Ultra du Pas du Diable 2017

Two of us travelled to France to take part in the 2017 Ultra du Pas du Diable. Here are both our stories of the race experience. First is mine, then my friend Paul tells things as he saw them.



This was one of those races that seemed to have been booked months and months ago and yet suddenly it was upon us! As part of my quest to share my love (and the pain!!) of ultras with my friends and anyone who’ll listen I had decided that this race seemed like a good idea and signed up with my (equally nutty) friend Paul. 120km of beautiful French countryside in the Cevennes sounded amazing. I was right, it is a stunning backdrop for a race, but certainly not one to be taken lightly.

Getting there

The first major challenge was the logistics of getting there. The race is held every April in a tiny French village called St-Jean-du-Bruel, around an hour’s drive from the large town of Millau, famous for its majestic bridge which carries thousands of motorists towards the Mediterranean every year along the A75 autoroute. Millau is around 7/8ths of the way down through France towards the Med and roughly equidistant between Montpellier, Nimes and Marseilles, all of which have International Airports. (For equidistant read nowhere near any of them!). After hours and hours of searching flight combinations and hire car locations I decided that there was no simple way of getting there by air as none of the combinations of flight times and Airports was suitable. Looking for an alternative I found an unlikely succession of connections by train was possible. First to London, then an evening Eurostar to Paris, followed by the overnight sleeper train from Paris to Millau with an early morning change at Rodez. This seemed feasible on paper so a plan was hatched. All was going well until a complete lack of sleep on the sleeper train, mainly due to a seriously hot cabin which we shared with four other people and the exaggerated lurching of the train as it careered around corners at what felt like breakneck speed in the pitch black.

On reaching Millau at 7.45am on Friday morning we had a leisurely wander towards the river to collect our hire car. The morning and early afternoon was spent driving across the Millau Bridge and down the autoroute to register and collect our numbers for the race, before heading back to Millau to check into our hotel. Checked in, fed and watered by 8pm we tried to settle down for a very early night. With the race start at 4am, race briefing at 3am and an hour’s drive this meant a 1.00am alarm call!!

The start line

Lining up in the village square at 3.45am for a 4am start was a surreal experience, especially after less than 6 hours sleep in the preceding two nights. Knowing that all of Saturday night would also be spent running was quite a daunting thought, particularly as we had nearly 80 miles of running with 6,500m of climb ahead of us! The pre-race ritual consisted of a French man dressed as the devil standing on a crane platform above the 400 or so competitors gathered in the square, shouting through a microphone in French over the obligatory atmospheric pre-race music. With these formalities complete it was time to get on with things! My grasp of French isn’t what it once was but I managed to join in with the backwards count from ten (dix, neuf, huit, sept…) then we were off!

After a kilometre or so through the village we were soon onto a narrow track climbing up gradually through the woods. Starting mid-pack is always a bit frustrating in these races as the single track climbs always slow everyone to barely more than strolling speed for quite some time. I remember thinking how long it took for the sun to rise on that first day. It seemed like we were running forever in the pitch black. Finally the sky grew lighter and we were rewarded with a stunning cloudless sky which lasted all day. The forecast mentioned an approaching front and a marked deterioration in the conditions was expected by lunchtime on Sunday. For now we were content with a beautiful clear day, not too hot and ideal running conditions.

The early checkpoints came and went, every 10-15 kilometres or so and we stopped for nothing more than 2-3 minutes at each to refill water bottles. The terrain was varied with open, mountainous trail sections then long stretches through woodland, climbing up and then dropping back down into the next valley.

Fun and games

The first third of the race brought us some nice surprises. First, a rope and ladder climb up and into a cave on the mountain-side. A combination of scrambling, pulling yourself up a rope and then climbing up to the top of the cave.

Secondly, came a slightly gratuitous (there were other ways around!) crawl through a storm drain to access the next trail up through the woods. The drain was only around 5 metres long but the pipe was so narrow there wasn’t enough clearance to kneel and crawl through – you had to literally drag yourself through on your elbows and shuffle.

