Stour Valley Gold. A loosely fitting title for this post, but one that seems all so relevant. Not only is it a beverage served at the finish line of the SVP 50/100 (I think and hope that is what it was called!) but also a direct reference to the golden shades of the many, many fields run through along the course. The Stour Valley really was golden this year…
The SVP100 is becoming a it of a tradition for me. This was my third year running the SVP100. What began as my second ultra in 2017 has now escalated into my 20th Ultra. What the fuck. 20th?! No wonder my body aches (there’s also been 9 road marathons in that time)! It makes sense now I count them!
Each year has been different. SVP100 2017 was new to me and I was naive, oh so very naive. It whipped my butt for sure and taught me so much about ultra running. For the SVP100 2018 I ran it with others and shared the experience as part of my training for the CCC, this year however it was all about me. For me. I did it for the T-shirt. If you don’t know about it – the finishers T-shirt is green for the SVP100 (grey for the SVP50 and yellow for the volunteers). But on your third completion, you get a black ‘3-star’ t-shirt. I wanted it. I did this race for a T-shirt. Yep, that is who I am now. (I have since found out you get another ‘5-star’ black t-shirt when you complete it 5 times. I need to not think about that!!). What ever motivations are out there, running a race for a slightly different t-shirt is valid inspiraation in my eyes!
I ran the race this year mostly on my own. I needed too. Firstly as I have some niggles I’m conscious of, and wanted to be in complete control of, my race, and secondly for more brain and pain training. With the TDS and other longer ultras in the calendar I once again need to get accustomed to being alone with my mind when things get though. That being said, I didn’t find this one mentally tough. Quite the opposite, I found it very enjoyable. It did get me thinking though, about what has changed. 2 years and 17 ultras apart, my SVP journeys have seen me become a different runner, a different person even…
But before I get into all of that, lets have a quick recap of the actual race. If you are contemplating entering, do so. It is a wicked little race along the Stour Valley Path – a footpath that follows the River Stour through the beautiful Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire countryside, including the Dedham Vale AONB (Dedham Vale ANPOB’s words, not mine). It is a small(ish) sized event of up to about 200 runners on the 100km (since 2018 there is also a 50km route starting in Sudbury and joining for the later part of the 100km route to Manningtree) that is meticulously organised by Matthew (Race Director). The route is delicious, the volunteers and support is immense (go check out the SVP100 community page on Facebook and you’ll see just how helpful everyone is!) and the race itself is very challenging – It is very flat (c900m over the 102km distance) with some tight cut-off times (you need to complete the 100km in 15.5hours). Personally I find some of the mountainous ultras easier than this one. It is not easy!
The weekend began with some less than ideal travel issues. With a 07:00 start on Saturday, overnight accommodation in Newmarket was required. I’d agreed to travel up with Pierre (who I’d stay the night with) and Agata and we each left work to get a train from King’s Cross at about 17:30. We’d be in Newmarket around 19:00 with time for food and prep before an early night. Or so we thought. We were each disrupted on our way to King’s Cross by some train issues. Whilst I made it, Agata and Pierre (who had the train tickets!) didn’t. It soon became apparent that there was a bit of a problem. A big problem. A National Grid power outage had hit the UK and King’s Cross was one of the worst affected stations (we later found out that trains from 17:30 were cancelled as the station was closed and the first train didn’t leave again until 21:30!). Sometime later Agata and I had found each other and went to a restaurant near the station as we waited for Pierre to arrive. Around 20:00, with Pierre now with us and a belly fully of pizza and pasta, we gave up and headed to Liverpool Street where we managed to get a slower train to Cambridge and then we took a taxi to Newmarket. Arriving at 23:00 was not what we’d hoped for.
Pierre and I were staying in the White Hart pub next door to the race registration point in the Town Hall. Ideal, except that the White Hart also seemed to be a late night bar. So if you are contemplating a good night sleep before an Ultra marathon then this might not be the best choice! Thankfully though our little adventure meant we were ready for sleep and we passed out quickly enough.
We woke up just before 06:00, rolled into the Town Hall next door and registered before returning to the room and getting ready. 06:50 we joined the rest of the runners outside as we began the (now familiar to me) walk to the start line. Moments after arriving, Matthew let off the air horn and the SVP100 was underway (not before Agata hustled us into a quick start line selfie!). The start of the course includes a few km along the road before turning onto the trail and this year I was a little more conscious not get caught up in the inevitable sprint start. My ankle/foot was still aching from the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and I hadn’t run for the last month until the week before. So I was trying to be wiser (more on that another time though as I’m clearly not so wise seeing as I turned up and started or even booked the race in the first place!) and pace my run. Having done the course twice before I knew what was in store and how challenging it is.
same hedge shot every year
same tree every year
One thing I soon noticed this year is how much more overgrown the route was. Almost immediately this became apparent when a low hanging branch knocked my sunglasses off my head within the first few km of the trails. As I turned around to pick them up another runner unknowingly tread on them and bust the arm. Dammit. Several more times throughout the day my hat was pinched off my head by an overgrown branch. I saw it happen to a few others too, a little amusing each time. I know that prior to the race volunteers and other runners had been out cutting back the foliage but it was still noticeably more overgrown (healthier!?) than previous years. Thankfully, despite a few thorn scratches on the arms and itchy legs it had no ill effects for me.
This year we were also treated to some cooler (less sunny!) temperatures but some pretty ferocious winds. Whilst I thought this was a good thing – the majority of the time I felt sheltered by trees and bushes and found the wind to be incredibly cooling on the skin – I do believe there were some incidents for other runners where the high winds caused problems. For me the only problem it did cause was a slight ache in my neck later in the day as the wind caught in my beard and forced my head to tilt as I ran!! Beard problems tough life!
Beyond that the run went to plan. Or better than planned, and the route treated me kindly. One of the things I really like about this event is how the aid stations are dispersed along the route of the SVP100. They start off further apart and the distance between them decreases as you near the end. The aid stations, as always, were full of incredible volunteers going out of their way to support and help you. Maybe it is my memory (and needs?) but I feel this year they were stocked even better than previous years and I had a few particular favourites in the homemade fudge(!) at the third aid station and the Strawberries at the fifth aid station. Those were perfect treats for me and hit the spot when I needed something different!
Shortly before I reached the second aid station, as I walked up one of the lush golden fields (which I recall from last year when a drone was filming overhead), I was greeted by the familiar face that is Mark (“Stour Valley Parry” as I called him – he was also tackling the 100km for the third year in a row). We ran and chatted for a little while before he darted off and, as he put it, we played out the slowest car chase imaginable as I tried to keep him in sight as he edged further and further away.
I carried on, admittedly faster than my intended pace, and I was soon playing leap frog with a gentleman in a green SVP finishers top (apologies I never got your name!). He was so smiley and friendly and we spent the rest of the day cheering each other on and laughing each time he’d somehow pop up from behind me. Usually because he’d stopped for a pint of Guinness(!) in a pub or to pick some apples from trees. He was having the best time and his laugh was contagious (thanks for being there!).
I reached the half-way point (third aid station) after about 5hrs 20mins. This felt very strong and rapid. But I knew it was too fast. I didn’t need to be going at this pace and had to talk myself into slowing down in the second half of the race. I had nothing to win here, only everything to lose if I were to injury myself ahead of the next few races. Thankfully a few wrong turns and a few hills helped slow me down too! Shortly after the half-way point a few runners went speeding past me and for a moment I was shocked at the speed in which they were running. Soon I realised though that I was out in front of the SVP50 runners and it was like the stampede in the Lion King and I was soon clinging to the edges of the single-track path and signalling them past me as they sped through. This also helped making navigation easier as I could follow more people!
Somewhere before the fourth aid station Hannah also came running through with the SVP50 runners and managed a quick chat before legging it and finishing her first race since coming back from a lengthy spell on the injury table. Nice one Hannah! I also briefly saw Kevin out there volunteering and directing runners which was a huge boost. The support, as always, really is fantastic on this event. Even Stuart, the race photographer, was hi-fiving and cheering runners through every time he snapped a picture and captured their pain/anguish for eternity! Stuart really was immense out there. I’ve no idea how one man managed to appear in so many places (for so long!) and maintain such a high level of enthusiasm whilst working. Thank you Stuart!
One thing I was looking forward to was the Church (St Andrews, Wormingford) which I knew had a tap outside. I couldn’t remember where on the course this particular church was and thought I’d missed it. 75km or so in it appeared and Smiley-Guinness-chugging-Green T-shirt dude and I enjoyed the cooling shower it offered us. We followed this up with then immediately getting lost afterwards by not turning off the road when we should have. Thankfully a car-driver corrected us before we went too far down the hill! That could have been painful.
Love this tree every year too
…and this one
I carried on through the course, running mostly but at a consistently comfortable plod and walking occasionally when it felt deserved/needed. For the final few miles I played leapfrog with a couple of runners and will always remember the runner in the yellow SVP top pacing another lady. He was so enthusiastic and encouraging and an absolute blast of energy at so late in the race. His support to me and comments about getting that 3-star tee were appreciated! Unlike the herd of cows in the last set of fields who decided to go on a little evening walk about the same time as we wanted to run through. They were some big bastards! Cows navigated, I eventually ran into Brantham and finished the race in just over 12 and a half hours. The fastest of my three SVP finishes. So way better than expected or planned. There was only one thing on my mind though…give me my 3-star finisher tee (apologies to the volunteers if I seemed impatient, I’d been waiting two years in my mind for this one!). A shower and some cheesy beans on chips later, I was chatting away with the Advent Running crew before hopping back on a bus then the train back to London. I left the SVP with the biggest sense of fulfilment from any of my runs to date. This one had been a long time in the making and I can stop obsessing about this particular t-shirt. Now about that 5-start tee……
2 years of medals
The Black finishers Tee
Earlier in this post I mentioned I’d been thinking. Thinking about those 17 ultras in between and what has happened during this ‘long time in the making’. Running the route mostly on my own I spent a lot of time reflecting. It was easy to do so as memories from previous SVPs came thick and fast and, naturally, I drew comparisons (trees and fields in particular – I was constantly amazed at how golden the wheat fields were this year!). This led to my mind thinking about me. Reflecting on myself as a runner and as a person, as to how I’ve changed since that second ultra marathon back in 2017….
In the running sense, I am a different runner now to the one I was back in 2017. As I write this and counted the races I’ve done in the last two years I let out an audible “fuck me”. I knew I’d done a few, but it hadn’t quite registered I’d gone from a complete newbie to a fairly experienced 20 times Ultra marathoner within the space of two years. So it makes sense that I’ve changed, and each race, each challenge has contributed to that in many ways… If it might interest you to find out more, then have a read here… I’ve separated it out as it ended up becoming quite a lengthy brain fart and not all that relevant to the SVP100….
Whilst recapping my different experiences over 2 years whilst running the Stour Valley Path Ultra, I started to think about what is different and how I have changed in that time. I surprised myself when I realised there has been 17 ultras between my first SVP100 and my latest. I surprised myself a little more when I started thinking about how this has changed me… so as a recap (or if you’ve not read about my latest SVP100 adventure):
SVP 2017 broke me. It was me alone and chatting with strangers. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. There was very little pre-thought or strategising. I was destroyed for weeks afterwards.
SVP 2018 was enjoyable for the company. Ged & Chris made the race for me. I didn’t have to think about anything. Just talking and enjoying the ‘camaraderie’ on the trails.
SVP 2019 was for me and me alone. I did it for the t-shirt. For the confidence and for my brain. It was beautiful. I went into it with different types of goals, a sort of plan, but to focus on specific aspects of my running and adventure. I was clear in my mind that I’d run comfortably, consistently and with particular attention to my foot placement. I didn’t want any ankle rolling incidents. Mentally I was at ease with the distance and the challenges ahead. I was calm. This comes from experience. Something I didn’t have in 2017 nor 2018 (despite it being my second time).
Experience. That indeed I now have. I can now say I know what it feels like to run an ultra marathon. The physical and mental experiences. That I know what I need to do during such a run, to turn negatives into positives. To keep going when it feels like I can no longer do so. Experience and wisdom are so valuable and important during endurance events and my runs are now very much dictated by these. Many things have changed as I’ve gathered these skills…
I look back at my early ultras and what I had kit wise and carried along the runs. Without doubt I have better kit now. It isn’t all essential and you don’t need expensive or top of the range gear, but it does make a difference. Yes you can run marathons and ultras in any old thing really and it all comes down to your preference. But in my opinion better quality kit does make a difference, especially when you’re running as far and as often as I now do. The ease, the lightweight materials, the comfort, understanding different trail shoes for different purposes etc. Having the choices to define your decisions at key points on a long run is a great privilege to have.
I now have my go to strategies and tactics. Things I like, things I want, things I try not to deviate away from (like Tailwind, Tailwind, Tailwind!). I go in to races with a certainty in my approach and options to support my plans. I’ll study the route, the elevation, I’ll plan when I might struggle, when I might need support or something particular from my kit. At the SVP100, like most of my ultras, Tailwind was the basis of my nutrition. I genuinely love the stuff and refill 2 x 500ml of Tailwind at every aid station. That’s my default calorie, nutrition and salt intake right there. Yes I’m still greedy and pig out when I can, but no longer am I reliant on aid stations as I was 2 years ago.
Speaking of aid stations, I eat more fruit now. Far more fruit in fact. I didn’t see that coming (I blame growing up with a pretty horrific diet of processed foods!). If there are oranges and watermelon at an aid station I will go straight for them. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits and sweets are now secondary options. It is now a rule I now have. Other rules I tend to abide by include:
Headphones. I carry headphones but will never use them. They are there for that real emergency boost. I have no doubt that one day I will hit such a low that I can’t be left alone with my thoughts. Until that day comes, the headphones will remain in the bag and I will enjoy my surroundings and thoughts in peace and embrace them.
Coke. I’ve a rule that I won’t drink coke before halfway in a race. No real reason other than I know I like it so much, so I hold-off and make it something I have to earn. But also, no more than 3 cups at any one aid station. I want to have teeth left to smile at the finish line.
If there is hot/substantial food on offer, I must eat it. Be it soup or noodles or pasta or potatoes. Get it down you. Some proper fuelling, whether I feel like it or not, is going to be so useful at a later point. Food in general, whether hungry or not I make myself eat.
I always carry a spare (third) soft flask (500ml). Despite best efforts, you won’t know what the conditions are until you are living them. Be it a hotter day than expected, getting lost, or just how I feel during the run, having the option to carry more water is a conscious decision I make. I drink (sip) plenty and often and always carry a reserve option!
Don’t stop moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I feel like shit, moving forward no matter how slowly is better than staying where I am and not moving. Keep moving forward, towards the finish.
In a similar way to my tactics and strategies, I’m consciously more aware when I run. Aware of my surroundings (simultaneously managing to always look at the floor and my foot placements but also enjoy the scenery I run through!) and aware of my thoughts. I embrace my thoughts. I’m then better equipped to react and deal with them. I’m more aware of my body and how I feel and I’m able to focus on that, not only understanding when to push it and when to take it easier but being able to know when to make those decisions at the right time!
