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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Leadville 100-The Race Across the Sky

This ain’t no powder puff race!

Epic, iconic, awesome and legendary are words you commonly here when people talk about having run a 100 mile race, which are all true when talking about Leadville, but what about legacy? How many races out there are not only changing our lives as runners but those of people in their local community? How many races make you really feel part of an extendable family?

Race co-founder Ken Chlouber, an avid marathon runner dreamt up the race as a way to make Leadville famous and attract visitors during the 1980’s after the closure of the Climax mine which was a major blow to the towns economy, putting the town as the highest unemployment level in the USA overnight as thousands lost their jobs. The first race was held in 1983 and has been held annually since. The race starts and finishes in Leadville, Colorado on an out and back course on trails and dirt roads through the heart of the Rocky Mountains climbing and descending 15,600 feet (4,800m) with elevations ranging between 10,200-12,600 feet (3,100-3,850m). The altitude adds that extra element of brutality which results in most years having only a 50% finishing rate. 2018 was no exception with only 52% of starters making it across the finish line before the 30hr cut off.

The Leadville 100 strips you down to your raw inner and you’re reborn when you cross that finish line, life changed forever. But the local lives are changed too. Every year since 2002 the race, through the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, gives a $1,000 scholarship to every graduate from high school, helping to set them up on a path to success. Their mission is to support the needs of Leadville, Lake County community and build a better, brighter tomorrow, while respecting their mining heritage.

It’s no wonder that the support along the course is second to none! The community love and embrace the race spirit and they are there to do what they can to help each and every runner reach the finish. Checkpoints morph into small festivals with fire pits and parties absolutely on point.

4am start with Ken & Marilee at the helm

Starting in the dark at 4am the race sets off at a quick pace with a relatively downhill start to the first checkpoint, puncturing the night sky with head torch light trails and whoops of excitement from 750 runners amid plenty of friendly chatter and stories from the trails. The story of a bear sighting along this very trail only a few weeks back sticks with me through the race. Sunrise along Turquoise Lake welcomes us to May Queen at 13.5 miles.

Sunrise at Turquoise Lake

The first real climb of the day is quickly upon us as we head up Sugarloaf Pass on a very runnable but deceivingly draining up hill, some runners choose to run this, but I opt for a running start moving into a power hike before reaching the top and enjoying a really fun downhill stretch known as Power-line to The Outward bound checkpoint at 23.5 miles.

Feeling strong out of Outward Bound

The second climb takes place up Mt Elbert after going through Half Pipe checkpoint, it’s not the full way to the top of the mountain but it’s still a hefty ascent to combat before reaching Twin Lakes where my crew are waiting patiently for me ready to get me sorted again at 37.9 miles in.

Heading out of Twin Lakes packed and ready to take on Hope Pass

Refuelled and refreshed heading out of Twin Lakes I pop on some tunes to help keep my cadence hoping that I can keep up a good pace up Hope Pass. Two small ankle deep river crossings chill me right down as I wade through freezing water but wet feet don’t bother me and I shriek and laugh as I cross through.

Loving the river crossing!

I snap open my hiking poles as I see the ascent of the pass ahead and altitude quickly takes its toll. I go from moving well to a slow motion hike that doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere fast but my legs are like lead and my chest is so tight I feel like I can’t breath, I feel runners coming past me but I’m too paralysed to do anything more than the crawl I’m managing. Frustratingly slowly and painfully I make it to Hopeless aid station and refuel before tackling the last 200m ascent before some relief back down the other side to Winfield. As soon as I’m heading down hill my legs free up and the more I descend the better I can breath and I start to pass a few people again. I feel disoriented by this as I’m normally a stronger climber than a descender but the altitude has flipped this all on its head. Ken’s words ‘Make friends with pain and you will never be alone’ were echoing in my ears loudly.

Obligatory selfie on top of Hope Pass, making pain my friend!

