Written by Jasmine Sandalli - https://medalmagpie.blog

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It’s been a while since we last caught up. Happily, this time, I’ve actually managed to finish a few races – unlike during my radio silence around this time last year. Unhappily, the reason for my radio silence this time is a little less trivial than a couple of DNFs.

Could I say that life “got in the way”? I mean, I could, but it would be a little disingenuous to life to suggest that my responsibilities are to running above all else; a little beyond my efforts to prioritise running over the everyday, at least. This time, Life earned itself a capital L: family pulled rank. So, apart from a feeble cursory mile a day to maintain my run streak (an exercise which has barely anything to do with actual running these days), my run diary has had very little to show for itself.

Meanwhile I’ve hit something of a plateau, both in running terms and in life terms. I don’t get excited about anything any more, I just feel a bit numb. Not anymore, at the moment; it can’t last, I have to remember that. So I plan things to look forward to – we’re getting married in 9 months for Christ’s sake – because I want to feel the thrill of anticipation again. Plans can be made, but I no longer believe that they will really come to pass; I convince myself something will pop up and take precedence. So I’m not afraid of anything, either. I’m not afraid of failing to meet expectations because I have none. I just don’t care about anything enough to worry about being disappointed.

If Life hadn’t pulled rank on my race calendar I would still have passed August without a race – it was a conscious decision to “rest” and also there just weren’t enough weekends, as there often aren’t. March through July saw two fifty milerstwo 50ks, and a trail marathon in 30 degrees of heat. I dragged myself through those, barely, and decided that I wanted to finish the third of the Centurion fifties feeling like I actually had enough in the tank for the fourth and final race. See, now I look back on it I realise that’s an ambitious race calendar for someone who is actually fit, never mind for a training regime that consists of “I might as well be running to the tube since the buses are so unreliable”. That’s two solid junk miles right there. More than once, I’ve done it in Toms espadrilles and holding my Kanken bag over my back to stop it from bouncing. It is transport, not training.

Should I keep finding challenges in the hope of regaining that spark, flinging muck at the wall until it sticks? Or should I hold back, take aim? Deciding to run the Farnham Pilgrim Half Marathon on a day’s notice was to aim what spinning round to take a blind shot in action movies is; and weirdly, just like in action movies, it only bloody worked. Knowing I’d done no long runs, knowing I’d barely even managed to run off road a week before the Chiltern Wonderland 50, I decided I either needed to stop running altogether (i.e. break my run streak) and hope that rest would give my legs half a chance of lasting the distance, or I needed to fire things up a bit, go for broke. So I posted a message with the Chasers to find out if anyone was doing a social trail run on the North Downs, and the answer came back that yes, twelve of them were, and also picking up a medal for it. The idea of running the full marathon was just a little too far-fetched, even for an emotional nihilist, so I plumped for the half and got back to the pub in time for lunch. I ran with my club, as part of my club; I was the slowest, as usual; I danced around the course like a loon, and I had a fucking good time.

It’s a beautiful course, a circular route around the Farnham end of the NDW taking in bridlepaths and connecting trails, scooting around ponds and through golf courses (as one often does in Surrey), and generally pissballing about in the woods. And very runnable too – between the need to shake my legs out and the need to get back to the pub I pushed myself fairly hard, finishing in a not-unrespectable 2:08, and I can’t say I really busted a lung either. There’s definitely no speed in my legs, which I know because trying to get them to turn over was like flipping tyres, but my heartrate never felt too taxed. It was just enough to fire me up for the CW50 in six days’ time. Definitely the right call not to go for the full, although every time I saw a 100 Marathon Club shirt FOMO gripped me like a fever.

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The following week I kept up my daily run streak with the minimum mile a day, as I had been pretty much doing for weeks. The difference, I noted, was that where that mile usually ran between 9:30 and 10 minutes, sluggish and rhythmless, the miles in the week after Farnham suddenly threw up a couple of 8:15s and felt more joyful, more like a workout than I had had for a while. It helped being back on office hours rather than event hours too, so those runs occasionally happened at lunchtime instead of at the end of a strenuous working day on legs worn to a stump. Had the gamble paid off?

Come race morning, although there was still a dull ache gnawing at my muscles, there was something even more dangerous – a flicker of anticipation. I was more nervous at the start of this race than I think I’ve been for any other race ever, for the most part because finishing it meant keeping my hopes for the grand slam alive and that comes above all else this year, but I think partly because – for the first time in a long while – I actually cared about the result. The thirteen hour final cutoff limit (proportionally split across the checkpoints) would be hovering over me all day, but I would be focusing instead on two other times: eleven and twelve hour timings which I had worked out and written on my checkpoint plan. One would be a measure that I’m doing well (and more importantly, perhaps too well) and the other would be the more realistic boundary. If I’m too far ahead of the first one I know I’m beasting myself; if I slip behind the second I’ll have no hope when my legs finally give in and I have to hike. Those numbers would guide me through the day like a virtual pacer.

I ended up on the same train as King of Centurion Ilsuk Han, who is usually either running or volunteering their races but rarely misses them, and a gaggle of other runners who all seemed to know the route from Goring Station to the race HQ in the village hall. Ilsuk also helpfully pointed out that the train I (and most other competitors) had planned to get home wouldn’t actually be running, thanks to some last minute engineering works at Reading; someone mentioned two rail replacement buses to Maidenhead and I zoned right out. I didn’t have the energy to worry about how I was going to hobble home after folding my cramped legs into a bus seat for three hours; I just had to think about getting back to Goring in the first place.

Nonetheless Ilsuk represented, as he always does, a good omen. We met on my first attempt at the North Downs 100 and later discovered that we had friends in common through Fulham RC, and it seems that every time I run an ultra these days he’s there. He’s such a warm, friendly and knowledgeable man I can never help but be comforted to see him. He buzzed around the village hall introducing first timers to regular faces, gathering lone runners wandering around aimlessly and making sure everyone had a friend at the start line; and he does this every time. A real unsung hero of the ultrarunning community, he is a true representative of the spirit of our sport, not to mention a shit hot runner in his own right. Even so, he privately admitted that he was just as anxious as the rest of us, and when we lined up at the start he didn’t go off with the frontrunners, choosing instead to stay with the midpackers and the newbies. Whether that was an act of kindness or just his way of dealing with nerves I don’t know, but I for one started the race with excitement just outweighing fear, and set the tone for the rest of the run.

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The route takes in one long loop around the Thames Path, the Chiltern Hills, the Ridgeway and explores the unmatchable countryside of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Ridgeway is definitely up there for my favourite ever trail route and the added treat of the Thames made this race a big star on my calendar. The first ten miles to checkpoint one at Tokers Green flew by, partly because of the stunning views but also thanks to a runner named James I got chatting to, only to discover that we’d run much of this area together once already on the Druids Challenge two years ago (a race I’m gutted not to be running this year). Feeling much less leg-heavy than I have been recently we went hell for leather on every single downhill, of which there were plenty thanks to the undulating but runnable elevation. I could easily have passed on the snack table, but I knew that I needed to lay the foundations now for sustainable energy levels later, and crammed my pockets with chocolate chip cookies.

Downhills we were bossing together, but James was obviously fitter than me on the uphills and eventually he pulled away; it wasn’t worth overstretching myself to keep up with him at this stage with forty miles still to go, so I just pootled along at the steady pace I’d been maintaining so far. Predictably, I was way ahead of my eleven hour pace already – in fact we passed the checkpoint in 1:49, ranked 138 and 139 out of what would end up as 187 official finishers. In fact, if I’d sustained that pace I’d have been on for just over a nine hour finish – yeah, no. If I didn’t take the decision to dial back now my body would do it for me later, in much more dramatic fashion.

Before long I was caught up my a chap called Steve and we began running together. I don’t remember exactly what I said now, but I do remember hearing him chatting away to another runner behind me and as usual bigmouth struck again; I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation. It set the tone for the next forty miles – we spent the whole rest of the race together talking about everything under the sun. Steve was an ex-squaddie, ex-paratrooper, self-made businessman with a penchant for bloody silly races, and between Tokers Green and Bix he recounted the tale of his four attempts at the Lakeland 100: two successful, two not, considering a fifth go to settle the score once and for all. I’m telling you, that man knows the Lakeland 100 yard by yard, so if anyone’s planning to run it you need to look him up. As one would expect from a military man, his meticulous preparation included a week spent in the Lakes recceing every inch of the route in daylight and dusk. I really didn’t need the iPod.

We left Bix aid station together by which point I’d actually gained two places and he, having paced the first section somewhat more conservatively than me, was up nearly twenty. We were coming up against much more meaty hills than we had done so far, and even had to pause the conversation for power-hiking every now and again. But the course was just so stunning. For totally different reasons, I still can’t quite decide between this and the South Downs Way for a favourite so far – certainly the SDW50 was a better experience and the fastest finish so far, but if you want fairytale woodland and runnable rolling terrain I think Wessex might just edge out Sussex. Ask me again in a week.

Having got through a potted history of our running careers, the conversation turned to politics, economics, history, sociology, the EU referendum result (obviously) – and two people with more diametrically opposing views you would be hard pushed to find. The fascinating thing for me was that, although our positions were poles apart, our values tended to align. We spoke as two people who felt equally let down by the parties they supported, who sought the same reassurances from two different approaches, who feared the same threats and chose different weapons to combat them. It sounds like a mad thing to say but as much as I was enjoying the run I really enjoyed our discussion – we had, I like to think, a good honest respectful debate, a sharing of perspectives, a chance to find commonality, and ultimately the biggest thing we had in common was a love for endurance tests and the courage to be humbled. I rather think that if the referendum had been debated over the trails there would have been a lot less mudslinging. There you go, that’s my future campaign slogan: Less mudslinging, more mud.

Having put the thorny issue of politics to bed we reached the Ibstone School aid station just before twenty six miles and spent a few minutes to refresh and reload. I was already struggling to get calories in but I force fed myself cookies and cola, and I had been steadily working on a bottle of Tailwind all day as well. All the aid stations so far offered Tailwind as well so I knew when I finished my bottle I’d be able to refill, and would more than likely be relying on it for the end of the race. Slightly stiffer than before, and having lost a handful of places, we carried on our way. By this time I was still within my eleven hour pace but by a smaller margin than before, and a margin that was shrinking by the mile. Still though, plenty in hand for a finish. As long as it didn’t all go wrong.

Steve had planned to meet his wife around mile thirty with a mysterious and hitherto untested smoothie concoction which would save or slay him. Oats, oat milk, fresh fruit, protein mix and chia seeds – it sounded bloody amazing. But having never tested it in anger before he had no idea if it would give him the boost he’d need for the last twenty miles or if he’d be in the bushes for the rest of the race. Only one way to find out.

He made a brief stop to pick up the drink while I carried on, making use of the momentum I had now that the pain in my feet had passed and simply become numbness. Pain? Ah. It wasn’t until this point that I realised I’d been running through pain for about ten miles already, such was the quality of the company and the distraction. Well, this would get interesting – pain doesn’t often feature for me, and it certainly doesn’t stop me as often as fitness, low blood sugar and temper tantrums do. When he caught up again I asked him about his war stories – the military ones rather than the running ones – and he obliged with some hilarious, some frankly terrifying and a fair few eye opening accounts of the life of a non-commissioned officer. Having heard that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone capable of finishing multiple 100-milers in the Lakes; the mental strength required to withstand the rigours of ultra-running being bread and butter to someone who has survived para-training.

