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

Advertisements

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.

IMG_3225

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.

IMG_3237

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.

IMG_3223

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.

IMG_3243

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.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-21-36-18

 

Running’s Greatest Reward

Running has given me a great reason to travel the world and I’ve been fortunate to run in locations from South Africa to America to Turkey to all over the United Kingdom and whilst every race has given me many rewards and enjoyment none have been as great as the reward of everlasting friendships. This shone through at the 2016 Ultimate Trails 110km & 55km in The Lakes district.

I ran the race in 2015 (read more about that here), and felt the race offered so much in the way of, stunning countryside, beautiful views, adventure with some serious toughness without needing to travel anywhere outside the UK. I encouraged my dear friends Marina and Rhianon to enter for 2016 and also liaised with Graham Patten the race director to invite my Turkish friend, Mahmut Yavuz, one of Turkey’s best ever elite ultra runners to attend.  Mahmut had never been to the UK before and what better way to show him our beautiful country than by running 110km through some of the most stunning scenery the Lakes District has to offer.

Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration

Rhianon, Marina, Mahmut & I at registration

I met Mahmut and Marina at my first ever multi stage race in 2013 at the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) in South Africa, and a strong friendship was forged between us all.  Since then Marina and I have become best of friends and run many races together, including the “Toughest Footrace in the World” Marathon des Sables, which we ran side by side across the Sahara Desert. In fact it was during MDS Marina and I hatched the plan to embark on our biggest challenge to date, running the length of The Netherlands #500kin5days for the Pink Ribbon Breast Cancer charity, read more about that here.

KAEM 2013

KAEM 2013

Rhianon and I met through the world of Twitter as she approached me about coaching her to improve her running (read her testimonial here).  I got to know Rhianon more as we worked together on her training plans and she has successfully improved her pacing, distance runs and now has developed a serious love of hills, in particular those on the West Highland Way.  I now consider her a close friend and we regularly meet up for training weekends and head off to races together.  She is also Head Crew for #500kin5days so we know we are in safe hands.

Coming from Turkey to the UK was an experience in itself for Mahmut, with Istanbul enjoying a hot 35 degree summer he was shocked to land in Edinburgh where it was drizzly, overcast and only 13 degrees, a typical summer’s day!  The forecast for the race was no different with plenty of rain planned. Before leaving to the Lakes District I of course took Mahmut on an Edinburgh Run Tour to see the highlights of Edinburgh and get him acclimatised to our summer.

A warm welcome awaited us in The Lakes from Graham and all the crew from Ultimate Trails. Starting the race at midnight with the rain pelting down on the race briefing shelter we all knew we were in for a wet one this year. Mahmut positioned himself at the front and it would be the last time I saw him until the finish line again.  I am sure everyone would agree that the weather made the event one of the toughest yet with lots of mud, slippery rocks and knee deep bogs to contend with but the race was superbly organised and we still managed to enjoy stunning Lake views along the way as we ascended and descended 3,600m over various passes.

Stunning scenery in The Lakes

Stunning scenery in The Lakes

Mahmut had an interesting race, not being used to wet trails he spent most of the slippery downhill’s on his rear, but staying in top contention swinging in between 2nd and 4th placing throughout the race, read his full story here.

Men's 100km podium

Men’s 100km podium

I ran the race in the good company of Marina crossing the line just over 18 hours, in joint 7th female and 71st overall.  I had hoped to run this year’s race quicker than last year but the weather added a different dimension of slippery rocks, knee deep bogs and fairly constant driving rain, in between small bouts of hail and/or sunshine!  We drew on each other’s strengths when we both hit bad points along the way and laughed at our own predicament together, we both suffered from the shits along the way with cramping which hampered our progress but at least misery loves company!

All smiles at the finish

All smiles at the finish

Our friend Rhianon completed the 55km, which was her toughest race to date with 1,763m of ascent to conquer and was great preparation for her upcoming race in October where she is heading of to run the Atacama Crossing, a 250km multi stage race through the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert.  She finished with a massive smile on her face and is keen to do the 110km next year, so it looks like I might have to go back again, though I may see what the 55km option is like for a change. Mahmuts’4th position  overall meant he won a free entry to next year’s race which I have no doubt he will want to come back with some knowledge of the route to try and take an even higher placing next year, and possibly bring some of his running friends along too.

