Tuesday, 8 April 2014

South Downs Way 50 race report (Centurion Running)

This ultra came as a complete surprise to me in that I had completely forgotten I had entered. It was only 4 weeks prior that I received an email from Centurion Running race director James Elson detailing final race instructions. There must be some mix up so I emailed James as I was 100% certain I had not entered. Yes you did came the reply - turns out this was my free entry after volunteering last year! Oops. After getting over the initial shock that my longest MK marathon training run was now no longer a 20 miler around the street of Leighton Buzzard but instead a 50 miler over some pretty brutal terrain I actually started to enjoy my training again. This training didn't though come in the form of long 6 hour weekend runs in the hope of tricking myself that it was an ultra runner again. Instead I focused on stacking up the mileage on the ElliptiGO (see www.elliptigo.com if you haven't a clue what I'm talking about :-). I incorporated my commute from Leighton Buzzard to Watford as a long training ride and was doing 45-50 miles to work and 22-30 miles home twice a week, plus a longish ride at the weekend including a 76 mile sportive across Buckinghamshire - Cobblers Classic.

In total in the preceding four weeks to SDW50 I only ran a handful of times, and didn't make a step in the final two. My last ultra was UTMB in August and since then only ran Snowdonia of any significant distance.

Fast forward to race morning and I arose at 6am in the back of my car at the start in Worthing. A broken nights sleep but its all good and I was looking forward to the day ahead whatever it had in store for me. I registered early and then went in search of breakfast ~paleo style. That can mean only one thing - a massive full English breakfast. By sheer good fortune I came across a local café (@downlandscafe) which cooked up the most amazing breakfast with double everything!! 

I don't think pre-race fuelling gets any better than this!!... 1hr before race start :-O

This was without doubt  the single best decision all day as it fuelled me throughout the day, topping up on just nuts, fresh fruit, cheese and a couple of Cliff Bars/ shot blocks on the way around.

My strategy for this race was going to be just to finish. I had no right to expect anything else based on my lack of any specific training. But that then changed when I checked the race shuttle bus times that took runners back to the start. I had two choices - a 6pm bus (sub 9hr finish) or 11pm (finish under the 13.5hr cut off). My planned relaxed day out in the hills had now turned into a full on race!  I now had one very clear goal - get back by 6pm for that damn bus!! Just 9 hours to complete the 50 mile route which included 4500ft of elevation gain.

I knew a section of the route as it's the second half of the SDW100 but I would be revisiting the place where I had my darkest EVER moment in an ultra in 2012 when I pulled out at the 83 mile mark (even though I was doing well and had LOADS of time in the bank - don't ask!). I therefore had unfinished business with this course and was looking forward to reaching and moving beyond that point, in a physical and mental sense.

I planned to run an even paced race from start to finish - not something I have ever successfully managed in an ultra. But I knew this was my best chance of success rather than going out too hard on no run training and blowing up big time before half way. So with a fully charged Garmin I kept a close eye on my pace never running under 9 minute miling except for a few down hill sections. My average pace as I hit the first aid station at around 12 miles was exactly 9:30mpm which felt right. I was running well within myself and I positively encouraged people to pass me in these first miles to ensure I kept a lid on it. I was certain I would be seeing these runners again today.

There's nothing too dramatic to write about that happened in the rest of the race. The best ultra strategy is often the least exciting and I guess that's what happened. So no drama, just spectacular views of the South Downs when they weren't shrouded in cloud and mist. I was feeling surprisingly good throughout and kept expecting something to happen that would reduce my steady run to  crawl but the strategy seemed to be paying off.  Throughout the second 25 miles my average pace stayed at just under or just over (depending on whether we were going up or down) 10 minute mile pace. For many runners this might seem a tad slow but over the distance and terrain it was for me more than I had ever hoped for coming so under-trained into this race.

The climbing continued in the final 10 miles which when you've already covered 40 only gets harder. However the ElliptiGO training was really paying off. It really is the case that the ElliptiGO motion is very similar to climbing the South Downs. I could actually physically sense the same movement in my muscles as they worked efficiently to drive me up and over the Downs.  And whereas the majority of runners were now walking all the climbs in the final quarter of the race I was able to maintain the same pace that I had from the beginning. It certainly wasn't effortless, this was a 50 miler after all, but it was mildly comfortable and came as a huge surprise to me. I just didn't expect it.

Another strategy that paid off was to spend the minimal amount of time at the aid stations. My substantial breakfast meant that I was never hungry and just grabbed a handful of stuff on the run only stopping long enough for the superb volunteers to fill my water bottles.

And so that's the tale of my South Downs Way 50. Well almost... I reached the top of the Jeverton climb from where you had just 4 miles to the finish. Word has it they are all downhill however the reality is that 1 of those miles is but the rest are all on the hard pavements of Eastbourne and boy was that tough going. I felt worst in the final 2 flat miles of this race than I had in the proceeding 48 miles combined. I'm not sure whether it was just the mind letting go when it sensed the finish line or just because I had battered myself on the trails and only now was starting to feel the effects of this effort. On reflection it was probably both. As I came around the corner and spotted the sports stadium for the trac kside finish I was mightily relieved but hugely satisfied with my performance. I crossed the finish line in 8 hours and 7 minutes in 35 position out of 350 or so starters. My 5 mile splits and stats from the race are below.

