Redemption at Gran Trail Courmayeur

I smiled as I ran down from Elisabetta refuge, this time last year it was pitch dark and a violent storm raged around me as I was halfway through the Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km race in the Italian mountains.  I did not finish (DNF) the race which is why I was back for another crack at it.  This year I felt stronger, the sun was still shining brightly and would be for another 2-3hours before darkness would descend, whereas last year I was already in the pitch dark at this halfway point of the race so I felt like I’d come a long way in the last 12 months. 

Look of focus coming down from Elisabetta

Italian race directors have a reputation for bringing us the daring and super technical races and with the Tor Des Geants (TDG) as part of their (Valle D’Aosta Trailers) repertoire this event certainly meets expectations with the brutality and sheer toughness of the route.  105km with 6,600m elevation gain and loss with a 30hr time limit and awarding 5 ITRA & UTMB points, it’s a beast! 

An early start meant an early rise for the Chamonix crew,my friends Jana and Sarah were running the 55k with Zoe and I running the 105k; and a quick trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel taking us into Italy to be ready to register from 5:30am and ready to race at 7am.  The race has 3 options with the 105k and 55k starting together and the 30k starting at 9am.  Excitement was building as runners made their way into the start chute filled with nervous anticipation of what the day would bring for us all.  Some would race well, others would not make it to the finish line.  I wedge myself in somewhere in the middle so as not to get caught up in the fast start but not too far back to be held back.

Jana & I heading to the start line

Heading out of the town of Courmayeur the route splits and the 55k runners go one way and the 105k the other, heading into trails to Champex Di Pre-Saint-Didier. Skipping the thermal resort, unfortunately,  and climbing up to the Petosan valley and crossing the Plan Praz via a few chain ropes to the Deffeyes refuge at 2,500m where the views open up to picturesque lakes below.  A bit of minor climbing via some ropes reaches the lakes for a nice runnable section back down towards to La Thuile.

All smiles!

It’s from here the biggest climbs begin, following part of the TDG route in reverse we are ascending to 2,047m in the Youlaz Valley, Colle Di Youlaz at 2,661m and reaching the highest pint of the race below Mont Nix at 2,830m.  Memories from last year come flooding back and I recall being petrified up here, there’s some seriously sharp drop offs alongside some dramatic ridge lines that the route follows including a few snow patches to cross.  After a year living in the Alps I’m feeling more confident and it’s not as daunting but still causes my heart to race.  

Steep ridge lines to take your breath away

And race it does as we descend slightly but ascend again via some precarious climbs up to Colle du Berrio Blanc at 2,818m and Mont Fortin at 2,755m where the refreshment point here has been flown in by helicopter due to it’s inaccessibility.  This time last year I was donning all my layers and waterproofs as the storm was about to break, however this year the sun was shining strongly though being at altitude I did put on my arm sleeves and gloves at this point.

Stunning views

The trail starts to descend and runs alongside the lakes towards Col Chavanne crossing numerous snow patches before reaching Elisabetta refuge still at 2,197m. 

I’m excited to join the UTMB route here and I start imagining what I’ll be feeling like in 6 weeks time at this very spot, hopefully I’ll be feeling the same energy and excitement in similar weather conditions.  I wonder if I can make it to Courmayeur before the sunsets? 

Sun starting to set, but still a bit of time to go

Alas the headtorch goes on after the climb up from Maison Vieille refuge to Courba Dzeleuna for the descent into Courmayeur where my impromptu support crew, Jana (who had already finished the 55k) and Chris, are waiting with pizza and cheers to motivate me for the final 30k section.  I fuel up and down a Starbucks cold latte and head back into the night feeling strong and full of positive energy believing I’ll be back in Courmayeur before sunrise.

One very happy lady to see pizza!

Those good feelings don’t last and by the time I’ve ascended to Bertone refuge and I’m on the Val Ferret balcony I’m experiencing some small blackouts from low blood pressure and I realise that whilst I’ve nailed my nutrition this race I haven’t drunk enough electrolytes and I’m out of balance. By the time I reach Bonatti refuge I’m feeling hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably and although I’ve put on my waterproof trousers & jacket, base layer and buff and it takes me half hour wrapped in a foil blanket in a heated shelter before I can move again. Few runners appear to be in high spirits here; fatigued, cold and covered in layers of dirt and sweat this was now developing into type 2 fun and hopefully not delving further to type 3.

