Written by Jean Baptiste Rouvelin - http://jbrouvelin.blogspot.com

Kit checked and got my number


Well, where to start. 

The Arc of Attrition is a point to point race which forms an arc following the South West Coast Path starting from Coverack to Porthowan. There are 4 Check points, which you need to visit and lots of mobile Mudcrew support teams with different goodies to help you move forward and keep you topped up. 
It is my second time in this race and the apprehension was huge. 
Last year, I didn’t know what it was to run a 100 miles and all my training and preparation was taken from guess work, my normal training habits and old friendly goat advice!!
This year was different, I knew the course and where I went wrong and knew my mistakes, between the right clothes, shoes or food intake. I knew I could improve my time and do better than last year. At least that was the plan A, but let’s be honest, I had plan B, C and D on the back burner if things went south. 
So knowing what I learn from last year and seeing what works for my girlfriend Laura, I changed my training with more miles per weeks, but slower with the odd speed work, more longer runs too and a weekend recce from Mousehole to St Ives. For people who don’t know the race or this part of the coast path it is a tough part of it and my advice would be to see it before turning up in the middle of the night on race day. That was the advice  given to me last year by Mudcrew runner Duncan Oakes and bloody worth every penny I spent to go down there and run it with Laura. 
 
Training went well, apart a DNF at wendover Wood 50. I over did it with too many long runs too many weekends on the trot before, and didn’t recover well enough. My left calf decided to give me grief and I had to make the hard decision to bail after 20 miles to concentrate on recovery and my A race, the Arc. I am not sure I have the discipline to turn up at a race and not give it my best shot.  Lesson learnt on that one, and I decided to do less races in my training. First DNF ever, and it did knock my confidence to be honest. 
 
Marty, Craig and me at the Blue Bar
 
So come back to the Arc, at registration I met up with a few running buddies; Craig MacAlpine who deferred from last year and Matty Hart who were running their first 100, Duncan Oakes, who is a local legend around here ( he won the arc twice and finished third last year) and Mark Brooks, part of Puretrail race organisers and all friends of course. 
 
Felt overwhelmed to talk and was looking forward to jumping in the coach to relax for the hour travel to Coverack and the start line. 
I sat in the coach next to Craig, we exchanged our doubts, vision and expectations for the next 30 hours +. 
I confessed of my doubt and couldn’t put my head in gear and into the race. The question of why I was putting myself through this race and what was I trying to prove to anyone was right in my face. 
 
Last year, I knew nearly no one at the start and was full of nerves and excitement, but this year, I felt I had to prove I could do it better and obviously put way too much pressure on my shoulders.  I just forgot why I am a runner and that I am supposed to enjoy the challenge coming. 
More to come later on my head not screwed right on my shoulders... 
 
Coverack at the start
 
The start was warm with a small wind, compare to last year which was cold and windy, I decided to start without my waterproof on and be on the lighter side.  Not a typical February winter day in Cornwall and I knew it wasn’t going to last until the finish. Heavy rain was planned during the night with a wind increasing and pushing everyone to the finish. 
 
At midday I took my place in the back ish of the pack with 150 other runners. We had a minute of silence to remember Matthew McSevney who took part in the last two editions of the Arc and was supposed to be here but unfortunately had a cycling accident and passed away. Mudcrew is sending a finisher buckle to his family, which shows just how this club and the running community are.
 
We all set off straight after that and were lead by Andy Trudgian (one of the three race director) out of Coverack to make sure the pack find the coast path okay. 
I always try not to start too quickly and let the pack make the pace they want, we all have 100 miles to go and I am certainly not planning the win, so nice and easy for now. 
 
It turns out the weather from the last few weeks (wet, wet and wet) made the coast path really muddy, and slushy. In France we call this kind of mud, a “loving mud” because it really sticks to you and can’t get enough of you!! It is going to be harsher under foot this year. 
 
I followed Stephen Cousins for a while, he is my hero from last year's  Arc, he completed the race while making a documentary film. I mean, I ran it last year and it was bloody hard to be honest but making a movie in the same time... what a star. You can find his different runs on YouTube and I advise anyone to have a look at the one from the Arc, it really gives you an idea of what is ahead of you with the ups and downs morale wise. 
 
The pack spread quickly and we went through the first diversion.  I caught up with a few runners and the pace went up when we hit the road missing the lush section of the Devils frying pan. 
I caught up with another running legend from last year's Arc ( at least in my eyes) Geoff Partridge. He finished the Arc last year and in 2016.  He was one of the 28 who managed to finish when there were two storms on race day. Last year stayed dry so we had it pretty easy. We shared a few experiences and details from last year and we pushed on. 

13 miles and not too happy.
That is when I started to struggle, and way too early to my taste to be honest. My head wasn’t in it, I could see I wasn’t moving as quickly as last year and I started not to enjoy my day whatsoever.  The sticky mud was a part of it but everyone had the same conditions. 
I arrived at Lizard point.  Lots of people were there cheering and encouraging and some Mudcrew marshals to top up water and coke. I didn’t hang around, my crew was three miles further away with hot coffee and encouragement at Lion rock.  I mentioned to them my not so great general feeling and they pushed me forwards with a kick in the back side and told me not to worry too much what everyone else was doing. 
The next time I would see them would be before Porthleven (CP1). We planned where I was meeting them and it was at regular intervals, avoiding the first two CP, thinking I would be looked after by the Arc angels there.  My legs loosened up and my head relaxed, just the fact to see some common faces made me feel great and made me enjoy the moment more. For now...
 
Focus going down
 
I met up with my crew at Church Cove, around 20 miles in, the fact I felt much better and up for the duty ahead of me reassured them I think. A quick coffee and a sandwich to eat on the go and I was on my way. 
I was with a few different runners then, but we didn’t exchange much, until I entered the longest diversion of the SWCP just before Porthleven. The coast path collapsed three weeks before or so, and I think we all knew there were going to have added  miles to the race. 
2 to be exact and that played with me a bit, but like I said earlier that is the same for everyone. Mudcrew decided to give 30 min more for each cut off for all the diversions before Porthleven, the race was 36 hours and 30 min long now. 
 
Sunset time 
 
At the Loe Bar, just before Porthleven a Mudcrew marshal sent us inland to avoid the damaged coast path section. I decided to fuel and eat something.  I heard a runner catching me up. When he caught me up I decided to run with him, that was a while I had no company and a chat would nicely push me to the first CP. So I met Paul Core, we exchange a few different experiences and past achievements and we arrived in Porthleven, easier miles when your mind is a bit distracted. The last year CP was moved up into town for capacity reason I imagine. A new thing introduced by Mudcrew was a valet runner who led the way to the village hall where the CP was. Great innovation and great touch. We could see they all had fresh legs though, compare to our very conservative ones with 28 odd miles on them!!
 
I sat down, the Arc angels topped up my water bottles, gave me some melon, coffee and soup (I think). I had a quick chat with Justin Nicholas from Climb South West and I saw Geoff here, but not anymore in racing gear. I could see he had dropped out and felt so sorry for him; knowing the feeling to DNF, and after the chat we had early about a hat trick for him. I didn’t say a word to him, but acknowledged him by holding his shoulder when I left. No words could have made anyone feel better then. I hope if you are injured it isn’t too bad and you can come back stronger next year. 
Paul and I fuelled for a maximum of 5 mins and left again together, clapped out by all the Arc angels. 
 
Not a shortcut, i promise.
Head torch time was soon and the night was coming, 13 or so hours of it. So I made sure my head torch was already on me when we left Porthleven. I have a couple of Petzl head torch which do the job well for the night.
 
The coast path goes up and down in the narrow way at some time but I am moving okay and managed not to get lost so far apart from going into the wrong field after only 5 miles and had to jump a fence where a cameraman was on the other side. He took a cool picture and reminder to look where i am going and not follow other runners. 
 
So when I arrived at the Trenow Cove beach, last year I didn’t realise the coast path wasn’t on the beach but up on the cliff. I missed the path again and passed 5 others runners who decided to turn around and find the right path. Because of my last year's experience I knew I could get to the coast path if I push forward. Not the quickest way but quicker in my mind than to turn around and look for the path in the dark. 
I arrived in Marazion and my crew were just after the town centre into a  sea front carpark with my road shoes. I drank some coffee and had some chicken soup. I decided to put my waterproof on, the temperature is dropping and I was feeling pretty good and moving well after 30 odd miles. 
It always feels nice to change shoes and socks. The change of pace and hard ground made my legs loose up and I am moving okay until Penzance and the second CP. 
 
Penzance
Another Mudcrew valet run me to the CP which was in the sailing club this year. I arrived there with a bit of a sore tummy and not really sure what to eat. I had a bit of soup again, coke and coffee. Ang Martin was one of the Arc angels in Penzance, we ran a couple of times with the Puretrail group. She cheered me on and told me I am way ahead of the cut off. Thank you so much to look after me so well. I soldiered on, by not staying there too long and getting too comfy. 
I left Penzance on my own and still managed to move okay on the road. The pubs were busy and I was cheered on by some drunk people who let me know I am nearly there.... if they knew... haha!!
 
I met up with my crew at Mousehole for new socks and fresh trail shoes. No need to top up, I am full of food and liquid from Penzance. Lovely to change shoes , it made my feet feel fresh again, like I had not run so much, and that made me happy as strange as it sounds. I could see Paul Core in the distance before I stopped but we split again during my pit stop. 
 
Curry time with a beer(s) for my crew. Laura, Nik, Don and my dog Basil
 
Entering Mousehole you run into the centre and pass the port before climbing out of the town. I remembered last year feeling so so at this time but this year my legs felt good and I was moving okay. I always feel I come alive when night falls and during the night. I left the road and entered the muddy coast path and heard a runner coming by behind me and moving pretty well (better than me) it was number 95 and he wasn’t really happy, he took a wrong turn and had just done a loop in the field. Not really sure what to say to him and let him run away at the first hill we found. He definitely had better legs than me. 
 
The trail at this part seems to go on a bit but with a good rhythm. Going up to the cliff and down, the running is broken by boulders and big steps at some point but I was covering ground well. I caught up Paul and we exchanged a few words in Boskenna (I think) where we got some coke from a Mudcrew support team. We left together and enter the Coast path, climbing back to the path through a few big boulders. 
I find my legs were still with me and I sped away from him, I knew my crew where going to be waiting for me at Treen or at the Minerack Theatre carpark. 
 
Half way and still looking okay (ish)
 
Three head torch were at Treen cheering me on when I was coming down the path, some hot soup and a  warm coffee waiting for me (I like it like that so I can down it quickly) and Don, Nik and Laura told me I was doing really well. I don’t ask more details because I still have a long way to go and only racing myself.  Up the stairs to the Minerack theatre, and I know at that point I am roughly half way and around 6 miles to Land’s End and CP number three. I am at that point on my own, no light behind me, no light ahead or a really long way away. One light house made me think that someone was just behind me a few times and I started to hallucinate a bit. Feeling the strain of the night a bit and my stomach is giving me grief. Food is starting not to be appealing whatsoever. Just need to move forward and the light of Land’s End appears on the horizon and I know I am close.
 
Land's End, sore stomach with cramps
When I arrive my crew was there and I decided to change my tops, buff, and socks. I am really organised when it comes to race day and I put all of that in a separate bag so it was well easy to find.  There are three runners in the CP, my friends Duncan, Marty Hart and someone else but didn’t know him. I am still blister free, but my stomach is starting to go south. My crew ask me to eat something so I put some soup down and another coffee but I am starting to be unhappy to be honest. My stomach is cramping and it is only the beginning of it. 
I stayed 10 or so minutes ( not really sure to be honest and left after everyone was gone) I am more forward in the field that I had imagined and my crew make me aware of where I am.
 
Next stop is Cape Cornwall, 5 miles to go and the terrain is becoming a bit more twisty and up and down. I first go through the old mine and I made sure I stuck to the path and followed my gps watch well, there are some disused mine shafts to be careful about. I could see head lights in the distance but I had no idea who it was. When I arrived at Cape Cornwall my stomach was cramping and I wasn't sure what to do about it. My crew were there all happy to see me and cheering as usual, i mentioned my gastric worries and they gave me a pill to help my digestive system to kick in a bit more and off I went toward Pendeen light house. 
 
