Mountains and marathons

There has been a strange period since the WHW race where my running has generally taken a back seat for a few weeks to give myself some recovery time. There have been a couple of highlights though. Firstly, I had a work trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. As locations go, I probably couldn’t choose a worse place for me. All the glitter and glitz of Vegas is a huge turn-off. It turns out though that there are mountains nearby. What more could a boy ask for?

IMG_4894.JPG

Mount Charleston is an easy 40 minute drive from the strip. Measuring 3632m, it’s not to be overlooked and it has several trails across it which give you great running options. Given it was July, temperatures on the strip were peaking around 45c, and whilst it was hot at the base of the mountain, it was a more pleasant 25c at altitude with a healthy breeze. A perfect escape.

Also close to Vegas is Red Rock canyon. A real Roadrunner v Wile E. Coyote location with desert scrub and ridiculously beautiful rock formations. Because it was closer to the desert floor the temperatures there were similar to the strip, which demanded the only option was for an early morning sunrise run. Even at 5am it was over 30c. Not easy for a boy from Fife! The views were just spectacular though:

I also got a couple of runs in along the strip, which was just about as horrible an experience as a trail runner could hope for. But it’s the kind of thing you have to do once, just because you are there.

Viva Las Vegas!

After that, I came home hoping to complete my West Highland Way triple crown of races with the Devil o’the Highlands last Saturday, but sadly it wasn’t to be as I came down with some bug the day before the race. If truth be told, I wasn’t in great shape to be running last weekend anyway, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been happy with how it went, so perhaps a blessing in disguise for me?

Looking ahead, I’ve got the Salomon Glencoe skyline VK race in September now as my last run of the year. Before that though, UTMB happens and whilst I’m not running this year, so many of my friends are and I’m really excited for them all. IT is such an amazing event and I’d love to be there to cheer them all on.

Next year, I’m thinking I have to settle my marathon phobia and get another one under my belt. I make no claims to enjoying that race, I’d rather run 100 miles than 26.2, but I feel like I want to have one more go. Serendipity took over and a friend notified me that they had applied to Tokyo Marathon. I’d love to find a reason to force me to go to Japan, so, without further ado, I’ve put my name in the ballot for a place. Let’s see how that turns out.

こんにちは東京

West Highland Way Race 2017

It’s been too long since I last posted an update on here. Home, family, work have all had to take priority for most of this year and that statement sums up the foundation I took into my main race for the year. Then, as if poor training and lack of race experience weren’t enough, Scotland decided to throw some weather at us on the day too. And so goes the story of the 2017 West Highland Way race.

If you are not familiar with the WHW race, take a look at my blog from last year or at the race website. In summary, it is a 95 mile race along Scotland’s most famous long distance trail. It has a unique status in the running community due to the awesomeness of the achievement, but also due to the family nature which the race enthuses in everyone who takes part. You can’t appreciate the sense of community until you take part, but once you do, it’s easy to see why so many people keep coming back for more.

This year, I was one of those who came back for more. After finishing in 22 hours and 49mins in 2016 and learning so much about how to run the race, I wanted to go back and see if I could apply the lessons I’ve learned and improve on that time. My two main areas of improvement were going to be about the time I spent in checkpoints and pacing the earlier sections of the race better. In 2016 I spent a couple of hours in total stopped, so I hoped that limiting any stop to 10 mins would help shave some time off. I was supported this year by two friends from Falkland Trail Runners, Carole and Susan, who were just amazing.  We spent some time before the race going through the details of how I wanted to approach it and, feeling prepared, we arrived in Milngavie at 9:30pm on Friday night.

My fabulous support crew before the race

After registration, I curled up on the back seat of Carole’s car and had a couple of hours sleep before the race. The 1am start time is the first challenge the race throws at you. Like most runners, life has to keep going and I’d been up since 6am with William, then a few hours work until lunchtime followed by some last minute preparations. By the time Friday evening arrived, I’d already had a full day under my belt so a 95 mile race was going to be tough. And it was.

I caught up with a bunch of running friends at the start line before the gun went off, then it was away into the darkness ahead of us. The early sections are straightforward enough and allow you to settle into the race. I was happy with my pace as we neared the Glengoyne distillery, but then a twinge in my right calf was a familiar feeling and, as I feared, before long the twinge turned into the sharp pain of a calf tear. I stopped at the side of the trail easing it out with some stretches and hoped it wasn’t as bad as I feared. It didn’t ease up so I started to walk it off, knowing I had to move forwards anyway. As I moved, I found that I could manage a hobbled walk, then a light jog, but my calf wasn’t happy. Meeting my crew at Drymen, I explained what had happened and they showed me exactly why I’d chosen them. They patted me on the back and said ok, see you at Balmaha, let’s see how you are feeling there.

Last year the weather was a crystal clear day right from the start, meaning the night-time section was run against a backdrop of clear night skies full of stars and the mid-summer sun rising early, meaning head torches were off long before Conic hill. This year was much different with grey skies overhead, that early sunshine was obscured meaning the torch stayed on until Balmaha. I tried turning it off on the way down Conic hill but immediately stumbled on a rock and rolled an ankle on the same leg as my calf. Now I felt completely justified in feeling sorry for my self. I kept moving forwards knowing food and a few minutes rest was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. My crew were amazing again. Porridge was waiting for me, fresh water bottles and gels, then a push in the back and told to get going.

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

By the time I reached Rowardennan I was in a poor state. My leg was still hurting and to exacerbate things, I’d become slack in my food intake thinking the CP was closer than it was. As I reached the girls, I was doing my best junkie impression looking as white as a ghost and shivery. More food, some paracetamol and some strapping, then the now familiar push in the back and a hug and I was off again.