The Fun Scale

There’s still 2 more ascents from here before eventually a brutally steep descent begins, frustratingly including yet more ascending before finally descending towards Courmayeur.  The sun has started to rise by now and I’m greeted by a stunning sunrise at La Suche which lifts my spirits somewhat knowing that although these last 30km have not been my finest hours that I AM going to finish this race.

Sunrise at La Suche

I find myself passing some runners as the race hits the outskirts of town as I can now smell the finish and I keep my pace going and enter the village of Courmayeur finding the local village coming alive in the early morning which enthuses me more with the locals cheering me on.  Finally it’s the home stretch and I’m greeted by Chris, Jana and Zoe to cheer me across the finish line.  I had done it!  

Crossing the finish line (Photo: Chris Clayton)

Finishing Gran Trail Courmayeur meant so much more to me than just a race finish, not only because of my DNF last year, but I’ve taken so much confidence away from reaching the finish for the upcoming challenge of UTMB; the Ultra Tour Mont Blanc on 30th August which is a 107 miles with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss.  If I hadn’t been able to finish this race it would have meant some serious mental and no doubt physical hurdles I would have had to overcome if I were to be even half a chance of finishing UTMB.  Time will tell and I know I will hold my head high with my heart and spirit strong when I toe that start line on August 30th in Chamonix.

Finished!

Kit List

I came and I conquered!

A giant wall nearly 30 feet high stretching 5,000 miles through Northern China built in the Ming Dynasty to keep invaders out and now a UNESCO site, many parts are through tough, rugged mountainous terrain….perfect for a marathon right?  With 20,000+ steps traversing the Gubeikou and Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall on both older unrestored and newly restored sections meandering through secluded & rarely visited sections offering up breath taking panoramic views and memories to last a lifetime.  It is the Conquer the Wall Marathon.

Running on the Great Wall is a bucket list item for many runners and intrepid adventurers with good reason.  There’s a number of races that now take part on the Great Wall but this is the one and only that actually spends over 85% of the race on the actual wall, which in turn makes it all the more challenging.  With a variety of distances, Conquer the Wall Marathon offers a 5km, 10km, half and full marathon so there’s something for everyone. 

With direct flights to Beijing from most international airports it’s a straightforward trip  with the race organisers taking away the stress of logistics organising transfers and accommodation packages, all you need to do is ensure you get your visa before you travel.  Having been to China before I didn’t take advantage of the cultural tours on offer but opted for a Chinese cooking course to brush up on my skills.  The day before the race a group of us went to The Beijing Cooking School and spent a few hours making dumplings from scratch before feasting on them together over a late lunch. 

Making dumplings.

With the race starting at 6am that meant a 3:30am rendezvous in the hotel lobby for all the runners to board the buses to the start.  Breakfast bags filled with a bagel, juice and bread were available and my coffee sensor quickly worked out the 7-Eleven opposite the hotel was doing Costa Coffees to go.  The 2 hour bus trip gave the option for some light napping before people began to stir in anticipation as The Wall came into view.  The scale of what we were about to tackle suddenly became very real.  This legendary wall is even more incredible than anyone expects the first time you see it.  The Wall extends as far as the eye can see with gatehouses and watchtowers forcing breaks in this seemingly never ending dragons tail.

Nervous anticipation ran through the start area like an electric current and we were all keen to be let loose into the wall.  The marathon starts first with the other distances starting at intervals after that, which is great as the first section is an out and back so it was a welcome distraction to see the other runners after the turn around point and be able to both give and receive shouts of encouragement.  The race starts straight up a fairly gentle hill and as you can imagine a number of people set off way too fast.  I held myself back and tried to remain consistent not letting the fact that most of the field were pushing on ahead of me already, I knew I was in for a long day, Little did I know truly how long!  The first half of the marathon is most certainly the easier half, run partly on trails beside the wall due to the dilapidated condition of sections and nowhere near as steep, not to mention on fresh legs.  I remained consistent and promptly started passing a number of runners that had gone out too quick and found myself as leading lady and in the top 10 overall.  

