Sunday, 10 September 2017

A lap of Mont Blanc

Well, this was it. All the training so far this year, all the many hours on a treadmill, the 2,000+ km of running, the 60,000+ metres of ascent led to here. And here I was, standing far too far from the start line at the Place du Triangle de l'Armitie.

The journey to get there hadn't been without its ups and downs (both metaphorically and physically), but I was here and I was feeling fit and ready to go. The weather had been pretty rubbish and, with snow and extremely low temperatures forecast, the organisers made a last minute change to the course – we would no longer go over the random boulder field just inside Italy and we were due to make a “direct ascent” from Col des Montets missing out the Tete aux Vents

From the start I was pushing reasonably hard to get ahead of the crowds before the first climb after Les Houches. I caught and passed Caroline McKay as we ran into Les Houches, before I settled into a steady but strong rhythm going up and over the first climb to Saint Gervais.
Feeling good, the crowds here buoyed me on, with countless high 5's as it appeared the whole town had lined the streets; and after a quick stop for a bowl of salty noodle soup (the first of very many) I was on my way again.
On the climb out of Les Houches
Les Contamines came and went, with the realisation that I'd just passed Sally McRae and Amy Sproston (2 of the very elite women's field) - so I thought I must have been doing OK. 

Then the climb up to Col de Croix du Bonhomme which always seems to be a low point for me, this time being no different; but the reasoning for that is always the same - fuel. 
I was trialling a new sports drink ("Maurten", if you're interested) which is particularly hard to dissolve as it's so concentrated. The 2 bottles that I'd pre-mixed in Chamonix from the start had gone, but now part way up this second climb I realised that I'd spent the last couple of hours drinking only water and the fuel was just a gloopy sticky lump at the bottom of my soft flask.
And it was here that the wheels began to fall off; not even 50km into 170. I'd been unknowingly digging ever deeper into my energy reserves to maintain my pace, and in a 100 miler that's unsustainable. Arriving at Les Chapieux I was bang on my target time, crossing the Col de la Seine (the next checkpoint just 10km and 1,000m away) I was 15 minutes down.

It was cold coming over the Col, really cold. But I was still one of the few runners in shorts, as that’s how I prefer to run. At the Lac Combal aid station runners were coming in shivering and, just as I was leaving, the medics rushed to the assistance of someone who had collapsed and was in a particularly bad way.

One relatively small climb and I was on the steep technical descent down into Courmayeur, where I was hopeful that the organisers buses had managed to successfully transport Keziah. I was particularly careful on the descent but still managed to kick a root which sent me flying headfirst towards a sheer drop! Careful Rich, there’s a long way to go yet.
Through the melee of suporters, picking up my drop bag I was elated to see that Keziah had indeed made it. I grabbed some pasta and set about changing into warmer, drier clothes; I dumped the Maurten and swapped it for some bags of Mountain Fuel that I had as backup. Keziah went to rinse the congealed lump of sports drink out of my soft flasks; she commented that it must’ve been really cold out there having found the only sink in the gents toilets, not sure what that meant…
Despite it being 7am, I thought a quick 10 minute power nap was in order so I found a quiet corner and closed my eyes. Seemingly almost immediately Keziah said it was time to go, so I hauled on my race pack again and off I went.
Trotting through the streets of Courmayeur
In spite of the extended stop at Courmayeur, I had no energy climbing up to Rifugio Bertone; the damage that I’d done to myself from running the first half under-fuelled was irreparable, so I knew from here on in any times were out of the window and I was just battling to finish.
By Rifugio Bonatti a storm had rolled up the valley, bringing an icy wind and snow. The waterproof trousers and jacket (a rather lovely birthday present from K’s parents) were on – and much needed.
With more and more time slipping away, I was starting to get seriously cold and my head went too; leaving me contemplating a DNF at the Arnouvaz checkpoint. The only reason I didn’t pull out here was the lack of phone signal, and I knew that Keziah would kill me if I dropped out without at least discussing it with her.
At this point the organisers weren't allowing anyone to leave the checkpoint unless they were wearing everything they had with them. I put on everything item of clothing I had, including the emergency rubber gloves (don't ask), and there was nothing left for it but to head off into the clouds and climb through the snow storm into Switzerland. The trail down to La Fouly is normally great fun – 15km of steady descent – but this time I was hating it. I was cold, wet, miserable and I’d had enough.
As soon as I had service on my phone, I texted Keziah to say that I was pulling the plug and getting the bus back to Chamonix. She replied straight away that she was waiting at Champex (the next checkpoint after La Fouly) and that we should talk about it there – I checked my spreadsheet and that was at least 4 hours away with the speed that I was running, there was no way I was going to make that.
Feeling the cold on the climb up Grand Col Ferret
Whilst I sat shivering in La Fouly, trying to warm myself up with bowls of noodles, cheese, biscuits and any other food I could force inside me; Keziah negotiated the organiser’s buses again and met me in La Fouly… I may have had a 30 minute snooze while I was waiting too. My coach, Donnie Campbell, and the outstanding Dave Murdoch both called me for much needed pep talks; not sure who told them I was struggling though……
So, buoyed by seeing Keziah and another change of clothes, I set off down the hill towards Champex. My UTMB was still on.

