as we arranged our tour I stumbled across the Kilimanjaro marathon in Moshi. I then had the thought to tick off another continent on that non-committal challenge. A little persuading to change our tour dates and I was in. This was like no other event though. Fresh faced and naïve with only having run London, I was amazed to find (unsurprisingly) there were only 300 or so runners at the start line. Probably about 90% of whom were either Kenya or Tanzanian. 4 hours later with very little time spent running around other people I crossed the line. The next day I began my recovery by hiking the highest peak in Africa.
The same routine followed and I didn’t run much again for the next 18 months or so. Then, in the summer of 2016, I felt the now familiar itch. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to run again and I also wanted to go back to Asia. Time to get another ticked off, and so, after some research I settled on the Bagan temple marathon in Myanmar. I tried desperately to get out of the tour that accompanied the race but I wasn’t successful. On reflection, what a blessing this was. On this trip I first met some friends who’d heavily feature in the adventures to come and, having spent a week with people who travelled with the intent to run, I was surrounded by stories and experiences beyond my wildest imagination. The bug sunk its teeth into me that week.
Yearly Marathon count = 3
2017 – Welcome to the trails
After Bagan, my decisions were made for me. I had friends signed up to Tel Aviv (Feb 2017), Paris (March 2017) and Lisbon (Oct 2017) marathons. I signed up to join them and after returning from Bagan in December I carried on running through the winter to maintain the marathon fitness.
Sometime in the spring of 2017, I first heard about ultras from my great friend Daryl who was also curious about them and directed me towards the Race To The Stones non-stop 100k. My curiosity was getting the better of me and so I signed up to run it with Daryl. He never signed up to the event, but a chain of events had been started and I couldn’t undo the thoughts in my head. I was trained and marathon fit. But unsure about how to approach an ultra. I knew I couldn’t keep running at the marathon pace I was now used to and struggled on each run to slow down. So I stated reaching out to run with other people. ‘Run With Dai’ was born. In the lead up to July’s race I ran my first ultra of 30 miles in solo laps around Richmond My first non-event marathon distance! Then I just dived straight in to the 100km distance, completing RTTS in 11.5 hours. The feeling was unbelievable, I was buzzing afterwards.
Shortly after the race, the itch was beginning to take control and I remember skiving in work one day looking at other 100km events. I stumbled across the SVP100 which was 3 weeks away and I signed up. I felt the training was there and would naturally just carry over. I misjudged this race big Time! Being my second trial race I hadn’t yet understood how different they could be. The set ups, the organisation and aid stations, the terrain, elevation. Everything! Everything is incomparable between trail events. This run battered me (I was ruined for weeks afterwards with a bad back) and took some 13+ hours.
As the year went on I felt I would continue the running and looked forward to 2018 where I began planning to do a marathon each month. I quickly started booking events and soon had 6 in the diary including my next world major in Berlin for Sept 2018.
Then, in December that year, a colleague introduced me to The North Face Never Stop London – community. I became a regular and met many, many people I now call friends. Jana introduced me to a series of trial events called UTMB and that registrations would soon open. It turned out those two 100km races I’d completed gave me enough points to apply to one of the races – the CCC. Another 100km event in the Alps. She also invited me along to their weekend runs and I soon started trail running most weekends with a group of (at the time) strangers. Welcome to the trails!
Yearly Marathon count = 5 (+2 unofficial)
2018 – Chasing times
And so began the next chapter of my running. The more I ran with other people, the more time I spent running on trails, the more I fell in love with enjoying running. Running became easier (but never easy!) as I ran with very little pressure.
As the year began I soon I started filling the rest of the year with trail and ultra distances instead. Including, The CCC as I got lucky first time in the ballot. Admittedly I was afraid, very afraid. I’d never been to the mountains before never mind running in the Alps! A new challenge lay in wait and it was one I couldn’t quite comprehend back then.
I soon started ticking off the marathons and with each one my finish time decreased substantially. First there was the Muscat Marathon in Oman (where Angela and Stephan from Myanmar joined me!), followed by the Malta marathon in February. Come March I was heading to the Limassol Marathon in Cypress with a 3:02 minute PB. For the first time ever a ‘sub 3’ hour marathon became a a recurring thought in my mind. It was very possible, and with with little thinking or planning I ‘went for it’.
This was a pivotal moment for me. A moment of sheer ignorance and naivety. I was now taking marathons for granted and thought I could just do anything. Yes, trail running and regular long running had improved my speed remarkably. But to think I was ready to run 26 miles averaging 6:52min miles was stupid. But not as stupid as the plan I concocted to get around it… knowing I’d struggle to be that consistent, I decided to front load the run and “bank some time”. So I ran faster than I believed I could – I ran the first 10 miles at 6:20 min miles and the next ten at 6:40 min miles to ‘bank’ those minutes. I told you it was stupid. I blew up spectacularly. So much so I woke up in a medical tent having passed out (I guess – I’ll never know what exactly happened) at the 25 mile mark. My first DNF and a wake up call. I vowed never to put myself in such a position again and wouldn’t chase times, care about the figures on a watch nor to put myself at risk.
I was back running the following month and continuing my monthly adventure with the Brighton Marathon and then the Helsinki Marathon in Finland. Leading up to September’s alpine adventure I ticked off a few more ultras including my first trip to Brecon for the Brecon Ultra and completing the trilogy of Threshold events with the Race to the Tower and Race to the King events. This was then followed by my third and fourth 100k distance events in the Freedom Racing Serpent Trail and back once again to the SVP100. I was hooked and loving it. I was even persuaded into a trip to Chamonix to experience some of the course before the CCC race and I am so glad I did. A learning experience for sure.
