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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Hitting a crossroads & reflecting

***this reads more legibly from a smart phone format, desktop font contrast poor. Posted from Blogger via iPhone hence bugs, will sort when possible! ****

The glorified super human efforts of us endurance types sometimes need tempering. Our endeavours are often portrayed by too many glossy social media images, or other motivational feasts of words, and the realities often get buried or untold.

So herewith some tempering. I guess I’m at the stage where I can reflect more and more on the path I’ve taken through 15 years of running seriously; what has gone well, what has not, what I would change, what I would not.

The biggest danger of our sport and our associated traits as runners is knowing when to stop. We programme ourselves to push, push, push. When we over-step the mark, we’ll often create a public narrative to fuel more pushing; training harder, more early morning starts, greater demands all round. Balance is essential for sustainability; obsession in ultra running is such a fine balance. We are only human after all, and it’s only running.

I’m going through a fairly significant stop point - a gradual process initially, but far more abrupt this week. Since the days of my A levels some 20 years ago I’ve lived with Ulcerative Collitis (now seemingly drifting into Crohns) a life long Inflammatory Bowel Disease which at times hasn’t been much fun. I was fit and active as a teenager, albeit weekends were extremes of competitive school and club sport, weekend jobs and probably too much drinking. On diagnosis I became fitter with regular gym sessions, classes, beasting the ergo and running outside. I became determined to be as fit and healthy as I could be, despite my condition, giving my body the best possible chance of fighting through. There were so many times when gripey bowels and inner pains made exercising a tough ask to start with, but once into it, the distraction and endorphins did wonders for my positivity and ability to cope. I founds ways around the ‘logistical’ challenges of my illness, and my love for running rurally always helped. 

The transition into running came from occasional road events with friends, then a fundraiser for the National Association for Crohns & Colitis at the London Marathon in 2002. I sold myself a lie to train harder - it would be a one off and I would claim a reasonable time to move on to something else. As so many keen runners will relate to, that was of course was just the start of it, and I soon found that the obvious logistical challenges of running with bowel disease were far outweighed by the positives. 

Indeed, most people still don’t know I have suffered with illness all through the subsequent 15 years of competing at a range of distances from 5km to 200+miles, on all sorts of terrain and many different places. I’ve run for my country several times, claimed various course records and wins over the years, run all sorts of long trail projects and stood shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best on the biggest of stages. I’m so incredibly grateful for that, you wouldn’t believe.

This may start to sound like some sort of retirement statement, which it’s not. Despite the latest vicious turn with my illness I will be back out there, whether competitively or not. It’s mainly self-help reflection as I sit in hospital during an expected 5-6 day stint, admittedly rather bored, and trying to process where things might head from here. It’s also about being more open and accepting of my illness, perhaps linked to my competitive juices dropping a little, whether permanent or not.

The past few years have been really difficult with changing symptoms and more pro-longed flare ups. I’ve managed to keep things ticking over with my running, even squeezing in some consistent training weeks in here and there, but it’s been an increasingly fine line with constant fatigue and recovery issues from not absorbing all that my body needs. That final 20% of fitness to run like I used to has been simply impossible to achieve.

Something had to change, and having now seen on a video screen with my own eyes how bad the bowel inflammation is, it’s easy to accept the doctor’s recommendations for a spell in hospital for some more intense treatment and an attempt to properly turn it around. I knew it was coming after Fridays tests so I sneaked in my usual local jog on Monday lunchtime, just before the impending call from the admissions team on Monday evening. It was a real healer in processing a tough little spell ahead. 

So here I am, holed up and sedentary in a hospital room for several days, reading, listening to music and reflecting. It feels backwards to be in hospital, I don’t feel like a patient needing help, but that’s probably a classic symptom of a long term soldiering mindset. Last week I jogged my usual 50 ish mile week, managing my runs (!) as I do, and now this.

At this point to have a way forward feels essential and positive mentally, albeit there is a fairly stark realisation that surgery may be the only option after so many years successfully managing to fend it off. If that’s what it comes to, so be it, I will deal with it, and adapt accordingly. If I can get out on the trails most days, keep fit and active, I’ll be content. If I spend less time in the bushes when out running with mates, all the better... 

I suppose the reflection from all this is that everyone has their little battles in one way or another, but in so many cases you’ll never know without scratching beneath the surface.

The running community is special in so many ways, just appreciate every moment you have to get out there, support one another and don’t forget that for the reams of glossy material out there, it’s not all like that.


Monday 15 October 2018

Tor des Geants (340km, 24,000m+/-)

My approach to the TOR was a blend of ignorance and denial which in hindsight was a great combination. I knew enough about the race to be excited about tackling it and possess a deep desire to finish, but equally I wasn’t interested in reading up on the detail, such as previous competitor’s accounts, which were unlikely to provide much comfort. It wouldn’t be hard to get worked up about this race months before the start line, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone. I knew it was a beast, and that's what I signed up for, so I had to just get on with it.

The denial part is interlinked – pretend you don’t really have such an epic race on the horizon, enjoy the summer, get fit, strong and healthy – don’t over train. Within the constraints of my life with two day jobs, a lot of associated travel, a little boy, family, friends etc – not much else was feasible, but admittedly it wasn’t all that easy to let go of my usual, more meticulous, approach which would have had me out in the Alps running the course at least once over the summer. I literally only knew the last 10km of the route which overlaps with UTMB – the silver lining – lots of shiny new trails to enjoy. It’s also quite nice to know the ‘home straight’.

It’s now three weeks since the race finished (when I meaningfully started this account, it’s taken a while longer to complete), and a thick fog still lurks around my head, along with giant ulcers on the back of my tongue. The altitude induced fluid which bubbled on my chest and up my throat for the second half of the race has thankfully passed, and so too the hacking cough. My legs feel fine and ready to go, but they were always the least of my troubles.

