‘Chasing Pounamu’ is a short documentary about one runner’s quest to complete the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run. Runners completing the event are gifted a Pounamu – a local Maori gemstone made into a necklace. It’s a heart warming and emotional watch (you can find it on YouTube). One I watched a few weeks before I headed out on my own quest to ‘chase the pounamu’…
Last year, when Kirsty left the UK to return to New Zealand, a few of us said we’d come and visit sometime. Little did I realise a few months later I’d be signing up to my first 100 miler in New Zealand. 100 miles was never on my to do list. However, over the past 12 months my running distances had been slowly creeping up and 100 miles suddenly became the next logical step. Although It wasn’t until I was on the sign-up page for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) that the decision was made as, unlike the other events at TUM, the ‘miler’ finishers are gifted with a pounamu. I signed up immediately.
Fast forward some 8 months later and we are reunited with Kirsty in Rotorua. Like many events I didn’t feel as ready as I could or should be. Especially for tackling my first 100 mile event. A recurring pain in my ankle/shin had kept me from running for the whole of January (with the exception of the Maverick race in Amberley). My mind was focused though. No way was I not starting. No way was I not finishing. No way would I be leaving without that Pounamu! For weeks my mind had been consumed by the race. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the costs. Maybe the extent of the adventure I was embarking on for 6 weeks. Maybe because I was nervous. Either way it helped me to focus and visualise on the end goal. I was determined and would be relying more than ever before on the experience I’ve accumulated from running ultras…
The day before the race we went to the Maori Powhiri at Te Puia. A traditional welcoming ceremony which welcomed the runners to the event and officially opened it. With talks from the race founder, Maori leaders and the town Mayor as well as singing and dancing it ended with a hongi – a significant expression performed by rubbing noses. It was , to a ‘Westerner’ unusually special. I’ve never felt so at home at an event before. The runners were told that we were now part of their community. Their family. That together we’d see success in the event. It was all rather touching. We then went and registered and collected our bibs (and do the weigh in for medical reasons). This was the quickest of processes as we’d already passed our mandatory gear checks – the event had a unique collaboration with Macpac (an outdoors retail chain) where you could visit any store in the days leading up to the event, do the mandatory gear check in store and receive a signed certificate to present at registration instead of taking your kit with you. This made the whole process so much slicker, how any of it is actually governed come race day I do not know though! The afternoon involved some relaxing in the heated hotel pool and then as much sleep as I could possibly get!
It was time. After a few hours sleep I found myself creeping around in the dark at 2am. The 3 others in the room were still sleeping, squeezing in an extra hour for the later start of their 100km race. Final preparations and checks completed and it was time to leave, just as it started to hammer down with rain. Hugs and high fives all round. Andy kindly drove me to the start back in Te Puia and Jorge, being the ever generous and supportive friend he is, came along too. We rocked up in a very empty car park. Jorge sported Adrian, the man at the centre of ‘chasing Pounamu’ and I followed him inside the cultural centre to the start line right up by the active Pohutu geyser – Pohutu happens to be the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere and erupts once or twice every hour, sometimes reaching heights of 30 metres!) which was erupting magnificently in the darkness. The start line was covered in the spray and mist from the sulphur activity. I sat on the hot rocks nearby and waited patiently. I did one final ‘body check’ and mentally confirmed all was good – nothing but the normal few amber warnings flagged up. I was as ready as I could be.
As the MC started to welcome the runners and brief us on the journey ahead we congregated behind the start line. Our welcome climaxed in a traditional Maori Haka and traditional singing. With Pohutu erupting behind us it was a truly surreal and magical moment as the race director and crowd of supporters counted us down and sent us off on our challenge…
For a moment I was overwhelmed as I crossed that start line. To cheers and applause I realised this is the moment of races I like most. A sense of awe from the crowd. Respect and appreciation as they spur on loved ones, family, strangers. There’s no competition, only encouragement. the beginning of an epic challenge and adventure, however it turns out. At this moment I feel invincible. I smiled and clapped back, as I always do. I wish this feeling would last more than a few seconds!
We ran through Te Puia and very quickly found the trails as we made the first 13km to the first aid station. The first set of paths were hard and dusty. Uneven but nice to run. They led us into the first of many forest tracks we’d run this day. It was still raining but as we entered the Redwood forest the rain was but a light mist/spray that was cooling in the humid morning. The head torches lit the way as we traced the winding paths through the woodlands. The pack of just under 300 runners was already beginning to spread and I found myself following a group of maybe six runners keeping pace together. Before I knew it a sign screamed out at us “aid station 200m ahead”. Little did I know how much I’d look forward to these signs later in the day!
Leaving the aid station we were immediately back into the forests. These paths were different though. More single tracks. The floor littered with roots. A few times I tripped but thankfully never fell. Areas of steps provided extra challenges in this part as we navigated the trails in complete darkness due to the thick foliage and cover. The smells were incredible and so vibrant and I was smiling as I wound my way through moew twisty tracks. Another aid station came and went and I then found myself running alongside the Green Lake. The sun was starting to rise and the paths navigated ran alongside the lake as the sun began to glisten and reflect off the water. The trails were undulating with little stretches of running broken up by short climbs. We burst out of the forests and ran a section along a sealed road. Cones marked the way and signs encouraging the runners to keep inside the cones. I felt the road. It was dull and tedious after the trails before it. Thankfully though the Buried Village soon appeared. The third aid station and one of historical importance – a heritage site persevering a village buried under rock, ash and mud following the eruption of Mt Tarawera.
Inside the Buried Village the atmosphere was electric. Loads of supporters welcoming the runners in to the aid station and a lady on a mega phone cracking the jokes and encouraging everyone on. I had some jam and Nutella sandwiches made for me by the volunteers and cracked on to the next section which would be the second longest stretch between aid stations with about 15km until I reached Isthmus. I did stop very quickly for a picture at the view point and then again to take off my arm warmers and pack them and the head torch away.
This section was by far my favourite part of the race. The Buried Village was beautiful and the trails undulating along the rock face. Fauna surrounded us and we were soon presented with incredible views across lake Tarawera as the sun continued to glisten and reflect off the water. The paths then opened up as we reached the lake. The soft grassy trails which followed the contours of the lake were a joy to run on. As we closed in on Isthmus I noticed some odd signs warning of zombies and that ‘any zombies chasing humans would be shot on sight’. It took me a while before I realised the it was a sign for the aid station and that all the aid stations were themed. This one for a Zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a great way to raise a few smiles and provide entertainment.
A bunch of runners came in after me and I didn’t hang around too long. It was just over a km until I’d reach the ferry crossing to get to the other side of the lake Rerewhakaaitu. I didn’t want to end up in a queue for the boat so I stepped on it a little. As I arrived at the jetty there was sadly no boat waiting for me. Two ladies, Sue and Femi sat waiting with mocktails. The volunteer was preparing juice and ice mocktails for the runners and they were an absolute treat. I picked one up, clinked glasses and sat down to joined them. As we waited he explained there had been an issue with one of the two boats. By the time it arrived 12 of us shuffled onboard to get to the other side. A few minutes later as we unboarded the runners fled off into the distance and running through the private farm roads. We then hit a long road on a gradual incline. I briefly chatted to sue as she ran a steady pace running to heart rate. She gradually pulled away as I was adamant I was walking it all. I didn’t want to burn out so soon!
The road continued for about 5km before we reached the next station at Rerewhakaaitu. It was still morning but getting very hot now. I took advantage and lathered up with the suncream available at the aid station before hitting the road again. And that is what it was. More road. More tarmac gradually climbing as far as my eyes could see into the distance. I hiked on. I was amazed by the persistence of runners who ran it all. The farmer themed aid station of Okahu broke up the road briefly but more was to come. By the time we left the road I think we must have covered somewhere between 10-15km. It was soul destroying. The return to the trail was most welcomed.
The trails were now long and wide gravel tracks worn over time by vehicles. Again the paths were undulating with gentle inclines and down hills alternating. A good section for running and getting into the flow again. That was until towards the end of the section where a climb of about 200m was lurking. As we reached the top and the aid station at Wihapi the volunteers apologised for the hill. I laughed and said it was easier than the road. It certainly was for me!
From here the wide gravel paths continued. Only down hill. The longest section of downhill on the route and I thought it was as soul destroying as the road. Why? Because it was so straight. You could just see the path continue into the distance and never ending. Mentally I found it tough to keep moving at pace. Somewhere around here I’d started talking to another runner – Thomas. We’d been leap-frogging each other for a while and had settled into a comparable pace. He seemed fine with it when I kept pointing ahead and indicating where and when I’d start walking or running. Puhipuhi was the next destination and one that marked where the route would join with that of the 100km runners. Those runners would be well passed by now though having started 3hours after the miler and having just 20km to run to get to the same aid station. Hopefully that would mean the trails would be quieter for me for the rest of the day. The volunteers offered me plenty of ‘crippies’ and ‘lollies’ as well as the option to lay in their paddling pool. I declined the later but did discover Mountain Dew. Something I’ve never tried before. I thought it was ace, even though it is probable a chemical concoction I do not want to know more about! As I drank the Mountain Dew, it was the first moment that it dawned on me how far the race was. 80km in and we were only half way there. Halfway! Shiiit. That thought would linger for a long time.
Chatting away to Thomas I completely zoned out on the way to Tiktoki. I remember the trails were still long and wide but now more grassy and more dirt like rather than gravel. Some woman also joined with us for a short while. She was memorable because she was completely soaked (somewhere she’d gone for a dip in the lake!) and because she shared insight and knowledge as the was her second time. She encouraged us to reach Hhumphries before dark as that section was technical. She vanished before we reached Tiktoki and was no where to be seen when we arrived. As we sat and ate at the aid station we chatted with several other runners. One explained he was done with the sweat food and a volunteer overheard and brought out bacon and egg pie. Woooah. This was great. Back on it now! 10km until the 100km mark and a key milestone in my race because (1) I’d mentally split it into 3 x 50 kms. I knew if I got to 150km I’d finish. So 2/3 of the race would have been completed when I reached the Outlet. (2) it was where my drop bag was located. So time for a longer rest and mid-race maintenance. For me this means a wet wipe shower, change of socks, t-shirt and shoes. Reapply Squirrels Nut Butter to prevent chafe. Swap out and refill my nutrition stash and dump any unnecessary items. This time I got rid of the Gopro, sunglasses and running belt (used to carry my phone but I was no longer in the mood for photos so in the backpack it went!). Before I reached the Outlet though it was more windy forest trails. The highlight of which was a section running along one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Somewhere hidden here is the Tarawera Falls. You could hear it for a long time before we reached it. The water was gushing out of the mountain through many holes. We took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing.
As I was going through my drop bag routine I told Thomas to crack on. I was going to be here for a while and didn’t want him waiting for me longer than he was prepared for. As is the case with these races you often see people again at different stages. We wished each other well and I got stuck into some more hot noodles. I was all about the hot savoury food now! Loads of runners came and went in my time at Outlet. But when I left I was born again!
The next section was the technical bit to Humphries bay running alongside the northern side of lake Tarawera. Crazy to think I’d been looking across the lake to this area maybe ten hours ago after I left the Buried Village! It was Only about 7km and I was feeling rejuvenated so I ran. I ran well. I passed maybe ten runners on this section as I leaped and bounced around the roots and lunged up the rocks and powered through. It was fucking humid too. As the day started to end the humidity In the forest increased. My fresh kit was quickly as wet and stinky as the stuff I’d changed out of. Despite the running it took a while. A good 1.5 hours for such a short distance before I emerged into the scout base of Humphries bay. Here I persuaded a volunteer to make me a cheese toasty using the volunteers sandwich maker. She wasn’t too eager but how can you say no to someone running a 100 miles?!
Leaving Humphries it was a similar story as I made my way towards Okatania. More forest paths. Less technical thankfully but still many roots and fallen trees to climb or duck under. The legs didn’t appreciate those lunges now! It was still very bright as the sun set over the lake but as soon as you turned back into the ‘bush’ it was pitch black. The headlamp had to come out. It felt odd as I could look up and see the light beyond the foliage. It just wasn’t reaching the ground. I found Thomas again and we carried on into the darkness for the several km remaining of this section, which felt so much longer.
I lost him once more at the Okatania aid station. This one was pumping. Okatania, with its circus theme, was a hive of activity. Not only was it another drop bag and support aid station, but it was where miler runners could have a pacer join them for the last marathon. Yep. Three back to back marathons done, one remaining. I sat down with some soup and more egg and bacon pie and a woman started talking to me. She was waiting for her husband and was asking how it’s going and if she could get me anything. So kind. I was sorted though. Warm belly and more fluids taken on board as well as a third water bottle filled up – the next section was 16km. I’d been drinking a litre between aid stations and despite it now being night, the humidity, length of the next section and the imminent climb meant I should be wise and prepared. I had noticed that despite all the fluids I was still not fully hydrated though after all this time and it did bother me a little and was on my mind.
Stocked up I set off to make the climb. Maybe a little over 500m lay ahead. This didn’t phase me and I was ready for a good walk. I’d also picked up my poles at the 100km mark ready for a lot of walking. After bringing them all this way I at least needed to make some use of them. So out they came. And off to the Blue Lake I marched.
It was a lonely old climb. I thought I’d see groups of people encouraged by their pacers storming past me but it never happened. What did surprise me though was that on the climb I began overtaking some 100km runners. I didn’t think I’d catch the ck end of this event. They were in high spirits though and with each one I passed we congratulated each other’s efforts and called bullshit to the climb and pains. As I broke the back of the climb the descent began. It was runnable. Single track easy underfoot. I ran on. After a few km though the ran became a hobble. Whilst I’d been blocking out the pains in my legs (particularly my ankle/shin pain and my destroyed quads) I couldn’t block out the pain in my left foot. The sole was raw. A blister for sure on the padding. Pressure was rather uncomfortable but there was no choice but to keep moving forward. The slow progress then began to make me tired and I was wobbling a little for sure.
Before the Blue Lake there was another section. Coming out of the long trails from Oktania we reached the aid station at Millar road. A smallish aid station but one busy with volunteers. I asked for warm food but there was none. They did have coffee though. I needed it. The long walk had made me sleepy. I needed a kick. I sat down with more jam sandwiches, a cheese scone and some ‘chippies’ whilst I drank the coffee. I noticed runners coming in and either layering up or being wrapped in blankets as they sat. Mmhhh. I realised it was cold. I took my arm warmers back out. It wasn’t cold by UK standards but I was beginning to shake a little.
As I left Millar road I walked with another guy. We talked a bit but I forgot his name. I was spaced out now. I overheard a volunteer tell another runner about long sections of road and another 1.5km of technical forest tracks. As we walked the first part of the road the pain was too much for me to fully engage in conversation. I also kept needing to pee. So I’d dropped back from the runner before we reached the technical part. In the bush it was so dark. The paths were windy with twists and turns. I kept having to stop and look which way I was going. My head torch died and I needed to change the battery to see (thankfully it died in a small clearing in the bush and the moonlight was enough to see in my bag for the spare). The bush was spectacular in the dark. But I was getting sleepy. So very sleepy.
