It Never Rains in the Kalahari

There is something truly unique about the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM)-250km self sufficient race through the desert over 6 stages/7 days that brings you back time and time again. The Kalahari didn’t fail to deliver another exceptional week of stunning beauty, stiff racing competition and fabulous camaraderie.

Running alongside such beauty is part of the experience.

Running alongside such beauty is part of the experience.

After finishing KAEM in 2013 and having learnt a lot from other races completed this year, including Marathon Des Sables (MdS); preparation had an even more concentrated focus. I analysed my kit & nutrition to ensure there was no room for error and that I had the correct weight to energy ratios with race nutrition being the key. A major learning after MdS was to stop using nuts/low carb foods as fuel during racing hours and converting to high carb fuel such as gels/bars/clif shot bloks and liquid energy such as perpetuem. My nutrition plan worked so much better, nothing is ever 100% but it was close.  I will be doing a further blog purely on nutrition in the new year as I’m having my entire weeks food diary analysed which will be interesting to get some further feedback from an expert.

Returning to the Kalahari after finishing 14th overall last year I had the key target of being in the top 10 overall and pushing for the female win. This meant after MDS I had a small recovery period before training and races leading up to this began. Weekends were made up of back to back long runs, little social life, healthy eating, alarms going off at 4:30/5am weekdays to fit training runs in around work. To really ramp things up and to make sure we (my husband Dion was also competing) were as ready as we could be we turned our spare room into a heat chamber by purchasing a treadmill and sealing off the room with 3 big fan heaters and radiator bringing the room up 38 degrees.  We ran in here every day for 3 weeks prior to the event for anything from 1 hour to 3 hours with or without our race kit and bag on, with sweat flying everywhere.  It wasn’t pretty or fun, and we still haven’t seen the electricity bill so that joy is still to come!  All of what we did worked though, we were both the fittest and the strongest we have ever been and I believe the heat acclimatisation helped for sure, when trying to train in the UK at 0-15 degrees for a race in 40-50 degrees it is the only way to do it.

Prior to the race I had also been working with Marina Ranger who also ran in 2013 and wanted to go back to better her performance.  I am now working on putting together training plans for ultra runners and we were keen to work together to see what results we could get.  Marina came and spent a weekend with me in Edinburgh over the summer and we trained together and talked through a lot of ideas and I put together a plan for her, catching up regularly to help motivate and coach.  She worked hard through the plan and the results came for her to, coming in 18th overall (5th female) in just over 32hrs, nearly 11 hours quicker than 2013 where she came 37th overall (9th female).  Not only that but she has picked up the competitive bug and we are now working on a plan together to get her ready to compete for Transvulcania in May 2015 with me.

X-Bionic pink twins, Marina and I

X-Bionic pink twins, Marina and I

With 70 runners registered to compete this year in the 15th edition of the race and the field looking strong, I started eyeing off the competition from arrival at the transit hotel in Jo’Burg.  By the time we had all flew over to Upington, I was starting to wonder if it would even be possible to better my 14th overall placing from last year, these runners looked like they meant business.  It was fabulous to see a lot of familiar faces, including the ever welcoming race organisers Nadia and Estienne.  There was quite a group of us from last year’s event that had returned for more fun in the sand and sun along with many newcomers I would get to know well over the week ahead.

The first two nights pre race are spent at the Augrabies Falls Lodge giving all the competitors time to get to know each other over 2 dinners and Friday is race briefing, kit and medical checks where we all compare the sizes of everyone’s bags (I’m using the Raidlight Olmo 20L which I had used at Marathon des Sables earlier this year). I’m confident with my preparation and planning and a bag starting weight of 6.4kg so leave these discussions to the others and begin to concentrate on tomorrows start.

Runners congregate at the start.

Runners congregate at the start.

Race day arrives with the runners congregating at the start line amidst an electric atmosphere filled with pre race nerves and excitement. Our morning had kicked off with our own excitement when one of the local baboons tried to come into our room at 6am via the window, that could have been an interesting situation had he made it and scoffed all my energy bars!

It’s always interesting to see what people are wearing, with X-Bionic, Raidlight and Salomon a common choice.  I’m kitted out in X-Bionic marathon shorts and a bright pink Trick shirt, Raidlight desert hat, Injinji toe socks (under my knee length socks which are not compression but more to keep the sun off) and New Balance Leadville shoes covered with my bright pink gaiters from AR Racing, this combination works for me with no blisters on my feet and no chafing in the nether regions to cause discomfort.  After a few final words of luck the race starts with a cheer.  We may be running through the desert but the race starts off with a couple of river crossings to get your feet wet and a few of us have trouble even staying on out feet with hubby Dion taking a quick fall in the 3rd river crossing trying to keep up with the leaders.

Dion making his way through the river crossing.

Dion making his way through the river crossing.