I’m kinder on myself. Taking those decisions and understanding the longer term (in the sense of the run I’m doing) implications of them. That it is okay to not only walk, but to walk a lot! That done in the right way, this doesn’t have such a drastic impact on overall time as you might think and that the benefits to energy and how you feel can be quite significant. Walk with intent as I call it.
I used to be a sucker for running for a specific time (even on trail) and constantly looking at my watch. But now, fuck the time and fuck the distance. I don’t buy into this ‘naked running’ / leave your watch at home crap though – Just change the settings. We all want a record of our run. If not to go back and analyse at some point then to show off to our mates and strangers whom we’ll never meet. It’s self validation, a part of us is wired that way. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I do however no longer care about the distance or time. Yes I could choose not to sign up to a race or to choose a different distance, but I get a challenge and enjoyment from the ‘longer’ (its all relative!) stuff. But once you start, you can’t change the distance. You need to cover that no matter what. Time? Blah. If you’ve read a few of my blogs you’ll know I once did give a shit and why I no longer do. My validation is now in completion. The achievement of getting the challenge done. So it is irrelevant to me to see time or distance on my watch. Until I hit the finish line there is still plenty of work to be done! What I find does help is being aware of my average pace. As contradictory as it sounds, distance and time is a factor and there will always be a cut off time and a realistic/best estimate finish time. So as long as I know what that averages out at over the course of the event, I can work out (if I need/want too) what is left or how I’m performing. And there will always be check points, indications of distance and time of day (like the sun in the sky!) and questions/conversations you’ll inevitably ask or hear (“how far to the next checkpoint”, “only x miles to go” etc.). So fuck times. Fuck distance. I go out with one job. To finish. I know what is needed to get there. No matter what, what average needs to be maintained.
And as a person… how has running changed me?
mmmh. This was a bit like writing a CV or a performance management appraisal document of some sort. “I’m a good person”, “People would describe me as bubbly”…fuuuuuck. It didn’t start off that way nor did I intend for it to end up like that. It’s another mind dump. The words just kept coming and I babbled on about me, myself and I. Maybe there is even an analogy of some sort in there. Is the ‘me’ the same as the ‘I’? Do these represent different iterations of my growth. Bollocks to all that. I’m trying to be too clever now. I’ve changed a little bit is all. Hopefully for the better. Shit chat aside, I feel like I’m a better person these days and I think running has something to do with it….
I’m less frustrated. I used to get wound up a lot. Never angry (except with my mum, she’s always bared the brunt of that for some reason – sorry mum, love ya!) though, mostly just frustrated. This would normally be a work thing too. I think I’m more accepting these days.
I’m less pedantic. Hoooooo. I love a bit of pedantry. It used to cloud my judgement though. I couldn’t see the bigger picture because I was too busy being a prick about the finer details. Still happens (did I mention I love a but of pedantry?) but I’m more accepting of being corrected and put in my place now.
I’m less touchy about things. I used to let things get to me. You know when something didn’t go as planned, when you were put out by something. That. I don’t care so much any more and am more accepting of the need to adapt and change.
I’m more tolerable. Not as in I’m more tolerable to be around (c’mon, I’m always tolerable to be around!), but as in I’m more tolerable of others and things beyond my control. I guess its the whole ‘change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change’ thingy.
I’m more willing. In many ways. More willing to try stuff, to do stuff, to inconvenience myself for the better good etc. I suppose this is an acceptance that everything isn’t centred around me and my needs and that I should put others before myself sometimes.
I’m more confident. Oh for sure I’m more confident. Be it at work or at home, running has given me that. Confident in my own thoughts, decisions and opinions. Confident in my own rationalisation of things and handling of situations. I finally accept that I know what I’m doing and I should portray that confidently.
I’m still very stubborn though. Possibly a negative way to describe determination, but it is a trait that is certainly useful in running and daily in achieving the things I set out to achieve! I don’t like being told what to do, which in a running sense means I probably couldn’t be coached!
I’m wiser. I rely on experiences more. Whilst maybe not in the running sense (not always smarter! As my race calendar would indicate!). I’m learning more to rely on those past experiences for comparison and accept the gut feelings in my decision making.
I’m more in tune with my body. This doesn’t mean I treat it with respect. Quite the opposite in fact. But I listen. I feel. I sense what is right and what is wrong. What I need to do and when I need to adapt. I’m accepting that some things are inevitable. Like injuries. Yes I can prevent them, but given the nature of running (and cycle commuting in London), I know one day I won’t avoid the inevitable and I’ll have to accept the consequences and deal with it. I’m strangely at ease with that thought.
My mental strength is strong, stronger than it has ever been. It’s been trained. Through running, through suffering and pain. I think it is one of, if not ‘the’, my strongest attributes. If I was on a running version of ‘top trumps’ it might well be my top power and special ability. I accept the dark thoughts, the difficult places, I accept I need to spend time with them and not let them consume or dictate me. As a result, I comfortable with them and can deal with them when I need to.
I cut out the negativity in my life. Sounds harsher than it is. I do what I want when I want and for my own benefit. Gone are the times of hanging on to people or things for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to be surrounded by negativity or things that drag me down. I respect myself enough now to only accept the positives into my life.
mmmh. There is a theme here. Acceptance. I accept running has changed me. I believe it has, and for the better. I also accept it might be the best midlife-crisis* I could have hoped for!
* I am not having a mid-life crisis. It is just a joke. Accept it. It was funny.
The first Marathon – London 2013
Second Marathon and first overseas – Kilimanjaro 2015
The first run I wanted to do – Bagan 2016
The first Ultra – RTTS 2017
Second Ultra – SVP100 2017
First run in my homeland – Brecon Beacons Ultra 2018
Sprinting to the finish…First Mountain ultra – CCC 2018
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.
If you know Game or Thrones, you’ll know the quote by Petyr Baelish. Whilst there are many specific and more subtle meanings in this quote within the story’s context, I think it’s apt to the the recent experience of running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A 120km trail race through the mountainous Dolomites.
It was chaotic. People clambering to ‘climb the ladder’. It was literally a climb – With over 5,500m or elevation, it’s a hilly run. Many attempted it, some 1,800 runners. Many failed and were broken by it – nearly 30% of the starters didn’t finish. Many succeeded, they clung to it. Why? good question. Illusions of grandeur perhaps, but the ‘ladder’ was certainly real and we all fought for our moment on the ‘iron throne’…
It would be too easy for me to follow he route of Game of Thrones comparisons. It would be trying too much and really there are no comparisons. I merely thought of that quote as repeated to myself early on that ‘this is chaotic”.
We were staying in a hotel situated on the final approach to the start/finish. This was great for making it easy logistically and something I’m not used to. About an hour before the start, Sonia and I casually rocked up to the crowd of runners. There were 1,800 doing the 120km and it was carnage. Absolute mayhem. We couldn’t get anywhere near the starting pen. We couldn’t even make it onto the road. Runners and family/friends blocked the streets both sides and the shoving began. It was like the rush hour on the tube. Somehow Paul found us in the massives. We spent the time waiting for the start getting intimately fondled and prodded from all angles. We waited as the elites were introduced and the MCs spoke about the event. The Epic theme music replaced the classic rock anthems and the countdown began. As the count hit zero the runners charged.
Waiting to Start with Sonia…
They charged forward and that meant many charged into space that wasn’t there. The pushing and shoving intensified as people impatiently tried to squeeze through people and barriers. Bunch of bellends the lot of them. After minutes of being shoved I’d been pushed into the start pen and was able to move of my free will. But not very far as the stampede bust through the barriers either side and runners clambered in where ever they could and the pile up continued. Selfishly, without thinking of Sonia or Paul I ran. I wanted away from these assholes. Away from as many of them as I could before the bottleneck of the first climb. I was charging through the street, a gradual incline, at a near 7 min mile pace. I was sweating already. I passed Yvette, Kevin and Jess and ploughed forward. A few km later the bottle neck came and I kept to the outside and filtered in. Now I could begin to relax a little. We’d climb. It would be like any other race – runners would fumble with poles. People would bunch up and some would squeeze past. I’d power up. Poles kept in the bag for the first climb as I always do. Finding my space and freedom as we ascended 500m or so.
The track was mostly gravel. One thing I noticed in the torch light was the fine mist of dust kicked up by the runners. I could see it and I could feel it. In my eyes and gritty in my throat. It wasn’t pleasant. But the climb wasn’t too bad. The gravel path soon widened and there was plenty of space. This was very much the case for the first two climbs and their subsequent descents. The Paths were wide twisting switchbacks, Easy to climb and very runnable. Many runners were running up them too including Cajsa who passed me early on.
The climb was followed by a fast descent as we approached the first aid station. Here the tranquillity of the night was replaced by the air of assholes again. The pushing and shoving returned as the small aid station was woefully inadequate to support thousands of runners charging in.
We piled up like clubbers 3-4 deep at a bar. Arms reaching through like a zombie apocalypse storming a safe-hold. Shouts of “aqua, aqua” filled the tents as the volunteers struggled with demand. I couldn’t understand why they were filling small (~2 litre ) jugs with water to then pour them into the runner’s bottles held our. It was so inefficient as 1-2 runners would be filled whilst the rest waited for the jug to be replenished. It took a long time before I had water again and I was refilled and able to head back out into the night and more wide gravel climbs and fast descents.
Despite the chaos I was enjoying the run. It felt good. I felt quick. My average pace was far quicker than usual in such races. No doubt helped by the wide and forgiving tracks. I was smiling as in continued on and began the second climb to Forc Son Forca (which was higher than the first). I recall the vast openness of the night. The climb through the wide roads broke free from the trees and the dark night sky with shinning stars covered us like a blanket. the higher we climbed the clearer the night sky became. In the quietness or the climb it was surreal and almost relaxing (panting aside!) and thankfully as we descended again and reached the second aid station it was thankfully was far less crowded. At some point during the night I whacked my right foot on a rock. I can’t recall exactly how it happened whether I kicked a rock, slipped and scrapped it or twisted it. I remember it happening though and breaking the night silence with a groan as I felt the rock scratch through my trainers on the outside of the foot. It was throbbing now but not preventing me from running.
It was now gone four in the morning and I was over 20 miles in. As I climbed the next, biggest yet, climb towards Forc Lavaredo, I sensed it would soon begin to get light. And as I climbed higher and higher the night sky became evidently more vibrant and blue. Dawn was coming. In the darkness of night cowbells rang out from the forest and fields around us. Cattle were beginning to wake and birds began their morning rituals with songs calling out from the trees. A short descent through the forest kept the light at bay for a little longer before we broke free onto the first of many lakes. Morning was here. The mountains glowed red in the morning sun. I stopped for pictures as runners ran on around me.
As we circumnavigated the first and then a second lake I continued snapping away. This is one of my favourite moments of any such race – Enduring the night and being treated to a spectacular sunrise in incredible places. And this was special. I captured the reflection of the mountains in the water and smiled to myself as I began the next stage of the run and continued to climb to Forc Lavaredo. The day ahead would inevitably be tough with high temperatures predicted.
The climb was the next challenge as it became steeper and steeper and seemed to go on and on. As I powered up, fresh off the sunrise treat, a voice called out. It was Paul. He must have legged it through the streets last night even quicker than I. I’d assumed I’d be ahead of him as I was the first of us to break free of the start line. We chatted away as we climbed. Both agreeing how great we’d found the run so far, despite Paul acknowledging how tired he was from a lack of sleep and how close he was to falling asleep on his poles.
At the top, incredible views awaited as we saw layers of mountains extending in all directions. A few pictures and some hot noodle soup for breakfast and we were back out. The next section continually presented us with rocky mountain panoramic views before we were soon presented with the iconic Tre Cime rocks – Three rocks formed at the peak. Huge. We were dwarfed in their shadows.
Paul was in pain here. His knee very uncomfortable and making it difficult to run the descent. Miraculously though it soon fixed itself and he legged it on ahead, rapidly descending as the gravel tracks subtly began to become more rocky.
The descent then turned into a behemoth of a downhill as we dropped over 1000m. A glacier stream was soon roaring beside us as we ran switch backs and long straights that were loose rocks. Mostly small but very loose underfoot. Paul ran on ahead as I struggled with the terrain. It immediately brought back memories of the riverbed in Trans Gran Canaria and my face winched. I walked and skipped a lot of the decline chatting away to a guy from Yeovil. He shared stories of his runs and was quite experienced with numerous podium finishes but had rolled his ankle during the night and was struggling a bit. We kept going until the sound of the water intensified and we reached the bottom of the descent around Landro. Up ahead we had to cross the fast moving river. Whilst not too wide, it was knee high and runners were contemplating which of three approaches they’d choose – (1) plough straight in and through (2) remove their shoes and socks and hobble across the rocks (3) continue further on and try to hop across larger stones and avoid the water as much as possible. It wasn’t a question for me. I was a numero uno runner. I grabbed a photo and waded in. It was glorious. With the early morning temperature already excessive, the ice cold water was a relief. It numbed my sore feet which were burning from grinding on the rocks and chilled my bones. I dunked my hat and drenched my body before running on.
Next was a very gradual climb of about 7km to Cimabanche which would mark the half way point. This whole section I was aware of from the profile as it was the best part of 20km from the aid station at Rif. Auronzo (before Tre Cime) to the ‘halfway point’ at Cimabanche. A fair stretch in the middle of a scorching ultra. I was glad I was here so early in the morning before it got too hot. I power hiked on. My foot aching from the bump in the night. It was getting hotter as we carried on. I talked to several runners including a French guy who was also suffering from a rolled ankle. Common theme here? Despite acknowledging how little running he’d be able to do, he pointed out we were still hitting a sub 20 hour pace. I laughed. This was ridiculous, but he was right. The night really had been rapid!
Runners from the Ultra Dolomites 90km race soon started powering past (and I mean powering as the lead runners ran the incline!) and the atmosphere intensified a little as I cheered them on and the half way point came into view. For the first time along the race there was support and we were clapped into the aid station. Inside it was small. I grabbed my drop bag and found Paul and his brother Nick. I joined them, grabbed a whole bottle of coke and began my halfway ritual of a wet wipe shower and change of clothes before dumping any unnecessary extra kit in my drop bag. Paul headed out and I told him I’d catch him up after a shit. Yep. Toilet talk. It’s gonna happen in an ultra race. Your body needs to function and running and eating will give you a need. Frustratingly I couldn’t relieve myself prior to the race so expected I’d need to at some point along the way. Whilst I wasn’t desperate, now felt like an opportune moment. I dropped my bag off in the van to return it to the finish and sought out a toilet. There were two portaloos. Neither with toilet paper. Whilst I had my own stash, I didn’t want to unpack my bag to retrieve it and couldn’t stand staying in the stench of the hot box any longer than I needed. I left. I shared my frustrations with an Italian lady. This was quite ridiculous – with the two races meeting here at Cimabanche, there would be over 2,500 runners passing through. Add in a few hundred more for friends/family/crew/volunteers and locals, two toilets is pathetically insufficient. It made me think that, despite the best efforts of all the volunteers, the aid stations and facilities were just inadequate for the scale of the race. The only negative on an otherwise excellent organisation.