I’m greeted at the halfway point at Winfield, 50miles and just under 13 hours, by my first pacer Aaron, a total stranger to me until today. I love this about the running community, you only have to seek out support and you find it. I now have 2 new life long friends who both sacrificed their weekend to join me through the night to help me get to the finish. Aaron is keen to get me moving quickly and we don’t hang about the aid station and within minutes we are back on the trail and commencing the steep ascent back up Hope Pass.

Seriously in the pain cave heading back up Hope Pass for the 2nd time! (Photo credit : Aaron)

We are literally heading home now but the thought doesn’t motivate my legs into action, we crawl up Hope Pass as the wind picks up and the sun starts to make its descent. Jackets, buffs and gloves thrown on we get over the pass and back at Hopeless aid station Aaron has to pull me away from the warm camp fire to get going. We need to make up time as I’ve now eaten well into my good head start of the cut offs and the concerns of chasing cut off times starts to kick in. The 30 hour cut off set for the race is very tight and it certainly means there is no time to rest at the check points as you can all so easily lose valuable time and miss out on finishing like 48% of starters this year did.

Up and Up!

It’s dark before we reach Twin Lakes again so head torches are back on and we tackle the freezing river crossing in the dark which certainly wakes me up! And then we make it to Twin Lakes now 62.5 Miles in and making cut off by only half an hour. Dion, my husband, who has been crewing since the start is there and he offers forceful encouragement and I can see concern is all over his face; he knows how badly I want this belt buckle and he fears this is slipping out of my reach. At no point have I felt like quitting, I have come into this race with the right intentions and the positive mindset with the mantra from the race briefing still ringing in my ears “I commit, I won’t quit”.

We head off again into the dark and it’s straight back into a climb up Mt Elbert, again my legs are like lead and I start to feel really queasy and continuously struggling for air, with bouts of dizziness which has Aaron worrying as I keep stumbling. As we finally reach the top the heavens open for a downpour saturating us before we make the next checkpoint. It’s here I put on every layer I have, 2 base layers, 2 waterproof jackets, buff and gloves to try and get warm again. Aaron forces me to eat more than I have at any other checkpoint and we get down to Half Pipe at 71.1 Miles where we’ve now managed to make up 10 mins and we are 40 mins ahead of cut off, the time hangs over my head somewhat as 40 minutes isn’t really that much in the scheme of things and I know I need to keep digging deep if I am going to be awarded that finishers buckle.

We change pacers at Outward bound station 76.9 miles and James joins me to get back up Power Line, that really fun downhill now has to be climbed! It’s the first time I’ve spoken to James in person and within 10 minutes I’m double over and vomiting no doubt making a great first impression. Somehow the vomit makes me feel better and we ascend the hill so much stronger than the last 4 climbs. James is loving it and pushes me to get a jog on again when we reach the top for the descent back into May Queen at 87.8 miles, passing about 50 runners, where Dion and Aaron are surprised to see us down already.

Daylight breaks again

The sun is just starting to rise as Aaron joins me for the final leg to the finish, just 12.6 miles to go and we’ve got just over 3 hours to make it but on tired legs this doesn’t mean it’s in the bag but I can feel it, I can feel I’m going to get that belt buckle and I surprise Aaron with my refound energy and we start playing a game of Pac-Man, every person we see we aim to catch them and we end up passing 50 runners to the finish line.

Enjoying my game of Pac Man!

That finish line! Before you enter the town of Leadville you can hear the cheers and applause which spurs you on and as you turn onto 6th street you still can’t quite see the finish line but the streets are lined with local support. Everyone has come out to cheer us all on and the noise is deafening, tears start flowing as I get choked up by the emotion of it all knowing that I am minutes away from finishing my first 100. As we get closer we can see the finish line, the uphill finish line I might add, and we start to plan how to position me for the finishers photo, under strict instructions from Dion to make sure I leave a gap between runners so he can get a good photo. We decide to pass a couple more, then a couple after that until finally my feet hit the red carpet and I’m running under the banner and into the waiting arms of Merilee. Tears are flowing and I look up to catch Dion also crying, embraces and photos and more hugs from James and Aaron, and of course Ken. I’m on cloud nine, I’ve done it, I’ve raced across the sky where legends are created and limits are tested. I gave the mountains my respect, and earned respect from all. Ken tells me ‘Finishing this race will change your life. It truly has and it will change your life too if you let it.

