Monkey Get Off My Back

Trois, deux, un, GO!! A sea of 2,543 runners start moving through the iconic starting archway in Chamonix. Emotions are running high through the field of runners taking on the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) of which 40% will not finish; the streets are lined with thousands of supporters all cheering us on and the sheer volume of people means we’re walking for the first 500m but I savour the moment as it gives me a chance to high five friends I recognise in the crowds and soak up the atmosphere hoping it will spur me on during moments of darkness to come.

In the sea of runners at the start line

UTMB, the big dance, the ultimate pinnacle of mountain ultra racing in Europe; 106 miles with 10,000m of vertical gain and loss, more than Everest, with a 46.5hr cutoff departing from Chamonix at 6pm on Friday 30th August running to Italy and through to Switzerland before making it back to Chamonix. Hikers normally take 9-12 days to complete the route. To even apply to run you need to complete a certain number of qualifying races in an allotted time during the qualifying period, which is basically 3 kick-arse races in 12 months prior to be valid and then you go into a ballot so after apply for 3 years in a row I finally got in.

I’d experienced FOMO the last 2 years of watching the race, online one year and in person last year, and now it was my turn to take part and I was so excited. Since finding out for certain I was on the list in January my mind and training was focussed towards this race. I’d trained consistently since May, finding it hard to get going in the early part of the year due to the ongoing winter and snowy conditions in Chamonix making it difficult to get on the trails as early as I would have liked or envisaged in my preparations. My big preparation race was Gran Trail Courmayeur in the middle of July and I was filled with confidence from completing this event which spurred me on to really give a strong final push in the 6 weeks leading up to race day. I’d focussed on running 50-60 miles per week with 5,000-10,000m per week ascent. One session I wish I’d done more of was downhill repeats which I felt was really beneficial in building leg strength and sharpening up my downhill running technique as well.

Working hard pre race massaging athletes like Paul Giblin

After registering on the Wednesday I’d hoped to go into pre race hibernation from then until the start, not doing anything except having my feet up; however this was far from reality. My sports massage services were in high demand and this combined with a few interviews for Claire from Wild Ginger Running and for Dutch TV program ‘De Kennis Van Nu’ (airs October 2019) there wasn’t much time left for relaxing. With a 6pm start time it can be hard to plan your day and nutrition, I opted to have a bit of a lie in with pancakes for breakfast and then napped from 1-3 (which was more laying down resting than actually napping) and ate some Salmon, avocado and quinoa as my pre race meal.

Interview with Claire pre race

The rain came down hard just as I was about to leave to head to the start so I delayed that to hopefully get the worst of it out of the way and miraculously squeezed my way in to the rammed start line right beside my friend, Paul, who I would later end up running with for quite some time. The rain abated and with jackets put away the excitement was ramped up with the UTMB theme song ‘Conquest of Paradise’ as our send off.

All smiles at the start with Paul Spackman

Don’t go out too hard was the advice from Dion and try as I might to control myself I found myself in Les Houches a little faster than I would have liked, but I felt good. It was encouraging to see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd there to spur me on for the first big climb. It was still light and I’d hoped to reach St Gervais before needing a head torch, but I had to give in and put this on for the last 15mins before getting there. The checkpoint was crazy, a mad rush of runners all squeezing in to replenish and I was glad to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Support posters from friend Sarah, Dan & Ella

Climbing into Les Contamines-Montjoie I thought back to this point 3 years ago, it was on this section I’d decided I was pulling out (DNF-Did Not Finish); I didn’t have the emotional, mental or physical capacity to carry on after having run #500kin5days only 4 weeks prior; compounded by the fact that Dion was in China having just found Gobi which had caused insurmountable levels of stress and anxiety. This year I was stronger and Dion and Gobi would be out on course to support me, but first it was time to see my first crew of the race with friends Jo and Jana waiting for me once I squeezed my way through the rugby scrum that was Les Contamines-Montjoie checkpoint, where pizza and warmer night clothes awaited me with hugs and cheers.

Sunsetting as I reach the top of Col de VOA

My chest started to tighten as I began the climb up Col du Bonhomme, I was finding it hard to breath and with every attempted breath I felt more and more nauseous. Eventually I succumbed to the discomfort and sat on the side of the trail and eventually threw up. I felt a bit better afterwards and my chest didn’t feel as tight so as much as it was a blessing it also meant I’d lost valuable energy and had to focus on restoring that through energy drink and trying to eat a little bit.

