The answer lies in the journey – Marathon Des Sables 2016

The mystical shifting sands of the Sahara beckoned and lured me back for a 2nd time to compete in ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ Marathon Des Sables (MdS).  A 257km, the longest MdS distance in the 31 year history of the race, gruelling multi-stage, self sufficient race in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth – the Sahara desert.  Crossing salt flats, climbing jebels, and running through the never ending sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees under the scorching Moroccan sun and contending with billowing sand storms as if it wasn’t hard enough.  But why come back for a 2nd time you ask?  I had some ghosts to put to bed as I explain in more detail in my previous post.

After a typical Scottish winter it felt good to be back in Morocco; under a canopy of startling blue skies and wispy clouds the stark surroundings have started to feel strangely like home after quite a number of visits to this beautiful country for various types of holidays and adventures.  I for one couldn’t wait to join the other 1,250 runners from all different walks of life for one single purpose, to finish this challenge.

Ouarzazate sunset

Ouarzazate sunset

Leaving civilisation behind in Ouarzazate, the 6 hour bus ride out to the first bivouac (camp) site feels long even though en route I met my running idol, Fernanda Maciel.

Selfie with Fernanda!

Selfie with Fernanda!

Once we get there and settle into our tent that will house 7 of us (3 previous finishers among us), tent number 156, we know we still have a full day of administrative checks the following day to endure before we get anywhere near racing.  The 2 nights spent in the camp before the actual race start is a gentle tease as you slowly get further away from creature comforts, for the first night you still have all your belongings including phones and toiletries (important in exactly that order) and delicious meals are provided by the race organisation.  But then it starts to strip away, the day before the race you hand your luggage in and the race registration takes place of checking your kit and ECG/medical before handing you your race numbers and bag of salt tablets before it all suddenly starts to feel very real.

Dinner MdS style

Dinner MdS style

Every day the bivouac comes alive well before the sunrises with competitors unable to sleep they start stirring and faffing about in their bags, with many wasting precious energy being up so early and being ready well before time.  I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag until at least 7am before peering out and starting the morning rituals of changing into my progressively filthy kit and preparing my body to face the day ahead.  Being the only girl in the tent I was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

Queen of the Desert & tent 156

You can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale of this race, the ultimate show.  Patrick Bauer (race director) addresses the runners at the start before blasting out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and we are off with a helicopter swooping low over us all to film us all smiling and waving our way along our own personal highways to hell.  That song will always give me goose bumps whenever I hear it and with it comes memories flooding back of MdS.  It is without doubt the blue riband event of multi stages, nothing else compares.

MdS should not be under estimated, it is a humbling experience where the race kicks the stuffing out of you and redefines you whatever your experience and expectations.  I had previously placed 377th overall (27th female) in 2014 and initially had my goal set at a top 200 finish and aiming for a top 10 female finish; that was until I saw the strongest ever female field registered for 2016.  Never has there been so many females finishing in the top 200 of MdS, with 2 females in the top 20 alone, and a whopping 21 females in the top 200 (13 in top 200 in 2015 & 2014).  Wow!  Proud to be part of the ever strengthening women’s field, go girls!  I was delighted to finish in 147th overall as 13th female with the finishing times so close together it was a massive improvement on my first performance.

Stage 1 official video:

I loved the sand dunes this year!  They were as huge and as beautiful as I remember and there was still no end in sight but I ran them, in 2014 they near killed me and here in 2016 I ran them and came in 93rd place for day 1!  As my husband Dion (http://www.findinggobi.com) so eloquently put it in an email to me ‘Day 1 result, 93rd, Did I read that right…Holy Fuckballs!’  That result added pressure and I felt that the next few days where I slowly slipped back some positions but I will hold that result close to my heart forever, so proud!

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

13km of sand dunes on day 1 to start the day

MdS threw everything at us; dune after dune, endless salt flats and jebels (mountains) to climb that needed ropes to pull you up the last section mixed with heat that cooked you from the inside and sand storms that exfoliated your skin to inch of its life!  My body started to revolt from day 2 with nausea and legs like lead and I joined forces with gal pal Marina Ranger to find strength in companionship and we pushed each other through the good times and the dark times, finishing the rest of the race side by side.  I faced my own demons on the long stage with bouts of diarrhoea leading to heat exhaustion by the halfway point on this day but we soldiered on together with a lengthy conversation for the last 30km about why and what makes us do these things to our bodies.  We couldn’t answer that question at the time, maybe it was the fact that we were almost delirious from tiredness and the heat or that the answer lies in the journey.  We are all changed from the experience in some way or another and we dare dream even more to find that next escape and the freedom that comes from the adventure and challenge of pushing your body and mind to its limit.

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

X-Bionic twins soldiering through the desert

Preparing for this race takes months of meticulous planning and training.  It is not enough to just be able to run this race takes more, much more!  You need strength, fitness, mental tenacity and the ability to deal with a week in the most primitive of conditions where cleanliness and hygiene are non-apparent and you become the filthiest you have ever been in your life.  It’s harder than you can imagine lying there in an open tent being blasted by sandstorms filling every orifice of your body trying to recover from being out in brutally tough conditions for anything from 5-15 hours, needing to eat and sleep to be ready for the next day.  This is what starts to break people down bit by bit and what makes this race so totally unique and iconic.

With 3 MdS finisher medals to our household that previous experience helped me build a plan specific for MdS.  I ensured that I trained the hardest and the smartest I ever had, incorporating hills, speed, long runs, strength & conditioning and flexibility combined with fuelling my body with the best food to build it even stronger and healthier than ever before finishing off with some heat chamber sessions of up to 44 degrees to prepare my body for the sizzling temperatures it would face.  I kept focussed and trained my mind to keep that competitive & stubborn mindset (my husband is legendary at this!) to be able to push through the guaranteed pain & discomfort that would be faced throughout the race and I spent hours poring over my kit & food spreadsheet ensuring I had the best kit available and the best fuel for my body, at the lightest weights possible but without scrimping.

As a proud X-Bionic athlete I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else into the desert, it has seen me through every desert multi stage I have done with no issues of chafing, riding up and even in those extreme temperatures the kit doesn’t smell, it’s amazing stuff and I couldn’t recommend their kit highly enough for anyone coming to MdS or any other desert race, trust me it works!  I wore a Runderwear crop top which aside from being very comfortable meant that I didn’t have to tape up to avoid chafing as there was no chafe! At all!  Aside from your clothing shoes are imperative to this race with so many people suffering from horrible blister issues this is something you need to avoid, I came away with all 10 toenails intact, still perfectly pedicured, having experienced only one small blister on the side of my foot over the whole week.  How?  I wear New Balance Leadville shoes, initially they were half a size up to what I would normally wear but I now wear this as my normal size (don’t go too big a size up or your foot will slide around & cause friction), coupled with Injinji toe socks (I only had 1 pair for the whole week, who needs fresh socks?) and then a set of AR gaiters over the top.  You can’t do this race without gaiters and keeping the sand out is so important so I get my Velcro stitched on by a professional, Dave at Sandbaggers offer a gaiter fitting service, they are stitched onto your shoe in such a way that it doesn’t affect the shape of the shoe & they will not come loose, I saw a lot of people with issues caused by unprofessional gaiter fitting processes.