One very happy 100 mile finisher!

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!

Running Together

As I reached the final peak of ‘Eight Immortals’ of the Wilson trail high in the mountains of Hong Kong my head torch made out the silhouette of a man perched on the summit. That man was my ever patient and supportive husband Dion who had been waiting patiently for me in the dark as I painfully ascended the last climb of The North Face Hong Kong 100. ‘What took you so long?’ He laughed as he asked me before we shared a few sugary treats for a last surge of energy for the final descent back into Tai Po Market to the finish line.

Look

Sunsetting over the Eight Immortals

Dion and I had been living apart for just over 4 months at the time with him based in Beijing, China to ‘Bring Gobi Home’ (see FindingGobi.com for more details on this life changing adventure) whilst I remained in Edinburgh with a couple of visits in between, so we had decided that as this was our couple time that we would run this race together. Having never been to Hong Kong before we were both keen to have fun, get the distance done for some intensive training, take lots of photos and soak up the atmosphere. In other words we weren’t ‘racing’.

Ready together at the start line

Ready together at the start line with the mountains behind us

“It must be great to be have a partner that runs too, so you get to run together.” I hear this a lot from other runners that may or may not have partners that run with them, but running ‘together’ is not always how it goes. We have finely tuned how we run ‘together’ over the years after many frustrations early on where I can’t keep up with Dion and it hurts him to run slower at my pace. So now we might head out for a run and he gives me a half hour to an hour head start (depending on the distance) and then chases me down; this works quite well as I run quicker to try and stop him catching me and he also runs quicker as he most certainly wants to catch me. Another option is for one of us to drive to point B, park the car and run back to point A and the other runs from A to B, passing each other halfway and then collects the car. Or I just make sure Dion is knackered from a big block of training and we do run together as then he’s slowed down enough to keep ‘up’ with me.

Taking time out for a selfie

Taking time out for a selfie

We don’t tend to race together, although we might be at races together (KAEM 2013 & 2014), MdS 2014 and various local races, Dion is much quicker than me and on the edge of professional running where I am not quite reaching that level, yet. I hope that by running more together in both training and racing that I can learn from his experience, skill and mindset to develop myself into stepping more into the competitive world of running. I do enjoy the feeling of being on the podium and want to feel this more and more.

Mountains of Hong Kong

Mountains of Hong Kong

With the mountains looming ahead of the start line it wasn’t long before the path quickly turned both vertical and single track at the same time causing a massive queue of runners who were halted to walking. Not a bad strategy to conserve energy but it was much too slow so a tip if you do this race, get yourself a bit further up the starting pack if you want to get a move on.

Runners traffic jam

Runners traffic jam

I’d heard a lot about the trails of Hong Kong but was still surprised by the sheer size of the mountains, I wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it for myself. It was every bit as beautiful as a mountain fairytale with steep, rocky trail stairs leading you high into the clouds even more brutal than I could have hoped for. The trails lead you vertical to take in some exceptional views of the iconic Hong Kong skyline which we had the pleasure of enjoying in brilliant sunlight, at sunset and into the darkness.

Dion descending one of the many downhill stairs

Dion descending one of the many downhill stairs

It wasn’t all trails though. After each descent we entered a local village all bustling with activity of daily life and offering the opportunity to purchase some cold Coke or tasty local food of which many of the runners were taking full advantage of, ourselves included. A great benefit of Dion running with me was that he would run ahead and surprise me with his purchases which kept him busy shopping with the locals for our treats along the way. The taste of an ice cold Coke mid way on a hot, humid race is second to none. And it was humid, some of the runners looked like they’d been for a swim instead of a run they were sweating so much. It certainly paid dividends to put skills learnt in the desert into practice with hydration and salt tablets to keep dehydration at bay.