Warming up in my layers before Courmayeur

The runners started to thin out after the climb which was a relief as it was so congested though I was far from alone at any point. The night was long and it took me much longer than I’d hoped to finally reach Courmayeur, the halfway point. It was shaping up to be a warm day and I was roasting in long tights and a long sleeve too so was super keen to see Dion, Gobi and Jana at the checkpoint and get out of those clothes. Dion & Gobi met me just outside and ran the last 300m in with me as only one person is allowed inside the designated checkpoints. It was great to see them and it really lifted my spirits.  Jana was super charged and ready to get me fed, watered and on my way until we realised I hadn’t put a fresh pair of shorts in the crew bag! What to do? I was already sat there in my knickers having removed my sweaty tights so Jana literally gave me the skort she was wearing and put my sweaty tights on, true friendship right there 😉. Jana updated me that my friend Paul had only just been through and my other friend & neighbour Zoe was on the table opposite so we decided to leave together.

Jana will do anything to get me wearing a Salomon skirt 😉

Feeling fresh and energy restored it was time to try and crack on, still 50 miles to go! Zoe decided to sit and have a gel before the next clime to Bertone so I pulled ahead to keep moving. I was pleased to see Paul when I reached Bertone and we decided to head out together from there. It was nice to have some company as I hadn’t really had anyone to talk to long the way, so it helped pass the time. It was a long stretch to reach Arnouvaz where I was surprised to see Dion, Jana & Gobi waiting. This wasn’t a support spot so they could only say hi but it was great to see them again.

One of the biggest climb of the race, Grand Col Ferret at 2,490m loomed ahead of us and we were keen to get up and over it before darkness descended for our 2nd night on course. The weather started to close in on us as we ascended and just as we reached the summit huge claps of thunder sounded and lightning crashed all around us. With big raindrops starting to fall we quickly put on our waterproof jackets and ran as quick as we could, this was not the best place to be in a storm, super exposed and great for attracting lightning. The raindrops quickly tuned into a torrential downpour and the path became a sloshy mud pit. Waterproof or not we were both absolutely drenched by the time we reached the midway down pint of La Peuty. The next section had become diabolical with the path submerged in ankle deep water and mud making the downhill quite treacherous underfoot and slow going. We reached La Fouly just on dark; cold, wet and in need of warm, dry clothes but we still had another couple of hours to get to Champex-Lac to meet our respective crews.

It was amazing having Dion and Gobi at the checkpoints

The climb up to Champex-Lac was long and boring, but dry, the rain had stopped and I’d dried out completely by now. I got changed anyway as we were now going into the night again so it’s wise to put some layers on as it can extremely cold up high especially when you’re tired and your body is starting to shut down so body temperature management is not up to par. Dion & Jana we’re armed with fresh pizza & chocolate milk, some of my favourites, both of them acutely aware we were now in the force feeding stage of the race. I also downed a can of orange soft drink which was so tasty I proceeded to ask them to get me some more for Trient which laughingly they both told me that at 2am in the middle of the mountains I had no chance! Joined by Paul’s crew, wife Lucy, we all walked out of Champex-Lac together and chatted. We’d see them again in Trient.

Paul and I made an effort to jog the downhill out of Champex-Lac as quickly as we could at this stage of the race before the climb up Bovine. An arduous and rocky climb that was as unrelenting as the last, our head torches picked up shapes on the sides of the trail, it was runners, sleeping! I’d never seen so many runners taking random trail naps before, they were literally everywhere up the trail. I was feeling it too, my eyes were heavy and the temptation to rest was strong but I kept shaking my head awake and soldiered on upwards. Paul was struggling too so we kept checking in on each other to make sure we weren’t sleep walking. Reaching Bovine I was renewed, I’d run from here a few times on training runs and I now felt like we were just running home. I knew from here that I would finish and this just filled me with a new found energy.

We wasted no time at Trient, with only 2 more climbs to go we could start to smell the finish line and wanted that more than anything. Dion & Gobi met us on the road into Trient and filled our heads with positive motivation before Jana ensured I had more food and sent us on our way. The climb up Tseppes is steep and we paced ourselves with a promise of a short rest stop at the top before flying down to Vallorcine, the last supported checkpoint before the finish.

Flying into Vallorcine with Paul

We arrived half an hour before we were anticipated so we really did fly! Jana helped me into yet another change of clothes as it was now daylight again so back into shorts for my 4th outfit of the race, Dion had found me some fresh coffee and a quiche; and we were off to tackle the final climb. Not before a quick hello, pompom & cowbell cheers with extra friends, Sam & Nikki, in the group at Col des Montets.

