The UltraXperience – Sri Lanka

‘Come on! Come on!’ The shouts and cheers from the local families were ringing in my ears. ‘Splash!’ Another bucket of water drenched me along with the sound of laughing and squealing from the group of local kids that had thrown it on me.  The inaugural Ultra X Sri Lanka 250k over 5 days was like a week long water fight. I don’t ever recall being so wet for so long.  The constant dousing from the locals and self drenching in the streams combined with the 85% humidity meant that all the runners were constantly wet and never actually dried out.

Getting doused by the local supporters

After a relaxing pre race stay in the picturesque beachside town of Negombo we were whisked away to explore the remote and untouched wilderness of the Sri Lankan jungles.  I’d come to Sri Lanka for an adventure and the opportunity to run 250km through a country I’d only ever dreamed of and seen on travel documentaries was escapism at its best.

Stunning scenery

Awaking to the sounds of monkeys jumping from tree to tree and the birds sing songing the dawn of a new day, I uncovered my eyes from my eye mask and peered through my mosquito net around the camp.  We’d arrived as the sun set the night before into camp and after squelching our way through thick mud we had all hastily made our little sleeping havens inside our 8-10 person gazebos that would become our home for the next 6 nights.  Camp life can be noisy and erratic but its also a lot of fun and a great opportunity to get to know your fellow competitors better.

Camp life

Anticipation and nervous energy was running through all of us as we congregated at the start line.  It was only 8am but already the sun was sharp and I took shade beside the hibiscus plants enjoying the cooling water droplets hitting my body from last nights rain storm.  After an obligatory start line photo we were off, the adventure had begun.  Running through sugar cane fields and banana plantations, alongside waterways interspersed by herds of water buffalo and floating fields of pink water lilies and through rural villages with locals offering us fresh homegrown bananas and coconuts whilst never accepting any money, just a big smile and a cheer.  This was running nirvana.  This is what I had come for.  Being the inaugural race there was no expectations as no-one knew what was to come, just surprise after surprise with the promise of more adventure around every corner. 

Start line photo courtesy of Benedict Tufnell

Ultra X Sri Lanka took me by surprise with its toughness and brutality.  I think it surprised every single one of the 31 starters with only a third of the field managing to finish the full distance without missing a leg/day of the route or having an IV drip administered during or after a stage. A mixture of attrition from heat exhaustion, dehydration, blisters and some existing injuries quickly demolished the field.  The route was flat, and fast if you could cope with the heat & humidity raising your heart rate and pushing your limits.  I realised early on that this was going to be a race of survival for me rather than a competitive race.  I was far away from my comfort zone; heat, humidity, mud, insects, camping, iguanas and running on the flat; but the further I get away from that zone and the more challenging it is, rising to the challenge and taking the difficult road this is what makes my life interesting and gives it more meaning.

The roads were hot, long and flat (Photo by Max Wilcocks)

Even though we were running in some of the most remotest of areas, small villages dotted the course and with that meant small local shops where I certainly made use of cold coke to keep my thirst at bay and energy levels higher.  During day 1 I’d found I was running a very similar pace with fellow competitors Alise from Latvia and Max from London and developed a rythym together that would mean we would run 95% of the race together and we would take turns in making purchases and trying out the eclectic mix of Sri Lankan treats for sale too.

Another day, another coke!

Going into Sri Lanka I was concerned after my DNF at HURT 100 in January due to hydration and nutrition issues that the humidity would have the same effect on me. I worked on addressing these by trying to combat the humidity and the sun by wearing cooling arm sleeves and bandana around my neck which I wet as often as possible to keep cool, using a 1.5L camelbak for my electrolyte drinks (Active Root & Torq) on top of water in my usual 2 x 500ml UD Hydrates soft flasks and drying my feet out as soon as possible as well as having changes of socks for each day as the constant saturation of my feet turned them to white squidgy sponges and I actually got a couple of blisters which is unheard of for me.  With this focus and attention I was able to handle the situation much more effectively and finish the race not only intact but with a big smile on my face.

Cooling down any way possible

There is magic at a multi stage race and this magic comes from the people, not only the runners, but the organisers, volunteers and the local people of the unique landscape you are running through.  A multi stage race brings out a rawness in people that there is no hiding from, we see each other at our best, at our worst and everything in between and somehow this develops such strong bonds and friendships are forged for life.

Getting lost on route with Anna-Marie, Max and Alise after locals had moved the markers to their shop!

Ultra X are the new kids on the block delivering a series of multi stage races across stunning, remote and of course adventurous locations around the world.  Whether you fancy exploring the lush tropical rainforest jungle of Sri Lanka, through the valley of the moon in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, explore the volcanic islands of The Azores in Portugal or follow in the footsteps of the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico through the Copper Canyon with spectacular mountain trails as famously documented in “Born to Run”.  Each race follows the same format of running 250km over 5 days, which is more kilometres in less days than the infamous Marathon des Sables, with the self sufficiency element made somewhat more appealing with the race organisers transporting your 15kg bag between camp sites for you so you only need to run with a day pack. Costing around £1k per race they are providing a more affordable option of multi stage racing making this more accessible to the running community.  Check them out and find out what it means to have “The UltraXperience”.

The UltraXperience (photo by Benedict Tufnell)

Whilst the post race glow was immensely overshadowed by the tragic events which took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 28th April 2019, I left Sri Lanka with a deep affection and respect for the people and families I met along the way who live such humble and simple lives yet always had a smile and offered immense generosity from the bottom of their hearts.

Sri Lanka Multi Stage Kit – what worked for me:

Clothing – I wore Asics running kit which was light and had no chafing issues

Shoes – Asics Gel Sonoma – a rugged enough grip for the trails but still comfortable enough for road and hard packed dirt roads

Socks – Injinji toe socks (I only suffered with 2 rather small blisters on my heel from all the slipping around in the wet)

Sunglasses – ND runner are the perfect affordable sunglasses to wear, especially when you lose a pair in the river on the last day!

Bag – Ultimate Direction Race Vesta

Fuel

Active Root & Torq – I alternated each day between different flavours of their hydrations sachet mixed in my cambelbak 

Veloforte bars – All natural bars that were the perfect consistency in the heat, not too dry or too soft, with big chunks of nuts in them too for that added crunch

33 Shake – Chia seed energy gels

Cruga Biltong – A great post race stage snack to restore the protein levels

Summit to Eat – Freeze dried adventure food (I had Macaroni cheese, Chicken Tikka and Rice, Beef and potato stew

**Earplugs and eye mask are an absolute must for communal camping**

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Race to the Stones

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

TNF Team

The North Face Ultra Babes Team

 

Serious pre race chat with Cat

Serious pre race chat with Cat

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

Running through the poppy fields

Running through the poppy fields

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

En route

En route

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

Running along the river

Running along the river

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

RTTS finish

RTTS finish

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

Me, Cat, Susie & the 100 cake

Me, Cat, Susie & the 100 cake

Mystique of the Mohican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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