Ultra-Trail Hong Kong 170 – A Dance with Dragons (2016)

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I’ve always been fascinated by the trail running communities around the world and Hong Kong has been heralded as the trail running capital of Asia. I was keen on exploring this region and was on the look out for a 100-mile race there. UTHK 170 was on a convenient date at the start of the year and it had around 8500m+ of elevation gain, this sounded like my type of race with lots of climbing and descending. The highest point in Hong Kong is only around 900m so this meant that we would likely go up plenty of hills to get our elevation gain. Unlike the technical Euro trails, the trail system mostly consisted of concrete steps and a vast majority of the route was on tarmac or concrete which made things interesting.

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Taking the cable car up to the Buddha in the beautiful Lantau Island with Stephanie!

Training wise, I was mostly in low mileage off-season mode and the floods in December meant that I didn’t train for a whole month and only had January to prepare to get into some sort of shape. I went into it in the belief that it’ll be a good experience and I’ll gain some fitness to kick start my season. I wanted to combine this trip with a holiday so I spent a couple of weeks touring around Hong Kong and Macau with friends. I loved the food, culture and vibe of the city although the cost of living seemed expensive. Most of my pre-race runs involved short runs around the coastline near TST and I did manage one run in the hills with Vlad Ixel’s training group. I also went out for dinner with Karen, Simon and Jenny who were so warm and welcoming! I met a few more local runners who were also running one of the distances and gained some insights from them about the terrain and course. It was certainly different and I was intrigued by it, the weather was also something that I was concerned with. Only a few weeks earlier, the Vibram Hong Kong 100 was cancelled due to ice and snow on the top of Tai mo Shan, the first time it’s snowed in Hong Kong in over 60 years. The cold wave was still present and it was quite cold during the nights. Having just moved to India from England, I was at home in cold and rainy conditions so I wasn’t too concerned about the weather apart from the race being cancelled! After two lovely weeks of holidaying with some wonderful people I was ready to explore the trails, I felt going early helped me understand the culture and the respect that people had for nature here. Despite doing some research, I was still not sure of how to make my way to the start point.

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The stunning Hong Kong skyline!

Jenny offered to take me to the bus stop that would take me to the new territories where the race start’s, she gave me specific instructions and I am so thankful to her for getting me to the start point! After taking a nap on route I finally got off at the right stop and met up with other runners, it was a relatively small field but I was excited to get going. The weather did not look good as it was predicted to rain for the first night and it was already wet and windy. We started in the afternoon so had time to eat something. I was mostly calm and looking forward to the challenge.

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Course route and elevation chart

Start to A4 (47km)

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Start line pic

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Far left in yellow

After some prerace instructions by the organizers and a group photo, we set off at 1 pm. The course started with a climb on tarmac and we were all wide eyed and bushy tailed to go on a beautiful adventure! It started to drizzle as we made our way up the trail. The first 13k had about 850 meters of elevation gain as we made a traverse along some hills starting with a short steep climb up a slightly bigger hill. Almost all the climbing was on concrete or wooden steps as the entire trail network mostly consisted of steps. Vlad gave me some invaluable tips on how to descend down steps and also how to climb steps as it requires a slightly different technique to traditional trail running. I got my poles out and was looking forward to the views, it was very windy and there was heavy rain as the top of the hill was quite exposed. The short descent connecting us to the next hill was a little slippery so I was trying to be careful not to take a fall so early in the race. I was still in contact with a few runners, mostly content with following them. We went up and down a few hills while taking in the views. The climbs were short and steep but due to the lack of any sustained climbing it felt a little like hill reps! We crossed the first checkpoint in good spirits; I filled up my bottles before heading out. The next checkpoint was almost 10 miles away and it’s the longest gap between a CP at this race but this section was mostly runnable and flat. It was along a canal path and it kept going forever, I was running at a steady clip while passing people and felt great, the weather was also ideal. It drizzled intermittently so I had a windbreaker on. The course marking wasn’t great as they were few and far between so had to double check at junctions to make sure I wasn’t going off course, some of the markers flew away due to the bad weather which made things interesting.

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Wet and cold weather in the beginning

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Somewhere in the first section – Photo by Staffan Gereonsson

I was mostly running along with an English runner who’s been living in Hong Kong for almost 2 decades. Funnily enough he’s originally from the town I lived in, Mansfield! What a small world eh? We shared a lot of quirky details about the town we love and our love for the trails, especially the trails around Sherwood Forest, I still miss living in Mansfield and having access to a plethora of trails on my doorstep. It was nice to have some company in this section as we passed lots of monkeys who seemed a little aggressive. He warned me about not showing them food as they’ll try to grab it, it was quite useful to have trekking poles here incase they attacked! The rain was going from bad to worse so I stopped at a shelter to switch from my WAA windproof vest to the Ultra rain jacket. He was stronger on the climbs while I was free flowing on the descents so we complemented each other. We eventually reached the 30k checkpoint and it was starting to get darker due to the weather. We both stopped here to refuel and they had some decent options like pot noodles and rice porridge. I’m not a big fan of rice porridge so opted for the pot noodles and coke. It was dark and gloomy as we crossed a dam and we could see the hills covered in mist. I filled my bottles and thanked the volunteers before leaving the CP. The volunteers did tell me there was a shortage of staff so told me to carry extra food incase one of the aid stations is not active so I packed some cookies and cake 😉

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Along the canal path 🙂 – Photo by Radium Cheng

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Nearing the summit of one of the climbs

The next CP was only 7k away with a 600m climb along some hills, these were quite steep and I was starting to hate the steps! There was a cameraman near the summit of one of the climbs and I stopped to have a brief chat about the potential storm we were going to run into through the night. He did reassure me that “There WILL be bad weather tonight!”. I was fully equipped to deal with it as I carried most of my bad weather gear on me and had some change of clothes in my drop bag so wasn’t too fussed about it but some other guys seemed ill equipped to deal with it as they were soaking wet in their ponchos. After the climb I ran with some runners from the Philippines and we joked about the hot and humid conditions that we were used to and this was not what they signed up for! I was rubbing it in by reminding them that I also live near a beach with an eternal summer 😛

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Along a ridge line – Photo by Staffan Gereonsson

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The wooden steps near a summit – Photo by Staffan Gereonsson

The weather got even worse and we were all soaking wet running downhill on tarmac, we reached the next CP and had a quick stop here before heading to the next one. Mentally it was a little hard to focus with bad weather from the start and going into the night the mist got even worse.

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Wet and overcast for much of the first half

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Crossing a dam before climbing another hill!

A4 (47 km) to A7 (78km) – Half way CP

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Darkness and bad weather don’t mix well!

It was getting dark and cold, on the climb up I put my headlamp on and could barely see more than a 10 meters due to the thick fog in the hills. It was hard to spot markers and I was extra careful not to get lost. My headlamp with its reactive lighting wasn’t working properly due to the fog so it was quite annoying initially but I knew the visibility would get better once I descend down. The next CP was almost 13k away so we had a bit of running before getting there, I was running with a couple of runners as we made our way up the hills and the descents were slippery both on steps and on the trails. I tried to stay upright and be careful not to slip on wet steps and keep an eye out for trail markers. The weather didn’t let up and with high winds near the summits it wasn’t easy going but I knew we still had a long way and the weather will likely get better soon.

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The pot noodles quickly became my staple diet during the race

I was running with a few more runners in the night as we got lost, there was a section in the trail along a dam which wasn’t well marked at junctions so we kept stopping and double checking before heading in what we thought was the right direction. I presume some of the course markings flew away due to the bad weather. Some of the local runners guided us until the 67k checkpoint and we took a slightly different route before rejoining the course again. We were bunched up together and had a good atmosphere while some of the runners were thinking about dropping at the half way CP due to the bad weather and getting lost didn’t help the morale. We finally got to the 67k CP only for it to be unmanned so we opened up the boxes to help ourselves to crisps and coke. The main CP was another 11 kilometers away so I was looking forward to taking a nap as the bad weather and getting lost took a toll on me. There weren’t any high points until then, only a continual low due to the shite weather. After making our way on tarmac to the checkpoint I got in and stripped off my kit to dry it out near a heater while getting some calories down. I had access to my only drop bag here so had a full change of gear, socks and shoes before taking a 15-minute nap. I met Ahmad Fathi here, a runner from Brunei and we both thought it was a good idea to nap while it would offer a mental break from the storm outside. They put us up in a slightly warmer room and the lovely volunteer woke me up promptly in 15 minutes while I was asking her if there was an option to snooze? I felt pretty groggy and not refreshed from the nap but decided to get moving.

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More bloody steps! >.>

A7 (78km) to A13 (126 km)

 

I left the checkpoint and the volunteers there didn’t have a clue about which way to go so they sent me down the hill in the wrong direction. After about 3k of descending I realized I didn’t see any markers and got to a road junction so decided to trek back up to the CP where they told me to go back up the hill which was super annoying in the middle of the night and I was a little frustrated there not helped by the fact that a quarter of the field had dropped by then due to the weather and other factors.

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Photo by Staffan Goreonsson

Finally after doing an extra 6k I got on the right trail and kept checking at junctions. I anticipated my feet to swell so switched into shoes a size bigger than what I usually wear but due to no swelling my feet kept moving and my shin started hurting in the descents because of this. The next checkpoint which wasn’t far was also unmanned so I ran through it in the night and started feeling a little paranoid and lonely so put some music on to keep my mind occupied. We went through a few more hills in this section along a dam and the weather was slowly starting to lift. Though the whole course despite being on trails or in the hills we always had a view of the Hong Kong skyline, which was a little reassuring incase I wanted to drop or felt a little lost! I ran through to the 91 km CP and started to feel super sleep deprived and this was the major low point in the race. While climbing up a hill on a windy ridge I was so out of it that I decided to crawl up on the side of the trail and take a nap while using my soft flasks as a pillow! I took a short nap and mentally felt that my race was over there and had made my mind up to walk it to the next CP and drop there. After a short nap I woke up and felt that it will be highly unlikely that I would come back to do this race again so felt some sort of obligation to get it done and mentally I was slowly getting my focus back as the sun started rising. It made my wake up as I went uphill and on the descent I met a hiker who gave way and cheered me on, this perked me up and I ran up the next steep section until she was out of sight before settling into a decent rhythm.

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The pretty hills surrounding HK! – Photo by Staffan Goreonsson

After the rolling steep hills, we hit a canal path and I was falling asleep again. Since it was not as windy and exposed here I decided to take another nap while being passed by a few more runners. After a 10-minute nap I shuffled along to the 91 km checkpoint where I was greeted by a chirpy volunteer who offered me hot noodles and coffee. I gave him a massive hug and told him how much this race sucked until now and the weather didn’t help either! He told me about the organizers facing issues with last minute drop out of volunteers due to the weather. After getting some calories down I started the climb up and this was a long climb up the highest point in HK, Tai mo shan. The initial climb was up a small hill with a view of the river and the valley, with the sun rising I felt a little better and believed that things can only get better from here. The trails here were nice with very little tarmac so I was starting to enjoy running the flats and uphill’s here while the descents were quite painful due to the loose shoe.

