Batona 55 mile Run

After doing a bit of research I finally found a 50 miler to run toward the end of 2018. I had one lined up a couple of weeks after the bike ride i completed up in Canada but coming down with a cold the week before the event was not the pre-race prep that I needed. Deciding that i was probably a bit run down and still recovering I pulled the plug the day before the race. Which was why I found myself searching through the vast web for any 50 mile running race that might be happening on the east coast of the US. And ideally not too far away. 

The Batona 55 Route

The Batona 55 Route

I finally came across a 50 miler located a few hours south in New Jersey that was a point to point race following the length of the Pine Barrens, it had minimal elevation gain and technical sections making it a very runable course. 

The 50km run a couple of weeks before had gone pretty well, however I had managed to twist my ankle a bit on some of the more rocky and technical sections. So I had rested up, done a load of yoga and tried to recuperate as much as possible before the race. The down time did allow me to go out to get a load of supplies. Its safe to say i probably over did it with the number of gels, bars, energy and electrolyte drinks but I wanted to test a few of them out to see how I my body reacted to some of them. Over the week i slowly packed everything that I needed with a few of the drop bags for good measure.  The cherry on top of each drop bag was going to be a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Perfect for the mid race munchies.

One of the new items I found was bulk energy gel bags which I could decant into reusable gel pouches. Compared to the energy gels where you end up with sticky wrappers stuck in your pocket as well as throwing out  the sachets I thought these might provide a lower waste solution.

Gu Gel in Bulk

Gu Gel in Bulk

The night before the event wasn’t quite as smooth as I had planned. A few last minute errands changed the prompt departure. Instead I grabbed a pizza from one of our local pizzerias before making the drive into the wet and windy evening. The conditions were not expected to improve with the rain due to continue until the early hours of the morning. 

Arriving at the hotel for the night I spent the remainder of the evening munching down pizza, pre-taping my feet and doing some last minute packing adjustments. It was the first time I had pre-taped the night before a race. Sitting with one foot balanced carefully on the sink whilst I tried to gently pour this yellow antiseptic on my feet prior to putting on the tape. The antiseptic goes slightly tacky after a few minutes allowing the tape to really stick to your skin. It works really well however after completing this procedure I realised it had also potentially stained the sink. Trying to wipe it off and it was still there so rather than having a calm, relaxing end to the evening I spent the remainder furiously scrubbing away. It finally came off as I collapsed into bed a bit after 10. The alarm set for 3.30 am. 

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

It wasn’t my best or longest night sleep in the world nor my worst as I rubbed my eyes. I left the alarm still ringing in a bid to not fall back asleep. Breakfast was my pre-prepared not so cold oats warmed up to ambient room temperature overnight. I could still feel the stodgy pizza is my stomach. Going through my head was maybe the calzone pizza had been an error of judgement in my pre-race nutrition. Dinner had not been washed down with beer or ice cream which would have certainly tasted good but would have been even less ideal. 

Outside and the rain was still coming down as I drove over to the start line. I checked in, chatted with some of the other runners before sitting in the boot of my car waiting for the bus to pick us up and drop us to the start line. As soon as it turned up we bundled into the back. The yellow school bus being a bit of a novelty still although it’s slowly becoming a bit more familiar with each running race where we have been carted to the start. It was filled with excitement as either good friends or strangers met up and shared various stories of running or other adventures with their seat mates. A bit like heading back to school after the summer holidays.

The main piece that stuck out from the race briefing was look out for the markers and don’t get lost. Fairly easy advice but with a multitude of tracks, turns and the race beginning in the dark it would be especially easy to go wrong especially in the early stages of the race. The race began and the group slowly funnelled into the woods. The trees sheltered us from the final hour of rain. As the group slowly elongated out, the head torches bobbing in front and behind snaking through the under growth. There was a bit of chatting but clearly people were still waking up and coupled with concentrating on the route the chat ebbed and flowed as the terrain became easier and wider or narrow and more technical. 

Starting the race

Starting the race

As sun up began the birds started to become more alive about the forest. Dawn was finally arriving with a kind of strange early morning hazy, grey light. It was still cloudy over head and the chance of some golden glow suddenly illuminating our path was highly unlikely. 

The trail twist and turned, my headlight came off and was stuffed into my running vest as it became more than light enough to run without the additional light. All was going well and on track, despite the drizzle of rain,  we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. After some time we came to the first check point. Reading my number to the team arming the check point and it transpired that they thought I had dropped out. It didn’t feel like a great sign or omen. Particularly when I had to have the same conversation at the next few check points. Until either the message got round or the crews rotation meant they had already met me at an earlier station. 

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Leaving the aid station and heading on one of the guys proclaimed he was ready to rock as he exited the state parks bathroom. Perfect point and time for a stopping point so I jumped in not wanting to get caught out part way. Continuing on and the trail skirted round some lakes which unlike the Cayuga marathon earlier in the year did not look nearly as tempting to jump in with their brown, cold looking water. A section of wooden boarding weaved amongst the trees above the water line. It was at this point I learnt that my trail running shoes had close to no grip on these. I almost ended up on my arse as my first stride hit the wood. The subsequent steps resembled bambi on ice. Despite the precarious nature of them though it was really cool running through the woods. 

Skating on the wooden boards

Skating on the wooden boards

The day slowly heated up and each stride was inching me closer to the finish. By late morning the first marathon was complete. I felt good on my feet a few hot spots had quickly calmed down. Not a great sign but given the race length I was not so concerned. Longer or multi day races might have required a bit of an investigation but where they were I knew I would be ok for the duration of this race. The following day or week could be a different story.

I was carefully making sure to get more than enough electrolyte and food into me as the day progressed. I was using more sugary gels and bars compared to normal. They certainly tasted pretty good although compared to my normal fruit a nut mix. Certainly on a hot day this snack is sometimes pretty hard to swallow as it seems to suck all the remaining moisture from my mouth. However it does provide more natural sustenance than the sugary gels that can after a while taste sickly sweet. This was very much a test though to see how my body reacted to them through the race, ultimately whether or not I could stomach them.

Munching a PB&J sandwich!!

Munching a PB&J sandwich!!

I made my first error in direction. With my head down for a bit I was just plodding a long and came to a soft sandy section. Not wanting to over exert myself through the short section I began to walk. It took some time but it slowly dawned on me that there were no other foot prints. Unless the rest of the field who were in front had all gone wrong, I was on the wrong trail. Tracing my foot steps back and I met another runner making the same mistake as myself. It made me feel less bad and equally fortunate that I had picked it up as soon as I did. As the day crept on my pace slowed overall, not surprisingly, and three of us ended up inter changing positions for a while before I settled on running with one of the guys for a bit. It was great to pass some time chatting away about the day so far and various running adventures. After some time we split and I went a head not expecting to see him till the finish, as one of his legs seemed to be causing him some problems.  

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By early afternoon the sun was out and it had truly turned into a beautiful day for running through the woods. One section my mind was pulled from its meandering thoughts by a cacophony of birds calling out clearly disturbed by myself or some other runners a head. The sound they created was amazing. What felt like not long later I was caught back up by one of the runners who had had a second wind. It was great for me having someone to chat about various races and adventures to pass the final hours of running. The definition of technical terrain or a hill had by this stage in the race very much changed in profile and now even some of the more minor slopes were in the bracket for walking up. We were however on track for hitting the sub 12 hour mark. Which was perfect, the sun was still due to be up by the time we finished so at the penultimate check point I ditched the torch in a bid to save some weight for the final miles. I ran out of water just before the final check point which although was close to the finish I felt I should top up just in case. In retrospect I should have just sucked it up for the final miles but hindsight is always 20:20. 

