Going off the grid

“I don’t think I can do this Dion! It’s too much, this race is too much. I’m not strong enough for a race like this”. It’s 70km into Oman by UTMB and I’m crying uncontrollably into my phone having called my husband in a blind panic. I’m 360 degrees out of my comfort zone and I don’t know how to get out of this situation.

When UTMB announced earlier in 2018 that it was expanding the race family to include Oman and Ushuaia my interest was peaked. Oman had been on my radar as a place to visit as an undiscovered gem of the Middle East but nothing had drawn me there until I read about the inaugural Oman by UTMB. A 137km single stage footrace through the Omani mountains with 7,800m of elevation promising a route of natural beauty and physical challenge.

Dramatic scenery – Misfat Village
©Mark Lloyd images

Arriving in Muscat a few days prior to the race was the perfect opportunity to indulge in some last minute warm weather before the European winter sets in. The airport itself was a sign of things to come; grand, imposing and in pristine condition and I listened eagerly as my super friendly taxi driver turned tourist guide pointed out the stunning must-see Grand Mosque as we whizzed along wide, perfect roads that were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. He proudly tells me that cleanliness is so important in the Sultanate that a fine is issued if your car is dirty.

Enjoying Muscat’s pristine beaches.

Away from the Grand Mosque Muscat feels more modest, with low rise sand coloured buildings where local Arabs walk casually through the streets; men swathed in white or black linen thobes, women in hijab, giving a real sense of an unhurried and relaxed way of life. Crystal clear blue water laps leisurely onto the white sandy beaches that surround the city. People stop to chat and regular greetings of ‘As-salamu alaykum’ resonate as groups of friends and families gather to socialise together over cups of tea and feasting on meze, hummus and falafel.

Majestic beaches give way to otherworldly rugged mountain tops as we make our way to race HQ in Nizwa where around 415 ultra-Trail runners (including only 51 women) representing 57 countries have arrived to take up the challenge of Oman’s mountainous interior, including the 2,200m high Jebel Akhdar known as the ‘Green Mountain’. Little did we know then that this race would earn the nickname of ‘The Beast’ and less than 40% of us would become finishers of this epic race.

Lulled into a false sense of luxury and relaxation as we all enjoyed the divine swimming pool and food on offer at The Golden Tulip Hotel reality was soon upon us as we set out with head torches at the ready for the race start at 7:30pm. The start line was a party atmosphere and the atmosphere was electric with elevated heart rates as we anticipated what lay ahead. Straight into the dark the first 10km were fast with runners making the most of the very runnable and flat start to the race. It wasn’t long though before poles were pulled out and the first long climb of many begun.

Anna-Marie Watson and I ready to start ‘The Beast’

The course was marked within an inch of its life. I’ve never seen anything like it with the most reflective red and green markers absolutely everywhere on the route. Navigating along ridges and plateau edges I have the organisers warnings resonating in my head; green markers mean safe, red markers mean danger! At some points the distance between the two was literally 2 footsteps requiring full concentration. The night was long and the darkness was all encompassing and I found myself looking forward to sunrise so I could enjoy what I’d heard was some of the most spectacular scenery around me.

Sunrise!

As the sun rose I found myself on top of the most unforgiving and exposed mountain with deep cutting canyons to my left. I’m left breathless, humbled by the sheer expanse and natural beauty of this place reminding me how small I am in the middle of this incredibleness. The terrain is rough; harsh and unforgiving; with little to no vegetation unless you count bushes that cut you deep and draw blood should you get to close to them. Everything out here is harsh, designed for self protection over centuries of survival but in its harshness there is an inspiring beauty and I’m filled with a deep level of respect.

Simply jaw dropping scenery.

The climbs are relentless with the technical terrain making them even more so. These aren’t trails that have been regularly trodden and this combined with the now increasing temperature starts to make me doubt my abilities. I’m uncomfortable and petrified and I reach the 70km mark in tears. The previous climb had scared me with its exposure and the vertical drops below and I’m shaking like a leaf. I call Dion. I don’t want to go on but somehow he makes me see sense and assures me I’m stronger than I think but if I’m truly scared and I feel my life is in danger then pull out. But if not….I didn’t travel all this way to eat falafels.

The next section is more runnable and descending into a Wadi I pass through historical 400 year old mud houses and a multitude of caves that until now were concealed by the wall of mountains now surrounding me. I can see the Alila Hotel on the top of the other side of the canyon, teasing me knowing this is the big life station with hot food and my drop bag, so close yet so very far. An oasis of water stops me in my tracks, remote and breathtaking, and I wonder if it’s real or am I already starting to hallucinate. It is real of course and so are the rocks that I need all fours to climb up before reaching the start of the via ferrata. 80km into this technical race we are being strapped up in harnesses, helmets on and ascending a rock wall. I know the oasis of the life base is at the top and this spurs me on.

