Saturday, 9 September 2017

Stick-to-it-iveness: UTMB 2017

Trudging up a steep trail of mud and slick rock, head bowed against driving rain and hemmed in between male runners continually surging past towards the 2,500 metre Col du Bonhomme. I am always struggling here. And it's barely 25 miles into the race. Mental inventory: what's up with me?

Friday, 6.30pm. I had a strong start, edging into the first 150 runners after the elite pen, in a starting field of over 2,500. I'd learnt from 2015, any further back and I'd be walking out of Chamonix. We were a nervous, fidgeting crowd. Raw emotions and hopes. As Conquest of Paradise blasted out I felt calmer than I'd expected, stomach still, breath steady. Ready. We left Chamonix, eating into the 105 mile, 30,000 ft circle around Mont Blanc. Most of us wouldn't return until Sunday, and 850 of us would drop along the way.

As we headed along the flattest section of the trail to Les Houches, I kept a steady and measured pace. This year, no pushing on the short, sharp undulations, let others pass by. The spectator crowds blew me away. Despite a far from ideal forecast, people lined the streets many deep and late into the evening in Chamonix, Les Houches, St Gervais and Les Contamines to cushion our journey into the high mountains.

The first climb, a steep and rocky ski road up to Le Delevret, high above St Gervais, was smooth and I let what felt like 100 men pass by. I was fuelling early and often and felt strong until the deep mud up to Les Contamines began to steal my confidence and energy. People still passed me by the dozens and I longed for the peaceful later sections where egos and eagerness would have diminished, along with the constant scrape scrape of poles and sounds of human effort. Even 'allez, allez' began to grate, I needed some space and silence and perhaps the next climb would bring it.

Back on the climb to the Col du Bonhomme, the wind was whipping and rain began pounding, distorting the beams of headtorch light. I reminded myself - deal with every issue as it arises, and they will be temporary only. Physically I know I can do this. Up at the Col conditions were truly wild. I'm lucky to experience the UTMB in two years of opposing weather; in 2015 it was baking hot and today it was wintery and wild, much like Scotland. In 2015 by this point I'd already had 5 toilet stops with demoralising GI issues, this year I'd had none - so get on with it. It's just weather.

The technical ridgeline trail to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme was especially hardcore; a few miles of suck-it-up wind chill and ankle-bending rock. Nobody stopped along these high points, it was a race of endurance to each descent. I stopped drinking and eating and felt the effects of this 5km later in the valley, Les Chapieux. I had problems to solve quickly in the aid station; my back, just 28 miles in, was badly chafed by the bottom of my pack. Perhaps my pre-race routine was not diligent enough. I didn't feel like eating and one of my gaiters kept popping off, meaning many quick stops. A few minutes of re-applying anti-chafe, forcing calories down and a toilet break and I was back on the short road section out of the tiny village, kept company by a friendly, chirpy Australian girl called Robyn, who ran an incredible debut to finish 10th.

Over the next few hours over the Col de la Seigne my mind and stomach fell apart  temporarily. I can't explain why I wasn't eating properly, I know better. I began to feel nauseus and lacking. Yet more men came marching past and icy showers met us higher on the col. No hanging around here. I silently thanked the UTMB organisers for cutting the next technical climb to Pyramids Calcaires (which does seem an illogical detour off the TMB at any time). At Lac Combal I had a word with myself, I must fuel properly no matter how little I want to. So I ate well here, almond bars, soup and some Coke for the first time.

It wouldn't be long before the sun came up but the next few hours before dawn were bitterly cold on the 500m climb up to Arete de Mont Favre - one of the most breathtaking vistas on the course. Now just a 7km undulating then steep descent down into Courmayeur. The field was mercifully thinning and less men were charging by. 'Run mindful' mantras ran through my mind constantly as I passed technical sections of trail where in the past I've fallen or sprained an ankle. The descent was a joy this time around. Would Liz meet me in Courmayeur? I'd said I didn't need anyone but secretly hoped she would be there for ten minutes of human connection and a smooth transition.

And there, outside the sports centre, she was, cheering and positive. I had no idea where I was in the ladies field but reckoned nowhere near the top 30, yet Liz told me I was closing a gap to reaching it, and Sally McRae had left the aid ten minutes earlier. I ate well - pasta and rehydration salts - and re-stocked with gels and bars for the next long stage. In 2015 it was 11 hours from here until Champex Lac and my crew.

On a good day, I love the steady dry switchbacks up to Refuge Bertone, a halfway landmark from fun recce weekends, and enjoyed a laidback chat with a guy from Montana and then Amy Sproston. Amy had already passed me no fewer than four times in the last 20 miles, continually having to stop due to GI issues but running an inspirational pace with a smooth and strong gait in between. It was surreal being around world class runners and I felt detached, like I was in a different race. Towards the top of the climb I passed Sally McRae, who seemed to be battling some issues.

It was extremely cold up there on the ridge between Bertone and Bonatti, a favourite section of fairly runnable single track. Bonatti would be a milestone, where I'd said I'd text Liz and Giles an update. Now I had elites chasing me and was entering the thick of the race, just over halfway which I always feel is harder mentally than the latter sections. So far to go, hard to run the inclines, getting tough to stop and start constantly, fuel is entirely unappealing, runners starting to drop at checkpoints.

We ran out of Italy and into a storm. After Arnouvaz, thick clouds formed and a brutal wind picked up, throwing down hard showers of hail and, higher up, snow, just as I set foot on the Grand Col Ferret climb. I can't stand running in waterproofs but had no option but to stop and put on pretty much all my spare kit. It felt like a slow climb, with all of my focus taken on moving forward into the wind and not much left for eating and drinking. The col was beautiful, dusted with fresh snow and surrounded by a skyline of white peaks.

On the way down to La Peule I passed several women but still felt slow. Every time I took off my waterproof the rain would start again. At La Fouly I took care of myself properly knowing I would spiral if I didn't; salty crackers and cheese, soup and coke restored me a little. As I left I saw Sabrina Verjee, recent Lakeland 100 winner, just behind me. It was soon apparent that the route from La Fouly to Praz de Fort had also been changed, and instead of the riverside trail and narrow singletrack through the forest we were re-directed 7km along the main road. I loved it and ran well, the road was nothing short of a respite. As we finally left it to rejoin the trail at Praz de Fort I felt surprisingly upbeat, excited even. Just another few miles to the climb I'd grown to love up to Champex, and my crew. Sabrina caught me and it was refreshing to talk to her on the ascent, which was a mudbath. I felt almost deliriously positive but worried a crash may follow so forced a chocolate flapjack down. If in doubt, eat.

It was amazing to see Giles and Liz and in the warm madness of the huge marquee I attempted to change clothes, socks, deal with chafing, eat, drink and talk, a messy whirlwind. They'd brought an impressive savoury selection and quiche and rice salad tasted so good. I left in just under 20 minutes ahead of Sabrina and got into a good stride after the road climb out of the town. The miles to Plan De L'eau melted away and I knew I could take on the climb, the first of the final three. I knew it well now, its brutally steep rocky sections but the gentler switchback reprieves that came after. Up above on the ridge the brightness in the sky gave me a new confidence, reminding me that by this stage in 2015 I was running into the twilight. Next came more mud, technical rooty descent and being saved again and again by poles. From Champex to the finish last year took 12 hours, with this section to Trient taking 4. In the recce Jamie and I had taken 3 so I knew I could improve here and capitalise on how I was feeling. It felt amazing to run into Trient in 3 hours 11 minutes and this stoked the fire to finish as fast as I could. On the last mile into the aid I passed Magda Boulet and Amanda Basham although I didn't register who they were at the time.

12 minutes in the tent: potatoes, raclette, rehydration salts, painkillers - G & L had it all! Together with my iPod fired up for the first time I felt ready for the penultimate 900m climb up to Les Tseppes. Marching up the track to the start of the switchbacks, I could hear Magda, Amanda and KC Lickteig behind me, forming a team and chanting "two more climbs". They were upbeat and I let them pass, their pace was inspiring but I wanted my own space and to keep my own. I was comforted by comparing my state tonight to the state I was in here two years ago, when I'd tried unsuccessfully to snooze at the side of the trail. The descent finally came around, bringing with it deep pole and ankle-sucking mud and horizontal rain. Visibility was terrible and it was all I could do to stay on the trail with a very slow jogging pace. Grit flew everywhere and it was hard to fuel myself and keep focus so I just concentrated on small sections; the muddy mountain bike switchbacks; the rooty flatter section to the ski lifts marking the border back into France; the rocky few km's of ski road; the final technical rocky descent into Vallorcine. I arrived in 2.40, well below my 3 hour target, overjoyed but shaky and undernourished.

