UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, has a certain pomp and air to it. For those less familiar with the brand, it’s one of the largest trail running races across the globe and the organisation recently partnered to Iron Man with mixed public reaction. Think bigger brand, bigger costs, new sponsors and processes including a new series of ‘by UTMB’ branded events across the world that form the qualifiers for a “World Series”. The final of the world series being the UTMB events in August. Basically it’s changed. For good or for worse, that the Brand will decide. Either way, some 10,000 punters show up for one of the many races of the UTMB:
UTMB – 171 km (106 Miles)
TDS – 147km
CCC – 100km
OCC – 55km
MCC – 40km (for locals)
PTL – a Whopping 300km team event
YCC – various distances for youth ages
Les Mini UTMB – for the little ones
And now the ETC – 15km
I’ve been very fortunate to have previously completed both the CCC and the TDS. Now, after completing Val d Aran by UTMB through which I gained a one-off guaranteed entry to UTMB, I find myself towing the start line at the main event, the 100m ‘Series Final’ that is UTMB.
Running 100miles in the mountains takes a long time for mere mortals like me. Over this time you think of so many things and also decide to explicitly not think of so many things too. I’ve recapped and recalled long races before and I find it’s often as exhausting as the race itself. So I decided I’m not going to put myself through that pain and recap mile by mile of my UTMB experience. Instead, what follows is a dump of thoughts and recollections with a shorter summary of the event. The 45 hours of running will mostly stay between me, Paul and Matt.
I mentioned that somewhere in the region of 10,000 punters show up for the UTMB races. Granted this is staggered over a week with the PTL beginning the proceedings and closing it along with UTMB on the final Sunday in August, but, add in family and friends along with the usual number of tourists and the small towns the races pass through are bursting at the seems. Chamonix in particular is very, very busy during race week (and leading up to it). If you don’t like crowds and the pomp then you probably won’t like this event!
On the plus side, big crowds add to the atmosphere and vibes. Watching finishers of other races and supporting runners from all over the world is incredible. Watching the true greats of the sport ‘competing’ with people like me is fascinating and exciting. Although I imagine it is less exciting for the pros as they get mobbed in the streets and have to partake in all manner of commercial appearances before and after the races. The towns really are a little mental during this time. On our race, hitting Les Houches in the early evening on Friday, and Saint-Gervais a few hours later was a crazy experience. Saint-Gervais in particular was pumping with loud music and people lining the streets cheering and supporting runners for hours on end.
Finishing early afternoon on Sunday was quite a surreal experience too. The last of the finishers would be just an hour behind us and the crowds had gathered ready to cheer them home. So we benefitted from a great finish line atmosphere with thousands of people in the streets cheering and clapping runners across the line (you run a good km through the town, past all the pubs and restaurants, to get to the finish line). Having experienced an early Saturday am finish on the CCC and a midweek, midday, finish on the TDS, this UTMB finish really was on another level. As a participant in the ‘main event’ you really are put on a pedestal and cheered like nothing else I’ve experienced.
The UTMB takes in three countries as you loop around Mont Blanc from France, into Italy, crossing into Switzerland before reaching back into France and approaching Chamonix from the other direction. The route is 106miles, covers 10,400m of vertical gain (and also descent!) and crosses through a number of major towns including Chamonix, Courmayeur and Champex Lac. With 15 major aid stations and many more checkpoints/timing points along the way. It’s a military operation. And that’s just one of the races!
The Alpine trails are stunning. For much of UTMB the trails are very, very runnable. There are, inevitably, some rocky sections and some of the climbs are tough. But on the whole the trails aren’t technical on the UTMB (unlike it’s sister the TDS, which takes in some more technical routes from Courmayeur back to Chamonix) nor the climbs/descents too long. In my experience, the terrain alone makes it a very straight forward route and one which shouldn’t be feared. Combining with the distance and elevation though makes for a far tougher beast and it is fair to say I underestimated just how hard this course is.
There are many climbs and summits and at a few points, including the Col de la Seigne (where you cross from France to Italy) and also Grand Col Ferret (where you cross from Italy to Switzerland) you reach an altitude of >2500m. You’re high up in the Alps. The mountains don’t care about us humans, we are just visitors riding our luck at anytime. The weather will turn and the mountains will serve you your ass on a plate if you’re not ready. There is extensive mandatory kit for the races (and in the exception of ‘cold’ weather or ‘hot’ weather there are also additional mandatory kit lists that can be activated the day before the race begins). For us, in 2022, it was thankfully just the normal kit list that was activated. Although, for the first time in my UTMB experience the Organisers didn’t check everyone’s kit on registration. There were subsequent kit checks during the race though.
The 106 miles of the route is a long way. I thought about this alot over the 40 hours. It is the 4th time I’ve run 100miles and I’m beginning to accept what a challenge it actually is. As time ticked by we carried on flirting with cut offs. We were never in danger of being ‘timed-out’ but I was very aware that time could easily be against us at any point. I also wondered how it was so comparable (time wise) to Val D’Aran which felt far harder with more technical terrain and bigger climbs. Truth is, it’s because 100 miles really is a long way. It will take a while to cover on foot regardless of where you are. And so it did take a while for us to cover on foot, we can’t escape that. 100miles in the Alps is also, unsurprisingly, not comparable to 100miles in the UK (although only one of my four 100 mile runs have been in the UK!). I should have already known that 100 miles is a long way. After completing UTMB I think I finally accept that it is!
We expected rain and bad weather as, in the lead up to the event, the forecasts had predicted rain and some light storms throughout, we were preparing for a soggy two days. Come the day before, these forecasts had changed and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d have a dry run. I can’t explain how much this would have helped. Thankfully that is how it stayed and, other than some light rain at the start whilst we waited to begin, we avoided all bad weather across the course. If anything, it was a little hot during the day time and on some of the climbs where shade was limited! We were very fortunate.
Together we were stronger. Matt said after the race that there were points he wondered if he’d enjoy it more alone. I already know the answer to that. I wouldn’t have. I enjoy the company and the distraction from the task. All three of us started together and finished together. That’s a wonderful thing. Over 45 hours we never left each other’s sides. We could have. Mostly Matt could have left me and Paul behind (like we’d left him at Eiger), but he didn’t. Early in the first night Paul went through a tough number of hours of nausea and sickness. He struggled through it and came out the other side (picking up in Italy!). From Courmayeur onwards I moaned about my ankle/leg and could barely run. This slowed us down a lot! Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the guys could have left me many times but didn’t. I’m thankful for them sticking it out with me and sacrificing a quicker finish time to help me through. Again, without them I’m not sure whether I would have succumb to the darker thoughts that taunted me over the last 24 hours.
Leaving Chamonix was mental and the first 8km to Les Houches flew by, as did the first climb over Le Delevret to Saint-Gervais with the sun setting just as we came close to the end of the downhill. The town was one giant party. It was full on and very noisy. It was great and the atomosphere was a talking point amongst runners. For me, the first night was mostly enjoyable. After a flying visit through Les Contamines we were running through the Hoka ‘light show’. The sponsors had errected a big tunnel of light and covered the surrounding area in further lights. It was a bit odd and very cheesy. But it was different and for as few moments the night was alive. We ran through the darkness, over La Balme and Col du Bonhomme (where we unfortunately witnesses someone being airlifted from the course) and descended into Les Chapieux at around 50km in the early hours of the morning. It was a long climb from here which, despite feeling my ankles hurting I rather enjoyed as we reached the Col de la Seigne into Italy just in time for sunrise. The sunrise was beautiful. We stopped for a moment and enjoyed the subsequent climb to Pyramides Calcaires which was rather rocky and more technical than the previous 60km we’d run. There was a long descent into the morning to the next major aid station that was Lac Combal. However, things were starting to become far less enjoyable by now.
After enduring a difficult night, Paul was back to his ‘normal’ self as the day began brightening up and generally we were all running well. We had one plan which was to get to Courmayeur without being screwed up! If we could reach halfway with our quads and ankles intact we were all confident for the second half of the course (which follows pretty much the CCC route which we’d all previously completed). So far everything was going to OK but the plan started to unravel slightly as the morning heated up and we began the steep descent into Courmayeur. The steep and dusty trails were hard work and my left ankle was now constantly in Pain. My form had gone out of the window and I was lumbering downhill whichever way I could. The dust the runners were kicking up was unavoidable and we all arrived into the halfway point with dry and dusty throats.
Out of Courmayeur we began the CCC route albeit with a different climb to Refuge Bertone. Rather than the longer route via Tete de la Tronche we went the more direct way, pretty much straight up. It was tough in the heat as we slowly climbed through the forests. By now there was a lot of pain in my left ankle/shin. I was struggling to run but knew I wanted to keep going, it wasn’t even a question I would entertain, I was finishing this race. From Bertone we ran the ‘balcon’ to Refuge Bonatti and again further on to Arnouvaz from where we would begin the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (aka ‘Grand Colin Farrel’). I recalled this section and that it was stunning and enjoyable. It still was, although I wasn’t able to ‘run’ too much. We were also starting to tire at this point and took a moment at Bonatti to lay in the sun and close our eyes for a few mins (being woken by ants biting us!). The climb to Col Ferret was easy going and this was the first time (on my third visit) where I could see the Col clearly. It was visible towards the end of the climb with the wind quickly blowing the clouds away before they could settle.
Now in Switzerland, it was a long downhill to La Fouly. I knew it would hurt. And it did hurt. I was struggling badly now. Climbing was ok, and I knew I could cover ground at a faster than our average pace when going uphill, but the descents were too much for me. Paul and Matt encouraged me when they could but I was starting accept though that I simply could not move any faster, physically it was beyond me. It wasn’t just the pain, but the range of motion I had in my left ankle/foot was now very limited and I couldn’t push off my left foot. I was already thinking about the three big descents still to come later in the race and I couldn’t believe we still had 60km+ to run and so I was a little bit deflated. We’d agreed we’d try and sleep at Champex-Lac for 20 mins so the initial goal was to get through La Fouly and cover the 14km to Champex-Lac. The slog there was very slow (yep, because of me). I remembered I liked this section on the CCC as we ran through the forests and mountain tracks to Praz de Fort, which I really liked, and also the climb to Champex-Lac through Sentier des Champignons with all the wood carvings. Paul didn’t enjoy it so much but we were all decent fast-hikers so, despite my inability to run, we we still covering the ground at an acceptable pace and eventually reached the aid station with plenty of time for the planned sleep.
We dived dived straight into the sleeping tents. Selfishly I found one and went to work. As soon as I laid down I was shivering. I couldn’t stop it. I should probably have changed into dry clothes first but was so tired I could only think of maximising the sleeping time! Once awake, but very spaced out, Lisa, Martin and Mike went to work fixing us up and sending us back into the night. First up it was the monster climb to Refuge Bovine and we summited deep into the night. Struggling down the descent to Trient (passing through the shithouse party stop that is a barn at La Giete) we then reached Trient just as day was breaking. Mike was there again and over saw another 10 minute power snooze. With the morning chill on our side we powered up the climb to Les Tseppes. We then lost a lot of ground on the ‘nice’ downhill to Vallorcine. We were feeling it now, I was broken and in constant pain and Paul was feeling his quads due to all the downhills. Matt seemed absolutely fine. We were in a good place though knowing that we finally had one ‘climb’ and one ‘descent’ left to conquer. We didn’t stick around too long at Vallorcine and began the climb to La Tete Aux Vents in the midday heat. It was of course a bastard. A rocky climb with no shade and a rocky traverse over to the checkpoint. It wasn’t easy. But I was more worried of the final descent from La Flegere. A whopping 800m downhill to go back to the finish line in Chamonix. The traverse to La Flegere was frustrating and the downhill excruciating. Somehow though we were moving quick enough to be passing more people than whom overtook us. Jana, Paul, Jess and Mikkel came to meet us near Chalet De La Floria and to support us for the last few kms. And then it was the ‘km’ run around the town. The crowds. The cheers. The elation. We’d done it. It happened. We were UTMB finishers.
I’ve saved it till last, but most importantly, this race was all about the people. Firstly Me, Paul and Matt. We were running it. It was for us, by us. We all had our different reasons and motives for being there and the race meant different things to each of us. We’d all worked hard to qualify and prepare ourselves to be at the start line. So it was our race. We were doing it our way. We’d discussed various potential finish times, but these were scrapped pretty much as soon as we started. We were all of the same mindset though and we had one simply mantra we shared from the “it’s happening”. Nothing was going to stop it from happening that’s what we said going into it. It came up several times during the two days and in the final minutes the mantra shifted tense to “It Happened”.
Then there’s the crew. Unexpected, but absolutely essential and critical to us completing the race. Matt’s family – Dad Mike, wife Lara and son George along with Lisa and Martin were on crewing duties. Not always arranged or planned but they were popping up everywhere when we needed them most. They were all dotted along different places at the start in Chamonix and at the first checkpoint in Les Houche. Lara and Mike went to Courmayeur (80km in). Lisa and Martin showed up in Champex-Lac (120km in) with Mike and again on the last climb to La Flegere. Mike also made his way to Trient in the middle of the second night (and had to be sent home to get some sleep and ordered not to show up in Vallorcine too!). Of course they were all then at the finish line to see us finish.
Crewing is a crazy tough ask. The amount of travel, stress, lack of sleep and general thankless nature of following a smelly miserable runner around a race for hours on end is exhausting. Never mind doing it across three different countries! But without them, the outcome of the race would have been very different. From tending to our needs, making us eat, encouraging us, timing our sleeps (and in my case Mike stopping me from pouring coke on myself as I slept!), to giving us extra food and supplies, and so much more. All these things altered the outcome of our race for the better. We couldn’t have done it without them all. This really was a team effort. Whilst three of us ran, a team of us worked tirelessly to achieve the goal. I can’t thank them all enough.
Then there’s everyone else who was out in Chamonix, racing or supporting, who popped up to cheer somewhere along the way from the start line all the way through to the finish. And also all those who contacted us and sent messages of support. These acts of generosity and kindness meant so much to us and helped lift our spirits more than we could express. Big thanks to Jana, Jess, Paul and Mikkel who ran out to see us on the last descent and to all of Paul and Lisa’s family and friends spread across the world who were actively following and messaging us (we’d all spent a weekend together two weeks prior at Paul and Lisa’s wedding!).
Starting UTMB near the back was a bit shitty. It was a slow start and we had bottlenecks on pretty much all the climbs and descents. We did what we could though, embracing the crowds and using them to our advantage to keep our pace slow and steady.
The Finish line time of day vibe is key for UTMB events. There’s very little after race love and attention at UTMB. It’s all about those few minutes as you run through the town and up the finish line. Time it wrong and finish too early and it’s a lonely, anti-climatic finish.
Chasing cut offs is not fun. It’s stressful. We weren’t as tight as last year during the VDA but I was constantly aware and calling them out, running the numbers and doing the math, re-evaluating are progress. It saps away at your spirit and makes you feel like you can’t do it.
Matt is the king of the power nap. Ten mins at a time and he’s refreshed. Me and Paul need to work on it.
The drop out rate as always is huge. 800 runners started but didn’t finish. For us it was perfect conditions. But there are so many reasons that could change that for each individual.
The aftermath – I talked about the pain I was in during the race. One week later and I still cannot walk. The swelling has subsided and the X-rays were clear (no break) but the diagnosis is still pending. Until then I’m in a support boot and still in pain. This time I’ve done something serious to my body. Right now I’d say it was worth it, but I can’t quite understand how I managed to keep going until the end!
The course record was smashed and for the first time the winner went under 20 hours. So did the second place finisher this year. To put that into perspective, there was a longer time between the first finisher and us finishing, than the time taken for the winner to complete the race. I can’t understand how they can cover the distance so quickly!
For perspective, Matt ran the whole race in brand new kit after his luggage was lost on route and didn’t turn up in time. How he didn’t stress and lose the plot I do not know. Most of us runners are meticulous in our planning and preparation, but Matt just accepted it for what it was and went with it. He’s such a calm and level-headed guy!
When recapping my last race I mentioned how, during the Eiger Ultra Trail E101, I fell over for the first time in a race. We’ll I think it was a floodgate moment. In my next race I must have fallen about 50 times, no exaggeration, I spent a lot of time on my backside in Norway…
The Stranda Fjord Trail Race in Norway had been on the cards for a long time. Originally I signed up to the race back in 2019 and hoped to do the inaugural 100km run in 2020. But we all know what happened that year and the same cause meant 2021 also wasn’t possible for us. Oscar, the Race Director, was incredibly supportive in deferring entries until we could travel to Norway and race. So in 2022, a slightly smaller than planned group of us headed out to finally run in the fjells of Norway.
In the days leading up to the weekend it became increasingly clear that the weather was going to be less than ideal for the race. Clouds and rain meant a weather warning and amendments to the 100km route were activated for safety. At this point I was kind of ok with it. We can’t control or change the weather, and I was expecting the route to be very difficult. So removing some of the most difficult sections would be in my favour I thought. A small benefit to missing out on the legendary panoramic views from Slogen.
Nick and Natalia woke at 1am to escort me down to the town of Stranda for the start. An unnecessary and kind gesture from them both given they would need to wake up in a few hours to prepare for their 48km race. After collecting my GPS tracker I sat inside the building (where we collected our race numbers) with the other runners, waiting until it was almost 02:00 and time to run. We first lined up under the finishers arch before being led around the corner to the real start line. Here I fell for the first time, stepping in a hole in the concrete pavement, before the race had even begun!
Section 1: Start –Duklidalen
The course starts on the town square in Stranda. From Stranda you will first be running a few km on a asphalt road until you hit the trailhead on Framhus. From Framhus you will be running on a nice trail up to Dregetua (693) and then off trail over to Vardnakken (878masl) and further to Blåhornsvatnet on trail. From Blåhornsvatnet you will be running on a nice trail down to Vasset. From Vasset you will be running a few km on a gravel road until you hit the trailhead for the trail towards Lievarden (799masl) and Duklidalen (820masl). In Duklidalen you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Moments later and we were off, running the tarmac road switch backs for the first few kms. I was pleasantly surprised at this point that we stuck together mostly as one big group of runners and that I hadn’t been left behind completely.
The roads soon gave way to the forest and we began running in single file in the darkness. And it was very dark, something about it felt darker than the usual nights I’ve experienced. Though the trails were clearly lit by the dozens of head torches bobbing about.
Mostly it was silent now other than the sloshing sounds as we ran through puddles and muddy trails. I felt that most runners were, like me, trying to avoid getting their feet wet. I accepted that it would be wet but didn’t plan on being waterlogged for the whole race so was happy to skip around the trails when I could. I should have known better that weeks of rain in this area would have meant the ground conditions would be far worse than I imagined! It was soon clear that the trails would consistently be this way at the best of times.
Through the forests two things stood out in my memory. Almost getting lost – the spacing between runners was now increasing and a few of us lost sight of the runners ahead of us and this section was not course marked. A quick stop and check of the GPS and we were back on track before the damage was done! And a point where there was a delightful bunch of supporters with coloured lights and music who cheered us through one small section of the track. It created a good atmosphere and led to a few of us to start talking. Whilst talking to a few climbers who were doing the race it made me realise that most of the runners around me were head to toe in waterproofs (or wearing hiking trousers!) and there were very few like me in shorts and tshirts without a waterproof on. Even though it was drizzling with rain, I knew though that I’d overheat on the early climbs so was waiting until the climbs were exposed before I’d layer up.
After a little section on some wider gravel roads, the forests returned and became a little steeper and very, very muddy. Every now and then a series of wooden walkways assisted in avoiding much of the mud. The forest soon gave way and the mountain opened up into a vast exposed climb. The single tracks we followed, still trying to skip around the mud and bogs. So far so good although it was now very windy and cold (the drizzle of fine rain had become more constant now) so I took a moment to layer up with my waterproof jacket.
We continued climbing before reaching the first of the smaller summits (which must have been Dregetua) marked by a stone trig pillar. We then began descending and running again. I set off and was enjoying seeing the head torches of other runners way off in the distance. Here though it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mud as the narrow tracks left little room to manoeuvre as the ground was so uneven. It wasn’t long before I was soaked to my shins and covered in mud. At one point my left shoe came off, stuck and wedged in the mud completely. I had to bend down and pull with both hands to get out back out. I took the moment to tighten both my laces! We then climbed a little more in similar lumpy conditions which was quite tiring on the terrain and in the cold of night. The heat from the first bit of climbing meant my t shirt was soaked with sweat so I couldn’t really avoid getting cold even with the jacket on!
From the next trig point (Vardnakken) we began descending. Down we went through a long series of lumpy bogs. The undulating terrain meant it was quite difficult to get a good rhythm when running. One foot would descend then next foot would ascend a lump. I felt like I was jarring up and down and running very inefficiently. There were rocks hidden in the darkness too.
