No New Year Resolutions Here

New year, new me, right? I was pretty happy with the old me, or the current me actually.  All our screens are filled with everyone announcing the New Years resolutions and companies advertising how this is the year you change, but change can be made at anytime of the year, if you should want to of course.  Sure I could be more patient, listen more and give more but I’m keen to get back to me.

Crossing the UTMB finish line

Since completing UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 107 mile/10,000m ascent/descent) at the end of August my life has been a whirlwind which whilst exciting and adventurous also means that routine & healthy habits fall away.  September saw me join Dion in travelling to the USA for his final race of the year, Wasatch 100, which was the final event to see him be the first man to complete the Leadman Series and the Grand Slam of 100’s and it was to be such a great experience to support him and cross the final finish line.  I was still recovering from UTMB so this was a holiday and I treated it as such.

Seeing Dion complete the Grand Slam of 100’s at Wasatch 100

In my excitement earlier in the year, I’d signed up to run the 52km Trail Aiguille Rouges race with 4,500m ascent/descent at the end of September, just on 4 weeks after UTMB.  I would never recommend anyone to do this after such a massive race but here I was lined up to run it.  I felt good for the first few miles of the race but as soon as we hit the first climb I knew I hadn’t recovered.  Whilst climbing this 1500m climb in what felt like slow motion I decided that I should pull out at the first checkpoint as I knew the route and this spot would drop me straight back into Chamonix but as luck would have it just before reaching the checkpoint I ran into a friend, Jo Cowper, who was also struggling and talking of dropping at the same spot.  Instantly my runners maternal instinct came out and I was encouraging Jo to carry on, that ‘we’ would get through this together. Needless to say it was a long but beautiful day out in the mountains and we crossed that finish line together after many words of encouragement between us.

Running TAR with Jo Cowper

The next adventure was upon me quickly, accompanying Dion & Gobi to Slovenia and Croatia for the language book releases of ‘Finding Gobi’ over there.  It’s a full on 3 week tour, working remotely whilst being on a publicity tour requires 100% energy and focus leaving me with little drive to get any sort of training done.  I manage to squeeze in a few 5km runs here and there, normally accompanied by Gobi, so the runs are certainly not considered training.  It’s enjoyable though to discover new places and see new things but there is an unsettled feeling in my body.  I never quite realised how much I need a bit of routine in my life, particularly exercise routine, to allow me to feel truly happy.  They do say exercise is addictive and I think I’m truly hooked.

Running the Ljubijana 10k with Dion and Gobi

After 3 weeks away from home, we make it back to Chamonix for an overnight stop, just enough time to swap out some luggage for our next trip to the U.K.  After a whirlwind 12 hours, the car is packed and we hit the road to London.  It’s a long drive to the U.K. and with all the best intentions I can’t resist a pastry and coffee at all our stops.  I have a history of bad eating and although now as an athlete I train well and eat clean most of the time, my inner self always reverts to these bad habits under times of stress.  Although the travel itself is not consciously stressful, sub consciously is a different story and although I try to combat these bad habits by continuing to run while I’m away it’s not enough for my body to go against my own self sabotage and 2 weeks away in the U.K. takes it’s toll on my fitness, weight and self image.

Fitting in the odd run whilst in the UK

Having struggled with my weight for the first 30 years of my life (link to my story) I find myself panicking about any weight gain and loss of fitness as I’m petrified of being the fat, unfit woman that I was.  I know it’s not logical and it’s good for my body to have a break and a few kilos aren’t going to revert me back but try telling my hard wired brain that!  Anyone that’s struggled with weight and body image knows that it’s just not that simple, and these feelings always take their toll on m6 mental well-being.  I try to battle through it as I’m a positive person after all and I know negativity and lack of self worth will not help me.  

I get back to Chamonix after the trip and know that we have a few weeks of November at home before we are off on the next trip so I use this time to get back some semblance of normality and start making a regular morning 4-5 mile loop along the river.  The first few runs are demoralising with me taking regular walk breaks on such a short easy run when only a few weeks before I’d run UTMB and TAR, 2 extremely tough mountain races, but the body does not listen to what was, only what is.  But I persevered and it wasn’t long before I found my rhythm and started to feel fitter and stronger again.  Immediately I felt happier and more self confident and I always remind myself of this when I am feeling low, that you only have to start and you will feel better, almost instantaneously for me which is a great comfort.  This is 100% mental of course but what an effect this has.

Back in Chamonix with the Wild TR group for some running in the snow

Our next trip away sets me back again though with Dion and I off to Bulgaria in December for a few days for the ‘Finding Gobi’ release over there.  Although it’s only a few days, the weather is bitterly cold and staying in the heart of the city of Sofia I miss out on my runs and I feel frustrated with myself.