The loch side section from Rowardennan to beyond Inversnaid has been my nemesis in every one of the three races I’ve run on the WHW so far. It is a gnarly, root and rock laden trail which feels impossible to me to maintain speed over. For whatever reason, I found it enjoyable this year. I felt like I managed to keep some momentum and the food I’d had at Rowardennan and the tablets had put paid to my aches. A quick pit stop at Inversnaid for some water and before I knew it I was running into Beinglas and my anxious crew. My smiles as I arrived put us all at rest and it was time to get moving up to Auchtertyre.

Anaethetists

My Anaesthetists for the race – Carole and Susan

 

As I passed Crianlarich, the weather started to turn. It had been grey and cool with a little wind so far, which made it a) perfect running weather and b) the perfect antidote to midges who had pestered us here last year. As I came into the checkpoint at Auchtertyre, the rain and wind started and the mood of the race was changed. I reached Auchtertyre in 11h 21m, which was almost 30 minutes slower than last year. The injuries earlier in the race had put a big dent in my hopes of a faster time, but things were going ok now, so I settled into my run. The section from here to Bridge of Orchy is generally quite fast so I knew that it would be a confidence boost if I can make it through that without any more problems.

Arriving into Bridge of Orchy

By the time I reached my team at Bridge of Orchy I felt like I was on cloud nine. I’d had a great run, taking 2h 23m, which given the driving rain and headwind we were all running into, I was happy despite being a further 10 mins slower than last year. My running was settled, I felt good about drink and calorie intake. These long races mean that you have to ride the lows to get to the highs.

Next up was Rannoch Moor. This long, desolate stretch of path was miserable last year because of the dehydrating high temperatures and lack of places to hide from the sun. This year, I was begging for that sunshine to come back as a biting northerly wind took hold of the heavy rain and turned it into a weapon against everyone one of us crossing that barren landscape. Determined to get through it, I was faster over this section this year by 15 mins. Sheltering in the car in the car park at Glencoe was like a haven from the horrible conditions. After some more food and a change of clothing into full on cold weather gear, I was kicked out of the car and sent on my way.

GimpSuit

From the 2017 wild weather collection on the Devils Staircase

 

My crew met me at the bottom of the devil’s staircase. The run from the ski center to this point had been horrible. The wind and rain had increased and Glencoe is a bleak place when weather like that is blowing through. There was nobody ahead or behind me in sight so it felt continually more and more isolating. Carole and Susan came up the staircase with me encouraging me on which I was hugely grateful for. I left them about half way up so they could get around to Kinlochleven in time for me. As I went over the top of the hill, I rolled my right ankle again for the second time. This time it wasn’t something I could run off. I’d slipped on some wet rock and was struggling to keep upright in the high wind. I kept moving and eventually limped down to Kinlochleven in just over 3 hours, 20 minutes slower than last year.

Soup-er food for runners

With warm soup waiting for me and the knowledge that there was ‘only’ Lairig Mor left to do, I wasn’t going to give up here. Some strapping for my ankle helped, as did a change into dry clothes, some clean socks and a different pair of trainers with more grip. The by now familiar kick up the arse and sent on my way was administered and I promised to see the girls in Fort William.

The climb out of Kinlochleven is always longer and steeper than I remember it being. It was tough and then, just as you reach the top, you step into the driving rain that you’d been protected from as you climbed up through the trees. From this point onwards, there was only one story and it involved the weather. I was tired, cold, wet, hurting and long out into the distance was that lonely track. Half way across it was Jeff Smith and his Wilderness emergency team, looking out for people like me stupid enough to be crossing that lonely place in exactly these kinds of conditions. He took this photo which gives you a sense of what we were dealing with:

Lairig Mor. Pic courtesy of Jeff Smith

There was so much rain, the rocky track was inches deep in water and it was like running through a river. Lundavra eventually appeared on the horizon and I was so happy to know that the worst was over. The trail from Lundavra through to Glen Nevis used to be a pleasant experience but recent forestry work with some heavy machinery has put paid to that. In the darkness, one section of trail appeared to end as it went head first into knee deep tracks left behind by a digger of some sort. The familiar trees were gone which made for a disorientating experience for those of us who knew that area. Finally, the last small climb to the fire road which winds down through Glen Nevis was in front of me and I could see the head torches of other people ahead of me for the first time in hours.

It turned out that some of those torches were from my crew who had come out to meet me as they were so worried after seeing my ankle at KLL. I was over the moon to see a friendly face after the experience of Lairig Mor. I explained that it was downhill all the way and that I had something like 48 minutes to get in under 24 hours and, providing my ankle would let me, I was planning on going fast down the track all the way to the finish. I’m not sure they quite expected it, but running 5min\km downhill at the tail end of a 95 mile ultra wasn’t quite what they were expecting.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough and I crossed the line in 24hrs and 2 mins. It didn’t matter one bit though, I was so happy to have finished given how tough things had been throughout the day. I know that if it hadn’t been for my crew, I would have given up on the race early in the day and missed the opportunity to finish. They were amazing and I will be forever grateful to them. Races of this length require more than just physical fitness. You can plan for things going well, but you have to accept when things don’t go well and disrupt that plan. The experience of doing this kind of race is incredible and as someone reminded me at Bridge of Orchy, there is a world full of people who can’t imagine what it is like to complete something like this and we are all doing this on their behalf. I feel proud of finishing this tough race twice in respectable times. All the people involved in making it happen contribute to those of us lucky enough to run in it and I say a huge thank you to all of you.

Proud to receive my 2nd race goblet

The award ceremony on Sunday morning was another emotional experience. The winner, Rob Sinclair, set a new astounding course record of 13h 41m. An incredible performance which is really difficult to comprehend how it is achieved. The final finisher finished 20 minutes before the ceremony and was handed her goblet by the winner, as is the tradition of this race, and was given a standing ovation by everyone in the hall as a mark of respect.

Now, it’s time to recover. I put my body through some serious conditions on Saturday and I suspect it is going to take a lot of time to recover. That’s ok though. I’m happy to relax, take the time to recover and be satisfied with what I’ve achieved.

