Written by Benjamin Kissel - http://kiwirun.blogspot.co.uk

Dear Dad,
 
It's going to be a long time before most of what has happened  has made sense, but I've written this, partly to let you know what happened while you were asleep, and partly just to let it out. It starts with a phone call...
 
"Hey Ben, it's Nik. Dad...Dad's had an accident.”
 
These are the words that echo around my head, crashing like waves into my subconscious. I approach the start line with Brian and distract myself from the soundscapes in my head. I wasn’t even planning on coming to this race, but something told me I had to. My heart is not here, but I had to. Flowers grow through rubble. So can I.
 
Brian says something I don't quite catch and I snap out of it. He introduced himself as I got on the train from London to Tring. I wasn’t particularly keen on company with the mood I'm in, not wanting to bring anyone else down, but he was friendly and I very quickly felt my mood turn around just from the chance to chat with someone who didn't know what was going on with me. By the time we got to Tring I was secretly thanking him for shaking me out of my funk.
 
The start line
There are minibuses transporting runners to the start and plenty of time to mill about before we set off from Ivinghoe Beacon at midday. This is the official starting point of the Ridgeway national trail. Today we’ll be attempting all eighty six miles of it.
 
That said, I’ve told myself no pressure. So if I do all of it, well, I do all of it. If I don’t I don’t. There is a short race briefing then we’re away. We saw that Dan Lawson was on the start line, who is liable to run this race extremely quick, and he charges off the front from the go. The speedier pace trickles it’s way down the field and soon enough we find ourselves going quite a bit faster than expected.
 
On the approach to the start a guy who recognised my shorts from a previous run in the Gower came up to say hello and wonder if I remembered him. I did and it’s a nice chance to catch up as we ran together for quite a while taht day. As we reach the start line another woman who saw the shorts at the Stour Valley Path race two weeks ago also comes to say hello. I ask how she got on and she was second lady so clearly after passing me at the second checkpoint she went ahead to storm it!
 
Where's (the) Wally.
I now notice her not far away. We’re about a mile in. I point her out to Brian saying we should probably avoid trying to keep up with her if we’re to avoid the hurt locker early on. He agrees. There’s quite a buzz in the air and we’re swapping places with a few people here or there, finding ourselves with the guy from the Gower and one of his friends.
 
The starting section is quite undulating, but most of the runners just take it at a similar stride to normal flat pace, given that it’s fresh legs at the beginning here. We trade places and pair up with other people for a while and just generally chat to whoever is around. The theme of the day seems to be the good weather.
 
There is a lot of nervous energy and Brian’s watch is beeping at us quite often as he has the virtual pacer on, set to tell him if he’s going too fast or slow. He has it set to be halfway between a twenty hour finish and the womens course record, with the intention of holding that pace as long as possible then slowing down. Personally I’m unsure how long I’ll be able to hold that pace.
 
But soon enough we’re three miles, or five kilometres in and the warm up has begun. The legs are loose and the countryside is open. It’s very much an old Roman Road style trail, and very well maintained compared to what I’m used to with other races. Combining that with the fact that the trail is pretty hard packed from the good weather and you’ve got a pretty runnable trail.
 
The countryside is much nicer than I expected, with good views out over the county, reminiscent a little of the South Downs where you get great views over the countryside. The field thins out a little and there’s less jostling for space which means we can focus a bit more on relaxing and enjoying the day out.
 
It’s not actually too long before we find ourselves pulling up at the first aid station. We pushed the first ten kilometres in an hour, which feels dangerously close to how I felt at the Stour Valley Path right before I blew up two weeks ago, but it felt okay so we pressed on for the next few kilometres and I didn’t say anything.
 
Now that we’re here, I can feel my legs being a bit more leaden than normal, but nothing I wouldn’t expect having done a hundred kilometres so recently. We stop and Brian fills up his Tailwind nutrition bottles, I fill up mine and as he’s still getting ready I take a few moments to just grab some jaffas cakes and a slice thingie to try to shove as much food and water in as I can while I’m still feeling good an can stomach anything.
 
I’m thankful for the rest to be honest as well. Having pushed it a bit it’s a good chance to just stop and check through to see how the legs are feeling. We thank the volunteers then head off. We chat excitedly for a few minutes, then there is also a few minutes silence.
 
 
 
"Hey Ben, it's Nik..." 
 
No, not yet. I'm not ready for it yet. Flowers. Rubble. Remember that instead.
 
I break my thoughts with some toilet humour. There's nothing like a good poo joke on the trails isn't there? Hey look, there's even a cow poo right there.
 
We've lost most of the other people that were around us, but to be honest I'm fine with that. It's nice being a bit more alone out here and letting the field thin out a little.
 
The sun is still shining pretty bright, but after burning on the Stour and looking a little like  a baked potato I remembered sunscreen this morning so that hopefully my head is okay until the night section. It seems to be working so far.
 
We get to one particular climb that goes on a little bit longer than the ones before and we start to talk about our past. He's a New Yorker, so an immigrant like me, and we get to talking about what made him move and what kept him here, his family and children. With three of his own and four step-children it's interesting to hear the perspective of a man with a big family, so different from where I myself am at in life.
 
We reach the top, and there is a large monument. Looking closer I think it is a reference to the Boer war, but I can't see in too much detail. There is a nice path up to it then as we crest the hill there is a stunning view out over I don't even know which county.
 
 
We pass some people out for the day and see a family having a picnic. I mention the fact that I often find it strange as you see people out and about. So if you're in a race you get a lot of people cheering and clapping, so you look out for people having a picnic and keep an eye on them in case they do so, with the intention of being ready to thank them for the support.
 
But then if they don't support, they just stare at you nonplussed. As you stare back at them looking like you're some arrogant, attention seeking runner looking for kudos when in truth you just didn't want to be rude just in case they clapped. They look at you as if to ask what the hell you're looking at their family just a little too lingering for. If you haven't already noticed, I get a lot of time to my thoughts on the trail to over analyse and make light of these sorts of gormless situations.
 
We go down a big field with some rather large cows. They couldn't care less though so we go right through the middle of them. As we do so, Brian mentions after my joking that his guts aren't feeling too good.
 
I laugh at first then his face doesn't move and I ask if it's serious. He's not sure. Uh oh. We carry on and I just try to keep talking and fill the gap. I talk about races I've done, my thoughts on training, my thoughts on kit. Anything to help ease the strain. Get it...ease the strain? I crack myself up.
 
We get to another field and Brian says it's game over. He's not got any supplies so I get out my shit kit and hand some paper over. I stop briefly myself, then walk slowly down the field.
 
Brian arrives back a few minutes later looking a fair bit fresher than ten minutes ago and I'm pleased to hear it. He gets back to his normal chatty self, but it does seem like something is still playing on his mind.We both ignore it for now and just keep the focus on pacing. The short break was actually quite a relief as we'd not really relented on the pace at all even after saying we would.
 
We carry on a few more miles and then find a town, I'm not sure which. Brian's feeling it again, so affords himself the luxury of a pub toilet, where I try as well just in case as I've no idea when I'll next find a toilet, but it turns out I'm good for now and I'm just a weirdo hanging out in a toilet when he doesn't need to.
 
We carry on again, having been passed by a few people, but I'm honestly not bothered and not too long after we find ourselves the second checkpoint in the woods.
 
This time I take a look at the piece of paper we were handed at registration with the checkpoint times and facilities listed on and note that we're only half an hour inside the cut off. I hear one of the volunteers mention they're only waiting on about six people or so and I wonder how the hell we've ended up so considerably far behind, as even with a couple of stops we've not been going that slow.
 
 
I decide it must be down to there being a ten o'clock start time as well, so the cut offs must be made to be loose for them early on and tight for the later starters, to then even out later in the day.
 
Again, I'm fairly quick at filling up and grabbing a goody bag that they're handing out, but am more than happy for a couple of minutes standing break. I feel it's important to keep myself happy and fed early on today and not be bothering about the time. It works. I feel better for the moments standing.
 
Brian is chatting to the volunteers and I point out the food table as he doesn't seem to be terribly keen on anything after what the Tailwind nutrition powder seems to be doing to him. I point out some solid food can't be a bad thing and he grabs some, clearly already having the same idea.
 
There is another pair who we've gone back and forth a couple of times with who are leaving at a similar time and we keep them roughly in our sights as they seem to be moving a lot more comfortably but slower than us currently, but we're taking more walk breaks.
 
We go over an overpass and there is clearly a right turn somewhere and the two pairs of us wander around a little wondering where it is, with the fields on either side of the road having paths. In the end we just opt for the road which proves right when we're rewarded with an acorn symbol on a finger post, signifying the national trail.
 
We swap pairs for a bit and chat to each other then as we reach another road with a confusing finger post notice Tim Mitchell, the race director, driving off and pointing us across the field, jokingly threatening a disqualification if we go down the road.
 
We don't, we find the spray paint arrows pointing across a freshly ploughed field and again I'm reminded back to the Stour Valley a couple of weeks ago and all the fields in that.
 
I take the lead over this field which is normally something I don't tend to do as much. It's not that I don't like it, I just tend to find myself wondering if the pace is too fast or too slow for the people I'm with and if others are happier in front I generally am happy for them to do so. Basically I over analyze the situation when I really don't need to.
 
But now I'm bossing it over this field. I don't look back until the far side when I just double take to see if everyone is still with me, which they are, spread over twenty metres or so.
 
We form back into pairs again and as Brian and I go through a narrow lane we see officials at the far end. I wonder what they're doing here, we're too close to the last checkpoint for this to be another one.
 
We reach them and say hello and it becomes apparent they're just standing sentry at a rail crossing and taking numbers. We proffer the best smile we can manage after twenty odd miles and proceed over the other side.
 
We're now ahead of the other chaps, but can see them just behind us. As we open out into another field that is quite sprawling we see a couple of others ahead in the distance.
 
 
It's ever so slightly uphill and we slow to a walk as the other chaps catch us. They head on and we keep the walk. We pass an extremely old lady with a bib number on and I say well done to her. I genuinely mean it. She looks like she hit seventy in the seventies and is now quite a few miles deep in this. She has quite a cheery smile back for me as I pass.
 
There is quite a steep hill which I press on just ahead of the chaps, now that I've finally got a bit better at uphill technique after all the practice this year.
 
I stop at the gate at the top and hold it open for the guys and wait for Brian. He comes up looking defeated. He tells me all the energy has left him and he thinks he's done. There's no point trying to push on feeling like this and he tells me to carry on.
 
I'm unsure what to do here. I've really enjoyed the company, and don't want to desert him. But at the same time, he is telling me he's had enough and he looks like he means it. Aside from that, we're pushing the cut offs and unlikely to make the next one at our current pace.
 
I ask firmly if he's positive this is the decision he wants to make, and whether or not it's possible it might be worth us trying to gut it out to the next one in case it picks up.  He says he's sure, and to press on and try to catch the chaps up.
 
With regret I shake his hand and we bid each other adieu. I feel really bad leaving him, but it's clear his decision is made. Oddly, considering my mood when we got here today, I'm feeling quite resolute that I'd like to carry on.
 
I do catch the guys up and tag along to the third checkpoint. Their pace is not too dissimilar to what I was doing with Brian so it's not too bad a switch, though my legs are feeling a bit leaden. I think having done a hundred kilometre race two weeks ago may not have been the wisest move, with the soreness setting in quite early today at around ten miles. 
 
That said, it feels like that's important training at this point. It's not going to make me faster, slower if anything, but this year my focus has been solely on endurance. I used to be faster, but there's not point in fast if you DNF every race is there? Well, that's what I found at my last DNF, anyway.
 
So I listen to my body, I feel it creak a little and I just let it go. I let myself enjoy what I'm doing. We hit the next checkpoint around a marathon in. This one doesn't have as massive selection, but there are all the necessary bits and importantly some coke which I knock back along with a few other bits and bobs. I let the marshal know Brian's number and tell them he's fine but may be a little late just so they don't worry.
 
This time, stopping, I really do feel it in my legs. It doesn't bother me, it's just earlier than normal, which is fine. We just stand there a minute to stop and laugh at each other, then set off again.
 
The first thought is how close we are. We've gained ten minutes and are now forty minutes up on the cut off. It does a bit of a number on all of our heads as none of the three of us feel like we've been going that slow at all so we can't understand why there are only a handful of people behind us.
 
No matter, though, we press on. The short stop has given me a fair bit of a boost. I didn't really realise how much I was feeling it and looking forward to a stop after the slightly slower pace which then picked up when I started running with these fellas.
 