 

I got to the 101km CP and was feeling good to get into triple figures with only 70 odd kilometers left. Had my usual routine of coffee and pot noodles and moved on quickly. This section was mostly uphill and I climbed steadily as I caught up to some of the runners and also passed lots of hikers here. The climb along the forest was beautiful and steep, I was looking forward to getting to the summit soon and ran what I could. Slowly I made my way up to the 110 km checkpoint at a picnic spot with lots of people sitting in the lawn cheering us on. This was the car park for the popular hiking route up tai mo shan (the biggest hill in HK), it was crowded as it was the weekend with lots of hikers and tourists. I sat down and ate while chatting to some of the runner’s crew about how horrible last night was with the crazy weather, it was amazing to see some sunshine finally after terrible weather for almost 15 hours since the start of the race.

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The view from Tai mo Shan

One of the runners I passed earlier decided to drop here due to a hamstring injury and I felt sorry for him as he had come a long way to get here and he was in tears. After consoling him I set off for the final piece of the climb up tai mo shan. It was on steep steps and I could see the summit in the distance. While snaking up the trail, I bumped into some hikers who took notice of my Bib with the Indian flag and spoke to me in Hindi. Since my knowledge of Hindi is non-existent all I could say back was “Namaste”. After having a short chat with them I kept going up while being passed by a few runners, it was quite warm now and I was wearing a full sleeve base layer, which made things worse. The track went from trail to tarmac as we hit the final climb up tai mo shan and I could see the observatory near the summit. After following the long tarmac switchbacks we finally hit the summit and started the steep descent. It was all on tarmac and I caught up to a few runners in the distance, it was good to tick off the biggest hill, as we got lower into tree cover away from the baking sun.

 

A13 (126 km) to Finish

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Typical aid station fare : Pot noodles, sandwiches, salted crisps and coffee/tea

Almost at the base we got to a checkpoint where I had pot noodles and coke before heading up the next climb. We had to run along a pavement on the highway before the route went uphill. I bumped into a runner who was walking back to the checkpoint as he had twisted his ankle and it looked bad. After a short chat with him I made my way up to the summit and the heat was getting to me so kept taking breaks up the steep parts of the climb before we started the traverse in an exposed section of the trail. This was one of the best parts of the course as we had railings and chains along the exposed bits of the trail. It was fun to traverse here before going up and down several hills along the trail before descending down and we hit the concrete steps again. By now my quads were feeling sore from the tarmac and wearing a slightly bigger shoe meant my ankle was hurting from the impact on the downhill’s too!

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This section was awesome with some technical bits and exposure – Photo by Staffan Goreosson

I was being passed by the 50k runners who had just started and were flying downhill, it was good motivation for me to chase some of them and I tried to give way as much as the trail allowed me to. I met a few friends who were running the 50k as they offered encouragement but I wasn’t really enjoying it almost 70 miles in but knew I can easily get it done with plenty of time to spare so kept plugging along.

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At the end of the descent, I was passed by people who were running a more reasonable pace so kept chatting to them while we made our way to the next checkpoint. This was the only section of the course that seemed to cross into the town along cycling footpaths and bridges but the course marking was sufficient to keep us from getting lost. At the next CP at 134k I got to chat with the 50k folks. There seemed to be a nice relaxed atmosphere and from there we started hiking up a wee hill with a gentle incline. After the climb we ran through trails along a park while passing through a few car parks along the way before a short steep climb up a hill and then we started the descent into the next CP. I caught up with a few runners who were lost and had gone the wrong way so we decided to run together as it was getting darker. Ahmad and I started chatting about the UTMB on the next climb as he was kitted out fully in Compressport UTMB gear. The other local runner we were running with also had signed up for the race so we had a lively chat while taking turns to lead on the climbs. The kilometers seemed to pass by as it headed into the second night. The lack of sleep was having an effect of all of us and I was starting to see hallucinations along the trail. Some of the creepy ones were ghosts and some of the more common ones were bunnies and cats along the side of the trail. It was mostly trail along this section before the descent into the checkpoint. We sat down here to get some calories in before putting on our jackets, as it was windy and cold. After chatting to the lovely volunteers we made our way up the infamous “Pat sin ling” range which were several mountains linked together in one continuous push. One of the local runners warned me to save some energy, as that bit can be hard mentally and physically.

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More steps!

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The view from Pat sin leng of Shenzhen – Photo by Staffan Goreonsson

He wasn’t wrong as it took awhile before we hit the first summit and it was so steep! We could see the next hill ahead of us and it looked bigger, this was mentally draining in the night but the views were spectacular as it was clear night. We could see the Chinese city of Shenzhen in the background as we hit the third summit. My headlamp was starting to blink so I switched my batteries while the other two had a sit down admiring the beautiful view. The descents were super technical along rocky steps so we had to take extra care here and it was hard to concentrate due to the sleep deprivation. The constant climbing and descending was having an effect on our morale but we kept each other going and finally got through the entire piece linking several hills which I can only assume would look even better in day light! We ran through a section of wet and muddy trails after the last summit and descended into a forest with waterfalls and wet rock. I was starting to see faces on these rocks and knew I had to get this done soon so I can get some sleep but didn’t want to take a nap at the checkpoint so we marched along this section. We got to the final checkpoint A16 and I took a break while Ahmad also sat down. We got some food down and relaxed for abit before heading up the final climb, think it was needle hill. The climb up was super steep and it was along a ridgeline with STEPS! It was getting a little annoying by now with all these steps but we kept negotiating it before hitting the final summit. The view of Hong Kong along the entire hill was spectacular with the city lights. We had a drizzle here but it went away quickly. Ahmed and I were enjoying each other’s company and were relieved to be on the final descent, he had issues descending so I’d go down and wait for him. We eventually descended all the way down into the outskirts of the city but couldn’t find our way. Thankfully we had a few 100k runners pass us and show us the way to the finish. After crossing a few roads and walking along the pavement, we finally made it to the finish in 39 hours and 32 minutes. It was great to finally get it done! We headed in to change into warm gear and chatted for a bit before he left. I took a shower and slept for 7 hours before greeting my friends Simon and Yvonne who were finishing the 100k. They told me I looked quite fresh for someone who just ran a 100 miles but since it was slow going my body felt okay as I chatted to them before getting a ride back to the city.

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Finish line pic with Ahmad Fathi who gave me company for the second half and he’s a TDG & UTMB finisher!

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After a nap I waited around for Simon and Yvonne to finish the 100k! 🙂

Overall the race could have been better organized especially in terms of course marking but the bad weather made things particularly hard. It was still a good experience to run a good portion of the new territories while experiencing the trails here. I kept telling myself that I don’t need to do stairs or lunges for awhile! Would recommend racing in Hong Kong, just not this race. The community and support was great throughout! I felt this race set me up physically well for the rest of the season as it was a massive boost to my fitness aswell as a great test of mental strength especially to run the first half of the race in bad weather.

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The lovely volunteers at the Finish line buffet 😀

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Finisher t-shirt and medal! 🙂

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Saying farewell to Karen who met me at the airport before heading home!

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Malnad Ultra 110k (2016) – In Search of Wildlife?  

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I first heard about Malnad ultra from Amit Mehta when we met at Bangalore for the TCS 10k back in May. We bumped into the race director and he explained his race which included running through coffee estates and then the badra wildlife reserve and he warned us about snakes and other “wildlife”, it sounded like an interesting one so I signed up for it after I got back home. My idea was not to race it but to just enjoy it as a post-season fun run as I roped in quite a few of my friends into running it (read the whole CTC gang and a few others from Chennai). Only four weeks earlier I had run one of my “A” races for the season, the mythical UTMB that left me mentally and physically exhausted for weeks. I did zero running back in Germany while spending some time visiting friends before I did a full training week with a long weekend of running in the hills before the race, so physically I wasn’t sure where I was yet and I knew there was still deep muscle fatigue after the race and hence it made sense to just go out and have fun rather than have a go chasing the people at the pointy end. I knew I had the endurance to grind out a result; my legs lacked any speed as I felt flat and maintaining an easy pace in training was a struggle. But this would be the shortest race of my season and I would be done before dinner so that made me look forward to it!

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With the CTC crew at Birur station

Due to family reasons one of my friends couldn’t make it so I travelled with Neville to Kemmangundi, the overnight train journey was tiring, as we both didn’t get much sleep. The following day we had an early connection from Bangalore to Birur and that train was full of runners. I tried to get some sleep before socializing with Kieron and Amit, we eventually reached Birur in a few hours. I took a fall at the train station and hurt my knee, there was sharp pain as I couldn’t bend my knee and this made me contemplate whether to start or just volunteer as I didn’t want to make things worse. We had to take another bus ride to kemmangundi from there; I was mostly wincing in pain on the bus journey, as the pain seemed to not go away! Once we reached the place things went smoothly and we got our bibs straight away before taking a kip after an exhausting day of travelling. The accommodation was probably one of the worst I’ve ever stayed in with leaky toilets and the food gave me the “runs”, not ideal but meh, I can’t tolerate spicy food L I wish the organizers would let us camp instead. We took another nap and chatted with Kieren catching up on both our seasons this year, last year we had a lot of fun at Chamonix as he ran the CCC and I ran the UTMB. Later in the evening we had a pre-race dinner at the coffee estate which was awesome, the organizer laid out his vision and I was intrigued but just had one lingering doubt about the 4000m of ascent and whether my wonky knee would hold out all of that descending as I was struggling to walk down stairs that day let alone RUN! The dinner organized by the race organizers was brilliant and it wasn’t spicy which was perfect! I loved the bon fire and meeting runners from all over India, this was unique, as I haven’t raced much in India in the last few years so it was nice to be acquainted to the current running community. I got to catch up with friends before heading for an early night. I wanted to see how the knee felt in the morning before taking a call, there was some inflammation the day before the race and it wasn’t ideal. (Just getting all my excuses out early before the race-started haha!)

 

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Someone thought sleeping on the bus was a good idea?? Photo by Peter Van Geit

I slept well before waking up at half past four to get ready for the 6 am start. My knee seemed better but there was pain whenever I had to bend the knee. After getting a little delayed we left the room a few minutes before the start but we knew we could start the race within a 30 minute widow after the official start so it didn’t bother me too much. After all my season was already over and this seemed inconsequential, my plan was to run the first 10k and see how the knee behaved before making a decision. I know its not ideal to have an inflamed knee before the start of a 110k race but c’est la vie, common sense would suggest that I shouldn’t start but I didn’t have anything to lose by dropping out early if things turned south. We can’t always choose the music that life plays for us, but we can choose how to dance to it 😉

Start to 30k:

 

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Enjoying the first few miles with Amit Mehta

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Pretty trees and moi!