Anyway, I was back out running again. We passed under a major road via a storm drain (some runners were injured hitting their heads here!) and I was climbing again towards Forc Lerosa. Soon I rejoined Paul once more. Then everything changed as we descended from Forc Lerosa….
We were about 70km in. 50km to go. The race changed. What so far had been a fairly “easy” and enjoyable run became and absolute bastard. Fuck the second half. It can fuck right off. My optimism left me. My desire to take photos and embrace my surroundings went with it. I didn’t hit a particular dark place. But I wasn’t enjoying the run any longer and I don’t want to recall the second half. I’m not ready to talk about it in the same detail. It can fuck right off. The short version goes a little something like this…
The ‘Valley of death’, ‘death canyon’, ‘hell’, ‘shitsville’, ‘that shit bit’. It adopted many names. A long, very long, stretch of rocky terrain (loose fist sized rocks) that extended in a canyon/valley far beyond one’s eyesight. No one was running. It wasn’t runnable. We crossed streams after streams, many of which were again knee high and the current strong. Runners embraced them. Some sat in them. We all drank from them. Each one became like a party as we escaped the heat momentarily. It was fucking hot. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. There was no shelter from the midday sun at high 30degrees. We trekked on and on. Soon climbing. Every time we came across water runners would set up camp and cool all over again. The river was our lifeline. It cooled us. Iced our pains (to the point it was painfully cold even!). Nourished and hydrated us. Without it who knows what would have happened. The scenery was breathtaking. The adventure was painstaking. There was no obvious end or path in sight. The stretch continued into the distant horizon.
Hours later we emerged at a ‘water station’. I sat and waited for Paul to arrive. He did. I felt shit. He looked shit. So I probably looked shit too. He verbalised it. He was struggling in the sun and questioned whether he could continue. It wasn’t a question for me. He was going to continue and finish. We had over a marathon to go. We still had a few km to climb out of the death valley. He had no choice here but to keep going forward. We rested then set off again.
As we neared the summit, Paul was wobbling a little as he climbed. We were seeking shade. We needed a break from the heat and he wanted to be sick. We passed a guy laying against a rock. We checked up on him, Like everyone we encountered he said he was feeling the impact. Not far passed him a huge rock offered a shadow and shade. We took the offer and sat down, exhausted. We hydrated and ate. We cooled a little and farted a lot. I’d reapplied sun cream at the previous water station but was feeling the burn. Then Paul heaved. He threw his guts up with a thunderous roar disturbing the other runner resting. Like before with his knee he was instantly better. We carried on.
The rest of the run followed a similar theme – We walked. Slowly at times. We hobbled over the rocky terrain. Before each descent were steep inclines. Some where tough and the sweat dropped off us. More and more runners ran passed as we slowed and slowed. Each check point ticked off the kilometres. 40 became 30 became 25 became 20. Hours passed in between. Each stop Nick was there supporting and encouraging. A long day for him. The mountains were beautiful. But we cared little about them any longer. We wanted it to be over. As we navigated the ‘Cortina’ trail up and down some ridges of the mountains we visualised the end. Paul was feeling a little rough again, his feet and knees hurting. My feet were destroyed. Hot spots and blisters making my walking pathetic. At the penultimate aid station of Passo Giau I sought out the medical team to treat my blisters. As I took off my socks there was nothing there. Hot spots yes, but blisters no. What I did have though was a bit of trench foot. I needed something and and they agreed to “wrap” my feet. As they did I saw the swelling on my right foot. A large lump which they addressed with padding. That knock in the early night had done some damage it was raw and bruised.
Strapped up we headed back out, Navigated the final climb and began the long descent to the finish. The last aid station marked 8km remaining. We took a moment (longer than planned because I’m slow and a fiddler with my bag) layering up as it would soon be dark as we hit the forest and as we left saw Reka arrive. She was on the 90km and ran straight through the aid station and said “are you coming” as we laughed her off.
trails in the distance
trails in the distance
We power walked and skipped down hill for the the next 5km or so. Gravity moving us faster than we wanted. The descent was a little technical and very slippery in the moist soil of the forest. Like the end of any ultra, it dragged on. Occasionally the lights of Cortina flickered in the distance. Always far away. Always far below. It never seemed to come closer. About 3 times in this section I rolled my ankle. We were mostly silent other than the expletive rants every time we hurt ourselves. The only entertainment was Paul’s increasing inability to walk. As he powered forward and tired he constantly tripped himself up with his poles. Numerous times he came close to stacking it entirely.
We broke free of the forest and were welcome to a “2km to go” sign. The church tower at the finish line stood out in the distance and we walked on. Finally we hit the Main Street. We put on a ‘brave face’ and ran the last few hundred metres through the town. The party goers and supporters cheered us in and we faked it till we made it. High-fiving supporters down the finishing stretch. We held hands and crossed the line together. The rest of the team there to see us finish just before 11pm, some 24 hours after we started.
Paul the Finisher
We shared the sunset and sunrise over the Dolomites. We shared the darkness of the challenge and the literal highs and lows of the adventure. We shared a beer as we collected our finishers rain jacket (ironic given how fucking hot the day had been). We shared an adventure in the mountains we’ll never forget.
It really was a race of two halves for sure. The first 66km we’d completed feeling strong in under ten hours. The next 54km took over 14 hours. I learned a lot this weekend. Some key things for me were:
Never to get too comfortable or underestimate a run. The illusions of grander I had at half way and possibly getting close to a 20 hour finish were naive. Anticipate and expect what lays ahead, never forget that these challenges, marathons even, will chew you up and spit you out.
Mountains are rocky. They always are and will be. Why I think some runs will be ‘easier’ I do not know. I should expect rocks. I fucking hate rocks.
The decisions to wade into the water I stand by. At the time they were the best. The fresh coolness very much needed. But the consequences and impact on my feet were severe. I should have expected this too. Trench foot is a bastard too. I should have attended to my feet earlier than I did.
Chaffing. I chaffed bad. On my lower back from my bag. I’ve a red strip the whole width which is now quite raw. I should have addressed this properly but I never bothered. I need to sort this out as it’s a horrible sensation and not conducive to running.
Sharing the trails in such an epic race is one hell of an experience. Having someone around you is so underestimated. Paul and I helped each other through. Gave each other strength. You can’t put a value on that. In October We’ll be running 150km in Poland. I’m so glad Paul will be there again at my side. That will be another whole new challenge! Thanks Paul (and Nick for all the support!)
The Samoens Tour du Giffre. A 33km mountain race in the Alps with a little over 2,000m of elevation gain. One of a number of races on the weekend including a monster 90km (6,500m D+!!) and a VK over a 2km distance. Jana talked me into this one. I didn’t want too initially (I had enough events in the calendar already). But I’m so glad it did. It turned into a trail runners equivalent of a “slumber party”. The plan was simply to eat our body weight in food, run the trails and cheer our hearts out to all the runners out there and have a wickedly excellent time…
11 (and a half!) of us rocked up on the Friday, wandered the little town of Samoens aimlessly (searching for ice cream and enjoying a little public gardens area with a waterfall) before registering at the race village and heading to our chalet up in the mountains to relax. Katie took charge in the kitchen and bossed up a wicked risotto dish before we all eventually passed out from the days travels.
Come 7:30am the next day we had joined the crowd in the town centre for the start and were soon speeding through the manic stampede along the streets. There were no game plans. No agreements to run together nor race. All just out there doing our thing and enjoying the trails. We were racing though in the initial pack of starters, an early glance at the watch noted a near 7min mile pace for the first km. Yikes. Thankfully though this was soon stopped as we hit the trail and the immediate bottleneck of the first climb.
Starting pen selfies
For the next 7 or so kilometres we’d be heading up. Up into the clouds. As always on these sorts of races the poles came out. Humans transformed into 4 legged monsters stabbing and probing at everything around them. Each other included. It felt unnecessary. The elevation chart didn’t look ‘that bad’. We’d all opted for the no pole strategy. There should be some sort of rule on mass events that poles aren’t allowed until a certain point, quite frankly they are dangerous in the wrong hands in crowded areas. And most runners seem to be the ‘wrong hands’ incapable of using them properly. Anyway…
We climbed and climbed and I began sweating more and more. They’d predicted thunderstorms, yet we were treated to glorious sunshine throughout (the thunderstorm did arrive later that night, and I believe to fatal consequences in some parts of the region! The 90km was terminated as a result of the storms too!). I was just happy to settle into a nice relaxed rhythm and enjoy the run.
After a little while I went by Maggie, then Jana and Katie. Towards the summit I could see Rachel and Bucky up ahead too. Each time I caught up with one of them we’d chat briefly and carry on. There was then a shortish downhill section, where Rachel and Bucky sped off into the distance, and I was being taken over constantly. Tens of runners sped past. It was very runnable. I was amazed how fast people were going. Whilst I’m not the most confident nor comfortable running descents, this was quick. Again a glance at the watch noted sub 8 min miles. Speedy for a trail!
A shout cane out ahead, Sarina was there cheering and supporting in the forest as we approached he first aid station (her run was not until Sunday morning). Heading into the aid station (after crossing a temporary scaffold bridge over a main road) I refilled my water (I’d opted for a single Tailwind sachet for this race and Hi-Five electrolyte tabs I bought last year and were soon to expire) and started ploughing into the picnic spread. Salami, cheese and fist fulls of orange slices to start off with (there were two more aid stations later on the route). Katie and Jana came through and carried on, barely stopping to breathe.
Afterwards the down hill continued. A brief flat section broke into some fields and Jana and Katie were up ahead. Jana stopped and waited for me and we continued together before Jana ushered Katie on at her own speed (she’s pretty fucking fast!!) who was like a puppy let off a leash (she’d ran the rest of the route lightening quick and finished well under the 5 hour mark!).
As Jana and I continued, we crossed a little bridge over the river before running another flat section alongside the river which was a very root-laden path. Jana remembered it from her solo adventure in the Alps last summer. She swore at the recollection of the hills we’d soon have to climb. And soon I joined her in the swearing as we started the climb.
Jana and I had a good ol’ chin wag as we climbed. We weren’t quiet. Laughing and joking and catching up on life since we last saw each other back in October at the Lemkowyna trail. We had a lot to talk about and several runners commented as we powered past them. They couldn’t understand how we could talk and climb so quickly. Looking back, it took my mind off the climb and made it pass fairly quickly. We we soon behind Bucky and Rachel again as we hit the second aid station. Jana patiently waited as I grabbed more food and liquid before we continued again. Soon we climbed as a foursome before the summit broke us once more. As we ran down Jana vanished into the distance and I began running with Rachel for quite some time.
We ran through several streams of water which were absolute bliss. Cold wet and soothing on the sore feet and ankles. I dipped my hat into each to cool down. Annoyingly though the rapid descents and wet feet didn’t agree with one another. As my feet rammed forward and my toes crunched to brake my speed, the insoles of the shoes broke free and bunched up under my feet. They slipped both under my heel and under my toes. It was horrible. As we hit the bottom I had to stop and refit each insole. As I did so I was greeted with cramp in the quads. Great. It’s been a while since I cramped. I wondered if having less Tailwind (and it’s sodium!) was to blame?! Several more times I had to stop again and repeat the process.
I was climbing again though and soon caught up with Rachel once more. The last of the ‘big’ climbs was mostly uneventful but one section was stunning as we crossed a water fall that had frozen solid and the race volunteers had ‘dug out’ a path through for the runners and we were encouraged to go slowly and carefully. Eventually the summit was reached. The vast opening at the top of a ski slope and the ski lifts. There were cows all around and Rachel ploughed on ahead despite her phobia. Some coke and more oranges at the aid station was enough for me this time as we’d begin the last 7 or so kilometres back into town. All good…
Only it wasn’t all that good. It was steep. Very steep initially. And very wet and muddy. It was harsh on the feet and legs and felt very dangerous in parts as we slipped all over the place. We’d constantly slow and let other runners past. Rachel’s knee was hurting from the descent and my feet and ankles giving my now ‘normal’ pains. The swearing and groaning was very verbal at this point. Thankfully it eventually ended but there was a small (relatively!) climb to now navigate. As soon as I hit it, I cramped up badly in both legs. I came to a hobble before loosening up enough to run after Rachel again. Rachel kept pulling up with her knee and encouraging me on. She was always near though and is such a strong runner, even when in pain! We ran past Sarina again a few km from the end, only she was now with Maggie?! Something had happened and Maggie had retired from the race. She confirmed she was all OK though as I ran past.
Some more forest paths saw many runners zip past us before we hit some tarmac roads and switchbacks and cut several of them with shortcuts down the trails. We arrived at the bottom and the sound of the river hit me before I saw it. It couldn’t be far now as we were back at ‘ground level’.
The path led along side the river, passing a campsite and then the lake and fields of the finish line (familiar as it is where we collected our bibs the day before) became visible to my right, on the other side of the river. A bridge up ahead, I prayed we’d cross over it. we didn’t! We were taking the long way around the lake. Dammit. I was still so hot and sweaty and ready to finish. I didn’t know how far it was, a kilometre at least for sure. It felt like longer before I eventually lined up with the finish line. The big surprise was seeing Dorota as I rounded the bend, whom I had the pleasure of running a good section of the Brecon Beacons Ultra With last year. Then further on, Ben, Jana, Katie, Maggie, Sarina and Chris all brought the noise as I ‘high-kneed’ it across the line. As I stopped the cramp hit again.
Medal grabbed I hobbled into the refreshment area just as Rachel was finishing. We hugged a sweat fest of a hug before joining the others just in time to see Bucky cross the line. We all joined the party to cheer home Yvette and Kasia and several of Jana’s friendstoo. We hung around in the sun for a few hours (with one beer that made me very sleepy!) before heading back to the chalet for pizza and booze, just in time to beat the thunderstorm
I love cheering runners
Dorota smashing the 12km
The next morning we woke to repay the support. It was Sarina’s time to run and we all headed out to see her off, get pastries, and then travel the course to cheer her. After some navigational mishaps we rocked up just before he first aid station where Sarina first saw us the day before. We made our home on a section of road splitting through a down hill section of the trail. We whooped and cheered all the runners coming down and were then greeted by runners coming up the hill where we’d driven – the 12km run was joining the 18km run at this intersection. I don’t know how long we were there for but I know we had the best of times. The noise we made was visibly appreciated by the majority. Dorota came up and passed on her 12km run then, to the greatest of noise we could make, Sarina appeared. Smiling and bounding down the path. After she passed we bundled back into the car and found the road just after the aid station. The same point on a bridge the day before where Jana waited for me and sent Katie on ahead. Sarina soon appeared again and would run from here along the river back to the finish. We headed there to wait and then brought the noise as she arrived. Group hugs all around. This was one hell of a party and one we were all sad to bring to an end and head to the airport.
