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

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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?

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!

TransGranCanaria Take 2

After having completed the Transgrancanaria (TGC) 125km race in 2015 by the skin of my teeth against the cut off time I was keen to go back and run it again and improve on my last experience.

This time however I decided to ‘only’ sign up for the 62km version as I thought this would be a nice start to the training for the year. After reviewing my race calendar for the year however, I realised that I would not have enough points for my 2019 UTMB application and needed to either find some more races to add or upgrade a couple. So just a few days out from the race start I decided to upgrade from the 62km to the full 125km race.

What could possibly go wrong? To begin with I hadn’t run more than 16 miles as a long run in training since the start of December 2017, my diet wasn’t great with an extended Christmas and an inability to motivate myself to get out and train in the miserable conditions of what felt like the longest Scottish winter ever. Enough excuses!

I had thankfully set a plan working on improving my strength and conditioning with 2-3 solid sessions a week since the beginning of December as ultra running had worn my body out a bit, I noticed I had lost my mobility and struggled to even get off the toilet without hanging onto it. I started working with Tom Sparks, Osteopath & strength & conditioning coach, on a plan of action including biomechanics and mobility work and after a couple months I’m now able to sit into a squat and pat my dog and pop straight back up!

As I’d now upgraded to the full 125km race route this was to be my opportunity to test my new found strength and mobility and to see how the muscles coped with some serious mountains to tackle. I somehow knew in my own mind that my endurance training of past would see me through the distance.

I wasn’t expecting Spanish heat this time of year but the weather forecast for Gran Canaria was unseasonably very Scottish with heavy rains and winds. The grim weather was so bad even the marathon event was postponed from the Friday to Saturday. This was making wardrobe decisions a little tougher than usual but I still opted for my WAA skort and went with short sleeves matched with arm sleeves for extra warmth, along with E gloves, buff and waterproof jacket– sunglasses left firmly behind!

Fireworks & party atmosphere to start us off

The race starts at 11pm at night from the beach at Las Canteras, set off in a party of live music and fireworks it would be easy to get caught up in the fast start and burn yourself out early. My husband, Dion’s, words rung in my head ‘If it’s feeling good, drop it back a gear & just take it easy, save your legs’, so I did.

Night time beach start

Night running is a different experience, especially in a big race such as this, other racers lights can interfere with your own making it difficult to see in front of you so I like to have a fairly robust lumens to make sure mine is outshining others. I used LED Lenser MH10 for this race with 600 lumens which was great. Frustratingly halfway through the night my rechargeable battery was already failing and I had to stop to change to normal batteries, silly error. The night seemed to pass quickly and I was happy to see the sun starting to rise and realising I was well ahead of where I was when the sun rose 3 years ago was definitely a mental boost. The daylight also gave way to the stunning views surrounding me which had me simply awestruck!

Sunrise

The climbs and descents in this race are unrelenting and I was thankful I had my Guidetti poles this time around, they really make a difference to the level of fatigue in the legs. I was also keeping myself well fuelled, drinking Active Root between checkpoints and ensuring I was eating well at each stop along the way. The weather was not only holding out but the sun made an appearance and I hit the hottest part of the day as the ascent to Roque Nublo began.

Ascending Roque Nublo

I took advantage of a cold stream before beginning the climb to cool my head and wet my buff around my wrist which made me feel refreshed at least for a few minutes. The climb up was quite stifling with a lack of breeze but after the cold Scottish winter I wasn’t complaining. I was chatting away to a couple of fellow runners when I ran into my WAA twin, Emma (and hubby Ryan) they were laughing as they could hear me coming obviously having way too much fun. It was great to see a couple of familiar faces along the way but I didn’t want to stay and chat too long as my goal was to get to Garanon before 5 and still had the summit to reach. After the obligatory summit photo I was off on the downhill stretch to Garanon.

With my WAA Twin, Emma

I was stoked to reach Garanon at 4:45pm, ahead of schedule! Garanon has hot food and massages, I cheekily took advantage of my 15 min time gain and enjoyed a quick quad massage while I wolfed down a bowl of pasta and a chocolate milk. I was excited to be heading out with a marathon to go feeling strong and relatively fresh, thinking I knew what lay ahead I was also excited to think I could possibly get into the finish by midnight which would have meant a 25 hr finish. Little did I know the last 30k of the race were different to 3 years ago….and not in a good way!

Obligatory summit photo!

It’s a short climb out of Garanon before a descent down a very rocky path known as the quad buster for obvious reasons, but this year with stronger, fresher legs and still being in daylight instead of darkness I really enjoyed this path and jogged my way to the bottom to Tunte. I was feeling super positive and genuinely having a great time.

Coming out of Garanon – pure focus!

