Western States 100

My invitation to run Western States came in late November, just as my enthusiasm for running was starting to waiver due to onset of the British winter and uncertainty of my goals for the coming season. Any self-respecting ultrarunner knows of Western States and the story of Gordy Ainsleigh who first completed the race on foot (rather than horseback) in 1974. As an avid fan of the sport I was no different. This legendary race stirred in me something that most famous ultras didn’t. The history, that elusive entry ticket, the prised belt buckles. It was enough to regain my ability to enjoy a modest dose of suffering each day at a time of year I have always struggled with. My excitement had little to do with how well I thought I could perform in the race. In their race preview iRunFar stated that I was more of a mountain runner, which was fair and I tended to agree with them. I ranked 16thin the group-think predictions, so I certainly wasn’t a favourite. I really didn’t know how well I could race on a relatively flat and runnable course, or how I would respond to the heat. Few people have a great race first time round, especially not Europeans. Given this, my main overriding goal was to make the top-10 in order to secure an entry for the following year. To make top-5, I’d need a near flawless day. 

Playing on the Pacific Crest Trail a couple of weeks before the race

Playing on the Pacific Crest Trail a couple of weeks before the race

After several months of emails, negotiation and some rather anti-social runs of shifts, I was lucky enough to secure 3 weeks off work. It meant I could recce most of the course and get used to the heat and altitude. I didn’t want this time to be all about the race though. We set off from the UK with no real plans, no accommodation, just a tent, some climbing gear and of course a few pairs of trainers. We spent a week camping in various locations close to the Western States course; French Meadows, Robinson Flat, Ruck-a-Chucky, Sugar Pine, and did a fair bit of running. We then followed Matt’s agenda, seeking some of the best climbing in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests and wild camping where we could. I loved this place. We decided, top-10 or not, that we had to come back.

I barely slept for several days before the race. I did not consciously feel nervous, but clearly there was something whirring in the background making sleep elusive. This is becoming a recurring theme for me and is somewhat annoying, and perhaps concerning. Given this, at 5am on race day I was in a bit of a sleep deprived daze and continued to be for several hours until I had built my caffeine levels during the early stages of the race. The 4 mile climb up to Emigrant pass, Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge were all very relaxed. I chatted to other runners and gawped at the scenery. These early miles were one of the few sections I hadn’t covered in my recce runs. Despite massive snowmelt in the preceding few weeks there was still air fair bit of snow early on (estimated 5-10 miles in total). It wasn’t a major issue, but it wasn’t straightforward either. Clambering up & down patches of hard-packed snow and traversing snow covered slopes takes quite a lot of energy at a time in the race where energy conservation is key. With no visible trail underfoot, staying on course was more challenging than it could have been. 

Photo: Gary Wang

Photo: Gary Wang

Climbing up to Robinson Flat I let myself be overtaken by about 6 women. I could have easily run with them, but they were running just a little bit harder than I wanted to at this stage in the race. It was quite disconcerting at the time but I just had to trust my strategy, which I think was the right decision. I changed my shoes and socks at Robinson Flat as a preventative measure, something I don’t usually do but I could feel some grit from the various creek crossings starting to accumulate. I was glad of it as 15 mile downhill that followed was surprisingly punishing on every part of my body. I was alarmed that my quads had started to feel a little tweaky already, so I tried to keep the steep descents into the canyons as relaxed as possible. Downhill conditioning was something I may have overlooked in training, focusing more on hitting elevation targets which, in this case, is not the same thing. 

Somewhere on Lyon Ridge

Somewhere on Lyon Ridge

I met my first pacer, Nick, in Foresthill. I think I was in 7that this point. I had decided this was the point where I’d try to rise to the occasion and I probably did so a little too enthusiastically. So enthusiastically I ended up in a bit of a slump 16 miles later. Nevertheless, having run well on Cal Street, I came into Green Gate (mile 79.8) in 5th. With Camelia Mayfield on my heals for most of the next 20 miles, my competitive instinct was fully engaged. In my almost panicked attempt to but distance between myself and Camelia, I came across Kaytlyn Gerbin, and managed to pass her too. I was now running with my second pacer, Brodie. Having never run with a pacer before I liked the idea of having company, but was somewhat sceptical of actual benefit to my race. You would think that being in the final stretches of one of the most competitive ultra-races in the world, being chased hard by two talented girls, would be enough to push me to my absolute limit. The truth is I don’t think I could have held 4thposition if it wasn’t for Brodie running ahead of me with a slightly quicker stride, forcing that extra 1-2% out of me that I wasn’t aware I had. 

Crossing Ruck-a-Chucky with Brodie

Crossing Ruck-a-Chucky with Brodie

I’m still struggling to generate intelligent thoughts about the race. Of course, I am ecstatic to have taken 4th place, but I really don’t know whether I paced it perfectly, or was a coward. It was an incredibly satisfying race on so many levels, yet I still have this lingering feeling that I could have done more. I ran a conservative first half, then upped my game towards the end. It’s a safe strategy, and great if the goal is simply to place as high as possible. But racing like this you risk leaving too much work for the final stages to actually win. I have never stood on the start line in a big mountain ultra thinking that I can win the race, which could be why I have found my groove in 4thplace for the last 3 Ultra Trail World Tour as have done. I have no regrets about Western States as I raced exactly how I had intended to, but with the growing competitiveness of such races, I can’t help wondering that a more daring approach is needed to make the podium. 

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Finally, massive thanks to my friends, family, pacers and sponsors (Salomon, Suunto, My Spring Energy, Petzl) who supported me through the preparation and during the race. I owe so much to this event, so thanks to Craig Thornley and his team for putting on such a wonderful race. It far exceeded my already high expectations. Thanks also to my coach Martin Cox. I have improved so much as an athlete under his guidance.

 

3 Races, 2 Continents: Eurafrica Trail

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. The reasons for this are endless and probably don’t need to be spelled out. Perhaps I will attempt to write about my 2018 races (Trail World Championships, Lavaredo, UTMB etc)  in reverse chronological order, but don’t hold me to that! My life over the past couple of months has been hugely different to the pre-UTMB period. My exam (the MRCPCH Clinical for anyone in the know) had significantly curtailed my training, I was sleeping less and was probably fairly miserable to be around. When I was revising I wanted to be training, and when I was training I wanted to be revising. I almost craved being at work so I didn’t have that internal conflict. But all the way I had the excitement of my post-exam ‘holiday’ at Eurafrica Trail, which is the subject of this blog.

I heard of Eurafrica through Raidlight who sponsor the event. The concept is simple; the first intercontinental trail race. It comprises 3 races as follows:

Stage 1: Vertical Race, Gibraltar

Stage 2: Alcornocales 50km, Spain

Stage 3: Belyounech 25km, Morocco


The intended base camp for competitors for the first 3 nights was a field on the edge of the Alcornocales National Park. It could have been idyllic, but thanks to the biblical weather conditions the field was already half underwater when we arrived the night before the first race. No big deal though, the organisers swiftly came up with an alternative and the all the Spaniards cheerfully marched off to sleep in a sports hall in the nearby town. I decided to remain at the camp and erected my little tent on the driest piece of ground I could find, assuming I’d sleep better than sharing a bedroom with 200 or so others. I insisted it was only a bit of rain and it was just like camping in England. From then on I became known as the crazy and brave Brit who not only won the races, but was stupid enough to sleep in a flooding field. Fast forward 24hrs, when I returned to the camp after the first stage, my tent had been blown over and my entire bag of kit soaked through. I decided to follow the Spaniards to the sports hall after that!

 

Stage 1

The vertical race was 3.8km, 400m+ from Europa point to the top of the Rock of Gibralter, with runners setting off at 1 minute intervals. After a kilometre or so of tarmac at the start the course ascents the Mediterranian Steps through the nature reserve to the summit. It was still raining and visibility was poor, but I did see some forlorn looking monkeys. Having never done a vertical race before I found it very difficult not being side-by-side my competition. How do you know how hard to push? It turned out I pushed just the right amount.

The prizegiving took place in St Micheals Cave, an enormous amphitheatre with coloured lights amongst the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. Very cool.