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

X-Bionic is the right kit in MdS

Sleep is such an important element of this race that this time around I sacrificed 200g to have both a pillow and a sleeping mat (trimmed down) to give myself the best chance of sleep.  I used the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 which felt very comfortable all week and managed to have my starting bag weight at 6.8kg (dry).

Food choices are individual but one thing that is the same for everyone is that whatever you take, you will get sick of eating it at some point so variety is the key.  I find that I prefer savoury items for both breakfast and for my snacks and dinner once I am in from the day, and grazing throughout the afternoon is better for me than a bigger meal, but I stick to gels and energy style drinks such as Torq energy and Hammer Perpetuem to supplement those when I can’t stomach the gels anymore.  I wouldn’t be without my For Goodness Shakes recovery powder either at the end of each day.  In the heat of the Sahara it is difficult to eat anything and I can’t get any sort of whole food such as bars down whilst I am out on the course.  My favourite tips from this year’s MdS would be to take some Oxo stock cubes to add to your water in the afternoon for a tasty salty treat (heats up nicely in the sun) and tea bags for ‘iced’ tea (not quite iced but tasted surprisingly good in tepid water) as you get so sick of drinking tepid water all day, so anything that will help you hydrate is good.

Marina & I on the finishing line webcam:

I promised myself out in the Sahara that this is the last time and have told both Dion and Marina that they must not allow me to sign up again, and I won’t……I don’t think.  It’s funny but you very quickly forget how much it hurts, how much it takes to do the MdS as soon as you step away and the afterglow of the event takes hold.

I love this quote from Jason Schlarb, it really sums up MdS!

 “This has been a miserable challenge, a misery train, but a life experience.” Jason Schlarb – 11th Man MdS 2016

Never again….or maybe just once more

“Never again! Never EVER again!” Those were the words uttered by my husband Dion and I back in 2014 after our first Marathon Des Sables as we trundled back to the bus, mentally battered and physically exhausted after running 250km through the Sahara desert. (read my blog on the experience here)

Smiles hiding the pain!

Smiles hiding the pain!

Fast forward to 2015 and Dion was back at MdS for round 2 after needing to put some demons to bed and improve on his 2014 108th position result; and improve he did to a sensational 32nd overall!  I on the other hand was still content in the ‘never again’ camp when he left for MdS2015, but something stirred in me whilst I watched the excitement unfold in the desert  and I couldn’t resist, and hence I was registered for MdS2016 with my first installment for the race paid before he was even back in the UK.

Why?  What makes someone want to go back to this grueling race dubbed as ‘The toughest footrace in the world’?  For me there is unfinished business; I finished 377th overall but it was the toughest week of my life and from Day 1 the race humbled me and crushed my confidence time in and time out until I was left using every ounce of my willpower to not quit and to run, walk and trudge my way to the finish line.  I felt such a mixture of emotions at the finish line that year, elated that it was over and that I could call myself a finisher but somehow disappointed in myself.  No one else was disappointed in me, no one even asks you where you came they are just amazed you finished it, but I was disappointed.  And that’s what has driven me back again.  I took motivation from watching Dion in 2015 as he went from strength to strength and as he totally smashed the long day where he led for most of it and my mind was made up.

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

Dion having way too much fun at MdS2015

It’s not the type of race that you can get caught up in the momentum and just frivolously decide to enter, this race costs money.  Lots of it!  £3k for the entry fee alone, and then you need to take into account the cost of the kit, food and the cost of your time to train.  Hours and hours of sacrifice are needed over the months preceding the event for training and planning and the closer you get to the event your whole life gets swallowed up by the MdS, this includes all your friends and family as you can think, or speak of nothing else apart from MdS so they unfortunately are in that cycle too.  Our house has become slightly MdS obsessed now with Dion already registered to go back in 2017 to push for a top 20 placing and who knows after that?!

I’m focused, I’m ready, I know what I’m in for which is why I am fluctuating between excitement and full blown s**t scared emotions in the space of a minute.  I’ve prepared well, I structured my own training plan specifically for MdS which kicked off the beginning of January, whilst of course keeping myself ‘ultra’ fit for the back end of 2015 but I was conscious that Jan-Apr is a long time to be focused and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.  I included a few local races to keep myself on track and monitor progress and the biggest change this time around is the heat chamber training.  I kicked off with some DIY heat chamber (spare room at home kitted out with industrial heaters and a treadmill) and Bikram yoga over Easter weekend and am now halfway through a few blocks of training at the climate control chamber at Napier University.  I am confident this will be a big help for the week as I recall from 2014 the searing, unrelenting heat was a major factor in my struggle.

Check out my heat chamber training:

My kit hasn’t changed much from 2014, I will be wearing X-Bionic again as there is just no better choice for the desert; it’s comfortable, doesn’t chafe, doesn’t stink and the technology of the material turns your sweat into cooling – now don’t be fooled that you feel you are running in air-conditioning but the material works very well and it is not stifling or uncomfortable at all.  I still have my ankle gaiters from last time and will be sticking with my New Balance Leadville’s to keep my feet in good condition and get me through the multi terrain unscathed.  I’ve since discovered Runderwear so will be wearing the Runderwear crop but not the briefs as X-Bionic is designed for the commando!  I’ve opted for the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20L bag which I have stripped off any excess straps for weight and of course have calculated my daily food rations in meticulous detail in a very in depth spreadsheet.  You are required to take a minimum of 2,000 calories per day, but I need more so I have got a range from 2,700 for most days to 3,800 on the rest day!  I’m also taking a couple more luxuries this time in the form of an inflatable Exped pillow and a lightweight jacket as sleep and warmth are essential for recovery so anything that will help me achieve that is worth the extra weight.  My final bag weight is 6.9kg dry.