Coffee break before the brutal section.
 
The weather was clear at first with the sky full of stars and a bit of wind. I don’t remember being cold, I wore a skin base layer and a OMM fleece top (brilliant couple piece of kit) shorts and leggings on top, gloves, buff around my neck, a warm hat and a light waterproof jacket for nearly the entirety of the event. The rain came during the night, not much at first and I knew the Saturday weather forecast wasn’t going to be as kind as what we had for the start. I arrived in Pendeen and I knew I had the worst part of the course ahead of me. 13 miles of boulders, slow muddy trails. I recced that section twice and the pace has always been slow, really slow. 
 
My crew were brilliant and decided to park the van close to the path and walk down to it to bring me some food and warm drink. Not sure where the first time I met them but after 4 to 5 miles I would say and the second time at Zennor and that's where I had a really bad time. My stomach was cramping so much then that no food was getting down, I was feeling really sick and I asked my crew if I could sleep a bit on the side of the trail.... My head was telling me my body at enough, and it took me a massive effort and a little cry to get up and crack on with the job. Funnily enough, when the sun came up I felt much better and moved okay. My legs were letting me part time run and st Ives was in sight. I had beat the worst part of it and was looking forward to a sit down but decided really quickly not to power nap even after pissing off my crew about it for the last three hours. 
 Laura and Don ran towards me just before St Ives and Don told me I looked much better than last year at the part of the run. 
Arriving in St Ives, 82 miles in on my watch
 
A mudcrew valet ran me into the checkpoint which is a big hall with a balcony. I tell you that because when I arrived inside I started to feel really nauseous and became really pale. I felt I had a couple of hot points under my feet and asked one of the medics to have a look. I lied on the ground and felt horrible, really cold and sick. Fergy (second race director) looked at me and asked me how I was, my only reply was I will get out of here in a bit. 
 
St Ives drama, second time in two years.
Brilliant medic who sort out me feet and gave me strenght back
 
The quick pit stop turned into a 40 mins plus and my last year's St Ives CP recovering time repeated itself. I decided not to worry too much and managed to get geared up and get out of the door. My feet had suffered with the wet ground and the skin in the bottom of them folded on itself and rubbed. Too much skin there apparently, and not sure how I can deal with that better than I did, by changing socks and hardening the skin beforehand.                                                                           
 
On the way to Portreath, my dog is keen to follow
 
The first few miles out of st Ives towards Hayle aren’t the best to be honest. A mix of path, road, going through the garden of an hotel and a dual carriageway (short sections). My legs weren’t responding really well and the running changed from a fast walking pace. Even with my training which I hoped would let me run longer stronger I was nearly out of fast movement and that frustrated me. A couple or maybe three runners went by. I wished them luck and congratulated them to move past me. I was a bit spent to be honest. 
 
I arrived in the back of Hayle where my crew were and the rain was properly following then. I changed into warmer close and put my waterproof trousers also. Followed the notorious Dunes of Doom and to be honest they didn’t feel that bad. I liked the change of ground, the rolling section of them and the fact to be a bit easier under foot. Godrevy was in sight and the last 10 or so miles. My gps watch was just clocking 95miles and I was cursing the inland diversions at that point. 
The coast path and the mud come back more apparent after the town of St Ives and Hayle and the dunes. 
 
Just want to finish at this point 95 miles in.
There are lots of carparks and the road isn’t far so my crew is there nearly full time walking with me and force feeding me soup. My stomach gave up a while ago and I had the feeling nothing was going through anymore. I have never been worried too much where I was in the field and my vision of doing a race is to pace myself to be spent at the end but still have enough to move forward and don’t get passed too much. I find it better for my head, and if my head is right everything works better. On the two Arc of Attritions I did and only 100 milers I failed and haven’t achieved that. The last miles were a bit of a drag but I had to push hard within and crack on with the job. 
 
Portreath. My face said it all, I have not much left
Portreath was in sight and I could see a runner catching me up. My girlfriend Laura went up the hill from Portreath to bring me some coffee and told me to not worry and keep going. Michael Robinson passed me going down the hill leading in town, we exchanged a few words but he seemed in better shape than me and he was the chaser not chased... sigh... but I did my best. I passed him back when his crew gave him some food and we got out of Portreath together. The coast path is just up the steep hill, a Mudcrew team made sure we went the right way. Michael ran and pretty well, I shuffled and knew we were three miles ish to the finish with two massive sets of steps to climb. Last year I felt good when I arrived there and managed the last climb without a stop. This year my legs and stomach made it a proper struggle, I cursed myself to not be able to finish more in style but I gave it all. 
 
Running to the finish
 
The last mile was lush, rocky path rolling in a general down way, before hitting the tarmac and feeling the relief to see the Blue bar, my crew and Jane Stephens (the third race director) with her famous big hug (Anyone need to finish to know how good there are). I finished in 28 hours and 7 minutes. Nearly 40 min slower than last year, but so happy to have my second buckles on this tough race. Managed a 13th place which is amazing in a field of 150 odd runners and i definitely done much better than i imagined. 
 
At the finish with Jane Stephens
 
This Buckle belong to my crew (Nik, Don and Laura) , without them I wouldn't have been around.
 
The experience was different from last year, I had already been through it all and I knew what was ahead of me. 
At the end of last year's  race, I changed, managed to cheer a few runners and had a beer and a burger at the blue bar. This year, I changed and felt horrible. I managed to make my way in the back of my girlfriend car, and before that was just sick... Everything my body didn’t digest went out, and we stopped on the way back for more sicking time. My nutrition was my down fall and I will have to work on it to not experience this again. The next day of the race I still felt poorly but apart from that I was in one piece compare to last year when I had a right shin splints, a buggered left knee and two massive feet. So pretty happy finishing in one piece. 
 
The Mudcrew are brilliant in the organisation of this race. A big thank you to the three Race Directors, all the Arc Angels, the Mudcrew mobile support teams and everyone who cheered and was out there during the two days. Thank you so much for my support crew to have been there and understanding when things were going well or not so well. I need to add a word for the people who start this event whatever you finish or you DNF. It is a toughy, do not think it is going to be a walk in the park because it isn't, I find dark moment out there and anyone who sign up to this event are or need to be aware of it. So well done to anyone who took part, and i wish all the best to everyone to get this so cherished buckle.
Next year I will be on the support crew team side to push forward Laura and take a break of this race but I will be back for sure. 
Now quick apologises for taking so long to write this report and don’t be too harsh it is my first race report ever. 
See you all on the trail :)
My proud possession 
 

Written by Tom Wright - http://life.tomwright.me.uk

No medal, no finishers photo but I did complete the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. No really I did… I have my coveted bin bag to prove it! 

(Note Lavaredo has a new sponsor in 2019 - La Sportiva - so much of what I have to say below may be immaterial)

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Too bloody cold to dress down for the money shot!

Apologies for the sarcasm! As much as I would like to beguile you with glorification of yet another epic ultra race on the global circuit I just wasn’t feeling it at LUT.

I did approach the proposition with a certain apathy not expecting to make it beyond the ballot. Ironically, Wayne had been instigator and he was left wanting. Becky was on cloud nine - finally she would run her dream race. Dave and I were just left contemplating what we had signed up for. 

Training, of the high mileage variety, never really started in earnest but I did race the Camins de Cabres, an extreme Spanish night marathon, three weeks prior where I managed to slice open my hand and smash up my kneecaps for the umpteenth time of the year. Give me technical, give me vertiginous ridge lines, give me scrambling. I was ready. Wrong race fool! 

Described, by some, as UTMB’s little sister, Lavaredo Ultra Trail is Italy’s offering on the Ultra Trail World Tour and accredited as one of the pinnacle five races that make up the Series. Perhaps had I taken heed of this I would have been a little more prepared for the thousands of athletes and all that comes with them. 

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Looks kinda hilly but most of these climbs are pretty long and gradual averaging 10% gradient. Apparently the real race starts at Malga Ra Stua. Certainly from there on in the course was a lot more fun. 

So here is a list of what you can expect to receive for the 120 euro entry fee:

  • The majestic beauty of the Dolomites on a well marked route along mountain passes and forest tracks
  • Countless volunteers and medical assistance
  • Hot showers and changing rooms
  • Efficient bag storage
  • Personalised race number with timing chip (hot-wired directly to live trail for real time tracking at each checkpoint)
  • A rather sparse race pack containing a nicely designed cotton tee-shirt and a fruit bar
  • Two beers - one cold on draft at the finish and one warm from bottle at the post race meal
  • A “pasta-party” with a small ration of food that barely filled an afternoon quota of carbs but did supply Tequila Dave with race bottles
  • A post-race meal that failed to cater for any non-carnivorous participants
  • The coveted finishers gilet which must have been cut under the assumption all ultra-runners have very long bodies and extremely short shoulders (although Becky affirmed the ladies “gadget” was a very comfortable cut)
  • The most chaotic and soul-destroying feed stations I have ever encountered (I will get on to that later!)

(Don’t think I have forgotten anything?)

Photography comes at a premium - an extra 30 euros. With cameramen dispersed across the ranges, and some exuberant post production, possibly worth budgeting for if your social media gravatar needs an update. Even an official LUT BUFF comes at an extra 15 euros! Hoodies, a requisite purchase at every big race I have done, were non-existent. Sold out, or pre-order only, I guess? Probably should have read all the newsletters that trickled through pre-race.

Small bonus was a £62.75 return flight from Gatwick to Venice and twelve euro return bus journey to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Unfortunately that was about the only things that came cheap and the rest of the trip would burn colossal holes in the pockets.

As far as registration goes I would recommend arriving early since the queues are very long. Also, take a doggy bag to fill up on cake, breadsticks and other local delights from the many race promoters in the Expo which you are obliged to march past after collecting your bib. After all you are unlikely to find your usual pre-race snack in the Cortina kwik-e-mart.

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Team Truro. It might only be 11am but Tequila Dave is already in his race kit ready to roll ;)

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Getting better at kit organisation. Still left Dave and Becky waiting indefinitely in the campsite café as I made a few last minute alterations.

The euphoric atmosphere and glowing starlets radiating from iPhones and GoPros on the start line had me questioning whether many of the competitors had mistakenly turned up for an Ennio Morricone concert. The smell of tiger balm, mostly emanating from a muscle strain in my back, was reminder of our real purpose. The Ecstasy of Gold rattled from the loud speaker. No doubt Haydn Hawkes would be feeling that in just over twelve hours as he went on to smash the course record in near perfect running conditions. Did I mention we were this close (holds arms at length) to that perfect Haydn moment on our first night as Mr Hawkes came waltzing out of Pizzeria Restorante as we gazed blearily into our first five euro German beer. No-one else appeared to recognise the trade-mark moustache! Opportunity missed.

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I didn’t take this photo but I might be in it somewhere!

Anyway… when the music stops, the countdown begins. Uno. Then we wait patiently for a few minutes to cross the start line with the other 1608 runners and begin the parade through town. 

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This bit is fun and like nothing I have experienced - MIUT being my largest race to date with less than half this field. For a mile the streets are lined with spectators cheering, snapping photos and high five-ing runners. Eventually the crowds give way to runners standing and squatting at the side of the road to finally relieve themselves of too much hydration after the sixty minute wait in the starters pen. Well for those who weren’t prepared to scrape soggy seconds of carta igienica from the floor of the solitary toilet cubicle in the mess hall.

So. What did I learn on the Laverado Ultra Trail?

1. Camping at 24 hour races is ill-advised! 

The logistics of getting tent poles and pegs through two connecting flights meant a shared 21 kilo trunk on wheels. Wheels that didn’t take too kindly to 2km of dirt track to our base at Camping Rocchetta. Complementary haulage is no way to spend race morning. 