The rest of the race passed in a bit of a blur, with the headtorch coming out for the start of the second night just after Champex. The climbs became a familiar pattern of unzipping various layers as I got too warm, before promptly zipping them all back up again for the decents.
I was able to press on, making reasonable progress now, and finishing times started creeping back into my head. I figured out that I could probably still finish in around 36 hours, which I worked out would be 6:30am on Sunday; so I took the conscious decision then to back the pace right off and take my time through the checkpoints. I’d finished 2015’s TDS in the middle of the night, and decided that with all of the negative from this race that I wanted a daylight finish and the rapturous welcome back into Chamonix that the UTMB is famous for.

The UTMB had one more final sting in the tail waiting for me though. The “direct ascent” from Col des Montets to La Flegere, was nothing such. I left Vallorcine with enough food and water for a 700m climb; what we actually had was a 500m climb, then a 300m crazily technical descent (pretty much all the way down to Argentiere) and then another 500m climb to the ski station. I ran out of food and water on the final climb, nearly having a massive sense of humour failure, but trusting in the reflective flags marking the course towards Chamonix. I’d started hallucinating by this point too, seeing people and animals coming towards us, and I don’t know how many times I ‘saw’ La Flegere but it was just shapes in the trees. That's not happened to me before, it was interesting to say the least.

On the last descent I got a bit of speed up, overtaking about 20 people. Regardless of the rest of the race I was going to have a strong finish.
I hit the outskirts of Chamonix and could hear the cheers of the crowds, the announcer on the PA system. Everyone cheering and waving me in; it was brilliant. Karen and George spotted me just before the final short loop to the finish straight, before I managed to spot Keziah nearly jumping over the barriers to give me a sweaty hug.
I trotted under the finishing arch 39 hours and 41 minutes after I’d started under it, punching the air with the relief that I’d done it – and I had another gilet to add to my fledgling collection.
From 2537 starters, 849 didn't finish. But I did, in 710th, and I couldn't have been happier.
Having dreamed about this since 2014, I'm a UTMB finisher!
The gilet will be coveted, as my 2015 TDS one is still – but it will be more of a reminder of the journey it took to get there.

So what did I learn from all of this:
Don’t try anything new on race day – I’d used the Maurten drink in training, mixing it at home, but hadn’t practiced using it whilst refilling bottles on the fly. Doing some research, I think the high mineral content in the Chamonix region water may have stopped it dissolving too. I’ll keep trying with it, as when it works it really does work, but will have to look into maybe having some pre-mixed in drop bags around courses (and have some trusty Mountain Fuel in reserve!).
If you don’t respect a 100-miler, it’ll kick your ass – I’d cockily said at the start that I was planning on finishing on Saturday (given the delayed start, this would’ve been 29 ½ hours). I’m confident that I could run the UTMB in under 30 hours; but maybe I should’ve focussed more on taking it steadily through the race, staying more in the moment, rather than worrying about finishing times before I’d even started.
If in doubt, EAT! – if you’re lacking energy, eat. If you’re feeling tired, eat. If you’re feeling down, eat. If you’re feeling sick, eat. If you’re in any doubt, eat! You’d think I’d know this by now, but fuelling is still the weakest part of my running; ultras can be as much of an eating competition as they are a test of endurance.
When things don’t go to plan (and they won’t), don’t give up – Less than a third of the way in when things started to go wrong, I knew I still had a finish in me. It was always going to be tough and I’m so glad that I was stubborn enough to carry on when I wanted to DNF. I’m also eternally grateful to Keziah for not giving up on me (and for snitching on me to Donnie and Dave, prompting their phone calls…).

So what’s the plan for the rest of the year?
Some rest. Getting back into a little bit of mountain biking (a week in Spain and then a 24 hour endurance race). And then one more race to end the year.
After that, it’ll be an extended rest while the plans for 2018 are formulated, concocted and agreed… watch this space.

Friday, 7 July 2017

West Highland Way and 2017 so far

So, despite promising myself that I'd keep this blog; I've failed spectacularly.
I'm going to blame being busy at work and moving house... the plus point being that we've managed to buy a lovely new grown ups house with trails from the door. All we need now is for some grown ups!

So, 2017 seems to be going pretty well so far. I'd hoped to run the Highland Fling in April to make up for my disappointment with my time last year, but I was offshore for the race so had to chose something else.
The Kielder 80k seemed to fit the bill. It was a great event run by High Terrain Events, with some seriously tough terrain and a field of some very talented runners.
I managed to hold on for 3rd place finishing in 8h20m, which I was pretty pleased with.
3rd Place at the Kielder 80k
I was fairly broken by the end of it though, mostly due to not fuelling properly during the race.
I have issues with my nose (I can barely breath through it), which makes chewing on the move difficult; as a result I quite often just don't eat. I try quite a lot of different things while I'm on my long runs, but I'm yet to find something that really works for me.
And I knew I needed to get my fuel right if I was to have any chance of doing well in my next event... the West Highland Way Race.