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

Tackling heat & hills in the heat chamber

I’m heading out this time without Dion so that will be a different experience, I have never done a multi day race without him but I already know 2 of my Aussie tent mates, Pooley and Peter, from last time so there is comfort in familiarity even if you know that one of them snores!  I also have a great friend coming in the UK camp, Marina Ranger, who I have also been coaching leading up to the MdS so that will be great to have her out there to experience this amazing race with me, along with a load of other UK runners who I have gotten to know over the years at various races and through twitter connections leading up to MdS.  So I won’t be alone, but I will miss the security of having Dion beside me at the end of each day.

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

Coach Dion putting me through my paces

You can track me and any of the other runners from April 10th at http://live.marathondessables.com/ by signing up for live updates or watching the spot tracker and the finish line webcam each day.  I am #508 and would love to hear from you while I am out there to spur me on.  You will be able to email any of the runners during the race to give encouragement and I know from last time how important this is to my mental well being so email away!  I won’t be able to respond until I am back in civilisation but know now that I will be well and truly appreciating all the messages.

I’m looking forward to enjoying my time out in the Sahara desert, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings and the camaraderie of the whole experience whilst pushing my body to the limit.  I have my own inner goals to drive me for this race and I am going to give it all I’ve got so I can walk away with my head held high and proud of whatever I achieve.  To coin the phrase from Dion ‘Don’t leave any change on the table’ will be my motto!

508

Pioneering the Wilderness of Outer Mongolia

Mongolia is a rugged, land locked country nestled between China and Russia made up of vast eco regions and deserts and is truly one of the world’s last undiscovered travel destinations. When the opportunity presented itself to join in on an expedition to Outer Mongolia to experience not only the culture of a vastly different country but to also run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in temperatures reaching -40 degrees celsius along the frozen Tuul river, I couldn’t resist.

Mongolian Horseman

Mongolian Horseman

Stepping off the plane and driving into Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, is like going back to the 1920’s of the soviet regime.  The cars and the buildings combined with the stark white snowy landscape and heavy clouds of frozen pollution feels like entering a bygone era.  As I leave the taxi my skin immediately pulls away at the bone chilling cold that -40 degrees feels like and my nostril hairs freeze solid instantly which feels like someone is waxing the inside of your nostrils.  It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive in these conditions, let alone live a lifestyle.  Dark figures walk the streets with their faces unrecognisable under all the layers of hats, scarves and face coverings adorned with various types of real fur creating an eerie atmosphere.

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Ulaanbaatar Architechture

Mongolia has surprisingly managed to this day to remain relatively unscathed from the usual mass tourism influx and general westernisation even whilst offering an unparalleled opportunity to experience it’s harsh and brutal environment that is pristine and evocative at the same time. Mongolian people are renowned for having a tough exterior to match the weather but spend a little longer getting to know them and you find people with the warmest of hearts that love nothing better than sharing their food, ger (traditional round shaped dwelling used as a shelter by the Mongolian nomads) and local vodka with you.

Traditional Ger

Traditional Ger

Leaving the capital city and saying goodbye to all the mod cons life was however about to become even more extreme as we headed into The Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Northern Mongolia. Such extreme cold brings with it a range of dangers, at 40 degrees below you feel the cold in your lungs, you feel it touching your blood, it’s hard to take deep breaths of air this cold without reflexively coughing and it doesn’t take long for any exposed tissue including ears and eyeballs to freeze, dangerously freeze!

Stunning landscapes

Stunning landscapes

Relief from the cold is found inside the gers, heated internally by wood stove fires that burn 24/7 to create an environment that is delightfully warm and cosy.  In fact all aspects of life are carried out in the gers where we slept up to 10 people at a time; dressed, ate, drunk, sang and danced.  Life is basic with no electricity, running water, bathroom facilities or wifi which resulted in conversations fuelled by the purest of vodka long into the nights as the Mongolians won’t take no for an answer and consider it an insult if you turn down their non-stop offerings of it.

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

David & Tumerol cracking open our first of many bottles of vodka

With nightfall came the magic of star gazing, being so uninhabited and with no light distortion the stars shine proudly in the sky with the Milky Way providing a light show you can never tire of.

Mongolian night sky

Mongolian night sky (Photo-Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

A simple diet of bread, cheese, meat and root vegetables is the staple usually served in the form of either soup or casserole type dishes with local goat featuring heavily. In tough conditions there was understandably a noticeable lack of fresh fruit and leafy greens compared to what we would normally eat but cold weather calls for stodgy warming food.  Traditional dumplings quickly became my firm favourite along with the warm milky tea to warm you up when you came in from the cold.

Milk anyone?

Milk anyone?

The stillness of the isolation is broken regularly by the barking and howling of husky dogs that are eager to get to work pulling a sled along transporting people and goods over the frozen river ways and trails. The ger camps are protected by another breed of dog known as “Bankhar” dogs which thankfully keep the wild wolves at bay by their scent which apparently is enough to keep them away, hard to imagine when these dogs are some of the sweetest, friendliest dogs I’ve come across.  Whilst we didn’t encounter any wolves face to face we heard them in the distance and noted the tracks near our camps daily.

Husky sledding

Husky sledding

It’s phenomenal to watch the huskies being prepared for a journey and then taking control of your own team of 6-8 dogs pulling you along in a sled in a frenzy of energy and excitement.  The dogs are super competitive with each team constantly trying to overtake the next, taking shortcuts and cutting each other off whilst hurtling you along at speeds of up to 15km/hr.  The experience of husky sledding was the experience of a lifetime with a tick firmly placed against the bucket list after a magical ride gliding along the ice and watching the landscape whizz by.  A whole new meaning to the word picnic was created as we were treated to a delicious hot lunch of traditional dumplings, vegetables and hot tea, keeping ourselves warm with a fire directly on the frozen river whilst the dogs enjoyed a rest rolling around on the ice to cool down.

Picnic on the ice river

Picnic on the ice river

Myself and 9 other runners make up part of the 20 strong team that travelled to Mongolia to run the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon along the frozen Tuul River, for many of us our first ever experience of such arctic conditions. Acclimatisation prior to the race came in the form of wild golf where each contestant is given two shots to get their ball closest to the hole.  Beginners luck meant that I won this competition much to the dismay of the avid golfers in the group.

Snow Ninja's, who is who (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

Snow Ninja’s, who is who? (Marina, Lucja and Lenka)

An initial little 3 mile run to test our running kit near the camp was interesting to try with most runners commenting that the breathing element was quite difficult and we wondered how we would fare over the full 26.2 miles in a couple of days.  We were now keen and ready for the challenge we had all travelled so far to do, the ice marathon.

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo - Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Mongolia Ice Marathon Starting Group (Photo – Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

The weather conditions were near perfect for race day with clear skies and only a touch of wind with the temperature at the start recorded at -34 degrees.  To keep the competitors as safe as possible the route started and finished at our nomadic camp following trails before turning onto the ice river surrounded by mountains on either side.

