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Running Dutchie

I love ultra and multi stage running and sharing my experiences with others through coaching, training plans and Edinburgh running tours!

#500kin5days – Simply Runderful Adventure

adventure
ədˈvɛntʃə/Submit
noun
noun: adventure; plural noun: adventures
an unusual and exciting or daring experience.
“her recent adventures in Italy”
synonyms: exploit, escapade, deed, feat, trial, experience, incident, occurrence, event, happening, episode, affair; More
excitement associated with danger or the taking of risks.
“she travelled the world in search of adventure”
synonyms: excitement, exciting experience, thrill, stimulation; More
a reckless or potentially hazardous action or enterprise.
“in any military adventure, the first casualty is truth”

The definition of adventure defines #500kin5days for me; to run the length of The Netherlands with my dear friend Marina Ranger, wearing only our pink Runderwear raising money for Pink Ribbon Foundation was going to be the longest, most fearful and excruciating challenge we’d ever attempted.

Check out our Simply Runderful Teaser video:

Marina and I started on this journey as we both wanted an adventure that would take us across a country, challenge us more than any race had every done before and to raise money for a charity close to our hearts, read more about this in my earlier blog here.

Pre challenge training fun
Pre challenge training fun (photo: Digitalpict Photography)

#500kin5days was designed to push us to the limits and test our boundaries; I wanted to find out where my breaking point was.  The first breaking point came before we’d even started whilst still in the planning & preparation stage with work pressures, family life and training, something had to give and the bubble burst.  I was so busy in the lead up to the challenge, with having a demanding full-time job, ‘running’ Edinburgh Run Tours, my own training regime and also project managing renovation work to our house that it came to a weekend in June that I was supposed to go to London and attend an event with Marina to promote our challenge that I had to cancel and take a weekend to do some life maintenance.

Never under estimate the time and effort it takes to organise a self-made adventure of any scale. Marina and I started planning #500kin5days in December 2015 and there were never enough days or hours in the week.  The initial planning was around details of the route which involved following the Pieterpad, a long distance hiking trail in The Netherlands, planning checkpoints and accommodation accordingly.  We had to make sure the detail of the routes were accurate and consistent enough that the support crew could coordinate the checkpoint locations.

Planning the route
Planning the route (Photo: Digitalpict Photography)

We approached a number of companies in the early part of the process and were lucky to get the support of not only Runderwear (obviously) but also Naked Runner Sunglasses , For Goodness Shakes for our all important recovery shakes every evening, Brooks Running for a donation of kit,  Brandfuel for a donation to assist with expenses and Altum Consulting who donated £500 each to Pink Ribbon Foundation and to our expenses as well as supplying some branded kit.  PR and social media activity was a big part of the adventure to help raise awareness of what we were trying to accomplish and of course raise as much funding for Pink Ribbon Foundation.  Dr Craig Haslop from the University of Liverpool gave up a lot of his own time to work on executing a PR plan with us, ensuring we had a good media presence ramping up to the start of the adventure and post event.  Marcin and Lukasz from Smartfilm Productions spent a lot of time prior to the event shooting a crowd funding video and then spent the week with us in The Netherlands filming all the action, and now face the unenviable task of editing and putting together a documentary.  Special thanks to the above companies, we are forever grateful for your support.

In our Altum Consulting hoodies and Naked Runner sunglasses
In our Altum Consulting hoodies and Naked Runner sunglasses (Lucja is anyway)

D-Day the 27th July came around rather quickly and before anyone knew it we were standing at the start of the Pieterpad ready to run 100km!  It all felt a bit surreal and both Marina and I were lost in our own thoughts of how we were going to manage to complete this crazy adventure.  Standing there at 6am in a tiny little Dutch village wearing only our pink Runderwear we both started to feel rather exposed and vulnerable.  Quietly and without much ado we were off and our inhibitions started to drop about the fact that we were only in our underwear as we discovered our strength in our running and we were soon chatting away and the miles ticked away.  Possibly too much chatting as we managed to go off route before the 1st checkpoint!

Day 1
Day 1

It was frustrating getting lost the first time but we were fresh and full of energy so it didn’t bother us but the 2nd time really mentally challenged us, it was at the end of day 2 and we were tired, in the middle of a forest feeling like we were going around in circles a bit like Blair Witch project, it was about to get dark and we had no head torches with us so we were starting to get very worried and scared, needless to say we were quite snappy to our long suffering graveyard shift runner, Suzan (apologies accepted after being fed and watered of course).

Another sunrise breakfast
Another sunrise breakfast

The well scheduled routine of each day included the crew getting up early at 5am to prepare breakfast and ensuring everyone knew what their roles were and what to expect at each checkpoint.  It was a great mental relief and a real motivational lift to see a friendly face every 10km and we looked forward to checkpoint 5 (lunch) every day with such enthusiasm to see what surprise location and treats Joerie (Camp Daddy) had in store for lunch, though we were limited to a 30min break each day to ensure time didn’t get way on us too much.

Checkpoint 5 lunch & war zone!
Checkpoint 5 lunch & war zone!

Each day was similar in the fact that we’d start the early morning sluggish but generally have a great first half of the day before fatigue and tiredness would start to kick in during the late afternoon as we became progressively slower.  It was very difficult coping with the lack of sleep & recovery time as we were spending 15-16 hours on our feet everyday, not getting to the hotels until 10:30pm so by the time we ate, showered and got into bed it was past midnight.  Sleep doesn’t come easy when your feet are throbbing, legs are aching and twitching and the alarm would sound at 5am and we’d have to get our swollen feet back into our trainers.  By day 4 my feet were just a big swollen mess so I was really pleased with my decision to go a full size up on usual sizing and even more pleased I’d gone with Hoka Cliftons that were so cushioned and I ran every step of the way in them.

Dealing with a blister
Dealing with a blister

Aside from exhausting tiredness and swollen feet, and my one blister; I suffered terribly from chafing under my arms of all places.  My running technique keeps my arms close to my body and the rubbing caused chafe upon chafe which got so painful I ended up having to wear a shirt, I couldn’t very well not finish the challenge because of my underarms!  My legs were eaten alive by the very hungry Dutch horse flies, they delivered a terrible bite and would develop into huge red marks that itched like mad!  Apart from external issues my body handled the stress very well, my legs were tired but I developed no injuries which I put down to a good program of strength and conditioning.

Trudging through the sand
Trudging through the sand

My husband Dion, always says that with multi stage events everyone is going to have a bad day, it’s just about minimising how bad that day is and how it impacts you.  This for me was day 3, 270km in.  I was so tired I was sleep running and having just gotten over half way of the challenge, the end seemed like a very long way away.  We spotted our crew Rhianon and Suzan holding up a sign saying ‘You are Superheroes’ and we both broke down in inconsolable tears for a good 15mins but then somehow we got up and got going again, a special thanks to these 2 superstars for mopping up our tears and somehow giving us a hug and a kick up the bum at the same!  We would not have completed this challenge without these two.

