80km of Mountain

I was at the water trough in the centre of town next to the Maison des Guides. I drank plenty of the amazing cool water and then dunked my head in to wash the thick layer of salt that had formed over the previous three hours of blissful, sun-filled Chamonix trail running at it’s best. I had left home in Argentiere heading straight up for just over 1000 metres to Lac Blanc, from there I traversed westwards to La Flegere before continuing across to Plan Praz which is the finish point of the Mont Blanc vertical km race which would be held in a few days time. I then dropped down the fast but slightly technical trail just across from the vkm route. Which bought me to the glorious head dunking in the centre of town as hundreds of holiday makers sauntered around enjoying the warmth of the sun.

It was here that I assessed how fatigued I was. The sun was battering me and I was quite tired but not too bad really. From here I planned to head up to the plan des auiguille which is another vertical km in climbing then head across to Montenvers, drop down to Le Bois then back home. This was my last big run before the upcoming Mont Blanc 80km. I had predicted around 5hrs for this circuit. My predictions are generally fairly good, but this time I would be around 2 hrs out! As I headed up the climb out of Chamonix, the storm clouds where gathering and dull and distant rumbles of thunder where threatening to head in my direction. I hadn’t eaten yet and so decided to grab my emergency bar out of my waist pack. My energy levels were dipping. As I unzipped the pouch I remembered that I had eaten it a few days previously and not replaced it. My hand rummaged around slightly panicky hoping my memory had failed me, but no, for once it was right. Well as you can imagine, the next 4 hours turned into a death march and on returning home I was utterly spent. Not my finest race preparation!

It was 0330. I was alone and pacing around the same square with the trough in that I had recently dunked my head into. As the time ticked on more and more runners were approaching from around every corner, some alone and others in groups. I had rested as much as life would allow since my last run and I felt ok. I was starting to feel like the last year of living in the mountains was having a strong effect. Mentally I felt very strong. I knew the majority of the course and it was a real beast. But there were to be no major suprises for me. My descending was not the finest out there but it was no longer destroying my quads. I was excited to get going. With over 6000 metres of ascent and plenty of technical terrain to deal with this was going to be a major challenge and it was shorter than what I consider my stronger distance. My usual priorities were in place : Enjoy, finish and cross the line feeling like I could give no more. The first was a given due to the location, and if the second happened then the third would be pretty much guaranteed as I knew there would be no easy way round this course. It was going to be the toughest 80km of my life yet!

Our numbers had our countries flag on which is always a nice touch as you can easily spot fellow countrymen. Shortly before the off a Brit squeezed through the ever thickening gaggle of nervous runners towards me. He introduced himself (Name forgotten I’m afraid) and we squashed a running resume conversation in the final 10 minutes before the off. I had placed myself around mid way in the pack. This is starting to become a habit with Alpine races. I like the fact that there will be many people ahead who I will probably pass, but the slower more controlled start that was forced on me prevents me from going too hard on the first section which I have learnt is often a large climb and where the last thing I want to do is blow a gasket before I’ve even peaked the first climb.

As the infectiously excitable Euro start was in full swing, I shouted best of luck to my new friend, The countdown wound it’s way down and then we were off. The first part of the climb is the short road section of the vertical km. If you have ran this or seen it, you will know that it is rather steep and I was soon telling myself to stop running and begin my power walk. I may as well start now as this was going to get well used today! Within 5 minutes I could see the snake of headlights ahead going left and fading into the trees as the climb to Bellachat began in earnest. Whenever the slope eased a little I would run and if it was wide enough I would pass runners, trying to keep the accelerations as smooth and minimal as possible so as not to turn the whole thing into a sprints session. Sure enough I was steadily passing lots of runners and as I did I wondered whether I would see them again during the race. I was feeling in control and enjoying the climb. The chills I had felt while waiting on the startline had been replaced by heavy sweating as I worked consistantly hard with the slight glow in the sky that was the beginnings of a beautiful day.

I felt good as I climbed the final section of zig zag path before the Bellachat refuge. We had climbed around 1200 metres so far and ahead there was a further 300 that would take us up to Brevent. This was a fun section which is a little rocky and technical in places but mostly runnable. My head torch was not needed now so I gratefully pulled it from my head and stuffed it deep in one of my bags side pockets hoping that I wouldn’t be needing it later that day. As I bounded along the first harsh rays of the sun appeared up ahead from behind the Aiguille des Chardonnet. It was just perfect and really gave me a little extra bounce to my run, though I knew this would be shortlived. The weather forecast was for a warm sunny day, so with my generally poor history of heat during long runs, the sun could very well soon not be such a source of joy, but for the time being that was certainly not on my mind.

From the top of Brevent the descent is fairly long, quite rocky but fast terrain. I again focused on being as smooth as possible. I knew that, Plan Praz at the bottom of the descent I would be rewarded with my first cp with food and drink. I stopped here and made sure I took on plenty of fluid and lots of cheese and sauscisson. It tasted great now, but I was sure that in 10 hours time I probably wouldn’t be as keen. With the first major climb behind me, and with the gaps between runners ever widening, I was starting to feel as though the race had properly started now and I was comfortable and eager to run to Flegere then Tete aux vents as this section was a good runnable, yet still challenging part which had fine views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif. Not that I needed the motivation, but I was hardly going to push it away!

Although I felt strong along this top section, partly because of my familiarity with it, I was as disciplined as possible and tried not to get carried away as I continued to chase people down and pass them. The temperature was rising rapidly now the sun was fully risen. The heat is often my biggest enemy in races, but we have had a lot of warm weather in Chamonix before the race and I was hoping that maybe I had actually acclimatised a little.

I was passing some people that were already looking a little worse for wear. I fely for them as there was so far left. I could completely imagine that if you weren’t used to the scale of Alpine climbs and descents you could very easily overcook things very quickly. I know as I’ve been there! Once I had hopped along the top section to Tete aux ventes I begun the descent which is also the final ascent on the UTMB. It is a tough final climb for a 100 miler and it is pretty steep with a few technical sections making it a fun descent which I could take advantage of as my legs and feet were still relatively fresh. I really enjoyed bounding down here and felt strong on the technical sections. I smiled half with the joy of the descent and half with humour as I imagined how I would be gingerly descending the final drop of the day back into Chamonix.

There were a quite a few spectators at the road crossing at the bottom which is the Col des Montets. I took in the boost that the cheers and ringing cow bells provided as I crossed the road before the gentle descent down to le Bois. I was all alone here and was really excited as the next section would be the only section of the course I hadn’t seen before. What a great way to discover you local trails! Once at the bottom, I crossed the same road again and was directed onto a path which I had run before when I went up to Mont Buet a month earlier. It is a runnable trail that follows the river upstream. After a while I crossed a footbridge and then I was on new territory. Soon the trail was breaking away from the river and began to slope upwards, gaining steepness as it progressed. I was soon above the treeline and was suddenly feeling the full effects of the hot sun as it’s oppressive heat hammered away at me. The particular geography of the valley also meant that it was perfectly still here so no releif was provided from the cool breeze which I would feel later on. The climb was long and the footpath seemed like it was seldom trod being very narrow. There were rocky sections which demanded use of my hands and some ironwork. All in all this was a fantastic section. I turned a corner and saw that the climb continued for a fair distance as I squinted in the bright sun to see the runners ahead scrambling throug the snow we were now trudging through. With the height gained came cooler air which my sweat dripping body much needed. Considering how hard I was working and the temperature, I was happy with how things were working. I had acclimatised to some extent to the heat.

Once over the top the descent begun down the snow which was turning slushy under the heat of the sun. The running was fun as I slid all over the place as I fought to stay upright. The last section of snow was a gully that was steep and looking ahead I could see runners falling and sliding down on their backsides. Here goes! I tried to glissade with only slight glimmers of success. I fell a number of times before working out that instead of getting back up I should join the backside sliders and make my way down faster and with more control. Such style!

Once I had ‘negotiated’ the last of the snow for the day, it was back onto beautiful rocky trail that was descending down to Lac d’Emosson. The sky was a deep blue and I was thoroughly enjoying this new section though I would soon be back on familiar trail. I was beginning to feel the signs of exhaustion setting in but I had been going quite hard for a number of hours so was not too surprised. The next climb was from Vallorcine straight up to Aiguillette des Possettes which was a vertical km! I wasn’t expecting an easy ride!

I stopped a few times on the long downhill to Vallorcine at river crossings to drink the cold water instead of the hot water in my bottles. One time I dunked my head under to clean the salt from my face. Once on the valley floor I followed the markers and was pulled along by the cheering crowds of spectators which were sat out in the beautiful alpine meadows enjoying the sun. It was good to be in the shelter of the cp tent. I made sure my bottles were topped up with cold water and ate what I could before slowly jogging off to the start of the climb with one handful of cheese and the other full of sausage. I immediately began walking as my first foot hit the slope. The first section is possibly the steepest. Pointless even trying to run this during a race of this length. Let’s see if I can find some sort of rhythm.

I soon finished off my sweaty handfulls of Savoyarde treats, washed it down with some still cold water and attempted to zone in to my not-too-fast-but-consistant rhythm. After 15 minutes or so, I realised that my earlier thoughts about this being a tough climb were true. Although I had fared better than normal in the sun, it had still be working it’s black magic on me. The good news was that there was no nausea yet which would be crippling. Although the climb was tough, I was making good steady progress up through the never ending switchbacks. Once up on the Col des possettes and back out of the trees the incline levels off a bit giving you some respite before the final push to the top. I had run this many times in the last year and the familiarity was comforting. I passed a number of hikers here before topping out and geting stuck into the descent which starts out prety technical in places and later switches into fairly smooth trail. My tired legs were not allowing me to descend as I normally do on this trail, but I felt that my progress was good and overall I was in ok shape for this stage.

I passed through a quiet Le Tour. No cp here and the next one wouldn’t be till Argentiere, so I stopped at the fountain and topped up again. The trail from Le Tour to Argentiere was undulating which made a nice chenge. I ran the whole lot but it was a sedate run. There was still a moster climb left so there was no need to be pushing it too hard. I had too save something. As I came off the trail onto the road that ran into Argentiere and more importantly the next cp, I was feeling sluggish. I stopped at the cp and stayed for a couple of minutes as I made myself eat something and regroup. I thanked the crew and walked off stiffly before slowly breaking into a heavy jog. It was nice to run so close to home knowing that the majority of the course had been run.

The trail to le Bois was the Petite Balcon Nord and was again undulating. I was starting to suffer but no-one was catching me up. Everyone was now suffering! At the Le Bois cp I again stopped and forced myself to eat whatever I could and drank a bellyfull of water before hiking off to the bottom of the final climb. This climb takes you to Montenvers train station overlooking the Mer de Glace. It begins with switchbacks through the trees and ends with some steeper stuff through large rocks. This quickly turned into a zombie march. My breathing was short and fast and my heart rate was through the roof as I crawled along at a slugs pace. Amazingly I still managed to overtake a few people on this final climb. There was some serious suffering going on up here!

I was happy and relieved to finally reach the cp at the top here. Stopped and again made sure I was ready for the final push to the finish. First up was a long traverse to the Plan de l’Aiguille followed by the 1km drop down to Chamonix. I got myself into a slow but steady plod and picked up two others.  A Swiss chap and A Japanese lady. I didn’t walk once along this final traverse and because my pace was so slow, I kept checking whether either of the two trailing close behind wanted to path but they said my pace was fine. The consistancy across the top here was paying off as we soon starting passing the odd runner who was suffering a little more. Just before the end of this top section, the Swiss chap dropped off the back and then it was just me and the Japanese lady who seemed to be half my size.

As the final drop into town begun I felt heavy and stiff but soon things eased off a little allowing me to speed up a little. My Japanese friend on the other hand seemed smooth and light on her feet. I stood aside after about 20 minutes and told her to pass. She didn’t want to but I knew she was descending far quicker than I was. Once past I stayed with her for another 10 minutes before the elastic snapped. My stomach was beginning to complain and with each footfall, a hollow pain would echo through my torso. I walked numerous times on the remainder of the down.

I burst out of the trees and started to walk again. There was around a 500 metre walk up to the main road. I’d just walk up to there then run the final few hundred metres to the finish I thought. Just as I was approaching the junction a group of supporters up ahead begun cheering and I got carried away with it and started running. I do love a Chamonix finish. So many people around and everyone cheers you on. It’s such a fantastic atmosphere that for a brief moment a huge grin spreads across your face and the pain is forgotten. I crossed the line, immediately collected my medal and then I needed to sit but as I tried to walk to a free bit of curb, my muscles failed to operate. My feet were dragging across the floor. Jesus get me down on the floor before I drop!

What an incredible race! I absolutely loved it. It was everything I wanted. I had managed to come in at 56th place too. I was really happy with how everything had gone. If you love beautiful and really tough trail then I strongly recommend this one. I rarely repeat races but this just maybe one of them!

Thanks for reading. Happy running.

My Winter Odyssey part two

…Continued from here

The climb from the hut continued where it left off. It was steep and hard. I couldn’t find the trail so just headed up the best route I could find. It wasn’t great at points requiring leaning forward and using my hands and kicking in steps to the steep snow. I felt very exposed at times and the pulk was really not making things much better. The going was incredibly slow and soon it begun to snow making what visibility I had much less. It soon levelled out though and after two more sketchy climbs (literally!), I thankfully begun to head down. We had been warned that there was a good downhill though so the pressure was far from off!1537695_669796866395586_2110433214_o

My pace at least sped up now, and when the descent came it was fine. I turned my pulk around and let it slide in front of me holding the rope to keep some sort of control on it. The sky was beginning to glow as the new day arrived. It was quite cold and there was still a good wind blowing that kept me moving and my hood up to retain the warmth I worked so hard for. I now was constantly wearing my large mittens and they were working a treat. From the hut I’d just left to the next one was 25km (a massive distance at this pace) which was possibly too short for a day. The next hut was an extra 25km further. This was a manned CP too. 50km was a big day and seeing as the start had been incredibly slow, I predicted at least 20hrs. By midday I hadn’t made the hut at 25km. I really needed to get to the next CP in one push if I was going to keep the 500 mile race alive. When I was around 5km short of the hut, I saw the girls ahead but on my left. They seemed to be having a good sit down rest. As I passed I waved a pole and they waved back. I wanted to at least make the hut before stopping to eat. I was starting to feel tired and weary. The hut seemed a fantastic place to rest. I saw it and it took forever to get there. It was of course locked and I didn’t have one of the keys (you can hire them) so without thinking pitched my tent in the most sheltered area with just rest on my sleepy mind. I melted snow, ate a meal and got into my bag and lay there for around an hour not sleeping again. It was still light out. I looked at my watch, 1530. What the hell was I doing? It was going to be dark in 30 minutes and I should be using this! Within 10 minutes I was packed up and hurriedly rushing back towards the trail, eager to get through the next 25km section.

The tiredness had taken firm control for a couple of hours there, overhauling all logic and reason. I justified that it was all alright though as I had given myself a little down time from an already challenging day, feeding myself and drinking plenty which should keep me afloat for the next section.

It was mostly flat and pretty straightforward navigation wise. I locked into a pace and kept moving. I knew that this was going to be a tough section mentally. Tiredness was my number one enemy here. It didn’t affect me for ages because of my little break, but after a few hours, I could feel my eyes prickling. Here it comes! As I got more and more tired, I started to feel the cold. The wind was from behind but it was still affecting me. I didn’t wait too long and stopped to dig my super warm Marmot down jacket out. I pulled it on and put the hood up. Instant bliss. I was soon feeling the benefit all over my body as I warmed up. The tiredness was really slowing me still though and I was aware that I was staggering like a drunk. I needed a micro rest. I really wanted it to be short on time though. I just needed to close my eyes for 5-10 minutes. This can work wonders. I needed to be out of the wind, so I pulled my skis out and laid them on the snow upside down to give me something to lie on off the snow. Then I got my bag out which was permanently in a bivvy bag and to save me taking my boots off, I crawled in head first. Probably not the wisest of moves I’ve ever made, but my god it was amazing in there. Warm and out the wind, I closed my eyes and just relaxed for 10 minutes and then, opened my eyes and packed up and feeling a little invigorated, I moved on.

The final section down to the hut was of the circuit which meant when leaving the hut you would have to back track 4km to get back on route. I arrived at the hut at around 0330 in the morning. I was again greeted with smiles and warmth from Phil and Justin. The girls were there and already sleeping. I had a couple of meals and got into bed myself. I was exhausted but content that I had made this cp.

I think I actually managed an hour or two of sleep here before hearing the girls quietly getting up and then discussing whether they should continue as they had to be back at work soon. They needed to finish the last section to Kilpisjarvi in one big hit, which was the end of the 100 miler, though I suspected it was a bit further than that. They were determined and were soon readying for the off. I was wide awake now and got up just before they left. I wished them well and wondered whether I would bump into them today. I slowly sorted myself out and then one of the French chaps, Erick Basset arrived. He had just slept on the trail about an hour back and wasn’t intending on hanging around. I said my goodbyes and walked out the door.

I couldn’t believe the scenery. When I arrived 4 or 5 hours previously in the dark, I could have sworn that I was descending through a heavily wooded area. No trees here! Hmmm… I guess my mind was playing tricks on me. I never hallucinate but then I recalled just before arriving at the hut that I had seen a man on a horse pass me by, apparently not seeing me. Once at the 100 mile point I would need to get some more sleep, and that meant more than one or two hours.

I was probably an hour behind the girls. It was a beautiful clear day. There was a bit of a chill in the air. I wondered whether it was actually cold or whether it was just my tiredness. I soon was back up onto the main route and was now heading towards Sweden across some relative flat land. I kept sinking into the snow so eventually I had to try out my skis. Phil and Justin in the the last cp had lent me a bungy cord to bodge my ski binding. I was sceptical but it worked really well and soon I was gliding along like a Norwegian (in my dreams). Due to the flat terrain, I could see the girls ahead, and Erick behind about an equal distance. I was grateful that there was not any competition in me still. I was very happily doing my own thing. After a few hours I caught the girls up as they stopped for a mini break. We decided to join forces here and be a trio. It was nice to have some company. I soon had the bad luck of my other Binding break and not having another bungy, this left me ski-less again. Oh well, at least I got a few hours out of them. We stopped soon and had a rehydrated meal each. Erick caught us here, stopped briefly and then pushed on ahead alone. He looked to be on a mission.

It was soon dark again, and we were getting closer and closer to the cp, though first we had to get over some rather lumpy ground with quite a bit of ascent slowing things right down. Then we saw some light glowing in the sky. This must be Kilpisjarvi!  When the trail began to go down a bit it was then that we saw it. It looked so close but we knew it would still be a number of hours before we arrived. It was here that I looked at my fingers that were tingling and a little sore and realised that one of the tips was white with a distinct line around it. Bugger, frostbite! I really needed to look after it, so I put a handwarmer into my glove to make sure it was nice and warm. When had that happened? I scanned my mind but couldn’t think of any particular time. They had been tingling for days but I stupidly thought nothing of it. It didn’t look bad, but I was keen to let the Doc look at this when I arrived at the CP. Liv and Karin were getting excited as they would soon be finishing. I had over 400 miles left! Overwhelming, I’ll admit, but these things always are.

After a long descent where my pulk was sliding all over the place, we arrived onto a lake. This meant we just had a 12km death march across the frozen lake towards the lights. This would take around 3hrs the way we were going. We were chatty at first, excited to be so close but soon went quiet as we all started our own battles to stay awake. Then came the hallucinations which were numerous but topped by a rather freaky one involving a constant flow of people, all looking a bit odd, walking directly towards me and just fading to nothing just before the hit me, revealing the next one a metre or so behind them. This continued for a bewildering 10-15 minutes as I trudged into them.

We were guided in by John Bambers’ headtorch as he waited patiently for us to arrive. He and I congratulated the girls who had done an amazing feat by winning the team 100 mile category. A big surprise to them.   John walked us into the little chalet where I was grateful to remove my boots and put the liners into the clothes dryer they had there! I was informed that I was going to be held here to let some of the other guys catch up a bit as we were too spread out making safety an issue. My race clock was stopped until they arrived. A forced rest. Oh ok then, if you insist!

I showered, ate plenty and then crashed out dead to the world. Sleep at last! I was woken when Scott and some of the team arrived. We had a chat, and then I got up and lounged around drinking coffee. At some point we were joined by Erick for a can of beer as he was celebrating winning the 100 mile solo. He had entered the 250, but had decided to stop at 100. Dr. Nick had a look at my frostbite and said it was just superficial, but should definitely be monitored, and be kept warm all the time as it was far more susceptible to getting it at a level which could threaten my fingertips survival. I stocked up on heat pads and vowed to not take my large mitten off that hand unless absolutely necessary.  We looked at our GPS feed that day and calculated that the true distance to the ’100′ point was in fact 128 miles. That felt a bit better seeing as it had taken around a day longer than it should have.