5 miles splits

Mile
5 mile avg pace
  5
09:19
 10
09:34
 15
10:36
 20
10:29
 25
09:23
 30
10:40
 35
10:19
 40
09:36
 45
10:29
 49
09:18


Strava link here with full mile splits and stats - SDW50 Strava page

So what do I take from this for my next and only other  ultra of the year (NDW50 in May). Well its just one thing...actually two things.... Run less, ElliptiGO more!!! :-D

oh And pace it right!!!

FULL SDW50 RESULTS HERE AND MASSIVE CONGRATS TO PAUL, RIC AND MARK WHO ABSOLUTELY SMASHED IT AT THE FRONT. PauNavesey broke the course record by 44 minutes in a frankly ridiculous time of 6hrs11mins!!! :-O

What may change my approach to the NDW50 however is that I've planned my own dualathon with the run on the Saturday followed by a 100 mile sportive on the ElliptiGO on the Sunday. If you asked me on Sunday whether I could have ElliptiGOed 100 miles off the back of the SDW50 the sheer thought would have put my legs in a cramp so I clearly have a bit of training to do for that one, but the signs are good after the weekend. Next up is the MK marathon on the May bank holiday where I plan to run sub 3hr pace and just hang on for dear life. I have no right to expect such a finish time on my current training but it will be interesting to see how close I can get.



Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bedford Half Marathon

There hasn't been much to blog about since the Snowdonia Marathon but this weekend was blog worthy so here i am. Since snowdonia at the end of October I've done very little running and have been winding down to the end of the year. However the opportunity arose to run the Bedford Half Marathon, blow away a few cobwebs and finish the year on a positive note.

The lack of any training or mileage since October meant that my form and fitness going into this was going to be severely tested. I knew I was way off my PB set in March at the MK half of 1:20, but hoped I might be good for 1.30. Reading this you may be forgiven for thinking that 10 minutes slower is way off and surely easy, but not so. Thats still sub 7 minute miling and the way I'm running right now would still be a major test.

It was a perfect day. Blue skies and 8 degrees. I was fully Buffed up! My LBAC vest was in the wash after the previous day's Cross Country race (which was still in the legs). The Bedford Half attracts a sizeable field of seasoned veterans and first timers alike. I love the undulating course which sticks to narrow country lanes for the most part. There's a few hills to test you but the reward is a downhill finish from 9 miles onwards which flattens out but is a nice fast finish. 

I approached this race as a training run which lots of people say but what does that actually mean? Well for me it means ignoring everything that is going on around you and simply running your own race, and not getting caught up in the excitement at the start. I did just this and reeled off some even miles at around 6:50 pace.

I was coping with the pace but it wasn't easy. On the hills the pace would obviously drop above 7 min pace, but I was averaging 6:52 which was spot on for a sub 1:30 finish. I crossed the half way mark in exactly 45 minutes to the second! I was feeling it but hoping that the fast finish would help to sneak under my goal time.

I was hydrating well with my own bottle of water so no faffing with plastic cups. Everything was going well, perhaps too well (but this thought didn't occur to me at the time). And then everything  was about to change...

At the 10 mile mark and enjoying a nice downhill section it was warming up. We were getting to the business end of the race so I decided to remove my WSER arm warmers    , and thought nothing more of it. A few minutes later I looked down to check my pace and was horrified it find my Garmin wasn't there!! The arm warmer had evidently pulled it out of its quick release cradle which remained on my wrist. ARGH!!! it was decision time.... Do I turn around and go and look for it putting pay to my sub 1:30 or carry on? It was an easy decision as it cost £300!! And this was 'just' a training run after all. This didn't make it any easier though as I ran against the oncoming runners shouting like a mad man 'has anyone spotted my Garmin!?' no one had... And they were rightly all focused on their own race. Mild panic was overcoming me as I couldn't spot it and didn't know exactly where it had come off. How far do I go back!?... I fully expected to see it in 1000 pieces across the road but at least then I would have known its fate and could have returned to business. As it was every step was another one in the wrong direction that I had to take again to rescue my ruined race. Seeing all the runners I had worked so hard to overtake throughout the race was not the best feeling. I couldn't spot my Garmin anywhere so resigned myself to losing it :-( making this the most expensive race EVER! I turned around and headed on towards the finish. I had not only lost my Garmin but also lost my motivation to close this race out hard. I was still overtaking runners with many asking if I had found it. Nice for them to be concerned but no came the frustrated reply. I closed out the final mile and pushed hard to finish in 1:34. 

I was still pleased with how I had run the race and my finish time, and in reflective mood resigned the lost of my Garmin to just something that happened. What could I do!? Well firstly I reported it to a Marshal at the finish and left my details with her in the desperate hope of it being found and handed in. I showered and waited for my friends who I had drove up with. We got the shuttle bus back to my car and decided to drive back to the 10 mile mark to launch a search and rescue mission. All four of us scoured the grass verge on both sides of the road for a 1/4 mile or so stretch but no luck. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and the odds werent good. We returned to the car garminless . I was gutted cos I wanted to review my race splits plus I was £300 poorer! I took one more walk up the road in the opposite direction to where I had thought it had come off and continued looking in the vain hope of finding it. Less than 50 metres from the car and heading back, head down low, THERE IT WAS!! Face up in the grass a foot from the gutter still going. Unbelievable!! I felt like I'd won the frigging race :-) haha. 

So that was my last race of 2014 and possibly my last blog post too. It's been quite a year to reflect on with my sub 3 marathon, 1:20 Half, Western States finish and epic 42hr UTMB. Also not forgetting a surprise performance at Snowdonia. 

