Couch Endurance – MdS from afar

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

Dion having way too much fun at MdS

Dion having way too much fun at MdS

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

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

Dion at the camp site before the race starts

Dion at the camp site before the race starts

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

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

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

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

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

Dion's overall results

Dion’s overall results

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

A minute with Dion Leonard:

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

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

Tent 169

Tent 169

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

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

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

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

Are you going to go back?

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

What’s next for you?

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

Dion's finishers card from me

Dion’s finishers card from me

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!