Mid run photo!

Mid run photo!

The surroundings were pristine and I felt like an explorer off into the unknown with the ice singing under my feet and echoing musically in the trees.  The initial sounds were unsettling hearing the ice shifting and moving underneath you with the occasional crack of ice where my foot would drop down an inch, just enough to bring my attention back to full focus, with my Due North ice grips over my Brooks Pure Grit shoes working their magic to keep me gripped firmly to the slippery surface of the frozen river. It was magical to weave along the path of the frozen river passing the occasional local on horseback or small herds of cattle that were somehow grazing on goodness knows what in all that ice.  I don’t know who stared more at each other whether me at the locals in their interesting fur costumes or them at me in my X-Bionic snow outfit.  I was always conscious of the threat of wolves in the area but the comforting sounds of husky teams barking and howling in the area alleviated that.

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham - Digitalpict Photography)

Action shot (Photo by Johnny Graham – Digitalpict Photography)

It was a great satisfaction and relief to finish the race with no issues from the cold but even better to cross the line as 1st female in 4h19, 4th overall behind Doc Andrew Murray 1st in 3h07, Doug Wilson 2nd in 3h42 and Paul Dunstan in 4h12.  More great results followed with all except one completing the event safely with all fingers and toes still intact with only a minor case of frostbite affecting 2 of the runners.  There were a few hours of concern when one of the competitors was unaccounted for but was thankfully found safe and sound shortly after nightfall.  That situation resonated within me and no doubt all the runners as we contemplated how challenging these events are and the threat is ever present of things going wrong, making you think of loved ones at home that your heart ached for.

Frozen face post marathon

Frozen face post marathon

Surprisingly the temperatures were not the hindrance I initially thought they would be, especially in relation to my fingers which stayed toasty the entire race but it was the 1500m of altitude we were running at mixed with the frozen vapour and nose secretions that made breathing very difficult.  The biggest surprise came the following days where all the runners felt none of the usual aches pains commonly known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), particularly after running on a hard impact surface such as ice, which I put down to the cold temperatures preventing the muscles from inflaming.

Coming across a local enroute

Coming across a local enroute

The race is more than an event it’s an entire adventure, put on by seasoned expedition leader Dave Scott of Sandbaggers (who is also the Honorary Scottish Consul for Mongolia) and his local support crew, in a vast and rugged landscape which brings a special and unique feeling of solidarity and camaraderie with the entire team of runners and supporters alike that have developed into strong bonds. It’s an experience to challenge your mind and body and be rewarded with everlasting memories of a beautiful country.

Friendships to last a lifetime

Friendships to last a lifetime

Just hanging about in the snow

Just hanging about in the snow with new and old friends

Training for the unknown – Genghis Khan Ice Marathon

Cold & I don’t really see eye to eye, so when David Scott (Sandbaggers) and Doc Andrew Murray approached me mentioning the two magical words; adventure & challenge; with an invitation to join them on the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon in Mongolia I jumped at the chance to run in -40 degrees!

Why?  Because it’s a challenge and I love a challenge! A chance to explore a completely iconic destination with an entirely unique culture with scenery like no other place I have ever been before while challenging the body and the mind in my favourite way, running.

Icy - Photo from Sandbaggers

Icy conditions in a stunning landscape – Photo from Sandbaggers

Who – Obviously David and Andrew, but we will also be joined by my dear friend and partner in adventure crime, Marina Ranger, and gal pal Lenka Istvanova.  As well as Shona Thomson, Maurice Donohue and Doug Wilson.

What – Starting from the iconic Genghis Khan statue in the plains east of Ulan Bataar we will find our way onto the frozen tul river from which point we will run, in expected temperatures of -40 degrees along the frozen river finishing up in a local nomadic camp where we will recuperate with some warming fermented mares milk (WTF!).  A lot of the route is impassable by vehicles so we will be supported by teams of husky dogs which will also aid in ensuring the local wildlife, aka wolves, keep well away (otherwise my rucksack has a whistle, that will work right!?).  We will also have the opportunity for even more fun when we tackle the husky sleds ourselves, race local mountain horses and even play a spot of wild golf.

Husky Sledding - Photo from Sandbaggers

Husky Sledding – Photo from Sandbaggers

Where – Mongolia!  During the week we will have the experience of sleeping out in a Mongolian Yurt (Gur as it is known in Mongolia) which are apparently designed to keep you warm and withstand the coldest of winters.  I certainly hope so otherwise Marina and Lenka will find me cocooned between them to keep warm!

Mongolian Ice Camp - Photo from Sandbaggers

Mongolian Ice Camp – Photo from Sandbaggers

When – 23rd – 30th January 2016

How – That is the interesting bit!  Having never run in arctic conditions such as that it has meant a lot of research for me into how I can ensure I not only cope in those conditions but be able to run a marathon competitively.  Let’s break it down into the main two parts, training & kit.

Training – I have just stuck to my normal training regime as I would do leading up to an ultra.  My average week consists of about 50 miles of running, made up of a speed session, hill repeats, hilly 7-9 mile run, 6 mile tempo run, long run and whatever else happens along with crossfit and yoga once a week for strength work.  It hasn’t been stuck to entirely, leading up to Christmas the mileage has dropped to maybe 30 miles a week some weeks and the eating habits (as well as drinking) have suffered somewhat, but I am conscious that from January I have a 3.5 month build up to Marathon Des Sables so all in good time.  I have made sure I have got outside in the cold, although to date we have been having an unusually mild winter which normally I would appreciate but I was banking on a cold Scottish winter to acclimatise.

But how will this get me ready to run on ice?  Have you ever tried running on ice?  You know when the footpaths freeze over and you hit a black spot of ice, well I was assuming it was going to be like that, for the entire length of a marathon.  On advice from David I got myself a set of Due North ice grips to put on over my normal trainers (Brooks Pure Flow 3) and  I managed to get myself an opportunity to run on the St Andrews Xmas ice rink to test them out.  A special thanks to Mark, Fraser and Ruth at Underbelly for allowing me this privilege, a strange request at first but they welcomed my craziness and on my birthday, myself and fellow runner Maurice, hit the ice!  See the action here on STV (available to view until 30th December 2015).  I am pleasantly surprised that the grips work a treat, they grip really well and you can actually run properly so that is a big relief.