The most amazing surprise came when we found ourselves steadily climbing again through a gorge with the sound of waterfalls becoming gradually louder and louder. Turning a corner we saw the entrance of an incredible limestone cavern system called the Abime de Bramabiau. A world famous underground world of caverns and chambers forged by the running water over millions of years.
We were stunned to find that our route took us through this cavern system for over a kilometre and absolutely loved running through it. What a treat! At the top we emerged into the bright sunlight from an odd looking set of fire exit doors that seemed a little out of place, obviously there to restrict access when the attraction is closed. As the day wore on we crossed rivers on stepping stones, jumped gaps between rocks, climbed up and down and generally explored this amazing area by following the neat little race flags every 20-30 metres. Our first longer stop was at a sports hall in the village of Saint-Saveur-Camprieu where hot food was offered in the form of soup with pasta and cheese added. We had covered around 30 miles at this point and were both tired but loving the route. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint I decided that I had an urgent need to take a toilet break of the second order(!) so found a quiet point off the trail and reminded Paul why I always carry a pack of travel tissues on these races now! He carried on and I caught him up a while later.

The going gets tough

So far, we had been having a great time and loving it but I knew things were going to get tough when night fell. We had stopped a few times on the trail for food breaks and layer changes etc. Soon after, Paul fell over for about the tenth time!! I commented that it was like running with Mr Bean – an observation that made us both descend into uncontrollable laughter for the next few minutes and the name stuck! My personal favourite of his falls was when he tripped over a blade of grass or something and ended up falling hands first into a prickly, thorny bush. Ouch. Numpty! Nevertheless we made steady progress and reached the halfway point around 6pm – (14 hours from the start). We had started to spend longer than planned at some of these checkpoints and eventually made our way towards the next climb. Night fell and we donned our head torches. Soon after, Paul decided he needed to do a bear impression in the woods and asked to borrow my tissues. He suggested I carry on and he’d meet me at the checkpoint. At this point we thought the checkpoint was only a mile or so away so I agreed and carried on. This is where things started to go a little awry. I carried on through the woods and then onto a clear section of the trail, still quite high. There were only a couple of pin prick lights visible from where I was. We were truly in the middle of nowhere in the Cevennes mountains in the pitch black. After what seemed like ages, I came to a junction and followed the flags up the next hill, which surprised me as I was expecting a descent to the next checkpoint. I carried on again for some time, concerned I had missed a turn or somehow skipped the section leading to the checkpoint. This far into a race, fatigued, hungry and separated from your running partner your mind plays tricks and I worried I’d be disqualified for missing a checkpoint. I hadn’t seen a flag for a while (or had I?). I pushed on and eventually to my great relief, a marquee appeared out of the misty darkness and I went inside. I grabbed some food, refilled my water bottles and drank a couple of cups of coke. I sat down and waited for Paul… and waited, and waited. I was getting cold, I could feel myself starting to shiver. This was not good. I didn’t know what to do. If I stopped much longer I risked not being able to carry on. By this time, I was wearing every layer I had, including waterproofs and jacket, I was sitting in a heated marquee shivering. I couldn’t carry on without Paul could I? No, this would play on my mind for the rest of the race. Damn. What to do?? Finally, after 45 minutes Paul arrived and I was so relieved to see that he was ok. I knew I had to carry on though as I couldn’t wait much longer. I was getting colder by the minute. “I need to go” I said to Paul, shivering. He nodded that he understood and I made him promise me that he would finish the race before I headed out into the night.