Once more my shoe got sucked off (the right one this time) and after retrieving it I tightened my laces even more. They were so tight now that they weren’t particularly comfortable. But thankfully they never came off again!!
The descend was consistent until we reached Blåhornsvatnet. From here the descent became steeper and significantly harder. We we going down muddy and rocky switch backs, sometimes off trail, sometimes through streams and always having to look and see which way was the most obvious. It wasn’t long before I was on my arse and covered in mud. Within a few minutes I had fallen multiple times. The mud was so thick that there was no way to grip it properly. Whilst my Inov8 Trailrocs aren’t ideal for muddy runs, I also couldn’t imagine many trainers being much use here! I wasn’t alone. I could hear the gasps and groans of other runners in the night too and could see runners in front of me falling over.
I was already thinking to myself that this was the least fun I’ve ever had in a descent. It was relentless and torturous and I just had to accept it. Accept that it would be uncomfortable and that I’d keep falling. So I just kept moving, letting gravity pull me down, hoping it would be done quicker that way. There were a few points where I just ploughed straight through bogs above my knees and had to drag myself out with my poles. There would be no warning as the ground just sucked you in. Mostly though it was just about shin high. I remember thinking to myself that this was suppose to be the easiest section of the race! The alarm bells were ringing. I then took an almighty slip, skidding a little bit on my heels before twisting and going down on my left side. I know I swore loudly (not for the first time) and I heard a sound from my pole which I landed on top of. It sounded like a crack but I hoped it was just the sound of it hitting the the ground and my weight on top. Once again I picked myself up and carried on, thankfully the trails finally came to an end and we had a section of gravel track to run on. It felt quite long but soon enough we were climbing again (which I believe meant we were now connected to where the 48km runners would start). The gravel was a welcome change and I took the opportunity to remove my jacket again. I was also surprised how quickly my feet and shoes seemed to dry out. It was around 04:30, the morning was breaking and the sun starting to rise, giving a glimpse of the amazing views of Stranda and the Fjord below us.
Inevitably the gravel road became a forest track and the climb became harder as the wet ground and mud returned. Over the course of a few 100m of climbing the tracks became off/track as the mountain opened up to us. The tracks returned and brought with them incredible views off to our left of the Fjord and over to Liabygda. I stopped for a few minutes to layer up again as the exposed mountain meant more rain and the temperature had dropped as the wind picked up. It did give me an opportunity to absorb the views all around me in the early morning mist.
From the climb we descended again, the tracks weren’t too steep but they were very wet and we ran on waterlogged tracks and bogs from the many streams. Up ahead a tent could be seen alone in the wild. The first aid station at Duklidalen and the first opportunity to eat something!
I checked my watch and timings and I had covered the 20km or so in pretty much the time I estimated I would. Not a bad start considering the state of the trails!
Section 2: Duklidalen – Fjørstad
From Duklidalen you will be running on and off trail up the Mønet. There are sections here that´s up to 45 degrees steep, you will have to use your hands at times on this section. Mønet is a cliff with a several hundreds meter drop on the fjord side, be careful and stay on the trail. Further on you will be on and off trail in scree up to Fremste Blåhornet (1478masl). From Blåhornet you will be running off trail along the ridge high above the fjord over Rjupskartind and towards Åknesnibba (1296masl). This section is very technical as the ridge is narrow with drops on boths sides. We recommend you to be catious here. There are parts where light scrambling is involved on this section. Before Åknesnibba the course will take a hard right turn down into the valley with a steep technical descent down, this is also a good place to be xtra catious. Then along Rjupeskarvatnet, and further out Fjørstaddalen past Heimfjørstadsætra and down to Fjørstad on a nice trail. On Fjørstad you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Immediately from the aid station we began making our way to the ‘wall’. I believe it was the cliff called Monet. But to me it was a wall on the edge of the world. I couldn’t see where we were heading. Making my way towards it I was texting Natalia ahead of her race and slipped and fell again. This one was my fault for not paying attention. The ground was soaking wet and cold where I fell.
As I reached the ‘wall’ it became clear we were climbing up it. I could see runners scaling it and became apprehensive. It was steep. I held my poles in one hand and used the other to pull myself up with each step. I dared not look down but accepted that it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked and I was at the top maybe 15 minutes later. Up top the grassy cliff turned to rock almost instantly. The climb however continued.
Looming in front of me was a giant of a mountain. Grey in every way. Grey rocks. Grey clouds. Just grey. I assumed this was the first change in the route and this is where we wouldn’t climb. I was wrong though. People ahead of me kept going further up and disappearing into the grey clouds. I put on my gloves as it became colder the higher I went. I then put away my poles and began climbing on all fours. It was quicker that way. I briefly started talking to Kristofer who’d done the 48km last year, who explained this was just the climb to Fremste Blåhornet (I believe he called it ‘Front Bluehorn’) and that the removed part of the course was further up still. He powered on passed me. Eventually I made it to the summit and the timing mat and turned around. Now we were on the diversion route which meant going back the way we came then across and down a valley.. There were a few runners ahead of me but they soon disappeared into the distance as I move so slowly over technical descents like this. I kept watching and making mental notes of where they were and went so I didn’t get lost. I felt alone now, for the first time in the race. I soon couldn’t see runners ahead nor behind me.
After completing the rocky downhill the diversion route took us left and away from the next climb. There was no path though and it was an off track descent from here to the next aid station Fjorstad. I was beginning to see the pattern now and off track terrain meant crossing lots of streams, slipping loads in the mud and bouncing up and down with the lumpy ground. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of a single runner ahead and another behind me. This was another down hill I did not enjoy. I was initially glad when the route entered a forest area but that happiness soon gave way to frustration as the mud returned with a vengeance. Once again I was constantly on my bum. I started saying “fuck you” loudly. Like a chant. Every time I stubbed my toe on a rock “fuck you”. Slipped on my arse “fuck you”. Stepped in a bog or stream “fuck you”. It became my mantra as I continued tumbling down.
Finally the forest let me free and I ran the small down hill to the aid station, slipping and falling for the supporters and volunteers to enjoy! We all smiled and laughed knowing I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to provide the entertainment.
The aid station was a good one. Kristofer was there and changing into spare clothes. On this race you could have a drop bag at each station. I’d opted just for one at the 63km point. I regretted it slightly seeing Kristofer change into dry clothes as I was soaked through. It was warm inside the building so I packed the waterproof away again and noshed down on plenty of watermelon, crisps and cinnamon buns.
Section 3: Fjørstad – Habostadsætra
From Fjørstad you will be running the asphalt road down the Strandavalley for 4km and then into Moldskreddalen on a gravel road for 3km to Mesætra. By Mesætra you will hit the trailhead to Storhornet and cross the river on a bridge, and start the climb up to Storhornet (1309masl) on and off trail. Parts of this trail is technical. After summiting Storhornet you will turn around and follow the course back down for 1km, and then turn right and hit the trail down to Habostadsætra. Ths downhill section is very steep but the trail is very nice. On Habostadsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Before long I was back out running with Kristofer on a long road section. It felt good to run. I’ve never wanted to run along a main road with cars driving passed me (very safely and courteously I should add!) so much in my life. It felt like it was the first time I could actually run. It was also a strangely therapeutic few kms knowing I could see this road from our incredible mountain accommodation.
From the road we were once more on a gravel track uphill before, yep, you guessed it, we were back in the wet and slippery forest hiking off track up a steep climb. Kristofer started getting further and further away as I huffed my way up. Once out of sight I had to concentrate more looking for the red trail markers painted on trees or rocks. This climb felt like it took so much longer than it probably did. After the forests it was wild and rugged terrain. Up and down lumps whilst still generally getting higher. There was a person out here all alone. It took me a while to realise he was a photographer. It took a while longer for me to get to him, he waited patiently and snapped me as I said hello and made some bad jokes. I asked if it was Ian, and it was. A world reknown adventurer and photographer. I’d read his blog from the 2021 event and we had a brief chat comparing the contrasting weather conditions. He kindly shared some advice on the climb and temperatures awaiting me and wished me well on the journey.
From here things got a little harder. The climb went off for an out and back section to the next summit of Storhornet. It went ‘up’ pretty steeply and the trail was more prominent and clear for a short while as the the mud and wild terrain tagged out and the went rocky tracks tagged back in. There were many runners coming back and I’d let them glide effortlessly passed me. I had no idea how far I had to run to get back to this point. But up I went. There was another photographer filming runners coming down and he had to film me slowly walking up. I made it clear I wouldn’t be running down like they all were!
Like the Blåhornet summit, this one became very rocky very quickly. It was now just like before as I was stumbling from rock to rock heading into the mist in the direction shadows were coming from. Here I had one moment that ‘threw’ my mind a little off. A lady was coming down and started speaking to me, I assumed in Norwegian, and I explained I only spoke English. She then told me that it was very cold further on and asked if I have any more clothes to put on. I was caught off guard. Whilst her intentions were no doubt full of kindness and support of other runners, I didn’t quite understand the comment. There was mandatory kit and I was clearly in the race with a full bag on my back I also had on my waterproof coat and gloves on, so I don’t think I looked under-prepared compared to anyone else. I assume she was concerned because I was just in shorts. But I reassured her I was fine and carried on. Soon Kristofer ran back passed me and sometime later I looped around the summit and too was heading back down. On this section many runners overtook me as I once again descended so slowly.
Eventually I completed the out and back and was then going down a steep hill in another wet and slippery forest section. I was all over the place. Sliding and slipping everywhere going down the switchbacks. A lady behind was asking if I was ok as I was swearing constantly. Then it was her turn as she slipped and did a pencil roll down one bend/turn. I can’t quite describe how fantastically she rolled and ended up down ahead of me and back on her feet laughing at her ‘shortcut’. She then sped off descending rapidly with ease. She called back to check on me a few mins later when I let out a rather loud expletive laden cry. I was ok. I’d fallen again (Fuck you!). This one was worse though. Whilst I was fine, in the process I’d snapped my fucking pole again (I snapped one in the VDA last year). I was really pissed off. It snapped right at the handle where it slides in and the locking button is. It was fucked and useless now and I’d only covered around 40km of the race. In a mood I carried on into the aid station that wasn’t far away.
A few runners looked at my pole and the volunteer was a superstar, running around looking for things to fix it (his plan was to tape a small rod to the handle to strengthen it). I knew it was a lost cause though but I appreciated their efforts. I filled my sorrow with meat soup (which was frikken ace) and Coke. The aid stations were pretty great for variety in my eyes! I checked my timings and, once again, felt I was pretty spot on to plan as it was about 30 mins before the first cut off. And so, having experienced running with one pole before, I knew I could overcome it, I packed it away and carried on with the single pole.
Section 4: Habostadsætra – Myrsætra
From Habostadsætra you will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail trough a lush birch forrest to Nysetvatnet with a great view towards Brekketind and the Brekketind glacier and then further to Patcellhytta where the climb to the iconic mt. Slogen (1564masl) starts. You will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail up to Slogen. The last part up to Slogen is very steep and involves scrambling, be catious on the way up and down. From Slogen you have a majestic view over Hjørundfjorden. The summit is very narrow, so one have to be carefull on the top. Here you will turn around and go back the way you came up for 1,5km. But instead of going back down to Patchellhytta, you will turn left and continue towards Isavatnet and further down Langseterdalen past Storevatnet on a nice trail. At the parking lot at Myrsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The next section began with us walking up a stream. Really?! Fuck this trail I thought. I was waiting for the pain of constantly wet feet to kick in. Like the rest of the route, there was nothing to do about it except power through. It was kind of up hill, but very gentle and certainly not runnable (for me) as it was mostly rocky. My power hike was in full flow though and I was enjoying the intimating views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides and thunderous roar of the river besides me. Off in the distance I could see the lady along with another runner. I kept thinking I was gaining on them but I really wasn’t. The section was another that felt like it went on for a while, but I was content knowing we were at least climbing gradually higher. And so my mind wandered a little. I got thinking back to that last aid station and my timings and realised that all wasn’t quite what it seemed. Whilst I was ‘on time’ and within the cut off. We hadn’t done the climb from Blåhornet nor the ridge or its ‘more’ technical descent. That was the very technical section and no doubt a harder descent for me. So I highly doubt it would have completed that longer section of the route in my spare 30 minutes. I realised I would have been timed out at the first cut off (which was 13:00 at the last aid station) if the route hadn’t been changed due to the weather. I clang onto the hope that if the weather was better then the terrain would be less muddy and I might have moved a little quicker!
In the distance there was a little mountain hut of some sort and a guy out sweeping the decking area in the rain. It amused me. As I walked passed a volunteer called to me and waved me up to him. I checked my watch, yes, I was mindlessly following the two in front. I called after them and they walked back to join me on the climb. Each climb in this race seemed to find a way to be more challenging than the one before. This one was just a pain to start with as the terrain fluctuated between single track and off track frequently and we traversed so many streams and flows of water down off the mountain. It was just miserably wet. Like the number of times I fell, I wish I’d counted the number of streams we’d crossed on this course, I’m certain it would be hundreds. The mountains were leaking water everywhere due to the recent weather. It only stopped the higher we got. And it only stopped because the terrain became rocky. Once more we were playing dot-to-dot connecting the red trail marks and traversing the huge boulder fields.
There was a giant sleeping here. To my left I could sense and enormous presence and was admiring the mountain in the clouds. It was Slogen. The original route included an out and back to summit of Slogen for ‘panoramic views’. But we wouldn’t be doing that today. I was glad. This was also one of the hardest parts in the race so I was relieved to be skipping! Instead we carried on straight passed it. Straight into and across the snow fields. These were fairly short but difficult with one pole and not so aggressive soles on me shoes.
After some time we began our descent towards Myrsætra. This is where my drop bag would be. So I was in good spirits anticipating it. But the descent was tough. It was, you guessed it, rocky. So the the three of us moved slowly. I don’t remember much more than passing down alongside some lakes and rivers. I do remember we were in a valley and it reminded me a little of a section the TDS route in how it looked (but harder!).
There was plenty more falling over here too and I was losing track of my orientation and where we were going. The lady reminded me that soon we’d have the out and back to the aid station to the left and then we’d go back to the right to climb out of the valley. It made sense when she explained it.
Oddly, here I also realised my eyesight was a little hazy. I could see ok, but it wasn’t crystal clear. Almost as if I had clingfilm on my eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do and I assumed it was a combination of tiredness, constant concentration, the wind and the rain and perhaps the white glare from the snow. Anyway, I wasn’t worried, but I was conscious of it and to keep an eye on it (Whey hey!)
We reached the out and back section and now, like before, saw runners and familiar faces going in the opposite direction. There were a lot less of them this time though! I didn’t know how long it would be to the aid station but I was aware of how wet and muddy the track was again. I immediately decided that I would not be changing my shoes or socks. My socks would be soaked as soon as I changed them so I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. As I rounded the last corner into the aid station I had one of my best falls yet. I slipped in some mud and both feet went up in the air, above my waist, as my hands and head threw up behind me with the motion. I landed on my bum and back straight into a boggy patch. I was covered in mud. The volunteers laughed as I arrived (they heard the ‘fuck you’ scream) and I apologised as I sat straight in one of their chairs and covered it in the fresh mud. I ordered more soup, ate more cinnamon buns and finally changed into a dry tshirt after 14 hours.
Not long after the three of us reached the aid station, we were shortly followed by a fourth runner a Polish man I’d been near throughout the day. We sat and ate and drank and joked with the volunteers. We had our own little party before cheering ourselves back out knowing we had five hours to cover the 10km to the next (and final) cut off. Easy we thought… Wrong…
Section 5: Myrsætra – Brunstad
At Myrsætra you will run back up the same trail you came down up to Langsætra where you will follow the DNT marked trail up to Gullmordalsvatnet passing by the Gullmorglacier along the trail (you will not be running on the glacier). This section is very technical and you will be running parts of it on scree. After passing Gullmordalsvatnet you will be on the top of the Gullmorbrekka (979masl) pass, from here you will be running technical downhill to Velleseterhytta and further on gravel road down to Brunstad where you will find an aid station. This is also the location for the the cut off time at 21.00.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The first section was ok. It was a repeat of the out and back. After which we we were constantly looking for the trail. This section wasn’t marked by the race and no red trail markers could be seen anywhere. We followed our GPS and would be on what seemed to be a trail, then all of a sudden the GPS would say the trail is off to our side by 50-100 m. This meant we were zig zagging up the climb. Crossing all sorts of wild terrain to ensure we kept heading in the right direction. Every now and then the Polish guy would appear from nowhere. He was having the same navigation issues. After an ‘age’, the lumpy foliage turned to rock. But that didn’t make it any easier and the same thing would happen as we’d turn at right angles to try and maintain the correct direction. We at least could now occasionally see some red trail markings on rocks though.
At this point we were sticking together as a foursome as we crossed many more snow fields and rocky sections climbing and traversing our way out of the valley. The lady, who was from Argentina, lady kept kindly offering me her poles as I was really struggling on all the snow crossings. So mostly I was behind them all and would time to time shout out when I thought we were ‘off route’ again. To me it felt like it was night time. We were deep in the clouds and the grey-ness of the mountains. The only light was coming from the snowy floor we trudged over. It was surreal and disorientating at the same time, yet it was only about 17:00.
We were trudging across another snow section when I noticed we we starting to get further from the trail, which was going off on a sort of angle above us. We stopped and debated for some time where to go and eventually agreed we shouldn’t continue on the snow. For one thing, we couldn’t see any recent signs of activity on them! The issue however was that the snow was sloping and above it was a wall of rock. It didn’t look feasible that the route could be up there. But that’s what the GPS was saying (and scrolling out we could see that the route would turn further that way after about a km further along). If we carried on the snow instead we’d soon be far off course and could see nothing ahead to make us want to continue (into the unknown).
So we back tracked and headed for the rocks. It took me a long time with one pole to get up to the rock and my troubles didn’t stop there, the climb facing us was a beast. It was essentially bouldering and rock climbing. I was trying to use strength from my arms which I just do not have to haul myself up onto rocks. And it was all loose. Admittedly I was scared. Actually, very scared. A fall here would be bad. A certainty of a serious injury and likely a very long wait to be rescued. I was glad I wasn’t alone and Argentinian Lady was very supportive and looked after me with constant reassurance. I knew we had to keep going though and that we should even get a little higher to be safer and further from the steep drop.
The climb, even just covering a few meters, was very slow. We were barely moving and the loose rock was causing us difficulties. Several times we knocked rocks back on each other, one time I released a sizeable one that went tumbling down. My warnings weren’t enough for the Polish guy to get out of the way in time and all he could do was raise his arm to protect his head as the rock fell straight into him. I felt so bad, but he reassured me that he was ok, just annoyed by the situation. It only added to our frustrations and concerns of safety.
We were at least now tracking in the right direction according to the GPS and the rocky climb eventually gave way to firmer ground, albeit more snow capped fields. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that section, but I was wrong (again). We were now faced with another directional dilemma. The route indicated we needed to leave the snow and descent a very narrow, very steep rock face. I looked over the edge and it felt like an abyss, the end of the world. Meters below us all I could see was a dark grey mist cloud wrapping the mountain. I couldn’t see a trail or path. It is fair to say I was not keen and I didn’t want to go that way. The alternative though was to remain higher up and walk along the snow covered mountain. I’d had enough of them though and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine where we would go or how we could re-join the path if we did continue that way. It felt like ‘down’ was actually the better option. Two of us started to descend…
I was still on top of the snow when, in the distance, a lonely figure, in a bright blue coat, emerged through the clouds with his hand in the air waving. I didn’t know what to think. He was clearly gesturing to us so we called back to let the others know someone was coming. We walked on and met him. He explained he was a volunteer from the race and he’d show us the way. He confirmed we could go either way, but the snow might be the easier route for us. So we followed him.
He was moving so effortlessly I struggled to keep up. He pointed down a steep snow slope and said we can go down here. And off he went, sliding, skiing (without skies) down hill. The French guy went next and pretty much made it the whole way standing up too. I followed and immediately landed on my arse. I sped down like I was on some sort of toboggan, bouncing up and down with the lumps. In no time at all my arse was so cold and starting to hurt with the freeze and friction. The whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. Looking back, my Strava indicates we went down a slope of approximately -50 deg and covered around 70m in descent. My apparent pace was 1:32 km per minute. What a ride!