After getting to the start line a few seconds after the race started, I got running and quickly caught up with the rest of the field. I was wishing all the CTC guys good luck before trotting down, kept the pace super easy as it was all down hill and my knee was still hurting. I used KT tape to help support it so the pain was a little more manageable on race day compared to the previous day. I met Amit and we got chatting, I remember telling him to take it easy as it was his first 50 miler. We had more company for the first 50 miles as both the 80k and the 110k starts at the same time. We kept the pace super easy while rolling downhill, we passed a couple of aid stations where I got to fill my soft flasks as I was in a hurry to get to the start so started with empty soft flasks at least I didn’t forget to carry my nutrition 😀 We were mostly talking about our future races, how he felt and how beautiful the sunrise was as we descended down on tarmac.

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Catching up with Manoj Bhat on the first descent

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Multi-tasking by running downhill while eating!

The harder surface was causing some discomfort so I was waiting for the trail section, after about 7k we took a left to start the steep descent on trail, I inadvertently started running alone on the winding jeep tracks as I lost sight of the others. I started chasing an ambulance downhill before they gave way by literally stopping in the middle of the jeep track. I had one guy ahead of me and the weather was starting to warm up so I was taking it easy. We shortly passed the venue where we had dinner last night before going through a village. It was mostly undulating with a small incline so it was great for running; we passed a few more checkpoints before entering another private estate. The trail went uphill so I got into an easy rhythm of running the easier bits and hiking the steeper sections. There was nothing-crazy steep here so it was mostly runnable. A couple of runners passed me here as I was waiting for someone to run with, the climb kept going for a little while and there were more switchbacks. I liked this section, as there was more climbing until we got higher, the views were great and we eventually crested the hill before starting the descent.

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Grinning on the descent!

I met Manoj again as we chatted about our training and I told him to go on as I didn’t quite fancy running uphill so early. We had done the first 20k in a reasonable time and kept smoothly descending without trashing my quads. The descent seemed long and it was nice to have the coffee estate workers at every turn and at literally every switchback just to make sure we didn’t get lost. I waved and thanked them and they thanked me back??!! Hmm anyway I was strolling along trying not to get lost and the track kept going downhill for a while until we left the estate to rejoin the road. After this section it was all road so my knee was causing problems so I was taking it easy but still running whatever I could or running on the side of the road on trail where it hurt less, I knew going into the race the pain would be there but it was manageable most of the time and it never got worse which was reassuring.

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Trying to fill up my flask in the waterfalls 🙂

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Somewhere on the first descent once we hit the trail

While meandering my way on the side of the road I spotted Peter and he caught up to me, we started running together and got chatting about the race. It was nice to finally run with someone and we both didn’t have any particular goals while Peter was running the 80k. This would be his longest run despite the fact he’s done several back-to-back 50k’s. Chatting and running made me forget about the pain and we were making good progress. The route kept going slightly uphill for most of the time until we reached a gated area where we started descending slowly. The descent lasted a few kilometers before we reached the 30k checkpoint, which was a “main” checkpoint with hot food options. We both were excited to have breakfast here only to be disappointed by the options or lack of so I quickly ate some fruits before going on our way. It was nice to have some volunteers and others cheering us on.

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In the zone but no flow?? 😦

 

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Oh lookie there’s a cameraman!

30k to 61k Manager’s residence CP:

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Joking with Peter about the amount of tarmac in the first 30k of the race

We rejoined the road as it went downhill with several switch back’s. We both were joking about half the race being on tarmac so far, hopefully as promised this section would have more trails and it was supposed to be the most beautiful section of the race. The route kept going downhill and we kept chatting away. I was starting to warm up and enjoy the race but legs were feeling very flat so any acceleration felt way too exaggerated. I was breathing hard on the uphill’s so took short breaks before running again, the route started to climb and it was a nice trail. The weather was also surprisingly good considering we both are used to the heat and humidity of Chennai so it was a welcome break to run in the hills.

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On the descent from the 30k point

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Selfie with some 50k folks who seemed to be having way too much fun!

After about half an hour we caught the last 50k runners and with Peter being a major celebrity, everyone knew him and wanted to take pictures. After a few pictures we started running uphill again, I liked the terrain, as it was rocky and not too technical. I remember joking about spotting any snakes and to make sure to take a photo if it bites! The route was mostly going uphill so we got into a good rhythm of running while taking small walk breaks. We were slowly catching people while we were discussing a variety of things and mostly enjoying each other’s company. The course had plenty of aid stations so it was an overkill for me to carry 1 liter of liquid’s on me but I’m so used to running with a rucksack, I would feel a little naked starting an ultra without a headlamp and 2 sets of clothes and a rucksack haha! The aid station’s did have the essential’s like water, RRUNN during, coco vanilla flavored RRUNN post and biscuits. Some aid stations had fruits which was great and I like biscuits but Peter didn’t quite fancy them so we shared my stock of shot bloks as I was prepared to be autonomous since this was the first time the event was being held and I’m always a little skeptical 😉

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Fun times up some hill!

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Remember kids, hydration is important! 😉

Around the 40k point we crossed through a small house where lots of the local’s sat and watched us gorge into oranges and run off into the hills! There was also a news reporter who was interviewing Peter on the go asking him about his nationality, we had a few more of them and the novelty was lost as they asked the same questions and it got a little tedious. The track would start going uphill until 48k including the highest point so the route kept going up, we ran most of it and were feeling good, the conditions were perfect with the sun peeping out now and again. I remember exclaiming to Peter about how the people in this region are blessed with awesome weather compared to our usual weekend outings in the Southern hills where we both get burnt on a regular basis as the sunscreen keeps washing away due to the heat and humidity! We got to a checkpoint called manager’s residence and they had fresh lime juice, which was amazing! We drank until both our bellies were sloshing before heading out; the route was now undulating as we kept going up and down. There were people who were passing us in the opposite direction as it was supposed to be an out and back which was cool as we were giving out high five’s. The climb wasn’t too strenuous and we eventually go to the short single-track section, this was fun as it was quite narrow and the views were amazing.

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Working our way up the climb, all hands on deck for all of 5 minutes??

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Being way too excited to be at the summit!

The view from here reminded me of the Conic hill climb on the West highland way in Scotland as the view was very similar. We passed several 50k runners here and caught up to Vipul who was taking a break here. We ran together as we started the descent after taking lots of pictures. I remember Peter bouncing ideas off me stating that he could totally put on an ironman here with a swim in that lake, cycling around the hills and then a run on the trails. However there was a minor problem of wild animals. We hadn’t spotted any yet so we were quite disappointed but kept trotting along; the descent was gentle and fun. My knee pain was manageable so I was dancing downhill while Peter was stronger on the uphill’s so we complemented each other well. I was however cramping up due to a lack of salt intake but I had salt caps at the 60k drop bag so that checkpoint couldn’t come soon enough. Vipul was moving a little gingerly but still managed to keep pace with us while we enjoyed good banter. We were playing a game on keeping score on the amount of times we tripped but didn’t fall, Peter was leading by 2 games to love by that point and we said winner has to really take a fall haha. We bumped into Charles from England, he ran with us for a while before passing us. The descent involved a small loop before going downhill all the way to another manager’s residence at 60k.

 

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From left : Peter, Vipul, Charles and me. Photo by Peter Van Geit

60k manager’s residence to 80k CP:

 

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Three musketeers! 🙂

This was another “hot food” option point and it was around lunch time so we were looking forward to having food but were left a little disappointed with the bisibella bath (spicy dhal and rice) and curd rice (yoghurt and rice), we both didn’t fancy the hot food options so opted for fruits while Vipul was taking a nap and a massage. We met some of the CTC guys who were running the 50k and offered encouragement, I had put my headlamps in my drop bag here but we got here way too early as the course didn’t have as much climbing as the course profile suggested. We took a short break and Peter got rid of his rucksack as I was carrying enough ration and water that could feed a small village. We had a rather hilarious incident where a 50k runner came in to the checkpoint being furious and was having a go at the volunteers. It went something like “What kind of course is this, it’s either going up or down there are no flat runnable sections and very little road!” We both chuckled stating the obvious that he clearly didn’t check the website for what he was signing up for!

 

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Along a pretty lake, lowest point in the course

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More paparazzi at the lake! 😉

We headed out to rejoin the portion of the trail where we left to walk into the checkpoint and it gradually went downhill all the way to a lake. Initially this section was undulating and we were running along chatting away and joking about not having spotted ANY “wildlife” apart from maybe a squirrel! Somewhere along the route we both agreed that 80k was clearly too short a distance for Peter to finish and it would still be daylight by then so he agreed to run the rest of the 30k with me to finish the 110k and I told him we’d be done and in bed before the rest of the folk get home as the cut off for the 80k was 10 pm (16 hours). There was a section where we got to a small lake and the course rose sharply, Vipul slowed down and Peter kept hiking strong so I kept pace with him. We kept passing 50k runners at regular intervals while offering encouragement. I was feeling strong and I never went through any low points or high points, I just felt comfortably numb mentally and just enjoyed Peter’s company as we both get along really well. Somehow this felt like bread and butter for both of us and hence it seemed very comfortable. We eventually hit the 70k point where the course descends slowly to the lowest point to a lake; it was very humid with no breeze here. After a quick pit stop at the checkpoint we trotted along, as this section was dotted with photographers encouraging us to run. Once we passed the lake, we started climbing uphill and it was rather steep. I was sweating buckets and struggled a little to keep up with Peter but managed to crawl behind him. We caught a couple more runners and I started feeling better as we got higher and we got some breeze. After that short and steep climb and once we hit the road, it was mostly runnable all the way to the 80k checkpoint. We were still ahead of schedule and felt very comfortable chatting away, we caught a 50k runner just before the checkpoint and he was walking like a broken man but after offering encouragement we jogged it in. I quickly went to fetch my drop bag as Peter was given a medal and was taking pictures at the finish with other CTC folks.

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At the 80k finish before I whisked Peter away 🙂

80k to 110k finish at Kemmangundi:

 

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It appears we did a little running and WAY more chatting!

I put my visor and shades into the drop bag as the sun was never out for the whole day and I knew I’d be wearing a headlamp pretty soon. We were chatting away with the rest of the 50k folks, I caught up with Monica who ran her first 50k and finished as the 2nd female, that was awesome. I told her that Amit was doing well and he should finish soon as he looked smooth in the first 8k J We also met Aakriti who I ran a short while with at the start of the Javadhu 50k where she and her coach Sampath were the only ones running at a sustainable pace while everyone ran out like a bat out of hell! After joking to Peter about the food and how we could use a German beer and bratwurst right about now, we were eating the sweet potatoes before I got my bottles refilled. We took a longer break here while I cleaned my shoes out before heading out for the last 30k. We both felt comfortable and there was a nice small runnable climb and hiked certain bits until we reached the top before running most of the descent. My memory is generally very good so I knew exactly what we had left while Peter didn’t remember most of it as the last 30k is the same way as the first 30k so half of it was on tarmac. He was surprised that I could remember every little detail but he then remembered I was a lawyer and joked that my mind is perhaps trained to remember lots of details! We felt good as the temperature was dropping and chatted away looking forward to running some of this section in the night. We were also debating ideas of how we could improve our own events among other things. I think most of our talk revolved around food! Mostly involving Bavarian delicacies like schweinhaxe, schnitzel and different types of currywurst’s as it was the end of the Oktoberfest at that time.