 

Stage 2

The 50km was shortened to 40km because of weather difficulties of the last few days, but today we had sun! This took place in the mountains of Algeciras and Los Barrios and largely comprised of tiny paths through forests and over scrubland, with occasional views of the Strait of Gibraltar. It was that kind of engaging and playful terrain requiring uninterrupted concentration. Unlike the previous day, I had a reasonable lead therefore could relax and enjoy the trails and rhythm I found myself in. So far, 2 stages, 2 wins. 

I really enjoyed the running in these few days, but what made this race so special was actually the time spent not running. It was a very sociable affair and, having come on my own, I was hugely grateful to everyone for welcoming me into the Eurafrica family. Despite my patchy Spanish, it was wonderful to hang out with a group of such friendly and generous individuals. There were a few other token Brits from Machynlleth– thanks Andy, Andy, Andy, Kameron, Gary, Peter, Sue for entertaining me! We had a rest/ travel day after 40k which involved the ferry across to Morocco and a tour of Tangier. I didn’t quite feel like a deserved a rest but it was fun nonetheless. 

 Stage 3

“The descent will be neutralized as it is too dangerous. No running, no overtaking”

Really? Bring it on! 

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The Morrocon stage involved the ascent of the iconic (but rarely climbed) Jbel Musa mountain. The terrain was rough and the existing trails were used only by local farmers and the military. There was a large military presence in the area which I presume is due to the town’s proximity to Europe therefore being a smuggling hotspot. It turns out they weren’t doubling up as race marshals as I originally thought. The technical descent turned out to be a steep scree slope which was a little risky due to the danger of falling rocks. I have a few bruises to show for it but manged to avoid being stretchered off the mountain (such was the fate of 3 competitors!). I was chased by Raidlight team mate Ester Casajuana all the way but managed to take my 3rd win of the week.

 

So much about this race is unique. It is a beautiful concept that the organisers have nurtured and are truly passionate about. This race rejunivated me physically and mentally, but I’m not quite done with 2018 yet. The final blow out will be a Scottish winter FKT attempt with a certain Damian Hall. Watch this space!

Transgrancanaria: Mind over muscle

To tell you the truth, one day removed from this race I was full of uncertainty. I had a cold, a hamstring niggle sustained during an over-enthusiastic training session a few days previously, and a grumbling foot problem threatening to become a Morton’s neuroma. All minor (except the cold), but there isn’t a lot else to think about whilst sitting around in an empty holiday complex waiting for D-day. Aside from the niggles, training had gone well enough despite all long runs being in the snow and undertaken in quadruple the layers I’d be wearing during the race.

I have never been to Gran Canaria before so the course was terra incognito. I was excited at least for some warm(er) weather and to be somewhere I could speak the language (although a grasp of Spanglish proved to be more than enough). As it turned out, as race day approached there were mounting concerns regarding the forecast. A ‘storm’ was approaching and the organisation were ‘concerned for every runner’s safety’. Did Gran Canaria do storms? Hardly. There was a little rain which was enough for the marathon race to be postponed by 24hrs. It subsided before the 125km race start and we experienced what could be described at most as drizzle, but more accurately, ‘wet air’.

Photo: Ian Corless

Photo: Ian Corless

The start was a relatively laid-back affair on the beach. It seemed that the usual 10km pace start was off the cards, as what looked like 3km of deep sand stretched before us. Luckily, we could soon run closer to the shore line where the sand was more compacted and the usual insane pace was resumed. A very runnable 16km followed and I was keen to hit some more gnarly trails. I was leap-frogging Caroline Chaverot, Amy Sproston and Ekaterina Mityaeva (the Russian who eventually took 3rd) for the first 50km. I kind of wanted to hang back and let them get on with it but somehow I wasn’t able to. My pacing seemed to work out though as I remained in 5th/6th for almost the entirety of the race. The night was relatively uneventful; just picking off the miles, waiting for daylight to signal the real start of the race.

 

Photo: Ian Corless

Photo: Ian Corless

I experienced two moderate low points during the race, around 50km and 80km. They were undoubtedly nutrition related, despite me being super vigilant with calorie consumption, but there is so little margin for error when trying to race competitively. The second low point coincided with Roque Nublo, the iconic 67m tall volcanic tower of rock. We were taken on a little out and back to the rock which was the first real opportunity to gain some accurate information on the whereabouts of the competition. I learned that Fernanda Maciel was 5 minutes ahead and Eva Sperger worryingly close behind. In my glycogen depleted state, holding off Eva became the primary goal. A few miles later, having made up the calorie deficit I’d found myself in, I was feeling back in the game. Then Eva flew past me, absolutely hammering the downhill.

And that was the turning point.

A few months previously I had come 6th in Diagonale de Fous, a race on par with Transgrancanaria in terms of UTWT points, and I wanted to improve on this. I wasn’t coming 6th again. It just wasn’t happening. The panic button had been pressed and I could feel my cortisol levels increasing, my liver and protein energy stores being tapped in to and subsequently my pace picking up. Looks can be deceiving, and I passed Eva again a few hundred yards down the trail. It was nothing personal. In fact, I have gotten to know Eva a little and have a lot of time for her. I was convinced that she would catch me again and I remained in fight or flight mode right through to the finish. Along the way I caught Fernanda, who I had almost forgotten about, and presumed to be unreachable.

Photo: Prozis

Photo: Prozis

We’ve all been told that racing is 90% mental. And I agree that even to finish a race requires a certain amount of willpower. But this is the first time I genuinely feel my body set performance limits that my brain simply did not agree with. Usually it is the other way around, for me at least, as our brains hold us back from pushing past a certain point. I know you can train your brain to overcome the limits it enforces on the body. I’m no expert on this. But sometimes it just happens.

Photo: Racephotos Sport Photography

Photo: Racephotos Sport Photography

So with relief I crossed the finish line in 4th position. What a race! Whilst the perfect race seems more and more elusive, this was definitely a step in the right direction and a big confidence boost for the rest of the season. Moreover, my foot problem that had been giving me grief on a daily basis, remained completely silent during the race. The mind (and body) is a funny thing. The most important thing I learnt is the importance of staying fresh early in the season. I’d had none of the really big mountain days that would usually be my staple training and didn’t seem to suffer as a consequence. Now, 9 days on, I’m rolling into my next training block feeling as breezy and motivated as ever.

Photo: Prozis

Photo: Prozis

Diagonale des Fous 2017

The tiny volcanic island of Reunion lies about 7000 miles south east of the UK, and 600 miles deeper into the Indian Ocean than Madagascar. With a length of only 39 miles, it’s hardly surprising I hadn’t even heard of this place until I discovered this race (and even when I did, there’s no way I could have located it on a map). Reunion is some sort of trail running mecca. The entire population know about the race; they have either raced the DDF or know someone who has. They’ll either be watching it live, apparently 20,000 people watch the start and 10% of the population will watch the race live at some point on the course.  Or for those who can’t travel, the local TV and radio stations provide non-stop race coverage for days. Coincidently (or perhaps not) the Airbnb we had randomly chosen to stay in over the race belonged to a sports journalist who would be covering the race in its entirety on the radio. The ‘Diagonale des Fous’ (‘fool’s crossing’) is 165k long with 9500m of climb. It caught my attention when shopping for a third ultra-trail world tour race this year, but it was only after my DNF at UTMB that I fully committed to this race. I’m not sure racing both UTMB and the DDF is entirely sensible, given that they are only 7 weeks apart (with obvious exceptions e.g. Andrea Huser). It took about 28 hours of travel to reach Reunion from my home in Derbyshire, but the stress of travel quickly wore off after arriving on the island. I had 48hrs before the start which was just enough time to register, catch up on sleep, get a feel for the climate and have a swim or two in the Indian Ocean (although we were pretty cautious given the more than real shark threat).

Overlooking the the Cirque de Cilaos

Overlooking the the Cirque de Cilaos

I’d gleaned as much information as I could about the course from reading multiple blogs and memorising stats between checkpoints etc., but I still remained largely in the dark about what the next 30 plus hours would bring. We arrived in St Pierre 2 ½ hours before the start. It seemed excessive but I’d been informed (and accurately so) that the traffic and crowds would be a significant barrier. We ended up parking on the motorway slip road and walking the final 2km. The entire town was a hive of activity. There were numerous bands, dancing and circus performers creating a festival type environment for non-running islanders to come out and enjoy themselves. The start area was more chilled, with a sea of runners taking the last opportunity to lie about and conserve energy. I managed to blag my way into the elite area despite my name not being on the official list – I was gradually learning that in Reunion they don’t really stick to rules. The disadvantage of being in this area was that there was no toilet. The 100 or so of us were all peeing behind a skip.

