Blah Blah Blah

Earlier in the year James asked me if I wanted to join him for the Tallinn marathon. I was hesitant. A week after TDS, after a fairly jam-packed August. Hhhm. Maybe not. Then Luxembourg happened and it was frikken great. Bobby and Nick went and signed up to Tallinn immediately. I soon had the FOMO and was signing up to join them. After all, a trip to a new country and exploring a city whilst doing what I love…

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Medal and Tee in traditional Tallinn emblems

Fast forward a few weeks and Bobby and Nick have both pulled out. Bastards. Suddenly I’m heading out with an unnecessarily expensive hotel booking (I could have shared a dorm for cheaper but I’m such a princess and don’t like sharing around a long run, I need some space!). James was still there but I’d missed the chance to jump in with him and his mates.

Anyway, August is done though, 3 big races conquered, all went better than I’d even hoped. Considering what I’ve achieved, I feel bloody good. Yeah sure, a few aches and pains and the ankles are still feeling a little brittle, but I feel great. I’m heading into Tallinn without a care in the world. My mind is clear and I’m ready to kick back, relax, run and enjoy the experience. No pressure. All I need to do is control it when I start running. I’ll ‘run to feel’ though and don’t imagine I’ll be feeling a fast run, so that’s good. It’s also a special weekend in Tallinn with celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary and it’s also the 30th edition of the marathon. So there is plenty going on.

It was a 9am start on a Sunday and I’m staying just minutes from the start . I’m not used to such luxury and take full advantage by staying in bed untill 8 and being very casual. I meet James and Chris just before 9 and we head down to the starting pens. We are briefly separated as they go to B and I’m ushered to C but some confusion just before the start sees the two pens merge into one.

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Reunited and getting ready to run

There’s a lot of runners and, as we are given the green light to go, we start plodding down the cobble streets of the old town. Tallinn is a small place and the route will see us leave the old town, head to Seaplane Harbour, out of town with various bendy turns and switchbacks before heading back towards, and finishing in, the Old Town under the Viru Gates.

The roads were wide and many had been closed off for the event so there was no fighting for space. We soon settled into a rhythm of around 6 min/km and chatted away as we began our sightseeing adventure. It wasn’t long before we reached the first water station (and every water station infact as they were only about 3km away from each other!). We all made the mistake of trying the salty bread – dry traditional Estonian black bread sprinkled with salt. It was, of course, salty! Much water was then needed!

After passing through Seaplane Harbour and then several residential streets (with some fascinating architecture of old traditional buildings mixed with modern apartments) we ran through a long main Street. There was an old lady hanging out of her window banging a saucepan which made us laugh. We then ran through what would be the first of many parks and green spaces.

A little further on was a real highlight as, first noticed by the foul smell, we realised we were running through the grounds of a zoo. Whilst we didn’t see many animals there was a bear(!) inspecting the runners from his cage. Running the paths leading through the zoo was a whole new experience, and whilst sad and odd to see animals caged up, it was nice from a running perspective.

Shortly after the halfway mark we were running through some lush trails and forest paths with trees all around us before we emerged near the sea front. We felt good, but tired. The green spaces were welcomed though and thankfully we spent very little time on main roads with cars.

Around 25km in, Chris stared to struggle. He’d picked up an injury and, after about ten mins of slow walking and shuffling, James and I made the reluctant decision to leave him and carry on. At that point he was going to just walk back and pull out (he’d be able to skip through the various switch backs and take a more direct route back to town). Both James and I were feeling it too though – I was aching in my knees, which is a new one for me.

Despite most of the running happening out of town, there were pockets of support along the way and some great chants including “c’mon Brexit” and my favourite “blah blah blah” (or at least that is what it sounded like, I’ve no idea what it meant!).

The next section took us along the coast and had a few kms of long switchbacks which were painfully dull, seeing runners winding ahead of you. After that was a stretch around, then up into, a park before returning to the coast once more. With about 10km to go I started a run-walk strategy with a brisk walk after each water station just to take the pressure off my knees a little.

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Captured by Craig

It soon quietened out and with the last water stop done James and I pretty much ran alone to the finish line. Tracing our steps back along the initial part of the route into town (without the loop around Seaplane Harbour). As we neared the finish line Craig casually called out “hello” to us and he was then at the finish line as we hobbled the last 200m along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and through the Viru gates.

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Finishers

Medal collected we headed back for a quick shower before returning to see Chris cross the line. Turns out that after we left him he decided to stick at it and he’d continued on to complete his first marathon (after covering no more than a half in his training and battling through the pain on the day!!). We missed him by about a minute!

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Just missed him

119 Hours

119 Hours – Chamonix. Thursday, 15:00. 

I’m hugging a man. His arms are around me. He’s wet with sweat and he stinks. I am absolutely rotten with sweat and stink too. We are both smiling though. The embrace is special. We are acknowledging over 35 hours of running technical Alpine trails coming to and end, most of that time spent together, supporting one another and motivating each other through. 35 hours ago this smelly man was a complete stranger, his mere existence even unknown to me. Now he’s not only a friend but someone I’ve shared an incredible journey with and whom will always be in my memories. His name is Darryl.

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This is Darryl

Moments earlier we’d crossed the finish line of the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (Aka The “TDS”) at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). A 145km trail race in the Alps starting in Courmayeur (Italy) and finishing under the famous UTMB arch in Chamonix (France)…

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145km, 9,100m of vert. The TDS.

5 minutes earlier – Chamonix

Somehow, despite hours of walking and persevering with the ‘ultra shuffle’ we muster enough strength to run the final stretch through the streets of Chamonix. Cheered on by the immense crowd, clapped through as the sea of spectators part to make way, we see many familiar faces of our friends. The moment is electric, so many emotions are pulsating through my body, my only reaction is to smile. A huge, wide smile. I don’t think anyone could experience that sort of finish and not have a smile on their face.

We are spent. It’s very hot. We are walking the final 8km into Chamonix.  We are happy with this. I’ve run this path once before many years ago on a stag do (With another Daryl!), Darryl more recently did it on the TDS last year. “It’s flat” he claims and so he told another runner, Robin, a few kms earlier. I should know by now not to trust Darryl’s memories, he’s already admitted it’s hazy at the best of times. It’s not that flat (only in relative terms!). It’s undulating. We slow our fast hike back to a shuffle. We are in this for the long haul. 8km feels like 80kms and it takes almost two hours to walk to Chamonix. We eventually leave the riverside trail and hit the main road. We’ve not been alone on our walk and have chatted with several other runners who’ve walked it ‘home’ too. As we hit the main street we all look at each other and begrudgingly start shuffling faster and ‘performing’ for the crowd. Me and Darryl contemplate buying ice cream but are too afraid to stop moving again.

117.5 Hours – Les Houches.  

We dropped off the winding switchbacks of the paved roads into the final aid station. For the last time we fill both our flasks and our faces and head back out on the trails. As we grab fistfuls of ice from a bucket, shoving them under our caps, I notice those around us. The volunteers – so supportive and encouraging, the runners – exhausted and many slumped on benches. We crack on. As the Compressport sponsored sign read, “finishing is your only fucking option”.

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Damn Right!

Descending from Col di Tricot  wasn’t nice. The paths were littered with rocks and hikers.  We’d run, stumble, jump and walk our way down. Eventually reaching a wobbly wooden foot bridge before climbing yet again. The rocky climb, however small, sapped our energy and by the time we reached Bellevue we were gasping. As we refreshed with water we questioned how that was only 4km we’d covered. 5km still to descend.

The next 5km were through the forest paths, shaded from the sun at least. We slowed to a walk. Our feet were hurting once more, raw and sore. The rejuvenating effects of the medical attention we received not that long ago had well and truly worn off now. Somehow runners were still running past us, we were impressed with their physical state. A familiar shout out from one was instantly recognisable. It was Alan. Supercharged and nimbly descending at speed. He called out to Darryl “Hey! How did Dai get on?!”, “I’m down here” I replied from around the next switchback. Alan was ready and willing to ‘walk it in’ with us and finish together, but I told him to keep going, he was on form again after a bad night and Darryl and I had each other. He vanished into the forest. We eventually made it to the road, a long stretch of paved switchbacks leading into Les Houches.  The flat tarmac was a welcomed feeling.

115.5 Hours – Col di Tricot

We’ve made it to the top, finally.  That climb was tough, the sun had done it’s job and I was definitely burnt on my neck. There was no water up top which we’d been hoping for. The timing point indicated 9km to go to reach Les Houches. 4km of which would take us to Bellevue where there would be water. All downhill, about 1,200m to descend in total.

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Col Di Tricot

Strapped up from Les Contamines, we left the aid station and were on the move again. It had been a long stop. About 1.5 hours. We were good again though and able to move quite quickly once more. The medics had worked their magic. We powered up past the church, up the roads and back to the trails, immediately passing many runners. Our power hike continued. Two more big climbs were left to conquer, the first barely noticeable and through the shaded woodlands we went. The second climb a bit of a beast with a steep zigzagging climb to Col di Tricot.

As we emerged from the first climb and descended we could see Col di Tricot opposite. It wasn’t small nor insignificant. It felt like a long time before we crossed the bridge, thread through the small hamlet and climbed to the switchback trails. The midday sun was bright and there was no shade on the climb. Darryl believed there would be water up top and I hoped he was right, whilst I had plenty now, the steep climb would be thirsty work.

112 Hours – Les Contamines 

Once inside, Darryl went to find the foot doctor and I went to find the toilet again! After I had fun squatting and propping myself up against a wall, I found Darryl laughing and joking with the medics. It had already a while, and I’d eaten before finding him, but he was getting the full treatment both feet lanced, sterilised and wrapped in more padding than a winter jacket. I was jealous,  so I queued up for a bit of foot TLC myself. I even got my ankle properly strapped and, whilst I was getting repaired, Darryl then went for a massage.  We were smiling and laughing again and ready to get this race finished!

Leaving Col Du Joly, we wondered how we still had 24km to go. I do not know. Morning was breaking. The mist on the mountains was lifting and the the trails becoming lighter. Darryl was talking to another Brit and I cracked on. I was cold and needed to warm up – my body temperature had dropped significantly whilst stopping at the aid station. The head torch was soon turned off and we started a long descent. First the fields and ski paths before we hit the longer stretch descending through the forest paths.

As I hobbled down I was making the questionable sex noises. Oh, ee, ahh, fuck me, aaagh. I wasn’t alone and a chorus of squeals could often be heard. Many runners went passed, many we’d spoken too. Darryl was a little way behind now and I enquired after him to the Brit as he passed.  He told me Darryl was moving but slowly.  After about 4 km of descending I waited at the bottom. I found a bench and sat on it until Darryl arrived. He wasn’t looking good, he was stumbling and barely moving forward.  His feet were destroyed and he was in quite some pain. He told me I shouldn’t have waited, I told him I’m not leaving him now, we’d done maybe close to 100km together and we had plenty of time to finish, I had no where to be in any urgency and I wasn’t going to leave him and potentially see him pull out. We walked on together. Slowly, very slowly. We hobbled at a pace slower than 20mins per km. It took around two hours to walk the flattest section of the race to the next checkpoint of Les Contamines.

110 Hours – Col Du Joly

Darryl’s hopes of medical attention were dashed when the medic  told him that the ‘foot doctor’ was at the next aid station. Um, Ok then. We layered up as we left the aid station, it was still dark and cold. We refuelled on warm soups, re-jigged our packs and left for the final 24km.

From Hautelace we were confused. Very confused. We were still wandering in circles around the town and every now and then saw a trail lit up by tens of head torches in the distance. They were high. It was spread out and long. We kept questioning over and over if that is where we were heading or if that is the descent to Beaufort which we’d already completed. Every few minutes we’d have the same debate all over again.

The trails eventually took us in a different direction which did make sense finally. The climb was slow and a real slogfest in the dark. Sometime later we topped out on the summit and the open trails. It was windy and we could see the head torches both out in front and behind us. There was plenty of mud and my fresh clean shoes and socks (from the drop bag) were now soaked through. We ran along the ridgeline in the wind before we stopped to layer up and have some food. I was sleepy and hungry. I went into the chocolate reserves and came out with some chocolate coated raisins. They worked a treat and perked me up enough to keep moving with more clarity.

We continued on and the trails became increasingly more muddy and technical. We were ready for the next aid station now and Darryl was starting to struggle with pains in his feet. We looked forward to the opportunity for some medical attention and warm noodle soup. First though we had to navigate a steep descent and subsequent climb along some sharp rock faces in the darkness.

We were slowed to a plod as the runners started to back up under the difficulty of the terrain. At one point I yelled out and almost lost my foothold as I touched an electric fence that was stupidly close to the trail (on my other side was a drop into the darkness!). We laughed it off but I did question what I was doing here in the dark!

Over the last little climb, the music pumping from the aid-station could finally be heard.

105 Hours – Hautelace – 105 hours

Hautelace was a little confusing. Probably because it was 1am and we were tired, probably because it was fairly soon after the big check point and probably because of the route. This was also part of the new course and it felt like we were walking in circles around the town. I heard rumours afterwards about villages paying the organisers to be part of the route and I wondered, if true, if this was one of them – we were on a tour!

We finally pulled ourselves together shortly before midnight and headed back out from Beaufort for the third and final 50km. As we were leaving Alan showed up and indicated he hadn’t been so good and that he was going to have a sleep. I joked with Darryl that we’d see him run past us in a few hours time!

We climbed into the darkness and soon reached a town. After doing what felt like laps of the town we weaved into the aid station which was pretty much empty. We had a long stretch of running through the night ahead of us though so we took the opportunity to get some more food and water in before we headed back out into the night and up into the darkness.

102.5 Hours – Beaufort

Beaufort Aid Station. The long awaited, very much anticipated 90km mark. The aid station where we could access our drop bags, the aid station where the risk of dropping out (due to home comforts) increases. The one where hot food would be available. The one that marks the end of the “second” section (in my head I broke the race into three 50km sections) and the point where there is “only 50km to go”.

The entrance to the aid station was a a long walk. It felt like we were taking a detour around the aid station. I spotted the Live Cam and gave it a good middle finger. I was moody. That last 50km seemed to drag on and on and on (a bit like this blog?)…

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Have that TDS

After leaving Gittaz it all got a bit shit. Literally. One of the highlights for me here was the actual shit I had (it was surprisingly healthy for an ultra marathon poop!). But this whole section here was shit. Don’t get me wrong, it is another set of beautiful trails and the views and scenery was absolutely stunning (Exhibit A – The Black Lake), but it was shit because it was tough and it dragged. This was the section of off-track climbs, false summits and the beginning of the night. 

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Black Lake on the descent to Beaufort

The climb from La Gittaz was immediately steep and immediately lumpy. It was long, we were exhausted and it continued to deceive us. False summit after false summit and lumpy ups and downs were the order for 10km or so as we tagged Côte d’Ani and Pas d’Outray. Sometime around Côte d’Ani we took a moment. We sat down after the disappointment of reaching another false summit and we needed a few minutes to get ourselves over the disappointment of coming over the top and seeing the enduring trails and runners heading off into the distance. We weren’t alone. For every few runners who went passed, one would stop and join us. By the time we left there must have been about 7 or 8 of us grumpy bastards sitting in a circle laughing at each others miserable appearance. We also wondered if we could get the next long downhill done and out of the way before darkness. Spoiler – we didn’t. Not a chance in hell it would ever have even been possible. As we continued to descend the darkness enveloped us and and the head torches were back out and we trudged on.

