Ohrid Ultra Trail

As we left the comfort of the hotel at 23:30 it was buzzing with activity. The packed restaurant was bouncing with loud music and dancing. Paul had hardly slept as his room was above the restaurant. Thankfully I’d grabbed some sleep earlier in the day. As we walked down the strip we realised this was common for a Friday night in Ohrid, North Macedonia. What was clear when we arrived at the Chinar Tree to merge with the small crowd, was that trail running was less common. Gathered at this ancient tree were just 40 runners huddled together near a modest start line preparing for a 100km adventure…

Ohrid Lake. Love the unique design of the Tee by a local artist

Upon arrival we sought out a person with a staff badge around his neck to ask about the route. Earlier in the day, when registering, it was indicated that the route would need to be modified due to the storms forecast for Saturday. We hadn’t heard anything since so asked what the route would be. He very clearly explained the situation, that heavy storms were forecast and so we would not be visiting Margaro or the other peaks on the route. We’d have an unchanged course for the first 50kms or so to Vojtino. Then we’d detour to Prevoj on a different route, skipping the big climb to Magaro by staying lower down and going around the mountain. From Prevoj we’d again detour and skip the peaks and ridges and instead head to Assan Gjura more directly on some access roads. The next section would be unchanged to Letnica but then once more we’d skip the last peak and begin descending more directly to the final aid station of Velestovo. We thanked him and he told us to stay close for the briefing. He introduced himself as Dejan, the race director. A few minutes later he gave the safety briefing, re-explaining the situation and route to the whole field before we then gathered in the starting coral with the modest number of spectators cheering us on as he counted down to midnight.

At the modest startline at the Chinar Tree

The race began and half the field vanished out of sight almost immediately, racing off through the cobbled streets of Old Town Ohrid. We stayed at the back, right at the back, as per our strategy to enjoy a slow first marathon. Natalia was running the 65km route which began at our marathon mark, Sv Naum, just after our cutoff. The intention was to run with her, so rather than bust a gut and then hang around, we planned to arrive between 06:00 – 07:00 and enjoy the night shift.

St John’s church captured by the amazing race photographers

In the darkness we weaved around the Old Town. A series of cobble streets saw us climb up to the castle at 700m. Even here we ran on trails and single tracks as we made it to the lakeside and descended passed St. John’s church and onto the lake front where we ran across a very wobbly boardwalk before hitting the strip back towards the hotel. We ran passed the red flag markers which we’d spotted on our way to the start (we saw a few teenagers walking and waving them which gave us some initial concerns about the markings, which were unfounded). As we approached the hotel we could hear Lisa cheering from the balcony and waving us on. We were in a small group of maybe ten other runners, most of whom were Greeks and were leading the pack as we ran passed the finish line after a few km. We all cheered as one tempted fate and ran through the finishers arch. I hoped the timing mat wasn’t switched on already!

Along the lake front we heard the wild calls of nature with many many birds and insects singing into the night as we left the roads and Ohrid and headed onto the trails. It began with a gentle climb on a wide track road. We passed a place called Paradise Nest which was a series of cabins overlooking the lake and soon turned onto single tracks through the forest. Here we chatted with the Greeks who had all come over on a bus tour together. With some steady climbing on rocky trails we then emerged at the first aid station of Velestovo about 12km in. A quick refill and to Paul’s delight a cup of the ‘proper stuff’ – Coca Cola branded cola. We left knowing we’d be back here many many hours later when we’d descend back to Ohrid.

We left the aid station and continued through some farm land. I followed two runners and Paul held off as we couldn’t see any flags or markings. They couldn’t hear me as I called after them. I followed and found the trail and waited, calling back to Paul in the darkness who soon found me after he located the actual trail and looped around the farmland. The route then took us up off the quad track and onto a narrow single path that was very rocky. We continued on this, climbing higher and higher. Below us to the right was the darkness of a valley between two ridges. The second, higher one looming straight ahead, a silhouette in the night sky. The climb continued, alternating between rocky paths and forest tracks which occasionally opened up under the moon-lit sky. The air around us was cooling and the moisture of the night made us cold as our clothes became wetter with sweat and the mist. As we trod on through the mist we almost missed a turn which, thankfully, the runner behind spotted and called after us. This was the summit of the first climb and, the inevitable down followed. My word it was a beauty…

No picture would do the view justice as we descended the first mountain

The tracks opened up wider. The forests cleared to open spaces. To our left the mountain dropped away to darkness and up ahead the orange moonlight reflect off the calm lake. It was stunning. We ran free, happy, enjoying the moment, hopping from path to path as we descended towards the town of Konjsko. We couldn’t stop commenting to each other about how amazing it was. It all ended too quickly as we rocked up at the next aidstation and commended them on their excellent spread of cheese sandwiches. We briefly chatted with the volunteers who were excited to see some UK runners (there were two other Brits out there somewhere too) and they told us they’d see us again at the marathon mark at SV Naum. So off we went into the night once more with our bellies and hearts full.

