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

Exploring the roof of Morocco – Atlas Mountains

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

The gang!

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

Tai Chi warm up

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

Beardy & Blondie crossing the finish line day 1

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

Glamping Berber style

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

Ready to start day 2

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

Stunning route for day 2 (Photo: Graham Kelly)

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

Suzan reaching Day 2 finish line

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

Our dining room

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

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

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

The views got better and better every minute!

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

Smiles & cold coke at the finish line

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

My shiny new trophy

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

Why you simply HAVE to run the Marathon du Mont Blanc

I. Loved. Every. Single. Minute.
A marathon of true beauty! Marathon du Mont Blanc is more than just a race, this is a party of trail running that takes place in one of THE Mecca’s of the sport, Chamonix. Traversing through the awe inspiring nature reserve, The Aiguilles Rouges, this event has eight various trail races (90k, 42k, 23k, 10k, VK, duo etoile night race, mini cross and the young marathon) to choose from and is a celebration of mountain running at its finest. The marathon had 2,300 runners and the electrified start at 7am on Sunday morning set goosebumps off on every competitor. The streets are lined with fans cheering on the runners but not just at the start, throughout the race through the villages and high up on top of the mountains they were there in so many ways from the loud trumpet blowers, cheering baton bashers, live bands with singers and throngs of dancers to the cute kids offering high fives and cheers of “Allez! Allez!”

Jam packed race start

With 42km and 2,780m ascent this is a tough and challenging route, made all the more difficult with temperatures reaching 32 degrees in the valley. Starting in the cooler temperatures of the early morning you are pulled into a false sense of ease as the route takes you from Chamonix into the cross country trails up through La Lavancher (I did manage to face plant only 3 Miles in on the least technical descent of the day), following the Petit Balcon Nord to Montroc and along the nature reserve running along the Col de Montets.

Views for days

The valley is in full bloom, greenery all around and bright flowers absolutely everywhere and running into Vallorcine felt like a dream. Masses of people lined the path into the checkpoint and there was a lively dancing band boosting energy levels before the first serious climb of the day up to Col Des Posettes. Aid stations are laden with local cheeses, salamis, fruit, nuts, baguettes, dark chocolate and plenty of still/sparkling water and coke. It’s certainly worthwhile taking advantage of what’s on offer. All usually served by super friendly volunteers and accompanied by some form of live music or dancing, it’s a party for everyone from the runners and volunteers to the locals and random hikers.

Stuffing salami in my mouth at Vallorcine where Jana was supporting (Photo: Jana)

All the runners are made to feel like superstars as we tackled the climb which again was lined with loss of exuberant supporters, all reading our names on our bibs to shout out personal encouragement. It gives you a taste of what the Tour de France cyclists feel like with the people crowding onto you on a narrow path, it’s absolutely electrifying! As the path narrowed and disappeared into the forest the crowds disappeared and gave way to solid hard work, with only the sounds of heavy breathing and the rhythmic ‘tap, tap’ of hiking poles as we ascended.

Heading up to the Col

The heat was pretty intense up on the Col but alleviated by an amazingly enthusiastic man playing guitar and singing on the back of a small truck. Plenty of runners were using this as a reason to hang at the checkpoint and soak up the party vibes and snap some stunning photos. We reached the summit of Aiguillette at 2201m and then headed down the steep descent of 850m back to Le Tour, the aid station before the climb up to Flegere. I tackled the descent with gusto, taking the steep rocky paths with tight bends and the odd sheer drop in my stride and it was over in no time!

A man and his guitar!

The final big push up to Flegere was a pretty slow procession of runners, now only hiking, in the heat of the day, some needing to sit on the side of the path to re-gather strength before carrying on. I had to resort to filling up water in the stream as I’d drunk my bottles dry, 1L, in the climb alone. The scent of wild strawberries was in the air and they tasted even better than they smelt, sunkissed, red & ripe.  Flegere loomed in front of us and felt within touching distance but felt more like slow motion process up a long wide, open climb in the blazing sun to get there.

An oasis on a mountain

Fuelled on coke at long last, I’d saved this for the final stretch, I felt fully charged and got a bit frustrated on the final 5k which was single track and was quite a bottle neck in parts so using my best French ‘excuses-moi’ I got my way last as many people as I could along the tight balcon with a vertical drop off on your left. You could see and hear the finish line the entire 5k, tempting you!

The finish line looms!

2 small snow drifts to cross just before the finish and it was there! Plan Praz was in front of me with the finish up a small hill which of course you have to run and seeing Dion, Gobi and Jana at the finish I let out a big whoop and massive smiles all round I got my medal.

Finish line feels (Photo : Dion Leonard)

I can’t recall a race where I felt like I smiled and laughed the entire way around so Marathon Du Mont Blanc will certainly go down in my memory as the funnest and most scenic marathon I’ve ever run.

Loving my medal!