With one of Rhianon's supporter signs making us smile!
With one of Rhianon’s supporter signs making us smile!

My day of total inspiration came in many forms on day 4, we had been joined by Dion and I felt rejuvenated and it was like I had a complete bag of happy energy.  I also wonder whether my body had adjusted to the newly established way of life; run, eat, sleep & repeat!  At the same time I was having a surprisingly strong day Marina was having a really tough time and I think she cried most of the day with her partner James carrying her to the hotel room at the finish.  I was in awe of her sheer determination, struggling through the immense pain of a sore knee mixed with exhaustion she just kept going, swallowing the tears and pushing on.  That is why I wouldn’t have done this challenge with anyone else, I know Marina has this dogged determination to never give up.

Stunning routes with Marina soldiering on
Stunning routes with Marina soldiering on

The beauty of The Netherlands surprised me.  The Netherlands are known for being pretty, but I hadn’t expected so many stunning routes along the Pieterpad.  Originally I had expected a lot more cycle paths and bitumen so was pleasantly surprised to find trails of sand, gravel, stunning forests and tree lined paths that helped keep our minds occupied looking at the scenery.  I was also rather surprised to find that The Netherlands have hills, trust me there are hills.

Definitely Hills In Holland
Definitely Hills In Holland

Along the way support was well received from people such as Kiki, who runs Nijmegen Running Tours and also gave us a massage at the end of day 3, Ramon just outside Maastricht who ran the last 30km with us and Rahoul from Maastricht Running Tours who took us through the last 20km.

Running with Rahoul and Ramon towards Maastricht
Running with Rahoul, Ramon, Suzan and James towards Maastricht

We finished in the sunshine in Maastricht to the applause of our amazing support crew and celebrated with pink bubbly in plastic cups.  Ultra running adventures are not glamorous and unless you are an elite runner; the finish line is often very quiet and only inhabited by those that love you, and that is ultimately what matters most.  I don’t run these types of challenges for the plaudits, I do it for me, to have to dig deeper every time and uncover a more resilient self and in that I find my happiness and my success.

The finish line!
The finish line!

We raised a phenomenal amount for Pink Ribbon Foundation, currently our donations are sitting at £7,573 (you can still donate here) and we have raised a further £676.10 through the 10% donation from Runderwear for all the sales of pink Runderwear during our campaign.  We are really pleased with all the fantastic support and donations we received during our journey and want to say ‘Thank you’ to each and everyone of you for all your varying types of support and donations along the way, both Marina and I, and of course the team at Pink Ribbon Foundation are eternally grateful.

This adventure would not have been possible without our support crew, they are true superstars!  Hats off to anyone that completes adventures fully sufficient as we are forever indebted to our crew for looking after us so well.  The A-Team crew consisted of (in no particular order) Suzan & Joerie Haring (my cousin & husband), Tad & Rina Jantjes (my Uncle & Aunt), Patrick & Angela Ranger (Marina’s parents), Rhianon West (Friend for life), and of course Dion Leonard & James Booth (our respective partners).  Within the crew we had a car with caravan and 3 other passenger vehicles along with a bike and trailer for the film crew, Marcin and Lukasz from Smart Film Production who were on hand to film all the action.

Simply Runderful Team
Simply Runderful Team

Without a shadow of a doubt this was hands down the toughest challenge we have ever completed; filled with tears, exhaustion, pain and of course some laughs too.

Just the two of us!
Just the two of us!

Running’s Greatest Reward

Running has given me a great reason to travel the world and I’ve been fortunate to run in locations from South Africa to America to Turkey to all over the United Kingdom and whilst every race has given me many rewards and enjoyment none have been as great as the reward of everlasting friendships. This shone through at the 2016 Ultimate Trails 110km & 55km in The Lakes district.

I ran the race in 2015 (read more about that here), and felt the race offered so much in the way of, stunning countryside, beautiful views, adventure with some serious toughness without needing to travel anywhere outside the UK. I encouraged my dear friends Marina and Rhianon to enter for 2016 and also liaised with Graham Patten the race director to invite my Turkish friend, Mahmut Yavuz, one of Turkey’s best ever elite ultra runners to attend.  Mahmut had never been to the UK before and what better way to show him our beautiful country than by running 110km through some of the most stunning scenery the Lakes District has to offer.

Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration
Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration

I met Mahmut and Marina at my first ever multi stage race in 2013 at the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) in South Africa, and a strong friendship was forged between us all.  Since then Marina and I have become best of friends and run many races together, including the “Toughest Footrace in the World” Marathon des Sables, which we ran side by side across the Sahara Desert. In fact it was during MDS Marina and I hatched the plan to embark on our biggest challenge to date, running the length of The Netherlands #500kin5days for the Pink Ribbon Breast Cancer charity, read more about that here.

KAEM 2013
KAEM 2013

Rhianon and I met through the world of Twitter as she approached me about coaching her to improve her running (read her testimonial here).  I got to know Rhianon more as we worked together on her training plans and she has successfully improved her pacing, distance runs and now has developed a serious love of hills, in particular those on the West Highland Way.  I now consider her a close friend and we regularly meet up for training weekends and head off to races together.  She is also Head Crew for #500kin5days so we know we are in safe hands.

Coming from Turkey to the UK was an experience in itself for Mahmut, with Istanbul enjoying a hot 35 degree summer he was shocked to land in Edinburgh where it was drizzly, overcast and only 13 degrees, a typical summer’s day!  The forecast for the race was no different with plenty of rain planned. Before leaving to the Lakes District I of course took Mahmut on an Edinburgh Run Tour to see the highlights of Edinburgh and get him acclimatised to our summer.

A warm welcome awaited us in The Lakes from Graham and all the crew from Ultimate Trails. Starting the race at midnight with the rain pelting down on the race briefing shelter we all knew we were in for a wet one this year. Mahmut positioned himself at the front and it would be the last time I saw him until the finish line again.  I am sure everyone would agree that the weather made the event one of the toughest yet with lots of mud, slippery rocks and knee deep bogs to contend with but the race was superbly organised and we still managed to enjoy stunning Lake views along the way as we ascended and descended 3,600m over various passes.

Stunning scenery in The Lakes
Stunning scenery in The Lakes

Mahmut had an interesting race, not being used to wet trails he spent most of the slippery downhill’s on his rear, but staying in top contention swinging in between 2nd and 4th placing throughout the race, read his full story here.

Men's 100km podium
Men’s 100km podium

I ran the race in the good company of Marina crossing the line just over 18 hours, in joint 7th female and 71st overall.  I had hoped to run this year’s race quicker than last year but the weather added a different dimension of slippery rocks, knee deep bogs and fairly constant driving rain, in between small bouts of hail and/or sunshine!  We drew on each other’s strengths when we both hit bad points along the way and laughed at our own predicament together, we both suffered from the shits along the way with cramping which hampered our progress but at least misery loves company!

