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 arĂȘte 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

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A devil of a race

A few race stats:
  • 42 miles from Tyndrum - Fort William
  • 6,000 feet ascent
  • Part of the Triple Crown of West Highland Way ultras along with HOKA Highland Fling and West Highland Way Race
  • New Race Director: the amazing & superhuman Johnny Fling

Tyndrum start: fresh legs & all to play for
I entered late after getting my race dates mixed up. Mrs Impulsive strikes again. For some reason thought the Devil was scheduled a week later so three weeks out and too close to UTMB. Its debatable whether racing four weeks out is even advisable but I've been feeling strong lately and thought I'd give it a go with proviso I wouldn't push through anything too painful or damaging. As it was, the race would be the tame option for that weekend given the weekend training ascent Donnie has been giving me in these peak weeks leading up to UTMB.

Having run the race in 2013 in 7.12 I suspected I'd be more hill fit and consistent this year than back then (in retrospect I was also still recovering from Western States four weeks before, a few weeks later I developed a fibula stress fracture =  a lesson). Privately my hopes were high for a sub 7 finish - although knew also than Johnny's addition of a new hill finish to the route might derail this.

Friday conditions north of Tyndrum
Conditions helping the merry Devil crew set up in Fort William on Friday were APOCALYPTIC. Talking driving, persistent torrential rain. 15 degrees colder than London. And a first foray into marquee erection - some fun team work, I think Alan Sugar would have been impressed.
Weather standards having been pushed as low as they could go, I was pretty happy with the overcast showery conditions Saturday morning brought. No need for a waterproof to start. I also managed one of the best pre-race sleeps I've had, a solid six hours (standard these days).

Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy (7 miles, 47:47)
  • Everything felt good, if taking 20 mins or so to warm into the race and pace properly. I was trying to keep a steady pace but as usual probably set off a little fast, although I could see the bobbing Salomon red of the race winners for all of two minutes. The miles absolutely sped by to Bridge of Orchy and I spent the time organising a mental checklist in my head of what I needed to do before and after each CP to make smooth transitions.

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (10.8 miles, 1hr38)
  • Legs & body - felt strong, didn't have to work too hard on the hill out of Bridge of Orchy and loved the downhill. Ahead of me, Ivor pointed out a stunning rainbow and I gave myself a stern talking to for not having noticed it for staring at my feet - which to be fair was the safer plan in order to run fast down through the loose stones and streams to the road. I did see the darkening clouds beyond and wonder what lay ahead over Rannoch Moor, which I don't think I've ever run in good weather.
  • State of mind - fair to middling! Felt positive running through the checkpoint but very soon after I started to feel the niggle of chafing on my legs, with the under-shorts of the running skirt I was wearing rolling around all over the place. 7 miles in - seriously? I've worn this one so much that it did have a few holes, but I'm not one to throw things out easy. I was totally kicking myself for not having thought it through properly though with today's wet conditions, which can make these things so much worse. Over the next 8 miles it became a constant fixture in my mind and I couldn't do anything about the continual friction. I began asking the guys in front if they had Vaseline, but no, then I began promising myself I'd find some at Glencoe. That or swap shorts with someone.
  • Learnings - 1) Rannoch Moor is a slippy nightmare underfoot when its raining and yes - it always rains on Rannoch Moor 2) Always carry Vaseline 3) A Buff can do a lot but it doesn't really work threaded through shorts to prevent chafing.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (10.5 miles, 1hr46)
Summit of Devil's Staircase: thanks Fiona & Pauline :-)
  • There was no Vaseline at Glencoe. But lots of friendly WHW family faces, in fact it was rather like the who's who of Scottish ultra racing at that checkpoint. I hung out for a few minutes to track some down with Sean the medic extraordinaire and he did his best to hunt but I needed to get going.
  • Leaving the CP physically I felt great still and able to run strong and hard. Seeing Lorna and Noanie at the bottom of the road was another little high. Dipping into the bushes outside Glencoe to see if I could stick compeed on my thighs whilst being attacked by swarms of midges everywhere was not so much. The compeed stayed on for all of five minutes.
  • The Devil's Staircase came and I discovered that uphills are to be treasured as they don't bother the chafing. I love running hills at the moment anyway and have been doing many a weekend of reps on the Devil, Kinlochleven and Ben Lomond so tried to run as much as possible but ran out of steam after a while and hiked hands-on-knees. A guy I passed advised me I should be racing the men as well as the women and that I should try catch the guy in red, four men ahead. It was a nice idea but didn't quite happen. I did pass three guys on the Staircase though before spotting a couple of spectacularly dressed people at the top - Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker. Great to see and gave me quite the lift before the niggling pain returned to say hello for the miles of rocky downhill to midge-infested Kinlochleven.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra (7 miles, 1hr 23)
  • Well the kind folks at KLL found me some Vaseline and Bodyglide (thanks Matt and lady I don't know the name of!) and this was reassuring for a short while but it was too late and made little difference. I was actually wondering whether this would affect me finishing, I felt like it was slowing me down from my potential. Like the other checkpoints, I grabbed supplies for en route and ate fairly well (coconut & chia flapjack, banana, juice) before heading for the final of the three major hills of the race.
  • I enjoyed the climb and fast-hiked/jogged as I could manage up onto Lairig Mor. Memories from the recent West Highland Way Race and support running with Jamie Aarons up here flooded my mind and I channeled her strength. After the steep climb, the gentle uphill undulations seemed to go on for an age but I was willing them to continue as it didn't hurt as much.
  • There were heaps of walkers out, colourful waterproof backpacks bobbing ahead and I dodged them with the puddles to some lovely supportive cheers. I was five minutes slower than I hoped to reach the small CP of Lundavra but told myself I could still manage a sub-7. It was back on in my head - close enough to grit the teeth and just ignore the layer of skin I was missing. After a quick fix of coke and hello's with the marshalls I set off for the final section.