The final few hundred meters were marked with plenty of flags, there was to be no sprint finish and as we crossed the finish line just after the 12 hour mark the race was all of a sudden over. Not wanting to be too sleepy for the drive back I said my thank you to the race organisers, grabbed my drop bags which had magically made their way to the finish before me and made a dash for the drive home. My legs I could feel were slowly stiffening up and I was particularly thankful as I filled up at a New Jersey gas station (petrol station) where someone fills up for you. By the time I was back home, my normal jumping out of the car had transitioned into a slow, steady but fairly uncontrolled slide out of the car. Before making a beeline for the back door and the stairs that had all of a sudden become my Hillary’s step on Everest to getting into the house. Laura found this equally funny and I think concerning as she kindly helped unpack the car whilst I summited the steps. After a shower, food and a good nights sleep my legs slowly began their recuperation. With a 1000 cycle in September, a 50km running race in October and a 50 mile running race in November it is turning into a fairly solid finish for the year! Now just time to plan 2019’s events! 

What events have you got planned for 2019? 

Trail Run Racing North East USA

I recently took part in my first running trail race in just over a year and prior to that one it has been a couple of years. It also happened to be my first since arriving in the USA.

The race was along the Shawangunk ridge in the state of New York. It's a beautiful part of the state as well as being a tree covered ridge line with enough hills to add to the difficulty. The event had 4 choices of race lengths; 70, 50, 30 miles and half marathon distances. Each followed the same route you just jumped onto the course at different stages along the way. The beauty of it being point to point is the added interest along the trail. When looking out for races I managed to find a large number of them in the northeast of the US that did laps of a trail circuit. Both options have different benefits. But for my first one back in a while a point to point was perfect. You can check out the race details on the link below

https://www.longpathraces.com/shawangunk-ridge-trail-run

I had opted for the half marathon, having not had a suitable amount of time to train up for some longer I was thinking of using it to get me used to races run in the US as well as a good stepping stone to some longer events later in the year. 

Turning up to the event early on a cloudy and cool Saturday morning I had estimated my finishing time. Not on many hard facts for this one just rough estimates based on the distance. As I got chatting to people at the start line it transpired that my estimation was probably off, a quick time for the half marathon and winning time the previous year was just over the 2 hour mark. Along with this a number of people mentioned various points in the course where it was difficult finding the route. There are route markers but they are intermittent and are just the normal Shawangunk ridge trail markers, rather than any additional ones being used other than at the end where some occasional additional red strings of tape had been used. I picked up the map which being for the full length of the course (70 miles long) didn't provide great detail on a side of A4 to really navigate by. With the route on my gps I thought this would suffice. But after speaking to the fellow runners I decided to try to download the route map onto my phone as a back up. Being out in the middle of  nowhere with limited reception this took until part the way through the race to download fully. Better late than never. 

My first yellow bus journey

My first yellow bus journey

Boarding a couple of yellow school buses at the finish line we headed to where the half marathon started. It was my first time on one of these American icons. Boarding the buses made me realise the vast array of runners from whippets at the front to experienced runners right through to those who fancied the challenge for a weekend. Arriving at the start line we all bundled out and did our final preparations before the race started. This along with the race briefing where getting lost was mentioned again. I hoped this would not be me...

We were set off in waves according to our running numbers and I quickly got into a rhythm following behind a few people. We were making good progress along the trail and had made the transition from the little tributary of a trail the half marathon started on to the main trail. It followed beneath pine trees on a hard packed trail as the day began to heat up. Well above the temperatures I was expecting. Rather than being in the mid teens (60F range as I get into the US metric) it was well into the high 20's ( high 70F low 80's).

All was going well till we passed another runner but he was heading in the other direction. It turned out the girl who I was following was his wife. They had a brief chat and she carried on. Now I assumed that he had come out to meet his wife on the trail and as she had continued on we must be heading on the right direction. Turned out this wasn't the case he was doing the 70 miler and we were going the wrong way. About 15 to 20 of us spread out along this part of the trail. Checking and re-checking the maps we turned around and headed promptly back in the reverse direction. We had travelled about 30 mins round trip in the wrong direction. Not ideal on a race that was already due to be a tough half marathon.

Turning around and it was back the way we had come. Sweat already soaking through my top. I met up with a runner who it turned out spent a lot of time of the years running in the area and knew some of  the tougher sections of the course. It was great way of passing the time chatting away as well as getting some local insight on the course or at least pointing out some cool looking areas which I may have otherwise just run past without looking up. Despite being hard packed trail we had already passed one guy limping the other way having gone over on his ankle on one of a number of roots, which I had almost slipped on as well. The trail meandered along a spectacular ridge line with views up into the Catskills. The odd tree hinted at the transition to autumn or fall with the colours beginning to change but there was still a way to go for the real show to begin.

Views from a clearing

Views from a clearing

 

Making it to the second a final check point marked the start of a long ish up hill section. As well as a short scramble through a boulder field to reach the top. A definite possibility for some scrambling or potentially some bouldering at a later date. I had heard the area was famous for roped up climbing as well. 

Making it to the top and my legs still felt pretty good I bid farewell to my running buddy for the morning and headed off. The trail flattened out and was beginning to descend towards the finish I passed by one of the 70 mile racers who was running in sandals although he was doing incredibly time wise looked to be struggling a bit. Think I would have looked distinctly worst at that stage of a 70 mile run! The heat of the day had clearly had an impact on me as I could feel the odd twinge of cramp setting in. I just hoped a random movement wouldn't set it off. Easing up on the pace for a bit I was trying to minimise the risk of it happening before picking up again. The course by this stage was a gentle descent through cool and damp under growth. With old pine needles littering the floor making for a soft cushioning feeling for the body. 

Warm conditions out on the course

Warm conditions out on the course

 

I came across a few more runners not really knowing which course they were on I greeted them as I passed them by on route to the finish. Coming round the corner and I was greeted to the bridge I had driven under earlier in the day. By now the day had well and truely cleared from the initial clouds of the early morning to reveal the view across the valley. I quickly stopped to admire the view before the final few hundred metres to the finish line. 

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Crossing the finish line and being welcomed to cold drinks, a toast with a very small beer and a slice of pizza was a perfect finish for the race. Before making a rather sweaty journey back south again. 

16th place in 3hrs 10mins. Shouldn't have got lost for 30 mins! 1st place was completed in 2hrs 8mins. I think i will be back for one of these events next year.

Blinded by the sun a great shot...

Blinded by the sun a great shot...

Got any race recommendations? Or have any questions about trail run racing? 

Chamonix with Run the Wild

It has been a couple of years since I found myself in chamonix during winter or summer. Finally I was heading back albeit for a very quick trip with Run the Wild. Jumping on the last flight to geneva followed by alpybus a shared mini bus trip up into central chamonix. Despite the late night arrival it all worked really smoothly as I had forgotten how quick and relatively easy if is to get there.

Alpy bus has arrived!

We awoke with views out onto Mont Blanc, relatively early to get all the supplies,equipment and other bits and pieces ready a head of meeting the runners we were due to be taking out on the mountain. The plan was to meet them for a food and water stop before joining them part the way along the route to run in the final section together.

