Written by Richard Stillion - https://richyla.wordpress.com/

12th-14th April 2019

Sport Box

Race Director: Alen Paliska


Kazufumi Ose 18:38:58

Katja Kegl Vencelj 23:16:54

100 Miles of Istria is 168 kilometres (or 105 miles), in the most north westerly county of Croatia.  I had been looking for races abroad, preferably in holiday time so my family could bag a trip to Europe too.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many – UTMB, is one, but I didn’t have the points to qualify and there was one in Annecy.  I was on the Ultrarunning Community Facebook page when a post came up about 100 Miles of Istria which was around Easter time.  Turns out Drew Sheffield and Andrew Ferguson (Centurion and Mud Crew Organisers) had both done it and thoroughly recommended it.  It was part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, so it should certainly be of a high standard in organisation, so I began my persuasion tactics upon the wife – the times of turning up at some random place and “oooh look they have a race here, I’ll just see if there are any places for me” were long gone.  There were four races of varying length Red, Blue 110km, Green 67km and Yellow 41km (ooh and a kids race).  I did think about doing one of the shorter ones but then thought if I finished them and felt okay, then I’d be annoyed at not doing the longest one, so Red it was.

Lumpy Red Profile

Logistically we decided on flying into Venice (there were more frequent flights than from Pula in Croatia) and we would drive along a dual carriageway, from Italy, through Slovenia and then into Croatia.  It was only approximately 2.5 hours in total and was fairly straightforward.

Training had been going well, I’d been focusing on core as well as running and had been doing boot camp and stability ball classes.  I was feeling good up to 3 weeks before the race and suddenly my hips, the age-old issues, started to play up.  It was so frustrating, this was going to be a difficult feat for me, and the last thing I needed was to worry about injuries so close to the race.  I think they’re sometimes referred to as phantom niggles – the body starts to fret and make up stuff.  Suffice to say I cut back my training and just hoped for the best.

We flew out to Venice and the car journey went without any issues.  We were going to stay in the hilltop town of Motovun and the approach was in the bottom of the Mirna valley.  Motovun came into view perched up high and I suddenly wondered what I’d got myself into.  Motovun was an aid station at mile 80 and it was one of the lower hills I would need to climb.  It looked rather high from where I was driving!

Motovun (photo courtesy Jan Mastrovic)

We settled in for a few days, visiting Buzet which would be the halfway point of the race.  We went to the race registration in Umag (which was also the finish line) the day before the race as my wife would need to know where to go to pick me up.  There was a smallish queue when we got there but it seemed to take quite a while for it to move.  I got chatting to a few guys who had come over from South Africa.  I think there were 52 countries represented in all and I think most, if not all, of the flags were flying in the sports hall above the registration area.  On the wall beside the queue were some boards with all the competitors names which was a bit of a brief distraction in the wait, trying to spot your name.

Fame at last

Registration required proof of id first, move along to mandatory kit check – which I thought was incredibly basic – move along for bib presentation and drop bags, then along for race merchandise which were socks and t-shirt and a bottle of ale.  You were given two drop bags, one for the halfway point and a small one to take to the race start, I guess for last minute things, but I didn’t bother with that one.

Queue up on the right, check in, then expo. (photo courtesy Goran Jakus)

When we arrived in Croatia, we’d had some pretty heavy downpours and thunder and lightning.  Checking the weather forecast, it looked pretty mild, maybe slight rain on the mountain range at 8c and then sunny and 18c in the lower section the day after.  There were warnings in the rather large race guidebook that the mountains did have their own microclimate and all sorts of weather conditions, including snow, should be accounted for.  I packed a few extra things as well as the mandatory kit list – a few extra grams wasn’t going to affect my “performance”.

So, race day started bright and breezy, but sadly the race didn’t.  That didn’t start until 4pm.  We had to be in Umag for the bus to take us to the start at 1pm.  I briefly chatted with Louise McWilliams here.  She was one of seven Great Britain competitors – Great Britain doesn’t include Scotland in this race – for some reason in this race it is listed separately.  There was no one from Scotland this year but Paul Giblin has won this race in a previous year.  There were many buses, but the bus we had to catch was numbered on our race bib, which I thought was a nice touch.  On the reverse of the bib was the list of aid stations and an elevation profile which I looked at quite a bit throughout the race.

Top oraganisation – our corresponding bus number was on our bibs. (photo courtesy Goran Jakus)

There was certainly a nervous tension on the bus, broken by one of the many photographers who jumped on briefly to take a photo – this is the happy bus – he quipped, which gave a few laughs more from nerves I think.  Off we went and I took in some of the scenery on the way, huge amounts of wooded areas and valleys, and then the Ucka mountain range came into view.  The buses parked outside Labin and we walked about a kilometre into the town.  The wind had picked up here and was pretty cold with added rain.  Like most people, I headed for a café to grab a coffee.  The rain abated and I just perched myself on a bench and waited and watched people go through their pre-race rituals.  A drumming band from Trieste started thumping away about ten minutes before the start which was a welcome distraction.  The long wait, from planning about 15 months before, was about to start.  Would I make it to the end of the first strip of road, would my aching hips hold out?  Let’s see.  We were off.  Me, for the first time ever with poles, which I’d panic bought a few days before coming out to Croatia (many thanks for the advice VLT!).

I look weirdly large compared to the people on my left. And there’s a smile on my face. Weird photography. (photo courtesy Ivanovski)

We went along a road and then turned onto a narrow track which caused the inevitable bottle-neck queue, these things almost always happen at the start.  Soon we were heading through a wood down to the sea and then running along a promenade.  Not for long, for sure enough, the first of the uphills began.  This was about a 500 metre climb and warm work. 

Getting the heart rate up

Eventually reaching the top, there followed the downhill at which point my headtorch clattered to the floor.  I couldn’t understand it at first but then I realised one of my coat pockets must have given out – kit fail already!  There was a large power station at the bottom of the hill and we crossed some sort of irrigation channel, I’ve no idea what was in it.  Onto sea level again and the first of the checkpoints at Plomin Luka which I think was about 10 miles in 2hrs15 which I was happy enough with.  I shoved some oranges and bananas in with a nice bit of custard slice, then got going on the long ascent onto the Ucka mountain range, about 800 metres on this section.  It was hot work on the sheltered side of the mountain and I was cursing the lack of breeze. 

Warm at this point, just before the cold wind over the crest.

This changed when I crested this section of climb onto a more exposed area, cold, high winds there to greet me.  This was a rocky sort of section where I was hopping over some of the boulders here and there.  I realised how cold I was getting, my hands becoming a bit numb.  I got my coat on, buffs and gloves and carried on and up.  It was also getting dark so I pulled my headtorch out.  I was getting buffeted about a bit here and my poles, made of carbon, were getting blown about too.  Despite so many reflective flags which were marking the route, I took a slight detour until someone yelled at me to correct me.  Eventually, I reached some woods which provided me with a bit of respite from the wind.  I started heading downhill and around a bend away from the wind.  I eventually reached another aid station at Prodol and decided I’d pull out my merino wool baselayer – it’s been on many a trip with me, but I’ve never used it before, but it would pay dividends on this next section.  I can’t remember too much other than following the trail up until I came upon a very steep section.  I could see headtorches quite high up so knew it would be a fair climb.  This would be to the top of Mount Vojak at 1396m (the highest point of the race).  I was concentrating where I was putting my poles and my feet, but I noticed wisps of dew dropping down and just assumed it was rain from earlier being blown off the trees.  Then I looked up.  Ooh, snow!  I thought.  That’s nice!  I eventually caught someone up who commented on what a tough climb it was.  I agreed.  I then came upon two marshals who took my number.  Bravo!  Good luck!  They said.  I didn’t really comprehend why they’d said it until I looked up; way up this time, I could see head torches, and this was a fully exposed snow-covered mountainside.  I’d never experienced these conditions before but there were plenty of markings despite the snow, so up I went.  I saw someone coming up behind me and before I knew it, it felt like he just stepped over me.  And then another.  I couldn’t understand if they were so fast, why had they been behind me?  I then cottoned on that the second race (Blue) had started. 

The next bit was pretty annoying as I kept getting out of the blue runners’ way as they pummelled past as it lasted for quite some time.  I quite enjoyed the snow climb, there were enough tracks for me to follow so I didn’t lose my way.  I got to the top and there was a viewing tower which I’d seen from google images and it seems to get pretty busy in the summer time. 

Coming into Poklon

Down I went on the other side and it was pretty steep in places going through a wooded area which eventually came out at Poklon aid station which marked the marathon mark for me at 8 hours which is pretty much what I’d got in my mind time-wise.  The aid station was too warm for me (fair enough though the volunteers needed the heat) and it was pretty cramped as there were crew/family in the tent too who were behind barriers.

Coca cola! You have to supply your own cup, mine was a fold out type. Spectators/crew/family are behind the barriers in the background. (photo courtesy Zdenko Mlinar).

I had some crisps and a cheese sandwich and then needed to change my headtorch batteries.  I enlisted the help of one of the crew on the other side of the barrier as my hands were quite cold and it was a bit fiddly changing the batteries.  She wished me good luck and I went outside.  The cold hit me a bit because of the warmth of the marquee but I got going along a road.  A car came up to me here and the car had the window down.

“Back!” he shouted.  I wasn’t sure why and then I think I heard someone shout that I’d gone the wrong way.  Amazing that you can just switch off and miss the markers which were in abundance.

There were four more peaks and two aid stations to get up before the halfway at Buzet.  I can’t remember that much about them apart from some more snow – not as much as Vojak though.  The marshals in some parts of the race must have had a lot of runners coming through so it must have been pretty hectic at times, as some of the aid stations I went in were, trying to jostle for food or drinks.  Eventually, I started to make out the outline of the hills and realised dawn was on its way.  I had one more hill to climb around 1100m before a long steep descent to Buzet at near sea level.  I find it frustrating when the legs have had enough of running as this would have been fantastic to run down.  Instead I was just careful where I was treading and got down to Buzet in one piece and reached the halfway main checkpoint which was in a sports hall.  I got my drop bag here and had some food.  My back was a bit compressed here and I tried to stretch it out.  A medic asked if I needed some help and she put some cold spray on it to take the inflammation down a bit.  I topped up headtorch batteries, brunch bars and gels, but didn’t change any clothing, I was happy with my choices.  Just a touch more sudocrem between the cheeks which was working wonders for the anti-chafe!

It was about 10am when I left, so 18 hours in – again what I’d been realistically hoping for in my mind.  The morning warmth was coming through and it was going to be a pleasant hike for the day as I headed south west towards the “world’s smallest town” of Hum.  This route was for the red route only so I was expecting it to be fairly quiet.  It meandered alongside the river Mirna, leaving town and into a wooded area.  I had to make four crossings of the river (about 10m across and halfway up the calf) as the stepping stones looked a bit precarious so I thought it safer just to wade across.  I don’t like getting my feet wet for fear of blisters.  Every time my feet seemed to be drying out, I came across another crossing!

Wade Through…
Try the stepping stones…
Or shoes and socks off! (photos Vanja Stokovic)

Eventually the gradient climbed and I went on to proper road for quite a way.  It took a while but eventually I “hit” Hum and the route took me round the outside then into the one street town.  It was pretty quiet here and I didn’t spend long (I tried not to stay too long in any of the aid stations) and I was soon on my way. 

This was one of the lower points of the race altitude-wise and it was largely fields with a smallish incline heading towards the reservoir at Butoniga.  I fell into chatting with an Italian chap around this point (he spoke excellent English) who’d done Istria 3 times and another race in the Dalmation area.  He went into a bit of a jog after a while and I carried on my way until I crossed the reservoir’s dam wall and reached the aid station. 

I was looking forward to this next section as the next aid station was at Motovun where the family were staying – they were tracking me as I’d hired a satellite tracker (https://www.racedirector.co.uk/).  I just needed to get up another hill around 400m, down again, then up into Motovun at 300m.  I appreciate it’s not hugely mountainous, but I’ve heard this race described as “lumpy”, which I think is apt enough!  The view from the first climb was stunning showing a lush green valley with the river Mirna cutting through like an artery, wooded hills either side and Motovun, like an island in the middle.  Beautiful!

I was nearing Motovun and right on cue, a lump of salty sweat hit my eyes, stinging them and causing a ton of cuss-words to emanate from me, just as my son came round the corner.  He’d come down to greet me which was great.  He kept me company as I slowly climbed upwards.  Our house was right by the route and it was fantastic to see everyone.  They came along with me to the aid station where again, I topped up with water and a bit to eat.  I hugged my family and went off downhill, 80 miles done and 25 to go.

There was a long, flat mile here heading towards my penultimate hill of about 400m.  It was getting dusky now and in my fatigue in the gloaming of the woods I was beginning to hallucinate a bit – some tall reeds bent over looked like a grim reaper to name but one. 

No photos of me here, but this is at the top of the climb towards Oprtalj. Motovun is in the mid-background and I’d come over the hill to the left mid-background. It’s lumpy! (photo courtesy Marko Kadija)
Not me again, but a typical example of wooded terrain with rocky lumps underfoot. Amazingly, I didn’t take a single stumble! (photo courtesy Marko Kadija)

I reached the top of this climb and this was the first and only time I couldn’t see markers as to where to go.  I ended up hazarding a guess and headed in the right direction to Oprtalj aid station.  I then wound downhill and I think it was along here that one of my poles broke.  This was the first time I’d used poles and I’d really got to like using them, so when one died, I felt rather at a loss, punting away with one pole!   I got stuck behind one guy here, I didn’t feel like putting on the after burners and leaving him for dead but he was also going slower than I’d have liked.  I managed to find a spot to overtake him thankfully and carried on.  There were also some old train tunnels around here which used to be a train route from Italy, but is now a long walking/cycling route called the Parenzana.

Former train tunnel on the Parenzana. This one was a bit squelchy underfoot (not me in the pic). (photo courtesy Zdenko Mlinar)

The next checkpoint was Groznjan.  I wasn’t sure where it was but I came across a small town with a lit up church where two people took our numbers.  I was walking with a couple of other guys here and for some reason, probably fatigue, I asked them if it was Groznjan.  They said yes it was, and I asked them if there was no aid station here to which they said no.  I assumed that they’d done the race before and took it for granted that it was indeed the aid station.  I thought it odd, but let myself think it was true and I then thought I was ahead of schedule – you can tell how addled my head was here as I must have known it wasn’t Groznjan.  Suffice to say, my excitement of reaching the next aid station – one which I thought was the last, only to find it was the real Groznjan – was somewhat dampened.  When I say dampened, read destroyed.  I was utterly, utterly crestfallen, not just at the fact it wasn’t where I thought it was, it was that I’d let myself believe in something I must have known wasn’t right.  I tripped over my bottom lip moving towards the food tables, and couldn’t see for blubbing.  Well, I could really, but there was only one thing for it.  One of the marshals suggested I might want to warm up inside but I just wanted to get this done.  So off I went, heading for the final (proper final) checkpoint at Buje.  The profile suggested pretty much downhill all the way here – again, on fresh legs, this last section could have been done in no time.  It was largely flat and straight through a wooded area on wide forest track.  I could hear an animal around here sounding like it was sneezing.  No idea what that was.  Eventually, Buje, all lit up, came into view.  It took a fair while to get to it mind, including closer trail through another wood but birds were singing even in the night time.  The Buje aid station was in a courtyard and the marshals looked tired and cold here.  Again, I didn’t want to stop, I changed my batteries as I didn’t want a battery fail on the last leg, grabbed some bread and cheese and headed out of town.  Two guys went past me here and I “bravo’d” them but they didn’t give me much of a response.  The final 12-13k was extremely dark.  Fields and tracks including one boggy area where I dropped my charger – the only boggy bit I came across as well!  I went past the two guys who had gone past me and just walked as quickly as I could.  I noticed the soil was extremely red in my torchlight and remembered that Istria is divided into three by its soils – grey, white and red.  Birds were singing again – Croatia’s national bird, the nightingale, scops owl, chaffinch and cuckoo.  And frogs.  Lots of frogs.  This lifted me a bit and I recorded it while I was walking.

Lights eventually came into view but I’d no idea which direction the finish was.  I realised I was walking by a deep irrigation ditch at this point and I passed another two people.  Finally, I went over a bridge and onto tarmac.  I was trying to work out which way to go and managed to spot a couple of markers.  A couple of people were bravo-ing me in which was really nice being it was the early hours.  Across the road and round the corner and there was the finish line.  It seemed really dark but I made out my family.  They were tired and cold after waiting and I wanted them to come along the finish line with me but they seemed a bit out of it.  They eventually came with me and I crossed the finish line.

It’s all glam at the finish
What someone who is alive and dead at the same time looks like. Logo on the right hand side says “Croatia – full of life”. I wasn’t at this point! (photos courtesy Zdenko Mlinar)

I was hoping for photos with the boys but they shied away for some reason, so I got my photo alone, was given my medal and another guy shook my hand and I had a bit of a chat with him.  I then got a bit of fruit and that was about it.  Someone told me there was a complementary meal at a restaurant nearby, but my feet were caked in mud and my family were cold and tired.  I was tired.  So we thought we’d give it a miss.  I went in to the sports hall to grab my drop bag from a tired looking marshal who I thanked and then walked by a load of empty massage tables – no one doing the graveyard shift sadly, although I didn’t really feel too bad to be honest.  Our car was parked next to the sports hall so we got in and drove back to Motovun.  I was surprised to see some runners just leaving Motovun as we went up the hill.  I was glad I didn’t have another 25 miles to go.  I got out of the car and my blood pressure had dropped so I started shivering and my teeth chattered.  My sons ran up to the house and got some blankets to wrap round me as I clambered stiffly up steps after steps to the house.  I had done it.  100 miles of Istria!