At least I lasted longer than my watch…

We had slipped a few more places by the time we reached Swyncombe, and I really started to feel the distance by this point – a quick stretch on the cool grass and a moment taken to put on my waterproof jacket both turned out to be excellent decisions as the rain we’d been promised all day finally made an appearance. I had slipped past my eleven hour pace by this point, but still well within the cutoffs and about to hit Grims Ditch, one of my favourite trails ever. Another lady caught up with us at this point and started swapping 100 miler stories with Steve, which was a fascinating exchange to say the least – there really is no point in spending time with this amazing group of people if you can’t take the time to learn from them. I shut my trap (at least until the conversation turned to cars, which I couldn’t resist bowling into) and listened to them like I was listening to a podcast.

The final aid station would be at the other end of Grims Ditch and just over nine miles from the end. A long old stretch to finish on, but it did mean the last intermediate cutoff to worry about was cleared and we passed it with over three hours to go. A slow walk would have made it, but I really didn’t want to cut it that fine. Sadly, I wasn’t entirely in charge of that decision – my legs were screaming and I was doing my level best to tune them out. I succumbed to the chair, just for a few moments, and stared mournfully at the empty Tailwind barrel wondering why I hadn’t filled my bottle up earlier. Luckily the volunteers there had made up a batch of the best white bread butter and cheese sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and with some effort I chewed my way through a couple of them and washed them down with Coke. It was a bit awkward to swallow, and I noticed then just how dehydrated I’d become despite the inclement temperature. Next race I’m sticking a signpost at thirty miles saying “EAT NOW DAMMIT, YOU’LL THANK ME LATER”. As it turned out Steve’s smoothie had been an unqualified success, so much so that I’m tempted to try it myself on my next long run. Liquid calories that don’t taste too sweet are surely the way ahead.

We left the aid station still optimistic, and at the very fringes of daylight, a little bit smug about the fact that we hadn’t had to use our headtorches yet. Within a couple of miles however dusk fell – plummeted really, as it does in the woods – and I was cursing myself for not fishing out the torch when we stopped at the aid station. Talking was becoming increasingly difficult to me as one by one my various functions closed down. There’s almost no chance I’d have finished the race if it wasn’t for Steve; not only had he very kindly offered me a lift to Gatwick Airport on his way home, where I’d have a fighting chance of getting a train since the Reading line was down, but his tireless storytelling and patience dragged me through the deepening gloom. To say we were hiking now would be flattering the pace we kept up, but he insisted on staying with me instead of pushing on and getting the job done. I decided that I couldn’t reward his kindness with whinging so I kept my negative thoughts to myself and kept moving forward, mutely. You can’t complain about pain in front of a soldier.

The last couple of miles back to Goring were profoundly dark, and our torches were doing bugger all to cut through the blackness. We had been joined by one of Steve’s friends and a couple of other runners by this point, all moving in single file along the single track, all just looking for the streetlights and the end. When it finally arrived my feet and legs were burning – just half a mile of pavement to go, and it felt like walking fifty miles of hot coals. Unable to restrain myself any more I started audibly whimpering, choking down tears just to get to the end. We decided to cross the line together as a group of three – when it finally came it turned out to be the side door to the hall and we had to file in one at a time, but we were reunited on the other side. Twelve and a half hours, and we were done. I was dizzy, slurring, in agony, but relieved.

Ilsuk was still in the village hall doing the rounds, despite having finish a couple of hours earlier, while I forced down some coffee and tried to sit. While we recovered we saw the last few finishers stumble including two guys who finished just inside the cutoff and at least two that, heartbreakingly, didn’t. To struggle that far knowing that you wouldn’t even get the medal is a special kind of tough. I came to enough to force down a sausage in a roll – it took a good half hour to do so – and settled into the warm of the car, suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. And then, horror. I still had Wendover Woods to do to complete the grand slam, and that was so hard the cutoff was two hours longer. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Thanks to Steve’s hospitality I was home within a couple of hours and out the next day for my one mile hobble around the block to shake out my legs and keep up my streak. But come Monday morning – a heavy day at work which started with me carrying my own staging around because my crew had been accidentally cancelled – the hobble became something much worse. Somehow, despite my legs taking the brunt of the battery, I had actually pulled muscles all across my chest and ribcage and breathing became a serious issue. Like, I could talk or breathe but not do both issue. All day on my feet with a trailer shoot I hoped I would just shake it out, but by the time I got home I knew for certain there was no chance of me running. Pain in general has never stopped me before, but chest pains, that’ll do it. The streak, and my heart, were broken.

So I relinquished it in the hope that I might still save another, much longer lasting streak – I’ve run every Ealing Half Marathon since it started in 2012 and I have no intention of giving that up so easily. My one day off turned into two days, and having booked off the Wednesday as lieu time I finally got a chance to catch up on some rest (and a load of Air Crash Investigation). When Sunday came around I felt, though not entirely in shape for a road half marathon, like I had a chance of not embarrassing myself, and like I had at least enough breath to finish. Proudly wearing my QPR shirt I settled in in front of the 1:50 pacers, hoping to stay in front of them but prepared to let them go. I resolved to enjoy the atmosphere, return every high five and every shout of “YOU RRRRSSS!”, smile all the way round, remember that I do this for fun. And bloody hell, it was.

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I actually managed to keep the pace up for a good ten miles before my body refused to respond to the command to push harder. It was painful, but I could run through it – i just couldn’t turn my legs over any faster. The real turning point however came just after mile eleven; just as I tried to give another burst of energy, my chest cramped up like an imploding star. I could barely breathe. I kept running, but I let my pace ease up until the cramp passed. That’s it – you don’t dick around with chest pains. The pacers finally overtook me and I let myself glide to the end, saving my last bit of energy for a leap over the line – there wasn’t even enough to sprint. As I landed, almost knocking over guest commentator Susie Chan in the process, I smiled. I had done it in 1:51 and change, and only five minutes out from my all time PB (a time set with at least half a stone less weight).

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Embarrassing as my CW50 time was, I have to concede that it’s a lot better than I deserve having invested so little time in running recently. This shouldn’t be about pity or excuses or self-flagellation, but equally I want to recognise that a little anticipation goes a long way. Either I’ve become complacent or I’ve stopped caring altogether; either way I must be able to do something about it. Perhaps right now running can’t take priority over everything else; it could still take priority over 90% of everything else. Perhaps I’m not fit enough to enjoy a fifty mile trail race at the moment; I have two months to change that. And if I don’t, I’ll have thrown away all the hard work that brought me this far. Perhaps I underestimate what I can do, setting myself unwieldy and contradictory targets, because I don’t want to admit there’s such a thing as an unattainable target.

Perhaps I’ve forgotten this is meant to be fun.

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Written by Pascal Fallas - https://www.pascalfallas.com

On Saturday 10th June 2017 I ran my first ultra marathon. Those who know at least a recentish version of me know that I am a keen runner. Keen here probably equates to a mixture of insanely passionate, obsessed, class-A-level-addicted and so on. I have run several marathons over the last 12 months, each one nudging the finishing time marginally downwards. My first, on the South Downs in Sussex/Hampshire left me close to destroyed, but also elated beyond pretty much anything else I’d ever done. Subsequent marathons have seen me finish in faster times but nowhere have I come close to replicating the, frankly, life-changing journey and sense of achievement following that first one.

So, early this year it was time to plan for something else that would push me beyond what I knew my body and mind could do. Staying local for logistical ease and to honour a promise to my other half (then in the final throes of a PhD and busy), I signed up for the Norfolk 100km race, run by Positive Steps. And then pretty much continued to run as I had been doing during the previous months, the only real adjustment being pushing the long run at the weekends a little further than I might normally.

But 100k? Approaching 2½ marathons?? What on Earth?! 

(In case you’re thinking that I do such things to impress, the reality is that any and all attempts I make to explain what I get up to are met by a response on a spectrum between incomprehensibility and pity, alongside a not insignificant dose of - usually - good natured mockery. One person actually got angry with me.)

Despite being a local event, it was still an early start to make the short journey to the start at Castle Acre, near Swaffham. Once the instructions and bag-drop logistics were dealt with we set off for the day, with feathery rain over the initial miles keeping things pleasantly cool. Most people seemed content to set a very gentle pace, which facilitated random conversations with a series of changing partners – in my case, a headteacher I’d once done some work with, a colleague, a lady worried about how her fragile back would hold out over the distance, and a chap who managed a good-for-age qualifying time for London but then forget to register during the entry window.

The Peddars Way turned out to be narrow, overgrown and uneven in places, but otherwise very runnable and the first checkpoint at Harpley arrived strangely quickly. After a brief pause I settled back into an easy and sustainable rhythm: everything felt good. The light rain cleared to dry but overcast skies, and the temperature began to slowly but perceptibly increase. 

The next 10 or so miles were spent chasing among the backs and packs in front of me, in gentle undulating rhythms, with skylarks heard everywhere (but almost never seen), braying pigs and startled lambs for company. Easy, lovely running. Eventually we broke off the country paths to float through Ringstead, before the first view of the sea on the descent into Holme.

Having broken the back of the ‘first marathon’ and covered a good third of the course I took a little longer at the second checkpoint and filled up with sausage rolls and jaffa cakes, and refilled my water. By now mentally done with the straight and steady footpath, I was grateful for the shift to expansive coastal vistas and flora/fauna variation over the coming section – which I already knew to be the most beautiful stretch of the course. 

Setting off once more from Holme, we quickly turned sharply eastwards and ran for some time on boards across the sand dunes. Beneath the hints of sun behind the cloudy skies we passed some frankly staggering coastal views - desolate, massive expanses of sand and marsh, with raptors hovering almost everywhere you looked. The sun really started to break through during the shortish detour inland to Thornham so, with the time probably moving on its way towards midday, it was a small relief to turn off back into woodland on the lead up to checkpoint 3. I’d run most of the race up to this point with a colleague but our pace had started to diverge by this juncture and we separated at the checkpoint.

Soon after this I found myself pacing out over the damp sandy expanse at Holkham, under a sun gradually growing more fierce. Actual running was difficult, but from time to time the sand compacted enough to make it possible in short bursts. I slowly chased down the person in front of me, who turned out to be working at the university I went to many years ago. More connections. He was in training for an even longer event in the summer so wasn’t pushing the pace, and it became a welcome opportunity to take stock and recover some energy before heading into the final third of the race. Moving among the many sunbathers, swimmers and general beach denizens, we chewed the fat for the mile or two to Wells, before parting at the start of the long sea wall which leads into the town proper.

In had by now developed into a blistering day and, on my own once more, I pushed on, picking up the pace again and didn’t see any other runner for a long time. This really wasn’t a position that I’d wanted to find myself in when endlessly thinking through the race in the weeks beforehand. I hadn’t been particularly worried about injury or energy, but I certainly experienced some fear about missing a turning, getting lost and adding unnecessary mileage, pushing a potential finish time way into the evening – or even putting a finish inside the cut off time at risk. I had planned on keeping another runner in sight preferably for as much of the time as possible. But with these sorts of distances and the smallish field of people willing to undertake them, it was inevitable that things would stretch out somewhat. So I found myself alone.

But not really alone. Dog walkers and hikers were passing all the time, some curious about what I was doing, incredulous at how far I’d come and usually sympathetic (with the odd visible wince) about the remaining distance. The path continued to wend and wind and, contrary to my worries, there was little opportunity to err throughout the whole of this section. Instead of being concerned about going off-route, I was otherwise engaged by the visit of calf cramps, old and familiar companions, who would stick around, intermittently, for the remainder of the course. I get these far too often – usually during the latter stages of a hard-paced marathon, where they have a tendency to take down any designs on a good-for-age qualifying time that might be floating around at the time. By the time I got down to the checkpoint at Stiffkey, the pain was stabbing my legs with some regularity and I had to introduce longer periods of walking than was ideal – which was a touch frustrating as my energy levels still felt good.