A Glacier Tumbling down the Mountain, much shorter than they used to be!

Despite it being September the sun was out in full blast, I was wishing I had some sun cream!! The views of Mont Blanc were fantastic with clouds occasionally covering the summit, known as a lenticular cloud. The weather despite looking fantastic was not to last with high whispy clouds showing the high winds at altitude and the change that would happen. For the moment though we could enjoy it! With fresh legs at the ready the gang of runners set off from St Michaels church in Central Chamonix.

St Michael's Church

We pulled up and jogged out to get some action photos amongst the woodland. The timing was perfect as within moments they came round the corner. In good fashion a local dog also decided to join the photos.

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Running back to the food stop and we could catch up on the days running so far as we went along. The food stop had a fantastic spread with everything from gu gels to local cheeses and of course hot tea. Having not run and sampled the morning breakfast quite heavily, I found myself still pretty full.

Our first stop

IMG_0510 As they headed off we had to quickly pack up drive over to la flegere and get up the 1000m to the refuge in a pretty quick fashion! With my Aarn bag packed with some essentials and then it was straight onto the trail as we route marched past walkers enjoying the scenery whilst we flew past them. Sweat dripping down our faces and our already, or at least mine was, soaked tops. Despite this we manage to talk about what Si had been learning about on the topic of fauna for his up coming mountain leader assessment. I was trying to work out how he was managing to continue speaking which turned out he was wondering how I kept being able to ask questions.

The time remaining certainly made if quite tight with meeting them, as we got closer I was checking my watch constantly to see how much time we had remaining. As we ascended the gaps between the trees reduced till we were basking in the sun rather than the shade of the woodland. Coming round the corner we could see the restaurant marking our meeting point just as the runners heads poked above the crest of the ridge. Perfect timing. We stopped for photos, a quick drink and a chat.

la flegere

Joining the group for the descent was a welcome change in pace and gradient. Taking the slope in our stride we began weaving down the mountain, avoiding the exposed roots and stones that littered the trail. I am always amazed at the route and how technical it is as there is a famous ultra race called the utmb which covers some 160km and around 8000m of ascent. Si who we were running with, did this race the other year and hearing the stories first hand on the brutality and beauty of the event, it was certainly inspiring whilst jogging along.

The trail was a series of switch backs all the way down the mountain some sections you could let your legs stride out where others demanded a lighter step between the obstacles. Coming round the bend we had arrived at a beautiful cafe perched on the mountain side. It was the perfect place for a quick coffee before the short descent into chamonix.

Cafe stop on the mountain.

We reached the church where the day had begun, despite the weather due to turn against us it was still sunny. Heading back to the hotel and the spa that awaited us. After a days good running we could stretch out on the grass surrounded by mountains taking in the views before a sauna and a trip into town.

We went along to meet up with the team from Ravanel & Co which is a treasure trove for trail running equipment in the summer and no doubt in the winter equally well equipped. Not only that but the staff are all seriously impressive athletes themselves. Would definitely recommend them, next time will probably take a much emptier rucksack.

Piolet d'or (the golden ice axe award), mountaineering award

Waking on Sunday and the weather had closed in with thunder storms forecast it was not the day to be in the mountains. Instead we opted to explore the local area and head for a short walk further down the valley before heading off to the airport.

Walking in the lower valley

Arriving in london and it had been such a fantastic yet quick trip, certainly one that I could happily repeat. If you fancy experiencing trail running whether just breaking into it or want to be beasted on the trails in the uk or abroad then check out run the wild.

The Manchester Marathon

A couple of weekends ago I made the journey up to Manchester to visit my brother and for the two of us to compete in the Manchester marathon. For both of us it was our first road marathon. The idea started around the beginning of the year where during a conversation with my brother he dropped into it that he thought we should do a marathon and more to the point the Manchester one. We checked it out and entered that evening. A few months later and no specific training other than my usual training of a bit of everything and his rugby training as a hooker, in the forwards, and we were standing in the queue waiting to pick our race numbers up. This in itself turned out a bit of a challenge as we joked about forgetting our running numbers having only just looking at them before realising that neither of us could remember them. Back to the start of registration all over again. We managed to make it out of there with all our documents and freebies which included everything from a liquid iron supplement, a razor and the all important finishers t-shirt (despite the fact that we hadn’t actually done it yet).

The following morning saw us being woken to the alarm, far too early for a Sunday morning. A quick check out the window confirmed to both of us that as usual when the two of us do an event together the weather is guaranteed to be awful. Raining and windy. Trudging out the house the rain changed to hail forcing us to pull our hoodies tight over our heads. After a quick tram ride packed with other runners we arrived at the finisher area to drop kit off, supposedly join in with a warm up before heading to the start line. This plan quickly changed to huddling in one of the tents with a number of other competitors trying to stay warm. The start time loomed and it was time for the dreaded strip off into running kit time. It was certainly a day for hats, gloves, waterproofs and any other apparel you wished to have to stay warm. And certainly not the sort of weather for the shorts and t-shirt that my brother and I were kitted out in. Trundling to the start line was a cold and bitter experience. Reaching the start area we were surrounded by the other 8000 participants, minus those who on the day thought better of it, waiting for the gun to go. It was an amazing experience being surrounded by so many people certainly creates an atmosphere. Very different to the races that I have mainly done with maybe 100 to 150 people in them. There was a real sense of anticipation and as the gun went gloves, jumpers and space blankets were thrown off in all directions as the race got under way.

The route consisted of 2 loops a small one that went right by where my brother is living before heading almost back to where we started before heading out of Manchester on a much larger loop.

We got into a good easy rhyme right from the off and had a good chat while we were jogging whilst taking in the sights of Manchester that neither of us had seen before, mainly the industrial estate near old trafford and smells which neither of us had smelt before such as outside the Kelloggs factory. I’m still not sure whether it was a good or bad one. The crowds were still out in their masses even though the conditions had begun to deteriorate; clapping, drumming, passing on messages and shouting out words of support. It was a fantastic atmosphere that continued to surprise my brother and I on our way round.

After passing so close to the start it was time for the larger loop, the first 10 miles had gone well and we were doing well time wise too. But conditions had really start to deteriorate the wind had picked up and the rain set in. We looked like drenched rats.

The course is one of the flattest I have done but with a couple of lumps thrown in there just to keep your legs and mind guessing. However the route was to take us out towards Dunham Park where we had learnt to roller blade years ago and out into the sticks. It was at this stage that the weather felt like it was really deteriorating and conversation slowed as we shut down everything with the only aim of moving to stay warm. It felt like gale force winds, fine with it behind you but incredibly unhelpful if it is blowing in your face, coupled that with the driving rain and our teeth were soon chattering. I’m sure in the sunshine the course would have been very beautiful and the country paths a joy to run down with miles of traffic less asphalt. But instead they were a mine field of mud and puddles to keep you on your toes.

We continued on and at the checkpoints, which they had every few miles, we began to stop for the goodies they had. I have to say though the chocolate energy gel was pretty horrible but some stuff that looked and tasted just like jelly from the packet was a real pick me up. Think they are called shot bloks.

The route started making its way back into town and with this came more cars, clearly irritated by the congestion caused by the runners, which were driving all over the course. It was also here that the mile markers really didn’t help motivate you to the end. I can understand why there is “The wall” in marathons because you can see exactly how far you have left and you end up mile counting. I’m more used to the finish coming as a welcome surprise round the corner where you just have to continue till you cross it but instead you start thinking only 8 miles left, 7, 6 …. It just makes it seem to go on forever.