All smiles at the finish
All smiles at the finish

Our friend Rhianon completed the 55km, which was her toughest race to date with 1,763m of ascent to conquer and was great preparation for her upcoming race in October where she is heading of to run the Atacama Crossing, a 250km multi stage race through the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert.  She finished with a massive smile on her face and is keen to do the 110km next year, so it looks like I might have to go back again, though I may see what the 55km option is like for a change. Mahmuts’4th position  overall meant he won a free entry to next year’s race which I have no doubt he will want to come back with some knowledge of the route to try and take an even higher placing next year, and possibly bring some of his running friends along too.

I was amazed at how many of the runners and volunteers I chatted to throughout the 110km that I had met before at races or that knew me through my blog and Twitter and really enjoyed chatting to them all and watching them achieve fantastic results at this race.

The links in running go on and on and the friendships created will last a lifetime.

Race friends have quickly become very close and trusting friends who have been welcomed in our home and us being welcomed in theirs across the world. Next week I’m welcoming the amazing Elise Downing who is currently running the entire length of the UK coastline to stay with us, before setting off with Marina on our adventure to run across The Netherlands. I then head to 160km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in August where I look forward to catching up with old and meeting new friends running the various races.

What experiences have you had of this amazing forging of friendships across all borders? I’d love to hear your stories too.

Running with Ben – The 401 Challenge

Meet Ben Smith, the man who is currently just over half way of his challenge to run 401 marathons in 401 days, raising £250k for two fantastic charities ‘Stonewall’ and ‘Kidscape’, working tirelessly to combat bullying in our schools and society.  Get involved yourself by joining him for a marathon, or part of one, donating, buying merchandise or supporting him with accommodation/treatments/food.  Find out more at the 401 website.

Ben & Lucja after Edinburgh Marathon #273
Ben & Lucja after Edinburgh Marathon #273

I had the privilege of running his 273rd marathon with him on Monday 30th May, after we had both run the official Edinburgh Marathon the day before, and here is what he had to say: 

Running with Ben has really put things into perspective for my upcoming challenge to run the length of The Netherlands, 500km in 5 days with my friend Marina, it is going to be so tough and we are going to be exhausted, I was exhausted after only 2 marathons back to back!  Find out more about our #SimplyRunderful challenge here.

The answer lies in the journey – Marathon Des Sables 2016

The mystical shifting sands of the Sahara beckoned and lured me back for a 2nd time to compete in ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ Marathon Des Sables (MdS).  A 257km, the longest MdS distance in the 31 year history of the race, gruelling multi-stage, self sufficient race in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth – the Sahara desert.  Crossing salt flats, climbing jebels, and running through the never ending sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees under the scorching Moroccan sun and contending with billowing sand storms as if it wasn’t hard enough.  But why come back for a 2nd time you ask?  I had some ghosts to put to bed as I explain in more detail in my previous post.

After a typical Scottish winter it felt good to be back in Morocco; under a canopy of startling blue skies and wispy clouds the stark surroundings have started to feel strangely like home after quite a number of visits to this beautiful country for various types of holidays and adventures.  I for one couldn’t wait to join the other 1,250 runners from all different walks of life for one single purpose, to finish this challenge.

Ouarzazate sunset
Ouarzazate sunset

Leaving civilisation behind in Ouarzazate, the 6 hour bus ride out to the first bivouac (camp) site feels long even though en route I met my running idol, Fernanda Maciel.

Selfie with Fernanda!
Selfie with Fernanda!

Once we get there and settle into our tent that will house 7 of us (3 previous finishers among us), tent number 156, we know we still have a full day of administrative checks the following day to endure before we get anywhere near racing.  The 2 nights spent in the camp before the actual race start is a gentle tease as you slowly get further away from creature comforts, for the first night you still have all your belongings including phones and toiletries (important in exactly that order) and delicious meals are provided by the race organisation.  But then it starts to strip away, the day before the race you hand your luggage in and the race registration takes place of checking your kit and ECG/medical before handing you your race numbers and bag of salt tablets before it all suddenly starts to feel very real.

Dinner MdS style
Dinner MdS style

Every day the bivouac comes alive well before the sunrises with competitors unable to sleep they start stirring and faffing about in their bags, with many wasting precious energy being up so early and being ready well before time.  I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag until at least 7am before peering out and starting the morning rituals of changing into my progressively filthy kit and preparing my body to face the day ahead.  Being the only girl in the tent I was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Queen of the Desert & tent 156
Queen of the Desert & tent 156

You can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale of this race, the ultimate show.  Patrick Bauer (race director) addresses the runners at the start before blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and we are off with a helicopter swooping low over us all to film us all smiling and waving our way along our own personal highways to hell.  That song will always give me goose bumps whenever I hear it and with it comes memories flooding back of MdS.  It is without doubt the blue riband event of multi stages, nothing else compares.

MdS should not be under estimated, it is a humbling experience where the race kicks the stuffing out of you and redefines you whatever your experience and expectations.  I had previously placed 377th overall (27th female) in 2014 and initially had my goal set at a top 200 finish and aiming for a top 10 female finish; that was until I saw the strongest ever female field registered for 2016.  Never has there been so many females finishing in the top 200 of MdS, with 2 females in the top 20 alone, and a whopping 21 females in the top 200 (13 in top 200 in 2015 & 2014).  Wow!  Proud to be part of the ever strengthening women’s field, go girls!  I was delighted to finish in 147th overall as 13th female with the finishing times so close together it was a massive improvement on my first performance.

Stage 1 official video:

I loved the sand dunes this year!  They were as huge and as beautiful as I remember and there was still no end in sight but I ran them, in 2014 they near killed me and here in 2016 I ran them and came in 93rd place for day 1!  As my husband Dion so eloquently put it in an email to me ‘Day 1 result, 93rd, Did I read that right…Holy Fuckballs!’  That result added pressure and I felt that the next few days where I slowly slipped back some positions but I will hold that result close to my heart forever, so proud!

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day
13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

MdS threw everything at us; dune after dune, endless salt flats and jebels (mountains) to climb that needed ropes to pull you up the last section mixed with heat that cooked you from the inside and sand storms that exfoliated your skin to inch of its life!  My body started to revolt from day 2 with nausea and legs like lead and I joined forces with gal pal Marina Ranger to find strength in companionship and we pushed each other through the good times and the dark times, finishing the rest of the race side by side.  I faced my own demons on the long stage with bouts of diarrhoea leading to heat exhaustion by the halfway point on this day but we soldiered on together with a lengthy conversation for the last 30km about why and what makes us do these things to our bodies.  We couldn’t answer that question at the time, maybe it was the fact that we were almost delirious from tiredness and the heat or that the answer lies in the journey.  We are all changed from the experience in some way or another and we dare dream even more to find that next escape and the freedom that comes from the adventure and challenge of pushing your body and mind to its limit.