Aside from this (and the lack of a runner to chase down), everything was going well and I didn’t stick around long at the checkpoint, munching down some peanuts and crisps, but probably not as many as I could have done with, due to the almost complete lack of appetite by this point. (Most of the food I carried in my backpack ended up surviving the whole race.) So, onwards and upwards and outwards along tracks which bent across marshlands towards the sea and then (rather viciously) took you back inland towards Cley, just at the point when you can actually see the beach you’re destined for a handful of metres across the way. And running back inland meant – as it did several times earlier – running into a strong energy-sapping headwind.

At Cley I actually lost the path. I found myself, oddly, in a pub garden which was hosting a wedding reception and I must have been a severely incongruous, muddy and sweaty sight in amongst the beautifully attired people getting hammered in the afternoon sunshine. I was pointed (roughly and hopefully) in the right direction and found a little door in the corner of the garden which had a sign leading back to the coastal path. Thoughts of sitting down and drinking beer forever wafted into the 99% of my being that isn’t the hugely stubborn 1% which won out and decided to get the damn thing done. After all, by now there were probably only a dozen or so miles remaining, although it was hard to tell exactly as my watch went its happy way to oblivion around this point. Then, for the first time in hours I was met by another runner, coming back towards me on hiking poles.

He too had lost his way, but had been working on the basis that the final checkpoint was in Cley itself rather than on the beach so had been wandering around the village in search of it. A robotics engineer from Poland, now living in London but a previous resident in these parts, he too was suffering with cramps. I set him right and we headed off back out towards the sea along the exposed mud path. Although he forged ahead and we took slightly different routes across the shingle beach section, we ended up completing the final section of the race together.

After a brief stop at the checkpoint, the shingle began. All my reading about this race beforehand had mentioned this section. Notorious and widely reviled, the difficulties of running (or trying to) along a shingle beach for 4 miles had been flagged up to me well in advance. And right at the end of the race too. In reality though, it wasn’t too bad, at least by the time I hit it. The tide had withdrawn enough to expose some sandy patches and so I chose to run right down by the gently foaming sea for as much as I could, ducking under extending fishing lines and occasionally dodging waves. The late afternoon sun was the strongest it had been all day and was searing into my calves (my god, what a state they were in over the following week) and around my neckline and hat, but by now my mind was only locked, lazer-like, onto the finishing line.

In a nice touch, the organisers set up an impromptu checkpoint at the end of the beach, at which the polish engineer and I took stock and prepared for the final section, which no-one could quite decide was 5k or 5 miles (or perhaps even another distance). We set off quickly, up and down some of the hilliest landscape on the whole course, a quick waltz through Sheringham and then back out, up and over Beeston Bump, where (unbelievably!) we were passed by a runner I’d last seen somewhere before Holkham. He very politely apologised and carried on his way. This was the first person I’d seen from behind me since about lunchtime. Right at the end!

The Race Director met us at the top of the Bump, congratulated us and then merrily informed us that we hadn’t quite finished. So, a short descent from the peak, then a gentle (ha! With those calves?!) jog along past some caravans and across a road before entering (ecstatically!) into the grounds of Beeston Hall School: the finish.

It took me 12 hours and 45 minutes and I finished in 12th position, which I was delighted with. At the very end, we drove to Cromer and I plunged into the water, letting the bitter North Sea work its glacial wonders on my battered legs. 

A quite amazing experience that – naturally – I swore never to do again. But I will. Of course. Well, maybe not the exact same race (although maybe), but there’s something magical and transformative about days like this. After the soreness and blisters go away and the toenails repair and regrow, all that remains is the extraordinary memories of being free, being wild, testing yourself and pushing through whatever expectations you had of your ability. It makes you want to destroy routine and normality and convention and limiting self-belief, again and again and again. 

Finally, it’s worth noting just how well organised an event this was. The course was well marked where it needed to be and the checkpoints were fantastic - staffed by cheerful and hugely encouraging volunteers and packed full of the good stuff. For more information on the excellent range of Positive Steps events (including some of more sensible distances), visit their website: https://positivestepspt.co.uk

Written by Paul Tierney - https://www.inov-8.com

paul tierney inov-8 blog on TDG 4
 
 

Tor des Geants (TDG) is a 338km footrace around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps and is held in September each year. It has an advertised cumulative ascent of 24,000 metres, but this year everyone’s GPS trackers registered about 31,000 metres! The bulk of the 850 starters take the guts of a week to complete the full route, while the speed demons tend to take approximately 3 days. Here are the observations from TDG first-timer Paul Tierney, for whom it was by far the longest race he’s ever done.

The TDG race can be broken into 7 distinct sections, each punctuated by a life-base. These life bases were usually about 50k apart and located in larger towns or villages, where you had access to your drop bag and help from your crew. It was a help when trying to break down the enormity of the task to think about the race as smaller chunks that needed to be negotiated one at a time.

We drove out to the Alps 10 days before the race start and stayed in Argentiere, near Chamonix, so we were able to soak up the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) atmosphere and watch some friends competing. Getting out there this early allowed me to hike/run up some big climbs and acclimatise to our very different surroundings.

My training had gone fairly well since January, apart from a stubborn medial knee ligament tear I’d sustained at the end of 2016 sometimes rearing its head. Incidentally, it never bothered me throughout TDG. Training consisted of plenty of long days in the Lake District fells, usually aiming for a more convoluted, steep approach to summits in the hope of racking up as much ascent as I could realistically manage. I tested kit, mentally steeled myself to what I was about to go through and accepted that over such a long event, something was bound to go wrong. Accepting this allowed me to be in a much better frame of mind when the inevitable happened.

The event seems to be embraced by everyone in the valley and there was a real buzz at the race start in Courmayeur on the Sunday morning. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts before the start. Could I manage to run twice as far as I’d ever done before? What about the ridiculous amount of ascent and descent? Would I cope with the sleep deprivation and would the pesky knee injury affect my performance? But I also had no other goal than to finish. It was a learning experience and I’d have to get through the first few days before I could even consider letting my competitive side dictate matters.

SUNSTROKE, NAUSEA AND A DEATH MARCH

I was late getting in the queue to be scanned into the start pen and so I was almost at the back of 850 eager runners when the start count was given by the guy on the tannoy, helped by a very enthusiastic crowd lining the narrow Courmayeur streets. And so we were off. I mentioned something inevitably going wrong in such a long event. Well, it only took me an hour to realise my stupidity at not remembering to wear a cap. I’d gone and got my hair shaved quite tightly in Chamonix a few days before the start and now the sun was beaming down on my shiny scalp and slowly tenderising it! I was trying not to worry about it and luckily after about 5 or 6 hours, while running with Neil Bryant, I mentioned how silly I’d been to not remember said cap. Without hesitation, Neil said he had a spare in his pack and I was welcome to it. So that stroke of luck probably limited the damage which had already been done.

Having ticked off the first 50k I got to the life-base in Valgrisenche and changed into some warmer kit for the first night. I tried not to spend too long there, so had a quick meal and change of clothes, then set off into the dark for my first night on the route. The fried feeling I’d had from the sun began to get exacerbated by the warmer clothing and I started to overheat. It was quite difficult to regulate my body temperature because the air temperatures had plummeted, but while moving and suffering from mild sunstroke, I just couldn’t get comfortable. This led to a queasy feeling and an inability to so much as look at food. Even water made me want to vomit.

I had been hoping not to sleep during the first night of the race, but I took an hour’s lie down in the little checkpoint of Rhemes Notre Dame, then embarked on a death march all the way to Eaux Rousses at 85k, which consisted of a monster climb up to Col Entrelor at 3,002 metres and then the inevitably long, switchback-ridden descent. By the time I reached the checkpoint I resigned myself to needing another hour’s lie down in the desperate hope of salvaging my race.

When I woke I didn’t really feel much better but it was now daylight on Monday morning and that alone was a small pick-me-up for my body. The next climb was an even bigger monster – 2,000m of continuous climb – to the highest point of the course at Col du Loson, some 3,300 metres above sea level. Luckily I had some company in the form of Team GB ultra runner Debbie Martin-Consani who had passed me at some point while I was asleep. We chatted as we climbed ever higher and I was informed afterwards that I was a bit moany! I think I was just perplexed at how there could be so many switchbacks on one climb, and whether the race organisers measured these and took them into account in the overall distance. I was beginning to think they’d just measured in a straight line!

After an equally long and ball-breaking descent from 3,300 metres down to 1,500 metres I arrived at the second life-base at Cogne, 100km in. Here I met my support in the form of my girlfriend, Sarah, and fellow Ambleside AC runner Joe Mann. I was able to change some kit, get a good meal of pasta, cured meat and cheese… and even a swig of beer. I was starting to perk up now and feel that I’d come out the other side of my rough patch.

The real heat of the second day was starting to dissipate as the evening set in. This next section wasn’t going to take quite as long as the previous one, with one big climb up to 2,900 metres and then a full 30km downhill all the way to Donnas at the lowest point on the course at 300 metres. In reality it wasn’t constantly downhill and when it was going down, it usually did so in a very gradual manner. But because I’d built this up to be a potentially leg-smashing section, in the end it was a nice change. I even found time to feed a cat some cured meat at one of the smaller checkpoints! Two to four of these smaller checkpoints were located between each of the bigger life-bases, and they were often the most refreshing and uplifting places to stop. Usually in much more remote areas than the life-bases, the little checkpoints in Alpine refuges were very welcoming and friendly stops and often had the best food of all.

paul tierney inov-8 TDG blog 1

View from Col Fenêtre di Champorcher at dusk before the long descent to Donnas.

When I arrived in Donnas, I had a rest and one-hour lie down so that I was able to break up the second night, leaving only about an hour more of darkness before daybreak on Tuesday morning. For me, having little things like that to look forward to helped to keep me in a positive frame of mind, and the sun coming up sort of signalled to my body it was time to wake up. I’d also started to make back some of the places I’d lost during that bad spell and this further boosted my confidence. It was around that point that I’d mentioned to Sarah that I knew I’d finish. I think my exact words were “I’m going to f£&k this f£&king race up now!”

I now had a really enjoyable section during the day on Tuesday. Every time you popped over a col you were met by a whole new landscape and it was just enough to keep me interested all the time. There was no getting bored on this race. The route took us right to the outer reaches of the Alps. As we made our way to the top of the ridge that would eventually bring us to Refugio Coda, I was surprised to see a flat expanse of land as far as the eye could see in the direction of Turin. Of course, the trail then swung back to the left almost immediately and towards the lumpier Alpine ground again.

I paused for 10 minutes at the little checkpoint at Niel, where I was treated to a big bowl of local polenta in gravy and a double espresso. I now just had a big climb and descent between me and the 4th life-base at Gressoney. Eventually I reached the top and as I began to descend it felt like I was back in the Lake District with the softer underfoot conditions reminding me of the fells. Suddenly I was greeted by fellow Lake District fell runner Mark Roberts (Borrowdale), who was on holiday in the Alps for a few weeks and had gone out for an evening jog in the hope of spotting me. It really was like the fells now! It was great to see him and we had a good chat for a few minutes until he sprang back down to Gressoney ahead of me.

paul tierney inov-8 blog post on TDG 3

Descending towards Niel at approximately 185km

On this section I’d met Dimitrios, a very chatty Greek runner who kept me entertained for a few hours with his infectious good humour and seemingly boundless energy. I asked him at one point how the hell he managed to talk so much this far into the race without completely knackering himself. He saw the funny side of it and it was great to laugh at the time and ease the pain and tiredness somewhat.