The descent into Beufort was long, technical and difficult. This was the first section of the new route. Darryl wasted no time in pointing out that it immediately made the course harder than the old version (which he’d done previously last year!). After what felt like a lifetime we reach the aid station and settled down for a break and a freshen up with our drop bags. Whilst I fumbled through my routine, Darryl went off and had his knee tapped.

98.5 Hours – La Gittaz

La Gittaz was quite a cute little aid station. It stank a bit (think actual farmland) and there were plenty of small stone brick buildings in the area. The aid station itself was small, and the volunteers and support few but very boisterous.

We’d run down into the aid station through about 800m of descending trails. They were mostly steep and technical, but the end was a real treat. We ran down alongside a gorge and the sound of the water flowing below us was brutal. It sounded like high-speed wind battering you. The path was carved out through the mountain and winded down and around before dropping into open fields.

I’d left Darryl behind and we agreed we’d meet again at the aid station. Just as we descended the fields he caught up with me and we walked in together before I headed straight off to the Eco Loo for a very much needed good ol’ shit. What? It had probably been about 24 hours since my last one and that Lasagne and Burger was still bouncing up and down inside me!

 

96.5 Hours – Cormet de Roselend

I spot the Live Camera. I’d forgotten about these. As I ran into the aid Station I stuck the thumbs up and the tongue out for the world to see. I’m alive, I’m doing ok…

It had been a long one. 4 and a half hours had passed since I left the last aid station and I was certainly feeling a bit exhausted now (inevitable seeing as I’d been on the move for over 12 hours at this point).

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Stunning lakes

Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice I began the big climb. I didn’t feel it was as bad as people made it out to be. Perhaps because I was in a great place mentally and physically. In my mind it was split into a few smaller sections that I can recall. First off a steady climb on some soft and soily trails. As we climbed I could hear a deep voice bellowing out above “Alleeeeeee Hup Hup Hup Allleeee Allleeeee”. It was a great voice. Eventually I reached him – an old man with his wife ringing a cowbell. He was fantastic. “Merci, Superb” I called as I passed.

Beyond the old man the climb continued as we hit some open fields (and a bit of sun) and rounded an old fortress. It was here I was stunned to find loads of runners laying down and resting. And I mean loads, tens of them, everywhere. I couldn’t figure out if this was a strategic stop – part way up an exhausting climb, gaining some much needed sleep after an early start, planning for the future. Or whether it was because they were dead on their feet with exhaustion from the climb and they just had to stop. Part of me wondered if it is because the views were spectacular and it was just a wonderful place to stop and rest? I’ll never know, but for certain it looked far more enjoyable than some of the places I saw runners curled up in later that night!

I met Darryl again along the climb and we continued together chatting and catching up on the past few hours. We passed a short water station (by water station I mean a hose pipe filling a bucket) which gave a chance to replenish and soak my face and hat. It was also here that the famous 5 Euro soft drinks were on sale. I declined to get involved.

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A little bit of scrambling

The climb continued and the terrain became varied. From muddy trails to razor sharp rocks. The fast hiking very quickly became slow lunging and scrambling! The views though were sensational and Darryl and I decided to take a little rest at the top of one of the peaks and enjoy a moment. Plus we were both starving and I wolfed down a few bars of food and Darryl rested his knee which was starting to cause him some pain.

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Incredible views

We carried on up the rocky climbs before my balls almost detached themselves from my body and ran off back the way we’d come. In front of us were a group of volunteers, all happy singing and dancing, hiding from us what was a sheer drop of the mountain top. It also happened to be the way we had to descend. What the fuck? Down there? There was a rope. There were runners holding onto the rope and shuffling themselves down the sharp rock face backwards. Fucking hell I was terrified. I’d come to run, not to abseil with no equipment. The only way was down though, so I packed away the poles and headed on down.

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Going down. I was too afraid to get the camera out until after the steepest part of the descent was completed!

We’d gone barely a few metres when a pair of poles went flying passed us following a shriek from above. A runner almost lost himself as he tried to head down using his poles and not the rope. Not worth it. Get a grip!

We made it. It took sometime but we made it to the end of the rope section. The path was still very technical and steep though and the run down into the aid station was painful. The memories of the pains in my feet from Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria all came flushing back!

92 Hours – Bourg Saint-Maurice

There is the slightest of inclines through the streets. I walk into the aid-station (which was the first major/crew-support aid station on the course). No running here. I’ve just been on one hell of a run. but I am buzzing. beaming. smiling ear-to-ear. “Dai” I hear as I look across the packed aid-station to see Ryan calling me over. He introduces me to his Wife Emma who gives me the biggest of hugs and gets a sweaty kiss before offering me potatoes which I happily take.

Ryan is a bit dazed. I caught up with him on the downhill which was a huge surprise (he is a speed demon!) before he turned and showed me his bloody face. A bad fall had left him a bit spaced out after taking most of the impact literally head on.

After another very long downhill, maybe about 15km and a descent of about 1,500m with much more running, more speed work, I remember looking at my watch and thinking I have no right. No right to be running 6 min/kms at 40-odd kms into a race, never-mind a 145km race! But I kept going.

I soon bumped into Ryan and then arrived at a water station where I proceeded to refill all my bottles ahead of the ‘big’ climb. A volunteer kindly told me the aid-station was in 3kms though and this was just a water station in between. So I legged it back out through the town and parks…

When I arrived, after speaking with Ryan I saw Darryl heading out and spent a moment talking to Alan who arrived just after me. We did a quick kit check reminder to fill all our bottles as the next climb was an un-shaded beast  – almost 2,000m of climbing in the midday heat (not sun though as it was mostly overcast thankfully!).

I chatted to Emma a little longer after Ryan left (and ate more of his spuds!) before leaving myself. I spent very little time at this aid station as quite frankly, I felt great. I had energy and a smile and saw little point sticking around any longer. So off I went.

90 Hours – Col du Petit Saint Bernard

The Point of Col Du Petit Saint Bernard sticks out in my memory for one reason only. This was the French/Italian border crossing! and the technical, small stone descent before a much longer descent. Ahhhh wonderful. I did enjoy the little border crossing they’d erected for the runners though. That was nice.

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The Italian-French Border crossing for the race.

Other than that, my mind has gone a little blank. We climbed together, the fresh smells of the forest, the morning warming. It’s about 10am but I can’t picture the scene. I don’t think Darryl was with me at this point. Maybe he was. A few hours have passed though and I don’t recall too much of where or what I saw in this time.

Sometime earlier though morning had broken, I put the head torch away and started to enjoy the grey misty morning as we climbed about 600m, from which we had stunning views of the valley and lake below. I was above hundreds of runners and I’m looking down, but also up. Hundreds more were above me and the climb continued to the cheers and sounds of supporters at a timing point. As I reached them I breathed a deep breath. I took a moment to absorb the views and point to the distance trail path leading off into the un-see-able distance.

From the peak at Col Chavannes I got moving again. Woaaaah boy do I get moving again. The path was very runnable, about 10km of shallow descent on fairly decent and wide track. It is fast. Another consistent period of running 5 min/kms. I knew my quads were going to hate this in a few hours, never-mind the next day!!

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The long, runnable descent from Col Chavannes

There’s a short break in the rhythm as the path deviated sharply down and cross a river before ascending some forest tracks. At this point I first met him, the sweaty stinky man. I had no idea what would happen next and how a friendship would form. “Alright Mate” he says “How’s it going?”. As simple as that. A mere conversation starter. One runner to another, one human to another, one person looking to change their day. Thank you Darryl, you certainly changed my day!

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Into the forests we shall go

86.5 Hours – Lac Combal

I’m running along a flat gravel path, It’s flooded with puddles of water and I’m zig-zagging along at close to 5 min/km pace. Crazy. Still, it feels good so I keep at it. I’m distracted by a ‘Full Kit Wanker’. A lady wearing head to toe in branded UTMB event gear. And I mean head to toe – Columbia UTMB edition trainers, Compressport UTMB socks, base layer shorts, shorts/skirt, Tee, Arm Sleeves, Buff and Running cap. She has it all. Maybe over 400Euros of kit right there. Wow. We all like a souvenir (I bought a Matterhorn race hoody just days earlier!) but that is a lot of kit to (potentially) try out for the first time on a 145km run!

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Leaving Lac Combal

The distraction takes my mind off the running and a big aid station soon appears. I grab some food, refill my water and am about to head out before I notice a sign saying about 19km to the next aid Station. I turn around, drink some more water, part fill a third soft flask and eat some more food before heading back out. I don’t want to be caught short so soon into the race!

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Hello Morning!

As I continued on the climb I stopped for a moment and turn around to try and photograph the stream of head torches snaking back for miles in the distance. It doesn’t do it justice, but its an incredible sight – maybe up to 1,500 heads bobbing away. So far I’d not used my head torch. Like a parasite I was using the light from those around me and being a sneaky bastard and saving my battery for night time (even though I’m carrying four batteries!) I continued the climb before a nice easy descent into Lac Combal. I’m running (with the head torch on now!), I’m smiling. It’s been a good start, a fast start and I think I’m a little ahead of Alan, I last saw him just before the climb started and I couldn’t recall him storming passed.

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Runners in the night

85 Hours – Col Checrouit Maison Veille

A little over an hour has passed. Its 5 in the morning and still Dark. I’m about half way through a 1,000m climb (over 10km) and I’ve stumbled into the first aid-station at Col Checrouit Maison Veille, some 1,900m above sea level and its a little cold. Runners are in jackets and gloves, sipping hot drinks. I’m in a T Shirt with arm sleeves rolled down. It’s sweaty work this fast hiking! I fill up my bottle with the help of a lovely volunteer before heading out and swearing. Fucking Prick. He’s filled me up with sparking water. Why would you do that? The smallest of things, but it pissed me off. I’m not a fan of sparkling water. Regardless, I find a way to calm myself down and move on. It’s just a bit of gas.

 

84 Hours – Courmayeur

Hans Zimmer (“He’s a Pirate”) is pumping out. Hi-fives and fist pumps are exchanged. Cheers and whoops are let out. Screams of “Ale Ale” and cowbells ringing fill the main street of Courmayeur. The 2019 TDS is under way and my 84 hours of recovery comes to an end. It is time to run again. This time, further and higher than I’d ever been before. Time to push those boundaries and redefine myself.

Before the race began I was subjected to one of the random bag searches whilst in the starting pen. Great. Whilst I fully endorse and support this approach, it isn’t half a pain in the arse. When you pack and re-pack your bag and organise it in such a way, only to then be rushed to unpack in a crowded space to show you have all the mandatory gear is just a nightmare. Either way, I passed. I got my green sticker on my bib.

You really can’t fault the organisation of UTMB. from bag checks to bus transportation to the start line, it really is a military operation and you can clearly see where you 200 Euro entry fee has been spent. You are so looked after and accounted for during the event. I’ve almost forgotten its been 3 hours since I first woke, trudged to the bus and started eating croissants.

71 Hours – Chamonix

It’s about 3pm on Tuesday and I’m leaving the race registration tent. I’m in. I’m Done. I’m set to go. The rigorous testing and inspection of your documentation and kit has been passed. Phew. Time to head home, re-pack the kit and drop bag, eat more food and go to sleep. At 1am I need to be up and heading to the bus to Courmayeur.

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Trying to be like the UTMB Manga

That morning I’d skipped the organised morning “shake out” run so that I can head up the VK with the others (I didn’t want to do both). Most of them bailed on the second run, but Yvette showed me the way. We did about half way before turning back and heading home so I could register. Post registration I finally got to eat and rammed a lasagne down my throat before an hour later heading out for a burger with Alan. I was bloated now but heading to bed. 7pm, If it goes well I can get about 6 hours sleep before the journey begins….

45 Hours – Chamonix

Its a whole day later and I’m stepping off the Chamonix Express into Chambalama Town (Chamonix that is!). So far the trip has been fantastic and worked out exactly as planned and I’m where I want to be when I want to be there. I pick up the key to the apartment, meet Yvette and Jess and head into the main town to cheer home the MCC runners. There are a few friends running and due to finish within the next few hours. We grab a burger and make it in time to support them all across the infamous UTMB arch/finish line. The rest of the day is spent eating and meeting many friends before heading to bed and trying to get a semi-decent night’s sleep. I’m not sure how Tuesday will pan out but I know I want to get the legs moving a little bit and eat and sleep as much as I can.

21 Hours – Visp

Arriving in Visp I head straight to the hotel with my fingers crossed that I can check in early, I can. Result! I was staying at St. Jorden, which very quickly became apparent was some form of religious retreat (an ‘Education and Seminar House’ as they put it!). This didn’t bother me though and I was given some very helpful advice relating to the thermal baths and local buses before I set off out in my short shorts.

I get to the Thermal baths very quickly, pay my 25Euro for three hour access to both the pools and Sauna rooms and head on in. I’m immediately disorientated though. It is busy. I’ve a little armband to activate doors and lockers and straightaway signs are instructing me to remove my shoes. I wander on in and first stumble upon the ‘Grotto Bath’ – a pool maintained at 40 degrees. It is awesome. I follow it up with a stint in the ‘Cold Water Grotto’ which is so relaxing as it is in pitch darkness. I keep alternating between the two before heading outside (after a stop off at several steam baths of various temperatures and aromas).

Outside I find a series of swimming pools with jets, streams and water features. I enjoy a few trips around the ‘River Pool’ and smile as the water current pushes me round and round. I then head off to the slide. Yes, the slide. I’m like a child all over again and it is frikken brilliant. I don’t know how many times I go on it, but it is great fun. I must have been in here for about 2 hours by now so I head back inside to repeat my hot/cold water “treatment”, steam rooms and get naked in the saunas. I’ve one eye on my watch now as the buses aren’t all that frequent and I want to get the next one. Whilst in the Grotto Bath I decide to lay on the loungers – when you recline your feet are elevated. That will help with my recovery I think to myself. I’m sure it did too, because the next thing I remember is waking up and it is 45 mins later. Shit, I’m late. I rush out, in a panic realise there is a bus in less than 10mins, but I can’t find the changing rooms. I dive into a disabled toilet and start getting changed but am disrupted by someone banging on the door. “Hold on” I scream before grabbing my stuff and making to leave. Outside a cleaner is looking at me disgusted and starts yelling at me pointing at my trainers. I try to explain I don’t understand and am lost and continue the long walk of shame to the exit, to many tuts and disapproving eyes along the way.

Outside I try to leave but the armband flashes red and buzzes every time, after some time the receptionist realises it is because I am “late”. Ten mins overdue, I’m instructed to a machine to pay a fine. 5 Euros, phew, that’s OK. I run out and jump on the bus just in time before it leaves. I slept very well that night!

15 Hours – Zermatt

Morning has broken. My legs ache. I feel well rested but my quads are definitely a little tender. The Matterhorn Sky Race was faster than I expected and I was already feeling it. After a relaxing evening and a good long sleep I felt like I’d lost a big chunk of my recovery. That wasn’t the case though, sleep is what I needed. I just didn’t need tender legs!!