When A friend asked if I was available to ‘help out’ at the Trail festival at Box Hill I didn’t think twice. I checked the calendar and I was straight in there. I probably would have bought a ticket anyway. A few days later when the confirmation came through and I was asked if I was OK to support the 50km guided run I chuckled. Yeeeeah sure. Why not. I was smiling. I love, despite what life throws at me, that I’m now ready. Ready to run. Ready to keep going. Ready to say yes to running, no matter what the distance. It’s a great feeling.
Saturday soon came around and I made sure I was there early to ‘check in’ and meet the others. As I walked to the festival Village I conveniently bumped into Matt who was behind much of the organisation. As I arrived so did the many familiar faces who were either leading the runs (all the Salomon Athletes/Ambassadors) and others like myself who were there to support them.
It was great to finally meet Tom who was the lead for the 50km and who told me we’d be joined by Mark (another familiar person I’m vaguely connected to but had yet to meet in person).
As we grouped and welcomed the 17 runners who’d make up our group, we immediately had one drop out after she realised this one might be beyond her. With everyone else ready to go Tom led us off. We’d be running a clockwise route and expected to be back around 16:30 or so.
As we left the field it became immediately apparent to me how varied the group was in terms of ability and experience. This was to be expected and wasn’t a problem, it was a guided social run after all. But something very important to be aware of – there was a long day ahead of us and fundamentally we were responsible for everyone’s health and safety and return! Spotting the ability and assessing each runner is important to ensure everyone has a great time.
It was like we’d done this all before as a team – Tom, Mark and I set off and split ourselves out. Tom Leading the way and setting a comfortable pace surrounded by the eager and more experienced runners. Me and Mark acting as the tail of the group, interchanging at the back of the pack.
Conversations begun as we all started to get to know one another. We’d soon be best friends for the whole day. It was a group of strangers. Runners getting to know other runners. Sharing stories and experiences, swapping tips and wisdom. A collective mass of adventurers. Tom would lead us on and ensured we stopped every now and then (frequently) for us to regroup and check everyone was OK. Each time a quick headcount to check we’d not lost anyone and then we’d be off again.
A small dog came bounding towards us. A ball of energy loving the runners rushing past. As he came to me last he started jumping with excitement and head butted me in the dick. Perfect shot. I can’t lie. I let out a gasp and was thrown off my stride for a bit. Damn stupid cute dog. One more runner then dropped out within the first three miles after twinging an injury. As he lived locally and trained these routes, after chatting through with him we were comfortable leaving him find his own way back to the start and we checked in with the wider team to confirm we were one down.
After about four miles we came to our first planned ‘aid stop’. Throughout the day we’d be flanked and met by Tony who would drive ahead and meet us with refreshments. At this first stop we dived into a huge tub of sweets (later I found out these were no ordinary sweets but ‘energy’ one’s by Powerbar.), refilled our water and grabbed a quick rest. We let Tony know of the drop out and confirmed to check he reached back to the festival site OK.
Long Grass Fields
Throughout he day we were also treated to some spectacular views and scenery (despite the overcast day). A particularly memorable point for me was the poppy field that we soon came into shortly after the first pit stop. It was stunning to see the red flowers penetrating the green carpet of grass. We continued on through the single trail which cut through the long grass field dotted with poppies. Next up, a mandatory stop at the now infamous ‘Matt Buck’ Waterfall.
Cracking on, one of the milestones of the run would be the tower of Leith hill. It’s a hilly route and one I knew most of from other runs. We’d normally have immense views from here but it was a little subdued as the heavens opened just as we arrived (but not before me and Tom grabbed a picture at ‘Rachel’s’ Tree!). We were immediately soaked through, even in our waterproofs. We took another break as we waited for Toby to arrive and meet us once more. We were now 10 miles in and very wet and miserable. But that all changed when he arrived. Wow, what a spread he’d bought for us. A legend of the supermarket aisles, he’d catered for all our needs and began taking special requests for the next stop. Sadly Steak didn’t make the cut but Pork pies did!
With the rain and clouds covering the sky we began moving again before we got too cold. Once we were running we’d soon warm up again. We continued in the rain for several miles as we hit Pitch Hill and Holmwood Hill before the rain finally ceased. Along the way we encountered some wicked ‘trail art’ someone had created with Bark. It was later on as we neared about 20 miles that the implications of diversity of abilities in the group became really apparent. We started to spread out more and more and the front would have to wait longer for the tail to catch up. We really did have runners of all abilities – From dragons back finishers and top 40 finishers at MDS (I believe this deems you ‘elite’!) and sub 2:40 marathoners to first time trail runners and those who’d never been above 50km before. The gulf was huge and has got me thinking about the implications of this (more on that another time). I’d spent most of the time running with Carl. A long distance walker more accustomed to going at his “own pace”. He got stronger as we went further though and it was clear that his mental strength was next level. It was never a doubt that he’d finish, only a case of when. A real positive attitude and one you see a lot of on the trails.
Trail Running Love?
Trail Running Love?
One dude unfortunately dropped out shortly after the 20 miles. We still had maybe 3 miles left to the next checkpoint but he was in pain and couldn’t manage more than an uncomfortable walk. His groin was aggravated and he was affected. We agreed that he’d have to stop and we called for a pickup. I stayed with him until it arrived. After which I sped on after the group. Like a hunter chasing its prey. I knew the trail. I knew what was ahead (including one of my favourite signs/views at Blatchford Down). It was a moment to myself. A peaceful one of just me and my thoughts. I’d been consumed all day by a bad pain in my left foot. My arch felt bruised and I’d been alternating all manner of running styles throughout to try and run more comfortably. I probably shouldn’t have continued myself but I had a job to do. It wasn’t affecting my ability to support the group there and then but I knew I’d be in agony the next day (and for over a week afterwards it turned out!). Now with some time to myself I ran on. I ran free. Was it painful? Yes. But I was smiling too. I passed several more groups of DofE and walkers and smiled and cheered as I zipped through, splashing in the mud as I went (I’d been enjoying the cold wet puddles and found them soothing on the ankle and foot!).
It was raining again but still nice and warm as I broke trough the trail paths into an open space and found the rest of the group just starting off from the final checkpoint. Mark stuck around and waited as I stuffed more kitkats and pork pies into my gob and we were off. Less than 4 miles to go. Time to “bring it home”.
The exhaustion in the group was obvious now and as we ran down through Denbies wine estate one last time Tom had a surprise left for everyone – the route wouldn’t take us straight back to the festival village but first up, over and around box hill. We were going home alright, just the long way! A few groans came but really they were more flippant than anything. This group had started as strangers and now bonded over 9 hours of wet hilly trails. We cracked on, first tackling the Infamous steps of Boxhill before a quick photo stop at Salomon’s Memorial, which provided a brief rest-bite after the climb.
Just before the festival we regrouped for the last time and ran into the village together. We were Welcomed back by a few volunteers and other runners and then we were then greeted to the rapturous cheers from Maggie, Rachel and Hannah. They were loud. They were excitable. They were the support we needed. I started to feel my face ache I was smiling so much from their energy. Quite possibly the best finish to a run I’ve ever had!
After a quick ‘wet wipe shower’ in the car park we grabbed some coffee/beer and pizza. We sat in the dimming sun and enjoyed the Salomon films on the big screen before deciding it was time to leave.
Whilst we didn’t personally experience that much of the festival village, it was an incredible day. A well run event that was very popular and catered for all. From 5km to ultra distances. There were also Workshops for trail techniques, guided and times runs and yoga and talks. A great day out for those used to trails and also those new to trails. Get involved next year is my advice. I’ll be back for sure!
A huge huge huge thank you to all those involved in organising the event and making it happen. To Tom and Mark for leading a fantastic run and all those I met throughout the day. A special thanks to Maggie, Matt and all the team at Salomon Running for getting me involved. A great experience!
I like to prepare. It doesn’t always mean I’m sensible with the preparations though! The Luxembourg Night Marathon was the perfect example. When Bobby, Nick, James and I agreed to do this marathon, I thought it would be a good idea to fly out Saturday morning, run the marathon and return the next day. After all, Luxembourg city is a small place and we’d see most of it during the run. Whilst it went almost exactly to plan, it was bloody tiring…
It’s Saturday morning. 2am. The alarm clock is buzzing. I’d already slept through three alarms and I needed to move my ass pronto. I was regretting my plan already. With a 7am flight I’d soon need to make the 2 hour bus/night tube trip across London to Heathrow. The others were a little more sensible with either a hotel for the night nearer the airport or quicker Uber trip as their choices. I’m too stubborn to pay ‘extra’ for these things. It’s OK though, I thought I’ll just get some sleep at the hotel when we arrive as the race doesn’t start till 7pm.
Shortly after 10am we’d made it to the expo at the LuxExpo “box”. Whilst there wasn’t much there to see, it was a big place and already set out for the day. The most noticeable thing being the internal finish. At the end of the race we’d run into one of the big ‘hangers’ and do a short internal stretch to a finish line. This would be different, I’d never experienced that before – finishing inside a building. Race numbers collected and photos taken we made our way on the bus into town – Amazingly, public transport is free on the weekend in Luxembourg. Whilst it was only 2Euro for a ticket, I loved this concept and was delighted to save some pennies! We arrived at the hotel and were told there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of checking in before 3pm. Bollocks. We’d also been told that we should be at the race for 5pm as the shuttle busses were expected to be very busy and the roads full of traffic as they start to lock the city down for the event. There goes my plan of any sleep. I’d have to struggle through on the measly 4 hours I’d clocked up last night.
The rest of the day sped by as we ate food, wandered around town, met Nick’s mum (who’d come to see him do his first marathon) and went back to the hotel to check in and get ready. Before we knew it we were back at the Box and part of the mass crowd that was assembling. Runners and supporters everywhere. It was quickly becoming overcrowded but the atmosphere was already showing signs of being great. With a DJ playing music and introducing various acts (some form of dancing butterflies?!) as well as volunteers giving out sponsored bowler hats and tambourines. I took one and immediately annoyed Nick who politely warned me not to run with it!
With our bags checked in we still had a good 1hr 30mins to wait before the start. Like thousands of others we sought refuge from the blistering sun in any shade we could – it was high 20s and didn’t show any signs that it would cool down before the sunset around 9:30 that night. We lay on the hot tarmac in one of the starting pens and waited. It felt like a hell of a long wait, more so because there was no water. I’d already drunk all the water I’d brought with me. It was much hotter than I expected. This was probably the only negative of the whole weekend. The organisation I thought was pretty good, it was like a large scale military procedure with one way systems and setups accounting for most things, except the provision of information. Nowhere was there any clear and obvious indication of where to go to check in, to register, to get info, to get the buses, bus timetables etc. (and the only info stand available where of little help either!) and nor was there anywhere on site to get water whilst we waited to start!
Anyway, 7pm eventually came around and the runners were sent on their way. With over 10,000 runners across all the event disciplines it was a busy start and it took the four of us about 10 mins to walk to the actual start line. In that time we lost Bobby in the crowd. We were all going to run together (this being Nick’s first marathon), however, fiddling with his shoe laces and race tag, we lost Bobby moments before we started. I ushered us on. Whilst Nick was concerned and wanted to find him, I wasn’t worried. Bobby is a very independent guy and this was his 5th marathon. He knew what he was doing and would be fine on his own if he didn’t find us before we crossed the line.
So the three of us set off and kept a decent pace in the crowd as I tried to regulate it as best I could. We were aiming for roughly 9:50 minute miles and we fluctuated around this for the first few KM as we dealt with the crowding and various bottlenecks that inevitably formed. We all felt good though and chatted away as we approached the first Water station. I say approach, it was on a bend and we’d pretty much run past it as we were on the far side of the road. I made a mad dash through the crowds and grabbed three cups of water before weaving back to Nick and James, announcing my arrival with “Incoming, Delivery, coming through”. Beautiful. It wasn’t much but it wet our lips, or in Nick’s case, his face. This was his first experience of running whilst drinking from a cup, as any experienced runner knows, it is not easy. Nick immediately compared it to being water-boarded!
Laughing away, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the next water station. They were every 2.5km, which is very frequent! It immediately dawned on me that whilst we’d talked with Nick about running with him and pacing, we hadn’t actually discussed anything else. Like what to do if we get split up. The first water station was bad enough. but this one separated us. There were volunteers on either side of the road and runners everywhere, it was a free for all and we (I at least!) were all thinking about water and food, it had been so long in the sun without any and the drops at the last water station had failed to quench our thirst! I went left and saw Nick go right. James was behind me. I took water, isotonic and some PowerBars. As we emerged the other side I saw James, but not Nick! Shit. We jogged on looking around but couldn’t see him. Shit again, we were just about 5km in and we’d lost him. How bad were we?! We carried on a little, looking back and forward, then we sped off through the crowd at a much faster pace looking for him. Nothing. We stopped and held up at the side of the road to wait. He didn’t come. He’d either carried on, or he’d stopped to wait for us. We hoped it was the former and devised a plan – James would run ahead and, if he saw him, would carry on running with him. If he didn’t he’d slow back down and eventually we’d catch him. I’d hold back and wait, If I saw nick we’d run on together. If I didn’t I’d carry on after a few minutes until I eventually caught them again. I stopped on the side of the road on a raised pavement and watched all the runners intently as they passed. I was keeping an eye on the time when, out of the corner of my eye on the far side of the road I saw someone speeding past everyone. It was James?! What the hell. I set off like a gazelle after him. The crowd loved it, they were probably wondering what I was doing. When I reached him we carried on at that speed, ducking and weaving through the crowded field in our on little race. James had very quickly found Nick just ahead of us so went back for me. Somehow we’d missed each other in our focus in finding Nick. A few km later, after weaving through the crowd and some narrow roads we found him and reformed, laughing at our fuck up. Nick did the right thing – carry on at his pace, stick to his game plan. We agreed if it happens again, just keep going.
As we ran we noticed how great the crowd were. Initially as we started off I thought the support was poor. Whilst there were people, they were just standing there in silence. Now though we were seeing hundreds of people, larger groups, making plenty of noise and loads of music and bands along the way. They reacted too. Giving them a clap, a cheer or a scream would trigger them to make even more noise. I was loving it. There was one part, where we ran through a Big Top tent, inside were dancers and a samba band (there were a lot of samba bands out there!) and as we emerged, an arch made from two tractors with their diggers extended out over the road. I thought this was a great touch. The route was very twisty as we crossed and weaved many smaller streets, constantly turning in different directions. We were completely disorientated and had no idea where we were or where we were heading! But this made it fun. It made the course interesting and we’d duck into and out of various parks along the way. It was still incredibly hot and we took every opportunity to get drenched with water from the crowd with their hose pipes. At one point we saw a wet patch on the road and a spray of water. As we made a line for it we were all confused as to where it was coming from, it was like rain falling vertically on this small patch. We looked up as we passed through and there was a lady, perched on her window sill about 4 storeys up, holding her shower head out the window. We cheered and clapped her. It was so hot, still in the high 20s and the cooling water was a godsend.