Giles was purveyor of the saltiest fries I've ever eaten - tasted amazing - and together with Liz worked to re-stock and refuel me for the final push, the re-routed section from Col des Montets through to Tre-le-Champs and up to Flegere. Sabrina was back and we worked together until the Col but as we started up the difficult ground I felt the first struggles of sleep deprivation and was weaving around the trail with many an involuntary thought popping into my head. I got music back on and tried to get into a steady stride. The normal race route to Flegere is a continuous climb but this new route had us climbing 300m before dropping almost to Argentiere and climbing another 500m from there. The less said about this section the better, it sapped all I had mentally and physically. Several folk became concerned on the descent that we were off route, that we'd followed OCC signage rather than UTMB. A group of us called race control and then Gavin, who'd run the CCC, and both confirmed we were on the right course. We'd wasted 20 minutes standing still and I was kicking myself for not being assertive and carrying on, as I'd never doubted the UTMB course markings before - they were nothing short of exceptional throughout.

I cracked on, burning through with a reserve energy I didn't know I had. An hour later we reached a long stony ski road and I knew we were close. Thick fog and neon course markings distorted my view and I felt like we were on another planet. Every time we saw a new light I was sure it was Flegere, and every time it was another course marking. We were now a pack of runners, talking in Spanish, English and French but working together. But here was Flegere finally, a ghostly tent on vast grey terrain. I was done stopping and starting so walking right through to start the descent.

My memory of the 8km down to Chamonix is of pure endurance section by section. After 3km of technical rooty, slippy trail comes La Floria, after which the technicality eases significantly. Then a runnable but rocky fire road and, eventually, the final 1.5km road loop through Chamonix to reach the finish line. I remember zoning back into my body with a jolt, feeling like I'd not been in my own head for minutes. How was my body still running on it's own? A strange and incredible autopilot had kicked in to seemingly save my last remaining energy.

In Chamonix I wanted to smile, laugh and cry but my internal zombie runner was now in charge. The spectator noise was deafening even at this unsociable hour of 2am, and soon I saw my lovely crowd; Giles, Liz, Lorna, Gavin, Damian, Louisa and Julie. The finish line was a confusing assault on the senses, which I crossed in 31.42, 189th overall, 20th female and 14th senior female.

I'll spare you the messy finish details but soon enough my old friend low blood pressure was back and I was dizzy, nauseus and completely out of it. I narrowly avoided sickness in the taxi home and found myself wiped down enough to crawl into bed. I'm eternally grateful to all those who were there for me: sent me words of encouragement before, during and after; were there through thick and thin in the race (Giles, Liz); pushed me around three punishing recce weekends (Jamie, Carrie); ran faster than me in the race and inspired me to follow; and peeled my sweaty clothes off in the men's toilet off a pub straight after the race, not taking no for an answer (Lorna!). Coach Ryan you have been a constant and responsive support through my training, helping me develop the tools to find another gear in this race, thank you. The reciprocal culture of the ultrarunning community is nothing short of special and forms bonds that are never forgotten.

More than once in the race I was reminded of a quote I have pinned to my office wall:

"The three great essentials for achieving something worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-it-iveness and common sense" (Thomas Edison)

Sometimes in life I feel I struggle with sticking to it but race experiences like this show me I can, in races and elsewhere. With a few days of perspective some of the things that helped me were:
  • Sticking to the pacing plan, and letting the hoards of men pass by early on
  • Letting myself be inspired not threatened by the formidable elite women around me
  • Knowing all discomfort will be temporary and knowing myself well enough to remember I love the feeling of pushing hard on tired legs at the end of a race; always try to get to this stage
  • All of the steep and ruthless sections of trail are followed at some stage by kinder sections where I can breathe and recover - the relief and reprieve will always come.
The full results are here.

The I Run Far results article is here.

A Scottish Athletics write-up is here.

Essential kit
The start
Fresh clothes and support at Champex Lac

Reaching Trient
Food choices at Trient
My only photo from the race, high above the Swiss valley en route to Trient

Chamonix from Flegere (taken pre-race)

 Congratulations fellow gilet-wearers :-)

 Some of our team, recovery hike to La Jonction

Monday, 19 December 2016

My Winter West Highland Way

I learnt a few important things during the West Highland Way run this weekend which I won't forget soon. These may make more sense after reading what unfolded throughout.
  • My friends, family and running community are nothing short of amazing, and accepting help is ok sometimes. THANK YOU to all those who kept me going and to every single donor. You were all part of this and it was through and through a team event.
  • No matter how much you want such challenges to run smoothly, no matter how much running experience you have, they seldom do and you just have to accept the difficulties. Don't give in because of perfectionism. I'm reminded of a quote from The Rules of Being Human "A lesson is repeated until learned. It is presented to you in various forms until you learn it".
Why this?
I'd had the idea to run a midwinter West Highland Way earlier this year, and it crystalised after I started working for Link Community Development and visited Ethiopia, seeing the struggles that children go through to access a decent education. I realised I hadn't raised money through my running for a few years and it all seemed to fit together for this winter, whilst Ethiopia was still fresh in my mind to talk to people about. The lovely Murdo McEwan said I might be the first woman to complete this, and whilst I hadn't been aware of this we thought it would be a good hook to raise the profile of Link's work. I wasn't concerned about following the 'rules' of midwinter West Highland Way attempts - I just wanted to cover the miles as close to midwinter as I could - but running north to south seemed a great idea to change things up from always racing south to north, plus finishing in the central belt closer to everyone's homes was an attractive proposition.

The plan
1) Run north to south, starting 9pm on Friday in Fort William
2) Definitely a supported run: two crews for the day: Giles, Jamie and several of our Trustees Alasdair and Mark through the night, switching to my Dad, Julie and Liz from Tyndrum/Beinglas. Support runners and amazing cheerleaders Lorna, Carol, Dawn, Matt, Gavin for the final miles from Balmaha.
3) Strategy: stay present, no pace pressure, no racing, take things section by section. When feeling rough, eat and drink.

The start

I didn't expect this to be the hardest part. Jamie was kindly running with me for the night section, and we set off from Lochaber Leisure Centre - the finish line of the West Highland Way Race - just after 9pm. We felt great - fresh legs, a bright moon, very light rain but mild temps and lots to discuss. We hiked/jogged the few miles up above Fort William, with Ben Nevis looming to our left beneath a starry night sky. The West Highland Way follows the fire road to a left turn onto rolling single track trail, 7 miles total from Fort William to Lundavra. I'd known about this section of the trail being closed for forestry works but wanted to see if we could get through - failing this we could still climb back up to the fire road and take the diversion (the signs indicated following the road 7.5km would take us to Lundavra). Around 1.5 miles down the trail we came up against a heap of felled trees but this looked passable to trail beyond. Clambering over, we were faced with ankle-deep mud with the original trail becoming unrecognisable, into a network of mud tracks created for forestry vehicles. After following what we thought would be the main track through to Lundavra for another 10 minutes or so, this ended at a muddy drop, with no trail in sight. We were so close to the road but there was no way through. In darkness and with no idea where the trail was, we decided the best plan was to retreat back to the fireroad for the diversion - demoralising though backtracking 1.5 miles at this stage was.

We managed to cut up to the fire road and ran back along this to check diversion signs at the trail turning once again - with no phone signal and the very unclear forestry map on the signage we thought we'd try follow the fire road back up the way we'd just run, surely this was the 7.5km indicated in the forestry signage (returning to Fort William and along the B road would be well over 10km). We ran along the fire road for a second time, another mile or so, but yet again this ended in a dead end, a steep drop down to the river - with no trail or other road in sight and no sensible option rather than to return back to Fort William. Still no phone signal and a sense of dread rising inside. We were stressed and haemorraging time - this could end the run.

Thankfully, halfway down the hill back to town we found a few signal bars and got through to Giles, who had been waiting in Lundavra for nearly 3 hours now (this split was scheduled to take 1.5 hours). He drove to Braveheart car park at the bottom of the hill and met us. We had no options to make this a 'clean' run now - we'd now run nearly 12.5 miles and to follow the B road would take us up to a crazy 19 miles for what should have been just 7 miles, making the 95 mile plan into a 107 mile run and putting the entire thing at risk. I didn't want to callit a night and restart in the morning as this would mess logistics up for crew and be extremely difficult mentally. So given the extra miles we'd already covered we jumped in the car and drove to Lundavra, restarting the run from there, 1 hour 40 minutes behind schedule. I struggled with the stress of this for a while, and got pretty cold in the meantime from all the hanging about discussing what to do - but after a few miles Jamie and I got back into our stride across the rocky Larig Mor. It ended up a strong and steady section give or take one fall in which I managed to rip my lovely new all weather tights. We reached Kinlochleven in 1.34, making up a little time.