I'd been targeting this race ever since I crewed for someone in my first season of ultra running in 2015. I wanted one of the prized goblets for myself.

Keziah and I drove down to Glasgow on the Friday morning before the West Highland Way, having booked a B&B near the start line to allow me to get a few hours sleep. 
11pm came and it was time to head to Milngavie for registration. It was good to catch up with a few familiar faces, but I was conscious that I was going to be on my feet for a long time to come so made my excuses before sloping off back to car for another last minute snooze.

By the time the pre-race brief came I was still feeling remarkably relaxed - subdued even. Sean warned us there would be weather (and boy, was there some weather to come!), then I made my way to front of the mass of runners and waited for 1am and the start of the race.

Before I knew it we were off and heading into the darkness of Mugdock Park. I was making a concerted effort to keep the pace easy in these early sections, aware that pushing too early would mean blowing up further down the line.
(Thanks to Debbie Martin-Consani for the pacing guidance - not that she knows she did anything! I stole and tweaked her Fling times, as she's renowned for her superb pacing skills)

Drymen came and went, just about bang on schedule, with Keziah and Kirsty throwing a fresh water bottle and some food at me. Then the short climb up and over Conic hill already had me catching and overtaking people - and I still felt like I was taking it fairly easily. I was feeling pretty good at this point and happy with how the race was going.

The checkpoint at Balmaha was buzzing when I got to it. I spotted Keziah in the crowds and refreshed my food and water supplies, downing a lukewarm cup of coffee as I walked through the carpark (my diva demands - sorry race notes - had asked for the coffee like this, so I could drink it quickly).
The next section of the WHW is one of my least favourite. I'm not sure why, as it's a really pretty bit of trail tracking along the shore of Loch Lomond, but it seems to consist of lots of pointless climbs just to descend again straight away. Anyway, I was still feeling good and actually enjoyed the section - catching a few more runners before gliding into the next checkpoint at Rowardennan.
Onwards uneventfully to Inversnaid where the superstar that is Ruth Howie was waiting with my dropbag. This section takes in the new "Low Route" which is massive improvement over the old fireroad "High Route". A sweaty hug from Ruth (I was sweaty, not Ruth!), then a quick wipe down with an antiseptic wipe from one of the first aiders (I'd tripped on a root earlier), and I was on my way again.

Approaching the bothy at the end of the Loch, I started having thoughts that my Salomon Sense 6's might not have enough grip as the trail was starting to become muddier. 
Just as I was about to pull my phone out to text Keziah and ask for my S-Lab Soft Grounds; BANG! Down I went; slipping in some mud and landing heavily on a rock on my left knee.
I tried to jump straight back up, but I couldn't. I could tell that I'd hurt myself and took a few moments on the ground before wobbling back to my feet. My knee started stiffening straight away, I knew there and then that any hopes of a finish were fading let alone the fast time that I hoped for.
Hobbling into Beinglas Farm, I switched shoes and took on some more food. I was still able to run in short bursts at this point, but I was putting more pressure on my right leg to take the strain off the injured left.
More and more people were overtaking me at this point, as the running became slower and I walked more, including the first lady who came flying past me on the rollercoaster section north of Crianlarich. A few positive words of encouragement passed in either direction before heading into Auchtertyre.
This was the last check point that the wonderful Keziah and Kirsty were seeing me at, before passing over support duties to the marvelous Ali and Jonny.

By this point, I could tell I was moving much slower - by now both knees were sore, one from the fall and one from being forced to compensate - and I had a choice to make. The easy choice would be to accept that the race wasn't going to plan and drop out; the difficult choice was to keep going to Fort William.
Go hard, or go home - I wasn't going home just yet!

When I eventually made it to Jelly Baby Hill, there was almost no running. Murdo (what a star waiting out in that weather!) asked whether I was going to finish before he permitted me my jelly baby; I said I was, picked a red one and I headed off towards Rannoch Moor.

By now, the weather that Sean had mentioned had closed in. I wasn't dressed for the speed I was running (I'll normally run in short shorts, even in the snow); but the 50mph winds and horizontal rain meant I was nigh on hypothermic by the time I reached Glencoe.
Thoughts of a DNF started to enter my mind but I had the presence of mind to head straight for the cafe for a warm up. Gavin Bussey was there at the front of the queue and called across to see if I wanted a hot drink... between him, Ali and Jonny I soon had a down jacket, some hot coffee and a cheese toastie working their warming magic on me. The race team must've been a little concerned about me too, as Lorna McMillan who was marshalling came up to the cafe to check on me and to make sure I had someone with me if I was going to carry on.

The next sections passed in a bit of a blur. Jonny accompanying me to Kinlochleven and the Ali until the end.
The Lairig Mor was almost unbearable, with a strong headwind and my pace being reduced to a shuffle; my right knee was now giving out due the extra pressure put on it by trying to save my injured left knee. Darkness fell as we left Lundavra and I was in a pretty bad way; Ali trying to forcefeed me banana while all I wanted to do was curl up on the side of trail and sleep.
On the Lairig Mor - looking happy, but just wishing that it would all end
After a seemingly endless descent, Braveheart carpark appeared with Keziah, Kirsty and Jonny all waiting to walk it in to the finish with me (well, they walked, I was more of a stagger-hobble by then). And finally the Leisure Centre arrived and I fell through the finish arch 24 hours and 44 minutes after leaving Milngavie.