From here the night became a little harder. Naturally tiredness now began to creep in as the excitement of the start began to fade and our bodies fought back against the natural desire to be asleep. The terrain became red in the night as we ran through endless mud/clay tracks and our feet became heavier as they collected the dirt in their lugs. It was super sticky. We had a choice of that or the rocky tracks around the mud. I kept to the mud. The smells were a pleasant distraction though as the forests around us were lush, dense and green. After what felt like a long time of trudging along we caught another, local(ish) runner from North Macedonia. We all chatted away as the trails began to descend again, zigzagging down hill we flew and enjoyed the moment once more. We emerged onto a road crossing where we no longer saw the path or flags/markings indicating which way to go. Come to think of it, we’d not seen a flag marker for quite some time. Oh oh.

I quickly loaded the course to my watch knowing that we were still on the unchanged route so would be able to check our location. It was immediately clear we’d gone wrong, very wrong. We’d come off the mountain far sooner than we should have. We should be crossing this road about 5kms further along. We briefly considered the option of following the road to rejoin the course where it crossed. We decided not too. We felt we had time to recover, and that there was a small chance the next aidstation would be before the road crossing and we’d need to ‘check in’. It was also quite a main road, even though it was early in the morning it wouldn’t be the safest option. So we started retracing our steps back up the mountain.

Turns out it was longer than we thought. The switch back tracks deceived the radius shown on the watch. We weren’t getting back to where we went wrong anytime soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d run almost 3km in the wrong direction and also descended 300m which we then needed to climb. It cost us quite a bit of time! We finally made it back to where we went wrong and waited for the other guy to catch up to make sure he also ended up back on track. As we waited we realised the mistake we had made – there was a slight split in the path. After we took one track they merged once more and we remember acknowledging that and saying it wasn’t a problem. What we hadn’t seen though was that there was a sneaky turn on the other track which we therefore missed. We should have realised we were no longer following the markings, but we were clearly enjoying the downhill too much.

Remaining positive when racing the clock

Now we were back on track we ran a little harder. The track was less enjoyable than the descent we previously took and was a little rockier. We kept going and were heating up as the morning light started to replace the darkness and we took off our head torches. It wasn’t too much later that we then descended the mountain where we should have initially and crossed the road once more. Shortly after this we passed through Trejca and after a short road climb we came across the next aid station where three volunteers sat at the side of the road. They acknowledged we were likely the last runners so we let them know there was one more on his way because we’d gotten lost. From here we had almost 9km to go to SV Naum. This section also included a little climb of around 200m and a corresponding descent. It was 05:50, the cut off was at 07:00. After a night of running this was now going to be tight. Tighter than I wanted to admit but thankfully Paul took charge and ran off for the next 9km and I just had to try and keep him in sight.

We followed the road before going back into the forest and soon conquered the climb (which thankfully took us over a saddle in two hills rather than up and over one of the higher lumps!) and were then descending the narrow and rocky single tracks through the forest. We caught up and passed one of the Greek runners and took a moment to enjoy the views near a a village and over the lake as the morning light broke fully into day. I love the end of a night shift on a long run when the morning breaks. It has a real empowering moment for me when your energy levels have dipped and start increasing again with the rays of sunshine. Running through small villages at this point is one of my favourite aspects of trail running as the paths take you in all directions as you explore the unfamiliar land. Here we briefly skirted a village and went back down to the level of the lake where we left the forest and hit upon a shingle beach. Bollocks to that. This wasn’t funny anymore. We were running hard! I was panting hard. I could see Paul looking back checking I was still in sight. My legs were aching and the soft ground didn’t help. Neither did the realisation that we were running on this for as far as I could see in the distance. I wanted to stop so much but calculated we still had 30mins to go to the cut off and possibly as far as 5km still to cover.

We left the beach and then hit upon what felt like an obstacle course. We ran in and out of farmland and had to climb over many fallen trees and duck through narrow overgrown passes. But the topping was the (admittedly small) river crossing that we needed to make. It was clearly quite deep where it met the lake and a rope was set up to help us cross. I ploughed straight in the thigh-high level without giving it a second thought. We just had to keep going. Time was no longer on our side. Running through the endless crop fields we passed a few more runners and for a brief moment between breaths I felt unbeatable. We didn’t stop to acknowledge them but sped on passed. Finally the turn into the monastery was clear and we ran through and into the aid station with 8 minutes to spare before the cut off. The first marathon hadn’t quite gone to plan!

As we arrived, Dejan and the lady from a previous aid station laughed as we explained our cock up and little adventure. We ate and drank as they told us we didn’t need to leave exactly at 07:00 and that they would be lenient with runners. They also told us the lead runner had pulled out after encountering a bear on the course, so to be observant. Great!