There’s no time to dwell on it though as whilst I’ve been away we were also working on moving to the USA and the wheels are now fully in motion.  With Dion’s O1 visa approved and subsequently mine, we are able to fly out on 12th December, giving us literally 10 days to finish DIY’ing our apartment, packing our lives into a suitcase, making sure the kids (Lara our cat and Gobi our dog) are health checked and sorting out the remaining to ensure we are ready to go.

They say moving house in one of the most stressful events in your life, but moving countries on top of it!  Now that multiplies it exponentially, trust me having experienced that already 3 times over (NZ, U.K., France) I knew what we were in for again.  But not ones to stay in the comfort zone we were up for it again, this time with our 2 fur babies along with for the ride.  A whirlwind of craziness and we find ourselves in New York City ready for the next chapter of our lives.

Running in Central Park NYC

Having planned to be in NYC for 3 weeks over the Christmas and New Year period it was the perfect opportunity to try and adjust to a new way of life and try to get back to some level of normality.  Helped by the weather being kind to us during a period renowned for abysmal weather but it’s hard to run in a city.  Kudos to those that live in a city permanently but I’ve certainly become accustomed to, if not a little spoilt, by living in Chamonix surrounded by the most amazing mountains and trails.  I was pretty proud of getting out and getting some runs done, even managed one 50 mile week, alongside starting to dabble in a change of lifestyle of shifting to a more plant based diet.

Back on the trails in Louisiana, flat but trails!

Moving forward it’s going to be about balancing change & disruption with balance, consistency and adventure.  Quite a challenge I’m sure you’d agree.  The start of the new year sees us growing some temporary Cajun routes in Louisiana and spending 6 weeks exploring the south.  This could also be the toughest state to be embarking on Veganuary, in a state where meat products are the staple this could certainly add to the challenge.  Time to rediscover my ultra legs running from the alligators in the bayou, exploring the pristine lakes and get cracking with a very different approach to get back to me.

As an Australian I am devastated by what is happening in Australia with the bushfires and I’m donating via https://reliefrun.com.au which is a $50 donation to run a virtual 21.1k/5k to support those affected by the bushfires.  If you haven’t yet already donated I hope you’ll consider joining me

 

Monkey Get Off My Back

Trois, deux, un, GO!! A sea of 2,543 runners start moving through the iconic starting archway in Chamonix. Emotions are running high through the field of runners taking on the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) of which 40% will not finish; the streets are lined with thousands of supporters all cheering us on and the sheer volume of people means we’re walking for the first 500m but I savour the moment as it gives me a chance to high five friends I recognise in the crowds and soak up the atmosphere hoping it will spur me on during moments of darkness to come.

In the sea of runners at the start line

UTMB, the big dance, the ultimate pinnacle of mountain ultra racing in Europe; 106 miles with 10,000m of vertical gain and loss, more than Everest, with a 46.5hr cutoff departing from Chamonix at 6pm on Friday 30th August running to Italy and through to Switzerland before making it back to Chamonix. Hikers normally take 9-12 days to complete the route. To even apply to run you need to complete a certain number of qualifying races in an allotted time during the qualifying period, which is basically 3 kick-arse races in 12 months prior to be valid and then you go into a ballot so after apply for 3 years in a row I finally got in.

I’d experienced FOMO the last 2 years of watching the race, online one year and in person last year, and now it was my turn to take part and I was so excited. Since finding out for certain I was on the list in January my mind and training was focussed towards this race. I’d trained consistently since May, finding it hard to get going in the early part of the year due to the ongoing winter and snowy conditions in Chamonix making it difficult to get on the trails as early as I would have liked or envisaged in my preparations. My big preparation race was Gran Trail Courmayeur in the middle of July and I was filled with confidence from completing this event which spurred me on to really give a strong final push in the 6 weeks leading up to race day. I’d focussed on running 50-60 miles per week with 5,000-10,000m per week ascent. One session I wish I’d done more of was downhill repeats which I felt was really beneficial in building leg strength and sharpening up my downhill running technique as well.

Working hard pre race massaging athletes like Paul Giblin

After registering on the Wednesday I’d hoped to go into pre race hibernation from then until the start, not doing anything except having my feet up; however this was far from reality. My sports massage services were in high demand and this combined with a few interviews for Claire from Wild Ginger Running and for Dutch TV program ‘De Kennis Van Nu’ (airs October 2019) there wasn’t much time left for relaxing. With a 6pm start time it can be hard to plan your day and nutrition, I opted to have a bit of a lie in with pancakes for breakfast and then napped from 1-3 (which was more laying down resting than actually napping) and ate some Salmon, avocado and quinoa as my pre race meal.