Already we’d noticed, that whilst fairly flat (admittedly not “flat as a pancake” as I’d told Nick before we signed up!) it was surprisingly hilly. The route involved lots of very gradual inclines and declines. I was feeling it! I didn’t mention this to Nick though. We’d soon be hitting the main centre square and hopefully we’d see his mum who’d travelled over to watch him. I wanted to ensure he was focusing on seeing her. It was still very busy as we had all the 21km runners with us still, I think these made the bulk of the numbers. We were approaching the main square and there was a water station ahead. They were struggling though. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for water, isotonic or fruit. each cup we all grabbed at was empty. We carried on without any. This was frustrating. A downside of having paper cups at races – it takes time to keep them replenished. James was also amazed at the state of the floors around the water stations. As a regular sub-3 hour runner he is used to seeing them less busy and less like a war zone.
We rounded a bend and several volunteers were directing us into two ways – splitting off the 21km runners. It soon became far less crowded and we headed into the main square. It was packed with crowds and they were in excellent voice. I started screaming “MUM” over and over. We found it hilarious (or at least I did!) and then we saw Nick’s mum and he ran over for a hi-five and cheer. James heard her proudly claim to everyone “that’s my son!”. So touching. Boosted by the love we carried on. Almost half done, Still a lot of work to go. The next section would see us enter and leave more parks and shaded areas and also various stints in some residential areas. Without the 21km runners it was now far more enjoyable and easier to run!
I thought running through the residential areas was great. Whilst not normally fun or interesting places to run (I’m comparing to some of the streets in Brighton and Muscat!) here I was fascinated. They were so clean for a start, and being kept that way with locals out collecting rubbish along the roads. The houses were huge and all looked so well maintained. I wanted to move here! But, like the rest of the run so far, the Support was fantastic. From kids with water pistols and super soakers, squirting water at runners, to families having dinners and cheering from their front gardens with their wine, to pockets and groups of people partying away in the street. The music was loud and the atmosphere brilliant. Like all supporters before, if you interacted with them they responded even louder. So we did, singing and cheering our way through. I was blown away by the volume of music and bands and also the variety. They felt more frequent than the water stations and we had bands, djs, horn blowers (huge horns!) samba dancers, steal drum bands, jazz musicians and local folk dancers throughout. It was fantastic!
It was probably around the 16 mile mark that the first signs of the huge demands of a marathon started to become visible for Nick. Whilst he was running strong and consistent he did acknowledge he was now feeling it and that it felt harder than the comparable 20 milers he’d been doing in training. We reassured him how well he was doing, how tough the race was with the heat and hills and encouraged him onward. At some point, whether it was around this time or not I can’t recall, Nick commented on another facet of running a marathon – he mentioned how pissed off he was at getting passed by faster runners doing the team run and who had just started their 10km run. We’ve all experienced this and it does mess with your mind and confidence. What was funny is how a lady doing the team run apologised as she ran past, overhearing his comment.
We also saw Bobby at some point along the way too. We’d assumed he’d got caught up in the crowds at the start and would have been behind us. But as we ran up a long hill stretch we could see Bobby out in front. We called out to him and for a moment we were all reunited. He dropped of and James stayed behind to check up on him whilst I kept Nick going at his pace. James arrived back shortly afterwards, confirming Bobby was OK but exhausted and prepared to slow down to finish the race.
Before we knew it we’d left the residential areas behind and were back running through the parks and streets of the central area.It was still very hot, but it was now starting to get dark. We were dipping in and out of parks and along roads that started to look familiar. I think we’d run on or near them in a different direction already (possibly many times) but I was so disorientated. We ran along a walkway built under a main bridge, where the music and atmosphere was lively from a DJ at the end. Shortly after which we then headed down into the Public park (I think) where there was the festival of light going on. We were back passing under the bridge and could hear the DJ above us. As we carried on down, we could see the big lanterns from the festival lit up and marques of people partying away. Again there was great support for the runners as we weaved our way through the park, again, even lower than before once more passing under the bridge and hearing the DJ above. Like the twisting route, the music became familiar as we rose up out of the park and ran along the top of a bridge, this time the DJ now below us. I was amazed and how many different ways we’d passed this same spot and DJ!
As the night darkened, the pack of runners became increasingly more spread out. More musicians lined the streets and we left the central area for the last time. We were heading back out towards the Expo. I remember we rounded a corner in the dark to the sound of Hot Chocolate – Sexy Thing. I couldn’t help but sing out the chorus, or the line of the chorus I knew! Two other runners sang along with us and laughed. Sometime, several miles later, we’d catch up with them again and I started singing the line once more and they responded and joined in again. The runners were in good spirits!
Throughout the day we’d been near and around a partially sighted runner and their guide runner. This always fascinates me. It must be hard and such a demanding challenge for both runners. We arrived at the final Team Run switch point and it was so crowded. Runners were encroaching on the road from both sides making it vary narrow and difficult to squeeze through. Nick was shouting at the crowds to back off and give space as the two runners were in front of us now. It must have been tough for them here.
We’d done probably 20-21 miles by now and Nick was feeling it. He started to hit the wall and the pains were visible in his face. He made it known, cursing and shouting down every hill we came across. I knew from the route that it was all uphill from here. Gradual, but up hill. I didn’t tell him. James encouraged him and kept him focused. From time to time we’d stop and walk, or spend a moment at a water station to ensure he was fuelled. Each time he’d motivate himself on to start running again. He was determined and ready to beat the marathon and didn’t need much help from us to do so! Whilst he was constantly looking at his watch, and aware that his ideal finish time was slipping further from reach, he was running great. I thought we’d finish around 4hrs 30mins. It would be tight though…
He wasn’t alone either. By now both James and I were acknowledging how hard this marathon actually was. The long declines to start and then the gradual climbs now were having their effect. The legs were felling heavy, and, for me, my foot was hurting. I’d rolled it the week before at the Run Free marathon and could feel it now. I knew I was no longer smiling myself!!
We were running along the main road which was gradually climbing never ending into the distance. The occasional walk but mostly powering forward. Not too far from the top was a large group of supporters. A cheer zone. The local running community that is Fat Betty were out in force (think similar, but scaled back, to mile 21 at London Marathon if you’ve ever been there to cheer?!). They were handing out beer to runners. Whilst I’m not a beer fan generally, and especially not when running (or after running even!) I took one. I was having fun. It wasn’t far left to go, maybe 3-4 miles, and I wanted to try and entertain Nick a little and take his mind off the run. I actually quite enjoyed the beer, even though most of it ended up in my beard!
As we reached the top of the hill we cracked on. We got talking to another guy from the UK. He was also feeling the hills, and rightly so – He did the NDW50 the week before! We all ran together for a while and I chatted with him all things running. Nick continued to curse the lumps in the road and I sensed he was beginning to fade again. I was watching the time now and new it was getting tighter and tighter to make 4hr 30mins. Whilst I’d been trying to convince Nick to not worry about time for the first marathon, it’s easier said than done. The mind is a fickle beast. If we could get a 4hr 30mins I know he’d be smiling. I told him “no matter what happens next, stick with me” and I cranked up the pace a little. We left the NDW man behind and strode on.
We had less than 30 mins of running left. It was tough. We’d increased the pace by about a minute per mile. A good 10% increase in effort after 4 hours of running. Not easy for an experienced marathoner on a tough course, never mind a first timer. But Nick stuck with us. We were encouraging him on and bar a few short stints walking, he kept it up. We were running past people. People we’d seen pass us earlier and people we’d not seen before. Even runners on the final leg of the team run (who would have been fresher than us!) came and went as we passed. I shouted at Nick, pointing ahead and telling him we were going hunting. That the crowd in front of us were his. He was going to take them all. All except a guy in a red t-shirt, he looked like he was running strong so I excused him! But we did, we took them all, red t-shirt guy included. We were flying. Up ahead the road started to decline and we could see the expo. 2 more minutes and we’d be there. My watch had clocked a marathon. It was going to be tight. We ran down, passing more and more runners. One final bend into the hanger of the arena, I screamed at Nick, directed him forward and shouted to the finish line to “go fucking take it, its yours”. Round the last bend. He was in the zone. He was sprinting. Two guys up ahead hogging the way, Nick was on the race line, they wobbled to the side and Nick had to squeeze through them (much to their disgust). Me and James went either side of the guys, we saw and heard Nick’s mum right at the finish line cheering. It was done. We crossed the line. What began with 2 marathoners, finished with 3!
Immediately over the line Nick’s legs went from under him. I shouldn’t laugh but I did. I recall that feeling and sensation all too well. The body reacting from a big push (he’d absolutely blitzed the last 2-3 miles) and the sudden instructions to stop. He was wobbling and we took hold of him. I don’t miss that feeling! Looking at the results, We climbed 200 places over the last half of the course, I think that really shows the effort Nick put in over the last few miles!
It was a long wobble to the medal, then to the water, then to the drop bags, then to the food and changing area. By now the post marathon effect was kicking in strong and Nick needed to lay down. Up against the massage tents, out of the way he rested. I went round hoarding all the food I could (greedy as always) and we waited for his body to recover from the shock of the achievement. Soon after Bobby arrived. Shortly after him, Nick’s mum arrived with a paramedic. Whilst Nick was OK (just post marathon shock!) I find it hilarious that his mum rocked up with a paramedic for him. Bless. As spectators weren’t allowed into the area, his mum had cleverly convinced the paramedic that she was worried as she hadn’t seen Nick emerge from the runners area since he crossed the line. So the paramedic escorted her in to look for him. Genius. We sat and talked and laughed, reminiscing the past few hours, whilst Bobby got a rub down.
Eventually, after the most expensive taxi ride, we made it back to the hotel. Nick climbed the stairs on all fours before we made it to our rooms. Exhausted. We’d been awake almost 24 hours and were shattered. We went to bed, knowing in the morning when we woke, it would be the first day Nick woke up as a marathoner. Job done.
Run Free. I love this phrase. One I often refer to when I think about running – its exactly how I want my mind to be when I run. This time though it has a different meaning. A more literal one! Maverick and Tribe collaborate for an event they call “Run Free”. I’ll do it an injustice when I say it is simply an event of multiple distances (Short, Medium, Long in the traditional Maverick setup) but one for which part of the proceeds go toward charity and Tribe’s 10% Project. Whilst as a community, Tribe push people to redefine their boundaries, in this instance, the Run Free event is in support of ending modern slavery. A worthy cause indeed.
Lush green fields…
I hadn’t planned on being at the event, but a last minute change of plans meant, come Friday, I had no plans for the weekend. I was on a self-enforced ‘rest’ and hadn’t run in two weeks up until a Run with Nick midweek. Now I had the urge, I couldn’t sustain the rest any longer. I wanted back in to what I love – running. It didn’t take long on Friday morning to come up with a plan. Reaching out to various friends there were options. It came down to a toss up between hill repeats at Box Hill or travel north and volunteer at the Run Free event. Something I want to (and will) do more of. After speaking with Paul, my mind was made up – you could register on the day to run. Perfect. The Run Free event was taking place in a part of the Chilterns I hadn’t really explored. They also had a marathon option. I was sold. The only difficult part was getting to the race event ‘village’ which was annoyingly in the middle of nowhere. Time to form a plan.
My plan was simple and a little stupid, but its how I think – I could get the Oxford Tube to Lewknor Turn. From there I could run the 5 miles to the start. I’d repeat this on the way back unless I could bag a lift off someone… The Oxford tube is great. It runs 24 hours a day, is fairly frequent and pretty cheap. I used it when I went to the Race To The Stones a few years back so could picture where I needed to be and get off. And so, with a 4am wake up call, I was on my way.
pre-race warm up
Hills for breakfast
I got off the bus at 7:30 which left me an hour until registration opened and a further hour until the race would begin. enough time to chill, relax and prepare. Those first 5 miles though, they were a little hilly. I covered almost 1,000ft of elevation (a third of the marathon’s elevation gain!) before I’d even begun the race. Taking about an hour, I did think to myself ‘see, this is why it is silly!’. Anyway, I got there, most of the run to the event was on trails and narrow country lanes. It was all good. Arriving into the event I was greeted by Hannah (of extreme endurance event fame and whom I first met out in UTMB last year after she sped across the TDS finish line – so impressive!). I was a bit spaced out and immediately snatched a tribe bar out of her hand and started feasting on it – I was famished from the early wake up and run. How rude I was – sorry Hannah! I went off to register and was greeted by Sarah and shortly after met Paul, Ben and Vanna among many others.
The Maverick events are a bit of a cult phenomenon. They are incredibly well organised and great fun. I knew I’d see friends and familiar faces there and I sure did – There were so many people I knew there. I hadn’t even registered and I was bumping into people and chatting. As much as I say that I don’t like people, I do love the community spirit and vibe that running has. People from all different groups, people from all different places and ways of life, coming together for the love of running. It is a very inclusive community!
Pre race involved a fair few selfies with the various groups before Ben led a quick warm up for the runners. I joined the starting pen with Elis who was there with Melissa who lives around the corner from me. See, it really is a small community. As the Maverick bell was rung and the race started I ran passed Yvette who was also there volunteering. The connections were endless! The start saw us all bumbling downhill, fast! It was steep. It was lumpy. We were jumping and hopping rather than running. The ground was uneven and as with any race there was a mad dash for the best line/route down. I let gravity take me and sat comfortably with many runners in the middle of the pack. Before long though we came to a grinding halt.
The path diagonally crossed some fields and there was a stile to climb. It created a big bottleneck as we waited patiently to cross one by one. I say patiently, that was until a bunch of Dickheads thought they were better than this. That they don’t need to wait. One by one a group of them started climbing the barbwire fence. I find this so disrespectful and unnecessary. Yes, perhaps the different races could have been staggered to prevent such a bottleneck, but don’t be a dick. That’s someones property. It is there for a reason and no one wants to tend to your sliced bollocks if it all goes wrong. What does a few minutes of waiting really mean? Get over yourself! Anyway, rant over…
The route was glorious. I’ll try not to type about it all in the way I usually drone on about mile after mile, but it was so open. Lush green colours of various shades constantly surrounded us and huge fields and rolling hills were the delights for our eyes. I spent much of the initial 10km or so near Vanna from Wild TR before our routes split us into different directions. Passing through the first checkpoint I met two familiar faces in the Maverick Trail Division Ambassadors that are Paul and Spencer. These guys are fantastic. Ultra running nutters of the best kind. I first met Spencer in the drunkenness that is the after party of UTMB. Like Hannah, he’d also just completed the TDS, a phenomenal achievement. He also suffered a Stress fracture earlier in the year before recovering and going on to break a sub 3 hr marathon in Newport a few weeks ago! He wasn’t running today as he was volunteering, but he ran with Paul from the first checkpoint to the second after his assistance was requested there. Paul I’d chatted with for a while before we briefly met at the Dorset Coastal Trail Ultra. I say briefly because Paul had to leave asap. Like me he has a little addiction to running. Unlike me though, he runs EVERYTHING. He left Dorset that day to get home to run the Hurtwood 50km the next day. This weekend he was running the Run Free Marathon, the Westminster Mile and the Vitality 10km. Whilst I was also running the WM mile, the difference being He boshed out an impressive 5:15min mile. I opted for a far more casual 9:47min mile! He is a machine.