I was amazed at how many of the runners and volunteers I chatted to throughout the 110km that I had met before at races or that knew me through my blog and Twitter and really enjoyed chatting to them all and watching them achieve fantastic results at this race.

The links in running go on and on and the friendships created will last a lifetime.

Race friends have quickly become very close and trusting friends who have been welcomed in our home and us being welcomed in theirs across the world. Next week I’m welcoming the amazing Elise Downing who is currently running the entire length of the UK coastline to stay with us, before setting off with Marina on our adventure to run across The Netherlands. I then head to 160km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in August where I look forward to catching up with old and meeting new friends running the various races.

What experiences have you had of this amazing forging of friendships across all borders? I’d love to hear your stories too.

Taking on Transgrancanaria

I’ve always looked at the elevation chart before a race but the numbers don’t normally sink in as let’s face it I’m hardly a mountain runner, so when I was studying the finishing times of Transgrancanaria (TG) and the high amount of DNF’s I did start to wonder what on earth I had signed up for this time. Not content with signing up for the Advanced version of 83km I had of course signed up for the big daddy, all 125km with 8,500 of ascent, climbing the height of Everest!

Elevation map

Elevation map

TG is part of the 11 races that make up the Ultra Trail World Series and billed as being one of the main highlights on the world stage it didn’t disappoint.
We chose to stay in Las Canteras in the north of the Island as we had a few days before hand as well to relax and it was close to the bus pick up point at La Fuente Luminosa that would take us to the start at Agaete. We had sorted accommodation in Maspalomas for the finish to save having to travel back up far after the finish as we were concerned about how we would get transport back up in the early hours of Sunday morning. Dion had come along to enjoy the local trails for some running and acclimatisation before he heads out to Marathon Des Sables in 3 weeks time, and was undecided whether to race or support me in the race. Las Canteras was a beautiful spot with great beaches, full of local culture, some great local trail runs and well away from the cheesy, garish Maspalomas.

Not a checkpoint unfortunately, but some tasty fried calamari pre race

Not a checkpoint unfortunately, but some tasty fried calamari pre race

The race expo at the aptly named Expomeloneras was well organised with brand stalls for runners to buy last minute kit or get enticed to other races that were also being advertised. The registrations were clearly marked with queues in lines of bib numbers for each race, I had no queue time but heard mixed reports from others. Find your number on the wall join the queue, show your ID, and you are sorted. No kit or mandatory kit checks so you don’t need to come or bring all your gear. On registration you were given 2 drop bags (one for Garanon 82km in and one for the finish line). Tip here is to bring your kit for the drop bags with you so you don’t need to come back later that day or next. In my Garanon bag I had a change of shorts, long sleeve top, socks, beanie, spare batteries and some more food (mainly gels & perpeteum). My finish bag consisted of a fleece jumper and chocolate milk. I had grand plans of hooking up with a number of twitter chums that were running the various distances but with the 2 days worth of registrations and 4 different time slots to come along it was difficult to co-ordinate with everyone, I did manage to hook up with Daniel Rowland and Cat Simpson for a chat over some chilled water. From the registrations which commenced on the Thursday through until the finish line in the early hours of Sunday there was a party atmosphere.

