Autumn 100 2015 – Into the darkness!

“Bee, why are you staring at me? I am not a flower??”

I wanted to toe the start line as close to a 100% as I could but after UTMB, it took me almost three to four weeks to fully recover and I still had the hip issue every time I went for a run. I decided to give as much time for the injury to heal before running another 100. Every time I attempted to do a proper session, I’d come back limping so I thought of not starting and volunteering instead just like last year when I had an amazing time spending 30+ hours at Goring. I had a couple of solid runs a few weeks before the race on the Limone Extreme Skyrace route where I felt good climbing as well as descending so made the decision to start and see how it goes. I also ran a hilly trail half the weekend before down south in Chichester (It’s closer to France than it is to Nottingham!) and things felt good but there was still this lingering feeling of “I HAVEN’T RUN MUCH IN FIVE WEEKS”, I usually like to go into race in a much better state of mind with a solid build-up rather than trying to recover in time. My only goal going into the race was to have fun and enjoy it and also of course to finish within the cut-offs and the only reason I would pull out would be due to a serious injury. The great thing about this race is the fact that it is four out and back sections which is 12.5 miles each way so it is extremely convenient to pull out when things are going wrong but also mentally easy to break down as you run back the same way to the central checkpoint at Goring which is another convenient place to drop and also the fact that it’s in autumn with 13 hours of darkness so we’ll be running the majority of the race in darkness which does play tricks with the mind. While planning I anticipated the possibility of dropping but during race day that thought didn’t cross my mind once.

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A breathtaking view on the Limone Extreme Skyrace route, my playground for a week😀

In terms of planning I spent so much time fine tuning every detail before UTMB that I simply just used that plan, only that it would take half the time for me to get around and got some advice on nutrition from my friend and nutritionist Alexendra as I planned to eat normal food. I got the train down to Goring the day before and stayed at the YHA hostel same as last year when quite a few of my friends ran it. Popped into the race HQ to give them a hand and to say hi to everyone & it was good to catch up. Had dinner with Sam Clack who is a journalist and he was there to document the race from the BBC? Sam had a chat with my coach Paul Giblin earlier at Glasgow so we got chatting and I wouldn’t shut up about how amazing the trail running community is! Had fish and chips, which was a departure from my usual curry/pizza night before a race but it worked a week earlier at Chichester. Got back to the hostel to find out all the blokes I was sharing the dorm with were running the race too. One of them seemed a little nervous and had packed his entire house as it was his first 100 and here was Tom Garrod and me chatting about running 200 mile races lol. I gave him some advice about shoe choices and we had an early night. Got a decent night’s sleep where I woke up a couple of times as I tried not to oversleep and miss the start, we were up at 7-ish to get ready for the 10 am start, some of the lads left as early at 8 am and I was chatting to the rest as I planned to leave as late as possible as I knew registration is seamless and didn’t want to take up too much space at the HQ. One of the runners in the hostel decided not to start and I remembered her from last year when she had to drop, so we were reminiscing about our races this season while I tried to eat my porridge. Finally got my kit on and made my way to race HQ, a quick hello and hugs to all my friends who were volunteering and got chatting with Jon to ask him about how his recovery has been after his exploits at Tooting bec. He gave me some pointers on the route and also some advice on staying positive and so did Simon aswell! I got kit check done and bumped into Gary and we got chatting about TDG and got my bib really quickly. I then walked up to the start where we had a big queue for the loo. I calmly sat down at the far end of the hall when I tried to collect my thoughts while everyone else was chatting away. James Elson, the RD was also running the race but he still gave the talk before toeing the line.

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With the gang before the start, hugs all round! (From left: Jon, Natasha, me and Roni)

Spur 1 – Goring to Little Wittenham on the thames path – #FlatIsBoring

We were off at 10 am sharp and I let all the speedy ones sprint past me as I knew this leg was on the Thames path and was quite flat so I wanted to reign it in as it’s very tempting to go out too fast and not have enough for the hills later on. The first six miles went swiftly and we were at the half way CP at Wallingford, I stopped quickly and filled my bottle while chatting to one of the guys from the hostel and ate a little.

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This was me at Wallingford CP when I REALLY cared about my time!😀

I ran on my own until I met Claudia, we got chatting as I saw the pack tag on her rucksack and she was wearing the TDS wristband. I remember almost everyone from my chalet ran the TDS so we chatted about how horrible the climbs and the heat was this year, Cormet de rosalind resembled a hospital! She seemed lovely and her boyfriend was just ahead, he passed us and told us the turn-around was less than a mile away. I remember checking my watch and we got there way too quickly (1.45 hrs) so I decided to stop and get some food in at Little Wittenham. I bumped into Sharon who ran the race last year and I remember seeing her ahead of me on the conga line at UTMB before the Les Contamines CP so had a quick chat with her about the race and wished her luck for the Spine race before jogging back. I remember Chris Mills telling me to slow down as I was running too fast so I made a conscious effort to ease the pace.

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Strong posing game enroute to Little wittenham (Photo by Stuart)

I remember before the race I had three rules which I’d follow no matter how good or bad I felt,

1. Not to go faster than 5:30 min/km

2. Not to RUN UP ANY OF THE HILLS!

3. Never. Stop. Smiling.😀

I was still following my rules, just that there were no hills in this leg which was very tedious as I had to run more than I had planned but knew that the next 50 miles would have plenty of hills to get me into a good rhythm. Got back to the Wallingford CP and then was running back and forth with Paul Reader who I didn’t know was Ian Walker’s mystery friend who he was pacing for the last 50 miles and this was his final race for the Centurion Grand slam  (All 4 Centurion 100 miler’s this year). We went through this narrow single track and the guy ahead of me screamed after getting bitten by something, this spooked me a little before I started screaming too! A bee got stuck in my calf guard and kept stinging me, had to pull it out and I jogged it off. Didn’t think too much of it as in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a big deal and this was the first time I got stung by a bee and it had to happen during a 100! We got back to Goring around 4 hrs 6 mins to get a massive cheer from Jon and Natasha who were time keeping and I asked them to post updates on my progress, it was so great to have them there as I had something to look forward to every time I left Goring. I got my drop bag given to me quickly and I ate the contents of the little bag that I kept for every 25 miles when I get back to Goring. Fairly quick transition, bottle filling and I was out for the next leg.

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Steady progress on the way back to Goring (Photo by Stuart)

Spur 2 – Goring to Swyncombe on the ridgeway

I was looking forward to this leg as it was on the ridgeway and had some hills to keep me from getting bored! The first CP at North Stoke came really quickly after 4 miles, I was greeted by Mr.Chicken, Rich Cranswick. Ate some nibbles and kept running with a couple of guys, the next CP at Swyncombe which is the turn-around was 8 miles away so this was a longer stretch. It felt unusually harder to run as I couldn’t get any rhythm as it felt like everything was slightly uphill. Got my music on and kept running the flatter bits and power hiking the inclines, James ran past me and he felt super smooth as he led the race at this point. He asked me “Are you having fun?” and I remember jumping out of the trail and telling him “Oh yea, I’m just getting started!”, the rest of the leaders were running past me regularly and I was just being patient and taking it easy, I loved that towards the end of the single track the view opens up and you run downhill in a massive field only to climb up to the other side which was A LOT of fun and we went past this golf club where people were giving curious looks as a bunch of idiots were running a 100 miles! I remember by then I had a itchy sensation for quite some time and was literally scratching myself while running, it hit me that this could possibly be due to the bee sting as the area around my calf was swollen. There was a steep but short climb to the turn-around CP as it was right on top of a hill, I took it super easy on the climbs as it was too early to push.

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Taking it easy on the climbs🙂 (Photo by Stuart)

I remember one guy who I passed knew who I was as we ran the Highland Fling and Oldham way earlier this year, I even shouted “Ding Ding!” before I got into the Swyncombe CP and asked for a cup of tea and ate a little, I remember asking them for anti-histamines to try to prevent the itchiness. One of the lovely volunteers told me that they’ll radio it to the next CP at North Stoke and I thanked them before running downhill where I went “Weeeeeee! This is so much fun!” while telling everyone who I ran past that the CP is just on top of this climb. I was starting to feel better and I realized that the entire stretch was as I suspected slightly uphill so on the return it felt so much easier and runnable. The best thing about this race is the fact that each leg is an out and back so you get to see people most of the time either running ahead of you or running in the opposite side so it was good to cheer everyone and spread my happiness! I felt really good on the return and did some of my best running in the entire race in this stretch as I got into a good rhythm on the narrow single track, got to the CP and took the tablets before faffing to get my head lamp out while chatting to the volunteers and asking them about the Rugby and football score, was quite disappointed that Wales were knocked out but happy that United won! Right back to this running lark, got my headlamp on and headed back to Goring. It was getting dark so switched my lamp on in sections with tree cover. Met up with a couple of guys who also were chasing a sub-24 time (As you get a special 100 miles in one day buckle for it) so I ran with them until Goring. Got to the CP to a massive cheer by Jon and Natasha when a runner behind went “I didn’t get that when I ran in!” and was told that I had to go see the medic to ensure I’m okay after Bee-gate. I had a chat with them and told them I got the puss out and the tablet helped as I didn’t feel itchy anymore. Used the loo, changed my tee to a slightly thicker top but it was warm enough for a half sleeve + arm warmers as I also packed a thermal just incase and got a windproof on as Chris told me it was quite windy at chain hill and the whole section is exposed as we go up and down some hills. I came in at 9.15 hours so was well ahead of schedule but wasn’t pushing it so took a longer break to ensure I felt good to tackle the night section. After spending about 30 minutes faffing about, I got told by the lovely volunteers to get out and keep moving so I sorted everything out and went out for the third spur.