I tried to start this write up the week I got back, over dinner one evening whilst working away. I got two sentences in before my plate was empty and I started nodding dog. Too soon to compute but now with the aid of the route maps to relate the memories back to the trail and unpick the blur, hopefully the story is there. The bottom line is that this race dredges right to the bottom of the tank and requires the ultimate commitment. If you are happy leave a piece of your mind and body on those mountains, you will probably succeed, and it will be worth the investment. Be warned, the TOR gets into your blood and you go deep. Very deep.

The stats for this race are utterly bonkers. The organisers quote 340km in distance and 24,000m of elevation (vertical climbing and descending) and yes, it’s also non-stop. My Garmin watch recorded 235miles (considerably more than 340km) and stopped around 10miles short of the finish. I believe the ascent stats are about right, but many others have recorded closer to 30,000m. Whatever, in the grand scheme of things it’s not important. In context it’s around two UTMBs, plus some, or 24 reps of Snowdon from Llanberis. However you look at it, it’s going to screw you up. But in reality, the stats have to be kept out of your head, and this is just a tour of the mountains like any other (bare with me). Amongst competitors the Tor des Geants gets shortened to ‘TOR’ and is clearly deliberate for a couple of different reasons, not least avoiding the obvious and unnecessary psyche-out from a mighty name. It’s a circuit, a journey, a start-run-get to the finish line-stop thing. It follows there is a ridiculous modesty to the whole concept, not least in the name. It’s not even something I really shouted about before or after. If they don’t get 100 miles, how on earth… 
It’s the TOR – let’s go get it done.

The dizzy surreal journey started at 12noon Sunday (9thSeptember 2018) from Courmayeur in Italy, one of my favourite alpine mountain towns at the head of the Aosta Valley, tucked in against the rocky slopes of Mont Blanc. I’ve visited Cormayeur many times before, both in passing and for longer, and I really love the place. The days leading up to an undertaking like this are usually anxiety ridden and not at all relaxing, but it was genuinely pleasant hanging out in Courmayeur for a few days before the start. The sun shone and there was a great vibe around town for the TOR takeover. Whilst this is a really big thing for the town, the feel is very different to UTMB week in Chamonix for example. There is less razzmatazz and bling; the town retains it’s pleasant atmosphere, and the scale of it all is just right.

But the unique part is that the TOR brings out some proper local Italian passion. What soon became clear is that there’s no forced embracing of the race - the locals are well and truly behind this thing; they are genuinely proud of their stunning valley and they admire what this mad bunch of international runners are setting out to accomplish. During my time on the course there were countless examples of volunteers and locals going way beyond the call of duty in supporting and facilitating our madness. It makes such a difference, and they become a driving force behind every single runner.

Aside from a last minute parking panic with half an hour to go before the start, I felt calm and well organised as I pottered across to the town centre and battled my way through the crowds to the start gantry. The departure was stirring and electric, as well as being at a predictably stupid pace. The rush was to get in position before road narrows to single track, no one wanting to get boxed in. We were paraded on a big loop around town before crossing the river and heading up through the woods towards the first mountain pass of Col Arp.

The start from Courmayeur

The format

Non-stop, that’s the important bit, and 150 hours to get it done. The big question I didn’t know the answer to was how I would fair after one, two, three or more nights of little or no sleep. It was always going to be steep learning curve as a completely new format of race to me. The TOR is divided into seven legs of roughly 50km with a ‘life base’ between each, typically located in the larger valley towns and villages. At these locations I could access my drop bag to replenish personal kit and supplies, as well as take the opportunity to sleep (hmmm) and get a proper meal in. Many of the high mountain refuges on the course also offered their dormitories for short spells of sleep and were actually much quieter and more effective for some rest. 

As an unsupported runner with no crew, the life bases were pretty key moments to sort myself out and the fact that I could have a single drop bag that would be transferred on to all the life bases down the course was a complete saviour. That way I didn’t need six sets of everything and avoided those tricky kit decisions.

Between the life bases were smaller checkpoints roughly every 8-10km with a slightly more basic spread of fill. Most runners seemed to focus on one life base to the next, I just worked on whatever was in front of me; the next mountain pass or valley bottom, a checkpoint or something that looked vaguely interesting on the map or course profile sheet. Getting too ahead of oneself felt like a dangerous game in what ultimately was, the biggest head fuck imaginable. In such a long race it’s simply not possible to gain the usual comfort through statistics:
“I’m half way through now” – only 110 miles to run then! 
“Well that’s 24hours under my belt” – just a couple more days with no sleep then! 
And so it goes on…

Leg 1: Courmayeur to Valgrisenche (50km)

There was a lot to learn and take in on the first few legs as a TOR newbie. I was blown away by the pace being pushed early doors and intrigued to see what the ramifications would be later on. I felt slightly smug in watching twenty or more charge off but ironically, I was probably going too fast myself. On the first pass Col Arp (2,571m) there was a noisy huddle of spectators; they had to be fit and enthusiastic just to get up there and they filled the valley with a clatter of alpine cow bells. There were snakes of runners making the pass and epic views back down the Aosta Valley towards Courmayeur below.

The first pass of Col Arp ahead
And so my new routine began. After each such little milestone I would pull out my crude blue peter-esq laminated course profile and find out where the little yellow TOR flags would take me next. I was entering the TOR bubble. One thousand meters down to la Thuile was the answer (18.6km), the town bustling with Sunday afternoon visitors and TOR enthusiasts. The main thing to contend with, apart from not charging off like a complete wally, was the heat – probably only mid-twenties and irrelevant in a shorter event – but the long game is all about looking after yourself, so I was drinking loads and regularly taking salt caps. I always knew it would take me a long time to settle into the race, primarily getting used to the relentless up and downs, not something I had done for a while. I soon recalled that the first part of an ascent or descent was always the worst – the change in muscle group – and re-finding a rhythm. The head demons were always loudest at these points, and they would certainly be active for the next couple of days.