The 65km runners arrived and I found Natalia as the rest of them ploughed into the aid station and started raiding it. That frustrated me a little given some 100k runners were still arriving and needed the refreshments! I said goodbye to Natalia (we’d arranged to meet just after the aid station so we were out of the way of their start). After the manic run to the aidstation, Paul decided to stay with us from here also. We were both spent from the mammoth effort we’d just put in. We needed a break and the 30mins until Natalia would start was now going to be our rest and we were looking forward to it. We walked a bit and then sat in the sun a km down the route and cheered the lead runners from the 65km through when they turned up. The first two runners already had a very sizeable lead on the chasing pack. It was very impressive. We then picked up running again when Natalia showed up shortly after them.

From here the route took us through more fields and dense green spaces. We chatted with different groups of runners as they passed us including a few Americans who were living in North Macedonia. There was another river crossing which everyone carefully tiptoed across on some strategically placed rocks. I ploughed through once again to the delight of the Americans. I had wet feet anyway so it made no difference to me and had the benefit of knowing I had spare socks in my drop bag waiting later on.

From here we began ascending. This was now the biggest climb of the run and we’d be climbing 900m to Vojtino. So we climbed. That’s all we’d do. Head down and walk on. We played leapfrog with a few runners and followed the track as it passed through more forests and occasionally opened up onto vast rocks overlooking the lake. The views were beautiful and we took the chance to stop and capture the moments when we could. It really was stunning. Some how, out of nowhere the next aid station then appeared. We’d been so focused on just walking that the section passed by quite quickly. It was fairly small but we welcomed the opportunity to take on more liquids as it was very humid in the early morning heat. Here the volunteers told us it was maybe 4km to Provej, which would be the drop bag aid station. This was where the route was now changed and rather than climbing another 900m or so to the Magaro summit and descending down to Prevoj, we’d climb lower (maybe just a few hundred metres) and circle the mountain instead. It was a shame, but, at the same time we were now glad it wasn’t as far to go. We moved onwards.

The section wasn’t exactly easy though (easier than the off track 900m climb to the summit over 5km I’m sure!). The climb continued and in places it was quite steep and mostly the ground was covered in a deep layer of leaves that covered a multitude of obstacles – rocks, sticks, snow even! It felt longer than 4km by the time we left the climb and emerged into a grass mountain side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sound of Music! We were delighted to find the aid station waiting for us. I immediately sought out hot food and my drop bag. I set to work freshening myself up and stocking up on the soup and pasta they provided. I was very hungry and empty and knew I needed food before it was too late. Paul and Natalia patiently waited for me and put up with my antics of snorting Tailwind which I’d spilt trying to refill my bottles.

As we left the aid station we were told we’d now follow a road for a few kms before finding a dirt/quad track. Again we were avoiding the climb to the next summit and were not running along the ridge. The road was indeed very long and the tarmac hurt our achy legs. At midday the heat was absorbed by the black surface and it felt like we were being battered from all sides. It was tough going. We weren’t alone though. We’d made a friend. A dog. He ran casually with us. Not a sound from him. Just a tongue hanging out. He seemed happy. We joked that he liked cheating on us with the faster runners as he’d run with us for a fair bit then would run off and chase the runners ahead of us before waiting for us to catch him up. He ran alongside us for many kms. Even when we turned off the road and followed the track again.

New friend

Here we could see Lake Prespa (the other lake hidden from Ohrid by the mountain range) on our right. Lake Ohrid was now hidden by the mountain ridge to our left somewhere. The views were stunning and we enjoyed looking back at the mountains behind us, wondering what if… and then it happened. Pretty much bang on midday as forecast the sky started to darken. The thunder started to rumble. The rain started to come. Natalia was having none of it and started running harder and faster. Me and Paul couldn’t keep up. Within minutes she was out of sight. We carried on, walk-running in the rain. We caught and passed a few other runners and eventually caught up with her at Assan Gjura.

Here at the aid station we sat under the shelter of the outbuilding along with many other runners from all the different distances. Some were coming, some were leaving. We took a moment to gather ourselves, re-calibrating our focus and thinking of the storms and what was left to run. As the rain eased off we psyched ourselves up and prepared to leave. Only we couldn’t. The volunteers and park authorities advised we didn’t as there were more storms coming. They made the decision to hold us all at the aid station for safety. We sat back down not knowing how long we’d be here. The minutes ticked by. Food was running low but we were all fed up of the same thing now anyway. They lit a fire burner and we all huddled inside a room that became our sauna. After a long time one lonely runner arrived at the aidstation from the 100k. She was very wet. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they let us leave. Initially it was a ‘5 people can go’. Without thinking I selfishly grabbed Natalia and pushed to the front, indicating that us three would leave. My mind was on finishing. My mind was on escaping any risk of not finishing if they cancelled the race. I wasn’t primarily thinking of safety at this point. In my mind we could finish in a few hours and we were descending pretty much for the rest of the race, I felt they wouldn’t be saying we could leave if it wasn’t safe.

