About smilersteve

Ultras, mountains, running & anything extreme or bonkers. Not considered normal by some! Mountain and ultra runner based in Milton Keynes, UK. I've run over 30 ultras all over the UK and various countries in Europe including France, Italy and Switzerland. #neverenough

Harder than a 30 miler should be! Punchbowl marathon – 14th Feb 2016

2016 is a big year for me with seven ultras booked and the legendary UTMB as my A race in August. With a total of three ultras booked in January and February I decided to use these races as a chance to experiment a little – with alternative nutrition, pacing strategy and also to test how long I need between long races to properly recover.

The Punchbowl marathon is an event organised by the Surrey branch of the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) each year. 20 mile and 30 mile options are offered and typically for an LDWA event entry is very cheap. £6 I believe in this case. The event starts in a village called Witley just off the A3. This year the event was held on 14th February – two weeks after my fast run at the 48 mile Peddars Way Ultra. I had a feeling it was going to be an interesting day to say the least!

Punchbowl elevation profile

I met my ultra buddy Veritie at the start along with a few other friends from local clubs. Veritie and I loosely agreed to run together and see how it went as we both felt it could be a struggle. The conditions were excellent for a February race – a little cold but dry and bright without too much wind. Couldn’t really have asked for better.

Running makes me happy!

We ran off at a reasonable pace and started to enjoy the countryside around us. Within a few miles though I felt like it was harder than it should have been. By 12 miles in I was really feeling it and knew the remaining 18 miles would be tough. Veritie wasn’t having a great day either and was finding it tough so we decided to stay together. This wasn’t an event where the time particularly mattered so having some good company to make the miles pass quicker seemed like a very good idea.

Catching up with Veritie

One great thing about the LDWA events is the well-stocked aid stations so when we checked into the second one after around 17 miles I was able to refuel on marmite and peanut butter sandwiches along with cake, biscuits and other treats. The miles to the third and final aid station passed slowly and seemed very hard.

Following the rim of the Devil’s punchbowl

The highlight of the route is the long circuit of the Devil’s Punchbowl, a huge natural amphitheatre in the Surrey countryside. Originally the A3 road skirted around the edge but having been re-routed since the opening of the Hindhead tunnel the area is now much more appealing. Once this section was complete there was time for one last stop at the final aid station in a farmyard then the final few miles back to Witley. The climbs and descents were not getting any easier but we kept pushing and I was pleased to finish in a time of 6 hours 24 minutes.

Hard earned certificate

Time for several cups of tea and beans on toast at the finish then it was homeward bound with another race done. The one question I really wanted to answer today was how long should I leave between long races and the fact that this was only two weeks after Peddars was too good an opportunity to miss to test this out. I may not have a definitive answer but I can at least say that the answer is ‘longer than two weeks’!

SDW100 – my first 100 miler

The route

 

Background

 
The South Downs Way 100 had long been on my list. Since I started running ultras in 2012 and even before that I had a long-standing fascination and affinity with the South Downs. Having lived in Eastbourne for 5 years and in Sussex all my life before that the Downs were never far away. They became my playground and my training ground. They were my escape and my solitude when I needed it. Many a long hour spent running, cycling and exploring meant that I knew much of the route intimately. I had even ridden the full length of the South Downs Way on a mountain bike a couple of years previously so when I decided it was time to have a crack at my first 100 mile race this was the obvious choice. Why? To conquer the Downs once and for all? Maybe. To immerse myself in them and reminisce, visiting many a familiar place, enjoying the scenery and the peace? Definitely!
Centurion Running organise the South Downs Way 100 as part of their series of 50 and 100 mile races. It is held in June and the course follows virtually the entire length of the South Downs Way, 100 miles from Chilcomb Sports Ground near Winchester all the way to Eastbourne. With almost 4,000m of climb along the way it is never going to be easy but the prevailing winds being from the west should help a little in theory.
 

Race prep

 
Having completed ten ultra-distance events over the last couple of years, ranging from 35 to 75 miles this would be my eleventh and longest ultra. I felt it was time to take on the ultimate distance which had been intriguing me for a while. I always try to learn something from each ultra I run so I felt prepared but also conscious that this was a full marathon longer than any race I had done before so there was definitely an element of the unknown. Over the last few months I have been asked time and time again ‘how do you train for a 100 mile race?’ I’m not sure there is a correct answer to that question. I think the longer the race you are training for the more of a mental game it becomes so as long as you have plenty of hills and plenty of miles in your legs it’s less about the physical preparation and more about convincing yourself you are ready. I have done two ultras already this year (40 miles and 61 miles) so that provided good training to build on.