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Sleeping in a tent in 20 degree sun is no way to spend race afternoon. Dave and I resorted to champagne table tennis and crazy golf. While Becky, having chosen us the solitary sunny pitch on the entire site, retired to the shade. Probably to recite a plan of action which would see her tear through the field and leave Dave and I unequivocally chicked. Come race evening I was ready for bed. I would have to rely on some fine Italian coffee at the checkpoints to get me through this night. Wrong!

The only caffeine on offer throughout the course appeared to be Coke. Really!? Perhaps I should have scrutinised the regulations which read: ‘it will also be possible to make use of the mountain shelters along the route where athletes can purchase food and drink (at their own expense)’. Go buy your own hot beverage at a refuge, sucker!

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What have you done with Tango Tom? Tired means cold and I wore everything I had ahead of the start. Of course once I was out of town most of it came off again and spent the rest of the night in my pack.

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Who is your money on out of these two? A sharp eye might be able to make out the spiritual nature of Barefoot Dave’s borrowed shoes.

2. Big race = a lot of crowds and a lot of queues! 

This is no way to escape the bustle of modern life. Within ten minutes of leaving Cortina’s streets we were bottlenecked by a gate at the start of the first woodland path and the first ruck of the night ensued. The next four hours were a stroll. Fine on the uphills, frustrating when you intend on making up time on the descents. No sooner did gravity compel the group to accelerate then pace was disrupted by another tight switchback that bought our train to a grinding halt. Of course, the narrow paths and densely vegetated steep banks did little to deter the odd enthusiast from barging past hollering some typically gruff italiano. I intentionally chose to start slow and was unaware of how far back in the field I was. I have only myself to blame  - more walking race than running race - and that is what you get for failing to appreciate the impact dumping several thousand runners on the Dolomites single tracks would have.

At least I got to share some early continental trail time with Dave before a call of nature broke our soirée.

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Got to see the lighter side of it somehow!

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3. As for the feed stations… tirade time! 

I arrived at Ospitale at 1:50am keen to top up my water, grab a quick snack and be on my way before the biting chill of a sub-zero night took hold. So I patiently queued. And waited… and waited… and waited. After a few minutes it dawned on me the only way to get served was shout rudely and thrust your bottle in front of those in front of you and wave it in some poor attendants face. Ok everyone is tired and keen to get on their way but how can anyone in the back third of the field justify an urgency to get served before those who have been queueing longer. It was a farce; it was a fight; it was going to get a lot worse at the second aid station in Federavecchia. Here the focus was hot soup and the atmosphere ferocious. After much pushing and shoving I made it to the table and took it on myself to distribute bowls to those who had clearly been waiting longest. But getting your soup was one thing, making it back out of the melee without spilling any was a fresh challenge. I left depressed, hungry, and hopeful that dawn might bring sense or at least spread the field enough to reduce the volume of runners passing through a station at any moment.

(Editor’s note: It would appear this is very much a timing issue. Becky’s experience of the night stations was a far more congenial affair and chatting to the Ferginator he had no such recollections from the previous year.)

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Dawn in the Dolomites. Hellooooooo mountains!

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Lake Misurina - looking north…

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Lake Misurina - looking south…

The night is short, two hours shorter than MIUT, and it was a blessing to see the dawn twilight not long after 4am. Another bloody forest track and to my delight I had caught up with Dave for a jolly good moaning session as can only be expected from a couple of miserable Brits in the beautiful Alps! To be honest Dave had considerably more cause than me - his toe was hanging out of a large tear in the front of his borrowed La Sportiva while his poles were reluctant to lock rendering them useless. So here is the next lesson - the one every other ultra runner has ingrained in their psyche.

4. Prepare your kit well in advance.

The weather forecasters had thrown every possible element our way in the build up to raceday. Thunderstorms, snow, hail… we might expect it all. 48 hours prior it became clear it was going to be dry and sub-zero on the high passes. So gloves became an essential piece of kit. Could Dave buy a pair of cheap gloves in Cortina? No chance! It came down to 35 euros in the North Face shop on a pair of Etip™ Gloves that unstitched hours into the race. They did have a button on the index finger though which had a strange effect on Tango Tom when pressed. The humour was lost on the North Face staff and, further to the injustice, they refused to refund Dave’s faulty gloves after the race. The official sponsor of Lavaredo showing disregard for a competitor. What a shame! So, if you don’t have the kit list or forget to pack an item make sure you have a credit card ready to burn.

Another tip from the “man who runs in other people’s gear” is don’t leave your race shorts in the drop bag. Thanks to that comic faux pas, Dave’s quick drying, anti chafe, breathable, lightweight shorts were in a van heading into the heart of the Dolomites. While Dave was left attired in a pair of cotton combat shorts, which, I should add, he chose not to trade in when he finally reacquainted himself with his drop bag. I have never known anyone so cool, calm and collected despite having the wrong gear. Well fortune favours the brave as a bird kindly pooped across Dave’s face on our way to the pasta party! This left Becky in stitches. A few days later Dave had been offered a lucrative new job in the bright lights of the big city and the black shoes and blazer I had been hauling around in our trunk were justified. 

Perhaps one old wive’s tale worth heeding?

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Yuk… snow!  

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And here are a few more photos from the climb to Rifugio Auronzo in the shadow of Tre Cime’s southern faces.

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Looking back along the fire road to Rifugio Auronzo

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5. This is NOT a technical race

This is going to be subjective. Coming off the back of the Camins de Cabres which entailed countless hands on scrambles, rope aided slabs, bouldering river beds and near vertical switchbacks, the Lavaredo trails felt somewhat tame. 

The backdrop was at times stunning but I found a lot of the paths repetitive and many of the forest tracks surprisingly similar to home. A runnable root-laden trail that snaked through the pine forests of Pian Maccetto could have just as easily been Denas Road. The long fire road that gradually climbed to Cimabanche resembled the track that bisects Idless Woods. Boulder hopping around Forcella Giau a mirror for Penwith’s crooked coastline.

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Tre Cime. Described as one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. I wasn’t quite prepared for how big these rocks are!

It was only in the higher passes when we climbed above the forests that the Dolomites finally stole the show. The triple pinnacles of Tre Cime, the vast walls of Val Travenanzes. The abandoned caves and ruined buildings of the Falzarego Military Hospital which offered glimpses of the traumatic struggles of the Great War.

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I am not denying there are some challenging, runnable, sections on this course. The long descent from Tre Cime is fast and exciting with tight switch backs, plenty of loose rock and occasional steep drops which are best avoided. This eventually runs out into Val Della Rienza before the long slow climb to Cimabanche on yet another fire road. 

It was about this point in the race I found myself trailing a British runner with Lipton on his race bib. The suggestion was something, the fact no such runner appeared in the results list meant the hallucinations were kicking in early. However, at Cimabanche my newly discovered treat for the rest of the race became iced tea (or cold tea at least). It might not have had quite the caffeine level I desired but it kept me going for the final marathon. 

Of course this was not before standing gooseberry once again. This time at the bag drop as the attendants were too busy having a conversation to assist me. Yet quick to help another runner who shouted at them in the local lingo. If only I knew a little Italian.

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Castel de Ra Valbones from Forcella Lerosa

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Death Valley ☠️

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6. Altitude is not a threat

My biggest fear ahead of the race was the high altitude. My highest summits to date were Pico Arierio (5965 feet) in Madeira and Pico de las Nieves (6394 feet) in Gran Canaria. Making me a 2000 metre virgin. I had assimilated the online tips: arrive last minute to skip acclimatisation; avoid alcohol at all costs. I had failed on both counts.

The race route barely crests 2500m and does spend a considerable portion of the last marathon above 2000m but I never felt incapacitated by lack of oxygen. Sure there is a good chance of feeling exhausted on the long arduous climb out of Death Valley ☠️ but quite frankly after the best part of 36 hours without sleep and 15 hours of hard running and hiking who wouldn’t want to sit at the side of the path and bury their head in their hands. Dig deep and get the job done!

And maybe put some cheesy nostalgia on the iPod to drown out the omnipresent and metronomic reverb of poles.

7. Oh my god… Poles.

Did I mention the chaos these created on the first climb of the night? Too many people, too many poles going wayward, how did no-one get seriously injured? I took one for the team on the first ascent as the runner in front waved his pole aimlessly across my face. I am massively in the minority here. At least restrict the use of poles until the runners have dispersed a little. I counted less than a dozen fellow runners without poles over the entire course and since most of these were in Death Valley ☠️ they may well have been part of the Cortina Trail Race.

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Could poles have helped me when pace fell below 2mph on the steepest climb of the course to Rifugio Averau at 2413m. Becky’s expression when she tried to initiate me to her Black Diamonds in the campsite suggested probably not! 

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8. Stay on your feet!

Obvious really. But I am rarely one to shy away from a fast descent and the risks that come with that. My knees had taken the brunt of my indiscretions in 2018 and Lavaredo was going to be no different. On a course that rarely deviated from an occasional root and boulder fast downhills should come easy and having been held back in the night I was keen to make the most of every metre on offer. 

So, it really didn’t help that I ran into the fence entering Rifugio Col Gallina and once again smashed my kneecaps on the road. It really bloody hurt. Time briefly froze, while the hot tarmac felt comfortable. I lay with my eyes closed grimacing in pain. “That’s it, race over”, I told myself. “Finally I can sleep.” Then the silence was broken by fellow runners and medics shouting over me. I brushed down the trickles of blood, pulled myself up and, unsure of what everyone was shouting at me, hobbled on to the feed station undeterred. Unfortunately this mishap would haunt the rest of the race and the rest of the vacation as the right knee swelled up, tendons inflamed and my gait became a hobble.

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9. If you are gonna be picky about food you really have to fend for yourself!

By the time I crested Averau, I was indifferent to the beef broth being the only sustenance on offer. Calorie intake would have to override dietary requirements this once. Besides I had no idea what was in the soup I had been consuming for much of the day. Based on the terse negative response of one aid worker to a lady who asked for something “vegetarian”, I suspect it was not to my liking. Again I chose to carry little with the intention of relying on a diverse selection of food stuffs at each aid station. Perhaps my brain was addled by the air or the exertion, but when I wanted savoury there was only sweet, when I needed sweet there was only savoury!

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10. Lonely… so lonely!

I tried desperately hard to find a friend on that last undulating marathon. The legs were shuffling, time was going very slowly and I was feeling a tad catatonic. Everyone seemed paired off though and whenever I tried to strike up conversation I got little more than a nod or a concerned expression at my apparent impertinence for interrupting! At one point I recovered a pair of gloves from the track and put on a protracted and painful sprint to catch the runners in front to see if they had inadvertently dropped them. The reaction was one of rejection at best. Ouch!

Some consolation came from the realisation that Rifugio Averau was not the mountain hut sat atop Nuvolau in full view for much of the last blistering climb over loose scree and rock but actually hidden in a col some 150m lower down the mountain. Downhill all the way now - well most of it!

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On that killer climb to Averau

I contemplated my friends who I assumed were both still making their way up Death Valley ☠️. Unbeknownst to me Becky was minutes from the finish line and a well earned birra. 


So, as the sun gradually sunk back into the mountains, some nineteen hours after setting off, lonely old Tom finally crested the col at Forcella Ambrizzola and, in the shadow of the high fortress of Croda da Lago, began the long descent back to Cortina. I was confused and a little bit excited by my overall time. My target had been 24 hours, and as the kilometres had ticked by I had reduced that to 22 hours. Now I was wondering if twenty was possible. A glimmer of hope that had me hurtling unsteadily through the forests of fir that concealed the unexpectedly long distance still to cover to reach the finish. Unfortunately I had little energy to tackle the gradual climbs and flat roads that broke up the passage and the minutes ran away from me. 

Cortina was a long time coming…

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Those queues that had plagued me throughout the previous night came back to taunt me one last time at Lago d’Ajal. My bottles were dry, I had no food and was desperate for some energy. A crowd was gathered around the sole distributor of water at this final feed station and there was little chance of penetrating the wall of people - were they even runners - that guarded the table. So I reversed straight back out on to the course in the hope a little stored reserve would see me through.