Interview with Claire pre race

The rain came down hard just as I was about to leave to head to the start so I delayed that to hopefully get the worst of it out of the way and miraculously squeezed my way in to the rammed start line right beside my friend, Paul, who I would later end up running with for quite some time. The rain abated and with jackets put away the excitement was ramped up with the UTMB theme song ‘Conquest of Paradise’ as our send off.

All smiles at the start with Paul Spackman

Don’t go out too hard was the advice from Dion and try as I might to control myself I found myself in Les Houches a little faster than I would have liked, but I felt good. It was encouraging to see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd there to spur me on for the first big climb. It was still light and I’d hoped to reach St Gervais before needing a head torch, but I had to give in and put this on for the last 15mins before getting there. The checkpoint was crazy, a mad rush of runners all squeezing in to replenish and I was glad to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Support posters from friend Sarah, Dan & Ella

Climbing into Les Contamines-Montjoie I thought back to this point 3 years ago, it was on this section I’d decided I was pulling out (DNF-Did Not Finish); I didn’t have the emotional, mental or physical capacity to carry on after having run #500kin5days only 4 weeks prior; compounded by the fact that Dion was in China having just found Gobi which had caused insurmountable levels of stress and anxiety. This year I was stronger and Dion and Gobi would be out on course to support me, but first it was time to see my first crew of the race with friends Jo and Jana waiting for me once I squeezed my way through the rugby scrum that was Les Contamines-Montjoie checkpoint, where pizza and warmer night clothes awaited me with hugs and cheers.

Sunsetting as I reach the top of Col de VOA

My chest started to tighten as I began the climb up Col du Bonhomme, I was finding it hard to breath and with every attempted breath I felt more and more nauseous. Eventually I succumbed to the discomfort and sat on the side of the trail and eventually threw up. I felt a bit better afterwards and my chest didn’t feel as tight so as much as it was a blessing it also meant I’d lost valuable energy and had to focus on restoring that through energy drink and trying to eat a little bit.

Warming up in my layers before Courmayeur

The runners started to thin out after the climb which was a relief as it was so congested though I was far from alone at any point. The night was long and it took me much longer than I’d hoped to finally reach Courmayeur, the halfway point. It was shaping up to be a warm day and I was roasting in long tights and a long sleeve too so was super keen to see Dion, Gobi and Jana at the checkpoint and get out of those clothes. Dion & Gobi met me just outside and ran the last 300m in with me as only one person is allowed inside the designated checkpoints. It was great to see them and it really lifted my spirits.  Jana was super charged and ready to get me fed, watered and on my way until we realised I hadn’t put a fresh pair of shorts in the crew bag! What to do? I was already sat there in my knickers having removed my sweaty tights so Jana literally gave me the skort she was wearing and put my sweaty tights on, true friendship right there 😉. Jana updated me that my friend Paul had only just been through and my other friend & neighbour Zoe was on the table opposite so we decided to leave together.

Jana will do anything to get me wearing a Salomon skirt 😉

Feeling fresh and energy restored it was time to try and crack on, still 50 miles to go! Zoe decided to sit and have a gel before the next clime to Bertone so I pulled ahead to keep moving. I was pleased to see Paul when I reached Bertone and we decided to head out together from there. It was nice to have some company as I hadn’t really had anyone to talk to long the way, so it helped pass the time. It was a long stretch to reach Arnouvaz where I was surprised to see Dion, Jana & Gobi waiting. This wasn’t a support spot so they could only say hi but it was great to see them again.

One of the biggest climb of the race, Grand Col Ferret at 2,490m loomed ahead of us and we were keen to get up and over it before darkness descended for our 2nd night on course. The weather started to close in on us as we ascended and just as we reached the summit huge claps of thunder sounded and lightning crashed all around us. With big raindrops starting to fall we quickly put on our waterproof jackets and ran as quick as we could, this was not the best place to be in a storm, super exposed and great for attracting lightning. The raindrops quickly tuned into a torrential downpour and the path became a sloshy mud pit. Waterproof or not we were both absolutely drenched by the time we reached the midway down pint of La Peuty. The next section had become diabolical with the path submerged in ankle deep water and mud making the downhill quite treacherous underfoot and slow going. We reached La Fouly just on dark; cold, wet and in need of warm, dry clothes but we still had another couple of hours to get to Champex-Lac to meet our respective crews.