The night section

I emerged from the relative safety and warmth of the marquee into the cold night. It was around midnight by this time and the temperature had dropped noticeably, with mist descending and an increasing wind speed, surely a sign of things to come as the forecast had predicted. On a mission to get warm again and fearful of a cold-induced DNF I flew through the night, skipping down the descents and powering up the ascents. My nutrition strategy was working and I felt good. I overtook 100 people during the course of that night. Approaching the next checkpoint around 3am things were about to get challenging again. The cold night had taken its toll and quite a few competitors were sitting and lying around in the building with foil blankets on. The atmosphere was subdued and not many people spoke. I was conscious of the need to push on and didn’t want to hang around so I was in and out in five minutes, drawing envious looks from a number of dazed runners, clearly either already out of the race or still contemplating their go/no-go decision through the haze of tiredness, physically fatigued and lamenting how their races had gone wrong.

The biggest climb

I felt strong as I pushed on, aware that I had run almost 60 miles at this point and starting to feel like the worst of the race was behind me. I was brought crashing down to earth by the realisation thatI had miscalculated slightly and the biggest climb of the race was in fact still ahead of me. Climbing up from 500m to 1366m at the summit of Saint-Guiral this would be a long climb after over 24 hours on my feet. No choice but to just get on with it though. After what seemed like an age I finally summitted.

The weather had started to deteriorate earlier than the predicted Sunday lunchtime and before even the first glimmer of light the wind had increased to not much short of gale force and occasional spots of rain started to become more frequent. After a quick water and safety check at the next checkpoint the trail became a long undulating track which twisted and turned through the woods high on the mountain. The wind was howling and the trees groaning as they swayed and bashed into one another. I carried on, willing the daylight to arrive. Sunrise on the second day of such a challenge is a watershed moment, mainly symbolic as in reality it is just the start of another cycle of day and night, but to anyone engaged in a challenge that straddles more than one day and night the second sunrise brings hope and the feeling that the finish line is finally, slowly coming into sight and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get there.

Caffeine bomb

The darkness finally hinted at impending daylight, but with leaden skies and persistent rain there was no sunrise to be seen. I was tired, really tired. Finally, my lack of sleep over several nights was catching up on me and I began to worry about falling asleep on my feet. I have experienced this before in races. No hallucinations this time, just a feeling of overwhelming tiredness and a creeping desire to sleep, wherever. I closed my eyes for a few seconds every now and then as I ran, almost to appease my body and convince it that I was getting the sleep I desperately needed. Around 6am, through the misty blanket of writhing tree branches and creaking trunks appeared the next checkpoint. I sat clumsily in a chair and contemplated having a 15 minute nap as several others were doing. I was worried. What if my body gave up? What if I fell asleep while running as I had done on occasions before? I heard one of the checkpoint team telling someone else that the distance (to the finish I assumed) was ‘quinze kilometres’, 15km I thought. I can do that. I need to keep going. If I stop now, it’s game over. I had a strong black coffee, took my double espresso caffeine gel, wolfed down a big handful of fruit jellies from the checkpoint and pushed on. My ‘caffeine bomb’ did the trick and I felt alive again within 20 minutes or so. It turned out the 15km was to the next checkpoint, not the finish! Luckily I didn’t know this at the time and kept moving, determined to finish as soon as possible and before the effects of the sugar and caffeine wore off.

Never-ending story

The last few hours of the race were an exercise in endurance and determination all of their own. The weather was truly awful by this point. The buffeting on higher ground was almost enough to blow you over and the driving rain hurt as it pelted your face from one side or the other of the hood of my waterproof. Repeated steep climbs and long zig-zagging descents through the forest were the predominant terrain in the last 20km. Familiar to me from running in the alps and other mountainous areas of France I knew that they were challenging enough in the dry. When wet, these slippery descents with little or no vegetation to use for support had simply become mud slides. Trekking poles were not sufficient to provide the grip needed due to the steep gradient. These descents were relentless and a combination of pigeon steps, scrambling, sliding and grabbing tree branches seemed to be the most effective way to descend. I witnessed a few uncontrolled slips and slides down some of the steep sections, people slipping and sliding fast down the 10-15m descents. I was careful as I didn’t want to pick up an injury this late in the race. Somehow I always seem to feel more at home on this technical terrain than a lot of people.
Time and time again, I reached the next checkpoint thinking ‘it can’t be much further’ only to find that there was another section and another. My mind was definitely playing tricks on me. Time and distance seemed to bend and take on a new warped meaning as I pushed through my own personal demons and inched closer and closer to the finish. Each village I passed through looked familiar and made me think ‘this is it’. When St Jean du Bruel did finally, indisputably, appear in the distance I pushed on, determined to overtake a few more people as I pushed towards the finish arch.