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Still looking chirpy and cheerful at Mile 50 – 9:15 hrs elapsed (Photo by Ian Walker)

Spur 3 – Goring to Chain hill on the Ridge way

The first stretch was all-uphill on tarmac and it just seemed to get steeper and steeper. As I spent far too long in the warm and cozy checkpoint, my body was struggling to generate heat and power hiking this bit didn’t help but in a little while I got going. I was passed by lots of runners with their pacers as they ran uphill (Pacers are allowed from 50 miles in). I decided to stick to my plan and I saw James run past me with Robbie Britton pacing him (He’d almost finished the third leg while I was only a mile or two into it, very impressive running by the RD! He went on to win the race), initially I mistook them for a car as I saw two headlamps up the hill so decided to jump out of the road into the bushes and wait for it to pass only to look like an idiot on the side of the road when they passed. I was having some negative thoughts as it was cold and dark, I still had about 12+ hours of darkness to negotiate which is essentially the entire race so just kept plugging along. The next CP at bury downs was around 8 miles away and I knew once we got on top of the ridge that it would get very windy. But somehow this section felt a little dragged out as I’ve been going uphill for quite sometime! I bumped into Sarah and Alex here and asked them if I may run with them as I felt like I could use some company. They both were really good runners so I did initially question myself if this was a good move as I didn’t want to slow them down.

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Pretty much whenever I meet someone on the trail and we agree to run together

They were chatty and we kept each other going with good banter but some of the pop culture references missed me probably because I wasn’t born at that time but somehow any conversation I have with ultrarunners ends up with poop talk! We genuinely find it amusing talking about our bodily functions haha.

After a long, drawn out section being battered by the wind we finally reached burydowns CP on top of a hill. It was super windy here and I felt really sorry for the volunteers who’ve been up here for hours. Got a cup of tea sorted and ate a little before stretching and getting a move on as Chain hill CP was only 4 miles away. There was a nice downhill here before it got undulating again, we kept cheering everyone we passed and the one’s who ran past us. After getting to Chain hill CP we got some proper food in and stretched things out a little, Alex and me went for a wee outside the CP and he stumbled into a horseshoe which he was parading at the CP. After some chat, we got moving again back to Bury downs CP. The return had lots of uphill sections and Alex was telling us to focus on our feet and think of it as a downhill so we can run up it. Sarah and I weren’t having any of it and kept power hiking.

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Our reaction when Alex had this theory on how to run uphill?

We got to Bury downs and had more cake among other things as there was 8 miles back to Goring so eating now would be beneficial. On the return we spoke about our previous races and there was more “poop” talk lol. I think I drank too much caffeine with cups of tea at every CP and since I rarely drink tea/coffee in real life my body was flushing out water really quickly  due to the diuretic which meant I had the urge to pee every 5 minutes. It was a little embarrassing trying to pee against the wind on top of a hill and then running fast to catch up with them but it was only a minor inconvenience as I kept drinking well.

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Random picture with Alex under the Compton tunnel🙂 (Photo by Sarah Booker)

We kept things simple and were moving well on the downhills and with 2-3 miles to go Sarah was feeling a little sick so we slowed down and took it easy. I kept checking if she was running with us or slowed down as Alex was motoring ahead. Since I’ve paced at these races several times I knew there was no point pushing it with the last 25 miles ahead of us and we were still well on schedule for a 21-22 hour finish. We rolled into Goring and got to the CP to sort ourselves out. I was feeling great so used the loo, ate extremely well thanks to a volunteer assisting me (I reckon she would have force fed me if I refused to eat haha) and switched my shoes as I anticipated more walking in this leg as Sarah wasn’t feeling too well but still remained extremely positive and determined to get it done. Alex was having a chat with a couple of volunteers asking about what pace we needed to run/walk to get a sub-24, since we ran the first 75 well we could basically walk most of it and still make it so that was comforting as Sarah’s stomach was giving her grief. Once Sarah was ready we headed out for the final leg which was super exciting!

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The stoke is high at mile 75! – 15:50 hours elapsed (Photo by Jon Fielden)

Spur 4- Goring to Reading on the Thames path

We decided to run some bits and see how it goes but had a couple of wee steep hills in the beginning, which we were complaining about (as you do after 75 miles!). We had a good run/walk rhythm and when we ran we were running at a decent pace so Alex wanted us to keep doing this as much as possible to give us a cushion. We ran through some fields and ran sideways following toilet signs, which we mistook as course markers. We got to Whitchurch CP fairly quickly and had to go up a small hill into the checkpoint, I ate more cake while we waited for Sarah. Alex was looking at the clock and wanted us to hurry a little if we intended to walk most of it. We headed out in good spirits knowing that Reading was the next CP, which was around 8 miles away. I think we had some low points here as it was shit ’o clock and we were struggling to stay awake. Sarah was having issues too and shortly after the CP her husband Simon joined us for that leg. I had a wee sit down while we met him only to be told off by Allan rumbles who was pacing someone as he walked past us. We struggled up some stairs across a railway bridge to the other side and Sarah took a loo break as we guarded the trail. Having someone with fresh legs and a sharp mind was really helpful for us as we labored our way to the reading CP. Nothing much happened apart from a few drunk kids taunting us from the other side of the river. The people who ran past us looked like they were hating life which I found hilarious. After we got into town, we had to cross a couple of parks along the river and we started guessing where the CP was until we bumped into Susie who told us it was right across the bridge. Alex had the plan sorted but we starting to get behind schedule but didn’t want to lose the plot.

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This was pretty much my reaction whenever Alex came up with an idea, it was hard to disagree with his amazing enthusiasm about everything😀

Another bridge and we finally made it to the Reading CP (Which was at the other end of town!). After 87 and half miles of running, we had to go up stairs to access the CP, Sarah struggled up the stairs so Simon and Alex had to push her up the stairs which was hilarious. I took a loo break and started refueling with strawberries and more cake while the rest were ready to go so they left early while I stayed back and got some food down. Spotted several people looking a little broken and they were chilling out at this CP, I was tempted to join them as it was cold and dark outside! I felt a little nauseous so emptied my bottle with electrolytes and filled one with flat coke.

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Trying my best to empty the aid station supplies at Reading, I was soo hungry😀

After fannying around, I got myself sorted and started running to catch up with them, along the way I was cheering everyone who I ran past including Roz. Once I caught up we started chatting and we knew this was the home stretch. After a while of walking in the darkness, it was starting to get lighter and I remember Alex telling us “Look it’s getting lighter” and we were all looking at the other side at the street lights and nodding haha. The new day always brings new energy and we were starting to get chirpy again, we knew we were a little bit behind schedule so started to run some sections.

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On our way to Whitchurch CP, Alex being such a slavedriver keeping me on my toes! (Photo by Sarah Booker)

I felt fine and my leaky bladder was getting better as I stopped drinking tea for a few hours. I really appreciated having these three during the hard times so we can keep each other motivated to move forward. We got back to the car park where Simon left us and we made our way to Whitchurch CP and it was only 4 miles to the finish from there. We struggled up the climb and got some food in while Paul Ali (Who had just ran the Spartathlon a couple of weeks back) was waiting to sweep the course, he coaxed me to eat more ginger cake which I duly obliged. I think the biggest positive that I can take out of this entire run was the fact that I trained my stomach well to be able to eat cake even after 96 miles! Some of the folks around us were getting nervous if they’ll make the sub-24 hr mark and they were shuffling along while we knew it was in the bag so took it easy and we were talking about random stuff which kept us entertained.

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The end is nigh – Mile 97 (Photo by Sarah Booker)

We got to the river bank sections where people were fishing with huge poles which were a little annoying and Simon ran from the other side to meet us half-way through. There were a few Sunday morning runners going out for a jog, Sarah suddenly started chasing one of them as she thought she knew him which was quite funny as we were taking the mickey that she finally lost the plot! It was funny when she said “Shoot me if I ever want to do another 100!” and we laughed it off saying “Give it 2 weeks and you’ll come back for more”. I was so impressed with her determination and spirit even when she struggled she never complained but kept going with a smile on her face. We finally got around and started running a little before the finish when we were joined by Alex’s kids and it was quite emotional. We finished hand in hand and it was very special. Got a huge cheer from Natasha and Nikki along with massive hugs from them. I was elated but also a little tired and the effort didn’t quite sink in yet, got my buckle and was quickly whisked away by Richard Stillion who got back to Goring after the graveyard shift at Bury downs CP. Got my kit and sat down at the far end, felt really sleepy so put my legs up and crashed for 15 minutes before waking up and having a chat with Sam about how wonderful the race was and how I really enjoyed it. My body felt a little tight but once I got moving it loosened up, changed my clothes and was back out cheering the runners coming in and stayed until the last runner got in, there were so many people I recognised that it felt more like a family affair where everyone knows everyone.