Start line action (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

After the halfway point the course becomes steeper and trickier in all aspects and knowing that you have to traverse this out and back section twice means you really have to be completely motivated and keep your head in the game.

A mid point ice cream to help keep my head in the game!

The Wall is in varying states of condition with some areas that have been restored and in good condition to other sections where the path crumbled away, some steps were only an inch or two difference in height whereas as other steps required both hands to pull you up they were so high.  Other areas were smooth stone that your feet slipped on regardless of grip and in the end I could be seen holding onto the wall as I inched my way down.  A couple of sections became nearly vertical requiring all fours to traverse, at one point climbing these steps I looked down at my watch to see I was currently pacing at 50min/mile!  There is no section of this wall that is truly flat, you are always either ascending or descending which is all part of the challenge.

Up and up (on all fours sometimes) (Photo: http://www.runningshots.sg )

Most of The Wall is completely exposed to the elements, although I was glad it was the sun beating down on me rather than rain, there was no respite from the heat.  The only respite came in the watchtowers for a few brief seconds where local vendors were hawking their wares, of which I purchased 2 ice cold cokes and a fruity icy pole over the course of the second half of the marathon which were life savers.  There are a number of manned checkpoints from the race along the route allowing you the opportunity to refuel and restock your water and electrolytes along the route but nothing beats an ice cold coke in that heat.

Enjoying a bit of hydration on The Wall (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

By the time I hit my 2nd lap of the section it was truly a battle to survive.  The effects of the never ending steps were taking a toll on my body combined with the heat zapping the remnants of energy in my body but I’d come here to finish this race and finish I would.  Looking around me I was inspired by the sheer greatness of The Wall, here I was running along one of the greatest wonders of the world; a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history that stretches back some 2,700 years.  What an amazing feat of engineering and architecture to build a series of walls and fortifications that stretches some 13,000 miles, and I felt an overwhelming sense of motivation and positivity as I soaked up the outstanding views around me.

Simply breathtaking

I had done it!  2nd lady and 16th overall in a time of 10h 34 mins out of 22 finishers.  I’m unsure how many started as the results move people into different categories with unofficial finishers for alternative distances as people who were unable to finish the distances they’d set out to do but were able to finish in another way which I think is a great touch from the race as it truly is a massive undertaking which is quite easily under estimated from afar.

Crossing the finish line (Photo: http://www.runnershots.sg )

Conquer The Wall Marathon website warns you that ‘This is going to hurt.’  It does! It hurts during and it certainly hurt for quite a few days after.  My calf muscles were so tight that even attempting to get a massage 3 days later was impossible as I was still unable to take human touch.  Let that be a learning for anyone that wants to conquer the wall, and for myself should I be luck enough to return one day, that some serious step/stair training is a must to avoid this level of DOMS.  Through suffering comes an amazing feeling of accomplishment and pride, leaving China as a warrior that has conquered The Wall is a prize in itself and I hope that many more will venture forth and tackle this beast.

Proud as punch to win 2nd female

****************

Race entry starts at $350 and participant perks include:

•Free round-trip transportation to the Conquer the Wall Marathon start line from Beijing hotels

•Official Conquer The Wall Marathon technical running shirt

•Official finisher certificate

•Collectible finisher medal

•Official swag bag

•Runner breakfast, Juice, and bagels

•Scenic course highlighting of the Great Wall of China famous sites

•Course support

•Finish line water, juice and sandwiches

•Optional local city tours

I have seen the brick wall

face to face

the ancient hollowblocks sprawled

against an embankment

with roof blown open

for enemies watchful rivalry eye

for paid spectator’s sight seeing

your dynasty dividing the world

into half literally

a concrete – walled serpent

cutting the outer crust margin

wherever I look at your spine

I see you are wrapped in old centuries 

fashion cloth

dressed with moss and chinese

character algae medicines

cunning and boastful

you shield your grandfather

warrior’s glorious times

preserving against evil invaders

with your symbolic incense in your unfold shoulders

with fun shui ritual in your rooted feet

your face remains as calendar cover

with 12 month full pages hunging in the wall

as great as the entire 2009th year 

Rommel Mark Dominguez Marchan

Going off the grid

“I don’t think I can do this Dion! It’s too much, this race is too much. I’m not strong enough for a race like this”. It’s 70km into Oman by UTMB and I’m crying uncontrollably into my phone having called my husband in a blind panic. I’m 360 degrees out of my comfort zone and I don’t know how to get out of this situation.