I finished packing my bag and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar. I had a casual day ahead with no rushing. My trains were booked and I had plenty of time. I ate, and ate and ate at breakfast. I didn’t really eat a proper meal the night before and I was pushing in the calories now. Plus I didn’t know when I’ll get a chance to eat next that day, so I relaxed and ate a shit tonne of food.

As I sat on the train from Zermatt to Visp I did a quick bit of research on what Visp had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across the Thermalquellen Brigerbad – Thermal Baths and Spa. Sod exploring the mountains, this was the best Idea I’d had in a long time.

0 Hours – Zermatt

It’s about 16:00 on Saturday. Moments earlier I crossed the line of the Matterhorn Sky Race. Now I’m sitting down eating the post race meal with Jason and Pritt, two runners I met along the way. “What’s next?” they ask. “The TDS at UTMB” is my response. “When is it?” they ask. I take a look at my watch. “It starts in 84 hours” I tell them….

After thoughts

Lets rewind (or fast forward? I’m so lost with my own writing now!) a little. The race is done, completed. I’m wondering why I thought I could do it? With such technical terrain, I’m not quite so sure I thought I even could do it. But I did. And I did it well (I’ll modestly say). I felt OK afterwards. Probably the best I’ve ever felt after an ultra. It was just a long ass slog.

It was very much a three part race. The first 50km, the middle 50km and the last. I loved the first 50km. I felt free and ran more than I’m used to running in mountain races. The middle 50km dragged on and seemed to take a lot longer than the first 50km. Then the last 50km was all about survival and perseverance, as many ultras often are.

I was fortunate that, unlike many runners, I had no issues (other than sore feet). That I also found a companion to support me through. I keep saying it, ultras are far far easier with friends!!

It did make me question the distance though. 150km is a lot. It’s long. When you’re telling yourself, “only 50km to go”, “only another 12 hours”, and when you’re OK with that, it should be questioned!!

Last year’s CCC left me underwhelmed. The finish in particular was a let down, but this year the TDS gave me the full UTMB experience. Finishing midday with all the exceptional support was a phenomenal experience.  It was an electric atmosphere unlike last years finish and one I’ll never forget.

The TDS was modified for 2019. Increased from 120km to 145km with the additions through the Beaufort valley. Those I spoke to who’d done the ‘old TDS (Like Darryl and Alan) now claimed it was too much. Too hard. The additions unnecessary. Many say its harder than UTMB which, whilst longer and has a little more elevation, is far less technical. There’s only one way for me to confirm, let’s see what the UTMB ballot God’s have to say about next year…

To all those who helped me achieve, supported and believed, thank you!

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Exhausted, but finished!

Toblerone in the sky

The Matterhorn sky race. Another run I’m wondering how I ended up doing. I mean, I know I booked it, only it is one of three ultras in August and just days before I am doing the TDS, how did I manage that?! I know I booked it before I found out I had a place at TDS but I don’t remember why this one though. I think I read about it or saw pictures or something. Either way I was on my way to Zermatt, a Swiss town in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. I was excited.

I feel I now start all Post-race write ups with a lil’ moan about my state of fitness etc. No difference this time. I guess it’s natural that my body is desperately trying to hold itself together given everything my mind selfishly throws at it. Still, I feel like I could be in a better place. But, two things. Firstly confidence is in a good place after getting through 100km of the Stour Valley just two weeks ago and secondly my mental state is great. Better than it’s been for a long time. One week before I was struggling. My mind was wandering all over the place. Thinking and over thinking and re-thinking the same thoughts. It was annoying. Very. Naturally I then started worrying about this race and the TDS and how I’d cope with these thoughts when alone with my mind for so long. Thankfully though, things not only improved, but changed significantly. I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long (and I mean long!) time. Some great things have happened to me recently and I’ve a huge smile on my face and I’m intending on making this last. The only reason I was thinking so much is because I don’t want to jeopardise the good. So, arrogantly, I’m feeling a little indestructible. I know what lays ahead. I know how hard it’s going to be and I know what I need to do. It’s time to do it.

Pre race I made my way to the town of Zermatt. Whilst a fairly long day of travelling, it was most efficient. Big kudos to the Swiss! The train and bus system seems impeccable and the long journey was a breeze. Arriving in Zermatt there was a buzz about the town and I went straight to collect my bib which was the easiest registration I’ve ever experienced. No queue. No documentation. I just Walked straight up to the relevant race desk, said my name and within seconds I had my bib number and sponsored goodies. Excellent. I walked straight outside and bought a race branded compresssport hoody and I was done. Off to the hotel and time to relax.

That evening I went for a little walk after food. I found myself wandering aimlessly and ended up following a path along the river before I eventually reached a view point. What a view point it was. Curved benches angled facing the Matterhorn. They were layered out in such a way you could lay back and take it all in. And that’s exactly what I did, for about an hour. I was ready.

Matterhorn in the morning

The hotel I was staying at provided an exceptional service whereby, as the race would start before the breakfast serving, they’d offered to prepare a sandwich lunch to takeaway the evening before. I woke. Ate the lunch and set off for the start line. As I left the hotel, the Matterhorn stood naked and proud in the dark blue morning sky. I was mesmerised. A short while later, to the inevitable violin sounds of ‘epic music’ I was running.

We looped through the main town roads and out to the trails. The streets were lined with early morning support and the atmosphere was calm. Yes, calm. Normally such races feel frantic and rushed, but not this one. The feeling of calm continued.

First climb

As we began the First climb I basked in the calm. I realised that the pack of runners felt different than usual. More Respectful. I wasn’t stressed by the poles (I kept mine packed away as I always do on the first climb). I wasn’t stressed by runners trying to squeeze past in the narrow trails. Everyone seemed content in their place and with the day ahead. It was unusual but an absolute delight. As we peaked the first summit it was starting to brighten. The sun was rising ahead of us and I stopped a few times for a view of the Matterhorn. I didn’t quite realise at this point that I would see it all day from different angles. Obvious really!!

Morning broke
New kit!

 

We hit the first downhill section and it was fairly runnable. Not too technical, not too narrow. The runners opened up and many sped past me as we galloped down the switchbacks. Soon we’d hit the valley below and the second climb to Gornergrat, would begin. This would be the big one.

Swiss trails
Climbing

The climb was long. It went on. The sun was shining bright now. We climbed through forest tracks and open fields. The sweat came. I was dripping. I watched the droplets form and then fall off the brim of my hat. My face was drenched and my lips could taste the never ending flow of salt. The pace was slow but steady. All around me was still calm, it was tranquil. Without doubt the most peaceful race I’ve done. I could hear very little, mostly just the roar of water in the distance, not even wind. I continued with a smile on my face.

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runners on the ridgeline

Near the top the route briefly flattened out into a very wide track. I could hear noise above me but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Cheering, support, the calm was broken. There was a building up higher alongside me. It was an observation tower/view point up on top of the ridge and then I saw them. Runners runnning along the ridgeline. We’d be climbing a little more then looping back along the stunning ridge.

Views!
Summit smiles
Gornegrat

Up top I stopped to picture the mountains. I met another runner, Jason, as we savoured the moment. He’d done the mountain race last year and come back for the superior views of the sky race this year. He was right about it, the views were stunning. I later looked up the Gornegrat and hadn’t quite realised what I’d run too. At 3,100m high (highest I’ve ever run!) The views take in the Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier; and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m, including, of course, the Matterhorn in all its glory. Wow. It’s also home to the world’s first fully electrified cog railway (now Europe’s highest open-air cog railwat) and Europe’s highest-altitude hotel. Quite a place.

Matterhorn

I refilled my bottles and Tailwind at the aid station and ran down past all the early morning tourists who arrived on the train. The run down was again very fast. A brief period of rocky technical terrain but again very runnable. With a consistent run for a few kms it wasn’t long before I reached the next check point. I heard it first though. Loud, deep music filled the air as I ran down into the aid station, first joining with the runners of the shorter Active race who joined the course here. There were a lot of them. As I refilled my bottles again I listened to the source of the deep music. Three men playing ridiculously long horns. The sound was fantastic.

Horny

I headed off into a now busy pack of runners, the pace was good though as they were probably fresher than I was and the terrain was forgiving. We then hit the infamous suspension bridge. Holy shit that was scarier than I expected. It was maybe a few hundred metres long but it was high.. steel cables suspending a steel grate walkway that wobbled, yes wobbled, under the wait of its cargo. I tried to film it but I was walking like I was pissed, swaying from side to side and bashing into the railings. I’m pretty ok with heights but this was horrible and I was glad when it ended!

Wobble bridge

Back on solid ground we continued running and came closer to the Matterhorn. Just wow. It doesn’t matter how many times I stopped and looked at it, each angle, each variance in shadow and cloud cover gave it a new unique look, I was mesmerised and couldn’t stop trying to get a photo that would do my memory justice.

Trail porn
matterhorn

We climbed some more, but all I can recall is the Matterhorn. We ran down from the summit and I remember this one was a little bit more tricky with large rocks and steps, steep switchbacks zigzagging down, runner after runner bounded past me as I clang to the sides to make way. As we bottomed out the two routes webt their separate ways as the Active runners headed back to the finish whilst us Sky runners head, well, back up to the sky! The was more climbing to be done…

Best waterfall

I soon met Jason again and we chatted briefly as we started the climb and acknowledged there as just one more climb and a ‘little dip’ to go. I very quickly let him run on though as I stopped for more photos – as if my eyes hadn’t been treated to enough spectacular views already, the best was still to come…The views were insane. The route took as right up close against a towering waterfall that was gushing with water. The sound was ferocious as water poured over the cliff edge. Amazing in itself, but then as I looked around and, of course, the Matterhorn was there too. Towering behind the waterfall. The perfect backdrop.

Just wow

I wanted to stay here for the rest of the day. It was a special place. I’ve seen many incredible sights in my life, but this one stole me. I was captured in this moment. Not quite emotional, but probably not far off. I seriously contemplated sticking around and making myself at home. I’d beaten the last cutoff checkpoint, I had plenty of time to spare and nowhere to be. I don’t know what made me leave, but I did. As tempting as it was, I had a run to finish. The climb was steep and tough. I was watching the elevation map on my watch which quite frankly is frustrating. To watch a little dot barely move was irritating, but at the same time it was intriguing to see where on the climb I was.

Soon we made it and it was that time again to head down. This was the worst of the downhill sections for me. It was very steep and rocky, by far the most technical and a load of runners passed me, probably all of those who I powered passed on the incline. Same old story.

Jasson arrived just after me with the opposite story, he was hating the climbs but loving the descents. I joked that it was all his from here, the last climb was nothing compared to everything we’d climbed that day and a long downhill was the final assault to the finish line, I joked I’d see him again as he runs passed me when we descend. Up we went and true to the route profile the climb was pleasant. As we climbed, a rock almost as big as a football, came hurtling down between me and the runner behind. It was bouncing wildly and thumping at the mountain with each impact. It passed before we could process it and before we both had time to swear. If that had impacted, it would have been game over. No questions. We shouted down below, probably a futile attempt at warning other runenrs. We were both in shock. However, as the climb ended, the views once more were truly spectacular as we circumnavigated the mountains with the Matterhorn to our side and slowly drifting behind us.

Final climbs
bye bye Matterhorn

It tried to rain and that gave me the energy to power on. I didn’t want to have to stop and get the rain jacket out. It was cold though, the rain droplets like ice as they hit your skin. The long run around the mountain soon ended and up ahead runners disappeared off the horizon, it was time to descend for the last time. But not before I had a quick chat with these adorable sheep hiding between some rocks. Valais Black Nose sheep apparently, like something out of star wars.

Star wars sheep

Of all the descents, this felt the quickest. I once again let lots of runners passed. One guy stuck with me though and refused to pass. We were going pretty fast I suppose. We joked all the way down as every turn and opportunity I gave him the chance to leapfrog ahead, everytime he laughed and refused. We hit the flat of Zermatt and we stepped on it. Back on the main streets there was one final turn, one final offer to the smiley runner to pass, he refused once more and I hit it, few hundred metres, sprint finish, why not!

At the finish line Jason was there. We exchanged photo duties and met Pritt from Estonia (A marathon I’ll be doing in two weeks time). We may just meet again. The three of us sat and enjoyed the post race meal, reminisced about the adventure before going our separate ways.

Finisher

For me, my warm up was done. 2 out of 3 races in August complex, half the cumulative distance covered, a third of the elevation and less again if the total time on my feet. I’ve 84 hours to recover and get to the start line of the TDS…

Stour Valley Gold

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Stour Valley Path

Stour Valley Gold. A loosely fitting title for this post, but one that seems all so relevant. Not only is it a beverage served at the finish line of the SVP 50/100 (I think and hope that is what it was called!) but also a direct reference to the golden shades of the many, many fields run through along the course. The Stour Valley really was golden this year…

The SVP100 is becoming a it of a tradition for me. This was my third year running the SVP100. What began as my second ultra in 2017 has now escalated into my 20th Ultra. What the fuck. 20th?! No wonder my body aches (there’s also been 9 road marathons in that time)! It makes sense now I count them!

Each year has been different. SVP100 2017 was new to me and I was naive, oh so very naive. It whipped my butt for sure and taught me so much about ultra running. For the SVP100 2018 I ran it with others and shared the experience as part of my training for the CCC, this year however it was all about me. For me. I did it for the T-shirt. If you don’t know about it – the finishers T-shirt is green for the SVP100 (grey for the SVP50 and yellow for the volunteers). But on your third completion, you get a black ‘3-star’ t-shirt. I wanted it. I did this race for a T-shirt. Yep, that is who I am now. (I have since found out you get another ‘5-star’ black t-shirt when you complete it 5 times. I need to not think about that!!). What ever motivations are out there, running a race for a slightly different t-shirt is valid inspiraation in my eyes!

I ran the race this year mostly on my own. I needed too. Firstly as I have some niggles I’m conscious of, and wanted to be in complete control of, my race, and secondly for more brain and pain training. With the TDS and other longer ultras in the calendar I once again need to get accustomed to being alone with my mind when things get though. That being said, I didn’t find this one mentally tough. Quite the opposite, I found it very enjoyable. It did get me thinking though, about what has changed. 2 years and 17 ultras apart, my SVP journeys have seen me become a different runner, a different person even…

But before I get into all of that, lets have a quick recap of the actual race. If you are contemplating entering, do so. It is a wicked little race along the Stour Valley Path – a footpath that follows the River Stour through the beautiful Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire countryside, including the Dedham Vale AONB (Dedham Vale ANPOB’s words, not mine). It is a small(ish) sized event of up to about 200 runners on the 100km (since 2018 there is also a 50km route starting in Sudbury and joining for the later part of the 100km route to Manningtree) that is meticulously organised by Matthew (Race Director). The route is delicious, the volunteers and support is immense (go check out the SVP100 community page on Facebook and you’ll see just how helpful everyone is!) and the race itself is very challenging – It is very flat (c900m over the 102km distance) with some tight cut-off times (you need to complete the 100km in 15.5hours). Personally I find some of the mountainous ultras easier than this one. It is not easy!