The field spreads out pretty quickly and I focus on running my own race and not getting caught up in anyone else’s pace.  The route is well marked with markers every 200-400m along the route but you do need to keep your head up to make sure you don’t miss these along some of the sections, as well as making sure you spot any wildlife, 2 giraffes greet us only a few kilometres into day 1, this is what it’s all about.  It’s straight into action on day one with some tough technical sections to run along a river bank made up of soft sand and massive boulders for a few Km’s and finishing with long steep inclines to really get the legs working.  I get in on day 1 after 25km in 2h57 and in position 8th overall, 2nd lady with just 6mins separating me from Linda Doke (Salomon sponsored athlete from South Africa) my main rival for this race.  Dion does well coming in 4th in 2h36.  My strategy worked well today, maintaining my own pace & eating every hour along with a salt tablet and focussing on keeping the water intake up.
After an interesting night in a full blown African storm, where the heavens opened up we all finally managed to get some sporadic bits of sleep ready to face a new day.

At the start line with Dion

At the start line with Dion

With the mix of the rain sodden ground and the Kalahari heat the biggest challenge of Day 2 was the overwhelming humidity.  With 35km to tackle today it turned into the day I truly questioned myself; my abilities, my motivation, my mental strength with me feeling serious discomfort all through the stage and a complete lack of energy.  I held onto my 2nd lady position, but actually came in 3rd lady for the stage with both Linda and Bakiye ahead of me.  A time of 4h9 I finished 12th for the stage.  Dion seems to have an equally rough day out there finishing in 3h41 maintaining his 4th position after a gruelling day.

Some of the terrain along the way.

Some of the terrain along the way.

Yet again we spent a night of wet weather with a stunning lightning storm to keep us on our toes, with the earlier starts for Day 3 starting in the rain, luckily the skies cleared and we were able to head off for the 40km stage.  A stunning mixed route of gorges, massive rock walls and sandy river beds motivated me to no end and after my tough day yesterday I was stoked to be feeling strong and on fire today.  I was 100% focussed today and this was very apparent in my running style and my results, coming in at 4h21 as 1st female (5mins ahead of Linda) and 6th overall.  I felt so strong and happy when I crossed the line I was fist pumping the air and felt like I could have run it again!  A gorgeous camp spot awaited me as well, on the banks of the Orange River, so after a refreshing dip and wash I was feeling on top of the world and ready to face the long stage the following day.  Dion had a tremendous day as well coming in 3h44 and not only smashing 2nd place for the stage but moved up to 2nd overall.

The stunning Orange River

The stunning Orange River

The long day was 70km and was made up of all the runners leaving in waves of staggered starts, the first group leaving at 6am, I left at midday and Dion was in the last group (of 2) which left at 1pm.  Leaving in the heat of the day felt like the worst option after sitting around for hours seeing everyone else head off wishing you could get started, but I guess the bonus is it’s not as long until the sunsets.  I was in a group with Bakiye (previous winner) who was currently 3rd lady but without the leader Linda, so I wouldn’t know how we were placed until the end of the day.  I felt strong again and pushed hard as this was the day in my mind I truly wanted to smash.  I reached the 1st & 2nd checkpoints before Bakiye but then got lost in a gorge, losing about 15mins easily, and finding myself having to chase Bakiye down again which I managed before the 3rd checkpoint.  I was angry with myself but I had to try and control my anger as this could waste too much energy and lose the mental control that you need in a stage like this, so after screaming at the sky with a few expletives I decided what will be will be and just get on with it.  I’d been passing the back runners since checkpoint 2 and was using the next figures in the distance as race figures to catch them up as soon as possible, so I was flying.  I only needed to put my head torch on after the last checkpoint and made it back to camp utterly spent in 8h29, 1st female by 18mins and 5th place overall for the stage!  A double happy day with Dion also smashing it in 6h54 in 2nd overall, only 2 mins behind the race leader Mahmut for the stage, which now put him firmly in 2nd place overall.

Topping up the water bottles at one of the checkpoints

Topping up the water bottles at one of the checkpoints

The rest day is a great opportunity to spend some time catching up with others, having a swim or two in the river and eating, and eating.  I’d made sure I’d planned a big day of food, lots of small snacks to keep me busy and completely refuelling after 4 full days of hard racing.  With a marathon and a half to go, the end was starting to seem real.

Linda & I enjoying the rest day in the Orange River.

Linda & I enjoying the rest day in the Orange River.

With a mere 8 minutes overall separating me from Linda, today was make or break for the lead. Linda pulled ahead of me quickly from the start, my legs were really feeling it and I was in admiration as I watched the small group of runners she was in pull gradually away from me.  It was a tricky, technical day with temperatures soaring up to 42 degrees for the day.  The route had a bit of everything thrown in for fun and it really became a challenge to finish the day.  It is always a tough mental challenge on the 2nd last day as mentally you are preparing to finish, but the desert hasn’t finished with you yet.  As tradition would have it (2 years running now makes it a tradition) I finished the day dehydrated and with a good cry, heat & exhaustion will do this to a woman!  The heat in the camp was relentless that afternoon and there were some temperatures fraying in a number of runners, none of which you can take personally, that’s just the name of the game after such a tough day and week.  Linda and I had a chat, with 35mins separating her from me as the leader we both knew I wouldn’t be able to make that up on a half marathon distance the following day and happily agreed that we would run the last day together, neither of us were at risk of losing any overall position and we wanted to have just one day of taking it easy and chilling out. Linda was a deserved winner and it was an honour to race against her and learn from her during the week.

