Pondering about Pilgrims

Need a great way to flush out the excesses of the festive season?  Then look no further than Extreme Energy’s Pilgrims Challenge.  66 miles over 2 days on the North Downs Way with 2,364 metres ascent is enough to scare off the most stubborn mince pie!  The format is to run 33 miles from Farnham over the NDW to Merstham, stay the night in a school hall, then run the 33 miles back the next day.  In the evening there is plenty of food & hot drinks, massages on offer, kit to check out and a series of guest speakers including myself this year.  You can opt to run one day rather than the two, but it really is a fun evening and a great chance to catch up with a lot of other runners you might have met at other races or through the wonderful social media world of twitter.  The crew take your bag for you, so you only need to carry what you need on you for the actual race.

This was my 2nd time at Pilgrims, and I had almost forgotten how brutal it is!  Always held in the last weekend of January the weather always plays a part and whilst last year we were redirected around flooded rivers, this year it was just mud, snow, mud and more snowy mud!  I knew I was much fitter than last year, but having competed in Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in November and enjoying possibly too much rest, impacted by a rather naughty period over Christmas, I wasn’t in top form to be racing.  I knew I would do better than the previous year but wasn’t sure how I would shape up to the other runners as this race certainly brings in a very strong field of very competitive runners.

Marina & I ready to start day 1

Marina & I ready to start day 1

I was at the start early to see off Marina Ranger, my co-patriot from Kalahari, whom I have been coaching now since September last year who was off in the 9am wave of runners (walkers had headed off at 8am already).  There was snow on the ground and more sleet and snow falling, so it was truly freezing, here I was thinking I had come south for some warmer weather!  Who was I kidding?  XNRG are always superbly organised events, within 2 minutes of arriving at registration I had my bib number, chip a handful of chocolates and had caught up with Neil, Anna and Brian the wonderful organisers of this event among others.  I hung around and caught up with some of the other runners before my start time of 10am, which by then my feet were frozen solid, I just couldn’t get warm.  I didn’t feel warm during any of day 1 with the continuous wet weather ensuring I remained wet & cold.  Actually the only part of me that wasn’t cold was my hands since I have switched my preferred glove to Gore Windstopper Gloves, a recent acquisition from Run & Become, considering I suffer from Raynaud’s I was very impressed as this was my first ultra distance in them and they certainly lasted the distance.  Read my review here.

Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1

Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1

The 10am group headed off with a blast and race leader & winner Danny Kendall took off with a bang knocking out the first 10k in 37mins and coming in for the day in 3h 48!  It was fast paced for the entire 33 miles with everyone pushing hard.  It wasn’t long before we were passing the walkers that had started earlier and then started rounding up some of the 9am starters.  It’s always nice passing others, especially familiar faces to give each other a quick pat on the back to push through to the end.  It was muddy throughout, particularly in the 2nd half of the run on the steeper hills, leaving me to wonder how I was going to get up or down some of these hills tomorrow, truly treacherous (as you may know I am not a huge fan of mud!), I managed a respectable 5h 41 putting me in 10th female for Day 1, which was a whole hour quicker than last year but disappointingly a long way off the winning female Elisabet Barnes who did it in 4h 49.

Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!

Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!

I got in and got myself sorted with a nice hot shower and got a For Goodness Shakes recovery drink in straight away and some pot noodles.  I booked myself in for a massage and then made sure I checked my presentation worked on the equipment before tonight’s talks.  I expended a lot of energy going around talking to people, which was great in terms of being social, but not what I needed for recovery, and in hindsight I certainly expended a lot more energy being nervous about giving my talk which I hadn’t thought would happen.  So much so I totally forgot to put on my compression before bed as well – a fail in my recovery process that I have tried and tested!  The evening was a great chance to talk to lots of runners, so of whom I know, and some new friends.  I gave my talk on multi day desert running, which was well received with about 100 of the 200 runners all there as training runs for this year’s Marathon Des Sables.