The next person to arrive was Leif who got in around 10 hours later (I think?) followed a short while after by Jin and David Jorgensen. Jin was to continue but David, who was in the 250 mile race was having to pull because of work commitments (quite a few other runners had pulled out as they had flights to catch and the race was so much slower than anyone expected) . This meant that only three were still racing from this point onward. In the 250 there was Leif and in the 500 was Jin and I.

Scott lent me his skis and sticks. His skis had much better bindings on as they were metal not flimsy plastic like my last ones. The poles were great as they were adjustable in length. My last ones were very long which meant my hands were high up which meant that blood didn’t circulate so well giving me cold hands. After a half decent nights sleep I woke at 6 with the intention of leaving at 7, but I got held up waiting for one thing or another and didn’t get on the road till around 9. A little frustrating but I was happy to be on my way. Scott set me off on my way and I quickly got into a decent stride wanting to take advantage of the faster trail.

I was now on a decent skidoo trail that Scott had likened to a motorway. I started out on foot and made good progress, but after a few hours I was sinking a little so decided to use the skis. It was nice to have a change. I didn’t see another soul for ages and then the cloud came down a little cutting down the visibility. Out of the deathly silence I heard two skidoos come from behind and pass me waving as they went. Ten minutes later I saw them stopped up ahead. They were both crouched down next to one of the skidoos. When I got closer I realised they had just stopped for lunch and were sheltering from the wind. I said “hei” as I passed, they responded with the same. I had been on my skis for a few hours now and wanted to be back on my feet as the trail seemed pretty good again. The land was very open here so there was no shelter from the wind which was gaining in strength.

The darkness fell again. I was determined to make it to a turn in the route at least today. I think it was around 50km. Every now and then I would see a dull glow in the middle of nowhere. I think this was Sami people settlements. Later on I saw two lights that I assumed were two skidoos far over to my left, approaching quickly. The first one pulled up next to me.  It was a middle aged woman who spoke. I asked if she spoke English and she asked where I was going. I wasn’t too sure how to answer, so I pointed to my race number and told her that I was taking part in a 800km race. That’s all she needed, and she shot off. The other one pulled up. This time it was an elderly woman who unfortunately couldn’t speak English so she followed her friend (daughter?) into the darkness.

The trudge through the cold dark night continued uneventfully for a few more hours when another skidoo approached from behind. It stopped beside me. It was Charlie and Mark Hines, who was now part of the crew. They informed me of everyone else’s progress behind. They also wanted to know where I planned to camp as they were going to set up an intermediate cp. I told them about the turn in the trail. Charlie told me that there was a hut not too far further on from there and said they’d be there. There was a strong wind now that was blowing in from my left. This would be directly in my face when I turned the corner. Lovely.

Three hours later I was at the turn. I was really happy with today’s progress. I turned into the wind and was straight away looking down, as the spindrift getting blown into my face was very painful. I stopped and got my Julbo goggles out. Straight away things became lots more comfortable. Looking into the snow was very trance inducing, but there was no hallucinating today. I travelled 10km down this trail and then gave up on the hut so pitched my tent and got some sleep. I had set my alarm for 0700. By 0800 I was back on the move. While packing up, Jin had passed me. He had not stopped properly all night!

Annoyingly within 1km I saw some sticks signalling that there was a cp just off the trail. Sure enough there was a lovely warm hut with Charlie and Mark in and some beds. Damn, I was so close! This really irritated me. I had wasted a couple of hours with my tent and melting snow etc. Never mind, there was no need getting too wound up by it. I had slept so all was good. I was kindly offered some of Mark’s coffee that had been lovingly filtered through his buff as they had nothing else. It tasted great! I stayed 20 minutes before dragging myself back out to the trail again.

The snow was now deep enough to put on the skis. From here on the trail became difficult to follow and even on skis the going was slow and difficult because of the snow. I slowly weaved my way through the trees and across frozen lakes and marshland. This was a lot slower than yesterday which was a bit frustrating. I was following a trail that seemed not to bad for most of the day though, but later in the day I was heading quite a bit south of the route on the trail and starting getting concerned that it was taking me too far away, so after a while I followed a new trail that forked off in the direction that would get me back on trail. This was a mistake! I soon realised that this trail was just not right and before I knew what was happening I was circling around looking for a trail that would go in the right direction. The deep snow off these trails was ridiculously slow and laborious to move through. I soon was aware that I was not really making any meaningful progress and was getting a bit stressed about the time wasting. I dug my phone out and called Scott (this was the first time we had had mobile signal) to let him know that I was ok, just messing up my nav, in case someone was watching my GPS tracker and wondering what I was doing. Scott was great and gave me a waypoint to aim for which should get me back on track. This took a while, but I was soon back on the good trail I had stupidly left.

I didn’t need my skis again so off they came and I strode it out. In around 5km I saw a flashing light ahead which I knew was John’s head-torch signalling an intermediate tent CP. Once there I stayed for around 30 mins. John and Nick again kept giving me hot drinks and then a hot meal to prepare me for the last 30km push to Kautokeino, the location of the next cp. I left the tent with a determined stride that, within 5 minutes, came to a stop as I had to change my torch batteries. Then I was off. There was about 10km to a road and then 20 along here to the cp. I must confess that I was not exactly looking forward to the road section, but the solid footing and the lack of navigation would be a nice relief, mentally and physically.

Once I had been on the road for half an hour, a car sped towards me and stopped along side me. It was Scott. He jumped out and walked with me for a while, feeding me with positivity and even an apple which went down very well. Once he was gone, I put my head down and pushed hard. My feet were sore and my shin too but the overriding thing was the tiredness, though it wasn’t as bad as before. There was plenty of light pollution here and to be quite honest it didn’t bother me at all like normal. It meant that I was surrounded by houses and people. I knew that the next day when I set off again I would be eager to get back into the wilderness, but for now it felt comforting. The road just went on and on with the lights seemingly not getting any closer. I kept my calm and just kept moving. Once into the town, I turned back on myself and proceeded for another 4km till I reached the motel. It was around 0400 when I got there. Scott was still up but the tiny box room was full of snoring crew. I crept in and slumped happily into a seat. Scott plied me with pastry and a meal and some more fruit which all went into the bottomless pit. I used the shower and felt lots better for it before pitching my tent outside with some help from Scott as there was no room in the motel. I had no problem sleeping for a few hours now!

When I woke everyone else was also awake, so I sat in there with Leif who had arrived a number of hours before me. After a hot drink and breakfast in a bag, I started to pack away and get back on the road. The next section begun with around 25km on a road, which was great for speed, but really uninspiring and dull. After fastening everything down to my pulk and tucking my flasks of boiling water into my sleeping bag to insulate more. I said my goodbyes and left. I was around 1 hour behind Leif. I think Jin was a couple of hours away yet, but wouldn’t be stopping at the motel. Just before leaving town, there was an open garage, the first I had passed I believe. I popped in and bought a hot dog, a massive bar of chocolate and a large bag of dried fruit and nuts for the day ahead which would undoubtedly turn into an epic.

The road was how I expected it to be, long, dull and fast. I was longing to be away from it and finally I arrived at the start of the old post road which was the skidoo trail which we would be following for the next 55km into the next cp. We had been informed that because of the distance covered being greater than what was originally stated, the 250 mile point was being moved forward to the next cp! I would soon be at the half way point. I will then have cracked the back of this thing! This would be the end of Leif’s race which would just leave me and Jin. What a crazy race.

Once off the road I was straight onto my skis and making some good progress just as it started getting dark. I continued on skis for a few hours but then as I finished a climb that went on for a long time and I was very exposed to the wind, the snow started sticking to the underside of my skis. I ignored it for a while, but it became slow and very difficult as your feet became heavy with the sticky snow and this of course made sliding nigh on impossible. I removed them and trudged through the snow as the spindrift pelted me hard. The trail was getting difficult to see as the wind was drifting the snow, covering it very well. You knew when you were off the compressed trail though as you would sink mid thigh deep and would struggle to get out.

This exposed area of hill went on just a little too long and I was happy when I could see a slight descent ahead which took me out of the worst of it and everything seemed to calm around me. I was making some good progress still when I entered a field and was surrounded by many different skidoo trails going in all directions. Which one was the right one? I looked at my GPS and after much plunging around in very deep snow and trying to find something that looked like it might be a trail, I was back on it. There was now no skidoo trail so the going was slow and frustrating. Soon the tiredness hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I knew that when you were this tired that something had to be done immediately. You could carry on, but you would slow down immensely, decision making would be impaired and you would feel colder. I moved off the trail and decided to dig a snow grave. This is what you imagine it to be except I intended to crawl out of it after an hour. I dug a hole long enough to lie in and deep enough to be sheltered from the wind. Then threw my sleeping system in and crawled in. I had a quick meal with barely luke warm water (Sweet and sour chicken I think) before drifting off for an hour. I was rudely awakend by my GPS alarm all too quickly. I packed up fast and got back on the trail (?). Damn deep snow! I noticed that to my left there was a large frozen lake, so I headed down to it hoping to find a better route. Sure enough there were skidoo trails along it which I followed all the way to the end saving me some seriously frustrating deep snow.

As I left the lake the trail was barely visible as the wind scoured the snow. Soon I was rewarded with a proper skidoo trail sign. They now appeared more frequently and the trail was easier to follow as there were trees at each side creating an avenue. Leif’s trail was quite visible now. He was also on foot, which I guessed meant the snow was sticking to his skis too. I crossed a large open section and the wind was not very pleasant here, but I could see up ahead trees that could offer shelter.

I saw in the distance what looked like a tent. I couldn’t be sure until I got a lot closer, but yes, it was certainly a tent, and it had to be Leif. There was no-one else stupid enough to be out here. I had decided that when I found a relatively sheltered spot, I would set up camp, just to get an hour or so. This looked ideal. I quietly slid past his tent trying not to wake him, then when about 100 metres up trail I found my spot. Leif then poked his head out from his tent. I walked back and chatted about the crappy conditions and the awful trail. He said he would be 5 minutes so I waited. Rest can wait!

Soon we were off in single file pushing as fast as our fatigue and the trail conditions would allow. We climbed for a long time along a perfectly straight avenue and then burst out onto an open hillside. The wind was still battering us and made the going a little unpleasant as we were so exposed. The head-torch had been off now for a couple of hours and will not be going on again for this section. I liked that. As we contoured around the hill the wind was soon at our backs which felt great. Now we were on the home straight!

plod, plod, plod…

As I stopped to get a heat pad out and put it into my glove Leif pulled away. I left him to it and continued my plodding. Once at the top of a little climb, we saw the small town of Suolovuopmi. I caught up with Leif here as he was getting his skis out for the downhill. I thought I would try also. Within minutes Leif had disappeared. Damn these Norwegians! I again showed why I needed to practice more with the skis and with a pulk on a rope. I packed the skis away and tried to slide down the hill sitting on the pulk with no joy. I resorted to good old walking. Within 20 minutes I was in the outskirts of town, and then a skidoo approached me. It was Charlie with Stu, coming out to greet me and make sure I went the right way through town to the CP. They shot off and 5 minutes later I turned a corner and saw the finish line of the 250 mile race. I felt a little emotional to have reached this point. I was exhausted and had decided that I was going to spend a solid 8 hours or so here as I needed to sleep properly.

There were a few people there to greet me as I crossed the line which was really nice and Scott came up and gave me a big hug congratulating me, and then said that the race was not going to continue from here. I1614030_669796609728945_202320645_o was gobsmacked and didn’t know what was happening. I asked to confirm that this was definite as I knew that my body would close down once it thought it was finished with. Scott confirmed that it was over, and slung a 250 mile medal over my head.

There were plenty of photos taken and I of course was happy that I would not have to continue as I was exhausted, but totally gutted that I had DNFed. I was around 24hrs ahead of Jin and around 12 ahead of Leif (including the time when my race clock was stopped at the 100 mile point). I had been psychologically preparing myself for this part which would have been difficult as Leif would have finished and I would continue alone. But now I felt hollow. My experience had been truly incredible and I had loved being in the Arctic but now it had been cut short. It was all out of my power which I respected but the disappointment was almost overwhelming. Could I have finished this thing? I have no idea, but I would have loved to have continued as far as possible. Since the race ended I am still disappointed but I will not let this affect the great memories I will have for the rest of my life. I feel like this event has touched me in a way like no other. I have to visit the Arctic again, for it’s utter beauty and the challenges it provides.

I now have a load of debt from the Spine and Frostskade which I will deal with, meaning there won’t be hardly any, if any at all, racing this year. That’s ok though as these things are worth so much and I will never regret it.

Would I do things differently if I returned to the Frostskade? Yes for sure. My Baffin boots were great, but I think I would have to use trainers with thermal covers I saw some of the experienced French and Mark using. Either that or I would buy some decent backcountry ski boots that the Norwegians were using. I loved my Marmot down jacket, my Arc’teryx jacket which is bomb-proof. I would not use rope for my pulk, swapping it for the solid trace making those downhills easier. My Marmot Mittens were just superb. My Jetboil was good but I would swap it for my petrol stove which is more efficient in the extreme cold. My sleeping system was great (thanks Mark). Overall I was happy with most of my kit choices and felt fairly well prepared. I have learnt so much and need to do something else just to practice it all.

Now I have been home for a while and I am almost fully recovered with just the tendonitis on my shin dragging on, I am very happy with all I have achieved. My experiences in both races, my winter odyssey, has been exceptional and I am so glad that I pushed my limits by choosing to take them both on. But where do I go from here? I am not too sure, but I know my path will make itself clear as time moves on. I won’t worry about it. I do plan on running the 114 mile Haute route (summer version) this year, self sufficiently which is what really gives me a kick and is relatively free! Let me know if you have any opportunities!

I know that I really need to learn how to edit these things and make them more manageable, but the primary reason I started writing about my experiences was as a personal record that I could read in the future when the finer detail would have faded from my poor memory. Though now this part is closure on the whole process. I relive the great parts and the deep, deep lows which I subconsciously hide from myself. So for the time being, I will continue to write in this style and if you have made it this far then well done and thanks for sharing in my experiences. I really hope that I can get across just how incredible these times are for me.

Finally I would just like to thank the superb Likeys who helped me out with so much amazing equipment which, if I hadn’t have received, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take part. Also, a huge thanks to Lou who has supported me during these, at times, selfish endeavours. It means so much. Through all the social media outlets, I received so, so much incredible support from friends and the great community that is ultrarunning. It is genuinely touching to look back through. Thank you. Thanks to John Bamber for the loan of some of his excellent photos.

Happy running.

My Winter Odyssey, Frostskade 500 – Part one

My journey back from the Spine was simple but my choice of footwear was not ideal being some pretty rigid, well supported trainers. Hardly ideal for my swollen foot, which only just squeezed in and meant that there was plenty of unwanted pressure against my tendonitis in my shin. All I wanted to do was spend every second resting my shin, hoping that it would be ready for Frostskade in a little under 2 weeks time. I wasn’t really that concerned about it, but I can’t deny there was a worrying concern locked away in a dark corner of my mind. No need to worry, just be positive.

Once home in Chamonix, I realised that I only had four days there before I headed off again! I sorted all my Spine kit out and madly begun gathering together all my gear for Frosty. Packing was not as easy as usual just because it was a completely new experience for me in a new environment. I packed pretty much all the warm weather gear I own. Would it be enough? Only time will tell. I didn’t feel underprepared but inexperienced. The distance was massive, but no concern. Just the environment. I had my massive Marmot down jacket that Likeys had most generously supplied me with which I hadn’t worn yet as it hadn’t been cold enough! This would only be worn during stops and in emergencies. I have always suffered with cold hands but believed that with mindful management and good gloves, they would be ok. I had a large pair of mittens and plenty pairs of intermediate gloves that should cover most situations.

Now, footwear was where I really didn’t know what would be best. It seems that traditionally, in Arctic races,  normal trainers with maybe some gaiters or full covers were the standard footwear. There seemed to be a fair amount of advice recommending something a little more substantial. Plus, there would apparently be large sections of the course which would be deep snow and therefore either snow shoes and/or skis would be highly recommended. I eventually decided to go for skis and I would take some snow shoes, again from Likeys. So because I had decided to use skis (which I would hire from the Frosty team), I needed appropriate footwear. I could either go with a backcountry ski boot or a soft soled very warm Arctic boot that I could use with a special binding that could take these over sized boots. I decided to go for a pair of Baffin arctic boots which I ordered from the USA. They supposedly will keep your feet warm down to -100 degrees C! That should do it.

So feeling probably more nervous about a race than ever before, I set off on my journey North to the Arctic Circle. Two flights, an overnight stay in Tromso and then a bus ride later and I had arrived in Bardufoss, the location of the start. I had nearly a week to burn before the off though. This was fine, as it meant plenty more rest for my swollen and still painful shin. We would also be doing some training sessions to make sure our Winter skills were up to the task in hand.

It was pretty cold (I thought) at -25 for most of that week. My big down jacket was being worn for every outing! Bloody hell, sleeping out in this will be pretty exciting! Bardufoss is a small town that is surrounded by mountains and the light in the sky is amazing. I took a few photos but there was no way my compact camera was going to capture this stunning light. I really was so excited to be out in the wilderness all alone with no light pollution and to see these luscious colours as they spread their way across the wide open sky above. Not long to go now!

I had met Krasse, a competitor who had also turned up early and was just hanging around. I spent a lot of my time lying on my bed, reading, dozing off (still tired from the Spine) and watching crap on the TV. Now I was here, my nerves had settled a little. I met up with Scott and Charlie in the local cafe one day which was nice. They were understandably very busy checking the course and of course a million other tasks that were popping up constantly.

A few days later we were allowed to move into the race accommodation, which was based in a little summer fishing holiday park called Malmselvfossen. 1901357_10151874436512077_1142649819_n Krasse, Mario who had travelled all the way from Argentina, and myself got a taxi there. It was colder here, and if you dropped down the 10 metres or so onto the frozen river surface it was a little colder still. Brrr! It was good to be actually at the race HQ finally. The start was still a few days off, but my nerves were feeling lots calmer now that all the traveling and my kit was all here. It was all very real and I was very excited and fortunate to be in such a beautiful part of the world in the midst of winter.

Over the next few days competitors and support crew were turning up and we all got to know each other. It was good to see that many of the superb support and safety crew from the Spine were also here. Competitor wise I only know Mark Hines before so it was great to be making lots of new ultra friends.

Soon the training got under way with practice in putting our tents up fast and efficiently. I had borrowed a tent but on my first attempted erection (stop being so immature) I realised that there were two poles missing! Not ideal, but Charlie said not to worry, he would get a replacement. No more tent drills for me! We also practised with our stoves though I had a jetboil which is simplicity in itself so was happy with that. Christian, a local chap who used to be in the military and trained different countries Armed forces in Arctic warfare gave us some excellent lectures and tips on survival in the arctic.I feel we could have spent 6 months with Christian and would still have no-where near the knowledge that he has. We also went outside and did a practical on digging snow shelters, concentrating on the most basic, the snow grave, which is exactly as it’s name implies except you don’t get into it dead and you hopefully leave it alive!

With two days remaining, I received my Pulk (sledge I drag all my gear on behind) I was hiring with its trace and harness which I set up to fit me. Time to pack it up now! I carried all my gear over from the accommodation and checked through the obligatory kit list before calling Stu, from the safety team, over to officially check everything was in order. He was happy. I just needed my tent now!

A group of us went out that night for a little ski on the frozen river just to get a feel of what it was like to ‘walk’ on the skis with my Baffin boots using the special bindings. It was simple and perfectly beautiful on the river. The light layer of snow over the ice was peppered with lots of animal prints. They looked like they had been having a party down there. Again my excitement rose as I imagined being out all alone surrounded by the creatures. Even though we were out only around 20-30 minutes, and went very slowly, the heat generated was surprising, and of course the second you stop it really feels -30!

The day before the race, I received my replacement tent from Charlie. It was a two man tunnel tent, which I was very happy about. A little extra weight was fine in my eyes if it meant plenty of sleeping space and a large porch area for snow melting and food preparation. The tunnel style of tent is also really simple and fast to erect and break down. I worked out the best way that it could be partially dismantled but still packed small enough and neat enough on top of my pulk. Once this was done, erection took less than five minutes. This was a comfort, for if I was too cold and needed shelter fast. Now I had everything and it had all been checked over, I began to pack it into the pulk trying to have some logic, and making sure that safety items could be accessed quickly and easily.

The packing didn’t seem to take too long which was nice, but then I got a little paranoid that I had done everything terribly wrong as some people seemed to never finish as they continually packed then unpacked and so on, till they had to sleep! There was one thing left to sort out and that was collecting the maps, and Scott uploading the route files to my brand new Garmin GPS. Time for our last sleep before the off in the morning.

