Half MdS Fuerteventura, but not half as hard!

After a so-so Scottish summer the invitation to attend the blue water of the Canary Islands, sparkling in the hot sun alongside the white stony seaside cliffs for the inaugural Half Marathon Des Sables in Fuerteventura sounded like too good an opportunity to pass up. 4 days later, 270 runners that took part could all vouch it was as far from a half race and holiday as you can get.

MdS Fuerteventura is a four day, 3 stage, 125km self sufficiency footrace through the rugged and arid terrain put on by the mastermind behind the ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’ the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco, Patrick Bauer.  Patrick’s reputation for putting on a tough race did not go untarnished with runners battling against the extreme heat which reached an el-scorchio temperature of 42 degrees Celsius alongside climbing peaks with a dizzying total ascent of 2,000m. A key difference from the MdS Morocco was at the completion of each stage you would also have your own individual tents that remained at the bivouac as we were transported to the different race starts by coach each day.  As per MdS Morocco you must carry all of your kit and food with a minimum of 2,000 calories required per day. Of course there are no showers during the race, all the while the ocean teased us constantly with the promise of cool, refreshing relief, but it was off limits to competitors. As one of the volunteers said ‘The pool is closed!’.  The promise of a dip in the water would continue to lure me to the finish.

Bivouac – home for the week

As part of the WAA Team, I’d been invited to take part with Anna-Marie Watson, coming along after her recent 7th placing at UTMB only 3 weeks prior and fellow international WAA team members JiongHow, Megan and Loic. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the first event and history in the making.

#waateam #ladywaa at the start line of Day 1

Arriving a couple of days before race day and enjoying the amazing sporting and relaxing facilities of Playitas Resort, one of the sponsors of the race, it was easy to get lulled into a false sense of holiday relaxation mode. Anna-Marie & I enjoyed lounging by the infinity pool in between yoga classes, massage and laps in the 50m pool & indulged in the freshest grilled fish & local Canarian potatoes and salads, tempting each other with stories of races we’d done with both our bucket lists becoming increasingly longer.

Poolside relaxation pre-race with Anna-Marie

Reality soon hit after the mandatory kit & medical checks took place and we were sent on our way with a 7km ‘acclimatisation’ walk to the first bivouac where we would also receive our ‘one man’ tents which would be our shelter for the next 4 nights. In true MdS fashion the first night involved the official race briefing following by a delicious buffet, our last fresh meal as self sufficiency starts from breakfast of day 1.  The tents were in circles of 6 and my camp consisted of Anna-Marie, Hamish, Tarn & Nats from the UK and Jordi from Spain.  Although the camp wasn’t split into nationalities as it is at MdS Morocco, everyone still automatically seemed to separate into nationalities unintentionally.  It was a good mix with 3 of us MdS Morocco veterans, a nurse & a podiatrist (never a bad inclusion on a multi day event).

Camp buddies – Tarn, Anna-Marie, Nats, Lucja & Hamish before the last stage

The route for each day was revealed after a 2.5km walk to the road where buses would then take us to our start location for the day, with day 1 & 2 finishing back at the bivouac.  Our initial thoughts of a relatively easy 25km to kick start the week were quickly shattered when seeing the route elevation for the day involved a 500m ascent at the start, there was 800m for the day.  It was a spectacular start line set under the cliffs along the beach with the waves lapping at our feet, to the beats of ‘Right Here, Right Now-Fatboy Slim’ the 10am start was quick as we scooted along the beachfront before beginning the climb.  It was already heating up and the lack of wind up the climb was energy sapping, the views from the top were energising as was the fun descent down to Check Point (CP) 1. A long endless stretch of beach followed where we ran alongside bathers and sun worshippers, some of them nude much to my amusement, before we climbed up again, this time being greeted by a 100m near vertical sand dune which had people on the hands and knees to get to the top!  After a gruelling stretch of sandy climbing I reach the finish, shattered, in 3.5hrs.

Stunning coastal beach views on Day 1

After a restless night in my small tent the long day was upon us, 65km with 2,154m ascent and a cut off of 25hrs to complete the stage, starting at midday we would be going straight into the heat of the day which really floored me after a Scottish summer of temperatures struggling to reach 20 degrees. As we started on the beach clambering over stony paths and an ascent that would take us over some fabulous peaks with magnificent views I knew quickly that I would need dig deeper than I’d thought I’d need to during this race.

All smiles before CP2 on the long stage

I was happy to have gotten over the highest peaks and through to CP 4 before it was dark, as the sun set the air gratefully became cooler & I could finally take on more food and found a sudden burst of energy & joining forces with French runner, Christophe, we charged through to the final CP managing to overtake quite a few runners on this stretch.  Although the sun was down my body was sweating profusely and I was saturated in sweat.  As is Patrick’s specialty the long stage final stretch seems to be never ending with relentless sand and diversions down to the beach before having to climb back up and while seeing the finish line complete a massive loop around before finally reaching it to test your mental strength.  I got in just under 11hrs for the day which was exactly as I’d predicted based on day 1 time, spot on!