Lundavra to Fort William (7 miles, 1hr 08)
  • Remind me to never live in FW, wettest place in the UK by many accounts. A microclimate of monsoon. The heavens opened on this section but it didn't really matter now. Having recently run the short sharp hills out of the CP into (what used to be more of) a forest and beyond I knew what to expect and counted them down one by one. Some I was good to run and some not. I had no idea where second lady was, no one at any of the CP's had known, so for all I knew she was minutes behind, I couldn't slow down now.
  • But soon came the winding single track uphill that wound up at the fire road, sooner than I thought, and I glanced at my watch. 6.12. With what I calculated as 7k to go - I was going to have to push this. I ran as hard as I could down the 5k road of downhill, ticking the k's off one by one, to a soundtrack of Moderat and Royskopp.
  • Finish in the fields: 6:45, 1st lady &12th overall
  • I knew John had changed the finish from a mile flat on road to a mile of climb/sharp downhill so the finish could be in playing fields of the leisure centre, a great improvement with heaps of space for spectators and finish tents. A slow mile and I was so surprised to look once again at the watch upon seeing the finish line from high above and see that I may be able to still aim for a 6.45. And I made it, crossing the line across the flooded fields in exactly that time, most of the pain forgotten - especially when presented with John and family's incredible veggie chilli and a cup of tea. Although I lasted all of two minutes in the shower. Seriously - no pain like it since the post-Western States shower!

I love this race. Like many, after running longer races it feels like a dream to be able to push more through this course, and the trail is just so beautiful in whatever the conditions throw at us. We may have low standards for weather but the Devil leaves you incredibly high standards for all-round trail beauty and superb and seamless race directing, not to mention the Scottish trail community. Thank you to every one of the marshals and support and coach Donnie for all the support and pushing me. Congrats to Donnie and Casey Morgan for their joint first finish!

Lessons learnt though, you think you've got it sorted after a few years of ultra racing but you can still get it wrong. Never take the small stuff, preparation and kit testing for granted. That said, I couldn't have wished for a better result and still shocked to have run the second fastest female time in the race's history (Devil finisher PB spreadsheet here, thanks John Kynaston).