 

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RAWR! Playing scary faces at some checkpoint

My knee pain had settled into something that I could manage so wasn’t too bothered about it. I felt good otherwise and was looking forward to getting to the bottom of the descent before starting the next climb. We had two more climbs to tick off before the finish and I joked that the last climb would mostly be a recovery hike. We kept things ticking over and I watched our calorie and salt intake to make sure we stay away from cramps. This was a fun and enjoyable section where we ran most of it and we were making time; slowly we passed several checkpoints before starting the ascent into the private estate. It was starting to get dark under tree cover so we put our headlamps on. Don’t think we used it until we got closer to the summit. We ran the runnable bits and hiked the rest until it got steeper. We hit the checkpoint near the summit to refuel before cresting the hill and starting the descent. It was fun to let go and glide downhill, Peter remarked on how much fun it was to run during the night as you start to spot the little things and focus a little more. It feels like a completely different route, we had estate workers light up bon fire a few kilometers apart to warm themselves and also to keep the snakes away from the trail I guess? The descent went well and we could slowly spot that we were descending into civilization as we could see lights in the distance.

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The descent was fun as we crossed through a couple of checkpoints before getting to one just before the village. Met Jayesh from Mumbai here, he seemed a little phased out so told him that the 102km checkpoint has a bed where he can take a short nap but it was still around 4k away. We sat and refueled before running the rest of this descent; we passed the village and got chased by dogs. We slowly made our way to the 102 k checkpoint at the spot where we had the pre-race dinner. The volunteers were lovely and told us we had only a few kilometers to go. It was all uphill from here so we took it easy, the initial section on trail was super steep as Peter powered through before we hit the road bit and then started the slow slog up to Kemmangundi. The last 6k on tarmac was tedious and mind numbingly boring, it pretty much sucked out all the fun from the other 102km of racing as I would have rather preferred going uphill on technical terrain rather than a concrete path. We kept chatting and talking about what we’d have for dinner, as we’d be on time for dinner and a shower before the lads got home from the 80k finishing point. It was getting a little chilly as it was windy and neither of us carried a jacket or windbreaker. After what felt like an eternity, we eventually made it to the finish by which point both of us didn’t really care as that last climb was just pointless and annoying. Peter joked about doing one of his “infamous” 5k loops to finish a 100 miles but after that last climb I preferred to pass! Photographers and Kieren greeted us as we finished in 16 hours and 11 minutes, in the end the race had only 2850 meters of climbing rather than 4000m; we quickly headed to the restaurant to get some calories down. In hindsight it would have been so much better if they finished the race at 102k descending all the way and finishing on a high rather than take us up a tarmac uphill which left a bad taste in the mouth.

 

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Je suis un finisher!

Despite some flaws, the organization was great for a first time trail race in India and there was a lot of attention to detail but aid station’s could have been fewer but well stocked with more food rather than several but with just the basics. There are only so many salt biscuits one can eat. Things I am sure the organizers will improve upon in the next edition but the accommodation and food organized by the holiday company was alarmingly bad, hope they can fix the toilets next time as lots of others complained about the accommodation not being up to scratch. Huge props to the race organizers though for putting a race in the middle of nowhere I’m sure they’ll build on it and make the infrastructure better to keep a sustainable event. It was great value for money and would totally recommend the experience as it’s well organised and picturesque than all the other Indian ultra’s I’ve done so far.  Thanks to Cafe Coffee day for allowing us to run through their beautiful estates, can we please book some wildlife for next year pls? 😉

Special thanks to my sponsors WAA ultra and Unived sports for supporting me all season to help me realize my dreams, hopefully next season will be bigger and wilder!

Lavaredo Ultra-Trail 2016 – The Dolomiti dream

Distance : 119km

Ascent: 5850m

Start/Finish: Cortina D’Ampezzo, Dolomites, Italy

Date: June 24, 2016

When I first heard about this race a few years ago, the distinct beauty of the Dolomites and just the alpine nature of the event fascinated me. It captured my imagination and I was instantly sold on doing this race but that year the lottery for the race had already closed so I had to wait until the next year to apply as I know lots of Italians told me just how beautiful the Dolomites are and the jagged peaks are a visual treat to compensate for the brutal nature of the climbs!

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The iconic tre-cime di lavaredo

I just felt I had to return this year after dropping from the race last year as my stomach stopped working and I couldn’t drink or eat anything. I decided to spend a couple of days in Venice this time to do some sightseeing before heading to Cortina. Staying in a cool hostel and hanging out with a couple of Aussie girls were the highlights apart from the scorching hot weather in Venice which offered no respite as it was quite warm and humid even during the night.

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Mike Foote’s race plan which mirrored mine 😀

The weather looked likely to be a hot one with thunderstorms in the second night so I was prepared gear wise to tackle the worst conditions but I tend to overheat even in the coldest of conditions but from past experience I thought it’d be wise to be prepared for the worst!

Got my kit checked and met up with Mike and Louna at their apartment before chatting about all their adventures this year as they were just back from an epic stage race in Peru. Also got to meet Seb Cote who’s the RD of Ultra-trail Harricana, which was the second biggest ultra in Canada, we’ve been tracking each other in Strava for a few years now and it was cool to meet him finally! We headed out to the start of the skyrace in the town center and it was great to see familiar faces like Robbie Britton charging out, we relaxed under the hot sun with Mike’s friends. Caught up with Stephanie and then later with Kirsten before heading out for an early night.

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Pre-race kit check and laying it out to make sure I don’t forget anything!

Had a good night’s rest, packed all my kit before heading out to meet Ian Campbell who was doing the iRunfar coverage of the race again this year. The best thing about racing in Europe is the chance to meet all my friends from near and far.

 

Race Start from Cortina to Ospitale (17 km):

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Race start! You can spot me on the far left in yellow

Had a quick nap and woke up to a thunderstorm, it was coming down heavy before the start of the race but it helped as it cooled things down after a hot day! The race starts quite late in the evening at 11 pm so there was a sense of nervous excitement waiting all day long for the start which meant getting any sleep was neigh on impossible. They played an epic song called “Ecstasy of Gold” which set the mood. I intended to take it easy to practice my UTMB strategy of being steady and not accelerate until the end. After getting a huge cheer out of town from all the supporters, we had a few kilometres of tarmac before hitting the trail. The first climb came and all of us got our poles out to start “click-clacking!”, just the steepness of the climb reminded me I was back racing in Europe haha! The first climb was uneventful as I steadily passed people without exerting too much, I was feeling the altitude though as I didn’t have enough time in Cortina to acclimatize. This year they had cameramen all over the course, it was so cool to be clicked in the middle of the night in an enchanted forest. We quickly started passing streams and I was reminded just how beautiful this course really is! Ticked off the first climb and was tip-toeing my way through the descent so as to not trash my quads as it was VERY easy to do so while racing in Europe with everyone starting at an unsustainable pace. I decided to empty out the rocks in my shoes and ate quite well from the beginning. I had a checklist of things I’d do when I come into every CP and followed it to the tee.

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A trail of headlamps on the trail 😀

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Somewhere on the first climb

Ospitale (17 km) to Refugio Auronzo (48 km):

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Fedeverecchia check point, 33km into the race. Photo by Paul Daly

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Lago di Misurina, half way up the climb. Photo by Paul Daly

The next section also had another climb up to Forc. Son Forca and a long-ish descent which went smoothly, I was mostly tagging behind runners and running at a very conservative pace to keep myself fresh. The climb was gradual at the start with lots of long switchbacks along fire roads before we went through a small section of snow as we climbed higher. We eventually hit alpine single track and it got steeper and steeper, I could hear the sound of the glacial stream in the distance as we crisscrossed across the mountain before hitting a steep grassy hill and we hit the summit where a mountain rescue personnel pointed us towards the descent. The descent started with being rocky and with lots of steps, it eventually ended in a long steep trail which mostly went downhill and I was running with two Spanish ladies who were running at a more reasonable pace compared to the others who were flying down like a bat out of hell! The descent was quite slippery in parts and we eventually came into a meadow as the day was breaking. Just in time for a checkpoint to pop up and I remember throwing up at this checkpoint last year and one of the highlights was I asked the aid station captain where the toilet was and he pointed out onto the horizon and said “everywhere is toilet, you can go anywhere you like” I was like “do you happen to have toilet paper?” and he said “we are eco-friendly so we don’t provide paper!” after a heavy sigh I chugged on last year but this year felt great here with zero stomach issues. I was chomping down on fruits, biscuits and my favorite nutella spread on rusk! The volunteers were lovely and I didn’t forget to thank all of them for giving up their weekends for watching us run across their stunning mountain range. I fuelled up quite well knowing that it was all uphill until the next checkpoint at Refugio Auronzo which was close to the summit near Tre Cime and also because checkpoints in this race are few and far between at every 10 miles and probably after a summit or two. I broke down the climb into two parts as it climbs up to lake misurina and then the big climb to tre cime, due to the incessant rain that section was super muddy and became very difficult to traverse as it was basically just a mud fest. I was chuckling inside, as it felt more like a tough mudder than an ultra-trail after several slips and getting myself muddy. Once we hit lake misurina, I got myself cleaned up by the medic team who were super nice and I washed out my poles in the pristine lake, which was stunning to look at. It was literally all-uphill from here as we started weaving through road and trail until we hit a proper trail which went all the way to Refugio Auronzo. It got more technical and alpine as we got higher but the views were spectacular as the sun was shimmering on the surrounding peaks. This place was like paradise as it was so beautiful with a pink hue over the mountains just before sunrise. People were starting to tire as they took breaks during the climb, which at this stage is a wise thing to do, as it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and power up the climbs only to bonk towards the end. It got steeper towards the end as we were inching our way to the refugio, after finally making it here we had to que up at the entrance as the refugio can only accommodate so many people which was super annoying while racing as we waited for around 20+ minutes but c’est la vie we were in Italy after all 😉 , it was a stunning place to hang out as the views were spectacular but it was very windy as it was one of the highest points in the course and the giro d’italia has passed through here during one of the mountain stages. I remember sitting down next to a bunch of German’s who ordered bier (As you can still buy stuff from the café apart from aid station food and all the Brits got their cameras out to take pictures, I really like how chilled out they were in the middle of this savage race. I laughed and uttered a few German phrases before heading out to fill my bottles and start the small climb to the mountain pass.