Frustrations aside, this was perfectly contrasted and complemented by one of my enduring memories of the race. On the fringes of Cortina, a pop-up feed station where a couple of local villagers handed out Cola and what looked like something considerably stronger. For once there was no queue, no disregard. Just pleasure at helping us weary travellers in the final throes. Not that it was really needed with one mile to go, I couldn’t turn down such a kind gesture and stopped for a glug of glucose. 

The road through town to the finish did little to lift my mood. Tourists going about their day to day routine or hanging out of the bars that littered the street. The runner in front appeared to be holding back, perhaps timing the perfect finisher’s photo. Well that was one last orc for me as I raced past and under the arc. Stopping briefly to do some embarrassing semblance of the Orange Justice. Some English bloke mumbled something at me on the mic and then brushed me aside as quickly as my race had come to an end. 

And that just about sums up LUT!


LUT is a ballot. There is a 66% chance of actually getting into the race. I should feel lucky to spend quality time on the beautiful Dolomite trails. But when events grow this big the challenges of management also escalate. The hundreds, or was it thousands, of volunteers out on the course, whether marshalling or trying to hold their own at feed stations were, in most instances, fantastic and I hope they have all been duly rewarded for their time, dedication and effort. Clearly there is a major issue with management of the feed stations where a simple FIFO queuing system would be beneficial. At least Rifugio Auronzo had a queue forming. Unfortunately, they briefly ran out of hot soup at the moment I joined that queue. 

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At the finish. Relieved and just a little bit tired!

I wouldn’t want my own experiences to put anyone off entering Lavaredo Ultra Trail. At least if you are better prepared and know what to expect you can probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. My previous outing on the UTWT was Madeira and personally that was on a totally different scale of enjoyment and wonder. There isn’t a single person on that small island that doesn’t want to help and see you reach the finish. The landscape, in my opinion, surpasses the Dolomites. Plus there are crashing waves which, as a wannabe Cornishman, makes me feel at home. And I got to spend the best part of a day with big Bri! 

Will this be the last mass global race I enter? Maybe… 

Am I becoming a miserable sarcastic git in my forties? Quite possibly yes…

This was not cheap and I expected more. Perhaps I am just looking for a different kind of race… 


But, this wasn’t just about me. It was a weekend away with friends and we tucked into the german beer in earnest the following day accompanied by World Cup fever. In 2015 I had run with Becky for the first time as I led her and Dave on a wild, thorny, excursion of the Badlands in deepest Penwith. Gorse is still a topic of much amusement now but I would never have predicted then that, three years later, we would be supping steins and sharing stories in a bar in Cortina d’Ampezzo. In fact I am amazed either of them ran with me again!

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Becky was celebrating her fortieth birthday with her dream race and what a performance she delivered. Finishing in 19:48, 28th female overall, competing with the elites and setting a Cornish record. Hats off!

Dave proved his resolve simply by finishing in 21:55 and confirmed those dilapidated La Sportiva had at least another 100 miles in them. 

I bettered my own expectations crossing the line in 20:36.

All the results are here.

Of course the real competition was decided on the crazy golf course on Monday once the hangover had been cleared by a cable car ride to Tofana’s summit. This just left a day touring the delightful sights of Venice before heading home to Cornwall. 

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On top of the world… well the Dolomites at least. Only a few footsteps from the summit of Tofana di Mezzo at 3244m.

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Morgan showing off her golfing prowess

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Bridge of Sighs in Venice. You wouldn’t know behind the camera there were several thousand other tourists!

Hang on a minute you may well ask… “Death Valley ☠️”? Well… there is no point giving everything away now is there. You will just have to go and find that one out for yourself ;)

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My official race statistics.

Written by Phil Bradburn - https://untrainingultrarunner.com

“There is nooooo way that I am going to run this race – I have seen what it does to people! And those swans…. And those dodgy people around Milton Keynes hiding under bridges like trolls….. and the mooring hooks that everyone trips over, and the low bridges that runners crash into…. And those bloody fishermen with their stupid long carbon fibre poles who make you hurdle them on Sunday morning as you approach Hertfordshire…. NOOOO WAAAAAAAAY!”. Me…… September 2017

So obviously just over 6 months later I would find myself stood on the start line in Birmingham ready to run the race. That’s standard practice right?! 

Pre-race

The run up to the GUCR was far from perfect for me. I had injuries galore (I had not been 100% since the Grandslam in 2017 and had picked up a minor injury on a marathon (Moyleman in February) and as a consequence had a few weeks of on / off training and low mileage. You can read more about my whining and see the inevitable kit laid out  here. Nevertheless, I was manning up and I was feeling ok about the race and very excited to get started. I had assembled the most amazing set of crew and buddy runners and issued detailed instructions on how to handle me.

Friday before the race

On the Friday afternoon we headed up in the car, after ramming my friend Marek’s car full of gear and food. At points I thought we would never fit it all in! I certainly don’t travel light!

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Anyway, I had left Marek (left) and Susie (Right) to get on with it while I went to the loo. I was too nervous to help much and was just getting in the way.

Soon we were on our way and we were contending with shit traffic for the whole journey despite leaving our house around noon. There is a lesson for you boys and girls – traffic is shit on a Friday of a bank holiday weekend!

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Anyway, we were having the best time on a road trip and I was getting chance to check out the pre-race chatter on facebook and to start panicking about how come I didn’t know that I had to take completed reverse sides of the race numbers with all the details of emergency contacts! I had read and re-read all the details and documents and don’t remember ever seeing it. Then I found the bit and then started worrying even more that I had completely forgotten to take in some vital detail that would probably get me DQd or something. I was really nervous then! ARGH! I checked the weather forecast – well, that was a shit idea! It was getting hot and wet for the weekend! with Thunderstorms. Oh… JOY!

Registration

Anyway. We eventually got to Birmingham to torrential ran! We were staying in the Premier Inn, on the other side of the canal to the start line. We dropped our stuff off there and then quickly made our way to registration in the Travelodge and picked up a sheet with a new diversion on for the race, and my race tech t-shirts and hoody, plus buffs. I also signed the disclaimer.

Soon we were off to O’Neills for the traditional pre-race meal (burger and chips and a couple of pints since you ask). And a quick catch up with Mark Thornberry, Karen Webber and others. I spotted Joanna and Stephen Turner as they were leaving (but they were out of ear shot so I didn’t bother trying to catch their attention).

Around 8pm we left and picked up some water at the supermarket across the road. The whole place seemed to be full of runners who all stuck out amidst the nightlife of Birmingham. We bumped into Jo and Stephen. She was crewing and buddy running for him. I’m sure I’d see him tomorrow on the race.

We made our way back to the hotel in the drizzle and after seeing Mark Thornberry and Karen Webber we made our way to bed. Sorted my stuff out. Set a tonne of alarms and tried to get some sleep. The night before I had managed zero sleep with some flight path change in our village and I was pretty exhausted and also a bit pissed off. This was my last chance to get rest before the race.

Morning of the race 

We woke up around 4:30am and had porridge and black coffee – and tried to have some nervous poos. Nothing was working properly yet so I’d likely end up crapping on the side of the canal in Birmingham at some point! But thankfully things rectified themselves and I was able to “go” before leaving the hotel at 5am.

Milling around in Gas Street

Stood around at Gas street at the start, I was feeling a bit nervous. Lots of tough runners and I knew that over 40% just wouldn’t make it and a fair chance that it would be me. I have had some disrupted training this year and my build up didn’t quite go to plan but none the less, I did manage about 300 miles of training in April and a good couple of 70 mile weeks at the start of May before my taper – so I was fairly ok with that. Not everything goes to plan and I guess that is part of the beauty of doing these races.

What I was less ok about was starting the race feeling exhausted. My sleep was interrupted on the Thursday night due to never before heard planes circling over our village. Gatwick must have changed its flight paths. It made me angry. Then Rob Pinnington told me to man the fuck up or words to that effect in a message on Facebook and that seemed to do the trick. Friday night was a better night sleep in the Premier inn just overlooking Gas Street in Birmingham. But I still felt pretty knackered. Not the ideal start to a race that would see me running all weekend.

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We milled around at the start. I was reminded by James Adam’s blog that it looks like a reverse Graduation ceremony – lots of youngsters standing around seeing their older parents off! Bumped into a few friends and crew of others. My wife Susie and friend Marek were there to see me off. Marek had driven us both up there on the Friday (5 bloody hours to Birmingham and it had rained overnight)

Soon Dick motioned that we should go down to the canal for the briefing. He didn’t want to start late like a previous year. While I was stood there listening to him do the briefing, I found it a bit of an out of body experience – I had seen so many race briefings at the start of GUCR on Youtube, and it was hard to think I was actually experiencing it for myself.

06:00am – Gas Street Birmingham – Start

We soon shuffled off into a half jog before the canal path went through a tunnel and then widened out. The usual chatter. Been here before? Done this one? It’s hard isnt it? All that kind of nervous chat while you each other weigh up the extent to which you should feel out of your depth. I had a brief chat with Paul Gilbertson as we jogged along the canal. He was looking like he might be fast! So at some point he pushed on.

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I had agreed to meet Marek and Susie at the first yellow crew point – just before Catherine de Barnes Bridge which I remember being pretty rural by that point.

I soon joined up with a chap called Rod and another chap who were running together. I am useless with names so I’m sorry if that was you! We were just enjoying the miles and in some ways it felt easier to be running my pace but chatting to others.

The ground was good. There was a little bit of spitty rain, but nothing bad at all.

07:42am – Elmden Heath – 9.7 miles

I had been running well, but was low on water so I filled up when I saw Marek, and Susie. But there were no snacks – so I asked for some savoury and some sweet at the next crew point about 5 miles later. What I learned is that all the crew points were “about five miles later” whether they were 2 miles or 8 miles. That’s clever motivation.

08:22am – Knowle Locks – 13.7 miles

I spotted Susie here and grabbed a bag of sweets and a bag of savoury food. In practice it was crisps and some salted peanuts, and some Haribo. Susie had said she got to hold an Olympic torch from 1948. And a chap had borrowed it from Jeffrey Archer and was using it to raise money for Sense – the charity. They are doing a relay with it from Much Wenlock to Crystal Palace. Susie was so happy about holding the torch! I marched out of the checkpoint and munched all my stuff til it was all gone 

09:02am – Kingswood – Bridge 65 – 17.2 miles

I’d grabbed a couple of ham wraps from Susie and I’d eaten them both during this section. The first one coming out of the crew point.  I was hoping it had not developed mould as it was next to my sweaty body (was remembering Dawn Gardner’s incident !!!)

10:07am – Hatton Top Locks – 22.5 miles

This was the aid station 2. I came running in and saw Susie next to the café. I asked for a calippo – she went to get one for me as I munched on my ham wrap on the way to the aid station. I saw Karen Webber and the other crew for Mark Thornberry here – and I filled up with some squash at the aid station. Susie passed me my calippo as I left.

My shorts were really pissing me off – and I had for the eleventy billionth time managed to scrape them out of my crotch. They kept riding up and pissing me off and was actually thinking of ditching the fucking things altogether on the race (obvs still running with compression shorts underneath!)

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Thanks for the photo Ross!

I left the aid station munching my calippo.

Chap on canal: “Is this a sponsored walk today?”
 
Me: “It’s a run from Birmingham to London – non-stop, for most of the weekend”
 
Chap on canal “Yeah fella… are you sure?…. it’s just that you’re walking!”

I could see Fi McNelis in the distance – but I couldn’t catch her – she was going super strong. I had to stop briefly to wee (checking the colour – which was looking darker than it should…. so I realised I would have to up the drinking).

I finally caught up with my favourite Slam friend Georgina Townsend. When we both did the Centurion Grandslam in 2017, we would regularly spend some miles together because we would have a tendency around 30 – 50 miles to run at a similar pace (i.e. I could keep up!). A swan stood in our way. Protecting her cygnets. FUCK OFF SWAN! It just stood there hissing at us like a big white snake and doing her job well. A passer by helped to distract her while we pushed past behind.

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11:09am – Bridge 42 – Ford Plant – 27.4 miles

I got a top up of bottles and pushed on. I caught back up with Georgina and the others and just got pulled along for some good easy miles. I went through the 31 mile point just before noon . Neither me, nor my crew remember anything at the next crew point.