Eventually we left the forest behind and emerged onto a road. Back at Blue Lake. To my right was the aid station, lit up a few hundred meters away. To my left, arrows and cones marking the path. Ah. Shit, I forgot we had to do a loop of the lake first. About 4km. We ran this as a group a few days before in the opposite direction. I at least knew what to expect. But this wouldn’t mean I’d enjoy it. 4km hobbling took a long long time.
I rocked up 2 hours later than estimated at the Blue Lake aid station and I only had one thing on my mind… “is there a medic or someone who can treat a blister for me?”. Thankfully there was. A running coach went to work and gasped when my sock came off. “We need to drain that one!” Much to the shock of the volunteers who’d gathered round. It was probably about the size of a watch face on the padding of my sole. I drank more coffee whilst she went to work and then taped it up to relieve the pressure. Immediately I felt better and that I could hobble a little faster at least. I thanked them and set off on my way. As I left the aid station Jorge, Kirsty and Andy were there to cheer me on. I find this level of support and friendship incredible – after running all day, 100km for 14-18 hours with minimal sleep they still put others first over their recovery needs. It’s so generous. A short chat and I was back moving. 15km to go via the Redwoods back to town…
From Blue Lake to Redwoods was a tough 9km stint. It started with some twisty gradual climbs on loose gravel paths. Any thoughts I had on running were gone again. The loose rocks ached the raw skin on my feet. As we continued we ventured back into the forest trails. This time surrounded by the huge redwoods all around. My watch kept beeping as it lost signal. The darkness was pure. Above us a super moon shining bright in the sky. Towards the end of the section we climbed again. I passed more runners from the 100km and a few milers on the climb too. Each one questioning when it would end. Each one with a different understanding of how long the final section through town would be, it ranged from 2km to 9km. Naturally I hoped for the former! As we levelled out the town lights were visible in the distance. Like all ultras though I questioned how far further this last stretch would be and when we’d descend to town level and how/where we we going. It looked so far. What goes up must come down though and soon we did. Rapidly. Steps. Heaps of them. Deep earth packed Steps with un-level wooden breakers. I limped down them all eventually reaching a road and volunteers each egging me on the final few hundred m. I arrived at the Redwoods aid station to be treated by a Mexican day of the dead party. The sun beginning to rise and two familiar faces – Paul, the founder of the Tarawera race (who welcomed us at the Powhiri) and a gentleman I’d seen many times throughout the day supporting his wife. He chatted to me each time. He’s had just 5 hours sleep in the last two days and looked exhausted now. I assured him his wife Billie was just behind me. They pushed me on for the last stretch with encouragement. It was close to 7km to go. Damn. I wanted more coffee but there wasn’t any. I was no reliant on the rising sun to bring some life back into me and keep the eyes open as I left the aid station
Into finish now. 7km. 2 hours. It was happening for sure. Even if I slowed down further the sub 30 ‘Western States’ qualifier would be achieved. I believed more than ever before. A few runners ran past me. They clearly believed too. We followed some park paths for a little while before hitting the geothermal valley area. Woah. Besides being hit in the face with the heat and sulphur smell, it was beautiful. Natural rocky landscape steaming from vents. I expected to run through the main streets of town. Long straight blocks of buildings. Nope. We’d loop through parks and wooden walkways surrounding the thermal areas all the way to the lake. It made it far more manageable. I plodded on. Billie and her husband ran past. It was about 7am. The sun was shinning. I reached the last sign saying 200 m to the finish. There were a group of people standing and clapping. I stopped to talk. We joked about running the last bit. The only bit that matters. A few moments later I started again. The plod became faster. I was shuffling now. The crowd gathered at the finish line began to cheer. The MC announced me as I entered the finishers area. I shuffled over the line with a beaming smile. I didn’t know what to do and the first words that came out to a volunteer were “where do I sit down?” I was so spaced out. Exhausted. A lady came over and apologetically encouraged me to come and get my gift, the Pounamu. Yes!!! A table was laid out. There were loads of Pounamu in boxes on display like a jewellery shop. They were massive. Far bigger than I expected. Each one different. Different colours. Different shades. She explained the purpose, the shape and meaning and significance of the ‘Toki’ design. She explained that we were to choose our own. It was personal. It took me a while but with a little help I found my Pounamu. The dark green jade called to me. She put it round my neck. I asked her to get a finish line photo. A videographer took pictures and filmed and asked if he could have a few words. Before she left the lady asked me if I wanted a hug, “fucking right I do” and at that moment I felt the sense of achievement and closure from the race. As the videographer asked me questions I realised how spaced I was. I’ve no idea what I answered. I was led in to the recovery zone to be weighed – we were weighed at check in and on finishing to check we were medically ok. They advised they were looking for a weight loss/gain within a 4kg tolerance to ensure we hadn’t taken in too much or too little liquid. I’d lost about 1.5kg. Perfect he said, go get some food and relax in the recovery area. As I went in I saw Femi from the boat ride some 14 hours earlier?! Then Jorge, Andy and Arlene arrived. They’d seen me finish as they were parking. They helped feed me and get me home. They updated me on everyone else’s races and achievements.
- Milers are hard. It’s a long ass way
- I once again broke it into thirds. The first 50km was a breeze. The middle dragged on and on and the final was a slog. The realisation at 80km that it was only half way was horrible.
- The generosity of friends. Tracking and following, supporting. Its incredible at the best of times. Its another level of generosity when they do it after running 100km themselves!
- The sheer size of operation – around 690 volunteers and 150 permanent staff. 200 kms of trails across private land, public land, Government land and tribal land. There is a huge amount of organisation to such a successful event.
- The generosity of the event. There was something very psecial in the Powhiri welcome. I’ve never experienced that before. Also starting in a cultural site and the Haka at the start. Incredible. The amount we got out of it too with entrance to cultural/heritage sites such as Te Puia and the Brried Village, the race swag, the support throughout the race and the huge pounamu. The expensive race entry was fully justified this time!
- It takes a lot of coffee for me to get going when I’m tired.
- The morning is a very special time when running. The light from the sun is powering and what goes before it is soon forgotten when the day breaks.
- Rotorua is special. It has so much. Tens of lakes. Woods and forests such as the Redwoods. Mount Tarawera and the geothermal valley. Any one of those alone would make it special, Rotorua has them all!
- The pounamu. A medal I’ll wear for sure.
- I’m a miler man now.
2019. Growing up in the 80s, “2019” sounded so futuristic. A utopia world of hover boards, homes in the sky and intergalactic travel. Not quite. I spent it doing (no surprise here) running. One of the oldest and most traditional of movements. Some fancy technology in the smart watches and tech fabrics etc., but otherwise pretty basic. Just me running.
The year started with some good news – a message confirming I’d been accepted onto the Tailwind Trailblazer programme. What even is that? – it’s an ambassador programme. A mutual partnership whereby I use and promote the product and in return I get some support from the brand. I’m happy with that as it’s a great product (see what I did there?!) and one I was using regularly. First impressions were that the support was great. A collective of varied members with a diverse, multi-discipline background and huge amounts of personal experiences. It made me think a little and I decided to end a few other associations that were no longer right for both myself and the other companies.
Despite the positive start though, my mind was in overdrive. I’d carried into the new year an injury which was lingering from a night run back in December. I’d come up with two plans to manage it, plan A was ignore it and carry on regardless. Plan B was to start pulling out of races. Thankfully I found an suitable plan compromise and was able to continue running enough and not have to resort to any DNS.
I’d continued my involvement with the team at MyCrew and managed the plan with my injury, mixing it up with some local hill training as a result. Tuesday’s weekly hill runs became a thing for two months as well as some regular night runs. I met a few new friends through this process and got to know some others a little better too. This showed the values in some of the partnerships we can strike up with companies and brands.
Race wise, January started with the Country to Capital. The early year opener. One many runners do to get ready for other events. I almost didn’t start due to my foot (I’d had a few physio sessions by then and received plenty of advice advising me to DNS). But I did. I went in with a ten hour finish in mind. Faster than the cut off but fairly relaxed. I finished in seven hours. Fairly fast. It was a lovely day, I felt comfortable and I kind of just just went for it and kept going. Not racing but pushing. A highlight was a brief encounter with Paul (who I’d go on to share many runs with throughout the year) and the lowlight was definitely towards the end with the flat, dirty canal paths. I just wanted it over.
February brought the first of the big ones – TransGran Canaria. The one that scared me a little. Other than the CCC I’d not run in the mountains. Now here I was preparing for a 129km run. I’d heard the stories. The rocky river bed. I hit my lowest point in my running experiences out in Gran Canaria. My mind was lost to the rocks and I became an angry bastard. I ended up Walking the last 26 miles. 8 hours pounding on. I finished in 23 hours. A huge finish on my estimate of 27 hours. Yvette and Jorge followed me all day along like the absolute heroes they are. Along with Matt and Ale they showed me what incredible friendships and support I had found through running.
March was the first of the little ‘breather’ periods in my year. Early on I headed to Maverick Liphook and popped my Maverick cherry with the Wild TR bunch. It was a lovely break and intro back to running after TGC. The ice cold wet mud was so soft and refreshing. I loved it.
April was another international escape with the same Wild TR group as we headed to Italy and the Cinque Terra region for the Sciacchee Trail. For me I used it as a test in my mind ahead of events later in the year. 50km, with a few km vert thrown in and a heap of steps. It was two weeks before Madeira and the one I was focused on. This run was all about seeing how I’d recover in that two week period. Again I loved it. It was a super hot weekend in Italy with great company and many memories gathered. Nothing low about this one but I’ll always remember the miles shared with Kirsty and Maggie.
Soon after it was time to head to Madeira and tackle the MIUT 115km. This was the one I wanted. The one that terrified me. The one I’d looked at a year ago and thought hell yeah, I want some of that. Almost like a ‘dream race’ if you like. It lived up to expectations. The hardest run I’ve done for sure. But by far the most spectacular. The difficulty of the race was balanced by its beauty. The last few miles will always be remembered as it seemed to never end, but my word the climbs and the views were simply out of this world. My favourite place I’ve run!
May became the bonus month with the Three Forts Challenge and Maverick x Tribe ‘run free’ events. The planned rest for the month was not realised. Instead on day two of the month I was already doing a marathon (ultra technically). Rest was clearly going well! Running it with friends though made it a very enjoyable experience. Likewise for ending the month with the Maverick run which again was a very social event and one in inadvertently turned into another ultra by running 6 miles from the bus stop to the race start!
June. Four more events this month – Luxembourg, Samoens, Lavaredo and the Salomon festival at Boxhill. It started off with a return to road. Pacing Nick to an enjoyable (for me) first marathon. Without question one of, if not the best road marathons I’ve done with incredible support and entertainment around a beautiful city. Topped off with a lovely little photo book memoir for all participants (and which I made the cut!). An impromptu 50km at the Salomon Fest followed where I supported Tom Wake in leading the guided run. Bonus here was finally meeting Mark, someone I’d been in contact for a while with through a mutual friend. He only went and completed the Dragons Back a few weeks earlier! The Samoens soon followed which was more about getting away with a wicked bunch of runners than the run itself (a modest 33km but with some fruity elevation!). This one hurt. I was faster than normal as it was a shorter race and the quads felt it. Also I had some weird issue with my insoles where they kept scrunching up on the downhills after getting soaked as I ran through several rivers. A great weekend though! Then the next one – 120km in the Dolomites. It was stunning. It was brutal. So hot. So rocky. It broke me like no other. I thought TGC broke me the most, physically it was Lavaredo. Mentally I was fine as I had Paul (another Paul that is) with me. It was 4 weeks later and the skin from the blisters and trench foot still hadn’t fully healed. Might be a reason why that was…
July. The week after Lavaredo I headed to the LoveTrails festival in my hometown of Swansea. I didn’t run much, but I ran enough to make things worse. I felt something in my foot. Something bad. It hurt and a yelled out. Yep, dickhead move. Anyway, the weekend was still decent and my highlight was being one half of Sonic and Tails with Nick. Overall I thought the festival had quite a forced feel to it and I know I shouldn’t have run. 40km the week after Lavaredo was not smart. 15km after I fucked my foot further mid run was not smart either. I did go to A&E two weeks later. Only to receive a bollocking for not having been to a GP and then I walked out rather than wait the 4hr wait period. I bought some ice instead. Worked out OK in the end.
August. Panic began to set in. August was the big challenge. 3 ultras in two weeks. Two of them in the mountains of the Matterhorn and Alp regions. One of them 145km just 3 days after the last one. With concerns over my foot still, I returned to running after three weeks off. It seemed to work…I headed into the SVP100 for the third time. Determined to get my black 3 star finisher tee. This time I was running alone and approached it cautiously. A course pb for me boosted the confidence ahead of the next challenge – the Matterhorn sky race. I travelled alone, extending my trip for the UTMB festival. The race is one of my favourites to date. Challenging but oh so beautiful. Expertly organised and a hell of a lot of fun. Two down. One to go. The TDS in sight. My biggest challenge. The longest distance. Highest elevation gain. Most technical of courses I’d run. Longest time on feet. Over 35 hours I damn well earned that finishers gilet. I made a friend along the way too! A few days spent chilling and running around Chamonix with friends followed to top off an awesome adventure.
You’d think that would be a good place to stop and rest huh? Nope. Somehow I succumbed to the fear of missing out and had signed up to the Estonia Marathon in Tallinn the following week. The flat roads weren’t too kind on the body so soon after the TDS. At times this felt harder than the run the week before! Thankfully James was there to keep me going and motivated.
There was a little short break then. I carried on running, although not much. The one unexpected adventure was when Nick and I hit up the trails in Co. Mayo in Ireland after a wedding. We had the best of times running the Foxford Way Loop, found a dog and bagged ourselves a Fastest Known Time in the process. Hilarious. Next up in October was another ultra, one which would top TDS for distance – the 150km Lemkowyna ultra trail. The one I wouldn’t really know what the expect. Would it be muddy or not? It was. And I got through it in a tad over 24 hours. Everything went like clockwork and it was another fantastic weekend spent with incredibly supportive friends.
Lemkowyna, like Lavaredo, broke me physically. Not literally. But my feet were smashed up. The left foot had a huge blister on the padding of the sole that 4 weeks later still hadn’t healed. The right foot bruised up similar to after Lavaredo and caused issues with my big toe. Another three weeks of no running followed. Maybe I should avoid races beginning with ‘L’ and ending in ‘Ultra Trail’!
Three weeks later and I eased back into running. I was itching. My mind was all over the place scrambling at plans for 2020 and I couldn’t contain it any longer. More on the plans another time though…
November was race free. I filled it with social runs instead. A group run in the Surrey hills. A jaunt to the Cotswolds. Volunteering at a Maverick event in Kent and a burger run. Then it was time to get going again as 2020 had a countdown that was well and truly underway! Underway it was but immediately my achilles started hurting. Too much too soon again no doubt. I just ploughed on though. Same old approach.