Men's overall winners
Joint first: Donnie Campbell and Casey Morgan 5:28
Third: Kevin O' Donoghue 5:46

Women's overall winners
First: Caroline McKay 6:45
Second: Nicola Adams-Hendry 7:27
Third: Lynne Allen 7:36

Full results are here

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

17 hours of Skye Trail

After a six month blogging hiatus, I decided the Skye trail ultra is one adventure I want a record of, and others might too given its the first year its been held. Skye is one of three races I'm focusing on for 2015; a new less-is-more strategy for me to change things up from racing too much.

I'd signed up after reading about the difficulty and elevation of the trail. Advertised at 69 miles (but closer to 74, and only if you go the right way!) and just under 4,500 metres of ascent, it would be quality mileage ahead of UTMB this August. Fitness levels were on the whole good going into it, albeit a few minor niggles which I'd seemed to iron out. I'd had a strong Fling and felt great to the end of Loch Katrine marathon where I ran a PB. But other forms of preparation - those helpful things called sleep, rest and relaxation - didn't feature in my world over the last month or so. A case of everything happening at once, back to back weekends away and change in job with 5am wake-ups every day for weeks.

The fabulous Jamie Aarons and I drove up to Skye a few weeks before the race to recce the first and most difficult part including the Trotternish ridge and had the best and the worst of conditions; 8 hours of ridge to Portree in stunning sunshine on the Saturday followed by 3 hours in howling winds and torrential rains from Portree to Sligachan on the Sunday. The weekend also featured car camping, hours of hitchhiking back north in the pouring rain (eternally grateful to the Australian tourists who took pity on us and turned around to squeeze us in to their super-packed car), broken windscreen wipers and a mad French hitchhiker who told us he'd been 'hijacking' cars all the way from the north - but that's another post in itself!

After the recce I'd asked Jeff if he'd consider changing the logistics of registration to it having to be in the south of the island (Broadford) after midnight on the day of the race - with start time at 5am in the north (Duntulm) - and was very grateful when he offered earlier registration options for the afternoon so we could then go stay up north and get a night's sleep before the start. I think a night without sleep before even starting the ridge would not have made for a happy race for me and I ended up getting over 5 hours on Friday - probably a record for me pre-ultra. Matt, Dawn and I stayed in Staffin and lovely Dawn ferried us to the start in the middle of nowhere (sorry Duntulm) where we gathered shivering in the midsummer early morning. Freezing! And much breezier than forecast! But the ridge ahead was free of cloud and the rain was holding off so I was happy. If it had been Friday's conditions I'm not sure I would have started, having seen what was to come on the ridge.

Duntulm - Portree (26ish miles, 2,447 metres ascent)

Trotternish ridge, taken during recce
The route sets off a mile or so along an undulating single track road to reach a sharp right turn up to a track and over into the first trail-less section, a few km's of ankle-eating bog and heather. I knew what to expect and for the first in many occasions over the next 7 hours was so thankful we'd recced. I ran with Matt and Ross but as we ascended up to Sror Vourlin, the first steep section of ridge, I held no illusions about staying with them. Mark Hartree was behind me and took the lower traverse, therefore skipping ahead of me as I ran across the ridge. I then proceeded to go the wrong way - as Jamie and I did in the recce - as I just couldn't see the god damned low path we were meant to take past the Quirang. Cursing myself and seeing that several guys had followed me up there I just gritted my teeth and made headway across the top and down the slip-sliding descent - sliding sideways into bog and  to the only road crossing on the ridge until Portree, where Jeff, Fiona and Pauline had set up a water stop. I think this is the only ultra I've been given water in a china tea mug and it was awesome.

After this came miles of up-down-up-down, featuring steep climbs up a few Grahams and other wee hills (Biode Buidhe, Beinn Edra, Sgurr a Mhadaigh Ruaidh, Hartaval, The Storr, Ben Dearg and A Chorra Beinn). Again, these climbs were expected and seemed to pass so much quicker than in the recce. Sadly there were no picnics on the peaks as Jamie and I enjoyed in the sparkling sunshine that day.