The last few miles began to feel like they were going quicker, and each large gathering of people brought on a momentary burst in pace. The weather had finally turned and it was dry. We began to dry out in the brisk breeze and certainly felt warmer already.

All that was left was the final “sprint” to the finish, with crowds, photographers, cameramen and runners wrapped in space blankets it was a great atmosphere to finish in and certainly help spur us on. We crossed the finish line together with smiles all round, before getting the all important finishers medal.

Overall despite the weather it was a great experience and one which I am sure my brother will always remember too. If you are not sure which marathon to do next or fancy a challenge I would definitely recommend it.

Running 55 miles and 2700m Ascent Non-Stop

A few weekends ago I headed up to the Yorkshire moors as I had entered an event called the Hardmoor 55. It is a 55 mile running race over 1 day along part of the Cleveland way and unbeknown to me the hilliest course I have done. It started with an epic drive on a Friday night where I joined thousands of others getting out of London before flying up the motorway. This was done whilst chomping on some tortellini that I had cooked up the previous night. I hadn’t really spent much time looking at exactly where the event was but was slightly surprised when I saw my usual turn off on my route home to Scotland.

I arrived at the B&B/ pub full of people and asked about my room. My mind quickly turned to the much more importantly issue of breakfast. It turned out the cooks had gone home which meant I couldn’t even get some bread or cereal for the morning. Not the most helpful answer. Going upstairs I quickly laid all my kit out, there was a rather excessive food pile for the race and certainly far too much to eat over the space of 1 day. But in it all went split equally for the 2 bag drops allowed in the race.

I was anxious and excited about what the next day would involve as it was much longer than I had run for a while, in fact the longest had been 10 miles plus a bit of cycling and swimming. I wasn’t too concerned though as I knew that my only target was to enjoy the day, get some miles done and finish. This didn’t exactly help for a restful night sleep as I twist and turned with an over active imagination. It wasn’t of winning the event...

5.40 am came round quickly.

I wanted to ensure I arrived early after strict instructions from the race organisers (I was to find that everyone took them seriously) that we had to be bang on time otherwise no lift to the start line. I turned up to the waiting point with all the racers already clad in lycra and I was still munching my breakfast of hummus and pitta bread. However the organiser was late. Everyone one  had one thought only “Could have had longer in bed”.

Chatting with some of the racers on the drive over there was a good mix of newbies and experienced ultra runners, some of whom I had met briefly at previous events. I spoke to one individual who claimed although he hadn’t done the whole course the Yorkshire moors aren’t really that hilly. I was pretty happy with this, although he did point out he was from the peak district, the alarm bells should have started, as not that hilly for a fell runner is certainly different to running round London.

Exiting the bus we were quickly ushered in for a kit check and handed the finishers t-shirt at the start. The race seemed to come round incredibly quickly and my plans of looking at the route quickly vanished with last minute bits and pieces, including the usual huge queue for the bathroom. We were soon off trudging along at a brisk pace up the first few inclines, experience told me that this pace would soon drop off. Or at least that is what I hoped for. The day had started much warmer than expected and within a short time I was dripping. Plus my rucksack which was far too large for a one day event, (being the same that I would use for 7 days) wasn’t setup rightly and the pouches on the front were slapping into my sides.

It was a beautiful day, slightly overcast but running through fields, forests and passing confused looking walkers was a great feeling. On the way to the first check point I foolishly followed a couple of guys in front of me, not knowing the way myself only to realise very quickly that it was the wrong way and had to turn back. Although going slightly off track seems a common theme in these longer runs its still frustrating as all the people you had passed trudge past in a slow version of the tortoise and the hare.

Chatting to some of the competitors passed the time including a guy who was in the middle of his 75th marathon a fantastic achievement in 2 years.

I found out that the first check point we had to go back on ourselves but the views were spectacular as we made our way out onto a plateau with patches of mist rolling in and views across the valley opening up as we got closer to the edge. We dropped down to the 1st checkpoint where I found us standing in front of the Yorkshire moors Kilburn white horse. A top up on some water and a quick bite of flapjack. The race was on.

It is amazing especially with hindsight how quickly the miles get eaten up but it went surprisingly quickly up to the next checkpoint. I ended up running by myself for a large portion of this section as my pace settled into a rhythm that I could maintain. It still felt a bit too fast. We continued a long rolling hills dropping down, before climbing and continuing a long ridges. The 2nd checkpoint was down a long decline which helped with passing a few runners. I also found out that this section of 22 miles was the quick section as what was to come would certainly slow everyone down. Not exactly what I wanted to hear as the hills we had already passed seemed quite large.

We came into the small wee village of Osmotherley where our first bag of goodies had been dropped off. I reached the checkpoint had my card stamped to say I had arrived and then started rummaging around for my 1st bag of goodies. It was missing. There was other food on offer but I was looking forward to my nuts and soreen. There was however homemade sausage rolls and after speaking to one of the organisers I managed to get hold of some soreen too. Definitely a positive point.

The race quickly slowed. Exiting the village we worked our way back up onto a long plateau where we could already make out the penultimate checkpoint. Unfortunately it was a lot closer than the route we had selected which took the form of a long sweeping curve. We could also make out most of this path too. Slightly depressing when you can see the whole route practically laid out in front of you for the next 5 or so hours. Regardless of this a group of us trudged on chatting about a whole host of things, as one man described it “anything to take his mind away from the agony”. I’m not sure he was having such I great race as the others all seemed in good form. We covered some spectacular scenery traversing stoned paved paths, up steep side hills, through rocky out crops and the odd sheep or fellow competitor. This was interspersed with periods of cramp an affect from the morning heat. I unfortunately hadn’t managed my electrolytes resulting in these random but uncomfortable twinges as cramp set in.

Fortunately I had packed a few packs of dioralyte which I have found great for rehydrating on long races, though the one major drawback is it doesn’t taste great but it is cheap and works for me. This started getting me back on the road to recovery. I ended up running with 2 others for what was to be the rest of the race. For a few miles we had been constantly playing cat and mouse as I caught up on the up hills before they passed me on the down. That was until the hail started. What had been a blue skied day suddenly turned very cold and dark. The hail bounced off our hands, faces and hoods of our waterproofs. It was certainly a motivator to keep moving forward as we shuffled in silence with nothing but the pitta patta of the hail on our heads. Reaching the second bag drop was fantastic, especially as my food was actually there this time.

We all collapsed in some chairs kindly put out by the staff and tucked into the food in our packs, on the tables and anywhere else we could find it. I also had my first and hopefully last cup of special tea. The recipe for which is 1 strong cup of milky tea, add several heaped teaspoons of sugar and 1 of salt. Pretty disgusting but I hoped this would help with the cramp which still seemed to be plaguing me.

We left the checkpoint shivering uncontrollably, the cold had caught up with us during the short break. But with full bellies we started to make our way towards the goal which we had been so close yet so far all day Roseburry Topping, a single peak that we would first have to make our way to the bottom before scaling it to the summit before going back the way we came. The plan had been to make this in daylight but it was becoming apparent that this was not to be the case as we donned head torches as dusk set in. All you could see was a small patch 3 feet in front of you, the steady stream of people making their way up to the top and back and a glimpse of people’s faces illuminated in an unusual way from their foreheads. After a slog up we made it to the top with views out across the evening landscape. It is amazing the amount of light that is created from all our street lighting and this area felt relatively rural.

