I. Loved. Every. Single. Minute.
The latest edition to the Scottish Ultra running scene hit the shores of the Cowal Peninsula on Saturday 8th October for its inaugural run. The 50k Dunnon Ultra event which can be run as an ultra or you can choose to run this event as a relay, ensuring the event is open to all different abilities. (check out the route here)
When I saw a message on Facebook from Fiona Outdoors looking for one more runner for her relay team I couldn’t resist a trip out to West Scotland, renowned for its stunning beauty. I’d also never run in a relay before so thought this might be a fun option for something different.
Having never met my team mates before, Fiona and Nick, I was assured we were not going to compete we were purely there for fun*. Getting to Dunoon already feels like an adventure as after heading out from Glasgow you reach McInroy’s Point at Gourock and board the ferry to cross over the Firth of Clyde. We were blessed with a stunning day so this made the crossing all the more magical.
The race starts from the Benmore Botanical Gardens in amongst the magnificent giant redwood trees, which can be reached by a 15min drive from the ferry stop, though a coach transfer is provided as part of the event. The race starts at a very civilised time of 10am and is now being dubbed as the most scenic ultra in Scotland. The race kicked off to the sounds of bagpipes and canons, no countdown or fog horn to start proceedings here.
Nick Green was our first runner, an experienced triathlete who took the first leg, which he said was no doubt the toughest leg of the race where the runners headed north climbing high above Loch Eck to reach the highest point of 335m before a 2 mile descent brought him to transition 1 where Fiona took the batton with us in 5th place overall for the relay.
Fiona took off like a shot along the flattest part of the route following the loch shore closely heading back to the Botanical Gardens for transition 2. Flying into T2 she flung the batton to me after pushing us into 3rd place overall. “No pressure Lucja, but run!!!” I didn’t even have time to put her Suunto watch on which she was using to track the entire route and just shoved this into my pocket (this is where the WAA carrier shirt I’d pinched from hubby, Dion’s, drawer came into good use), not time to waste, I had a position to uphold.
After a short flat section the 3rd legs ascends on forest trails towards Dunoon, the views were absolutely stunning from the top of the woodlands of Bishop’s Glen where I could see the finish of the restored Dunoon Pier for at least 5 miles before I go there! I didn’t have time to stop for any runfie’s though, I had just rounded up another relay runner putting us in 2nd overall so had to hot foot it for the final descent into Dunoon. It felt good to run with a bit of pressure like that where I wasn’t just running for myself but I had a ‘team’ to worry about. Running is normally such an independent sport that I found the relay team element quite encouraging and exciting, so much so I would consider doing this again.
I was greeted by cheers and hugs as I came across the finish at Dunoon Pier, we were 2nd relay team overall but 1st mixed team! What a result! Considering we were here only to have fun, we did very well. The finish line was a bustle of fun and activity with plenty of hot food (free for the runners) and cakes to restore the energy levels along with a massage.
The race entry is £33, with an early bird discount at £23 for the first 100 entrants which includes tea & coffee with fresh pastries at registration, coach transfer, changing facilities and the full event support with electronic chip timing, check points, drop bags with food & water stations, first aid back up and of course a fabulous goody bag.
*Fun in Fiona’s book is to compete as hard as humanly possible 😉
**My entry to this race was free as part of Fiona’s relay team entry – however after having done the race I do think the race offers great value for money!**
Imagine a landscape covered with amazing rock formations where people live in caves and fairy chimneys, the colours change with each shift in light and the soulful call to prayer sounds out through the still air. It sounds like something out of a fairytale but it exists and it is in Turkey. Cappadocia, a region in the centre of this rugged country is a geological oddity with fairytale topography which has been inhabited since as early as the 6th century.
To showcase this stunning landscape The North Face created 3 unique races here with a choice of 30km, 60km or 110km distances, with the 110km taking in a challenging 3,485 metres of ascent. This year was the 2nd edition bringing a total of over 900 runners, with 200 toeing the line for the 110km race including me, with only 122 finishers showing just how tough this race really is.
Experience your very own fairy tale by staying in a cave; it’s not as primitive as you might think. Immaculate work has been carried out by local families working in harmony with UNESCO to ensure the conservation and restoration of these unique dwellings and historical structures is not only in keeping with history but up to the highest international standards. Imagine lying in a hand carved bath that fits two, full to the brim of warm, aromatic bath water in a century old cave with gorgeous views out to the valley below. Not complete of course without a chilled bottle of Cappadocia wine, with the history of wine making in the region dating back to the 4th century it would be rude not to delight the taste buds. I made the most of this experience both pre and post race (the wine was only post race of course) at the Kayakapi Premium Caves Resort which is situated high up on Esbelli Rock overlooking Urgup.
If like me you thought Turkish food was limited to kebabs, grilled meats and sticky baklava, think again. I enjoyed filling my belly with delicious Anatolian flat breads stuffed with spinach, cheese and onion for breakfast and to keep the carb levels high what better way than to indulge in Manti for dinner, a traditional Turkish dish of warm savoury flavours with pasta that is similar to ravioli served with a yoghurt sauce. For a meal that dates back thousands of years try the Testi Kebap; a meaty stew with onions, peppers, tomatoes and plenty of garlic cooked in a clay pot for the day and mop up the delicious sauces with an abundance of flat bread fresh out of the wood burning ovens. Finish this off with syrupy servings of baklava and you are race ready!
Race day brings with it a whole new level of excitement making it difficult to sleep the night before. The weather forecast was for rain for the first half of the day giving way to sunshine after midday. Living in Scotland this was not hugely off putting but I had been hoping for dry weather as slippery downhill’s and I don’t see eye to eye.