When it came around to doing the CCC I felt like a fraud. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and I was suffering from it at the start line with thousands of other runners from all over the world. I didn’t feel like I belonged. Truth is though, I did. I’d earned my place at that start line and I was there having trained hard (although the more experienced version of me doesn’t think the events I used to gain the points should be valid – they don’t prepare you for the dangers and rigour of the mountains!). Looking back, those nerves weren’t justified and perhaps I just didn’t enjoy all the hype around this “prestigious” event. I came through the CCC well within the cut offs and did, despite what I’ve said and written, enjoy the event. A huge achievement and perhaps another milestone on the running cv.
Two weeks later I was back on the road for the Berlin Marathon. I felt good. I was at the start line with zero pressure having just completed what I felt was a far bigger and more significant challenge. My recurring thought was ‘I just ran for 21 hours, I can run for 3’. Three. Three hours. I wasn’t thinking about additional minutes. Just three round hours. I ran. I was happy. I was comfortable and enjoying it. I just kept going, kept smiling. I was very consistent and I can remember the moment when I knew I was going to break 3 hours. The difference from 6 months earlier in Limassol? Just the lack of pressure. I clearly excelled in it. I laid that demon to rest.
I was deep into the ultra trails now and was signing up to races for 2019 as soon as they became available. Without thinking, with no long term plan, I was signing up to races that were longer, involved more elevation and which would take me on more adventures to incredible places. I was hooked. The next phase of my running I was like an obsessive collector.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+4 unofficial)
2019 – Bigger is better
Wow what a year this was! 2019 started straight away in January with the Country to Capital ultra which finishes in London. Here I met Paul for the first time who’d soon become a fixture in these achievements. This was a race as part of my plan for my biggest challenge yet – The Trans Gran Canaria. This would be the first time I’d go further than 100km, a fair bit further too as it was 128km in some rather challenging terrain! Another whole new experience and steep learning curve in what remains one of the mentally darkest, grumpiest runs I’ve ever completed.
There was no rest though as the next trip saw me head to Italy for the Sciacche Trail in Cinque Terre which was another race to prepare me for what was to come – MIUT, the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. This was a bucket list event. Ever since I saw some pictures of the landscape I was hooked on the idea of running it. at 115km long this event had the largest elevation profile of any I’d done so far. It surpassed my expectations and remains one of my favourite running experiences to date.
By June I was preparing for the next big event which was the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. 115km in the Dolomites. Another spectacular, and physically painful, event. This was followed up with my 3-star achievement at the SVP 100 again at the beginning of August before heading abroad once more for the next set of events.
Then, ignoring everyone telling me how stupid it is to do a mountain ultra 3 days before the biggest run of my life (felt like every run in 2019 was the ‘biggest run of my life’!), I headed to Switzerland for the Ultraks Matterhorn Ultra. I loved this event and felt free running in the shadow of the Majestic Matterhorn all day. Afterwards I slowly made my way to Chamonix once again, this time for the TDS by UTMB. This was something quite remarkable and incredibly satisfying. Despite the difficulty of this race, I felt (mostly) alright throughout and, after a long sleep, OK afterwards too. This will forever be possibly one of the most enjoyable ultras I’ve ever done.
What wasn’t enjoyable was the Tallinn Marathon in Estonia two weeks later. Everything about that event was slow and painful, especially the cobbled streets of the Old Town. The exertion of the TDS was clearly being felt as I pounded the pavements and cobbled Estonian streets for 5 hours.
Thankfully, by the time I headed back to Poland a few weeks later for the 150km Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, my body had recovered enough and the conditions of the event weren’t quite up to the muddy standards they tend to expect. This is an incredible, lesser known event that is very well organised and takes you on a journey through some beautiful hilly landscapes of southern Poland. It was this race that I think I properly felt tiredness and fatigue during a race for the first time. I remember maybe 10km from the finish I was struggling to keep my eyes open and knocking back copious amounts of caffeine to keep me going!
To finish the year off it was a shorter and more local event as I took on the Hurtwood 50 with Nick in what would be his first ultra. The similarities and familiar feelings were there as I experience Nick beginning to go through the same motions as I did a year or two earlier. What a year 2019 was indeed! Having never run more than 100km before, I did so 5 times that year and each time in a spectacular location. There were also another 5 solo ultra adventures including an epic 30miler from the Brecon Beacons to my Parents house on Christmas day. This was never the plan, but I couldn’t get enough. The ‘bigger the better’ seemed to be my new approach. But ultimately these were all races that excited me and it was that which enticed me to enter them in the first place – I’m not doing events for the sake of it. There are many events each week (even on most days of a week) where you can run laps on a course to make up a marathon that is eligible for the ‘100 marathon club’. I have no interest in that. I want to combine my running with a sense of adventure and explore somewhere new in doing so. Yes the events I enter are all mainstream, but if you’re not into your trail running then they need some explaining. I loved it. This was my passion.
In 2019 however I realised that, the more I ran though, the less I could ‘run with Dai’. Most runs were now social runs and often in groups though. I simply didn’t have the time to arrange to travel and meet individuals for runs that would often now be quire ‘short’ (it is all relative!). So it’s taken a back seat instead as I chase personal glories and the thrill of finishing events that challenge me in new ways.
Travel was clearly a big part of my running lifestyle too. I wanted to go where the new experiences would be. Run in places that scare and excite me. Places I can fondly look back on with epic memories. I promised myself to continue doing just that.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+5 Unofficial)
2020 – Miler Man
On the topic of travelling for running, midway through 2019 an opportunity to travel with friends to New Zealand presented itself for the beginning of 2020. I didn’t need too much persuading, I was in. I went to sign up to the 100km event with everyone else, then, I saw the finishers medal for the 100 mile event – A jade stone pounamu – I thought fuck the 100km, I wanted that pounamu and I signed up to the 100 mile distance at the Tarawera Ultra Trail event instead. There was my motivation to finish right there!