Finish of the long stage at 11pm with French runner, Christophe

We were all grateful for the rest day that preceded the long day and this was spent mostly horizontal, chatting to fellow competitors in between naps and snacking.  Although the tents were individual and far too hot to sit in during the day, we were all able to congregate under a large gazebo which offered the only shade as far as the eye could see.  The organisation didn’t let us down with the traditional ‘surprise’ bottle of ice cold Coca Cola later in the day which was a welcome distraction.

Tent life – relaxing on the rest day

The wind picked up in the bivouac and after a night of flapping, flailing and collapsing tents the worlds grumpiest runners awoke to take in the last stage.  The promise of a cool swim, shower, cold beer and a fresh bed drove all of us to a fast paced last day of 21km.  We powered through lava fields with sharp jagged rocks and a long stretch through a sandy river bed before a final climb up to a peak above the oasis of Playitas Resort and the end was in touching distance.  It was done!  I’d promised myself all week that I was going straight into the ocean at the finish in full kit, so I did just that and it felt amazing!

Finish line with Patrick & Anna-Marie

Competitors were invited to camp out for the final night, but Anna-Marie & I were smug that we’d arranged to book an apartment, no more sandy, windy tents for us.  Suitably showered and extremely hungry we again indulged in the amazing food on offer along with some chilled Cava to celebrate our joint accomplishments and her sensational win before attending the awards ceremony and gala dinner with everyone.  During the final moments of the evening we watched a 5 minute film of the race which captures all the  magic of the week, so much so we found ourselves saying ‘Wow that looks amazing, shall we do it again?’  Watch it yourself below and let me know your thoughts, 2018 anyone?

Morocco Tizi n Trail

Something for everyone!

Run for fun, race for time, challenge yourself with a multi day event, or simply walk & explore the beautiful trails of a stunning and mystical country that is close to my heart, Morocco.

Morocco Tizi n Trail is a race each year consisting of 3 stages between 20 and 28km between sea, mountains, desert and canyons. This years race began from the picturesque lakeside location of Bin el Ouidane before heading into the trails and mountains surrounding the lake. Each day was completely varied from running through fire track trails, to hiking up small mountains and descending into gorges with the most beautiful blue rivers rushing through them, into local farms where running alongside donkeys or kids was just part of everyday life. Temperatures during the evening were cool and the days were delightfully warm and sunny, enough to guarantee a tan line that’s for sure.

Having way too much fun on the sunny trails!

If you’ve ever wanted to experience Morocco in a unique and active way then this is for you. Whether it’s your first multi day event, your first or hundredth trail running experience or you are an experienced Marathon Des Sables runner give Tizi n Trail a try. The race is fully supported so that means you only carry what you need for the day; a small rucksack with your essentials like water, food, phone (for the amazing photo opportunities!) and any safety essentials is all you need and the organisation transports your luggage. Arriving at the end of each day to magnificent camps set up with traditional bedouin tents that sleep up to 8 of you including mattress, pillows and blankets; delicious Moroccan food catered for 3 courses each day, along with fully operational showers and toilets. This is living!

Home for the night (Photo: Paul Vilcot)

The range of abilities of the participants ranges from those that are there to compete, to first timers and those like me who went for the winter sun escaping the UK tail end of winter and to challenge myself with some decent trails to run or even those who choose to walk each stage. You will make friends for life after spending 3 days together exploring the trails and then enjoying the conviviality of camp life, lounging around on sprawled cushions and dancing to traditional Berber music after enjoying the delights of the country such as couscous and tagines.

Dinner & music

2018 will open in the region of Essaouira and promises even more beauty and thrills. Essaouira is located on the coast line of Morocco, which you will recognise from the acclaimed series ‘Game of Thrones’. Essaouira is so unique with its mix of European, Arab and African elements with many of the scents shot on the Scala, the old Portuguese Fortifications.

Essaouira harbour

Check out my video of 2017 below and see for yourself how beautiful this event is. For only €680 which includes your 2 nights accommodation in a hotel before and after the race, accommodation during the race with all the catering along with transportation of yourself to and from the start/finish and your bag throughout the week, medical assistance and the finishing awards ceremony this price is too good to pass up. All you need to sort out is your airfares and getting to and from the airport.

If you are interested please get in touch with me at runningdutchie@hotmail.com or send me a message via twitter or instagram as I am proud to say I am the UK representative for this event and will be hosting you to assist with all arrangements from the UK and throughout the days in Morocco to ensure you have the best time without any hassle whatsoever.

I hope you will join me for 2018 from 22 to 26 March for the time of your life. Registrations open from Sunday 14th May 2017. Check out more details at the event home page here.

Running’s Greatest Reward

Running has given me a great reason to travel the world and I’ve been fortunate to run in locations from South Africa to America to Turkey to all over the United Kingdom and whilst every race has given me many rewards and enjoyment none have been as great as the reward of everlasting friendships. This shone through at the 2016 Ultimate Trails 110km & 55km in The Lakes district.