I think time is running out to crack sub 18 in Parkrun which was the goal I set myself in November. I clocked 18:12 a few weeks ago but since then have gone backwards. Theres a few attempts left but I fear my new found love of Aldi mince pies might put pay to that ;-)

My ambitions for 2014 remain very much up in the air. I was registered to the T184 in August but then decided post Snowdonia that i wanted to go back in 2014 and crack sub 3 there. The two couldn't work together so I've bailed out of the T184 in favour of committing myself 100% to marathon training. The vague plan was a late spring marathon (possibly MK) to attempt 2:45-50 (well you have to aim BIG!!) and the continue through to Snowdonia doing a mix of Parkruns, 10ks, halves and possibly a training marathon run prior to Snowdonia....


Thursday, 31 October 2013

All change please.... Plans for 2014

I thought I would just drop in with a quick word on my plans for 2014 as they have just changed as of today...

This has all come about following my surprising performance in Snowdonia at the weekend. I had only one event planned to 2014 which was going to be the outrageously tough and long T184. This consisted of 184 miles non stop and self supported from the Thames barrier along the Thames Path to the source in the Cotswolds. I was excited about the challenge and entered on a bit of a whim as it looked like selling out fast. However the training commitment for this race was going to be significant and basically be my entire year both before and recovery afterwards.

Following Snowdonia it became clear in my mind that i wanted to come back in 2014 fully trained and ready to give it a real crack. This wasn't going to happen with a month to recover fully from the T184 and then just another month to get in some very limited speed work and taper time. So I've made the decision to pull out of the T184 and commit 100% to one thing - finishing in the top 20 at Snowdonia 2014 (with a sub 3) and in the build up in training and performing will look to peak for a late spring marathon on a super flat course to post what I think I capable of... What that time will be only time and training will tell...

For now though its rest, Parkruns and Cross Country...

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Snowdonia Marathon 2013 race report

The plan following UTMB in August was to wind down for the rest of the year, run a few Parkruns and get my speed back. I was doing just this up until mid October and got my Parkrun time down from 19:06 to 18.20. I was happy but as the long distance runner knows sooner rather than later you will get the yearning to jump back into what you know best.

The Snowdonia Marathon presented me with just this opportunity. With a week and a half before the marathon (which had sold out in January when entries opened) I emailed the lovely Sarah at Buff to enquiry whether they could get me into the race. It was nothing more than a punt but I thought I'd try my luck. The very next morning after an exchange of emails between Buff and race director Jayne I was in!! Awesome!

Then came the issue of readiness for running a marathon!!! Not something I had even considered when sending the email :-) Since UTMB my longest run had been around 8 miles with Parkrun blast at weekends. My average weekly mileage was no more than 20 miles and I was now signed up to the toughest road marathon in the UK. I liked my odds :-D and relished the challenge. In the preceding week I got in one long run of 12 miles and a nice progressive 5 miler testing my speed (slow) and pacing (ok) A few more steady miles thrown in for good measure and that was my marathon training complete. You don't see that plan in Runners World. Haha.

Fast forward to marathon day and I had that same excitement that I've experienced on the previous two years that I've run this race. It really is a wonderful marathon - i think undoubtedly the best in the UK. I was with many friends from home (Leighton Fun Runners, Red Way Runners) and afar, Nick Ham, Jason and David and the rest of the Runners World SNOD forumites. Everyone was looking forward to it as was I.

Sticking to my paleo diet meant that I didn't have to force down a bowl of porridge and instead went along to Petes Eats Caffi in Llanberis for the full works - sausage, bacon, eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes :-P now that's what i call marathon fuelling! With a leisurely 10:30 start time I relaxed and took a walk along the lake front and over to the registration area. Soaked up some of the premarathon buzz and wandered back to the house I was staying at to get ready.

The weather in Snowdonia makes this a marathon not for the faint hearted. The drive up on the Friday demonstrated this perfectly with gale force winds and  horizontal rain that the wipers could only just clear. Race day though was forecast to stay dry first thing with it turning fairly unpleasant in the afternoon. But the temps were in double figures so it was definitely shorts and t shirt weather. I was BUFFED UP in my team colours and raring to go. I had ran 3:17 last year which remains my official marathon PB (the 2:59 I posted in London was not in my name). My expectation for this race based on my complete lack of specific training was sub 3:30 baring in mind how tough this course is with 3 significant climbs at the start, half way and an absolute killer at the end. However I was relaxed and looking forward to my third Snowdonia marathon. Bring it on!!

Nick, Jason and I were pretty much right on the start line about 4 rows back with 2,000 or so runners behind us. Its always worth getting a good start down the first 1/2 mile downhill section before the huge climb up Pen y Pass to the 5 mile point. The excitement rose, the rain came (very briefly) and we were sent on our way. I told myself to hold back on the first climb and save something for later in the race but as it was I was feeling rather good (who isn't though in the first few miles right!) I clipped off a sub 7 minute first mile and got into a nice rhythm as the climb started up Pen y Pass. I was running right behind one of the lead female runners at this point so tried to use her even pacing to drag me up the mountain side. We reached the top in 35 minutes at 7:30 mpm avg pace, which was identical to my pace last year. The next few miles off the top are all downhill with a neat mile of offroad trail thrown in which always catches out the road runners a little. I used this to my advantage and opened up my stride a little to make up a few places and past the leading female.