Col des Montets support crew

False summit after false summit and the climb is done, but I’m not fooled, it’s still a long way to the final checkpoint Flegere which is winking at me in the distance. It’s all downhill from Flegere and the trail is scattered with supporters, including my friend Sasa, who meets us just above La Floria where there’s more friends and a whole party going on, I shout “We’re bloody well going to do it!” as we run through the crowd. 3 miles now to the finish and I can feel it, the excitement is coursing through my veins and I can’t stop smiling with intermittent welling up as the gravity of what I’m about to achieve starts to hit.

The final stretch down from La Floria and I can’t stop smiling

I feel like a rock star! The streets of Chamonix are lined with people, they’re all cheering for us, high fives are being handed out left and right, and as we turn onto the Main Street the whole town is one big party. The cheering is so loud I’m looking left and right as I hear my name being shouted. I spot Dion, Gobi, Jana and Paul’s wife Lucy who join Paul & I to run the final 50m together. This was my dream come true, tears well in my eyes as we all hug and kiss and congratulate each other. It was all worth it; the time & commitment it had taken to prepare with the sacrifices along the way. I’d been driven to this moment since 2016, that DNF had been weighing heavily on my shoulders for 3 years; a big monkey on my back that kept chattering away to me trying to convince me I wasn’t good enough to do it, but I am good enough and that monkey will forever be quiet. Ultra’s are a team effort from the time spent training to the actual race and I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew. The cold beers in the sunshine together afterwards never tasted so good as we all shared stories of our combined adventures of the past 42 hours.

The best finish line feeling ever!

Main kit used/worn: (As an Asics Frontrunner & Ambassador for Beta Running, Naked Running Band & Naked Runner items were gifted to me)

Shoes – Asics Fuji Trabuco Pro

Socks – Injinji Med Weight Crew

Bag – Ultimate Direction Ultra

Waist band – Naked Running Band

Sunglasses – Naked Runner

Poles – Black Diamond Carbon Z

Redemption at Gran Trail Courmayeur

I smiled as I ran down from Elisabetta refuge, this time last year it was pitch dark and a violent storm raged around me as I was halfway through the Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km race in the Italian mountains.  I did not finish (DNF) the race which is why I was back for another crack at it.  This year I felt stronger, the sun was still shining brightly and would be for another 2-3hours before darkness would descend, whereas last year I was already in the pitch dark at this halfway point of the race so I felt like I’d come a long way in the last 12 months. 

Look of focus coming down from Elisabetta

Italian race directors have a reputation for bringing us the daring and super technical races and with the Tor Des Geants (TDG) as part of their (Valle D’Aosta Trailers) repertoire this event certainly meets expectations with the brutality and sheer toughness of the route.  105km with 6,600m elevation gain and loss with a 30hr time limit and awarding 5 ITRA & UTMB points, it’s a beast! 

An early start meant an early rise for the Chamonix crew,my friends Jana and Sarah were running the 55k with Zoe and I running the 105k; and a quick trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel taking us into Italy to be ready to register from 5:30am and ready to race at 7am.  The race has 3 options with the 105k and 55k starting together and the 30k starting at 9am.  Excitement was building as runners made their way into the start chute filled with nervous anticipation of what the day would bring for us all.  Some would race well, others would not make it to the finish line.  I wedge myself in somewhere in the middle so as not to get caught up in the fast start but not too far back to be held back.

Jana & I heading to the start line

Heading out of the town of Courmayeur the route splits and the 55k runners go one way and the 105k the other, heading into trails to Champex Di Pre-Saint-Didier. Skipping the thermal resort, unfortunately,  and climbing up to the Petosan valley and crossing the Plan Praz via a few chain ropes to the Deffeyes refuge at 2,500m where the views open up to picturesque lakes below.  A bit of minor climbing via some ropes reaches the lakes for a nice runnable section back down towards to La Thuile.

All smiles!

It’s from here the biggest climbs begin, following part of the TDG route in reverse we are ascending to 2,047m in the Youlaz Valley, Colle Di Youlaz at 2,661m and reaching the highest pint of the race below Mont Nix at 2,830m.  Memories from last year come flooding back and I recall being petrified up here, there’s some seriously sharp drop offs alongside some dramatic ridge lines that the route follows including a few snow patches to cross.  After a year living in the Alps I’m feeling more confident and it’s not as daunting but still causes my heart to race.  