We enjoyed every step of the last day to the 26k finish line enjoying the stunning scenery including a small herd of springbok bouncing directly through our path, and soaked up every minute of crossing the finish line together triumphant, hand in hand.  A cold beer awaited us at the finish and I was in a quandary as to whether to have beer first or jump in the pool first.  The beer won out, but not by much as I quickly jumped in the pool beer in hand in full kit, lovely!

Linda & I cross the final finish line.

Linda & I cross the final finish line.

A fantastic week long race full of challenges and excitement, finished off with a day to relax at the Augrabies National Park ending with a superb evening awards ceremony where every runner receives their glass blown leopard trophy, each to their own round of applause and their own moment of fame.

A herd of glass blown leopards ready for the prize giving.

A herd of glass blown leopards ready for the prize giving.

Dion and I walked away with 2 trophies, with Dion 2nd overall and me coming 8th overall & 2nd lady (improving my time from last year by 5 hours), we received an additional trophy made out of rose quartz collected from the very desert we had just run through and a handmade silver pewter runner on top.  This now makes 2 of these trophies for me and they both sit pride of place on our mantle piece together.

The winning ladies (Lucja, Linda & Bakiye)

The winning ladies (Lucja, Linda & Bakiye)

The winning men (Stefan, Mahmut & Dion)

The winning men (Stefan, Mahmut & Dion)

It is with a full heart that we leave the Kalahari and our family of runners & supporters for another year……..we will be back, of this I have no doubt but it won’t be in 2015 which is looking like the year of the mountains for me with the following race calendar in place:
Jan 31/Feb 1 – XNRG Pilgrims Challenge (66 miles over 2 days)
Mar 6 – Transgrancanaria 125km single stage race with 8,500m of ascent (equivalent of Everest) with a 30hr cut off
May 9 – Transvulcania – 73.3km single stage race with 8,525m ascent
June 27 – Ultimate Trails 110km in The Lakes
July 25 – Salomon XReid 123km race across Norway which I will be running as a pair with Dion
August 29 – UTMB (If I get accepted – registration is in!)
November – TransOmania – 330km non-stop race across Oman

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Incorporating strength training

Runners run, right? But what about strength training? I have come to realise through my own experiences with strength training and research into how the top runners train that it is an integral part of a runners training plan if they are to succeed.
I dabbled in crossfit last year for a few months from July to October when I was training for Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM), and was going twice a week to Crossfit Edinburgh in conjunction with my running training plan and a session of Bikram yoga (also great for strength and flexibility). I did really well at KAEM as my first ever multi day self sufficient stage race (you carry your own food & kit so approx. starting with 8.5kg without water on my back) coming 2nd lady and 16th overall so I must have done something right in the lead up.

Crossfit in Edinburgh in action

Crossfit in Edinburgh in action

On my return from KAEM I took some time to recover and then we moved house, then it was Christmas…..excuses, excuses and I didn’t make it back to crossfit before Marathon Des Sables(MdS) in April. The reason I chose not to go back was firstly I felt that crossfit had hindered my ability to train effectively on my training runs as I was suffering a lot from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) purely due to being new to it and possibly not going regularly enough, and secondly money, I couldn’t afford to do both Bikram yoga AND crossfit so chose yoga as I felt it was the better of the two (I certainly was ending up with less DOMS after yoga). But then MdS came. And I struggled. The race is dubbed the toughest foot race in the world so it was bound to be tough, but something in me was lacking. With similar distances and the same self sufficient style as KAEM I personally felt I didn’t run well enough and to me it was all down to strength, okay the 48 degree temperatures and endless sand didn’t help, but it was strength that was really missing. My pack felt really heavy, yet it was lighter and smaller than KAEM and I could feel this in my back, shoulders and arms. My legs weren’t powerful enough to drive myself up those high sand dunes but I could see other runners doing this well. Watching them closely afterwards at camp, you could visibly see they had seriously defined leg muscles and looked strong overall. By comparison I didn’t. Of course I probably look fairly fit to most, but not when you start comparing yourself to those ahead of you, so there was plenty of work to be done.
I’ve been back at crossfit for about 6 weeks now, and yes the DOMS are affecting me, but I am planning my training around them better. I know I will be sore 2 days after, so I don’t plan a heavy mileage day or a hill/speed session for that day, I try and plan that to be a rest day or an easy day at least so I am not feeling that I am letting my running plan down. I can already feel the strength when I run up hills in my legs and not only I notice, but others have commented that I am looking strong. I can see definition in my legs and arms that haven’t been there before which is great.

Starting off with some light weights for squats

Starting off with some light weights for squats

With a couple of events coming up, 40mile Clyde Stride in September and the KAEM again in November the proof will be in the pudding as they say.
At first crossfit can look intimidating and you might think it is full of muscled up, competitive lifters but from my experience it is a very open and welcoming environment with a wide range of people with a range of goals and everyone gets the same support. I would recommend before signing up to a contact of any term that you check out your trainer, make sure they have the relevant qualifications and the training environment is a safe and encouraging one as incorrect form in this type of exercise can be very damaging so please ensure that you are being trained by someone that will look after you with this.
If you are in Edinburgh I can’t recommend James at Crossfit in Edinburgh highly enough, he is a great trainer and with a running background himself he is ideally suited for me as he understands the other element of my training and how it corresponds and affects my performance and ability in crossfit so he can take this into account.