It wasn’t long into the start of the race before the heavens opened with rain in epic proportions causing flash flooding throughout the area. I watched the other runners in bewilderment as they stopped to don waterproofs in the torrential downpours, it was about 15 degrees and I wasn’t feeling the need for extra cover and I enjoyed splashing around in the rain getting absolutely drenched in the process. The rain did bring with it other obstacles with the soft rock surface known as tuff giving way to a slippery surface and the creek beds in low lying areas turning into torrents of water rapidly becoming ankle deep water obstacles kilometres long. I imagined I was running through a jungle ultra as I splashed my way through the water and slid down muddy hills with the help on hanging onto branches and even some roped sections along the route.
The beauty of the landscape even through the driving rain was apparent all around with rock formations towering above me as I ran underneath, bending my tall body through the tunnels carved by years of water and wind passing through them and climbing up and around the striking chimneys sometimes gripping rock alone and at other times with the aid of rickety yet stable ladders. Even though I was racing it would have been sacrilege not to take photos and welcomed the excuse for a quick breather here and there.
Life moves at a different pace here and it’s not an unusual sight to see men and women in traditional working clothes ambling along the ancient cobbled streets, leading horse-drawn carts and donkeys out to the nearby orchards and vineyards. Groups of lycra clad & sport attire wearing athletes certainly stand out in this setting but the locals love the excitement; small children look on in wide eyed amazement or run with you through the streets whilst the villagers sit back sipping Turkish black tea from the daintiest tulip shaped glasses and shout out words of encouragement. I gazed wistfully at the juice stalls along the route where old women squeeze locally grown pomegranates and other citrus fruits into a delicious and thirst quenching treat.
Hordes of tourists look on as we run past them through many historical vantage points along the route and I wonder what they are thinking of us as we scamper along ridges and fly down hills past them. As I run through some of the valleys I discover hidden tea houses where tourists’ heads lift up in surprise as they sip their delicate rosehip & apple tea under the shade of apple tree orchards in the now shattered peaceful setting, lounging amongst adorned cushions with their feet up.
Running along breath taking plateaus with never-ending views my mind wandered away from the task at hand a bit too much as I crashed down hands first onto some rocks at the top grazing my hands and giving me a serious fright as there was a nasty drop off to my right reminding me to pay more attention and not fly away with the running endorphin fairies that had taken hold of me. Beauty has that affect!
A strong mental attitude is needed at the 62km mark where you pass through the finish line, seeing the 60km runners finish as you carry on for another loop in the opposite direction you came from. A high number of drop outs at this point proves how much of a mental challenge this is. Once you pass through you are welcomed with a brutal hike up onto another plateau which brought with it the mixed blessings of the sun setting, magical to witness but knowing this also means it will soon be time to strap on the head torch also conjures up some feelings of trepidation. Its fun and exciting to run in the dark but on tired legs and in very technical terrain it has the unwanted effect of slowing me down somewhat. Descending in the dark was tough with some parts so steep and loose that I sat on my bum and slid my way down some sections to save turning an ankle. I felt totally alone and exposed on that hill, there were no lights behind me to be seen and only occasionally did I glimpse a head torch ahead to give me some relief that I wasn’t entirely alone and still heading in the right direction.
Reaching what must have been 85km passing through a sleepy darkened village as the soulful call to prayer sounding out from a nearby mosque through the dead of the night I felt enchanted, it added a touch of magic to the experience and lifted me to carry me on. There was not a soul to be seen in the village at this time and it felt totally surreal to be running through to the powerful sound reverberating in the still air.
I had read about the local Anatolian Shepherd dogs a large, formidable dog with the strength to bring down lions so my heart leapt after the last checkpoint when I heard a noise and the light of my torch rested upon a massive form of one of these dogs. I didn’t want to look at it as I thought my light might provoke it into action so calmly turned and trotted down my next descent which was a hard single foot track down a rocky face. The descent felt like forever as all I could hear behind me was the panting of this dog that was now following me hot on my heels. I’m not normally scared of dogs but she was huge and it was dark and I was in the middle of nowhere, if it did attack…. I consciously thought to myself to remain calm as dogs can sense fear and even pulled my emergency whistle out ready for action as I thought this was my only defence, noise! The end of the descent ended in a fast running creek that I then had to run through and I nearly laughed as I heard my new companion having a drink, must have needed it from the 1km run down the hill, so it was a friend not a foe after all, I started chatting to her after that nicknaming her Bozo and chatting with her as she followed me intently for another 5km before she decides she’s had enough and finally lets me go on my own.
The finish line was looming and I allowed myself to imagine the feeling of crossing it, this always brings with it a lump in my throat like I might cry then and there but I think to myself to save the emotion for the finish, not to waste my energy now. This all changes as I cross the line and all I can feel is total elation and a fresh adrenalin rush that means there’s no need for tears, just smiles. I finish as 4th lady overall with a massive grin on my face, mission accomplished and 110km of beauty completed!
The aftermath of a tough race such as this is eased with a traditional hamam experience which leaves you refreshed and invigorated as the gentle moist heat relaxes those tight muscles that have formed in the body and soothes the nerves. Eased even more so with peaceful evenings back in my cave enjoying delicious Cappadocia wine brought to completion with locally produced cheese and olives from the recent harvest which my body seems to be craving. I for one could definitely get used to this.
Entry fee – early bird entry for only 45 euro increasing to 60 euro after that (superb value for money).
UTMB points – 3 points for the 110km
Travel – we flew with Turkish airlines via Istanbul (4hr flight from Edinburgh) and the a 50 min flight to Cappadocia followed by an hour shuttle to Urgup, return transfers included in the race entry too.
Accommodation – Kayakapi Premium Caves was our home for 4 nights, stunning hotel for about £140 a night but worth the splurge to stay in a real cave. It’s only a 15 min walk downhill to the start line and opt for a £3 taxi back after 😉
Registration is the day before which is straight forward and the evening includes a race briefing and pasta party (again included in the entry fee) as well as post race hot meal and massage too.
Drop bag is provided which you can easily deposit in the morning for your midway and finish collection.