Support

My fabulous support crew
 
I discovered that this race allowed support crews and pacers, neither of which I had used before. Given the extra distance and the scale of the challenge I decided that I would recruit both if possible. This turned out to be a great decision. Earlier in the year I was chatting to my friend Spencer during a Sunday club run and he offered to help. I knew that he was a very experienced runner, having entered ultras himself and I also knew that he has a ‘no nonsense’ attitude which I felt would be really helpful in this situation. You’re hired! Pacers were allowed from mile 54 onwards and there was one obvious choice. Another ultra running friend Veritie was training for her first 100 mile race later in the year and this could be beneficial for both of us if we buddied up. We decided that the best place for Veritie to join would be at mile 65 so she could run the last 35 miles with me.

Race weekend

 
It might sound obvious but 100 miles is a long way! In a point to point race like this the start and finish are a very long way apart. The logistics of who needed to be where and when involved me driving to the finish in Eastbourne and then getting a train to Winchester where Spencer would meet me on the Friday afternoon. Once we had met up we headed over to the start to get the registration and kit check done. Then it was time to relax and get a good meal inside me so we found a good country pub and chatted about race strategy, process, nutrition, timing, my preference for dilution of electrolytes, default offerings at each checkpoint and plenty of other things as they occurred to us.
Around 8pm we headed back to the start and I decided an early night was in order. We had already put the tent up and to my embarrassment I discovered that rather than two single air beds I had packed one double! Spencer was concerned that I should save my energy for race day(!) so he decided to leave me to it in the tent and sleep in the car. The heavens opened for a couple of hours but there were none of the thunderstorms which had been predicted. 
 

Race Day

 
The start
 
My alarm woke me at 4.30am and I soon made the effort to get up and dressed. A bowl of muesli, cereal bar and a couple of bananas and I was ready for the off. Around 350 of us were entered in the event and the start line consisted of roughly equal numbers of people who were running their first hundred and those who had done at least five! It was overcast and a little damp from the overnight rain. 6am soon arrived and the klaxon signalled the start of an epic journey. Infinite possibility is how this moment is described by Lizzie Hawker in her book and I can relate to that. Anything can happen in a long race. Night follows day, the sun will set and will rise again regardless of what I do. Nevertheless, while running this sort of event I feel closer to nature and somehow more in tune with the world around me in a way that everyday life doesn’t provide.
The first lap of the field completed and it’s onto the South Downs Way itself. Let’s do this!
Having never run this distance before I didn’t quite know what pace to set off at so set myself a few scenarios and paces to aim for. A few miles under my belt and the excitement of the pre-race and start wore off a little. I hadn’t managed to go to the toilet before the race but now 8 miles in I needed to go! Typical! Not far to the first checkpoint at 9.6 miles I thought. Much to my disappointment there were no facilities there and knowing there was no way I’d make it to the second checkpoint at 22 miles without a bowel movement I picked a suitably quiet area of woodland off the trail and did the necessary. Damp leaves were all I could find to clean myself up. Not the most pleasant experience but I felt ten times better for it. You gotta do what you gotta do!

My pace ready reckoner

 

Some ten miles later approaching the top of Butser Hill I did a double take on a figure standing at the top. It’s not is it? It is! Another of my crazy friends Simon had driven down to surprise me and provide some moral support for a little while. ‘You’ve driven a long way just to shout abuse at me’ I shouted as I approached him. ‘Don’t worry. It’s worth it!’ he replied.
Soon the checkpoint at Queen Elizabeth Country Park appeared and Spencer was there waiting for me. ‘Wet wipes and a refill of electrolyte please!’ I was through the 22 mile mark in less than 4 hours. Am I going too fast with nearly 80 miles to go? Probably but I felt good and was running based on feel. Who knows what will happen later? Go with the flow.
On my way

 

Thirty miles… Forty miles… I ran with various people for a while and chatted, then we drifted away at our own pace. This continued for some time then I caught up with a guy I had met on a previous ultra – John, who I know has completed a number of 100 mile runs in the past. He was struggling. No energy, legs heavy. We chatted for a bit then I carried on. Important to run your own race and not become tied up in someone else’s story! From memory this section from 30 to 50 miles seems to drag on. Long trails through wooded sections, endless fields and little else of interest.  As the day had drawn on the sun made an appearance and it was hot, really hot and I asked Spencer for iced water as I neared the next checkpoint. As I ran round the corner in Amberley village there he was with a sports bottle full of iced water, the ice blagged from a nearby pub. Amazing! I downed the whole bottle and took on board refills of other items. My backpack was full of treats and Spencer kept loading me up with Twix bars and Pepperamis. Usually my favourite on a long run, for some reason I couldn’t face them! Soon after, John passed me at speed. ‘I’m sugared up’ he said. ‘Feeling great. Can’t stop.’ With that he was gone and I later found out that he finished four hours ahead of me. Amazing performance and shows quite how much I slowed down later!

