In the shadow of Bran Castle, night time home of the legendary Count Dracula, on the outskirts of the Bucegi Natural park, we gather in the castle grounds, a few hundred eager runners waiting to a techno remixed beat of the theme music from Game of Thrones. The darkness is ours and it’s almost time to run the Transylvania 100k. A race that has been on my wish list since I started ultra running.
We set off out of the castle gates and along the main road before turning onto an unsealed road that was long and gradually inclined. We continued along until the foot of the mountains and stepped into the forest. The trails hit us with an immediate change in gradient and fresh smells front the pine trees and morning songs from the birds. It was enchanting.
From about 6km in, the trails became steeper again and my breaths were becoming more pronounced. The climb was long but broken up as we emerged into an opening above the trees before climbing along the side of the mountains. The views were spectacular as we traversed the first of many snow slopes.
The further we climbed the more the clag set in and visibility dropped. We were greeted at a timing point by some Marshalls who were blowing whistles, I assume to signal their whereabouts. I was with Carl and we decided this was a good time to layer up. We were glad of the wind to cool us down but we were now rather high up in the mountains!
We then proceeded to descend. The terrain was slippery with the snow. The trails were single track and narrow. We carefully placed our feet in the footprints of runners who had tread the path before us, crisscrossing our steps. The descent hit some forest and became very steep and difficult to descend due to sharp rocks and narrow gaps.
We emerged to the sound of a vuvuzela (an irritating sound!) being blown as we arrived at the first aid station. The aid station was understandable busy but well stocked with a variety of salty and sweet offerings. We took a moment to take on some fuel knowing that a ‘bit of a climb’ was coming our way. We started talking to a camera man. He welcomed us to the race and told us a little of the mountains and Omu – the peak we would soon visit. He pointed to the monster looming in the clouds to our left. He told us it was raining up top and that it was ‘like hell up there’ (where we were going). He laughed. We laughed nervously too, but we could tell he was being very serious.
From the aid station the climbing started straightaway. First easy along some rocks then long, slow treks along the snow fields at Tiganesti. I remember commenting how still everything was. The air. The sounds. It was like a vast emptiness. Just nothing. It was ever so peaceful and strangely hypnotic. We saw a paw print that we hoped was a bear (I did want to see one!). We were edging closer to the infamous Hornul Mare chimney (the iconic line up to Omu from the Malaiesti Valley). It’s notorious for its steep, difficult ascent with a gradient close to 50degrees. No picture will do it justice.
We decided to ‘spike up’ and put on our micro spikes. So glad we did. We could see other runners struggling without. We started chatting to a Dutch guy who was equally pleased he brought his spikes with him.
As we reached the bottom of the chimney it’s majesty was hidden in the mist. Perhaps a good thing. It took a while to climb. Up top a photographer greeted those who triumphed and climbed the beast. The smiles and jubilations where clearly seen on everyone’s faces. The views, despite being limited by the clouds were still pretty great.
After reaching Omu we began descending. First carefully along little snow slopes. Then as we got lower and the sun came out the trails dried into hard tracks with big rocks to scramble over. I started getting cramp in my hamstring. I knew I needed to up my fuelling when we next stopped!
As the trails became greener we did a little bushwhacking and later reached a river crossing and a wooden rope bridge that was very wobbly. A few of the 50km lead runners started passing us. This blew my mind. They’d completed the first big climb and the chimney section in about 2 hours compared to our 5 and a bit. How the hell did they climb the chimney so quickly?! From here a short jog to the next aid station. I checked my watch and timings and we were pretty much bang on the estimated time of arrival here.
From this point the routes went different ways. So at 27km it was time to say good bye to Carl as he went off on the 80km. My Climb started easy enough as we followed dirt tracks back towards the mountains with great views ahead of the snow capped peaks. Further up the roar of a beautiful waterfall started to dominate the air. To its right was another steep beast of a snow climb. I put the spikes back on and set off for it.
Up top, once conquered, it was a case of traversing more long snow fields as we made the way back towards Omu for a second summit. This time it started to get very steep. There were lots of runners up ahead in the distance. I managed to get passed some who didn’t have spikes and were struggling in the snow. Before the steepest part of the climb it started raining. It only rained for about 20-30 minutes but it was enough to dampen the mood. I thought that might be it and that it would rain non-stop as storms were forecast for later in the day.
As I was nearing the top of the climb I was confused. There were runners going in both directions. The confusion was because we joined the bit of route we previously came down along from Omu. I tried going the wrong way but was told off. I laughed with the Marshalls back at Omu summit when I questioned if we went that way earlier. Anyway. Time to descend the mountain again…
Here things went a little sour. The route down was spectacular but just snow slopes. Steep ones. I started down tentatively. Trying to find the best and safest line between the snowy sections and connecting to those rocks/paths not covered in snow. To the best I could I would follow runners ahead.
After a little while I was following two guys tentatively crossing a little snow slope. They both slipped slightly. Then I slipped more. I went down. At first I wasn’t worried, thinking my spikes and/or poles would help stop me. But I started gaining momentum. My poles hit the snow. They dug in deep and snapped as my momentum carried me on faster and faster. One went pop then moments later the other did the same. One pole ripped the glove (Leki glove system) off my hand, the other pole snapped clean off at the lower section). I saw a mound of rock and thought it would stop me. It didn’t. I was propelled in the air. I thought this might end badly. Somehow, I came to a stop. I don’t know how, but I did thankfully. It took a few moments to compose myself and then I made the decision to start climbing back up to the track and retrieve the broken poles rather than trying to traverse across and guess where to join the path somewhere different. I felt it might be safer to at least get back to where I think I should have been. As I slowly climbed back up I had to dig one pole out as it was wedged so deep. The other part of the broken one was lost deep in the snow somewhere.
Up top I was angry that I had broken more poles (this is my third set in two years!) But it fired me up to finish. I was 35km in and had a long way to go. Next we had a few hundred meters of descent to make. It was all sketchy and I slipped many more times. No where near as bad as before though! Sometimes I thought about just jumping on my arse and sliding down. But that was far too risky. It was difficult to find the way even when my momentum was under my control. Eventually I managed to cross at the bottom and was back on trails. I came across another chap with two broken poles too. He didn’t have spikes like I did, so I was in a better place!
I felt a little energised and jogged a little as the tracks took us along a combination of forests and snow crossings at lower level. I missed some turns several times as the tape markings were sometimes difficult to spot. We then had maybe about 5 km through forests. It was lovely. I was running well and felt a little better, I was certainly glad the hell of Omu was behind us.
Somewhere in the forest I stumbled across a little miracle. There was a black diamond pole just resting against a tree. I called out a few times and no one answered. So I decided to take it with me. Either I’d find the owner and be able to reunite them, or I’d benefit from having one pole. The forest was sometimes difficult to navigate. I met another guy who missed a hand written ‘turn right’ sign and I had to call after him. We turned off the path onto a grassy stretch. It was very easy to miss. We came to the aidstation at 45km in. I had noodle soup and changed some clothes. I made a very conscious decision not to change my socks. This was a silly mistake that would later bite me hard.
I set back out. Maybe 30 mins my behind my estimated schedule. Not bad considering the trauma. 45km done but still a long way to go. I decided to keep the spikes with me for safety (turned out I wouldn’t need them again) as we still had two climbs where we’d be above 2000m. From the aid station it was more forests (and wrong turns) and a massive climb back up to Piatra Arsa. In the forest I found a stick. Almost perfect for hiking / running with. I felt confident now I had two sticks of some sort again, despite their differences in size! I kept telling myself that once this climb was done, the bulk of the elevation would be overcome. We’d done over 3500 in the first 40km!
The climb was long and slow. I came across a group of Polish people I’d be running near for the most of the race. We rested part way up the climb and I took in the views and admired all the old rusty infrastructure (cable cars or mining cars?). Eventually the climb came out in top of the mountain. it felt like it took an age to climb. It was so hot and humid in the forest.
Up top required a bit more bush whacking along some snow lined tracks. The trees were a pain to push passed! Another aidstation with heavy techno music awaited just around the corner. I had some more pasta and coke and set off again. We were on top of the mountain and it was windy and misty. The route took us over and around a summit. Then we started descending. The terrain was now very British like. Similar to being in Brecon or somewhere. Very lumpy tufts of grass. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to run on but was by far one of the better parts of the course so far. It was a fairly easy down hill, pretty straight down the hill and then a skip (jump) over a river before more hill running.
At about 60km we hit the first bit of road in the race. And that was just to cross it. Crazy how ‘on trail’ the race is. 60km of purely trail is impressive. On the other side we soon entered more forests, running down hill with the head torches out as it was pretty pitch black in the dense forest. A Scottish guy soon caught us. He refused to get his torch out and kept running into trees. The trees in all the forests were a pain as they had sharp, stick like branches protruding and would stab you at any opportunity if you got too close. As would the fallen ones we had to hurdle over. So many of these throughout the run!
We then emerged out of the forest and into the aid station at the lake in Bolbuci. I had two slices of pizza and loads of coke here. I wasn’t really eating between aid stations any longer. I wasn’t too hungry but just didn’t fancy my foods. From here it was a long stretch to Moieciu de Sus. It started with a few km on road. The only road section! Before more forest climbing. Up into the mountains where there were flashing lights to help guide us in the mist of the night. Visibility was very poor and we’d be lost without the lights. It was a few km traversing the mountain top and passed the peak of Tataru and the marshal check point before a technical descent. It was a little sketchy crossing the cliff edges with limited visibility to begin descending.
Once we had though it was more forests. We passed some more people. I fell in the forest slipping on a rock. My lower back hit the rock and my fore arm a log on the ground. It hurt. Once back up we soon were on a wide fire/access track. I remembered this from our walk the day before. I started jogging consistently. Probably covered a few km before I had enough and started walking again. At the end, as we reached the car park area, we left the road and started climbing.
It was a steep climb. This whole section was disorienting in the dark. We climbed then navigated along the top. There were lights off in the distance which I thought might be an aidstation. I know from the day before we’d have to back up in the hills near where we left the access road. I was confused and trying to guess where two aid stations would be. We crossed behind farm land and through many horse fields. Needing to climb over fences to enter and exit each. The descent wasn’t as bad as it looked on the route profile. I think that was helped a little by the diversion. Rather than dropping straight down to the aid station we carried on around onto a road and walked maybe 500m along it to the aid station. It was a fairly quick turn around after some pasta as I tried to keep up with the group of Polish runners who now had about 3-4 other ‘hanger ons’ with them.
It was a steep climb through more forests and fields to the other side. It was hot in the night. After some time we were back were I recalled form the previous day’s walk. Running passed the picnic bench, the abandoned hut and joining the trail with the 50k route. Steady dirt track hiking for a few km to the next and final aid station.
I was confused by the remaining distance as the map profile and my watch were very different. Although I knew clocked a few extra kms with the diversion and getting lost. I checked the route in my Coros which said about 13km to go. This felt more accurate than then route profile that suggested more like 20k.
All along this section my eyes were starting to close. I was swaying side to side and was very tired, waiting for the caffeine to hit. I was contemplating a Power Nap at the aid station. It was just a tent on the mountain side though and nothing for me to take refuge in. The Poles left too quickly for me to follow. I ate and drank and then left a few minutes later. The track carried on a little longer before a nasty steep climb in the forest that got the heart rate higher. I was so warm now. And fed up of climbing over fallen trees. I stopped and took off my wind proof and arm sleeves. I needed to feel the cold. Thankfully the caffeine was kicking in and the morning light was starting to dominate. I wasn’t so sleepy any longer.
From the forests the downhill towards Bran started. More forest and some very steep muddy descents. Gravity was pulling me down with a stumble. After 40+k of running on battered feet each step was painful. As too was my right quad which was very limiting in my movement. After what felt like an eternity I got through the mud.
We left the mud behind and annoyingly started to climb again up a gravel road. Up along the top were fantastic views of red roof houses and green farms. It was stunning first thing in the morning. There was a photographer. My watch indicated 3 km to go finally. Finally less than an hour left to run. I plodded on painfully. Then one last steep forest descent and we emerged into the car park of the sports hall where we registered. 600m along the busy main road to go. Only we were diverted to the grounds of Bran Castle. Weaving through the houses and gardens up the steps and round to the front of the castle to the finish line. I walked slowly with the stick. A small gathering of people clapping and Cheering. I thanked them. I crossed the line and lifted my stick triumphantly in the air. I was so glad to have finished. Ale, Carl and Nick soon came to collect me and help me back to the hotel. they’d each finished their races too.
Poles – I’m annoyed I’ve broken another set. Especially as I’ve only used these ones once before. Finding another and a decent stick definitely helped me overcome the last 60km!!
The 100km route has a very tough first 40km. The double summit of Omu is bad enough but the effort of the Chimney climb and the technicality of the second descent was exhausting.
I was obviously not thinking clearly when I received the drop bag at 45km. I knew my feet were wet and sore. I consciously decided not to dry them, nor change socks. I had some rationale why but it was definitely a bad mistake. Post race, my feet were in possibly the worst state ever – besides some trench foot I counter 10 blisters on one foot (the biggest one being the size of my thumb!).
I’m not sure why just one quad hurts so badly (restricting movement) perhaps I landed on it after my slip and air time?
The Aid stations were great. Each one had helpful volunteers and a good variety of food and and options. Sour worms were a delight for me.
The Bucegi mountains are spectacular a great place to run
The chimney is one hell of a climb and experience one needs to have!
Back in 2022 Nick and I were looking at races we fancied and Nick was eager to run in Malta after a recent holiday there. A quick search threw up the perfect event for us – The Xterra Malta 50km Gozo trail race – which is a route that takes you around the entire island of Gozo off Malta. We signed up and turned it into a little holiday with Natalia and Elise.
We woke on the morning of the race pretty relaxed and slowly made our way to the start line about 10 mins away from where we were staying in Ghajnsielem. It was great, we arrived about 10 mins before the start of the race and caught most of the race briefing (although couldn’t here anything). We liked the vibe, turn up and run, simple. Of course there was time for a ‘before’ photo at the start line.
After a very modest countdown the race began and we trotted over the start line. It was without doubt the most relaxed start to a race I’ve experienced. Although we were pretty near the back of the pack, no one was rushing or racing passed and the majority of the group just jogged on casually as the adventure began.
From the start we ran passed some tavernas with views over the port below and then turned up and along a main road where we crossed and joined up to the trails. Within minutes we had spectacular views as we ran on the coastline along winding paths weaving over the cliff edges. Runners were peeling away into the distance.
After a few km we dropped down to our first inlet of the day. The trails were more technical as we dropped the massive 20m descent and climbed back to 40masl after crossing the small beach and continued back along the cliffs. Way off in the distance we could see the curvature of the island and the majestic forts, churches and citadel inland on the island. The views were exceptional.
Shortly afterwards we had the first real climb of the day, as we climbed 100m and left the coast for a short while before going around a small seaside town (and the first water station) and finding our way back to the cliffs along the coastline for several kms before descending back to another cove. This would pretty much be the story of the day as the trails were undulating with short sharp ascents and descents as we hopped from cove to cove. Each one more beautiful than the last.
Around about 14km into the race we had a beautiful coastal stretch that passed through a little town of Xlendi and another 100m or so climb up some steep rocks (a little bit of simple scrambling was needed here). From here the trails took us high along the coast with more spectacular views of where we’d come from and where we were heading. Particularly in the distance seeing the ‘azure window’ view point where the next aid station was located. We stopped to refresh and reapply sun cream with the temperature now at its highest as it was around midday. It was very hot and humid and we were craving for every breeze of wind we’d occasionally encounter.
After the climb out of the aid station I think the trails started to become a little more technical. They were now rocky underfoot and overgrown with wild foliage evolved with spiky stems and leaves. Our legs were getting shredded and itching as we sweat in the heat.
The trails took us along many more coastal sections littered with salt pans where Maltese salt is collected. The formations in the landscape were a sight to behold. This was now by far the flattest section of the course and after about 30km we were ready for a little rest. Thankfully the penultimate aid station appeared and we could enjoy some fresh fruit and more water and isotonic drink (pretty much all the aid stations had). It was somewhere around here that the 21km race started and we wondered how Elise was getting on in what would be her first trail event.
From here we had several kms along the bushy cliff-side tracks descending to rocky coves and climbing back into the foliage. It was hard going with the uneven terrain and lack of any wind along this section so we hiked most of it. Way off in the distance we could see the red sand of the terracotta beach of Lr-Ramla. Eventually we reached it and had to cross the Sandy beach, passing all the pale, ghost-like sunbathers. We stopped immediately afterwards to empty or shoes which were full of sand. It was a steep ol’ climb as we as ascended back to the mammoth 100masl before back down to the coves at Dahlet Qorrot and the last aid station. The bulk of the race was done now and we had just 10km to go and one final climb.
We climbed out of the aid station and left the coastline for a few undulating kms inland along some ‘roads’ before returning just north east of the start/finish in Mgarr for the final 5km. It was probably the most technical part of the coast where we did a little more scrambling and bushwhacking for a few km and crossed the rocky Beach with the view of the ‘halfa rock’.
After getting off the rocky tracks, we had a very short ascent up the rusty metal ladder and then passed the water sports area of Hondoq-lr-Rummien and continued off trails towards the harbour at Mgarr. We ran passed the ferry terminals and sea front restaurants before climbing back to the finish line.
Over the last few km we’d steadily picked off runners and then held them off. As we rounded the final street we saw one final runner walking to the finish line. We agreed we could catch and pass them so ran on. As we ran passed we realised the runner was a double amputee and felt immediately bad for passing them so close to the finish line. What an achievement though, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, but navigating those last few rocky kms must have been very challenging!
As we reached the finish line Elise was there to cheer us in with her own finishers medal proudly on display. Her first trail race completed! We took some photos and went in search of the the finishers food and refreshments.
The race was very straight forward and highly enjoyable. The organisers, Xterra are simple and no fuss. Whilst the course was sporadically marked, the ‘red dot’ trail markings were, for the most part, easy to follow. The aid stations were simple and had very little, but it is probably quite a fast race and we were told this year was far hotter than previous versions. Despite all my races, this was the most I had continuously ran on the coast as the route circumnavigates the entire island. It was a joy to run with the crystal clear blue water of the Mediterranean sea at your side the whole way. It is a fantastic way to see the entire island. We made mental notes of some coves and beaches which we went off to enjoy the next day! Despite being a small island and only having about a 4 or 5 ‘climbs’ on the course the route does manage to cover 1300m of elevation, which shows that the trails really are undulating!
For me, this one was going to be a little bit special. Going in to the race I thought it would be the 100th time I’ve run either a marathon or longer. Turns out I missed the occasion and it was the 101st! (Trans Gran Canaria being the 100th) (for the geeks like me – it’s made up of 77 ultras and 34 marathons, with a mean distance of about 67km over those runs in 22 different countries!). Whilst not all races, each run has meant something to me and I guess shows that I really do like running long distances!!
I ran this race back in 2019. I didn’t really enjoy it. I took a battering from the terrain and referred to it as the ‘Rocky Bastard’. I never had any intention to go back and do it again. Then Darryl and Paul happened. They signed up and the rest is now history. 4 years later and I was going back to Gran Canaria…
I did well to rebuff the idea for a while. Quite a while. Then, whilst laid up with the broken ankle, idle thumbs gave in as time passed by. I admit I did become a little curious. Curious as to whether I’d enjoy it more having experienced other, harder races. Back in 2019 this was only my second mountain race (and the first time I’d ran over 100km). So to some degree I suppose I was looking forward to it. Just a little bit. For comparisons sake.
In summary though, I thought it was shitty in 2019 and I still think it is shitty now. Possibly even more shitty. Early on, through the first night I was enjoying it. Possibly more so than I previously remember. But that was probably more for the company and laughter of having friends with me. Possibly also knowing that neither of the others wanted to do this section (they had dropped down a distance after first signing up, then hopped back up to the full Classic route when I signed up!).