We set off. We were legging it. This section was flat at about 1400m asl. Trying to get as far as we could whilst it was dry. Within seconds the many layers we’d put on were coming off again. The ground was a waterlogged and there were puddles in all the tracks and the red earth was equal measures sticky and slippery. The skies however were clear and bright. For now… We ran on from side to side skipping the puddles and mud. Up ahead the sky was getting darker and the feint rumbles of thunder could be heard again. There was a lonely cow, mooing loudly in front of us. We prepared to pass it on widely. It was either distressed or it was warning us. From the left, there was a guy descending quickly from the mountain. He was running in jeans with a bottle of water in his hand shouting and waving. I thought he was chasing after his cow, lost in the storm. Of course he wasn’t. He was trying to get our attention. He directed us to go in the direction he had just come from. He explained that we were running straight into the storms which were about 40 mins away. He told us on the top of the climb there is another guy on the road who will give us further instructions. It was maybe a 10 minute climb, a very slow climb. Natalia went quickly. Me and Paul went slowly. I assumed that this was it, that this was where our race would end. I assumed here they’d be telling us to get in the car and we’d be evacuated from the storms.

Different ground conditions after the storm

As Natalia reached the guy we could hear the instructions he was was providing. He was directing us down another way. This wasn’t game over after all. There was still hope. I woke up from my false misery and we sped up for the last few metres of the climb to join them. He gave us his number for safety and topped us up with coke. Our instructions now were that we’d follow the dirt track road for a few kilometres. Eventually we’d find a turn on our lefthand side marked with the flags and that we should take this route towards Velestovo, the final aid station. He emphasised the path on the left and not the one on the right. The correct route would divert us around the storm and we’d skip the next aid station and head straight to the last one.

We ran on slowly as it was tough. My legs hurt so much. Natalia was fresh and strong and focused on getting down and out of the storms as quickly as possible. I was struggling behind with the inevitable painful ankles. Natalia would run off and wait for us to catch up before carrying on down the road. The route was gradual and not too bad but it was a dirt track and pretty painful on the tired feet. The thunder was growing louder and louder around us and the rain had started yet again. After a while I started to think we’d missed the turn. I check the original route and thought we’d run passed a turn on the that route maybe 1-2 km further back. I couldn’t understand it. How?! We didn’t see anything, we were being alert and would have noticed the marked flags and the escape route! We checked the local maps and could see that this path would bend back towards the storm slightly before connecting with another path which would take us towards the aid station we wanted. We made the decision to carry on and trace this route instead.

A few minutes later we found red flags on both the right and left. This was it! In all my confusion we were doing just fine and hadn’t missed the turn. We turned left as instructed. A few other runners passed us. I was still confused though and it didn’t make too much sense in my head but everyone reassured me that it was right. It wasn’t much further before we hit a little village and Natalia dashed off to the aid station. Me and Paul walked the rest of the path and filmed the view of Ohrid further down. It was beautiful and we could almost smell the finish now. It was pissing down, dark and moody, as we arrived into the aid station. Natalia was a little on edge and uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the sanctuary of the aid station and entering the storms for the final 8km. We reassured her and she emerged from the aid station with us to make the final decent to Ohrid. We made a run for it knowing we’d be finished soon. Far, far sooner than we initially thought. With all the diversions and lack of climbing we’d be coming up short on the distance and finishing whilst it was still light, which was a pleasant thought now.

The money shot

From here we ran a different route back to Ohrid than which we’d climbed the night before. This one took us through the villages and down some grassy tracks towards the lakeside. The whole way I was behind Natalia and Paul. My legs screaming at me as I kept rolling my ankles on the uneven terrain. At one point I heard them both make some noise and saw Paul pull up suddenly. There were some locals re-cementing the road (during a storm!) and Paul had almost ploughed straight into it. They directed us around and cheered us on our way. Shortly after which we then needed to navigate our way through a herd of goats who were off on their own adventure. Further down we reached the main road of Ohrid. It was flooded. We had a short detour to cross the road around a petrol station to join the path to the lake. Paul went off, making a beeline for the finish. Natalia pushed me hard to get passed the last few 100km runners in our sight. She was running so strong.

Moments later we hit the home stretch and crossed the line, hand in hand. It was done. It wasn’t quite the race we’d hoped for, but the outcome was exactly as planned. At the finish line Dejan, the RD, congratulated us and handed us our medals. It was an incredible experience and an adventure we will never forget.