Race was well marked with fairly descent checkpoints, I don’t rely on the CP food but appreciated the Coke available at each and would have liked to see some more savour options on the CP’s as I get tired of my sweet gels.
There is something truly unique about the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM)-250km self sufficient race through the desert over 6 stages/7 days that brings you back time and time again. The Kalahari didn’t fail to deliver another exceptional week of stunning beauty, stiff racing competition and fabulous camaraderie.
After finishing KAEM in 2013 and having learnt a lot from other races completed this year, including Marathon Des Sables (MdS); preparation had an even more concentrated focus. I analysed my kit & nutrition to ensure there was no room for error and that I had the correct weight to energy ratios with race nutrition being the key. A major learning after MdS was to stop using nuts/low carb foods as fuel during racing hours and converting to high carb fuel such as gels/bars/clif shot bloks and liquid energy such as perpetuem. My nutrition plan worked so much better, nothing is ever 100% but it was close. I will be doing a further blog purely on nutrition in the new year as I’m having my entire weeks food diary analysed which will be interesting to get some further feedback from an expert.
Returning to the Kalahari after finishing 14th overall last year I had the key target of being in the top 10 overall and pushing for the female win. This meant after MDS I had a small recovery period before training and races leading up to this began. Weekends were made up of back to back long runs, little social life, healthy eating, alarms going off at 4:30/5am weekdays to fit training runs in around work. To really ramp things up and to make sure we (my husband Dion was also competing) were as ready as we could be we turned our spare room into a heat chamber by purchasing a treadmill and sealing off the room with 3 big fan heaters and radiator bringing the room up 38 degrees. We ran in here every day for 3 weeks prior to the event for anything from 1 hour to 3 hours with or without our race kit and bag on, with sweat flying everywhere. It wasn’t pretty or fun, and we still haven’t seen the electricity bill so that joy is still to come! All of what we did worked though, we were both the fittest and the strongest we have ever been and I believe the heat acclimatisation helped for sure, when trying to train in the UK at 0-15 degrees for a race in 40-50 degrees it is the only way to do it.
Prior to the race I had also been working with Marina Ranger who also ran in 2013 and wanted to go back to better her performance. I am now working on putting together training plans for ultra runners and we were keen to work together to see what results we could get. Marina came and spent a weekend with me in Edinburgh over the summer and we trained together and talked through a lot of ideas and I put together a plan for her, catching up regularly to help motivate and coach. She worked hard through the plan and the results came for her to, coming in 18th overall (5th female) in just over 32hrs, nearly 11 hours quicker than 2013 where she came 37th overall (9th female). Not only that but she has picked up the competitive bug and we are now working on a plan together to get her ready to compete for Transvulcania in May 2015 with me.
With 70 runners registered to compete this year in the 15th edition of the race and the field looking strong, I started eyeing off the competition from arrival at the transit hotel in Jo’Burg. By the time we had all flew over to Upington, I was starting to wonder if it would even be possible to better my 14th overall placing from last year, these runners looked like they meant business. It was fabulous to see a lot of familiar faces, including the ever welcoming race organisers Nadia and Estienne. There was quite a group of us from last year’s event that had returned for more fun in the sand and sun along with many newcomers I would get to know well over the week ahead.
The first two nights pre race are spent at the Augrabies Falls Lodge giving all the competitors time to get to know each other over 2 dinners and Friday is race briefing, kit and medical checks where we all compare the sizes of everyone’s bags (I’m using the Raidlight Olmo 20L which I had used at Marathon des Sables earlier this year). I’m confident with my preparation and planning and a bag starting weight of 6.4kg so leave these discussions to the others and begin to concentrate on tomorrows start.
Race day arrives with the runners congregating at the start line amidst an electric atmosphere filled with pre race nerves and excitement. Our morning had kicked off with our own excitement when one of the local baboons tried to come into our room at 6am via the window, that could have been an interesting situation had he made it and scoffed all my energy bars!
It’s always interesting to see what people are wearing, with X-Bionic, Raidlight and Salomon a common choice. I’m kitted out in X-Bionic marathon shorts and a bright pink Trick shirt, Raidlight desert hat, Injinji toe socks (under my knee length socks which are not compression but more to keep the sun off) and New Balance Leadville shoes covered with my bright pink gaiters from AR Racing, this combination works for me with no blisters on my feet and no chafing in the nether regions to cause discomfort. After a few final words of luck the race starts with a cheer. We may be running through the desert but the race starts off with a couple of river crossings to get your feet wet and a few of us have trouble even staying on out feet with hubby Dion taking a quick fall in the 3rd river crossing trying to keep up with the leaders.
The field spreads out pretty quickly and I focus on running my own race and not getting caught up in anyone else’s pace. The route is well marked with markers every 200-400m along the route but you do need to keep your head up to make sure you don’t miss these along some of the sections, as well as making sure you spot any wildlife, 2 giraffes greet us only a few kilometres into day 1, this is what it’s all about. It’s straight into action on day one with some tough technical sections to run along a river bank made up of soft sand and massive boulders for a few Km’s and finishing with long steep inclines to really get the legs working. I get in on day 1 after 25km in 2h57 and in position 8th overall, 2nd lady with just 6mins separating me from Linda Doke (Salomon sponsored athlete from South Africa) my main rival for this race. Dion does well coming in 4th in 2h36. My strategy worked well today, maintaining my own pace & eating every hour along with a salt tablet and focussing on keeping the water intake up.
After an interesting night in a full blown African storm, where the heavens opened up we all finally managed to get some sporadic bits of sleep ready to face a new day.
With the mix of the rain sodden ground and the Kalahari heat the biggest challenge of Day 2 was the overwhelming humidity. With 35km to tackle today it turned into the day I truly questioned myself; my abilities, my motivation, my mental strength with me feeling serious discomfort all through the stage and a complete lack of energy. I held onto my 2nd lady position, but actually came in 3rd lady for the stage with both Linda and Bakiye ahead of me. A time of 4h9 I finished 12th for the stage. Dion seems to have an equally rough day out there finishing in 3h41 maintaining his 4th position after a gruelling day.
