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

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

MdS – Sizzling in the Sahara

The Saharan desert has just chewed me up and spat me straight back out; over and over again in a week of highs and lows in ‘The toughest foot race on earth.

I completed the 29th epic race finishing in 377th place out of 1029 starters with a total of 917 finishers. For anyone who has ever done the race completing in the end is in itself a great achievement and whilst the experience has most definitely enriched me the brutal race at times took its toll on me and made me question myself and push myself to dig deeper than I ever have before.

I went into the race with some huge training mileage under my belt and felt the fittest I’ve ever been in my life with high hopes of a top 100 finish….who was I kidding. This race is mean. By all accounts, Patrick Bauer, Race Director, was keen to ensure that this remains known as ‘The toughest foot race’, and he certainly accomplished that. With 20 people eliminated on the 1st stage alone, and a total of 112 by the finish (11%), I think this may have been the highest number of non-finishers to date!

With such a remote location we are all bussed from Ouarzazate 6 hours out to the desert past the village of Merzouga. Camping begins 2 nights before the race actually starts which means 2 extra nights sleeping rough with no showers to add onto the full week of racing. A great tip we picked up prior to coming out was to bring a good inflatable mattress (£10 Ebay) for the 2 nights so you at least have a comfortable sleep, then leave it for the Berbers when race day arrives. Great tip & I can assure you it earned us many an envious look! We were registered with the Australian contingent via Travelling Fit, who actually put you into tent groups prior so there was no fighting for tents, but the Brits all pre-arrange tent buddies then race for the closest tents, which is always a bit of mayhem. You are fed and watered for the 2 nights and in true French style, the food is great. Race registration takes place on the Saturday morning & this is where the serious queuing begins, you get allocated a time slot to get your kit & medical papers checked, and this involves about an hour of queuing in the hot sun before a cursory check of your items. My checker didn’t even look in my bag, he just asked me if I had a few things, I said yes, and good to go. Flare, road book and race number issued; obligatory promo photo done and you’re set to go.

Tent 62

Tent 62

And it begins….
Race day starts pretty much the same every day, people start to wake at about 5am, by 6am everyone is awake & faffing around. Water collection is 6:30-7:30, then you are supposed to be at the start line for 7:45 for briefing and ready for a 9am start. Of course on day 1 most people are so eager we are all there with our bags on our backs standing up listening to Patrick waffle on while it gets hotter and hotter. By the last day we are turning up 5 minutes before. There’s no doubt Patrick loves the sound of his own voice but by the end of the week asking questions like – Have you got your hat? Yes! Have you got your sunscreen? Yes! Have you got your water? Really?! Obligatory happy birthdays are sung before AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ blares out, and we are off! The helicopter zooms overhead bringing up a sandstorm around the runners and people scatter out wide to make a break for it. It’s on!

Patrick making us dance to 'Happy'.....again

Patrick making us dance to ‘Happy’…..again

Stage 1 was a killer! 34km in total, starting with 13km of the highest sand dunes, Erg Chebbi, in the Sahara, and finishing with a further 3.5km of the same, I got the biggest wake-up call of the week. The heat was something else. Not a breath of a breeze and temperatures hovering around 46 degrees, I was seriously struggling. The combination of the dunes and the heat had sapped my strength by checkpoint 1 and doubts started creeping into my mind about even completing day 1, let alone the entire race! With hubby in the race as well, normally well ahead of me, I was surprised and concerned to catch up to him at checkpoint 2. He was struggling, overheated, sapped of all energy, and his confidence shot to bits. We finished the day together, very slowly, with regular stops on the dunes as our heart rates were through the roof, and it was scary to wonder what was happening to your body being pushed to such extremes. Dion was talking strongly of not going on, to pull out in the morning as he just couldn’t see himself carrying on. Amazing what a nights sleep and some food can do…he didn’t pull out and went on to finish the race super strongly. We lost 2 of our tent mates today, husband and wife Euan and Anthea. From all accounts Euan was vomiting uncontrollably at checkpoint 1, and there’s no coming back from that, with Anthea sticking it out with him. Sad to see them go, and pretty scary when we start hearing about the high numbers lost today.