The sections on the ridge tops between the hills were in parts blissful - although cloudy there were still beautiful views with the ridge stretching miles ahead, and Lewis, Harris and the Uists to the right. But it sure was windy. Some of the route looks far more runnable on map than it actually is, as even on the flats/downhills you sink deep into bog and have to jump between clumps of heather to get across.

When we approached A Chorra Beinn I felt in much better shape than I had on the recce - having tackled it shortly after the Fling and struggled with energy at points. I knew we had to traverse around it and told Mark Caldwell as much, who was running close by. Despite this we saw a few guys right up ahead scrambling up the crags of the peak, it looked super steep and I didn't fancy it at all so stuck to the traverse. After this you have to head back up high to meet the ridge again and a few bog dives were to follow as my legs grew tired of the constant battle through it. Shortly after came the crazy boggy few miles descent into Portree, I was glad to have Mark there for some chat and distraction through this and was delighted we were on for six hours approaching the town, when during recce it had taken 8.

Portree - Sligachan (12 miles, 370 metres ascent)
After a few minutes refuelling at the CP, which was manned by Jeff, Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker and based at the south end of Portree at Aros Heritage Centre, I set off along the few miles of waterlogged coastal estuary to reach the longest road section of the course. 10k until another 5k of gnarly coastal trail to Sligachan. I normally hate tarmac but here it was bliss. No bog scrambling, no ankle twisting and some gentle inclines to break up the monotony. But here I felt the first tweaks of my IT band on the downhills and had the sinking feeling that I was only 30 miles in and it was early to be having this type of pain. It was unlikely to get any better and I was beginning to significantly favour my right side  - would I have to pull out later on? It had bothered my a few weeks back in the Pentlands when I'd cut a run short and having rested for a good few days I'd hoped it'd cleared up.

Soon I was back on the 5k coastal trail skipping over stones and streams and seeing Sligachan sparkling at the other side of the bay - when Jamie and I had run this last time it was grim, high winds, torrential rain and much like running up a river, so anything was better and I knew not to expect a fast section.

Sligachan CP at the hotel was a peaceful stop, just with one marshal to greet me. I ate well here again - nuts, banana, Dawn's amazing flapjacks - and forced myself along for the section I had never been on and was most looking forward to.

Sligachan - Elgol (12 miles, 570 metres ascent)

In Jamie's words the first section, around 8 miles to Camusanary, was "beautiful and runnable, but basically like running through a river with stones of various sizes underneath. You're going through the valley of cuillins, going somewhere only your feet can take you. Pretty special". And it was. Gorgeous single track, surrounded on all sides by imposing, dramatic mountains. By now mid afternoon, the sun made an unexpected appearance and it was all of a sudden pretty warm. I could see the bobbing red top of Carnethy's Mark Hartree and I was sure I could catch him...he seemed to be slowing. But before long my ITB was nagging at me badly and it was me who was steadying my pace and all consumed with it mentally.

I reached the cottage at Camusanary and knew I had to take the left hand fork of the trail, where it soon led up and away from the shore. Unfortunately in a few hundred metres there was another junction, with one wide well-trodden trail winding up into the hills and another faint path carrying on around the coast. I took the wide one for half a km or so before realising it wasn't right, the path led right away from the coast, not just above it like the correct one was meant to. If this weren't enough I stepped in a boggy puddle so deep that it splashed right over my head, covering myself in rank water and losing my soft flasks in the process. Fishing them out I headed uphill to the crazily narrow path, which was barely joggable due to steep drop offs, boulders and overhanging trees and undergrowth. I was losing time here and constantly re-working targets in my head. I met a couple of lovely walkers heading towards me who shouted that Elgol was a km away - thank the lord  - and soon I dropped out onto a steep road descent down to the bay where the CP was. For once I let myself sit down in the camp chair and breath. I think this was Lois Simpson's cunning plan to lure runners into staying longer and giving her some chat  - she had been on her own for an age and was so cheery, it was great to chat after running in solitude for 12 miles and knowing I had over 22 still to go on my own. I re-fuelled well again and pulled myself up to start along the road.