The weekend began with some less than ideal travel issues. With a 07:00 start on Saturday, overnight accommodation in Newmarket was required. I’d agreed to travel up with Pierre (who I’d stay the night with) and Agata and we each left work to get a train from King’s Cross at about 17:30. We’d be in Newmarket around 19:00 with time for food and prep before an early night. Or so we thought. We were each disrupted on our way to King’s Cross by some train issues. Whilst I made it, Agata and Pierre (who had the train tickets!) didn’t. It soon became apparent that there was a bit of a problem. A big problem. A National Grid power outage had hit the UK and King’s Cross was one of the worst affected stations (we later found out that trains from 17:30 were cancelled as the station was closed and the first train didn’t leave again until 21:30!). Sometime later Agata and I had found each other and went to a restaurant near the station as we waited for Pierre to arrive. Around 20:00, with Pierre now with us and a belly fully of pizza and pasta, we gave up and headed to Liverpool Street where we managed to get a slower train to Cambridge and then we took a taxi to Newmarket. Arriving at 23:00 was not what we’d hoped for.

Pierre and I were staying in the White Hart pub next door to the race registration point in the Town Hall. Ideal, except that the White Hart also seemed to be a late night bar. So if you are contemplating a good night sleep before an Ultra marathon then this might not be the best choice! Thankfully though our little adventure meant we were ready for sleep and we passed out quickly enough.

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Ready to run

We woke up just before 06:00, rolled into the Town Hall next door and registered before returning to the room and getting ready. 06:50 we joined the rest of the runners outside as we began the (now familiar to me) walk to the start line. Moments after arriving, Matthew let off the air horn and the SVP100 was underway (not before Agata hustled us into a quick start line selfie!). The start of the course includes a few km along the road before turning onto the trail and this year I was a little more conscious not get caught up in the inevitable sprint start. My ankle/foot was still aching from the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and I hadn’t run for the last month until the week before. So I was trying to be wiser (more on that another time though as I’m clearly not so wise seeing as I turned up and started or even booked the race in the first place!) and pace my run. Having done the course twice before I knew what was in store and how challenging it is.

One thing I soon noticed this year is how much more overgrown the route was. Almost immediately this became apparent when a low hanging branch knocked my sunglasses off my head within the first few km of the trails. As I turned around to pick them up another runner unknowingly tread on them and bust the arm. Dammit. Several more times throughout the day my hat was pinched off my head by an overgrown branch. I saw it happen to a few others too, a little amusing each time. I know that prior to the race volunteers and other runners had been out cutting back the foliage but it was still noticeably more overgrown (healthier!?) than previous years. Thankfully, despite a few thorn scratches on the arms and itchy legs it had no ill effects for me.

This year we were also treated to some cooler (less sunny!) temperatures but some pretty ferocious winds. Whilst I thought this was a good thing – the majority of the time I felt sheltered by trees and bushes and found the wind to be incredibly cooling on the skin – I do believe there were some incidents for other runners where the high winds caused problems. For me the only problem it did cause was a slight ache in my neck later in the day as the wind caught in my beard and forced my head to tilt as I ran!! Beard problems tough life!

Beyond that the run went to plan. Or better than planned, and the route treated me kindly. One of the things I really like about this event is how the aid stations are dispersed along the route of the SVP100. They start off further apart and the distance between them decreases as you near the end. The aid stations, as always, were full of incredible volunteers going out of their way to support and help you. Maybe it is my memory (and needs?) but I feel this year they were stocked even better than previous years and I had a few particular favourites in the homemade fudge(!) at the third aid station and the Strawberries at the fifth aid station. Those were perfect treats for me and hit the spot when I needed something different!

Shortly before I reached the second aid station, as I walked up one of the lush golden fields (which I recall from last year when a drone was filming overhead), I was greeted by the familiar face that is Mark (“Stour Valley Parry” as I called him – he was also tackling the 100km for the third year in a row). We ran and chatted for a little while before he darted off and, as he put it, we played out the slowest car chase imaginable as I tried to keep him in sight as he edged further and further away.

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Mark Parry running through the golden fields

I carried on, admittedly faster than my intended pace, and I was soon playing leap frog with a gentleman in a green SVP finishers top (apologies I never got your name!). He was so smiley and friendly and we spent the rest of the day cheering each other on and laughing each time he’d somehow pop up from behind me. Usually because he’d stopped for a pint of Guinness(!) in a pub or to pick some apples from trees. He was having the best time and his laugh was contagious (thanks for being there!).

I reached the half-way point (third aid station) after about 5hrs 20mins. This felt very strong and rapid. But I knew it was too fast. I didn’t need to be going at this pace and had to talk myself into slowing down in the second half of the race. I had nothing to win here, only everything to lose if I were to injury myself ahead of the next few races. Thankfully a few wrong turns and a few hills helped slow me down too! Shortly after the half-way point a few runners went speeding past me and for a moment I was shocked at the speed in which they were running. Soon I realised though that I was out in front of the SVP50 runners and it was like the stampede in the Lion King and I was soon clinging to the edges of the single-track path and signalling them past me as they sped through. This also helped making navigation easier as I could follow more people!

Somewhere before the fourth aid station Hannah also came running through with the SVP50 runners and managed a quick chat before legging it and finishing her first race since coming back from a lengthy spell on the injury table. Nice one Hannah! I also briefly saw Kevin out there volunteering and directing runners which was a huge boost. The support, as always, really is fantastic on this event. Even Stuart, the race photographer, was hi-fiving and cheering runners through every time he snapped a picture and captured their pain/anguish for eternity! Stuart really was immense out there. I’ve no idea how one man managed to appear in so many places (for so long!) and maintain such a high level of enthusiasm whilst working. Thank you Stuart!

One thing I was looking forward to was the Church (St Andrews, Wormingford) which I knew had a tap outside. I couldn’t remember where on the course this particular church was and thought I’d missed it. 75km or so in it appeared and Smiley-Guinness-chugging-Green T-shirt dude and I enjoyed the cooling shower it offered us. We followed this up with then immediately getting lost afterwards by not turning off the road when we should have. Thankfully a car-driver corrected us before we went too far down the hill! That could have been painful.

I carried on through the course, running mostly but at a consistently comfortable plod and walking occasionally when it felt deserved/needed. For the final few miles I played leapfrog with a couple of runners and will always remember the runner in the yellow SVP top pacing another lady. He was so enthusiastic and encouraging and an absolute blast of energy at so late in the race. His support to me and comments about getting that 3-star tee were appreciated! Unlike the herd of cows in the last set of fields who decided to go on a little evening walk about the same time as we wanted to run through. They were some big bastards! Cows navigated, I eventually ran into Brantham and finished the race in just over 12 and a half hours. The fastest of my three SVP finishes. So way better than expected or planned. There was only one thing on my mind though…give me my 3-star finisher tee (apologies to the volunteers if I seemed impatient, I’d been waiting two years in my mind for this one!). A shower and some cheesy beans on chips later, I was chatting away with the Advent Running crew before hopping back on a bus then the train back to London. I left the SVP with the biggest sense of fulfilment from any of my runs to date. This one had been a long time in the making and I can stop obsessing about this particular t-shirt. Now about that 5-start tee……

Earlier in this post I mentioned I’d been thinking. Thinking about those 17 ultras in between and what has happened during this ‘long time in the making’. Running the route mostly on my own I spent a lot of time reflecting. It was easy to do so as memories from previous SVPs came thick and fast and, naturally, I drew comparisons (trees and fields in particular – I was constantly amazed at how golden the wheat fields were this year!). This led to my mind thinking about me. Reflecting on myself as a runner and as a person, as to how I’ve changed since that second ultra marathon back in 2017….

In the running sense, I am a different runner now to the one I was back in 2017. As I write this and counted the races I’ve done in the last two years I let out an audible “fuck me”. I knew I’d done a few, but it hadn’t quite registered I’d gone from a complete newbie to a fairly experienced 20 times Ultra marathoner within the space of two years. So it makes sense that I’ve changed, and each race, each challenge has contributed to that in many ways… If it might interest you to find out more, then have a read here… I’ve separated it out as it ended up becoming quite a lengthy brain fart and not all that relevant to the SVP100….

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One of the many Pictures captured by Stuart

The Running Effect

Running has changed me…

Whilst recapping my different experiences over 2 years whilst running the Stour Valley Path Ultra, I started to think about what is different and how I have changed in that time. I surprised myself when I realised there has been 17 ultras between my first SVP100 and my latest. I surprised myself a little more when I started thinking about how this has changed me… so as a recap (or if you’ve not read about my latest SVP100 adventure):

  • SVP 2017 broke me. It was me alone and chatting with strangers. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. There was very little pre-thought or strategising. I was destroyed for weeks afterwards.
  • SVP 2018 was enjoyable for the company. Ged & Chris made the race for me. I didn’t have to think about anything. Just talking and enjoying the ‘camaraderie’ on the trails.
  • SVP 2019 was for me and me alone. I did it for the t-shirt. For the confidence and for my brain. It was beautiful. I went into it with different types of goals, a sort of plan, but to focus on specific aspects of my running and adventure. I was clear in my mind that I’d run comfortably, consistently and with particular attention to my foot placement. I didn’t want any ankle rolling incidents. Mentally I was at ease with the distance and the challenges ahead. I was calm. This comes from experience. Something I didn’t have in 2017 nor 2018 (despite it being my second time).

Experience. That indeed I now have. I can now say I know what it feels like to run an ultra marathon. The physical and mental experiences. That I know what I need to do during such a run, to turn negatives into positives. To keep going when it feels like I can no longer do so. Experience and wisdom are so valuable and important during endurance events and my runs are now very much dictated by these. Many things have changed as I’ve gathered these skills…

I look back at my early ultras and what I had kit wise and carried along the runs. Without doubt I have better kit now. It isn’t all essential and you don’t need expensive or top of the range gear, but it does make a difference. Yes you can run marathons and ultras in any old thing really and it all comes down to your preference. But in my opinion better quality kit does make a difference, especially when you’re running as far and as often as I now do. The ease, the lightweight materials, the comfort, understanding different trail shoes for different purposes etc. Having the choices to define your decisions at key points on a long run is a great privilege to have.

I now have my go to strategies and tactics. Things I like, things I want, things I try not to deviate away from (like Tailwind, Tailwind, Tailwind!). I go in to races with a certainty in my approach and options to support my plans. I’ll study the route, the elevation, I’ll plan when I might struggle, when I might need support or something particular from my kit. At the SVP100, like most of my ultras, Tailwind was the basis of my nutrition. I genuinely love the stuff and refill 2 x 500ml of Tailwind at every aid station. That’s my default calorie, nutrition and salt intake right there. Yes I’m still greedy and pig out when I can, but no longer am I reliant on aid stations as I was 2 years ago.

Speaking of aid stations, I eat more fruit now. Far more fruit in fact. I didn’t see that coming (I blame growing up with a pretty horrific diet of processed foods!). If there are oranges and watermelon at an aid station I will go straight for them. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits and sweets are now secondary options. It is now a rule I now have. Other rules I tend to abide by include:

  • Headphones. I carry headphones but will never use them. They are there for that real emergency boost. I have no doubt that one day I will hit such a low that I can’t be left alone with my thoughts. Until that day comes, the headphones will remain in the bag and I will enjoy my surroundings and thoughts in peace and embrace them.
  • Coke. I’ve a rule that I won’t drink coke before halfway in a race. No real reason other than I know I like it so much, so I hold-off and make it something I have to earn. But also, no more than 3 cups at any one aid station. I want to have teeth left to smile at the finish line.
  • If there is hot/substantial food on offer, I must eat it. Be it soup or noodles or pasta or potatoes. Get it down you. Some proper fuelling, whether I feel like it or not, is going to be so useful at a later point. Food in general, whether hungry or not I make myself eat.
  • I always carry a spare (third) soft flask (500ml). Despite best efforts, you won’t know what the conditions are until you are living them. Be it a hotter day than expected, getting lost, or just how I feel during the run, having the option to carry more water is a conscious decision I make. I drink (sip) plenty and often and always carry a reserve option!
  • Don’t stop moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I feel like shit, moving forward no matter how slowly is better than staying where I am and not moving. Keep moving forward, towards the finish.

In a similar way to my tactics and strategies, I’m consciously more aware when I run. Aware of my surroundings (simultaneously managing to always look at the floor and my foot placements but also enjoy the scenery I run through!) and aware of my thoughts. I embrace my thoughts. I’m then better equipped to react and deal with them. I’m more aware of my body and how I feel and I’m able to focus on that, not only understanding when to push it and when to take it easier but being able to know when to make those decisions at the right time!

I’m kinder on myself. Taking those decisions and understanding the longer term (in the sense of the run I’m doing) implications of them. That it is okay to not only walk, but to walk a lot! That done in the right way, this doesn’t have such a drastic impact on overall time as you might think and that the benefits to energy and how you feel can be quite significant. Walk with intent as I call it.

I used to be a sucker for running for a specific time (even on trail) and constantly looking at my watch. But now, fuck the time and fuck the distance. I don’t buy into this ‘naked running’ / leave your watch at home crap though – Just change the settings. We all want a record of our run. If not to go back and analyse at some point then to show off to our mates and strangers whom we’ll never meet. It’s self validation, a part of us is wired that way. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I do however no longer care about the distance or time. Yes I could choose not to sign up to a race or to choose a different distance, but I get a challenge and enjoyment from the ‘longer’ (its all relative!) stuff. But once you start, you can’t change the distance. You need to cover that no matter what. Time? Blah. If you’ve read a few of my blogs you’ll know I once did give a shit and why I no longer do. My validation is now in completion. The achievement of getting the challenge done. So it is irrelevant to me to see time or distance on my watch. Until I hit the finish line there is still plenty of work to be done! What I find does help is being aware of my average pace. As contradictory as it sounds, distance and time is a factor and there will always be a cut off time and a realistic/best estimate finish time. So as long as I know what that averages out at over the course of the event, I can work out (if I need/want too) what is left or how I’m performing. And there will always be check points, indications of distance and time of day (like the sun in the sky!) and questions/conversations you’ll inevitably ask or hear (“how far to the next checkpoint”, “only x  miles to go” etc.). So fuck times. Fuck distance. I go out with one job. To finish. I know what is needed to get there. No matter what, what average needs to be maintained.

And as a person… how has running changed me?

mmmh. This was a bit like writing a CV or a performance management appraisal document of some sort. “I’m a good person”, “People would describe me as bubbly”…fuuuuuck. It didn’t start off that way nor did I intend for it to end up like that. It’s another mind dump. The words just kept coming and I babbled on about me, myself and I. Maybe there is even an analogy of some sort in there. Is the ‘me’ the same as the ‘I’? Do these represent different iterations of my growth. Bollocks to all that. I’m trying to be too clever now. I’ve changed a little bit is all. Hopefully for the better. Shit chat aside, I feel like I’m a better person these days and I think running has something to do with it….