Never do you get a good night’s sleep in a school hall filled with a group of runners, but it is what it is!  With everyone waking up with stiff legs the initial miles are always slow to start as runners get warmed up tackling the hilly first half of the route back.  More snow had fallen but it was a beautiful sunny winters day, very cold but gorgeous.  My legs were stiff to get going and my feet were in tatters so I struggled on some of the muddier hills, downhill is definitely my weakness at the best of times but heading down when you can’t get grip is my worst nightmare, so this definitely slowed me down a lot.  I settled into my pace and from the last checkpoint decided to run with Toby who had been playing tag with me for the day.  Toby is running MdS later this year so I prattled my way to the finish about my experiences as he had missed the talks the night before and pushing him through to keep going.  I finished the day in 6h 44, again another hour quicker than last year, but too slow, finishing as 11th female over the 2 days.  I had taken my mind off the job at hand on day 2 and just didn’t back it up, but it was a good solid training run preparing me well for my challenges ahead in 2015.

I leave this year’s Pilgrims Challenge with a strange mix of emotions, whilst I had a great time running & catching up with everyone and I massively improved on last year’s times, I feel strangely disappointed in my performance.  I put this down to Pilgrims not being my A race as the conditions don’t suit me at all as I much prefer the hot climate races, hence my upcoming race calendar.  It is a great fun event and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to try out the multi day events in a safe, caring and fun environment without having to travel abroad.

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

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

Race to the Stones

Earlier in the year I wrote about being chosen as part of The North Face ultra team, 10 women running 100km non-stop at Race to the Stones. It feels like a lifetime ago, but here I was ready to run.
I was feeling good considering I’d just got back at the beginning of July after a failed attempt at a 100 miler in the US, having stacked on a good half a stone in the process. My training had been going well and I managed to drop the additional weight in the last 3 weeks sensibly, not foolishly, and to top it off I was feeling confident of a good & strong race.
Luckily hubby had decided a few weeks prior to come with me and run his own race, Extreme Energy Chiltern Ultra 50km, with their start line around the corner from ours it made perfect sense; drop me off at the start, run his own race and then collect me at the finish. Giving me an extra 2 hours sleep Friday night as I wouldn’t have to do any car drop offs and shuttles before the start, and no driving an hour back to the hotel after running 100km. Win:win!
It had been warm all week in the lead up, and on Friday it was the hottest day of the year so far! However the forecast for Saturday was changeable; sunny, cloudy, heavy thunderstorms, hail, you name it, it was planned. It was still forecast to be in the high 20’s so I certainly wasn’t too bothered about getting too cold en-route but as part of the mandatory kit you had to take a warm top (I packed my Skins) and a waterproof jacket (Berghaus waterproof smock).
Besides knowing Susie Chan, I hadn’t met the rest of my team mates so it was great to meet them all briefly before the race started. I managed a team shot of us all, except for Sorrell who had already made her way to the start line to start from the front. She meant business which was apparent with her brilliant No.1 female overall finish! What a speed demon! I also wanted to mean business so I managed to squeeze my way through to near the front alongside Julia Donovan (who I’d met in Marathon Des Sables and she had gone on to be 5th female there) and Michelle Bowen (female winner of Apocalypse 100).

TNF Team

The North Face Ultra Babes Team

 

Serious pre race chat with Cat

Serious pre race chat with Cat

I started off strong as not long after the start it was single track for a small section which would have really frustrated me had I been further back. For the first hour of the race I stuck to my plan and ran my own race not worrying about anyone coming past me as I knew I could pick them off later. By the 20-30km mark this strategy started to pay off as I passed about 20 runners.