The next section is fast flat road along the edge of the lake. Time to get into a good pattern and just hold a pace that felt sustainable. I didn't worry about who was passing me or who I was passing and was just concentrating on keeping it as smooth as possible. The effort I was putting in to each mile however was notable. We were racing after all and I came here to give it my best shot. Averaging around 7:15 minute miles for this section.

The half way mark takes you through the town of Beddgelert with lots of crowd support and cheering. There was only one thing on my mind at this point however which was the 2 mile climb out of Beddgelert from mile 13 to 15. I was so focused that I didn't even think about checking my half way split. The climb from Beddgelert is steep initially but then levels out before continuing to climb at a gentle gradient but enough to really know about it. At this point I was running with a number of runners that I was with from the top of the first climb at mile 5. So my target was to simple... dig deep and stay with them and don't let them out of your sight. And whenever someone would come up on my shoulder and pass me, I'd dig even deeper and try and stick with them. This worked well as each runner pulled me closer to the pack of runners that was 100yrd or so ahead on this long stretch of undulating road.

You are rewarded for your efforts after the 15 mile mark with a nice series of short downhill sections which allowed me to relax the legs and maintain a nice tempo. These miles felt fast and soon I was at the 18 mile marker. 22 miles marks the arrival at Waunfawr and the extremely tough 2 mile climb to the summit before descending to the finish. So I told myself that I had just 4 miles to hang onto this pace. I didn't look at the Garmin very much at all during the race and instead focused on those runners ahead. I got chatting to a chap slightly earlier in the race who was running his first Snowdonia. He was tall and quick and was confident of his pace and had trained all year for this race he told me. He was just ahead of me in this section so I just focused on him and tried to maintain the gap and not slip back. The miles went by and I was soon approaching Waunfawr and the climb up Bwlch y Groes.

The atmosphere was great with spectators lining the streets as the road started to climb. This was the final big push. What lay ahead was 2 continuous torturous uphill miles that at this stage in the race brings many people almost to their knees up the rain and wind swept mountain side. There was only one thing on my mind which was to crack on and ignore the now mounting discomfort in my quads and calves. They were screaming for me to slow down but I was having nothing of it as I continued to push my body to its absolute limits. I was steadily reeling in and passing everyone in front of me as I continued to the very top. Every person I passed voiced encouragement in the true Snowdonia spirit.

My legs were on the verge of collapse and were starting to cramp making the flat(ish) section of trail at the top little easier than the climb itself.  I pushed on into the wind and made it up to the second summit to the very top. From there it was 1.5 miles straight down to the finish. This is where it can get tricky as the path down goes offroad on mud, grass and rock. It was only upon reaching the top that I looked at my watch and saw that I could actually be on for a snowdonia PB by perhaps a matter of seconds. This motivated me to let rip and fly down the final slippery descent into Llanberis which is extremely steep in some parts especially where it returns to tarmac. I passed a few more runners as we made the final twists and turns into Llanberis and then I spotted last years female winner Emily Gelder as I turned into the high street. I must have looked like the guy who didn't want to get 'chicked' but honestly the only thing on my mind was to run the fastest time I could and get a PB. With that I sprinted down the high street and under the finishers arch.

I stopped my watch at 3:16. A new Snowdonia PB by one minute and my 'official' PB too! I was stunned by the time on my watch. I REALLY didn't think I stood a chance of getting near to last years time let alone beat it. What a way to effectively finish my 2013 with that. I was smiling from cheek to cheek as I stood in the finisher square for well over a minute just taking it all in. Thank you Snowdonia for another great race and more fantastic memories. See you again next year!

My race splits are on Strava - http://www.strava.com/activities/91676776?ref=1MT1yaWRlX3NoYXJlOzI9dHdpdHRlcjs0PTE1NzIxNjE%253D

Friday, 13 September 2013

Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 2013 race report

It's taken me until now to find the energy and will to return to the Alps and write this race report. A week to let the dust settle and get my head around the whole UTMB experience (and then another week to write it!). And what an experience it was! The highs and the lows both figuratively speaking and in ascent were some of the most contrasting I have ever experienced. Whether I can reflect the magnitude of this event in the next few (too many) pages is doubtful. So much has been written about this race and there are already some good blogs out there from the 2013 race including front runner and fellow Buff team member Anton Krupicka, as well as a fellow Brit Simon James whom I ran the whole of the second half of the race with. So check them out (but read mine first ;-) This is my reflection on my race, how it went for me, my thoughts and emotions including the hallucinations! All I would say here and now is that the only way of really knowing what the UTMB is all about is not to read about it but to get your name in the ballot and give it ago yourself... Go on you know you want to!! Why would you be reading this otherwise!?

I was very well rested as I stood on the start line of UTMB in the centre of Chamonix. A full week of no running preceded the start as the family and I enjoyed a fantastic time at Eurodisney.

Lili and Jasper with Pluto!
An 8 hour drive saw us arrive in Chamonix on the Wednesday with the race start at 4:30pm on the Friday. The time in between was spent in the local playgrounds with the children, soaking up the amazing atmosphere as you walked around the town centre, swimming, and eating lots of ice cream!