After the race

With the mission accomplished, thoughts quickly changed to recovery and getting warm. Especially as the rain continued to fall. Finisher jacket collected and congratulations received in French I started to slowly make my way back to the car. As competitors from one of the shorter races came past me towards the finish of their own personal challenges, my thoughts soon turned to Paul and how he was doing. The last time I saw him was at midnight, almost 14 hours ago. I wondered what he had encountered in those 14 hours. Was he still running? Had he succumbed to the conditions as many others had? Would he make the cut off?? How guilty would I feel for leaving him if he didn’t make it round? All I could do was get warm and sit and wait for him in the car. I had no idea how long he would be and felt helpless. I had wanted to run the race with him, share the experience with him all the way, but fate had a different idea. I was reminded that in any event of this length and difficulty you simply have to run your own race and pace. You can’t conform to the rhythm of others, mirroring and amplifying each other’s highs and lows. It just doesn’t work. Please please, just let him be ok and finish! Just then, a shivering, steaming figure appeared at the car parked next to ours and started to try to get into it! I made eye contact and he looked relieved. Eventually, both warm and dry we made our way back to the hotel, an hour away. I hadn’t slept at all for over 40 hours, but the sleep monsters had given up for the time-being and I felt fine to drive carefully back to the hotel.


Sunday evening happened in a blur. Checked in, showered, all you can eat buffet dealt with, sleep finally achieved. Monday morning dawned and we both felt refreshed. We had planned a lazy recovery day so once breakfast was sorted we spent a couple of hours washing kit in the bath and shower in the hotel room before hanging it up all over the room and turning the heating up to 30 degrees. The highlight for me was when the maid arrived to service the room and was met at the door by a waft of steamy heat, God only knows what the smell must have been like as Paul opened the door wearing blue rubber gloves and asked for more towels!
We still had the use of the hire car for the day so decided to go for a drive, have some fun and explore a little more, fitting in a recovery walk somewhere during the day. We both felt achy and stiff, but were able to move around without looking too much like zombies.


Adventures come in many shapes and sizes. Overall, this had been an incredible, seriously tough and character building experience. The main thing was that we had both made that finish line and the Trail du Roc de la Lune races go down as one of my favourites so far.


This was always going to be a tough ultra. 120km with over 6,500metres of climb.  I knew I hadn’t trained well enough for this race but also know that my general fitness is reasonable and mental strength would get me to the finish in time.  Just had to man up and get the job done….

Getting to the start line

The 4am start was a massive shock to the system and Steve being the type of person who likes to keep the small details under control our early alarm clock got earlier and earlier.  Although I was happy to make sure we got to the start time with out any surprises.  Although a huge Hare running out in front of us on the drive nearly did just that.  Who needs sleep when the thought of seeing two sunrises would keep me focussed and can’t thank Steve enough for his support.  He kept reminding me that running for over 30 hours was going to be bloody tough and sleep deprivation is hard to deal with.  Am so thankful that he helped pace and mentor me through the first half.  

Here we go

After running for a couple of hours my hands became warm in my gloves and as I was expecting sunrise within a short while, I opted to take my gloves off.  I then didn’t want to have to stop and put them back on again as they began to cool and made a stupid judgement.  By the time I needed them back on, I already knew I had lost too much movement in my fingers to get the gloves on correctly.  It took us longer to get to the check point than I expected and the temperature had dropped to around freezing.  The ground was covered in frost.  