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert
X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

Preparing for this race takes months of meticulous planning and training.  It is not enough to just be able to run this race takes more, much more!  You need strength, fitness, mental tenacity and the ability to deal with a week in the most primitive of conditions where cleanliness and hygiene are non-apparent and you become the filthiest you have ever been in your life.  It’s harder than you can imagine lying there in an open tent being blasted by sandstorms filling every orifice of your body trying to recover from being out in brutally tough conditions for anything from 5-15 hours, needing to eat and sleep to be ready for the next day.  This is what starts to break people down bit by bit and what makes this race so totally unique and iconic.

With 3 MdS finisher medals to our household that previous experience helped me build a plan specific for MdS.  I ensured that I trained the hardest and the smartest I ever had, incorporating hills, speed, long runs, strength & conditioning and flexibility combined with fuelling my body with the best food to build it even stronger and healthier than ever before finishing off with some heat chamber sessions of up to 44 degrees to prepare my body for the sizzling temperatures it would face.  I kept focussed and trained my mind to keep that competitive & stubborn mindset (my husband is legendary at this!) to be able to push through the guaranteed pain & discomfort that would be faced throughout the race and I spent hours poring over my kit & food spreadsheet ensuring I had the best kit available and the best fuel for my body, at the lightest weights possible but without scrimping.

As a proud X-Bionic athlete I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else into the desert, it has seen me through every desert multi stage I have done with no issues of chafing, riding up and even in those extreme temperatures the kit doesn’t smell, it’s amazing stuff and I couldn’t recommend their kit highly enough for anyone coming to MdS or any other desert race, trust me it works!  I wore a Runderwear crop top which aside from being very comfortable meant that I didn’t have to tape up to avoid chafing as there was no chafe! At all!  Aside from your clothing shoes are imperative to this race with so many people suffering from horrible blister issues this is something you need to avoid, I came away with all 10 toenails intact, still perfectly pedicured, having experienced only one small blister on the side of my foot over the whole week.  How?  I wear New Balance Leadville shoes, initially they were half a size up to what I would normally wear but I now wear this as my normal size (don’t go too big a size up or your foot will slide around & cause friction), coupled with Injinji toe socks (I only had 1 pair for the whole week, who needs fresh socks?) and then a set of AR gaiters over the top.  You can’t do this race without gaiters and keeping the sand out is so important so I get my Velcro stitched on by a professional, Dave at Sandbaggers offer a gaiter fitting service, they are stitched onto your shoe in such a way that it doesn’t affect the shape of the shoe & they will not come loose, I saw a lot of people with issues caused by unprofessional gaiter fitting processes.

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS
X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

Sleep is such an important element of this race that this time around I sacrificed 200g to have both a pillow and a sleeping mat (trimmed down) to give myself the best chance of sleep.  I used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 which felt very comfortable all week and managed to have my starting bag weight at 6.8kg (dry).

Food choices are individual but one thing that is the same for everyone is that whatever you take, you will get sick of eating it at some point so variety is the key.  I find that I prefer savoury items for both breakfast and for my snacks and dinner once I am in from the day, and grazing throughout the afternoon is better for me than a bigger meal, but I stick to gels and energy style drinks such as Torq energy and Hammer Perpetuem to supplement those when I can’t stomach the gels anymore.  I wouldn’t be without my For Goodness Shakes recovery powder either at the end of each day.  In the heat of the Sahara it is difficult to eat anything and I can’t get any sort of whole food such as bars down whilst I am out on the course.  My favourite tips from this year’s MdS would be to take some Oxo stock cubes to add to your water in the afternoon for a tasty salty treat (heats up nicely in the sun) and tea bags for ‘iced’ tea (not quite iced but tasted surprisingly good in tepid water) as you get so sick of drinking tepid water all day, so anything that will help you hydrate is good.

Marina & I on the finishing line webcam:

I promised myself out in the Sahara that this is the last time and have told both Dion and Marina that they must not allow me to sign up again, and I won’t……I don’t think.  It’s funny but you very quickly forget how much it hurts, how much it takes to do the MdS as soon as you step away and the afterglow of the event takes hold.

I love this quote from Jason Schlarb, it really sums up MdS!

 “This has been a miserable challenge, a misery train, but a life experience.” Jason Schlarb – 11th Man MdS 2016

Never again….or maybe just once more

“Never again! Never EVER again!” Those were the words uttered by my husband Dion and I back in 2014 after our first Marathon Des Sables as we trundled back to the bus, mentally battered and physically exhausted after running 250km through the Sahara desert. (read my blog on the experience here)

Smiles hiding the pain!
Smiles hiding the pain!

Fast forward to 2015 and Dion was back at MdS for round 2 after needing to put some demons to bed and improve on his 2014 108th position result; and improve he did to a sensational 32nd overall!  I on the other hand was still content in the ‘never again’ camp when he left for MdS2015, but something stirred in me whilst I watched the excitement unfold in the desert  and I couldn’t resist, and hence I was registered for MdS2016 with my first installment for the race paid before he was even back in the UK.

Why?  What makes someone want to go back to this grueling race dubbed as ‘The toughest footrace in the world’?  For me there is unfinished business; I finished 377th overall but it was the toughest week of my life and from Day 1 the race humbled me and crushed my confidence time in and time out until I was left using every ounce of my willpower to not quit and to run, walk and trudge my way to the finish line.  I felt such a mixture of emotions at the finish line that year, elated that it was over and that I could call myself a finisher but somehow disappointed in myself.  No one else was disappointed in me, no one even asks you where you came they are just amazed you finished it, but I was disappointed.  And that’s what has driven me back again.  I took motivation from watching Dion in 2015 as he went from strength to strength and as he totally smashed the long day where he led for most of it and my mind was made up.

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015
Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

It’s not the type of race that you can get caught up in the momentum and just frivolously decide to enter, this race costs money.  Lots of it!  £3k for the entry fee alone, and then you need to take into account the cost of the kit, food and the cost of your time to train.  Hours and hours of sacrifice are needed over the months preceding the event for training and planning and the closer you get to the event your whole life gets swallowed up by the MdS, this includes all your friends and family as you can think, or speak of nothing else apart from MdS so they unfortunately are in that cycle too.  Our house has become slightly MdS obsessed now with Dion already registered to go back in 2017 to push for a top 20 placing and who knows after that?!

I’m focused, I’m ready, I know what I’m in for which is why I am fluctuating between excitement and full blown s**t scared emotions in the space of a minute.  I’ve prepared well, I structured my own training plan specifically for MdS which kicked off the beginning of January, whilst of course keeping myself ‘ultra’ fit for the back end of 2015 but I was conscious that Jan-Apr is a long time to be focused and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.  I included a few local races to keep myself on track and monitor progress and the biggest change this time around is the heat chamber training.  I kicked off with some DIY heat chamber (spare room at home kitted out with industrial heaters and a treadmill) and Bikram yoga over Easter weekend and am now halfway through a few blocks of training at the climate control chamber at Napier University.  I am confident this will be a big help for the week as I recall from 2014 the searing, unrelenting heat was a major factor in my struggle.