The night section can be a bit of a drag. A midnight start followed by a few km along a beach and promenade before a slow steady climb into the wild. There are some annoying river beds to navigate in the low light as you weave around some small villages. Later in the race, as you’re further from the coast, the landscape and scenery is beautiful. Lush dense forests and fields surrounding small mountain towns. There are some incredible views to be had around the towns of Teror and Tejada.
From there the route becomes a little less enjoyable underfoot as the rocks begin to take over and the barren, rocky mountain landscape dominates before the second night draws in. The finishing 10km along the infamous riverbed isn’t something to look forward to after a day of running! Neither are the two 1000m descents over harsh rocky terrain that lead up to it! The course changes since I did the 2019 version, whilst maybe necessary, certainly don’t enhance the route or experience!
From an Organisational view, the set up was as good as I remember and the volunteers and marshals were great. The course marking is impeccable and the pre-race runner’s ‘swag bag’ was a healthy one. The food at aid stations was plentiful although sucked a little bit as there was little variation between aid stations (with the exception of paella at the final aid station which was tasty and warm) and there was ‘soup’ that tasted like dirty dish water. That said, I never felt particularly ‘hungry’ so, for me all, was good. The El Garanon aid station setup confused and frustrated me with the hot food, the drinks and the drop bags all in separate buildings (the drop bag being a few mins walk further away). It made no sense to me and we got very cold walking between them at at night. All you want is to get your drop bag and some food and sit down with it all and make your way through your ‘to do’ list. Anyway…
On to the race itself, our experience…We started off and ran well for the first marathon with a good 8 hr time (including a decent stop at the 42km mark aid station) ticked off. That was a good pace for a target time around a 24hr finish. We, or at least I, enjoyed the night, the dawn of morning and the (fairly) runnable trails we covered. I was a little surprised as to how little I actually remembered. I recalled the quarry after the beach early on and the riverbeds but that was it. Apart from a small section this was predominantly the same route and I couldn’t remember most of it.
The ‘middle’ marathon quickly went downhill and our mood first started to dip when on the climb to El Hornillo as we were merged with the lead runners from the Advanced Race. All fresh and trying to run past on the narrow trails which made for a very stop start climb and chaos at the aid station. That mood was worsened with some of the route changes (since the 2019 edition) making for a far less enjoyable descent into Tejada. It felt longer and steeper, although it probably wasn’t. We took some ‘back tracks’ weaving through some housing and stayed away from the flatter main road which I previously used. The climbs were mostly behind us now as we navigated towards Roque Nublo and we tried to calculate how much longer we’d me out for. We were slower over the second marathon for sure, but nothing drastic.
The ‘final’ marathon can only be described as a slog. Moody and depleted, it was nothing more than shuffling along cursing the terrain with sore legs and raw feet. Almost 30km of rocky terrain and steep descents was pushing us into the depths of darkness. Tiredness and fatigue only added to the mix. A real slog. Arriving back into Maspalomas, the finish line walk was almost shameful as we made little effort to appease those spectators or the MC who were cajoling us to run at 05:00 in the morning. We had no interest. It didn’t help that each of the final few kms seemed never ending and we had another km walk back to the accommodation to make. We grabbed our medals and gilets and left pretty sharply!
Comparing the experience to that of 2019, I stand by calling the race a Rocky Bastard. It is rocky and it is a bastard. It is probably still up there with one of the harder of the events I’ve done. Revisiting it 4 years later certainly hasn’t changed my view on it and to some extent I wish I didn’t get curious about it!
I also reflected back on what I wrote post race back in 2019. It wasn’t all that dissimilar!:
Pre race anxiety – yep. Still there. Always is. I still get worked up and stressed about the logistics. The travel. The registration. The wait to the start. Until I get running I just can’t relax for the few days leading up to a big event like this.
Customary lack of structured training – yep still there. For different reasons this time of course. There have been 3 months of leading up to the race and other than a 100km run at the Cheviot Goat and the 50km George Fisher Tea Round I only ran over 20km on one other occasion. Not my greatest prep for an endurance event!
Back in 2019, the race bus schedule meant I arrived 2 hrs early at the start with nowhere to wait. This year was better and we arrived only 1 hour early and we found a table inside a quiet pub with food and a clean toilet!
Of course the customary playing of ‘Gran Canaria’ by Los Gofiones welcomed us and started the race. I do enjoy these anthems at the major events. It creates a really special and privileged atmosphere to hype up the start.
There was no overheating at the start this time either. The cooler weather and a decision to start without a windproof layer was a good one. Although all it meant was that I was a little more comfortable!
I think I was more aware of my surroundings on the first section to Teror this time. I now remember clearly the beach, the quarry tracks, the trails through the first few villages and the river beds surrounding them. Also the Monastery with large brick walls on the way in to Teror.
The muddy clay climb was as slippery as I recalled. I can’t remember where it was but I do know it was harder this year with the wetter weather and many runners struggling to climb. The poles were most useful here! I also have fonder memories of Fontanales this time and once again it was a perfect location for a pause, health check and to patch up some minor issues and I found the toilet this year!
Just like 4 years earlier, the forests were as quiet as before and the foliage as fresh and smelt nice as I remembered. Always a pleasure for nature to cover the horrific ultra runner smell!
There were some changes around El Hornillo and the aid station, but not something I noticed at the time. This is where I started comparing myself to my younger, fitter self. After getting caught up in the stampede here we didn’t reach Artenara until around sunrise.
The climb up to Roque Nublo was similar and memorable although I think the initial route from Tejada was different and more scenic this time. Whilst it was beginning to get overcast and the clag was setting in, as we reached the out and back section to the summit the sky cleared up and the sun shone through to warm us up and provide some views. Although it wasn’t as clear as it was last time for me.
El Garanon was reached in the dark this time and we probably stayed for less time than I did before. With a quicker turn around I didn’t bother changing too many clothes and once again couldn’t face removing my socks and seeing the damage to my feet from all the rocks! Ignorance is bliss. I did work my split of Tailwind better this time and didn’t run out before the aid station and had plenty to restock and see me through to the end this year.
The Cobble descent was still shit. I think this might be the least enjoyable section actually. Whilst the riverbed is far from enjoyable, it’s only really bad as you have almost 120km in your legs by the time you reach it and are dreaming of it being over. The cobble descent almost comes out of nowhere. It’s uneven and steep. It goes on for longer than you think, as does that whole section. And this year the descent is longer as you continue down to the next town. And after climbing again afterwards, there’s now another large rocky descent to contend with before you tackle the river bed.
And so the River bed, yeah it was as I remembered. The bushy over-grown reeds and plants at the start, the loose rocks and deceiving little sections where you think it’s over only to be directed back into the thick of it. Mostly though the biggest memory here for me was the mountain silhouette we were heading for that signalled the end. It loomed majestically up ahead at all times. Never getting closer. It’s quite a sight in the darkness. Leaving the riverbed and going under the underpass I was as cranky as I was in 2019.
Unlike 2019 I walked the finish and was happy to be seen to walk. We couldn’t give a shit about running. It had been a long night and we gave up chasing times the the day before!
And finally, the post race sentiments remained. I’ve repeated myself multiple times already. I previously said I wasn’t sure if I’d recommend it and that if I’d done a shorter distance I wouldn’t go back for the classic. Well I did go back. My thoughts were cemented. It’s not enjoyable and if I ever think about doing it a third time then there is permission to slap me! Slap me Hard.
Close to Christmas I was having a discussion with Paul which summed up the year and also my outlook on running. In short it’s all about the journey, the adventure. Both literally and metaphorically. We were discussing our motivations and what we wanted out of runs and future plans we we contemplating. This was our joint take away. If it isn’t an adventure, it no longer appeals to us. There are now so many marathons and ultras dotted around the UK (and beyond) that are so easily accessible, but what is the point if it doesn’t challenge and push you somewhere new? What is it really that intrigues us to sign up and tempts us into pressing that ‘sign up’ button?
We’ve been fortunate enough to travel to spectacular places and go on some truly magical adventures. We’ve found that , for us, it is that journey, from the start line to the finish line, which is an experience and a wild ride we desire. We want to feel not only the highs and validations of completion, but the extreme lows and challenges faced to get there. We want to be challenged.
Looking back on 2022 there were certainly plenty of challenges and achievements and one hell of a journey. 2022 literally broke me (just physically I’m glad to say!). My mind ventured to some dark places despite the incredible things my eyes were seeing, but, I didn’t yet find the limit of what I’m capable of. And, looking ahead (more to come on that) I probably (certainly) haven’t learnt from the hard lessons I’ve endured. I’m knowingly setting myself up to repeat the same mistakes in 2023, only bigger.
After I wrote these words I went back and read my opening thoughts for the year – “More of the Same“. It was like a prophecy. In this post, and last year’s reflections, I talk about similar themes, about the heavy belly, the wanky ankles and laid out the 9 events I was planning for 2022. It was never really going to be these 9 as there were two events booked on the same day, and the Centurion Wendover Woods 50 was always going to lose out to the Eiger Trail! For the first time in years the plan didn’t get stretched! This was mostly due to the injuries – my volume of running was significantly lower than the previous 3 years (best part of 50% less distance covered and marathons/ultras run!). So what did 2022 involve…
2022 started with some self inflicted injury. Over the Christmas period 2021 I ran a 55km from the coast in Swansea to Penller’ Castell, finishing near-ish to where my parents live. It was a tough but enjoyable solo adventure and one I’m certain caused me some problems with my ankles. Specifically the right one. I carried this forward into the year. I did get a little unsupported FKT on it for my pains though!
Event wise, first up was a flat 45 miler in February at the St Peter’s Way Ultra with Carl. I came through relatively unscathed and enjoyed the run more than expected and felt the ankle was ok throughout, despite some very muddy sections. What I didn’t enjoy was the difficulty of the logistics to get out and back to this ultra on a Sunday starting and finishing in the arse ends of nowhere.
The following month, the ankle issues flared up a little as I toed the line of the Hardmoors 55. After a difficult start, the pain numbed away and my mind was distracted enough to get through this notoriously tough winter ultra. Only for us it didn’t feel like a winter ultra as we benefitted from glorious sunshine throughout. This was my first trip to the North York Moors and it didn’t disappoint. Most of the run was spent with Jon and Reka and some of it with Jess and Giffy too. A wicked weekend with great mates. Post race the ankle seemed ok.
Next up was an exciting trip to Macedonia and the beauty of Lake Ohrid with with Natalia, Paul and Lisa. This was an unexpected gem and a wild adventure for sure. Everything I wanted and more from the trip – Mishaps and confusion throughout the drive from Albania to Macedonia, amazing food and atmospheres in the picturesque lakeside town and then insane weather and storms throughout the run. The 100km route was diverted and, for the first time, I was held mid race due to safety concerns. Paul and I timed (almost mistimed due to a rather large navigation mistake on our part) our pace on the 100km to meet up and run with Natalia on the 60km. Together we made our way through the storms, albeit not as fast as Natalia would have liked – I was beginning to accept my ankle injury was a little limiting on my pace now. From an organisation perspective this was one of, if not the best organised event I’d done. For such a low-key ultra in a remote location, the organisers really looked after us and ensured our safety. As a result it was one of my favourite running trips of the year!
Natalia and I then squeezed in a trip to Austria and a few great hikes in the Dachstein Krippenstein region overlooking Hallstatt before a month later it was back to the Serpent Trail for me and the scene of one of my first 100km runs. This year I was the sidekick to Nick who was running his first 100km. It pretty much went to plan (if you ignore the side effects of a burger van meat feast the night before) and he finished happy that he’d done it but certain his enjoyment was in slightly shorter distances. For me it was surreal to relive the route and recall such vivid and specific memories from 3 years earlier!
The Serpent Trail was a great ‘warm up for me’ as I was then jetting off to Switzerland for the much anticipated Eiger Ultra Trail. I’d been trying to get a place in this run since 2018 and was excited to see the Grindelwald region in all its splendour. It didn’t disappoint and the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The trip was enhanced with a reunion with Matt who we met during the Val D’Aran the year before. Soon we’d be lining up at the start line of UTMB together so it was great to get to know each other more in Switzerland beforehand. Whilst we didn’t run the whole race together, we all came away with our pieces of the Eiger Rock as medals – a medal I’d Been wanting since I started running and heard about. Best medal of the year.
August came around and it was time for the real adventures to begin. I’d planned a trip to Norway followed by three weeks in France before UTMB. Sandwiched in between I was honoured to be a guest at Paul and Lisa’s incredible wedding out in Chamonix. First up was the Stranda Fjord trail race which turned out to be harder than I could ever have imagined. The weather was horrific. The terrain was wild. The course was challenging. I don’t know how I made it through but I did. However, the SFTR did leave its mark on me and on reflection I suspect the damage to my ankles was really done in Norway. It does win the vote for my hardest race of the year though – It broke my kit, it broke me mentally and it broke me physically. And I didn’t have the promised panoramic views to enjoy. I must say though, many months later, I think I’m starting to come to terms with the race. My immediate thoughts post race were a little blunt and this should by no means reflect badly on the organisers, it was my own (lack of sufficient) preparation that is to blame.
The wedding, up in Montenvers Mer-De-Glace overlooking the Chamonix Valley, was a great opportunity to relax and forget about my Norwegian adventure whilst preparing for UTMB. It was such an honour to be invited to the wedding of someone I’ve not only met through running but become so close with. Paul is both the voice of reason and the voice of temptation when it comes to the ‘longer’ ultras. When times get challenging, it is Paul who you want by your side! To witness him exchange his vows with Lisa in a place so special to them was the most touching and inspiring moment of my year. Sharing that week with them and their close family and friends was a lovely distraction from running in the lead up to the ‘big dance’…
UTMB is a dream race for many people. For me it was more of a ‘tick box’ but one I was sure glad to be doing. I earnt my place at the infamous start line and I know many will never get that same opportunity, especially now as the restricted registration process has become so commercialised. Paul, Matt and I were focused and determined. We were finishing no matter what happened. One thing we share in common is this desire and determination to see it through and that’s what we did. I don’t know how I persevered in pain for over half the course, but I did, probably because of them. I know they were my extra level of strength that weekend and I’m so glad to know and run with them, to cross that finish line with them and their families, supported by Lisa, Lara, Mike, Martin and all the friends out in Chamonix who cheered us throughout the race. It was a truly special moment that I will cherish forever. I felt emotions that day I’ve never experienced before with ultra running.
The come down though was hard. Harder than I expected. Unknowingly I’d broken my ankle during the race and fractured my Talus bone. The irony was that I broke the opposite ankle to the one I’d suffered issues with all year and which I strapped up for the race! I didn’t actually find out that the ankle was broken until 4 weeks after the event. After initially being told it was “an infection from an insect bite” (!!) from a nurse at an NHS walk-in clinic, I popped into A&E 3 days after the race. Nothing obvious was seen but I took the offer of a walking boot whilst I waited for an appointment with the Fracture Clinic 4 weeks later, which is when I found out it was broken. It was good to know why I was in pain and also fortunate timing as it was now time to start weening off the cast and easing myself back into walking. In total it was 9 weeks without running which was unheard of for me. At first, whilst I had the cast, it was fine (perhaps the distraction of starting a new job the week after UTMB helped), but soon the withdrawal was hitting and the craving was coming back. Luckily though I had one more race booked in way off in December and I was able to focus on making that start line.
In November I started running again. I had 4 weeks to the race so just went straight back to increasing distances. 5 km runs the first week. 10 km runs the second week. 20 km runs the 3rd week and then back to back runs the 4th week. I couldn’t do it any other way. I knew the risks but wanted to get to the Cheviot Goat and get it done. After years of waiting I didn’t want to postpone this one any longer. I started that Cheviot Goat with more than a little extra timber and baggage after so little training and had nothing but hope and reliance on experience that I could get to the finish line. Thankfully I stuck with Jon and Yvette throughout to survived the baron landscape of the Cheviots. Like how the year started, we ran a notorious winter ultra with incredible summer-like conditions. We were so fortunate.
As the year ends, my ankles still aren’t 100%, but I’m confident they are strong enough, for now. The amount of running I’ve done this year is significantly less than previous years and I’ve lost all routines and consistency I’ve had. It’s been an incredible year for me again but it hasn’t been without struggle, self pity and doubt. All I can do now is take a moment and reassess, rebuild and re-focus. The only way I know how to do that is to sign up for more, for bigger and harder challenges. So that is exactly what I’ve done. Roll on 2023.
As always the constants in 2022 where the people. From all those loved ones and friends I share the trails with, to new friends made along the way, to the team at Maverick Race who indulge my habits and let me help out and volunteer, these are the kindred spirits who provide the adventures, the challenges, the love of running I experience.
My final thoughts for the year are my two observations. Firstly, my desire to persevere, to block out pain and to see it through is possibly stronger than I’d thought. I’m now not sure what my limit is and what would need to happen for me to decide to withdraw from a race. What I do know though is that broken bones won’t stop me if there is time to hobble to the end! Secondly, running without any fear is easy. I’ve not had to experience fear crippling my mind and my ability to make decisions when running. Those who experience true fear but continue to push on, these are the truly strong ones among us!!
It feels strange. I feel like I should be experiencing some form of runner’s high, but I’m not. I don’t quite know how to describe it, it almost feels like I’ve travelled back in time to a lesser experienced version of my running self…
I’m putting it down to a few things. Firstly, for a few years now I’ve been going from one race to another, month after month and often week after week. After breaking my ankle during the UTMB in September, I’ve not had a big running adventure for 3 months. I’ve barely run in that time. So my fitness has gone on a little holiday and I felt more like I did when I first started running ultras, things felt unfamiliar and hurt more than I am now used too. Add to that I’ve also not planned any further races for a while whilst I recover, so the mind and focus hasn’t immediately switched to the next challenge.
Secondly, The Cheviot Goat has been lingering on the horizon for quite sometime, almost 3 years since I first signed up early in 2020 it has been taunting me. Last year we got as far as going to the race location when it was cancelled (due to the aftermath of storm Arwen) and running our own (much shorter!) adventure around the Cheviots – the lesser ‘Cheviot Mutton’ as we dubbed it. So the Cheviot Goat has for a long time been on the ‘Ones that got away‘ list. Last year’s run, whilst great for experiencing the terrain and climate, kind of put me off doing the actual race a little.
So here I was, lining up for a race that I could no longer be bothered with, and really had limited confidence in how I’d physically cope. 9 weeks of rest and 4 weeks of short, easy running (most of which were on roads) was not the build up required to put me in a place where I was excited and looking forward to this run. Thankfully though I was fully prepared for it to be tough and knew I’d get through it somehow. I don’t give up, I won’t give up and I had Jon and Yvette to run with (assuming I could keep pace with them).
The logistics of the race were almost identical to the year before, we even stayed in the same AirBnB in Wooler (and ate in the same restaurant, possibly even the same order for me (minus the dessert!)). We registered the night before and felt the cold in the air as we checked in with the Mountain Rescue volunteers (showing our emergency kit – it is mandatory to have warm layers sealed in a waterproof bag for this event which you can’t use to run in, as well as a bivvy bag – foil blankets won’t do shit out here!) and received our bib numbers and trackers. 10 hours later we were back at the start and ready to go.
For 2022 the route had been changed from previous years. We’d benefit from two aid stations with drop bags (roughly at 20 miles and 40 miles), however as a trade off the route was slightly longer and with more elevation. It didn’t matter that much to me, I had everything I needed and even put a complete change of kit into each drop bag. I was covered for all eventualities. The weather forecast was good, surprisingly good. For a race usually taking place in minus temperatures and either snow or rain, we had sunny spells forecast pretty much throughout and the only minus temperatures were “feels like” temperatures on the higher summits like the Cheviot itself. So I started in shorts. I wasn’t alone in this, there were a few others like me who no doubt overheat quickly and don’t really feel the cold in the legs. I had tights and longer waterproof socks in my first aid station and my plan was to change into these when we arrived there. On top I had a t-shirt and a merino base layer on with my super lightweight OMM sonic smock to keep the wind off. I started questioning my decision a little looking around at the thick down jackets and long trousers and water proof bobble hats many others were sporting at the start line. But I was more distracted by judging people’s footwear choice. I’d opted for the Adidas Terrex Soft Ground. They have absolutely naff all cushioning or support but mega grip. I wore them last year for the 50km we did and they filled me with confidence. I’d hoped to get my cushioning from the soft, boggy terrain. I was surprised to see many runners in more ‘normal’ trail shoes, with plenty of Hokas and Salomon shoes to be seen. I even saw someone in a pair of Brooks road shoes. This I wasn’t expecting!