Anyway, they set out from the aid station shortly before me and I spent the next 10km playing catch up. They were always in my sight but, other than a short stint chatting with Spencer, they were too far away from me as we roamed through forest paths and the rolling hills. This was for many reasons, mostly because they were running at a pace I just couldn’t keep up with. Despite being itching to run, 2 weeks off did have me feeling a little lethargic and ‘out of shape’. It was manageable though. What wasn’t manageable was when I rolled my ankle after about 6 miles. It fucking hurt bad. Usually ankle rolls are terrifying and quickly forgotten. This hurt though. The pain lingered for the rest of the race and beyond the day. My ankles are my biggest concern and weakness at the moment. They’ve taken an absolute pounding over the last 18 months. June will be hectic on them (5 weeks of back to back marathons, mountains and ultras lay ahead culminating in the beast that is the 120km Lavaredo Trail in the Dolomites!), so perhaps July will be another attempt at some time off…
Anyway, I’m blabbing. Checkpoint two came and I said good bye to Spencer. Paul, free of chatting, soon vanished into the distance and I carried on. It was a good but tough day. This is the perfect sort of training run for me. Besides being well supported, sign posted and through stunning parts of the country, my own run became a challenge. Physically and mentally. The toughness of the course and concern for my painful ankle put me into the dark parts of my mind. Parts I need to visit from time to time and deal with. Parts I need to make peace with and get comfortable being consumed by. You don’t want to visit these places alone on a mountain partway through a day long ultra without being prepared to deal with them. Perfect mental training, building your strength of character.
As the midday heat intensified, I was running (very inefficiently I might add!) down a long trail track. At the end I could see the mass of energy that is Emma. Another Volunteer and someone I’ve seen at many races and other running events over the past 18 months or so. Along with Jay, she was the third and final check point. This was a mini heaven. I stopped and chatted and greedily consumed loads of the food (sorry everyone!). As I did so, another face appeared – Gwen. We’d met a a run several months earlier and did the whole “hey!!” kind of thing before later asking each others names again. We pretty much ran most of the last 10km together, with Gwen out in front and running strong to a finish a few minutes ahead of me.
Before the finish though was one last, badly kept secret – a steep hill. The initial lumpy downhill we ran, we had to now climb back to the finish. Whilst I’ve certainly done longer and higher, it was not easy. With the windmill up at the top as the marker point I proceeded to climb and my calves screamed out immediately. It was a burner for sure. Then it was over, running across the line Yvette smashed me in the face with the finishers medal and gave me a beer. Paul was there along with many others including Hannah who helped me refresh and served up the nutty Tribe protein shakes.
Maverick provide free photography
I spent a short while repacking, getting ready and chatting away with various people before I managed to blag a lift back to the bus stop from Elis and Melissa. Perfect. They day couldn’t have been any better. A last minute plan, perfectly executed. Thanks guys!
On my own
It was an absolutely fantastic day. As always, the Maverick events are impeccably organised and the volunteers are incredible. The whole atmosphere the organisers manage to create is something special, never mind the festival-esque vibe they created at this special event. If you want to sample trail running races, this is the company to do it with, you won’t regret it!
As we munched down on the juicy slices of orange I’d been carrying for the last 4 hours, we discussed it’s place in a trail runners hierarchy of desires. It slotted into the top three above oral sex and a foot massage. Momentarily we were in juicy orange heaven.
The day had been a proper picnic for me. Lou, Elisa and I were running the Three Forts Challenge (they claim its a challenge not a marathon as its 27 miles) and the organisation was superb. There were a ridiculous amount of checkpoints for a marathon distance (11 I think!) and whilst not the biggest or most stocked of checkpoints, they provide ample opportunity for snacking on sugary sweets, savoury biscuits, cake and chocolate. There were times Elisa and Lou had to shout to get me moving again! Whilst I knew about the checkpoints in advance, it didn’t stop me over-preparing with my own snacks and thus the oranges were hauled around the trails of the South Downs until they were squishy and warm. Regardless, they were special when the time came to indulge. I do love a good juicy orange slice on the trails.
Right, enough tantalising of the Vitamin C, lets rewind a little and put some context on this race. This challenge was a week after my epic adventure in Madeira – the 115km Madeira Island Ultra Trail. Why was I running another marathon so soon? The old case of fear of missing out. It hit me hard. I knew a number of people heading down to Worthing for this race and I wanted in. That and it was very cheap for an ‘ultra’ (£40!) and the route went along parts of the South Downs I hadn’t run on before. This is a big factor for me at the moment – exploring new places. So, pre MIUT I signed up knowing that if anything went wrong in the lead up I hadn’t lost out and the plan was to enjoy the day as a recovery run. It was also a bank holiday weekend, so why not?!
I knew Lou and Elisa were preparing for their own epic adventure of the London to Brighton trail race so I’d persuaded them to let me tag along for the day with them. Whilst they were staying for the weekend near the start line, I joined a few others on a 6am train out of London. It was painful. Running really has brought early mornings to my life! Walking from the station to the starting village we bumped into Lou and Elisa on the way. Such convenient timing. As we hung about waiting for the race to start we came across more and more faces we knew, dropped off our bags (conveniently the start and finish were in the same place) and soon we were off on our way.
Initially there were some single track paths and a little bit of jostling for space, but soon the space came and the first of many many hills paid us a greeting. We’d agreed (non-verbally) that we’d be walking all those damn hills. We had a cut-off of 6 hrs to complete the race and I was more than confident that this was highly achievable. Walking would be our friend! Naturally, with hills come great views and we were soon snapping away at each other and enjoying the fantastic early morning scenery on offer. Before we knew it we were passing through the first of the many checkpoints.
It quickly became apparent how well organised the event was. there were several points along the route were we’d cross roads or intersecting paths and, besides at the checkpoints, there were volunteers and marshals everywhere! Besides the various local running clubs that support the event, there were also volunteers from many of the local Rotary Clubs too. They were all so cheery, chatty and supportive and it really makes a difference when you’re out pushing yourself through endurance challenges.
The miles came and went and my belly was filling up with cake and jelly babies. We’d climbed several more hills and were now on a section of the route that saw us running towards Devils Dyke where we’d eventually turn around and retrace our steps before heading off in a different direction and looping back to the finish. As we reached the top of a long climb and started descending, we began to see runners heading towards us. The race leaders. We whooped and cheered them through and quickly developed our favourites for who we wanted to win – it was those runners who were conscious enough to return an acknowledgement. It doesn’t take much. A smile, a look even. I do get a little wound up by how ignorant some runners can be, even when you are pushing yourself to your limits you can muster a smile at least. It became a game for us. Cheering and supporting the runners louder and louder and mocking some as they passed “quick, grey shirt dude is catching you!”. We had fun at least. As the numbers increased we took turns amusing each other by cheering alternative runners passed.
The larger hills at this section went by easily as we were having such a laugh. We hit the turnaround point at Devils Dyke and continued our game as we cheered through those runners at the back of the pack. As we neared the checkpoint at the Hostel we came across Gemma. She was out on her own battling her demons with such a positive and cheery outlook. Hugs exchanged, we carried on with a brief stop at the Hostel where I got comfortable chatting to the volunteers and ramming chocolate brownie and pretzels into my gob. Delicious!
We were over half way through by this point and the only thing of concern was Elisa’s knee. She’d been acknowledging a high level of pain for quite some time, only intermittently forgotten about when her fingers swelled to the size of some chubby sausages which caused us endless amusement. Elisa powered on, determined to overcome the pain. Soon, after passing back along side a quarry we’d seen earlier, we headed further inland away from the coast which seemed so near yet so far. We started passing more runners in the other direction whom we initially mistook for participants in the race. We realised though they were doing another – the XRNG Devils Challenge which is a 100 mile 3 day event along the South Downs. The runners, despite being on day two of their challenge, were all so upbeat and we exchanged good wishes for our respective races.
As you run trail events and longer distances, you start to become accustomed to the awful stench you produce. Be that the sweat and and odour of the body or the many gases seeping their way out of your body however they can. I most admit though, something didn’t smell right. It smelt awful. I wasn’t sure if it was me or them. I was hoping it was neither. “Pig Farm!!” Lou screamed out. I sighed a small sigh of relief. That explained everything. Pigs everywhere. Honking and squealing they looked at us like we were crazy. I looked at them like I was hungry! Baby pig Pig Pig Pig Pig, Baby pig pig pig…. all day long I’d had the Baby Shark song stuck in my head and couldn’t stop singing it every time we passed a baby animal – cow, sheep and now pigs! Irritating on so many levels.
Further on from the pigs, at one of the highest parts of the course, we passed fishermen. In a field. A field of grass. No water. Were we hallucinating? where we lost? Something wasn’t right. All the runners near us were thinking the same and we all laughed at the weirdness of it as we watched them throw their lines into the lush green fields. What the fuck?! It turns out it was some form of competition for throwing your line out – whatever that is called. Casting? We were amused anyway.
We continued chatting away to each other and with other runners around us also enjoying the day, like ourselves, as a training run for something else. We exchanged stories of challenges to come and what lay ahead. There are some incredible people out there! After a while as we began to spread out again we noticed we were continually near one older gentleman. The ‘Noisy Man’ as we came to affectionately know him. Everything about him was noisy – the heavy breathing, the funny noises he’d occasionally make and heavy stamping feet. We wanted away from him but found we spent the rest of the day leapfrogging each other (mostly as we’d stop and enjoy the treats at the aid stations, or ‘having a dinner party’ as he commented!).
Before we knew it, we were approaching mile 21. The checkpoint was conveniently placed on top of a hill. One with a picturesque view though. At the top of the hill, in a green pastured field, was a small cluster of trees. It was quite a sight. We stopped and took photos and had a mini photo-shoot with the mile marker before carrying on. Elisa’s Knee was causing more pain but she was full of dedication and sheer determination to see it through, regardless what she felt. He mental strength is quite inspiring. All the while I ate more and more food and remembered the oranges! Soon would be their time. Lou on the other hand, despite being a constant moaner, was full of positivity and drove the conversations, making us laugh and take our mind off the route which was quite hard and rocky terrain for the most part). I think she is a far stronger runner than she gives herself credit for, especially given her injury setbacks over recent years.
The remainder of the course was more down hill with the last undulating hills which we smaller by comparison of the early ones. With a few km left to go we started to run downhill run towards the start, retracing the initial part of the route. Other than a few close calls where toes were stubbed and falls almost had, this felt like a breeze in comparison. We rounded the last turn, squeezing past some runners before crossing the finish line together. I think it was about 5hrs 30mins on the clock, well within the cut off time. We collected our medals, hi-fived our friends already finished and I head straight back the the food stand to get cakes and more biscuits. I loved it.
We were handed the most high-vis of all high-visibility garments you can imagine. Some last photos and hugs and we said our goodbyes. As the pair headed off home, I went back to the finish line and joined the others in waiting for the legend that is Arlene to finish. As she appeared in the distance and our support increased in volume, Jakub took the Town Crier’s bell and ‘rang’ her home. It was hilarious when he handed her this massive (heavy!) bell and little Arlene almost buckled under the weight of it! We were done. Time to begin the long and tiring journey back to London…
How do you visualise a challenge? How do you imagine what you’ll endure and what you’ll face along the way? Comparisons work for me. I think what else have I done that is similar, how does it differ and compare to what I’ll attempt next. It normally works. Sometimes it isn’t so easy though, not when the challenge is so large. The Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) would not the furthest (distance) I’ve run. Comparably though, it is just about the highest I’d run. Likely it would also be the longest (duration) I’d run. It felt like a substantial challenge before I even considered he terrain, all you ever heard about is the steps. So I’d struggled to imagine myself enduring this event and what I’d really face. I was generally confident though.
Why so confident? What was different this time? I’m certainly more experienced in such events now. Just half a year ago I did my first mountain race and there have been a few under my feet since then! I’ve also upped my preparation game a little. Stair work has been a regular part of my training, more on that later. I’ve also watched videos of past versions of the race (like a scene out of Cool Runnings, only I’m not sitting in a bath tub when I do it), looking at the terrain. The point of this was to hopefully minimise any surprises I had like in Trans Gran Canaria where the rocky riverbed mashed me up good and proper.
Physically I was feeling ready, generally I’ve been OK. The one visual that kept forming in my head, was a sort of ‘health check’ image of my body. Mostly green, but both ankles and my left knee were flashing orange, orange to indicate a lasting pain for weeks or months, something I’m aware of but hasn’t stopped me from running. I’ve carried on regardless, like the idiot that I am. So I headed out to MIUT good to go…
So what is MIUT? It’s another of the Ultra Trail World Tour races. The short blurb is you run across the island form coast to coast via the mountains. I went back onto the MIUT website (after the race) to grab some words and phrases of how the event is described and I’ve decided not to copy and paste or dilute the words. Pop over to the website and read the description of the event. I think it is quite something. Probably because I can now visualise what it all means – MIUT – The Event
Way back when I planned 2018, I saw a video of MIUT. Wow. I was sold. The tunnels. The views. I came very close to buying a sponsored entry for 2018 in my excitement. I’m glad I didn’t. I was so inexperienced and it would have ended badly for certain. Now this time I think I had a fighting chance. Of all the experience I’ve gained, developing an understanding of my mental strength and my ‘race mindset’ has been invaluable. No matter what else, that will see me through I thought. Time would soon tell…
The weeks leading up to the race had been a little stressful, my mind was contaminated with work. I don’t like it. I don’t like work either but I meant the thoughts occupying my mind, I don’t like those. The short story is I’m in limbo, between jobs. I’m waiting, patiently. Waiting to get confirmation and run my way out of the purgatory of my current role. But the waiting has dragged on far longer than it should. It should all have been sorted weeks before this event but it hasn’t been. I didn’t want to have all these thoughts in my head still and I was fearful of being alone with them for 30 hours or so of running in Madeira. They make me angry. I’ve noticed I’m clenching my jaw frequently of late and I’m sure it’s related. Angry Dai would be a wildcard on the trails. I needed a calm and clear head to focus on the challenge.
Anyway, work left at home, flight and landing at the infamous Funchal airport successfully navigated, Yvette, Ale and I made our way to the event exhibition. They were both also running different events at MIUT. After registering and checking out the finish line we set off on our own little exploratory trip. Every adventure begins with a mini taster of the trails and we headed out to Ponta de São Lourenço. A lovely hike later in the Madeiran afternoon. It was an opportunity to sense the climate and get a feel for the conditions. It was grey and overcast, Warm but chilly. How do I pack now I thought? What should I carry to deal with the wind and cold at higher elevations? I’d have to think it through once more, but, the landscape lit up the gloom. A taster of things to come. I was excited. Very excited.