I was really relaxed and thoroughly looking forward to the adventure that lay ahead. Registration was on Thursday which involved a lengthy wait. There were 2,300 entrants so it was always going to take some time. The sun was beating down as Nick Ham (another fellow Brit and good ultra-runner friend) and I waited in line. The amazing views of the Mont Blanc glacier and atmosphere made the wait no problem and I soon had my hands on what is surely the best looking race number (or dossier as the French call it) out there. It also matched my new Union Jack Buff that my sponsors had very kindly managed to get to me just the day before we left England :-) Thanks Buff!!
 
Isn't she a stunner!
With the unusual late afternoon start Nick and I had Friday to kick around the apartment, prepare all our gear, have our final meal (sweet potato and sausages for me) and get to the start for the prerace party-like celebrations complete with electro-euro-pop blarring out the speakers that were located all over the centre of town.

Nick and I all set to go!
Dino Ilari (another fellow Brit and friend) and I made our way to the start line with half an hour to go as the crowds grew. Unfortunately I'd lost Nick Ham as he got chatting to other British runners in his usual enigmatic style. It seemed he knew half of Chamonix! We couldn't get to the front but managed to get down a side street and ease our way into the main pack well within the top third as other runners were being funnelled to the back. The countdown to 4:30 heightened the atmosphere further as the music got more intense and the comparer positively encouraged runners to hold their hands aloft and join hands in a show of solidarity to the challenge that lay ahead. It was rocking!!! At 4:28 the famous UTMB music (Conquest of Paradise - Vangelis) played out across the start and we were set on our way with emotions running high. Chamonix was positively heaving with adrenaline and energy as we charged (slowly) through the town. If the rest of the race was as good as the start then we were in for something very special.
 
The start in Chamonix!!
My wife and children were able to get a good spot further down the street as I passed them giving them all a kiss goodbye. If all went well I would be seeing them again in 35-40hrs time. But I preferred not to think about that and instead in the words of legend Lizzy Hawker 'stay in the moment'. This was the approach I would need to take to get through this one and with that we left Chamonix and headed onwards to Les Houches.

In retrospect it would have been good to know that the next 5 miles were the flattest we would experience over the next 3 days. I ignored everyone else's pace and just set about getting into a comfortable rhythm. 3 or so miles in and Nick caught me up and we chatted about the adventure ahead. I then heard another familiar voice. It was Chris Howe from Kingston Uni Sports Science department who oversaw my heat training sessions for WSER. Everyone was on a real high with expectations of what was to come. The weather undoubtedly heightened the mood as the forecast for the whole weekend was clear skies and warm. This is in contrast to the previous three years at UTMB which experienced the worst mountain weather possible. I felt fortunate and was determined to savour every moment and make the very most of it.

Les Houches (4.9 miles) was the first water stop as I took the opportunity to refill one of my water bottles before the first climb and the frenzy of walking poles begins. I quickly got into a nice comfortable stride on the climb using my poles to maximum effect and set about making up some ground on those in front. Climbing is definitely my strength so whilst I would lose a bit of ground on the flats I passed plenty of runners heading up to the summits.

Climb up from Les Houches (Dino in red just behind)
I reached Le Delevret in 713th position with 2hrs of running/hiking under the belt. A quick scan of the electronic chip on the number and I set off for Saint Gervais which was the first major food stop at the bottom of the valley. To get there required descending several thousand feet firstly down some pretty steeply graded ski pistes and then on to a long series of very runnable switchbacks through the trees that took us all the way to the valley floor.

Entering Saint Gervais (13 miles) at just gone 7pm was like hitting party central. There were crowds everywhere cheering and clapping and you could have been easily mistaken for thinking you were at the finish line. I was in 819th position at this point having deliberately tried to hold back on the last section and take it easy. The food at the station was a variety of sweet and savoury. Plenty of French cheeses, salamis and breads, cake, fruit and hot drinks. I didn’t hang around for the party though and gobbled up a few snacks, filled by bottles and headed for the next station at Les Contamines. In my haste though as I exited the station I realised I was poleless as I had put them down when filling up by bottles. A quick dash back along the entire length of the station to retrieve them and I was set.

I was moving well and feeling strong. Memories of the next few sections are few and far between. There were plenty of runnable sections along the valley floor before we started to hike up with a mix of tarmac to start and then back onto trail. I made up over 200 places on this section coming into Les Contamines (19 miles) in 593rd place, and my overall pace was well below sub 35hrs at this point. I was obviously doing something right, or in fact was everyone else doing something right whilst I was going too fast. This thought however didn't cross my mind as my pace felt quite pedestrian with all the places being made up on the climbs.

Coming into Les Contamines aid station at mile 19
The miles and climbs continued and I hit La Balme in 527th place at 10:15pm. 24 miles in the bag with 5h:44m of running. I was covering good ground with almost a quarter of the race already under the belt. The night was warm not needing any leg or arm cover even up the climbs at over 2000 metres. There was a little breeze which helped to keep things cool and not get overly warm from the exertion on the climbs. Throughout the night I struck up conversation with those that I ran briefly with. It was apparent however that the French do not speak a lot when running even to their own natives which made it doubly challenging to get them to speak to me. In contrast British Ultra Runners I feel like to share the ultra-experience and will happily chat away for hours to anyone that will listen. For the Europeans it seems to be a far more solitary experience.