Fresh faced at the start

Fresh faced at the start

The start was rowdy, heated and furious. Crowds lined the streets for several kilometres, and I couldn’t even hear the continuous fireworks due to the noise of the crazed fans. The pace was frantic – I felt like I was running the St Pierre 5k. I’d heard about stoppages early on so I decided to stick to the pace. The route meandered through town and wide dirt and grassy trails through sugar cane fields for about 15 miles, gradually climbing the whole way. The rules stated that all competitors had to wear the official race t-shirt from the start to the 2nd check point, and from the penultimate check point to the finish. With the temperature still not far off 30 degrees I was soon overheating in 2 layers (I planned to remove the outer layer at the 2nd checkpoint, although most people had taken theirs off well before this). At some point in the first few hours we left the wider trails and roads for narrow, windy, rooty trails through forest, and this alternated with open fields and scrub land. As it was dark and I had not run any of the route before the race, a lot of the first night blurred into one. For the early part of the night I felt non-specifically sluggish and slightly apathetic. Perhaps as the adrenaline of the start had worn off and I was getting down to business, but not even close to starting to race. At some point, I blindly followed a bunch of head torches off course which ended up costing me 2 miles, about 20 minutes and over 50 places. This was almost a turning point in the race as the frustration woke me from my daze and I felt like I was running a 100 mile race again. It got a little chilly when over 2000m but I never had to add a layer. It also didn’t rain as apparently it always does in this part of the island, and the notoriously muddy ‘Mare à Boue’, or ‘Mud Pond’, was completely dry. When the sun came up and I saw unique landscape of cirques and volcanos for the first time I was completely overwhelmed. This was why I had come all this way. The descent into Cilaos at 43 miles was essentially the first descent of the race. It was ‘fun’ technical, but borderline extreme due to the gradient, abundant rocks, roots and ladders acting as obstacles. Arriving into Cilaos I was in 9th. In Cilaos I topped up on rations from my drop bag and hurried down some hot food. On leaving the town I felt physically OK but mentally really good.

Early morning views in the Cirque de Mafate

Early morning views in the Cirque de Mafate

Next came the 1200m climb up to the edge of the famous Cirque de Mafate. I must have been enjoying myself (perhaps a little too much) as I moved up 22 places overall on this climb. The temperature was heating up nicely and the views from the Col du Taibit (the entry point into this relatively inaccessible Cirque) were mind blowing. By the time I reached Marla I was in 6th. It hadn’t been my plan to move up so early I tried to hold back a little. I ran a fair bit of the way through Mafate with Gilberte Libel, an islander who seemed to have friends in all the remote villages. The villages are only accessible by helicopter so these are good friends to have. She kept stopping to get support from the locals before catching me up again. She looked incredibly fresh and strong and I was just waiting for the moment when she’d pull ahead. I found out the following week when staying in her uncle’s Gite in Mafate (Reunion in a small place!) that she is a true local and had grown up in the Cirque.

Photo from Trails Endurance Mag

Photo from Trails Endurance Mag

The walls on the Cirque are almost sheer and the basin in anything but flat. This was the crux of the race, both for me physically and in terms of the physical environment. I have never run anywhere so spectacular, and never seen anything quite like it before. The basin was watched over by fortress-like ridges and was riven with deep valleys. 7 hours after leaving Cilaos it was now time for the mammoth, 2000m climb to get out of this volcanic amphitheatre. A helicopter buzzed above us as we climbed. I left Grand Place feeling fresh and optimistic, but I arrived in Maido as a down spirited, exhausted mess. Marcelle Puy and Gilberte overtook me on the 14km descent towards the coast which was a mental breaking point for me, resulting in the final 40km being the hardest of my life. Sans Souci was the second drop bag checkpoint so I made an effort to sort myself out; I ate a plate of rice and some sort of stew and changed into my Inov8 Roclites for a bit more cushioning.

I had a second wind after leaving Sans Souci but it short lived. The vicious and painfully technical trail was getting the better of me and I was trudging along in a drunken-like state of misery. I had foolishly assumed that now we were out of the mountains the terrain would become kinder, but I found myself climbing up ladders, scrambling over boulders up and down the hillside with frequent aid from ropes on the steepest sections. This ‘trail’ was not even walkable and it continued for way too long. Then there was the ‘Chemin des Anglais’ (apparently it was used by the British rather than built by them). It is a centuries old paved road, which sounds appealing, but it is paved with irregularly shaped boulders which are placed various distances apart making it an exhausted runner’s worst nightmare. A rocky mess. This absurdity lasted for several hours and my hopes of finding any easy trail before the finish had evaporated. The 800m climb to Colorado, the final aid station, was almost a blessing as I didn’t have to feel guilty about walking. Usually in the last few kilometres the pain goes away, but the final descent to St Denis was a continuation of the last 40k. I stumbled down through the steep, rocky jungle in the same, bleary-eyed state. I arrived at the stadium at 6am, 32 hours and 8 minutes after I’d started, in 6th place. It was the most hard-fought physical battle of my life.

Attempting to speak in full sentences for an interview at the finish

Attempting to speak in full sentences for an interview at the finish

I was only semi-happy with my finishing position, but more importantly to me, I had seized this potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this unique race. I had finished this race that had defeated a whole load of the best international competition.

The senior women's podium

The senior women's podium

In the days following the race we hiked the Cirques and volcanoes at a leisurely pace and were able to absorb the unique topography in a more relaxed and unblinkered way. We stayed in the mountain gites, ate Creole food, drank rum and tasted numerous exotic fruits and vegetables. This place is one of the worlds true gems.

Thanks to Raidlight, the main race sponsor, for welcoming me to Reunion and providing me with ace kit. In particular, the Responsiv 10L Race Vest is the best there is. I wore LCF Nepal socks, Inov8 TrailRoc 285 shoes, fuelled myself with Tailwind and SIS.

I would also like to thank my mum who made a last minute decision to come and crew for me, on the pretence of a holiday. She did a great job!

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Glen Coe Skyline

It’s 4am and I’m sitting in the car, a long way from home, shivering. The car has broken down. I’ve been awake for nearly 24hrs and I really want to sleep, but I’m way too cold and hungry. Perhaps I still have too much adrenaline running through my system to allow me to do so, for 12 hours earlier I crossed the finish line of the Glen Coe Skyline in 5th place. In my mind I am still clinging onto rock, working my way up into the cloud, or hammering down scree towards the valley bottom, legs and lungs on fire. I can’t get these images out of my head, and I don’t want to.

Photo by Andy Jackson

Photo by Andy Jackson

Now four days removed from finishing and going over the race in my mind, I still get that rush of adrenaline. The race came just 2 weeks after I’d run 123km of the UTMB (then subsequently DNFed with hypothermia). Mentally I was a bit broken so my aim with this race was to finish and have fun, thus boosting my confidence again. But given the fine field of international competitors, I was always going to find it difficult not to ‘race’.

The Glen Coe Skyline is part of the World Skyrunning Extreme series. It covers 55km with 4750m of vertical ascent, and takes Skyrunning to the limit in terms of severity and safety without ropes, helmets and harnesses. I had run the route in training so knew roughly what I was in for.

 

 

After a measured start along the West Highland ‘motorWay’, we dropped into the glen before starting the climb towards Curved Ridge. The air was cool but the sun was rising and the rock largely dry; it was going to be a fantastic day. We had to queue patiently to get up the most technically difficult sections of Curved Ridge; after getting over the initial frustration at this, it seemed best to embrace it, have a snack and enjoy the view. I had considered a slightly faster start to avoid congestion here but decided it probably wasn’t worth the extra energy expenditure, and I think it was the right decision. Once over the summit I started to pass people on the technical decent, only to be overtaken again on the next climb (a theme that repeated itself throughout the whole race). I told myself I was tired so had to make the most of the descents. I find I always have an extra gear for descents in races compared to training; I guess the adrenaline gives added confidence. But today I was enjoying myself so much I couldn’t help but move quickly. When Ekaterina Mityaeva and Katie Schide overtook me with such conviction on the climb towards CP7 I was convinced I would never see them again. Perhaps it was the small calorie deficit I found myself in, as I managed to pick myself up again after the summit.