It didn’t take long for there to be shake-ups in the field. I didn’t know what position I was in, but I did know that people were already dropping. Despite being fairly fresh still, it was a proper slog up to Passo Alto (2,817m) in the baking afternoon heat and I made use of a couple of mountain streams to refill bottles. Even at this early stage it felt like there was still some intensity in the competition for places - like it really mattered? I was getting sucked in but felt like I was moving reasonably comfortably. I could hold my own on the climbs but was overtaken on the descents. I felt on balance there was a lot more risk of body failure from pummelling the quads downhill. The passes came thick and fast, the next up to Col Crosatie (2,829m) was steep and relentless but each time there was an enjoyable, slightly spacey sense of europhia at the top, especially being in such magical surroundings. Clear blue early evening skies provided far reaching views of the valleys. It felt really special just being out on the trail tackling this thing.

Leg 2: Vagrisenche to Cognes (106.2km)

By the first life base at Valgrisenche (50km) I was ready for a good feed up and a brief sit down to reset for the next stage. My aim was to be in and out in around twenty minutes and I wasn’t far off. There were already some pretty trashed looking people in the checkpoint who I doubted would be going any further. Wow. The heap of drop bags at the exit suggested I was well within the Top 20 which was surprising but re-assuring that I was making some progress.

Night time in the mountains, under the glow of a headtorch, a big night ahead. Three passes of around 3,000m – all by the cover of darkness. There was a familiar theme to these legs, some serious valley hopping. From the valley floor there would be a wooded section – still and humid – before exiting the tree line for a (thankfully) fresher feeling open high-level push to the pass. What perfect weather for something like this, and how special to be out under the stars journeying on foot.

On reflection, the effort level was significant already, but I’m also not sure there is a steady way to deal with all that climbing, you just have to get on with it. To Col Fenetre (2,854m) was long and drawn out, but more direct back down to the valley floor on the other side. The night turned into a complete blur, and even with the aid of maps in front of me now, I cannot differentiate between the three passes. There would be a solid two hours of climbing for each, feeling disorientated on the seemingly drawn out switch backs zig zagging up the mountain side, and pondering the time gaps to the headtorches below. Already my head was playing around; exaggerating the height and distance to the lamps on the passes themselves, not helping morale. Monday dawn broke on the initial descent from the big one, Col Loson (3,299m) down to the life base at Cogne (106.2km). Down a full 1,880m or 6,000ft! Hovering around 10thplace, I was feeling like I had been chewed up and spat out by the TOR already, and again I was desperate for a life base reset.

Leg 3: Cogne to Donnas (151.3km)

Monday morning around breakfast time in Cogne it was already getting hot. The working week in the village was well underway with shop-keepers opening up, people heading off in their cars. I didn’t feel any sense of normality. Not even one third of my way round this beast of a course, and I felt utterly done. There was no one to share my woes with, no crew to give me a kick up the arse. I didn’t even have a clue what lied ahead. I exchanged a few WhatsApp messages with mates back home, just to retain some sense of normality.

In an increasingly zombified state I followed the same replen routine at the life base to stash bars, Maurten sachets and sweets into any nook and cranny I could find in my pack. I switched headtorch batteries and treated myself to a new top. I forced down a plate of rice, egg and tuna – a random mixture of savouries to try to re-fire the machine. Several folk around me chose to sleep, I decided to crack on before it got really warm.

Jogging out of Cogne I soon started to feel flat, and that was the start of a long, long spell feeling below par. Tiredness was probably the biggest factor along with the heat. Or perhaps the 21 hours of vicious mountain running already complete. I mean it was pleasant t-shirt and shorts weather in a sedentary manner, but very easy to over-heat in direct sun when grinding some proper climbs. I felt frustrated at a drift in pace as a few people came past. Again, did it matter? – no – it was more the worry of this being the start of a race long downward spiral. I had planned to stay off the aid station cola for the first couple of days, but that was all I craved in the baking heat. It was a temporary patch on diminishing energy levels with instant simple sugars and caffeine. It was however a big relief to see the profile of just one big pass on the whole leg followed by a 25km+ descent right down to the Aosta valley floor and the low point of the course at 300m.

That morning on the climb was strange, it was all starting to a feel a little out of body. I tried putting on some tunes and experimented with a variety of different energy foods, but the lack of gas remained. Going into new territory in terms of non-stop distance in the mountains, it was sensible not to fight it too hard, and just to ride it through. Again, I felt anxious about the thought of a couple of days in the pain cave.

Any thoughts the long descent from Fenetre di Camporcher (2,837m) would be some kind of easy ride were pure fantasy. Not only done-in when climbing, I soon realised descending wasn’t particularly smooth either. Oh well, only 6,000ft down….