Under torch light you could only see what was immediately in front of you and thus what we were missing out on was the spectacular views that were no doubt all around us as we crested peak after peak. The benefit however is that you weren't witness to just how long the next climb was as you stayed within your own little bubble of light with other torch beams stretched out for a mile in both directions. Throughout the night I continued to make up more places with strong hiking and a minimum time spent at the aid stations. Again in contrast it seemed that the Europeans would happily spend far longer in the stations perhaps even 20-30 minutes at every major stop. Did they know something I didn't or was this just the UTMB way of doing things. My feeling however was that there is no point exerting yourself up a climb and making up lots of places only to lose all these places by sitting around and drinking tea and eating cake. Perhaps next time though ;-)

So I pushed on as it was the only way I knew how and was thoroughly enjoying the whole UTMB experience. In the first night I didn't suffer from any fatigue or tiredness whatsoever. I arrived into Les Chapieux (31 miles) in 486th position at half past midnight. And by Col Chécrouit (45.5 miles) I was up to 397th place at just before 5am. This was suppose to be a water only aid station but the friendly volunteers had made some homemade snacks. I had this lovely grilled vegetable tartlet which really hit this spot. It was also here where I saw my position in the race on the laptop that they had set up on the table. Kriszti had relayed to me earlier in the race that I was around 800th but I had no idea how many places I had made up since then. It certainly didn't feel like 400! With this new information I felt great and bounded down the trail like nothing could stop me. That feeling was short lived…

The sun hadn't yet risen and the next section would continue all the way down into Courmayeur in Italy (although at the time I had no idea that I had crossed the boarder and in my funk it just hadn’t occurred to me). The descent started off quite gradual but then turned into a very long series of continuous steep switch backs along a dusty trail that clogged your lungs. This was the least fun I'd had so far in the race as the switch backs seemed never ending with Courmayeur getting no closer. Finally though after what seemed like an eternity we hit the valley floor and ran through the narrow cobbled streets of Courmayeur towards the aid station (48 miles). Dawn was breaking slowly as I entered the sports centre to the applause of the wonderful spectators. I was greeted by a volunteer with my drop bag. Here I could replenish my stocks of gels, cliff bars, nutella pancakes and homemade energy bar as well as change into a fresh Buff shirt and socks. I had a spare pair of shoes but there was no need to change them as the La Sportiva Crosslites were superb! It was the very first time I had sat down in 13 hours and boy did it feel good. I had forgotten that I'd also placed a toffee fudge Friggii milkshake in my bag. That was heavenly! I wasn't in a rush to leave here but went slowly through the motions of getting all my kit together and back out.

Dawn had finally broken when I exited the building and made my way through the quiet town and inevitably starting to climb again. Firstly on a steep road and then onto a never ending series of switch backs that wound up the trial that went on and on and on. Despite the food I had taken on at the stop I was still feeling empty and in need of more energy and calories. I took a stop on a rock about half way up and ate a cliff bar and pancake. At this point my reserves were now empty and I was eating just enough to continue on for a while longer before having to refuel again. From here things felt that little bit harder both physically and mentally, and is really where the real race began. The first 50 miles was just a warm up.
 
The views made even the toughest climbs a joy (honest!!)
I made it to Refuge Bertone (51 miles) in 15h:10m which give or take a mile or so was the halfway point. I was in 386th position which was my highest placing of the race so far. But it would be fair to say that I was feeling it just a little, nevertheless I was confident I still had a sub 35hr finish in me, and doing the maths I had a 5 hour cushion to play with. This wasn’t exactly my thinking when I rocked up here though… What I needed was coffee and lots of it! I had two mugs of the black stuff, and some noodle soup too. The soup acts as a great electrolyte to restore the balance in your body. I was getting cold though as I sat on a bench in my shorts and short sleeve T chatting to two local chaps. Seeing this one of them put a nice thick blanket around my shoulders. What service! I could have stayed there a lot longer as that last 3 mile climb did take it out of me but this wasn’t going to get me closer to the finish line so I said my goodbyes and thanks and moved up the trail.

The sun had made an appearance and it was apparent that it was going to be a warm day. Once I crested the top a little further up the trail it become much flatter however for the first time in the race I was the one being passed. I simply don’t run flats well in ultras! If I have a weakness this is it, and I think it’s down to my lack of flexibility which is made worst when your muscles tighten after running such distances. And then as you slow and your stride shortens this shortens your muscle contractions which makes things lock up even more, and slow down more. A vicious cycle! Subsequently I gave away 80 places between here and the next station.

The views across the valley though were amazing with the snow-capped mountain peaks jutting up high into piercing blue skies to my left. I sat down on a grassy patch by a stream and phoned the wife for some moral support (which worked :-)  I ate some more and headed onwards to Refuge Bonatti.

New Flash: Ultra Disco Stu finds a flat section of UTMB
I arrived at the aid station at 9:33am after 17hrs of running and 55.5 miles and got the surprise of my life. As I came up the trail to the aid station entrance who should be standing there but no other than Lizzy Hawker!!! 5 time winner of the UTMB and the most inspirational of ultra-runners. I had only been reading her blog the day before on her experiences of UTMB and how one should tackle such a race - 'stay in the moment' was her advice. I gave Lizzy a big hug and told her what a boost it was to my morale to see her here. My mood was lighter and I was feeling 100 times more positive about the race again. I got a cup of tea and chatted with Lizzy. I told her how my race was going (which was well up to a point but I felt the wheels coming off) and asked what advice she could give me to get my race back on track. She replied 'baby steps' just take each section at a time and don't look too far ahead. I was buzzing with positive energy from meeting her and set off up the trail with new vigour and purpose. I caught up with two French runners soon after who were running a nice even tempo pace that I felt I could try and match so I just fell in line behind them not saying anything but matching their every stride. After the loneliness of the previous section it was nice to have this connection with others in the race again. It helped my placing too as I stopped losing places and actually made up 5 places arriving into Arnuva at half ten in the morning in 461th position. I was still in the top 500 and feeling really positive about my race.