Ball slams to wall slams

Ball slams to wall slams

MdS – What worked well & not so well

I am a Marathon Des Sables finisher! I successfully completed the gruelling challenge and after months of meticulous planning, it’s now time to understand what worked for me and what didn’t. If you are planning to do this event or something similar, I hope this information may be of use to you. Se my original posting here for a detailed kit & food list of what I took.
Was my training right? I had done the training, and I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, and it wasn’t enough. Not to finish how I wanted, yes I finished which can never be taken away, but maybe my training wasn’t quite right. I did the mileage that’s for sure, you can see that on my training plan, but there wasn’t enough hills (both as hill repeats and long distance miles in the hills), there was a lack of strength and conditioning and the lack of heat acclimatisation was an obvious hindrance to me as the heat really affected me. I spent too much time running on roads (the dark winter nights & mornings the main cause) which has of course helped me, I would have been worse off without all those miles, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and my advice to anyone taking this on would be hills, hills and more hills. 6 stages is a long time and you need to be consistently strong, recover well (which I felt I did, that routine won’t change) and be ready to change your game plan mid race if needed. Get into any dunes and run and run and run! If you don’t have dunes, then hills to build up the power in your legs to get you through the leg strength sapping dunes.
Food was better this time around, it still needs improvement. Still too much sweet, I didn’t enjoy the muesli or the Pro Bars for breakfast and would look to change this to cous cous. I would swap out the tracker and Eat Natural bars for more Pepperami (they were a Godsend and I can eat them all day) and the tuna packs were a great boost too as they are wet, so quite easy to stomach. I’m keen to try out some gels again as Dion found these worked really well for him and gave him good bursts of energy along the way. I took 2 Oxo stock cubes and made a couple of cups of hot stock in the afternoons which was a tasty, salty drink which made you feel good and also quickly got some fluid in. For the little they weigh, I’d be taking one for each day of different flavours. Biltong is also a great source of protein and a tasty snack, my friend, Philip Boardman, who I had met at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon had brought me some over from South Africa.
I was happy with my clothing. X-Bionic is brilliant and I wouldn’t look to change this. It offers great protection for your body in terms of both from the sun but I also had absolutely no chafing. The X-Bionic clothes keep you cool, but I also noticed during the night stage the top was also working at keeping my body warm as the temperatures dropped. My Raidlight hat with the neck flap was great in protecting my neck, I tried taking the flap off for the charity walk thinking I’d be ok, but quickly put that on as you could feel the sun beating down in minutes! My New Balance Leadville shoes did the job again, I had them in a half a size up from my normal running shoe, and the AR Desert gaiters from South Africa were great. No sand got in to cause irritation, and they lasted the distance. I wore Injinji toe socks which work well for me (zero blisters) and at the start of the race I had Compressport calf guards on as well, but due to the high extremes of heat mixed with the constriction of the calf guards, my legs, including my ankles, broke out in a horrible heat rash. I ditched the calf guards after the long stage and it seemed to help.
I didn’t seem to find the Raidlight Olmo 20L pack as comfortable as the 30L Raidlight I used in Kalahari. It seemed to sit too high on my waist, rather than on my hips, so more of the pack weight was on my shoulders, so even though my pack was a kilo lighter, it felt heavier; or was it just the other elements of heat & sand confusing my feelings? The drink bottles again worked great for me.

Ready to go - full kit rehearsal still at home

Ready to go – full kit rehearsal still at home

It was a bit cool at night and although I had a long sleeved skin, I ended up nabbing a long sleeve thermal top from tent mate Cheryl on day 1 when she was dumping weight from her pack, which I used every night. I had my buff which worked 4 fold; as a neck buff during the day if needed (I didn’t this time), wore it as a boob tube in the afternoon to save wearing a bra, then it was an eye mask early evening while people were messing around with torches, then finally as head cover during the night when it got cold. I also had a pair of little shorts and 3/4 compression tights for the afternoon/evenings. You could just wear your race kit all day and night but it is ‘refreshing’ to change into something else for a while. Some people take underwear and spare pairs of socks, I don’t run in underwear as that prevents chafing, and I wore the same pair of socks all week with no issues. My socks were walking themselves by the end of the week however! They looked very cute standing up all on their own two feet!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

My Thermarest sleeping mat was as ‘comfortable’ as it could be, although it’s noisy when rolling around on it; that is until it got a puncture on the night of the long stage which was rather annoying and ultimately very uncomfortable for the last couple of nights sleep. The lack of pillow was also uncomfortable after the first few nights. I had been using my pack as a pillow, but then it started to get too empty so then used my kit, but that wasn’t enough, and it stunk! So I need to find a solution to this, possibly going back to the z-lite mat or similar and I have heard of someone using a condom blown up each night as a pillow….might be one to try out.
I added a small bottle of antiseptic hand gel to my pack before the start and was grateful for that small touch of hygiene throughout.
It is always interesting see what other people wear and bring with them, but it is all pretty similar in the end.  I hope these thoughts are of some help to you with your own plans.

