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**

We wouldn’t want it to be easy, would we?

A year ago I witnessed my husband, Dion; tackle ,suffer and ultimately complete the HURT 100 where in the days after this accomplishment he said to me in all honesty ‘I don’t think you could finish this race’. He said this with 2 meanings; firstly he knew that kind of talk would challenge me to want to do it & he’d then get another trip to Hawaii out of it and secondly I think he honestly thought it might just be too big for me. Of course talk like that is like waving a red flag at a bull so in August 2018 I entered the lottery and was drawn in the ballot to run the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team 100 mile race, where the acronym HURT stands for so much.
HURT 100 is a 5 lap course of 20 miles and 1500m/4,900 feet gain & loss per lap; a series of out and backs in a T-bone style route with 99% of the route run on muddy, treacherous, tree rooted, rocky jungle trails in mid 20 degree temperatures and 80% humidity. Dubbed as one of the toughest hundred milers out there due to the terrain and conditions resulting in a yearly 50% -70% DNF (Did Not Finish) rate mainly from either stomach or hydration issues due to the humidity or feet issues from the onset of trench foot but if this doesn’t get you the tight 36 hour cutoff is the final factor. The winning men roughly come in at 21-24 hours and the winning female from 25-28 hours so there’s not much time left on the other side of that.

Course profile looks a bit lumpy!

In 2018 I’d crewed Dion for the first 4 laps meeting him at every checkpoint with supplies of cold drinks, extra food and supportive excited encouragement and then ran the last lap with him. He’d had a strong 4 laps and was in 12th position overall but the 5th lap took us just over 9.5 hours as his legs started to cramp up and seize up at every climb and every decent. The lap for me was fun! I was enjoying a very relaxed pace of the 20 mile loop in the Hawaiian sun with the man I love going into the finish so perhaps this filled me with a false sense of doability. Combined with completing my first hundred, the iconic Leadville 100 in August, followed by taking on ‘The Beast’ that was Oman by UTMB I felt I was in a good place to become one of the few that finish HURT 100.

Feeling strong ahead of the race.

I’d had a pretty good lead up to the race, recovered well from Oman and was feeling fit, strong and motivated to go. I felt I was missing a bit of vertical trails in my training due to living in snowy Chamonix where my runs had been reduced to shorter times outside and more time on a treadmill. I had a good race nutrition strategy to be using a lot of liquid fuel (Active Root, Torq, Mountain Fuel) combined with the food at the most amazing checkpoints I was pretty sure I had the nutrition part nailed. Armed with the strongest head torches to light up the forest for the night sections and all my kit tried and tested.
The flight to Hawaii is long, 2 changeovers and at least 18 hours in the air isn’t ideal but I arrived with 3 days to acclimatise but did manage to pick up a cold from the flight, waking up on Thursday with a sore throat, not enough to cause me to worry but it was in the back of my mind. Self catered before the race meant I could keep my nutrition on track and I stood at the start line at 6am on Saturday morning ready and raring to go. I stuck with my friend, Cheryl who was back for her third attempt to finish, up the first climb and as the sun came up we separated and I enjoyed getting a bit of a run on the slightly runnable sections. Dion wasn’t able to meet me during the first lap due to timing rules but the checkpoint crew are so amazing I didn’t need him.

Cheryl & I at registration

The checkpoints are the best I’ve experienced in a race, the volunteers are super attentive and due to the layout of the race you visit each one 5 times and get to know the people there and they become you’re very own support crew. With a huge array of drinks and food on an ever changing menu along with ice towels for your neck the are worth their weight in gold.
I focussed on drinking my energy drinks between checkpoints and eating a little something along the way before a good fill up at each checkpoint. Lap 1 was going good, I felt strong, grateful for the unrelenting rain showers that kept me cooler though provided more mud and humidity. At 5h 45m I was excitedly back at the start/finish where I was due to see Dion and get an ice cold bottle of coconut water from him, only to find out he’d been sent to the next checkpoint as they’d taken down a wrong number and told him I’d already been through. Disappointed but not crushed, I soldiered out of there to tackle lap 2.