I was met at Tunte by my Spanish friend and local, Yosimar, greeting me with a prosciutto sandwich which I devoured on the spot. A quick chat and I was off, buoyed by seeing another friendly face and ready to tackle the last 30 odd kilometres to the finish with some gusto. That was until the route changed from what I was expecting. I had been expecting a couple of rough descents from memory but then also a lot of runnable sections but was disappointed to find the last section not playing to my strengths. Frustratingly I picked my way down an extremely long and technical descent before finally reaching the bottom which was a horrendously rocky river bed which went on forever! From race information this forever was actually 8km of the rockiest most unrunnable river bed I’ve ever been in. It was now dark and surrounded by head height reeds I felt I was trapped in a horror movie. By the time the river bed finished, my feet were done in as was I and the remaining 10km were a painful slog to the finish.

With Yosimar at Tunte

I was met by Anna-Marie’s husband Ben (my fellow WAA athletes and roomies) about 3km to the finish, she’d finished quite a few hours ago (7th lady in 19hrs) so I was really surprised and happy to see him when the heavens promptly opened up to drench us for a couple of minutes. The finish line loomed in front and I managed to put on the ultra shuffle to cross the line. I had done it! 26 hours and I was done.

Finish line smile!

As always with these extreme races the pleasure is more Type 2 fun, with the enjoyment and immense feeling of satisfaction coming a day after finishing when you join your fellow competitors in the slow shuffle post race, proudly wearing your finishers shirt.

I’m pleased with my result, I hadn’t planned nor trained for the 125km distance but yet I had a good improvement on my previous result (by over 3 hours) and I could feel the impact of the strength training in my legs not only during the race with less fatigue and feeling stronger but also my recovery was much quicker than ever before. Will I do TGC again? I think I actually might! I’d love to come to this race in even better shape, having trained specifically for it to see what I could really do and it’s a fantastic event in such a beautiful part of the world that there might just have to be a third time lucky!

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/

 

Run Talk

I get asked a lot of questions and see the same on social media about how to manage the whole ‘running’ thing from how to fit it all in and how to keep the body fit and well so I put a few thoughts online.

What does my average training week look like?

My average training week is pretty full on, I train 6 days a week, of which I make sure included is at least one session of each hill repeats, speed, strength and a long run. As I build up my mileage increases as I build towards an event this results in some days being double training sessions so both before and after work, but ALWAYS a rest day.

Advice for runners struggling to fit in the miles?

Have a real honest look at your time schedule, where are you wasting time on things like watching TV or sitting of social media (guilty!) and use that time to get out for a run. Look to combine ‘jobs’ with a run?  Can you run to work, or get off the bus/train a few stops earlier and run? Need to pick something up at the shops, run there and back? Still short for time then get up half an hour or an hour earlier and head out for a few miles.  I find the dark, cold mornings are a bit easier with a Lumie light to wake me up and having my clothes laid out ready to go.  No excuses right?!?!

My favourite or best post-run recovery techniques?

I love a chocolate milk after a long run followed by a lovely soak in a warm bath, then getting my Supacore compression tights on with my feet up on the couch, including a 20 min foot/toe stretch with my yoga toes on.  I have a strong love/hate relationship with my foam roller as well, though I am sure my sports masseuse would prefer I did it a LOT more regularly.  A good yoga session the following day is always good to stretch out properly, especially hot yoga.  I treat myself to a good sports massage after any big race or just when I feel my body needs it.

(**Get 10% discount from Supacore by using code – Lucja10 – applicable off any items including sale items**)

Foam rolling in my Supacore compression #doublerecovery

Top tips on essential kit for trail running?

I don’t hit the trails without a few basics in my bag including a first aid kit with safety blanket, emergency food & water, head torch, WAA Ultra waterproof jacket, buff, EGlove gloves & extra layers to keep warm. On me will always be my Suunto watch to track my run and maps and a good pair of trail shoes that work for you.

(**Get 20% discount from WAA Ultra equipment by getting in touch with me directly for an individual code**)

My nutrition tips for runners?

I’m fuelling with good, healthy & nutritious meals before and after runs and I wouldn’t head out for a long run without some Active Root, a natural ginger sports drink which not only gives me enough energy to run and keep me hydrated but the natural reaction of ginger settles my stomach, something which I have struggled with in the past on long runs.  I try to stick to real foods on the run to keep up the energy levels and shy away from gels unless it is towards the end of a race.

What motivates me out on the trails when the going gets tough?

My competitive streak! The fact that I’m either racing or training for a race motivates me and especially if it is a race and I know people are following my results, I’m even more keen to do well.

My advice to anyone who wants to take up running!