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A special moment with this lot! They were way too excited to run with us
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Another angle with Simon in the background

I can’t thank the volunteers enough for giving up their time for supporting a bunch of idiots run across some hills. They are some of the most selfless people you’ll meet. They choose to spend their day handing out electrolytes, salt, and various snacks to runners in all manners of spirits. Race directors and racers alike rely on them for free, mostly cheerful labor and our sport wouldn’t be possible without their generosity.

Also my friends who volunteered at this race who kept me on a leash and didn’t let me faff around at Goring. One of my favorite moments of this year came when I finished the race and got a massive hug from Natasha and Nikki. So here’s to the friends I’ve made, ones I’ve become closer with, and ones I’m yet to meet.

I can’t thank my coach Paul Giblin enough for his unwavering support throughout this year when things have gone well and especially during the low points. I rarely talk about my running to anyone as I train by myself so to have someone to chat who is also equally vested in my progress has made a big difference to the way I approach training and racing. Running in general brings me happiness especially after switching to trails for the past few years and to be guided by one of the best runners in the world is a huge bonus and he is such a great guy to chat with too!

Last but not the least my family who although still think I’m barking mad to run a 100 miles still support and cheer me on regardless of my chosen adventures. I don’t share my racing exploits with them as what is normal to me might scare them off and get them worried but slowly they’re starting to accept that this is the new normal which is always reassuring.

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100 miles in one day :D
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Alex & Sarah, the lovely people I got to share the trail with for the second half of the race

Transvulcania 2015 – A relentless sun, inscrutable like life

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” ― Christopher McCandless

After a long day travelling to the remote island of La Palma, Phil who was supporting his friend Rodney picked me up at the airport. I met Phil at one of the Highland fling training weekends and we’ve been in touch through Facebook. They’ve been on the island for almost a week and knew the place quite well and Rodney dropped out last year so he was determined to finish this time. The place is stunningly beautiful and less touristy/trashy than the other Canary Islands as it’s harder to get to but there’s a reason it’s called the Isla Bonita (Beautiful island). It has some of the most varied and technical trails in the world and gives you a real sense of skyrunning as you are literally running above the clouds for most of the race. It is also the most mountainous island in the world. Although technically its part of Spain, its just off the coast of Morocco in Africa and often around the time of the race we get the hot winds along with the Saharan smog to the island which certainly spices things up, this natural phenomenon is called ‘Calima’. Transvulcania has quickly become an iconic and prestigious Ultra distance Skyrace which is part of the Skyrunner World Series and despite being ‘only’ 73.3 km with 4500m of ascent, the race offers a unique challenge in a stunning island with runners often experiencing issues with heat, dehydration, fainting, heat stroke and the technical nature of the course making things harder. It also hosts two other races the Media (24km) half marathon and the Marathon (42km) along the Ultramarathon race route.

Pre-race shenanigans at bib collection!

Elevation tatoo of the course, it went uppppp and then it went downnnnn! (Photo by Jamil Coury)

Got a good nights kip at the hotel & met up with the guys in the morning, we went down to the start at Faro de Fuencalliente to have a look at it when it’s bright since we start in the night and don’t get to see how beautiful the terrain is. Hiked the first two kilometres and took pics and bumped into Jordi Saragosa who was taking some shots of the salomon team who were also running down, we chatted about Kilian Jornet’s & Nuria’s trip to Nepal and his own experiences of suffering from altitude sickness during last year’s Hardrock 100, despite his issues he still drove around the course to support Kilian during his record-breaking run.  After that we headed off to Los llanos for bib collection, met Chris and Nicky Mills here and it was great to bump into familiar faces. Didn’t waste much time and got the bib & an elevation tattoo which I personally think is a great idea for mountain races. Got back to the hotel after having lunch near the finish line when both the lads got sun burnt sitting outside (I got burnt during the race) I really enjoyed how relaxed life was on the island. Bumped into Jamil Coury who was staying close to my hotel and had a chat with him about Hardrock 100 & Barkley, he’s the only runner to go out on loop 4 this year. He’s such a humble human being and it was lovely to have met him. I remember Phil saying “if that guy was anymore chilled out, he’d fall into a coma!”. After sending them off I went to the nearby hotel to meet up with Ian Campbell who was doing the live coverage for iRunFar and we had a good chat about the race and the challenges it’ll pose, the thing I love about races is that it feels more like a family gathering when you meet up with friends or make new ones!

The lighthouse at Faro de Fuencalliente during daytime, the volcanic ash made it look very pretty!
Jamil soaring up las deseadas, Photo By : Jordi for Salomon running

After trying to sleep early and procrastinating, I did manage to get a couple of hours of shut eye before waking up at it’s-way-too-early-o’clock (2 am) to eat breakfast and slather myself in Vaseline before getting the bus at 3 am. Met Kris again who was hanging out with Phil and Rodney yesterday, we were chatting to an American runner who was way too excited about this race at 3 am in the morning. After trying & failing to get some sleep on the bus, we were dropped off at the start at 4.30 am. It was quite cold and windy, people were sitting down huddled against each other near the light house, greeted Chris Mills and then bumped into Scott Harris. He’s been training on the island for the race and had a last minute injury scare, after a quick chat I met Donald and his tartan pants! Saw Jamil sitting there in colourful shorts too and told him that you both have a common taste when it comes to shorts selection (Rich coming from someone who wore yellow tights in his last race!). We were sitting waiting around for the race to start. The start felt like a disco party with dance music and projection lights that projected onto the cliffs (similar to TGC but there was more life & passion here). I felt like a kid watching all the elites warm up next to us, from the steely gaze of Luis Alberto who looked like he was ready for war to the friendly charm of Emelie Forsberg. They won the race in the end. The American guys seemed the most relaxed as they’re used to running low key events and the hype didn’t get to them.

At the startline with Kris, still trying to wake up! (Photo by Kris Duffy)

The magical lights that ascend from the Lighthouse at the start
Early on trying not to trip on my poles en route to Los canarios Photo by Atlantis

I lined up close to the front, as I didn’t want to end up being squashed as the trail quickly narrows down to a single track. The atmosphere at the start was incredible and it was magical to see all the headlamps, knowing that the first ten miles are uphill (and the first 50k too!) I took it easy and settled down into a steady power hiking rhythm after the crazy start where everyone sprinted the first 500 metres before the trail narrowed. I was surprised how hot and humid it felt even within the first 20 minutes, tried to keep up the water intake and knew it’ll only get worse once the sun rises. The underfoot conditions were testing as the volcanic dust required A LOT of effort, it was like two steps forward and you sink one step backward. I ensured not to get out of the trail as the rocks are really sharp and a slip could mean that I’ll need a few stitches!  The conga line kept going until we reached the first checkpoint at Los Canarios, which had only liquids. I refilled my bottles and soaked in the atmosphere. It felt like a block party with the entire village out on the streets to cheer the runners on, some people were still in their pyjamas and they generated A LOT of noise! It funnelled at certain sections like the Tour de France where you really feel the support with everyone going “Animo Animo, vamos champeone” or “Venga venga”. You could feel their passion for mountain running and they are very proud to host one of the toughest mountain races in the world, you’d never get such an atmosphere like this anywhere outside Europe. The only races I can think of that would have as good an atmosphere and ambience are probably some of the races in the Alps and Grand Raid de la réunion (Another island which is extremely passionate about mountain running). Think Zegama marathon in Basque country also has an incredible crowd support although it’s a much shorter race but alot more steeper and technical.

Enjoying the sunrise while climbing Las Deseadas
The climb on the volcanic ash up Las deseadas volcano. Photo by : Salomon running
Las deseadas summit (Photo courtesy Kris Duffy)

After crossing the village we kept plugging along uphill on volcanic ash. As we approached the summit of the volcano of Las Deseadas, there were people shouting behind “El paso por media marathon” which I think meant let the half marathon runners pass. The top three passed us and they were literally sprinting up an 8000ft volcano from sea level! After picking my jaw off the floor, I shouted support at the most famous beard in ultra running, Rob Krar. Oddly enough he won the Canyons 100k a week before on western states trail and was sprinting up a volcano a week later. He acknowledged and they quickly vanished, he went on to finish 2nd. About 100m from the summit we saw a helicopter come out of the horizon and they were filming us. I could almost touch the chopper! That’s when you really feel like you’re doing a big Euro race. We reached the 2nd checkpoint (16km) here and refilled bottles and kept moving.

The chopper! (Photo credit: Kris Duffy)
Enroute to El Pilar

After the summit it was a fairly long descent into El Pilar, which is also the half marathon (24km) finish line and this section has the most runnable single track in the entire course. There was a massive turnout there and I soaked in the wild screams and blaring party music. After quickly refilling my bottles and eating some fruit, I left quickly and knew the next section had less climbing. But the heat was rising and it was a fairly undulating uphill, so ran some bits and power hiked the steeper sections. I kept eating and drinking and was feeling alright, saved myself for the bigger climbs ahead. Once we reached El Reventon (30k checkpoint), I had the volunteers pour a jug of ice water over my head to cool myself (I basically did the ice bucket challenge at every check-point after this and LOVED IT!).

El reventon CP above the clouds! (Photo by Kris Duffy)

After drinking up and eating a little I left for the next CP which was supposed to be 12.5km away and with almost everything being uphill it’ll take ages so I tried to conserve water consumption. Think this was a flaw by the organisation to scrap the checkpoint they had in between these two CP’s to make the race harder. By now the heat was really getting to everyone and we took rest breaks when we found a shady tree to keep core temps under control. I was starting to feel dehydrated but kept pushing and about half way people were queuing up at Punta de los roque (about 36-37k) which was a emergency medical hut but since people were begging for water they filled half a bottle to keep us going which was a God send as I had run out of water by then and didn’t fancy drinking electrolytes.