Anyway, enough people judging. We were directed under the orange glow of the Montane starting arch and soon set off. The route began with a slow steady climb over the first few km to Cochrane Pike. Way off in the distance we could see headlamps disappearing into the darkness as we walked steadily. For the first hour or so it drizzled on and off. This meant I was pulling my waterproof jacket out, then not long later stopping to take off the windproof from underneath as I was too hot. Then stopping again to remove it when the rain stopped. I was fussing. I couldn’t settle. So far so good though. The first 10km or so the terrain was delightful. It was wet, but firm underfoot with very few areas of concern and we were able to cover the undulating route with ease in the darkness until the sun started to break as we ran towards and along Wether Cairn, the highest point in the first section of the race. From here we had a lovely runnable section as we descended. The last part of the descent down to the road was rather steep, but caused no issues. From here we snaked along the road before starting an ascent on the other side.
Jon and Yvette were doing a sterling job of navigating (I was being selfish and hadn’t turned on my own navigation route) and kept us on track when some runners further ahead missed a turn. We all joined back up though pretty much straightaway. I think it was somewhere along this section that we first encountered the bogs. I recall a few sections of relatively flat routes (between the climbs/descents) where we hoping from bog to bog for a while. It wasn’t easy. We don’t train for jumping. Whilst you could easily navigate around the majority, some required a leap of faith. As a bang average height male, none of the jumps were particularly challenging for me, but I couldn’t do that continuously for the rest of the run! We managed to navigate them with nothing more than soggy feet, or rather soggy socks thanks to wearing waterproof socks! It made me think that the stories you hear are all a little bit exaggerated. You’d either have to completely mis-time a leap (feasible!) or be intentionally looking to go into a bog more than knee high. Unless you are running super quickly without time to think/adjust direction or are running with your eyes closed, the bogs aren’t anywhere near as bad as people like to make out. Either way, we’d survived the first bog section and soon completed a few more climbs and descents and were somewhere near Barrowburn, where the aid station would be.
As we were approaching Barrowburn, the day was glorious. It was cold, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as cold as I’d expected. I’d been running in two thin layers all morning and only put my liner gloves on when we were bog hoping. With a few more hours of daylight ahead, I felt I could get away without changing into the tights for a bit longer. So planned to just eat and change my socks at the aid station. Arriving at the aid station we headed inside and took the risk of sitting on the comfy sofa whilst the volunteers served us warm soup and bread rolls. Perfect. I struggled to get the fresh socks on and we probably stayed here a little longer than planned. With a long climb to Windy Gyle to follow though we weren’t concerned by the length of our rest and knew it was time well spent to set us up for the next section which, arguably, would be the longest and toughest of the course. Refreshed we headed back out. Despite the sunshine, I added the OMM layer back on top. We were heading towards Scotland after all!
The section to Windy Gyle was delightful too. Slow steady climbs, mostly dry tracks to follow with some undulations. The views here though were fantastic with clear skies showing the rolling hills for as far as the eyes could see. The best bits though were numerous rainbows of insane clarity and brightness. I feel like we passed through the end of rainbows several times. No need for pots of golds though with the fulfilling views we had!
From Windy Gyle, before the section in Scotland we had a short stint along the Pennine Way and the infamous slabs (or Flag Stones – I did get side tracked on the way home reading about the difference between slabs and flags and still don’t know which is the correct term to use). These aren’t too enjoyable to run on. I think some runners do like it, but I’m not one of them. Hard, slippery and uneven, they aren’t particularly fun to run along. Yet they serve a purpose (or many!) particularly on the section later on to the Cheviot Summit which really do keep you away from the bogs. Once we reached the end of the planned route along the slabs we were welcomed to Scotland by the Mountain Rescuer Team (there were numerous points marshalled by mountain rescue on this route. They were all so friendly and helpful and really did keep all runners safe out on the course) and directed off the Pennine way towards the Farm at Cocklawfoot. As we navigated through the farm we were a little confused as there were a few ways the route could go and some signage which we weren’t sure was for us or not. We followed the GPS route and were soon confident we were heading the right direction as the climb towards the Cheviot began.
The climb to the Cheviot summit is the only section of the route we covered on our adventure the year before. We were approaching from a different route this time, but would join up at the Mountain Rescue Hut (Auchope Rigg) for the actual ascent. Like last year, we stopped at the hut for a little break and opportunity to adjust our kit. We sat in the hut chatting to two local lads as we layered up (waterproof on now as it hard started raining as well as warmer waterproof gloves and mittens overtop!) and ate. Chicken and chorizo empanadas for me, wraps for Jon and Yvette (yep, I was keeping pace with them so far!). This is ultra running! As we pressed back on and began the climb it started to Snow, just like it did the previous year, only not as heavy. Annoyingly though it was head on which was a little awkward as it meant I was head down trying to climb. Still until this point we’d been absolutely spoilt with the weather. We were making decent time too and should be able to get off the Cheviot before the sun started to go down. As we overcame the bulk of the climb, the snow eased off and we were rewarded with incredible sunset views over the glistening white hills.
The one thing we learnt from last year was that, once the climb was over, you are still not at the summit! There is a section of a few kilometres along the slabs again before you reach the actual Cheviot summit. Last year it was frustrating. This year it was a known formality. We’d go out along the stones and ‘tag’ the summit before returning along the same track and then descending a different direction. So along we went, cheered on by the Mountain Rescue team who were manning the turning at the return point. The section was dull. There aren’t many things you can truthfully say about it in a greying December evening. Its like some parallel universe from a sci-fi film, just bleak and cold. To your left and right, as far as you can see in the clag are dark bogs broken up only by glistening white snow on the firm sections. Deviate from the slabs and it is likely you’ll get pretty wet. From time to time slabs were ‘missing’, presumably consumed by the bogs. We gingerly crossed them, hoping they were just covered by a layer of water rather than missing altogether. The traverse was slow as we’d stop and give way to runners coming in the other direction. Eventually we reached the summit Trig Point, grabbed a team photo and then set back off towards the marshals.
And here, a little over halfway through at 55 kilometres, things began to get hard…..
We were in good spirits and in pretty good condition. Yvette seemed completely fine, Jon was starting to experience some knee/calf pains and my biggest issue were my left metatarsals hurting, which I think was a shoe/laces issue (I was constantly having to stop and re-tie the laces on the Adidas SGs which kept coming loose – perhaps a design flaw with the flat lace design?). Mentally we were happy, but that all started to change as we descended. The initial part of the descent was rocky. Whhhyyy. Rocks are my nemesis, why I do mountain ultras I do not know. The rocks were small, loose and very slippery. We were very slow to cover this section and to reach more forgiving terrain. Here Jon realised that it was the descents that were aggravating his knee/calf. Whilst the descent ended pretty quickly, it was probably the last time we ran as the ‘flat’ section towards BloodyBush Edge was just wet, boggy and covered in tussocks. The lumpy grass meant we were slow, rolling our feet and angles, bobbing from side to side and trying to avoid ploughing straight into a bog. The headlamps were out by now and runners around us were complaining they couldn’t feel their feet they were so cold (post race there were murmurs that one runner finished with a single shoe and hadn’t realised he lost one because his feet were so cold!). Waterproof socks were proving to be wise choice though as our feet were only cold when fully submerged in water,
The trek felt like it went on for ages, passing the next set of Mountain Rescue marshals as we ascended the short climb to Bloodybush Edge. This was by far my least favourite section of the race so far. From here we headed along an ‘ok’ kind of track towards Cushat Law where we began to descend again towards the next aid station at High Bleakhope. We left the track at Cushat Law and were going ‘off piste’, wandering around in the darkness trying to roughly align with our gps route. We weren’t the only ones. Head torches seemed to face all directions in the darkness and every now and then another head torch would join up with us from somewhere else and say “not that direction”. ‘Bleak Hope’ is a rather apt name for the location were we found ourselves at this point in the race! There was one runner who’d done the March edition (a one off event) and kind of knew where he was going and said we should join up with a quad track somewhere, which we eventually did. From here it was a little jog into the second aid station.
This aid station was in an open barn. There was a fire pit outside and chairs inside. We sat down and went to work. I stuffed my face with crisps, mini eggs, biscuits and a warm cup of coffee. I then decided to swap my thin lioner gloves for a drier pair (hoping they’d add a little more warmth), add a buff to my neck and swap the one on my head for a thin merino hat. This along with refilling my bottles and adjusting my bag seemed to take an age and Jon and Yvette were patiently waiting for me. I first needed to re-tie my laces (again) and then warm my hands by the fire before putting the gloves back on. Which also took an age as my fingers seemed to have swelled and didn’t easily fit back in. We did eventually leave and I was lifted by the knowledge that from here we would finish. I joked that I always say if you get to the last check point/aid station then you can get to the end. It amused me that the second aid station was also the last one on this race. Admittedly there was still a very long way to go and more bogs and obstacles lay in wait!
We had another climb straight from the aid station and then a reasonable descent. I think my mind switched off at this point as all I remember is a section where we had to turn left, only there was no way through thick, knee height heather. So for what felt like a very long time we were bimbling along lifting our tired legs high and then sinking further down than expected as the ground below disappeared. It was energy sapping. Like much of the course since we left the Cheviot, it was difficult to generate any sort of momentum even when walking. The uneven ground meant your stride was constantly interrupted with a wobble to the side or a rocking backwards motion. It required a lot of concentration to try and keep moving forward! A little later, we descended alongside a fence line down to a river where we found two head torches in the darkness pacing back and forth trying to find a way across. They’d seen other runners come this way but couldn’t see where they crossed. A small committee formed as maybe 7 or 8 of us looked for a way. Another runner joined on the other side of the fence and I climbed over and we found a place to cross a littler further along. From this point it was a very, very wet and muddy climb as we started to make our way towards Hedgehope Hill (the second highest point on the route).
Underneath us was some semblance of a man made path, some honeycomb type carpet laid out to try and provide some protection from the bogs. For the most part it was ankle deep below the surface of the water/mud and I remember it bouncing as we walked. At this point I’d given up all desire to navigate around any bogs or attempt to leap over them and was playing roulette trudging straight through. It wasn’t that bad though and once more I never lost my legs to anything more than kneed high.
As we approached the last ‘big’ climb up to Hedgehope, the snow started to fall, again head on. We’d been lucky and it had only rained a few times for short periods, once it was sleet and a few more light dustings of snow. With each though I was looking down at my feet to see where I was going and now my shoulders and neck were starting to ache. I hoped it wouldn’t last long. Thankfully by the time we completed the climb it cleared up and we were able to begin the descent. Albeit slowly as it was yet another slow trek as we navigated the mud and random broken fence posts sticking up out of the ground. For a small deviation we somehow left the path and went off on a tangent and had to trudge along a lumpy section to find our way back on course. I’d realise we went wrong on this section because I’d been following the muddy foot prints of previous runners, where the snow had been melted, to navigate around the bogs. What I hadn’t realised was I was soon following a single set of foot prints belonging to the runner ahead who’d made the wrong turn!
Somewhere along this descent Yvette and Jon mentioned we still had about 10km to go. This broke me a little as I felt like it should have been a lot less by then. We started a climb (I assume somewhere around Dunmoor Hill) which we all assumed was the last climb towards the end of the race, it wasn’t. This was also very rocky and slowed us down somewhat. A few km later at the bottom of the long descent, we caught a bigger group of runners and all got lost together. In the darkness with our tiredness we were all struggling to identify the correct way and would stop every now and then to climb a fence (there was a lot of fence climbing on this route!) to get back on track. Sometimes we’d be leading, sometimes others would be leading. Progress was slow and our moans and groans were becoming more audible. We eventually emerged on a road section and were cheered on by some more marshals. I felt the finish was imminent, but it wasn’t. We were now at Brough Law. The last climb and still a few kilometres from the finish line. Here we were circumnavigating Brough Law and not climbing over it. Jon and another lady were leading the way and pointed out we needed to climb a little higher onto a rocky path. We were ever so slightly scrambling now. Bloody rocks. Most of the pack left us and bum-skidded down and onto some greener tracks. They powered ahead. We continued on the rocky track and eventually emerged behind them on the climb.
After the ascent, as we descended for the last time it dawned on us how long we’d been out there. Yvette pointed out we’d been going for over 19 hours. We were hoping to be finished sometime between 10pm and midnight. I was now nearing 2 am. Bugger, it was going to be an exhausting journey home the next day! Not too long after our whinge at the time, we were back onto a sealed road and Yvette powered on ahead and Jon started running. He could sense the finish. I couldn’t give a shit at this point. We’d been walking for hours, I had no desire to run and finish minutes sooner. I plodded on behind them, passed some parked cars, over Ingram Bridge and onto the gravel track that led around the back to the Café, the finish line. Jon and Yvette waited for me and we walked through the Montane arches, into the café to finish the race together. Ben was waiting for us (legend, coming out in the middle of the night to support us) and we were handed our medals and had a finishers picture taken. We then went inside where Ben brought us all hot soap and bread.
We stayed as long as we could before the risk of falling asleep on the table became real. We collected our drop bags and Jon drove us back to Wooler where a warm shower and a cosy bed was waiting…
Let’s start with the ankle. It hurt the next day. I wasn’t sure if I’d done more damage and needed to wait until the ‘pains’ of the run settled before confirming if it was actually a problem with the ankle again or just the exertion of running 95km. Thankfully I think it was the later.
I didn’t come out of it completely unscathed though. I think I might have pulled both hamstrings a little. A week later and I still have two fist sized black bruises, one on each hamstring. For a few days afterwards I was in pain trying to walk/bend my legs. No idea how I managed that.
Mentally all is good. I started off writing about how I wasn’t arsed about this race. I think that somewhere during the last 3 years I’d built this event into a monster in my head. Severe weather, difficult terrain etc. Don’t get me wrong, it is very tough, but this year I’ve done a few races that have been beyond tough in comparison. So overall it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought it would be. Mostly mild weather throughout and no waist high bog incidents. So a winner! Having good kit certainly helped!
For comparison though, runners who’d done previous versions of the route were indicating there was maybe an hour or two extra duration this year in their times. I’d expected close to 18 hours (and last year was even thinking 15 hours!) and it took us 20 hours, so timewise it would suggest it was tougher than I’d planned. And, for further comparison, this year Jon did the Lakeland 50 (another notoriously hard 50 miler) in 13 hours. This was almost 50% longer in duration.
I think the think I struggled with most was the disorientation of the darkness. Whenever we looked up, in all directions you could see head torches coming and going. It was difficult to get a bearing and a sense of where you’d come from or where you were going. For me this made navigation that little bit harder.
So despite the ‘bla-ness’ I’m experiencing post race, I’m bloody happy. Happy to have finally done the Cheviot Goat, happy that my ankle might be ok, happy that I didn’t get frost bite or sink to a slow, cold death in a bog and very happy to have had the company of Jon and Yvette throughout. Running with likeminded friends always makes it easier and these are two of the best running buddies you could ask for on an adventure.
Huge thanks to Coldbrew Events for putting on this bastard and to the Mountain rescue Teams for supporting us throughout.
UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, has a certain pomp and air to it. For those less familiar with the brand, it’s one of the largest trail running races across the globe and the organisation recently partnered to Iron Man with mixed public reaction. Think bigger brand, bigger costs, new sponsors and processes including a new series of ‘by UTMB’ branded events across the world that form the qualifiers for a “World Series”. The final of the world series being the UTMB events in August. Basically it’s changed. For good or for worse, that the Brand will decide. Either way, some 10,000 punters show up for one of the many races of the UTMB:
UTMB – 171 km (106 Miles)
TDS – 147km
CCC – 100km
OCC – 55km
MCC – 40km (for locals)
PTL – a Whopping 300km team event
YCC – various distances for youth ages
Les Mini UTMB – for the little ones
And now the ETC – 15km
I’ve been very fortunate to have previously completed both the CCC and the TDS. Now, after completing Val d Aran by UTMB through which I gained a one-off guaranteed entry to UTMB, I find myself towing the start line at the main event, the 100m ‘Series Final’ that is UTMB.
Running 100miles in the mountains takes a long time for mere mortals like me. Over this time you think of so many things and also decide to explicitly not think of so many things too. I’ve recapped and recalled long races before and I find it’s often as exhausting as the race itself. So I decided I’m not going to put myself through that pain and recap mile by mile of my UTMB experience. Instead, what follows is a dump of thoughts and recollections with a shorter summary of the event. The 45 hours of running will mostly stay between me, Paul and Matt.
I mentioned that somewhere in the region of 10,000 punters show up for the UTMB races. Granted this is staggered over a week with the PTL beginning the proceedings and closing it along with UTMB on the final Sunday in August, but, add in family and friends along with the usual number of tourists and the small towns the races pass through are bursting at the seems. Chamonix in particular is very, very busy during race week (and leading up to it). If you don’t like crowds and the pomp then you probably won’t like this event!
On the plus side, big crowds add to the atmosphere and vibes. Watching finishers of other races and supporting runners from all over the world is incredible. Watching the true greats of the sport ‘competing’ with people like me is fascinating and exciting. Although I imagine it is less exciting for the pros as they get mobbed in the streets and have to partake in all manner of commercial appearances before and after the races. The towns really are a little mental during this time. On our race, hitting Les Houches in the early evening on Friday, and Saint-Gervais a few hours later was a crazy experience. Saint-Gervais in particular was pumping with loud music and people lining the streets cheering and supporting runners for hours on end.
Finishing early afternoon on Sunday was quite a surreal experience too. The last of the finishers would be just an hour behind us and the crowds had gathered ready to cheer them home. So we benefitted from a great finish line atmosphere with thousands of people in the streets cheering and clapping runners across the line (you run a good km through the town, past all the pubs and restaurants, to get to the finish line). Having experienced an early Saturday am finish on the CCC and a midweek, midday, finish on the TDS, this UTMB finish really was on another level. As a participant in the ‘main event’ you really are put on a pedestal and cheered like nothing else I’ve experienced.
The UTMB takes in three countries as you loop around Mont Blanc from France, into Italy, crossing into Switzerland before reaching back into France and approaching Chamonix from the other direction. The route is 106miles, covers 10,400m of vertical gain (and also descent!) and crosses through a number of major towns including Chamonix, Courmayeur and Champex Lac. With 15 major aid stations and many more checkpoints/timing points along the way. It’s a military operation. And that’s just one of the races!
The Alpine trails are stunning. For much of UTMB the trails are very, very runnable. There are, inevitably, some rocky sections and some of the climbs are tough. But on the whole the trails aren’t technical on the UTMB (unlike it’s sister the TDS, which takes in some more technical routes from Courmayeur back to Chamonix) nor the climbs/descents too long. In my experience, the terrain alone makes it a very straight forward route and one which shouldn’t be feared. Combining with the distance and elevation though makes for a far tougher beast and it is fair to say I underestimated just how hard this course is.
There are many climbs and summits and at a few points, including the Col de la Seigne (where you cross from France to Italy) and also Grand Col Ferret (where you cross from Italy to Switzerland) you reach an altitude of >2500m. You’re high up in the Alps. The mountains don’t care about us humans, we are just visitors riding our luck at anytime. The weather will turn and the mountains will serve you your ass on a plate if you’re not ready. There is extensive mandatory kit for the races (and in the exception of ‘cold’ weather or ‘hot’ weather there are also additional mandatory kit lists that can be activated the day before the race begins). For us, in 2022, it was thankfully just the normal kit list that was activated. Although, for the first time in my UTMB experience the Organisers didn’t check everyone’s kit on registration. There were subsequent kit checks during the race though.