When UTMB announced earlier in 2018 that it was expanding the race family to include Oman and Ushuaia my interest was peaked. Oman had been on my radar as a place to visit as an undiscovered gem of the Middle East but nothing had drawn me there until I read about the inaugural Oman by UTMB. A 137km single stage footrace through the Omani mountains with 7,800m of elevation promising a route of natural beauty and physical challenge.

Dramatic scenery – Misfat Village
©Mark Lloyd images

Arriving in Muscat a few days prior to the race was the perfect opportunity to indulge in some last minute warm weather before the European winter sets in. The airport itself was a sign of things to come; grand, imposing and in pristine condition and I listened eagerly as my super friendly taxi driver turned tourist guide pointed out the stunning must-see Grand Mosque as we whizzed along wide, perfect roads that were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. He proudly tells me that cleanliness is so important in the Sultanate that a fine is issued if your car is dirty.

Enjoying Muscat’s pristine beaches.

Away from the Grand Mosque Muscat feels more modest, with low rise sand coloured buildings where local Arabs walk casually through the streets; men swathed in white or black linen thobes, women in hijab, giving a real sense of an unhurried and relaxed way of life. Crystal clear blue water laps leisurely onto the white sandy beaches that surround the city. People stop to chat and regular greetings of ‘As-salamu alaykum’ resonate as groups of friends and families gather to socialise together over cups of tea and feasting on meze, hummus and falafel.

Majestic beaches give way to otherworldly rugged mountain tops as we make our way to race HQ in Nizwa where around 415 ultra-Trail runners (including only 51 women) representing 57 countries have arrived to take up the challenge of Oman’s mountainous interior, including the 2,200m high Jebel Akhdar known as the ‘Green Mountain’. Little did we know then that this race would earn the nickname of ‘The Beast’ and less than 40% of us would become finishers of this epic race.

Lulled into a false sense of luxury and relaxation as we all enjoyed the divine swimming pool and food on offer at The Golden Tulip Hotel reality was soon upon us as we set out with head torches at the ready for the race start at 7:30pm. The start line was a party atmosphere and the atmosphere was electric with elevated heart rates as we anticipated what lay ahead. Straight into the dark the first 10km were fast with runners making the most of the very runnable and flat start to the race. It wasn’t long though before poles were pulled out and the first long climb of many begun.

Anna-Marie Watson and I ready to start ‘The Beast’

The course was marked within an inch of its life. I’ve never seen anything like it with the most reflective red and green markers absolutely everywhere on the route. Navigating along ridges and plateau edges I have the organisers warnings resonating in my head; green markers mean safe, red markers mean danger! At some points the distance between the two was literally 2 footsteps requiring full concentration. The night was long and the darkness was all encompassing and I found myself looking forward to sunrise so I could enjoy what I’d heard was some of the most spectacular scenery around me.

Sunrise!

As the sun rose I found myself on top of the most unforgiving and exposed mountain with deep cutting canyons to my left. I’m left breathless, humbled by the sheer expanse and natural beauty of this place reminding me how small I am in the middle of this incredibleness. The terrain is rough; harsh and unforgiving; with little to no vegetation unless you count bushes that cut you deep and draw blood should you get to close to them. Everything out here is harsh, designed for self protection over centuries of survival but in its harshness there is an inspiring beauty and I’m filled with a deep level of respect.

Simply jaw dropping scenery.

The climbs are relentless with the technical terrain making them even more so. These aren’t trails that have been regularly trodden and this combined with the now increasing temperature starts to make me doubt my abilities. I’m uncomfortable and petrified and I reach the 70km mark in tears. The previous climb had scared me with its exposure and the vertical drops below and I’m shaking like a leaf. I call Dion. I don’t want to go on but somehow he makes me see sense and assures me I’m stronger than I think but if I’m truly scared and I feel my life is in danger then pull out. But if not….I didn’t travel all this way to eat falafels.