Refuge Dondena in the valley below the pass was packed with afternoon hikers, all doing the sensible thing with a long lunch in the sun - oh how I craved being them – or did I? Still, I got looked after like a saint, and signed my name on their souvenir TOR poster as is customary in all the checkpoints. Just out of the refuge I slowed to sort my headphones out. Turning clumsily, I clattered to the deck, scraping my elbow and side. It was an utterly comical wipe out. Covered in sweaty dust and blood dripping from my elbow I sheepishly continued, down…

The feeling of discomfort in descending was utterly frustrating, and at the next couple checkpoints I definitely had the hump. I could see from the online tracking that gaps to runners behind were fairly sizeable, yet I felt like I was moving dreadfully and that I deserved to be overtaken. All I wanted to do was smile and laugh it off, but I was just too unconvincing – who are you trying to kid the voices would say in retaliation? Some half technical cobbled sections just before the Cardonnery checkpoint (133km) had me cursing, as did some greasy rocky sections just further down. Leaf covered rocky trails were really not doing it for me right now. I wanted to see what I was putting my sore legs and feet on and I couldn’t deal with the discomfort of ankle twists. In normal circumstances it would be a fun and fast descent but I just couldn’t get into it all, and above all felt overwhelmed.

After a long spell in the woods gradually descending a side valley to Aosta, I eventually popped out on to asphalt and descended the final section to cross the Aosta valley floor properly for the first time. Under the motorway, past a supermarket – houses, people, cars! There were some lovely little sections through the old villages before finally reaching the life base at Donnas (330m). The western half of the course was complete, although I was still short of actually being half way.

Donnas was roasting in the late afternoon sunshine, the sun beating down against the south facing mountain slopes which the town is tucked in against. I had massively overheated and was really feeling pretty delirious. In the life base I set about my usual routine, also getting a bollocking from a grumpy bloke in charge for putting my bag on the table. “Do you have any idea?!” I thought to myself, but refrained from rising to it! Everyone in the sports hall was thinking the same thing, but it really wasn’t worth it. There’s always one… It was a complete exception, every single other volunteer I came accross couldn’t do enough to provide support and kindness.

The food on offer, whilst lovely, was not what I needed. I craved some savoury dirt – but had to settle for some tomato pasta followed by yoghurt. I certainly wasn’t doing it the easy way without a crew, but part of me also quite liked the complete independence.

Leg 4: Donnas to Gressoney (205.9km)

I reluctantly exited the sports hall checkpoint, back out into the baking sun, and gingerly made my way through Donnas town before ascending the ominous south facing slopes out of the Aosta valley. TOR enthusiasts continued to pop up. Many cars passed tooting their horns which I wryly acknowledged with a smirk and a raised hand.  The sun was slowly inching its way behind the ridgeline on the opposite side of the valley and I longed for it to move quicker and for some cooler night time temperatures. Heading into my second night on the trail, I felt anxious about the night ahead – these were, by far, the toughest spells mentally.

These next few legs remain vivid in my memory despite running them in a headtorch bubble, unlike much of the previous 100km. With the temperature now a bit cooler, I felt alert mentally and my body seemed to be getting more resilient as the hard earned kilometres clicked by. It’s a bizarre concept, but in truth, despite the aspects of discomfort I’ve been describing, my mind was still utterly focused in getting this thing done, and perhaps my body was just slowly starting to fall into line.

Just you're average mid-race Garmin stats!
It was through relative civilisation for the next few legs with the trail generally being that bit lower in elevation, although from La Sassa we were back into the high mountains and boy it got rough. Between la Sassa and Rifugio Coda, once again just ‘running’ completely on my own, the trail got rougher and rougher as it climbed. To start with I thought I was just making a meal of it in my delirious state, but it wasn’t just me. It was rocky, technical, steep and rough; more english fell by feel than the typically well-formed trails of the Alps. I wanted to see it by daylight, but that would have to wait for another day. Up at Rifugio Coda (2,224m), which incidentally is the notional half way point of the course, they were having a great time into the late evening. The cosy refuge was packed with alpine enthusiasts, enjoying wine and beer, cheering me in like a hero. Possibly not a good place to sleep but loving the support all the same. I wanted to have the enthusiasm and energy to return more than just a grimacing smile, but they got it. I did my best to get across my appreciation. They filled my bottles and warmed my heart with their sincerity and words of support. I believed them when they said I could do it, and I genuinely wanted to do it for the TOR faithful like them. I left feeling galvanized, if not rejuvenated.

Looking south and east from that ridgeline the Alps dramatically give way to the flat lands below and the clear night view of the glowing towns and villages across in the distance was amazing. What a sense of perspective as the trail turned back north towards the mass of Alps again. Onwards, and the usual complete sense of dis-orientation from running at night. My head made up theories about the occasional visible light in the distance, nothing at all logical, but worryingly believable for a long while. More rough ground, which I simply couldn’t negotiate with any kind of competence. This was by far and away the toughest spell of all and seemed to go on and on. Somewhere along there, a pop up/ unofficial aid station and a table laid out with home-made food and the best fruit tart I’ve ever tasted. Occasional short sections of vehicle track turned out to be a complete tease, giving way again to rough singletrack. There were various little passes and rises along this section and I felt I was starting to lose a sense of calmness mentally, so at Rifugio della Barma (2,040m) I decided to get my head down for a short while in one of their bunk rooms. Pack and shoes off, straight on to the mattress, lights out in a matter seconds – my first sleep in 170km and around 38 hours of constant running. What felt like moments later – 40 minutes - I was being woken again by the checkpoint staff. Oh boy what a feeling to have to drag yourself straight back out there; how much do you really want this? Shoes on, sort a few bits of kit, something to eat and drink, back out on the trail within five minutes. I was definitely not convinced of its success in providing a meaningful refresh but at least I had slept. Perhaps that was due the continuing rough ground, or maybe I was just utterly buggered.

Thankfully a sense of normality returned on the descent from Col della Vecchia (2,184m) down to Niel – La Gruba (193km) as the dawn of day 3 arrived. Back on to some more runnable trails, and I did indeed get going again pretty well. Less looking over my shoulder waiting for the next technical trail master to catch me, more just cracking on with it.