It was amazing having Dion and Gobi at the checkpoints

The climb up to Champex-Lac was long and boring, but dry, the rain had stopped and I’d dried out completely by now. I got changed anyway as we were now going into the night again so it’s wise to put some layers on as it can extremely cold up high especially when you’re tired and your body is starting to shut down so body temperature management is not up to par. Dion & Jana we’re armed with fresh pizza & chocolate milk, some of my favourites, both of them acutely aware we were now in the force feeding stage of the race. I also downed a can of orange soft drink which was so tasty I proceeded to ask them to get me some more for Trient which laughingly they both told me that at 2am in the middle of the mountains I had no chance! Joined by Paul’s crew, wife Lucy, we all walked out of Champex-Lac together and chatted. We’d see them again in Trient.

Paul and I made an effort to jog the downhill out of Champex-Lac as quickly as we could at this stage of the race before the climb up Bovine. An arduous and rocky climb that was as unrelenting as the last, our head torches picked up shapes on the sides of the trail, it was runners, sleeping! I’d never seen so many runners taking random trail naps before, they were literally everywhere up the trail. I was feeling it too, my eyes were heavy and the temptation to rest was strong but I kept shaking my head awake and soldiered on upwards. Paul was struggling too so we kept checking in on each other to make sure we weren’t sleep walking. Reaching Bovine I was renewed, I’d run from here a few times on training runs and I now felt like we were just running home. I knew from here that I would finish and this just filled me with a new found energy.

We wasted no time at Trient, with only 2 more climbs to go we could start to smell the finish line and wanted that more than anything. Dion & Gobi met us on the road into Trient and filled our heads with positive motivation before Jana ensured I had more food and sent us on our way. The climb up Tseppes is steep and we paced ourselves with a promise of a short rest stop at the top before flying down to Vallorcine, the last supported checkpoint before the finish.

Flying into Vallorcine with Paul

We arrived half an hour before we were anticipated so we really did fly! Jana helped me into yet another change of clothes as it was now daylight again so back into shorts for my 4th outfit of the race, Dion had found me some fresh coffee and a quiche; and we were off to tackle the final climb. Not before a quick hello, pompom & cowbell cheers with extra friends, Sam & Nikki, in the group at Col des Montets.

Col des Montets support crew

False summit after false summit and the climb is done, but I’m not fooled, it’s still a long way to the final checkpoint Flegere which is winking at me in the distance. It’s all downhill from Flegere and the trail is scattered with supporters, including my friend Sasa, who meets us just above La Floria where there’s more friends and a whole party going on, I shout “We’re bloody well going to do it!” as we run through the crowd. 3 miles now to the finish and I can feel it, the excitement is coursing through my veins and I can’t stop smiling with intermittent welling up as the gravity of what I’m about to achieve starts to hit.

The final stretch down from La Floria and I can’t stop smiling

I feel like a rock star! The streets of Chamonix are lined with people, they’re all cheering for us, high fives are being handed out left and right, and as we turn onto the Main Street the whole town is one big party. The cheering is so loud I’m looking left and right as I hear my name being shouted. I spot Dion, Gobi, Jana and Paul’s wife Lucy who join Paul & I to run the final 50m together. This was my dream come true, tears well in my eyes as we all hug and kiss and congratulate each other. It was all worth it; the time & commitment it had taken to prepare with the sacrifices along the way. I’d been driven to this moment since 2016, that DNF had been weighing heavily on my shoulders for 3 years; a big monkey on my back that kept chattering away to me trying to convince me I wasn’t good enough to do it, but I am good enough and that monkey will forever be quiet. Ultra’s are a team effort from the time spent training to the actual race and I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew. The cold beers in the sunshine together afterwards never tasted so good as we all shared stories of our combined adventures of the past 42 hours.

The best finish line feeling ever!

Main kit used/worn: (As an Asics Frontrunner & Ambassador for Beta Running, Naked Running Band & Naked Runner items were gifted to me)

Shoes – Asics Fuji Trabuco Pro

Socks – Injinji Med Weight Crew

Bag – Ultimate Direction Ultra

Waist band – Naked Running Band

Sunglasses – Naked Runner

Poles – Black Diamond Carbon Z

Redemption at Gran Trail Courmayeur

I smiled as I ran down from Elisabetta refuge, this time last year it was pitch dark and a violent storm raged around me as I was halfway through the Gran Trail Courmayeur 105km race in the Italian mountains.  I did not finish (DNF) the race which is why I was back for another crack at it.  This year I felt stronger, the sun was still shining brightly and would be for another 2-3hours before darkness would descend, whereas last year I was already in the pitch dark at this halfway point of the race so I felt like I’d come a long way in the last 12 months. 