The obsession with running carried on and I ticked off that first 100 mile event (and later that year the second one too). I followed up the NZ adventure with 10 days running in Borneo with the Maverick Race team. I’d done a few of their events by now and really liked everything about them and what they offered. Borneo had always been a place I wanted to visit and this was the perfect opportunity to do so, combining it with my love of running. The week ended spectacularly with the 109km Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon. I’m not sure I’ll ever run in such heat and humidity ever again!
Looking back, I was so fortunate to squeeze those trips and two events in before March and when the global impacts of Covid started to become clear. This naturally led to a year (and more!) of disruption and as races started to be cancelled, I looked for different ways of getting my running kicks without the travel adventures. I embraced the local running and found many incredible places that are within my running reach. 12 times in 2020 I found myself running my own ultra challenges, including an 80 mile loop around London with a good buddy Paul as we decided to run the entire Capital Ring route.
Later in the year as restrictions started to relax, I’d managed to sign up to numerous other events to replace those that had been cancelled or postponed. The North Downs Way 100 was one of them and turned out to be a long and arduous trek as the British weather decided to try and top the temperatures I’d experienced in Borneo now many months ago.
I followed this up with the excellent Eden Valley Ultra, the Pilgrim’s Marathon in Farenham and trips to both the Peak district and Dorset for the Maverick X series Peak District and Maverick X Series Jurassic Coast. Throughout the year as I was ticking off more events and when I realised I was creeping close to this 50 milestone. It was probably late summer when I started thinking about it and came to the definition I summarised earlier. The way things were going, with more events signed up too, I’d hit 50 before the end of the calendar year. That obviously didn’t happen in the end though and here I am now a year later reflecting on that achievement.
Yearly Marathon count = 8 (+12 Unofficial)
2021 – New Adventures
Just like the summer of 2020, there was a long pause on mass events and it wasn’t until April that I did my first organised event of the year. Up until then it was a few more months of local trails and exploring new places I could reach from my doorstep as well as some recces of routes for other events scheduled for later in the year.
One of my favourite places to run near to home is Coulsdon and the Happy Valley. There are so many different trails and ways I can get there from home and its also feasible to venture down and along sections of the North Downs Way too. I spent a lot of time running around Caterham also and decided this would be a great place to start the ‘Centre of the Universe‘ ultra organised by Camino. A mass event where the runners dictate where they start and what route they take to reach the finish at the ‘centre of the universe’ (or Hackney!). I loved this concept and had a great time running with a group of friends (and Bruce!) all day.
Come may I was once more racing on the North Downs Way as I ran the North Downs Ridge, the third of my events with Freedom Racing who do an excellent job! I then ran the 100km Ultra X Spring Series in Haselmere with Ged and then, in June, I was heading back to a Maverick race with the return of their X Series Exmoor ‘The Beast’. I’d never been to Exmoor before and it was an incredible place with some absolutely stunning trails to explore. In between these two events I fancied something a little different so ran the length of the Downs Link from Guildford to Shoreham-by-Sea. Whilst it was nice to explore somewhere new, this one was for the brain. It was flat and straight and the terrain consistently gravel tracks. I knew it would be a mind-bender but that was all good training in my eyes.
That training would soon be put to good user as the year’s big event was looming in the not too distance future. First though, another Camino Ultra event with their Lea Valley Ultra, another run ending in their universe of Hackney.
From here it was a few weeks of stressing about travel requirements, testing and worrying about phantom injuries. At the beginning of July I headed out with Paul and Darryl to a new event Val D’Aran by UTMB in the Pyrenees. For the third time I’d be running a 100 miles, I never planned it to become a regular thing. This time though I’d be doing it in one of the most technical places I’d run and would have to overcome 10,000m of elevation for the first time. It is unquestionably the hardest event I’ve ever done. It took 47 hours and was basically a long distance hike to the finish. Though as the hours ticked by, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that finish line!
After VDA I made one of the most sensible running decisions of my life, I did the 50km event at the SVP100 instead of my favourite 100km! Ok, perhaps not so sensible seeing as I ran a marathon with Nick the week before and self diagnosed myself with an Achilles injury. Still, it felt slightly better at the SVP. I’m useless at resting and I soon signed up to some more events though and next was my first trip to the Lake District to run the Grand Tour of Skiddaw with Jon. Here I sampled the best soup I’ve ever had in my life! you need to sign up to this event just four the Soup that Gaynor, the RD, makes. you won’t regret it. The race is pretty ace too.
After the lakes I also ticked off another place I’ve been trying to get to for a while and ran an ultra around the Malvern hills with Lauren. She was soon heading off to achieve phenomenal things at the Marathon Des sables, whilst I was back out with Nick once more for his longest run to date – the Centurion Chiltern Wonderland. We had such a great time running a big loop around the Chilterns and it was a great feeling to see him run so confidently and use all his experience to great success.
After dialling it back a little and getting into a semblance of a running routine again, it would soon all be disrupted once more as a few of us broke free and headed to Turkey for the exceptional Cappadocia Ultra Trail. In Urgup I took on the 120km CUT and had a mixed time to begin with before finishing strongly in what has to be one of the rewarding and most incredible events I’ve done.
I then squeezed in another Maverick race, their Frontier South Downs with Nick before getting ready for my final event of the year… Sadly, the Cheviot Goat didn’t happen due to terrible unforeseen circumstances with major storms in the area causing devastation the week before. After 6 hours of travelling, we were notified of the cancellation when we were just an hour away and 3 hours before registration was due to begin. We made the most of our trip though and planned our own, shorter 50km run in the Cheviot Hills instead.
