Getting Started

Rewind the clock back 15 years and you will find me; overweight, unfit, unhealthy and in no means anything resembling a runner. Anyone can be a runner, if I can, then you can too. I started my fitness journey jogging and walking as a way to lose weight, get a little fitter and be a little healthier. I could barely run to one street lamp before I needed the walk break to the next but I persevered and slowly but surely the walk breaks were needed later and at some point I morphed into the runner I am today.

I wish I’d had someone to take me under my wing and give me a few tips about how to embark on this improved me but I had to learn the hard way. But you don’t! You don’t need to look a certain way, have a certain body shape or have any experience. All you need is your body, a pair of shoes and a purpose; a why.

Everybody’s why is different. Perhaps you want to get fitter and lose some weight like I did (initially), to achieve a goal like running a certain distance, to experience adventure like I do now, to push yourself to achieve more than you thought possible (also now me), to get outdoors, to be able to run with your dog or your children or just simply because you can.

So how do you get started?

  1. Firstly as the famous saying goes…
    Just Do It!
  2. Get the right shoes for you, visit a running store local to you and the team there should talk you through the options, get you trying on a few pairs and even going for a short run in them either outdoors or in the treadmill. Buying from your local store also means if the shoes don’t work for you, as in they cause you blisters or other pain, you can take them back.
  3. Wear comfortable clothes that make you feel good, don’t worry about having to look a certain way or wear certain brands just feel comfortable in what you’re wearing. Everyone’s different, some people like vest tops others prefer a short or long sleeve top, some will like tight fitting clothes others prefer loose clothing, short or long it’s totally your choice.
  4. Get a schedule and stick to it! Consistency is key here. There are some great online and/or apps of ‘Couch to 5k’ plans that set you a very realistic program to follow taking out the guessing work of how and when to increase both the amount of time you run Vs walking and increasing the distance covered without overdoing it.
  5. If you’re a social butterfly look to join a local running group, there are loads of beginner groups out there and joining other people on a similar journey to you will give you some friendly inspiration and give you a reason to turn up. (Following social distancing guidelines in your area of course). Park Run, a free weekly timed 5k run, is also a great way to be in a running community that truly welcomes all levels of fitness from runners going for personal best fast times to those that walk the entire 5k.
  6. Enjoy rest days as well, you need to give your body a chance to not only recover but adapt to your new training.
  7. Nutrition & Hydration – Look after your body by feeding it healthy and nutritious food and stay hydrated to allow your body to fuel and recover from your runs to make you stronger,
  8. Make yourself accountable by sharing your goals with your partner or a friend. Did you know only 8% of people achieve silent goals, 33% if you write your goals down and if you share these goals with someone then staggeringly you are 65% more likely to achieve them!
  9. Have fun.

    I hope to virtually see you joining Gobi, Dion and I on Saturday 30th May whether you walk,jog or run for our virtual ‘Jog with Gobi’ and support a fantastic cause that’s close to our hearts.

    The path to running is not always easy, some days will feel easier than others but stick with it and you might just surprise yourself!

Veganuary – A Game Changer

I’ve been looking for a good excuse to try veganism for a while now, constantly finding reasons why the time was never right, then I watched a documentary that would change my perspective completely.  A friend of mine had recommended a Netflix documentary ‘The Game changers’ to watch, not in a preaching way, but purely as a compelling documentary that would be interesting to watch and then discuss.  It was a game changer.  I’d always thought going vegan was just about saving the animals, which is a great cause in itself of course, but this was also about my health and shockingly so.

Veganuary (pledging to go vegan for the month of January) seemed like the perfect time to give it a go.  Making the change a little more challenging I combined this with giving up alcohol, moving country to the USA and basing myself in the Deep South Louisiana where most people look at you blankly when you say you’re vegan and then say they feel sorry for you!  

January always sees me getting back into more consistent training and healthy eating anyway and by going vegan I’ve found it a great way to politely decline peoples ideas of showing hospitality by treating you with food that is ultimately bad for you and it’s certainly saved my wallet as there just aren’t as many options to dine out, particularly in Louisiana so that was a win:win in my book.  With making most of our meals at home I haven’t found it particularly challenging to find alternatives to animal products, there is such an amazing range of meat substitutes as well as dairy.  What did surprise me was just how many products are made from animal products in our normal grocery lines, in most mainstream supermarkets it certainly felt that apart from the fruit & vegetable section the stores are about 95% animal products which is a shocking eye opening thought.  Also shockingly you’re not able to eat McDonalds fries or hash browns in USA as they are made with beef fat, why?  Not that I’m an eater of McDonalds or any fast foods but this would be such an easy offering for them to have.

There is a lot of confusion as to what vegan actually is too, I’ve found people commenting how it’s amazing that I don’t eat any sugar or gluten, or that you’re starving yourself and that all you eat is bland lentils and kale and never consume anything tasty.  Trust me I know because I used to think it too and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever consider a vegan diet.