Determination
 
Finally, I got to the next major checkpoint at 54 miles, a village hall in Washington. It was about 6pm and I stopped for ten minutes to sit down and take on board a bowl of pasta. I’m just about on 24 hour pace but nutrition is becoming a concern and it’s still warm. I still have a LONG way to go.
Another eleven miles to Devil’s Dyke and I knew Veritie would be there waiting to join me for the remainder of the run. This spurred me on and I set the 65 mile mark as my next mini goal to aim for. I got to Devil’s Dyke around 9pm and it was great to stop and chat with my crew. I went for a change of socks and noticed a huge blister on the side of my right big toe. Oh well, I hadn’t even felt it so Spencer dried my feet, gave me a foot rub and put a Compeed plaster on it. Heaven! Then we’re off again.
The next few miles seemed to pass quickly as I chatted to Veritie, recounting my experiences of the day so far. The pace had definitely slowed though and as night fell it dawned on me that there were still over thirty miles to go and my energy levels are falling away with the setting sun. Dig deep. I’m going to do this!
Time seemed to slow down and pass really slowly. I was low on energy but struggling to take any calories on board. What is going on? This isn’t like me. The uphill sections were a very slow walk and I could just about break into a slow jog on the level. It had got cold and I shivered as we left Clayton Windmills checkpoint. It took a long time to warm up and stop my teeth chattering. Not far to Ditchling Beacon. Keep going. Keep going. We got there around midnight and Spencer was there with a tasty Chicken Burger. Just what I needed! Just need to keep going now. Any thoughts of a sub-24 hour finish were out of the window and I knew that there was still a death march ahead as the long night hours slowly drifted by. I was struggling and Veritie was trying hard to keep me moving at a sensible pace. I stopped a few times on flimsy excuses. A tiny stone in my shoe.  I need another quick wee. This broke up the relentless march and the miles slowly ticked by. I needed to get to the relative comfort of the next checkpoint but I knew it was a long way off at mile 84 and it seemed to take forever for the 12 miles to pass. Finally at 3.30am we reached Southease and I told Spencer I needed a 15 minute micro-nap. I’ve never needed one before despite plenty of experience running through the night but I was certain it would help. Spencer needed some convincing. Worried that if I sat down and closed my eyes that would be the start of the end, I persuaded him that I knew what I was doing and got into the warmth of the car. He woke me up after 15 minutes and we got ready to leave again. I had spent nearly an hour at the checkpoint in all and the dim dawn was starting to break. I felt raring to go. That micro-nap had sorted me out. I felt like I’d slept for hours and powered up the next climb – alive again! Mile 65 to 84 had been horrendous. It had never entered my mind to quit but I was glad to get through the night and make it to the sunrise. I know from experience that the rising sun brings both a rise in spirits and energy levels. I am going to make it!

My 10 mile split times – all going well until 70 miles!

 

The last section is the stretch I knew best and we passed more familiar trails and places I recognised as the dawn light slowly gave way to harsh daylight. It was cloudy but the clouds parted now and again and it was starting to warm up. Must finish before it gets too hot I thought to myself. We made it to the point at which the race route departs from the South Downs Way proper and a helpful marshal who had spent the whole night in a small tent pointing people in the right direction made sure we picked the correct path off the Downs. It would be disastrous to go wrong at mile 98.
Two miles to go – a fairly technical descent led us to a quiet residential street and it was then just a case of one foot in front of the other on the roads and pavements of Eastbourne, heading for the Sports Ground where the finish arch awaited. Spencer and Veritie had been in contact and I had been assured I would get across the line in under 28 hours if I got on with it. I was also told that my family were there waiting for me at the finish line. Armed with these facts we upped the pace and pulled off a couple of 10 minute miles (which is a damned sight harder than it sounds with 98 miles in your legs!). Rounding the corner and entering the Sports Ground was an amazing feeling. I met my daughters and we ran the lap of the track together hand-in-hand. I was feeling emotional as I crossed the line and couldn’t believe I had really made it. The finish line which I visualised time and time again was right in front of me. 100 miles in 27 hours 58 minutes. What an experience! A bacon sandwich and a cup of tea were almost as welcome as the finisher’s T shirt and buckle which I was given at the finish.

Centurion 100 mile buckle

Post-race reflection

 
Some time after the race I have had a chance to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well. I went off too fast. This is as clear as day now but at the time I didn’t know what too fast was on a 100 mile race. Nutrition also went a little wrong for me this time and I will need to work harder on finding a bigger variety of items that I can fall back on if I can’t face my usual ultra food. The things that went well were the support I received and I’m so grateful to Spencer, Veritie and all my other supporters. Spencer had posted udpates on Facebook as the race progressed and the messages of support had come from far and wide. People were genuinely interested in how I was doing and willing me on. To know this is real time was a massive boost and I’m so humbled that people were watching my tracking blip on a little map and following my progress through the day and night.
 