 

First tentative steps onto the ice

First tentative steps onto the ice

Kit – Utmost importance for any event, but I am taking extra concern for my extremities as I don’t want to end up with frostbite.  I suffer from Raynaud’s as well so my hands get cold even when I’m running in a balmy 10 degrees, so my biggest investment was in gloves, I’ve gone for a pair of PH Designs Kappa mitts as they are also waterproof so will no doubt get some wear out in the Scottish mountains too.  These will be worn with a pair of base layer gloves (eGlove) underneath and I’m going to slip in disposable Hot Hands Instant Hand Warmers, I tried them out the other day and they get seriously hot!  I’ll probably get these into my shoes and possibly on my nipples (girls you know what I’m talking about here with freezing nips!).

Action Shot

Action Shot

My sponsor X-Bionic have been fantastic in providing me with great kit that I am sure will keep me toasty warm.  Potentially looking at 2 pairs of socks, but one pair for sure will be the X-Bionic Ski Metal which reflect body warmth made with the finest merino wool.  For leggings and top I have the Energy Accumulator series and will layer the top with a 2nd Accumulator top and finish the layers with the Beaver top which is half as thick as a traditional fleece but still manages even better insulation.  I will wear just the one pair of leggings or throw on a 2nd pair over the top, the 2nd pair will just be usual running leggings from Mirelle.   I will be wearing a balaclava to ensure all my extremities are fully covered, and have my Soma cap to hand in case the full face cover is not needed, along with a buff for my neck.

Stay tuned after January to find out how the team and I get on over there.  No doubt there will be loads of great photos to share with you all.

Fun & Games on the ice

Fun & Games on the ice

Animo Transvulcania

Animo (Spanish) for spirit & courage

Courage and spirit are most certainly what’s needed for this race that is a true test of strength and true grit by all that venture to even the start line. Transvulcania is a 73.3km single stage race set on the volcanic island of La Palma, with 8,525m of climbing, reaching its most vertical point at Los Muchachos at 2,426m (57.8km into the race) with temperatures in the 30’s it tests the body’s ability to cope with both heat and altitude whilst pushing quad & calf burning climbs and descents.

Brilliant idea for races!

Brilliant idea for races!

But it’s precisely the brutality of the race that makes it all the more rewarding. To be fit enough to be able to enjoy this experience of exploring this stunning island on foot and finish the race is reward enough. After having run my first mountain race in March, Transgrancanaria, finishing just half hour an hour before cut off my goal was to finish this race strong and well before the cut off time of 17hours. I had 3 goals in my head before I started as I think for a race of this magnitude whilst you want to be positive you also need to be very realistic, so I planned for either a 10.5 hour finish, 12 hour or 14 hour finish. Failing any of that I would of course take a finish! Having learnt some lessons from TGC(read my blog here), I came armed to this race with poles. I had always looked at them as cheat sticks which is the reputation they have in the UK and are even banned in a lot of races, but in Europe they are widely accepted and encouraged and if they’re all using them then it’s good enough for me. I’m not entirely sure of the science and actual percentages to back it up but they are there to help your posture and muscle preservation by distributing the weight better, giving you better stability and when all else fails you can lean on them when you are exhausted! I would not have made it down the final descents in one piece without them and now swear by them for mountain races. I used Mountain King Trail Blaze which are super lightweight and fold up nice and easily for easy stashing, not that I stashed mine I found them quite easy to run with as well. Some of the runners could use some lessons in pole etiquette though, be mindful of people swinging them about randomly, stabbing and/or tripping you up. Poles were the only thing I changed from TGC as I am pretty set on my usual kit which is listed below.

The race itself is great value for money with the entry fee at 90 euros. Obviously the costs add up with travel (my flights were about £350 all up, accommodation (60 euros a night shared) and extras of course. It’s not the most straight forward place to get to so wherever you fly from you are going to have to connect. I flew with Ryan Air from Edinburgh to Tenerife South, bus up to Tenerife North and then across to La Palma on a local flight. This was a girly holiday with fellow gal pal ultra runner Marina Ranger and we decided to stay in Los Llanos which was also the location for the pre race registration and most importantly the finish.

Registration was simple, open for 3 days prior it was relaxed and not too busy with no queues, quick and easy we showed some ID got our number and spent some time checking out the expo stands, of which we both purchased the race tattoo which was really helpful throughout the race to check what was happening with the elevation and when your next checkpoint would be.

Registration

Registration

The last thing you need after a massive race is logistical problems to get to your bed so the plan to stay there worked well, though if I came again I would probably plan to leave Los Llanos and move to Tazacorte the following day as the beach is there, but saying that the regular buses were only just over a euro to get there and our apartment (Apartment Adjovimar) was fabulous, with a great little pool and out door area for relaxing in, popular with runners as it is only 1km from the finish I would ensure you book early. The beauty of an apartment is being able to have a fridge and prepare your own food which is handy for that early morning 3am taxi to the start line and of course post race food. Cheese & prosciutto rolls for breakfast did the job and super noodles with a recovery shake and a beer chaser were the order of the day once we’d finished. It’s always imperative to have the post race food organised as believe me the last thing you feel like is going out or finding a shop to buy food. The organisation has buses that leave at 3am from Los Llanos bus station to take you to the start line however we decided to get an extra hour in bed and share a taxi which was 45 euros between us.

Ready to rock n roll

Ready to rock n roll

The race starts at 6am so it’s still dark and a bit fresh but I decided to tough it out in my race kit rather than taking any extra layers, but a bin bag would have been nice! Superb atmosphere to start and the place was rammed with runners, we headed down to the start line with the intention to get ourselves in closer to the front but it was so rammed we ended up probably three quarters in the pack. The race kicks off at a charge around the lighthouse and then it becomes very narrow very quickly bringing the pack to a crawling pace.

Fuencaliente lighthouse - the start

Fuencaliente lighthouse – the start

You have no choice but to be patient, conserve your energy and keep out of harms way as there a people pushing and shoving with poles everywhere, the main objective is to keep moving forward and not fall over. A few runnable sections but most of the way to CP1 is a walk. I get there in 1h19 for 6.1km climbing 709m, I made sure I ate (marzipan balls with fruit & nuts) whilst walking, sticking to one item per hour to keep the energy up whether I feel like it or not along with a salt tablet every hour. The CP is busy and the crowds are tremendous, the whole village at Los Canarios has come out! 2nd CP is another climb of roughly 1,200m over 10km which takes just shy of 2hrs, again this is mainly a walk with some running in patches.

The big crush - me in pink!

The big crush – me in pink!

The next 8km to CP3 El Pilar are my favourite, dropping gently about 500m it is on beautify pine forest trails where you can really get a wriggle on, I do this in about an hour and you can hear the aid station a good 10mins before you get there, music blasting and plenty of crowds to cheer. This is the start location of the marathon which started at 9am and finishes in Tazacorte, it is also the finish line for the half marathon that starts later in the day from the lighthouse. From El Pilar it’s 19km of what looks like flat on the elevation profile for the first 7km to a minor aid station and then another 10km of uphill to reach Pica de la Cruz and takes me about 3hrs. Again all the while eating, having finished my marzipan for my first 3hrs it’s time to switch to gels.