December wasn’t what was planned. I felt a little odd as I’d been telling people I’d be doing it. The intent was to go to the Cheviot Goat. A challenging off track event on the Scottish border. It’s easiest to just say the plans didn’t materialise and leave it there. I took advantage though and signed up to a more local event – the Hurtwood 50 and would run it with Nick. What a great day this turned out to be with a group of friends sharing an experience. I then followed it up with my own 8 week training plan ready for the new year’s adventures. I hit some big mileage in December including two self made ultras over Christmas week along the South Downs and running home from the Black Mountains on Christmas morning. Happy days.
What else went on with my running in 2019?
– Stairs. These became a regular in my training. Leading up to MIUT and TDS I hit this hard. Weekly sessions climbing stairs for an hour. I Definitely felt the benefit from this and felt strong hiking the inclines.
– Xendurance. Something else which became a regular for my nutrition and health. I was lucky enough to get introduced to them earlier in the year before Trans Gran Canaria and I’ve loved using their products ever since. I definitely feel they give me a marginal gain. Working with Team XND has been a delight and a included a fruity lil’ trip to the New Forest with some filming too which was a whole new experience.
– Later in the year Maggie asked me to get involved with Wild tr as one of their support runners. Whilst I’ve not quite made it to that many hill sessions, the long runs are something I look forward too. Being able to support and help out the leaders on occasions is a great responsibility and a pleasure to be asked. I do love running at the back of groups too.
– A job change. Nothing major, but It was a little disruptive and it has taken some time to readjust to the new routine. Changing life conditions, no matter what, present new obstacles to your training. Thankfully this one has worked out great with a wicked bunch of colleagues who are very understanding to my needs. They also listen when I bore them about running!
What did I learn this year?
– Not sure this was a learning, but I kept thinking ‘just get passed this next month’. But then I went and back loaded that next month with more races. I thought August was hard enough with three races including two 3 days apart, the later being the new TDS. So then I went and booked the Estonia marathon for the following week. I seem to like making things a little more difficult for myself. I recognise this but still need to work on preventing it.
– Learning to not run. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It messes with your mind. A few injuries throughout the year saw me take a few weeks off running here and there. Without doubt I benefited from this and have been quite impressed with my body’s healing capabilities. That being said, I struggled with it. The desire to go out and run. The mental challenge. The paranoia, it’s all in your head but that can be so tough to deal with, especially when you use running to control your headspace!
– The misconception. It’s all around us. People think what they want. They assume. They thrust thoughts and opinions on you. With running they make assumptions. Remember all is not what it seems. I’m not running that much really. Just long distances when I do. People ask if I run all the time. Far from it. Maybe once it twice a week!
– I can’t stop signing up to things. That has continued. So many races I want. I’ve been planning 2020 and was trying to avoid races and to do something else instead. Already that’s failed and I’ve signed up to my first 100 miler in the process.
And so 2020 beckons. 2020 fills me with so much excitement – The 2020 plan is forming and its bigger and bolder than the years before it. More running, more adventures. more travel. More races – the one thing I said I wouldn’t do in 2020. Races and running events were not on my mind. Those initial plans are now on hold though. Signing up to a 100 miler and looking to turn it into an adventure abroad, the flood gates opened and suddenly 2020 is filling up with more of the same. Planning for 2020 continues. It’s definitely big at the start and I do want to do more UK based races now I’ve signed up to so many overseas!
So 2020 beckons. 2019 is over and its the end of a decade. So let’s sum up my 2019 year with my best bits:
- Madeira – the ‘sea of clouds’. Pico Ruivo. Bliss. Madeira stole my heart. Never have I had so many jaw drop moments in a race.
- Lavaredo – stunning scenery around the Tri Cime is a beautiful sight.
- Matterhorn – Speaks for itself. That view with the waterfall. Wow. I’ll never forget that one.
- Transgran Canaria – mentally the toughest. I learnt a lot here. Physically it was tough too but this is still the race I’ve hit my lowest ebb in.
- Lavaredo – possibly the toughest physically what with the heat and the battered body I had afterwards. I needed a break after this one!
- Madeira – time per distance it was beyond anything else I’ve done. Says it all really. It’s fucking hard! Steep climbs. Temperamental weather.
- TDS – A beast to conquer. What a finish line atmosphere. I’m proud of this one.
- Being there with Nick as he popped his marathon and ultra cherries. What a boy. He’s thrown himself into the running and is going from strength to strength and it’s wicked being at his side when he achieves.
- Three in a row at SVP100. Wouldn’t have foreseen that 2 years ago when I lined up for the first time. The bug bit me hard
Best kit I’ve bought
- Inov8 Trailroc – Damn these shoes are tough. Multiple technical ultras finally beat them down though.
- Omm jacket – A post Christmas sale purchase. The sonic smock is possibly the lightest and smallest item I have. Great wind protection and a lifesaver during the cold night of MIUT. It’s so packable I literally take it everywhere.
- Inov8 jacket – I love this jacket, the Thermoshell. Another super lightweight item but with more insulation and perfect for cold and windy nights on the trail. I’m not sure I would have lasted in Poland without it!
Most overused bit of kit
- Inov8 Trailroc – They got me through all the big ones – TGC, MIUT, Lavaredo, TDS. I might not have feet left without them!
- Salomon S-lab Ultras – I’m still wearing them with their holes, tears and completely worn out lugs. They are my go to every day trail shoe. Still great though.
- Stance socks – I’ve so many. So many of them are now completely holey. My fist fits through holes on one pair. I still wear them though too.
Favourite race swag
- Trans Gran Canaria arm warmers – best arm warmers I have. Nice warm, stretchy material. No rubbery parts that itch your skin. Wicked design. So functional.
- Three star SVP Tee – I wanted this one. I love it.
- Lemkwoyna Ultra Trail – A cowbell medal and Columbia finishers top. Both just awesome and high quality.
- There is only one – Sam
Most repeating thought
- “Fuck that”
- “I ain’t running that”
- “What the fuck is that?”
Favourite trail snacks
- Tailwind especially now the cola flavour. Tailwind is my base nutrition. I constantly sip it between aid stations in races and use real food to provide the goods on top. Essential to be fuelling
- Chicken noodle soup. In particular that served during MIUT. So tasty. So salty. It was simply the best and I had so much of it.
- Oranges – juicy and refreshing.
- Matterhorn Sky race. It’s different. A hole in the middle. Simple design.
- Schiachee Trail. It’s local wood. It has meaning.
- Maverick original. It’s a solid weapon of the highest quality.
- Being Sonic and Tails at LoveTrails
- Flooded rivers with the crew in December. Waist high in freezing waters. A whole new experience
- Cheering and supporting at events. Its been great to be able to give back to those who support me when I race.
Most beneficial training
- Stairs. Vert in the city. Perfect.
- Hills. Regular. Irregular. Anyway you want them
- Night runs. People always question why. They say “it messes your body up”. I like to think of it as acclimatisation. Guess what people – what do you think ultra running does to you? Yep. It fucks your body up. So find a way to prepare for it.
To all those I’ve run with. To those I’ve promised but not yet delivered. To those who supported me. Cheered me. Assisted me. Believed in me. I thank you all. You’ve made this year extra special.
Ultra Nick He’s such a groovy guy Ultra Nick He’s running all the time. Running through the Forests Having lots of fun, Here comes Ultra Nick you know That he's the mighty one Ultra Nick, We think he's mighty fine Ultra Nick, A hero for all time
I’m not quite sure where the memory came from. One minute we are running along. The next I’m singing ‘Ultra Nick’ to the tune of Earthworm Jim. Nick recognised it straight away…
Saturday was full of memories and sharing. It was the Hurtwood 50. A local-ish and increasingly popular ultra marathon in the Surrey hills brilliantly run by Freedom Racing. This was Nick’s first ultra. Like his first marathon in Luxembourg just 6 months ago, I was stoked to be at his side. I love running with people and supporting them through such achievements.
A few weeks ago we ran in the Surrey Hills and Daryl who I met during the TDS joined us. It turns out that Daryl and Nick went to the same school and a few hours later we’d roped Daryl in to joining us at the Hurtwood also.
On the morning as we travelled down to Dorking, Jorge messaged to say he’d be at the start. He was combining his training with supporting us too. What a guy! Always so thoughtful and generous with his time. We rock up at the leisure centre and meet Jorge in the registration queue when some fella wanders over. Excitedly he proclaims “I’ve had a hair cut”! Bloody hell. It’s Daryl, only without his shoulder length hair. He’s had it chopped off after about 8 years for charity. Hero!
We stop by Rachel who is on duty volunteering at the registration and we say our hellos to her and the many other familiar faces like Derrick and Sarah we see before we head outside to join the start. Tom, the RD, gives the race briefing and talks about the community. Immediately it’s clear the importance such an event has when, after asking “hands up if this is your first ultra”, Hands all around us are thrown up into the air. It’s great to see. Little did they know what they were in for – The Hurtwood route is a fairly hilly and muddy one! Rachel was in charge of sending us off and, with a few loud blasts the air horn, off we trotted.
We had no real plan for this run. A vague finish time in mind that was realistic and challenging and the same time. I think it is important not to put pressure on yourself, particular for a first time doing something new – it is daunting and hard enough without putting expectations on yourself. Instead we’d run from checkpoint to checkpoint, treating each as a little run in itself. At the Hurtwood there are two checkpoint locations. As it is an ‘out and back’ course, you visit each one twice. Fairly evenly spaced out that makes it five 10k-ish sections.
The first section heads out towards Leith Hill and the tower. A few little inclines and declines are followed by a short single track section before a much longer, steady and shallow incline. Eventually, around 12km later you reach the short but steep climb to the Tower. The largest climb on the course. Along this section, with 300 runners, it was fairly busy, but you always had plenty of space. We briefly ran with Sarah before she sped on as we stopped for cake and crisps at the checkpoint.
The next section involves a number of rolling trails as you run through various forest tracks and reach the view points at Holmbury Hill and Pitch Hill. Beautiful views across the South await at both sections. We didn’t stay long at either though as the cold December morning presented plenty of chilly winds and each time we stopped we’d get cold quickly. Daryl in particular was feeling the cold on his ears, something he hadn’t felt for 8 years! About 18km Jorge said his goodbyes and turned around to head back. Then shortly after, at one of the car parks, we met Nick’s mum who’d once again come out to support him, just as she did in Luxembourg. It wasn’t long later that the leader (shortly followed by Second and Third place) sped past. We cheered them through.
As you reach the second check point the course splits. Here you do a loop, heading down through some stunning forest paths, lined with tall trees pointing up to the sky, before slowly climbing back towards Winterfell Woods. This section has a stint along some roads. Around this time we spent a little bit of time with Laura who I’ve followed on Instagram and always pops up at the same races. I later found out this was her 50th marathon/ultra. Half way to entry to the 100 Marathon club. What an achievement already!
Back at the second (now third!) checkpoint we scoffed more crisps and cake and joked with volunteers and runners alike. We were surprised to see some runners still arriving into the check point for the first time (including some ladies Nick recognised as teachers from his school) and I think this gave Nick a huge boost. Along the loop section though Nick had started to feel the pains of the run (which was already one of his longest trail runs to date), especially in his ankle. He was doing far better than he probably realised. Daryl and I were confident we were sitting comfortably in the ‘middle of the pack’ somewhere.
Fresh from the refuel, and after Daryl accidentally tried to send a runner back out on a second loop, we headed ‘back’ the way we came towards Dorking. We made some strong progress along this section and got to say hello to ‘Mum’ again too. Approaching the final checkpoint we stopped and tucked into the sandwiches the volunteers had kindly prepared. Cheese sandwiches were a welcome delight and we joked how none of us had eaten any of our own food – the spreads at each checkpoint were great (even if demand was putting pressure on the supply!). Once more we made the big climb to Leith hill and wasted no time running straight passed and down the other side. It was getting grey now and was far colder at the view point than it was earlier in the day.
As we left Leith Hill the sky turned dark and the rain began to fall. We were on the long steady decline now though and momentum was working in our favour. Despite our aches and pains we plodded on, racing the rain almost. The protection of the forest was enough to avoid us having to stop and layer up. The continuous running at this point started to take its toll on our tired legs and groans and moans became the soundtrack to our progress.
To Nick’s annoyance we weren’t yet done with the hills either. A few remained and each one increased the volume and frequency of the moaning. Variants of “fuck” were coming thick and fast and more combinations than I thought possible. I won’t even go into how his “ass hurts”. We gained several places and held off a few runners chasing us down too. Finally breaking free of the forest we arrived back into Dorking and had less than a mile to plod through the town, all slightly downhill. The volunteers ensured our safe passage across the streets as we hunted down one last runner. We got closer and closer before calling the decision to ease off. The finish was strong, but we were busting a gut now and it might have got messy at the finish if we sustained the effort any longer.
Rounding that final bend we pushed Nick forward toward that finish. Rachel, now on Medal duty, directed him in. Jorge screaming to the beat of the cow bell being rung by Nick’s Mum. Aimee cheering him in, me and Daryl whooping him on. He had his own entourage that dominated the finish line. His transformation was complete. Ultra Nick was born.
Afterwards we went to the pub. We stayed for quite a while and I for one was rather pissed when I left. I shouldn’t laugh, but one of the highlights was Jorge getting ‘egged’ as we left the pub. I heard the crack and just thought he’d stepped on an egg. But his leg was covered. I’m still laughing now. Sorry Jorge!
Whilst running the Hurtwood there were many thoughts bumping around in my mind and the conversation often revolved around experiences. First times, subsequent times. Things we’ve learnt along the way. Thanks Nick was experiencing and going through in the moment. Daryl is an experienced ultra runner and we shared many similar views and experiences about what we’ve encountered on our journeys and adventures. Be that the way people talk to us, the way we feel, the things we look forward too, the techniques we use to avoid succumbing to the pains and darkness etc. We saw some of these in Nick too. Particularly the hurt and the pain. The way he felt every change in elevation. the impact of the mud or the roots. We took joy in it. Lots of Joy. Having been there and done that, it filled us with amusement and plenty of laughter. As much as I love running and supporting people, the sadist in me also loves being there to laugh as they fall, as they moan, as they suffer. I can’t help but enjoy that too!
I started this blog saying I’m not sure where the memory of Earthworm Jim came from. What I do recall is what triggered the memory. Before the race, as motivation, and then again towards the finish line, I referred to Nick as ‘Ultra Nick’. The way I said it rhymed easily with the tune. But why did I say it? I was thinking of the evolution. The variations of ourselves and the changes we go through as part of hobbies, passions, life events. Specifically with running, how, after each achievement we become a new version of ourselves. We ‘join a club’ as they say, and become another number who has done something specific.
What are those version of ourselves for running? It could be anything you want really. It could be based on distances, emotions, achievements, memories, ambitions. Absolutely anything. It is unique to you and not defined. Thinking about Nick, and the running we’ve done together in the last two years, the versions and transformations I imagined were:
- Nick 1.0 – Nick the Casual Runner – he ran occasionally. He didn’t need much persuasion to join me for a run but it was down low on his priorities.
- Nick 2.0 – Nick the Frequent Runner – Something changed, he was running more often and further each time. The London Burger Run became a regular in his diary.