Needing a break even with the finish line in sight

Needing a break even with the finish line in sight

Stage 2 had me in tears! No dunes but 41km of a mixture of sand, long straight stretches of dried up lakes and oppressive heat, along with pure exhaustion saw me arrive at checkpoint 3 slightly incoherent, told to sit under the cover to cool down where I promptly burst into tears. And I don’t generally cry! Was pleased that the highly experienced 11 times British MdS runner, Rory Coleman, found me there, told me to get my hat off, pour some water on my neck, eat and cool down for 20 mins; he also gave me 2 Anadin tablets, and I was back to normal! Thanks Rory! The day hadn’t been helped by my loss in confidence in myself, and to be honest this hindered me until the very last day.

Making it to the top of a 'small' jebel to be rewarded with some stunning views

Making it to the top of a ‘small’ jebel to be rewarded with some stunning views

Stage 3 was a grind, 37.5km through dry sandy river beds and a number of dunes again. The scenery is absolutely amazing though, and it’s a must to keep your head high to try and soak it all in. I’m still getting into camp at a reasonable time each day, around the 3pm mark, which means I have plenty of time for recovery. Recovery routine is the same each day; For Goodness Shakes first thing, snack on my leftover snacks from the day, stretch, rest and drink as much water as possible before dinner. For people getting in late each day like our tent mates, Cheryl & Kristen, it takes its toll, with Cheryl the next casualty. Out by the 1st checkpoint today, she’s is back in camp before me, and it’s clear the lack of recovery time has been too much. The night before she got in quite late, just after dark, so it’s a quick meal and straight to bed, meaning not enough water intake and absolutely no stretching and snacking. We are down to 3 in our tent now, and whilst it’s roomy, it’s a real shame to have lost 3 of our gang of tent 62.

Fashioning tan lines and a water bottle as  foam roller for recovery

Fashioning stunning tan lines and a water bottle as foam roller for recovery

Stage 4 is the big daddy, or the long day as it’s commonly known. At 81.5km long, it’s not to be taken lightly baking in the 45-50 degree heat all day and still going well into the evening. The first leg is nice and flat, and as you get through the first checkpoint, the Jebel looms up in front of you. A spectacular ascent of 30% gradient over slate rocks and loose sand is brutal! It’s a slow climb to the top as it’s single file all the way up, except for a few rather annoying French and Italian runners that attempt to pass people on the outside, dislodging massive rocks that come down through the rest of us. The last 20m is climbed with a rope, so that gives you some idea of how steep it is. I get a TV5 Monde (official MdS film crew) camera thrust into my face at the top so that will no doubt be a rather breathless scene to say the least. A quick descent brings us to a massive dried up lake that stretches out for miles. This is where the front runners come past, having left 3 hours later than the rest of us, and it’s amazing to see them come past at the speed that they are going. There’s another long jebel to climb in the full force of the midday sun, where I am literally about to die! There’s a medical jeep positioned halfway up giving a fraction of shade.  Seeing another runner leave the shade, I wander over and collapse into the sand to sit for a few minutes to bring my core temperature down before continuing on for the last bit of the climb. After a massive long plateau, there’s a fun run down through soft sand which makes a nice change, but you are then greeted by a never ending crawl through soft sand which has formed into waves making it really difficult to traverse to checkpoint 4. This checkpoint is a war zone, bodies strewn everywhere! There’s quite a few Berber tents set up to provide some shade and I take about a 15 min break here before joining a group of Brits to head out again. The sun is starting to drop now so it’s a massive relief to take my hat & sunglasses off for the first time. 2 more checkpoints before the finish and I pick up and drop off with different groups along the way, the main focus being relentless forward motion. I find Matthew, a kiwi, en route to checkpoint 6 having major issues with his feet and he has sat down mid way. With some cajoling, me and another get him back up and on his way with us, it’s easier to do these last legs in the dark with a companion. We get to checkpoint 6, the last for the stage and find Ben, another Brit I’d met earlier in the day having serious issues, he starts convulsing and I get the medics over to help. He’s exhausted and just needs some sugar, rest & warmth; he gets wrapped in a silver blanket and given some gels. Giving me a message to pass on to his tent buddies when I get in to let them know he’s ok, I head off on the last leg with Matthew. It takes us about 2hrs to do 9km, as it’s now dark it is very slow going through thick soft sand following glow sticks along the way.  There is any chance to find any solid ground to increase the pace. We see the finish for a good 45mins before we finally reach it at 1:45am! We get our obligatory cup of Sultan sweet tea at the finish before walking another mile to our tents, with me walking a few tents more to speak to Ben’s tent mates. Dion’s fast asleep after getting in over 5 hours before me, having had the most brilliant long day with a super time of 11hrs, smashing it finishing in 49th place! He makes me down my For Goodness Shakes recovery shake and a few crackers before I crawl into my sleeping bag for some desperately needed sleep. My last thoughts are of the hundreds still out there, making their way to the finish over the early hours of the morning, and some much later during the “rest day”.

