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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!

What’s in my bag?

I often get asked “What’s in your bag?” from other runners, so I thought I would share what I have in my bag on a daily basis for my runs, this is what works for me and you should always adapt this to your own conditions and requirements as this is by no means the written law of what you should carry.

If you didn’t know, November is Runner Safety Month.  I was inspired to share the equipment I use because safety and peace of mind are key.  To help everyone run smarter the Fall, SimpliSafe, a security company that designed a wireless alert system for active individuals is encouraging runners to keep a clear mind and remain alert to any potential dangers on their run and at home.  It’s not always easy to get outside and train, but every little thing helps.  So tell me, what’s in your bag?

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Click to retrieve the PDF version

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Wee Eck

The latest edition to the Scottish Ultra running scene hit the shores of the Cowal Peninsula on Saturday 8th October for its inaugural run. The 50k Dunnon Ultra event which can be run as an ultra or you can choose to run this event as a relay, ensuring the event is open to all different abilities. (check out the route here)

When I saw a message on Facebook from Fiona Outdoors looking for one more runner for her relay team I couldn’t resist a trip out to West Scotland, renowned for its stunning beauty. I’d also never run in a relay before so thought this might be a fun option for something different.

Having never met my team mates before, Fiona and Nick, I was assured we were not going to compete we were purely there for fun*. Getting to Dunoon already feels like an adventure as after heading out from Glasgow you reach McInroy’s Point at Gourock and board the ferry to cross over the Firth of Clyde. We were blessed with a stunning day so this made the crossing all the more magical.

Return ferry crossing with Fiona with the sunsetting
Return ferry crossing with Fiona with the sunsetting

The race starts from the Benmore Botanical Gardens in amongst the magnificent giant redwood trees, which can be reached by a 15min drive from the ferry stop, though a coach transfer is provided as part of the event. The race starts at a very civilised time of 10am and is now being dubbed as the most scenic ultra in Scotland. The race kicked off to the sounds of bagpipes and canons, no countdown or fog horn to start proceedings here.

Stunning start line amongst the Redwood trees
Stunning start line amongst the Redwood trees

Nick Green was our first runner, an experienced triathlete who took the first leg, which he said was no doubt the toughest leg of the race where the runners headed north climbing high above Loch Eck to reach the highest point of 335m before a 2 mile descent brought him to transition 1 where Fiona took the batton with us in 5th place overall for the relay.

Nick and Fiona change over at Transition 1
Nick and Fiona change over at Transition 1

Fiona took off like a shot along the flattest part of the route following the loch shore closely heading back to the Botanical Gardens for transition 2. Flying into T2 she flung the batton to me after pushing us into 3rd place overall. “No pressure Lucja, but run!!!” I didn’t even have time to put her Suunto watch on which she was using to track the entire route and just shoved this into my pocket (this is where the WAA carrier shirt I’d pinched from hubby, Dion’s,  drawer came into good use), not time to waste, I had a position to uphold.

Run Lucja, Run!
Run Lucja, Run!

After a short flat section the 3rd legs ascends on forest trails towards Dunoon, the views were absolutely stunning from the top of the woodlands of Bishop’s Glen where I could see the finish of the restored Dunoon Pier for at least 5 miles before I go there! I didn’t have time to stop for any runfie’s though, I had just rounded up another relay runner putting us in 2nd overall so had to hot foot it for the final descent into Dunoon. It felt good to run with a bit of pressure like that where I wasn’t just running for myself but I had a ‘team’ to worry about. Running is normally such an independent sport that I found the relay team element quite encouraging and exciting, so much so I would consider doing this again.

I was greeted by cheers and hugs as I came across the finish at Dunoon Pier, we were 2nd relay team overall but 1st mixed team! What a result! Considering we were here only to have fun, we did very well. The finish line was a bustle of fun and activity with plenty of hot food (free for the runners) and cakes to restore the energy levels along with a massage.

Finish line smiles
Finish line smiles

The race entry is £33, with an early bird discount at £23 for the first 100 entrants which includes tea & coffee with fresh pastries at registration, coach transfer, changing facilities and the full event support with electronic chip timing, check points, drop bags with food & water stations, first aid back up and of course a fabulous goody bag.

Goody bag included a lovely medal made from the redwoods, keyring, wine, water and a t-shirt
Goody bag included a lovely medal made from the redwoods, keyring, wine, water and a t-shirt

*Fun in Fiona’s book is to compete as hard as humanly possible 😉

**My entry to this race was free as part of Fiona’s relay team entry – however after having done the race I do think the race offers great value for money!**

Lochore 10km

I’m built for endurance, not for speed. Looking at my racing CV you will see that 10km distances don’t feature on my race calendar, but when I heard about a wee local 10km race around the Lochore Meadows Country Park I thought this might be a good option for me to put my ‘speed’ to the test.

The route is a fairly flat and fast 2 lap route, mostly on hard packed trails and paths around the loch, I wore Hoka Huaka road shoes but you could wear either trail or road shoes.

Action shot courtesy from Gordon Donnachie
Action shot courtesy from Gordon Donnachie

The race had a nice local feel to it, with plenty of parking and no queues for either the parking of the registration process. The race is only £12 to enter so pretty good value when you compare it to some other ‘big’ name events. This includes the obligatory bling at the finish and a Bounce Ball and a bottle of water in the goody bag. I also had the opportunity to meet the crew from a local company Active Root who have developed a fantastic energy drink product with ginger. Check them out if you haven’t heard of them already. I’m planning on trying out their drink on my next 50km race.

Active Root
Active Root

We were blessed with perfect conditions for running, chilly start but once you got going it was great, no wind and although there was the odd muddy patch it was a smooth run all the way around.

The winner finished in 36:43 and first female 42:24. I finished in 46:16 as 7th female and 43 overall out of 136 runners, with the final runner in at 1:15:14.

Sporting my bling at the finish line
Sporting my bling at the finish line

If you’re looking for a quick start to the winter training season next year then come along to Lochore and join them for the 3rd year in 2017.

#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, who had just returned from a 250km race (see more http://www.findinggobi.com) 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 (http://www.findinggobi.com) 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

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