We were up soon enough. We packed our pulks onto a trailer and climbed aboard the two minibuses that would take us into Bardufoss for the start. The local area had put on a festival for the race and there was a marquee in the centre that was serving a fine breakfast to us and the 1798475_10202033417889775_1059661148_nlocals before we set off. I ate what I could but was soon rushed outside to collect our Spot trackers and to prepare for the off which was finally almost here. It was pretty cold and I just had on a few layers with my thin Patagonia insulated top and my Arcteryx hard shell over the top. I felt cold but knew that once I got going I would be warm. I strapped on my skis and picked up my poles. This is a good time. Nothing could be done now other than participation. There was no need to worry about equipment choices or whether I had enough to stay warm, would my food supplies be adequate? It felt like this moment was never going to arrive but here I was. My shin was still quite sore but again, nothing could be done. We were off!

Once we had left the town with lots of locals out to cheer us on our way,1621748_665630943478845_822940026_n we made our way down a road for 10-15 minutes before my first challenge presented itself. We were directed away from the main road and down a lane which would take us down to the river which would be our trail for most of the first day. I decided to try and get down here with my skis on to experience how it would be with the pulk. Needless to say I found it quite difficult as the pulk would constantly want to overtake me gathering speed and trying to take me with it, while I was struggling to keep some sort of control on the skis. Well, it was all quite funny really as I fell three times and the rest I went at a crawling pace. Maybe I should remove the skis for the downs.

Once onto the river it was great to settle into a slow and steady rhythm. The field had already split up a lot as some of the whippets had shot off, though there are of course three races here, the 100 mile, the 250 mile1601288_10151874436357077_310921422_n and my event the 500 mile, so some people had 4 days ahead whereas us 500 milers had a potential 18 days ahead so the pacing strategies were going to be very different.

So what was my strategy for this one then? Well, as you know I generally don’t really have much of a strategy and the fact that this was so different than what I had done before, there was no race strategy. My focus was more on survival and making sure that I didn’t get my self in trouble. I had warmed up nicely with all the consistent, steady work on the flat river. My hands were a bit chilly but not giving me any reason for concern. My face was cold especially my cheeks, but again no cause for concern. I was excited about my first night out in such temperatures.

The cold also meant that any batteries I had needed to be kept away from the extreme cold. To do this I used my body heat, which meant I had my GPS on a cord around my neck permanently, my torch in an inner jacket pocket as well as a decent stock of spare batteries in a dry bag in another inner pocket. Not forgetting my spare petzl headtorch which was tucked in a pocket. When you added my trail snacks and my maps into the equation, my jacket was bursting at the seams with everything. Not generally how I like to travel, but it’s what has to be done in these conditions. I soon got used to it.

I had slipped into a similar pace as Krasse. Well, actually he was going a little quicker than me, but was stopping more frequently so this evened things up. I liked Krasse. He was as new to this Arctic stuff as I was, and if anything may have been a little more out of his comfort zone as his favourite type of race was desert races! I would prefer cold over heat easily. I now recognised the section of river we were approaching. It meant we were near Malmselfossen were we had been situated for the previous few days. Then as we turned a corner I saw two of the safety 1460950_10153765810950545_756204316_ncrew who were out directing. They pointed us to a section of bank where we had to leave the river for a km or so due to there being a section of the river which was too thin for us to travel on. I enjoyed this section, even if I could just about get myself up the bank on my skis. Once up though the trail through the trees was fun and beautiful. Then I realised that I would have to go back down to the river which would probably mean a descent which I would fall on. Oh well, lets just take it as it comes, and just see it as good practice! The descent was short and sweet, and I was following the two girl team of Liv, a Norwegian guide and Karin from Denmark who both seemed pretty adept on their skis with their pulks,  both of which were not on a rope like me but on solid bars so that they had control of it on the downhills. They glided down the small slope with ease giving me confidence. I stopped at the top and knew that I could get down it without the pulk no problem, but knew that once I started the pulk would overtake and possibly take control i.e. pull me down. My prediction was accurate!

Back on the river and we skirted around some thinner sections of ice 1488762_10202033454930701_291978552_nand soon the whole river was rock solid again. Krasse had pulled ahead a little and I was alone again. I started to hear dogs whining to my right, and then suddenly a team dragging a man on a sled shot over the bank and down onto the river. The driver looked over and waved as the dogs sped along. It looked great fun and surprisingly quick. He did a large u turn before disappearing back over the river bank. 10 minutes later I could just about make out a gathering ahead around two cars. Was this the Frostskade crew? Probably. I saw a group of six leave and head up river. This I guessed was the French as there were 6 of them and they had stuck together over the training days.

As I got closer I could see that this was not our crew. They had a fire going in a metal stand which I stopped at for a minute. Krasse was here already, and once I noticed that this was not a Frosty set up, I moved on. My shin was no issue on this flat surface, which was calming seeing as it had most certainly not recovered well.

I slid along through the frozen, stark landscape. The sky was beautiful all the time and when I stopped I would be met with complete silence. A large bend in the river was approaching and as I came around it, I saw ahead the French and Krasse who had passed me again earlier. When I got there they were clearly unsure about the next direction. I arrived and got my GPS out. I thought we just stayed on the river till we were directed off by markers? The French all made a decision and shot off leaving the river and heading off on a skidoo trail that wasn’t marked by the team. A few more people arrived as Krasse and I checked maps and GPS units. While we were stopped I got cold hands and pulled out my big mittens. We finally decided to follow the river. The French had gone wrong. Sure enough they all appeared out from the trees where they had entered and slowly passed me.

My hands soon warmed up nice and toasty and the rhythm commenced. Krasse and I were now together again and the French had gone ahead and the other guys that had caught up had dropped back. We now stuck together. The daylight hours would soon be coming to a close. We soon caught up Team France again as they debated their next move. I felt happy which way to go. We stopped and I showed them on the map where we were. We still had a long way to go before the first cp. Today’s progress had been exceptionally slow so far and seeing as it had mostly been perfectly flat with no real issues, it was only going to slow if anything!

I mounted my Petzl here, which was an old discontinued Myo xp with a remote battery unit. This was the first headtorch I bought when I first started ultrarunning. I bought a remote battery torch because even back then I dreamed of doing an Arctic ultra! At last it’s time had come! These are better because you can keep the batteries in a warm pocket making them last lots longer. Team France had obviously finally agreed with our route as they were now chasing behind. I was starting to feel the need to see the marker that would direct us off the river. I had had enough of this river now.

Just before team France caught us again I spotted two marker sticks that marked our river exit point. Once off the river, we stopped for a quick drinks stop and let the French pass. There was only around a km of trail before we spilled out onto a road. There was snow at the side so we left our skis on and continued down the road. This road section seemed to go on for a long time till eventually people started to pass us. They were on foot. I decided to remove my skis as there was obviously quite a bit more road and being on foot was far quicker than my skiing. It was good to be on my feet, as my boots really gripped the snow and ice well so I could just stride out with a confidence that I wouldn’t slip.

By this stage I was all alone again and it was completely dark. Although we were on a road, there were barely any cars around so it was really peaceful and not as cold as earlier now that we were away from the river. There was a little colour in the sky above but it was barely noticeable. The Northern Lights! They had been like this a few nights before. I really wanted them to progress and brighten tonight. Within minutes I was sure there was a change. I didn’t trust my sight and I was 1912250_10202033461090855_1120175740_nquite tired now, but I kept my eyes looking up eagerly. Now I was sure, it was certainly brightening and it moving fluidly across the sky. Brighter and brighter the green glow got until it was the most glorious sight I have been lucky enough to see. It was so spectacularly beautiful and psychedelic that I could die now and my life would feel complete. Well, ok maybe that is a slight exaggeration, as I still had to finish this race!

After an hour or more of this wonderful light show, it began to fade a little. I was still on the road and hadn’t seen a car for ages now, when a pickup approached me and stopped directly in front of me blocking my way. I stopped and stared into the bright lights as someone jumped out and walked my way. It was Charlie. He told me who was up ahead and how far. Apparently the French were about 1 km ahead. It was interesting but not in the same way as this sort of data would excite me in a race where I was actually competitive. But I was again running and trying my best to be disciplined and just stick to my pace. Charlie also informed me that in 5km I would turn off the road and then 5km later I would be at the first CP! Where was I planning to stop he asked. I would definitely get to the CP and depending how I felt I would camp or push on. I said goodbye and carried on down the icy road.

An hour later, yes 5km per hour, I left the road and within 100 metres I passed Team France who were just starting to set up camp. I knew that the next 5km to the CP were up hill and I really wanted to get stuck into this before I called it a day. As soon as I passed the French the path kicked up and immediately I felt the pulk working against me. It felt good to be off the road and on hillier ground. The climb was decent and sustained which got me warmed up very nicely. I soon saw two lights up ahead and caught them fairly quickly. Who could this be? It was Liv and Karin. I’m not sure exactly how they got ahead of me, but I know that Liv had some proper maps of the course so could make more informed route plans. The printouts we had been given were ok but on a massive scale so plenty of land features were lost.

I said hi and passed them on a steeper section. The higher I got the stronger the wind got until eventually the trail levelled out a little and the wind was strong and fresh. Not a great place to pitch a tent here! I eventually came out of the trees and was then passing over a frozen lake where the wind was very strong and in my face. Not very pleasant! A short climb out of the lake at the other side and there right in front of me was the CP tent. I walked up to it and shouted out. Stu was inside and he asked me if I was going to camp here. I said yes, but after a walk around the local area I decided it was too windy so informed him I was going to move on. After 5 minutes I found a spot that was a lot quieter. I stamped out an area larger than my tent and pitched it. I soon had the stove on melting snow. I prepared two freeze dried meals with the water and within minutes had emptied them both. Time to sleep!

Sleeping arrangements in the arctic. Just get into your bag and get cosy and sleep right? Close, but not quite. Batteries need to stay warm of course, so they come in the bag with you. The liners from my boots are wet from sweat so they don’t want to get cold as they’ll freeze. In they come! My gas for the stove is more efficient when warm. My big mittens are a little damp so they come in. If I have any excess water from my snow melting, then the flask/flasks come in to. It gets pretty cosy in there as you can imagine!

I slept for a solid 7 hours that night, waking to the alarm I’d set on my Garmin. I laid there for a minute as I took in where I was and what I was doing. I felt good and was really happy to be taking part in something in the Arctic circle after many years thinking about it. Right time to move, and move quick. I was warm in my sleeping bag. I say my sleeping bag, but I must point out that it was in fact Mark Hines’ bag as I just couldn’t afford one and Mark very generously offered to loan me one of his amazingly warm Rab bags. If and when I get an Arctic bag of my own, it will no doubt be a Rab. I heated some water, still in my bag, for breakfast and then melted snow to top up my litre and half-litre flasks for the day ahead. Once breakfast was done with it was time to crawl out of my bag. The cold doesn’t let you hang around! Fortunately I felt fine with this from all my winter bivvying I’ve done. Within 10 minutes, everything was packed up and I was clipping the carabiner onto my harness that attached me to my beloved pulk. It had been light for less than an hour so I would make good use of the day. I still had some uphill before it levelled out a little which was great for warming me.

Today’s aim was to climb up a valley surrounded by the mountains before dropping to CP2 then following another valley. Shouldn’t be too challenging! The wind proved to be strong and cutting for the duration. It was again a head wind so my hood was tightened down as much as1898025_10151874436772077_902248599_n possible. I followed no path, beating my own through the wind scoured snow. I was constantly looking at maps and my GPS to confirm. Route finding was not too difficult overall, but picking the easiest route and the one that wouldn’t lead you into some challenging dips was very difficult. The ups were technically easy though of course slow, but the downs were difficult with the pulk, even though I now was off the skis. My pulk had a mind of it’s own. It was like taking a large, very strong, completely untrained dog out for a walk. I soon named it ‘little bastard’ as this is what normally spouted out my mouth as I spoke to it during difficult sections

As I climbed to a section of a ridge, the wind grew to hurricane strength and was blowing spindrift at me like I was being sand-blasted. I pushed hard here as I wanted to get out of the wind. It dropped a little but not a great deal as it was funnelled down the valley I was trekking up. After most of the daylight hours traveling up the valley I saw ahead the two figures of Liv and Karin. I trailed behind for an hour before they stopped and started pitching their tent. I stopped to chat and to make sure they were ok. They were good and were just providing some shelter for a little break before pushing on. I found out the Mark had pulled out here due to his hand that he had fractured during The Spine.

I left them to it continuing down the mountainous valley. A couple of hours later and I was descending a gentle slope which would take me to CP 2 which was again a tent manned by John and the race Dr, Nick. I crawled in and sat in the shelter out of the wind. Absolute bliss! The wind had been relentless today. My head torch had been on for about 10 minutes already, but I changed the batteries now, while I was in the heavenly shelter. John loaded me up with hot tea which went down a treat. They informed me that Karl Hinett, a 100 miler had just left, literally while I was there and that Jin, a 500 miler had passed through a few hours ago. I was in third place! I was a little surprised to say the least, but felt happy with my pace and of course knew just how early in the race it was. Pretty meaningless really.  I thanked the guys for their hospitality and moved out into the cold darkness. The next section was a simple ‘follow the valley’ again. As long as I was in the right valley nothing could go wrong.

Route finding, well, good route finding, is difficult when it’s pitch black and all you have are maps with no decent detail. I was climbing and descending a lot and occasionally hitting some deeper snow which slowed me a little. I checked plenty to make sure I wasn’t going badly wrong so was happy that what progress I was making was good progress. I was thankful that this section seemed to be quite sheltered from the wind and if anything things seemed very quiet. I felt very alone and was rather enjoying it. I continued till around 2330-2400 before starting the camp procedure. I had relative shelter and with plenty of snow heaped on the valances, I achieved a nice fairly airtight tent. Now I was in my second night, I knew exactly what to do, and in what order. I was happy to get into my sack for some well earned rest.

I awoke and when I got to see the landscape that surrounded me, I was surprised as the previous night my imagination had cobbled something very different. I was slightly up from the bottom of the valley on a very gentle slope. There were trees around but these were sparse. As I got on my way again the morning was bright and calm and soon the sky was turning beautiful hues of orange as the sun attempted to show itself again, which was reflecting off the snow. I took a few photos and 1621986_10151874437092077_222044049_nwondered whether I would be graced with the sun today. I hadn’t seen it at all yet during the race. It was coming above the horizon this far up North but only just so if there was a hill or mountain it wouldn’t quite make it. The glow was beautiful and really inspired me to push on this morning.

After a couple of hours of plodding through the snow, I found myself in some very deep powder, so I stopped and pulled my snowshoes out of the pulk. I struggled to fit them to my boots due to the width of them but was soon off not sinking anywhere near as much as before. This was short lived though as they soon worked loose. They just weren’t designed to fit these monster boots. I looked them over seeing if there would be a way to bodge it with tape, but decided that I didn’t want them permanently stuck to my boots. I packed them back away and pulled the skis out and strapped them on. Within 20 strides my foot came loose of the ski. On inspection I realised that the binding had snapped! Again, I saw no solution to this with the materials I had to hand, so packed them away and continued trudging through the snow.

I was of course frustrated with these turns of events but worked hard to not let the negative thoughts take charge. I was still going ok, and I was sure that as soon as I moved away from the river I would leave behind the deeper snow. Thankfully the snow did become a little easier to get through but this was short lived as I entered some woodland where the snow was very deep. Now things got really tough! The woods got denser and the land was far from flat. When you could see far ahead up the valley you could see that there were mounds all the way up and no possible route you could use that would miss this out. I think I may have sworn once or twice here.

I was constantly sinking into deep snow and the little bastard was really living up to his name! It was banging into the back of my legs, overtaking me and dragging me down, going the wrong side of trees meaning I would have to back track and drag it out which was very tiring. That was just the downhill sections! The ups were of course difficult and slow. 1795532_10151874437112077_1495273766_nCombine the two and progress was barely existent. I would guess that I was hovering somewhere near the 1kmh along this section. This was not great mentally. I was not too far from the front of the whole race and we were nowhere near where Scott guessed the first person would be by the end of day one! Things were slower and harder than expected.

After a few hours of this I found myself closer to the river. I looked up and down this section as much as I could and saw no open water or thin looking sections so decided to try this freeway. It was fantastic! Nice and flat and no trees! Then I heard a hollow sound and I suddenly dropped through the ice. I was surprised at how quick I scrambled out! I looked down at the large hole I had made, and saw that the water level was about half a metre below the ice which is why I was feeling dry. A few minutes later I did the same again and resigned to the fact that I needed to head off the river and back into the woodland. I knew from my map that eventually I would need to go right, so I switched sides from the laborious left which I’d been on all day to the right and was met with deep snow again. Then I noticed some fresh ski tracks. They were heading in the right direction so I took advantage of the beaten trail, though still sinking deeply.

I followed the tracks back down to the river. There appeared to be three sets of ski tracks which was a little puzzling as I initially thought it would be the girls. Who else could it be on skis? I followed the their trail as it snaked it’s way down the river keeping to the thickest ice and obviously steering well clear of thinner sections of which there were many. I felt safe and things only got difficult as the thin ice forced me onto the bank briefly and back into the deep snow. I was a little envious of the trail from the skiers that left a shallow trail through the snow as I sunk up to my thighs and sometimes deeper. Soon though I spotted them ahead. It was the girls and the Norwegian Lief.  Lief was in the 250 mile event. They eventually stopped to have a mini break and I now caught them up. We chatted about the tough trail, and about my ski and snowshoe bad luck. As far as we could work out, there were two in front of us, Jin and Karl and as far as we could work out they were on the left bank which by now was a small cliff which you could not safely come down. I was glad for being on the river.

A little further on, the river became a little too sketchy to travel on, so Liv, using her map directed us over the land again. The snow was deep and I was sinking very deep with every foot step. The skiers were gliding along ahead with relative ease. I decided to try single ski skiing. Surely it would be better than my current situation? It wasn’t the most efficient ways of moving, but it was much better than before. I began to make more progress and soon caught up with the girls. I must have looked quite special limping along on one ski! I let them go ahead and now there was a fairly steep descent down to another river. I half skied and half fell down here with my (un)faithful friend making things that little more challenging. I was soon back on a river which was solid and safely frozen. After a short while on this, it was time for a nice challenging up hill. Even the Norwegians took their skis off for this one! This was a real grind up here. It was only a short distance but seeing as very little if any real momentum could be gained due to the pulk pulling back on you, It took a long time. Finally after much hard graft, I caught a smell of a fire and soon saw the warm and friendly looking glow of the Dividalshytta hut.

The warmth that hit me on entering was glorious. I was keen to get my boots off and dry my feet of and warm them up. Even though they are high boots with a snow skirt, the snow had been deeper a lot during the day and some had crept in making my feet very wet and cold. Soon they were glowing warm and my boots were steaming away. Scotts partner, Solveig was manning the hut and looked after me the girls, Leif and the French who had caught us up on the climb. I think we were all a little surprised that we were the first to the hut. I ate two freeze dried meals straight away and then just sat there enjoying the stories and the warmth. It had been an epic for everyone today. There were no shortcuts. Soon people started bedding down for some sleep. I sat there longer, before realising that I should also have a little sleep. All the beds were taken by this stage but Solveig took me to the other hut that was empty and quiet. I lay down setting my alarm for 0600. I soon realised that sleep wasn’t coming. I waited longer, but soon decided that I should move on. I had been resting for around 5 hours in total. I wandered back to the hut and quietly prepared to move, trying not to wake those sleeping. I filled my flasks with hot water. I thanked Solveig for her hospitality, stepped outside clipped onto the little bastard and was off. It was 0100 in the morning.

Continued in part two

The Beast that is The Spine

When I had committed to do the Frostskade 500 mile race this time last year I was very excited and nervous. This was something new. Something far out of my comfort zone.PenineBut I have long wanted to travel to the polar regions so overall the excitement was strongest. Then the 2013 Spine race unfolded and like many other runners I followed it on the internet and was sucked into the adventure. I wanted to run it. Could I do both in 2014? I checked the dates. There was a slim but just-about-enough two week gap between the end of the Spine and the start of Frostskade. If I could drag myself through the Spine and not pick up any long term injuries then I would be good for Frosty. I totally believe the double is possible and I believe that as long as I could deal with the cold climate well, I could do it.

After nearly a year of doubting my own sanity, stage one of my winter adventure had arrived. My nervousness for the Spine was pleasantly overshadowed by Frosty as the spare bed slowly started getting an organised spread of gear in the week leading up to it. I thought I would get everything into my large rucksack but ended up having to take my large wheeled suitcase which was a godsend on the return journey when I was exhausted.