Running through the poppy fields

Running through the poppy fields

I had started taking fuel on board after the first half hour, firstly gels (2 times) then a bar (1 time) to try and break it up a bit. I had a mixture of gels from Torq (as well as bars), High 5 and Hammer Nutrition of all different flavours. For hydration I had a 500ml bottle for plain water, and the other 500ml I had with Hammer Perpetuem. I had enough perpetuem and food out for the first 40km so I wouldn’t need to stop at any of the checkpoints apart from having to refill the water. This worked well, I stormed my way through to 40km to the 4th pitstop, feeling very positive and strong.
At 40km I was greeted by old MdS pal, Rory Coleman, checking if I needed any paracetamol (in house joke between us from MdS where he helped me out one day when I was struggling), but today I didn’t need any help, a quick turn around of throwing out empty packets and restocking my gels and my perpetuem and I was off with the wise words from Rory ‘Don’t forget to take your salt!’. Thanks Rory, I had nearly forgotten!

En route

En route

Just before the halfway point the path splits into two, the 50km finishers (or 2 day option runners) branch off to the left and the rest of us branch right to keep going. I think it’s a good thing not to have to see the camp site, or a finishing line for your mental stability! I made it to Pit Stop 5, 48km in 5h 13, which was a lot faster than I had initially thought, but I was feeling good. There was pasta on offer here with many runners stopping to take advantage, I went straight through as I had no intentions of stopping. It was shortly after this that I got a text message, this was the only time I looked at my phone as I knew it would be from Dion texting me his result from his race (6th overall). This spurred me on even more and I wanted to make him proud of me too.

Running along the river

Running along the river

55km in the legs started to feel a bit heavy, still feeling strong but the pace was starting to drop off and it was getting pretty hot. It was a muggy, suffocating heat with thunder rolling in the distance but no rain! Pit stop 6 seemed to take forever and it was the only leg where I actually ran out of water, I even started asking walking spectators how far the next pit stop was as I was getting desperate. Thankfully I found it in time and didn’t dehydrate and then the rain finally came down. It bucketed down with rain and hail that completely saturated me (and found my chafed bits #ouch!) but it was such a relief to cool down, I remember my pace picked up dramatically again and I was running with a big smile on my face during the whole downpour.
I was still doing well taking on my gels though the bars weren’t going down as well and for the last hour before 80km had not taken anything. The body was starting to hurt after 80km, legs were tired, feet were sore and my chest had started to tighten up. Just after 80km I forced down another energy gel, but no sooner had I swallowed the gel that it came straight back up! First time I have vomited during a run, but can it count as a vomit when it was literally the gel coming back up, nothing else. My mantra for the last 20km was ‘Pain is temporary, it may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year. But eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it will last forever’. To be fair I just repeated the pain is temporary segment, it was too long!
The last part of the route, high up on the Ridgeway was absolutely stunning. I made sure I looked around and tried to soak it all in as this is one of the reasons I run. Most of the route was picturesque and I really enjoyed the different types of terrain and views we were blessed with along the way but I did start to wonder where these bloody stones were! Cruelly we had to double back past the turn off for the finish line to go and visit the stones, run through them and then come back for the final finish. I was on a go slow by now and actually ran into fellow tweep Jamie Woods who was out supporting, but with the finish line in sight I sprinted (well at least it felt like I did) through the line hardly believing what a great time I had achieved.

RTTS finish

RTTS finish

There were no tears though. This was the first race I felt I had run properly in my sense of the term; I left the emotion before the start, took no photos, didn’t spend time chatting to other runners (sorry to anyone I didn’t really communicate back to) and I was just overall focussed on my end goal and the journey I needed to take to get there. That worked! That, along with my much improved training and focus. I was pretty consistent overall too which is what I had been working on. My speed for the first half was 9.19km/hr and for the second half 8.13km/hr. Obviously there is always more to do, more to improve and more to research, but I am happy, very happy!
Needless to say I am ecstatic with my result. 6th female and 60th overall! BOOM!

Me, Cat, Susie & the 100 cake

Me, Cat, Susie & the 100 cake

Mystique of the Mohican

When our friend, Peter (Princess) Joergensen, suggested we join him on a trip to America to run the Mohican 100 we didn’t really take into account how soon it was after running Marathon Des Sables but wanted to give it a go. And let’s face it, any excuse that results in ending up in New York & Philadelphia for shopping and food is a winner in my book. So the plans were set and we were off.