Deep in the wadi.

It’s my first ever via ferrata and I’m overcome with emotion as a smiling and encouraging volunteer takes my harness off me and I’m in tears again. My emotions are running higher than normal in this race as I am way out of my comfort zone and everything is becoming an emotional effort. The tears come again as I reach the life base and see the familiar face of Marina Ranger waiting for me with a big smile and a hug. The life base doesn’t disappoint and I wolf down a huge bowl of Dal and rice and with freshly squeezed orange juice on offer I replace fluids with a over a litre of this golden goodness. I come across fellow running friend Jakob here and we decide to head out together for a bit of company.

My 1st ever via feratta!

Feeling refreshed and energised after a good break we make good use of the next runnable 5km before we are again reduced to a relentless forward motion using whatever means possible; run, walk, shuffle. We push forward as the sun begins to set onto our 2nd night out on the course as we head towards a highly anticipated downhill, but even the downhills on this course are brutal and we implement downhill ski style for our descent to try and reduce the impact of the sheer steepness of it.

The long dusty downhill finally ends and we’re directed through dense shrubbery to reach what can only be described as a fairytale secret entrance. Tree roots wind their way up century old stairs built from limestone rocks and we ascend through ancient ruins of an, even now, impressive building, perhaps a mosque or fortress in its day. A labyrinth of pathways lead us to the aid station before the final climb nicknamed ‘The Wall’ as reading the elevation profile of the race would suggest with a 1,240m ascent in around 3km it was going to be just that. More than a vertical kilometre this was literally a wall that we had to use our 116km used legs to climb over before we were even in sniffing distance of finishing this beast of a race.

Dauntingly we are informed that the organisation are unable to get help to us during the next section so we are to make sure we can get from this point to the next without assistance otherwise we should not proceed, and to put our poles away as we are going to need all fours to reach the top! I’ve never climbed properly in my life and to take on this ascent in the dark whilst having to maintain 3 points of contact at all times has gone down as the hardest and most petrifying experience of my racing experience to date. Add to this challenge some hallucinations of cats on rocks and you start to get the picture. At least they were friendly hallucinations. With my life depending on to my strength I clamber my way to the top hanging on to the near vertical rock face, panic breathing and sobbing all the way up.

Dripping in sweat and now freezing as reaching the summit in full force winds meant putting on every layer I had to try and keep warm. Fatigue was starting to really set in now and I hoped I could hang on until daybreak as I’d started having little sleep walking style nod offs. I ate skittles, salt tablets and paracetamol and then the sun finally rose again and filled me with a renewed energy, with now less than 15km to go I knew that medal would be mine. But as with the rest of the race, the forthcoming downhill and final push to the finish line would not be an easy one and would continue to take much longer than anticipated. Reluctantly I had to reapply sunscreen and put my hat and sunglasses back on as I could feel myself starting to burn. I had certainly not planned on seeing a 2nd sunrise!

We could hear the finish line before we saw it, hearing our names being announced as we approached, and both Jakob and I breathed a big sigh of relief when it finally came into view and through gritted teeth with each step becoming excruciatingly more painful we finally descended and found ourselves running, it felt like we were running, along the red carpet to be greeted with that richly deserved medal around our necks.

The finish line!

Dazed, dumbfounded and exhausted beyond all belief I was speechless and could barely utter an inaudible grunt as the race MC tried to probe me for what I thought of the race. I was just so glad to be finished I just stood there grinning like a dazed fool before I was guided away to a chair and given food and drink.

‘The Beast’, ‘The Wall’, ‘The race that just kept giving’, ‘The 137km Sky race’, ‘The new Barkley Marathon’……the nicknames for this experience were coming out from everyone and it seemed all the runners from the winners to those that didn’t finish were shocked in equal measures of awe and disbelief as to how tough this race really was. Had I known how tough it was beforehand I might not have entered and then never had the opportunity to test myself in this way so in away I’m glad I didn’t know. Fulfilling its promise of a physical challenge, this race is set to expand and become renowned for its brutality and toughness with a full schedule of 4 races planned for next year ranging from 50km to 100 miles, which one will you be choosing?

Trail Running in Tuscany, Italy: A ‘Run’ Through Time

Tuscany is where I got married and to me this place holds special memories of not only that day but of the amazing hospitality shown by the Tuscan people and the amazing landscapes and traditions experienced in this area. The opportunity to explore a new camino, Via della Lana e della Seta (Silk and Wool hiking trail), which is a 130km trail from Bologna to Prato, was the perfect opportunity to return to this stunning region.

The camino did not disappoint! Meandering through trails lined with chestnut and fig trees, through small Tuscan villages with ancient clock towers ringing out through the vastness of the countryside which are dotted with the greenest of green vineyards. The trail was well sign posted with the added bonus of the friendly local people always willing to point you in the right direction of the trail or perhaps a good restaurant.