Kinlochleven to Tyndrum
A quick stop for a falafel sandwich and on we went, hiking the climb out of the village. It was chilly up towards the Devil's Staircase, with a cold wind picking up. But nothing compared to the winter weather we could have had - it didn't drop below freezing at all and the moon helped light the trail. My favourite part of the West Highland Way, this was special to run at night, and descending the Devil wasn't as dicey as I'd imagined. Down to Altnafeadh and a quick drink and bite of pasta from Giles before a steady few miles up to Glencoe ski centre. I felt strong again and wondered how much more time I could make up. I didn't ever think I'd be struggling to make a sub-24 hour run but the morning's mishaps had seriously put that into question. Section by section, stay present, I remind myself.

Jamie stopped with Giles at Glencoe, having given me fantastic company for most of the night. I left here after more pasta, to experience Rannoch Moor at night and on my own for the very first time. I still felt good, watch reading over 30 miles in, glad I was on this section when still relatively fresh - the boulders and their shadows could easily take on human forms to a tired mind. The coldest section for sure, there was a vicious headwind at points and I allowed myself a few 30 second hike breaks before spotting Giles running up towards me from Victoria Bridge. A quick sock and shoe change (Stance socks - absolutely worth the money!) and off again down the road to Inveroran. Jamie joined again for a slog up Jelly Baby Hill and we'd just been chatting about Murdo when we found a plastic wallet full of jelly babies and lovely wishes. He'd been here on schedule just a few hours earlier! Amazing kindness from the King of JBH.

Bridge of Orchy was a good milestone, one of our Trustees Mark Beaumont (not that one) was due to join on his MTB to cycle with me over to Tyndrum. Quick eats and bottle change and off we went. A little headwind again and a lot of standing water on this section but it unfolded fairly smoothly.

Down into Tyndrum - and hello to Murdo, who popped up in person, then my lovely Dad, Giles and Jamie. Mark sent me on my way with a shot of his home ground Ethiopian coffee (really mastering the middle class running nutrition today) and I had a few spoons of oats and was able to take off my headtorch for the first time - absolute joy! Then off solo to Auchtertyre. I have to say this was one of the highlights - a bruised red and purple winter sky dominating the landscape ahead, and enjoying the beautiful single track trail next to the river for a few miles.

Into the south
Into Auchtertyre I stopped for another 5 minutes for more oats - ready for a long section of rolling hills to Beinglas Farm, and another milestone where I'd see Julie and Liz for the first time and have running company until the finish. Murdo joined me to hike up the first major hill, then I soaked up the solitude and some iPod time until Jamie met me a mile or so before Carmyle Cottage. The Crianlarich hills and a windy coo poo alley had my quads complaining, and by Carmyle I had a few more spoons of oats and some of the most incredible tasting ginger beer, which became coke replacement for the day.

Giles ran with me for 4 miles until Beinglas, and pepped me up by reading out messages on Facebook in funny accents, and stopping to film at the most unflattering angles possible. We had a giggle and hiked the little hills to reach Beinglas campsite - stocking up point. I wouldn't see any crew for 14 tough miles around the Loch Lomond shore and through the remote Inversnaid. My triathlete friend Liz joined me for the section - her first run on the West Highland Way after crewing for me in the summer, and on probably the most technical terrain - doing a cracking job of chatting now and again and setting the pace. Her chat of starting pro triathlete training of 3 sessions a day actually made me glad to just be running!

More mental calculus - if I can manage Beinglas to Inversnaid in under 2 hours, then same again to Rowardennan then I can bank a little more time. We reached Inversnaid Hotel in around 1.45 and stopped for 5 minutes for flapjack and water before heading up the rollercoaster trail to Rowardennan. Quite a bit of walking here but still reached the car park and Dad/Julie by 14.40 - 3 hours 30 minutes after leaving Beinglas. A little time in bank, I found a spot for a total clothes/shoe change (something I never ususally do in races) and was presented with the most delicious-tasting veggie burger Dad got from the hotel. I didn't realise how hungry I was and wolfed half of it down before heading out with Julie, for her turn to support run - and first West Highland Way experience also. Things were starting to hurt and a marathon to go didn't seem insubstantial. Just a few miles down the trail and John and Katrina Kynaston appear with a few cheers, turning to run with us back to Balmaha - and all of a sudden we had a little team on the go which helped the time and miles melt away. I was surprised at how messy my quads felt, really tight on the downhills. The lack of formal training and less mileage since CCC and UROC was showing.

Thanks to Murdo McEwan for pic
Balmaha - any ultra runner will know the feeling of anticipating arrival to a checkpoint for so long, just to arrive and feel there is still so far to go. I'd felt better at this stage in races where I was running a lot faster. Despite trying to run in the moment, the mental calculus of trying to finish sub 24 after such a rocky start was exhausting. Giles had messaged me at one point to say I should aim to finish before 10pm and not 9pm, given how the extra mileage would balance out the sub-24. On one hand I wanted it to be a 'clean' sub-24 for the sake of Link's profile and an achievement not to be repeated, but on the other I didn't want to care about time at all.

Running into the carpark, we were met by the incredible cheer of Dawn, Lorna, Carol, Dad, Liz and Giles, all set with another veggie burger and ginger beer. Another few bites (still so good, one plus for this stage in the run!) and off with lovely Dawn up and over Conic Hill. I've barely run this direction so forgot how steep it was from the Balmaha side. Those deep steps. My quads did not like, and I had zero chat for Dawn but that fortunately didn't phase her cheeriness. Near the top, I stopped suddenly, sensing a massive shape centre trail ahead, and Dawn very nearly ran into the rear end of a large highland cow. It followed her instruction to get off the trail and only later did she say how terrified she is of them - amazing effort.

After a caffeine gel I regained some chat and the few miles down and over the forestry track to Drymen forest carpark seemed more bearable (though I was still having flashbacks to forestry nightmares of last night!). It was absolutely amazing here - a peaceful forest with barn owls calling, a special place to be in the dark and reminding me of Mum and her love of owls. My primary school friend Judy appeared with her family along with all the others from Balmaha. Yet more ginger beer and another gel for the road. Next I would run with Lorna, a scary prospect as she had goals for me.

We left Drymen round 7pm. Over the field and onto the rollercoaster road out of the village, we walked the hills and ran the flats and downs, although she tried a few tricks such as "this is actually flat, the hill you can see is way in the distance" - I wasn't convinced.We had 6 miles together, and a few miles in Gavin and Matt appeared from nowhere - another lovely surprise which helped my chat and pace a little.

The end
We reach the Beech Tree and a small crowd of happy faces. I can't stop or think about what I need, as my feet and quads are in bits, I'm feeling emotional and I know I won't make sub 24 and Milngavie by 9pm, although by this point my watch has gone crazy with the detouring and is registering over 100 miles. A swig of ginger beer and off again, this time with Carol Martin, who does an amazing job in picking up from Lorna's mantel and keeping my mind occupied with chat. 2 miles to the end of the flat cycle path, then a right turn back on to the trail and gentle uphill to Carbeth. Then just 4 miles to go. Giles, Jamie, Dawn and the lovely 'fluffies', Jamie's dogs, appear again. I had to stop for a few tears with Giles to get some of this out before the finish. Pirate (one fluffy) manages to make us giggle by trying to lead the way and turn right back to their cottage instead of straight onto Milngavie. Probably wondering what the hell the humans were up to.

A few more miles of real discomfort in the feet and quads and we were there - to the most incredible welcoming committee in the town centre. We all ran from the bridge to the railway tunnel together, and it was over. The time was 9.35pm (thanks Helen and John! And no thanks to Suunto, which died three miles back!), so a time of 24 hours 35 minutes for a run distance of around 101 miles. See here for the confusing data (if anyone into data wants to try work out my actual time please go ahead, my post-run brain is barely working).

Finish video

A haze of group hugs, a few more tears and prosecco and pizza appeared from nowhere (thanks Lorna and Kate). Unfortunately, as I'd anticipated, within a few minutes I had the dizziness and sickness I'd had after June's race and had to retreat behind the car where I felt like passing out. Not the most social of finishes, but I hope everyone there knew I wanted it to be otherwise. Giles bundles me in the car and let's just say it was lucky Andy donated some sick bags for the drive to my brother and sister in law's in Bridge of Weir.