Yet again we spent a night of wet weather with a stunning lightning storm to keep us on our toes, with the earlier starts for Day 3 starting in the rain, luckily the skies cleared and we were able to head off for the 40km stage. A stunning mixed route of gorges, massive rock walls and sandy river beds motivated me to no end and after my tough day yesterday I was stoked to be feeling strong and on fire today. I was 100% focussed today and this was very apparent in my running style and my results, coming in at 4h21 as 1st female (5mins ahead of Linda) and 6th overall. I felt so strong and happy when I crossed the line I was fist pumping the air and felt like I could have run it again! A gorgeous camp spot awaited me as well, on the banks of the Orange River, so after a refreshing dip and wash I was feeling on top of the world and ready to face the long stage the following day. Dion had a tremendous day as well coming in 3h44 and not only smashing 2nd place for the stage but moved up to 2nd overall.
The long day was 70km and was made up of all the runners leaving in waves of staggered starts, the first group leaving at 6am, I left at midday and Dion was in the last group (of 2) which left at 1pm. Leaving in the heat of the day felt like the worst option after sitting around for hours seeing everyone else head off wishing you could get started, but I guess the bonus is it’s not as long until the sunsets. I was in a group with Bakiye (previous winner) who was currently 3rd lady but without the leader Linda, so I wouldn’t know how we were placed until the end of the day. I felt strong again and pushed hard as this was the day in my mind I truly wanted to smash. I reached the 1st & 2nd checkpoints before Bakiye but then got lost in a gorge, losing about 15mins easily, and finding myself having to chase Bakiye down again which I managed before the 3rd checkpoint. I was angry with myself but I had to try and control my anger as this could waste too much energy and lose the mental control that you need in a stage like this, so after screaming at the sky with a few expletives I decided what will be will be and just get on with it. I’d been passing the back runners since checkpoint 2 and was using the next figures in the distance as race figures to catch them up as soon as possible, so I was flying. I only needed to put my head torch on after the last checkpoint and made it back to camp utterly spent in 8h29, 1st female by 18mins and 5th place overall for the stage! A double happy day with Dion also smashing it in 6h54 in 2nd overall, only 2 mins behind the race leader Mahmut for the stage, which now put him firmly in 2nd place overall.
The rest day is a great opportunity to spend some time catching up with others, having a swim or two in the river and eating, and eating. I’d made sure I’d planned a big day of food, lots of small snacks to keep me busy and completely refuelling after 4 full days of hard racing. With a marathon and a half to go, the end was starting to seem real.
With a mere 8 minutes overall separating me from Linda, today was make or break for the lead. Linda pulled ahead of me quickly from the start, my legs were really feeling it and I was in admiration as I watched the small group of runners she was in pull gradually away from me. It was a tricky, technical day with temperatures soaring up to 42 degrees for the day. The route had a bit of everything thrown in for fun and it really became a challenge to finish the day. It is always a tough mental challenge on the 2nd last day as mentally you are preparing to finish, but the desert hasn’t finished with you yet. As tradition would have it (2 years running now makes it a tradition) I finished the day dehydrated and with a good cry, heat & exhaustion will do this to a woman! The heat in the camp was relentless that afternoon and there were some temperatures fraying in a number of runners, none of which you can take personally, that’s just the name of the game after such a tough day and week. Linda and I had a chat, with 35mins separating her from me as the leader we both knew I wouldn’t be able to make that up on a half marathon distance the following day and happily agreed that we would run the last day together, neither of us were at risk of losing any overall position and we wanted to have just one day of taking it easy and chilling out. Linda was a deserved winner and it was an honour to race against her and learn from her during the week.
We enjoyed every step of the last day to the 26k finish line enjoying the stunning scenery including a small herd of springbok bouncing directly through our path, and soaked up every minute of crossing the finish line together triumphant, hand in hand. A cold beer awaited us at the finish and I was in a quandary as to whether to have beer first or jump in the pool first. The beer won out, but not by much as I quickly jumped in the pool beer in hand in full kit, lovely!
A fantastic week long race full of challenges and excitement, finished off with a day to relax at the Augrabies National Park ending with a superb evening awards ceremony where every runner receives their glass blown leopard trophy, each to their own round of applause and their own moment of fame.
Dion and I walked away with 2 trophies, with Dion 2nd overall and me coming 8th overall & 2nd lady (improving my time from last year by 5 hours), we received an additional trophy made out of rose quartz collected from the very desert we had just run through and a handmade silver pewter runner on top. This now makes 2 of these trophies for me and they both sit pride of place on our mantle piece together.
It is with a full heart that we leave the Kalahari and our family of runners & supporters for another year……..we will be back, of this I have no doubt but it won’t be in 2015 which is looking like the year of the mountains for me with the following race calendar in place:
Jan 31/Feb 1 – XNRG Pilgrims Challenge (66 miles over 2 days)
Mar 6 – Transgrancanaria 125km single stage race with 8,500m of ascent (equivalent of Everest) with a 30hr cut off
May 9 – Transvulcania – 73.3km single stage race with 8,525m ascent
June 27 – Ultimate Trails 110km in The Lakes
July 25 – Salomon XReid 123km race across Norway which I will be running as a pair with Dion
August 29 – UTMB (If I get accepted – registration is in!)
November – TransOmania – 330km non-stop race across Oman
I love running!
I love Edinburgh!
Why not combine both and share my love of running? That is exactly what I have done, in two ways. I have thought about doing the first venture or offering running tours for a number of years, and it was something I was really keen to get off the ground after I had done one myself on holidays; Rockin’ Running Tours in Memphis. What I found great about taking part in a running tour in another city was to quickly take in a lot of the sites in one hit, get a locals perspective on the city including some insider tips for the best ribs as might be the case in Memphis and get my daily run in at the same time. Win:Win!