Arnuva (59 miles) was a food stop and was also the last place to fill water bottles before a big 10 mile section which consisted of a massive climb up to the top of Grand Col Ferret and then a long gradual descent down to La Fouly. One volunteer was making it very apparent for the need to take on plenty of fluids and restock as it was getting really hot out there now. There were quite a few Brits at this aid station and I sat down next to Simon who looked like he could do with some company. I tucked into a feast of cheese, salami, bread, noodle soup and cola and James and I chatted about both our races. James had had a tough last section and was considering taking a nap in the tent set up with lots of beds. I didn't think this was a particularly good idea and suggested instead he may like to tag on with me. At first he wasn't keen and even suggested he was considering pulling out the race such was his pace but I just said that’s what you have to expect after almost 100km of very tough mountain trails. We chatted some more, ate some more and as I started to get my gear together to head out for the next section James said that he was coming too. Awesome I thought. James wasn't the only one in need of company and with that we started the long climb up Grand Col Ferret. It was a monster climb taking the best part of two hours to cover 3 miles. However it didn't feel so bad as we chatted for most of the way up and we also bumped into another Brit Sarah who lived out in the mountains in France and commented that she enjoyed listening to our banter.


James and I on the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (but didn't see any!)
We finally reached the top after midday and admired the amazing views back down the valley before the descent to La Fouly. We were in 490th position now and getting on for 20 hours of running. Our progress was slow in this section but still enjoyable nevertheless. By the time we got to La Fouly (67.4 miles) we both felt pretty wiped out. We took the time to refuel taking on board more noodle soup, cheese, salami etc. Have you spotted the pattern yet!! J It was apparent from looking around the aid station that many were feeling the same fatigue. I also met James' girlfriend Karin at this stop who was supporting him throughout the entire race by getting the bus to every aid station to be there when he arrived. She would be out there for the same amount of time as it took for us to complete the event and with the same lack of sleep! I could tell it was a boost for James to have her there and in a way we formed a team of three now that James and I had committed to crossing the finish line together. So the pattern emerged that James and I would just focus of getting through the next section whatever it threw at us, get to the aid station to meet up with Karin, refuel, refocus, and repeat. Simple!

The long descent to La Fouly
We left La Fouly in 602nd position and were still just under 35hr pace, and continued to Champex-Lac which was another monster 9 mile section. Between here and the finish every section seemingly contained a climb and descent bigger than the last. This made for very slow going.

We were now out of Italy and into Switzerland and there was a notable change in the scenery with the typical Swiss log cabins scattered on the green mountain sides. To stay focused and not lose too much time now that we were pretty much hiking, James suggested that we use each of the UTMB course markers which were literally every 50 metres along the entire route to run between and then walk the next - much like a Fartlek session but in slow motion. So this is what we did running between two markers then walking the next and repeating. It kept us occupied and moving forward with a new found purpose. The climbs continued and probably the most mentally tough period was coming up which was running into the second night of the run. As mentioned before I didn't suffer from any fatigue during the first night and was wide awake. Arriving into Bovine aid station after 9pm it was now dark and they had a fire roaring. This was a non-refreshment stop and was only there to scan our racing chips. We had now been running for almost 29 hours and it was officially my longest run! The total height gain since the start in Chamonix to this point was 7,748 metres which is like climbing to the summit of Everest from basecamp and back down, almost twice! For James too he was into completely new territory. His longest run had been 80 miles of the Ridgeway ultra which he completed in around 17 hours. UTMB was his first 100 mile ultra, and at this point he'd already been on his feet for 12 hours longer than his previous longest run. That’s either very impressive or just plain daft… you decide! I know he’ll read this so thought I’d throw that in. lol.

We were now at the business end of the race now. We knew we had a long night ahead of us but both of us were still not willing to acknowledge just how much time it would potentially take us to cover the remaining 20 or so miles. If someone told me at Bovine that we would be running for another 13 hours I think it would have been too much to bare. Damn… I’ve just given away the end ;-) But seriously that’s an average speed of just 1.5mph (or 40 minute miling!!). And trust me when I say we were trying!!! Our strategy of just focusing on the next section and taking 'baby steps' (quite literally!) was working. We were moving forward and however difficult the struggle was becoming to stay focused and reach the top of the next climb the end was getting closer.

I think I will save you (“the reader”) from going into chapter and verse about the never ending night section. It can instead be summarised with the following which describes the next 10 hours of running before the sun came up for the third day of this epic run: rocks & roots, bright stars & moon light, extreme fatigue & emptiness, long long long descents & never ending climbs, camaraderie & laughter, chocolate & cheese, noodle soup & hallucinations, new friendships & bonds, heaven & hell. And then finally out of the darkness and into the light!