So I mentioned learning: perhaps reccying forestry works should be part of that :-) It was certainly an adventure. Doing something like this - although you wonder again and again why you put yourself up for such a battering - certainly gives you an appreciation of everything after the event. Especially people and what matters. Thank you again to all those who've given and been part of this, either in person or from a distance. So far our team has raised over £3,400 for Link's work in Africa to benefit children, especially girls, in the most remote communities who cannot access education or opportunities as we can - read more about it here.

If you haven't donated or can pass the Virgin Money Giving link on, please do. Perhaps we can make £4,000 by Christmas.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Climbing Mont Blanc: Trois Monts route

Ok, not running but I wanted to capture our day yesterday climbing Mont Blanc. An entirely new experience from throwing on shoes and running, and challenging mentally and physically in so many more ways than I imagined.

An experienced mountaineer and trained international mountain leader, this would be Giles' fourth 4,000 metre Alps peak in two weeks and 30th overall, and he'd climbed Mont Blanc a decade before. So even though I've just learnt how to use crampons, ice axes etc., I felt safe.

We decided on the Three Monts route up - which would climb 1,450m to the summit at 4,809m - and to descend via the Gouter route, or the 'normal' route people take up the mountain. The Three Monts is more technical and some books give it a harder grade, but the huts for a Gouter ascent were full and we thought given the fine forecast it would be do-able. Plus passing Mont Maudit would give the opportunity for Giles to climb a 4,000 he hadn't yet (the Three Monts traverses past the summits of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit en route to Mont Blanc). Some thorough forecast checking in the days earlier showed Tuesday and Wednesday with clear skies, warm temps and almost wind-free at high altitude, just 10km p/h predicted for the summit, before a break and rain on Thursday.

So Tuesday afternoon we caught the Aiguille du Midi telepherique, roasting in full mountain gear sardined in with hoardes of tourists from a 28 degree Chamonix. Heading out of the viewing station at the top through the ice tunnel and onto the east ridge of the Midi was sobering. A steep descent onto a ridge just a few feet wide with super steep drops hundreds of metres either side, and slushy late-afternoon conditions made for tentative progress down to the Col du Midi where we made our way to the Cosmiques hut for the night - just in time before snow clouds descended on the mountain for a few hours.

Cosmiques arête down to the refuge

The view across the Mont Blanc massif was incredible. The Bossons glacier sprawling in front of us, the Aiguilles du Midi, Chamonix a few km below and most relevant, the steep slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul illustrating what the first section of the climb would entail. Quite honestly, I couldn't imagine climbing this - it looked so steep and fraught with crevasses. For an hour and a half as we ate dinner with a hundred gnarly-looking mountaineers (I did not feel one of them!) I watched two parties of climbers descend Tacul; slow, exhausted steps down the serac-laden route trying to reach the refuge before night fall. I was both fearful and excited for the unknown and what lay ahead.

First climb up to the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m)

What better way for Giles to fully enjoy his birthday than get up at 12.40am for breakfast and climb a mountain! Most climbers start at 1.30am - 2am, aiming to summit by 9am and safely descend before snow melt causes more risks of rock fall. Neither of us had slept in the crammed, snore-fest of a bunk room, but I felt fine considering - full of adrenaline - and we forced down some muesli and tea before gearing up and heading out into the snow to join a long line of headtorches up to the Tacul ascent. There were some pretty steep, calf-burning sections as well as more sustainable zig-zag lines, but on the whole it wasn't as challenging to hike up than it had looked from the hut window. When you're right there on it, you don't see the crevassed terrain in the same perspective, and the crevasse crossings had wide bridges and felt safe. It felt tough but the kind of tough that also feels amazing - how could it not when you're surrounded by the beauty of the Mont Blanc massif shrouded in moonlight, and Chamonix glistening 3 km's below us. Overtaking other groups was at times challenging - at least 200 people would try to summit today - but we had to be patient and I had to remind myself constantly that a sustainable pace was all that was needed, we were not racing anyone.

We reached the top - the shoulder of Mont Tacul - in just less than two hours, ahead of schedule, and had a brief respite of slight downhill to Col Maudit before another steep climb up to the second Col du Mont Maudit (yes, confusing), stopping en route to insert hand warmers into gloves and don buffs to protect our faces. It started with the zig-zags criss crossing across the crevassed glacier but after another hour we reached a queue of climbers. Here was an imposing wall of icy snow and teams were lining up to clip onto a fixed line, with some taking out two ice axes for safety. Our hands and feet were getting cold hanging around at the base, but we had to wait for people to make their way up. As our turn came, we clipped in and started the climb steadily. I was as safe as I could be, attached to the line, roped to Giles and an ice axe, but I tangibly felt the open space behind me as I edged up. Giles waited ahead at a rocky outcrop and as I climbed I realised with panic that not one but both crampons were coming loose. We thought we'd been careful to work out the bindings but I'd hired warmer high altitude boots and combined with the steep climbing this must have affected the fitting. Imagining my crampons tumbling 1000 feet below I was even more careful with my footing and securing the axe in place before moving, and reaching the outcrop we refixed them for the final pitch ahead. Giles moved to reach the top of the col and belay me up, but our progress was hampered by another party and their guide climbing over our rope and racing to the top.

At the top we were very cold and I was shaking with the adrenaline of the ice climb. Ahead lay a narrow and icy ridge path just a foot wide, above snow cliffs dropping off to the right; it was a dramatic, exhilarating hike leading up to the next col, Col de la Brenva. Around us the sky was now lightening and the shadowy mountain skyline waking up with a dusky pink alpenglow. I'd thought we'd take in some tea and refuel here but we couldn't even face stopping to put on our down jackets, with windchill the temp must have been -15 to -20 and we were quickly realising the wind was much stronger than forecast, whipping and whistling fiercely across the col. We headed forwards as swiftly as altitude would allow to try and escape it on the next climb to Mur de la Cote, the penultimate ascent before the final summit ascent.

But there was barely a respite on the climb, one switchback we'd be head first into blasting bitter wind and the return would be a steeper gradient - tough ground for tired legs and gasping lungs. I knew Giles was cold and we needed to get our down on and get some fuel in so when we spotted a rock with other climbers crouching behind we took our chance and stopped there for 5 minutes. A quick layering up, some warm hut tea and a few bites of spinach tart and back we went into the wind.

The final ascent to summit
By this point we could clearly see the summit, smooth yet steeply rounded and shrouded in alpenglow, but we had a further 325 metres of hard climbing to reach it. Switchback by switchback with hardly a word said. At this point I was just trying to keep a sustainable rhythm, and attempting to work out the best way to keep my face covered yet still be able to breathe as deeply as I needed to - a tricky balance! It was almost impossible to appreciate the scenery around us whilst ascending in the wind but as we approached the summit I couldn't stop the lump in my throat and pure relief that we'd made it in the time we needed to. It was 8.20am - the climb had taken us 6 hours 20 minutes from the hut. If we kept strong we could descend in 5 hours via Gouter and make one of the late afternoon trams back to the valley.

Standing on the highest point in Western Europe was surreal, with coloured cloud banks and mountains stretching all around and below. A couple were sitting down on one of the south slopes out of the worst of the wind so we followed suit and had a quick break before taking off for the descent to Gouter, first towards the west via the Bosses ridge. Another dramatic, beautiful ridge winding for hundreds of metres ahead, similar to the Midi east ridge. We dropped down over the Petite Bosse then the Grand Bosse crossing into the Italian side of the ridge, exposed but easy ground. I'd naively thought that the 'normal' route wouldn't have many or any technical sections but we soon found ourselves in yet another queue of people at a tricky set of snow steps above a gaping hole into a crevasse. We were growing colder as we waited in the bitterly wind and I can see why queues like this can make for dangerous climbing - and as well as the cold there's pressure to down climb the section fast to let others through. Giles roped me down and I clung to a step above the crevasse, with a narrow snow bridge to jump down to over the crevasse, one of those situations where the longer you think about it the harder it becomes. A few minutes later I was down and the guides behind us had it mastered in seconds by facing forwards and jumping without the axe - but I don't think this strategy would have ended well for clumsy me!

Safely through and with shaky legs, we were back on firmer ground, a steady ridge past the Vallot emergency shelter across to the Col du Dome, before traversing around the Dome du Gouter. At 10.30am we reached the Gouter refuge, an impressive, space-age building set into the rockface of the Aiguile du Gouter. A little spaced out ourselves, we refuelled on a 10 Euro slice of quiche (French huts aint too cheap these days), coffee and hot chocolate. We couldn't let ourselves rest too long - we still had around 3 hours of descending on tired quads and sleep deprived brains.

Gouter refuge: great coffee and quiche but you pay for it!