The team!

What’s next?


Three more ultras entered this year and then let’s just say I’ve got a few big ideas for next year! I won’t even bother saying ‘Never Again’ any more because I know deep down that it isn’t true! I’ll be back again I’m sure.

 
Enough said!
 

‘A race of two halves’ – Lakes in a Day Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction
 

Even the name of this event ‘Lakes in a Day’ seems to build it up as something special, an epic experience and I was not disappointed. October 2014 was the inaugural running of this event, a 50 mile course taking in some of the highest peaks in the Lake District and a good variety of other terrain. The course stretches from the very top of the Lake District National Park at Caldbeck, up and over Blencathra and Helvellyn before dropping down to Ambleside and following the shores of Lake Windermere from north to south before finally ending up in Cartmel at the southern tip of the Park.

Route overview

Along this serious route a whopping 4,000m of climb is accumulated. Together with a seriously technical descent down Halls Fell Ridge and a section of open route choice this is not a race to enter unprepared. The weather in the Lakes can be unpredictable at any time but certainly holding the event in October means that there is more than a small chance of bad weather playing a part in proceedings as the day unfolds.

Route profile
Race Preparation
 
This was to be the last of my ultras for this year. I have already run four ranging between 35 and 75 miles so ‘Lakes in a Day’ seemed like a suitably grand season finale. With a good deal of mountain experience under my belt I didn’t foresee the need to prepare to a great degree in terms of kit and route planning. I have more of less concluded what works for me and what doesn’t over the last few years so took this race as an opportunity to have a bit of an experiment to see which of my normal rituals and routines were worthwhile and which would I miss. For this race I made the conscious decision not to take trekking poles (having relied on them heavily in the Alps in August) and I also decided to try to pack a little light and rely on the food at checkpoints more than usual. I have done Open Adventure events before so I knew that I wouldn’t go hungry! One thing I have struggled with a little is running out of energy on the climbs, not surprising I guess given the amount of vertical ascent to be tackled! I thought I would try out some energy gels for once as I normally avoid them, finding them sickly sweet and unpalatable after the first couple.
The Race Weekend
Another first for me this time was to travel to the event by train. Conscious that the M6 is not a good place to be on a Friday afternoon I thought I’d give public transport a go. As it turned out this was a pretty good move as I heard stories of journey times of 7+ hours getting there on this occasion. A three hour train journey passed quickly and I disembarked at 17:45 at Grange-over-Sands station.
An unusual method of transport to a race
With no taxis in sight I decided to walk the three miles to the school where registration and camping for the event was located. A passing shower gave me a little soaking but nothing much to talk about. Registration done and tent pitched I spent a fairly restless night with the wind whipping around and bands of rain passing by. A 5am alarm call got me up and by 6am I was ready to board a coach for the 1 hour 30 minute journey to the start. Arriving at 7.50am there was very little time to do anything other than start my GPS data logger before the 8am race start came.
The start
The weather was pretty good for the Lakes, passing drizzly showers and spells of sunshine with a rainbow appearing right on cue at the start of the race. After the initial climb the pack of 180 or so runners soon spread out and fanned out in several directions once the open route choice section arrived. I chose to contour around and find my way onto the Cumbria Way which dog-legged back on itself and made a definite line feature to follow in to a makeshift bridge which the OA team had constructed to allow a safe(!) crossing of the River Caldew which had swelled to a fast-flowing torrent due to the amount of rain over the preceding days. This section dealt with and it was a long climb up to the top of Blencathra followed by a very dicey, slippery and tricky technical descent of Halls Fell Ridge. Quite a number of us had bunched up again as the treacherous terrain slowed everyone to a snail’s pace. Quite a few people took tumbles here, myself included and the highlight for me had to be a dodgy moment where I (very) nearly went for a swim in a waterfall, saved only by a handful of thick mountain grass to keep myself from sliding off the edge. Why did I leave those bloody poles at home?!
Looking back up the steep, technical section at Halls Fell Ridge
I soon recovered and carried on. Things got easier and the bottom of the descent led me into the first checkpoint at Threlkeld where food and drink aplenty was waiting for us along with a large screen display showing all the competitors locations taken from their live tracking units which had been attached to our rucksacks at registration. Already there were some interesting route choices and bizarre locations being shown by the huge map projected on the wall.
Just in case anyone fancied a shortcut a reminder of the event’s live tracking!
See tracking link here.
From Threlkeld it was a long climb up and up, eventually leading to the summit of Helvellyn, the highest point of the route at 949m. I found time for a breather and a quick panoramic selfie here with the sun shining and pockets of thick cloud passing through. The section from Helvellyn into Ambleside and the next checkpoint seemed to take forever. A long descent to Grisedale Tarn was followed by a very long slog up and over Fairfield. From there a long and boggy descent followed, finally reappearing into civilisation in the familiar surroundings of Ambleside.
The long descent into Ambleside (and beyond)
A quick refuel here and it was already getting dark. Roughly half way and ten and a half hours in! I buddied up with several others at this point for some moral support and conversation to take my mind off the task at hand. Looking at the climb profile it seemed that this really was a race of two halves with all the big climbs in the first half, however anyone hoping for an easy second half was disappointed as there was still a fair amount of climb, albeit in smaller chunks up and down again and again. I would describe the second half as slightly less of a b*stard than the first half!
Waving goodbye to the last rays of sunlight
Navigation was getting harder too, especially in the dark trudging along wooded sections by the shores of Lake Windermere. As the sky had cleared the temperature had dropped and patches of mist were starting to form in the cold valley air. I felt a little sorry for one of the guys I was chatting to as this was his first ultra and he had limited navigation experience. I decided to stay with him as finishing time is not really a major consideration to me and I could help a fellow competitor out. ‘This is way harder than an ironman’ he kept saying and I chuckled quietly to myself. It was hard but the thought of stopping had not entered my head. I was so ‘in the zone’ focussed on the objective of reaching the finish, whatever it took.
Finally out of the darkness appeared Finsthwaite Village Hall, the last checkpoint. My energy levels were very low at this point, it was approaching 11pm and I had been moving for 15 hours. A ten minute sit-down and a bowl of hot soup helped to restore my energy and spirits and soon we were off in a group of four again, walking purposefully towards the finish together.
After the race
Collapsing into my tent at 4.30am I had a brief chance to reflect on the events of the day, what went well and what didn’t go so well. I missed the poles and would recommend these to anyone taking part in a longer event in mountainous terrain. Having said that they do take some getting used to so practice is the key! Gels and food are very much a matter of individual taste and what you can stomach. My basic rule is that if you take food with you then you must actually WANT to eat it otherwise it is just extra weight! Savoury wins every time for me. Mini cheddars, pepperami, sausage rolls, sandwiches etc. When it comes to gels let’s just say the jury is still out…