Stunning view from Pico de la nieve Photo by Ian Corless
On the way up to Pico de la cruz! (Photo by Kris Duffy)

As we got higher, there was no shade to take cover so we had to keep moving. I was starting to feel abit dizzy with heat exhaustion and was getting frustrated that we had crossed 12.5k a long time ago and the CP was nowhere to be seen, it came eventually after 17k (4.5k more than the original plan and almost all of it was uphill!) at Pico de la cruz. I saw some people getting a heat stroke and lying motion less on the side of the trail but the emergency services did a good job. There was someone from the mountain rescue team out on the trail almost every 2k even at the high points. I knew this was turning into pure survival as I had lost appetite to eat or drink due to the stinging heat which only got worse at a higher elevation. Eventually I took a 30 minute break at the checkpoint to sort myself out, think around 250+ dropped at this checkpoint due to heat stroke/fainting or dehydration as it was further than the mentioned distance (17k instead of 12.5k). I knew I had to keep moving as we were at one of the highest points in the course and the altitude and the heat were making me dizzy. I kept things simple as I knew once I reached the next checkpoint at Roque de los muchachos (51k) it was all downhill (but it’s one technical downhill!). Kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried to keep it together especially with eating and drinking. There were supporters out on the trail giving out Powerade and cola before the zig-zag climb to Roque which is the highest point on the island. We could see the observatories here and the place looked really cool with the clouds below us. Since it’s above the clouds it offers scientists a clear view of the sky during night time.

Climb up to Roque with the observatories in the background (Photo by Kris Duffy)
Still looking the part near Roque!
The adoring support at the most random places! (Photo by Kris Duffy)

After almost an eternity I got to Roque de los muchachos (2400m+) and tried to use the toilet as I felt my stomach wasn’t processing anything, had a plate of pasta after that and felt nauseous but knew I needed some food in the belly for the next stretch. Was chatting to a couple of Brits who were pulling out there and tried to talk them out of it but they were having none of it, I don’t understand how some people say “It’s just so hot and so bloody hard!”, well you chose to run a race in a volcanic island in Africa during summer, what else did you expect?? The girl seemed fine, she just mentally couldn’t deal with how hard the marathon was and I did feel sorry for her in the end, it always breaks my heart to see people drop from a race. (The Transvulcania marathon starts from El Pilar (24k) to Tazarcorte (68k) and is probably one of the hardest mountain marathons in the world).

The exact reaction of the girl I tried and failed to coax at Roque de los muchachos checkpoint
Just past the checkpoint caught trying to find something in my rucksack!
Right after roque while starting the descent, after posing I remember throwing up after we passed the supporters😀

After getting everything down I got up and immediately threw up at the bin with my stomach starting to cramp, well atleast I learnt how to projectile vomit now! After emptying the system, I started to get full body cramps due to the water loss and they took me to the medical tent. They tried to put a drip on me with saline but I refused as I felt I needed to descend and the altitude might be causing these issues so drank 3-4 cups of electrolyte and kept it down in front of them and got out of the CP. 10 minutes later I threw up again and the trail got very technical, with cramping and zero energy I couldn’t run on those technical trails so I had to tip toe downhill and walk certain sections. I realized then this was going to be a long and sucky day! The wheels well and truly came off en route to El Time (61k), I stumbled and fell thrice but didn’t break anything. I stood up and kept going until the 4th time I slipped on some supremely technical and gnarly trail. My lower body started to seize due to cramping and the humidity at lower altitude (still at 1300m) lead to more sweating and salt loss, I rolled to the side of the trail and curled up in a ball. I remember at that moment everything seemed so peaceful and still and I passed out for a couple of minutes, got woken up by a bunch of runners who passed me and they put a cream on my legs to stop the cramping and force fed a tablet (salt I think?). They told me to sit for a few minutes before trying to walk down to the checkpoint, which was a couple of kilometres away. I forgot about racing and just enjoyed the view on the side of the trail, everything hurt and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish with my quads and calf starting to seize. I still had a 2 hour cushion over the cut-offs which I was eating into and chatted to the people passing me to assure them I’m still alive and kicking!

My thoughts while lying on the side of the trail

I remember laughing at myself for paying good money to go through this and eventually got on my feet and jogged into the checkpoint and went straight to the medical tent, got some cream applied on my quads and calf’s and took a nap for 15 minutes before getting some food and spent about 50 minutes fannying about at that checkpoint debating whether to drop or not but mentally I was still positive and kept telling myself “finish it so you don’t have to come back again you eejit!” I remember the marshals were abit worried at my state and sent a volunteer to run with me, as I was abit delirious and to ensure I didn’t fall off a cliff during the descent. But I started drinking electrolytes and then passed a few people, I presume that guy turned back at some point as I didn’t see him after a few kilometres or ran with some of the guys I passed who looked in worse shape than me. Still it was a good gesture by the organisers to take care of their runners. I remember moving fairly well as we descended a couple of thousand feet and I could see tazacorte from there. The last kilometre is the zig-zag vertical kilometre route and it looked spectacular. I enjoyed the views while carefully descending down it and into tazacorte for a huge cheer. This was the marathon finish point and I had about an hour and half to get to the finish with 5k to go (mostly uphill 400m climb). I drank 2 cups of coke and had one piece of watermelon and ran with a couple of Spanish guys into the dry riverbed which was aptly named the Ravine of Sorrows (I later found out an Italian runner was airlifted after passing out in this section due to the stifling heat and humidity, so finishing was by no means guaranteed even if you got so far!).

The stunning view of Tazacorte from the steep descent (Photo by Kris Duffy)
Heading into Tazarcorte, my biceps looked ripped after all that water loss!😉

The dry river bed, it was dark by the time I got here but extremely humid at sea level (Photo by Kris Duffy)

As we were in sea level, we could really feel the heat and humidity, we were furiously power hiking on the loose riverbed. It looked amazing and we were making decent progress and kept passing people, I started to cramp up again when we started the long ascent with switchbacks. Kept taking breaks and let those guys go ahead and ran with another Spanish runner who looked like he was hurting (I think probably by now everyone looked like death!). We buddied up and eventually crawled up it to the top of the torturous climb with zero breeze.

Running inside the canyon at sea level with zero breeze!

 

I remember that guy saying we were almost there and we got onto the Los Llanos stretch, it was a long road which goes into the city centre where the finish line is. We had plenty of time so just kept moving and chatting. He seemed emotional and he said he’s run this race 3 times and this will be the first time he’s finishing it. He told me he was having the perfect race and I got abit emotional and hugged him. (That moment really puts things into perspective for me and I didn’t mention any of my struggles to him) I knew how much this finish meant to him and he’s a real hero for coming back to try it again and again! We were high fiving the kids who were cheering us on along with the locals who sat at the cafes and bars. Once we got close to the finish, his daughter and wife came to hug him and he told me to go ahead and he wanted to run with his daughter. I went on to the finishing straight and got a heroes welcome with the entire town still out at the finish line as they had a concert going on until the cut-off time, it really felt like a massive party. I was really glad to finally see the finish line after a long day, it was good to see Depa screaming at the finish (I remember him from UTMB when he was doing the Spanish updates for iRunFar) and got the medal from the Race Director. I finished in 16:39 hrs and went into the finisher’s section to throw up promptly into the bin. After the euphoria of finishing settled, I was still cramping and the humidity only made things worse. They told me not to eat anything and just keep drinking water. Tried to get a massage only to hilariously cramp up while getting on the table but the guy was really nice and we had a chat about this amazing island. The best thing about this race is the support and how knowledgeable the people are, they know so much about Skyrunning/mountain running and appreciate just how hard this race is. After changing into dry clothes I got the bus back to the hotel and threw up on the bus and at the hotel too but had a good night’s sleep before a long day of travelling to get back.

The adoring support en route to the finish, it was dark by the time I got there but the crowd was still there! (Photo by Kris Duffy)
Running into to the finish looking like a drowned rat from my own sweat!
Finally after a long day of running and visiting medical tents I got around😀 I think I caught that woman on the right staring at my biceps and she’s still staring!

I had a rough day and my race didn’t go to plan but the beauty of the island and the energy of the people got me to the finish line as I felt this epic experience deserved a finish. It’s funny how only 2 weeks ago things went to plan during the Highland Fling but the wheels came off here, in hindsight I should have just ran a good time there when I felt good instead of holding back. There’s an amazing community in La Palma and a real mountain spirit, it was a privilege to run in La Isla Bonita and I am very grateful to run on such a brutal course. I can see why the current champion Luis Alberto said ‘There’s magic in Transvulcania’, you can genuinely feel it before,during and after the race. The volunteers and supporters went out of their way to make it an incredible experience. I think wanting to quit and suffering and finishing is what ultra running is all about. It’s about things going terribly wrong and figuring out how to get through it. I’ve done well in races and it doesn’t affect me as much when things go to plan but experiences like this humble you and you start to appreciate the little things in life, like an ice bucket challenge at every checkpoint! I wasn’t peeing blood nor did I have a bone sticking out so it made sense to get it done regardless of the time, although I didn’t have control of certain things like projectile vomiting and dizziness but I could still persevere & keep it together mentally and I am very proud of that fact, I’m still young and learning at this level so hope to build on this for future challenges as I can draw on this experience during racing and more importantly in real life too.