Photo by Ian Corless

Photo by Ian Corless

By the time I reached the support point at CP11 I was in 6th place, but Katie Kaars Sijpesteijn was right on my heals. On the killer climb up to the Aonach Eagach I looked back roughly every 5 minutes to assess the gap; she was gradually closing in.  I almost resigned myself to the fact that she would catch me, and told myself that if anyone was going to pass me I wanted it to be her! But as the ridge came and went I had maintained a tiny bit of separation, and I regained my will to fight. I told myself that if I could just make it to CP14 (the final high point before the long decent back to Kinlochleven), I could probably hold her off. I found an extra gear and powered back home to finish in 5th place, having unknowingly overtaken Katie Schide as she had gone off course. 8hrs 34mins. What a race! I was buzzing with excitement and almost sad that it was over.

Photo by Matt Bennett

Photo by Matt Bennett

There is no doubt that this is one of the finest mountain races in the country. Thanks to Shane Ohly and his crew for conjuring up such a magical event. Thanks also to Matt Bennett for being an ace driver, food provider, dog sitter and source of endless warm clothes.

 

Paddy Buckley Round

For those that aren’t familiar with the fell running, the Paddy Buckley is one of the big 3 rounds; it is the Snowdonia equivalent of the Bob Graham. It is generally regarded to be tougher than the BG, but by how much is up for debate. To put that into context, the overall record for the Paddy (Tom Higginbottom, 17-42) is nearly 4 hours slower than for the Bob Graham (Billy Bland, 13-53).

On Saturday 3rd June I ran the Paddy Buckley in 18-50, completing my first 24hr round. It was a relatively last minute decision to attempt this summer, but I saw a window of opportunity and as the route is the only of the 3 rounds I know well, it made sense to have a crack at it. I pieced together a 19-30 schedule, starting at 3am from Llanberis.

The short period before sunrise. Photo by Michael Jones

The short period before sunrise. Photo by Michael Jones

Leg 1: Llanberis to Llyn Ogwen                                    

(support: Michael Jones, John Parkin, Digby Harris)

Matt dropped me off in Llanberis where we met the others and rations were divvied out. The weather looked optimistic; clear, little wind, not too warm. I can honestly say that this may have been the most enjoyable 3hrs of running I have ever experienced. From snaking up through the dark and eerie slate mines to the breath-taking sunrise over the Glyders, it could not have been a more exhilarating start. I was so excited to be out on this perfectly still morning that the actual running seemed effortless. As we approached Glyder Fawr we were enveloped in clag, but the burning sun coming up in front of us shone through the fog creating an amazing pink haze.

The Glyder's at sunrise. Photo by Michael Jones

The Glyder's at sunrise. Photo by Michael Jones

I was mildly concerned that I was quite a way up on schedule and therefore I did my best to temper my effort - I didn’t want to arrive at Ogwen and my support still be in bed. But despite this the dry rock of the Glyder’s and Tryfan made progress quick. On the descent from Tryfan I spent more timing looking at the layby below for signs of life than I did looking at where I was putting my feet. Needless to say, I had a number of falls. We arrived at Ogwen 30 minutes up on schedule. If I had been told before the round that I would run this leg in under 3hrs I would have thought that impossible, a stupid and suicidal pace. I didn’t realised during recce runs quite how much faster you can go without the weight of a pack and on fresh legs. Below Tryfan we found Saul waiting, but no one else had appeared. I was slightly concerned but knew I had only myself to blame for producing a wildly inaccurate schedule. We trotted up the road as slowly as possible and luckily Ant and the Pascall & Bennett road support arrived just before the turn off up Pen Yr Ole Wen.

Ascending Y Garn - still smiling! Photo by Michael Jones

Ascending Y Garn - still smiling! Photo by Michael Jones

Leg 2: Llyn Ogwen to Capel Curig

(support: Michael Jones, Ant Bethell, Saul Taylor)

Arm warmers were exchanged for some rice pudding and the dog, and on we went. We ascended Pen Yr Ole Wen via the east of Llyn Ogwen. I understand that some people go up the ‘nose’ via Ogwen Cottage, but the east side is the only way I know, and most likely the fastest. We continued to pick off a few minutes from the schedule for each top. I did worry a bit that I had gone off too fast, but the pace was still very comfortable so I decided to trust my instincts and go by feel. The highest summits were still in clag but navigation remained straight forward. On the descent of Pen Llithrig y Wrach Forest & I each took our own separate route -  I lost him (and everyone else!) for 10 minutes but met again at the footbridge where the ground levels out at exactly the same time. We arrived into Capel Curig 47minutes up on schedule. I asked whether my support for the next leg had arrived yet but I was told to ‘be quiet and eat your pasta’.

Perfect conditions on Leg 2. Photo by Michael Jones

Perfect conditions on Leg 2. Photo by Michael Jones

Leg 3: Capel Curig to Aberglaslyn

(support: Nicky Spinks, Kirsty Hewitson, John Whilock, Rich Watson)

Luckily Kirsty, John & Rich were ready but Nicky pulled up in her van just as we were leaving. I felt incredibly guilty as I didn’t want her to miss us having travelled a long way, plus she was crucial support from a navigation point of view. Luckily she caught us up after just a few minutes. I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to this leg, mainly due to the mental challenge of a series of seemingly never-ending indistinct summits. On legs 1 & 2 I had mainly been up at the front of the group, picking my own route, but now I was happy to have a mental break and follow the others. Although I know this leg reasonably well, with the novelty of NOT having a map in my hand I soon lost track of our progress. At one point I asked Kirsty how many summits were left until the quarries, thinking it must just be a couple as we had been running for hours. She (reluctantly) broke the news that there were still 7 summits left! Eventually we did make it to the quarry to find Matt, my Dad, Flora & Dingo waiting for us. Nicky decided to head straight back to Aberglaslyn so she could be ready to help on leg 4, leaving the rest of us to nip around the Moelwyns and over the dreaded Cnicht (which, surprisingly, was less painful than usual thanks to John’s suburb line). Inevitably I was starting to tire. I always find this time in a race almost comforting, having run this far with the anticipation of the pain to come. I could finally gravitate to the task ahead.

Leg 4: Aberglaslyn to Pont Cae’r Gors

(support: Nicky Spinks, Ant Bethell, Fiona Pascall, Lydia Rosling, Tom Rivett)

Forest led us a way up Bryn Banog that was completely new to me. Before starting the round I thought I would be uncomfortable about this and want to stick to my own lines, but in the state of mind I was in I just wanted to be a follower, and I had every faith in Forest’s route choice. The bracken on this ascent was just starting to sprout, making the going just about as good as it can be on this rough section of the route. Even a couple of weeks later and the vegetation would have delayed our progress. It was quite surreal to have my sister, Lid and Tom with me. Despite being fit and accustomed to being in the mountains, they live in Somerset and are not fell runners. Whilst climbing Bryn Banog Lid & Tom played a wrap from their phone that they had written, intended for my sister’s wedding the following weekend. I couldn’t help thinking that the hardened fell runners among us would have disapproved of our fooling around! None the less the Somerset crew faired incredibly well and hopefully got a flavour of what fell running rounds were about.

With 2/3 of the distance and climbing behind me I was certainly feeling the effects of the last 12hrs of running. In most racing situations looking at your watch gains you very little; you maintain a certain level of exertion and as long as you don’t under or over-do it, the time takes care of itself. The same should be the case for rounds, but because we have a schedule we become addicted to clock watching. Up until this point I had been consistently ahead of my splits, but now I was only just meeting them, and falling behind on some. I did my best to keep up with Forest & Nicky, who were out in front, whilst Tom did a great job keeping me fed and watered. The relief at summiting Y Garn and dropping towards the forest tracks and final changeover point was tempered with the enormity of the challenge that still lay ahead. I arrived at Pont Cae’r Gors 1hr5 ahead of my schedule (and therefore fairly close to record pace, should the splits be achievable).  I never thought I was capable of breaking the record and it had never been my intention before I started, but according to my splits the record had been on the cards for most of my round. However, if my schedule had been more balanced perhaps I would never have thought it within reach.