I reached Gressoney in the last of the evening light and immediately prepared myself for night number three by eating some pasta, ham and cheese. I went and got a quick massage on a few tender spots (my left quad and shin were starting to scream at me). I lay down for a sleepless 20 minutes. On ‘waking’ I made some last minute kit changes but decided not to change my shoes which I had felt certain I would need to do by this stage of the race. I was wearing inov-8 X-TALON 200, which is a shoe I love and do most of my Lake District training. I enjoy the wide fit, brilliant grip and durable upper, but I think it raised a few eyebrows that I was wearing them for this race. Very heavily cushioned shoes were the ‘in’ thing and I’d guess that around 70% of participants were wearing this type of shoe. However, because I do so much of my training in shoes from the X-TALON range, my feet never caused an issue, apart from the obvious achiness that you’d expect after 3 days of racing. I had one tiny blister hardly worth mentioning by the time I’d finished and was able to jog again within 24 hours, which to me was a vindication for my shoe choice.

I was slightly worried about the lack of sleep affecting me over this next section as it was now well and truly dark and my total sleep of approximately three hours in the last 60 of racing was going to start hurting eventually. So at the refuge of Crest, about 2 hours later, I decided to grab 20 minutes sleep after being treated to what must have been one of the best-stocked checkpoints of the whole race, and it wasn’t even an official one. The spread they’d laid on wouldn’t have been out of place at a 5 star hotel’s breakfast buffet. Another double espresso buoyed my efforts for the next few hours, but even that couldn’t stop me cursing the seemingly endless next section to Valtourneche.

The climbs just seemed to go on and on and on and just when I thought I was nearing the top I’d spot a headtorch in the distance heading away from the col in a different, much longer and higher direction! I topped out at Col di Nana but still had some up and downs before the long drop to the life-base. I was so tired by the time I reached it that I mistook it for the start line of the Tot Dret race (130km sister race of Tor) which was actually 30k back the track in Gressoney. So I kept going past the life-base in the direction of the arrows a few hundred yards up the street. Just then Sarah and Joe pulled up in the van – coming down the hill to meet me in the life-base – and couldn’t understand why I’d spent so little time in the checkpoint, which in turn confused the hell out of me. When the penny dropped I cursed my stupidity and trudged back to the marquee that housed the feed station.

Inside I noticed Stephanie Case sat on one of the benches, looking like she was in a bit of difficulty. If I’m honest, and I don’t think she’d mind me saying, I thought she was about to pull out. She was coughing, wheezing and looked to be in a lot of pain. I was definitely suffering at this point but from a slightly twisted, selfish standpoint this gave me a bit of a lift. I knew Stephanie had finished in 12th position overall last year and it hit me that if someone of her standing was going through that tough a time then I was doing ok and had a great chance of getting to the finish. At the same time I felt for her because she looked absolutely knackered! So while I fully expected that her race had been run and felt bad for her, I knew there wasn’t much to be gained by asking how she was. So I hobbled into the main building to get a quick massage and to try to sleep for a bit. On my return, Stephanie was gone, so I presumed she had indeed packed it in. I quickly got myself ready and left Valtourneche at about 9am to begin my fourth day of running.

The first mile or so was very slow going as I tried to loosen up a bit. This next section was a bit different to what had gone before because it was made up of slightly shorter climbs but contained more of them. The profile looked like it was rolling terrain. In reality it was a series of big climbs that kept us hovering around 2,000 – 2,500 metres for the next 50k. After a particularly scenic section of running I made the long descent to Cuney refuge where I noticed Gabriel Szerda, an Australian runner (and former Olympic wrestler!) who I’d ran a little with on day one, in his civvies. He’d sustained a calf injury earlier in the race and unfortunately he’d had to stop. It was good to see him though and we chatted on the way into the refuge. Gab was friendly with Stephanie so he’d come to see her as she passed through. I was about to tell him she’d dropped out when to my surprise, there she was, sat inside having a short rest. I couldn’t believe she’d managed to keep going but at the same time I was really impressed she had.

Her support very kindly offered me some pizza and I got a beer from the woman in charge of the refuge. By now Gilberto, a Spaniard with whom I’d exchanged positions over the last section, arrived. He was full of chat and really loud, which was a nice boost. I gave him the other half of my beer which changed his expression to that of a kid on Christmas morning and he knocked it back without hesitation.

BRAIN TURNS TO MUSH AND ALL CIVILITY IS LOST

After an age, and another load of climbing, I reached the small checkpoint of Oyace on Wednesday evening, where Sarah and Joe were waiting. There was just one more big climb and descent before the last life-base in Ollomont. This was the first time Sarah seemed to be concerned by my demeanor. She told me afterwards that she felt sorry for the little kids outside the checkpoint who were shouting ‘bravo’ and hoping for a high-five from me while I ran past cursing. I barely registered they were there while I tried to work out how to get past all the tape that was blocking my entry. I’d actually just totally missed all the signs directing me through a gap in the tape, which was meant to help funnel me into the checkpoint entrance. My brain was now mush and this innocuous situation was really annoying me. I proceeded to be fairly rude to the nice lady offering assistance in the checkpoint and just shook my head when she asked if I would like any food.

I lay down on a bench and cursed those individuals who had measured the previous section. I simply refused to believe it was accurate. After a few more expletive ridden sentences I was up and out the door, eager to just get to Ollomont and get some sleep. The light was now fading and I struggled up through the tree-lined trail, nothing short of sleepwalking. It reminded me of one of those times where you can feel yourself falling asleep while driving. It was a horrible feeling. But I knew I still had at least 45 minutes to an hour of moving before the life-base and I really didn’t want to lie down on the side of the trail for fear of not waking up again! Obviously I wasn’t thinking very rationally at that point.

About three quarters of the way up the climb I met three jolly volunteers at a makeshift checkpoint. My mood certainly hadn’t improved at this point and I felt like punching one of them when he kept pestering me to sit on the seat provided instead of the ledge on the side of the hut where I was. Of course he was only trying to help but I’d lost all civility at that point, after about 84 hours on the go. The descent to Ollomont started off very steep and technical before giving way to more runnable terrain. As usual it seemed to go on way longer than it should have. Seeing the lights of Ollomont below made it all the more frustrating. A common theme during each night section was thinking I was almost at the bottom of a descent, only to be hit with switchback after switchback and the lights in the distance never really getting any closer.

At Ollomont I ate some chunks of roast potato, ham and pasta sauce before getting a quick massage and then climbing into one of the cots in the sleeping area. My left shin was now on fire and the pain extended up the IT band on the same side. I wondered how I’d manage to run when I woke up. I slept from midnight until 1am. Sure enough, things only felt worse after readying myself to leave. At this point I was finding it hard to think clearly, and I very nearly left a few items of mandatory kit in the checkpoint. Sarah and Joe helped me get packed up and sorted at each of the checkpoints, as well as made me protein shakes and reminded me to take salt tablets. Having a crew to think for you is a big asset and time-saver, particularly in the later stages of the race when sleep deprivation is taking its toll.

This next section had some flatter running in it (after another big climb), and I was surprised by how I fell back into running again, albeit quite slowly. The last big climb was now approaching and so too was dawn. But first I stopped at St. Rhemy en Bosses for a quick nap, having had to slap myself around the face and sing aloud to try and stave off the sleep monsters. The weather had been really clear and sunny up to this point and apart from being a little colder at night, it really was about as good as I could have hoped for. But it was changing and had begun to spit rain. The clouds were gathering ominously above Col Malatra at 3,000 metres in the distance.

By the time I’d reach the Frizatti Refuge, it was snowing lightly and I decided to take no chances with another few hundred metres of climbing so I donned some warmer kit and got my new inov-8 PROTEC SHELL waterproof jacket (see video below) out along with inov-8 RACEPANT waterproof trousers. I now felt less exposed in my battered state.

The climb to the col went better than expected and I was met by driving wind and snow as I came through the top. This was a bittersweet moment. There was no doubt in my mind with only 15km left that I was going to finish, but there was still a hard few hours to negotiate. And although people who have done the race in the past say this is the last climb, there was in fact another few bumps to get over. I had managed to follow the flags and not get lost for the last 95 hours, but as I got to the TMB trail and the finish was in touching distance, the flags suddenly became very scarce.

Sarah had just rang to warn me about going the wrong way after the two people ten minutes in front of me had missed the markers and ended up at Bonatti refuge, mistaking it for their intended target – Bertone refuge. I finally managed to confirm I was on the right path, with the help of TWO American hikers and made my way safely to the very last checkpoint. As I turned to begin my descent, Sarah was running towards me, shouting hysterically ‘yaaaay, you’re in 25th position, woooooohooooo, Tierney! 25th place in Tor des Geants, yaaaaay!’ I didn’t have the strength to laugh but it was quite amusing. Fed up with the act of putting one foot in front of the other, I now tried to put in a last big effort down the rocky, tree root strewn trail so I could just stop and not have to move anymore.

paul tierney inov-8 blog on TDG 2

Who put that ramp there?!

Around 35 minutes later I crossed the line in a rain soaked Courmayeur after 99 hours and 9 minutes on the go. I was happy, but probably too tired to really express it. I sat down near the speakers and big screen, got a beer off Joe and felt a very deep sense of satisfaction wash over me. No whooping and hollering needed. Just pizza, beer and a long sleep!

Tor des Geants was a race I never thought I’d want to do twice. It was a box to be ticked and then move on. Of course the inevitable has happened and I’m already thinking about next year!

* Paul Tierney is a running coach and sports massage therapist based in the Lake District. He and his partner Sarah McCormack run Missing Link Coaching. He has twice represented Ireland at the World Ultra Trail Championships and was the 2015 Lakeland 100 Mile race winner.

Written by Debs Martin-Consani - http://debsonrunning.blogspot.fr/

A slow scan of the marquee, assessing the carnage of 250kms in the Italian Alps.  There is a man openly sobbing as he takes off his shoes and socks. Someone is face down the table next to me.  Crews and volunteers are scurrying about attending to the need of broken runners.  The Tor des Géants signature dish of pasta with tomato sauce is served up by the tonnes. Layer upon layer of clothing are piled on, before departing for another cold night.  
 
I arrived at Valtournenche life base with the view of have a quick turnaround.  Quick change.  Quick bite to eat.  Two hours later I was still sitting there.  Moving things around in their protective plastics bags.  Repacking the same things in the same rucksack I’d carried for days.  Trying to squeeze everything I didn’t need or couldn’t carry back into the iconic yellow duffle bag. Have you ever seen a toddler with a toy shape sorter trying to squeeze the rectangle shape in the triangle space?  That was me.  Physically, I was ok.  Legs and feet were not too shabby.  I’d just lost the ability to think for myself.  
 
This was the dream.  This is what I signed up for.  And nothing short of a limb falling off would have made me want to stop.  I had only given myself one shot to get this right.  The build up to the start line was bad enough, as I was highly-strung for weeks.  The fear was quite overwhelming.  I wasn’t bothered about the distance of 330km, that was a piece of piss.  Nor even the vertical gain of 31,000 metres.  It’s advertised as 24km but everyone knows that’s just adding up the peaks.  It was my general well-being that concerned me.  I get so delirious and incoherent during ultras.  Not in a zen-like trance woo-woo way.  I mean completely off my tits, stumbling about kinda way.  I could train myself to deal with race profile, but not the fatigue and sleep deprivation that came with it.  It was to be a great exercise in self-care, something which is not my forte.
 
I was lucky enough to get  race place through my support from Montane.  I vividly remember my email correspondence when Montane first considered sponsoring this event.  Although the event had the reputation as one of the world’s toughest and it was a great match for the brand, there was just no way I was tough enough to do it.  It just wasn’t for me. The same way I was never going to do the WHWR (3 times) or Spartathlon (tick) or 24-hour running (6 of them).  Let’s just say I lack commitment to my non-causes.  
 