Stunning autumn trails

We were treated to the most amazing stories of history and architecture punctuated with bursts of soul filling food and heart warming red wine. A short week of sunshine, trails, good food and great company have made this a trip to remember; and most certainly convinced me to visit again.

For the full report check out Trail & Kale.  I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to go along and represent Trail & Kale for Soul Running to explore the trails of this amazing region of Italy.

The team that explored the route.

Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura – Take 2!

I’m jolted awake, screaming. Was I screaming out loud or was that in my nightmare? Where am I? There’s a tent flapping around me, the wind is howling, I’m sticky with sweat and sand and haven’t showered for 2 days and I feel totally disorientated in the darkness. And then I remember, I’ve just completed the 2nd stage of the Half Marathon Des Sables. The half MdS is set on the island of Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands which is more commonly known as a holiday destination due to its white sandy beaches and year round sunshine and warm temperatures. 288 runners are here however to run 120km over 4 days/3 stages in a fully self sufficient foot race across the rugged, sandy and arid terrain of the island which could be likened to running on the moon or Mars. The race isn’t in my nightmare and I drift back to sleep until the sun rises over our camp.

Sun rising over camp

I completed this race last year which was as gruelling and tough as the full MdS, but hardships are quickly forgotten and I was quick to say yes to the opportunity to go again as part of the WAA Team. I’d barely recovered from Leadville 100 5 weeks ago, but was keen to improve on last years time and 7th place. I also had 2 coaching clients, Michaela and Babar, going along who I’d been helping for the last few months prepare not only physically and mentally but also kit preparation as well which for a race like this is key. The impact of the weight of your bag and the food and kit you bring can make or break your race.

Ready to start with Michaela

With this being my 6th fully self sufficient race and 10th multi day event, my preparation is pretty polished. I have a great spreadsheet that I’ve been tweaking for years now which lists everything I will take from kit and equipment to a daily tally of food including calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates along with their weight of course. So as I’m planning my ‘menu’ I can quickly see how this stacks up. Variety is key at these events as the weather and exhaustion can impact how your body reacts to the taste and nutrition.

Enjoy a cuppa and breakfast.

Playitas Resort is the grand accommodation before and after the race. Day 1 start line is a 45 minute bus ride away and consists of 13.2 miles with 1900ft ascent, running through sandy terrain and the outskirts of a few small towns before the final stretch along the coastline which is absolutely stunning, with some sheer drops to the beautiful blue water below, which is off limits to the competitors but so tempting. The finish line is in the usual style of feeling just that bit further away than you think, I’m pushing hard on day 1 and I can see 4th place lady just ahead of me with only a kilometre to go to the finish but I just can’t catch her and finish up in 5th place for the day with a big, sweaty smile plastered over my face.

Gorgeous blue water such a contrast against the terrain.

Arriving at camp runners are allocated individual tents based on nationality and with my home address listed in France as I’m living in Chamonix, providing Sports Massage through my business Pure Alps Massage, I end up in the French camp. Lovely as they are and they try to speak English to me, but I miss the banter of being with my British counterparts. The wind is strong making lighting the stove an epic achievement to boil water for my dinner. The camp is a bustle of activity with camp fires going and lots of chatter about the day. It’s an early night all round and soon the camp descends into darkness and quiet ready for a good nights sleep, which I thankfully get thanks in part to remembering ear plugs this year.

Ready to rumble.

Day 2 is the long day of 37.6 miles with 5,200 feet of ascent and there’s nervous trepidation around the camp with many runners who will be running this distance for the first time and others that are concerned about how the heat will effect them. I quite enjoy the longer day generally but always set out at my own pace and try to ignore what everyone else is doing. Making the most of the slightly cooler temperatures I start off at a strong pace and look to secure my position in the field with the aim to hold it for the rest of the day. The temperatures quickly rise and I’m consciously reminding myself to eat, drink and consume salt tablets regularly to stay on top of the conditions. The first big climb of the day takes us up through a ravine with a sharp hand over foot climb near the top with the temperature starting to peak it drains me and I’m grateful for the volunteer at the top who grabs my hand to pull me up onto the road. I’m nearly out of water but it’s still about 5km to the next checkpoint so I start having to ration my sips and the heat starts to take its toll.

Feeling the heat.

I slow down to a walk during the hottest part of the day but I find not many people pass me and if they do they then slow to a walk as well. As I reach the halfway point there’s one of the top runners being bundled off in a stretcher and more stories of casualties from the day. The biggest climb of the day follows on from here and I pull out my emergency rations of Haribo bananas as my superfood to charge to the top 😉.

Running along the beach.