My training wasn’t tailored for a 100 mile event, with MdS in April that was the event I was training for, so coming back from that was more about recovery and holding my level of fitness which I hoped would be enough to get me through my first 100 miler. I probably averaged about 50 miles a week between April and June, with one week including running the Edinburgh Marathon as a training run, in particular practising using gels for race fuel which I hadn’t done for quite a while due to stomach upsets in the past.

The Mohican 100 is the 5th oldest ultra running race in the USA, with many claiming it is tougher than Western States (obviously I am not qualified to comment….yet!). It is an automatic full points qualifier for UTMB which goes to show how tough it actually is. Traversing 95% trail along a challenging course made up of 4 laps (2 x 26.8 miles & 2 x 23.2 miles) winding its way through the lush 5,000 acres that makes up the Mohican Memorial State Forest, it has to be the most beautiful trail I have ever had the privilege to run. Absolutely stunning, mostly single track trails through heavily covered woods. Switch back trails taking you up roughly 1,000m ascent (and descent) every lap through gorgeous forestry, past lakes, under waterfalls, jumping fallen logs, running along rivers and even including a hand over foot climb up a massive set of tree roots!

We chose to stay in the nearby town of Mansfield, which was only about a half hour drive away, but in hindsight would definitely arrange to stay in the Mohican Adventures Cabins located directly across from the finish area to make it even easier. The race started at 5am on Saturday 20th June, so alarms were set for 3:30am to ensure we were at the race start in time. The weather was quite difficult to judge with some light rain to welcome us at the start but it was already so muggy! I decided to stick to my X-bionic shorts with a short sleeved top and donned a buff for my head to keep the cool off. I shouldn’t have bothered with the buff, within 5 minutes of running I was absolutely dripping in sweat and the buff was off and put away for good. There was loads of runners starting with just a pair of shorts not even a shirt so that is a pretty good indication of how warm it was, due to the dense cover the sun never really came through the trees in full light so the sunglasses I had in my bag were a waste.

A head torch was needed for the first hour and a half especially with the forest being so dense it did take a while for the light to be strong enough to turn the torch off for good. But oh my; how beautiful it was as the light came through. Absolutely stunning, the forest was shrouded in mist and had an ethereal quality about it and this was certainly the most magical part of the day.

I ran the first lap strong, I had my race plan of taking on fuel every half an hour worth 30g of carbs to keep me going and this certainly worked for me. I had a mixture of gels to take with different flavours from Torq, High 5 and Hammer, along with a few ‘real food’ options such as Torq bars and bounce balls along with a few treats like Doritos crisps and a donut (planned for later in the evening). There were checkpoints roughly every 5 miles, all of which were really well stocked with ice cold water, Hammer Heed, coke, ginger ale and a variety of snacks such as orange segments, pretzels, sweets, turkey sandwiches etc and of course Hammer gels (the event was sponsored by Hammer) and all the checkpoint volunteers were super friendly and always willing to help.

The route was absolutely beautiful, I made sure I was looking around and soaking up the beauty of it all. The ascents and descents were steep though and I started to regret my choice of shoe size. With the humid heat my feet were swelling a lot more than I have experienced ever before (even in MdS and Kalahari I didn’t have this problem) and this was causing my left big toe to be very sore, meaning I was running on the side of my foot to try and take the pressure off my toe, causing then a sore ankle, all compounded on the descents.

Covered Bridge was the 3rd checkpoint along the trail loop which stored your other drop bag ensuring I could maintain my nutrition plan by picking up my packed mini bags I had prepared with gels/food I had brought with me. It also meant I didn’t need to take long at checkpoints or eat much of the checkpoint food provided, just the odd orange segment which tasted a treat in the heat.

The temperature was certainly rising and the humidity was high, I’m taking a guess the temperature would have been in the 30’s with about 90% humidity so it was thirsty work which was a bit of my downfall. I was running with my Ultimate Hydration Ultra Vesta which had the supplied 10oz bottles (284ml) on each side. One one side I was using this for purely water and on the other I alternated between Torq Energy and Hammer Perpetuem (both high carb energy drinks) so my water intake was too low, I was constantly running out of fluid before each checkpoint, and even though I was drinking a cupful or two of water at each checkpoint as well I still ended up dehydrated through my second lap.