Green laser beam to guide us home on the long stage

Green laser beam to guide us home on the long stage

Next day is a rest day for those of us that have made it in, and the day is spent napping, snacking, chatting & rehydrating. Our tent mate, Kristen, makes it in late that morning to our relief and we all spend a quiet afternoon discussing our own trials & tribulations of the long day in between a few cat naps. We all get up to welcome the last runners in very late in the afternoon, before which we were treated to the mythical can of cold Coca Cola, which actually didn’t taste half as good as we’d all built it up to.

Stage 5 is the marathon day, 42km, and Dion starts an hour and a half later than me as he’s in the top 200 at 110! This was my favourite day by far, it was slightly cooler to be fair and the terrain for the first 32km was completely runnable! Hard trail, my favourite! I join fellow Brit, Helen Bridle, for the first 2 legs, wordlessly pacing each other in turns which works really well. I lose her after checkpoint 2 due to her suffering an injury and I crack on, having an absolute whale of a time on the 3rd leg. There’s a group of supporters, family & friends of other runners that have come out at checkpoint 3, and the vibe is electric as you pass through. I feel unstoppable, and then hit a never ending sandy river bed! I think it’s more mental now than anything, and in my head sand and me just aren’t working and I’m back to a trudging walk feeling sorry for myself. Still pushing on though as I know Dion must be catching me and my goal was for him not to, or not until the finish so we could cross together. I catch a glimpse of the finish line from afar as we crest a hill and get all choked up, I have a group hug with 2 others as it feels like the right thing to do and we crack on again. The last 2km is dunes which are tough going, but I get through without seeing Dion, so 100m from the finish I stop. And I wait 23mins for him (unbeknown to me he had peeing blood but still managed to finish 87th for the day) and we hurtle to the finish together hand in hand. I must have had a 100 people pass me while I waited, but my time wasn’t as relevant as finishing the race with Dion which made it a more memorable moment.
Then it’s done. It’s finished. It’s over. All of that, and MdS is no more. Patrick is there, unfortunately the magic of finishing is somewhat diminished by having to queue to have him put the medal around your neck with a kiss and a hug, but what an awesome feeling. There must only be about 20,000 people in the entire world that can say they have completed the MdS, and I’m one of them!

Presented with my finishers medal

Presented with my finishers medal

We work out roughly when Kristen is due to finish and we head back to the line to cheer her across as well. That night the awards are presented, which unfortunately is rather long winded, so by the time Patrick introduces our surprise, a performance from the Paris Opera, we all disappear off to bed as we are shattered. Bit of a shame, as I don’t think anyone really appreciated it and most agreed that the whole evening needs a bit of improvement.

The final day is a 7.7km charity walk in aid of UNICEF, and it’s compulsory but not timed, so every competitor walks even though at the end is the bus back to civilization. The three amigos from tent 62 do the last day together, chatting en route to 5th place, and highest Brit ever, Danny Kendall; and gratefully receive our lunch packs as we cross the line for the final time. Real food at last! We board the buses and after a short wait we are off for our 4hr trip back to Ouarzazate, lunches scoffed in quick succession. Shower! Oh yes please! My hair is like dreadlocks and takes 3 washes to get out of the braid it’s been in for 10 days! There’s so much sand to wash off, and there is no way that’s all going to come off in the first wash, especially when I’ve got Dion waiting for his turn. Plus we are keen to get to the bar. It’s been 3.5 months since we’d had a drink, and there were a number of cold Casablanca’s with our names on it. It’s strange to see everyone looking clean and not wearing running kit for a change, and we all catch up over a few cold ones. Although the hotel we are allocated is a right dump, the bed feels like heaven after sleeping on the hard ground, but the sleep is fitful, I think after a week of disrupted sleep it’s going to take a few nights to get back to normal.