I think of Brian and hope he's okay, he seemed to be accepting of the decision but it's never a fun one to take. Apparently, that Tailwind nutrition really lives up to its name.
 

We take the pace ever so slightly easier for a bit. One of the boys is starting to feel it in his legs a bit and seems to have taken a bit of a turn as far as mood goes, but personally I'm more than happy to keep this slower pace and save the energy for later on, even if it does put me into the position of chasing cut offs. Right now I couldn't care less.

We start to talk about how we're feeling about the day and I mention I'm quite unbothered. My feeling yesterday was to not even turn up, but I knew it was also about family and staying strong, so turned up. Now I'm feeling like I've done okay, nearly fifty kilometres, so the pressure is off.
 
I can quit anytime I like from here on in and not feel bad. I say this out loud, but conscious of the fact it's always good to keep as upbeat a mood as possible, I point out that feeling like that means that I feel alright and am actually enjoying myself a fair bit more than I would be otherwise. Basically, thinking about quitting is helping me not follow through and do it. The psychology of a runner eh? Or maybe it's just me.

"Hey Ben, it's Nik. Dad...Dad's had an accident. He took a downhill too fast and he's hit his head."

There's a long pause and I can hear him crying. I'm jolted back to five in the morning a week ago. Friday the twenty first of August to be exact.

"He's just gone in for emergency brain surgery. We don't know what's going to happen."
 
My world came crashing down in that moment a week ago.

As we're walking an uphill, I let it out and explain the situation to Sam, though I don't go into too much detail. I don't want to cry on the trail here. Not yet. I need to stay strong. So I just mention it, and explain that's why I'm feeling the way I am about this race right now. We move on to another topic.
 
We make our way further and further along, just keeping a steady pace to try to maintain our energy whilst not dropping too far behind. As we're going through a field, about to start another climb, the other chap says in a very determined voice that's it, he's had enough and he's going to drop at the next station.

We try to coerce him into changing his mind, telling him it may be worth just resting at the checkpoint and deciding there, but he's resolute that he's not enjoying things and would rather make sure he can get home at a normal time and live to run easy another day sooner rather than later. He seems definite so we don't argue the point with him.

Soon enough that aid station arrives at the top of another hill, and he sticks to his word asking if he can get a ride to the halfway point so his wife can pick him up. I tell Sam I'm unsure what to do as well, thinking I may do the same.
 
If I drop now I can get a lift to halfway, Goring-on-Thames, and manage to get the last train home. If I don't it's going to be a lot more tricky. I tell Sam I'm going to sit for five minutes and he's happy to wait. I grab a date and oat cake thing, which is great, and a couple more jaffa cakes and coke and sit with chappie number two, who ask what I'm doing. 
 
I again say I'm unsure then when Sam comes over I tell him we may as well head off. Snap decisions are the best in these situations, they get you out the door. I'm going to have to go to Goring anyway as that's where my bag is. So I may as well run and decide there. It's twelve miles this stretch, which is part of what was holding me back as mentally that's quite a jump, so I'm glad to be back on the road quickly.
 

My legs are extremely stiff on getting up again, but there's a nice little road section so the creaks and groans ease their way out and Sam and I find our rhythm again. We both mention how surprised we were at how quickly the other fellow dropped as he seemed to be vaguely not enjoying it but nothing you can't work through. I guess the thing is, after fifty odd kilometres the thought of another ninety doesn't really appeal too much.

But we're out of the checkpoint and mentally this is quite a big boost. I knew that was going to be one of the harder ones and it's done now. Sam goes in front a fair bit now and keeps himself, and me, going with a pretty good pace. A much better one than I would have managed on my own.
 
We talk at times but we also have quite long stretches to ourselves, for me just content in the fact that we're moving along at a good clip. The night starts to draw in a bit and we do quite a long stretch along Grims Ditch, which is quite nice through some woods.
 
I think of home a bit at this point. I think of what I saw when I went back to Christchurch after the earthquakes and I remember the day a couple of years later, when people were finally allowed back into the central city, I stood there by the 'Hak', the nickname for the place we used to hang out as teenagers, trying to figure out where exactly it was amongst the rubble. Hours, years even I spent here and now I couldn't even tell exactly where it was.
 
I remember searching around all the streets of my youth, unable to fully understand which road I was on, as there was just holes in the earth where the buildings and landmarks used to be. I searched, to work out where the Hak was and found the tree that was next to it, still growing strong. It had lived a long time before the earthquakes and stands strong today. I remember looking at my feet and seeing a small flower poking out of the rubble and reminding myself that adversity is only our downfall if we let it be. I can choose to look at the rubble in life or I can choose to look at the flowers coming through.
 
I trip over a tree root and nearly go flying. The light has dimmed considerably. We're kind of bumbling about in the forest not really able to see what we're doing. We both mention it may be time for head torches but neither of us grab for one.

It's preferable to leave it as long as possible, but it's definitely getting close. We start chatting again, I check in to see how he's feeling and it's good, and I'm actually still feeling about the same, which suggests I'm running within my means and can't be a bad thing.
Another trip up and it's definitely time for the head torches to come out. We're getting closer and closer now and the section is going by pretty well. Another mile gets ticked off and we're still just keeping the same pace.

We've been going steadily for about ten miles now on this stretch without any real walk breaks, so I can start to feel my energy levels get low. I reach in my bad for another of the little packets of chicken goujons I've brought then find the apple turnover I forgot about and get that out instead.

It does the trick. I'm surprised at how well I've been eating today. At each aid station I've got at least a bit of food down and have been steadily getting through the reserves I brought as well one little bit at a time. I brought quite a variety this time, with chocolate bars and Pepperami topped off by Babybells.

The head torches are well and truly coming into their own by the time we start to see the lights that suggest we're nearing the checkpoint. We reach a massive river and it takes me a couple of minutes to even register this is the Thames. There's a massive overbridge we go under, eery at night and then the lights start to get that little bit closer until we're back on roads and moving through the outskirts of the town. Then we go down a lane and pop out at the main road to see high-vis vests and a welcoming building.

It's the first checkpoint that’s inside, so we grab our drop bags and take a pew at a trestle table. We're offered hot food and I don't have to be asked twice before a jacket potatoes with beans and cheese is laid in front of me. They've taken my water bottles to fill up and I start getting to work at transferring my stuff, swapping out for my better head torch and replenishing for the same amount of food reserves as I left the start line with.

I take a break for the toilet and redo the tape on my feet, which are looking worse for wear, but no blisters and swap shoes from the Inov8 Race Ultra 290's to the Skechers GoRun Ultra's. After that I try to cram as much food in my gob as I can while Sam is getting ready as well then we're ready to go.
 
We’re away before I even get a chance to remember I was going to quit here, but in truth it was never really going to happen anyway. Once you’ve had a sit down and fresh gear and food it’s always easy to carry on and we set off at quite a good pace, happy and chatty again.
 
I feel pretty well rejuvenated after taking such a good break that it almost feels like we're starting fresh again. It's definitely well into the night now so there isnt a hell of a lot to see, but it feels good to be on the move again and over that mental barrier of wondering whether or not I'd be able to carry on after the halfway point. Now I don't have that easy option to leave again. Now maybe I'll finish? Who knows.
 
We chat intermittently, but mostly we're both happy to just chug along and get the miles moving. I'm secretly pretty glad to have found Sam as I likely wouldn't have bothered carrying on otherwise.
 
"Hey Ben, it's Nik. Dad's had an accident. He fell off his bike and hit his head."
 
I look around me and there is only darkness. The demons rear their head out of nowhere and I fall behind a little to mask how I'm feeling. I just take a moment to let myself remember what's going on and why I'm here. The point I'm trying to make. To myself, mainly, but to my family too. I try to stay strong. I try.
 
The next section goes pretty smoothly for us without too much issue. We chat, we walk and we run as well. Sam is still keeping a cracking pace. Very solid, not speeding up or slowing down and I just tag along for the ride. It's going so smoothly that we find ourselves at the next checkpoint at Bury Down after what feels a fairly short time. I put the demons back to rest for now.
 
I've been pretty keen for the checkpoint for a while. Mainly, I'm keen to use the toilet, so when we see it appear I'm pretty quickly alerted to the fact that won't be happening in a hurry. Basically, the checkpoint is a pagoda in a field. Being dark, I can't even work out how the hell they got the stuff here as it literally seems to be in the middle of nowhere but hey, I'm not complaining. Free food, I'll take that. There is even a runway made of glowsticks to welcome us in.
 
There are some seats and one guy looking decidedly like he is going to drop out. He even has the blanket of death on. That's right, he's opened up the foil safety blanket. He looks okay, but I'm guessing it's his mind that's going. I can relate.
 
So I opt not to sit down and just eye up the food. Sam is keen to be gone quickly but I hoof down some potatoes dipped in a little too much salt and give my best lemon-face. A quick cup of soup and we're on our way again.
 
I'm quite glad that the checkpoint is set up the way it is as it has everything you need without the comfort, being out in the open, meaning you can't easily relax and quit. A perfect balance, so I don't quit and it only briefly enters my mind.
 
The next checkpoint is Sparsholt Firs, about nine miles away. It's quite a big gap but the hardest part is always leaving the checkpoint and we've done that. The guy who has the foil blanket on comes up behind us and starts chatting and it's nice to have the extra company.
 
Over the past checkpoint I developed my speedy walking pace a bit more, meaning that I can sort of shuffle and sort of wobble to a level where I'm keeping almost the same pace as if I were running.
 
I mention to the new guy this is roughly the pace we're managing to keep and he says he wishes he could keep up with such a good pace. I tell him it's not me, it's Sam. A few minutes later though we do notice him drop off.
 
We settle back into a rhythm once more and just get cracking. For the last section we were almost on our own the entire time, but now we find we're starting to catch up with people.
The normal thing to do is to build a buffer it seems and then when nighttime hits, you just slow to a walk for the whole evening until you pick the pace up again in the morning. Kind of like the way the natural body clock works, you go to a similar tune.
 
Not us tonight, though. We keep pretty much the same pace right through this section  this is one massive benefit to having gone a bit slower earlier in the day and paced it better, we're actually feeling like we still have a fair bit of energy. This also means that some of those people who went off really fast, are now starting to feel it and slow down a bit more. So where before we were nearly last, despite feeling good, and not understanding what was going on, now we're starting to pick people off as the evening catches up with them more.
 
In truth though, I still know it's Sam carrying me through. I mention it but he's very diplomatic about it saying it's a team effort. It's definitely not though.
 
The pace stays steady enough, though, that we get to Sparsholt Firs without me moaning too much. I definitely am starting to feel a lot more tired here though and sit down.
 
The checkpoint staff ask if I want anything and I say I'm fine for the minute. I almost instantly start to freeze. I ask for some coke and a bit more food, just a couple of nibbles and am brought more soup.
 
I can feel it, though. I feel the tiredness creep up on me and I feel the lethargy creep in. I ask how long Sam wants to stay and he says he's happy to chill for a bit but maybe not too long.
 
I'm shivering so much that they grab me a duvet and everyone is chatting away. There are a good dozen of us under the pagoda now and someone shouts out that it's the kiwi guy again and well done for carrying on. He was with a woman earlier who recognised the shorts, who hadn't met me, but had read my blog.
 
I don't recognise him too well, I've been in my own world a bit today but clearly it's no secret I've been talking of dropping like a sissy at every checkpoint. If I had a reason it would be fine, but not being in the mood is clearly just me being a sissy.
 
But right now, you know what, I don't care. I am a sissy and I'm going to drop here. I send my brothers a message, as they've been following me on the tracker to tell them I'm out.
 
Right now I'm so tired that my head is lolling from side to side, I can barely hold it up and I just don't care.
 
"Hey Ben, it's Nik. Dad's had an accident."
 
I just don't want to do this right now. I want to be strong for my family, who really need me, if not in body but in spirit and resolve, but if I'm entirely honest right now I just don't want to. It seems so strange. This is a race completely unrelated to my situation with Dad, but I guess I wanted to come here today to remind the family that even though times are tough, we still have to stay positive and fight through adversity. We can beat it if we don't let ourselves be beaten first.
 
I want to go home, though. I just...I just don't want to be strong. I want to be able to cry and I want to let what's happened a week ago just dissappear. I don't want to be an adult, I want my dad and I want him to come and fix everything.
 