I ran the race in 2015 (read more about that here), and felt the race offered so much in the way of, stunning countryside, beautiful views, adventure with some serious toughness without needing to travel anywhere outside the UK. I encouraged my dear friends Marina and Rhianon to enter for 2016 and also liaised with Graham Patten the race director to invite my Turkish friend, Mahmut Yavuz, one of Turkey’s best ever elite ultra runners to attend.  Mahmut had never been to the UK before and what better way to show him our beautiful country than by running 110km through some of the most stunning scenery the Lakes District has to offer.

Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration

Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration

I met Mahmut and Marina at my first ever multi stage race in 2013 at the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) in South Africa, and a strong friendship was forged between us all.  Since then Marina and I have become best of friends and run many races together, including the “Toughest Footrace in the World” Marathon des Sables, which we ran side by side across the Sahara Desert. In fact it was during MDS Marina and I hatched the plan to embark on our biggest challenge to date, running the length of The Netherlands #500kin5days for the Pink Ribbon Breast Cancer charity, read more about that here.

KAEM 2013

KAEM 2013

Rhianon and I met through the world of Twitter as she approached me about coaching her to improve her running (read her testimonial here).  I got to know Rhianon more as we worked together on her training plans and she has successfully improved her pacing, distance runs and now has developed a serious love of hills, in particular those on the West Highland Way.  I now consider her a close friend and we regularly meet up for training weekends and head off to races together.  She is also Head Crew for #500kin5days so we know we are in safe hands.

Coming from Turkey to the UK was an experience in itself for Mahmut, with Istanbul enjoying a hot 35 degree summer he was shocked to land in Edinburgh where it was drizzly, overcast and only 13 degrees, a typical summer’s day!  The forecast for the race was no different with plenty of rain planned. Before leaving to the Lakes District I of course took Mahmut on an Edinburgh Run Tour to see the highlights of Edinburgh and get him acclimatised to our summer.

A warm welcome awaited us in The Lakes from Graham and all the crew from Ultimate Trails. Starting the race at midnight with the rain pelting down on the race briefing shelter we all knew we were in for a wet one this year. Mahmut positioned himself at the front and it would be the last time I saw him until the finish line again.  I am sure everyone would agree that the weather made the event one of the toughest yet with lots of mud, slippery rocks and knee deep bogs to contend with but the race was superbly organised and we still managed to enjoy stunning Lake views along the way as we ascended and descended 3,600m over various passes.

Stunning scenery in The Lakes

Stunning scenery in The Lakes

Mahmut had an interesting race, not being used to wet trails he spent most of the slippery downhill’s on his rear, but staying in top contention swinging in between 2nd and 4th placing throughout the race, read his full story here.

Men's 100km podium

Men’s 100km podium

I ran the race in the good company of Marina crossing the line just over 18 hours, in joint 7th female and 71st overall.  I had hoped to run this year’s race quicker than last year but the weather added a different dimension of slippery rocks, knee deep bogs and fairly constant driving rain, in between small bouts of hail and/or sunshine!  We drew on each other’s strengths when we both hit bad points along the way and laughed at our own predicament together, we both suffered from the shits along the way with cramping which hampered our progress but at least misery loves company!

All smiles at the finish

All smiles at the finish

Our friend Rhianon completed the 55km, which was her toughest race to date with 1,763m of ascent to conquer and was great preparation for her upcoming race in October where she is heading of to run the Atacama Crossing, a 250km multi stage race through the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert.  She finished with a massive smile on her face and is keen to do the 110km next year, so it looks like I might have to go back again, though I may see what the 55km option is like for a change. Mahmuts’4th position  overall meant he won a free entry to next year’s race which I have no doubt he will want to come back with some knowledge of the route to try and take an even higher placing next year, and possibly bring some of his running friends along too.

I was amazed at how many of the runners and volunteers I chatted to throughout the 110km that I had met before at races or that knew me through my blog and Twitter and really enjoyed chatting to them all and watching them achieve fantastic results at this race.

The links in running go on and on and the friendships created will last a lifetime.

Race friends have quickly become very close and trusting friends who have been welcomed in our home and us being welcomed in theirs across the world. Next week I’m welcoming the amazing Elise Downing who is currently running the entire length of the UK coastline to stay with us, before setting off with Marina on our adventure to run across The Netherlands. I then head to 160km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in August where I look forward to catching up with old and meeting new friends running the various races.

What experiences have you had of this amazing forging of friendships across all borders? I’d love to hear your stories too.

The answer lies in the journey – Marathon Des Sables 2016

The mystical shifting sands of the Sahara beckoned and lured me back for a 2nd time to compete in ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ Marathon Des Sables (MdS).  A 257km, the longest MdS distance in the 31 year history of the race, gruelling multi-stage, self sufficient race in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth – the Sahara desert.  Crossing salt flats, climbing jebels, and running through the never ending sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees under the scorching Moroccan sun and contending with billowing sand storms as if it wasn’t hard enough.  But why come back for a 2nd time you ask?  I had some ghosts to put to bed as I explain in more detail in my previous post.