It’s a gorgeous run along the beach in the last few hours of daylight. After stopping for 20 mins to help the female Peruvian runner who had been just ahead of me on Day 1 and was now in trouble with heatstroke, I realise that 6th Place female has caught up to me. A battle commences with her up the last big climb of the day where I ended up ahead of her enough to make me push the last 15km home as I was now fully racing again! At the last CP the fight was on to the finish and I managed to pull ahead of another female competitor to finish in 4th place for the day and now overall. This also meant I had the full bag and kit check done by the race officials which was very thorough, right down to the last safety pin!

Excited to be finished the long day!

I joined the British contingent that evening as they’d had a few drop outs so a tent was free and as the following morning began, weary competitors found their way out of their tents and we all swapped stories of the day that was. Today was a rest day and this involved a lot of laying around, resting, eating and chatting. Made a bit more fun with the surprise treats of ‘Fatboys’ to lay on and a delicious icy cold bottle of Coca Cola later in the day. It’s a great day to get to know more about your fellow competitors and where they all come from and why they are here, making new friends for life.

Chilling on a ‘Fatboy’.

The 3rd and final day was 13.5 miles with 1,500 feet ascent, knowing I was in 4th place with an hour to 3rd meant I couldn’t make that but there was only a 5 minute gap to 5th so I needed to make sure I kept her in my sights. The legs were certainly feeling it but I had to push from the off and todays section included about 4km of my least favourite terrain, super sharp volcanic rock which to me at least made running extremely difficult and slow going, but not for others who just seemed to fly through this terrain, including 5th lady! I had to work my socks off to catch back up to her again once we were through the difficult section and I could tell she was struggling too so through broken Spanglish we agreed we’d just take it easy for the last few km’s. We stuck together and it wasn’t until we saw the finish line and had the final descent that she took off, leaving me for dust and got to the finish line a few minutes ahead of me. I was pretty annoyed particularly as she didn’t even wait at the finish for me, and I could have put time on her earlier when she was struggling. Perhaps a lesson to be learnt for next time for me, I still managed to keep 4th overall and I was super pleased with my time overall, which was a good 5+ hours faster than last year!

Finished!

I hung around the finish to watch Michaela finish and we headed off to make good use of the ice bath and complimentary massages, along with a delicious cold coke filled with ice which tasted like heaven. Babar made it to the finish as well, so I was a very proud coach. It’s always rewarding to be able to help others achieve their goals.

Massage time!

Our gala dinner that evening was a feast of amazing food and wine before finally enjoying the comforts of a real bed again. A full day of relaxation by the plethora of pools the following day erased the struggles of the race and I’d already starting thinking about coming back for the 3rd edition in 2019, because it’s just that epic!

Relax time at Playitas Resort.

Leadville 100-The Race Across the Sky

This ain’t no powder puff race!

Epic, iconic, awesome and legendary are words you commonly here when people talk about having run a 100 mile race, which are all true when talking about Leadville, but what about legacy? How many races out there are not only changing our lives as runners but those of people in their local community? How many races make you really feel part of an extendable family?

Race co-founder Ken Chlouber, an avid marathon runner dreamt up the race as a way to make Leadville famous and attract visitors during the 1980’s after the closure of the Climax mine which was a major blow to the towns economy, putting the town as the highest unemployment level in the USA overnight as thousands lost their jobs. The first race was held in 1983 and has been held annually since. The race starts and finishes in Leadville, Colorado on an out and back course on trails and dirt roads through the heart of the Rocky Mountains climbing and descending 15,600 feet (4,800m) with elevations ranging between 10,200-12,600 feet (3,100-3,850m). The altitude adds that extra element of brutality which results in most years having only a 50% finishing rate. 2018 was no exception with only 52% of starters making it across the finish line before the 30hr cut off.

The Leadville 100 strips you down to your raw inner and you’re reborn when you cross that finish line, life changed forever. But the local lives are changed too. Every year since 2002 the race, through the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, gives a $1,000 scholarship to every graduate from high school, helping to set them up on a path to success. Their mission is to support the needs of Leadville, Lake County community and build a better, brighter tomorrow, while respecting their mining heritage.

It’s no wonder that the support along the course is second to none! The community love and embrace the race spirit and they are there to do what they can to help each and every runner reach the finish. Checkpoints morph into small festivals with fire pits and parties absolutely on point.

4am start with Ken & Marilee at the helm

Starting in the dark at 4am the race sets off at a quick pace with a relatively downhill start to the first checkpoint, puncturing the night sky with head torch light trails and whoops of excitement from 750 runners amid plenty of friendly chatter and stories from the trails. The story of a bear sighting along this very trail only a few weeks back sticks with me through the race. Sunrise along Turquoise Lake welcomes us to May Queen at 13.5 miles.

Sunrise at Turquoise Lake

The first real climb of the day is quickly upon us as we head up Sugarloaf Pass on a very runnable but deceivingly draining up hill, some runners choose to run this, but I opt for a running start moving into a power hike before reaching the top and enjoying a really fun downhill stretch known as Power-line to The Outward bound checkpoint at 23.5 miles.