3 amigos from Tent 62 ready for the charity walk

3 amigos from Tent 62 ready for the charity walk

We are off early the next day back to Marrakech for the night in a magnificent riad, Riad Menzeh, before we fly home, and enjoy a couple of lovely meals and THE best hammam and massage, scrubbing away the remnants of the Sahara and leaving my skin glowing!

The MdS was a race on my bucket list and I am so proud of both Dion (in 108th place overall) and I for finishing. It is tough, very tough and not for the feint hearted. Would I do it again? Never say never, but for the price and all the little niggles and hassles that go along with such a highly subscribed to race (i.e queues, the long travel etc) there are a lot of other fantastic races out there to try, that will each provide their own unique experiences and challenges. But it has worked its way into my soul and my heart, the magic of MdS is not lost on me.

On my next blog I plan to share my thoughts on what worked/didn’t work with my kit/training/food so I hope this is of help to future entrants.

Selfie with the wild camels

Selfie with the wild camels

Endurance Life – Coastal Trail Series – Northumberland Ultra 35.7 miles

My first DNF

After training hard the week before with 123 miles ran I was feeling pretty invincible to say the least. Well I was in my head in any case but my legs seem to tell a different story which was to play out later in the week.  I had felt OK but knowing I needed a rest I took Monday off as  a full rest day, headed out for an easy 5 miles on Tuesday, easy 10 on Wednesday, and an even easier 2.5 (yes you heard right, 2.5!  It was my first workplace jog club so I took it easy on them!) on Thursday.  Friday was also a rest day, though I did go to Bikram yoga on Friday night to try and ease out any aches and pains.

Saturday was race day of 35.7 miles-We had to travel from Edinburgh about 2 hours to Bamburgh Castle for the Endurance Life, Coastal Trail Series Ultra, so the alarm was set for 4:40am, out the door for 5am.  Coffee in hand, tasty pastries for a pre-breakfast treat, then at 6am we fuelled up with a ProBar for proper race fuel. Registration and parking were easy as is usual with Endurance Life events, it is all pretty low key to get started.  This start was a bit different and we all got bussed out to the start at 7:20 to make it for an 8:30am ultra marathon start.  It was cold, frost on the ground, but dry & still, so ideal running conditions.

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Bamburgh Castle at first light

After the usual pre race briefing and a relatively quite joint countdown start, all 74 of us set off on our way.  I wanted to try and lead out the ladies from the start and in hindsight I may have gone out too quick. After the first 3 miles I was the first female, running at about 8:15min/miles; silly girl, much too quick for me in an ultra.  As 2 ladies passed me I settled into a more steady 9min/mile routine.  I was soon joined by another lady, of whom I ran with for about the first 15 miles, swapping places along the way through checkpoints and toilet stops en route.

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Dion and I at the frosty start

I had mistakenly thought the race would be easy.  When is 35 miles every easy one would ask?  The race map showed it would be fairly flat the entire way with some downhill, perfect.  Not so.  It certainly didn’t feel flat, and with quite a lot of sand running on the beach it was pretty draining on some pretty tired legs. This was however great prep for MDS in April.

I also wanted to  eat better than on previous runs and I managed to by munching on nuts (100g mixed macadamia, almonds and brazil nuts) regularly and take on small snacks every 5 miles.  I had a Clif energy gel at mile 5 (I don’t normally have gels but thought I would try and eat some different snacks to what I am taking to MdS), pepperami stick at mile 10, tried to eat a mule bar at mile 15 (these just don’t agree with me, note to oneself-no more mule bars), and started on some thai sweet chilli sensations nut at mile 20. Unfortunately from then it was just munching on nuts as I had lost the will to eat which is continuing to be a problem I’m looking to solve.  

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Views along the way

 

Got a great lift from the half marathoners who were milling about somewhere around mile 13/14 into the race awaiting their own race start which was great, but by mile 21 I was fading fast.  It wasn’t long after then, that the first of the half marathoners started to pass me on their fresh legs, but it wasn’t enough to motivate me to a faster run, my legs were just empty.  It was here that I saw the 10k racers getting ready as well to start their race and another couple of miles in some of these started to pass me as well. 