Hand in Hand

After finishing, two things were immediately clear to me. Firstly, how accommodating the Macedonians were and how well we were looked after by Dejan, his team and all the volunteers. Personally, I felt safe throughout and never had worries. We knew there would be storms. We knew safety measures were always likely to be activated, but it was the manner in how they were done which was impressive. With runners spread-out over so many different parts of the route it must have been a logistical nightmare to manage. But, we were informed, at registration, at the start of the race and during. The course was very well marked (it was our mistake which made us get lost early on) and the volunteers and Park Authorities were helpful and informative. Whilst we were held at Assan Gjura we were told the organisers were out monitoring the situation and confirming when it would be safe to leave. Having mid aid station diversions to avoid the storms was also something that impressed me. I felt so looked after and cared for.

Secondly, Natalia’s mentality impressed me and I’m so proud of her. She made no secret of her concerns and fear of the storms, in particular the lightening strikes. Yet, she ran, she kept going and she made it to the finish line despite her fears. What impresses me is how strong she is. I don’t share such fears so I will never fully understand what it must feel like to be battling yourself at such a instinctive level. I run without fear so can’t comprehend what it must be like to have your mind working against you when you are tired and exhausted. She never gave up despite the many, many opportunities she had to stop during the race, she just kept going. I’m so proud of her and her strength.

Sleepy time

Hardmoors 55, one of a number of events in the Hardmoors race series. These races are set in and around the North York Moors, a place I’d never previously visited, never mind run around. Jon was the architect of this adventure as he looked for an event way back in 2020 to help with his preparations for the CCC. Yep, it’s one of those events on my list of deferrals that, third time lucky, I was now able to tick off.

For the past few years we’d planned for a small group (6 of us) to make this trip. Besides Jon and myself there was also Jess (who we’d not seen in ages), Gif and Reka. Sadly with all the date changes Yvette was no longer able to join us. Jon had arranged a house for us to stay in near the finish in Helmsley (the same place he’d booked two years earlier) and we all met up on the Friday evening arriving full of anticipation for what the adventure would bring. Of course there was messing around and you should always, always, check your wardrobes before you settle in to go to sleep!

It was soon ‘sleepy time’ as we had a rather early wake up call the next day – The organisers had arranged for buses to ferry participants from the finish line to the start in Guisborough. As painful as the early starts and long bus rides can be, I do prefer this set up of point to point races with transport to the start line. This way when you finish there is minimal effort in getting to your bed!

As we arrived into Guisborough, the morning was breaking and it was shaping up to be quite some day. Stepping off the bus we started immediately began stripping off our layers and re-packing our bags. At registration we were formed into queues for drop bags and had to go through the kit check before registration could be completed. In all the races I’d done, I’d never experienced the drop bag being done before registration. I must say how much I approve of this approach. It certainly helps minimise the chances of runners going through registration and mandatory kit checks and then removing kit into their drop bags. It also helped me as I hadn’t prepared any drop bags, so I had one less queue to go through!

Sunny at 8am!

Before long we were (trying to) listen to the race director provide the race briefing before jostling for position along the narrow footpath that was the start line. Other than a few flags there was no real marking of the start, certainly no starting arch anyway. I liked it. Minimalist with no unnecessary fath. At 8am we were beginning our 55 mile adventure that would take us all the way back to Helmsley.

As soon as we started, with no reasoning or thought, I started heckling Jon. It amused me. It annoyed him. That amused me more. “Go on Jon”. “You can do it Jon”. “Good luck Jon”. “Keep going Jon”. “Turn right here Jon”. There was nowhere for him to go, squished in with all the other runners on the narrow trails there was no escape for him. I couldn’t help myself. No one else was amused though, just me. And I was immensely amused by it. I’ll do it again and again to whoever I’m running with!

Ready to heckle

As the footpath came to an end, the first of many, many climbs began as we ascended up alongside Spa Wood. We gently began hiking and made our way up to the beautiful woodland area where it alternated between some flatter single track paths and some small runnable hills. Here the views were breath taking as we traversed towards Guisborough wood and looked back on Guisborough and beyond. Here we’d run for several km as we made our way to Rosebury Topping

Early on the undulating trails above Guisborough

The peak of Rosebury Topping came into view and conveniently hid the ‘dip’ that we’d first descend before having to make the climb back up to the summit for a small out and back section. As we began, approaching runners were speeding passed us in the other direction and there were plenty of pleasantries exchanged as we all congratulated each other whilst gasping for air as we powered up the short switch back climb. Over the first few kms our group of runners had kind of separated a little with Reka, Jon and myself ahead of Gif and Jess. At the trig point though we all conveniently met back up and posed for a photo.

Roseberry Topping

From here we repeated the down the back up and cheered on the other runners behind us as those ahead of us had to us. It was then a short run along some easy trails before an enjoyable downhill section into to Kildale, which was the first checkpoint.