The next section is more runnable and descending into a Wadi I pass through historical 400 year old mud houses and a multitude of caves that until now were concealed by the wall of mountains now surrounding me. I can see the Alila Hotel on the top of the other side of the canyon, teasing me knowing this is the big life station with hot food and my drop bag, so close yet so very far. An oasis of water stops me in my tracks, remote and breathtaking, and I wonder if it’s real or am I already starting to hallucinate. It is real of course and so are the rocks that I need all fours to climb up before reaching the start of the via ferrata. 80km into this technical race we are being strapped up in harnesses, helmets on and ascending a rock wall. I know the oasis of the life base is at the top and this spurs me on.

Deep in the wadi.

It’s my first ever via ferrata and I’m overcome with emotion as a smiling and encouraging volunteer takes my harness off me and I’m in tears again. My emotions are running higher than normal in this race as I am way out of my comfort zone and everything is becoming an emotional effort. The tears come again as I reach the life base and see the familiar face of Marina Ranger waiting for me with a big smile and a hug. The life base doesn’t disappoint and I wolf down a huge bowl of Dal and rice and with freshly squeezed orange juice on offer I replace fluids with a over a litre of this golden goodness. I come across fellow running friend Jakob here and we decide to head out together for a bit of company.

My 1st ever via feratta!

Feeling refreshed and energised after a good break we make good use of the next runnable 5km before we are again reduced to a relentless forward motion using whatever means possible; run, walk, shuffle. We push forward as the sun begins to set onto our 2nd night out on the course as we head towards a highly anticipated downhill, but even the downhills on this course are brutal and we implement downhill ski style for our descent to try and reduce the impact of the sheer steepness of it.

The long dusty downhill finally ends and we’re directed through dense shrubbery to reach what can only be described as a fairytale secret entrance. Tree roots wind their way up century old stairs built from limestone rocks and we ascend through ancient ruins of an, even now, impressive building, perhaps a mosque or fortress in its day. A labyrinth of pathways lead us to the aid station before the final climb nicknamed ‘The Wall’ as reading the elevation profile of the race would suggest with a 1,240m ascent in around 3km it was going to be just that. More than a vertical kilometre this was literally a wall that we had to use our 116km used legs to climb over before we were even in sniffing distance of finishing this beast of a race.

Dauntingly we are informed that the organisation are unable to get help to us during the next section so we are to make sure we can get from this point to the next without assistance otherwise we should not proceed, and to put our poles away as we are going to need all fours to reach the top! I’ve never climbed properly in my life and to take on this ascent in the dark whilst having to maintain 3 points of contact at all times has gone down as the hardest and most petrifying experience of my racing experience to date. Add to this challenge some hallucinations of cats on rocks and you start to get the picture. At least they were friendly hallucinations. With my life depending on to my strength I clamber my way to the top hanging on to the near vertical rock face, panic breathing and sobbing all the way up.

Dripping in sweat and now freezing as reaching the summit in full force winds meant putting on every layer I had to try and keep warm. Fatigue was starting to really set in now and I hoped I could hang on until daybreak as I’d started having little sleep walking style nod offs. I ate skittles, salt tablets and paracetamol and then the sun finally rose again and filled me with a renewed energy, with now less than 15km to go I knew that medal would be mine. But as with the rest of the race, the forthcoming downhill and final push to the finish line would not be an easy one and would continue to take much longer than anticipated. Reluctantly I had to reapply sunscreen and put my hat and sunglasses back on as I could feel myself starting to burn. I had certainly not planned on seeing a 2nd sunrise!

We could hear the finish line before we saw it, hearing our names being announced as we approached, and both Jakob and I breathed a big sigh of relief when it finally came into view and through gritted teeth with each step becoming excruciatingly more painful we finally descended and found ourselves running, it felt like we were running, along the red carpet to be greeted with that richly deserved medal around our necks.

The finish line!

Dazed, dumbfounded and exhausted beyond all belief I was speechless and could barely utter an inaudible grunt as the race MC tried to probe me for what I thought of the race. I was just so glad to be finished I just stood there grinning like a dazed fool before I was guided away to a chair and given food and drink.