Check out my heat chamber training:

My kit hasn’t changed much from 2014, I will be wearing X-Bionic again as there is just no better choice for the desert; it’s comfortable, doesn’t chafe, doesn’t stink and the technology of the material turns your sweat into cooling – now don’t be fooled that you feel you are running in air-conditioning but the material works very well and it is not stifling or uncomfortable at all.  I still have my ankle gaiters from last time and will be sticking with my New Balance Leadville’s to keep my feet in good condition and get me through the multi terrain unscathed.  I’ve since discovered Runderwear so will be wearing the Runderwear crop but not the briefs as X-Bionic is designed for the commando!  I’ve opted for the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20L bag which I have stripped off any excess straps for weight and of course have calculated my daily food rations in meticulous detail in a very in depth spreadsheet.  You are required to take a minimum of 2,000 calories per day, but I need more so I have got a range from 2,700 for most days to 3,800 on the rest day!  I’m also taking a couple more luxuries this time in the form of an inflatable Exped pillow and a lightweight jacket as sleep and warmth are essential for recovery so anything that will help me achieve that is worth the extra weight.  My final bag weight is 6.9kg dry.

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber
Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

I’m heading out this time without Dion so that will be a different experience, I have never done a multi day race without him but I already know 2 of my Aussie tent mates, Pooley and Peter, from last time so there is comfort in familiarity even if you know that one of them snores!  I also have a great friend coming in the UK camp, Marina Ranger, who I have also been coaching leading up to the MdS so that will be great to have her out there to experience this amazing race with me, along with a load of other UK runners who I have gotten to know over the years at various races and through twitter connections leading up to MdS.  So I won’t be alone, but I will miss the security of having Dion beside me at the end of each day.

Coach Dion putting me through my paces
Coach Dion putting me through my paces

You can track me and any of the other runners from April 10th at http://live.marathondessables.com/ by signing up for live updates or watching the spot tracker and the finish line webcam each day.  I am #508 and would love to hear from you while I am out there to spur me on.  You will be able to email any of the runners during the race to give encouragement and I know from last time how important this is to my mental well being so email away!  I won’t be able to respond until I am back in civilisation but know now that I will be well and truly appreciating all the messages.

I’m looking forward to enjoying my time out in the Sahara desert, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings and the camaraderie of the whole experience whilst pushing my body to the limit.  I have my own inner goals to drive me for this race and I am going to give it all I’ve got so I can walk away with my head held high and proud of whatever I achieve.  To coin the phrase from Dion ‘Don’t leave any change on the table’ will be my motto!

508

Pioneering the Wilderness of Outer Mongolia

Mongolia is a rugged, land locked country nestled between China and Russia made up of vast eco regions and deserts and is truly one of the world’s last undiscovered travel destinations. When the opportunity presented itself to join in on an expedition to Outer Mongolia to experience not only the culture of a vastly different country but to also run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in temperatures reaching -40 degrees celsius along the frozen Tuul river, I couldn’t resist.

Mongolian Horseman
Mongolian Horseman

Stepping off the plane and driving into Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, is like going back to the 1920’s of the soviet regime.  The cars and the buildings combined with the stark white snowy landscape and heavy clouds of frozen pollution feels like entering a bygone era.  As I leave the taxi my skin immediately pulls away at the bone chilling cold that -40 degrees feels like and my nostril hairs freeze solid instantly which feels like someone is waxing the inside of your nostrils.  It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive in these conditions, let alone live a lifestyle.  Dark figures walk the streets with their faces unrecognisable under all the layers of hats, scarves and face coverings adorned with various types of real fur creating an eerie atmosphere.

Ulaanbaatar Architechture
Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Mongolia has surprisingly managed to this day to remain relatively unscathed from the usual mass tourism influx and general westernisation even whilst offering an unparalleled opportunity to experience it’s harsh and brutal environment that is pristine and evocative at the same time. Mongolian people are renowned for having a tough exterior to match the weather but spend a little longer getting to know them and you find people with the warmest of hearts that love nothing better than sharing their food, ger (traditional round shaped dwelling used as a shelter by the Mongolian nomads) and local vodka with you.

Traditional Ger
Traditional Ger

Leaving the capital city and saying goodbye to all the mod cons life was however about to become even more extreme as we headed into The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Northern Mongolia. Such extreme cold brings with it a range of dangers, at 40 degrees below you feel the cold in your lungs, you feel it touching your blood, it’s hard to take deep breaths of air this cold without reflexively coughing and it doesn’t take long for any exposed tissue including ears and eyeballs to freeze, dangerously freeze!

Stunning landscapes
Stunning landscapes

Relief from the cold is found inside the gers, heated internally by wood stove fires that burn 24/7 to create an environment that is delightfully warm and cosy.  In fact all aspects of life are carried out in the gers where we slept up to 10 people at a time; dressed, ate, drunk, sang and danced.  Life is basic with no electricity, running water, bathroom facilities or wifi which resulted in conversations fuelled by the purest of vodka long into the nights as the Mongolians won’t take no for an answer and consider it an insult if you turn down their non-stop offerings of it.

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka
David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

With nightfall came the magic of star gazing, being so uninhabited and with no light distortion the stars shine proudly in the sky with the Milky Way providing a light show you can never tire of.

Mongolian night sky
Mongolian night sky (Photo-Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

A simple diet of bread, cheese, meat and root vegetables is the staple usually served in the form of either soup or casserole type dishes with local goat featuring heavily. In tough conditions there was understandably a noticeable lack of fresh fruit and leafy greens compared to what we would normally eat but cold weather calls for stodgy warming food.  Traditional dumplings quickly became my firm favourite along with the warm milky tea to warm you up when you came in from the cold.

Milk anyone?
Milk anyone?

The stillness of the isolation is broken regularly by the barking and howling of husky dogs that are eager to get to work pulling a sled along transporting people and goods over the frozen river ways and trails. The ger camps are protected by another breed of dog known as “Bankhar” dogs which thankfully keep the wild wolves at bay by their scent which apparently is enough to keep them away, hard to imagine when these dogs are some of the sweetest, friendliest dogs I’ve come across.  Whilst we didn’t encounter any wolves face to face we heard them in the distance and noted the tracks near our camps daily.

Husky sledding
Husky sledding

It’s phenomenal to watch the huskies being prepared for a journey and then taking control of your own team of 6-8 dogs pulling you along in a sled in a frenzy of energy and excitement.  The dogs are super competitive with each team constantly trying to overtake the next, taking shortcuts and cutting each other off whilst hurtling you along at speeds of up to 15km/hr.  The experience of husky sledding was the experience of a lifetime with a tick firmly placed against the bucket list after a magical ride gliding along the ice and watching the landscape whizz by.  A whole new meaning to the word picnic was created as we were treated to a delicious hot lunch of traditional dumplings, vegetables and hot tea, keeping ourselves warm with a fire directly on the frozen river whilst the dogs enjoyed a rest rolling around on the ice to cool down.

Picnic on the ice river
Picnic on the ice river

Myself and 9 other runners make up part of the 20 strong team that travelled to Mongolia to run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon along the frozen Tuul River, for many of us our first ever experience of such arctic conditions. Acclimatisation prior to the race came in the form of wild golf where each contestant is given two shots to get their ball closest to the hole.  Beginners luck meant that I won this competition much to the dismay of the avid golfers in the group.