Elgol - Broadford (23 miles, 1077 metres ascent)
I suddenly realised my ITB had gone silent and thanked my body. Again, this section was one I hadn't recced and was curious about as I knew it had a decent level of ascent and seemed a very long split to negotiate and navigate when at my most tired of the day. But I loved the first four miles, a few undulating on the road before hitting a rough forestry track past cool woods and fields, then a long climb on road again. I was still running the road climbs, much preferable than stopping and starting. The first tricky section was also the first I'd seen marked with signage, a left turn off the road past Kirkibost to a faint path leading up the side of forestry. After a mile or so what path there was next to the forest was entirely blocked by felled trees. One I could squeeze under only to become trapped in between several more which were completely impassable. Having had the signage point us this way I wondered if Jeff knew these trees were down and where we were supposed to go - I decided against heading the wrong direction into thick forestry and instead clambered up the tall deer fence to the right, before having to clamber back over it further down the line to search for the trail again. It kept petering out and I could only hope - backed up by the map - that I was heading in the right general direction, reassured a few miles later when I ended up back on a defined track winding gently downhill to the road across the bay from Torrin. Soon I could see Mark ahead again stopped at an extra water station Jeff had organised, manned by John Munro. Before I could reach it he'd set off again, I'm sure my presence was helping his pace and he was trying to avoid being chicked. John gave good pointers on the route ahead, re-filled my water and I grabbed another flapjack and banana. Just over a half marathon to go.

Another few miles into the small village of Torrin and a long, slow climb on the road up to a right turn after the quarry, after taking too early a right turn and having to ask a farmer I discovered the correct turn was actually signposted for the race too. This road led a mile down to another stretch of coastal path and a final 8 miles to Broadford, varying between track, trail, beach and final climb across a hillside.

From the road, 3 miles took me to Suisnish and a farm where the path played another disappearing act - after a few minutes of faffing about up and down a field I spotted a fairly obvious path over a fence at the top of the hill and with a sigh of relief got going again. This beautiful single track rose above some dramatic beaches, rock formations and waterfalls and reminded me of the coastal trail from Pennyghael to Carsaig on Mull. Another few miles and I'd reached the ruined village of Boreig, and here I knew there was significant climb before reaching 'the best 7k of your day' as Jamie had put it, into Broadford. Not a soul around here, just an audience of sheep and their lambs lining the trail and racing away. Traversing around Boreig I took what I thought was the right path up a hill but the path quickly became rocky and scrambly and I found I was completing a circle of this hill - with dismay I saw a few hundred feet below what looked like a wider path running next to the river, which I should have been closer to. Down I scrambled, through the most razor blade heather I'd experienced all day. My legs were shredded and by the time I finished I looked like I'd had a few bloody falls.
Matt and I at finish (he'd been there a while!)

The 7k didn't disappoint, it was special - either flattish or downhill, like the Larig Mor but easier to run on. It was after 9 and the sun was setting across Broadford bay ahead. I knew my multiple detours had taken away my chances of finishing in the 16 hour bracket but I covered the section in 35 mins and my legs felt strong. I finished in Broadford in 17:00 on the nose, first girl and sixth overall. And met by Helen, Fiona, Pauline, Matt and Dawn - what a amazing welcoming committee they were! I was delighted for Matt, who won in an impressive 13:56, with Ross Christie second in 14:50 and James Killingbeck and Bryan Grant joint third 16:05. Annie Garcia was second lady in 23:39 and Angela Bronn third 23:55. I'm still amazed by the selfless support given by Jeff and all the marshals, they were up for the entire weekend with no sleep whatsoever and were cheerful right to the end - I know which I'd find harder. Thank you guys :-)

Tips for the race if you fancy it in the future....recce recce recce...get sleep before...soak up the solitude...look up and all around you, its one special island (a close second to Mull of course!)

And Mark Hartree....until next time!