Once at the check point I needed Steve’s help to undo my bag, fetch me food and a hot drink whilst I waited to regain movement in my hands.  Was really annoyed at myself for costing us such valuable time so early into the race.  Another lesson learn that on mountains, often survival is based on a right or wrong decision.  It was only after the race that I read that The Swiss climber Ueli Steck has been killed preparing to climb Mount Everest, Nepal’s tourist office says. Steck, who was known as the “Swiss Machine”, died in an accident while acclimatising for an attempt on the mountain without oxygen by a new route. The Swiss machine was an inspiration and even with all the experience he had it goes to prove how unforgiving Everest is and mountains alike.  RIP. Luckily my situation wasn’t as critical and I was able to enjoy the companionship with Steve of crawling on hands n knees though a storm drain, pulling myself up a rope into the cave entrance, I even slipped at one point and gave my shin a massive whack on a rock! Loved being inside the massive space which was the Abime de Bramabiau caves.  Doing my best Mr Deeds impression to create an echo!!! 


When you’ve got to go…

We stuck together until I needed a call of nature, in a bid to reduce my pack weight I opted to leave a pack of tissues behind.  Thinking I could always use a toilet at a feed station, luckily Steve always carried a pack, a lesson he learnt himself many erm moons ago!!!! (apparently from the Ultra Goddess Veritie).  Steve asked if I could not wait until the next checkpoint which we expected to hit in about a miles time, I was already reaching to pull down my clothing!!!!  I told Steve to run ahead and let him go off at his own pace whilst I did what bears do in the woods!!  Thought I would catch him at the next feed station, turns out the checkpoint wasn’t exactly how it was marked on the map, instead of running downhill to the check point we had a massive climb to it!  I ran out of energy as I hadn’t expected that climb and hadn’t eaten enough.  I kept second guessing myself.   Had I missed the marker?  Was I on the right route? I wasn’t wearing my glasses, only really do when I’m driving.  I was trying to look back down the mountain and trying to work out if the headtorches in the distance were coming up the same way as I was.  Ultras are all about the mental game, and you will go through highs and lows of emotions.  This was a massive low…I had to take control of the controllable.  I sat down, put another layer on and then rummaged around my bag for some quick food to give me enough energy to get to the top of this damn mountain, once on top then maybe I would find the checkpoint on the way down…when I reached the top I was overwhelmed to find a marquee buzzing with volunteers and runners.  

Go your own way

The heat of the gas burner hit me as I’d entered and there sat on a chair looking very tired was Steve!  I felt really bad that he had waited for me for about 45 minutes.  We chatted for a bit whilst I tried to get warm, and although the marquee was warmer than outside it still wasn’t warm enough to stay for any length of time.  I promised him that I would finish this race no matter what.  And then off he went out of the zip doorway…..that was the last time I was to see him until about 14 hours later.  

Keep on moving

My back, legs and feet had been sore since about mile 20 and I was counting on the second mornings Sunrise to give me a huge lift.  It was whilst I was at 1366metres on top of the mountain when rain set in! Viz was about 100metres and I was struggling to see the course markers. I put every layer I had on, changed my head torch battery and battled through day break.  Didn’t get to see the sunrise which I really wanted to see to lift my spirits.  A few hours later I had my first hallucination from sleep deprivation. This still makes me laugh at what I thought I saw in the mud!  Luckily this mountain had a decent path to follow and I felt fairly safe on top.  I pulled on my waterproofs and prayed this would be enough to keep me warm and hoped the weather didn’t get colder.  I really didn’t want to be that stupid Englishman whom was rescued from the top of the mountain!  I knew that as long as I kept moving then I would eventually start to descend and find warmer air.  We had checked the weather forcast before the race started and Steve is nearly always spot on with his information.  He cross checks everything.  That’s what he does.  We expected the weather front to come in about midday.  This front hit about 6 hours early! 