The laps started and finished at the Mohican Adventures checkpoint so this was the location for the other drop bag, so on finishing the first lap in about 5.5 hours, as 2nd lady I found out whilst there, I restocked with my fuels and headed off to plenty of cheers of support. Still feeling strong I headed out feeling great and positive that I would certainly be completing this race. About halfway through the 2nd lap my ankle/toe was starting to become increasingly painful and mixed with the dehydration things were starting to look desperate. I was still in 2nd lady position at Covered Bridge (41.8 miles) but soon after that I started to slow dramatically. When I got to Hickory Ridge checkpoint (47.3 miles) I was struggling. I sat in a chair, which is a complete no-no at this point and had a cup of the most delicious salty potato soup to try and kick start things. It was here that I started to get overtaken by quite a few runners. A lovely lady at the checkpoint recognised me, and knew that Dion, my husband, was ahead of me. She said that she had seen him at this checkpoint but he wasn’t looking good and was possibly going to drop which was a shame as he was in 7th place after 50 miles. Little did I know at this stage that he had been peeing blood again (he had the same issue at MdS). I think hearing that switched a little mental switch in my head and the last 6 miles back to the start/finish were a long battle of my thoughts; should I drop or shouldn’t I? I had to grab a stick along the way to help me get down the hills as my toe just couldn’t take any more pressure. 2 1/2 hours to do those 6 miles and I made it back, completing lap 2.

Dion is super positive for me, telling me to eat and drink something, sit for a bit and think about what I really want to do. Always thinking that there is no point doing lap 3 if you can’t do lap 4. I thought back to my last 6 miles and how long and painful that was; I could do one more lap I thought, but not two. So I dropped! There is roughly a 40% drop rate on this race, and as we sat waiting for Princess to come through, we witnessed lots of people dropping out as well. During conversations through the race with other runners it became quite apparent that most people were here on their 2nd/3rd attempt as a minimum so I didn’t feel too bad about the decision. Live to run another race right?

We sat for hours waiting for Princess, we’d eaten the food in our drop bags and decided to get some real food while we were waiting. It was getting late and soon it would be completely dark and there certainly weren’t many food options locally so Dion headed off to the local Pizzeria and came back with a massive, delicious pizza and a couple of beers which we enjoyed while watching the fire flies flutter about in the remaining light. It was truly amazing to watch other runners coming through after their 3rd laps now, looking strong and certainly heading out for strong finishes. Totally inspiring!

We were getting very worried about Princess and were constantly doing laps in the car up to a few spots we knew you crossed to see if we could find him and finally we spotted him so I got out and walked/hobbled with him to the start/finish again where he also decided to drop. He was asleep in the car before we had driven even 5 minutes.

The decision was right to drop out, this was never my ‘A’ race so I didn’t have a desperate need to finish and I was always mindful that I have a 100km race, Race to the Stones, on the 19th of July (less than 4 weeks after) to run as part of The North Face Ultra team so I also wanted to remain ready for that. But I can tell you now that this will be my ‘A’ race in 2016. I’m going back, in fact all 3 of us are going back to finish this bad boy and get that belt buckle; stronger, fitter and wiser than before! It doesn’t work in my plans for next year as it is too soon after Transvulcania which I have already registered for so it will have to be the year after, but I will be back and then it will not beat me!

What a steep learning experience the race was. It has certainly cemented my thoughts on nutrition and I am really pleased with how that worked for me so I will be taking that learning with me forward to future races. Of course with every race you learn something more about yourself and come back with a renewed vigour to attack your training plan to make yourself an even better and more competent runner. And as a race recommendation, would I recommend it? You bet I would, it was fantastically well run and I would highly recommend giving it a try to win the holy grail of ultra running – a belt buckle, something that alludes me for now but stay tuned for the next attempt!