Leg 5: Pont Cae’r Gors to Llanberis

(support: Kirsty Hewitson, Matt Bennett, Digby Harris, Justin Bramall, Tracy Dean)

With a fresh and enthusiastic collection of pacers (and an even more excitable Dingo), I hauled my exhausted legs upwards with the help of the poles I had just picked up, but top speed was little more than a crawl. My suffer score was through the roof (or would have been if I had uploaded this run on to Strava). Climbing Craig Wen we managed to steer Dingo away from the bog containing the rotting sheep in which she had delighted in bathing in on my final recce. We topped out on Craig Wen 3 minutes slower than my splits. Kirsty politely told me I had to get a move on if I wanted to break any record. I knew this, but I just didn’t think I could move any faster. I guess I knew at this point that my splits for this leg probably weren’t realistic, therefore the record was also unrealistic, but I clung on to the hope that my legs might get a new lease of life.

At least I was pleased that my support were enjoying themselves, even if I wasn’t in my best spirits. Ascending the ridge to Snowdon Matt and Justin were joking about what men could and couldn’t do with their left hand … (Matt had recently sustained a shoulder injury whilst mountain biking on a stag do which had rendered him exempt from support duties up until now and also as an excuse not to carry any of my food!). We stopped to add another layer on this ridge for the first time since setting off 16 hours previously. We found an un-opened bottle of orange juice on Crib y Ddysgyl which we shared eagerly (food always tastes better if it isn’t your own!). The tops came and went painfully slowly, but below 1000m visibility remained good. I was slowing more, and on climbing Moel Cynghhorien Kirsty, more bluntly this time, told me I had to get my act together. I knew she was right but on attempting to push just a little bit harder my legs and lungs obstinately objected.

Even in my spent state I was able to appreciate the sunset and that last hour of running. My dad and sister met us on Foel Gron which also boosted my morale somewhat and the final run off felt almost easy; a fast and non-technical, grassy descent in the half light. Running in to Llanberis, surrounded by friends, I felt only happiness and relief.

The finish in Llanberis, trying to work out what time it was! Photo by Forest Bethell

The finish in Llanberis, trying to work out what time it was! Photo by Forest Bethell

A lot of people have asked me I think I could have run the Paddy faster. The answer is, on that day, no. In terms of the conditions, support, route choice, nutrition, there is barely anything I could have changed to shave any minutes off. Physically I could have been in better shape. My training had been very average; distinctly less consistent than I’d have liked it to be. If there is any room for improvement it probably lies in that field. For now though I am perfectly content with my round, a near 19hrs I’ll never forget.

Thank you again to all my pacers, and to my dad, Flora, Matt & Fiona for road and quarry support, without whom I couldn’t have got around.

Relief at the finish. Just before the fish & chips arrived! Photo by Forest Bethell

Relief at the finish. Just before the fish & chips arrived! Photo by Forest Bethell

Madeira Island Ultra Trail

Despite the challenges of injury earlier in the year I had managed to piece together 6 weeks of reasonable training and was genuinely excited about racing MIUT. I flew out to Madeira the week before the race for the opportunity to get to know the route and get some much needed rest away from the stresses of life in the UK. I was obviously in need of that rest as I came down with a feverish illness as soon as I arrived and spent most of the 3 days in bed. Although this race wasn’t my main objective for the season I still had no intention of watching from the side line. As it would be the first big race of the season it seemed more pivotal and a poor result could really knock my confidence. Mercifully my illness passed and I managed to enjoy a few runs and hikes in the days leading up to the race. Madeira is a runner’s paradise; the trails snake through striking landscapes of lush forests, monstrous broken teeth-like mountains and along sheer cliffs of the dramatic coastline.

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The race started at midnight in the far east of the island, with us working our way from one side of the island to the other over the central mountainous massif. The first half features more climbing and technical terrain, but the whole route is beautiful and engaging. A midnight start is psychologically very tough; a full day is a long time to wait with rattling nerves. But once on the start line the adrenaline coupled with the grams of caffeine packed away in the gels I was carrying, I was going to have no problem keeping the fatigue at bay.

Barely 1km from the start we hit the sharp climb out of Porto Moniz and poles started to come out. I got mine out; something wasn’t right. There seemed to be an integral part missing from one of my poles and it just wouldn’t go together. I dithered for what seemed like ages trying to fix it whilst moving slowly up the hill, then gave up and threw it in a bin I passed. I then faffed even more getting my phone out and texting Matt to bring me a spare in the morning, but I knew half the climbing would be done by this point. Then there was the question, is one pole better than none or do I ditch both? I decided to see how I got on with the ‘one pole technique’. Before my pole commotion there were several women around me but they were all gone now. How much time had I lost? How much difference would the lack of a pole make? Why has this happened to me now? It’s not like I hadn’t checked them before the race. It’s the kind of race where everyone uses them and there must be a good reason for this. I was quite flustered and assumed I was quite a way back in the women’s field. My usual ‘mill pond’ self was a million miles away. I knew it was a long race but for some reason I felt the need to catch up a bit so I really attacked the first few hills. Aside from climbing for a short period with Stephanie Case early on, there were still no women. I passed through 4 checkpoints, still assuming I was well back in the field.

At around 6am I arrived into Encumeada with 45km and 4500m under my belt. I met Matt and my parents here and picked up Matt’s poles, which of course were far too long for me but better than the alternative (although I had come to quite enjoy the one pole technique!). Here I learned that I was actually in second place, behind Andrea Huser. It was a huge relief to know this and the stress from early in the race was gone. Over the next few hours I settled I gained some space on the trails and settled into more of a rhythm. Dawn brought me freshness and I finally I could start to savour the views. I was really enjoying myself.

It was during the long, steep descent into Curral das Freiras that my hamstrings and calves started complaining. It was a bit early in the race for this, but I found out over the next 10 hours that I would suffer the consequences of my lack of hill training much more on the descents than the climbs. I met Matt and my parents again at Curral das Freiras, who re-fuelled me with salt and vinegar crisps and a fresh weight of gels. The biggest climb but the most scenic section of the course was now ahead, and also the knowledge that by Pico do Areeiro (1816m), I had broken the back of it. I wasn’t moving badly in relation to others, but I wasn’t exactly moving well either. I am used to doing more overtaking than being overtaken in the later stages of the race but it didn’t feel like that this time. I continued to feel strong on the climbs but it was on the descents that I was really suffering. By Poiso, pretty much all the climbing was done with just 16 miles of gradual descent to the finish. How hard could that be? Rather hideous to be honest. I was not helped by the lure of the finish until I could actually see it. However, I was helped immensely by my Portuguese companions; throughout the race I had run with various people, holding brief conversations in Frenglish, Porglish and Portuñol (my French is hopeless but I can understand Portuguese and my Spanish isn’t too bad). In the latter stages of the race we I reached a constant stream of the slower marathon competitors that all needed overtaking, often on a narrow trail with a sheer cliff on one side. One Portuguese competitor took it upon himself to my native ‘escort’, clearing the trail in front of me by shouting (in Portuguese) ‘this is the 2nd women! Please let us past!’ about a thousand times over the course of 10 miles. What a privilege.

The welcome by the crowds in Machico was amazing and second place felt like a victory to me. It was the confidence boost that I needed. I really can’t recommend this race highly enough. The race director, Sidónio Freitas, and his team put on a great event that I’d love to return to. Thanks must go to Matt who did a perfect job with support, with the added stress of having to ‘manage’ my rather excitable parents. But also to my parents for giving up a day of their holiday to cheer me on. I would also like to thanks Raidlight for kitting me out and the Ultra-Trail World Tour for getting me to the race.

 

Spring running

“I should think the situation of Madeira the most enviable on the whole earth”

Henry Coleridge, 1885

It is interesting the things we take for granted. Running for example. To be free to run amongst the hills in sunshine, rain, snow and darkness. I know that most people don’t even move much anymore, so it might seem incomprehensible that not being free to run can have such an impact on one’s state of mind.

I picked up a niggle in my foot after Christmas, meaning I had the best part of 2 months doing very little running. I can see now that in the grand scheme of things it was no big deal. But during that period the uncertainty of it all nearly drove me to despair. Initially I was so hyper focused on finding the solution that I probably didn’t give my foot what it really needed. Rest. At my lowest time Matt persuaded me to go mountain biking with him. I have always insisted that I hate the sport; why pedal up a hill when I could run faster with a much lower risk of falling? And I’m a wimp when it comes to descents. But he proved me wrong. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own bike a few days later and we did a lot of mountain biking for a few weeks. This distraction was exactly what I needed allow my foot to recover and to rekindle my love for being out in the hills. That clear-headed exhaustion at the end of hard day is the same for mountain biking as it is for running.