Running through one of the local villages

Running through one of the local villages

We resisted the temptation at lunch time as we passed a gorgeous waterside village abundantly laid out with tables full of locals feasting on an array of food that smelt absolutely divine, a decision I now half regret as we never did make it back to that same spot for lunch the following day. Dion made sure we didn’t do without though ensuring we had dim sum and noodles to eat at points along the way.

Running along the blue water

Waterside running

It was an enjoyable change to run together as a couple in a race environment and gave me the opportunity to push myself harder drawing on Dion’s resolve and experience. I have no doubt that he would be a great pacer for me in a future race and will push me on to faster times. It was also like having a personal photographer alongside me all day with Dion often racing ahead to capture the amazing footage you see here in our film of the race.

The North Face Hong Kong 100 delivered an exceptional experience of trail running whilst giving runners a taste of local culture and people. A tough challenging race not to be taken lightly with its unrelenting ups and downs in the humidity to add that extra test of endurance. This combined with a weekend of exploring the bustling city and eating the delicious food it makes for a great running adventure escape. After my first taste of Hong Kong I can definitely see a return for another race in the future, my imagination was captured as we passed Lantau Island on the way to the airport…Lantau 50k Dion?

http://www.findinggobi.com

Smiling faces at the finish line

Smiling faces at the finish line

Quick Fix Escapism – My Micro Adventure under 48 hours & £100

Hearing about Inverie on the Knoydart Peninsula, a remote location that could only be reached by either ferry, on foot or helicopter, I knew this was the adventure I’d been looking for and hatched a plan for my very own micro adventure. In a fast paced world that seems to be forever getting even busier and more expensive we are all seeking get aways that actually allow you to ‘get away’ without costing the earth or taking all your time. Quick fix escapism.

With Edinburgh city still sleeping I escaped in the wee hours into the still, dark air that hinted at frost. It wasn’t long before I was crossing the Forth Bridge heading into the North of Scotland. I’d been travelling for a few hours in the dark before the sun started to rise giving way to a beautiful sunrise and promise of a spectacular day.

Magical Sunrise

Magical Sunrise

After winding my way through stunning vistas surrounded by deer and highland cows the road comes to an abrupt end at a rustic farmhouse with smoke plumes working their way into the sky tinged pink with the sunrise. Loch Hourn glistens and winks with the promise of what lays in store over the next 2 days of exploring this remarkably untouched peninsula of Knoydart on foot, completely on my own.

The promise of what lays ahead

The promise of what lays ahead

Like a scene from a movie, I left the main road and the small road became progressively narrower giving way to a single track path where the only traffic I was giving way to was small herds of deer and highland cows. Weaving around tight bends each corner gave way to stunning views after the last, past small lochs & rocky outcrops before the road abruptly reached its end and the expansive Loch Hourn began.

Traffic at the end of the road

Traffic at the end of the road

Keeping the Loch to my right the 15 mile route from Loch Hourn to Inverie via Barrisdale was well trodden and with a startling Autumn day welcoming me, I had no need for my map and compass apart from giving me comfort that I was heading in the right direction. Running was impossible as I was constantly stopping to take photos and soak up the stunning views that went from amazing to perfect. My mouth was agape at how beautiful it was, this is when I missed my partner in crime, Dion, and I spoke out loud to the vast silence around me, telling the world how beautiful she is. I had to vocalise it, it was so beautiful!

A moment of reflection

A moment of reflection

At Barrisdale the path veers to the left and takes you past the bothy and campsite and over Mam Barrisdale with a tough climb up to 800m where I was greeted by a herd of deer who were very curious about me. What a welcome to the summit. A lovely descent down past Loch an Dubh-Lochain and I could start to see the water of Mallaig winking in the bright sunlight, signalling my end destination. To this point I hadn’t seen a soul, total isolation, but strangely it felt very safe and comfortable as if this is how it’s supposed to be.