I flew over on the Thursday and had plans to use some of Stu the race medics floor for the night. It was raining and cold when I arrived at Edale, the picturesque and tiny village that is at the southern end of the Pennine Way. I wandered up and down the road for a while looking for any sign of a race. Oh my god! I checked my watch, it was Thursday. I checked my emails. I was a whole day out. The race started on Saturday not Friday. Nothing was happening tonight and more importantly I had nowhere to sleep for the night! What an idiot! There are two pubs and one of those was closed for the week so to get out of the cold wet night I made my way in. It was cosy and the fire crackled. I ordered a pint and asked if they had any free rooms. Surprisingly they had a free one but it wasn’t cheap. I said I would mull it over while I warmed up and dried off supping my ale. Then Andrew Hayes wanders up to the bar and orders a couple of cokes. I say hi and soon enough he has most kindly offered my his spare bed in the room her has in the pub we are in. What a star and thank god for that! I was seriously considering camping out in the already saturated fields.

The next day was a relaxed affair with a steady stream of runners and supporters arriving at the village. Having lived in France for a while now, I hadn’t seen many people from the UK ultra scene much so it was really nice to meet up with old friends and meet some new ones. I had two pub meals during the day making sure I was stocked up for the race which would begin the next morning. There were three briefings due to the size of the village hall and I was on the second. This was thorough, covering all the bases. We were also told about the trackers we would be carrying. They would be a ‘set up and leave’ unit which should have enough power to last the whole week. Time to get to bed.

My mind was now fully on the Spine and away from Frostskade. I was excited and calm. I hadn’t really done anything like this yet, but the experience I did have felt enough to keep me confident. I could do this, but failure was always possible. I would need to keep my wits about me and look after my body if I was going to finish this beast.

I slept well and woke early. It was too early to take advantage of the pubs breakfast, but they had kindly left some cereal and juice on a table for us. Back at the village hall and the place was bustling with activity. I needed to have my bag checked for the obligatory equipment, but was then left waiting for the start. I waited outside where it was a little chilly. I was wearing tights from the off. Not normal for me, but due to the length of this one, I figured shorts would be no use. I put my Montane waterproof jacket on to keep the wind off me. Then a light rain started. Nothing much but it was enough to prompt me to put my Waterproof trousers on. Thankfully the start arrived and we all headed over to the official start line. As I looked ahead up the hills in the direction we would be travelling, the sky looked very dark and angry. I was glad to be wearing all my waterproof kit.

We were finally off. Some people walked and of course some people shot off at a surely unsustainable pace. I loped off at a comfortable speed. The start of these longer races is all about not getting excited and following others paces. Run your own race. I also had to remember that my main aim here was to finish in a somewhat reasonable state so that I would be good for Frostskade. Strictly no racing!

After 1km we turned off the road and were on the Pennine Way official. It was very wet and muddy. This was going to be a real test on the feet. I had decided to wear my Scott Kinabalu T2 shoes which are a very comfortable slipper like shoe with plenty of protection and are not waterproof. I had waterproof shoes in my drop bag, but knew that waterproof shoes are totally useless when it’s this wet as the top lets in water. The issue then is that the water can’t escape, and over time your feet start to rot. Your feet shrivel so much that any pressure on them becomes extremely painful. My feet were almost immediately wet with the Scotts, but the water would drain freely and air could get through keeping my skin fairly healthy.

Within 10 minutes of climbing, the rain was replaced with sleet that was blowing straight into our faces. Then just as soon as I had realised it was sleeting, it became snow. It was coming down in large sticky flakes that began to settle everywhere. I pulled the cords on my hood tight to leave an opening that was just about large enough to see through. I passed lots of people who hadn’t had tights or waterproof trousers on as the rushed to pull them on over their trainers. I felt happy that I had for once made a sound decision.P1030084

Once on the top of Kinder Scout it was remarkably white and the visibility was around 40 metres. A was all alone and slowly made my way along the exposed top. My pace was very slow and steady at this point, and the low visibility giving me the impression of being all alone really helped me to slip into my own natural pace. I was plenty warm enough but certainly not overheating, so was very happy to be in my waterproofs. I wandered when or if indeed if they would come off again. Mark Caldwell eventually caught me up and ran behind me for a while. We were now on the notorious slabs. For those that haven’t been on a National Trail that has been furnished with these slabs, huge lengths of the footpath have had these huge slabs of around one metre wide by two metres long making a foolproof hard path to follow. The advantages are obvious, such as navigation becomes super simple and the ground under foot is hard and fast, though a fair amount was under water due to the amount of rain over the previous few weeks. The reason I say notorious, is because they are very slippery when wet, which is pretty much all the time. I don’t think I fell once on the slabs over the week, but it certainly affects my style. I feel a little more tense as I preempt a possible fall.

We soon crossed the A57. I felt no need to stop so just continued to hold my steady pace. Mark started to pull away a little here. I repeated my mantra ‘I will not race’ in my head as I watched him slowly pull away into the cloud before disappearing.

Soon I began to drop down out of the cloud and with it the snow. I could see some runners up ahead and one behind. The descent was fairly long down to Torside Reservoir and once at the bottom, I called my number out to the crew who were waiting, and continued again without stopping. As I crossed over the reservoir, I stopped running and walked so that I could take on some food and water. My legs felt quite fatigued by this stage but I had been going for a few hours now and I hadn’t really been running a great deal lately so was expecting this. This would pass in a day or two. No need to panic.

I was familiar with the first 70 miles of the Pennine Way as I had run it with Drew Sheffield a few years previously. This is always nice as you know how hard it is and can prepare mentally. Of course, after this I had no real idea so would just have to take it with caution, with should be no problem due to the fact that I wasn’t racing.

The no racing thing was a pleasant change for me. I like to race, and push my body hard, but Frostskade had forced this state on me. The question is, could I really be non-competitive? It is a very natural thing to chase people down who are ahead and to speed up if someone appears behind, but I knew that I can be pretty disciplined when it comes to holding my own pace regardless of those around me. Could I be this disciplined for a week? Probably not completely, but I was confidant I could enough for self preservation for Frostskade. Either way, there was a distinct difference in the amount of pressure I felt on my shoulders. This was good.

I was now climbing again and soon I caught someone very quickly. Surely an injury? Sure enough, he explained that he had fallen on the dreaded slabs and smashed his hip. I wished him my best and continued.

The weather now was overcast but dry. Perfect running weather. I was really enjoying running back in the UK during the winter. Harsh but fun.

The visibility was now pretty good and ahead I could see plenty of runners and ahead further still the A635. There were a number of support crews waiting here. I passed them by and headed straight towards the burger van where a small crowd of runners were already waiting for there orders of tea and sausage and bacon rolls. I too ordered a sausage bap while chatting to a few of the guys. Two of them being Andrew Burton and Charlie Sproson. They shot off before my sausage bap was ready, but I would be seeing them again. Once I had my heavenly bap in my hand, I walked off up the road eating it quickly. It was gone in a flash and I knew that I was perhaps a little too hungry so I opened up a 9bar and ate that too.

The going was slow and very wet under foot, but steadily I was having to refold my map as I progressed along it. I checked my watch and realised that soon enough I would be entering the first of the long dark winter nights. My Petzl went on just before I passed over the footbridge that spans the M62. I looked down at the cars as the sped past wondering where their journeys were taking them and how different mine was. I was happy not to be in a car but out in the wild winter, fending for myself. I really love being out in the wild in the elements that batter you and constantly remind you how vulnerable you are on the one hand but also just how much you can deal with when managed correctly.

Next up was the crossing of the A58. By this stage I had joined back up with Mark and also a Portugese chap. Thge clag over blackstone edge was super thick and even though the trail was well worn it was difficult to follow. We soon found our way down to Broad Head Drain and followed it all the way to the road. There is a pub here where a cp was set up in the car park. I gratefully accepted some coffee here and some mince pies. Mark was going straight into the pub to refuel. I repeated my mantra and also reminded myself of the length of this thing before following his lead.

Inside it was warm and cosy. I sat at the bar and ordered a coffee and a plate of chips, before prepping myself for the next section. I put on another thermal top. I wasn’t cold really but had noticed a slight drop in my temperature. Better to manage these things in a comfortable environment if available than out in the dark, cold, windy night. There were a few support crews in the pub waiting for their runners to come through. We chatted and they told us how well the trackers were working. They asked what our numbers were and said they had been following us on their phones.

The trackers really added a strange dimension to the event. When all alone in the dark on the trail, there was a chance that some staff and friends, family, supporters or in fact anyone who has an internet connection, could be watching your little dot on the screen as it slowly wanders along the trail. People would know when you stop for a minute, slow, speed up, stop to sleep etc. Usually in overnight events, no-one really knows exactly where you are. This seemed quite surreal to me at times. Especially when lost or confused.

I was glad for the pub stop and was eager to continue. Mark and I left together. We passed the unseen reservoirs in the darkness. The first cp was getting closer. I had no real plan other than wanting to reach this point at a minimum in one go. Even this plan was open though as my level of fatigue, ground and the weather were all contributing factors. By the time I had reached the final climb that would take me to Hebden Bridge, Mark and I were separated again. The climb is steep and muddy which had me sliding around in my Scott shoes. As I walked I ate another 9Bar. My mind now shifted to the cp as I imagined a bustling building with my dropbag, warmth and hot food.

A short jog down the road once at the top of the hill and then a slimy fairly steep descent down to the cp. All I could think as I dropped further and further down was that I would have to come back up this.

The cp was glorious. I picked up my bag before heading over to the main block, slid off my sopping wet, caked in mud shoes. then headed in. I packed a couple of Ginsters pasties into my bag and topped up my 9Bar supplies. Then popped into the dining area where I was treated to a delicious hot meal with plenty of tea. I was feeling pretty good overall and was happy with my progress. Some people were stopping here to have a sleep before moving on. The next section was around 100km to the next cp, making it by far the furthest. I decided to push on and take a chunk out of it before camping. It was here that I saw Andrew and Charlie again. They had come in before me and had the same plan. They left just before me, but I soon caught them up.

After a little bit of leap-frogging, we ended up being a trio. The company was good as we worked away into the small hours. The temperature had dropped quite a bit and the prospect of bivvying didn’t seem fantastic. Thankfully Charlie informed me that he had a three man tent and that I was welcome to share with them if I wanted. We traveled a further two or three hours before the tiredness took control and demanded to sleep. Within half an hour we were all cosy in the teepee style tent. I was lovely and warm but apparently on waking I discovered that Andrew and Charlie were a little chilly due to their roll mats not keeping the adequately off the ground. We ate some food and packed up ready to move rather smartish, encouraged by the cold. It was just about starting to get light so we would maximise our use of daylight hours. Perfect!

The sky grew slowly brighter as the new day, day 2, dawned. The P1030087colours which appeared and changed as we watched the sun slowly creep up were just stunning. They put a spring in my stride. I hoped that I would be fortunate to get a light show when I was in Scandinavia.

Our next target was Gargrave. This was not a cp, but there was a shop here and a cafe which we would most certainly be using. The company was good but the going was a bit of a slog. In hindsight I think this was down to our sleep being not quite enough. On the last stretch the land is low but very exposed and the wind was in our faces. I was feeling cold and was not generating much warmth. Come on Gargrave!

Gargrave was actually the stopping point of the run I had done previously and therefore the limit of my knowledge. Once over the bridge we headed straight for the little tea shop. It was very busy inside and very warm, but we found a table and straight away ordered a pot of tea for three. Gary Morrison and Richard Lendon were sat opposite finishing off a full english breakfast. These two had a wealth of Spine experience between them. I too ordered a fry up and demolished it in seconds. I had warmed up quickly and was happy with how my body was operating. Andrew too had warmed up quick, but Charlie was struggling with heat regulation feeling cold all the time. He wanted to hold back with some of his clothing so that he had something more to put on later in the night when the temperature would no doubt drop again, but I told him to put on everything if needs be. Don’t get cold waiting.

After a rejuvenating hour in the cafe we headed back out but before anything we stopped by the Coop and stocked up on some food. There was still a long way to go on this next section and to help break this up there would be an intermediate cp, 1.5, just before Malham Tarn. This would be in a large tent. Before this though we had the short but steep climb that took us up the side of the dramatic Malham Cove. My Petzl was once again on by the time I had reached the top. The clag had also descended again, which gave a surreal feeling as I hopped cautiously over the lunar landscape on the top.

The wind had picked up again and we were back to hood up, head down progress. The road crossing came and the oasis of cp 1.5 soon enough appeared out of the cloud. We squeezed in and then started faffing a bit. I had a coffee and was eager to continue. Our group had grown from 3 to 5 or maybe 6 by this stage. There was the first signs of rain when we left. This could be interesting.

It was now time to head up into the highland. First up, the long climb up Fountains Fell. I enjoyed this climb, sticking either at the front or near the front of large group. Once over the top it was onto the rather dicey, very icey descent. I couldn’t step on any rock as they had a hard verglas over the top making them lethal, so instead hunting out any snowy areas. The group was starting to break up here. Conditions were challenging but fun. Once down from Fountains Fell, we had a short road section before heading straight back up again. This time up the mighty Pen-Y-Ghent. The group was now very strung out, but I couldn’t hang around waiting. I was warm enough but needed to keep moving. The last section of light scrambling at the top was fun and soon enough I was on the top in very strong winds. I wanted to get down quickly to get out of this exposure.

Near the bottom of the descent there is a path I needed to take to cut off a few km’s going to Horton in Ribblesdale. We were of course allowed. I didn’t fancy missing it and getting in some extra time. Thankfully I found it and continued. I soon joined back up with the main path. The footing was often deep water and the wind and rain were invigorating to say the least. I now was with my Portugese friend. I stopped for a second and straight away he stopped and asked me to help him. His hands were cold and he was struggling getting his bag open to get a warmer jacket out. I helped him with his bag then with his zip. We moved on.

I then saw a light approach us ahead. A supporter maybe? They held the gate open for us, I thanked them then as we started running again, he asked if either of us was Neil. I responded positively but rather confused. Who on Earth could this be? It was my friend Matt Neale. I had first met Matt a few years back at the Trans Gran Canaria, and had raced together at the Fellsman. Matt lives local and works for the National Parks. He know the hills well! Matt was a blessing. We chatted away which of course chipped away at the Km’s and took my mind away from the foul conditions. We were now on a short section of road and Matt informed me that his car was parked close by so would be saying goodbye. We were then confronted with two runners ahead who appeared to be stationary. Once there I saw that is was Richard Lendon and Jacqueline Cooper. Richard looked very disoriented and cold. He wanted to stop there. Jacqueline had found him confused and was looking after him and in the process getting cold. Matt took Richard into his car to warm up and I walked with Jacqueline for a while as we made our way along the West cam road trail. We were getting severely battered from our left side by a cold wind which cut right through. Once I was happy that Jacqueline was warm I slowly moved on, hoping that we would find shelter from the terrible wind shortly down the trail.

I soon found my way onto a trail that had dropped down to early and had to cut straight back up a steep section of hill to intercept the correct trail. Once there I bumped back into Jacqueline again explaining my error and with such a short distance remaining to Hawes, the next cp, we stayed together. Jacquelines husband then met us and ran with us down the final section through incredibly boggy fields but thankfully out of the screaming wind to the town of Hawes.

CP2! Phew, that was exciting. Hawes was the end of the shorter challenger race so many people would be finishing here. I suspected that the foul conditions would end some races early too. As I painfully pulled off my drenched, mud covered shoes, I noticed Andrew and Charlie sat looking very comfortable. We spoke and I learnt that they had decided to drop not long after I lost them. A real shame.

I now needed to eat plenty and try to get some sleep.  I had a bag explosion as I absent-mindedly tryed to sort my self out. I ate two plates of hot food and copious amounts of tea and coffee. I watched as a slow drip of runners entered the hall, usually commenting on the atrocious conditions. The medics and doctors were being kept very busy with cleaning peoples feet, dealing with blisters and dressing them to hopefully make them last for the next 150 odd miles. I took a handful of peanuts from the table grabbed my sleeping bag and mat and found a spot among the dropbags to settle down for a rest for a few hours. It was pretty noisy, as there was so much going on in one large room, but I think I dozed off for a little while.

On waking I cleaned my feet off which I obviously should have done before sleep, then had them dressed by the Dr as I had some sore spots which I was a little concerned about, then I slowly packed up and was saying my goodbyes as I pushed open the doors and felt the cold wind blow against me once again.

I was soon climbing the long ascent up Great Shunner Fell. I had great visibility here and felt all alone as I couldn’t see another soul. What a great way to start the day. The day was a long and productive day spent all alone. The weather was blowy and fresh but as long as I kept moving I was fine. During today’s leg I would be passing the Tan Hill pub and I had every intention of stopping there for a while and getting some hot food in me. I arrived without seeing anyone in front or behind. I am not a religious man but I had been praying that the bar was still doing food and sure enough I was told by the lovely barmaid that if I ordered quick I would just about make it. I ordered some soup and sausage and chips. I’m not sure why I ordered the soup. Panic buying I guess. I had my bag checked here to check I had some obligatory kit from some of the race crew. I was probably in here close to an hour. Once I had finished my food, I made my way back out. The next few miles were through marshland where the water table was at around ankle depth for the whole way. Not too pleasant!

Navigation was pretty straightforward during the daylight hours, but as soon as darkness fell a little more concentration was needed as there were large sections of open moorland where the path was barely visible and it was easy to find yourself following sheep trods. All went well though and I felt good, but just near the end the clag came down and visibility became just a few metres and I needed to negotiate my way through a section of fields with many dry stone walls. I got a bit lost as I clambered over wall after wall, finally making it out the other end and back on course. A quick jog through the sleepy town and I had arrived at CP 3.

All was quiet at the CP. I sat and ate a load of hot food. before finding a shower and making myself feel just a little bit like a normal human being, then trying to sleep on a bunk. I was struggling to get any quality sleep for some reason. Maybe my mind was just too wired to relax. I was resting for around 5 hours a day, of which 3 where spent horizontal. Just not enough for my mind to rest and give me adequate sleep. My shin had been a bit sore today as I felt the beginnings of anterior tibialis tendinitis setting in. I hadn’t suffered badly from this for a long time. Hopefully it wouldn’t progress too much else it would be crippling, bringing me to a desperately painful and slow lurch. I would just have to go careful on it.

Once awake, I prepped my kit and stepped back out to battle on. Todays section started off following the river. It was a bit chilly today. I was moving quite well and was following some footprints that seemed fresher and fresher. Was I about to catch someone? Then I saw two people in the distance. I gained on them very quickly. They were obviously going through a rough patch. I soon recognised Andy Mouncey and Simon Beasley. Andy didn’t look in great shape and I noticed he had on full winter mittens. He must really be feeling the cold. I wished them luck as I passed them on a section demanded scrambling over large boulders.

I next was confronted by a rather lively Cauldon Snout waterfall. The ‘trail’ takes you up the side of it on an exciting little scramble then over a footbridge over it before continuing. Following this was some moorland with fairly deep snow and a big drop in visibility. Once the clag lifted just about enough to see the incredible dramatic High Cup Nick. The trail now took me down for a long time. During this descent my shin began to deteriorate a bit more. I hobbled a little. I couldn’t wait to get on an ascent!

I decided that the village at the bottom, Dufton, looked potentially large enough to have a cafe or pub where I could get some food. I took a detour which ended up with me running around in circles getting a little frustrated and finally giving up and cursing myself for wasting so much time and energy. Then when I was back on course again, I saw Tom Jones set up with his van as a intermediate cp. Excellent! Andrew Burton was also there with plenty of food treats. What a star. Andrew said that he would follow as long as life would allow and I would see him at the occasional road crossing.

While I was here stuffing food into my mouth, Andy Mouncey approached Tom and told him that he was done. I knew how much Andy had put into this and this touched me. He wished me luck and I pushed on alone. The climb up to Cross Fell would take around 5 hours and would take us right back up above the snow line in the darkness. As I climbed the weather broke down and the snow got deeper and deeper. Then it got dark and visibility dropped. The GPS was being checked regularly with a cross reference of the map. My head torch was necessary but also a hindrance as it just lit up the snow and spindrift as it swirled violently in my face. I noticed a light approaching from behind. It didn’t take long for it to catch me. It was Simon who had been with Andy. We stuck together for the company and the added safety. Once at the top of Cross Fell, we dropped down for a short distance and then suddenly you come to a bothy, Gregs hut. Inside were john and Phil who plied us with countless hot drinks and noodles. It was a real haven from the ferocious wind and snow which was painfully blown into our faces. It was soon time to leave though.

Once back out there I instantly begun to shiver. I started to run and didn’t stop so as to generate some heat to counter the cutting wind. Warmth eventually came but it seemed to take forever to drop low enough so as the wind would no longer be so strong. We then followed another boggy section near a river and finally with a bit of unplanned bush whacking, we spilled out onto the road just down from the next CP.

My shin was really sore now, and once my shoe was off I noticed a large amount of swelling on my ankle. What had certainly not helped was that I had been wearing Skins compression tights (only because they were the only tights I own) which had prevented swelling on the skin they covered but directly below my ankle had swelled like a balloon. I couldn’t use these tights anymore. I really needed something loose. Thankfully Mark Hines was there to the rescue and gave me two pairs of thermal tights that were not too tight around the ankle. Perfect! Well not a lot I could do other than keep it up when possible. I showered again and had a meal before collapsing in a bunk for a couple of hours.