Steep ridge lines to take your breath away

And race it does as we descend slightly but ascend again via some precarious climbs up to Colle du Berrio Blanc at 2,818m and Mont Fortin at 2,755m where the refreshment point here has been flown in by helicopter due to it’s inaccessibility.  This time last year I was donning all my layers and waterproofs as the storm was about to break, however this year the sun was shining strongly though being at altitude I did put on my arm sleeves and gloves at this point.

Stunning views

The trail starts to descend and runs alongside the lakes towards Col Chavanne crossing numerous snow patches before reaching Elisabetta refuge still at 2,197m. 

I’m excited to join the UTMB route here and I start imagining what I’ll be feeling like in 6 weeks time at this very spot, hopefully I’ll be feeling the same energy and excitement in similar weather conditions.  I wonder if I can make it to Courmayeur before the sunsets? 

Sun starting to set, but still a bit of time to go

Alas the headtorch goes on after the climb up from Maison Vieille refuge to Courba Dzeleuna for the descent into Courmayeur where my impromptu support crew, Jana (who had already finished the 55k) and Chris, are waiting with pizza and cheers to motivate me for the final 30k section.  I fuel up and down a Starbucks cold latte and head back into the night feeling strong and full of positive energy believing I’ll be back in Courmayeur before sunrise.

One very happy lady to see pizza!

Those good feelings don’t last and by the time I’ve ascended to Bertone refuge and I’m on the Val Ferret balcony I’m experiencing some small blackouts from low blood pressure and I realise that whilst I’ve nailed my nutrition this race I haven’t drunk enough electrolytes and I’m out of balance. By the time I reach Bonatti refuge I’m feeling hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably and although I’ve put on my waterproof trousers & jacket, base layer and buff and it takes me half hour wrapped in a foil blanket in a heated shelter before I can move again. Few runners appear to be in high spirits here; fatigued, cold and covered in layers of dirt and sweat this was now developing into type 2 fun and hopefully not delving further to type 3.

The Fun Scale

There’s still 2 more ascents from here before eventually a brutally steep descent begins, frustratingly including yet more ascending before finally descending towards Courmayeur.  The sun has started to rise by now and I’m greeted by a stunning sunrise at La Suche which lifts my spirits somewhat knowing that although these last 30km have not been my finest hours that I AM going to finish this race.

Sunrise at La Suche

I find myself passing some runners as the race hits the outskirts of town as I can now smell the finish and I keep my pace going and enter the village of Courmayeur finding the local village coming alive in the early morning which enthuses me more with the locals cheering me on.  Finally it’s the home stretch and I’m greeted by Chris, Jana and Zoe to cheer me across the finish line.  I had done it!  

Crossing the finish line (Photo: Chris Clayton)

Finishing Gran Trail Courmayeur meant so much more to me than just a race finish, not only because of my DNF last year, but I’ve taken so much confidence away from reaching the finish for the upcoming challenge of UTMB; the Ultra Tour Mont Blanc on 30th August which is a 107 miles with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss.  If I hadn’t been able to finish this race it would have meant some serious mental and no doubt physical hurdles I would have had to overcome if I were to be even half a chance of finishing UTMB.  Time will tell and I know I will hold my head high with my heart and spirit strong when I toe that start line on August 30th in Chamonix.

Finished!

Kit List

I came and I conquered!

A giant wall nearly 30 feet high stretching 5,000 miles through Northern China built in the Ming Dynasty to keep invaders out and now a UNESCO site, many parts are through tough, rugged mountainous terrain….perfect for a marathon right?  With 20,000+ steps traversing the Gubeikou and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall on both older unrestored and newly restored sections meandering through secluded & rarely visited sections offering up breath taking panoramic views and memories to last a lifetime.  It is the Conquer the Wall Marathon.

Running on the Great Wall is a bucket list item for many runners and intrepid adventurers with good reason.  There’s a number of races that now take part on the Great Wall but this is the one and only that actually spends over 85% of the race on the actual wall, which in turn makes it all the more challenging.  With a variety of distances, Conquer the Wall Marathon offers a 5km, 10km, half and full marathon so there’s something for everyone. 

With direct flights to Beijing from most international airports it’s a straightforward trip  with the race organisers taking away the stress of logistics organising transfers and accommodation packages, all you need to do is ensure you get your visa before you travel.  Having been to China before I didn’t take advantage of the cultural tours on offer but opted for a Chinese cooking course to brush up on my skills.  The day before the race a group of us went to The Beijing Cooking School and spent a few hours making dumplings from scratch before feasting on them together over a late lunch. 

Making dumplings.