My fabulous crew who deserve the goblet as much as I do

 

California Dreaming

Sunshine, healthy food, mountains…It’s hard not to like California.

I have just come back from a work trip to Los Angeles and I’m once again smitten by this beautiful part of the world. To be honest, downtown LA does very little for me, but the coastline and mountains surrounding the city fill me with smiles.

Due to the way my travel plans worked out, I was lucky to get a day at either end of my trip where I had the opportunity to head out onto the trails. After arriving late on a Saturday night and staying at a hotel in LA, I’d already planned my Sunday morning. In the Santa Monica mountains, there is the Trail Runners Club who meet Saturday and Sunday mornings, this particular Sunday they had a scheduled club run along the same Mandeville Canyon ridgeline I ran a couple of years ago when I visited LA. As well as a phenomenal trail run, the weekend I was there they had Mira Rai from the Salomon team visiting too, so I got to meet the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year!

Mira Rai Selife

Mira Rai Selife

The run was just wonderful, it was the perfect antidote to my 8 hour jet lag. They have had a whole load of rain this winter in LA, but for the days I was up there in those mountains, the sun shone and it felt amazing to be running in warm conditions again.

Sunshine over LA

Sunshine over LA

The trail runners club were an incredibly friendly bunch and if you are ever in the Santa Monica\LA area, I can highly recommend taking the time to meet up with them for a run. They are a fun bunch and have some incredible trails on their doorstep. The run was pretty tough, a 19km ridge with loads of single track heaven and over 700m of up and down. Perfect start to the trip.

The next morning, due to a combination of jet lag being on my side and meetings not starting until later in the day, I plotted a run in the San Gabriel mountains, picking up a 10km stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This icnonic long distance route trails all the way up the west coast of America and covers some incredible territory. The stretch I had started at about 1000m elevation and climbed gradually over 10km to 1700m. The area it cuts through was a burn zone and the whole place was a barren, charred landscape. There was some evidence of new growth starting to emerge, but on the whole it was a lonely feeling place.

20170213_160210456_ios

Swarthout Canyon on the PCT

After this, I had five days of work where the best I could hope for was some hard pavements looping around the convention center where I was based. Before I took my flight hom though, I had an afternoon spare and didn’t hesitate to jump in the car and head back to the Santa Monica mountains with a guy I’d met in the previous Sunday run with the club. Bizarrely, the worst rain storm for decades blew through the area at exactly the point when we were heading out onto the trails from Will Rogers park up the backbone ridge trail. It was so torrential I didn’t both to even try to take my phone with me, so no pictures sadly. I can say though that it was another incredible trail to run and I felt very envious of those people who have it on their doorstep.

Flash flooding in Santa Monica

Flash flooding in Santa Monica

It was a great week, not just because of the great running opportunity I had. It did feel good though getting in a couple of long runs in some big countryside. I felt like my running was coming back and much more relaxed as a consequence.

Goodbye 2016, it’s been fun…

Wow, what a year. Despite getting nowhere near as many opportunities I would have liked to run, looking back on this year and recognising what I’ve managed to fit in, I have to say it’s been a heck of a year.

Thinking back to the start of the year, our son William was born last December so training dropped off a cliff at that point. I’d naively signed up to some big races assuming life would continue as normal, but as I’ve described in most of my posts this year, it’s been tough to find the time to train. Despite that, my year started with what I think is becoming my favourite hill race which is Carnethy 5. The 2016 vintage was a snow blizzard of a race, literally, yet I felt amazing during it. I suspect this was due to my reduced training leading up to it, but who knows.

24548870884_6f86e1bdf9_o

After Carnethy, it was a fairly long period of minimal activity. I helped out at the Highland Fling and in the process became incredibly jealous of those taking part.6tag_300416-151523 I loved helping out at such an iconic race in the Scottish ultra racing calendar though and I can highly recommend it for improving your “Contribution to society” levels.

 

The two main events this year though for me, was the West Highland Way (WHW) and UTMB TDS races. The WHW was up first in June and was a daunting prospect given the minimal training. I had imagined putting in a few months of 100 mile training weeks to give it the best shot I could. I was way off that velocity by the time I got to it though. Despite that, I felt well prepared and what training I could do was pretty bloody awesome.

WP_20160327_10_16_59_Pro_LI_edited

The race itself went amazingly well looking back. I had hoped for a sub 20hr performance, but the sub 24hr I achieved was fantastic all things considered.

Before the climb up the Devils Staircase

Before the climb up the Devils Staircase

My support team did an amazing job to get me through and the weather made it a mid-summer experience to remember. I heard last week that I have a place in next year’s race. Determined to do better, I’m already dreaming about what it will take to get to the 20hr mark. More on that in another post, though.

 

After the WHW, next up was TDS; the big one. I’d been in awe of the UTMB series since I discovered running and TDS was as close as I could get to the namesake race of UTMB that my points accumulation would allow me. Oh boy, what a race it is too! We combined a family holiday with the race and spent three weeks in Chamonix to give me some time to prepare and get into the zone so to speak. It worked as well as I could have hoped and the whole experience of the race and the surrounding running festival was amazing. But oh what a race. I still wake up making strange noises thinking of ‘that’ climb our of Bourg St Maurice.

Chamonix - What's not to love?

Chamonix – What’s not to love?

I can’t wait to sign up again for this year, though, entries open in a couple of days and I now have enough points to do the UTMB. The dilemma is, do I risk the lottery and attempt to get a UTMB place, or do I go for TDS with an almost certified entry probability in comparison and look to banish some demons of my race?

 

After UTMB it has been social running only. Only, I haven’t been all that social. My opportunities to attend club nights have been reduced due to family and work commitments, but I’m starting to find more and more ways to fit running back into my life. For now, though, looking back on the year, I’m over the moon with what I achieved and I can’t wait to see how 2017 turns out.