Edinburgh Marathon

 

ImageYou’ve got to do your local marathon, and with the start line literally outside my door, there was no excuse really.  I’d signed up late last year not really sure of what my plan would be, and with my first 100 mile race planned only 4 weeks after this, it had to be a training run rather than a race for me this year.  To stop myself racing I offered to pace my friend who was running this as her 2nd marathon to completion (having pulled out of her last one with injury) and with her wanting a sub 4 hour finish.

The Edinburgh Marathon Festival wasn’t just about the marathon but a whole load of different races.  On the Saturday there is the 5km & 10km run for the adults and a series of races for the kids, with a 1.5km & 3km to be run.  The atmosphere was fantastic and really gets you in the mood.  Not having kids myself I never would have gone along to watch the kids races but with a friend’s daughter running the 1.5km we went down to watch, and I was so inspired!  Amazing to watch the little ones sprinting their little hearts out and what a fantastic way to showcase the city as well.

 

I had a load of fitness pals up for the various races over the weekend from Bioticfit in Manchester, so had arranged a pre race “Pasta Party” at Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – Royal Terrace, along with a bit of a #tweetmeet with a few other runners I had never met in person but had been tweeting within the lead up to the race.  It was great to catch up with everyone over some tasty food.

 

Sunday – Race day!  We awake to torrential rain, not exactly the perfect running weather.  Thankfully the marathon didn’t start until 10am so we had plenty of time to get sorted, especially as it was a 2 minute walk to the start line for us.  My friend and I ventured out and saw the half marathon start in the torrential rain before breakfast. 

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Half marathon start in the rain

Due to the poor weather and because I knew I wasn’t going to be running at speed I opted for some comfort food and ditched the porridge idea and munched on a Bacon & Egg  ciabatta instead, delicious!  Of course  I made sure my friend had the porridge though to fuel up for the big event.  I’ve run many a long run on bacon & eggs with no adverse affects and I think the experience of ultra running and multi stage events has made me realise that all the talk of overloading on carbs is a bit of a myth.  The body can only store a limited amount of carbs in any case and I certainly don’t get the chance on multi day events such as Marathon Des Sables to over carb load, and manage to run in extreme conditions and extreme distances without what most would consider enough calories. 

Edinburgh Marathon runners

Gillian and I before the start.

 

At 9:30 the weather finally clears up and fair weather runner hubby decides very last minute that he might as well run it too.  It is a great atmosphere on the streets and with 8,624 marathon runners there are 2 starting areas on London and Regent Roads. We are on the Regent Road start, with a nice downhill to get us started.  My friend wants to start at roughly 9min/mile pace and carry this through.  Secretly I am concerned as I am used to starting off quick and then slowing down, so a bit worried about maintaining that pace for 26.2 miles.  We start off well and manage to maintain at about 8:40m/m for the first couple of miles in the excitement of it all, as we go past Arthur’s Seat and around Meadowbank Stadium we slow it down to just under 9m/m.  By mile 5 my friends pace is slowing to about 9:20m/m and I gently tell her we need to pick it up a bit, already concerned about the sub 4 goal so early on.  I can tell she is struggling to get to the 9m/m pace we had agreed and by mile 10 I tell her that unless she has some secret speed energy stashed away, the sub 4 is out the window.  She tells me she doesn’t mind, that she just wants to finish so I resort to just getting her to the finish. 

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Gillian along the coastal section

 