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The long and steep climb up to Ref. Auronzo. Photo by Paul Daly

Refugio Auronzo (48km) to Cimabanche (66 km)

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Ref. Auronzo, Photo by Paul Daly

I know a lot has been said about the Tre Cime but as we came around the bend before hitting the pass which gave us a proper view of the north face of the mythical tre cime which translates to three peaks, the jewel of the Dolomites and the most striking mountain in the entire course. I’ve raced across the globe and I’ve never seen anything as beautiful or as imposing, after some gazing around and picking my jaw off the floor I started the long and brutal descent into the next valley. Met up with another Italian who was around my age and we shared the same passion for these mountains as we chatted a lot about the Vallé d’Aosta talking about the TDG as it was the dream race for both us. As we descended we caught a glimpse of this massive waterfall, it was quite spectacular and it was so high that I couldn’t see where it ended. The descent was technical so it demanded focus but it was good to look around now and again.

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The view on route to Tre-cime! Photo by Paul Daly

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Finally a pic with the Tre-cime in the background

The descent seemed to be go on forever so I was pacing myself by taking breaks and the sun was out in full force in the valley so the temperature kept rising as we descended. There were however a few stream crossings to wet our caps and buffs to keep us cool. I bumped into two Irish guys Paul Daley and Stephen Brennan, one of them had finished it last year and it was good to chat to them. We kept passing each other as we had a similar pace. Once we hit the valley it kept undulating and even the somewhat “flat” sections on the course profile were definitely hilly! After some running/power hiking, the trail kept going on forever, we were meeting lots of tourists in this section as it was in the valley and we were passed by cyclists too who were making the most of the great weather. It would have been around 35 degrees here so the heat was getting to me. I tried to take it easy here so as to not push myself too much as I wanted to save something for the big climbs towards the end of the race. We eventually hit the half way checkpoint called Cimabanche at around 67km and we had access to the only drop bag in the race. It was a big checkpoint where crew’s were allowed so it had a great atmosphere. I was chatting away with the volunteers at the checkpoint who were fascinated by my nationality as I was the first Indian to run Lavaredo last year and I would eventually finish it this year to become the first finisher and they mistook it for Indonesia which was rather funny 😀 After some faffing around, I changed my tee and socks as they got wet to avoid blisters. They also had a toilet here so took a loo break and got some food down afterwards. It was good to pick up my sunglasses here to avoid the glare of the hot sun!

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The long descent into the valley. Photo by Paul Daly

Cimabanche (67 km) to Refugio Col. Gallina (94 km)

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The bottom of the valley on route to Cimabanche. Photo by Paul Daly

After refreshing myself, I got out of there and started the ascent up the next climb, Forc Lerosa which was a relatively smaller mountain compared to where we just descended from. Met a few people who I was running with earlier and we were all suffering in the stifling heat and humidity so I couldn’t wait to start the descent. My legs felt a little dead on this climb so it was rather slow and painful but I kept persevering,I knew this was an easier ascent than the next one, which happens to be the biggest climb in the race. I was taking breaks on the ascent to cool my core temperature before marching along; the mountains we were surrounded by were spectacular so it was good to take my mind off things. After awhile we got nearer the summit as we passed the tree line into the alpine to be fully exposed to the sun. I couldn’t wait to start descending after all that power hiking, as the descent was very long but the trail was quite nice to run on but a little too steep. We kept going through switchbacks to eventually hit the valley and could see crowds near the checkpoint at Malga Ra Stua and also the big inflated chute they had at the entrance to welcome us. The checkpoint was brimming with people and most of them were sitting in the shade to cool off. I met Paul and Steve here again, Steve was talking about dropping but I told him to get through this phase, as the night will be cooler. He’s from Ireland and the heat was getting to him, I sat with them and ate a bunch of nutella rusks and some other fruits. I knew I had to get more calories in so as to last the big climb, as we would enter a very remote valley after this checkpoint.

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On the descent into Malga ra stua CP

After passing Malga ra stua CP (76km), we started descending in the heat and lots people joined me as we all headed off together. The descent was mostly runnable and there were lots of streams so I cooled off at every opportunity but this meant my sunscreen washed off and I was getting proper burnt! (The worst sunburn I’ve ever gotten was at Transvulcania but this was a close second but there was no skin peeling here). I was feeling a little tired here as running around in the heat all day at altitude was getting to me, felt like crawling up on the side of the trail and taking a nap but resisted temptation and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I just had to look up and take in this breathtaking view to remind myself why I do this to myself on a regular basis, running in the mountains is definitely a humbling experience. Sometimes you might feel weak, sometimes you might feel it’s not possible to make forward progress but the mountains always give you good energy.

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More stream crossings! Photo by Paul Daly

After hitting the valley floor we started the ascent up to Forc. Col des bois, initially up a steep forest with lots of tree cover as we slowly made our way up. After some steep climbing to hit the top of the forest with lots of tall trees we had to cross a bridge and there were lots of runners standing there. I thought it must be an impromptu aid station but I can see why they all stopped as we could see a massive canyon below with water streams moving like jet streams to join the river. It was spectacular to watch and one of many moments that took my breath away in this race. Later while climbing through the single track we hit a glacial stream crossing and we had to walk through two ropes to cross the river just like Hardrock! I wondering how cold it would be and I would live to regret that question later on!

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Photo by Paul Daly

The dark clouds were starting to roll in and it appeared that there was a storm brewing, we were in for an interesting night in the mountains! I put my jacket on as it started to drizzle. We entered a remote valley, which was breathtaking. Passed a couple of waterfalls and there was a waterfall about 500m above us and the water just vaporized which was spectacular. This section reminded me of Patagonia as it felt so pristine and beautiful. We kept climbing on eroded trails which were a little slippery and some technical sections before descending down. We had to pass through several glacial river crossings here and they were as expected ice cold! At one of the major crossings which got us hip deep I saw several people removing their socks and shoes but I didn’t bother as I knew my socks and shoes would dry very quickly as I was wearing soft ground shoes which drains very quickly. It was good for my feet which had taken a lot rock bashing so it was comfortably numb after each crossing 😀 We eventually started the climb up on alpine single track, I was with a couple of Italian runners and we chatted away while climbing up this breathtaking valley. This was hands down the most beautiful section I’ve run in any race till date and I’ve run in some pretty amazing places 😉 The course profile warned us to take caution in this section due to the trail being slippery from the rain, we hit Malga Travananzes (with a board saying WATER POINT! Yea, no shit Sherlock!) Which was a stream crossing slightly higher up where we could fill our bottles before hitting the alpine section.

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The valley de Travenanzes goes all the way down as far you can see in the picture! Photo by Paul Daly

The trail slowly snaked up to the alpine section, as the weather got worse, it was also quite steep as my tired legs were feeling the effort. I kept it simple and kept plugging along as I met Fabio Giorgini, an Italian runner based slightly north of this region. We kept passing each other earlier and I ran this section mostly with him and his French friend. We were chatting away about gear & trail running legends like Antoine Guillon and Christophe Le Saux while traversing this rocky section. This section was quite technical through rocks before we hit the summit and then started the long winding descent. Lots of people were hammering this descent but I thought it was way too early so just kept a good rhythm, the views from here were amazing as we could see the valley floor below with the brooding clouds in the background.

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Vaporizing waterfalls was pure magic!

I felt good and was chatting away with a couple of other runners as we hit another climb, this time we climbed through an abandoned fort. The thing about these trails is that they were never meant for hiking but were designed during the world war as outposts and it carried a dark history, we could still see that in the modern day with a few sighting of bullet shells strewn on the side of the trail. I did spot some in this section before we started a single-track traverse with a steep cliff face. After crossing that short section we started the steep switchbacks, which leads us down to Refugio Col. Gallina. There were a few supporters here cheering us on as we made our way into the checkpoint, the weather got worse as it was bucketing down. Lot’s of runners decided to wait until the weather cleared a little as we had plenty of time before the cut-off and we were also advised by the mountain rescue to wait it out. It was particularly alarming to see lightning hit the summit we were supposed to go up! I met Fabio again and since it was a Refugio he invited me inside for a cup of Italian espresso. It was a warm and cozy inside, I decided to wear all my layers as we were going to do an high alpine traverse before the final descent and it would be too cold to stop and faff around on top of a mountain in bad weather.

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Abandoned fort high up in the Dolomites. Photo by Chris Wolfe

Refugio Col Gallina (94 km) to Cortina – Finish (119km)

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More fun on the technical section in the night!

We had two cup’s of the best espresso I’ve ever had and it really woke me up before nightfall. Fabio gathered a few other runners before we got moving; they both were super fast up the climb. I was getting too warm with all those layers so I decided to stop and remove my rain pants, as I prefer running in short shorts even in biblical weather conditions 😀 I met up with a few runners and we started the steep and narrow climb up Refugio Averau together. We could see the lights snaking up the trail and also some lights in the distance, which I think was the next checkpoint Passo Giau. As we got higher we hit a few treacherous snowfields, it was quite scary to traverse in high winds and bad weather! I took a few rest breaks as the wind made life difficult but I knew the summit was close so kept pushing, we could eventually see the light near the summit. It was a small Refugio called Averau at the summit with just a couple of volunteers giving us water outside, I stopped here to remove a few more layers as I quickly warmed up again (My body is like a little furnace even in the coldest weather, this explains why I hate the heat so much!). I had a little chat with them and joked about getting struck by lightning, which seemed like a very real possibility!

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The climb out of Passo Giau, we did this section in the night but I guess it looks pretty during day time with the prominent peak “Gusela” in the background;)

The short descent was on a wide fire road, which was still rocky at this altitude; it was quite steep so I was happy to shuffle along without trashing the quads. I started to push on the previous climb as I wanted to finish early and I still felt fresh, I would start passing people in this section as I got a move on and I didn’t want to hang about in this weather! At the end of the short descent there were a couple of mountain rescue guys camping with a bon fire and pointed us to start the traverse. This was another winding and technical section amidst boulder fields with some sleet/melted snow on the trail, I was careful not to slip off the single track. I was quite frustrated as it was slow going no matter how hard I tried to run the terrain slows you down. What seemed like a few kilometers on the route profile took ages to traverse as we rock hopped and jumped across before the short descent into Passo Giau. This was a bigger checkpoint, I quickly picked the essentials like fruits and nutella biscuits before heading down the trail, there were lots of people here who stopped or dropped and were wrapped in foil blankets to keep them warm. I met a bunch of friends from London who were running together here, I ran this technical section with them as they were chatting away. I remember chuckling at Rebecca’s comment about “I think we are decent runners and how are we moving so slowly in this terrain??”, the mountains always dictate our pace and we can’t force it. There were several technical bits where mountain rescue were stationed to help the runners, they told us to put our poles away in these sections, as we had to use our hands to cross the narrow paths. The path kept undulating; the climbing bits were short but super steep. It was mentally draining as it was up, down, up, down and never downtown anytime soon! The climb up to Forc. Giau was probably one of the steepest pieces in the entire race but mentally I knew we broke the back of the race with the climb up to Col dei bois, now it was just a matter of getting around safely on slippery terrain. We had one small climb left before the long and nasty descent into Cortina. I felt with the time barriers I had plenty of time to descend, the last climb was crazy steep but I slowly made it up to the summit and cleaned out my shoes before starting the long descent.