Col Chavannes and smiles because it was over

Col Chavannes and smiles because it was over

UTMB TDS 2016

The UTMB, or Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc to give it its Sunday name, is an ultra trail running event and is considered by a lot of people as the pinnacle of the ultra running calendar. I can see why now.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the TDS race, or the Sur la Trace des Ducs du Savoie. This is a 119km ultra which starts in Courmayeur in Italy and proceeds over mountain passes around the south of the Mont Blanc massif, ultimately ending in the town center of Chamonix. Between those two points lie approximately 7200m of mountains to get up and over and I can now confirm that 7200m is a lot of mountains to get over. Especially when the temperature gets up to 35 degrees Centigrade.

Chamonix - What's not to love?

Chamonix – What’s not to love?

As you might have worked out by now, this monster of a race is pretty damn brutal. I hadn’t underestimated it; I was clear at the start line about what lay ahead, it’s just the actuality of running it that kicks you in the teeth and makes you realise how much of a miserable, pathetic runner you really are. This mistress treats you mean and doesn’t allow you time to beg for mercy.

There are five other races in the whole UTMB event, the YCC, the OCC, the CCC, the PTL (beware, there be maniacs here) and then the Grandfather of them all, the actual UTMB. The last two do full laps around Mont Blanc, the UTMB over 170km and the PTL in a mega extended loop taking in an unfathomable 280+km with over 24,000m of elevation. The TDS looks like a school sports day dads race in comparison. The other races, YCC (Youth), OCC and CCC all cover a segment of the full lap around the mountain, often with some detours to put some particular mountain passes in your way.

Before I got to Chamonix, I knew this whole event was big but I hadn’t appreciated how big it was. I am certain there are better\bigger\more interesting\less commercial races out there. Over the past couple of years I’ve been running I’ve heard people both complaining about UTMB and gushing over it. The complaints are typically about how the organisers charge other races to be qualifying races. I can see the point here, why should small, local races fund this huge, well sponsored, international event? However, now I’ve taken part, I can fully appreciate how something this big must take an enormous amount of money to put on. I doubt very much if whoever is behind UTMB makes a lot of money from it. The overheads must be huge, but regardless, they put on a tremendous show and I don’t mind if some of my entry fee from other races I participate in goes towards it as long as I get the change to take part.

As I mentioned in my last post, we took a couple of weeks holiday around the race which gave me some time before hand to run some parts of the route, but also to settle in to being there and getting my head into race mode. On paper, it might not look like it did much for me, but I know from my experience in the race, it absolutely did. More on that later.

Pre-Race

My training since the WHW race has been shit. There is no other way to describe it. My longest run was 19km, I was lucky if I could run 30-40km a week, it was just about as bad as it could be. Family life was at full speed and my job was in overdrive consuming any available time. Consequently, with a week and a half before the race start from the time we arrived in Chamonix, I wanted to get out as much as possible and at the same time, get some hills under my legs. I’ve found that I’m generally pretty good going up and down hills. Not good as in fast, but good as in consistent and persistent. Think diesel engine rather than Ferrari.

So off I went. First morning I headed out from the chalet we were renting and headed up the hill towards La Jonction. This is where a glacier splits in two around a spit of land. It’s a steep, long climb straight up with some spectacular views. I set off just after 5am and managed to clear the path of spiders cobwebs for everyone else heading up this popular path during the rest of the day. At one point I seriously thought they might find me cocooned in spiders web on the trail it was so bad.

Sunrise heading up to La Jonction

Sunrise heading up to La Jonction

Next morning I headed out towards Les Contamine. Just before the town there is a little hamlet called Bionnassay that sits on the side of the hill which is the final climb in the TDS race; the Col du Tricot. I ran around the hill from Bionnassay, heading for a place called Le Truc. This is a meadow area sandwiched between two hills, off in one direction is Les Contamines and the other goes over Col du Tricot towards Bellevue. I explored up and over both to get some more distance and climbing in, but more importantly to see as much of the trail as possible. There was every chance I was going to be here in darkness in the race, so it would help to feel something familiar was my belief.

Col du Tricot from Le Truc

Col du Tricot from Le Truc

Next day, another 5am start, this time heading up past Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here I headed up the hill following the route up to Col du Joly. This is one of the big CP’s in the race and was almost certainly going to be in the night for me. From here I continued along the route to what is the end of the most remote section of the race which emerges under a place called Tete de la Cicle.  This run turned out to be a huge help in the end.

20160817_192855537_ios

Race map showing Col du Joly and the route heading down to Tete de la Cicle

With all this covered, I now knew almost every km of the race from Col du Joly, which is about the last 35km. After that, it was time to relax for a couple of days. We headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel one day, partly to enjoy visiting Courmayeur, but also to allow me to see the start and the first hill. The town is beautiful and I much preferred it to Chamonix which is too commercial for me. The first hill looked straight forward enough, but with it I also recognised that it was probably the type of hill I could get sucked into running too fast, so I was glad I’d seen it before the start.

Courmayeur with Col Checroit being the dip to the right of the ridge line.

Courmayeur with Col Checroit, first climb in the TDS, being the dip to the right of the ridge line.

After that, all that was left was registration. It takes place in the sports center in Chamonix and is incredibly well organised. You have to show a significant pack of mandatory kit, after which you get all your race info and an opportunity for your first race photo.

At 3:45am the next morning, it was time to board a coach in Chamonix and head through the tunnel to Italy and the start line. I bumped into a couple of other runners from Scotland, Ross and Norrie and we hung around together waiting for the start.

Nervous pre-race selfie

Nervous pre-race selfie

Before long, ‘that’ music started up, the maniac French announcer for the UTMB finally exploded and we were off.