With the race starting at 6am that meant a 3:30am rendezvous in the hotel lobby for all the runners to board the buses to the start.  Breakfast bags filled with a bagel, juice and bread were available and my coffee sensor quickly worked out the 7-Eleven opposite the hotel was doing Costa Coffees to go.  The 2 hour bus trip gave the option for some light napping before people began to stir in anticipation as The Wall came into view.  The scale of what we were about to tackle suddenly became very real.  This legendary wall is even more incredible than anyone expects the first time you see it.  The Wall extends as far as the eye can see with gatehouses and watchtowers forcing breaks in this seemingly never ending dragons tail.

Nervous anticipation ran through the start area like an electric current and we were all keen to be let loose into the wall.  The marathon starts first with the other distances starting at intervals after that, which is great as the first section is an out and back so it was a welcome distraction to see the other runners after the turn around point and be able to both give and receive shouts of encouragement.  The race starts straight up a fairly gentle hill and as you can imagine a number of people set off way too fast.  I held myself back and tried to remain consistent not letting the fact that most of the field were pushing on ahead of me already, I knew I was in for a long day, Little did I know truly how long!  The first half of the marathon is most certainly the easier half, run partly on trails beside the wall due to the dilapidated condition of sections and nowhere near as steep, not to mention on fresh legs.  I remained consistent and promptly started passing a number of runners that had gone out too quick and found myself as leading lady and in the top 10 overall.  

Start line action (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

After the halfway point the course becomes steeper and trickier in all aspects and knowing that you have to traverse this out and back section twice means you really have to be completely motivated and keep your head in the game.

A mid point ice cream to help keep my head in the game!

The Wall is in varying states of condition with some areas that have been restored and in good condition to other sections where the path crumbled away, some steps were only an inch or two difference in height whereas as other steps required both hands to pull you up they were so high.  Other areas were smooth stone that your feet slipped on regardless of grip and in the end I could be seen holding onto the wall as I inched my way down.  A couple of sections became nearly vertical requiring all fours to traverse, at one point climbing these steps I looked down at my watch to see I was currently pacing at 50min/mile!  There is no section of this wall that is truly flat, you are always either ascending or descending which is all part of the challenge.

Up and up (on all fours sometimes) (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

Most of The Wall is completely exposed to the elements, although I was glad it was the sun beating down on me rather than rain, there was no respite from the heat.  The only respite came in the watchtowers for a few brief seconds where local vendors were hawking their wares, of which I purchased 2 ice cold cokes and a fruity icy pole over the course of the second half of the marathon which were life savers.  There are a number of manned checkpoints from the race along the route allowing you the opportunity to refuel and restock your water and electrolytes along the route but nothing beats an ice cold coke in that heat.

Enjoying a bit of hydration on The Wall (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

By the time I hit my 2nd lap of the section it was truly a battle to survive.  The effects of the never ending steps were taking a toll on my body combined with the heat zapping the remnants of energy in my body but I’d come here to finish this race and finish I would.  Looking around me I was inspired by the sheer greatness of The Wall, here I was running along one of the greatest wonders of the world; a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history that stretches back some 2,700 years.  What an amazing feat of engineering and architecture to build a series of walls and fortifications that stretches some 13,000 miles, and I felt an overwhelming sense of motivation and positivity as I soaked up the outstanding views around me.

Simply breathtaking

I had done it!  2nd lady and 16th overall in a time of 10h 34 mins out of 22 finishers.  I’m unsure how many started as the results move people into different categories with unofficial finishers for alternative distances as people who were unable to finish the distances they’d set out to do but were able to finish in another way which I think is a great touch from the race as it truly is a massive undertaking which is quite easily under estimated from afar.

Crossing the finish line (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

Conquer The Wall Marathon website warns you that ‘This is going to hurt.’  It does! It hurts during and it certainly hurt for quite a few days after.  My calf muscles were so tight that even attempting to get a massage 3 days later was impossible as I was still unable to take human touch.  Let that be a learning for anyone that wants to conquer the wall, and for myself should I be luck enough to return one day, that some serious step/stair training is a must to avoid this level of DOMS.  Through suffering comes an amazing feeling of accomplishment and pride, leaving China as a warrior that has conquered The Wall is a prize in itself and I hope that many more will venture forth and tackle this beast.