Feeling strong out of Outward Bound

The second climb takes place up Mt Elbert after going through Half Pipe checkpoint, it’s not the full way to the top of the mountain but it’s still a hefty ascent to combat before reaching Twin Lakes where my crew are waiting patiently for me ready to get me sorted again at 37.9 miles in.

Heading out of Twin Lakes packed and ready to take on Hope Pass

Refuelled and refreshed heading out of Twin Lakes I pop on some tunes to help keep my cadence hoping that I can keep up a good pace up Hope Pass. Two small ankle deep river crossings chill me right down as I wade through freezing water but wet feet don’t bother me and I shriek and laugh as I cross through.

Loving the river crossing!

I snap open my hiking poles as I see the ascent of the pass ahead and altitude quickly takes its toll. I go from moving well to a slow motion hike that doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere fast but my legs are like lead and my chest is so tight I feel like I can’t breath, I feel runners coming past me but I’m too paralysed to do anything more than the crawl I’m managing. Frustratingly slowly and painfully I make it to Hopeless aid station and refuel before tackling the last 200m ascent before some relief back down the other side to Winfield. As soon as I’m heading down hill my legs free up and the more I descend the better I can breath and I start to pass a few people again. I feel disoriented by this as I’m normally a stronger climber than a descender but the altitude has flipped this all on its head. Ken’s words ‘Make friends with pain and you will never be alone’ were echoing in my ears loudly.

Obligatory selfie on top of Hope Pass, making pain my friend!

I’m greeted at the halfway point at Winfield, 50miles and just under 13 hours, by my first pacer Aaron, a total stranger to me until today. I love this about the running community, you only have to seek out support and you find it. I now have 2 new life long friends who both sacrificed their weekend to join me through the night to help me get to the finish. Aaron is keen to get me moving quickly and we don’t hang about the aid station and within minutes we are back on the trail and commencing the steep ascent back up Hope Pass.

Seriously in the pain cave heading back up Hope Pass for the 2nd time! (Photo credit : Aaron)

We are literally heading home now but the thought doesn’t motivate my legs into action, we crawl up Hope Pass as the wind picks up and the sun starts to make its descent. Jackets, buffs and gloves thrown on we get over the pass and back at Hopeless aid station Aaron has to pull me away from the warm camp fire to get going. We need to make up time as I’ve now eaten well into my good head start of the cut offs and the concerns of chasing cut off times starts to kick in. The 30 hour cut off set for the race is very tight and it certainly means there is no time to rest at the check points as you can all so easily lose valuable time and miss out on finishing like 48% of starters this year did.

Up and Up!

It’s dark before we reach Twin Lakes again so head torches are back on and we tackle the freezing river crossing in the dark which certainly wakes me up! And then we make it to Twin Lakes now 62.5 Miles in and making cut off by only half an hour. Dion, my husband, who has been crewing since the start is there and he offers forceful encouragement and I can see concern is all over his face; he knows how badly I want this belt buckle and he fears this is slipping out of my reach. At no point have I felt like quitting, I have come into this race with the right intentions and the positive mindset with the mantra from the race briefing still ringing in my ears “I commit, I won’t quit”.

We head off again into the dark and it’s straight back into a climb up Mt Elbert, again my legs are like lead and I start to feel really queasy and continuously struggling for air, with bouts of dizziness which has Aaron worrying as I keep stumbling. As we finally reach the top the heavens open for a downpour saturating us before we make the next checkpoint. It’s here I put on every layer I have, 2 base layers, 2 waterproof jackets, buff and gloves to try and get warm again. Aaron forces me to eat more than I have at any other checkpoint and we get down to Half Pipe at 71.1 Miles where we’ve now managed to make up 10 mins and we are 40 mins ahead of cut off, the time hangs over my head somewhat as 40 minutes isn’t really that much in the scheme of things and I know I need to keep digging deep if I am going to be awarded that finishers buckle.

We change pacers at Outward bound station 76.9 miles and James joins me to get back up Power Line, that really fun downhill now has to be climbed! It’s the first time I’ve spoken to James in person and within 10 minutes I’m double over and vomiting no doubt making a great first impression. Somehow the vomit makes me feel better and we ascend the hill so much stronger than the last 4 climbs. James is loving it and pushes me to get a jog on again when we reach the top for the descent back into May Queen at 87.8 miles, passing about 50 runners, where Dion and Aaron are surprised to see us down already.

Daylight breaks again

The sun is just starting to rise as Aaron joins me for the final leg to the finish, just 12.6 miles to go and we’ve got just over 3 hours to make it but on tired legs this doesn’t mean it’s in the bag but I can feel it, I can feel I’m going to get that belt buckle and I surprise Aaron with my refound energy and we start playing a game of Pac-Man, every person we see we aim to catch them and we end up passing 50 runners to the finish line.