Breakfast time in Niel I again struggled to find much appeal in the food on offer. Ham, cheese, bread and soup was my main staple and whilst it went down fine, it wasn’t the rocket fuel I needed. How I craved a big bowl of honey-soaked porridge or some fried potatoes. The main drive to just get on with it came from my head, and that certainly wasn’t lacking. Clear blue skies, there was another perfect day on the horizon – we really were being blessed with the weather – except for the dreaded heat.

I climbed well up the lovely grassy slopes to Col Lasoney (2,364m) but I was starting to get constrained by a wheezy chest which was the lack of acclimatisation. As I climbed and the air got thinner it would gradually force my breathing into an incontrollable state until I was forced to stop and allow it to settle. It was the start of an issue which built for the rest of the race and ultimately cost me a lot of speed and time. On the descents there was no such issue as there was far less demand aerobically. The descent down the other side to Gressoney (205.9km) was my best section so far, inexplicably riding a high and able to descend like a demon. I made the most of it and charged down to the village and the life base in the sports centre. Wow, the highs and lows of ultra running.

Leg 5:Gressoney to Valtournenche (239km)

Gressoney life base was a slick operation. One of the volunteers provided the perfect service to an un-supported delirious wreck. He fetched me food, drinks and re-filled my bottles. He gave me space to sort myself out but was always on hand for those basic tasks made so much harder by fatigue and sleep deprivation, like zipping up an overfilled drop bag. I could have hugged him, but feared doing so in case I cracked and started crying, so settled for a heartfelt thanks and handshake as I departed. Positivity filled my body on leaving Gressoney, I appreciated my surroundings and what I had achieved, as well as what lay ahead. 

Still smiling, can't be that bad
There was more baking sunshine on the dusty climb up to the seemingly huge pass of Col Pinter (2,776m). It was now back to plain and simple valley hopping from one to the next, all eye watering and lung busting in their own right, but one at a time.

On the final stretch up to the pass, step by step crawling my way up, I was again touched by kindness. A hand on the shoulder in passing from a young lady out walking, imparting her strength within nothing more than a word and a gesture. As I looked up to the pass I was convinced there was a modern Rifugio building perched up there on a rocky outcrop, bustling with supporters and I figured, a great spread of food and drink. I was now utterly parched, in one of those sticky mouthed states that pretty much any liquid would do. On approach I realised it was just a dream, in fact the next aid station was way down at the bottom of the next valley, so I had to really dig deep and push on. There was some really beautiful scenery on the other side; a lake, rushing streams and a great big smoothly rounded glacial bowl. I lapped up some water from the first stream I came across and continued the descent to Champoluc (221.8km).

The next valley hop took us up over Col di Nana (2,770m) via Rifugio Grand Tourmalin, trails which I was convinced I had run before. In fact that fiction remained for large parts of the remainder of the race. In my dreamy, semi-awake, state I was creating stories around the route I was treading. Even more strangely, I half knew it was happening, but it relented because I didn’t take any rest. 

The sunset from Col di Nana was one of the finest I’ve ever seen. I looked back towards glowing snow capped peaks and took a moment to take it all in. As day 3 drew to a close and the daylight faded right on the pass, I was still moving well, and made the best of some nice smooth trails to descend relentlessly to the life base at Valtourneche (239km).

Leg 6: Valtourneche to Ollomont (290.3km)

Arriving at the life base in Valtourneche, a few hours into another night on the trail, I sensed I was pretty vulnerable in allowing all the hard work go to waste. I was in around 12thplace, ridiculously tired, and my head was starting to play tricks. Really, the important thing at that time was to keep my head. I decided against sleeping at this checkpoint figuring it would be relatively noisy and that one of the mountain huts ahead would be a better option. That was a bad call. On the climb out to Rifugio Barmasse (2,175m), with the ascents becoming more and more time consuming to negotiate, I was weaving along the trail and on the hunt for sleeping spots anywhere I could find. Never a good sign! My body temperature was wondering a bit between hot and cold, so I really didn’t want to be sleeping on the trail, therefore set my sights on the next Rifugio. In the meantime, I was dreaming more and more, utterly convinced I had been on this trail before and that the trail markers were taking me the wrong way. I soon caught sight of a huge dam structure ahead which created yet more ridiculous narrative. There are dams all over the Alps, I have run past lots of them, but not this one. I booked in for a short spell of sleep at Barmasse. I vaguely recall it being 20minutes but I can’t be sure - I booked the usual wakeup call from the checkpoint volunteers. The bunk room was silent and comfortable, my body horizontal and resting, just for a while.

The profile for the next few sections seemed rolling and innocuous, but again the night running on rough ground was such a huge challenge in a dreamy state. It really felt like I was leaking time along these sections of the course. Looking back at the maps, relating it to what I actually ran on the ground, it feels completely different. The route that was bedded into my memory during that night had so much story around it. Despite the ‘power’ kip I was still feeling so ridiculously tired, and even along flat stretches of vehicle track – starting to weave along the trail again. It hadn’t been sufficient to appease the sleep demons, and I couldn’t think rationally enough to devise that genius plan of getting some more sleep to snap out of it. There were lots of long TOR-flagged stretches across fairly innocuous pastures but with not much of a trail, and even these were tough to keep running on. I passed a couple of dairy farms, the farmers hard at work milking in the early hours of the morning. 

A kilometre or two before Rifugio Lo Magia I succumbed and found an idyllic looking slab of rock next to the trail which I lay on and slept for ten minutes. Waking suddenly to the sound of my alarm, and starting to feel chilly, I continued down the trail like a pre-programmed zombie, soon arriving at Rifugio Lo Magia (2,007m). Here the beds were laid out behind the food table in the main room and I wasn’t interested in anything else other than lying on one. After another torturously short spell of sleep, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes – who knows – I dragged myself back out on to the trail.