I collapsed into a chair and almost immediately fell asleep mid-sentence... I was totally spent.

I got my goblet, but was obviously well away from my sub 18 hour target - but the race will be there for years to come, I'll be back.
You may think that this report sounds negative, but all in it was a great experience; I'm immensely proud of myself for carrying on, when the easy thing to do would've been to quit. And regardless of any of that I wouldn't have finished anything without the unbelievable support of Keziah, Kirsty, Ali and Jonny.
The dream team
2 weeks later, as I sit writing this, the swelling has gone down and my knees look just about normal. I'm back offshore on the treadmill, easing myself back into it - just one more big training block to go before UTMB!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The First Test of the Season

Nearly time for my first race of the season. I'm not counting the Aonach Mor Uphill, as that was just an underprepared snot-fest... a bit of fun, if you will.

Just under 2 weeks until the Glentress Trail marathon. I'm really looking forward to this event for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it's being put on by the lovely folk at High Terrain events ( so it's sure to be a friendly, well organised event.
Secondly, I've mountain biked countless times around Glentress and I think it will be a great place to run (especially with much of the race route being on MTB trails).
And thirdly, it'll be good to test how my fitness is progressing after my winter break. I had a great season last year, so it was important to take some time away from training, but I've come back in 2017 raring to go. There were some good runs while I've been home, and I've been hitting the gym and treadmill really hard whilst I've been offshore... so I guess we'll just have to see what happens!

Monday, 9 January 2017

It's been a while (aka looking back on 2016 and planning for 2017)

So, it's been a while... I promised myself that when I started this blog it would be a diary for myself of my adventures in running; if anyone else cares to read it, I'm more than happy for them to share the experiences with me - but it's primarily a repository for my own memory.

Many things happened in 2016 that meant I didn't commit the time to keeping the diary... the biggest change being me starting a new job. I now work on an offshore oil platform in the North Sea; working 2 weeks offshore and then having 3 weeks leave.
This led to me being definitely less than efficient in my training, as I've never run on a treadmill before. I ran a few interval sessions but without any real purpose.
Offshore life takes its toll on training

This lack of training, along with skipping too many of my long runs whilst onshore (due to various other reasons), resulted in me towing the line at the 2016 Highland Fling completely under prepared.
I set off at a reasonable clip, and felt OK; however by Beinglas the wheels had completely fallen off and I ended up with a long hobble/run/walk to the finish in Tyndrum - managing a disappointing but still fairly decent time of 9h46m.
At the finish, I chatted to Donnie Campbell who had just broken the course record and subsequently become the 2016 British Trail Champion - a seed had been sown. The following week I had another chat with Donnie and decided that we'd work together to see what we could get out of my running.

Fast forward to July and August (via many hours on a treadmill and lots of single legged squats!) where I managed 9th place at the Scafell Pike Marathon and then my first ever podium (2nd place) at the Devil of the Highlands. The Devil had been one of my best performances in 2015, but under Donnie's guidance I'd managed some silverware along with a 20 minute PB.
Things were falling into place!
2nd place at the Devil - and a 20 min PB

After being unsuccessful in the UTMB ballot, my "A" race for 2016 was Lizzie Hawker's brand new Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. The race itself was to be a test of my new found fitness and a chance to explore somewhere new. My performance in that race is probably due a post all of its own, but I had to pull out at around 50km (having sat in the top 10) due to cramping and a lack of fuel.

Wanting to put the disappointment of UTMR firmly behind me, I signed up for the Wooler Trail Marathon as a season finale in November. This looked to be a great new race, with a strong field and, again, a chance to explore somewhere new. Despite the freezing conditions and feeling like I had no strength on the climbs, I managed to pull off another 2nd place - I also finished 10 minutes faster than on Scafell Pike, even though the course felt tougher.
Another 2nd place, this time at Wooler

So 2016, a year of highs and lows... once I'd found a training system that works for me while I'm offshore.
The early bird catches some hill reps!

Planning for 2017 will be along more of the same lines. Some long stuff mixed in with some really long stuff; I'm hoping to do my first 100 miler this year.
This years races will be (or will hopefully be...!):

  • Started the year with a reasonable performance in the Aonach Mor Uphill Race on New Year's day
  • Glentress Trail Marathon
  • Selkirk Trail Ultra Marahon (only just an 'ultra' at 45km!)
  • I was fortunate in the West Highland Way Race ballot, so that's currently the 'A' race performance wise
  • I'm also hopeful of a UTMB place this year, so that would be the 100 mile box ticked
I may try and fit a 100km race in too around April/May to help me build up towards West Highland Way.