The 106 miles of the route is a long way. I thought about this alot over the 40 hours. It is the 4th time I’ve run 100miles and I’m beginning to accept what a challenge it actually is. As time ticked by we carried on flirting with cut offs. We were never in danger of being ‘timed-out’ but I was very aware that time could easily be against us at any point. I also wondered how it was so comparable (time wise) to Val D’Aran which felt far harder with more technical terrain and bigger climbs. Truth is, it’s because 100 miles really is a long way. It will take a while to cover on foot regardless of where you are. And so it did take a while for us to cover on foot, we can’t escape that. 100miles in the Alps is also, unsurprisingly, not comparable to 100miles in the UK (although only one of my four 100 mile runs have been in the UK!). I should have already known that 100 miles is a long way. After completing UTMB I think I finally accept that it is!
We expected rain and bad weather as, in the lead up to the event, the forecasts had predicted rain and some light storms throughout, we were preparing for a soggy two days. Come the day before, these forecasts had changed and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d have a dry run. I can’t explain how much this would have helped. Thankfully that is how it stayed and, other than some light rain at the start whilst we waited to begin, we avoided all bad weather across the course. If anything, it was a little hot during the day time and on some of the climbs where shade was limited! We were very fortunate.
Together we were stronger. Matt said after the race that there were points he wondered if he’d enjoy it more alone. I already know the answer to that. I wouldn’t have. I enjoy the company and the distraction from the task. All three of us started together and finished together. That’s a wonderful thing. Over 45 hours we never left each other’s sides. We could have. Mostly Matt could have left me and Paul behind (like we’d left him at Eiger), but he didn’t. Early in the first night Paul went through a tough number of hours of nausea and sickness. He struggled through it and came out the other side (picking up in Italy!). From Courmayeur onwards I moaned about my ankle/leg and could barely run. This slowed us down a lot! Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the guys could have left me many times but didn’t. I’m thankful for them sticking it out with me and sacrificing a quicker finish time to help me through. Again, without them I’m not sure whether I would have succumb to the darker thoughts that taunted me over the last 24 hours.
Leaving Chamonix was mental and the first 8km to Les Houches flew by, as did the first climb over Le Delevret to Saint-Gervais with the sun setting just as we came close to the end of the downhill. The town was one giant party. It was full on and very noisy. It was great and the atomosphere was a talking point amongst runners. For me, the first night was mostly enjoyable. After a flying visit through Les Contamines we were running through the Hoka ‘light show’. The sponsors had errected a big tunnel of light and covered the surrounding area in further lights. It was a bit odd and very cheesy. But it was different and for as few moments the night was alive. We ran through the darkness, over La Balme and Col du Bonhomme (where we unfortunately witnesses someone being airlifted from the course) and descended into Les Chapieux at around 50km in the early hours of the morning. It was a long climb from here which, despite feeling my ankles hurting I rather enjoyed as we reached the Col de la Seigne into Italy just in time for sunrise. The sunrise was beautiful. We stopped for a moment and enjoyed the subsequent climb to Pyramides Calcaires which was rather rocky and more technical than the previous 60km we’d run. There was a long descent into the morning to the next major aid station that was Lac Combal. However, things were starting to become far less enjoyable by now.
After enduring a difficult night, Paul was back to his ‘normal’ self as the day began brightening up and generally we were all running well. We had one plan which was to get to Courmayeur without being screwed up! If we could reach halfway with our quads and ankles intact we were all confident for the second half of the course (which follows pretty much the CCC route which we’d all previously completed). So far everything was going to OK but the plan started to unravel slightly as the morning heated up and we began the steep descent into Courmayeur. The steep and dusty trails were hard work and my left ankle was now constantly in Pain. My form had gone out of the window and I was lumbering downhill whichever way I could. The dust the runners were kicking up was unavoidable and we all arrived into the halfway point with dry and dusty throats.
Out of Courmayeur we began the CCC route albeit with a different climb to Refuge Bertone. Rather than the longer route via Tete de la Tronche we went the more direct way, pretty much straight up. It was tough in the heat as we slowly climbed through the forests. By now there was a lot of pain in my left ankle/shin. I was struggling to run but knew I wanted to keep going, it wasn’t even a question I would entertain, I was finishing this race. From Bertone we ran the ‘balcon’ to Refuge Bonatti and again further on to Arnouvaz from where we would begin the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (aka ‘Grand Colin Farrel’). I recalled this section and that it was stunning and enjoyable. It still was, although I wasn’t able to ‘run’ too much. We were also starting to tire at this point and took a moment at Bonatti to lay in the sun and close our eyes for a few mins (being woken by ants biting us!). The climb to Col Ferret was easy going and this was the first time (on my third visit) where I could see the Col clearly. It was visible towards the end of the climb with the wind quickly blowing the clouds away before they could settle.
Now in Switzerland, it was a long downhill to La Fouly. I knew it would hurt. And it did hurt. I was struggling badly now. Climbing was ok, and I knew I could cover ground at a faster than our average pace when going uphill, but the descents were too much for me. Paul and Matt encouraged me when they could but I was starting accept though that I simply could not move any faster, physically it was beyond me. It wasn’t just the pain, but the range of motion I had in my left ankle/foot was now very limited and I couldn’t push off my left foot. I was already thinking about the three big descents still to come later in the race and I couldn’t believe we still had 60km+ to run and so I was a little bit deflated. We’d agreed we’d try and sleep at Champex-Lac for 20 mins so the initial goal was to get through La Fouly and cover the 14km to Champex-Lac. The slog there was very slow (yep, because of me). I remembered I liked this section on the CCC as we ran through the forests and mountain tracks to Praz de Fort, which I really liked, and also the climb to Champex-Lac through Sentier des Champignons with all the wood carvings. Paul didn’t enjoy it so much but we were all decent fast-hikers so, despite my inability to run, we we still covering the ground at an acceptable pace and eventually reached the aid station with plenty of time for the planned sleep.
We dived dived straight into the sleeping tents. Selfishly I found one and went to work. As soon as I laid down I was shivering. I couldn’t stop it. I should probably have changed into dry clothes first but was so tired I could only think of maximising the sleeping time! Once awake, but very spaced out, Lisa, Martin and Mike went to work fixing us up and sending us back into the night. First up it was the monster climb to Refuge Bovine and we summited deep into the night. Struggling down the descent to Trient (passing through the shithouse party stop that is a barn at La Giete) we then reached Trient just as day was breaking. Mike was there again and over saw another 10 minute power snooze. With the morning chill on our side we powered up the climb to Les Tseppes. We then lost a lot of ground on the ‘nice’ downhill to Vallorcine. We were feeling it now, I was broken and in constant pain and Paul was feeling his quads due to all the downhills. Matt seemed absolutely fine. We were in a good place though knowing that we finally had one ‘climb’ and one ‘descent’ left to conquer. We didn’t stick around too long at Vallorcine and began the climb to La Tete Aux Vents in the midday heat. It was of course a bastard. A rocky climb with no shade and a rocky traverse over to the checkpoint. It wasn’t easy. But I was more worried of the final descent from La Flegere. A whopping 800m downhill to go back to the finish line in Chamonix. The traverse to La Flegere was frustrating and the downhill excruciating. Somehow though we were moving quick enough to be passing more people than whom overtook us. Jana, Paul, Jess and Mikkel came to meet us near Chalet De La Floria and to support us for the last few kms. And then it was the ‘km’ run around the town. The crowds. The cheers. The elation. We’d done it. It happened. We were UTMB finishers.
I’ve saved it till last, but most importantly, this race was all about the people. Firstly Me, Paul and Matt. We were running it. It was for us, by us. We all had our different reasons and motives for being there and the race meant different things to each of us. We’d all worked hard to qualify and prepare ourselves to be at the start line. So it was our race. We were doing it our way. We’d discussed various potential finish times, but these were scrapped pretty much as soon as we started. We were all of the same mindset though and we had one simply mantra we shared from the “it’s happening”. Nothing was going to stop it from happening that’s what we said going into it. It came up several times during the two days and in the final minutes the mantra shifted tense to “It Happened”.
Then there’s the crew. Unexpected, but absolutely essential and critical to us completing the race. Matt’s family – Dad Mike, wife Lara and son George along with Lisa and Martin were on crewing duties. Not always arranged or planned but they were popping up everywhere when we needed them most. They were all dotted along different places at the start in Chamonix and at the first checkpoint in Les Houche. Lara and Mike went to Courmayeur (80km in). Lisa and Martin showed up in Champex-Lac (120km in) with Mike and again on the last climb to La Flegere. Mike also made his way to Trient in the middle of the second night (and had to be sent home to get some sleep and ordered not to show up in Vallorcine too!). Of course they were all then at the finish line to see us finish.
Crewing is a crazy tough ask. The amount of travel, stress, lack of sleep and general thankless nature of following a smelly miserable runner around a race for hours on end is exhausting. Never mind doing it across three different countries! But without them, the outcome of the race would have been very different. From tending to our needs, making us eat, encouraging us, timing our sleeps (and in my case Mike stopping me from pouring coke on myself as I slept!), to giving us extra food and supplies, and so much more. All these things altered the outcome of our race for the better. We couldn’t have done it without them all. This really was a team effort. Whilst three of us ran, a team of us worked tirelessly to achieve the goal. I can’t thank them all enough.
Then there’s everyone else who was out in Chamonix, racing or supporting, who popped up to cheer somewhere along the way from the start line all the way through to the finish. And also all those who contacted us and sent messages of support. These acts of generosity and kindness meant so much to us and helped lift our spirits more than we could express. Big thanks to Jana, Jess, Paul and Mikkel who ran out to see us on the last descent and to all of Paul and Lisa’s family and friends spread across the world who were actively following and messaging us (we’d all spent a weekend together two weeks prior at Paul and Lisa’s wedding!).
Starting UTMB near the back was a bit shitty. It was a slow start and we had bottlenecks on pretty much all the climbs and descents. We did what we could though, embracing the crowds and using them to our advantage to keep our pace slow and steady.
The Finish line time of day vibe is key for UTMB events. There’s very little after race love and attention at UTMB. It’s all about those few minutes as you run through the town and up the finish line. Time it wrong and finish too early and it’s a lonely, anti-climatic finish.
Chasing cut offs is not fun. It’s stressful. We weren’t as tight as last year during the VDA but I was constantly aware and calling them out, running the numbers and doing the math, re-evaluating are progress. It saps away at your spirit and makes you feel like you can’t do it.
Matt is the king of the power nap. Ten mins at a time and he’s refreshed. Me and Paul need to work on it.
The drop out rate as always is huge. 800 runners started but didn’t finish. For us it was perfect conditions. But there are so many reasons that could change that for each individual.
The aftermath – I talked about the pain I was in during the race. One week later and I still cannot walk. The swelling has subsided and the X-rays were clear (no break) but the diagnosis is still pending. Until then I’m in a support boot and still in pain. This time I’ve done something serious to my body. Right now I’d say it was worth it, but I can’t quite understand how I managed to keep going until the end!
The course record was smashed and for the first time the winner went under 20 hours. So did the second place finisher this year. To put that into perspective, there was a longer time between the first finisher and us finishing, than the time taken for the winner to complete the race. I can’t understand how they can cover the distance so quickly!
For perspective, Matt ran the whole race in brand new kit after his luggage was lost on route and didn’t turn up in time. How he didn’t stress and lose the plot I do not know. Most of us runners are meticulous in our planning and preparation, but Matt just accepted it for what it was and went with it. He’s such a calm and level-headed guy!
When recapping my last race I mentioned how, during the Eiger Ultra Trail E101, I fell over for the first time in a race. We’ll I think it was a floodgate moment. In my next race I must have fallen about 50 times, no exaggeration, I spent a lot of time on my backside in Norway…
The Stranda Fjord Trail Race in Norway had been on the cards for a long time. Originally I signed up to the race back in 2019 and hoped to do the inaugural 100km run in 2020. But we all know what happened that year and the same cause meant 2021 also wasn’t possible for us. Oscar, the Race Director, was incredibly supportive in deferring entries until we could travel to Norway and race. So in 2022, a slightly smaller than planned group of us headed out to finally run in the fjells of Norway.
In the days leading up to the weekend it became increasingly clear that the weather was going to be less than ideal for the race. Clouds and rain meant a weather warning and amendments to the 100km route were activated for safety. At this point I was kind of ok with it. We can’t control or change the weather, and I was expecting the route to be very difficult. So removing some of the most difficult sections would be in my favour I thought. A small benefit to missing out on the legendary panoramic views from Slogen.
Nick and Natalia woke at 1am to escort me down to the town of Stranda for the start. An unnecessary and kind gesture from them both given they would need to wake up in a few hours to prepare for their 48km race. After collecting my GPS tracker I sat inside the building (where we collected our race numbers) with the other runners, waiting until it was almost 02:00 and time to run. We first lined up under the finishers arch before being led around the corner to the real start line. Here I fell for the first time, stepping in a hole in the concrete pavement, before the race had even begun!
Section 1: Start –Duklidalen
The course starts on the town square in Stranda. From Stranda you will first be running a few km on a asphalt road until you hit the trailhead on Framhus. From Framhus you will be running on a nice trail up to Dregetua (693) and then off trail over to Vardnakken (878masl) and further to Blåhornsvatnet on trail. From Blåhornsvatnet you will be running on a nice trail down to Vasset. From Vasset you will be running a few km on a gravel road until you hit the trailhead for the trail towards Lievarden (799masl) and Duklidalen (820masl). In Duklidalen you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Moments later and we were off, running the tarmac road switch backs for the first few kms. I was pleasantly surprised at this point that we stuck together mostly as one big group of runners and that I hadn’t been left behind completely.
The roads soon gave way to the forest and we began running in single file in the darkness. And it was very dark, something about it felt darker than the usual nights I’ve experienced. Though the trails were clearly lit by the dozens of head torches bobbing about.
Mostly it was silent now other than the sloshing sounds as we ran through puddles and muddy trails. I felt that most runners were, like me, trying to avoid getting their feet wet. I accepted that it would be wet but didn’t plan on being waterlogged for the whole race so was happy to skip around the trails when I could. I should have known better that weeks of rain in this area would have meant the ground conditions would be far worse than I imagined! It was soon clear that the trails would consistently be this way at the best of times.
Through the forests two things stood out in my memory. Almost getting lost – the spacing between runners was now increasing and a few of us lost sight of the runners ahead of us and this section was not course marked. A quick stop and check of the GPS and we were back on track before the damage was done! And a point where there was a delightful bunch of supporters with coloured lights and music who cheered us through one small section of the track. It created a good atmosphere and led to a few of us to start talking. Whilst talking to a few climbers who were doing the race it made me realise that most of the runners around me were head to toe in waterproofs (or wearing hiking trousers!) and there were very few like me in shorts and tshirts without a waterproof on. Even though it was drizzling with rain, I knew though that I’d overheat on the early climbs so was waiting until the climbs were exposed before I’d layer up.
After a little section on some wider gravel roads, the forests returned and became a little steeper and very, very muddy. Every now and then a series of wooden walkways assisted in avoiding much of the mud. The forest soon gave way and the mountain opened up into a vast exposed climb. The single tracks we followed, still trying to skip around the mud and bogs. So far so good although it was now very windy and cold (the drizzle of fine rain had become more constant now) so I took a moment to layer up with my waterproof jacket.
We continued climbing before reaching the first of the smaller summits (which must have been Dregetua) marked by a stone trig pillar. We then began descending and running again. I set off and was enjoying seeing the head torches of other runners way off in the distance. Here though it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the mud as the narrow tracks left little room to manoeuvre as the ground was so uneven. It wasn’t long before I was soaked to my shins and covered in mud. At one point my left shoe came off, stuck and wedged in the mud completely. I had to bend down and pull with both hands to get out back out. I took the moment to tighten both my laces! We then climbed a little more in similar lumpy conditions which was quite tiring on the terrain and in the cold of night. The heat from the first bit of climbing meant my t shirt was soaked with sweat so I couldn’t really avoid getting cold even with the jacket on!
From the next trig point (Vardnakken) we began descending. Down we went through a long series of lumpy bogs. The undulating terrain meant it was quite difficult to get a good rhythm when running. One foot would descend then next foot would ascend a lump. I felt like I was jarring up and down and running very inefficiently. There were rocks hidden in the darkness too.
Once more my shoe got sucked off (the right one this time) and after retrieving it I tightened my laces even more. They were so tight now that they weren’t particularly comfortable. But thankfully they never came off again!!
The descend was consistent until we reached Blåhornsvatnet. From here the descent became steeper and significantly harder. We we going down muddy and rocky switch backs, sometimes off trail, sometimes through streams and always having to look and see which way was the most obvious. It wasn’t long before I was on my arse and covered in mud. Within a few minutes I had fallen multiple times. The mud was so thick that there was no way to grip it properly. Whilst my Inov8 Trailrocs aren’t ideal for muddy runs, I also couldn’t imagine many trainers being much use here! I wasn’t alone. I could hear the gasps and groans of other runners in the night too and could see runners in front of me falling over.
I was already thinking to myself that this was the least fun I’ve ever had in a descent. It was relentless and torturous and I just had to accept it. Accept that it would be uncomfortable and that I’d keep falling. So I just kept moving, letting gravity pull me down, hoping it would be done quicker that way. There were a few points where I just ploughed straight through bogs above my knees and had to drag myself out with my poles. There would be no warning as the ground just sucked you in. Mostly though it was just about shin high. I remember thinking to myself that this was suppose to be the easiest section of the race! The alarm bells were ringing. I then took an almighty slip, skidding a little bit on my heels before twisting and going down on my left side. I know I swore loudly (not for the first time) and I heard a sound from my pole which I landed on top of. It sounded like a crack but I hoped it was just the sound of it hitting the the ground and my weight on top. Once again I picked myself up and carried on, thankfully the trails finally came to an end and we had a section of gravel track to run on. It felt quite long but soon enough we were climbing again (which I believe meant we were now connected to where the 48km runners would start). The gravel was a welcome change and I took the opportunity to remove my jacket again. I was also surprised how quickly my feet and shoes seemed to dry out. It was around 04:30, the morning was breaking and the sun starting to rise, giving a glimpse of the amazing views of Stranda and the Fjord below us.
Inevitably the gravel road became a forest track and the climb became harder as the wet ground and mud returned. Over the course of a few 100m of climbing the tracks became off/track as the mountain opened up to us. The tracks returned and brought with them incredible views off to our left of the Fjord and over to Liabygda. I stopped for a few minutes to layer up again as the exposed mountain meant more rain and the temperature had dropped as the wind picked up. It did give me an opportunity to absorb the views all around me in the early morning mist.
From the climb we descended again, the tracks weren’t too steep but they were very wet and we ran on waterlogged tracks and bogs from the many streams. Up ahead a tent could be seen alone in the wild. The first aid station at Duklidalen and the first opportunity to eat something!
I checked my watch and timings and I had covered the 20km or so in pretty much the time I estimated I would. Not a bad start considering the state of the trails!
Section 2: Duklidalen – Fjørstad
From Duklidalen you will be running on and off trail up the Mønet. There are sections here that´s up to 45 degrees steep, you will have to use your hands at times on this section. Mønet is a cliff with a several hundreds meter drop on the fjord side, be careful and stay on the trail. Further on you will be on and off trail in scree up to Fremste Blåhornet (1478masl). From Blåhornet you will be running off trail along the ridge high above the fjord over Rjupskartind and towards Åknesnibba (1296masl). This section is very technical as the ridge is narrow with drops on boths sides. We recommend you to be catious here. There are parts where light scrambling is involved on this section. Before Åknesnibba the course will take a hard right turn down into the valley with a steep technical descent down, this is also a good place to be xtra catious. Then along Rjupeskarvatnet, and further out Fjørstaddalen past Heimfjørstadsætra and down to Fjørstad on a nice trail. On Fjørstad you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Immediately from the aid station we began making our way to the ‘wall’. I believe it was the cliff called Monet. But to me it was a wall on the edge of the world. I couldn’t see where we were heading. Making my way towards it I was texting Natalia ahead of her race and slipped and fell again. This one was my fault for not paying attention. The ground was soaking wet and cold where I fell.
