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!

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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!

Half MdS Fuerteventura, but not half as hard!

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

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

Bivouac – home for the week

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

#waateam #ladywaa at the start line of Day 1

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

Poolside relaxation pre-race with Anna-Marie

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

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

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

Stunning coastal beach views on Day 1

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

All smiles before CP2 on the long stage

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

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

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

Tent life – relaxing on the rest day

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

Finish line with Patrick & Anna-Marie

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

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

Ding! Ding! I did The Fling!

I’m not really sure what drew me to sign up for The Fling, a 53 mile race from Milngavie to Tyndrum along the West Highland Way, considering I don’t do a lot of local races, preferring to race abroad, and also that the WHW is part of my regular training run but for some reason I was drawn to ticking this off my ever growing list of must do races.

The race came around quicker than I had hoped. The start to the year had been more hectic than I planned; starting a new job with Village Hotel Edinburgh along with finally having Dion and Gobi home from China (see Finding Gobi for more on this adventure); all of which I’d imagined as being the start to a new ‘routine’, a steady state of life to crack back on with training and life in general. As they say about the best laid plans….exactly that! Life was far from routine. It took a couple of months for Dion and Gobi to find their new rhythm alongside Lara and I, and amongst it all both Dion and I were finding it hard to sync our training around the demands of our new girl Gobi and their subsequent book releases, which resulted in more days out having a walk and finishing at a cafe or pub rather than putting in the required training. Not that the weather helped either mind you. I try to be hardy but I’m a fair weather runner at heart.

I had glimpses of getting back to training properly with a few solid mileage weeks and making good use of my new run commute into my amazing new gym (a perk of the job) with a strong focus on building strength in my legs and glutes with the aid of my PT. My PT Huw has got me strengthening the key muscles to make me a stronger mountain and endurance runner and I can certainly feel it has been working. A lot of work on single leg exercises, deadlifts, squats, lunges and a combination of upper body has made my body hurt in ways I didn’t know possible but it has reaped benefits. My legs felt strong throughout the race and I was out doing a recovery hike the following 2 days which certainly is testament to stronger muscles.

When I’d signed up for the race in late 2016 I’d envisaged my training going so well I’d be aiming for a sub 10 hour finish but as race day approached I knew this wasn’t realistic and had revised back to a sub 12 hour finish. Through the positivity of Dion and a visiting friend Euan, we revised this to still push for 10 and see where it took me. My ultimate goal is to finish feeling strong and with a smile on my face.

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Rhianon, me and Em at the start line, all smiles.

Race day! Milngavie only gets this busy twice a year, at Fling time and of course for the West Highland Way race which takes in the full 97 miles of the route. Out of the 1,000 runners congregated I felt like I knew most of them so there was a lot of pre race chat as we gathered to head off. I started off way too fast, chatting with a pal Em before she pushed on and I dropped back to a more sustainable pace. Glad I did when I later found out Em had finished in 9hrs 42m!  She was on top form, well done to her.

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Reaching the top of Conic Hill

The first 19 miles of this race are hard to hold back on as it is very runnable and mixed with the adrenaline of a race can be a dangerous mix. I was excited to reach Balmaha and see Dion to refuel and swiftly carry on. I felt strong coming into Rowardennan which was the halfway point, one marathon down, just one to go 😉 my feeling of contentment was shattered soon after as I was enjoying a little jog out of the checkpoint drinking my coconut water and tripped! Bruised ego and blood ensued (just a minor cut on my palm) but back into it. From here the route gets a bit more technical and with a marathon already under your belt the pace tends to drop as everyone is taking a bit more care through this section.

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A-Team support crew, Rhianon

Reaching Bein Glas I am lifted by the sight of not only Rhianon holding one of her infamous motivational signs and cheering but she’s even managed to get Dion to hold up a sign! After a quick lick for good luck from Gobi I’m off again. There’s just half a marathon to go and this is the stage I know I just have to dig deep and get it done. The legs are fatigued, feet a little sore and I’m feeling quite sluggish not long after I leave the checkpoint.