But he can't. And I can't do what I want, and I'm not embarrassed when I tell Sam to go on ahead and that I am dropping out. He goes, reluctantly, but he goes. We wish each other well and I'm pleased to see him head off looking strong.
 
Tom sends me a message spurring me on, followed by Nik, only he doesn't send a message to me, he copies and sends back the message I sent to Dad a week ago.
 
''Hey Dad,
 
You've given us all quite a scare. When I was about to finish a race I remember you telling me no matter what to keep pushing, to crawl if I had to. I've seen you physically crawl over finish lines before and we need you to keep that resilience. Come on, Dad, it's time to crawl this one in. Keep going. Keep strong. I miss you. I love you"
 
When I sent that message, I wish I could say it was about a race. It wasn't. When I sent that message all we knew was that dad's head was split open after a crash at very high speed on a mountain in Ecuador and that they, the neurosurgeons, were trying to do something to fix it. When you hear something like that, you think the worst. We couldn't expect much more. No one lives through that sort of damage. When I sent that message, as far as I was aware, Dad would never read it and I was just hoping for a miracle.
 
When I sent that message I was asking him not to die.
 
So when Nik sent it back to me it did something. It thumped me, right in my heart. The foil man has arrived a while ago and sat down next to me. He gets up and is about to carry on and I just get up to join him. He looks surprised after seeing me wobbling and whingeing in my chair looking defeatist. He asks if I'm going to join him and I tell him I am. A minute later we're off.
 
I don't explain why the sudden change, and I don't really need to, I just start moving again and we are just happy to get down to business. He's quite excited about the fact he managed not to drop and I'm suddenly determined. It's now four in the morning and we're a bit over a hundred kilometres deep into this thing.
 
A message from Dad's friend on the race.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I start to think I might actually finish. I think about why I'm here and suddenly my mood has changed in vast amounts. I'm chatting away as if it's the beginning of the race, so much so that we miss a turn and I end up leading us two hundred metres in the wrong direction, but we're so excited to have got out of the checkpoint neither of us care.
 
It turns out he was also at the SVP 100 a couple of weeks ago, but did the opposite and went for the later start, unfortunately not quite being quick enough to stay ahead of the cut offs. He's also doing the Ring O Fire race next weekend which I also briefly toyed with, but decided against as it's a hundred and thirty five miles over three days, and I'm already feeling burnt out.
 
We see a frog in the road and it looks quite eery in the darkness. I'm still pretty keen for the toilet, and with the sun about to come up I decide it's probably best to do so now while I still have a bit of privacy so I duck off for a couple of minutes, then spend a few more running to catch up.
 
As we were leaving the last checkpoint, Josh, as he's now introduced himself as, said he was keen to just walk most of it in, and given the mood I'm in I'm quite happy to follow suit with him on that. I just want to finish. Overcome. Beat the demons. Beat adversity.
 
We settle into a little bit of running and a lot bit of walking and just try to keep talking to take out minds of what's going on. The sun slowly comes up and once again we're treated to views of the lovely English countryside.
 
Dawn is one of the marvels of ultra running for me. It's such a surreal feeling when you've been going, for however many hours, through the slump of the night and then suddenly get this euphoric rush when the new day greets you and the birds begin to sing. Because of my head space today I find it hard to enjoy it the same way as I normally would but I make sure at a couple of points to just stop and look out and try to remember not just to be insular but also to look outside of my own world and see what is happening in the world around me, and to take in my surroundings. See the dawn and embrace it. A new day is arriving and with it, hope.
 
It's been very easy over the last day to not do that. To not look out. To see the glass half empty and want to smash the full one, and I'll be honest that I'm not entirely successful in reminding myself to look at the positive. I can look at the mud and puddles on the ground or I can look at the frog hopping happily along through it. I try to look at the frog. Flowers grow through rubble. I need to remember that.
 
The mud makes me realise, though, that I need another crap. It's not urgent, but it does start to worry me that's it's only been half an hour since I dug a cat hole in the ground. If I get seventy five miles deep into this thing, through all these mental barriers I've put on myself, only to then have to pull out because I feel like crapping myself I'm going to be mighty upset. So I go and sort it out, then run to catch Josh up.
 
We reach the penultimate checkpoint and it's a nice bright day. They have a pit fire going and smiles aplenty. We sit down for a few minutes and I try to eat what I can, but I'm not massively hungry as for the first time ever I've been able to eat lots and consistently throughout the race.
 
The gap to the next checkpoint is about twelve miles, so is mentally a tough one to get my head around and to not want to drop, but the sun is out and it feels good. With only twenty seven kilometres left I think this is possible and for once I don't think I want to drop.
 
A few more minutes and we're back on the road. The conversation is not quite as flowing as before and my feet are definitely starting to hurt a fair bit more, but the easier pace makes the going not too bad. There is definitely a lot more swearing going on from both of us though, and increasingly more offensive. Luckily there are only cows out here to complain.
 
We catch up with the lady who calls me the kiwi guy from the blog, and her friend. As I'm slightly ahead I get chatting to her a bit. They've been running together for nearly the whole race but he is struggling with blisters and she is starting to worry about him.
 
We're fine in terms of the cut offs but only if we keep moving at a reasonable pace. She's worried that her friend won't be able to keep up with that pace. The four of us bounce back and forth a little spread out for a few minutes, then Josh and I move ahead slightly.
 
We keep the pace easy and the swearing fairly continuous. As Josh did the Race to the Stones last year, an event that takes in the last hundred kilometres of the Ridgeway he's remembering the route here or there. As it was a year ago, though, it starts to do a number on his head as he keeps remembering a pylon and directions around it that just doesn't seem particularly forthcoming, and is really confusing him. I haven't got a clue either way so I just go with it.
 
There is an extremely long straight uphill section here and, whilst it's not a massive gradient, we definitely feel it on tired legs, so are pleased to reach the top and what we expect to be the checkpoint, only to find its not there on the road. Cue more swearing.
 
Then sure enough, we round a corner and make it to the final checkpoint. I'm feeling pretty good right now and there is only another ten kilometres to go. That last section was long, but as it wasn't through the night, it didn't feel as long as it could have and we're both grinning like wildcats as we say hello to the aid station staff.
 
Then they ask if we want a hot dog and oh-hells-yeah we do. I wolf that mofo down and its a right pick me up. I down a couple of cups of coke and then the lady of the pair we passed a while ago arrives in tears.
 
The whole thing is just emotionally quite a lot for her and to be honest I can relate. In a bizarre way seeing someone really struggling but really determined to finish gives me more strength.
 
I guess at this point I'm learning a bit that I draw a lot of strength from those around me. Not necessarily physically right next to me, but also spiritually and today in a lot of ways I'm blessed enough to have both.
 
So when Josh cheekily asks for another hot dog I do the same, then we're off. We're given the directions that we're to continue on the Ridgeway until we get to a fork whereby we take a right turn into the finish and with that we're away.
 
The final stretch. A day ago, I really didn't think I had it in me to even get past the first checkpoint and here I am doing it. I'm going to get to the finish and in all honesty it has nothing to do with me, it has all to do with the people around me. Both physically and in spirit.
 
Today, I managed to spend the whole day running with very different people, all of whom were amazing at keeping me motivated and enjoying the physical side of the race, and I was lucky enough to have the support of my brothers and of course the ever suffering Jess who puts up with all my moaning and pushes me to be a better person all together in my mind to keep charge of my spirit.
 
The conversation is still there but a lot of it is grunts now. We're both really happy to be about to finish, but the long straight road is playing a little on my head and the ruts in the ground are playing on Josh's body. But we keep ourselves motivated and pushing on.
 
We're passed by a trio of fellas but neither of us care at all. We're just moving on, enjoying the day. We go over another hill then Josh points into the distance and tells me he think we just follow this straight road for another few kilometres then turn right to where he's pointing and find the finish. So basically, the end is quite literally in sight.
 
We plod on, even jogging a little here or there then as we're going down another little hill I see the sign to indicate the turn off to the finish.
 
"Hey Ben, it's Nik. Dad's had an accident."
 
I get a message from Nik and it's a photo of Dad laid up in hospital, bald and frail with tubes coming out of him. I'm in front of Josh at this point and it all hits me again. I break down and I'm not ashamed to say I start to cry. For me, running has never been about fitness, it's been about overcoming the demons in my head. It's transposing the spiritual hardship we all go through into a physical context, squaring up to it and saying "Fuck you, I'm the boss today. You won't get the better of me."
 
I think of Dad, and wonder where he is and what's going on in his head. On the evening of that same Friday, Tom called me to tell me that he wasn't going to die, that he had come through the surgery and they were expecting a full recovery. I then called my Grandma to let her know that she wasn't going to bury her son that day. Before I could get anything out I just broke down on the phone to her, not able to say anything for what seemed like an age but was probably only sixty seconds. I don't think I've ever cried in front of Grandma and I'm not sure she knew what to do with a grown man bawling down the line to her.
 
Apparently when Dad opened his eyes he was told his sons we're thinking of him and he smiled before going back to sleep and it's that thought that comes back to me now. The last week has been by far the worst of my life, but he is awake now and starting to talk a little.
 
Dad was doing a cycle race from the top to the bottom of South America, and was going downhill when he hit a pothole and all of our lives changed forever. Nik flew out to see him and the reason I set up the tracking for me on this race is so that he can follow along with Dad and keep the family racing alive. To show that the Kissel's can be knocked but not beaten no matter how hard we fall. Nik sends me a message to tell me Dad is willing me on now that I'm nearly there.
 
 
We take the right turn and go down the hill. We hit the bottom then go over another little one and find ourselves running past the historic stone circle, along the lines of Stonehenge though not quite as majestic, and we're both pretty jubilant as we reach the town and various people are cheering us on.
 
We hit the final straight and the organisers actually pick up the banner normally reserved for the winner, Josh grabs my arm and we raise them to the sky as we grab the tape, eight six long miles done, our medals, and for me a huge amount of personal humility and respect for these fragile lives we live.
 
Dad, the day before the accident.
A week after the race I got in touch with Tim Mitchell, the Race Director, to talk about my medal. I was planning to get it cut up into three pieces, one each for you, Tom and Nik, but I wanted to get the official lanyards so I got in touch. I didn't explain why, and mentioned I wanted to pay for it and thought it may be forgotten as such plans usually are, but the very next day three more lanyards arrived in my mailbox. With a second medal. Tim had liked what I was doing and sent me a second one. The aftercare on this race was amazing to say the least (Thanks again Tim, you can see now why it meant so much). 

So, Dad, that's the end of my story, for now. At the time of writing most of this, it's a week further along. I'm currently on a plane nearly in Lima, Peru. I'll be honest, I'm very scared of what I'll find. Nik says it's okay now, that you feel better, but like Samson, you've has always been known for your hair and strength despite being a small man. I know it's going to be one of the hardest moments of my life to see you stripped of that.

I don't fully know what the future holds for our family, but I do know that we may have taken a tremendous knock but we will not be beaten. We will take this and make it something positive. As hard as this is I am doing my best to remember that flowers do grow through rubble. And when the times are dark, make sure you do, too.

For anyone else reading, if you've got this far, please, please go and tell your family you love them.
 
For you, Dad, I do love you.
 