One by one we all made it and we were at least treated to an incredible view of the Gullmordalsvatnet lake and valley surrounding it. The downside, I could still see no clear trail or path. We were told that we needed to traverse along to the right of the lake. I couldn’t believe it. What?! It was just the slope/side of the mountain with alternating layers of snow and rock. How? He reassured us that as we got closer we would see some race markings to indicate the way we should go. He told us that we would need to climb and descend on the rock and avoid the snow slopes at all times. I could see why, if you slipped on those, nothing would stop you sliding all the way into the freezing lake. Game over. There was another catch though, first we would need to ascend on the initial snow slope, but not to worry, there is a rope. Fuck sake…
One by one we ascended the rope climb. This was awful for me. I had no energy or strength to pull myself up and no grip in the snow to provide any traction. It was yet another very slow ascent. I relied on a tactic of pulling myself up and looping the rope around one hand with each pull to get more leverage. I thought my shoulders would pop out here. Thankfully I soon reached the sanctuary of the rocks. Ha! Now I was thinking that the rocks were my friends!
The volunteer left us here and went back to look for the remaining runners behind us in the pass somewhere. We thanked him but I never got his name. His final words were “it is 2 hours to the next checkpoint”. I looked at my watch. We had 2 hours and 10 minutes until the cut off. Shit. I thought we wouldn’t make it, that we would be timed out. If he was saying 2 hours, it would probably take us longer. I hung on to the glimmer of hope that there might be some sections we could run and that he was talking about walking time.
We still had to travers the lake first though. Painstakingly, we looped up and down each rock section, maybe up to a 20m climb and descent each way. Looking and following the trail flags which we could finally see. Each loop required a small traverse either along the top of the snow slope or along the bottom, right next to the water. I could feel the chill coming off it. At one point I sent another rock tumbling. Down the snow it rolled and then bounced off the bottom of the slope, launching into the air and over the water onto a floating patch of ice with a ‘boom’. The lake didn’t flinch and I didn’t want to follow the rock!
As we finally reached the end of the lake, the paths did become a little easier. They were far from runnable though. Just easier than what the last few kms entailed. It was still a horrid down hill though. In maybe 3km we descended over 500m. It was very rocky and very slippery as we navigated through tens and tens of waterlogged paths and streams. There was plenty of falling over and slipping here too. We mostly descended in silence. I’m not sure what the others were thinking, but all I could think about was the cut off and whether we would make it or not. I wanted too, but I was also wondering how I’d feel if the decision to continue was taken away from me. I genuinely believed that, after this cut off, we would have plenty of time to finish (there was 13 hours for the last 20km or so). So I wondered if we were close to the cut off if I would be of mind to try and negotiate my continue. It was all theoretical, but it kept me focused. Going further down, fast hiking, moving with purpose. It as all I could do.
We then came upon a forest section which was far less steep than before. The trails became a little drier and other than a few big leaps across streams (with broken planks that were intended to be crossed) the next few hundred meters of descent were a little more forgiving. We still weren’t running, but were able to pick up the pace at least. We were racing the clock though as time was against us and I kept looking at my watch and doing the calculations. 50 minutes to go, 40 minutes to go, 30 minutes to go… With every step I adjusted our progression, but it didn’t really make much difference. It was going to be tight if we couldn’t run. And then luck was finally on our side…
From the forests we came across a house with a lady gardening and a man tending to the path. We ran down, said hello and left through their gate. He wished us well and said he hoped we were enjoying ourselves. I think I just laughed. But, from the gate, there was a gravel road. It was steep, but it was dry and even terrain. Gravity did its ‘thing’ and we ran. We were a little spaced out as we all descended at slightly different speeds. But we were all running. After maybe 1.5km, there were people further along. It was the aid station at Brunstad. I looked at my watch. We had 20 minutes to spare. We’d made it. This 10km section of the race had taken us 4.5 hours to complete!
I ran into the aid station with belief. I believed now I would finish. I believed in me. The decision to continue was in my hands, and I know there is only one answer to that question, pulling out is never a consideration, never an option. I would continue and I would finish. We sat and set about refuelling. Eating more soup, more cinnamon rolls, more chocolate sweets and crisps. At the aid station, the Argentinian lady’s family were waiting. It dawned on me that her and her husband, along with their dog, had been sitting opposite me in the reception at the start line some 18 hours earlier. With the positivity we were feeling, the Polish guy said what I’d been thinking “we all stick together now right, and finish?”. There was no hesitation from me. Absolutely, yes I said. The French guy agreed also. I’m not sure if I missed it somewhere but the lady had decided that this was where her adventure would end. She simply had no more desire to continue. I only realised when she was offering me her poles to continue on with as ‘she didn’t need them anymore’. Even now, after bowing out she was still supporting and looking after me. I felt sad and emotional that she wouldn’t be seeing it through with us. I declined the offer of the poles though. I made it this far and was confident I’d be ok.
As we set back out we were a little deflated that we still had over 20km to go. The amended route GPX had indicated we would be doing around 88km in total, but we were already around 77km at this point. It made sense though, the final two sections were unchanged and we still had to complete them. We left just before 9pm (and then stopped straight away as I had forgotten to get my head torch out ready for the darkness).
Section 6: Brunstad – Svartevatnet
From Brunstad you will run to Brunstadsætra through lush birchforrest and crossing the river right before Brunstadsætra. On Brunstadsætra you will get on the nice and very steep trail up to Storevatnet. From Storevatnet you will be climbing off trail up to 1100m and traverse over to Vassdalen (The course is not going to the peak of Ystevasshornet) where you will be running downhill on technical trail down Svartevatnet. At the parking lot by Svartevatnet you will find a aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Initially we had a gravel road ascent similar to what we had just descended. This was good for easing back into the task ahead. We took this opportunity to chat and for the first time exchanged names. It felt silly that we’d been through so much together without knowing who we were. This was where I learned that the Polish guy was Kamil and the French man was Matt. From the results table I now know that the lovely Argentina was Margarita. These were my companions, my saviours.
A few kms later the gravel changed to forest. The gradual climb, with no warning then became very steep switch backs as we climbed for another 500m in the slippery dense forest. I had to stop a few times to catch my breathe and refocus. It was tough going, but I was happier with this type of climb than the many we’d done before.
After leaving the forest it was more off-track plodding in the open mountainside as we continue to about 850masl where the ground flattened out. Here we could see up ahead a semi-circle of mountains surrounding us. Once again I had no idea where we were going and how we would ‘escape’ from here and descend back down. We continued walking towards it as the day light diminished and darkness began to set in.
We reached a lake where our head torches started to pick up the feint shimmer of the reflective tape for the race markings. One or two at a time. They gave an indication of where to go, but not too much insight as to where we were actually heading. Slowly it became clear that we were just going ‘straight up’ to get out of the plateau. Seriously? Fuck you. In the darkness we began to climb the rocks again. I was struggling with the climb. Matt and Kamil were getting progressively further away. I set myself a target to rest and breathe at each flag marker, only meters away from one another, but I was stopping multiple times between each one. We climbed for maybe another 200-300 meters, up and across scree slopes, the rocks loose under foot and when I grabbed at them with my hands for support. As I reached the top we were now in complete darkness. Besides the reflective trail markers I could now also navigate by following the head torches of the others in the distance.
We began the descent which wasn’t any easier. Loose and sharp rocks, winding switch backs and wet streams to cross. We stopped at one stream and filled our bottles with ice cold water. It was delightful. I gulped back two bottles straight away. Like many before this one, the streams we needed to cross were often bursting at the seams and the ‘path across’ was submerged under rampant and powerful flowing water. They were difficult to cross and even more so in the night. It was a case of steadying ourselves and hoping for the best, accepting that we would be wet to our shins. The aim was to get to the other side and not to get sucked in or fall over. The roar of water in the night was quite something. It was the only thing we could hear out here in the wild.
After a while the rocks gave way to forests and you already know that these were steep, muddy and slippery. As we progressed, a huge lake started to come into focus below us. Way off ahead, on top of a mountain silhouette in the darkness I could see two head torches way up in the sky. I knew where we were heading now. We would descend to a road crossing (Svartevatnet) before the final climb on the other side. I remember looking at this section when we drove along the road into Stranda when we first arrived.
I was glad to get off the forest track as we bottomed out at the lake. Here there was a slightly flat gravel section towards the road. At this point Kamil, who was in front on the descent was now behind me. Matt was up ahead on the road and I shouted at him when I saw the markers on the other side. We started to cross. Then loads of volunteers came into sight further up the road at a lay-by. They gestured us towards them. It was another aid station that I had complete forgotten about.
Here I was ready to leave quite quickly and just get on with it. I was sick of soup now so ate some crisps and cookies. Matt had some soup and a French man came to say hello to him. He was in the area, saw about the race and heard there was a French person running, so he stayed out to say hello and cheer him on. How lovely that was. Kamil sat in a chair and told us to go on without him, that he was going to have some sleep as he was struggling with fatigue. He wrapped up and tried to get comfortable. I let Matt know. Whilst we were there I had a half cup of coffee to try to fight off my own tiredness before we set back out. For now, we were down to two. I was sure Kamil would catch up with us at some point on the climb in the night.
Section 7: Svartevatnet – Stranda
By Svartevatnet you will cross the road and get on the trail to Langevatnet and further to Roaldshornet (1230masl). From the summit of Roaldshornet you can enjoy the epic view over Storfjorden and down to Stranda. You will continue to Blåfjellet and downhill Trollvaregga with technical running down to Skuravatnet. (The course is not going up to Skurahornet, it goes straight to Stranda from Skuravatnet) .From Skuravatnet you will be running on a nice trail all the way down to the outskirts of Stranda, and then on gravel and asphalt roads down to the finish line at the town square in Stranda.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
And so, at 01:00 in the morning we began our final section. From the aid station we crossed the road and began heading into the darkness of the forests once more. The trees lasted only a short while and the climb began. Initially I had flash backs of the first climb of the race when we left the forest and the mountain opened up. The terrain felt very similar. It was a series of gently inclining winding big paths littered with bogs and waterlogged foliage. Compared to the other climbs of the race I was very happy at that moment in time. This felt very manageable.
As we had previously, we navigated by reflection of the race markings. Each one opening another insight into where we were heading. The large silhouette of the mountain standing tall in front of us and getting closer with each step. As we neared it, the climb took us to the mountain face and the rocky ascent began, but, it was no where near as bad as the ones before. I felt this was the easiest climb of the night and possibly of the whole race. I was thankful.
Before we reached the summit, my watch died. I hate this watch. I accept it is now a good few years old (it is a Suunto 9 Baro) but the battery just does not last what it indicates it will. Barely 24 hours with some of that on the Ultraks mode. Useless. I couldn’t care less about charging it now. I just wanted to finish the race and rest.
The climb wasn’t too bad either and we emerged onto the roof of the mountain. It was, of course, rocky but for the most part we were now traversing the top along to the next point at Roaldshornet. It was very cold and windy on top and we stopped to layer up ready for the final climb to the summit. As we hiked along to the summit, with a gentle undulation, the sun started to rise to the East. It was going to be spectacular. We’d miss the full sunrise and views from the summit, but we had a glimpse of the orange glow breaking up the darkness. We kept moving and covered the final little dip and climb back up to Roaldshornet where we could start to see the landscape ahead of us for our descent back to Stranda. From here it was all ‘downhill’ (of course every trail downhill has some sneaky ‘uphills’ included!).
The descent was going to be long though and it was still very technical. Once again lumbering over a boulder field of rocks. For many parts I had to sit and lower myself down and we were trying to find the best and most accessible route between markers, sometimes straying from the more obvious path due to slippery rocks or muddy sections that we were still slipping and falling on. Eventually, further down, we could see a short ridgeline way below leading to what looked like dry dirt trails. We were heading for it and we’d then loop down into the forests back towards Stranda. We had a visual aim, although it still felt like a very long time until we reached the ridge.
We continued the descent from the ridge which was a lot harder than I expected. It was a complete mess from the rain and the mud and bogs were everywhere. Where possible we avoided the trail, running over the lumpy ground along the sides instead. In some places, wooden structures were there to go over the marsh land, but they weren’t really helpful to us. With so many runners having been through the day before, the land was completely churned up and the walkways covered in mud and equally as slippery and dangerous. I think I fell more along this section than anywhere else on the course! Matt must have been sick of hearing me swearing and groaning. I did one spectacular fall where I slipped and skidded downhill, completing a 180 spin and falling flat on my front, face first, into a bog. The mud muffled my scream. It was slower progress than I expected at this point and it certainly wasn’t the dry dirt trails I’d been imagining from the view at the top. From time to time we looked back, expecting to see Kamil come bounding passed us. At one point I swore I saw a head torch on the summit at Roaldshornet.
The mountain side started to give way to forest tracks, which weren’t all that better. They felt steeper and, whilst drier for the most part, still had many wet and muddy sections. The benefit now was that the trees could be used to steady ourselves and break our falls. As we ran down, we were getting hotter and hotter. The layers from the mountain were definitely no longer needed now, but the inclination to stop and delay the finish further was low. We wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
A few kilometres later we left the forest and hit some road. We crossed some fields and were then back on the road in a section we both recognised from visiting the town. It wouldn’t be long now until we were on the main road into Stranda and down to the finish line. We were running. Probably very slowly but we were running for the first time for many, many hours. It was painful and slow but we were inching towards the finish as we ran down the deserted and quiet road. It was some time after 06:00 in the morning.
We rounded the final turn and climbed the steps into and through the hotel before the finish line (it was strange passing straight through a building to get to the finish!) and emerged into the final stretch to a lone clap from a volunteer at the finish line. We walked over the line. The final finishers. We hi fived and smiled. We’d done it.
I thought the volunteer was Oscar (the Race Director) but it was Martin. He told us he was at the last aid station with Kamil when he dropped out. It took us a moment for the realisation to set in, Kamil hadn’t continued on after his attempt to sleep. I felt bad for abandoning him and wondered if he would have been ok if he kept going? Martin gave us our medals, congratulated us and went and fetched us pizza. Then Matt’s wife, Natalia, Nick, Arlene and Gif all arrived and congratulated us, taking us back to the safety of a shower and bed! We had done it.
I knew this race was going to be difficult and would include terrain that I’m not always comfortable with. However, it was worse and harder than I imagined. The weather for the race was actually ok, but the terrain had suffered from weeks of rain and that made it far more difficult that it could have been. I reckon I must have fallen 30-50 times. I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed 100s of rivers and streams throughout the 100km. I’m actually surprised my feet weren’t in a worse state when I finished (they were pretty mangled though!). Oscar acknowledged the conditions in has post race breifing:
SFTR 2022 was just as hard and muddy as it can be! We got a bit of everything with some glimpses of sun, rain, snow, wind. The feedback from the elite field in Golden Trail World Series was that this was the most technical race they ever participated in. So all of you who joined the race should be proud of your effort! The good news is that we ordered sun for SFTR 2023, the bad news is that we ordered sun for 2022 too 😉
It is without doubt the toughest 100km I have done (and we didn’t quite get to the 100km mark!) It took around 5-8 hours longer than my typical time for a mountainous 100km. That is quite a significant time difference. Despite the course and the conditions, the local Scandinavians ran incredible times. I’m amazed at how effortlessly they cover this sort of terrain, they are phenomenal athletes.
Reflecting back on the progress, I actually would have been timed out at the first cut off (around 40km / 11hrs) if the route hadn’t been amended. I see no way I could have completed the original route in the time I had remaining at the cut off. The gods were on my side on this occasion!
I also think we would have been timed out at the second cut off (Brunstad) if it weren’t for (1) the volunteer who found us in the Gullmorbrekka pass at showed us the way (thank you so much!) (2) the short road section down to the aid station at Brunstad which meant we could run! without those, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it in time.
I came away from this race with my ankles pretty beaten up, loads of cuts and bruises, one broken pole, a ripped pair of gloves and a shoes shredded on all sides. Yet, I saw it through, I persevered and once more can say I’m a finisher and have re-evaluated my own limitations and strengths. I love this sport!
As with every race I met some incredible people. People who show all kinds of determination, strength and will power who go above and beyond to help and support you. Thank you Margarita, Kamil and Matt. And of course, thank you to Oscar and his team and thank you Norway!
Serpent Trail 2: The Return Difficulty: ‘Go Easy On Me Knees’ Game Mode: Co-Op: 2 Player Player 1: Dai Player 2: Ultra Nick
Cue theme music. Some proper late 80s keyboard and synth Jingle jingle vibes…
With all game sequels come new characters, abilities, foes and new ways of interacting with the environment. Fundamentally the playing principles tend to remain unchanged. For that purpose the Serpent Trail provides the platform for this sequel.
Back in 2018 I ran the serpent trail on what was quite frankly a ridiculously hot and sunny day. That day I recalled my adventure like a computer game; I was the player and the sun was the pesky boss level character on the Serpent Trail. It was something I had in my head all day as I ran the 100km from Haslemere to Petersfield, a kind of side scrolling platform adventure. Four years later I returned and this time it was a co-op mode with Nick being the new ‘player 2 character’ helping me to complete the distance.
Unlike 2018 my ‘running character’ is very different. I feel the 2022 version is a pumped up version from the first iteration in what was my third 100km race. Metaphorically speaking of course and I’m thinking about running experience terms.
So here we go. Loading up the the sequel…
We camped at the finish line in Petersfield Rugby club the night before and sadly mistimed the food as there was nothing warm ready (or anytime soon) when we had set up the tent. We did however find a burger van after walking over to a Gospel Festival happening further along on the fields. A burger and 1.5 hotdogs meant it was a meat heavy bit of race prep. I didn’t foresee it at the time, but this would prove to be one of the ‘game enemies for me’.
4am we were awake and jostling for toilets and sinks with the other runners before being herded onto 3 buses for the short trip to Haslemere were we’d start the level. Like 4 years earlier, the start was as low-key as they come as we all huddled in a small opening of grass and we’re simply waved on our way by Tom the RD. The difference this time was only that the field size was probably four times what it was on my first go. The race profile was indeed growing – besides a larger number of participants there are now a number of different distances to run over the weekend.
Level 1: Tree Tops
Unlike before, I don’t have a play by play of the miles from start to finish. This was very much, for me, a far easier play than that first time round. Perhaps I did have it on ‘easy’ mode (and I was certainly thinking of preservation ahead of the next mountain event, the Eiger Ultra Trail, in two weeks time!). But, playing two player mode certainly makes it easier and the early miles just flew by rather quickly as I ran with the support from Nick. The course was also very familiar having run the first 25miles of it just a few weeks earlier as part of our preparation. For much of the route you run through scenic forest tracks with huge trees and views over the Surrey Countryside.
Somewhere early on in those first 10 miles we met Pete. It was like another player inserted his coins and pressed start to join in the fun part way. After chatting for a while he decided to stick with us rather than push on for his target time. Multi-player mode activated like a good old fashioned coin-op arcade game! Between us we batted away all the early obstacles the game threw at us. Little hills? No problem. Hot and sweaty? Not a concern. Rooty woodland trails? No falling over here! Thankfully it was nowhere near as warm this year and overall the playing conditions were very favourable. With each aid station we took a few minutes to refuel – in this sequel the health bar was recuperated mostly with sandwiches. Jam sandwiches were my go to choice at the aid station. There were still no roast chickens smashed out of dustbins a la Steets Of Rage though!
From early on I did have my own personal battle throughout the day. Kind of like a side mission, as I struggled with the ‘burger demon’ who tormented me through most of the race. However, that’s not a character worth writing about any further!
Petworth was a target and milestone for us. Our save game zone. It would be the halfway mark and where the narrative of the game would change as we could start homing in on the finish. We’d ticked off the ‘1/3 of the way’ mark and soon enough we’re closing in on that 50km marker and heading towards the little town of Petworth. This was around the time I started vividly remembering parts of the course. I started recognising signs, trees, lakes, specific views and all sorts of random things. I was remembering where the course would go and what would come next. It was quite relaxing and enjoying to recall the previous memories. The others were probably fed up of me going “oh I remember this”…
Level 2: The Wall
One thing I remembered before we got to Petworth was that there was what felt like a never ending stretch of road along a massive stone wall in Petworth (before the aid station). It was longer than I recalled. This was a foe that would sap your energy for sure as your mind would focus on the stones and curves of the wall for what felt like an eternity. When we did arrive at the aid station we were greeted by the beaming smile (as always) from Dimi who looked after us as we took 15 mins to refuel and recuperate. A friendly face is always a morale booster!
For a short while after Petworth we played as four when Pete’s brother in law, a Petworth local, joined us for a few miles. The route restarted with a lovely climb through some open spaces with incredible views. We then ran several kms through more of the scenic woodland trails including a little extra when we all missed a very blatant sign on a downhill section and had to back track up to the route.
At this point we were all feeling pretty great. We were over half way through and none of us has any real issues or concerns. The energy was quite high and we were deep into conversations bouncing back and forth. I particularly loved the nostalgic buzz of recalling the late night soft porn tv shows from the early days of Channel 5 when we were all teenagers. Red Shoe Diaries anyone?!