The turn-around point was The High Peak Marathon in March (a 42 mile overnight mountain marathon in The Peak District). Despite feeling very sluggish after my prolonged rest our team, led by Nicky Spinks, set a new women’s course record. My foot hardly complained at all afterwards so finally I could start to look forward to the rest of the year.

Now, for the first time this year, I feel well rested and healthy. I may not have got as much climbing in this year as I’d have liked, but at least I have a spring in my step. With an open mind I am off to the beautiful island Madeira for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, 600km off the coast of Morocco, and famous for its dramatic scenery and botanical wonders. “I should think the situation of Madeira the most enviable on the whole earth. It ensures every European comfort with almost every tropical luxury.” This is what Henry Coleridge (nephew of the poet Samuel Coleridge) said of the island following a visit in 1825. It sounds like paradise to me, especially after the long British winter that dragged more than ever this year. I’m looking forward to spending the week before the race exploring the island, running, hiking, swimming and trying out the fresh local produce. The race itself covers the length of the island from sea to sea over 115km and promises to be as staggeringly beautiful as it will be steep. It will be a dream to race in such a perfect corner of the world, whatever the result.

World Trail Championships 2016

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I started training for this race back in 1996 when I was nine years old. Needless to say I didn’t know what I was training for at the time. We went on a family holiday to The Peneda-Geres National Park in north-west corner of Portugal. We drove there in my grandparents old VW campervan and spent two weeks exploring the mountains and swimming in secluded, turquoise rock pools. On looking at some photos of the trip just two weeks before we flew out for the world champs, it became apparent that we had actually reccied a fair amount of the route. I have no idea how we had heard about the park back then. It is hardly a popular destination amongst British tourists. Even today the National Park is little known to the rest of the world. Maps showing the park’s trails just aren’t available.

I secured my place in the GB team for the 6th World Trail Championships back in April through winning The Highland Fling, the UK trial. It was a great privilege to be selected and I wanted to make this race my main goal for the season. I went out to Portugal 4 weeks before the race to recce the course. In summary the course is 85km with 5000m of elevation gain. It is a linear route through the national park starting in Rio Caldo and finishing in Arcos de Valdevez. The course tests everything; there are plenty of technical sections over rocky terrain, some of which are on narrow trails and some off-trail over the open mountainside. There are also some fast sections on big forest tracks and on old block-paved roads through picturesque villages. A lot of the course is runnable but there are also several long, steep hiking sections. Checkpoints were 10-15k apart with 3 team feed stations were we had GB support crew who could give us our own rations, change kit etc.

 
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We arrived in Braga a day and a half before the race. Braga was 45 minutes from the start of the race but a great base for the athletes. All competitors were staying in Bom Jesus, a historic hilltop district which is important pilgrimage site and a big tourist attraction. Our Portuguese hosts did very well at showing off their city’s best bits. It was wonderful to have a day of wandering around and doing very little but by Friday night we were itching to race.

The start was early. Really early. My alarm went off at 02:40, breakfast in the hotel was at 03:00 and the bus left for the start at 03:30. At 5am 235 nervous looking runners were huddled on the start line in Rio Caldo waiting for the gun to go off. The start was fast, as expected. The first 6.5k was a continuous climb on wide forest trails. The route was really well marked which was a relief. I do enjoy starting races in the dark. We mainly ran in silence for the first couple of hours. All you can hear is the sound of our footsteps and our heavy breathing. I was working harder than I anticipated in the first few hours of the race but everyone else around me seemed to be working equally as hard. I figured this was a level of ultrarunning I had never experienced before and I had to step up to the challenge.

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I came into the 2nd checkpoint at Geres (30k) in 11th place. It had been a sweaty morning so far but from here onwards the temperature rose and the heat became my enemy. I was drenching myself in water at every opportunity but I still felt weak and a bit dizzy for the majority of the day. The only sections of the race I enjoyed were the technical descents; the dry, grippy granite was a welcome change from the mud and greasy rock in the UK. I was strong on these sections and would often pass a few people. The longest climb of the course was up to the checkpoint at Serra Amarela. I ran out of water about 1.5 hours from the checkpoint and was also really low on food. To my delight I found a dirty puddle on the ridge not far from the checkpoint. I drank 2 cups of it then poured 2 cups over myself. It was only at the end of the race that I realised quite how bad the stuff I had been drinking was – my plastic cup had a thick layer of grit at the bottom.

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Despite feeling sub-optimal I managed to pass a few people and by 45km I was in 8th place. I was convinced some of these people would pass me again in the later stages but everyone else must have been suffering as much as me. I usually manage to smile at photographers during races but there was no smiling today. I had been intermittently running with Jo Meek, my GB team mate, in the middle stages of the race. She was stronger than me on the ascents but I was a bit quicker on the technical descents so we kept passing each other. It was a big confidence boost to be so close to her as I thought she was in another league to me. By Soajo at 65km Jo pulled away from me as I expected. Next came the final big climb of the course; nearly 900m of ascent ‘off-piste’ over rocky, arid landscape. I passed a few people on this climb (mainly men unfortunately). In the last 10k I had given up hope of catching any women. I was just desperate not to be overtaken and was looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes. I was aware I was in a bad state and it would be touch and go. Every time I pushed on a bit I felt nauseous and dizzy and thought I was going to pass out. Even in the final 100m to the finish line I thought I might collapse at any moment.

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The relief of crossing the finish line in 8th place was immense. I had tentatively hoped for a top 10 finish but never really believed it would happen. I sat down on the red carpet and let Matt pour bottles of water over me until I felt brave enough to stand up again. I then headed to the fountain for a further drenching. I have never suffered so badly with the heat before, and it wasn’t even that hot. Jo Meek had finished in 7th (5 minutes ahead of me) and Jo Zak in 29th. Together we secured a team bronze medal. I couldn’t have been happier.

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I would like to thank Raidlight for my custom made Gilet Responsiv – the lightest and most comfortable rest vest I have ever used. Thank you also to Ian Sharman for getting my legs in tip top condition, to Contours Trail Running Holidays for their generosity and to Matt & my parents for coming out to Portugal to support.

 
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Lakeland 100 2016

This was the third time I’d turned up in Coniston on the last weekend in July to start this race. The UTLD has grown from strength to strength over the years and the atmosphere is always fantastic. In 2014 I finished in 25:44 which I was really happy with. At the time I was relatively new to ultra-running but as time went by and I had a few more races under my belt, I started to realise I could probably run a bit faster if I tried again. I returned in 2015 with the intention of doing just that, but it wasn’t to be. I had a viral illness and was feeling rough even before I started. I ended up pulling out around the 40 mile mark. So I was back in 2016 to have one final crack at the Lakeland 100. I was very aware of Lizzie Wraith’s record of 24:15 which she set in 2013. It was a good deal faster than my 2014 time, but I thought that if everything went to plan I’d have a chance of breaking it. This was my main goal. Lower down the list of goals were winning and beating my 2014 time.

Despite working nothing but night shifts for the whole of July, I though my preparation was good. I hadn’t been ill (which was my biggest triumph) and I’d managed to train consistently. The weather was looking good. I was ready.

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My plan was to enjoy myself, eat as much as I could and generally look after myself the for the first 60 miles, then see what happened. As everyone knows, the race starts in Dalemain. The reality is that I’m not sure anyone can run 60 miles and still be completely fresh, but I did my best anyway.

 
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I really enjoyed chatting to fellow competitors whilst going up the first few hills. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Friday evening. It was a perfect temperature and the views were amazing. The men were all holding gates open for me, even if they had to wait a while for me to get there - very gentlemanly! I was in 15th at the first CP at Seathwaite then gradually picked my way up to 5th at the fourth CP at Buttermere, 26 miles in. I had the record splits written on a bit of paper in my pocket which I had purposefully not looked at since last year. I didn’t look at them too early on as I didn’t want them to affect my pace at all. If I had been going slower than the splits it may have made me run faster, which would not have been a good thing early in the race. I did look at Buttermere – I was 24 minutes up on the record.