The checkpoint set up for the Hardmoors races are quite a unique set up. Whilst they are checkpoints, ultimately the event is more synonymous with a self supported type race. It’s not marked course/route and you have to carry a physical map of the route at all times. In this event there are two drop bags available on the course too. But, these are non returnable and must be ‘small’. They are intended for food only and not kit. So in effect you are stashing your own supplies along the route rather than relying on the checkpoints for fuel. As a result, besides water and squash, the offerings at the checkpoints are quite basic and minimal. I decided not to use drop bags and carried all the food I wanted with me rather than having to plan/think about when I might want access to them. The others all utilised the drop bags and were looking forward to accessing their stash now the first 10 miles or so was completed.

At Kildale we took a few moments as Jon and Reka collected their bags. Then we headed back out and onwards to a large climb back up onto the Moors. Jon and I were in a group chatting to various other runners and we were all commenting on the weather (and food!) as it was now nearing midday and the day was indeed very warm. We were happy and these conditions, despite how though the heat would become, was certainly favourable compared to the usual expected rain, snow and wind experienced on a Hardmoors race in March.

As we chatted Jon and I could see Gif and Reka further up in the distance waving back at us. It wasn’t much further later and we caught them up and carried on again together again and before long we were running passed what I believe was the Captain Cook monument. There were plenty of school kids doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards who were hiking around here and I laughed with one as they played their rock music and cheered us on.

That monument thingy

We started to spread out a little after this as Gif dropped back and Jon and Reka raced on ahead of me in the middle. I was struggling to keep Jon and Reka in my sights. event though it was so open and bare on top (with little shade from the midday heat that was picking up). As we followed a sharp turn, looking back we saw incredible views as far back as Roseberry Topping and around the the u shape of the horse shoe which we’d run. It was a beautiful sight. This was a welcome distraction as it was very dusty on the ground and my leg was now hurting quite a bit.

Before they sped off. There would be no shelter from the elements here

The second aid station was soon upon us (after another fantastic descent) and the marshals had split it so there was water just before the climb started. Those not stopping could refill and go rather than stop at the aid station a little further up the climb. We opted to have a few moments and ate some food whilst chatting with the volunteers who once again were spoiling us. In a box of sweets I found a Wham bar. Result. I’d not had one for years and it was an absolute delight. Another 10 miles or so had been completed.

From here we climbed and then we’re treated to a series of ‘sisters’ or small(ish) ascents and descents in the rolling Moor tops as we navigated along the edge of the hills. Up ahead above us were tens and tens of gliders effortlessly flowing through the sky above. It was mesmerising to watch them glide, gently bobbing up and down above our heads.

Somehow, after may 25 miles or so of rather uncomfortable and painful running, I slowly started feeling better. I knew it meant the pain in my leg was just numb and I was now used to it. Either that or Wham bars having magical healing properties that haven’t been documented! Either way it was a good thing, for now. It meant I could enjoy the downhills a little bit so whilst Jon and I carried on Reka would speed off down the descents and wait for us at the bottom to catch up.

Shortly after this Jon started to feel ill. Almost out of nowhere he stopped to be sick. Something wasn’t right and he seemed to know straight away it was his nutrition (Tailwind). Somehow he picked himself up and found that reserve and toughness to crack on and was able to keep moving, although he was a little quieter than he had been before.

Possibly close to the 30 mile mark, a little over half way through the race, he broke his silence. To mine and Reka’s surprise he muttered the forbidden words “I’m thinking of dropping out”. He said he was 99.9% certain he wouldn’t carry on. Me and Reka were having none of it. We offered some encouragement, slowed and walked with him when he tried to make us go on ahead and told him to rest at the aid station and think it through. We wouldn’t be far from the next checkpoint now.

As we got closer we had a short little section which we shared with another, local, runner. I chatted with him whilst Reka stayed with Jon. I was enjoying the local knowledge he was sharing and he told me he thought the next section, where we’d be heading south after the aid station, was his favourite part of the course. This excited me as it was quite some course so far!

We ran into the village Osmotherley together. This was the second (and final) checkpoint with a drop bag. There was some food on offer and I started filling my face with pizza, rice pudding and plenty of coke. Jon sat and took his time, gathering his thoughts but not eating or drinking just yet. Not long after we arrived, so too did Gif and then Jess. They whole team was together again and we sat, ate and laughed together. Jess was bringing the energy with her infectious smile and laugh. She was in her element and having a great time.

There there was a table of food left behind due to the bag drops which other runners decided not to take with them. I kept going back and helping myself to the best of the leftovers. I was in heaven. It was like an old school tuck shop. I had hula hoops. Tangy Toms. A Freddo and more. I was enjoying the stop and must have clocked up a few extra hundred meters just walking around and back and forth.

Gradually Jon started coming around and eating himself. He’d decided to no longer use the Tailwind and started drinking water. Gif, who like me was covered in salt from the heat of the day, started to panic at the mention of cut offs and made to leave with Jess. There was a complete misunderstand as we were well within the cut off. She thought that we were now up against the final cut off at the next aid station and was worried about making it in time. Either way we sent them on their way and Reka and I stayed with Jon despite his protests. We weren’t leaving him now, I guess we thought there was still a chance he’d convince himself to quit as he had intended too.