So I made it to the start line and started to calm down.  Just get it done, that’s all.  I had no aspirations about time and position.  With 10 years ultra-running experience, it has been a long time since not finishing was my biggest fear.  
 
Courmayeur to Valgrisenche
 
The race was late starting, as everyone had their GPS checked before entering the pens.  Then we were off, weaving through the busy streets of Courmayeur.  The town really embraces the race and there’s a real community spirit all along the course.  The streets were packed with cheering people and the sounds of cowbells.
 
Off the roads and onto trails, we were soon going up.  Bottle-necked or boxed in, there was no point stressing about it as it would soon thin out. Easy easy that was plan.  The weather was sunnier and warmer than predicted.  Thank goodness, because I’d got myself into a right tizzy the night before about not having enough winter clothing.  Or at least not having enough space in the yellow duffle to pack everything I needed.  I think the guy behind must have been wearing all his clothes or had forgotten he was in for the long haul, because he was sweating so heavily he was dripping all over my ankles!
 
Col Arp at 2571m was the first mountain pass and a sharp introduction to what lay ahead.  Then the path widened and the field split up, so everyone could get into their groove.  Although I’ve always been against taking photos during races, this was to be an exception.  With space to stop to capture the moment, I took out my GoPro.  I would have helped if I hadn’t left the SD card in my case at the hotel.  Doh!  iPhone shots will have to do then.
 
All pretty quiet and peaceful down in La Thuile then we started to bunch up again towards Rifugio Diffeyes.  It was busy with trekkers and noisy with cheers and cow bells in my face. I don’t really recall much of the journey  to Pass Alto and down to Bivacco Promoud.  But I remember feeling the effects already on the long zig-zag climb to the third peak of the day, Col Crosatie.  I had to force myself to put fatigue aside and focus on the ropes on the exposed sections.  Descending into a beautiful sunset and had moment of sobering thoughts passing the memorial for Chinese runner Yuan Yang, who lost his life there after all fall at TDG 2013.  Although the memorial is a lovely gesture, it’s a harsh reminder that we are never in control of our destiny.  
 
As night-time arrived I felt drained when I hit the Planaval checkpoint.  Another 7km of flat or undulating trail to the first life base in Cogne.  I was enjoying just uninterrupted running and the silence and peace that darkness brought.  I was snapped back round when I misjudged the teeny step up on a bridge and decked it.  Bleeding knees and skinned hands already.  Joy.   
 
Cogne was a flurry of activity.  It’s the first of six life bases, which are about 50km apart on the course.   Life bases are generally much busier than checkpoints as runners are reunited with their precious yellow bags and therefore hang about longer than intended.  I found a quiet space away from the crowds to sort out what kit I would need for the next section and to keep on top of footcare.  
 
Valgrisenche to Cogne
 
It was easier to the follow the route during the dark, as my headtorcg picked up the reflectors route markers.  I followed the undulating path all the way to Chalet de l’Epée and welcomed the warmth inside.  I stopped for a few coffees.  I needed the caffeine, the heat and a short break.  I milked it for way longer than I should have.
 
I ended up following fellow Montane athlete Stefano up to the top of Col Fenêtre.  I didn’t even realise it was him at first, as I was just transfixed by the reflectors on the back of his Salomon shoes.  It helped me keep a consistent rhythm.  We crested the top and I pushed on down the steep scree and slippy descend, ending up on my ass a few times.  Stefano was wearing S-lab Sense, which was a brave choice.  He’s probably still there.
 
A pleasant long descent into Rhêmes and I met up with fellow Brit and Scot, Kirsty Williams.  She looked in good spirits, even if she was wearing her leggings inside out.  
 
It was then a long slog up to Col Entrelor. I did most of ascent with another guy, but we never spoke.  Heads down in the darkness, apart from brief glances up to see how far up those headtochers were.  The chap stopped for a rest a few hundred metres from the top - or maybe it was to shake me off his heels.  I kept going until my headtorch battery ran out and I stopped to change it.  Even just stopping briefly made me chill down real fast.  I was bonking and in dire need of sugar, but I was adamant I wanted to get to the top first.  Stupid mistake, as I was staggering, shaking, slipping and was practically crawling when I reached the top.  I had to sit down at the makeshift checkpoint tent and suck down a Gu gel.  The volunteers gave me some coke which had turned to slush and gave me brain freeze, but I felt better almost instantly.  I had a angry word with myself about keeping on top of fuel.
 
Watching the sunrise behind the mountains with the long descent into Eaux Rousses, it was good to have the first night behind me. Monday was a new day and a new box of treats.  Despite studying the profile of the race from the comfort of my sofa, it means nothing until you’re actually in the thick of it.  Pulling out the race book to see what delights awaited, I nearly fainted when I saw 3299 metres.   I knew it was coming up, I just wasn’t aware of the sequence of monster climbs.  I chatted to a few runners in there, including another Scot John Moffat.  I guess everyone lingered a little longer delaying the inevitable.
 
Time to bite the bullet and get the show on the road.  On the long series of switchbacks, I passed a Spanish girl who asked if my leg was ok.  I had even realised it was cut and covered in blood.  Maybe I did it whilst stumbling about the last peak?  Who knows.  It didn’t hurt, but my ankle really did.  Out of nowhere I had awful pain on the outside of my left ankle.  I couldn’t run on it, which was quite distressing.  
 
Soon Lakeland legend and Ireland’s finest, Paul Tierney caught up with me.  I was really surprised to see him, as Paul eats mountains for breakfast.  He was having a tough time and had stopped for a few breaks/naps.  We climbed most of Col Loson together.  Him moaning, but he’s Irish so everything he says comes out hilarious (not a hate crime, Paul!) The climb got real steep and tough near the top.  My lungs were on fire and struggling to breath. I was literally hanging over my poles on the long and very slow stagger to the top.
 
There was a bunch of guys near the cairn/trigpoint (what are they called in the Italian alps?) but I had to plonk my ass down and take a break.   My chest hurt real bad.  I think it was a combination of cold air, exertion and generally being a bit too high for a sea level lungs.  
 
Paul had pushed on.  Probably the prospect of being stuck with me forced him to get his shit together, but I caught up with him again at Rifugio Sella.   I had some oranges and some bizarre conversations with a couple of Greek guys before embarking on the never ending switchbacks to Cogne.  Switchbacks were definitely going to be the theme of the week.  I appreciate it’s better than the alternative, but it didn’t make it any less frustrating.    I could see where I needed to be.  I just wasn’t dropping any height and it wasn’t getting any closer.

 

 
It was really heating up and I felt like a burst ball when I arrived at the second life base in Cogne.   I tried to eat some food, but it was struggle.  I tried to sleep, but that wasn’t happening.  It was too noisy and my mind was buzzing.  I know I’m quintessential British and therefore a bit prudish, but I saw enough body parts in there to last me a lifetime.
 
As sleeping wasn’t an option, I had a quick massage and the physios strapped up my dodgy ankle.  Quick wash - my one and only wash of the week - got changed and set out again.  After wasting 3.5 hours there!  3.5 HOURS!
 
Cogne to Donnas
 
I left along the long dirt track and road, before turning off on to the next climb.  It was pretty warm and I started to feel quite tired.  Typical, eh? Paul stormed past looking revitalised.  I knew he would go on and have a fantastic race - and he did.  
 
I wanted to push on to get over Fenêtre di Champorcher to see the sunset, but I was done in.  I arrived at Rifugio Berdzè a freezing, shaking, bonking mess.  It was less that 300 metres to the summit, but it looked steep and I was all over place.  I had to go straight to the bunk room, but I couldn’t sleep because it was freezing.  The snow on the ground outside might have been a sign.  I stupidly chose the bed next to the door, so it was drafty and people were coming in and out.  I put on all my clothes, including hat and gloves and managed about 30-40 minutes sleep before my wake up call by the volunteer.  As there a two hour time limit at checkpoints, volunteers ask how long you would like to sleep for.  This ensures you don’t overstay your welcome and gives you time to sort yourself and supplies out.  
 
Down in the main area, I had few strong coffees and got my headtorch sorted for the night ahead.  This is when I first met my new French friend Rodolph Mercanton.  He was laughing at me wrestling to get my waterproof trousers on, while trying to stop my teeth rattling in my head.  We made the final ascent together, chatting away.  I was then complaining I was too hot, as wearing everything I had.
 
It’s then long 30km ‘downhill’ to Donnas.  Which surprisingly has a lot of uphill too.  And quite possibly the longest 30km of my life.   Down rocky paths, through fields, clambering over boulders and crossing some dodgy suspension bridges.  I could hear the ferocious sounds of the rivers and knew in the darkness I missing out on some spectacular waterfalls.
 
Through Dondena and Chardonnay, I expected the third life base at Donnas to be the next stop.  There was another aid station at Pontboset, which really unreasonably annoyed me.  I wanted to sleep and I had another 10km to go.  I know it’s a mountain race, but I also got unreasonably annoyed at more uphill when I knew we had to drop to down 300 metres.
 
I’d never used an altimeter or elevation as a measurement before.  In racing and training I’ve always gone by distance or overall ascent.  Another reason why this was so far removed that anything I had done before.
 
I arrived in Donnas just before 4am.  Two hours later than I expected too.  Generally, everything took two hours longer than I expected it too.  I declined offer of food from the volunteers, found a bed and collapsed.  Lying there listening to the sounds of synchronised snoring.   How was I ever going to sleep with all this snor… zonk!  Out cold.  Not wake-up calls, no alarms. I just wanted to sleep until I woke up.  Two hours later I woke up startled, sat up bolt upright trying to work out where I was.
 
My face felt like it was on fire.  The room was really hot and my skin had been exposed to some pretty harsh elements, with warm days and cold nights.  My lips were so sunburned and swollen, I look like someone from those botched plastic surgery programmes.  People pay good money to look as weird as I did.
 
After spending a further 90 minutes faffing about packing things, changing, eating and rearranging what I packed, triple checking I had all the mandatory kit, I set out for what would be the longest section.
 
Donnas to Gressoney
 
I knew this was going to be big section and could take up to 24 hours.    I was less daunted by the prospect when I was greeted with a beautiful crisp and clear morning.  Through the town, the toots and cheers from passing cars gave me a nice boost too.   
 
The undulating trail up and over to Perloz was beautiful.  The village was quiet and quaint, but was soon awoken with the loud sounds of cowbells, which signaled my arrival.  The charming gents who manned this checkpoint were a delight.  They spoke no English and I speak no Italian, but somehow we managed to have a highly amusing conversation.  
 
The sleep had done wonders and I felt more energized.  Hiking up to La Sassa I met another Brit, Paul Drew.  We chatted quite a bit at the checkpoint, before I pushed on.  We would meet again later in the race.  Quite a few times.
 
The climb up to Coda was simply stunning although my footing was pretty unsteady on the boulders, so knew I was on the danger side of depleted reserves.  Dining alfresco at Rifugio Coda, with backdrop of beautiful mountains was probably one of the highlights on my race.    As was the view over magical greeny-blue waters of Lago Vargno.
 
The race profile makes this section look slightly undulating at best, but there’s a reason why it’s notoriously known to be the toughest section.  It’s fecking relentless!  When I arrived at Rifugio della Barma, I planned to make it a flying visit, but on learning that the next checkpoint was 5-7 hours away, I decided to bulk up on pasta and soup.  Just as well I did, as their pasta was the best!  You learn to appreciate the little things when you’re out there.
 