It’s a tough slog through cow pat alley before I reach Crianlarich hill where my lovely support crew are along with the wonderful Beardy and Blondie, it’s a party atmosphere on the hill giving my spirit a boost before the last final climb. It’s a slow climb up and the rain starts so I faff around putting a jacket on as my body is now fatigued I immediately feel cold. The descent over the other side is hard work on the quads (more work needed on those) but I’m rewarded with a surprise crew cheer spot just before Auchtertyre by Dion and Rhianon hiding out in a farm shed. I’d realised just before reaching there that with only 3 miles left to run, if I could maintain 10min/mile I could make it in 11 hours which spurred me on so much I don’t think I let my excitement of seeing them show enough as I just ran straight through!

As I come towards Tyndrum the sound of bagpipes fill the air followed by the ringing of the cowbells; the finish line! It’s here! I’m still running and I’m smiling and I’m finishing in 11 hours! I hit the red carpet to the cheers of the crowd, including Dion, Gobi and Rhianon and the finishers medal is mine.

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Smiling and still running along the red carpet to the finish line👍

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

The Unexpected 100km

 

My mind & heart had finally made a full recovery after some life changes including leaving my job and adjusting to life with Dion, my husband, living away in Beijing until the new year -Read more about his incredible running journey with GOBI stray desert dog at http://www.findinggobi.com. My legs were another story.  I was desperate to be running again but every time I headed out for a run my knee was causing me a lot of pain and I felt like I was running with concrete blocks for legs. Having received an invitation to run the Changan Ford Gobi 100k International Trail Race Jiuquan, China; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, although I knew full well that it wouldn’t be easy or particularly pretty.

The principal of recovery dictates that athletes require time to recuperate from training and racing.  Rest and recovery not only gives bodies the chance to adapt to the stress placed upon them during racing or intensive training but also for mental preparation and reflection.  I am always a big advocate of rest periods, dismissing the popular ‘active rest’ that others seem to enjoy, and to date this has kept my body and mind fresh and injury at bay.  But my last adventure #500kin5days had really taken it out of me, as noted by my DNF at Ultra Trail Mont Blanc only 4 weeks afterwards and subsequently still felt the effects at the Gobi 100k.

The city of Jiuquan is in the Gansu province which is synonymous with the Silk Road where goods once streamed between China and Central Asia.  This constant flow of trade left Buddhist statues, beacon towers, forts and chunks of the Great Wall in its wake and its diverse landscapes include parts of the Gobi desert.  This was my first opportunity to visit the Gobi desert where my husband Dion, met Gobi the wonder dog who joined him on a 6 stage ultra marathon across the desert and is now to become part of our family with us all being reunited on January 2nd 2017.  Being able to experience running through the Gobi desert, albeit in a different location to the race they ran, was a great experience to understand when Dion talks of his experience with Gobi and made me feel more closely connected to them both.

Dion doing some promotional work for the organisation prior to race day

Dion doing some promotional work for the organisation prior to race day

The fun part of travelling is culture and language and China has this by the bucket load.  Exploring the city on foot we discovered a stunning local temple where in the perimeter local Chinese danced and a calligrapher was painting the most beautiful symbolic banners.  Through hand signals and google translate we arranged for him to paint us our very own artwork with the symbols standing for ‘Longevity’.  I had this framed at home using the white Khata’s we would later be presented with to showcase this amazing art & experience.

The writing stands for 'longevity'

Our calligraphy artwork – The writing stands for ‘longevity’

The food of the province was hot pot with every restaurant having this on offer and we treated ourselves to a feast of meat, vegetables and quail eggs which we poached in a choice of boiling broths on our table.  The fun in choosing items from a menu in only Chinese was not only entertaining to us but also the other visitors of the restaurant.  Not our normal pre-race food of choice but absolutely delicious.

Enjoying our Hot Pot

Enjoying our Hot Pot

The inaugural 100km race had the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning) badge which was very significant as previously China was unable to badge their races as such and to signify the importance of this occasion, both the IAU President, Dirk Strumane from Belgium and IAU Honorary member Souhei Kobayashi from Japan were both in attendance.  I had the good fortune of running into them at Beijing airport and forged a friendship over coffee.  A host of elite runners had been invited to help build the profile of the race and it was an honour to be included in this experienced field of almost 200 runners.  We attended the press night and were treated to a VIP Chinese welcome with singers, presentation of a Khata (traditional ceremonial scarf popular in Buddhism made of white silk to symbolise the pure heart of the giver) followed by dinner alongside the lake complete with lighting of floating lotus flowers for a truly authentic experience.