Simon and I both woke at the same time and decided to start together. Our pacing seemed fairly evenly matched and the company was great for passing the time and taking my mind off the pain. Within a few hours we saw Andrews van and soon were greeted with a smile through his long whispy beard. I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts but I can’t emphasize enough just how positive it is to see a familiar face when deep into a big event. The daylight hours were spent following the South Tyne river, never being further than two km’s from it. Our progress was slow but solid.

Just as the darkness began to fall yet again, we hit the A69 and decided to take a slight detour to visit the pub in Greenhead. It would be great if we could stop for a big plate of hot food, before we set off into what would end up being a very long, very hard night for us both. Thankfully they were open and serving food. As a bonus the open fire was roaring away too! I ordered sausage, egg and chips (?) swiftly followed by a massive chunk of very tasty cheesecake. These pub and cafe stops are priceless when you are covering such distances. The energy and boost to moral are worth their weight in gold. We left feeling ready to take on whatever the night could throw at us… we thought.

We left Greenhead in the dark and were immediately on Hadrians Wall. The wall was not as easy to follow as I thought it may be, but we made our way along, stopping regularly to check we were on track still. The wind was blowing but for once the going under foot wasn’t continuously deep water! We were both excited to be at Hadrians Wall which was a first for both of us, but it was a shame that we couldn’t really see it properly. An excuse to return I think! Once we had finished snaking our way East along the Wall, it was time to turn left and head North into Scotland.

Immediately we passed through farmland that was very muddy, then as we were tiring more and more, we entered the forest. This seemed to drag on as anything does when you are this tired. Our speed was poor but we kept moving. Just before we left the forest with one short lane section remaining, we hit the mud. Now, I thought I had seen it all, but this was just hideous. Super deep, sticky and at the same time slippery, the going was slow to say the least. I was thoroughly exhausted by this point and the foot sucking mud was challenging at this point in the day to say the least. Once out of the lane feeling drained, I thought it would ease off but it continued for another section before thankfully giving way to some more solid footing. My ankle was very sore still and I pushed on trying not to worry about whether it would hold up long enough for me to do the last section.

Simon and I were very fatigued now and were traipsing along like a couple of zombies. Our nav went a bit crazy now as our judgments became a little cloudy. The cp couldn’t come quick enough now. Finally the warm glow of Bellingham appeared over the hill and after what seemed like an eternity we reached CP5, the final CP!

We ate a tonne of food here that Richard Lendon handed to us and then sat chatting in a sleepy haze for too long as our brains weren’t engaging. Finally I showered and got horizontal again. Sleep didn’t really happen again and soon we were both up and prepping for the final push. When passing through town we popped into the Coop to buy some supplies and then were off. we were passing over open moorland where we were very exposed to the strong, cold winds. I was comfortable as long as we kept moving. We were eating regularly as energy levels were adequate but we needed to be vigilant.

We now headed into more forest and the ground was again boggy. It was nothing like the night before, but was still challenging. This didn’t last long though and soon we were gifted some decent trail. This lasted a long while and took us all the way to Byrness. Here we were again met by our savior Andrew. He sorted us out with a hot drink and pushed us back on the trail with a freeze dried meal stuffed down Simons jacket full of hot water, doubling up as a hot water bottle until it was ready to eat. There was a slight diversion ahead that kept us away from an especially boggy section, and as we climbed, we shared the hot meal. Well. I say shared. Simon couldn’t eat to much, so I had the majority. The climb was taking us onto the final test that lay between us and the finish, the Cheviots.

It was dark, and as seemed to be the norm now, very windy with minimal visibility. The path pretty much follows a low fence that is the border between England and Scotland. As I looked at what remained of the course I groaned as, even though on a normal day this would be just a few short hours, at this stage in the race feeling as exhausted as we did and with me not wanting to race at all, this would be a very long night.

Once we arrived at the first mountain refuge hut, we barged our way in and appreciated the shelter from the wind. We thought it was about 20km from here. We boiled up some water and rehydrated two meals, both in silence with heads nodding to and fro as we battled to stay awake. Just as we both stood up and threw our packs back on preparing to get battered by the dark night again, I noticed a mileage chart on the wall. According to that we were over 30 kms from the end! That was it, I told Simon that I was going to get my sleeping bag out and get an hours sleep as I was too tired to be productive, and it would be foolish and for me to not take advantage of this shelter. Simon agreed and within minutes we were wrapped up and warm with an alarm set for 1 hour.

We rose with foggy heady and before we had a chance to think about it we were back out in the night. I was glad for the rest and felt like we would be good for the end now. We plodded on till daylight enabled us to lose our head torches for the final time. A sharp left turn and a quick visit to the other mountain hut and we were back on our way. A nice little climb over the Schill and that was it! The rest was just the home straight now. Well, I say the home straight, but I knew we were going to finish now and with that all effort fell away. I came here to finish in as decent shape as possible, so there was no need to beast myself to the line. My shin was bad anyway, and made running not impossible, but not exactly great.

Finishing was great, and the fact you finish at a pub is even better! It is tradition that everyone that completes the Pennine Way gets a pint on the pub, so before I knew what was happening a pint was sat in front of me as I sat in front of the open fire with rosy cheeks and a grin on my face. This was shortly followed with a hot meal. Ah bliss.

So, even though I was most certainly really enjoying the moment, part of my mind was wandering forward two weeks to the start of part two of my winter challenge, Frostskade. I was tired and sore but knew that two weeks recovery is a huge amount when fit. Especially as I wasn’t planning to be working at any high level and just content on getting around.

I would like to thank everyone who helped make the Spine such a wonderful event. A really great challenge that has superb support and this just improves as it progresses as many of the runners that unfortunately have to pull out decide to follow and support where they can. I of course must thank My superb ‘support’, Andy Burton. Great stuff.

Now, time for the Arctic…

For those that are considering the Spine and want to read up more on others experiences, I have collated others blogs. Please contact me if I have missed any out. I have just stuck to 2014. I think that’s enough to be getting on with!

Mimi Anderson

Pavel Paloncy

Joe Faulkner

Paul Shorrock

Stu Westfield

Allan Rumbles

Moses Lovstad

Charlie Sharpe

Andy Mouncey

Sam Robson

Richard Lendon

Ian Bowles

Ben Cox

Ultramadness

Luke Latimer

Guido Huwiler

Paul Brant

Charlie Sproson

Bob Smart

Debbie Brupacher

Michael Frenz

Anne Green

Damian Hall (the Telegraph)

Dave Lee

Steve Paul

Paul Radford

Mark Berry

Rob Harper

Grant MacDonald

Nick Van Mead

My Mountainous 2013 and the Larger Challenges Ahead

Last year was a big year for me with wins in the Viking Way and Hardmoors 110, and possibly bigger was my 10th place in Trans-Europe. My best year results wise for sure. My recovery from Trans-Europe took just under six months. It made a real mess of me and the prolonged break was frustrating but I was relatively disciplined about it and once I had realised the extent of the damage, I waited patiently until I felt I was truly recovered.

I had already picked out a few races for the year, but then a major life change was about to happen. While I was away from work on Trans Europe for a couple of months, I realised that not only did I dislike my job, but I hated it. I felt it had nothing positive to offer me. I gained no satisfaction from it, but felt deeply trapped. I think I already knew, but the fact that I needed very much to escape now became even more prominent.  A change was needed and it may as well be something extreme (for me at least).

On May the 13th, Lou and I found ourselves driving South in Doggo (My car still stinks of dogs from the previous owner!). We had both left our jobs, the house we had rented together, and had got rid of the vast majority of our belongings. Our final destination – Chamonix. Well actually the apartment that was waiting for us is a few miles up the road in the smaller and quieter town of Argentiere.

We had no future plan and even now don’t have too much of one. Mountain life is good. Almost everyone here has the common desire to be in or around the mountains. It is of course incredibly beautiful, and the same view looks different every single day. The seasons are more pronounced which is one of the most beautiful things I have seen. Winter to Spring to Summer and now into Winter. The changes are utterly spellbinding.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, life is different now. Running is still a massive passion for me, but I am very fussy now. I don’t want to run on the flat or the road. I still like it but I can not even compare the two. I am running for fun still but the mountains on my doorstep make thing infinitely better. It truly adds something very positive to my life being here.

So how do I view my year in running in comparison to last year? Well I think it has been more rewarding and exciting. Results wise I don’t think I have much to shout about, but then again the races are so incredibly hard here I wouldn’t expect to make a splash when the locals I have been racing against have not known any different. I have been learning to travel fast in the mountains. Not to worry if you need to walk an up (can often be faster than running), and occasionally accepting the fact that sticks are a good idea for certain conditions.

My big race for the year has to have been UTMB. I had set a target of sub 30 hours which I thought was rather ambitious but managed to come in around a half an hour under that. It was an incredible experience and I was overjoyed to have beaten my target, but knew that I could go plenty faster seeing how slow it felt.

So where do I go from here? What can my next challenges be? What excites me? Well, my next two races are close enough together that I will be treating them as one. One expedition. I will not favour one over the other as I want them both. First up will be the Spine in mid January. For those that don’t know, this is a full traverse of the Pennine Way over a week in one hit. It is over 260 miles and being in midwinter is the real factor here. I need to get myself around this thing without totally destroying myself as a couple of weeks later I will be flying to Norway to take part in the inaugural Frostskade 500. This is a 500 mile trek through Norway, Sweden and Finland dragging a pulk and being self sufficient. Again the main factor will probably be the fact that this will be held in midwinter. Being so far North means that the hours of daylight will be very few and the temperature will be as low as -40. This will be a whole new experience for me and for this fact alone I am incredibly excited. I may adapt well but there is also the chance that it just may not be my cup of tea. At least I will know for sure!

How hard do I think this will be? Well, I’ve had a few comments stating that this will be harder than anything I have ever done and that what I have done simply doesn’t compare to the expedition. “It will be harder than I expect”. Well, actually I am expecting a completely new experience here. A new level of suffering which I will not have known yet. A mental test beyond what I have ever had to deal with. I am not saying that I know what is coming, but the scale of the challenge will not overwhelm me. I can’t let it. I will need to develop new skills and adapt fast to the new and harsh environment. I am not going to say I will definitely finish this as that is not my style. I like to genuinely feel humbled and respectful about the challenge ahead. I will give it my best shot as always and whatever happens, as long as I feel I gave it my all I will be content.

I nearly had to pull out of both races as my lifestyle change has meant a drastic cut in my income. I have been very fortunate with the magnificent Likeys supporting me and supplying a load of kit. There has been a seemingly everlasting list of needed items beyond this though which has been giving the poor credit card a good hammering. It has certainly been a challenge trying to gather everything together on a shoestring. Ebay has been my friend! Many people have shown much generosity though by lending me expensive kit. What a beautiful community the ultrarunning one is!

I was also planning to race Tor Des Geants and Ronda del cims next year, but the finances have meant that my expedition will be my only real outings of the year. No pressure to finish then!

Do I think that the cost of living somewhere so amazing is worth it then? Without a doubt! I don’t even need to think about it. Racing is secondary to running. I do love to race, but having such inspiring trails on my doorstep is worth its weight in gold for me.

So that’s my little end of year round up and a little glimpse ahead at the challenges that lay waiting. Where will these challenges lead me in the future? Well I guess if I get on with the challenge that the Arctic offers maybe something else there. I would love to go to the Himalayas for a run/expedition/adventure. Other than that I don’t really think about it. I just follow the path that presents itself that attracts me most.

I hope you enjoy the end of your year and have exciting challenges of your own ahead.

Happy running.

UTMB

I was looking forward to this race. It had been in my sights for a few years now, and the course seemed like my sort of course. I had been fortunate to have my name pulled out of the hat at the start of the year. In fact, although the idea of moving out was on our minds, we had no actual design to, so to actually be living out here with Mont Blanc on my doorstep is still a little surreal for me. I am still completely blown away by the quality and variety of the trails which are abundant. No need to even jump in a car to access other trails. The main attraction for me has got to be the infinite, shocking beauty that is ever changing with the weather, the seasons or you mood. I am sure that there are better balcony views within the valley, but mine is just perfect looking up towards the Auiguille Vert, up towards the Argentiere glacier and not forgetting directly ahead the Mont Blanc Massif with the Bosson glaciers tongue licking it’s way down towards the valley floor.

I like it here.

My year has been ok running wise. Once my body had recovered from Trans-Europe I slowly began to wind things up and regain my strength and fitness. I raced  few times over here in some amazing alpine races and quickly learnt that my race style needed to be changed. I was going way too fast for the terrain, and I also need to accept that walking was not a bad thing. I even started to use Leki sticks! The Europeans do things quite different to us in the UK, which some of us find rather amusing, but I quickly learnt that Alpine ultras are pretty much a different discipline to what we race in the UK. I now accept that stick are not the work of the devil and that walking on an uphill does not need to be a punishable offence. In fact they can both make you faster. I walk a lot more now, and sticks are not used all the time, but I will often grab them for a run.

As the year progressed, my fitness grew and with it my confidence. My last 100 miler was the Hardmoors last year, so mentally I didn’t feel as good as last year though. Always on my mind was my ankle. Last years injury had been pretty good and the terrain I run on now is mostly ankle snapping stuff but as time went on with no incident my confidence in it grew. I realised that an easy way to be faster was to improve my descending. If I could have a smoother style, it would not only be quicker, but would save my quads and knees from taking such a hammering! Every downhill I hit on my day to day runs I pushed to my limit. Soon I was purposefully selecting routes with the longest and most technical downhills. All was good until I went out one wet, rainy day around three weeks before the race. The perfect opportunity to test out my skills! Needless to say, my skills were a little lacking and I went down quite heavily on my weak ankle. Once home the ankle begun to balloon. Damn it!

I believe in active recovery, so I ran when I believed it was ok. No ice. I just let it do as it needs to do. After a while, the swelling gets annoying so I elevate a little but generally I don’t really do much. My runs were more to keep me mentally in the game than for fitness and of course my descending was reduced to overly cautious stepping, often with my sticks as props.

The swelling had mostly gone by the time race week arrived. I was working on the Tuesday and Wednesday so was busy driving to Geneva airport and back many times which actually wasn’t too bad as I didn’t have too much time to get all excited. Chamonix is an incredible place with many personalities and this week it was the Ultra Trail running capital of the world! We are a funny looking bunch aren’t we! People walking around days before the event with compression socks and sandals on, some people walking around with their race numbers on and around 70% of people looking like they are sponsored by Salomon! A lot of the Brits stick out well with their OMM bags and Inov8 shoes on and often just having a knack of somehow looking British. The French often know I am British before I even open my mouth and I can’t work out exactly why?

I planned on a sub 30 hour time but knew that this was quite ambitious before I had hurt my ankle, but was convinced that I was capable so left it at that. I am very competitive but never seem too disappointed if things don’t go to plan. I would have to be very careful on the downs, simple as that!

We’ve had a great summer in the Alps. On the odd occasions where we have had rain it has generally been a welcome break from the heat. At the start of the week there had been rain. Surely the UTMB wasn’t going to have bad luck again and get hit by some sustained bad weather and get shortened or cancelled? It seemed to be a common occurrence now. Thankfully the rain held off and the weather was good.

I queued up on the Thursday to register outside the sports hall. I was out in the baking sun occasionally shuffling forward for over an hour and a half. I knew I had everything on the obligatory list but still worried a little that things wouldn’t be right. Finally my time came and and elderly French lady was going to check my kit. She asked to see my Jacket, pantalons and phone. Nothing else. Easy! I collected my number and was ready!

Things weren’t going to be happening now till the start at 1630 the next day. Time to relax. That evening Drew and Claire came to Argentiere and we went out for dinner and a glass of wine. I didn’t sleep to great that night as I was getting excited, but this doesn’t really bother me. I had two decisions to make. Should I take my Leki sticks? and what shoes? As it was looking to be dry I sided with my now trusty Salomon Mantras, but I just wasn’t sure about poles? I currently only use them on the ups so generally carry them a lot. I knew they would be advantageous on the ups but would this make it worth taking them? I decided to leave them at home when we left for Chamonix on the Friday.

The start was manic to say the least. True Euro style! Claire and I kept away from the madness of trying to get a decent start place by sitting on the grass next to the church. I was not interested in fighting my way to a place near the front and getting caught up in the madness of the start sprint. This was a race where the patient get rewarded and the impatient get punished. With 10 minutes to go, Claire and I got into the back end of the mass of runners bouncing around nervously half in time with the music that was really being blasted out loud. They sure know how to drum up an atmosphere of excitement! I was sweating a lot already as I stood on the line (well about 100m away from the line!). I was glad that we would be running into the night in a few hours.

The music changed to some emotional, stirring tune which I didn’t recognise. This was exciting and emotional. The countdown began and we all joined in… Trois, deux, une…. and that was it. I crossed the line shuffling about 90 seconds later. The crowds lining the streets were amazing as we slowly shuffled through the narrow streets. It took just over ten minutes before I was running fairly freely down the road. No bother. Once on to the footpath that would take us to the first cp at Les Houches, the clogging started up again as we hit small inclines and the path narrowed in places. This was fine. I knew that once past Les Houches things went straight up on a fairly wide trail so this would string things out more.

In Les Houches the crowds were thick and noisy. There was a stage set up near the drinks tables with a band playing. I had a couple drinks before continuing. We were immediately guided up the hill. I settled into a strong walk and continued overtaking lots of people. I had no idea where I was in the field as it was so large. I liked this as it reduced  the pressure. I was here to do my best. Other peoples performances should have no affect on my effort. I was happy to be on a decent climb now. All the initial flat and fast madness had mostly calmed down as everyone attempted to find their magic pace that would see them through to the end. I felt reasonably happy that my pacing was ok in the mountains now. My short time in the Alps had taught me just how quick you could destroy yourself if you over did things. These were some big hills and this was a long race. My aim was to be fairly consistent throughout.

I soon caught up with my Recce buddy, Paul. We worked our way up the trail together chatting. It was good to see Paul and it was such a contrast to six weeks previous when we made our way up here almost completely alone. I soon started to pull away from Paul, so I wished him luck before pushing on. I was still sweating an awful lot so was regularly sipping water. I knew the first real descent was coming up which would take us into St. Gervais

The descent starts off on trail before diving off to the left down a steep grassy section which was thankfully dry, but just a bit to steep to let gravity take the reins. Each footfall is heavy as I controlled my speed. This is of course tough on the quads and knees but better to be doing it at this early stage than at the end! The descent eases after a while and soon my sole focus is on my footing as I am so paranoid of my weak ankle. I am fully aware that all it would take is one little twist and it would be game over.

As I got closer to the town, I could hear the crowds and Tannoy system echoing up to me. Once on the tarmac again, I knew I was close. I turned a corner and suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of cheering people. The atmosphere was electric! I was quick at the cp taking plenty of sausage and cheese with me. Although I was quickly in and out of the cp I tried to take in as much of the positive party atmosphere as I could as I knew that this would fuel me for a short while.

My speed in cp’s is generally quite quick except in the latter stages of a big race. This used to annoy me. I saw it as wasting time, but now I am more relaxed about it and feel that if I have been running for 15-20 hours and I spend an extra 5 minutes at a cp, as long as I am using that 5 minutes by eating, drinking etc, then it won’t really hurt my performance. In fact it could well be helping me to push that little harder when I leave. I have been too quick at cp’s before and have not looked after myself properly which I have paid for later. I don’t use a crew to look after me so I need a little more time.

The route now wound it’s way up the valley following the river. This was easy running and to make things even easier for me, the sun had now disappeared out of sight behind the mountains that dominated your field of view no matter where you looked. My shorts and top began to dry out a bit as I was sweating less and I began to feel livelier. The heat makes me feel lazy. I was looking forward to the darkness. I hadn’t done a full night for over a year now and I always find it an exhilarating experience. I will have to be extra vigilant with my ankle though. I was very happy to have done the recce so that I knew exactly what was coming. What I hadn’t experienced during the recce was the thousands of people out cheering us on which was almost overwhelming. I would keep grinning as the children would hold their hands out in front of you hoping for a high five. I would usually play along enjoying the happiness this simple act would bring them, but sometimes I was in my own little world and just focused on the race and being in the moment.

A small wooded climb popped me out into the cp at Les Contamines. The spectators are all behind a barrier and just stare and cheer as you wander up and down the tables of food and drink looking for something that looks appealing. I felt like I was in a cage and people were waiting for me to perform. I found it all surreal but I was so focused on the race I was not bothered by it, in fact it was still a real boost. This was certainly not a race where I will feel all alone at any point!

I quickly exited the cp with both hands full of more sausage and cheese. I walked and ate for about 5 minutes, high fiving as I went. As I left the town I again picked up the path that followed the river. I knew that soon the trail would get a little wilder and would start heading upwards for a long way. I guessed that by this time it would be pitch black and my Petzl would be on. I entered a more heavily wooded area and the tree cover suddenly made it a lot darker. Not quite enough to warrant the headtorch though.