Pre race catch up

Pre race catch up

The race starts at 11pm on the Friday night so it’s imperative that the day be spent doing as little as possible, eating, keeping hydrated and lazing around trying to get a few naps in. I did this pretty well, had a tasty big bowl of pasta and pizza at about 7pm and felt alert and ready to go at the start line. The bus takes about an hour from La F.Luminosa so I had packed a roll to eat before the start as well to keep the tanks topped up. It was Carnival in Agaete at the start so there was plenty of interesting characters and loud music to build the atmosphere.
The elite runners were being introduced as I made our way to the start line and squeezed in a bit too near the back as I’d left it a bit late to make my way into the holding pen, but it’s a long race right?!
And we were off! A bit of a jog uphill through the village, no need for head torches yet and then we hit the first long climb up. Trying to avoid all those bloody poles tripping you up, people swinging them around in all directions, who uses poles anyway? Only about 98% of everyone at this race….I wondered why? Switch back trail all the way up for 9km to the first checkpoint which took me 2hrs to reach, it was a steady hike up, there were only the smallest of sections that you could run. It was a sight to behold to see the long train of head torches and flashing red lights snaking up and down the mountainside in the moonlight.
The next 2 checkpoints came and went in the dark, I took the uphill slow, and had to take some of the downhill even slower as I am terrible at descending and the terrain was so technical that without a pole (bloody poles) it was hard going. I had read prior to the race not to use the down hills to make up time, but to use it for recovery. Good tip. When I reached the 3rd checkpoint (33.5km in 7.5hrs) Artenara, I found Cat sat at the checkpoint, crying about to pull out. I don’t know if it was the fact that dawn was breaking or I just had to help a runner in need and I became Miss Positivity, cajoled her into coming along, at least until Fontanales the next CP, and we ended up keeping each other company until just before CP8.

Cat & I along the way

Cat & I along the way

It was brilliant to watch the sun come up and the villages come to life as we climbed up and up these mountains. The climbs were brutal and I started to think that even the downhill’s on the route description were actually uphill’s as well. There were some nice runnable sections along the way, but the legs were broken so running is a loose term! The CP’s were mixed, very friendly of course, but in terms of food I am glad I wasn’t relying on them, bits of cheese & cold meat along with some bread sticks that had dried out in the wind and some dried fruits that didn’t look too appetising. The highlight was the cola and strong espresso’s they were offering with about 3 sugars in them, rocket fuel! At Cruz de Tejeda the 7th CP I scoffed what was remaining of some salted crisps which were heaven sent.
Cat and I parted ways just before CP 8, I wasn’t sure if I was going to see her again enroute but I pushed on to the last final big climb up to Roque Nublo. It was tough too, having been out for about 17hrs already to push through another 1,000m of climbing was hard going but I wanted to push on to get to Garanon before the sunset as that was my ultimate goal as the CP here closes at 7pm, so apart from a couple of photos on the way (it was too beautiful not to) I moved as quick as I could to get there. I made it to Garanon with 10 mins to spare before the CP closed and embarked on a speed eating session of a bowl of oily, salted pasta and changed into a warmer top as it was beginning to get pretty cool again now with the sun dropping. 2 marathons down, 1 marathon to go now right?! 7pm at night and I’d been on my feet for 20hrs.

Selfie at Roque Nublo

Selfie at Roque Nublo

Out of Garanon and straight back into a short but very steep hill and at this point I was joined by Luis, a local runner with whom I had been playing CP tag with all day. He had constantly been telling me how tough I must be for doing this without poles and I had joked that a true gentleman would give me one of his which he now made the point of doing, he knew what was to come next and without the use of one of his poles I think I’d still be stuck up there. Luis was good company had done the 80km version before and could describe in detail what was coming next though maybe you are better off not knowing. After a gruelling descent down what the locals call ‘Quad Breaker’ in the dark the wind was now picking up strongly blowing the dust over from the Moroccan Sahara (called Calima by the locals) straight into your eyes and throat making vision difficult and swallowing even more so.

Quad breaker road - photo courtesy of Ali Dixon @alidixon

Quad breaker road – photo courtesy of Ali Dixon @alidixon

I was getting texts along the way from Dion here telling me the cut off times of each CP which was differing from the information we were getting at the CP’s, we just made Arteara in time after the worst descending experience of my life. Imagine scree but rocks the size of grapefruits, and tonnes of it, on a hill that is so steep you have to lean backwards to stop from tumbling off. Thank goodness I had Luis’ pole to get down that and if ‘Quad breaker road’ hadn’t done my quads in they certainly were now.