Buddying up

Luckily for me a group of four guys caught up with me and originally they went straight past me as I was moving so slow.  I knew I had to put in maximum effort and managed to catch back up with them and used them for company.  Just having the reassurance of other people double checking the markers and picking the best route through the terrain helped keep my pace up.  At the next feed station the marque appeared out of fog.  We only just made the cutoff time and we stayed until they closed it.  I didn’t really understand what they said in French but I knew I was in danger of missing the next cut off. The volunteers there were really helpful.  I ate well there and when the four left they had a real push of pace.  

I struggled to get my wet gloves back and and one of the volunteers helped me.  By this time I could just see the four guys disappear into the fog.  I sprinted out of the marque in the direction I saw them go. I hadn’t expected the now gale force winds which blew my hat off.  I had to double back about 20 yards and chase after it.  I couldn’t afford to let my head get cold.  I then had to work extra hard to catch up with the guys ahead.  Running down hill, sliding and jumping over rocks, legs and feet sending shocks of pain through my body.  That didn’t matter right now.  I promised Steve that I was going to finish and I needed to work with the four guys to keep a good pace for the next 9 hours.  In my head I named us the famous five, we took it in turns to be on the front leading the way and just found a natural rotation without ever really saying anything.  Often hours would pass with deep breaths, coughs and every other noise that can come from the body until we hit a check point and our spirits would be lifted and chatter would break out between the French. 


Not the dog…

Eventually we reached a road crossing which looked to me like it was the village we had first started in.  I came upon what appeared to be a water station .  It was sort of a garage sized dwelling with a young boy of maybe 12 and what appeared to be his father.  At first they assumed I was French but then the boy spoke a little English when I told them I was.  I asked them how far I had left to run. 10k the boy told me.  When I asked if it’s all up.  The man said a little….at that point a sheepdog was almost run over by a Land Rover turning into the drive.  I left the two of them roaring in laughter as I tried to fight back the tears at the thought of the dog being squashed right in front of me!

Stupid bloody emotions! That’s what lack of sleep can do to you! So I set off following the flags indicating the course on what I thought was another 10k.  I hoped that I could cover the terrain in less than 2.5 hours.  One of my errors in preparing for this race was to assume that my garmin could be charged whilst running from the powerbank I carried.  Unfortunately this did not work and when I tried to do so after about 10 hours I lost my data.  I waited for the Garmin to recharge enough and then reset it between checkpoints. Later I realised that the distance between checkpoints on the official race route was not as advertised, I could only use it as a rough guide.  Very frustrating when you are trying to gauge energy, effort levels and pace over 120km distance.


Slip sliding

The next Hill I had to climb was a shock to the system, it was basically a muddy hill side and the trail shoes I was wearing didn’t give me enough traction to get up the steep slope!  I had to use my pole like an ice pick and  pull myself up it.  Maybe every ten feet up I’d fall to my knees and I could feel the energy draining from my body!  When I eventually reached the summit I was hit with gale force winds!  The course took us over a huge bolder which was slippery with all the rain, I didn’t trust my muddy feet enough to climb over it so I opted to walk along the barbed wire fence instead.  One hand on the fence the other holding my precious hat on my head.  I made my way to the tree line as quick as I could in the fierce wind.  As I approached the tree I could see them almost bent over double in the wind!  Was this another hallucination?  I didn’t think so, there was evidence of freshly broken trees on the mountain floor and i could hear the branches straining.  I was now extremely worried that I would get debris or even a branch or tree come crashing down onto me.  As I hurried into the cover of the trees I slipped at a bank and grabbed out for a tree to steady me.  The sheared off section of a branch hit me square In the chest.  It hurt but luckily I didn’t fall with enough force for it to puncture me.  My brain played images of me stuck on the tree with the branch penetrating my body.  Would I have screamed out?  Would anybody of heard me over the wind n rain? What would the runner behind me do?  Doubt mountain rescue would be able to get to me for hours! Luckily the terrain was so hazardous that I had to push that thought out of my head and concentrate on every single footstep! Over the remainder of the race a small group of us stuck together and although we didn’t really exchange words we knew we were keeping an eye on each other.  We all wanted to finish in one piece and as we ran down the muddy hillsides we had to grab trees, branches, handfuls of grass or whatever we could find to try to slow ourselves down and prevent falling over.  