Around 63km we met Elise and Nick’s mum who supplied us with cold drinks and food. It was a huge boost and we were glad to see them. It also brought another flashback to many years earlier when a lady was outside the very same shop supplying runners with cold Coke. I can remember how thankful I was for that in the heat of 2018!
Level 3: The grey roads
The further we went, the more Pete yearned for it to be over. He was still feeling good and strong and wanted some road sections (he’s more fond of a road marathon than Nick and I). We agreed that he should push on whenever he felt like it. He was eager to finish now. We also had a brief stop near some farm land as we waited for a herd of cows to, slowly, proceed down the road we needed to cross. Each looked at is inm a thankful and confused way, perhaps curious as to what we were up too. It was like the technical part of a game were you need to time your move just right to avoid getting caught out somehow. we certainly didn’t want a herd of cattle turning on us!
Through more aid stations we went and then we saw Elise and Nick’s mum again at 83km. At the Midhurst aidstation with not far left to run. They came here prepared with McDonald’s chips and nuggets. It was awesome, a cheat code for a full health refuel! The volunteer laughed when I turned down the jam sandwiches because I had chicken nuggets. She didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. There was one runner here who was looking a little worse for wear and going through some knee troubles. But she came through behind us and left before us, determined to see it through and reassuring everyone she was ok. We took off a few mins later and almost immediately Nick started to suffer. In game speak, he took some kind of critical combo hit and suffered a from a typical runner’s character weakness – blisters. He’d been complaining of sore feet for a little while and now they were starting to affect him.
This leg of the route was gently undulating and we walked and ran in equal measures. We were at a cross roads where the pain hurts more when walking, but the legs were fatigued and didn’t want to run as much. Nick powered on. I was constantly amazed that we didn’t catch up with the girl who was limping until almost the penultimate checkpoint almost 7 miles later. She was strong and focused!
As we began to hit the road sections, Pete now headed off at a quicker pace at this point. He also had a busy night ahead with getting home to his family post race. The roads were long, straight and inclined ever so gently. in the dying light they were grey and the beauty of the route started to leave us. At the next checkpoint Nick took a seat. He positioned it right in front of the aidstation table, as if interviewing the volunteers behind it. We all laughed and I mocked his suffering whilst eating lollipops.
Final Level. The Petersfield loop
After a while he found the strength to get up and keep going and so, with powerups and a health top up, we continued on to the final battle to the end. This was it now. no more lives or save slots nor continues. Once chance to attack and complete the final level: Two short sections were all that remained now, separated by a small aid station just a few miles from the finish. We recalled the final few kms from a recent recce and enjoyed (sort of) the gentle change of terrain to the flat road sections. I think this helped Nick’s feet a little along with providing the confidence that the finish was certain to happen.
As we left the trail I checked the watch. We had just under 20mins to complete the last 2kms and finish in under 15 hours. I put it to Nick and he was happy to pick up the pace. So I did. Probably too much and I got into the groove and we just kept running. The long loop around the rugby club, into the riverside path at the back. We pounded the roads and then the tree lined path. Just a 100m from the finish, before emerging into the field, Nick demanded a break. He was spent from the increasing effort. So we stopped, caught our breathe, and composed ourselves before finishing the journey to the cheers of the supporters at the finish line. Of course the loudest of them all were Elise and Nicks mum.
Relief washed over us as the end credits started to roll. After a quick pose for Phil to take our pictures and sweaty hugs all round, we were glad to get straight in the car and head home to our beds (given the clubhouse showers had been closed (whhyyy?!)).
And so, like many times before, I’ve been privileged to be there by Nick’s side as he pushes his boundaries and shows what he is capable of. It’s a great feeling to run with your mate and see them achieve. And of course, it’s always enjoyable to watch them suffer just as you have done yourself!
Sometimes I sign up to races and events and then a littler later on I develop a little regret for my decisions. This was one of them. And the regret was for completely pointless reasons really. I signed up to the St Peter’s Way ultra nearly two years ago and multiple delays meant it was now something I’d given very little thought too. I always knew it would come a long, but I’d just be some a little too comfortable without it.
The race was on a Sunday which just meant I’d be more tired than usual at work on the Monday and it was in Essex which is a mission to get too without a car when public transport would be more limited. What made it more of a pain was that the race started in a small town (Chipping Ongar) and finished 43 miles or so further east, on the coast of Bradwell on Sea. The regret was because I simply couldn’t be bothered with all that hassle. But, there was also a little motivation hidden in its logistics also. The organisers (Challenge Running who were amazing by the way!) put on mini buses to take runners from the finish back to the start. Only they were at roughly 3 hour intervals (it’s an hour or so round trip for the driver) and the first was at 14:30 and the last at 20:30. I wanted to make that middle bus at 17:30. That would be around a 9hr 20min finish for 43 miles. Very doable. But, yep, another catch was that the buses were on a first come first served basis. I estimated I’d need to finish around 4pm to be in with a chance of safely securing my place on that bus.
And here is how it went…
Carl and I travelled up to Harrow and stayed the night there on Saturday (yep, had two years to book accommodation near to the start and didn’t!). An Uber to the start the following morning saw us join the low-key race centre and registration located in a small carpark where we collected our bibs. The nice surprise was seeing John at the start who I didn’t realise was running and that he’d done this race before. We chatted a bit and wished each other well for the adventure. The ongoing theme for the day would be me and Carl spending the hours calculating the chances of making the bus. We’d started straightaway sizing up the field of 80 or so runners lining up at the race briefing.
With an uncharacteristic (for a trail race) “on your marks, get set, go!” we joined the runners in an initial single line through the narrow track and the first of many (many!) kissing gates (and stiles) that we’d encounter throughout the day. We’d read about the ‘mud’ of the route and it was apparent early on. The route went through so many fields, massive green fields that were very soft underfoot. They started off nicely and began progressively getting more and more muddy. As always the worst parts were straight after you climb over a sty and then enter the field.
During the race briefing we’d been advised that much of the initial section of the route (with 4 aid stations the route was split into 5 sections each with hand written instructions to follow the route – we stuck to a gpx file!) had changed from previous years and to our benefit we’d be following more closely the original footpath to the at peters chapel. Early on we saw splits in runners going different directions in the fields. We stuck to our route and later chatted to a multi time finisher who confirmed we were indeed following the new and correct route.
As the day progressed we got to experience the great hospitality and support at the aid stations. As we crossed progressively muddier fields and, towards the second aid station, we found ourselves running more and more on our own as the field spread out. We passed through some lovely little villages and also along the Blackwater marina of Maylandsea which broke up the route slightly as we began to leave the muddy fields behind.
It was here we stared to sense we were close to the coast and that all (all 400m!) of elevation was behind us. Yep. Essex is indeed pretty flat. We then came into the final aid station where there we a handful of other runners and we were shortly joined by a chap called Alex who was running his furthest distance to date and had taken a few wrong turns trying to follow the hand written instructions. He tagged along with me and Carl for the remainder of the race.
We let him know our thoughts for the bus. We estimated that only a small fraction of runners would not start, not finish or would have family and a lift from the finish. We assumed that it would be a 15 seater minibus and that therefore we’d probably want to be in the top 35-40 finishers to get on that 17:30 bus. We also didn’t want to bust a gut to finish around 4pm and have to wait until 20:30 to begin the journey home!! Alex was more relaxed and went with the flow and chatted away to us. It was refreshing chatting to Alex and adding a third person to the conversations and hearing about his experience of the day and his runs – he’ll soon be heading off to the Sahara to tackle the Marathon Des Sables. Good luck to him on that beast!
Towards the end of the route we ran along a sea wall. In the distance was a building that we thought could be the finish line (St Peter’s Chapel). It did, from a distance, look way too modern, although we did estimate it was probably the few km away that corresponded with our distance covered. We Were hopeful that the end was in sight!
Also in the distance we’re two other runners. We were tempted to try and leg it after them, but realistically it was beyond us. We wondered if our presence was enough motivation for them to keep pushing to the end too. Either way we continued our run walk strategy which had served us well over the last 8 miles or so.
A few final turns and we could clearly see that the building was indeed the chapel and finish line as the runners ahead turned inland and headed directly to it. Shortly after then the three of us crossed the line and received our welcome from Lyndsey (the RD) and secured our space on the bus. We made it!
In the end we finished just under 8 hours and in positions 31 -33. It went almost exactly to plan. Our estimates were slightly off though as only 4 runners made that first bus and we secured 3 of the remaining 5 seats on the 17:30 and we only just secured our spot – There were 5 other runners who finished within 10 mins of us. I felt bad for them and glad we kept pushing to the end. we had just enough time to ‘cleanup’ and grab some food in the shelter of the Chapel – outside the temperature was rapidly dropping. And what a Chapel it was, a very unique finish to a race indeed!
Our adventure didn’t quite end there as on arrival back in Chipping Ongar it became apparent that taxis were going to be difficult (we were told we’d have a 3 hour race) and the next bus was a bit of a slow journey towards Epping. By pure chance, after a trip to a petrol station for some food, we once more bumped into Alex who very kindly gave us a lift back into London! What a gent! Thanks again Alex!
As always, despite my trepidation about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as always, loved the experience of running somewhere new. Although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I didn’t have Carl by my side throughout to cheer me up through all the mud. Coincidentally this was 2 days short of two years since we first met, in Borneo running with Maverick Race! Happy anniversary Borneo Carl.
At the start of 2021 I wrote my thoughts under a title of ‘A New Dawn’. It turns out it was more of a false dawn. I wrote some shit down and instantly forgot about it. Hey ho, whatever. I talked about consistency and how I was intending to be more structured and consistent. Well that went pretty badly to start with as I began the year with an injury. It did soon fall into into place as the fear of running 100miles in the Pyrenees shocked me into a routine. Inevitably the intensity of training for for that event and the subsequent fatigue after it led to more injuries and down time. Before I knew it I was once more stuck (and still am) in the old habits of running far, followed by not running much and just repeating over and over. Maybe in 2022 I’ll try again. ‘Something needs to change’ I said, I tell you now that what needs to change is the pumpkin of a belly I’m lugging around on the runs – It is getting heavy and bounces about now! I also nattered on about showing respect to running. To some degree that is there, the experience levels keep increasing and the learning that goes with it too. I am also still more than slightly obsessive about it. But I’m more willing to accept that that is just who I am at the moment. I love it, so why shouldn’t I enjoy and obsess about it?
So as I’ve been doing each year, I stop and look back and reflect. 8 of the races I’d planned didn’t happen. I found many others which took their place instead though and, through these, I achieved something else that I mentioned at the start of the year…
I wrote about the big Five-0. Hitting 50. Nope, not my age you cheeky beggars. But a milestone none the less. A pointless one though really, as it is just a number and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. However, I’m using it as a marker, a point in time of you like. A marker to celebrate me. Yep, this is a narcissistic bit of writing and more about me than all the other posts about me which I evidently like to write. I’ll reflect beyond the last year and look back on the past few years since I started taking on endurance events.
So what is this ’50’, well, it is the number of ‘official’ events of marathon distance or longer I’ve completed. Haaa. Told you it was meaningless. There’s a lot to summarise here as I’m going to be touching on each and every one of those runs. If you fancy it, you’ll find links throughout to all the write ups I’ve done after each event.
In some ways this is a reflection on who I am now. How I came to be here, now, writing about having run 50 ‘marathons’. When I think about it, it really is quite something (back slap to me). They say 1% of the population have done a marathon (not sure what kind of bullshit that is, and I’m going to reference it without any research to support it), if that is true, then I’ve achieved something very few do (although I personally know many people who’ve run hundreds!!). So let’s celebrate and indulge a little. Time to reflect as it has been quite the journey…
First off though, I’m going to explain how I define this number. What my definition of ‘official’ really is… You see, there is such a thing as the “100 marathon club”. I looked into it. Personally I think it’s a complete load of bollocks (contradictory given I’m writing about a half century achievement?). From what I’ve understood about it, you register and pay them to become a member, they validate and vet your achievements against their definition of events that qualify. This then gives you the “right” to wear their kit (a twatty tee shirt with ‘100’ on it. Yuk. Naaa thanks). It seems very much like an ‘old boys’ club. Exclusive and elitist and more focused on road running. I may be very wrong, but that’s what my takeaway was when I looked into it. Each to their own eh, but I decided that it is not for me. I believe that you are what you achieve, not what someone else says you’ve achieved! I do agree though that each run only counts once, and a 100 mile run doesn’t count as four marathons!
So I decided to define my own runs, I’ve run the bloody things after all, and I could have cut this a number of different ways. I decided that, for me, the definition of an ‘official’ event/race was one that is paid for. Or more specifically where there is a cost for participation as it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve paid for it. For example, I ran the 50k event at a Salomon festival a few years back, but as a support runner, I was gifted the place to help out during the run. So that counts as other people paid for that run and I would have too if I didn’t work at the event. Another example is a Wild Trail Runners event that was organised. A group of twelve of us ran a marathon along a planned route with a medal for finishers. But, it was free to anyone to join. So that doesn’t count in my tally. Oh, and of course I had to complete the distance set out to run. So yep, that blotch on the running CV, the Limassol marathon, doesn’t count either!
So what is the outcome of this classification? Well it ruled out a surprising amount of runs I’ve done. At the time of writing this, 32 times I’ve run a marathon or longer which I now consider “unclassified” or ‘Training runs’ if you like. Shit, so really I’ve run a marathon or longer 89 times as I write this!! Double back slap for me. I didn’t realise it was quite that many. I vividly recall making the decisions to do the first one!
So time to reflect, let’s break it down. It’s been an (exponential) learning curve for sure…
Pre-2017 – The early years
2013 is when it all really began, back in London. What a way to kick off this journey – The London Marathon. I really did enjoy. After 5 years of rejection I had a guaranteed place (an old rule!). After completing the race I did immediately say that I’d like to do one again one day. I soon came up with the very non-committal challenge of ‘I’d like to do a marathon on every continent’. Plenty of time before I die (hopefully!) to achieve that…
I then didn’t run far again till 2015. Gate-crashing a colleague’s holiday to hike Kilimanjaro, with 6 weeks to go, as we arranged our tour I stumbled across the Kilimanjaro marathon in Moshi. I then had the thought to tick off another continent on that non-committal challenge. A little persuading to change our tour dates and I was in. This was like no other event though. Fresh faced and naïve with only having run London, I was amazed to find (unsurprisingly) there were only 300 or so runners at the start line. Probably about 90% of whom were either Kenya or Tanzanian. 4 hours later with very little time spent running around other people I crossed the line. The next day I began my recovery by hiking the highest peak in Africa.
The same routine followed and I didn’t run much again for the next 18 months or so. Then, in the summer of 2016, I felt the now familiar itch. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to run again and I also wanted to go back to Asia. Time to get another ticked off, and so, after some research I settled on the Bagan temple marathon in Myanmar. I tried desperately to get out of the tour that accompanied the race but I wasn’t successful. On reflection, what a blessing this was. On this trip I first met some friends who’d heavily feature in the adventures to come and, having spent a week with people who travelled with the intent to run, I was surrounded by stories and experiences beyond my wildest imagination. The bug sunk its teeth into me that week.
Yearly Marathon count = 3
2017 – Welcome to the trails
After Bagan, my decisions were made for me. I had friends signed up to Tel Aviv (Feb 2017), Paris (March 2017) and Lisbon (Oct 2017) marathons. I signed up to join them and after returning from Bagan in December I carried on running through the winter to maintain the marathon fitness.
Sometime in the spring of 2017, I first heard about ultras from my great friend Daryl who was also curious about them and directed me towards the Race To The Stones non-stop 100k. My curiosity was getting the better of me and so I signed up to run it with Daryl. He never signed up to the event, but a chain of events had been started and I couldn’t undo the thoughts in my head. I was trained and marathon fit. But unsure about how to approach an ultra. I knew I couldn’t keep running at the marathon pace I was now used to and struggled on each run to slow down. So I stated reaching out to run with other people. ‘Run With Dai’ was born. In the lead up to July’s race I ran my first ultra of 30 miles in solo laps around Richmond My first non-event marathon distance! Then I just dived straight in to the 100km distance, completing RTTS in 11.5 hours. The feeling was unbelievable, I was buzzing afterwards.
Shortly after the race, the itch was beginning to take control and I remember skiving in work one day looking at other 100km events. I stumbled across the SVP100 which was 3 weeks away and I signed up. I felt the training was there and would naturally just carry over. I misjudged this race big Time! Being my second trial race I hadn’t yet understood how different they could be. The set ups, the organisation and aid stations, the terrain, elevation. Everything! Everything is incomparable between trail events. This run battered me (I was ruined for weeks afterwards with a bad back) and took some 13+ hours.
As the year went on I felt I would continue the running and looked forward to 2018 where I began planning to do a marathon each month. I quickly started booking events and soon had 6 in the diary including my next world major in Berlin for Sept 2018.
Then, in December that year, a colleague introduced me to The North Face Never Stop London – community. I became a regular and met many, many people I now call friends. Jana introduced me to a series of trial events called UTMB and that registrations would soon open. It turned out those two 100km races I’d completed gave me enough points to apply to one of the races – the CCC. Another 100km event in the Alps. She also invited me along to their weekend runs and I soon started trail running most weekends with a group of (at the time) strangers. Welcome to the trails!
Yearly Marathon count = 5 (+2 unofficial)
2018 – Chasing times
And so began the next chapter of my running. The more I ran with other people, the more time I spent running on trails, the more I fell in love with enjoying running. Running became easier (but never easy!) as I ran with very little pressure.
As the year began I soon I started filling the rest of the year with trail and ultra distances instead. Including, The CCC as I got lucky first time in the ballot. Admittedly I was afraid, very afraid. I’d never been to the mountains before never mind running in the Alps! A new challenge lay in wait and it was one I couldn’t quite comprehend back then.
I soon started ticking off the marathons and with each one my finish time decreased substantially. First there was the Muscat Marathon in Oman (where Angela and Stephan from Myanmar joined me!), followed by the Malta marathon in February. Come March I was heading to the Limassol Marathon in Cypress with a 3:02 minute PB. For the first time ever a ‘sub 3’ hour marathon became a a recurring thought in my mind. It was very possible, and with with little thinking or planning I ‘went for it’.
This was a pivotal moment for me. A moment of sheer ignorance and naivety. I was now taking marathons for granted and thought I could just do anything. Yes, trail running and regular long running had improved my speed remarkably. But to think I was ready to run 26 miles averaging 6:52min miles was stupid. But not as stupid as the plan I concocted to get around it… knowing I’d struggle to be that consistent, I decided to front load the run and “bank some time”. So I ran faster than I believed I could – I ran the first 10 miles at 6:20 min miles and the next ten at 6:40 min miles to ‘bank’ those minutes. I told you it was stupid. I blew up spectacularly. So much so I woke up in a medical tent having passed out (I guess – I’ll never know what exactly happened) at the 25 mile mark. My first DNF and a wake up call. I vowed never to put myself in such a position again and wouldn’t chase times, care about the figures on a watch nor to put myself at risk.
I was back running the following month and continuing my monthly adventure with the Brighton Marathon and then the Helsinki Marathon in Finland. Leading up to September’s alpine adventure I ticked off a few more ultras including my first trip to Brecon for the Brecon Ultra and completing the trilogy of Threshold events with the Race to the Tower and Race to the King events. This was then followed by my third and fourth 100k distance events in the Freedom Racing Serpent Trail and back once again to the SVP100. I was hooked and loving it. I was even persuaded into a trip to Chamonix to experience some of the course before the CCC race and I am so glad I did. A learning experience for sure.
When it came around to doing the CCC I felt like a fraud. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and I was suffering from it at the start line with thousands of other runners from all over the world. I didn’t feel like I belonged. Truth is though, I did. I’d earned my place at that start line and I was there having trained hard (although the more experienced version of me doesn’t think the events I used to gain the points should be valid – they don’t prepare you for the dangers and rigour of the mountains!). Looking back, those nerves weren’t justified and perhaps I just didn’t enjoy all the hype around this “prestigious” event. I came through the CCC well within the cut offs and did, despite what I’ve said and written, enjoy the event. A huge achievement and perhaps another milestone on the running cv.
Two weeks later I was back on the road for the Berlin Marathon. I felt good. I was at the start line with zero pressure having just completed what I felt was a far bigger and more significant challenge. My recurring thought was ‘I just ran for 21 hours, I can run for 3’. Three. Three hours. I wasn’t thinking about additional minutes. Just three round hours. I ran. I was happy. I was comfortable and enjoying it. I just kept going, kept smiling. I was very consistent and I can remember the moment when I knew I was going to break 3 hours. The difference from 6 months earlier in Limassol? Just the lack of pressure. I clearly excelled in it. I laid that demon to rest.