Benjamin

Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunningcommunity.com


Just over a week ago I took part in the Ridgeway Challenge, a 86 mile off road race on the ancient footpath named, funnily enough, the Ridgeway. It begins in Buckinghamshire near a place called Tring and ends in Wiltshire at Avebury of massive stone circle fame.
I hadn’t really targeted this race, but thought that it seemed to fit in just about around other events, and I guessed that I’d carry enough fitness to complete it. Also, if I could complete this race it would qualify me for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc next year which is a race that I’ve wanted to do for some time.
There were two starts for this race. One at 10am on the Saturday for people who thought they’d take longer than 24hrs, and one at midday for those that would beat 24hrs. I had no real clue how long this one would take so I took a bit of a gamble and chose the later start.
I hadn’t done anything during the week leading up to this one as my knees were still feeling a little tender and I figured the weeks rest certainly wouldn’t have a negative impact on my performance.
One of the lessons I’ve slowly picked up is just how valuable rest is, even if I think I feel fine, the extra day or two here and there really does help. The difficult bit is that I obviously love running, so taking these breaks can be very frustrating. I have to keep reminding myself of the bigger picture.
I had to get up at 5 to have breakfast and make my way to the train station. Fortunately Andrea woke up and kindly offered to drive me to the station. Thank god she did as I only got there with five minutes to spare! I felt remarkably relaxed during the journey. I could even manage to read for an hour or so! I met another competitor on the train at London which was nice. Had a good chat about the usual topics : training, injuries, previous races, future races etc. Finally we arrived at Tring station, where we met a few other guys who were doing the race. Whilst we were waiting for the organiser to pick us up and take us to the start we noticed that the 10 am starts began trickling past.
Finally we got picked up and driven to the start. It was a perfect day for running, Sunny but not too hot. I signed in and picked up my race number and slowly began getting ready for the off.
I still felt very calm which was nice. I can only think that this was due to this race not being a real target and maybe the experience was starting to show!
At quarter to twelve everyone started milling towards the start which is at the top of Ivinghoe Beacon, which has beautiful views of the surrounding scenery. Now I was just excited and keen to make a start. I was a tiny bit chilly which to me means it ideal for running in as soon I’d heat up plenty!
Finally we were off! I started running with Colin who I’d met during the JOGLE training a few weeks previous and a chap called Alex who had never done an ultra before. I explained that I intended to break the running up with plenty of brief spells of fast walking. They both seemed happy with my strategy so we stuck together for the time being. Straight away we found our way fairly close to the back as everyone shot off. It’s always difficult at this stage to hold a steady pace, your own pace, and let everyone do their own thing. I felt pretty good with my strategy, as did Colin. I’m not sure Alex thought it was best for him but we stuck together for a while.
Eventually someone caught up and Alex started chatting with them. I realised that the pace was a tiny bit above what I had planned, so I slowed a little. Colin stayed with me and Alex disappeared into the distance. I felt very confident with my pacing today.
We got to the first cp where I stuffed my face with whatever delights they had there, filled up my bladder then set off asap. It amazes me how many people you can get past if you’re fast at the cp’s, this was no exception. We didn’t really see many other people till we got to the 3rd cp. This surprised me as I was holding a 20hr pace which would get me roughly in the top twenty somewhere if I could sustain it. I asked the guys at the 3rd cp how many had gone through. He informed us that we were about seventieth out of 92! Hopefully the tailenders would start coming into our sights.
Soon we were rewarded for our patience. we must have took about 20 people over the next 5 miles. And this continued all the way past the 4th cp till we caught Alex and his running buddy. We passed him a carried on our way. We both felt pretty good by this stage. It’s always good to be catching people, but again you have to try to keep control of yourself. It’s all about running your own race. Just as it was getting dark, we arrived at the 5th cp, which also was the half way point. Here we had access to our drop bags plus they had some baked potatoes with baked beans which I wolfed down as fast as possible as there were loads of competitors here we had caught up and I fancied getting back on the road before them.
Colin and I left together with headtorches on as it was now pitch black out. I like to run at night, but It’s always good to be able to turn the light of when day breaks.
We started on the long uphill drag out from the cp, soon overtaking a group of three. The hill went on for quite a while. I felt good enough to feel like running. Soon we overtook a woman by herself, then we were out by our selves, away from the light pollution enough to notice the stunning canopy of stars above us. I was so enjoying this race that I kept finding a dirty great grin across my face. This is what it’s all about.
We kept up the pace until coming up a hill we could finally see the lights of the next cp. This meant there was only one left after this one. We stopped and fortunately my stomach still felt fine, so I ate as much as I could without making myself ill. This strategy seemed to be working well so far, so with only 17 miles remaining, I wasn’t about to change it now. Colin on the other hand, was starting to get a bit of an uncomfortable stomach. I noticed that he didn’t eat as much as he should have. As we left the cp, I told him to try and eat something else he’ll just run out of gas. He ate a bite size chocolate bar. We pushed on, but I was a little concerned about Colin.
By the time we had got to the final cp, I felt great, but Colin was in need of a bush. I ate and had a coffee whilst he dealt with it. Eventually he reappeared not looking great. He said he’d been ill and told me to go on, So I got ready quickly and ran off into the darkness.
I now decided to push the pace a little seeing as I felt so good. The Ridgeway followed a road for a mile or so till it came to a T-junction. I span around looking for a sign post. As I hunted for the sign, a car pulled up and asked me Where I was looking for. I told him that I was looking for the Ridgeway west bound. He helpfully pointed me down a hill telling me to keep going till I found the hospital. Here I’d be able to pick up the path again. I thanked him and started off fast down the hill. The further I’d gone The more doubt started creeping into my mind. Finally I came to a sign that said “footpath to Ridgeway 2.5 miles”. Brilliant I thought, Let’s get back on the Ridgeway. After about 5 minutes running on this track I again Got a little concerned as the track looked almost completely disused. I kept on running.
I then lost the track and realised that I was on some farm land. I jumped a fence and was on a road. I hunted for another sign but couldn’t see one. Which way? I went right and ended up on a larger road. After sitting down for a minute with my map trying work out my location, I still wasn’t too sure. I rushed down the road a bit further and came to a village which thankfully gave me my location. Sadly I had been directed by the stranger the wrong way! Probably for a laugh no doubt. I was angry with him, but more so with myself. What a fool for not checking! I put all of my concentration into channeling my frustration into my running. I ran with speed back up the hill I’d been directed down. 10 minutes later I started to see the headlights of other runners. I was back on track. This made me smile. Now I had some serious overtaking to do. I guessed that I’d been bumbling around for around an hour. I straight away started to take people. no-one attempted to stay with me for a while. Then I heard some footsteps behind me. Someone was running with me which I was quite surprised about as my pace was still fast being fueled by adrenalin. We ran together for about half an hour till he informed me he was going to walk for a bit. I pushed on.
Soon I caught up with Colin. I was very glad to see that he was still pushing on. He was going well now, but told me that he had stayed at the cp for half an hour! I pushed on and took about four more guys before reaching the last cp. I ate fast. They informed me that it was 6 miles till the end. My stopwatch said 18hrs 57mins. To beat 20hrs I needed to run 10k in less than 1hr 3mins.
This seemed fast but I felt good and still highly motivated after my error. I left as fast as I could.
The final 10k was smooth and I took another 3 guys. As I entered Avebury my stopwatch reset itself so I lost track of my time. I squeezed out every last drop of energy all the way to the finish.
My time was 20hrs 2mins!
I was of course frustrated with my error and time, but overall, seeing as I hadn’t trained specifically for this race, I was really chuffed with my pacing, my speed and I really enjoyed the event. I recovered really fast which is always nice and a sure sign of fitness.
Between the Ridgeway and the next race which is the 24hrs, I have a gap of 6 weeks. I decided to take 2 whole weeks off of running after. This will be followed by an easy low mileage week, two medium mileage weeks, a long hard week and finishing with a week of rest before the race.
Once the 24 is done, that is the end of my season. My biggest yet! Then I’ll be slowly building towards the JOGLE.
I currently have another 5 days off of running which is very difficult, but I can feel myself getting stronger and all my niggles are disappearing, so I’ll stick to the plan.
I’ll Blog soon.
Happy running.

Written by Andrew Benham - http://uphillstruggler.blogspot.fr






























I'm standing alone in a small town a long way from home. I'm tired but happy; I've just finished the Glencoe Skyline. I'm also feeling a little, for want of a better word, traumatised. I just didn't expect this race to be quite so...hard. I had to have climbing experience & have finished a mountain race just to qualify for the opportunity to enter this race, but neither of these things made me a mountain runner. And this weekend I found this out the hard way.

So here I was, with a medal around my neck, having scraped in just in time to avoid putting on my head torch. But as I crossed the line there were only ten more runners out on the course behind me. Despite the enthusiasm of the crew and a few hangers on I felt like last orders had been called and the officials, like barmen late on a Friday night, waited patiently for the last few runners to sup up the final miles before the chairs were stacked on the tables and the lights went off.

Rewind twelve - no nearly thirteen - hours and I'd stood in the same spot, the sound of bagpipes piercing the early morning air. As the count down ended we surged out onto the start of the course.  A short flat section lead out to the trail and it was clear the pace would be quick as we began to climb. The first few miles lead up past the hyrdo electric plant towards the Devil's Staircase. A wide trail, rough in places, constantly uphill but at an angle that begs to be run. I soon realised the hill wasn't going to end any time soon and settled into walking the steeper bits, surprised at how many people were passing me but not willing to push any harder in these first few miles. The sun was up and the golden morning light spread like honey over the hills; having spent all week expecting rain this was a delight - although we knew the forecast for later was not so promising.

 

 

 

 

Before I knew it we were dropping down towards the A82 at Altnafeadh and the first checkpoint. Crossing the road we approached Buachaille Etiv Mor where the first technical section awaited. The mountain rears up at the Eastern end of Glencoe, the great shepherd of Etiv, looking out across Rannoch Moor and looming over us as we advance. Our route was via Curved Ridge - a grade III scramble - and to get there we had to work our way around the base of the mountain, climbing steadily all the way before finally taking a direct line up the steepening crag. The scrambling was absorbing and I was in my element. Eventually a bottle neck formed as the route reached its technical crux and we were forced into an orderly line, mountain guides were on hand to keep an eye out for anyone in difficulty but everyone here knew what to do and before long we had passsed the difficulties and climbed up into the clouds engulfing the summit.

 

 

 

 

 






























After dibbing at the checkpoint we dropped down briefly before a steady climb took us up to another summit. From here we descended a long path on a variety of terrain, some quite technical, to the valley base. I stopped to quickly fill a bottle from the stream before crossing over and running a short way along its bank. Almost immaediately though we were climbing again and I settled into a rhythm. Everyone was quite spread out, a couple of runners behind me seemed to be moving at about my pace and we slowly caught a couple more towards the top. The last few feet were loose scree and mud and I prayed this wasn't a false summit. This was a ridge between two peaks and the path led off straight back down; I stopped to sort my laces out and grab some food and then set off on the descent. A larger stream ran down this valley and we followed it for a mile or so - some good flat running followed, overshadowed by steep, rocky buttresses above.







































Soon we left the bank of the stream, crossed open fell and were directed up another thigh busting climb. Deteriorating conditions greeted us as we made the saddle and a sign post sent us up into the mist to the summit of Stob Coire Sgreamhach. Everyone was stopping to put on waterproofs then heading off into the clag in search of the next orange marker flag. The climb went on and on and with no idea of where we were going I was starting to feel a little jaded. Finally we reached the checkpoint, the marshals huddled by the summit cairn gave us words of encouragement though I felt they had the harder job sitting up there for hours. On we went, visibility no more than 100ft, just sufficient to find the next flag without which I'd have been lost and frantic trying to navigate my way onwards.

































 

 

Talk among some of the other runners was turning to our progress, and how likely we were to reach the cut off at twenty miles. Confidence was high but it was clear we had to keep moving well to make sure we made it. I'm not the fastest running by any means but this was the first time I've felt quite such pressure to make a cut off.  The summit of Bidean Nam Bian saw us being sent on a short out and back section to take in a further peak. Dropping steeply down a rough, loose and broken path, we exchanged words of encouragement with those on the return trip. On the way back I turned my ankle - not what I wanted at this point. My first thoughts were that my race was over but after walking it off I found things weren't too serious, though it certainly knocked my confidence. We were eighteen miles in had over an hour to get to the cut off but I was getting really worried I might not make it, I felt pretty low as we descended scree slopes varying from large broken rocks to loose gravel. To be honest I wasn't enjoying myself too much at this point. I usually love descending but I found this terrain infuriating and couldn't make any kind of pace.




























As we left the cloud behind we dropped steeply down towards the A82, any hopes for an easier time of it evaporated; the laid stone path was dangerously slippery in the wet. Several runners fell on the way down and I passed another whose day was done, hobbling on borrowed poles and looking dejected. On and on we went, I could see and hear the checkpoint in the layby across the road but it seemed to be getting no closer. Time was slipping away and I really wasn't sure I would make it.  In truth part of me was hoping I wouldn't - I'd spied the huge climb across the road in the days before and it looked like a real killer. As it was I ran into the checkpoint with ten minutes to spare. This was the only checkpoint on the route with food and drink available; I turned down the offer of tea - "No Time" - instead downing a couple of cups of cola and grabbing some mars bars before heading off again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to say about the climb up to Aonach Eagach? The runners nearing the top of the climb were tiny dots as I started and the climb - completely off trail - started steep and got steeper still. I started looking for rocks or other land marks to climb to before stopping for a quick breather. Towards the top of this waking nightmare of a climb the grass got so steep I was on hands and knees. Finally, after scrabbling up the final metres of dirty, insecure scree, the angle eased and soon the summit cairn reared up out of the gloom. Nearly nine hundred metres in less than a mile and a half, it took me an hour and twenty minutes from the road to the top.




