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12:49pm – Blue Lias – 35.1 miles and then Birdingbury Bridge CP

I was really hot at this point. I was getting regularly doused with water to keep cool but I was a little bit off the pace and had dropped the group. I picked up the back piece to my hat so that I could keep a bit cooler. I soon hit the aid station, saw Keith Godden and moaned about the heat and filled up with water. I bumped into Georgina again, and said that I’d see her shortly when she caught up with me. I was feeling way too hot and bothered and super grumpy! This wasn’t going to be a good day. I had my crew moaning at me about not drinking, but I had been refilling at aid stations too – and having extra drinks along the way.

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2:01pm – Jacksons Bridge – 40.1 miles

When me and Georgina run together we have such a great time – just chatting shit and moaning – which is great because it is only ever a positive experience. I rarely speak to other runners while on a race but we both seem to be able to groove along and chew up the miles as we do. We eventually bumped into Ian Shelley – hugs all round and we had a bit of a catch up with his race so far. He told us a runner had ended up in the canal trying to avoid a cyclist. I remembered that I had to clamber over / through a tree at some point but can’t for the life of me remember when or where it happened.

After a few miles and still chin wagging as usual, and moaning about all kinds of stuff we jogged down the side of a bridge and spotted my whole crew! Hugs all round. It was beautiful to see everyone.

3pm Braunston Marina – 44 miles

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Our crew said that there was ice cream ahead! WHOOOOOOOAH! Music to our ears. So we headed off at breakneck speed to go get ice cream. There’s nothing more motivating for us two it would seem!

A few miles later, hoping we would find the rumoured source of calippo and ice creams we had been hearing about we accosted a random chap….

Us – “Hey, is there an ice cream shop here?”

Him – “There’s a stop up there. At a pub. It just beyond 2 bridges and there are refreshments”

Us – “But…… ice cream shop?”

Him – “There is an aid station”

Now that didn’t seem right at all to us……

Anyway, we saw a sign for a shop and ice cream at that second.

Him – “Wait for the aid station – they have refreshments”

Me and Georgina looked at each other and I could tell we were both thinking that this guy was an obvious imbecile…… 

Us – “Or….. we will go get ice cream now!”

No bloody competition is it!

So we grabbed ice creams and cold drinks (I had a calippo and a strawberry milk drink) and walked while we ate. A couple of other runners looked super jealous and relayed a similar convo with the random chap.

We got back to jogging and ran on. Eventually we made it to the Buckby Top Lock. Georgina was running low on drinks and I told her that my crew would sort her out. My shorts had AGAIN stayed rammed up my crotch!

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4pm – Buckby Top Lock – 48.5 miles

It was lovely to see my crew. I had stones in my shoes and Paul Pickford cleaned them out (or so he says!) and when he was putting them back on me he pulled my leg up….

“ARGHHHHHHHHHHH” i screamed.

Thinking I was cramping, he tried to straighten out my leg even more… I turned the air blue! In fact my arm muscles hurt so much from bracing against the intense pain.

Anyway, stocking up on more junk and getting ice cubes shoved in various places (buffs around wrists etc) I headed out with Georgina for the next bit. I got two calippos as I left the crew stop (Thanks Vanessa!) and a tonne of ice poured down my back including down my arse crack. Which stung like hell. As we were going under the road I discovered I had an ice cube down my arse crack.

“Georgina – here is a calippo you can have – I have two!…. But….. we need to stop. I have an ice cube in my arse. Can you do me a favour?”

At this point Georgina looked fucking horrified “Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm……….”

I realised what I said and clarified quickly that I didn’t want her to fish an errant ice cube out – just to stop and hold everything else while I did  FFS Georgina 

Me: I have ice down my arse crack. I’m gonna have to get rid of it.

More jogging….. and then we rounded a corner and spotted my crew again at the official checkpoint

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Thank again Ross Langton for the photo.

You can see how bloated and fat I was / was feeling! And my shorts up my fucking crotch AGAIN!

5pm CP4 Heart of England – 53.1 miles

We stopped here briefly. My crew was moaning at me that I wasn’t drinking or eating. I gave some half arsed excuses and then got on my way. Georgina was still in the aid station and as I passed she said she would catch me up.

I ran on and I knew that this next section would be hit and miss in terms of seeing my crew but that I would see them at some point probably around 60 miles.

Anyway, the temperatures seemed to be getting higher and I was starting to feel a bit sluggish. I saw Jo Turner a couple of times at various non-descript places along the route, and then I went under a bridge and recognised it as where I should have been able to see my crew. They weren’t there so I figured they may have gone on to the next point. But I didn’t see them there either. I was getting grumpy because of the heat and I was slow. I walked. I jogged.

It was at around this point that this happened:

Random lady: Can I ask? What is it you’re doing?

Me: Run from Birmingham to London

RL: Oh right? Is that like a marathon?

Me: 145 miles.

RL: Where will you sleep?

Me: It is non stop – probably have a few short kips

RL: Are you doing it for charity?

Me: No….. just for kicks!

At this point RL shouts after me YOU’RE CRAAAZZZZEEEEEEEEE

Eventually it occurred to me that it was starting to get to late afternoon and it would be going dark soon. These miles wouldn’t click away at all. I was getting irritable. I know it is hard for the crew (I had done it the previous two years and getting between places was difficult – but I was starting to fear that I wouldn’t see them at 60 miles either and I would have no headtorch to get to the 65 mile point where I would be able to meet my first buddy runner – Tracey Watson. So I phoned my wife and moaned a fuck load about needing water, torch etc and that I’d managed to miss my crew. She said she would find out what was happening and let me know.

I felt better instantly. I knew they would be doing their best but they didn’t know how slowly I was moving so probably had unrealistic expectations of when I would arrive with them and I didn’t want to be in a position of where I wouldn’t be able to complete even half of the race.

I came across another crew and managed to bag some water off them. It was then that one of them noticed my Steigen socks (they’re Australian and the only ones that I wear these days because they’re so thin and comfortable and didn’t get a single blister during the slam last year and the chap explained he had been responsible for getting them ot the UK and US). We had a chat while I drank their water. They were tended to their own runner who was getting what looked like a lovely massage and his legs were on the ice box. I felt guilty when his crew made him move his legs so they could get something for me! Anyway, I had a nice drink of water (I’d got bored of my own – it tasted funny and hot).

On I trotted, in search of the bridge crossing so that I could avoid the Northampton Branch. As I switched sides of the canal I came across Jo Turner and a lady and child who had a cool box.

Jo – “anything you need?”

Me – “Yes….. icecream?” I ventured tentatively – not expecting anything to come of it

Jo’s friend – “here is a calippo – it’s a bit melted but you can have it”

I was ecstatic! so I skipped down the canal (metaphorically) and poured the melted strawberry / cream calippo into my gob.

7pm – Gayton Junction – 60.6 miles.

I was pretty grumbly here. I got a bad time for not drinking my water (but I had other stuff but no one believed me LOL). It was lovely to see Paul, Lou and Vanessa. Hugs all round. They told me to get moving and they would see me at the Buddy pick up at 65 miles. I had a little sit on the bench. We saw Mark Fox who asked me about Chris Larmour (his runner) but I didn’t know at the time who that was.

I ran on. I was desperate to get through the Blisworth tunnel section before dark. This was the bit where you divert away from the canal for a mile and a half before rejoining it. I didn’t want to be running in the traffic in the dark (albeit with a headtorch) because I had read horror stories in other blogs about runners missing the turning.

My fears were short lived. Steve Turner was just ahead of me and moving really well and I was enjoying some good running as the temperatures were coming down and there were some downhill tarmac sections.

Eventually I rejoined the canal on a beautiful bouncy track surface – I really was bounding along like Tigger! I reached Stoke Bruerne but no sign of my crew. I hadn’t looked ahead at the instructions so I didn’t know where I was going. I phoned Susie and we established that I was at the top lock – not the bottom one. So I carried on until eventually I spotted them.

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8:23pm – Stoke Bruerne – 65 miles

My crew – and others were there. Also spotted friends Paul Commons and Karen Grieves who were there for their runner – Ian Shelley. I changed into my warm top, had a pot noodle and put my main headtorch on. After a stop we left there at 8:23pm – with Tracey Watson my buddy runner – and with Fi McNelis. We were looking for a bridge to cross – couldn’t see it so we crossed another one.

I put on some good jogging for a bit and then needed a wee. I told Tracey I needed to change my shoes from my trail shoes to my road shoes so I’d like to make sure that my pale blue new balance 880s were in the car for the next point. She texted once I stopped for a wee.

I think we were making good time and after a little while we saw Navigation Bridge – basically the half way point – and I was delighted to be hitting it in the twilight! That was the sign that the run was going ok. I knew that a lot of people drop here so I was pleased I was feeling good and that I felt full of beans!

9pm (ish) – Navigation Bridge 70.5 miles

I was in and out of the checkpoint quickly – only giving my number and we pressed on. Some good jogging going on and we were with Stephen Turner. He’s such an amazing runner and he and his wife had just been to Romania for a race. He had also done TP100 a few weeks earlier. I don’t know how he does it! Anyway, I didn’t have any business being as close to him as I was and generally we were leapfrogging along this whole section.

10:50pm – Proud Perch – 75.8 miles

I was still grumping about my shoes. I was being a total asshat. I needed my shoes. But just didn’t have them. So was getting super grumpy. I shoved some caffeine bullets and headed off again with Tracey. I had changed into New Balance Zante V3 which gave me some much needed relief as they felt much lighter on my feet and they had more cushion in them. I would need to change when it rained though – because they have zero grip – but for now they were nice. We didn’t seem to see any nightlife through Milton Keynes – perhaps the weather kept them all indoors! I was now drinking Mountain Dew but the problem was that I was suffering badly from being burpy, bloated and indigestion.

I was mainlining Rennies to the extent that my crew were googling “calcium carbonate overdose”

00:20 – Peartree Bridge – 80.4 miles

This was where I buddy ran with Pickford in 2017. I had a sit down. Got stones out of my shoes and faffed for a few minutes while I moaned some more about my pale blue new balance shoes. Marek was saying that he could get to this point in 20 minutes – but I decided to press on – he could meet us later and before it rained.

As we left the checkpoint it was spitting. Soon after Tracey insisted that I stop to put on my jacket because it was threatening to rain. We saw Stephen Turner and he was still running in short sleeves and insisted that the rain would “blow over”  

01:29am – CP6 Bridge 99 – 84.5 miles

I got into the checkpoint and Tracey handed me over to Pickford. I had my jacket on already because Tracey had made me put it on incase it started to rain – which it had already – but was only light at the moment.

I had another moan about my shoes and switched into some Pearl Izumi Road N3 which were more sturdy than the NB Zante v3 and had some grip incase it rained. The aid station people had told me that it was a lot of tarmac for around 8 miles. So I judged that it would be the right shoe choice.

This whole section is a bit of a blur but essentially it pissed it down. A lot. We had been pressing on and seemingly with the thunder, lightning and heavy rain all the frogs and slugs and snails had come out for a party. Frogs. Loads of them. During the biblical rain and thunderstorms overnight. I accidentally crunched some of them. I thought I was hallucinating anyway. So it’s almost like not real.

It was weird too as, even with the canal on my right hand side, there was the illusion that we were running up hill. Such an odd experience. I commented on it at the time to Pickford.

02:10am – Soulbury Three Locks – 87 miles

We saw Vanessa, Susie and Lou here. This crew stop is near a pub and we spotted Jo Turner waiting for Stephen. Cuddles and hugs and more Lucozade and a lump of chocolate. Made my spirits soar 

03:15am – Tesco Leighton – 90.5 miles

I’d had a brief sleep on a bench when it had got a little warmer. Pickford had shielded me from the wind and let me have just five minutes sleep. I was so tired I just needed a quick shut eye. I didn’t actually get to sleep but the rest was really good and I had been aware of my pace dropping.