Mr Tumble

I genuinely lost count of how many times I unwillingly fell over.  Most of the time I was throwing myself onto the floor to prevent a larger fall.  Even this didn’t stop me having a number of tumbles that really hurt me.  The type when you know you’ve hurt yourself and I remember saying to myself, I’ve had enough now, I want this to end!!! In the past I’ve ran Man versus horse, touch murder and a number of fell races in Wales where mud had been part of the enjoyment.  On this occasion I was so exhausted that if I’d known a quicker way to the finish line then I would have stopped right then! 

‘Merci you wanker!’

Suddenly the distance didn’t matter, I was fed up of not having enough strength.  I was physically, mentally and emotional beaten.  At that point the devil had won….luckily for me I didn’t knew where I was, the only option for me was relentless forward progress.  I kept going over the same mantra….this pain will keep me awake.  I might not make the finish time but the finish line is the way home. Before I had that luxury I had to endure more of a beating.  At this point the runners whom had taken part in the shorter races were running past me.  Some of the lead runners came so fast down the hills that at the point I heard them over the wind and rain they had almost ran into me on a number of occasions.  Most of the time I would jump off the narrow path into what felt like a rocky ditch with all the rain water draining off the hillside.  On one particular occasion I jumped out of a guys way, which in turn caused me great pain and he didn’t even acknowledge that fact I had done so.  I was furious.  In my tired state of emotion I shouted back at him, ‘MERCI YOU WANKER!’.After that I decided I was still racing as well, all be it very slowly. It was up to them to find a way around me. 

‘We are strong. Come on’.

After what seemed like miles and certainly was a few hours I saw a hut approaching through the long grass.  In my tired state I now for some stupid reason thought that they must have moved the finish line due to all the rain! I unzipped my jacket, unfolded my mud splattered race number, held my arms in the air and smiled as I ran towards this gathering of people whom were cheering me in…… As I approached them I realised it was another feed station…I didn’t want food, I needed the finish line.  Surely it could only be another kilometre maybe two tops?  I grabbed a sugary bun and ran out of the checkpoint, feeling determined that I was close to the finish line.  As I left the building and approached another road I expected it to send me left, instead it was across the road towards a lake.  Was this right?  Had the wind blown the marking flag around?  Had someone messed with the course? I stopped running and walked around the lake, still uncertain if it was the right direction.  I then turned around and started walking back to the last checkpoint.  Luckily before I reached it one of the runners I’d passed earlier crossed the road and came my way.  I asked him if this route was correct.  In broken English he said maybe.  So together we began to run again.  I put my fingers to my neck and told him I was done.  No more.He simply replied ‘We are strong.  Come on’.  Those five little words brought renewed enthusiasm into my body.  A smile appeared on my face and I powered up the next hill and despite the pain I found the strength to run down the next one.  I then tried to copy his skiers technique for sliding down the muddy banks and hills.  I didn’t have enough strength left in my legs and I fell every time.  But now I had decided that I was going to finish this bloody race.  Yes i had been tested and yes I was feeling like shit but that’s the crap that lIfe throws at you.  