The beautiful Aiguille de Bionnassay ridge
Next came a technical, via ferrata-style descent down the rocky ridge next to the Grand Couloir. There was no snow to be seen so we packed the crampons, ropes and axes away and used the fixed support lines down the rocks. This drop of 600 metres took around an hour and a half, with the distinctive echoes of rocks trickling down the couloir reminding us on several occasions of the danger of the section below us. We'd have to cross directly through the bottom of this couloir - one of the infamous sections of Mont Blanc where over 70 people have lost their lives through rock fall or avalanche over the past two decades. There is almost constant rock fall here through the summer months, and especially in the afternoons, when snow melt higher up in the gully unsettles loose rocks which set off chain reactions down the long, steep face.

At the bottom we waited for other groups to clear the crossing before studying the ground above for movement and listening for rocks. One by one we crossed, half running, half hiking. It takes a matter of minutes to reach safer ground and we celebrated by breaking out the walking poles and sliding over a snowy field - the last of the day - to pass the Tete Rousse hut (another point people start the climb from) and another rocky but more hikable hour of descent to the tiny Rognes refuge. We were trying to find the Nid D'Aigle station - the highest stop for the small train from St. Gervais - and thought the Rognes refuge was it, but something was telling me the descent wouldn't end this easily and sure enough some walkers told us the station was yet another hour down rocky terrain. We found some energy and hiked down in under 40 minutes to sneakily catch the 3.20 train as it was edging into the platform. Those poor tourists who found themselves next to us, dehydrated, depleted and seriously stinky from 11 hours of hard work.

I felt battered and shattered last night but a new person today - grateful for ten hours of sleep, being back in the valley and deserving of some real R&R before the CCC. Taper time indeed.

I have no idea how Kilian Jornet speed climbs this mountain - there is no straightforward hiking route either up or down and it surely is not a mountain for any ability much less than his to go fast and light. We used every piece of clothing and most equipment in our heavy bags on what was set to be a perfect summer's forecast! Yet overall it was one special day that will stay with me for a long time. Happy birthday Giles! :-)

Monday, 20 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

"Running is how I renew my soul. I come back a new woman, a better mother, a better wife and a better friend. It gives me confidence, makes me realize how endless the possibilities are, and what can be achieved, even when I’m so tired and feel like I can’t go another step there always is another step, another hill that can be climbed."

Terry Toffelmire, thanks to Sally McCrae for this quote from her site

Like so many other ultra runners, there were many times in the second half of the West Highland Way Race where I questioned why we do this. What am I doing to my body? I just want to be sitting with my feet in that river instead of hiking this hill. I want to rest at the top of the Devil's Staircase like the walkers I can see, rather than starting to run again as soon as I reach the top.

Training had been good. Through May and June, since the Highland Fling, I'd focused on hills and climbed over 42,000 feet. I felt great physically, although more than ready to taper and rest. I'd run a decent Fling, a hard fought 8.54 finish not without one or two mistakes. I felt strong and ready to test my strength and endurance in trying for a sub-20 hour West Highland Way, but I'd always maintained a healthy respect for the 96 mile route after my first attempt at it in 2012.

Pre-race I was excited, just to be out there on the trail all day from start to finish in what were promising to be beautiful conditions. This forecast was such a relief to see. My 2012 race featured pouring rain for over 20 hours, macerated feet, an amateur endurance level and an Achilles injury, and I dragged myself over the line in 26 hours 45.

Some highlights, some struggles

The start, 1am in Milngavie (credit: Phil McCloy)

The first few sections were a beautiful joy to run. I was enjoying running steady and easy, and talking to people along the way. The night sky was so bright with a near-full moon that we hardly needed head torches. Even a fall four miles in whilst chatting to Lorna didn't phase me too much, fortunately I managed a roll into long grass and came off lightly.

Approaching Conic Hill the moon's reflection was cast across Loch Lomond and it was spectacular. I hoped Julie and Liz - my morning crew - were enjoying the views in Balmaha and not being eaten alive by midges. After a fast-hike up the hill I came down to the CP in 3:03 and it was great to see them there - oats, coffee and encouragement - and I got to ditch the headtorch and head forwards for a fresh day ahead.

Rowardennan at 27 miles came along in good time, 1 hour 28, a section run so many times but today to be enjoyed and not raced. I was feeling good still. But just as soon as Lorna and I had been talking about the midges not being bad so far we were hit by clouds of them. Only a few minutes in the CP were bearable to wolf down a few bites, replace fluids and take supplies for the next 14 mile stretch to Beinglas, which would be without support (the next CP Inversnaid is too remote for crew access).

Then 14 miles of MIDGE TORTURE - out in volume I'd never seen before due to the absence of any wind and the still cloudy early morning conditions. Black swathes of them hitting the eyes, nose, mouth, legs constantly, from the moment we left Rowardennan to Beinglas, only easing a little as we approached the checkpoint. My cap was pointless in staving them off and every few minutes I had to try remove them from my eyes as couldn't see properly. Ahead, Lorna had grabbed some bracken and I followed suit, trying to bat the clouds away. The Adventure Show were filming this year's race and I'm glad they weren't here for this part, although I'm sure it'd be entertaining.

Those creatures (courtesy of Monument Photos)

Beinglas farm with Julie

By Beinglas I was praying the midge-fest was over (it was) and after a quick hike through with pasta and pesto I decided I needed music to see me through this tough section - still under halfway with 9 miles of tricky undulations to the next CP at Auchtertyre. I'd planned to only put the iPod on after halfway but I needed something to lift me up from the difficult miles before, and it worked. Ahead I was excited to see Julie & Liz again at the Crianlarich deer fence and also couldn't wait to see Giles and Fraser (crew for the second half) for the first time. The rollercoaster hills rolled by and after 9 hours 22 of running I'd reached half way at Auchtertyre, greeted by Giles full of beans and positivity at the gate. A brief few minutes of being weighed and re-stocked before heading onwards for Tyndrum and the northern half.

After seeing Giles and Fraser again at Brodies in Tyndrum for a dose of sunscreen and Coke, I set off over the most runnable (trail) section of the route. I usually love this section (especially in the Devil O' The Highlands when you're fresh as a daisy) as it's such a reprieve from the earlier undulations but with the dramatic glens and highland hills unfolding for the first time before you. But it was getting hard and it was getting hot - I began to think how exposed the entire trail ahead was - Rannoch Moor, the Devil's Staircase, the Larig Mor - and how there were no clouds in the sky. Hotter than forecast, apparently it reached 24c yet I'd been expecting highs of 17. Focus on the 7 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone, I reminded myself, you CAN do this.

Lorna was running a fierce race, with such tenacity in the second half. I could see her just two minutes ahead of me leaving Tyndrum but this would be the last time, she reached Fort William in 18 hours 23 - a stunning run!

A minute at Bridge of Orchy was spent refilling water and being force fed almond butter by Giles - this got me out of the CP fast. I was not eating well and instructed to think about what I most want to eat at Glencoe. Giles & Fraser were amazing - as proactive and intuitive as a crew could possibly be. From Glencoe to the finish they rallied to source the widest array of foods that might tempt me into eating - a different selections of gels, ice creams, savoury food I might fancy ranging from veggie burger and chips, dips and hummus, soup to cous cous, and coffees. From this I barely handled a couple of chips and a few bites of ice lolly before just coke, ginger beer and a couple of gels over the final 25 miles. When I think about the time spent cooking and preparing as much variety as possible the week before - everything from sweet potato to veggie haggis pies, pasta and pesto to all varieties of flapjack, dried fruit, nuts, bakewells etc. it seems ridiculously wasteful. I guess sometimes in heat, I can't eat. Liquid nutrition strategies needed.

After the boost of seeing Murdo after Bridge of Orchy and one little red jelly baby to give me fire to the finish, I ran strong over Rannoch Moor, jogging the uphills until the final big slog into Glencoe when I'd drained both soft flasks and hit a real energy wall. I was slipping a little behind schedule and wondering how I'd restore my energy for the final 25 when I was so thirsty but couldn't eat.

By Altnafeadh I felt bloated and over hydrated, things weren't feeling right at all and I constantly had a raging thirst no matter how much I drank. Giles gave me an anti nausea tablet and sent me on my way, telling me to fast hike the Devil's Staircase. The heat was getting to me and I just wanted to stop in one of the streams but wasn't sure I'd get up again. Despite how I felt I managed the hike in 30 minutes and forced the running again, negotiating the technical descent until the welcome fire road down into Kinlochleven.