Vegan food can be really tasty! Though it can be expensive; it’s really disappointing to see how cheap junk food is compared to healthy food, whether it’s vegan or not.  To me this certainly underlines a major root cause of the health epidemic the world is facing with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart issues and the list goes on.  I’ve taken a lot of inspiration for food ideas from the Veganuary newsletters and I’m following some amazing people on Instagram such as @elavegan @vegolution.co @glowingplants & @thevegansclub to name a few of those I’m constantly pinching recipes from and creating delicious, tasty and exciting meals.  Not to mention mouthwatering cakes and treats too, just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy which is another misconception and trap people can fall into if they’re not paying attention to what they’re eating.  But everything in moderation I think, including the odd treat.

I’ve found my perceptions of consumer advertising have changed dramatically during this time frame, to the point where I feel nauseated by some of the advertising out there about eating meat.  I’d never noticed it before but things like a caricature of a pig roasting itself actually made me feel nauseas and question the necessity of it at all.  I’ve also found a new respect for vegans, realising now that they’re* (*we’re) not trying to make life difficult with our choices, but please can more cafes, shops & restaurants get on board and make choices available.

I’ve been enjoying thinking more about my food choices and making more conscientious decisions which has overlapped into other aspects of my life such as consumerism, waste and my overall impact on the environment.  This has made me more sensitive to the shocking lack of awareness and care the majority of the population has towards all of this.  But that’s a whole other blog!

My body has felt the changes too.  I haven’t suddenly dropped a couple of stone in weight, I don’t have boundless energy and feel supercharged all the time; I have however stopped suffering from stomach cramping/IBS which at times over the last 20 years has been so debilitating I’ve not been able to walk.  After all those years of trying to cut out certain foods or coffee, chocolate etc I think I may finally have solved my own problem.  I generally feel healthier and happier about my food choices, I feel confident and proud of the choices I’m making.  In January alone I probably saved about 4 chickens lives by not eating my usual food and when I put it into a number, that makes me feel pretty darn proud too.

I haven’t been an angel though.  I did 6 weeks 100% vegan and then decided to indulge in a steak meal as a farewell from Louisiana with our hosts.  It felt odd, I was conflicted as it felt morally wrong to be eating the steak but then after 41 years of being a carnivore it also felt ‘normal’ so overall it was a bittersweet enjoyment.  This however was then compounded the following day with stomach cramps, was this the steak?  Or was it because I’d had alcohol too?  Either way the feelings of both physical and moral discomfort have put me back on the path of a more plant based diet.  

Will I be 100% vegan?  I can’t say that I will be 100%, I think sometimes it’s difficult in certain situations to be vegan and still be true to yourself about health, lifestyle and happiness but I certainly see myself being primarily plant based.  I’ve learnt so much in this short time and have so much more to learn but I have learnt that I don’t ‘need’ or actually want meat.  I want a world without animal farms and slaughterhouses and to lead a healthy and long life.

My top tips for trying a plant based diet:

  • Give it a try

  • Try new things – experiment

  • Keep learning

  • Vegan doesn’t always equal healthy – choose wisely

  • Remember why

  • Accept mistakes will happen

  • Don’t give up

No New Year Resolutions Here

New year, new me, right? I was pretty happy with the old me, or the current me actually.  All our screens are filled with everyone announcing the New Years resolutions and companies advertising how this is the year you change, but change can be made at anytime of the year, if you should want to of course.  Sure I could be more patient, listen more and give more but I’m keen to get back to me.

Crossing the UTMB finish line

Since completing UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 107 mile/10,000m ascent/descent) at the end of August my life has been a whirlwind which whilst exciting and adventurous also means that routine & healthy habits fall away.  September saw me join Dion in travelling to the USA for his final race of the year, Wasatch 100, which was the final event to see him be the first man to complete the Leadman Series and the Grand Slam of 100’s and it was to be such a great experience to support him and cross the final finish line.  I was still recovering from UTMB so this was a holiday and I treated it as such.

Seeing Dion complete the Grand Slam of 100’s at Wasatch 100

In my excitement earlier in the year, I’d signed up to run the 52km Trail Aiguille Rouges race with 4,500m ascent/descent at the end of September, just on 4 weeks after UTMB.  I would never recommend anyone to do this after such a massive race but here I was lined up to run it.  I felt good for the first few miles of the race but as soon as we hit the first climb I knew I hadn’t recovered.  Whilst climbing this 1500m climb in what felt like slow motion I decided that I should pull out at the first checkpoint as I knew the route and this spot would drop me straight back into Chamonix but as luck would have it just before reaching the checkpoint I ran into a friend, Jo Cowper, who was also struggling and talking of dropping at the same spot.  Instantly my runners maternal instinct came out and I was encouraging Jo to carry on, that ‘we’ would get through this together. Needless to say it was a long but beautiful day out in the mountains and we crossed that finish line together after many words of encouragement between us.