After a typical Scottish winter it felt good to be back in Morocco; under a canopy of startling blue skies and wispy clouds the stark surroundings have started to feel strangely like home after quite a number of visits to this beautiful country for various types of holidays and adventures.  I for one couldn’t wait to join the other 1,250 runners from all different walks of life for one single purpose, to finish this challenge.

Ouarzazate sunset

Ouarzazate sunset

Leaving civilisation behind in Ouarzazate, the 6 hour bus ride out to the first bivouac (camp) site feels long even though en route I met my running idol, Fernanda Maciel.

Selfie with Fernanda!

Selfie with Fernanda!

Once we get there and settle into our tent that will house 7 of us (3 previous finishers among us), tent number 156, we know we still have a full day of administrative checks the following day to endure before we get anywhere near racing.  The 2 nights spent in the camp before the actual race start is a gentle tease as you slowly get further away from creature comforts, for the first night you still have all your belongings including phones and toiletries (important in exactly that order) and delicious meals are provided by the race organisation.  But then it starts to strip away, the day before the race you hand your luggage in and the race registration takes place of checking your kit and ECG/medical before handing you your race numbers and bag of salt tablets before it all suddenly starts to feel very real.

Dinner MdS style

Dinner MdS style

Every day the bivouac comes alive well before the sunrises with competitors unable to sleep they start stirring and faffing about in their bags, with many wasting precious energy being up so early and being ready well before time.  I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag until at least 7am before peering out and starting the morning rituals of changing into my progressively filthy kit and preparing my body to face the day ahead.  Being the only girl in the tent I was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

You can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale of this race, the ultimate show.  Patrick Bauer (race director) addresses the runners at the start before blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and we are off with a helicopter swooping low over us all to film us all smiling and waving our way along our own personal highways to hell.  That song will always give me goose bumps whenever I hear it and with it comes memories flooding back of MdS.  It is without doubt the blue riband event of multi stages, nothing else compares.

MdS should not be under estimated, it is a humbling experience where the race kicks the stuffing out of you and redefines you whatever your experience and expectations.  I had previously placed 377th overall (27th female) in 2014 and initially had my goal set at a top 200 finish and aiming for a top 10 female finish; that was until I saw the strongest ever female field registered for 2016.  Never has there been so many females finishing in the top 200 of MdS, with 2 females in the top 20 alone, and a whopping 21 females in the top 200 (13 in top 200 in 2015 & 2014).  Wow!  Proud to be part of the ever strengthening women’s field, go girls!  I was delighted to finish in 147th overall as 13th female with the finishing times so close together it was a massive improvement on my first performance.

Stage 1 official video:

I loved the sand dunes this year!  They were as huge and as beautiful as I remember and there was still no end in sight but I ran them, in 2014 they near killed me and here in 2016 I ran them and came in 93rd place for day 1!  As my husband Dion (http://www.findinggobi.com) so eloquently put it in an email to me ‘Day 1 result, 93rd, Did I read that right…Holy Fuckballs!’  That result added pressure and I felt that the next few days where I slowly slipped back some positions but I will hold that result close to my heart forever, so proud!

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

MdS threw everything at us; dune after dune, endless salt flats and jebels (mountains) to climb that needed ropes to pull you up the last section mixed with heat that cooked you from the inside and sand storms that exfoliated your skin to inch of its life!  My body started to revolt from day 2 with nausea and legs like lead and I joined forces with gal pal Marina Ranger to find strength in companionship and we pushed each other through the good times and the dark times, finishing the rest of the race side by side.  I faced my own demons on the long stage with bouts of diarrhoea leading to heat exhaustion by the halfway point on this day but we soldiered on together with a lengthy conversation for the last 30km about why and what makes us do these things to our bodies.  We couldn’t answer that question at the time, maybe it was the fact that we were almost delirious from tiredness and the heat or that the answer lies in the journey.  We are all changed from the experience in some way or another and we dare dream even more to find that next escape and the freedom that comes from the adventure and challenge of pushing your body and mind to its limit.

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

Preparing for this race takes months of meticulous planning and training.  It is not enough to just be able to run this race takes more, much more!  You need strength, fitness, mental tenacity and the ability to deal with a week in the most primitive of conditions where cleanliness and hygiene are non-apparent and you become the filthiest you have ever been in your life.  It’s harder than you can imagine lying there in an open tent being blasted by sandstorms filling every orifice of your body trying to recover from being out in brutally tough conditions for anything from 5-15 hours, needing to eat and sleep to be ready for the next day.  This is what starts to break people down bit by bit and what makes this race so totally unique and iconic.