The last section was made slightly trickier by the lack of light and the criss cross of paths that went their separate ways. We negotiated our way towards the final push up to a plateau before dropping down towards the finish. It felt tough as hills we weren’t expecting suddenly seemed to appear and as our legs tired what was classed as a hill at the start of a day was very different to that towards the end as each slight incline became an excuse to go that bit slower. Yet finally my legs had stopped cramping and I was still raring to go as the course dropped down towards the finish. Potentially a sprint one. We reckoned that we would have to seriously pick the pace up to beat the 12 hour mark but as it would make little difference to our finishing position we decided to just enjoy the final couple of miles. As we started to sense the finish though we realised that we could still make it and the final meters did become a sprint into the hut to ensure we beat the 12 hours. We were greeted to a round of applause by the competitors who had already finished and a welcome chair. We finished in 11 hours 53 mins joint 43rd overall. I got changed into some clean clothes and the quickest top that came to hand was the finishers t-shirt. I checked it out before putting it on it was bright blue with a bold statement “55 miles and 2700 m ascent”. No wonder my legs hurt so much. I was definitely glad I hadn’t read it before the start line that would definitely have made it more daunting.

Overall another race, a lot learnt but certainly an awesome race to be repeated.

Marathon des Sables A Year on Reflection

Last week I met up with some of my tent mates from the marathon des sables and chatting to a competitor this year with some last minute tips. It got me thinking about this this time last year and since.

Even before finishing the marathon des sables last year my mind was already whirring with ideas for possible races, expeditions and trips. Just meeting all the people who made it to the start line and hearing many incredibly inspiring stories made we want to experience more challenges.

Since then I completed my 100 mile race, completed an ultra running event called the Hardmoor 55 (still writing the review) and dipped into adventure racing. Also over the last 6 months or so I have spent a wee bit of time researching and discussing various ideas about adventures with some of you (hopefully your reading). I am sure many of you have your own ideas for adventures, challenges and dreams to fulfil over the coming months of 2012 or maybe you have plans for past that point to which is even better. The next challenge will be announced soon....

Whats your next challenge? Have you got plans for the year or maybe a longer term vision? Would be great to hear about them as I know many of you have got them lined up.

Mt Everest
Mt Everest

In the Mind of a World Record Holder - Ben Rockett

Given its a new year I thought I would try to do a series of inspiring interviews with various people to kick start the year. I have purposefully kept the discussion as complete to the original as possible to show the ups and downs of a journey from cycling to and from school to cranking it up to 1000 miles a week (50+ hours) on a bike. He has also recently written a book which you can check out on the link below:

http://www.rockettrides.com/?page_id=1270

Have you always been a keen cyclist or have you been involved in other sports?

I was very much a jack-of-all-trades in the sporting sense. I enjoyed sports greatly, but I never seemed to excel at any one in particular, rather I was ‘reasonable’ at several different ones. In hindsight, the two sports that I loved the most, I never really had any involvement with. Gymnastics and rock climbing were those sports. Both of them appealed hugely, but I stuck with more mainstream pursuits (I don’t know why).

Cycling itself was more a transport method than a sport. I used to commute to school with a real cyclist, who wore lycra, worked in a bike shop and even wore a helmet! That wasn’t me – I only ever cycled to school, and the nearest I came to being a cyclist was on the final sprint to the school gates.

Have you Changed as a Cyclist?

On my 16th Birthday I was given a racing bike! I then used my bike to go further from home and enjoyed riding around the county and riding much faster than I had before. Over the next two years I commuted to school (much more quickly) and enjoyed riding my bike whenever I could.

At the end of my sixth form education I was asked by a friend of mine to ride the length of Britain – JOGLE. It seemed like an epic journey and with my baggy jumpers, badminton court shoes and reluctance to pull on a pair of lycra shorts, we agreed to the 1000 mile journey.

At the end of that journey there was a change in my attitude toward cycling, which I now understand on the basis of a ‘cycling-type’. I enjoyed cycling long distances, but I didn’t care one hoot about my heart rate, the speed I averaged, how ‘aero’ my frame and kit were, the calories I’d burned or the force of the headwind.

I cycled long distances because I loved exploring and seeing new places.

This made me a touring cyclist! I then knew what ‘sort’ I was. The panniers that I’d fashioned onto the back of my road bike should have been the give-away. I wasn’t a road cyclist; I was a touring cyclist. And for many people, particularly the road cyclists, there is a large and definite distinction.

It was through cycling for triathlons that I first ‘raced’ my bike. I recall having my pannier rack still attached on that first race that I competed in (I did unclip the bags though!). The weight saving and aerodynamics hadn’t become an issue for me at that point. Neither had cleats and shaved legs. I liked it a lot and I was actually pretty good at going fast.

I loved the wind in my hair and the ‘pain’ that I could feel from cycling really hard.

I soon became a roadie! Having sworn that I would never shave my legs and ensure that my bike and clothing matched, I was soon transformed into a colour co-ordinated, smooth legged rider who wore lycra, observed my average speeds and always talked about how hard the hills were that I’d climbed on my 100 miles that morning! I had changed!!

Since then (2007) I have continued my affair with my bike(s) in what has become a rather extended story of romance, despair, addiction and joy. I have used cycling as a way to understand myself, to meet other people, to enter social circles and now, I would say, to form my major identity. I think most people now assign ‘cyclist’ to my name, whereas a few years back that label would have been something quite different.

How did you first get into endurance sports?

Running was my entry to the endurance scene. I was a pretty handy 800m runner (1:56) until I went to Bath University where I met a running coach who talked me into training for and running marathons. It wasn’t something that appealed to me – not at all, but after a couple of weeks, Eric Anderson had managed to make the idea of running 52x my usual race distance seem attractive.

I trained hard and enjoyed the long runs where I would bound through the countryside for hours on end. It was a struggle for me to run 90 minutes at first, but very soon I was heading out for 4, 5 or six hours at a time and covering huge (relatively) distances on foot. It was incredible and the freedom of endurance activity was something I found unbelievably rewarding. It was an escape from the rest of the world.

These long runs taught me that endurance was merely a case of getting to know my body, and my mind, and to be happy with the simplest of environments for a long period of time. I cherished the peace that I found from running long hours and would spend day after day, effortlessly running through the countryside.

I was running well and although I would never become a world class marathon runner, I was achieving the target improvements that I was setting. I ran a PB of 2.41:56 for the marathon distance and loved every second (mostly in retrospect) of the agony, control and persistence involved in setting that time. I had my eyes glued on a 2.30.00 marathon, but only for personal enjoyment. Running for me was always about the feelings and emotions I derived from the activity. It is still, without doubt, my favourite past time – more so than cycling!

What was the turning Point to Cycling?

So without dwelling on my running past (and hopefully future) this is how I came into endurance cycling: I was commuting home from a volleyball training session on a cold and dank night in Southern Bath, when I was hit from the side by a car entering the roundabout at excessive speed. A very long story short – I lost the fight between my body and the underside of the car. Over the following months I had to hope that my legs would heal and that I would be able to do away with the chair that I had been confined to. In not too long, and with the help of Ian Andrews at the Team Bath clinic I was able to move my leg. Over the winter months I was advised to start ‘using the leg whenever I could’ which I took as ‘use the leg as per normal’. While this wasn’t possible, of course, I was told that if I could cycle it would help the muscles strengthen having re-attached near my knee. “The more you cycle, the stronger it will become” were the words I was told. So I didn’t look back – I cycled and cycled and sure enough, my legs grew stronger and stronger.