The wind tore into me and robbed me of the warmth of my recent exursions in seconds. I crouched behind some rocks and sorted out some warmer clothes before moving on. Conditions were pretty grim, rain and strong winds not the ideal for this long exposed stretch of scrambling. It took a while to get to the meat of the ridge, but the path continually narrowed until the drops into the cloud on each side were only feet away from each other. I felt as if I was crossing a bridge over the underworld, with only my imagination to measure the distance I'd fall should I slip. The first few sections of scrambling were easy enough - a guide was on hand to warn us we were approaching technical ground. Then a steep descent demanded our focus - another guide was belayed at its base and as I aravied several runners were just reaching the bottom. I followed and immediately we climbed up and over another rocky outcrop, a handful of figures ahead of me in the gloom. We were soon separated but I caught up again as we got to the pinnacles - the most exposed and dangerous section of the ridge. Another guide gave me a quick bit of beta and I skirted left, then down, then around the vertical pillars of rock. In wet slippery conditions this was serious stuff.  Everyone became quite spread out from here - a couple of more hesitant souls dropping back and those in front of me making a good pace and leaving to my own devices. I was loving this part of the route! We wound up and down, heaving up steep faces, traversing narrow ledges, dropping down tight sided gullies.




























After some time the difficulties began to ease though each time I thought I was clear of the ridge another techical section would loom out of the ether like the prow of a huge ship. I was quite worried that I wouldn't get to the finish before the final cut off at fourteen hours but there was no way I could move any quicker in these conditions. Soon though the last of the difficulties were done with and the ground opened out on each side of me. At a check point I was assured that I had plenty of time but almost immediately went off course and found myself hunting across the hillside for the next orange flag. From here the route follows rolling hills, alternating between tussocky grass and boulder fields, with a frustrating number of short, sharp climbs before finally descending to the path we had started on so many hours earlier. This last descent was very slippery, made worse by the passage of a few hundred runners, and I found myself on my backside more than once.


























Reaching the path I was informed by a marshal I only had 5k to go - just a park run remained between me and the solice of the finish line. I managed to pick up the pace and ran well to the end, glad to be able to run properly at last. Crossing the finish line I was spent. I felt as if I'd left a big piece of myself out on the hills. I've done longer runs and been utterly broken at the end - far worse than I was this time, but the sheer effort per mile on this race outstripped every other experience.

In the days that followed I replayed the day again and again, I certainly got my money's worth. There is no doubt this is one of the greatest races in the country. With the Mamores VK and the Ring of Steall race on the preceding days this weekend is a must do for all who yearn to run hard in the mountains. Maybe next year I'll come back and run all three! Or maybe not!

Written by Martyn Price - http://exilesview.blogspot.co.uk

Are you sitting comfortably?

I must apologise to those who have been patiently waiting for me to put finger to keyboard and tell my story of this epic race, things have been a bit hectic since I came back from France and I just haven't had the slack to give it the attention it deserved. I've cleared all the crap off my desk, hurled abuse at my tormentors and have a packet of hobnobs and a vat of coffee at my elbow. So yes, the UTMB - where the heck to start?

I will confess to a bit of trepidation before I flew out to Chamonix and that's putting it mildly. You see, I never actually expected to get a place in the UTMB, I put my name into the ballot because I had nine qualifying points (you needed seven for the 2014 race) and was honest enough to realise that I'd probably never have them again. It would have been a travesty not to try and get into the biggest and baddest race in Europe .... believe me when I tell you that I was more than a *little* shocked when I got the notification that I was in. Panic? Let me tell you, I was flapping like a hyperventilating parrot.

I did what I could in terms of training and preparation, targetting a series of races that would give me the kind of long-distance endurance I envisaged would be necessary. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure I got this right but more on that later. I enlisted help from previous entrants into the race and also training support and guidance from a highly respected and very talented off-road runner who was invaluable in helping to keep me on track and my head in the right place. I did a whole lot more core and strength work, hammering the dratted hill climb machine at the gym to the point where it whimpered and tried to hide in the corner when I walked in. You know something? I hate that machine with a passion, but there's no denying its effectiveness; its use resulted in proper Bob Graham-style quads with which to do battle and they were going to be needed. There's 31,800 feet of climb in the UTMB - and of course a commensurate amount of descent - so weedy little sparrow legs weren't going to be much use!

As the day of my departure steadily approached, I was locked firmly in the throes of taper madness, convincing myself that every vestige of fitness had left my body and that the UTMB was going to be an unmitigated disaster. It was all I could do was hold on and resist the temptation to go for a long run over the nearest set of hills. I have to say that things weren't helped by my going to support Helen on the Grand Tour of Skiddaw the weekend before I left, she stomped round the 44-mile course in an alarmingly quick time and came home in 2nd place. I had sat in my van for most of the day drinking tea and idly munching the odd sticky bun. You'd never have guessed that in less than a week's time I would be pitting heart and soul against some of the biggest hills that Europe has to offer.

So, it was up early on the Tuesday morning before the race and off down the M62 to Manchester Airport. It was a dreary, drizzly morning and things got off to a nervous start when I missed what appeared to have been a nasty pile-up right across the central reservation, I must have avoided it only by seconds. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be hurt but it didn't half get the old ticker going. I was nervous, the logistics of the my UTMB assault had been planned with what I fondly imagined to be military precision and I couldn't afford for anything to go wrong or delay me. I reached the airport without further incident, dumped the car at JetParks (very efficient) and quickly got the transfer to the airport. A minor kerfuffle at baggage check-in (who would have thought that two boxes of Torq gels would weigh so much?), but in no time at all I had comfortably parked my lazy backside in one of EasyJet's finest and was enroute Geneva.

Can I just say that getting to Chamonix is an absolute piece of wee? When we were here in May we did it the hard way by hiring a car, struggling through the madness of Geneva and then onwards to my friend's apartment near Morzine. This time, I'd booked Mountain transfers and all you have to do is wobble through to the French sector (Geneva spans Switzerland and France obv.) and be met by the very efficient transfer folks. In no time at all you're in a mini bus and bombing onwards to Chamonix, the whole journey takes maybe 75 minutes.  Positives aside, the weather wasn't filling me with much confidence as it was absolutely chucking it down with rain and this was the last thing I wanted. Still, the forecast for the weekend was good, so I had to trust in that.

I was met in Chamonix and taken to the apartment I'd rented for the week, somewhat unbelievably I was in, done and dusted before 1.00pm. Very efficient.  The apartmental rental was pretty expensive, but couldn't have been better situated - it was right in the middle of town in the Le Mummery building, maybe 200 yards from the race start and in immediate proximity to the Sports Platz and every outdoor shop you can imagine. The UTMB office itself was immediately opposite and I had a grand view of the mountain side and a little balcony of my own to watch the world go by. My plan was to spend as much as possible of the next three days resting (preferably asleep), so seeing as Helen wasn't flying out until Thursday, I decided to hit the Ultra Trail Salon (= Trade Fair) and bash the credit card while I was unsupervised.

View from our apartment in Chamonix

The UTMB Trail Salon is a wonderful place. Organisers of the the world's big off-road races come here to advertise their event and tout for business, moreover all the big kit manufacturers were present and I was easily seduced. In the end, I bought a very cool WAA UTMB ultra top, a pair of outrageously expensive BVM calf-guards and helped myself to several freebie buffs from the Inov8 stand. While I was there (ie. at the Inov8 stand), I tried on a pair of their new Ultra 290 shoe and was told that if I was to return at 5.30pm I could take them for a test, as Team Inov8 were going for a run! I wasn't going to miss that kind of opportunity, so showed up on the dot, clad in my new WAA top  It was here that I met fellow Brit and ace ultra runner Mike Raffan, a lovely guy and someone who gave me the SP on who we were running with, because I only recognised Robbie Britton. Turns out that I went on my little jog up the river with Joe Grant and Nick Hollon, both exceptional U.S. ultra runners. Nick is the guy who won the 2013 Barkley Marathons and recently placed 2nd at the Tour des Geants (TdG). He looked really normal, it was only when he turned around and I noticed the 'Badwater" logo on his camp that I realised I might be in the presence of someone Not Quite Human. If you haven't heard of the Barkley Marathons, I urge you to have a quick Google around and get the full story. It is (seriously) one of the toughest races in the world and to win it - or rather, to be one of the only two survivors - tells you a lot about a man. I felt completely out of my league. Nick is wearing the red top on my left.

Some of the best off-road runners you'll ever meet - and me!

The next few days passed in a bit of a snoozy blur and I didn't socialise much, barring a few visits from my mate Dave and his partner Sarah, he was also doing the UTMB and looked as nervous as I did. I'd bought a large volume of Hornblower with me, pretty much guaranteeing that I would lie in bed and fall asleep while reading it. Tactics, you see.  I went down to the finish to watch the TDS winner come in (the same guy who won the UTMB last year), but other than that about all I did was eat, sleep. In case you're wondering what the hell the TDS is, there are actually five races that take place during the week, all of varying distance, but the UTMB is the biggie and the one that everyone wants to enter. The others are of varying degrees of lunacy, but as I recall the TDS is about 75 miles and 23,500ft of climb. It's basically a week-long festival of off-road running that culminates in the UTMB. On the Thursday afternoon (Helen was due to arrive) Thursday eve) I went down to the Sports Platz to sign on for the race and went through the impressive kit-check and registration process. As you go through the nine different areas, your UTMB wristband is attached and you are given the UTMB technical T-shirt, quite a nice North Face one that's going to be a contender in the "Hard T-Shirt" category. Everyone gets one of these, it's the highly-prized finisher's gilet that you don't get until the end, so it's a serious incentive to finish the race!

Race day arrived. Helen had arrived late on the previous evening and brought a bit of sanity and calm with her, God knows I needed it. I was in total faff mode, I'd packed, re-packed and packed my race pack again and again, I knew exactly what and where everything was and could recite the precise contents of my drop bag. You can receive outside assistance at 5 seperate places on the course and Helen planned to be at all of them, I'd bought a UTMB bus pass for her (30 euros) that would take her through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur in Italy and it was here that I would find my drop bag. A good place for it too, it's the logical half-way point (sort of). In theory, she would know exactly where and how close to schedule I was. I'd worked out a sub-40 and sub-42 hour schedule based on figures from previous years, but had no idea how this would pan out in reality. I'd signed up for a text service (10 euros) that would let her know every time I went through a checkpoint, but of course that depended on there being cellular coverage - something that's a bit difficult to guarantee in mountain ranges! I forced myself to lie down and rest but it was hard and I was as nervous as hell - way more nervous that I was before my successful BGR - and at around 2.00pm I was force-fed a large plate of pasta by an irritated Helen. Eventually, there was nowt for it but to get my kit on, lubricate every possible moving bit of body and make my way to the start.

Did I mention that it was raining when I arrived in Chamonix? The next few days brought blue skies and perfect weather, just what was needed. The forecast for the weekend was good too, unfortunately there was a narrow but nasty band of wet weather sweeping down to the South-East and it was going to go straight over Chamonix and the Southern tip of the course. Bollocks, talk about the fickle finger of fate!  Although I had all the wet weather kit you could desire, like everyone I was hoping for a straight run of decent conditions as it would make survival much easier. Talking of survival, the stats for the UTMB make for sober reading: Since the race was first ran (I think 2003) it's averaged out that 67% of runners finish within the final time cut-off. And bear in mind that it's a screened and selected field (you have to do some fairly significant races to get the necessary points for the UTMB), so in theory anyone who toes the starting line is experienced enough to look after him/herself and cover the whole distance without major organ failure. That's the theory, but the reality is somewhat different and that 67% average proved to be damn nearly spot-on for 2014. I desperately didn't want to be part of the 33% that failed.

The town square in Chamonix was packed solid, a seething mass of humanity who were all focussed on getting round this behemoth of a race. The weather front was coming in fast and dark, menacing clouds gathered right above us. Helen was doing her absolute best to keep me calm and my friend Hanno from Pennine Fell Runners had found us and looked just as nervous. Who wouldn't be? The rain started, accompanied by some appropriately sombre music from the humungous sound system that was filling the entire town with noise. I put on my lightweight pertex jacket, hoping that this was just a light shower (it wasn't) and took my place in the crowd. This was it: Months of anticipation and planning, it was now me versus the mountain and as the rain started to come down in torrents I had no idea who was going to be the victor. This video gives a good perspective.