‘The Beast’, ‘The Wall’, ‘The race that just kept giving’, ‘The 137km Sky race’, ‘The new Barkley Marathon’……the nicknames for this experience were coming out from everyone and it seemed all the runners from the winners to those that didn’t finish were shocked in equal measures of awe and disbelief as to how tough this race really was. Had I known how tough it was beforehand I might not have entered and then never had the opportunity to test myself in this way so in away I’m glad I didn’t know. Fulfilling its promise of a physical challenge, this race is set to expand and become renowned for its brutality and toughness with a full schedule of 4 races planned for next year ranging from 50km to 100 miles, which one will you be choosing?

Trail Running in Tuscany, Italy: A ‘Run’ Through Time

Tuscany is where I got married and to me this place holds special memories of not only that day but of the amazing hospitality shown by the Tuscan people and the amazing landscapes and traditions experienced in this area. The opportunity to explore a new camino, Via della Lana e della Seta (Silk and Wool hiking trail), which is a 130km trail from Bologna to Prato, was the perfect opportunity to return to this stunning region.

The camino did not disappoint! Meandering through trails lined with chestnut and fig trees, through small Tuscan villages with ancient clock towers ringing out through the vastness of the countryside which are dotted with the greenest of green vineyards. The trail was well sign posted with the added bonus of the friendly local people always willing to point you in the right direction of the trail or perhaps a good restaurant.

Stunning autumn trails

We were treated to the most amazing stories of history and architecture punctuated with bursts of soul filling food and heart warming red wine. A short week of sunshine, trails, good food and great company have made this a trip to remember; and most certainly convinced me to visit again.

For the full report check out Trail & Kale.  I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to go along and represent Trail & Kale for Soul Running to explore the trails of this amazing region of Italy.

The team that explored the route.

Why you simply HAVE to run the Marathon du Mont Blanc

I. Loved. Every. Single. Minute.
A marathon of true beauty! Marathon du Mont Blanc is more than just a race, this is a party of trail running that takes place in one of THE Mecca’s of the sport, Chamonix. Traversing through the awe inspiring nature reserve, The Aiguilles Rouges, this event has eight various trail races (90k, 42k, 23k, 10k, VK, duo etoile night race, mini cross and the young marathon) to choose from and is a celebration of mountain running at its finest. The marathon had 2,300 runners and the electrified start at 7am on Sunday morning set goosebumps off on every competitor. The streets are lined with fans cheering on the runners but not just at the start, throughout the race through the villages and high up on top of the mountains they were there in so many ways from the loud trumpet blowers, cheering baton bashers, live bands with singers and throngs of dancers to the cute kids offering high fives and cheers of “Allez! Allez!”

Jam packed race start

With 42km and 2,780m ascent this is a tough and challenging route, made all the more difficult with temperatures reaching 32 degrees in the valley. Starting in the cooler temperatures of the early morning you are pulled into a false sense of ease as the route takes you from Chamonix into the cross country trails up through La Lavancher (I did manage to face plant only 3 Miles in on the least technical descent of the day), following the Petit Balcon Nord to Montroc and along the nature reserve running along the Col de Montets.

Views for days

The valley is in full bloom, greenery all around and bright flowers absolutely everywhere and running into Vallorcine felt like a dream. Masses of people lined the path into the checkpoint and there was a lively dancing band boosting energy levels before the first serious climb of the day up to Col Des Posettes. Aid stations are laden with local cheeses, salamis, fruit, nuts, baguettes, dark chocolate and plenty of still/sparkling water and coke. It’s certainly worthwhile taking advantage of what’s on offer. All usually served by super friendly volunteers and accompanied by some form of live music or dancing, it’s a party for everyone from the runners and volunteers to the locals and random hikers.

Stuffing salami in my mouth at Vallorcine where Jana was supporting (Photo: Jana)

All the runners are made to feel like superstars as we tackled the climb which again was lined with loss of exuberant supporters, all reading our names on our bibs to shout out personal encouragement. It gives you a taste of what the Tour de France cyclists feel like with the people crowding onto you on a narrow path, it’s absolutely electrifying! As the path narrowed and disappeared into the forest the crowds disappeared and gave way to solid hard work, with only the sounds of heavy breathing and the rhythmic ‘tap, tap’ of hiking poles as we ascended.