Enjoying my game of Pac Man!

That finish line! Before you enter the town of Leadville you can hear the cheers and applause which spurs you on and as you turn onto 6th street you still can’t quite see the finish line but the streets are lined with local support. Everyone has come out to cheer us all on and the noise is deafening, tears start flowing as I get choked up by the emotion of it all knowing that I am minutes away from finishing my first 100. As we get closer we can see the finish line, the uphill finish line I might add, and we start to plan how to position me for the finishers photo, under strict instructions from Dion to make sure I leave a gap between runners so he can get a good photo. We decide to pass a couple more, then a couple after that until finally my feet hit the red carpet and I’m running under the banner and into the waiting arms of Merilee. Tears are flowing and I look up to catch Dion also crying, embraces and photos and more hugs from James and Aaron, and of course Ken. I’m on cloud nine, I’ve done it, I’ve raced across the sky where legends are created and limits are tested. I gave the mountains my respect, and earned respect from all. Ken tells me ‘Finishing this race will change your life. It truly has and it will change your life too if you let it.

One very happy 100 mile finisher!

Why you simply HAVE to run the Marathon du Mont Blanc

I. Loved. Every. Single. Minute.
A marathon of true beauty! Marathon du Mont Blanc is more than just a race, this is a party of trail running that takes place in one of THE Mecca’s of the sport, Chamonix. Traversing through the awe inspiring nature reserve, The Aiguilles Rouges, this event has eight various trail races (90k, 42k, 23k, 10k, VK, duo etoile night race, mini cross and the young marathon) to choose from and is a celebration of mountain running at its finest. The marathon had 2,300 runners and the electrified start at 7am on Sunday morning set goosebumps off on every competitor. The streets are lined with fans cheering on the runners but not just at the start, throughout the race through the villages and high up on top of the mountains they were there in so many ways from the loud trumpet blowers, cheering baton bashers, live bands with singers and throngs of dancers to the cute kids offering high fives and cheers of “Allez! Allez!”

Jam packed race start

With 42km and 2,780m ascent this is a tough and challenging route, made all the more difficult with temperatures reaching 32 degrees in the valley. Starting in the cooler temperatures of the early morning you are pulled into a false sense of ease as the route takes you from Chamonix into the cross country trails up through La Lavancher (I did manage to face plant only 3 Miles in on the least technical descent of the day), following the Petit Balcon Nord to Montroc and along the nature reserve running along the Col de Montets.

Views for days

The valley is in full bloom, greenery all around and bright flowers absolutely everywhere and running into Vallorcine felt like a dream. Masses of people lined the path into the checkpoint and there was a lively dancing band boosting energy levels before the first serious climb of the day up to Col Des Posettes. Aid stations are laden with local cheeses, salamis, fruit, nuts, baguettes, dark chocolate and plenty of still/sparkling water and coke. It’s certainly worthwhile taking advantage of what’s on offer. All usually served by super friendly volunteers and accompanied by some form of live music or dancing, it’s a party for everyone from the runners and volunteers to the locals and random hikers.

Stuffing salami in my mouth at Vallorcine where Jana was supporting (Photo: Jana)

All the runners are made to feel like superstars as we tackled the climb which again was lined with loss of exuberant supporters, all reading our names on our bibs to shout out personal encouragement. It gives you a taste of what the Tour de France cyclists feel like with the people crowding onto you on a narrow path, it’s absolutely electrifying! As the path narrowed and disappeared into the forest the crowds disappeared and gave way to solid hard work, with only the sounds of heavy breathing and the rhythmic ‘tap, tap’ of hiking poles as we ascended.

Heading up to the Col

The heat was pretty intense up on the Col but alleviated by an amazingly enthusiastic man playing guitar and singing on the back of a small truck. Plenty of runners were using this as a reason to hang at the checkpoint and soak up the party vibes and snap some stunning photos. We reached the summit of Aiguillette at 2201m and then headed down the steep descent of 850m back to Le Tour, the aid station before the climb up to Flegere. I tackled the descent with gusto, taking the steep rocky paths with tight bends and the odd sheer drop in my stride and it was over in no time!

A man and his guitar!

The final big push up to Flegere was a pretty slow procession of runners, now only hiking, in the heat of the day, some needing to sit on the side of the path to re-gather strength before carrying on. I had to resort to filling up water in the stream as I’d drunk my bottles dry, 1L, in the climb alone. The scent of wild strawberries was in the air and they tasted even better than they smelt, sunkissed, red & ripe.  Flegere loomed in front of us and felt within touching distance but felt more like slow motion process up a long wide, open climb in the blazing sun to get there.