Moving to Edinburgh was the perfect opportunity. Not only do I have a great job managing a great hotel in such a great location, Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – Royal Terrace; but all the main sites are all within a few mile radius with various options to extend out.
I have just started offering the tours and already getting some great feedback, so now it is just a matter of letting the word spread and start sharing the love. Check out my tours at www.edinburghruntours.com and follow me at @edinruntours on twitter. Share the idea with all your running friends, I’ll be so happy to show you or them around Edinburgh soon.
Venture number two is another combination of my love of running with a higher aspiration to coach and develop other runners into ultra runners. I want to develop training plans for runners for marathon, ultra or multi stage distances, whilst providing a sounding board with ongoing advice and encouragement along with tips on nutrition and kit all based on my experiences. This is perfectly linked with the ultra babe Race to the Stones project (@RTTS100) with The North Face as our goal is to encourage women to step up to the ultra distance. As a woman, with ultra and multi stage event experience, I feel that I can offer something to the running community out there and give some other women the confidence and encouragement to go out there and give it a go. There are some fantastic examples of ultra coaches for the men out there such as Rory Coleman and Robbie Britton, to name a couple I have had the pleasure of meeting, but there is a need for more women coaches and advisors. Seeing as though it is something I love and am truly passionate about, I wanted to give this a shot. I have already got 2 lovely ladies that I am presently putting together plans for, Marina Ranger (@mranger90) and Rhianon West @rhianonruns, and have got an ultra weekend of running planned this weekend for Marina to set her up for her plan. I will be sure to get some testimonials up once they have worked their way through their respective plans and achieved their goals.
What is my experience that ‘qualifies’ me to give this advice. I have not been running for that long, only since 2008, starting off with 10km and half marathon races. I completed my first marathon in 2011 with the Amsterdam Marathon, and subsequently have run Philadelphia and London marathons in 2012, Nice to Cannes and London Marathons in 2012, Manchester Marathon in 2013 and having completed my first ultra in May 2013, 34 miles in 7hrs (yes, rather slow) and then completed my first multi stage Ultra, Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in October 2013. 250km (160 miles) fully self sufficient race over 6 stages through the Kalahari desert in South Africa. Not only did I finish it, but I was 14th overall and 2nd lady! It’s amazing what your body will do when pushed. In 2014 I have completed the Pilgrims Ultra (66 miles on North Downs Way split into 2 days of 33) in February 2014, Endurance Life Northumberland Marathon 27miles in March, Marathon Des Sables in April 2014, and am about to complete my first ever 100miles in one hit at the Mohican 100 in June. After a few weeks to recover I will be taking on Race to the Stones in July, Berghaus Trail Chase in August, Clyde Stride 40 mile ultra in September and then heading back to the Kalahari in November to compete in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon for the 2nd time.
Want to know more than check out my website www.runningdutchie.wordpress.com and follow me @runningdutchie on twitter for more about me and what I can do for you. I hope to see you at a running event soon!
You’ve got to do your local marathon, and with the start line literally outside my door, there was no excuse really. I’d signed up late last year not really sure of what my plan would be, and with my first 100 mile race planned only 4 weeks after this, it had to be a training run rather than a race for me this year. To stop myself racing I offered to pace my friend who was running this as her 2nd marathon to completion (having pulled out of her last one with injury) and with her wanting a sub 4 hour finish.
The Edinburgh Marathon Festival wasn’t just about the marathon but a whole load of different races. On the Saturday there is the 5km & 10km run for the adults and a series of races for the kids, with a 1.5km & 3km to be run. The atmosphere was fantastic and really gets you in the mood. Not having kids myself I never would have gone along to watch the kids races but with a friend’s daughter running the 1.5km we went down to watch, and I was so inspired! Amazing to watch the little ones sprinting their little hearts out and what a fantastic way to showcase the city as well.
I had a load of fitness pals up for the various races over the weekend from Bioticfit in Manchester, so had arranged a pre race “Pasta Party” at Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – Royal Terrace, along with a bit of a #tweetmeet with a few other runners I had never met in person but had been tweeting within the lead up to the race. It was great to catch up with everyone over some tasty food.
Sunday – Race day! We awake to torrential rain, not exactly the perfect running weather. Thankfully the marathon didn’t start until 10am so we had plenty of time to get sorted, especially as it was a 2 minute walk to the start line for us. My friend and I ventured out and saw the half marathon start in the torrential rain before breakfast.
Due to the poor weather and because I knew I wasn’t going to be running at speed I opted for some comfort food and ditched the porridge idea and munched on a Bacon & Egg ciabatta instead, delicious! Of course I made sure my friend had the porridge though to fuel up for the big event. I’ve run many a long run on bacon & eggs with no adverse affects and I think the experience of ultra running and multi stage events has made me realise that all the talk of overloading on carbs is a bit of a myth. The body can only store a limited amount of carbs in any case and I certainly don’t get the chance on multi day events such as Marathon Des Sables to over carb load, and manage to run in extreme conditions and extreme distances without what most would consider enough calories.
At 9:30 the weather finally clears up and fair weather runner hubby decides very last minute that he might as well run it too. It is a great atmosphere on the streets and with 8,624 marathon runners there are 2 starting areas on London and Regent Roads. We are on the Regent Road start, with a nice downhill to get us started. My friend wants to start at roughly 9min/mile pace and carry this through. Secretly I am concerned as I am used to starting off quick and then slowing down, so a bit worried about maintaining that pace for 26.2 miles. We start off well and manage to maintain at about 8:40m/m for the first couple of miles in the excitement of it all, as we go past Arthur’s Seat and around Meadowbank Stadium we slow it down to just under 9m/m. By mile 5 my friends pace is slowing to about 9:20m/m and I gently tell her we need to pick it up a bit, already concerned about the sub 4 goal so early on. I can tell she is struggling to get to the 9m/m pace we had agreed and by mile 10 I tell her that unless she has some secret speed energy stashed away, the sub 4 is out the window. She tells me she doesn’t mind, that she just wants to finish so I resort to just getting her to the finish.