Once I was back on my own two feet and unsupported by chair, crutches or friends, I embarked on a long journey to cycling fitness. I missed my running and I was desperate to be back in the fields, running for hours and hours. But I had a new interest – and that was cycling. I could get a similar feeling as per running, only this time I could go much further.

What do you consider your first challenge?

My first challenge?! I have no idea. Probably JOGLE, but I didn’t see that as a challenge, more as an adventure. In 2007 I climbed Kilimanjaro as a way of proving that my leg was back in working order after the crash, so perhaps I would suggest that was my first challenge.

Although I can distinctly remember walking a 5 mile charity walk on the Quantocks when I was in the Cub-Scouts. I remember it because I found it amazingly difficult. I thought that I was going to collapse and that the end would never arrive. That was the first significant challenge that I can recall…

What is your greatest achievement and why?

At the moment when I complete something I set out to do, I feel a strong sense of pride, of achievement, and utmost joy. Particularly if it was difficult. Interestingly, in addition to these feelings, I most often experience a feeling of disappointment that the challenge is over. I readily downplay past achievements and fail to embrace the significance of the things I have done. I lack a satisfaction with the things I have done. It would perhaps be too deep a conversation for us to have now, and is perhaps something that I don’t even know the answer to just yet.

I feel compelled to undertake these challenges, to push my body and, more so, my mind in order to learn about myself. I feel somewhere in the depths of the most gruelling challenge I get an insight to the very core of who I am and what’s important to me as an individual. It is a worrying, intimidating moment and yet an equally peaceful, accepting, and warming experience to have. I have only managed to experience it three times (that I can remember), and all of them have been after the point where I feel deserted, empty and as though my body can no longer operate. Nasty places to be, perhaps, but rewarding in a very strange and bare way.

I am aware I still haven’t answered your question! Perhaps the blurb I just expressed is an indication of how difficult I find this question. I would say that one of my greatest achievements was learning to like Olives. Probably not what you were expecting, right? I say this because I know I am a stubborn individual and I had created a complete barrier to liking Olives. I refused on numerous occasions to try olives, but without really considering why. One day I managed to swallow my pride and eat an olive – and now I am a very big olive consumer. The reason I see this as a great achievement is that it taught me the lesson to be open to re-think my existing thoughts and emotions; to consider that things (including me!) change. I have used that lesson greatly for understanding the experiences I have and the people I get to meet through this ‘crazy’ world of ultra-endurance.

What did your training involve in the build up to achieving the LEJOGLE world record?

Training for the LEJOGLE ride was very much about changing my lifestyle, which in hindsight had a far greater impact than I had ever imagined. Within a matter of months I was all consumed by training, to the point where I would now describe myself as addicted to cycling. This might sound rather extreme, but I feel I developed a dependency, perhaps borne of anxiety over the demands of the attempt, that would only be calmed if I were on a bike.

I knew from the outset that training would need to be enjoyable; and indeed that is something I would like to encourage other people to always remember. It was something that I quickly forgot as I allowed the impending pressure of the ride to consume all my thought processes. It made training difficult, but I was determined to prepare both my mind and my body through what some call the ‘feel factor’; I wanted to learn about my body and respond to its developments and changes rather than by following a rigid and strict programme. I’m not one to easily follow the orders of what someone else tells me without heavy questions, so it was perhaps the best for everyone (a coach would have become highly frustrated with me!).

I will try to keep this relatively light hearted and discuss the daily routines of training. It might sound as though I now contradict myself, but the main goal was not to have a definite ‘routine’. I wanted to ‘keep my body guessing’ so that it was better prepared to deal with the demands of a task as and when it was necessary.

Bearing in mind a challenge on this scale was completely new to me, I was eager to understand what my body and mind would do, how they would operate, and how I would react when everything about me was truly exhausted. I did things which would drive a coach / nutritionist / physiotherapist to the point of locking me up! I increased my training miles, but would skip sleep for three nights so would gain an appreciation for how my body would work when I was incredibly tired. I would skip meals and see if my body could still cycle through the worst of all ‘bonks’. I tried to abuse my body in the way the event would harm my body, and then understand from the thick of the problems, how I might be able to prepare for, or indeed, prepare to avoid such problems.

In a bizarre way, I found it very reassuring to experience these troubles before undertaking the event itself. I am sure if I had felt that exhausted, that broken, that hollow and that helpless for the first time during the ride I would have been scared away from the attempt. They were truly horrible experiences, but I was grateful for the chance to understand my body a little better and to learn about my mind’s reactions to stress, fear and extreme sleep deprivation.

By the time of the ride I had ridden 18000 miles in six months, with many 1000-mile weeks on the bike. My body felt strong and I was able to maintain strong paces for hundreds of miles. It transferred to the ride itself where I averaged 23mph for the first 24 hours over the challenging terrain of the South West of England and Southern Wales. I had turned my body into a machine that very simply needed food in order to operate.

I worked my sessions very loosely: I had long rides (between 200 and 400 miles), Short rides (100-150 miles), Speed sessions (50-100 miles), Very long rides (500+ miles) and then multiple conditioning sessions, stretching (every day if off the bike) and then multiple body-weight training regimes. I didn’t use a gym or any supplements. I wanted my body to prepare for this completely naturally – to the point that the clothes and the bike were the only man-made things I was using. Everything else came from nature, and that was reflected in my diet; all natural foodstuffs, and a huge amount of fat!

The joy of riding my bike for 50+ hours a week was that I could eat anything I wanted. I really just needed the calories. I tried to eat as healthily as I possibly could, but for the large part, I was searching for fat and carbs as if they were going out of fashion. I was eating over 8000 calories a day – and losing weight! It was tough eating that much food.

A key element of the training, however, was teaching my body to be comfortable digesting food whilst I was cycling. I did this by eating my meals on the turbo trainer and balancing the meals on the handle-bars. It all appears very Heath-Robinson and amateur…but that’s exactly what I was, and in the future I wouldn’t change it at all! The innocence, the naivety and the explorative nature of my cycling development was something that I think helped me immeasurably.

Where does cycling take you now and in the future?

So I found cycling through a desire for speed. It fostered my enjoyment for going places and seeing new things, and for a child who wasn’t rolling in money it was a wonderful, free way to explore and spend my weekends. I think I will now always be a cyclist, although I am confident that I will very soon return to my touring roots, for that sense of discovery and adventure is something I now seek more of.

Who or what has been your biggest influence?

I don’t think I can pin-point this, which I know is a very boring, non-committed answer. If you were to push me on the subject, I would suggest that my biggest influence is probably my Nan, for I will always remember her matter-of-fact nature and that she never seemed shocked or worried by any plans I ever told her. She always laughed when things went wrong and she was a problem solver – she did everything she needed and enjoyed life, remaining fighting fit right through to her ripe old age.  Although I think who I am is largely a product of all the amazing things I have read about other people doing.

Do you have any tips for people out there wanting to achieve their dreams?

I don’t have any specific advice, for everyone will achieve their dreams in a different way – I don’t think it is prescriptive. However I would borrow a quote that says this:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” (T.E. Lawrence).

What are you currently reading?