By mile 25 the dreaded little voice inside my head wanted me to pull out so for the next 2 slow mile I was seriously contemplating  pulling out at mile 27, where the race actually takes you past the finish line to go on to do another 9 miles.  It is quite cruel and easy to quit knowing your car/warm clothes are close by, and all the Endurance Life events have the same race route, where the Ultra runners have to go past the finish to do the extra loop to bring them to the Ultra total mileage.  This I guess is the mental challenge part of running an ultra.  I just didn’t have it in me to keep going for some reason and I took the ‘easy’ option of finishing at 27 miles.  In the back of my mind I had thought that hubby may have pulled out here as well also due to the big mileage he did the week before. It probably would have taken me another 2-2.5hrs to finish the last 9 miles, so I didn’t want to leave him sitting them endlessly waiting (another excuse).  He hadn’t pulled out however as I found out after I climbed the gruelling hill to the top of Bamburgh Castle.  I was absolutely shattered when I finished and pretty disappointed with myself for not following through and finishing, but too late now, I had made my decision.  I told one of the marshals I had pulled out, as I could only manage the 27 miles that day not the 35, she was quite incredulous to say ‘only 27 miles’ as well as the runner behind me who was dead on his feet after doing the half marathon distance!  It’s all relative I guess.

I tried to keep myself warm as I waited for hubby to cross the line, and about 45 minutes later he appeared.  In a complete state, he was completely spent, so much so he completely collapsed in a heap when he crossed the line with nothing more to give.  Food smeared all over his face from trying to eat along the way, he was close to tears and huddled in a ball for about 15 minutes until he was functional enough to walk back to the car.  For once it was me waiting for him (albeit I had run 9 miles less!) so it was my opportunity to look after him for a change and get him warmed up in the car and begin rehydrating with our first choice for recovery, For Goodness Shakes,  and some food sorted out.  I was super proud of him for finishing in 9th place especially since he had actually ran 140 miles the week before himself.  My very own Superman!

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Dion making it in to the finish! 

A rest day ensued on Sunday and Monday to get some time off the feet.  It is now only 3 weeks, 6 days and 22 hours until the start line of the Marathon Des Sables.  All the hard work is done, the time left is to keep things in check, diet & exercise, and get my head totally right and focussed for the week.  My aim is to make it into the top 100, which is a massive goal, a scary goal, but imagine how great I will feel if I can accomplish that!  My secondary goal is to be in the top 25 of all the females, and would also like to be the first Australian female home as I am competing as an Australian as this meant I could go this year and not join the UK waitlist!

 

 

Big week, big miles, big blog!

With 6 weeks to go until Marathon Des Sables (MdS), there really is only 4 weeks left of solid training; so spurred on by the fact that hubby has a week off work and had set himself a goal to run 20 miles a day for 7 days, I wanted to match it.  My challenge – to fit this around work!

To manage 140 miles for the week would be mimicking what MdS will be like, obviously minus the heat!  Training the body to run when it is tired and challenging the mind to keep it going as well.

Monday

5am alarm and I spring out of bed like a bull at a gate!  Sneak out of the bedroom and into the kitchen for a quick slice of toast with peanut butter; must keep fuelled up; and get changed and out the door by 5:15.  Not bad.  It’s pitch black so I plan to stick to the roads and head out from Edinburgh towards the Pentland Hills, it’s a long continuous climb out and I head towards Penicuik.  I’m feeling strong and get home with 20 miles done in 3 hours on the nose.  After a massive dinner the night before & my bit of toast before, I only needed a handful of chocolate covered sultanas at mile 10 to get me home.  My feet are a bit sore, I have managed to develop corns on both the outside of my little toes (from high heels at work, not trainers) and I think the trainers I had on could be half a size bigger, as my left big toe is seriously bruised from that!

Wanting to recover strong for the upcoming miles, I don my Compressport calf and quad guards under my suit, and head off armed with plenty of water and fruit for the day.