Huge, huge thanks to Alen Paliska and all at Sportbox for putting on this incredibly organised event, including every single one of the multitude of volunteers, especially those guys on the mountains, the photographers (free to download), and the Istrian people in general.  I can’t fault anything if I’m honest – the marking was incredible!! 

Apparently, there were around 7,000 of these used to mark the course.

If I could change one thing it would be the start time, simply because I was travelling through two nights and because of the night, I couldn’t see the amazing scenery – that said, I wouldn’t have heard the nightingales which was worth the night alone.  Maybe I should run faster.  Or just run at all.  I can’t recommend this race enough, it’s hilly without being enormous, it has generous cut offs, it has stunning scenery – it’s a great entry level race into Europe if you’re a novice like me, or you can definitely run it hard if you’re experienced.  Top drawer stuff.

Enormous thanks to my family for putting up with me moaning about my hips from three weeks before, and thanks for waiting in the cold, early hours for me to crawl to the finish.

Thanks to Ultrarunning Community FB page with questions by Paige Morrow and Mark Thornberry that pricked my ears up to this race in the first place – followed by Andrew Ferguson’s and Drew Sheffield’s comments recommending it.  And Drew again for putting up with a few banal questions from me.

Big thanks to anyone who followed me on the tracker provided by Mr Chris Mills at https://www.racedirector.co.uk/

My thoughts on the race a few weeks after…I’m absolutely delighted at finishing at all as I’ve only managed to finish one hundred miler and failed two, so it was beginning to get to me a bit, whether I’d ever finish another – well I did and it’s a great feeling.  On the other hand, I still feel like a fraud – I just can’t run these things after a while, my legs simply don’t work.  I tried it, but realised I may as well just pace at 3mph as it wasn’t any different to my “running” – I take part in ultramarathons, I’m not an ultrarunner!  I can finish 50 milers okay, but 100s are a different beast, I wish I could run a few more miles in them.

A word on Istria in general.

The Istrian area of Croatia is stunning.  I’d happily go back when I’m older (!) and just stay in Motovun, drinking wine and enjoying the scenery.  And eating truffles!  The food is good, homely stuff served in farms as part of their agritourism, with homemade gnocchi and pasta with fresh ingredients such as their local truffles and wild asparagus, and it is inexpensive to boot.  The Parenzana is a great trail for walking or cycling – we hired bikes for one day and spotted plenty of lizards and orchids.

Local food. Gnocchi with the ubiquitous truffles
Local wildlife

There are also a few seaside towns worth a visit, notably Pula with its Roman colosseum.  If you haven’t picked up on it yet – I loved the place!

Written by Jasmin Paris - https://jasminfellrunner.blogspot.com/

It’s taken me almost a year to sit down and write this, my account of running the Montane Spine Race 2019. Since then I’ve done countless interviews for all sorts of sources, and I could answer their standard questions in my sleep. Yet I feel there is more to tell, at least for those genuinely interested, so here’s my story.

The Spine is a 268-mile long race run along the Pennine Way, starting from Edale in the south and finishing at Kirk Yetholm in the north. Checkpoints along the way are roughly 40 to 50 miles apart - between them runners are reliant on their own food supplies and navigational abilities, as the race route is not specifically marked. Critically, the race is run in mid-January, when winter weather conditions and limited daylight hours conspire to thwart progress and weaken resolve. In a final twist, the race is non-stop, with competitors having 7 days to make the journey – which means that sleep is a highly tactical aspect, too much and you’ll drop places, too little and you’ll drop out.

The fact that I signed up to race the Spine was in itself something of an irony. I’d followed the race for many years, and had crossed paths with the runners whilst racing ‘Trigger’ (from Marsden to Edale) on several occasions, always noting their large packs, and slow-moving forms, braced against the wind with 250+ miles still to go… After these encounters, I’d pronounce decidedly ‘One would have to be crazy to run that race, what suffering it must entail!’. Yet I suppose that a part of me must have been intrigued, by precisely that – the challenge of a race I wasn’t sure I could finish, at least not in a racing capacity.

In September 2018, I finished my season with a second place at the Ben Nevis race, thus winning the British Fellrunning Championships series 9 months after giving birth to our baby girl Rowan. Whilst I was proud of this comeback, I was also very aware that I wasn’t back to my previous racing form. Moreover, I was finding it harder to motivate myself to train, at 5am before work, after a broken night of sleep, especially with the coming of winter darkness. So I did two things; I signed up for the Montane Spine Race 2019 - a race whose concept and reputation was crazy enough to inspire me, and for the first time in my running career I enlisted the help of a coach – Damian Hall – who provided the perfect structure and accountability to maximise the potential of the limited free time I had available to train.


I trained every day from October to January in the early hours before dawn by the light of a headtorch, mostly in the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills, which are a little south of Edinburgh. Since my time was limited, weekday runs were capped at 1.5 hours maximum, and combined weekend runs amounted to around 10 hours. My weekly schedule was roughly 2-3 harder sessions (for example one speed session, one session of hill repeats, and one tempo/fartlek run), 2-3 ‘recovery’ runs, and two longer runs, one of which might involve some faster running. I did my best to fit in with our family plans, so my Saturday long run was often a loop across the Moorfoot hills to our local parkrun, where I would finish with a fast 5km pushing Rowan in the buggy, whilst Konrad raced for real. My mileage increased gradually, from around 50 miles a week in October, to 100 miles over the New Year, in a week that included 3 back-to-back long runs of 5-6 hours each. With the exception of the speed sessions, I ran everything with a pack, increasing the weight gradually from 1kg to around 6kg by January. Whilst I tried to practice race nutrition on long runs, I wasn’t convinced it was very helpful, since eating is rarely a problem for me until around 8-10 hours into a race. With the exception of the Cheviot Goat race in December, I didn’t do any recce runs on the Pennine Way itself, although I had vague memories of the route from running it with Konrad in November 2014 (on that occasion we ran from north to south, staying in B&Bs every night and enjoying slap-up evening meals and breakfasts; it took us 6 ½ days in total). To augment the running, I did some strength training (although not as conscientiously as I should have), and swimming (although much less than in my pre-baby days). In retrospect, I suppose I also trained the sleep deprivation aspect of the race – not by choice I should add – because Rowan was still waking up every 2-3 hours during the night at the time.

Final preparations

In the final days before the race I felt reasonably confident in my training and resulting physical fitness. Of a greater concern to me was the thought of leaving my family for up to a week, in particular because - in spite of my intention for her to be weaned by January – Rowan was still breastfeeding at regular intervals as the race day approached. Knowing that I didn’t want to force the matter (at 13 months she no longer really needed breastmilk and rarely asked for it when I wasn’t there, but it was an important part of our relationship), I made sure there was a sufficient supply of frozen expressed breast milk in the freezer to cover my absence, and resigned myself to pumping at checkpoints (mastitis on the Spine was the last thing I needed).

Checkpoint To-Do's

Knowing how tired I was likely to be in the later stages of the race, I laminated a list of essential Checkpoint To-Do’s, which included tasks such as ‘headtorch batteries’, ‘swap map’, ‘food and water re-supply’ and also now also ‘breast pump. I slotted this into the lid of my drop bag, which would be transported between checkpoints for me by the race organisation. Keen to limit checkpoint ‘faffing’ (in ultra-races, when one gets very tired, huge chunks of time can disappear without trace – I was determined to be either moving, eating or sleeping), I prepared food bags for each checkpoint, containing the required 3000 kcal of food, and trying to make this as varied as possible (in my experience, as one loses the desire to eat, variety is key to maintaining food intake – ultimately, it’s just fuel, and the body can’t keep moving forwards without it).

On the advice of my good friend Jim Mann, who’d run the Spine in 2018, I’d joined the Spine Facebook page for advice on gear, in particular my dilemma about socks. Whilst some answers were forthcoming (for example, permission to use the SOL emergency bivvy), I found the discussions somewhat overwhelming – everyone seemed so well prepared and had clearly been planning their blister-evasion strategies for months. In contrast, I had tested my socks (Drymax), and new shoes (Inov8 Roclite 275s with G-grip) only a couple of times, although I’d been running in the older version of the shoe all winter. My yes/no gaiter dilemma was decided on the morning of the race, when I asked a fellow competitor whether they knew how to attach them – he pointed out that I was missing the loops to do so, whereupon I vaguely remembered the elastic bits I’d left in the box in Scotland, assuming they weren’t important. Needless to say, I started without gaiters.

Reference Splits (colour indicates day, times in parentheses are rest times)

Having never run a non-stop race as long as the Spine, it was hard to predict how long it might take me. Looking back at the 2018 leaders’ splits, it seemed to me that their pace typically started around 5mph but dropped to half of that in the later stages. A more logical approach would surely be to aim for a steady 4mph throughout, with some solid blocks of sleep from checkpoint 2 or 3 onwards? With Konrad’s help, I drew up a vague plan along those lines, with the surprising but encouraging finding that this would have me arriving in Kirk Yetholm by Wednesday evening. Given that this would fall well within the course record, I suspected that it was probably overly ambitious (although ironically, my finish time prediction turned out to be fairly accurate, except that I ran more slowly, and therefore slept less in order to achieve it.

We spent the day before the race at my parents’ house in Hadfield (which lies at the edge of the Peak District – the moors of Bleaklow were the site of many childhood adventures), relaxing and seeing friends. Rowan slept badly that night, but she was fast asleep when I crept out of bed at 5.30am, heading for Edale and the start of the Spine.

Start (Edale) – CP1 (Hebden Bridge), 74km, 2,442m ascent


(photo Mick Kenyon (Racing Snakes)/Montane Spine Race)

At 8am on Sunday 13th January, still in semi darkness, we lined up for the start of the 2019 Montane Spine race. The weather was wet and windy, but not overly cold, any hope of frozen bogs had been abandoned. It seemed silly to push through to the front, given how far we had to go, so I started somewhere amongst the general mass, and gradually moved into the leading group. This contained the favourites for race victory – previous winners Eoin Keith and Eugeni Rosello Sole, alongside other strong contenders, including Jayson Cavill. Eugeni seemed unsettled from the outset, keen to be moving faster, and kept looking back from his position at the front, as if waiting for someone to make a move. I felt the pace was more than fast enough. As we reached the top of the climb up Jacob’s Ladder, Eugeni broke away alone, and disappeared into the mist in front. Based on previous races, it seemed unlikely that Eugeni would want to race the entire Spine solo from the front, and Eoin clearly felt this too, as he made no move to follow.

For the remainder of the day we ran into a strong head wind, which swung at times into a cross wind, but was rarely in our favour. The Kinder Downfall waterfall was blowing uphill in a great plume of white spray, and I began to question my decision not to start in waterproof trousers. Jason clearly did too, since he stopped to put them on, only re-joining us a couple of hours later, around Blackstone Edge. The rain started again, but along with it came a spectacular rainbow, a cheering sight after a day of grey. Eugeni reappeared, possibly recognising the value of company in the face of the wind. At dusk we passed the impressive Stoodley Pike, where the gusts threatened to knock us off our feet and started the descent to Calderdale. Without really noticing, we’d dropped several people, and by the time we pulled out headtorches for the final hour into the checkpoint at Hebden Bridge, it was just Eoin, Eugeni and myself. I started to worry that my achilles tendon was beginning to ache – a potential disaster at this early stage if I wanted to reach the end – and decided to collect my running poles from the checkpoint, to ease the load on my feet, just in case.

The descent to the checkpoint was steep and treacherous, wet with mud and fallen leaves. At the bottom, we emerged to lights and people, all eager to help. I’d expected we’d all go inside, but it seemed there was an option to keep our shoes on in the outer room, and this was clearly Eoin and Eugeni’s intention. Being keen to run in company for the first night if possible, I followed suit, seating myself in a corner and somewhat clumsily expressing milk with one hand whilst I shovelled down pasta and rice pudding (sequentially, not at once!) with the other. I smeared some Vaseline on areas prone to chaffing, thanked the fantastic volunteer staff, and headed after the others, whose lights were already some way above in the darkness. This was probably the only checkpoint where the expressing issue really cost me any time, and it was fairly minimal – later on my milk supply dropped (the body is pretty smart!), and it hardly took any time at all.

The first 46 miles had taken us 10 hours. In the course of the day, I’d eaten a scotch egg, a bagel with ham, several chocolate bars and biscuits, a banana (thanks to a stranger handing them – and the chocolate - out to us all), and a bag of homemade trail mix. I hardly saw the others eat anything, with the exception of the donated chocolate. Still, I felt it was better to eat whilst the going was good, since it would no doubt get harder down the line.

CP1 (Hebden Bridge) – CP2 (Hawes), 98km, 3,195m ascent


(photo Mark Haywood)

In many ways, the next section was the hardest part of the race for me. I was missing my family and worrying how bedtime would be progressing in my absence. Meanwhile, the darkness and winter had closed in tightly around us, and the occasional lights we passed only served to remind us how nice it would be beside a cosy fire, or indeed heading for a warm bed. With over 200 miles of racing still to go, I couldn’t really contemplate the finish line yet, so instead I tried to focus on getting to Hawes – or at least the intermediate checkpoint at Malham Tarn. To lift my spirits, I called home, but whilst doing so I dropped a glove and subsequently lost several minutes retracing my steps to search for it, necessitating a faster section of solo running to catch my companions.

I was very grateful for their company that night. Eoin in particular, had an aura of experience and calm about him, that made it all seem relatively routine. Once we’d started to chat, I also realised how likeable he was, and the next few hours passed remarkably quickly (conversation with Eugeni was harder due to the language barrier, but the feeling was very amiable). The wind had dropped now, so it was silent as we passed the moonlit Ponden reservoir, until a flock of roosting birds took flight over our heads. Climbing up to Ickornshaw Moor, we met some fell runners, who gave us chocolate and coffee, and a little while later – at Lothersdale – we feasted on Christmas cake courtesy of a local tri club.

For some time after that the terrain and gradient were nondescript, and sleep inducing, until we reached the slippery boulders marking the climb to Malham Tarn. Here we started to pass occasional Challenger Runners, although in my sleep-fogged state I didn’t work that out until later. At the intermediate checkpoint I drank a strong coffee and a hot chocolate, but still nearly fell asleep on the toilet. In retrospect, it seems odd that I should have been so tired on the first night of the race, but I explain it as my chronically sleep-deprived body trying to exert some influence on me – once it had given up, staying awake became less of a trial.

After that I started to feel better, especially on the climbs. We passed Fountain Fell and scrambled up to the summit of Pen-y-ghent as the sky turned pink with dawn. In Horton we stopped for a hot drink (and a slice of cold pizza from my pack in my case), before pushing on towards Hawes at a steady walk/jog, now in sunshine. Eoin had dropped back a little, and I remember Eugeni telling me as we descended towards the village “We go to supermarket, one minute!”, to which I replied with a laugh, “No, I’m going to the checkpoint to pump some milk, I’ll see you there”.

CP2 (Hawes) – CP3 (Middleton in Teesdale), 54 km, 1,871m ascent

(photo Mark Haywood)

After cottage pie, tea and cake, I sorted out my kit, changed my socks and left. I was feeling strong, and keen to run on my own for a bit, so I pushed the pace leaving town. At Hardraw I ran past a group of supporters, and narrowly avoided a chicken – later I learnt that this photograph had afforded the chicken its moment of fame on social media – before starting the climb of Shunner Fell. It felt good to be running at my pace, and I had clearly opened a gap, seeing no chasing figure behind me as I reached the summit. Unfortunately for me, the descent was open and visible for miles, with straightforward navigation. As I feared, a small black figure appeared on the horizon behind me before I was out of view and was clearly trying to chase me down. I wasn’t keen to trash my legs with a fast descent, so I stuck with my pace and sure enough, as we reached the valley, I heard a long whistle behind me… I dropped my pace and waited for Eugeni to reach me. He greeted me with ‘Ok? All ok?” or something to that effect, to which I replied (not feeling overly delighted, although it wasn’t clear whether he realised this or not) “Yes, and you?”.

Thus, we continued together on the long climb up to Tan Hill Inn, arriving there just as it grew dark. In contrast to the exposed lonely moors outside, the inn was warm and inviting, full of good smells and company. I ate tomato soup whilst chatting to Liz and Jim, who’d come out to support the Spine, fresh from his win at the Challenger. It was hard to leave that place, and return to the dark, wet, boggy night outside, but the promise of a sleep at Middleton was motivation enough. We followed the white posts and stream bank through the famous bog, then wandered for some time through heather and tussocks before reaching Sleightholme Moor Road. The next section is rather blurred in my memory – dark boggy fields, then moors of the same quality. We passed under the A66, where a welcome box of chocolate biscuits was labelled with ‘Spine Runners, Go Go Go!’ (courtesy of Jim and Liz). A mist had descended, creating a speckled light show in the glare of our headtorches. At long last the lights of Middleton appeared, and we moved more quickly, keen for hot food, company and bed.