Running TAR with Jo Cowper

The next adventure was upon me quickly, accompanying Dion & Gobi to Slovenia and Croatia for the language book releases of ‘Finding Gobi’ over there.  It’s a full on 3 week tour, working remotely whilst being on a publicity tour requires 100% energy and focus leaving me with little drive to get any sort of training done.  I manage to squeeze in a few 5km runs here and there, normally accompanied by Gobi, so the runs are certainly not considered training.  It’s enjoyable though to discover new places and see new things but there is an unsettled feeling in my body.  I never quite realised how much I need a bit of routine in my life, particularly exercise routine, to allow me to feel truly happy.  They do say exercise is addictive and I think I’m truly hooked.

Running the Ljubijana 10k with Dion and Gobi

After 3 weeks away from home, we make it back to Chamonix for an overnight stop, just enough time to swap out some luggage for our next trip to the U.K.  After a whirlwind 12 hours, the car is packed and we hit the road to London.  It’s a long drive to the U.K. and with all the best intentions I can’t resist a pastry and coffee at all our stops.  I have a history of bad eating and although now as an athlete I train well and eat clean most of the time, my inner self always reverts to these bad habits under times of stress.  Although the travel itself is not consciously stressful, sub consciously is a different story and although I try to combat these bad habits by continuing to run while I’m away it’s not enough for my body to go against my own self sabotage and 2 weeks away in the U.K. takes it’s toll on my fitness, weight and self image.

Fitting in the odd run whilst in the UK

Having struggled with my weight for the first 30 years of my life (link to my story) I find myself panicking about any weight gain and loss of fitness as I’m petrified of being the fat, unfit woman that I was.  I know it’s not logical and it’s good for my body to have a break and a few kilos aren’t going to revert me back but try telling my hard wired brain that!  Anyone that’s struggled with weight and body image knows that it’s just not that simple, and these feelings always take their toll on m6 mental well-being.  I try to battle through it as I’m a positive person after all and I know negativity and lack of self worth will not help me.  

I get back to Chamonix after the trip and know that we have a few weeks of November at home before we are off on the next trip so I use this time to get back some semblance of normality and start making a regular morning 4-5 mile loop along the river.  The first few runs are demoralising with me taking regular walk breaks on such a short easy run when only a few weeks before I’d run UTMB and TAR, 2 extremely tough mountain races, but the body does not listen to what was, only what is.  But I persevered and it wasn’t long before I found my rhythm and started to feel fitter and stronger again.  Immediately I felt happier and more self confident and I always remind myself of this when I am feeling low, that you only have to start and you will feel better, almost instantaneously for me which is a great comfort.  This is 100% mental of course but what an effect this has.

Back in Chamonix with the Wild TR group for some running in the snow

Our next trip away sets me back again though with Dion and I off to Bulgaria in December for a few days for the ‘Finding Gobi’ release over there.  Although it’s only a few days, the weather is bitterly cold and staying in the heart of the city of Sofia I miss out on my runs and I feel frustrated with myself.

There’s no time to dwell on it though as whilst I’ve been away we were also working on moving to the USA and the wheels are now fully in motion.  With Dion’s O1 visa approved and subsequently mine, we are able to fly out on 12th December, giving us literally 10 days to finish DIY’ing our apartment, packing our lives into a suitcase, making sure the kids (Lara our cat and Gobi our dog) are health checked and sorting out the remaining to ensure we are ready to go.

They say moving house in one of the most stressful events in your life, but moving countries on top of it!  Now that multiplies it exponentially, trust me having experienced that already 3 times over (NZ, U.K., France) I knew what we were in for again.  But not ones to stay in the comfort zone we were up for it again, this time with our 2 fur babies along with for the ride.  A whirlwind of craziness and we find ourselves in New York City ready for the next chapter of our lives.

Running in Central Park NYC

Having planned to be in NYC for 3 weeks over the Christmas and New Year period it was the perfect opportunity to try and adjust to a new way of life and try to get back to some level of normality.  Helped by the weather being kind to us during a period renowned for abysmal weather but it’s hard to run in a city.  Kudos to those that live in a city permanently but I’ve certainly become accustomed to, if not a little spoilt, by living in Chamonix surrounded by the most amazing mountains and trails.  I was pretty proud of getting out and getting some runs done, even managed one 50 mile week, alongside starting to dabble in a change of lifestyle of shifting to a more plant based diet.

Back on the trails in Louisiana, flat but trails!

Moving forward it’s going to be about balancing change & disruption with balance, consistency and adventure.  Quite a challenge I’m sure you’d agree.  The start of the new year sees us growing some temporary Cajun routes in Louisiana and spending 6 weeks exploring the south.  This could also be the toughest state to be embarking on Veganuary, in a state where meat products are the staple this could certainly add to the challenge.  Time to rediscover my ultra legs running from the alligators in the bayou, exploring the pristine lakes and get cracking with a very different approach to get back to me.

As an Australian I am devastated by what is happening in Australia with the bushfires and I’m donating via https://reliefrun.com.au which is a $50 donation to run a virtual 21.1k/5k to support those affected by the bushfires.  If you haven’t yet already donated I hope you’ll consider joining me

 

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