As I reached the ‘wall’ it became clear we were climbing up it. I could see runners scaling it and became apprehensive. It was steep. I held my poles in one hand and used the other to pull myself up with each step. I dared not look down but accepted that it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked and I was at the top maybe 15 minutes later. Up top the grassy cliff turned to rock almost instantly. The climb however continued.
Looming in front of me was a giant of a mountain. Grey in every way. Grey rocks. Grey clouds. Just grey. I assumed this was the first change in the route and this is where we wouldn’t climb. I was wrong though. People ahead of me kept going further up and disappearing into the grey clouds. I put on my gloves as it became colder the higher I went. I then put away my poles and began climbing on all fours. It was quicker that way. I briefly started talking to Kristofer who’d done the 48km last year, who explained this was just the climb to Fremste Blåhornet (I believe he called it ‘Front Bluehorn’) and that the removed part of the course was further up still. He powered on passed me. Eventually I made it to the summit and the timing mat and turned around. Now we were on the diversion route which meant going back the way we came then across and down a valley.. There were a few runners ahead of me but they soon disappeared into the distance as I move so slowly over technical descents like this. I kept watching and making mental notes of where they were and went so I didn’t get lost. I felt alone now, for the first time in the race. I soon couldn’t see runners ahead nor behind me.
After completing the rocky downhill the diversion route took us left and away from the next climb. There was no path though and it was an off track descent from here to the next aid station Fjorstad. I was beginning to see the pattern now and off track terrain meant crossing lots of streams, slipping loads in the mud and bouncing up and down with the lumpy ground. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse of a single runner ahead and another behind me. This was another down hill I did not enjoy. I was initially glad when the route entered a forest area but that happiness soon gave way to frustration as the mud returned with a vengeance. Once again I was constantly on my bum. I started saying “fuck you” loudly. Like a chant. Every time I stubbed my toe on a rock “fuck you”. Slipped on my arse “fuck you”. Stepped in a bog or stream “fuck you”. It became my mantra as I continued tumbling down.
Finally the forest let me free and I ran the small down hill to the aid station, slipping and falling for the supporters and volunteers to enjoy! We all smiled and laughed knowing I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to provide the entertainment.
The aid station was a good one. Kristofer was there and changing into spare clothes. On this race you could have a drop bag at each station. I’d opted just for one at the 63km point. I regretted it slightly seeing Kristofer change into dry clothes as I was soaked through. It was warm inside the building so I packed the waterproof away again and noshed down on plenty of watermelon, crisps and cinnamon buns.
Section 3: Fjørstad – Habostadsætra
From Fjørstad you will be running the asphalt road down the Strandavalley for 4km and then into Moldskreddalen on a gravel road for 3km to Mesætra. By Mesætra you will hit the trailhead to Storhornet and cross the river on a bridge, and start the climb up to Storhornet (1309masl) on and off trail. Parts of this trail is technical. After summiting Storhornet you will turn around and follow the course back down for 1km, and then turn right and hit the trail down to Habostadsætra. Ths downhill section is very steep but the trail is very nice. On Habostadsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Before long I was back out running with Kristofer on a long road section. It felt good to run. I’ve never wanted to run along a main road with cars driving passed me (very safely and courteously I should add!) so much in my life. It felt like it was the first time I could actually run. It was also a strangely therapeutic few kms knowing I could see this road from our incredible mountain accommodation.
From the road we were once more on a gravel track uphill before, yep, you guessed it, we were back in the wet and slippery forest hiking off track up a steep climb. Kristofer started getting further and further away as I huffed my way up. Once out of sight I had to concentrate more looking for the red trail markers painted on trees or rocks. This climb felt like it took so much longer than it probably did. After the forests it was wild and rugged terrain. Up and down lumps whilst still generally getting higher. There was a person out here all alone. It took me a while to realise he was a photographer. It took a while longer for me to get to him, he waited patiently and snapped me as I said hello and made some bad jokes. I asked if it was Ian, and it was. A world reknown adventurer and photographer. I’d read his blog from the 2021 event and we had a brief chat comparing the contrasting weather conditions. He kindly shared some advice on the climb and temperatures awaiting me and wished me well on the journey.
From here things got a little harder. The climb went off for an out and back section to the next summit of Storhornet. It went ‘up’ pretty steeply and the trail was more prominent and clear for a short while as the the mud and wild terrain tagged out and the went rocky tracks tagged back in. There were many runners coming back and I’d let them glide effortlessly passed me. I had no idea how far I had to run to get back to this point. But up I went. There was another photographer filming runners coming down and he had to film me slowly walking up. I made it clear I wouldn’t be running down like they all were!
Like the Blåhornet summit, this one became very rocky very quickly. It was now just like before as I was stumbling from rock to rock heading into the mist in the direction shadows were coming from. Here I had one moment that ‘threw’ my mind a little off. A lady was coming down and started speaking to me, I assumed in Norwegian, and I explained I only spoke English. She then told me that it was very cold further on and asked if I have any more clothes to put on. I was caught off guard. Whilst her intentions were no doubt full of kindness and support of other runners, I didn’t quite understand the comment. There was mandatory kit and I was clearly in the race with a full bag on my back I also had on my waterproof coat and gloves on, so I don’t think I looked under-prepared compared to anyone else. I assume she was concerned because I was just in shorts. But I reassured her I was fine and carried on. Soon Kristofer ran back passed me and sometime later I looped around the summit and too was heading back down. On this section many runners overtook me as I once again descended so slowly.
Eventually I completed the out and back and was then going down a steep hill in another wet and slippery forest section. I was all over the place. Sliding and slipping everywhere going down the switchbacks. A lady behind was asking if I was ok as I was swearing constantly. Then it was her turn as she slipped and did a pencil roll down one bend/turn. I can’t quite describe how fantastically she rolled and ended up down ahead of me and back on her feet laughing at her ‘shortcut’. She then sped off descending rapidly with ease. She called back to check on me a few mins later when I let out a rather loud expletive laden cry. I was ok. I’d fallen again (Fuck you!). This one was worse though. Whilst I was fine, in the process I’d snapped my fucking pole again (I snapped one in the VDA last year). I was really pissed off. It snapped right at the handle where it slides in and the locking button is. It was fucked and useless now and I’d only covered around 40km of the race. In a mood I carried on into the aid station that wasn’t far away.
A few runners looked at my pole and the volunteer was a superstar, running around looking for things to fix it (his plan was to tape a small rod to the handle to strengthen it). I knew it was a lost cause though but I appreciated their efforts. I filled my sorrow with meat soup (which was frikken ace) and Coke. The aid stations were pretty great for variety in my eyes! I checked my timings and, once again, felt I was pretty spot on to plan as it was about 30 mins before the first cut off. And so, having experienced running with one pole before, I knew I could overcome it, I packed it away and carried on with the single pole.
Section 4: Habostadsætra – Myrsætra
From Habostadsætra you will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail trough a lush birch forrest to Nysetvatnet with a great view towards Brekketind and the Brekketind glacier and then further to Patcellhytta where the climb to the iconic mt. Slogen (1564masl) starts. You will be running on the marked DNT hiking trail up to Slogen. The last part up to Slogen is very steep and involves scrambling, be catious on the way up and down. From Slogen you have a majestic view over Hjørundfjorden. The summit is very narrow, so one have to be carefull on the top. Here you will turn around and go back the way you came up for 1,5km. But instead of going back down to Patchellhytta, you will turn left and continue towards Isavatnet and further down Langseterdalen past Storevatnet on a nice trail. At the parking lot at Myrsætra you will find an aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The next section began with us walking up a stream. Really?! Fuck this trail I thought. I was waiting for the pain of constantly wet feet to kick in. Like the rest of the route, there was nothing to do about it except power through. It was kind of up hill, but very gentle and certainly not runnable (for me) as it was mostly rocky. My power hike was in full flow though and I was enjoying the intimating views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides and thunderous roar of the river besides me. Off in the distance I could see the lady along with another runner. I kept thinking I was gaining on them but I really wasn’t. The section was another that felt like it went on for a while, but I was content knowing we were at least climbing gradually higher. And so my mind wandered a little. I got thinking back to that last aid station and my timings and realised that all wasn’t quite what it seemed. Whilst I was ‘on time’ and within the cut off. We hadn’t done the climb from Blåhornet nor the ridge or its ‘more’ technical descent. That was the very technical section and no doubt a harder descent for me. So I highly doubt it would have completed that longer section of the route in my spare 30 minutes. I realised I would have been timed out at the first cut off (which was 13:00 at the last aid station) if the route hadn’t been changed due to the weather. I clang onto the hope that if the weather was better then the terrain would be less muddy and I might have moved a little quicker!
In the distance there was a little mountain hut of some sort and a guy out sweeping the decking area in the rain. It amused me. As I walked passed a volunteer called to me and waved me up to him. I checked my watch, yes, I was mindlessly following the two in front. I called after them and they walked back to join me on the climb. Each climb in this race seemed to find a way to be more challenging than the one before. This one was just a pain to start with as the terrain fluctuated between single track and off track frequently and we traversed so many streams and flows of water down off the mountain. It was just miserably wet. Like the number of times I fell, I wish I’d counted the number of streams we’d crossed on this course, I’m certain it would be hundreds. The mountains were leaking water everywhere due to the recent weather. It only stopped the higher we got. And it only stopped because the terrain became rocky. Once more we were playing dot-to-dot connecting the red trail marks and traversing the huge boulder fields.
There was a giant sleeping here. To my left I could sense and enormous presence and was admiring the mountain in the clouds. It was Slogen. The original route included an out and back to summit of Slogen for ‘panoramic views’. But we wouldn’t be doing that today. I was glad. This was also one of the hardest parts in the race so I was relieved to be skipping! Instead we carried on straight passed it. Straight into and across the snow fields. These were fairly short but difficult with one pole and not so aggressive soles on me shoes.
After some time we began our descent towards Myrsætra. This is where my drop bag would be. So I was in good spirits anticipating it. But the descent was tough. It was, you guessed it, rocky. So the the three of us moved slowly. I don’t remember much more than passing down alongside some lakes and rivers. I do remember we were in a valley and it reminded me a little of a section the TDS route in how it looked (but harder!).
There was plenty more falling over here too and I was losing track of my orientation and where we were going. The lady reminded me that soon we’d have the out and back to the aid station to the left and then we’d go back to the right to climb out of the valley. It made sense when she explained it.
Oddly, here I also realised my eyesight was a little hazy. I could see ok, but it wasn’t crystal clear. Almost as if I had clingfilm on my eyes. There wasn’t anything I could do and I assumed it was a combination of tiredness, constant concentration, the wind and the rain and perhaps the white glare from the snow. Anyway, I wasn’t worried, but I was conscious of it and to keep an eye on it (Whey hey!)
We reached the out and back section and now, like before, saw runners and familiar faces going in the opposite direction. There were a lot less of them this time though! I didn’t know how long it would be to the aid station but I was aware of how wet and muddy the track was again. I immediately decided that I would not be changing my shoes or socks. My socks would be soaked as soon as I changed them so I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. As I rounded the last corner into the aid station I had one of my best falls yet. I slipped in some mud and both feet went up in the air, above my waist, as my hands and head threw up behind me with the motion. I landed on my bum and back straight into a boggy patch. I was covered in mud. The volunteers laughed as I arrived (they heard the ‘fuck you’ scream) and I apologised as I sat straight in one of their chairs and covered it in the fresh mud. I ordered more soup, ate more cinnamon buns and finally changed into a dry tshirt after 14 hours.
Not long after the three of us reached the aid station, we were shortly followed by a fourth runner a Polish man I’d been near throughout the day. We sat and ate and drank and joked with the volunteers. We had our own little party before cheering ourselves back out knowing we had five hours to cover the 10km to the next (and final) cut off. Easy we thought… Wrong…
Section 5: Myrsætra – Brunstad
At Myrsætra you will run back up the same trail you came down up to Langsætra where you will follow the DNT marked trail up to Gullmordalsvatnet passing by the Gullmorglacier along the trail (you will not be running on the glacier). This section is very technical and you will be running parts of it on scree. After passing Gullmordalsvatnet you will be on the top of the Gullmorbrekka (979masl) pass, from here you will be running technical downhill to Velleseterhytta and further on gravel road down to Brunstad where you will find an aid station. This is also the location for the the cut off time at 21.00.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
The first section was ok. It was a repeat of the out and back. After which we we were constantly looking for the trail. This section wasn’t marked by the race and no red trail markers could be seen anywhere. We followed our GPS and would be on what seemed to be a trail, then all of a sudden the GPS would say the trail is off to our side by 50-100 m. This meant we were zig zagging up the climb. Crossing all sorts of wild terrain to ensure we kept heading in the right direction. Every now and then the Polish guy would appear from nowhere. He was having the same navigation issues. After an ‘age’, the lumpy foliage turned to rock. But that didn’t make it any easier and the same thing would happen as we’d turn at right angles to try and maintain the correct direction. We at least could now occasionally see some red trail markings on rocks though.
At this point we were sticking together as a foursome as we crossed many more snow fields and rocky sections climbing and traversing our way out of the valley. The lady, who was from Argentina, lady kept kindly offering me her poles as I was really struggling on all the snow crossings. So mostly I was behind them all and would time to time shout out when I thought we were ‘off route’ again. To me it felt like it was night time. We were deep in the clouds and the grey-ness of the mountains. The only light was coming from the snowy floor we trudged over. It was surreal and disorientating at the same time, yet it was only about 17:00.
We were trudging across another snow section when I noticed we we starting to get further from the trail, which was going off on a sort of angle above us. We stopped and debated for some time where to go and eventually agreed we shouldn’t continue on the snow. For one thing, we couldn’t see any recent signs of activity on them! The issue however was that the snow was sloping and above it was a wall of rock. It didn’t look feasible that the route could be up there. But that’s what the GPS was saying (and scrolling out we could see that the route would turn further that way after about a km further along). If we carried on the snow instead we’d soon be far off course and could see nothing ahead to make us want to continue (into the unknown).
So we back tracked and headed for the rocks. It took me a long time with one pole to get up to the rock and my troubles didn’t stop there, the climb facing us was a beast. It was essentially bouldering and rock climbing. I was trying to use strength from my arms which I just do not have to haul myself up onto rocks. And it was all loose. Admittedly I was scared. Actually, very scared. A fall here would be bad. A certainty of a serious injury and likely a very long wait to be rescued. I was glad I wasn’t alone and Argentinian Lady was very supportive and looked after me with constant reassurance. I knew we had to keep going though and that we should even get a little higher to be safer and further from the steep drop.
The climb, even just covering a few meters, was very slow. We were barely moving and the loose rock was causing us difficulties. Several times we knocked rocks back on each other, one time I released a sizeable one that went tumbling down. My warnings weren’t enough for the Polish guy to get out of the way in time and all he could do was raise his arm to protect his head as the rock fell straight into him. I felt so bad, but he reassured me that he was ok, just annoyed by the situation. It only added to our frustrations and concerns of safety.
We were at least now tracking in the right direction according to the GPS and the rocky climb eventually gave way to firmer ground, albeit more snow capped fields. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that section, but I was wrong (again). We were now faced with another directional dilemma. The route indicated we needed to leave the snow and descent a very narrow, very steep rock face. I looked over the edge and it felt like an abyss, the end of the world. Meters below us all I could see was a dark grey mist cloud wrapping the mountain. I couldn’t see a trail or path. It is fair to say I was not keen and I didn’t want to go that way. The alternative though was to remain higher up and walk along the snow covered mountain. I’d had enough of them though and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine where we would go or how we could re-join the path if we did continue that way. It felt like ‘down’ was actually the better option. Two of us started to descend…
I was still on top of the snow when, in the distance, a lonely figure, in a bright blue coat, emerged through the clouds with his hand in the air waving. I didn’t know what to think. He was clearly gesturing to us so we called back to let the others know someone was coming. We walked on and met him. He explained he was a volunteer from the race and he’d show us the way. He confirmed we could go either way, but the snow might be the easier route for us. So we followed him.
He was moving so effortlessly I struggled to keep up. He pointed down a steep snow slope and said we can go down here. And off he went, sliding, skiing (without skies) down hill. The French guy went next and pretty much made it the whole way standing up too. I followed and immediately landed on my arse. I sped down like I was on some sort of toboggan, bouncing up and down with the lumps. In no time at all my arse was so cold and starting to hurt with the freeze and friction. The whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. Looking back, my Strava indicates we went down a slope of approximately -50 deg and covered around 70m in descent. My apparent pace was 1:32 km per minute. What a ride!
One by one we all made it and we were at least treated to an incredible view of the Gullmordalsvatnet lake and valley surrounding it. The downside, I could still see no clear trail or path. We were told that we needed to traverse along to the right of the lake. I couldn’t believe it. What?! It was just the slope/side of the mountain with alternating layers of snow and rock. How? He reassured us that as we got closer we would see some race markings to indicate the way we should go. He told us that we would need to climb and descend on the rock and avoid the snow slopes at all times. I could see why, if you slipped on those, nothing would stop you sliding all the way into the freezing lake. Game over. There was another catch though, first we would need to ascend on the initial snow slope, but not to worry, there is a rope. Fuck sake…
One by one we ascended the rope climb. This was awful for me. I had no energy or strength to pull myself up and no grip in the snow to provide any traction. It was yet another very slow ascent. I relied on a tactic of pulling myself up and looping the rope around one hand with each pull to get more leverage. I thought my shoulders would pop out here. Thankfully I soon reached the sanctuary of the rocks. Ha! Now I was thinking that the rocks were my friends!
The volunteer left us here and went back to look for the remaining runners behind us in the pass somewhere. We thanked him but I never got his name. His final words were “it is 2 hours to the next checkpoint”. I looked at my watch. We had 2 hours and 10 minutes until the cut off. Shit. I thought we wouldn’t make it, that we would be timed out. If he was saying 2 hours, it would probably take us longer. I hung on to the glimmer of hope that there might be some sections we could run and that he was talking about walking time.
We still had to travers the lake first though. Painstakingly, we looped up and down each rock section, maybe up to a 20m climb and descent each way. Looking and following the trail flags which we could finally see. Each loop required a small traverse either along the top of the snow slope or along the bottom, right next to the water. I could feel the chill coming off it. At one point I sent another rock tumbling. Down the snow it rolled and then bounced off the bottom of the slope, launching into the air and over the water onto a floating patch of ice with a ‘boom’. The lake didn’t flinch and I didn’t want to follow the rock!
As we finally reached the end of the lake, the paths did become a little easier. They were far from runnable though. Just easier than what the last few kms entailed. It was still a horrid down hill though. In maybe 3km we descended over 500m. It was very rocky and very slippery as we navigated through tens and tens of waterlogged paths and streams. There was plenty of falling over and slipping here too. We mostly descended in silence. I’m not sure what the others were thinking, but all I could think about was the cut off and whether we would make it or not. I wanted too, but I was also wondering how I’d feel if the decision to continue was taken away from me. I genuinely believed that, after this cut off, we would have plenty of time to finish (there was 13 hours for the last 20km or so). So I wondered if we were close to the cut off if I would be of mind to try and negotiate my continue. It was all theoretical, but it kept me focused. Going further down, fast hiking, moving with purpose. It as all I could do.