CP3 (Middleton in Teesdale) – CP4 (Alston), 63km, 2,002m ascent

(photo Mark Haywood)

After fantastic chicken curry and more rice pudding, I attempted a short shower (not so successful, as the water was cold, but I was too tired to move into another one), washed my socks (I only had two pairs of the ones that I’d started in, and they seemed to be working, so I thought I should probably wash and dry a pair of them for later), and called home. Then I gratefully fell into bed, in my own room (the advantage of being a frontrunner in a race like this) which was wonderfully warm. I climbed into bed fully clothed, with my sleeping bag and 2 extra duvets - it’s amazing how cold one can get when tired. I’d planned to sleep for 3-4 hours, but in the event, I heard the checkpoint staff waking Eugeni around 2 ¼ hours later. I tried getting up, felt wobbly, and lay back down for a second short doze after which I felt better. Breakfast was porridge, and I had company – Eoin had just arrived. It was good to see him, and we chatted for a bit before he headed to bed and I went to pack. Eugeni left a little before me, I was happy to let him go as I fancied being on my own for a while.

I was in two minds about Eugeni’s company – in some ways it was really nice to have somebody to journey alongside, and share the challenges, and the joys. At the same time, I’d put so much effort into my Spine preparations, that I wanted an open race. Whilst I know Eugeni was capable of navigating (for one thing he had run the race several times before, for another he demonstrated it in the later stages), when running with me I sometimes felt like a personal guide, leading the way. Granted, he would occasionally shout out “Left!” or “Right!”, but ironically that didn’t always match the direction he was pointing (although to be fair, this particular feature was rather funny, even endearing). What probably irked me more, was his assumption that we were running as a team, against the rest of the field – this without me ever being consulted. As we approached Middleton for example, he told me emphatically “We must only sleep 1-2 hours, Eoin is coming!”, to which I replied that he was welcome to do as he liked, but so would I.

It was strangely easy to start out again, into the familiar darkness. The wind and rain had dropped, and it was that silent pre-dawn time when the world seems to become still. I jogged along, calculating my pace on the easy flat running to Low and High Force, and was surprised to find that even on this straightforward terrain, I was no longer managing the predicted 4mph I’d calculated on previously.

The rocks around Cauldron Snout were treacherously wet, and I slowed right down, aware of how easily a leg could be broken here (and given the lack of any reception, even for our GPS race trackers, one would wait a fair time for rescue). Climbing up towards High Cup Nick, the wind picked up again, and I stopped behind an abandoned hut to put on extra clothes, thick gloves and a hat. A murky light was coming through as I reached the top, where I wasted some time stupidly following my GPS trace down the steep ‘V’ of the ‘Nick’ itself, before using some common sense – and my map (!) – and starting along the dramatic edge, and down towards Dufton.

Eugeni was waiting for me beyond the village, presumably keen for company, so we joined forces again over Cross Fell (893m), the highest point of the race. The descent from the summit was a joy for tired legs, springy and forgiving. The famous ‘noodle bar’ at Greg’s Hut was disappointingly empty (this, and snow, are the two things I feel I missed out on in my Spine experience!), so we continued on, eventually reaching Alston in the late afternoon.

CP4 (Alston) – CP5 (Bellingham), 64km, 1,674m ascent

(photo Yann Besrest-Butler/Montane Spine Race)

I remember Alston as the site of the best lasagne I have ever eaten. I’d vaguely planned to sleep here, but as it was still light outside, and I was feeling ok, I decided to make a move. Eugeni had lain down and was having a massage – I think his legs and feet were giving him some trouble. He seemed to have fallen asleep in the process and didn’t make any sign as I prepared to leave. Seeing this as my opportunity to get away, I started with genuine purpose. I had roughly 1.5 hours of light and I needed to open as big a gap as possible in that time. I hurried along (although at this stage of the race, it was more of a stick-assisted jog), paying close attention to the race route in the knit of fields and farm dwellings that followed. At Slaggyford, supporters came out from their houses and offered coffee, as well as the welcome news that Eugeni had not yet left the checkpoint. Further along another supporter started to appear at intervals (Mark Haywood, I later learnt that he follows the Spine every year and I have him to thank for some excellent photos), clearly enjoying the race which was developing between Eugeni and myself. Darkness fell as I reached Hartleyburn Common. By now I had a roughly 7.5km gap on Eugeni, but he was definitely chasing! I crossed the A698, negotiated a fiddly bit in the fields, and then hit the frustratingly slow and waterlogged Blenkinsopp Common. Passing Greenhead and Thirlmere Castle, I reached Hadrian’s Wall. The gap back to Eugeni was holding steady, neither of us was making up time – it seemed a battle of the wills, waiting to see who would fold first.

Hadrian’s Wall was eerie and majestic in the misty dark. The short rises and drops were painful for tired legs, and demoralising in their repetition. In this dreamlike setting, the race with Eugeni was losing its intensity, and I struggled to keep some focus. I passed a group of supporters at a road crossing, and someone told me to stop and have a chat with a reporter – a request I ignored in the circumstances.

The section between the wall and Bellingham was a real slog. First bogs and endless forests, then moorland and muddy farmers’ fields. I was very tired, and struggling to stay awake, frequently I would trip up and wake myself just in time to prevent falling. My surroundings started to take on shapes of their own, and the dewy droplets that settled on grass blades and spiders’ webs shone out at me with a strange silver intensity, cutting rudely through my sleep fogged consciousness.

I tried singing aloud to keep myself awake; Spice Girl songs from childhood, and the ‘Woo Woo Woo’ train song from Rowan’s Bookbugs CD (when I hear this now, it still takes me right back to that final night). Later, I started talking to myself, kindly telling myself to put on more clothes and have some sweets – somehow the comfort of having a caring voice made it all less hard, even if that voice was my own.

I was around an hour from Bellingham when I spotted a strong light in the field ahead of me. As I approached, the lady bearing that light invited me in, for soup and tea at Horneystead Farm. Having not raced the Spine before (it seems their hospitality is a recurring feature, one of the highlights), this was the most wonderful surprise. I ate a thick broth (the best broth I have ever tasted), and felt my energy coming back, and my mind clearing. The lady told me, “Pavel’s tweeting about you, he’s excited, but he’s worried you haven’t had enough sleep”. Maybe I thought, but we’ll see.

The last few miles to Bellingham passed quickly. My mum and friend Alex had come out to see me on the hill, which was great for morale. I descended through a field to the sound of tribal beating (the source of which turned out to be a couple of costumed supporters behind a wall – I was beyond the point of finding this strange), and at long last reached the final checkpoint.

CP5 (Bellingham) – Finish (Kirk Yetholm), 67.5km, 2,146m ascent

(photo Mark Haywood)
Whilst I had not been certain I would sleep at Alston; I most definitely had planned to sleep at Bellingham. And yet, when it came to it, I knew that I couldn’t. Or at least I couldn’t if I wanted to stay ahead and try to win the race. I knew it was a big gamble – at this point I’d been racing for almost 3 days, with less than 3 hours of sleep, and I was falling asleep on my feet. But I also knew how hard I’d worked all night staying ahead of Eugeni, and I was fairly certain that if he found me at the checkpoint, he would stick with me to the end. So, I made the gamble. I ate, changed my clothes, and lay down for 40 minutes (I couldn’t sleep, but it was something). Then I drank a strong coffee and left, making my way quickly out of town so that my headtorch light wouldn’t be seen by the pursuer behind me. It was tough, leaving the warmth and safety of that place, but it helped to know that I was on the last leg, heading for my family, and my bed.

The remainder of the night was cold, and surreal. I had a strong feeling that I was running with walls either side, but when I turned to look, there was just empty moorland blackness, and the sound of the wind. I got cold and stopped to put on more clothes, before stumbling on into a slow gray dawn. The forest tracks into Byrness dragged on, and I tried at one point to wake myself up by pressing down hard on a blister – this did the trick, but also left me hopping in pain for several minutes afterwards, the skin of my big toe having detached in the process.

The media team were waiting for me as I dropped into the valley, and Matt said by way of encouragement that many people had been sending inspirational messages, including one about two little girls tracking my progress. In my exhausted state, I found this rather emotional, especially in the context of my own little girl waiting at home, but it was good motivation, and spurred me on to start running again, albeit at a hobble.

At the halfway checkpoint of Byrness Forest Lodge I gratefully consumed hot mince and mash, before lying back in a chair whilst the volunteers kindly dressed my blister. The urge to sleep was strong, but I needed to get moving if I was to finish before night, so I forced myself up and out for the final leg over the Cheviot Hills to home.

That last day was very special. It was bitterly cold but sunny and clear – one could see for miles, all of it hills and wilderness. My mind was by now playing all sorts of tricks on me – everything I looked at changed into something else, typically something living and animal like. In the forest I passed a tree which bent down into the dog-down yoga position, before transforming into a deer, trying to shed its antlers. Once I reached the stone slabs of the Pennine Way, the shapes therein assumed the form of veiled nuns, or horses’ heads, and at one point I saw a bright pink pig running through the heather. These visions didn’t scare me particularly, I knew at the back of my mind that they couldn’t be real, and in some ways they were actually a welcome distraction. I also started to fall asleep again whilst walking along and would intermittently lurch into consciousness with a feeling of disorientation, questioning first where I might be, then realising I was running a race and panicking that I’d left the route.

Towards the afternoon it started to get bitterly cold, and I stopped in a sort of ditch (as much protection as one can find on the exposed tops of the Cheviots), where I put on every item of clothing I was carrying; two pairs of leggings, one pair of waterproof trousers, 3 base layers, one warm layer and one waterproof top, as well as thick gloves and hat. I tried to move as quickly as possible to keep warm, but I was getting increasingly weary and I’d also developed tendonitis running up the front of both legs, so every forward leg-stretch brought with it a sharp pulling pain.

The evening colours had started to soften into orange, gold, and then a dusky shade of pink blending into cold blue. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and I was aware even then that the memories of this final ridge run would last me a lifetime. I reached the junction for The Cheviot and paused for a moment, aware of its significance. As I started the descent from Auchope Cairn, the final hints of light retreated and the sky became a deep blue-black, scattered with thousands of stars.

My focus now was purely on getting to the finish and my family, I’d lost much sense of the race behind me. At Byrness I’d learnt that Eugeni had slept briefly at Bellingham, and that Eoin was further back, but I also knew I’d slowed down, and that the final miles would be painfully slow. I vaguely expected a head torch to appear behind me on the horizon at any moment, but felt strangely accepting of the possibility, knowing I’d given the race everything I had – if someone passed me now, they deserved to win.

A bright light was pulsing on the summit of the Schil in front, but my progress towards it was frustratingly drawn-out. Eventually, I could hear voices, and the camera crew appeared from the blackness in front. They followed me on the descent, no longer struggling to keep up as I ran (or more accurately now, ‘hobbled’) along. Eventually they peeled off, and loped ahead in front, leaving me alone again. The last few miles were agonisingly long – I tried to jog, but I might as well have been walking. The trees lining the road waved their arms at me mockingly, tantalisingly human-like in that silent darkness.

Finally, I reached the top of a small rise and saw the village of Kirk Yetholm spread out below me. I started to run, seeing the crowd of lights at the bottom of the green, and hearing the voices drawing me in. Those final moments were overwhelming – after the silence and solitude of the Cheviots, I was dazzled by this mass of people and flashing lights. Yet there was elation too, and relief. People were talking to me from all sides, then someone ushered me towards the wall, which I needed to touch to finish the race. Everyone was asking what I needed, a bottle of champagne was handed to me, and a medal – but I was interested in only one thing. And then they were there; Konrad handing me a confused looking, warm bundle of loveliness that was Rowan. She peered at me suspiciously from beneath her rabbit-eared woolly hat, and I sensed the potential for rejection, in amongst that crowd of strangers and lights. Quickly I pulled off my black hood and hat, pulling her close and hoping she could smell mummy beneath the layers of sweat and mud. To my relief, she turned to face me with a look of understanding, and all was well (although she waited to ask for a feed until I’d had a shower!).

(photo Yann Besrest-Butler/Montane Spine Race)

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of warmth, clean clothes, food (fish and chips – I’d dreamed of them on my journey), and interviews. I was worried to learn that Eugeni had stopped at Hut 2, and that the race crew were going up to see if he needed help. It transpired that he had started to get irreversibly cold, and there was no choice but to rescue him, with only 6km of the race to go. I was desperately sorry to hear the news - the frustration of being so close to the finish after all that effort – but mainly just relieved to hear he was well and recovering in a warm bed. I’m excited to follow his race this year, and I’ll be holding my fingers crossed for him to have good luck and a cracking run.

The aftermath

I wasn’t really prepared for the media storm that would result from my run at the Spine. Ironically, the post-race days of family time I’d imagined as I ran were taken over by interviews from all sides, it seemed that everyone wanted to talk to me. Whilst the whole thing was rather overwhelming, I have also been touched and deeply inspired by the many messages I have received from people all across the world, telling me their own stories, and explaining that I have made a difference to their lives.

I didn’t race much for the remainder of 2019. It took me several months to feel fresh again, and even then, I kept picking up small injuries which probably indicated a deeper-seated tiredness. After a 3 ½ year hiatus (for a research PhD and maternity leave), I returned to part-time clinical work as a vet (the remainder of my time is still research focused), which in itself was a challenge. We published the paper of my PhD findings, and I submitted and defended my thesis, which was a great weight off my mind. In April we skied the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt, in June I raced on the GB team at the World Trail Championships in Portugal, and at the end of August we ran the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), with Jim and Konrad, a great adventure that I’ve written about in a separate blog.

As for the future, I won’t be racing the Spine this year, but I will probably be somewhere on Bleaklow to cheer the runners on their first day. I’ll no doubt feel some nostalgia, and maybe even wish myself in their shoes for a moment, but I can guarantee that I’ll make the most of my warm bed and toddler cuddles that week, when I head to sleep after the final dot-check of the night. Good luck!

Written by Tina Reed 

A group of people standing in front of a crowd

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Race Start Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

I started running when I was 40, thirteen years ago. I remember I used to go to a playgroup in Park Road Killarney where there is a lovely view of Mangerton and Torc at the back. I was there with my two children who were very little then, and I used to look up at the mountains and wonder how you got up to the top. One of my first races was an IMRA race up Mangerton, and I came a solid last, but I loved it! The mud, the rocks, the wild wind and the views, the whole idea of chasing up and down a mountain as fast as you could, and the chat afterwards. From there I started doing adventure races, mostly in at the deep end doing the Beast probably 8 times over the years. The Beast is a great event, multi-sport, teams of 4, usually over 3 days on average, no sleep and a route to follow within a certain time limit. My husband Pat was on the same team, and we had a great time. We also did the Killarney Hardman two years ago, the Ironman distance, which is 3.8km swim in the lake (scary), followed by 180km cycle around the Ring of Kerry (where I was so far at the back the people on the food stops had gone home) and a 42km marathon distance around Ross Castle area to finish up ( I was much more at home doing the running section!). I finished in 16hours and 50 minutes. 17 hours is the Ironman cut off. There was the Burren marathon, and Connemara, and gradually the Ultras came in. Last year I did quite well in a couple of races, 3rd woman in the SlÍ Gaeltacht MuscraÍ, a 70km ultra, and 2nd woman in the Ballyhoura Ultra, first woman in Slievenamuck Trail Marathon.

The ultras were starting to happen, and I had my eye on two bigger distance races, the Wicklow Way Solo- 80 miles, and of course the Kerry Way Ultra at 120 miles. In total, over the last 5 years, I’ve entered each of those races 4 times, and between them DNF’d 7 out of 8 times!!! ….And smashed one of them once! The Kerry Way Ultra, this year 3 days ago now, 120 miles in a time of 37 hours and 26 minutes. The cut off is 40 hours, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d come in so far ahead of the final cut off. After 7 out of 8 DNF’s in long races, over a 5-year period I had decided this was my last attempt! If I’m honest, in my heart I gave myself less than 50:50 chance of finishing, but not only did I finish in a pretty reasonable time, I also felt fantastic pretty much the whole way through, relaxed composed and even enjoying it. It really was as though my body was possessed by a proper Ultra Runner! It was a bit like the scene in Ghost where Whoopi Goldberg’s body is taken over! So how did it happen! ?

To me, there are 3 key things that translate to success in a long race like KWU- big shoes 2 sizes too big, knowing how to look after yourself in the mountains , and being able to eat so you can keep going.