- Nick 3.0 – Nick the Half Marathoner – Several halves later he’s running regular half marathons each month. Things are escalating quickly.
- Nick 4.0 – Nick the Enjoyment Seeker – Running has become fun. It’s no longer a chore. He’s organising, coaxing and leading others, supporting them on their own running trajectories.
- Nick 5.0 – Nick the Marathoner – He’s popped his cherry. He’s a mixer of emotions and thoughts and ambitions. More marathons are scheduled, there’s no turning back now.
- Nick 6.0 – Nick the running addict – He wants it all. He’s signing up to all sorts. He’s pushing, he’s challenging, the change is going exponential
- Nick 7.0 – Ultra Nick – … He’s running all the time.
I’m not crazy
I’m not crazy, I’m privileged.
- I’m privileged that I can. That I’m capable of running.
- I’m privileged that I have the means and motive to run. That I want to run.
- I’m privileged that I don’t have any restrictive illnesses or impediments to running. That I’m able to run.
- I’m privileged that I’m supported by friends and family. That I’m encouraged to run.
- I’m privileged that my lifestyle enables me to run. That I enjoy running.
But why am I telling you this? It’s a reaction. Life is full of comparisons, expectations and assumptions. Sometimes they are frustrating. I can’t deny that on occasions they’ve frustrated me a little too. Conversations with strangers, acquaintances, friends and even loved ones become repetitive and frankly a sometimes a little annoying.
There are words, phrases, sentences and the way conversations are constructed that, whilst well intentioned, can have a negative connotation. “You’re crazy”, “you need to slow down”, “you’re going to hurt yourself”, “how do you do it?”, “how many races have you done now” are a few that have that effect on me.
‘Crazy’ is a word bandied around like other sayings that I think can play down achievements and come across (to me) as sort of negative and backhanded compliment. Almost like you have no belief in someone’s ability, that they are naive or stupid, that you are questioning what they do and what they are capable of. Sometimes I wonder if they are they covering a person’s own insecurities, failings and fears? That’s the critic in me thinking. They are similar to phrases like ‘you’ve lost weight’, ‘you look skinny’, ‘you look tired’. They can go so far the other way from a compliment that you give the recipient a new complex.
So, I’m not crazy.
No one knows their own body like one’s self. It’s true. We all know when something is not right or actually when we feel fantastic. No doctor or diagnosis can tell you that, it’s a gut feeling. No one knows the strength and depth of our own mindset. Our own determination to achieve and succeed is limited only by our minds. Not someone else’s.
So I’ll just say that, whilst I’m still very inexperienced as a runner, I know what I’m doing.
- I know what the consequences of what I’m doing are and I’m at ease with them (one example being I believe that, as a runner, injury is inevitable at some point regardless).
- I know what I can and cannot do.
- I know where my strengths and weaknesses are, and I utilise them both.
- I know what to do to empower myself and set myself up for success. I’m not doing this blindly, I work hard and I prepare.
- I know it can’t last for ever, that it isn’t sustainable, so I’m doing what I can, what I want, while I can.
- I know all those privileges I have can change at any time for reasons of my own doing or those out of my control. So I’m doing what I want before I have responsibilities and life changes that impede me.
- I know one day I’ll lose the love. Lose the passion. So I’m enjoying the ride (run?) Before that happens and before I stop enjoying running.
Why am I so confident? How do I know I can with such certainty? Because my approach is different (although not original, it is probably different to yours anyway). My mindset is different too. I live a very active lifestyle but I don’t run that much really. Not in terms of frequency anyway, once maybe twice a week if that. And the intensity is low, very low. I don’t push myself, test myself or challenge myself in that regard. I run slow. I run consistent. I run relaxed. I run to enjoy. I run with a smile on my face. The strain on my body is far, far less than you’d probably think. The recovery involves many more ‘off’ days than any plan you might follow. There is no intense training cycle.
I think we should all think a little more before we respond to someone with a potentially disbelieving comment. Caring is great and welcomed but think how the message is portrayed and delivered. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. We don’t know what the other can or can’t do. Advice is great, advice based on experience and wisdom is greatly appreciated and heeded. But the worrying and throw away comments, they aren’t so great, they aren’t empowering. So be positive in how you respond to someone. Be encouraging.
I’m not crazy. I know what I’m doing…
Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb
In the week leading up to the race, conversations with colleagues and acquaintances have typically gone…
“See you next week”
“Oh, are you going away?”
“Yeah, to Poland “
“What are you doing there?”
“How far? Are you doing a marathon?”
“No, it’s a little further, 150km”
“Oh, nice. How many days are you doing that over?”
The conversations tend to just end there. That’s been fairly typical this year. If you’re not interested in running you won’t know. You won’t understand what is feasible or not. It may sound ridiculous but 24 hours is a long time, you can achieve a lot in that time and in the world of trail running, covering 100-150 km of mountainous terrain is very, very feasible. You don’t even have to run that fast or even run that much and can walk a lot of it. Much of it is in your head and, as always, I think it comes down to mental strength.
And so, off to Poland I was. To the Beskid mountains. I came here last year, to the Lemkowyna Ultra Trail, and did the 48 km was event. Now I was back for the big one, the 150 km… Last year was a treat. The event is billed as a muddy one with the strap line “enjoy the mudness”. In 2018 though freakish weather meant we had a glorious sunny dry day and very little mud. All that was to change on 2019. The weeks leading up to the event had seen plenty of rain and mud was once again on the cards.
This posed a challenge. How would my legs cope with the fatigue induced from running in mud? What kit would I need, What shoes? How long might it realistically take? It’s a 3 hour bus back to the start once I’m finished, what else will I need when I’m finished? I left the planning there. Things mostly out of my control. I’ve more than enough kit to cope with the majority of situations now so I decided not to worry anymore.
The race itself, it drained me. In a different sort of way. I was tired. I enjoyed it. I didn’t think and recall the journey as I normally do. I didn’t put the effort into mentally tracing my steps. It was all very similar and so I can’t recall and write about the adventure like I have in many other races. What I do remember though is many of the thoughts I pondered along the way. The things that came into and out of my mind…
- As I left the house at 11pm, the group sent me off with one final Polish lesson. Kurczak, Ziemniaki, Chleb. All I needed for the aid stations!
- The start was subdued. Runners casually making there way out of the meeting point and to the start. Whilst I chatted with fellow English speakers Mike and Alice, the race just started. No music. No countdown. Just a casual movement which became a run.
- The polish countryside is stunning. I thought this last year too. Covering 150 km is a great way to experience it. Rolling hills. Views of idyllic castles, churches and houses. Little farming villages, streams and fields were the order of the day.
- It was peaceful. Very peaceful. Less than 500 runners started and were out on the 100/150 km course. I was alone for a long time and I liked it.
- There’s always a point at night where you stop, turn around and gasp at the trail of head torches behind you. This race was no different and the moon was glowing with them. beautiful.
- There are different levels of mud. At some point no amount of grip or technical footwear will help you. Slipping and sliding is inevitable and managing how you do it becomes critical.
- I slipped about 4 or 5 times. I never trip or fall when running. The mud got me and I was hands and bum down more than I liked.
- Hot soup is great. Hot chicken soup is greater. Hot chicken noodle soup is the greatest.
- Spiced pumpkin soup is special.
- It was cold. Very cold. I ran the whole of the night sections with a jacket. I’ve not need to do that before.
- The Inov8 Thermoshell is an incredible piece of kit. I bought it a few weeks earlier and this was the first run I’d done in it. It was very lightweight, warm and breathable. I put it on again the next night and was immediately snug once more. Possibly my new favourite piece of kit.
- Warm fires at night are bliss. Having a few minutes at a checkpoint camp next to a blazing hot fire is lush.
- Polish runners are so considerate and thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask anyone to let me pass them and no one tried to kill me with their poles. They were keen to chat and understanding when I couldn’t reply.
- Muddy steep hills were challenging, especially to descend. Trying to do that in wetter conditions would have been terrifying. We were lucky it wasn’t wet during the race itself.
- There was a long climb at the top of which was a wooden structure. It reminded me of the church Sandor Clegane helped build in Game of Thrones. I sat on a bench and looked at it for about ten minutes.
- Hallucinations. First time I’ve had it. Only briefly in the last 30 km. I saw the most spectacular crystal chandelier above me glistening in the light. As I got closer I realised it was the moon and the trees flickering in the wind!
- Caffeine kick. For the first time I drank coffee during a run. 15 km from the end I was drowsy and nodding off as I hobbled along. I knocked back a coffee and then doubled up on caffeine (Tropical) Tailwind. I was buzzing and ran most of the last 15 km or so. I was wired. I ran through the pains I had.
- Apples. I’ve not had them at a race before. Smashing stuff. Crunchy. Juicy. Tasty. Easy to eat. Sugary. I like apples. My forth favourite fruit (after pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit if you just know).
- Cup of coke? I went for a bowl of coke. Game changer. Fuzztastic. Gulp gulp gulp. Belch.
- Polish churches are architecture masterpieces. Sounds like ‘costu’ in English.
- The ‘middle’ sections of these long races feel like the longest parts.
- I constantly checked and tried to trace my way using the elevation profile on my bib. I mis-judged it so many times. Hills don’t look like hills on a 150 km route profile picture!
- The silence of the night was disturbed only by the mass barking of dogs locked up away from the runners. Miles away from villages you could hear the dogs!
- Memory is an incredible thing. The last 48km was so clearly memorable to me. Only the order of trails/sights/memories was a little jumbled.
- Damn windy. Head winds whilst hiking up mountains is not easy. I was pissed off when a group of runners clearly used me as a wind shield. I didn’t blame them though.
- Pictures – I took less. Whilst it was beautiful to see all around, the landscape was similar and too darn cold to keep fishing out my camera.
- The last 48 km I latched onto a group of four runners. I used them (it might have been those that used me in the windy parts?!) My mind was going and collectively they were strong. I sat back and when they ran, I ran. When they walked, I walked. I used them. Until I took the coffee and my mind fired up again and I left them in my caffeine trail.
- I visualised my body working. Buses driving messages from my brain to my body. Loads of tiny workers shovelling the food I consumed into a burning fire engine like a steam train. My legs like two grumpy trees telling me they were in pain. Functioning.
- I visualised the finish I always do. I could see myself crossing that finish line. Celebrating. This time I saw exactly how – A chicken dance. I did eventually do the chicken dance I thought about for so many hours.
- Tamas running passed me before 70 km. So strong. He started an hour after me! What a legend.
- Runners drinking beer at 82 km. How?! Talk about stereotypes.
- The realisation at 60 km that I was no where near halfway through. That was tough.
- The disappointment when my Suunto went bezerk and at 82 km I thought I’d done 86 km.
- The count down by comparable races. Only a TDS to go. Only a TGC to go… A Lavaredo to go… A MIUT to go… A CCC to go… A Brecon Beacons to go… A Cinque Terra to go… A marathon to go… A Wild TR weekend run to go… A run to work to go… A park run to go. I don’t even do park runs. Fuuuck when will this end.
- Running 100 miles is an incredible achievement. I’m still 15 km off that. Wow. So much respect for those achievers now. Those who have the strength to even start and those who persevere to the end. So inspiring.
- Leaving a message for Julian and Astrid whose wedding I was missing. The words were in my head but I’m not sure what I bumbled down the phone.
- At the finish I was shattered. Momentarily I fell asleep on a bench.
- I like polish food!
The race itself…
- It’s is exceptionally well marked. Tape and reflective signage every few metres. You can’t get lost (although others somehow did!?!).
- It is superbly organised (just like the year before). With 5 different races starting and ending at different locations, this is not an easy feat. Lemkowyna make it seem effortless. As a non-Polish speaker, it’s very easily negotiated (OK, we had Polish speakers in our group but I’d be comfortable attempting it myself).
- The volunteers went out of their way to help you. Not only filling bottles and serving you but sitting you down and fetching you things. All things.
- The volunteers and support were amazing. Big shout out the the man I met at the 82 km mark and chatted too and whom came to find me at each checkpoint there after to talk to me and see how I was getting on. So thoughtful!
- The bell medal. Unique. Now I have two.
- The finishers top (150 km finishers) is great too. High quality Columbia kit.
- Finish line food – an abundance. Healthy, vegetarian, meaty, local specialities. They had it all.
- The trails were mostly forest paths. Soft and not too ‘rooty’. There were a lot of long road sections also.
- The aid stations are about 20 km apart which is longer than most races. There’s nowhere to get water in between. I carried 1.5 l at all times and was thankful I did.
- There were two ‘bonus’ aid stations with water and some other supplies towards the end. A very welcome surprise!
What else do I remember? Support and friendship. That’s what. I’ve said this a few times over the last year. Friends and companions on such adventures is a huge boost. The joking, the laughter, the shared panics and emotions. The common understanding of what you need and don’t need. The different approaches, advice and learnings. Not being alone. The achievement of succeeding is one thing, but sharing it with others is something else. I was spoilt with such a special group. They took control. They looked after me. Cooked for me. Cleaned after me. Ordered for me. Drove me about. Waited and cheered me. Travelled 50 km in the wrong direction and waited for hours for me. Forever and constantly I am in their debt. Their support and friendship is mind blowing. Daisy and Claire called it out, making new friends as adults is strange and often not easy (the innocence of childhood friendships is lost as you grow older…). But through running I’ve met people with similar characteristics, traits and mindsets and we’ve bonded over the most memorable experiences together.
Whilst I was out in the polish countryside, there were a lot of other runs and running achievements happened the same weekend and conversations I had with others summed up my own experience this weekend. This snippet from Sarah said it all… “...Like a roller coaster, so many highs and lows but we rally through to the end. The things we put ourselves through for fun, and I have to say it was fun…“. We find our enjoyment…
The Enchanted Adventure
Whilst In Ireland for a wedding, Nick and I wanted a run. He was two weeks out from the Amsterdam marathon and I was flying out to Poland the following week for my next and (once again!) biggest challenge to date – 150km of the Lemkowyna ultra trail. Nick plotted a route of about 20km along the roads and we were set for Sunday morning, the day after the wedding. I wanted something different though. I wanted onto the local trails. So we did the run on the Saturday morning, pre-wedding, and I planned to go and do the 33km of the Foxford Way Loop on the Sunday. After such a great run on Saturday, Nick wanted in too, despite needing to be at the airport for 14:00.
With heavy heads and tired eyes we woke early and set out about 7am to follow the. routed I’d plotted on the Suunto 9. We drove to the nearest town, Foxford, where we could leave the car with our checked out luggage and loop back at the finish. We weren’t 100% sure of where the route should start so we parked up near the Centra in Foxford and set out in an anti-clockwise direction. We picked this direction as we knew the last 8km so from the run the day before and, if struggling for time, this would be useful knowledge and experience. A short jog along the main road and we were able to turn off onto the tracks…
The Foxford Way is intermittently marked with a trail sign – a yellow arrow and human hiker-figure. Mostly found on fence posts and markers about waist height. I say intermittently as they didn’t mark specific turns or intersections. Sometimes we’d go for a few kilometres without seeing any.