So, a big (and exciting) year ahead. I'm hoping to get to explore some more new places, and expand my horizons as part of my running.
One thing for sure though, is that I'll make a more determined effort to record it all here.
Watch this space!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Destination Chamonix

Race time. The 119km and 7,300m TDS journey that will see me run (mostly, hopefully) from Courmayeur in Italy back to Chamonix in France. 
The race that I've been aiming and training towards since my first ultra in October last year. 

I'd done the training. My legs felt great during the recent recce on the UTMB route. 
I'd got a race plan, knowing when/where/what I was going to eat and drink. 
I'd got a great playlist lined up on the iPod. 

I'd set myself gold, silver and bronze targets. Tough targets. But achievable ones all the same. 
I purposely didn't share my target times… I don't want to deal with people's disappointment when I failed to meet them. 
The #1 aim for the race (and the only target that I did share) was to make it back to Chamonix and earn my gilet. Anything else is a bonus, but there'd still be some regret if I didn't run a good time too…

So at 0600 on Wednesday, after a short bus ride through the Mont Blanc tunnel, I embarked on my toughest racing challenge to date. 

I'd been warned about the concertina effect of the first climb out of Courmayeur so, after wishing Keziah and Carol luck, got myself into a strong position about 10 rows back from the start. 
With the start music blaring and a surprisingly huge crowd for so early in the morning we were off for a quick sprint through the streets of Courmayeur before starting our ascent into the wilderness. 
Even with my strong starting position, I was still passing people on the climbs and feeling pretty strong; eventually reaching the top of the first climb (at 2,409m and 1,293m above Courmayeur) in 1h46m and 189th place (almost to the second on track for my gold standard time). 
I remember plugging my headphones in to the uplifting beats of Fort Knox Five and letting a massive grin spread across my face as I gazed up towards the Mont Blanc massif... I'm running the TDS and I'm doing alright!

I started to pick more people off on the descent down towards Lac Combal, but was continually frustrated by runners in front of me wanting to walk descents at this early in the race. I took a few chances, hopping over rocks, and managed to overtake around 30 people on the 4km descent.
I try not to spend too long in aid stations, but when I reached the checkpoint I realised my hands were really cold as the early morning sun hadn't yet reached the valley; and I struggled to open the stick packs of Tailwind that I was using for fuel... think I need to look at alternative containers to the stick packs (but also a mental note that I needed to keep an eye on my body for the long day ahead!).

The next section of trail down, up and back down again to Bourg St Maurice passed in a bit of a blur.

The only memorable section was the short sharp climb up to the Col du Petit St Bernard. The support here was absolutely fantastic (with a couple of British voices cheering me on), and the climb so steep that it felt like the supporters were standing directly on top of us! An amazing atmosphere. One of the marshals shouted to me that I was only about 40 minutes behind the leader... shit, too fast!

After eventually reaching the checkpoint at Bourg (6h23m race time and 98th position), I quickly refilled my water and left through the town via the mandatory kit check; somehow making up 20 places through the checkpoint.

We were warned beforehand about the long climb out of Bourg. 1,900m of climbing, no shade, temperatures pushing 30 degC and I was leaving the checkpoint at 12:30pm... I started losing quite a few places here, and even briefly considered turning back to Bourg. I should've spent more time at the aid station to make sure I was properly refuelled and hydrated.
Almost 4 hours after leaving Bourg St Maurice, I topped out at the 2,546m Passeur de Pralognan... 10h09m into the race and down to 132nd.

Exhausted, I took too short a time to appreciate the views before the long descent to Cormet de Roselend. This was a tough descent; steep, rocky, a bit of a scree slope, there were even ropes fixed to help people on this section... definitely more technical than anything we'd encountered on the UTMB route and I briefly spared a thought for the runners behind me that would be doing this in the dark.

I didn't realise that the live tracking website also uploaded short videos from certain checkpoints. This was one of them. Lots of my friends back home were watching the videos and commented on how fresh I was looking for someone who'd run 66km and climbed 4,500m... what I didn't tell them was there was a flight of steps down to the guy swiping our timing chips; I nearly fell down the flight of steps, which was why I was running so quickly!

There was a drop bag available at Cormet de Roselend, where we could have left anything we wanted as long as it would fit inside the supplied bag... I'd chosen to just leave much needed suncream and the additional Tailwind I needed to get me through the rest of the race.

I was particularly jealous watching all the other runners around me changing into clean, dry tops; fresh shoes; and tucking into tasty snacks. I made do with some salty noodle soup and decided there was nothing for it but to get out of the checkpoint and make my way up the next climb.

The next climb came and went, followed by a great descent down to the pretty La Gitte (literally a solitary gitte in the middle of nowhere). On the descent, the river that we were following suddenly plunged away leaving us running on trail carved into the rock face in a beautifully picturesque gorge; just with a pretty big drop down to the side... if you check my Strava record for that section, there's a sudden massive peak in my pace, not sure why...

I was starting to feeling really tired by this point, but reached La Gitte (74.5km and 4,860m ascent) in 12h25m and slowly climbing back up the rankings to 107th.

The long climb up away from La Gitte was really testing my energy reserves, and I could feel a hot spot on the outside of my left foot. The race helicopter buzzing overhead and the latest Above and Beyond podcast took my mind off the climb and I was soon sitting next to the mountain rescue guys at the top applying a Compeed to my foot.