I passed small groups of people cheering me on in the ever darkening woodland. Soon it was time to mount the headtorch and so begun the night! I swung around to the left and there where a lot of people around at what I knew was the proper start of the ascent of the Bonhomme. The atmosphere at the base of this great climb was amazing with the trail lined with small (ish) fires blazing away lighting up everyones faces that were cheering like I was in the lead. The climb calls for you to start walking immediately and I was blinded as photographers that were peppered up the climb were snapping away. I then had someone beside me say my name. It was Annie Dawson from Alpine Oasis. It was good to see a familiar face. I also knew that Phil would be ahead with his camera. Sure enough I got a face full of flash and heard Phil saying I was going well and looking good. I thanked them and continued my march up the hill.

I was at the point where I was still sweating but it had cooled down a fair amount and my damp arms and hands were feeling the cold so I dug out my arm warmers and thin woolly gloves and soon felt just right though I was conscious that I was heading up for a long time now and the temperature would be dropping with each metre gained. It is very easy when running through the night using a headtorch and being extra vigilant about your footing to never stop and look up at the sky. I don’t always remember to but I did a number of times over this night as the level of light pollution was low and the number of stars visible to the naked eye was spell binding. This beauty can truly motivate and inspire when things are tough and energy is lacking. The energy is all around us, we just need to learn to see it and utilise it.

Roughly mid way up the climb is a cp. This cp could be heard from a fair distance. When I arrived I learnt that the racket was from three girls who were manning the piles of food on the tables. They were hitting the table with spoons and ladles roughly in rhythm and chanting the name of the runner that was stood in front of them. It made me laugh and kept me smiling as I marched into the darkness. I was stopped and asked to put my tights on. I said I would and continued. I would only put them on if I felt the need and I certainly didn’t at that point.

I had found some sort of rhythm and was just patiently walking up the hill trying to keep my pacing at a sensible and sustainable level, but was starting to think that maybe I should have bought my Leki poles after all. Never mind, there was no point in stressing about such things. I knew I didn’t need them, but I had felt a distinct advantage on the uphills.

I was soon on the Col and without stopping I continued left along a flatter though more technical section. I was really enjoying this and knew that in around 20 mins the long descent to les Chapieux.  I couldn’t believe how much snow there had been 6 weeks previously on the recce and that there was none now. It was difficult to run on and you could not see a trail, but now the trails were visible and more runnable and fun.

Once over the top, it was downwards for quite a while. Firstly the going is very runnable, but then it steepens and the footing becomes a lot more technical. This is the section where Paul slipped and cut his hand open on our recce. Needless to say with my ankle, darkness and the fact that there was still a long way to go, my pace was very restrained and cautious. I was very happy to notice that although some runners went hurtling past me, I was passing possibly more runners who were descending slower that me! This of course added a little to my confidence leaving me to continue descending at the same restrained speed and not feel like I was losing tonnes of time over everyone else.

I was starting to feel a bit of the strain now but my experience told me to not worry as I had been going for a few hours now so this is expected. Soon I saw lights that was the bottom and more importantly the next cp. As I got closer still I started to hear cow bells and cheering. Once I was over the chip mat and into the tented area I scanned the tables for something that appealed but it was all starting to get very samey. My stomach was feeling a little uneasy but I had to get something down, so I started with a bowl of soup. As I was pouring it down I saw Tobias Mews and Danny Kendall. I said hi, and we had a little chat, and then I continued alone. I felt as though I would see them again. I had done my usual and walked out with a handful of food that I would eat as I walked. I knew that there was a fairly long section of road now that slowly climbed so it was an ideal point to walk and eat without losing any real time.

As I made my way up the road, breaking into a jog occasionally as the gradient eased, I soon heard some English voices behind, quickly gaining on me. Soon Tobias and Danny caught me and we stayed together chatting for a while. The company was good and really broke up the monotony of the road. Once we were done with the road the climb up towards the col de la seigne started in earnest. The three of us were then joined by Terry Conway. We all knew each other but I had never met Terry so it was good to finally say hello. After a little while Terry and I had a gap over Tobias and Danny so we continued.

We were going well together for a short time before I realised that Terry was stronger than me. I said he should go on but he wanted to stay with me for the chat. Once over the top in a bit of a state, I timidly begun the downhill. I couldn’t afford to get caught up going faster than I intended with my ankle. I wasn’t interested in taking risks. Terry pulled away slowly into the darkness. Just near the bottom there was a very technical and really awkward section. I came down here at little over walking speed. Not my finest moment, but I reached the cp at the bottom safely. There was Terry stocking up. He said he would wait again, so I hurried and soon we were off again. There is a flat section for a little while before the next climb, Arete du Mont-Favre. Once on the climb I realised that I was not going well. I needed to be careful and not blow. Terry was powering away so I eased off and let him go. I wouldn’t last long at his pace. Back to doing my pace.

I struggled up this climb. I was starting to remember what a struggle these things are. Mentally things are hard when you feel as exhausted as I did then when you are not even half way yet, but there was a little part of me that was revelling in this torturous state. It was good to be back doing what I love. I knew that I would be successful barring some incident or injury. When things are hard and energy is lacking it is time to ease back a little and stock up on food and water. Once I had reached the next cp just before the long drop into Courmayeur I stopped and forced myself to hang around a minute or two longer to eat more. They had some fruit salad here which went down really well. Also some really nice creamy yogurts which went down equally well. The Italien crew thought I was odd for not mixing my yogurt in with my fruit salad. They also had sliced lemons with the sliced oranges. I was feeling tired and my mouth didn’t exactly feel fresh so I tried one. I probably screwed my face up but the refreshing sensation was amazing. I hope they had them at the next cp!

After  a slightly longer cp stop, I was off on what I knew was a long and fairly steep descent with lots of hair pins. It was still dark so I still had my headtorch on. The trail was very dry. So dry in fact that a super fine flour-like dust was providing a slippery but cushioned ride down. I have never run in anything like it, being around a cm deep in places. My shoes, socks and legs were damp with sweat and were soon covered in a layer of dust that stuck to the moisture. I enjoyed the dusty trail even if it was quite sketchy in places as my feet slid around in it. Variety really breaks these things up. I was aware of my suffering and the joy of running in a new terrain was stimulating my mind to steer it away from the pain.

I was soon enough running through a quiet and sleepy Courmayeur. No masive crowds here at this late/early hour. It would soon be getting light which would be a mental relief. This was a major cp where people could access their drop bags if they had one and as I ran in to the sports hall I saw them all hanging in an amazingly organised fashion. I ran right past them to find the food as I had decided on no drop bags. I got a plate of pasta and sat at a table to shovel it down. It was good to get of my feet for a little while. As I speed ate, I looked around at the other runners seeing if there was anyone I recognised. No-one. I also checked peoples numbers to see which nation they were to see if there any Brits around but again drew a blank. I hurried my food down and topped up my bladder and finished off with a refreshing slice of lemon before running out the door. Once through town I knew there was a vicious climb facing me so went nice and steadily. I was still feeling pretty worn out so this could be a messy climb for me.

Sure enough, the climb was quite a death march but I knew that patience would win. Just stay calm and some strength would come back. During the climb my headtorch came off as the new day was coming. I had a few runners pass me up here which never feels great, but I knew that I would be passing them again soon. Once I had dragged my self painfully to the top I stopped at the cp there and stocked up again. There was a bit of a morning chill here and I sat near the soup urn to steal some of it’s warmth. I say chill, but all night I had worn just shorts, t-shirt, arm warmers and intermittently my thin gloves, so not that cold at all really. In fact I would say pretty much perfect conditions.

The next 7km section was the most beautiful of the entire course. It is a very runnable undulating single track where I managed to find plenty more energy and started to pass quite a few runners that looked in the same state I was in 30 minutes earlier. To add to the thrill of getting a second wind, the view to my left of the Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco massif from the Italian side is truly staggering for the dramatic views on offer. This coupled with the perfectly clear skies and then to just make me want to stop in my tracks, I watched the sun first hit the highest peaks and slowly creep down the steep cliffs and glaciers. I smiled a lot on this section. The greatest show on Earth!

As I approached Bonatti up a short incline, two ladies were cheering all runners in and one I instantly recognised as Lizzy Hawker who would have been racing a long way ahead of me had she not suffered an injury. I stopped very briefly here as I felt a chill once still, so I remarked to Lizzy that it was good to see her out here cheering us on and marched up the hill eating a rather foul energy bar. Seeing Lizzy had given me a little lift as she really didn’t have to be standing there for hours on this chilly morning when her non-start had been such a negative, but she had flipped it into this positive action. This was appreciated by many runners that recognised her. I have bumped into her twice in races now and both times she has been injured. I guess that is the only way I will bump into her!

There was a little more nice steady running before a drop down to the cp at Arnuva. I again was pretty quick through here drinking a luke warm bowl of soup and rushing out to get stuck into the next superb climb up to the highest point of the race, the Grand Col Ferret. It was a bit of a battle to get up but I was nowhere near as bad as when I fought the climb out of Courmayeur. The greatest show on Earth was still providing inspiration that helped drive me up to the top. Once there I again was shocked that there was no snow at all! This was completely white six weeks ago.

Ahead of me was a great deal of descending which I was looking forward to. It wasn’t too technical or steep so a decent pace could be sustained. It is always good to tick off some fast km’s far into a race like this. Really positive. Next up was the cp at La Fouly. By the time I arrived there I was beginning to feel the effects of the sun again. It wasn’t too powerful but I had been running for quite a few hours now and the strain was certainly being felt. I remembered the trails really well which helped me to mentally tick off each section. Once on the road at the bottom I knew the next cp was close.

I pulled in and headed towards the taps so that I could rinse all the salt off of my head and to freshen up. I then topped up my bladder and looked over the food which I was tired of now. There was nothing new here so I had some soup and some fruit, finished off with a slice of lemon. My stomach had eased off and although it wasn’t fantastic, I could eat most stuff now, it was just that most food was just unappealing. As usual, I looked around at the other runners and saw a chap that had just come in who was British. I didn’t recognise him but went up and said hi. His name was Ed Melbourne. He left about a minute before me but I soon caught him up. We started to chat and I noticed that we had an Aussie runner just behind. His name was Adam. There were now was three of us. We stuck together and chatted lots. They both were cool and our pacing seemed quite even so we seemed to work quite well as a team.

The climb into Champex which was the next and final major cp was a struggle now, but to be honest I was suffering quite badly at all times now. My climbing speed was incredibly slow to the point that I didn’t feel I could move any slower. The only positive thing about this was that barely anyone overtook us, in fact we probably overtook more people. As is common, at this stage in a hard race, no matter how rough you feel, others will be feeling the same and some worse.

We planned to not take too long at Champex, but I also didn’t want to rush things too quickly and not stock up enough. There were lots of people here creating a great atmosphere. I grabbed a good plate of food and sat down to eat it with Ed. Adam had his parents and girlfriend following him around supporting him so he was stood with them. Ed started complaining of feeling dizzy and wanted to get going. I said he should just lay down and let it pass. It would only take a few minutes. He laid back on the bench and closed his eyes. I carried on eating as fast as I could. I then made use of the Portaloos and felt much better for it. We all decided to push on. Next up was Bovine which is an impressive climb which I really enjoyed on the recce. Would I still have love for it now?

Bovine was as predicted, a tough grind, but I found something that could loosely be described as rhythm and kept it there. Once over the top we had the fun downhill to Col de la Forclaz commenced. I remembered this as a fast and fun descent but it certainly wasn’t quite as fast as I would have liked due to my very sore feet and generally battered body. It was definitely fun though and I was starting to feel like the end was almost in reach. I was starting to get excited about it. I had set a target of 30 hours and at the moment that looked possible but it would mean the rest would have to be pretty swift. I was doubtful to be honest, but not bothered. I was living in the moment and at that moment things were good, in fact I was really happy to be out there no matter what the pain threw at me.

Once we passed the col, the descent steepens a little as we dropped down rather painfully to Trient. Thankfully the descent was not too technical for my fragile body so the pace was ok. Once in Trient we again planned to be rapid in the cp. I ate some dried fruit and lots of orange slices, before we rushed out. I took a quick diversion to one of the spring water troughs and dunked my head in it to hopefully revitalise me a little before the next stiff climb. The coldness of the water took my breath away and felt amazing. I again washed away the thick layer of salt and grime my face had collected. I pushed the fantasy of just climbing in and just laying there. No time for such luxuries.

The next climb was very no worse than previously, but still very hard and slow. Adam and I were slowly dropping Ed now which was a shame as we had been a good team for a while, but the end was getting closer and closer and slowing down was not feasible. We would only stay together if we felt quite evenly matched. I was still pretty much convinced that the sub 30 hours was just not on the cards anymore, but wasn’t willing to ease off. I suppose a small part of me still believed. Once over the top, I knew that there was only one monster climb left and this one may well be on of the worst! I wasn’t concerned though as we were as good as done then.

The descent was long and if there was no pain it would have been lots of fun. Vallorcine was waiting for Adam and I and we were keen to get there. We kept looking back hopefully to see if Ed had pulled out of his dark spot and was catching us up but unfortunately we would not see him again. I think I knew this really but it would have been so good to all finish together. Once into Vallorcine we checked the time and did some estimates and realised that the sub 30 was on. I was really excited about this and I now was going over the final section in my mind as I now knew it pretty well being close to home. There is a climb out of Vallorcine to the col that is very steady and easy before it kicks up for the real climb. We used this steady section to regain some energy before the last climb. Just before the top, Lou ran up to us and wished us well. We asked what sort of position we were in guessing that we maybe in the top 200. Apparently we were just in the top 100! What a surprise and a boost! I couldn’t believe it. I said good bye and that next time I would see here was in Chamonix.

The climb was as brutal as I suspected it would be but we silently pushed and tapped out a rhythm that progressed us over the top. The trail from the top of the steep section across to La Tete aux Vents is technical and therefore was very painful on my feet. As we neared La Tete aux Vents we noticed that there were a few photographers there that seemed interested in something. We then noticed about four or five chamois or something similar that was very close to the path and unusually didn’t seem phased by the human activity. I would like to have stopped to watch these beautiful creatures but time didn’t allow such luxuries and even as Adam and I ran past, they barely stirred before lowering their heads again to continue grazing.

By now the sun had gone and I was thinking that the torches would have to be coming out towards the end once we were in the darkness of the trees again. I was very famiiar with this trail but Adam wasn’t and I knew what was probably going through his head as we turned every corner and looked for something that might signify the end. We just wanted to be done now. I checked my watch and realised that we would break 30 hours which would be just incredible. Once we had passed La Flegere we begun the final descent that would take us into Chamonix and the end. Our headtorches were now on, but Adams was set brighter than mine plus he was descending on the technical trail much stronger than me so I waved him through knowing that he would go quicker. This, I knew would mean me speeding up and hanging on and for the first time during the race throwing caution to the wind and praying my ankle would hold up. The descent is fairly long, quite technical and after running 100 miles, simply brutal, but by this stage who cares! My good ankle flipped a bit which stung but was ok. A few minutes later my bad ankle twisted over and hurt some more. I didn’t say anything to Adam as I wanted him to keep pushing. He was running really strongly.

Finally the trail widens and then you are spat out onto the tarmac of Chamonix. We were now running quite fast, as we were guided around a rather scenic route towards the finish in the centre. I initially wasn’t too happy about this scenic route, but then realised that it just meant we would be passing lots more cheering spectators which as we got closer to the end just grew and grew. It was simply amazing and very emotional. The pain slid away and as Adam and I turned the final corner, the 10pm finish guaranteed a very busy and enthusiastic, beer fuelled finish. It will probably rate as my most amazing finish yet. I was met at the finish by Lou and  quite a few friends who really made the moment that much more special. We had crossed the line in 29:25 claiming places 97 for Adam and 98 for me. I needed some proper food now, so we headed down to the Midnight Express burger bar and got the biggest one they sell and made little work of seemingly inhaling it.

Recovery has been short with me running happily for an hour in the mountains one week later. This is pretty much the end of the season for me, but I just feel as though I am beginning to regain some of the strength after Trans-Europe last year.

So, what do I make of the UTMB? I really like a low key race with no razzmatazz and to be honest UTMB is exactly the opposite of that. I knew I would probably enjoy it just because the course is so stunning and tough but would the razzmatazz put a damper on the whole experience for me? Because I have experienced a few races over here now over the year and seen just how different the Euro racing culture is to ours, I have to say that I loved it. I would still prefer a low key event but that is just not how they seem to do things out here. The whole community gets involved with a view on each race being a positive tourist attraction so the facilities are amazing. I did a ridiculous vertical km yesterday at Montriond that was 20 Euros to enter and once you were finished you had a good quality three course meal in an incredible events venue included in the deal. Quite incredible for a race that took less than an hour to run. I do miss the low key events a little though. Maybe I will have to pop back to the UK to race one day.

Anyway, this is getting a bit close to 7000 words now so I think the end is due!

Happy running, people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ice Trail

I had never heard about this race until earlier this year when Richard Felton from the excellent Profeet in London (who I am an ambassador for) posted on Twitter a link to it. It is a race that has only been around for two years. The first year it was shortened due to the weather and last year there was plenty of snow and very low temperatures. The Ice Trail Tarentaise starts and finishes at Val D’Isere which itself is just shy of 2000 metres. The route stays above 2000 metres almost all the time and is over 3000 metres a few times with a maximum height of 3600 metres. I think that this will be the highest I will have raced at. The race stats are fairly standard for the Alps, 65km with 5000 metres of ascent. This alone is of course brutal and hardly a course for knocking out a personal best, but it seems like this is roughly the standard out here. What is not so standard is the fact that it is so bloody high and this of course means that it will be living up to it’s name and will be providing plenty of snow and ice, especially after the particularly snowy winter that has left so much more snow than usual at these heights.

A few weeks before the event, Richard contacted me asking for advice on how to get there. I said to just sort out flights and I would pick him up and we would go there together. Makes a lot more sense. He arrived on the Friday and stayed at mine overnight. The next day, we left for the 3 hr drive. Lou came too with her mountain bike to check out the trails somewhere new. I am not the keenest driver but of all the places to be driving in the world, this is pretty good! Maybe a little dangerous as I briefly took in the huge panoramic views. It was floating around 30 celcius for most of the journey. I took solace in the fact that the temperature would be lower at the heights we would be running at.

Once at Val D’Isere, we parked up and went out to try and get registered. After walking around a little confused, we soon saw the big sign we somehow missed previously and followed it into the hall that was the registration area. This was very simple and quick and we then made our way over to the start / finish are for 1730 where the obligatory briefing was. This was one of the longest I had ever experienced in French and English. The French guy would rabbit on for ages and then the Scottish (?) chap would speak for about a minute! This continued for ages. I was starting to think that maybe this was going to be tougher than the event itself! What I learnt was that 60% of the course was under snow and that it was very dangerous. We then went about a mile out of town to where our apartment we had hired was. Time to eat and faff with kit and clothing.

The start time was 0400 the next morning so we decided that our alarms would be getting set for 0230. That didn’t leave to much room for sleep, but I wasn’t really fussed as I never really notice the tiredness due to the excitement and I was really excited about this race. All the more for the fact that it was another Skyrunning event.

Richard and I both had Leki micro sticks with us and were undecided whether we should take them for the race as both of us were inexperienced. I had spoke to Simon Robinson who is the distributor for Leki poles in the UK for his advice. He was not sure whether it would be a good idea to give them their maiden voyage at such an event, but after the briefing stating how much snow and the climbs we would be facing, we both decided to take them. I was excited to try them out. I just hoped that I wouldn’t just end up carrying them for most of the way due to not being able to use them effectively.

Just before the off we were given a quick bag check to make sure we had everything that was listed as obligatory and then with headlamps donned, we were off. As to be expected for a Skyrunning event attracting some of the best mountain runners of the time, the pace was hot but I had my now usual plan for the Alps which is to run my own race and to try to escape hitting the wall! Simple you would think. Once through the town we begun to climb. I knew from a quick look at the profile that the first 20 km would give me a 2000 metre ascent, so I was in no rush. This was a slow and steady climb. I felt pretty good as I marched my way up. There was a slight drop into and through Tignes. There were a few people out cheering us through and also some people on their way home from the night before, looking a little worse for wear, but still cheering us on rather excitedley. Once I was out of town I begun to climb again. This time on a wide access track. I could see ahead a long snake of runners and wondered whether I could see the front or whether they were already further up the mountain out of view.