I felt more bloated and sick than ever, on the scales I was 2.5 kg up from Auchtertyre despite not eating, but I was determined not to have a repeat of 2012 when I stopped here in the medical room due to low blood pressure for 45 minutes. I had to keep moving. Giles walked me out to the foot of the 1000ft climb and not for the first time I desperately wanted him to be able to run with me but the new rule of no support runners for those running sub 21 hours put paid to that.

I know we seem to forget the pain and discomfort of long races pretty fast, but I won't forget this section for a while. My stomach was in bits and it took all my effort to keep moving steady. Up on the Larig Mor it took a while to get running again but when I did I found I could sustain an even 11-12 minute mile pace for most of the undulating miles, it was cooling down and the mountains were stunning. And like all the struggles, it passed - fuelled by Fanta from Jeff at the wilderness response team base - and before long I could see Giles' waving arms again and hear the tones of Cyndi Lauper blasting out from Lundavra. A hug from Gayle Tait and all the friendly faces helped and I knew I still had a decent chance of a sub 20 hour finish, unless I imploded on the final 7 miles.

It's a tough 3 miles of short, sharp ups before the long descent into Fort William. I just had to run all these and then I could hurt myself on the down and it wouldn't matter anymore. At Braveheart carpark, the whole crew were back and I surprised them by being 7 minutes up on schedule, sub 20 was achievable after a final mile along the road to the Leisure Centre.


Fort William finish line
I crossed the line in 19 hrs 34 minutes, 16th position overall and fourth lady behind Lorna. Then sickness! I'd wondered if I'd get the same post-exertional low blood pressure as in the 2012 race and it was back with a vengeance, perhaps worse due to the heat and stomach issues - I'd held off being sick for over 20 miles.

Delighted to have run this time in spite of what my body was doing. I've struggled again and again in the past with pacing and this time I succeeded in running steady in the first half, moving from 30th position at Balmaha, 19 miles, to 16th position at the finish. And although I'm disappointed not to have been able to enjoy and savour the entire trail as I'd hoped, this has been another adventure that I'll always remember with my crew.

And on the plus side, I didn't experience any hallucinations this time round, and not much sleepiness to speak of at all. My body and muscles are recovering fast and well, although the stomach is taking a little while to catch up. But does anyone ever run a race like this with a perfect day and no issue? Perhaps not, or perhaps we should keep trying to find out. But for now I'm going to be happy with the way this race played out for all its struggles, and enjoy the achievement :-)

I'm amazed and proud at the women's achievements this year. The standard was superb, with the top 3 ladies running under 19 hours and in the top 10 overall, led by Lizzie Wraith in 17.42. And not forgetting overall winner James Stewart with an incredible run of 15.15. Full results here.

The lovely crew
Prize giving

**Thanks to Ian and all who organised/supported this special race. And another enormous thanks to my crew - Julie, Liz, Giles and Fraser - without whom my finish would not have been possible, and more than that - not as memorable or with as many laughs
(ok not so much during but before and after) **

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A Texan trail experience

I'm often reminded that the things I anticipate being tough before a race don't end up being the toughest things - never more true for me than at the Bandera 100k. A rugged old trail full of surprises (well, on the first loop anyway).

Although still keen to follow my less racing is more strategy for 2016, admittedly I did sign up pretty last minute for Bandera after seeing the date fitted nicely with a US ski touring trip to California - just a hop, skip and three state jump away. For these reasons:
  1. I've always wanted to run a trail 100k, having never run that race distance and being totally put off the fast road loop versions - I'm not going there!
  2. Bandera is a Western States golden ticket race, meaning the first two guys & girls gain automatic entry to the 2016 race. It's also a USATF 100k Trail Championship so a stacked field of runners
  3. I've never been to Texas - a chance to discover its trails and a change from mountains!
Pre-race I was a strange mix of super chilled after a couple of weeks of being outdoors everyday and apprehensive due to minimal distance run training and a nasty sickness bug I had for days in Tahoe, which had subsided but left me not feeling quite myself. So all in all in holiday-mode, not race-mode.

The 100k was a double loop of a 50k route around Texas Hill Country State Park, outside the tiny town Bandera (dubbed 'Cowboy Capital of the World'; yup horses have right of way on these trails):

The first five miles were a slap in the face - or rather the legs - with large Sotol cacti, also known as Prickly Pear, fringing narrow sections of trail. To either side were wall to wall fields of these plants - with sharp, serrated edges snaking every which way - so there was no sneaking around them.

Glancing down at my bleeding legs at the first aid station, Nachos (with no nachos, sadly) I wondered if I had the mentality to keep ripping them to shreds for 57 more miles - was the cacti really this bad for the entire route? Race Director Chris McWatters' words were ringing in my ears; "you won't feel it at the time but the after-race shower will hurt". I was feeling it five miles in!

Cassie Scallon on the Three Sisters with the Sotol awaiting (photo: David Hanenburg)
And it was certainly rocky, for many miles on a par with the Larig Mor section of the West Highland Way with more short, sharp ups and downs, on which I rolled that UTMB ankle no less than four times in the first loop.

The next section was not so bad; some short field sections, beautiful smoother trail and no Sotol. And a bluebird day, no clouds in the sky and 18ish c with a cool breeze - just about perfect if you forgive the wind and midday heat. Afterwards came a very gentle but miles long incline before we hit an out/back section from Crossroads aid station, which led us up the Three Sisters - another three sharp but baby climbs, which again were covered in cacti, this led to a lot of staring at the ground so I wasn't appreciating any scenery at this point. My legs felt sluggish and slow but after the Sisters the trail was really runnable, just two more short climbs of a few hundred metres - including Boyle's Bump right before the lodge at the start/finish line - and mercifully no more cacti until the second loop began again.

Back to basecamp at the 50k mark
I saw Giles at the 50k mark, he'd just finished the 50k race minutes earlier in a really strong 11th place, 5.10 time. A real boost. Some refilling, nutrition and back out for the next loop. I wanted to run it in under six hours. The first tough section predictably felt longer, harder and spikier but it helped knowing what was around the corner and as each aid was pretty much exactly 5 miles apart it was easy to mentally break it down and take it step by step without feeling the larger distance.

On that note - what aid stations! Small yet perfectly formed, stocking Tailwind, gels of all sorts of variety, peanut-butter filled pretzels (oh yes), all sorts of fruit, Mountain Dew, Saltsticks, Coke etc. and face wipes. How amazing it is to wash your face through a race. Admittedly maybe I shouldn't have spent time on this. I got some quizzical looks when I said how hot I was finding it, I guess for the locals helping out it was a winter's day.

I felt far stronger for the last 20 miles than I had for the entire first loop, fired by finally letting myself turn on some music and take some caffeine gels. Alicia Hudelson and Liza Howard had passed me early on in the first loop and then I passed another girl (Katie Graff I think) before passing a handful of men in the second loop. I didn't think any other ladies were nearby but didn't really know and was enjoying pushing hard to regain some time. Giles surprised me at Crossroads, an amazing boost. I gritted my teeth for the final cactus assault of the day up the Three Sisters, which passed quickly enough. Then again at Last Chance, the final aid, he was there - dressed to run again for the final five miles (pacers were permitted from 50k in but I had no idea he'd want to run again). Company for the last section was magic, especially as the last three miles brought darkness on one of the rockiest sections of trail, calling for total focus for a sub 11.30 time. I hope he wasn't expecting a lot of chat, mine had gone missing in action. We crossed the line in 11.28 and the lovely race people thrust a pair of horns in my hands before I promptly collapsed into a camp chair to gather myself.

It was some trip, worth it for the Vitamin D and Texan horn trophy alone (a key rack, how very practical!). Turned out this was for first 30-39 female (the first five ladies were overall championship trophy winners). 

Jim Walmsley - 25 years old! - won in a course-record shattering time under 8 hours, and Cassie Scallon broke the ladies course record in 9.19, followed by Janessa Taylor, Michele Yates, Liza Howard and Alicia Hudelson. These ladies have inspired me!

One day I might go back. With full body cover.

Ladies results

Men's results

Friday, 4 September 2015

UTMB 2015: two sunsets and a sunrise

Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc
  • Circumnavigation of the Trail Du Mont Blanc, anti-clockwise from Chamonix, through Italy and Switzerland and back into France
  • 170km/105 miles
  • 10,000 metres/32,800 feet
  • Time limit 46 hours 30 mins


This is what I've trained for all year, since January brought the news I'd been successful in the lottery. But bizarrely, despite the fact I knew this would be the most challenging race I've attempted, and my usual pre-race panics, I wasn't too nervous in the days before. I'd reccied the route several weeks before with Richard and Carrie and had trained hard on hills and endurance for months.