When a healthy habit turns into a full blown obsession!

I had never considered I was a ‘runner’ until I had a few marathons under my belt and came to the realisation that I was slightly hooked on the sport.  Gone were the days of entering a race just to ‘complete’, I now wanted to ‘compete’.  Being an Australian I have always had an element of competitive spirit but after placing 2nd lady at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme marathon last year, I have uncovered a much deeper and stronger competitive spirit.

When I registered for the Marathon Des Sables (MdS) last year, it was before the Kalahari, and only just after completing my first ever ultra of 33 miles, so my initial registration was planned to ‘complete’ the event, but now I want to ‘compete’, and compete as well as I am able.  I have set myself 2 goals, the first is to get into the top 100; which would be a massive achievement worthy of popping a bottle of bubbly or two; and second would be to finish in the top 25 females; still a very ambitious target.  To be ready for this has meant preparing has taken over my life, or rather, our lives!  For those of you that have ever run MdS, or trained for other massive events can appreciate, it takes over not only your life, but those of others close to you; in particular partners, family & friends.  I’m lucky that my husband, Dion, is also competing, and aiming for a top 50/100 finish, so needless to say, it is all pretty competitive on our training runs!

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My Race number – watch out for me!

For the last 4 months our lives have been consumed by all that is MdS.  What do I mean by consumed?
1.  Training – obviously there is a lot of training to be done.  Most weeks we are clocking up a minimum of 70 miles through running alone, then there’s stretching (yeah right!) turbo cycling, yoga….. It all takes very valuable time.  We did do a lot of our training together which was mostly enjoyable; whether it be running together, me following Dion, or Dion chasing me down after giving me a head start to work on speed work.  It hasn’t all been fun & games though, there have been some very tough runs that I wouldn’t class in the ‘fun’ bracket.
2.  Every waking minute we are both thinking about MdS, at least every hour it gets spoken out loud and then there’s dream time too.  I have often heard Dion talking in his sleep about his run!
3.  Alcohol, or rather lack thereof!  Since January 3rd we haven’t touched a drop.  To be perfectly honest it hasn’t been that hard within me to give it up, it becomes more of an issue with friends & colleagues as let’s face it, you become a bit of a party pooper! Not only are you not drinking, but being out later than 9pm is seriously eating into my valuable sleep time, and we are regularly in bed by 8:30pm these days.  Rock n Roll!  I’ve had to go to the point of diarising in some drinking sessions with friends when we are finished and back in the UK in the last 2 weeks of April before we get off the booze again for our next challenge; our first non-stop 100 mile race, the Mohican 100 in Ohio, US on 21/22 June, more on this later.
3.  Food, trying to eat enough for energy whilst trying to keep it clean & healthy.  This also limits the social aspects as you don’t want to go out and eat rubbish, so you tend to eat at home.  Though saying that when we have gone out, the bill is markedly reduced without alcohol!
4.  Money!  MdS is not cheap, especially for two of you, then there’s the kit, again times two!  I know we both earn money, but when you times everything by two it becomes rather scary!  The silver lining though is that you don’t need to explain to your other half as to why you can’t go out this week because you’ve just spent how much on entry fees, £80 on a pair of shorts, or £100 on shoes, or other ridiculous amounts for bags, sleeping bags, sleeping mats…..the list goes on!
5.  Conversation is all about running, MdS, packing, MdS, races, MdS, blogs about MdS, shoes, MdS, feet, did I mention MdS yet?  And muscles, tiredness, aches, pains, food, nutrition and it goes on.  I am so sorry my dear family, friends, colleagues, twitter pals, clients, taxi drivers and basically anyone that will listen to me that you have heard about nothing else, I really just can’t help it, it is all that is running through my head, no pun intended!
6.  Work, now this really does get in the way!  Imagine if I could just focus on MdS full time? Oh wait, I think I do, and then work on the side!  No, that’s not true, we both work in high level senior management roles which do take up a lot of our time & concentration, so it is not unusual for me to be up at 5am knocking out the miles or out late at night to get them in as well.
7.  Social life that doesn’t exist.  It can’t, it has no place in our schedule.  It probably feels like we have dropped off the face of the Earth to our friends & family, except for the ever frequent twitter and Facebook status update in a running related post.  Again, I’m sorry, we haven’t disappeared, we still love you, it’s just unless you’re doing this too, we currently don’t really have anything in common and do you really want to hear about it all, again!?  We still do have things in common, but we are just so tunnel visioned we can’t see for trying.
We have tried to keep other interests and even between ourselves promise we won’t talk about it for the day, and have a ‘day off’, but it doesn’t work.  It must be so frustrating for other non-running halves to put up with this.  I don’t know what we are going to talk about when this is over, our next race perhaps….?  We can be midway through a conversation about anything else, or watching a movie; and suddenly you just have a running related comment that comes out, and it’s fine with the other, you don’t mind your conversation being hijacked for this reason, nor mind hijacking the others conversation because it’s about MdS, everything else pales in comparison.
8.  The washing never stops!  Whether it’s a shower after a training session, or after another night of the sheet drenching sweats in bed (apparently this is the body adapting); and then it’s training kit & those sweat drenched sheets in the washing machine!  It sure is a glamorous life.