Dawn of day 4 and it was a relief to be back on smooth mountain trails. I prayed that some normality would resume with the new day, in other words moving a bit faster. There was beautiful high-level section through Rifugio Cuney (2,656m) and Bivouwac Clermont (2,705m) before I eventually made the pass of Col Vessonaz (2,788m). This section was trully first class – so ridiculously beautiful – Yosemite in quality. The climbing was becoming increasingly problematic, my wheezy chest regularly stopping me in my tracks to regain control of my breathing and simply be able to suck enough oxygen in to hike up the trail. There was no sticky plaster for this one, it just had to be managed to get this thing done. 

It is hard to describe the emotional rollercoaster this race presents but it is equally hard to describe the head space I was in. I would say that will power was uncontrollably over-ridden, and actually the race was now testing my physical programming as a person. In that sense, experience was massive, and it reminded me a lot of some of the toughest days (and nights) of Te Araroa.

The descent was fine, I could shift well downhill, so it wasn’t all lost and enough to stop too much despondency. The valley checkpoint of Oyace (277.7km) was again baking as our run of luck with the weather continued. The climb out from Oyace was another deeply challenging affair with south facing slopes and persistent sunshine, coupled with swollen legs and ineffective lungs! So frustrating to feel constrained, with the engine inside still strong. The refreshments post at Bruson L’arpe was an absolute classic, a ram-shackle shed next to a ruined chalet with barely enough space for two people to take shelter from the sun, but plentiful supplies of cola which was all I was interested in. The final stretches of the climb to Col de Breuson (2,508m) felt like a slow-motion comedy - if people could see me now - and the checkpoint on the pass was equally comical. A perspex box helicoptered into position, perched perilously on the ledge of a steep slope. I declined the offer of a bunk for some sleep, it was merely 1,200m in descent to the last life base at Ollomont (290km).

Leg 7: Ollomont to Cormayeur (340km*)    *plus a bit more

I’m not sure how I felt arriving at sixth and last life base and impending final leg of the TOR. I certainly appreciated a change in menu for the first time all race – baked ham and potatoes - yes. The day was starting to draw to a close already and I felt frustrated at the lack of distance achieved. There’s no question I had been leaking time for the last 24hours, and I was painfully slipping down the rankings – is this normal in such an undertaking and did it really matter? I had plenty of time to think about things like that and in all honesty all I really wanted was to finish it one piece with a respectable placing and be in a position to get a flight out from Milan on Friday lunchtime, to be home for Milo’s first birthday weekend.

Morale was high on exiting Ollomont. The only-one-leg-to-go thing was definitely going on although I knew full well that the last fifty kilometres would involve going deeper still as well as the tribulations of another night in the mountains. It was a seemingly huge 1,300m climb up to Col Chapillon (2,709m), initially through the trees, then across pastures towards the pass. Just to make things a little more interesting, a burst of heavy rain had me rummaging for my waterproofs in the depths of my bag. I didn’t have a clue whether it was forecast or how long it would last, so I opted for the sensible option of getting togged up, avoiding getting cold.

Rifugio Champillon (2,433m) came just before the pass and was the most welcome stop of the whole race. The restaurant area was packed with alpine folk people enjoying a meal and drinks, and the family owners were on hand to support the runners. There was so much warmth in there; the home made vegetable soup was the best I’ve tasted and the care so genuine. I hugged the owner on departure. ‘Dai Jez, Dai Dai’ she said to me. Thankfully I knew the translation, and instead of wanting me put out of my misery, she was passionately telling me to ‘come on, come on’! 

Exiting the Rifugio the weather really started to get going, the rain getting heavier by the minute. Flashes of lightning lit up the jagged peaks around. The timing wasn’t great with a high pass to cross ahead, but it was all exposed, so the options were to continue or retreat, neither particularly safe. Obviously I carried on. As I made the pass and started to descend the rain got heavier and heavier, the lightning strikes closer.  I descended aggressively feeling the adrenaline charge through my body and override any discomfort. It really is amazing what the body can do when it really needs to get itself out of trouble. The trails were soon a muddy torrent and a completely different running technique was needed to stay upright. As the storm moved on and the adrenaline subsided, hallucinations started to return, and so begun another protracted night of moving through the mountains, desperately trying to close in on Courmayeur. 

I had really hoped to be done in three days and feared my aggressive sleep strategy would start to catch up on me. There was another un-expected aid station in the bottom of the valley, located in the basement of a dairy. I had a conversation with one of the Italian checkpoint volunteers about his upcoming trip to the UK for the Spine Race. I was falling asleep in the chair as he told me – but it stuck, like a lot of my dreamy TOR adventures. 

The next section was one big hallucination. It involved several kilometres along a wide benched track. I thought I was running through a junk yard, with scrap vehicles and other discarded items lining the trail either side. I then ended up off track for a spell, descended incorrectly into a village and again I was imagining junk everywhere. I had that same sense as before that this wasn’t the first time I had run these trails. Nope. Eventually I spotted some headlamps higher up on the hillside – I ran back up as quickly as I could, regained the height, and conferred with some other runners to spot the damaged markers and get back on track. I will never know whether it was my dream that took me off track, or the markers really were damaged. 

I wasted more time down towards Saint-Rhemy (311.6km). Pretty much asleep on my feet, there was a cabin at the side of the road for some roadworks. I spoke out load to the foreman, telling him how I was going to rest in his cabin and get myself together. The cabin was locked, it was the middle of the night, there was no one else around. Bizarrely I can remember it all clearly, and I was also half aware it was happening at the time, but the impossible task was snapping out of it. Again passing runners rescued me from screwing up my race further, and I tagged on behind to get a tow towards the next checkpoint and the bed I desperately needed. My fourth night on the trail, I simply had to sleep properly, not just a 10 minute token gesture, a luxurious full hour.