 

Dig deep! – TDS Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction

 
It has been over a month since my experience of running the TDS so it’s about time I got around to writing about it! Here goes…

I was delighted to get a place in the ‘Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie’ (TDS), a wild trail race of 119km with 7,250 metres of climb which starts in Italy covering some amazing terrain across the Alps and ending in Chamonix.

TDS 2014 Climb Profile

It had been a dream of mine to run one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc series of races for a few years ever since I became interested in Ultra Running. In fact, my choice of first Ultra was made based on the fact that the Norfolk Coastal Ultra carried 2 qualification points for the UTMB races. To be at the start line (let alone the finish line!) of such an epic race was the culmination of two years of planning, training and hoping that I would get a place as entries are managed by a lottery system with only a one in three chance of getting in to some races. I had hoped to get a place in the Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix race (CCC) a slightly shorter event covering 62 miles but I was not successful in the lottery for 2013 or indeed 2014 (with double the chance) such is the level of interest in these races. Fortunately I was offered one of the few remaining places in the TDS. I later found out that the TDS doesn’t get as oversubscribed as the other races, partly because it is a newer race but mainly because it is widely regarded as the toughest of all the races!! ‘The wild alternative’ is how the website bills this particular race and rightly so as I found out! A huge amount of other planning and logistics all had to come together to make this happen too. I had to arrange the time off work, book accommodation and arrange ferry bookings as you would expect. In addition I bought a caravan, had to order a new company car with a tow bar and then arranged a camp site for the family to stay at, making a family holiday of it. A lot had gone into this adventure!