Sporting our Khata's at the Press night

Sporting our Khata’s at the Press night

The race has 2 distance options; 20km or 100km (2 laps of a 50km route), starting at Xintiandum Farm North crossing through various landforms such as Gobi desert sand and grassland passing through Tianluo Ancient City and Huacheng Lake with a maximum ascent and decent of 488 metres.  Under normal conditions I should easily have made the cut off time of 14 hours, but as anyone that runs knows; always expect the unexpected.

Drop bags available all along the route which is fantastic!

Drop bags available all along the route which is fantastic!

Shuttle buses collected us bright and early from the hotel to deliver us to the start line 45 mins away the following morning ready for our 7:30am start.  In between preparations for the race I was constantly posing for photos with the Chinese runners, being a 6ft blonde certainly caused more than my share of attention, one of the race officials acted as my bodyguard and was conscious to stop the crowds developing around me even though I was loving it, feeling like a complete celebrity star with all the attention and photographs.  As part of the elite runners we had our own separate warm up area and we were ushered to the front of start line.

With some of our fans

With some of our fans

The sun was beginning to rise and you could start to make out the vastness of the Gobi desert in the horizon.  As the countdown ended the start was signified with a dazzling display of coloured fireworks blasting high into the air right beside the start chute as we ran into the sand of the Gobi desert.  The sound was deafening and the lights and colour added to all the excitement.  It was a quick start with some of the front runners expected to be in around 7 hours and the pack quickly spread.  Dion had promised to stick with me for this race as he knew I wouldn’t be able to make this one alone, most likely a promise he now regrets.

Conditions were reminiscent of Marathon Des Sables, trudging through loose heavy sand in overbearing heat.  The tempered conditions quickly escalated into near 40 degrees Celsius and there was not a scrap of shade in sight.  Although my pace and stamina were suffering we were passing others that had begun to slow noticeably from 30km and strong experienced runners were dropping out already even before reaching the 50km turnaround point; the race was tougher than any of us had given it credit for.

All smiles in the sun early in the race

All smiles in the sun early in the race

Reaching the 50km point after 6hrs, later than the 5hrs we had anticipated, it was a challenge to get out of the checkpoint tent as it was now the hottest part of the day and knowing that we had to head back out and complete another 50km through the same route was a mind game.  I offered Dion the chance to leave me here and carry on but he encouraged us on, owing it to the race organisers to see this through to the finish.  Making our way through the 2nd lap with the oppressive heat my body began to rebel, with every gel I swallowed to try and gain some energy I would buckle in half and throw it all back up with some horrendous stomach cramps to go with it.  The heat was so unrelenting that we took a 5 minute pause in some shade caused by the sun shifting position behind a sand dune giving us a brief respite to get ourselves right again.

We watched as the light around us became hazy and an orange cloud of dust enveloped us in an almighty sandstorm reducing visibility to 10 metres at most.  With visibility so low we came close to having to stop & wait the storm out but we were just able to continue on, though at a very reduced speed as the sand whipped up into our eyes and the strength of the wind held us back.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?!  We later heard that other runners had been pulled from the course due to safety issues but we passed through what was left of wind strewn checkpoints unchallenged.

Dion mid sandstorm

Dion mid sandstorm

We were pushing, up against it to get me to the finish line and we  formed a band of merry men as we joined up with 5 Chinese runners and pushed each other on to reach the finish line.  It was a surreal experience over the last 3 miles as we were followed to the line by the support vehicles lighting the way.  13 minutes before cut off and we made it, coming in as 15th female, the last female to finish for the day out of the 29 that had started.  This showed true grit & determination that was displayed throughout the day, pushed on by Dion’s coaching along the way leading me to dig deep and carry on to get it done.

Smiles as the sun sets and we have survived the sand storm

Smiles as the sun sets and we have survived the sand storm

Although an unexpected 100km for me, the race delivered an unexpected tough challenge to many as shown in the results with the high number of DNF’s (Did Not Finish).  Whilst I would never recommend pushing your body so much as I have in the year, the experience surpasses the extended recovery I have now had to take.

China is opening itself up to the world and running is taking off full speed ahead with many new races hitting the calendar with some spectacular location to run.  I feel privileged and thankful to Changan Ford for supporting this event and hosting us in such a hospitable manner, especially to Tao, who worked tirelessly to look after us like superstars.  If you are looking for a race that is going to challenge you and give you the opportunity to run in one of the world’s greatest deserts in some serious heat, then look no further.

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