9.  And don’t get any ideas about sweaty nights in bed for ANY other reason, I’m way too tired for thatWinking face.
10.  Spreadsheets & calculations – we’ve spent hours working out our total kit weight stripping it back to the absolute minimum, and weighing food out meticulously, researching the highest calorie content and bang for your buck in terms of protein & carb content.  It’s done now and I am going to be avoiding any conversations during the pre-race days in Morocco with other competitors as this is one area that everyone has an opinion!  You hear of so many competitors packing and repacking kit & food the night before race day because they suddenly hear what other people are doing, taking & eating.  We’ve done our research, it’s been done to death at our house, we’ve tried it, we’ve tested it and it works…..for us.  Everyone is different and that’s the point, stick to what you know and have learnt and trust yourself.

Who else has experienced this feeling of complete and utter obsession?  Have you alienated people through this or have they just realised to leave you to it and you’ll be back to ‘normal’ at some point?  Or have you found that the majority are actually genuinely interested, stunned, in awe (insert as applicable) about what you are about to undertake?  Be it MdS, or another equally impressive challenge.  I have to admit that I am surprised at some peoples genuine interest, some friends and some complete strangers hearing about it for the first time; and also surprised, and admittedly somewhat disappointed, by the lack of interest of some other friends.  But maybe it’s just not their bag at all.

It’s now 2 weeks & 2 days until the 29th Marathon Des Sables, and I have a feeling it could be the longest 2 weeks & 2 days of my life!  I’m ready, along with around 1200 other eager competitors from all around the globe that will all be descending on the Sahara desert soon, to run my heart out through 160 miles of high temperatures and tough terrain.  Until then you’ll find me in either the steam room or at a Bikram yoga session trying to sweat out my frustrations, oh and acclimatise of course.  Wish us luck!

Pilgrims Ultra – 2 day event, 66 miles

Driving down to The North Downs way from Edinburgh for the Pilgrims Ultra looked ominous for the pending race. As soon as we crossed the border into England the rain started, and didn’t stop! Torrential rain & hazardous driving conditions made the drive extra long, and looking out to fields of water we could only imagine what the conditions underfoot were going to be like.

We caught up with Race Director, Neil Thubron, one of our fellow competitors from the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon on the Friday night, meeting his lovely wife Anna, his dad & a couple of friends as well. It was great to catch up over some pasta & hear about his route reccie earlier that day. Basically the forecast for the weather was looking good but nothing could be done about the tonnes of mud & water out there.

The race had 3 start times, 8am for the walkers, 9am for the runners & 10am for the elites (or those planning a sub 6hr finish), Neil suggested we start at 10am. No pressure then! It was nice to have a later start though, we made it to race registration just before 9am and managed to catch up with some other fellow competitors from Kalahari; Marina Ranger & Howard Bailey; also running, and Edward Chapman, volunteer who was going to be on one of the checkpoints. Great to see the gang again.

The sun was out, it was chilly, but dry. A few pre race instructions, and we were off! The likes of Robbie Britton and Danny Kendall were out of sight before you could say ‘ultra running’! Not to be seen again until I crossed the line myself some 6h30 min later. Not quite the sub 6 hour I had hoped for, but pleased with my time considering the conditions. You had to keep an eye on the markers, which proved challenging for some, as Dion and a few other runners came past me not once but twice after getting lost!

Ready to Rock n Roll

Ready to Rock n Roll

The route was certainly challenging to say the least. A mix of road (not much), trail, mud, water hazards, fallen trees to climb, sand and plenty of steep hills.  I don’t think I can say enough about the mud; I have never experienced anything like it, it certainly made Tough Mudder seem like a beginners 5km run! Not only was it muddy on some of the flats, but also on hills, making climbing or descending treacherous, and thick ankle deep, squishy mud with nowhere to go but straight through it. It’s not that I mind mud (not once I’m in it, otherwise yes I’m a bit of a Princess) but it is so draining on the legs with all the slipping and sliding, but the time I got to 17 miles my legs were absolutely screaming and were really tired.

We were supposed to go through this....snorkel & fins anyone?

We were supposed to go through this….snorkel & fins anyone?

Normally I can knock out 20 miles without even worrying. I had been trying to keep refuelled, eating my snacks and drinking my Nuun water in my camelbak, but I wasn’t taking enough on board that’s for sure. I say it every time, but I have to get better at this eating & drinking business. I just don’t enjoy the eating on route which is so strange considering I certainly enjoy eating normally!

Nice knee deep cold water to get through

Nice knee deep cold water to get through

It was great to see Ed and Phil at the 2nd checkpoint, where I got a hug, some food and loads of encouragement to keep me going. The last half a marathon from the 20 mile mark were evil. After going up Boxhill, which is a severe incline which would test the very fittest, there was hill after bleeding hill! The weather had stayed good, a bit of rain on Boxhill but not enough to wet you through, and it started again in the last mile, but I couldn’t care about that at that point. What a relief to see the finish line! Made it in before dark which was the goal, and day 1 finished! Dion was there to greet me, having got my bag and set up our sleeping area for the night, what a sweetheart.  It was hard to get the trainers off, there was so much mud caked on them!