Calf breaking climbs!

Calf breaking climbs!

There’s some mistake here on the details and the checkpoint ends up being 4km further which means I, and many others run out of water, a mistake they have already announced they will rectify for next year. I survive, and I mean survive as the heat is really bearing down on us now and altitude is causing everyone to struggle for air, with many including myself stopping regularly enroute to get the heart rate down. I ask 2 separate passer-bys for water which thankfully they give as I’m dry and pretty disturbed by the amount of people I have seen so far vomiting and/or passing out and being stretchered off. The medical support is everywhere though and they are talking to each and every runner to check with are ‘bien’ – good. Yes 👍’great!’ I keep responding! I make the CP, thinking it would be Los Muchachos already but alas it’s not, that’s another 7km to go taking us to the highest point of the race. 2h20 to do 7km! It’s a slog, but at no point do I consider its too tough for me, I’m hurting but loving every minute! I just can’t explain how awe inspiring the views are, you are just going to have to see it for yourselves but I will say it’s magical, at one point we were running above the cloud line, it was like something out of a movie and the landscape is phenomenal. Speechless! Or is that breathless from the altitude!?

High above the clouds

High above the clouds

Los Muchachos is busy and I waste no time filling up water and devouring some water melon, orange segments and coke, this is the only food I take from the CP’s to substitute my marzipan, gels and Hammer perpetuem. Eat the watermelon! OMG! So good! It’s 11km with a severe drop of 1,300m to El Time and on legs that are shot already this steep technical descent is murder even with poles (I think I’d struggle even on fresh legs), some people run past me obviously much more confident on this very technical terrain and I reach the CP in another 2hrs.

Los Muchachos

Los Muchachos

From there it’s the final drop to Tazacorte beach which I have been able to see since we started descending trying to tempt you down so it’s another 7km with 1,150m drop, again mostly very technical so I’m reduced to a hobble but I enjoying running the steep road. There are some crazy drunk locals out supporting offering their homemade wine to runners, I think why not and down a shot at their avid encouragement. I figure I can’t get any slower maybe this is the rocket fuel I need and I reach Tazacorte in 1h 40 to a heroes welcome. The bars are heaving down here and it s a full dance party atmosphere, people are high fiving you and screaming out your name and shouting ‘Animo, Animo!!’ which you hear all along the way along with ‘Vamoos’ (depart hurriedly).

Selfie before the final descent

Selfie before the final descent

The last 5km section takes me 2hrs, aptly named the ‘sting in the tail’ starts with a few hundred metres in a sandy riverbed with about 500m of a nasty climb back up, here I see more people passing out, with Marina telling me later she sees the same guy I saw passed out then being airlifted out! When you finally reach the top, there is a flat road section to the finish which must be only about 1.5km but feels like forever, the street is lined with people and they are all cheering loudly and high fiving you so you can’t walk even though your legs want you too after that last climb. You see the big Transvulcania sign ahead but it’s not the finish that’s another 300m, turn right, turn left and there it is, the red carpet lined with throngs of supporters. I’ve done it, I’m a super legend! High five, high five! They’re all shouting and cheering me on, arms raised I cross in 14h 31min. What a day! I lean on my poles for a second before I spot a bench with a spare spot between 2 finishers, I sit and burst promptly into tears! Emotional the runner beside me gives me a congratulatory hug with tears in his own eyes. It’s not 2 minutes later and my running pal from TGC, Luis, finishes as well. I’m quickly on the phone to Dion I’m so excited I need to hear his voice but it’s so loud there I can hardly hear him, I hear his super proud of me and that Marina is only 20 odd minutes behind me, so I get back to the finish line to see her cross in 14h 54m! So proud of her as she has improved so much over the 7 months I’ve been working with her putting together a specific training plan first tailored to her Kalahari Race last year and then leading up to this incorporating specific training to get her mountain ready. I seem to be training her too well as she’ll be beating me next!

Finished!

Finished!

We’re elated to be finished before dark, just, and head over to make use of the physios for a quick rub down before heading back to the apartment to get cleaned up and start the recovery process. Sleep does not coming easy that night with our bodies full of adrenalin we stay up chatting for a few hours before a restless sleep on very tired legs keeping us both awake. We spend many an hour talking about the race over the next 3 days we have on La Palma whilst enjoying some well deserved RnR.

Recovery La Palma style

Recovery La Palma style

We hire a car to make the trip back up to Los Muchachos to see it with fresh eyes and whilst there go for a little run. We can’t believe the effect the altitude has on our breathing and still can’t believe how high up we were, even the car struggled to get up there! Recovery has been great, the legs feel very good not that I’ve really tested them as yet. I’ve made sure I’ve drunk lots of water, eaten well and spent a lot of time relaxing by the pool with my feet up and a few dips in the pool. Post race I had my recovery shake within about 2hrs of finishing and ate my super noodles before bed.

The only difference to my normal routine is that I’ve tried CurraNZ which are tablets made from black currant extract, a high potency anthocyanin/antioxidant superfood which is supposed to aid performance and recovery by reducing muscle soreness. It’s the first time I’ve used them so it’s really hard to compare as this race doesn’t compare to anything (TGC I had terrible recovery as I was pretty much straight on a flight!) but I am feeling very good. So…..I’m going to try them again for my next race and see. As advised by the guys at Totally Fuelled (who by the way will give you 15% off any order if you use the code ‘dutchie’ valid until April 2016) I took one tablet a day 3 days before the race, one 2hrs before the race and 2 tablets during (1 every 4-5 hours of exercise). Only time and a few more races will tell. If you’re looking for a challenge that’s as much awe inspiring as it is demanding then this race is for you. It is not to be taken lightly though with 402 Did Not Finish (DNF) out of 1496 starters gives this race a 26% DNF rate, so even if you consider yourself a serious contender, this race is really about listening to your body and getting to that finish line!

Finishers medal & shirt

Finishers medal & shirt

Kit list

Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta pack (my review here)

2 x Ultimate Direction soft flasks (420ml each)

1 x Salomon soft flask (500ml) used for Hammer Perpetuem

Salomon lightweight XA cap

Bliz sunglasses

X-Bionic Trick top

Running Bare sports bra

Lululemon pace setter skort (commando)

Injinji toe socks

New Balance Leadville shoes

Mountain King Trail Blaze poles

Black Diamond head torch

Garmin Fenix 2 watch

Mystique of the Mohican

When our friend, Peter (Princess) Joergensen, suggested we join him on a trip to America to run the Mohican 100 we didn’t really take into account how soon it was after running Marathon Des Sables but wanted to give it a go. And let’s face it, any excuse that results in ending up in New York & Philadelphia for shopping and food is a winner in my book. So the plans were set and we were off.