As I sat tending to my foot, a Greek runner topped out the climb. He was asked by the rescue team if he wanted any water but he declined, gesturing that he had some good music on and was keen to closely follow the attractive lady in front of him who was wearing the shortest of shorts, even shorter than Johnny Fling's... I can't really blame him to be honest; I got my shoes back on and followed as quickly as I could.

Cresting this climb, the Col du Joly (next checkpoint) came into view and I could even hear the music from what looked to be a hilltop disco. Great, I thought, I can taste the noodle soup from here!

But no... you can see the checkpoint, but you're not going to it. It seems to be a bit of a theme with the TDS route that, if there's a climb to be had, you're climbing it! So down we went, and then back up again... all with the checkpoint in view and earshot.
I eventually arrived after 14h49m, and it was time to dig out my head torch from my bag.

I hit a massive purple patch on the descent down to Les Contamines, managing to hit 5:00min/km pace on the flat section into the checkpoint having overtaking 10 people over the 800m descent. Total race time 16h12m and 100th place.

This checkpoint was a big milestone for me. I knew if I made it here that there were just 2 big climbs and just over a half marathon to go (albeit a VERY hilly half...). 

I set off from the checkpoint and quickly formed a group with 3 other runners. It was at this point that I realised that I hadn't actually spoken to anyone (apart from 'Grazie" or "Merci" to the aid station volunteers) since leaving Keziah and Carol at the start line all those hours ago. One of the other runners spoke broken English (but still phenomenally better than my French) and we had a good chat about the race and where we were from, this was great as we realised that we'd picked our pace up and dropped the other 2 runners.

This climb led to a much bigger descent than I'd anticipated down to Chalets de Miage. This looked like it might be a really pretty place to be, and my new French friend told me there were great views from here; up to the Glacier de Miage and the Aguille de Tricot... all I could see was the string of head torches zigzagging in front of me up the 600m climb to the Col de Tricot.
This was the last big climb of the race. And it was possibly the steepest, at least it felt like that. 
I was shaking my head in disbelief and relief as I topped out the climb, leading to a pair of medics rushing over to me. I told them in particularly poor french that I was just tired and, worried they might try to pull me from the race, ran off down the side of the mountain before they had chance to intervene.

According to my route profile there was supposed to be a 400m descent and then along to Bellevue. What we actually had was a 400m descent, over a rope bridge above a waterfall (I think as it was still dark), then up a bit, down a bit, down a bit, up a bit, then up some more to the checkpoint.
The ski station at Bellevue eventually came into view and, despite near exhaustion having run out of water and food some time ago, I knew I had this in the bag; I'd been running for 19h33m and was in 100th place.

The 800m descent down into Les Houches was tough going; my quads refusing to function normally which wasn't really surprising.
After a brief spell of dry heaving on the side of the trail (my stomach was completely empty and was now refusing to accept anything), I caught up with the lady in short shorts (who'd managed to lose her Greek admirer) on the descent and we ran into the final checkpoint at Les Houches.
I'd had enough of running now and just wanted to get this over and done with; so I managed to down a cup of Coke and carried straight on through the checkpoint. 
No sign of Carrie as I ran past her front door (it was 2am so I'll forgive her!). I thought about ringing the door bell but:

  1. I wasn't sure which one it was
  2. It was only 8km to Chamonix and I just wanted this to be over
Spurred on by the thought of actually being able to sit down and rest, I refound my running legs and covered the last stretch in around an hour, overtaking a couple of other runners in the process. So fast that Ross, who was coming down to meet me at the finish, missed my sprint finish* by about 5 minutes.

*no one saw me, so I'm claiming that it was a sprint... the actual pace may have been a bit slower!

Over the finish line to a slightly inauspicious finish. A random spanish guy who'd finished just ahead of me handed me a can of luke warm beer... but that didn't matter, it was the best tasting beer ever.
And after 119km, 7,200m of climbing I'd finished in 21h15m and 97th place. I was a happy man.

I missed out on my gold target time which was to finish on Wednesday (i.e. sub 18 hours), but given the conditions on the day I don't think I left anything out on the course... as my finishing photos lay testament to.

And I'd achieved my #1 goal, which was to claim one of the coveted finisher's gilets for myself. I'm going to enjoy wearing that with pride, a memory of the toughest event I've done (so far...).

So, what next?
Well, I think I need to take some time to take my race head off and put the fun back into running. I met some really great new friends out in Chamonix (the Scottish support contingent was incredible!), so hopefully some adventures with them to look forward to...

And then to Italy in November to gain the additional points I need to enter next year's UTMB....

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

UTMB Recce and pre-TDS thoughts

Well, what do you do when someone you’ve never met asks on a Facebook group whether anyone was up for running the UTMB course as a training / recce session over 4 days?
You say yes, of course.
So a few weeks later, that decision resulted in me meeting Caroline at the Brussels Airline check in desk in Edinburgh at 0430 on a Saturday morning.