I was deep into the ultra trails now and was signing up to races for 2019 as soon as they became available. Without thinking, with no long term plan, I was signing up to races that were longer, involved more elevation and which would take me on more adventures to incredible places. I was hooked. The next phase of my running I was like an obsessive collector.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+4 unofficial)
2019 – Bigger is better
Wow what a year this was! 2019 started straight away in January with the Country to Capital ultra which finishes in London. Here I met Paul for the first time who’d soon become a fixture in these achievements. This was a race as part of my plan for my biggest challenge yet – The Trans Gran Canaria. This would be the first time I’d go further than 100km, a fair bit further too as it was 128km in some rather challenging terrain! Another whole new experience and steep learning curve in what remains one of the mentally darkest, grumpiest runs I’ve ever completed.
There was no rest though as the next trip saw me head to Italy for the Sciacche Trail in Cinque Terre which was another race to prepare me for what was to come – MIUT, the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. This was a bucket list event. Ever since I saw some pictures of the landscape I was hooked on the idea of running it. at 115km long this event had the largest elevation profile of any I’d done so far. It surpassed my expectations and remains one of my favourite running experiences to date.
By June I was preparing for the next big event which was the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. 115km in the Dolomites. Another spectacular, and physically painful, event. This was followed up with my 3-star achievement at the SVP 100 again at the beginning of August before heading abroad once more for the next set of events.
Then, ignoring everyone telling me how stupid it is to do a mountain ultra 3 days before the biggest run of my life (felt like every run in 2019 was the ‘biggest run of my life’!), I headed to Switzerland for the Ultraks Matterhorn Ultra. I loved this event and felt free running in the shadow of the Majestic Matterhorn all day. Afterwards I slowly made my way to Chamonix once again, this time for the TDS by UTMB. This was something quite remarkable and incredibly satisfying. Despite the difficulty of this race, I felt (mostly) alright throughout and, after a long sleep, OK afterwards too. This will forever be possibly one of the most enjoyable ultras I’ve ever done.
What wasn’t enjoyable was the Tallinn Marathon in Estonia two weeks later. Everything about that event was slow and painful, especially the cobbled streets of the Old Town. The exertion of the TDS was clearly being felt as I pounded the pavements and cobbled Estonian streets for 5 hours.
Thankfully, by the time I headed back to Poland a few weeks later for the 150km Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, my body had recovered enough and the conditions of the event weren’t quite up to the muddy standards they tend to expect. This is an incredible, lesser known event that is very well organised and takes you on a journey through some beautiful hilly landscapes of southern Poland. It was this race that I think I properly felt tiredness and fatigue during a race for the first time. I remember maybe 10km from the finish I was struggling to keep my eyes open and knocking back copious amounts of caffeine to keep me going!
To finish the year off it was a shorter and more local event as I took on the Hurtwood 50 with Nick in what would be his first ultra. The similarities and familiar feelings were there as I experience Nick beginning to go through the same motions as I did a year or two earlier. What a year 2019 was indeed! Having never run more than 100km before, I did so 5 times that year and each time in a spectacular location. There were also another 5 solo ultra adventures including an epic 30miler from the Brecon Beacons to my Parents house on Christmas day. This was never the plan, but I couldn’t get enough. The ‘bigger the better’ seemed to be my new approach. But ultimately these were all races that excited me and it was that which enticed me to enter them in the first place – I’m not doing events for the sake of it. There are many events each week (even on most days of a week) where you can run laps on a course to make up a marathon that is eligible for the ‘100 marathon club’. I have no interest in that. I want to combine my running with a sense of adventure and explore somewhere new in doing so. Yes the events I enter are all mainstream, but if you’re not into your trail running then they need some explaining. I loved it. This was my passion.
In 2019 however I realised that, the more I ran though, the less I could ‘run with Dai’. Most runs were now social runs and often in groups though. I simply didn’t have the time to arrange to travel and meet individuals for runs that would often now be quire ‘short’ (it is all relative!). So it’s taken a back seat instead as I chase personal glories and the thrill of finishing events that challenge me in new ways.
Travel was clearly a big part of my running lifestyle too. I wanted to go where the new experiences would be. Run in places that scare and excite me. Places I can fondly look back on with epic memories. I promised myself to continue doing just that.
Yearly Marathon count = 15 (+5 Unofficial)
2020 – Miler Man
On the topic of travelling for running, midway through 2019 an opportunity to travel with friends to New Zealand presented itself for the beginning of 2020. I didn’t need too much persuading, I was in. I went to sign up to the 100km event with everyone else, then, I saw the finishers medal for the 100 mile event – A jade stone pounamu – I thought fuck the 100km, I wanted that pounamu and I signed up to the 100 mile distance at the Tarawera Ultra Trail event instead. There was my motivation to finish right there!
The obsession with running carried on and I ticked off that first 100 mile event (and later that year the second one too). I followed up the NZ adventure with 10 days running in Borneo with the Maverick Race team. I’d done a few of their events by now and really liked everything about them and what they offered. Borneo had always been a place I wanted to visit and this was the perfect opportunity to do so, combining it with my love of running. The week ended spectacularly with the 109km Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon. I’m not sure I’ll ever run in such heat and humidity ever again!
Looking back, I was so fortunate to squeeze those trips and two events in before March and when the global impacts of Covid started to become clear. This naturally led to a year (and more!) of disruption and as races started to be cancelled, I looked for different ways of getting my running kicks without the travel adventures. I embraced the local running and found many incredible places that are within my running reach. 12 times in 2020 I found myself running my own ultra challenges, including an 80 mile loop around London with a good buddy Paul as we decided to run the entire Capital Ring route.
Later in the year as restrictions started to relax, I’d managed to sign up to numerous other events to replace those that had been cancelled or postponed. The North Downs Way 100 was one of them and turned out to be a long and arduous trek as the British weather decided to try and top the temperatures I’d experienced in Borneo now many months ago.
I followed this up with the excellent Eden Valley Ultra, the Pilgrim’s Marathon in Farenham and trips to both the Peak district and Dorset for the Maverick X series Peak District and Maverick X Series Jurassic Coast. Throughout the year as I was ticking off more events and when I realised I was creeping close to this 50 milestone. It was probably late summer when I started thinking about it and came to the definition I summarised earlier. The way things were going, with more events signed up too, I’d hit 50 before the end of the calendar year. That obviously didn’t happen in the end though and here I am now a year later reflecting on that achievement.
Yearly Marathon count = 8 (+12 Unofficial)
2021 – New Adventures
Just like the summer of 2020, there was a long pause on mass events and it wasn’t until April that I did my first organised event of the year. Up until then it was a few more months of local trails and exploring new places I could reach from my doorstep as well as some recces of routes for other events scheduled for later in the year.
One of my favourite places to run near to home is Coulsdon and the Happy Valley. There are so many different trails and ways I can get there from home and its also feasible to venture down and along sections of the North Downs Way too. I spent a lot of time running around Caterham also and decided this would be a great place to start the ‘Centre of the Universe‘ ultra organised by Camino. A mass event where the runners dictate where they start and what route they take to reach the finish at the ‘centre of the universe’ (or Hackney!). I loved this concept and had a great time running with a group of friends (and Bruce!) all day.
Come may I was once more racing on the North Downs Way as I ran the North Downs Ridge, the third of my events with Freedom Racing who do an excellent job! I then ran the 100km Ultra X Spring Series in Haselmere with Ged and then, in June, I was heading back to a Maverick race with the return of their X Series Exmoor ‘The Beast’. I’d never been to Exmoor before and it was an incredible place with some absolutely stunning trails to explore. In between these two events I fancied something a little different so ran the length of the Downs Link from Guildford to Shoreham-by-Sea. Whilst it was nice to explore somewhere new, this one was for the brain. It was flat and straight and the terrain consistently gravel tracks. I knew it would be a mind-bender but that was all good training in my eyes.
That training would soon be put to good user as the year’s big event was looming in the not too distance future. First though, another Camino Ultra event with their Lea Valley Ultra, another run ending in their universe of Hackney.
From here it was a few weeks of stressing about travel requirements, testing and worrying about phantom injuries. At the beginning of July I headed out with Paul and Darryl to a new event Val D’Aran by UTMB in the Pyrenees. For the third time I’d be running a 100 miles, I never planned it to become a regular thing. This time though I’d be doing it in one of the most technical places I’d run and would have to overcome 10,000m of elevation for the first time. It is unquestionably the hardest event I’ve ever done. It took 47 hours and was basically a long distance hike to the finish. Though as the hours ticked by, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that finish line!
After VDA I made one of the most sensible running decisions of my life, I did the 50km event at the SVP100 instead of my favourite 100km! Ok, perhaps not so sensible seeing as I ran a marathon with Nick the week before and self diagnosed myself with an Achilles injury. Still, it felt slightly better at the SVP. I’m useless at resting and I soon signed up to some more events though and next was my first trip to the Lake District to run the Grand Tour of Skiddaw with Jon. Here I sampled the best soup I’ve ever had in my life! you need to sign up to this event just four the Soup that Gaynor, the RD, makes. you won’t regret it. The race is pretty ace too.
After the lakes I also ticked off another place I’ve been trying to get to for a while and ran an ultra around the Malvern hills with Lauren. She was soon heading off to achieve phenomenal things at the Marathon Des sables, whilst I was back out with Nick once more for his longest run to date – the Centurion Chiltern Wonderland. We had such a great time running a big loop around the Chilterns and it was a great feeling to see him run so confidently and use all his experience to great success.
After dialling it back a little and getting into a semblance of a running routine again, it would soon all be disrupted once more as a few of us broke free and headed to Turkey for the exceptional Cappadocia Ultra Trail. In Urgup I took on the 120km CUT and had a mixed time to begin with before finishing strongly in what has to be one of the rewarding and most incredible events I’ve done.
I then squeezed in another Maverick race, their Frontier South Downs with Nick before getting ready for my final event of the year… Sadly, the Cheviot Goat didn’t happen due to terrible unforeseen circumstances with major storms in the area causing devastation the week before. After 6 hours of travelling, we were notified of the cancellation when we were just an hour away and 3 hours before registration was due to begin. We made the most of our trip though and planned our own, shorter 50km run in the Cheviot Hills instead.
With the year almost over, I made one last attempt to squeeze in another adventure whilst I was home in Swansea for Christmas. After being banned from running for a week, I desperately needed that escapism so persuaded my parents to Taxi me to the coast and I ran the entire length (55km) of the Gower Way path.
Yearly Marathon count = 11 (+9 Unofficial)
Well, I’ve mumbled off on a tangent and a right ‘ol trip down memory lane! What was suppose to be a reflection on 50, has turned into a reflection on my running journey (hate that phrase!) as a whole. As I type this, The Beast by Maverick, the X-Series Exmoor was my 50th official Marathon. At the end of the year the official count is at 57 (41 ultras, 16 marathons). My unofficial is standing at 89 (64 ultras, 25 marathons). Phwooar.
That is over 4,100 km of running official events (>5,500km unofficial) in 20 different countries (on 4 different continents) visited purely for running. I guess that non-committal challenge I set 8 years ago is well underway now! It is hard for me not to look at the distance per event too. I know I said each event counts once, but over those 57 events, the mean distance is 73km which certainly is significant in that the number of longer distances has substantially increased in the last 3 years!
Each of these events has beaten me up in new ways. The Trans Gran Canaria attacked my mind (and feet!). The Madeira Island Ultra Trail destroyed my quads, Lavaredo wrecked my feet. The TDS pushed me longer than I’d ever ran before. The Lemkwoyna Ultra Trail pushed me through the mud, the cold and the tiredness of the Polish mountains. Tarawera sent me deep into the darkness of the bush and Borneo brutalised me with the intense heat and humidity and then there was Val D’Aran which was like nature declared war with my body and mind. Just when you think you’ve experienced it all, the technicalities of the Pyrenees shows you there is so much more!
So what now… More of the same obviously. The path continues into 2022. It won’t stop here. 2022 is already full of more plans and adventures. Maybe I’ll get to an ‘official’ century one day. Maybe I won’t. But for now, this is me. This is my lifestyle of choice. It’s not without sacrifice nor stress. But that’s within my control. I love nothing more than getting a bag of food and clothes together and exploring somewhere new for the first time.
The Cappadocia Ultra Trail (CUT) is a 119km trail run in the heart of Turkey. Set in the Cappadocia region, runners do a sort of figure 8 from Urgup. Exploring the historic landscape as they traverse the high plateaus and valleys from one side of Cappadocia to the other. The terrain in the region is made up of ‘tuff’ – a thick ash (from ancient volcanic eruptions) that solidified. In many places, millions of years of wind and water erosion has left behind incredible structures (like the Twin Fairy Peaks) and in others, humans carved the malleable material into vast networks of caves, living quarters and other structures, both above ground and below. A remarkable region that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like the course itself, the CUT for me was a race of two halves. The spoiler in my story is that the first half was the more difficult experience and, unusually, I finished the race much stronger than I started.
Each race is an experience and one to reflect on. Each time we run we learn something a little bit more out ourselves. This is why I like ultra running so much. I don’t think it ever actually gets easier. Hopefully we just get stronger and wiser and are able to deal with the challenges better. Going into the race I already new some mistakes I’d made even before I’d stepped a foot over the start line. I thought it would be my struggle to shake a mucus-y cold from the week before that would make the race harder. Turns out it was my own planning. I’d mentally prepared for 24 hours of running and, being further East than usual, and the sun setting earlier, I’d brought mostly caffeinated Tailwind. For some reason I didn’t question my choice to bring so much. And so I started with two bottles of caffeinated Tailwind at 7 in the morning. I was junked up and, along with the multiple morning coffees, It went straight through me! That exciting story unfolds as I recount the morning’s adventures…
The start line was a breeze. With about 20 minutes before the race start we’d walked down from the cave hotel we were staying in nearby, dropped off our bags and bumped into Sammy, Sarah and Harry. 5 minutes later we were waiting in the numbered holding pens and ready to go. The race began with a steep uphill section along the roads as we’d leave Urgup. I didn’t want to run the hill but was caught up in the dash of runners (and two stray dogs who’d some how made their way into the starting pens with the runners!). Before he’d shot off, Paul had explained that the trails were fairly narrow early on and that we could expect some bottlenecks. So I stuck with it, huffing and puffing my way up.
It was soon over and at around 7:30 in the morning we were running on the dusty trail paths with incredible views of the area and hundreds of hot air balloons floating in the sky above Goreme. Having taken a hot air balloon ride the day before it was a surreal experience to now be running the trails we’d seen from above. The trails weaved through the rock formations and faster more confident runners bounded past, hoping from rock to rock as the rest of us followed in single file down the gullies carved out as paths between them.
My morning mistakes immediately started to hit me as I could feel my stomach cramping. Too soon I repeated to myself internally. Too soon. I sipped the Tailwind solution, trying not to take the full caffeine payload too early, saving plenty of it for the later stage of this section. Soon we reached the first aid station situated along a road as we left the town of Ibrahimpasa and I topped up on water, watering down what was left of the existing Tailwind in one bottle and switching to the basic lemon flavour in the other, before carrying on whilst ramming some cake into my mouth.
The route took us down through the town and onto a path at the back of the houses/caves. The two dogs were still running with us and Coren caught me up. We ran together a little while weaving through the back paths, duck-walking our way through some tunnels and cave systems before we began the largest climb of the first half of the race and then making our way up and over a major road which had armed police stopping the traffic for runners. The route then took us down onto a phenomenal down hill trail through some white chalky rocks. It was steep and slippery. Here the runners were split into the more hesitant and the clearly very confident ones who bounded passed the rest, bouncing from side to side.
My body screamed at me the whole way as I looked for a place to escape off the trail. The landscape was barren and there was nowhere to grab a moment of privacy and I struggled on, no doubt pulling some questionable faces. A short while later the rocky section was over and we entered a section of golden forest. I saw my opportunity and took it. A sacrifice to the God of Thunder needed to be made. Relieved, I emerged back out and joined the train of runners. This section, leading to Goreme was glorious as the yellow leaved trees shone in the light of day and the trail teased its way through the forest.
The route led us up and into Goreme, where I caught back up with Coren and Yvette who’d passed me. We ran together through Goreme, recognising it from the previous morning where we’d floated over the day before on our Balloon ride. Leaving Goreme we were stuck behind a smelly garbage truck on a narrow lane which turned my stomach even more. I thought I’d be over my issues now, but the last few kms had made me think otherwise. I wasn’t well that was for sure and the initial sacrifice had been rejected. We weren’t far from the next aid station but I didn’t know what to expect and felt unpredictable so was keeping my eyes peeled again.
We began the next, steep climb to the aid station in the town of Uchisar. Along the way was a tap, I filled my bottle to drink from, before deciding it probably wasn’t the best idea, so poured it over my head instead. As I reached the aid station I bid farewell to Coren and Yvette and went toilet hunting. After some language barriers and misdirection, I eventually found one in a Mosque. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary and I was thankful for the privacy and a running tap. I washed my face and emptied an absurd amount of mucus and dust out of my nose before setting off out and hoping my body and mind would now work together.
With the delivery complete, my attention turned to the second issue or mistake I’d made and which had been masked by my previous distractions. Knowingly, I made a poor choice of footwear for the race – the Adidas Two Ultra Parley. A Good shoe that is comfy and decent for hard packed trails, but I find lacking in both stability and support. I took a risk and it was slowly proving to be a bad choice as the laces were causing pain in my metatarsals. Occasionally, sharp pain would shoot through my foot and I’d limp forward. I was going to have to address this soon, but for now I was running OK and the next aid station wasn’t far away as it was a short section of about 6 km as we’d loop around to the other side of Goreme.
I put my foot issues to the back of my mind vowing to loosen the laces when I next stopped. With my mind preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about those 6km other than passing a horse ranch and feeling like the shackles had been removed. My body was relieved and after 30k I was able to focus on the running. I caught up with Coren and Yvette again as we hiked some gentle climbs in the heat of the day. The sun reflecting back off the white ground. I mentioned I’d not used suncream and Yvette said she had some she’d give me at the aid station too. Soon I was sitting on the side of the road creaming up. The metatarsals on my left foot were screaming at me. I used the rest break as a chance to loosen those laces which I think were adding pressure to my foot (there is no padding on the tongue of these trainers). It helped a little. But before setting back out I recognised the next challenge I was facing (or soon to face) – with nearly 40k of running complete I realised I had eaten very little. After a huge breakfast, I wasn’t yet hungry, but soon would be. I grabbed some satsumas which were delightfully juicy and started to eat some of my snacks knowing that I was going to have to eat more to keep going!
Despite thinking I’d be low on energy from not eating, from aid station 3 I felt like I was flying. Besides the pain in my foot which I was still feeling, I was running carefree. There were some more incredible trails through woodlands and I overtook a few runners as I enjoyed the gentle downhills and small climbs. We went through some more fantastic rocky sections with huge caves (no ducking to get through these), as we ran passed what I think was the ‘Pigeon Loft Cave’. After the woodlands I emerged onto a long dusty/sandy straight back out in the open. I plodded on and started to notice it was a bit more windy now. I say a bit, I mean really windy. Up ahead I could see the dust swirling on the path and then it hit me. The wind. The dust. The combination. I could barely keep my eyes open even with my head turned away and facing down. I caught a glimpse of the sky, it was grey. A storm of some sort had hit us. I really hoped it wouldn’t last!
The sun cream I’d recently applied meant the sand stuck to me. I was covered. Every time I went to drink I had a mouth full of dust as an accompaniment. Eventually I broke off the path and was now crossing a field with the wind behind me. I passed Sarah as we began another climb.
The climb was pretty scenic. Further up ahead there was a guy I recognised from Madeira two years ago – Maarten. We ran together a bit and swapped stories of the last two years and races (including both being at Val d’Aran a few months earlier). We were talking about how hot it was and how much water we had when a girl came up from behind, clearly struggling with the heat and pleaded if we had any water to spare. Luckily, knowing this was a longer section, I’d filled a third soft flask so had a spare 500ml which I gave her. She drank nearly all of it in seconds, gratefully thanked us then vanished off into the distance. She would have been one of the lead runners in the shorter 38km race which started a few hours after we did. Not long later we came across a make shift water station before the course split for the 38km race to head back to Urgup more directly as we detoured off to Cavusin.
We went left at the course split and began another scenic but slightly more technical trail that undulated along and down the side of the mountain. Mesmeric views of red rock formations were all around us as the trail led down to the next aid station where I continued to address my nutritional problems. I grabbed a full bottle of water, some coke, more satsumas and hot lentil soup and went to find myself a place to sit along a wall. I’d started to fill my belly as Maarten arrived and shortly later Yvette, completing the Madeira reunion. After a few mins I left them both sitting in the shade and carried on.