Keep it fun but have a focus, signing up to a race/s works for me but what drives you? Is it a PB over a distance, building up to be able to run a certain distance or time, completing a certain race/challenge, or just feeling fitter and stronger? Whatever motivates you, use it, focus on it and enjoy it.

Great Glen Ultra

Named as one of Scotland’s toughest running challenges, the Great Glen Ultra starts at Fort William and covers 72 miles/116km and 9,300 feet/2,000m of climbing along the Great Glen Way all the way to Inverness.  It’s a long way to drive, let alone run!  I had a tough day out there on the route and its one race I’ll chalk up to experience, I can’t say I enjoyed much of it which I will put down to 4 main factors.  The route, the self-sufficiency/unsupported element, small field of runners and my own current state of fitness.  I’m going to giving you the nitty gritty of my experience of GG, missing any eloquent niceties and runners high garble because I had to dig really deep.  Whilst I will never again run this route, this I promise you, if you do want a challenge then its definitely one for you!

Iona & I at the 1am start line

After a bus trip down from Inverness at 9:30pm to the start line, runners congregate in The Moorings Hotel before we head out to Neptunes Staircase and take our marks.  After stern warnings of ‘don’t fall in the canal’ and ‘keep the loch on your right hand side’ and we are unceremoniously on our way.  The first 7 miles are along the canal so its easy to go out too quick but I manage to control myself and stick to a steady 9min/mile pace, the weather is tempered and I’m in my WAA skort and carrier shirt, with only gloves and a buff for extra warmth.  With the Scottish summer of late I’m carrying not only a waterproof jacket but also waterproof trousers and a spare set of gloves and shirt!  I’m glad its dark as the monotony of the canal can’t yet take hold on my mind although it already begins to bore me.  I was looking forward to day breaking and being greeted by a spectacular sunrise that might have got me motivated but alas it just discreetly became bright and that was that, a new day had begun and I was 20 odd miles into the day.  The first half of the route is relatively flat, which is because of the canals.  The 2nd leg of the canal coming into CP 3 nearly finished me off, how people can run the canal races I will never know, they just never seem to finish!  I think I’d spent the first 30miles just wanting to quit but I had to push on knowing that once I got halfway then it would be worth it to keep going.

My thoughts on the canal section

Once the route started with the unrelenting climbs it didn’t actually get that much more interesting, I found the trails along this section to be quite uninspiring (sorry Scotland you normally do this so well), the views of course from the top are always worth it but I wasn’t feeling the love today. There were no technical sections at all and all a bit too much road and canal for my liking.

Views of the loch below

Self sufficient and unsupported races are not an alien concept to me in itself having run Marathon Des Sables & Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon however this mixed with the very small field of runners meant that I spent most of the day completely on my own, and worse completely in my own head which was not a good place to be.  It’s strange but normally I enjoy running on my own but for this race due to my own current levels of fitness, I could have done with the company.  Thank goodness for the brilliant on-call support from the A-grade support crew of Dion, Rhianon and Suzan who were all at the end of the phone calling me with messages of support and not allowing me to quit when I was at my low ebbs.

Dawn breaking

The race consisted of 6 checkpoints that you could have drop bags at and one other where only water was provided (although the lovely crew there saved me with a small bag of Salt & Vinegar crisps-thank you from the bottom of my heart).  My favourite item in the drop bags this race was definitely chocolate milk, I downed one of those at each checkpoint and that kept me going  along with my Active Root sports drink.  The downfall of no support on such a long race is not seeing your loved ones along the way to give you hot food cheer you on and that is such a lovely mental boost that I really missed.  It was nice to see some familiar faces however in the crew, especially at CP5 where I had them all laughing and applauding after I’d pulled into the local chippy on the way and came through munching my hot salty chips.  It worked wonders as well as I then promptly passed 4 people on the way to the final CP.

Pine forest trails

The final 11 miles were a hard push, everything was hurting in my body and although I now knew I would finish I was eating humble pie as I gathered my thoughts and berated myself for not being as fit as I should be, or could be.  I can use the last 12 months of my life being turned upside down by Finding Gobi as an excuse; and I honestly would not change a thing as I am so happy in my life; but as a runner you know what you are capable of and I know I fell short of that.  I met my target time of getting in just under 16 hours but it hurt, it really hurt, and its a bitter pill to swallow.  It might sound facetious to non-runners to say I’m not fit enough but I know that I am capable of doing so much better and it only matters to me I know, but I consider my opinion pretty important!  So what am I going to do about it?  I’m going to recover wisely, I’m going to have some fun and go and run the Spartan Beast race in Edinburgh on 22nd July (if you fancy joining me its not too late and use ‘EDINBURGHSPARTAN’ to get 15% off your entry) and then I’m going to go and run even further and do my first ever 100 miler on the 5th August at the NDW100.

Finish line smiles & tears