We then came upon a forest section which was far less steep than before. The trails became a little drier and other than a few big leaps across streams (with broken planks that were intended to be crossed) the next few hundred meters of descent were a little more forgiving. We still weren’t running, but were able to pick up the pace at least. We were racing the clock though as time was against us and I kept looking at my watch and doing the calculations. 50 minutes to go, 40 minutes to go, 30 minutes to go… With every step I adjusted our progression, but it didn’t really make much difference. It was going to be tight if we couldn’t run. And then luck was finally on our side…
From the forests we came across a house with a lady gardening and a man tending to the path. We ran down, said hello and left through their gate. He wished us well and said he hoped we were enjoying ourselves. I think I just laughed. But, from the gate, there was a gravel road. It was steep, but it was dry and even terrain. Gravity did its ‘thing’ and we ran. We were a little spaced out as we all descended at slightly different speeds. But we were all running. After maybe 1.5km, there were people further along. It was the aid station at Brunstad. I looked at my watch. We had 20 minutes to spare. We’d made it. This 10km section of the race had taken us 4.5 hours to complete!
I ran into the aid station with belief. I believed now I would finish. I believed in me. The decision to continue was in my hands, and I know there is only one answer to that question, pulling out is never a consideration, never an option. I would continue and I would finish. We sat and set about refuelling. Eating more soup, more cinnamon rolls, more chocolate sweets and crisps. At the aid station, the Argentinian lady’s family were waiting. It dawned on me that her and her husband, along with their dog, had been sitting opposite me in the reception at the start line some 18 hours earlier. With the positivity we were feeling, the Polish guy said what I’d been thinking “we all stick together now right, and finish?”. There was no hesitation from me. Absolutely, yes I said. The French guy agreed also. I’m not sure if I missed it somewhere but the lady had decided that this was where her adventure would end. She simply had no more desire to continue. I only realised when she was offering me her poles to continue on with as ‘she didn’t need them anymore’. Even now, after bowing out she was still supporting and looking after me. I felt sad and emotional that she wouldn’t be seeing it through with us. I declined the offer of the poles though. I made it this far and was confident I’d be ok.
As we set back out we were a little deflated that we still had over 20km to go. The amended route GPX had indicated we would be doing around 88km in total, but we were already around 77km at this point. It made sense though, the final two sections were unchanged and we still had to complete them. We left just before 9pm (and then stopped straight away as I had forgotten to get my head torch out ready for the darkness).
Section 6: Brunstad – Svartevatnet
From Brunstad you will run to Brunstadsætra through lush birchforrest and crossing the river right before Brunstadsætra. On Brunstadsætra you will get on the nice and very steep trail up to Storevatnet. From Storevatnet you will be climbing off trail up to 1100m and traverse over to Vassdalen (The course is not going to the peak of Ystevasshornet) where you will be running downhill on technical trail down Svartevatnet. At the parking lot by Svartevatnet you will find a aid station.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
Initially we had a gravel road ascent similar to what we had just descended. This was good for easing back into the task ahead. We took this opportunity to chat and for the first time exchanged names. It felt silly that we’d been through so much together without knowing who we were. This was where I learned that the Polish guy was Kamil and the French man was Matt. From the results table I now know that the lovely Argentina was Margarita. These were my companions, my saviours.
A few kms later the gravel changed to forest. The gradual climb, with no warning then became very steep switch backs as we climbed for another 500m in the slippery dense forest. I had to stop a few times to catch my breathe and refocus. It was tough going, but I was happier with this type of climb than the many we’d done before.
After leaving the forest it was more off-track plodding in the open mountainside as we continue to about 850masl where the ground flattened out. Here we could see up ahead a semi-circle of mountains surrounding us. Once again I had no idea where we were going and how we would ‘escape’ from here and descend back down. We continued walking towards it as the day light diminished and darkness began to set in.
We reached a lake where our head torches started to pick up the feint shimmer of the reflective tape for the race markings. One or two at a time. They gave an indication of where to go, but not too much insight as to where we were actually heading. Slowly it became clear that we were just going ‘straight up’ to get out of the plateau. Seriously? Fuck you. In the darkness we began to climb the rocks again. I was struggling with the climb. Matt and Kamil were getting progressively further away. I set myself a target to rest and breathe at each flag marker, only meters away from one another, but I was stopping multiple times between each one. We climbed for maybe another 200-300 meters, up and across scree slopes, the rocks loose under foot and when I grabbed at them with my hands for support. As I reached the top we were now in complete darkness. Besides the reflective trail markers I could now also navigate by following the head torches of the others in the distance.
We began the descent which wasn’t any easier. Loose and sharp rocks, winding switch backs and wet streams to cross. We stopped at one stream and filled our bottles with ice cold water. It was delightful. I gulped back two bottles straight away. Like many before this one, the streams we needed to cross were often bursting at the seams and the ‘path across’ was submerged under rampant and powerful flowing water. They were difficult to cross and even more so in the night. It was a case of steadying ourselves and hoping for the best, accepting that we would be wet to our shins. The aim was to get to the other side and not to get sucked in or fall over. The roar of water in the night was quite something. It was the only thing we could hear out here in the wild.
After a while the rocks gave way to forests and you already know that these were steep, muddy and slippery. As we progressed, a huge lake started to come into focus below us. Way off ahead, on top of a mountain silhouette in the darkness I could see two head torches way up in the sky. I knew where we were heading now. We would descend to a road crossing (Svartevatnet) before the final climb on the other side. I remember looking at this section when we drove along the road into Stranda when we first arrived.
I was glad to get off the forest track as we bottomed out at the lake. Here there was a slightly flat gravel section towards the road. At this point Kamil, who was in front on the descent was now behind me. Matt was up ahead on the road and I shouted at him when I saw the markers on the other side. We started to cross. Then loads of volunteers came into sight further up the road at a lay-by. They gestured us towards them. It was another aid station that I had complete forgotten about.
Here I was ready to leave quite quickly and just get on with it. I was sick of soup now so ate some crisps and cookies. Matt had some soup and a French man came to say hello to him. He was in the area, saw about the race and heard there was a French person running, so he stayed out to say hello and cheer him on. How lovely that was. Kamil sat in a chair and told us to go on without him, that he was going to have some sleep as he was struggling with fatigue. He wrapped up and tried to get comfortable. I let Matt know. Whilst we were there I had a half cup of coffee to try to fight off my own tiredness before we set back out. For now, we were down to two. I was sure Kamil would catch up with us at some point on the climb in the night.
Section 7: Svartevatnet – Stranda
By Svartevatnet you will cross the road and get on the trail to Langevatnet and further to Roaldshornet (1230masl). From the summit of Roaldshornet you can enjoy the epic view over Storfjorden and down to Stranda. You will continue to Blåfjellet and downhill Trollvaregga with technical running down to Skuravatnet. (The course is not going up to Skurahornet, it goes straight to Stranda from Skuravatnet) .From Skuravatnet you will be running on a nice trail all the way down to the outskirts of Stranda, and then on gravel and asphalt roads down to the finish line at the town square in Stranda.
Excerpt from the Race Manual
And so, at 01:00 in the morning we began our final section. From the aid station we crossed the road and began heading into the darkness of the forests once more. The trees lasted only a short while and the climb began. Initially I had flash backs of the first climb of the race when we left the forest and the mountain opened up. The terrain felt very similar. It was a series of gently inclining winding big paths littered with bogs and waterlogged foliage. Compared to the other climbs of the race I was very happy at that moment in time. This felt very manageable.
As we had previously, we navigated by reflection of the race markings. Each one opening another insight into where we were heading. The large silhouette of the mountain standing tall in front of us and getting closer with each step. As we neared it, the climb took us to the mountain face and the rocky ascent began, but, it was no where near as bad as the ones before. I felt this was the easiest climb of the night and possibly of the whole race. I was thankful.
Before we reached the summit, my watch died. I hate this watch. I accept it is now a good few years old (it is a Suunto 9 Baro) but the battery just does not last what it indicates it will. Barely 24 hours with some of that on the Ultraks mode. Useless. I couldn’t care less about charging it now. I just wanted to finish the race and rest.
The climb wasn’t too bad either and we emerged onto the roof of the mountain. It was, of course, rocky but for the most part we were now traversing the top along to the next point at Roaldshornet. It was very cold and windy on top and we stopped to layer up ready for the final climb to the summit. As we hiked along to the summit, with a gentle undulation, the sun started to rise to the East. It was going to be spectacular. We’d miss the full sunrise and views from the summit, but we had a glimpse of the orange glow breaking up the darkness. We kept moving and covered the final little dip and climb back up to Roaldshornet where we could start to see the landscape ahead of us for our descent back to Stranda. From here it was all ‘downhill’ (of course every trail downhill has some sneaky ‘uphills’ included!).
The descent was going to be long though and it was still very technical. Once again lumbering over a boulder field of rocks. For many parts I had to sit and lower myself down and we were trying to find the best and most accessible route between markers, sometimes straying from the more obvious path due to slippery rocks or muddy sections that we were still slipping and falling on. Eventually, further down, we could see a short ridgeline way below leading to what looked like dry dirt trails. We were heading for it and we’d then loop down into the forests back towards Stranda. We had a visual aim, although it still felt like a very long time until we reached the ridge.
We continued the descent from the ridge which was a lot harder than I expected. It was a complete mess from the rain and the mud and bogs were everywhere. Where possible we avoided the trail, running over the lumpy ground along the sides instead. In some places, wooden structures were there to go over the marsh land, but they weren’t really helpful to us. With so many runners having been through the day before, the land was completely churned up and the walkways covered in mud and equally as slippery and dangerous. I think I fell more along this section than anywhere else on the course! Matt must have been sick of hearing me swearing and groaning. I did one spectacular fall where I slipped and skidded downhill, completing a 180 spin and falling flat on my front, face first, into a bog. The mud muffled my scream. It was slower progress than I expected at this point and it certainly wasn’t the dry dirt trails I’d been imagining from the view at the top. From time to time we looked back, expecting to see Kamil come bounding passed us. At one point I swore I saw a head torch on the summit at Roaldshornet.
The mountain side started to give way to forest tracks, which weren’t all that better. They felt steeper and, whilst drier for the most part, still had many wet and muddy sections. The benefit now was that the trees could be used to steady ourselves and break our falls. As we ran down, we were getting hotter and hotter. The layers from the mountain were definitely no longer needed now, but the inclination to stop and delay the finish further was low. We wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
A few kilometres later we left the forest and hit some road. We crossed some fields and were then back on the road in a section we both recognised from visiting the town. It wouldn’t be long now until we were on the main road into Stranda and down to the finish line. We were running. Probably very slowly but we were running for the first time for many, many hours. It was painful and slow but we were inching towards the finish as we ran down the deserted and quiet road. It was some time after 06:00 in the morning.
We rounded the final turn and climbed the steps into and through the hotel before the finish line (it was strange passing straight through a building to get to the finish!) and emerged into the final stretch to a lone clap from a volunteer at the finish line. We walked over the line. The final finishers. We hi fived and smiled. We’d done it.
I thought the volunteer was Oscar (the Race Director) but it was Martin. He told us he was at the last aid station with Kamil when he dropped out. It took us a moment for the realisation to set in, Kamil hadn’t continued on after his attempt to sleep. I felt bad for abandoning him and wondered if he would have been ok if he kept going? Martin gave us our medals, congratulated us and went and fetched us pizza. Then Matt’s wife, Natalia, Nick, Arlene and Gif all arrived and congratulated us, taking us back to the safety of a shower and bed! We had done it.
I knew this race was going to be difficult and would include terrain that I’m not always comfortable with. However, it was worse and harder than I imagined. The weather for the race was actually ok, but the terrain had suffered from weeks of rain and that made it far more difficult that it could have been. I reckon I must have fallen 30-50 times. I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed 100s of rivers and streams throughout the 100km. I’m actually surprised my feet weren’t in a worse state when I finished (they were pretty mangled though!). Oscar acknowledged the conditions in has post race breifing:
SFTR 2022 was just as hard and muddy as it can be! We got a bit of everything with some glimpses of sun, rain, snow, wind. The feedback from the elite field in Golden Trail World Series was that this was the most technical race they ever participated in. So all of you who joined the race should be proud of your effort! The good news is that we ordered sun for SFTR 2023, the bad news is that we ordered sun for 2022 too 😉
It is without doubt the toughest 100km I have done (and we didn’t quite get to the 100km mark!) It took around 5-8 hours longer than my typical time for a mountainous 100km. That is quite a significant time difference. Despite the course and the conditions, the local Scandinavians ran incredible times. I’m amazed at how effortlessly they cover this sort of terrain, they are phenomenal athletes.
Reflecting back on the progress, I actually would have been timed out at the first cut off (around 40km / 11hrs) if the route hadn’t been amended. I see no way I could have completed the original route in the time I had remaining at the cut off. The gods were on my side on this occasion!
I also think we would have been timed out at the second cut off (Brunstad) if it weren’t for (1) the volunteer who found us in the Gullmorbrekka pass at showed us the way (thank you so much!) (2) the short road section down to the aid station at Brunstad which meant we could run! without those, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it in time.
I came away from this race with my ankles pretty beaten up, loads of cuts and bruises, one broken pole, a ripped pair of gloves and a shoes shredded on all sides. Yet, I saw it through, I persevered and once more can say I’m a finisher and have re-evaluated my own limitations and strengths. I love this sport!
As with every race I met some incredible people. People who show all kinds of determination, strength and will power who go above and beyond to help and support you. Thank you Margarita, Kamil and Matt. And of course, thank you to Oscar and his team and thank you Norway!
The Eiger ultra trail. One that has been on my ‘list’ for some time. The E101 is a 100km route circling Grindelwald with a not too subtle >6,000m of elevation gain.
It’s 3:30am and Paul and I have met Matt at the start line in the shadows of the majestic mountains surrounding Grindelwald. Despite the early hour and darkness it is already very hot. We are upbeat and excited as the race gets underway and we pass through the start arch with hundreds of other runners.
For the first few kms we begin running up the Main Street and back passed our hotel. We made many promises about not running this gently inclining road section but, of course, we get completely sucked in and are moving along with the flow of the runners. Thankfully though we soon hit a bottleneck as we come across the trail head and the single track trail to begin our first climb. Here we chatted to Bert, a local runner with numerous finishes on the E101. He shared his experiences with us and gave us an insight into what adventures lay ahead.
The climb was a series of switchbacks through some forests at what was a very civilised pace. No one was trying to jostle for positions or overtake and everyone was comfortable just moving along together. It was quiet and all we could hear in the night was each other as we chatted away. We met Matt during the Val D Aran last year and this was the first time we’d met since and really the first real time we’d gotten to know each other properly. Looking back at Val D’Aran all we really did was moan at each other.
As we climbed, we started to leave the trees behind and the mountain started to open up and we could look back and see the sun rising over the Eiger and the tail of runners climbing both ahead and behind us. It was a surreal view. We then soon arrived at the first aid station which had a very narrow setup and led to the runners being funnelled, but it had everything we needed. A quick top up of water and we continued on.
Now, on the ‘second section’ of the course we had our first chance to run and move at a comfortable pace as the trails opened up on the mountain. We rolled along enjoying the incredible panoramic over Grindelwald with the majestic Eiger standing prominent behind the town. The sun was now up and the moon was fading.
The trails took us up towards ‘First’, but not quite all the way. Just before the final climb to the summit, the route diverted us away and we began the first descent. Bert was with us once more and told us this was the ‘easy’ downhill and to save our legs. I’m not sure there was much we could do to save our legs as the steepness of the sealed track meant gravity was in control here.
The downhill was long and sweeping as we looped back and forth on switchbacks used for the mountain carts. Our legs thumped at the ground and our feet heated up with the constant slapping. As we came upon the Firstbahn station we had a brief rest bite at the aidstation, once more ensuring we had enough water consumed and packed as we’d now begin the climb back to the summit of First. At around 10am the day was truly heating up now and the sun could be felt on our exposed skin.
We had a basic plan for the heat management. It was as simple as ensuring we drank enough and smothered ourselves in plenty of suncream! So far all was good and I was confident my morning lathering would see me through to around midday, so at First we planned a little longer rest and to apply the next layer.
This climb once more started with a long forest section. The smells were fresh and clean. Segments of the route were a long series of steps made out of long longs. The legs were definitely ’feeling it’ after the previous quad-buster of a downhill. As we left the forest we were hit with the full force of the sun as we climbed an exposed track on the side of the mountain. There was no escaping it now until the final ascent to First not in the distance you could see the clear line of shadow where the angle of the mountain would block the sun’s rays.
It was a lovely climb. The incline was gradual and gentle terrain still very forgiving and not too rocky. Into the shade we went into single line as we climbed the last few hundred metres to the summit. Here the route weaved you around the mountain side and under the tourist attraction of the summit viewing platform. A series of metal walkways were constructed and the views were incredible. Maarten, whom I met at MIUT and Cappadocia, was on hand to provide the support and loudly cheered us in. There was a small gathering of tourists and supporters over looking us from the platform as we made away along and under them. I whooped and cheered as me and Matt passed through but I had a very muted reply!
This aid station was slightly larger than the two before and we took a few extra minutes to eat, acknowledging we were all hungry, and to apply more sunscreen. We chatted to another Irish Paul, enjoyed the view and then set off towards Faulhorn. Just as we set off once more Maarten provided the energy and gave us a mid-morning boost. From here we had clear views of the trails we’d run and could see Faulhorn off up in the distance. Faulhorn would be the highest point on the race at around 2,644m. The tracks were once more very forgiving and were long gentle gravel tracks. Once more, as I was sure it would all day, the Eiger stood proud and prominent watching our progress.
Very soon we were at a series of lakes which were amazingly tranquil and provided a view looming back down onto First. We’d hardly noticed how high we’d climbed already. After weaving through the lakes, for the first time the trails turned a little more technical and became rocky and narrow for a short descent. As we began, the first of the 50km runners began to pass us and zipped by. The lead runner was flying up and down with ease (he went on to win with an incredible time!).
Before completing the climb to Faulhorn we had another aid station after descending a few hundred metres. This was the first time we were a bit confused. None of us could remember this on the route profile. Still, it was a fairly easy section with a very short out and back to to the water stop where I filled a third bottle of water ready for the climb. I’ve no idea how hot it was now but it felt above 30 degrees, although occasionally we’d catch a cooling breeze.
So after accepting that we hadn’t already started climbing to Faulhorn, we now began the climb. It was the toughest so far. Whilst it did feel marginally steeper than the earlier climbs, I think it was the heat which, was energy sapping, that made this more difficult. Matt drifted a little behind us and Paul powered on ahead. I was plodding somewhere between the two. Like Matt, I felt it a little harder to breathe with a regular rhythm as the progressive climb took all my energy. I put it to one side and focused on keeping up with Paul who was passing people frequently and getting further away. I saw him disappear over the summit as I lagged behind.
Up into Faulhorn there was a huge Eiger Ultra Trail arch erected on the summit marking our arrival to Faulhorn which we passed through. The views were spectacular and runners stopped on the platform to take selfies. I spotted Paul a few metered below at the water station and I went after him.
Initially this aid station was to be limited for water refills, however, the day before the race the organisers had added more water here, as well as additional water stops in the next section and later somewhere later on in the second half of the route. It was greatly appreciated and there was even coke available at Faulhorn. I broke my own ‘no coke before halfway’ rule and knocked some back. It was well earnt in this heat I thought.
The immediate descent from the aid station was rocky and once again a little more technical at first. It wasn’t long before we left the rocks behind and started descending into a valley. After passing a refuge/mountain cafe there was another rocky section as we continued downhill. We then looped back around with amazing views over the Brienzersee lake and across to the Hardergrat ridge (which Paul ran along a few weeks earlier). Check it out. It looks spectacular and terrifying in equal measures!
Through this section there were increasing number of hikers marking the trek in the opposite direction from Scheidegg to Faulhorn. We exchanged pleasantries with everyone as we passed. The trails then left the valley behind and levelled out to some lovely undulating trails with more expensive views off into the distance and the trails we’d run earlier in the day. Paul was checking up on Matt and they agreed we’d meet and wait at the halfway mark. It was just a very long descent over about 10 miles to go before we reached there.
First we hit up ‘Egg’, the extra water stop, and then eventually some switchbacks to another mountain lodge where there were plenty of supporters. As we left there was a family with small kids offering high fives which I, and all the runners around us, greatly indulged in. It’s such a boost to interact with people when running an ultra. Shortly after there was a man with a hose pipe spraying runners and me and Paul danced in the rain. It was so cooling and refreshing.
