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

The UltraXperience – Sri Lanka

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

Getting doused by the local supporters

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

Stunning scenery

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

Camp life

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

Start line photo courtesy of Benedict Tufnell

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

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

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

Another day, another coke!

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

Cooling down any way possible

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

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

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

The UltraXperience (photo by Benedict Tufnell)

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

Sri Lanka Multi Stage Kit – what worked for me:

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

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

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

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

Bag – Ultimate Direction Race Vesta

Fuel

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

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

33 Shake – Chia seed energy gels

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

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

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

Colourful new shoes – Day 22 Janathon

Was definitely feeling it from yesterdays efforts, particularly the weighted squats, DOMS in inner thighs……that’s a good thing in my book by the way!

7 mile cycle to work got the blood flowing again.  It wasn’t too icy either which was nice.  I did double glove and double sock just to make sure though!

A package arrived for me today……new shoes!!  I love getting new running shoes, I have been wanting to get these since I saw them last year (just after I had bought my last pair!) so had to wait until I ‘earned’ them!  They are perfect for me, in orange, the Dutch colour!  So now Running Dutchie is complete.  Image

Keen to try them out, I ran home in them, took a different route through Manchester Centre City, so that added a mile on as well, so a nice 8 miles home.  That was more than enough as could just feel my feet getting a tad sore, as they always are on run number 1.  Then they will be aok from here on in.

I did actually get around to printing my Runners World Smart Coach Marathon plan, considering I have signed up for Manchester Marathon at the end of april, I thought I had better get some structure going, though I will no doubt blast the mileage out of the water!  Thats the plan anyway!!!!