  • I’m less frustrated. I used to get wound up a lot. Never angry (except with my mum, she’s always bared the brunt of that for some reason – sorry mum, love ya!) though, mostly just frustrated. This would normally be a work thing too. I think I’m more accepting these days.
  • I’m less pedantic. Hoooooo. I love a bit of pedantry. It used to cloud my judgement though. I couldn’t see the bigger picture because I was too busy being a prick about the finer details. Still happens (did I mention I love a but of pedantry?) but I’m more accepting of being corrected and put in my place now.
  • I’m less touchy about things. I used to let things get to me. You know when something didn’t go as planned, when you were put out by something. That. I don’t care so much any more and am more accepting of the need to adapt and change.
  • I’m more tolerable. Not as in I’m more tolerable to be around (c’mon, I’m always tolerable to be around!), but as in I’m more tolerable of others and things beyond my control. I guess its the whole ‘change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change’ thingy.
  • I’m more willing. In many ways. More willing to try stuff, to do stuff, to inconvenience myself for the better good etc. I suppose this is an acceptance that everything isn’t centred around me and my needs and that I should put others before myself sometimes.
  • I’m more confident. Oh for sure I’m more confident. Be it at work or at home, running has given me that. Confident in my own thoughts, decisions and opinions. Confident in my own rationalisation of things and handling of situations. I finally accept that I know what I’m doing and I should portray that confidently.
  • I’m still very stubborn though. Possibly a negative way to describe determination, but it is a trait that is certainly useful in running and daily in achieving the things I set out to achieve! I don’t like being told what to do, which in a running sense means I probably couldn’t be coached!
  • I’m wiser. I rely on experiences more. Whilst maybe not in the running sense (not always smarter! As my race calendar would indicate!). I’m learning more to rely on those past experiences for comparison and accept the gut feelings in my decision making.
  • I’m more in tune with my body. This doesn’t mean I treat it with respect. Quite the opposite in fact. But I listen. I feel. I sense what is right and what is wrong. What I need to do and when I need to adapt. I’m accepting that some things are inevitable. Like injuries. Yes I can prevent them, but given the nature of running (and cycle commuting in London), I know one day I won’t avoid the inevitable and I’ll have to accept the consequences and deal with it. I’m strangely at ease with that thought.
  • My mental strength is strong, stronger than it has ever been. It’s been trained. Through running, through suffering and pain. I think it is one of, if not ‘the’, my strongest attributes. If I was on a running version of ‘top trumps’ it might well be my top power and special ability. I accept the dark thoughts, the difficult places, I accept I need to spend time with them and not let them consume or dictate me. As a result, I comfortable with them and can deal with them when I need to.
  • I cut out the negativity in  my life. Sounds harsher than it is. I do what I want when I want and for my own benefit. Gone are the times of hanging on to people or things for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to be surrounded by negativity or things that drag me down. I respect myself enough now to only accept the positives into my life.

mmmh. There is a theme here. Acceptance. I accept running has changed me. I believe it has, and for the better. I also accept it might be the best midlife-crisis* I could have hoped for!

* I am not having a mid-life crisis. It is just a joke. Accept it. It was funny.

 

Chaos is a Ladder

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.

If you know Game or Thrones, you’ll know the quote by Petyr Baelish. Whilst there are many specific and more subtle meanings in this quote within the story’s context, I think it’s apt to the the recent experience of running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. A 120km trail race through the mountainous Dolomites.

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Pre-race grimmace

It was chaotic. People clambering to ‘climb the ladder’. It was literally a climb – With over 5,500m or elevation, it’s a hilly run. Many attempted it, some 1,800 runners. Many failed and were broken by it – nearly 30% of the starters didn’t finish. Many succeeded, they clung to it. Why? good question. Illusions of grandeur perhaps, but the ‘ladder’ was certainly real and we all fought for our moment on the ‘iron throne’…

It would be too easy for me to follow he route of Game of Thrones comparisons. It would be trying too much and really there are no comparisons. I merely thought of that quote as repeated to myself early on that ‘this is chaotic”.

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Team Cortina Trail

We were staying in a hotel situated on the final approach to the start/finish. This was great for making it easy logistically and something I’m not used to. About an hour before the start, Sonia and I casually rocked up to the crowd of runners. There were 1,800 doing the 120km and it was carnage. Absolute mayhem. We couldn’t get anywhere near the starting pen. We couldn’t even make it onto the road. Runners and family/friends blocked the streets both sides and the shoving began. It was like the rush hour on the tube. Somehow Paul found us in the massives. We spent the time waiting for the start getting intimately fondled and prodded from all angles. We waited as the elites were introduced and the MCs spoke about the event. The Epic theme music replaced the classic rock anthems and the countdown began. As the count hit zero the runners charged. 

They charged forward and that meant many charged into space that wasn’t there. The pushing and shoving intensified as people impatiently tried to squeeze through people and barriers. Bunch of bellends the lot of them. After minutes of being shoved I’d been pushed into the start pen and was able to move of my free will. But not very far as the stampede bust through the barriers either side and runners clambered in where ever they could and the pile up continued. Selfishly, without thinking of Sonia or Paul I ran. I wanted away from these assholes. Away from as many of them as I could before the bottleneck of the first climb. I was charging through the street, a gradual incline, at a near 7 min mile pace. I was sweating already. I passed Yvette, Kevin and Jess and ploughed forward. A few km later the bottle neck came and I kept to the outside and filtered in. Now I could begin to relax a little. We’d climb. It would be like any other race – runners would fumble with poles. People would bunch up and some would squeeze past. I’d power up. Poles kept in the bag for the first climb as I always do. Finding my space and freedom as we ascended 500m or so.

The track was mostly gravel. One thing I noticed in the torch light was the fine mist of dust kicked up by the runners. I could see it and I could feel it. In my eyes and gritty in my throat. It wasn’t pleasant. But the climb wasn’t too bad. The gravel path soon widened and there was plenty of space. This was very much the case for the first two climbs and their subsequent descents. The Paths were wide twisting switchbacks, Easy to climb and very runnable. Many runners were running up them too including Cajsa who passed me early on.

The climb was followed by a fast descent as we approached the first aid station. Here the tranquillity of the night was replaced by the air of assholes again. The pushing and shoving returned as the small aid station was woefully inadequate to support thousands of runners charging in.

We piled up like clubbers 3-4 deep at a bar. Arms reaching through like a zombie apocalypse storming a safe-hold. Shouts of “aqua, aqua” filled the tents as the volunteers struggled with demand. I couldn’t understand why they were filling small (~2 litre ) jugs with water to then pour them into the runner’s bottles held our. It was so inefficient as 1-2 runners would be filled whilst the rest waited for the jug to be replenished. It took a long time before I had water again and I was refilled and able to head back out into the night and more wide gravel climbs and fast descents.

Despite the chaos I was enjoying the run. It felt good. I felt quick. My average pace was far quicker than usual in such races. No doubt helped by the wide and forgiving tracks. I was smiling as in continued on and began the second climb to Forc Son Forca (which was higher than the first). I recall the vast openness of the night. The climb through the wide roads broke free from the trees and the dark night sky with shinning stars covered us like a blanket. the higher we climbed the clearer the night sky became. In the quietness or the climb it was surreal and almost relaxing (panting aside!) and thankfully as we descended again and reached the second aid station it was thankfully was far less crowded. At some point during the night I whacked my right foot on a rock. I can’t recall exactly how it happened whether I kicked a rock, slipped and scrapped it or twisted it. I remember it happening though and breaking the night silence with a groan as I felt the rock scratch through my trainers on the outside of the foot. It was throbbing now but not preventing me from running.

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Morning broke over the lakes

It was now gone four in the morning and I was over 20 miles in. As I climbed the next, biggest yet, climb towards Forc Lavaredo, I sensed it would soon begin to get light. And as I climbed higher and higher the night sky became evidently more vibrant and blue. Dawn was coming. In the darkness of night cowbells rang out from the forest and fields around us. Cattle were beginning to wake and birds began their morning rituals with songs calling out from the trees. A short descent through the forest kept the light at bay for a little longer before we broke free onto the first of many lakes. Morning was here. The mountains glowed red in the morning sun. I stopped for pictures as runners ran on around me.

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Mountains reflecting in the lake

As we circumnavigated the first and then a second lake I continued snapping away. This is one of my favourite moments of any such race – Enduring the night and being treated to a spectacular sunrise in incredible places. And this was special. I captured the reflection of the mountains in the water and smiled to myself as I began the next stage of the run and continued to climb to Forc Lavaredo. The day ahead would inevitably be tough with high temperatures predicted.

 

The climb was the next challenge as it became steeper and steeper and seemed to go on and on. As I powered up, fresh off the sunrise treat, a voice called out. It was Paul. He must have legged it through the streets last night even quicker than I. I’d assumed I’d be ahead of him as I was the first of us to break free of the start line. We chatted away as we climbed. Both agreeing how great we’d found the run so far, despite Paul acknowledging how tired he was from a lack of sleep and how close he was to falling asleep on his poles.

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Reunited with Paul

At the top, incredible views awaited as we saw layers of mountains extending in all directions. A few pictures and some hot noodle soup for breakfast and we were back out. The next section continually presented us with rocky mountain panoramic views before we were soon presented with the iconic Tre Cime rocks – Three rocks formed at the peak. Huge. We were dwarfed in their shadows.

Paul was in pain here. His knee very uncomfortable and making it difficult to run the descent. Miraculously though it soon fixed itself and he legged it on ahead, rapidly descending as the gravel tracks subtly began to become more rocky.

The descent then turned into a behemoth of a downhill as we dropped over 1000m. A glacier stream was soon roaring beside us as we ran switch backs and long straights that were loose rocks. Mostly small but very loose underfoot. Paul ran on ahead as I struggled with the terrain. It immediately brought back memories of the riverbed in Trans Gran Canaria and my face winched. I walked and skipped a lot of the decline chatting away to a guy from Yeovil. He shared stories of his runs and was quite experienced with numerous podium finishes but had rolled his ankle during the night and was struggling a bit. We kept going until the sound of the water intensified and we reached the bottom of the descent around Landro. Up ahead we had to cross the fast moving river. Whilst not too wide, it was knee high and runners were contemplating which of three approaches they’d choose – (1) plough straight in and through (2) remove their shoes and socks and hobble across the rocks (3) continue further on and try to hop across larger stones and avoid the water as much as possible. It wasn’t a question for me. I was a numero uno runner. I grabbed a photo and waded in. It was glorious. With the early morning temperature already excessive, the ice cold water was a relief. It numbed my sore feet which were burning from grinding on the rocks and chilled my bones. I dunked my hat and drenched my body before running on.

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Cooling water

Next was a very gradual climb of about 7km to Cimabanche which would mark the half way point. This whole section I was aware of from the profile as it was the best part of 20km from the aid station at Rif. Auronzo (before Tre Cime) to the ‘halfway point’ at Cimabanche. A fair stretch in the middle of a scorching ultra. I was glad I was here so early in the morning before it got too hot. I power hiked on. My foot aching from the bump in the night. It was getting hotter as we carried on. I talked to several runners including a French guy who was also suffering from a rolled ankle. Common theme here? Despite acknowledging how little running he’d be able to do, he pointed out we were still hitting a sub 20 hour pace. I laughed. This was ridiculous, but he was right. The night really had been rapid!

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Gradual Climbs

Runners from the Ultra Dolomites 90km race soon started powering past (and I mean powering as the lead runners ran the incline!) and the atmosphere intensified a little as I cheered them on and the half way point came into view. For the first time along the race there was support and we were clapped into the aid station. Inside it was small. I grabbed my drop bag and found Paul and his brother Nick. I joined them, grabbed a whole bottle of coke and began my halfway ritual of a wet wipe shower and change of clothes before dumping any unnecessary extra kit in my drop bag. Paul headed out and I told him I’d catch him up after a shit. Yep. Toilet talk. It’s gonna happen in an ultra race. Your body needs to function and running and eating will give you a need. Frustratingly I couldn’t relieve myself prior to the race so expected I’d need to at some point along the way. Whilst I wasn’t desperate, now felt like an opportune moment. I dropped my bag off in the van to return it to the finish and sought out a toilet. There were two portaloos. Neither with toilet paper. Whilst I had my own stash, I didn’t want to unpack my bag to retrieve it and couldn’t stand staying in the stench of the hot box any longer than I needed. I left. I shared my frustrations with an Italian lady. This was quite ridiculous – with the two races meeting here at Cimabanche, there would be over 2,500 runners passing through. Add in a few hundred more for friends/family/crew/volunteers and locals, two toilets is pathetically insufficient. It made me think that, despite the best efforts of all the volunteers, the aid stations and facilities were just inadequate for the scale of the race. The only negative on an otherwise excellent organisation.

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Views

Anyway, I was back out running again. We passed under a major road via a storm drain (some runners were injured hitting their heads here!) and I was climbing again towards Forc Lerosa. Soon I rejoined Paul once more. Then everything changed as we descended from Forc Lerosa….

We were about 70km in. 50km to go. The race changed. What so far had been a fairly “easy” and enjoyable run became and absolute bastard. Fuck the second half. It can fuck right off. My optimism left me. My desire to take photos and embrace my surroundings went with it. I didn’t hit a particular dark place. But I wasn’t enjoying the run any longer and I don’t want to recall the second half. I’m not ready to talk about it in the same detail. It can fuck right off. The short version goes a little something like this…

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Varied Terrain

The ‘Valley of death’, ‘death canyon’, ‘hell’, ‘shitsville’, ‘that shit bit’. It adopted many names. A long, very long, stretch of rocky terrain (loose fist sized rocks) that extended in a canyon/valley far beyond one’s eyesight. No one was running. It wasn’t runnable. We crossed streams after streams, many of which were again knee high and the current strong. Runners embraced them. Some sat in them. We all drank from them. Each one became like a party as we escaped the heat momentarily. It was fucking hot. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass. There was no shelter from the midday sun at high 30degrees. We trekked on and on. Soon climbing. Every time we came across water runners would set up camp and cool all over again. The river was our lifeline. It cooled us. Iced our pains (to the point it was painfully cold even!). Nourished and hydrated us. Without it who knows what would have happened. The scenery was breathtaking. The adventure was painstaking. There was no obvious end or path in sight. The stretch continued into the distant horizon.

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Shitsville

Hours later we emerged at a ‘water station’. I sat and waited for Paul to arrive. He did. I felt shit. He looked shit. So I probably looked shit too. He verbalised it. He was struggling in the sun and questioned whether he could continue. It wasn’t a question for me. He was going to continue and finish. We had over a marathon to go. We still had a few km to climb out of the death valley. He had no choice here but to keep going forward. We rested then set off again.

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Sanctuary

As we neared the summit, Paul was wobbling a little as he climbed. We were seeking shade. We needed a break from the heat and he wanted to be sick. We passed a guy laying against a rock. We checked up on him, Like everyone we encountered he said he was feeling the impact. Not far passed him a huge rock offered a shadow and shade. We took the offer and sat down, exhausted. We hydrated and ate. We cooled a little and farted a lot. I’d reapplied sun cream at the previous water station but was feeling the burn. Then Paul heaved. He threw his guts up with a thunderous roar disturbing the other runner resting. Like before with his knee he was instantly better. We carried on.

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No escape from the sun

The rest of the run followed a similar theme – We walked. Slowly at times. We hobbled over the rocky terrain. Before each descent were steep inclines. Some where tough and the sweat dropped off us. More and more runners ran passed as we slowed and slowed. Each check point ticked off the kilometres. 40 became 30 became 25 became 20. Hours passed in between. Each stop Nick was there supporting and encouraging. A long day for him. The mountains were beautiful. But we cared little about them any longer. We wanted it to be over. As we navigated the ‘Cortina’ trail up and down some ridges of the mountains we visualised the end. Paul was feeling a little rough again, his feet and knees hurting. My feet were destroyed. Hot spots and blisters making my walking pathetic. At the penultimate aid station of Passo Giau I sought out the medical team to treat my blisters. As I took off my socks there was nothing there. Hot spots yes, but blisters no. What I did have though was a bit of trench foot. I needed something and and they agreed to “wrap” my feet. As they did I saw the swelling on my right foot. A large lump which they addressed with padding. That knock in the early night had done some damage it was raw and bruised.