The next section towards aid station 5 began with a big steep climb as a snake of runners weaved up to the top of the mountain we’d just circumnavigated. It was very hot now in the middle of the day and the climb was exhausting. Up top the paths traced the edge of the mountain as we made our way back along the top, almost to where the course split had happened a few hundred metres lower down. The views were spectacular and way down below I could see runners on the trails we’d arrived on. I wondered to myself how far behind me they were. It would only be a few miles for sure.
The top of the mountain was fairly flat but rocky. I mixed up the running and walking as the trails were so visible so far ahead I couldn’t mentally commit to keep running it all. Eventually there was a very steep but short descent and we arrived at the next aid station. A small tent halfway up the mountain. As I sat and drank more and ate some food, I got chatting to two guys from Yorkshire. I wished them well as I left and began the last section of the first half of the race back to Urgup.
As I drank from one of my refilled Tailwind bottles, I noticed another error I’d made where I’d mislabelled a Tailwind portion and instead of lemon I had another caffeine one. Despite feeling more settled, it worried me a little and I didn’t want to repeat the morning’s mistakes which were still very fresh in my memory. So I tried to make sure I’d drink from that bottle last and prolong when I took in more caffeine. Thankfully it was only another 8k to the halfway point and I wasn’t likely to need a full litre.
The route was pretty as we traversed lots of gradual ups and downs and undulated along trails between farmland and areas of modern housing. There was lots of walking and I was starting to feel the effect of not fuelling early on. I knew I’d need to continue that process of addressing the imbalance at halfway, this time with more substance. As I walked I began talking to Omar from Jordan who was doing his first Ultra, the 63km. He was so friendly and smiley and enjoying his race, knowing he was on the home stretch. Shortly after seeing, as we approached the iconic Twin Fairy Chimneys, the 38km course re-joined our route and there were loads of other runners surrounding us. I had a momentary boost as I powered passed a bunch of them and felt a surge of arrogance and confidence in my performance and race. A timely mental boost to see me through to the halfway point!
We then reached another major road crossing manned by the police. I can see now that it is the same road from earlier in the day, just many miles further along. The Police stopped a car for me to pass and the driver started shouting out the window. It was Sammy. Amazing timing. I then descended down the red bricked pavement to the aid station. Wincing with pain as my foot broke my stride and technique. I’d been adapting my running for the passed two sections but now on the hard ground I was more than a little worried that the damage may done already.
Into half way I went. Sarah was already there and Sammy busy supporting and getting her ready to head back out. I grabbed my bag and went straight for the food asking for “everything”. I had some soup, pasta with tomato sauce and cheese and a giant potato to go with it. I then found a place on the grass to sit in the shade and went about executing my on-the-fly strategy. I removed my shoes and socks and let my feet catch some air whilst I ate. There was a blister that would need taking care of on my little toe. I’d been ignoring it as it had been giving me grief for a while and it was clear now why. A blood blister.
In between eating I’d clean and fix myself up – a wet wipe shower, removing dodgy tape from my toes that had peeled loose, reapplying it and addressing the blister. Yum. Yvette and Maarten had arrived and we all joked as I cramped trying to reach my feet. I ate the dry potato by dunking it in the soup. I was conscious I needed more salt intake too so grabbed some more cheese and finished off with a GU energy waffle, a bit of cake and some more juicy satsumas for dessert. A good feast was had. Eventually, 15mins longer than planned and an hour after arriving, I set back out with a change of trainers (Inov8 Trailroc).
From halfway I felt good. The change in trainers immediately helped my foot with the greater padding and support offered by the ever trusty Inov8s. The route crossed the road and onto a trail with an immediate short but very steep sandy decline. I was covered in stand as gravity pulled me down at speed I shouldn’t have after 60 odd kms of running. Great. I needed to stop and take off my shoes already. I found what looked like a rock and sat down. It was just a mound formed of the sand/dust though and it collapsed under me. I picked myself up, carried on and tried another rock with more success.
I remember running passed some cows in an enclosure as this section of the route led us more ‘off path’ and we ran through many fields and farmland. A few times we crossed back and forth over a small river. For a short while I was chatting to a guy from Cardiff as we spurred each other on through the lumpy terrain. We joked about the derby game that would happen on Sunday and I teased that we can’t be friends or run together as I dashed off ahead. The route then took us up the river we’d been criss-crossing. I ran up the river by following the narrow banks and jumping side to side trying to avoid getting wet feet. It was a long and smelly stretch that required a bit of focus as I didn’t want to step in the water as it didn’t seem all that clean and I was thinking of the open wounds on my toes which I’d sliced up at the halfway mark. I was glad to be navigating this in the light which was now diminishing as the sun was setting,
I was beginning to feel stronger now and able to run consistently with no pain in my foot any more. As I ran I passed a woman and few guys together as we climbed another of the few smallish inclines this section had. They cheered me on and shortly afterwards we reached another town, Mustafapasa, as the moon took over now the sun had set. As we left the town and ran back onto the trail I put my torch on and gained pace on runners ahead who were still struggling with the low light or stopping to search in their backpacks for their torches. One guy clearly tried to keep up with me, probably knowing we weren’t far from the next aid station, and piggy-back on the light from my head torch. I was having none of it though and picked up the pace. I could hear him grunting as he dropped further and further back. I didn’t do it purely out of spite, but more so because of the sound of his poles. The sound of other runners’ poles tip-tapping on the ground really annoys me in races.
From here I ran all the way into the next aid station. It was a smallish one just off the main path. I sat down and began drinking Coke and eating pieces of apple. The volunteers here were very friendly and supportive. One volunteer asked if I wanted salt. I didn’t, but I did think it was a good idea as my legs were very tender and with the cramping I suffered at half way I dived straight in, pouring the sachet straight into my half drunk Coke. Ew. What was I thinking. Salty coke was not pleasurable. It was knocked back though.
As I left the aid station another runner caught me up and asked me if I wanted music. I absolutely fucking did not want any music. I like music. I hate it on a trail run though. I hate it even more at night when running and it was a beautiful night so far. Peaceful. Clear skies. Glistening moon and stars with the lack of light pollution. Nope, I didn’t want that spoilt with some tin-cup music out of a phone speaker. I think my blunt reaction made it awkward as we were then walking/running together in silence. He also had poles tip-tapping on the floor, so I used a small climb as a chance to take a piss and let him go on ahead. Thankfully that worked and I never saw him again.
We then began a monstrous climb. I knew this was coming, but was secretly hoping one of the many smaller ones leading up to it was actually the ‘big ‘un’. Sadly my attempt to count the hills had failed. Although this was one of the biggest climbs on the course, at 500m it shouldn’t be particularly troublesome. But, unexpectedly it was like a sand dune. So dusty/sandy. Every step my foot would submerge to the ankle. It made the climb slow and difficult. Nothing else to do though other than keep trekking along. The subsequent descent was no better and the run down very sandy also. I gave in to the pain and discomfort and let gravity take control and I just ran it all (it felt superhuman at the time, but it was only about 3km), kicking up sand everywhere. I was constantly coughing and found it difficult to breathe and see as I made my own mini sand storms (the light from the head torch struggled to penetrate through all the dust). I passed Sarah on the down hill and powered into the aid station.
I felt good. For a while I’d been thinking that a sub 20 hour finish was possible. I was averaging around 9min 30 per km throughout so had about 30 minute buffer on a 20 hour finish time. However, each climb would eat away at that average and we had three big climbs to get through in this second half. The run down after the first one had a big impact though and I clawed back nearly 10 mins. However that soon vanished… As I sat down at the aid station and emptied the sand out of my shoes, I asked for soup. I still needed to keep fuelling properly to sustain the final 30km push. The soup was so hot though that I had to wait for it to cool a bit. As I did I got very cold sitting there so dug out the arm warmers. Those minutes gained were ticking away so I used the time to plan ahead and rearranged my bag making sure I had more food accessible and also changed my head torch battery now so I wouldn’t have to do it again later on. As I was faffing, Sammy arrived and shortly afterwards Sarah did too. We all moaned about the ‘sandy bastard’ and got excited for the soup!
With my soup consumed I set back out, accepting that a 20 hour finish was probably now out of reach and distracted by the cold. I was hoping I’d soon warm up from running/hiking which, thankfully I did. Although I immediately then had cold feet when the route took us across a wider/fuller river section which I spectacular mis-timed my attempt to jump across. Dammit.
I began the second of the big climbs. This one about 400m. It was a decent path though with a wide track and it was not as steep as the previous one. I was thankful it was more forgiving than the last climb and hiked up quickly. Up top was a longer flattish section than the previous mountain. I powered on in full ultra hike mode. I was averaging 9 minute kms when walking. This was faster than my average pace and faster than the 10min kms average I needed to sustain a sub 20 finish. I stated to believe a little again but couldn’t be bothered to run and didn’t need too – as we joked the next day, I’ve a pretty good power hike and I teased its all inspired by Shakira and ‘hips don’t lie’. I was in a happy state now and was content with however it would finish from here. Two more aid stations to go and still enough time for ten mins rest at each. I believed it was back on.
As I walked this whole section I vividly pictured a flip-book cartoon of my inner body system functioning through races. I’ve often described to friends how I visualise the ‘boys in the command centre’ who run the show from the inside. This time I saw them all. All the internal body parts and their controllers, the conversations and messages flowing through the command centre. The instructions being followed to process the food, to engaged the legs and run, power up the power hike mode and so on. It kept me entertained for quite a while. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to draw it out.
I ran the descent and once more made up some time. I pushed it for another 3 km or so until I arrived at the aid station in Karlik. It was so hot inside the building. I took water and left straight away. I felt strong and I didn’t need a rest nor the sweltering heat of the aid station. There was 20k left to go and I felt surprisingly good. I had everything I needed after my bit of prep at the last stop and knew the soup would kick in sooner or later, plus I had Kendal Mint Cake ready to eat and get a sugar high from. So I just cracked on.
There was one big climb and descent left to the final aid station. My optimism after leaving Karlik was soon diminished though. The climb was off path. It was very uneven underfoot with lots of rocks, uneven lumps of foliage and dirt and at some points quite steep climbs. It was not going to be as forgiving as the last section. I kept on walking. I passed a few runners and a few familiar faces passed me. One couple I’d caught up with were running very consistently. We leapfrogged each other now on and off for a few km as when I hiked a climb I’d power passed and they’d eventually overtake me on the flatter parts running. I gave into the temptation to keep playing this game and followed in behind them as we began the descent. It was technical. Not super technical but rocky and steep none-the-less. It was rather painful on the now very sore feet. Clearly they’d left one of the hardest sections to the end of the race! I wasn’t in a happy place any more.
It felt like a lifetime to get to the final aid station. But eventually I did. There was nothing here to entice me to hang around as it was just a tent on the mountain. So I filled my water and joked with the volunteers. Next stop, the finish line. 10 km to go. I’m outta here…
The first task was a final, shorter climb up the mountain again. From here a short stint along the top once more before descending down the other side. Once up top I began running. It was still rocky terrain, but everything was falling into place again. There is always a point in a race, no matter how far from the end you are where you know you’ll get to the finish. I’d passed that point and was full of belief. The energy levels and confidence were high. After so much caffeine over the last 20 hours I was wide awake (all the Tailwind I’d drank since 5pm at halfway was caffeinated!). I caught up a lot of people as I began to descend, confidently whizzing past them. Another guy up front looked familiar. It was Paul! I wasn’t expecting to see him but here he was. I screamed out to him, terrifying him in the process. I carried on running the downhill and he soon fell in line and began running with the momentum too.
A short while later we came off the trails. We were somewhere in Urgup now. Maybe 3 km to go. Here the route twisted around the town as we’d make our way back to the start. A long gradual climb through the streets was not an exciting finish. Even less so was the very, very steep but short hill as we went through a building site and some back ally near a fancy hotel. It was probably the steepest climb on the course! Thankfully though it was then downhill to the finish as we hit a cobbled side street down to the start line.
Unplanned, we crossed the finish together. Maria and Ale, the legends, were there at 02:30 in the morning to cheer us in. Their support at this ridiculous hour was incredible after their own exhaustions of running their own races earlier too. Shortly after finishing we heard the sad news that Yvette had withdrawn at 100km. An incredible achievement to get so far on a very difficult route and enduring her own struggles over the 20 hours. We grabbed our stuff and finishers merch and headed back up to the caves (great, more climbs!) where we found her waiting in the cold outside the rooms.
Cappadocia was done and, for Paul, redemption after his DNF (did not finish) a few years earlier. I finished the race in 19 hrs 24 mins. Far faster than I was expecting and a strong finish in 76th position sharing joint second Brit with Paul hahah.
On reflection, I’ve no doubt that my strength in this event was my adaptability and able to think forward. I was acutely aware that it’s a long game. It always is. I’d mentally settled in for 20-24 hours of running. So when it was all a struggle early on I could think clearly that what I did now (at that moment) would affect me later on. It wouldn’t help immediately. There is no secret pill or easy fix in ultra running. You can enjoy the moment but you have to be thinking ahead. Hours ahead. In this case knowing after a troublesome first 30km a bonk was inevitable if I didn’t address the problems and start fuelling properly. I’m proud of myself for this one and turning it around before it got the better of me. All hail the boys in the command centre!
Looking back over the data from my run, I’m impressed with how my second half pace and speed per section didn’t drop off too much from the first half, despite factoring in the elevation, difficult terrain and general fatigue. The second half was very consistent. The chart of my race position ranking constantly improving after my early difficulties in the first 30km also brings a smile to my face. A satisfying end to the race indeed!
Running is life. You can read into and over analyse that as much as you want, you won’t get the intended meaning behind it. It was a phrase Nick and I screamed at each other several times during the later stages of the Chilterns Wonderland 50 mile race by Centurion Running. Every time it had us laughing and singing. Its a play on a phrase from a tv show and we’d follow it up with football chants of each other’s names. It is always the simple things that bring most joy. I interpret that to be its meaning in the show too, find joy in what you do. There was plenty of joy on this occasion. It was Nick’s first 50 miler and his longest run to date. We were happy for so many reasons. One thing was clear to me though, he has come a long way!
Transformation. Change. Progress. Development. Whatever word you want to assign to it. It was visible to me. Obviously visible. We judge ourselves constantly. We are hard on ourselves and our own worst critics. But others have that external perspective. As an outsider I can see how Nick has changed when it comes to running. I was there running alongside him when he started running again, for his first marathon, his first ultra and for many runs in between. I’ve seen, and laughed, as he suffered like we all do, hitting the wall, fuelling poorly, struggling up hills, sliding in mud and managing the post race wobbly legs. This time was different though…
After his first ultra, I wrote about ‘Ultra Nick’. I recalled the sadistic joy of watching him go through the pain of discovering himself, I laughed at the grunts and ‘fucks’ he uttered with each change of terrain and slight hill as the race went on and I related it to the different versions of yourself you create each time you push yourself that bit further. That day I said he was now ‘Ultra Nick’. Now he is something else, something more.
So what has changed now? Familiarity for a start. He now has experience. Each run is a learning curve. Each run tells us a little something more about ourselves. We gain a better understanding of how we feel. What are limitations are. What are strengths and weaknesses are. What to expect with each passing mile and each new step into the unknown. We may not feel it, but it shows. I can see Nick running with more freedom. Less fear of the unknown and with greater confidence it what he is capable of. A stronger ability and willingness to adapt as the run goes on. Whether that’s feeling better, recognising the signs the body (and mind) send out, accepting when to stop and rest and when to push on and endure. There’s certainly less encouragement from me and less need for me to share my experiences as he now has plenty of his own to work with.
Above all, he now he runs with freedom and with complete unadulterated joy. Running is life.
How did the day go…? When we arrived at Goring Village Hall for registration, the morning was very overcast with a low mist covering the town. We breezed through registration and were ready to go 10 mins into the rolling start window. The race began with a short trot down the Thames before we took the planned detour due to the path being closed. Nick was already cursing at the realisation he’d somehow recce’d the route in the reverse direct. I was happy, I knew I didn’t want to run along this section after running all day.
As we reached the first climb a friendly runner sped passed, powering up the hill as he wished us a good day. He looked like a competitor, a winner. Nick called it out. Later that day it was confirmed he did indeed win the race in a ridiculously quick time.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first aid station at Tokers Green. It was brilliant. Set up like a 1980s birthday party with cocktail style savoury snacks galore and Ribena. Excitedly I gulped back a few cups whilst tucking into my own bacon sandwich and half a pork pie. This would keep me going for a while and make my pack start to feel a little lighter – the pie was hefty.
As we set back out the mist was well and truly gone. The morning was heating up rapidly and the sun was shinning brightly. We soon found ourselves running into the Country Estate of Crowsley Park. It’s such a beautiful space (ignoring the massive BBC satellite dishes on the grounds) and the tranquillity was momentarily broken by an expletive-ridden squeal from Nick as he jarred his knee and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The family with young kids in front didn’t look too impressed by his choice of words but thankfully he was ok after a few minutes of catching his breath. No lasting damage, just the shock of coming into contact with the ground sooner than the mind expected it.
Another quick stop at Bix where the second aid station saw Nick encounter many familiar faces who he’d met along the Woldingham marathon a few weeks earlier. From here the route took us through another glorious open space – Stonor Deer park. here we were happily chatting away to other runners including a guy from South Africa who told us stories of all his Comrades finishes. We realised how much our pace had increased as we talked to him so had to encourage him carry on and to let us drop back before we passed out trying to maintain it!
The day was now very hot, it didn’t feel like a mid September kind of day! Thankfully though my mind was distracted by the route. Since Bix I was in unchartered territory having never run this section of the Chilterns before. It was delightful and continued to be excellent with plenty of very runnable terrain. There were plenty of hills to break up the running and the route felt like it was a roller coaster – as soon as you were at the top of a climb you would then go straight back down. there was a pleasing symmetry to the terrain and elevation of the climbs and subsequent descents.
A tough climb up Ibstone to the windmill soon greeted us. It was probably the steepest in the route but thankfully short. The garden fire and smoke at the top made it difficult to capture our breathe though. Further on another short climb took us to the school and halfway point aid station.
We planned for a rest here. Nick found a throne and sat down to be treated like Royalty by the volunteers who pandered to his needs. Dimi, with her beaming smile greeted me and whilst we talked Phillip (a veteran of Centurion races) rocked up. After we rested for a little while we then carried on. Ready for the day. More of the same planned, chatting and joking from the moment we left.
After running through another 10km or so of fields and woodlands we arrived at the next aid station. Here everyone was fighting for the shade. It was very bright now and salt was visible on most runners. The coke had run dry and we stayed a little longer as a resupply was imminent. It worked out well as Nick needed fuel and I wanted the Coke. We stayed a little longer than planned but it was very much needed and would set us up for what was to come.
After leaving the aid station we ran with Melanie and Kirsty for a while as we all kept similar pace. I was pushing Nick now though. I was conscious that when he gets chatting there’s no stopping him. He loses focus slightly and gets too comfy. They all joked I ‘wouldn’t let him off the train’. It’s true, the whip was out. We pushed on.
Before long we were bounding down the long straight to Grim’s Ditch. I knew where we were now having run this section at night many years ago. The train was running free and we made a small bit of time over the many familiar faces we’d been seeing all throughout the day. As we entered the small aid station we knew it would soon be filled with all the other inners immediately behind us. We were in great spirits here and were singing Mr Sandman with the volunteers and laughing to ourselves as we left.
It wasn’t far to go now. The reality has set in with Nick that we were 100% finishing. The cut offs would not be a concern. We were an hour ahead of it with a 12 hour finish looking likely. As always though, the confidence of knowing the end was in sight started to play on Nick. The possible 12 hour finish was soon changed as he suggested 11.5hrs might be possible. Soon after he changed the goal again thinking 11hr could be achievable. It certainly was, but bloody hell I was looking forward to a relaxed finish not a frantic one.
And so we ran. We kept running. The last few km were mostly downhill. We kept going. Kept catching runners. Kept overtaking them. The train was now a runaway. We were still enjoying it. The sun starting to set on the fields. We were thankful that the increase in pace meant we wouldn’t be needing to get the head torches out as we ran through the last of the forests and soon reached Goring for the last few streets.
Into Goring village we ran. The cheer of the finish line now audible. Residents on the street clapping us in as we we to and around the village hall. The excitement and elation as we finished was a great feeling. We’d done it. He’d done it. Nick was a 50mile finisher now!
We immediately changed into the finishers tee so I looked less salty for the finish line photo. Stuart, as always, captured and immortalised the magical moment. What a day. What a run.
As a UK-based runner and self-proclaimed lover of mountains and the outdoors, the Lake District is often described as the place to be. I’d never been. That all changed and finally, after a few failed trips, I made it to the Lake District for the first time. Of course there was a race involved – what better way to spend a weekend and to see as much as possible than with a race. Enter the Grand Tour of Skiddaw.