The weather is holding out nicely and the sun even makes an appearance. I am running in my North Face kit that I received just a few days prior, breaking all the marathon rules of not trying anything new on race day, wearing a new shirt, new bra, new ¾ tights and wearing a bag that I had never run in before as well as trying out gels that I have never tried out before either! I take my first gel at the 30 minute mark, a delicious Torq Raspberry gel. It tastes as good as a gel can, and I take the next 30 minutes later, followed by a Torq bar another 30 minutes later. This is the first time I have been so consistent with energy and I can feel the difference. I am absolutely buzzing! I think the energy mixed with the slower speed and I feel invincible like I can run forever. My friend on the other hand is relying on Rowntree’s fruit pastilles, and is seriously struggling. I can see it in her face, in her body language and hear it in her breathing. She is feeling too warm and at the next water station I get her to tip some water on the back of her neck which helps cool her down a bit. I had asked her about energy before race day, but this is what she had trained with, she wasn’t keen to try gels on a race, but had said she will try this moving forward. Just after mile 16 there is the first ‘energy station’ stocked with High 5 gels, I encourage her to try one to see how it goes as she needs something. I take as many gels as I can to stock up and try my first High 5, pleasantly surprised, it tastes pretty good too. My friend ‘enjoys’ hers as well and you can visibly see it has lifted her somewhat, not enough to crack on at any more pace, but she keeps going which is the main thing. I make sure that she takes a few more along the way and restocks at the next energy station at mile 22 & 24. I don’t understand why in races, the organisers don’t have the gels available from the start as you need to be taking them from the very beginning, by mile 16 it is too late! At various points on the race you see the faster runners having reached the turnaround point coming back past you, and at about mile 16 I manage to catch hubby running past at what must be between 19 & 20 miles on the other side. I cheer wildly and get his attention, just! I work it out in my head that he is on for a quick time which is fantastic!
The crowds are amazing along the way, particularly the MacMillan supporters who are everywhere cheering loudly. Loads of locals are out in their front gardens cheering all the runners on, handing out sweets, setting up their own water stations with plastic cups. It really is great to see and I participate fully high fiving along the way and dancing with the cheerleaders and the Brazilian dancers en route. I am far too cheerful and excited to be in this time bracket for a marathon so I hope I didn’t annoy anyone too much with my exuberance! As we come into Musselburgh for the finish the crowds get thicker and towards the finish line it is like something out of Tour de France with the crowds closing in to almost a single track finish.
We finish! It’s been a hard slog for my friend, but I made sure she didn’t walk at all, so she ran a whole marathon, well done! I feel great, and feel I could run another one (sorry but it’s true, and I feel so proud to say it too) but she is struggling now to walk anywhere very quickly. I have no idea where hubby could be so we head over to the VIP tent which is the only area we had mentioned about meeting. No sign of him in the tent, but we do find a couple of our other pals who we manage to get into the VIP tent with us, and we get my friend in to sit down and quickly get her some water and make up a For Goodness Shakes recovery shake, she is looking white with blue lips. We get her some food quick smart as well, and slowly but surely the colour starts to come back. I get hold of Dion and hear that he smashed it with a 3:10 finish! How awesome! He had waited for us but got too cold so he ran the 5 miles home, yes ran! The beauty of being an ultra runner.
I really enjoyed my day, it was great to run a marathon without racing it and I had loads of fun. It has filled me with confidence for the upcoming 100 miles as I can clearly see that if I just keep my pace right and my fuelling right it should all be just fine. My friend on the other hand has a marathon finish which is great, but really needs to go back and look at how she is training and how she is fuelling her body. As she explained to me, she ran to lose weight so the thought of eating and taking on so much during a race is foreign and almost wrong. But as I explained to her as I have done the same thing and it is really hard to change your mindset, you are no longer running to lose weight as you’ve lost it you are now running to get fitter and stronger so your body is a machine and needs to be fuelled as such.
I normally like to go for a recovery run/jog the next day but unfortunately miss this due to timing, however we do get out and walk for about 4 miles over the morning which is a good flush out as well. I follow this up with a 7 mile run on the Tuesday morning at a gentle 9m/m pace on fairly flat ground followed up by a great sports massage by Nicola at Fasic in Edinburgh. It does the trick and by Wednesday I am back to normal. So now 3 weeks to be ready for the Mohican 100 mile race over in Ohio on June 21st & 22nd. Wish me luck!
The Saharan desert has just chewed me up and spat me straight back out; over and over again in a week of highs and lows in ‘The toughest foot race on earth.
I completed the 29th epic race finishing in 377th place out of 1029 starters with a total of 917 finishers. For anyone who has ever done the race completing in the end is in itself a great achievement and whilst the experience has most definitely enriched me the brutal race at times took its toll on me and made me question myself and push myself to dig deeper than I ever have before.
I went into the race with some huge training mileage under my belt and felt the fittest I’ve ever been in my life with high hopes of a top 100 finish….who was I kidding. This race is mean. By all accounts, Patrick Bauer, Race Director, was keen to ensure that this remains known as ‘The toughest foot race’, and he certainly accomplished that. With 20 people eliminated on the 1st stage alone, and a total of 112 by the finish (11%), I think this may have been the highest number of non-finishers to date!