My training wasn’t tailored for a 100 mile event, with MdS in April that was the event I was training for, so coming back from that was more about recovery and holding my level of fitness which I hoped would be enough to get me through my first 100 miler. I probably averaged about 50 miles a week between April and June, with one week including running the Edinburgh Marathon as a training run, in particular practising using gels for race fuel which I hadn’t done for quite a while due to stomach upsets in the past.

The Mohican 100 is the 5th oldest ultra running race in the USA, with many claiming it is tougher than Western States (obviously I am not qualified to comment….yet!). It is an automatic full points qualifier for UTMB which goes to show how tough it actually is. Traversing 95% trail along a challenging course made up of 4 laps (2 x 26.8 miles & 2 x 23.2 miles) winding its way through the lush 5,000 acres that makes up the Mohican Memorial State Forest, it has to be the most beautiful trail I have ever had the privilege to run. Absolutely stunning, mostly single track trails through heavily covered woods. Switch back trails taking you up roughly 1,000m ascent (and descent) every lap through gorgeous forestry, past lakes, under waterfalls, jumping fallen logs, running along rivers and even including a hand over foot climb up a massive set of tree roots!

We chose to stay in the nearby town of Mansfield, which was only about a half hour drive away, but in hindsight would definitely arrange to stay in the Mohican Adventures Cabins located directly across from the finish area to make it even easier. The race started at 5am on Saturday 20th June, so alarms were set for 3:30am to ensure we were at the race start in time. The weather was quite difficult to judge with some light rain to welcome us at the start but it was already so muggy! I decided to stick to my X-bionic shorts with a short sleeved top and donned a buff for my head to keep the cool off. I shouldn’t have bothered with the buff, within 5 minutes of running I was absolutely dripping in sweat and the buff was off and put away for good. There was loads of runners starting with just a pair of shorts not even a shirt so that is a pretty good indication of how warm it was, due to the dense cover the sun never really came through the trees in full light so the sunglasses I had in my bag were a waste.

A head torch was needed for the first hour and a half especially with the forest being so dense it did take a while for the light to be strong enough to turn the torch off for good. But oh my; how beautiful it was as the light came through. Absolutely stunning, the forest was shrouded in mist and had an ethereal quality about it and this was certainly the most magical part of the day.

I ran the first lap strong, I had my race plan of taking on fuel every half an hour worth 30g of carbs to keep me going and this certainly worked for me. I had a mixture of gels to take with different flavours from Torq, High 5 and Hammer, along with a few ‘real food’ options such as Torq bars and bounce balls along with a few treats like Doritos crisps and a donut (planned for later in the evening). There were checkpoints roughly every 5 miles, all of which were really well stocked with ice cold water, Hammer Heed, coke, ginger ale and a variety of snacks such as orange segments, pretzels, sweets, turkey sandwiches etc and of course Hammer gels (the event was sponsored by Hammer) and all the checkpoint volunteers were super friendly and always willing to help.

The route was absolutely beautiful, I made sure I was looking around and soaking up the beauty of it all. The ascents and descents were steep though and I started to regret my choice of shoe size. With the humid heat my feet were swelling a lot more than I have experienced ever before (even in MdS and Kalahari I didn’t have this problem) and this was causing my left big toe to be very sore, meaning I was running on the side of my foot to try and take the pressure off my toe, causing then a sore ankle, all compounded on the descents.

Covered Bridge was the 3rd checkpoint along the trail loop which stored your other drop bag ensuring I could maintain my nutrition plan by picking up my packed mini bags I had prepared with gels/food I had brought with me. It also meant I didn’t need to take long at checkpoints or eat much of the checkpoint food provided, just the odd orange segment which tasted a treat in the heat.

The temperature was certainly rising and the humidity was high, I’m taking a guess the temperature would have been in the 30’s with about 90% humidity so it was thirsty work which was a bit of my downfall. I was running with my Ultimate Hydration Ultra Vesta which had the supplied 10oz bottles (284ml) on each side. One one side I was using this for purely water and on the other I alternated between Torq Energy and Hammer Perpetuem (both high carb energy drinks) so my water intake was too low, I was constantly running out of fluid before each checkpoint, and even though I was drinking a cupful or two of water at each checkpoint as well I still ended up dehydrated through my second lap.

The laps started and finished at the Mohican Adventures checkpoint so this was the location for the other drop bag, so on finishing the first lap in about 5.5 hours, as 2nd lady I found out whilst there, I restocked with my fuels and headed off to plenty of cheers of support. Still feeling strong I headed out feeling great and positive that I would certainly be completing this race. About halfway through the 2nd lap my ankle/toe was starting to become increasingly painful and mixed with the dehydration things were starting to look desperate. I was still in 2nd lady position at Covered Bridge (41.8 miles) but soon after that I started to slow dramatically. When I got to Hickory Ridge checkpoint (47.3 miles) I was struggling. I sat in a chair, which is a complete no-no at this point and had a cup of the most delicious salty potato soup to try and kick start things. It was here that I started to get overtaken by quite a few runners. A lovely lady at the checkpoint recognised me, and knew that Dion, my husband, was ahead of me. She said that she had seen him at this checkpoint but he wasn’t looking good and was possibly going to drop which was a shame as he was in 7th place after 50 miles. Little did I know at this stage that he had been peeing blood again (he had the same issue at MdS). I think hearing that switched a little mental switch in my head and the last 6 miles back to the start/finish were a long battle of my thoughts; should I drop or shouldn’t I? I had to grab a stick along the way to help me get down the hills as my toe just couldn’t take any more pressure. 2 1/2 hours to do those 6 miles and I made it back, completing lap 2.

Dion is super positive for me, telling me to eat and drink something, sit for a bit and think about what I really want to do. Always thinking that there is no point doing lap 3 if you can’t do lap 4. I thought back to my last 6 miles and how long and painful that was; I could do one more lap I thought, but not two. So I dropped! There is roughly a 40% drop rate on this race, and as we sat waiting for Princess to come through, we witnessed lots of people dropping out as well. During conversations through the race with other runners it became quite apparent that most people were here on their 2nd/3rd attempt as a minimum so I didn’t feel too bad about the decision. Live to run another race right?