I had been using my Leki poles almost all the way so far and now I was on a long drag of a hill they were tip-tapping away. I was enjoying them. It felt good to be using them and it felt like it put me in a more upright position and therefore a better posture. There was still a long way to go yet though so I wasn’t ready to make any conclusions just yet. I soon noticed that up ahead, the path became covered in snow and everyone was stopping to put on their Yaktrax. This was actually a rule for this section of the course so the event was sponsored by Yaktrax. I had with me my trusty Kahtoola microspikes which had served me well in all sorts of difficult conditions so quickly stretched them over my shoes and was onto the snow which was very steep and crunching my way upwards straight away. There was no need for my Petzl to be on now, so I pulled it off and stashed it in my side pocket. We kept climbing and climbing till eventually I could see what was our first high point the Grande Motte.It was such a long way up and the string of people ahead shrunk till they could not be seen due to the massive scale of this climb.

I raced through a cp grabbing some dried fruit and drinking some coke quickly. The rest of the way was really steep piste which couldn’t have been done without spikes. I say the rest of the way, but the piste doesn’t quite make it to the top, but we had to, so we finished off on a narrow path in the snow with some rocky sections with fixed ropes. Once on the top though the morning views were just beautiful. I wanted to sit and take it in which I would have had it not been a race, but this is business. The descent!

I now had to reverse the route for a short way which meant a slippery little connection section to the top of the piste and straight back down to the cp. This was actually quite nice as I saw everyone who was behind me working hard as they slowly marched up the piste. Near the bottom I saw Richard who was looking good. I wondered if we would see each other again before the end. Very possible with my new habit of badly hitting the wall during races. He was looking strong too so anything could happen here. Once at the cp, I stopped for a minute and made sure I took on plenty of fluid and food and walked off with two handfuls of fruit. The descent was long and the snow was really difficult to run on in places as it was hard and lumpy making footing awkward to say the least.

It was good to finally be off the snow and back on trail for a while. I removed my Kahtoolas and continued to the next cp. It was a lot warmer now as the day progressed but was pleasant rather than unbearable. I guessed that 1000 metres down in the valleys it was probably at the unbearable level, well for me anyway.

The trail was fun and undulating now for quite a way which allowed lots of running. I was again being gifted with blue skies and amazing visibility. Then I begun to climb again. This time it was the col de la Rocheure. I was again in the snow and feeling tired but good. This is a fun course and equally challenging. I was guessing I would be out for around 11 hours but I was happy with that. The col was short but very steep. I seemed to be going ok compared to those around me. More sliding and skating around on the snowy descent ensued which was partly fun but a little frustrating as I wasn’t great at it whereas some people seemed to be very at ease with the snow leaping and sliding in almost full control looking far more relaxed than me and going plenty faster! I was guessing that they were skiers. I have got myself some skies for the winter so hopefully I will get a little better in the snow by next year.

The next climb was again snowy (I think their briefing of 60% snow coverage was pretty accurate) and even steeper. Thankfully there were some half decent steps kicked into the snow meaning I just needed the energy to get up there rather than having to kick steps which can be laborious. The Leki’s were getting tonnes of use now and I really appreciated having them with me. I had pretty much decided that it was wise to have them. When I wasn’t using them they were no real bother carrying them one in each hand parallel to the ground. It did mean that my hands were always full but it was worth it for sure. The next food stop was at Refuge du Fond des Fours. I was pretty exhausted here but it was only how I expected to be feeling at this stage and I felt in control. To stay that way, I drank plenty of fluid here and ate what I could stomach.

Next up on the menu was the last real crushing climb of the day, the Aiguille Pers. It was super steep and the footing was slate sticking up in sharp ridges that you wouldn’t really want to fall on and around that plenty of loose slate. This climb was hard. Soon I saw that runners that were ahead were flying towards me back down the suicidal slope. Hmm, I wasn’t too sure I was looking forward to that descent! As I sweated myself higher and higher towards the top, I eventually crossed the snow line. The top was a welcome sight, where I stopped briefly to adjust my bag before beginning the sketchy descent first through the deep snow which I kept sinking into up to my waist and coming to a very rude standstill! Once out of the soft but difficult snow it was on to the equally difficult and slippery but not so soft trail.

I relaxed as much as I could down the hill and was soon on good running trail again. I was tired now but knew I was coming to the end. I soon saw ahead the next cp which was situated at the famous cycling Col, the Col de l’Iseran. I was feeling a little queezy again so was struggling to find foods I thought I could cope with. Now for a shorter climb but with a nice steep sting at the end that took us up to the tunnel des Leisseires a 3 metre round tunnel about 30 metres long through the top of the mountain to take you through to the valley beyond. It was dark and dripping with melt water and a little surreal. Out the other side was a very slippery steep snowy descent that I did about 50% of on my backside! From there on the descending eased off and after 10 more minutes of deep snow I was back on hard dry dusty trail. I knew that I was heading down now from the heights of the high mountains and would not be running in the snow again today.

I kept heading down and down. I looked at my watch and realised that I was going to be finishing very close to 11 hrs. I then saw a long way below me Val D’Isere. That was a lot of descending left to do! I was following some mountain bike trails down which was nice but then got directed straight down the steep mountainside! My knees were feeling a little tender before this, and this certainly wasn’t helping matters. I must practice more the really steep descents. Down and down I dropped till finally I was running through the town. It was really hot and people were sat out on the grass having picnics and sunbathing. I crossed the line in 11:05. Lou met me there and told me I had come 39th which I was very happy with. I had struggled but I hadn’t hit the wall. Mission accomplished!

We later discovered that Richard had been timed out and the frustrating reason was that he had got caught behind a woman who panicked on the part that drops off the top of the Grande Motte near the start. They wouldn’t let him pass along with some other guys for an hour and he just couldn’t make it back up! I really felt for him especially as he had flown over specially for it!

I was happy with my result. but on the bigger scale, I was really happy that the past four weeks of races and the recce had all gone quite well with no hitches. I have no more races booked up now before UTMB so things could calm down a bit.

It would be nice to race some more but I can’t really afford it and there is so much I would love to do in my home valley! I still have so much more to explore and that is free! I would like to run to Zermatt in Switzerland over three nights and bivvy out every night, and plenty of other things. I’m sure winter will creep on me soon than I expect and then running will probably come to a standstill and the skis will take its place. Not a bad thing I’m sure!

Happy running

 

Hello UTMB

I have been running for getting close to eight years now and I have been aware of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc for a long time. It has always really P1020820appealed to me for obvious reasons such as it is in the Alps, it is long and it is hard. Each year that passed a new reason would materialise for me not doing it. Then last year during my post Trans-Europe running drought, I entered my new target race, the mighty Tor des Geants. I also entered UTMB which would be two weeks before TDG. The chances of getting places in both (both are ballot races now) are minimal. If it happened then I would choose TDG, or maybe try them both. Anyway, I think I have spoke about this before. The bottom line is that I didn’t get a place in the TDG (in fact they even neglected to put my name on the waiting list due to their error) but thankfully did get my UTMB place.

Initially I was frustrated with not getting a TDG place, but then I moved out here and the realisation that I had a place in what was now my ‘home’ event became suddenly more appealing. The TDG will still be there next year. I was hoping to spend three days recceing the entire UTMB route, but had not set any dates. Then I had a comment on my blog from Paul Bennett asking if I fancied joining him for a three day recce. I knew Paul briefly from mine and James Elsons run on the South Down Way when Paul ran with us for the final 18 or so miles.

I know nothing really about the trails outside of the valley whereas Paul has a fair amount of experience. He booked up the Refuges Elisabetta and Champex for our two nights stay. Paul arrived at mine on the Thursday evening. We ate a decent meal and sorted our kit for a fairly early start next morning. I was taking my OMM bag that has a 25 litre capacity as we needed three days worth of running kit, wash kit, and something to wear in the evening. I didn’t use any where near the full capacity, but thought that my Salomon 12 would be just too tight. Paul on the other hand had managed to squeeze all he needed into his Salomon 5! I have much work to do when it comes to kit minimalisation!

We were dropped off in town by Lou and made our way to the church to the proper start area. I started my Suunto Ambit up to find satellites. Then we were off. We were travelling fast through town. I was fine with it, we were fresh and excited. This was no race so we could rest whenever we wanted. No stressing about getting the pacing bang on schedule. I was here to experience the route and take strength away with me, but overall I wanted to have a really good weekend running in these magnificent mountains with Paul. I believe I have mentioned this before, but I love the Ultra community. Paul and I barely knew each other, but I just knew that we would get on great. Spending three solid days working really hard together can be a really full on experience normally, but for some reason, ultra runners just seem to get on together so well. Maybe it’s the mutual respect, the passion we have in common, either way it just works.

The trail to Les Houches follows the river and is fairly flat. I could only imagine the speed that the front runners would pass along here at the start of the race. It was heating up quickly with not a cloud in the sky. The forecast was good for the weekend so keeping on top of hydration for three days on the trot was going to be challenging, but the great news was that P1020821we were going to have great visibility on the way round. In Les Houches we missed our turn off but soon found it and then were straight into a good stiff ascent.

Paul had bought his poles. Before coming to France, I had not seen any value in sticks so didn’t own any, but during the first two races since arriving here, I had been a little envious of those using them. They P1020822certainly looked to be advantageous for long and steep climbs, as they utilised your upper body more and added a rhythmic drum beat as you hit the tungsten carbide tips on the ground. Paul’s sticks were out now as we worked our way up the first climb of Col de Voza. We arrived at a crossroads where we quickly checked my map which I had marked the whole route on for clarity. We passed La Charme and so began the first of the descents It was steep enough to be quite a jarring experience. It was largely on grass too which was bone dry. Add a little moisture and this would be like ice. I really need to work on my descending. My climbing is a much stronger asset at the moment as much time seems to be lost on the steeper and more technical sections. I need to train at downhills.P1020823

As we worked our way down the hill, St-Gervais-les-Bains appeared below us. This would provide our first stop. Once we had entered the town we hunted out a shop and got some snacks and cold drinks. We sat on a bench and drank and ate. By now it was very hot and I was sweating a great deal and the sun was beating down on us. I was getting some chafing on my nipples and decided to change tops. After about five minutes we picked up all our wrappers and empty bottles and binned them and started walking down the road. Soon we were running again. The trail P1020826here got a bit windy as it followed the river for a little bit before crossing it and heading up the other side of the valley. Paul was cautious here as he had gone quite wrong here last year adding around 10km extra to the already tough day. Basically, we went a little wrong too, but it wasn’t anything too bad, and probably only cost us around 30 mins. No real problem.

The route followed the river all the way down to Les Contamines. It was just before here that we started passing marker tape and paint that surely meant there was a race here at some point over the weekend. We stopped again in Les Contamines and stocked up again, drinking loads of fluid. I had an Orangina which was too gassy for me as I never really drink fizzy drinks. we stood in a little bit of shade and Paul popped into a sports shop to get some cheap sunglasses. Time to move on. It was really nice not being in a rush all the time and having decent rests whenever we felt like it. This is not to say that when we were on the move we were slacking, but to think that this was going to be an easy weekend would be foolish.P1020827

After we followed the trail beside the river for a little further, we then began to climb. This was the decent climb of Col du Bonhomme. The further we got up the climb the more frequent and larger the patches of snow became until finally we were totally surrounded by snow. It was still very warm but now the sun was bouncing off the snow too! I found a rhythm and stuck too it. Paul trailed behind a little but only a matter of seconds. We had a little pause on the Col before continuing on for the extra 15-20 mins to arrive at the refuge. On the way we bumped into another runner. Paul speaks very good French so chatted and discovered that this chap is 67 years old and is running the Tors des Geants for the fourth time this year. That is every edition! What a P1020828legend! We parted ways feeling inspired as seems to happen so much in ultra running.

At the refuge we topped up our water and sat out in the sun on a rock and had a fine lunch of a baguette, ham and by now sweaty cheese we had purchased earlier. We pushed on again feeling a little tired but revitalised after our lunch stop. The descent from here was long and fun with one short slate covered area with sharp bits dangerously sticking up out of the dusty ground. We both slowed a little as we negotiated it but Paul slipped and landed on his hand cutting himself on the palm. he washed it off and put a plaster on it but was concerned about infection, but there was not a great deal that could be done till we got too the refuge.P1020829

At the base of the descent was the Refuge de la Nova. We topped up our ever emptying bladders again and then left walking up a section of road that cut its way up the valley. It was very hot still but we were now on the final climb of the day. Soon we can rest. My feet were getting very sore and it felt as though I was getting the dreaded hotspots that could mean that I would soon be facing blisters. Not great on a big day, but the first of three days could mean a whole load of pain over the next two days! I now became very cautious on my feet trying to minimise the rub. The climb left the road and started getting more aggressive as we slowly paced up towards the Col de la Seigne. We were both feeling the days running and the heat now and the climb was taking it’s toll. My mind started thinking about the days ahead. The morning ahead. But first a shower, sit down and plenty of food away from the sun.

Paul felt a little dehydrated at the top but thankfully all that remained was the long descent to our stop for the night, refuge Elisabetta Soldini. I arrived five minutes ahead of Paul and stood looking out at the incredible vista that was presented. We had covered over 70km in 12 hours and it had been a tough but truly stunning day. This is why I moved here. To experience days like this is priceless to me.P1020830

We had a cold shower here that was far from pleasant but once we had warmed up life was good. We had a large dinner and tried to get as much of our kit dry again for the morning. The dormitory was very busy as there was a Italian cycling club that had somehow got their mountain bikes up here. They all had a few too many drinks with dinner and were really noisy when the lights went out and even woke at 0500 and had a 10 minute non-whispered chat. It was a little annoying but made me laugh also. After a poor breakfast, Paul and I creakily took off being the first to leave the refuge.P1020831

The day was certainly looking to be another scorching one with pristine blue skies and temperatures already beginning to feel pretty warm. After the initial stiffness we loosened up and running was good. The next stop would be Courmayeur in a few hours. I was really enjoying seeing the Mont Blanc massif from the Italian side for a change rather than the already familiar though far from boring Chamonix side. It is such an incredible mountain group being so dramatic and beautiful. I was in heaven. By the time we were descending into Courmayeur the days heat had arrived and I was again baking, but I didn’t want to complain as the perfect views we were getting because of the weather far outweighed the energy sapping heat.P1020832

We found a shop and got some supplies and sat and drank and ate plenty. We were both feeling ok as we left the busy Courmayeur and headed directly up a steep road. We stopped for five minutes as Paul had a hot spot on his foot he wanted to tend to before it turned into something more unmanageable. He had problems sticking the blister patch to his sweaty foot, but eventually it stuck. We continued up the hill and were soon thankfully off the tarmac and back on the dusty trail. We were on the climb that would take us to refuge Bertone and this was a climb with many switchbacks and would certainly be one to remember for the event. If I have learnt anything out here, it is the value of walking, or more specifically, knowing exactly when you should stop trying to run. A good walk on a long steep climb during a long run is far more efficient than hammering away trying to run it all.P1020833

I was happy to just stroll up the hill and take on plenty of water as as we did so. Paul had his sticks out and was tapping away, beating a consistent rhythm out as he went. I now had reached a point where my curiosity had reached a boiling point. I needed to get some sticks and try them out. Back in England there is a bit of a joke about Europeans and their love of sticks, and I was certainly one of the people who would joke about it, but now I was willing to admit that I could possibly see a benefit to them. Alpine races are not like races back home. They are hard. I of course don’t think that UK races are easy, far from it, but the sheer scale of climbing and descending in these races has to be tried to be believed. There are the famous races that most of us will have heard of, but the races that are just local affairs still have epic stats such as 56km and at least 4000m of ascent which if you have never experienced, take my word for it, is bloody hard! No-one runs the whole of these things.P1020836

After a long very hot walk up to the refuge, we stopped at the water trough and topped up. Paul wanted crisps for the salt but they didn’t sell them. It was a beautiful morning and this meant that there were many people out walking which was nice. Some looked like they were just out for a little stroll whereas some looked like they were out for a number of days, possibly to trek the entire Tour Mont Blanc. Off we went again knowing that the next 10km or so was decent trail running parallel to the massif with no massive ups or downs. The next stop would be refuge Walter Bonatti. The views all along here were staggeringly beautiful. I wished I could paint or photograph it well. I could just stare at it forever. All a little distracting when you’re trying to run and not fall, but I certainly wasn’t complaining!

P1020837Once we arrived at the refuge, we sat at a bench and stayed there for 20-30 minutes. The sun was blisteringly hot. I removed my shoes and socks and dried them out as they were soaked with sweat which wasn’t doing any favours for my hot spots which for some reason were not forming into blisters thankfully. It felt oh so good to to be airing my feet out and my socks were drying out fast in the heat. Once everything was dry and my feet were even starting to look a little less like a dried prunes we reluctantly donned our smelly socks and trainers and were off again.

I was tiring a little and it took a little while to get back into the swing of things but overall we were both good. My feet were still very sore due to the heat and being constantly wet with sweat. After a nice steep and technical downhill to Arnuva, we now faced the climb to the Grand Col Ferret, theP1020838 highest point of the entire route at 2537 metres. Paul had built this climb up a bit over the previous few days and I found that I was quite excited to be here. I soon was walking and focused on being as fast and economical as possible. Some French chap came past me quite fast and I let him. I passed him soon and stuck to a solid steady pace. He soon passed out of my sight and before I knew it I was crossing the snow near the top where it was flat enough to run. I was at the col soon enough admiring the magnificent views either side. Paul was not to far behind and was also happy with how smoothly the climb had gone. He had never seen it so snowy up here.

P1020841We saw a group of Germans pushing their mountain bikes up the other side from here. The descent for them would be difficult to say the least but good luck to them and respect for dragging/sliding their bikes this far up. The descent for us was very snowy and slippy but plenty of fun. Once the snow had ended, we were back on super trail that was slowly descending around the side of the mountain. There was a refuge/cafe near the bottom called La Peule. We stopped briefly as I rinsed my face of all the layers of salt that had built up over the long day using icy fresh water. It felt so good!

We now had a fairly long drag down to La Fouly. The temperature had been high all day and there was no sign of it dropping yet and we had no shade all day. Even though I don’t think I am great in the heat, I thought I was coping relatively well this weekend. Maybe I will adapt to it a little?

Once at La Fouly, we found the shop and bought some cold drinks and P1020842drunk them rapidly. They were very cold and froze my poor cooked head. It felt good. We now had the final push of the day to our second and final overnight accommodation of this fantastic trip at Champex. This was around 18km. The trail was fun and we were soon blessed to finally have the sun lower behind the mountain. The temperature dropped to a manageable level straightaway, though it remained very humid.

From now on, things got tough for me. I was tired. After passing through the tiny village of Issert, we left the road we had been following for a while and took off up and to the left for our final climb of the day. Whether this was because we were tired and feeling the past two days in the sun and in our legs I don’t know but it seemed to go on for a long time. It was beautifully peaceful though and the promise of a shower and good meal very soon certainly helped us get up there.P1020843

We made our way through the town of Champex and found our refuge at the other end of town and I at last removed my feet from the shoes which were smelling pretty ripe by now. We were in time for dinner, but we didn’t have the time to shower first so we had to sit through dinner in our kit we had worn all day. I don’t think we cared at that point though even if the other diners did!

We had a room to ourselves tonight which was nice. The beds were comfortable and the showers were warm. What luxury! The next and final day was the shortest at 45km and Pauls transfer to the airport was at 1730 which gave us a lot of time but we had a chat about whether we would be cutting things a bit fine. We both obviously wanted to finish at the church at Chamonix and Paul was willing to finish and get picked up straight away without going back to mine without showering. Dedicated!P1020844

We had a decent breakfast in the morning and were off before the heat was beating down. We were almost immediately into the monster climb that is Bovine. I felt ok and was enjoying working my way steadily up here. I was still feeling quite strong and the views down over Matigny that eventually presented themselves where inspiring. I stopped a couple of times and took pictures. I wish I could convey effectively the stunning and touching views I experience when out running, wherever I am in the world, but whether it is through words or pictures it doesn’t come close. Maybe a part of the experience though is the pain and hard work that builds up to these views.

P1020845The climb up Bovine was beautiful but I kept imagining the climb the previous night to Champex being tagged on to the beginning during the race. I’ll try to remember that for the race. This is roughly three quarters of the way through so I will be really tired by this stage.

We descended around the mountain to the road Col de la Forclaz, which was our first stop of the day. I had a Swiss apple juice which was really refreshing. We didn’t hang around long though as we were off. I had been up this road just a few weeks previously on my bike. I was looking forward to seeing the Chamonix valley again… home. Already things were familiar.P1020847

As we passed through Trient at the bottom, two French runners caught us up. Paul chatted with them a bit. They were running the CCC route over three days. We started the next big climb of the day which was to Catogne. It was very hot and dusty. I went ahead with one of the French guys and Paul was behind with the other. The climb was certainly no easy one and would really be a big test on the day. Once at the top I found a bit of tree cover and say on the cool grass to cool down while I waited for Paul. The descent down was long and fun. After a long while we were right down in the valley at P1020849Vallorcine. This would be our final stop for the day. The French lads had said that they’d be stopping for lunch here but we saw them run straight through. We wondered into town and found a boulangerie so we could stock up before the final push.