Firstly, the big shoes are needed because your feet swell up and then they rub on your shoes and you get blisters. Big shoes= no blisters, for me it’s as simple as that. We have a book called Fixing Your Feet, an epic page-turner devoted entirely to not getting blisters or sore feet. Well I don’t find any of it is needed when you wear big shoes! There are socks with two layers, or Compeed, or even the torture method of hardening your feet with Friars Balsam prior to a race, and then injecting any race blisters with surgical spirits. This method was introduced to us by Damon de Boor from South Africa, and perfected by Brian Harman, who both raced with us one year on the Beast. The entertainment value was massive (as long as you weren’t the one being injected …big big ouch). There are a couple of risks with big shoes, one being that that they might come off in sticky mud, but if you do the laces up just right, and try to avoid the stickiest boggy bits, it works just about. Another problem is that they make your feet a bit clumsy, which can be tricky if you’re racing over technical ground, in which case I’d be sticking to the normal size shoes. But for Ultra distance races, where you need the big shoes due to your feet swelling, I find for me that I’m not running at a crazy speed downhill anyway. The pace is a bit slower on a long day out, so the clumsy side of big shoes doesn’t matter so much. Keeping your toenails really short also helps and filing them down with a nail file. I have one funny toenail that I file the surface of as well as the end, and this stops it getting sore.

The second thing that I think is key to surviving long ultra races is being able to look after yourself out on the trails and especially in the mountains. A lot of that is about keeping warm and having the right clothes to keep warm and dry, but without carrying so much that you’re wasting energy with a heavy bag. Full rain gear, a hat and gloves are always mandatory items, and in a summer race like Kerry I usually wouldn’t take any more than that. Rain gear can be used as an extra layer for warmth, not just for rain. I would decide on the day whether to take a heavier or lighter rain jacket. I have the Columbia Outdry rain jacket, and it is fantastic, waterproof ,windproof and breathable. I rarely use the rain leggings, but they act as the ultimate extra layer if it really gets cold or wet. The hat and gloves are excellent for regulating your temperature quickly. If it’s cold and I’m wearing the rain jacket, I keep my hat in the pocket of my jacket so I can access it easily without taking the bag on and off. I often find I might get hot and want to take the jacket off, but not sure if big lurking clouds are going to translate to rain or if they’re going to blow over, so I might tie the jacket round my waist to save the time it takes putting it in the bag, especially if I’m not sure if I’m going to need the jacket again soon. If the jacket is in the bag and you’ve just wasted time putting it away, you might hope it will stop

raining and before you know it, you’re soaked through and then decide to put the jacket on, by which time you’re getting cold, and you’re then wearing a wet layer underneath. It’s all about minimising the time you spend faffing, and if you can regulate your temperature without stopping to put things in and out of the bag, you save a lot of time, and keep moving so keep warm. If things really do go wrong and you have to stop, you’ll get cold very quickly, but you’re carrying a foil blanket, which is also mandatory, so you can wrap up in that, and blow the whistle/phone for help. The phone needs to be kept dry in a plastic bag, and you need to make sure it’s charged. You need to have your maps to hand, and water and food where you can access it, again carrying enough to last the section you’re on, but not an unnecessary amount that just makes the bag overly heavy and slows you down. It seems obvious, but it’s so important to have a good head torch with a spare battery, and to make sure that it’s all charged. I also like to carry a spare head torch in addition. You really are in trouble without light on a mountain at night. Sometimes it’s actually too hot and sunny on a race, and for me, I really need to manage the  heat, or I get nauseous, and that leads to not eating, and to low energy, slowing down and big trouble! So, my technique for keeping cool is wearing a big hat. This does two things, it keeps

the heat and sun off my head and face, very important for avoiding sunburn! I find I don’t like putting sunscreen on my forehead above my eyes because it runs into your eyes with the sweat and makes them sting. It also just runs off, so you need the hat for the shade. The second thing the hat does is act as an excellent bucket for dunking into streams and puddles and pouring over your head. I do this constantly, and it is fantastic. Even in KWU this year, it wasn’t really that hot, but I find any bit of sun uncomfortable, so the moment the sun came out I started soaking my hat and pouring it over my head! Tip the head back, and the water runs down your back, an excellent wake-up, and cooled down in no time. I’m so addicted to soaking my hat in water, that in KWU coming over the section into Kenmare after Templenoe, when I couldn’t find any proper puddles or streams, I had to make do with a soggy bog for dunking the hat. So, I looked a bit plastered in mud when I rocked into Kenmare, and the marshals and crew were most entertained and thought I must have taken a dive headfirst into the bog. I’ll also be sure to put on factor 50 before the race regardless of the weather forecast, and add

more if it’s got washed off in the rain by the time the sun comes out!

Another thing important to surviving in the wilder sections is not getting lost. I’m not the best at that! I have to say I was very lucky in KWU not to go wrong…I ran with Adolfo for a lot of it, and he knows the route really well…and often told me which way, which saved me getting a map out, and a couple of times called me back when I’d gone past a marker. And I thought I knew the way pretty well! So, reccee-ing the route is really important, even though it’s way-marked you can so easily go past markers, and I find when you’re tired, everywhere goes into a different dimension, and things seem so much further, so you get confused as to where you are. The third thing that I think is key to survival (and to success!) in long races is being able to eat. I’ve always really struggled to eat in ultramarathons, finding that I get nauseous. All your energy is going into running, not digesting, and if it’s hot, all the blood is going to the surface to cool down, rather than to digestion. But if you don’t eat, you don’t have the energy to keep going. That’s fine for me if I’m doing less than 50 miles, but any more than that I don’t find possible without refilling the tank. Nausea has been the biggest reason for the DNF’s for me in the past. I remember in the KWU in 2015 I could barely eat and was feeling nauseous from about 70miles. I got slower and slower, more and more tired and more and more distressed, disheartened and negative, and eventually pulled out after 110 miles (only 10 miles from the  finish), but already going for 40 hours, so I wouldn’t have made the cut off. Even still I was so gutted when I woke up in the morning and realised I’d stopped so near to the end. In fact, I was so mad with myself that I went out a month later with Pat crewing and Alan Murphy for company and did the whole thing again. We did it, but unfortunately it took 48hours!! So, I still had to come back and keep trying to get under the 40-hour cut off. This year I managed to eat and to keep the nausea just about under control. So how did I manage that? Well it’s all about not pushing so hard that you start to feel sick. So, I had to keep just under that pace, and I also was careful to run the last mile into each check point steadily and slowly so as to arrive with a calm tummy, and the same with the first mile out, in order to let the food digest. Of course, you have to run fast enough to keep to a realistic schedule in order to finish within the cut-off time, and to me this is the key: being fit enough that you can run at a decent pace without having to try too hard. So, it comes down to training , and I’d done a lot in the year before this KWU, and it paid off. In terms of mileage I had 12 weeks out of 35 in the lead up to Kerry where I hit 50 miles or more. I found it’s not just about building miles, but having sessions where you’re pushing the heart rate up, and I did regular hill repeats with a group on a Friday night, and long runs every so often with West Cork Trail Runners, who I can’t keep up with, so had to push really hard…that all made a big improvement to the fitness levels. I took up Pilates with the tough Glen Flesk crowd on a Tuesday morning, and that made a massive difference too. Pilates and core strength was something I’d ignored for many years, and when I first joined the group, I thought how hard could it be, but oh no! I’d be in agony every week for a long time, as I struggled to keep my balance and do the exercises whilst the gnarly regulars not only flew through them but with weights around their ankles (something I still haven’t progressed to!!). Coffee and chats afterwards is always the high point, and a nice reward for all the efforts!

We’d also been lucky enough to spend 4 months in southern Spain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the start of this year (whilst working, as we are both quite mobile, me being an artist, and Pat being an engineer working online, and kids up and gone from the nest). So, we trained all the time in the hills, and towards the end I was running 50 + miles a week. Nowhere was flat, it was all up or down hill and it was hard. I managed to keep the mileage up when we got home, though had to switch to a bit of cycling and running on the flat for a little while, having aggravated my hamstrings a bit! It’s so hard to get the balance between training hard and not injuring yourself.

During the training leading up to KWU I thought a lot about nutrition, and what I could stomach during an ultra. Over the years doing the Beast, I found potato and soup to be the easiest food to digest. The Beast Adventure Race is usually around 3 days, so you need to eat, but the pace is less intense (at the level we are at!) so you don’t get so nauseous, so what you eat is not so critical. Finding what you can stomach is trial and error. I find salted crisps are good, and a recent winner is home-made bread containing nuts and dried fruit, with a lot of butter. Also, a slice of melon goes down well, oat-bars and a certain amount of jelly sweets. To drink, I have a carefully calibrated mix of High Five (1.5 scoops) and 1 Zero tablet with caffeine in one litre of water. On KWU this year I kept rigidly to this drink mix, and it worked really well. I also drank coke at every check point. I know you definitely can’t put coke in the bladder…I tried this before on a race and regretted it!! It expanded in the bag and wanted to fizz out everywhere… ! I’ve often taken gels on races under 50 miles, and I know that sugar/ caffeine hit works for a short time, but is not something I would chance on a longer race. It definitely gives you an upset tummy after 50 miles! So, I feel I really got the food combination right this year on KWU. The soup and potato which Pat had ready for me at each CP, the glass of coke, cup of tea, a few crisps, and a slice of melon. Then the buttered bread to go, to eat en route, and a few power bar jelly sweets. Also, extra strong mints, which I eat quite a lot of. I still did have times where I felt nauseous, but I  kept it under control I also took 12 Gaviscon over the whole race, and some stronger anti-nausea tablets called Buccastem Buccal tablets which you put under your lip on the gum, and leave to dissolve. I told myself each time I took them that these were very effective and definitely work, and I’m sure that positive thinking helped. I took 5 of those over the race, after check points. If I was feeling nauseous leaving the check point, I had a Gaviscon jammed in my mouth and one of those fancy tablets under my upper lip and a slow march until I got my stomach under control. It worked and I was able that way to eat enough to keep going. I think that was the key to my success!

There are a few other things that significantly contributed to surviving and succeeding in the race, one of the main ones being the excellent crew support by my husband Pat. He has done KWU himself before, as well as The Spine and UTMB, and other long races and events. He’s also done a good bit of crewing for me , on all my DNF races! So, he knows what to do, how to do it efficiently and how to get me out as fast as possible. I probably saved 5 minutes per CP at least by having Pat and he was as systematic and efficient as a Formula One pit-stop crew. It’s much easier to save 5 minutes in a CP by leaving as soon as you can rather than beat yourself into exhaustion running hard to save 5 minutes. We had a checklist which we’d run through before I left each time, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, something we used to do on the Beast. Very helpful when too tired to think straight. Pat was also ready with motivational lines already written down, to help me over bad patches, but amazingly I didn’t ever need them. I was pretty much ecstatically happy the whole way around, which I never expected in a million years, and has certainly never happened to me before with all the many DNFs!

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Another thing I find really important to my race is to have music going. I have almost 40 hours of music downloaded on Spotify (so I am not dependant on getting a signal) , carefully chosen to motivate me! A lot of people use headphones, but I find them very uncomfortable, so I just have the phone in the left pocket of my race pack and blast it out for all to hear. I did feel a bit guilty about interrupting the peace for others, but surprisingly you couldn’t really hear it unless you were beside me. Adolfo was very good, putting up with it for about 70 miles. He said it was marching music! As indeed it was, and it was like an injection of energy to me, keeping me going. I partied along listening to a huge variety of tunes from Eminem rap songs, and Mr Scruff ‘Get A Move On’ to Sex Pistols ‘I did it My Way’, to Shirley Bassey singing I Am What I Am! It was fantastic, and like my secret weapon, powering me along.

As I said, training had gone well this year, and I really did feel as ready as I’d ever be. A turning point for me was a recce run I did from Killarney to Glenbeigh along the route 6 weeks beforehand. I made it to Glenbeigh comfortably in about 9 hours, the kind of pace I needed to be doing on race day, feeling strong, hungry, happy and not nauseous. Suddenly it dawned on me that I might actually do it on race day, if I could keep that up. I did a few recces over the whole route, and that gave me confidence that I knew where I was going and could visualise it on race day. Of course, I live very close, so I have no excuse not to know the route, but I do have a terrible ability to get lost in my back yard, so I needed to spend time out on the course. It was that recce of the first 36 miles Killarney to Glenbeigh that really was a turning point for me though. I’d spent hours and hours poring over my race plan, looking at mileage, comparing splits from past runners, and figuring out the maximum time I could spend on each leg and still get to the finish in under 40 hours. I found that really helped me to know what I needed to do .

On past attempts I’ve just gone in with only a vague notion of the times I need to make, and I think you need the focus of target times for each leg.

One more thing that went well before the race was the amount of sleep I managed to get, I was sleeping 8 or 9 hours a night before the race, but I think this was in part due to being on antibiotics for a throat infection I’d picked up 2.5 weeks before the race. I was really very worried about the effect it was going to have on my energy levels, but as it turned out, I did recover, and I can’t say it really had any impact on the day.

My full focus for the week leading up to the race was to rest and eat well and being self-employed I let work take a back seat. This was 5 years I’d been training for Kerry, so it took priority. I scheduled my classes to start back for the new term after the race was finished, and although I had plenty of painting to do for my next exhibition, and a couple of commissions, I put it all on hold. Pat came with me to registration the night before the race, and we got there early and left early, so as to get home and get to bed as early as possible. My bag was packed, everything in its place, my race clothes were laid out, spare clothes, food and gear I might need along the way were all carefully packed so as to be found easily if needed. Everything was loaded into Ivan, our lovely self-build camper van, the ideal vehicle for crewing. So, alarm was set for 4.15am and I was in bed for 10pm, but of course I couldn’t sleep. My heart was racing, and my head was turning over the route, the times, would I be ok, had I got a sore throat coming, go and gargle saltwater, take a vitamin C, Google whether it’s possible to

develop a phantom sore throat before a race. Yes, it is, oh that’s ok then….so eventually I managed to get about 3 hours fitful sleep and was very happy when the alarm went off and I could get up and get on with it.

I had a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea, and Pat and I set off for the start line. It was exciting to see everyone there in the dark with their hats and head torches, pacing around full of anticipation and excitement, last minute bag faff, run to the loo again, adjust the laces…Then all the photos, and all of a sudden it was just a few minutes to go, and Valerie was trying to organise everyone to get in a pack for a photo, not easy with 86 people to crowd in. I found myself at the back, but Valerie had spotted me, and yelled out ‘Get Tina Reed in the front, get in there Tina…’ Very exciting! Maybe Valerie thought I was going to make the finish line and wanted to see me in the photo at the start…maybe this was going to be my day!! Photo was taken, and all of a sudden, we were off.

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Killarney to Lord Brandon’s Cottage

Pat had the job of putting up markers in Muckross Woods which was a good idea. It’s a confusing enough route through Muckross, and the last thing you need at the start of a race is to take a wrong turn. The weather forecast had been for rain at the start, but it seemed to be staying dry, so Id opted to set off in tee-shirt only and shorts. I was soon glad I’d made that choice, plenty warm enough within the first mile. I started towards the front of the pack, and I think I was fairly close to the lead runners. My plan was to get to Brandon (the first check point) in 2 hours, 40 minutes, which would mean an average pace of 12.8 minutes per mile. I didn’t want to go too hard and get nauseous, which is often the temptation at the start of races. As it happened, I felt comfortable, and went along with the pack, doing 9-minute miles until about mile 3 when we got to the foot of Torc. I do like to get a bit of the race under my belt at a reasonable pace, and I was determined from the start not to be the dot that was falling off the back end, but at the same time I didn’t push too hard. I slowed down going up Torc and a few people passed me, it was just about daylight at this point and a nice fine drizzle was keeping us all cool. I ran along on my own, keeping Alan Murphy in sight, which was reassuring, and I settled into a comfortable pace. This section of the Old Kenmare Road is where a group of us used to run on a Wednesday night, so I knew it well. After a few miles the road narrows to single track, and the wet bog grass and bracken was close to the path making it harder to run. That soon gives way to sleepers and then to Esknamucky Glen where you start to pick your way over rocks, and things slow down a bit. Down to Galweys Bridge and it was a relief to get a nice short fast section along road and then back onto 3 miles of trail to Brandon Cottage and the first CP. There was no crew due to restricted access at this CP, and not needed only 12.5 miles into the race. Looking at my watch, I was delighted to see I had made it in 2 hours 27 minutes, and more to the point, I was feeling fantastic. Comfortable, relaxed and hungry. I knew what I had to do, I had it all planned. I knelt down at my drop bag, fumbled with the drawstrings, and grabbed the can of coke I had in there. Taking big swigs, I refilled my bladder with the bottle of pre-mixed High Five and Caffeinated Zero. I had my poles here at this CP, and I got them out of the back and extended them, took the buttered fruit-bread into my hand, closed up the drop bag, one more swig of coke, and I was off. All that took 3 minutes, and I was out of the CP at 8.30, already 15 minutes ahead of my schedule.

Lord Brandon’s Cottage to Glencar

I walked off down the road towards the Black Valley feeling really pleased with myself and tucking

into my bread. I was with 3 others for about half a mile, but I let them get ahead of me. I didn’t want to push too hard after eating. I decided to put on the music and picked Mr Scruff ‘Get A Move On’, just to amuse myself with the lyrics. I felt brilliant, I couldn’t believe it, I was actually enjoying it. The sun came out through the heavy cloud and there were really defined rainbows ahead in the Brida Valley, it was stunning. That didn’t last too long and it started to rain quite convincingly, so I stopped and put on the rain jacket. I had my heavy Columbia Outdry jacket, rather than a lighter one, which I’d thought would be better given the forecast, and knowing that it could be quite bleak and cold going up over the Brida Valley.  I’d had a brief chat with Valerie at the start of the race, and she had told me she would be up at the top of the Lack Road, so I had that to look forward to, as we started the climb. At this point I was with a few people, from time to time, though mostly on my own. I quite like being on my own at the start of races, just to get into the swing of it, and to listen to my music without feeling like I’m annoying anyone around me. So, there was Valerie at the top of the Lack Road, as ever it was just so good to see her. She took a great photo of me waving one fist in the air with the hood of my rain coat up, striding up the hill against the rain and grey cloud. I suppose the pink jacket stood out nicely, and that got into the Saturday edition of the Irish Examiner, so it was out in circulation before I’d even finished the race!