Look of focus coming down from Elisabetta

Italian race directors have a reputation for bringing us the daring and super technical races and with the Tor Des Geants (TDG) as part of their (Valle D’Aosta Trailers) repertoire this event certainly meets expectations with the brutality and sheer toughness of the route.  105km with 6,600m elevation gain and loss with a 30hr time limit and awarding 5 ITRA & UTMB points, it’s a beast! 

An early start meant an early rise for the Chamonix crew,my friends Jana and Sarah were running the 55k with Zoe and I running the 105k; and a quick trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel taking us into Italy to be ready to register from 5:30am and ready to race at 7am.  The race has 3 options with the 105k and 55k starting together and the 30k starting at 9am.  Excitement was building as runners made their way into the start chute filled with nervous anticipation of what the day would bring for us all.  Some would race well, others would not make it to the finish line.  I wedge myself in somewhere in the middle so as not to get caught up in the fast start but not too far back to be held back.

Jana & I heading to the start line

Heading out of the town of Courmayeur the route splits and the 55k runners go one way and the 105k the other, heading into trails to Champex Di Pre-Saint-Didier. Skipping the thermal resort, unfortunately,  and climbing up to the Petosan valley and crossing the Plan Praz via a few chain ropes to the Deffeyes refuge at 2,500m where the views open up to picturesque lakes below.  A bit of minor climbing via some ropes reaches the lakes for a nice runnable section back down towards to La Thuile.

All smiles!

It’s from here the biggest climbs begin, following part of the TDG route in reverse we are ascending to 2,047m in the Youlaz Valley, Colle Di Youlaz at 2,661m and reaching the highest pint of the race below Mont Nix at 2,830m.  Memories from last year come flooding back and I recall being petrified up here, there’s some seriously sharp drop offs alongside some dramatic ridge lines that the route follows including a few snow patches to cross.  After a year living in the Alps I’m feeling more confident and it’s not as daunting but still causes my heart to race.  

Steep ridge lines to take your breath away

And race it does as we descend slightly but ascend again via some precarious climbs up to Colle du Berrio Blanc at 2,818m and Mont Fortin at 2,755m where the refreshment point here has been flown in by helicopter due to it’s inaccessibility.  This time last year I was donning all my layers and waterproofs as the storm was about to break, however this year the sun was shining strongly though being at altitude I did put on my arm sleeves and gloves at this point.

Stunning views

The trail starts to descend and runs alongside the lakes towards Col Chavanne crossing numerous snow patches before reaching Elisabetta refuge still at 2,197m. 

I’m excited to join the UTMB route here and I start imagining what I’ll be feeling like in 6 weeks time at this very spot, hopefully I’ll be feeling the same energy and excitement in similar weather conditions.  I wonder if I can make it to Courmayeur before the sunsets? 

Sun starting to set, but still a bit of time to go

Alas the headtorch goes on after the climb up from Maison Vieille refuge to Courba Dzeleuna for the descent into Courmayeur where my impromptu support crew, Jana (who had already finished the 55k) and Chris, are waiting with pizza and cheers to motivate me for the final 30k section.  I fuel up and down a Starbucks cold latte and head back into the night feeling strong and full of positive energy believing I’ll be back in Courmayeur before sunrise.

One very happy lady to see pizza!

Those good feelings don’t last and by the time I’ve ascended to Bertone refuge and I’m on the Val Ferret balcony I’m experiencing some small blackouts from low blood pressure and I realise that whilst I’ve nailed my nutrition this race I haven’t drunk enough electrolytes and I’m out of balance. By the time I reach Bonatti refuge I’m feeling hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably and although I’ve put on my waterproof trousers & jacket, base layer and buff and it takes me half hour wrapped in a foil blanket in a heated shelter before I can move again. Few runners appear to be in high spirits here; fatigued, cold and covered in layers of dirt and sweat this was now developing into type 2 fun and hopefully not delving further to type 3.

The Fun Scale

There’s still 2 more ascents from here before eventually a brutally steep descent begins, frustratingly including yet more ascending before finally descending towards Courmayeur.  The sun has started to rise by now and I’m greeted by a stunning sunrise at La Suche which lifts my spirits somewhat knowing that although these last 30km have not been my finest hours that I AM going to finish this race.

Sunrise at La Suche

I find myself passing some runners as the race hits the outskirts of town as I can now smell the finish and I keep my pace going and enter the village of Courmayeur finding the local village coming alive in the early morning which enthuses me more with the locals cheering me on.  Finally it’s the home stretch and I’m greeted by Chris, Jana and Zoe to cheer me across the finish line.  I had done it!  