From Saint-Rhemy it was less than 30km to the finish, but with the huge pass of Col Malatra (2,936m) standing in the way. The rest worked, although as I feared, I had leaked a lot of time from both being stationary and hallucinating. I exited around 4am and soon felt strong and rejuvenated. Hurrah.

Literally hauling myself up the ropes and scree of the final pass was such a big moment on the dawn of day five of this hulk of a race. On making the pass I instantly recognised the big wall of the Mont Blanc massif at the side of Val Ferret in the distance, a view I had enjoyed so many times before in training and racing UTMB. I was finally approaching closure on this indescribable epic.

I was a new man on those final few sections to home. The proper sleep had clearly made a difference as well as the ever powerful smell of the barn door. By the time I got to Rifugio Bertone (335km), a place I have passed through so many times before, I was numb in every normal sense but glowing with pride. The wry smile returned as I descended past lines of day trippers who cheered me along. I had been dreading this part of the course for ages, it’s a steep and tricky descent down rock steps and tree roots, but ignoring the state of my legs it was magical. I honestly didn’t care what my positions was, nor the fact I had leaked time in the latter part of the race, I was going to be a TOR finisher. I had no friends or family at the finish line to hug and collapse on, this was a solo effort and enjoyably low key. I didn’t need anything else but to cross the famous TOR finishing ramp and to know I had banked an absolute epic. What a relief to have made it back to Courmayeur, and to now be able to stop running. Paul Tierney who had over taken me a couple of hours before the finish (a brilliantly strong finish by the way) was there with Lee Kemp, one of his support crew, enjoying a post-race beer. I really craved a beer and enjoyed chatting with the guys straight off the trail whilst it was all still so raw.

I’ve done some stuff in my time, but this thing really does take it to a whole new level. This lengthy account has been as much about sharing the story as nudging myself to properly reflect on the experience and try to untangle a really quite complicated set of memories. Hopefully it doesn’t come across as overly dramatised or negative, or with too much focus on the difficulties which are inevitable in such an undertaking. For all the times of sore feet and painful quads there were far more powerful moments of sheer joy; being on a high pass at sunset or those memorable interactions with the passionate race volunteers.

It goes without saying that such an experience creates a lot of emotion, concentrated by simply having so much time to think and reflect. It’s a really humbling experience as well as a quite a selfish one but hopefully recognising and doing something about the latter truth means it can be something that is occasionally part of my life without it having too much impact.

Running the course blind, through several nights and some deeply dreamy states, is quite unique as an experience and harder than usual to document. It was utterly brilliant as a test and an experience, but with what it requires to succeed, not one I need to go through again. I consider my run this year a success, but going again would involve setting the bar much higher to be a repeated success, and the implications would be unreasonable, particularly knowing the commitment involved. I know I could run the TOR both better and faster but there won’t be one and it’s deliberately written here to be categoric! I’m more than content with what the TOR has given me, I am banking it and moving on.

To the TOR and it’s volunteers, thank you, that was a truly amazing experience.

Friday 1 July 2016

Lavaredo Ultra Trail, 24th June 2016 (119km, 5,850m +/-)

I'm not quite sure why it’s taken me 10 years to get round to running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail (LUT) and I sure do regret that now. It’s a belter of a race and for everyone who likes a challenging mountain ultra, it should be high up on the list.

So over a period of just a few weeks I’ve totally fallen in love with the Italian Dolomites, enjoying every moment of both my training for the LUT and the race itself. It’s a fabulous playground for trail runners, with vistas dominated by the jagged limestone summits and cliffs, criss-crossed with well-maintained scenic trails, providing enough variety and technicality to keep even the most hardcore runners entertained.

LUT almost feels like a hidden secret because of it’s relative modesty when compared to races like UTMB, and for many years it hasn’t hit the radar for most elites, however since it’s inclusion in the core group of Ultra Trail World Tour races a couple of years ago, that’s quickly changed. This year’s field was arguably far deeper than Western States, enough said.

I flew out to recce the route a couple of weeks before the race, providing a nice opportunity for some crash training as well as getting to know the route, something I find helpful with mental preparation, particularly when lots of ascent is involved. Running the course over two days, it blew my mind, and it was great to have the opportunity to properly take it all in, seeing the whole course in the daylight which is something the 11pm race start time doesn’t permit. With a roughly figure-of-eight course I ran one loop on each day, conveniently splitting into 40/ 35 mile days respectively with a roughly even split of the 5,850m total elevation gain. Despite some rainy and thundery spells, it worked well, and logistics just about manageable within a big weekend’s effort.

LUT Training

LUT Training: descending from Col dei Bois

LUT Training: Forcella Ambrizzola, Cortina below

LUT Training: top of first climb

LUT Training: Val Travenanzes

LUT Training: Val Della Rienza
I seemed to be back in Cortina for the race in the blink of an eye, standing on the start line alongside 1,300 fellow adventurers, doing battle with my chimp about the sense oinwhat I was doing. 11pm on a Friday night feels illogical in so many ways, particularly with a well timed electrical storm passing overhead just an hour before the start, but perhaps that’s what double espresso’s are for? Having abstained from caffeine for many months, it was particularly effective to get the adrenaline going and keep fatigue at bay. 

The day before the race, hanging out near Rifugio Auronzo with Gem.