Boxhill which just keeps going & going

Boxhill which just keeps going & going

Thank God for showers!  After a shower, a For Goodness Shakes recovery drink, cup of sweet tea, cup of yummy soup and a slice of cake, I started to feel human again. Too sore to stretch (silly mistake must do this in future), I caught up with a few running pals and had a bit of a tweet meet, meeting some fellow tweeps face to face for the first time.

I took advantage of the £10 massages on offer, so 15 mins of the most brutal massage ever from Alex, and my legs were ready to walk across the path to dinner. XNRG put on dinner, which was pasta, garlic bread & crumble with custard. Perfect post race food, and also pre race as there was still a day to go. The perfect opportunity to get chatting to fellow competitors, meet some other runners that are also heading for Marathon Des Sables in April, and catch up with yet another fellow Kalahari runner, Steve Partridge, who had popped in to say hi to us all.  It was great to hear from the guest speaker Danny Kendall about his running, and interesting to hear that he too didn’t just appear naturally fast, he had to work at it, and still does, and gets his training in around a full time job, and a full time family!  A great guy and gave a really good insight into his training.  Looking forward to seeing him again at Marathon Des Sables this year.

Kalahari Reunion

Kalahari Reunion

Sleep was certainly not happening for most people that night, really only the snorers get a good night’s sleep!

The sleep zone

The sleep zone

Awoke to another dry day (in the skies at least, we were to find out another river had broke its banks so another detour!).  XNRG put on breakfast so there was plenty of porridge, toast and cereal to fill up on.  The walkers had headed out at 7am, and I was due to head out at 8am as I had not got under 6hrs the day before, so no longer in the elite group.  Dion decided to join me although he should have been in the 9am start as he was in under the 6hr cut off but was concerned about how the day would go and didn’t want to be caught out in the dark either.  Legs were pretty stiff, but what to do, there was another 33 miles to run.

New and old friends on Day 2

New and old friends on Day 2

Off we went, we were all in the same boat, except for a few fresh runners that were just doing the Sunday, but I was pleased to say I kept my speed up ahead of them so that was a good sign.  We all started off pretty slow and steady and quickly the group broke into smaller groups.  Within the first mile, I was following the lead pack, Dion leading, and they took the wrong way……only a few hundred yards to make up, but not what you need!  After Dion getting lost twice the day before it was weighing heavily on his mind, and that along with me in the pain zone, he graciously sacrificed his own race to stick it out with me.

Super husband waiting for me yet again

The first 13 miles were pretty tough going, loads of mud, I know I keep mentioning it, but there really was a lot, and this section was a lot of steep uphill.  Not to say that the back half was flat as it certainly wasn’t, but the first 13 were really tough.

Taking the detour around the burst river on Day 2

Taking the detour around the burst river on Day 2

Luckily the sun stayed out which was fantastic, especially at a slower pace, it was nice to enjoy the views and feel slightly warm as well.  Dion and I enjoyed chatting along the way, and he pushed me on when I was struggling to make sure it didn’t all end in a slow walk and take longer than it did.

Dion & Andy heading up St Martha's Hill

Dion & Andy heading up St Martha’s Hill

The checkpoint crew were fabulous as always, and I took good advantage of the food and the hugs on offer at the checkpoints to boost morale and energy!

We got lost again about 3 miles from the finish, stupidly following another couple, when we should have looked at the sign ourselves, so that cost us about 20 minutes and also some energy & patience!  The mud was really wearing me down, the legs were zapped, but there is only one way to get out of this pain, and that is to finish, so finish I did. 7h 40min for 34.5 miles.  Not ridiculous, but hardly breaking any records either.

The finish!

The finish!

All the pain disappears as soon as that medal is around your neck, okay it doesn’t really disappear as it’s on Wednesday I was still hurting, but you know what I mean.

Would I do it again?  Hell yeah!  A really well organised event, and a very challenging course, whatever the conditions.  I have learnt a lot from the race, I realise I am fit, but I need to be fitter.  A big wakeup call for MdS (Marathon Des Sables) coming up, and of course that small matter of my first 100 miler, the Mohican 100 in June.  So it is time to up the intensity, get some more hills and terrain in and it will all come together.  The plan was to get to more hills after this race as we had been training in fairly flattish conditions, more concerned with the mileage so this just drove it home that this is exactly what needs to happen.

 

Keeping the festive ‘cheer’ at bay

The festive period is a tough time for anyone who is trying to keep fit or watch their waistline that’s for sure.  Which is why I am so proud of my efforts over the festive period.  Not that I need to lose weight necessarily, but what woman isn’t pleased when the weight comes off, and I have a goal to lose a few kilos before Marathon Des Sables (MdS) as it will make the running a bit easier, but I managed to lose a net 3kg (1/2 stone) over the festive period!  Yes I did!

How did I accomplish such a seemingly impossible concept?