Kit checked, re-checked
I even caught 9 hours sleep the night before, unheard of for me before a big race. Maybe something to do with being somewhere new with so much going on, and in the sun all day. A big group of us had been in Chamonix all week, with plenty (perhaps too much) time to prepare and obsess about kit and final race strategies. This involved last minute purchase of the 12L Salomon s-lab pack when we were advised by the organisers to heed the heatwave forecast and carry 2 litres of water rather than the required 1 litre (my 3l pack only just squeezed in the essential kit and water) and temp-tattooing ourselves with the course profile, which for the UTMB meant a part one and part two on each forearm (thank you Carol for your expert tattooing). I felt ready and truly excited about getting out there and trying to run to my potential on a course I'd seen, that was brutal and beautiful in equal measure. So I was completely mentally unprepared for what was to come so early on in the race, thinking the mental and physical battles would arise much later.

the race route tattoos, which lasted all of two hours
It was hot and we knew it would remain hot, with the mountain forecast expecting 34 degrees all weekend. I tried to stay out of the sun all day Friday ahead of the 6pm start but it even the shade was stifling. After a leisurely lie-in and re-pack of kit, I met Dad and Hazel, who'd come out to support me, for an even more leisurely late lunch. All the sitting around was getting to me and I just wanted to get going so we headed to the start to meet the Scotland crew and Matt Williamson, who was also racing.

The start

Our starting position amid the thousands.
This would be a real race of firsts - the first time I'd experienced real stomach issues in a race, the first time I'd run into two nights, the first time I'd curled up on the side of a trail and the first time for weird after-effects like a bruised head from so much torch-wearing. It was also the first time I'd spent an hour an a half waiting at the start line in order to gain a good position, nicely behind the elites but in front of the hundreds at the middle and back of the pack. Matt and I sat in a shaded spot, trying to avoid being trampled on by runners and their friends dangerously wielding Go Pro's and poles right left and centre. The first time in an ultra this huge, surrounded by 2,300 nervous faces and thousands of supporters, organisers, media everywhere. I glanced up at the packed balconies of the apartments around the start and noticed an eagle. An eagle? No sooner had we saw it than it had been released and swooped right overhead, carrying a camera, to thousands of cheers. The announcers talked of having courage, of keeping going when your body wanted to give up, of using your mind and then your soul. Then came the iconic music, Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, and we were off. Well, off for a walk. I was quickly regretting the decision not to start further up the field as we walked for most of the way out of Chamonix onto the Les Houches trail due to congestion. All the cheers and support along the way were just incredible.

Chamonix - Refuge Croix de Bonhomme
Cumulative distance 44km
Runtime 6hrs 52mins

Day one in my racing mind, given this had been the first day of our
Matt and I about to assume position
four day recce; the first major section to tackle and put behind me. And I felt terrible from a few km's in. I expected to feel fresh and energetic on the first section, a flat-ish 8km trail to Les Houches, but instead by the time we reached the town my stomach was cramping and face felt burning hot. Soon after Les Houches came the first climb, 700m up to the small timing station of Le Delevret and the Col de Voza. Glancing behind me as we reached the top of the climb and the ski lift station, I was taken with the beauty of the shining line of headtorches snaking down the hill, and the setting sun overhead. But as we began the steep switchbacks 900m down into the first town of St Gervais, I didn't feel well at all, with the downhill impact making me feel sick, and I knew I had to stop soon. In fact, over the next two hours I stopped four times and was losing time on my planned splits. I began to accept there was nothing I could do about this, if I was developing some kind of bug or it was food poisoning from lunch then that was that, it wasn't my day and there was no way I could run with this for 100 miles. I thought I'd stick it out until darkness fell though, to see if it would clear up and I could eat (I hadn't eaten anything yet).

After Les Contamines though (4:02, 15 mins off target) it was dark and in a few miles we reached the start of the climb up to La Balme and eventually the Col du Bonhomme, an incredibly long, slow climb that in the recce had become tortuous due to heat, lack of shade and our first day at elevation. I started to feel more in control on the climb, and was awash with relief - maybe this would go and I'd have a chance of continuing. I knew what to expect now, and there would be no sun to contend with. At the La Balme aid station, I could eat well - noodle soup (exactly what I needed) and cups of coke which energised me for the final climb up to the Col and the landmark of the refuge that we'd stayed at on the recce - my favourite refuge of that trip, with a cosy feel, stunning vistas for relaxing outside and great beer. But I had to get those dangerous thoughts out of my head!

Refuge Croix du Bonhomme - Refuge Bertone
From Croix du Bonhomme (taken during recce)
Cumulative distance 84km
Runtime 15hrs 04mins

Onwards - straight through the timing point and headfirst into the steep 5km downhill into the tiny village of Les Chapieux, exactly 50km into the race. There was a decent aid station here and I needed to eat, I wasn't fuelling as I'd promised myself I would. I discovered some Overstim banana and date energy bars, and had more soup, more coke - to become my only staples for the day. I was looking forward to the road section that led gently uphill for several miles outside of the village and up to the next climb up to the Col de la Seigne, the transition point into Italy. My stomach had settled, it was cooler (although not nearly as cool as I'd hoped the night would get) and I could walk/run this section comfortably as a welcome break from technical trail. On the climb I spotted my first fellow no-pole runner, a very rare sight. I was beginning to question my decision by this point. I'd run the entire recce without poles but over 90% of UTMB runners use them and after the stomach issues I'd begun to question my stubbornness and the need for them should something unexpected start to affect me.

I'd hoped there might be a water station or coke at the summit (2507m) but sadly not. 'Welcome to Italy' shouted the volunteers and we were sent down the trail for a short downhill section before the second (and new for this year) climb up to the Col de Pyramides, that Richard, Carrie and I had missed out of our recce in error. And no wonder, it was hardly a trail at all, but a boggy hill climb up and a slippy, technical boulder field descent that never seemed to end. I really needed water by this point but it took over an hour an a half to get down to Lac Combal and the next major aid station. I'd been chatting to a nice English guy called Chris about UK races but
Rich and I at Mont Favre on the recce
began to find it a bit of a struggle to talk constantly as we were negotiating boulder after boulder. In the aid station I sat for five minutes and had a mental check, downing yet more noodle soup (extra salt, cold water for quick drinking), coke and a few pieces of cheese. A rare runnable few miles of flat path came next, to reach the 500m climb to Arete de Mont Favre, another memorable break stop from our recce where we sat and admired stunning afternoon light across Mont Favre and down towards Courmayeur, In fact this had been the last time I'd felt fresh in the recce, right before I sprained my ankle on the descent - after which I was running on very few cylinders for two days!

The dawn was coming and I was looking forward to losing the head torch. Then, no sooner had we left the summit than I slipped on a large slab, left foot sliding beneath me and knee scraping off the ground, tweaking the sprained ankle at the same time. Same descent, another fall! It threw me but I knew it wasn't nearly as bad as the recce. My knee was bleeding down into my shoe though which was off putting. I took the rest of the descent easy, delicately negotiating the steps that had tripped me last time and following behind another female runner who eventually let me past. Courmayeur was a metropolis of an aid station, in the town's sports centre, and I picked up my only drop bag here. Hundreds of runners were properly stopping, sitting at tables with their support, eating pasta, changing clothes. I refilled and grabbed a small plate of pasta to take into the medical tent, where a lovely volunteer cleaned and bandaged my knee and dealt with a blister. I told myself time stopping here was an investment. It was a maze to escape and not clear where to give your drop bag back but a kind supporter took it for me after I'd jogged two circuits of the centre frantically asking people who didn't speak English.

Into the second half/second arm
I prepared myself for what was a brutal climb on the recce, 800m up to what had been our rest point for day two, Refuge Bertone - it had been hot, we'd been running over eight hours and my ankle was huge. And today, I'd been running for over 15 hours, with the sun up and temperature swiftly rising against a deep blue sky, no clouds in sight. I didn't have poles but I had playlists and had planned to let myself listen to music for the first time around halfway so distracted myself with this. Reaching the refuge, I sat for two minutes, forcing down more water and coke.