We set out up the N26 and soon turned right after a Mother of Mary shrine on the side of the road. The path began to climb and morning began to break. The climb was a wide, semi-pathed track and it wasn’t long before we reached the top and the path continued rolling across the hills and countryside. It was a chilly but dry morning and we could see we were going to in for a treat with spectacular views over West Ireland.
After a few Km we reached a Lake (Louch Muck) and followed the path to the right passed some beautiful houses with unobstructed views of the lake. The path was again wide and semi-pathed as it led around the lake, into some forests and beyond.
After a little while we reached the N26 again, crossed over and continued up a country road for a little while. We soon encountered our first challenge. As the route led us off the tarmac track and onto some wild and un-maintained tracks. The trail markers reassured us that we were going the right way and we took a moment to enjoy the stunning views as the sun began to shine. We were then presented with a very overgrown route.
The thorns and hedges, soaked with the morning dew, dew reached our knees and thighs and running became almost giraffe like. With high knees. The ground and foliage covered with a white layer of spider webs glistening in the dew. We were slowed to a fast walk. Maybe a km of this path was enough to frustrate us but I was hopeful it was a one-off and just a little used section of the loop.
The route followed some clear track again and we were walking up the road munching on flavoured KitKats when we noticed we were a little off course. Back tracking we found the path again – another overgrown route. We sighed and high-kneed it onward.
We came across another trail fence post with the way markers indicated. But we were momentarily confused as there were two different ways indicated. One across a make shift wooden plank bridge across a stream into a forest, the other straight on behind a tied up rusty cattle gate, into a tree-lined path, shaded from the sun’s reach. The watch said forward and so we climbed the gate and continued.
We soon cane to a halt as I exclaimed “Fuuuuuuck” and stopped. I’d lifted my head and glanced forward and saw, what looked to me like, a little girl, standing there in high-white socks and her long blond hair covering her face and shoulders. Just standing there, silently staring at us and not moving. Nick stopped and swore too as we quickly realised it wasn’t a little spooky girl but a small stumpy pony. As I went to photo it it ran towards us. It ran funny and looked a bit poorly cared for. It loved us and the attention though.
After petting the pony we realised we’d run passed the ‘turn off’. There was no turn though, so I started jogging back to the gate and the pony started chasing after me, excited to play. Nick leaped over the stream and escaped to the forest. I carried on slowly.
As I climbed the gate and headed across the wooden plank bridge Nick acknowledged he was stuck the other side of a farming ‘rope’ fence and another stream. We carried on along our separate sides and the pony ran off and left us. The route was on track, but it was no path and we just stumbled out way through the forest!
The forest looked enchanted and was littered with farming rope as the sun shone through the trees in the distance. The ropes ran both parallel and perpendicular to us and we climbed over and ducked under to continue, Nick to my left navigating his own route. To my right I could hear the ‘tick tick’ clicking of the rope dividers. They were electrified. As I looked up I momentarily freaked myself again as the pony was up ahead galloping (in its own funny way) through the forest towards me. Where and how it arrived I do not know. I petted it more and carried on weaving through the electrified roping. A fence post confirmed the right way but oddly, it didn’t match the route on my watch.
As I climbed over the last rope divider blocking my way, Nick arrived, in style. As he ducked under a rope fence he slipped and became stuck. I laughed as he limbo’d to free his bag from the rope with his feet sliding apart in the mud. The pony didn’t make a sound. As Nick freed himself I warned him about the electric fence. He discarded it claiming it wasn’t and he’d been touching them. To demonstrated this he grabbed the rope and immediately screamed and jumped about. Yep. I was right.
We continued in the direction of the signpost and emerged into a garden, well, field (it’s Ireland!). But the rope dividers continued. The route said we needed to first go diagonally across the land before joining a more prominent path and head left. There was no path across the field though so we walked to the farm building and across the land. I was hesitant knowing this was someone’s property and was glad to climb the boundary wall and hop onto the main path. We sighed some relief and then a dog came.
It was an old dog. Wheezing. Not barking. It wanted attention. So much attention, sitting on our feet. It moaned and wheezed and pushed against us when we tried to continue. Then it barked a loud screechy wheezy bark and wouldn’t shut up. We ran on. I looked back as we ran and saw a figure behind us standing on the track and watching us run away. It was some form of ‘heritage centre’ (‘Hennigan’s Heritage Centre’) but seemed almost abandoned and lacking any Heritage (to a passer by!). Either way, a little freaked out by the figure and conscious our trail through the ‘enchanted’ forest had cost us some time we ran fast along a country lane whilst many more aggressive dogs barked from within their fenced gardens. Thankfully unable to get at us!
After a short incline the path again indicated a turn to the right and the start of the second highest climb of our run. Again, despite the sign posting, the path was not feasible. Overgrown and thorny to at least waist height. We couldn’t go up it so instead we climbed a wall into the field running alongside, cautiously acknowledging the sign saying “beware, bull in field”.
We stuck as close to the path as best we could but it was far easier to walk parallel to it in the field. Whilst we would have needed a machete to navigate the path, we instead had to navigate lumpy boggy fields as we hiked to the top. Our feet were already wet but now so too we’re our legs from the knees down. There was no way to avoid the bogs.
As we traced alongside the wall ‘up’ we contended with the water-logged bogs and lumpy divets. The climb was slow but we kept going, occasionally turning around to absorb the views behind us. The higher we climbed, the worse it became though and we’d occasionally go right back to the overgrown track to confirm the directions.
Eventually we reached a wall by some old ruins and climbed over onto the most mainstream of roads we’d seen for quite some time (still a country lane). We turned right and ran on. We came upon a collection of houses and ran passed another trail marking. It indicated the path would turn left sooner than the map on my watch indicated. Whilst I went ahead and checked it out, Nick made a new friend. Another dog, black and shaggy (like ol’ wheezy’ only much younger’). I came back as the point the watch was suggesting was far less accessible than the area indicated by the trail sign.
We spent a few moments petting the dog which was silent and attentive with these big dark brown eyes that pierced you. We decided to trust the sign post best and climbed a wall to get onto the indicated route. We were back up to our knees in foliage yet again. Then we weren’t alone. The dog had come with us. He bounded through the wet grasses and stopped up ahead as if showing us the way.
We kept trying to send he dog back but it wouldn’t. I was glad of the dog at this point. The route again was not clear and the dog became the marker. It was like he knew the way we needed to go and was helping to guide us. It was a little surreal but a huge insight to a dog’s mind. I believed it was telling us to follow him.
We continued on like his for the whole climb. A long climb. As we reached the top, soaked through from the waist down, we again tried to send the dog back. Sam, we called it Sam, was having none of it. So on we continued together. Again, I was thankful as we began to descend the hill as it was all off track and lumpy and muddy. The track was not clear or available at all. But Sam saw a way through and we followed. The last part of the climb was through a field covered and glistening with webs. Sam bounded through without a care in the world.
After what felt like ages of climbing and descending we reached a wide drive-able track. We tried to run on and recoup some time. As we struck a rhythm we turned left onto a slightly less mainstream track, still runnable though. We tried once more to ditch Sam. We failed. I looked back and saw the mountain (hill really) behind us becoming a distant shadow. I worried Sam wouldn’t get back. Nick was thinking the same and despite my protests was already planning how we’d return the dog. Whilst I was trying to put us first, I knew he was right – We had to get Sam home safely after the run.
The path opened into a small area of houses and buildings. Many being built. Many not looking that nice. A community. There were lots of dogs. Some looked aggressive. Some barked and began chase. Sam wasn’t phased. No comment. No sound. Just ran on ahead, guiding his “humans”. We were glad to get away from that area and all the dogs.
We hit a stream and whilst Sam refreshed we untied an old pallet crate makeshift fence and continued. I thought we’d lose him here, but to my surprise, Sam figured a way around and continue with us. At that point I accepted he be staying with us.
The path was over grown and we climbed gradually with the boggy, unclear track. Then a house. It felt once more like we were on someone’s land, but up ahead some metal steps had been built over the stone wall to guide the way. Once over, Sam was there looking at us wondering what went wrong and why we’d taken so long. Onward we went, to the right we climbed. A little more. Always a little more.
The track opened and we ran down. A nice section of wide trail paths that was very runnable. The views were beautiful. Sam up ahead. Every few hundred metres he was turning around and looking to see if we were following. At the bottom the biggest climb was about to begin. Now the green steps over the walls were marking the way. We went over, Sam went around. The route again was overgrown. My feet we’re wet and cold. My legs scratched to shit from all the brambles. We were embracing it though. Up and over this ‘mountain’. 200m. A baby. Head down and march on. Sam, diligently as ever kept stopping and waiting. Or running back and sitting at our feet. Eyes wide open, want a pat on the head. I desperately wanted to feed and water him but my fuel for the day was High5 isotonics and KitKats – not dog friendly!!
Eventually we reached the top and stopped to take pictures. Sam was all over this. Jumping on the rocks to join us and pose. A well deserved break and a moment to enjoy what the run has amounted too. A really off road adventure and a new friend too!
With time on our mind we cracked on. We now had less time than we’d planned. Whilst the run has taken longer than planned (with wrong turns, animal encounters and navigating around the unfeasible paths we’d added about 30 mins to our conservative estimate) we now had to taxi our new friend home also. We had no idea how long this might take but we knew we couldn’t abandon him now. He hadn’t left us for a close to two hours at this point. We picked up the pace and began to ran. Soon we were walking again though – the descent was very boggy and we were slipping all over the place.
Eventually we reached a pathed track and recognised the area from the previous day’s run. We knew where we were now. Soon the main road appeared and we had to control Sam as we crossed and ran a short distance along the country lanes with cars zipping passed.
Taking side roads Sam started to attract attention from more dogs (did everyone own dogs in this part of Ireland?!?) and took a particular shine to a dog being carried by two girls. Like a ‘dutiful owner’ I had to go back and drag Sam away. Whilst they were OK with the encounter, Sam didn’t look too impressed with me!
The final straight soon appeared and we knew we just had to run to the end of the road. One more obstacle though – the road was closed. Fenced off for building works. Bollocks. It was a bit of a trek back to circumnavigate around the road works so we made the decision to climb around the fencing, coaxing Sam to join us. We ran through the closed road, passed the Wollen Mill and arrived back where we started.
We realised we’d left the car unlocked (with all our stuff in it) and as soon as we popped the boot Sam jumped in. He didn’t stay long before leaping back out and seemingly wanted to play with the traffic instead, refusing to get back in until Nick picked him up. How he had so much energy left I don’t know – Sam ran with us for 18km and some 2.5 hrs!
Where he Ra
Nick started driving while I sat in back Sync-ing the activity from my watch and looking for where I thought we picked Sam up. Thankfully the unclear trail turning and climb were giveaways and I found where I paced up and down looking for the path and where we zigzagged up the mountain following Sam. Found it! 5 miles later we were at the houses where we met Sam, near a place called Cornageltha. We picked the house we thought he appeared from and Nick knocked on the door…
A little old lady came out, confirmed Sam was hers and laughed when she saw him sitting in the car. We let Sam out and he sat at my feet whilst we talked to the lady. She told us his name was Rocky. She explained he always goes off with strangers and walkers and that neighbours normally call her when he is found and that her brother has to go out and collect him from wherever he has decided to stop. She thanked us for looking after him and bringing him home. He jumped up and hugged us as we said good bye. We got into the car and made to leave.
As we left I overheard her talking to Rocky. She said something along the lines of “why do you always do this” pleading with him not to keep running off with strangers. “what will I do without you”. She questioned. I almost cried…
Trail Notes / Directions (Anti-Clockwise Loop)
The route – Foxford Way Loop
We used http://www.mayowalks.ie to identify the loop and a visual representative from http://www.mayowalks.ie/media/Media,14140,en.pdf. A more detailed route can be found on Open Street Map – https://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/2859131.
The Foxford Way Loop is described as “a 33km long route, with the Ox Mountains on one side and the Nephin Mountain on the other; it is one of Mayo’s finest walks. Along the route a rich rich variety of flora and fauna and an exceptional archaeological and historical content is to be expected.” The terrain of the route will include bogs (wish we’d paid attention to that before hand!), mountains, rivers and lakes and breath-taking scenery to delight. This we can vouch for!
We decided to do the Loop in an anti-clockwise direction, although there seems to be no guidance as to the benefits of doing the loop in either orientation.
The Start / Finish – Foxford
Whilst http://www.mayowalks.ie describes the official start/finish point as being located in Foxford “beside the children’s playground in a car park just off the N26” we found this a little vague. So we parked up and started/finished on the N26 outside the ‘Centra’ shop, right in the middle of Foxford near the Wollen Mill.
We’ve split the trail notes into a few sections to provide guidance for anyone wanting to follow the route.
Section 1 – “Lough Muck” (Foxford to Lismorane). Distance from Start approx. 5.6 miles
From the Start in Foxford, the first section loops South from the N26, around Lough Muck before re-joining and crossing the N26 again just passed Lismorane.
From the Centra we headed East along the N26 in the direction of Swinford. The initial route ran alongside the N26 for about 0.8 of a mile. There is no pavement nor path for the majority of this section and we ran along the dotted lined/verge of the road. The turn off the N26 (on the right hand side of the road) was just after a religious shrine/monument and opposite “Noorey Park” road.
The trail here was wide and semi-pathed. It initially climbs to a height of about 400ft alongside the peak of Carranarah. The path continues in a South-Easterly direction from the N26 for about 1.5 miles before reaching Lough Much. From here the Trail continues South then in an Easterly direction (about 3.5 miles) until it reaches the N26 again. This whole section was well signposted with undulating trails. Easy to walk and run for all abilities.
Section 2 – “Cornageltha” N26 (Lismorane) to Cornageltha. Distance from Start approx. 11.2 miles
When the trail meets the N26 again just passed Lismorane, follow the N26 in an Eastern direction (again towards Swinford). Again, there is no pavement along this section of a busy road. Take the first left onto the ‘unnamed’ road after about 0.3 miles along the N26.
Follow the pathed road for about 0.5 miles (gradual incline) and turn right at the intersection. After about 0.7 miles of semi-pathed, down hill track, turn left. This section is single track and very un-maintained. The foliage was overgrown at waist height, the ground very lumpy and soft underfoot. The path continues like this for approximately one mile, emerging onto a small country road labelled “Graffy” in a North-Westerly direction.
Take the first right turn after about 0.2 miles along the Graffy. There should, almost immediately, be a trail heading off to the left of the path. This is signposted by the Yellow arrow/Hiker. Again this path is un-maintained and a little difficult to spot.
After about 0.3 miles the trail splits. There are two signs marked for the route, one straight beyond a closed and tied rusty farm gate, the other to the right across a small stream into a forest. Both probably lead to the same way, but the route to the right through the forest seems a better choice, if not a little ‘off-piste’. The forest is marked with electrified cattle rope and at the end you can see the yellow route / trail marker.
The route emerges from the forest into the fields/grounds of the Hennigan’s Heritage Centre. Leave the grounds and join the road ‘Rubble’. After approximately 0.5 miles, turn left at the road intersection onto Tiernunny. Follow the country road for 1 mile and then turn ‘Right’, shortly after the village of Derrynamuch, at the trail marker.