UTMB Start 2014

I'd heard from several former UTMB-finishers that the race starts way too fast and it's important to reign things in, so started off at what I hoped was a sensible pace and took care not to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. It's a pretty easy and level start, but I checked my watch as as we arrived at the Les Houches CP (4.9m) and I was already way inside my "best case" 40-hour schedule. In all honesty, it was just not realistic to run quite so slowly, I'd have ended up way too far back and I knew it was important to get up the field a bit, because it wouldn't be possible to pass other people once we started the first really serious climb up the Col du Bonhomme.

The rain continued to pour from the sky and as we passed Le Delevret (CP2/8.6m) I spotted a guy I knew from Wharfedale Harriers, we'd ran part of the Calderdale Hike together earlier in the year and it was a very fortuitous meeting, we ended up sticking together for a good part of the race, a bit of mutual support is a wonderful thing and I'm sure he was as pleased as I was for some company. We came off the muddy trail into Saint-Gervais (CP3/13.1m) and were well inside the time cut-off, but the rain was beginning to bounce off the pavements and getting worse. The little pertex jacket I'd been wearing just wasn't up to the job, so although I hated doing it (the air temperature remained quite high), I had to get my proper waterproof out - and of course, I was completely soaked by not wearing it earlier. Bad move Martyn.  We pushed onwards, wanting to make a few places up before the big climb we both knew was coming and thank God, the rain started to ease, but of course the conditions underfoot were pretty hideous. CP4 at Les Contamines (19.2m) was the first "assisted" stop and I was overjoyed to see Helen yelling my name as we emerged from the darkness, what a girl  Once we'd been through the food and drink bit, she was right there with a dry top and extra gels to shove in my rucksack, I wouldn't see her now until the next assistance point at Courmayeur. I had to make sure I had everything I needed .... a quick kiss and I was off again into the night.

Darkness wrapped around us like a cloak, but at least it had stopped raining. We quickly dropped down to Notre Dame de La Gorge (CP5/21.6m) and began the long, interminable climb to La Balme (CP6/24.2m) and onwards to the Col du Bonhomme. The track had already been churned into glutunous, slimy mud and making meaningful process was bloody hard work. We were now firmly "locked" in position and it would have taken a completely disproportionate amount of effort to overtake anyone. Trail shoes are definitely the order of the day for the UTMB (I was wearing Brooks Cascadias), but right then I would have sold my unworthy soul for a pair of Mudclaws. Looking at my final time splits, I realise that I lost loads of time here, but what could I do? Until the track widened and conditions improved, everyone was stuck in their relative positions. What I will say is that it was an incredibly spectacular sight, as far as the visible horizon there was along line of headtorches, climbing inexorably upwards. It was some comfort to look behind me and realise that a good proportion of the field was behind me, I wish I could describe it .... it was like some illuminated caterpillar, writhing in the darkness. We finally reached the Col (CP7/26.4m) but we were't finished here yet and there was a further climb across some pretty rocky ground up to the Refuge at Croix du Bonhomme (CP8/27.6m) and the highest point of the race so far at 7,940ft. It was around here that I started to feel a bit tired and the full enormity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks; I was only a quarter of the way through and beginning to fade! What on earth did I think I was doing?

View from Croix du Bonhomme - impressive eh?

 A long descent came and saved me. We went from 7,940ft to 5,000ft in the space of about 3 miles (the descents are LONG) and I believe I started to feel better as we came into Les Chapieux (CP9/30.9m), by now it was about 3.15am and we were roughly 10 minutes outside my 40-hour schedule, but easily inside the 4.45am cut-off. This was the first designated sleep station (not mandatory of course) and I was amazed to see people slumped on the tables and dragging themselves off to grab a quick nap. It was WAY too early in the game for that and I was relieved to get out of there and be on our way. It was still dark and I'll admit my morale suffered a bit when I saw the distant headtorches climbing high into the distance, but the knowledge that dawn was just around the corner made me feel much better. It's a long, long climb from Les Chapeiux up to the Col de La Seigne (CP10/37.3m) at 8177ft, but the improved weather and first glimmer of dawn brought some views that were breathtaking .... we dropped through the Ville des Glaciers and past the famous Mer de Glace, then as we crested the Col were treated to a truly stunning panorama of jagged mountain peaks silhouetted against the dawn sky. It was bloody marvellous and as so often happens in these situations I had to ask myself what I'd done to deserve this life-enhancing moment. I won't forget it.

Col De La Seigne

We dropped down to Lac Combal (CP11/40.1m) and I suppose by then we had crossed into Italy and the Vallée d'Aoste. My partner (Mike) was fading a bit and I must admit I wasn't feeling 100%, so we made the most of this CP, tidied our kit up and jammed as much food in as we could. Nick Ham had warned me in advance about the food and he was absolutely correct. The staples appeared to be soft cheese, salami, french bread and the French OverStim energy bars. I don't know about you, but in my opinion this isn't the most nutritious and energy-giving combination.  The OverStim energy bars are like cardboard and difficult to get down when you're feeling a bit low. That said, the other "staple" at nearly every checkpoint was chicken noodle soup, it was invariably hot and very salty, I don't suppose it had much real nutritional value, but by God it warmed the cockles of your heart and (very important) gave you something to dip your french bread into.

There was a bit of a climb up to Arete Mont Favre (CP12/42.7m) and then on to Col Checrouit (CP13/45.8) where I had one of the strongest cups of coffee in my lifetime, I can recall this very vividly ..... we sat there as the morning sun began to warm our chilled bodies and we contemplated the descent down to Courmayeur and the caffeine coursed through my body like a lightening bolt. I was awake! We set off, keen on getting to our drop bags and some proper hot food, I was also beginning to feel the effects of running in wet, muddy socks for the best part of 50 miles and my back and hips were also suffering due to the constant rubbing of wet and clammy kit. It actually got a bit competitive as we dropped further down the valley, there were some French guys leading the way and every time they hit an even slightly rocky bit slowed massively. I made the effort to get past them, but don't think they appreciated this cheeky Brit scooting past and gave chase  I reached Courmayeur (CP14/48.2m) way in front of the Frenchies, but if I'm honest it had probably taken a bit more out of me than was wise.

Running into Courmayeur ....

Anyhow, there was my lovely wife, looking happy and cheering us in. Apparently getting to Courmayeur via the Mont Blanc tunnel was the easiest of all the support points, but was actually the one she was most worried about. She went out there with Sarah and as far as I can tell the whole process was easy-peasy. I was really glad to see her and we got to work straight away on fixing my battered body. My back and hips were in a mess and I looked like I'd been locked in a death-match with a pissed-off panther. Helen had a full first aid kit with her and did what she could, this amounted to putting layers of Myofix on the affected areas and then as much Bodyglide as would stick around the edges. It was bloody sore  Taking my shoes off revealed a similar mess, I'd been running in Smartwool merino socks, but I'd stupidly opted NOT to wear gaiters - and I had a new pair of those cool "Dirty Girl" ones on standby as well  - the result being that mud had got in and literally worn holes through my socks. The wet weather earlier on had caused my feet to swell and there were some significant hot-spots under on the balls of my feet and heels, moreover the majority of my toes were throbbing - probably a consequence of the swelling. We did what we could, dry socks and much Bodyglide/vaseline was applied before I said goodbye and went up to join Mike and stuff my face with some pretty mediocre pasta. It was crap, but I needed real food and there weren't many options.

We spent too long at Courmayeur, but it's hard to lever your arse out your chair, particularly when what's in front of you is likely to cause pain and physical distress. Nonetheless, off we went and you have to trek your way through the town centre before reaching the trail that takes you upwards ..... It's my observation that Courmayeur is a lovely place and I would like to go back there one day, preferably under less trying circumstances. A couple of things that gave me a real boost here were some British folks (presumably on holiday) who saw the Union flags on our race numbers and gave us some tremendous cheers, but even better was the middle-aged American lady who [apparently] studied my lycra-clad backside as I passed her on the mountainside, en-route Refugio Bertone. "Nice ass" she said, then after a moment "good legs too". I turned her round to thank her and jokingly said that I would send her a Christmas Card for her kindness. She looked me in the eye and said "Honey, if you have the time I would LOVE to give you my address". So that cheered me up  Hey, you have to take the plaudits where you can!

View above Courmayeur

I knew that the next few hours were going to be tough, this section heading North would lead to the highest point on the course, moreover it was starting to get a bit warm. We didn't hang around at Refugio Bertone (CP 15/51.2m) and pushed straight on to Refugio Bonatti (CP 16/55.8m) which apparently is one of the best mountain refuges in the Alps. I have to say, it's in a beautiful location and I as I looked around me at the stunning scenery I realised that I was pretty knackered, the long climbs were beginning to wear me down and would have liked nothing more than to stop right there and forget this UTMB madness. That's dangerous thinking and my guide and mentor H. had warned me to have a mental strategy to deal with such things. Basically, the trick is to bring to mind consequences that would be worse than giving in and I did just that. I won't bore you with the details, but I quickly dispelled the negativity from my head and got moving. I still had some fight in me, although I was definitely on a bit of a downer and to my chagrin Mike was having a good patch and definitely needed to push on ahead. He didn't want to, but we'd agreed that we'd run together as long as it made sense to do so and in this case I insisted - he had to get moving. I pushed on alone and dropped down from Bonatti to Arnuva (CP 17/59.1), where Mike was fuelling up. The reason for this is that the next "proper" food stop was some way off at La Fouly and there was some serious terrain to get over and I did the same. We left Arnuva together, but he was definitely stronger than me at this point and again we seperated. The next climb takes you up to Grand Col Ferret (CP18/61.9m), at 8245ft it's the highest point on the course and I immediately recognised the setting, as it's the scene of many UTMB publicity photos. I was relieved in the extreme to be here, although I was by now slightly outside my 42-hour schedule but reassuringly at least three hours in front of the cut-off.

It's a long, long descent from the Grand Col Ferret, taking you into Switzerland and through La Peule (CP19/64.1), then down to the big checkpoint at La Fouly (CP20/67.7m). The field had really thinned out by now and I realised that I must have made up quite a few places from earlier in the race, because I'd stomped down this descent at a decent pace. It transpired that I was now back inside my 42-hour schedule, but worryingly my feet were really beginning to hurt and I suspected that things were going to get worse (much) before they got better. I probably spent longer than I needed to at La Fouly, it was here that I noticed that other competitors were beginning to look the worse for wear and I had a lot of sympathy for an Australian guy who just collapsed on the deck, saying that he needed sleep before he could run another inch. I never saw him again, I do hope he made it. I ran onwards, out into the countryside and Praz de Fort (CP21/73 miles), it was about here that I began to recognise parts of the course from our recce earlier in May. From here, it's a bit of slog to Champex Lac and the sun was beginning to set. I was heading into my second night on the UTMB and from what I'd heard, if you had made it this far, then it was where things really began to get tough. Jesus, could they get any tougher? Really?

Helen was going to be at Champex (CP22/76.5m) and I was looking forward to seeing her. Although we'd been there on our recce, I had no idea where the actual checkpoint was, so as I neared the top of the climb I was a bit surprised to see her step out of the darkness and welcome me  The checkpoints were much less frenetic this much further into the race and she immediately led me to a bench and got fresh and dry kit out. I could see that she was tired too, but bless her, she was doing her absolute best to get me fuelled and back out into the race. It transpired that I was much closer to Mike than I thought, he'd come into Champex only minutes before me and was having a proper long stop and refuel, I suppose it was a bit more difficult for those that didn't have support at all the assisted checkpoints and I realised I was lucky. In any event, I left the CP before him but had little doubt that he would catch me up before long. I stomped out of the neat little town by myself, it was all a little bit surreal and as I went round the lakeside I found myself hoping that the long climbs that I knew were coming would pass quickly. As is so often the case, my hopes were quickly dashed before the wind.