After about 45 minutes he was ready to give it a go. So out we went, the three of us together. From here, for the remaining 20 miles or so, we knew it would be a run walk strategy. This suited me too as, whilst I wasn’t in direct pain anymore, I was very conscious of the leg and making it worse than I already had.

Although it was still super hot, Jon seemed a lot better. He was moving a little more freely now and he ran when he could. That suited me to a tee. Reka would bound off at speed whilst we plodded on and then wait for us to catch her up. After a big climb we caught up with Gif again and the four of us jostled and interchanged with various other runners for a few kms. As they had been all day, the views were amazing and we started to see the Moors in a different light (literally) as we started to run into the evening and the Sun’s rays diminished.

Reka in action

It wasn’t long until we were stopping to layer up. The wind proofs and gloves were coming out as without the Sun the temperature started to plummet. It was a good reminder of how fortunate had been that we’d managed to get as far as the evening without needing to layer up!

We ran through many woodlands and more open space moorland before reaching the Yorkshire Gliding Club Airfield where the course would deviate for a slight out and back loop where the final aid station would be. Like many hours earlier we cheered on the runners ahead and they encouraged us too as they ran back towards us. Here we saw some runners who sat near us at the aid station in Osmotherley. They were pleased to see Jon made it back out and cheered him loudly.

Before the light left us

The route then took us sharply down hill and through a forest section at Hood Grange Wood. Here there was a runner running in shoes (road shoes) that had broken under the uneven terrain. He said he’d been running for about 30 miles with his heel sticking out the back of the collapsed arch. We were amazed. I certainly don’t think I could have run in a broken pair of trainers like that. Tough going!!

We could then hear the music from the aid station and see the lights set up in the evening darkness. The aid station was a welcome sight. The Marshalls instructed us to take out our head torches (also checking we had them) and helped us refill our water and refuel on snacks. Head torches on we left and climbed back out the steep steps alongside the white horse, which of course we couldn’t see in the darkness .

From here it was a final 9 miles to the finish. It was a slow slog of a section! Throughout, in the darkness we almost took a few wrong turns missing the trail signs which were now slightly more difficult to navigate as our minds wandered off. There was also a long stretch of trail alongside a river (I think) that was littered with toads. There were so many sitting in the darkness that it was very difficult under the torch light to avoid stepping on them. We slowed to a walk here to be sure they weren’t harmed. As we hit some pathed roads Reka ran on ahead and scared runners in front of us with the brightness of her head torch – they thought she was a car coming out of nowhere !)

With a few places gained we powered on for the final few miles. There was one last climb and then it was mostly flat and down hill before we eventually came to the end of the Cleveland way. The day before we’d walked this road and stopped at the ice cream shop which was sadly ,but unsurprisingly, closed (it was around 9pm after all!). A few twists through the village and we were on the last section, a climb to the finish line.

It was a bastard uphill for a few more hundred meters. Not long. Not steep. But we were tired and hungry. For the first time Reka seemed to drain of energy and we laughed that she couldn’t flag so close to the finish. Finally, after what felt like a very long time, we crossed the finish line, well, we walked through the door into the building! A no frills finish line for sure.

We were given our times and our medals, treated to warm drinks and some vegan chilli and sat down with Jess as we waited for Gif to join. Not long afterwards she appeared through the doorway and, for the last time we were altogether at a checkpoint again. This time we only had to leave to walk the few mins back home to our warm beds.

Finishers

St. Peter’s way

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.

starting in a carpark

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.

Endless fields

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!

2 became 3

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.

Five O

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!

2018’s DNF Fashion

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 finished the year with 4 more ultras over 6 weeks, a trip to Poland for the 48km Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, back to Brecon for the Brecon Beacons Ultra, Down to Dorset for the Endurance Life Coastal Trail series Dorset and an ad-hoc one in London called the Thames Bridges Ultra.

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.

Madeira was followed up with a number of other events both locally and overseas. There was the Three Forts challenge on the South Downs, a Maverick ‘Run Free’ event in the Chilterns, Nick’s first marathon in Luxembourg and the Salomon Festival 50km

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)

Reflection

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.

The obsession kind of took a turn in 2018!

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!

There is always a staple of 42km and 50km events each year, but over time more longer ones have crept in too

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.

Are You Not Entertained?!

A Maverick Race event is always a guaranteed great day out. There’s no point me repeating the words I’ve used so many time before about how fabulous the team are, the meticulous organisation of the events, the friendly and supportive volunteers, their amazing routes or the abundance of freebies and finishers items. Just sign up and experience it for yourself.

One of the things that attracted me to this particular event was the route. Based in the South Downs, the route took runners onto some of the lesser trodden paths away from the more mainstream South Downs Way. Looking at the map before I signed up I could see it would take me to places I’d not run before. So it was a great opportunity to explore some new areas.