My French friend Rodolph arrived as I was leaving, but soon caught up and we stayed together for a bit.  Even the short climbs were tough and my brain was struggling to manoeuvre on the downhills.  There was a really steep few hundred metre climb before Col della Vecchia which was a tipper for me.    I was getting really cold, really hungry and sleep deprivation was taking it’s toll.  As darkness was falling, I keep pushing to get to the checkpoint.  I should have stopped and sorted myself out as it took way longer than I anticipated to get there.
 
By the time I got to the makeshift mountain checkpoint I was a wreck.  The volunteers were amazing and got me blankets, heaters, sweet coffee and a place to sleep for a hour.  I was completely gone, but they truly saved me.
 
I left feeling reborn and embarked on the journey to Neil, which would take about two hours.  It was a fairly pleasant descent to Neil.  I met up with Paul Drew again, who told me his brother, Craig was crewing for him and had been waiting in Neil since 4pm.  It was now nearly 10pm. Like me, he was wildly underestimating journey times.
 
I had a short stop and pasta refuel at Neil before rejoining Rodolph again for a the ascent of Col Losoney.  I was starting to scales things down into recognisable chunks.  Less than Ben Lomond to do I kept telling myself.  I do laps of that in training,  And 13km to the next life station, then that’s the biggest section done.
 
I was joined by another French runner, Nicolas Moreau who took it upon himself to sing me songs, which was lovely albeit slightly surreal.  He not only helped to raise my spirits, but also push me back up every time I fell or stumbled backwards.  As my cadence was slower than usual hiking pace, I was finding the balance quite tricky.  
 
There was a long gradual descent to Gressoney.  On fresh legs, that would be a flier.  On my legs it was on the tolerable side of arduous.  I arrived at the life base in Gressoney, a mere 20-21 hours after leaving the last one.  I found a bed in sports hall and tried to sleep.  I think it may have been a squash court, so everything echoed.  It was too uncomfortable and it was bloody freezing.  Someone was using a machine to polish the floors outside too.   I did manage some broken sleep though.
 
After a rest of sorts I sat in the dining area trying to sort out my kit.  This was a biggest downfall in my race.  Not having someone to do the thinking for me.  Unsupported was proving harder than I thought, but I was still getting the job done.  It was after all, all about just getting the job done.  
 
Some whatsapp chat with my Centurion team mates informed me that Spain’s Javi Dominguez had won and smashed the course record in 67 hours 52.  Truly amazing.  I couldn’t help thinking this guy had finished and was probably celebrating in Courmayeur and I was only 205km  in - sitting eating breakfast and lubing up my feet at the same time.  Then Marco sent me a picture of Cairn, so I was sitting crying, eating boiled eggs (I’ve been Vegan for years!) whilst lubing up my feet.  What a sorry sight that must have been.
 
Gressoney To Valtournenche
 
With 205km complete, I had Gressoney mentally marked as the over half-way point.  It’s the fourth of six life bases, so passed the point of of no return.  I’m lead to believe this is the life base with the most drop outs, so if you get out of here alive you’re on the home straight.    You just need to get out.
 
After 3:40 hours, of which possibly an hour was spent sleeping, I headed out to the beautiful morning.  We had been truly blessed with such great weather.  The sun was shining, the skies were blue and the view over to Mont Rosa was stunning.  I stopped to take a picture  and then my Garmin froze and switched off.  Despite carrying a battery pack, I could get it to power on.  Surely not being able to Strava is a legitimate reason to DNF ;-)
 
It was a good hefty climb to Col Pinter and I was joined on the final ascent by three Italian men out to see some of the race and they insisted on keeping me company to the top.  Two were in front, with one behind ringing his cowbell and shouting “Allez.  Allez.  Go Scottish”.  On day four of this epic adventure, you can only imagine depths I had to go to to deal with this.  Even better when one of the men front commented: “But you are very young” and the cowbell ringing behind responded.  “No.  No way”.  Steady on, mate.  We stopped for selfies at the top and I left them - still chanting “Go Scottish” and ringing that cow bell.  Despite my obvious ageing, they made me smile a lot and put spring back in my step.  As did the lady who stopped me on the descent just to give me a hug.  
 
It was a long, but enjoyable trail down to Champoluc.  It was really heating up and the sun was piercing my skin.   I stopped at an unofficial aid station, which was a restaurant that had put on a big buffet for runners for no other reason other than they wanted to be part of the race.  I tried to get my Garmin to switch on with power, but no joy.
 
Through Champoluc and into the real checkpoint, which was pale by comparison to the restaurant, I went straight through heading to Saint Jacques with Rodolph.  I lost him on the climb out of the town, as I was really warm and a bit wasted.  
 
I stopped at the river to soak my buff and wet my face.  I was really tired and wanted to lie down, so I lay back listening to the sounds of the river and watching the shapes the clouds made.  I remember doing this with my Dad as a child and I wondered if kids still did this. I was brought back round when I realised ants were crawling all over me.  
 
The climb to Rifugio Grand Tourmalin was a real struggle.  I was beyond tired and was dragging my sorry ass up the hill.  After what seemed like an eternity, the refugio appeared in the distance and the familiar sounds of cowbells.  
 
Do you want food? Just sleep.  Do you want hot drink? Sleep.  Anything before?  Just sleep.  I could have stayed there forever, as it was a the best bed ever!  Who knew sleeping in a dormitory for 45 minutes could feel like total paradise.  
 
I woke feeling quite refreshed.  Down in the dining area, I joined Paul Drew and ate some pasta.  He had been looking out the window and was very apprehensive about the killer final ascent over the mountain.  I turned to see what he was looking and noticed that it did look particularly nasty. But I pointed out he was looking in the right direction, as I could see the runners out the window behind him on a less precarious switchback route.  
 
With new found energy, I tackled with final ascent and started on the descent to Valtourneche.  As daylight was fading, I got out my headtorch and decided to call Marco and Cairn, who had recently arrived in Courmayeur.  I soon as I heard their voices I started crying, even though it was the best I’d felt all day.   Physically I was holding it together. Mentally and emotionally, I’d lost the plot.  
 
Paul soon caught up with me again and we did the last few kilometres together before headed into the life base.    He was pretty excited about the pizza his brother was going to get him.  Craig failed to find a pizza in Italy.  He was going for a sleep and I was adamant I was going in for a quick turnaround and out again.  
 
Valtournenche to Ollomont
 
My quick turnaround turned into two hours of pissing about with my kit and messaging on my phone.  I just discovered my friend Jamie was pulled out of the race on day two with potential kidney failure.  Marco assured me Jamie was ok, as he had been in regular contact with her.
 
I should have just slept, because as soon as I got going, fatigue and breathlessness came over me and I had to stop at the next Refugio for some sleep.  The cold night air was continuing to hurt my chest.  Every breath hurt, so was resigned to shallow breathing.
 
I was joined by the endurance machine that is Harriet Kjaer. She was going for a 30 minute power nap, so I cut my planned 60 minutes in favour of some company for a while.  I enjoyed spending the next hour or so chatting about life and running.  I’ve met some seriously badass women through the sport, but I think Harriet is a rare breed.  She has a wealth of experience in mega-distance running and was fascinating to talk to.  We were so busy talking, we missed a turn and realised a while later we hadn’t seen markers for some time.  Back tracking a kilometre or so, we were amazed we missed it as it was so clearly obvious.  
 
Fenêtre du Tsan was the gift that kept on giving.  It was a relentless undulating slog.    Every time we started losing height, I wanted to have a tantrum.  After what seemed like HOURS, I reached the top and started on the switchbacks down.   
 
I was now getting passed by the speedsters in the Tot Dret race, the new 130km race which started in Gressonay at 9pm on the Wednesday.    I step off to let them passed.  I expected to see loads of the 400 runners, but there weren’t that many.  I later learned that only 80 finished, as the cold on the Thursday night ended most of their races.  This could be hear say though.  
 
The sunrise over the mountains was so beautiful, I had to stop at take a few pictures.  When I arrived at Rifugio magia, I stopped for some coffee and watched the flurry of Totdret runners appear and leave.  Just sitting there.  People watching.  Like I was sitting in Starbucks or something.
 
I was joined on the next few ascents by Susan from the USA, so the time just zipped by.  She’d done the race in 2015 when it was stopped due to bad weather on the third day, so had returned to get the monkey off her back.  She has also been out recceing the course, so it’s safe to say we had different race approaches.  This was the only time it rained during the race and I was actually quite enjoying it.  
 
After being a bubbling wreck on the phone to Marco and Cairn the night before they were coming out to meet me in Oyace, just to say hello and offer some moral support.  I left eating too long - as always the checkpoint was way longer than I expected it to be - so I was a bit worse for wear when I got there.  I spent an hour with them before Marco told me I wasn’t making an sense and should try for sleep before my two hour checkpoint allowance was up.  And he also had to get Cairn out as he was eating all the chocolate tarts that were provided for runners only.   
 
I found a bed and set my alarm for 50 minutes.  Sleeping a cot bed in a room of about hundred noisy people was becoming easier.  I felt so sick when I woke up, so I sat on the edge of the bed with my head between my knees trying to stop the world spinning.  A nice chap gave over to see if I was ok, which I thought was really kind… followed by ‘sorry to ask, but are you leaving soon.  My friend asked me to ask you for the bed’  The awkwardness on his face gave me the giggles.
 
Up I went to Col Brison.  Just a Ben Lomond up I reminded myself.   From the top you could probably drop a stone down onto the Ollomont, which was 1100 metres below.  It was that steep.  Which could only mean one thing.  A gazillion switchbacks!
 
Ollomont to Courmayeur
 
Night time fell just before I hit the final life base in Olloment  I expected to get there feeling happy and relieved knowing that the dream was to be reality, but I was void of feeling.  If anything I was just relieved that I wouldn’t have to squeeze everything back into that yellow duffle bag again.  
 
I was feeling pretty apprehensive about the night’s forecast and freezing temperatures.   My Centurion team mate Neil (who was ahead in the race) had sent pics from Rifugio Frasseti in a blanket of snow, so I knew I had to prepare for cold.  I shunned the communal changing area in favour of a cramped toilet cubicle.  I was trying to gauge what I would wear for cold day in the hills in Scotland - then add an extra layer.  Then trying to think what I would need for the next day, with a frazzled brain. What seemed like an eternity of faffing, packing and spending too much time messaging on my phone I exited the small wooden toilet cabin looking like snowboarding Barbie!  
 
Then proceeded to go for a 30 minute nap and a mega feast of soup, pasta and sweet black coffee.  Every pairs of eyes in the room was on the guy devouring a pizza which his Mum had brought him.  
 
Heading out under a blanket of stars for the last night it was so peaceful and still.  I felt cold, but there was no part of me that was specifically cold.  Hand were ok.  Feet fine.  Face and head covered.  It was just a  full chill and shiver that I couldn’t shake.  Another recognisable chunk to break it down.  Just a Ben Nevis to go.  ‘Just’ the UKs highest mountain on the 4th night out. Just.
 
After an hour or two of hiking I arrived at Rifugio Champillon.  I went inside for hot soup to warm up.  Just an excuse to get out of the cold.  I probably overstayed my welcome, by simply sitting there with the thousand-yard stare.  After what felt like 15 minutes, but was probably closer to 45 minutes I forced myself to leave reminding myself It was only another 400 metres.  The sky was so clear and I seemed so high up, I couldn’t make out what were stars and what were reflective race markings.  I was just getting colder and colder.  I just didn’t have the energy to fight the cold. Throughout the race I probably wasn’t eat for a normal day of living, let alone long days in the mountains. I tried to listen to a comedy podcast to take my mind off it, but that just became irritating.
 