The section here is approximately 0.5 miles long. The official route indicates you should climb approximately 200ft along a marked route lined by a wall. You can see the route, however it is completely un-maintained and overgrown with brambles and (as of Oct 2019) not feasible to navigate along. We climbed a small, waist high, wall into the field (noting the sign warning “Beware of Bull” and made the climb through the field alongside the overgrown path. Whilst the field is easy to navigate (just keep heading ‘up’) it is very ‘lump’ and full of stream water and boggy. The Bogs in some places were knee height.
At the top of the climb you join the country road “Carrownedin” (just east of the village of Cornageltha) and head to the right/East for about 0.5 miles until you reach a small collection of houses on your right hand side and fields on your left. There should be a Trail marker/signpost indicating the route continues through the fields on the left.
Section 3 – “Carha” Cornageltha to Carha. Distance from Start approx. 17.5 miles
Cross/climb the stone wall into the fields inline with the trail marker. Whilst the path is not obvious and the fields are overgrown to about shin height with long grass, the way is clear – straight up!
Stick to the right-hand side of the field you start in and follow it for about 0.5 miles to a highest point of about 700ft. Be sure to look around and enjoy the views on this climb! There are 3 or 4 trail posts dotted along the climb that are visible and will aid directions.
When you reach the highest point, you should see a drop ahead towards a country road and a lake in the North-West direction. Again the way down is not particularly clear but you can see a feint boggy track leading down towards the country road and a few more trail markers will help reach it safely.
Once you reach the road the next part is easily navigated – Follow the ‘un-named’ road North and it will soon split. Take the left/West track and stick to it. The track here is semi-pathed and wide.
After a little more than 1.5 miles you’ll reach a (skewed) crossroad. Continue straight across (West direction) for another mile before reaching an intersection and turning left towards the village of ‘Muckroe’.
The trail markers will soon be visible, and you’ll take a left turn off the country road back onto single track trails. From here the route climbs to its highest point of approximately 830ft. The path is clearly navigated, first through boggy fields with occasional green metal step ladders to enter/exit the fields. After the field section the route continues up the climb through open countryside. Again trail markers are occasionally visible to navigate by. After about 1 mile of climbing you’ll reach the summit.
From here the path down towards Carha is visible and clear. Easy to follow with occasional trail markers the whole way. It is very ‘lump’ soft ground with plenty of bogs to enjoy.
After another mile and descending approximately 500ft you’ll reach a country lane (again not labelled) and turn left towards Carha about 0.3 miles away.
Section 4 – “Home stretch” Carha to Foxford distance approx. 21.8 miles
As you reach Carha, take the first left, continuing on the same unnamed country lane. Follow this lane for about 1.5 miles due South-West. You’ll reach an intersection of a main road (which runs parallel to the N26). Cross the road and keep left, taking the split of the road which heads further South-West towards the River Moy.
After 1 mile turn Right towards the village of Rinnaney. Follow the road left through the village then take the first right. After 0.3 miles turn left onto Green Road.
Follow Green road for just over a mile along the River Moy as it becomes Lower Main Street. Here you will pass the Foxford Wollen Mill, Leisure Centre and return to the N26 Swinford Road where it all started.
Blah Blah Blah
Earlier in the year James asked me if I wanted to join him for the Tallinn marathon. I was hesitant. A week after TDS, after a fairly jam-packed August. Hhhm. Maybe not. Then Luxembourg happened and it was frikken great. Bobby and Nick went and signed up to Tallinn immediately. I soon had the FOMO and was signing up to join them. After all, a trip to a new country and exploring a city whilst doing what I love…
Fast forward a few weeks and Bobby and Nick have both pulled out. Bastards. Suddenly I’m heading out with an unnecessarily expensive hotel booking (I could have shared a dorm for cheaper but I’m such a princess and don’t like sharing around a long run, I need some space!). James was still there but I’d missed the chance to jump in with him and his mates.
Anyway, August is done though, 3 big races conquered, all went better than I’d even hoped. Considering what I’ve achieved, I feel bloody good. Yeah sure, a few aches and pains and the ankles are still feeling a little brittle, but I feel great. I’m heading into Tallinn without a care in the world. My mind is clear and I’m ready to kick back, relax, run and enjoy the experience. No pressure. All I need to do is control it when I start running. I’ll ‘run to feel’ though and don’t imagine I’ll be feeling a fast run, so that’s good. It’s also a special weekend in Tallinn with celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary and it’s also the 30th edition of the marathon. So there is plenty going on.
It was a 9am start on a Sunday and I’m staying just minutes from the start . I’m not used to such luxury and take full advantage by staying in bed untill 8 and being very casual. I meet James and Chris just before 9 and we head down to the starting pens. We are briefly separated as they go to B and I’m ushered to C but some confusion just before the start sees the two pens merge into one.
There’s a lot of runners and, as we are given the green light to go, we start plodding down the cobble streets of the old town. Tallinn is a small place and the route will see us leave the old town, head to Seaplane Harbour, out of town with various bendy turns and switchbacks before heading back towards, and finishing in, the Old Town under the Viru Gates.
The roads were wide and many had been closed off for the event so there was no fighting for space. We soon settled into a rhythm of around 6 min/km and chatted away as we began our sightseeing adventure. It wasn’t long before we reached the first water station (and every water station infact as they were only about 3km away from each other!). We all made the mistake of trying the salty bread – dry traditional Estonian black bread sprinkled with salt. It was, of course, salty! Much water was then needed!
After passing through Seaplane Harbour and then several residential streets (with some fascinating architecture of old traditional buildings mixed with modern apartments) we ran through a long main Street. There was an old lady hanging out of her window banging a saucepan which made us laugh. We then ran through what would be the first of many parks and green spaces.
A little further on was a real highlight as, first noticed by the foul smell, we realised we were running through the grounds of a zoo. Whilst we didn’t see many animals there was a bear(!) inspecting the runners from his cage. Running the paths leading through the zoo was a whole new experience, and whilst sad and odd to see animals caged up, it was nice from a running perspective.
Shortly after the halfway mark we were running through some lush trails and forest paths with trees all around us before we emerged near the sea front. We felt good, but tired. The green spaces were welcomed though and thankfully we spent very little time on main roads with cars.
Around 25km in, Chris stared to struggle. He’d picked up an injury and, after about ten mins of slow walking and shuffling, James and I made the reluctant decision to leave him and carry on. At that point he was going to just walk back and pull out (he’d be able to skip through the various switch backs and take a more direct route back to town). Both James and I were feeling it too though – I was aching in my knees, which is a new one for me.
Despite most of the running happening out of town, there were pockets of support along the way and some great chants including “c’mon Brexit” and my favourite “blah blah blah” (or at least that is what it sounded like, I’ve no idea what it meant!).
The next section took us along the coast and had a few kms of long switchbacks which were painfully dull, seeing runners winding ahead of you. After that was a stretch around, then up into, a park before returning to the coast once more. With about 10km to go I started a run-walk strategy with a brisk walk after each water station just to take the pressure off my knees a little.
It soon quietened out and with the last water stop done James and I pretty much ran alone to the finish line. Tracing our steps back along the initial part of the route into town (without the loop around Seaplane Harbour). As we neared the finish line Craig casually called out “hello” to us and he was then at the finish line as we hobbled the last 200m along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and through the Viru gates.
Medal collected we headed back for a quick shower before returning to see Chris cross the line. Turns out that after we left him he decided to stick at it and he’d continued on to complete his first marathon (after covering no more than a half in his training and battling through the pain on the day!!). We missed him by about a minute!
119 Hours – Chamonix. Thursday, 15:00.
I’m hugging a man. His arms are around me. He’s wet with sweat and he stinks. I am absolutely rotten with sweat and stink too. We are both smiling though. The embrace is special. We are acknowledging over 35 hours of running technical Alpine trails coming to and end, most of that time spent together, supporting one another and motivating each other through. 35 hours ago this smelly man was a complete stranger, his mere existence even unknown to me. Now he’s not only a friend but someone I’ve shared an incredible journey with and whom will always be in my memories. His name is Darryl.
Moments earlier we’d crossed the finish line of the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (Aka The “TDS”) at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). A 145km trail race in the Alps starting in Courmayeur (Italy) and finishing under the famous UTMB arch in Chamonix (France)…
5 minutes earlier – Chamonix
Somehow, despite hours of walking and persevering with the ‘ultra shuffle’ we muster enough strength to run the final stretch through the streets of Chamonix. Cheered on by the immense crowd, clapped through as the sea of spectators part to make way, we see many familiar faces of our friends. The moment is electric, so many emotions are pulsating through my body, my only reaction is to smile. A huge, wide smile. I don’t think anyone could experience that sort of finish and not have a smile on their face.
We are spent. It’s very hot. We are walking the final 8km into Chamonix. We are happy with this. I’ve run this path once before many years ago on a stag do (With another Daryl!), Darryl more recently did it on the TDS last year. “It’s flat” he claims and so he told another runner, Robin, a few kms earlier. I should know by now not to trust Darryl’s memories, he’s already admitted it’s hazy at the best of times. It’s not that flat (only in relative terms!). It’s undulating. We slow our fast hike back to a shuffle. We are in this for the long haul. 8km feels like 80kms and it takes almost two hours to walk to Chamonix. We eventually leave the riverside trail and hit the main road. We’ve not been alone on our walk and have chatted with several other runners who’ve walked it ‘home’ too. As we hit the main street we all look at each other and begrudgingly start shuffling faster and ‘performing’ for the crowd. Me and Darryl contemplate buying ice cream but are too afraid to stop moving again.
117.5 Hours – Les Houches.
We dropped off the winding switchbacks of the paved roads into the final aid station. For the last time we fill both our flasks and our faces and head back out on the trails. As we grab fistfuls of ice from a bucket, shoving them under our caps, I notice those around us. The volunteers – so supportive and encouraging, the runners – exhausted and many slumped on benches. We crack on. As the Compressport sponsored sign read, “finishing is your only fucking option”.
Descending from Col di Tricot wasn’t nice. The paths were littered with rocks and hikers. We’d run, stumble, jump and walk our way down. Eventually reaching a wobbly wooden foot bridge before climbing yet again. The rocky climb, however small, sapped our energy and by the time we reached Bellevue we were gasping. As we refreshed with water we questioned how that was only 4km we’d covered. 5km still to descend.
The next 5km were through the forest paths, shaded from the sun at least. We slowed to a walk. Our feet were hurting once more, raw and sore. The rejuvenating effects of the medical attention we received not that long ago had well and truly worn off now. Somehow runners were still running past us, we were impressed with their physical state. A familiar shout out from one was instantly recognisable. It was Alan. Supercharged and nimbly descending at speed. He called out to Darryl “Hey! How did Dai get on?!”, “I’m down here” I replied from around the next switchback. Alan was ready and willing to ‘walk it in’ with us and finish together, but I told him to keep going, he was on form again after a bad night and Darryl and I had each other. He vanished into the forest. We eventually made it to the road, a long stretch of paved switchbacks leading into Les Houches. The flat tarmac was a welcomed feeling.
115.5 Hours – Col di Tricot
We’ve made it to the top, finally. That climb was tough, the sun had done it’s job and I was definitely burnt on my neck. There was no water up top which we’d been hoping for. The timing point indicated 9km to go to reach Les Houches. 4km of which would take us to Bellevue where there would be water. All downhill, about 1,200m to descend in total.
Strapped up from Les Contamines, we left the aid station and were on the move again. It had been a long stop. About 1.5 hours. We were good again though and able to move quite quickly once more. The medics had worked their magic. We powered up past the church, up the roads and back to the trails, immediately passing many runners. Our power hike continued. Two more big climbs were left to conquer, the first barely noticeable and through the shaded woodlands we went. The second climb a bit of a beast with a steep zigzagging climb to Col di Tricot.
As we emerged from the first climb and descended we could see Col di Tricot opposite. It wasn’t small nor insignificant. It felt like a long time before we crossed the bridge, thread through the small hamlet and climbed to the switchback trails. The midday sun was bright and there was no shade on the climb. Darryl believed there would be water up top and I hoped he was right, whilst I had plenty now, the steep climb would be thirsty work.
112 Hours – Les Contamines
Once inside, Darryl went to find the foot doctor and I went to find the toilet again! After I had fun squatting and propping myself up against a wall, I found Darryl laughing and joking with the medics. It had already a while, and I’d eaten before finding him, but he was getting the full treatment both feet lanced, sterilised and wrapped in more padding than a winter jacket. I was jealous, so I queued up for a bit of foot TLC myself. I even got my ankle properly strapped and, whilst I was getting repaired, Darryl then went for a massage. We were smiling and laughing again and ready to get this race finished!
Leaving Col Du Joly, we wondered how we still had 24km to go. I do not know. Morning was breaking. The mist on the mountains was lifting and the the trails becoming lighter. Darryl was talking to another Brit and I cracked on. I was cold and needed to warm up – my body temperature had dropped significantly whilst stopping at the aid station. The head torch was soon turned off and we started a long descent. First the fields and ski paths before we hit the longer stretch descending through the forest paths.
As I hobbled down I was making the questionable sex noises. Oh, ee, ahh, fuck me, aaagh. I wasn’t alone and a chorus of squeals could often be heard. Many runners went passed, many we’d spoken too. Darryl was a little way behind now and I enquired after him to the Brit as he passed. He told me Darryl was moving but slowly. After about 4 km of descending I waited at the bottom. I found a bench and sat on it until Darryl arrived. He wasn’t looking good, he was stumbling and barely moving forward. His feet were destroyed and he was in quite some pain. He told me I shouldn’t have waited, I told him I’m not leaving him now, we’d done maybe close to 100km together and we had plenty of time to finish, I had no where to be in any urgency and I wasn’t going to leave him and potentially see him pull out. We walked on together. Slowly, very slowly. We hobbled at a pace slower than 20mins per km. It took around two hours to walk the flattest section of the race to the next checkpoint of Les Contamines.
110 Hours – Col Du Joly
Darryl’s hopes of medical attention were dashed when the medic told him that the ‘foot doctor’ was at the next aid station. Um, Ok then. We layered up as we left the aid station, it was still dark and cold. We refuelled on warm soups, re-jigged our packs and left for the final 24km.
From Hautelace we were confused. Very confused. We were still wandering in circles around the town and every now and then saw a trail lit up by tens of head torches in the distance. They were high. It was spread out and long. We kept questioning over and over if that is where we were heading or if that is the descent to Beaufort which we’d already completed. Every few minutes we’d have the same debate all over again.
The trails eventually took us in a different direction which did make sense finally. The climb was slow and a real slogfest in the dark. Sometime later we topped out on the summit and the open trails. It was windy and we could see the head torches both out in front and behind us. There was plenty of mud and my fresh clean shoes and socks (from the drop bag) were now soaked through. We ran along the ridgeline in the wind before we stopped to layer up and have some food. I was sleepy and hungry. I went into the chocolate reserves and came out with some chocolate coated raisins. They worked a treat and perked me up enough to keep moving with more clarity.