The Race

This is a long race so to try to even begin to describe it, I’m going to have to break it up into some manageable chunks. These reflect how I was approaching it mentally and, as it turned out, they segmented how I was feeling on the day.

Stage 1: Courmayeur to Bourg Saint Maurice

From the start line you run up the main street in Courmayeur before turning down the hill, passing under the main road and then starting the climb up to the first Col; the Col Checrouit. Running through the town at 6am was pretty special. The crowds were amazing and gave me a spring in my step. I’d planned to set off at a steady jog and generally managed to achieve this. After a couple of minutes, I realised I’d pulled away from Ross and Norrie but they would soon catch me up once the field opened up again. Everything I’d read before the race told me it was a real bottle neck on the first couple of climbs and I was determined not to get pinned towards the back of the field because I didn’t make it to the narrow trails before the bulk of the race did. As it turned out, the paths are pretty broad in the first section and there is plenty of time to find your natural position in the race. A lesson for future races I suspect.

Sunrise over Val d'Aosta

Sunrise over Val d’Aosta

Once we had escaped the town, the tranquillity of the early morning hit you and we were treated to a spectacular sunrise which lit up the Val d’aosta which stretched off behind us as we went over the first hill. I don’t remember much detail from this section but I remember hitting the first water stop and feeling pretty good. This was about two thirds of the way up the first climb and after this the trail seemed to flatten out a bit before a short decent down into the next valley.

I got a little disoriented at this point as the route profile obviously smoothed out a lot of the race. This is good for having a glance at where you are going, but in the race when you expect a steady climb\decent pattern it screws with your mind a bit I found. Eventually we got to Lac Combal and the first main check point. I got my first introduction to the array of treats on offer. I grabbed some dried fruit, some biscuits and a cup of coke before filling my water bottles and heading on.gopr0692-0001

Immediately after the CP is a big climb and it was daunting to see the snake of people going up the hill. It really showed the scale of the hill in front of you when you see the tiny ants zig-zagging their way up the switch back trails. An hour later and lots of muttering and I was stretching out at the top and admiring the view back towards Mont Blanc.

Col Chavannes and smiles because it was over

Col Chavannes with Mont Blanc behind and smiles because it was over

From the top of this Col, there was a long sweeping downhill section along what I’d describe as a Land Rover track. It took probably the best part of an hour to descend this and by now, the sun was up and I was starting to feel the heat playing a part. I’d known before the race that it was going to get hot and at the start line, Monica the English speaking announcer of UTMB had said that as we went from the Col petit St Bernard down into Bourg St Maurice, it would be like descending into an oven. She wasn’t wrong.

I remember arriving at Bourg St Maurice feeling beaten up. I don’t remember much about the trail between the Land Rover track and there, but I do remember one last climb which went over a reasonable sized hump in the landscape. It was covered in a thick mangrove like plant and everyone was battling to step through it, compounded by the steepness of the switch backs which made their way up to the top. By the time I hit the CP at the Col I was done. I bumped into Ross again and we both simply used a whole range of swear words to describe the previous 4 hours. Looking back, I don’t remember one thing taking its toll on me, it was just a combination of some horrendously steep hills and an increasing temperature. Hydration wise I felt like I was doing pretty well, but again in hindsight, I probably could of forced myself to drink more and I might have felt better.

From the Col it was another huge descent down into Seez and then Bourg St Maurice and a big checkpoint and milestone in the race. The descent took me a couple of hours and Monica had been spot on. By the time I reached the village at the bottom of the hill, the hosepipes that had been left out were being put to good use everytime I passed one. On the way down, every water trough and stream had a swarm of runners around it, dousing themselves in water to try and lower their body temperature. It was getting tough to keep moving.

In the CP I caught up with Ross again who was still ahead of me and Norrie caught me up after his more sensible and slower start to the race. On the way in to the CP I’d considered giving it all up. I was feeling terrible but I figured I should just take 15 minutes, have some food and see how I felt. I knew that after the CP there was the biggest climb of the race and I was hitting it at exactly the wrong time of day. My race plan had me at this CP at 13:52 but I was there an hour later at 14:34. That wasn’t so terrible given I was suffering in the heat and feeling terrible. The 24 hour finish time might still be achievable I thought. The only thing to do was give it a go, so I left the CP.

Stage 2: Bourg St Maurice to Cormet de Roselend

In the week before the race, I’d met Paul Giblin on a run and we were chatting about each others races. He described the TDS as a race that he had gone out of his way to eliminate the memory of some of the climbs from his memory; I should have taken heed of such a great runners experience.

The climb out of the Bourg turned what could be an enjoyable race into a death march for me. It was horrible. On a cooler day, with fresher legs I would probably love it. It isn’t actually all that steep compared to some hills, but it is long and relentless and on a hot day there is nowhere to hide the higher you climbed.

Chillin in the shade

Chillin in the shade

As soon as I set off I felt terrible. Nothing in particular, just sheer exhaustion. And I wasn’t alone. There was a steady stream of people heading back to the CP, presumably to call it a day. They all had that resolute look in their eyes and nobody in their right mind would consider going back down a hill like that to come back up it. Back at the GP in the Bourg, the retirement queue was bigger than the one for the food. Someone told me later that something like 40% of the race dropped out in total and most of that was at the CP I’d just passed through.

I knew I wasn’t going to make it if I tried to push on. My heart rate was sky high even just standing up, I worked out that my body was struggling to keep things together due to tiredness and the heat. It was working so hard the last thing it needed was me gee’ing it on up a bloody great big hill. So I listened and found some shade under whatever tree’s I could find. Inch by inch I shuffled up that hill. I remembered from my race prep that there was a water stop half way up at the fort, but before then there was nothing, so I’d filled all my water bottles up meaning I had two litres with me. I had to make it last until the fort so it was little and often. Thankfully it worked.