Overall despite my personal struggles I would highly recommend the race to any trail runner as the you’ll get to experience a very different type of volcanic trail here and once you’re on the island, food and accommodation is very reasonable. It would be a great help if you knew Spanish but you can get by with English + universal sign language & everyone at the race understands English to an extent. Although it looks quite complicated to get here there are direct flights from Manchester & Madrid or you can fly to Tenerife and get a relaxing boat ride to the island which some of my Scottish friends did and highly recommended the experience but do carry sun lotion with you! Almost all my friends apart from me combined this with a vacation to make the trip worthwhile and it’s a must-see destination for any adventurous traveller. It also helps you acclimatise to the heat if you go there early.

I’d to thank my parents and my aunt and uncle (Sam & Esther) for their love and support, my coach Paul Giblin for his guidance & sage advice and all my friends and family for their continued support and encouragement regardless of how well/terribly I perform at these things as I like to remind myself often that just finishing these challenges is an achievement in itself, if not there’s always a DNF after party that we can arrange😉

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

The Bling was pretty cool for all the torture the course dished out!
Finish line close-up shot of me caked in salt & volcanic ash and looking about 30 years older and trying to keep my mouth shut so I don’t throw up at the camera!

Looking back on 2014 with fond memories :)

I’ve done a fair amount of racing this year so its been quite satisfying. My racing calendar has helped me travel to some beautiful places, meet some awesome people and share some wonderful moments with them. I’ve only listed the Ultra’s below (50+ mile races), I did a few XC races, marathons and duathlons too. My season started in december as I went home for christmas last year. This season has taught me alot and made me more mature as a person, I’ve gained more experience both through racing, volunteering and listening to others. Hopefully I can train smarter and be less injury prone in 2015, I’ll definitely be racing less in 2015.

December 2013:

1. Nilgiris 100k (62 miles) – Ooty, India

It was a planned long run since it was pretty much a pre-season race so I rarely pushed. Ran with Navin and Abhijit, we finished in 14 odd hours but more importantly I had a really good time and we enjoyed each other’s company. The course had about 1500m of ascent so it wasn’t too hilly, the course was also really pretty but it was all on tarmac though!

January:

2. Neville’s Dawn to Dusk 12 hour duathlon for charity – Chennai,India

This was the second year I ran and cycled for 6 hours each. It’s a beautiful event organized by my friend Neville in aid for cerebral palsy. It was a fairly relaxed event to kick off the season and I really enjoyed the camaraderie.

March:

3. Saxon Shore trails – White Cliffs 100 miler (Dover)

Prepared well for it but the company went bankrupt so the race never materialised. Since we had our stay sorted, we went and spent the weekend there. Dover has a beautiful seaside route which would have made a great race!

4. Oldham Way Ultra – 40 miles (Oldham)

This was the first TeamOA race I did which was brilliantly organized by Wane and his friends. It was more of a navigational ultra so I ran with Nick Marriott and Suzy Coates. We ran most of it cross country without using the established trail to have some fun, things went well until mile 37 where we got lost on the Pennine way and were stuck in a boggy section for a couple of hours. Still finished in one piece and totally enjoyed the experience!

April:

5. South Downs Way 50 miler (Eastbourne)

Got a last minute entry into this one. Another excellently organized event by Centurion. The trail was in good condition and it was a great training run. I paced 19 year old Josh to his first 50 mile finish, got him around safely in 9.39 hours. I can see why Centurion are the best organizers in England, they had american style aid stations stocked with everything you can think of!

6. Hoka Highland Fling 53 miler (Highland,Scotland)

Another planned training run on the WHW, had to drop half way through at Rowardennan with a hip injury. Still had a lovely time at Jamie’s place, met 3 Irish lads and Micky too. This was probably the best organized Ultra in the UK and also has the highest number of participants, would definitely return for as long as I can!

June

7. Calderdale Ultra 50 miler (Manchester)

This was supposed to be the last long run before the West Highland Way but I was still recovering from an injury so I didn’t start this race. Heard good things about it from a friend who did finish.

8. West Highland Way Race – 95 miles (Highland,Scotland)

Brilliant race steeped in history. I struggled with a hip injury 40 miles in, kept going and finished the race but it put me out for the summer. It was totally worth digging deep for this race, I saw lots of hallucinations so got my money’s worth!

9. Long Eaton 50 miler (Nottingham)

This was a week after the WHWR so I decided to not start it, Ian started and came 3rd so I was chuffed for him!😀 It’s my local race so would love to go and support it next year

August

10. TDS – UTMB 119 km (Chamonix-Mont Blanc,France)

I only started running gingerly a week before TDS so made the logical choice and didn’t start this one either! Since I had flights booked, made the trip across to help out iRunFar’s coverage of the race. Got to climb a couple of big ascents and spend the night in the mountains. I now realise what it takes to run this one so can plan my training in a better manner if I get in in 2015. It’s a lovely route with unparalleled support from the locals, a must do for any trail runner!

October

11. 3×3000 Ultra-Trail Skyrace – 50 miles (Lake district)

This was by far the hardest race of 2014. The trail was flooded due to bad weather but the organisers still went ahead with the race, if it were France I’m sure  they would have cancelled the race! It was an incredible experience with rain, hail storm, sub-zero windchill and all types of rugged terrain across Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw. A proper mountain race but due to a lack of fitness coming back from an injury I had to grind out a finish🙂

November

12. White Rose Ultra – 30 miles (Yorkshire)

Another cracking event by TeamOA and Wane. Won a free entry into this one through a contest so it would be rude not to start it! There was the 60 mile option which was two loops or finish with just one loop. It was very hilly route with constant ups and downs, around 50% of the race was tarmac and only 50% was on trail. I got to run with Rob Young who is chasing a world record 370+ marathons in 365 days so decided to finish the 30 mile loop with him instead of pushing on for the 60. Running short sections of tarmac on trail shoes is bearable but all that tarmac running was hurting my weak hips, if I did it again I would definitely wear a more cushioned shoe. Brilliant support and a well marked route, think they have a 100 mile option next year, I might just go out and volunteer to point and laugh at the ones who do the 100 miler!😀

So how do I feel now?

Ash

West Highland Way Race 2014 – 95 miles

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” Romans 5:3-5

Why I decided to run the West Highland Way race:

I first heard about this race almost a year ago on an forum and it’s been in my thoughts ever since. I was hesitant to put my name for the lottery as I only recently started running on trails and with 29,520ft of elevation (14,760ft of ascending and 14,750ft of descending) over rocky terrain, it seemed very intimidating. Coming from a road running background and as a person who was born and raised in Chennai, India. (It’s extremely flat with one hill in the entire city but we got alot of beaches though, Mind I did go up and down that wee hill at least a million times!)

I’ve always found the mountains quite intimidating and daunting. The unknown had really intrigued me in the past and that was probably one of the main reasons I entered the West Highland Way race. Had a few sleepless nights and was really hoping my name doesn’t get pulled out during the draw but alas I got the email saying I got selected and had to pay up and of course man up. I could have done the logical thing and given up my spot but decided to take the plunge after mulling over it for a week. The enormity of the challenge hit me only after entering it and doing more research about the race and its history. Up until then I’ve never heard about it and was thinking it’ll be a nice stroll on some candy-ass trail with a few hills thrown in, little did I know it was going to be so rocky with scrambling involved! Although I was warned by a friend who did it before and told me to be wary of the challenge and not take it for granted.

Pre-race:

I arrived in Aberdeen a week earlier and stayed at my uncle’s house. They were going to be my crew and are not runners but gladly accepted to support so I had to prepare lists and post codes of checkpoints to let them know everything that I might need so that they can deal with me especially towards the end of the race. I was pretty much stuffing my face a week before the race with lots of curry and spicy food but was generally feeling good, my tapering included very short 3 mile runs everyday just to keep the legs moving. I only stopped running a day or two before the race. On wednesday we went out to Tesco and basically bought the entire place out. Lots of sugary stuff,savoury stuff,cakes, scottish short breads and some healthier stuff too. The helper lady asked me if we were going on a camping trip with the amount of stuff I was buying, I told her “nah I am just running the entire west highland way, its kinda like a race you know”, she thought I was crazy but wished me well. After seeing Noanie’s post about the level of detail she puts into sorting stuff out I was panicking as I wasn’t so well organised. I got the drop bags sorted and the plan was to eat real food until I can’t stomach it and then go for the sugary stuff like GU gels/cookies/baby food etc.