With the year almost over, I made one last attempt to squeeze in another adventure whilst I was home in Swansea for Christmas. After being banned from running for a week, I desperately needed that escapism so persuaded my parents to Taxi me to the coast and I ran the entire length (55km) of the Gower Way path.
Yearly Marathon count = 11 (+9 Unofficial)
Well, I’ve mumbled off on a tangent and a right ‘ol trip down memory lane! What was suppose to be a reflection on 50, has turned into a reflection on my running journey (hate that phrase!) as a whole. As I type this, The Beast by Maverick, the X-Series Exmoor was my 50th official Marathon. At the end of the year the official count is at 57 (41 ultras, 16 marathons). My unofficial is standing at 89 (64 ultras, 25 marathons). Phwooar.
That is over 4,100 km of running official events (>5,500km unofficial) in 20 different countries (on 4 different continents) visited purely for running. I guess that non-committal challenge I set 8 years ago is well underway now! It is hard for me not to look at the distance per event too. I know I said each event counts once, but over those 57 events, the mean distance is 73km which certainly is significant in that the number of longer distances has substantially increased in the last 3 years!
Each of these events has beaten me up in new ways. The Trans Gran Canaria attacked my mind (and feet!). The Madeira Island Ultra Trail destroyed my quads, Lavaredo wrecked my feet. The TDS pushed me longer than I’d ever ran before. The Lemkwoyna Ultra Trail pushed me through the mud, the cold and the tiredness of the Polish mountains. Tarawera sent me deep into the darkness of the bush and Borneo brutalised me with the intense heat and humidity and then there was Val D’Aran which was like nature declared war with my body and mind. Just when you think you’ve experienced it all, the technicalities of the Pyrenees shows you there is so much more!
So what now… More of the same obviously. The path continues into 2022. It won’t stop here. 2022 is already full of more plans and adventures. Maybe I’ll get to an ‘official’ century one day. Maybe I won’t. But for now, this is me. This is my lifestyle of choice. It’s not without sacrifice nor stress. But that’s within my control. I love nothing more than getting a bag of food and clothes together and exploring somewhere new for the first time.
A Maverick Race event is always a guaranteed great day out. There’s no point me repeating the words I’ve used so many time before about how fabulous the team are, the meticulous organisation of the events, the friendly and supportive volunteers, their amazing routes or the abundance of freebies and finishers items. Just sign up and experience it for yourself.
One of the things that attracted me to this particular event was the route. Based in the South Downs, the route took runners onto some of the lesser trodden paths away from the more mainstream South Downs Way. Looking at the map before I signed up I could see it would take me to places I’d not run before. So it was a great opportunity to explore some new areas.
Once more I headed down to the race with Nick after an early start. We rolled up, collected our bibs and casually walked over the start line five minutes after all the other runners had set off. I love the rolling start window the events now have! The cut-offs are very generous and the vibe of these events is very relaxed and friendly.
It wasn’t long before we’d caught the rest of the pack as the trails began with some single track paths and inevitably some bottlenecks formed. We squeezed passed a few larger groups and settled into our own grove as we wound through the forest paths of Slindon and then Houghton forest.
Somewhere along the forest tracks we ran past Jake for the first time that day. He was out in the open, partly camouflaged by some bushes, taking pictures before we soon arrived at the first aid station. From here we turned away from Houghton and began a more common section as we ran up the South Downs with its rolling hills and wide open spaces. The radio masts at Gatting Beacon visible up ahead.
After a while of running along the downs, we descended from Cross Dyke and soon came upon the second aid station at the Cadence cafe. We took a quick stop to refuel and fill our water before we began a climb back up to the hills again. Here we found Jake once more and stopped for a quick chat. We joked about my lack of enthusiasm for jumping shots and he proved the quicker man, capturing me with a teasing jump. 1-0 Jake.
The hills were gentle but long and Nick started to hit some rough patches. He’d been recovering from that mad cold going around as well as a week holidaying through all the whiskey distilleries in Scotland. This was his second run since the Chilterns 50 (the other being a marathon) so he always knew it would be a struggle today. I ran ahead and would wait for him to catch up. I kept repeating this, probably to his annoyance.
There were plenty of hills, including a lovely leaf lined downhill. I bundled down whilst Nick moaned behind me. ‘It’s dangerous’ Nick kept repeating. Admittedly the damp leaves made it a slippery descent. The downhill was inevitably followed by a steep incline. This time it was Phil who was hiding in the trees and waiting with his camera to capture the pain in the runners faces. A brilliant spot indeed.
This section was the longest between aid stations and we knew we still had a long way to go before we could replenish our water. All through this section we played leapfrog with other groups and pairs of runners. We chatted and joked our way along with them. The joke’s weren’t so amusing though as we slowly made our way hiking up a long sealed tarmac road. All the runners were hoping the aid station wouldn’t be far away as we all now needed a top up of fluids. Thankfully we soon came upon it, much to everyone’s relief.
After a little party at the aid station we set off again. From here it was 10k to the next one. We were in better shape now and ran some solid sections again through forest tracks and paths near East Dean. As we looped around Upwaltham we were greeted with a huge down hill into the final aid station which I bombed down with joy. I could tell here that many runners had now had enough and were ready for the finish. Much to their delight we had one more steep climb to get through first as we made our way from the aid station to West Wood. This sapped all the fun out of it for everyone around us and the moans were audible way behind us as more runners started the climb.
From here it was back to the dense forest tracks and for us plenty of stop start running from here until the finish. The rain started to come down and we forced ourselves to power through the open fields to get out of it and back to the shelter of the forests at the other side. At the end of the field Brittany was waiting in the cold, holding the gate open for runners with the great news that it was only 1km to go. We kept going, trotting on towards the finish line. As we rounded the corner back from Slindon Estate back into the college we pushed and shoved each other, wrestling before finally crossing the line a show for the crowd. A fist bump of thanks to Justin, Ben and Paul from the Maverick Team for another awesome race.