Heading up to the Col

The heat was pretty intense up on the Col but alleviated by an amazingly enthusiastic man playing guitar and singing on the back of a small truck. Plenty of runners were using this as a reason to hang at the checkpoint and soak up the party vibes and snap some stunning photos. We reached the summit of Aiguillette at 2201m and then headed down the steep descent of 850m back to Le Tour, the aid station before the climb up to Flegere. I tackled the descent with gusto, taking the steep rocky paths with tight bends and the odd sheer drop in my stride and it was over in no time!

A man and his guitar!

The final big push up to Flegere was a pretty slow procession of runners, now only hiking, in the heat of the day, some needing to sit on the side of the path to re-gather strength before carrying on. I had to resort to filling up water in the stream as I’d drunk my bottles dry, 1L, in the climb alone. The scent of wild strawberries was in the air and they tasted even better than they smelt, sunkissed, red & ripe.  Flegere loomed in front of us and felt within touching distance but felt more like slow motion process up a long wide, open climb in the blazing sun to get there.

An oasis on a mountain

Fuelled on coke at long last, I’d saved this for the final stretch, I felt fully charged and got a bit frustrated on the final 5k which was single track and was quite a bottle neck in parts so using my best French ‘excuses-moi’ I got my way last as many people as I could along the tight balcon with a vertical drop off on your left. You could see and hear the finish line the entire 5k, tempting you!

The finish line looms!

2 small snow drifts to cross just before the finish and it was there! Plan Praz was in front of me with the finish up a small hill which of course you have to run and seeing Dion, Gobi and Jana at the finish I let out a big whoop and massive smiles all round I got my medal.

Finish line feels (Photo : Dion Leonard)

I can’t recall a race where I felt like I smiled and laughed the entire way around so Marathon Du Mont Blanc will certainly go down in my memory as the funnest and most scenic marathon I’ve ever run.

Loving my medal!

Morocco Tizi n Trail 2018

Tizi means mountain pass in Morocco, but this event could easily be called ‘Sahib n Trail’ meaning friends & trails. Imagine a lovely long weekend away in the sun, running undiscovered and remote trails in a country full of culture and colour. Add to this the security and comfort of a fully supported event where you sleep in traditional Berber tents atop mattresses and kept warm with blankets, with showers and facilities at the ready with 3 meals a day provided. Yet you are away from the modern world connectivity where your entertainment is watching the sun rise and set, partake in some relaxing tai chi and making new friends.

Tizi n Trail has been holding 3 day events in Morocco since 2013. After attending Tizi n Trail in 2017 and having the most amazing experience I couldn’t resist returning in 2018 with some fellow trail runners. There was 7 in the group of us; Suzan my cousin from The Netherlands; Annabel a friend via twitter from Australia; Angie, Michaela and Grace all running related friends based in Edinburgh and Danielle a friend of Grace’s from Cheshire and myself. One of the great things about the Tizi n Trail organisation is that they change locations every year, so you can keep coming back year after year and experience a totally different part of Morocco. The 2018 edition was in Essaouria, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Its medina (old town) is protected by 18th-century seafront ramparts even used in series ‘Game of Thrones’.

 

The official start line. (photo courtesy of Paul Vilcot)

Strong “Alizée” coastal winds have allowed this quaint seaside town to retain its traditional culture and character. For most of the year, the wind blows so hard here that relaxing on the beach is impossible meaning that most tourists bypass this hidden gem, although a renowned location for windsurfers from April to November, luckily for us this meant a tail wind to help us through the race!

Tail winds keeping us moving (photo courtesy of Paul Vilcot)

There were 140 starters and we all wandered to the main square in the port for the official start photos before we headed to the beach for the actual race start. Day 1 was 16 miles of  beach running with a few dunes towards the back half to really test us out. After a long UK winter it was enjoyable just to be running in the sun and soaking up the rays as we ran along the endless stretch of beach. The participants soon spread out as we found our own rhythm and pace; the race caters for all levels whether you are a first time multi stage runner, would prefer to walk or are a seasoned runner. Just over 2 hours of running and the finish line is in sight and Michaela, Angie and I cross over hand in hand after a fun day out. Lunch of sandwiches and fresh local fruit is provided and we head back to the beach to watch the rest of the runners come in for the day.