The end coming into sight

The view of Loch an Dubh-Lochain

Cute little wooden signs direct you to the few locations in Inverie of note; The Bunkhouse, snackvan, ferry and Pub. I was starving at this point having only had a couple of snacks since 4am and it was now 2pm but decided to head to The Bunkhouse first to make sure I had a bed for the night before the 15 minute walk into the village centre to find some food. I ventured into The Tea Rooms where a tasty & warm jacket potato and haggis filled my empty belly, washed down with a tasty hot chocolate and a homemade chocolate brownie left me feeling full and now rather sleepy as I sat in the heated tea room with the sun coming in through the window. Grabbing a bottle of red wine from the local shop I headed off in search of dinner and to get some feet up time.

Making my way through the most impressive herd of stags at Kilchoan Estate I entered another world; a farm shop filled with locally produced goodies left out to help yourself with simply a notepad to keep a list of what you purchase beside a quaint honesty box. I couldn’t resist the ultimate indulgence of a small wheel of Arran whisky flavoured cheddar, a box of oatcakes and a jar of homemade chutney, along with a 6 pack of eggs from the chickens I could see on the farm already thinking of my breakfast.

Kilchoan Estate

Kilchoan Estate

A roaring wood fire in the communal lounge at the Bunkhouse snuggled into a comfy sofa with wine and cheese meant I didn’t venture out to watch the sunset, however I’m sure it was spectacular.

Sleep came easily after a big day out in the sun on my feet and the Bunkhouse was tranquil giving way to a comfortable & deep sleep. Filling my belly with 6 eggs scrambled, I was back on the path again retracing my steps from yesterday back to Loch Hourn. Again I didn’t see a soul along the way and tempted by the crystal clear water I decided to go into full adventure mode and had my first experience of wild swimming in Scotland at Barisdale. Braving the chilly water with nothing on except my cloak of courage I splashed away in the water. It felt so empowering and exhilarating I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face for days. It was so good and after seeing otters swimming by me on the trek back along the Loch, I jumped in again just before the farmers house, I was hooked! Perfect timing as I had only just got my clothes back on when I saw hikers coming around the corner! Having a secret giggle to myself as I passed them I quickly got in the car to get the heaters going to warm me up as this time I’d gone all the way under so had dripping, cold hair to deal with.

Wild swimming with a smile

Wild swimming with a smile

My drive back felt like a new adventure through the Caingorms as now I was seeing this in daylight rather than in the pitch dark. Amazed at the stunning nature wonderland around me I could feel my mind ticking over already, wondering what adventure could I hatch to come back up here again soon.

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Just the bare basics

Just the bare basics

 

What’s in my bag?

I often get asked “What’s in your bag?” from other runners, so I thought I would share what I have in my bag on a daily basis for my runs, this is what works for me and you should always adapt this to your own conditions and requirements as this is by no means the written law of what you should carry.

If you didn’t know, November is Runner Safety Month.  I was inspired to share the equipment I use because safety and peace of mind are key.  To help everyone run smarter the Fall, SimpliSafe, a security company that designed a wireless alert system for active individuals is encouraging runners to keep a clear mind and remain alert to any potential dangers on their run and at home.  It’s not always easy to get outside and train, but every little thing helps.  So tell me, what’s in your bag?

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Click to retrieve the PDF version

The answer lies in the journey – Marathon Des Sables 2016

The mystical shifting sands of the Sahara beckoned and lured me back for a 2nd time to compete in ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ Marathon Des Sables (MdS).  A 257km, the longest MdS distance in the 31 year history of the race, gruelling multi-stage, self sufficient race in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth – the Sahara desert.  Crossing salt flats, climbing jebels, and running through the never ending sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees under the scorching Moroccan sun and contending with billowing sand storms as if it wasn’t hard enough.  But why come back for a 2nd time you ask?  I had some ghosts to put to bed as I explain in more detail in my previous post.

After a typical Scottish winter it felt good to be back in Morocco; under a canopy of startling blue skies and wispy clouds the stark surroundings have started to feel strangely like home after quite a number of visits to this beautiful country for various types of holidays and adventures.  I for one couldn’t wait to join the other 1,250 runners from all different walks of life for one single purpose, to finish this challenge.