Think I bought a little too much but I did eat the rest post race😀

Race day:

I couldn’t sleep on thursday night as I was too excited about the race but I knew I’ll be fine (I’m a firm believer that the sleep you get 2-3 nights out from the race is what matters, so I really don’t stress over sleep the night before).  I was lazing around that morning after breakfast and lunch, tried to nap but simply couldn’t sleep so was sorting my kit out and just being calm. We drove to Glasgow from Aberdeen after a routine dinner of pasta and boiled chicken and it took us around 3 hours to get there, I was trying to rest but couldn’t shut my brain down. We got there around half-past 11 so there was plenty of time to register etc. Parked at the railway station and went to the church to register, could already see the place was buzzing! Met lots of known faces, a quick chat with Johnny Fling and then went into the church to get my wrist band & timing chip sorted and get myself weighed. I got some curious looks and comments about my choice of taping my feet as I was wearing slippers at that time. After meeting John Kynaston and Carrie Craig, I met with Lorna and Gavin again, I was still undecided on what shoes to wear 45 mins before the start, yea I was cutting it a little close. I brought two trail shoes (Mizuno Wave Ascend & Salomon S-Lab XT6) and two road shoes (Saucony Guide and Hoka Stinson Evo) with me. Gavin told me to go with road shoes as it was pretty dry the week before the race and the course is very rocky. Got some insights from both of them and it was very reassuring to know that I would definitely finish, just what time depends on me. I went back to the car to slather myself in vaseline and put my shoes on, it was the shoe I trained with although this one was a size bigger to the one I normally use in anticipation for swelling, both my road shoes were a size bigger. After a quick word of prayer we headed out to the tunnel where the race briefing was going on. Since it was already published online I didn’t pay too much attention to it as at that point I read it by heart lol. Saw Jamie and Bob steel again at the start and after a few minutes I hugged my aunt and uncle and went to the start. Met Carrie again and she wished me well and I knew she was hoping for a good time, it’s always good to see known faces around you and exactly at 1 am we set off.

Checking in before the race, got my bracelet and they weighed me. Was quite nervous at this point🙂 Photo credit : Graeme Hewitson
A quick pic with my aunt just before the Start🙂
Race Briefing! Photo Credit: Graeme Hewitson

Milngavie to Balmaha (Mile 19)

              The start was pretty lively with everyone chatting and we were getting to know each other. While the fact that we had 95 miles to go was very much in my head and I was trying to not think about it too much. I tried to avoid conversations as I was pretty nervous and it was dark so was just watching my feet and plodding along. 30 minutes into the race I realised my fancy GPS watch wasn’t working like at all as it wasn’t showing anything just a whole load of ZEROS! So much for fenix 2 being the best garmin watch, later it hit me that I set the recording interval at 30 minutes instead of 30 seconds (facepalm). After getting that sorted the field was spreading out and I bumped into Fiona Rennie. She’s an absolute legend who has survived cancer and was doing the race for the 10th time this year, after a quick chat and telling her how much I looked up to her I kept shuffling along. Was running with another lovely lady who was doing it for her first time aswell, we went past drymen (mile 12) and I was reminded about the crazy support here during the fling but tonight it was very quiet with some crews waiting there to meet their runners. I had enough stuff with me and opted to carry a handheld bottle so that I don’t have to wait around in the next aid station. I was feeling pretty good and tried to hold myself back although my stomach was giving me trouble 10 miles in, met two lovely ladies who were running together and I was either following them or they were following me until we saw day light and started our long ascent up Conic Hill. It was much better today as the times I’ve run up conic, it’s usually covered in mist so can’t see the summit. After a couple of false summits we finally saw that breath-taking view of Loch Lomond and tried to descend down it carefully as its easy to slip and break something in those rocky steps. After descending down into balmaha I felt kinda sleepy and in need of a toilet break, after checking in my time I went in search of my support car since my crew were camped inside as Balmaha was midge infested. After a quick sandwich and some refills, I dropped my windproof jacket and my handheld and went in to the Oak tree for a quick toilet break. I realised then that I had my head lamp on and I really didn’t want to carry it around until Beinglas farm (mile 41) where I’ll meet my crew next so went back and gave it to them. It kinda didn’t strike me at that time that I had a rucksack which can carry a tiny headlamp, sigh it was the nerves I think!

That view of Loch Lomond never gets old at the summit of Conil Hill!
Coming into the midge fest that is the Balmaha checkpoint! Photo credit: Stuart Macfarlane

Balmaha (Mile 19) to Rowardennan (Mile 27)

I was starting to feel pretty good and was sticking to my strategy at this point, passed a few runners and was generally moving well as I remember this was the section I wasn’t feeling too well during the fling. It had a lot of undulations with lots of climbs and descents and one very steep “hands on knees” style climb. There was a small section where you’re running on pebbles/beach sand along loch lomond which was very picturesque and the sun came out. Then we came into the section where you’re running along the loch and into the checkpoint. I was tip toeing my way into the CP as I really didn’t want to twist my ankle so early in the race. The checkpoint was midge infested as all the volunteers were wearing bee keepers hats and I sat down to eat the contents of my drop bag. Could barely see any thing with the amount of midges! In hindsight I should have listened to the volunteer and not sat there at all. Ate my new favourite Ambrosio Custard, a little bit of coke and filled my bottle with the water. I think I ate a mars bar too!

A nice section along the Loch except for the bloody midges!
Lovely pebble/beach sand section along Loch Lomond!

Rowardennan (Mile 27) to Inversnaid (Mile 34)

As I walked out of the aid station gingerly I knew I had one more aid station before I meet my crew again so wanted to run this section decently as the next one is a bit of a scramble! Was running along with a lovely gentleman in his 60’s whose name escapes me, he was pretty surprised that I’ve taken up ultra running when I’m all of 23. He was trying to take the mickey by saying  “shouldn’t you like be partying and getting drunk? You’re a lawyer you should know better!” Fair enough as he had a son my age but was very supportive of what I was doing. He did mention he didn’t care what time he finished as long as he got around and got his moneys worth! While moving up the climb we met three other guys of whom I remember only Flip Owen. He seemed like a really nice guy and we had a lot of common friends, he was telling me about his 2 finishes and one DNF. He did remind me of how special it is to get to fort william as the awards ceremony is second to none, I was close to tears listening to that soul stirring speech and it toughened my resolve to finish at all costs. He also mentioned his DNF at 100 miles into the Hardmoors 110 after breaking his foot, later he sprinted off into the horizon while the three of us were looking at each other baffled, they blamed me for scaring him off lol. I was running with the 60 year old at this point while his friend looked like he was part of a zombie invasion and was trying his hardest to keep it together. He turned at me and said “if you keep running around all over the place you will end up like him!” I chuckled and went towards his friend to cheer him on. After a good bit of banter we were around 3 miles away from the checkpoint and were getting frustrated. I was feeling rubbish at this point and was trying to eat. While the 60 year old was telling me about his races and we were talking about how beautiful India is. He later called me his sherpa and that I must lead him to the next CP since I knew where it was, I was like “If I was a sherpa I would be leading this race not be in the middle of the pack having a whale of a time!”😀 We went through some dark moments here and I was starting to see stars due to not eating enough. After some hiking and running we finally made it to inversnaid where I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t quite spot the checkpoint as it was behind a giant bus and was starting to panic (as you do when you really want to have a sit down!). Sat down and consumed most of the stuff in my drop bag. I met Alan Stewart and his friend also sitting down next to me. After standing in front of the giant fan they had set up to blow away the midges we headed off to beinglas farm. This was supposed to be one of the hardest sections of the race.

The Gent I ran with🙂

Inversnaid (Mile 34) to Beinglas Farm (Mile 41)

While its only 7 miles long and seems fairly simple on paper, this lived up to its billing as it was totally non-runnable! Alan stewart, his friend and I were working in tandem and taking turns to lead while power hiking/scrambling along this section and being very careful not to twist an ankle or fall into the loch! They both were lovely lads who had finished the race a couple of times and knew their way around, we had some good conversations to kill time as this was a section where it’ll take you 2-3 hours to get through 3 miles and you wouldn’t notice it took that long! After going across boulders and hitting some runnable trails until a quick hike up Dario’s post where we had two lovely people shouting abuse from the top to keep us going. I was slowing down here with about 2 miles to go until beinglas, I was running alone and feeling abit low so just wanted to get to beinglas and meet my crew. After running along high up the hill and seeing the road from a distance I knew I had a fair bit to go before I would get there. Met a volunteer along the way who was very polite and lied to my face saying that I was looking great! After some steady running I finally got to the checkpoint and checked in, was searching around for my crew who I could not spot so I ran towards the car park to see if they were there. Nope not to be found, I met Graeme Hewitson who was supporting a israeli runner and his husband was also crewing. I called my uncle who couldn’t find Beinglas so I told him to go directly to auchertyre (mile 51) since Graeme offered to help. Had a quick sandwich, some orange juice and a quick bottle refill. I met Graeme earlier during the fling when he was taking pictures up conic hill, he told me that he finished it last year and that the goblet is extremely precious! It’s this family feeling about the race that sets it apart from most ultras as other’s come out to your aid. In hindsight It was a good thing that I didn’t meet my crew here as I would have most likely dropped as I felt so rubbish.