Having way too much fun! (photo courtesy of Paul Vilcot)

The camp is a bivouac nestled up in the dunes with tents set up to sleep 8 along with a communal dining area, shower and toilet facilities with the entertainment being of everyones stories of the day as the sunset before we tucked into a delicious, hearty dinner of spaghetti bolognese and salads with Berber tea (mint) before we all retired to our beds for a comfortable nights sleep.

Sunset in camp

Waking naturally to the sounds of the waves, everyone was ready for breakfast from 7am consisting of Moroccan pancakes and breads with a selection of jams and honey all washed down with tea/coffee and juice. After packing our stuff away & bags stored on the trucks; no self sufficiency here; the organisers transport your luggage from camp to camp, we were ready to face Day 2. 12 miles over amazing scenery with river beds and high coastal paths, technical and challenging with donkeys and camels as living obstacles along the way. We finished the day together again on a deserted beach, apart from our camp, absolutely idyllic and some of the runners and myself braved the Atlantic Ocean for a rather quick dip to soothe our tired muscles. It may be a warm 20 degrees celsius outside but the water was only about 18 degrees but it was perfect recovery for the next days final stage.

Magical spot for our camp (photo courtesy of Paul Vilcot)

Again the sunset captures our attention and we enjoy another evening chatting away with friends, new and old, before we enjoy a Moroccan feast of couscous, tagine and barbecued meats before settling back into our tents for another comfortable nights sleep. This event is such a lovely introduction to multi day running, with comfort and warm hospitality making the recovery of the body that much quicker and easier to manage than other self-sufficient races, its definitely more of a holiday than a gruelling adventure such as the likes of Marathon des Sables.

Tai chi on the beach (photo courtesy of Paul Vilcot)

The clocks go forward during the night but this matters to no-one as we awake and indulge in a tasty breakfast before congregating on the beach for our final start which will take us straight up a jebel (mountain) to begin wth before heading inland over rocky terrain and flower fields for 14 miles before a final stretch along the beach to the finish line.

Michaela leading the charge through the flower fields with Angie and Rachid

People like to challenge themselves with everyone running for different reasons and it is simply amazing to see people of all walks of life complete these events and whilst doing it learn something about themselves and become better people.

Happy bunch of finishers!

The final night consists of the awards ceremony and a banquet of delicious Moroccan food, and the bar is open! Additional celebrations ensued as one of our group; Suzan won the ‘Encouragement award’ and was called on stage to applause and had to give a small speech, richly deserved and fully appreciated by a runner that just absolutely loves to run.

Suzan receiving her award

We were all sad to leave the next day, the 3 day event had gone by all too quickly but what a fabulous experience was had by all with new friendships forged through the camaraderie between us all. We all promise to return for a reunion next year for Tizi n Trail 2019 which is going to see the event heading to the mountains, starting at Lake Takerkoust (only 30mins from Marrakech) before heading to Asni and finishing up at Oukaimeden where we will be in the shadow of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Arab world. Perhaps we should tag a few days on to climb this mountain.

Sunset in Essaouira (photo courtesy of Suzan Haring)

If you are interested to join me next year please get in touch as I am the English speaking contact for the event and will help you in your planning and organisation and of course be there as well. It’s a life changing event and you won’t be disappointed. For further details on the event visit
http://www.go2events.fr/transmarocaine-tizi-n-trail/programme-tizi-ntrail-2019/

 

Half MdS Fuerteventura, but not half as hard!

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

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

Bivouac – home for the week

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

#waateam #ladywaa at the start line of Day 1

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

Poolside relaxation pre-race with Anna-Marie

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

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

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

Stunning coastal beach views on Day 1

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

All smiles before CP2 on the long stage

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

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

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

Tent life – relaxing on the rest day

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

Finish line with Patrick & Anna-Marie

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