Another awesome day was finished and crowned the day off with a pizza for the ‘bearded wonders’ from the awesome chulli pizza team.
The Cappadocia Ultra Trail (CUT) is a 119km trail run in the heart of Turkey. Set in the Cappadocia region, runners do a sort of figure 8 from Urgup. Exploring the historic landscape as they traverse the high plateaus and valleys from one side of Cappadocia to the other. The terrain in the region is made up of ‘tuff’ – a thick ash (from ancient volcanic eruptions) that solidified. In many places, millions of years of wind and water erosion has left behind incredible structures (like the Twin Fairy Peaks) and in others, humans carved the malleable material into vast networks of caves, living quarters and other structures, both above ground and below. A remarkable region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like the course itself, the CUT for me was a race of two halves. The spoiler in my story is that the first half was the more difficult experience and, unusually, I finished the race much stronger than I started.
Each race is an experience and one to reflect on. Each time we run we learn something a little bit more out ourselves. This is why I like ultra running so much. I don’t think it ever actually gets easier. Hopefully we just get stronger and wiser and are able to deal with the challenges better. Going into the race I already new some mistakes I’d made even before I’d stepped a foot over the start line. I thought it would be my struggle to shake a mucus-y cold from the week before that would make the race harder. Turns out it was my own planning. I’d mentally prepared for 24 hours of running and, being further East than usual, and the sun setting earlier, I’d brought mostly caffeinated Tailwind. For some reason I didn’t question my choice to bring so much. And so I started with two bottles of caffeinated Tailwind at 7 in the morning. I was junked up and, along with the multiple morning coffees, It went straight through me! That exciting story unfolds as I recount the morning’s adventures…
The start line was a breeze. With about 20 minutes before the race start we’d walked down from the cave hotel we were staying in nearby, dropped off our bags and bumped into Sammy, Sarah and Harry. 5 minutes later we were waiting in the numbered holding pens and ready to go. The race began with a steep uphill section along the roads as we’d leave Urgup. I didn’t want to run the hill but was caught up in the dash of runners (and two stray dogs who’d some how made their way into the starting pens with the runners!). Before he’d shot off, Paul had explained that the trails were fairly narrow early on and that we could expect some bottlenecks. So I stuck with it, huffing and puffing my way up.
It was soon over and at around 7:30 in the morning we were running on the dusty trail paths with incredible views of the area and hundreds of hot air balloons floating in the sky above Goreme. Having taken a hot air balloon ride the day before it was a surreal experience to now be running the trails we’d seen from above. The trails weaved through the rock formations and faster more confident runners bounded past, hoping from rock to rock as the rest of us followed in single file down the gullies carved out as paths between them.
My morning mistakes immediately started to hit me as I could feel my stomach cramping. Too soon I repeated to myself internally. Too soon. I sipped the Tailwind solution, trying not to take the full caffeine payload too early, saving plenty of it for the later stage of this section. Soon we reached the first aid station situated along a road as we left the town of Ibrahimpasa and I topped up on water, watering down what was left of the existing Tailwind in one bottle and switching to the basic lemon flavour in the other, before carrying on whilst ramming some cake into my mouth.
The route took us down through the town and onto a path at the back of the houses/caves. The two dogs were still running with us and Coren caught me up. We ran together a little while weaving through the back paths, duck-walking our way through some tunnels and cave systems before we began the largest climb of the first half of the race and then making our way up and over a major road which had armed police stopping the traffic for runners. The route then took us down onto a phenomenal down hill trail through some white chalky rocks. It was steep and slippery. Here the runners were split into the more hesitant and the clearly very confident ones who bounded passed the rest, bouncing from side to side.
My body screamed at me the whole way as I looked for a place to escape off the trail. The landscape was barren and there was nowhere to grab a moment of privacy and I struggled on, no doubt pulling some questionable faces. A short while later the rocky section was over and we entered a section of golden forest. I saw my opportunity and took it. A sacrifice to the God of Thunder needed to be made. Relieved, I emerged back out and joined the train of runners. This section, leading to Goreme was glorious as the yellow leaved trees shone in the light of day and the trail teased its way through the forest.
The route led us up and into Goreme, where I caught back up with Coren and Yvette who’d passed me. We ran together through Goreme, recognising it from the previous morning where we’d floated over the day before on our Balloon ride. Leaving Goreme we were stuck behind a smelly garbage truck on a narrow lane which turned my stomach even more. I thought I’d be over my issues now, but the last few kms had made me think otherwise. I wasn’t well that was for sure and the initial sacrifice had been rejected. We weren’t far from the next aid station but I didn’t know what to expect and felt unpredictable so was keeping my eyes peeled again.
We began the next, steep climb to the aid station in the town of Uchisar. Along the way was a tap, I filled my bottle to drink from, before deciding it probably wasn’t the best idea, so poured it over my head instead. As I reached the aid station I bid farewell to Coren and Yvette and went toilet hunting. After some language barriers and misdirection, I eventually found one in a Mosque. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary and I was thankful for the privacy and a running tap. I washed my face and emptied an absurd amount of mucus and dust out of my nose before setting off out and hoping my body and mind would now work together.
With the delivery complete, my attention turned to the second issue or mistake I’d made and which had been masked by my previous distractions. Knowingly, I made a poor choice of footwear for the race – the Adidas Two Ultra Parley. A Good shoe that is comfy and decent for hard packed trails, but I find lacking in both stability and support. I took a risk and it was slowly proving to be a bad choice as the laces were causing pain in my metatarsals. Occasionally, sharp pain would shoot through my foot and I’d limp forward. I was going to have to address this soon, but for now I was running OK and the next aid station wasn’t far away as it was a short section of about 6 km as we’d loop around to the other side of Goreme.