We sat for hours waiting for Princess, we’d eaten the food in our drop bags and decided to get some real food while we were waiting. It was getting late and soon it would be completely dark and there certainly weren’t many food options locally so Dion headed off to the local Pizzeria and came back with a massive, delicious pizza and a couple of beers which we enjoyed while watching the fire flies flutter about in the remaining light. It was truly amazing to watch other runners coming through after their 3rd laps now, looking strong and certainly heading out for strong finishes. Totally inspiring!

We were getting very worried about Princess and were constantly doing laps in the car up to a few spots we knew you crossed to see if we could find him and finally we spotted him so I got out and walked/hobbled with him to the start/finish again where he also decided to drop. He was asleep in the car before we had driven even 5 minutes.

The decision was right to drop out, this was never my ‘A’ race so I didn’t have a desperate need to finish and I was always mindful that I have a 100km race, Race to the Stones, on the 19th of July (less than 4 weeks after) to run as part of The North Face Ultra team so I also wanted to remain ready for that. But I can tell you now that this will be my ‘A’ race in 2016. I’m going back, in fact all 3 of us are going back to finish this bad boy and get that belt buckle; stronger, fitter and wiser than before! It doesn’t work in my plans for next year as it is too soon after Transvulcania which I have already registered for so it will have to be the year after, but I will be back and then it will not beat me!

What a steep learning experience the race was. It has certainly cemented my thoughts on nutrition and I am really pleased with how that worked for me so I will be taking that learning with me forward to future races. Of course with every race you learn something more about yourself and come back with a renewed vigour to attack your training plan to make yourself an even better and more competent runner. And as a race recommendation, would I recommend it? You bet I would, it was fantastically well run and I would highly recommend giving it a try to win the holy grail of ultra running – a belt buckle, something that alludes me for now but stay tuned for the next attempt!

MdS – What worked well & not so well

I am a Marathon Des Sables finisher! I successfully completed the gruelling challenge and after months of meticulous planning, it’s now time to understand what worked for me and what didn’t. If you are planning to do this event or something similar, I hope this information may be of use to you. Se my original posting here for a detailed kit & food list of what I took.
Was my training right? I had done the training, and I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, and it wasn’t enough. Not to finish how I wanted, yes I finished which can never be taken away, but maybe my training wasn’t quite right. I did the mileage that’s for sure, you can see that on my training plan, but there wasn’t enough hills (both as hill repeats and long distance miles in the hills), there was a lack of strength and conditioning and the lack of heat acclimatisation was an obvious hindrance to me as the heat really affected me. I spent too much time running on roads (the dark winter nights & mornings the main cause) which has of course helped me, I would have been worse off without all those miles, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and my advice to anyone taking this on would be hills, hills and more hills. 6 stages is a long time and you need to be consistently strong, recover well (which I felt I did, that routine won’t change) and be ready to change your game plan mid race if needed. Get into any dunes and run and run and run! If you don’t have dunes, then hills to build up the power in your legs to get you through the leg strength sapping dunes.
Food was better this time around, it still needs improvement. Still too much sweet, I didn’t enjoy the muesli or the Pro Bars for breakfast and would look to change this to cous cous. I would swap out the tracker and Eat Natural bars for more Pepperami (they were a Godsend and I can eat them all day) and the tuna packs were a great boost too as they are wet, so quite easy to stomach. I’m keen to try out some gels again as Dion found these worked really well for him and gave him good bursts of energy along the way. I took 2 Oxo stock cubes and made a couple of cups of hot stock in the afternoons which was a tasty, salty drink which made you feel good and also quickly got some fluid in. For the little they weigh, I’d be taking one for each day of different flavours. Biltong is also a great source of protein and a tasty snack, my friend, Philip Boardman, who I had met at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon had brought me some over from South Africa.
I was happy with my clothing. X-Bionic is brilliant and I wouldn’t look to change this. It offers great protection for your body in terms of both from the sun but I also had absolutely no chafing. The X-Bionic clothes keep you cool, but I also noticed during the night stage the top was also working at keeping my body warm as the temperatures dropped. My Raidlight hat with the neck flap was great in protecting my neck, I tried taking the flap off for the charity walk thinking I’d be ok, but quickly put that on as you could feel the sun beating down in minutes! My New Balance Leadville shoes did the job again, I had them in a half a size up from my normal running shoe, and the AR Desert gaiters from South Africa were great. No sand got in to cause irritation, and they lasted the distance. I wore Injinji toe socks which work well for me (zero blisters) and at the start of the race I had Compressport calf guards on as well, but due to the high extremes of heat mixed with the constriction of the calf guards, my legs, including my ankles, broke out in a horrible heat rash. I ditched the calf guards after the long stage and it seemed to help.
I didn’t seem to find the Raidlight Olmo 20L pack as comfortable as the 30L Raidlight I used in Kalahari. It seemed to sit too high on my waist, rather than on my hips, so more of the pack weight was on my shoulders, so even though my pack was a kilo lighter, it felt heavier; or was it just the other elements of heat & sand confusing my feelings? The drink bottles again worked great for me.

Ready to go - full kit rehearsal still at home

Ready to go – full kit rehearsal still at home

It was a bit cool at night and although I had a long sleeved skin, I ended up nabbing a long sleeve thermal top from tent mate Cheryl on day 1 when she was dumping weight from her pack, which I used every night. I had my buff which worked 4 fold; as a neck buff during the day if needed (I didn’t this time), wore it as a boob tube in the afternoon to save wearing a bra, then it was an eye mask early evening while people were messing around with torches, then finally as head cover during the night when it got cold. I also had a pair of little shorts and 3/4 compression tights for the afternoon/evenings. You could just wear your race kit all day and night but it is ‘refreshing’ to change into something else for a while. Some people take underwear and spare pairs of socks, I don’t run in underwear as that prevents chafing, and I wore the same pair of socks all week with no issues. My socks were walking themselves by the end of the week however! They looked very cute standing up all on their own two feet!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

My Thermarest sleeping mat was as ‘comfortable’ as it could be, although it’s noisy when rolling around on it; that is until it got a puncture on the night of the long stage which was rather annoying and ultimately very uncomfortable for the last couple of nights sleep. The lack of pillow was also uncomfortable after the first few nights. I had been using my pack as a pillow, but then it started to get too empty so then used my kit, but that wasn’t enough, and it stunk! So I need to find a solution to this, possibly going back to the z-lite mat or similar and I have heard of someone using a condom blown up each night as a pillow….might be one to try out.
I added a small bottle of antiseptic hand gel to my pack before the start and was grateful for that small touch of hygiene throughout.
It is always interesting see what other people wear and bring with them, but it is all pretty similar in the end.  I hope these thoughts are of some help to you with your own plans.