Ouarzazate sunset

Ouarzazate sunset

Leaving civilisation behind in Ouarzazate, the 6 hour bus ride out to the first bivouac (camp) site feels long even though en route I met my running idol, Fernanda Maciel.

Selfie with Fernanda!

Selfie with Fernanda!

Once we get there and settle into our tent that will house 7 of us (3 previous finishers among us), tent number 156, we know we still have a full day of administrative checks the following day to endure before we get anywhere near racing.  The 2 nights spent in the camp before the actual race start is a gentle tease as you slowly get further away from creature comforts, for the first night you still have all your belongings including phones and toiletries (important in exactly that order) and delicious meals are provided by the race organisation.  But then it starts to strip away, the day before the race you hand your luggage in and the race registration takes place of checking your kit and ECG/medical before handing you your race numbers and bag of salt tablets before it all suddenly starts to feel very real.

Dinner MdS style

Dinner MdS style

Every day the bivouac comes alive well before the sunrises with competitors unable to sleep they start stirring and faffing about in their bags, with many wasting precious energy being up so early and being ready well before time.  I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag until at least 7am before peering out and starting the morning rituals of changing into my progressively filthy kit and preparing my body to face the day ahead.  Being the only girl in the tent I was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

You can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale of this race, the ultimate show.  Patrick Bauer (race director) addresses the runners at the start before blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and we are off with a helicopter swooping low over us all to film us all smiling and waving our way along our own personal highways to hell.  That song will always give me goose bumps whenever I hear it and with it comes memories flooding back of MdS.  It is without doubt the blue riband event of multi stages, nothing else compares.

MdS should not be under estimated, it is a humbling experience where the race kicks the stuffing out of you and redefines you whatever your experience and expectations.  I had previously placed 377th overall (27th female) in 2014 and initially had my goal set at a top 200 finish and aiming for a top 10 female finish; that was until I saw the strongest ever female field registered for 2016.  Never has there been so many females finishing in the top 200 of MdS, with 2 females in the top 20 alone, and a whopping 21 females in the top 200 (13 in top 200 in 2015 & 2014).  Wow!  Proud to be part of the ever strengthening women’s field, go girls!  I was delighted to finish in 147th overall as 13th female with the finishing times so close together it was a massive improvement on my first performance.

Stage 1 official video:

I loved the sand dunes this year!  They were as huge and as beautiful as I remember and there was still no end in sight but I ran them, in 2014 they near killed me and here in 2016 I ran them and came in 93rd place for day 1!  As my husband Dion (http://www.findinggobi.com) so eloquently put it in an email to me ‘Day 1 result, 93rd, Did I read that right…Holy Fuckballs!’  That result added pressure and I felt that the next few days where I slowly slipped back some positions but I will hold that result close to my heart forever, so proud!

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

MdS threw everything at us; dune after dune, endless salt flats and jebels (mountains) to climb that needed ropes to pull you up the last section mixed with heat that cooked you from the inside and sand storms that exfoliated your skin to inch of its life!  My body started to revolt from day 2 with nausea and legs like lead and I joined forces with gal pal Marina Ranger to find strength in companionship and we pushed each other through the good times and the dark times, finishing the rest of the race side by side.  I faced my own demons on the long stage with bouts of diarrhoea leading to heat exhaustion by the halfway point on this day but we soldiered on together with a lengthy conversation for the last 30km about why and what makes us do these things to our bodies.  We couldn’t answer that question at the time, maybe it was the fact that we were almost delirious from tiredness and the heat or that the answer lies in the journey.  We are all changed from the experience in some way or another and we dare dream even more to find that next escape and the freedom that comes from the adventure and challenge of pushing your body and mind to its limit.