It was August 2021 and I was a little blue. The cause is known to me. A combination of the elation of achieving and finishing the Val D’Aran by UTMB was always going to result in a downer as I awaited the next adventure, that coupled with an ongoing niggle to my Achilles which has left me running just once a week (yeah I know, that should probably be zero not once…) and then the cancellation of the next big adventure – the Stranda Fjord – after being unable to travel to Norway. So when I found out a few mates were heading up to the Lakes for a race on bank holiday weekend, I quickly signed up for the adventure too.
The Grand Tour of Skiddaw (GTSs) is a 45 mile loop taking in two of the Wainwright’s – High Pike and Skiddaw. The course profile looked mild on paper with a circa 2,000m of elevation over the 45 miles. It also looked fairly down hill and runnable from the final climb to Skiddaw around half way.
Unfortunately, Jules had to pull out of the race a few weeks before, but kindly drove us up and dropped Jon, Yvette and I off at Lime House School (and a grand school it was!) where we soon met Al and Livvy (who Jon was coaching for the race) at the start line. It was fairly low key with a little over 100 runners towing the line.
Gaynor, the Race Director from Pure Sport Events, gave us a pre-race briefing, dibbed us all in and shouted “go” through the microphone. The small crowd of runners started trudging off out of the school and on to the wonders of the Lake district.
The first section was relatively flat (by the race profile anyway!) as we meandered through lush green fields of farmland with freshly compressed hay bails, passed by the impressive building of Rose Castle and followed the river towards Caldbeck, where the first (and last) aid station would be.
The terrain was varied as we followed each other in single file along the narrow track paths. Yvette quickly started to disappear in the distance as Jon, Al and I chatted and trotted along. We’d formed a little pack with a group of others who caught us up and were happy not to pass by but to keep the pace we were doing.
Those 7 or so miles to Caldbeck whizzed by quickly as the cool morning started to warm up. The brief stop in Caldbeck saw me stash up with Jaffa cakes and crisps as we prepared for the first climb to High Pike. The climb was fairly forgiving. Wide switch backs breaking up the steepness of the hillside. Jon and I settled into a solid hike and powered up. By now the field of runners was starting to spread out.
Before long we passed the boothy near the summit and grabbed a quick photo at the Trig point. My first ever Wainwright! I won’t be trying to ‘bag’ all 214 of them! We were soon picking up the pace as we began to descend between Drygill Head and Great Lingy Hill. Way off in the distance, we caught a feint glimpse of Yvette with her bright yellow Salomon pack acting like a beacon in the fells.
The descent took us down a few hundred metres alongside a stream. The route, although expertly marked, was tricky to follow as it was lumpy with wild growth and slippery from the wet ground near the stream. It wasn’t the quickest descent and I was glad to see the end of it with my ankles feeling rather tender by the end. I’d gotten a little ahead of Jon by now but carried on running as it felt good, knowing he’d catch me up sooner or later.
The next section wasn’t particularly pleasant despite the incredible views it offered. It was a very gradual incline path that was visible all the way off in the distance as we ran towards Skiddaw House Hostel. It was also a little rocky, so the ankles didn’t quite get the rest they were hoping for. I kept running. Here I caught up with Yvette after a good period of consistent running and then we carried on together passed the Hostel and up to the next aid station at the base of the climb to Skiddaw. As we refuelled, Jon arrived just moments behind us.
The climb to Skiddaw was by far the biggest and steepest of the course. It was without doubt the main point and highlight of the race, pretty obvious seeing as the race is named after the peak! A rocky/gravel track zig zagged up the mountain. It was fairly steep in parts and made for slow and steady going. It was a good workout for the legs that was for sure. The further we climbed though, the more the mist obscured the no doubt fantastic views.
We passed two guys who were running as one of the ‘pairs’ – a category of two people entered together and would run entirely together through to the finish. One was suffering cramps quite badly. Yvette stopped to help as Jon and I carried on. I thought that might be the end of them!
It wasn’t long before we were reaching the summit. Here we’d have a slight out and back section to the Trig point and an opportunity to ‘ring’ the race bell. We each took our turn ringing the bell before turning around to begin the descent down towards Longside, Ullock Pike and Barkbeth Hill. This descent was fast, steep and slightly daunting. The misty mountain summit made visibility slightly difficult and the loose scree made the descent slippery. A lot of concentration was required with a steep drop off on one side. I sped down and looked back to see Jon and Yvette as small dots on the mountain side.
The descent continued as we rolled up and down past Longside where, just as I reached Ullock Pike, I stopped and laid down to enjoy the view over Keswick and Bassenthwaite Lake just below as I waited for Jon and Yvette to catch up. They stopped for a little bit too and we persuaded a hiker to snap a picture for us before we carried on. As we approached Barkbeth Hill the descent became a little steeper and technical once more. As we eased down, the pair of runners caught us up. A solid recovery from the cramping. As we bottomed out we all ran into the farm together for the next aid station and a welcome break to top up food and liquids.
From here we encountered what I thought turned out to be one of the harder sections of the race, mentally at least. It was a 5 mile section along the road from Orthwaite as we made our way back towards Caldbeck. The roads were very straight and undulating and offered no protection from the sun which was now intense in the mid afternoon. It was slow and arduous progress as we ran and walked in equal measures. After what felt like an eternity the road gave way and we climbed the last of the ‘major climbs’ near Fell Side along well maintained hiking paths to re-join the route back where we began the climb to High Pike many hours earlier. From here we knew it was just a km or two back to Caldbeck and the final aid station. We trudged on and had the aid station to ourselves.
Here we had plenty of attention from the volunteers and enjoyed a few good chats and plenty of laughter. We stayed a while and begrudgingly decided we’d better leave and begin the final 12km back to the school. Leaving the aid station we passed Gillian and Jules who’d come outside their accommodation of the Oddfellow arms to cheer us all on. This was the only time I was glad I wasn’t staying with everyone else here (I was closer to the finish, staying near Rose Castle). Running 12km away from the accommodation was not something I would have enjoyed!
Before long we were back on the trails and winding along the river and fields once more. Jon and I had left Yvette slightly behind us in Caldbeck and gone on ahead of her. I felt bad. We kept going though. Mostly alone just the two of us other than one runner who caught us up and passed us. Running along side the river we felt we’d gone wrong. We had. We’d missed a turn into the final field somehow (there was a sign pointing back against us, we’d assumed it was from earlier in the day). We back tracked, adjusted the sign, and were on course again, not far to go, just to small climb out of the field and into the school grounds remained. Back to where it all began.
We rounded the school grounds down to the field the the rapturous applause and cheers from the volunteers. Jon and I ambled over the line and celebrated with a hi five as the volunteers took our trackers and gave us our medals. For a moment they also thought we were the first ‘pair’ as we’d run together. If we’d entered as a pair we would indeed have won that category! Shortly after us the pair did finish which was the two guys (Mike and Andy) who we’d shared much of the section after the Skiddaw descent together. We cheered them in and bought them a beer to celebrate. There goes probably my only chance to claim a podium spot! Behind them, Yvette followed in and together we all celebrated with pizza and beer as we waited and cheered in Al and the Livvy too.
The finish line vibes were excellent as the volunteers all cheered and celebrated with the runners. They fed us incredible home made sweet potato and coconut soup (made by Gaynor!) and had set up their own pub – The Stagger Inn – at the finish line for runners to enjoy. I loved the friendliness of the event and all the staff and the organisation was top notch. The route was expertly marked and as far as I could tell everything ran smoothly. The finishers medal was also great with a high quality medal made from local slate. Another first for me.
What a great way to end a fabulous adventure and running with friends in a new place. An incredible first experience of the Lake district. It certainly helped lift me a little out of the blues.
The Stour Valley Path ultra, or more specifically, the SVP100, has become somewhat of a tradition. A grounding point. A yearly adventure and a pilgrimage for me in some way.
What started as my second ultra back in 2017 has turned into the one place I return to run. But why? I always say it’s because I’m collecting the set of tee shirts, that has been my why for this event. But every year I find out there are more to obtain by hitting new milestones. There is nothing unique about it either, there are many runners out there who are years ahead of me in their collections, some having run the SVP100 every year since its inception. Still, this is my journey…
After my first three 100k finishes I opted to volunteer in 2020 as it was just one week after a 100 mile adventure on the North Downs Way. This time, 2021 I signed up to the elusive 50km which would complete my colour set of t-shirts. Whilst I’m weak and always sign up to the biggest challenge, my 2021 plans should have seen me racing in the mountains of Norway the week before the SVP100 (it didn’t pan out that way!). Opting for the 50 was also the wisest choice.
So here I was, a little lost on Saturday morning as, rather than starting at 7am, I found myself making my way across London to Sudbury to start at 1pm instead. It felt odd. It felt a little disorienting. I rocked up at the start line which was very unfamiliar, as the 50km course does a short loop before joining the 100km runners along the Stour Valley Path to the finish. None the less, a familiar welcome from Matt (the Race Director) sent me on my way.
I started relaxed. This section was very flat. I was full of energy tough and even in a relaxed state I struggled to contain myself a little as we ran along the single track paths after leaving the riverside. We set off in small groups of 6 or so and as I entered a field a few kms in I could see runners stretched out far into the distance. We all said hello to each other and wished good fortunes for the day ahead as we passed and exchanged places. I briefly saw Agata and carried on my way with my fresh legs taking me probably a little too fast.
Before long we joined the SVP and looking back in the distance we could see a 100km runner heading our way. I wondered where I would be if I was doing the 100km this day, not this far along the course that is for certain! I chatted with many runners and one common theme was the black ‘3-star finishers’ tee I was wearing. It was a conversation starter for sure. Runners were amazed I’d finished it 3 times, claimed I must know the way and I was the one to follow, they told me about their past finishes and their own journeys to obtaining the black t-shirt and even joked something must be wrong with me if I was only doing the 50km (actually, there was that too, a pesky Achilles was troubling me for quite some time and I was stubbornly running through the pain with so much strapping and tape around my ankle). Truth is though, these conversations made me smile. They were a huge ego boost. I felt like the biggest, most bad-assed person on the course that day. We can’t deny we all enjoy a bit of a verbal pick me up! Ultimately though this just kept me running harder and faster than I probably should have been.
The hours and kilometres ticked by and passed ever so quickly. This last 50km of the 100km SVP is the more undulating and hilliest part of the course. There are plenty of short sharp climbs to break up the mostly flat path. I reached all the familiar checkpoints and aid stations and was welcomed with the usual buzz and support from the fantastic volunteers. Everything was going well. My Achilles didn’t start hurting until probably about 20km in and even then it was a manageable pain.
Besides running a little too fast for my current fitness level, the one mistake I made was to start filling my bottles up from the High5 powder available at checkpoints rather than use the Tailwind I’d brought with me. It’s a mistake I often make on the shorter ultras and I should know by now what will happen – cramps. My body is accustomed to the Tailwind solution and the added sodium content. When I switch to other products with less salt in them…. yeah, I cramp. It was a scorcher of a summer’s day too. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started cramping around the 40km mark! I had been fuelling well though and was far ahead of the finish time I’d set out with. So I started to walk more for the final 10km.
Along the last section I was playing leapfrog with a number of people I’d chatted to throughout the day. There was a friendly lady on the 100km who was running very strongly and full of enthusiasm, another 100km runner on his way to a 7-star finish (an immortal in my eyes! what an achievement). And another lady on her way to her first ever 100km finish. After a few kilometres the man vanished off ahead and I didn’t see him again as he chased his fastest finish time.
With just a few kilometres left, after the diversion on the route, I was trucking along quite comfortably, recognising familiar landmarks of the route. We were running along a path which I recalled and I had a feeling we’d soon be leaving it, back into the fields. There was a gate, I tried to go through it but it was locked. So I carried on. Through the bushes and over the other side of the fence I kept thinking I was going wrong. I checked my route and I was. I did need to go through that gate. I was confused. I tracked back and then saw a bunch of runners the other side of the fence. I knew it. How?! Turns out the padlock on the fence didn’t stop you lifting the latch (something I didn’t try as I only tried to slide the latch out). All was good again. Every year I miss a few turnings on this race!
Before long I was coming back off the roads and looping around the filed and heading towards the finish line. Here more familiar faces welcomed me and gave me my medal. It was by far the earliest (and lightest!) I’d ever finished the SVP course. It really makes a difference not doing the first 50km!
After a quick shower I was soon walking back along the roads to the train station eating the customary sausage and chips from the rugby club. A sub 6 hour finish was far faster than I intended and once more my Achilles was on fire. Time to go home and get ready for the next adventure.
Now I have the full colour collection of Green, Black, Yellow and Grey SVP t-shirts. The only question I have to ask myself is now I’ve chased the tees, do I keep going back and chase the stars? Time will tell…
The Torn dera Val D’Aran by UTMB, aka the ‘VDA’. This was the first edition of this event that has been franchised under the prestigious UTMB banner. The VDA being one of a handful of events as part of the weekend. A 162km (100 mile) circular route around the mountainous Val D’Aran region in the Pyrenees.
Our journey began back in the summer of 2020 when the first edition was postponed to 2021 and they reopened registrations. Paul was the mastermind once more and it took very little to persuade myself and Darryl to sign up too. Later on Paul C also signed up, but 2020 wasn’t finished with us just yet…. I’m not sure how many flights were cancelled, how much additional money we spent nor how many times the travel rules and restrictions changed in the weeks leading up to the race, but I do know it led to many, many sleepless nights spent stressing over deliveries, tests and forms. Paul C had to drop out the week before and I was left guessing until I woke up just 5 hours before the flight was due to take off. Until this point I still hadn’t received the negative test that was now required to enter Spain and I was prepared to go to the airport and hope for the best with numerous, less than ideal, alternative travel plans. For those who know me well, you know this isn’t how I like to roll. I like to deal with greater certainty. I thrive in a process and I struggle when I can’t control aspects of that process.
Arriving at the airport with all my barcodes and forms, I already felt like a winner. Now, with a little over 30 hours to go to the race start, I could finally start thinking about the race itself… I wasn’t alone though. We went as threesome and we planned to run together. We are all now experienced ultra runners. We know each other well. We also knew and recognised that we are getting into some big league running with this event. 100 miles. 10,600 m of elevation. The Spanish mountains. It was an ultra that would push each of us beyond our comfort zone and redefine our boundaries once more.
It’s been a while since I’d run fuelled by a little fear. I think it is a good thing. It’s needed. We arrived not knowing how we’d cope. We were realistic that it will take us very close to the 48 hour cut off mark. We were accepting that it is going to hurt a lot and hurt in new ways we’d not yet experienced. But, mentally we were focused. We broadly knew what we’d face and why we were there and that, together we were stronger. Together we stood a chance of getting to the finish line.
Lining up on the start line along the main street in Viehla, the pre race jitters kicked in a little. This wasn’t like any other race in the last two years. This was a mass start, just shy of 1,000 runners bunching together at 18:00 trying to remain in the shade as ‘Conquest of Paradise’ (The song adopted as the UTMB signature theme) blasted out of the speakers. The MC was gearing up the crowd and initiating a final countdown. It’s hard not to feel special in a moment like this. Before we knew it the countdown was over and we were shuffling along through the town, about to begin the first of many climbs.
I cannot recount two whole days of trail running. It would take me longer to write that much never mind that I’m sure none of us have the time to read a two day long recap. I do broadly remember the sections though, the feelings and emotions and I can stitch together the adventure with what I can remember…
The first 20km or so was an absolute delightful. For the first few hours we had the sun with us, as we took in some beautiful climbs between Pomarola and Geles which presented us with incredible views and a mesmerising sunset behind the mountains from Montpius. All along this section we were like children playing. We had complete freedom. We were so pleased to be where we wanted to be, to be in the moment that we were laughing and joking non stop. We didn’t contain it to ourselves either but extended it to others, whether they liked it or not. Every time a runner went passed us, we made ‘fast car’ noises. Vrroooom. Every single time. It went down like a led balloon except for one guy who stopped in a fit of laughter and offered a fist bump. We liked him. We never saw him again though.
Somewhere along the first climb there was a point where we all came to an abrupt stop. Runners waiting impatiently as the wide fire track converged to a single track path. We were at a physical standstill for a good five minutes. Those behind us would have waited longer. Oddly, after this, the etiquette improved and runners no longer tried to squeeze past each other and gain places along the narrow tracks.
As darkness settled in, we arrived at an aid station (Geles) which was manic. Runners were everywhere, grabbing what food and drink they could, layering up, shuffling through. There were chocolate spread sandwiches available which we snapped up and ate as we too started adding layers. Now the Sun’s heat had been replaced with the chilling mountain wind, a few moments break was enough for us to get very cold very quickly.
The next section saw us run towards the French border and soon after Antiga de Lin we crossed the wobbly suspension bridge deep in the night and began one of the biggest climbs of the course. The darkness here was our friend as it hid from our view the absolute monster of a climb. It was exhausting. The darkness masked the beauty but illuminated the ‘snake’ or runners by their head torches lighting up the trail. Every turn we took exposed more of the snake. It appeared to reach to the stars. One thing was clear, it was going to be a while to climb to the summit of Cap dera Picada (2400m).
The snake of runners was like a continuous train. Each runner was a carriage being dragged along by the momentum. Pulled from the front and pushed from the back. One would step to the side of the trail to break. The train would form up and fill the gap. Other times as runners re-entered the train it would adjust to accommodate them. It was an ongoing process. Every time I raised my gaze from the floor I’d see runners stepping aside or re-joining the train. We did it ourselves too, many times. At one point we stepped aside and sat down. We turned off our head torches and just sat there in the darkness. Above us was the Milky Way was visible, crystal clear. A beautiful sight worth stopping and taking in!
Eventually the trail became rockier as we approached the top. Above us runner silhouettes were all along the ridgeline, lit up by the Moon behind them. The Moon reflecting the Sun’s light and guiding us, showing us the way to go. Along the top the trails continued to undulate. The first of our collective low points hit us somewhere here during the night as Paul pulled up and vomited pretty severely. After this there was no stopping him and we struggled to hold pace and keep up with him. He’d struggled for a few hours during the night and was now emerging from his inner battle with the breaking of the new day.
We arrived at another aid station (Coth de Baretja) located on a long down hill section. We took some hot broth to warm us up and sat outside the tent in the chill. Already vans were collecting runners who were dropping out. The climb had claimed some victims. We were about 45km in at this point. We knew the next time we’d stop would be at the 55km mark. So off we went, heading into the day break as the morning Sun started to break through the darkness of the night before. Experiencing a day break on a trail run is an amazing and powerful experience. The energy it brings is difficult to describe. Your tiredness gives way with a freshness that only the Sun’s rays can provide. We were moving freely again and soon found ourselves approaching the aid station in the school at Bossost.
This was a significant milestone. The 55km mark. It sounds insignificant but, besides being the first of three aid stations with hot food and about a third of the race, it meant we’d now covered over 4,000m of elevation gain. Over 55km that is quite a lumpy run! The rest of the 6,000m was more spread out with a lot more downhill to cover. Before the race we’d aimed to get to this point without being completely broken. If we could do that, we knew we stood a good chance of getting through to the end. As we sat there, gathering our thoughts, we were hustled by a volunteer telling us that we had an hour until the cut off at 08:45. We knew this and weren’t bothered. We knew we were capable of completing the race and were currently way ahead of schedule with a projected finish around 40 hours. But, suddenly, we felt a little on edge. We were now aware of how tight these cut offs actually were. It felt crazy that with so much time in the bank we were being hurried at just the fifth aid station and first thing in the morning. It was now very apparent to us that a lot of runners would not be making this cut off!
After Bossost came Canejan and from there Sant Joan de Toran. Both of these were fairly short sections and didn’t include too much climbing. One of them was a 6km stretch and I remember thinking it was one of the hardest 6km I’d ever done. There was an initial part that ran along side some industrial factories and then the paths took us through some forest sections along a cycle/adventure track next to the main road. I remember signs for UTMB all long here. Then we began to climb, crossing over a dam and a massive waterfall. Each section had maybe 400m of climbing, but it felt like so much more. I was tired!
Being tired now was not a good thing. As we approached midday, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, we embarked on the next huge climb towards Tuc des Crabes (2,400m). Here we’d climb 1,500m through a valley. We started off through some lush green forests before the path opened up in the valley floor. We stopped at a river where some runners were completely submerging themselves. Paul and Darryl filled up some fresh water, I stuck with the 2 litres of Tailwind I’d prepared at the last aid station.