Race day. I slept for most of it. I still haven’t decided which is worse, an early morning wake up for an early start, or waiting around all day for a later start. This one was a midnight start. I woke around 8am after a decent sleep, had some breakfast and chilled with Ale and Yvette before prepping the kit bags and going back to bed for the afternoon. Drifting in and out of sleep before waking at 6pm for a pasta feast.
Come 9:30pm I was on the shuttle bus to the start. It was a long bus journey full of smelly runners (how do some people smell so bad before they’ve even started?). But, for me, worst of all, the loud group behind me who talked at excessive volumes the whole trip, including one lady who had an unnecessarily loud phone call (on loud speaker!) for a good 20 mins or so (of which I think about 15mins was spent saying good bye to her loved ones). Loud phone calls, hell loud conversations even, in public are a pet peeve of mine. I didn’t sleep any longer and ended up thinking about my work life again as another two days without answers had passed. I was hoping this would be the last of it.
We arrived in Porto Moniz and had about an hour or so before the start. The atmosphere was building and runners were huddling together to escape the ferocious wind. The Dj was getting the tracks going and some local musicians performed and danced to entertain us. With about 30 minutes to go they announced that they would start letting runners in to the start pen. By chance I was near the entrance so went straight in. I was therefore quite near the front of the 900 or so runners and, when the countdown completed, I felt it! We were off, heading through the town at a speedy 8min/mile pace. Runners passing me from all sides. I shouldn’t be running this fast I thought.
Soon the road turned and we started the first climb (just a baby at under 400m of elevation) as we skirted around Pico do Caldeirão. This was on windy switchbacks of the main road and wow. Just wow. My calves were on fire. I’ve never felt such instant pain in muscles before. They clearly didn’t like this, despite all the training and stairs I’d been doing. I was praying that this was only an initial reaction and wouldn’t last. I’d be in trouble if it did!
As we climbed through the town there was great support from all the locals. Drums and bells were ringing and plenty of chanting and cheering were coming from those gather along the roads. The main roads became narrow streets and paths and we climbed further and further. Many runners were already using their poles, but I felt it was unnecessary on the tarmac. We crossed streets and roads with built in steps in the centre of them and I’d alternate my climb between the (flatter) tarmac slopes and the steps. As the nature of the mountains goes, what goes up must come down and so the first descent began. Another mixture of road and trail and rather steep. Shortly before reaching the bottom I recall a very steep road. Gravity was instructing a fast descent. My brain was screaming out to put the brakes on, but gravity was, as always, the dominant force. It was a sprint. My feet were burning up. The friction in my heels was another new sensation and I thought my feet might combust. So soon into the race and I was already being tortured by MIUT!
As I descended I could hear the crowds up ahead. As we hit the bottom and the town of Ribeira da Janela more fantastic supporters whooped and cheered every runner through. Almost in a sadistic way as they pointed us into the first of the ‘big’ climbs – ~1200m up to the first checkpoint of Fanal. As we started (with the poles out now!) I looked back and saw the trail of lights descending behind me. I’m really coming to love this sight of trail lights glowing in the darkness. Its almost magical.
The climb was very steep and very muddy. The terrain was forest and, under the moonlight and streams of flashlights, I could make out the sea of trees surrounding us. Occasionally we’d break out of the trees into the openness of fields as we’d cross to rejoin the forest paths in different directions. I don’t know how far we’d climbed before I realised two things; firstly, how cold I was. It was bitterly cold and the wind was howling. Secondly how sweaty I was. I remember glancing down and seeing sweat on my shorts all the way down, almost to my knees. I was drenched. This was the realisation that I was in a vicious circle of sweat. I was sweating because I was hot and exerting effort on the steep climbs. But the sweat, coupled with the mist of clouds we were now ascending through, was making me cold in the wind. I knew it would only get worse and was already calculating how to address this at the first check point. I wasn’t alone. Arriving at the packed checkpoint of Fanal I could see other runners layering up. I got chatting to a Scotsman as I layered up myself and he acknowledged the same. I opted for my ‘sweat bag’ aka the OMM Sonic Smock. Super lightweight wind protection. I felt this was the ideal choice as my waterproof would be too warm and a baselayer too heavy in this climate. The ‘sweat bag’ would take the chill off and I’d continue to sweat inside. I packed fist fulls of food into a sandwich bag and set back off into the night.
As we summited the mountain we were shrouded in mist in the open grassed peak. I could barely see the ground in front of me as the mist clouded the light from the head torch. I also remember in the darkness there were cows all around, wandering in the darkness. You almost didn’t see them until they walked close to you. In the mist we began to descend, still barely able to see the ground, until again we reached the forest. Here the paths were muddy and soft under foot as we’d wind our way down. I remember a few stretches were the trees had grown up and over the path way (or the path had been made through the trees?!) forming tunnels. These were almost magical. At the bottom we reached the checkpoint of Chão da Ribeira, a quick break before the second of the big climbs towards Estanquinhos (another 1200m El gain) would begin. One which was a real introduction to the steps I’d heard so much about. Time to put all that stair training to good use. Just as we neared the start, running down a main road we were again greeted with immense local support as the crowds cheered us upwards with the screams of ‘vamos’ onto the steps. These steps felt never ending. Mostly it made the climb fairly easy though. Easy in the sense of you had a sure foothold, even during the muddy parts. It was still bloody hard work. Repetitive. Lunging forward and having to be sure to vary the effort on both legs (the steps weren’t quite shallow enough for a regular walking pattern). Occasionally we’d break from the steps and head through some mountain tunnels, navigating around the rockfaces. Natural water channels had been carved out and water flowed through these tunnels like streams. Then, mostly, this climb was through more dense forest. You could smell the fauna and hear the silence of the night. If you can hear silence that is. The steps were now essentially circular pieces of wood with earth packed up behind them. Sometimes so worn you were just hurdling the wood itself. As the trees started to becomes less and the trail widend, the moonlight lit up the summit above us. The moon was so bright and felt so close. I felt like I could reach out and touch it gently. As I looked forward I could no longer tell of up ahead whether I was looking at headlamps in the distance of simply seeing the stars of the night (it was the later!).
After sometime I felt we must have been nearing the checkpoint at Estanquinhos. But I was greeted with disappointment on multiple occasions. I’d hear noise or see tents but these turned out to be either bib number checks or extra medical assistance points. No rest-bite just yet. We began a short descent before climbing further and eventually checkpoint came. I didn’t plan to stay long but I soon joined many other runners huddled under a heater warming my hands and trying to dry out my gloves. Then it was back out into the night once more.
The steep descent down the mountain was like running through a rain-forest. Even in the darkness I could see it was lush green in colour. The smell of eucalyptus was powerful and I smiled to myself knowing it was blocking out the less than pleasant stench I was generating! Through the forest there were streams lined with trees we’d run through, slipping and sliding down the loose soil and mud. There were some more mountain tunnels and at one point we emerged onto a rock formation which we’d climb over via a stone-pathed path with cabled fencing to ‘protect’ from the drops either side. I had to get the camera out now as dawn was arriving, but sadly there was not enough light to capture the experience properly on film. As the descent continued we we were soon hit with the true glory of the morning breaking. We were still rather high when the trees fell away and exposed the panoramic views of the mountains. The layers of red and orange glow from the sun behind some distant mountains faded into the blue and black of the night sky. A battle for dominance was unfolding before us, all above a fluffy bed of clouds. Again my camera couldn’t handle its beauty. It was like a stereotypical drawing a child would make of the clouds and mountains.
We ran down some long and wide gravel switch backs as morning broke and headed into the checkpoint at Rosario. Shortly afterwards, emerging through the forest I found myself chatting to a guy from Essex as we began the next ascent to Encumeada. We were chatting away when two runners came bounding towards us and then took a sharp turn uphill. Following them we’d thought they’d gone wrong before we clocked their bib colour- they were on the ‘ultra’ distance race which started at 7am. We must have been making great time as they were alone and running uphill fast., I assumed they therefore would have been near the front of the pack. As we climbed more sections of never ending steps we were passed constantly by the fresh Ultra runners.
Eventually we reached the checkpoint at Encumeada which was a personal assistance zone, so it was packed with runners and their designated helpers. They were serving hot food but, despite being ‘breakfast’ time I didn’t feel the need. Perhaps my Tailwind was keeping me adequately fuelled. I snacked a little to be sure I had energy and went about swapping out the buff for the sun cap and took off my arm warmers. Despite still sweating from effort I was already dry from the heat of the morning. It was beginning to get warm! I knew the next section was long (about 15km) so I went about ensuring I had 3 bottles of water at hand and knocked back plenty of liquids before setting out -Including a few cups of some horrible flavoured isontonic sports drink available. Laying in wait before the next checkpoint at appropriately halfway were a few “smaller” climbs and descents.
I misjudged those climbs though and didn’t use my poles. I probably should have. Looking at the elevation profile of the route this section didn’t appear to be too daunting, just because there were three sections that looked far more impressive on paper, so I naively underestimated them. The first was up the steps leading alongside the infamous gas pipe. It was very steep. A very slow climb as it was packed with runners with limited opportunity to pass. I’m glad I trained stairs, but this was a whole new level of working out!
Gas pipe climb…
…so many steps
Once we reached the top it was a lot of windy single track paths descending followed by a lot more climbing. This one felt like an eternity despite not being one of the ‘big’ ones. I was quickly getting through all my water supplies and was glad I’d planned ahead. Despite the difficulties along this section the views were simply stunning. At some point I think we’d run around a mountain (Pico Grande?) as the views changed so much and we could now see different peaks towering in the distance.
Down below a town as visible, it must have been Cural Das Freiras, the halfway checkpoint as we soon began to head down again. This one hurt me. It was very technical and very long. I was slowing quite a lot and could feel the effects the terrain was having on my feet. All the downhills in MIUT are so steep that your feet are being bashed about in your shoes. My feet were raw now. As we neared the bottom I could see a road with runners running in both directions. It was confusing and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating, but clearly it was the route intended. As I reached the road we were sent in the downhill direction first. An old guy was sitting outside his house with a hose pipe wishing runners well. I wished him Bom Dia and drenched my hat in his cold water. It was bliss. After the road we hit some more technical trails were we would climb up and over the town and main road to reach the checkpoint. I couldn’t judge how long this would take and my watch battery was low (too low I realise now…) so I stopped to set it charging. This was the plan for the halfway point but I didn’t quite make it in time.
More views heading down to Cural das Freiras
More views heading down to Cural das Freiras
Reaching the checkpoint I tucked into some pasta. It was plain and tasteless, but very much needed to keep me going. I witnessed a small argument between volunteers which was amusing. The lady serving the food clearly didn’t want help and kept snapping at another lady who was dishing out food and setting it ready on the counter tip – a good idea I thought as there was a bit of a queue forming waiting for the serving lady to go about her methodical process regardless of demand.
After eating I headed over to the drop bag space set up in a large sports hall. I spent a good 45 minutes in total freshening up, changing and swapping out kit from my bag. I know it was 45 minutes because, as I was queuing for food, I’d noticed my watch had completely stopped. Dammit. I realise now the Suunto had auto-saved the activity as the battery was too low. Dammit, that would be a pain for monitoring my average pace later in the race. Oh well.
As I set off to leave I passed through the mandatory kit check. I fully endorse these, safety first after all. One requirement was a minimum of 1ltr of water as the next climb to the highest point of Madeira – Pico Ruivo, at 1862m was a beast. I had 2 ltrs on me and I’m so glad I did….
Coming out of the checkpoint we crossed the town and went down some weird industrial path with steel steps back onto the main road were we now went in the ‘up’ direction. After some time slowly walking the road I could see runners climbing in the distance. Time to go back up I thought. I can’t remember too much of the details of this next climb despite it being the longest continuous climb. It was steps again. Inevitably, a shit tonne of steps. I’ve no idea what direction or how we reached were we did. It was a head down and power on up kind of job. I kept thinking I’d take a break and treat myself to a few moments rest when the trail next broke/flattened out, but there was no natural break that appealed to me so I kept going. Kept pushing. Kept heading up. Like Yass would say “The only way is up…“. Then, eventually I reached ‘trail heaven’. As runners ran passed me I noticed (the rather unmissable) view. To our left was a sea of clouds. To our right was mountain ranges as far as your eyes could see. I stopped and started taking photos. I sat down and had a snack. Soon others did the same around me, I had the best seat though!
The sea of clouds
I had a huge smile on my face now and went for one more photo before I would get a move on again. Behind me there was a shout out “taking selfies are we?!” to which my reply was “take a look and don’t say you won’t do the same!” It was Yvette. She’d been running for a few hours on the ultra race and had now caught me up. I had wondered if we’d meet at all and suspected she’d already be ahead of me. I was fully committed to walking mode now though (I know, already!) and she went off ahead. There were several more climbs and a few very steep descents as we’d weave around various peaks to Pico Ruivo. I was constantly stopping to take more pictures. Some steps here were terrifyingly steep. If you have vertigo, don’t go here!
steep but runnable descents
Gradual climbs back up
Up at Pico Ruivo, in a tiny checkpoint (with an open fireplace flickering away!) I met Yvette again. After refuelling and guzzling a load of Pepsi we headed off once more with Yvette out in front. I wanted her to leave. To run her race. To enjoy it and experience it for what it is. This was her first time going over 50km and it was a monster of a course. It’s great to know people and share these trails, but, there is always time for that. I didn’t want her thinking about me or changing her race as a result of my progress. I was 70 plus kms in and fading faster than the descents. Like many other races I’ve done I was ready (and happy) to power hike it to the finish from here. I had no doubt I’d soon be embracing the darkness of my thoughts, for which I make bad company to be around!
Don’t look down
Windy moutain trails
Nature’s balancing act
As we headed towards the observatory we were in for more treats from the Gods. More sections of steep stone steps and some rusty old metal steps (also terrifying!). All around us the paths dropped away to nothing. Nothing but certain death. How these paths were ever created I do not know! Then, then the tunnels. Again I’d read so much about these were the footpaths stopped weaving around the mountains and instead cut straight through. There were a few. First very short (you could see the light at the end of the tunnel) then several longer ones (where you couldn’t see the end). For the later few you needed your head torch. I didn’t have mine to hand and couldn’t be bothered so I winged it. Poles tapping away as I walked through the utter darkness using the distant glow from another runner far ahead to offer some sense of direction. Another surreal experience.
Light at the end of the tunnel
And then, after some really steep steps (yeah ok, I don’t know what the difference between steep, very steep and really steep are any more either, but these were the kind of steep where you wanted to make sure you body weight was leaning INTO the steps as you climbed!) we emerged onto the ridge way. A path along the ridge with a sheer drop either side. Spectacular.