Crossing the finish line (Photo: Chris Clayton)

Finishing Gran Trail Courmayeur meant so much more to me than just a race finish, not only because of my DNF last year, but I’ve taken so much confidence away from reaching the finish for the upcoming challenge of UTMB; the Ultra Tour Mont Blanc on 30th August which is a 107 miles with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss.  If I hadn’t been able to finish this race it would have meant some serious mental and no doubt physical hurdles I would have had to overcome if I were to be even half a chance of finishing UTMB.  Time will tell and I know I will hold my head high with my heart and spirit strong when I toe that start line on August 30th in Chamonix.

Finished!

Kit List

Going off the grid

“I don’t think I can do this Dion! It’s too much, this race is too much. I’m not strong enough for a race like this”. It’s 70km into Oman by UTMB and I’m crying uncontrollably into my phone having called my husband in a blind panic. I’m 360 degrees out of my comfort zone and I don’t know how to get out of this situation.

When UTMB announced earlier in 2018 that it was expanding the race family to include Oman and Ushuaia my interest was peaked. Oman had been on my radar as a place to visit as an undiscovered gem of the Middle East but nothing had drawn me there until I read about the inaugural Oman by UTMB. A 137km single stage footrace through the Omani mountains with 7,800m of elevation promising a route of natural beauty and physical challenge.

Dramatic scenery – Misfat Village
©Mark Lloyd images

Arriving in Muscat a few days prior to the race was the perfect opportunity to indulge in some last minute warm weather before the European winter sets in. The airport itself was a sign of things to come; grand, imposing and in pristine condition and I listened eagerly as my super friendly taxi driver turned tourist guide pointed out the stunning must-see Grand Mosque as we whizzed along wide, perfect roads that were the cleanest I’ve ever seen. He proudly tells me that cleanliness is so important in the Sultanate that a fine is issued if your car is dirty.

Enjoying Muscat’s pristine beaches.

Away from the Grand Mosque Muscat feels more modest, with low rise sand coloured buildings where local Arabs walk casually through the streets; men swathed in white or black linen thobes, women in hijab, giving a real sense of an unhurried and relaxed way of life. Crystal clear blue water laps leisurely onto the white sandy beaches that surround the city. People stop to chat and regular greetings of ‘As-salamu alaykum’ resonate as groups of friends and families gather to socialise together over cups of tea and feasting on meze, hummus and falafel.

Majestic beaches give way to otherworldly rugged mountain tops as we make our way to race HQ in Nizwa where around 415 ultra-Trail runners (including only 51 women) representing 57 countries have arrived to take up the challenge of Oman’s mountainous interior, including the 2,200m high Jebel Akhdar known as the ‘Green Mountain’. Little did we know then that this race would earn the nickname of ‘The Beast’ and less than 40% of us would become finishers of this epic race.

Lulled into a false sense of luxury and relaxation as we all enjoyed the divine swimming pool and food on offer at The Golden Tulip Hotel reality was soon upon us as we set out with head torches at the ready for the race start at 7:30pm. The start line was a party atmosphere and the atmosphere was electric with elevated heart rates as we anticipated what lay ahead. Straight into the dark the first 10km were fast with runners making the most of the very runnable and flat start to the race. It wasn’t long though before poles were pulled out and the first long climb of many begun.

Anna-Marie Watson and I ready to start ‘The Beast’

The course was marked within an inch of its life. I’ve never seen anything like it with the most reflective red and green markers absolutely everywhere on the route. Navigating along ridges and plateau edges I have the organisers warnings resonating in my head; green markers mean safe, red markers mean danger! At some points the distance between the two was literally 2 footsteps requiring full concentration. The night was long and the darkness was all encompassing and I found myself looking forward to sunrise so I could enjoy what I’d heard was some of the most spectacular scenery around me.

Sunrise!

As the sun rose I found myself on top of the most unforgiving and exposed mountain with deep cutting canyons to my left. I’m left breathless, humbled by the sheer expanse and natural beauty of this place reminding me how small I am in the middle of this incredibleness. The terrain is rough; harsh and unforgiving; with little to no vegetation unless you count bushes that cut you deep and draw blood should you get to close to them. Everything out here is harsh, designed for self protection over centuries of survival but in its harshness there is an inspiring beauty and I’m filled with a deep level of respect.

Simply jaw dropping scenery.