By the time the fort came and went, the sun was starting to disappear behind the hill. I reached the timing point at the fort at 18:39. It had taken me 4 hours to crawl half way up the hill. This really wasn’t going to plan now. My target was to reach the Passeur de Praglonan which is the high point of the climb, at 17:50. This really, really wasn’t going well. In my first CP’s I’d been in positions in the low 300’s. By the time I reached the fort, I was in 1064th position. I didn’t know this at the time, but I somehow felt it given how many people had gone past me while I chilled in the shade. I was convinced Ross and Norrie were hours ahead of me by now and I was going to struggle to make the cut off times.

Last section up to Passeur Praglonan

Last section up to Passeur Praglonan – see the tiny dots of people snaking their way up from bottom left to top right

But then something happened. The sun went down. I was surrounded by people with tanned skins who looked like they were at home in warm places, but now their god that they worshipped had left for the night and the colder it got, the more I felt human again. Time to start moving. Sadly, just as I was realising this, I stupidly put my foot in a divot and rolled my ankle. It was somewhere near the Col before the Passeur summit, and I swore loud enough they probably heard me all the way up there. A minute sitting on a rock and somehow it felt ok again. On we go.

The trail dipped again before reaching the summit. Yet another familiar long snake of people traced the route up zig zag paths and eventually I was at the high point of the race. It was 20:37 when I got there, almost 3 hrs behind plan. The light was sinking fast now and all that was between me and a hot meal at the next CP was a technical descent on some scree and a short via ferrata like section. By the time I got to the bottom, the light was low enough to require head torches. This was a minor victory for me. In my race prep I’d heard about this short technical drop down the hill and was determined to do it in day light. I knew that if I did that, I would likely still finish in the 24-28hr time rage. I started to feel good about things again.

20160824_185957583_ios

Looking back up to Passeur Pralognan and the zig-zag of head torches making their way down

The trail to Cormet de Roselend eventually follows a fairly flat section. I’d popped a gel just before hitting this and had enjoyed about 45 mins of downhill running leading up to it. By now I was passing people and I knew I must be clawing some places back. I also knew that ahead of me, was the best little pasta restaurant in the Alps.

The Pasta Party at the CP really couldn’t have come at a better time. I was starving. The huge climb followed by a reasonably fast descent had taken its toll, however, looking around there were a lot of people who looked to be feeling worse than me. It was 21:45 at night and I was now 3 hrs behind my 24hr race plan. Ah well. After another helping of pasta, a change of socks and shirt from the one drop bag that you get in the race, I reloaded my gels and set off again into the night. Next stop, Col du Joly!

Stage 3: Cormet de Roselend to Les Contamines

This section is the most remote of the race. You seem to pass through some deep ravines and over some small Col’s, much of which I don’t remember. One strange memory I do have though is off some couples who were running together near by me. I would get stuck behind them going up or down some trail and one or both of the couple would be chattering away non stop in Spanish or Portuguese. In my mind I was wondering what they were saying and how they had so much energy and conversation to keep talking. By this point it was about 20 hours into the race and everyone else was silent. God knows what they were on about, I imagined it was the woman lambasting the bloke for suggesting they do this stupid bloody race, and don’t you ever suggest a holiday like this again. It certainly didn’t sound like they were enjoying themselves.

I remember thinking to myself to just keep moving. My main aim was to get to within visual distance of Col du Joly. That was the point where I knew the entire rest of the race and I knew it would lift my spirits. To get to Col du Joly though, there was one last difficult section to cross below a rocky outcrop. The trail seemed to wind its way up much higher than I’d anticipated and it was hard work trying to get over some steep, scree covered stepped trails. Eventually I hit a familiar section that I’d ran to in my pre-race run there and the adrenalin kicked in.

Cold du Joly offered an 80’s disco feel as part of its welcome, as well as more chicken noodle soup with chunks of cheese in it, which had become my staple food sour by now. Sitting finishing a cup of tea and a biscuit that I treated myself to, Ross came wandering into the CP. I was shocked and almost fell off my chair. I was convinced he’d be hours ahead by now and possibly even finished! Turns out the climb had half killed him too and he took the opportunity of a nap at Cormet Roselend. I was happy to know he was still in the race and after a quick chat, I set off into the night.

In my head, I knew what came next all the way to Les Contamines. What I hadn’t accounted for was that I could run the whole way, which is exactly what I did. At Col du Joly I was in 736th place, by Contamines I was 662th and it was 5am in the morning. My 24hr target was well and truly blown, but I knew I would finish from here, I just wasn’t sure how long it would take.

Stage 4: Les Contamines to Chamonix

From Les Contamines the route takes you up and over a hill to Le Truc and then there was just the small matter of Col du Tricot to take on. I’d read in Richard Bannisters blog that this Col was like trying to get over a brick wall at the end of the race. My recce before hand meant that I knew what it was like and, whilst it was tough, it was relatively short compared to some of the other climbs. I made sure I had a good feed and took a few minutes to pull myself together in Les Contamines, I also had a brief interaction with a French public toilet (aka a hole in the ground) which almost ended my race. Have you ever tried to perform a squat over a toilet at 100km in a race? No? I advise you not to try it!

Refreshed, I set off out from the CP and up the first climb to Chalet du Truc. I’d stopped here on my recce for a coffee that was served French breakfast style in a huge bowl and I half wondered if they were open now and I might have another bowl full. They weren’t, so my fate was sealed and it was on to Col du Tricot. I knew this was going to hurt, so I popped a gel, took a good drink of water and set off up the last big hill of the race. It was as tough as I expected, but not as tough as some others were finding it. I got into a dogged mindset and just kept moving and pushed up to the top. From the last CP to the top of the Col I’d gained another 100 places and was now into the 500’s. It felt good and I knew there was nothing ahead of me that was all that tough.