04:28am – Slapton Lock – 94.2 miles

We met Tracey and Pete here. They were not letting me sleep in their lovely car so I grumbled and marched on. We also saw Jo waiting for husband Stephen here. He had had a sleep so was full of energy and soon bounded past. We had had thunder and lightning and heavy rain most of the night.

06:10 – 06:40am – Grand Junction Arms – 99.5 miles

I arrived at the aid station and felt like I had broken the back of the race. My pace was reasonable but I really, really needed a sleep. I walked to the car up what seemed to be a cliff face! and got into the front of Marek’s car. I was finally united with my pale blue new balance YAY!

I took my old socks off and noticed a big blister from the soaking during the night. I changed my top into a short sleeve one for the day time. Susie had passed me a new pair of Steigen socks. I noticed when I put one of them on that it was a 3/4 length sock. I had made an error when I ordered it from the website because I prefer 1/4 or 1/2. Anyway. I moaned about it to Susie. I already had one on. She said I could have a different pair to put on, but I couldn’t be fucked. I would rather just put the second sock on and moan like fuck! 

Snuggled up under a blanket and tried in vain to stop the light keeping me awake, and the pinging noise from Marek’s phone from keeping me awake. I had 15 minutes, plus an extra 5 minute snooze before I was moved on from the comfort of the car.

I thought I was hallucinating my nut off at several points of the race. Bloody pandas across the other side of the canal. Like the Godzilla tree that I saw near Tring…… and the hanging ape off some old disused factory! The things you see on the canal!

08:00am – Cowroast Lock – 102.5 miles
This is where possibly my biggest disappointment. The crew were there. The whole crew AND WITH MCDONALDS BREAKFAST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I went and sat on a bin – keep it classy Bradburn! I eagerly got started on a hashbrown. But a few bites in – I couldn’t take any more. I took a few bites of the double sausage and egg mcmuffin and struggled too. Damn my stupid body !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I even had Susie give me it component by component – but I couldn’t even do that. I felt a failure at being able to finish a fucking McDonalds. How weak am I? Usually I can hoover one down in 2 minutes flat and here I was struggling like an idiot. I couldn’t even drink a cup of coffee. I’m useless! I felt like I had let the crew down because I had failed a Mcdonalds!

Off I headed with Paul once again and next point he would hand over to Tracey.

08:23am – Berkhempsted – 104.3 miles

I didn’t stick around at this point – we had 2 minutes only just to change things over from my buddy Paul. As we left I asked Tracey if she had the maps? No….! Paul still had them, so I walked ahead and she went back to retrieve them. I then demanded my sunglasses then decided I didn’t want them. I’m such an asshat.

Anyway, as I carried on I eventually saw Lou Fraser with the maps and we walked together perhaps for a mile while Tracey caught back up. Was nice to see Lou and have a walk in the warm weather. I stopped and moaned about stones in my shoes. Emptied out some non-existent stones and then marched on saying goodbye to Lou. Tracey caught back up with me before the next bridge crossing.

9:40am – Boxmoor – 108.5 miles

We bumped into Jan Strachan here who was out to see us come through along with other runners. Lou and Vanessa were here to tend to me. I didn’t stick around and we soon got on our way. I remember last year buddy running here and we had somehow got stuck in the car park of the pub.

11:35am – West Watford – 115 miles

Changed back to Paul to buddy run with me. I found it hard to find somewhere suitable to sit such that I would be able to get up again! So I had to walk up some steps to a suitable place to sit at the correct angle. I had some strawberries, and I had more Lucozade. I was basically force fed more and more LOL.

1:31pm – CP8 Springwell Lock – 120.3 miles

I was with Paul and we came into Springwell lock. The aid station was across the lock but they took my number this side to avoid it. Jerry Hunter handed me a piece of paper and there was a message from my mate Marcel McKinley. I’d met him a couple of years ago when I was crewing GUCR for my friend Michael.

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I had a brief lie down on the bridge. It was soooooo lovely. I had some strawberries. My whole crew was here. More ice. I had a 5 or 10 minute shuteye here. Anyway, on I went with Paul after a kiss from my wife Susie (after she had force fed me some mango slices)

During the heat of the day, I was walking and moaning like fuck. It was a couple with their son. The conversation went something like this between them and me and Paul.

Canal people: Wow – is this a sponsored walk today?

Us: No….. it is a run.

CP: Oh right, you’re walking though?

Me: (indignant!) I have run 120 odd miles already, that’s why I’m walking

CP: Where from?

Us: Birmingham to London. Through the night. No overnight sleeps.

CP: For charity?

Us: Nope. It is a race – all for fun

CP eyed me up suspiciously……. Perhaps I didn’t look like I was having fun.

Sunday 2:36pm – Wide Water Lock 123 miles
I got an amazing massage from Vanessa and Lou. More ice including in a pack on my leg where I was really swollen.

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3:57pm: Cowley Lock – 127.5 miles

We saw Susie here and I had a Ginsters pasty, Paul had a ham and cheese sandwich and we cracked on. We soon went through the Tescos car park because of work being carried out on the canal path. We were getting closer and closer to the end, though slower and slower.

A group of teens / early 20 somethings were walking down the canal and were interested in what I was doing. They couldn’t really comprehend running from Birmingham to London…. just because….. but they seemed quite impressed.

Near here Javed Bhatti ran up to us – he was moving well and said that the left turn was only about half a km ahead (it wasn’t – I reckon it was 2 miles in the end!) I’d met him at Ultrafest in summer 2017 – and he had been doing a talk about sleep and ultras. Fascinating stuff. I told Paul about the fact he had done the double Spine race – basically done the race and then turned back and went back to the start. Over 560 miles in total! Insanely tough guy! Anyway, you can see me having a sense of humour failure in the photo below.

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Lou and Vanessa met us with a McFlurry. OMFG. It was amazing. It was melted but I didn’t care. It cooled me down. Gave me some calories and I particularly enjoyed the chocolate pieces. They’d bought it a while ago when I was moving better and we’d misestimated times. So I had only myself to blame. But I enjoyed it anyway.

Eventually, with more moaning from me, and whinging about the sun and the fact it was getting hotter, we arrived at Bulls Bridge and the infamous left turn….

5:30pm Bull’s Bridge – 132 miles

This is such an iconic spot and with 13 miles to go to Paddington it is the main photo opportunity for GUCR runners. It instantly makes you think about the first half marathon you did and how this distance seemed so far when you first started running. And how it would feel even further right now! In my head I did some calculations. So.…. I’m going about 3 miles an hour….. that’s about 4.5 hours plus any stoppage.

Walking up the slope of the bridge was tough. I got to the top. Pickford manouevred me into the right position for the photo. I could barely stand up!

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What I didn’t know was that I would have a whole minute of swearing rant at everything and everyone and no one and nothing at the appearance of more floating walkways. Fucking hell.

Going through my mind was Fuck this shit. Fuck this canal. Fuck the other canals. ARGHHGHRGHGHGHGHGHGHHGH but I wanted to finish and I’d enjoyed it – I just didn’t want to enjoy it any longer!

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When you’re not sure that you can trust your legs, and the feedback you’re getting, then try walking on a plastic walkway floating on the canal. I felt seasick and super pissed off. I even had a go at my poor buddy runner Paul.

My rant involve me going on about how I was going as fast as I fucking could and he could just fuck the right off now. Anyway – it lasted about a minute and Paul just agreed with me and said yeah yeah just keep moving, I know….. its hard, just keep moving along.

My mood wasn’t helped by having to pick my way through a building site because the fencing had collapsed onto the canal path.

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Eventually we arrived at the next checkpoint Hambrough Tavern CP9. Thankfully there were no hissy swans at this point.

6:05 pm – CP9 Hambrough Tavern – 133 miles

I got into the aid station. Filled up with some drinks and then went for a brief sit down with Kenneth’s crew. I stole a seat. I didn’t ask. I just sat down. I was so tired. My buddy runner Paul let me have a quick 5 minute sleep before getting me to my feet and getting me moving. Kenneth’s crew were bloody amazing people. They were willing me along at every opportunity when they saw me.

I felt ABSOLUTELY FUCKED! I was tired, hungry, thirsty but didn’t want to eat or drink. I wanted to get to the end, but I also didn’t want to get there. My brain was frazzled!

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The heat of the day just wasn’t abating. If anything it seemed to be getting even hotter. This wasn’t doing my mood any good at all. I was finding it hard to drink enough. My feet were mashed – it felt like there were a billion hot coals in my shoes – and my left leg was still swollen and every time I started up again after stopping, my legs and feet took some time to warm up again so they were moving and not so painful. I left the aid station around 6:05.pm.

On any other day, I would be finished within a couple of hours. Easily. Not today with 130 odd miles in my legs….

I moaned and moaned and moaned. In my head the Hambrough tavern (from my memory of previous year buddying / crewing Paul Pickford) was that it was half way on the 13 mile stretch to the end. But of course it wasn’t. There was 12 miles to go! My brain was playing tricks on me and fighting against the evidence around me.

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Positive Phil ……Oh look…. an aircraft….. oh look a sign saying “Northholt”….. yeah but we must only be 5 miles from the end by now surely……

Realist Phil ..…. you’re deluded…… you know that northholt is no where near Little venice. Don’t be so retarded.

Positive Phil ….. but you remember last year…. its close

Realist Phil…. but your buddy runner is on the phone telling your crew that you still have 9 miles to go…..

Positive Phil…. it’s just round the bend of the canal…..

Realist Phil … you’re totally fucked up – look….. no sky scrapers, you’re in suburbia! Greenford?! Look…. face facts… you’re out here ALL EVENING!

And so it went on with this unspoken internal dialogue back and forth. I think it was my way of keeping my brain occupied so that it couldn’t stop my body moving forward slowly and to take my mind off tromping through possibly the least cared for section of canal along the whole length of the Grand Union.

8:39pm – Piggery Bridge – 139 miles

Eventually we met up with my crew beyond a bridge. Vanessa and Lou were there plus Kenneth’s crew. I was so happy to see them. They had asked me what I needed and I’d given a message via my buddy that I wanted a fruity non gassy drink. They had got me oasis I think. It was nice. I managed to lie down for a bit to try and get a bit cooler and eat a calippo. I then had a second one. It tasted so good and I felt great.

I was pulled to my feet and just about to start off. Vanessa asked whether I needed long sleeve top for the last section. I felt fine but instantly I started to shiver uncontrollably which worried me and I asked for a long sleeve merino top. If I was having to death march this in, I didn’t want to risk not finishing. The temperatures were still high but I felt so cold. Paul and Lou made me into a cuddle sandwich and kept me warm while Vanessa came back with my top. I changed and put my headtorch on my head in readiness.

And off we went……. more canal towpath. At least it was flat. If only I could run this section I could be finished soon! But all I could do was moan at the sun. Moan about my feet. Moan about the psychopathic cyclists who couldn’t be bothered to use their bells or to give space and there was no way that I could react to them to change course. So I just kept walking as fast as I could in a predictable line.

This section was so soul destroying. We seemed to stay in suburbia for ages and the large buildings in the distance didn’t seem to get any closer. I didn’t recognise anything (despite cycling this before) and then what seemed to be a mountain ahead indeed was a mountain! The biggest bloody hill I’ve seen on the canal. I could barely get up it!

Anyway, as we got the top, we had to leap out of the way because of an asshat cyclist. And then we tentatively made our way down the other side. Then things messed with my head. I had to negotiate not getting run over by a moped rider on the path, then the path was shut and we had to find our way back onto the canal.

The next bit was the last stretch, none of it was familiar. I was as grumpy as hell. I had a meltdown claiming we were going the wrong way. Pickford was having none of my bullshit and let me look at the map.

We were getting closer but in my head it felt ever further away – I think as I was moving slower and slower. Eventually I realised that I was doing this, I could do it, and I was going to finish and I could definitely make it from here. I couldn’t move any faster but I was surprised no one had over taken in the last several hours.

Eventually the train line came close. I remembered a section of graffiti near the westway. I saw Trellick Tower. And eventually – the finish line in sight!