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

Preparing for this race takes months of meticulous planning and training.  It is not enough to just be able to run this race takes more, much more!  You need strength, fitness, mental tenacity and the ability to deal with a week in the most primitive of conditions where cleanliness and hygiene are non-apparent and you become the filthiest you have ever been in your life.  It’s harder than you can imagine lying there in an open tent being blasted by sandstorms filling every orifice of your body trying to recover from being out in brutally tough conditions for anything from 5-15 hours, needing to eat and sleep to be ready for the next day.  This is what starts to break people down bit by bit and what makes this race so totally unique and iconic.

With 3 MdS finisher medals to our household that previous experience helped me build a plan specific for MdS.  I ensured that I trained the hardest and the smartest I ever had, incorporating hills, speed, long runs, strength & conditioning and flexibility combined with fuelling my body with the best food to build it even stronger and healthier than ever before finishing off with some heat chamber sessions of up to 44 degrees to prepare my body for the sizzling temperatures it would face.  I kept focussed and trained my mind to keep that competitive & stubborn mindset (my husband is legendary at this!) to be able to push through the guaranteed pain & discomfort that would be faced throughout the race and I spent hours poring over my kit & food spreadsheet ensuring I had the best kit available and the best fuel for my body, at the lightest weights possible but without scrimping.

As a proud X-Bionic athlete I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else into the desert, it has seen me through every desert multi stage I have done with no issues of chafing, riding up and even in those extreme temperatures the kit doesn’t smell, it’s amazing stuff and I couldn’t recommend their kit highly enough for anyone coming to MdS or any other desert race, trust me it works!  I wore a Runderwear crop top which aside from being very comfortable meant that I didn’t have to tape up to avoid chafing as there was no chafe! At all!  Aside from your clothing shoes are imperative to this race with so many people suffering from horrible blister issues this is something you need to avoid, I came away with all 10 toenails intact, still perfectly pedicured, having experienced only one small blister on the side of my foot over the whole week.  How?  I wear New Balance Leadville shoes, initially they were half a size up to what I would normally wear but I now wear this as my normal size (don’t go too big a size up or your foot will slide around & cause friction), coupled with Injinji toe socks (I only had 1 pair for the whole week, who needs fresh socks?) and then a set of AR gaiters over the top.  You can’t do this race without gaiters and keeping the sand out is so important so I get my Velcro stitched on by a professional, Dave at Sandbaggers offer a gaiter fitting service, they are stitched onto your shoe in such a way that it doesn’t affect the shape of the shoe & they will not come loose, I saw a lot of people with issues caused by unprofessional gaiter fitting processes.

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

Sleep is such an important element of this race that this time around I sacrificed 200g to have both a pillow and a sleeping mat (trimmed down) to give myself the best chance of sleep.  I used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 which felt very comfortable all week and managed to have my starting bag weight at 6.8kg (dry).

Food choices are individual but one thing that is the same for everyone is that whatever you take, you will get sick of eating it at some point so variety is the key.  I find that I prefer savoury items for both breakfast and for my snacks and dinner once I am in from the day, and grazing throughout the afternoon is better for me than a bigger meal, but I stick to gels and energy style drinks such as Torq energy and Hammer Perpetuem to supplement those when I can’t stomach the gels anymore.  I wouldn’t be without my For Goodness Shakes recovery powder either at the end of each day.  In the heat of the Sahara it is difficult to eat anything and I can’t get any sort of whole food such as bars down whilst I am out on the course.  My favourite tips from this year’s MdS would be to take some Oxo stock cubes to add to your water in the afternoon for a tasty salty treat (heats up nicely in the sun) and tea bags for ‘iced’ tea (not quite iced but tasted surprisingly good in tepid water) as you get so sick of drinking tepid water all day, so anything that will help you hydrate is good.

Marina & I on the finishing line webcam:

I promised myself out in the Sahara that this is the last time and have told both Dion and Marina that they must not allow me to sign up again, and I won’t……I don’t think.  It’s funny but you very quickly forget how much it hurts, how much it takes to do the MdS as soon as you step away and the afterglow of the event takes hold.

I love this quote from Jason Schlarb, it really sums up MdS!

 “This has been a miserable challenge, a misery train, but a life experience.” Jason Schlarb – 11th Man MdS 2016