Umm trail?
Beinglas CP

Beinglas(41) to Auchertyre (Mile 51)

It was a pretty lonely section after leaving the check-point I couldn’t spot anyone ahead or behind me so was just shuffling along. Saw one runner ahead who was barely walking, after a quick chat and motivational talk I kept going. I was feeling pretty low so tried to eat and was looking for inspiration. I decided to get my ipod out and listen to some tunes but later realised one of the ear buds must have fallen off somewhere along the trail so just kept putting one foot in front of the other. There was a fair bit of sunshine which helped me pick up the pace. Then I hit the roller coaster section with lots of nice downhills and uphills and was really enjoying it. Came across a hiker who had stopped and was asking him how long to go until auchertyre and he had no clue but he did say that I was on the right path which was reassuring. After some soul searching I came across three french girls who were walking along with their massive rucksack’s, was chatting to them and telling them about this race that’s apparently going on and I again asked them how long until the next checkpoint and they didn’t have a clue either. I guess I looked pretty rubbish at that point so they broke into a dance and were cheering me on, so I ran the uphills until they were out of sight then strode along at my own gentle pace as I really didn’t want to trash my quads at this point. I then came across a road crossing with two marshals who were chirpy and cheerful, thank you for the kind words that really did give me a lift. I think I went through a rather dry cowpoo alley with mutated cows the size of dinosaurs! They were literally dwarfing me so whenever I came across one near the trail I stopped and walked until I passed them, very intimidating animals especially when they moo! I had to slap myself to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating as they were just massive. With about a mile to go to the check point I was pretty certain that I was going to drop out as I never felt so rubbish in a race at mile 50 and I knew it would take me another night of running to get to fort william so was really contemplating a good excuse to quit but none of my petty excuses came close to my desire of owning a goblet (As Alan said next time I want a crystal Goblet I am definitely getting one from Asda instead!). My feet were trashed as I used road shoes which had no rock plate and my running pace was pretty pedestrian so mentally it was hard to accept and justify. As soon as I entered the check point they wanted to weigh me so went to my crew and got the weighing card, they said I lost 2.5 kgs and that I needed to eat more and drink more to avoid being pulled out at the next CP where they’ll weigh me again (mile 80). Got into the car and removed my shoes and was about 80% certain I was dropping but still ate a PBJ sandwich and a protein shake and was still contemplating on how I am going to crawl my way to the finish. After looking at my state my uncle was pretty worried and asked me if I genuinely could make it to fort William and my automatic response was a emphatic YES! Just to get me going again I sent my pacer Gavin a text saying that I’ll be at Bridge of Orchy (BoB) in an hour or two and that was the one thing I was looking forward to the most, now I couldn’t back out ha!. After a change of t-shirt (my Salomon exo was sweaty and looked more like a midge net at this point) and reapplying vaseline, I decided to slip into the Hoka’s as they offered superior cushioning so that I don’t feel the rocks as much but my feet was swollen about 3 times its regular size and was very tender from the rock bashing so even with a bigger shoe the toe box seemed too narrow but battered toe nails was something I was willing to take if it meant I would finish. I was still well ahead of the cut-offs so thats never been a worry its just that mentally I was a mess but I refused to be drawn into the self-pity cave. I knew this was the last section I’ll be running alone so was just trying to keep it together and not cry, even if I did no one was going to hear it on top of a hill!😀

The world famous Cowpoo alley!
Auchertyre CP where I was pretty close to dropping but with a view like that I ran out of excuses! Photo by Graeme Hewitson

Auchertyre (Mile 51) to Bridge of Orchy (BoB) (Mile 60)

After having a quick stop at the toilet before leaving the checkpoint (Probably the only time in my life where I didn’t care which toilet I was getting in whether it was mens/disabled/womens!). I left auchertyre knowing that I had crossed the point of no return so no quitting and feeling sorry for yourself anymore I just had to get it done. After some solitary miles across some stunning scenery with majestic munros following you, they seemed to get bigger and bigger every time I looked at them so had to snap out of the constant mountain gazing. Had a few people running ahead of me so tried to get to them and walk some bits with them, I saw two lads in kilts marching along with purpose! After some long solitary miles I came across three beautiful ladies on the side of a hill with the Highland Fling hoodie on and cow bells to cheer us, that really got me going to start running with purpose again. Thank you for telling me that I would finish, felt very reassuring and gave me a lift. Descended down from that hill into a ditch and met some flingers with the fling buff running on the opposite direction wishing me well. Kept a steady approach and reached the BoB train station and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. A nice couple who were crewing for their daughter were on hand to direct me to the check point and the descent on tarmac seeing Lorna, Gavin and their friend in the distance walking towards me gave me a real lift. After meeting them and a quick hug to Gavin we were chatting for a few seconds before we started running to meet my crew. Lorna and her friend really liked my colourful Hokas, I told them “if you’re going to wear clown shoes might as well get a rainbow coloured one!”.

Enroute to BOB, getting into Munro Territory! Photo: Katie Hall
BOB CP where I linked up with Gavin🙂 Photo : Katie Hall

Bridge of Orchy (Mile 60) to Glencoe Ski resort (Mile 70)

After being handed a big slice of sandwich we checked in at the CP and saw Fiona having a quick sit down. After cheering her we started the ascent and I was feeling really good at this point. Felt weird how I felt absolutely shattered at Mile 40 to 50 and yet was feeling fresh now. We were chatting along the ascent and Gavin was encouraging me to run bits of it, he was telling me about how amazing transvulcania was (Definitely one for the future!) and before we knew it we were approaching the infamous Jelly Baby hill with Murdo in a clown costume. As soon as we got to him he asked me if I wanted wine/whisky or a jelly baby, I asked for a jelly baby and he said that I would finish in daylight, tomorrow! Although my heart sank a little when I heard that at least I knew I would get through this in one piece with Gavin with me.

Jelly Baby Hill, Photo : Lorna McMillan
Jelly Baby hill!

We descended down that hill and went through the gates to enter Rannoch moor, met Flip Owen again and chatted for sometime and we kept pushing on, we were literally yo-yoing back and forth until we started running again. I was telling Gavin about how beautiful this place was and that it was soo peaceful and quiet. The snow-covered peaks were spectacular and I really enjoyed that undulating section. I also told him how weird it felt to feel this good at 70 miles into a race and that I never thought that would ever be possible! After making steady progress we charged into the glencoe ski resort checkpoint. They had a massive fire truck there which served as the checkpoint base. Met my crew here and spent sometime eating and drinking. Got my headlamp on as it would go dark soon and I knew the second night was coming and that I may see hallucinations. 

Not a bad view at Glencoe🙂
Going up the Devil’s staircase!

Glencoe (Mile 70) to Kinlochleven (Mile 81)

After leaving the checkpoint I spent a couple of minutes stretching as Gavin was on the phone then we crossed the road and Gavin was showing me the three sisters and the majestic brooding hills in that region and he also pointed out the devils staircase, from afar it looked very scary as the legend has it that soldiers would get drunk in the pub and had to walk up it to reach their army base and that they would see ghosts and demons during the night! Not something I wanted to know when you’re going to go through it during night time. I noticed a big pothole in the road and was staring at it, it definitely looked like there was a snake coiled up inside it and told Gavin about it, I still wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or it really was a snake so we moved on! We played this little game about naming all the body parts which were three letters and I was doing well, I knew he was doing this to keep me distracted from the pain😀 Flip came and we were playing this game with him aswell, as we were approaching the forest just below the devil’s staircase I was marvelling at the breathtaking scenery, the mountains were so beautiful that I could sit there all day and just watch them but I had to remind myself often that I wasn’t there to buy a piece of land and that I was still in a race! As we were getting closer to the foot of the big climb the light was fading so had to turn on our headlamps and met a couple of people there who were cheering us on. After reaching the foot of the devil’s staircase the rock formation looked like a skeleton fossil of a baby, Gavin agreed and laughed at me saying I wasn’t hallucinating yet! The climb was pretty steep and was one of the biggest climbs of the race. I was all hands on knees and powering up the hill, taking breaks to get my breath back. There were a lot of false summits and once it got dark I started to feel really low and struggle. I was seeing things at this point so tried to avoid looking anywhere else but the trail, the white rocks on the trail were shimmering under our headlamps, after getting to the top of the hill I threw my toys out of the pram and demanded to have a sit down so I sat on a rock just chilling and taking a break.

This was me on top of the devil’s staircase!

Fiona and a few others greeted us while they passed by. We later started running along the ridge and it was pretty treacherous in the night after having been sleep deprived for so long, I was tip toeing my way along and there were some loose scree while descending down into Kinlocleven. Met the 60 year old again with his pacer and he looked pretty dead but still moving. Tried to cheer him up and we kept moving, it was pitch black at this point and I was feeling abit scared (sleep deprived paranoia!). I couldn’t really run downhills at that point as I clipped my toe on a rock and later found out that it was bloody and no wonder it was soo painful! Kept running short bits and taking breaks, we were passing some people and I was doing my version of a death march when Gavin halted me and commanded me to march with purpose and to swing my hands. I really needed that tough love to keep me going and I knew I chose the right person to pace me. I couldn’t wait to reach the checkpoint to have a quick nap as I was really struggling to stay awake as my body clock literally begged me to sleep. I could not move very fast anymore due to increasing toe/foot pain, and any ambition I had for a good timing had disappeared. I remember having this conversation with Gavin “I forgot just how hard this was. It’s just not fun. What the f* was I thinking signing up for this again? If I ever ever want to do this again, shoot me”. Bold statements. But really, I was very grateful for Gavin being with me and I felt bad at the same time that he had to witness my temper tantrums, but he was very sweet and supportive, though I am sure he was as happy as me when we finally got to Kinlochleven around 2 am.

The long descent into Kinlochleven in the night on this trail covered with scree was quite treacherous!