10:38pm The Finish line – Little Venice – 145 miles

Paul said, give me your headtorch. I had a bit of a strop and moaned I couldn’t see where I was fucking going and didn’t want to fall over before the end. He was only trying to help and I felt bad about being a grumpy fuck.

Coming to the finish line I was aware of runners behind me. I turned around and muttered a greeting and motioned to go on ahead, my buddy runner moved out of the way, and I said watch out for the mooring hooks. “Hey dude… it’s fine. We will stay behind. This is how we roll”.

That….. Is what you need to know about GUCR! No sprint finishes like in some of my 100s last year. This is a different beast.

I didn’t stop my watch. Dick shook my hand. Put my medal around my neck and he said “Gosh – 4 runners all together!”


I embraced my wife for what felt like a whole minute. I couldn’t believe I had finished. That I could now finally sit down and sleep without interruption for the first time since Friday night. It was now Sunday night!

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I saw the famous yellow sheet of plastic with all the finishers on. How I longed to be on that piece of plastic with scribbled names and finish times on. Staring at the names of the runners on that board just filled me with awe.

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The atmosphere was amazing. People I had never met before greeted me. Other runners. Other crew. Random strangers. And most of all my crew. It was so lovely to see them all and thank them for helping me to finish this race. Tom Garrod shook my hand and told me that Mimi – my coach would be so proud – and I shuffled off to the car (I felt instantly cold and really needed to sit down).

GUCR 2018 – 40h 38 minutes. Well inside the 45 hour cut off and 32nd place out of 54 finishers and 98 starters. I felt pleased with that given my injuries in feb and march, and the weather I contended with on the race weekend. It would have been nice to be sub 40 – but hey – I don’t mind that much! I did what I could do on the race and whats 30 odd minutes on a race that takes all weekend!?!

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That was by far the hardest race I’ve ever taken part in and the one where I have eaten the most ice lollies – approx. 10 callipos! There is absolutely no way I would have been able to do it without the best crew and buddy runners ever.

Thanks to….

Paul Pickford for buddy running 55 miles with me through the shittiest thunderstorm and rain, and putting up with me for the death march to the end.

Tracey Watson for being a total loving bitch to me pushing me along and beasting my ass on the sections she buddy ran with me.

Lou Fraser for being so kind and giving up her time all weekend to dish out cuddles and calippos and to put up with my whining about shoes.

Vanessa Jane Armond for being amazing and putting up with all my diva strops and doing her best to make sure I was eating and drinking (even though I was making it hard for her!)

Pete Watson for being there and helping out and driving my crew around and also ferrying another runner to the train station.

Marek Kowalak for giving up so much of his long weekend and spending it away from his family to spend it with a moany goat instead driving to Birmingham then all the way back at the end. Super star. And crewing for most of Saturday with Susie and being there to drive me home.

And Susan Bradburn of course.  Just perfect. Putting up with me whining and whinging. I still can’t believe it took me 10 minutes to eat half a McDonald’s mcmuffin.

Thanks also to Mimi Anderson for coaching – and helping me relax about the race when I had a month or so of frustrating injuries and getting me to a good position for the start of the Canalslam series.

Thanks also to Rockstar https://www.rockstar-sport.com/ for their support and for having me as a member of their running team.

Thanks also to Dick Kearn Keith Godden and Wayne Simpson for the most amazing race. And to all the volunteers and helpers and all the wellwishers along the canal and to get a little piece of paper with a message on from Marcel Brandon McKinley near Watford was great plus all the messages that friends were sending on and which Paul was reading to me. It really is a special atmosphere and I will definitely be volunteering in the future. I just loved how people were so amazingly 100% pleased for me to finish – even completely random people I didn’t even know. Just beautiful.

Written by Paul Baldwin - http://pbracereports.blogspot.com

Let’s start with the finish

I finished the 90km du Mont Blanc in 22 hours and 29 minutes, ranking 564th out of 1,142 entrants (49th percentile), and 677 finishers (83rd percentile).  In my category (males 50 to 59 years) I was 64th out of 170 entrants (38th percentile), and 75 finishers (85th percentile). I would not consider this a particularly impressive performance, but given that I spent a third of the race genuinely concerned that I might not finish at all, in the end it is a result that I am fairly happy with.
 
View of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix below from Planpraz

Background

The MB90k is part of the Marathon du Mont Blanc trail running festival which runs for a week in Chamonix at the end of June. The Marathon itself is a highly prestigious race attracting the cream of international trail runners – Kilian Jornet won this year’s event once again. Although less high-profile than the 42km, the 90km race is the longest of the week.  Having already been part of the other two major trail running events in Chamonix – the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges in 2015 and the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC, part of the UTMB week) in 2017 – it was only natural that I should want to tick off the third.
 

Training and Preparation

On the start line at 4am
One of my challenges for this race is that it is still relatively early in the year and does not really allow me sufficient preparation time following the end of the ski season. This factor was particularly acute this year given the vast amounts of snow that fell in the Alps over the winter, meaning I was still skiing rather than running up until the end of April. Two and a bit months of training is not really sufficient, and whilst I tried to accelerate my schedule, I estimate that I was at only 80% of the fitness level I achieved prior to the CCC the previous August. Further, probably as a result of accelerating the schedule, I had developed shin splints in my left leg following a 50-mile training run (the first half of the Centurion South Downs Way 100 Miler), and this meant complete rest for the three weeks leading up to the race. In the end the rest did its job and that the shin splints thankfully did not reoccur in Chamonix, but this also meant I lost out on the serious hill training planned for those weeks, and knew that I was slightly under-cooked coming into the race.
 
 
Sunrise over Mont Blanc as we climb to Bellachat
 
I had targeted a 21-hour finish time (based on my CCC performance), and against this my actual time was a little disappointing.  In retrospect there were times in the last third of the race when I might have pushed harder, particularly taking more risks on the steep descents, and this might have improved my time by 30-45 minutes, but by then I was just focusing on avoiding injury and getting to the finish. All in all, and given my fitness level, 22.5 hours feels respectable.
 
 
 
Does trail running get any better? Running along the Balcon Sud in the Aiguilles Rouges with Mont Blanc behind

 

The Route and Conditions

 
View of Mont Blanc from Tete aux Vents
According to the website, the MB90k is “recognised as one of the most technical trail races in France, it is difficult but it is also one of the most beautiful!” That last part is certainly true – sadly my photos do not do justice to the majesty of the views – and based on my experience, I would agree that several climbs and descents were considerably more technical than anything in the CCC. There were some short sections that included ladders and ropes, and quite long sections of very steep, boulder scrambling ascents. The most brutal was the climb up to the Emosson Dam, which was jaw-droppingly beautiful, but also described by a fellow runner as like doing “alternate thigh lunges, for two hours, in a sauna.”
 
From the Tete aux Vents looking ahead, the Emosson Dam and the top of the Tete de Balme are clearly visible
 
 
The steep climb up to Emosson
The heat certainly added to the difficulty of the race. It is usual to expect warm days in the Alps at the end of June, but this week had been unusually hot with the thermometer topping out above 30 degrees on most days, and little breeze to ease the pain. The early morning, late evening and nighttime were pleasant, but the two major climbs in the middle of the day (up to Loriaz and to Emosson) were punishingly hot. Each small patch of shade we passed would be filled with runners paused, trying to cool off. Whenever we found a stream, it would be littered with runners semi-immersed, soaking hats and buffs (and shirts in some cases), and drinking their fill. From the time that the day heated up at around 9am to when it cooled at around 6pm, I was probably drinking about a litre of water an hour, and was still massively dehydrated – I went over 15 hours without needing to pee!
 
 
 
Even the alternative route at Tete de Balme was snow covered
Strangely given the heat of the day, the conditions were also made more technical by the snowfields remaining on north-facing slopes. I knew firsthand that the preceding winter season had seen extraordinary amounts of snowfall in Chamonix, and was worried about how many of the trails might still have snow on them. The worst affected were the slopes leading from Catogne up to L'Arolette, the highest point above the Tete de Balme in the Le Balme ski area. The race director deemed these too dangerous and so invoked the alternative route under the Tete de Balme chair lift, avoiding the peak and saving us around 150-200m of climbing (which was extremely welcome at the time!). Apart from that the snowiest part of the route was the descent from Brevant to Planpraz – down the Charles Bozon black run. Maybe because of my familiarity with that piste from having skied it many times, I absolutely loved it and flew down overtaking tens of other runners on the way. A total blast!
 
"Skiing" down the Charles Bozon black piste from Brevant to Planpraz
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The course was a 90km-ish loop starting and finishing in Chamonix. It started with the longest single climb up to Brevant (1,370m ascent) and then undulated northwards along the Aiguilles Rouges through the Brevant-Flegere ski area, before descending into the village of Le Buet. After this there were two out-and-back type climbs/descents, firstly 650m up to Chalets Loriaz, followed by a 680m jaunt up to the Emosson Dam in Switzerland.  Although theoretically the smaller of the five major climbs, being in the heat of the day in my view these two were the toughest. As already mentioned, the fourth major climb to Tete de Balme was cut slightly short (“only” 970m ascent). From here the route descended into the village of Le Tour, and followed the Argentiere-Chamonix valley southwards to the next aid station near the helicopter pad at Le Bois. I know this to be just a few kilometers and 15 minutes gentle jogging to home in Chamonix, but that would be too easy. Instead we were sent on a five and a half hour detour, climbing 1,200m up to the Montenvers mountain railway station and then on to the Refuge de Plan d’Aiguille, before being allowed to head for home – a 7km, 1,200m descent into Chamonix town that feels like it goes on for ever. My GPS recorded the total distance as 92.8km with 6,200m of vertical ascent.
 
 
 

Staying ahead of the Dreaded Cut-Offs

One of the major differences between the MB90k and the CCC is the completion rate. Of the 1,142 entrants to the MB90k only 677 finished by 4am Saturday morning and within the 24-hour cut-off time – a completion rate of just 59%. This was not a freak result as the completion rate in 2017 was even lower at 56%. This is significantly lower than comparative races: the CCC in 2017 was 81%, and the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges 2015 was 82%.  Whilst the MB90k is slightly shorter than the CCC, it is more technical, and overall I would say it was more difficult, but the major reason for the difference is that the MB90k has much more aggressive cut-off times, particularly in the first half of the race.
 
Leaving Le Buet behind time
The early cut-offs were set particularly tightly, one assumes in an effort to weed out the weaker runners with low chances of finishing. Even if I had been on my planned 21-hour schedule I would only have beaten the first 8.15am cut-off at Brevant by 45 minutes. As it turned out, there were long and frustrating queues at the start of the first climb up to Refuge Bellachat due to some fallen trees in the woods. I estimated that this blockage cost me about 20 minutes, and whilst I was feeling strong and overtook as many as possible given the precipitously narrow path, I was 15 minutes behind schedule at Brevant and only 30 minutes clear of the cut-off – a little too close for comfort. In an effort to give myself greater margin for error, I ran the next section hard and reached Le Buet around 60 minutes clear of the cut-off.
 
Emosson Dam: jaw-droppingly beautiful but a brutal climb
 
 
Leaving Emosson with only 30 minutes to spare
As it turned out I really needed that extra margin because as the day began to warm I went through a really low period that lasted about 4 hours. I usually consider climbing to be a comparative strength (making up for being slow on the downhill), so it was deeply dispiriting to feel totally spent on the Loriaz climb with what seemed like a 100 other competitors leaving me in their dust. I knew my fatigue levels were high when I nearly took a wrong turn as we left the water station at the top – fortunately another runner called me back. I have already mentioned the next climb to Emosson was brutal – 2 hours of pain – but whilst everyone was finding it hard I was not used to having to stop every 15 minutes to cool off and get my breath back. Usually I prefer steady consistent climbing rates, and I knew I was really struggling. Reaching the Emosson Dam aid station I had to stop for far longer than I had planned – to rehydrate, cool off and sort out my badly cramped legs – and I left that aid station only 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off.
 