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The descent to Ref. Croda during day time

I passed lots of people on the descent as I was accelerating at will and I knew the last section would slow me down so it was best to make time in any of the runnable sections. I tried to share my light with another runner whose headlamp had gone off and he was waiting until the checkpoint before he could swap the batteries out. The descent was long and very rocky, I could feel the rocks as my feet were tender by this point with all the rock bashing, the whole course was very rocky underfoot and it eventually catches up if you wear a minimalist shoe!

After a long and steep descent we eventually hit the final checkpoint refugio Croda la lago. I quickly sat down and got eating, they had some nice food here like soup with bread among other things. I wanted to leave early but Giorgio was hot on my heels so decided to leave with them instead, it was nice to know we only had a 7 km descent left but this was going to be nasty due to the bad weather as I heard so many horror stories about how muddy and slippery the trail was last year :O
We started our descent as the trail narrowed to a single track, Giorgio let me lead as I had the brightest headlamp and it was causing shadows. I quickly started running as I knew there were some “not so runnable” sections ahead. I eventually was running solo but I thought they’d catch me up so kept moving well. It did get super muddy quickly and I was lucky to be wearing my soft ground shoes here, which helped grip the surface better. It was wet and slippery with the trees and there also some fog which made spotting the trail harder in the night. It was also a little spooky running alone in the middle of forest at like 2 am in the night! Who’d have thought a cheeky descent would be so time consuming and hard to negotiate. I did slip and fall several times while uttering some choice words here, there were points where the whole trail was like knee deep mud and it was hard to wade through it while being upright. I lost count of the number of times I slipped and fell but eventually it got better as we passed through a wider trail which had some rocks on it and that helped with the grip. I passed through a creek and stopped there to wash my hands and poles as everything got muddy. Beyond that section it was mostly runnable and it kept looping around the forest while I could see the clock tower of Cortina in the distance, which is the start and finish of the race. I eventually met a couple of volunteers that were standing at a junction telling me to go further down and they reassured me it’s not far to the finish. This was probably the most frustrating and pointless section of the race as we kept going in circles around this forest and it eventually exited into the street. Finally some tarmac which meant I was close to finishing it, I jogged along this section and came across a table outside a house with various types of alcohol and juices, it said it was for the runners so helped myself to some water before running off. I passed a few people before bumping into Virginie, one of Stephanie’s friends and ran to the finish with her. She looked a little surprised as I was in my shorts and an ultra carrier shirt while they were fully covered in waterproofs. After a quick climb we hit the main streets and jogged it to the finish line in 28 hrs 32 minutes. It seems that no matter where the road is taking you in real life, your dreams can give you an outlet for you to recognise your hopes and fears – ultimately making those challenges you’ve set yourself even sweeter when you cross the finish line.

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Finish line pic with Virginie and her friend 🙂

I have very fond memories of this race and the whole experience as I loved running in the Dolomites! I feel the pictures don’t do justice to the mesmerising beauty of the Dolomites, you have to go there to live that experience! Thanks to everyone who I got the share this experience with and to everyone back home who were watching my tracker. I would love to go back again in the future but not anytime soon 😉
Thanks to my sponsors WAA Ultra for the gear and Unived Sports for the nutrition.

Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc 2016 – A Song of Ice and Fire (UTMB 2016)

 

“A hundred miles is a life in a day,” said the legendary ultrarunner, Ann Trason. It can feel like this. And a long race certainly mirrors a life. It has its ups, its downs, the times when it feels almost easy, the times when it feels like I am fighting hard just to stand still or stay awake, the times when I am sharing (with fellow competitors, volunteers, supporters present and absent), and the times when I feel entirely alone.

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3-D course profile, looks a little lumpy!

There is no cheating in ultra endurance. We who “do” put in the time and are committed to our long term goals. This is not a sport of gross power but of absolute patience, acceptance, fortitude and stamina. Will I be tough enough to complete my next challenge? Is my body, mind and soul resilient enough to endure?

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Team photo with the WAA Experts during the Expo, Javier Bodas (Centre top) finished 12th Overall among some strong performances from the whole team!

This is what I wanted to find out when I signed up for the UTMB this year, having been to Chamonix half a dozen times and having lived there for a short period last summer, I’ve been part of this event in some capacity either through volunteering, media or running one of the races for a few years now. It’s had a special place in my heart and it’s one of the reasons I started dreaming of running a 100 miles in the first place. For the uninitiated the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc is a 170 kilometer race around Mont Blanc which is the highest mountain in Western Europe, it’s also one of the oldest and most historic hiking trails in the world linking three countries. Generally people take around a week to 10 days to get the route done at a leisurely pace but during the race we have around 46 and half hours to finish it. The terrain has some technical sections and it’s generally very steep with around 10,000m (33,000 ft) of ascent. There are certainly easier 100 milers out there, ones that are closer to home and one’s that do not require you to traverse alpine terrain but there’s something special about the UTMB. It’s widely regarded as the trail running “Olympics” as runners from all over the world (87 countries this year!) gather for this one week at the trail running capital of the world, Chamonix. Just the beauty of the course, the pageantry, the incredible level of crowd support, organization  & competition make it the biggest trail running race in the world. There is nowhere else in the world where Ultrarunning gets this amount of attention and support.

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Nervous smiles at Bib collection

Start – Chamonix to Saint Gervaix (21Km)

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Top Centre right at the back in the yellow tee pictured before the start, it’s a little like Where’s Wally? – Photo by Strava

Since I’ve already seen or been part of the start, I decided to stay at the hostel for as long as possible before heading out as it’s generally a very emotional affair. Sebastian, a French runner living in London and I headed out to the start together. We were pretty relaxed and thought it was a good idea to start at the back as that’ll force us to pace ourselves and not go out too fast. After all the drama, they played “conquest of paradise” which is the theme song of the UTMB. You could literally feel the emotions as they sent us out on our own journey’s, our own conquest of paradise. Since I knew lots of my friends were here, I decided to run on the side to wave, high five and take it all in. Bumped into quite a few of my friends as Stephanie took a selfie with me. After stopping and hugging my friends along the way which was very special as John Munro was waving the Indian flag 😀 I think I was the last runner to leave Chamonix so got a heroes send off which was very special especially from my Scottish family ❤

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Selfie with Stephanie right after the start!

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After lots of waving and hugging, I was the last runner to leave Chamonix but wasn’t the last to come back 😉

I knew the first 10 km is reasonably flat by UTMB standards so wanted some gap between the main field to be able to run without stopping as there are a few bottles necks. This worked out well as I kept passing people and it mentally gives you a boost, as I was moving very well. I knew the whole course in the back of my hand so I didn’t panic being so far at back of the field. I remember the crowds lining up the streets cheering us on, one of the pubs were even offering us beer, which was very tempting, but I stuck to my RRUNN energy drinks! I was moving well and got to les houches feeling very relaxed, met Carl and Tanya & Alex who I stayed with last summer. It was good to see known faces on the trail, we started up the first climb which was a ski hill called “Le delevret’. Bumped into Paige Morrow, a Canadian runner who I met at the hostel and she’s friends with Stephanie too. We kept chatting about races in Canada and slowly moving up the field, at one of the junctions I bumped into Dave & Tracey Troman. After a quick photo I was on my way but it was so good to see them. This hill is quite steep so I took it easy with the climbing and was just trying to eat and drink, as it was quite warm and humid so I was sweating buckets. The views of Mont Blanc as the sun was setting were beautiful with the alpine glow in the background. Paige and I kept running together until the summit as I stopped to put my headlamp on before the descent and she ran on. I couldn’t find her but kept moving well and my main priority was not to trash my quads on such a steep descent. I managed to wiggle my way across and pass some people without accelerating too much. The long winding downhill to Saint gervais was fun as I was slowly settling into the rhythm of the race and also as nightfall was approaching, I was looking forward to this as I knew it’ll be A LOT cooler to run as opposed to the heat of the day. It’s been a weird last two years as we’ve had record temperatures at UTMB, which is quite unusual at the end of the summer, but we can’t predict the weather so just have to deal with it.

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Cheeky smile with Dave Troman on the first climb, already sweating buckets! – Photo by Tracey Troman

We slowly reached the town with lots of people out cheering which was nice, as soon as I entered the checkpoint they had an MC announcing names of the runners and the country they’re from. He seemed a little surprised looking at my flag haha but it was good fun, I filled up my bottles and ate some food here as I knew it was mostly uphill from here (literally!) until Col du bonhomme.

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Nearing the summit of Le Delevret Photo by : Prozis

Saint Gervais (21km) – les Chapieux (50 km)

 

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Saint Gervais CP – Photo by Nick Ham

After getting some calories in at this checkpoint I quickly jogged out and kept moving, I knew I was closer than I wanted to be to the cut-offs so early on but since I can always accelerate when needed it didn’t bother me too much. Main priority was not to expend too much energy early on, a race like UTMB which is just pure alpine climbing and descending for a 100 miles is a race of attrition and the last three climbs will make you pay for any excesses in the beginning. This section was mostly just going up and down around the valley, certain sections were very steep so had to take it easy. There were some grassy bits, which were nice to run on, I mostly was with French runners so was quiet and kept moving. This stretch seemed longer than it actually is as it’s slowly going uphill to les Contamines. I knew we were quite close to les contamines once we hit the road sections and had a couple of road crossings. We have to go under a bridge and then climb up to reach the checkpoint as there are crowds waiting there which was really nice. After almost 30k into the race I knew I had to get a move on to avoid being timed out at les Chapieux but I got into the checkpoint grabbed some food and sat down as I saw Chris and Donielle. He wasn’t feeling too well, as his stomach wasn’t playing ball, I tried to encourage him to move, as we didn’t have that long until the cut-off. After chatting to them I started the ascent off the checkpoint, as it’s the biggest climb in the race all the way up to Col du bonhomme. I was a lot slower going through here compared to last year but it didn’t worry me too much as I felt really good and my quads were in good condition.

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Notre-dame de la Gorge before we start the big ascent up the Col – Photo by Nick Ham

There were lots of people enjoying a barbeque and out in the restaurants cheering us on at les Contamines, it quickly started going uphill. My focus was to get to notre-dame, which is the base of the climb before we start heading into the high country. Did some running and power hiking here as it was all-uphill, wasn’t feeling too great so kept the effort easy. While my legs felt good my energy levels were off so tried to be a little patient. I noticed a bunch of people with a pen and pad noting down the brand of shoes the runners were wearing, some were working for Adidas and some for Hoka one one, I guess it must be a survey they were conducting. The climb up was okay as we got closer to Notre dame I started noticing familiar things which encouraged me, once we got closer we could hear the music blaring as there is usually a big bon fire party going on at the Gorge before we hit the steep part of the climb. There were still lots of people cheering us on here and I started climbing well, passed a lot of people in this section, as the track is quite wide before it narrows into a single track later on. I was passed on the opposite side by a couple of elite men who dropped out and had to pass us on the way back, spotted Rory Bosio who was in tears as she dropped out of the race and was escorted by a race official which was heart breaking as around the same place last year Nuria Picas dropped. Both were the hot favorites to win but a lot of things can and will go wrong when you run a 100 miles and no one is guaranteed of a finish. I have so much admiration and respect for people putting their bodies on the line to put such impressive performances but you always know there’s a big risk of a DNF when you’re pushing so hard.