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Irish Examiner Photo by Valerie O’ Sullivan

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Top of the Brida Valley – Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

It didn’t take too long to get down over the other side, the music was going, and my phone was wrapped in a zip-lock bag in my top pocket, on shuffle so I could keep wondering what the next song would be.

Next was up over the Lack Road, the path down the Lack Road is a bit tricky and technical in places, and along with the descent off the Brida Valley I knew this leg of the race could be slow for me. I’d allowed 4 hours to do the 14.8 miles from Brandon to Glencar. In the end I made it in exactly that time, which isn’t overly fast, but the terrain is technical and I’m slow on the downhills. About a mile out, I phoned ahead to Pat and told him I was close and what I’d like to eat. He was of course, watching me on the tracker, but it doesn’t always update if there’s a bad signal. I did this on the approach to all the check points, though after Glenbeigh it was Pat phoning me, because it was too hard to remember to phone after that! It was always good to talk to him though and gave me a nice focus on the last mile in, knowing that he was waiting there with the cup of tea, not too hot, not too milky and with sugar! I told Pat I’d like hot soup poured over cold mashed potato and tea and coke. He was parked 100yards ahead of the check point because there was a funeral going on and very limited parking, especially for our camper van Ivan, which is a long wheelbase Iveco Daily. Pat converted him to a camper, total luxury. So, there was Pat and I hopped in happily, delighted with myself. I knew I was feeling good, and I was on target, and had got a tough stage done. I managed to scoff the soup and potato to Pat’s delight. He’s had to put up with me getting nauseous and not eating in so many races, very tedious for

him to put in all the effort of being a superb crew and never getting his runner to the finish! We’d agreed it was going to be the last time, so I was really pleased to be getting off to a good start for Pat. Whilst eating, I gave Pat my Garmin watch, which he immediately plugged in to have ready for the next but one leg, and gave me his Garmin, which was freshly charged. We did this at each CP, so that I would always have a charged watch with me. I felt it was so important to keep an eye on pace and time. I took off my socks, and stuck my feet in a lovely bowl of warm water that Pat had ready for me. I put on clean dry socks but kept the same shoes. I changed socks at every CP, and it’s well worth taking the time to do that when it’s as wet and boggy as it was that weekend. If you have constantly saturated feet, you’ll get trench foot, which can be very painful. I took a portable battery pack to charge my phone, which I took on alternate legs as my phone needed. All done and off I went.

So, I took 15 minutes break at Glencar, and left at 12.42, 13 minutes ahead of schedule.

Glencar to Glenbeigh

The next leg was to Glenbeigh, 8.5 miles away, and I’d allowed 2 hours 20minutes. Pat walked with me for a couple of minutes, and I set off down a little track, and then alongside a river and out onto a forested road. It’s a nice section, there’s a little loop through Lickeen Woods, with a crag that looks good for climbing and reminds me of Pat when I see it! Then out into the open and up towards the Windy Gap. Adolfo was a few paces behind me at this point, and we went along in silence, it’s nice not to talk sometimes in races, and just get on with it, especially at the start, I think. Halfway up Windy Gap, Eddie Birmingham was there to greet us with a big cheery hello!

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Heading up Windy Gap

On up the hill, the sun was out, and I was feeling good, though a bit nauseous, and I knew I didn’t feel like eating the bread and butter that Pat had given me. I knew he’d give me a hard time if I didn’t eat it, so with great regret (because I baked it myself and it was delicious!!) I threw it in the ditch when Adolfo couldn’t see me!! It was the only time I did that! Instead I had one of my nausea tablets, and a Gaviscon, and kept going. It seemed to be working, and I ran strongly down the hill and into Glenbeigh, I love this stretch, arriving at 2:50 pm. I’d made up another 15 minutes!

Glenbeigh to Gortmore

I’d only allowed a 10-minute break at Glenbeigh, which is a bit unrealistic. It’s actually hard to get out in much less than 20 minutes, by the time you eat something hot, wash feet, change socks, and re-load the bag, even with a super crew like Pat working flat out. We had a check list and went through it every time, so nothing was forgotten. Each CP took pretty much 20 minutes, but at the later ones I’d allowed longer, so I made up time there. I left Glenbeigh at 3:10pm, 20minutes ahead of schedule. I’d said to myself before the race that if I could leave Glenbeigh by 3.30pm, I had some chance of getting to the finish, so I was pretty darned pleased with myself. I like the section out of Glenbeigh, through the fairy woods, and up the long road section to Drung Hill. The air is so fresh, you’re beside the sea, and it really is stunningly beautiful. I remember the first time I attempted KWU back in 2014 I felt dreadful leaving Glenbeigh. I was that dot dropping off the back end, feeling nauseous and sorry for myself, crawling up the hill already. In 2015 I wasn’t much better. I remember going to the toilet in the garage at Glenbeigh, staggering down the stairs- what a waste of time! I saw John Healy there, and he was cheerfully buying himself loads of Danish pastries. I remember wondering how he could

 stomach all that. Drung hill was the section where Chantelle and Liam had passed me in 2015, and I’d felt so down, I had no energy, and it already felt like I’d gone miles. This time, 2019 was different. The race was only starting still, I’d done my training, I was focussed and relaxed and on my way. Adolfo caught up with me again, which became a pattern right to the end of the race. I’d be quick out of the CPs, but walk slowly out to let my stomach settle, and Adolfo would catch up. It was great to have the company and sense of camaraderie. I knew Adolfo knew how to finish the race, I knew he ran a lot of races, and was on good form, so, it was reassuring that if I was going at a pace that he was going at, then it was very promising for a finish. As we ran up the section of road towards the mountain stage, as Drung Hill is called, I actually went past the turning. There’s a left turn, and even though I know that

part of the route so well, I still went straight past it. My music was blaring out, and I couldn’t hear Adolfo yelling at me to turn back. Well I did hear him eventually and felt so relieved and idiotic all at once. The last thing you can afford in any long race is to go the wrong way, but it’s actually pretty hard not to (especially for me!!) So, on up Drung Hill, through all those gates, looking down over the sea as you climb higher and higher Valerie had said she would be up here, but we got all the way to the top and down the other side before we came to her. Always so good to see Valerie.

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Descent of Drung Hill- Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

Then there’s a long road section into Foilmore, about 3 miles, and Adolfo and I ran the whole way at a good enough pace. Again, I remembered 2015 walking this section, unable to keep up with the people I was with, and falling back. And 2014 was even worse, I was in bits arriving in to Gortmore and spent 5 minutes crying in the toilets in distress!! Admittedly certainly in 2014 I hadn’t done anything like the preparation and training that I should have done. I’d only entered because Pat had entered and he’d gone on and on about it for months, and I was sick of observing!! The third time I attempted KWU was 2018, last year. I’d actually done a fair bit of training, and at that stage knew a lot more about endurance races, having done Itera, the Ironman, and a few more Beast races. Unfortunately, last year in 2018 I’d had the worst bout of flu before the race and felt really negative from the start. In fact, looking back now, this year I was a lot better prepared, had a much better idea of the times I needed to hit, and had a whole lot more training done. I was also ¾ stone lighter this year, which is a nice bit less to carry!

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Coming in to Gortmore

We ran into Gortmore feeling brilliant and looking at Pat’s video that he took of me as I came in, I can see how focussed I was. The first thing I said was how I wanted longer shorts for the next stage. I was looking ahead, not just collapsing in a heap of exhaustion, as I had been at this stage on previous attempts. So, I had made really good time on this stage, having done the 12 miles from Glenbeigh in 2 hours 55 minutes, instead of the 3 hours 25 which I had allowed. Pat had everything ready for me again, well nearly everything…I had planned to take the Garmin for the next stage, with the route programmed into it, because it’s tricky enough going over the hills in the dark into Waterville. Unfortunately, the Garmin wasn’t working, so I left it , at least it was one thing less to carry, and there was no point in getting upset about it. I had all my clothes that I needed, head torch and spare head torch, check list checked, and on my way within 20 minutes.

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Getting ready to leave Gortmore

Gortmore to Waterville

I left Gortmore at 6.20pm, a whole 55 minutes ahead of schedule! I walked the first couple of minutes with Pat, and he gave me a little pep talk on not expecting to feel on a high the whole way, and that I might well hit a low point at some stage. I listened and nodded, but really didn’t feel as though I needed to give it too much thought! I was feeling good. At this point in 2018 I felt really nauseous leaving Gortmore and felt dreadful for an hour and eventually pulled out at Mastergeehy. I wasn’t making great time anyway that year, and it was raining hard. And I was still recovering from flu, so I had this little voice in my head ready with an excuse to stop.

This time round, in 2019, I felt ok leaving Gortmore for the first time ever doing KWU, but I wanted to be cautious with my stomach, so I went fairly slowly up the hill. I was with a couple of lads for a while and managed to point out when they’d gone past a turning, so I felt slightly less incompetent! They moved on ahead of me, and I kept going steadily enough, slightly nauseous, but resolutely sucking on Gaviscon and the anti-sickness tablets that go under your lip. It was still daylight, and fresh and wild and exciting to be out in the mountains on my own heading into the night with a plan to keep on going! This stage is long, 14 miles, and I’d allowed 5 and a half hours. It’s roughly divided into 3 mountain sections that are open grassy bog with some rocky parts, and the Kerry Way takes you along ridges across them, and eventually down into Waterville. The first one, Coomduff, is fairly short and you come off it and cross a road near a school and straight back up onto the second section that is almost vertical in places. This obviously really slows you down. In the past I’ve been at that point in the dark, so it was good to be able to see where I was going. It was horrendously boggy, there had been a lot of rain in the weeks up to the race, and I cursed my way along, stepping off big rocks and straight into bog and mud holes that you had no choice but to go into. This second section of hill is twice the distance of the first, and it was getting dark at this point. It comes down into a short road section and into Mastergeehy. It’s actually really nice to get on to road after all the bog and hill. The route takes you past a hairdresser of all places to find out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s an easy place to go wrong, but I was ready for that one at least!

On and up the third hill, and at this point I had a 5 minute faff, where I wasn’t sure of the route. I was behind another person who pointed out that the way marker said Caherdaniel, and we didn’t want Caherdaniel. In a panic I phoned Pat, who couldn’t see where we were because the tracker wasn’t updating. He kept saying I needed to get up onto the ridge. I really regretted that I didn’t have a better idea of the route at this point…I really didn’t know where the ridge was. Or what it was. All I knew was that I didn’t want to lose time. All the while, head torches were approaching, and a whole gang that I had passed due to my speedy exit at Gortmore check point had caught up. It was no bad thing! Amongst them was Adolfo and John Boyle, and Eileen. Great big grins from all of them, and

reassuring ‘This Way’s! So, I ended up doing this last part with the three of them, and it was really nice to have their company. I chatted away with Eileen, who I was impressed to see there, it being pretty much her first Ultra, what a race to pick! She’s an amazing adventure racer, who I always see at the Beast. Far stronger than I am on the bike, and generally, really! So, we hauled our way through the mud and bog grass. At one point we passed one lad who was sitting at the side of the path, looking a bit distressed. We were a small bit spread out at that point, and each of us asked if he was ok. He said to me he had very bad cramp and was waiting for someone. Didn’t look like the best plan to me, to be sitting getting cold, but I carried on, feeling a bit guilty for not trying harder to help. There was a bit of a feeling of ‘Everyone for themselves’ and I felt as though I was up on Everest leaving someone behind to save myself. Adolfo thought he was probably ok anyway, so we kept going and eventually after a lot of bog, long grass, rock and more bog, we descended into Waterville.

We ran into the town, saying that we would re-group in 20 minutes. I’d taken 5 hours 40 minutes on this stage, 10 minutes longer than planned, but still 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and it was midnight. Again, Pat had all the usual ready for me. He was still phoning me about a mile out of each check point, which was nice, and asking me what I’d be wanting to eat. At this point I couldn’t think of anything, so I just said the

same  again because it had worked so far and stuck with that logic for all the CPs to the end.  Soup, potato, crisps, melon, tea, coke. Refill bag, wash feet, change socks, swap watches,

check phone charge.  I made up another 5 minutes by getting out of the check point in 20 minutes, 5 minutes faster than I’d budgeted.

Waterville to Caherdaniel

I decided not to wait for the others and started to make my way slowly out of Waterville, along the sea-front, listening to the waves. I felt cold, and I was a bit spaced out, plodding along with my hood up, trying to assure myself I’d soon warm up, listening to the music, and again I went past an obvious turning that I know well, and should not have missed, the right turn off the main road! This time Jackie Toal called me back, she was just behind me. I was feeling a small bit nauseous and wanted to walk steadily, so I let Jackie get ahead of me, and not long after, the others came up behind me. I managed to stick with them, and my stomach soon settled.

There’s a point along this section where the Kerry Way turns to the left unexpectedly (well there are plenty of those kind of places in my opinion!). But anyway, I remember this turning from a recce years ago, in 2015 I think, where it was pointed out to us. So, I happily took the left turn, no danger of missing it as I was in with a big group who all knew it too. A few hundred yards in as we climbed up and away from the road, we looked down to the right and could see two head torches pointing up towards us, and we yelled out to them. They’d missed the turning and knew it now. They were looking up and no doubt cursing themselves, pausing, not wanting to go back, hoping there was a way up. I felt sorry for them, and guiltily glad it wasn’t me who’d gone the wrong way.

This part of the Kerry Way is a gorgeous section, along a historic old Butter Road, with superb views as the path follows along parallel to the coastline. You can see the Skelligs at one point, so, it was a pity to miss that, but it was a clear night, the stars and moon were out, and it was so exciting to be out in the dark on a long journey with other people on the same journey, going the same way through the night. After a couple of miles there’s a point where the Kerry Way crosses the road, and Pat was there to wave, and cheer us on. He was so cheerful and encouraging, and I felt so proud that he was there for me, and I was doing well! It was starting to occur to me that I might actually finish this time, but I didn’t want to count on it just yet. Anything could happen! At this point, the first time I’d attempted the Kerry Way Ultra back in 2014, it was daylight, and I was already way at the back. It was already hopeless, and I was on a very slow death march. I think I took 5 hours to go the 8 miles into Caherdaniel. My poor crew, Anne and Siobhan had to wait endlessly at the check point for me. It didn’t take much to persuade them to let me stop! I remember they fed me scrambled egg on toast, and I’d felt suddenly better….Then in 2015 on my second attempt Id felt very tired on this stage, and had taken ages getting out my bivvy bag, deciding to sleep at the side of the path. Of course, I couldn’t sleep, and all that happened was that I got cold, and couldn’t get my bivvy bag back into its teeny little

pack that it had come in. This year, 2019, it was all very different. I was feeling strong, I was with a group, I was making a sensible time! We continued on up over a couple of steep hills which I hadn’t even noticed on my recce’s, and into a short forest section where there’s a funny loop, just before Derrynane, and I was calling back to Eileen not to miss the turnings, but a gap was growing between us, and I went on. Adolfo said to me at the start of the race, don’t look back, and he’s right, you have to run your own race in an event this long. Anyway, not a bother to Eileen, much better sense of direction than I have!

Waterville to Caherdaniel is a short enough stage. It’s 7.5 miles, and fairly good terrain overall. I’d allowed 2 hours 30 and made it in 2 hours 25 minutes. When I’d done a recce of this stage, I’d made it in less than 2 hours going slowly enough, but of course at this point in the race you’re getting tired, so you have to allow for that when working out the times that you’re aiming for. As we came into Caherdaniel, Jackie was just ahead of us, and I raced past her into the town, just for the fun of it really. I was glad to see Ivan on the near side of the town, so I didn’t have to keep up the race pace! I was aware that I could have tried a bit harder to pass people throughout the race generally, and pushed on more, but I didn’t have the confidence or the desire. I didn’t want to put myself under any more pressure, and I wanted above all to stick to a pace where I could keep the nausea at bay, keep eating, and keep going. At this point it was 2.45am, and I was 55 minutes ahead of schedule! I opened the side door with a cheery hello to Pat. He was starting to look surprised that I was on such good form still, and slightly worried that I might beat his KWU finish time! Pat did KWU in 2015 and finished in a time of 39 hours and 40 minutes!! My aim was to finish, and of course I liked to think about beating Pat, but I never thought I actually would!! Usually in long races, without exception, I’m not only nauseous, but my stomach goes, and I have to dive behind bushes with alarming frequency to ‘powder my nose’. Not this time! It was quite amazing. I did in fact use the facilities in Ivan at this point, and once later in the race jumped behind a bush, but that is a far cry from the usual state I’m in. So, I sat inside Ivan with Pat having my soup and potato, and it was another little world in there. The bed looked tempting, and the cosy familiarity of our little home on wheels suddenly seemed like a much better option than the road ahead! None of that though, I was out of Caherdaniel in 19 minutes, 56 minutes ahead now!