I had enough about me to recall the tricky section through the woods out of Champex, then joined a few other competitors for the slog up to Bovine via Plan de L'Au. It had seemed a bit of a trek back in May, tonight it was immeasurably worse and my chin was down. I knew I had to get myself together and managed to down a couple of caffinated gel shots, these things had worked wonders for my friend Carol during leg 4 of her Paddy Buckley Round earlier in the year, and I'd been holding off using them until it was an emergency. Now was the time. I'd like to say that they completely re-energised me, but that really wasn't the case. Rather, they gave me enough focus to get down to the job in hand and concentrate on the Relentless Forward Progress that's necessary in situations like this. And it's funny how little things can seem like a crisis ..... I'd started off the first night with fresh lithium batteries in my headtorch, I was convinced they would last for two nights without the need to replace them. Wrong. The headtorch flashed to indicate the batteries were going and turned onto its lowest setting, I could have cried. The diminished light output made things seem much harder and I knew that on the darkened mountain side, changing the batteries was going to be a major effort. The rules state that you must carry two headtorches (or torches) and so I rummaged in my pack and found my emergency light, a lightweight Silva LED thingy, and held it in my teeth while my clumsy fingers changed the batteries. It was clear that I wasn't firing on all cylinders, so made a mental note that I should take care. This was no place to bugger things up or have an accident ..... anyhow, after what seemed like an eternity I crested the col, having passed Alpage du Bovine (normally a UTMB checkpoint - don't know why it wasn't this year) and made my way down to the next checkpoint at La Giete (CP23/83.7m). It was dark so I couldn't quite work out what this place was, but I think it was just farm buildings. I haven't really mentioned the passion of the local people for the UTMB, but here was a very good example of it: I reckon it must have been around midnight but there were two elderly and frail-looking ladies there, each holding out a tray of sliced fruit to me. It would have been rude not to accept, so I took a piece from each and then got down to sorting my feet out, that last section from Bovine over Portalo had been really painful and I needed to do something. The poor old dears clucked with alarm when they saw my battered feet, and helped me peel the backing off the Compeed plasters I was now attempting to stick under my toes. My command of the French language is non-existent, but they made me understand that medical care was available at Trient and I would be OK there. I left with a warm and fuzzy glow, these people really love the UTMB and were grateful that you had come to try and get round it.

I pushed onwards, the pain was very real now and I was not a happy bunny. I still had my faculties about me and knew that I was heading towards the Col de Forclaz and from there I would be able to drop down to Trient without too much difficulty, however it was about then that the much-vaunted hallucinations kicked in and I was initially confused. I kept seeing rooms - illuminated rooms - where there couldn't possibly be any and to add fuel to the fire little black cats were running around by my feet. I'm not easily given to this sort of thing, so it was a bit of a surprise that this was happening and seeing as it wasn't in the slightest bit scary I didn't worry too much about it. I was still glad to get to the Col de Forclaz though, the route intersects a road here and I'm sorry to say that it felt much further down to Trient (CP24/86.8m) than I remembered.

Col de Forclaz

Helen was there to welcome me - she looked worried when she saw how painful it was for me to move - and rather than going in for food and refill, we went straight into the medical centre. It was about 1.30am and I was about 15 minutes inside that 42-hour schedule and miles in front of the cut-off (7.00am I think), so I reasoned I had the time to spare, my whole UTMB effort depended on it. I was seen very quickly and the efficient nurse got down to the fairly gruesome job of draining the multiple blisters under my feet and getting some pretty heavy dressings onto them. It transpired that the reason I was in so much pain was that the tough skin on the balls of my feet hadn't burst while I was moving, but the liquid in the blisters had forced its way up between my toes and split the softer skin there. Trust me on this, it's bloody excruciating. I reckon I must have been at Trient for around 30 - 40 minutes, but it was time well spent and as I went down the steps and left the checkpoint I felt much better.

This was as painful as it looks!

For a while all was good and with the pain in my feet much diminished, I steeled myself and went through the mental "How Are We Doing?" checklist: All systems were green, I was sure that I could do this .... just two or three little lumps to get over first.  On paper, the climb out of Trient doesn't seem too bad and looks to be around 3,000ft and just three miles, but in my diminished state it seemed to go on for ever and I'm not exaggerating. It's possible that the pain in my feet had done me a favour insomuch as it kept me awake thus far, but now I was literally falling asleep on my feet and there came a point - shortly after we crested the col - that I woke up with a jolt and my muddled senses couldn't work out what the hell was going on. I guess I lost cognitive reasoning for a while, and although I understood that I was in a race and trying to reach the end, the fact that it was dark puzzled me and I really didn't understand the headtorches in the distance and what their relationship was to me. Eventually, I put the pieces together, but it was a salutory lesson: there wasn't much fuel left in the tank and I really had to grit my teeth and get on with it.

Maybe that little "upright sleep" had done me some good, because I recognised the trail leading down to the checkpoint at Catogne (CP25/89.9m) and was glad to see it, a bit of familiarity always inspires confidence. This CP is not much more than a small hut and you go straight through it, it's so remote that it's not realistic to replenish water/food here. The guys manning it had built a fire outside and a couple of them were curled up in sleeping bags next to it - it must have been around 3.45am - and I would dearly have liked to join them.  Not much chance of that though, from here you're back in France and it's a hellish descent down to Vallorcine, losing about 2,500ft in one hit. The route takes you behind and along some ski slopes before joining a pretty tortuous path, quite rocky and strewn with tree roots. I'd thought it would be a tough 'un on our recce and I wasn't wrong ..... in darkness, on sore feet and exhausted legs it wasn't funny at all.  Mike had rejoined me by now, but was starting to fade and wobble a bit, moreover he'd reached the point with his feet that I had in Trient and was in real distress - he was going to have to sort that in Vallorcine.

The final stretch of descent down to Vallorcine (CP 26/93.2m) is a steep, quad-crushing grassy slope and you know all about it, it's a massive relief to reach the bottom. Helen was there with a big smile, this was the last assisted CP and from here she would go back to Chamonix and wait for me to finish. To finish!!! This was really on, in practical terms I was in no worse a state than the majority of other competitors around me and a lot better than many. I sat down for a moment as I needed to get some warm liquid into me and and reflect on the God-awful transit over from Trient, I wouldn't have thought it possible to drop into the sonambulistic haze that I did, this was plumbing new depths. Helen tells me that she was worried about me at Vallorcine, as I was a bit quiet and normally you can't shut me up  I gulped down what food I could, changed my top for the last time and got out into the first glimmers of dawn .... I had survived another night.

Pensive at Vallorcine

From here you follow a small river up the valley to Col des Montets (CP27/95.6m), crossing the road at the building that marks the boundary of the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve and the beginning of the final big climb up to La Tete Aux Vents. This was the first part of the UTMB that I recce'd and I have to say it's probably the rockiest and most technical. It's also a bit cruel, because Chamonix is only about 4 miles away by road and the organisers make you go over the top of this God-awful mountain! It was a hell of a slog, Mike tells me that he could see me higher up on the climb and I was pulling away from him and looking strong, all I can say is that you could have fooled me, it was strength-sapping in a way that I haven't experienced before. It eventually levels out to a bit of a plateau, but it's still very rocky and much more like the English Lake District than any other part of the course.

Col de Montets

On the positive side, the sun had fully risen and we were treated to the spectacle of a full cloud inversion below Mont Blanc with crystalline blue skies above; it was staggeringly beautiful and I wish that I had had more time to gaze at it. I didn't obviously. After what seemed like an eternity I reached La Tete Aux Vents (CP28/98.1m) at 7,000ft and from here knew it was pretty much all downhill. Not quite as easy as it sounds though, the terrain was still very rough, lots of rock to get over and of course it was a bit slimy from several hundred muddy feet already having gone across it. This was the "Sting in the Tail" that I'd heard about and I wasn't moving well or enjoying it. I was really getting pissed off, this sort of terrain constituted classic British fell-running territory and whatever anyone else thinks about me, I do consider myself a fellrunner and under normal circumstances would have loved the challenge. Also, up until now I'd steadily progressed through the field and somewhat unbelievably had made up around 800 places, I think at Vallorcine I was in 790th position (i.e. the top half of the field), but my slow progress here meant that a few runners were beginning to pass me, which didn't exactly fill me joy.

That be Mont Blanc yonder ....  

 I won't forget that descent from La Tete Aux Vents, it was an absolute bastard. My feet were beginning to hurt again and the climb up from Col de Montets had used up what little strength I had left. I could almost smell Chamonix though, so pushed on until I reached the final CP at the La Flegere ski lift (CP29/99.9m), I think there was a kind of desperation about everyone at this point and I just wanted to get it over and done with .... I'm sure Kilian Journet or Francois d'Haene are just upping their pace hereabouts, but by now this brutal race will have torn most normal mortals apart. I left La Flegere with a sense of surreality and I hope you can understand that, I was never totally confident that could I nail the UTMB - it's spat out much better runners than me - so to be leaving the final CP with over six hours left on the clock (I got there in 39h46m) was about as good as I could have hoped for. It felt a long, long way down that rocky trail to Chamonix. I was in more or less constant pain, but forcing myself to maintain something more than an agonised jog and playing every mind game I knew to try and distract myself. I've rehearsed this lots of times, but in my mentally exhausted state found that I could manage about 10 running paces before my subconcious mind screamed at me that I was kidding nobody and that actually, this f**king hurt and I should stop. Not much chance of that though.

Chamonix was bathed in the morning sunlight and I could hear the church bells ringing. I was seeing lots more local people out for a morning stroll and every one of them stopped to applaud me and cheer, I lost count of the amount of "bravo monsieur" and "tres bon monsieur, formidable" cheers that I received, it's hard not to be buoyed up by this  A couple of Brits saw the Union Jack on my number and were shouting my name, all of a sudden I was feeling a lot better .... Chalet Floria came and went, the beauty of its setting lifting my heart for the final stretch down to the finish. The ground levelled out and I turned into the town and within a few yards was running down the side of the river, past the Sports Platz where I'd registered for the race what, a year ago? I heard a familar voice shout my name and there was Helen running towards me, she must have seen my grimaced expression and realised that I was firing the silver bullet, this was the final stretch of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and she ran alongside me until we reached the main street in Chamonix and I was being cheered and applauded like I never have been before.

 

I'd timed it perfectly - it was somewhere around 10.45am and all the locals had woken up to a lovely morning, had breakfast and thought they'd just wobble down to the UTMB finish to see the bulk of the runners finish. I had them all to myself and as I entered the finishing tunnel the noise became deafening, all the children lining the finish wanted to touch my hand and I upped my pace, my arms aloft and bodily pain totally forgotten.

Crossing that finish line (104.8m, 31,894ft in 41hrs 19mins) was one of the my best moments ever, arguably on a par with when I reached the Moot Hall after my successful Bob Graham Round. Normal, untalented runners like me will never stand on a podium or have their names recorded in Athletics Weekly or The Fellrunner, so things like this are very important and I felt like I was going to burst. The photographers on the finish line were all pointing there cameras at ME, there was Helen shouting and cheering, how can your heart not sing after something this wonderful? I think the picture below tells the story much better than I can describe it.

Finished!

I heard another voice from behind the barrier and there was my friend Raj, he's a massive UTMB fan and had earlier on in the week did the OCC (Orsieres - Champex - Chamonix). He thrust a large bottle of Cobra beer into my hand, his face wreathed with smiles. I was overjoyed to see him, what a guy. Helen had fought her way through the barriers to watch me get the coveted UTMB finishers gilet and all of a sudden it was a bit much, I was close to tears. I might have said this before, but how did I, unworthy git that I am, deserve to have such wonderful people in my life? I just don't know. Once all the obligatory photos had been taken, it was time to sit in the sunshine, drink Raj's life-saving beer and survey all that was happening about me.

The end of a LONG road .....

Physically, I was in a mess. My left foot and ankle had mysteriously began to swell up (and I mean really swell up), my feet were on fire and my toes felt like they'd been individually hammered by a mallet. My knees, hips and pelvis were aching like I've never known, plus my back felt like it had been flayed with barbed wire. My face was swollen and peripheral vision kept fading in and out .... God knows, I was in a bit of a state after my BGR but not quite as bad as this. I suppose it didn't matter much, the job was done so I just sat there, soaking it all up and swapping stories with Mike who finished about 20 minutes after me. Helen wanted to get me back to the apartment and related that it was actually a bloody miracle that she'd made it to see me finish at all: Turns out that when she'd got back from Vallorcine she'd set the alarm clock on her iPhone, but of course it was set to UK time and that was one hour behind French time. She'd got up, had a leisurely shower and breakfast and was just considering whether or not to wobble outside when she realised what was going on. I understand she made it to the river with two minutes to spare. I'm overwhelmingly glad she made it. It was, in every sense, a Team Effort.