Finish line in sight

It wasn’t until the course directed us under a road, along what felt like a river bed.  The banks had now been worn away and I slipped at one point almost face planting into the water.  I opted for the easier option of running through the knee deep cold water instead.  Thinking that the finish line was just around the corner.  Sadly it was not,  there was even more hills to run up and tracks to run down or over until eventually I found myself running in the stream again but this time I could hear the finisher announcements on the PA system.  As I approached the road section again there was a man standing in the field on the other side of the fence I asked him what time it was…he pulled his phone out and showed me…..I punched the air with my fist, threw my head back and shouted merci.  Suddenly I could feel an emotional release building up inside me and I really struggled not to blubber.  I ran along side the road, around the finishers enclosure and a woman was standing there in the rain with an umbrella.  Probably waiting for a loved one in the wind and the lashing rain.  As I ran past her she congratulated me and I looked around to my right and I could see the finish area.  I almost burst into tears again.  I thanked her as I continued to the finish line.  As I approached the line I threw my now broken pole over the fenced off area, taking care not to hit anyone and crossed the line with my arms held in the air.  I asked for the time and they showed me I had made it in within the cut off time and that was all that mattered.  


I then proceeded to collect my finishers jacket, collect my dropoff bag and head back to the field that I expected Steve to be in.  I still had enough charge in my phone to call him but had no signal.  It was only at that point that I suddenly hoped he had finished as well.  What if he had twisted an ankle? How would I know? I walked the half mile or whatever it was to the field car park, I was soaked, legs, feet, back sore.  Mud all over me!  Not sure what I needed to do.  I felt like I needed a big hug, a cup of tea and then a shower…. I looked across to where we left the car…..it had gone….then I saw parked under a tree a similar colour car, damn hire car, was that the one we hired? No one was inside it? WTF, maybe Steve was asleep in the back?  I tried the door no luck.  I actually said F**k out loud. I looked around the field in disbelief and then I noticed, parked next to this car was our hire car and Steve was staring straight at me! Instant relief came over me and suddenly I was happy, secure and pleased to have such a good friend.  He already had gone through exactly what I had.  Although I was out in the rain for about two hours more than Steve and the trails had a lot of use and rain on them in that time! 
I must have looked a right mess with mud all over my face, arms, legs, up my back, I had to use my bum to slide down some of the slopes and my ultra light water proof trousers and jacket were ripped.  My stupid precious hat had fallen off on one of the many occasions I had fallen over.  Didn’t even notice it had gone at the time! 
Hopefully Steve has already told his version of events and all I know is that we both talked about how tough the race was in those conditions and how we both knew we just had to suck up the bad weather and finish the race.  I learnt last year in Annecy that a DNF really sucks.  I would rather have a DNS.  So this race I went into with the right mental attitude to give it maximum effort and hope that was enough to complete the race.  Looking at the results after the race, many whom entered did not.  Steve’s the stats man so am sure he would have an accurate number, think it’s over 100 DNF’s.  That’s a lot of experienced mountain trail runners who didn’t cut the grade.  That makes me feel pretty damn good about what we have just achieved.   As far as I’m concerned, if Steve says it was bloody tough then I’m happy to take his word. I jumped into the back of the car still dripping wet.  Steve put the heating on to max and we then had to watch as a camper van tried to wheel spin it’s way out of the field.  At one point the van smacked into a tree, which gave Steve enough time to zip past and start our journey to the hotel almost an hour away.  We chatted non-stop about different parts of the race and shared our experience.  Am sure we will both learn valuable lessons from this race and come out mentally stronger.  I love adventures with Steve and am sure this is just another chapter……good luck Steve for your 100miles in a few weeks’ time….at this moment in time I’m glad I don’t have to run long for a while yet….the 205km bike ride I’m doing just a couple of weeks after the ultra sounds much easier 😉 Not going to bore you with all the blisters or using the shower in the bathroom for almost two hours to clean the mud of my kit, or having the heating in the room on 30 to dry it all out.  We had to be imaginative with having things to dry.  The only time we used the TV in the hotel room was to dry Steve’s T-Shirt.  
Can’t explain how much I’m looking forward to pulling all the splinters out of my hands and wrists.  Think I’m going to end this blog now, currently sat on Eurostar and Steve’s gone off with my money to buy tea and hopefully pasta…..that’s another story right there!

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



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.


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!

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


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


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?

‘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.