With 3 MdS finisher medals to our household that previous experience helped me build a plan specific for MdS.  I ensured that I trained the hardest and the smartest I ever had, incorporating hills, speed, long runs, strength & conditioning and flexibility combined with fuelling my body with the best food to build it even stronger and healthier than ever before finishing off with some heat chamber sessions of up to 44 degrees to prepare my body for the sizzling temperatures it would face.  I kept focussed and trained my mind to keep that competitive & stubborn mindset (my husband is legendary at this!) to be able to push through the guaranteed pain & discomfort that would be faced throughout the race and I spent hours poring over my kit & food spreadsheet ensuring I had the best kit available and the best fuel for my body, at the lightest weights possible but without scrimping.

As a proud X-Bionic athlete I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else into the desert, it has seen me through every desert multi stage I have done with no issues of chafing, riding up and even in those extreme temperatures the kit doesn’t smell, it’s amazing stuff and I couldn’t recommend their kit highly enough for anyone coming to MdS or any other desert race, trust me it works!  I wore a Runderwear crop top which aside from being very comfortable meant that I didn’t have to tape up to avoid chafing as there was no chafe! At all!  Aside from your clothing shoes are imperative to this race with so many people suffering from horrible blister issues this is something you need to avoid, I came away with all 10 toenails intact, still perfectly pedicured, having experienced only one small blister on the side of my foot over the whole week.  How?  I wear New Balance Leadville shoes, initially they were half a size up to what I would normally wear but I now wear this as my normal size (don’t go too big a size up or your foot will slide around & cause friction), coupled with Injinji toe socks (I only had 1 pair for the whole week, who needs fresh socks?) and then a set of AR gaiters over the top.  You can’t do this race without gaiters and keeping the sand out is so important so I get my Velcro stitched on by a professional, Dave at Sandbaggers offer a gaiter fitting service, they are stitched onto your shoe in such a way that it doesn’t affect the shape of the shoe & they will not come loose, I saw a lot of people with issues caused by unprofessional gaiter fitting processes.

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

Sleep is such an important element of this race that this time around I sacrificed 200g to have both a pillow and a sleeping mat (trimmed down) to give myself the best chance of sleep.  I used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 which felt very comfortable all week and managed to have my starting bag weight at 6.8kg (dry).

Food choices are individual but one thing that is the same for everyone is that whatever you take, you will get sick of eating it at some point so variety is the key.  I find that I prefer savoury items for both breakfast and for my snacks and dinner once I am in from the day, and grazing throughout the afternoon is better for me than a bigger meal, but I stick to gels and energy style drinks such as Torq energy and Hammer Perpetuem to supplement those when I can’t stomach the gels anymore.  I wouldn’t be without my For Goodness Shakes recovery powder either at the end of each day.  In the heat of the Sahara it is difficult to eat anything and I can’t get any sort of whole food such as bars down whilst I am out on the course.  My favourite tips from this year’s MdS would be to take some Oxo stock cubes to add to your water in the afternoon for a tasty salty treat (heats up nicely in the sun) and tea bags for ‘iced’ tea (not quite iced but tasted surprisingly good in tepid water) as you get so sick of drinking tepid water all day, so anything that will help you hydrate is good.

Marina & I on the finishing line webcam:

I promised myself out in the Sahara that this is the last time and have told both Dion and Marina that they must not allow me to sign up again, and I won’t……I don’t think.  It’s funny but you very quickly forget how much it hurts, how much it takes to do the MdS as soon as you step away and the afterglow of the event takes hold.

I love this quote from Jason Schlarb, it really sums up MdS!

 “This has been a miserable challenge, a misery train, but a life experience.” Jason Schlarb – 11th Man MdS 2016

Never again….or maybe just once more

“Never again! Never EVER again!” Those were the words uttered by my husband Dion and I back in 2014 after our first Marathon Des Sables as we trundled back to the bus, mentally battered and physically exhausted after running 250km through the Sahara desert. (read my blog on the experience here)

Smiles hiding the pain!

Smiles hiding the pain!

Fast forward to 2015 and Dion was back at MdS for round 2 after needing to put some demons to bed and improve on his 2014 108th position result; and improve he did to a sensational 32nd overall!  I on the other hand was still content in the ‘never again’ camp when he left for MdS2015, but something stirred in me whilst I watched the excitement unfold in the desert  and I couldn’t resist, and hence I was registered for MdS2016 with my first installment for the race paid before he was even back in the UK.

Why?  What makes someone want to go back to this grueling race dubbed as ‘The toughest footrace in the world’?  For me there is unfinished business; I finished 377th overall but it was the toughest week of my life and from Day 1 the race humbled me and crushed my confidence time in and time out until I was left using every ounce of my willpower to not quit and to run, walk and trudge my way to the finish line.  I felt such a mixture of emotions at the finish line that year, elated that it was over and that I could call myself a finisher but somehow disappointed in myself.  No one else was disappointed in me, no one even asks you where you came they are just amazed you finished it, but I was disappointed.  And that’s what has driven me back again.  I took motivation from watching Dion in 2015 as he went from strength to strength and as he totally smashed the long day where he led for most of it and my mind was made up.