I put my foot issues to the back of my mind vowing to loosen the laces when I next stopped. With my mind preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about those 6km other than passing a horse ranch and feeling like the shackles had been removed. My body was relieved and after 30k I was able to focus on the running. I caught up with Coren and Yvette again as we hiked some gentle climbs in the heat of the day. The sun reflecting back off the white ground. I mentioned I’d not used suncream and Yvette said she had some she’d give me at the aid station too. Soon I was sitting on the side of the road creaming up. The metatarsals on my left foot were screaming at me. I used the rest break as a chance to loosen those laces which I think were adding pressure to my foot (there is no padding on the tongue of these trainers). It helped a little. But before setting back out I recognised the next challenge I was facing (or soon to face) – with nearly 40k of running complete I realised I had eaten very little. After a huge breakfast, I wasn’t yet hungry, but soon would be. I grabbed some satsumas which were delightfully juicy and started to eat some of my snacks knowing that I was going to have to eat more to keep going!
Despite thinking I’d be low on energy from not eating, from aid station 3 I felt like I was flying. Besides the pain in my foot which I was still feeling, I was running carefree. There were some more incredible trails through woodlands and I overtook a few runners as I enjoyed the gentle downhills and small climbs. We went through some more fantastic rocky sections with huge caves (no ducking to get through these), as we ran passed what I think was the ‘Pigeon Loft Cave’. After the woodlands I emerged onto a long dusty/sandy straight back out in the open. I plodded on and started to notice it was a bit more windy now. I say a bit, I mean really windy. Up ahead I could see the dust swirling on the path and then it hit me. The wind. The dust. The combination. I could barely keep my eyes open even with my head turned away and facing down. I caught a glimpse of the sky, it was grey. A storm of some sort had hit us. I really hoped it wouldn’t last!
The sun cream I’d recently applied meant the sand stuck to me. I was covered. Every time I went to drink I had a mouth full of dust as an accompaniment. Eventually I broke off the path and was now crossing a field with the wind behind me. I passed Sarah as we began another climb.
The climb was pretty scenic. Further up ahead there was a guy I recognised from Madeira two years ago – Maarten. We ran together a bit and swapped stories of the last two years and races (including both being at Val d’Aran a few months earlier). We were talking about how hot it was and how much water we had when a girl came up from behind, clearly struggling with the heat and pleaded if we had any water to spare. Luckily, knowing this was a longer section, I’d filled a third soft flask so had a spare 500ml which I gave her. She drank nearly all of it in seconds, gratefully thanked us then vanished off into the distance. She would have been one of the lead runners in the shorter 38km race which started a few hours after we did. Not long later we came across a make shift water station before the course split for the 38km race to head back to Urgup more directly as we detoured off to Cavusin.
We went left at the course split and began another scenic but slightly more technical trail that undulated along and down the side of the mountain. Mesmeric views of red rock formations were all around us as the trail led down to the next aid station where I continued to address my nutritional problems. I grabbed a full bottle of water, some coke, more satsumas and hot lentil soup and went to find myself a place to sit along a wall. I’d started to fill my belly as Maarten arrived and shortly later Yvette, completing the Madeira reunion. After a few mins I left them both sitting in the shade and carried on.
The next section towards aid station 5 began with a big steep climb as a snake of runners weaved up to the top of the mountain we’d just circumnavigated. It was very hot now in the middle of the day and the climb was exhausting. Up top the paths traced the edge of the mountain as we made our way back along the top, almost to where the course split had happened a few hundred metres lower down. The views were spectacular and way down below I could see runners on the trails we’d arrived on. I wondered to myself how far behind me they were. It would only be a few miles for sure.
The top of the mountain was fairly flat but rocky. I mixed up the running and walking as the trails were so visible so far ahead I couldn’t mentally commit to keep running it all. Eventually there was a very steep but short descent and we arrived at the next aid station. A small tent halfway up the mountain. As I sat and drank more and ate some food, I got chatting to two guys from Yorkshire. I wished them well as I left and began the last section of the first half of the race back to Urgup.
As I drank from one of my refilled Tailwind bottles, I noticed another error I’d made where I’d mislabelled a Tailwind portion and instead of lemon I had another caffeine one. Despite feeling more settled, it worried me a little and I didn’t want to repeat the morning’s mistakes which were still very fresh in my memory. So I tried to make sure I’d drink from that bottle last and prolong when I took in more caffeine. Thankfully it was only another 8k to the halfway point and I wasn’t likely to need a full litre.
The route was pretty as we traversed lots of gradual ups and downs and undulated along trails between farmland and areas of modern housing. There was lots of walking and I was starting to feel the effect of not fuelling early on. I knew I’d need to continue that process of addressing the imbalance at halfway, this time with more substance. As I walked I began talking to Omar from Jordan who was doing his first Ultra, the 63km. He was so friendly and smiley and enjoying his race, knowing he was on the home stretch. Shortly after seeing, as we approached the iconic Twin Fairy Chimneys, the 38km course re-joined our route and there were loads of other runners surrounding us. I had a momentary boost as I powered passed a bunch of them and felt a surge of arrogance and confidence in my performance and race. A timely mental boost to see me through to the halfway point!
We then reached another major road crossing manned by the police. I can see now that it is the same road from earlier in the day, just many miles further along. The Police stopped a car for me to pass and the driver started shouting out the window. It was Sammy. Amazing timing. I then descended down the red bricked pavement to the aid station. Wincing with pain as my foot broke my stride and technique. I’d been adapting my running for the passed two sections but now on the hard ground I was more than a little worried that the damage may done already.