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La Balme checkpoint half-way up the climb – Photo by Nick Ham

As we kept climbing it was beautiful to see all the headlamps snaking up the trail all the way to the summit, which seemed so far away! I kept focusing on getting to the intermediate checkpoint half way up the climb called “La Blame”. After some steep climbing we got to la balme, I had my usual fare of salty noodle broth, cake and some salty crackers. Drank coke to get some caffeine as we were well into the night, lots of people were relaxing at the checkpoint as they knew they had a big climb before them. I moved quickly and rejoined the alpine single track as we went up, it got technical the higher we climbed which demanded more focus to keep pace with the group. I kept passing people at every opportunity. The altitude was starting to affect a few people and also the relentless nature of the climb, which gets very steep near the summit.

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The headlamps snaking up the trail in the middle of a clear night was a beautiful experience – Photo by Peignes Verticale

We eventually crawled up the summit before they point you to croix du bon homme, which is a traverse and some more climbing until you hit the refugio. It’s another section that takes longer than it looks especially in the night and we got there before starting the long descent into les chapieux. After ticking off a big climb I was being careful on the descent as it was wet and slippery, it’s also very long so can be a strain on the quads. I was looking at the bigger picture and taking breaks where I could. There were a lot of things going on my mind at this point but listening to some songs helped me relax. I eventually got to the bottom to les chapieux as we walked into the checkpoint, it was brimming with people, some were sleeping and some looked super tired. It was quite fascinating and I ate and drank well before moving out of here after a short break. They had the first of many kit checks here to see if we were carrying the mandatory gear. After a quick check I headed out for the next section.

 

Les Chapieux (49 km) to Courmayeur (80 km)

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View from the summit of Col de la seigne with the cloud inversion, one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed during a race

I knew the climb out of here is long and steep, it starts on road before hitting an alpine town and we start snaking up the mountain to Col de la seigne, it’s one of the highest points in the course. I was power hiking well here and kept pace with a Spanish runner, saw lots of people sleeping on the side of the trail, it was so tempting but kept moving on. After a long climb into the town, I sat down on a bench before you hit the trail which goes up the mountain. After a couple of minutes I joined the other runners to start climbing, this was a tough section as it was in the middle of the night and I was falling as sleep. It was hard to stay upright and still keep moving well, there were some streams here which I stopped to splash some glacial water on my face to wake me up. It was super steep and the going was tough but we kept putting one foot in front of the other as I knew once daylight comes my body would slowly wake up.

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Spot the trail? Me neither, Col des pyramides in a nutshell – Photo by Nick Ham

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Almost near the summit hitting some patches of snow 🙂 – Photo by Nick Ham

We eventually hit the summit of the Col de la seigne which is quite featureless and windy but it’s the border between France and Italy, after chatting with mountain rescue who were up there all night we started the short descent before going up col des pyramides which was an off-piste technical climb that was added last year to make the course more technical. Sat down at the small hut where the volunteers were asking us to turn left for the pyramides climb. Bumped into Tim Lambert who was taking a breather. We decided to start together and I wanted to run a little as I was starting to wake up slowly, the climb is super steep and technical with a talus boulder field to traverse and as we got higher there were snow fields which made it super interesting. The whole climb is quite technical hence slow going and frustrating but we hit the summit eventually before going downhill which was an absolute nightmare! It was super frustrating as the rocks kept moving and there was no trail, after finding our route down, the trail smoothened out at certain bits but it was generally very rocky underfoot. The descent is quite steep and has lots of switchbacks but we could spot lac combal in the distance, we had to pass refugio elisabetta, which is where I stayed during a recce last year, and have fond memories of it. We kept going downhill from there all the way to the checkpoint passing through a couple of stream crossings. The checkpoint had all the essentials so it was good to fuel up before the next climb; I filled my bottles and marched out.

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The nasty descent into lac combal. The talus boulder field was a nightmare to descend – Photo by Nick Ham

The route goes around the lake before starting the super steep climb, we eventually hit the trail head to start the ascent. The climb was fully exposed under the hot sun so it was very draining and did I mention it was STEEP? Took a few rest breaks on route as the climb is quite drawn out as you summit three mountains before hitting arête du mont favre and a helicopter was filming us here which was surreal as it was quite close to the summit! The view of the glacier and Mont Blanc was spectacular on this side, there was a lady giving out water at the summit and we started our traverse across the mountain to reach col checroit. The sun was baking so I took the chance to wet my hat and buff in every stream to cool off. After a period of run/hiking we eventually started the long downhill to col checroit. Got to the CP, sat down and had a plate of pasta with live music playing. There were crowds here and it was cool to be at the CP. I moved out of here soon after I ate my plate of pasta and started the long descent into the capital of the Aosta valley, Courmayeur – dolonne and the heat was getting to me as it was getting warmer as we descended. I’ve only known this descent to be muddy and slippery but this time around the mud was completely dry so it was quite dusty but still very steep. I was passing people and eventually settled into a rhythm with a couple of Portuguese runners as we moved well. The descent is never ending with lots of tight switchbacks, I was quite mindful of not trashing my quads so early on as the race only starts in the second half. The stifling heat and humidity was amplified as we got closer to the valley.

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Summit of Arete du mont Favre, two lovely volunteers giving us a drink in the hot hot sun! – Photo by Nick Ham

The descent went by without any major incidents apart from a few slips, we eventually exited the trail as we hit the tarmac to enter the cobblestones of courmayeur. I had a funny moment with the photographer who was eating and she stopped midway to take my pic, I almost broke into a laugh feeling sorry for her. She was sweet and I apologized for running in! After a quick pose I ran in to the checkpoint where I met Chris and Nikkis Mills, after a quick chat with them I bumped into Donielle and Vanessa Wolfe who were waiting for Chris. I was glad to hear he was still out there. The heat was getting to me so I swiftly got my drop bag and walked into the checkpoint, it was very busy as crews were allowed here. They had a decent amount of food so queued to get some pasta before taking my shirt off and having a sit down. It was a welcome break away from the oppressing heat. The Italian side was certainly hotter! I changed my tee, shoes and restocked supplies that will hopefully take me all the way to the finish as you’re only allowed one-drop bag at this race and since I was without a crew this was my last chance to pick up stuff. I wanted a toilet break but due to the lines at the toilet I skipped it and went out. We had to walk through the whole building before exiting the sports complex.

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Descending into Courmayeur

Courmayeur (80km) to Champex-lac (124 km)

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Entering Courmayeur, still smiling 🙂

We walked through the whole town; they had some cool tunes playing in the center with an MC announcing our names to the crowds. Then the climbing started as we headed out into the trail, there were several points to fill up our bottles so I dunked myself into the water tank before heading out in an attempt to keep myself cool. The climb was steep and the stifling heat did not help, I was running with an Aussie runner and we were cracking jokes about the heat. Eventually the climb got steeper and steeper but I knew it was a relatively short climb to Refugio Bertone (85km), which is officially the half way point of the race. On route while taking a break from the relentless climb I bumped into Paige again. We decided to run together as we both felt pretty awful at this point, at least she got to nap at Courmayeur while I was faffing around trying to get some calories down. We were chatting about our experience so far and eventually made it up to the Refugio. We sat under the shade after filling up our bottles as the heat was getting to us. Eventually after some coaxing I got her to run, this section is supposed to be the most beautiful part of the UTMB called the “val ferret” as you can see the glacier and the rocky side of the Mont Blanc massif. Also this bit is probably the only runnable section in the second half of the race before Refugio Bonatti so we jogged and tried to run as much as possible while chatting away.

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Running with Paige through the beautiful Italian Val Ferret section

We made some friends and kept progressing, there were sections where we could see the other side of the trail and people making their way up, just the whole vastness and scale of this mountain makes you feel tiny in comparison. After some patient movement we made our way to Refugio Bonatti. It was at the top of a short but steep climb, after cooling ourselves off and topping the bottles we headed out. There was more undulating terrain before the descent into Arnuva. I was keeping a track of the time and cut-offs and since we wasted a lot of time cooling off at checkpoints we were cutting it a little close to the cut-off so I encouraged Paige to run the descent into the checkpoint so we could spend more time fueling before the big climb ahead. This is where course knowledge is so crucial as it’s easier to plan your strategy and change it on the go when you have a clear idea of what to expect on the next section.

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A picture of focus on the descent into Arnuva

After a quad throbbing descent, we entered the checkpoint at Arnuva and sat down to get some food in as the next checkpoint was 10 miles away. I sorted myself out and waited on Paige before heading out. I knew this was the steepest climb in the entire race and mentally was prepared to grind it out. But boy was it crazy steep and unrelenting, we kept putting one foot in front of the other and there were points were it was so steep that you had to keep moving to balance yourself. As with everything we slowly but surely made our way up the climb to see the summit after what took an eternity. It was quite exposed here and the weather was turning so we put our jackets on before heading down the long descent to La Fouly. The vastness and scale of the mountain was spectacular on this side, we were also going to enter Switzerland soon, which was exciting as we were getting closer to the business stage of the race.

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Strong posing game on the super steep climb up Gran col Ferret, I got mountains growing out of me!

After descending for a few kilometers on narrow single track we hit a small checkpoint where they gave water before encouraging us to put our waterproofs on as they told us there was going to be a storm tonight. I must say I was quite excited about it as rain would add a different dimension to the race and the looming lightning strikes were spectacular to watch but the others around me didn’t quite share my enthusiasm! Paige was a little worried but we quickly headed out and slowly made our way down as this bit had some technical sections. Bumped into a German who was taking a break and encouraged him to move but he wanted to drop, after a quick chat with him we kept moving. I did practice my German on him and found out he was Bavarian!!! 😀

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It went upppp and then it went downnn! I got a hang of this by the time we hit Switzerland 😉

We could hear a familiar voice on the way down and it was Stephanie!!! She was shouting out the exact kilometers in her all too familiar accent. After a quick hug, I asked her about Belinda whom she was crewing before running off. We had about 5k to the checkpoint and we could see the lightning and thunderstorms were getting stronger. The wind and rain got to us; we ran this bit well before we hit La Fouly. The checkpoint was in the middle of the town, we got in and the rain was bucketing down. Decided to spend some time here as we had some time for the cut-offs, got some food and decided to wait. After Paige put all her waterproofs on and I put my jacket on we set off with a few others for the next checkpoint. After some heavy downpour it eventually settled and the weather cleared up, met lots of people in this section as I wouldn’t shut up 😉 We were chatting away and moving well, the lack of sleep going into the second night was affecting Paige as she became silent so I told her she can have a nap at Champex-lac as it’s a bigger checkpoint with beds.