The climbs are relentless with the technical terrain making them even more so. These aren’t trails that have been regularly trodden and this combined with the now increasing temperature starts to make me doubt my abilities. I’m uncomfortable and petrified and I reach the 70km mark in tears. The previous climb had scared me with its exposure and the vertical drops below and I’m shaking like a leaf. I call Dion. I don’t want to go on but somehow he makes me see sense and assures me I’m stronger than I think but if I’m truly scared and I feel my life is in danger then pull out. But if not….I didn’t travel all this way to eat falafels.

The next section is more runnable and descending into a Wadi I pass through historical 400 year old mud houses and a multitude of caves that until now were concealed by the wall of mountains now surrounding me. I can see the Alila Hotel on the top of the other side of the canyon, teasing me knowing this is the big life station with hot food and my drop bag, so close yet so very far. An oasis of water stops me in my tracks, remote and breathtaking, and I wonder if it’s real or am I already starting to hallucinate. It is real of course and so are the rocks that I need all fours to climb up before reaching the start of the via ferrata. 80km into this technical race we are being strapped up in harnesses, helmets on and ascending a rock wall. I know the oasis of the life base is at the top and this spurs me on.

Deep in the wadi.

It’s my first ever via ferrata and I’m overcome with emotion as a smiling and encouraging volunteer takes my harness off me and I’m in tears again. My emotions are running higher than normal in this race as I am way out of my comfort zone and everything is becoming an emotional effort. The tears come again as I reach the life base and see the familiar face of Marina Ranger waiting for me with a big smile and a hug. The life base doesn’t disappoint and I wolf down a huge bowl of Dal and rice and with freshly squeezed orange juice on offer I replace fluids with a over a litre of this golden goodness. I come across fellow running friend Jakob here and we decide to head out together for a bit of company.

My 1st ever via feratta!

Feeling refreshed and energised after a good break we make good use of the next runnable 5km before we are again reduced to a relentless forward motion using whatever means possible; run, walk, shuffle. We push forward as the sun begins to set onto our 2nd night out on the course as we head towards a highly anticipated downhill, but even the downhills on this course are brutal and we implement downhill ski style for our descent to try and reduce the impact of the sheer steepness of it.

The long dusty downhill finally ends and we’re directed through dense shrubbery to reach what can only be described as a fairytale secret entrance. Tree roots wind their way up century old stairs built from limestone rocks and we ascend through ancient ruins of an, even now, impressive building, perhaps a mosque or fortress in its day. A labyrinth of pathways lead us to the aid station before the final climb nicknamed ‘The Wall’ as reading the elevation profile of the race would suggest with a 1,240m ascent in around 3km it was going to be just that. More than a vertical kilometre this was literally a wall that we had to use our 116km used legs to climb over before we were even in sniffing distance of finishing this beast of a race.

Dauntingly we are informed that the organisation are unable to get help to us during the next section so we are to make sure we can get from this point to the next without assistance otherwise we should not proceed, and to put our poles away as we are going to need all fours to reach the top! I’ve never climbed properly in my life and to take on this ascent in the dark whilst having to maintain 3 points of contact at all times has gone down as the hardest and most petrifying experience of my racing experience to date. Add to this challenge some hallucinations of cats on rocks and you start to get the picture. At least they were friendly hallucinations. With my life depending on to my strength I clamber my way to the top hanging on to the near vertical rock face, panic breathing and sobbing all the way up.

Dripping in sweat and now freezing as reaching the summit in full force winds meant putting on every layer I had to try and keep warm. Fatigue was starting to really set in now and I hoped I could hang on until daybreak as I’d started having little sleep walking style nod offs. I ate skittles, salt tablets and paracetamol and then the sun finally rose again and filled me with a renewed energy, with now less than 15km to go I knew that medal would be mine. But as with the rest of the race, the forthcoming downhill and final push to the finish line would not be an easy one and would continue to take much longer than anticipated. Reluctantly I had to reapply sunscreen and put my hat and sunglasses back on as I could feel myself starting to burn. I had certainly not planned on seeing a 2nd sunrise!

We could hear the finish line before we saw it, hearing our names being announced as we approached, and both Jakob and I breathed a big sigh of relief when it finally came into view and through gritted teeth with each step becoming excruciatingly more painful we finally descended and found ourselves running, it felt like we were running, along the red carpet to be greeted with that richly deserved medal around our necks.

The finish line!

Dazed, dumbfounded and exhausted beyond all belief I was speechless and could barely utter an inaudible grunt as the race MC tried to probe me for what I thought of the race. I was just so glad to be finished I just stood there grinning like a dazed fool before I was guided away to a chair and given food and drink.