I reached the top and heading down the switchbacks, stumbling as I went.  My poles were out in front like speirs, using them to catch me every time I fell.  It was fairly effective.  When I reached the farm/checkpoint at Pointelle, I was really burnt out and wanted to sleep.  There weren’t any beds there so I would need to push on another 10km.  I was hoping to miss dawn, as that’s always the coldest, but hey ho.  Off I went.  I got colder, incoherent, dazed, confused, angry, frustrated and on the cusp of hysteria.  By the time I reached Saint Rhémy en-Bosses (which was unsurprisingly longer than 10km away) I was a mess.
 
As always the volunteers were amazing and really helped he. I was given some soup, pasta and a seat next to the bar heater.  I couldn’t eat the soup because my hands were shaking so much.  I wanted to leave, as I was worried I would have to go through another night, but I was ordered to have some sleep.   And when I woke up after 10 mins, I was told to sleep some more.  Another 30 minutes and the volunteer was standing over for my wake up call.  I had slept with my hood up and had dribbled a puddle of saliva inside it.    
 
After getting sorted, I used the facilities (an actual sit down toilet - bliss!) and caught myself in the mirror. I barely recognised myself.  My face was so swollen and my eyes were so puffy, I couldn’t even see my eyelashes.   If I hadn’t already made a complete spectacle of myself at that checkpoint, I got myself locked in a toilet.  After what seemed like an eternity of shouting, four men used a large knife to unlock the snib from the outside.  I left fairly sharp after that.
 
The cold night had really ruined my lungs and I couldn’t stop coughing.  Even running on the flats was a big effort as my legs felt like lead and pack seemed to have doubled in weight.  But I forced myself to run, mainly through sheer panic of having to go into another cold night.
 
Hiking up, I started counting to 21 over and over again.  Cairn’s birthday is January 21, so it seemed like a good number to focus on. Despite being drained of energy and enthusiasm I couldn’t help marvel at how beautiful everything was.  I was still taking photos, so that proves that I was absolutely FINE.  
 


I passed Merdeux and the climb became more arduous.  I stopped in a Rifugio Frassati fairly swiftly downed a few cups of coke and got going again.  

With all the snow fall, the ground was really slippy, slushy and muddy.  It was hard to stay upright on the path.  Going uphill was one step forward and two slides back.  I was getting braver with the cows (I have a big fear of cows) on the course and walked straight through a herd of them without so much as a second thought.  It may have been courage or a blatant disregard for my life.  Bit awkward though as one cow was being mounted at the time.  And I’m not entirely sure she was up for it.  
 
Up to the last and one of the highest peaks on the course at Col Malatra.  I knew the final push involved a rope climb, which was a riot.   You know the monkeys from Jungle Book?  That was me. Swinging about trying to hold on to the rope, find my footing and clutch my poles in my other hand at the same time.  There are many better ways I could have approached.   The family behind me, who were praying I didn’t fall on top of them, took this picture of me and kindly emailed it.
 
There was a real muddy descent, which found me on my arse a few times.  At the next checkpoint, which had the enthusiastic bell ringer from Tourmalin I was told I had 15km to go.  I expected there to be another almighty climb, but there was only a short ascent and then it was all downhill.  Which was great, but there no sense of urgency from me.  For most the week, I’d completely forgotten I was in a ‘race’.  I stopped to speak to people, had a sit down to have a drink and enjoy the view.  I helped some young girls who asked for directions.  Lord knows where I sent them.   I even phoned Marco to find out where I was.  That seemed perfectly legit to me.
 
Down through the valley, I couldn’t stop coughing.  My lungs hurt so bad and my head ached.  Reluctant to take any painkillers,  I thought I would stop for a lie down and close my eyes.  After what seems like a few minutes, I opened my eyes to see a family standing over me looking very concerned about my state.  I tried to explain the race, but they weren’t aware of it.  I got up staggering, mumbling and confirmed I was ok slurring something about just being a little tired.  Covered in mud from previous falls, I definitely looked homeless.
 
I was so close to the end, but I couldn’t push myself.  My legs didn’t hurt, they were just tired.  And brain couldn’t talk to my legs, so everything felt wired up wrong.  I jogged a bit, coughed a lot and fast hiked.  Just don’t stop I told myself over and over again.  Many times that day I was convinced I was in Scotland.  In my head, I ‘knew’ I’d been there before and spent ages trying to remember who I was with.  
 
And then there it was.  Courmayeur.  I was back again.  I’d made it.  I burst out crying.  Basically the theme of the race was only to cry when I was happy.  With tired legs, it’s a good hour from Bertone downhill on the switchbacks.  Counting to 21 over and over again to try and keep some sort of jogging rhythm going.  Smiling at everyone who cheered for me, even though it cracked my sunburnt lips every time.
 
Closer to the town, Sarah McCormack (Irish Queen of hotpants) appeared in her usual effortless bounding style.  She said I didn’t have long to go and Paul was waiting at the finish line.  I hit some roads and then through some parks before joining the pedestrian area in the town.  My lungs were screaming but I couldn’t walk now, I had to save face.  Someone shouted that I had 1km to go and I didn’t think my lungs would hold out for long.  I passed the familiar shops and restaurants, a sea of blurry smiling faces and the sound of cowbells.  I could see Marco, and Cairn was in the middle of path poised ready to run with me.  Then I was over the yellow runway to the end.  Job done in 127 hours.  Which I hope is not an omen, as I don’t fancy chopping off my arm with a penknife.    I never knew at any point where I was in the race, but I finished 18th female (I think) and 162 overall.  Nearly 900 started and 461 finished.
 
I doubt I will do many things in life that could possibly compare to the Tor des Géants.  It was an amazing experience.  There were moments I felt I was just torturing myself, but I never wanted to stop.  The drive to finish overpowered everything.   Prior to the race, I always thought this was going to be a personal challenge and a solo adventure, but I was never alone.   From the people I met in the race, the supporters out on the course, the volunteers who sorted me out when I got in a right mess, to the dot watchers back home, so many people played a big part in my journey.  I’m truly thankful to everyone.  
 
The aftermath wasn’t as painful as expected, but the swelling I had was immense.  I can’t quite describe the fatigue and hunger I had in the week after.  It was like having necropsy and worms, whilst my head was in La La Land.    
 
Maybe one day I will return.  For me, it’s one of those races you need to do once to learn how to deal with the enormity of it and then go back and approach it differently.  I’ve never had to deal with sleep deprivation before, but I know now why it’s a recognised form of torture.  Managing sleep comes with experience.  Despite only ever wanting to finish, I’m over-thinking all the things I did wrong.  But it is what it is.  I’m a Géant.  That’s what.  
 
Special thanks to Montane for planting this seed, the opportunity to be a part of something truly magnificent and all the great kit.  

 

Written by Jason Millward - http://www.traillife.co.uk

Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra CMD Arete
Coming into this race I felt great. Training had been going well and I was really looking for a good result. It would be the first time I had raced against such strong competition and I wanted to see how I would fare against some of the countries best ultra runners on what promised to be a very testing course.

The Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra™ journey includes remote runnable tracks, technical single track, airy trackless ridges and some connecting remote mountain roads. Truly, this course is for the boldest all-round ultra-runners.

73 miles across the Scottish Highlands and featuring the biggest climb in the UK. It proved to be a tough course

After an injury-free year, I somehow managed to pull my hamstring on Tuesday before the race on an easy run around Swinsty and Fewston reservoir with Victoria. A few days of frantic stretching and rolling seemed to cure the problem. This would turn out to be just temporary though.

We decided to stay in Fort Augustus the night before rather than having to get up at stupid o’clock for the bus from Kinlochleven to the start. After tea at The Lock Inn, which is highly recommended if you are ever in the area, we went back to the room where I sorted my stuff out for the day ahead and tried to get an early night.

Just before 6am we lined up in the dark on the edge of Loch Ness ready to face whatever the Scottish Highlands could throw at us. I had no real plans for the race other than to just go at my own pace and see what happened. In the back of my mind I was looking to finish top 5 but with such a strong field I knew this would be tough. Still, you can but try.

Start of the Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra with Kirk Hardwick. Photo Credit: Emma Hardwick

FORT AUGUSTUS – BRAE ROY

As expected Donnie Campbell shot off at the front and set the pace early on. I set off at a comfortable pace and settled into a good rhythm without pushing myself too hard. If it meant I could stay with the leaders then great, if not then I would just let them go and run my own race.

After a mile or so the route took a left turn and started the long climb up to Corrieyairack Pass. Someone had decided to wild camp right in the middle of the path so they must have got a bit of a rude awakening when 150 runners thundered past.

As the dawn started breaking the Scottish Highlands were revealed to us and the views were pretty spectacular, especially looking back over to Loch Ness and Fort Augustus. I was starting to relax and enjoy the running and was looking forward to the day ahead.

I checked the pace on my watch, it was quick but my breathing was good and I wasn’t gasping for air or pushing hard so just go with I thought.

On the last section of the climb up to the pass, eventual 2nd place finisher Casper Kaars Sijpesteijn and I fell into pace with each other and reached the pass together. One of three big climbs of the day in the bag. I was really enjoying myself at this stage and just loving being somewhere I had never been before.

Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra
Deep in the Highlands, not sure where exactly but running well at this point. Photo Credit: Lake District Images

The next section down to the first checkpoint at Melgrave was so much fun and really quick. There seemed to be endless long flowing switchbacks followed by a really nice fast straight. I was loving this section, it was so much fun all the way down to the first checkpoint.

From Melgrave there was a short section of decent path and then we were plunged into the first of the two bog sections.

The very wet summer had made the bogs extra boggy and it wasn’t long before I took my first waist deep plunge into Scotlands finest bog. I pulled myself out and set off squelching through the Scottish countryside. The course was certainly varied so far and living up to expectations of it being a tough race over varied terrain.

A few more waist deep bogs and river crossings and were back on a good track and off towards the first support point at Brae Roy. Donnie had long since disappeared but I could see Mike Jones up ahead pulling away slightly but not by much. Maybe I was running a bit quick!

BRAE ROY – NEVIS RANGE

I came into Brae Roy in 5th place I think, a quick stop to refill my bottles and I was off again. I was pleased with how I was running. Donnie, Mike and a few others had disappeared off into the distance by now but I resisted the temptation to try and chase after them. It was still a long way to go and I didn’t want to run out of steam before the finish.

Filling up at Brae Roy checkpoint. I’m hoping that’s a cheese and pickle sandwich in my mouth otherwise I think I need some dental work. Photo credit: Emma Hardwick

At Brae Roy the course doubles back on itself and you could see the other runners on the opposite side of the bank before we turned away from the river and started the climb up to Tom Mor pass. I made the decision to have a walking break to take on some food and just readjust a few things with my kit.

Casper caught and passed me at this point so once I sorted my stuff out I got moving again and spent the next few miles skipping through the bogs with Casper.

At one point we lost sight of the course markers and decided that it must cross the deep, fast flowing river in front of us only to cross the river and look back to see the markers heading up a banking on the other side of the river to a bridge crossing the river we had just waded through. Great!

Casper started to pull away after this and then I went over funny in one of the boggy sections and tweaked my hamstring. Bloody hell did it hurt. I was hoping I would be able to run it off otherwise it wasn’t going to be much fun for the next 50 miles.

 

I took a few moments to check myself out and carried on. Every time I lifted my leg I got a shooting pain through my hamstring and into my glutes. Not brilliant when you still have miles of Scottish bogs to negotiate.