 

She ran this section well leading us and we chatted away about our lives as we both were lawyers and our past adventures. It was cool to run with someone as in such an international race you can get awfully lonely at times when you’re surrounded by people not speaking your language. We enjoyed each others company and kept moving well, I was keeping track of the cut-off times and planning for the next sections while she worried about maintaining a good hiking/running pace. We ran past Praz de fort which was a beautiful town, a lovely family had water and coffee for us which was awesome, more caffeine please!! We moved well after taking a short coffee break.

 

After hitting champex we got to a steep climb up the forest that kept going forever, bumped into Stephanie and Mika who were hiking the other way to catch Belinda. She assured us the next checkpoint is not far. We hit Champex-lac checkpoint after awhile and bumped into Johnny who was crewing his friend. Paige went to take a 10 min nap as they had beds there; I kept time and was chatting with Mika while eating salted crisps as they had something different to the usual aid station fare. It was good to chat with Steph and Mika here and my plan was to not sleep for the whole race if I can help it as this will help me gauge my tolerance for future adventures.

 

Champex Lac (124 km) to Vallorcine (151 km)

 

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Being oh so excited to see Stephanie again at Champex-Lac! Photo by Stephanie

After spending some time here we eventually made our way out, it was freezing outside and yet I knew I would overheat once I start moving so decided against wearing my jacket, I’m used to cold weather and it wasn’t biting cold. After about 10 minutes I warmed up while we hiked up to the next climb. We chatted for a bit while running with one of Paige’s Belgian friends who kept catching up to us while we faffed at each checkpoint. So we ran with him and after awhile we started the climb. We could see headlamps on the other mountain, which was pretty cool, my memory of this section is a little hazy as I was sleep deprived and went into auto pilot. There are only certain fleeting moments that I remember being awake but was still moving, I don’t quite know what I spoke to Paige in this section, all I remember was the climb to Bertone took FOREVER and once we hit the summit I was so sleepy I was struggling to stay upright. I kinda feels like I was dreaming with few moments of being lucid. I didn’t sleep at all since the start of the race and it caught up to me on the second night. We pressed on and hit la gieté which I have very little memory of crossing! I remember it was super muddy here after the rain and started the descent to Trient. On the way down I told Paige to keep running while I sat down to remove dirt from my shoes, I had a blackout here for around 10 minutes where I had a vivid dream which involved me volunteering two years ago atop this same mountain while tracking the elite runners, it felt so real that it was hard for me to snap out of it as my mind was playing the memories of what happened two years ago before I snapped out of it and started questioning if THIS was real or if I was dreaming. I slowly got back to my senses as people passed me, I looked at my Bib and realized I am in the race and not volunteering! Slowly got up and started running, I had a vague recollection of running with Paige but couldn’t quite remember her name so thought I could possibly catch up at Trient so ran down.

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How I felt after Bovine 😀

After a kilometer I saw her sleeping on the side of the trail as she realized I wasn’t running to catch up. It was starting to get daylight and I was super fresh after the blackout, we ran this bit while I was explaining about this complex dream of mine and kept asking her what happened on the last climb as I had zero recollection of summiting Bovine. The memories did come back eventually but only two weeks after I finished the race! This was in the back of my mind until the finish as I kept replaying this section to put the pieces together. After a steep descent we hit Col de la forclaz which was one of the summits of a mountain stage of the Tour de France this year and then Trient, the entry into the town was super muddy and reminded me of a cross country field than a trail. Got to this checkpoint and hugged Stephanie dressed up as an angry bird. The cameras were filming me as I spoke about this vivid dream before getting some food down. We spent some time here refueling to get ourselves ready for the next climb.

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Seeing Stephanie dressed up as an angry bird at Trient = Priceless!

The climb out of trient was steep (as usual!) and mostly uneventful as I kept encouraging everyone and was chatting about other races. Once the sun came out we stopped at every stream to cool off. I knew this climb wasn’t as bad as the final one so was quite comfortable with dealing with it as there are bits that are runnable before the long descent. Once we hit the descent I knew this was the last section in the shade before facing the heat so made the most of it by running a fair bit. This section to vallorcine was beautiful and I’ve explored it further so had good memories of it, we entered France again and it was slowly dawning on us that a finish was on. I never doubted it but it felt good to be just one nasty climb away from Chamonix!!

 

The last section of the descent was steep and fun as we ran down a field, Stephanie and Mike were dressed up in a fancy dress, Steph as a dirty nurse with fake boobs which was hilarious 😀 Perked me up as we chatted about Belinda and that she was going to make it too. After hitting the town, I gave high-five to Johnny before hugging David Hetherington and his wife. After a quick pic, we headed into the checkpoint. I filled up my bottles and got some calories down for the final climb. The final piece of the jig saw that I’ve been piecing together in my mind for the past two days. We headed out into the baking sun but the daylight was always welcome.

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More shenanigans at Vallorcine, Mika and Steph in another fancy dress to cheer us on! ❤

Vallorcine (151 km) to Chamonix (171 km)

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Entering Vallorcine looking chirpy again – Photo by David Hetherington

I knew the climb out until Col des montets is not steep so it was relaxing to move well in the woods before meeting more friends to chat. Had a quick drink at col des montets before crossing the road for the final climb which I knew was going to be brutal but best to get on with it. The climb was steep, narrow and had big steps. We took a few breaks near ANY shade as the climb was unrelenting. It went from steps to rocks to several false summits, I knew I just had to keep it together until La Flegre as it was all downhill from there.

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Climbing Col des montets before hitting the trail head, all smiles knowing we were one climb away from #DestinationChamonix – Photo by Steph

The traverse in the heat was sapping and dehydrating, I asked people cheering past us for water and one of them gave me a bottle. This section kept going on forever as it’s a little rocky and technical, I could see a stream in the distance and aimed for that as I was getting dehydrated by this point. I sat in the stream for a little while to cool off and fill my bottles, one of the volunteers told me to run as I was close to the last cut-off point at flegere but I felt I had to top off my reserves as I knew I could run the whole descent so it wasn’t something that worried me, I’m generally a pretty relaxed person so it helps in a race like this I guess!

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Race winner Ludovic Pommeret marching through Tete aux Vents – Photo by Peignes Verticale

I met Belinda here and shared a few miles with her as we made our way to Flegere, she knew the cut-off time so we stuck together until we hit that checkpoint. There were only liquids here so I drank lots before putting my headphones on for the final descent, which I dreamed about running for the whole race. I saved my quads for this moment so started running downhill with a good rhythm. It was so much fun as I knew this trail very well as I used to run up to flegere when I lived in Chamonix last summer. I kept cheering all the runners that I passed and the confidence of running that last downhill brought a lot of joy, it was like dancing and playing as the trail did get technical at certain bits. Lots of spectators were on the sides cheering us which was pretty cool, it wasn’t long before I hit La Floria and met Lachlan and Lynne Lamont who were cheering the runners in, they told me I looked fresh for someone running for two days! After a quick chat I was on my way down passing more people, since I knew the petit balcon sud well I had an idea of exactly how many kilometers were left so pushed it here to finish it a little sooner. It wasn’t long before I saw Stephanie and Mika hiking to meet Belinda, told them she’s not far and kept plugging along.

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Soon we exited the trail to hit the road junction as we entered Chamonix, it was so emotional as I saw the crowds lining up the streets and everyone was going crazy as I was moving very well at this point. I did call Chamonix my home last summer and it felt great to be back home! I saw Johnny waiting for his friend and told him that I just passed her and kept running well, saw Dave and Tracey before meeting Jon and Natasha. It was awesome to have so many friends out here that made it very special, I was sprinting to the town before crossing the pub where Helen gave me the flag and all my lovely Scottish friends gave me a huge cheer. I didn’t want to stop here, as I knew I’d get emotional and start crying so decided to keep the momentum going and sprinted through town. It was a beautiful moment to run across the town with the huge crowds before finishing at the center of town in a time of 45 hours and 43 minutes. It was so special and emotional to cross the finish line, I felt super fresh and was chatting away at the finish while my friends said I didn’t look like I ran a 100 miles!

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Running the UTMB was a beautiful experience and all the training made it even more pleasurable, I had a certain plan and it went well. Training for this race was never hard work unlike road races because it was a great excuse to travel to new mountain ranges so I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. Sure I could have gone a lot faster but I got to experience it better this way as I made lots of friends and I could almost guarantee a finish by running it in this manner. I have so much appreciation and respect for everyone finishing or the ones who attempted it, as it’s a massive challenge. Life’s Tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late, I feel my experience counted for A LOT as I knew what was happening and could deal with problems swiftly without panicking. Yiannis Kouros said that an ultra is not about running a 100 miles or 50 miles, It’s about “going beyond” or “transcending”. That is real ultra running and I felt that this race gave me that and it was beautiful, took me two nights of no sleep for all the layers and mental conditioning to fall away so that I could peer into my soul and find genuine happiness through the process. While some may find this through running around a track or road running, for me the mountains play a massive part in giving me that experience.

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Still smiling at the finish line – Pic by Jon Fielden

Thanks to my sponsors WAA Ultra who have provided me with some wonderful gear specifically designed for a race like UTMB, it worked really well in the heat and kept me warm in the cold. They had the whole team out at Chamonix to support us, which was very special. Thanks to Unived Sports for providing me the nutrition for this race, they made a couple of nutritional products specifically for this race and their drink mix worked really well in the heat as it was designed for the heat and humidity of India. I didn’t have any major stomach issues and could eat well right until the end, which is a massive bonus at a race like the UTMB. Both these brands get Ultrarunning and go out of their way to design and support products that help us to achieve our goals so it’s been great to work with them and help them create or refine things to better suit our needs.

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Meeting friends from all over the world is the best thing about racing at the UTMB – Photo by Yvonne Chan

Thanks to my amazing coach Paul Giblin who finished 17th overall after a minor incident 20 miles in. He’s made a massive difference after I got back from a major injury at the start of last year, just my mind set and training has been very different and it’s made a big difference. Thanks to my wonderful friend Alexandra Yule who’s a dietician, she had a look at my nutrition plan and tweaked things to make it work on race day and also helped me plan incase of any GI issues. Thanks to my loving parents and friends who tracked me and were willing me on from near and far. I will write another blog about my gear and nutrition but this is purely my experience of the UTMB and why it is such a special race despite being CRAZY HARD! I called it a song of ice and fire to get a GOT reference in somehow and also because you need to be patient and cool while the race throws a lot of variables at you while also possessing the fire to run or make a move when you have to but without overdoing it, it’s a balance very much like life. Thanks for your patience!

With love,

Ash

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Photo by Ultra Lovers

 

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 😀

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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!

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