Tuesday

5am alarm, and I lay still, contemplating for a few minutes, but I get up, a quick crumpet with honey, and I’m changed and out the door for 5:20, bit slow to get started this morning but I’m on my way.  The legs feel a bit tired but they are ok, I stick to the roads again, this time heading out of town the other way through Stockbridge and out to Crammond and beyond.  It’s a gorgeous, misty morning, so misty that when I have the headtorch on just as I go past The Brig pub, I can only see that spot in front of me the mist is so heavy.  A little jumping frog scares the bejesus out of me as it hops in front of me, probably wondering what on earth I am doing out there at this time of morning!  I turn around at 10 miles and come back through Crammond along the beach front back to home.  Feeling pretty good to be fair, I complete the 20 miles in 3hr 5mins, so only 5 mins slower than yesterday.  I think I picked up the pace as I knew Dion was cooking bacon, haggis and egg rolls for breakfast so the sooner I get home, the sooner I get one of those!  I go via Tesco on the way home as Dion has discovered they have For Goodness Shakes toffee flavoured recovery drinks on sale!  I normally like to have one of these (usually using the powdered form and make up my own) as it is a high protein, low fat tasty shake designed to promote the growth & maintenance of functional muscle.  I feel that it does aid my recovery and I read a lot about a lot of the elite runners using them as well, so I am pretty sure we are onto something!

Same as yesterday, Compressport compression on, and I seriously enjoy my recovery shake and keep the fluids and food up during the day.

Cramond beach in the misty morning

Cramond beach in the misty morning

Finding trails in the dark

Finding trails in the dark

 

Wednesday

5am alarm, and I’m up, no messing this morning, I feel pretty good actually.  Quick slice of toast with cheese and I’m out by 5:15.  I need to get off the bitumen as I can feel my joints suffering from 40miles in 2 days on the road, so I head down Easter road, get in about half a mile on the grass, and within 3 miles I am at Portobello beach where I do laps of the beach, 6 miles worth of laps and sand running.  Great training for MdS; 2 fold; 1 being the sand running which is great, but 2, to be doing laps which is mind numbing but also great mental preparation.  I think some of the dog walkers think I have lost the plot however.  As the light appears, I head back up Brunstane Path and Innocent Railway past Arthur’s Seat and home.  Only 16 miles this morning as I am saving 4 miles for tonight’s Jog Club at my hotel, Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – Royal Terrace, which I am of course hosting!  I end up on my own for Jog Club, but it’s a lovely night for it, and I end up doing a 4.5 mile loop around Arthur’s Seat. 20.5 in the bag

Thursday

5am alarm, and not feeling great.  Quite sluggish to start, quick slice of toast with cheese again, a bit of a favourite go to, and I’m out by 5:20.  It is starting to become a bit of a struggle now to find interesting and new routes for the week, especially when you are trying to get such high mileage, but also when its in the dark.  I am sure this is a challenge for all runners out there trying to find routes from your front door.  I could jump in the car and find a new spot to run, but I always feel this is wasting valuable time travelling, and especially when it is before work, I don’t have the luxury of time.  I get a bit of mileage in going up and back some parallel city streets and head to The Meadows and back past The Balmoral Hotel, to do another lap up Princes Street and through the Meadows again.  In my head I am planning to head up and around Arthur’s Seat, as I start to go around, I’m done.  Swallowing feelings of failure and disappointment, I turn around and slowly make my way home.  Finishing with 13 miles as a total.  I just had lost the energy and the mojo to continue any further.  The fact that I had to be somewhere at 8:45am wasn’t helping matters, and knowing I had a full day at work and a night out with colleagues made me think to just stop and conserve what little bit of energy was still left.  Still have a few big days to get through as well so no point totally wiping myself out.

Friday

No 5am alarm!  You little beauty!  It’s the smallest things sometimes that can make you happy.  Needing to finish work early means I run around like a headless chicken all day probably using valuable energy!

But by 2:30pm I am on my way out the door.  I am heading out today with a full back pack (approx 6kg) and heading out to meet Dion in North Berwick.  He has already run out here yesterday and has been enjoying the coastal trails today while I make my way out.  I really notice the pack on, and my pace has slowed noticeably, probably also due in part to the heavy miles already in my legs, but I crack on.  Dion meets me at Gullane, about 5 miles from the finish which is a nice boost, especially as he takes my pack from me as well, so I feel a lot lighter and we crack on together for the last 5 miles.  I had left early to limit the amount of time in the dark, which works out well, needing the head torch for only the last half an hour.