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Strapped feet (post race)

Strapped up we headed back out, Navigated the final climb and began the long descent to the finish. The last aid station marked 8km remaining. We took a moment (longer than planned because I’m slow and a fiddler with my bag) layering up as it would soon be dark as we hit the forest and as we left saw Reka arrive. She was on the 90km and ran straight through the aid station and said “are you coming” as we laughed her off.

 

We power walked and skipped down hill for the the next 5km or so. Gravity moving us faster than we wanted. The descent was a little technical and very slippery in the moist soil of the forest. Like the end of any ultra, it dragged on. Occasionally the lights of Cortina flickered in the distance. Always far away. Always far below. It never seemed to come closer. About 3 times in this section I rolled my ankle. We were mostly silent other than the expletive rants every time we hurt ourselves. The only entertainment was Paul’s increasing inability to walk. As he powered forward and tired he constantly tripped himself up with his poles. Numerous times he came close to stacking it entirely.

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Sunset before the final descent

We broke free of the forest and were welcome to a “2km to go” sign. The church tower at the finish line stood out in the distance and we walked on. Finally we hit the Main Street. We put on a ‘brave face’ and ran the last few hundred metres through the town. The party goers and supporters cheered us in and we faked it till we made it. High-fiving supporters down the finishing stretch. We held hands and crossed the line together. The rest of the team there to see us finish just before 11pm, some 24 hours after we started.

We shared the sunset and sunrise over the Dolomites. We shared the darkness of the challenge and the literal highs and lows of the adventure. We shared a beer as we collected our finishers rain jacket (ironic given how fucking hot the day had been). We shared an adventure in the mountains we’ll never forget.

It really was a race of two halves for sure. The first 66km we’d completed feeling strong in under ten hours. The next 54km took over 14 hours. I learned a lot this weekend. Some key things for me were:

  • Never to get too comfortable or underestimate a run. The illusions of grander I had at half way and possibly getting close to a 20 hour finish were naive. Anticipate and expect what lays ahead, never forget that these challenges, marathons even, will chew you up and spit you out.
  • Mountains are rocky. They always are and will be. Why I think some runs will be ‘easier’ I do not know. I should expect rocks. I fucking hate rocks.
  • The decisions to wade into the water I stand by. At the time they were the best. The fresh coolness very much needed. But the consequences and impact on my feet were severe. I should have expected this too. Trench foot is a bastard too. I should have attended to my feet earlier than I did.
  • Chaffing. I chaffed bad. On my lower back from my bag. I’ve a red strip the whole width which is now quite raw. I should have addressed this properly but I never bothered. I need to sort this out as it’s a horrible sensation and not conducive to running.
  • Sharing the trails in such an epic race is one hell of an experience. Having someone around you is so underestimated. Paul and I helped each other through. Gave each other strength. You can’t put a value on that. In October We’ll be running 150km in Poland. I’m so glad Paul will be there again at my side. That will be another whole new challenge! Thanks Paul (and Nick for all the support!)

Be Stiff and Lemon

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Be stiff and lemon. A bunch of lemons

The Samoens Tour du Giffre. A 33km mountain race in the Alps with a little over 2,000m of elevation gain. One of a number of races on the weekend including a monster 90km  (6,500m D+!!) and a VK over a 2km distance. Jana talked me into this one. I didn’t want too initially (I had enough events in the calendar already). But I’m so glad it did. It turned into a trail runners equivalent of a “slumber party”. The plan was simply to eat our body weight in food, run the trails and cheer our hearts out to all the runners out there and have a wickedly excellent time…

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Spot the joker

11 (and a half!) of us rocked up on the Friday, wandered the little town of Samoens aimlessly (searching for ice cream and enjoying a little public gardens area with a waterfall) before registering at the race village and heading to our chalet up in the mountains to relax. Katie took charge in the kitchen and bossed up a wicked risotto dish before we all eventually passed out from the days travels.

Come 7:30am the next day we had joined the crowd in the town centre for the start and were soon speeding through the manic stampede along the streets. There were no game plans. No agreements to run together nor race. All just out there doing our thing and enjoying the trails. We were racing though in the initial pack of starters, an early glance at the watch noted a near 7min mile pace for the first km. Yikes. Thankfully though this was soon stopped as we hit the trail and the immediate bottleneck of the first climb.

For the next 7 or so kilometres we’d be heading up. Up into the clouds. As always on these sorts of races the poles came out. Humans transformed into 4 legged monsters stabbing and probing at everything around them. Each other included. It felt unnecessary. The elevation chart didn’t look ‘that bad’. We’d all opted for the no pole strategy. There should be some sort of rule on mass events that poles aren’t allowed until a certain point, quite frankly they are dangerous in the wrong hands in crowded areas. And most runners seem to be the ‘wrong hands’ incapable of using them properly. Anyway…

We climbed and climbed and I began sweating more and more. They’d predicted thunderstorms, yet we were treated to glorious sunshine throughout (the thunderstorm did arrive later that night, and I believe to fatal consequences in some parts of the region! The 90km was terminated as a result of the storms too!). I was just happy to settle into a nice relaxed rhythm and enjoy the run.

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Glorious views

After a little while I went by Maggie, then Jana and Katie. Towards the summit I could see Rachel and Bucky up ahead too. Each time I caught up with one of them we’d chat briefly and carry on. There was then a shortish downhill section, where Rachel and Bucky sped off into the distance, and I was being taken over constantly. Tens of runners sped past. It was very runnable. I was amazed how fast people were going. Whilst I’m not the most confident nor comfortable running descents, this was quick. Again a glance at the watch noted sub 8 min miles. Speedy for a trail!

A shout cane out ahead, Sarina was there cheering and supporting in the forest as we approached he first aid station (her run was not until Sunday morning). Heading into the aid station (after crossing a temporary scaffold bridge over a main road) I refilled my water (I’d opted for a single Tailwind sachet for this race and Hi-Five electrolyte tabs I bought last year and were soon to expire) and started ploughing into the picnic spread. Salami, cheese and fist fulls of orange slices to start off with (there were two more aid stations later on the route). Katie and Jana came through and carried on, barely stopping to breathe.

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Samoens TDG

Afterwards the down hill continued. A brief flat section broke into some fields and Jana and Katie were up ahead. Jana stopped and waited for me and we continued together before Jana ushered Katie on at her own speed (she’s pretty fucking fast!!) who was like a puppy let off a leash (she’d ran the rest of the route lightening quick and finished well under the 5 hour mark!).

As Jana and I continued, we crossed a little bridge over the river before running another flat section alongside the river which was a very root-laden path. Jana remembered it from her solo adventure in the Alps last summer. She swore at the recollection of the hills we’d soon have to climb. And soon I joined her in the swearing as we started the climb.

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Salo-Twins

Jana and I had a good ol’ chin wag as we climbed. We weren’t quiet. Laughing and joking and catching up on life since we last saw each other back in October at the Lemkowyna trail. We had a lot to talk about and several runners commented as we powered past them. They couldn’t understand how we could talk and climb so quickly. Looking back, it took my mind off the climb and made it pass fairly quickly. We we soon behind Bucky and Rachel again as we hit the second aid station. Jana patiently waited as I grabbed more food and liquid before we continued again. Soon we climbed as a foursome before the summit broke us once more. As we ran down Jana vanished into the distance and I began running with Rachel for quite some time.

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Crossing streams with Rachel

We ran through several streams of water which were absolute bliss. Cold wet and soothing on the sore feet and ankles. I dipped my hat into each to cool down. Annoyingly though the rapid descents and wet feet didn’t agree with one another. As my feet rammed forward and my toes crunched to brake my speed, the insoles of the shoes broke free and bunched up under my feet. They slipped both under my heel and under my toes. It was horrible. As we hit the bottom I had to stop and refit each insole. As I did so I was greeted with cramp in the quads. Great. It’s been a while since I cramped. I wondered if having less Tailwind (and it’s sodium!) was to blame?! Several more times I had to stop again and repeat the process.

I was climbing again though and soon caught up with Rachel once more. The last of the ‘big’ climbs was mostly uneventful but one section was stunning as we crossed a water fall that had frozen solid and the race volunteers had ‘dug out’ a path through for the runners and we were encouraged to go slowly and carefully. Eventually the summit was reached. The vast opening at the top of a ski slope and the ski lifts. There were cows all around and Rachel ploughed on ahead despite her phobia. Some coke and more oranges at the aid station was enough for me this time as we’d begin the last 7 or so kilometres back into town. All good…

Only it wasn’t all that good. It was steep. Very steep initially. And very wet and muddy. It was harsh on the feet and legs and felt very dangerous in parts as we slipped all over the place. We’d constantly slow and let other runners past. Rachel’s knee was hurting from the descent and my feet and ankles giving my now ‘normal’ pains. The swearing and groaning was very verbal at this point. Thankfully it eventually ended but there was a small (relatively!) climb to now navigate. As soon as I hit it, I cramped up badly in both legs. I came to a hobble before loosening up enough to run after Rachel again. Rachel kept pulling up with her knee and encouraging me on. She was always near though and is such a strong runner, even when in pain! We ran past Sarina again a few km from the end, only she was now with Maggie?! Something had happened and Maggie had retired from the race. She confirmed she was all OK though as I ran past.

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Always having fun

Some more forest paths saw many runners zip past us before we hit some tarmac roads and switchbacks and cut several of them with shortcuts down the trails. We arrived at the bottom and the sound of the river hit me before I saw it. It couldn’t be far now as we were back at ‘ground level’.

The path led along side the river, passing a campsite and then the lake and fields of the finish line (familiar as it is where we collected our bibs the day before) became visible to my right, on the other side of the river. A bridge up ahead, I prayed we’d cross over it. we didn’t! We were taking the long way around the lake. Dammit. I was still so hot and sweaty and ready to finish. I didn’t know how far it was, a kilometre at least for sure. It felt like longer before I eventually lined up with the finish line. The big surprise was seeing Dorota as I rounded the bend, whom I had the pleasure of running a good section of the Brecon Beacons Ultra With last year. Then further on, Ben, Jana, Katie, Maggie, Sarina and Chris all brought the noise as I ‘high-kneed’ it across the line. As I stopped the cramp hit again.

Medal grabbed I hobbled into the refreshment area just as Rachel was finishing. We hugged a sweat fest of a hug before joining the others just in time to see Bucky cross the line. We all joined the party to cheer home Yvette and Kasia and several of Jana’s friendstoo. We hung around in the sun for a few hours (with one beer that made me very sleepy!) before heading back to the chalet for pizza and booze, just in time to beat the thunderstorm

The next morning we woke to repay the support. It was Sarina’s time to run and we all headed out to see her off, get pastries, and then travel the course to cheer her. After some navigational mishaps we rocked up just before he first aid station where Sarina first saw us the day before. We made our home on a section of road splitting through a down hill section of the trail. We whooped and cheered all the runners coming down and were then greeted by runners coming up the hill where we’d driven – the 12km run was joining the 18km run at this intersection. I don’t know how long we were there for but I know we had the best of times. The noise we made was visibly appreciated by the majority. Dorota came up and passed on her 12km run then, to the greatest of noise  we could make, Sarina appeared. Smiling and bounding down the path. After she passed we bundled back into the car and found the road just after the aid station. The same point on a bridge the day before where Jana waited for me and sent Katie on ahead. Sarina soon appeared again and would run from here along the river back to the finish. We headed there to wait and then brought the noise as she arrived. Group hugs all around. This was one hell of a party and one we were all sad to bring to an end and head to the airport.

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Finishers

Salomon Trail Fest

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The runners of the 50km ultra Guided Trail Run at the Salomon Trail Festival Box Hill

When A friend asked if I was available to ‘help out’ at the Trail festival at Box Hill I didn’t think twice. I checked the calendar and I was straight in there. I probably would have bought a ticket anyway. A few days later when the confirmation came through and I was asked if I was OK to support the 50km guided run I chuckled. Yeeeeah sure. Why not. I was smiling. I love, despite what life throws at me, that I’m now ready. Ready to run. Ready to keep going. Ready to say yes to running, no matter what the distance. It’s a great feeling.

Saturday soon came around and I made sure I was there early to ‘check in’ and meet the others. As I walked to the festival Village I conveniently bumped into Matt who was behind much of the organisation. As I arrived so did the many familiar faces who were either leading the runs (all the Salomon Athletes/Ambassadors) and others like myself who were there to support them.

It was great to finally meet Tom who was the lead for the 50km and who told me we’d be joined by Mark (another familiar person I’m vaguely connected to but had yet to meet in person).

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Mark – The legend in the flesh! 

As we grouped and welcomed the 17 runners who’d make up our group, we immediately had one drop out after she realised this one might be beyond her. With everyone else ready to go Tom led us off. We’d be running a clockwise route and expected to be back around 16:30 or so.

As we left the field it became immediately apparent to me how varied the group was in terms of ability and experience. This was to be expected and wasn’t a problem, it was a guided social run after all. But something very important to be aware of – there was a long day ahead of us and fundamentally we were responsible for everyone’s health and safety and return! Spotting the ability and assessing each runner is important to ensure everyone has a great time.

It was like we’d done this all before as a team – Tom, Mark and I set off and split ourselves out. Tom Leading the way and setting a comfortable pace surrounded by the eager and more experienced runners. Me and Mark acting as the tail of the group, interchanging at the back of the pack.

Conversations begun as we all started to get to know one another. We’d soon be best friends for the whole day. It was a group of strangers. Runners getting to know other runners. Sharing stories and experiences, swapping tips and wisdom. A collective mass of adventurers. Tom would lead us on and ensured we stopped every now and then (frequently) for us to regroup and check everyone was OK. Each time a quick headcount to check we’d not lost anyone and then we’d be off again.

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Not to be confused with the runners. These are cows

A small dog came bounding towards us. A ball of energy loving the runners rushing past. As he came to me last he started jumping with excitement and head butted me in the dick. Perfect shot. I can’t lie. I let out a gasp and was thrown off my stride for a bit. Damn stupid cute dog. One more runner then dropped out within the first three miles after twinging an injury. As he lived locally and trained these routes, after chatting through with him we were comfortable leaving him find his own way back to the start and we checked in with the wider team to confirm we were one down.

After about four miles we came to our first planned ‘aid stop’. Throughout the day we’d be flanked and met by Tony who would drive ahead and meet us with refreshments. At this first stop we dived into a huge tub of sweets (later I found out these were no ordinary sweets but ‘energy’ one’s by Powerbar.), refilled our water and grabbed a quick rest. We let Tony know of the drop out and confirmed to check he reached back to the festival site OK.

Throughout he day we were also treated to some spectacular views and scenery (despite the overcast day). A particularly memorable point for me was the poppy field that we soon came into shortly after the first pit stop. It was stunning to see the red flowers penetrating the green carpet of grass. We continued on through the single trail which cut through the long grass field dotted with poppies. Next up, a mandatory stop at the now infamous ‘Matt Buck’ Waterfall.