After reaching Kinlochleven we had to go through a camping site and we were all trying to find the checkpoint, met some drunk kids who were coming back from a party to celebrate their friends 21st birthday. The birthday girl came and asked me for a hug and I told her that I was smelling like a dead rat after being out there for more that 24 hours at that point, they knew about the race so she still hugged me and gave a peck on my cheek and said that it was going to be alright and told us to finish it for her! After finally spotting the checkpoint, we went in and got myself weighed. Called my uncle to find out where they were and after seeing them I went in for a quick tea. Julie Clarke was dishing out some tough love and asking the runners to get back out there. Gavin had hurt his achilles and it was swollen so he was icing it and the physio told him to not continue, I was gutted for him and was told that I couldn’t continue without a pacer and had to wait until day light before they let me go. So I decided to take a 15 minute nap in the car and tell my uncle about what was going on, after waking up I used the toilet and by then Gavin had asked Shelly Spencer and her pacer Ivan Bertram if they could run with me. They kindly agreed and I wasn’t feeling so good at that point but since we had a lot of time left I decided to go with them. I told my crew to go to the hotel and rest for a bit as I’ll only be able to see them at the finish, they were really tired as it was taking me ALOT longer than my expected time. After a quick hug, my uncle,aunt and Gavin set off as it was a midge fest so there was no point waiting around and I was sitting and chatting inside the checkpoint with the volunteers there and telling them that I was smelling of sweat,piss and cow poo and Julie clarke told me that “No ultra runner ever smelt good, this isn’t a fashion parade!”. I saw another runner who was planning on dropping, Viks Williams and Gavin told me about her. I tried to convince her to keep going as she had come so far but she was injured and couldn’t continue which was a real shame. We started to have light at 3.45 am, after spending almost a hour and a half at the CP we set off and my muscles were really stiff so took me sometime to get going.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with my pacer : (From whatisultra) 

When he first picks me up!
15 miles later when things start to get rough
When things got REALLY rough!
A pic of Gavin from another run when we both were much more happier!😀 Photo credit: Lorna Sinclair

Kinlochleven (Mile 81) to Lundavra (mile 88)

Shelly’s boyfriend was walking with us until the end of the town where there was a climb. He then wished us well and left. Shelly, Ivan and I were powering up the climb and at that point I felt like most of the things that could go wrong in my race had already happened so I was very content to just finish and be done with it. We had some nice conversations and after ascending into lairig mor which was very exposed we got our jackets and gloves out which I hardly used until the second night. Lairig mor was also a very beautiful place although my legs were shot so it was hard to run/walk/crawl. We spotted a colourful flag in the distance, Ivan told me that it was the wilderness response team who were camping out there to attend to any injured runners as it was a very lonely spot.

Looking quite chirpy at Lairig Mor after being sleep deprived for almost 28 hours! Photo by Jeff Smith

There were lots of steam crossings where we were trying to not get our shoes wet and once we reached the flags. We had two dogs come and greet us and Jeff was still awake, he offered me Irnbru and I’ve never tasted it so downed it immediately and was so grateful for him being out there. We saw the lovely doctor who was passed out in the car and we kept moving along. I was getting pretty impatient and was asking Ivan whether we were close to Lundavra like every 5 minutes! It was pretty sad to go through this section and see all the trees that were cut down, after almost an eternity we finally heard the cheesy blaring music of the lundavra aid station. Met John Kynaston and his wife Katrina, they had set up campfire and were having a wild time but were being butchered by midges yet they were still smiling and loving every minute of it. I had given John K a drop bag earlier so I downed an entire bottle of coke and ate some food to get ready to charge the last section. After having a small chat and photo we kept moving. Shelly decided that she wanted to run as much as possible and Ivan said he’ll be with me.

Ivan, Shelly and I at Lundavra, she started running after this CP! Photo by John K

Lundavra (Mile 88) to Fort William (Mile 95, finish)

I started running most of this section with short walk breaks and kept moving well as I knew once I hit the fire roads it was all downhill from there. Soon enough we went into the forest and Ivan was running behind me, we kept moving at a good pace and he was telling me how many climbs were left as I was pretty anxious to finish by that point as everything was hurting! After reaching the final climb, we ascended it and reached the fire roads as planned but I realised then that I still couldn’t run downhills as my toes were just smashed so it was a pretty painful and slow descent but Ivan kept my spirits up as he knew exactly what to say to keep me distracted. I didn’t care what time I would finish but was content in the knowledge that I would indeed finish. Once we reached the car park and hit the tarmac, I saw the 30 mile sign which Debbie Consani had posted saying that it was the most beautiful 30 mile sign in the world as it was just outside Fort William and about a kilometre before the finish. I was feeling woozy and dizzy at this point as with all the running I forgot to eat during the last section, so had to sit down for a couple of minutes and get some calories in before we set off. Once we entered the town it all felt real and I was really looking forward to showering and getting some sleep! As we got close to the leisure centre I spotted Shelly standing and cheering so we started running and I crossed the finish line in 32 hours and 58 minutes just a shy under 33, I’ll take it! Katie Hall was at the finish and took my timing chip and I had to go in to get myself weighed again and get the all clear from the doctor. Race director, Ian Beattie got a print out of my timing splits and congratulated me on the finish. I was relieved to be finally done!

Met my uncle there who had been waiting there for a few hours and he hugged me and once we got out we met Shelly again who was shouting saying “You completed this at 23! Well done and I am sure you will only get better from this experience”, after having a quick word with her I finally hugged Ivan and thanked him for putting up with my whining and getting me to the finish in one piece! We drove off to the hotel and I had a quick shower before heading out to the awards ceremony. I was in a calorie deficit zone and being sleep deprived didn’t help either so was just trying to consume food and keep drinking. The awards ceremony was beautiful and we had a standing ovation for Paul Giblin for his win and new course record but every finisher was applauded and cheered. The last finisher got the biggest cheer and the winner handed the Goblet to the last finisher, that was really good to see. We had 4 people that were finishing it for the 10th time and they got a decanter! There was such a nice family atmosphere to the race and that was evident in the awards ceremony aswell.

All in all it was a worthy adventure. WHWR is hard but eminently doable if you just keep going, even slowly and I can only recommend this race to anyone.

John K handing me the Goblet, it was so worth it in the end🙂
The support crew and runners were all present during the awards ceremony, it was a very emotional experience🙂
Still smiling after being awake for 40+ hours!😀

A few odds and ends and thank you’s from the experience, in no particular order :

I thought I found some dark places towards the end of a few Ultras. That was nothing compared to where I went in this race. As I said before, I never doubted I would finish, but it certainly seemed at times like I would simply never reach the finish line.

I think you need to run this race or be a part of it to “get it”, I feel privileged to have finished and hope to be a part of this race in some way for years to come. People have always said that this race will change you and I can agree on that fact.

The work that goes into putting on this race is hard to comprehend. The race organisers, volunteers, sponsors, wilderness response teams and everyone else involved were absolutely on their game all weekend. My sincerest thanks.

My crew : David uncle and Rachel aunty. Thank you for stepping in and crewing for me as I was struggling to find someone and for putting up with my grumpiness and also managing the midge fest at certain checkpoints (read Balmaha and Kinclochleven!)

My parents – Thank you for cheering and supporting me in this endeavour. I know it must have been nerve-wracking at times (especially for mom) to be looking at a computer screen for a couple of days, but knowing that I have your full support in running and in life means so much to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank you both enough.

Gavin & Ivan –  I picked Gavin to be my pacer because he’s run long distances and know’s the dark places the miles can take you. Ivan stepped in when Gavin got injured and I would not have finished were it not for his selfless efforts. You put up with my bitching and moaning and cursing without batting an eye. I’m not sure how I can repay you, but hopefully some opportunity will present itself.

Thank you to everyone out on the course (and at their computers) who cheered for me and all of the other runners. You guys were instrumental in all the performances!

95 miles is damn far and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Congratulations to those who finished, and to everyone who got to the start line in Milngavie. Even if you didn’t finish, your efforts are remarkable.

I’m happy I picked WHWR as my first big trail race. The experience was like nothing else. I will run another 100 mile race but it almost certainly won’t be as good as this one. Hopefully I can enter and get lucky in the lottery again sometime in the future and not make the same mistakes again like deciding on what shoe to wear 30 mins before the start😀

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well” – Pierre de Courbertin

Kit Used: 

Shoes : I took 2 pairs of trail and road shoes and ended up using both my road shoes. If I were to do it again I would get a bigger size shoe for the latter stages as I suffered heavily with toe and foot pain due to the swelling and also one which is lower to the ground to avoid ankle twists

1. Salomon S-Lab Xt 6

2. Mizuno Wave Ascend

3. Saucony Guide 7

4. Hoka One one Stinson Evo Tarmac

Kit : 

Top : Salomon S-lab Exo Tee, changed it out at mile 51 with another exo tee🙂

Shorts : Salomon S-lab Exo shorts

Socks : Injinji toe socks (no blisters and never changed them out during the entire race)

Calf guards : Compressport R2 Calf Guards

Waterproofs : Montane Minimus top and Salmon Bonatti Bottoms, only used the top during the second night as a windcheater

Gloves : Salomon XT Wings Waterproof gloves with an inbuilt mitten

Arm Warmers : Addidas arm warmers

Headlamp : Petzl MYO Rxp

Also used a buff and a warm hat🙂

Pre-race kit sorted into zip loc bags🙂

Thanks for reading🙂

Ash

Follow my steps on mountain trails around the world :)