Nothing else for it, you’re just going to have to try and forget about it until you get to Kinlochleven I thought. I hoped it might just ease off. My pace notes did say in big bold letters at the top ‘Ignore Pain’ and although this wasn’t the type of pain I was expecting to be ignoring it was pain nonetheless so I tried to ignore it as best I could and pushed on.

A few more miles of painful bog trotting and the checkpoint at Inverlair came into view down below. After a slippery descent through bracken, I was over the A86 and dibbing in at the checkpoint and off towards the Nevis Range where I would meet Victoria and my Dad who were supporting me and get a resupply of food and water.

The next section was difficult for me, just miles of forest fire road and farmers tracks. Sections like this are a big weak point for me and it’s something I need to work on in the offseason with Jayson Cavill. I get bored, my mind wanders and I forget that I’m in a race and don’t push on as hard as I should. Still, it was the same for everyone so I tried to stay focused and keep going.

My leg was really hurting now, especially on the uphills where I was struggling to push off with any sort of power. Thoughts turned to what lay ahead and I couldn’t help but think Ben Nevis wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs for me today. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting people to start passing me but they didn’t so my pace must have been ok to that point.

I’m not usually one for painkillers at any time but I would have given anything for a packet of aspirin. I got my phone out and tried calling Victoria hoping she might be able to pick some up and get them to me at the Nevis Range range checkpoint. No answer so I sent her a text hoping she would get it in time.

I finished the last of my water in my bottles and was starting to get dehydrated. No problem I thought, there’s plenty of water about I’ll just fill up at the next stream. Problem was that the next stream was in a sheep field and I didn’t fancy a lump of sheep shit in my bottle so I carried on, thinking I would be able to fill up soon.

Each time I came across a stream I convinced myself it was too close to a house or livestock or it had been flowing for too long down the mountainside so could be contaminated. Maybe (definitely) I was being too cautious and should have just filled up, the dehydration was certainly slowing my pace but I just didn’t have the confidence in the water supplies not to give me something far worse. Probably shows my naivety more than anything. The water would probably have been the freshest and purest I could ever have drunk.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity I came round a corner in the woods to see the Nevis Range gondola rising up from the forest below. I gingerly tiptoed down the side of the Fort William Mountain Bike World Cup track and rolled up to the aid station where Victoria had quite a spread laid up for me.

 

“Did you get my message?”

“Yes, but we didn’t have time to pick any up so we’ll have to get you them for the next checkpoint” came the reply.

Not the answer I was hoping for but I didn’t exactly give them much time to sort anything.

“You’re doing great, 5th place at the moment and not too far behind 4th”

I was surprised that I was still within 15 – 20 mins of 4th place at this point. Maybe I wasn’t as slow on the last section as I thought. The problem was the next section was the climb up Ben Nevis and along the CMD Arete and I was struggling climbing on forest tracks so it wasn’t looking good for this section.

NEVIS RANGE – GLEN NEVIS

I had recced the course from this point onwards so knew what was coming. A couple of miles of forest tracks lead to the start of the climb up to the CMD Arete and the summit of Ben Nevis. I should have run this section but I decided to try and give my leg a rest and walked the majority of it. I had also drunk far too much water at the aid station and it was now sloshing around my stomach. Rookie mistake, I took a salt tablet hoping it would solve the problem.

I reached the deer fence and headed out onto the single track path towards the left fork that would take us back into another bog and up to the bit everyone was looking forward to The CMD Arete.

Starting the climb and I could see the 4th place runner a few hundred metres above me and maybe 15mins in front. I can have him I thought to myself, this is where I should be strong and make up time. I’m usually pretty good on the long drawn out climbs. I just get my head down and get on with it. Nothing else to do really but suffer it out as quickly as possible.

About 50 metres further up the climb that today just wasn’t going to be my day. I just couldn’t push with my left leg and I was getting shooting pains in my hamstring and into my glutes everytime it hit the floor or got pulled by the bogs. I might as well have hopped up to the summit of Ben Nevis for all the use my leg was.

 

The climb up to the Arete is really steep. It’s pretty boggy for the first half and it then gives way to a harder packed track which made going a bit easier but it’ rocky. Not ideal conditions for someone with a bum leg.

I looked back and could see another runner closing on me as I slowly made my way up through the bogs but I couldn’t do anything about it. My mind wanted to fight for the position but my body just wasn’t playing. My pace was soul destroying and as I climbed into clag I lost my first position of the day. Just keep going as best you can I kept telling myself. The temperature started to drop so I stopped and put my jacket and gloves. No point in getting hypothermia as well!

The temperature started to drop so I stopped and put on my jacket and gloves. No point in getting hypothermia as well!

Eventually, I came to the summit of Carn Morg Dearg, 1220m above sea level, and saw the checkpoint. As I approached a hand holding a dibber was thrust out of a tent and I dibbed in. The marshals throughout the event were great but those that spent the day and most of the night at the summit of the UK’s highest mountain deserve extra special respect. Without them these races just couldn’t go ahead so to spend so much time exposed to the elements is incredible.

In my recce just a few weeks earlier I had breezed up this climb without too much effort. Today was another story, I had to fight for every step and every metre of height gained. It wasn’t how I planned this section but as with all races plans and expectations, they can and will change so you just have to adapt and deal with the bad times and get on with it.

The Arete wasn’t much fun either. I was struggling to lift my leg to get over the rocks and boulders on the ridge and I fell a few times as a result. On the bright side, I didn’t trip and plummet off the side towards an almost certain death so I take that as a positive.

Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra CMD Arete
Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra CMD Arete. Photo Credit: Lake District Images

I did, however, fall and crack my right knee again. It’s becoming a common occurrence in races that I have to finish with my right knee covered in blood and hurting and boy did it hurt for a few minutes. I’m fairly certain I let out a scream as it smashed against the rock.

I went to see a physio after the race about my hamstring and his first comment upon seeing my scabby knee again was ‘You really don’t like that knee, do you? It’s only just healed from the last time you smashed it up’. Think out of fairness I’m going to have to start falling on my left knee in future or better yet stop falling over. That’s another thing to work on over the winter with Jayson. I’ve been doing some running and ladder drills in the last month or so and they are certainly helping but as with everything there’s room for more improvement.

CMD Arete with the climb in the background
Struggling with my leg at this point but the views more than made up for it. Photo Credit: Zac Poulton

Mia Rai and Andy McConnell came past me towards the end of the Arete which I wasn’t too happy about but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Just the rock scramble to go and I would be at the summit and then it was all downhill to the next checkpoint and a with any luck a handful of aspirin.

The rock scramble proved to be the sting in the tail of the climb and I just struggled. I couldn’t lift my leg to get up and over the rocks. It’s bloody steep and I just struggled to get up it at a good pace. On the plus side, the sun had made an appearance and it was turning into a lovely evening with great views. There were certainly worse places to be in the world and this took my mind off things for a while.

As I reached the summit of Ben Nevis and dibbed in one of the marshalls asked me how I was feeling, “Broken” I grunted back “Not really though are?” came the reply. I think I muttered something like “Not physically but mentally I am” and with that, I trotted off towards the long and rocky descent off Ben Nevis. Another thing to work on over the winter is my mental toughness. I can keep myself going forward but I need to be able to pull myself out of the dark times more effectively and get myself moving again.

Going down was just as painful as going up and I was making slow progress gingerly picking my way between the walkers and the rocks. It’s not the most technical descent but it is long and you have to concentrate not to make a mistake and tumble. My leg was making my progress much slower than I was hoping for and I was passed by a couple more people before the end. Still just look at those views, it was a beautiful evening to be on Ben Nevis.

Just as I was getting into the checkpoint I heard a shout “Come on Jason move your arse” It was Victoria and she wasn’t very happy about me losing all those places since I last saw her. I’ve always told her to be tough on me in these races and tough she is. I got some stern words whilst I sorted myself out ready for the final push to Kinlochleven. She told me afterwards that a couple had told her off for being too harsh on me which made me laugh. I’ve told her she should take up motivational speaking. She has no-nonsense, you wanted to do this so get your arse moving style which is exactly what you need.

GLEN NEVIS – KINLOCHLEVEN

I shoved a couple of aspirins down my throat and we walked out together towards the West Highland Way and the final 10 miles so she could give me a good a pep talk which basically amounted to “Just f**king run will you”.

There’s a fire road climb out of Glen Nevis onto the WHW and I walked this section hoping that by the time I reached the top the aspirins would have kicked in and I could run relatively pain-free to the finish. A few more runners came past on this section.

Nearing the top of the climb in the distance I saw a group of about 6 black kittens playing together. Bit weird them being out here but as I got closer it turned out to be an old car bumper that someone had left. Great, hallucinating as well I thought to myself.

At the top of the climb the aspirin had finally kicked in and for the first time in what seemed like forever I started running again at a reasonable pace.

The trail is quite undulating until the penultimate checkpoint at Lundavra with a few short sharp climbs but quite good fun. I was starting to enjoy myself again and pleased I was starting to make a little bit of forward progress.

Whatever you do don’t lose any more places I kept telling myself. I had no idea what place I was in but I knew I must have been out of the top 10 by now.

It wasn’t long after dibbing in at Lundavra that it started to get dark and I had to get my headtorch out. Thankfully I decided to pack my Petzl Nao rather than my Tikka which I originally planned to carry to save a few grams of weight confident that I would be finishing in daylight. A wise move it turned out.

After Lundavra the West Highland Way turns into a wider track although it is covered in loose rocks making foot placing important. It wasn’t long before, in my tired state, I stumbled a few times after misplacing my foot and the pain in my hamstring started to return. 5 minutes later and it was as though it never left and my progress slowed considerably.

Come on keep going I kept telling myself, you can’t have more than 4 – 5 miles to go. I had a look round and could see a headtorch about 5 minutes behind. I passed an old derelict farmhouse which I recognised from the recce and knew I was getting close to the finish and it was pretty much all downhill from there. I looked around again, the headtorch was definitely getting closer. Keep going I said to myself as I hobbled off into the darkness.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the course markers pointed us down the single track that would spit me out back in Kinlochleven and the finish line.

Halfway down I saw lights dancing around and bright red lines, almost like lazer beams, coming out from the trees in front of me. What the f**k is that I thought, I was either hallucinating again or was about to be abducted by aliens. As I got closer it turned out to be just a marshal taping up some of the course with reflective tape. Panic over, there would be no probing for me that night!

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity I came out of the woods onto the road just outside Kinlochleven, just another minute of running and I would be done.

Finish of Ben Nevis Ultra at Kinlochleven
Finally crossing the finish line at Kinlochleven in a time of 15:39:59 for 12th place.

Finally, I crossed the finish line in 12th place after 15hours 39minutes and 59seconds (full results here). Not the result I was hoping for but I’m very proud to have finished on what proved to be an incredibly tough course that beat a lot of better runners than me. The main thing is that I finished and I will now qualify for the Skyrunner series overall after finishing the required 3 out of 4 races required.

The course was incredibly tough and without a doubt, it was a great all round test of running ability. From fast runnable tracks to long sections of bogs and big long, steep climbs it definitely had it all. The more I look back and reflect the more I like the course. It was perhaps the toughest single day ultra course in the UK and really separated the men and women from the boys and girls.

I would be interested to hear what others thought about it now they have had time to mull things over.

Next year I’ll hopefully return to Scotland and take on the main event of the weekend The Glencoe Skyline.

THANKS

Victoria for just being amazing and meeting me at the checkpoints and giving me the tough talk that I need when things got low.

My coach Jayson Cavill for getting me fit enough to tackle these events and for all the help and advice.

The marshalls who spent their day out in the Highlands of Scotlands. The race couldn’t have happened without you.

Shane Ohly and his team for putting the event on in the first place and providing an incredibly testing course.

KIT LIST

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