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The Matt Buck Waterfall

Cracking on, one of the milestones of the run would be the tower of Leith hill. It’s a hilly route and one I knew most of from other runs. We’d normally have immense views from here but it was a little subdued as the heavens opened just as we arrived (but not before me and Tom grabbed a picture at ‘Rachel’s’ Tree!). We were immediately soaked through, even in our waterproofs. We took another break as we waited for Toby to arrive and meet us once more. We were now 10 miles in and very wet and miserable. But that all changed when he arrived. Wow, what a spread he’d bought for us. A legend of the supermarket aisles, he’d catered for all our needs and began taking special requests for the next stop. Sadly Steak didn’t make the cut but Pork pies did!

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Rachel’s Tree & Tom

With the rain and clouds covering the sky we began moving again before we got too cold. Once we were running we’d soon warm up again. We continued in the rain for several miles as we hit Pitch Hill and Holmwood Hill before the rain finally ceased. Along the way we encountered some wicked ‘trail art’ someone had created with Bark. It was later on as we neared about 20 miles that the implications of diversity of abilities in the group became really apparent. We started to spread out more and more and the front would have to wait longer for the tail to catch up. We really did have runners of all abilities – From dragons back finishers and top 40 finishers at MDS (I believe this deems you ‘elite’!) and sub 2:40 marathoners to first time trail runners and those who’d never been above 50km before. The gulf was huge and has got me thinking about the implications of this (more on that another time). I’d spent most of the time running with Carl. A long distance walker more accustomed to going at his “own pace”. He got stronger as we went further though and it was clear that his mental strength was next level. It was never a doubt that he’d finish, only a case of when. A real positive attitude and one you see a lot of on the trails.

One dude unfortunately dropped out shortly after the 20 miles. We still had maybe 3 miles left to the next checkpoint but he was in pain and couldn’t manage more than an uncomfortable walk. His groin was aggravated and he was affected. We agreed that he’d have to stop and we called for a pickup. I stayed with him until it arrived. After which I sped on after the group. Like a hunter chasing its prey. I knew the trail. I knew what was ahead (including one of my favourite signs/views at Blatchford Down). It was a moment to myself. A peaceful one of just me and my thoughts. I’d been consumed all day by a bad pain in my left foot. My arch felt bruised and I’d been alternating all manner of running styles throughout to try and run more comfortably. I probably shouldn’t have continued myself but I had a job to do. It wasn’t affecting my ability to support the group there and then but I knew I’d be in agony the next day (and for over a week afterwards it turned out!). Now with some time to myself I ran on. I ran free. Was it painful? Yes. But I was smiling too. I passed several more groups of DofE and walkers and smiled and cheered as I zipped through, splashing in the mud as I went (I’d been enjoying the cold wet puddles and found them soothing on the ankle and foot!).

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I always take this same Picture at Blatchford Down. I don’t know why. I just like it.

It was raining again but still nice and warm as I broke trough the trail paths into an open space and found the rest of the group just starting off from the final checkpoint. Mark stuck around and waited as I stuffed more kitkats and pork pies into my gob and we were off. Less than 4 miles to go. Time to “bring it home”.

The exhaustion in the group was obvious now and as we ran down through Denbies wine estate one last time Tom had a surprise left for everyone – the route wouldn’t take us straight back to the festival village but first up, over and around box hill. We were going home alright, just the long way! A few groans came but really they were more flippant than anything. This group had started as strangers and now bonded over 9 hours of wet hilly trails. We cracked on, first tackling the Infamous steps of Boxhill before a quick photo stop at Salomon’s Memorial, which provided a brief rest-bite after the climb.

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Just a few km left, all smiles still

Just before the festival we regrouped for the last time and ran into the village together. We were Welcomed back by a few volunteers and other runners and then we were then greeted to the rapturous cheers from Maggie, Rachel and Hannah. They were loud. They were excitable. They were the support we needed. I started to feel my face ache I was smiling so much from their energy. Quite possibly the best finish to a run I’ve ever had!

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At the end of the 50km. Time for Pizza

After a quick ‘wet wipe shower’ in the car park we grabbed some coffee/beer and pizza. We sat in the dimming sun and enjoyed the Salomon films on the big screen before deciding it was time to leave.

Whilst we didn’t personally experience that much of the festival village, it was an incredible day. A well run event that was very popular and catered for all. From 5km to ultra distances. There were also Workshops for trail techniques, guided and times runs and yoga and talks. A great day out for those used to trails and also those new to trails. Get involved next year is my advice. I’ll be back for sure!

A huge huge huge thank you to all those involved in organising the event and making it happen. To Tom and Mark for leading a fantastic run and all those I met throughout the day. A special thanks to Maggie, Matt and all the team at Salomon Running for getting me involved. A great experience!

Take it, it’s yours.

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Marathoners of varying experience, from cherry poppers to 13 timers.

I like to prepare. It doesn’t always mean I’m sensible with the preparations though! The Luxembourg Night Marathon was the perfect example. When Bobby, Nick, James and I agreed to do this marathon, I thought it would be a good idea to fly out Saturday morning, run the marathon and return the next day. After all, Luxembourg city is a small place and we’d see most of it during the run. Whilst it went almost exactly to plan, it was bloody tiring…

It’s Saturday morning. 2am. The alarm clock is buzzing. I’d already slept through three alarms and I needed to move my ass pronto. I was regretting my plan already. With a 7am flight I’d soon need to make the 2 hour bus/night tube trip across London to Heathrow. The others were a little more sensible with either a hotel for the night nearer the airport or quicker Uber trip as their choices. I’m too stubborn to pay ‘extra’ for these things. It’s OK though, I thought I’ll just get some sleep at the hotel when we arrive as the race doesn’t start till 7pm.

Shortly after 10am we’d made it to the expo at the LuxExpo “box”. Whilst there wasn’t much there to see, it was a big place and already set out for the day. The most noticeable thing being the internal finish. At the end of the race we’d run into one of the big ‘hangers’ and do a short internal stretch to a finish line. This would be different, I’d never experienced that before – finishing inside a building. Race numbers collected and photos taken we made our way on the bus into town – Amazingly, public transport is free on the weekend in Luxembourg. Whilst it was only 2Euro for a ticket, I loved this concept and was delighted to save some pennies! We arrived at the hotel and were told there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of checking in before 3pm. Bollocks. We’d also been told that we should be at the race for 5pm as the shuttle busses were expected to be very busy and the roads full of traffic as they start to lock the city down for the event. There goes my plan of any sleep. I’d have to struggle through on the measly 4 hours I’d clocked up last night.

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Bib, poser, ready

The rest of the day sped by as we ate food, wandered around town, met Nick’s mum (who’d come to see him do his first marathon) and went back to the hotel to check in and get ready. Before we knew it we were back at the Box and part of the mass crowd that was assembling. Runners and supporters everywhere. It was quickly becoming overcrowded but the atmosphere was already showing signs of being great. With a DJ playing music and introducing various acts (some form of dancing butterflies?!) as well as volunteers giving out sponsored bowler hats and tambourines. I took one and immediately annoyed Nick who politely warned me not to run with it!

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This would have been very annoying…

With our bags checked in we still had a good 1hr 30mins to wait before the start. Like thousands of others we sought refuge from the blistering sun in any shade we could – it was high 20s and didn’t show any signs that it would cool down before the sunset around 9:30 that night. We lay on the hot tarmac in one of the starting pens and waited. It felt like a hell of a long wait, more so because there was no water. I’d already drunk all the water I’d brought with me. It was much hotter than I expected. This was probably the only negative of the whole weekend. The organisation I thought was pretty good, it was like a large scale military procedure with one way systems and setups accounting for most things, except the provision of information. Nowhere was there any clear and obvious indication of where to go to check in, to register, to get info, to get the buses, bus timetables etc. (and the only info stand available where of little help either!) and nor was there anywhere on site to get water whilst we waited to start!

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Whilst others warmed up….

Anyway, 7pm eventually came around and the runners were sent on their way. With over 10,000 runners across all the event disciplines it was a busy start and it took the four of us about 10 mins to walk to the actual start line. In that time we lost Bobby in the crowd. We were all going to run together (this being Nick’s first marathon), however, fiddling with his shoe laces and race tag, we lost Bobby moments before we started. I ushered us on. Whilst Nick was concerned and wanted to find him, I wasn’t worried. Bobby is a very independent guy and this was his 5th marathon. He knew what he was doing and would be fine on his own if he didn’t find us before we crossed the line.

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Before we got separated

So the three of us set off and kept a decent pace in the crowd as I tried to regulate it as best I could. We were aiming for roughly 9:50 minute miles and we fluctuated around this for the first few KM as we dealt with the crowding and various bottlenecks that inevitably formed. We all felt good though and chatted away as we approached the first Water station. I say approach, it was on a bend and we’d pretty much run past it as we were on the far side of the road. I made a mad dash through the crowds and grabbed three cups of water before weaving back to Nick and James, announcing my arrival with “Incoming, Delivery, coming through”. Beautiful. It wasn’t much but it wet our lips, or in Nick’s case, his face. This was his first experience of running whilst drinking from a cup, as any experienced runner knows, it is not easy. Nick immediately compared it to being water-boarded!

Laughing away, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the next water station. They were every 2.5km, which is very frequent! It immediately dawned on me that whilst we’d talked with Nick about running with him and pacing, we hadn’t actually discussed anything else. Like what to do if we get split up. The first water station was bad enough. but this one separated us. There were volunteers on either side of the road and runners everywhere, it was a free for all and we (I at least!) were all thinking about water and food, it had been so long in the sun without any and the drops at the last water station had failed to quench our thirst! I went left and saw Nick go right. James was behind me. I took water, isotonic and some PowerBars. As we emerged the other side I saw James, but not Nick! Shit. We jogged on looking around but couldn’t see him. Shit again, we were just about 5km in and we’d lost him. How bad were we?! We carried on a little, looking back and forward, then we sped off through the crowd at a much faster pace looking for him. Nothing. We stopped and held up at the side of the road to wait. He didn’t come. He’d either carried on, or he’d stopped to wait for us. We hoped it was the former and devised a plan – James would run ahead and, if he saw him, would carry on running with him. If he didn’t he’d slow back down and eventually we’d catch him. I’d hold back and wait, If I saw nick we’d run on together. If I didn’t I’d carry on after a few minutes until I eventually caught them again. I stopped on the side of the road on a raised pavement and watched all the runners intently as they passed. I was keeping an eye on the time when, out of the corner of my eye on the far side of the road I saw someone speeding past everyone. It was James?! What the hell. I set off like a gazelle after him. The crowd loved it, they were probably wondering what I was doing. When I reached him we carried on at that speed, ducking and weaving through the crowded field in our on little race. James had very quickly found Nick just ahead of us so went back for me. Somehow we’d missed each other in our focus in finding Nick. A few km later, after weaving through the crowd and some narrow roads we found him and reformed, laughing at our fuck up. Nick did the right thing – carry on at his pace, stick to his game plan. We agreed if it happens again, just keep going.

As we ran we noticed how great the crowd were. Initially as we started off I thought the support was poor. Whilst there were people, they were just standing there in silence. Now though we were seeing hundreds of people, larger groups, making plenty of noise and loads of music and bands along the way. They reacted too. Giving them a clap, a cheer or a scream would trigger them to make even more noise. I was loving it. There was one part, where we ran through a Big Top tent, inside were dancers and a samba band (there were a lot of samba bands out there!) and as we emerged, an arch made from two tractors with their diggers extended out over the road. I thought this was a great touch. The route was very twisty as we crossed and weaved many smaller streets, constantly turning in different directions. We were completely disorientated and had no idea where we were or where we were heading! But this made it fun. It made the course interesting and we’d duck into and out of various parks along the way. It was still incredibly hot and we took every opportunity to get drenched with water from the crowd with their hose pipes. At one point we saw a wet patch on the road and a spray of water. As we made a line for it we were all confused as to where it was coming from, it was like rain falling vertically on this small patch. We looked up as we passed through and there was a lady, perched on her window sill about 4 storeys up, holding her shower head out the window. We cheered and clapped her. It was so hot, still in the high 20s and the cooling water was a godsend.

Already we’d noticed, that whilst fairly flat (admittedly not “flat as a pancake” as I’d told Nick before we signed up!) it was surprisingly hilly. The route involved lots of very gradual inclines and declines. I was feeling it! I didn’t mention this to Nick though. We’d soon be hitting the main centre square and hopefully we’d see his mum who’d travelled over to watch him. I wanted to ensure he was focusing on seeing her. It was still very busy as we had all the 21km runners with us still, I think these made the bulk of the numbers. We were approaching the main square and there was a water station ahead. They were struggling though. They couldn’t keep up with the demand for water, isotonic or fruit. each cup we all grabbed at was empty. We carried on without any. This was frustrating. A downside of having paper cups at races – it takes time to keep them replenished. James was also amazed at the state of the floors around the water stations. As a regular sub-3 hour runner he is used to seeing them less busy and less like a war zone.

We rounded a bend and several volunteers were directing us into two ways – splitting off the 21km runners. It soon became far less crowded and we headed into the main square. It was packed with crowds and they were in excellent voice. I started screaming “MUM” over and over. We found it hilarious (or at least I did!) and then we saw Nick’s mum and he ran over for a hi-five and cheer. James heard her proudly claim to everyone “that’s my son!”. So touching. Boosted by the love we carried on. Almost half done, Still a lot of work to go. The next section would see us enter and leave more parks and shaded areas and also various stints in some residential areas. Without the 21km runners it was now far more enjoyable and easier to run!

I thought running through the residential areas was great. Whilst not normally fun or interesting places to run (I’m comparing to some of the streets in Brighton and Muscat!) here I was fascinated. They were so clean for a start, and being kept that way with locals out collecting rubbish along the roads. The houses were huge and all looked so well maintained. I wanted to move here! But, like the rest of the run so far, the Support was fantastic. From kids with water pistols and super soakers, squirting water at runners, to families having dinners and cheering from their front gardens with their wine, to pockets and groups of people partying away in the street. The music was loud and the atmosphere brilliant. Like all supporters before, if you interacted with them they responded even louder. So we did, singing and cheering our way through. I was blown away by the volume of music and bands and also the variety. They felt more frequent than the water stations and we had bands, djs, horn blowers (huge horns!) samba dancers, steal drum bands, jazz musicians and local folk dancers throughout. It was fantastic!

It was probably around the 16 mile mark that the first signs of the huge demands of a marathon started to become visible for Nick. Whilst he was running strong and consistent he did acknowledge he was now feeling it and that it felt harder than the comparable 20 milers he’d been doing in training. We reassured him how well he was doing, how tough the race was with the heat and hills and encouraged him onward. At some point, whether it was around this time or not I can’t recall, Nick commented on another facet of running a marathon – he mentioned how pissed off he was at getting passed by faster runners doing the team run and who had just started their 10km run. We’ve all experienced this and it does mess with your mind and confidence. What was funny is how a lady doing the team run apologised as she ran past, overhearing his comment.

We also saw Bobby at some point along the way too. We’d assumed he’d got caught up in the crowds at the start and would have been behind us. But as we ran up a long hill stretch we could see Bobby out in front. We called out to him and for a moment we were all reunited. He dropped of and James stayed behind to check up on him whilst I kept Nick going at his pace. James arrived back shortly afterwards, confirming Bobby was OK but exhausted and prepared to slow down to finish the race.