Col du Tricot

Col du Tricot – A welcome sight

Next was a descent down to a Sherpa bridge across the tip of a melting glacier. I had the place to myself when I arrived and enjoyed the cool damp early morning air coming off the torrent which passed under the bridge. The sun was starting to warm up again and it felt strange to be in my first race that had gone over 24 hours.

Bridge over the Bionnassay Glacier torrent

Bridge over the Bionnassay Glacier torrent

There was a short pull up to Bellevue from here and as I topped out, it felt like walking out of the darkness and into the sunshine again. It was warm and people were starting to reappear on the route to cheer us on. The drop down into Les Houches felt a lot longer than I expected and I found myself going faster and faster just to get it over with. I was passing people regularly now and knew I was making ground, although any hopes of hitting my target finish time or position were long gone, I simply wanted to finish strong now and get to Chamonix and end the ordeal.

Eventually the CP at Les Houches came and went. Nobody was hanging around here, it was a comparatively flat 8km to the finish in Chamonix and all anyone wanted to do was get there. The route wound its way down through the town and eventually crossed the river and turned right towards Chamonix.

Along the trail runners were well strung out. Some were starting to pick up the pace, others were obviously just walking to the finish, content they’d done enough. I put in a decent last 5km to make a decent run of it and picked up some more places. Along the trail, Nichola and William had come down to meet me with the lady we were renting a chalet from. It was better than the feeling at the finish line to see them waiting for me under the trees. I hadn’t realised how low I’d felt through the race until I saw them stood at the side of the trail and my spirits lifted. After a quick hug and chat, I was off with a spring in my step.

Before long, the edge of Chamonix was ahead of me and the run along the main street produced one of the best feelings I’ve had in a race finish. It was 10:40 in the morning and the place was packed. As I ran along the street, the crowds parted and everyone was cheering and clapping you to the finish. It created a huge sense of achievement and respect and in that instant made you want to come back and do it all again next year.

Just before the finish I heard my name being shouted by Giles Ruck, one of the other crazy runners from Scotland taking part in the UTMB later in the week. He was stood with a group of guys I’d met earlier in the week who had come out to see myself and Ross who wasn’t far behind finish. It was wonderful to high five everyone and say hello. Then a little further on two of the guys from Falkland Trail Runners who were out to enjoy the whole UTMB experience shouted me over. More hugs, more amazing feeling to see friends cheering you on so far away from home. All that was left was a short dash to the finish line.

It was strange crossing the line. The biggest race so far and it was over. Nichola and William eventually found me amongst the crowd and my friends came over to congratulate me and get the finish line stories of how horrible it was and how I’d never do it again.

As well as the goody bag you get at registration, every finisher gets a gilet. In previous years, these have been fashion items and a mark of respect for completing such a tough challenge. Sadly, this years sponsors appear to have taken inspiration from fetish nights at their local sex club as the gilet is made from some perverse looking PVC like material. Everyone I met commented on how crap they looked compared to previous years and I did wonder if I’d have kept going knowing that was my prize for completion!

So that was it. I’d completed the UTMB TDS 2016 in 28h 46m 38s and ended up in 525th place overall. I was really happy with how the second half of the race had gone and how well I’d managed to motivate myself to keep going and to get stronger as others were starting to suffer. I think my approach on the big climb felt wrong at the time, but if I hadn’t taken so much time to rest on the way up, I might not have finished the race.

Lessons to take away

My nutrition strategy worked well. I moved away from Tailwind and went with gels and food from checkpoints. In the WHW race I’d made the mistake of not eating enough at every opportunity and my race suffered, I made sure in TDS that I was taking time at CP’s to refuel and rehydrate well before moving on. It worked well. The gels I felt like I got right too, I was thinking about what was ahead of my and when I needed to take one so it kicked in at the right time. I had to think about it because you had to carry everything you used on you through the race, which meant if I attacked my gels too early I’d run out in some remote place and that would be bad. I also became accustomed to the salty noodle soup. In the end, it was pretty much all I was eating at the CP’s and it seemed to work brilliantly with a piece of bread or two.

Knowing the route really, really helps me to do well. I’d taken a lot of time to study maps of the race and also get out there early to familiarise myself both with segments of the route, but also the type of trail. It made a huge difference for me and I felt prepared. I always knew what was coming next and that helped me feel positive, even when I knew the next section would be difficult.

Strength training helps me climb hills. It seems obvious but it isn’t always easy to maintain the focus. I had been doing a lot of squats and lunges this year to build hip and leg strength and I never felt that those areas were letting me down.

Not enough training doesn’t mean you can’t complete a race. If I would have written down what I’d have liked to do before this race, it would have been a long list of training runs in mountainous areas. I didn’t get that, yet I did ok and was happy overall with how the race went. I remember thinking a lot during the 28 hours that actually, this is more about enjoying myself in the mountains, rather than competing against others. I love running in this type of environment and no matter how well I do, I need to simply enjoy it for the experience. I felt like I did this in TDS.

Naturally, since the race my mind has swung from never wanting to run again, all the way to wanting to train like a demon and going back next year and knocking 10 hours off my time. I suspect the reality will be somewhere between the two, but I would go back and run a UTMB race again in a heart beat. I’ve been looking at how I might gain enough points for the full UTMB as the experience of seeing them start and finish was amazing. A friend of mine, Giles Ruck who is the head of Foundation Scotland, the good people behind the Caledonian Challenge, he completed UTMB and I was lucky enough to catch him finishing before we left Chamonix for the airport. The emotion and sensation of finishing such an enormous race was so obvious and inspiring. I can’t imagine myself ever not wanting to experience that, so watch out UTMB, I’m coming to get you!

 

Why would you not want to experience this feeling? - Giles Ruck finishing UTMB in style

Why would you not want to experience this feeling? – Giles Ruck finishing UTMB in style

I managed to get into Chamonix to see the winners of UTMB coming in. It was yet another amazing experience that I am so happy to have witnessed. Seeing these super human individuals who have achieved so much is so awe inspiring and encourages me to think about what’s possible. I don’t have the ability (or age!) to get up to their levels, but their dedication to doing well and working hard to achieve what they achieve inspires me and makes me realise what I enjoy about running.