Snow Ninja's, who is who (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)
Snow Ninja’s, who is who? (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

An initial little 3 mile run to test our running kit near the camp was interesting to try with most runners commenting that the breathing element was quite difficult and we wondered how we would fare over the full 26.2 miles in a couple of days.  We were now keen and ready for the challenge we had all travelled so far to do, the ice marathon.

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo - Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)
Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo – Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

The weather conditions were near perfect for race day with clear skies and only a touch of wind with the temperature at the start recorded at -34 degrees.  To keep the competitors as safe as possible the route started and finished at our nomadic camp following trails before turning onto the ice river surrounded by mountains on either side.

Mid run photo!
Mid run photo!

The surroundings were pristine and I felt like an explorer off into the unknown with the ice singing under my feet and echoing musically in the trees.  The initial sounds were unsettling hearing the ice shifting and moving underneath you with the occasional crack of ice where my foot would drop down an inch, just enough to bring my attention back to full focus, with my Due North ice grips over my Brooks Pure Grit shoes working their magic to keep me gripped firmly to the slippery surface of the frozen river. It was magical to weave along the path of the frozen river passing the occasional local on horseback or small herds of cattle that were somehow grazing on goodness knows what in all that ice.  I don’t know who stared more at each other whether me at the locals in their interesting fur costumes or them at me in my X-Bionic snow outfit.  I was always conscious of the threat of wolves in the area but the comforting sounds of husky teams barking and howling in the area alleviated that.

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)
Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

It was a great satisfaction and relief to finish the race with no issues from the cold but even better to cross the line as 1st female in 4h19, 4th overall behind Doc Andrew Murray 1st in 3h07, Doug Wilson 2nd in 3h42 and Paul Dunstan in 4h12.  More great results followed with all except one completing the event safely with all fingers and toes still intact with only a minor case of frostbite affecting 2 of the runners.  There were a few hours of concern when one of the competitors was unaccounted for but was thankfully found safe and sound shortly after nightfall.  That situation resonated within me and no doubt all the runners as we contemplated how challenging these events are and the threat is ever present of things going wrong, making you think of loved ones at home that your heart ached for.

Frozen face post marathon
Frozen face post marathon

Surprisingly the temperatures were not the hindrance I initially thought they would be, especially in relation to my fingers which stayed toasty the entire race but it was the 1500m of altitude we were running at mixed with the frozen vapour and nose secretions that made breathing very difficult.  The biggest surprise came the following days where all the runners felt none of the usual aches pains commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), particularly after running on a hard impact surface such as ice, which I put down to the cold temperatures preventing the muscles from inflaming.

Coming across a local enroute
Coming across a local enroute

The race is more than an event it’s an entire adventure, put on by seasoned expedition leader Dave Scott of Sandbaggers (who is also the Honorary Scottish Consul for Mongolia) and his local support crew, in a vast and rugged landscape which brings a special and unique feeling of solidarity and camaraderie with the entire team of runners and supporters alike that have developed into strong bonds. It’s an experience to challenge your mind and body and be rewarded with everlasting memories of a beautiful country.

Friendships to last a lifetime
Friendships to last a lifetime
Just hanging about in the snow
Just hanging about in the snow with new and old friends

Training for the unknown – Genghis Khan Ice Marathon

Cold & I don’t really see eye to eye, so when David Scott (Sandbaggers) and Doc Andrew Murray approached me mentioning the two magical words; adventure & challenge; with an invitation to join them on the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in Mongolia I jumped at the chance to run in -40 degrees!

Why?  Because it’s a challenge and I love a challenge! A chance to explore a completely iconic destination with an entirely unique culture with scenery like no other place I have ever been before while challenging the body and the mind in my favourite way, running.

Icy - Photo from Sandbaggers
Icy conditions in a stunning landscape – Photo from Sandbaggers

Who – Obviously David and Andrew, but we will also be joined by my dear friend and partner in adventure crime, Marina Ranger, and gal pal Lenka Istvanova.  As well as Shona Thomson, Maurice Donohue and Doug Wilson.

What – Starting from the iconic Genghis Khan statue in the plains east of Ulan Bataar we will find our way onto the frozen tul river from which point we will run, in expected temperatures of -40 degrees along the frozen river finishing up in a local nomadic camp where we will recuperate with some warming fermented mares milk (WTF!).  A lot of the route is impassable by vehicles so we will be supported by teams of husky dogs which will also aid in ensuring the local wildlife, aka wolves, keep well away (otherwise my rucksack has a whistle, that will work right!?).  We will also have the opportunity for even more fun when we tackle the husky sleds ourselves, race local mountain horses and even play a spot of wild golf.

Husky Sledding - Photo from Sandbaggers
Husky Sledding – Photo from Sandbaggers

Where – Mongolia!  During the week we will have the experience of sleeping out in a Mongolian Yurt (Gur as it is known in Mongolia) which are apparently designed to keep you warm and withstand the coldest of winters.  I certainly hope so otherwise Marina and Lenka will find me cocooned between them to keep warm!

Mongolian Ice Camp - Photo from Sandbaggers
Mongolian Ice Camp – Photo from Sandbaggers

When – 23rd – 30th January 2016

How – That is the interesting bit!  Having never run in arctic conditions such as that it has meant a lot of research for me into how I can ensure I not only cope in those conditions but be able to run a marathon competitively.  Let’s break it down into the main two parts, training & kit.

Training – I have just stuck to my normal training regime as I would do leading up to an ultra.  My average week consists of about 50 miles of running, made up of a speed session, hill repeats, hilly 7-9 mile run, 6 mile tempo run, long run and whatever else happens along with crossfit and yoga once a week for strength work.  It hasn’t been stuck to entirely, leading up to Christmas the mileage has dropped to maybe 30 miles a week some weeks and the eating habits (as well as drinking) have suffered somewhat, but I am conscious that from January I have a 3.5 month build up to Marathon Des Sables so all in good time.  I have made sure I have got outside in the cold, although to date we have been having an unusually mild winter which normally I would appreciate but I was banking on a cold Scottish winter to acclimatise.

But how will this get me ready to run on ice?  Have you ever tried running on ice?  You know when the footpaths freeze over and you hit a black spot of ice, well I was assuming it was going to be like that, for the entire length of a marathon.  On advice from David I got myself a set of Due North ice grips to put on over my normal trainers (Brooks Pure Flow 3) and  I managed to get myself an opportunity to run on the St Andrews Xmas ice rink to test them out.  A special thanks to Mark, Fraser and Ruth at Underbelly for allowing me this privilege, a strange request at first but they welcomed my craziness and on my birthday, myself and fellow runner Maurice, hit the ice!  See the action here on STV (available to view until 30th December 2015).  I am pleasantly surprised that the grips work a treat, they grip really well and you can actually run properly so that is a big relief.