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

It’s not the type of race that you can get caught up in the momentum and just frivolously decide to enter, this race costs money.  Lots of it!  £3k for the entry fee alone, and then you need to take into account the cost of the kit, food and the cost of your time to train.  Hours and hours of sacrifice are needed over the months preceding the event for training and planning and the closer you get to the event your whole life gets swallowed up by the MdS, this includes all your friends and family as you can think, or speak of nothing else apart from MdS so they unfortunately are in that cycle too.  Our house has become slightly MdS obsessed now with Dion already registered to go back in 2017 to push for a top 20 placing and who knows after that?!

I’m focused, I’m ready, I know what I’m in for which is why I am fluctuating between excitement and full blown s**t scared emotions in the space of a minute.  I’ve prepared well, I structured my own training plan specifically for MdS which kicked off the beginning of January, whilst of course keeping myself ‘ultra’ fit for the back end of 2015 but I was conscious that Jan-Apr is a long time to be focused and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.  I included a few local races to keep myself on track and monitor progress and the biggest change this time around is the heat chamber training.  I kicked off with some DIY heat chamber (spare room at home kitted out with industrial heaters and a treadmill) and Bikram yoga over Easter weekend and am now halfway through a few blocks of training at the climate control chamber at Napier University.  I am confident this will be a big help for the week as I recall from 2014 the searing, unrelenting heat was a major factor in my struggle.

Check out my heat chamber training:

My kit hasn’t changed much from 2014, I will be wearing X-Bionic again as there is just no better choice for the desert; it’s comfortable, doesn’t chafe, doesn’t stink and the technology of the material turns your sweat into cooling – now don’t be fooled that you feel you are running in air-conditioning but the material works very well and it is not stifling or uncomfortable at all.  I still have my ankle gaiters from last time and will be sticking with my New Balance Leadville’s to keep my feet in good condition and get me through the multi terrain unscathed.  I’ve since discovered Runderwear so will be wearing the Runderwear crop but not the briefs as X-Bionic is designed for the commando!  I’ve opted for the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20L bag which I have stripped off any excess straps for weight and of course have calculated my daily food rations in meticulous detail in a very in depth spreadsheet.  You are required to take a minimum of 2,000 calories per day, but I need more so I have got a range from 2,700 for most days to 3,800 on the rest day!  I’m also taking a couple more luxuries this time in the form of an inflatable Exped pillow and a lightweight jacket as sleep and warmth are essential for recovery so anything that will help me achieve that is worth the extra weight.  My final bag weight is 6.9kg dry.

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

I’m heading out this time without Dion so that will be a different experience, I have never done a multi day race without him but I already know 2 of my Aussie tent mates, Pooley and Peter, from last time so there is comfort in familiarity even if you know that one of them snores!  I also have a great friend coming in the UK camp, Marina Ranger, who I have also been coaching leading up to the MdS so that will be great to have her out there to experience this amazing race with me, along with a load of other UK runners who I have gotten to know over the years at various races and through twitter connections leading up to MdS.  So I won’t be alone, but I will miss the security of having Dion beside me at the end of each day.

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

You can track me and any of the other runners from April 10th at http://live.marathondessables.com/ by signing up for live updates or watching the spot tracker and the finish line webcam each day.  I am #508 and would love to hear from you while I am out there to spur me on.  You will be able to email any of the runners during the race to give encouragement and I know from last time how important this is to my mental well being so email away!  I won’t be able to respond until I am back in civilisation but know now that I will be well and truly appreciating all the messages.

I’m looking forward to enjoying my time out in the Sahara desert, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings and the camaraderie of the whole experience whilst pushing my body to the limit.  I have my own inner goals to drive me for this race and I am going to give it all I’ve got so I can walk away with my head held high and proud of whatever I achieve.  To coin the phrase from Dion ‘Don’t leave any change on the table’ will be my motto!

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Running Hard – Going That Little Bit Further

Here’s a piece that I wrote for Run ABC for the June/August 2015 publication about getting into ultra running which might interest some of my readers.

I hadn’t heard of ultra running as I started my first ever marathon on the streets of my city of birth Amsterdam in 2010. As I was slowly churning the miles out, to take my mind off the task at hand I got chatting to a fellow runner who mentioned that he runs 100km races for fun. 30km into 42km this seemed impossible to contemplate, but a seed had been planted. Fast forward to 2013 and with only a handful of half and full marathons under my now decreasing belt size I was nervously toeing the line of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series 33 mile race at Whitby/Ravenscar.

Finishing my 1st ultra!

Finishing my 1st ultra!

The event was a revelation, gone were the big crowds of the big city half/full marathons I had become accustomed to, replaced with a small group of about 40 runners who all just seemed to be there for a good chat (someone mentioned cake!) and to have fun running on the stunning coastal trails. Trail running allows you to access those special and spectacular natural landscapes that you would otherwise not have the opportunity to experience on foot. Your runs are an adventure every time you head out so why not go that little bit further and experience even more. Although I went out too quick on my first venture into ultra running and paid the price in the latter part, I finished! And enjoyed it!

