Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com

I have been here in Argentiere for over two weeks now and already a poster in a sports shop had caught my eye. It was advertising the Trail de Gypaete. There are three distances, 28km, 42km and 72km with an extra category of relay 72km (teams of two). I had to try out the 72km as it had a beefy 4200m of ascent so would be a big test for me being the first race since the Likeys Beacons ultra back in November, but I don’t really count that as I was still in a real mess from Trans-Europe. I was quite nervous about it as I knew that it would be a painful affair, especially as my endurance is still pretty poor. I believe that the suffering is far easier to deal with if you have experienced any recently which I hadn’t!. I have pushed myself in the mountains recently, but nothing compares to the pain that is created in the race situation.

As you can imagine, I have been out running a few times since our arrival here. I can’t help but just want to run straight up the nearest mountain and then bomb back down. This is all incredibly exciting, but I was aware that I needed to go out for some longer stints to up the endurance a little, and because, well, going long is more my thing to be honest. I am sure that the occasional slog up the local mountain won’t be doing any harm though! I went out for a 5.5hr run one day with around 2000 metres of ascent and went around 30km. The distance covered here is roughly half what I’m used to covering back in the UK over the same time period. This is of course partly down to the amount of ascent, but at the moment, the snow is slowing me down lots because it is difficult to run in, but also because one minute you will be on the trail and the next the trail has disappeared. This followed by plenty of head scratching and back-tracking. Thankfully, this doesn’t irritate me in the slightest. In fact, I am finding it quite a lot of fun! Maybe it’s the novelty of it all. Either way, as much as I enjoy travelling fast on foot, it doesn’t seem to be a necessity for me to have fun. I just want to have the beauty and the excitement and there is plenty of that here.

So, as much as I am feeling quite fit and strong, my endurance, as previously mentioned, is a little to be desired. Things can only improve, especially as I am now exclusively running in the mountains. No flat, and barely any tarmac (none if I can help it). As the race got closer, so the weather forecast became more and more British. Plenty of rain was coming and it was supposed to be raining for the whole day. The course was also slightly modified as the trail was still impassable due to snow! So, not only was this going to be a tough day because of the hilly nature of it, but the conditions were looking to be epic. The photos on the race website looked incredible with large mountain views. I think I will not be getting this.

I drove down to Cluses the night before the race to register and decided to stay the night in town as the start was at 0500. It had been moved 30 minutes forward to give people a better chance of finishing due to the worsening conditions. It was raining when I awoke, and as I stood around in the sportshall I could hear it beating against the roof. I wasn’t bothered though. It was only a bit of rain. The briefing was in French, so I had no idea what was said, then shuffled out into the rain in the dark where we stood around waiting for the start. I had on my Petzl Nao headtorch, a cap to keep the rain out of my eyes, shorts, t-shirt with arm warmers and a windproof gilet. On my feet I had on my feet my now trustySalomon Mantras. I didn’t think these would be ideal for the muddy conditions, but unbelievably I had nothing better! Blimey, I need more shoes.Gypaete

We were off. The first three km were along the river. The pace was pretty sharp as to be expected, but I was not biting. I was not here to race anyone other than myself. That would be challenge enough. I soon was running beside Anna Frost who was running the first 40 km as she was in the relay. Somewhere up ahead Kilian Jornet was running too. As soon as we were done with the flat section, we were immediately directed into the trees. Even at the bottom of the mountain the visibility was bad. There wouldn’t be any panoramic views today. Immediately things went from fast and flat to slow and very slippery. My shoes were struggling with this amount of thick mud. The trail was already a mess, so I felt for the guys at the back. The climb was beautiful as it wound its way up through the trees. It didn’t take too much time for me to resort to sticking my fingers into the gloopy mud to give me a little extra purchase on the steeper sections. There was going to be no staying clean today.

The initial climb was over 900 metres in ascent. This coupled with the mud equated to me being very tired as a downhill began. As much as I generally thrive with bad conditions, I heard a little voice in my head pleading for less mud. Soon I was cruising a slippery downhill, and suddenly burst out from the trees and into a field. The footing was off camber and it was still raining. I knew what was going to happen but was going too fast to avert it. My feet slid away from me and I hit the deck quite hard. It didn’t hurt me, but knocked the wind out of me a bit and I fell on my plastic cup (you have to carry one in most European trail races), shattering it. Bummer, I liked that cup for some reason. I got it when I did the vertical km in Morzine a couple of years ago. I was up and running again straight away. I had already forgotten the cup as I concentrated on staying upright.

I soon was off the trails and passing through a small village to the first cp. I stopped briefly and ate some dried fruit, grabbing a second handful as I lurched off. I was aware of how exhausted I was already. My pacing was going to be the deciding factor for the day. Also, I wanted to make sure that if I was going to have a bad section, that it was not caused by under-eating. There is nothing more irritating.