With such a remote location we are all bussed from Ouarzazate 6 hours out to the desert past the village of Merzouga. Camping begins 2 nights before the race actually starts which means 2 extra nights sleeping rough with no showers to add onto the full week of racing. A great tip we picked up prior to coming out was to bring a good inflatable mattress (£10 Ebay) for the 2 nights so you at least have a comfortable sleep, then leave it for the Berbers when race day arrives. Great tip & I can assure you it earned us many an envious look! We were registered with the Australian contingent via Travelling Fit, who actually put you into tent groups prior so there was no fighting for tents, but the Brits all pre-arrange tent buddies then race for the closest tents, which is always a bit of mayhem. You are fed and watered for the 2 nights and in true French style, the food is great. Race registration takes place on the Saturday morning & this is where the serious queuing begins, you get allocated a time slot to get your kit & medical papers checked, and this involves about an hour of queuing in the hot sun before a cursory check of your items. My checker didn’t even look in my bag, he just asked me if I had a few things, I said yes, and good to go. Flare, road book and race number issued; obligatory promo photo done and you’re set to go.
And it begins….
Race day starts pretty much the same every day, people start to wake at about 5am, by 6am everyone is awake & faffing around. Water collection is 6:30-7:30, then you are supposed to be at the start line for 7:45 for briefing and ready for a 9am start. Of course on day 1 most people are so eager we are all there with our bags on our backs standing up listening to Patrick waffle on while it gets hotter and hotter. By the last day we are turning up 5 minutes before. There’s no doubt Patrick loves the sound of his own voice but by the end of the week asking questions like – Have you got your hat? Yes! Have you got your sunscreen? Yes! Have you got your water? Really?! Obligatory happy birthdays are sung before AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ blares out, and we are off! The helicopter zooms overhead bringing up a sandstorm around the runners and people scatter out wide to make a break for it. It’s on!
Stage 1 was a killer! 34km in total, starting with 13km of the highest sand dunes, Erg Chebbi, in the Sahara, and finishing with a further 3.5km of the same, I got the biggest wake-up call of the week. The heat was something else. Not a breath of a breeze and temperatures hovering around 46 degrees, I was seriously struggling. The combination of the dunes and the heat had sapped my strength by checkpoint 1 and doubts started creeping into my mind about even completing day 1, let alone the entire race! With hubby in the race as well, normally well ahead of me, I was surprised and concerned to catch up to him at checkpoint 2. He was struggling, overheated, sapped of all energy, and his confidence shot to bits. We finished the day together, very slowly, with regular stops on the dunes as our heart rates were through the roof, and it was scary to wonder what was happening to your body being pushed to such extremes. Dion was talking strongly of not going on, to pull out in the morning as he just couldn’t see himself carrying on. Amazing what a nights sleep and some food can do…he didn’t pull out and went on to finish the race super strongly. We lost 2 of our tent mates today, husband and wife Euan and Anthea. From all accounts Euan was vomiting uncontrollably at checkpoint 1, and there’s no coming back from that, with Anthea sticking it out with him. Sad to see them go, and pretty scary when we start hearing about the high numbers lost today.
Stage 2 had me in tears! No dunes but 41km of a mixture of sand, long straight stretches of dried up lakes and oppressive heat, along with pure exhaustion saw me arrive at checkpoint 3 slightly incoherent, told to sit under the cover to cool down where I promptly burst into tears. And I don’t generally cry! Was pleased that the highly experienced 11 times British MdS runner, Rory Coleman, found me there, told me to get my hat off, pour some water on my neck, eat and cool down for 20 mins; he also gave me 2 Anadin tablets, and I was back to normal! Thanks Rory! The day hadn’t been helped by my loss in confidence in myself, and to be honest this hindered me until the very last day.
Stage 3 was a grind, 37.5km through dry sandy river beds and a number of dunes again. The scenery is absolutely amazing though, and it’s a must to keep your head high to try and soak it all in. I’m still getting into camp at a reasonable time each day, around the 3pm mark, which means I have plenty of time for recovery. Recovery routine is the same each day; For Goodness Shakes first thing, snack on my leftover snacks from the day, stretch, rest and drink as much water as possible before dinner. For people getting in late each day like our tent mates, Cheryl & Kristen, it takes its toll, with Cheryl the next casualty. Out by the 1st checkpoint today, she’s is back in camp before me, and it’s clear the lack of recovery time has been too much. The night before she got in quite late, just after dark, so it’s a quick meal and straight to bed, meaning not enough water intake and absolutely no stretching and snacking. We are down to 3 in our tent now, and whilst it’s roomy, it’s a real shame to have lost 3 of our gang of tent 62.
Stage 4 is the big daddy, or the long day as it’s commonly known. At 81.5km long, it’s not to be taken lightly baking in the 45-50 degree heat all day and still going well into the evening. The first leg is nice and flat, and as you get through the first checkpoint, the Jebel looms up in front of you. A spectacular ascent of 30% gradient over slate rocks and loose sand is brutal! It’s a slow climb to the top as it’s single file all the way up, except for a few rather annoying French and Italian runners that attempt to pass people on the outside, dislodging massive rocks that come down through the rest of us. The last 20m is climbed with a rope, so that gives you some idea of how steep it is. I get a TV5 Monde (official MdS film crew) camera thrust into my face at the top so that will no doubt be a rather breathless scene to say the least. A quick descent brings us to a massive dried up lake that stretches out for miles. This is where the front runners come past, having left 3 hours later than the rest of us, and it’s amazing to see them come past at the speed that they are going. There’s another long jebel to climb in the full force of the midday sun, where I am literally about to die! There’s a medical jeep positioned halfway up giving a fraction of shade. Seeing another runner leave the shade, I wander over and collapse into the sand to sit for a few minutes to bring my core temperature down before continuing on for the last bit of the climb. After a massive long plateau, there’s a fun run down through soft sand which makes a nice change, but you are then greeted by a never ending crawl through soft sand which has formed into waves making it really difficult to traverse to checkpoint 4. This checkpoint is a war zone, bodies strewn everywhere! There’s quite a few Berber tents set up to provide some shade and I take about a 15 min break here before joining a group of Brits to head out again. The sun is starting to drop now so it’s a massive relief to take my hat & sunglasses off for the first time. 2 more checkpoints before the finish and I pick up and drop off with different groups along the way, the main focus being relentless forward motion. I find Matthew, a kiwi, en route to checkpoint 6 having major issues with his feet and he has sat down mid way. With some cajoling, me and another get him back up and on his way with us, it’s easier to do these last legs in the dark with a companion. We get to checkpoint 6, the last for the stage and find Ben, another Brit I’d met earlier in the day having serious issues, he starts convulsing and I get the medics over to help. He’s exhausted and just needs some sugar, rest & warmth; he gets wrapped in a silver blanket and given some gels. Giving me a message to pass on to his tent buddies when I get in to let them know he’s ok, I head off on the last leg with Matthew. It takes us about 2hrs to do 9km, as it’s now dark it is very slow going through thick soft sand following glow sticks along the way. There is any chance to find any solid ground to increase the pace. We see the finish for a good 45mins before we finally reach it at 1:45am! We get our obligatory cup of Sultan sweet tea at the finish before walking another mile to our tents, with me walking a few tents more to speak to Ben’s tent mates. Dion’s fast asleep after getting in over 5 hours before me, having had the most brilliant long day with a super time of 11hrs, smashing it finishing in 49th place! He makes me down my For Goodness Shakes recovery shake and a few crackers before I crawl into my sleeping bag for some desperately needed sleep. My last thoughts are of the hundreds still out there, making their way to the finish over the early hours of the morning, and some much later during the “rest day”.