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I’ve never been sporty or fit, so how does an average girl with no running experience come to running such distances, crazy distances as some of my friends call them? It’s all down to wanting to test yourself and pushing to find out if you have any actual limits. Remember that feeling after you’ve run your first 5km and you start wondering to yourself could you run further? Then you do! That 5km turns into 10km, half marathon and into a marathon. Your long run becomes your short run and you find yourself agreeing with others that ‘yes you are a runner’. With the size of the world decreasing through social media and the Internet we are surrounded by hearing other people’s inspiring stories of different challenges they have embarked on and ultra running is one that is accessible to everyone, so why not make your own fantastic story. You can choose to do some amazing races and events in the most untouched parts of the world but you would also be amazed at what is on all of our doorsteps to truly challenge us and your eyes might just be opened as to how beautiful your part of the world actually is when you explore it from the running aspect. Whether it’s a long training run on your own or with friends or an organised event the options are endless. It’s not just single stage events you can participate in, but why not make it a real adventure holiday and take on a multi day event.

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Keeping Motivated

The resounding factors that keep drawing me to run ultra distances is a mixture of the amazing and inspirational people I meet from all walks of life, the absolute stunning landscapes you are privileged to run through experiencing the magical feeling of being immersed in your surroundings and the sheer sense of achievement you get when you finish such a challenge.

Stunning landscapes make it worthwhile

Stunning landscapes make it worthwhile

What do I need to do?

That all sounds wonderful and even idyllic you may be thinking, but how do you train for such a distance? We all have day to day commitments of families, jobs and can’t spend all day training but if you plan smartly you don’t need to. Stepping up to your first ultra is similar to training for a marathon but may require a few additional tweaks.

Training should always be quality over quantity and designed to be specific to the type of event you will be running, if it’s a hilly route, incorporate some hill reps; if it’s a flat route you may focus more on some speed sessions for example. If you’re planning on running a 100 miles longer back to back runs will need to come into play. Don’t just train by running though look to incorporate some cross training or yoga to help strengthen your body and prevent injury.

Running through a muddy paddock trying to mimic sand training

Running through a muddy paddock trying to mimic sand training

Eating on the run becomes imperative, you might get away with running a half marathon without taking on any food but you will need something to get you through the longer distance. I like to practice on training runs by making them fun and stopping for tea & cake along the way. Or mix it up with your non-running friends by running to a pub to meet them for lunch and then run back!

Talk to people! There are so many fantastic people out there involved in the sport that are more than happy to chat things through with you to share ideas and help you along. Twitter is a great source of information, hook up with some of my favourite ultra runners to hear more.

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Learn to recover. These distances can take a lot out of your body and rest/recovery days are just as important as training and events. I love nothing better than getting a chocolate For Goodness Shake into me as soon as I’m finished, hot bath, slip into my stylish compression tights and enjoy a tasty and nutritious meal before getting a good night sleep. I always give it a couple of days before I treat myself to a sports massage and find this makes all the difference.

The main key is you need to try out and test everything from your individual training style and plans, clothing, kit, nutrition and recovery to find out what works best for you.

Final Tip

Have fun! Life is too short to be doing things you don’t enjoy so mix up your running, run with friends or use your run to explore and sightsee in a new place and take lots of photos to keep it light & fun.

Couch Endurance – MdS from afar

This time last year it was me out there running Marathon Des Sables (check out my story here) but this year it was up to hubby, Dion Leonard, to go and run the ‘Marathon of the Sands’ again whilst I sat back and watched, and watched and watched! There wasn’t a minute that went by that I wasn’t either thinking about MdS, talking about it to someone, tracking Dion and other runners I know on the live tracking system and ultimately glued to the webcam to watch them cross the line each stage. There wasn’t much work getting done all week with the webcam on constant refresh and I could feel the tingling of nerves everyday when the race would be starting.

Dion having way too much fun at MdS

Dion having way too much fun at MdS

Having been through MdS myself I could at least understand the all encompassing preparations that takeover everyday existence in the lead up to the race so I could lend an ear for more discussions on calorie per gram and whether the 20g of wine gums was too much to carry for a treat without getting to frustrated. I can appreciate for non running partners of other MdS runners this must be quite alien and frustrating to deal with. The house for the 2 weeks before Dion departed was strewn with kit, and food bags meticulously weighed and labelled, being check, double and triple checked. The preparations had started the year before though, as soon as we were back from MdS 2014, Dion was training for this race. His dedication and consistency was inspiring to watch, and seeing the hard work he put in through the cold winter months and the excruciating heat chamber sessions he went through in not only our homemade heat chamber but also the one at Edinburgh Napier University, I knew he meant business and results were bound to come.