‘The Beast’, ‘The Wall’, ‘The race that just kept giving’, ‘The 137km Sky race’, ‘The new Barkley Marathon’……the nicknames for this experience were coming out from everyone and it seemed all the runners from the winners to those that didn’t finish were shocked in equal measures of awe and disbelief as to how tough this race really was. Had I known how tough it was beforehand I might not have entered and then never had the opportunity to test myself in this way so in away I’m glad I didn’t know. Fulfilling its promise of a physical challenge, this race is set to expand and become renowned for its brutality and toughness with a full schedule of 4 races planned for next year ranging from 50km to 100 miles, which one will you be choosing?

TransGranCanaria Take 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks & party atmosphere to start us off

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

Night time beach start

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

Sunrise

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

Ascending Roque Nublo

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

With my WAA Twin, Emma

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

Obligatory summit photo!

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

Coming out of Garanon – pure focus!

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

With Yosimar at Tunte

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

Finish line smile!

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

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

Making Plans

After such a big year in 2016, particularly with my personal challenge of running #500kin5days with Marina Ranger in Simply Runderful; my body needed a rest.  So did my heart and my mind. I’d had a lot going on in the back end of the year with my husband, Dion living in China from August until January with Finding Gobi and this had left me drained emotionally, the extent of which I didn’t realise until even after a DNF (Did Not Finish) at UTMB in August but into September when ‘life’ began to feel all a little too much for me and I resigned from my full time job to take some time out and focus on Finding Gobi with Dion and support him until we could all be reunited.  Needless to say effective training and eating went out the window as there wasn’t much time or desire to push myself physically.

I think it’s important for everyone to take stock sometimes and realise that you have to prioritise and it may not be exactly how you planned it in your head but life never goes to plan after all does it?!  Plans are meant to change and although it was a tough end to the year it was worth all the heartache and stress throughout as I now have both Dion and Gobi home with me safe, sound and most importantly happy.

Dion & Gobi enjoying their new Scottish playground

Now it’s time to refocus on my challenges for the year.  I’ve managed to kick start my training with my new job managing the Village Hotel in Edinburgh, which in case you didn’t know has state of the art leisure facilities of which I am making good use of and have just started getting some personal training with Huw Davis to focus on building some strong glutes for the upcoming mountain racing season.  I’ve had a couple of good weeks getting back into serious training, building up the miles consistently.  In my week I try to always fit in a strength & conditioning session, speed intervals, hill repeats and a long run as the basic week and fill around that; always with a rest day or more depending on how my body feels.

What is the plan for the year then I suppose your wondering?

I’m heading to Morocco in a few weeks to run the 3 day race Tizi n Trail, which is a chance to escape the Scottish winter for a few days in the hope Moroccan sun, it’s no Marathon Des Sables, and the crew of the race carry all your luggage, cook for you, provide accommodation and there’s even showers and the runners run from point A to B each day with approximately 20km distance to cover each day.  It will still be challenging terrain but it will be stunningly beautiful and a great way to revisit Morocco and kick start the years racing.

In April I’m running local!  I’m running The Highland Fling which is a 53 mile race along the first half of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum.  It’s a challenging day out and the race is always full of a strong field of runners.

Then it’s time to head off to the mountains!  As I didn’t get into the ballot for UTMB I’ve entered the Zugspitz Ultra in Germany, a 100km mountain race with 5,400m of ascent it will give me valuable points to enter the ballot for UTMB again for next year as well as ‘if’ I can complete the race in under 22 hours it’s a qualifier for Western States Endurance Run which I’d love to run one day.

The Scottish hills call again and after running the Vertical Kilometre last year as part of the Skyline Race series, I’ve decided to run the 110km Ben Nevis Ultra which is a new addition to the series this year with a hefty 4,000m of ascent.

Climbing the VK route last year – photo(c) http://www.facebook.com/jordisaragossa

With a deep love of the Scottish hills I couldn’t go past running the Glencoe Marathon this year, road marathons don’t interest me but the trails certainly do and with Glencoe being billed as one of the most beautiful and challenging off-road marathons I couldn’t resist.  This is on the 1st October and I’d love to see some familiar faces joining me so if you fancy coming along then enter here and get a 10% discount off your entry (discount code: VHLcjGMG2017, valid until 31st May 2017 so be quick!).  Or take on the half marathon or 10k if you don’t really fancy the full 26.2 miles.

Glencoe Marathon (Photo from Glencoe Marathon)

I’m still throwing around some ideas for the other months of the year, and making good use of a fab new website Race Base World where you can search by month or location to find that perfect race, but this is certainly a good start to the calendar.  Let me know if you’ve done some of these races or if you are coming along to them this year, would love to hear all about them or say hi at the events.

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.