Right now I am reading a book called “Misadventures in a white desert” by Patrick Woodhead. I have aspirations to reach the poles…

Music of choice at the low and high points of a challenge?

I find music an incredibly powerful tool – so much so that it can make or break  the challenge simply by provoking a certain series of emotions. I tend to prefer songs that initiate memories or that remind me of certain people and events. So at times when I am jubilant I can often be heard listening to things such as Jack Johnson, Paul Simon, the Scissor Sisters (don’t judge me), Bon Jovi, or maybe some hit musicals, in between Elton John and the Eagles, perhaps some REM, too.

When I’m not feeling so great I actually like to acknowledge that and then listen to something that reminds of why I might be out doing this ‘ridiculous’ activity, or why I feel I want to continue with something. Then I tend to listen to a lot of counting crows. Music really reminds me of certain people and so I like to enter into a state of remembrance when I feel low. I like to think about people I really like and that always brings me out and back to the rock tunes, always with a smile that makes people around me think I have lost the plot or am hallucinating. I really do have bizarre musical memories from certain events – California Girls by Katy Perry is the song that reminds me of the LEJOGLE ride….

Favourite food?

Depends entirely on where I am, how I am feeling and what I am doing. Big favourites for me, however, are sweet-potato cottage pie / bacon and leek risotto / clam chowder in a bread bowl / pizza / jaffa cakes / lemon drizzle cake / baked bananas with melted chocolate / Roast beef with crispy roast potatoes.

If you would like to know more about his epic journey then check the link below and grab yourself a copy of his book which has everything on the incredible journey. Finally  please leave your thoughts on anything in this as I find bits of incredible, amazing, mad but above all inspiring.

Nirvana in the Mountains

Continuing the idea of getting more people involved in this, it would be great to hear about a moment you feel you have achieved something great. It can be in anything finishing a race, winning a match, maybe giving a speech. The greater the variety the better.  

Day 2 was the day for a lie in, so we woke at 8am, I didn’t consider myself a fan of the freeze dried breakfasts so instead opted for a morning curry. What better way to start the day. I was a bit behind in the morning somehow and as we jumped into the car to head to the start point I was still pulling on socks, brushing my teeth and trying to put sun cream on all at the same time. Amazingly I didn’t end up spreading toothpaste over myself by mistake.

 

The plan for the day was to make our way up from near the centre of Chamonix up into the mountains and the ski area of Brévent-Flégère before traversing the mountainside and up to a lake called Lac Blanc. Before running back and down to camp as fast as we could. There wasn’t as much ascent as the previous day but certainly a longer distance to run and we reckoned it would probably take about the same amount of time as the previous day.

 

After a slightly stiff start the first section was followed a mixture of road and single track paths up the mountainside continually switching backwards and forwards. On parts of the way up you could make out all of the switch backs to come. Not the most enjoyable view knowing that each switchback gained hardly any height. Luckily the majority of this 1st uphill section was in the shade of pine trees with glimpses through to the surrounding mountains. Of all the days to climb Mont Blanc that day would definitely be one of them. The sun was gleaming off the top of it, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we guessed most teams would have set off long by now. As we made our way up I was noticing that my chest was getting quite wet, it turned out my water bottles were not particularly great and had a habit of leaking everywhere not great news when it was already getting hot in the morning sun.

 

We rounded a corner and came across a sign diverting us in another direction, but it was clear people had been ignoring it. Just as we were deciding an old French runner came over glanced at the sign before telling us it was fine and skipped under the tape blocking the way. The path was alright except for a section where there had been a large land slide taking out the path along with destroying anything that was in its way. We had to carefully balance across the debris and over the boulders, including over some random plastic pipes.

 

The first stop came at a restaurant next to where a telecabin finished. We basked in the sun briefly, tried to dry our already sweat soaked tops out on the grass and munched down food and water. It is amazing how good food tastes when you work up an appetite. We noticed there was a constant stream of paragliders gracefully gliding up and down the valley on the thermals that surround the area. Something to come back to Chamonix for! At this point I realised my camera was broken and after several failed attempts at getting it work I gave up.

 

Continuing our way up the mountain further we came across the launch site for the paragliders. It was fascinating watching as they constantly lined up across this take off area in singles and tandems, preparing themselves before launching themselves down the mountainside. We quickly left this new distraction to hit the trails we had come here for and finally a flat section that we ran down and across dancing between walkers and over stones that littered the trail floor. We ran through gaps in towering rock avalanche defences protecting the villages and towns below, across rock strewn slopes and through the grasses now covering the once snowy slopes. It was strange seeing these areas I had skied over on numerous occasions now bare in the sun. One of the sights of the day was coming round a corner and seeing the track ahead cut out of the mountainside.

 

We reached the next mountain restaurant/bar. There was no water. A bit disheartening with the distance still to cover and not knowing how much further it was to the next watering hole. Luckily Si and Kov had enough to share some out. The next section was going to involve a bit more of a traverse before starting to ascend up to the lake our final destination. On our first and only glance it looked like there was about 300m ascent, not too much really given what we had already done. We passed a steady stream of people from every walk of life. Everyone was on the mountain; guided tours, families, the keen hiker and mountaineer to couples on a retreat. I think we tended to get the same look of slight bewilderment as we ran past them or as it got steeper marching past.

 

The climb up was a bit of a challenge, it became evident fairly quickly that this guess of 300m of ascent was slightly off and as my water and energy levels began to dwindle a mental battle ensued to keep me going at a good pace. Parched mouth and with the sun reflecting off the rocky surfaces around, the muddy puddles and trickling streams became ever more inviting. One of the biggest challenges was our pace becoming more and more dictated by the steady train of people up to Lac Blanc and with few passing places our group soon became dispersed along the mountain trail. At points I did wonder why we were running, I am often asked this too about my various runs. As I came round the corner I knew why. We had arrived at the lake finally.

 

I dropped my bag by Kov and Si. I approached the crystal clear water, firstly washing my face, then a quick drink before dunking my head in it. Incredibly refreshing.

 

It was a moment of elation, all be it a small one when I considered we were only half way but still we had reached our goal for the day. The lake was crystal clear and nestled amongst the peaks with views out across the valley. It was picture perfect. Speaking to the guys it turned out that there had been about 800m of ascent.

 

We filled our bottles at the mountain hut that was beside the lake and munched on yet more food, we could finally appreciate the views that surrounded us. Noticing a guided group were about to move down the same path that we were to go down we decided to go for it and begin the traverse and descent back towards Chamonix.

 

This started with climbing down a ladder than was bolted to the rock face that looked like it was about 50 years old before flying down the mountain and enjoying the change to a descent. The only thing that slowed our pace down was huddles of tourists enjoying a trek in the mountains who were being briefly interrupted by 3 sweaty, lycra clad guys. We came to a stop after coming round a corner to a view that included a new animal and one that we later found out was an Alpine Ibex. These are awesome animals which made Kov, who had gained the nickname of mountain goat, look incredibly tame in comparison as they galloped off down the mountainside as he scrambled to get his camera out in time.

 

The final section was spent sliding down scrabbly slopes which I distinctly remembered after the numerous chunks the route had taken out on the bottom of my skis. The car park suddenly popped into view and with a mixture of sadness, relief and pleasure the days running was over after spending 6 hours on the mountains. A quick change and we nipped into town where we gorged on pizza and bee, surrounded by a buzz of tourists, mountain bikers, climbers and loads of other outdoor enthusiasts. The day finished with wine cheese and another boil in the bag curry.