We continued on and the trails became increasingly more muddy and technical. We were ready for the next aid station now and Darryl was starting to struggle with pains in his feet. We looked forward to the opportunity for some medical attention and warm noodle soup. First though we had to navigate a steep descent and subsequent climb along some sharp rock faces in the darkness.
We were slowed to a plod as the runners started to back up under the difficulty of the terrain. At one point I yelled out and almost lost my foothold as I touched an electric fence that was stupidly close to the trail (on my other side was a drop into the darkness!). We laughed it off but I did question what I was doing here in the dark!
Over the last little climb, the music pumping from the aid-station could finally be heard.
105 Hours – Hautelace – 105 hours
Hautelace was a little confusing. Probably because it was 1am and we were tired, probably because it was fairly soon after the big check point and probably because of the route. This was also part of the new course and it felt like we were walking in circles around the town. I heard rumours afterwards about villages paying the organisers to be part of the route and I wondered, if true, if this was one of them – we were on a tour!
We finally pulled ourselves together shortly before midnight and headed back out from Beaufort for the third and final 50km. As we were leaving Alan showed up and indicated he hadn’t been so good and that he was going to have a sleep. I joked with Darryl that we’d see him run past us in a few hours time!
We climbed into the darkness and soon reached a town. After doing what felt like laps of the town we weaved into the aid station which was pretty much empty. We had a long stretch of running through the night ahead of us though so we took the opportunity to get some more food and water in before we headed back out into the night and up into the darkness.
102.5 Hours – Beaufort
Beaufort Aid Station. The long awaited, very much anticipated 90km mark. The aid station where we could access our drop bags, the aid station where the risk of dropping out (due to home comforts) increases. The one where hot food would be available. The one that marks the end of the “second” section (in my head I broke the race into three 50km sections) and the point where there is “only 50km to go”.
The entrance to the aid station was a a long walk. It felt like we were taking a detour around the aid station. I spotted the Live Cam and gave it a good middle finger. I was moody. That last 50km seemed to drag on and on and on (a bit like this blog?)…
After leaving Gittaz it all got a bit shit. Literally. One of the highlights for me here was the actual shit I had (it was surprisingly healthy for an ultra marathon poop!). But this whole section here was shit. Don’t get me wrong, it is another set of beautiful trails and the views and scenery was absolutely stunning (Exhibit A – The Black Lake), but it was shit because it was tough and it dragged. This was the section of off-track climbs, false summits and the beginning of the night.
The climb from La Gittaz was immediately steep and immediately lumpy. It was long, we were exhausted and it continued to deceive us. False summit after false summit and lumpy ups and downs were the order for 10km or so as we tagged Côte d’Ani and Pas d’Outray. Sometime around Côte d’Ani we took a moment. We sat down after the disappointment of reaching another false summit and we needed a few minutes to get ourselves over the disappointment of coming over the top and seeing the enduring trails and runners heading off into the distance. We weren’t alone. For every few runners who went passed, one would stop and join us. By the time we left there must have been about 7 or 8 of us grumpy bastards sitting in a circle laughing at each others miserable appearance. We also wondered if we could get the next long downhill done and out of the way before darkness. Spoiler – we didn’t. Not a chance in hell it would ever have even been possible. As we continued to descend the darkness enveloped us and and the head torches were back out and we trudged on.
The descent into Beufort was long, technical and difficult. This was the first section of the new route. Darryl wasted no time in pointing out that it immediately made the course harder than the old version (which he’d done previously last year!). After what felt like a lifetime we reach the aid station and settled down for a break and a freshen up with our drop bags. Whilst I fumbled through my routine, Darryl went off and had his knee tapped.
98.5 Hours – La Gittaz
La Gittaz was quite a cute little aid station. It stank a bit (think actual farmland) and there were plenty of small stone brick buildings in the area. The aid station itself was small, and the volunteers and support few but very boisterous.
We’d run down into the aid station through about 800m of descending trails. They were mostly steep and technical, but the end was a real treat. We ran down alongside a gorge and the sound of the water flowing below us was brutal. It sounded like high-speed wind battering you. The path was carved out through the mountain and winded down and around before dropping into open fields.
I’d left Darryl behind and we agreed we’d meet again at the aid station. Just as we descended the fields he caught up with me and we walked in together before I headed straight off to the Eco Loo for a very much needed good ol’ shit. What? It had probably been about 24 hours since my last one and that Lasagne and Burger was still bouncing up and down inside me!
96.5 Hours – Cormet de Roselend
I spot the Live Camera. I’d forgotten about these. As I ran into the aid Station I stuck the thumbs up and the tongue out for the world to see. I’m alive, I’m doing ok…
It had been a long one. 4 and a half hours had passed since I left the last aid station and I was certainly feeling a bit exhausted now (inevitable seeing as I’d been on the move for over 12 hours at this point).
Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice I began the big climb. I didn’t feel it was as bad as people made it out to be. Perhaps because I was in a great place mentally and physically. In my mind it was split into a few smaller sections that I can recall. First off a steady climb on some soft and soily trails. As we climbed I could hear a deep voice bellowing out above “Alleeeeeee Hup Hup Hup Allleeee Allleeeee”. It was a great voice. Eventually I reached him – an old man with his wife ringing a cowbell. He was fantastic. “Merci, Superb” I called as I passed.
Beyond the old man the climb continued as we hit some open fields (and a bit of sun) and rounded an old fortress. It was here I was stunned to find loads of runners laying down and resting. And I mean loads, tens of them, everywhere. I couldn’t figure out if this was a strategic stop – part way up an exhausting climb, gaining some much needed sleep after an early start, planning for the future. Or whether it was because they were dead on their feet with exhaustion from the climb and they just had to stop. Part of me wondered if it is because the views were spectacular and it was just a wonderful place to stop and rest? I’ll never know, but for certain it looked far more enjoyable than some of the places I saw runners curled up in later that night!
I met Darryl again along the climb and we continued together chatting and catching up on the past few hours. We passed a short water station (by water station I mean a hose pipe filling a bucket) which gave a chance to replenish and soak my face and hat. It was also here that the famous 5 Euro soft drinks were on sale. I declined to get involved.
The climb continued and the terrain became varied. From muddy trails to razor sharp rocks. The fast hiking very quickly became slow lunging and scrambling! The views though were sensational and Darryl and I decided to take a little rest at the top of one of the peaks and enjoy a moment. Plus we were both starving and I wolfed down a few bars of food and Darryl rested his knee which was starting to cause him some pain.
We carried on up the rocky climbs before my balls almost detached themselves from my body and ran off back the way we’d come. In front of us were a group of volunteers, all happy singing and dancing, hiding from us what was a sheer drop of the mountain top. It also happened to be the way we had to descend. What the fuck? Down there? There was a rope. There were runners holding onto the rope and shuffling themselves down the sharp rock face backwards. Fucking hell I was terrified. I’d come to run, not to abseil with no equipment. The only way was down though, so I packed away the poles and headed on down.
We’d gone barely a few metres when a pair of poles went flying passed us following a shriek from above. A runner almost lost himself as he tried to head down using his poles and not the rope. Not worth it. Get a grip!
We made it. It took sometime but we made it to the end of the rope section. The path was still very technical and steep though and the run down into the aid station was painful. The memories of the pains in my feet from Lavaredo and Trans Gran Canaria all came flushing back!
92 Hours – Bourg Saint-Maurice
There is the slightest of inclines through the streets. I walk into the aid-station (which was the first major/crew-support aid station on the course). No running here. I’ve just been on one hell of a run. but I am buzzing. beaming. smiling ear-to-ear. “Dai” I hear as I look across the packed aid-station to see Ryan calling me over. He introduces me to his Wife Emma who gives me the biggest of hugs and gets a sweaty kiss before offering me potatoes which I happily take.
Ryan is a bit dazed. I caught up with him on the downhill which was a huge surprise (he is a speed demon!) before he turned and showed me his bloody face. A bad fall had left him a bit spaced out after taking most of the impact literally head on.
After another very long downhill, maybe about 15km and a descent of about 1,500m with much more running, more speed work, I remember looking at my watch and thinking I have no right. No right to be running 6 min/kms at 40-odd kms into a race, never-mind a 145km race! But I kept going.
I soon bumped into Ryan and then arrived at a water station where I proceeded to refill all my bottles ahead of the ‘big’ climb. A volunteer kindly told me the aid-station was in 3kms though and this was just a water station in between. So I legged it back out through the town and parks…
When I arrived, after speaking with Ryan I saw Darryl heading out and spent a moment talking to Alan who arrived just after me. We did a quick kit check reminder to fill all our bottles as the next climb was an un-shaded beast – almost 2,000m of climbing in the midday heat (not sun though as it was mostly overcast thankfully!).
I chatted to Emma a little longer after Ryan left (and ate more of his spuds!) before leaving myself. I spent very little time at this aid station as quite frankly, I felt great. I had energy and a smile and saw little point sticking around any longer. So off I went.
90 Hours – Col du Petit Saint Bernard
The Point of Col Du Petit Saint Bernard sticks out in my memory for one reason only. This was the French/Italian border crossing! and the technical, small stone descent before a much longer descent. Ahhhh wonderful. I did enjoy the little border crossing they’d erected for the runners though. That was nice.
Other than that, my mind has gone a little blank. We climbed together, the fresh smells of the forest, the morning warming. It’s about 10am but I can’t picture the scene. I don’t think Darryl was with me at this point. Maybe he was. A few hours have passed though and I don’t recall too much of where or what I saw in this time.
Sometime earlier though morning had broken, I put the head torch away and started to enjoy the grey misty morning as we climbed about 600m, from which we had stunning views of the valley and lake below. I was above hundreds of runners and I’m looking down, but also up. Hundreds more were above me and the climb continued to the cheers and sounds of supporters at a timing point. As I reached them I breathed a deep breath. I took a moment to absorb the views and point to the distance trail path leading off into the un-see-able distance.
From the peak at Col Chavannes I got moving again. Woaaaah boy do I get moving again. The path was very runnable, about 10km of shallow descent on fairly decent and wide track. It is fast. Another consistent period of running 5 min/kms. I knew my quads were going to hate this in a few hours, never-mind the next day!!
There’s a short break in the rhythm as the path deviated sharply down and cross a river before ascending some forest tracks. At this point I first met him, the sweaty stinky man. I had no idea what would happen next and how a friendship would form. “Alright Mate” he says “How’s it going?”. As simple as that. A mere conversation starter. One runner to another, one human to another, one person looking to change their day. Thank you Darryl, you certainly changed my day!
86.5 Hours – Lac Combal
I’m running along a flat gravel path, It’s flooded with puddles of water and I’m zig-zagging along at close to 5 min/km pace. Crazy. Still, it feels good so I keep at it. I’m distracted by a ‘Full Kit Wanker’. A lady wearing head to toe in branded UTMB event gear. And I mean head to toe – Columbia UTMB edition trainers, Compressport UTMB socks, base layer shorts, shorts/skirt, Tee, Arm Sleeves, Buff and Running cap. She has it all. Maybe over 400Euros of kit right there. Wow. We all like a souvenir (I bought a Matterhorn race hoody just days earlier!) but that is a lot of kit to (potentially) try out for the first time on a 145km run!
The distraction takes my mind off the running and a big aid station soon appears. I grab some food, refill my water and am about to head out before I notice a sign saying about 19km to the next aid Station. I turn around, drink some more water, part fill a third soft flask and eat some more food before heading back out. I don’t want to be caught short so soon into the race!
As I continued on the climb I stopped for a moment and turn around to try and photograph the stream of head torches snaking back for miles in the distance. It doesn’t do it justice, but its an incredible sight – maybe up to 1,500 heads bobbing away. So far I’d not used my head torch. Like a parasite I was using the light from those around me and being a sneaky bastard and saving my battery for night time (even though I’m carrying four batteries!) I continued the climb before a nice easy descent into Lac Combal. I’m running (with the head torch on now!), I’m smiling. It’s been a good start, a fast start and I think I’m a little ahead of Alan, I last saw him just before the climb started and I couldn’t recall him storming passed.
85 Hours – Col Checrouit Maison Veille
A little over an hour has passed. Its 5 in the morning and still Dark. I’m about half way through a 1,000m climb (over 10km) and I’ve stumbled into the first aid-station at Col Checrouit Maison Veille, some 1,900m above sea level and its a little cold. Runners are in jackets and gloves, sipping hot drinks. I’m in a T Shirt with arm sleeves rolled down. It’s sweaty work this fast hiking! I fill up my bottle with the help of a lovely volunteer before heading out and swearing. Fucking Prick. He’s filled me up with sparking water. Why would you do that? The smallest of things, but it pissed me off. I’m not a fan of sparkling water. Regardless, I find a way to calm myself down and move on. It’s just a bit of gas.
84 Hours – Courmayeur
Hans Zimmer (“He’s a Pirate”) is pumping out. Hi-fives and fist pumps are exchanged. Cheers and whoops are let out. Screams of “Ale Ale” and cowbells ringing fill the main street of Courmayeur. The 2019 TDS is under way and my 84 hours of recovery comes to an end. It is time to run again. This time, further and higher than I’d ever been before. Time to push those boundaries and redefine myself.
Before the race began I was subjected to one of the random bag searches whilst in the starting pen. Great. Whilst I fully endorse and support this approach, it isn’t half a pain in the arse. When you pack and re-pack your bag and organise it in such a way, only to then be rushed to unpack in a crowded space to show you have all the mandatory gear is just a nightmare. Either way, I passed. I got my green sticker on my bib.
You really can’t fault the organisation of UTMB. from bag checks to bus transportation to the start line, it really is a military operation and you can clearly see where you 200 Euro entry fee has been spent. You are so looked after and accounted for during the event. I’ve almost forgotten its been 3 hours since I first woke, trudged to the bus and started eating croissants.
71 Hours – Chamonix
It’s about 3pm on Tuesday and I’m leaving the race registration tent. I’m in. I’m Done. I’m set to go. The rigorous testing and inspection of your documentation and kit has been passed. Phew. Time to head home, re-pack the kit and drop bag, eat more food and go to sleep. At 1am I need to be up and heading to the bus to Courmayeur.
That morning I’d skipped the organised morning “shake out” run so that I can head up the VK with the others (I didn’t want to do both). Most of them bailed on the second run, but Yvette showed me the way. We did about half way before turning back and heading home so I could register. Post registration I finally got to eat and rammed a lasagne down my throat before an hour later heading out for a burger with Alan. I was bloated now but heading to bed. 7pm, If it goes well I can get about 6 hours sleep before the journey begins….
45 Hours – Chamonix
Its a whole day later and I’m stepping off the Chamonix Express into Chambalama Town (Chamonix that is!). So far the trip has been fantastic and worked out exactly as planned and I’m where I want to be when I want to be there. I pick up the key to the apartment, meet Yvette and Jess and head into the main town to cheer home the MCC runners. There are a few friends running and due to finish within the next few hours. We grab a burger and make it in time to support them all across the infamous UTMB arch/finish line. The rest of the day is spent eating and meeting many friends before heading to bed and trying to get a semi-decent night’s sleep. I’m not sure how Tuesday will pan out but I know I want to get the legs moving a little bit and eat and sleep as much as I can.