 

First tentative steps onto the ice
First tentative steps onto the ice

Kit – Utmost importance for any event, but I am taking extra concern for my extremities as I don’t want to end up with frostbite.  I suffer from Raynaud’s as well so my hands get cold even when I’m running in a balmy 10 degrees, so my biggest investment was in gloves, I’ve gone for a pair of PH Designs Kappa mitts as they are also waterproof so will no doubt get some wear out in the Scottish mountains too.  These will be worn with a pair of base layer gloves (eGlove) underneath and I’m going to slip in disposable Hot Hands Instant Hand Warmers, I tried them out the other day and they get seriously hot!  I’ll probably get these into my shoes and possibly on my nipples (girls you know what I’m talking about here with freezing nips!).

Action Shot
Action Shot

My sponsor X-Bionic have been fantastic in providing me with great kit that I am sure will keep me toasty warm.  Potentially looking at 2 pairs of socks, but one pair for sure will be the X-Bionic Ski Metal which reflect body warmth made with the finest merino wool.  For leggings and top I have the Energy Accumulator series and will layer the top with a 2nd Accumulator top and finish the layers with the Beaver top which is half as thick as a traditional fleece but still manages even better insulation.  I will wear just the one pair of leggings or throw on a 2nd pair over the top, the 2nd pair will just be usual running leggings from Mirelle.   I will be wearing a balaclava to ensure all my extremities are fully covered, and have my Soma cap to hand in case the full face cover is not needed, along with a buff for my neck.

Stay tuned after January to find out how the team and I get on over there.  No doubt there will be loads of great photos to share with you all.

Fun & Games on the ice
Fun & Games on the ice

Body Image

Most of you know me as Running Dutchie the ultra runner, but this wasn’t always the case.  I sometimes have a difficult time convincing people that I’m not a natural born runner and that I too have had body image issues which still occasionally surface.  At my heaviest, which was about 11 years ago now (2004) I weighed in at 98kg (15 ½ stone) and was a size 18 coming from living too much of the good life consisting of cooked breakfast most days, big lunches, snacks galore, 3 course dinners and wine every night.  My only exercise consisted of walking the dog, during which I would buy an ice cream!  I’d always been bigger, even at school I was never the sportiest, I used to forge notes from my parents to get me out of sports class!  I never really realised I was fat until I was finding it difficult to buy clothes in regular shops and starting to look towards the big girls shops, it was then I took a good look at myself and realised things had to change as I wasn’t happy with myself like that.  Don’t get me wrong I was happy in my life and had amazing love and support from Dion, my husband, who has never once said I was fat, well not then, he does admit now that we were both fat!  I know that he loves me for who I am as he loved me then and he loves me now.

Today I weigh in at 69kg (10 ¾ stone) and I am a fit, healthy & strong extroverted person that has a healthy respect for my body and I am happier than I ever thought possible.  I know I’m not perfect but my big thighs power me up mountains, my broad shoulders allow me to carry a self sufficient backpack of 8kg across the Sahara desert and my reserves of fat keep me going through many a long distance ultra running race.  It’s taken me a long time to develop this love of my body and I’ve spent many a night crying at myself in the mirror whilst clenching fistfuls of fat on my body desperate to be rid of it and then stress eating my way through chocolate afterwards to make myself feel better.  What a contradiction right?  I have managed to change that negative habit into going for a run to make myself feel better but occasionally old habits do come back and I am partial to making myself feel better with food, but at least now I know I have a way to wear that back off again through exercise.

Before and after (2004-2015)
Before and after (2004-2015) – still the same big smile!

I still sometimes think of myself as the ‘fat’ girl, the one with ‘big’ bones and an excessively curvaceous figure and can be very critical of myself when getting into a bikini or a tight number but my confidence has increased so much that these times are becoming less and less frequent and now more becoming a bold statement to happily show my bumps and curves as that is what makes me ‘Me’.

My pet hate is people saying that I’m so lucky I can eat what I want and stay skinny.  Firstly I am not skinny, I’m fit and healthy and secondly I can’t eat everything I want; I make conscious decisions daily to try and eat healthily and fuel my body correctly but I also consciously choose to eat cake when I want to or that pizza and beer, but know that I will have to work that off at some point too or no further gains will come in terms of fitness and strength if I eat all the wrong foods.  But everything in moderation is my motto, I am here to live my life and I do find enjoyment in food, drink and the good times with friends that come with that and I am not prepared to give that part of my life up just so I can have a six pack (that has always alluded me!).

I wanted to share this with you to let you know that anything truly is possible; if I can turn to running and change my innermost feelings about myself then it is possible for anyone.  We all have good days and bad days but always love your body for what it is and what it allows you to do and treat it with the respect it deserves and be happy.

(Feature on Ian Corless Talk Ultra can be found and listened to here.)

Fairy tales from Cappadocia


Imagine a landscape covered with amazing rock formations where people live in caves and fairy chimneys, the colours change with each shift in light and the soulful call to prayer sounds out through the still air.  It sounds like something out of a fairytale but it exists and it is in Turkey. Cappadocia, a region in the centre of this rugged country is a geological oddity with fairytale topography which has been inhabited since as early as the 6th century.

To showcase this stunning landscape The North Face created 3 unique races here with a choice of 30km, 60km or 110km distances, with the 110km taking in a challenging 3,485 metres of ascent. This year was the 2nd edition bringing a total of over 900 runners, with 200 toeing the line for the 110km race including me, with only 122 finishers showing just how tough this race really is.

Fairy Chimneys
Fairy Chimneys

Experience your very own fairy tale by staying in a cave; it’s not as primitive as you might think.  Immaculate work has been carried out by local families working in harmony with UNESCO to ensure the conservation and restoration of these unique dwellings and historical structures is not only in keeping with history but up to the highest international standards.  Imagine lying in a hand carved bath that fits two, full to the brim of warm, aromatic bath water in a century old cave with gorgeous views out to the valley below.  Not complete of course without a chilled bottle of Cappadocia wine, with the history of wine making in the region dating back to the 4th century it would be rude not to delight the taste buds.  I made the most of this experience both pre and post race (the wine was only post race of course) at the Kayakapi Premium Caves Resort which is situated high up on Esbelli Rock overlooking Urgup.

The view from our own cave at Kayakapi
The view from our own cave at Kayakapi

If like me you thought Turkish food was limited to kebabs, grilled meats and sticky baklava, think again.  I enjoyed filling my belly with delicious Anatolian flat breads stuffed with spinach, cheese and onion for breakfast and to keep the carb levels high what better way than to indulge in Manti for dinner, a traditional Turkish dish of warm savoury flavours with pasta that is similar to ravioli served with a yoghurt sauce.  For a meal that dates back thousands of years try the Testi Kebap; a meaty stew with onions, peppers, tomatoes and plenty of garlic cooked in a clay pot for the day and mop up the delicious sauces with an abundance of flat bread fresh out of the wood burning ovens.  Finish this off with syrupy servings of baklava and you are race ready!