Proud as punch to win 2nd female

****************

Race entry starts at $350 and participant perks include:

•Free round-trip transportation to the Conquer the Wall Marathon start line from Beijing hotels

•Official Conquer The Wall Marathon technical running shirt

•Official finisher certificate

•Collectible finisher medal

•Official swag bag

•Runner breakfast, Juice, and bagels

•Scenic course highlighting of the Great Wall of China famous sites

•Course support

•Finish line water, juice and sandwiches

•Optional local city tours

I have seen the brick wall

face to face

the ancient hollowblocks sprawled

against an embankment

with roof blown open

for enemies watchful rivalry eye

for paid spectator’s sight seeing

your dynasty dividing the world

into half literally

a concrete – walled serpent

cutting the outer crust margin

wherever I look at your spine

I see you are wrapped in old centuries 

fashion cloth

dressed with moss and chinese

character algae medicines

cunning and boastful

you shield your grandfather

warrior’s glorious times

preserving against evil invaders

with your symbolic incense in your unfold shoulders

with fun shui ritual in your rooted feet

your face remains as calendar cover

with 12 month full pages hunging in the wall

as great as the entire 2009th year 

Rommel Mark Dominguez Marchan

The UltraXperience – Sri Lanka

‘Come on! Come on!’ The shouts and cheers from the local families were ringing in my ears. ‘Splash!’ Another bucket of water drenched me along with the sound of laughing and squealing from the group of local kids that had thrown it on me.  The inaugural Ultra X Sri Lanka 250k over 5 days was like a week long water fight. I don’t ever recall being so wet for so long.  The constant dousing from the locals and self drenching in the streams combined with the 85% humidity meant that all the runners were constantly wet and never actually dried out.

Getting doused by the local supporters

After a relaxing pre race stay in the picturesque beachside town of Negombo we were whisked away to explore the remote and untouched wilderness of the Sri Lankan jungles.  I’d come to Sri Lanka for an adventure and the opportunity to run 250km through a country I’d only ever dreamed of and seen on travel documentaries was escapism at its best.

Stunning scenery

Awaking to the sounds of monkeys jumping from tree to tree and the birds sing songing the dawn of a new day, I uncovered my eyes from my eye mask and peered through my mosquito net around the camp.  We’d arrived as the sun set the night before into camp and after squelching our way through thick mud we had all hastily made our little sleeping havens inside our 8-10 person gazebos that would become our home for the next 6 nights.  Camp life can be noisy and erratic but its also a lot of fun and a great opportunity to get to know your fellow competitors better.

Camp life

Anticipation and nervous energy was running through all of us as we congregated at the start line.  It was only 8am but already the sun was sharp and I took shade beside the hibiscus plants enjoying the cooling water droplets hitting my body from last nights rain storm.  After an obligatory start line photo we were off, the adventure had begun.  Running through sugar cane fields and banana plantations, alongside waterways interspersed by herds of water buffalo and floating fields of pink water lilies and through rural villages with locals offering us fresh homegrown bananas and coconuts whilst never accepting any money, just a big smile and a cheer.  This was running nirvana.  This is what I had come for.  Being the inaugural race there was no expectations as no-one knew what was to come, just surprise after surprise with the promise of more adventure around every corner. 

Start line photo courtesy of Benedict Tufnell

Ultra X Sri Lanka took me by surprise with its toughness and brutality.  I think it surprised every single one of the 31 starters with only a third of the field managing to finish the full distance without missing a leg/day of the route or having an IV drip administered during or after a stage. A mixture of attrition from heat exhaustion, dehydration, blisters and some existing injuries quickly demolished the field.  The route was flat, and fast if you could cope with the heat & humidity raising your heart rate and pushing your limits.  I realised early on that this was going to be a race of survival for me rather than a competitive race.  I was far away from my comfort zone; heat, humidity, mud, insects, camping, iguanas and running on the flat; but the further I get away from that zone and the more challenging it is, rising to the challenge and taking the difficult road this is what makes my life interesting and gives it more meaning.

The roads were hot, long and flat (Photo by Max Wilcocks)

Even though we were running in some of the most remotest of areas, small villages dotted the course and with that meant small local shops where I certainly made use of cold coke to keep my thirst at bay and energy levels higher.  During day 1 I’d found I was running a very similar pace with fellow competitors Alise from Latvia and Max from London and developed a rythym together that would mean we would run 95% of the race together and we would take turns in making purchases and trying out the eclectic mix of Sri Lankan treats for sale too.

Another day, another coke!

Going into Sri Lanka I was concerned after my DNF at HURT 100 in January due to hydration and nutrition issues that the humidity would have the same effect on me. I worked on addressing these by trying to combat the humidity and the sun by wearing cooling arm sleeves and bandana around my neck which I wet as often as possible to keep cool, using a 1.5L camelbak for my electrolyte drinks (Active Root & Torq) on top of water in my usual 2 x 500ml UD Hydrates soft flasks and drying my feet out as soon as possible as well as having changes of socks for each day as the constant saturation of my feet turned them to white squidgy sponges and I actually got a couple of blisters which is unheard of for me.  With this focus and attention I was able to handle the situation much more effectively and finish the race not only intact but with a big smile on my face.