21 Hours – Visp
Arriving in Visp I head straight to the hotel with my fingers crossed that I can check in early, I can. Result! I was staying at St. Jorden, which very quickly became apparent was some form of religious retreat (an ‘Education and Seminar House’ as they put it!). This didn’t bother me though and I was given some very helpful advice relating to the thermal baths and local buses before I set off out in my short shorts.
I get to the Thermal baths very quickly, pay my 25Euro for three hour access to both the pools and Sauna rooms and head on in. I’m immediately disorientated though. It is busy. I’ve a little armband to activate doors and lockers and straightaway signs are instructing me to remove my shoes. I wander on in and first stumble upon the ‘Grotto Bath’ – a pool maintained at 40 degrees. It is awesome. I follow it up with a stint in the ‘Cold Water Grotto’ which is so relaxing as it is in pitch darkness. I keep alternating between the two before heading outside (after a stop off at several steam baths of various temperatures and aromas).
Outside I find a series of swimming pools with jets, streams and water features. I enjoy a few trips around the ‘River Pool’ and smile as the water current pushes me round and round. I then head off to the slide. Yes, the slide. I’m like a child all over again and it is frikken brilliant. I don’t know how many times I go on it, but it is great fun. I must have been in here for about 2 hours by now so I head back inside to repeat my hot/cold water “treatment”, steam rooms and get naked in the saunas. I’ve one eye on my watch now as the buses aren’t all that frequent and I want to get the next one. Whilst in the Grotto Bath I decide to lay on the loungers – when you recline your feet are elevated. That will help with my recovery I think to myself. I’m sure it did too, because the next thing I remember is waking up and it is 45 mins later. Shit, I’m late. I rush out, in a panic realise there is a bus in less than 10mins, but I can’t find the changing rooms. I dive into a disabled toilet and start getting changed but am disrupted by someone banging on the door. “Hold on” I scream before grabbing my stuff and making to leave. Outside a cleaner is looking at me disgusted and starts yelling at me pointing at my trainers. I try to explain I don’t understand and am lost and continue the long walk of shame to the exit, to many tuts and disapproving eyes along the way.
Outside I try to leave but the armband flashes red and buzzes every time, after some time the receptionist realises it is because I am “late”. Ten mins overdue, I’m instructed to a machine to pay a fine. 5 Euros, phew, that’s OK. I run out and jump on the bus just in time before it leaves. I slept very well that night!
15 Hours – Zermatt
Morning has broken. My legs ache. I feel well rested but my quads are definitely a little tender. The Matterhorn Sky Race was faster than I expected and I was already feeling it. After a relaxing evening and a good long sleep I felt like I’d lost a big chunk of my recovery. That wasn’t the case though, sleep is what I needed. I just didn’t need tender legs!!
I finished packing my bag and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar. I had a casual day ahead with no rushing. My trains were booked and I had plenty of time. I ate, and ate and ate at breakfast. I didn’t really eat a proper meal the night before and I was pushing in the calories now. Plus I didn’t know when I’ll get a chance to eat next that day, so I relaxed and ate a shit tonne of food.
As I sat on the train from Zermatt to Visp I did a quick bit of research on what Visp had to offer. It wasn’t long before I came across the Thermalquellen Brigerbad – Thermal Baths and Spa. Sod exploring the mountains, this was the best Idea I’d had in a long time.
0 Hours – Zermatt
It’s about 16:00 on Saturday. Moments earlier I crossed the line of the Matterhorn Sky Race. Now I’m sitting down eating the post race meal with Jason and Pritt, two runners I met along the way. “What’s next?” they ask. “The TDS at UTMB” is my response. “When is it?” they ask. I take a look at my watch. “It starts in 84 hours” I tell them….
Lets rewind (or fast forward? I’m so lost with my own writing now!) a little. The race is done, completed. I’m wondering why I thought I could do it? With such technical terrain, I’m not quite so sure I thought I even could do it. But I did. And I did it well (I’ll modestly say). I felt OK afterwards. Probably the best I’ve ever felt after an ultra. It was just a long ass slog.
It was very much a three part race. The first 50km, the middle 50km and the last. I loved the first 50km. I felt free and ran more than I’m used to running in mountain races. The middle 50km dragged on and seemed to take a lot longer than the first 50km. Then the last 50km was all about survival and perseverance, as many ultras often are.
I was fortunate that, unlike many runners, I had no issues (other than sore feet). That I also found a companion to support me through. I keep saying it, ultras are far far easier with friends!!
It did make me question the distance though. 150km is a lot. It’s long. When you’re telling yourself, “only 50km to go”, “only another 12 hours”, and when you’re OK with that, it should be questioned!!
Last year’s CCC left me underwhelmed. The finish in particular was a let down, but this year the TDS gave me the full UTMB experience. Finishing midday with all the exceptional support was a phenomenal experience. It was an electric atmosphere unlike last years finish and one I’ll never forget.
The TDS was modified for 2019. Increased from 120km to 145km with the additions through the Beaufort valley. Those I spoke to who’d done the ‘old TDS (Like Darryl and Alan) now claimed it was too much. Too hard. The additions unnecessary. Many say its harder than UTMB which, whilst longer and has a little more elevation, is far less technical. There’s only one way for me to confirm, let’s see what the UTMB ballot God’s have to say about next year…
To all those who helped me achieve, supported and believed, thank you!
Toblerone in the sky
The Matterhorn sky race. Another run I’m wondering how I ended up doing. I mean, I know I booked it, only it is one of three ultras in August and just days before I am doing the TDS, how did I manage that?! I know I booked it before I found out I had a place at TDS but I don’t remember why this one though. I think I read about it or saw pictures or something. Either way I was on my way to Zermatt, a Swiss town in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. I was excited.
I feel I now start all Post-race write ups with a lil’ moan about my state of fitness etc. No difference this time. I guess it’s natural that my body is desperately trying to hold itself together given everything my mind selfishly throws at it. Still, I feel like I could be in a better place. But, two things. Firstly confidence is in a good place after getting through 100km of the Stour Valley just two weeks ago and secondly my mental state is great. Better than it’s been for a long time. One week before I was struggling. My mind was wandering all over the place. Thinking and over thinking and re-thinking the same thoughts. It was annoying. Very. Naturally I then started worrying about this race and the TDS and how I’d cope with these thoughts when alone with my mind for so long. Thankfully though, things not only improved, but changed significantly. I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long (and I mean long!) time. Some great things have happened to me recently and I’ve a huge smile on my face and I’m intending on making this last. The only reason I was thinking so much is because I don’t want to jeopardise the good. So, arrogantly, I’m feeling a little indestructible. I know what lays ahead. I know how hard it’s going to be and I know what I need to do. It’s time to do it.
Pre race I made my way to the town of Zermatt. Whilst a fairly long day of travelling, it was most efficient. Big kudos to the Swiss! The train and bus system seems impeccable and the long journey was a breeze. Arriving in Zermatt there was a buzz about the town and I went straight to collect my bib which was the easiest registration I’ve ever experienced. No queue. No documentation. I just Walked straight up to the relevant race desk, said my name and within seconds I had my bib number and sponsored goodies. Excellent. I walked straight outside and bought a race branded compresssport hoody and I was done. Off to the hotel and time to relax.
That evening I went for a little walk after food. I found myself wandering aimlessly and ended up following a path along the river before I eventually reached a view point. What a view point it was. Curved benches angled facing the Matterhorn. They were layered out in such a way you could lay back and take it all in. And that’s exactly what I did, for about an hour. I was ready.
The hotel I was staying at provided an exceptional service whereby, as the race would start before the breakfast serving, they’d offered to prepare a sandwich lunch to takeaway the evening before. I woke. Ate the lunch and set off for the start line. As I left the hotel, the Matterhorn stood naked and proud in the dark blue morning sky. I was mesmerised. A short while later, to the inevitable violin sounds of ‘epic music’ I was running.
We looped through the main town roads and out to the trails. The streets were lined with early morning support and the atmosphere was calm. Yes, calm. Normally such races feel frantic and rushed, but not this one. The feeling of calm continued.
As we began the First climb I basked in the calm. I realised that the pack of runners felt different than usual. More Respectful. I wasn’t stressed by the poles (I kept mine packed away as I always do on the first climb). I wasn’t stressed by runners trying to squeeze past in the narrow trails. Everyone seemed content in their place and with the day ahead. It was unusual but an absolute delight. As we peaked the first summit it was starting to brighten. The sun was rising ahead of us and I stopped a few times for a view of the Matterhorn. I didn’t quite realise at this point that I would see it all day from different angles. Obvious really!!
We hit the first downhill section and it was fairly runnable. Not too technical, not too narrow. The runners opened up and many sped past me as we galloped down the switchbacks. Soon we’d hit the valley below and the second climb to Gornergrat, would begin. This would be the big one.
The climb was long. It went on. The sun was shining bright now. We climbed through forest tracks and open fields. The sweat came. I was dripping. I watched the droplets form and then fall off the brim of my hat. My face was drenched and my lips could taste the never ending flow of salt. The pace was slow but steady. All around me was still calm, it was tranquil. Without doubt the most peaceful race I’ve done. I could hear very little, mostly just the roar of water in the distance, not even wind. I continued with a smile on my face.
Near the top the route briefly flattened out into a very wide track. I could hear noise above me but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Cheering, support, the calm was broken. There was a building up higher alongside me. It was an observation tower/view point up on top of the ridge and then I saw them. Runners runnning along the ridgeline. We’d be climbing a little more then looping back along the stunning ridge.
Up top I stopped to picture the mountains. I met another runner, Jason, as we savoured the moment. He’d done the mountain race last year and come back for the superior views of the sky race this year. He was right about it, the views were stunning. I later looked up the Gornegrat and hadn’t quite realised what I’d run too. At 3,100m high (highest I’ve ever run!) The views take in the Monte Rosa massif with Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4,634 m); the second-largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner Glacier; and a total of 29 mountains above 4,000 m, including, of course, the Matterhorn in all its glory. Wow. It’s also home to the world’s first fully electrified cog railway (now Europe’s highest open-air cog railwat) and Europe’s highest-altitude hotel. Quite a place.
I refilled my bottles and Tailwind at the aid station and ran down past all the early morning tourists who arrived on the train. The run down was again very fast. A brief period of rocky technical terrain but again very runnable. With a consistent run for a few kms it wasn’t long before I reached the next check point. I heard it first though. Loud, deep music filled the air as I ran down into the aid station, first joining with the runners of the shorter Active race who joined the course here. There were a lot of them. As I refilled my bottles again I listened to the source of the deep music. Three men playing ridiculously long horns. The sound was fantastic.
I headed off into a now busy pack of runners, the pace was good though as they were probably fresher than I was and the terrain was forgiving. We then hit the infamous suspension bridge. Holy shit that was scarier than I expected. It was maybe a few hundred metres long but it was high.. steel cables suspending a steel grate walkway that wobbled, yes wobbled, under the wait of its cargo. I tried to film it but I was walking like I was pissed, swaying from side to side and bashing into the railings. I’m pretty ok with heights but this was horrible and I was glad when it ended!
Back on solid ground we continued running and came closer to the Matterhorn. Just wow. It doesn’t matter how many times I stopped and looked at it, each angle, each variance in shadow and cloud cover gave it a new unique look, I was mesmerised and couldn’t stop trying to get a photo that would do my memory justice.
We climbed some more, but all I can recall is the Matterhorn. We ran down from the summit and I remember this one was a little bit more tricky with large rocks and steps, steep switchbacks zigzagging down, runner after runner bounded past me as I clang to the sides to make way. As we bottomed out the two routes webt their separate ways as the Active runners headed back to the finish whilst us Sky runners head, well, back up to the sky! The was more climbing to be done…
I soon met Jason again and we chatted briefly as we started the climb and acknowledged there as just one more climb and a ‘little dip’ to go. I very quickly let him run on though as I stopped for more photos – as if my eyes hadn’t been treated to enough spectacular views already, the best was still to come…The views were insane. The route took as right up close against a towering waterfall that was gushing with water. The sound was ferocious as water poured over the cliff edge. Amazing in itself, but then as I looked around and, of course, the Matterhorn was there too. Towering behind the waterfall. The perfect backdrop.
I wanted to stay here for the rest of the day. It was a special place. I’ve seen many incredible sights in my life, but this one stole me. I was captured in this moment. Not quite emotional, but probably not far off. I seriously contemplated sticking around and making myself at home. I’d beaten the last cutoff checkpoint, I had plenty of time to spare and nowhere to be. I don’t know what made me leave, but I did. As tempting as it was, I had a run to finish. The climb was steep and tough. I was watching the elevation map on my watch which quite frankly is frustrating. To watch a little dot barely move was irritating, but at the same time it was intriguing to see where on the climb I was.
Soon we made it and it was that time again to head down. This was the worst of the downhill sections for me. It was very steep and rocky, by far the most technical and a load of runners passed me, probably all of those who I powered passed on the incline. Same old story.
Jasson arrived just after me with the opposite story, he was hating the climbs but loving the descents. I joked that it was all his from here, the last climb was nothing compared to everything we’d climbed that day and a long downhill was the final assault to the finish line, I joked I’d see him again as he runs passed me when we descend. Up we went and true to the route profile the climb was pleasant. As we climbed, a rock almost as big as a football, came hurtling down between me and the runner behind. It was bouncing wildly and thumping at the mountain with each impact. It passed before we could process it and before we both had time to swear. If that had impacted, it would have been game over. No questions. We shouted down below, probably a futile attempt at warning other runenrs. We were both in shock. However, as the climb ended, the views once more were truly spectacular as we circumnavigated the mountains with the Matterhorn to our side and slowly drifting behind us.
It tried to rain and that gave me the energy to power on. I didn’t want to have to stop and get the rain jacket out. It was cold though, the rain droplets like ice as they hit your skin. The long run around the mountain soon ended and up ahead runners disappeared off the horizon, it was time to descend for the last time. But not before I had a quick chat with these adorable sheep hiding between some rocks. Valais Black Nose sheep apparently, like something out of star wars.
Of all the descents, this felt the quickest. I once again let lots of runners passed. One guy stuck with me though and refused to pass. We were going pretty fast I suppose. We joked all the way down as every turn and opportunity I gave him the chance to leapfrog ahead, everytime he laughed and refused. We hit the flat of Zermatt and we stepped on it. Back on the main streets there was one final turn, one final offer to the smiley runner to pass, he refused once more and I hit it, few hundred metres, sprint finish, why not!
At the finish line Jason was there. We exchanged photo duties and met Pritt from Estonia (A marathon I’ll be doing in two weeks time). We may just meet again. The three of us sat and enjoyed the post race meal, reminisced about the adventure before going our separate ways.
For me, my warm up was done. 2 out of 3 races in August complex, half the cumulative distance covered, a third of the elevation and less again if the total time on my feet. I’ve 84 hours to recover and get to the start line of the TDS…