Into half way I went. Sarah was already there and Sammy busy supporting and getting her ready to head back out. I grabbed my bag and went straight for the food asking for “everything”. I had some soup, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and a giant potato to go with it. I then found a place on the grass to sit in the shade and went about executing my on-the-fly strategy. I removed my shoes and socks and let my feet catch some air whilst I ate. There was a blister that would need taking care of on my little toe. I’d been ignoring it as it had been giving me grief for a while and it was clear now why. A blood blister.
In between eating I’d clean and fix myself up – a wet wipe shower, removing dodgy tape from my toes that had peeled loose, reapplying it and addressing the blister. Yum. Yvette and Maarten had arrived and we all joked as I cramped trying to reach my feet. I ate the dry potato by dunking it in the soup. I was conscious I needed more salt intake too so grabbed some more cheese and finished off with a GU energy waffle, a bit of cake and some more juicy satsumas for dessert. A good feast was had. Eventually, 15mins longer than planned and an hour after arriving, I set back out with a change of trainers (Inov8 Trailroc).
From halfway I felt good. The change in trainers immediately helped my foot with the greater padding and support offered by the ever trusty Inov8s. The route crossed the road and onto a trail with an immediate short but very steep sandy decline. I was covered in stand as gravity pulled me down at speed I shouldn’t have after 60 odd kms of running. Great. I needed to stop and take off my shoes already. I found what looked like a rock and sat down. It was just a mound formed of the sand/dust though and it collapsed under me. I picked myself up, carried on and tried another rock with more success.
I remember running passed some cows in an enclosure as this section of the route led us more ‘off path’ and we ran through many fields and farmland. A few times we crossed back and forth over a small river. For a short while I was chatting to a guy from Cardiff as we spurred each other on through the lumpy terrain. We joked about the derby game that would happen on Sunday and I teased that we can’t be friends or run together as I dashed off ahead. The route then took us up the river we’d been criss-crossing. I ran up the river by following the narrow banks and jumping side to side trying to avoid getting wet feet. It was a long and smelly stretch that required a bit of focus as I didn’t want to step in the water as it didn’t seem all that clean and I was thinking of the open wounds on my toes which I’d sliced up at the halfway mark. I was glad to be navigating this in the light which was now diminishing as the sun was setting,
I was beginning to feel stronger now and able to run consistently with no pain in my foot any more. As I ran I passed a woman and few guys together as we climbed another of the few smallish inclines this section had. They cheered me on and shortly afterwards we reached another town, Mustafapasa, as the moon took over now the sun had set. As we left the town and ran back onto the trail I put my torch on and gained pace on runners ahead who were still struggling with the low light or stopping to search in their backpacks for their torches. One guy clearly tried to keep up with me, probably knowing we weren’t far from the next aid station, and piggy-back on the light from my head torch. I was having none of it though and picked up the pace. I could hear him grunting as he dropped further and further back. I didn’t do it purely out of spite, but more so because of the sound of his poles. The sound of other runners’ poles tip-tapping on the ground really annoys me in races.
From here I ran all the way into the next aid station. It was a smallish one just off the main path. I sat down and began drinking Coke and eating pieces of apple. The volunteers here were very friendly and supportive. One volunteer asked if I wanted salt. I didn’t, but I did think it was a good idea as my legs were very tender and with the cramping I suffered at half way I dived straight in, pouring the sachet straight into my half drunk Coke. Ew. What was I thinking. Salty coke was not pleasurable. It was knocked back though.
As I left the aid station another runner caught me up and asked me if I wanted music. I absolutely fucking did not want any music. I like music. I hate it on a trail run though. I hate it even more at night when running and it was a beautiful night so far. Peaceful. Clear skies. Glistening moon and stars with the lack of light pollution. Nope, I didn’t want that spoilt with some tin-cup music out of a phone speaker. I think my blunt reaction made it awkward as we were then walking/running together in silence. He also had poles tip-tapping on the floor, so I used a small climb as a chance to take a piss and let him go on ahead. Thankfully that worked and I never saw him again.
We then began a monstrous climb. I knew this was coming, but was secretly hoping one of the many smaller ones leading up to it was actually the ‘big ‘un’. Sadly my attempt to count the hills had failed. Although this was one of the biggest climbs on the course, at 500m it shouldn’t be particularly troublesome. But, unexpectedly it was like a sand dune. So dusty/sandy. Every step my foot would submerge to the ankle. It made the climb slow and difficult. Nothing else to do though other than keep trekking along. The subsequent descent was no better and the run down very sandy also. I gave in to the pain and discomfort and let gravity take control and I just ran it all (it felt superhuman at the time, but it was only about 3km), kicking up sand everywhere. I was constantly coughing and found it difficult to breathe and see as I made my own mini sand storms (the light from the head torch struggled to penetrate through all the dust). I passed Sarah on the down hill and powered into the aid station.
I felt good. For a while I’d been thinking that a sub 20 hour finish was possible. I was averaging around 9min 30 per km throughout so had about 30 minute buffer on a 20 hour finish time. However, each climb would eat away at that average and we had three big climbs to get through in this second half. The run down after the first one had a big impact though and I clawed back nearly 10 mins. However that soon vanished… As I sat down at the aid station and emptied the sand out of my shoes, I asked for soup. I still needed to keep fuelling properly to sustain the final 30km push. The soup was so hot though that I had to wait for it to cool a bit. As I did I got very cold sitting there so dug out the arm warmers. Those minutes gained were ticking away so I used the time to plan ahead and rearranged my bag making sure I had more food accessible and also changed my head torch battery now so I wouldn’t have to do it again later on. As I was faffing, Sammy arrived and shortly afterwards Sarah did too. We all moaned about the ‘sandy bastard’ and got excited for the soup!