I knew that the next bit of trail the led to the Col des Montets was very unchallenging so would be a good place to prepare for the final big climb. When we arrived at the top, I used the loo and topped up with cold water then we were off. We saw the French lads sat in the shade at the bottom having their lunch. One of them had the drunken slurred look of someone who had overcooked it and was possibly dehydrated. We wished eachotherP1020851 luck and continued. I pushed quite hard up here, but energy levels were certainly diminished a little. I reached the top in good spirits but feeling quite weary.

The final stretch was on known trail to La Flegere along some incredible and technical trail and from there it was all down hill to the glorious finish in Chamonix. It felt like we had been away for ages and the adventure had been one I will remember for the rest of my life. I think I will be running this again sometime, and I don’t mean the race. Maybe solo and bivvying out?

So was this valuable as a recce seeing as the route will be really well marked during the event and navigation not an issue? The answer is a resounding yes. I was not surprised at the difficulty, the technicality and the P1020852massive climbs and descents, but to just experience the climbs in the right order on tired legs will certainly stick in my mind for when the event comes around.

I seemed to recover well over the coming week which was just as well as the next weekend was final test of this busy month, the Ice Trail Tarentaise. This will be my second Skyrunning race which is so called because of it’s high altitude, reaching a max of 3600 metres and not dropping below 2000. There will be plenty of snow!P1020853

Anyway. I will say goodbye for now, as this one has been particularly lengthy, even for me!

Happy running.

My First Taste of Skyrunning

Vertical km

Thanks to Ian Corless for the image

So, a week after the Samoens Trail tour race where I was happy with what I believed was a little progress over the previous race, it was my home race. Skyrunning was coming to town! The Mont Blanc Marathon weekend consisted of a 80km race on the Friday, a vertical km in the afternoon, some smaller races on the Saturday and the marathon on the Sunday. The vertical km and the marathon races were both Skyrunning races, meaning that some of the worlds best trail runners would be fighting it out meaning there would not be any decent positions for me!

Since arriving in Chamonix I have been learning about the fantastic selection of inspiring races that are out here. I soon realised that a lot of them were already full or filling fast. Soon after a little panic, I had entered a few races and plans were made. Not long after I realised that over four consecutive weekends I was booked up to run the Samoens Trailtour, followed by the Chamonix marathon weekend, then Paul Bennett was flying over to do a full UTMB recce over 3 days and finishing with the Ice Trail Tarentaise at Val D’Isere. Hmmm, not the best bit of planning was my initial thought, but then after a little thought I realised that this was similar to some chunks of running I have done in the past, and then it would give me an enormous boost in not only fitness but confidence. I am aware that it is a slightly risky method because of potential injury, which is why I plan on doing no running in-between events. To be stronger I must rest. Back to what works best for me.

So, I had a choice to make. Should I do my usual and go for the biggest event i.e. the 80km, or do the rather novel for me vertical km and the marathon? Well, after my vertical km experience in Morzine a couple years earlier, I was willing to try again, and I also wanted to be a part of a Skyrunning race. Decision made! The shorter stuff. I knew come race day I would have race envy for the 80km race but I couldn’t do them all. And there would always be next year when the 80km was also going to be promoted to a Skyrunning race.

There were a few Brits flying in for the weekend and we were planning to meet up when they arrived which was nice. It feels really nice when people turn up at your home town and are really buzzing with the excitement of just being there. How can anyone not love the mountains!? We all registered then met up in town for a coffee. Most of the guys were doing the 80km, except Claire Shelley who had chosen the same races as me. We all parted our way as the 80km runners were starting at 0400 the next morning. Me on the other hand was going to get a sleep in for once!

That evening when I got home I looked online at the 80km route to see at what sort of time the lead guys would be coming by Argentiere. It would be quite a novelty rolling out of bed and walking five minutes up the track to watch super fast lead guys racing by. The website had GPS tracking for who the Skyrunning federation considered the fastest runners so I could lay in bed and actually wait till the lead guys were close. When they were around 30 minutes away we strolled up the trail and started the large climb that twists it’s way up through the trees that only a matter of weeks ago were cloaked in a quiet layer of fresh snow. The contrast now was complete. The sun was strong and forcing it’s way through the heavy tree cover in shafts of light. We found a spot on a switchback and sat waiting. Soon the two front runners, both Salomon guys, power walked past looking like they had just started an hour ago, not nine. Just incredible. After the first two, there was a big gap to third place. We then made our way back home.

The vertical km was the first on my menu for the weekend and it began at 1600 that day (Friday). It was a time-trial so competitors would be starting individually at 30 second intervals. With the slowest first and Kilian Jornet last as he won it last year. We could basically pick our start time depending on what our predicted finish time would be. Claire started at around 1620 and by this stage Israel had met up with us and had decided to start at around 1800. I was going to be off 10 mins later at 1810. It was all a bit frantic at the start line so I wandered off and bought some cherries and found a quite spot to sit in the sun and eat them. I had run the km a few times now with my fastest being 50 minutes, so I had targeted under 50 minutes and less importantly a top 50 position. You have to dream!

Soon my time was up, time to sprint up a very steep hill! I wished Israel luck and watched him dash up the road. Soon I was being told that I had to start next. I was planning to start five minutes later, but it didn’t really matter. I think they just wanted there to be as few gaps as possible. I stood on the line watching the clock tick down 30 seconds… 20…10…5 4 3 2 1 GO! The first vertical 100m was on road and there were lots of people cheering at the side of the road. As pretty much all races I run, my game plan was minimal. Today it was to try not to sprint off with excitement and blow up quickly, and to hit my top limit and hold it there for the whole thing not getting caught up in the chase. Within 5 minutes I was certainly at my maximal output and had arrived at the start of the trail that worked its way up the stupidly steep hill. The view up was quite bizarre with a snake of runners zig-zagging their way laboriously underneath the the telecabin.

I put my head straight back down and embraced the pain that I would be feeling for the next maybe 45 minutes. I slowly started picking people off. Always a good feeling. Although it felt good, I knew that the secret was to run my own race. As soon as I looked up then I knew that I would see loads of runners ahead and the temptation to chase and accelerate would be high but dangerous as any extra no matter how small would be too much. I fought my way up and steadily overtook people. At around 300 metres vertical I started to power walk which was a little experimental as normally I would just run, but I continued to pass people so took strength from it and continued. As It got steeper I continued to pass people. All of the runners I passed where really good about stepping aside to let me pass so I lost no time. It definitely helped to have been up here a few times previously. I knew what was coming.

I knew that the rocky section towards the top was coming that had cables and railings on the rocks to assist on the steeper sections. When I was there, there was no doubt at all that I was fully at my limit. I was treading a tightrope of pain. Be careful! Then there is a section very close to the top that is wide with a railing along the side as it is so steep. Two guys were in front and I needed to pass them so I went out to the side to get around them but here there was of course no railing, and my feet were struggling to get a purchase in the loose stone so I had to use my hands to scramble past. This was too much. I blew and even though I passed the two runners I was cooked! I was forced to slow a little through fatigue. I tried not to panic. My legs were wooden and I felt like I was on top of Everest. 20 seconds later I had recovered a tiny amount and could put a fraction of added effort into it. I passed two more runners and was soon running up the steps to the cable car station. The next two flights of steps were incredibly intense even though they were so short. I was broken. I finally crossed the line stopping my Suunto Ambit. at 45 minutes. Wow! walking a lot of it gained me 5 minutes!

I later discovered that I had got 49th place so I had achieved my objectives by the skin of my teeth! Thankfully the recovery was very quick. No soreness at all like from anything longer. Next morning I felt great and the race wasn’t till Sunday. The Saturday was very wet with heavy rain all day. It could be a tough race the next day! When I woke on the Sunday, the rain had stopped. It was a beautiful looking morning and although the start was cool being at 0700, it was threatening to be a hot one.

Just a t-shirt with my arm warmers on top. I love the arm warmers for races. They supply a surprising amount of extra heat and you can easily roll them down around your wrists to regulate heat. Perfect for races when you don’t want to waste any time. I wriggled my way about two thirds of the way towards the front. There was a 2000 capacity so it was really busy there with poles dangerously flying around all over the place. I felt good and was looking forward to getting going. Music was playing and the atmosphere was building and then we were off.

I knew a fair amount of the course and was aware that the first part up to Argentiere was mostly uphill but relatively gentle and on easy wide trail. This was good as there was no panic to get a good position on the single track. The speed running through Chamonix was fast enough though. I jumped up onto the pavement and passed a few people and escaped the danger of being in a close pack. As we left the town and got onto the trail, things had started to settle a little and gaps were plenty. My pace felt good I thought, but then had to remind myself that I am still most certainly on the steep part of the learning curve when it comes to the totally incomparable pacing in the high mountains. I would push but with a little caution.

Within 50 minutes I was running past my home. How great to be running in a Sky race that goes right past my doorstep! Then I saw Lou stood at the side of the trail. She gave me a cheer as I ran past. I left the woods ran through a rather busy town and then was on the short climb up towards the fantastically named village Le Planet. I was soaked through with sweat already but there were enough water stops to keep me topped up and I had my little bottle of Elete water electrolytes so all should be good.

One of the reasons I wanted to do the Skyrunning events was because I knew there would be a really good atmosphere around the course, and this was certainly true with cow bells frantically being swung and many shouts of “Allez Allez” and “bon courage”. It really helps to get such shouts of encouragement when things are tough.

I was working hard and the day was really starting to heat up. There was barely a cloud in the sky. Maybe if we get lots of hot weather this summer, I will adapt a bit more to the heat, but for the moment it is definitely my achilles heel. A gentle but fairly lengthy climb took us through Tre-le-Champ then up the Col Des Montets. I had to ease off a little up here as I was working to hard and there was a long way to go. My main aim was to not blow at any point. Simple you would think! Once over the Col, we took the non-technical trail down the other side which gave me a chance to regroup a little which was good as I knew that we would soon be on a monster climb. As the trail levelled out at the bottom of the valley I knew that we were nearly there. First a fully stocked cp where I briefly stopped and took on plenty of fluid and some banana and fruit cake. Shortly after the cp I was walking up a steep hill through a field. The climb was roughly a 1000m so I knew there was no rush. Nice and steady is the only way for these races unless you’re one of the gifted few.

And so up we went. We were in the trees on narrow fairly technical terrain. There were many switchbacks and I was enjoying it. I was passing many people with only one or two passing me. One of which had poles but they were rather unorthodox being a branch from a tree and a piste marking pole. He was strong and I wondered whether he does this in all his races? Disposable poles. Maybe one to try?

I had found some sort of rhythm. It was laboured and possibly a little to high, but I was locked in and was just going to have to see what happens. After around 15 minutes we left the trail and joined a larger maintenance trail which was not as pretty, but certainly as painful. The sweat was stinging my eyes as it constantly rolled down my head. I then saw that we were getting near to the top of the cablecar which signified the top of the steepest section. Once past this I followed the large trail up the col for 5 minutes and then was back on narrow trail heading up to the top of Aguillettes des Posettes at 2200 metres. At the top I was exhausted but ok. It took me a little while to find my downhill legs but soon I was overtaking people who were obviously taking longer to find theirs! Half way down this descent I was passed by the Inov8 runner Shona Stephenson from Australia who was dropping down the steep technical trail as though she was on the road. Within about 15 seconds she was out of sight. I never saw anyone else that day descend at anywhere near the same pace, quite incredible!

At the bottom of the descent I passed rather wearily through Tre-le-Champ again. I crossed the road and was immediately on the uphill climb to La Flegere which I knew. I was really feeling the heat now and knew that I was not going to be able to really push it here. I was on survival mode. The climb was a bit of a struggle to be honest. Anna Frost came past me up here at this point. She was looking strong. I was tending to downhill quicker than her but she certainly was stronger at this moment. I knew that there was a decent cp a Flegere so as I climbed I made the decision to not just rush through but stop for a short while to regroup and drink lots and eat. It wouldn’t be long, but could really help me for the final push. Once I arrived at Flegere I was hugely grateful for my earlier decision and embraced the stop. I used my time well by working my way down the table eating and drinking what I could. Once I felt on the verge of being too full, I turned and was back on my way for the final 5km. I started off with heavy legs and was a little doubtful that I had made a wise decision, but then a few minutes later there was a definite boost in my energy. I suddenly felt a little lighter. I began to pass a few people that had passed me at the cp and soon was really enjoying the trail.

The sky was clear and the views from this area are enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. I grinned again that this was my home. I looked down at my watch. I had made a rough target of beating 5 hours. How achievable this was I wasn’t sure and now I realised that I had around 15 minutes. The trail was undulating to say the least so I realised that I would have to have my work cut out if I was going to drop below 5 hours. As I got closer to the end I could hear the music and the commentator pulling me in.

I knew this section well. The final km or so was uphill and the uphill was a bit of a stinker! I knew this was going to hurt. I began the climb and tried to stay in control. I was above the trees here so the sun was having a last punishing go at stopping me. I was walking as hard as I could, my breathing was almost out of control and as I turned a corner I could see the rest of the trail leading up to the crowds at the top around the inflatable finish gantry. So close and yet so painfully far! I drove hard for the top and crossed the line in 4:58! Brilliant. I collapsed onto a bench as my chest heaved at the oxygen it needed. After a minute, I caught the cablecar down to town and got changed at the car before enjoying the incredible buffet that was provided. I didn’t have any of the free wine there.

I definitely didn’t escape hitting the wall here but I saw it and dealt with it in a fairly effective manner. So although it wasn’t great, I see this as an improvement again over the last race. There is still so much to learn though. I came 101st which was great. The whole weekend was an incredible experience and as you may have guessed by now, I love the fact it’s in my home town.

The rest of my week was to be spent doing no running again as on the Thursday a friend of mine, Paul Bennett would be flying over and on the Friday we would begin a three day recce of the UTMB route. How super exciting! This is how life should be. I just need some money now!

I will write again soon to let you know how the recce went.

Happy running.

 

Learning to Run Again.

I felt like I had recovered quite quickly from the Trail du Gypaete and was out running a few Samoensdays later. This whole experience is like a lifetime ambition for me. A lot of my life before running was spent road cycling and I was lucky enough to be able to bring my road bike. I have only been out on it a few times, and my cycling fitness is shocking but my childhood fantasy of riding up and down Alpine mountains on my doorstep is still alive. It’s just incredible that it has actually been sidelined by running! It is fantastic to slave away on a climb where there are hardly any other vehicles and the views are second to none!

I came to a realisation a little while after Gypaete. It was a very obvious fact, but as seems to be rather typical of me, I couldn’t see it initially. The realisation was this : The Alps are harder to run in than the UK. Yes of course I knew this before, but I hadn’t changed the way I ran at all. Two key factors had to change : my pacing and the way I ascended. Since I’ve been here I have exploded quite a few times when out on longer runs. I have a real low spot with no energy and a little queeziness. This is not normal for me. I rarely get stomach issues, and my pacing has been one of the strengths back in the UK, but out here I realised, things had to change if I wanted to progress. I had to have more faith in walking on the hills. It can be more efficient and as fast or even faster. This must be practised! My pacing though had to be completely reprogrammed. I just went too fast for my ability and the terrain. I am used to getting my pacing quite even and having something left near the end for a final push, but out here, I basically am fighting for the end. It breaks me.

I got messaged from Rorie McIntosh one day asking if I was entered into the Samoens Trail Tour race. I had noticed this race and thought it looked pretty hardcore and being fairly local made it quite attractive, but I just hadn’t got round to entering. Rorie had moved out to Samoens earlier in the year so he was definitely entering. How could I refuse!

Since moving to the alps I have begun choosing races like I used to choose wine. Strength and price for wine, whereas all the info I need for race selection is ascent in metres and distance. The Samoens Trail Tour race is 55km long with a punchy ascent of 4200m. Those stats would ensure that I would be walking plenty!

Since moving out here, I have been getting a little carried away with my running and have been neglecting my usual relatively high levels of rest. The week preceding the race I didn’t run once. My feet and muscles were happy to get a decent break, but it certainly is harder for me to rest when I am surrounded with these incredibly beautiful mountains and their endless trails.

I had to be up at 0330 to have a quick breakfast of greek yogurt with a healthy dose of Udo’s oil stirred in before dashing out the door. The drive took around an hour and a half which included 10 minutes of driving in circles in much confusion and building panic. Fortunately I realised my error and arrived at the start area. with around 20 minutes to go. A little rushing around speaking terrible French and hopeful English gained me my dossard (number). While pinning it on, I noticed Rorie with Kate. I walked over and said hi. We were soon interrupted by the race brief in French and before I knew what was being said we were off!Gypaete fog

Conditions were good for the start, being dry but there was some cloud looming over the higher ground so it could be chilly up on top. We begun with a swift flat run around the lake before following a winding road steadily upwards. Then we were on the single track in the trees. Rorie and I were chatting a little but I was too out of breath to speak much. Rorie seemed to be running effortlessly. We were now in single file through the narrow trails and I was occasionally putting in a little burst to get past someone. Once the path widened out and steepened, we were free to find our own place and not be stuck behind people. I now, without realising had created a small gap between myself and Rorie. I pushed on up the hill. The humidity was very high and everything I was wearing was soaked through already. This would not be great if it was chilly at the high points. The climb continued for 18km with a few hundred metres of level ground. It just kept on going up and up! Soon there was snow and finally I was in my own bubble in the cloud. I saw no-one in front or behind. Occasionally a volunteer would appear pointing me in the right direction with the encouraging “allez, allez”. As in my previous race, the marking was impeccable. Even with the snow cover and the very low visibility, it was easy to follow the route, with arrows sprayed on the snow and rocks and marker tape everywhere.

I was starting to cool down. my hands were feeling it and as I was working so hard I was still sweating quite a bit. My arms were also starting to chill. Were is the top? I knew that as soon as I started to descend the temperature would rise again. There was just no visibility so I couldn’t see the top. I reached a small col and headed left still climbing. Soon I gratefully spotted a happy French man signifying I was at the top and happy to be finally doing something other than climbing. It took a while before my legs regained some strength from the 18km monster climb, but I sure was enjoying it. Occasionally I would hear cow bells being rang too frantically for them to be around a cows neck. It would soon be revealed that it was some more super enthusiastic volunteers “Allex, allez”.

I was now back out of the clouds but it wasn’t too long before the trail headed back up again. Conditions were soft in places but were good really. In comparison to my experience at the Trail du Gypaete things were perfect! I knew there were a few more decent climbs left, so tried to hold back a little something to save myself from blowing again. I had been climbing for a little while when I realised that I was on the next big ascent. I carefully passed along a short ridge that was watched over by a member of the local mountain rescue. Sadly I was back in the clouds again so was missing out on what I can only imagine was a special view. The ridge seemed to carry on forever and it also got steeper and steeper. As I fought my way through the cloud with my heart feeling like it was going to pop out of my chest at any moment, I heard a voice behind. I stopped and turned. It was good to stop for a second and let my body recover a little. I saw nothing except the cloud so turned and kept climbing. My movements were slow and unsteady. I again needed the top soon before I blew. I stopped a couple more times for a few seconds to catch my breath on the climb, before at last completing it.

The descent was quite technical at points but I slowly gained a little strength after having almost everything sapped from me on the ferocious climb. There now was some lumpy terrain where I was temporarily reduced to a slow walk as I fed myself and waited for a little boost of energy to help me get to the finish. Two ladies shot past me at this point clearly in the race for first place female. I had to let them go as I focused on my own race which was slowly failing me. I tried to remain positive and have faith in the return of my energy. There was not too much further remaining, but I was hurting. Each little upward slope was really tough, but I pushed on. I stopped for a little while longer than normal at the next cp as I took on plenty of food and fluid, topping up my bladder also. Fuel was the only answer to this.

Soon enough I was happy to begin the long descent that would return me to Samoens. I was still exhausted, but my movements became more and more fluid as the downhill progressed. I overtook two runners and then a runner came flying past me. I knew that at one point that I was in 5th place but had lost track now. Maybe 8th? Who cares, as long as I finish ok I will be happy. I started to pass more and more chalets and was soon back in the town. I could see no-one ahead or behind so was  not pressured and just pushed as much as my tired body could take. I crossed the line and was informed I was 7th! Superb!

After an attempted interview on the pa system in French, which I of course couldn’t participate in, I was free to eat and drink. I was exhausted but felt my race was, although lacking in decent pacing, an improvement over my previous effort, so was happy. Rorie also had a good race coming in just 30 minutes behind. A good day for the Brits in the hills!

A week later I had a phone call to inform me that I had bagged third in my category so there would be a trophy in the post! Cool. My little trophy collection I had begun at home in England had all been put into storage so I was starting fresh.

Next on the agenda is a week later in my home town of Chamonix. I had entered the Vertical km and two days later the marathon, both of which are Skyrunning events meaning that there would be some of the greatest mountain runners there. No trophies there I think! This means a full week of no running again. A little frustrating, but it will be worth it I’m sure.

Happy running.