Running into the checkpoint on lap 2-Pirates of Paradise

Steadily drinking and keeping my energy levels up, focussing on walking the hills and getting a little run on any of the flattish or downhill sections I was pleased to reach the next checkpoint in high spirits and energy, with Dion waiting there for me. A quick turnaround and I’m back out, crossing back past Cheryl on the climb back out. We’re both positive, give each other a special high five greeting spurring each other on. With the style of the route you are constantly back past people after the first lap which is great for giving each other encouragement.

Arriving at Nu’uanu on lap 2

The climb out starts out okay but now in the heat of the day the humidity, unbeknownst to me, is starting to take its toll on my body and I start to feel nauseous and reach the next checkpoint looking a bit green under the gills and not having taken on enough fluids or energy, Dion tries to fill me with everything possible to get me back on track. Armed with a watermelon and grape snack he sends me out with strict instructions to just keep sipping my energy drinks and keep moving.

The river crossing into and out of Nu’unau

The climb out of the checkpoint is unrelenting, having passed another runner on the crest vomiting, I too am brought to my knees. I stumble down and try and steady my heaving stomach and spinning head. I try to drink a little and attempt to cool down and bring my heart rate back down to no avail. I attempt to eat the watermelon but then it comes, I start dry heaving and vomit it back up. I try to swallow a paracetamol as this sometimes helps when I’m overheated but this too won’t stay down. The spinning and nausea stops enough to get up and I keep moving. The key in this race is to keep moving as time is always ticking.

Rainbows amongst the HURT

Tick, tock, tick, tock! I complete lap 2 in 7 hours, slower from nausea which also meant I’d had to complete the last 40 mins using my phone torch as I’d not planned to be in the dark already and didn’t have a head torch on me. With a 36 hour cutoff, any laps 7 hours and over and you’re in the danger zone, especially with no real time buffer. I was a lot slower than I’d wanted but I was there and although behind schedule, not impossible especially with Dion joining me for lap 3, if I could get my nausea to stay away we could make this up.

The terrain is anything but easy

Armed with Dion and head torches that light up the jungle we climb back out. Slow and steady up the climb, trying to retain a low heart rate and keep the nausea at bay. The heat doesn’t subside for me, any remnants of the breeze disappears in the night and the heat is stifling. We get through the next checkpoint ok and the climb out starts ok again with renewed fuel in the body but it’s not long before my pace drops again in an attempt to keep my heart rate down. As soon as it rises, I feel ridiculously nauseous so this is imperative but the clock is ticking. Finally reaching the next checkpoint, my tank is empty and I’m moving forward on sheer will rather than anything else at this stage. We try to take some time in this aid station to refuel me, helped by a very patient volunteer who tries bringing me every bit of food they have to try and find something that I’ll eat….lentil soup, potatoes, chicken & beans, chilli, cake…you name it. All I want is the one thing they don’t have, chicken noodle soup 😂

 

Dion’s tells me we need to move, and we need to get up this climb quicker as we are chasing the clock and I actually manage to get moving again out of here with a steady hike up, we reach the top and get through the pig gates ok but suddenly the nausea is back with vengeance this time. I sit on the side of the trail and try to drink some warm coconut water that Dion’s been carrying, it doesn’t help. I try a salt tablet but as soon as it hits my throat I’m vomiting. I suck on a hard sweet to get rid of the vomit taste but it’s all I can stomach, any sip of water or energy drink after this comes back up and I’m just getting slower and slower. Even at this slow pace we pass a couple of people that are in an even worse state than me. This race just ruins people!

All the suffering

It feels like forever and it is, 8 hours of forever and lap 3 is finished. And so am I. I can’t keep anything down, I’m devoid of energy and even if I leave for lap 4, I’d need to do this in 8 hours and then only have 7 hours to do lap 5. Do the math. It doesn’t add up. I can’t even cry, I want to cry. I want to scream and shout at the world because I wasn’t able to finish. But all I can do is sit and stare, caked in mud, sweat and a good dose of humble pie. HURT you’ve beaten me, with good reason, but you were too much for me. This time.
“If you don’t challenge and push yourself to the limits you don’t know what you can achieve. You won’t always achieve them but you will learn a lot about yourself and how to become a better runner going forward. Yeah there are easier 100 mile races out there but ‘We wouldn’t want it to be easy, would we?”