We met an Australian, Matt, and chatted with him as we climbed. Like the runners around us, we’d break frequent and often, sitting in the shallows of shade on the mountain paths. Often you’d stop when there was a chance as runners littered the path seeking out the shade spots. By now we were seeing familiar faces that we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the night (and would continue to do so with until the finish!). Stephen another Brit, David from Scotland and two Spanish guys who we could barely communicate with other than make fast car noises at – like the guy early on, they saw the funny side in it. We’d clearly done it to them when they’d passed us and sometime later they repaid the favour to us. It was now a running joke with them and we loved it. Every opportunity the five of us would ‘Vroooom’ each other and laugh.
The climb was exhausting. It was the midday heat. It sapped our energy. The higher we climbed though, the better the views became. After the climb came a descent into Pas Estret. By now our mood had changed dramatically. All three of us were now feeling the toils of the climb. We were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. the terrain over the last 50km had been very rocky and our legs and feet were feeling the blunt of it. We were looking forward to a break at the aid station and were disappointed when we reached it. As he shuffled in, we saw four vans fill with runners who were dropping out. Inside the tent, runners were laying everywhere. It was struggle to reach the food as runners rested in the shade under the tables. The food was sparse with the aid station having run out of many things and the rest was simmering in the sun. Sandwiches were dry and stale, chocolate was melted in the trays and the water was warm. Luckily I’d been fuelling well so far and still had plenty of food on me that I’d sourced from Xmiles before the trip. Some more Stroop Waffles and some Kendal Mint Cake sorted me out as we stopped to rest. We then had to force ourselves to leave knowing we had another climb to do.
We knew we had to keep going. We also knew that, after the next climb we’d be treated to the views of the old Iron Mines. We’d read about and seen glimpses of these in various YouTube videos we’d watched to recce the route from afar. When we reached them, they didn’t disappoint. First we ran through some tunnels on the edge of the mountain with the old cart tracks still in place. Through the tunnel, panoramic views of Lac de Montoliu in the valley floor greeted us. Further up the old mining structures, dilapidated and left in ruins. My mind whirled wondering all the scenarios for how they were built this high up in the mountains in such a remote area. Before descending we encountered a group of guys with a trumpet. They played a tune for each runner and cheered us all on. We loved it. We sat with them for a bit and cheered along with them. They entertained our requests and even played the UTMB theme for us when Paul emerged on the summit. This section of the route was very rocky but it was an iconic section for sure. The rocky trails back down were difficult to run on and jabbed at my feet as we covered the 1,000m decline into the next aid station.
Before long, night was closing in once more and I powered on ahead of the others knowing our drop bags at 104km were waiting for us. To my horror, when I arrived I was told we were only at 98km and the drop bags were at the next aid station. This was Montgarri, not Beret, I was mortified. Paul and Darryl asked the same when they arrived behind me. The only good news was that it was 6km to Beret and it only had 200m of incline and 40m descent to cover. We layered up again and pushed on. A quick pose for a photograph we trekked on into the forests.
We continued on and reached Beret as the night descended into darkness. We made a joint call to try and get some sleep. A micro sleep. We had a long way to go and another full night to endure. We knew there were some ‘technical’ (let’s be honest, by now we’d realised that the majority of the trail was very technical!) later on. We gave ourselves an hour at the checkpoint. Eat, freshen up and use whatever time we could to sleep. Darryl found a deckchair, Paul laid out on the floor and I placed my head on a table. None of us really caught any sleep, but I’m sure the rest and moment to close our eyes helped more than we realised.
As we headed back out, still maybe an hour ahead of the cut off times, it was howling. Since we’d stopped, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped rapidly. As we walked on, we were descending again when we were joined by Rodrigo. A Portuguese gent living in Cambridge. He’d come alone and, like us, had never experienced running through two consecutive nights without sleep of running. He asked if he could stick with us to ensure he was safe and didn’t fall asleep in the night. We obliged and acknowledged we weren’t moving that quickly anymore but he was happy to stick with us.
I was hitting a lull here and was very happy in my own little bubble just head down and plodding onwards. My feet and legs had been hurting for a long time and I was really feeling them now. The 700m descent into the villages of Unha and then Salardu were slow and painful for me and I didn’t enjoy the cobbled streets or rocky trails along the river. Each turn in the villages seemed frustratingly familiar even though we’d not be here before. In the depth of the night, Paul was sick once more. Each of us were battling in our own ways and all we could do was grind away at the terrain in front of us.
The cut offs were once again looming and were now very much at the front of our minds. We knew we’d be fine and that the cut offs would be more lenient later in the race. But, for now, we were shuffling to ensure we made it. We left Salardu about 45 mins ahead of the cut off and left with a purpose. The next aid station was at Banhs de Tredos with a cut off at 05:00. It was 12km away with a whopping 800m climb (the fifth biggest single climb of the race). We were so confident that if we made it there in time, we’d no longer have to look over our shoulders at the cut offs.
We had a quick turn around at the aid station and formed a plan to put some speed in over the next 12km. We kept it simple and simply set out to once more beat the next cut off and hopefully bank a little time along the way to attempt another sleep. So we did. We left with a brisk pace. Powering up the roads before tackling the 800m climb through the dense forest. We worked as a team. Sticking together and clearing a path up passed other runners. We took breaks to rest and fuel every 200m. Ticking them off. Hard and fast. We were up the 800m climb in what felt like no time at all.
At the top the hills evened out and the vast forests we were in became visibly more clear. We descended back down a little and made it to the checkpoint with plenty of time. We all went straight into a position to sleep. Paul and Rodrigo on the floor laying on cardboard boxes. Me and Darryl hunched over on chairs with our heads on the table. It was cold in the tent and so we all had emergency foil blankets draped over us. We all woke a short time later when we were shivering. A volunteer asked us if we were leaving. I acknowledged we were and rallied the others. We all seemed fine and we had plenty of time before the cut off. Now though we had more climbing to do. It was time for the ‘technical’ section and another 1,000 meters of ascent…
As we left Banhs de Tredos it was very cold and dark. The others dug out more warm layers but I opted just for the addition of my windproof smock. I figured that I’d soon warm with the exertion of the next climb. I wasn’t wrong. Almost immediately we started climbing. Here the terrain was wet and muddy and the trails that were littered with huge boulders to overcome. There was a lot of lunging movements as we climbed. It soon dawned on me that there would be no let up, it was going to be like this all the way to Colomers…
Eventually the darkness started giving way to the light of Sunday morning and the sheer beauty of our surroundings started to reveal themselves. We were 2,000m high and, glistening ahead of us, the stillness of lakes sat in wait. We could see the head torches of runners skirting the perimeter of the lakes up ahead and we followed the paths they created. The further we went, the lighter it became, the more surreal the surroundings became. Each bit of climbing brought more lakes to trek around, each more majestic than the ones before. However, the terrain was truly brutal. With 130km in our legs, I was in no place of mind to enjoy the beauty. It’s a shame. Being miserable with the demands of the course I purposely left my GoPro in my drop bag back at Beret. I had no interest in the effort of turning it on anymore. Looking back, this was my one regret. However my brain cannot undo what my eyes have seen and I’ll never forget watching the sunrise over these lakes surrounded by jagged mountain ranges on all sides.
As morning continued to dawn, we were still climbing. It made no sense. We were each in our own spaces now and I was plodding on ahead. I’d somehow wriggled myself to the front of all the runners in the area and was pretty much leading the way. I couldn’t figure out where we were going. I was desperately seeking the orange marker flags amongst the grey terrain. Occasionally I’d see a glimpse of a runner way off in the distance but I could see no obvious way out of the mountains.
Bit by bit the route would reveal itself and we ended up climbing, literally rock climbing, our way out as we reached Tuc de Podo (2,700m). This was by far the most technical terrain I’d ever experienced. I can’t hide the fact I was quite scared at numerous points. I wasn’t alone feeling this way. As I reached the top, there were a few volunteers and we were scanned in. We’d been climbing for 3 hours solid. At a decent pace. Still aware there were cut offs looming at the stop after the next aid station. I sat and waited for Paul and Darryl, absorbing it the views and resetting my mind. Shortly after me the ‘fast car’ Spaniards arrived. One was fuming. I could see him berating the volunteer who scanned us in. When he saw me he joined me and found the words to communicate to me his frustrations. Basically that he thought it was dangerous. Tired runners who hadn’t slept for over 30 hours and who had already covered 130km should not be exposed to that terrain. I found myself agreeing. There were no real qualifying standards for the race nor prerequisites for having experience on this sort of terrain. Added to that, not once was any of our mandatory kit checked by the organisation (another frustration I’ll come to later…). He calmed himself down and carried on. I sat and waited.
We had another 6km to the next aid station (Colomers). All down hill. But all rock and boulder fields. We were hustling. Stephen was near me and asked if I thought we would make it. I recall my response to him was “if we run”. So I kept running. Darryl and Paul were exhausted. Rodrigo seemed quite energetic. I told him to help me make the others hustle and move a little faster. I felt we needed to use the downhills to our advantage now. As we were running I had a disaster, one of my poles slipped down between to rocks and my momentum snapped it clean, breaking the lower section. Bollocks. I’d become so heavily dependent on the poles and knew I’d be using them for the rest of the route. I recalled earlier on a runner talking about carrying Gorilla tape. I said this out loud and Rodrigo responded with “it’s me”. Amazing. He patched up my pole with the tape and we continued on catching up with the others again. Sadly though it didn’t last and there was nowhere near enough tape to secure them properly. One pole it was going t to have to be then…
The downhill was tough. Darryl bonked and needed to stop and get some fuel in. As was the theme, runners we’d passed now passed us back. Back up and running I hustled us along. Looking back, I hadn’t picked up on the signs of how Darryl was suffering. I was so focused on getting us down to the aid stations. We bottomed out and with 1km to go crossed a dam at Lac de Major Colomers. Descending further we eventually arrived into the aid station we went. I was with Stephen again and he too was carefully watching the cut off times but had mistakenly thought the next cut off was here. It wasn’t though. It was Ressec in another 9km or so where the cut off was. We had time to make it for the 12:45 cut off for sure. We would make it. I was sure of it. If we made that then I was also sure we’d have no issues of finishing in the final 48 hours. I thought we’d get there by 12 and have 6 hours to finish. We made sure Darryl fuelled more here and I gave him some food from my Xmiles stash. The KMC recharge bars were particularly refreshing now. Then, in a small group with David and Matt in tow, we gathered our things and headed back out. Rodrigo had vanished before we reached the checkpoint. we assumed he was good now the night had passed.
The next climb was a bit of a shock to the system – it was an incredibly steep climb for 400m. I struggled with only having one pole and found it hard to support my body and pull myself up. The rocks were loose and we were all conscious of them moving and falling under our foot movements with runners above and below us. I reached the top and sat and waited for the others who I’d seen not far behind me on some of the switchbacks. As I sat I started dwelling on something Darryl had mentioned earlier on – We no longer had the few hour buffer we thought we did. Those early calculations we had of a 40-45 hour finish didn’t include the few attempts we made at trying to sleep during the night nor the sheer demand of a 3 hour climb through the rocky lake section. We had no spare time banked any longer. For the first time I was really concerned that there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t make it. We simply had to move faster than we were, there was no alternative.
I briefed the others when they arrived. All four of them acknowledging the situation. I took charge and led us down. Running where I wouldn’t normally run. I was powering us passed other runners. We were our own train now and we were shifting. A strange thing had happened to me. Normally in races, when I’m in pain then that is just the end of it. I endure and succumb to it. I accept the pains and hobble on. This time though, with the pressure and reality of being timed out, I somehow found a way to block it out. I described it like a switch that numbed the pain. I was able to run and ignore the pains. I was using my frustration of the event and the difficulty of the route to focus my effort into finishing. I was focused, this was going to get finished.
Darryl however was suffering. He wanted to finish, I knew that, but his anger and frustrations were only adding to his pain. He was hitting a very, very dark place. We were struggling to pull him out of it and find a way to to foucs him once more. After we had descended the next mountain, David continued on whilst I waited for the other three. They were further back than I thought and several other runners came passed before them. Darryl looked bad. They were all chatting though and carrying on what I thought was a bit of a leisurely pace. I walked ahead. I thought I’d wait for them at the next aid station, Ressec, and try again there to hustle them once they’d rested.
On the trails to Ressec, I later heard my name called out from behind. It was Paul and Matt was with him. No Darryl though. Paul said he was in a bad place and was walking slowly. Paul was feeling the urgency now too. We felt that there wasn’t much that could be done here and we continued to the aid station where we’d wait. We hoped another rest and more fuelling would do the trick so we carried on. We arrived at 12:05. 40 mins ahead of the cut off. I thought we could have got here around 11:30 but we’d dropped off the pace. It was still enough time to have a decent rest though despite meaning we no longer had 6 hours for the final two sections (a plan we’d discussed back at the last summit). At this rate it would be more like just over 5 hours. It was going to be tough now. Very achievable but we’d have to hurry ourselves along. One thing was certain was that we couldn’t make the time if we continued at the pace we had been going at over the last few kms.
We waited, expecting to see Darryl maybe 5-10 mins behind us. The clock kept ticking. We found some pizza. He still didn’t show. We were worrying now. Then, with ten mins to go, he showed up. He was exhausted and had been hallucinating. In hindsight we shouldn’t have gone so far ahead of him, we shouldn’t have left him. He was slurring his words explaining the hallucinations he’d been having. I don’t think he was fully aware of what was happening. I asked him what I could get him and he asked for water. I needed his cup, but he didn’t respond when I repeatedly asked him for it. When I eventually came back with water for him, we pushed him. He had just 5 mins remaining before the cut off and he needed to make a decision. He either dropped here, now, after 43 hours of running. Or somehow turn himself around in the minutes remaining and pushed harder than he was. Deep down, me and Paul knew the answer. But Darryl had to decide for himself. If he came, and we wanted him too, we’d stick together. But he had to be sure he could move quicker. He called it. He knew. I went outside to tell the volunteer that we would be leaving but also asked if there was a medic. If we were leaving without him we needed to know he wasn’t alone and was going to be ok.
And so, after 150km, the 3 became 2. Paul went to the toilet and I became emotional as I waited. It hit me hard. I was shaking and trying to hide it when a volunteer started talking to me and encouraging me to finish strong. I wanted it so much. But I didn’t want it this way. I wanted us all there. Darryl and Paul C too who was stuck back in London. Darryl had worked so hard. 150km! It was cruel. Paul pulled me back together and we set off. We now had a new mission. Two sections. 15km or so. 5 hours. That’s all that stood in our way. The first section was to be a 700m climb and a 300m descent. The last section a 400m climb and a 1200m descent. Not an ordinary 15km to overcome! This was not going to be an easy way to end a race…
We set off with a renewed focus, straight away we were passing people. We were moving with a (relatively) ferocious pace now and were completely comfortable with it. We passed people who left the aid station a long time before us. We acknowledged them. Those we’d been chatting to along the way asked after Darryl. Each time it made the goal more important. We had to finish now.
The first climb I kind of enjoyed. It felt like the most forgiving of the many we’d done over the past two days. A long looping fire track, long gradual single track switch backs through lush forests then a slightly steeper section climbing through the grassy mountain summit. At the top we rested on the crown. Staring at the descent down. 2km to drop 300m. At our pace maybe 30 mins. We’d absolutely annihilated this section. We ran the steep grassy descent and into the final aid station. We completed the section in 1hr 30. We’d planned for 3 hours for this and 2 hours for the last section. We knew now with certainty that we’d finish. The impact this had mentally was incredible. The relief and pressure dissipated and drained out of us. There was nothing but smiles at the finial aid station. Runners looking at each other knowingly, acknowledging the job was done. However, as the pressure drained so too did my ability to block out pain. As quickly as the power ‘switched on’ the same switch now flicked off. I was a spent force. There was no way to turn it back on.
The next climb was unforgiving. It was more direct and steep. I had to stop very frequently to sit down and breathe. Eventually we reached the top and began to descend. An huge descent to drop and a nasty way to finish off an already destroyed body. I felt everything. Every blister. Every stone. Every blade of grass. I walked. I only ran when gravity forced me to move faster than I could handle. David was with us now and as vocal about his pains as I was. We supported each other. Paul was far more spritely and high off the knowledge of the pending finish. He was on the phone arranging a live stream video of the finish for his fiancé and family. How he never tripped on the sharp downhills I do not know.
The trails gave way to the cobbled roads of Viehla. We’d ran this very section when we started the journey two days earlier. A few people were out clapping and cheering. One group had a shower hose spraying water into the street. We took turns performing for them and basking in the refreshing chill of the water. A few streets later we turned one last time and were now on the main road, the home stretch.
Darryl was there getting the ice creams in. We’d joked about this for days. A joke stemming back to when me and Darryl finished the TDS – we saw an ice-cream shop as we approached the finish line. We went to get one but we’re put off by the size of the queue waiting. So we said we’d finish here with an ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream man was rather slow and lacked the purpose we did. Darryl told him we’d be back and we told Darryl to run with us. The three of us reached that line together. We rang the bell. We rang the damn bell. It was over.
I know one thing for certain, running together we were stronger. We may have set off together and not quite finished together, but if it wasn’t for Darryl and Paul I wouldn’t have made it. We each supported the others, dragged us through our dark moments and made this adventure memorable for what it was. We did it together and the achievement is a shared one. He may not have physically rang his own bell at the end, but if Darryl didn’t make the hardest decision of the weekend, me and Paul may never have rung ours. I can’t thank these guys enough!
Running is a bit of a conundrum. It isn’t easy. There is always physical and mental suffering involved. You achieve what you set out to, whether it’s 10 miles or 100 miles. Sometimes though you question whether it’s worth it. I’ll look back on this experience one day and maybe the thoughts will be different. But right now I can’t say I enjoyed that. It was tough. Far tougher than I expected and I expected it to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I think there is a very good chance that this will will actually be the toughest thing I’ll ever do. I’ve no desires to be in that ‘place’ again. I don’t really like the 100 mile distance. It’s a beast to conquer. This race is very though. Looking at the stats, the first finisher came in at 24 hours. The top runner took an entire day, that is 4 hours longer than UTMB! 50% of the participants did not finish. Nearly 500 runners set out and never made it back to the finish line. That tells you all you really need to now… it’s tough.
Throughout the run we moaned about the cut offs. We felt they were very tight and unforgiving. In hindsight though… we finished in the ‘golden hour’ so, arguably, the cut offs are perfectly good. If we’d been an hour later for any checkpoint, we wouldn’t have finished on time. On the flip side, without arrogance, I’m not a cut off runner. I’m always comfortably mid pack. So the entry level of the race is something to consider if you are thinking about signing up!
Overall, I also felt that the event didn’t carry the prestige of the UTMB name. The organisers acknowledge they have a lot to improve and that should be commended. But, the feeling out on the course was one of anger and frustration. The grumbles about the dangerous sections and cut off timings were common. Despite the language barriers, people were sharing these feelings. For me, two things stood out that fall well short of expectation for a UTMB branded event. Firstly the lack of mandatory kit check and secondly the aid stations.
Let’s start with the mandatory kit… there’s a big list, and rightly so. When playing in the mountains you need to be prepared. We were blessed with great weather for two days. However, the night we finished a thunder and lightning storm hit the region. It was an incredible storm that came on in no time. When we went to collect our bibs, that is all we did. Despite bringing everything, no one checked or asked for anything. They simply took our runners insurance, gave us the bib and that was it. I even asked if they wanted to see my kit and they said ‘no, tomorrow’. Tomorrow they never did neither, nor the next day. That’s right. Not once did anyone ask any of us for any single item of kit. At one of the early aid stations during the first night I did spot what looked like a table set up with paper lists of kit items. No one stopped us nor asked as we walked passed. The table was empty there was no reason not to ask at least one of us…
Given the severity of the consequences and the recent examples of when things go badly, I’m shocked that there was not a single item of kit checked over the two days. I thought this was very poor from the organisers.
Secondly, the aid stations. There were plenty and there was plenty of food. But… for a 48 hour race, there were some issues. There was a lack of variety and questionable quality controls. Most aid stations we arrived at presented us with discoloured fruit and dry bread that had been out in the sun for so long. Many food stations had trays where the food items, like chocolate, had melted and none of them offered any hot drinks other than some very cheap and bland broth. The exception to this was the pizza at Ressec. This felt completely out of place though and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reactionary rather than planned. Either way though it was very much appreciated. Most concerning though was the quantity. We were arriving into checkpoints that were running out of food. That should never be the case. Especially not with the early pace we were keeping! Thankfully I had so much of my own food from Xmiles that this wasn’t really a problem for me. This was meant to be supplementary though, and not my main source!
In the days after the event there was another twist in the saga as, after travelling home we each felt rather unwell. Soon after we discovered a Facebook group where over 500 runners have identified as having come down with the same symptoms of illness. The organisation are investigating the cause, but it has left a rather sore feeling for many of the participants!