The rain continued to fall, and the underfoot conditions remained terrible. There was some improvement as we climbed higher again and were soon in the snow. As you will probably know though, snow isn’t exactly the easiest of things to run through either. The climbs were long and numerous and I was sliding around so much that I was red-lining almost all the time. I was also falling a lot. In-fact, I had kind of accepted the fact that I would probably be back on the deck within ten minutes of the previous fall. Although the day was turning into a total grind for me, and a little voice was begging for smooth, dry trail, the rather twisted side of me was revelling in the incredibly tough conditions. What a reintroduction to trail racing! As I fell in the mud again and again, I struggled to find a clean part of clothing to wipe my perpetually running nose on and was quite aware that I was probably just smearing mud all over my face in the process. I no longer cared. I now embraced the mud.

I was soon running through a small town towards what I knew was the next cp at 42 km. This was a major cp as the relay teams changed over here, plus the two shorter races began from here. I had beaten the start of the other races so there were lots of runners running up and down the road looking very bouncy and clean compared to my tired and bedraggled self. I pushed my way through the crowd of runners to get to the table to get some food. More fruit and some sausage was had, along with a nice sweet cup of French tea (weak with no milk). I ran off down the road, and soon I was alone again in the glorious mud. I had no idea how long it would be till the shorter races would start so kept looking behind for the clean lead runners to catch me up.

I was on a technical climb with some cables that were permanently fitted to aid climbing the harder sections, when I heard the first of the clean runners quickly approaching from behind. I was not even attempting to run up this section, but this chap managed to run past with relative ease. There was a short gap before two more guys sped past, and then a few more. One chap slid on some snow directly in front of me and his plastic cup popped out. I shouted out to him and pointed to it, but he looked at it, waved to me and continued. I had gained a nice new unshattered cup. Yes!

After the initial rush of 10 or so runners, it slowed down a bit. I was feeling pretty low on energy, but my moral was still high. I was surprised by the mud situation, but I wasn’t too surprised with my bad spell. I just need a few more big days in my legs and this will hopefully not happen so easily. It will pass though. I held onto that point and pushed on. On one descent I saw a photographer ahead. As I reached him, I realised that I was being directed off the trail down the side of the mountain. It was open with no trees and was super slippery. I could see why the photographer had positioned himself here. I probably spent more time on my backside on this 200-300 metre descent than on my feet. It was sort of fun, but I was glad to reach the bottom.

I have been to the Glastonbury festival a fair few times, and I have been there during some very muddy times wading around in what I thought was every mud you could possibly get, but this was something else! There was the wet stuff, the thick gloopy stuff that threatens to suck your shoe off with every stride, the stuff that makes ice look grippy and every variation in-between.

After trudging up a long hill into the cloud again, I stopped briefly at a cp for another sweet tea, Then it was back into the climb. The cloud around me got colder and colder and soon I was running through snow. My hands were cold as my gloves were soaked from the rain and constantly falling. I knew that I wouldn’t be up this high for too long though so it was fine. Within half an hour I was descending through the lush green countryside, warming up again quickly.

As I got closer to the finish, so my energy levels grew. I was now overtaking some of the runners in the shortest (28km?) event which certainly helped. I remembered that the finish was a massive descent down from the mountains back into Cluses. I descended as fast as my weary body and the mud allowed. It was great fun pushing myself here. I could see the town appear below me, and I watched as it quickly got closer and closer. I now was running strong on those reserves that always seem to be there no matter what happens. I overtook a few runners as I made my way through town and was soon directed into the finish area. My time was just below 10hrs 50mins. I had managed to finish in 18th place which I was actually quite chuffed with. There were 109 finishers all together. A fantastically tough but enjoyable day in the hills. The event was really well organised. I could shower at the end and have a meal which was better than what you’d get in some restaurants! The entire course was heavily marked making it impossible to get lost, and the amount of helpers was just incredible. All very Centurion Running like. Saying that, I think if they are all like this, which I get the impression they are, I may miss the races with navigation and less support, but I suppose I can still get that kick from doing big non-race runs.

My next race is the vertical km at the end of the month which should be a great experience. I also entered a race called the Ice Trail Tarentaise which is at Val D’Isere a couple of hours away. It is a short 65km but squeezes in over 5000 metres of ascent so should be a killer.

It has really warmed up here in the last couple of weeks, and the summer has certainly arrived with the river being very swollen because of the rapid melt that is taking place. It is an incredible thing to witness. Seeing the difference from day to day, as the rivers swell, the snow disappears and the new green shoots spring up everywhere is one of the most beautiful things I have ever been lucky enough to see.

I feel like I belong in the mountains. The feeling is stronger now that I am here too. I am so happy I had the courage to actually make the move. I just need to make it work now.

Happy running

Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy running.

Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com 

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

I like it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy running, people.

Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy running

Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultratrunningcommunity.com 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time for the Arctic…

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