I guess it is made a bit easier that we live far away from our family & friends in Australia, and after just having moved to Edinburgh from Manchester, friendless up here.  That resulted in less nights out, and no-one’s house to go to over the Christmas days to eat all their leftover foods either.  We kept things simple in our house, our only extra purchases apart from normal food, was 1 Christmas pudding, and that was it (which we ate on Boxing Day after a 20 miler so well deserved).  We had Xmas lunch out, so we didn’t need to get anything in for that, so no extra leftovers to deal with.  We knew we were having a load of friends come visit for Hogmanay so we consciously kept our diet in check over the other days to allow us to have a blow out from the 30th through to the 2nd.  I made good use of that blow out; cocktails, wine, fried food, 3 courses, cheese, chocolates; you name it – I ate it!  We still maintained our running throughout the time though and I even got in a cheeky 5 miler on New Years Day in between cooking breakfast for our visitors.

And the other ingredient – running!  The week leading up to Christmas week, I ran a total of 45.5 miles over 4 days.  Christmas week I ran 57 miles over 5 days, with the biggest day being Boxing Day with a 20 miler!  The week of Hogmanay (New Years), which I knew was going to be my worst week, I still managed 42 miles over 5 days.

This week I am aiming for 84 miles (see my training plan), which is quite a stretch and is going to involve a seriously long run, backed up with another seriously long run over the weekend.  Tough mileage, but I have got the Pilgrims Ultra coming up on the 1st & 2nd February, which is 33 miles each day along the North Downs Way, so there is no rest for the wicked!

I am back on the eat clean & train hard regime, and aiming for the next few months, until after MdS (12th April) without alcohol as well, to ensure I am in the best state possible both physically & mentally.  The lack of alcohol & the prospect of a cold beer at the finish will no doubt make me run faster!  In all seriousness, I really notice a difference to my running without it.  My husband, Dion, went most of December without a drink, and he was absolutely killing me on the hills around Edinburgh, I know he is normally quicker anyway, but this wasn’t just quicker; he was doing it with absolute ease where as I was seriously struggling to breathe & run at the same time!

We have found some great training runs around Edinburgh, making full use of the sand at Portobello beach, and have hijacked a farmers paddock full of ankle deep mud.  It’s a mile around the circumference of the paddock, and it kills you, especially after clocking up some miles already in the legs.  It really does mimic how you feel after the long day out running in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, energy & muscle sapping, so perfect training for MdS.

Me in the mud, sweating my a**e off!

Me in the mud, sweating my a**e off!

Me running through the muddy paddock

Me running through the muddy paddock

Muddy Shoes with funky socks

Muddy Shoes with funky socks

Sand running at Portobello Beach

Sand running at Portobello Beach

The gravity of the situation dawns on me!

It’s 7 (& a half) weeks to go until Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, and I’ve fallen off the wagon. I could blame work, actually I will blame work as I was cracking along great guns until this whole help out in Edinburgh for a few weeks turned permanent move came up; and that has thrown a spanner in the works. Really, it has! Longer hours, mentally & physically challenging and draining and extended travel by train has caused my weekly mileage to plummet. I was working up well to maintain 60-70 mile weeks, ready to start pushing that to the 100 mark a few times, but now over the last 3 weeks I’ve been lucky to hit 40! Not ideal preparations. I have signed up for crossfit, and I’ve been 3 times (over 3 weeks)….the problem with a new form of exercise is the serious muscle pain afterwards (DOMS). Last week after a monster ‘Leg O’clock’ session of squats I couldn’t move for 3 days! I think I’m thorough the worst of it now though. I did manage to get a couple of runs in and even enthusiastically went via Morrison’s to stock up on 5kg of rice for some weighted bag training (finished with 2 miles if that which was a real killer). I also managed to get into the steam room for one session, 10 mins followed by 5 mins, which was long enough to reduce me to a sweating, trembling mess.  I’ve had a nice relaxing bank holiday weekend, getting in a 15 miler and a 6 miler in Formby through the sand dunes (which was a wake up call in itself), so feeling ready and raring to go. The final purchases have been made for the event, including food. Thanks Mountain House and Expedition Foods for your sponsorship discounts, it certainly helped, and look forward to giving some feedback on the products soon. The backpack (Raidlight Runner-R-Light 30L from Racekit) can be filled once this all arrives this week and we can start practising with our ‘dry’ pack weight on. I’ve tried out my new New Balance Leadville’s, see my review here, ready for the big event and all my clothing is tried & tested too. I’m scared, I’m worried and very mindful that 7 weeks is not long, but still long enough. It’s now or never. I’ve got a great level of fitness, but I need to push on now for a good 5-6 weeks, getting back to LSR (long slow runs) and B2B’s (back to backs) regardless of time constraints or energy levels, there’s nothing wrong with running late into the night or getting up extra early right? The Kalahari desert won’t forgive! And back to better eating, get into my crossfit for my 2 sessions each week, and start up this dreaded Bikram Yoga. I say dreaded as for one I’m not a yoga fan and two, the heat element! My slackness in training has meant I had nothing to blog about, hence the nervous, panicky blog today! I promise to you and myself that I will be better!