A perfect end to the day.

Minty Whiskey in The Desert

It all started on the evening before we had to hand in our extra kit. As we all checked and rechecked our equipment, clothing and food for the week in a bid to ensure we had everything and that it was as light as possible I was feeling how heavy my old faithful hip flask felt. It had been on many challenges with me including upBritain’s three highest peaks amongst other places. As most competitors continued these checks or beginning to look at the map, talking of race strategy and cooking I was hunting round camp for an alternative to old faithful. After carefully consideration and searching the only option was my half used toothpaste tube. With the help from my fellow tent mate Andy we managed to clean it out and make a clever contraption out of a bottle top to fill the tube back up with single malt whiskey, Old Putney if anyone is interested. With only a small toast to the desert (for good luck obviously) followed by one to Andy and myself (also for good fortune) the task was done. Fast forward to the end of the race….

After catching my breath I took out the victory whiskey, unscrewed the top and took a swig. The taste wasn’t quite the same as when I had first filled it. In the heat of the sun the concoction had warmed and over the course of the week had taken on a new minty characteristic. It wasn’t the celebratory drink I had envisaged when I first packed my hip flask in my bag for the journey over to morocco. It still tasted sweet though, especially when it was added to the mint tea that was provided at the end of each stage.

Marathon des Sables - Resembling A Disaster Zone

You have almost 2 days ( 34 hours) to complete the "Long Day" on the Marathon des Sables, and a number of people do manage to finish before sun up the following day. These lucky individuals then have a day of rest to catch up on sleep, e-mails, eat, drink and chill out watching the day fly by as the remaining competitors demonstrate huge amounts of courage and endurance making their way to the finish. Many of whom will have been on there feet for over 24 hours in the heat of the desert while some choose to bed down for a few hours before finishing the remainder of the distance. I managed along with all my tent mates to finish well before sunrise on the 2nd day, so a rest day for all.

The day went very quickly, however there was a noticeable difference with people hobbling around, covered in bandages (not just on their feet but all over where bits of clothing or bags had rubbed their skin raw) and looking incredibly dirty. It was also the day that saw some tents lining up in a row and using spare water to wash butt naked in the middle of the desert.

I spent a happy day eating (only 3 mild curried beefs were left by the end of the day), watching the hobbling people about camp and a spot of cleaning. I was hoping this would improve my now salt, sweat and dirt encrusted clothing in the and that they would feel as good as new when it came to wearing them the following day.

There was also the need to sort out our feet, with most of our tent now suffering from blisters. However having wondered round the camp I noticed how lucky our tent was I met many who's feet were practically falling apart as blisters developed under more blisters. All the running was definitely taking its toll on people as the medical tent was packed from dawn till well into the night as a stead queue of people entered it suffering from everything from blisters, to upset stomachs and heat exhaustion. I certainly felt very lucky having not suffered too badly.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Marathon des Sables - "The Highway to Hell"

The long day had finally arrived it felt like all my training and preparation had been for this very day. Hence a very restless night thinking of the following day and how it would go. On finishing the stage I felt like having a single line in my diary:

"The long day can only be described as very hot and very long"

However after a wee break (sleeping solidly till the next morning) I managed to fill in the details.

The day started very well with another chorus of "Highway to Hell" as we all ran out under the start line. The biggest issue today being that the top 50 competitors (who knew the route) started at midday. This lead very quickly to a small issue, no one really knew where to go, as 3 groups quickly formed none of which were taking an obvious route. I ended up going with one group who went straight through what felt like several large hedges. It also turned out we were all going out rather quickly, including myself as I bumped into a Scot who was always in the top 100. Normally in a race I would say this is a good sign when your near the front but when  you remember there is still 80 odd km it kind of changes things. Anyway we were off to a flying start with  as the sun kept rising into the sky and the temperature along with it hitting about 50C in the shade (I think), it was just incredibly hot. This along with a few more passes through hills and over them (as if the day wasn't hard enough) was making for a very challenging day.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

I passed the time chatting initially with a guy whose experience was in the much colder climate of the Arctic and later on another guy joined us who normally competed in endurance motorbike races. You do really get people from all walks of life. It was too hot during the middle of the day to run, so we ended up briskly walking across the desert. As temperatures cooled (still in the 30's) we reached the dunes and luckily for us before dark. It turned out some local kids moved all the markers come night fall.

The sun began to set over the desert and the first stars became visible, it was an incredible sight but unfortunately the end was still no where in sight and there was still a couple of check points left to go through and a huge laser display to follow into the finish line.

At this stage I realised I had hardly eaten any of my days rations and was beginning to feel the effects of this, the heat and the distance. So I began stuffing my face with the one luxury for the week of cashews nuts. They tasted incredible.

As the night set in I was passed by Britains best hope of making the top 25 Tobias Mews and decided that I had done enough walking through the day and it was time to run to the finish. I started chasing down the  white bobbing lights of the head torches a head of me. I felt strong and the constant changing target of those up a head kept me going. Features and things oozed out of the dark, like the big rock you dont see till you have gone over on your ankle, the odd camel skeleton or the sudden appearance of a 4 * 4 with flashing lights on. I reached the final check point and could finally see the sight I had been wanting to see all day a massive laser shining into the night sky and highlighting the route into the finish line. After a very quick refill and a chat to a fellow Brit I started making my way into the finish now knowing it should be only an hour to 2 hours away at most. Just before the finish I met my fellow Scot who I had run with at the start (who was not only in the top 100 but also had a pacemaker, a truly amazing effort ) and we crossed the line after sheering heat and 82 kms of desert in 12 hours 40 mins. I was over the moon and wondered over to my tent to congratulate 3 of my tent mates who had finished a head of me. This was quickly followed by removing my trainers, which felt incredible to be finally out of them and collapsed into my sleeping bag for the night.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Day 3 - Blisters and The Doc's

Unlike day 2 I wasn't woken to the sounds of a gale or my tenting flapping in my face but to glorious sunny weather... it appeared that the end of the week was going to be hot. However even with relatively still conditions my fuel did not want to light again so another morning of luke warm mild curried beef. Only 8 mild curried beefs left and more importantly the pack is feeling much lighter but my kit doesn't seem to pack any easier into it. The day started really well, I was taking it easy as day 4 was "The Long Day" and I wanted to be as fresh as possible so I could make some real gains. I ended up running and walking with another brit for most of the day. The heat seemed to be particularly strong today which wasn't helped by having to climb a few large hills. However the views from the top of each was more spectacular than the previous, with views of the desert flats. Looking back along the route I had just travelled I suddenly appreciated how many people were in the race with a line of participants going in both directions. Rachid the eventual winner was no where to be seen.

I finished the race feeling great and only at that point did I realise that I had some blisters, its amazing how your mind blocks out the feeling of discomfort after a while. I decided to try the "doc trotters" who I had been told had a reputation of slicing and dicing peoples feet. They were fantastic though queuing briefly before shuffling in front of a nurse who was quick to get my feet up and got to work on them by bursting them with a scalpel before before injecting this pink antiseptic into them. Compared to the antiseptic I had brought this stuff felt considerably less painful but it did make your feet look like they were bleeding and dyed anything they touched pink.

The nerves for the long day the following day were showing with everyone deep in thought and preparing

Views From the Top
Views From the Top

physically and mentally for a big push.