An oasis on a mountain

Fuelled on coke at long last, I’d saved this for the final stretch, I felt fully charged and got a bit frustrated on the final 5k which was single track and was quite a bottle neck in parts so using my best French ‘excuses-moi’ I got my way last as many people as I could along the tight balcon with a vertical drop off on your left. You could see and hear the finish line the entire 5k, tempting you!

The finish line looms!

2 small snow drifts to cross just before the finish and it was there! Plan Praz was in front of me with the finish up a small hill which of course you have to run and seeing Dion, Gobi and Jana at the finish I let out a big whoop and massive smiles all round I got my medal.

Finish line feels (Photo : Dion Leonard)

I can’t recall a race where I felt like I smiled and laughed the entire way around so Marathon Du Mont Blanc will certainly go down in my memory as the funnest and most scenic marathon I’ve ever run.

Loving my medal!

Explore, Discover, Race – Bodrun 50km 2016

The call to prayer sounds out across the dark empty streets of Bodrum where runners are huddled in the breaking dawn; warming up before the inaugural Bodrun 50km.  It’s late November and the morning air is cool but the runners are all dressed for the heat that’s expected later in the day to reach up to 25 degrees.  Bodrum is located on the southern peninsula of Turkey with Greece in touching distance across the pristine blue waters of the Aegean Sea and enjoys warm temperatures year around so a perfect winter escape.

Views of the Aegean Sea during the race

With a choice of 3 distances; 50km, 23km and 10km the race offers an option for all abilities to take part.  The 50km route duly delivered on its promise to offer a challenge with 1,900m worth of climbing through technical trails taking you on the peaks above Bodrum city and back along the coastline.  A mixture of terrain as you run through small villages on cobbled roads connected via dusty fire trail paths and rocky goat tracks through the steep cliffs with an almost irresistible temptation to dive into the crystal-clear water as the final 10k includes a stretch along the pebbly coastline.

Stunning crystal clear water

The races intertwine in the final 10km with the 50k runners coming across the 23k runners from the other direction giving way to camaraderie in the form of friendly cheers and well wishes as the runners cross paths and the hospitable nature of the Turkish volunteers is apparent along the way at the checkpoints ensuring smiles and encouragement are plentiful.  People are the true reflection of a country and you will be hard pressed to find more friendly and welcoming people than the Turkish.

2nd Place for me!

What better way to recover from race soreness and truly indulge in the local culture with a couple of hours in a traditional Turkish Hamam where you will be steamed and scrubbed until you are squeaky clean and ready to sit back and feast on some of the local delicacies to truly aid your recovery.  With seafood as the specialty you will be spoilt for choice matched by the freshest of salads and completed by Turkish tea and baklava.

After run treats of Baklava and Turkish Tea

Turkey; a country of cultures colliding where East meets West in an evocative pot of smells, sounds and experiences; offers an easy yet adventurous getaway for Europeans and Brits able to combine a long weekend of competitive racing in an exotic location with the cultural escape of a holiday destination that’s remarkably easy on the pocket.  Try something truly unforgettable yourself today and Explore, discover and race.

My article in print in Trail Running Magazine (incorrectly noted as Dion Lennard ;-0)

TransGranCanaria Take 2

After having completed the Transgrancanaria (TGC) 125km race in 2015 by the skin of my teeth against the cut off time I was keen to go back and run it again and improve on my last experience.

This time however I decided to ‘only’ sign up for the 62km version as I thought this would be a nice start to the training for the year. After reviewing my race calendar for the year however, I realised that I would not have enough points for my 2019 UTMB application and needed to either find some more races to add or upgrade a couple. So just a few days out from the race start I decided to upgrade from the 62km to the full 125km race.

What could possibly go wrong? To begin with I hadn’t run more than 16 miles as a long run in training since the start of December 2017, my diet wasn’t great with an extended Christmas and an inability to motivate myself to get out and train in the miserable conditions of what felt like the longest Scottish winter ever. Enough excuses!

I had thankfully set a plan working on improving my strength and conditioning with 2-3 solid sessions a week since the beginning of December as ultra running had worn my body out a bit, I noticed I had lost my mobility and struggled to even get off the toilet without hanging onto it. I started working with Tom Sparks, Osteopath & strength & conditioning coach, on a plan of action including biomechanics and mobility work and after a couple months I’m now able to sit into a squat and pat my dog and pop straight back up!

As I’d now upgraded to the full 125km race route this was to be my opportunity to test my new found strength and mobility and to see how the muscles coped with some serious mountains to tackle. I somehow knew in my own mind that my endurance training of past would see me through the distance.

I wasn’t expecting Spanish heat this time of year but the weather forecast for Gran Canaria was unseasonably very Scottish with heavy rains and winds. The grim weather was so bad even the marathon event was postponed from the Friday to Saturday. This was making wardrobe decisions a little tougher than usual but I still opted for my WAA skort and went with short sleeves matched with arm sleeves for extra warmth, along with E gloves, buff and waterproof jacket– sunglasses left firmly behind!