Oozing stickiness - Baclava
Oozing stickiness – Baklava

Race day brings with it a whole new level of excitement making it difficult to sleep the night before.  The weather forecast was for rain for the first half of the day giving way to sunshine after midday.  Living in Scotland this was not hugely off putting but I had been hoping for dry weather as slippery downhill’s and I don’t see eye to eye.

The start line
The start line

It wasn’t long into the start of the race before the heavens opened with rain in epic proportions causing flash flooding throughout the area.  I watched the other runners in bewilderment as they stopped to don waterproofs in the torrential downpours, it was about 15 degrees and I wasn’t feeling the need for extra cover and I enjoyed splashing around in the rain getting absolutely drenched in the process.  The rain did bring with it other obstacles with the soft rock surface known as tuff giving way to a slippery surface and the creek beds in low lying areas turning into torrents of water rapidly becoming ankle deep water obstacles kilometres long.  I imagined I was running through a jungle ultra as I splashed my way through the water and slid down muddy hills with the help on hanging onto branches and even some roped sections along the route. 

Heaviest rains in 50 years for race day
Heaviest rains in 50 years for race day

The beauty of the landscape even through the driving rain was apparent all around with rock formations towering above me as I ran underneath, bending my tall body through the tunnels carved by years of water and wind passing through them and climbing up and around the striking chimneys sometimes gripping rock alone and at other times with the aid of rickety yet stable ladders.  Even though I was racing it would have been sacrilege not to take photos and welcomed the excuse for a quick breather here and there.  

Stairs to climb
Ladders to climb

Life moves at a different pace here and it’s not an unusual sight to see men and women in traditional working clothes ambling along the ancient cobbled streets, leading horse-drawn carts and donkeys out to the nearby orchards and vineyards.  Groups of lycra clad & sport attire wearing athletes certainly stand out in this setting but the locals love the excitement; small children look on in wide eyed amazement or run with you through the streets whilst the villagers sit back sipping Turkish black tea from the daintiest tulip shaped glasses and shout out words of encouragement.  I gazed wistfully at the juice stalls along the route where old women squeeze locally grown pomegranates and other citrus fruits into a delicious and thirst quenching treat.

The old and the new on the cobbled streets
The old and the new on the cobbled streets

Hordes of tourists look on as we run past them through many historical vantage points along the route and I wonder what they are thinking of us as we scamper along ridges and fly down hills past them.  As I run through some of the valleys I discover hidden tea houses where tourists’ heads lift up in surprise as they sip their delicate rosehip & apple tea under the shade of apple tree orchards in the now shattered peaceful setting, lounging amongst adorned cushions with their feet up.

Running along breath taking plateaus with never-ending views my mind wandered away from the task at hand a bit too much as I crashed down hands first onto some rocks at the top grazing my hands and giving me a serious fright as there was a nasty drop off to my right reminding me to pay more attention and not fly away with the running endorphin fairies that had taken hold of me.  Beauty has that affect!

Stunning views running along the ridge
Stunning views running along the ridge

A strong mental attitude is needed at the 62km mark where you pass through the finish line, seeing the 60km runners finish as you carry on for another loop in the opposite direction you came from.  A high number of drop outs at this point proves how much of a mental challenge this is.  Once you pass through you are welcomed with a brutal hike up onto another plateau which brought with it the mixed blessings of the sun setting, magical to witness but knowing this also means it will soon be time to strap on the head torch also conjures up some feelings of trepidation.  Its fun and exciting to run in the dark but on tired legs and in very technical terrain it has the unwanted effect of slowing me down somewhat.  Descending in the dark was tough with some parts so steep and loose that I sat on my bum and slid my way down some sections to save turning an ankle.  I felt totally alone and exposed on that hill, there were no lights behind me to be seen and only occasionally did I glimpse a head torch ahead to give me some relief that I wasn’t entirely alone and still heading in the right direction. 

As the sun sets
As the sun sets

Reaching what must have been 85km passing through a sleepy darkened village as the soulful call to prayer sounding out from a nearby mosque through the dead of the night I felt enchanted, it added a touch of magic to the experience and lifted me to carry me on.  There was not a soul to be seen in the village at this time and it felt totally surreal to be running through to the powerful sound reverberating in the still air.

I had read about the local Anatolian Shepherd dogs a large, formidable dog with the strength to bring down lions so my heart leapt after the last checkpoint when I heard a noise and the light of my torch rested upon a massive form of one of these dogs.  I didn’t want to look at it as I thought my light might provoke it into action so calmly turned and trotted down my next descent which was a hard single foot track down a rocky face.  The descent felt like forever as all I could hear behind me was the panting of this dog that was now following me hot on my heels.  I’m not normally scared of dogs but she was huge and it was dark and I was in the middle of nowhere, if it did attack…. I consciously thought to myself to remain calm as dogs can sense fear and even pulled my emergency whistle out ready for action as I thought this was my only defence, noise!  The end of the descent ended in a fast running creek that I then had to run through and I nearly laughed as I heard my new companion having a drink, must have needed it from the 1km run down the hill, so it was a friend not a foe after all, I started chatting to her after that nicknaming her Bozo and chatting with her as she followed me intently for another 5km before she decides she’s had enough and finally lets me go on my own.

The finish line was looming and I allowed myself to imagine the feeling of crossing it, this always brings with it a lump in my throat like I might cry then and there but I think to myself to save the emotion for the finish, not to waste my energy now.  This all changes as I cross the line and all I can feel is total elation and a fresh adrenalin rush that means there’s no need for tears, just smiles.  I finish as 4th lady overall with a massive grin on my face, mission accomplished and 110km of beauty completed!

Proud to be finished
Proud to be finished

The aftermath of a tough race such as this is eased with a traditional hamam experience which leaves you refreshed and invigorated as the gentle moist heat relaxes those tight muscles that have formed in the body and soothes the nerves.  Eased even more so with peaceful evenings back in my cave enjoying delicious Cappadocia wine brought to completion with locally produced cheese and olives from the recent harvest which my body seems to be craving.  I for one could definitely get used to this.

Post race treat
Post race treat

 

The Facts

Entry fee – early bird entry for only 45 euro increasing to 60 euro after that (superb value for money).

UTMB points – 3 points for the 110km

Travel – we flew with Turkish airlines via Istanbul (4hr flight from Edinburgh) and the a 50 min flight to Cappadocia followed by an hour shuttle to Urgup, return transfers included in the race entry too.

Accommodation – Kayakapi Premium Caves was our home for 4 nights, stunning hotel for about £140 a night but worth the splurge to stay in a real cave.  It’s only a 15 min walk downhill to the start line and opt for a £3 taxi back after😉

Registration is the day before which is straight forward and the evening includes a race briefing and pasta party (again included in the entry fee) as well as post race hot meal and massage too.

Drop bag is provided which you can easily deposit in the morning for your midway and finish collection.

Race was well marked with fairly descent checkpoints, I don’t rely on the CP food but appreciated the Coke available at each and would have liked to see some more savour options on the CP’s as I get tired of my sweet gels.

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