With my soup consumed I set back out, accepting that a 20 hour finish was probably now out of reach and distracted by the cold. I was hoping I’d soon warm up from running/hiking which, thankfully I did. Although I immediately then had cold feet when the route took us across a wider/fuller river section which I spectacular mis-timed my attempt to jump across. Dammit.
I began the second of the big climbs. This one about 400m. It was a decent path though with a wide track and it was not as steep as the previous one. I was thankful it was more forgiving than the last climb and hiked up quickly. Up top was a longer flattish section than the previous mountain. I powered on in full ultra hike mode. I was averaging 9 minute kms when walking. This was faster than my average pace and faster than the 10min kms average I needed to sustain a sub 20 finish. I stated to believe a little again but couldn’t be bothered to run and didn’t need too – as we joked the next day, I’ve a pretty good power hike and I teased its all inspired by Shakira and ‘hips don’t lie’. I was in a happy state now and was content with however it would finish from here. Two more aid stations to go and still enough time for ten mins rest at each. I believed it was back on.
As I walked this whole section I vividly pictured a flip-book cartoon of my inner body system functioning through races. I’ve often described to friends how I visualise the ‘boys in the command centre’ who run the show from the inside. This time I saw them all. All the internal body parts and their controllers, the conversations and messages flowing through the command centre. The instructions being followed to process the food, to engaged the legs and run, power up the power hike mode and so on. It kept me entertained for quite a while. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to draw it out.
I ran the descent and once more made up some time. I pushed it for another 3 km or so until I arrived at the aid station in Karlik. It was so hot inside the building. I took water and left straight away. I felt strong and I didn’t need a rest nor the sweltering heat of the aid station. There was 20k left to go and I felt surprisingly good. I had everything I needed after my bit of prep at the last stop and knew the soup would kick in sooner or later, plus I had Kendal Mint Cake ready to eat and get a sugar high from. So I just cracked on.
There was one big climb and descent left to the final aid station. My optimism after leaving Karlik was soon diminished though. The climb was off path. It was very uneven underfoot with lots of rocks, uneven lumps of foliage and dirt and at some points quite steep climbs. It was not going to be as forgiving as the last section. I kept on walking. I passed a few runners and a few familiar faces passed me. One couple I’d caught up with were running very consistently. We leapfrogged each other now on and off for a few km as when I hiked a climb I’d power passed and they’d eventually overtake me on the flatter parts running. I gave into the temptation to keep playing this game and followed in behind them as we began the descent. It was technical. Not super technical but rocky and steep none-the-less. It was rather painful on the now very sore feet. Clearly they’d left one of the hardest sections to the end of the race! I wasn’t in a happy place any more.
It felt like a lifetime to get to the final aid station. But eventually I did. There was nothing here to entice me to hang around as it was just a tent on the mountain. So I filled my water and joked with the volunteers. Next stop, the finish line. 10 km to go. I’m outta here…
The first task was a final, shorter climb up the mountain again. From here a short stint along the top once more before descending down the other side. Once up top I began running. It was still rocky terrain, but everything was falling into place again. There is always a point in a race, no matter how far from the end you are where you know you’ll get to the finish. I’d passed that point and was full of belief. The energy levels and confidence were high. After so much caffeine over the last 20 hours I was wide awake (all the Tailwind I’d drank since 5pm at halfway was caffeinated!). I caught up a lot of people as I began to descend, confidently whizzing past them. Another guy up front looked familiar. It was Paul! I wasn’t expecting to see him but here he was. I screamed out to him, terrifying him in the process. I carried on running the downhill and he soon fell in line and began running with the momentum too.
A short while later we came off the trails. We were somewhere in Urgup now. Maybe 3 km to go. Here the route twisted around the town as we’d make our way back to the start. A long gradual climb through the streets was not an exciting finish. Even less so was the very, very steep but short hill as we went through a building site and some back ally near a fancy hotel. It was probably the steepest climb on the course! Thankfully though it was then downhill to the finish as we hit a cobbled side street down to the start line.
Unplanned, we crossed the finish together. Maria and Ale, the legends, were there at 02:30 in the morning to cheer us in. Their support at this ridiculous hour was incredible after their own exhaustions of running their own races earlier too. Shortly after finishing we heard the sad news that Yvette had withdrawn at 100km. An incredible achievement to get so far on a very difficult route and enduring her own struggles over the 20 hours. We grabbed our stuff and finishers merch and headed back up to the caves (great, more climbs!) where we found her waiting in the cold outside the rooms.
Cappadocia was done and, for Paul, redemption after his DNF (did not finish) a few years earlier. I finished the race in 19 hrs 24 mins. Far faster than I was expecting and a strong finish in 76th position sharing joint second Brit with Paul hahah.
On reflection, I’ve no doubt that my strength in this event was my adaptability and able to think forward. I was acutely aware that it’s a long game. It always is. I’d mentally settled in for 20-24 hours of running. So when it was all a struggle early on I could think clearly that what I did now (at that moment) would affect me later on. It wouldn’t help immediately. There is no secret pill or easy fix in ultra running. You can enjoy the moment but you have to be thinking ahead. Hours ahead. In this case knowing after a troublesome first 30km a bonk was inevitable if I didn’t address the problems and start fuelling properly. I’m proud of myself for this one and turning it around before it got the better of me. All hail the boys in the command centre!
Looking back over the data from my run, I’m impressed with how my second half pace and speed per section didn’t drop off too much from the first half, despite factoring in the elevation, difficult terrain and general fatigue. The second half was very consistent. The chart of my race position ranking constantly improving after my early difficulties in the first 30km also brings a smile to my face. A satisfying end to the race indeed!