After two weeks in the alps, it was time to head home and leave the big mountains behind. We had a great time and enjoyed some beautiful weather. The whole UTMB event is simply amazing and has to be experienced to be appreciated in my view. The organisers do an amazing job of making it look easy to put on this big running festival but I can imagine it takes an enormous effort to achieve. Bravo UTMB and thank you!

Leaving the mountains behind as we head to Geneva

Leaving the mountains behind as we head to Geneva

UTMB TDS preparation

We are in Chamonix at the moment as I prepare to take on the TDS race, part of the UTMB race event. I’m here with Nichola and William for a long overdue two week holiday and we are loving it. The race is just under a week away now and I’ve been getting a few practice runs in this week before it’s time to put my feet up and relax for a few days before the start.

All smiles in Chamonix

All smiles in Chamonix

As anyone who has spent any time in Chamonix will tell you, it is a trail running paradise here. The options for running seem endless, but I’ve tried to focus my runs this week on segments of the course and some climbing to get my legs into work mode. The route is 116km long with almost 8000m of vertical to deal with up and down.

TDS Race Profile

TDS Race Profile

Over the last week, I’ve been able to get out and run almost everything in the race from Col Est de la Gitte onwards. To say my training leading up to this hasn’t gone well would be an understatement. Since the WHW race, a combination of prioritising family and work have meant I’ve barely run more than 30km per week since June. Thankfully, my legs seem to have done well despite that and I dare say my WHW race was great preparation and that I’ve just been ticking over ever since.

With 5 days left before the start, I’m starting to feel more confident. I’ve seen and felt what a lot of those hard climbs are like now and I’ve got into a mental state that I need to in order to get through the race. I’m disappointed that I haven’t trained more, but things are how they are and I’m here and ready to race, so I just have to give it my best shot.

I’m hoping for a sub-24hr finish, but with all those sharp, pointy hills to get over, who knows. I like uphill running and I seem to cope with long, persistent climbs in this kind of environment well, so I should do ok. I’ve got a dogged feel about me now that means I might just do ok in this race.

Until then though, we are enjoying the warmth of the alpine sunshine. We are taking in the sights of these spectacular mountains and we are enjoying time together. Who cares how the race goes when you have all that?

Bionnassay

Ashmei Ambassador

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been fortunate enough to be shortlisted to become an ambassador for Ashmei. In case you haven’t discovered Ashmei yet, they make clothing for runners and cyclists using really high quality materials and with a style you simply don’t find anywhere else in this type of clothing.

I’ve had a couple of their long sleeve merino tops for a while and they are outstanding quality, and I’m not just saying that because I’m possibly going to be an ambassador for them. Their motto is to outperform the best and I feel they certainly do that well. Their clothes fit really well, they look fantastic and they wash great and as anyone who runs a lot knows, your kit gets washed a lot!

They are having an ambassador day at their HQ this coming weekend for the people on the shortlist, but sadly due to family commitments I won’t be able to make it. Words can’t describe how disappointed I am not to be there, but family has to come first. Fortunately, the team at Ashmei recognise that not everyone might make it so we have the opportunity to create a 2 minute video to introduce ourselves and show them what we’ve got to offer. As someone who is working hard to overcome years of bodily neglect and become comfortable with how I look, making a video all about me isn’t something that comes easy, let me tell you!

Despite my inhibitions, I set off out on Saturday in a rare day of sunshine to have a short run up my local hill to do some filming. Armed with my trusty phone and a mini tripod I took about an hour of footage in short clips that I planned to edit together using some simple video software. Having never done this before, I was excited to play around with all of this, but also unaware of what it takes to make a good quality video.

Now, after a few days of tinkering around trying to make it as good as I can, I feel like I’ve got the final edit ready to send through to Ashmei.

I also have to submit two Polaroids; one of myself in any pose and one of my choosing related to my sport.

Do you have any idea how hard choosing these can be? 🙂

The one of myself was easily narrowed down to a few pictures. I don’t find myself particularly photogenic in running shots, mainly because I always seem to get snapped at my lowest point! However, I do have some good images so here is the shortlist I got to:

For each, you need a story:

The Ben Nevis shot is me coming down after a torturous ‘run’ to the summit in my first Ben Nevis race last year. I was utterly exhausted and the down hill was at least as horrible as the uphill. Despite that, the sense of achievement was mind-blowing to run in that iconic race. So much so I signed up again this year!

The Cascades is from my training run around the Alpine Lake area in the Cascades Mountains in Washington state, America. This was at the end of a work trip last Summer and was by far the best day adventure I’ve had. The weather was incredible, scenery even more incredible and running across big mountains fuelled even more running obsession for me.

The Carnethy race is from this years first hill race and, I think, is the best running picture I’ve seen of me. The race was run in a blizzard, which I loved, and despite the weather I knocked 4 minutes off my time from the first time I ran it last year. It was a great measure for how far I’ve come in the year I’ve been running hill races.

I’m still working on the final picture of the set. I want one that captures the fun I have of running with other people. I belong to two running clubs as you know, Falkland Trail Runners and Lomond Hill Runners. Both clubs have different focuses, but both embrace a strong sense of community and social running. I never knew this existed and I believe it is why I’ve enjoyed my exploration of running so much in the past few years. Here’s the picture I’m thinking of choosing:

Summit Community

Summit Community

This was taken on a frosty winter run to the summit of West Lomond with the trail runners. As is the norm, we stopped on the summit and took in the views. While everyone else was staring at the big peaks of the Cairngorms and Trossachs on the horizon, I chose to capture my friends as they enjoyed the moment.

If you have any feedback before I submit my Polaroids, I’d love to hear from you.