Once more I headed down to the race with Nick after an early start. We rolled up, collected our bibs and casually walked over the start line five minutes after all the other runners had set off. I love the rolling start window the events now have! The cut-offs are very generous and the vibe of these events is very relaxed and friendly.

It wasn’t long before we’d caught the rest of the pack as the trails began with some single track paths and inevitably some bottlenecks formed. We squeezed passed a few larger groups and settled into our own grove as we wound through the forest paths of Slindon and then Houghton forest.

Somewhere along the forest tracks we ran past Jake for the first time that day. He was out in the open, partly camouflaged by some bushes, taking pictures before we soon arrived at the first aid station. From here we turned away from Houghton and began a more common section as we ran up the South Downs with its rolling hills and wide open spaces. The radio masts at Gatting Beacon visible up ahead.

After a while of running along the downs, we descended from Cross Dyke and soon came upon the second aid station at the Cadence cafe. We took a quick stop to refuel and fill our water before we began a climb back up to the hills again. Here we found Jake once more and stopped for a quick chat. We joked about my lack of enthusiasm for jumping shots and he proved the quicker man, capturing me with a teasing jump. 1-0 Jake.

You win this round Jake!

The hills were gentle but long and Nick started to hit some rough patches. He’d been recovering from that mad cold going around as well as a week holidaying through all the whiskey distilleries in Scotland. This was his second run since the Chilterns 50 (the other being a marathon) so he always knew it would be a struggle today. I ran ahead and would wait for him to catch up. I kept repeating this, probably to his annoyance.

“It’s Dangerous”

There were plenty of hills, including a lovely leaf lined downhill. I bundled down whilst Nick moaned behind me. ‘It’s dangerous’ Nick kept repeating. Admittedly the damp leaves made it a slippery descent. The downhill was inevitably followed by a steep incline. This time it was Phil who was hiding in the trees and waiting with his camera to capture the pain in the runners faces. A brilliant spot indeed.

This section was the longest between aid stations and we knew we still had a long way to go before we could replenish our water. All through this section we played leapfrog with other groups and pairs of runners. We chatted and joked our way along with them. The joke’s weren’t so amusing though as we slowly made our way hiking up a long sealed tarmac road. All the runners were hoping the aid station wouldn’t be far away as we all now needed a top up of fluids. Thankfully we soon came upon it, much to everyone’s relief.

After a little party at the aid station we set off again. From here it was 10k to the next one. We were in better shape now and ran some solid sections again through forest tracks and paths near East Dean. As we looped around Upwaltham we were greeted with a huge down hill into the final aid station which I bombed down with joy. I could tell here that many runners had now had enough and were ready for the finish. Much to their delight we had one more steep climb to get through first as we made our way from the aid station to West Wood. This sapped all the fun out of it for everyone around us and the moans were audible way behind us as more runners started the climb.

Steep climbs = excellent views

From here it was back to the dense forest tracks and for us plenty of stop start running from here until the finish. The rain started to come down and we forced ourselves to power through the open fields to get out of it and back to the shelter of the forests at the other side. At the end of the field Brittany was waiting in the cold, holding the gate open for runners with the great news that it was only 1km to go. We kept going, trotting on towards the finish line. As we rounded the corner back from Slindon Estate back into the college we pushed and shoved each other, wrestling before finally crossing the line a show for the crowd. A fist bump of thanks to Justin, Ben and Paul from the Maverick Team for another awesome race.

Another awesome day was finished and crowned the day off with a pizza for the ‘bearded wonders’ from the awesome chulli pizza team.

‘Bearded Wonders’

Hips Don’t Lie

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…

Usual photo opportunity whilst everything is still being set up

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.

Early on with all the other runners

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.

A snippet of golden trails and white Tuff terrain

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!

Ale caught this picture of the storm from when he was at the second checkpoint. I guess I’m in there somewhere!

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.

With Maarten

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.

Incredible rock formations on the undulating descent

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.

View from the top with the trails visible lower down

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,

For a long time the moon lit up the path after the sun had set

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

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.

Misty start in Goring

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.

Corn fields as the sun began to set

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.

Lake District

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.

Here we go again…

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.

High Pike, my first Wainwright

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.

A tiring run along the slight rocky incline

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.

Posing for Jules on the climb to Skiddaw

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!

Ring the bell!

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.

Enjoying the views (and a waffle) from Ullock Pike

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.

My first slate medal

Chasing Tees

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.

A different start for this year’s run

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.

Every year I take the same pictures in the same place. This is one of my recurring favourite views from the trail

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…

Been there, done that, got the tee…

Past finishes

Animo!

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.

The Elevation profile for the VDA

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.

Bottleneck

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).

Suspension bridge

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.

Up to the Iron Mines

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.

Into the second night

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.

descending with one pole

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!


After Thoughts

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!