Refuge Bertone - Champex-Lac
Cumulative distance 125km
Runtime 22hr 54mins

Into 'day three'. Crossing this boundary was a mental boost. From Bertone, a beautiful, gently undulating stretch of trail came next, 8k to Refuge Bonatti - straight through the middle of the giants of the Mont Blanc massif, overlooking the Val Ferret. But there was limited shade and I made the mistake of calculating how many hours of sunlight we had to run through. It was smokin' hot and oppressive. A long line of us were leapfrogging right along this stretch, running at different times and struggling at different times. A sharp 100m climb up to Bonatti sapped enough strength that I needed to sit again and thankfully there was shade in which to refill. Again some soup, again some coke and I tried to eat some Chia Charge. A few more miles along the trail came the steep single track descent into Arnuva, which a more substantial aid station awaited us. Running along the river out of Arnuva was torture, I was tempted to dive in and stay there but settled for a cap soak. The heat was stifling, how on earth would I make it 800m up the shadeless climb to Grand Col Ferret? I hope there'd be a water/coke stop halfway up, at Refuge Elena, where we'd stopped for a break on the recce but there wasn't. There was a water butt in the middle of a field though so we could re-fill and re-soak here. It was a long climb, little by little, and I was passed again and again by multiple men with poles. At the summit, we crossed into Switzerland. I sat on a rock, head in hands, and steeled myself for what would be a quad-crushing 930m descent into an airless La Fouly, it was so tough to get the quads moving but a few minutes into each descent they would ease off slightly and become more bearable.

From La Fouly, a picture-postcard little Swiss hamlet, I was playing the calculation game for arrival into Champex-Lac, I knew it was 14km from here, via another 900m of climbing in the sun, and wondered if I could make it by 16:30, an hour off schedule but still a reasonable time given the conditions we were running in. In La Fouly I lay on a bench and close my eyes but quickly forced myself up. This wasn't a good strategy. Instead, a young volunteer stuck my head under a cold hose and I grabbed more coke, soup and got out of there. The 8k into the small hillside town of Praz de Fort was fairly uneventful and I spent most of the time wondering how I could possibly run a marathon and 3,000m after Champex - always a mistake in ultra running to think that far ahead, but I'd almost resigned myself to stopping. The climb from Praz de Fort was made all the harder for thinking there'd be aid in the town - there wasn't, and I hadn't re-filled water at the last water butt. The kindest runner at the side of the road gave me his, he'd just dropped from the race and was awaiting his lift. I tried to get him moving but he was done.

Finally, the top of the climb into Champex came, and I saw Fiona, Karl Zeiner's girlfriend and support. It was great to see a friendly face. Soon after, I heard Daddy McKay's shouts, it was good to see him after nearly 23 hours on the road and he was so excited to see me. He had a whole array of treats ready, which would normally look appealing. Fresh figs and blueberries? No, can't do it. Bars? Nope, but will stuff yet more in my pack not to be eaten. Water? Hmm. Energy drink? Coffee? Hell no. Chips and salt? Yes! They went down so well, although soon after came the familiar stomach cramps I'd had earlier on. I told Dad I didn't think I could go on but no agreement came. I resorted to peeling off my clothes to change my shorts and top - another first in a race but it felt so good - and Dad fuelled me up, dressed and taped my feet (I'm so sorry Dad), changed my shoes and socks and sent me right back out onto the trail.

Champex-Lac - Chamonix
Cumulative distance 170km
Runtime 34hrs 50mins

My only race pic - sun setting on the second day above Trient
The final 'day' was finally here, with its final countdown of three major climbs totalling nearly 3,000m and a similar level of descent. This was the hardest day of the recce for many reasons but I knew as I'd made it through Champex (where the majority of DNF's happen) that I would do my best to make it to Chamonix, no matter how long it took. It felt good to be chipping away at the distance. As soon as I left the aid I felt uplifted by seeing Dad and taking the time to properly re-fuel. I also started getting lovely, supportive text messages from Carol, Richard, Lorna, Keziah and Dawn after texting Carol at Champex (by supportive I mean 'Don't you DARE drop'). So I could run strong here and passed four or five men until the ascent started again, up to the high alpine pass of Bovine, with its noisy cowbells and relentlessly climbing path. This soon drained the life out of my legs but I spotted a fabulous little branch which I started using as a stick. Pas de baton? asked the French. I didn't care what it looked like - this was helping. I was suddenly in a long string of runners and we faced the most incredible setting sun against the mountain panorama. I even took a photo, my only attempt throughout the race. Up at La Giete there was a timing station and a few runner bodies sleeping under blankets. I began to feel incredibly tired on the descent into Trient, my eyes weren't focusing and my thoughts weren't my own, with random country names running through my head in French. Etats Uni, Royaume Uni. Wonder if the American ladies had finished? Where were the Brits? Were they still out here too? I was talking to the mad commentator in my head and began to feel like I was two people - a new level of sleep deprivation. There were a few ankle twists and a fall, grazing the other knee. Lots of swearing.

The descent into Trient (141km) was nasty - rocky, rooty, dark and longer than I remember from the recce. Runners behind me were throwing my head torch beam off which was constantly disorientating. Dad was there again, we both knew I'd slowed significantly but I was still chipping away and his cheering and hugs gave me another boost. I stopped for 20 minutes here, eating some soup, coke, the usual.

Next came *the absolute worst* climb on two counts: I'd lost my stick so it was my slowest. I was half asleep and hallucinating. I decided half way up the climb to a) find a new stick and b) curl up on the side of the trail for a ten minute sleep. This was inadvisable though because I couldn't find a cosy spot far enough from the trail (steep drops or hill either side) so even when I lay down with torch off, several runners spotted me and approached with 'Ca Va's?' shining their headtorches down on me. I kept thinking I was past Vallorcine and realising I was still above Trient approaching Catogne, the penultimate climb and not the final. Switching my alarm off, I got up again and brushed the spiders and dust away to edge on up towards the summit. At Catogne there was coke and 5km down into Vallorcine.

Another difficult, technical descent which I was barely running down, despite sensing another few female runners around me. I managed to overtake one on the final grassy down into the aid station - and despite being past midnight the cheers, cowbells and support here was just spectacular with people lining the street into the building. Once again my Dad was here, with a huge hug and encouraging words about the final stage, 90% behind me. This didn't sound like enough! I sat for 9 minutes here and promptly felt sick and lightheaded. Up again, I warned Dad I would be a while and to go get some sleep (I later found out my lovely friends took him back to our chalet for a quick sleep on the sofa) and set off along the trail that Richard and I had jogged along on the final home stretch of our recce (it had taken us 3 hours from Vallorcine to Chamonix, it would take me 4.5). In the dark I didn't recognise much until I reached 4k in and the shadow of La Tete aux Vents, the final mountain. The support through the car park beneath was pretty special and I finally forced down the Gu gel I'd been clutching since Vallorcine.

What to say about the endless 900m climb up to La Tete aux Vents, the windy peak. Yes it was breezy, a welcome change to a still-stifling temperature. I hadn't used any of my extra layers throughout the entire race. I found a third stick after discarding the last one on the descent into Vallorcine and set a steady pace, timing sections of 20 minutes on my watch and telling myself after three I'd nearly be there or at least approaching the gentler uphill section after the steep switchbacks. Looking back down was incredible, yet another string of hundreds of headtorches winding back to Vallorcine. Near the peak, cries of 'regardez'. I looked up and an Ibex stood a metre above on a rocky outcrop, looking down on us all as if we were crazy. After I passed by it jumped on to the trail and headed downhill. I dread to think the shock the runners behind would have got coming face to face with it but it was beautiful.

After the peak came an undulating and technical 4k section over to the iconic ski station of La Flegere and the final timing point and aid station. It was far less runnable than I remember, with boulders, loose stones and steep sections but I was on autopilot by now and by the time I reached La Flegere I ran straight through and down to one of the steepest descents of the race - slipping and sliding down to reach a fire road then trail for the final 8k to Chamonix. Again, far more technical than I recall for the first 4k before a more runnable, smoother path through La Florier and down into the town. I thought the tarmac would never come and when it did I realised a sub 35 hour finish was still a possibility. I was running hard for this entire section and passed eight people, reaching my highest speed since 75k into the race.

Soon I was alongside the river and Gavin was there, testing if I could still string a sentence together. The home straight was just a joy, and Keziah thrust the Scotland flag at me to take over the line, crossing in 34 hours and 50 minutes. I had no idea of position throughout and was sure I'd dropped tens of places by struggling on the final climbs (its easy to lose track when people stop for long periods in the aid stations) but I ended up 288th overall, 23rd female overall and 13th senior female.

It was amazing to hear about other finishes, Matt had made it in an incredible 30 hours and Lorna had finished the CCC in a fantastic time of 18 hours the day earlier. I couldn't have been better taken care of out there and at the finish, and the whole experience - however much I struggled throughout - will remain a positive memory. I'm so relieved to have a UTMB finish after working hard for it this year. Thank you to Daddy McKay, Donnie for your coaching and all my friends in Chamonix as well as back home - what a journey and what a community :-)

My full results, including finish video