The weather is holding out nicely and the sun even makes an appearance.  I am running in my North Face kit that I received just a few days prior, breaking all the marathon rules of not trying anything new on race day, wearing a new shirt, new bra, new ¾ tights and wearing a bag that I had never run in before as well as trying out gels that I have never tried out before either!  I take my first gel at the 30 minute mark, a delicious Torq Raspberry gel.  It tastes as good as a gel can, and I take the next 30 minutes later, followed by a Torq bar another 30 minutes later.  This is the first time I have been so consistent with energy and I can feel the difference.  I am absolutely buzzing!  I think the energy mixed with the slower speed and I feel invincible like I can run forever.  My friend on the other hand is relying on Rowntree’s fruit pastilles, and is seriously struggling.  I can see it in her face, in her body language and hear it in her breathing.   She is feeling too warm and at the next water station I get her to tip some water on the back of her neck which helps cool her down a bit.  I had asked her about energy before race day, but this is what she had trained with, she wasn’t keen to try gels on a race, but had said she will try this moving forward.  Just after mile 16 there is the first ‘energy station’ stocked with High 5 gels, I encourage her to try one to see how it goes as she needs something.  I take as many gels as I can to stock up and try my first High 5, pleasantly surprised, it tastes pretty good too.  My friend ‘enjoys’ hers as well and you can visibly see it has lifted her somewhat, not enough to crack on at any more pace, but she keeps going which is the main thing.  I make sure that she takes a few more along the way and restocks at the next energy station at mile 22 & 24.  I don’t understand why in races, the organisers don’t have the gels available from the start as you need to be taking them from the very beginning, by mile 16 it is too late!   At various points on the race you see the faster runners having reached the turnaround point coming back past you, and at about mile 16 I manage to catch hubby running past at what must be between 19 & 20 miles on the other side.  I cheer wildly and get his attention, just!  I work it out in my head that he is on for a quick time which is fantastic!

Edinburgh Marathon mile 18

Me at mile 18 in the sun!

 

The crowds are amazing along the way, particularly the MacMillan supporters who are everywhere cheering loudly.  Loads of locals are out in their front gardens cheering all the runners on, handing out sweets, setting up their own water stations with plastic cups.  It really is great to see and I participate fully high fiving along the way and dancing with the cheerleaders and the Brazilian dancers en route.  I am far too cheerful and excited to be in this time bracket for a marathon so I hope I didn’t annoy anyone too much with my exuberance!  As we come into Musselburgh for the finish the crowds get thicker and towards the finish line it is like something out of Tour de France with the crowds closing in to almost a single track finish. 

 

We finish!  It’s been a hard slog for my friend, but I made sure she didn’t walk at all, so she ran a whole marathon, well done!  I feel great, and feel I could run another one (sorry but it’s true, and I feel so proud to say it too) but she is struggling now to walk anywhere very quickly.  I have no idea where hubby could be so we head over to the VIP tent which is the only area we had mentioned about meeting.  No sign of him in the tent, but we do find a couple of our other pals who we manage to get into the VIP tent with us, and we get my friend in to sit down and quickly get her some water and make up a For Goodness Shakes recovery shake, she is looking white with blue lips.  We get her some food quick smart as well, and slowly but surely the colour starts to come back.  I get hold of Dion and hear that he smashed it with a 3:10 finish!  How awesome!  He had waited for us but got too cold so he ran the 5 miles home, yes ran!  The beauty of being an ultra runner. 

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Our medal haul, Gillian, Dion & I!

 

I really enjoyed my day, it was great to run a marathon without racing it and I had loads of fun.  It has filled me with confidence for the upcoming 100 miles as I can clearly see that if I just keep my pace right and my fuelling right it should all be just fine.  My friend on the other hand has a marathon finish which is great, but really needs to go back and look at how she is training and how she is fuelling her body.  As she explained to me, she ran to lose weight so the thought of eating and taking on so much during a race is foreign and almost wrong.  But as I explained to her as I have done the same thing and it is really hard to change your mindset, you are no longer running to lose weight as you’ve lost it you are now running to get fitter and stronger so your body is a machine and needs to be fuelled as such. 

 

I normally like to go for a recovery run/jog the next day but unfortunately miss this due to timing, however we do get out and walk for about 4 miles over the morning which is a good flush out as well.  I follow this up with a 7 mile run on the Tuesday morning at a gentle 9m/m pace on fairly flat ground followed up by a great sports massage by Nicola at Fasic in Edinburgh.  It does the trick and by Wednesday I am back to normal. So now 3 weeks to be ready for the Mohican 100 mile race over in Ohio on June 21st & 22nd.  Wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.