Caherdaniel to Sneem

The next leg was 10.7 miles to Sneem, and I had allowed 3 hours. Pat had said to me he didn’t think this was enough, and it was the one section that I had underestimated, when I spent my hours poring over the map and past splits! ( I’d worked out my times on a long train journey from Dublin, a couple of weeks before and managed to be so engrossed that I missed the stop to change at Mallow and ended up in Cork instead of Killarney). Anyway, the leg took me an extra 30 minutes, 3 hours 30 in all. I’d recce’d this stage twice in the months leading up to the race, once on my own, and once with Geraldine and Mary Falvey. It was nice to think of the two of them with me as I set off up the single-track. An inspiration the pair of them, really strong, great talkers, and a similar age to me. We’d stopped on the ‘wishing seat’ on our recce, and I’d wished at the time that I could finish KWU, and I smiled to myself as I passed it now, feeling a little stab of excitement that I might just do just that! I was on my own again, having got out ahead of Adolfo and chewing on Gaviscon and the magic anti-nausea tablets, Buccastem Buccal. I think that was the last anti-sickness tablet that I took, my stomach actually didn’t bother me so much as the race went on, probably because I was going more slowly. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Adolfo was behind me, and we went along in companionable silence, hardly speaking as we had been most of the way! Silence, apart from my marching music, which I really missed if I turned it off. It was like a drug to me, a secret weapon that gave me wings! Maybe the familiarity of the tunes helped, and it was certainly a good distraction.

There are a couple of long wild boggy sections, that felt longer and wilder and boggier than on the recces, what with having already done 70 miles and been on the go for nearly 24 hours. After a while the route turns into a wider track, and we passed a few people at this stage. I didn’t really feel tired, but I can’t remember much of this part! It did get light somewhere along here, and it’s a great feeling to turn off the head-torch and know you’ve made it through the night, and it’s tomorrow, the day the race ends. Eventually we came to the section where the track meets the road and there’s a gate and a turn to the right and then to the left for the long straight section into Sneem. I remember meeting Adolfo there the previous year, after I had pulled out and Pat and I were following the rest of the racers and giving support. Pat was there this year to meet me, and it felt good to be still in the race, not supporting. We said a brief hello, Pat was so good meeting us there because it meant he got less time to catch a bit of sleep himself before I arrived into the check point. He really did everything he possibly could to be there for me. So, we turned left and over yet another stile and along the straight section to Sneem. This was one part that I thought would never ever end. In the recces it had seemed like a great old fast flat straight bit that took you to Sneem in about 20 minutes. Now it just seemed to stretch and stretch, as though the distance was distorted and, in another dimension, and I thought it would never end. There’s something much harder about straight roads when you’re tired. At least a hill and a bend or two gives you something to get your teeth into. Long and straight just is so

challenging! I dug deep and kept going, and we ran as best we could. I think John Boyle was with us at this point, but he went on ahead at a great pace, and I later discovered he’d hurt his leg, and decided the only way to finish was to go much harder and faster and not stop or his leg would seize up. He is one strong endurance runner. He has entered and finished KWU 6 years back to back ( and this year, only a week before, he’d completed 24 hours of the UTMB!). We ran into Sneem, and there was Ivan and Pat parked up near to the barbecue that the Sneem Dream Team always put on each year. I couldn’t believe I was actually there for it this year. In 2015 when I got to this point in the race, the barbecue was over, everyone had left already, and I was trailing miles behind. I think I spent a lot of the race this year just being amazed that I felt ok. I was even allowing myself to start to think about the end, and that I might well finish! Initially I had asked Brian Harman to do part of the last leg with me, from Galway’s Bridge the point at which pacing is allowed. This was because I’d really thought I would be on my last legs, and likely to just lie down under a bush and stay there if I was on my own. Brian was all set to go, and I’d been delighted. I knew he’d be merciless, but he also has a great sense of humour, so I thought that could tip the balance to get me to the finish line. However, I was starting to realise I wouldn’t actually need a pacer. I was feeling fine, and I wanted to do it on my own, and stay in the parallel dimension that we runners were in. I said it to Pat, and he suggested wisely waiting

until I got to Kenmare, though he said he would say it to Brian. So again, I had my helping of potato and soup (I’d eaten so much soup Pat had to buy more in Sneem!) I was back out on the road in 20 minutes. I put on lighter clothes and took my big hat and kept going past the warm fire and the barbecue. It looked so inviting, but I knew if I sat down it would be sooooo hard to leave!

Sneem to Templenoe

At this point it was 6.35am, I’d lost a bit of my lead against my schedule, but I was still 25 minutes ahead. When Pat completed KWU in 2015, he had really slowed down around Caherdaniel and Sneem, and wasted an hour in Sneem trying to put up a tent and sleep unsuccessfully. We’d learnt since then from doing multi-day adventure races that no matter how tired you feel, you can’t usually sleep until about 40 hours have  passed, and certainly not within the first 24. It’s actually better to eat, take caffeine and keep going, and the drowsiness passes. This was one reason that this year I completed the race so much faster than Pat did in 2015 (when he was 9 years younger than I am now !!) I do also think I’d put in more training, and it was paying off. Anyway, Sneem to Templenoe is 12.5 miles, and again I slightly underestimated the time it would take at that stage in the race. In a recce recently I had made it in 2 hours 45, so I thought 3 hours 30 was plenty. As it turned out, I was just under 4 hours. If anything, this moment of the race leaving Sneem was when I felt low. I was cold and tired, and as usual walked out of the CP with Pat, just for a minute to put off the moment of being on my own and on my way, and I had a teeny wobble of the lip, but Pat assured me I’d be fine, and indeed half an hour later I was over any bit of tiredness. And that really was my only low point! I still can’t believe it. In a way what it means is that I could have gone harder. Next time!

I hadn’t gone far out of Sneem when I realised, I’d left my phone in Ivan! I felt a rush of shock…no music! And it was mandatory kit! But then I rationalised that Pat would see it and pass it over to me maybe at Blackwater…Adolfo had caught up with me as usual, and I knew there was no way I was going back for it! As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long for Pat to get the phone to me! Pat had got back to Ivan after walking to the trail start with me and saw my phone on the table. He carried on and ate his breakfast, knowing it wasn’t far to a point where the road crosses the Kerry Way, and he knew he had time to finish eating. He kept an eye on the tracker and got out ahead of us. He left my phone sitting on a fence post on the trail, with Shirley Bassey ‘I am What I am’ playing on repeat! I’d listened to this track endlessly in the run up to KWU, and Pat was completely sick of it! It was very funny suddenly to hear it blaring out, and interestingly we couldn’t hear it until we were right on top of it, so I knew at least that I probably wasn’t annoying the runners around me with my mobile disco because it was quite hard to hear. So, there was my phone back to me, phew, and Pat was waiting around the corner at the road, laughing away!

I quite like this stage from Sneem to Templenoe. It’s punctuated by a few nice points that bring you off the trail, surfacing out onto the road, and you start to feel the end getting nearer. The  first one of these is Parknasilla, and I always think of my 50th when Pat and I had come here for a night. Of course, we hadn’t just sat admiring the view…we’d gone sea kayaking, and then run loops around all the trails. So Parknasilla feels familiar. Then comes Brushwood Studios, and soon after that Tahilla, where the trail again crosses the road. I remember we’d waved to Pat here in 2015 when he was still in the race, and Id pulled out. I remember he was pretty wasted, and having a low point, and I started to realise how good I was feeling, and that it really was looking more and more likely that I could finish, and possibly even finish faster than Pat did!

A person riding a skateboard up the side of a road

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At Blackwater Bridge

About 3 miles after Tahilla comes Blackwater Bridge. It’s an amazing place to look over, such a big drop to the churning waters below. We didn’t stop for a look this time, and in fact kept running, spurred on by the sight of Pat parked on the corner, ready to smile and wave. He was having a cup of tea and looking after a couple of sorry looking runners who had pulled out. We kept going and into the woods to the right of the road. This is another lovely section, where the trail dips up and down to the water’s edge, through pine trees, and you can see and hear the sea lapping over the rocks . Many of these trees fell during a storm in 2015 and the trail was closed for quite some time while they made it safe. This is all quite runnable, and we kept moving along nicely, although it did take 4 hours, so maybe we weren’t going so fast after all! Not only is it hard to judge distance when you’re out on a long race, it’s also hard to judge the speed you’re running at. You can easily find yourself jogging along, thinking you’re going well, and a passer-by could be actually walking beside you, and you’re not going any faster than they are walking. It is like being in a parallel universe! The route widens, and goes slightly down hill, perfect for running, and we kept moving, not far from the next CP at all. The route comes out on to the road, and we had caught up with Jackie Toal again. She and Adolfo ran on into the CP, but I walked because I didn’t want to arrive in with my stomach jigged around or upset. There were a lot of supporters at Templenoe, and they watched me walking up with bated breath. I could see they were wondering if I was struggling because I hadn’t run in with Adolfo and Jackie. I gave them all a cheery wave and hello, and they all blurted out a big hello back, and looked hugely relieved. It is a popular spot for pulling out! Pat wasn’t worried, I’d said I would walk into CPs to control my tummy before eating, but at this point I wasn’t feeling nauseous anymore. I was on great form, and a photographer took my picture; I think it might have been for the Facebook live feed. I told him how old I was, and his jaw fell in genuine surprise. He was a young fella. I’d actually arrived in Templenoe at exactly the time I had planned on my schedule, though it did mean I had lost my one-hour lead! It was 10.50am. Again, I stopped 20 minutes, and this time I left with Adolfo, he was ready.

Templenoe to Kenmare

As I left Templenoe Pat ran up behind me to show me a message that had just come through from my mother, with the fantastic news that my daughter Eleanor had got accepted to do a PhD in physics at Trinity! We’d been waiting to hear, and we were choking back the tears, it was a moment to remember. The first part of the leg from Templenoe to Kenmare goes up a road around the golf course.

Mary Falvey was working locally and had been following us on the tracker, and she suddenly popped up, and walked a few minutes with us. She was chatting away, and you could see she found it difficult not to run. It brought home how hard it all was, and how tired we much be! It was lovely to see her, though it is hard to chat to people at this stage of the race. They seem to be operating in that parallel universe that you’re not in when you’ve been out on the trails for 30 hours! We continued on around the golf course, and Liam came up behind us! He was doing the Kerry Way UltraLite, having come back from a long period of injury. He was on great form and going well. We had a bit of a chat, and I said to Liam he should go on, though I found it hard to get my head around how it was possible to go any faster! So, Liam said goodbye and shifted up a gear and disappeared off!

We knew it was a long way around the golf course, but what a long and tedious loop this section is. The part around the golf course is actually 4 miles long and the whole leg to Kenmare is only 8.8 miles. I had allowed 3 hours 20 minutes and made it in 2 hours 55 minutes. Long and tedious as it was, the road loop around the golf course was actually a piece of cake compared to the boggy mud-bath when you came off the road. I think this is one of the worst sections of the Kerry Way. It just goes on and on for a start, well put by David Caulfield when he described it as the Marshes of Mordor. On my recce, I remembered it as roughly 2 little hills, then a rocky ridge and you’re down. The reality was maybe 15 hills before we got to the little rocky ridge. It was also boiling hot at this point, and I was desperate to find water to pour over my head. I had to make do with very boggy muddy water, which certainly amused them all at the check point in Kenmare . They thought I had gone over headfirst.

Adolfo thought we were going too slowly on this leg, but I had allowed a lot of time, and I didn’t feel like rushing. If anything, looking back, I could indeed have gone faster. Perhaps I could have pulled out all the stops, had a gel or two and more coke and gone harder. It was difficult going quickly over technical ground though, the brain definitely slows down and it is harder to work out where to put your feet. Eventually we did get to the last little rocky ridge, and down a short bit of road and into Kenmare, via a little laneway into the town. This laneway always used to confuse me; it seems like a secret fairy path that only special folk can find on a full moon. No problem this time though, straight through and into the carpark opposite Supervalu. The last check point!! We jogged in feeling like celebrities! It’s an amazing feeling being cheered on and looked at by so many people as though you’re superhuman, a real buzz. Chantelle was looking after this check point, and it was lovely to see her, it had been a while. Pat had a chair set up for me beside our picnic table, and I sat in the sun with my feet up, enjoying all the attention and celebrity status!

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Enjoying all the attention at Kenmare!

Brian was there, and I apologised that I wouldn’t need his services, and he understood, though he was very disappointed not to get the opportunity to harass me to the finish! Chantelle and Liam’s nephew washed my hat for me, and Pat rushed around doing the check point pit-stop routine. I washed my feet and put on clean socks for the last time and felt on a real high! We were in good time, we were going to make it, it was still early in the day, fantastic, unbelievable!! We had arrived in at 2:05pm, and by 2:26pm I was up and out, no thought of staying, ready for the road. When I had attempted the KWU in 2015, my second time, I had got to Kenmare very late, around 7pm in fact, and I was full sure I was going to stop there. Pat had talked me in to continuing. There were a lot of people following me on the tracker, and it would have been something to finish, even if it was outside the race cut off time. This time, I was a different person setting off on the last leg of the race, and I was leaving the check point about 5 hours earlier!

Ready to leave Kenmare

Kenmare to Killarney

I set off walking with Pat and we chatted away. He left me when the road started to go up hill.

Leaving Kenmare, facing into the big up-hill!

James Morrisey and David Caulfield also left the Kenmare at roughly the same time, and we made our way on up the extraordinarily steep hill out of Kenmare, which goes on for nearly 3 miles. Our poles clattered noisily on the road, but they really do help with balance and give you an extra push, especially when you’re so tired. I chatted to James for a while. It was such a beautiful afternoon, sun out, and I had my music playing. Adolfo had caught up too, and at last we got to the top of the climb. Downhill at last! Adolfo and I set off running, eager to get to the finish, and it really did feel as though it was within our grasp now!

We made our way down to the junction where the Kerry Way splits at the start of the race at Galway’s bridge, and we could see Brian and Pat coming towards us. We hardly needed any encouragement at this point, we were now unstoppable! Pat joked that I could at least limp a bit, and that it wasn’t on to be going so much faster than he did in 2015! Brian was loving every minute and enjoying seeing Pat’s KWU time being smashed to smithereens!! We went over the two river crossings with the big stepping-stone rocks and the rope to hang on to. It felt really precarious! That was my only fear, that I’d twist an ankle, or my hip would pop out of its socket…

Approaching Derrycunnihy- Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

We continued on and passed the spot where I’d pulled out in 2015!! Just 10 miles from the end, but also already 2 hours after the cut off. I was just so exhausted that time, but it’s no excuse after 110 miles of a 120-mile race… you just don’t stop 10 miles before the end unless you are unconscious or have a broken leg with the bone sticking out! Anyway, there was certainly no stopping this time! I gave the sign post a big grin, and Brian took a photo of the famous spot, and on I went! It all seemed hillier than 34 hours earlier when we had trodden the same route in the opposite direction, but Adolfo and I made good time. Esknamucky Glen was different though. It was incredibly challenging getting over the rocks and loose slabs laced with treacherous big steps down and boggy holes in between. I’d say it took us ages. But speaking to other people, everyone found it the same. It’s just really hard to think and react at this stage in the race! It was a fantastic feeling to get on the wider part of the trail that leads back past Torc. It’s a very familiar section, we’ve run it countless times and it felt like home already. We could see Pat and Brian up on the trail ahead, a bright orange and a bright green tee-shirt! It was great to see them again, and we were all in great spirits.

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Passing the foot of Torc

 Adolfo and I kept up the pace, we were heading down Torc Waterfall now, down the steps and across into Muckross! It really was the home stretch. Our friend Nuala appeared, we used to run with Nuala and others on a Wednesday night in Muckross, and again it lifted the spirits to see friends. Then Adrian was there, and suddenly it was only 2 miles to go, and we started to run a bit harder (though it was probably still only that very slow running pace that people in the other dimension can walk at). I knew my mother was going to be at the finish, and I let myself project forward and imagine the moment when my mummy would hug me, and I would feel so proud that I had done my best and she was there to see it. We passed some people who were doing the Lite and were walking, and we kept going, had to keep running, keep running.

Out of the park now and on to Muckross Road. I knew Muckross Road would definitely have warped itself into a drastically extended extra-long dimension with an up-hill bias as well, and I was ready for it. It was going to take time, I just had to keep going and it would eventually end. I wanted to run faster and faster, the adrenalin was firing now, someone in a car honked a horn, I was doing it, this was it, the end of the Kerry Way Ultra, and not just barely making it, but making it 2 and a half hours before the cut off! This was my finest running moment! Adolfo and I had come all this way, most of the race together, and we finished together, arms in the air triumphant! Pat was there of course, and my Mum, and Adolfo’s wife Roccio, and lots of our running friends. It was just fantastic. Everyone was hugging me, Pat opened a bottle of bubbly that I had put sheepishly into the fridge in Ivan before we left, on the off-chance that there might be something to celebrate…and there sure was!! We took lots of photos, and savoured the moment, a magical moment. 120 miles along the Kerry Way, 37hours and 26 minutes.