Pre race with the lovely Lizzy Hawker
Pre-race I hadn’t felt quite as level headed as I usually do, with a particularly busy spell of work and other commitments creating stress and tiredness. I spent a week with a mouth full of ulcers, and frankly just waiting for a cold to break out, but I rode my luck, and thankfully it never prevailed. Just before we left for Cortina on the Wednesday I was ready to call it off, feeling far from ideal, and worried that a poor performance would dent my confidence when the really important outcome of the race was to get a strong performance in the bag. It felt like a fairly pivotal race on my ‘bounce’ from a troublesome 2015, so I didn’t want to get it wrong. But sometimes going in to a race feeling a little blasé and a less than perfect build up can actually ease the pressure. Whatever. Have a go and take it as it comes.

After the usual hussle and bussle of the start and first mile or two of road leading out of town, it was nice to soon gain some space, and join the snaking line of head torches up the first climb on the course, soon thinning out as is always the case. Before long the stress and anxiety I carried into the race had dispersed, and I was free to do my thing. The storm had passed through, but the humidity was high and a cloudy haziness hung in the air. This coupled with regular flashes of lightening far away in the distance created a sense of drama which I really liked. 

There was a sizeable group leading out which I tucked in the back of, content to settle in and find my legs for later. Running at night creates a lovely sense of freedom and solitude, despite being one of hundreds doing the same thing. I just really appreciated being there, running in my little bubble of head torch light and having the opportunity to take part and to savour the experience.

I ran some early spells with team mate Rory Bosio, including the descent to Federavecchia at 33km, where we arrived some way down the field (57th) to a raucous reception from The North Face team. What a great bunch supporting the team athletes all through the night. I was enjoying it, and met with Gem for the first time for a quick replen of liquid. I wolfed down a couple of pots of custard, and cracked on.

It was from there that I started to get going, building some momentum, which I intended maintaining all through the race. Momentum was about picking off places, steadily working my way up the field. After the excitement of the start and early spells, I knew the last few hours before dawn would mentally be the hardest - still significantly before half way, still dark and with mental tiredness at it’s worst. But despite this my head was in a great place, just savouring the experience, remaining positive.

Each little head torch light on the trail ahead was a target, and gave me a mini lift, particularly on the stiff climb up to Rifugio Auronzo (48.5km), now up to 50th place. After a murky and humid night, the first signs of dawn were on their way towards the top of the climb, and being up high next to Tre Cime di Lavaredo felt very fitting. Over the pass near Rifugio Lavaredo, not only was it a new day with the head torch switched off, but it was a clear day, like a different world with visibility and clear skies. Dawn always seems to bring freshness and strength, but this was better still, and I then enjoyed the big 1,000m+ descent down Val Della Rienza back towards civilisation.

Approaching Cimabanche
Cimabanche (66.1km) was my next opportunity to meet Gem. I had claimed a further 6 places and was now in 44th. It was possibly the part of the race when I felt at my weakest, having the run the previous long leg with little by way of sustenance. My stomach had been somewhat unsettled, but I was determined not to let that get me down, and hoped it would pass. After nailing a load of fruit I felt a lot better, and psychologically felt rejuvenated by the feeling that it was a new day and I was making strong progress all round.

The most enjoyable section of trail was now ahead, in particular the spectacular Val Trevanzes. The path is benched into the lower left bank of this dramatic valley, working it’s way up to the pass across scree slopes, under dramatic overhanging cliffs and regularly crossing the clear mountain streams. It felt like a bit of a slog physically, but the beautiful surrounding fuelled my legs. I knew I was still moving well in relation to others, merely by the fact I was regularly overtaking. At Forcella Col due Bos (2,331m) I gave in to the nagging discomfort from stones in my shoe, momentarily perching on a rock to empty them out.

Then a fast descent to Col Gallina (95km), starting to feel like I’d broken the back of it now, but also a tad weary. I hadn’t got a clue what position I was in (actually now 36th), despite being rather keen to know, but the information wasn’t available, so just keep your head down and don’t fret about it!

Leaving Col Gallina
I felt buoyed from seeing Gem and the team again, loads of positivity around, and ready to get this thing finished. The climbing was really starting to get tough, now well over 4,000m in the legs, and the temperature was also climbing quickly. The next climb was steep albeit the final big one, a real-hands-on-knees grind to the top, eventually reaching Rifugio Averau (2,413m) where an adhoc water station was setup. “Grazie mille” – so grateful to one and all of the volunteers dotted around the course, always smiling and positive in their words – particularly as this one was completely unexpected, and well needed in the heat.

The final part of the course stays high until a big long descent into the Cortina. The views remained first class, with rocky drama all round and some lovely sections of singletrack. Lots of great spots for a picnic I thought, but perhaps now’s not the time.

By the final support point at Passo Giau (103km) I had caught a bunch more guys, so arrived once again feeling buoyed and positive, now in 27th place. There wasn’t much point lingering because aside from a couple of shorter climbs, it was about beasting it down the final descent to the finish. There comes a point when looking after yourself (as is the priority in ultra running) just goes out the window, knowing that the scent of the finish line will carry you through, come what may. Get it done.

Reaching the final pass at Forcella Ambrizzola (2,277m) was a satisfying moment and I let out a vocal sigh of relief. How hard can 11km of descent really be? Well rather ugly to be honest, particularly my form, but no marks for that fortunately.

There was a great welcome from the afternoon crowds back in Cortina after over 14 hours of effort, and I felt genuinely pleased with my finishing place of 22nd. It wasn’t as fast as I’m capable of, but there were other priorities for this one. Most importantly I loved every minute of the experience and had re-found some of the strength reserves which have served me so well over the years. Knowing it’s still there is all I needed to know, and hopefully with a bit more training and consistency, I can tap in for a bit more.

Thanks must go to my amazingly supportive wife Gem who did a perfect job with the support, as well as all The North Face folk who were so enthusiastic throughout.