I spent the majority of the night section running on my own. I wasn’t particularly tired or bored but I will admit that I got a bit lonely. I know the route well so there wasn’t navigation to think about. I longed for the sun to come up. Eventually it did as we ran beside Ullswater, and everything was better again. I was running with Michael Jones at this point (who went on to win the race). He was looking really strong and could clearly be going a lot quicker than me but he kept pulling ahead then waiting at gates to hold them open for me. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so kind he could have got an even better time! As soon as we hit the road section before Dacre, he disappeared into the distance.

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It was a relief to reach Dalemain. Mainly psychologically as from here onwards the end is in sight. I was now 1hr 4 minutes up on the record. Matt, my boyfriend, had got up early to meet me there with Dingo, our Australian Kelpie. I ate half of a ‘boil in the bag’ all day breakfast (cold of course), changed my shoes and socks (from Salomon s-lab sense ultra to Inov-8 X-talons – neither your classic 100 mile trail shoe!) and was off. Marco Consani had arrived into Dalemain as I was about to leave. I assumed, if his pacing tactics were anything like his wife Debbie’s, he would be passing me shortly. I was right and he passed me before Howtown. I managed to maintain about a 5 minute gap between us up until Kentmere, then he started to pull away from me again. I wasn’t really trying to catch him but it was quite amusing as I was in a similar position in 2014, but I was chasing his wife! I didn’t want to get sucked in to racing the men too early on. I wanted to concentrate on my own race.

The reception in Ambleside was amazing. Matt was there again, as was my brother and his family who had come to support. I thought I managed to maintain what felt like a reasonable pace up until Ambleside. Thereafter I started to struggle. Perhaps it was because the terrain gets flatter and more monotonous, or maybe, having run 90 miles, it would have happened anyway. I wanted the pain to be over, but more than anything I wanted the force-feeding myself to be over. I had been eating constantly for over 21 hours and I was sick to death of it. Tracy Dean, the Lakeland 50 record holder, was out running the 50 course as a ‘training run’ (she is completely mad).  I saw her several times on the ‘post-Ambleside’ section which was nice and helped me take my mind off the pain in my legs.

 
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As I came over the top of the final hill and could see the descent to Coniston, Matt appeared again with Dingo. After a quick ‘well done’ he dashed off down the rocky hillside at a dangerous pace shouting ‘come on, come on!’. Assuming he wanted me to follow I did my best to keep up. An elderly women walking down the path said ‘careful dear!’ to me as I hurtled past. I later found out that Matt was actually shouting at the dog to ‘come on’ and didn’t really expect me to follow him. He just wanted to get to the finish well before me in order to take some photos.

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I finished in 21:29, 2hrs 46mins quicker than the previous record. If someone had told me when I signed up I was going to run that, I wouldn't have believed them. To hear that Michael Jones had won did not surprise me at all. 16 people finished in sub-24hrs. In 2014 only 6 runners managed this, which goes to show just how quickly the race and caliber of competition is growing.

Thank you to Marc Laithwaite, all the other organisers, marshals and sponsors who, yet again, put together a truly fantastic event. I also owe a lot to my coach, Ian Sharman, who did a great deal in preparing me physically and mentally for the race, and to Raidlight UK and Contours Trail Running Holidays for all their generosity and support.

Vegan 3000’s Race

The Welsh 3000’ers is amongst my favourite mountain routes in the UK. The V3K summits all 15 of the Welsh 3000ft peaks in a linear race encompassing the Snowdon massive, Glyderau and the Carneddau. I knew most of the route well through races such as The Dragons Back and Welsh 1000s and through Paddy Buckley Round recces so I had no excuses to get lost. The race has now become quite mainstream as it is part of the UK Skyrunning series so it is easy to forget the philosophy behind the event. The organisers are ‘ethical vegans’, meaning they adhere to a vegan diet because they do not want cause animals any pain, fear or cruelty. They believe everyone is equal regardless of their race, gender or species. At the race briefing the race director, Kirsch, stated ‘we want to show you that you can run over all these mountains without hurting anyone’. They were not trying to impose veganism upon us (well, they were for race day), but show us how it could be done. The night before the race we were treated with a pasta dish followed by the most incredible vegan chocolate cake. The organisers were certainly doing well so far!

I heard the news the night before the race that the course record holder and my main competition, Sarah Ridgeway, was ill and would not be racing. I had mixed feeling about this; part of me was disappointed and I was feeling strong and looking forward to a good race, but it also meant that I might not have to put in maximal effort therefore could recover quicker and go straight back into normal training after the race.

We had about 3hrs sleep in the back of the car the night before the race and were ready to take the bus to the race start at 4am. It wasn’t ideal race prep but the atmosphere amongst fellow competitors on the bus was buzzing and I soon forgot about being tired. At 5am we couldn’t have been happier to get going as we were being eaten alive by midges at the start.

The race begins with a long ascent into the clag to the summit of Snowdon. This climb seemed to go on forever. I was surrounded by sweaty men, huffing and puffing, and I had to try hard to keep at my own comfortable pace rather than ‘race’ to the first summit. We then proceeded along the Crib Goch ridge, the most technical section of the route. I have done Crib Goch several times before and seem to take a slightly different route every time. It was difficult to go at my own pace as there were so may runners about and overtaking wasn’t particularly safe. I still really enjoyed it. We then descended the north ridge of Crib Goch to Nant Peris and the first aid station. I only learnt about this run off recently and do believe it is by far the best way up Snowdon to avoid the crowds. By Nant Peris the field had started to spread out and I could relax into a comfortable rhythm for the next monster climb up Elidir Fawr. The clag with thick about 500m and it was a shame not to be able to take in the views.

Crib Goch / © Steve Ashworth

Crib Goch / © Steve Ashworth

As it was a Skyrunning race the course had to be flagged. In some areas where the visibility was ok we were just about able to follow the marked route, however up high the flags were just too far apart and it was impossible to use them as your only navigational aid. My route choice certainly wasn’t optimal as if you are in ‘flag following’ mode then lose all the flags you don’t know where you are and its harder to get back on track. If I had run on my own bearings, then I’d be more confident I wouldn’t go off course but you are in theory breaking the event rules by not following the marked course. As a consequence, I did a combination of the two and probably lost a few minutes here and there.

The sun did break through intermittently whilst I was going over Y Garn but when I reached the Glyders visibility was extremely poor again (as it almost always is up there!). The next frustration was that we couldn’t find the checkpoint on Glyder Fach. There was a few of us grouped together at this point scrambling all over the rocky summit searching for the dibber. Eventually we gave up and ran on. Descending towards Tryfan I feeling quite downhearted and assumed we’d be disqualified. We then came across some marshals and the checkpoint about 1km from the summit. I was relieved but slightly annoyed this had not been communicated to us! The final summit on this leg was Tryfan. I love this mountain and the interesting rocky scramble up, but my knees really complain about the descent. This was the third time in 3 weeks I had run off Tryfan and my knees have enjoyed it less every time!

At the second aid station at Ogwen I heard that I was well clear of the second women so I was able to relax for the last leg. It was great to have support at the checkpoints from the Raidlight crew – Ant & Dave Bethell. I climbed Pen yr Ole Wen with Ant then continued on with Oli Mitchell. It was nice to have some company – thanks Oli! The Carneddau came and went fairly uneventfully (aside from another navigational mishap on the traverse to Yr Elen). I finished in 9hrs 24mins, with Katie Boden coming in 42 mins later to take 2nd place.

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It was a great day out in the mountains, despite the poor visibility. On the whole I felt really good throughout, although the hills did start to take their toll on the final leg over the Carneddau. On the veganism front I didn’t try anything new or drastic. Luckily most gels are vegan so I stuck to them in addition to enjoying the wonderful cake at checkpoints. However, the best food was yet to come. We were treated to an incredible post-race vegan feast. I couldn’t quite put a name to many of the foodstuffs that were produced but it all tasted amazing. Especially the pakora. This was followed by yet more cake, a bar and live music. It was a great way to finish a hard day out even though I didn’t manage to stay awake after 10pm. Despite some route finding frustrations, I thought Kirsch and her team put on a great event and I hope to be back next year.

The Highland Fling 2016

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The Hoka Highland Fling is a 53 mile trail race following The West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum was set to be the British Ultra Trail Championships 2016. To qualify for The World Trail Championships hadn’t been one of my main aims for this year as I had seen selected for the GB 24hr team to compete at the Europeans in October. But as I watched the entries fill up and saw the competition I could be up against building, I got a bit excited. A race preview said ‘the depth of talent is arguably the best that any UK ultra has ever seen’. I didn’t want to miss out on the action. As there were so many really accomplished runners competing, it would be the sort of race where everything could go to plan and you could still end up coming well below the podium spots.