Before we knew it we’d left the residential areas behind and were back running through the parks and streets of the central area.It was still very hot, but it was now starting to get dark. We were dipping in and out of parks and along roads that started to look familiar. I think we’d run on or near them in a different direction already (possibly many times) but I was so disorientated. We ran along a walkway built under a main bridge, where the music and atmosphere was lively from a DJ at the end. Shortly after which we then headed down into the Public park (I think) where there was the festival of light going on. We were back passing under the bridge and could hear the DJ above us. As we carried on down, we could see the big lanterns from the festival lit up and marques of people partying away. Again there was great support for the runners as we weaved our way through the park, again, even lower than before once more passing under the bridge and hearing the DJ above. Like the twisting route, the music became familiar as we rose up out of the park and ran along the top of a bridge, this time the DJ now below us. I was amazed and how many different ways we’d passed this same spot and DJ!

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The light festival and bridge we kept passing over/under

As the night darkened, the pack of runners became increasingly more spread out. More musicians lined the streets and we left the central area for the last time. We were heading back out towards the Expo. I remember we rounded a corner in the dark to the sound of Hot Chocolate – Sexy Thing. I couldn’t help but sing out the chorus, or the line of the chorus I knew! Two other runners sang along with us and laughed. Sometime, several miles later, we’d catch up with them again and I started singing the line once more and they responded and joined in again. The runners were in good spirits!

Throughout the day we’d been near and around a partially sighted runner and their guide runner. This always fascinates me. It must be hard and such a demanding challenge for both runners. We arrived at the final Team Run switch point and it was so crowded. Runners were encroaching on the road from both sides making it vary narrow and difficult to squeeze through. Nick was shouting at the crowds to back off and give space as the two runners were in front of us now. It must have been tough for them here.

We’d done probably 20-21 miles by now and Nick was feeling it. He started to hit the wall and the pains were visible in his face. He made it known, cursing and shouting down every hill we came across. I knew from the route that it was all uphill from here. Gradual, but up hill. I didn’t tell him. James encouraged him and kept him focused. From time to time we’d stop and walk, or spend a moment at a water station to ensure he was fuelled. Each time he’d motivate himself on to start running again. He was determined and ready to beat the marathon and didn’t need much help from us to do so! Whilst he was constantly looking at his watch, and aware that his ideal finish time was slipping further from reach, he was running great. I thought we’d finish around 4hrs 30mins. It would be tight though…

He wasn’t alone either. By now both James and I were acknowledging how hard this marathon actually was. The long declines to start and then  the gradual climbs now were having their effect. The legs were felling heavy, and, for me, my foot was hurting. I’d rolled it the week before at the Run Free marathon and could feel it now. I knew I was no longer smiling myself!!

We were running along the main road which was gradually climbing never ending into the distance. The occasional walk but mostly powering forward. Not too far from the top was a large group of supporters. A cheer zone. The local running community that is Fat Betty were out in force (think similar, but scaled back, to mile 21 at London Marathon if you’ve ever been there to cheer?!). They were handing out beer to runners. Whilst I’m not a beer fan generally, and especially not when running (or after running even!) I took one. I was having fun. It wasn’t far left to go, maybe 3-4 miles, and I wanted to try and entertain Nick a little and take his mind off the run. I actually quite enjoyed the beer, even though most of it ended up in my beard!

As we reached the top of the hill we cracked on. We got talking to another guy from the UK. He was also feeling the hills, and rightly so – He did the NDW50 the week before! We all ran together for a while and I chatted with him all things running. Nick continued to curse the lumps in the road and I sensed he was beginning to fade again. I was watching the time now and new it was getting tighter and tighter to make 4hr 30mins. Whilst I’d been trying to convince Nick to not worry about time for the first marathon, it’s easier said than done. The mind is a fickle beast. If we could get a 4hr 30mins I know he’d be smiling. I told him “no matter what happens next, stick with me” and I cranked up the pace a little. We left the NDW man behind and strode on.

We had less than 30 mins of running left. It was tough. We’d increased the pace by about a minute per mile. A good 10% increase in effort after 4 hours of running. Not easy for an experienced marathoner on a tough course, never mind a first timer. But Nick stuck with us. We were encouraging him on and bar a few short stints walking, he kept it up. We were running past people. People we’d seen pass us earlier and people we’d not seen before. Even runners on the final leg of the team run (who would have been fresher than us!) came and went as we passed. I shouted at Nick, pointing ahead and telling him we were going hunting. That the crowd in front of us were his. He was going to take them all. All except a guy in a red t-shirt, he looked like he was running strong so I excused him! But we did, we took them all, red t-shirt guy included. We were flying. Up ahead the road started to decline and we could see the expo. 2 more minutes and we’d be there. My watch had clocked a marathon. It was going to be tight. We ran down, passing more and more runners. One final bend into the hanger of the arena, I screamed at Nick, directed him forward and shouted to the finish line to “go fucking take it, its yours”. Round the last bend. He was in the zone. He was sprinting. Two guys up ahead hogging the way, Nick was on the race line, they wobbled to the side and Nick had to squeeze through them (much to their disgust). Me and James went either side of the guys, we saw and heard Nick’s mum right at the finish line cheering. It was done. We crossed the line. What began with 2 marathoners, finished with 3!

Immediately over the line Nick’s legs went from under him. I shouldn’t laugh but I did. I recall that feeling and sensation all too well. The body reacting from a big push (he’d absolutely blitzed the last 2-3 miles) and the sudden instructions to stop. He was wobbling and we took hold of him. I don’t miss that feeling! Looking at the results, We climbed 200 places over the last half of the course, I think that really shows the effort Nick put in over the last few miles!

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Sweaty finisher

It was a long wobble to the medal, then to the water, then to the drop bags, then to the food and changing area. By now the post marathon effect was kicking in strong and Nick needed to lay down. Up against the massage tents, out of the way he rested. I went round hoarding all the food I could (greedy as always) and we waited for his body to recover from the shock of the achievement. Soon after Bobby arrived. Shortly after him, Nick’s mum arrived with a paramedic. Whilst Nick was OK (just post marathon shock!) I find it hilarious that his mum rocked up with a paramedic for him. Bless. As spectators weren’t allowed into the area, his mum had cleverly convinced the paramedic that she was worried as she hadn’t seen Nick emerge from the runners area since he crossed the line. So the paramedic escorted her in to look for him. Genius. We sat and talked and laughed, reminiscing the past few hours, whilst Bobby got a rub down.

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Smiles all round once the legs recovered!

Eventually, after the most expensive taxi ride, we made it back to the hotel. Nick climbed the stairs on all fours before we made it to our rooms. Exhausted. We’d been awake almost 24 hours and were shattered. We went to bed, knowing in the morning when we woke, it would be the first day Nick woke up as a marathoner. Job done.

Run Free

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Snaps by the Maverick team

Run Free. I love this phrase. One I often refer to when I think about running – its exactly how I want my mind to be when I run. This time though it has a different meaning. A more literal one! Maverick and Tribe collaborate for an event they call “Run Free”. I’ll do it an injustice when I say it is simply an event of multiple distances (Short, Medium, Long in the traditional Maverick setup) but one for which part of the proceeds go toward charity and Tribe’s 10% Project. Whilst as a community, Tribe push people to redefine their boundaries, in this instance, the Run Free event is in support of ending modern slavery. A worthy cause indeed.

I hadn’t planned on being at the event, but a last minute change of plans meant, come Friday, I had no plans for the weekend. I was on a self-enforced ‘rest’ and hadn’t run in two weeks up until a Run with Nick midweek. Now I had the urge, I couldn’t sustain the rest any longer. I wanted back in to what I love – running. It didn’t take long on Friday morning to come up with a plan. Reaching out to various friends there were options. It came down to a toss up between hill repeats at Box Hill or travel north and volunteer at the Run Free event. Something I want to (and will) do more of. After speaking with Paul, my mind was made up – you could register on the day to run. Perfect. The Run Free event was taking place in a part of the Chilterns I hadn’t really explored. They also had a marathon option. I was sold. The only difficult part was getting to the race event ‘village’ which was annoyingly in the middle of nowhere.  Time to form a plan.

My plan was simple and a little stupid, but its how I think – I could get the Oxford Tube to Lewknor Turn. From there I could run the 5 miles to the start. I’d repeat this on the way back unless I could bag a lift off someone… The Oxford tube is great. It runs 24 hours a day, is fairly frequent and pretty cheap. I used it when I went to the Race To The Stones a few years back so could picture where I needed to be and get off. And so, with a 4am wake up call, I was on my way.

I got off the bus at 7:30 which left me an hour until registration opened and a further hour until the race would begin. enough time to chill, relax and prepare. Those first 5 miles though, they were a little hilly. I covered almost 1,000ft of elevation (a third of the marathon’s elevation gain!) before I’d even begun the race. Taking about an hour, I did think to myself ‘see, this is why it is silly!’. Anyway, I got there, most of the run to the event was on trails and narrow country lanes. It was all good. Arriving into the event I was greeted by Hannah (of extreme endurance event fame and whom I first met out in UTMB last year after she sped across the TDS finish line – so impressive!). I was a bit spaced out and immediately snatched a tribe bar out of her hand and started feasting on it – I was famished from the early wake up and run. How rude I was – sorry Hannah! I went off to register and was greeted by Sarah and shortly after met Paul, Ben and Vanna among many others.

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Bumping into fellow Wild Trail Runners Vanna and Ania

The Maverick events are a bit of a cult phenomenon. They are incredibly well organised and great fun. I knew I’d see friends and familiar faces there and I sure did – There were so many people I knew there. I hadn’t even registered and I was bumping into people and chatting. As much as I say that I don’t like people, I do love the community spirit and vibe that running has. People from all different groups, people from all different places and ways of life, coming together for the love of running. It is a very inclusive community!

Pre race involved a fair few selfies with the various groups before Ben led a quick warm up for the runners. I joined the starting pen with Elis who was there with Melissa who lives around the corner from me. See, it really is a small community. As the Maverick bell was rung and the race started I ran passed Yvette who was also there volunteering. The connections were endless! The start saw us all bumbling downhill, fast! It was steep. It was lumpy. We were jumping and hopping rather than running. The ground was uneven and as with any race there was a mad dash for the best line/route down. I let gravity take me and sat comfortably with many runners in the middle of the pack. Before long though we came to a grinding halt.

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The first climb, shortly after the bumpy start

The path diagonally crossed some fields and there was a stile to climb. It created a big bottleneck as we waited patiently to cross one by one. I say patiently, that was until a bunch of Dickheads thought they were better than this. That they don’t need to wait. One by one a group of them started climbing the barbwire fence. I find this so disrespectful and unnecessary. Yes, perhaps the different races could have been staggered to prevent such a bottleneck, but don’t be a dick. That’s someones property. It is there for a reason and no one wants to tend to your sliced bollocks if it all goes wrong. What does a few minutes of waiting really mean? Get over yourself! Anyway, rant over…

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Lush Green fields

The route was glorious. I’ll try not to type about it all in the way I usually drone on about mile after mile, but it was so open. Lush green colours of various shades constantly surrounded us and huge fields and rolling hills were the delights for our eyes. I spent much of the initial 10km or so near Vanna from Wild TR before our routes split us into different directions. Passing through the first checkpoint I met two familiar faces in the Maverick Trail Division Ambassadors that are Paul and Spencer. These guys are fantastic. Ultra running nutters of the best kind. I first met Spencer in the drunkenness that is the after party of UTMB. Like Hannah, he’d also just completed the TDS, a phenomenal achievement. He also suffered a Stress fracture earlier in the year before recovering and going on to break a sub 3 hr marathon in Newport a few weeks ago! He wasn’t running today as he was volunteering, but he ran with Paul from the first checkpoint to the second after his assistance was requested there. Paul I’d chatted with for a while before we briefly met at the Dorset Coastal Trail Ultra. I say briefly because Paul had to leave asap. Like me he has a little addiction to running. Unlike me though, he runs EVERYTHING. He left Dorset that day to get home to run the Hurtwood 50km the next day. This weekend he was running the Run Free Marathon, the Westminster  Mile and the Vitality 10km. Whilst I was also running the WM mile, the difference being He boshed out an impressive 5:15min mile. I opted for a far more casual 9:47min mile! He is a machine.

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With Vanna and Polly

Anyway, they set out from the aid station shortly before me and I spent the next 10km playing catch up. They were always in my sight but, other than a short stint chatting with Spencer, they were too far away from me as we roamed through forest paths and the rolling hills. This was for many reasons, mostly because they were running at a pace I just couldn’t keep up with. Despite being itching to run, 2 weeks off did have me feeling a little lethargic and ‘out of shape’. It was manageable though. What wasn’t manageable was when I rolled my ankle after about 6 miles. It fucking hurt bad. Usually ankle rolls are terrifying and quickly forgotten. This hurt though. The pain lingered for the rest of the race and beyond the day. My ankles are my biggest concern and weakness at the moment. They’ve taken an absolute pounding over the last 18 months. June will be hectic on them (5 weeks of back to back marathons, mountains and ultras lay ahead culminating in the beast that is the 120km Lavaredo Trail in the Dolomites!), so perhaps July will be another attempt at some time off…

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Rolling hills

Anyway, I’m blabbing. Checkpoint two came and I said good bye to Spencer. Paul, free of chatting, soon vanished into the distance and I carried on. It was a good but tough day. This is the perfect sort of training run for me. Besides being well supported, sign posted and through stunning parts of the country, my own run became a challenge. Physically and mentally. The toughness of the course and concern for my painful ankle put me into the dark parts of my mind. Parts I need to visit from time to time and deal with. Parts I need to make peace with and get comfortable being consumed by. You don’t want to visit these places alone on a mountain partway through a day long ultra without being prepared to deal with them. Perfect mental training, building your strength of character.

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What a tree!

As the midday heat intensified, I was running (very inefficiently I might add!) down a long trail track. At the end I could see the mass of energy that is Emma. Another Volunteer and someone I’ve seen at many races and other running events over the past 18 months or so. Along with Jay, she was the third and final check point. This was a mini heaven. I stopped and chatted and greedily consumed loads of the food (sorry everyone!). As I did so, another face appeared – Gwen. We’d met a a run several months earlier and did the whole “hey!!” kind of thing before later asking each others names again. We pretty much ran most of the last 10km together, with Gwen out in front and running strong to a finish a few minutes ahead of me.

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Whilst a beast of a final climb, the Windmill was a beaut to look at

Before the finish though was one last, badly kept secret – a steep hill. The initial lumpy downhill we ran, we had to now climb back to the finish. Whilst I’ve certainly done longer and higher, it was not easy. With the windmill up at the top as the marker point I proceeded to climb and my calves screamed out immediately. It was a burner for sure. Then it was over, running across the line Yvette smashed me in the face with the finishers medal and gave me a beer. Paul was there along with many others including Hannah who helped me refresh and served up the nutty Tribe protein shakes.

I spent a short while repacking, getting ready and chatting away with various people before I managed to blag a lift back to the bus stop from Elis and Melissa. Perfect. They day couldn’t have been any better. A last minute plan, perfectly executed. Thanks guys!

It was an absolutely fantastic day. As always, the Maverick events are impeccably organised and the volunteers are incredible. The whole atmosphere the organisers manage to create is something special, never mind the festival-esque vibe they created at this special event. If you want to sample trail running races, this is the company to do it with, you won’t regret it!