Paul and I both started to feel the need for more water, despite the extra stop and carrying an extra bottle we’d been drinking loads (the heat management plan was being perfectly executed so far). It felt like the next stop wasn’t coming anytime soon luckily we then spied a tap / trough on the side of a building and took advantage, Paul submerging his whole head. As we walked on, pleased with our find, we could see the next aid station was just a few hundred metres further ahead. Typical.
From here we entered the forest, and the descent began to steepen. The trails were narrow and the ground was littered with lumpy tree roots. It wasn’t easy underfoot and we accepted this is how it would be for quite some time. After what felt like a few km of consistent rooty downhill running, out of nowhere we started to climb again. I was furious. It couldn’t visualise it on the elevation profile. It hit me hard. I called out to Paul that I needed a break. Like hours earlier on the climb to Faulhorn, my breathing was erratic again. Every race profile is like this and has those sections where you are going downhill but have a ‘hidden’ uphill included (or vice versa). The distance and elevation never easily transfers to a small visual elevation profile. It really messes with your mind sometimes and, today, it was messing with me. It took my strength and my energy and I needed a few mins sitting on a rock to regain composure and carry on. Fucking tree routes!
We were soon back in the rhythm and then, for the first time ever in a race, I hit the deck. I went down like I’d been tasered. Mid-flow I got cramp in my right calf and my lower body just seized up. I did a quarter of a turn and just fell, rigid and straight, down bouncing off what I thought was my left arm and shoulder. On the floor I then instantly got cramp in my other calf too and couldn’t get up. I was like a bug on its back flailing my. A runner coming behind called out and I’ve no idea what I mumbled back as I slowly relaxed and clambered back to my feet. It seemed like my left arm had come out and broken the fall and I had a few little indents on my palm from small stones. Somehow despite all the roots I’d fallen on a fairly clear and soft area. Frustratingly though, covered in sweat it was like I’d been dipped in breadcrumbs. My arms and hands were covered in soil and I was now irritable. I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long without falling before. With no issues or concerns we just got back on with it.
I don’t know how much longer the downhill carried on for, but there was one last steep section through a field as we approached the halfway mark.
I set about the full works. Pasta. Potatoe. More coke. Full wet wipe wash. Tshirt change. Sock and shoe change. Fresh hat. Fresh buff and more food and tailwind added to the bag. Not long after as we were getting ready to leave, Matt showed up. I made a big mistake here and led the decision to crack on without him. We said we’d wait, and he was bang on schedule for a 22:45hr finish. I said me and Paul wanted to try and finish in under 22 which was the qualifier time for western states. So we left without him. It was a mistake as, despite running the next 50km without him, he finished only 10 mins behind us, bang on that 22:45hr finish. Sorry Matt!
From the half way we had a series of two big climbs to overcome. The first climb was before the town of venkat. It started with a series of roads climbing on switchbacks. Here we Met another Swiss runner in Nicole who was doing her first ultra and chasing that sun 22hr finish also. We chatted as we climbed before the roads changed into forest tracks again. They were rooty, but not as bad as before. Some sections where steep and it was very humid with little wind or breeze reaching us. Occasionally we’d get a burst of sun and see the mountain alongside us. Slowly we tracked around the side of it.
There was also a brief stop where there was another water tap. From here we were back into the forests and making our way down hill to Wegen. One thing that was noticeable here was that we started seeing a lot of volunteers and mountain rescue dotted along the course. We were being very well Looked after! On the downhill I continued to cramp. I was cramping in my ankles and shins which was a whole new weird experience which I don’t know how to describe. Thankfully nothing too bad though.
The town of Wengen was delightful and I made a note to come and visit one day, it was very picturesque. We weaved through the aid station after collecting more water and coke and began the big climb to Mannlichen which was approximately 1,000m gain in around 5km. Pretty much a vertical Kilometer (VK).
After climbing through some narrow back streets of the town, we were yet again back in the forest. Every time there was an opening I tried to see where the hell we were going, but I couldn’t. I could see the end goal of Mannlichen on top of the mountain, but I could rarely see any runners on the mountain side climbing. I was so confused. Paul and I agreed to break the climb up. There was the extra aid station somewhere along here so we agreed to stop again before and after it. Paul was the time keeper and I was eager to test him and push the limit of how long I could stay sitting down for!
We weren’t alone and there were plenty of runners we passed and who passed us. At each stop we got talking to Jason, yet another Irishman, as we leapfrogged each other along this section. The route took us across the mountain face and through a series of snow barriers built to protect the town which was way down below us now. The breaks, and the water stop, were greatly appreciated. As we eventually summited a friendly voice called out and cheered our arrival. Like earlier in the day at First, Maarten was above us supporting and crewing runners reaching the aid station. He followed us into the aid station and tended to our needs like a hero. I was very hungry again and slowly ate a Chia Charge flap jack and remember Paul bringing me lumps of chocolate. It was very good chocolate!
Up top it was cold. Very cold. We discussed layering up and I acknowledged my stupidity in not bringing my arm sleeves or lightweight wind proof from my halfway drop bag. I always run with them but for some reason I purposely didn’t this time. Whilst I knew we’d run into the night, I guess I was so focused on the heat of the day that I didn’t think they would be needed. It wasn’t a problem though as I had a long sleeve top and a waterproof jacket in my bag, so I certainly wouldn’t be getting too cold. We cracked on, knowing that we’d warm up when we began running again. And boy did we run…
We acknowledged that we’d ‘broken the back of the beast’ now. There were no more aggressive climbs to come our way and we were probably 3/4 of our way through the distance by now. It was a huge boost. What made it better was that the trails were very wide, smooth and it was a very gentle downhill. It felt like we were running so fast for a few km as we were running straight toward the Eiger’s north face which was covered in cloud. What a sight it was.
All good things come to an end though, and so did the easy downhill as we then turned away from Grindelwald and headed off-track for another (comparatively) little climb. It was a little punchy and I remember passing loads of cows here. I was constantly looking to my left and across to the Eiger where I could see there were so many trails, but I couldn’t see a single runner on any of them. Once again I was disoriented and I had no idea where we were going. I knew we’d come back along the Eiger towards Grindelwald somewhere, but I just couldn’t see where. The tracks kept twisting and turning and my sense of direction was getting a little messed up. Eventually we dropped down and joined a wide gravel path again, crossed a train track and walked up a gentle hill towards the next aid station.
There was a runner here squatting down taking a picture of the Eiger reflecting in a small pond. As painful as it was, we stopped and indulged for the same picture. It was worth it.
We were soon at the next aid station. This was quite possibly the best location of any aid station I’ve ever been too. It was inside a train depot. It was getting dark and colder outside but inside it was so warm and smelt of oil. I loved it. Here we found some warm broth which was exactly the salty delight I needed. Sitting, eating, I looked around and noticed it was a little like a medical centre with a number of runners sleeping or receiving medical attention.
After a good 15 minutes or so, we left and headed back out for a short little downhill before climbing again to the Eiger Glacier. We passed a runner who was being sick but whom signalled he was ok. Then, moments later as we started to climb he sprinted passed us and continued to run the uphill. I couldn’t understand his miraculous recovery! It was around 9:30 now and our head torches were on as the last of the light started to leave us.
The climb up to Eiger Glacier was tough going. It was a mixture of dry trail (with more cows lining the track!) and little rocky sections. In parts it was steep with some narrow switchback trails before a long climb on a small ridge. It was another slow climb and one which slowly chipped away at our depleting energy levels. We took another moment at the top before beginning the descent towards the finish. It was a very long descent of around 1,200m over 10km kilometres back towards Grindelwald.
It was now obvious why, hours earlier, I couldn’t see any runners on any of the trails. We were tucked right up close on the mountain face. To our left the mountain dropped away on long scree slopes. Way off to our left headlights of runners descending form Mannlichen could be seen.
The trails were runnable. Not as nice as the initial descent from Mannlichen but the rocks were well trodden and flattened to the track for the most part. As we ran, we were in silence and all we could hear were the many, many waterfalls falling from the Eiger which we’d cross one after the other. After what felt like a long few kilometre of steady plodding the relaxing sound of water started increasing and becoming more ferocious. There was one huge waterfall absolutely gushing from the mountain and the sound was thunderous. From here we began descending at a steeper rate on a series of increasingly more rocky switchbacks. Surprisingly my feet were holding up very well. I feel the trails had been incredibly easy going and forgiving on this route considering we were running in such a mountainous area. The quads were definitely feeling it now though and the fatigue was kicking in!
For a while, Paul and I had been discussing what remained of the route. I recalled one big climb once we bottomed out from this descent. We’d heard mixed reports of the elevation ranging from 200m to 600m. We didn’t know. What we did know was that we didn’t want a 600m climb! We soon reached the next aid station, and I clocked the elevation profile on a board. My heart sank a little as I saw we still had plenty of descending to go as well as another small climb before another much bigger one. Paul asked for details and again a new number was thrown out about how big the last climb was “maybe 400m”. A bit deflated, we carried on with the remaining descent which was now on road (which didn’t make it any easier at this stage!).
Finally, we levelled out and began the last 10km or so of the route which would see us run parallel to Grindelwald, passing it before looping back and down into the town. From here we could see the finish line in the town. It is annoying seeing a finish line during a race and heading in the opposite direction, and this time was no different, especially as we were running ever so slowing now.
We began the little climb, although it went on and on and I clocked another 200m. Here the trails were very technical forest trials, yet again (and unsurprisingly) littered with roots once more. Our mood was sinking but we knew we just had to keep moving. After another hour or so we reached a small little aid station. Paul questioned the distance and vertical gain here too and we received a far more favourable response of “280m”. This was good. I perked up and and cracked a lot of jokes to the volunteers. I felt like I was on stage and absolutely killing it. They were probably just wishing I’d leave already. Eventually we did.
As we progressed along the 280m climb, a few runners caught and passed us. We kept our heads down and moved along and we’re joined by another runner whom we chatted to at the last stop. He was craving a bit of company in the night. Pretty much bang on 280m we arrived at Feinsteing. I was impressed. If anything, the root marking and distance markers were exceptional throughout. The trails had dedicated Eiger Ultra Trail flags, glow sticks, arrows on the ground, reflective paint throughout and even Eiger Ultra Trail specific trail signs. At every 5km/10km marker my watch had been pretty much in sync too. I’ve never had that before. Although Paul would argue differently with his Suunto (same model) clocking slightly longer. Anyway, from here it was about 4km downhill on road to the town with a small uphill towards the end to join the main street where it all began.
We begrudgingly left the comfort of the final aid station, acknowledging that a Western States qualifying time was beyond us now. There’s no way we were clocking a 30min 5km pace (even downhill) after running all day. We calculated that the 4km remaining would take more like 40mins. The downhill and roads weren’t particularly enjoyable. Now my feet were hurting after that last technical section and I wasn’t enjoying the feet slapping sensation like we felt all the way back on the first descent some 20 hours earlier.
We were trudging along through a camp site when we saw the next trail marker sign. It said 100km. We couldn’t believe it. That crept up on us out of nowhere. It worked us up and with a little moaning we powered through the last little climb back to the Main Street. Thankfully we merged further down than our hotel so didn’t have to run passed it! We emerged onto the street to cheers from some supporters out late in the night and then picked up the pace as we finished the course. The last little surprise being the very steep finishers bridge into the finish line. The risk of falling with our tired legs giving way was probably quite high! Thankfully we didn’t tumble for the camera. Seconds later we crossed the finish line. We’d done it. As Eiger E101 finishers we were handed our little piece of the Eiger – a rock from the moutain as our medal. I love it, but right then i was sick of the rocks!
Without knowing or realising, as we went into the sports centre to collect our bags, Matt snuck passed and finished just a few minutes after us. What a guy. Such consistent running all day!
Serpent Trail 2: The Return Difficulty: ‘Go Easy On Me Knees’ Game Mode: Co-Op: 2 Player Player 1: Dai Player 2: Ultra Nick
Cue theme music. Some proper late 80s keyboard and synth Jingle jingle vibes…
With all game sequels come new characters, abilities, foes and new ways of interacting with the environment. Fundamentally the playing principles tend to remain unchanged. For that purpose the Serpent Trail provides the platform for this sequel.
Back in 2018 I ran the serpent trail on what was quite frankly a ridiculously hot and sunny day. That day I recalled my adventure like a computer game; I was the player and the sun was the pesky boss level character on the Serpent Trail. It was something I had in my head all day as I ran the 100km from Haslemere to Petersfield, a kind of side scrolling platform adventure. Four years later I returned and this time it was a co-op mode with Nick being the new ‘player 2 character’ helping me to complete the distance.
Unlike 2018 my ‘running character’ is very different. I feel the 2022 version is a pumped up version from the first iteration in what was my third 100km race. Metaphorically speaking of course and I’m thinking about running experience terms.
So here we go. Loading up the the sequel…
We camped at the finish line in Petersfield Rugby club the night before and sadly mistimed the food as there was nothing warm ready (or anytime soon) when we had set up the tent. We did however find a burger van after walking over to a Gospel Festival happening further along on the fields. A burger and 1.5 hotdogs meant it was a meat heavy bit of race prep. I didn’t foresee it at the time, but this would prove to be one of the ‘game enemies for me’.
4am we were awake and jostling for toilets and sinks with the other runners before being herded onto 3 buses for the short trip to Haslemere were we’d start the level. Like 4 years earlier, the start was as low-key as they come as we all huddled in a small opening of grass and we’re simply waved on our way by Tom the RD. The difference this time was only that the field size was probably four times what it was on my first go. The race profile was indeed growing – besides a larger number of participants there are now a number of different distances to run over the weekend.
Level 1: Tree Tops
Unlike before, I don’t have a play by play of the miles from start to finish. This was very much, for me, a far easier play than that first time round. Perhaps I did have it on ‘easy’ mode (and I was certainly thinking of preservation ahead of the next mountain event, the Eiger Ultra Trail, in two weeks time!). But, playing two player mode certainly makes it easier and the early miles just flew by rather quickly as I ran with the support from Nick. The course was also very familiar having run the first 25miles of it just a few weeks earlier as part of our preparation. For much of the route you run through scenic forest tracks with huge trees and views over the Surrey Countryside.
Somewhere early on in those first 10 miles we met Pete. It was like another player inserted his coins and pressed start to join in the fun part way. After chatting for a while he decided to stick with us rather than push on for his target time. Multi-player mode activated like a good old fashioned coin-op arcade game! Between us we batted away all the early obstacles the game threw at us. Little hills? No problem. Hot and sweaty? Not a concern. Rooty woodland trails? No falling over here! Thankfully it was nowhere near as warm this year and overall the playing conditions were very favourable. With each aid station we took a few minutes to refuel – in this sequel the health bar was recuperated mostly with sandwiches. Jam sandwiches were my go to choice at the aid station. There were still no roast chickens smashed out of dustbins a la Steets Of Rage though!
From early on I did have my own personal battle throughout the day. Kind of like a side mission, as I struggled with the ‘burger demon’ who tormented me through most of the race. However, that’s not a character worth writing about any further!
Petworth was a target and milestone for us. Our save game zone. It would be the halfway mark and where the narrative of the game would change as we could start homing in on the finish. We’d ticked off the ‘1/3 of the way’ mark and soon enough we’re closing in on that 50km marker and heading towards the little town of Petworth. This was around the time I started vividly remembering parts of the course. I started recognising signs, trees, lakes, specific views and all sorts of random things. I was remembering where the course would go and what would come next. It was quite relaxing and enjoying to recall the previous memories. The others were probably fed up of me going “oh I remember this”…
Level 2: The Wall
One thing I remembered before we got to Petworth was that there was what felt like a never ending stretch of road along a massive stone wall in Petworth (before the aid station). It was longer than I recalled. This was a foe that would sap your energy for sure as your mind would focus on the stones and curves of the wall for what felt like an eternity. When we did arrive at the aid station we were greeted by the beaming smile (as always) from Dimi who looked after us as we took 15 mins to refuel and recuperate. A friendly face is always a morale booster!
For a short while after Petworth we played as four when Pete’s brother in law, a Petworth local, joined us for a few miles. The route restarted with a lovely climb through some open spaces with incredible views. We then ran several kms through more of the scenic woodland trails including a little extra when we all missed a very blatant sign on a downhill section and had to back track up to the route.
At this point we were all feeling pretty great. We were over half way through and none of us has any real issues or concerns. The energy was quite high and we were deep into conversations bouncing back and forth. I particularly loved the nostalgic buzz of recalling the late night soft porn tv shows from the early days of Channel 5 when we were all teenagers. Red Shoe Diaries anyone?!
Around 63km we met Elise and Nick’s mum who supplied us with cold drinks and food. It was a huge boost and we were glad to see them. It also brought another flashback to many years earlier when a lady was outside the very same shop supplying runners with cold Coke. I can remember how thankful I was for that in the heat of 2018!
Level 3: The grey roads
The further we went, the more Pete yearned for it to be over. He was still feeling good and strong and wanted some road sections (he’s more fond of a road marathon than Nick and I). We agreed that he should push on whenever he felt like it. He was eager to finish now. We also had a brief stop near some farm land as we waited for a herd of cows to, slowly, proceed down the road we needed to cross. Each looked at is inm a thankful and confused way, perhaps curious as to what we were up too. It was like the technical part of a game were you need to time your move just right to avoid getting caught out somehow. we certainly didn’t want a herd of cattle turning on us!
Through more aid stations we went and then we saw Elise and Nick’s mum again at 83km. At the Midhurst aidstation with not far left to run. They came here prepared with McDonald’s chips and nuggets. It was awesome, a cheat code for a full health refuel! The volunteer laughed when I turned down the jam sandwiches because I had chicken nuggets. She didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. There was one runner here who was looking a little worse for wear and going through some knee troubles. But she came through behind us and left before us, determined to see it through and reassuring everyone she was ok. We took off a few mins later and almost immediately Nick started to suffer. In game speak, he took some kind of critical combo hit and suffered a from a typical runner’s character weakness – blisters. He’d been complaining of sore feet for a little while and now they were starting to affect him.
This leg of the route was gently undulating and we walked and ran in equal measures. We were at a cross roads where the pain hurts more when walking, but the legs were fatigued and didn’t want to run as much. Nick powered on. I was constantly amazed that we didn’t catch up with the girl who was limping until almost the penultimate checkpoint almost 7 miles later. She was strong and focused!
As we began to hit the road sections, Pete now headed off at a quicker pace at this point. He also had a busy night ahead with getting home to his family post race. The roads were long, straight and inclined ever so gently. in the dying light they were grey and the beauty of the route started to leave us. At the next checkpoint Nick took a seat. He positioned it right in front of the aidstation table, as if interviewing the volunteers behind it. We all laughed and I mocked his suffering whilst eating lollipops.
Final Level. The Petersfield loop
After a while he found the strength to get up and keep going and so, with powerups and a health top up, we continued on to the final battle to the end. This was it now. no more lives or save slots nor continues. Once chance to attack and complete the final level: Two short sections were all that remained now, separated by a small aid station just a few miles from the finish. We recalled the final few kms from a recent recce and enjoyed (sort of) the gentle change of terrain to the flat road sections. I think this helped Nick’s feet a little along with providing the confidence that the finish was certain to happen.
As we left the trail I checked the watch. We had just under 20mins to complete the last 2kms and finish in under 15 hours. I put it to Nick and he was happy to pick up the pace. So I did. Probably too much and I got into the groove and we just kept running. The long loop around the rugby club, into the riverside path at the back. We pounded the roads and then the tree lined path. Just a 100m from the finish, before emerging into the field, Nick demanded a break. He was spent from the increasing effort. So we stopped, caught our breathe, and composed ourselves before finishing the journey to the cheers of the supporters at the finish line. Of course the loudest of them all were Elise and Nicks mum.