Cooling down any way possible

There is magic at a multi stage race and this magic comes from the people, not only the runners, but the organisers, volunteers and the local people of the unique landscape you are running through.  A multi stage race brings out a rawness in people that there is no hiding from, we see each other at our best, at our worst and everything in between and somehow this develops such strong bonds and friendships are forged for life.

Getting lost on route with Anna-Marie, Max and Alise after locals had moved the markers to their shop!

Ultra X are the new kids on the block delivering a series of multi stage races across stunning, remote and of course adventurous locations around the world.  Whether you fancy exploring the lush tropical rainforest jungle of Sri Lanka, through the valley of the moon in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, explore the volcanic islands of The Azores in Portugal or follow in the footsteps of the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico through the Copper Canyon with spectacular mountain trails as famously documented in “Born to Run”.  Each race follows the same format of running 250km over 5 days, which is more kilometres in less days than the infamous Marathon des Sables, with the self sufficiency element made somewhat more appealing with the race organisers transporting your 15kg bag between camp sites for you so you only need to run with a day pack. Costing around £1k per race they are providing a more affordable option of multi stage racing making this more accessible to the running community.  Check them out and find out what it means to have “The UltraXperience”.

The UltraXperience (photo by Benedict Tufnell)

Whilst the post race glow was immensely overshadowed by the tragic events which took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 28th April 2019, I left Sri Lanka with a deep affection and respect for the people and families I met along the way who live such humble and simple lives yet always had a smile and offered immense generosity from the bottom of their hearts.

Sri Lanka Multi Stage Kit – what worked for me:

Clothing – I wore Asics running kit which was light and had no chafing issues

Shoes – Asics Gel Sonoma – a rugged enough grip for the trails but still comfortable enough for road and hard packed dirt roads

Socks – Injinji toe socks (I only suffered with 2 rather small blisters on my heel from all the slipping around in the wet)

Sunglasses – ND runner are the perfect affordable sunglasses to wear, especially when you lose a pair in the river on the last day!

Bag – Ultimate Direction Race Vesta

Fuel

Active Root & Torq – I alternated each day between different flavours of their hydrations sachet mixed in my cambelbak 

Veloforte bars – All natural bars that were the perfect consistency in the heat, not too dry or too soft, with big chunks of nuts in them too for that added crunch

33 Shake – Chia seed energy gels

Cruga Biltong – A great post race stage snack to restore the protein levels

Summit to Eat – Freeze dried adventure food (I had Macaroni cheese, Chicken Tikka and Rice, Beef and potato stew

**Earplugs and eye mask are an absolute must for communal camping**

Exploring the roof of Morocco – Atlas Mountains

Winter is coming…This year having spent my first year in Chamonix I’ve had the experience of -10 degree days, even colder nights and knee high snow paths that the chance to escape this year to run in Morocco held more significance than usual. With the snow drifting onto the tarmac of the Geneva airport runway as I looked outside the aeroplane it dawned on me how flying to Marrakech every March has been a perfect escape for me from the winter blues and of course also an awesome way to run in such a beautiful country without having to pay the cost of a MDS entry and carry all of my kit and food to survive!
This was my third year at the Tizi n Trail 3 day stage race and this time I’d brought 15 others with me, an eclectic mix of ages, nationalities and cultures, with one common interest; running. Scottish, English, Dutch, Australian, Swiss, Canadian & Romanian with ages ranging from 30’s to 60’s get everyone got along. The race has around 120 other competitors mainly from France who enjoy the fact this is a race during the day but at night in the camp hot showers, food and bedding await to make it more than a race but an experience.

The gang!

Held in Morocco you’re guaranteed of course to get a bit of warm sunshine which is ideal for those of us emerging from the winter season and with the location of the race changing every year in Morocco it is always a new experience with new landscapes to explore. This year we were in the Atlas Mountains, starting from Lalla Takarkoust, a 1h45m drive from Marrakesh.