 
 
I was now desperately worried that I was going to get timed out. I usually have a very positive mental attitude, and even in the worst times in previous races I always “knew” inside that I could or would finish. But now I genuinely thought that I was not going to make it. That I did make it to the finish ahead of the dreaded cut-off was because (a) amazingly my climbing legs seemed to return and I felt strong again on the climb up to Tete de Balme, and (b) the bad-weather detour at the top probably saved us all 30 minutes. As a result I reached the aid station at Le Tour 90 minutes ahead of the cut-off, a margin I maintained to the finish.
 

Logistics and Nutrition

As I have become used to in Chamonix, this was a superbly well-organised event.  Registration on the Thursday was efficient with no queues. The marshals were brilliant as ever – encouraging and considerate. There was great support along the route, and I was amazed at how many supporters got up at 4am to cheer us off. The aid stations were generally well placed and well stocked with most things that you would need, although maybe not as bountiful as the CCC, and a few of the light refreshment stations did run low towards the end. The top award went to the crew at Le Tour who riotously cheered every runner into the tent. A close second were the amazing team at the last aid station at Refuge de Plan d’Aiguille who stayed up the mountain all night and were quick with offers of cups of tea and bowls of soup for the runners collapsed on the chairs they had put out. Highly commended goes to the team who put out a spray of cold water for us all to run through just above Chatelard during the heat of the afternoon – I could have stood under it for hours!
 
Arriving at Le Tour and back on track
Having suffered energy lows on previous runs I was determined to maintain a regular calorie intake and religiously took one gel (or equivalent from a feed station) every hour, on the hour, from the very start.  Apart from that I consumed the chicken noodle soup that Sarah had prepared and brought for me at Emosson Dam, Le Tour and Le Bois, plus assorted chocolate and fruit from the aid stations. Sarah also produced a nectarine at Le Tour which I devoured greedily – never has a fruit tasted so delicious. My nutrition appeared to work well up until Montenvers when I mistakenly drank some super concentrated squash which caused me to wretch and start throwing-up. It took me 15 minutes to recover, and I could not eat much from then on, but with only 4 hours to go it was not disastrous.
 
I also consumed around 7 or 8 salt tablets during the day. I always carry these in my pack in case cramps come on as I find a tablet quickly solves the problem. I took my first tablet on the very steep descent to Col de Montets when the first cramps appeared. However, when I really needed them again at the top of the Loriaz climb I reached into my bag and was horrified to find I must have dropped them somewhere – a seemingly small but nearly race-ending mistake. I was not able to get any more salt into my body until 3 hours later at the Emosson Dam aid station where I met Sarah with my spare supplies, and by then my cramps had completely seized both legs. A double dose, plus the salty soup, got me back on track, and from then on I managed to stabilise my salt levels and keep the cramps at bay.
 
Leaving Le Bois aid station as it gets dark and a long climb ahead
A great advantage of the MB90k route is that the major aid stations are all really well situated in places that are easy for spectators and support crew to reach you, and at times of the day that are not stupidly anti-social. Le Buet, Emosson Dam, Le Tour and Le Bois are all readily accessible by car or bus/train, and I was very lucky again to have Sarah crewing for me. She spent her day driving around the valley to support me, both with emotional encouragement and practical assistance. Her contribution at Emosson was responsible for keeping me in the race. She (and Blue) walked with me across the dam, and just that moral support lifted my spirits enormously. Then when I collapsed with cramp in the shade she fed me coke and soup and even changed my socks and reapplied Gurney Goo to my disgusting feet – really, that was never in the marriage vows! Having crew is not essential in this race, but I would not have made it without Sarah’s help.
 
Finish line at 2.30am
An analysis of the GPS data shows that I spent 100 minutes stopped in aid stations, much longer than I had scheduled based on my CCC stops, and another reason that my time was slower than hoped for. The simple fact was that I needed the recovery time, and the longest stops (20 minutes at Emosson and Le Bois, and 15 minutes at Montenvers) were sorely needed.
 
 

Highlights

 

 

  • Finishing, and the beer that I inhaled when I got home at 3.30am
  • “Skiing” down the black piste from Brevant
  • The fountain shower before Chatelard
  • The riotous welcome from the crew at the Le Tour aid station
  • Sarah’s noodle soup and nectarines

 

 

Lowlights


  • Tripping on a rock on the path from Planpraz to Flegere and ending up with my face in the dirt, a bloody nose and a grazed hand
  • The climbs to Loriaz and Emosson: the emotional “low point”
  • Agonising cramps in both legs at Emosson
  • The “never ending” climbing traverse from Montenvers to Plan d’Aiguille – I totally underestimated how long it would take, and after an hour I imagined the refuge to be just around the next corner, but then saw a sign saying it was 45 minutes away

Links


Written by Grant Fulton - https://grantfulton.wordpress.com

55km, 4100m D+

Sunday 30th September, 2018

Waiting in the start pen outside the town hall, the runners shuffle nervously as dramatic classical music blares from the speakers and the countdown begins. 3…..2…….1…ALLEZ! Watches beep into life and the pack sprint off the line and race through the streets of Chamonix, jostling for good positions before the narrow trails begin. It’s a classic spectacle of the trail running world that we’re all familiar with, we’ve seen the videos, read the magazine articles and wished we could be there. The spectators lining the street go wild, who knew 10 people could make so much noise…wait…what?! UTMB? No, the circus left town a month ago. It’s 4am on the last Sunday in September and 650 runners are just setting off on the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges (TAR) with me lucky enough to be amongst them.

The TAR and UTMB share a start line but the similarities end there. The TAR is run over one day, hence the early start, on a 54km course through the Aiguilles Rouges, the range on the opposite side of Chamonix to Mont Blanc. The course may be short in comparison but crams in 4100m of elevation gain and some knee crunchingly technical trails. The route changes annually, cycling through 3 slightly different loops of the Aiguilles Rouges, this year starting in Chamonix and finishing down the valley in Les Houches. But to start we head in the opposite direction, left, up Chamonix high street before leaving the roads and joining the trails for the first climb towards the mid-station of La Flegere lift.

After a fast few minutes I pick a nice spot in the pack as the climb starts, aiming to get in behind somebody who looks like they know what they’re doing. With 1680m of steep climbing to come it’s straight to power hiking, letting a few excited runners spring by and hoovering them up when they run out of steam. At the Buvette Floria the trail narrows to single track with some good runnable sections if you can squeeze by others. An exciting section before you are spat out onto the wide pistes climbing to La Flegere. Here it is easy to overtake and easy underfoot but definitely the least inspiring part of the day. I dim my light to save some battery and get on with the grind.

My mind switches off and I suddenly realise how sleepy I am. A 2.30am alarm coupled with a busy day yesterday has tired me out. A full day of work, finishing and 10pm, and having to dash out on my break for bib collection and kit check. The bib collection was a low key affair and the kit check non-existent. Just a quick show of the ID and collect your number and a goody bag. A lovely La Sportiva T-shirt and a few energy products that look a bit too scary for me to try. No mega-sponsor-product-village full of shiny shoes and compression equipment for things you didn’t know could be compressed here so to distract me, so thankfully I get back to work on time.

Once we pass Flegere my tiredness is forgotten, the trail has become more technical and I’m absorbed in the climb. I’m glad of my choice not to bring poles as I scrabble up rocks and occasionally pull along a section of fixed metal work on the climb up to the Col de la Gliere. Finally the top of the long climb after 2hours of hard work. I’m rewarded with a brilliant spectacle as I look back and see an unbroken chain of headlights marking the route from the tree line all the way up to me. On the exposed col the wind is cold, I pull on my gloves and continue on.

A undulating traverse leads back to the Chamonix side of the mountains via the Col du Lac Cornu. The trail is technical, hopping between boulders; some glazed in a thin layer of ice, and sliding down steep srcee once over the col. This is the most difficult part of the course, not helped by the fact that it’s still completely dark. After more loose, blocky trails gradually descending from the col I find more runnable ground. A wide piste gradually descending toward light and the sound of cowbells, the first aid station at Planpraz (16km). The friendly staff fill my bottles for me so I can browse the buffet for some food. I start the day right with a nutritious breakfast; a chunk of cake, an almond bar and half a litre of coke. There’s a short climb straight out of the check point, I’ll take it easy while my food settles and be ready to run the long descent that follows.

I reach the Col du Brevent feeling ready for the long descent, I’ve run the trail a few times before and know I can go fast on this technical descent. I immediately fall over. The runner in front shouts up to check I’m okay- “Ca va?” I hop to my feet, everything seems to work fine. The runner in front then takes a huge spill too. The rock slabs underfoot are coated in a layer of semi frozen mist making each step insecure. I start moving again with a little more caution until the trail leaves the rocky upper section, once back on dirt I speed up and over take a few people. I’m enjoying myself, apart from a a weirdly wet feeling arm…. Looking down I realize my hand is pouring blood from a nasty hole under my little finger. I pop a glove on hoping it will stop the bleeding and stop my bloody hand scaring people.

Despite the hand I feel good, the sun is starting to come up which cheers me up and gives me a little boost of energy. The long descent finishes at the Pont d’Arleve, a beautiful spot in the bottom of a secluded valley. It feels a world away from the bustle of Chamonix just on the other side of the hills, just the sound of cowbells and the odd bleat of a sheep punctuate the silence here.

A few kilometres later and it’s a different story as I approach the second checkpoint at Les Ayeres to cheers and shouts of some keen spectators. I’m usually one to browse the buffet and take my time at an aid station but I see the runners before me pass through in seconds. Not wanting to lose places I follow suit, washing down some salty crackers with half a litre of coke and racing after them as quickly as possible. I think we’ll be in Servoz soon, I’ll try to eat more there. The route profile just looks like a short climb and a long descent and I’ll be there. The short climb turns out to be the steepest of the day, I’m glad I don’t have poles as I need both hands to haul up a series of ladders and chains. It’s a draining full body work for 300m to gain the flatter balcony trail on the Pormenaz. The running here is magnificent, the morning is starting to warm up from the sun finally fully emerging from behind Mont Blanc. I take in the views and enjoy the easier ground before the descent becomes steep and drops into the woods.

After a thigh battering 1000+m of descent I emerge into the streets of Servoz and into the next checkpoint. I fill my bottles from the barrels of energy drink, down some more coke and grab a handful of cake. My legs are really feeling battered now and I have to gently break them into running as I leave the checkpoint. One more climb, one more climb.

It’s truly a monster of a climb, 1200m apparently but for all I know it could have been twice that. It goes on forever. I wish I had my poles now as I push my hands into my knees, trying to power my legs up the hill. The legs are truly abandoning me now. I sit on a rock sulking at the side of the trail for a few seconds. I swig some of the energy drink I picked up in Servoz and immediately spit it back out. Oh god, what the hell is that?! I’m sure it’s washing up soap, its frothy, even worse it’s the only drink I have! The climb grind on and on, the sun gets hotter and my mouth gets drier…I feel horrible and lose a couple of places just before the summit. Thankfully it’s all down hill now, I can hear the announcer at the finish line 1000m below. The descent isn’t pleasant, loose gravel 4×4 tracks, but the legs always get a new lease of life when the end is in sight. I pass a couple of people and start to feel pleased with myself, a little prematurely. Around 1km from the end and suddenly a wave of people start passing me at great speed. Where are they coming from? How do they have so much energy left?! I’m shocked and demoralized as they bound past me, I’ve lost so many places!

I emerge onto the street in Les Houches and my girlfriend Charlie appears running at my side to cheer me on to the finish. I stagger across the line and am delighted and a little confused that I’ve come in 22nd place. Turns out the hoards passing me were the first finishers of the 15km P’tit TAR!

Now I can reap the rewards of such an early start, almost 8 hours of racing done and it’s not even midday. This gives me plenty of time to enjoy brunch at the free finishers buffet before heading home to squeeze in lunch and a pint. For those wanting to stick around the finishing area has a bar and a food stall serving up lots of cheese heavy savoyarde cuisine.

I’ll definitely be coming back to race the TAR again, hopefully in the next couple of years to enjoy a different variant of the course. From this years experience I can recommend it to anybody who wants to experience the world class trails around Chamonix, in a shorter and more low key affair than the main events of the Summer.

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