But no time to rest, another text from Dion indicated that I now had to run 9km in 1h15, we thought we had 1.5hrs. Now that would normally be okay but after so long out and having to still climb up another kilometre before some semblance of a road (dirt track with pot holes and big rocks) it was a big call. But I pushed, boy did I push. Laboured breathing, snot pouring out of my nose with my throat gagging from the Calima and everytime I tried to drink water it was coming straight back out. I saw the time slipping away and all I could see ahead was darkness, there was no hope of making this CP……..and then Dion was there on the side of the track yelling and screaming at me to run, run harder! I don’t know how I did it, I couldn’t have done it without him running beside me but I sprinted as hard as I could for the last few kilometres and made the CP with 3mins to spare! Absolutely in ruins I still had 8km to the finish.
Dion knew what was ahead so he kept me in control, telling me that we have to jog gently the next 3km then I could walk for a couple through the river bed, and then I would need to jog again for the last 3km. I couldn’t talk so just nodded and let him lead, grabbing his arm for support now and again as I felt all my strength just disappearing. But sure enough, there was the beach. I could hear the loudspeakers, I was going to finish, actually finish!!! A little jog through the sand to finish off before the home stretch and you could see the finish line and the time. I had just over 20mins to spare so I just cruised it in the last 100m soaking up the cheers of about 20 people still there at 4:30 in the morning on a Sunday and I crossed that line with my arms up high and the biggest smile imaginable on my face! I had done it! Finished! 29 hours 42 minutes.

Finished!

Finished!

Transgrancanaria is a monster of a race and I have the utmost respect for anyone that even dares to toe the start line of this beast, let alone can make it to the end. There is a high number of DNF’s (262 in total) including some big name runners and that doesn’t just happen for no reason. Prior to the race I had broken the ‘day’ into three goals, get to daybreak, then get to Garanon, then get home! I had also analysed the finishing times although I had no runner to compare to just looking at how long it was taking runners between checkpoints and how many DNF’s there were it was already in my head that I was going to be out for at least 25hrs, without that being in my head I don’t think I would have mentally been able to handle the time on my feet.

My graph of progress

My graph of progress

I loved it! I absolutely loved this race! I would recommend it even as I sit in my chair still a little broken knowing that this is going to take a few weeks to truly recover from it has been a fantastic experience and one where I have learnt more about myself and how strong I can be mentally as well as physically to push my limits even further.

Kit I wore
Lululemon Pacesetter skort
Shock Absorber sports bra
New Balance tank top for the day time
Lululemon long sleeve run swiftly top for the evening
• Salomon Cap
North Face FL Race vest
New Balance Leadville shoes
• Injinji toe socks underneath Run_mummy_run compression socks
• Buff
• Black Diamond Head torch

And yes, I’ve now bought a pair of those ‘bloody’ poles so watch out for me at Transvulcania swinging them about.

Check out my little video here and the official video here.

Costs to enter – €140 for 125km race early bird price, rising to €160 euro, plus you need flights to get there (we flew Jet2 from Edinburgh) plus accommodation.

Pondering about Pilgrims

Need a great way to flush out the excesses of the festive season?  Then look no further than Extreme Energy’s Pilgrims Challenge.  66 miles over 2 days on the North Downs Way with 2,364 metres ascent is enough to scare off the most stubborn mince pie!  The format is to run 33 miles from Farnham over the NDW to Merstham, stay the night in a school hall, then run the 33 miles back the next day.  In the evening there is plenty of food & hot drinks, massages on offer, kit to check out and a series of guest speakers including myself this year.  You can opt to run one day rather than the two, but it really is a fun evening and a great chance to catch up with a lot of other runners you might have met at other races or through the wonderful social media world of twitter.  The crew take your bag for you, so you only need to carry what you need on you for the actual race.

This was my 2nd time at Pilgrims, and I had almost forgotten how brutal it is!  Always held in the last weekend of January the weather always plays a part and whilst last year we were redirected around flooded rivers, this year it was just mud, snow, mud and more snowy mud!  I knew I was much fitter than last year, but having competed in Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in November and enjoying possibly too much rest, impacted by a rather naughty period over Christmas, I wasn’t in top form to be racing.  I knew I would do better than the previous year but wasn’t sure how I would shape up to the other runners as this race certainly brings in a very strong field of very competitive runners.