And then he was gone, in a whirlwind of pre-race excitement, Dion was off to Morocco…..without me! It was the first time we have had separate ‘holidays’ and done a race separately so it was strange to see him go, and I have to be honest and say I was definitely feeling jealous and wishing I was going too. I had a good selection of plans to make sure I was kept busy whilst he was away, kick starting with a weekend in Holland visiting my family (and stocking up my Dutch cheese supplies of course), though I must have drove my Aunty and Uncle crazy making them watch a documentary on a Dutch presenter, TomTesterom, that did MdS in 2013. Combined with my regular updates of Dion would be having his last meal served to him now, waking up now putting his pack on, race starting etc it might have been a bit much for non runners to deal with. The night before the race started I couldn’t sleep myself, I was worrying about Dion in the tent, wondering how he was feeling, how my other friends were feeling and I felt as nervous as if it were me out there about to race the next day. I flew out of Holland whilst Stage 1 was underway but was back on the live tracker as soon as the plane hit the tarmac again in Edinburgh. The week was busy enough with work and my own training in between following the race constantly, but unwinded from all the excitement while Dion was running the last stage, the charity stage, by heading to The Lakes for my race recce for the 110km Ultimate Trails race I am doing in June, so 36 miles of brutal climbing certainly sorted me out!

Dion at the camp site before the race starts

Dion at the camp site before the race starts

It was certainly exciting following the stages, especially having a loved one in amongst it, made all the more real with the live tracking system introduced this year which meant you could literally follow any runner live and ensure you were then at the ready for their appearance over the finish line for the webcam. It is all encompassing though, my life revolved around the race even though I wasn’t there, and being Dion’s PR machine for the week I was busy keeping his twitter and my Facebook updated. But my obsession didn’t end there, I was following loads of friends out there running and couldn’t tear myself away from the webcam until I knew they were safely across the line. The most moving of all was seeing friend, and last years tent mate Cheryl finishing the MdS as the last runner (she didn’t finish last year so this was even more poignant).

For the long stage I arranged a night out with a friend I had made at last years MdS, Helen, and we pitched up a table at our local Italian, Taste of Italy set ourselves up complete with the laptop on the table, food taking 2nd place to webcam viewing. We were excited, the other diners must have been wondering what on earth we were watching as we shrieked and clapped as people crossed the line. Even after Dion had come over we were still glued to the screen ‘look there’s another one’ ‘who’s that?’. It was an exciting evening of viewing. The next day, which was rest day for those like Dion that had already finished the long stage, however some of my friends were still out there so I didn’t get a rest day, the excitement continued, I even missed my running club that evening as I had to stay and watch Genis & Tanya Pieterse our South African friends finish.

Can you spot Dion in the front line ready to take the lead on the long stage?

Can you spot Dion in the front line ready to take the lead on the long stage?

Dion had a fantastic race which made it all the more exciting as well to see how he was placing, he had gone back with high goals which he well and truly smashed! Stage 1 he finished in 79th, stage 2 in 48th, stage 3 49th (putting him into 63rd overall) and then an amazing stage 4 which was the longest stage in the history of MdS with 91.7km crossing the line 3rd in 11hr 29min although in 23rd for the stage (the top 50 runners start 3hrs later) which put him in 32nd for the overall rankings. At one point he was leading the race! I was so excited for him, at that stage I was jumping out of my chair at work and couldn’t sit still, I had Marina on Whatsapp constantly and Princess Peter on Facebook messenger non stop as we were both glued minute by minute to the race. Stage 5 he finished in 57th but kept his placing overall at 32nd. An absolutely stellar result!

Dion's overall results

Dion’s overall results

It was hard going watching and not being there it actually physically hurt so bad that I wasn’t there amongst it, so hard I had registered and paid my deposit for MdS 2016 before Dion had even got back! (And in all the excitement building up I also convinced Marina to sign up as well #TeamLuRi for MdS 2016). The beauty of Dion having done so well means I now have a live in personal trainer to get me ready for next year! Next stop for me however is Transvulcania in 3 weeks on 9th May, 73.3km with 8,500m of ascent on the beautiful island of La Palma.

A minute with Dion Leonard:

What was the highlight/best bit of your week running the MdS?

Impossible to highlight one but the whole experience from start to finish is second to none, the morning start line blast of “Highway to Hell” gets you pumped up no matter how tired you are, sharing time with some amazing people, running in a brutal but beautiful country, seeing your tent mates coming in every day and what they’ve gone through & their own achievements and of course finishing 32nd for myself.

Tent 169

Tent 169

What advice would you give a runner looking to compete at MdS themselves?

Train hard, be organised and confident with the kit you take, get there and enjoy the race and results will follow. Don’t be overcome by all the hype!

What, if anything, would you change in your kit/food that you took?

I try and take 4/4.5kg of food and make up the other 1.5kg with minimal kit, at times on a rocky campsite a mattress would have been nice.

Are you going to go back?

Other desert races to run in 2016 but I’d like to go back in 2017 and see if I could finish in the top 20.

What’s next for you?

West Highland Way in June which is a 95 mile race in Scotland, North Face Cappadocia 110km in October in Turkey and a bit undecided for 2016 except a definite will be Atacama and Mohican 100 miles in the States.

Dion's finishers card from me

Dion’s finishers card from me