Written by Jon Fielden - http://www.jonfielden.com

I love peanut M&Ms. There’s something about the combination of peanut and chocolate that makes them my favourite chocolate-based snack. They never let me down. And I was counting on them here. I was trudging up the bottom of the big hill after Washington aid station at mile 54.  I had been in a very bad place before I got to Washington. I had spent a bit of time there to get myself sorted out. It had helped. I was starting to feel better.

I had left a bag of peanut M&Ms in my drop bag for just this situation. I’d never encountered a situation that they hadn’t made better. I plodded up the hill and opened the bag. This would be the point that my race turned round and I felt good again. I put one in my mouth.

It was disgusting. I tried a second one. And a third one. They were horrible. There was nobody near me so I spat them out onto the trail. All the hard work I had done at Washington getting myself sorted evaporated in an instant. I was moving very quickly back to that bad place again. I know it was only a peanut M&M but I had been counting on them. My brain hadn’t been playing ball for a while now and stupid little things were having a disproportionate impact.

This wasn’t good at all. I was now out of the trees and onto the main trail. I put my iPod on (actually it was Natasha’s iPod as mine had died).  I turned it on. The first song that came on was ‘Perfect Day’ (the theme from Legally Blonde – the pinkest, girliest, fluffiest film ever – rather than the Lou Reed version!). I looked around me. I could see for miles in all directions – beautiful countryside on one side and all the way to the sea on the other. It was stunning. I stopped and drank it all in. I smiled. The blackness and negativity that had been plaguing me lifted. I was back.

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This was the third time I had been involved with the SDW100. I’d volunteered in 2012, where Natasha and I ran Southease aid station.  I’d paced Alan, a very good friend, in 2014 from Washington to an inspiring, hard-fought finish.  Now it was my turn to run it.

I was on a total high after my result at SDW50, which was one of those rare days when the running gods were truly with me every step of the way.  I was keen to get back to training for the SDW100 and deferred my place at London so I had more time to focus on it. The slight problem was that I injured my groin in the run up to SDW100. It took the most excruciating amount of pain (cunningly disguised as a massage) which was inflicted on me by Simon Lamb to sort it out. If Simon had slipped during that massage I would now be singing in the Vienna boys’ choir rather than running the SDW100. Thankfully he didn’t.

I was still a bit nervous as we got near the race and my groin was the subject of more conversations with people than a man’s groin decently should be. Oh well. One of the joys of running long distances and hanging out with other people who do the same thing is that our filters are rather less than most people. Which is probably a good thing.

The SDW100 was my second hundred. The W100 last year was my first (I finished in a bit over 26 hours). On that occasion I had pacers from mile 50 to the finish. At the SDW100 I had decided to do it without crew or pacers, although I knew a decent amount of people running or helping at aid stations.

Race day dawned and after a lovely night’s sleep (yes, I am that person who can sleep before a race, even when getting up at an ungodly hour) I got my stuff together and headed for the start with Natasha, whose volunteering stint for the day started at aid station 1 and ended at the finish nearly 30 hours later. Now that’s hardcore! After the usual kit check, registration and catching up with people, we were away.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Looking happy in the early miles.

Pretty much the only thing I remember about the first 22 miles to QECP (aid station 2) is Butster Hill. I had heard beforehand from various people that this is a belter of a downhill. They weren’t lying. I was feeling really good at this stage. I got to the top of the hill and could see an amazing descent below me, tempting me. And then my iPod decided to play ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17. I had no choice.

I can only apologise to the runners I belted past on that downhill, aeroplaning madly and singing ‘Temptation’ at the top of my voice. I can only apologise to my quads as well, as I suspect that probably didn’t help them out too much in preparation for the struggles ahead. It was still damn good fun though.

I cantered into QECP (checkpoint 2), secure in the knowledge that there was a toilet there. There was, although there was a queue. All I can say is that it was well worth the wait…

At some stage over the next few miles my head really started to go. My left knee (which I have had problems with before and caused me to walk the last 30 miles of the W100 last year) was feeling niggly and it was worrying me. The day was turning out to be hotter than expected. An impressive blister was developing on the ball of my left foot (mostly due to the sharpness of the chalky, flinty trails) and I was generally becoming dispirited and a bit whingey. This reached its zenith at Kithurst Hill (mile 50) where I had a good moan at Gary Dalton. Thankfully, he pretty much ignored me.

The daft thing was that I was doing really well (about 9 hours 15 minutes to halfway) but I just couldn’t see it. I was in a really negative headspace. The rational part of my brain seemed to have deserted me, leaving only the negative part left. It kept telling me that this was stupid – why was I doing this to myself? It was pointless. I was in pain and my brain was telling me it wasn’t worth it. I was going too slow it was saying. I wasn’t good enough to do this on my own. Looking back it’s surprising how black my mood became and how quickly it got there. And the worst thing is that there really was no good reason for it.  I was a bit hot, my foot hurt and my knee had a bit of a niggle. That was it.

I ploughed on, grumbling to myself. Thankfully, Washington appeared a bit sooner than I expected. I picked up my drop bag, sat down and wondered how I could bring this back.

I had the good fortune to be sat next to Ian Walker, who amused me with a story about popping one of his blisters at an LDWA event as I set about tending to mine. He was in such a good place (in stark contrast to me) and it began to rub off on me. Thank you Ian.

Blisters popped and compeeded, socks changed, contact lenses in, M&S iced and spiced bun eaten, I drank some coke, switched Natasha’s iPod for mine, grabbed a packet of peanut M&Ms and headed out for the trail. Those peanut M&Ms would complete the turnaround I thought.

Anyway, you know what happened with the peanut M&Ms, so let’s move on. I was now on home turf, having paced from this point last year and having run the SDW50 twice (and done countless training runs on the section from Housedean Farm onwards). Unfortunately my blister issues hadn’t gone away completely as my right heel was determined to join the party. Botolphs aid station, a safety pin and another compeed put a stop to that. Job done.

I was in a much better place now mentally and still moving pretty well. Saddlescombe Farm came and went. I’d love to say in a blur but it was 66 miles in so I would be exaggerating. I wasn’t moving that quickly.

Clayton Windmills was next. I could smell the ginger cake I had left in my second drop bag as soon as I left Saddlescombe. When I got there it tasted as fantastic as I had imagined it. Funny how little things like that can give you such a lift. I left the peanut M&Ms in my drop bag. I couldn’t handle that disappointment twice in one race.

The Clayton to Housedean Farm section passed pretty much without incident, except for the descent into Housedean which was murderous on my quads, which were now starting to complain quite loudly about the punishment I had inflicted on them.  Other than that, I was still feeling pretty good, all things considered. My head was still in a good place and I was still chugging along, on track for a sub-24 hour finish and that belt buckle.

Head torch on at Housedean, more coke drunk (I shudder to think how much I got through – you could probably clean a 2p piece with my pee at the end of the race) and off I went. I watched the most beautiful sunset as I plodded up the next climb. Just glorious.

It was during this next section that I realised that my quads were rapidly heading south (which wasn’t great as I was heading east) and the downhills started to become less than pleasant. The yellow brick road was probably the final nail in their coffin. By the time I got to Southease I knew that they were shot. Uphills were still good, the flat was bearable but downhills were really, really bad. Given that I still had 16 miles to go and there were some significant downhills left, it was with some trepidation that I left Southease and headed for Alfriston.

On the big climb out of Southease I did a few mental calculations. If I could make 3 miles an hour until the end I could still comfortably get that 24 hour buckle. I rang Natasha to make sure that my calculations were correct. She confirmed that they were. I told her that my quads were done and it would be a walk to the finish from here. She (politely and nicely) told me to walk quickly. There was no reason why I couldn’t power hike this in rather than walk it in. As ever, I listened to her. She is usually right.

I kept going. After a while, fog started to roll in. Visibility started to become very limited, which was a bit spooky. It was pitch dark, except for my headlamp and the odd headlamp in front or behind. Thankfully I know this section of trail very well so I wasn’t overly bothered by it. It was just like being in a Scooby Doo cartoon without the disgruntled employee dressed in a costume trying to scare passers by. And the talking dog.

The fog started to thin out and I reached the descent into Alfriston. If I had thought the descent into Housedean had been painful, it had nothing on this. I slowly inched my way down the descent and I was in Alfriston. Ninety one miles done. Nine to go.

Fuelled by yet more coke and now some lemon drizzle cake (thank you Roni!) I headed out of the aid station, across the bridge and into a field. I just had to cross this field and I was onto the big climb out of Alfriston and even closer to the finish.

And then I saw them. Eyes. Lots of them. Leering at me through the darkness. I stopped. I looked around. Staring back at me was the face of pure evil. A cow. Oh shit. Lots of cows. All over the field but, more importantly, on the trail.

Now I’ve got some previous with cows. I’m generally a live and let live kind of person but me and cows just don’t get on for some reason. I’ve been charged by the bloody things in several countries on various occasions now so I am fairly wary around them. I thought back to last year when Alan and I were attacked twice by the evil creatures. Please don’t let it happen again here. Not now. Not when I am so close. I don’t even have Alan to use as a decoy.

The cows were sitting down so I figured I had a chance. I didn’t care how knackered my quads were. I needed them now. I couldn’t do this without them. I started to psych myself up, ready to run through the herd of cows towards the gate and freedom.

Then the cows started to stand up. They reminded me of Dracula rising from the coffin with a thirst for blood. And I had no garlic in my drop bag – only a small bar of kinder chocolate and an apple crumble flavoured gel. There was only one thing for it – I put my head down and ran. Through the herd of rising cows and towards the gate.

I made it to the gate. Thankfully it opened first time and I was through it. I looked behind me. A field full of cows stood there, staring at me malevolently. I flicked the Vs at them and headed up the hill.

I was still moving well on the uphills so I made short work of the climb. The descent down into Jevington was another matter but I grumbled and winced my way down it. After a cake and coke stop at Jevington I was off again and on the home straight (well the last four miles anyway).

A refill at Jevington

A refill at Jevington

Up the final climb, past the trig point and down the gulley of doom. If I thought the last couple of descents had been painful they had nothing on this. I slowly descended the gulley, quads screaming for mercy, until I finally arrived in the suburbs of Eastbourne. I was nearly there.

Off I walked through the dark streets of Eastbourne, heading for the finish. I got to Kings Drive (the long road leading to the hospital). I had been thinking about my race on my walk through Eastbourne. I was proud of it. It had been very hard but I had done well. I had given everything and I could smell the 24 hour buckle now.

But had I really given everything? I was still walking. I had started the race running and I wanted to finish it running. I wanted to leave everything out on the course. I started running. It didn’t go very well. I stopped. I started again. This was better. It wasn’t quick but it was just about running.

I ran along Kings Drive. It seemed much longer than I remembered. I looked at my watch. If I could keep this up then I could finish in under 22 hours. Under 22 hours!! I kept running.

I reached the hospital and turned left on the path towards the sports ground and the track. I was absolutely determined now that I would leave nothing out there. I thought about how far I had come to get to this point and I started to speed up. The path went on forever. I kept running. I still don’t know how.

I got to the end of the path. I saw the sports ground. I saw the track. I ran through the gates and was now on the track. I saw Natasha at the finish. I kept running. I went round the back straight. And finally, twenty one hours and fifty four minutes after I started at Winchester, I crossed the finish line.

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Natasha holding me up at the finish

Shattered doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt at that point. I was done in. But I was also elated. I had done it! I had travelled a hundred miles in less than one day. I had earned that belt buckle. I had achieved what I set out to do and had an amazing time while doing it. I had wrestled with a few demons along the way but somehow I had overcome them and got to the finish in a time I was very proud of. I had done it.

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The belt buckle

Finally, a few thank yous

  • Thank you to all the volunteers. The race could not happen without you. You filled my water bottles, fed me cake, poured me coke and kept me going. You are all, without exception, awesome.
  • Thank you to Alan and Teresa Bennett. We are fortunate to have you as friends. I thought about last year’s SDW100 on several occasions while I was out there and it inspired me and made me chuckle. You are both fabulous.
  • Thank you to everyone I know who I saw out on the course and at the finish, whether running or helping. Seeing friendly faces and having a chat with people at different stages made a huge difference.
  • Thank you to James, Nici and all the Centurion team.  You organise superb races and you really care about the runners.  And it shows.
  • Thank you to James Elson. You are a superb coach and I would not have finished this race in this time without your help, support and guidance.
  • Thank you to Natasha. You put up with a lot and I couldn’t have done this without you. You were with me every step of the way, in spirit if not in person.