First long descent after a couple of hours climbing

The Event Build Up

I found out that I had a place in the race early in January, seven months to plan, train on the hills, prepare, check and re-check kit and generally wonder how you could possibly do all you can to be ready for such an undertaking! Those months flew by and I was able to get some good training and enter a few races with a suitable amount of climb. This was the aspect that concerned me most. I was confident that I could go the distance and had the stamina to keep going but the amount of climb was something else! It is hard to equate it to something meaningful but seven times up (and down) Snowdon from sea level sounds daunting so that will do! One of my training events was to complete the Welsh 3000s, a 25+ mile route covering all of the mountains in Wales over 3,000 feet (15 of them) in one day. This has 4,000m of climb so having completed that I was at least gaining more confidence that I had it in me.
The months passed and my family and I were soon off on our adventure, driving onto a ferry at Dover for a trip of over 650 miles towing to the campsite near Lake Annecy. It proved to be a good choice with a great swimming pool and mini waterpark for the kids. The site was about an hour away from Chamonix and there was plenty of time to relax and explore in the lead up to the event. Perhaps I was a little too relaxed as I totally forgot about the race until the day before and didn’t really consider my usual pre-race preparation. More about that later!
On Tue 26th August it was time to relocate to Chamonix and get register for the event. The heavens opened and it rained non-stop for 24 hours+. Such was the intensity of the rain that damage had been done to river beds in France, Switzerland and Italy! Fortunately there was no impact on any of the races, everyone just got soaked while queuing to register.
The morning of the race I knew I had to be on a coach at 4.30am from Chamonix, though the Mont Blanc tunnel to the start at Courmayeur in Italy. On reflection, to spend the night before in a shared dormitory in a hostel was probably not the best idea and consequently I had very little sleep the night before, with noisy room-mates and an incessant alarm clock going off every ten minutes from midnight onwards! I did feel I had got my own back somewhat when I got up at 3.30am and made little effort to be quiet.

The atmosphere at start line in Courmayeur was electric. 1,600 runners all ready, all singing and cheering as the start klaxon sounded with a helicopter hovering overhead filming the events. 7am came and we were off on this incredible shared journey.

The start line in Courmayeur

The Race

 
After an initial 2k jog through the crowd-lined streets of Courmayeur the course soon started twisting and turning up the route of an out-of-season ski run and the pace slowed. One of the hardest things about entering a large race is not being able to travel at your own pace and this was one of those occasions. A slow walk with nowhere to go because of the sheer numbers of people ensued and several competitors’ flailing walking poles around without regard for others didn’t help much. Soon this section was over and the first checkpoint passed. Numbers began to thin out as people found their own pace. The scenery became more and more impressive and the constant sight of snow-capped Mont Blanc and other high peaks was breath-taking.
Magnificent view of the Alps from the Italian side

The early miles of a long race are always a tentative time when you realise that you have a long way to go and anything can happen! A few hours in and a few checkpoints covered then things start to settle down. It had been dry all morning and the sky was clear. A marked contrast from the previous day and this meant a different set of challenges. The temperatures in the valleys were climbing and as I started the long 8 mile descent into Bourg St-Maurice I was sweating heavily and working hard to keep hydrated. Fortunately in some of the mountain villages there were drinking water fountains with ice cold water flowing freely. These were very welcome as the temperature must have been in the high twenties.

An early climb

The Bourg St-Maurice checkpoint had the usual variety of food, hot and cold drinks but I was getting a little bored with cheese, salami and French bread now having had it for the last few checkpoints. I opted for some chicken noodle soup and this became a firm favourite of mine for the rest of the race. It was easy to swallow, salty and tasty. No chewing required! There was plenty of other food available, fruit, chocolate, cereal bars, biscuits and cake to choose from.

Looking back down into Bourg St Maurice

The climb out of Bourg St-Maurice is long, very long and it was still very hot. Quite a few runners were stopped at various points along the side of the track and I saw a few people reacquainting themselves with their choice of nutrition from the last checkpoint! This was getting tough now. 25 miles in, about 50 to go! The seemingly endless climb was briefly split up by an unofficial checkpoint and pop-up shop set up by the local farmer’s family who were out milking their goats at Fort de la Platte. Three generations of the family had come out to cheer runners on and sell them coke, fruit juice and the like. I passed on the goat’s cheese raclette but did have a welcome rest before carrying on. Night was starting to fall and so was the temperature as I continued to climb. Several hours after struggling to stay cool I was now layering up and starting to shiver, my breath visible in front of my face. As the climb continued up to around 2,600m the temperature was little above freezing and the best way to stay warm was to keep going.