Next day is a rest day for those of us that have made it in, and the day is spent napping, snacking, chatting & rehydrating. Our tent mate, Kristen, makes it in late that morning to our relief and we all spend a quiet afternoon discussing our own trials & tribulations of the long day in between a few cat naps. We all get up to welcome the last runners in very late in the afternoon, before which we were treated to the mythical can of cold Coca Cola, which actually didn’t taste half as good as we’d all built it up to.
Stage 5 is the marathon day, 42km, and Dion starts an hour and a half later than me as he’s in the top 200 at 110! This was my favourite day by far, it was slightly cooler to be fair and the terrain for the first 32km was completely runnable! Hard trail, my favourite! I join fellow Brit, Helen Bridle, for the first 2 legs, wordlessly pacing each other in turns which works really well. I lose her after checkpoint 2 due to her suffering an injury and I crack on, having an absolute whale of a time on the 3rd leg. There’s a group of supporters, family & friends of other runners that have come out at checkpoint 3, and the vibe is electric as you pass through. I feel unstoppable, and then hit a never ending sandy river bed! I think it’s more mental now than anything, and in my head sand and me just aren’t working and I’m back to a trudging walk feeling sorry for myself. Still pushing on though as I know Dion must be catching me and my goal was for him not to, or not until the finish so we could cross together. I catch a glimpse of the finish line from afar as we crest a hill and get all choked up, I have a group hug with 2 others as it feels like the right thing to do and we crack on again. The last 2km is dunes which are tough going, but I get through without seeing Dion, so 100m from the finish I stop. And I wait 23mins for him (unbeknown to me he had peeing blood but still managed to finish 87th for the day) and we hurtle to the finish together hand in hand. I must have had a 100 people pass me while I waited, but my time wasn’t as relevant as finishing the race with Dion which made it a more memorable moment.
Then it’s done. It’s finished. It’s over. All of that, and MdS is no more. Patrick is there, unfortunately the magic of finishing is somewhat diminished by having to queue to have him put the medal around your neck with a kiss and a hug, but what an awesome feeling. There must only be about 20,000 people in the entire world that can say they have completed the MdS, and I’m one of them!
We work out roughly when Kristen is due to finish and we head back to the line to cheer her across as well. That night the awards are presented, which unfortunately is rather long winded, so by the time Patrick introduces our surprise, a performance from the Paris Opera, we all disappear off to bed as we are shattered. Bit of a shame, as I don’t think anyone really appreciated it and most agreed that the whole evening needs a bit of improvement.
The final day is a 7.7km charity walk in aid of UNICEF, and it’s compulsory but not timed, so every competitor walks even though at the end is the bus back to civilization. The three amigos from tent 62 do the last day together, chatting en route to 5th place, and highest Brit ever, Danny Kendall; and gratefully receive our lunch packs as we cross the line for the final time. Real food at last! We board the buses and after a short wait we are off for our 4hr trip back to Ouarzazate, lunches scoffed in quick succession. Shower! Oh yes please! My hair is like dreadlocks and takes 3 washes to get out of the braid it’s been in for 10 days! There’s so much sand to wash off, and there is no way that’s all going to come off in the first wash, especially when I’ve got Dion waiting for his turn. Plus we are keen to get to the bar. It’s been 3.5 months since we’d had a drink, and there were a number of cold Casablanca’s with our names on it. It’s strange to see everyone looking clean and not wearing running kit for a change, and we all catch up over a few cold ones. Although the hotel we are allocated is a right dump, the bed feels like heaven after sleeping on the hard ground, but the sleep is fitful, I think after a week of disrupted sleep it’s going to take a few nights to get back to normal.
We are off early the next day back to Marrakech for the night in a magnificent riad, Riad Menzeh, before we fly home, and enjoy a couple of lovely meals and THE best hammam and massage, scrubbing away the remnants of the Sahara and leaving my skin glowing!
The MdS was a race on my bucket list and I am so proud of both Dion (in 108th place overall) and I for finishing. It is tough, very tough and not for the feint hearted. Would I do it again? Never say never, but for the price and all the little niggles and hassles that go along with such a highly subscribed to race (i.e queues, the long travel etc) there are a lot of other fantastic races out there to try, that will each provide their own unique experiences and challenges. But it has worked its way into my soul and my heart, the magic of MdS is not lost on me.
On my next blog I plan to share my thoughts on what worked/didn’t work with my kit/training/food so I hope this is of help to future entrants.