But just before we get there… We reached Vallorcine at just gone 4am after 35 hours of running.  With a little over 10 miles to go this was the first time where we perhaps allowed ourselves to think about the finish. Up until this point it just seemed too far away but now it was getting closer and soon the new dawn would break. This didn't however mean that the hard work was done and in fact the final major climb of 850 metres of vertical ascent up La Tête aux vents was the most dramatic and toughest of the entire race. This was partly because I was by this point almost sleep walking using my poles to guide me forward as I staggered and swayed up the trail. I was now on autopilot and felt like a passenger in my own body with little control over my movement as I floated along at a snails pace. Baby steps baby steps was all I was capable of by now. James by contrast seemed more with it at this point and led the way up the climb. We eventually made it to the top taking almost 4hrs to cover the 5 miles. An hour longer than my marathon PB to cover just 5 miles! I’m not sure this was running anymore but it was a beast!

I can't miss out and should add that on our way up the final climb one Mr Nick Ham came hiking past us looking fresh as a daisy and still sporting his ultra-short union jack shorts! There was hardly any time for pleasantries as Nick carried right on whilst I had stopped to refuel. I hoped to catch him by the top but on this kind of terrain a 5 minute gap is nearly impossible to make up easily. The descent down to La Flégère (99 miles) was another rock strew trail with lots of hopping over boulders and tentative positioning of feet and limbs as we picked our way down. By now however the sun was out and a new day had broken. Our slow pace had long since been of any cause for concern or anguish. Our overall placing too was something we had also surrendered long ago. By this point we had a vague idea of being in the top 1,000 but this detail was unimportant. All we cared about was finishing the UTMB. In fact this was the only thought that had been carrying us forward for the last 20 hours. It was survival.

About to get "chicked" on the descent to La Flegere
James and I high-fived as we passed the 40 hour mark in our epic run. Neither of us honestly expected to be still out running at this point in the race. Earlier on when I was going great guns I had plans of being back in the apartment and tucked up in bed by 3am and here we were gone 8am and still moving towards the finish. The final hours were easier going and mostly flat or downhill. However downhill in UTMB at this stage of the race or in fact any stage still required a tremendous amount of focus to stay upright, maintain good footing and avoid any silly mistakes. I managed all three! My friend Dino also came past us on the descent from the last climb. Like Nick he was moving well and enjoying his race. I think he could hardly believe that he had caught me. At 30 miles into the race I had held over a 2 hour advantage but that time had since evaporated.
 
The end in sight and a little more cheery!
The finish was now within touching distance. The last aid station at La Flegere was perched at the top of a chair lift which came up from the valley far below. And in the distance we could see Chamonix which was less than 5 miles away now. This was all that stood between us and finishing what was undoubtedly the toughest run of my life (yes, way way tougher than Western States by a mountain mile!). We found our legs again and managed a good clip down the side of the downward piste. The pounding of the quads was of little concern anymore as there was no need to preserve them now. Off the wider piste and we were back onto narrower trails with the all too familiar roots and rocks. However nothing could spoil this moment as we edged our way closer and closer, down the trail losing height with every step. We came back out of the woods and onto the wider piste/trail that marked the final run into Chamonix.

And whilst I can scarcely remember the exact point where we left the trail for the last time we entered the outskirts of Chamonix at the foot of the mountain. It was now just gone 10am so there were plenty of people about cheering us along in our final mile through the town. A few lefts and few rights and we saw the familiar sight of the ice blue river that passes right through the centre. We followed it along with less than a 1km to go. I was just running along trying to absorb everything that was happening. The emotion, the smiling faces, the shoppers, the warmth of the sun on my face, and the finishers proudly wearing their UTMB Gillets that had probably long since finished!

We entered the final twists and turns of the course where barriers had been set up to funnel you to that well known of sights that is the 'UTMB finish' in front of the church. The moment I had dreamed of. 25 yards before the finish Kriszti was there by the side with Lili and Jasper. It was so good to see them again. Daddy daddy shouted Lili as she spotted me and I waved to her with the biggest smile on my face. I was so proud of them as a wave of emotion hit me. Running is just running but family is everything and they were here for me for my moment. And that is why it's a memory to cherish forever. Memories and experiences that are shared makes them 100 times more valuable, and this is why it was so special to share this race with my family, as well someone else alongside me in James. We approached the UTMB finish arch with our arms held aloft to the warm applause of the crowd. It really did feel like we had just won the race. You really won't find any other finish line atmosphere quite like it anywhere else in the world. And that was it. We had finished the UTMB crossing the finish line in joint 950th position after 41h:47m:09s. It was finally over and it felt AMAZING.



 

I stood there for just a moment trying taking it all in, in one of those movie like moments where the past 24hrs (in our case nearly 42hrs) flashes through your mind in an instant. My mind wandered before a volunteer brought me back into the present and gave me the coveted UTMB FINISHER Gillet. Mission accomplished. I was not going to stop until I had this in my hands and with that I could close the book on one hell of a chapter in my ultra-running career.

Nick and I sporting our matching finishers UTMB gillets (and shorts!)
This next bit is going to sound like an Oscars awards speech but I have to thank my wife and family for their unwavering support not just this year but in all the years that I have run, trained and dreamt of completing this race (and others including Western). I’m looking forward to not getting up at 4am for my Saturday morning long runs. At least for now anyway ;-) There is always something else around the corner as us ultra-runners know only too well, but for now Western States and UTMB in the same year is not something that can easily be topped. And so with that I think I'm going to savour this feeling and reflect back on one hell of a year for the months to come.

My thanks also to my sponsor Buff who provided me with some great race kit that performed superbly in the mountains. I just wish it was a bit colder so I could have used my Buff Gore-tex integrated hood. Perhaps next year ;-)

Post-race recovery at Passi lake south of Chamonix!