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With Pat and Brian at the finish

A few stats. There were 87 starters and 57 finishers. I was 42nd overall. Out of that, there were 12 women starters and 9 women finishers. I was 8th woman. In previous years, there have only been a total of 8 women who finished in under 40 hours since the race started in 2013, so now including 2019, 17 women have completed it, (and I’m fairly sure, I’m the oldest!)

A huge thanks to Eileen Daly, and all the volunteers and supporters who make this happen, the  Ultra, the Lite, and now the Nite as well. It is ‘not for profit’, with any left-over funds going to The Way. It is also a fantastic local event, involving local people, including myself! As an artist that specialises in running paintings, I do some of the winners’ prizes. Being involved in this way makes it even more special for me to compete in and finally to finish! It’s also Ireland’s toughest Ultra, and every year attracts more and more runners from further and further afield. The aim now is to get 100 finishers across the line next year in 2020, in order to make our race a qualifier for the Western States, so sign up! I’ll be back myself, as will Pat!!!

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Rocio, Mum, Adolfo, Pat & Tina.  Photo by Adrian Corsini

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

The result

UTMB Finish Line in Chamonix
Let’s get the big question out of the way first. I finished the UTMB in an official time of 42 hours and 43 minutes (although my watch time was 3 minutes shorter as it took me that length of time to cross the line at the start). The official distance was 171.5km with just over 10,000m of vertical ascent and descent, although my watch recorded 178km and 10,200m of climbing. I was 979th out of 2,543 starters and 120th (out of 460) in my age category. 

Goals and targets

Those are the hard numbers, but the important question is “how do I feel about it all?” Absolutely delighted! Just finishing this race was for me a long-held dream finally fulfilled after years of planning and preparation.
I have been in awe of the UTMB ever since we just happened to be in Chamonix during the third edition in 2005. It was a considerably smaller affair then, but I recall quite clearly my incomprehension that anyone could run for that long, or that far, and climb all those mountains, without stopping or sleeping. These people represented a different species from me. Of course that was long before I had any interest in endurance events, and if you told me then that one day I would take part in the UTMB, I would have asked for one of what you were taking.
The UTMB also holds special appeal for me because in many ways it is my “home town” event. Having spent considerable time in Chamonix over the past 15 years, I know well most of the trails and mountains, and once I started doing ultra marathons, it was only natural that it would nag away at my consciousness. 
Although at the time it was not a fully formed plan in my mind, “Project UTMB” probably started over three years ago. Having run a few ultras and accumulated sufficient qualification points in 2016, I put in a speculative entry for the 2017 edition of the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix – UTMB’s “little sister” at 100km). Surprised to win a place in the ballot, I trained for the race and had an amazing experience, absolutely loving it all. [Race Report]. After that there was little doubt that I would have to have a crack at the full UTMB. However, this is not a race that you can just enter. Once you have built up sufficient qualification points (from three authorised races of 100km to 100 miles within the past two years), you then have to enter a ballot with approximately a one-in-three chance of success. I was not successful in 2018, but that meant I had a double chance in 2019, and this time I was lucky.
I had set myself two goals for the race:
A.   To finish. The primary and most important goal.
B.   To have a “good race”; to feel that I have done myself justice; to do as well as I was able. A secondary goal to the first, but still an important one.
The first aim was of course achieved, but this should not be skipped over lightly. To even toe the line at the UTMB is itself a major achievement, requiring you to complete really tough qualification races, get lucky in the ballot, and train single-mindedly for 9 months or more, whilst at the same time avoiding injury and illness.
Once in the race, finishing is by no means certain, and this year only 1,555 (61%) of 2,543 starters finished the course. The number of finishers was considerably lower than previous years, probably as a result of the severe weather conditions on Saturday evening. I hope it does not sound arrogant, but there was no point during the race when I seriously doubted that I would finish. I had done the training, I was in good shape with no injuries, and I managed to keep decent headroom versus the cut-offs – as long as I could stay awake, and avoid an accident or a major breakdown, I was going to finish. Of course there were times when I was exhausted, or when my legs were screaming “enough”, but the key is to not let your mind find excuses for your body to give up – mental resilience is everything.
The fine weather meant stunning views: Monte Bianco from the Courmayeur ski area

Goals and targets – a “good race”?

What about my secondary objective – did I feel I had a good race?
I had set myself a somewhat arbitrary target time of 42 hours, based largely on the results from the previous year’s race, and my feeling of where within the overall field I would hope to be placed. I wanted to set a plan that was achievable, and thus would provide me the positive reinforcement of being “ahead of schedule” during the race. At the same time I wanted something sufficiently ambitious and, importantly, with sufficient headroom against cut-off times in case anything went wrong. I hoped 42 hours was the right balance, as it represented (based on 2018 results) the 40th percentile of starters and 56th percentile of finishers. This was not quite as highly ranked as my CCC performance in 2017, but much better than my result in the 90km du Mont Blanc in 2018.
As it turned out I made an error in my calculations. For the first third of the route, my actual timings were pretty close to the schedule (getting 15 minutes behind at Chapieux, but being back on schedule by Col de La Seigne). However, after Col de La Seigne as we passed into Italy, we had to climb a further col (Col des Pyramides Calcaires) which, due to bad weather, had been cut from the 2018 race, and which therefore was not properly accounted for in my timings. As a result I was over an hour behind at the next checkpoint at Lac Combal, and I was unable to make up much of that deficit through the remainder of the race. So the bottom line is that I missed the 42-hour target by nearly three quarters of an hour.
Leaving Lac Combal with the Col des Pyramides Calcaires in the background
Despite missing my target time, I do still feel that I had a “good race”.
1.    Whilst I missed my target time, my ranking in the field (38th percentile of starters) was marginally better than my target.
2.    Throughout most of the race I was making progress through the field – from being 2,350th at the first checkpoint in Les Houches, I rose to 1,207th at the “nearly half-way” mark in Courmayeur the next morning. I reached a highpoint in ranking at 925th just before Trient on the second night, before stabilising and fading slightly over the last morning to at finish at 979th. Such steady progress through the field always gives me a positive feeling about my performance.
3.    Although a much more subjective measure, I felt that I finished “strongly” with a decent final climb, and running most of the final descent from Flegere all the way to a sprint across the finish line. Struggling over the line tends to leave me a little down about my effort, whereas finishing strongly typically gives me a much warmer and satisfied feeling.
4.    Given I finished strongly, maybe I could have gone a little faster if I had pushed harder. However I do not think I could have gone that much faster, and there was certainly a point in the race where I became risk adverse – making sure I got the finish by not taking risks on the descents.
5.    In a strange way, I quite enjoyed the race, and this is usually a sign that it went reasonably well. It seems that I am smiling in every photo that was taken of me. It was a long slog but I never really had to run through real pain. My lows were not as low as I feared, and the highs higher than I could have hoped. So, yes, I enjoyed it.
Always smile for the cameras!

Impressions of the race

The UTMB is a crowded race. It is a massive event with a large field on narrow trails, and the competitors do not really spread out until well over half way. There was only one point over the whole race where I could not see another runner directly in front or behind me. It is not a race for those looking to get away from the crowds. 
Emotional atmosphere at the start line
However, the crowds are also one of the UTMB’s greatest assets. At the start, supporters packed the church square, were hanging from every balcony and vantage point, and were several deep along the barriers all the way through the town. The atmosphere at the start was spine-tinglingly emotional, and I confess it brought a lump to my throat. The crowds at Les Houches and St Gervais were just as impressive, and even at small villages in the middle of the night there would be small groups of supporters cheering manically. How can you not enjoy a race with such support?
UTMB is also a truly international experience. It passes through three countries, and 80 different nationalities were represented at the start line. Unsurprisingly the French were by far the largest contingent (35%). There was a decent show from the Brits with 136 of us, including Tom Owens and Andy Symmonds who would come 4th and 5th respectively. It is a measure of the increased popularity of our sport in Asia that there was a massive number from China – if you include HK, China had 202 participants, second only to France, and over twice the number from the USA.
The weather conditions were generally good, and in retrospect amazingly good compared to the wintery snow that arrived in the Alps the following weekend. However, Saturday was hot with highs of around 27 degrees, with little by the way of a cooling breeze. It was too hot for my comfort, and I resorted to stopping at every stream from Bertone to Arnouvaz to dip my hat and buff into the cooling water. 
Thunderstorm clouds gathering at the Col de Ferret
As the forecast had warned, the thunderclouds gathered early on Saturday evening, and they erupted just as I passed the Col de Ferret, the highest point on the course. With lightning igniting directly above our heads, accompanied by simultaneous and deafening thunderclaps, there started a storm of biblical proportions. Hail stones the size of small marbles rained down with such force that I had to cover my head with my hands to stop the pain of them hitting my skull. The storm turned the mountain paths into a cappuccino torrent – dark muddy waters topped with a white flow of hailstones. The skies were black, the mountains turned white, and we all got absolutely drenched. Many people decided to take shelter and wait it out. My preference was to get low as soon as possible and I ran the descent to La Fouly as fast as my legs would allow. It was tricky going and I saw many runners slip and slide significant distances on their backs over the moving slopes of mud. There were rumours circulating that some competitors had to be helicoptered off the col in a serious condition, but I do not know whether that was true.
As I had expected, the aid stations were generally well organised and efficient with an impressive stock and range of foods and drink. The marshals and volunteers do a stupendous job. However, I found the aid stations much busier that at the CCC two years before, and was disappointed to have to scrum to get to some of the food tables. Maybe I was just in the busy part of the race? Sadly the marquee at La Fouly was simply not large enough to cope with the ever-expanding crowd of runners and supporters escaping the heavy rain. It resembled a field hospital with stricken runners lying shivering under emergency blankets, and sodden clothes hanging everywhere. I had hoped to do a full kit change here to get into something dry, but given I couldn’t even find anywhere to sit down I gave up and decided to carry on and wait until Champex.
View of Courmayeur valley from Bertone refuge

Race tactics - Pacing

Chatting to Neil, my coach, a few days before the race, his last minute advice was to start really slowly. He warned me that the emotion and atmosphere at the start tends to get the adrenaline flowing and too many competitors tear down to Les Houches and up the first major hill at PB pace, putting them into the red far too early in the race. 
Based on this advice I made sure I was near the back of the field at the start, and kept a really easy pace for the first hour, using the opportunity to stop and say hello to the many friends who had come to watch the start and cheer me on. In retrospect my start might have been a little too relaxed as there were less than 200 people behind my at the first checkpoint and I was getting on for 15 minutes behind schedule. Realising this I ran the first descent down into St Gervais a little quicker than I should have, and the impact on my quads would be felt the next day.
One of the real benefits of starting towards the back of the pack is that you spend much of the race overtaking people and moving up the rankings. I find that having “targets” ahead of you makes the climbs easier, and of course the positive progress through the field helps with the mental battle. I gained a massive psychological boost from this which lasted until the last third of the race, at which point I had probably reached my natural position, my ranking stabilised in the 900s, and I had to deal with the negativity of being consistently overtaken myself by other stronger athletes. My impression at the time was that hundreds of people were going past me and that I must be plummeting down the rankings, and it did become pretty depressing at this point. However, in retrospect, my ranking was not falling significantly and I was of course benefiting from the “unseen” overtaking of others who were resting or abandoning. Sarah was excellent at making this encouraging point to me whenever we met at aid stations.

Race tactics – Aid stations

The old village of Dolonne before Courmayeur aid station
Neil had also warned me to be very disciplined at aid stations, to prepare ahead of arrival a mental check list of things to be done, and to try to get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. I managed to be very efficient for most of the first night, running straight through Les Houches, and spending just a couple of minutes at St Gervais, Les Contamines and La Balme. However, after this I found I needed far more time at the aid stations than I had budgeted for. After the steep technical descent into Chapieux my legs badly needed a rest and it being 3:30am I also needed some food. I lingered there for over 15 minutes. Later that morning at Courmayeur I was probably in the worst state of my whole race, and needed a good rest and quite a bit of assistance from Sarah – it was my longest stop at around 50 minutes. Knowing that I had wasted a lot of time there, I started focusing again on quicker stops, and this worked well until Arnouvaz at 4pm on Saturday. After a long hot day in the sun I was badly overheated and desperately needed a cool-down, so I rewarded myself with a 25-minute unscheduled rest in the shade. I had always planned for Champex to be a longer stop because it is an important two-thirds point just before heading out into the second night, and thus I would needed food and rest. However, feeling exhausted and very sleepy, I took twice as long as scheduled. The story was the same at Trient. By Vallorcine I knew that the finish was there for the taking, but my target time was beyond reach, so I relaxed and enjoyed the stop chatting to friends and eating fruit. 
Leaving the Col Checruit aid station, one I managed to run straight through
My schedule had budgeted for 2 hours at aid stations – I knew from experience at the CCC that this was optimistic, but had hoped that I could be more efficient this time. In actual fact it was the opposite and I spent a slightly embarrassing 4 hours 25 minutes at the stops. Whilst at the time I really felt that I needed every one of those minutes, and looking around me I was aware that most competitors were taking just as long – if not longer – there is no doubt that if I was looking at how I could improve my time in future races this would be the number one place to start.

Race tactics – Sleep deprivation

Linked to the issue of time at aid stations is the question of whether or not to sleep during the race. I had previously completed a number of events that ran through one night, but never before had I gone through two nights. Advice from Neil and others was that it was better, if possible, to try to get around without sleeping at all. However, if I felt that I was so sleepy that my progress was grinding to a halt, or it was getting dangerous, then I should stop for a maximum of 10 minutes for a “power-nap”. To sleep for longer would risk going into a deep sleep from which it would take longer to recover. In the event, whilst I did feel pretty spaced-out on the second night, I was able to get through without a nap. Many competitors did decide to sleep – whether it be a deliberate tactic or an unplanned necessity – and I lost count of the number of people I saw lying down in aid stations, or just curled up under an emergency blanket by the side of the trail. In retrospect I think my tactics were probably right for me, but I do wonder whether I might have been stronger – and faster in the long run – if I had taken a 10 minutes power-nap.
Sunrise over Courmayeur from the Col de Ferret
I had read many wonderful stories about the various hallucinations that result from sleep deprivation, and in a strange way was looking forward to experiencing the weird and wonderful. I did not experience real hallucinations – I did not see anything that just was not there – but I did notice a real deterioration in my brain’s capacity to accurately and speedily process sensory inputs. Someone sat by the side of the trail turned out to be a rock with a branch over it. A phone charger lead in the path turned out to be a twig. An information sign turned out to be an interestingly patterned tree stump. The next checkpoint turned out to be the red rear head torch from another competitor. A big crowd of supporters ringing cowbells turned out to be, somewhat obviously, just a herd of cows. There were just too many instances to recall them all, but I did pass some hours amusing myself at the unlikely things my brain thought my eyes were seeing.

Race tactics – Ascending and descending

Contemplating the last big climb
Whilst recognising that I am always going to be a back-of-the-packer and never going to be competitive at the sharp end of a race, I have always prided myself on being a good climber. I have become used to at least holding my own on the ascents, and often being stronger than most. I am not quick, but I have a good engine and seem able to keep going for hours at a decent tempo without having to stop. This is an important attribute in a race with over 10,000m of ascent, and in which I would spend over 20 hours marching uphill. The longest single climb (from St Gervais to the Refuge Bonhomme) would take over 5 hours. My climbing ability was the reason that I was able to move up through the rankings, and I improved my position on every single climb with the exception of the last big one from Col des Montets to Tete aux Vents.
Conversely, I know that I am not a great downhiller, but I did not realise quite how deficient I was until this race. I lost places on most of the big descents, and I realised early on during the tricky and steep run down into Chapieux that this was going to be a significant problem. Not wanting to be pressured into going faster than I was comfortable with, I was frequently stepping aside off the narrow trail to allow faster runners pass. Why am I so slow going downhill? There is no doubt that I need to work harder on my technique. It is also true that I was suffering from sore quads from that first descent into St Gervais. However, I think the biggest factor was my mental approach to the descents. I was so desperate to finish this race that I was taking the descents very conservatively. My mind was telling me that it was not worth risking a big fall or a turned ankle that could end my race just to save a few minutes. However, those “few minutes” on each descent added up over the whole race. My mind was also telling me to protect my quads for later in the race, and indeed on the last descent – when there was nothing more to save them for – I flew down quite happily. Back on technique, I had been using my poles quite extensively during the descents to protect against trips and to take some of the weight off the quads. In retrospect I think the poles reduced my descending speed significantly. On the last two downhills I stowed the poles and tried to run them properly, and it actually felt more relaxing and less hard work. It might have benefited me – physically and psychologically – to have taken this approach earlier.
Running from Refuge Bertone up the Ferret valley with the Col at the far end

Race tactics – Nutrition

I am usually lucky in that I am able to eat well when running. This race was an exception. All started OK with me consuming chocolate at St Gervais, some biscuits at Les Contamines, some soup at La Balme, and then some more soup and Chapieux. I was aware that things were not quite right at Lac Combal where I was unable to convince my stomach to accept my usually trusty ginger Hard Bar, and then the wheels came off at Courmayeur where Sarah’s carefully prepared breakfast was reproduced in the middle of the aid station. Thankfully the runners who shared my table were very understanding – guess they have seen it all before.
A race powered by oranges and melons
Following this I really struggled to eat anything except fruit. Oranges tasted great, and melon – both the watermelon provided by the aid stations and the cantaloupe brought along by Sarah – were delightful. I also managed to mix in the odd gel with the fruit to boost my sugar levels. However, anything at all solid (including banana) felt just too dry in my mouth, and I was unable to swallow it without washing it down with water. Sadly this was not an option because too much water hitting my stomach was what caused the vomiting at Courmayeur. I did manage some noodle soup at Champex and some black coffee at La Giete and Trient, but basically mine was a race powered by oranges and melons.
It still amazes me that the body can generate so much output – my watch tells me I burned 14,000 calories – on so little input. Saturday felt incredibly hot and I think becoming massively overheated was part of the problem with me not being able to eat. I was pretty worried because I have seen firsthand how an inability to fuel can derail a race, but thanks to Sarah keeping me supplied with fruit, somehow I managed to keep it going. Looking back, I think it also helped that my body had been healthily fed in the two weeks leading up to the race with Sarah preparing lots of specially balanced meals from the Runners Cookbook.