Dominating the skyline
Infamous path towards the observatory
High above the clouds
Just before the observatory I met an English dude from Watford and we walked and chatted together until the next checkpoint Chao da Lagoa. I had some snacks and saw Yvette yet again. She was keeping good pace ahead of me. From here it was mostly down hill now with just one sizeable climb remaining. This was going to be tough I thought. My body is breaking with each run and challenge I do. With each event I think I’m getting slower at the downhills as a result. The pain and cautious approach I now take is a little bit of a hindrance. I knew there was one very technical bit waiting but I didn’t know which part it was. Early on we had a fairly technical part just as we began the descent back beneath the clouds (we’d now spent hours enjoying life above them!). I was hoping this would be the worst of it.
I was hiking along at a decent speed and would occasionally be passed by runners, but I kept catching one who’d run, then walk. This was the classic thing I’ve noticed. To me it seems like a misuse of energy to put effort into running only then to lose the gains through walking so slowly. Arrogantly I think my power hike is far more efficient over a long distance. I was stuck behind him for sometime and was going to pass him, but he struggled badly and fell a few times on the technical bits. So we ended up talking and I felt stuck with him. He was Polish and had a thick accent. We struggled to understand each other and honestly, at this point I didn’t want to talk, not to him or anyone. Thankfully the tracks soon gave way to wider paths that were quite runnable. I even broke into a run as gravity once again took control. Soon we reached the bottom and it was time to head back up for that final big climb. Not far ahead on the road I could see Yvette in front of all the other runners who had passed me on the descent when I was walking. I zipped past them all as we climbed. Yvette and I climbed together now, back through the forests. It was a long one. We knew there was an checkpoint (Poiso) waiting at the top and as we emerged once again above the layer of clouds we sensed it was close. Another false hope. It must have been another few kilometres of climbing and power hiking before we reached it. We’d talked about layering up when we arrived as it was now around 8pm and I noticed the night before it was colder around 9 and completely dark 30 mins later. When we’d begin the next descent we’d head below the clouds for the rest of the race. The climate would be different and we’d end the race running along the coast.
As we arrived at the checkpoint and I immediately started shivering. Stopping movement, even walking, had a dramatic effect. I got some soup on the go and started layering up once more. By chance I was under a heater again. This was good, as was the soup so I had more. It was a salty delight. We left and began heading back down – we still had 1000m to descend before the finish in Machico. I can’t remember this section. Nothing. My memory has gone blank. The only thing I remember is arriving at the Portela Checkpoint. The last personal assistance zone. As I reached some steps down into the checkpoint I heard a Kaaar Kaaaar call out. In a very delayed reaction I responded. It was Ale. He saw me in. Inside I had more soup again. So so good. Yvette and I left together with a course overview from Ale as he’d completed this part earlier in the day on the marathon race. We had 5km until the next checkpoint, a wide track, then forest paths and a very technical descent. Bollocks, I was hoping it was already one of the descents completed. Oh well.
We set off power hiking again. A few runners passed us but not many. The wide track was just that – a wide track. Dull but flat. The Forest was surreal. In the darkness the head torches lit up the trees and the sheer drop we were running along. Don’t slip! The ground was wet and soft and slipping was a real likelihood. We hit a wooden cabin all lit up with fairy lights and had our numbers checked. It was time to go down. Fuck me this was bad. Switchback tracks making it steep. Rocks that you’d have to jump or lunge down. And nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. Adding to the wet loose soil I was. for the first time, fearful I might disappear on a trail! And it almost happened many times. I lost count of how times I slipped and skidded down on my backside. How many tims I screamed out profanities into the night and how many times my hiking poles were my savior. The body visuals I had were now screaming red in my feet and ankles! I was hurting.
Last checkpoint Larano. More soup. Yummy. 12km to go. Next stop was the finish. I was doing the math. That’s still 2-3hours on a mountain ultra. Time for the brain to engage and win this battle. Yvette headed out and I wasn’t far behind her.
I don’t know how we got there, but there was a few km along the coastal path. Wow. Below us on the left was the sea (I could hear it not see it!) to our immediate right the rock face. In and out along every cove and rock face. Lights up ahead from runners bobbing about. I was behind another runner walking it in. He was also walking at a good pace so I didn’t pass him. I could have gone faster but it would have been an extra bit of effort I didn’t want to muster. Runners passed us but it was difficult on the single track and we’d have to time it right so they could. There was a stretch that had been lit up with extra lights. I’m not sure why this section only had it, but it was a delight and very pretty in the moonlight.
We then turned and headed inland and once again I found myself stuck behind the Polish guy as we hit some technical tracks and continued our descent. It was a little frustrating and a repeat of the situation a few hours earlier. After sometime he stepped aside and I walked passed.
The next challenge was running alongside a water channel. It was long. Like forever long. Machico was below us. The end felt near, I could see the town. We needed to descend the remaining 300m or so. Surely soon I thought, but the water channel path just kept going on and on. Many people were walking and I’d catch them up and pass when I could. Occasionally I’d be stuck behind someone and struggle to pass. I needed to keep walking at my pace I thought. I was engaged in finishing now. Determined. Looking up ahead the lights of runners continued at the same altitude round the mountains into the distance. When will this end?!
Finally a sharp right was indicated and we descended through some fields. No defined track as such it was a just a case of following the reflections from the course markings reflecting down below. Gravity once again won through and I ran down grunting and swearing with each rocky step. As we hit the road I continued. I could see the the finish line below in the distance. Maybe a kilometre to go? If I stopped running now I might not start up again. I was on it. I ran passed a few runners. Finish strong, the way I like it. As I hit the flat road the Polish guy whizzed passed me. I bet he was more grateful than I was to be on flat ground! As I crossed the line Ale and Yvette were there. Yvette ushered someone to give me a medal. I think the volunteers must have been tired too – it was 2am afterall!
The words that came out of my mouth were “is there a finishers gilet?” There wasn’t. That annoyed me. I quite like those as a different memento. Ultra races always have such an anticlimax of a finish I find. So many emotions. You never know what to expect. What you want. What you are going to feel. Suddenly it can seem like the whole day of exertion amounts to something as silly as a gilet! I was happy though, challenge completed. I was a finisher.
My immediate thoughts on MIUT? It’s utterly spectacular. The trails are without doubt the most picturesque I’ve run on so far. I’d highly recommend it. It is however brutal. I dread to think how many thousands of steps and stairs you climb. The ascents and descents are soul destroying and it is a very technical race. If you’re going to do it, be prepared. Train for it!
The next day we drove back up to the observatory. Ales marathon race didn’t take in Pico Ruivo so we thought that would be a good place for him to see. Of course, we took our medals out for a photo shoot!
Another race report, another heavy feature for the Wild Trail Runners. I write about this lot fairly frequently now. It is Probably representative of how much time I spend with them because they are a truly wicked bunch. Trips to Italian mountains to run races? Yes please, I’ll have some of that!
Last year I followed the adventure of a group of the Wild Trail Runners from my phone in the comfort of home, watching as the group either ran or crewed the SciaccheTrail, and I was jealous. The trails and scenery looked spectacular and they looked to be having so much fun. So when they arranged to go again I was straight in there.
The SciaccheTrail is an event held in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. The race is roughly 50k and somewhere around 2500m of elevation gain. You start and finish in the town of Monterosso Al Mare, looping out and up into the mountains then along the coast, up and down into each town of the region then back to the finish line where it all began.
I set out to Italy without a (running related) care in the world. There would be a group of nine of us and I’d have no pressure on the race itself. With MIUT two weeks away this was always going to be a tune up event for me. My one focus was to see how the recovery is/was afterwards to benchmark for later in the year where I have two ultra mountain races within 3 days. No doubt I’ll write more about that in the weeks and months to come but for now it is the time to see how that might work out!
Leaving London on the Thursday I stayed in Pisa overnight and took the early train to Levanto. Meeting the crew (who arrived the day before ) at 9am I was able to join them on the now customary ‘shakeout run’. We ran over to Monterosso Al Mare and experienced a tiny section of the trail we’d explore the next day. It filled me with excitement.
That evening we returned to Monterosso and registered and collected quite possibly the most generous race pack I’ve ever received. The race is part of a regional festival and besides the obligatory race T-shirt and sponsored goodies (like a hat from La Sportiva) each runner received a bag of local produce including pasta and wine! How good is that?!
The next day we rocked up to the start line ready for the 7:30am start. With under 300 runners it was a very easy and low key start. Before we knew it the countdown had begun and we were released. The first part of the course head out of Monterosso Al Mare along the coast back towards Levanto before which we began the first climb.
That First climb was steep and busy. Steps and Rocks were the terrain but generally it was soft underfoot. The first summit at Monte Negro took us into, and through some tree lined paths which were a delight. The morning mist that shrouded the summit soon started to giveaway to the glorious bright sunshine as morning broke. I’m beginning to love those early morning sunrises when I’m running high up near the clouds and hear nothing but the sound of my feet tapping the paths.
Soon we came upon the first aid station followed by a long road stretch along the top of the mountains before dropping sharply and then beginning the next big climb towards Monte Soviore. Further on we’d reach the highest point of the race at Monte Malpertuso after the third climb. The climb began with a steady switchback along the roads where Kirsty caught up with me. We ran together interchanging paces as is overtake her on the climbs and she’d wizz past on the downs. An all too familiar experience for these races now!
Running through some more tranquil tree-lined forests I was at peace and smiling. Then up ahead some guy came over the hill towards the runners. He had a Wild Trail Runners shirt on and I was curious. My mind clearly wasn’t thinking as it was Matt. Of course it was Matt. He was out to support us all and said he’d be around the 20km mark!
Shortly afterwards Kirsty reappeared again and we ran together. We have a similar race pace and stuck around each other chatting away as the forest was very runnable. Soon she’ll be leaving for New Zealand and I’ll miss having her pop up in races to run with. She’ll be missed from the group.
We began a long down hill section as we headed towards where the course would loop back and head towards the town of Riomaggiore. Much of the previous section it was all incredibly runnerble. Just before the edge of the loop, Kirsty pulled up with cramp and as I reached the end of a down hill section we arrived at an aid station. I shouted back at her to carry on. This aid station was phenomenal. I’d been loving the oranges so far, blood oranges and so juicy. I’d heard about the cakes at aid stations and i had resisted the panettone up until this point. Here I couldn’t resist the cakes anymore though when I caught sight of a giant crostata. I love a good jammy crostata and started stuffing my face. I had three pieces and grabbed a forth along with more oranges and biscuits and cracked on. As we left a camera man called out to me ‘ciao’ and I smiled widely whilst shoving biscuits and tart into my gob.
The course continued downwards towards the town and we began traversing the first of many vineyards we’d run through that day. I whipped out the camera for more photos and as we were posing Maggie popped up behind us and we ran on as a three for a bit. This section was beautiful as we weaved through the various vineyards overlooking the coast.
We soon began the steep descent to Riomaggiore which was tough. Very tough. It was a Steep down hill on cobbled Steps and paths. For the first real time that day I felt my body begin to talk to me. My feet were sore with raw toes and achy ankles and knees were registered. I altered my technique and was actively braking as I continued down. Maggie went flying past and vanished off. She’s such a strong down hill runner. As we entered Riomaggiore Matt was there again grabbing photos and cheering us through. Hi fives and cheers were embraced and I swung a sharp right straight back up to some steps as I blasted on and skipped the aid station in the town.
The Aid-stations were now every few kms and I didn’t need them all. Making sure I’d fill my bottles I could skip one each time. As we climbed up and out of the town I was back with Maggie and Kirsty and we climbed to together until Kirsty pulled up again with cramp. We left her (sorry!) as we powered up. At the top Maggie and I ran the huge bridge before beginning the next climb. This was a tough climb through old stone paths along the vineyards. We took some photos and Maggie pointed out that this was our first race together. I’ve run with her so much now since we met just over a year ago that I hadn’t even realised we’d not run an event together. As I stopped to take more photos Maggie carried on. But what a photo it was…
Soon we were running down hill again and I was passing runners this time and feeling strong but Maggie was no where in sight. The next undulations took us to the town of Manarola. Were we run down into the busy tourist streets and straight through and back up. The aid station volunteers ensured runners navigated the crowds of tourists with ease. On the climb or I caught up with Maggie once more. Again we walked and talked and she directed me to a public tap half way up some stairs (she did the race the year before). We soaked our hats and carried on. Not too far further up we reached another aid station were I began to refill my Tailwind (my little travel bottle technique is working a charm!). Maggie left left me at the aid station as she doesn’t stay long at all. A few moments later, with coke in my belly I cracked on. It was hot now in the heat of the day and the fuelling was becoming critical. Whilst I’d eaten loads of fruit cake and biscuits, I needed to constantly hydrate. A benefit of having so many aid stations is that they don’t get busy. I presume because like me, most runners wont stop at them all.
In the distance the start/finish of Monterosso Al Mare loomed. It seemed so far away. There must still have been about ten miles to go and the trails and towns came and went. The climbs now between towns were all steep steps and combinations of natural as well as man made paths. The streets and towns were packed with locals and tourists alike and the trails were windy and often involved crossing small rivers. I Thought of the finish and powered on.
We sort of by-passed Corniglia and then headed into Vernazza. A lovely little port town with amazing coloured houses. I stopped on the path and joined some tourists taking photos. As I had all day long I greeted them with “Ciao Grazie”, the limits of my Italian vocabulary. After leaving Vernazza I’d occasionally glimpse Maggie in the distance as the paths crossed or I could see her running the other side of a cliff as I could see up ahead where runners were going. I carried on knowing there were no more major climbs of note to overcome. I was in the zone and running. The finish now appeared closer. I could sense the end. I was momentarily stuck behind two Italians with poles. They didn’t seem keen to let me pass and I had to buy my time. I saw an opportunity and powered past. Then I focused on not stopping. After making such a clear statement I couldn’t let them catch me again. I kept going. Rounding the bends and powering the last few steps onto the main road. A down hill finish. I could see Maggie ahead for the last time as she was crossing the line and I kicked on. As I neared the finish I noticed the cheer squad of Matt and Tamas clapping to see me home. Straight away I was rewarded with the lovely wooden medal and shared a hug and a photo with Maggie. As we collected some ice cold beer two lovely old ladies hugged us (they must surely of regretted that!) and congratulated us (I presume, they were Italian). And, best of all, we each received 10 Euros cash at the end (a deposit back for the racing chip!). Amazing. I Felt like a pro being given money at the finish!
We hung around and cheered the other runners home and saw in the rest of the team as they arrived one by one. We cooled off in the sea, or at least I dipped my feet and ankles in, it was freezing! Before celebrating with Maggie as she was presented on the podium as the 9th female (the SciaccheTrail rewards the top ten males and females). After which we headed to the free pasta party and filled our stomachs with more amazing local produce of vegetarian lasagne, seafood pasta, grilled octopus and veg, and that was just the mains!!
Eventually we headed back to our flat in Levanto and chilled out before we couldn’t stay awake any longer.
The next day a few of the group went for a hike whilst Yvette and I joined Matt on his training run. It turned into a photoshoot for me as I had won a place in the Adidas City Run race which I couldn’t make. So I did my ‘hour’ along the Italian coast.
Another excellent weekend adventure running. What better way to explore the Cinque Terre region?!