Warning: I haven’t been able to condense 4 day’s awesome running into a short post…
The synopsis is: brutal trail, 4 great days’ running, great new friends, generally all-round amazing! Enjoy the photos…

With just 2 weeks to go until the start of the TDS (my ‘A’ race of the year, and what I’ve been working towards since October last year), this was to be a great chance to see how hard I can push myself in the high mountains and to get some last minute training in.

After a fairly uneventful flight, via the construction site that is Brussels airport, we arrived in Geneva and made our way to the baggage carousel; only to find that our bags weren’t there.
There was a long queue at the lost luggage desk, and that wasn’t a good sign… we were promised that our bags would be delivered that evening… but the bags didn’t turn up.
Over hearty portions of tartiflette that evening, we decided that we’d have to buy new running kit on Sunday (as we were due to start running on Monday) if our bags still hadn’t turned up: cue an unsuccessful Supermarket Sweep style dash around the Chamonix sports stores.

We needed more time to purchase replacement running gear (the UTMB route is a tough one, climbing to over 2,500m, so the right kit is essential) and, even with some borrowed kit from new friend Giles, we took the decision to delay starting the route until Tuesday.

Fortunately our bags arrived late on Monday and, having made arrangements to delay my return to the UK after the recce, Caroline and I were eagerly waiting where the start line will be in a couple of weeks to start running at 0730.

Pre-start selfie
The route takes us through the centre of Chamonix before joining a forest path out to Les Houches. Carrie is lucky enough to be spending the whole summer out in Chamonix, so we met up with her outside her flat there.

After a stiff 800m climb up through a ski resort, we were soon running down a grassy piste and into St-Gervais-Les-Bains. We got a little bit lost here, unable to find the path that our GPS watches were directing us towards, but made it down into the town and found a tap to replenish our water.
I realised that I hadn’t eaten anything so far, but stupidly did nothing about it; a decision that would come to haunt me later in the day.

The trail then follows a river up towards Les Contamines.
Now, you’d think that a path alongside a river would be fairly gentle, but this is the Alps… and most “rivers” here would be called a waterfall back in the UK… so it was steep!

Coke and some fruit in Les Contamines, spurred us on towards the 2,320m Col du Bonhomme. This wasn’t enough to counter the lack of food and water earlier in the day and, combined with the searing afternoon sun, I started to bonk quite badly.
Even so, the Col arrived and this signalled the last few metres of ascent for the day to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and our Refuge for the night.
Looking up towards the Col du Bonhomme
Relaxing outside the refuge after a tough day
Sunset views from the Refuge
Day 1: 45.9km, 3,087m climbing.

This refuge had the best Crocs of the trip (no shoes allowed inside!), and so after a great night’s sleep (my first experience of an alpine Refuge) we started the day with a long 900m descent into Les Chapieux – a benefit of finishing the previous day up high, and a great way to get the legs warmed up (and a great way to start celebrating my 35th birthday)!
Looking back towards the Refuge
The route then turns back up the valley towards the Mont Blanc massif, eventually climbing to the Col de la Seine. My lungs and legs were burning as we reached the 2,516m col, which also marked our departure from France and our first steps on Italian soil.
First impressions though, were that France and Italy look exactly the same…….
Welcome to Italy selfie
Looking back into France
Some France, some Italy
 A fast descent down to Rifugio Elizabetta followed, encouraged by the thought of my first Italian coffee (the Italians do coffee so much better than anyone else!).
We missed a turning somewhere along the way down, staying on the main TMB trail rather than the slightly different race route; this also meant that we missed the 200m climb up to the Col des Pyramides Calcaires (and, at 2,563m, the highest point of the route) – I didn’t hear anyone complaining though!
We met Giles (he of the borrowed kit – thanks, btw!) here with the group of hikers that he was leading.

Fuelled by Italian caffeine, we carried on down and before climbing back up to the Arete du Mont-Favre. We then faced a quad-busting, almost continuous 1,200m descent down into Courmayeur.
I raced off, keen to see how my legs fared on a long descent, but stopped at a junction on the trail to regroup with the others. I’d started to get a little worried about how long I’d been waiting when Carrie appeared around the corner with Caroline hobbling behind her – she’d missed her footing on a wooden step and badly sprained her ankle.
Fortunately, we were only about 200m above Courmayeur and, after easing down the remainder of the descent, we went in search of a pharmacy for something for Caroline’s ankle.
Unfortunately, we arrived in the town right in the middle of siesta (I didn’t even know that was an Italian ‘thing’!) so had to make do with some fruit and a Coke to refuel us – and a bag of frozen peas to try and reduce the swelling on Caroline’s ankle.

It’s a little bit worrying that this UTMB descent is actually the first climb for the TDS route… I’m going to have to start fast from Courmayeur to avoid getting caught behind too many other runners, but not so fast that I burn myself out! What a start to a race!

Feeling fit enough to continue, we made the final 700m climb up to the Rifugio Bertone and our beds for the night.
It’d been another long, tough day and a couple of celebratory birthday beers ensured we were all sound asleep before too late.
How to carry your frozen veg on a long run
Day 2: 39.1km, 2,306m climbing.