Marina & I ready to start day 1

Marina & I ready to start day 1

I was at the start early to see off Marina Ranger, my co-patriot from Kalahari, whom I have been coaching now since September last year who was off in the 9am wave of runners (walkers had headed off at 8am already).  There was snow on the ground and more sleet and snow falling, so it was truly freezing, here I was thinking I had come south for some warmer weather!  Who was I kidding?  XNRG are always superbly organised events, within 2 minutes of arriving at registration I had my bib number, chip a handful of chocolates and had caught up with Neil, Anna and Brian the wonderful organisers of this event among others.  I hung around and caught up with some of the other runners before my start time of 10am, which by then my feet were frozen solid, I just couldn’t get warm.  I didn’t feel warm during any of day 1 with the continuous wet weather ensuring I remained wet & cold.  Actually the only part of me that wasn’t cold was my hands since I have switched my preferred glove to Gore Windstopper Gloves, a recent acquisition from Run & Become, considering I suffer from Raynaud’s I was very impressed as this was my first ultra distance in them and they certainly lasted the distance.  Read my review here.

Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1

Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1

The 10am group headed off with a blast and race leader & winner Danny Kendall took off with a bang knocking out the first 10k in 37mins and coming in for the day in 3h 48!  It was fast paced for the entire 33 miles with everyone pushing hard.  It wasn’t long before we were passing the walkers that had started earlier and then started rounding up some of the 9am starters.  It’s always nice passing others, especially familiar faces to give each other a quick pat on the back to push through to the end.  It was muddy throughout, particularly in the 2nd half of the run on the steeper hills, leaving me to wonder how I was going to get up or down some of these hills tomorrow, truly treacherous (as you may know I am not a huge fan of mud!), I managed a respectable 5h 41 putting me in 10th female for Day 1, which was a whole hour quicker than last year but disappointingly a long way off the winning female Elisabet Barnes who did it in 4h 49.

Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!

Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!

I got in and got myself sorted with a nice hot shower and got a For Goodness Shakes recovery drink in straight away and some pot noodles.  I booked myself in for a massage and then made sure I checked my presentation worked on the equipment before tonight’s talks.  I expended a lot of energy going around talking to people, which was great in terms of being social, but not what I needed for recovery, and in hindsight I certainly expended a lot more energy being nervous about giving my talk which I hadn’t thought would happen.  So much so I totally forgot to put on my compression before bed as well – a fail in my recovery process that I have tried and tested!  The evening was a great chance to talk to lots of runners, so of whom I know, and some new friends.  I gave my talk on multi day desert running, which was well received with about 100 of the 200 runners all there as training runs for this year’s Marathon Des Sables.

Never do you get a good night’s sleep in a school hall filled with a group of runners, but it is what it is!  With everyone waking up with stiff legs the initial miles are always slow to start as runners get warmed up tackling the hilly first half of the route back.  More snow had fallen but it was a beautiful sunny winters day, very cold but gorgeous.  My legs were stiff to get going and my feet were in tatters so I struggled on some of the muddier hills, downhill is definitely my weakness at the best of times but heading down when you can’t get grip is my worst nightmare, so this definitely slowed me down a lot.  I settled into my pace and from the last checkpoint decided to run with Toby who had been playing tag with me for the day.  Toby is running MdS later this year so I prattled my way to the finish about my experiences as he had missed the talks the night before and pushing him through to keep going.  I finished the day in 6h 44, again another hour quicker than last year, but too slow, finishing as 11th female over the 2 days.  I had taken my mind off the job at hand on day 2 and just didn’t back it up, but it was a good solid training run preparing me well for my challenges ahead in 2015.

I leave this year’s Pilgrims Challenge with a strange mix of emotions, whilst I had a great time running & catching up with everyone and I massively improved on last year’s times, I feel strangely disappointed in my performance.  I put this down to Pilgrims not being my A race as the conditions don’t suit me at all as I much prefer the hot climate races, hence my upcoming race calendar.  It is a great fun event and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to try out the multi day events in a safe, caring and fun environment without having to travel abroad.