Crew and support

There are 5 major aid stations where you are permitted to receive assistance from your “race crew”. I was exceptionally lucky to have Sarah crewing for me, and she met me at four of these stations – the first at Les Contamines was too early into the race to warrant her getting the bus there. Having crew at an aid station is a massive positive. A friendly face is an enormous boost to morale, so much so that I found myself counting down the time to my next meeting with Sarah. When your crew is as organised and sorted as Sarah, it also really increases efficiency at the stops. Whilst I spent much longer than I had planned at the major aid stations, I know it could have been twice as long had Sarah not been there to help. 
Ahead of the race we had sat down to discuss what spare kit I wanted her to bring and in which bag each item was packed. We also wrote a list of the things I would need at each aid station and the things she should check for me. I knew that by the second night my brain would not be working properly, and that she also would be pretty tired, so by having lists we could ensure nothing major was forgotten. This worked pretty well with one small but potentially disastrous exception. I had made the mistake of using a red dry bag for the kit I carried in my race vest, the same colour as the dry bag Sarah was using for her personal belongings. In my state of limited consciousness, a mix up was inevitable, and I grabbed the wrong bag off the table at Champex and Sarah was not able to get the right one back to me until Trient. It did mean that I carried totally a superfluous towel and a sewing kit on that leg, but was missing much of my mandatory kit. Fortunately Sarah also had a head torch in her bag otherwise I would have been, literally, left in the dark.
My race crew extraordinaire made it all possible
Quite simply, Sarah did an amazing job – efficient, organised, businesslike, supportive and encouraging but not patronising, and not bothered by my lack of “pleases” and “thank-yous”. She also had the added stress of driving around narrow mountain roads in the small hours of the morning, whilst worrying about my progress and being on time for the next rendezvous. She had little sleep on the first night and none on the second. It was an extraordinary performance by her and I cannot thank her enough. She has made many sacrifices over the past years in order for me to realise my dream, but she also played a very active part during this weekend to help me get the job done. It simply would not have been possible without her.
I was also exceptionally lucky to have many other friends come out and support me at various stages of the race. The Wilson family and the Andrews/Gaunt family cheered me on at both start and finish. Mike and Tessa saw me pass through Les Houches, met me again at Col des Montets and also at the finish. Rosie and Ric flew out specially to watch the race, meeting me at Vallorcine (thanks again for the peach!), Col des Montets and also were at the finish. Rob and Ali drove all the way around to La Fouly in Switzerland to meet me there, and got stuck in this dead-end valley due to a landslide blocking the road. Fortunately they had their campervan so were able to stay the night and the road was cleared the next morning in time for Ali to get back to see me finish. Neil was also there with support at Les Houches and at the finish line. Every one of these friendly faces was a incredible boost, and knowing that they were there supporting me redoubled my commitment that I just had to finish – letting them all down was just not an option. Thank you all.
One of the wonderful aspects of UTMB is that it is really well set up for friends and family to follow online with a live tracking website and little video clips of runners arriving at each major check point. I have lost count of the people who have told me they were checking my progress through day and nights. I had turned my phone notifications off to preserve battery, but Sarah passed on all the messages of encouragement. Again, this was an enormous help and a massive thank you to all my supporters from home.
Finally, I must also give thanks to Neil Bryant my coach. His training plan got me to the start line in great shape and free of injury. Back in February when we started working together, he promised me that he could get me to a UTMB finish, and he delivered on that promise.


Written by Tremayne Dill-Cowdry - https://dill-runs.blogspot.com

After Western States 2017 I still felt incomplete. Yes I'd finished, yes I got a buckle but it wasn't the race I had wanted. I had reached Foresthill and completely shut down. This has happened twice now. Once at the Barcelona 24hr track race and at Western States 2017. It is a very strange situation, you are not injured, nutrition is good, well trained yet you can't run. This has played on my mind since WS I have analysed every aspect of that race trying to work out what it was. The conclusion was it was culmination of two key things, altitude and heat. I pushed too hard too soon and the lack of oxygen completely stripped my body of energy. I followed that by hitting the canyons heat and powered on regardless. My body was completely broken come Foresthill and although my brain was still focused on finishing sub 24 my sub conscious was stopping me running. My sub conscious was preventing any more damage to my body by stopping me running. I firmly believe this to be the case and had another very experienced runner concur. This wouldn't happen again bring on Western States 2019. 

Team GB

I felt I needed to go back. My dream in limbo. That elusive silver buckle still in Auburn. There is no way I could leave it. I thought I'd just throw my name in the hat with a 5 year plan to get back in. So year 2 and 2 tickets in the hat and for the first time in many years I didn't watch the draw. Then a message pops up on my phone from Jim Kepfer in Auburn. Gordy just pulled your name!! Shit I was in!!!  I took me all of 10 seconds to decide I was going to go and within a few hours my flight was booked, hotel booked and messenger group set up with the fellow Brit runners.

I trained hard for this and under the guidance of Kim Collison got myself in to super shape. I cleared the diary of races and decided to concentrate on learning the Bob Graham route in the lakes. The mountain running and weekly leg session in the gym prepared my legs for what was to come. I planned every step of the race, my nutrition, clothes, strategy, everything ! I was ready. 

The build up during race week was fun but I remained focused. I was here to race, I was here for my silver buckle! The only thing that broke my concentration was meeting my running hero Scott Jurek. Total legend and left me speechless. I had so much to say to him, so many questions about his multiple WS wins, Spartathlon wins, Badwater wins, Hardrock win, he's even done a Bob Graham!. So much to say but my tongue tied in a knot and nothing come out apart from "Can you sign my hat". 

Fan boy

Shit FFS you meet a running legend and that's what pops out. Funny really.

Race morning arrived and all the Brits congregated to chat but I was zoned in on the race, working all the bits through in my mind. I had to wish everyone good luck and go do my own thing. I stood in the start area and soaked it in. This is it this is my moment. I completely focused on not going off too fast. If I flew up that mountain with my heart rate through the roof and panting like a over heating pug I would have just mimicked 2017. I really didn't want to do that this was key to my race plan. Just concentrate.

Lets do this

The gun boomed and we were off. I ran for about 50 metres before settling into a hike. I had an hour and twenty in my mind to reach the Escarpment. I hiked hard and held back from any running. The urge was there but I knew It was not in the plan. I'd been training to heart rate and was aware spikes in my heart rate were not what I needed. I controlled my breathing and worked hard enough not to lose too many positions. As we strode on I was passed by several Brits. Matt Brand, Keith James, Annabelle Stearns and Ammon Piepgrass all passed me. It was so tough not to get my racing head on. 
I reached the top in just over an hour. I was a bit fast but more importantly I hadn't overly exerted myself. It was freezing at the top! I'd decided at the last minute to wear a long sleeve over my pack and I needed it. I also had a spare pair of socks as gloves. Good job too because my hands were numb. 

The high country

I started running once over the top and kept it to a steady jog. My timings were simple, Robinson in 7hr, Foresthill in 14hr that would give me 10 hours to cover the last 40 mile. I can average 5 mile an hour in the late stages so if I had the perfect day sub 23 was possible. My first goal though was Robinson. The snow wasn't as bad as 2017 but there were banks of it everywhere over the first 6 mile. Luckily I'd choose a grippy shoe and waterproof sock which served me well. I was running well, slow but well. The air was thin and the altitude was playing its part. Every time my heart rate spiked I backed off and let it settle. That meant holding right back. I got to Lyon Ridge and felt fine I drank some coke and moved on. The snow thinned as we carried on along the ridge, the views were spectacular. I passed the spot where I had fallen in 2017 the trail is pretty rocky on the ridge and I was taking extra care this time. I paused for a few views this time instead of running flat out across rocks while trying to look round. Red Star Ridge came and went I was a little up on schedule but no dramas I was just concentrating on not falling and keeping my heart rate in check. The snow was thinning all the time with minimal snow banks now. There was one particularly steep one so I tried to show off by skiing down it. Epic fail. Crashed onto my backside and skidded down on my knee giving me a nice ice burn to think about.

Duncan Canyon

As the miles ticked by I could feel the air thickening and my lungs filling with oxygen. I ran to feel and I could now step it up. I dropped into Duncan eventually reaching the icy waters at the bottom. The water was thigh deep and very refreshing, I dunked my head and felt revitalized as I marched out the other side. I ran into Robinson feeling good and about 15 mins up on my predicted time of 7 hours. This was a major stop for me. I took my time and changed shoes and socks also powdering my feet. I ate lots of fruit from the aid station to clear the sugary gel taste from my mouth. I repacked with supplies and headed out after a good 10 min stop. I was still under the 7 hours but half hour outside the 24hr pace according to their timings.

I had worked on nutrition this time knowing that it wasn't quite right last time. A high percentage of runners puke at Western States. The heat really doesn't help keep stuff down and puking is not great when chasing a tight time schedule. Once your gut has emptied you are in a world of trouble because you have to get all those calories back in your system or you will bonk but when you try to eat you feel sick again. Vicious circle. I felt sick last time and stopped eating. This time my strategy was to get 200 cals per hour in and top up at checkpoints. I was carrying mountain fuel, gu and hi 5 gels. I was to take 100 cals of either every half hour. Straight away the mountain fuel made me feel sick so I ditched it. The Gu is my rocket fuel but again it was making me feel queasy so I had to just force one down every two hours or so. My main fuel turned out to be the High 5 gels, they are pretty liquid and easy on the stomach. They are around 90 cals but don't pack a punch like a gu. I had brought enough of these to have one every half hour and topped it up with fruit, redbull, coke, mountain dew and the odd cup of soup. This was all I ate but it worked. This gave me the magic 300 cals an hour. 

I ran out of Robinson and bumped into Jim my pacer for later. It was good to see him, we chatted briefly and I ran out feeling strong. I was able to run pretty well from here. The trail seems to descend for ages and its a good time to make up on the 24 hr cutoff. I ran into Millers Defeat and loaded up on ice in my hat and backpack but soon after I realized it wasn't really needed and the ice in my pack was actually burning my back so I had to stop and empty it. I kept the bits in my hat and for the rest of the day all I needed was a few cubes in there to keep my head cool. Through Dusty Corners and last chance I was really running well. I seemed to be gaining places with only the occasional  runner passing me. 

I reached the top of Deadwood Canyon and ran the switchbacks down. Mt quads were in good shape and the heat wasn't too intense but I descended steadily knowing what lie ahead. At the bottom I took a breath and walked round to the stream that comes down the hillside. I washed my face, dunked my hat and started the hike upto Devils Thumb. It is about 1500ft straight up with about 35 switchbacks. I hiked strong with the thought of the aid station at the top pulling me forward. I had to stop a couple of times feeling faint. I actually thought I was going down but held it together. I reached the top and breathed a sigh of relief. Matt was in there looking pretty ill. I really wanted something cold but was drawn to the soup and ended up having several cups. A nice rest from the sugary stuff. I left straight after Matt and he was doubled up puking on the trail. I so wanted to help but what can you do? A few words of advice and I pressed on almost straight back into running. El Dorado Canyon was next and it passed without incident. I hiked out the top and ran into Michigan Bluff. The reception was incredible. I picked up some supplies from a drop bag and drank a selection of cold drinks and ate some strawberries. Annabelle was in there preparing to leave and it was good to see her looking strong. I walked up the main street and the atmosphere was incredible with almost everyone of the dozens of people giving words of encouragement. My pacers Jim Kepfer and Pete Korn were there and it was great to see them. Not having ever met Pete. I took an ice cold redbull from them and drank it as we walked and chatted. My mind was now getting firmly into 24hr mode. I was feeling great and I told them we would be running for that buckle come Foresthill. As I rejoined the route a supporter said "All flat to Foresthill". Great I thought not remembering the trail. 

Well that wasn't true I passed through another canyon through to Foresthill. It wasn't as harsh as the other two but a canyon all the same. I hit the tarmac and hiked up to the main road. It was around this time last time I overheard a conversation where a pacer was saying to his runner how unlikely getting a sub 24hr would be from this point would be. Well those words resonated in my head. It was happening today. I ran into the aid station and time for another main stop. Sock change, foot powder and food. Jim was expressing concerns about the time it was taking but it was 10 minutes well spent. I had reached there bang on my schedule and spent 10 minutes sorting stuff so I was now 25 minutes outside 24hr pace. This was not an issue I was going to get my buckle. 

Get me off this boat

I explained to Pete my pacer for this section that I felt good and wanted to run to the river. I explained pace and what I wanted from him and we started running. It was an amazing section and everything felt right. Pete knew I'd be getting a silver and so did I. It was one of them moments when all the stars aligned. It was now or never I was so focused all that mattered was running. Had I succumbed to negative thoughts now I would have never forgiven myself. Pete was incredibly positive and every so often I'd pull up and he would allow me 1 minute before we ran again. Over that next 16 miles we picked up time and places only briefly stopping at aid stations for redbull or coke. At each aid station another few minutes was taken back from my 24 hr hour deficit. Darkness arrived and we donned head torches at about mile 70. We caught up with Annabelle just before the river I stopped and we exchanged positive words but it really was time to run so I wished her well and pushed forward. We were so close I preyed she would maintain her pace and get her buckle too.  By the time we reached the river we were evens on the 24hr cutoff and nothing was going to stop me. We changed pacers at the river and I clambered into the boat. Willing it across as I just wanted to crack on.

Jim my trusted pacer from 2017 took over and we started the long hike up to Green Gate. I was super positive but I could tell Jim was still well aware this was borderline. He had been in this position many times and seen many fail. We ran straight after Green Gate through some undulating trail which I didn't care much for but I was getting through it. We got a good pace going and were picking off other runners. The run was massively undulating and the climb to highway 49 was a real sting in the tail when you feel the trail should be getting easier. I ran into Pointed Rocks aid station mile 94 it was around 3am, Two years previous I had reached here at exactly 5am and 24hrs elapsed. I grabbed some coke and ran through. Jim stopped for a pee but I just ran and left him to catch me up. I ran and ran to No Hands Bridge and didn't enter into the bridge party atmosphere I just pressed on. It was around now that I felt I would do it and started to well up. I pulled it together though as there is still a bloody massive climb to go to Robie Point. My body now started to shut down as it was hitting home I was going to make it. Pains in my legs came followed by fatigue and the lack of will to run. I hiked up as hard as I could. 

Job done

I came out the top of Robie Point around 4:10 am and knew it was in the bag. Pete was at the top having decided he couldn't go home knowing something special was going to happen. We ran easy to the track chatting about how things had gone but my mind was elsewhere. The years of training and effort were firmly in the forefront of my mind this was it. We entered the track and Jim said they would meet me at the other side of the line. I said no way join me and cross together. A wave of euphoria hit me as I crossed the line in 23:24:59.

Silver Buckle

I was under no illusion coming into this that sub 24 was right there on the boundaries of my ability. It was no fluke.  All the tiny details meant minutes on the day, that 35 minute buffer could have been lost in the blink of an eye. An extra minute in each aid station, a few too many walking breaks, puking from eating the wrong food. Coupled with a specific 16 week training program. Weekly hill reps, gym sessions, speed work, saunas it all amounted to that 35 minutes saved. I ultimately had the perfect race and hit my target. It doesn't get better than that. No complaints, no excuses.

The big question is would I go back? My philosophy has always been if you have the perfect race don't go back because you can only fall short but I love this race with a passion. It is part of me and under my skin so yes I will go back. I am a silver buckle holder and no one can ever take that away. 

I just want to mention some of the other Brit runners, Matt Brand, Ammon Piepgrass, Tim Lambert, Keith James it was lovely to meet you all. Well done to Beth Pascal and Tom Evans for flying the flag for the UKs elite. 
Most importantly though Ian Brazier, Richard Leahy, Annabelle Stearns and Sharon Sullivan. You guys really made it a trip to remember. 

Anyone in the UK interested in a brand new Ultramarathon for 2020 check out the North Downs Way 153 on my website www.hitthetrailrunning.com it will be a future classic.

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