The next day started with probably the best section of trail I’ve ever run on. Flowy and contouring around past Rifugio Bonatti, the running was incredible with amazing views of the sun-kissed summit of Mont Blanc and the numerous glaciers and peaks of the massif.
We quickly dropped into Val Ferret before our last Italian coffee stop at Rifugio Elena and the climb up to the 2,537m Grand Col Ferret, as this col marked our arrival in Switzerland.
Mt Blanc from Rif Bertone

Looking back along Val Ferret 
Feeling the altitude crossing into Switzerland
Team selfie heading into Switzerland. Photobombed by a random hiker.
A speedy descent ensued – with a couple of American walkers commenting that we were “hauling ass” and “a little bit crazy”. Smiles all round, especially as Caroline’s Rocktaped ankle seemed to be holding up well.

There was more amazing running to be had until our Swiss ice cream stop in La Fouly (Swiss ice cream tastes the same as any other ice cream, but just costs twice as much…). We followed the valley until Praz de Fort, where some buildings nestled in a col above us indicated the town of Champex du Lac – our resting point for the day.

The first signs of Champed up in the col
Although we’d had bigger climbs, the 500m up to Champex was probably the toughest of the whole course – never exceeding steep but never shallow enough to be able to run, it seemed to go on forever; and I had a nice hug with the “Welcome to Champex” sign when it finally appeared.
We found a pleasant Pension (with a not so pleasant owner) on the far side of the town to stay for the night – this also had the benefit of reducing the final day’s efforts by about 2km. Everyone was starting to feel the strain of our exertion, so dinner conversation was limited as pizzas were devoured and we were all soon in our beds.

Day 3: 43.7km, 1,966m climbing.

The next morning we awoke to the sound of rain outside. Over breakfast (which for once on the trip didn’t just involve bread and jam) the weather couldn’t dampen out spirits, with everyone keen to get back to Chamonix.
Today was also Carrie’s birthday, so all the more reason to be cheerful!

The final section of the UTMB route from Champex is essentially 3 big climbs followed by 3 descents, with very little flat; so there was nothing for it but to throw on our waterproofs and get moving.

The road through Champex soo turned into a fire road and then into hardpacked single track as we climbed towards Bovine. The rain had stopped and we were treated to some amazing cloud formations with a partial inversion.
At some point early on Carrie went over on her ankle, so both ladies were now taking it easy to ensure they didn’t do any further damage before their respective upcoming races.

From Bovine, the trail then drops down through wooded trails into the pleasant town of Trient.
Over snacks to refuel ourselves, Carrie announced that she was only going to run as far as the next town (Vallorcine, from where she could get the train home). We’re still not sure though whether it was a move to protect her injured ankle, or in response to the ominous looking clouds and claps of thunder ;-)

After another long climb, the trail hugs the side of the mountain before a quick drop towards the ski lifts of Vallorcine. This was where we crossed back into France, but you wouldn’t have known it unless you were looking at the map.
We met a group of mountain bikers part way down the descent; they were faffing with maps and were kind enough to let us pass. I was fully expecting to have a bike hot on my heels further down the trails, but it appeared that I can run down a hill faster than them as we never saw them again.

We sat out a brief rain shower in a café in Vallorcine while refuelling with more Cokes and some haribo (inside the café was apparently full, but we were offered seats under cover outside… whether the café was actually full or whether the staff took offence to my 4 day old running top is still open to debate).

As Carrie headed for the train, Caroline and I continued on. We were soon climbing towards the Col des Montets, the only section of the UTMB trail that I knew having been abandoned there to run home last year.
From the Col, you can see the trail zig zag up the route’s final climb to the Tete aux Vents.
Keen to see how much fitter I am than last year I put my head down and sped up the climb, surprising a family of walkers as I ran up the hill past them. I’m pleased to say that on one Strava segement for this climb my time this year was 10 minutes, compared to 14 for the same segment last year; giving me great confidence for the race next week.

When the building at La Flegere, finally came into view, we knew we were finally on the home straight with Chamonix a short 900m below us.

The rain had started to get heavier as we passed the beautiful chalet La Floria, but with just 20 minutes left until the end of the run it wasn’t even worth stopping to put jackets on.

So, eventually Chamonix arrived and after following the race route’s victory lap of the town centre, Caroline and I arrived back outside the church where we’d started this adventure 4 long days previously.
Finish line selfie
Day 4: 44.7km, 2,613m climbing.

 So that was that. We’d run the UTMB (well, most of it…).
Time for a shower, some clean clothes (it felt strange not to be in running kit) and then to MBC for a few birthday drinks with Carrie.

My immediate thoughts post run were that it was a tough course, really tough. But I’m feeling strong both climbing and descending, so I’m looking forward to the TDS next week with some confidence of a good performance.

I’m also looking for a 3 point qualifying race before the end of the year, so I can have a shot at racing the UTMB next year…

I've got some times in my head for the TDS. They're pretty ambitious, so I'm not going to tempt fate by discussing what they are. The main aim for next week is to finish and get my prized gilet, a good time is secondary.