Tai Chi warm up

Fresh Moroccan tea and coffee awaited us at the start line of Day 1 before a gentle Tai Chi warm up commenced. The temperatures were forecast to be in the mid 20’s with 13 miles and 600m ascent to cover. It was meant to be a gentle but challenging start to the event but almost all of us felt eager to get going so set off too quick at the start making the most of the first flattish 3 miles before the heat and the hills kicked in. It wasn’t long before we left the flat lakeside and ascended through remote villages sharing criss crossed trails with locals and donkeys alike. The local children offered shouts and high fives for encouragement and joined many of us for a few minutes running, squealing and laughing along the way. A final stretch along a rocky river bed revealed our bivouac perched up a final climb from which a panoramic view of the mountains was our reward.

Beardy & Blondie crossing the finish line day 1

Relaxing in the sun chatting and eating the tasty sandwiches and fruit prepared by the berbers whilst watching the steady stream of competitors cross the finish line, we all agreed that this was how to do a multi day event. Showered and refreshed we were treated to some songs from the local children before the sunset and it was time for our catered dinner.

Glamping Berber style

Ready for a restful nights sleep we settled into our mattress lined Berber tents only to be awoken at 3am for a full camp evacuation. A freak windstorm had demolished the camp site and we were being taken to safety in the nearby school buildings until the storm died down. The organisers acted promptly and their efficiency combined with all the runners complying with directions with no one kicking up a fuss everyone was kept safe and sound. Even a breakfast of tea/coffee and Moroccan pancakes and bread appeared before the storm finally subsided enough for us all to make our way to the start line. Bleary eyed and a bit tired but all full of high spirits day 2 beckoned.

Ready to start day 2

The storm had definitely caused a drop in temperature keeping us all a bit cooler for the gruelling day ahead. 16 miles and 1,250m ascent through amazing scenery. The first climb brought us out on top of a gorge that opened up in front of us to reveal the most amazing ridge line that we ran along bouncing over rocks before winding back up through little villages. I found my feet on this day and got into the competitive spirit moving up from yesterday’s 17th overall/5th lady to finishing 9th overall/3rd lady. The positive feeling of moving up in the rankings throughout the day buoyed me to keep my momentum.

Stunning route for day 2 (Photo: Graham Kelly)

The climbs were unrelenting and talk in the camp later that day revealed that although everyone had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the day we’d all had to dig a little deeper to get to the finish. Each participant had their own challenges to deal with that day but we were all in awe of Suzan from Holland as she truly embodied the spirit of the race to finish that day. Suzan’s bottom lip trembled as she strode intently towards the finish line, she was smiling but fighting back the tears that pricked her eyes behind her dark sunglasses. It had been a tough task out there on day 2 of Morocco Tizi n Trail race, putting Suzan well out of her comfort zone with 1,250m of ascent over 16 miles of rough and technical terrain in the Atlas mountains, somewhat different to the flat lands of Holland. She’d done it and now surrounded by her newly formed Tizi family she glowed from the achievement.

Suzan reaching Day 2 finish line

Hopeful of getting a good nights sleep after the previous nights storm we all tucked ourselves away for an early night after a delicious Moroccan feast of tagine and couscous. Alas it was not to be and we were in for even more adventure, it was the mountains after all, and torrential rain had us all shifting to corners of the tent to escape the waterfalls.

Our dining room

Awaking from our slumber to a new day, the mountain tops glistened with fresh snowfall and we wondered what the final day ahead would bring with an anticipated ascent of 1,450m in only 9 miles we were heading to the Moroccan ski fields of Oukaimeden. We set off through a quaint mountainside village dotted with cherry blossom trees in full bloom before descending into a river bed that was now full of bubbling streams from all the rain.

Splashing our way through the streams (Photo: Graham Kelly)

With no chance of dry feet we splashed our way upstream towards the next climb. With ever changing scenery we climbed higher and higher eventually giving way to the mountain top village and ski fields of Oukaimeden at an altitude of 3,500m, leaving us all breathless from the combination of exertion, altitude and mind blowing scenery.

The views got better and better every minute!

This years race had as past years races brought all of the runners together with new found friendships but this year like no other we’d also come together with the race volunteers and staff like no other due to the weather throwing us all in together in the most extreme ways. The experiences, laughter and memories of the 3 days was over far too soon but having felt that we’d all experienced so much more than most other races discussions during the awards dinner back in Marrakech quickly turned to talk of returning for next years edition to be held in the beautiful region around Ouarzazate.

Smiles & cold coke at the finish line

For me I headed back to Geneva airport, a little tanned, a lot more rewarded from the experience and also carrying a shiny 3rd place female trophy that will give me the extra motivation to keep pushing my training through the last of the Chamonix winter before starting to focus on the upcoming running season.

My shiny new trophy

To join me in Morocco in 2020 email me at: runningdutchie@hotmail.com