The scale of the challenge became even more evident now. The landscape barely visible in the moonlight but lines of headtorches showing the rough line of the course and the sheer size of the mountains. Some of those lights seemed so high up, surely they were passing planes not solitary figures on a track which I would have to climb soon! The climbs were relentless and the terrain so technical. One particular section seemed to go on forever, an incredibly steep descent of over 500m which zig-zagged down the mountain side. So steep that the organisers had deemed ropes and chains necessary and installed these at various points. I am pretty confident on technical ground and found myself looking to overtake a number of the slower competitors during this descent which brought its own challenges. Most were more than happy to move over and let someone faster show the way in return for a short rest. On more than one occasion I was glad I had my trekking poles and the extra stability they provided. Definitely worth the extra weight.
As the trudge continued long into the night my spirits began to sink and I started to feel like I might not make it to the finish line. The enormity of what lay ahead dawned on me and my mind started to flirt with the idea of DNFing and what this would mean. Determined not to let this happen and very aware that success or failure in an Ultra is largely in the mind I resolved to press on to the next checkpoint and sort myself out! I was having a real low point and decided that I needed to spend as long as necessary at the Cormet de Roseland checkpoint and leave feeling good otherwise it would be game over! I knew my drop bag was waiting for me there and gladly underwent a full change of clothing, a fresh slathering of Vaseline on my feet and lovely clean, dry socks. Food time! For the love of God, not more salami and cheese!! Even though I love them I couldn’t face any more. Thank goodness for chicken noodle soup. After nearly 45 minutes at the checkpoint and countless bowls of soup I did indeed feel better and slapped myself metaphorically in the face, deciding that there was no way I was quitting unless I was taken off on a stretcher! My experience in long events previously had taught me that the rising of the morning sun has a miraculous effect, seeming to cure all ills and give a new lease of life. If I could make it to the sunrise I’d be fine. Sure enough the sun eventually rose and I pressed on with a renewed sense of purpose, visualising my glorious crossing of the finish line to rapturous applause, still some 20 miles distant!
As the hours went by my focus changed from whether I’d make it to whether I’d make it IN TIME! With a 33 hour cut off I had calculated I was a good couple of hours clear of this but I had a scare on reaching one of the final checkpoints. I had expected to find that there were 8 miles to go as I reached what I thought Bellevue. It turned out that I was actually at Chalets du Trucs and had 5 more miles to go than I thought. Panic set in, how could I have miscalculated? Did I really have to cover 7 miles in an hour and a half to avoid being timed out when I had managed little more than 2 mph during the night! I bolted and covered the next descent in a remarkable time. I overtook 20+ people on this leg and remember thinking do these people not know that they are pushing the cut-off or have I got it wrong? I wasn’t slowing down for anyone though – I was in the zone and loving it! Hurtling past surprised, tired runners like I was being chased by a madman! My choice of shoes (my trusty Adidas Kanadia TR6s) seemed to provide a level of grip that many others couldn’t match and were really working for me. Several of the guys in Salomons seemed to be struggling on the wet, slippery grass and one guy in particular wasn’t keen on me passing him. When he had slipped on to his backside at least five or six times in front of me I’d had enough. I picked my moment and leapt around him as he floundered.

From the last checkpoint at Les Houches the final few miles into Chamonix seemed to take forever, running down a never-ending forest track. Finally across a bridge and back into civilisation. The streets of Chamonix were lined with hundreds of people cheering everyone on. With half a mile to go I found my family and my eleven year-old daughter ran in with me. I was feeling quite emotional at this point anyway but on seeing me running in hand in hand with my daughter the cheering and shouts of ‘Allez Allez’ got even louder. I was overwhelmed at the support of total strangers and crossed the line with tears in my eyes after 31 hours 34 minutes of effort. My goal achieved I was on top of the world. What an experience!

Approaching the finish line with Rachel

After the race

 
My seventh Ultra completed. Without a doubt this was the toughest race I have ever done. Never have I had to dig so deep to complete an event and I learnt a lot about myself and about running during the race. At the finish line I was really thinking maybe that’s it for me and Ultras, perhaps I should give it a rest for a while, the fateful words ‘never again’ were uttered! The nature of this type of event though is incredible and the atmosphere indescribable. So much so that the pain soon fades and thoughts turn to ‘what next?’. Barely 18 hours later I was googling the other races in the series!! How much longer is the UTMB? How much extra climb is there?
Finisher!

‘Pain is temporary – pride is forever’ they say. This may be a cliché but I now know the true meaning of those words and that is why I’ll be back! As soon as I can get a place I’ll be at the start line of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 105 mile race through three countries with 9,600m of climb. A little wiser perhaps and a little more prepared hopefully but definitely in awe of mother nature and the truly awesome challenge provided by the magnificent Alps.

Lessons Learnt/Ultra Advice

1.      Man cannot live on electrolyte alone! Alternate with water/cola/other drinks.
2.      Trekking poles can be a lifesaver on steep terrain in the mountains.
3.      There is only so much salami you can eat – even if it is your favourite!
4.      Plan a nutrition strategy and know in advance what works for you.
5.      Know that an Ultra is almost entirely a mind game, won and lost in your head.
6.      Anything can happen on an Ultra. Stick to your race plan and KEEP GOING!
7.      Sunrise will happen! Hang on in there.