Relief washed over us as the end credits started to roll. After a quick pose for Phil to take our pictures and sweaty hugs all round, we were glad to get straight in the car and head home to our beds (given the clubhouse showers had been closed (whhyyy?!)).
And so, like many times before, I’ve been privileged to be there by Nick’s side as he pushes his boundaries and shows what he is capable of. It’s a great feeling to run with your mate and see them achieve. And of course, it’s always enjoyable to watch them suffer just as you have done yourself!
As we left the comfort of the hotel at 23:30 it was buzzing with activity. The packed restaurant was bouncing with loud music and dancing. Paul had hardly slept as his room was above the restaurant. Thankfully I’d grabbed some sleep earlier in the day. As we walked down the strip we realised this was common for a Friday night in Ohrid, North Macedonia. What was clear when we arrived at the Chinar Tree to merge with the small crowd, was that trail running was less common. Gathered at this ancient tree were just 40 runners huddled together near a modest start line preparing for a 100km adventure…
Upon arrival we sought out a person with a staff badge around his neck to ask about the route. Earlier in the day, when registering, it was indicated that the route would need to be modified due to the storms forecast for Saturday. We hadn’t heard anything since so asked what the route would be. He very clearly explained the situation, that heavy storms were forecast and so we would not be visiting Margaro or the other peaks on the route. We’d have an unchanged course for the first 50kms or so to Vojtino. Then we’d detour to Prevoj on a different route, skipping the big climb to Magaro by staying lower down and going around the mountain. From Prevoj we’d again detour and skip the peaks and ridges and instead head to Assan Gjura more directly on some access roads. The next section would be unchanged to Letnica but then once more we’d skip the last peak and begin descending more directly to the final aid station of Velestovo. We thanked him and he told us to stay close for the briefing. He introduced himself as Dejan, the race director. A few minutes later he gave the safety briefing, re-explaining the situation and route to the whole field before we then gathered in the starting coral with the modest number of spectators cheering us on as he counted down to midnight.
The race began and half the field vanished out of sight almost immediately, racing off through the cobbled streets of Old Town Ohrid. We stayed at the back, right at the back, as per our strategy to enjoy a slow first marathon. Natalia was running the 65km route which began at our marathon mark, Sv Naum, just after our cutoff. The intention was to run with her, so rather than bust a gut and then hang around, we planned to arrive between 06:00 – 07:00 and enjoy the night shift.
In the darkness we weaved around the Old Town. A series of cobble streets saw us climb up to the castle at 700m. Even here we ran on trails and single tracks as we made it to the lakeside and descended passed St. John’s church and onto the lake front where we ran across a very wobbly boardwalk before hitting the strip back towards the hotel. We ran passed the red flag markers which we’d spotted on our way to the start (we saw a few teenagers walking and waving them which gave us some initial concerns about the markings, which were unfounded). As we approached the hotel we could hear Lisa cheering from the balcony and waving us on. We were in a small group of maybe ten other runners, most of whom were Greeks and were leading the pack as we ran passed the finish line after a few km. We all cheered as one tempted fate and ran through the finishers arch. I hoped the timing mat wasn’t switched on already!
Along the lake front we heard the wild calls of nature with many many birds and insects singing into the night as we left the roads and Ohrid and headed onto the trails. It began with a gentle climb on a wide track road. We passed a place called Paradise Nest which was a series of cabins overlooking the lake and soon turned onto single tracks through the forest. Here we chatted with the Greeks who had all come over on a bus tour together. With some steady climbing on rocky trails we then emerged at the first aid station of Velestovo about 12km in. A quick refill and to Paul’s delight a cup of the ‘proper stuff’ – Coca Cola branded cola. We left knowing we’d be back here many many hours later when we’d descend back to Ohrid.
We left the aid station and continued through some farm land. I followed two runners and Paul held off as we couldn’t see any flags or markings. They couldn’t hear me as I called after them. I followed and found the trail and waited, calling back to Paul in the darkness who soon found me after he located the actual trail and looped around the farmland. The route then took us up off the quad track and onto a narrow single path that was very rocky. We continued on this, climbing higher and higher. Below us to the right was the darkness of a valley between two ridges. The second, higher one looming straight ahead, a silhouette in the night sky. The climb continued, alternating between rocky paths and forest tracks which occasionally opened up under the moon-lit sky. The air around us was cooling and the moisture of the night made us cold as our clothes became wetter with sweat and the mist. As we trod on through the mist we almost missed a turn which, thankfully, the runner behind spotted and called after us. This was the summit of the first climb and, the inevitable down followed. My word it was a beauty…
The tracks opened up wider. The forests cleared to open spaces. To our left the mountain dropped away to darkness and up ahead the orange moonlight reflect off the calm lake. It was stunning. We ran free, happy, enjoying the moment, hopping from path to path as we descended towards the town of Konjsko. We couldn’t stop commenting to each other about how amazing it was. It all ended too quickly as we rocked up at the next aidstation and commended them on their excellent spread of cheese sandwiches. We briefly chatted with the volunteers who were excited to see some UK runners (there were two other Brits out there somewhere too) and they told us they’d see us again at the marathon mark at SV Naum. So off we went into the night once more with our bellies and hearts full.
From here the night became a little harder. Naturally tiredness now began to creep in as the excitement of the start began to fade and our bodies fought back against the natural desire to be asleep. The terrain became red in the night as we ran through endless mud/clay tracks and our feet became heavier as they collected the dirt in their lugs. It was super sticky. We had a choice of that or the rocky tracks around the mud. I kept to the mud. The smells were a pleasant distraction though as the forests around us were lush, dense and green. After what felt like a long time of trudging along we caught another, local(ish) runner from North Macedonia. We all chatted away as the trails began to descend again, zigzagging down hill we flew and enjoyed the moment once more. We emerged onto a road crossing where we no longer saw the path or flags/markings indicating which way to go. Come to think of it, we’d not seen a flag marker for quite some time. Oh oh.
I quickly loaded the course to my watch knowing that we were still on the unchanged route so would be able to check our location. It was immediately clear we’d gone wrong, very wrong. We’d come off the mountain far sooner than we should have. We should be crossing this road about 5kms further along. We briefly considered the option of following the road to rejoin the course where it crossed. We decided not too. We felt we had time to recover, and that there was a small chance the next aidstation would be before the road crossing and we’d need to ‘check in’. It was also quite a main road, even though it was early in the morning it wouldn’t be the safest option. So we started retracing our steps back up the mountain.
Turns out it was longer than we thought. The switch back tracks deceived the radius shown on the watch. We weren’t getting back to where we went wrong anytime soon. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d run almost 3km in the wrong direction and also descended 300m which we then needed to climb. It cost us quite a bit of time! We finally made it back to where we went wrong and waited for the other guy to catch up to make sure he also ended up back on track. As we waited we realised the mistake we had made – there was a slight split in the path. After we took one track they merged once more and we remember acknowledging that and saying it wasn’t a problem. What we hadn’t seen though was that there was a sneaky turn on the other track which we therefore missed. We should have realised we were no longer following the markings, but we were clearly enjoying the downhill too much.
Now we were back on track we ran a little harder. The track was less enjoyable than the descent we previously took and was a little rockier. We kept going and were heating up as the morning light started to replace the darkness and we took off our head torches. It wasn’t too much later that we then descended the mountain where we should have initially and crossed the road once more. Shortly after this we passed through Trejca and after a short road climb we came across the next aid station where three volunteers sat at the side of the road. They acknowledged we were likely the last runners so we let them know there was one more on his way because we’d gotten lost. From here we had almost 9km to go to SV Naum. This section also included a little climb of around 200m and a corresponding descent. It was 05:50, the cut off was at 07:00. After a night of running this was now going to be tight. Tighter than I wanted to admit but thankfully Paul took charge and ran off for the next 9km and I just had to try and keep him in sight.
We followed the road before going back into the forest and soon conquered the climb (which thankfully took us over a saddle in two hills rather than up and over one of the higher lumps!) and were then descending the narrow and rocky single tracks through the forest. We caught up and passed one of the Greek runners and took a moment to enjoy the views near a a village and over the lake as the morning light broke fully into day. I love the end of a night shift on a long run when the morning breaks. It has a real empowering moment for me when your energy levels have dipped and start increasing again with the rays of sunshine. Running through small villages at this point is one of my favourite aspects of trail running as the paths take you in all directions as you explore the unfamiliar land. Here we briefly skirted a village and went back down to the level of the lake where we left the forest and hit upon a shingle beach. Bollocks to that. This wasn’t funny anymore. We were running hard! I was panting hard. I could see Paul looking back checking I was still in sight. My legs were aching and the soft ground didn’t help. Neither did the realisation that we were running on this for as far as I could see in the distance. I wanted to stop so much but calculated we still had 30mins to go to the cut off and possibly as far as 5km still to cover.
We left the beach and then hit upon what felt like an obstacle course. We ran in and out of farmland and had to climb over many fallen trees and duck through narrow overgrown passes. But the topping was the (admittedly small) river crossing that we needed to make. It was clearly quite deep where it met the lake and a rope was set up to help us cross. I ploughed straight in the thigh-high level without giving it a second thought. We just had to keep going. Time was no longer on our side. Running through the endless crop fields we passed a few more runners and for a brief moment between breaths I felt unbeatable. We didn’t stop to acknowledge them but sped on passed. Finally the turn into the monastery was clear and we ran through and into the aid station with 8 minutes to spare before the cut off. The first marathon hadn’t quite gone to plan!
As we arrived, Dejan and the lady from a previous aid station laughed as we explained our cock up and little adventure. We ate and drank as they told us we didn’t need to leave exactly at 07:00 and that they would be lenient with runners. They also told us the lead runner had pulled out after encountering a bear on the course, so to be observant. Great!
The 65km runners arrived and I found Natalia as the rest of them ploughed into the aid station and started raiding it. That frustrated me a little given some 100k runners were still arriving and needed the refreshments! I said goodbye to Natalia (we’d arranged to meet just after the aid station so we were out of the way of their start). After the manic run to the aidstation, Paul decided to stay with us from here also. We were both spent from the mammoth effort we’d just put in. We needed a break and the 30mins until Natalia would start was now going to be our rest and we were looking forward to it. We walked a bit and then sat in the sun a km down the route and cheered the lead runners from the 65km through when they turned up. The first two runners already had a very sizeable lead on the chasing pack. It was very impressive. We then picked up running again when Natalia showed up shortly after them.
From here the route took us through more fields and dense green spaces. We chatted with different groups of runners as they passed us including a few Americans who were living in North Macedonia. There was another river crossing which everyone carefully tiptoed across on some strategically placed rocks. I ploughed through once again to the delight of the Americans. I had wet feet anyway so it made no difference to me and had the benefit of knowing I had spare socks in my drop bag waiting later on.
From here we began ascending. This was now the biggest climb of the run and we’d be climbing 900m to Vojtino. So we climbed. That’s all we’d do. Head down and walk on. We played leapfrog with a few runners and followed the track as it passed through more forests and occasionally opened up onto vast rocks overlooking the lake. The views were beautiful and we took the chance to stop and capture the moments when we could. It really was stunning. Some how, out of nowhere the next aid station then appeared. We’d been so focused on just walking that the section passed by quite quickly. It was fairly small but we welcomed the opportunity to take on more liquids as it was very humid in the early morning heat. Here the volunteers told us it was maybe 4km to Provej, which would be the drop bag aid station. This was where the route was now changed and rather than climbing another 900m or so to the Magaro summit and descending down to Prevoj, we’d climb lower (maybe just a few hundred metres) and circle the mountain instead. It was a shame, but, at the same time we were now glad it wasn’t as far to go. We moved onwards.
The section wasn’t exactly easy though (easier than the off track 900m climb to the summit over 5km I’m sure!). The climb continued and in places it was quite steep and mostly the ground was covered in a deep layer of leaves that covered a multitude of obstacles – rocks, sticks, snow even! It felt longer than 4km by the time we left the climb and emerged into a grass mountain side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sound of Music! We were delighted to find the aid station waiting for us. I immediately sought out hot food and my drop bag. I set to work freshening myself up and stocking up on the soup and pasta they provided. I was very hungry and empty and knew I needed food before it was too late. Paul and Natalia patiently waited for me and put up with my antics of snorting Tailwind which I’d spilt trying to refill my bottles.
As we left the aid station we were told we’d now follow a road for a few kms before finding a dirt/quad track. Again we were avoiding the climb to the next summit and were not running along the ridge. The road was indeed very long and the tarmac hurt our achy legs. At midday the heat was absorbed by the black surface and it felt like we were being battered from all sides. It was tough going. We weren’t alone though. We’d made a friend. A dog. He ran casually with us. Not a sound from him. Just a tongue hanging out. He seemed happy. We joked that he liked cheating on us with the faster runners as he’d run with us for a fair bit then would run off and chase the runners ahead of us before waiting for us to catch him up. He ran alongside us for many kms. Even when we turned off the road and followed the track again.
Here we could see Lake Prespa (the other lake hidden from Ohrid by the mountain range) on our right. Lake Ohrid was now hidden by the mountain ridge to our left somewhere. The views were stunning and we enjoyed looking back at the mountains behind us, wondering what if… and then it happened. Pretty much bang on midday as forecast the sky started to darken. The thunder started to rumble. The rain started to come. Natalia was having none of it and started running harder and faster. Me and Paul couldn’t keep up. Within minutes she was out of sight. We carried on, walk-running in the rain. We caught and passed a few other runners and eventually caught up with her at Assan Gjura.
Here at the aid station we sat under the shelter of the outbuilding along with many other runners from all the different distances. Some were coming, some were leaving. We took a moment to gather ourselves, re-calibrating our focus and thinking of the storms and what was left to run. As the rain eased off we psyched ourselves up and prepared to leave. Only we couldn’t. The volunteers and park authorities advised we didn’t as there were more storms coming. They made the decision to hold us all at the aid station for safety. We sat back down not knowing how long we’d be here. The minutes ticked by. Food was running low but we were all fed up of the same thing now anyway. They lit a fire burner and we all huddled inside a room that became our sauna. After a long time one lonely runner arrived at the aidstation from the 100k. She was very wet. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they let us leave. Initially it was a ‘5 people can go’. Without thinking I selfishly grabbed Natalia and pushed to the front, indicating that us three would leave. My mind was on finishing. My mind was on escaping any risk of not finishing if they cancelled the race. I wasn’t primarily thinking of safety at this point. In my mind we could finish in a few hours and we were descending pretty much for the rest of the race, I felt they wouldn’t be saying we could leave if it wasn’t safe.
We set off. We were legging it. This section was flat at about 1400m asl. Trying to get as far as we could whilst it was dry. Within seconds the many layers we’d put on were coming off again. The ground was a waterlogged and there were puddles in all the tracks and the red earth was equal measures sticky and slippery. The skies however were clear and bright. For now… We ran on from side to side skipping the puddles and mud. Up ahead the sky was getting darker and the feint rumbles of thunder could be heard again. There was a lonely cow, mooing loudly in front of us. We prepared to pass it on widely. It was either distressed or it was warning us. From the left, there was a guy descending quickly from the mountain. He was running in jeans with a bottle of water in his hand shouting and waving. I thought he was chasing after his cow, lost in the storm. Of course he wasn’t. He was trying to get our attention. He directed us to go in the direction he had just come from. He explained that we were running straight into the storms which were about 40 mins away. He told us on the top of the climb there is another guy on the road who will give us further instructions. It was maybe a 10 minute climb, a very slow climb. Natalia went quickly. Me and Paul went slowly. I assumed that this was it, that this was where our race would end. I assumed here they’d be telling us to get in the car and we’d be evacuated from the storms.
As Natalia reached the guy we could hear the instructions he was was providing. He was directing us down another way. This wasn’t game over after all. There was still hope. I woke up from my false misery and we sped up for the last few metres of the climb to join them. He gave us his number for safety and topped us up with coke. Our instructions now were that we’d follow the dirt track road for a few kilometres. Eventually we’d find a turn on our lefthand side marked with the flags and that we should take this route towards Velestovo, the final aid station. He emphasised the path on the left and not the one on the right. The correct route would divert us around the storm and we’d skip the next aid station and head straight to the last one.
We ran on slowly as it was tough. My legs hurt so much. Natalia was fresh and strong and focused on getting down and out of the storms as quickly as possible. I was struggling behind with the inevitable painful ankles. Natalia would run off and wait for us to catch up before carrying on down the road. The route was gradual and not too bad but it was a dirt track and pretty painful on the tired feet. The thunder was growing louder and louder around us and the rain had started yet again. After a while I started to think we’d missed the turn. I check the original route and thought we’d run passed a turn on the that route maybe 1-2 km further back. I couldn’t understand it. How?! We didn’t see anything, we were being alert and would have noticed the marked flags and the escape route! We checked the local maps and could see that this path would bend back towards the storm slightly before connecting with another path which would take us towards the aid station we wanted. We made the decision to carry on and trace this route instead.
A few minutes later we found red flags on both the right and left. This was it! In all my confusion we were doing just fine and hadn’t missed the turn. We turned left as instructed. A few other runners passed us. I was still confused though and it didn’t make too much sense in my head but everyone reassured me that it was right. It wasn’t much further before we hit a little village and Natalia dashed off to the aid station. Me and Paul walked the rest of the path and filmed the view of Ohrid further down. It was beautiful and we could almost smell the finish now. It was pissing down, dark and moody, as we arrived into the aid station. Natalia was a little on edge and uncomfortable with the thought of leaving the sanctuary of the aid station and entering the storms for the final 8km. We reassured her and she emerged from the aid station with us to make the final decent to Ohrid. We made a run for it knowing we’d be finished soon. Far, far sooner than we initially thought. With all the diversions and lack of climbing we’d be coming up short on the distance and finishing whilst it was still light, which was a pleasant thought now.
From here we ran a different route back to Ohrid than which we’d climbed the night before. This one took us through the villages and down some grassy tracks towards the lakeside. The whole way I was behind Natalia and Paul. My legs screaming at me as I kept rolling my ankles on the uneven terrain. At one point I heard them both make some noise and saw Paul pull up suddenly. There were some locals re-cementing the road (during a storm!) and Paul had almost ploughed straight into it. They directed us around and cheered us on our way. Shortly after which we then needed to navigate our way through a herd of goats who were off on their own adventure. Further down we reached the main road of Ohrid. It was flooded. We had a short detour to cross the road around a petrol station to join the path to the lake. Paul went off, making a beeline for the finish. Natalia pushed me hard to get passed the last few 100km runners in our sight. She was running so strong.
Moments later we hit the home stretch and crossed the line, hand in hand. It was done. It wasn’t quite the race we’d hoped for, but the outcome was exactly as planned. At the finish line Dejan, the RD, congratulated us and handed us our medals. It was an incredible experience and an adventure we will never forget.
After finishing, two things were immediately clear to me. Firstly, how accommodating the Macedonians were and how well we were looked after by Dejan, his team and all the volunteers. Personally, I felt safe throughout and never had worries. We knew there would be storms. We knew safety measures were always likely to be activated, but it was the manner in how they were done which was impressive. With runners spread-out over so many different parts of the route it must have been a logistical nightmare to manage. But, we were informed, at registration, at the start of the race and during. The course was very well marked (it was our mistake which made us get lost early on) and the volunteers and Park Authorities were helpful and informative. Whilst we were held at Assan Gjura we were told the organisers were out monitoring the situation and confirming when it would be safe to leave. Having mid aid station diversions to avoid the storms was also something that impressed me. I felt so looked after and cared for.
Secondly, Natalia’s mentality impressed me and I’m so proud of her. She made no secret of her concerns and fear of the storms, in particular the lightening strikes. Yet, she ran, she kept going and she made it to the finish line despite her fears. What impresses me is how strong she is. I don’t share such fears so I will never fully understand what it must feel like to be battling yourself at such a instinctive level. I run without fear so can’t comprehend what it must be like to have your mind working against you when you are tired and exhausted. She never gave up despite the many, many opportunities she had to stop during the race, she just kept going. I’m so proud of her and her strength.