I’d had a big lunch so fuelling on the run was down to a small packet of bacon flavoured peanuts.

Feeling very pleased to reach the end of todays run in just under 4 hours, we make it to the MacDonald Hotel Royal Marine, our bed for the night.  I knock down my For Goodness Shakes again and we head down to the spa to enjoy the facilities.  The spa is gorgeous with a outdoor jacuzzi which is steaming hot, with a massively strong waterfall which works like a makeshift masseuse on my legs and shoulders.  A tasty burger for dinner followed by a naughty treat of cheesecake and we are off to bed.

Saturday

What felt like a leisurely start to the morning, enjoying a full cooked breakfast, we are on the road for our run back home by 9:30am.  We are both a bit stiff & sore to start with, but it has to be done.  The sun is kind of out, and its dry which is good, but the wind!  Oh my! We get the full head wind the entire 25 miles home which makes the run even harder.  We are both having to dig very deep today to get through.  We plan to run the 20 miles to Musselburgh, where there is a cafe that we are looking forward to enjoying a hot cup of tea and a slice of cake to make it home on.  Probably a wrong strategy as I don’t take on any food during the 20miles and am running on empty by the time we reach the cafe……..to find there are no tables free and not looking like there is going to be anytime soon.  Very deflated, and irrationally pissed off, we share a flapjack that I pull out of my bag and head off for the last 5 miles home.  It is a bit of a walk/shuffle the rest of the way home but we get there, finally, in just under 5 hours.  First point of call is a cup of hot, sweet tea for me, sometimes its the only cure after a long run.  And of course another For Goodness Shakes.  Hot showers all round and compression gear on, its time for feet up, rest & recovery.

Sunday

I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to run today, I have to admit that I am feeling too knackered, with a week totalling 123 miles, I am happy to call it a day.  Dion on the other hand wants to achieve his goal and has another 7 miles to knock out, which he does battling seriously strong gales, strong enough to be bringing trees down and dangerously close to picking him up as well!  I’m proud of him for getting through and carrying on with the full 140 miles, there are no medals, just the self satisfaction of knowing you’ve done it.

What a week!  The body is completely knackered, but feeling very confident knowing I have managed to do such a strong mileage week whilst having to work everyday as well. I think it is good to get a week or two of 100+ miles in before an event like MdS, but there is no way I could do this regularly, not when working in any case.  This should make me a stronger runner, it hasn’t caused either of us to lose any weight, but I think you eat too much of the wrong foods just trying to get enough energy in your body; and that wasn’t the goal in any case, it was just to get the miles done.  It has also cemented my focus.  To think a couple of weeks ago I was making excuses not to get up at 6:30 (too early), I now know that I have it in me to push on, and there is no reason why I can’t keep it up with the next 3 weeks of strong training and ensuring that I get 70-100 miles in each week, then allow for a nice 2 week taper before lining up at the start line of MdS.

Ass Kicked Day 10 Janathon

Thank goodness my hubby suggested putting on my jacket for the morning run commute to work, I think I have been deceived by our recent mild weather and looking outside at 6.30am, it looked aok, but heading out it was absolutely freezing! A great run though, I was warm enough in my gear for the 7 mile jaunt to work, but it is a nice feeling to feel the sweat kicking in under it all! I even wore my new buff from http://www.endurancelife.com (Never Give Up is the slogan so very fitting!). I kept thinking of my monster race coming up on the 19th in Anglesey through the same website, 32mile ultra planned, so these 7 miles to work are really just base miles, so when I get tired I just think it’s only going to get harder so keep going! It’s a great reward to get to work and have a hot shower and feel refreshed and ready to take on the day.
With Bioticfit circuits planned, I cycled 9 miles to Abney Hall Park and did a monster session of circuits. James, our trainer, certainly knows how to get the most out of all 28 of us. We kicked ass doing static squats, kettle bell squats, squats with sledgehammers and burpees with a tyre to name a few killer moves. I’m feeling it in my rear this morning so it definitely works!
Relaxing on the couch afterwards hubby and I settled in to watch The toughest race on earth, with James Cracknell completing the MdS, Marathon des Sables. Considering we are eyeing it off for 2014 it was certainly educational, scary, thought provoking, but still utterly inviting in a crazy way! Deep respect for all the runners that take part, whether they actually finish or not #Respect!