Great Glen Ultra

Named as one of Scotland’s toughest running challenges, the Great Glen Ultra starts at Fort William and covers 72 miles/116km and 9,300 feet/2,000m of climbing along the Great Glen Way all the way to Inverness.  It’s a long way to drive, let alone run!  I had a tough day out there on the route and its one race I’ll chalk up to experience, I can’t say I enjoyed much of it which I will put down to 4 main factors.  The route, the self-sufficiency/unsupported element, small field of runners and my own current state of fitness.  I’m going to giving you the nitty gritty of my experience of GG, missing any eloquent niceties and runners high garble because I had to dig really deep.  Whilst I will never again run this route, this I promise you, if you do want a challenge then its definitely one for you!

Iona & I at the 1am start line

After a bus trip down from Inverness at 9:30pm to the start line, runners congregate in The Moorings Hotel before we head out to Neptunes Staircase and take our marks.  After stern warnings of ‘don’t fall in the canal’ and ‘keep the loch on your right hand side’ and we are unceremoniously on our way.  The first 7 miles are along the canal so its easy to go out too quick but I manage to control myself and stick to a steady 9min/mile pace, the weather is tempered and I’m in my WAA skort and carrier shirt, with only gloves and a buff for extra warmth.  With the Scottish summer of late I’m carrying not only a waterproof jacket but also waterproof trousers and a spare set of gloves and shirt!  I’m glad its dark as the monotony of the canal can’t yet take hold on my mind although it already begins to bore me.  I was looking forward to day breaking and being greeted by a spectacular sunrise that might have got me motivated but alas it just discreetly became bright and that was that, a new day had begun and I was 20 odd miles into the day.  The first half of the route is relatively flat, which is because of the canals.  The 2nd leg of the canal coming into CP 3 nearly finished me off, how people can run the canal races I will never know, they just never seem to finish!  I think I’d spent the first 30miles just wanting to quit but I had to push on knowing that once I got halfway then it would be worth it to keep going.

My thoughts on the canal section

Once the route started with the unrelenting climbs it didn’t actually get that much more interesting, I found the trails along this section to be quite uninspiring (sorry Scotland you normally do this so well), the views of course from the top are always worth it but I wasn’t feeling the love today. There were no technical sections at all and all a bit too much road and canal for my liking.

Views of the loch below

Self sufficient and unsupported races are not an alien concept to me in itself having run Marathon Des Sables & Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon however this mixed with the very small field of runners meant that I spent most of the day completely on my own, and worse completely in my own head which was not a good place to be.  It’s strange but normally I enjoy running on my own but for this race due to my own current levels of fitness, I could have done with the company.  Thank goodness for the brilliant on-call support from the A-grade support crew of Dion, Rhianon and Suzan who were all at the end of the phone calling me with messages of support and not allowing me to quit when I was at my low ebbs.

Dawn breaking

The race consisted of 6 checkpoints that you could have drop bags at and one other where only water was provided (although the lovely crew there saved me with a small bag of Salt & Vinegar crisps-thank you from the bottom of my heart).  My favourite item in the drop bags this race was definitely chocolate milk, I downed one of those at each checkpoint and that kept me going  along with my Active Root sports drink.  The downfall of no support on such a long race is not seeing your loved ones along the way to give you hot food cheer you on and that is such a lovely mental boost that I really missed.  It was nice to see some familiar faces however in the crew, especially at CP5 where I had them all laughing and applauding after I’d pulled into the local chippy on the way and came through munching my hot salty chips.  It worked wonders as well as I then promptly passed 4 people on the way to the final CP.

Pine forest trails

The final 11 miles were a hard push, everything was hurting in my body and although I now knew I would finish I was eating humble pie as I gathered my thoughts and berated myself for not being as fit as I should be, or could be.  I can use the last 12 months of my life being turned upside down by Finding Gobi as an excuse; and I honestly would not change a thing as I am so happy in my life; but as a runner you know what you are capable of and I know I fell short of that.  I met my target time of getting in just under 16 hours but it hurt, it really hurt, and its a bitter pill to swallow.  It might sound facetious to non-runners to say I’m not fit enough but I know that I am capable of doing so much better and it only matters to me I know, but I consider my opinion pretty important!  So what am I going to do about it?  I’m going to recover wisely, I’m going to have some fun and go and run the Spartan Beast race in Edinburgh on 22nd July (if you fancy joining me its not too late and use ‘EDINBURGHSPARTAN’ to get 15% off your entry) and then I’m going to go and run even further and do my first ever 100 miler on the 5th August at the NDW100.

Finish line smiles & tears

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Running Together

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

Look

Sunsetting over the Eight Immortals

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

Ready together at the start line

Ready together at the start line with the mountains behind us

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

Taking time out for a selfie

Taking time out for a selfie

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

Mountains of Hong Kong

Mountains of Hong Kong

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

Runners traffic jam

Runners traffic jam

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

Dion descending one of the many downhill stairs

Dion descending one of the many downhill stairs

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

Running through one of the local villages

Running through one of the local villages

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

Running along the blue water

Waterside running

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

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

http://www.findinggobi.com

Smiling faces at the finish line

Smiling faces at the finish line

The Unexpected 100km

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writing stands for 'longevity'

Our calligraphy artwork – The writing stands for ‘longevity’

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

Enjoying our Hot Pot

Enjoying our Hot Pot

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

Sporting our Khata's at the Press night

Sporting our Khata’s at the Press night

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

Drop bags available all along the route which is fantastic!

Drop bags available all along the route which is fantastic!

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

With some of our fans

With some of our fans

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

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

All smiles in the sun early in the race

All smiles in the sun early in the race

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

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

Dion mid sandstorm

Dion mid sandstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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Wee Eck

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.

Return ferry crossing with Fiona with the sunsetting

Return ferry crossing with Fiona with the sunsetting

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.

Stunning start line amongst the Redwood trees

Stunning start line amongst the Redwood trees

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.

Nick and Fiona change over at Transition 1

Nick and Fiona change over at Transition 1

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.

Run Lucja, Run!

Run Lucja, Run!

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.

Finish line smiles

Finish line smiles

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.

Goody bag included a lovely medal made from the redwoods, keyring, wine, water and a t-shirt

Goody bag included a lovely medal made from the redwoods, keyring, wine, water and a t-shirt

*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!**