Welsh 1,000m Peaks Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction
Another iconic race which I have been aware of for some time; this was the 43rd edition of the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. The race has been going since 1971 and has had its fair share of controversy including the death of a competitor several years ago in a fall from an exposed ridge which led to a course change. The race is held on the first Saturday in June, starting on the coast at Abergwyngregyn, climbing up and over the five mountains over 1,000m altitude in North Wales before finishing at the summit of Snowdon some 20 miles and 3,000m of ascent later. Not for the faint-hearted this one, as there is no waymarking and competitors are required to bring their own maps, plotting the coordinates of the checkpoints themselves then navigating from point to point with a number of compulsory routes between out-of-bounds areas.
The Event Weekend
The usual long drive to an event area took place on the usual Friday afternoon with the usual traffic conditions. Nevertheless I was at my chosen campsite by around 7pm and was able to pitch my tent and relax with some easy camp food Lidl-style! This consisted of smoked salmon and mussel chowder, followed by chicken tikka masala and a luxury tiramisu. All went down rather well and cost barely a fiver!
I almost managed to spend a whole night in a tent in Wales without it raining! 15 minutes before I had to get up at 6am the heavens opened and the tent took the inevitable deluge well. Breakfast, wet tent packed away and then it was time for the 20 minute drive to Llanberis to register and receive my electronic chip ‘dibber’. The scene was set for the potential weather conditions on the day when a thunder storm hit at around 7.30am taking out the power in the hall. Kit checking in the dark followed before I boarded the bus to the start. The organisers were rather concerned about the conditions and the briefing focussed on what competitors should do in the event of an electrical storm while up high on one of the exposed ridges which featured heavily in the route after the first few miles. ‘There is no point cancelling the event because of something which may not happen’ said the race official and this was proved correct as I saw no more lightning for the rest of the day.
The Race
At 9am around 120 people in the ‘A class’ – (fell runners 5 peaks) set off and began the first ascent from sea level up to Aber Falls. After an initial burst of speed along the road section people stopped off one-by-one to remove waterproofs and extra layers. It had stopped raining and become very humid. Most people were down to one layer now with the rest safely stowed away in their rucksacks. The section up and past Aber Falls became quite technical and single file before the terrain opened up into a long climb up to the first checkpoint at Foel Grach.
From here the route to the next checkpoint took a long and steady climb up towards the ridge near Carnedd Daffyd then an out and back of around a mile each way to the summit to ‘dib’ the control. Unfortunately this is when the rain started again. It quickly became heavy, then heavier still. After a couple of minutes the intensity of the rain was such that you didn’t think it could get any heavier but it did! Torrential really is the only word to describe it. My pace quickened in the rain – I really didn’t want to be up there if this was the moment that the storm decided to return.
Checkpoint cleared and the rain stopped after half an hour or so. Descending into the valley at Ogwen the temperature increased and I grabbed a couple of flapjacks and a banana from the aid station before continuing. The next challenge was an ascent of Gylder Fach before dropping down into the valley at Pen-y-Pass for the last aid station. At this point I made my one and only navigational error which meant I descended too soon and ended up faced with a 10m high cliff with no way down.
Some extra climb and an additional 20 minutes added I reckon. After Pen-y-Pass came the final gruelling climb of Snowdon following the Pyg Track. A marshal at the aid station helpfully said that the remaining distance was only 3.75 miles – not too bad I thought. ‘It’ll take you a couple of hours though’ he added – bugger! He wasn’t wrong. The Pyg Track is like a never-ending staircase of helpfully placed slabs of rock marking out a path of sorts. The main problems with this ascent were the tiredness I was feeling in my legs and the hordes of tourists everywhere, some ascending but mostly descending, taking their time about it and generally getting in the way. This meant that often the best line to take up the mountain to avoid a stationary queue at a tricky bit was to take a wider and more exposed line nearer the edge and the increasing drop down to Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn lakes below. Fine on a leisurely stroll up to the summit but rather annoying on a long timed climb after 18 miles running and walking! After what seemed like an eternity I neared the marker stone at the top and peeled off to the right to collect the last checkpoint at Garnedd Ugain before retracing my steps and heading up to the summit of Snowdon and the finish line. 7 hours and 20 minutes had passed since the start. An hour longer than I had (roughly) planned but I had done it and received a rather unusual slate medal as my reward.
After the race
Once completed there was the small matter of descending some 6 miles down to Llanberis to collect my car before beginning the journey home. I had been warned about how quickly you cool down at the top of Snowdon and how important it is to take extra layers. This wasn’t a problem today though as the summit was blanketed by a warm mist of cloud (and body heat from several hundred tourists in hot pants and stilettos – bloody mountain railway!). It seemed rude not to jog down the mountain so set off with another guy and proceeded to jog down by the side of the railway track for the first couple of miles.
At this point I bumped into my friend Simon ‘having a rest’. Clearly the extra energy he had used finishing ahead of me had left him tired and we walked the next bit together, stopping off at the Halfway Café for a drink and snack. ‘So, is this place exactly half way then?’ said Simon to the lady behind the counter. ‘It is on the way up’ came the reply!! Still not quite sure how that works!
Another memorable day in the mountains and one I would recommend to any runner with a sense of adventure who fancies a challenge. As the saying goes ‘I’ll be back!’.