Fireworks & party atmosphere to start us off

The race starts at 11pm at night from the beach at Las Canteras, set off in a party of live music and fireworks it would be easy to get caught up in the fast start and burn yourself out early. My husband, Dion’s, words rung in my head ‘If it’s feeling good, drop it back a gear & just take it easy, save your legs’, so I did.

Night time beach start

Night running is a different experience, especially in a big race such as this, other racers lights can interfere with your own making it difficult to see in front of you so I like to have a fairly robust lumens to make sure mine is outshining others. I used LED Lenser MH10 for this race with 600 lumens which was great. Frustratingly halfway through the night my rechargeable battery was already failing and I had to stop to change to normal batteries, silly error. The night seemed to pass quickly and I was happy to see the sun starting to rise and realising I was well ahead of where I was when the sun rose 3 years ago was definitely a mental boost. The daylight also gave way to the stunning views surrounding me which had me simply awestruck!

Sunrise

The climbs and descents in this race are unrelenting and I was thankful I had my Guidetti poles this time around, they really make a difference to the level of fatigue in the legs. I was also keeping myself well fuelled, drinking Active Root between checkpoints and ensuring I was eating well at each stop along the way. The weather was not only holding out but the sun made an appearance and I hit the hottest part of the day as the ascent to Roque Nublo began.

Ascending Roque Nublo

I took advantage of a cold stream before beginning the climb to cool my head and wet my buff around my wrist which made me feel refreshed at least for a few minutes. The climb up was quite stifling with a lack of breeze but after the cold Scottish winter I wasn’t complaining. I was chatting away to a couple of fellow runners when I ran into my WAA twin, Emma (and hubby Ryan) they were laughing as they could hear me coming obviously having way too much fun. It was great to see a couple of familiar faces along the way but I didn’t want to stay and chat too long as my goal was to get to Garanon before 5 and still had the summit to reach. After the obligatory summit photo I was off on the downhill stretch to Garanon.

With my WAA Twin, Emma

I was stoked to reach Garanon at 4:45pm, ahead of schedule! Garanon has hot food and massages, I cheekily took advantage of my 15 min time gain and enjoyed a quick quad massage while I wolfed down a bowl of pasta and a chocolate milk. I was excited to be heading out with a marathon to go feeling strong and relatively fresh, thinking I knew what lay ahead I was also excited to think I could possibly get into the finish by midnight which would have meant a 25 hr finish. Little did I know the last 30k of the race were different to 3 years ago….and not in a good way!

Obligatory summit photo!

It’s a short climb out of Garanon before a descent down a very rocky path known as the quad buster for obvious reasons, but this year with stronger, fresher legs and still being in daylight instead of darkness I really enjoyed this path and jogged my way to the bottom to Tunte. I was feeling super positive and genuinely having a great time.

Coming out of Garanon – pure focus!

I was met at Tunte by my Spanish friend and local, Yosimar, greeting me with a prosciutto sandwich which I devoured on the spot. A quick chat and I was off, buoyed by seeing another friendly face and ready to tackle the last 30 odd kilometres to the finish with some gusto. That was until the route changed from what I was expecting. I had been expecting a couple of rough descents from memory but then also a lot of runnable sections but was disappointed to find the last section not playing to my strengths. Frustratingly I picked my way down an extremely long and technical descent before finally reaching the bottom which was a horrendously rocky river bed which went on forever! From race information this forever was actually 8km of the rockiest most unrunnable river bed I’ve ever been in. It was now dark and surrounded by head height reeds I felt I was trapped in a horror movie. By the time the river bed finished, my feet were done in as was I and the remaining 10km were a painful slog to the finish.

With Yosimar at Tunte

I was met by Anna-Marie’s husband Ben (my fellow WAA athletes and roomies) about 3km to the finish, she’d finished quite a few hours ago (7th lady in 19hrs) so I was really surprised and happy to see him when the heavens promptly opened up to drench us for a couple of minutes. The finish line loomed in front and I managed to put on the ultra shuffle to cross the line. I had done it! 26 hours and I was done.

Finish line smile!

As always with these extreme races the pleasure is more Type 2 fun, with the enjoyment and immense feeling of satisfaction coming a day after finishing when you join your fellow competitors in the slow shuffle post race, proudly wearing your finishers shirt.

I’m pleased with my result, I hadn’t planned nor trained for the 125km distance but yet I had a good improvement on my previous result (by over 3 hours) and I could feel the impact of the strength training in my legs not only during the race with less fatigue and feeling stronger but also my recovery was much quicker than ever before. Will I do TGC again? I think I actually might! I’d love to come to this race in even better shape, having trained specifically for it to see what I could really do and it’s a fantastic event in such a beautiful part of the world that there might just have to be a third time lucky!