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The Fling is a much flatter and faster race than I am used to so I tried to shift my training towards more speed work and long tempo runs on the flat and less really long slogs in the mountains. I haven’t completely ignored the hills and we’ve spent a few great weekends in Snowdonia and many more days in my more local training ground, The Peak District. Matt and I ran The Fling route over 2 days just 10 days before the race to get a feel for the terrain. Many would say that having a 36 mile training run that close to a big race is not a good idea, but I know myself and know I recover quickly. I’m really pleased we did it and I think it set me up well for the race.

My plan was to run my own race. At least for the first 30 miles anyway. I knew the start would be fast and I just had to not get carried away. Although I train using heart rate zones, I actually took off my heart rate monitor for the race. I like to race on ‘feel’. I decided to carry all my own food rather than using drop bags. I didn’t know how smooth the checkpoint drop bag collection would be so I thought it safer just to carry everything. I don’t eat a lot* (despite my best efforts!) so I wasn’t exactly a lot of extra weight.

We camped the night before the race near Milngavie. I assumed the campsite would be full of competitors but it turned out we were the only ones roughing it. I liked that. Although dragging yourself out a the sleeping bag at 4:30am when it’s -1°C wasn’t exactly pain free. The first 20 miles or so were uneventful. I just relaxed in to a good rhythm, enjoyed the scenery and watched the miles tick over on my watch. It was great to see so may familiar faces out on the course cheering us on. I didn’t worry about who was ahead or behind me. The race hadn’t really started yet.

I caught up Sally Fawcett soon after the 20 mile mark. I hadn’t met her before and it was nice chatting for a while as we ran together along Loch Lomond. She was looking really strong so I was surprised when I pulled away from her a few miles later. I spent the rest of the race looking over my shoulder, convinced she was going to come and storm past me.

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I enjoyed the more technical section of the race along the final stretch of Loch Lomond. My pace dropped significantly as expected, but I still felt strong. After the final checkpoint at Beinglas I picked up my pace again. I now felt confident I could fight off any completion should it come my way. With only 12 miles to go I still had a lot left in my legs. Only in the last few miles did I start to think about the course record and only because spectators mentioned it to me. I didn’t even know what it was before the race. It was something extra to spur me on in the last few miles and a reward for what turned out to be a perfect race. I crossed the finish line in 7hrs 52minutes with a new course record by 17 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. It was way beyond what I imaged possible. 20 minutes or so later Sally crossed the finish line, with Sophie Grant and Lizzie Wraith not far behind. Congratulations to everyone, especially the girls for being great competition.

 
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Thank you to the whole Highland Fling team for putting on a great event. I really couldn’t fault the organisation. Thank you also to Raidlight for supplying me with some great, super lightweight kit. Especially to Ant Bethell from Raidlight who really spurred me on during the race. Finally, a big thank you to Matt for being a great training partner, chauffeur and being ever supportive.

  • 1st        Beth Pascall    7:52:55
  • 2nd      Sally Fawcett   8:14:12
  • 3rd       Sophie Grant   8:15:02

Links:

Full results

Athletics Weekly race report

The Spine Challenger 2016

Having been refused time off work to run The Spine Race as I did in 2015, I settled on the 108 mile ‘fun run’ for this year. The Spine Race is a 268 mile non-stop foot race covering the length of The Pennine Way in winter. The Pennine Way starts in Edale in The Peak district and finishes on Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border. I was the first women to cross the finish line in 2015 and I was coming back to have a crack at The Spine Challenger. I couldn’t wait. The Challenger starts in Edale and finishes in Hawes. I didn’t take my preparation quite as seriously as I did for the previous year. I had all the kit, I knew the route, I knew what the weather could do, I knew what to expect. I did worry a bit about my fitness in the lead up to the race. I had been on a particularly heavy rota and hadn’t got in as many long runs as I would have liked. But I convinced myself that preparing for The Spine Race is more about what you have done in the last 5 years than the last 5 months.

Matt and I arrived in Edale the day before the race for the briefing and kit check and all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep for a week. I had just finished a week of night shifts and had only had a quick nap after finishing work that morning. I couldn’t comprehend the idea of running anywhere, I just wanted to sleep.

The next morning I was slightly more refreshed and ready to go. On Saturday 9th January at 7am I stood on the start line with Matt. Matt had never run a 100 miler before and we didn’t really know how he’d cope. Although we run together a lot and are pretty evenly matched most of the time, this was new territory for him. I know how strong he is and never doubted his physical or mental capacity to do really well but he has had lots of problems with injuries and which joint is going to play up you can never predict!  We had not planned to run together for the whole race, but we had not planned not to either. We would just see how we felt. If I was having a bad day, then I didn’t want Matt to wait for me. After all, it was a race!

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The first 10 hours or so of the race were quite uneventful. Matt and I ran at a comfortable pace. We talked, ate and gradually ticked off the miles. There were showers but in general the visibility was good and the weather kind. We arrived at the first checkpoint at Hebden Bridge at around 5pm, shortly after the lead man Tom Hollins. We weren’t quite as efficient in our sock changing and eating as Tom, but managed to have a jacket potato, put on dry socks, change base layers, put on some bigger shoes, change headtorch batteries, refill water bottles etc. in about half an hour.

We set out again and begun the night that I thought would never end. The leg from Hebden Bridge to Malham Tarn is relatively low compared to the rest of the route but incredibly wet underfoot. We had a night of torrential rain and energy sapping sodden farmland and bog. We were counting down the hours until it would get light … 12hrs to go … 10hrs to go. The night went on forever. I started to get really sleepy at around 2am. I was surprised at this as I can usually do one sleepless night without a problem but I guess it was all cumulative from the sleep deprived week I had had in the lead up to the race. I wished I had taken the necessary precautions for tiredness – more caffeine! I had one red bull and a few expresso energy gels but this was hardly more milligrams of caffeine than what is in my average daily intake of coffee. Physically I wasn’t finding it easy either, but I wasn’t worried about this and knew it would pass. Matt in the meantime seemed to be finding it easy.

It was only after the race that I recalled bumping into a man on this section (I’m not sure who), in a bog (I’m not sure where or when) in the darkness who gave us a swig of tea from his thermos and a slice of Christmas cake. It was almost like I had dreamt it but as Matt remembers too it must have happened! Thank you whoever that was!

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We reached check point 1.5 at Malham Tarn in the early hours on Sunday morning to be greeted by John Bamber and his follow volunteers. We attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some warm food down us then promptly set off again for Fountains Fell, Pen y Ghent and the finish. The weather suddenly changed dramatically from rain to strong winds and blizzard. It was getting wild! I was so excited - this was what The Spine race was all about. We paused in a barn just below Fountains Fell to put on most of the gear we had, including goggles, and set off up the fell. There is no distinguishable trail and fumbling with the map and GPS in heavily gloved hands was a battle. There is something magical about being in the worst weather imaginable but feeling protected by your gear, warm and in charge. This is how it started, but unfortunately it didn’t last. I started to get cold. Really cold. We crossed Fountains fell then dropped down to the road. I was really concerned about how cold I was. I wasn’t sure that this was something I could recover from. I was never this cold in last year’s race. If there was any way I could have stopped at this point I probably would have. I needed to get warm but we were in the middle of nowhere. The only way that this might possibly be achievable to to keep running. So we did. It started getting light as we climbed Pen y Ghent, the highest point in the race. It was a beautiful morning and I was starting to feel human again and I was glad we had had some ‘proper’ weather.

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We passed through Horton-in-Ribblesdale and into to final stretch to Hawes. We were moving slowly but were content that we were going to finish and in a reasonable time. We experienced the only type of weather we hadn’t had whilst on the High Cam Road – hailstones the size of marbles. This was exceedingly painful and we were both crying out in pain. This race gives you everything. Every type of weather, every terrain, every physical feeling, every emotion.

We arrived at the finish in Hawes at 1:18pm on Sunday, 30h18m after we started. Apparently I had broken the female record by 12 hrs. I was so happy to have run the whole way with Matt and so pleased for him to have done so well in his first 100 miler.

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